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 challenging, 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.”