In which a spinster vampiri introduces herself to Elinor
Diamonds or cream tea? Miss Elinor Avely contemplated this difficult choice in the abstract as she stood in her new sitting room, holding two invitations in her hands. She concluded (rather quickly) that, in her case, fresh clotted cream would theoretically trump diamonds. Cream was always enjoyable, whereas diamonds were simply distracting for one such as she.
Cream tea, then.
Elinor pursed her lips. However, in this instance the invitation was issued by the Countess of Beresford, which made the matter more complicated.
Placing the thick paper on the dresser, Elinor eyed the red sealing wax. Tea with the Countess of Beresford would be … fraught. The countess was the earl’s mother, after all, and it wasn’t good etiquette to receive comestibles from a family when you had blackened their name with scandal.
Elinor sighed. That left her the diamond hunt.
The other letter, with its provocative proposition, was still in her other hand. She considered the foolscap with its scrawled handwriting, knowing what her answer ought to be. She certainly had not exiled herself, her brother, and her mother to the wilds of remote Devon so she could use her special gift to search for lost diamonds. That was the kind of thing that had landed Elinor in trouble in the first place.
So, no diamonds either. It was going to be a sorry existence, out here in Devon. Unless Napoleon invaded; that might make things more interesting.
She put the letter down next to the countess’s invitation. Then she paused. Better to keep the letter about diamonds out of sight, especially from her mother, who was always so anxious to keep Elinor’s gift a secret. Opening a Radcliffe novel, she slipped the letter between the pages – Mother wouldn’t dare be seen opening The Mysteries of Udolpho – and closed the book with a snap.
Unfortunately, out of sight was not out of mind.
Elinor looked around the sitting room of their cottage, trying to be grateful for the refuge. It was on the edge of known civilisation, but at least their new residence was cosy and warm. She sank onto an armchair and looked out the window. Outside, the view was barren: the lonesome horizon of the Devon coastline, with hills hunched against ocean gales.
Out of habit, she was dressed for dinner in a high-waisted pale sage gown, one which she had purchased in London because it suited her honey-blonde hair and hazel eyes. Of course, they wouldn’t receive any callers here at Casserly Cottage. In a way, Elinor was glad, for it gave her time to recover from the London debacle. Regrettably, it also gave her too much time to think about the earl.
The Earl of Beresford wasn’t the handsomest man she’d ever met, she reflected, but he had the broadest shoulders and the most striking grey eyes. Was that the sum of his attraction? There was, of course, his nicely tapered waist to consider, his intelligent sense of humour, and his utter disregard for debutantes. All of which, somehow, made him irresistible. A pity she had managed to drag his name through the mud – though she was sure the Earl of Beresford would recover his reputation more quickly than she would.
Pressing her lips together, Elinor decided that a divination would be a good distraction. Would it do any harm to see, for curiosity’s sake, if there were any diamonds hidden nearby? Mother need not know she had used her gift only briefly. Elinor’s brother, Peregrine, was out walking, and the two servants – a housemaid and a cook – were busy cleaning up after dinner, while Mother read upstairs.
Elinor crossed to the window and peered outside. Between two hills was a stretch of rough sea on which a distant ship battled the waves. The sky, however, was glorious: piles and swirls of clouds, reflecting the last of the sun. Momentarily, she swept her inner sense over the scene below, as far as she could reach. No diamonds. With a shrug, she closed off that part of her mind and leaned desultorily against the edge of the window.
A shadow of a bat flitted across the garden. Elinor raised her hand to pull the curtains shut and saw a white, swooping barn owl hurtle out of the blackness. Catching her breath, she watched the owl’s lethal power as it hunted the bat.
The white shape of the owl veered suddenly upwards. Then, as she watched, a small black shape shot out of the gloom and thudded into the window.
There was a horrible thwack and it dropped like a stone.
Elinor murmured in distress and bent to look at the creature that lay sprawled on the wooden sill. She blinked. It appeared to be pale white, not black as she had thought, and more like a tangle of limbs than a tangle of wings. She paused, and quickly snatched the iron key out of the dresser door. Her brother would laugh, but now Elinor was armed to her satisfaction. Slowly, she opened the window.
A tiny, white face lay against the wood, partially obscured by an upflung arm and a swirl of black hair. Elinor drew a breath. The creature was a girl, or woman, no larger than Elinor’s hand. Furthermore, the woman was completely naked. Elinor shivered. The evening was cool, so she hastily pulled out a linen handkerchief to throw over the little person. As Elinor did so, the creature’s eyes fluttered open.
“Arrggh. Cursed owls.” She blinked at Elinor with deep blue eyes and tried to sit up. “Good evening.”
“Good evening.” Elinor was glad to hear her own voice was firm.
“I apologise for this irregular visit.” The creature glanced down and pulled the linen closer around herself. “And for my lack of accoutrement.”
Elinor gathered herself, though her heart was beating rapidly. At least this was a distraction from jewel divining. “Do you require some help?”
“I am a little indisposed,” admitted the miniature lady. Her accent was odd, with a faint trace of French, but it spoke of noble breeding. “I will recover if I rest a while.”
“Would you like to come inside? It will be warmer.”
The lady spotted the iron key in Elinor’s hand and her expression suddenly sharpened. “What is that? Do you mistake me for the fae?”
Embarrassed, Elinor hastily hid the key in the folds of her skirt.
“I tell you I am no such thing,” snapped the lady.
“I apologise. I was not sure what kind of – er – personage was – er – calling upon me, and I thought it best to be cautious.” Elinor paused, hoping the creature would enlighten her.
“Well, I am not fae. If you don’t believe me, put that key against me. I won’t shriek and die.”
“I am sure that is not necessary,” said Elinor, though she hesitated. Everyone knew the fae were notoriously given to trickery. That is, if they even existed.
The linen handkerchief rustled in indignation. “It is necessary, because you think I am trying to fool you.”
Elinor narrowed her eyes. “If putting the key upon you will calm your nerves, I will do it.” She held the iron up and moved it towards the little woman, who glared at her but showed no other signs of distress. Reluctantly, Elinor placed the key against her tiny hand.
The woman raised her brows and pursed her lips.
“Very well,” said Elinor. “I am satisfied you are not fae. However, I might as well tell you – I don’t believe in the fae.”
“Oh, is that so? Lucky you. They are nasty creatures, rude and ill-bred.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“I am Miss Aldreda Zooth. I do apologise for the lack of proper introduction. Normally I would obtain one via my queen, but she is in France. I hope.” A frown crossed the pale face.
“I am Miss Elinor Avely.”
They stared at each other in the twilight. Eventually Miss Zooth smiled. “You seem singularly calm for someone who does not believe in the fae.”
“You have just assured me that you are not fae.”
“No, but I am a vampiri.”
“I am afraid I do not know what that is.”
Miss Zooth looked cross again. “Hmph. We are magical and useful. And polite, even if my current state of dress indicates otherwise.”
Elinor cleared her throat. “Please do come in, Miss Zooth. May I assist you?”
The miniature lady tried to stand, clutching the handkerchief around her, but her legs were too weak. She collapsed in a heap again. “Perhaps if you carry me? I promise not to bite.”
The little face turned away, eyes closed. Elinor felt a stab of pity. “Shall I gather you up?”
Miss Zooth nodded, and Elinor carefully scooped her up. She was light as a bird and seemed oddly frail. Elinor bore her into the house and placed her on a settee, pulling the primrose coloured shawl from her shoulders to tuck around her visitor. Miss Zooth tried to sit but struggled to hold herself up.
“Can I fetch you some tea? Some food?”
Elinor strode quickly to the kitchen, where she fetched the teapot and cups herself rather than disturb the servants – who would be doubly disturbed if they saw the impossible Miss Zooth. She snatched up a bread roll and a chunk of cheese. What cup would serve? After a moment’s thought she detoured to her sewing basket to obtain a thimble.
Miss Zooth accepted it gratefully, though it was more like a large mug in her hands. She took dainty sips and eyed the bread and cheese.
“I don’t suppose you have any meat?” she asked. “I know it is rude to request it, but when I am this weak it is the best thing for me.”
“I can find some corned beef. I believe we have some in the kitchen.” Elinor stood again.
Miss Zooth shook her head, looking embarrassed. “Do you have any ... raw meat?”
“I am not sure,” said Elinor. She looked at her curiously. “I don’t know what the cook has in store. Her shopping day is tomorrow, so I fear we may be out of fresh meat.”
Her visitor’s shoulders sank a little. “I may have to leave soon, to find some.”
“You are not fit to go anywhere.” Elinor paused. “I am curious as to what sort of creature requires raw meat.”
Miss Zooth lifted her head and looked Elinor squarely in the eye. “I require the blood of others to live. It is an unfortunate aspect of my nature.”
Elinor considered this. “You practice ... dark arts?”
“No doubt you eat meat,” said the vampiri sharply. “It is not so different. I merely need it fresh. With – er – blood.”
“What kind of blood?” Elinor had an uneasy feeling that humans were not excluded. She had vague recollections of such beings from old stories. In fact, she had recently seen a stone depiction of something similar: a small woman with bat wings.
Miss Zooth currently had no wings, however, and Elinor had not imagined that a dark creature would have deep blue eyes, a pert nose, and finely shaped hands. The vampiri’s black hair curled softly over her shoulders, and her skin was a delicate white, almost translucent. She seemed rather more vulnerable than terrifying.
“I can make do with sheep,” said Miss Zooth. “There are plenty of those around here. Or cows, if I have to. I don’t like to take from small creatures, as it leaves them weak.” She brightened. “I don’t suppose you have a large dog, do you?”
Elinor blinked. “No, I’m afraid I cannot offer you a dog.”
Miss Zooth looked disappointed.
“What about a cat?” suggested Elinor. “There is a cat who lives here.” The large cream-coloured tom – named Samuel – lazed around the garden during the day and conducted mysterious business at night. He and Elinor were becoming friends, so she hesitated to offer him as Miss Zooth’s snack. But the health of a small lady surely warranted more than a cat’s dignity.
“I am afraid I would leave a cat somewhat incommoded,” said Miss Zooth. “Besides, cats generally don’t like me, and they are hard to catch.” She swallowed and sank back into the shawl. “I fear I am at rather a low ebb. I must leave soon and find something.”
Elinor regarded her thoughtfully. Then the front door opened, and Peregrine’s voice floated through the house.
“Elinor? You’ll never guess what I just saw.”
She moved quickly to the sitting room door, blocking the entrance. “What, brother?”