The girls were preparing for bed. If preparing for bed could be characterized by lounging about in nightgowns, caps, and robes, sipping tisanes and gossiping.
Even Preshea had joined them, in a rare moment of camaraderie. “Sophronia, I must say, being you was unexpectedly fun, for someone who never says what she actually thinks.”
“Difficult to hold back on the barbs, was it?” asked Dimity, in an indisputably barblike manner. Her Preshea characteristics seemed to be taking a while to wear off.
Preshea noticed. “Clearly you enjoyed being me.”
“Somewhat. It was frankly exhausting to insult everyone all the time. And hard never knowing one’s real friends.”
“Now, Dimity, don’t be rude.” Preshea’s smile was glassy with contempt. “Who needs real friends?”
Sophronia was struck with a sudden pang. Was Preshea’s nastiness a front? They had never given her a chance, as she’d allied with Monique from the start. After Monique left, Preshea had organically assumed the position of cruelest pretty girl. But there was something wistful in her tone. Perhaps it was only a lingering bit of Sophronia. No one ever doubted that Sophronia valued her friends above all things.
Lady Linette was prone to saying that if Sophronia had any major weakness, it was her unswerving loyalty. To which Sophronia always responded that she intended to prove that was a strength.
Preshea couldn’t tolerate even a moment of sympathetic expressions. “Oh, stop it, all of you.” She stood. “As if I should trade my status and standing for the likes of you.”
Just like that, they were back on familiar ground.
“I, for one, do not want to be scolded into bed by Professor Lefoux. Good night.” With which Preshea left. As older students, they had been moved into more luxurious accommodations, and each had her own private room. Sometimes Sophronia missed sharing with Dimity. As she’d grown up sharing with sisters, this was her first foray into the unparalleled privilege of a solitary bedchamber. But she did have Bumbersnoot to warm her toes.
The remaining three huddled in for whispered gossip, knowing Preshea was more likely to listen at her door than actually seek her bed.
Sophronia told the other two about the Picklemen and that Monique was likely there in pursuit. “I’m only waiting until lights-out before I go back down. I’ve arranged to meet Vieve for a quick consult on Bumbersnoot. And I have a letter to post.”
Dimity worried easily. “Is he ill?”
Bumbersnoot was contentedly sitting in a corner of the parlor, nibbling a small bit of coal. Steam leaked out his carapace slowly, in a sleepy manner.
“No, but I have a theory about the crystalline valves that I want to discuss with Vieve. Also, it’s an opportunity to see if she has anything more on the Picklemen. I must say, Agatha, it is difficult being you. I mean, it’s easier to have clandestine meetings on the sidelines, but harder to exchange information during dances.”
“Well,” said Agatha, “I had a marvelous time being Dimity. Thank you.” She turned bright eyes to the object of her impersonation.
Dimity grinned. “It was a pleasure to watch you butterfly about. My brother seemed suitably intimidated.”
Agatha blushed. “Oh, do you think?”
“You like him, don’t you?” teased Dimity.
“Younger man, careful there.” Sophronia teased as well.
Agatha looked to Dimity, worried. “You don’t mind?”
“Mind? ’Course I don’t mind. You’re a great deal better than those silly chits that keep hurling themselves at him. No offense meant, Sophronia.”
Sophronia was quick to defend herself. “That was all Mumsy’s idea.”
Dimity continued, “Frankly, I don’t understand it. It’s not like he has much consequence. And he is a human gumboil.”
Sophronia nibbled her lip. “For once I think the ladies don’t notice his lack of consequence.”
Agatha’s hands clasped together in a maneuver they had been taught by Lady Linette, but which Sophronia suspected in Agatha’s case was instinctual. “He’s very fine to look at.”
Dimity put her hands to her ears. “Oh, dear me no, none of that. I couldn’t bear it, not after such a long evening.”
Sophronia changed the subject. “And how did you find being Preshea for a night, Dim?”
“Horribly easy. I simply said any nasty thing that came to mind, so long as it wasn’t indiscreet. Best if it cut some other girl down. I’m afraid I might have been very cruel about both of you.”
Sophronia and Agatha shrugged. That was the assignment.
“It was an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” Dimity concluded. “Preshea’s personality is quite putrid. Poor thing.”
Sophronia wondered if that was part of the logic behind the assignment, that by dancing in each other’s shoes, they might develop sympathy for their fellows, as well as further their subterfuge abilities.
“Well, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend most of my evening observing.” Sophronia rested her head on Agatha’s shoulder affectionately. “You were fun to be.”
Agatha blushed in pleasure.
Any further praise she might have meted out for Agatha’s self-worth was cut off prematurely as Professor Lefoux let herself into their parlor.
“Bedtime, ladies. You know the regulations.”
The girls stood and bobbed curtsies. “Yes, Professor,” they chorused. Under her austere glare, they traipsed off to their respective beds.