“That would be awkward for other reasons. Besides, I am exhausted.”

Rue frowned, trying to see beyond the intense beauty. There it was: the poor thing did look wan, even sickly. Her almond eyes were bloodshot, her skin drawn.

Miss Sekhmet took a small steadying breath, then asked, “Is the muhjah aware of the activities here?”

Rue nodded. Her mother had, after all, sampled the tea. Still it was an odd thing to bring up.

Miss Sekhmet stayed on the subject. “She approves?”

Rue nodded seriously. Tea was a serious business.

Miss Sekhmet shook her head. “But it is such an imbalance.”

She must be alluding to the smokiness of the blend. “The muhjah is very advanced in her tastes. There will be mixing.”

The woman’s thick eyebrows arched in shock. No wonder that, for Lapsang-style teas were thought beyond the British palate. Only recently had they become accepted in the best drawing rooms, and even then it had been confined to Chinese imports. This woman, even if she were the proprietor of a very respectable tea export business interested in cutting out Dama’s interests, would not yet be privy to such information.

“Very well. As a gesture of good faith, we are prepared to negotiate with you in parental absentia. And even that concession took all of my persuasive power. Tread carefully, skin-stalker.”

Rue nodded. “Anything else?”


“If you could wear a recognisable colour?”

Rue considered both her and Prim’s wardrobes. “Purple, I think.”

“Very well. That is all.”

Rue nodded to Spoo and Virgil. “Let her go.”

“But, Lady Captain!” protested Spoo.

“Can’t we keep her?” Virgil wanted to know. “She’s so pretty.” As if she were a stray cat.

“Virgil, don’t be rude,” remonstrated Rue.

Reluctantly, the two relinquished the woman’s legs. Miss Sekhmet stood gingerly, then stretched slightly as if working out Spoo-induced kinks. She made a polite little bow to all three and then hurried at an indecently eager pace off The Spotted Custard.

Rue considered. “I think, my dear Spoo, you might activate the gangplank drawback mechanism. No more unexpected visitors today. Do you concur?”

Spoo snapped to attention. “Yes, Lady Captain.” And went to round up the necessary decklings to assist her in this task.


“Yes, Lady Captain?”

“Keep an eye to the accessories, please. There may be a lioness around with a taste for parasols.”

“Is that some kind of code, Lady Captain?”

“My dear young man, I only wish it were.” With which Rue returned to her nap and dreamed of cold tea.



To the surprise of everyone, including himself, Percy agreed to attend the garden party that evening. Rue forbade him to bring any books. Quesnel looked as if he could not decide whether to be amused or distressed. Primrose disappeared with her brother in order to monitor his apparel choices. Virgil was in a near panic. He’d never dressed his master for an actual event before, even something as casual as a garden party. Prim provided a most necessary service, for Percy emerged looking almost respectable.

Of course, while his sister finished her own toilette, the professor mucked about in the library and managed to get covered in dust, skew his cravat, and wrinkle his waistcoat. A very long-suffering Virgil marched him abovedecks.

“Hopeless,” pronounced his sister in exasperation before turning her ire on Rue.

Without Dama to impose upon her, Rue leaned in favour of ease rather than style. She had selected a gown of pale lilac muslin that was startlingly plain and nearly four seasons old. It had no train and only a single band of dark purple velvet at the hem and collar. There was a demure pattern of cream appliqué on the bodice and over the forearms, and dark purple puff sleeves. That was all. It had a matching velvet hat with silk sweet peas in the same lilac colour and a ribbon like an undertaker’s down the back. Without a lady’s maid, Rue had resorted to twisting her mass of hair up quite simply. Dama would have disowned her on the spot.

Prim was moved to tisking disapproval. “And here I thought Percy was the only one who required assistance.”

Rue smiled at her. “This is a working event for me, my dear.”

“What if you get run over? People would read about what you were wearing when you died in the papers.”

“Don’t tempt fate, Prim. Besides, I need something practical.”

“There is absolutely no call for you to use that horrible word. And what do you mean, working? You’ve never worked a day in your life, I’m happy to say.”

Rue detailed, with some suppressed excitement, her naptime encounter with Miss Sekhmet.

Prim was, as ever, an excellent sounding board. “But why did this female feel it necessary to approach you on the ship and not wait until you were out in the city?”

Rue had no answer, only adding, “And why such urgency? Dama implied it was a secret economic concern. Admittedly, if he’s right and this new variant of the plant takes, others will be interested, but to go to such lengths for tea?”

“Be fair, tea is important,” Primrose remonstrated.

“And why mention my mother?” Rue continued. “To be sure, her job revolves around securing the safety of the empire, but that could hardly be a matter integral to a rove vampire’s tea concerns.” Percy and Prim, because of their mother’s intimate friendship and vampire state, knew of Rue’s mother’s position on the Shadow Council. So Rue felt she was not betraying any confidences by involving them. Percy wasn’t paying attention anyway.

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