THE SACRED SNUFF BOX
Lady Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama was enjoying her evening exceedingly. The evening, unfortunately, did not feel the same about Lady Prudence. She inspired, at even the best balls, a sensation of immanent dread. It was one of the reasons she was always at the top of all invitation lists. Dread had such an agreeable effect on society’s upper crust.
“Private balls are so much more diverting than public ones.” Rue, unaware of the dread, chirruped in delight to her dearest friend, the Honourable Miss Primrose Tunstell.
Rue was busy drifting around the room with Primrose trailing obligingly after her, the smell of expensive rose perfume following them both.
“You are too easily amused, Rue. Do try for a tone of disinterested refinement.” Prim had spent her whole life trailing behind Rue and was unfussed by this role. She had started when they were both in nappies and had never bothered to alter a pattern of some twenty-odd years. Admittedly, these days they both smelled a good deal better.
Prim made elegant eyes at a young officer near the punch. She was wearing an exquisite dress of iridescent ivory taffeta with rust-coloured velvet flowers about the bodice to which the officer gave due appreciation.
Rue only grinned at Primrose’s rebuke – a very unrefined grin.
They made a damnably appealing pair, as one smitten admirer put it, in his cups or he would have known better than to put it to Rue herself. “Both of you smallish, roundish, and sweetly wholesome, like perfectly exquisite dinner rolls.” “Thank you for my part,” was Rue’s acerbic reply to the poor sot, “but if I must be a baked good, at least make me a hot cross bun.”
Rue possessed precisely the kind of personality to make her own amusement out of intimacy, especially when a gathering proved limited in scope. This was another reason she was so often invited to private balls. The widely held theory was that Lady Akeldama would become the party were the party to be lifeless, invaded by undead, or otherwise sub-par.
This particular ball did not need her help. Their hosts had installed a marvellous floating chandelier that looked like hundreds of tiny well-lit dirigibles wafting about the room. The attendees were charmed, mostly by the expense. In addition, the punch flowed freely out of a multi-dispensing ambulatory fountain, a string quartet tinkled robustly in one corner, and the conversation frothed with wit. Rue floated through it all on a puffy cloud of ulterior motives.
Rue might have attended, even without motives. The Fenchurches were always worth a look-in – being very wealthy, very inbred, and very conscientious of both, thus the most appalling sorts of people. Rue was never one to prefer one entertainment when she could have several. If she might amuse herself and infiltrate in pursuit of snuff boxes at the same time, all the better.
“Where did he say it was kept?” Prim leaned in, her focus on their task now that the young officer had gone off to dance with some other lady.
“Oh, Prim, must you always forget the details halfway through the first waltz?” Rue rebuked her friend without rancour, more out of habit than aggravation.
“So says the lady who hasn’t waltzed with Mr Rabiffano.” Prim turned to face the floor and twinkled at her former dance partner. The impeccably dressed gentleman in question raised his glass of champagne at her from across the room. “Aside from which, Mr Rabiffano is so very proud and melancholy. It is an appealing combination with that pretty face and vast millinery expertise. He always smiles as though it pains him to do so. It’s quite… intoxicating.”
“Oh, really, Prim, I know he looks no more than twenty but he’s a werewolf and twice your age.”
“Like fine brandy, most of the best men are,” was Prim’s cheeky answer.
“He’s also one of my uncles.”
“All the most eligible men in London seem to be related to you in some way or other.”
“We must get you out of London then, mustn’t we? Now, can we get on? I suspect the snuff box is in the card room.”
Prim’s expression indicated that she failed to see how anything could be more important than the general availability of men in London, but she replied gamely, “And how are we, young ladies of respectable standing, to make our way into the gentlemen’s card room?”
Rue grinned. “You watch and be prepared to cover my retreat.”
However, before Rue could get off on to the snuff box, a mild voice said, “What are you about, little niece?” The recently discussed Mr Rabiffano had made his way through the crowd and come up behind them at a speed only achieved by supernatural creatures.
Rue would hate to choose among her Paw’s pack but if pressed, Paw’s Beta, Uncle Rabiffano, was her favourite. He was more older brother than uncle, his connection to his humanity still strong, and his sense of humour often tickled by Rue’s stubbornness.
“Wait and see,” replied Rue pertly.
Prim said, as if she couldn’t help herself, “You aren’t in attendance solely to watch Rue, are you, Mr Rabiffano? Could it be that you are here because of me as well?”
Sandalio de Rabiffano, second in command of the London Pack and proprietor of the most fashionable hat shop in all of England, smiled softly at Prim’s blatant flirting. “It would be a privilege, of course, Miss Tunstell, but I believe that gentleman there…?” He nodded in the direction of an Egyptian fellow who lurked uncomfortably in a corner.
“Poor Gahiji. Two decades fraternising with the British, and he still can’t manage.” Prim tutted at the vampire’s evident misery. “I don’t know why Queen Mums sends him. Poor dear – he does so hate society.”