Home > Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(11)

Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(11)
Gail Carriger

Professor Lefoux was giving them crossbow lessons on one of the midship decks. They were shooting at handkerchief targets, held in the claws of soldier mechanicals arrayed on the inside of the deck. This allowed the bolts to go through the material and embed themselves in the pitted wall behind.

“You ladies are developing into passably good shots.” Professor Lefoux indulged in a rare moment of praise.

“We should be,” muttered Preshea. “We’ve been at it for ages.”

Preshea could hit the handkerchief well enough to knock it out of the soldier mechanical’s grip, but not to pin it against the wall. Agatha missed one out of every four shots. Dimity struggled to get the bolt loaded but after that did fine.

“Everyone, see how Miss Buss holds her bow?” Professor Lefoux instructed. “But her stance, too angled. Square up, Miss Buss.”

Agatha was staring off into space, fingering her Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification.

Sophronia caught her at it and couldn’t resist. “I suppose that could be considered a courting gift, from an evil genius.”

Agatha dropped the lens as if it burned.

Professor Lefoux focused on them. “Miss Temminnick, if you would be so kind as to demonstrate the draw?”

Sophronia hefted her crossbow, loading the bolt and pulling back on the string. Then, without much thought, she raised her arm, pointed, and fired—hitting a dead-on bull’s-eye through the handkerchief. This was a surprise to Sophronia. If she had known she would be that good, she might have purposefully failed. It seemed to be a surprise to the soldier mechanical as well, for it puffed out smoke from beneath its neck attachment in a little stutter of shock.

“There she goes,” sniffed Preshea under her breath.

Professor Lefoux approved, as much as her personality would allow. “Adequate, Miss Temminnick. But consistency is also vital. I want both accuracy and precision. Do it again.”

Sophronia loaded, pointed, and shot, casually, hoping she would miss but not willing to do it on purpose now that the teacher was watching her closely.

“Another bull’s-eye. Have you been practicing extra hours, Miss Temminnick?”

Sophronia shook her head.

Professor Lefoux grunted. “I suppose natural talent happens. I will move you up to a more weighty draw.”

Agatha dropped her bow with a clatter while Professor Lefoux was talking to Sophronia, then bent over to pick it up, spilling cleavage everywhere willy-nilly.

“Miss Woosmoss, act like a lady!” remonstrated the professor.

Agatha modified her bend into a crouch, stays creaking.

Professor Lefoux rummaged about in an immense carpetbag with six little wheels affixed to its bottom, producing a teakettle-like object, an embroidery roll of wrenches, and a few other tools. Eventually, she found another crossbow, larger and heavier than the others. She handed it to Sophronia.

“Now, class, note how much stiffer the string is on this one? That will yield a more forceful bolt. This is more deadly and more accurate at distances. Go ahead, Miss Temminnick.”

Sophronia gave it her best effort, but it was impossible to pull back the string. It snapped forward several times, nearly taking her fingertip with it. She finally managed it by bracing against the wall with her foot and using both arms. Shooting the higher-impact crossbow was fun—the bolt flew with satisfying force and fairly tore the handkerchief in half before hitting the wall behind with a loud thunk.

“Miss Temminnick, keep with that one. Now, class, after sunset prepare for a co-lesson with Professor Braithwope, at which point we will use a moving target.”

“What target?” Preshea looked wary.

Professor Lefoux looked at her as if the answer should be self-evident. “Professor Braithwope himself, of course. He’ll hold up a large wood trencher. We’ll use metal bolts so as not to do any permanent harm should you actually hit him.”

Dimity trembled in agitation. “We have to shoot directly at a living target?”

“Not exactly living, but yes.” Professor Lefoux was remarkably unperturbed.

Sophronia felt bound to object. “I, for one, should prefer not to shoot at someone I like.”

“Admirable scruples, Miss Temminnick. Get over them, for you will do it anyway.”

“Yes, Professor.” Sophronia wanted to object further. Professor Braithwope wasn’t in his right mind. It didn’t feel sporting to shoot at a crazy person, even if that person was a vampire who’d agreed to the job. Then again, mental fragility might make him unpredictable and harder to hit. Still, Sophronia would hate to add crossbow injury to her long list of transgressions against a teacher who, in the end, was nothing more offensive than undead with excellent taste in clothing and a curiously unstable mustache.

“I suppose she’d know if it weren’t a good idea.” Agatha was obliquely referring to the fact that Professor Lefoux, as the vampire’s drone, was responsible for his well-being. She was his food source.

They continued the crossbow lesson until sunset, at which point they were allowed a short rest. It was one of those rare clear nights on the moor—a midwinter rain had washed the mist away. Soon the fog would be back. It was like table settings. The skies of Dartmoor were perpetually set for visitors, rarely bare of decoration.

The girls, tired from their physical exertions, leaned against the rails and watched the sun sink over the upland heath, gossiping quietly. There was some argument over an article in last week’s popular papers, retrieved for analysis by the teachers in Swiffle-on-Exe. Gossip columns were a vital part of training, as one had to read between the lines not only to understand the way society worked but also to puzzle out aristocratic machinations, determine the bias in the press, and look for encoded missives within the back promotionals. An advertisement for muffs was getting a great deal of attention. A few girls were contemplating essays on the subject. Sophronia thought it was simply an advertisement, but others believed there was an embedded message concerning Scandinavian infiltration into northern Scotland. Something about the muffs’ looking more like the hats favored by the Danish guard. Add to that the fact that the Scandinavians had been keeping an awful lot to themselves recently, and many were left wondering if they could be trusted. Pickled herring was, in the end, a hugely suspicious food.

Professor Braithwope joined them after sunset. He was dressed quite somberly, his dark burgundy cravat tied neatly in the waterfall style, his waistcoat, jacket, and trousers all charcoal gray. His eccentricity of mind sometimes reverberated in his attire, causing him to wear odd items like a stovepipe beaver hat or a satin cape, but he never wore them badly. He might have lost his mind, but never his fashion sense. Tonight, however, he looked more undertaker than vampire.

The girls were tentative about the assignment, but it became clear that Professor Braithwope, while batty enough to insist on dancing an Irish fling the entire time, still had all his reflexes in working order. It was impossible to shoot him. He either dodged or intercepted the dart with his wooden trencher.

“Do you see? Not so easy to kill a vampire, is it?” Professor Lefoux sounded smug.

Sophronia wondered if the vampire had noticed anything different about the pilot’s bubble recently. She decided to try to converse with him. She hoped Professor Lefoux would see this as an attempted diversion tactic for getting in a shot.

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