Etiquette & Espionage / Page 10

Page 10

Professor Braithwope stared and then bent down, retrieved the tube, and stood, all without relaxing his arm. He was clearly unwilling to let go of the crossbow, so he pulled the cork stopper out of the tube with his teeth. The stopper caught and stuck on one of them, but he didn’t notice. Inside the tube was a tiny roll of paper with a printed message.

Deciding there was no apparent danger from the mechanimal, the two lady teachers reemerged.

“Well,” demanded Lady Linette, “what does it say?”

Professor Braithwope began to read, but his words were garbled by the cork. “Ith sayth thath—”

“Professor, you have something stuck on your fang,” hissed Lady Linette, clearly embarrassed for the man.

“Whoth? Whoth?”

Professor Lefoux reached forward and tugged off the offending cork.

Professor Braithwope read out, “It says that they want the prototype. They are giving us three weeks to produce it, after which they will return with reinforcements.”

“Absurd! What kind of reinforcements could flywaymen possibly have?” Professor Lefoux blustered.

Lady Linette was not so dismissive. “If they were being paid enough…”

“You think the Picklemen are behind this, whot?” Professor Braithwope swirled the little note between his long white fingers.

“Who else?” said Professor Lefoux, and then she added, “On the positive end of things, if they are threatening us, it means they haven’t got it. No one’s got it. Wherever Monique hid it, she hid it from everyone.”

“Trained her too well, whot?” Professor Braithwope let out a self-deprecating chuckle.

“Little pitchers have big ears,” said Lady Linette, nodding to where Sophronia still skulked behind a mechanical.

Sophronia came out, wondering what was required of her. Nothing, apparently, as the adults went back to ignoring her. She remained wildly curious about the prototype, but unfortunately, nothing else about it was mentioned.

Professor Braithwope waved the message at the flywaymen in the airdinghy nearest them and then doffed his hat with a free thumb.

Taking this as a dismissal, the whole parade of tiny airships turned and drifted lazily away.

“Three weeks,” muttered Lady Linette. “Suggested course of action?”

“Leave the real one be for now; the girl’s clearly hidden it well enough, whot?”

“We might provide them with a temporary surrogate,” suggested Professor Lefoux.

“That is a good idea. Do you think you could?” Lady Linette turned to her compatriot.

“I don’t see why not. I have old blueprints of a previous model.”

“Capital. Put some of the older girls on to it, too, do them good, whot? Then we can get Bunson’s to put the beastie together.” Professor Braithwope nodded, smiling a tight-lipped smile. He handed Lady Linette the tube and message and disarmed the dart from his little crossbow. The defensive mechanicals all around them instantly lowered their cannons and closed the hatches in their chests.

Professor Braithwope returned to the brass box, opened it, and switched the lever inside. With a whir of gears, the mechanicals all trundled away. He then returned to Professor Lefoux’s side and offered her his arm. “What initial material approach do you think best?”

“Well, I suspect magnetized steel might be the most emulatory. Copper could also work. We should get the furnace heated immediately.”

“Steel, whot? Capital idea. Capital.”

The two moved toward the exit hatch, Professor Lefoux looming over her diminutive male escort. Sophronia watched them go in bemusement.

“Well, that was rather a plump. I do apologize, Miss Temminnick. I assure you things aren’t generally this much—well, much. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll see you settled.” Lady Linette dismissed the whole occurrence with a little toss of her head.

Sophronia hesitated, and then—because everyone seemed to have forgotten him and he looked so forlorn—she scooped up the sausage dog mechanimal and hid him in her large pinafore pocket. Then she trailed after her new teacher.

Music teacher, she thought, looking at the full skirts of Lady Linette’s lavender dress. And I’m Queen of the Vampires.

Of course, the next day, when it finally came time for lessons, Sophronia was to find Lady Linette sitting at a pianoforte, playing scales.


Miss Temminnick, you share this parlor with the other debuts. Now, ladies,” Lady Linette said, looking at the four girls before her, “this is Miss Temminnick. I’m certain you will make her welcome. She is now ready to learn more about our educational institution.” With that, Lady Linette whirled away to devote her time to more pressing matters.

Sophronia stood awkwardly in the center of the room. Most of the girls before her were younger than she, and all of them were better dressed. For the first time, she actually felt a twinge of concern about the modishness of her attire. Critical sisters were one thing, but these young ladies were elegant, with opinions more important than those of mere sisters. She reached inside her pinafore pocket and produced the little sausage dog.

“Is that all you brought with you? A mechanimal?” This was said by a mocking voice with clipped elocution, as if each word were being prematurely assassinated.

The girl behind the voice was tiny, with a mass of tightly curled black hair and a heart-shaped face set in a morose expression. She was, unfortunately, beautiful. Sophronia’s only consolation was that the girl had a decidedly low nose. Sitting next to her was a wholesome redhead with freckles quite beyond Sophronia’s own—somewhat of a relief, that—who glanced with shy interest at the mechanimal and then focused her attention on her own shoes. Next to her sat Dimity. The last girl, who was not seated, was an angular, mannish creature, her posture slouched and her dress ill-fitting. She was occupied in chewing on a stick and sneering at them all from the far corner of the room.

“Sophronia! Where did you get that?” Dimity bounced to her feet and came dashing up to exclaim over the mechanimal. She had changed clothing, presumably having borrowed a dress. She’d kept on her garish jewelry, however, and found a gown of sea green that strained to balloon over her many petticoats.

“I happened upon him during a recent excursion to a squeak deck. I thought I’d call him Bumbersnoot.”

“Goodness me, why?” Dimity patted the metal dog on the top of his head with two fingers, not convinced. Bumbersnoot puffed out some smoke, flapping his little leather ears. Dimity started back.

“Why not?” Sophronia looked over at the pretty girl with the mocking voice. “And, unfortunately, he is indeed all I have with me. We had a bit of an upset with the luggage on our way in.”

“Which I told you all about,” said Monique de Pelouse, appearing in the room from one of the bedchambers. The room was set up like a proper drawing room, most unlike what Sophronia expected in a school.

Dimity looked like she’d swallowed something sour. Apparently Monique was still lying about the rescue.

“Oh, yes, indeed you did, Miss Pelouse,” said the pretty one with the mocking voice. “So exciting.”

“We aren’t allowed personal mechanicals.” Monique tilted her blonde head, eyes narrowing. Sophronia noticed her hair was now up and styled, and that without the wig and face paint she was quite beautiful, if a little aristocratically horsey. Too many teeth.

Sophronia put down Bumbersnoot, who began trotting around the room curiously. She walked over to the blonde girl, sidling in close. Monique looked uncomfortable with the proximity. “How about a bargain, Monique? You refrain from telling anyone important about Bumbersnoot, and I won’t make a fuss about your rewriting history.”

Monique’s eyes narrowed, but she said, “Very well,” with ill humor.

That was rather easier than I thought it would be. “Very gracious, Monique,” said Sophronia politely.

“This is all your fault, you know. My being here, demoted, living with the debuts!” Monique said the word like it was something smelly.

“Very logical. All I did was rescue you. Are you suggesting Dimity and I should have left you to rot with the flywaymen? I’m sure that could still be arranged.” Sophronia turned away.

The other girls had been distracted by Sophronia’s new pet. Bumbersnoot was cavorting about, puffing steam and bumping into furniture and shoes in a most buffoonish manner. His tail wagged the whole time with tick-tock precision.

“May we keep him?” asked the clipped-voice girl hopefully. They all turned to look at Monique.

“If we must.” Monique, after a brief hesitation, no doubt unhappy that she must socialize with girls so far her beneath her, took a seat. But she’s pleased enough to be the one to make all final decisions by right of age. Sophronia was pretty certain she should try to nip that tendency in the bud.

She turned to Dimity, mystified. “Who are these ladies?”

Dimity blushed. “Ah, yes. Oh, dear. Introductions. Let me see if I can remember. I only recently became acquainted myself. You already know Monique, she’s the oldest—which I guess gives her some status. But precedence, who has precedence?”

The young ladies looked about at one another, and then, as one, gestured to the tall girl in the far corner.

Speaking as though the words pained her, the pretty brunette said, “Sidheag, if you would believe it. She’s a proper lady. Laird or something like.”

Sidheag took a little more interest in the conversation once her name was mentioned. Not enough to move close—but her head came up. “Aye?”

“How do you do?” said Sophronia.

“Lady Bacon, this is Sophronia Angelica Tendency. Sophronia, this is Lady Bacon,” Dimity struggled to say.

The girls all laughed.

The one called Sidheag said, in a profoundly Scottish accent, “I’m Sidheag Maccon, Lady Kingair, by rights. But you can call me Sidheag; everyone else does.”

“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick,” said Sophronia, gently correcting Dimity.

Everyone laughed again.

“Oh, sorry.” Dimity was mortified by her blunder.

“Perhaps if we skipped standards, this once, and introduced ourselves?” suggested Sophronia, trying to protect Dimity from further humiliation.

“Oh, I don’t know about that! It isn’t done,” said the pretty one, looking with relish at Dimity. “I’d like to see her try the rest of us.”

Lady Sidheag Maccon straightened up, revealing that she was a good deal taller than any girl of thirteen ought to be. She strode over to Sophronia. Her hair lay in a thick plait down her back. Her face was masculine in a way that no one would ever call attractive, but her eyes were a lovely tawny yellow color.

Sidheag turned those eyes, filled with flinty disregard, upon the pert brunette. “That is Preshea Buss. She thinks she’s smarter than everyone, when really she’s just meaner. As to ranking, forgive me, Preshea, but don’t your parents engage in trade?”

Preshea made a face like a fish with a digestive complaint. “Daddy dabbles with the East India Company, thank you very much. That’s hardly trade.”

Sidheag turned to the redhead. “Agatha Woosmoss, daughter of the noted railroad baron.” The chubby girl looked up quickly from her shoes, nodded, and then returned to her intense scrutiny of her own feet. Sophronia thought that, even at thirteen, poor Agatha looked like she ought to be someone’s maiden aunt. All she lacked were spectacles and a lapful of ugly but philanthropic knitting.

“A lively and engaging bunch,” said Monique nastily.

Sidheag shrugged, like a boy, upsetting the fall of her gown. “We’ve only just started. Give us time.”

Preshea gestured primly with one thumb. “Sidheag here was practically raised by wolves. One need only look at the way she behaves.”

Sidheag laughed. “Practically? What does that matter? I still outrank you.”

“Lady Linette says style is everything; one’s shoes are as important as one’s thoughts, and possibly more powerful in the correct context,” said Preshea, sounding as though she were reciting from a broadsheet.

At this, Monique stood up pointedly. “Well, this has been most scintillating. If you would excuse me? I must unpack.” Her lip curling at the very idea that she must now live among the debuts, Monique left the room.

Preshea immediately gestured at Sophronia to join them and huddled forward. She lowered her voice. “We understand Monique failed to finish while retrieving you. Professor Lefoux demoted her. Did you witness it?”

“Did we ever!” Dimity had clearly been waiting patiently for ages to answer this very question. “We were the cause!”

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