The women looked nonplussed and then, in a subtle shift of posture, she changed, becoming less showy and more dangerous about her beauty. Rue watched this, flabbergasted. How had she done it? Here was an acting skill Rue did not possess. Primrose, for most of their adult life, had used her appearance as if it were some delectable dessert. For the first time Rue realised that beauty might also be applied with power, like a particularly stinky but highly desirable cheese. Rue knew that she herself could never pass for anything more than cute. What does that make me in the after-dinner beauty metaphor? she wondered. The digestif? A sweet, alcoholic afterthought with possible vicious consequences.

By that time the shock had worn off, and Rue could feel every hackle she had inherited from her werewolf father rise. If she had been in wolf form, her tail and ears would be down and her canines exposed. As it was, she smoothed out her skirts, straightened her spine and prepared to do battle with every tool from her other father’s repertoire. Unless she had missed her guess, the best approach was to be very polite and outwardly ridiculous. She reached for her vampire father’s personality and donned it as is if were some sparkly diamond make.

“How do you do?” she said. “Amazing!” She waved a hand about, taking in the colourful surroundings. “Charming fabric and cushions and things you have here.” Perhaps not her best opening sally, but true.

The woman was taken aback, but she clearly spoke English and knew some etiquette, for her response was a musically accented, “How do you do, Lady Prudence?”

“Ah, you know my name – we are already acquainted?” Rue was certain she would have remembered.

“No, but I have been eager to meet you since I learnt of your existence.”

Rue winced. Was this stunning female one of those fanatics? The ones crazy to encounter a real live metanatural? How disappointing. Rue tried to change the subject. “Was that your lioness I met recently?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Rue followed this line of thought, familiar as she was with Footnote and Dama’s Madam Pudgemuffin. “Ah yes, cats – difficult to speak of in terms of ownership as a rule. I’m afraid she rather, um, borrowed something from me.”

“Indeed?” The woman glided forward slightly. She wore a long robe of white silk. “Is this the object in question?” She produced Rue’s parasol from some fold of her attire. It looked, if possible, more ugly by contrast to such impossible loveliness.

The flowing swathes of fabric seemed to be all the strange woman wore. They wrapped up once about her head like the veil of a mourner, around her body, and then draped back over her shoulder in a cascade. Her dark hair was long and loose and aggressively straight, and she wore no jewellery or cosmetics of any kind. Rue suspected this woman of being bare-footed as well – her steps were absolutely silent. Rue sniffed but could detect no prominent smell – perhaps a hint of amber but nothing more. She wished, once again, for wolf form.


The woman handed the parasol to Rue. It seemed none the worse for fangs and a bit of cat slobber.

“Thank you very much, miss…?” Rue trailed off, hoping for an indication of identity.

“You may call me Sekhmet.”

Without doubt that was not the woman’s real name.

“Very well, then. Thank you, Miss Sekhmet.”

Rue turned to leave, oddly frightened to present her back. If they were not hundreds of storeys up in the air, she would have said that this woman was supernatural. But no vampire queen would go unprotected or live in a slum, quite apart from the fact that a vampire tethered to the Maltese Tower would be known throughout the empire. And no werewolf Rue had ever heard of could withstand heights. Wolves could handle travel by sea but not by air.

Rue was almost at the door when that smooth voice lilted at her: “A moment more of your time, if you would be so kind, skin-stalker?” Her English really was good.

This encounter had rapidly taken a turn from extremely odd to entirely surreal. Rue turned back and the woman approached. Rue realised that she had been wrong. She did wear jewellery – a single chain about her neck from which dangled two small charms – one looked like a sword and the other a shield.

“Trust me, Miss Sekhmet, you have my attention.” As I am certain you are accustomed.

A tiny smile tilted the lady’s full lips. “I am one of those who respects what you are and does not fear it. There are few – very few, I am sad to say – like me left to fight for your rights, skin-stalker. None of them is in India. I would not go there, if I were you.”

Rue frowned. “How did you know I was going to India?”

No answer.

“Well, while I appreciate the warning, you must understand that I can’t change my plans on the whim of some stranger in robes.”

“Plans? Then you are being sent to India on purpose? So you know? And your parents – they know too?” A pause. “This is not good.”

No, thought Rue, this isn’t good. Obviously this Sekhmet represents a counter-tea interest, after the new plants. And foolishly I’ve revealed too much. Rue plucked at her parasol, brushing away cat saliva. Yech. She stumbled on, awkwardly, intent upon giving away nothing further. “Nice as you seem, Miss Sekhmet, and grateful as I am for the return of my…”

She trailed off. She was speaking to an empty room. The beautiful woman had vanished. Rue poked about, searching the small space, three rooms all similarly covered in colourful cloth and pillows, and no evidence of the woman, the lioness, or even a regular occupant.

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