Etiquette & Espionage / Page 15

Page 15



The girls produced handkerchiefs from various pockets and held them up, at the same time placing books atop their heads for balance and posture.


Lady Linette, blonde curls bobbing, marched among them examining the offerings closely.


“Very good, Monique. Perfect, as always. Next time, Sidheag, smaller handkerchief. A lady carries embroidered muslin, not—what on earth is that? A square of tweed? Really, girl! Dimity, watch your balance, and red? Dear, not red. You’re not ready for red. Red is only for the advanced deployment of handkerchiefs. Preshea, why the discoloration? Have you been experimenting with poison again? Next time, don’t use your good handkerchief. Agatha!”


Poor Agatha lost her balance while waiting, causing the books atop her head to tumble to the ground. She reeled into Sophronia. Both girls fell over backward.


Sophronia giggled.


Agatha looked both terrified and mortified.


Lady Linette tsked. “Ladies. Ladies!”


So the lessons continued, with Monique garnering the most praise, and even being excused from class early on occasion for her good behavior. It was all very vexing.


Once a week, the after-breakfast lesson was deceit with Mademoiselle Geraldine, which the headmistress thought was a “getting-to-know-you session” and which the girls knew was really training in the fine art of engaging in conversation without actually saying anything.


In the afternoon came tea and social discourse. After tea, they practiced various parlor games and played cards among themselves in the dining hall while the teachers either joined in or circulated, offering critique. Sophronia learned quickly that Sidheag was particularly adept at cards and that Agatha was no good at all. Preshea knew by heart all the different flavors of sherry and what ought to be stocked for gentlemen to imbibe, and Monique was a horrible whist partner.


Following this, they had the history of social discourse from one of any number of teachers, which seemed mainly to be comprised of reading in the library.


Then came dinner. This was followed by a seemingly endless round of dancing, drawing, music, dress, and the modern languages with Lady Linette, Sister Mathilde—whom everyone quickly began referring to as Sister Mattie—or, after the sun had set, Professor Braithwope. Incorporated into these lessons were the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries.


Supper occurred promptly at ten each night. Then there was a small spate of spare time, which, due to the amount of extra work and rote memorization they were assigned throughout the day, Sophronia soon deduced was purely mythical. A few additional lessons, and the gas was turned off at two.


Sophronia came to realize that despite a near-constant exhaustion in mind and body she was very much enjoying herself. She loved the lessons in espionage and deceit—so many possibilities!—and remained only a smidge disturbed by the analytical approach to murder. This kind of finishing school was rather more engaging than the one she had imagined, although she couldn’t quite determine why she was there. It occurred to her that perhaps all finishing schools were like this—after all, Preshea discussed poisonings as if they were commonplace—but she rejected that idea. She may not yet be fully educated in the finer arts of being a proper lady, but she was smart enough to realize that her sisters wouldn’t put much stock in finishing schools were they all this subversive.


After two weeks of such lessons, Sophronia drummed up the courage to ask Lady Linette about the matter of her unusual education. She waited patiently until after their lesson with Sister Mathilde on buttermilk—for use in whitening lace and coating the stomach—in order to catch the teacher alone. Lady Linette had just finished with a group of the advanced students on some mysterious French letter-writing technique that had even the oldest of the girls red-faced and tittering as they left the room.


“Lady Linette, may I have a moment of your time?”


“Oh, Miss Temminnick. Certainly. How may I help you?”


“Would it be terribly forward of me to ask quite a direct question?”


“Well, it would certainly be against your training thus far. We haven’t yet covered the manipulation of conversation by applying provocateur diplomacy. However, I suppose I might excuse an uncontrolled query this once.”


Sophronia took a deep breath. “What, precisely, will I be expected to learn here?”


Lady Linette twirled one curl of blonde hair around the tip of one finger. “Information gathering and object retrieval, of course. But mostly, you should learn how to finish.”


“Finish what, exactly?”


“Why, anything or anyone who needs finishing, my dear.”


Sophronia shuffled her feet. When Lady Linette’s forehead creased at the movement, Sophronia stilled and said, “Ah, yes, you see, it is not that I am unaware of the honor of your taking me in even though I haven’t the connections of the other girls, but…”


“Go on.”


“I’m not certain I could do it.”


“Do what, dear?”


“Kill someone in cold blood.”


Lady Linette’s cornflower-blue eyes crinkled. “Ah, yes, but how do you know until you try?”


“I suppose that’s true.”


“Besides, dear, you don’t have to do it face-to-face; there is always poison. And many of our graduates never harm anyone. It will depend on your particular situation after you leave us. It always does. For the ones who marry have a different path from the ones who don’t.”


“If you don’t mind my asking, Lady Linette, how did you know to recruit me?”


“Ah, now, my dear, that is part of your training. You will have reached quite a level of comprehension if you manage to determine that truth all on your own.” Lady Linette looked away.


Sophronia wanted to say something about the prototype, but she knew when she was being dismissed. She bobbed a curtsy. “Thank you, my lady.”


Lady Linette winced. “Miss Temminneck, arrange after-hours lessons with Professor Braithwope, do. We really must work on that curtsy of yours, dear.”


“But I have advanced eyelash fluttering to practice, and a mathematics problem concerning how to order strychnine and a lamb dinner on a limited budget, and three chapters on court etiquette to read, and my handkerchief to starch, and the quadrille to memorize!”


“No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear.”


At the end of the third week, after supper, all the girls in the entire school collected on one of the lower decks instead of going to evening classes. There was a general air of excited anticipation, and the massive airship began to sink slowly toward the bland green of the moor. Eventually it almost touched the heath, it was so low. I thought it wasn’t supposed to land, Sophronia thought. She was careful to disguise her apprehension. From what little she had seen in the boiler room, she wasn’t certain the school could land.


The girls all trooped down to the warehouse bay, where the glass platform awaited them. It was not to be utilized, however. Professor Braithwope, demonstrating his vampiric strength with a kind of embarrassed deference, pushed the massive platform aside, exposing the large hole in the bottom of the ship.


Older girls first, the students sat down around the edge of the hole, legs dangling, and simply jumped to the grass below. Most landed with small graceful bends, like a deep curtsy. One or two tumbled forward and bounced to their feet in the manner Lady Linette had demonstrated. “From my days on the stage,” she’d said.


Sophronia, Monique, and Sidheag jumped down without fuss, but the other debuts were nowhere near as committed to proving themselves. Both Agatha and Dimity had to be pushed.


Sophronia kept a careful eye on Monique in case she did, in fact, still have the prototype on her person and was planning to stash it behind some shrub or rock. This was, after all, the first time they had been to ground in weeks. But Monique remained a model student, in her way, surrounding herself with a group of stylish older girls and showing no indication of subterfuge beyond that normally required by lessons at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s.


Captain Niall stood waiting for them. The girls all gathered around him in an excited, giggling throng. Two score, estimated Sophronia.


He raised up his hands, grinning amiably.


A number of feminine sighs were emitted at the cheeky twinkle in that grin. The werewolf once again wore a top hat tied to his head and a massive leather greatcoat, which flapped in the wind of the moor. As before, his feet were bare, and even though the coat was fully buttoned, it was clear he wore neither collar nor neck cloth underneath.


Sophronia suspected that many of the sighs and a good deal of the titillation resulted from the certain knowledge that he was entirely naked beneath that coat.


“Ladies, ladies, settle down, please. For the debuts among you, let me quickly say that as you only have me for lessons on an irregular basis, everyone is taught the same lesson together. And today we are addressing knives!” He said this last with a dramatic flourish.


A wave of murmurs and gasps percolated through the crowd.


The captain moved off to a low cluster of boulders, on top of which he had placed a long leather case. This he unrolled to display several knives of differing styles and materials. The girls gasped in appreciative horror.


He returned to face them, clutching three knives in one hand, displayed like a fan. “Don’t like knives?” He pretended to fan himself with the blades and fluttered his long eyelashes at them.


Sophronia wondered if he might be slightly unhinged.


Dimity said, “But sir, aren’t blades for gentlemen?”


“Ah, excellent starting place. In fact, no. Knives can be quite useful to a lady of quality. Swords are for men; they are too easily caught in the skirts. Knifework is far superior for ladies of your position. With fashion as it currently stands, there is always a way for a woman of style to hide a knife about her person. Over the next few months we will cover concealment and how to draw without mussing the trim of your dress. We will delve into blade sizes, applications, and materials. We will discuss silver versus wood and the best place to strike a vampire versus a werewolf. You will learn some hand-to-hand combat, subversive attacks, and, of course, how to throw. Questions?”


“Yes, Lady Kingair?” Captain Niall did not look surprised, although this was the first time Sophronia had ever seen the tall girl show any interest in any lesson, be it feminine wiles, hidden messages, or deadly deeds.


Sidheag’s hand shot up.


“What about artillery?”


“Not my subject.”


“But you must have had military service,” protested Sidheag.


Captain Niall took that as a teaching point. “Will someone please explain why Lady Kingair made that particular assumption? Yes, Miss Pelouse.”


“Because all werewolves in England are required to serve Her Majesty.” Monique wore a simpering smile.


Sophronia said, under her breath to Dimity, “Look at her, so smart! And the fact that he’s called Captain Niall isn’t a hint?”


Dimity hid a smile.


Captain Niall gave Sophronia a look.


Oh, right, supernatural. He probably heard that. Sophronia could feel herself flushing.


The werewolf continued. “I would like you all to please spread apart and find yourselves a nice stick that will work for some preliminary fighting. Ten minutes, ladies, and we will reconvene over yonder.”


Anticipating this relocation, the airship had drifted to hover over a flat rise and now floated several stories above the ground. The glass platform had been lowered and turned into a massive gas lamp. It utilized a kind of swirling yellow gas that lit up the heath, allowing the lesson to be conducted with all the grandeur of a ball under a chandelier.


The girls broke apart.


Sophronia and Dimity followed Sidheag’s lead and made for a convenient shrub. There was no point in feeling about the heath in the dark for sticks. They all selected branches from the bush, ripping them off. Their selections were quintessentially to character. Sidheag wanted a nice big stick. Dimity broke off what she considered the most shapely branch and commented upon the bush’s aesthetic qualities. Sophronia chose one that fit her hand relatively well but wasn’t as big as anyone else’s. Thus far all the lessons at this school had involved some element of subterfuge, and if the captain asked them to hide their sticks on their personages, she didn’t want to be, well, stuck. She worried over this decision. Sophronia, she finally told herself firmly, don’t over-think the matter.


They reassembled in a row. It was fascinating to see the whole school thus arrayed. Sophronia and the younger girls stood at one end in pinafores and pantalettes. The older girls, with their hair turned up and their skirts full-length, stood at the other. Except Monique, who stuck out like a very angry sore thumb among the debuts. Sophronia counted forty-five students in all.


Prev Next