God Save the Queen
Author:Kate Locke
    CHAPTER 1

    POMEGRANATES FULL AND FINELondon, 175 years into the reign of Her Ensanguined Majesty Queen Victoria

    I hate goblins.

    And when I say hate, I mean they bloody terrify me. I’d rather French-kiss a human with a mouth full of silver fillings than pick my way through the debris and rubble that used to be Down Street station, searching for the entrance to the plague den.

    It was eerily quiet underground. The bustle of cobbleside was little more than a distant clatter down here. The roll of carriages, the clack of horse hooves from the Mayfair traffic was faint, occasionally completely drowned out by the roar of ancient locomotives raging through the subterranean tunnels carrying a barrage of smells in their bone-jangling wake.

    Dirt. Decay. Stone. Blood.

    I picked my way around a discarded shopping trolley, and tried to avoid looking at a large paw print in the dust. One of them had been here recently – the drops of blood surrounding the print were still fresh enough for me to smell the coppery tang. Human.

    As I descended the stairs to platform level, my palms skimmed over the remaining chipped and pitted cream and maroon tiles that covered the walls – a grim reminder that this … mausoleum was once a thriving hub of urban transportation.

    The light of my torch caught an entire set of paw prints, and the jagged pits at the end where claws had dug into the steps. I swallowed, throat dry.

    Of course they ventured up this far – the busted sconces were proof. They couldn’t always sit around and wait for some stupid human to come to them – they had to hunt. Still, the sight of those prints and the lingering scent of human blood made my chest tight.

    I wasn’t a coward. My being here was proof of that – and perhaps proof positive of my lack of intelligence. Everyone – aristocrat, half-blood and human – was afraid of goblins. You’d be mental not to be. They were fast and ferocious and didn’t seem to have any sense of morality holding them back. If aristos were fully plagued, then goblins were overly so, though such a thing wasn’t really possible. Technically they were aristocrats, but no one would ever dare call them such. To do so was as much an insult to them as to aristos. They were mutations, and terribly proud of it.

    Images flashed in my head, memories that played out like disjointed snippets from a film: fur, gnashing fangs, yellow eyes – and blood. That was all I remembered of the day I was attacked by a gob right here in this very station. My history class from the Academy had come here on a field trip. The gobs stayed away from us because of the treaty. At least they were supposed to stay away, but one didn’t listen, and it picked me.

    If it hadn’t been for Church, I would have died that day. That was when I realised goblins weren’t stories told to children to make us behave. It was also the day I realised that if I didn’t do everything in my ability to prove them wrong, people would think I was defective somehow – weak – because a goblin tried to take me.

    I hadn’t set foot in Down Street station since then. If it weren’t for my sister Dede’s disappearance I wouldn’t have gone down there at all.

    Avery and Val thought I was overreacting. Dede had taken off on us before, so it was hardly shocking that she wasn’t answering her rotary or that the message box on said gadget was full. But in the past she had called me to let me know she was safe. She always called me.

    I had exhausted every other avenue. It was as though Dede had fallen off the face of the earth. I was desperate, and there was only one option left – goblins. Gobs knew everything that happened in London, despite rarely venturing above ground. Somehow they had found a way to spy on the entire city, and no one seemed to know just what that was. I reckon anyone who had the bollocks to ask didn’t live long enough to share it with the rest of us.

    It was dark, not because the city didn’t run electric lines down here any more – they did – but because the lights had been smashed. The beam from my small hand-held torch caught the grimy glitter of the remains of at least half a dozen bulbs on the ground amongst the refuse.

    The bones of a human hand lay surrounded by the shards, cupping the jagged edges in a dull, dry palm.

    I reached for the .50 British Bulldog normally holstered snugly against my ribs, but it wasn’t there. I’d left it at home. Walking into the plague den with a firearm was considered an act of aggression unless one was there on the official – which I wasn’t. Aggression was the last thing – next to fear – you wanted to show in front of one goblin, let alone an entire plague. It was like wearing a sign reading DINNER around your neck.

    It didn’t matter that I had plagued blood as well. I was only a half-blood, the result of a vampire aristocrat – the term that had come to be synonymous with someone of noble descent who was also plagued – and a human courtesan doing the hot and sweaty. Science considered goblins the ultimate birth defect, but in reality they were the result of gene snobbery. The Prometheus Protein in vamps – caused by centuries of Black Plague exposure – didn’t play well with the mutation that caused others to become weres. If the proteins from both species mixed the outcome was a goblin, though some had been born to parents with the same strain. Hell, there were even two documented cases of goblins being born to human parents both of whom carried dormant plagued genes, but that was very rare, as goblins sometimes tried to eat their way out of the womb. No human could survive that.

    In fact, no one had much of a chance of surviving a goblin attack. And that was why I had my lonsdaelite dagger tucked into a secret sheath inside my corset. Harder than diamond and easily concealed, it was my “go to” weapon of choice. It was sharp, light and didn’t set off machines designed to detect metal or catch the attention of beings with a keen enough sense of smell to sniff out things like blades and pistols.

    The dagger was also one of the few things my mother had left me when she … went away.

    I wound my way down the staircase to the abandoned platform. It was warm, the air heavy with humidity and neglect, stinking of machine and decay. As easy as it was to access the tunnels, I wasn’t surprised to note that mine were the only humanoid prints to be seen in the layers of dust. Back in 1932, a bunch of humans had used this very station to invade and burn Mayfair – the aristo neighbourhood – during the Great Insurrection. Their intent had been to destroy the aristocracy, or at least cripple it, and take control of the Kingdom. The history books say that fewer than half of those humans who went into Down Street station made it out alive.

    Maybe goblins were useful after all.

    I hopped off the platform on to the track, watching my step so I didn’t trip over anything – like a body. They hadn’t ripped up the line because there weren’t any crews mental enough to brave becoming goblin chow, no matter how good the pay. The light of my torch caught a rough hole in the wall just up ahead. I crouched down, back to the wall as I eased closer. The scent of old blood clung to the dust and brick. This had to be the door to the plague den.

    Turn around. Don’t do this.

    Gritting my teeth against the trembling in my veins, I slipped my left leg, followed by my torso and finally my right half, through the hole. When I straightened, I found myself standing on a narrow landing at the top of a long, steep set of rough-hewn stairs that led deeper into the dark. Water dripped from a rusty pipe near my head, dampening the stone.

    As I descended the stairs – my heart hammering, sweat beading around my hairline – I caught a whiff of that particular perfume that could only be described as goblinesque: fur, smoke and earth. It could have been vaguely comforting if it hadn’t scared the shit out of me.

    I reached the bottom. In the beam from my torch I could see bits of broken pottery scattered across the scarred and pitted stone floor. Similar pieces were embedded in the wall. Probably Roman, but my knowledge of history was sadly lacking. The goblins had been doing a bit of housekeeping – there were fresh bricks mortared into parts of the wall, and someone had created a fresco near the ancient archway. I could be wrong, but it looked as though it had been painted in blood.

    Cobbleside the sun was long set, but there were street lights, moonlight. Down here it was almost pitch black except for the dim torches flickering on the rough walls. My night vision was perfect, but I didn’t want to think about what might happen if some devilish goblin decided to play hide and seek in the dark.

    I tried not to imagine what that one would have done to me.

    I took a breath and ducked through the archway into the main vestibule of the plague’s lair. There were more sconces in here, so I tucked my hand torch into the leather bag slung across my torso. My surroundings were deceptively cosy and welcoming, as though any moment someone might press a pint into my hand or ask me to dance.

    I’ll say this about the nasty little bastards – they knew how to throw a party. Music flowed through the catacombs from some unknown source – a lively fiddle accompanied by a piano. Conversation and raucous laughter – both of which sounded a lot like barking – filled the fusty air. Probably a hundred goblins were gathered in this open area, dancing, talking and drinking. They were doing other things as well, but I tried to ignore them. It wouldn’t do for me to start screaming.

    A few of them looked at me with curiosity in their piercing yellow eyes, turning their heads as they caught my scent. I tensed, waiting for an attack, but it didn’t come. It wouldn’t either, not when I was so close to an exit, and they were curious to find out what could have brought a halvie this far into their territory.

    Goblins looked a lot like werewolves, only shorter and smaller – wiry. They were bipedal, but could run on all fours if the occasion called for additional speed. Their faces were a disconcerting mix of canine and humanoid, but their teeth were all predator – exactly what you might expect from a walking nightmare.

    I’d made it maybe another four strides into this bustling netherworld when one of the creatures stuck a tray of produce in my face, trying to entice me to eat. Grapes the size of walnuts, bruise-purple and glistening in the torchlight, were thrust beneath my nose. Pomegranates the colour of blood, bleeding sweet-tart juice, filled the platter as well, and apples – pale flesh glistening with a delicate blush. There were more, but those were the ones that tempted me the most. I could almost taste them, feel the syrup running down my chin. Berry-stained fingers clutched and pinched at me, smearing sticky delight on my skin and clothes as I pressed forward.

    “Eat, pretty,” rasped the vaguely soft cruel voice. “Just a taste. A wee little nibble for our sweet lady.”

    Our? Not bloody fucking likely. I couldn’t tell if my tormentor was male or female. The body hair didn’t help either. It was effective camouflage unless you happened upon a male goblin in an amorous state. Generally they tried to affect some kind of identity for themselves – a little vanity so non-goblins could tell them apart. This one had both of its ears pierced several times, delicate chains weaving in and out of the holes like golden stitches.

    I shook my head, but didn’t open my mouth to vocalise my refusal. An open mouth was an invitation to a goblin to stick something in it. If you were lucky, it was only food, but once you tasted their poison you were lost. Goblins were known for their drugs – mostly their opium. They enticed weak humans with a cheap and euphoric high, and the promise of more. Goblins didn’t want human money as payment. They wanted information. They wanted flesh. There were already several customers providing entertainment for tonight’s bash. I pushed away whatever pity I felt for them – everyone knew what happened when you trafficked with goblins.

    I pushed through the crowd, moving deeper into the lair despite every instinct I possessed telling me to run. I was looking for one goblin in particular and I was not going to leave without seeing him. Besides, running would get me chased. Chased would get me eaten.

    As I walked, I tried not to pay too much attention to what was going on in the shadows around me. I’d seen a lot of horrible things in my two and twenty years, but the sight of hueys – humans – gorging themselves on fruit, seeds and pulp in their hair and smeared over their dirty, naked skin, shook me. Maybe it was the fact that pomegranate flesh looked just like that – flesh – between stained teeth. Or maybe it was the wild delirium in their eyes as goblins ran greedy hands over their sticky bodies.

    It was like a scene out of Christina Rossetti’s poem, but nothing so lyrical. Mothers knew to keep their children at home after dark, lest they go missing, fated to end up as goblin food – or worse, a goblin’s slave.

    A sweet, earthy smoke hung heavy in the air, reminding me of decaying flowers. It brushed pleasantly against my mind, but was burned away by my metabolism before it could have any real effect. I brushed a platter of cherries, held by strong paw-like hands, aside despite the watering of my mouth. I knew they’d split between my teeth with a firm, juicy pop, spilling tart, delicious juice down my dry throat. Accepting hospitality might mean I’d be expected to pay for it later, and I wasn’t about to end up in the plague’s debt. Thankfully I quickly spotted the goblin I was looking for. He sat on a dais near the back of the hall, on a throne made entirely from human bones. If I had to guess, I’d say this is what happened to several of the humans who braved this place during the Great Insurrection. Skulls served as finials high on either side of his head. Another set formed armrests over which each of his furry hands curved.

    But this goblin would have stood out without the throne, and the obvious deference with which the other freaks treated him. He was tall for a gob – probably my height when standing – and his shoulders were broad, his canine teeth large and sharp. The firelight made his fur look like warm caramel spotted with chocolate. One of his dog-like ears was torn and chewed-looking, the edges scarred. He was missing an eye as well, the thin line of the closed lid almost indistinguishable in the fur of his face. Hard to believe there was anything aristocratic about him, yet he could be the son of a duke, or even the Prince of Wales. His mother would have to be of rank as well. Did they ever wonder what had become of their monstrous child?

    While thousands of humans died with every incarnation of the plague – which loves this country like a mother loves her child – aristocrats survived. Not only survived, they evolved. In England the plague-born Prometheus Protein led to vampirism, in Scotland it caused lycanthropy.

    It also occasionally affected someone who wasn’t considered upper class. Historically, members of the aristocracy had never been very good at keeping it in their pants. Indiscretions with human carriers resulted in the first halvie births, and launched the careers of generations of breeding courtesans. Occasionally some seemingly normal human woman gave birth to a half or fully plagued infant. These children were often murdered by their parents, or shipped off to orphanages where they were shunned and mistreated. That was prior to 1932’s rebellion. Now, such cruelties were prevented by the Pax – Pax Yersinia, which dictated that each human donated a sample of DNA at birth. This could help prevent human carriers from intermarrying. It also provided families and special housing for unwanted plagued children.

    By the time Victoria, our first fully plagued monarch – King George III had shown vampiric traits – ascended the throne, other aristocrats across Britain and Europe had revealed their true natures as well. Vampires thrived in the more temperate climes like France and Spain, weres in Russia and other eastern countries. Some places had a mix of the two, as did Asia and Australia. Those who remained in Canada and the Americas had gone on to become socialites and film stars.

    But they were never safe, no matter where they were. Humans accounted for ninety-two per cent of aristocratic and halvie deaths. Haemophilia, suicide and accidents made up for the remaining eight.

    There were no recorded goblin deaths at human hands – not even during the Insurrection.

    I approached the battle-scarred goblin with caution. The flickering torches made it hard to tell, but I think recognition flashed in his one yellow eye. He sniffed the air as I approached. I curtsied, playing to his vanity.

    “A Vardan get,” he said, in a voice that was surprisingly low and articulate for a goblin. “Here on the official?”

    Half-bloods took the title of their sire as their surname. The Duke of Vardan was my father. “Nothing official, my lord. I’m here because the goblin prince knows everything that happens in London.”

    “True,” he replied with a slow nod. Despite my flattery he was still looking at me like he expected me to do or say something. “But there is a price. What do you offer your prince, pretty get?”

    The only prince I claimed was Albert, God rest his soul, and perhaps Bertie, the Prince of Wales. This mangy monster was not my prince. Was I stupid enough to tell him that? Hell, no.

    I reached into the leather satchel I’d brought with me, pulled out the clear plastic bag with a lump of blood-soaked butcher’s paper inside and offered it to the goblin. He snatched it from me with eager hands that were just a titch too long and dexterous to be paws, tossed the plastic on the floor and tore open the paper. A whine of delight slipped from his throat when he saw what I’d brought. Around us other goblins raised their muzzles and made similar noises, but no one dared approach.

    I looked away as the prince brought the gory mass to his muzzle and took an enthusiastic bite. I made my mind blank, refusing to think of what the meat was, what it had been. My only solace was that it had already been dead when I bought it. The blood might smell good, but I couldn’t imagine eating anything that … awful … terrible … raw.

    The goblin gave a little shudder of delight as he chewed and rewrapped his treat for later. A long pink tongue slipped out to lick his muzzle clean. “Proper tribute. Honours her prince. I will tell the lady what I know. Ask, pretty, ask.”

    The rest of the goblins drifted away from us, save for one little gob who came and sat at the prince’s furry feet and stared at me with open curiosity. I was very much aware that every goblin who wasn’t preoccupied with human playthings watched me closely. I was relatively safe now, having paid my tribute to their prince. So long as I behaved myself and didn’t offend anyone, I’d make it out of here alive. Probably.

    “I want to know the whereabouts of Drusilla Vardan,” I said quietly, even though I knew most of the goblins had keen enough hearing to eavesdrop without trying. Their sensitivity to sound, as well as light, kept them deep underside.

    The prince raised his canine gaze to mine. It was unnerving looking into that one bright eye, seeing intelligence there while he had yet to clean all the blood from his muzzle. “The youngest?”

    I nodded. My father had gone through something of a mid-immortality crisis about two and a half decades ago and done his damnedest to impregnate every breeding courtesan he could find. The first attempt had resulted in my brother Val, the second in me and the third and fourth in Avery and Dede. Four live births out of nine pregnancies over a five-year period – pretty potent for a vampire.

    “She’s missing.” He didn’t need to know the particulars – like how she had last been seen at her favourite pub. “I want to know what happened to her.”

    “Nay, you do not,” the prince replied cheerfully. “Pretty wants to know where her sibling is. The prince knows.” He petted the little goblin on the head as he bared his teeth at me – a smile.

    Sweet baby Jesus. Even my spleen trembled at that awful sight.

    Trying to hide my fear was futile, as he could surely smell it. Still, I had to give it a go. “Would you be so kind as to share my sister’s whereabouts, my lord? Please? I am concerned about her.”

    If there was one thing goblins understood it was blood – both as sustenance and connection. Offspring happened rarely because of their degree of mutation, and were treasured. No decent goblin – and I use “decent” as loosely as it can possibly be construed – would turn down a request that involved family.

    “New Bethlehem,” he replied in a grave growl.

    I pressed a hand against the boned front of my corset, and closed my fingers into a fist. I would not show weakness here, no matter how much the prince might sympathise with my plight – he was still a goddam goblin. “Bedlam?” I rasped.

    The prince nodded. “She was taken in two nights ago, in shackles.”

    Albert’s fangs. I blasphemed the Queen’s late consort to myself alone. My mind could scarcely grasp the reality of it. “You’re wrong,” I whispered. “You have to be wrong.” But goblins were never wrong. If he hadn’t known, he wouldn’t have said. That was their way – so I’d been taught. “Honourable monsters”, Church had called them.

    “Alexandra.”

    I jerked. I shouldn’t be surprised that he knew my name. Of course he knew it. It was the posh way he said it – his voice sounded almost like my father’s.

    He stood before me – I was right, he was my height. The little one remained glued to his side. I had the sudden and inexplicable urge to reach out and pat her on the head, just as I had wanted to do to a tiger cub I once saw in a travelling exhibit. The comparison kept my hand fisted, and at my side. I wanted to keep it.

    “Your prince regrets telling the pretty lady this news.”

    I turned my attention back to him. The pity in his eye almost brought me to tears. Why should a monster pity me?

    “There was an incident at Ainsley’s. The Vardan get tried to stab the earl, she did.”

    That I believed, and therefore I had to believe my sister really could be in Bedlam – where all the special barking mad went to die. Dede and Ainsley had history – a painful one.

    The goblin held out his furry hand, and etiquette demanded I take it. The prince was offering me friendship, and my getting out of there alive just might depend on my taking it, treaty or no.

    I nodded, my throat tight as his “fingers” closed around mine. He was warm. For a moment – and only one terribly mad one – I could have hugged him. “Thank you.”

    He shook his head. “No thanks, lady. Never thank for bad news.”

    I nodded again and he released my hand. The goblins watched me as I turned to leave, but no one spoke. They didn’t even try to tempt me to stay; they simply let me go. I think I despised them most at that moment, especially that little one who waved goodbye.

    My sister was essentially in hell and goblins felt sorry for me. As far as I was concerned, things couldn’t get much worse.

    I stumbled cobbleside on shaky, numb legs. The heavy door closed with a thud behind me as I braced a palm against the closest chipped and pitted brick wall. Scorch marks and faded maroon paint marred part of the once impressive frontage. The two buildings flanking the old station had been empty since the fires of ’32, their derelict state a blemish on the formerly opulent neighbourhood. This end of Down Street looked like it belonged near the docks rather than within the walls of Mayfair. It was still the most exclusive neighbourhood in London, but for the past eighty years it had existed behind high walls of stone and wire, guarded against the possibility of another human uprising. Broken lamps kept this part of the street, unaffectionately nicknamed “Gob Lane”, in the dark. Further up, just past Brick Street, the lamps retained their bulbs, casting a golden glow over the worn cobblestones. Here, grass and weeds poked up from between the cobbles, and someone had propped a broken carriage wheel against the side of the building to my right. Mayfair had its share of ruins, but this was the only one with ABANDON ALL HOPE above the door in flaking white paint, and the only one that still had bloodstains on the threshold.

    My ride was waiting for me where I’d left it – no worries about theft on Gob Lane. I swung my leg over the Butler 1863 motorrad and started the engine. The machine roared to life, and I tore off down the street on three hundred kilos of rubber and steel, my frock coat whipping out behind. I stopped at the gates because I had to, but I couldn’t remember anything John or Mick, the Royal Guards on duty, said to me. I must have given the correct answers because they let me go.

    It wasn’t until I neared Wellington district, and my part of it – the area formerly known as Belgravia – that the numbness eased and I began to feel like myself again. I’d entered the plague den and survived, and now I knew where Dede was. It did nothing to make me feel better, but at least I knew.

    Bedlam. Fang me.

    Why couldn’t she have run off with one of the wolves who were down from Scotland for the season? That was what other Peerage Protectorate girls – and boys – did. Shagged the hairy brutes and protected them at the same time – not that weres needed an abundance of protecting. The Scots were looked down upon by some aristos for being a little too physical, but they were impressive in their strength.

    I pulled the Butler to the kerb outside the house my sister Avery and I shared on the upper west side of Belgrave Square. The closer to Buckingham Palace and Mayfair you got, the older the neighbourhood appeared. In the East End they’d repaved some of the streets, and even had tall buildings, but here almost everything looked as it had two centuries ago. Even the parts that were new had been made to look old.

    It was the same in most cities across Europe with a strong concentration of aristo citizens. The plague had spread across trade routes, taking the Prometheus Protein with it. There were vampires and werewolves all across the continent – halvies too, though the first of my kind had been born right here in London. Or at least, the first halvie in historical record had been. Aldous James was born in 1900. His father was Devonshire, but this was before we took titles as our surnames.

    My house had been built in the 1820s. It was a large town house that used to be part of a huge mansion. My father had bought it for his children, but only Avery and I lived there now. Val had his own flat, and Dede had moved out six months ago, claiming she wanted her own space as well.

    I unlocked the door, slipped inside the darkened foyer and punched the code into the alarm. That was as fancy as we got. When you were half-vampire, and trained to survive and protect at any cost, you didn’t really need much outside security.

    I ran straight up the winding staircase to my bedroom. So far my night off had been a nightmare, but it wasn’t over yet. There was one person who would try to help me if what the goblin prince said was true. I had to get changed and haul my arse to a party in Curzon Street before sunrise in order to find him.

    I had several decent gowns in the walk-in off my bedroom. I had to – Queen V didn’t like what most of us considered fashion, so at fancy aristo functions the Royal Guard and the Peerage Protectorate had to dress to code, females in gowns and men in black tails. Sometimes it was a bit of fun, but other times – like now – it was an exercise in frustration. It wasn’t that the aristocracy fought progress; just that time moved so slowly for them, it took change longer to take hold. They clung to that which was familiar.

    I grabbed the easiest to get into – a pewter-coloured silk with tiny sleeves and long concealed slits on either side of the skirt in case I needed to move quickly or fight.

    My shower took exactly four minutes, including waiting for the water to get hot. I didn’t have time to wash my bright red hair, so I dusted it with shampoo powder, gave it a bit of a back-comb and twisted it up on to the top of my head.

    The hair thing was often copied by humans looking to emulate halvies, but wigs and dye couldn’t quite get the same shine. Aristocrats had gorgeous hair – thick and rich, with extraordinary highlights due to the plague’s mutation of the pigmentations that determined hair colour. The only way I can describe it is to say that the plague seemed to make everything “more”. With halvies, this pigmentation was often sent into overdrive by our unique maternal genetics. It didn’t happen in all halvies, but the brighter colours were something of a status symbol amongst our kind. My colour, the same red as Christmas barley candy, was highly unusual.

    Clean undies and a fresh corset that hooked up the front went on as quickly as I could manage, followed by stockings, boots and then the gown. I was still fiddling with the zip on the side as I raced back downstairs. I had to get to Curzon Street. I had to find Church.

    It was quarter past three in the morning. Most aristo functions ended around four to give everyone time to get home and into their dark chambers before the sun rose, so that gave me forty-five minutes. Luckily, my destination was less than a mile away.

    I thought of Dede – not of her locked up in Bedlam, but as she had been when we were younger. She’d always been tiny, spritelike. Shiny and sweet and full of life. Our family, especially me, had been so protective of her, but even we couldn’t save her from herself. She’d fallen for Ainsley’s charm as though her bones were made of lead. I’d held her after she lost the baby, crying myself as she sobbed as if the world was ending. I suppose for her it had. I thought she was done with the bastard.

    I turned on to Grosvenor Place. Checking the traffic, I saw something in the park to my right that made me put my foot down to stabilise the Butler and look again.

    “Fang me,” I muttered. Why now, of all times? I had somewhere to be. I did not have time for betty-bashing.

    I lifted my foot and whipped the machine between two cars – the space from the boot of one to the bonnet of the other was just large enough for my ride. I kicked the stand and jumped off. Skirt hitched, I raced along the pavement, wishing I’d worn my arsekicking boots instead of the pointy-toed, hourglass-heeled ones that matched my gown. Still, I was fast and quickly caught up with the people I was chasing.

    There had to be at least a dozen of them. From their swagger and their cricket bats I pegged them as bubonic betties – humans who injected themselves with aristo hormones. Eight male and four female, dragging what appeared to be two unconscious people along the dimly lit path. Despite the dark I could see the two of them very well, see the blood on their faces and the jacked-up state of their captors. And I could see their hair – the girl had blue and the bloke’s was purple. They were halvies, and they were in trouble.

    “Oy!” I shouted as I approached. I didn’t even have a weapon in my hand. My ID I’d shoved inside my corset as soon as I jumped off the motorrad.

    The men didn’t listen to me, of course. I hadn’t expected them to. The females at least glanced in my direction. I yelled again and picked up the pace, running past them to cut them off. “Let them go,” I said as I stood before them. I had no delusions of getting out of this unscathed, but defeat wasn’t an option.

    “Sod off,” retorted one in a deep, low-brow voice.

    They were all in the vicinity of six feet tall and wore black clothing. In the sparse light I could see the sores on their faces, the blackened tips of their fingers. Aristo hormones gave them heightened senses and strength, but the price was an early and painful death. Sometimes they cut the drug with silver nitrate to lessen the harmful side effects, but it weakened the potency and increased skin-blackening.

    That was what the plague did to those not of royal blood.

    “Let them go,” I repeated through clenched teeth. I had somewhere else to be, damn it, and these fuckwits were taking up minutes on my ticking clock. Still, wouldn’t have been right of me not to intervene.

    One of the males from behind came forward. The breeze that carried his scent to me brought the smell of unwashed flesh, stale sweat, blood and the early whiff of decay. “It’s another one,” he said in a cockney accent so thick I could have spread it on toast. “Another dirty half-blood.”

    Well, at least I now knew that these Samaritans weren’t simply helping two sick halvies home – as if the thought had even crossed my mind. Fucking humans. They hated us, tried to kill us, but poisoned themselves so they could be more like us. “Hand them over to me and there won’t be any trouble,” I said.

    The betties laughed. They always did – like the laughter track on those American sitcoms broadcast on the pirate box stations. With my bright hair and my expensive gown I obviously didn’t look like much of a threat.

    The chuckles stopped pretty abruptly when I slammed my shin into Stinky’s wedding tackle. The breath rushed out of him in an animalistic moan. As he sank to his knees, I jobbed him between the eyes – twice – and laid him out cold.

    “You beauties going to let them go now?” I asked sweetly as the betty crumpled at my feet. “Or do I have to humiliate each and every one of you?”

    Of course they didn’t oblige me. I’d just relieved their mate of his manhood and my taunting only made them further obligated to exact a little revenge. Two of them came at me – one straight on and the other sneaking around behind.

    Albert’s fangs. I was still shaky from the goblins, hungry, tired and I’d forgotten to take my supplements – again. All I wanted was for them to leave the halvies alone so I could get to the bloody party on Curzon Street and talk to Church. They were standing in the way of me getting help for Dede and I did not have time for this shit. Those limp halvies had better hurry up and metabolise whatever the betties had given them, because I was on a schedule.

    The betty up front came at me swinging. I ducked, but not enough. He caught me on the right jaw with a solid blow that knocked my head back and pissed me off. I came back with two quick punches to his gut, and when he bent double, the wind knocked out of him, I brought my knee up and broke his nose. Then I pivoted, whipped that same leg up – thank God for my split skirt – and brought the back of my heel down on his skull. He hadn’t hit the ground when I whirled around to take on the next betty. She wasn’t expecting me, so she went down a little faster than her friends.

    Somebody really ought to tell them that bubonic-derived steroids might make you faster and stronger, but that wasn’t much help up against someone even faster and stronger and better trained. It would be like me taking on Church – no contest.

    Three down. Only nine more to go. C’mon, halvies, wake the hell up.

    Two more came at me. These two actually had weapons. No matter how strong you are, a crowbar to the temple hurts. I tried to shake it off, but while I was recovering from that, another betty punched me hard in the stomach, and I wasn’t wearing a reinforced corset. When he attempted to break my nose as I had his friend, I kicked him hard in the side of his opposite knee. He screamed, but he didn’t go down immediately. That required a tap or two on the noggin with his own crowbar, which I then used to render his companion incapacitated. She went down a bit easier than he had.

    Seven more. My head hurt – enough that I couldn’t quite ignore it. I would probably bruise.

    One of the women came at me. Her lips were grey, and the skin on one side of her neck was patchy and black – swollen. She wouldn’t live much longer than a fortnight. I could be merciful and kill her here and now, but I wasn’t feeling overly merciful at the moment. She’d taken the plague willingly; let her ride it right to its ever-suffering end.

    My knuckles split those cadaverous lips. Infected blood splattered across the backs of my fingers, soaking through the thin silk of my gloves. I had the sudden urge to suck the coppery warmth out of the fabric, but I ignored the craving as the bleeding betty recovered and came back swinging. I grabbed her raised arm with one hand and twisted hard.

    It’s an odd sensation, feeling bone break beneath your fingers. She crumpled with a scream. I backhanded her with my other hand, hard enough to knock her backwards and end all that nonsense.

    The other betties didn’t seem to know what to do. Out of the six remaining, only two of them had their hands free – the others were supporting the dead weight of the battered halvies.

    One of the female halvie’s eyes was swollen shut. The fact that she hadn’t woken up yet worried me. And then, as the next goon stepped up, I saw her foot move. One boot came up, the sturdy sole planted firmly on the pavement. She was waiting for me to dig in before she caught her captors unawares. Smart girl. Lazy, though, letting me do the brunt of the work. How long had she been awake? The male was coming round as well. This was going to become knobbed-up very quickly.

    I didn’t have any more time to wonder about it as another girl betty came at me, brandishing a cricket bat as though I was the only thing standing between her and total victory. She swung and I ducked, the edge of the bat bouncing off my shoulder.

    “Fucking hell!” It hurt – but only for a couple of seconds. Adrenalin is a wonderful thing.

    I didn’t have much time, as the rest of them had finally begun to think with that one dim-witted brain they seemed to share, and had realised that if they ganged up on me they might stand a better chance. Thankfully, the halvies chose that moment to jump into the fray and began battling it out with the betties who had been holding them. The humans never saw it coming.

    Blood screamed through my veins, my heart thumping wildly. Fang me, but I loved a good punch-up. At the Wellington Academy – where all halvies were educated and trained – I’d excelled in violence. Church held me up as an example to other students of how to fight. No goblin was ever going to take me down without a struggle again.

    As if to prove that point, I delivered a walloping kick to the betty’s head with the side of my boot. She was a little tougher than the last, however, and came staggering back at me, bat held high above her head as though it was a claymore and she was William fucking Wallace. I rolled my eyes.

    “Bored with this,” I said, at the same time whipping my arm up to smash the heel of my hand into her nose.

    She dropped the bat behind her, and then fell to the ground. She didn’t move. For a second I wondered if I had killed her. I’d never killed anyone before.

    Any remorse I might have felt was eclipsed by the large bulk blocking out the street light. The other halvies were making sport of their opponents, leaving me just this one last betty.

    He was big – the biggest of the lot. And he was much faster than the others – graceful as well. Anticipation hummed inside me. He was a real fighter, an actual challenge. Smacked me a hard one on the jaw before I was ready for it – same side as the crowbar, bastard.

    I shook off the stars dancing before my eyes and came back with a few shots of my own. His head flew back, but he didn’t fall. He hit me again in the same spot. The pain made me grit my teeth and want to make him eat his own spleen. Enough of this. I caught him with two quick jabs to the stomach and then one between the eyes. He staggered backwards, then came back at me with a solid punch to my mouth. I tasted blood as I pulled my dagger out of its sheath.

    That was when what I always referred to as my “aristocratic genes” kicked in, and the vampire half of me really woke up. It was something I kept to myself, because it wasn’t a typical halvie reaction to blood, and it didn’t matter whetherit was my own or someone else’s, and it was the equivalent of flicking a switch inside me – like going from low to high. It was why blood-sharing was more of an intimate thing for halvies. It made sex incredibly intense – switching off our humanity and making us all instinct and sensation. Appetite.

    I had planned to gut him if necessary, but now … I wanted to eat this betty – and not in a sexy way. Fangs extended from my gums with the sweetest of aches, eager to pierce some flesh regardless of how diseased and disgusting it was.

    I smiled, enjoying how his eyes widened.

    Then I pounced – straight at his jugular.

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