Etiquette & Espionage / Page 7

Page 7

Sophronia crouched down and squeezed her friend’s hand. She was glad she had crouched, for with very little warning, the platform rocked from side to side and began to rise toward the airship above.

Monique gave a squeak of alarm as the jolt almost tumbled her over the edge. Acting as if it were all her idea, she also sat.

The platform picked up speed until it was racing along briskly. The underside of the airship looked to be of solid wood and metal construction. Our skulls would definitely not win any kind of encounter with it! Sophronia resisted the urge to raise her arms above her head to shield herself. Monique was sitting, unflinching, and Sophronia wasn’t about to give the girl any more ammunition.

She and Dimity exchanged terrified glances.

At the very last minute, a hatch snapped open directly above them and they sped inside the ship, out of the freezing evening air and into warm darkness.

The platform stopped. The hatch snapped shut behind them. All was black. After the violence of the wind, the sudden stillness was overwhelming.

Sophronia’s eyes adjusted quickly. They were in a large, cavernous room, like a barn, with beams and supports indecently exposed all around them. It was curved, however, like the inside of a very large rowboat.

They heard the chattering first: amiable but argumentative female voices. Then across from them, a door opened, and a beam of yellow light spiked through. Three silhouetted figures entered, one after another, all garbed in the voluminous dress of a modest upper-class Englishwoman. The first was of medium size and medium build, with a halo of blonde curls; then came a tall woman; and lastly a short, dumpy female.

Miss Medium held a lamp and was by far the best looking, although this fact was well-hidden under a quantity of face paint that might embarrass even an opera dancer.

Dimity was charmed. “Look at her cheek rouge!”

“Her what?” Sophronia was shocked. One ordinarily didn’t expect such an application of powder, except from women of ill repute. What kind of finishing school has a lady of the night on staff?

“Rouge—the red stuff on her cheeks.”

“Oh! I thought that was jam.”

“Oh, really!” Dimity tittered obligingly.

The short, dumpy female was wearing a religious habit of some approximation. The robes had been cut and pinned into a facsimile of modern dress, full skirts, ruffles, and all. Over her head she wore a hat that was part lace floof, part wimple.

Miss Tall was the only one of the three who actually looked the part of a teacher. Sophronia adjusted her assessment from merely “tall” to “impossibly angular.” Like a human hatstand. This woman was severely dressed, with a face that might have been pretty if all the lines resulted from smiling rather than frowning. As it was, she looked like a stoat with gastric problems.

Monique stepped down off the platform and approached the three women. “You said it was a simple retrieval operation. No danger!” She was not speaking in the manner of a student to her superiors.

The nun said, “Now, dear, please don’t carry on.”

“ ‘No difficulty finishing, Monique.’ That’s what you said!”

“Well, dear, it was your exam.”

“It’s a very good thing that I can keep a cool head in a crisis! We were attacked by flywaymen! I had to take measures to get us out of there safely.”

“Explain,” barked the tall one. Her accent was French in a way that suggested it was not fake. “And take off that ridiculous wig.”

“The coachman was incapacitated, and those two panicked.” Monique removed her wig, revealing that she was a blonde, and gestured with it at Sophronia and Dimity. “I had to take charge of the carriage and enact a daring escape. Unfortunately, we had to leave our belongings behind.”

Sophronia was flabbergasted by this parade of outright lies. Monique definitely had some kind of secondary agenda. What’s going on here?

Dimity said, “Oh, I say! That’s not at all what happened.”

“Those two made consistent errors in judgment and protocol. They even fainted at the wrong moments. They’re entirely at odds with me. I can’t think why. I’ve been perfectly civil to them the entire time. I believe that they want to take all the credit for my intelligent actions. They clearly don’t want me to finish!”

“What?” said Sophronia, so shocked she was moved to speak.

“Look at her, all innocence! She’s the crafty one. I’d watch her if I were you.”

“She’s lying,” said Sophronia flatly; there was no other response possible.

The painted woman interrupted. “The particulars matter not at this juncture. The question is, Miss Pelouse, do you have it?”

Monique gestured to her torn dress. “Of course I don’t have it! I’m not so idiotic as to keep it on my person. As soon as I realized what it was, and that you’d given me a dangerous finish, I secreted it away in a private location.”

Sophronia understood the undercurrent of that statement. She expected us to be attacked by flywaymen all along.

The bony female craned her neck forward and hissed, “Where?”

Sophronia frowned, trying to remember a time when Monique might have hidden something.

Monique shook her head. “Oh, no. When I’m properly finished, then I’ll tell you.”

The Frenchwoman stepped forward to loom over the girl. “You manipulative baggage, I ought to—”

The dumpy nun put a hand on her arm.

“Now, Beatrice, don’t fuss. We have new girls here, don’t forget.”

Beatrice glanced at Sophronia and Dimity, and then snorted.

Gosh, thought Sophronia, the French are every bit as rude as Mumsy always said they were.

The painted woman said, “Beatrice, take Miss Pelouse away and see if you can’t come to an arrangement.”

Monique looked militant. “I’ll summon reinforcements if I have to.”

“Are you threatening me, girl? We shall see about that.” The Frenchwoman did not look cowed.

Sophronia shuddered—she wouldn’t want to be alone with either of them for any length of time.

She heard Miss Tall say, as the two walked away, “Properly finish, my dear? What makes you think there is any way for you to finish at all, now?”

Sophronia decided to forget Monique for the time being.

“Well, it certainly appears that you two have had a very exciting journey,” said the nun.

“We didn’t faint!” protested Dimity. “Or, rather, Sophronia didn’t faint. I did, but only after we rescued Monique from the flywaymen! She told it all backward!”

“Do you have witnesses?”

“Well, my brother was there.”

The teachers exchanged looks. Apparently Pillover’s reliability was questionable. “A boy? I don’t know.”

“And there was the coachman.” Dimity would not let the matter rest.

“He was insensible for most of the event,” Sophronia pointed out.

“You’re a funny one, aren’t you?” The painted lady looked at Sophronia closely. “Why aren’t you defending yourself?”

Sophronia shrugged. “I have sisters. I know how this works.”

“Do you indeed?”

Sophronia said nothing else. Monique was covering up her trail as well as self-aggrandizing her own actions. Perhaps she’d given the prototype away to someone else beforehand. Sophronia intended to find out. What was the prototype, and where was it, and why did everyone want it so badly? Some new kind of device for producing tea inexpensively? In the Temminnick household, nothing was valued more than good quality tea.

Dimity opened her mouth to protest further, but Sophronia elbowed her in the ribs.

The painted lady said, “Shall we get on with official business? Where was I?”

The nun whispered something in her ear.

“Yes, of course! Welcome to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. I understand one of you is a covert recruit?”

Sophronia raised up a tentative hand.

“Welcome, welcome! I’m Lady Linette de Limmone. I’ll be instructing you in music and several of the finer creative arts. This is Sister Herschel-Teape. She’s head of household management. And you are?”

“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick,” said Sophronia with a curtsy.

“Oh, dear,” said Lady Linette. “We are going to have to work on that curtsy.”

“Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott,” said Dimity, with a better curtsy.

I’m going to have to ask her to teach me the way of it. It seems a powerful weapon, thought Sophronia.

“Ah, yes, Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, we have been expecting you. Sister, if you would kindly get Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott settled. She knows everything already. Miss Temminnick, you’re with me, please.”

Dimity squeezed Sophronia’s hand. “Good luck.” She followed the dumpy nun out of the cavernous room.

The painted woman raised up the lantern and looked Sophronia over.

“Well, well, let me see. You’re… how old, girl?”

“Fourteen, my lady.” Sophronia couldn’t believe that a woman with that much face paint was a real lady. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had a teacup poodle named Lord Piffle; perhaps Lady Linette’s was a similarly spurious title?

“Good bones, average height. I suppose there’s no hope of your growing into that chin?” Sophronia said nothing. “No? I thought not. Eyes, indifferent. Hair”—she tsked—“you’ll be wearing curling rags the rest of your natural life, poor thing. The freckles. Well. The freckles. I’ll have cook order extra buttermilk. But you are confident. Shoulders back, girl, when you’re facing inspection. Confident is something we can work with. And Captain Niall likes you.”

Sophronia withstood the criticism with only a slight frown. She put her shoulders back as ordered. What she wanted to do was comment on Lady Linette’s appearance. So far as Sophronia was concerned, the woman’s hair was too curly and her skin too white, and she smelled overwhelmingly of elderflowers. I wager she wouldn’t like it if I told her that to her face!

What she said instead was, “How do you know what the captain thinks of me?”

“If he didn’t think you’d suit, he wouldn’t have jumped you up. He has very good judgment, for a, well…” She paused, as though hunting for the right word.

“Werewolf?” suggested Sophronia.

“Oh, no. For a man. Now, child, come along. We have much to do, and it is getting late. I suppose you’re famished, and, of course, we’ll need to settle your luggage and such.”

“No luggage, my lady.”


“Had to leave it behind with the flywaymen.”

“You did? Oh, yes, you did, didn’t you? How tiresome.”

“When I was driving the carriage.”

“When you were driving the carriage? I thought Miss Pelouse said…” A short pause. “Where was Miss Pelouse during all of this?”

“Well, either fainted in the road or crying in the carriage, depending on which point of the story.” All of it faked, if you ask me. But something kept Sophronia from volunteering that information.

“Interesting. Well, Beatrice will sort it all out.”

“What does she teach?”

“Worried, are you? You should be. Professor Lefoux takes a firm hand. Although she’s too fearsome for the debuts. You won’t have her until later. If you stay, that is.”

Sophronia noticed that Lady Linette had neatly avoided answering the question. What is Professor Lefoux’s subject? I still don’t know what she teaches.

“Now, dear, we must press on. Do follow me.”

They emerged from the darkness of a passageway into the open air of one of the main decks—a wide semicircle of rough timber planks.

The school had floated quite high since Captain Niall had jumped them on board. It no longer bobbed through the low mists of the moor, but was instead well above them. Below now lay a mass of white cloud tops, and above was the starry night. Sophronia had never thought to see the other side of clouds. They looked as solid as a feather mattress. She clung to the rail, staring down, hypnotized.

“Amazing,” she breathed.

“Yes, dear. I assure you, you’ll become quite accustomed to it. I am pleased to see you are not afraid of heights.”

Sophronia grinned. “No, never that. Ask the dumbwaiter.”

And that was when the maid mechanical ran straight into her. It was a standard domestic model. Looking down at its feet, Sophronia noticed that the deck was inlaid with multiple tracks. However, like the porter mechanical at Bunson’s, this one had no face, but only inner moving parts, completely visible to the outside world. It also had no voice, for even after it bumped into her and stopped, confused in its protocols, it neither apologized nor asked Sophronia to move.

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