Corsets and crossbows, p.1
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       Corsets and Crossbows, p.1

           Alyxandra Harvey
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Corsets and Crossbows


  Corsets and Crossbows

  A Drake Chronicles Novella in Letters

  Alyxandra Harvey

  Contents

  May 27, 1815

  June 3, 1815

  June 7, 1815

  June 11, 1815

  June 13, 1815

  June 17, 1815

  June 21, 1815

  June 22, 1815

  June 24, 1815

  June 25, 1815

  The Drake Chronicles

  About the Author

  Also By Alyxandra Harvey

  Read an excerpt of Out for Blood

  May 27, 1815

  Dear Evangeline,

  I still cannot believe you are stuck in the Lake Country while the London Season is well on its way. It’s horrid unfair. I’d write a strongly worded letter to your mother if I thought it would do any good. I cannot believe she would rather bury herself in the country instead of dancing the waltz and going to the opera. Not that I’ve danced the waltz yet, of course, since I haven’t received permission. Never fear, I intend to dance it before the Season is over, mark my words. The ladies at Almack’s can choke on their warm lemonade and stuffy old rules.

  I’m a debutante now and I’ve made my curtsy to the Queen and all that implies. And I didn’t trip on my train and fall on my backside. . . . I’m afraid that distinction still belongs to you alone. I did consider tripping Meredith but it didn’t seem sporting. She’s hardly made of sturdy stuff.

  Please tell me you are still working on convincing your parents. Shouldn’t your father be taking his seat in Parliament? Isn’t that what earls do when they’re too old to have any fun? Make sure you tell your older brother I said that when next you see him. He’s become entirely too stodgy.

  Mother has booked another appointment with the dressmaker Madame Blanche even though I’ve stood on that stool and been used as a glorified pincushion for hours now. Hours. I could have written a novel or mastered the art of lace making, which I still find wickedly confusing by the way, in the time it has taken this woman to design and sew a dress Mother approves of for the family ball. I may try hiding in the lilac hedge today. What good is being a vampire hunter if one can’t make oneself unavailable for torture?

  I know Eleanor would be aghast at my mentioning such a delicate subject in writing, but truth be told, lately she’s been rather aghast at everything I do. You’d think no one in the Wild family had ever joined the Helios-Ra before. Father is beside himself with pride and Mother preens like a peacock every time the wives gather for their monthly tea. No one else’s daughters have taken up the call except for you, and don’t think for one minute that’s not why your mother wishes to keep you imprisoned in the country house with nothing but sheep and hedgehogs for company. So my annoying, simpering cousin Eleanor can show a little support. She could have joined if she’d wanted to. It’s not my fault she finds it all so horribly shocking and distressing. She actually fainted last week when she saw the stake strapped to my ankle. Can you imagine? Still, she did me a favor, I suppose. I ought to have hidden it better. I am still trying to find a way to hide a crossbow, but the last time I tried to hide one in my reticule the butler asked if I was hiding a duck in there.

  I hope you’ve remembered our code or that entire paragraph will have made no sense. I’m not a ninny, after all, despite what my cousin might think. I would never endanger the society or our work.

  But if I don’t see a vampire soon I vow I shall do something drastic.

  Perhaps I should sneak into Vauxhall Gardens one night. Everyone’s always whispering about the goings-on there, how the paths lead into dark deserted gardens and grottos and women get lured there by ne’er-do-wells. Surely one of those ne’er-do-wells might be a little bit vampiric?

  That seems like a fine plan. If I have not seen a fang or bloodstained lip by this time next week, I shall take matters into my own hands. After all, what good is all of our training, all of the fencing and dry history books and calisthenics in a bleeding corset, if I never ever come face-to-face with a vampire? I won’t be an ornament for the League.

  I want to be useful.

  All my love,

  Rosalind

  June 3, 1815

  Dear Evangeline,

  That did not go exactly as planned.

  Please don’t lecture me about being rash, I believe I am in complete agreement.

  But I’d do it all again, given half the chance.

  And I’m not a complete featherwit, I wouldn’t go to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens unaccompanied. Not as Miss Rosalind Wild, at any rate. But Robbie, Robbie can go anywhere he chooses, can’t he? He’s going to be a most useful alter ego, I can already tell you. And he can carry a crossbow in a bag and no one thinks to question him.

  You see, I borrowed, oh very well, I can just see your expression as I write this, I stole a pair of trousers, a shirt, a vest, and a jacket from Cousin Justin. He’ll never miss them; he outgrew me at Christmas and hasn’t stopped since. He might well get bigger than Papa if he keeps it up. I can’t think what he’s eating. And anyway, he’s away at Eton and wouldn’t mind in the least. I don’t understand how he and Eleanor can be related. Can you imagine having her for a sister? Always criticizing and pursing her lips. And she wears rouge now, did you know? Even if she does deny it vociferously, I know rouge when I see it. No one’s mouth is that color unless one’s been eating pomegranate seeds. And she hates pomegranates; they might stain her fingers and her precious dresses.

  But I digress.

  I had a very good disguise, if I do say so myself. I even passed one of your brothers at the gates to Vauxhall and he didn’t give me a second glance. I was very proud of myself and considered hiring myself out to the Crown as a spy. I think I’d make a very dashing spy. Napoleon wouldn’t see me coming.

  I admit I was a trifle less confident by the end of the night.

  Anyhow, I paid the coachman several guineas to take me to the gardens and wait for me and not breathe a word to my parents. (Also, I reminded him about the lace drawers I found under one of the cushions last week.) Surely a spot of blackmail and bribery is all right, under the circumstances. One does what one must when one hunts vampires.

  Maman and Papa thought I was going to visit Beatrix to help her practice her curtsy as she is going to be presented to the Queen next month, even though she is not yet Out. Something about her papa saving the Queen’s favorite spaniel or some such. Poor Beatrix, she has no use for court and curtsies and Polite Society, but her father will keep getting recognized for good deeds. It’s a trial to her.

  It was past midnight when I finally walked down the main lane, lanterns lit in the trees like fairy butterfly cocoons. It was so beautiful, the orchestra playing, the couples dancing, the platters of strawberries and ham circulating in the paid boxes. I saw several people I knew but couldn’t say hello, of course. I will say that Lord Harrisford was whispering to Juliette Thornton while they waltzed and she was blushing. They make a darling couple and I do hope he offers for her soon. And the waltz was lovely, all sweeping turns and fluttering hems. I simply cannot wait to dance it. But you know all that already.

  I left the popular courtyards which we’ve both visited enough to know nothing scandalous ever happens there. All the truly interesting stories take place in the groves and forest and Druid’s Lane. I don’t need to tell you I saw our cousin Francis leading two women who seemed rather less than decorous into the oaks. One of them even winked at me! I would have dearly loved to cast off my disguise, just to see the look on Francis’s face. Instead I hid in the bushes until they were gone.

  And then I had to hide again when I saw Percy walking with his friends. It’s no secret Maman thinks he would be a brilliant match for me
. His mother was famous in her day, did you know? She staked a vampire at her wedding breakfast, though she gave her new husband the credit. I think I’d like to keep credit for myself. Does that make me horribly wicked, do you think? On second thought, don’t you dare answer that, Evangeline Plum.

  The trouble is, Percy is so deadly dull I fear I might yawn myself into a stupor every time we are together. I hardly think this is good material in a husband, do you?

  And I think he would take the credit for himself, just like his father did.

  Anyhow, enough of that, it’s entirely too depressing.

  I walked for over an hour until my feet hurt and I was bored. I’d missed the fireworks display and the tightrope walker and the woods were full of giggling and moaning and precious little of the bloodthirsty undead.

  Be careful what you ask for.

  You’d think I’d know that by now.

  I heard a sound unlike the others and one I’d never heard before in my entire life and rather hope never to hear again. It was a kind of hissing, followed by grunts, like someone being struck repeatedly and forcefully. I felt sure I was hearing a vampire attacking an unwary reveler. This is what I had trained for.

  Will you think less of me if I tell you I hesitated? And that my heart skipped a beat entirely and my breath trembled in a most unheroic fashion?

  I like to think I recovered myself, however. I reached for my stake (which is much easier to hide in your boot when your boot is safely covered by trousers. Also, in your pocket, when you actually have a pocket). I crept through the ferns and bushes. You’ll admit I am rather stealthy when I’ve a mind to be; and I definitely had a mind to be. Vampires have exceedingly good hearing, I don’t need to tell you, and the element of surprise remains our best weapon. Can’t you just hear the Professor now?

  So there I was, hunched in a lilac bush at the edge of a deserted folly, all broken stone pillars and headless marble statues draped in ivy. It might have been beautiful and haunting, if my teeth hadn’t been chattering in my head and my palms slick with sweat.

  Because there in the folly, under a broken blue-glass lantern, was a vampire.

  No, actually, two vampires.

  I hadn’t interrupted a vampire feeding on some hapless victim, but two vampires in some kind of dispute. The Professor was always telling us not to run. I can tell you, that is much, much, easier said than done. I had no idea how strong the physical instinct to flee can be, or how nauseating that rush of adrenaline into your veins and belly. I nearly dropped my stake. Only Papa’s voice in my ear shouting, “A hunter never drops his stake!” had me clutching it tighter.

  I crept closer, as close I could get, and then I threw my stake as hard as I could. It went fast and accurate, and stuck into the vampire’s back.

  He didn’t turn to ash.

  I ought to have used a crossbow.

  It’s rather difficult to throw a splinter of wood hard enough to pierce a rib cage, I’ll have you know. I intend to bring it up at the next meeting.

  He did, at least, give a gratifying howl and jerk back. It was just enough of an advantage to have the second vampire, who’d been struggling to free himself, reach around and push the stake through bone, muscle, and, finally, heart. Ash drifted like dandelion pollen in the moonlight. The remaining vampire reared up and I stumbled back. His hair was dark and fell over his forehead, over eyes as pale as snow. A bloody gash raked under his left cheekbone, and more blood bloomed like a red rose over his white linen shirt, on his right side. His cravat was torn, but his silk waistcoat had silver buttons. He was clearly a gentleman vampire.

  A gentleman vampire, Evangeline.

  No one ever told us about that. And he was very handsome, even if I couldn’t see his face properly. I could just tell. It’s just an observation. It isn’t as if I stood around to look at him.

  I’ll have you know I whirled around at the first opportunity and ran away, even as he yelled, “Wait! Come back!” and tried to follow. He would have been faster than me, of course, but I believe he was wounded and then I managed to lose myself in the crowds before he could reach me.

  Now that I’m safe, you have to admit, it is a rather exciting story. Perhaps I should be writing gothic novels. It might have been romantic if I hadn’t been dressed as a boy.

  And if he hadn’t been one of the undead, of course. Of course, that.

  All my love,

  Rosalind

  June 7, 1815

  Dear Evangeline,

  The more I think on it, the more I am bewildered. Why did no one ever mention gentlemen vampires? We have been told time and time again that they are savage and cruel and ghastly and have questionable hygiene.

  Evangeline, he was not ghastly.

  What does this mean, do you think? What else could they be keeping from us? Allegedly for our own protection, though I can’t think why we would need to be protected from beauty. Can you? I fear that if I pull on this little thread, the whole tapestry will unravel.

  I know that Eleanor would tell me to leave things be, that this is not my concern. But I am part of the society, am I not? I am a vampire hunter. How can I do my work if they are keeping vital information from us? And it is only the women who are being treated thus. I cornered Justin. He is such a terrible liar I knew right away. He was home for Aunt Anne’s birthday and admitted (eventually) that it is only girls who are told these dangerous and condescending half truths. He says it is because we are more susceptible to the charms of a vampire.

  Bollocks to that, Evangeline.

  These fabrications and convenient omissions put us all in danger, whatever their antiquated reasoning. And if you’ll recall, Cousin Andrew was the one who got himself killed by following some lightskirt into an alley for a tumble. They forgot to tell us that part about his murder, how he died with his trousers down around his ankles. I don’t mean to shock you, but there it is.

  Even the League cannot be fully trusted.

  What are we to do now? A vampire cannot be trusted just because he has fine features, and a hunter cannot be trusted even when he is family. I vow I won’t keep quiet about this. It’s too important.

  I also vow, dear Evangeline, to ferret out the society’s secrets.

  Tonight, in fact.

  The Wintersons are having their annual ball. It is always such a crush of people, I’m sure I won’t be noticed. I’ll simply sneak into Lord Winterson’s office and see what I can find out. Surely, being the head of the organization, he must keep some items of import in his home? If not, I suppose I shall have to try and search the Helios-Ra town house, but you and I both know that will be nigh impossible.

  Never mind. Tonight’s the night. I can feel it.

  Your cousin,

  Rosalind

  Postscript

  I really ought to stop making such inflammatory pronouncements.

  It never ends well.

  Forgive my uncertain penmanship, I am still shaky from the adrenaline and the champagne. And my first waltz. Who could have guessed the Wintersons’ dull ball could prove so very diverting? I hardly know where to begin. I can hear you gnashing your teeth, Evie, but you’ll simply have to be patient with me. I must organize my thoughts if I’m to make sense out of any of this.

  We arrived fashionably late, as always. Mother wouldn’t hear of our making an appearance before midnight. The lane was positively clogged with carriages and the ballroom packed with several hundred guests in their finest. I’ve never seen so many fans and feathered turbans. I do hope that particular trend fades quickly, it’s rather distressing. Think of all those bald ostriches and peacocks.

  And I admit it, I hid among the potted ferns until Percy went to the cards room to play whist. Probably not very hunterlike of me, but it was effective. I can’t bear to hurt his feelings, his eyes are always so sad. But he has a veritable train of debutantes giggling and fawning over him, surely one of them will console him adequately.

  Because I won’t marry him. I don’t care
what my parents say. Or his parents. Or Percy himself. I won’t be sold to the highest bidder.

  Especially not now.

  I waited until the champagne had begun to make everyone a little louder than necessary and couples were sneaking off to find dark corners before I made my way upstairs to the family rooms. Also, I had to time it perfectly as I had no intention of missing the waltz. It was simple enough to avoid the chaperone Mother set on me. And I was well prepared and even spilled strawberry wine on my gown so that I would have a credible excuse should I need one. The gossips and dowager mothers can be every bit as scary as any vampire. I defy you to find a creature more chilling than Lady Kirkwood. Don’t even bother to consider it, there is no such beast. She has made grown men cry in public with scarcely any effort at all. I’ve always thought she’d make an admirable hunter.

  Back to the ball. I made it upstairs easily enough. I would have expected the Wintersons’ house to be better guarded, to be honest with you. But I suppose they never suspected for a moment that a debutante might be clever enough to do any harm. And admittedly the town house is prodigiously well protected against vampires; I’ve never seen such a collection of swords and walking canes with retractable daggers. (I mean to fix one of my parasols along similar lines. It is a most interesting alteration and surely to be of great use.)

  I could hear the orchestra playing a quadrille, and the noisy hum of a hundred conversations going on at once. There were no footsteps, no flicker of the candle flames, nothing. I was not foolhardy in thinking myself alone. Indeed, I still cannot countenance that I wasn’t.

  I found the study with little incident and it was exactly as you might have imagined it to be: spacious, with a massive oak desk, silver decanters and bottles of expensive brandy, and rows of books and curios. I felt rather daring as I skulked through the shadows and opened all the drawers. I found nothing of import until the very last drawer, which was locked. Those new hairpins you devised are brilliant, Evie. I picked the lock with very little trouble.

 
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