The drones were re-enacting the balcony seen from Romeo and Juliet over the edge of the middle squeak deck of the ship. Winkle was back on board, draped in a tablecloth for hair and gesticulating dramatically at his doomed lover below.

Rue could not resist one last complaint. “He’s so very difficult.”

“The best ones are, my darling.” Dama’s eyes were misty with memory.

Woolsey Castle was situated some two hours outside London in particularly lush countryside. The rolling unspoiled beauty of it gave most vampires the screaming willies, for vampires vastly preferred city life. The Woolsey Hive had settled in a swarm of desperation, and was as ill-suited to the green as a family of goats would be to sitting in the House of Lords. Since their move, the Express Whistler, intended to steam straight through to Barking, would stop at an unmarked and unnamed station by special request. No one but the conductor knew the location and everyone was afraid to ask. From that station – the Countess’s Crouch as some called it – there was a tiny automated tram that puffed up the long low hill to Woolsey proper. The tram only ran if the vampires approved the visitor, and there were still check-points to clear, manned by large, muscled drones with more cravat than cranial capacity.

The most aggravating aspect of the Woolsey Hive was not its location, rustic though it might be to a young lady of Rue’s urban sensibilities. Nor was it Woolsey Castle’s appearance, that of a hodgepodge manor house with too many flying buttresses and too little symmetry. No, the most irritating thing about Woolsey Hive was its queen, Countess Nadasdy.

Countess Nadasdy was always extremely nice to Rue. Most vampires were, outwardly. Woolsey Hive made a particular effort – an unpleasantly particular effort. Lady Prudence Akeldama was always invited to all hive events. Never had a single gold-embossed invitation passed Rue by since she first came into society at seventeen. The countess made it a point to leave her inner sanctum, the back parlour, and walk out to meet Rue in the hallway any time Rue visited, a courtesy she did not extend to muhjah or dewan. She never failed to compliment Rue on some part of her attire, seeming genuinely interested in what the young people were wearing these days. She intended Rue to be aware of her approval of Rue’s unflaggingly stylish choices. As if Rue would dare go calling less than perfectly turned out with Dama for a father and Rabiffano for an uncle.

None of this made up for the fact that the entire hive would quite happily see Rue fried like an apple fritter and take turns dipping her into the brandy sauce. Quite frankly, it was not comfortable paying a call on an aristocrat who wanted one dead, particularly not when that aristocrat is a very old vampire of means and social skill. It became, in a word, incommodious.

“My dear Cousin Prudence.” The countess advanced, both gloved hands out in the greeting vampires extended to family members. Vampires took the concept of adoption seriously. In the hive mind, Rue was solely and entirely Dama’s daughter. The Maccons had relinquished their lawful right to her, and as such their parental control. The fact that they remained next door was a source of aggravation but not contention. As long as Rue was legally the child of a vampire, she was one of theirs. And by George they would treat her as such.

The countess grasped Rue, carefully, by the upper arms. Her hands were well shielded from Rue’s skin by several layers of cloth. The vampire kissed the air a good six inches away from Rue’s cheek. “Welcome. To what do we owe the honour of you gracing us with your delightful presence?”

She was laying it on rather thick, but Rue was Dama’s daughter and, if nothing else, she could entertain and rebut flattery in all its forms.

“My dear Cousin Nadasdy, how stunning you look this evening. Is that a new gown? How very modern.”


Rue was not exaggerating. The outfit was lovely – a blood-red velvet reception gown with rose-printed cream silk sleeves, divided overskirt, and scalloped hem, all trimmed in the barest hint of Chantilly lace. The countess wore her honey-coloured hair piled in a profusion of curls atop her head with red roses nested throughout. She was a mite round for such an elegant gown but she carried it off by dint of regal bearing and the certain fear always bestowed upon those in her company that she was far more interested in nibbling one’s neck than anything else. Even fashion.

“Do come in, Cousin Prudence. You are always invited. But such an unexpected call. And without a chaperone. We did not receive your card. Did it go astray?”

“No, no, forgive my horrid bumbling. I must presume upon our familial relationship to call unannounced. I did not have time to send ’round as this is a matter most urgent. Since we are practically family, I thought this once I could leave off my customary escort.”

“Well, then, my dear cousin, do not stand on ceremony. Come right through, do.” The countess was sickeningly obliging, gesturing Rue magnanimously into the hall. The entranceway of Woolsey Castle was decorated in shades of wine and cream, beautifully complementing the countess’s dress, a fact that may or may not have been accidental. A stunning crystal chandelier in the shape of a dirigible dangled from the gilt ceiling and the very latest in mechanised hem cleaners rested near the door. Valuable works of art decorated the walls, set off by what could only be original Greek statuary. The Woolsey Hive took stately elegance seriously. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do about the exterior appearance of Woolsey Castle but they took great pains that the interior be beyond sumptuous. There were drones and vampires lurking nearby, any number of whom glared at Rue out of hard, unkind, glittering eyes.

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