Etiquette & Espionage / Page 33

Page 33

Sophronia was in a quandary over the matter of her attire. In the few months she’d been gone, she’d outgrown much of her previous finery—what little there was of it. She was finding herself not necessarily more interested in a proper ball gown so much as understanding the usefulness inherent in fitting in to a social event—particularly if there were prototypes on the loose. Leaving Monique under the Plumleigh-Teignmotts’ watch, she went to find her sisters.

She located Petunia, her older sisters having not yet arrived.

Petunia was in heaven. If heaven were to be defined as a pink tulle ball gown resplendent with bows and frills, along with giggling bosom companions. She was not pleased to see her troublesome youngest sister.

“Sophronia, you’re back?”

“Mumsy said I might be.”

Petunia looked her over critically. “You don’t seem finished.”

Sophronia produced one of her newly acquired curtsies. “I assure you, I have many of the necessary requirements.” Looking up, she said with no hint of mockery, “You look lovely, Petunia.” In truth, her sister looked rather like a strawberry meringue, but Sophronia was determined to apply her education as much as possible. Petunia was merely a test subject.

Petunia and her dear friends, all alike in ringlets and ribbons, tried not to be impressed.

“Well, in that case, lovely to have you home again.”

“Petunia, Mumsy neglected to realize I was still growing. May I borrow a dress?”

Petunia was not so hard-hearted a sister as all that. “Of course you may. One of mine from last season should do you well enough. You might have to stuff your corset. Now, wait a moment, let me look at you… perhaps not. You have grown!”

Petunia rifled through her wardrobe, emerging with a blue dress, wide of skirt and flimsy of material, with a great deal of white lace trim.

“Thank you very much, Petunia!” Sophronia dashed off, leaving Petunia a little bemused by the changes wrought in her sister, until she was once again distracted by the excitement of her ball and the importance of applying only the barest hint of tint to her cheeks.

Sophronia returned to the nursery. Monique stewed in a corner, wearing an elegant gown of pale gold, and Dimity was explaining the relative merits of accessories to her uninterested brother.

“Oh, what a beautiful gown,” exclaimed Dimity, who was rather fond of a big fluff of skirts. Her own gown for the evening was of a royal purple—a color entirely unsuitable to a girl of her age—not to mention the great swathe of pearls about her neck.

Monique said, as if she could not help herself, “It’s last season!”

Sophronia nodded. “I know, but it’s the best I could do. Mumsy forgot to order me one. Truth be told, I don’t think she expected me to actually put in an appearance. This will do.”

“Imagine going to one’s first ball in a borrowed dress from last season!” Monique shook her head at the travesty of the very idea.

Sophronia climbed into the dress, the sting of its outdated status somewhat mitigated by the fact that it fit her beautifully. Dimity buttoned up the back. After due consideration, Sophronia decided Bumbersnoot would be more of a help than a hindrance and picked him up.

“You can’t carry a mechanimal as an accessory!” hissed Dimity.

Which gave Sophronia an idea. She wrapped Bumbersnoot’s sausagelike body in a velvet scarf and tied it with a lace tuck so only his little head, feet, and tick-tock tail were peeking out. She wrapped each foot in lace and tied them with a bow. She then attached another length of lace to his neck and his tail, turning him into a dog-shaped reticule with a brass head.

“Oh, marvelous! That looks so outrageously modish it’s practically Italian!” said Dimity.

Sophronia slung Bumbersnoot over one shoulder and instructed him not to squirm, belch steam, or deposit any ash for the next three hours. Bumbersnoot wagged his tail very slowly, as if he understood the gravity of the situation.

The girls and Pillover, who had produced from somewhere a suit that actually fit, stuck close to Monique. They ate a light meal in the front parlor, out of the way of preparations, and sat drinking tea while the sun set and the guests began to arrive. No one was inclined to go anywhere until Monique did. And Monique would not join any party until it was well under way. Nothing was worse than being made available too early at a ball! Finally, she stood, and with a rustle, so did Dimity, Sophronia, and Pillover.

Pillover, although a good deal shorter than she, nevertheless offered his arm gallantly to Sophronia, who took it solemnly. He escorted her in first with all the dignity of an undertaker. Then came Monique de Pelouse, followed by Dimity. Dimity had her eyes narrowed and was clearly struggling to focus on Monique. She was about to enter a ballroom certain to contain much in the way of distracting fashion and other tempting sparkly bits.

Pillover and Sophronia were not announced. Monique was, and all eyes turned to her in interest as she glided in. No one was disappointed—she looked a peach. She quite outshone poor Petunia. Gentlemen descended in pursuit of her dance card, and Petunia’s eyes filled with tears. Dimity skirted in after, also unannounced, and joined her brother and Sophronia. The three lurked about the fringes of the group of male sycophants now surrounding their nemesis.

When Monique danced, they danced with one another. They were well aware it was indecorous to dance with one’s brother—or one’s friend’s brother, for that matter—at a ball. Dimity blushed furiously and dragged her feet. But Sophronia fell into her new training easily and found it no hardship to sacrifice dignity to the thrill of the hunt. When Monique sipped punch, Sophronia sipped punch and mimed inane conversation with Dimity. Dimity got distracted by jewelry. Pillover found his way to the nibbles far too often. Sophronia thought only of Monique and her admirers, quite unaware of those few young men who tentatively approached her and Dimity. Dimity was vivacious in her round, roundly pleasing way—all bright smiles and colors. Sophronia’s mousiness had somehow been tinted by finishing school with an air of mystery and quiet confidence. She was also carrying the most remarkable dog-shaped reticule, which some said was certain to become the very height of fashion next summer.

One young man, a ginger-haired lordling with an unrepresentative chin, turned away without much disappointment when it became clear Dimity was more focused on the pretty blonde girl than she ever would be on him. Another, a dark-haired, pale-faced boy with a petulant expression, spent a good deal of time courting the edges of Sophronia’s notice, trying to look as though he didn’t care that her attention was focused elsewhere.

Sophronia did notice him eventually, while still keeping Monique firmly fixed in her peripheral vision. “Dimity, I believe Pillover is correct. My sister’s party has indeed been invaded by Pistons. I’ve seen two so far.”

“Oh, dear me, is Lord Dingleproops among them?”

Sophronia gestured with her head at the table of comestibles. At the same time, the dark-haired boy slipped up to Sophronia’s side and grabbed her hand.


Sophronia was entirely startled both by the overtness of the approach and the sudden appearance of the boy so close to her. She inadvertently allowed herself to be drawn into a quadrille with a young man, a Piston, to whom she had not been introduced! So many breaches in etiquette all at once! Sophronia was shocked at herself. That said, it was a testament to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s training that she executed the quadrille steps perfectly without any thought at all—half her attention on her sullen partner, and the other half on Monique.

Then, suddenly, her focus was diverted by a hullabaloo. Pillover seemed to be trying to stop Lord Dingleproops from pouring a flask of some liquid into the punch bowl. Her dance partner saw Sophronia looking and made to direct her attention back to the quadrille. Sophronia narrowed her eyes at him and left the set. He probably didn’t deserve such a cut direct, but something was afoot.

In the same instant, Monique made a break for it.

“ ’Ware!” Sophronia hissed, grabbing Dimity’s arm. She was about to follow when another observation froze her in her tracks for a split second. Lurking in the shadows behind the scuffle was an older gentleman, perfectly dressed in evening garb, wearing a stovepipe hat with a green ribbon tied about it.

Their eyes met. Sophronia flinched and turned quickly to Dimity. “You’re going to need to stay here. Keep an eye on that man, there. See him?”

Dimity gasped. “The Pickleman?”

“Yes. Monique is mine.”

“Right!” Dimity nodded once and threw back her shoulders, edging toward the fracas at the punch bowl for cover.

Sophronia took off after Monique, who had slipped gracefully away from her crowd of admirers on the arm of an impressive gentleman and out into the back garden. Sophronia followed the couple as quietly as possible, at a distance, taking a lesser-used gardener’s path between two rows of rhododendrons. The skirts of her wide dress brushed softly against the bushes, but her footsteps were silent. She walked carefully, toe to heel, in her kid dancing slippers, just as Lady Linette had instructed. The dirt path was far quieter than the dry straw on which they had been forced to practice.

Monique and her escort made their way along the brick walk and through a copse of trees to a birdbath at the center of a wisteria-covered gazebo surrounded by huge lilac bushes. It was the sort of birdbath that cranked into motion, spinning a tiny wheel that raised and lowered a little flock of automated birds for when the real ones were otherwise occupied. It was motionless at the moment.

“Very well, Miss Pelouse. Westminster received your message. You have the merchandise?” said the gentleman after a moment of standing in silence.

Westminster? Is Monique working for Parliament? Sophronia inched in closer, using the lilacs for cover and tucking her copious blue skirts in about her in an effort to remain invisible.

The gentleman was a remarkably good-looking chap—well-dressed, well-coiffed, and well-suited. Sophronia’s mind instantly went to her lessons with Professor Braithwope. Did she detect the vampire touch? Was he dapper enough? There were no hives near her house, not so far as her parents had ever said, and he didn’t appear to have fangs. She assessed his attire again. Simply a very well-dressed government representative, or a drone?

Looking furtively around, Monique tipped the brass birdbath over with her boot and reached inside the hollow of the pedestal to remove a brown paper parasol. It was about the size of her fist, very innocuous-looking, and tied with string.

She popped it into her reticule and straightened, brushing her hands together before pulling her gloves back on. With a self-satisfied smile she turned, removed the reticule from its waist hook, and held it up, dangling, just outside of the gentleman’s reach.

“My payment, if you would be so kind?”

The dandy held up a small purse. “As agreed, minus a fee for the inconvenience of several months’ delay.”

Monique’s lip curled. “How much of a fee?”

“Now, there, Miss Pelouse, a lady never discusses money outright.”

Monique, still holding the reticule with the prototype, began backing away.

A gentleman in a top hat wound with green ribbon emerged from the shadows before she could go very far. “Good evening, Miss Pelouse. I believe you have something that belongs to me?”

Monique whirled to face this new threat. “I believe not.”

“Ah, better to say that I believe you have something I want.” The Pickleman tipped his hat at the dandy. “Westminster is here? I should have guessed.”

The man tilted his head back. “Your grace.” In the same movement he pulled out a small gun, which he pointed in turn from Monique to the Pickleman. “Give it to me, Miss Pelouse. Now.”

Sophronia watched, wide-eyed. Her attention was focused on the prototype, which now dangled from Monique’s hand. The key is to try to sneak it away while the others are distracted and get it back into the safety of the crowded ballroom. Clearly no one wants a public scene—not the Pickleman, not Monique, and not the man from Westminster.

The Pickleman raised a whistle to his lips and blew it sharply. At Sophronia’s waist, Bumbersnoot the reticule woke up and began thrashing about, hissing steam, his little legs churning and catching in the skirt of her gown. As he was suspended from a lace strap, he could go nowhere, but he did make an awful noise and a terrible fuss.

Luckily, he wasn’t the only one. Something much bigger and much louder was causing even more of a racket. A hissing, clanking, crashing sound commenced as some large mechanical object made its way through the shrubs, destroying Mrs. Temminnick’s garden. It broke through the lilacs behind the Pickleman, careening into one side of the gazebo.

It was a huge mechanimal, shaped like a bulldog and as tall as man. It belched smoke out its ears; its four stubby legs were as big as birch trees; its mouth was a wide-open cavern of flame. Unlike Bumbersnoot, this mechanimal was not made to transport, only to destroy.

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