Agatha was properly concerned. “Has he permission to court you?” Agatha Woosmoss was small, round, and redheaded, with a freckled face that wore a perpetual expression of distressed confusion, not unlike that of a damp cat.
Dimity flushed even redder. “No, but I’m certain he would.”
Sidheag was reading the hastily scrawled note. “It’s worse than simply a letter. He wants to meet with you, in private and secretly!”
“Dimity!” Sophronia said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Dimity was truculent. “Because I knew you’d be all Sophroniaish about it. That’s why. It’s not that bad, is it? He probably only wants to chat a bit about the weather or something.”
Sidheag, still in possession of the shocking missive, said, “Since it says here that he intends to come to you on this airship, it can’t be that banal.” Sidheag Maccon was an overly tall young woman, almost of an age with Sophronia. She had a long, proud face and a general attitude of indifference to both manners and dress that drove their teachers to distraction.
Sophronia was having none of it. “Dimity, he’d have to steal an airdinghy and then try to find us. I’ve no idea where we are over Dartmoor, do you? I’m sure he doesn’t. Besides, I don’t think Bunson’s has airdinghies. The whole idea is foolhardy.”
Dimity liked Lord Dingleproops rather more than she ought and was disposed to think well of him. “It must be important, then, mustn’t it? Perhaps it’s a declaration!”
“Oh, Dimity, really!” said Agatha.
Sophronia added, “You’re only just fourteen, and he’s what, sixteen?”
Dimity protested, “My birthday was weeks ago!”
Sidheag, the blunt one, said, “He isn’t even holding yet. He can’t declare without his parents’ permission.” Sidheag could be quite crass, the result of having been raised by men, or Scots, or soldiers, or werewolves, or all four. Since she was also Lady Kingair, her crassness would have been an accepted eccentricity—in a much older aristocrat. In a fourteen-year-old, such vulgarity was as odd and uncomfortable as last season’s hat.
Sophronia took the missive out of Sidheag’s hand and examined it. It under the Earl of Dingleproops’s heading, which gave it a certain weight. But she did wonder what the son was doing with his father’s stationery. Probably using it to write angry letters to poor tradesmen in his father’s name and to torture decent young ladies like Dimity.
“He wants to meet with you on the back squeak deck in a week and a half?”
Dimity nodded. “Isn’t that romantic?”
Agatha protested. “You’re not going?”
“Of course I’m going! He will have come all this way.”
“It’ll all end in tears,” foretold Sidheag morosely.
Sophronia said nothing further; Dimity could be awful stubborn. Privately, Sophronia vowed to follow Dimity. Lord Dingleproops was up to something.
They were made to wait until the end of the week for their test assessments. At long last, after supper, instead of the customary parlor games and card counting, their age-group was separated from the others. Agatha looked like she might faint, or cry, or palpitate, or all three—which would be a real feat. Preshea—small, dark, and unreasonably lovely—looked like she intended to kill someone. But then, Preshea always looked that way. Dimity’s round porcelain face was set. Monique, having been through this before, swept her skirts behind her with an air of determination. Sidheag loped along as though she hadn’t a care in the aether. Sidheag could be irritating like that.
Sophronia wondered how she herself was showing tension. Not at all, to those who did not look at her shoulders. She would have been surprised by how impressed Lady Linette was with this accomplishment. Lady Linette had also been impressed when Sophronia ate only the vegetables from the meal provided after the exam. Sophronia was the only student to have considered that the test might include the meal. Even Monique, who should have known better, had eaten seven bites of her meat and all her pudding.
Lady Linette led them to her own teaching quarters. These were decorated as if a boudoir had procreated with the set of She Stoops to Conquer. There were red curtains, a good deal of gold, and chaise longues instead of chairs. Several fluffy cats with funny scrunched-up faces and possessive attitudes to hassocks lounged about.
Lady Linette left the six girls there.
They sat in expectant silence. Agatha stared at her feet. Sidheag slouched. Both knew better but were regressing into bad habits out of anxiety.
Professor Lefoux entered the room.
An almost audible groan met the appearance of this, the harshest of their teachers.
Professor Lefoux was not so much a battle-ax as a pair of pinking cutters—sharp, toothy, and uneven in temper but very useful. They hadn’t any lessons with her yet. Rumor had it she was deemed too fierce for the younger girls. Tall and bony, with a stiff face and hair scraped back into a bun, she looked mean. She also had a French accent, which hundreds of years of animosity had trained nice young Englishwomen to suspect as evil.
Professor Lefoux did not bother to explain her presence. “Monique de Pelouse, your assessment is not really one of six months, as you have now been in attendance at this school for four years and eight months. Nevertheless, due to your attempted theft of the crystalline valve prototype last year and your regression in status as a result of that failure, you are undergoing public review along with the others of your rank.”