Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had arrived with a stranger in tow. Meddling old battle-ax. With the hallways patrolled by siblings and household mechanicals, eavesdropping was out of the question. The only way of overhearing her mother, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and the stranger was from inside the dumbwaiter. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had decided opinions on reforming other women’s daughters. Sophronia did not want to be reformed. So she had pressed the dumbwaiter into the service of espionage.
The dumbwaiter disagreed with the whole idea of stopping at the ground floor, and instead kept on going—up all four stories. Sophronia examined the windlass machine at the top. Several lengths of india-rubber strapping made up part of the drive mechanism. Perhaps, once the strapping was removed, the dumbwaiter might shake loose?
The dumbwaiter had no ceiling; it was simply a bit of platform with a support cable on the inside and a pulling cable on the outside. Sophronia reached up and liberated the strapping. Nothing happened, so she took more.
It was while she wrapped the india rubber protectively around her boots—her mother had been complaining about the state of Sophronia’s shoes of late—that the dumbwaiter started shaking.
Sophronia squirmed over to the pulling cable, but before she had a chance to grab it, the dumbwaiter began to descend—fast. Very fast. Too fast. The loading door on the third floor sped past, and then the one on the second. Perhaps removing the rubber was not such a brilliant plan.
As the top of the next loading door appeared, Sophronia dove forward, tumbling through it and into the family’s front parlor. The top skirt of her dress caught on the lip of the door and made an ominous ripping sound.
Unfortunately, Sophronia’s grand escape coincided with one of the maids loading a half-eaten trifle into the dumbwaiter.
Sophronia hit the pudding on her dismount. The maid screamed. The trifle arched up into the air, scattering custard, cake, and strawberries all over the blue brocade and cream furnishings of the well-appointed parlor.
The bowl landed, in glorious perfection, atop the head of Mrs. Barnaclegoose, who was not the kind of woman to appreciate the finer points of being crowned by trifle. Nevertheless, it made for quite the spectacle as the bowl upended the last of its contents over that good lady’s bonnet. Until that moment, the bonnet had been rather smart—red with black velvet ribbons and crimson ostrich feathers. The addition of a trifle, it must be admitted, made it less smart. Sophronia, with great restraint, held back a triumphant giggle. That’ll teach her to meddle.
Mrs. Barnaclegoose was a large woman of progressive inclinations—which is to say she supported vampire and werewolf social reform, played a good deal of whist, kept a ghost in her country cottage, and even wore the occasional French gown. She accepted that dirigibles would be the next great means of transportation and that soon people might fly through the aether. She was not, however, so progressive as to accept flying food. She squealed in horror.
One of Sophronia’s older sisters, Petunia, was playing at hostess. White with mortification, Petunia rushed to the aid of the older woman, assisting her in the removal of the trifle bowl. Mother was nowhere to be seen. This made Sophronia more nervous than the fact that she had just assaulted an aristocrat with a trifle.
Mrs. Barnaclegoose stood, with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and looked down at Sophronia, sprawled on the plush rug. Most of Sophronia’s top skirt had ripped off. Sophronia was mortified to realize she was in public with her underskirt on display!
“Your mother is occupied in an important private audience. I was going to await her leisure. But for this, I shall disturb her. It is 1851, and I believed we lived in a civilized world! Yet you are as bad as a rampaging werewolf, young miss, and someone must take action.” Mrs. Barnaclegoose made it sound as though Sophronia alone were responsible for the disreputable state of the entire British Empire. Without allowing Sophronia a rebuttal, the lady waddled from the room, a plop of custard trailing down her fluffy skirts.
Sophronia flopped over onto her back with a sigh. She should check herself for injuries, or see to finding the rest of her dress, but flopping was more dramatic. She closed her eyes and contemplated the possible recriminations soon to emanate from her upset mother.
Her musings were interrupted. “Sophronia Angelina Temminnick!”
Uh-oh. She cracked a cautious eyelid. “Yes, Petunia?”
“How could you? Poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose!” Stepping in as understudy mother today, we have elder sister. Fantastic.
“As if I could plan such a thing.” Sophronia was annoyed by the childish petulance in her own voice. She was unable to control it when around her sisters.
“I daresay you would if you could. What were you doing inside the dumbwaiter? And why are you lying there in your petticoats with india rubber wrapped around your feet?”
Sophronia hedged. “Uh, um, well, you see…”
Petunia looked inside the open cavity of the dumbwaiter, where the remains of Sophronia’s skirt dangled merrily. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sophronia. You’ve been climbing again! What are you, a ten-year-old apple boy?”
“Actually, I’m right in the middle of a recovery period. So if you wouldn’t mind shoving off until I’m finished, I’d appreciate it.”
Petunia, who, at sixteen, considered herself all grown up, was having none of it. “Look at this mess you’ve created. Poor Eliza.”
Eliza, the now trifle-less maid, was trying to put some order to the chaos that had resulted from finding an unexpected Sophronia departing the dumbwaiter.
Sophronia crawled over to help with the strawberries and cake that now covered the room. “Sorry, Eliza. I didn’t mean it.”
“You never do, miss.”
Petunia was not to be distracted. “Sophronia!”
“Well, sister, to be perfectly correct, I did nothing.”
“Tell that to the poor woman’s lovely bonnet.”
“The trifle did it.”
Petunia’s perfect rosebud pout twisted into a grimace that might have been an attempt to hide a smile. “Really, Sophronia, you’re fourteen years old and simply unfit for public consumption. I refuse to have you at my coming-out ball. You’ll do something dreadful, like spill the punch on the only nice-looking boy there.”
“I would never!”
“Oh, yes, you would.”
“No, I wouldn’t. We don’t happen to be acquainted with any nice-looking boys.”
Petunia ignored that jibe. “Must you be so tiresome? It’s always something.” She looked smug. “Although I believe Mumsy has finally determined what to do with you.”
“She has? Do? Do what? What’s going on?”
“Mumsy is indenturing you to vampires for a proper education. You’re old enough now for them to actually want you. Soon you’ll be putting your hair up—what else are we to do with you? You are even starting to get décolletage.”
Sophronia blushed with embarrassment at the very mention of such a thing, but managed a sputtered protest of, “She never!”
“Oh, yes! Who do you think she’s talking to right now? Why do you think it’s such a secret meeting? Vampires are like that.”
Mumsy had, of course, made the threat when any of the Temminnick children were being particularly wayward. But never could Sophronia believe such a thing actually possible. “But it’s tea! Vampires can’t be here. They can’t go out in daylight. Everyone knows that.”
Petunia, in her Petunia-ish way, dismissed this defense with a careless flap of one hand. “You think they would send a real vampire for the likes of you? Oh, no, that’s a drone Mumsy is talking with. I wager they’re drawing up the papers of servitude right now.”
“But I don’t want to be a vampire drone.” Sophronia winced. “They’ll suck my blood and make me wear only the very latest fashions.”
Petunia nodded in an I-know-more-than-you manner that was highly aggravating. “Yes. Yes, they will.”
Frowbritcher, the butler, appeared in the doorway. He paused on the threshold while his rollers transferred to the parlor tracks. He was the very latest in domestic mechanicals, about the size and shape of a daphne bush. He trundled over and looked down his beaky nasal protuberance at Sophronia. His eyes were jet-colored circles of perpetual disapproval.
“Miss Sophronia, your mother wishes to see you immediately.” His voice, emanating from a music-box device deep inside his metal body, was tinny and grainy.
Sophronia sighed. “Is she sending me to the vampires?”
Petunia wrinkled her nose. “I suppose there is a possibility they won’t take you. I mean to say, Sophronia, the way you dress!”
The butler only repeated, without any inflection whatsoever, “Immediately, miss.”
“Should I make for the stable?” Sophronia asked.
“Oh, do grow up!” said Petunia in disgust.
“So I can be a puffed-up poodle-faker like you?” As though growing up were something one could do contagiously, caught through associating with officious older sisters. Sophronia trailed after Frowbritcher, nervously brushing her custard-covered hands against her apron. She hoped the pinafore would hide the disreputable—well, absent—state of her skirt.
The butler rolled down the hall, leading her to her father’s library. An elaborate tea service was arranged there, including lace tablecloths, sponge cake, and the family’s very best china. This was far more effort than was ever spent on Mrs. Barnaclegoose.
Across from Sophronia’s mother, sipping tea, sat an elegant lady wearing a sour expression and a large hat. She looked like exactly the kind of woman one would expect to be a vampire drone.
“Here is Miss Sophronia, madam,” said Frowbritcher from the doorway, not bothering to transfer tracks. He glided off, probably to marshal forces to clean the parlor.
“Sophronia! What did you do to poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose? She left here in a dreadful huff and—oh, simply look at you! Mademoiselle, please excuse my daughter’s appearance. I’d tell you it was an aberration, but, sadly, it’s all too common. Such a troublesome child.”
The stranger gave Sophronia a prim look that made her feel about six years old. She was painfully conscious of her custardy state. No one would ever describe Sophronia as elegant, whereas this woman was every inch a lady. Sophronia had never before considered how powerful that could be. The strange woman was also offensively beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair streaked with gray. It was impossible to discern her age, for, despite the gray, her face was young. She was perfectly dressed in a sort of spiky lace traveling gown with a massive skirt and velvet trim that was much more elegant than anything Sophronia had ever seen in her life. Her mother was more a follower of trends than a purveyor of fine taste. This woman was truly stylish.
Despite her beauty, she looks, thought Sophronia, a little like a crow. She stared down at her feet and tried to come up with an excuse for her behavior, other than spying on people. “Well, I simply wanted to see how it worked, and then there was this—”
Her mother interrupted. “How it worked? What kind of question is that for a young lady to ask? How often have I warned you against fraternizing with technology?”
Sophronia wondered if that was a rhetorical question and began counting up the number of times just in case it wasn’t. Her mother turned back to their guest.
“Do you see what I mean, mademoiselle? She’s a cracking great bother.”
“What? Mumsy!” Sophronia was offended. Never before had her mother used such language in polite company.
“Do you see, Mademoiselle Geraldine? Do you see what I must endure? And on a daily basis. A bother. Has been from the beginning. And the other girls were such little blessings. Well, I suppose we were due. I tell you this in complete confidence—I’m at my wit’s end with this one. I really am. When she isn’t reading, she’s taking something apart or flirting with the footman or climbing things—trees, furniture, even other people.”
“That was years ago!” objected Sophronia. Will she never let that go? I was eight!
“Hush, child.” Mrs. Temminnick didn’t even look in her daughter’s direction. “Have you ever heard of the like with a girl? Now, I know she’s a little brazen for finishing school, but I was hoping you might make an exception, just this once.”
Finishing school? Then I’m not being sent to the vampires? Relief flooded through Sophronia, instantly followed by a new horror. Finishing school! There would be lessons. On how to curtsy. On how to dress. On how to eat with one’s finger in the air. Sophronia shuddered. Perhaps a vampire hive was a better option.
Mrs. Temminnick pressed on. “We are certainly willing to provide compensation for your considering Sophronia. Mrs. Barnaclegoose told me, in confidence, that you are masterly with troublesome cases. You have an excellent record. Why, only last week one of your girls married a viscount.”
Sophronia was rattled. “Really, Mumsy!” Marriage? Already?
As yet, the crow had said nothing. This was a common occurrence around Sophronia’s mother. The stranger merely sipped her tea, the bulk of her attention on Sophronia. Her eyes were hard, assessing, and her movements very precise and sharp.
Mrs. Temminnick continued. “And, of course, there is dear Petunia’s coming-out ball to consider. We were hoping Sophronia might be presentable for the event. This December? Well, as presentable as possible, given her… defects.”
Sophronia winced. She was well aware she hadn’t her sisters’ looks. For some reason the Fates had seen fit to design her rather more in her father’s image than her mother’s. But there was no need to discuss such a thing openly with a stranger!
“That could be arranged.” When the woman finally spoke, it was with such a strong French accent that her words were difficult to understand. “Miss Temminnick, why is there india rubber wrapped around your boots?”
Sophronia looked down. “Mumsy was complaining I kept scuffing them.”
“Interesting solution. Does it work?”
“Haven’t had a chance to test them properly.” She paused. “Yet.”
The stranger looked neither shocked nor impressed by this statement.
Frowbritcher reappeared. He made a motion with one clawlike mechanical arm, beckoning. Sophronia’s mother stood and went to confer with the butler. Frowbritcher had a sinister habit of turning up with secrets. It was highly disconcerting in a mechanical.
After a whispered interchange, Mrs. Temminnick went red about the face and then whirled back around.
Oh, dear, thought Sophronia, what have I done now?
“Please excuse me for a moment. There appears to be some difficulty with our new dumbwaiter.” She gave her daughter a pointed look. “Hold your tongue and behave, young lady!”
Mrs. Temminnick left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
“Where did you get the rubber?” The crow dismissed Sophronia’s mother with comparative ease, still intrigued by the shoe modification. India rubber was expensive and difficult to come by, particularly in any shape more complex than a ball.
Sophronia nodded in a significant way.
“You destroyed a dumbwaiter for it?”
“I’m not saying I did. I’m not saying I didn’t, either.” Sophronia was cautious. After all, this woman wants to steal me away to finishing school. I’ll be there for years and then foisted off on some viscount with two thousand a year and a retreating hairline. Sophronia rethought her approach; perhaps a little less circumspection and some judiciously applied sabotage was called for.
“Mumsy wasn’t lying, you understand, about my conduct? The climbing and such. Although it has been a while since I tried to climb up a person. And the footman and I weren’t flirting. He thinks Petunia is the pip, not me.”
“What about the taking apart?”
Sophronia nodded, as it was a better excuse for destroying the dumbwaiter than spying. “I’m fond of machines. Intriguing things, machines, don’t you find?”
The woman cocked her head to one side. “I generally prefer to make use of them, not dissect them. Why do you do it? To upset your mother?”
Sophronia considered this. She was relatively fond of her mother, as one is apt to be, but she supposed some part of her might be on the attack. “Possibly.”
A flash of a smile appeared on the woman’s face. It made her look very young. It vanished quickly. “How are you as a thespian? Any good?”
“Theatricals?” What kind of finishing school teacher asks that? Sophronia was put out. “I may have smudges on my face, but I’m still a lady!”
The woman looked at Sophronia’s exposed petticoat. “That remains to be seen.” She turned away, as though not interested anymore, and helped herself to a slice of cake. “Are you strong?”
Down the hall, something exploded with a bang. Sophronia thought she heard her mother shriek. Both she and the visitor ignored the disruption.
“Strong?” Sophronia edged toward the tea trolley, eyeing the sponge.
“From all the climbing.” A pause. “And the machine lifting, I suppose.”
Sophronia blinked. “I’m not weak.”
“You’re certainly good at prevarication.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“That depends on whom you’re asking.”
Sophronia helped herself to two pieces of cake, just as though she had been invited to do so. The visitor forbore to remark upon it. Sophronia turned away briefly, in the guise of finding a spoon, to tuck one piece in her apron pocket. Mumsy wouldn’t allow her any sweets for the next week once she found out about the dumbwaiter.
The woman might have seen the theft, but she didn’t acknowledge it.
“You run this finishing school, then?”
“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” corrected the crow.
“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” parroted Sophronia dutifully, even though they had not been properly introduced. Odd, in a finishing school teacher. Shouldn’t she wait until Mumsy returns?
“It is called Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Have you heard of it?”
Sophronia had. “I thought only the very best families were allowed in.”
“Sometimes we make exceptions.”
“Are you the Mademoiselle Geraldine? You don’t seem old enough.”
“Why, thank you, Miss Temminnick, but you should not make such an observation to your betters.”
“Sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
“Oh, yes, sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
“Very good. Do you notice anything else odd about me?”
Sophronia said the first thing that came to mind. “The gray in your hair. It’s amiss.”
“You are an observant young lady, aren’t you?” Then, in a sudden movement, Mademoiselle Geraldine reached and pulled out the small throw pillow from behind her back. She tossed it at Sophronia.
Sophronia, who had never before had a lady throw a pillow at her, was flabbergasted, but caught it.
“Adequate reflexes,” said Mademoiselle Geraldine, wiggling her fingers for the return of the pillow.
Bemused, Sophronia handed it back to her. “Why—”
A black-gloved hand was raised against any further questions.
Mrs. Temminnick returned at that juncture. “I do apologize. How incurably rude of me. I can’t comprehend what has happened to the dumbwaiter. It’s making the most awful racket. But you don’t want to hear of such piddling domestic trifles.” She put a great deal of emphasis on the word trifles.
Mrs. Temminnick sat down, rubbing at a grease spot on her formerly impeccable gloves. “How are you and Sophronia getting on?”
Mademoiselle Geraldine said, “Quite well. The young lady was just telling me of some history book she was recently reading. What was the subject?”
So, she doesn’t want Mumsy to know she’s been throwing pillows at me? Sophronia was never one to let anyone down when fibs were required.
“Egypt. Apparently the Primeval Monarchy, which follows directly after the Mythical Period, has been given new dates. And—”
Her mother interrupted. “That’s more than enough of that, Sophronia. A headmistress isn’t interested in education. Really, Mademoiselle Geraldine, once you get her started she’ll never stop.” She looked hopeful. “I know she’s a terrible mess, but can you do anything with her?”
Mademoiselle Geraldine gave a tight smile. “What do you say to a probationary period? We’ll return her in time for that coming-out ball of yours in a few months and see how she gets on until then?”
“Oh, Mademoiselle Geraldine, how perfectly topping!” Sophronia’s mother clasped her hands delightedly. “Isn’t this thrilling, Sophronia? You’re going to finishing school!”
“But I don’t want to go to finishing school!” Sophronia couldn’t help the petulance in her voice as visions of parasol training danced through her head.
“Don’t be like that, darling. It will be very exciting.”
Sophronia grappled for recourse. “But she threw a pillow at me!”
“Oh, Sophronia, don’t tell fibs—you know how unhappy that makes me.”
Sophronia gawped, swiveling her gaze back and forth between her now-animated mother and the crowlike stranger.
“How soon can she be made ready?” Mademoiselle Geraldine wanted to know.
Sophronia’s mother started. “You wish to take her away now?”
“I am here, am I not? Why waste the trip?”
“I didn’t think it would be so soon. We must shop for new dresses, a warmer coat. What about her lesson books?”
“Oh, you can send all that along later. I shall provide you with a list of required items. She’ll be perfectly fine for the time being. A resourceful girl, I suspect.”
“Well, if you think it best.”
Sophronia was not accustomed to seeing her mother railroaded so effectively. “But Mumsy!”
“If Mademoiselle Geraldine thinks it best, then you had better hop to it, young lady. Go change into your good blue dress and your Sunday hat. I’ll have one of the maids pack your necessities. May we have half an hour, mademoiselle?”
“Of course. Perhaps I will take a little tour of the grounds while you organize? To stretch my legs before the drive.”
“Please do. Come along, Sophronia, we have much to do.”
Frustrated and out of sorts, Sophronia trailed after her mother.
Accordingly, she was given an old portmanteau from the attic, three hatboxes, and a carpetbag. With barely enough time to ensure a nibble for the drive—to goodness knows where, at a distance of goodness knows how far—Sophronia found herself being shoved hastily into a carriage. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and made a show of fussing. “My little girl, all grown up and leaving to become a lady!” And that, as they say, was that.
Sophronia might have hoped for a grand send-off with all her siblings and half the mechanical retainers waving tearstained handkerchiefs. But her younger brothers were exploring the farm, her older ones were away at Eton, her sisters were busy with fripperies or marriages—possibly one and the same—and the mechanicals were trundling about their daily tasks. She thought she spotted Roger, the stable lad, waving his cap from the hayloft, but apart from that, even her mother gave only a perfunctory waggle of her fingertips before returning to the house.
The carriage was amazing, outfitted with the latest in automated roof removal, retractable footstool, and collapsible tea caddy. It was a hired transport but decked out like a private conveyance, with walls of midnight-blue quilted velvet to reduce road noise, and gold-fringed blankets to ward off the chill.
Sophronia barely had time to take it all in before Mademoiselle Geraldine banged the ceiling with the handle of her parasol and they lurched forward.
More startling than the decoration was the fact that the carriage was already occupied—by two other students. They had, apparently, been sitting patiently the entire time Mademoiselle Geraldine took tea and Sophronia fell out of dumbwaiters and packed all her worldly goods into a portmanteau.
Directly across from her sat a bright-eyed, lively looking young lady, a little younger than Sophronia, with masses of honey-colored hair and a round porcelain face. She wore an enormous gilt and red glass brooch pinned to her bright red dress. The combination of the hair, the jewelry, and the dress made her look quite the scandal, as though she were in training to become a lady of the night. Sophronia was duly impressed.
“Oh, goodness!” said she to Sophronia, as though Sophronia’s appearance in the cab were the most delightful thing to happen all day. Which, for one left to sit idle in a carriage with no distraction or entertainment, it might well have been.
“How do you do?” said Sophronia.
“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”
“Is that all?”
“What, isn’t it enough?”
“Oh, well, I mean to say, I’m Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, actually, in full.”
“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”
“Gosh, that’s a mouthful.”
“It is? I suppose so.” As though Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott were a nice easy sort of name. Sophronia dragged her eyes away from the girl to examine the final occupant of the carriage. It was difficult to make out what kind of creature lurked under the oversized bowler and oiled greatcoat. But, if pressed, she would have said it was some species of grubby boy. He had spectacles that were very thick, a brow that was very creased, and a large dusty book occupying the entirety of his lap and attention.
“What’s that?” she asked the girl, wrinkling her nose.
“Oh, that? That’s just Pillover.”
“And what’s a pillover, when it’s at home?”
“My little brother.”
“Ah, I commiserate. I have several of my own. Dashed inconvenient, brothers.” Sophronia nodded, perfectly understanding the outlandish hat and coat.
Pillover glanced up from behind his spectacles and issued them both a look. He seemed a few years younger than his sister, who was, Sophronia guessed, about thirteen.
“He’s slated for Bunson’s.”
“Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. You know, the other school?”
Sophronia, who had no idea what Dimity was talking about, pretended to follow out of politeness.
The girl prattled on. She seemed to be a bit of a prattler. Sophronia was comfortable with this after living with her own family. They were big talkers, but with a lot less interesting things to say than Dimity. “Mummy and Daddy want him to be an evil genius, but he has his heart set on Latin verse. Don’t you, Pill?”
The boy gave his sister a nasty stare.
“Pillover is terribly bad at being bad, if you take my meaning. Our daddy is a founding member of the Death Weasel Confederacy, and Mummy is a kitchen chemist with questionable intent, but poor Pillover can’t even bring himself to murder ants with his Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification. Can you, Pill?”
Sophronia felt as though she was progressively losing the thread of the conversation. “Death Weasel Confederacy?”
Dimity nodded, curls bobbing. “I know—can you countenance it? I tend to look on the bright side; at least Daddy’s not a Pickleman.”
Sophronia’s eyes popped. “Uh, oh yes, rather.” Pickleman? What in aether is a Pickleman?
“But Pill here is a sad disappointment to poor old Daddy.”
The boy in question put down his book, clearly driven to defend himself. “I made the articulated hassock that moved when someone went to sit on it. And there was that custard pot that never got cool enough for the pudding to set.”
Dimity provided parenthetical information against this defense. “The hassock always ended up moving forward helpfully. And Cook simply used the Custard Pot of Iniquity for keeping her buns warm.”
“Oh, I say. That’s not on. Telling family secrets like that!”
“Face it, Pill, you’re disappointingly good.”
“Oh, I like that! And you’re so evil? Why, you want to get married and be a lady. Who ever heard of such a thing in our family? At least I try.”
“Well, finishing school should help with being a lady. Shouldn’t it?” At least this was something Sophronia knew about.
The boy snorted derisively. “Not half. Not this finishing school. Wrong kind of finishing altogether. Or should I say right kind, but only on the surface? I’m sure you follow.” Pillover made a funny little leer at Sophronia, then, seeming to have embarrassed himself, resumed his book.
“What could he possibly be implying?” Sophronia looked to Dimity to explain her brother’s behavior.
“You mean, you don’t know?”
“Oh my goodness. You’re a covert recruit? No family connection at all? I knew they took them, of course, but I didn’t think I would get to meet one. How charming! Have you been under surveillance? I heard they do that sometimes.”
Mademoiselle Geraldine interceded at that juncture. “That’s enough of that, Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott.”
“Yes, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
The headmistress went back to ignoring them.
“So where are we traveling to?” Sophronia asked, figuring that was a safe question, since they clearly weren’t allowed to talk about the school itself.
“You don’t even know that much?” Dimity’s tone was full of pity. “Why, to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.”
Sophronia shook her head. “No, I mean, where is the location of this school?”
“Well, no one knows exactly, but to the south. Dartmoor, or somewhere around there.”
“Why so mysterious?”
Dimity shook her head, curls flying. “Oh, no, you see, I’m not meaning to be. It isn’t, you understand, at a fixed location.”
Sophronia imagined a building, filled with shrieking girls, scooting about the moor on tracks, like some massive, overexcited mechanical. “The school is mobile? What, on hundreds of tiny little legs?”
“Legs? Well, yes, moving, only not on legs. I think it’s, you know.” Dimity tilted her head back and looked to the ceiling.
Sophronia was about to inquire further when a terrific jolt shook them where they sat and the carriage came to a stop so abruptly that it pitched Dimity on top of Sophronia, and Pillover on top of Mademoiselle Geraldine.
Mademoiselle Geraldine screamed, probably upset by extended contact with Pillover’s grimy coat, and flapped her arms and legs to get the boy off.
Sophronia and Dimity untangled themselves, giggling.
Pillover extracted himself from the headmistress with remarkable dignity for a boy of his age and dress and retrieved his bowler from the floor.
“What on earth is going on?” Mademoiselle Geraldine banged on the ceiling of the cab with her parasol. “Coachman? Coachman!”
The carriage remained still. Or at least it didn’t appear to want to move forward. Every so often it would bob upward, as though it were afloat on the open sea.
The door to the carriage was yanked open to reveal not the coachman, but a bizarre-looking gentleman. He was dressed for the hunt in tweed jodhpurs, boots, red jacket, and riding hat, but he also wore goggles, with a long scarf of the type donned by arctic explorers wrapped around the lower part of his face.
The carriage lurched again. One of the horses neighed in alarm.
The strange man had a massive brass onion pinned to his cravat and was pointing a wicked-looking pistol at the occupants of the carriage. Sophronia’s eyes, once caught by the weapon, remained fixed upon it. Never before had she come face-to-face with an actual gun. She was shocked. Why, that thing could go off. Someone could get hurt!
“Highwaymen!” squeaked Pillover.
“No,” corrected Mademoiselle Geraldine, her teeth gritted. “Worse: flywaymen.” There was something in her tone, felt Sophronia, that suggested she was not surprised. Sophronia was instantly suspicious of both Mademoiselle Geraldine and the flywayman.
The headmistress batted her long eyelashes. “Why, sir, what could you possibly want from us? I’m simply a headmistress transporting these children to their final destination.”
Laying it on a bit thick, isn’t she? thought Sophronia.
“We have nothing of great value. We—”
The flywayman interrupted Mademoiselle Geraldine. “Silence. We know perfectly well what you’ve got those pretty little mitts on. Hand over the prototype.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you are on about.” The headmistress’s trembling smile was well executed, but apparently not convincing.
“ ’Course you do. Where is it?”
Mademoiselle Geraldine shook her head, eyelashes lowered prettily.
“Well, perhaps we’ll simply have a look for ourselves.”
The man stuck his head, briefly, back out the door and yelled something indistinguishable up to the sky.
There came a thump on the top of the carriage. Sophronia and the others could do nothing but watch, mutely, as their trunks, bags, and hatboxes were thrown from the roof to crash to the ground. There they fell open, littering the dusty road with clothing, hats, and shoes.
Two more flywaymen, dressed much like their leader, jumped down after and began rifling through the spilled contents. Whatever they were looking for appeared to be relatively small, as every piece of luggage—no matter what the size—had to be emptied. One of the men even used a knife to slash the bottoms of the trunks, searching for hidden pockets.
This was all highly embarrassing, to have one’s private possessions strewn about in public! Sophronia was particularly mortified that Pillover could see all her underthings—a stranger, and a boy! She also noted that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s trunks included some very salacious night garments. Why, there was a nightgown of purple flannel. Imagine that!
The flywaymen’s movements became increasingly frenzied. Their leader, while still guarding the occupants of the carriage, glanced frequently behind him at the activity in the road.
After a quarter of an hour, the man’s hand, the one holding the gun, began shaking from fatigue.
“Where is it?” he hissed at Mademoiselle Geraldine.
“I told you, young man, you will not find it here. Whatever it is.” She tossed her head. Actually tossed it!
“Impossible. We know you have it. You must have it!”
The headmistress looked off to the far distant horizon, nose elevated. “Your information would appear to be faulty.”
“Come with me. You, children, stay here.” The man dragged Mademoiselle Geraldine from the carriage. The headmistress struggled briefly, but finding the man’s strength superior to her own, she subsided.
“Where’s the coachman?” Sophronia hissed to Dimity and Pillover.
“Probably overcome by physical assault,” said Dimity.
“Or dead,” added Pillover.
“How’d they get to us? I didn’t hear any horses or anything.”
Pillover pointed up. “Sky highwaymen. Haven’t you heard of them?”
“Well, yes, but I didn’t think they actually existed.”
“Must have been hired by someone,” Dimity said. “What do you think the prototype is for?”
“Does it matter?” her brother asked.
“You think she actually has it?” Sophronia wondered.
Pillover looked at Sophronia with something like pity in his dark eyes. “Of course she has it. Question is, did she hide it well enough?”
“Or did she make a copy?” added Dimity.
“Is it safe to let them think they’ve won?”
“And was she thinking that far ahead?”
Sophronia interrupted their speculation. “That’s a lot of questions.”
They heard Mademoiselle Geraldine say something sharp to the men rifling through the luggage. All three looked out the open door to see what would happen next. The flywayman with the gun struck the headmistress across the face with his free hand.
“Oh, dear,” said Sophronia. “Violence.” She suppressed panic and a strange urge to giggle. She’d never before seen a grown man actually hit a woman.
Dimity looked slightly green.
Pillover’s small face became drawn behind his round spectacles. “I don’t think she planned for this.”
His assessment seemed correct, for Mademoiselle Geraldine proceeded to have a bout of hysterics, culminating in a very dramatic faint in the middle of the road.
“Quite the performance. My sister Petunia once acted like that over a mouse.”
“You think she’s shamming?” Dimity was inclined to be impressed.
“Shamming or not, she seems to have hung us out to dry.” Sophronia pursed her lips. I don’t want to go to finishing school, but I don’t exactly want to be kidnapped by flywaymen either.
The carriage lurched up again.
Sophronia looked at the ceiling. The flywaymen’s transport must be tied to the luggage rails above. She put two and two together: the flywayman’s goggles plus his onion-shaped pin. Balloon transport. At which point Sophronia decided she had better do something about their predicament. “We need to cut the balloon’s ties to the carriage and get to the driver’s box and take command of the horses. Once we get moving, can we outrun them?”
Pillover nodded. “No scientist has figured out how to make air transport move as quickly as ground. Although there were some interesting dirigible prototypes in last month’s Junior Guide to Scientific Advancements and Amoral Superiority. Something about utilizing the aether currents, but nothing on balloons, so—”
Dimity interrupted her brother. “Yes, thank you, Pill.” Clearly, prattling was a family trait even Pillover was prone to indulge in sometimes.
“So?” said Sophronia. “Resources. What do you two have?”
Pillover emptied the pockets of his oversized greatcoat: some pine-sap gum, a monocle on a stick—the Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification, perhaps?—and a long piece of ribbon that probably started life in his sister’s hair. Dimity produced a box of sandwiches, a wooden spoon, and a knitted stuffed octopus out of the small covered basket at her feet. All Sophronia had was the piece of sponge she’d swiped at tea and stashed in her apron, now sadly crushed.
She split it into three and they ate the cake and thought hard.
None of the enemy paid them any mind. The three flywaymen had given up demolishing the luggage and now stood about arguing. Mademoiselle Geraldine was still firmly fainted.
“No time like the present,” said Sophronia, grabbing Pillover’s magnification lens. She climbed out of the small window of the carriage, the one on the side facing away from the flywaymen.
Carriages, as it turned out, were a whole lot easier to climb than dumbwaiters. Sophronia hoisted herself onto the top of the cab, unseen by the men below. There she found a large and colorful airdinghy tied to the roof. It wasn’t made of one balloon, but four, each attached to a corner of a passenger basket about the size of a small rowboat. In the center of the basket sprouted up a mast, higher than the balloons, with a sail unfurled. Steering propellers were suspended below. These were moving slightly, hovering directly above Sophronia’s head as she crawled across the carriage roof. They looked quite sharp. Keeping an eye on them, she made her way over to the mooring point.
The rope was tied firmly about the luggage rail and impossible to work loose.
Sophronia pulled out Pillover’s magnification lens and, angling it to catch the sun, began to burn through the rope. The acrid smell of scalded fiber permeated the air, but her activities remained unobserved. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the rope burned away to a point where Sophronia could break it. The airdinghy bobbed up, caught a slight breeze, and drifted away.
Without pausing to survey the effects of her handiwork, Sophronia crawled over and lowered herself down onto the driver’s box. The coachman lay slumped to one side. There was a large red mark on his forehead. She relieved him of the reins and clucked the horses into motion. She was perfectly well aware of how inappropriate it was for a young lady of fourteen to drive a coach, but circumstances sometimes called for extreme measures.
At that point, the flywaymen noticed what was happening and began shouting at her. The leader shot his gun rather ineffectually into a nearby tree. Another took off after the airdinghy, chasing it on the ground. The third began running toward her.
Sophronia whipped the horses up and set them a brisk canter. The cab behind her swayed alarmingly. It might be the latest design, but it was not meant for such a frantic pace. She gave the horses their heads for a few minutes before drawing them back to a trot. When she came upon a junction wide enough, she turned the carriage about and pulled up. She jumped down and stuck her head inside the cab.
Pillover and Dimity stared with wide, awed eyes back at her.
“All righty, then?”
“Tremendous,” said Dimity.
“What kind of girl are you?” grumbled Pillover, looking rather yellow about the gills.
“Now I see why you were recruited,” added Dimity. “I’m surprised they left it until you were so old.”
Sophronia blushed. No one had ever praised her for such activities before. Nor had anyone looked upon her as old. It was quite the honor.
“How on earth do you know how to drive a carriage?” Pillover asked, as though this were some kind of personal affront.
Sophronia grinned. “I spend a lot of time in stables.”
“Nice-looking stable boys?” suggested Dimity.
Sophronia gave her an arch look. “So what now—go back for the headmistress?”
“But we’re safe, aren’t we?” Pillover looked alarmed by the idea. “Is she really worth it?”
“It is the polite thing to do. Hardly fair to abandon her among criminals,” pointed out his sister.
“Plus the coachman is insensible. And he’s the only other one who knows where we are heading.” Sophronia was all for logic as well as manners.
“But they have guns,” replied Pillover, also logically.
Sophronia considered this. “True.” She looked at Dimity. “Mademoiselle Geraldine—how useful do you think she is?”
Dimity frowned. “Did she fib with you?”
“I’m not convinced she can be relied upon to follow any kind of plan; you know how adults are. However, we must do something.”
“Did I mention the guns?”
“Oh, stuff it, Pill.” Dimity dismissed her brother, turning her attention entirely on Sophronia. “What do you suggest?”
“If I go in quick, could you and Mr. Pillover tie yourselves down and see if you can’t simply grab her off the road?”
“Remember, ladies, the guns?” Pillover repeated.
Dimity was nodding. “It’ll require both me and Pill. Mademoiselle Geraldine is slim, but not that slim.”
Pillover would not let up. “What about the whole shooting at us part of the equation?”
Sophronia and Dimity said together, “Stuff it, Pill.”
“We don’t have any rope.”
Sophronia dangled the long ribbon from Pillover’s pocket. Dimity firmed up her mouth, grabbed it, nodded her head sharply, and went to work.
Excerpted from Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger Copyright © 2013 by Gail Carriger. Excerpted by permission.
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