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.”
“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 was 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.