Home > Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(6)

Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)(6)
Gail Carriger

“Very,” agreed Vieve. “And we have had other visitors, of late.”

Here comes the important part. “Have you? How fascinating. Do tell?”

“Very well-dressed visitors. Except, they strangely insisted on green bands about their hats.”

Picklemen! Sophronia’s slight panic showed in a missed step. Fortunately, it lent credence to her Agatha. It was at about this point in any dance that Agatha became uncomfortable, stumbled, and found a way to end the prolonged contact with a member of the opposite sex.

“How recently, if I may ask?”

“Oh, you may.” Vieve was gloriously mild in her delivery. “They could still be here, on school grounds.”

Ah-ha! So Monique wasn’t here for the ball, she was tracking Picklemen. But what business would they have with Bunson’s? The crystalline valve was in their possession and under production. True, some of them had sons at the school. Where else would an evil secret society send its progeny? But to visit in person? Particularly as the boys were about to head home for the holidays.

Does Monique know why they’re here? Or is she following them because she doesn’t? Sophronia found herself, much to her disgust, contemplating arranging a conversation with the dratted blonde.

The reel was coming to an end. There was no way to stay Agatha and converse further with Vieve. Throwing caution briefly to the wind, but keeping her voice hesitant, Sophronia said, “Perhaps a consultation, later this evening, Mr. Lefoux?”

“I am at your disposal.” Vieve guided her respectably off the floor.

Where to meet? Sophronia didn’t know Bunson’s well enough to get around after hours. Vieve would have to break curfew and leave the grounds. “Behind the Nib and Crinkle? An hour before dawn?”

Vieve gave her a grave look. Then a sharp nod.

“Mr. Lefoux, I shall have my Italian reticule with me.”

Vieve was suddenly more interested. “Is it still stylish?” Code for whether Bumbersnoot was in working order.

“Indeed. But I should like you to perform some modifications, if possible.”

“I shall bring my tools.” With a perfunctory bow that suggested the dance had not been up to snuff, Vieve drifted off to approach one of the newly minted debuts for the next dance. A pretty little blonde with big violet eyes looked hugely flattered at the attention of such a handsome young man.

Sophronia was about to skulk back to her corner when a voice behind her said, “That was an unexpectedly lively conversation, Miss Temminnick.”

Sophronia turned to find Professor Lefoux looming.

“Well”—she injected a tremor of fear into her voice—“we know each other, from before, you understand.”

Professor Lefoux frowned, unsure as to whether Sophronia was hinting that she knew that the professor’s niece was illegally pretending to be her nephew as a threat, or whether Sophronia was pretending to be Agatha to such an extent that she would blunder into mention of this delicate subject in public.

Nevertheless, Professor Lefoux was intent on reprimand, and Sophronia couldn’t really fault her for it. “That dance, Miss Temminnick, was too much. I expected better from you. Are we understood?”

Sophronia said, as Agatha, “Yes, Professor. I do apologize, I am afraid I forgot myself. I—” She hesitated, wondering if she should risk telling Professor Lefoux about the Picklemen. The professor was drone to Professor Braithwope, and, as such, allied with the supernatural. By rights she should be against the Picklemen. Then again, becoming a drone to a rove vampire would be excellent cover. She had, after all, worked with Professor Shrimpdittle on the contraption that failed to protect her vampire when he was flown into the aether. She could be sabotaging her own master.

Best not to tell. “Would you, by any chance, have a spare lace tuck?” Sophronia asked, hunched and meek.

Professor Lefoux, who favored high-necked dresses, even for a ball, and thus never needed a tuck, gave her a dirty look. “Certainly not. Now, go rectify yours having slipped. The necessities room is that way.”

Sophronia bobbed a perfectly executed slightly bad curtsy—which caused her teacher to snort and say something about this kind of assignment encouraging regressive behavior—and went in the direction indicated.

She spotted Dimity holding court near the punch bowl, surrounded by admiring young men. Dimity said something, no doubt cutting, and the boys around her laughed. They were mostly Pistons, a Bunson’s club known for churning out new Picklemen. At a school for evil geniuses, these were the most evil and the least genius. Pillover waltzed by and gave his sister a disgusted glare. The Pistons had made his first year at Bunson’s miserable. His attention returned to his partner. A lively Agatha looked up adoringly into his face. Pillover’s expression went soft—still glum and morose, but certainly soft.

The dance ended and Sophronia sent a longing look at all the happy flirting, hoping Professor Lefoux saw. She paused to watch Pillover lead Agatha off the floor. He pressed a tiny parcel into her hands. Agatha colored, looking as self-conscious as normal. Then she faked a laugh and tucked the gift down her cleavage in a flirt so blatant Pillover looked as if he might faint.

Lady Linette caught the maneuver and moved purposefully in Agatha’s direction. Whether intent on praise or reprimand, it was difficult to predict. Sophronia, mindful that Professor Lefoux’s eyes were glaring, could not linger. She made her way out into the hallway.

Felix did not try to speak to her again. Vieve contented herself torturing the debuts. Monique didn’t stay much longer, and Sophronia wasn’t blessed with the opportunity to engage her in conversation. Pillover danced with Agatha twice, much to Agatha’s pleasure. And possibly to Pillover’s as well. Hard to tell with Pillover—he had an almost spylike ability to maintain a sulky expression.

Such a public preference for Agatha, however, afforded Sophronia the ideal excuse to cry off her engagement with Pillover. Which she did, by letter to both him and her own mother, as soon as possible. The missive was prettily penned and very civil, stating only that she felt—given his two dances and provision of a bosom-worthy gift to another young lady—that they were no longer suited. He was young, she forgave him his transgressions, and hoped he would accord her the courtesy of never renewing his addresses. She could only suppose that Pillover’s delight upon reading her note would balance out her mother’s misery.

The gift he’d given Agatha turned out to be a Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification. “Don’t you think it kind of Mr. Pillover?” Agatha was disposed to be chatty after her euphoric all-conquering ball. “Did you know he’s reached Nefarious Genius? He’s developed the technique of having most everything he makes explode upon contact. The Pistons have stopped bothering him. Lord Dingleproops nearly lost an eye to Pill’s exploding hair tonic applicator. Pillover is ever so proud.”

“His hair did look nice,” said Sophronia.

The girls were preparing for bed. If preparing for bed could be characterized by lounging about in nightgowns, caps, and robes, sipping tisanes and gossiping.

Even Preshea had joined them, in a rare moment of camaraderie. “Sophronia, I must say, being you was unexpectedly fun, for someone who never says what she actually thinks.”

“Difficult to hold back on the barbs, was it?” asked Dimity, in an indisputably barblike manner. Her Preshea characteristics seemed to be taking a while to wear off.

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