Manners and mutiny, p.1

Manners & Mutiny, page 1

 

Manners & Mutiny



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Manners & Mutiny


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  Copyright Page

  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Thanks to Kate for starting us all on this crazy float; to Kristin, who piloted the dirigible; and to Deirdre, who landed it. To Sophie, who was my sounding board. To all my lady sooties in the boiler room, making everything go, and to Mac, keeping everything sane. And to Staar Shmellow (and her friend Steve, who donated to Worldbuilders) for her invention of a Most Amazing Hat.

  INCOGNITO IN CHARACTER

  A ball, at last!” Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott sank back into her chair in delight.

  At the head table, Mademoiselle Geraldine finished her announcement with a similar collapse, stays heaving with repressed excitement. She would not be attending said ball, as she never left school grounds, but she appreciated that her young ladies of quali-tay were about to engage in a social event of great import. Lady Linette put a gentling hand to the headmistress’s arm, wary of a full infection of flutterings.

  It was too late. The school erupted into chatter.

  “It’s only Bunson’s,” Preshea Buss said to Dimity. “We know all the boys there, and most of the best prospects have gone on to university.”

  “Oh, buck up, Preshea, do. That means fresh meat. You should be thrilled, since you prefer your young men innocent and ripe for the plucking,” shot back Sophronia.

  Preshea couldn’t refute that—in a way, it was quite the compliment. So she turned her back on Sophronia and her friends.

  Sophronia sipped her tea, feeling victorious, green eyes assessing the reactions of those around her. Dimity’s delight was to be expected. Agatha Woosmoss, their other close friend, was notably reticent when confronted with large gatherings involving the opposite sex. She had very flushed cheeks that suggested interest—or possibly paralytic fear. The debuts were in a tight huddle over the Scones of Iniquity and the Jam of Trepidation. Professor Braithwope was bouncing in his chair like a delighted baby, although he would not be attending. Professor Lefoux’s lip was curled in disgust as she stood to make the supervisory rounds.

  “What to wear?” murmured Dimity, rolling a Chelsea bun between thumb and forefinger.

  Professor Lefoux pounced. “Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, what are you doing to that bun? Your fingers are all over sticky. Only look at the crumbs. And you’ve misplaced currants. You should know better.”

  Dimity dropped the bun.

  Sophronia jumped in. “We are working on a language for crumb and currant communication.”

  Professor Lefoux was not fooled. “Indeed? Pray continue.”

  “The number and location of the crumbs indicates intent.”

  “And the currants?”

  “Instructions, of course.”

  “And how do you propose to control quantity when utilizing less adhesive bread items?”

  “That requires further study.” Sophronia was brazen to the end.

  Professor Lefoux sniffed. “Perhaps you should stick to less messy forms of communication. But your inventiveness has merit.”

  It was, of course, impossible to tell whether this compliment was directed at the idea of a crumb communication system or whether Professor Lefoux was complimenting Sophronia on coming up with an excuse for Dimity’s mishandling of buns. Whatever the case, Professor Lefoux caught sight of one of the debuts actually tossing her bun at another girl and dashed away without further comment.

  Dimity ate her sticky treat before it could result in more unwanted attention. She shoved her empty crumb-covered plate in front of Sophronia. “Go on, then, read them.”

  Agatha giggled. “Like Madame Spetuna.”

  “What do the crumbs say of my future?” Dimity’s round face was eager.

  Sophronia bent over the carnage and muttered, “You shall marry well and live a long and happy life. So long as you avoid all contact with…” She drew out the suspense.

  Dimity hung on her words. “Yes?”

  “Sturgeon.”

  “What, the fish?”

  “Sturgeon bodes you ill will. Beware, or all will be lost.”

  Dimity grinned. “Oh goodness me, how ominous. And how damp.”

  Agatha shoved her crumby plate across the table. “Do mine?”

  Sophronia assumed a sepulchral tone. “You will cause a stir in high society with your wit and charm.” Agatha blushed. “So long as you allow yourself to speak on occasion. Beware…”

  “Beware what?”

  “Philosophy!”

  “Oh, good, I’m already quite wary. Do your own fortune?”

  “Everyone knows a girl can’t predict her own future.” Out of the corner of her eye, Sophronia watched Professor Lefoux return to her seat. Lady Linette stood and began to move from one tea table to the next. She was making an announcement, gesticulating at each student in turn, and moving on, leaving behind a much quieter and more thoughtful gaggle.

  Dimity took Sophronia’s plate. The Chelsea bun atop it was untouched.

  Agatha looked bright eyed and inquisitive. “What does it say about our Sophronia, Dimity?”

  “That she has terrible taste, and should know when to stop telling fibs and simply eat her bun.”

  Agatha and Sophronia were both startled into a laugh.

  Dimity ate Sophronia’s bun, since it was clear her friend wasn’t going to accord it gastronomic respect. Then she turned the conversation onto her favorite topic, attire. “So, what will you wear to the ball, Agatha?”

  The redhead looked doubtful. She had recently exchanged much of her tubbiness around the middle for endowments further up. Mademoiselle Geraldine was most impressed by what she referred to as Miss Woosmoss’s increased assets and aesthetic abilities. Agatha was mortified. Fortunately, or unfortunately from Agatha’s perspective, she had a father who took a keen interest in the latest fashions—more for what it said about his means than for what it might do for his daughter’s standing. As a result, Agatha had many gowns to choose from.

  No one asked Sophronia what she would wear. Her own figure was decent enough and had not shifted substantially during her time at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Fortunate indeed, as she subsisted mainly on her sisters’ castoffs. Those sisters having married away, castoffs were increasingly rare. Sophronia had only one ball gown, and it was a transformation dress that served double duty as her best visiting dress.

  Despite her many options, Agatha was a problem. “I’d like to wear the mustard.”

  Sophronia suppressed a choke.

  Dimity was gentle with their friend. “Oh, but the pale lemon is much more stylish.”

  Not to mention more becoming to her complexion, thought Sophronia.

  “But the lemon is so very fluffy.” Agatha did not understand that this was a good thing.

  Sophronia and Dimity exchanged a look.

  “It has a much nicer cut,” Dimity pressed.

  “It’s too low!” Agatha fluttered her hands about her chest.

  Dimity was wistful. “Exactly! What I wouldn’t give to…” Dimity had tried every remedy for bust improvement that Mademoiselle Geraldine suggested, from massage with a tincture of myrrh, pimpernel, elder-flower, and rectified spirits, to preparations of nux vomica mixed with Madeira, to a diet composed mainly of comforting, breast-pampering foodstuffs. Dimity did not find the diet chall
enging, as it emphasized pastry, milk, potatoes, and similarly farinaceous foods. However, she was also avoiding tea and refraining from indulging in anger, grief, worry, and jealousy. Emotions, everyone knew, affected the size and quality of one’s endowments. But despite her efforts, nothing had, so far, improved.

  “I should give you my share if I could.” Agatha was nothing if not generous.

  Dimity was exactly as perceptive as people never gave her credit for. So she stopped pressuring Agatha and said to Sophronia, “You’re very subdued this evening. Are you nervous?”

  “About a ball?” Sophronia was mock offended.

  “About Felix being at the ball.”

  Images flashed through Sophronia’s mind. Felix’s beautiful pale eyes lined in kohl. His dark hair. His leg bleeding. His warning her, too late. And that fateful shot, and Soap falling. It was all so complicated—and to think he was originally nothing more than a means for practicing flirtation. “I can handle our dear Lord Mersey.”

  Dimity was unconvinced. “Oh, yes? Then explain the melancholy.”

  “Perhaps I’m bored.”

  “With what?” asked Agatha.

  “Oh, you know. Flirting, pretty dress, espionage… death.”

  Dimity huffed. “La you! I seem to remember someone enjoying Professor Braithwope’s lesson on resourceful reticules this afternoon. Even if he is all over dotty.”

  “True. Perhaps I’m restless.”

  “School not exciting enough after stealing trains?” Agatha sounded sympathetic.

  Dimity cocked her head. “Hogwash. Mention of the ball brought this on. If it’s not Felix, then—” She paused. “Oh. You miss Mr. Soap. It’s not like he could have actually escorted you, Sophronia.”

  “I know.” Of its own accord, Sophronia’s hand delved into a secret pocket where Soap’s latest missive, months old, rested crumpled and well read. That she heard from him at all was a joy, but that someone else was teaching him to read and write was bittersweet. “He seems very far away.”

  “Poor little bean.” Dimity was a good enough friend to sympathize with Sophronia’s heartache, even though she felt that the object of that affection was inappropriate.

  Sophronia appreciated this. And part of her sorrow was that, in the end, she agreed with Dimity. Soap was inappropriate. What future did they have outside of social ostracism? He was, in the eyes of society, the wrong class, the wrong skin color, and now, the wrong species. “Ugh, this is getting maudlin. There is nothing any of us can do about it.”

  Sophronia groped desperately for the one topic that would guarantee her best friend’s distraction. “So, Dimity, what will you wear to the ball?”

  Dimity charged forth to conquer the conversation, taking no prisoners. “I was thinking about the pink, but it is a few seasons old and I have worn it before. What do you think? It projects a certain happy innocence that might be exactly the thing when surrounded by evil geniuses. Then again, there’s the jewelry to consider. I’d have to wear my pearls, and pearls may be too drab for a winter ball. But they are really the only thing that works with the pink. So then I thought perhaps the orange. It is such a bold statement. The level of maturity and consideration required to wear orange at my age might make the young men take me seriously. But do I want to be taken seriously? And then I thought the peach, but it never really recovered from the whole kidnapping and werewolf transport operation. So then I thought—”

  Sophronia and Agatha were content to let her ramble. There was something comforting about the force of intellect Dimity brought to bear on her apparel. Manipulation through proper dress was by far her best subject. She could prattle on happily about exactly the amount of disregard engendered by eight ruffles, as opposed to six, and why one might, or might not, want to add a sash into the equation.

  Then Lady Linette arrived at their table. “Your attention, please. Miss Buss, you as well. Now, I appreciate you are all excited about the winter ball, but we teachers are adding our own special twist to the occasion.”

  No one at the table was surprised. They were old hats at this kind of thing. Perhaps not old hats, but instead, they were last season’s gloves, soiled but still suited to any occasion, including inclement weather and dead body disposal.

  “You are all to attend. Yes, even you, Miss Woosmoss. But you are not attending as yourselves. Instead, in consideration of our recent schoolwide focus on identity shift, you are to attend this ball as each other, within your year group. As you four are established students, better acquainted with one another than the younger girls, I expect you to execute perfectly and set a good example. You will, of course, be evaluated on your performances. Miss Temminnick”—she pointed to Sophronia—“you are to go as Miss Woosmoss. Miss Woosmoss as Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott. Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott as Miss Buss. And Miss Buss as Miss Temminnick.”

  Preshea gave Sophronia a horrified look.

  Sophronia was thoughtful. There were dangerous avenues of mockery inherent in this assignment. They would all have to be careful not to insult the person they emulated, while doing a good enough job to convince the teachers. That was probably part of the test. No doubt they would each be asked how well they thought the other person enacted them.

  Agatha looked terrified and Dimity nonplussed.

  Preshea wanted the important particulars. “Do we have to borrow each other’s clothing? Sophronia only has one ball gown. Could I use something of mine and make it look as old-fashioned and boring as her dress?” Preshea always spoke in a clipped tone. Sophronia thought she would have to work on her diction if she wanted to sound like Sophronia.

  Lady Linette had been expecting that question. “You may. It’s better if you can borrow, but I’m well aware not all of you have the means, or the ability, size-wise, to dress as one another. You are to obey the style, but not necessarily the stitching, of the assignment—as it were.”

  Sophronia was privately relieved. She’d hate to give her only ball gown to Preshea. The girl would spill cranberry cordial all over it out of pure spite.

  Lady Linette drifted off, having thrown a veritable stoat among the woodcocks.

  The heavy silence was broken by Preshea’s loud “Well, at least I didn’t get Agatha. Can you imagine? Me in olive drab.” Her various cohorts at the next table tittered obligingly.

  Agatha, accustomed to such barbs, didn’t flinch. “I will have to wear so many sparkles.”

  “Can I dress you as me, Agatha?” Dimity fairly vibrated. “Oh, you will look stunning!”

  Agatha was doubtful. “Will I fit your bodice?”

  Dimity’s smile was evil. “You’ll have to cinch very tight.”

  Agatha blanched and said hurriedly to Sophronia, “You can borrow anything you like of mine, of course. The lemon ruffles, even, although we’ll have to lengthen the skirt.”

  Sophronia thought yellow would make her look jaundiced. It suited Agatha well enough, but Sophronia had indifferent brown hair, skin prone to freckles, and the occasional spot. It would play hell with her complexion. “Perhaps the brown stripe?” she asked hesitantly.

  Dimity was appalled. “Sophronia, you’ll look like a gangly sparrow! No offense, Agatha.”

  “None taken.”

  “Yes, but it’ll be easier to add a ruffle to the bottom.”

  Dimity had to agree with this assessment. She had it the easiest, for Preshea was always elegant. Well, perhaps that wasn’t easy for Dimity. She’d have to leave off her customary jewelry, and the personality switch was going to be rough. Dimity would have to be cruel and calculating.

  Sophronia figured Lady Linette had chosen specifically with such challenges in mind. Each of them had been assigned the girl most unlike her own personality. Although Sophronia bet Lady Linette was in for a surprise. She had a certain amount of Agatha in her. And she’d wager good money Dimity could be quite mean—she was plenty brutal to her brother given the slightest provocation. Sophronia also felt Agatha had untapped sparkling abilities. Even Preshea wa
s more like Sophronia than she liked to admit. They certainly both had the same interest in calculated manipulation. It was only that Sophronia had a conscience and Preshea didn’t. She was grateful Preshea had been assigned to act like her instead of one of the others. Preshea’s goal would be to humiliate the object of her imitation, as well as obey the letter of the assignment. She would be good at both. Sophronia was able to withstand humiliation—her friends were not.

  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.

 
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