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Authors: Gail Carriger

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Imprudence (10 page)

BOOK: Imprudence
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Lady Maccon said, “Is that what you thought? Oh dear. I knew I should have told you sooner.”

“Don't they all die, though?” Rue clarified, barely above a whisper. “Aren't they all killed, the cursed Alphas?”

“Well, yes, under ordinary circumstances. Sometimes by their Betas. Sometimes by a new Alpha challenging for the safety of all. Werewolves who go mad are put down by their own kind, for everyone's sake,” Lady Maccon explained helpfully.

“Alexia!” snapped her husband at Rue's miserable expression. “Do shut up!”

He shifted over to Rue, gathering her into a one-armed hug. Still holding his wife's hand, he could touch Rue without any fear, for his daughter couldn't steal wolf while her mother kept him mortal.

Lady Maccon realised she was making things worse. “Don't worry, infant, we have a plan.”

“Taking Paw to Egypt?”

“How on earth did you know?”

Rue looked at her in exasperation.
When will Mother stop seeing me as a child?
“I had Percy look into the matter. It's the most efficient and elegant solution. Which is your style. How do you plan to get Paw out of London alive?”

“Well, I had thought—”

“Alexia, enough. Little one, your mother has a big mouth. But we have figured it all out. We even have the Alpha transition in place. I wanted to wait for Kingair to return. I don't like to leave my pack with an inexperienced Alpha and no Beta. But they are still in India and I seem to have run out of time. I didn't mean to frighten you. Your mother has been a godsend. No Alpha could have held on as long as I did without a preternatural spouse. She'll not mind my saying, we are both wearing a little thin.”

“Too true,” said Lady Maccon with feeling. “I thought you were impossible when we only saw each other a few times a night. This” – she raised their joined hands – “is
torture
!”

Rue frowned, remembering something Quesnel had said. She'd been annoyed with him so it hadn't struck her at the time.
“I thought you were staying with your parents. Don't you
have
to
right now?”
She'd thought he'd meant for propriety's sake, but had he meant because of Paw's illness? Because she could certainly help her parents in this particular arena.

“Oh, for goodness' sake, you two.” She allowed her annoyance to show. “You should have told me from the start and this could have been avoided.”

They blinked at her, confused.

“Just use me instead!”

“Oh!” said Lady Maccon. “What a fabulous idea.”

Paw frowned. “If you're sure? You won't be able to accomplish much of an evening.”

“I enjoy being a wolf.”

Which was really all it took.

Lady Maccon, with an expression of profound relief, let go of her husband's hand.

Rue felt the snap back of the tether as it hit her own flesh like a physical wave of tingling. Then she was shifting and changing. And there she was, brindled wolf wearing her father's power in her skin and the remnants of a rather nice tea-gown. It didn't feel unusual; whatever it was that made Paw Alpha and insane didn't transmit to her. She felt like her normal wolf self. No different from the night before when she'd filched from Hemming. She wasn't surprised. While Rue's wolf form looked like a smaller version of her father's, she wasn't
actually
him. She never felt Alpha, either. No Anubis form, no urge to dominate, although as a female werewolf she should automatically be Alpha. It wasn't worth puzzling over, for even with her limited wolf eyes, Rue could see the profound relief on both her parents' faces. That was what mattered.

“You'll have to stay within tether distance of your father, infant. Please don't forget. He can't be allowed wolf form at night, unless he absolutely must fight.”

Rue nodded her big shaggy head.

They were interrupted by someone knocking – loudly and persistently – on the parlour door.

Lady Maccon, freed up from her hand-holding obligations, went to open it.

Winkle stood there, looking sheepish. He was, as only to be expected from one of Dama's drones, perfectly turned out for the evening. His dark glossy hair, a true glorious blue black, shone under the hallway lights and his up-tilted eyes gleamed.

He took in the family dynamic without comment. “Lady Maccon, Lady Prudence.” A small bow to both the woman and the wolf. “Lord Maccon.”

Lady Maccon smiled. “Good evening. Winkle, isn't it?”

“Yes, my lady. I apologise for interrupting but it's a matter of some delicacy. It's Lord Akeldama.”

Rue felt her stomach lurch.
Not Dama as well!

“Is he unwell?” Even Mother was worried.

Winkle grinned. “Him? Never. He has sent me with a message. I'm afraid it's not the best news. But there seems to be – oh dear me, I don't quite know how to put it – a
brawl
occurring down off Worple Road. Some species of croquet green or what have you is playing host.”

Rue's ears perked.
My airship!

Lord Maccon grumbled, “What's that to do with us? Mobs are constabulary business. What is that vampire about? Disturbing us with gossip of brawls and—”

Lady Maccon looked to her wolf daughter. “Isn't that where
The
Spotted Custard
is parked?”

Moored
, Rue wanted to correct her but couldn't. She nodded.

“I'm sorry to say,” Winkle continued, “this brawl looks to be taking place between your pack, my lord, and Baroness Tunstell's drones.”

“Wonderful. Just wonderful,” said Lady Maccon while Rue and her father both pushed past Winkle and ran out of the front door into the street.

Rue kept pace with her father easily; after all, she was the one in wolf form. He was fit as a mortal human but was big enough to be built for taking a stand rather than moving fast. In fact, Lord Maccon running was more an act of falling at speed. So really, Rue only had to trot.

It came as no surprise to her when Lady Maccon drew alongside driving a shapely little bounder. The dogcart was of the sporting style, where the driver sits facing and the passenger at his back in a reverse position – plenty of room inside the box for hunting dogs. Or, as was its use in the Maccon household, prematurely shifted werewolves.

“Get in,” Lady Maccon ordered her husband.

“I'll drive.”

“Don't be absurd, Conall. I'm a much better whip.”

Rue sat on her haunches in the alcove of a delicious-smelling butcher's shop and waited for them to hash it out.

With a look of disgust, Paw swung himself up behind his wife in the transverse seat.

“Infant, keep pace but don't startle the prancer.”

Rue resented being instructed by her mother to do something that she was going to do anyway. Being in the company of Lady Maccon without being able to speak might well drive Rue more bonkers than Paw. She was already regretting her offer. She bared her teeth.

Lady Maccon took off at a dangerous speed.

Rue ran after, wishing she could remind Mother that Paw was currently mortal, and perhaps a little care was warranted.

The dogcart careened around a corner, practically on one wheel.

Rue shook her head and put on a burst of speed to close the widening gap. Werewolves could outpace horses, especially one pulling Lord and Lady Maccon's weight. She caught up and jogged behind, nostrils flaring to keep track of the cityscape around her. That had been one of the hardest things to learn as a werewolf pup, how her map of the world changed to one of scents.

They made good time across town. Fortunately, traffic was light, as it was early yet. Balls and shows were hours off starting so no one was trying to get anywhere important. Given that Lady Maccon was all over the road, this was a good thing.
If Mother is the superior whip, Paw must be a sight.

By the time they drew up outside the All England Croquet, Lawn Tennis, and Airborne Polo Club, Rue's senses already told her that things were in a bad state. The noise was absurd, a mix of yells, yips, growls, and foul language. The smells were those of sweat, fear, and blood.

Rue's attention went to her ship.

The
Spotted Custard
floated in chubby majesty under the moonlight, well out of a werewolf's leaping range. Decklings lined the railing of the main deck, armed to the teeth but not doing anything, simply watching the broiling mass below. Occasionally, one of them would point, shaking his head, and another would nod and spit in disgust. By deckling standards the fight was inferior entertainment.

There was a large, beautifully decorated hat among the spectators, which meant Primrose was there.
Good, Prim is safe. No doubt Percy is in his library, uninterested in such a plebeian thing as a werewolf brawl.

It was quite the scrapper. All of the pack seemed to be there in wolf form. They were up against four vampires and a dozen drones, all male and all armed for battle with silver knives and grim expressions. None of them seemed to be packing
serious
firepower, but nevertheless an encounter between silver blade and werewolf flesh rarely worked out in the werewolf's favour.

As a rule, werewolves didn't fight vampires. Vampires were faster and better armed. Werewolves were stronger with both teeth and claws but couldn't exactly carry wooden stakes or anything useful like that. There were, however, usually more werewolves in a pack than vampires in a hive. All things taken together, hives and packs were evenly matched, so why bother fighting?

In this case, it didn't seem like the vampires were intent on serious damage. Their drones, on the other hand, were fighting with the white-eyed desperation of mortal against immortal and weren't doing well.

Baroness Ivy Tunstell's hive was, much to the general disgust of society, made up of mostly older Egyptian vampires, transported with her during her minting swarm all the way from Alexandria. They fought beautifully with swirling movements and lightning-fast flicks of the wrist. Over the past two decades, they'd learned not to kick – it wasn't done in British society – but against werewolves they seemed to believe this rule did not apply.

Rue swung her head, ears swivelling, nose aquiver, eyes searching the fray. There was Tasherit, in cat form, sitting atop the official's chair, whiskers twitching. She looked to be rendering amused judgement upon the mêlée, but she was a cat, and cats always looked to be rendering amused judgement.

Rue barked at her, sharply, once.

Brown cat eyes, so incongruous in the face of a lioness, swung regally in her direction.

Tasherit inclined her head.

Rue barked at her again.

Tasherit leaned over, whiskers arrowing in, eyes dilating to focus on the centre of the brawl, the swirling eye of the cyclone.

Rue stood on her hind legs like a circus dog and tried to see what it was.

Too many men and wolves were in between. The noise was too fearsome and the smells too potent for her to distinguish anything significant. She galloped over to the official's chair and leapt to stand next to Tasherit.

The lioness hissed at her, but only in a “this is my post, stupid wolf” kind of way.

Rue muscled her aside, trying to see what the cat had been pointing at.

Rue saw her father wade in, fists flailing, roaring at his pack to cool their blasted tempers or he'd do it for them. Mother was behind him, trying to touch vampires and werewolves alike, intent on sucking them into mortality. Preternatural touch itself wasn't deadly, but Rue knew from experience it was shocking, like having a chamber pot of humanity upended over one's head. Gave a soul pause, if nothing else. With her other hand, Lady Maccon flailed about with her parasol, the fifth or sixth in a long line of hideous accessories. It housed under its canopy more covert anti-supernatural technology than one might think possible. Despite this fact, Rue had most commonly seen it applied as a bludgeon.

Then Rue saw what Tasherit had been whiskering at.

There in the centre of the fight, grappling with one another, each trying to go for the other's throat, were the Right Honourable Professor Percival Tunstell and Chief Engineer Quesnel Lefoux.

FIVE

In Which Rue Breaks Things

P
ercy and Quesnel must have started the whole mess.

Aunt Ivy would have sent her darling baby boy some drone guards and Paw had Channing tailing Quesnel. There you have it, the perfect recipe for conflict. Paw, after all, hadn't specified what Channing was to do with Quesnel. But if Percy or his vampires made the appearance of wanting to kill Quesnel? Well, Lord save anyone if a vampire tried to steal a werewolf's prey, even if only to kill that prey himself.
Especially
then.

Rue leapt off the post and wove through the mass of tussling males. A vampire lurched in her direction. However, when she drew her lip back from canines and growled at him, he reconsidered. He was diverted by Hemming, who crashed into his side with a howl.

Fur was flying, flesh was scoured, slow old black blood leaked everywhere.

They were all enjoying themselves immensely.

Rue ended her charge where Quesnel and Percy still grappled. Percy was yelling something about publishing rights and discovery notification and respect for intellectual property. Quesnel was yelling back about the public's right to information and risk-aversion techniques and funding considerations.

Rue wormed her way between them and reared up. Rue the wolf on her hind legs was about as tall as Rue the human, which is to say still shorter than both Percy and Quesnel.

She did the only thing she could think of to distract them. She licked Quesnel across the face, a slobbering drenching wet slap. He smelled of lime and he tasted like meaty smoke. She rotated, put her paws on Percy's shoulder, and did the same to him, knocking his glasses off. He tasted of leather and dust.

Percy, with whom she had grown up playing games of “knight errant with his faithful werewolf companion,” knew exactly what she looked like in wolf form even amid a brawl.

“Rue!” He slapped away the tongue. “Get off!”

Quesnel, thank heavens, had the grace to look ashamed and then the wherewithal to register the chaos around them.

“Good heavens,” he said. “What on earth is going on?”

That made Percy pause too. “What are Queen Mum's drones doing fighting your pack, Rue? Is that
Lady Maccon
? Is that a
parasol
?”

He began shouting the names of his mother's vampires and drones, instructing them to “stop it this instant!”

Realising that their precious charge was no longer grappling for his life, the vampires slowed their attack. Although really, Rue thought, Percy had been grappling for his academic reputation not his life. She sneezed out the wolf equivalent of a laugh.

The pack slowed as well. After all, it was no fun to hunt something that didn't fight back. They weren't cats.

The drones stopped with relief on their faces and began to tend to each other's wounds, knowing the blood must be staunched before the vampires caught the scent and demanded second breakfast.

Percy marched up to one of the vampires and put his hands to his hips. “Gahiji, what in heaven's name do you lot think you're doing?”

“That man attacked you!”

The vampires all glared at Quesnel.

“Mr Lefoux,” said Percy, “happens to be a
colleague
both aboard my ship and in academia. We were engaging in a gentleman's disagreement on a matter of grave import and no little delicacy. I should thank you,
and
my blasted mother, to keep your ruddy fangs out of it!”

Uh
-
oh
,
thought Rue,
Percy has resorted to swearing.

Quesnel was annoyed at being defended by his rival but seemed to see the sense in it. After all, the vampires were most assuredly not going to listen to him. Besides, Channing, a great white wolf with cold eyes, was sitting uncomfortably close and staring at him.

Rue yipped at her uncle.

Channing twitched his fluffy white tail at her but did not move. Paw had ordered him to track Quesnel. Only Paw could call him off.

Rue rolled her eyes.
Bloody werewolves.

Lady Maccon marched up looking horribly pleased with herself and swinging her ghastly parasol in a jaunty manner. “There you are, infant. My but I forgot how much
fun
adventuring was.”

Rue sniffed.

“Quite right, quite right. I'm far too old for this nonsense.”

Rue blew out air between her teeth in a canine raspberry.

Lady Maccon turned to Quesnel. “Good evening, Mr Lefoux. This mess is your fault, I take it?”

Quesnel was not afraid of Rue's mother. Which was an incredibly attractive trait, Rue had to admit. He tilted his head and dimpled winsomely. “Why, Lady Maccon, how do you do? My fault you say? But, dear lady, I am neither a hive queen nor a pack Alpha and yet I see a number of supernaturals milling about. What have I to do with them? Professor Tunstell and I were having a philosophical discussion. No one else ought to have involved himself.”

Lady Maccon was taken aback. “Oh, well. Yes. I suppose I see your point.”

Tasherit trotted up to weave in and around, getting underfoot and underhand and generally in everyone's way.

Lady Maccon was distracted. “Are you the lioness? Remarkable.”

Rue barked.

But Lady Maccon knew how to keep a secret. She made no illusion to Tasherit's being a werebeast and only took great care not to touch the cat.

Tasherit reared away from Mother, realising the danger this statuesque woman represented. Rue could almost hear the werecat's thoughts:
Soulless, stay back!

Paw joined them. “So, young Mr Lefoux. Perhaps you and I should take a perambulation about this neighbourhood together?”

Rue placed herself between her father and her chief engineer. Things were confusing enough between her and Quesnel without Paw interfering.

Paw was not best pleased at being opposed by his own daughter.

When he tried to reach around her to grab at Quesnel, she growled.

“Don't you dare threaten me, young lady!”

“Leave it, dear,” said his wife. “Remember back then, how you reacted to interference from
my
sainted mother?”

Paw looked shocked. “Are you comparing
me
to your
mother
?”

“If the hat fits.”

Rue had never before seen Paw so quickly cowed.

Everyone was calming down. The vampires and drones beetled off to their nearby hive under Percy's annoyed instructions. Although, no doubt, one or two remained in the shadows to observe. The pack stayed, assembling in a loose circle of lupine curiosity. They seemed particularly fascinated by Tasherit. With regal cat superiority, she took the attention as her due and ignored them.

A touch at the top of Rue's head distracted her.

Quesnel had his hand buried there and was idly combing through her fur.

“You're so soft.” He tugged a bit at her long silky ears and she flicked them at him.

He'd ridden her in the past. A fact she had carefully
not
told her parents; it seemed oddly intimate. But those had been necessarily hurried exploits. She had hoped to practise more, to give him some real training in wolfback riding. The twins were both skilled in the matter, and Quesnel had felt left out. But then he disappeared to Egypt.

“Get your greasy hands off my daughter,” yelled Lord Maccon.

The petting stopped.

Rue instantly missed it.

“What is going on here?” Uncle Rabiffano strode onto the croquet green.

He was so very stylishly pulled together; everyone around him immediately became aware of how disreputable they looked. Lady Maccon's hands went to her hair, which was still up but full of flyaways. Lord Maccon reached self-consciously for his cravat knot. The other werewolves all looked guilty – cognisant of ruffled fur, scrapes, and the need to bathe.

Uncle Rabiffano's elegant dancer's stride ate up the distance until he came to a stop in front of Paw.

Lord Maccon tried to recover the conversational ground. “What are you doing here, Beta?”

Uncle Rabiffano shook his head in a short negation, eyebrows raised. “Delivering a hat to Baroness Tunstell, of course. The real question is, what are you” – one graceful hand took in the amassed pack – “
all
of you, doing
here
?”

Lady Maccon stepped in. “Biffy, darling, let me explain.”

Uncle Rabiffano glanced briefly at her. “Oh, I can guess what is going on. Not the particulars, but I know why this is happening.”

He turned his back on Rue's mother, pointedly, and she winced.

Rue's jaw dropped, and because she was a wolf, her tongue lolled out. No one,
no one
dismissed Lady Maccon. Certainly not Uncle Rabiffano. They were friends. Good friends, Rue had thought.

Uncle Rabiffano faced Lord Maccon, fighting stance now, not dancer's. “You've trained me up. I'm not going to be any more ready. It's time to let go.”

Paw looked sad and militant at the same time.

Uncle Rabiffano tossed back a lock of hair. He had been made werewolf shortly before Rue was born. She wasn't familiar with the particulars – no one liked to talk about it – but there was some scandal surrounding his metamorphosis. But it still meant he must be at least forty years old. Yet, in that brief moment, he looked exceedingly young and frightened.

He confronted her Paw. Her mortal Paw, as if… what?

Rue struggled to understand
. As if he intends to challenge for leadership.

Uncle Rabiffano took a breath to steady his tone, and spoke again – low and level, strong and clear. Stage training perhaps, or a singer? Rue didn't know what his art had been. She didn't know anything about Uncle Rabiffano before he became Uncle Rabiffano.

“I don't want to fight you, Conall.”

First names. Equal footing.

Paw lifted his head. Anger slashed red across his cheeks.

What is going on? What is Uncle Rabiffano doing?
It hummed as a litany through Rue's brain.

“You promised I wouldn't have to fight you.” Uncle Rabiffano's words vibrated with both power and pleading. “You promised this would be a smooth transition. I don't know if I'm ready. You don't know. They don't know. But that is irrelevant to the fact that you
must
let us go now. You can't hold them any more. And you can't stop me from wanting. I can feel the tethers fraying. It's not only you who will go mad – it's all of us. Don't you see that? I'm compelled to stop it. I will fight you for it, because it's no longer an option. It's stupid, and it's brutish, but it's instinct. And you were the one who taught me to accept instinct.”

Perhaps it was because Rue held his shape, but Paw didn't react in the way she thought he would. Uncle Rabiffano's words were a direct attack that no normal Alpha would tolerate. But Paw remained standing quietly before him. Yes, he looked angry but he also looked abashed.

I don't like this
,
wailed Rue to herself.

Sensing her distress, Quesnel's hand returned to her head. He didn't pet her this time, simply rested it there.

Paw didn't notice. He was focused on Uncle Rabiffano.

Mother didn't notice either. She was focused on Paw.

The pack sat, still as stone, waiting.

It was as though the world held its breath; even the sounds of London faded.

Then Uncle Rabiffano changed. Not to werewolf form, not completely. No, only his head shifted. Above his perfectly tied cravat and starched white collar, above the dapper grey suit with its smooth lapel, his sweet boyish face became a dark wolf's head.

Anubis form.
Rue had seen her father do it.
But that means…

Quesnel's gasp cut into the silence.

Only Alphas have Anubis form.
Rue stared, riveted, dumbfounded. Anubis was for bite to breed; it was Alpha's gift to go with the curse. It was rare even so. Paw had Anubis. And Lady Kingair. And, Rue thought, mind drifting in shock, three other Alphas in England that she knew of but
not
Uncle Rabiffano. He was Paw's Beta. He was Beta by feeling too: calm and relaxed and easy-going. Always there to foil his Alpha, to balance the pack. Except, of course, that Uncle Rabiffano hadn't been. Not really. He'd simply been in the background and then off to his hat shop.

BOOK: Imprudence
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