Etiquette & Espionage / Page 5

Page 5



Sophronia felt that there was something else undercutting the flood of words. “Headmistress, is there nothing we can do for you? You seem upset.”


“Upset? Of course I’m upset! And don’t call me headmistress. Headmistress, my ruddy arse.”


Sophronia gasped at the shocking word. Now, that’s taking matters too far!


Mademoiselle Geraldine sat up straight and glared, as though Sophronia were responsible for everything bad in the world. “My face hurts, my dress is in tatters, and I have no slippers!” This last and deepest offense was uttered in a positive wail.


“Then you’re not our headmistress?”


“How could I be? I’m only seventeen years old. You can’t possibly think I’m the headmistress of a finishing school. You’re not that naive..”


“But isn’t that what we were meant to think?”


“I didn’t think about you at all,” muttered Pillover, returning to his book.


“Who are you, then?” asked Sophronia.


“I’m Miss Monique de Pelouse!” She paused, as though expecting the name to produce some sign of recognition.


Sophronia merely gave her a blank look. “So this begs the question: where is the real Mademoiselle Geraldine?”


“Oh”—Monique waved a hand in the air and sniffed—“she never leaves much anymore, and she’s useless when she does. They always send impersonators.”


“They do?”


“Of course they do. It’s easier, and it’s a good way to finish.”


“And who is they?”


“Why, the teachers, of course. But we were talking about me and my problems.”


Sophronia looked Monique up and down gravely. “I don’t think we’re going to solve those in the space of one carriage ride.”


Pillover tut-tutted at her from behind his book—but there was clear amusement in the reprimand.


Monique sneered. “Who do you think you are? Covert recruit. You’re not that special. You’re not that good. Proud of yourself and your little carriage rescue, are you? Well, I didn’t need your help! I’m a top-level student, on my finishing assignment. Ordered to retrieve three useless children.”


Pillover’s voice emanated from behind his tome. “I hardly think that was all.”


“Of course it wasn’t all,” Monique snapped. “I had the prototype to collect as well, now didn’t I?”


Pillover took interest at last. “The one the flywaymen were after?”


Sophronia asked, “What’s it a prototype of?”


“Don’t be daft. I don’t know that.”


“Do you think you might at some point tell me what finishing actually means?” Sophronia was getting more and more curious about the particulars of this finishing school. It seemed Mumsy might have been misled as to the nature of the establishment.


“No.” Monique gave her a decidedly nasty glare and then turned her attention out the carriage window.


Sophronia wasn’t certain what she’d done to incur such loathing. Should have left her with the flywaymen. She looked at Pillover, who ignored her. So she sighed and sat back, frustrated. After a moment’s consideration, she switched to the spot next to Pillover and attempted to read over his shoulder, ignoring his faintly goaty smell. All boys smelled of goat. So they passed the rest of the ride, until the carriage pulled into the sleepy little town of Swiffle-on-Exe.


As they ratted to a halt, Dimity blinked awake. “Ow. What? Did I fall asleep?”


“No, you fainted. Blood,” explained her brother tersely.


“Oh, did I? Pardon.” Dimity glanced down at her wounded shoulder. “Oh!” Her eyes began to roll back into her head.


Sophronia quickly leaned forward and clapped her hand over the injury. “None of that, now!”


Dimity refocused on her. “Ouch. Uh, perhaps we could tie something over it?”


“Good plan. Close your eyes.” Sophronia worked the long hair ribbon loose from the grip rail inside the carriage door and wrapped it around Dimity’s shoulder.


“Oh, I do wish I were more like Mummy. She’s terribly fearsome. Wish I looked more like her, as well. That would help with everything.” Dimity sat up.


“Why? What does she look like?”


“More like Pillover than me.”


Sophronia, who had seen very little of Pillover’s appearance, outside of his massive outer garments, could only say, “Oh?”


“You know, dark and brooding. I should dearly love to be dark and brooding. It’s so romantic and fortune-teller-like. I couldn’t brood if my life depended on it.”


“Well, the ribbon around your shoulder makes for a certain fortune-telling appeal.”


“Oh, does it? Splendid. You know, Sophronia, you could probably do it if you put your mind to it.”


“Do what?”


“Be dark and brooding.”


Sophronia, with middling brown hair and moderately green eyes set in a freckled face, would hardly have described herself as brooding. Or dark, for that matter.


Dimity’s attention, lightning fast, shifted to a new topic. “Where are we?”


“Bunson’s, finally,” said Pillover, snapping his book shut. He made a show of organizing for arrival. Given that he no longer had any luggage, this was rather like the action of a mechanical without instructions, trundling idly in circles until he ran out of steam.


The carriage door was opened by a stiff domestic mechanical of some advanced outdoor nature.


“What is that?” gasped Sophronia. She’d never seen anything to equal the monstrosity. It was taller than Frowbritcher and conically shaped, with a wheelbarrow attached to its back. Where a face facsimile should be was a confusion of gears and cogs, like the back of a clock.


“Porter mechanical.” Pillover stood, clutching his literary tome, and jumped down. “You two coming?” he asked, without turning to see.


“Where is your luggage, young sir?” asked the mechanical. Its voice was louder and brassier than Frowbritcher’s. It wore a gray cap, backward, and a brass octopus pin on a cloth cravat around its neck. That’s too bizarre. Sophronia had never seen a mechanical wear clothing before.


Pillover answered. “Oh, about ten miles back in the middle of the road.”


“Sir?” The porter rocked side to side in confusion. It was riding on a set of rails, like a very small train.


Sophronia climbed out of the carriage to get a closer look, wondering if she could take the porter apart.


Dimity followed.


The mechanical’s attention instantly shifted to them.


“No females, young sir.” It made a whirring, hissing noise and ejected a puff of steam from below its cravat. The material fluttered up against its clockwork face and then flopped back down.


Pillover turned back. “What?”


“No females allowed, young sir.” The porter puffed again. Flap, flap, went the cravat.


“Oh, those aren’t females. They’re only girls. They’re slated for the finishing academy.”


“They read as females, young sir.”


“Oh, I say. Don’t be difficult.”


Sophronia took the diplomatic route. “We need to speak with an authority. Our carriage was attacked and our guardian is overset.”


“No females!” The porter mechanical was quite firm on this. Its chest panel moved aside to reveal some kind of weapon, too large to be a gun.


As Sophronia stood, transfixed, it sparked and then whooshed to life, hurling blue flames that got close enough to singe Dimity’s hair.


The girls dove back inside the cab, and the coachman, who was not having any more tomfoolery on his watch, drove the carriage away at once. The flame-throwing porter did not follow them.


The carriage halted outside the school grounds. Sophronia pressed her nose against the glass above the cab door and looked out. Bunson’s was massive, but oddly hodgepodge—not like a respectable educational facility at all. A few of its towers were square, but others were round; some were old, others new; and some were positively foreign looking. There were wires stretching between the towers, and sticks jutting outward with netting dangling off their ends. An orange glow lit up various windows, here and there puffs of steam emanated forth, and one large smokestack belched plumes of black smoke up into the sky.


Sophronia looked at Dimity. “What now?”


“Well, my brother’s no good. He’ll have forgotten about us the moment he got inside.”


“It’s starting to get dark.” Sophronia turned to their erstwhile headmistress. “She’s simply going to have to do her job.”


Dimity took a deep breath, sat down on the bench next to Monique, and shook the older girl’s arm.


“What do you want?”


“We don’t know the academy’s location, and neither does the driver.”


Monique de Pelouse said nothing.


Sophronia crossed her arms and glared at the older girl. Dimity looked back and forth between the two girls for a moment, then crossed her arms and glared as well. Though perhaps not quite so fiercely.


Finally, Monique relented. “Oh, very well!” She banged on the roof with her parasol handle. The cab door opened and the coachman stuck his head in.


Monique said, “Take Shrubbery Lane to the Nib and Crinkle Pub, turn left, and follow the goat path behind the hedge. After an hour, the path ends in a thicket of trees. Go around to the right and then I shall issue further instructions. And hurry. We must beat the sunset or we’ll never spot it.”


“But madam, that’s straight out onto the moor.”


“Of course it is. What could possibly have made you think we’d stop at the edge?”


“There are stories about Dartmoor. People get lost in the mist and never return. Or are eaten by werewolves. Or are taken by vampires. Or are murdered by flywaymen.”


At which juncture Monique proved she could do “commanding” far better than Sophronia. “Stop arguing, my man. You heard what I said about the sun.”


Looking very uncomfortable, the put-upon coachman resumed his place. The tired horses started up once more.


At first, everything seemed ordinary, but a few minutes up the goat path the carriage started to sway, buffeted by the most intense gusts of wind Sophronia had ever felt. She pressed her face against the window. Endless rolling grassland stretched around them, brown after a summer’s heat, waving in the wind. The moor was mist-shrouded in the distance. Here and there a coppice of trees or a small winding spring disturbed the monotony with a bright splash of green.


“Is this all?” Sophronia was dubious.


Dimity shrugged. “Windy.”


“Don’t let it fool you,” Monique said with an unkind smile. “This is the only nice bit. Soon enough the rocks will sprout up like broken bones, and the mist rises so fast you can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve been.”


Sophronia was not spooked. “You think you can scare me with doomy talk? I’ve older sisters, I’ll have you know.”


Monique gave her a dirty look before rapping on the carriage roof again and issuing a new set of directions.


The carriage turned, this time following some invisible path out onto the heath. The mist began closing in around them, or they were moving into it—hard to tell which.


Sophronia actually began to feel a tiny bit of dread in the pit of her stomach. What if there really are werewolves roaming the moor?


And then, there it was. The mist broke. The last rays of the sun cast a long shadow out of the carriage and lit up Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. And no, the school wasn’t dashing around the moor on hundreds of tiny little legs. It was bobbing above it in chubby floating majesty.


THE CORRECT CONFIGURATION OF A FINISHING SCHOOL


My goodness,” said Sophronia. “It looks like a caterpillar that has overeaten.”


And it did. It wasn’t so much a dirigible as three dirigibles mashed together to form one long chain of oblong, inflated balloons. Below them dangled a multilevel series of decks, most open to the air, but some closed off, with windows reflecting back the dying sun. At the back, a colossal set of propellers churned slowly, and above them billowed a massive sail—probably more for guidance than propulsion. A great quantity of steam wafted out from below the lower back decks, floating away to join the mist as if responsible for creating it. Black smoke puffed sedately out of three tall smokestacks.


Sophronia was enchanted. It was the most fascinating thing she had ever seen, and entirely unlike any of the finishing schools she had ever heard of, which were mostly—according to her sisters—inside castles in Switzerland. She did not, however, want to admit to being enchanted, as this seemed childish, so instead, she said casually, “It’s much bigger than I thought.”


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