Poison or Protect: A Delightfully Deadly Novella by Gail Carriger
After graduating Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, Preshea Buss has achieved her goal and killed her husband. Actually, she has killed four. Many years have passed since she attended the lofty halls of the Academy, she is now Lady Villentia, The Mourning Star, a woman of independent means with a reputation. It is now the Spring of 1867 and a new game has begun…
Captain Gavin Ruthven recognizes Lady Villentia on a train platform, though they have never been formally introduced he knows it is her. The artist's renderings did her no justice, and regardless of her reputation he is entranced. He assumes they must be attending the same house party at Snodgrove, and a lady with her reputation, it must be to assassinate someone, probably the duke meaning Gavin must stop her. But damn these lusty feelings... Gavin and his companion Jack head out the station to a private dirigible, ugh, he hates to float. As they head towards the conveyance Lady Villentia dispenses with formalities and acknowledges them. At which point Jack makes an ass of himself blurting out that she is the Morning Star. Smooth Jack, smooth. Unfortunately this is a trait we will repeatedly see in the man. Preshea, wouldn’t mind the huge mountain of a man to be her target, unfortunately he isn’t, his Highland burr marks him otherwise. Damn it, it’s the idiot.
As they float, Captain Ruthven is not able to disguise his discomfort and Jack doesn’t shut up. He tells Preshea about his ladylove, Lady Violet the Duke of Snodgrove’s eldest daughter, the girl Preshea has been hired to prevent him from marrying. Though honestly, it doesn’t seem like he has had more than a cursory meeting with the girl. The conversation is pleasant, Preshea learns that Captain Ruthven was a member of the Coldstream Guard and he befriended Jack because Jack seems to get himself into situations where rescue is necessitated. Unfortunately, she starts developing genuine affection for both, which is ridiculous, she doesn’t like people! And in some cases, people do not like Preshea. Lady Snodgrove is frosty and the Duke delighted, however the Duke is not so courteous to Jack. These raise questions for Gavin, why is Preshea here? Merry widow now mistress? Assassin? Could he work with Lady Villentia and not against her? Who hired her?
Let us go back in time a little bit to the previous night, we are permitted this extra tidbit of knowledge poor Gavin must squirrel it out the hard way, to the home of Lord Akeldama. The most popular vampire in the British Empire, fashion icon, consummate gentleman, and patron of information and secrets. Preshea is sneaking through his house, not a drone in sight which is very strange. Curling herself into a window seat of the sitting room bemoaning current fashions, Preshea waits. Two men of quality alight an expensive carriage, one is Lord Akeldama, the other Snodgrove. Lord Akeldama is brokering a deal between Preshea’s services and the Lord’s need for discretion. He is frustrated that Preshea is no longer under her indenture and that if she takes the job, it is for her own amusement. Letting Dama know she is there by pricking her wrist with a needle, “What blood from yonder mortal drips?” Preshea makes her entrance. Lord Snodgrove explains his daughter has conceived of an ill match, the Morning Star is to disabuse her of this notion. Preshea will take the job if only to satisfy her boredom and to see the nicest man in London who campaigns for the deserving poor has a ”dark underbelly of corruption” and he will owe her a debt. Interestingly too one of Snodgrove’s daughters has recently passed and gone ghost, Formerly Constance will also be in attendance at the house party. Preshea asks about the household, the staff and the guests already painting a picture of the amiable but unsuitable Mr. Jackson who hasn’t 2 shillings to rub together and his friend of independent financial means and Scottish to boot, Captain Ruthven. When Preshea and Dama are alone, the vampire admits he believes the Duke's life to be in danger, she must secure it. In return Dama will give her the information that will ensure the downfall of her own father.
That same night, in a club in another part of London, Captain Gavin Ruthven is watching werewolves make fools of themselves at whist. Jack is explaining to Gavin the virtues of his lady love (money) but frankly he's a bit feckless and scatterbrained so the conversation goes in all directions. Thankfully Major Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings interrupts them and needs to discuss a delicate matter of state with Captain Ruthven. It has come to the War Office’s attention that he is to attend the Duke of Snodgrove’s house party and they need him to protect the Duke as they believe his life may be in danger over a bill to allow workers to vote. Gavin likes to be useful, plus it will give him something to do... so he’ll do it.
Ok, so have established why Preshea and Gavin are at the house party, and that neither knows the others reasons for being there. Preshea enters the drawing room and introduces Lady Violet, the girl she has come to “save” when Mr. Jackson charges across the room and is rather ardent in his greeting, Preshea notes Lady Vi finds this very awkward and Captain Ruthven calls him out for it. How very Scottish. Also noted is Lady Vi's younger sister, Lady Florence and her bosom companion, Miss Jane both of which are very cheerful. Ugh. There are others, but honestly we can skip them and go straight to the conservatory and the many, many, many finger sandwiches Gavin eats and talk of fashion with Lady Florence and Miss Jane. Gavin doesn’t subscribe to fashion, he is neither one of the pinks or a drone, what you see is what you get. After the repast, they all leave to freshen up, Gavin’s room is opposite Preshea’s and the flirtation begins! Preshea comments on his pile of dainty sandwiches, Gavin complains that dainty sandwiches are not for someone who is not dainty but comments that Preshea would not understand given her stature, her comment about dangling feet and needing to take a run up to mount her bed leaves the opening for Gavin to offer being her groomsman should she require it to get her over the counterpane, an offer which intrigues her.
Gavin is freshened up and heading back downstairs in fifteen minutes. His valet Mawkins informs him that below stairs the odds are against Mr. Jackson and his attachment. Upon entering the drawing room, Gavin looks for Preshea, but she is nowhere to be seen. He thinks on their flirtations in the hallway. They were less calculated with him than he has seen her display publicly... Could she want the same things as he? Could she want to be cherished? These thoughts are not appropriate in polite company, so instead of dwelling, he chats with Lady Florence and Miss Jane. They are disinterested in him as a marriage prospect (because they’re bosom buddies… snort) so are delightful to converse with. Some time later Preshea arrives and she is exquisite, a quick circulation of the room finds her with Gavin, Lady Flo and Miss Jane. To Preshea’s surprise, she enjoys the conversation! These girls know who she is and know her reputation, but they used their own judgement and are speaking to her anyway. They talk of different subjects including dirigible travel, which Gavin dinnae enjoy, and the ridiculousness of grand gestures of love, a seed she hopes to plant with Mr. Jackson, as he does seem predisposed to ridiculousness.
This supposition comes true when over dinner Mr. Jackson suggests a brace of lobster as a symbol of love in lieu of a bouquet of flowers. Is brace the correct collective term? Preshea also meets Formerly Connie, the Snodgrove’s daughter who went to ghost, she joins them at dinner and in the drawing room, even joining them for a game of cards where a footman acted as her hands. Mr. Jackson continues his ridiculousness by suggesting Lady Violet try winkles, too far she declares. Well, it seems Preshea’s job will be easy in this regard and Snodgrove really should have more faith in his daughter. Later that night the ghosts of the battlefield wake Gavin and he heads to the kitchen in the hopes of more little sandwiches, not sandwiches but there is food, having a merry munch he is surprised by Preshea, still fully dressed (unlike him wearing a banyan for goodness sake!) checking the windows and doors are locked. Could she be on a similar mission to him? She is typically the assassin not the bodyguard but signs are pointing in that direction. The flirtation begins again with Gavin challenging her reputation, does she really have something on her lips that will poison a man with a single kiss, he is very willing to find out and Preshea, though finds this ridiculous, is willing for him to explore. They are interrupted in their exploration by Formerly Connie, to disguise their pursuits Gavin claims they are secretly affianced and return to their rooms. Preshea uses this to put distance between her and Gavin, and is able to avoid him until the second week of the house party, time she spends sowing seeds of doubt about Mr. Jackson’s suitability to Lady Violet.
Thankfully there is a lull in the dreadful rainy weather, did we mention it’s been raining this whole time, no? Well it has. So a few of the party decide to go riding. Though not a strong rider, Preshea goes as this is the exact situation an assassin would wait for to take out the Duke. Gavin thinks the same. Jack does too and, on brand as ever, can’t keep his seat and proves to be a terrible rider. Whatever, the man is ludicrous. The group splits, some off to the fields but the Duke, Preshea and Gavin head into the woods (yes, this is all prime murder territory and to Preshea’s credit she does try to dissuade the Duke, but without success). As they trot through the forest, Preshea sees the flash of a gun muzzle and throws herself at the Duke. Crashing to the ground, the bullet misses both of them. Gavin follows her orders to where the bullet came from and chases down the rifleman, seeing him run toward a little dirigible and then the gondola rising as another shot rings out and hits Gavin in the arm. Preshea arrives a moment later, pulls a gun out from her unmentionables and fires at the gondola. Gavin takes the gun from her and makes an excellent shot at the rifleman, though unfortunately not taking him out. There is some post-dramatic situation flirtation which ends with Gavin getting another kiss and a strip of Preshea’s chemise wrapped around his wound and Preshea riding with him back to the house, to keep him upright… on his horse… yes… that’s it.
So it turns out that they are on the same side, so there is no reason not to engage with Gavin. And Preshea can do so at her own pleasure. This is an exciting and terrifying thought. Making her rounds that night Preshea sees Miss Jane enter Lady Flo’s room, well if these girls can do it, so can she. Gavin’s room is unlocked and he is waiting for her. Let us give the lovers some privacy, saying only that they both enjoyed it very, very much. The next morning however is a different matter, Preshea has pulled physically and emotionally away from Gavin, she says it is too much. Her father psychologically damaged her from a very young age going so far as to accuse a kindly older footman of indecency towards her at age 10. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s gave her the tools and nurtured her talents, she grew cold to the world seeing kindness as weakness. For fun she would poison her father when she came home until one day she let him catch her and gave him an ultimatum, send her to an asylum or marry her off. To save his pretty face he married her off. The first was a brute, the second preferred children, the third had a mistress and died in a carriage accident, the forth was extremely old and not so bad. But she did her duty as required by her indenture. Gavin doesn’t know how to break through this wall.
The next day starts dull and grey. Preshea converses with Lady Flo and Miss Jane, cautioning Miss Jane about her poor sneaking abilities. To cover for the true meaning behind their conversation (hiding their late night assignations), Preshea suggests they practice the waltz in case of emergencies. Gavin is more than willing to partner her and they dance verra well together. As proprietary dictates they dance a maximum of twice together, Gavin offers another spin later in his room. Oooooooh! Saucy man! Gavin is not disappointed, which is good because much to the disgruntlement of his valet, he requests a shave before bed and two glasses with the claret. The disgruntlement is more that Mawkins doesn’t know who Gavin will be seeing. Servants are so nosey. We shall be more restrained and only say Preshea did not dash Gavin’s hopes, and Gavin did not disappoint Preshea.
Thankfully our lovers had finished their intimacies when a loud shriek rang through the house coming from Lady Flo’s room. The whole household had been awakened by it and the scene was quite ridiculous. Lady Flo was in her bed, Miss Jane sitting fully clothed next to her holding her hand and Jack clambering through the window from the Snodgrove dirigible holding a piccolo and a lobster. This obviously results in Lady Violet telling Jack they do not suit and Lady Flo having a sleepover with a lobster. The next morning Jack and Gavin leave, Jack is annoyingly distraught, Gavin can’t believe Preshea could be so cruel, not realizing she was hired to break the young lovers up. Shortly after the house party ends without further incident. That would come a few weeks later at a rally in Hyde Park. Preshea shares a train carriage back to London with Lady Flo and Miss Jane, apparently they are firm friends now and Miss Jane is eager to learn more about the art of sneaking and subterfuge.
When Preshea returns home it is to find an envelope full of papers and documents seemingly provided by Lord Akeldama. She addresses it to the Mooring Standard, and after sundown, she visits the dandy Vampire. Her indenture is at an end, she is free but she isn’t sure what direction to take. Akeldama suggests shopping, which is tempting, and travel, star of the night, and then tells her to “Listen to me, my deadly little pearl. choose love, always choose love” as he knows what she is truly aching after. Some nights later Preshea tells Gavin this. She is waiting for him in his bed to return home from his club. Jack has fallen for some American heiress and Gavin is pining for Preshea, finding life thoroughly dissatisfying without her. He wasn’t expecting her to be waiting for him, he thought he would never see her again, so he is sporting quite a scruffy beard. Preshea doesn’t let that prickliness get in their way, though. She learned to be quite good at loving him, in due time. And he never again forgot to shave.