“And you?” Alexia directed the question back at her erstwhile friend. Since Genevieve’s wildly spectacular charge through London and resulting transition to vampire drone, no small measure of awkwardness had existed between them. Two years on and still they had not regained the closeness they had both so enjoyed at the beginning of their association. Madame Lefoux had polluted it through the application of a rampaging octomaton, and Alexia had finished it off by sentencing Genevieve to a decade of indentured servitude.
“It is interesting,” replied the Frenchwoman cautiously. “And how is little Prudence?”
“Difficult, as ever. And Quesnel?”
The two women exchanged careful smiles. Lady Maccon, despite herself, liked Madame Lefoux. There was just something about her that appealed. And she did owe the Frenchwoman a debt, for it was the inventor who had acted the part of midwife to Prudence’s grossly mistimed entrance into the world. Nevertheless, Alexia did not trust her. Madame Lefoux always promoted her own agenda first, even as a drone, with the Order of the Brass Octopus second. What little loyalty and affection for Alexia she still had must, perforce, be a low priority now.
Lady Maccon moved them on from the platitudes with a direct reminder. “And how is the countess?”
Madame Lefoux gave one of her little French shrugs. “She is herself, unchanging, as ever. It is on her behest that I am here. I have been directed to bring you a message.”
“Oh, yes, how did you know where to find me?”
“The Tunstells have a new play, and you are their patroness. I admit I had not anticipated your presence, my lord.”
Lord Maccon grinned wolfishly. “I was persuaded.”
“The message?” Alexia put out her hand.
“Ah, no, we have all learned never to do that again. The message is a verbal one. Countess Nadasdy has received instructions and would like to see you, Lady Maccon.”
“Instructions? Instructions from who?”
“I am not privy to that information,” replied the inventor.
Alexia turned to her husband. “Who on earth would dare order around the Woolsey Hive queen?”
“Oh, no, Alexia, you misunderstand me. The instructions came to her, but they are for you.”
“Me? Me! Why…,” Alexia sputtered in outrage.
“I’m afraid I know nothing more. Are you available to call upon her this evening, after the performance?”
Alexia, whose curiosity was quite piqued, nodded her acquiescence. “It is bath night, but Lord Akeldama and his boys must really learn to muddle through.”
“Bath night?” The Frenchwoman was intrigued.
“Prudence is particularly difficult on bath nights.”
“Ah, yes. Some of them don’t want to get clean. Quesnel was like that. As you may have noticed, circumstances never did improve.” Genevieve’s son was known for being grubby.
“And how is he muddling along, living with vampires?”
“Thriving, the little monster.”
“Much like Prudence, then.”
“As you say.” The Frenchwoman tilted her head. “And my hat shop?”
“Biffy has it marvelously well in hand. You should drop by and visit. He’s there tonight. I’m certain he would love to see you.”
“Perhaps I shall. It’s not often I get into London these days.” Madame Lefoux began edging toward the curtain, donning her gray top hat and making her good-byes.
She left Lord and Lady Maccon in puzzled silence, with a mystery that, it must be said, somewhat mitigated their enjoyment of the second act, as did the lack of any additional bumblebee courtship rituals.
Wherein Mrs. Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher Does Not Buy a Hat
Don’t you believe this would suit the young miss better?” Biffy was a man of principle. He refused, on principle, to sell a huge tricolored pifferaro bonnet decorated with a cascade of clove pinks, black currants, and cut jet beads to Mrs. Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher for her daughter. Miss Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher was plain, dreadfully plain, and the bonnet was rather more of an insult than a decoration by contrast. The hat was the height of fashion, but Biffy was convinced a little gold straw bonnet was the superior choice. Biffy was never wrong about hats. The difficulty lay in convincing Mrs. Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher of this fact.
“You see, madam, the refined elegance complements the delicacy of Miss Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher’s complexion.”
Mrs. Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher did not see and would have none of it. “No, young man. The pifferaro, if you please.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible, madam. That hat is promised elsewhere.”
“Then why is it out on the floor?”
“A mistake, Mrs. Colindrikal-Bumbcruncher. My apologies.”
“I see. Well, clearly we have made a mistake in patronizing your establishment! I shall take my custom elsewhere. Come, Arabella.” With which the matron marched out, dragging her daughter in her wake. The young lady mouthed an apology behind her mother’s back and gave the little gold straw bonnet a wistful look. Poor creature, thought Biffy, before returning both hats to their displays.
The silver bells attached to the front of the shop tinkled as a new customer entered. Some evenings those bells never seemed to stop. The store was increasingly popular, despite Biffy’s occasional refusal to actually sell hats. He was getting a reputation for being an eccentric. Perhaps not quite so much as the previous owner, but there were ladies who would travel miles in order to have a handsome young werewolf refuse to sell them a hat.