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Xandra Vardan is the newly crowned Goblin Queen of England. But her complicated life is by no means over.
There are the political factions vying for her favor, and the all too-close scrutiny of Queen Victoria, who for some reason wants her head. Not to mention her werewolf boyfriend with demands of his own, and a mother hell bent on destroying the monarchy. Now she's the suspect in a murder investigation —- and Xandra barely knows which way is ...
Xandra Vardan is the newly crowned Goblin Queen of England. But her complicated life is by no means over.
There are the political factions vying for her favor, and the all too-close scrutiny of Queen Victoria, who for some reason wants her head. Not to mention her werewolf boyfriend with demands of his own, and a mother hell bent on destroying the monarchy. Now she's the suspect in a murder investigation —- and Xandra barely knows which way is up.
What she does know is that nothing lasts forever—-and immortality isn't all its cracked up to be.
There was a dead rat nailed to my door.
“Poor thing.” I grasped the thick spike and pulled it free of the heavy wood. The small furry corpse fell into my hand. It was still warm. Left during daylight hours. Cowards.
Probably the Human League. They were the only ones who blamed rats for the plague responsible for vampires, were-wolves, half-bloods, and… things like me. They also suffered from the mistaken belief that they were safe during the day. They weren’t. No more than we were safe from them at night.
Underneath the murdered rodent was a copy of the front page of The Times from last Monday. There was a photo of me–now stained with rat blood–leaving the house, and above it the headline: MONSTER IN OUR MIDST: Frightened residents want goblin “queen” away from their children. Of course, no names were given, because I might decide to exact revenge upon those good citizens who hated me simply because of what I was.
In a way I understood–I was frightened of me sometimes as well–but the press, and the Human League, made me sound like some kind of bogeyman. A child killer. It was becoming a tad tedious, to be honest.
I buried the rat–and the paper–in the back garden, where I’d buried the last two to have been left on my step. Since the neighbourhood of Leicester Square learned they had a goblin in their midst–to be exact, Xandra Vardan, the reluctant “Queen of Goblins”–they’d become a bit… enthusiastic in their desire to convince me to pack my bags.
I was about to throw the spike into the hole as well when I noticed a small scrap of fabric attached. Part of a shirt sleeve if I wasn’t mistaken. I pulled it off the iron and lifted it to my nose. Rat. Blood. Cotton. Newsprint… Ah, there it was.
Sometimes a superior sense of smell was a disgusting affliction, other times it came in rather handy. This was one of those times. I took another sniff and walked around to the front of the house.
I lived in what had once been an old public house in Leicester Square–still had the sign above the door. I stopped on the pavement and took a deep breath.
West. That’s where the little tosser went.
I set off down the street. The sun was still sinking in the sky, casting the city and its inhabitants in a mellow summer glow. I squinted behind my sunglasses. Unlike my furry subterranean brethren, I could brave sunlight, a fact that would surprise my rat killer. It didn’t blister me or burn my eyes like it did to aristocrats–a term now used to describe vampires, weres and even goblins, though goblins thought themselves separate. I needed dark glasses and sunscreen, but I was okay.
All around me humans hurried here and there, either on foot or by motor carriage. I’d lived in Leicester Square for two months now, ever since moving out of the house I used to share with my sister Avery. She was still pissed off at me for keeping secrets from her, and for being a goblin. As if I had a choice in the matter.
Perhaps choosing to live in a predominantly human neigh-bourhood wasn’t the most intelligent of decisions, given increasing human hostility, but it kept me reasonably far away from Queen Victoria’s spies, and that was what mattered. I’d earned the disfavour of Britain’s vampire monarch by being made queen by the goblins. Historically, the queens of Britain didn’t look kindly on other queens infringing on their territory.
People looked at me as they passed by. A halvie wasn’t that much of an oddity in these parts, though certainly not commonplace. Unfortunately word had got out, thanks to the rags, that there was a freaky new goblin in town. My photo had been in every paper a couple of months ago, first because of my love life, and then because of the scandal of my genes. I was something of a celebrity, though without the chat show appearances.
I had my guard up. This unusual heat was making people nervous, myself included. Some huey and halvie deaths over the summer, including Dede and a friend of hers from Bedlam, had the humans twitchy. The Queen’s jubilee in May hadn’t helped either. You could practically feel tension rising in the city.
A mother put herself between me and her child, as if she was any sort of protection if I decided I wanted to have the kid for tea. I smiled at her, but kept walking, following the scent of my rodent killer. I didn’t want trouble–except with the person I was trailing.
I tracked him to an estate in Haymarket. It was one of those kinds that had terrace upon terrace of flats, but while his scent drifted up a set of stairs, it was strongest towards a small park area upwind, behind the three buildings.
I paused, stuffed my hair beneath my bowler hat so the unusual red didn’t immediately give me away, slouched my shoulders and set off toward the boys gathered around a jungle gym. My thick-soled boots, short skirt, stockings and corseted waistcoat didn’t look too expensive, and fitted in with current human fashion.
Six young blokes with hats pulled low over spot-riddled faces adorned with tatts and piercings looked up as I approached.
“Oi, what’s this?” One elbowed another.
I rolled my eyes as they chuckled, thinking I couldn’t hear them. I could hear them breathing, little wanks.
“Hullo,” I said to the one whose stench filled my nostrils. He was probably seventeen, with sapphire-streaked blond hair that hung in his blue eyes and a silver stud in his cheek. He had spools in the sides of his nostrils, and cigarette smoke drifted out of them as he smirked at me.
“Hi,” he said back. “What are you looking for, little merk?”
I didn’t appreciate being referred to as a vaginal wig, no matter how trendy it was. “You, actually.” I pouted. “Don’t you recognise me?”
His friends chuckled when he did. “Should I?”
My left hand lashed out, catching him around the throat. His startled expression made me grin. The world brightened just a little as I let my fangs out–the goblin in me making my sight keener, my hunger sharper. I managed to keep the bones in my face from shifting, however. Didn’t want the little lamb to pass out on me.
“Breaks my heart to think you might be murdering rats for other girls, my pretty boy.”
“Fuck me!” yelped one of the boys, scampering higher on the metal climbing bars.
I ignored him. He wasn’t a danger unless he decided to jump on me–which would just be stupid. The ones that needed watching were the ones who stayed close, even when they realised who–what–I was.
“Get lost,” I snarled, all fang and spit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them withdraw further. I didn’t care if they watched, so long as they stayed out of it.
“It weren’t nothing personal,” rasped the boy.
I tilted my head, holding eye contact. He smelled good. Good enough to eat. I could take a bite from a place he’d never miss it… but I wouldn’t. I had yet to give in to the craving for human flesh.
“Hard not to take something like that personally, my friend. Surely you can see how I might be… upset?”
He swallowed hard against my palm, jerked his head in a nod. I was impressed that he hadn’t pissed himself yet. His face was turning purple. “He paid me.”
I eased up on the pressure. “What’s that?”
The kid drew a deep breath. “Some toff gave me a hundred quid to do it. He even gave me the rat.” His gaze flitted briefly from mine. He hadn’t liked killing the rat. It was something that was going to stick with him for a while.
I knew that feeling, though my moral code was slipping more and more every day. I wanted to kill this kid. His fear made my mouth tingle. It wasn’t the violence that got my salivary glands all aflutter–it was the idea of the blood, the meat. He wasn’t a prime specimen, and he reeked of drugs and stale fags, but he’d still taste ruddy good.
And I was starving.
“What did he look like?”
“I dunno. A toff.” I squeezed his throat again and his eyes bulged. “He was blond–almost albino. And pale. Blue eyes. Real thin. Aristo.”
My eyes narrowed, and I relaxed my fingers. “How could you tell?”
“Vamped out on me, didn’t he? All toothsome. Threatened to kill me if I said a word about it.”
“And yet here you are, telling me.” Either this kid wasn’t too bright, or…
“He weren’t nearly as scary as you.”
Well, that was something, wasn’t it? I released him altogether. He sagged in on himself as his feet hit the patchy grass, like a rag doll, hand going to his bruised throat. “What else?”
The kid’s expression was one of sheer panic. His friends had scattered, brave lot that they were. “There isn’t anything else!”
Of course there was. “How was he dressed? What sort of vehicle did he have? What exactly did he say?”
“He wore a dark grey suit. Looked like a rag ad for cologne or something. He had a motor carriage and a driver, but I didn’t see either of them, I swear. He said, ‘I’ll give you one hundred pounds to nail this unfortunate beast to the door of the goblin queen.’ I took his money and that’s when he said he’d end me if I told.”
“If anyone’s going to kill you, it’s going to be me,” I told him. His face went completely white. Fang me, he wasn’t going to faint, was he? “I’m not going to kill you, you stupid git. No one is.” Especially not me. I was stronger than that.
Poor thing was trembling now. “You got a pen?”
He seemed surprised by the question, but pulled one out of his jacket pocket. I took it and grabbed his hand, turning it palm up. “If he comes to you again, I want you to ring me on this number.” I jotted my mobile number on the ball of his thumb. “If I start getting prank calls, I’ll rip your tongue out and eat it in front of you, understood?”
He nodded, then shuddered a little, but still no piss. He really was a brave one. Being a hormonal teenage halfwit helped.
“What’s your name?”
“David.” His voice was hoarse. He’d barely be able to talk tomorrow.
“David, if an aristo or anyone else offers you money to do anything so fucking stupid in the future, I want you to be a good boy and say no, all right? Whatever they offer won’t be worth it.”
Another nod. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sod off. Now go home. Tomorrow your cowardly friends will be impressed that you spent ten minutes alone with me and survived. Just don’t tell them what we talked about. I don’t want word getting back to your aristo friend that you betrayed him.”
He nodded yet again, and walked away with his fists shoved in the pockets of his jacket. I watched him go, smiling when he finally gave in and started to run.
I walked home, stopping for a coffee and a box of doughnuts along the way. The middle-aged human lady behind the counter didn’t know–or maybe didn’t care–who I was, and put a valiant effort into appearing friendly, but her indifference was written all over her slack features and sloped shoulders. It was actually nice to be treated with general disdain as opposed to abject terror.
A few months ago–when I believed I was nothing more than a regular halvie trying to make a name for myself with the Royal Guard–I thought I knew what it was like to be hated and feared. That was before I found out I was a monster. A pretty one, but a monster nevertheless, despite my barley-sugar-red hair and furless body. I was strong, very fast and generally considered ill-tempered. And as far as I knew, I was the only one of my kind. Not exactly something I aspired to.
I was eating the fourth of the doughnuts–bless my goblin metabolism–when I reached my house. It was still standing, which was good. Nothing dead on my step. No albino aristocrats.
There was, however, a halvie sitting there. I’d know her candy-floss-pink hair anywhere. “What the hell do you want?” I demanded.
My sister Avery rose to her feet. Her wide green eyes–the same colour mine had been before my goblin genes turned them slightly gold–were red, and her face had the haggard appearance of someone who hadn’t slept recently. “I need to talk to you.”
“You said enough when you kicked me out.” I brushed past her and dug my keys out of the pocket sewn into the waistband of my skirt. Fang me, my fingers were shaking.
“It’s important,” she told my rigid back.
“I’m sure it is.” I unlocked the door. “Why don’t you send me a digigram instead?” I stepped over the threshold.
“Damn it, Xandy! It’s Val.”
I stopped, then turned my head to face her. Val was our brother, and Avery wouldn’t have let go of her grudge to talk to me unless it was serious. Fuck it all. “You’d better come in.”
I made tea because it was the civil thing to do. And I shared my doughnuts because, despite not speaking to me for two months, Avery was my sister and I loved her. And because she looked like shit.
We were in the part of my rented home that used to be the main room of the pub–equipped with original nineteenth-century bar and fixtures. I was behind the bar while Avery sat on a stool at the counter.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I poured hot water into the pot. The scent of Earl Grey wafted up, delicious and sharp. This was like Dede all over again. Avery and I had had tea that night too. I didn’t want to think about that.
She pulled apart a chocolate doughnut. “I haven’t heard from Val in almost three days.”
“And you came to me?” What, she couldn’t just call? “How the hell would I know what he’s up to?”
“I reckoned you and he would be tight again by now.”
“Well, your reckoning is shit.” I should have taken better care to hide how much she and Val had hurt me. “You certain he’s not on a case?”
Val was Special Branch of Scotland Yard and worked all halvie and aristo-related cases. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for days at a time. But Avery had said the same about Dede, and she’d got herself involved with traitors and then killed.
“I called his SI.” She shot me a glance. “She thought I was you.”
“Obviously you got over it. What did she say?”
“That she couldn’t give me any details on Val or the case he was on.”
“There, he’s on the hunt. No big deal.” Maybe Avery had invented all of this as an excuse to break the silence between us.
“She told me that his brother Takeshi had called as well.”
“I fucking hate it when they call Penny by that name.” Takeshi was better known as Penny Dreadful, one of the sweetest, most gorgeous trannies you’d ever meet. She was not Val’s brother–not to me. She was his sister. She was practically family, even though she wasn’t related to me by blood. She and Val shared the same mother, but not the same father.
“I know, but Penny said she found Val’s rotary at Freak Show.”
I poured tea into Avery’s cup and then my own. “Not like him to forget his rote, but then he has a separate one for work, right?”
“Dunno. Perhaps.” She dumped several sugar cubes into her cup. “Val never said anything about an investigation.”
“Sounds like he wasn’t allowed.”
“And he didn’t say anything to you at all? Nothing about a case involving the Human League or anything?”
I stared at her. Was she fucking mental, or just not listening? “I haven’t seen Val for two months. You both decided to disown me, remember?”
She glared at me–she looked like a snarling doll. “You lied to us, about Dede, about yourself.”
“I kept quiet so the two of you wouldn’t get dragged down if it all went to hell–which it did. And I lied about me because I was just finding out the truth for myself. Thank you, by the way, for kicking me out when I needed you most.”
“I didn’t kick you out, you fucking left.”
“Because you didn’t want me in the house.”
“Who the bloody hell told you that?”
“Vardan.” Our father.
Her expression hardened. “He had no right.”
I sighed and plucked a doughnut dripping with frosting from the box. “It doesn’t matter now. Besides, Victoria made it clear she didn’t want me in her territory.”
She arched a brow. “Victoria, eh? On first-name terms, are you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Hardly. Regardless, what do you want me to do?”
Cheeks bulging with cakey goodness, my sister looked as surprised as a spinster matron in an all-boys shower. “Can’t you… you know, talk to the goblins or something? Get his phone from Penny?”
“Why don’t you go to Penny? And what makes you think the gobs know anything? Or do you think they’ve got him flavouring a stew as we speak?” I was going for a slightly more caustic tone that the incredulous one that clung to my words.
“They knew what happened to Dede, didn’t they?”
Yes, they had. That would explain the déjà vu. “And look where that got me. Us.”
Avery glanced up, cheeks normal, eyes wide. “Xandy, this is Val we’re talking about. Our brother, who always came running any time you or I called.”
I refused to be guilted–mostly out of spite. “If something happened with his case, then the entire Yard is out looking for him.”
“The Yard doesn’t have access to the goblins, or to you. If anyone can find him, you can.”
I ought to have been touched by the sentiment, and to an extent I was. I was still pissed off that Val had to get into shit for her to finally speak to me. “You going to help?”
Her cheeks flushed. “I can’t. I promised Em I wouldn’t go off courting trouble.”
But I could. If it weren’t for a promise to her fiancée, Avery would be out looking for Val right now, and I’d be none the wiser.
What a proper pair we were. At least I wouldn’t go fooling myself into thinking I’d be accepted back into the family fold any time soon. Which was ironic when you consider that family was what had got me into this mess to begin with.
“Fine,” I said finally, running my finger over the polished but scarred surface of the bar. “I’ll ask around.”
She opened her purse. “I can give you a few quid—”
My hand shot out and snapped the clasp shut. Avery squealed as the metal pinched her fingers. “You think I need money?”
Glaring and pouting at the same time, she shook her smarting hand. “I don’t know. The RG fired you.”
“I have my allowance,” I reminded her, not wanting to think of how my supervisor in the Royal Guard had informed me that my services were no longer required. You had to be a half-blood to be an RG, and I was no longer a halvie. Never had been.
“Besides,” I said lightly–I’d chew on silver razor blades before I’d let her think of me as a poor relation–“you know what they say about goblins and treasure.”
She frowned. “I thought that was dwarves.”
Albert’s fangs. It was an old curse, a blasphemy of the late Prince Consort, and I used it without an ounce of remorse. “Dwarves,” I ground out, “don’t exist.”
Avery shot me a droll look as she polished off her doughnut. “Until two months ago, neither did a furless goblin who could walk in the sun.”
Touché. “I don’t need or want your money.”
“You’re so fucking proud.” She made it sound like a bad thing. “That’s why I didn’t want to come.”
“Right, it’s all my fault.”
She slapped the flat of her hand down on the bar. “It is! If you hadn’t been so afraid of what we’d think, or so dead set on protecting us, we could have helped you, Xandra. We could have been there for you, and for Dede. Now she’s dead and you’re living in an old pub in a human part of town, Val’s gone and Churchill’s supposedly on the run.”
The mention of his name made my heart skip. “I haven’t heard from him either.” No one would. Not ever again.
“Just as well. They’d probably give him a medal for killing her.”
At least that was something we agreed on. “Probably.”
She checked her watch and sighed. “I have to go. You’ll call me if you find anything?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Ruddy hell, Avery!” I silently counted to ten and met her earnest gaze. “I promise. Now get the hell out, will you?” The longer she stayed, the more alone I was going to feel when she left.
As luck would have it, my sister seemed to understand exactly what I was feeling–the bitch. She nodded glumly, slipped off the stool and started for the door. I walked her out.
She paused at the threshold. “You’ll be careful, won’t you, Xandy?” She wasn’t just talking about my promise to check up on Val.
I nodded. “I will be.”
She smiled–just a little. “Good. If I hug you, will you hit me?”
“Not unless you want me to.”
She was just a tiny bit shorter than me, so as her arms went around me, our cheeks brushed. Hers was wet. Hesitantly, I returned the embrace. Something in my chest twanged painfully.
Just as suddenly, she released me. “Goodbye.” Then she ran down the few steps to where her shiny motorrad sat waiting. The two-wheeled vehicle roared to life and then sped off down the street. I hoped she’d stopped crying, because driving with blurry vision was hardly safe.
I closed the door, armed the alarm and went back to the bar. This time I poured something a mite stronger than tea. My heart was heavy but my eyes were blessedly dry.
There are only a handful of ways for humans to access the underside–one of them being the Metropolitan train service, the Met for short. There were barriers set up at the end of the platforms to discourage anyone who might think to follow the tracks into the dark. Of course, there was always the odd human who thought jumping the barriers was a sound idea. The lucky ones made it back to the lit areas, or maybe the surface, screaming. The unlucky ones didn’t make it out at all. I’ve heard people talk about hearing blood-curdling screams while waiting for their train.
There’s more beneath London than old train lines, catacombs, plague pits and tunnels. It’s not so much the long-forgotten rooms and caverns that a body need worry about; it’s the things living in them. I once heard that there’s a species of mosquito that is found only in the dank dark beneath my fair city. Some stupid sod actually risked his fool life to go beneath and find the bloody thing.
If you willingly wander into goblin territory, you’re considered fair game.
Since I was no longer RG, I was unable to come and go as I pleased in the walled neighbourhood of Mayfair, where the main entrance to the goblin–or “plague”–den was located. You either had to be a resident of the community, a registered visitor, or an employee of one of the three agencies given permission to enter–the Royal Guard, the Peerage Protectorate, and Special Branch. I was none of those things.
So I had to be a bit more creative in regard to gaining entry. I slipped goggles over my eyes and roared across town on my Butler motorrad, weaving in and out of traffic that thinned as I approached the West End. Not as many motor carriages where I was going. A lot of aristos preferred horse and carriage to anything with an engine. I thought it archaic, but my opinion didn’t matter. Thank God Vex shared my sentiment.
He should be back soon, my alpha wolf boyfriend, but for now I was on my own in finding out not only which vamp paid my rat-killer, but just what Val was up to that was so important he hadn’t told Avery or Penny.
I didn’t want to go to the goblin prince. Every favour I asked dug me deeper into their culture, made it harder for me to put off accepting their crown. Part of me fought being a monster while another relished the opportunity. The part that wanted it frightened me, if I was truthful.
And if I became their queen, I would have to finally admit to being one of them. It was one thing for me to say I was a goblin; it was quite another to embrace it. No denying being a monster then.
I drove past Green Park on the A4, skirting my old neighbourhood of the Wellington district and the barbed gates of Buck House–as the palace was sometimes called by old-timer aristos. One benefit to avoiding the Mayfair gates was that there’d be no record of my visit, and Queen V wouldn’t know I’d been round. A decided disadvantage was trying to find a place to park. This area really came to life at dusk.
I found a place to stash the Butler not far from Hyde Park Corner. I checked for traffic and sprinted across the street, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Routemaster omnibus. Then I jogged down the stairs to the entrance of the Met station.
Most of the residents of this part of town didn’t use the train, but the station was still fairly busy. Many humans and halvies worked in the West End in establishments that catered to aristos. Recently I’d learned that humans, like goblins, weren’t quite as evil as I’d been taught. Still, they had tried to overthrow the aristocracy in 1932, and laid waste to much of Mayfair and its inhabitants. I’d been attacked by humans several times in the course of my life. That fear and prejudice was hard to put aside.
Hopefully the humans would never find out that we were as scared of them as they were of us, “we” being those of plagued blood.
A few of those waiting on the platform glanced in my direction, but halvies and aristos were a regular sight here, and I looked just like any other halvie. I had my lonsdaelite dagger sheathed in my corset and a pistol holstered in my bustle just in case someone decided to make a closer inspection of my person. The RGs had taken my Bulldog away from me after giving me the boot, so now I carried a smaller weapon–a pearl-handled revolver that fired bullets that fragmented inside their target, scattering shards of silver. It was almost as effective against aristos as it was against humans, which was why I carried it.
Across the tracks, pasted on the tiles, was a faded poster, the original slogan of which had been altered to read: KEEP CALM AND PRAY FOR DAWN. It was from after the Great Insurrection, when security protocols had first been implemented underside. Now, it was a reminder of just what humans thought of us.
The platform beneath my feet–scuffed and worn despite an attempt to keep it polished–vibrated as the rumbling down the track grew louder. A warm breeze brushed my cheek, filling my nostrils with the smell of hot metal, dirt and grease as the train pulled into the station. It dulled the scent of human that seemed to forever linger, teasingly, on the air.
I eyed the UV cannons set up at either end of the platform warily. If someone decided to smash the glass case and turn the light from one of those on me, how long would I last? I could still go out in the sun like I always could, but I was more sensitive to it than before, and these cannons were heavy-duty shit. They were most effective against “normal” goblins and aristos. I’d never seen one used, and hopefully I never would. They were there to give the humans a feeling of safety, but if someone were to go for the glass right now, I’d have their throat out before the last shards hit the ground.
The train doors opened–bodies out, bodies in. I stepped closer to the edge as a disembodied voice warned passengers to mind the gap between carriage and platform. A few people glanced at me, curious as to why I wasn’t joining them, but they soon lost interest.
The train began to move and I tensed, waiting. My weight shifted to the balls of my feet, heart pounding out a count-down. As the end of the long, wood-panelled train sped past, I reached out and jumped.
My fingers closed around the bars and my boots landed on the ledge. Clinging to the back of the carriage, I whipped past the rest of the platform, into the semi-darkness of the next tunnel.
I wasn’t on for long. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the ruin that used to be Down Street station, I leaned my body out, and when I spied the platform a track-width away, I leaped.
One brilliant bit about being a goblin was the reflexes, not to mention increased speed and grace. One second I was hanging off the back of a train, and the next I’d landed in a crouch on the dusty, debris-strewn platform of a station closed for eighty years.
Down Street had many names, depending on whether you were goblin, aristo, halvie or human. To some, its crumbling cream and maroon tiles and grimy platform were a monument to the duplicity of humans. To others, it was a giant tomb. To the goblins, it was home.
Some brave–or stupid–human crew had come down here after the Insurrection in the hope of clearing out the dead, but only a handful of bodies were recovered–the rest had been dragged even deeper below the city, into the plague den.
Halvies had been sent down to board the station up, but not before a treaty of some kind was in place to make sure they didn’t suffer the same fate the humans had.
Despite the stories, the warnings and the precautions, there were always a stupid few who thought they were too cool to be goblin chow and risked sneaking in.
There weren’t any lights here–the amount of dusty glass fragments that littered the platform, some cupped in the bones of a human hand, provided ample explanation. New bulbs were immediately broken. This was goblin territory, and light was not welcome. As it was, the ambient light from both the Hyde Park Corner and Dover Street stations would be hard on the average gob’s sensitive eyes.
I was the exception, because I hadn’t spent my life underground. However, I could see very well in the dark. Very well.
I followed the tracks for a little bit–maybe twenty or thirty feet–until I came to the hole in the wall that was the entrance to the den. Unlike my first visit, I didn’t proceed with caution. I slipped through the hole and jogged down the rough-hewn stairs, deeper into under-London. Frescoes painted in blood decorated the walls, but I didn’t stop to admire their macabre beauty. I heard the sound of music and I walked towards it, heart hammering even though I had no reason to be afraid. Old habits and all that.
The goblin den was a maze of crypts and tunnels and ruins running beneath the city, with this location at its heart. The entire underground was their kingdom, and all the treasures that came with it, such as Roman gold, and artefacts from the time before this city had a name.
I entered the great hall. Two goblins were playing piano and cello for the entertainment of what appeared to be the entire plague–give or take. Fortunately for London, goblins were few in number and had a low birth rate even for aristos. Unfortunately, one goblin was more than a match for two aristos–except maybe for a few of Vex’s wolves–four halvies or a dozen humans.
The moment the performers spied me, the music ceased. They fell to all fours, dropping their heads in supplication. The audience turned and did the same. It was like being bowed to by a very large pack of mangy dogs wearing accessories.
A few of them, I noticed, did not bow. In fact they didn’t look very impressed by me at all.
“Xandra lady,” came a low, familiar rasp. Goblin voices always sounded like they were on the verge of a growl.
I smiled as the prince approached me. He was tall for a goblin–about my height–and he wore a leather patch over one amber eye. He also wore a shabby dark blue Chinese silk jacket with a hole in the shoulder seam and frayed cuffs. Probably not many tailors that catered to gobs in the city.
The prince sketched a bow, and I let him, because this sort of behaviour meant something to him. Once he’d straightened, I asked the others to rise as well. It gave me the creeps to see them like that.
“Your prince hoped you might come,” he said, taking my hand in his more paw-like one. It didn’t bother me any more. In fact, it felt comforting. Other than Vex, I’d been sadly lacking in physical contact.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been down for a bit. I’m…” I didn’t want to lie to him. “I’m still trying to sort things out.”
He nodded sagely. “Big changes require little steps, yes.” He escorted me towards the only chairs in the room. One was his throne and the other was mine, and they were both made of bone. Human bone. Although that fanged skull on the top of mine was certainly not human. I swallowed.
It was Church. I just knew it.
For a moment, I thought I might cast up my accounts all over the toes of my boots, but then came a flash of Dede, in my arms, dying from a gunshot wound inflicted by that bastard.
I sat down. The velvet cushioning on the seat and back made the throne surprisingly comfortable. I could get used to it.
And there was the rub. I wasn’t sure about being the goblin queen, but the idea of being any other sort of queen was freaking brilliant.
“What brings the lady underside?” asked the prince, gesturing for the music to resume.
“My brother, Val. He’s on a case and my sister can’t find him. I thought maybe you might know what he’s up to.” It seemed like an odd question, but goblins appeared to know everything that happened in London.
Furry brows drew together. “Many you love get lost, my lady.”
“The story of my life,” I replied lightly. Were that it was actually a joke.
“Come,” he said, rising to his feet. Goblins normally went about barefoot, as they had fur and tough leathery pads to prevent injury. The prince, however, sometimes wore boots. Tonight he was sporting a pair of highly polished but well-worn hessians.
“I’m sorry; am I interrupting something?” If incredulity had a taste, my tongue would be dripping with it. Music and entertainment happened all the time down here. Didn’t it?
He ran a paw down one lapel–an oddly self-conscious gesture. “Dress accordingly, do gentlemen of rank.” His gaze flitted away from mine, and I followed it to another familiar gob face. It was Elsbeth, a female goblin I’d met during the mess with Dede.
Fang me, was the prince courting her? She smiled at him–a terrifying sight. A goblin baring its teeth was never pretty, though the prince certainly seemed to like it. He smiled back. My stomach trembled, then growled.
This was so buggered up. “You had something to show me?” I prodded. The sooner he shared, the sooner I could leave. I wasn’t ready for goblin mating rituals.
“Hungry is our lady.”
And I wasn’t ready to witness traditional goblin dining again. I’d seen what they did to Church.
What I’d done to Church. I swallowed the bitterness that coated my tongue. “I’m fine.”
The prince barked–literally. It was a deep, sharp sound that got my heart kicking at my ribs. Seconds later, a small gob with horn-shaped barrettes on her head and metal rivets in her pointed ears appeared with a tray laden with fruit.
A similar tray had been offered to me the first time I came down here, and I’d resisted the temptation. It was a universally ignored fact in this city that goblins were also dealers of opium–junkies weren’t usually missed when they disappeared. They owned a couple of legal dragon dens as well, but I reckoned most of their funds came from private deals and their little “soirées”. I should probably be horrified, but I wasn’t. You want to play goblin roulette with your life? That’s your business. And your short little existence.
“It will not harm you,” the prince said, as though reading my thoughts. He wasn’t stupid, and my wariness was telegraphed so loudly Vex could probably feel it in Scotland. “What we give to the meat this is not.”
Ah yes, the meat. My stomach growled again and I shrugged. I didn’t want to offend and I was starving. Plus there was the dismal reminder that the goblins were the only friends I had. I might not be the brightest candle, but I wasn’t completely daft. And I needed all the friends I could get.
The cherries looked bloody delicious. I took the entire bowl from the tray. It had to weigh a couple of pounds. “Thanks.”
The little goblin grinned. Sweet baby Albert, I hoped that stuff in her teeth was cherry pulp.
I ate as the prince led me from the great hall to the torch-lit catacomb corridor. I suspected this maze was mostly Roman in origin, but it was hard to tell in the dark. They might have been nineteenth-century tunnels or seventeenth-century sewers. I had no idea. The underside of London was such a hollowed-out thing, it was amazing the entire city hadn’t fallen in on itself. There used to be a plague pit near here, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was humans who’d been killed rather than mutated by the plague who made up a great deal of the furniture in the den.
“How big is this place?” I asked, glancing around at the rough stone and high ceilings.
“Big,” the prince replied lightly as he stole a cherry from my bowl. “The pits, save them, please.”
I spat the one in my mouth into the bowl. It was my spit, so I didn’t care. The prince put his in his pocket.
“Thank you for accommodating me, I know you had plans for the evening.”
He shrugged and shot me a myopic glance that glowed in the light. “You are our lady. Deny you I would never.”
I frowned, chewed on another cherry. It split crisply between my teeth, sweet, wet tang flooding my mouth. “I don’t want you to feel obligated to me.”
“The lady feels obligation, that is why she is afraid to come underside, afraid her prince will expect her to wear the crown.”
He was either terribly astute or I was simply transparent. “Yes.”
The prince shook his shaggy head. “You are queen whether you want to be or not. We are yours whether it is pleasing or not. Only the lady does not seem to understand. Accept your crown or do not, it changes nothing.”
“You’d swear fealty even if I didn’t want it?”
His muzzle twitched. “Already sworn.”
What the ruddy hell was I supposed to do with such blind devotion? I didn’t even have a pet; how was I supposed to contend with several dozen killing machines determined to serve me?
“I’m sorry.” It was all I could think of to say, bloody genius that I was.
“So much breath you waste apologising.”
Really? I often thought I wasn’t sorry enough. I bit into another cherry.
We turned left, and then right into a large room that made my jaw drop. Almost every inch of wall space was covered in screens of varying sizes. Instead of VBC channels, however, the images were of London streets and buildings.
No wonder the goblins knew so much. They had more eyes on the city than MI-bloody-6. Four goblins were in the room, watching the screens and recording information. A low-pitched alarm sounded and a small light flashed beside a monitor halfway down the far wall. One of the goblins immediately went to it and recorded what was on the screen. It looked like two men having sex in an alley.
“What is this?”
The prince stole another cherry from my bowl. “Knowing cobbleside business is necessary for the plague. We were ignorant once. Never again.”
He was referring to the Great Insurrection, obviously. Humans invading their territory en masse must have been a great surprise–one they hadn’t seen coming. “Impressive.”
“Plague knowledge is our lady’s knowledge.”
Ah, he knew how to play me. Imagine the things I could be privy to with this sort of set-up at my disposal. I peered at one monitor. “Is that the palace?”
The prince made a chuffing noise. Laughter? “Our lady’s brother seen last when?”
“Two nights ago. He left his rotary at Freak Show.”
It might have been my imagination, but the prince went very, very still at the mention of the club. “Roderick,” he said.
A male goblin–and I could tell it was male not because of his name, but because he was very well endowed–strutted over to a large bank of buttons, switches and inlaid monitors. Had he never heard of trousers?
The prince inclined his head at the gob and I took the hint to approach. I kept my gaze firmly on Roderick’s furry head. He bowed when I reached him. “Lady,” he rasped. He didn’t meet my gaze, simply gestured to one of the flat screens set into the console. As I watched, grainy footage of Freak Show’s front and back entrances appeared side by side. A large furry hand with long-clawed fingers turned a knob that increased the speed of the images.
“There,” I said after a few minutes, catching sight of my brother’s familiar face and build. “That’s him.”
The time on the screen told me that Val had arrived at Freak Show shortly after midnight. Roderick reached for another knob–this one controlled the view of the back exit. I leaned close to the screen, even though my vision was beyond excellent. I wanted to make sure I saw my brother when he left.
Images flickered by–like one of those books where you flipped the pages to create a moving figure. I watched with narrowed eyes…
“Stop!” My hand whipped out and caught the goblin’s arm. “Go back. There.”
On the screen, in a million shades of grey, was the image of two bubonic betties–humans who injected themselves with plagued blood to enhance their speed and strength, and ultimately died from it–leaving the club. And between them, looking directly into the camera, was Val.
What the hell had he got himself into?
Had Val gone with the betties willingly? They’d been known to attack halvies before, usually because that blood gave them almost the same rush with fewer side effects.
But Val didn’t look hurt. He didn’t even look concerned. It had to be part of his investigation, but what was he investigating? The betties? If they caught on to him, they’d kill him for certain. And they wouldn’t be quick about it. They’d drain him first, the bastards.
I was not going to lose another sibling. There was nothing I could do. This footage was from two nights ago. He might not even be with the betties any more if he’d managed to fool and arrest them. Then again, he might be a prisoner somewhere, his veins being slowly milked.
Rage washed over me, hot, sudden and uncontainable. I lashed out, punching the rough wall with enough force to send little puffs of dirt and debris into the air. Some of it stuck to the inside of my throat.
None of the goblins said anything, even though my rage could have damaged at least one of their screens. Thankfully, the only thing I seemed to break was my own skin. Blood dripped down my fingers.
The prince very casually took my battered appendage in his, lowered his head, and before I could squeak in distaste, licked the blood from my skin. His tongue was warm, and slightly rough. It was like being licked by a big wild dog.
“Um, thanks,” I said when he had finished. Would he be offended if I wiped his spit on my stockings?
“Healing has been quickened,” he replied. I glanced down; the knuckles that had been torn up just seconds before already appeared to be mending themselves.
Creepy, yet freaking amazing.
Roderick appeared at my side, offering a photographic printout of the betties and Val. It wasn’t terribly clear, but it gave me a place to start.
I slipped out of the monitoring room, pressed my forehead against the wall, and forced a deep breath into my lungs. Anger came in quick breaths, fear in shallow puffs. If I gave in, I’d gob out, and people tended to get hurt–or die–when I let my goblin self take over. I didn’t want the prince to see me out of control.
Thoughts of Val filled my mind–from when we were children, growing up at the courtesan house, where our mothers had lived, to the Academy and later. He was my only brother–older than me by almost two years. He was one of the few constants in my life. It didn’t matter that he was pissed off at me.
I couldn’t lose him too. I just couldn’t. I knew I was getting ahead of myself, but I couldn’t help it.
A warm paw came down on my shoulder. I lifted my head and turned it to look at the prince. It was difficult to think of him as a monster when he showed me such kindness.
“Not the first halfing taken from the Freak Show,” he told me. “The first to go willingly. Do not fear for him yet.”
I placed my hand over his. My knuckles tingled, the wounds I’d inflicted continuing to heal. His fur was soft and thick. “Thank you. For everything.”
He nodded. Sometime during this he had taken the bowl of cherries from me, and was carrying them against his ribs. We walked back to the great hall in silence. I didn’t go in. I wasn’t in the mood for music or a crowd.
“Your plague,” the prince said. “What do you require of us?”
I folded the photo and stuck it inside my corset, just under my arm. “Nothing. You’ve already done so much.”
He snorted–a sound that was a cross between a growl and a yip. “We serve our lady.”
They weren’t all keen on serving me, I reckoned. I hadn’t asked to be their queen. Of course I hadn’t turned it down either.
“I’ll let you know if I need assistance,” I told him. It was the best I could offer, even though he’d pledged his allegiance to me. Val could turn up at Avery’s tomorrow for breakfast and this fretting would have been for naught.
The prince nodded. It was unnerving how well he seemed to understand me. “Grace us again soon, pretty.”
“Pretty” had started out as a nickname, but now it felt more like a position, or a term of respect. A title, even.
My looks were camouflage. The realisation sent a little shiver down my spine. What carnage would follow if all goblins could come out of the dark? I’d been raised to have a little fear for humans, but goblins didn’t fear anything. They were predators, and I didn’t fool myself into thinking I’d be able to stop them if they wanted to treat the city as an all-they-could-eat buffet.
I left the den without making any promises. I hitched a ride back to Hyde Park Corner and exited cobbleside to a light rain. The neighbourhood lights brightened the night, blurred slightly by the wet. I ran across the street, leaping on to the kerb a split second before a speeding taxi made me a bonnet ornament. I shook my head. All these thoughts in my head made it hard to think straight.
Eventually I was going to have to decide if I was going to wear that crown sitting in a box in my bedroom cupboard. I couldn’t be a goblin when it was convenient and then hide from it when it wasn’t. I either had to embrace the truth of my genes or walk away from it.
But I didn’t have to do it tonight, I told myself as I swung my leg over the Butler and started the engine. Tonight I would let Avery know what I’d found out. Hopefully she’d ring me tomorrow and tell me Val was fine. If she didn’t, and it ended up that he was in real trouble…
Well then I reckoned I’d decide dead quick if I was a monster or not when I found the bastards responsible.
Avery didn’t share the prince’s optimism when I showed her the photo from the goblins’ surveillance, and promptly burst into tears. Thankfully her Emma was there to comfort her, because I didn’t have it in me to do it myself. Not that I was completely heartless, but I was still hurt that she had abandoned me when I needed her most.
I stayed long enough for a cup of tea–nature’s cure-all–and for my sister to regain her composure. She sat across from me, her eyes and nose swollen and red, in a black corset, black shirt and black and white striped bloomers. It was an odd palette for her, much more my style.
“So what do we do now?” she asked me, voice low and nasal.
“We wait,” I informed her. “If no one’s heard from him by tomorrow night, I’ll go poke around Freak Show and see what I can find out.”
“If Penny doesn’t know anything and she works there, how are you going to get information?”
I arched a brow–it was kind of an obnoxious habit. “Because I have a photo of the betties he left with. Someone might know who they are, or better yet, where I can find them.”
She didn’t quite meet my gaze. “I want to come with you.” Realisation hit me between the eyes. This wasn’t about Val; this was about Dede. Avery hadn’t thought there was anything strange about Dede disappearing, so she was going full-on paranoid about Val.
I folded my arms and rested them on the tabletop. Countless times I’d sat at this table with her, but now I felt like a stranger in what had been my home for several years. “We don’t even know that he’s missing. If we both go around asking questions, we might do more harm than good. If he doesn’t show up soon, you can follow up with Special Branch.” That lot wouldn’t confide anything to me now that I wasn’t a halvie. “Say nothing to Vardan. And go have tea with Sayuri. Val might have told his mother what he was investigating. Then we’ll know if we should worry.”
“Why can’t you talk to her? She’s always preferred you over me.”
If it weren’t true I might have rolled my eyes at her petulant tone. “They won’t let me in the courtesan house,” I reminded her somewhat bitterly. “They’d never let a goblin close to the kids.”
Avery visibly jerked. “But they’ve known you your entire life.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied with a shake of my head. “I’m a goblin, Avery. A goblin who looks like a halvie, but still a gob. That changes things. Changes everything.”
It was obvious from the furrow of her pale brow that this was something she hadn’t considered. Avery was one of those self-absorbed types. It wouldn’t have occurred to her that there would be prejudice against me–she was only concerned with what she believed I’d done to her. In her mind, and in her perfect little bubble of a world, everyone and everything was wonderful until she declared otherwise.
“I have his rotary. It’s dead, but I’ll charge it and see what’s on there. I’ll talk to Sayuri too.”
“Thanks.” I checked my pocket watch. It was after midnight. I’d only been up for eight hours, but it felt like an eternity. “I have to go. Vex is back tonight.”
“Give him our best.”
“I will.” I rose to my feet. “I’ll let you know what I find out. Ring me once you’ve talked to Sayuri or Special Branch.”
“I could always come over,” Avery suggested hesitantly. “Or you could come here.”
A smile grabbed hold of my lips and yanked them upwards, despite the day I’d had. “I’d like that.” It might have been my imagination, but she looked relieved.
I didn’t hug her as I left–I was still a little too fragile for that. I climbed on to the Butler once more and sped east to my little corner of Leicester Square, where humans still wandered about heedless of the dark, laughing and carrying on whilst enjoying the balmy summer night.
I steered the motorrad down the narrow alley between my building and the next and parked round the back. The lights weren’t on, but I didn’t need them. The ambient light was more than enough for me to see to unlock the door and step inside. I tossed my keys on the table and turned to address the alarm.
It had already been deactivated.
“I was wondering when you’d get back.”
The familiar voice was a jolt straight to my heart–and my head. I’d been so preoccupied with my thoughts that I hadn’t even noticed there was someone in my house! A very sexy someone, but it could easily have been someone else.
Vex MacLaughlin, alpha of Britain’s wolves, was six-plus feet of brogue and muscle. He had dark wavy hair that was now just long enough that its natural curl was in danger of slipping out of control, and faded blue eyes that reflected a century and a half of living. He was at the hob, cooking up something that smelled like meaty heaven in my little kitchen that looked as though it hadn’t been renoed in the last sixty years.
And he was wearing a black kilt with a white shirt tucked into it, and leather boots.
Excerpted from The Queen Is Dead by Kate Locke Copyright © 2013 by Kate Locke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted February 5, 2013
I Also Recommend:
Kate Locke continues to dazzle readers with her spunky, fierce heroine, Xandra Varden. The Immortal Empire series began with God Save the Queen where Locke introduced readers to an alternate world where England is still under the rule of Queen Victoria, and she's not human. In fact she's one of the plagued, supernaturals with the blood of werewolves, vampires, or goblins. Xandra learned shocking truths that changed her view of her family and of the Aristocracy, the people she believed, as a half-blood, she was born to protect. Now that Xandra knows that she is actually a fully plagued goblin, she has to choose whether she'll officially accept their crown or walk away from it all.
The Queen is Dead is just as fascinating and fantastically cool as God Save the Queen! As readers are guided deeper into Xandra's world the more intricate it seems. There are many secret plots afoot and Xandra stumbles upon them as she searches for her missing brother. Val was investigating the disappearances of half-bloods from Freak Show, but taken when he came too close to the truth. It takes all of Xandra's resources, which included enlisting the help of her goblins, to wade through the deceptions put forth by the Aristocracy.
After the death of Xandra's younger sister, Dede, life hasn't gone back to normal. Xandra has separated from her brother and sister, living alone in a mostly human neighborhood. Even there she's targeted by the Human League and the press; the public is afraid of the Queen of Goblins. The one constant in a life in which normal is no longer definitively defined is Vex MacLaughlin, but even Xandra's burgeoning relationship could be pushed past its limits. Vex's wolves are pushing for a political alliance with the goblins. Even Xandra's mother, Juliet, is pushing for an alliance with her faction of rebels. Xandra's mother is another aspect of The Queen is Dead that makes it even more intriguing. Since discovering that her mother is not only alive, but she's the leader of traitors to the Crown, she hasn't quite recovered from the shock. Xandra is someone who would protect another to the death, just for the fact that they're blood related, but she doesn't quite have that mentality when it comes to her mother. I thought it was sad that Xandra doesn't have the strongest relationship with either of her parents, but it doesn't change how powerful or thoughtful she is. She's one of those characters that make you believe she's more than the figment of a brilliant author's imagination, a character you could could on to have your back when life gets too rough.
I love the direction this series is going. Locke knows how to keep you interested in a world that's so different from our own with great characterization and suspenseful storytelling. When I think of the Immortal Empire series I think of fantasy with a edgy twist and an unpredictability that keeps shocking and intriguing me. I am waiting in strained patience for Long Live the Queen!
*Book provided via publisher in exchange for an honest review*
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Posted February 2, 2013
This Series Continues to Delight with The Queen is Dead
Second books often either expand upon the genius of a first work or bury it; I am happy to be able to say that The Queen is Dead did not dig its own grave but rather marked yet another stunningly original and creative journey into The Immortal Empire.
Picking up two months after the ending of God Save the Queen this book was an amazingly fun ride from page one. Addressing all of the loose ends left in the first book, this story had amazing range covering political intrigue in such a way as to make it light and relatable while still having enough action and personal growth to feel grounded. I was thoroughly immersed in the world that Ms. Locke created and unlike the Machiavellian density of many political dramas found the world-building in this story to encompass tensions between races and political parties without being defined by them.
I love the characters in this series. That this story allowed for Xandy to experience a realistic degree of trepidation for change without devolving into a whiny irritant was a balancing act I don’t often see and one that was done brilliantly. Vex is truly my hero; it is so nice to see immortality depicted with a gaining of maturity instead of angst; that he is almost too good to be true adds an edge that I enjoyed reading. As far as memorable side characters go, it would be hard to beat Penny Dreadful. Colorful personified she is a joy to experience.
All told, this series to date it the total package: Fun characters, intriguing plot-lines and a world that takes on a life of its own. The only criticism I have is that I will have to wait so long for the next installment.
I could give The Queen is Dead nothing less than five stars.
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