Sophronia used her fan to disguise shock.
Felix and Lord Dingleproops found the mention of buttons enchanting.
“Oh, la, I’m positively parched.” Agatha grabbed Felix’s arm and sailed smoothly away, angling toward the punch.
Felix could do naught but follow.
It was, Sophronia had to admit, a perfect extraction. Agatha had hidden depths of shallowness. Or she was a better study than anyone thought, and merely needed a different personality to bring out her abilities. Or she had partaken too freely of the absinthe-spiked punch.
Sophronia turned her attention back to the gathering. Monique was making her way around the room. Whatever she was looking for, she hadn’t found it. Sophronia harbored a brief, horrible thought that her old enemy was hunting for her. They were, after a fashion, allied against the Picklemen. Perhaps she had a message from the dewan, Sophronia’s soon-to-be patron.
Then someone else invaded her corner. Clearly it was not so hidden as she’d hoped. This time, however, it was a welcome invasion.
Genevieve Lefoux, once known as Vieve and currently known as Gaspar Lefoux, appeared at Sophronia’s elbow. Now twelve years old, Vieve had shot up and was almost as tall as Sophronia. She was looking likely to be as much a beanpole as her aunt. Since she intended a long career disguised as a man, Vieve was no doubt delighted to find the Lefoux genes running true to form, or more accurately, true to figure.
At Bunson’s, Vieve purported to be Professor Lefoux’s nephew, who exhibited such extraordinary engineering talent it had forced Bunson’s to take on a French charity case. Although she had never officially been a finishing school student, preferring to spend her time in the boiler room, something had rubbed off. She had grasped enough espionage to be good at maintaining her ties to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, without exposing her connection or her gender.
Vieve bowed low over Sophronia’s gloved hand.
Sophronia pretended nervousness at having been discovered by a stranger. “Oh. Um, how do you do, Mr.…?” But her green eyes sparkled with delight. She could not deny a real affection for the funny creature, and had genuinely missed her company. Still, she did not break Agatha’s character, nor did she pretend they had met before. She was, after all, a Geraldine’s girl.
Thus it was for Vieve to open the conversation. “Good evening, miss. Please excuse me for approaching you without introduction.” Vieve was in full impeccable evening dress from head to toe. Her dark hair was cropped short. She did not sport the mustache she once coveted, nor had she faked a deeper voice—as yet she had no need. Even with dimples and a feminine cast to her cheekbones and nose, she had the manners and movements of a young man. It was impressive.
“Mr. Lefoux, at your service, Miss…?”
“Temminnick,” said Sophronia tremulously.
“Indeed, yes. Although I did think, for a moment, from certain descriptions prior to this greeting, that you might be Miss Woosmoss. Quite apart from the hair color, of course.” In addition to a head for engineering, Vieve had an eye for fashion. Not to mention a familiarity with most of Sophronia’s age group.
Sophronia allowed a hint of a smile. “I can see how you might make such an error.”
Thus they understood one another. Vieve knew Sophronia was under an assignment to act like Agatha. Sophronia knew that Vieve had probably figured out who the others were as well.
“Would you care to dance, Miss Temminnick?” offered Vieve, gravely, as though to a wallflower cousin.
Sophronia knew such a dance could only lend Vieve’s disguise credence. She also knew Agatha might dance with Professor Lefoux’s nephew if pressed. So she agreed.
Vieve was an expert at the reel and a decent lead. She’d obviously been practicing, or been made to learn. They danced the first pass through in awkward silence, as befitted Agatha.
On the second, Vieve said, dimples flashing, “I understand we share an acquaintance?” Her eyes shifted to Monique.
Sophronia hesitated. She needed the information Vieve implied she had, but she also needed to stay in character. “Unusual, don’t you feel, for an ex-student to return to a dance such as this?”
“Very,” agreed Vieve. “And we have had other visitors, of late.”
Here comes the important part. “Have you? How fascinating. Do tell?”
“Very well-dressed visitors. Except, they strangely insisted on green bands about their hats.”
Picklemen! Sophronia’s slight panic showed in a missed step. Fortunately, it lent credence to her Agatha. It was at about this point in any dance that Agatha became uncomfortable, stumbled, and found a way to end the prolonged contact with a member of the opposite sex.
“How recently, if I may ask?”
“Oh, you may.” Vieve was gloriously mild in her delivery. “They could still be here, on school grounds.”
Ah-ha! So Monique wasn’t here for the ball, she was tracking Picklemen. But what business would they have with Bunson’s? The crystalline valve was in their possession and under production. True, some of them had sons at the school. Where else would an evil secret society send its progeny? But to visit in person? Particularly as the boys were about to head home for the holidays.
Does Monique know why they’re here? Or is she following them because she doesn’t? Sophronia found herself, much to her disgust, contemplating arranging a conversation with the dratted blonde.
The reel was coming to an end. There was no way to stay Agatha and converse further with Vieve. Throwing caution briefly to the wind, but keeping her voice hesitant, Sophronia said, “Perhaps a consultation, later this evening, Mr. Lefoux?”