Home > Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(3)

Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(3)
Gail Carriger

Thus the young ladies, outfitted in each other’s finest—and each other’s personalities—descended upon Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique for a winter ball a few weeks later. There existed no little animosity between the two schools. They disagreed on the subjects of politics, supernatural acceptance, techniques of instruction, and teatime provisions. But they were linked by necessity. Bunson’s town, Swiffle-on-Exe, was the way station for Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. And really, what other partners could girls trained in espionage find at short notice, except boys trained as evil geniuses?

The boys always expected something odd from Geraldine’s girls, but they seemed unclear about what exactly was occurring. Nevertheless, they soldiered manfully in, requesting dances from out-of-character young ladies. Bunson’s was not a particularly attractive school, but they’d done up the ballroom to an extreme. Evil genius-ness was like that—showy. There were automated lanterns high above filled with a yellow-colored noxious gas, suspended on small rails from the ceiling. Four mechanicals had been reconfigured as a string quartet in one corner, where they played a rotating series of five, yes, five whole songs, over and over. Someone’s final project, Sophronia heard the whispers. So good he’d been recruited directly out of school as a Cultivator-class Pickleman. Other mechanicals circulated, carrying large brass trays loaded with nibbles and punch. Sophronia was suspicious of some of the nibbles (they could be explosive), so she stuck with recognizable foodstuffs. Someone managed to dump absinthe in the punch, and it took ten whole minutes for Professor Lefoux to discover it and order a new batch. Things were jolly indeed, for ten minutes.

The boys had cleaned up as much as could be expected from those inclined toward evil. Civilities were observed to even Lady Linette’s standards. Carnets de bal were requested and filled in. Sophronia was proud of hers—it doubled as a garrote, among other things. She did not hold it up eagerly, as her compatriots did—that was not Agatha’s way. She skulked to the back of the room, finding refuge in a small crook-legged chair hidden behind a razor-edged metal fern.

Sophronia watched interactions through its fanged fronds. There were a number of understandings between Geraldine’s girls and Bunson’s boys, despite a school policy that insisted these boys were for practice, not permanent liaison. There were certainly enough long-running courtships for the young men to know something was unusual. They approached customary objects of flirtation only to be confused when conversations deviated or did not occur at all. The face was the same, but the dress and interaction were at odds with all previous encounters.

Preshea—as Sophronia—was flirting outrageously. Yet Lady Linette did not object. Am I that much of a flirt? Sophronia wondered. Preshea was eyeing Felix Mersey and edging toward him. Sophronia hid a sneer. Preshea would have done that no matter what. But it showed she was unaware of recent history. It was true Sophronia might have showed him favor, a year ago. Not anymore. In this Preshea got her entirely wrong.

Felix hadn’t seen Sophronia yet, and if she had her way, he never would. He looked older and tired. His hair was too long and his eyes slightly sunken, without their customary kohl liner. Had he been ill? Or was that guilt? He still looked better than any other man in the room, but her heart no longer fluttered at the sight. Instead she felt… what? A slight nausea at possible confrontation, mixed with minor disgust. Sophronia had cut off all correspondence with him last February. She’d returned his letters unopened.

“Crikey, Sophronia, what’s the matter with your lot this evening?” Of all people, Pillover had found her hiding spot.

Dimity’s little brother had a longstanding relationship of such casualness with Sophronia as to make him treat the boundaries set by polite society with brotherly disregard. Sophronia had learned to accept this treatment, although she found it uncalled for; after all, she already had more than her fair share of brothers. Sophronia and Pillover were also, so far as Sophronia’s mother was concerned, engaged.

“Here you are, lurking like some reluctant hedgehog. Most out of character. Why, for goodness’ sake?” Pillover must be ruffled. Usually he never said more than one sentence in a row.

Sophronia looked at her toes so as not to show interest in the dance. She dearly loved dancing, but Agatha hated it. Ordinarily she would have said, “Pillover, you’re positively loquacious. Are you running a fever?” But Agatha wouldn’t, so Sophronia didn’t.

He looked her over, head to toe. “And I can’t spot Bumbersnoot on you anywhere.” He plopped down next to her without waiting for an invitation. He had shot up into gangliness over the course of their acquaintance, accidentally cultivating an air of dissolute idleness that most ladies found fascinating. They thought he had a broken heart in need of repairs. In actuality, he was conjugating Latin verse in his head. As there was nothing Pillover disliked more than being the object of feminine attention, he remained utterly unmoved by their interest. This, of course, only made him more desirable.

“Sophronia?” Pillover had left off calling her Miss Temminnick shortly after she forced him to dress in her petticoat in order to escape Bunson’s. Such intimacy demanded use of given names.

“Good evening, Mr. Plumleigh-Teignmott.” Sophronia was gravely formal. Several of her teachers were wending through the crowd. The Bunson’s professors thought this was normal chaperoning, but the ladies knew better. Sophronia suspected Sister Mattie—or more properly Sister Mathilde—of being within eavesdropping distance at that very moment.

“Sophronia, for goodness’ sake, snap out of it!”

“I assure you, Mr. Plumleigh-Teignmott, I am in perfect health.”

“You are behaving like a wilted violet. No, strike that, a wilted olive tree.” Even Pillover didn’t like Sophronia in Agatha’s dress. “My sister has nary a sparkle in sight. And Miss Woosmoss looks like a”—words failed him—“chandelier in slippers!” He seemed most offended by this last. Pillover had a soft spot for Agatha. He thought her restfully chatter free—the most desirable quality in a girl. Sophronia suspected him of being distressed by the degree of attention Agatha—as Dimity—was garnering. The pink ball gown suited her very well. Her hair was a glossy pile of russet curls, dotted with silk flowers. Draped about her neck was a string of pearls—her own and likely real. Her round cheeks were rosy from the attention, the dancing, and the embarrassment of both. Quite apart from everything else, they had, indeed, had to cinch the girl in very tight to fit her into Dimity’s ball gown. The resulting décolletage could be seen from the aetherosphere.

Agatha had lamented this. “I look in imminent danger of spilling!”

“The gentlemen will be most intrigued,” vowed Dimity. “And you can be certain if I had the assets I should do exactly that, so it isn’t at all out of character. Simply beyond my ability.”

“Oh, dear,” wailed Agatha, nevertheless submitting to pink ruffles. She needed a high mark in this assignment. Agatha was in ever-great need of a high mark. So she cinched and took the consequences. Much to Pillover’s disgust, his sister’s predictions were correct. The gentlemen did seem most intrigued.

Dimity herself was milling around in a white dress with royal-blue trim. It was cut on elegant lines and not overly fluffy, making the most of her figure rather than trying to emphasize what she didn’t have. She had ribbon rosettes of blue and white in her honey-colored hair, which was dressed fashionably but without fuss. She wore one expensive-looking diamond bangle and no other jewelry at all. The diamonds were fake, of course, but you’d never know without close inspection.

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