Etiquette & Espionage / Page 8

Page 8

Lady Linette said, “Really, dear, do get out of its way.”

Sophronia did so, watching with interest as the maid trundled on to the other side of the deck, where a hatch opened and it disappeared inside.

“What was that?”

“A maid mechanical, dear. I know you’re from the country, but surely your family cannot be so backward as that!”

“No, of course not. My family has a butler, an 1846 Frowbritcher. But why doesn’t yours have a proper face?”

“Because it doesn’t need one.”

Sophronia was a little embarrassed, but it had to be said: “But her parts are exposed!”

“Mm, yes, shocking. But you had best get accustomed to the style. Very few of our mechanicals are standard household models.”

They wended their way up several sets of stairs, into and out of long corridors, and over other decks—some of wood, a few of metal, and one that seemed, most illogically, to be made of stone. Sophronia had boarded the airship at the far back section of the long dirigible caterpillar, and they now were crossing through its center.

The interior decoration looked much as Sophronia imagined one of the great Atlantic steamers, except that the entire place seemed to have been attacked by a grandmother—the kind of grandmother who knitted horrible small booties for workhouse orphans and made jelly for the deserving poor. Railings and finials supported crocheted antimacassars in mauve and chartreuse. A medieval suit of armor in the corner of one corridor was decorated liberally with ribbon flowers. Sophronia paused to examine it, only to find tiny mechanical devices hidden within the flowers. Suddenly, the outrageous chandeliers at each junction took on sinister aspects. Are those glass baubles decorative or deadly? They are rather knifelike. Can one call a chandelier sinister?

“The back end of the school grounds,” explained Lady Linette, “is for group and recreational activities. That is where we take meals and regular exercise. The middle section is comprised of student residences and classrooms, and the front is for teachers and staff. That is where we are heading now.”

“Uh, why?” Sophronia wanted to know.

“To meet Mademoiselle Geraldine, of course.”

“The real one this time?” asked Sophronia, a little snidely. And then, when her stomach rumbled, she added, “Will there be food?”

Lady Linette seemed to find this funny.

Sophronia couldn’t understand Lady Linette. She had a French name, yet her accent was English. Sophronia thought she detected a certain burr that suggested the north country, or possibly the West End.

“Now, be certain to remember which way we are going, Sophronia. It is easy to get lost. The school grounds are rather convoluted. The most important thing to note is that you must be on a middle level or higher to get between sections. Very high up, however, is not recommended. Once you get to the squeak decks, the way between the sections is not suited to proper attire. Ah, here we are. You see this red tassel here? It marks the teacher’s section. You are not permitted to roam anywhere freely at night, and during lesson time you are restricted to certain areas. However, you can never enter the tassel section without an adult escort.”

Sophronia nodded. She wondered how the restrictions were enforced. Which was the moment she realized she was intrigued enough to give this abnormal finishing school an opportunity to prove itself worthwhile.

“Very well, Miss Temminnick. Tell me a little about yourself. Are you well-educated?”

Sophronia considered this question seriously. “I don’t believe so.”

“Excellent. Ignorance is most undervalued in a student. And have you killed anyone recently?”

Sophronia blinked. “Pardon?”

“Oh, you know, a knife to the neck, or perhaps a cleverly noosed cravat?”

Sophronia said only, “Not my preferred diversion.”

“Oh, dear, how disappointing. Well, don’t you fret. We shall soon find you some useful hobby.”

Lady Linette stopped in front of a fancy-looking door decorated in gilt and navy leather and boasting a particularly large number of tassels. She knocked sharply.

“Come in, do!”

Lady Linette motioned for Sophronia to wait, then went inside alone, closing the door behind her.

After determining that she couldn’t overhear anything through the door, Sophronia nosed about the hallway. The lighting was fascinating. Gas pipes were inset into the wall, and little lamps hung all along the ceiling like so many tiny parasols. It must be expensive, not to mention dangerous, to run gas through walls. Essentially, every corridor they walked along was liable to explode.

Sophronia was near the end of the passage, up on tiptoe to examine one of the parasol-shaped lights, when another maid mechanical came trundling down the hallway. It carried a tray laden with tea and companion comestibles. However, upon sensing Sophronia, it paused and let out a little whistle of inquiry.

When Sophronia did not respond, it whistled again, imperiously.

Sophronia had no idea what to do. The mechanical was between her and the gilt door. No Lady Linette to come to the rescue.

The whistle turned into a very loud shriek, like that of a teakettle, and Sophronia guessed that this was how restrictions were enforced.

Halfway down the hallway, a door banged open and a gentleman emerged. He was improbably mediocre in size, shape, and looks. His nondescript features were only emphasized by the addition of a fantastic crimson velvet top hat. The face under the hat, Sophronia saw, did not look at all pleased.


Whot, whot?” the man muttered, as if hard of hearing.

He was very pale and boasted an unassuming mustache, which was perched atop his upper lip cautiously, as though it were slightly embarrassed to be there and would like to slide away and become a sideburn or something more fashionable. He wore a pair of spectacles and squinted through them at Sophronia.

“Who goes there?” He had a funny way of talking around his teeth. As if they pose an inconvenience.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” said Sophronia.

“What’s that infernal racket? Maid!” He glared at the mechanical barring Sophronia’s path. “Stop that immediately.”

The mechanical continued to shriek.

“Maid,” yelled the man, “this is Professor Braithwope! End alarm protocol gamma six my eye is pickled and the earthworm sulks at midnight, resume previous path.”

The alarm stopped and the maid twirled away from Sophronia, swiveling on its tracks as though built entirely of ball barrings. It sped down the corridor.

The man left the confines of his doorway, passed by the maid, and came to glower at Sophronia. “What are you doing in this section of the grounds? No students allowed.”

“But sir, Lady Linette brought me.”

“Whot, whot? Well, where is she?” The mustache quivered in annoyance.

“She’s in that room.”


“That one there. The one with extra tassels.” As she pointed, the mechanical bumped authoritatively at that very door with the laden tray.

Lady Linette opened it and admitted the maid, plus comestibles. Then she looked around, blonde curls bouncing. “Miss Temminnick, what are you doing all the way down there? Was it you who alarmed the mechanical? I did warn you. Oh, Professor, I am sorry we disturbed you.”

“Ah, no trouble. No trouble. I was stirring anyway, whot.”

“This is a new student, Miss Temminnick. Covert recruit.”


“Yes. Isn’t that lovely? We haven’t had one of those in years.”

“Six, to be precise.”

“As you always are, Professor. My dear, the professor here will be teaching you history, deportment, manners, etiquette, and genteel dress.”

Which was when Sophronia finally tore her eyes away from the mustache and noticed that the man was indeed cutting quite the fitted dash, as Petunia might say. In addition to the hat, he was wearing the very latest in evening attire, as if he were about to attend a theatrical performance in one of London’s finer theaters. Sophronia found this odd, as there couldn’t possibly be any practical reason for such garb on board an airship. But she supposed one had to commend the effort. Unless one regularly wears evening garb to finishing lessons?

The professor said, “And I also teach coping with—”

Lady Linette interrupted him with a sharp shake of the head.

He coughed rather than finish his sentence. “Ah, covert recruit, ease them in slowly, whot? I suppose you’ve already met Niall?”

Sophronia nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Rest of it later, eh?”

“Miss Temminnick, do come along!” Lady Linette said.

“Nice to meet you, Professor.”

“Likewise, Miss Temminnick. Covert recruit, remarkable. Well, carry on.” With which the man slid smoothly back into his room.

Lady Linette placed one hand on the gold and lapis handle of the gilt door and paused, giving Sophronia a very odd look. Sophronia supposed she meant it to be significant and sultry; however, she looked as though she had a mild case of indigestion.

“Now remember, dear, discernment and discretion are of the utmost importance here. I shall be watching you carefully. You wouldn’t want us to think we had made a mistake in our selection process, now, would you?” Sophronia rather thought that was a tad caustic. After all, I didn’t ask to come here!

Still, Sophronia nodded, to indicate she was willing to try, and followed Lady Linette through the gilt door and into… paradise.

Behind the excessive tassels was a private suite of the kind one might find in any upscale boarding house. The peculiar, and wondrous, thing was that the walls were lined with shelves. On those shelves were sweets of all shapes and sizes: stacks of petits fours, bonbons, trifles, iced cakes, custards, and any and all other confections that one might desire. Sophronia gaped.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” said a voice.

“Are they… are they real?”

The voice laughed. “No, but they look real, don’t they? Little hobby of mine.” An older female approached. She had rinsed red hair, friendly dark eyes, and a generous mouth. However, one was not prone to noticing any of the aforementioned features first. Oh, no, what was most initially strikingly about the woman was the fact that she was endowed in a manner that suggested operatic tendencies. Sophronia could think of no more delicate way of putting it—her corset was distinctly under stress.

The woman smiled. “Do you like them?”

It took Sophronia a moment to realize she was referring not to her endowments but to the fake pastries on display.

“They are very… realistic.”

“But you would far rather taste than merely look? I understand. Would you take tea with me? I should dearly like to make your acquaintance. It has been so very long since the school took in an outsider.”

“Six years,” added Sophronia helpfully, figuring this was merely another way of saying covert recruit.

“Really, so long? How did you know?”

“Professor Braithwope told me.”

“Have you met the professor? Such a nice man. Definitely qualit-tay. Well, Lady Linette, tell me about our newest addition. Is she qualit-tay?”

“I believe she may do. She has certain advantages.”

“And a definite air of nobility. I like that! Oh, but dear me we’re forgetting our manners already. I am Mademoiselle Geraldine.”

“The real one?” asked Sophronia cautiously.

“Of course, child. Why shouldn’t I be? As if anyone would want to impersonate me!”

“Oh, but—” Sophronia caught Lady Linette shaking her head slightly. Oh, yes, discernment and discretion. Sophronia switched topics mid-thought. “Pleased to meet you, Headmistress. I’m Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.” She executed her subpar curtsy.

The headmistress blanched. “Oh, dear, we will have to do something about that. I’ll be teaching you dance and toilette and apparel selections. How are your steps?”

Sophronia had only had one dance instructor. He’d been hired for all the Temminnick girls, but spent most of his time with the eldest. This had led to the hasty dismissal of said dance instructor. As a result, Sophronia managed to escape the protracted torture of quadrilles. “Absent, I’m afraid, Headmistress.”

“Good! That’s very good. I much prefer a fresh palate. Nothing to unlearn. Now, sit down, do. Have some tea.”

Sophronia sat, and after a moment’s hesitation, began stuffing her face with the little cakes and sandwiches arrayed before her. These proved to be real. And delicious. Now, if finishing school is full of tea cakes, I could certainly grow to love it.

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