Home > Imprudence (The Custard Protocol #2)

Imprudence (The Custard Protocol #2)
Gail Carriger


In Which Queen Victoria Is Not Amused

“We are not pleased, young lady. Not pleased at all.”

Despite the acute sensation of being crushed under a hot fruitcake of embarrassment, Rue was impressed by Queen Victoria’s ability to eviscerate in so few words. The Empress of India was short in stature, wide in girth, and wore a black silk dress positively drowning in ball fringe. She looked like an extraordinarily angry hassock. To the best of her knowledge, Rue had never before been scolded by a footstool.

“Imagine circumventing the Crown’s authority in such a manner. Did we grant you any kind of diplomatic autonomy? No, we most certainly did not!”

Rue hadn’t enough self-preservation to keep her mouth shut at that. “But you conferred sundowner status upon me. If a lady can kill supernaturals under legal sanction, isn’t that a kind of diplomatic autonomy?”

Primrose, had she been present, would have fainted at the very idea of arguing with the Queen of England. But Rue was accustomed to quarrelling with powerful people. To be fair, when the most powerful woman on the planet looked like a hassock, it made quarrelling easier.

Said hassock, however, was having none of it. “Which was intended for you to clean up a supernatural mess, not cause more of one.”

Rue thought that unfair. After all, she had prevented a major military action and saved a number of lives. Admittedly, she had sacrificed a great deal of tea. Unfortunately, if past record was anything to go on, Queen Victoria was a bloodthirsty little thing. She probably wouldn’t have cared about the lives and was more upset over the tea.

The queen settled into her scolding. “So you establish an illegal concordance between the Shadow Council and a group of vagrant weremonkeys without any kind of by-your-leave? What sort of precedent does that set? A clandestine agreement between disparate groups of supernatural creatures – no government sanction, no proper treaty, no taxation! Young lady, may we remind you, we have ambassadors for this kind of thing, not” – Queen Victoria sputtered to a pause, taking in Rue’s outfit with a critical eye – “round velveteen schoolgirls!”

Rue had thought her brown velvet and gold striped visiting dress most proper for a royal summons. It was sombre in coloration and striped. Queen Victoria was reputed to be fond of stripes. Or was that plaid?

But the “round” stung. Rue thought that insult quite ripe when coming from the queen, who was very round indeed. By comparison, Rue felt she was only moderately round.

“We are most seriously displeased,” ranted her high-and-mighty roundness.

“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty.” Rue resorted to placations.

Fortunately for Rue, Queen Victoria elected not to clap her in irons. Instead she took a more direct course. “We hereby strip you of sundowner status.”

Rue swallowed her objection. I didn’t even get to use it properly! “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“And all other legal protections and rights previously granted unto you.”

Rue frowned. What other protections had she enjoyed? And why had she needed them? She opened her mouth to ask and then shut it at a glare from her most royal of majesties.

“Now remove yourself from our presence, and if you know what’s good for you, avoid royal notice for the foreseeable future.”

Rue backed away a few steps, dropped a deep curtsey, and scuttled to the door.

She heard the queen say to one of her hovering advisers, “I did hope she would turn out more stable than her parents.”

To which the gentleman answered, “A girl who can change into any supernatural creature she touches? Stability was never likely a companion personality trait.”

“Well, she’s no longer our concern.” The queen sounded almost smug.

Rue straightened her back, standing as tall as her – round! – frame would allow and bit the inside of her cheek so as not to cry. It was one thing to be told off by a queen, quite another when some court nobody took against her.

Rue strode out of the palace in high dudgeon. Her long skirts swished. There was a shocking amount of leg outline visible with each step because she eschewed the requisite number of underskirts – even when visiting the queen. Society condemned this as a modern affectation brought about by her travels abroad, but Rue simply found it easier to change shape when she hadn’t an overabundance of underthings.

She paused outside the gates, breathing the night air in angry pants like a perturbed bellows. It was a crisp evening, the gibbous moon illuminating a busy street. London was awake and bustling, for while the season was over, the supernatural set still carried the torch.

Dama’s carriage was waiting for her. Her father had insisted she travel to the palace in style, although his aesthetic – one of gilt and ribbons and plush velvets – was not to Rue’s particular taste. Dama was peeved with her over the loss of his tea but refused to let that affect standards in conveyance arrangements.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Winkle.” Rue waved off the drone on the driving box when he made to hop down and help her inside. She swung herself up easily; fewer skirts and a lack of corset improved one’s mobility in a marked manner.

Winkle made an affronted noise but it was too late to insist. He whipped the horses up and they set forth at a brisk clip.

Inside the cab, Rue slouched into her lace collar, feeling sorry for herself.

Sooner than they ought, Winkle drew the carriage to a halt. There was no way they had traversed all of Mayfair. Rue leaned dangerously far out the window and craned her neck to see the box. There was some kind of commotion going on in the middle of Oxford Circus near the recently reopened Claret’s.

“Turn back and go around, Winkle, do.”

“Everyone seems to have the same idea, miss.”

There was quite the ruckus surrounding them. Conveyances of all types were circling and trapping each other at odd angles as they jockeyed for position.

“Has there been an accident? Should I get out and see?”

Winkle had a much superior vantage point. “I don’t think that particularly wise, miss.”

Which, naturally, caused Rue to pop open the carriage door and swing down.

The first thing she noticed was that there was a great deal of yipping and some growling. Someone was also singing a bawdy song, off-key, at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs.

“What the devil?”

Rue pushed through the confused mess of carriages, steam-powered Coccinellidae, monowheels, and assorted bicycles. She then forced her way to the front of a jeering crowd. It surrounded the dramatically carved marble entryway of Claret’s Gentleman’s Club, out the mahogany door from which oozed a stumbling mass of masculine rabble composed of several officers of Her Royal Majesty’s service, a handful of tight-trouser-wearing thespians, and one or two large dogs in top hats and cravats.

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