Curtsies & Conspiracies : Chapter 1
Miss Temminnick. Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott. With me, please, ladies.”
Sophronia glanced up from her household sums. She was glad of the distraction. She was convinced she was miscalculating the purchase of the three most deadly flower arrangements. Does one need four fully grown foxgloves for decorating a dinner table for six guests? Or is it six foxgloves to kill four fully grown guests?
Unfortunately, what Sophronia saw when she looked up did not fill her with confidence. Lady Linette stood at the front of the class wearing an austere expression that clashed with her copious yellow curls and a bonnet covered with drooping silk lilacs. She was wearing a good deal of face paint and a purple-and-jade plaid dress of immense proportions. It was neither her expression nor her location at the front of the class that made Sophronia nervous. It was the fact that she was present in this class, for this was Sister Mathilde Herschel-Teape’s lesson on domestic accounting. Sophronia and her age-group were to go to Lady Linette after tea, for drawing room music and subversive petit fours.
“This decade, Miss Temminnick!”
Dimity was already standing next to Lady Linette. Sophronia’s friend gestured her forward with a hand hidden to one side of her skirt. Ordinarily, it was Dimity daydreaming and Sophronia having to chivy her along.
Sophronia leapt to her feet. “Apologies, Lady Linette. I was so very absorbed. Foxglove quantities can be most illuminating.”
“Very good, Miss Temminnick. An excuse couched in terms of academic interest. Nevertheless, we must be away.”
For most of Sophronia’s six-month sojourn at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, lessons had never been interrupted. Not even when flywaymen attacked. Young ladies of quality stayed in class in times of strife. Certainly no student had been removed from one teacher’s purview by another teacher. That was quite rude!
Then over the last month, starting with the dratted Monique, every one of Sophronia’s fellows had systematically been taken away by Lady Linette in just such a manner. They returned traumatized and silent. All Sophronia’s skills, many of them learned at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, had been put to figuring this out. To no avail. Even her particular friends, Sidheag and Agatha, wouldn’t explain what had happened when Lady Linette absconded with them.
Sister Mattie was unperturbed by the interruption, sitting placidly in her mock religious attire behind a wide desk surrounded by potted plants and bottles of deadly poison (or tea concentrate, one never knew which). Sister Mattie was a bit of mystery; her preference for a simulated nun’s habit—wide-skirted and to the current fashion, with a wimple partly configured like a bonnet—remained unexplained. The girls saw her as a nice sort of mystery and one of the more benign teachers, so they mostly respected her eccentric choice of dress.
Sophronia’s fellow students were looking on with wide eyes. Sidheag and Agatha tensed sympathetically. Monique and Preshea sat with arms crossed and ill-contained delight on their faces.
Sophronia wended her way though the plush chairs and rolltop writing desks to the front, where she curtsied before Lady Linette. It was a perfectly executed curtsy, not too deep, with a slight tilt to her head but not enough to seem obsequious.
Sister Mattie said kindly, “I shouldn’t worry, Miss Temminnick. I’m certain you’ll do very well.”
“Follow me, please, ladies,” snapped Lady Linette.
“Good luck!” Agatha said quietly. Agatha rarely spoke, so it had to be something serious.
Sophronia sidled up next to Dimity. The hallway was hardly big enough to accommodate two ladies in full day gowns side by side. Their multiple skirts smushed together. Neither minded the wrinkles as they linked arms for comfort. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy was housed in a massive airship that looked like three dirigibles crammed together. Its corridors twisted and turned in a noodlelike manner. Sometimes the passageways led up stairs or out onto balconies. Most of the time, they simply got darker, lit by gas lamps that looked like upside-down parasols. Whatever attire the corridors had been designed to accommodate, proper lady’s dress was not one of them.
Lady Linette led them toward the upper squeak decks. These open-air decks sat under the massive balloons that kept the academy afloat and adrift over Dartmoor. It was an odd place to be headed at this time of day. Dimity’s hand on Sophronia’s arm tightened.
The two girls swung to flatten themselves against the wall, like a hinged gate, so a maid mechanical could roll past. Its face was a mosaic of gears instead of the metal masks worn by most menials. It had a white pinafore over its conical body and gave the impression of busy superciliousness.
If the students had been alone, the maid would have whistled the alarm upon encountering them, but Dimity and Sophronia were in the company of Lady Linette. All the models, from buttler to footmech to clangermaid, had protocols that instructed them to ignore students in the company of teachers. Most of the hallways were laid down with a single track upon which the school’s many mechanical servants trundled, performing the myriad of menial tasks needed to keep a ladies’ seminary running smoothly. Sophronia had once seen a footmech model carrying a whole stack of doilies, some of them quite deadly, from Sister Mattie to Professor Lefoux. In her parents’ country estate, such an important task would never have been entrusted to a mechanical, but here steam-powered staff far outnumbered human.
Sophronia had thought, after six months, that she had most of the school mapped. But as they walked from the midship student section, which housed classrooms and sleeping quarters, to the rear recreation area, they entered a place she’d never seen before. While the massive dining hall and exercise facilities above the warehouse and propeller engine areas were familiar to her, Sophronia and Dimity were being taken farther up.
“I didn’t know there were rooms above the dining hall,” said Sophronia to Lady Linette.
Lady Linette was not going to play into Sophronia’s hunt for information. She ignored the comment and quickened her pace.
Sophronia and Dimity bounced in order to keep up—they had not yet had lessons on rapid walking in full skirts, though both of them were admirable gliders at a more leisurely pace.
This section of the ship smelled of old candle wax, chalk powder, and pickled onions. The mechanical track was not oiled properly, and there was dust in the corner grippers. The walls were hung with paintings of disapproving elderly
Finally, Lady Linette stopped in front of a door. The sign read ASSESSMENT CHAMBER ONE: ENTER AT RISK. It reminded Sophronia a little of the record room. She didn’t say anything about that, though. The record room infiltrators of several months ago had never been caught. Sophronia wanted to keep it that way.
Underneath the sign someone had scrawled in white paint NO MUFFINS FOR YOU! Underneath that, it said NOR GALOSHES, NEITHER, in what Sophronia knew was not proper grammar.
“Miss Temminnick.” Lady Linette gestured. “If you would?”
Sophronia stepped into the room alone. Lady Linette closed the door behind her.
Sophronia’s attention was entirely taken by the huge mechanical thingamabob in front of her. It looked very like the difference engine she had seen last summer when her family visited the Crystal Palace. This one, however, was not being used for sums. It was rigged and draped with objects—fabric hung at the back, paintings dangled, and a few pots and pans drooped uncertainly to one side.
Sophronia frowned. Didn’t Vieve once describe something like this to me? What did she call it? Oh, yes, an oddgob machine.
Next to the oddgob, positioned to operate a crank, was a mechanical designed to accompany the apparatus.
Sophronia faced both, hands crossed lightly at her waist, a position that Lady Linette encouraged her girls to assume whenever at a loss for action. “The crossed hands denote modesty and religious devotion. The placement draws attention to the narrowness of one’s waist. Bow your head slightly and you can still observe through the lashes, which is becoming. This exposes the back of the neck, an indication of vulnerability.” Sophronia’s shoulders tended to hunch, a habit Mademoiselle Geraldine was trying desperately to break. “We can’t have you tensing up like an orangutan!” she chided. “Do orangutans tense?” Dimity had whispered. Dimity, of course, crossed her hands divinely.
Sophronia worked to relax her shoulders.
Neither the machine nor the mechanical seemed to care, for nothing happened even when her posture was perfect.
Sophronia said, “Good afternoon. I believe you are waiting for me?”
With a puff of steam, the mechanical whirled to life. “Six-month. Review. Debut upmark,” it said, clicking as a metal tape fed through its voice box.
Not knowing what else to do, Sophronia said, “Yes?”
“Begin,” ordered the mechanical, and with that, it reached out one clawlike appendage and began to crank the oddgob.
An oil painting flipped over from the top of the engine and dropped down, dangling from conveyer chains. It depicted a girl in a blue dinner dress, decades out of style, that embarrassing nightgown look. The subject was pretty, with cornflowers in her hair, enjoying an evening gathering.
The mechanical continued cranking, and the painting was jerked away. A hatch opened, and a full tea service on a silver tray rolled forth.
“Serve,” ordered the mechanical.
Sophronia stepped forward, feeling silly. The service was for four. The tea in the pot was cold. She hesitated. Ordinarily, she would have dumped the contents into the receptacle and sent it back with sharp words to the cook. Do I act as I would in real life? Or am I to pretend to serve the tea regardless?
The mechanical was still whirring indicating that she had only a set amount of time to decide.
Sophronia served. She did as etiquette demanded, pouring her own cup first and then the others. With no one to ask if they wanted sugar or if they would prefer lemon, she only checked to ascertain both were provided. The sugar pot was half full. There were four slices of dry lemon. Like the tea, they had been sitting for some time. She opened the top of the pot and checked the leaf. Top quality. As was the tea set—Wedgwood blue, or a very good imitation. She sniffed the pot, the milk, and the cups. They all smelled as they should, although one of the cups might have boasted a slight lavender odor. There was a plate of three petits fours dusted with sugar. Sophronia poked each gently on the side with a glove-covered fingertip. She was unsurprised to find that one of them was fake, no doubt from Mademoiselle Geraldine’s personal collection. The headmistress had a mad passion for fake pastries. The other two appeared to be real. They both smelled of bitter almond. Sophronia raised up her Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification, a present on her fifteenth birthday from Dimity’s brother, Pillover. It was essentially a high-powered monocle on a stick, but useful enough to keep at all times hanging from a chatelaine at her waist. The sugar on the top of one of the cakes looked odd.
The tray was whisked away.
Next, a string of dangling hair ribbons paraded before her, pinned like wet hose to a stretch of twine. Sophronia’s dress today was a pale-yellow-and-blue ruffled monstrosity her mother insisted would do, even though it had been worn three seasons already, by three older sisters. Sophronia’s absence from the Temminnick household was combined with an absence from Temminnick expenses. She hadn’t had a new gown in ages. One of the ribbons was cream and blue in a similar shade to her outfit, so Sophronia unclipped it. Because her hair was covered—as it should be—by a respectable bonnet, she tied the ribbon about her neck in the complex knot of a Bunson’s boy. Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique was an evil genius training academy, sort of a sibling school to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. If one thought of those siblings as hostile and estranged.
The ribbons were taken away, and the oddgob machine presented Sophronia with a new selection: a letter opener, a pair of ornate lady’s sewing scissors, a large fan, a crumpet, two handkerchiefs, and some white kid gloves. Sophronia felt she was on firmer ground at last. These were tools of great and fateful weight when applied properly. She chose the scissors and one of the handkerchiefs. The other options were removed.
Next came a slate upon which had been written the phrase SEND HELP IMMEDIATELY. In front of it, on a wooden board, lay a piece of parchment with ink and quill, an embroidery hoop with needle and thread, and a bag of raspberry fizzy sweets. Sophronia chose the sweets, cracked one open with the aid of her scissors, and dumped out the fizz. She used the needle from the embroidery to prick her finger, smeared the blood on the inside of the broken sweet, and popped it back inside the little sack. Then she cut off a bit of the ribbon tied about her neck and used that to secure the bag.
The remaining items disappeared into the oddgob, and the mechanical stopped cranking. Total 35 Pages: Next
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