Etiquette & Espionage / Page 19

Page 19



“Curiosity.” Sophronia lied without hesitation.


Lady Linette pursed her lips. “That’s as good a reason as any. And now, girl, let us discuss hairstyles. I’m detecting young Lady Kingair’s effect on your coiffure. It won’t do, won’t do at all. She is a lost cause, but she has the rank and title to be eccentric. You may actually need to look like a lady upon occasion. From here on out, you are to put your hair up in curling rags every night. Get Miss Pelouse to show you how. I do not wish to see you with a plait ever again. Is that clear?”


Sophronia considered this her real punishment—the very worst of the lot. Curling rag training from Monique, indeed! Still, she bobbed another curtsy of acknowledgment. “Very good, my lady.”


“Good morning, Miss Temminnick.”


“Good morning, my lady.”


“Oh, and Miss Temminnick? You do realize you did not have to admit to your little excursion? It was your word against that of your accuser. Keep that in mind, in the future. Denial is always an option.” With which Lady Linette swept from the room, her morning dress one of a particularly fluffy lavender, so wide it barely fit through the door.


“It has to be Monique!” said Dimity. She was pacing around their room, her hands and arms flying in annoyance, as though she were fending off a bee. The ruffles on the sleeves of her peach dress had an almost sea creature–like way of drifting about after her. “I wonder if Lady Linette is her friend on staff?”


Sophronia was charmed by how offended Dimity was on her behalf. “Of course it’s Monique. And I suppose it could be Lady Linette; she’s an actress, after all.” Sophronia collapsed onto her bed with a groan. “Oh, but curling rags!”


“They can’t be that bad.”


“Easy for you to say—you’ll never need them. Why did I have to be cursed with straight hair? And you know, I never cared much before now. What is this place doing to me? I’m coming over all frivolous.”


Dimity had no solution to that particular problem. “I’m sorry you’re going to miss the theatricals.”


“In Swiffle-on-Exe? It could be worse.”


“It is worse: all the boys will be attending.”


Sophronia flopped onto her back. She wasn’t certain whether to be upset or pleased by this. “That’s all right, really it is. I don’t think I’m quite ready for boys yet. My eyelash fluttering is subpar.”


“Oh, but that’s what Bunson’s is for! Practice. I overheard Monique telling Preshea all about it. Some of the girls even keep score. They use what we learn to make as many boys as possible fall in love with them. They aren’t allowed to encourage actual declarations, of course. If one of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s girls takes a real beau, he’d better be a baronet at the very least.”


“Isn’t Bunson’s training evil geniuses?”


“Yes, mostly.”


“Well, is that wise? Having a mess of seedling evil geniuses falling in love with you willy-nilly? What if they feel spurned?”


“Ah, but in the interim, think of the lovely gifts they can make you. Monique bragged that one of her boys made her silver and wood hair sticks as anti-supernatural weapons. With amethyst inlay. And another made her an exploding wicker chicken.”


“Goodness, what’s that for?”


Dimity pursed her lips. “Who doesn’t want an exploding wicker chicken?”


Sidheag opened the door and stuck her head in. “Are you two going to wallow in here all day? It’s time to eat, and rumor is there’s going to be a big announcement over the scones.”


“We’re headed to Swiffle-On-Exe. There’s a play on. We’ll be allowed to attend alongside Bunson’s,” said Sophronia.


“Gracious, aren’t you in the know?” Sidheag arched an eyebrow and turned away. Today her dress was of plaid, as if she were a housekeeper.


Dimity sidled up to Sophronia and said, under her breath, “Plaid! Can you believe it?”


They followed Sidheag out to where the debuts stood waiting.


Dimity, with a mercurial gleam in her eye, said, “Sophronia claims we’re headed to Swiffle-on-Exe to see a play with Bunson’s.”


Instantly the others all began to chatter excitedly.


“Really? What kind of play?” Agatha was, for the first time in Sophronia’s experience, animated by the prospect. Agatha, so shy it was almost disruptive, never seemed to get excited about anything.


“Bunson’s? You mean boys?” Preshea’s pretty face narrowed into covetousness. Sophronia thought she looked like a partridge with a plucking disorder.


“Now, Preshea,” reprimanded Dimity, “it’s no good choosing your first husband from a school for evil geniuses. Much too difficult to kill.”


“Why do you know any of this?” Monique demanded of Sophronia.


“Why, Monique, surprised I learned it first?” said Sophronia, minding her recent lesson on not revealing information unnecessarily.


They made their way through the passageways and out onto various decks toward the dining hall. Sophronia grabbed Monique by the arm, holding her back. Dimity gave her a confused look, but took the cue and concentrated on shepherding the other three forward, giving Sophronia some privacy.


“A word, if you would, Monique?”


“What do you want?”


“Shoddy business, tittle-tattling on me like that. I thought you didn’t do that kind of thing. Did you go to your pet teacher?”


“I have no idea to what you are referring.”


“Oh, very nice—denial. Lady L said I ought to have applied it better myself. I’ll remember that in future.”


“Do you think you might make sense at some point, or are you merely trying to annoy me?”


Actually, thought Sophronia, she’s pretty good. Monique’s blue eyes were guileless, even as they narrowed in exasperation.


“Not that I really wanted to go to the play,” Sophronia added.


Monique shook her off. “You’re mad, did you know that? But what can one expect from a covert recruit? Do refrain from socializing with me henceforth, will you?”


“With pleasure.” Sophronia walked off.


“Well? What did she say?” whispered Dimity.


“She denied everything.”


“Of course she did.”


They arrived and took their seats at table.


The murmuring of talk and consumption of comestibles hushed when the headmistress stood and stepped forward, her hair a wild pouf of red. She took a deep breath and opened her arms wide, bracing her back and pushing her tremendous cleavage forward. “Ladies, ladies, your attention, please! We have changed direction toward our companion school, Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. There is a small troupe in residence at the moment, performing a highly instructional play, An Ideal Bathtub. We thought you ladies deserved a treat. Now, remember, if there is gossip to be garnered, garner it. If there are new dress styles to be imitated, imitate them. If there are hearts to be broken, break them. That’s my girls.”


“Gossip? I thought she didn’t know about us, you know, gathering information?” Dimity was confused.


“I think she is actually implying social gossip,” said Sophronia.


Mademoiselle Geraldine continued. “We will be on course for Swiffle-on-Exe for the next three days. Regular lessons will proceed smoothly during the interim. Now remember, ladies, this is a privilege, and attendance will be revoked at the professors’ discretion. In one case, it already has been.”


A flutter of ooohs swept through the hall, and everyone pretended not to glance in Sophronia’s direction. The thing about a finishing school that trains intelligencers, thought Sophronia, is that everyone knows your business, sometimes before you do. And occasionally they’ll make it up simply for entertainment. Whether she liked it or not, word was certainly out about her punishment, if not her crime. The speed of dissemination was impressive, if slightly embarrassing.


Everything was a fervor of excitement and preparation for the next three days. Despite what Mademoiselle Geraldine had said, things were not as before. Lessons changed to focus on proper dress and manners for the theater. Lady Linette spent two solid hours on opera glasses alone! Even Captain Niall switched from knives to garrotes. Much easier, he explained, to kill someone with a garrote at a seated event; only make certain you sit directly behind your quarry. “Very inconvenient,” he said, “to try to kill someone when you are seated in front of him.”


You’d think we were visiting the queen, thought Sophronia, watching Preshea try on yet another possible dress for An Ideal Bathtub.


The girls were assembled in their common parlor on the evening prior to their arrival at Swiffle-on-Exe. It was the only spare time they had before bed, and they ought to be practicing walking properly in heeled boots. Instead, they were picking through each other’s wardrobes and planning their accessories.


Sophronia was the only one practicing. She was tottering about, pretending she wasn’t interested in outfits, since she wasn’t to attend. She was intrigued to find, however, that Agatha had the most expensive gowns and nicest jewelry, much to Monique’s annoyance. Dimity’s outfit, on the other hand, came in for pitying glances. It wasn’t so much the fabric, although that was bad—purple and teal stripes—as the cut of the dress, which was nowhere near as elegant as current fashions dictated. Sophronia shuddered to think what they might say of her one and only evening gown. She was shocked at herself for such shallowness. I’m turning out just like my sisters!


Into the madness of a parlor strewn with dresses, wraps, and gloves, not to mention girls prancing about in assorted fripperies, came a loud knock.


Sidheag, who was standing off to one side observing the chaos with an eye to the ridiculous, went to answer it. Whoever was there was too short to be visible on the other side of Lady Kingair’s lanky form.


A small voice with a French accent queried cheekily, “Is Miss Sophronia mucking about?”


Sidheag looked down for a long moment and then turned around, eyebrows arched, and addressed the room. “Sophronia, you have a, erm, caller.” Then she resumed her languid pose, watching the other girls cavort with the look of a scientist observing the actions of a newly discovered species.


A few of the others glanced over to see who was at their door, but the visitor garnered very little attention after that first assessment.


Sophronia, still in the heels, teetered over.


“Good evening,” said Vieve, grinning up at her. Vieve, as it turned out, did indeed have green eyes. His hair was pitch black under his cap and he was looking quite at ease with the world, in the manner of most chronically ill-behaved children. He was dressed respectably, if a bit on the newspaper lad end of the spectrum, and was at least clean.


“Oh, Vieve, how are you?”


“Topping. I’ve come to meet your… you know…”


“Oh, yes, of course. I forgot.” Sophronia turned around to face the other girls. “Would you mind if Vieve came in?”


Dimity said, “Who?”


The others barely looked up.


Vieve took off his cap, clutching it self-consciously to his chest, and sauntered into the room.


“I wouldn’t pair that hat with those gloves, miss, if I were you,” he said, rendering judgment on Preshea’s choice of accessories.


The black-haired girl noticed him. “Oh, you wouldn’t, would you? And what would you know of such matters?”


“I am French,” replied Vieve with a shrug.


“Good point, that,” said Dimity, grinning.


“You’re nine years old and your guardian is an intellectual!” protested Preshea.


To be fair to Vieve, Sophronia privately agreed with him about the hat and gloves. The gloves were magenta and the hat pea green. “I wouldn’t get involved if I were you,” she said to the boy.


Vieve followed her through the chaos toward her room.


Dimity called after her, “Remember your reputation, Sophronia. Keep the door open!”


Monique let out a trill of unpleasant laughter. Agatha made her way over to Dimity to whisper something in her ear.


“I’m good with accessories,” protested Vieve to Sophronia once they were safely away from the bedlam.


“I’m certain you are, but there is no point in arguing with Preshea. She always wins, even when she doesn’t. And here is Bumbersnoot. Bumbersnoot, this is Vieve.”


The little dog was sitting expectantly at the foot of Sophronia’s bed, waiting for lights-out. He’d fled the parlor after Monique kicked him when he ate one of her hair ribbons. He now had a little dent in one side.


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