Miss Temminnick. Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott. With me, please, ladies.”
Sophronia glanced up from her household sums. She was glad of the distraction. She was convinced she was miscalculating the purchase of the three most deadly flower arrangements. Does one need four fully grown foxgloves for decorating a dinner table for six guests? Or is it six foxgloves to kill four fully grown guests?
Unfortunately, what Sophronia saw when she looked up did not fill her with confidence. Lady Linette stood at the front of the class wearing an austere expression that clashed with her copious yellow curls and a bonnet covered with drooping silk lilacs. She was wearing a good deal of face paint and a purple-and-jade plaid dress of immense proportions. It was neither her expression nor her location at the front of the class that made Sophronia nervous. It was the fact that she was present in this class, for this was Sister Mathilde Herschel-Teape’s lesson on domestic accounting. Sophronia and her age-group were to go to Lady Linette after tea, for drawing room music and subversive petit fours.
“This decade, Miss Temminnick!”
Dimity was already standing next to Lady Linette. Sophronia’s friend gestured her forward with a hand hidden to one side of her skirt. Ordinarily, it was Dimity daydreaming and Sophronia having to chivy her along.
Sophronia leapt to her feet. “Apologies, Lady Linette. I was so very absorbed. Foxglove quantities can be most illuminating.”
“Very good, Miss Temminnick. An excuse couched in terms of academic interest. Nevertheless, we must be away.”
For most of Sophronia’s six-month sojourn at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, lessons had never been interrupted. Not even when flywaymen attacked. Young ladies of quality stayed in class in times of strife. Certainly no student had been removed from one teacher’s purview by another teacher. That was quite rude!
Then over the last month, starting with the dratted Monique, every one of Sophronia’s fellows had systematically been taken away by Lady Linette in just such a manner. They returned traumatized and silent. All Sophronia’s skills, many of them learned at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, had been put to figuring this out. To no avail. Even her particular friends, Sidheag and Agatha, wouldn’t explain what had happened when Lady Linette absconded with them.
Sister Mattie was unperturbed by the interruption, sitting placidly in her mock religious attire behind a wide desk surrounded by potted plants and bottles of deadly poison (or tea concentrate, one never knew which). Sister Mattie was a bit of mystery; her preference for a simulated nun’s habit—wide-skirted and to the current fashion, with a wimple partly configured like a bonnet—remained unexplained. The girls saw her as a nice sort of mystery and one of the more benign teachers, so they mostly respected her eccentric choice of dress.
Sophronia’s fellow students were looking on with wide eyes. Sidheag and Agatha tensed sympathetically. Monique and Preshea sat with arms crossed and ill-contained delight on their faces.
Sophronia wended her way though the plush chairs and rolltop writing desks to the front, where she curtsied before Lady Linette. It was a perfectly executed curtsy, not too deep, with a slight tilt to her head but not enough to seem obsequious.
Sister Mattie said kindly, “I shouldn’t worry, Miss Temminnick. I’m certain you’ll do very well.”
“Follow me, please, ladies,” snapped Lady Linette.
“Good luck!” Agatha said quietly. Agatha rarely spoke, so it had to be something serious.
Sophronia sidled up next to Dimity. The hallway was hardly big enough to accommodate two ladies in full day gowns side by side. Their multiple skirts smushed together. Neither minded the wrinkles as they linked arms for comfort. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy was housed in a massive airship that looked like three dirigibles crammed together. Its corridors twisted and turned in a noodlelike manner. Sometimes the passageways led up stairs or out onto balconies. Most of the time, they simply got darker, lit by gas lamps that looked like upside-down parasols. Whatever attire the corridors had been designed to accommodate, proper lady’s dress was not one of them.
Lady Linette led them toward the upper squeak decks. These open-air decks sat under the massive balloons that kept the academy afloat and adrift over Dartmoor. It was an odd place to be headed at this time of day. Dimity’s hand on Sophronia’s arm tightened.
The two girls swung to flatten themselves against the wall, like a hinged gate, so a maid mechanical could roll past. Its face was a mosaic of gears instead of the metal masks worn by most menials. It had a white pinafore over its conical body and gave the impression of busy superciliousness.
If the students had been alone, the maid would have whistled the alarm upon encountering them, but Dimity and Sophronia were in the company of Lady Linette. All the models, from buttler to footmech to clangermaid, had protocols that instructed them to ignore students in the company of teachers. Most of the hallways were laid down with a single track upon which the school’s many mechanical servants trundled, performing the myriad of menial tasks needed to keep a ladies’ seminary running smoothly. Sophronia had once seen a footmech model carrying a whole stack of doilies, some of them quite deadly, from Sister Mattie to Professor Lefoux. In her parents’ country estate, such an important task would never have been entrusted to a mechanical, but here steam-powered staff far outnumbered human.
Sophronia had thought, after six months, that she had most of the school mapped. But as they walked from the midship student section, which housed classrooms and sleeping quarters, to the rear recreation area, they entered a place she’d never seen before. While the massive dining hall and exercise facilities above the warehouse and propeller engine areas were familiar to her, Sophronia and Dimity were being taken farther up.