Etiquette & Espionage / Page 31

Page 31

“I wish you’d admitted it was you earlier. Perhaps Monique isn’t as bad as I think.”

“Oh, she is.”

Sophronia sighed. She wasn’t really angry at Sidheag—more concerned about what it said about her new friend’s character.

Sidheag’s look went from militant and defensive to slightly apologetic. She sat on the other bed, facing Sophronia. Sidheag was no Dimity, to flop and lean affectionately on her shoulder.

“I didn’t want you to know it was me. I thought you’d hate me for it.”

“What did you do it for, then, Sidheag?”

“I thought it would show them what a bad fit I was for this school. A school like this ought to punish scandalmongers. Instead they acted disappointed and put a note in my record. I did genuinely think you’d deny it, too. Then it would be your word against mine and nothing would come of it. I didna ken I’d grow to like you at all.”

“You’re not going to make it through, are you, Sidheag? I mean to say, you’re tough enough, but—”

“I dinna care enough. I got home to worry over.”

“Something’s wrong with your pack?”

“Something.” Sidheag clearly didn’t want to relay the particulars.

“I take it you really don’t want to come to my sister’s ball?”

Sidheag nodded, perhaps a little too eagerly. “I should go home.”

“Um,” said a hesitant voice. The door behind them cracked open. Agatha had clearly been listening to the whole conversation. At a school for espionage training, thought Sophronia, life can get very complicated.

“Yes, Agatha?” she said primly.

“Could I not go, too, then? I mean to say, very kind of you to ask me and all, but I don’t know as I’m ready, and if Sidheag isn’t attending…” She trailed off hopefully.

“I’m certain you and Dimity can handle matters,” Sidheag said, attempting to be positive.

Sophronia wasn’t convinced, but it wasn’t in her training to object. “Once an invitation has been declined, it does not do to force your request; it’s as bad as a jilted lover pressing his suit,” Mademoiselle Geraldine had said. So Sophronia left the room with a polite farewell.

“Sidheag and Agatha won’t be coming with us to Petunia’s ball,” she said to Dimity upon returning to their room.

“Oh, why not?”

“They don’t feel ready.”

“Goodness, imagine passing up the opportunity to dress fancy and dance all night.”

“Or, more precisely, dress fancy and follow Monique around all night.”

Dimity said, “Just us two, then? This isn’t going to be easy.”

The end of the term barreled down upon them like flywaymen out of a clear blue sky. One week they were learning the last of handkerchief manipulation for fun and profit and having a special session on the language of fans with an eye toward various holiday parties, and the next week the great propellers of the school had wound up and they were no longer drifting with the mists. They left their safe haven of gray and made haste to Swiffle-on-Exe.

The teachers were jumpy. No sooner had they drifted down and out of the cloud cover than on the horizon they could see the faint dots of airships tracking them. The school sped toward the town and the relative protection of Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique.

During the intervening two days, messages were dropped, presumably to Captain Niall and thence to the nearest post. Sophronia sent a carefully worded missive warning her family of possible flywaymen and asking them to uninvite Monique, both of which items she was tolerably certain they would ignore. She also informed them she was bringing Dimity with her.

Bunson’s let out the same day as Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, partly because of the system of shared siblings and partly for safety, Sophronia supposed. The flywaymen would hardly dare tangle with the defenses of an evil genius school, not to mention assembled parents of high rank and threatening aspect. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality floated in low over the town and dropped anchor—which apparently meant lashing several mooring ropes to a copse of trees—a quarter of a mile away from the walls of Bunson’s. It was midmorning and thus impossible to use Captain Niall and the glass platform for unloading. Sophronia suspected only very few knew about the rope ladders, which left her curious as to dignified disembarkation. Will I get to see the stairs?

She and the other debuts packed what few necessities they needed, knowing full wardrobes and shopping jaunts awaited them at home. They made their way to one of the main decks of the midsection of the ship alongside the other students. The deck soon became crowded with giggling girls, full skirts, and assorted fripperies, not to mention hatboxes, carpetbags, and parcels. Sophronia wormed her way to the front and watched with interest as the school came down so low as to allow a long, automated staircase to drop out from under its mid-deck. She bent herself double and nearly tumbled over the railing in an effort to see how it was managed. Sophronia spotted three sooties cranking it down and waved to them discreetly.

Carriages awaiting receipt of students were assembled on a sweeping brown patch of moor between the two schools. Some contained eager parents, but most were staff awaiting charges. There was also a large coach-and-four intended to take some dozen or so girls to the nearest train station.

Sophronia strained to see her own family crest—a hedgehog on the field of battle—on the side of a carriage. It was nowhere in sight, even with binoculars. Vieve had lent the binoculars to her on a semipermanent basis, a consolation prize from the young scamp upon taking back her obstructor. “To be sure,” the girl had said, “I need it far more than you, stuck on this ship all on my lonesome for the next two weeks. Here, take these instead.”

“Miss Temminnick, remove yourself from that indelicate position!” Lady Linette’s voice resounded from the other side of the milling throng.

Sophronia shied back from the rail. With a puff of steam and a clang of machinery, that very rail folded away, leaving the students faced with a long, rather grand, staircase-meets-ladder contraption.

It was a precarious descent for the girls, particularly the debuts, having to navigate a bobbing and shifting staircase with proper poise and carpetbags, but they managed it without upset—even Agatha.

Only when she was safely on the ground and milling through the flamboyance of the waiting conveyances did Sophronia spot their transport.

“Over here, Miss Sophronia!” Her old chum Roger the stable lad stood and waved at her from the farm’s pony and cart. It was terribly embarrassing; they would be traveling some fifty miles by cart. What if it rained?

Dimity, however, being a dear, sweet thing, said nothing disparaging. She declared in a shaky voice that it would be exhilarating to travel so far with an open top.

“You’re Miss Dimity?” asked Roger. “I’m to collect a Miss Pelouse as well. She here?”

“Oh, must we? Couldn’t you forget to, Roger, please?” asked Sophronia hopefully.

“More than my job’s worth, miss. Herself gave explicit instructions.”

At this juncture, Monique came up behind them and had histrionics. “Your mother sent us that? Guests at a ball, and we must travel all day in that!”

“You invited yourself, Monique. You might have ordered your own transport. I suspect our carriage was needed for more important guests arriving from town at the station.”

Monique sputtered and, after much fuss, allowed Roger to haul her into the cart, only to sit with her back ostentatiously presented to all.

Sophronia looked back up at the school through her binoculars. She could just make out, peeking out a bottom hatch of the forward section, two small faces, one black and the other that of a grubby child, accompanied by madly waving arms—Soap and Vieve seeing her off in their own inimitable way. Well aware that they probably could not distinguish her in the crowd, she nevertheless waved gamely back.

Sophronia looked beyond the ship. She was certain the specks were closer, and equally confident they represented flywaymen.

“Ready, miss?”

“By all means, Roger.”

Dimity yelled, “Oh, wait, I forgot! Pillover. Can we bring him? I suspect Mama might have forgotten he needs a lift. She can be very absentminded when she’s being evil.”

Sophronia shrugged. “He’s small. All right with you, Roger?”

Roger was game. “The missus said to make certain to collect all of you, not that I couldn’t arrive with extras.”

Dimity scanned the crowd for her brother. “Oh, where is the furuncle?”

“Look for a crowd of Pistons,” suggested Sophronia.

“Oh, Pillover isn’t a member. He’s not dashing enough.”

“Did I say I thought he might be? There!” Sophronia pointed to one side, where a group of boys stood with indolent posture and dark attitude. They were all dressed in browns and blacks, their hair was slicked back with too much pomade, and there were evening top hats on their heads—even though they were not yet presented and it was not yet teatime.

“Who do they think they are?” wondered Sophronia.

“Pistons, of course,” replied Dimity.

Each boy wore a brass-colored ribbon about his hat and had a gear affixed to his waistcoat. One or two had some kind of decorative protective eyewear perched atop the brim as well. They all wore riding boots, although not a single saddle horse was to be found.

Sophronia said, in tones of mild shock, “Some of them look like they are wearing face paint.”

“Kohl, about the eyes,” explained Dimity.

“Roger, head toward those boys over there, would you, please?”

“The pansies, miss?” said Roger.

“I wouldn’t let them hear you say that if I were you.”

Roger guided the pony toward the group in question with an ill-disguised look of contempt.

Pillover was, indeed, at their center. He was sitting atop a small trunk, shrouded in his oversized oil coat and battered bowler, reading a grubby book while the boys around him heckled him as though he were an emu at the zoo.

Their behavior, however, altered drastically the moment a cart full of girls drew up alongside.

“Lord Dingleproops?” said Dimity in a very snooty tone of voice. “What are you doing to my brother?”

A lanky young man with ginger hair and a less than aggressive chin doffed his hat at Dimity and said, with a cheeky smile, “Simply having a bit of fun, Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott.”

His eyes scanned the cart, arrested briefly by Sophronia—who looked at him directly, without flinching, in a most unladylike manner—and then moved on to Monique. Monique, in the style of all older girls when faced with younger boys, pretended the entire crowd of Pistons did not exist. Her attention remained fixed on the road ahead, a pose that emphasized her fine features and the slenderness of her neck.

Sophronia remembered what Pillover had said about them. Nasty chaps. One or two of them were, unfortunately, good-looking. She exchanged glances with a dark-haired, pale-faced boy with sullen lips and a petulant expression. He met her gaze and then looked away, restless, like a wild creature. Sophronia thought he was beautiful. His almost gawky quality reminded her of Captain Niall. Was he what the scandal papers might call werewolf bait? She said nothing to any of them. They had not been introduced. Instead she smiled her prettiest smile at Pillover.

What Sophronia did not know, and had yet to learn to control, was that her smile was rather more powerful than most. The face she saw in the mirror each morning was passingly pretty, if not terribly thrilling, but when she smiled with the full force of her personality behind it, she came over vibrant and striking. It was one of the reasons Monique disliked her so.

Pillover responded to the smile by closing his book and grinning back. His own dour expression, so obviously a mask for worry, briefly dissipated.

“Coming to the ball, Mr. Plumleigh-Teignmott?”

“Ball? If you insist.” Pillover slid off his trunk, and Roger jumped down to help him load it into the cart.

“Ball?” said one of the Pistons with interest. “We like balls.”

Dimity gave them her best, most haughty look. “Yes, but are you certain they like you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sophronia whispered to her.

Pillover joined them, as confident in his new situation as if he had always expected to set off with his sister and two other girls in a farm cart.

“I don’t know,” replied Dimity as they drove away. “It sounded good at the time.”

Pillover pretended interest in his book until they were some ten minutes into the journey. “Where are we going?”

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