They changed and then had a half hour for contemplation. Sophronia spent it staring glumly out the porthole window. Agatha spent it in indecision over jewelry. Dimity read a novel of some woefully romantic persuasion.
Finally Sophronia shook off her mood. “How’s the book?”
As much as she was enjoying it, Dimity would always rather talk about reading than actually read. In fact, Sophronia suspected she only read enough to have something to discuss. “Oh, it’s very good. I’ve just got to the bit where the vampire has taken the heroine to his town house and we don’t know if his intentions are honorable or dastardly.”
Agatha gasped. She’d been getting an annotated commentary on said novel for the past week. “Oh, really? Does he want to suck her blood?”
“Far worse. He wants to give her a makeover.” Dimity fiddled with the mother-of-pearl buttons up the front of her peach brocade dinner dress. She didn’t want Agatha to see how excited she was to relay more.
Agatha squeaked in titillated horror. “A full makeover?”
Sophronia snorted. She thought the novel very silly.
They arrived back in Swiffle-on-Exe mid-December. As usual, they came in over the river, took on water in the wee hours, and circled back to rest near the goat path. Parents would send carriages for their girls the next morning. The young ladies were happily occupied well past bedtime, packing and giggling and exchanging gifts with friends before parting ways.
Winter holidays were the longest offered by Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. The young ladies were let out earlier than most because they had so little contact with the outside world the rest of the year. One could not order in Christmas gifts when one was drifting idly over the moors. Shopping must be accounted for. So Mademoiselle Geraldine’s girls had an early pickup well before Christmas. They returned shortly after, as Geraldine’s girls traditionally spent New Year’s together. Something about making certain the New Year came in deadly and stylish.
Sophronia left her fellows to the tribulation of fitting everything into hatboxes and portmanteaus. Dimity was trying to decide which of her sparkles to pack and which she might reliably expect to be replaced by the real thing this Christmas. Poor girl. She was doomed to disappointment. Her parents had made some improvement to the family’s circumstances by selling the crystalline valve, but not enough to afford sapphires. And Dimity adored sapphires. And rubies. And emeralds. And… not diamonds.
“But they sparkle,” Sophronia protested.
“They aren’t colorful enough,” Dimity explained. “All that white is so flashy, don’t you feel?”
“Until this very moment, I didn’t think you found anything flashy.”
“Really, Sophronia, credit me with some taste!”
Agatha was mooning, purposeless, not bothering to pack. Much as she disliked school, it was better than home.
Sophronia, for her part, never wasted too much time preparing for travel. As Preshea said, it wasn’t as if she had much to take with her. Instead, she drifted out of the door and into the hallway, unnoticed. It was after curfew, but Sophronia so rarely kept to legitimate hours that even her enemies didn’t bother to rat her out. For all they knew, she was under orders from one of the teachers. There were even a few, Preshea included, who accused Sophronia of taking over Monique’s duties as Professor Braithwope’s second drone.
“That’s why he went for her during crossbow training,” Preshea explained to her new friend Frenetta.
Sophronia allowed the rumors. It was as good a front as any, that she would entertain vampire patronage. No one need know she had already struck a deal with the werewolves. She had bargained her freedom to the dewan for Soap’s survival, and she considered it a fair deal. At least, right now she did. She had no idea what the dewan would want once he got her under his command. But in the end, wolves were better than vampires—or she hoped they were.
In the interim, if her late-night peregrinations were perceived by her fellow students as part of some bloody agreement, she was not one to gainsay gossip that stood her reputation in good stead. Especially not gossip that stopped others from interfering.
Vieve was waiting at their prescribed location behind the rosebushes, once again smelling strongly of cheap ale.
“You’re going to get a reputation as a swill tub tosspot.”
“Good.” Vieve also liked to be underestimated because of a perceived reputation. She handed over Bumbersnoot.
He looked the same as ever, if perhaps a bit shinier and free of rust. He tooted smoke at Sophronia, his little tail tick-tocking back and forth in cheery greeting.
“How did the installation go?”
“Difficult to tell, as there is no way to test ahead of time. We have to wait for the Picklemen to make their move, and only then will we know if the crystalline valve–linked alarm trigger works. If they activate their command for all the mechanicals to do something, Bumbersnoot should squeal like an abused hand brake. But I’m only saying should.”
“Not the best situation to be in. My life could depend on this alarm going off.”
Vieve raised an eyebrow. “Could it? Well, I suggest you arrange things so that particular scenario doesn’t occur.”
“You have an overabundance of faith in my abilities.”
“As you have in mine.”
They shared a smile.
“Will I see you at the New Year’s tea?” Sophronia wondered.
“Are we engaging in more interschool fraternization so soon?” Vieve was good at acting the part of absentminded boffin. They both knew she was perfectly well aware of the party.