Etiquette & Espionage / Page 11

Page 11

The girls gasped in titillated horror. “No!”

“Oh, yes, yes! Well, it’s more Sophronia who’s the cause. She saved the day and brought down the flywaymen, while Monique fainted and cried in the street.”

Preshea’s dour face brightened. “As if Monique had no training at all. That’s certainly not how she told the story.”

“So I gathered, but if she did so well, why the demotion?” said Dimity.

Sophronia glanced warily at Monique’s closed door. She figured she hadn’t promised to keep Dimity quiet on the subject; only to hold her own tongue and not go whining to the teachers. And at least Dimity wasn’t blabbing about the prototype.

Sidheag slapped Sophronia on the back, hard enough to cause her to lurch forward and cough. “Good on you! If you had to make an enemy of anyone, Monique is certainly a high-end choice. Top-quality bite on that one. And many thanks—now we’re all stuck with her.”

“It wasn’t my idea! It was Professor Lefoux’s,” replied Sophronia. “What exactly does she teach, anyway?” It was a blatant effort to change the subject, but it worked.

Dimity, bless her, was ever eager to be of use. She was clearly full to bursting with useful information garnered while Sophronia had been otherwise occupied. “She’s modern languages, but Preshea says that’s not all.”

“Of course not.” Sophronia took a seat facing Preshea, looking as wide-eyed and innocent as possible. She imagined herself sitting at the feet of genius and tried to give the impression of profound admiration.

Sidheag looked Sophronia up and down. “You’re good. I can see why they wanted you.”

Preshea poured everyone tea from a nearby pot and then passed around biscuits. Dimity offered one to Bumbersnoot. He sniffed at it with his mechanical nose, then opened his mouth wide, revealing two cavities: one leading to a storage compartment and the other to a tiny boiler. Dimity popped the biscuit into storage, where it would no doubt grow stale. Bumbersnoot continued his explorations.

Preshea finished serving and began explaining. “Old Lefoux has charge of modern weaponry and technological advancements. She’s an honorary member of the Order of the Brass Octopus. They don’t allow women, not officially, but they certainly use her designs.”

Bumbersnoot approached Agatha and opened his mouth impolitely. Agatha hesitated, reached into her reticule, and fed him a wooden clothespin. It went into the boiler, if the resulting smoke coming out of the mechanimal’s ears was any indication. Bumbersnoot’s tail wagged in approval.

“And Lady Linette is music and…?” Sophronia prompted.

Preshea obliged, puffing up with self-importance. “Intelligence gathering, of course; principles of deceit; fundamental espionage; and rudimentary seduction. I wager you can’t wait for seduction class, can you, Agatha?”

Agatha looked petrified at the very idea.

“Don’t worry,” said Sidheag. “Doesn’t happen until third year.”

Sophronia was not to be thwarted in her quest for information. “And Mademoiselle Geraldine—do we have any lessons with her?”

“If you’ve met her, you’ve already had one. Ostensibly she’s dance and dress, but really she’s diversion. You know she’s the only one who doesn’t know what this school is really teaching?”

Except for me, of course. Although Sophronia did feel she had it down to two options, neither of them finishing school–related. Intelligencers or assassins. She hadn’t been aware until now that either position was open to a female. Sophronia felt that, given her propensity for dumbwaiters and penchant for observation, she’d quite enjoy being an intelligencer, so long as she was spying on someone interesting. But she wasn’t certain about being an assassin. She’d once caused Frowbritcher to run over a mouse, and she still felt guilty about it.

“And Sister Mathilde is household management?”

“Well, that’s part of it.” Preshea smiled for the first time, showing perfect small white teeth.

“It’s Preshea’s favorite class already,” said Agatha softly, speaking for the first time.

“Sister Mattie also covers medicinal cures and proper poisonings for every occasion.” Preshea looked positively animated.

Agatha explained further. “Preshea can’t wait until she gets to poison her first husband. She’s a great admirer of Mary Blandy’s work.”

“Oh, you flatter me.”

So we are being trained to be assassins? Or are they joking with me? Sophronia looked back and forth between Preshea and Agatha. Agatha didn’t look like she knew how to joke.

“And Professor Braithwope. What does he teach?”

Preshea went quiet at the name, her face once again dour and sulky. Which was odd, because Sophronia had liked Professor Braithwope best of the bunch.

“He’s history.” Agatha plucked at a ruffle on her skirt. Her voice shook slightly. “Some deportment and etiquette as well.”

“But in actuality?” Sophronia prodded.

“Well, vampire lore and defense. What else?” Preshea pretended impatience, but she was clearly a little scared.

Sophronia thought quickly. Professor Braithwope had said he was just getting up when she disturbed him, yet it was after dark. He’d sneezed at garlic mash. He’d got the cork stuck on his fang, not his tooth! Of course. My first vampire, she thought, disappointed in herself for not realizing it at once and in Professor Braithwope for not being more… well… vampiric.

Preshea stood. “Speaking of Professor Braithwope, we ought to get ready, ladies.”

The girls began to rummage about, gathering up lesson books and putting on bonnets. Monique reappeared, looking lovely and pulled together in a sweeping day dress of rose silk. With a good deal of bustle they filed out of the room, following Monique, who assumed the position of preeminence without challenge.

Sophronia summoned Bumbersnoot with an imperious gesture. The mechanimal bumped into her shoe and looked up. “Stay!” she said firmly, and then, “Sleep.” The mechanized dog sat back on its haunches and made a little whistling hum before relaxing down, all internal components stilled. Gracious me, it worked!

Sophronia trotted after the group, ending up behind Sidheag and next to Dimity. “Where are we going?”

“Lessons, I suppose.” Dimity grinned at her.

“At night?”

“Apparently the academy keeps London hours. Might as well get us accustomed to the Season. Or so Sidheag says.”

“I like Sidheag,” said Sophronia, not caring if the tall girl could hear her. “She reminds me of my brother Freddy. Freddy never pinched as hard as the others.”

Dimity lowered her voice. “She’s not very ladylike.”

“I don’t think that is necessarily a character flaw. Some of the most disagreeable people I know are the most ladylike.”

“Oh, I like that!” Dimity pretended offense. She clearly liked to think of herself as a proper lady.

“Present company excluded, of course. Look at Monique. Speaking of which, she and I have an agreement. She won’t tell the teachers about Bumbersnoot if I don’t correct her version of the flywaymen rescue.”

Dimity did not look pleased. “Oh, but Sophronia, she’s such a pollock!”

“I didn’t say you would also hold your tongue. But if you could confine yourself to gossiping with students about it, that would mollify her. And it prevents everyone else from figuring out the real reason for her demotion.”

“Oh, are we keeping the prototype secret, too?”

Sophronia slowed, forcing Dimity to fall back with her and allowing distance to develop between them and the others. “Did you hear the alarm?”

Dimity nodded.

Sophronia explained, “It was flywaymen again. A whole bunch of airdinghies this time, after the prototype. They gave the teachers three weeks to find it. Professor Braithwope and Professor Lefoux are trying to build a fake in the interim. Monique won’t tell them the location of the real one. But I think the teachers are allowing her to keep it secret for some reason.”

“Remind me, why are we so interested?”

“It lost us our luggage. Also, it would prove we were better than Monique if we could produce the prototype for the teachers, now wouldn’t it?”

“But what if Monique stashed it before we even got on board the school?”

“Well, then, we will have to determine a way to sneak off and find it.”

“Already? But we just got here! I haven’t even had my supper.”

All the while they talked, they wended their way through the hallways of the school. As the young ladies were dressed to the height of fashion, this had to be done two by two; any more than that would not fit in the passageway due to the fullness of their skirts. Only Sidheag had a narrow gown, one that looked like it properly belonged on a governess. Sophronia could respect its practicality. Her own Sunday best was not used to such activity as it had seen over the past day. It was beginning to chafe, and she could but wish she had something more sensible to wear.

“What does ‘London hours’ imply?”

Dimity grinned. “Breakfast at noon, morning calls around three, tea at five, supper at eight, entertainment all evening, and bed by one or two. Doesn’t it sound the pip? I’d love to be a London lady. Do you think my parents would be awfully mad if I married a nice politician and gave up on a life of crime? Then I’d get to throw dinner parties all the time.”

Sophronia, country girl, for all she was gentry, found the very idea of London hours shocking in the extreme. “Rise at noon, you say?” Why, that sounds positively decadent!

Much to her shock, Sophronia actually enjoyed the lessons. They were nothing like she expected from either a finishing academy or an ordinary grammar school. She’d had, at varying times in her life, a host of indifferent governesses. They were either overwhelmed by the number of children in the Temminnick household or in possession of the remarkable ability to nap through most everything—including lessons. Education, therefore, had been a matter of Sophronia’s own interest and access to her father’s library, rather than instruction. Consequently, she knew a good deal of ancient history and mythology, something on the fauna of Africa and native hunting practices, and all the rules of cricket, but little else.

“When defending yourself against a vampire,” said Professor Braithwope at the start of the lesson, “it is important to remember three things, whot? He is a good deal faster and stronger than you will ever be. He is immortal, so debilitating pain is more useful than attempted disanimation. He is most likely to go for your neck in a frontal assault. And he is easily distracted by damage to his clothing or personal toilette.”

“That’s four things, Professor,” corrected Monique.

“Don’t be pert, whot,” replied the vampire.

“Are you saying,” Sophronia ventured, “that it’s best to go for the waistcoat? Say, douse it with tea? Or possibly wipe sticky hands on his coat sleeve?”

“Exactly! Very good, Miss Temminnick. Nothing is more distressing to a vampire than a stain. Why do you think containing blood is so important to us? One of the tragedies of any vampire’s life is that in order to survive we must continually handle such an embarrassingly sticky fluid.”

Sophronia wondered whose blood Professor Braithwope drank on board the school. It must be someone loyal to the professor, as if they were a drone. She felt self-consciously for her own neck and thought affectionately of shawls.

The vampire paced back and forth as he lectured, his movements fluid and quick. The room in which they sat in no way resembled a classroom, except that it was called a classroom. A series of brocade settees was arranged in a semicircle around an imitation fireplace, a small piano, and an articulated brass statue of a cow. There were plush carpets on the floor, side tables on which the girls placed their books, and a maid mechanical waiting patiently in the corner in case she was needed to fetch tea. It looked more like a drawing room than anything.

“Another weakness in vampires, of course, is the limited range. A vampire who is hive-bound must stay near his queen, and the queen cannot leave her house. Roves are similarly tethered to a place, although our range is larger. When swarming, of course, all distances are moot, whot. There are some notable exceptions; the queen’s praetoriani has a larger range.”

Monique was trying not to look interested. “Why?”

“Our scientists suspect he is in a constant state of swarm because he is responsible for the queen’s safety.”

This was all very confusing to Sophronia, who had heard very few of the terms he was spouting forth and knew almost nothing—beyond late-night parlor stories—about vampires. I wonder what the professor’s range is? That might be a rude question. She was just about to ask for clarification on the word “praetoriani” when an explosion shook the classroom.

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