Some three-quarters of an hour into their journey, they consumed some very nice tea and little crustless sandwiches provided by an obsequious train steward who seemed very well aware of the dignity of Major Channing and rather less of that of Lady Maccon. As she nibbled her cucumber and cress, Alexia wondered if this were not one of the reasons she disliked the major so very much. He was awfully good at being aristocratic. Alexia, on the other hand, was only good at being autocratic. Not quite the same thing.
Alexia became increasingly aware of a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, as though she were being scrutinized carefully. It was a most disagreeable sensation, like stepping one’s bare foot into a vat of pudding.
Pretending travel fatigue, she arose to engage in a short constitutional.
There were few other occupants in first class, but Alexia was startled to find that behind them and across sat a man in a sort of floppy turban. That is to say, she was not startled that there was someone else in the carriage but that a man was in a turban—most irregular. Turbans were well out of fashion, even for women. He seemed unduly interested in his daily paper, suggesting he had, until very recently, been unduly interested in something else. Lady Maccon, never one to take anything as coincidence, suspected him of observing her, or Major Channing, or both.
She pretended a little stumble as the train rattled along and fell in against the turbaned gentleman, upsetting his tea onto his paper.
“Oh, dear me, I do apologize,” she declaimed loudly.
The man shook his damp paper in disgust but said nothing.
“Please allow me to fetch you another cup? Steward!”
The man only shook his head and mumbled something low in a language Alexia did not recognize.
“Well, if you’re quite sure you won’t?”
The man shook his head again.
Alexia continued her walk to the end of the car, then turned about and returned to her seat.
“Major Channing, I do believe we have company,” she stated upon reseating herself.
The werewolf looked up from his own paper and over. “The man in the turban?”
“Hasn’t taken his eyes off you most of the ride. Bloody foreigners.”
“You didn’t think to tell me?”
“Thought it was your figure. Orientals never like to see a lady’s assets.”
“Oh, really, Major, must you be so crass? Such language.” Alexia paused, considering. “What nationality would you say?”
The major, who was very well traveled, answered without needing to look up again. “Egyptian.”
“Oh, Major, you do so love to annoy, don’t you?”
“It is the stuff of living, my lady.”
“Don’t be pert.”
“Me? I wouldn’t dream of it.”
No further incidents occurred, and when they alighted at their stop, the foreign gentleman did not follow them.
“Interesting,” said Alexia again.
The Woolsey Station, a new stopover, was built at considerable expense by the newly relocated Woolsey Hive with an eye toward encouraging Londoners to engage in country jaunts. The greatest disappointment in Countess Nadasdy’s very long life was this exile to the outer reaches of Barking. The Woolsey Hive queen had commissioned the station to be built and even allocated a portion of Woolsey’s extensive grounds. From the station, visitors could catch a tiny private train, conducted by a complicated tram apparatus without an engineer. The location of the hive was no longer a not-very-well-kept secret. The vampires seemed to feel some sense of security in the country, but they were still vampires. There was no longer a road leading directly to Woolsey; there was only this special train, the operation of which was tightly controlled by drones at the castle terminus.
Lady Maccon approached the contraption warily. It looked like a chubby flat-bottomed rowboat on tracks, with a fabric-covered interior and two massive parasols for protection from the elements. Major Channing helped her to step inside and then followed, settling himself opposite. At which juncture they sat, staring at the scenery so as not to look at each other, waiting for something to happen.
“I suppose they must be alerted to the fact that we have arrived.” Alexia looked about for some kind of signaling device. She noticed that off to one side of the bench sat a fat little gun. After subjecting it to close examination, she shot it up into the air.
It made a tremendous clap. Major Channing started violently, much to Alexia’s satisfaction, and the gun emitted a ball of bright white fire that floated high up and then faded out.
Alexia looked at the weapon with approval. “Ingenious. Must be one of Madame Lefoux’s. I didn’t know she dabbled in ballistics.”
Channing rolled his ice-blue eyes. “That woman is an inveterate dabbler.”
They had no further time to consider the gun, for the rowboat jolted once, causing Alexia to fall back hard against one of the parasol supports. It was Major Channing’s turn to look amused at her predicament. They rolled forward, first at quite a sedate pace and then at increasing speed, the tracks running up the long, low hill to where Woolsey Castle crouched, a confused and confusing hodgepodge of architecture.
Countess Nadasdy had done what she could to improve the Maccons’ former place of residence, but it did little good. The resulting building merely looked grumpy over the indignity of change. She’d had it painted, and planted, and primped, and festooned, and draped to within an inch of its very long life. But it was asking too much of the poor thing. The result was something akin to dressing a bulldog up like an opera dancer. Underneath the tulle, it was still a bowlegged bulldog.