“No, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t? Well, you should take that as fact with anything you ask me to modify. My own inventions, from design to execution, are intended to be compact and elegant, but messing about with other people’s inevitably has untidy consequences.”

“Noted. Very well. I forgive you, Bumbersnoot.” The metal creature looked neither chastised by the reprimand nor excited by the reprieve. In the end, sometimes he was simply a mechanical sausage dog.

Vieve said, “Before you go, could I give you a present for my aunt? I don’t think we can arrange time to see one another secretly over the holidays. It’s best if we don’t remind people we are related. Gaspar Lefoux is supposed to be an estranged nephew.”

She produced a massive box from the shadows of the rosebush. It was quite wide enough for several Bumbersnoots to fit inside.

“Um?” Sophronia hesitated. How am I supposed to get around the ship carrying that?

“I put on straps, see, here and here? You can wear it across your back like a lute. Bumbersnoot will dangle below.”

Sophronia took it, glad that at least it didn’t weigh much. “What on earth is it?”

With a wide grin, Vieve unstrapped the gift, which proved to be some kind of hatbox, and popped off the lid. Inside was, not unexpectedly, a hat.

Now, it ought to be pointed out, at this juncture, that the lighting wasn’t good behind the Nib and Crinkle, among the rosebushes, near the goat path. The moon was not full. The fog was low. And yet there was no doubt about its appearance.

“Vieve, that is an inordinately ugly hat.” Sophronia would call Professor Lefoux many things, and not a one of them was leader of fashion, but her taste certainly wasn’t that bad.

Vieve seemed to know her own aunt less well than Sophronia. “Isn’t it hideous? Do you think she’ll like it?”

Sophronia quirked an eyebrow.

“Oh. Of course. Only see what it does.” Vieve carefully removed the hat from its box. It was a massive sunshade style made of deep midnight-blue satin, instead of straw. The wide brim was sprinkled with small bits of glass, in a simulation of stars. Upon closer inspection, the sparkling dots were in the formation of several popular constellations. The very top of the hat’s crown was painted yellow, obviously indicating the sun, with rays extending down over the side toward the brim. This alone would have made it one of the most curious hats that Sophronia had ever seen, but that was merely the foundation. Vieve had constructed a miniature winch device, like those employed by music boxes, dangling near one ear, that when wound up and released caused seven planets to orbit about the hat. These were on long wires of different lengths, anchored to rails at the brim, sticking up to revolve about in patterns simulating the solar system. Each planet was colored according to the latest scientific evidence: Venus being pale blue because of all the turquoise deposits, the Earth green for the lush landscapes, Jupiter orange for its iron-rich sands, and so forth. There was a dangling feather ball off the back on a particularly long wire—a comet? Stuck to the midnight blue were a few sporadic small puffs of down.

“What are those?”

Vieve glowed. “Recent pamphlets suggest there’s a kind of cosmic mist, no name as yet, but I thought my aunt would appreciate the homage to modern astronomical theory.”

Sophronia was impressed with the artistry and the execution, if not with the resulting style statement. Since Vieve’s shining eyes clearly indicated an expectation of some form of praise, Sophronia said the nicest thing she could think of without lying. “It’s very well made.”

“Do you think my aunt will like it?”

“Does she have anything to go with it?” Sophronia was cautious.

Vieve laughed. “Crikey, no. I do know something about fashionable headgear. No, no. I don’t expect her to wear the wretched thing! It’s a bit of a family joke.”

Sophronia relaxed. “Oh, well, in that case, I think it’s wonderful.”

Vieve’s dimples became more pronounced. She resettled the solar hat into its box and took great pains when strapping it to Sophronia’s back.

“Well, my dear Vieve, amazing work as always. Someday you must allow me to repay you for all you’ve done.”

“Sophronia, ma mie, I’m counting on it.” The girl doffed her hat and strode back toward Bunson’s, hands thrust deep into her pockets, whistling an off-key tune under her breath.

SISTERS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES

What will I do if they’ve forgotten about me?” Sophronia, Dimity, and Agatha were inside the main teahouse in Swiffle-on-Exe, waiting for retrieval over pudding. Pickups took most of the day, and the school had long since disappeared.

“Enjoy the blessed freedom of a Christmas without family?” suggested Agatha.

“I don’t know about that. Some of them aren’t all that bad. I quite like Ephraim’s wife.” Having not seen them in a while, Sophronia was disposed to be magnanimous about her siblings.

“You could come back with me,” suggested Dimity.

“Your parents wouldn’t mind?” Sophronia brightened at the idea. Someone else’s family holiday traditions are always so much more exciting than one’s own.

“Hardly. They know a little about you rescuing Pill and me from the hive. They’re more likely to be embarrassingly gracious. There might even have been some correspondence between our mothers on your brilliance and the excellent nature of our friendship.”

“Goodness, your mother didn’t say anything to mine about our real education, did she?”

“Certainly not. She’d never reveal Mademoiselle Geraldine’s secrets. Mamma takes subterfuge seriously.”

Sophronia relaxed. “Good. And they know to pick you up here?”

“Standard practice, since Geraldine’s always has an early holiday let-out.”

“What about your brother?” asked Agatha, trying to seem disinterested.

“Unspeakable worm. What about him?”

“Is he meeting here as well?”

“No. Bunson’s isn’t out for another week. Mummy always grumbles about having to arrange travel twice. Although not this time, thanks to you.” Dimity flung a companionable arm around Agatha’s shoulders. Agatha hid a grin at the affection by nibbling pudding.

Since her home was only slightly off the route to London, Dimity was to ride with Agatha. Agatha liked the companionship, and Dimity no longer enjoyed trains. Soap crashing a locomotive into a dirigible and subsequent events had given her train-related nightmares.

The girls were in the window seat of the teahouse, which had an excellent view of the meeting square. Agatha’s near-limitless expense account was always good for the best seat at any watering hole. They watched their fellow students being retrieved and gossiped about each. Unfortunately, the pudding was alcoholic enough to appeal only to Bumbersnoot, who always showed interest in things that could catch on fire. The little dog sat on the bench next to Sophronia, under cover of the pouf of her traveling gown’s teal skirts, and ate whatever she fed him with gusto.

All speculation proved moot at that point, for a carriage pulled up intended for Sophronia. Of course they did not know this until the owner of said carriage emerged.

Her sister looked slightly stouter, but otherwise unchanged. As Petunia stepped down, no one could doubt she was related to Sophronia—same oval face and muddy green eyes. Petunia’s hair was a shade darker and her cheeks rounder, both tinted slightly red by art and science. Her curls were set by a French maid, while Sophronia’s were the product of Dimity and madly wielded hair-rags. But the sisters shared the same straight nose and firm mouth, and were of a height.

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