“About a ball?” Sophronia was mock offended.
“About Felix being at the ball.”
Images flashed through Sophronia’s mind. Felix’s beautiful pale eyes lined in kohl. His dark hair. His leg bleeding. His warning her, too late. And that fateful shot, and Soap falling. It was all so complicated—and to think he was originally nothing more than a means for practicing flirtation. “I can handle our dear Lord Mersey.”
Dimity was unconvinced. “Oh, yes? Then explain the melancholy.”
“Perhaps I’m bored.”
“With what?” asked Agatha.
“Oh, you know. Flirting, pretty dress, espionage… death.”
Dimity huffed. “La you! I seem to remember someone enjoying Professor Braithwope’s lesson on resourceful reticules this afternoon. Even if he is all over dotty.”
“True. Perhaps I’m restless.”
“School not exciting enough after stealing trains?” Agatha sounded sympathetic.
Dimity cocked her head. “Hogwash. Mention of the ball brought this on. If it’s not Felix, then—” She paused. “Oh. You miss Mr. Soap. It’s not like he could have actually escorted you, Sophronia.”
“I know.” Of its own accord, Sophronia’s hand delved into a secret pocket where Soap’s latest missive, months old, rested crumpled and well read. That she heard from him at all was a joy, but that someone else was teaching him to read and write was bittersweet. “He seems very far away.”
“Poor little bean.” Dimity was a good enough friend to sympathize with Sophronia’s heartache, even though she felt that the object of that affection was inappropriate.
Sophronia appreciated this. And part of her sorrow was that, in the end, she agreed with Dimity. Soap was inappropriate. What future did they have outside of social ostracism? He was, in the eyes of society, the wrong class, the wrong skin color, and now, the wrong species. “Ugh, this is getting maudlin. There is nothing any of us can do about it.”
Sophronia groped desperately for the one topic that would guarantee her best friend’s distraction. “So, Dimity, what will you wear to the ball?”
Dimity charged forth to conquer the conversation, taking no prisoners. “I was thinking about the pink, but it is a few seasons old and I have worn it before. What do you think? It projects a certain happy innocence that might be exactly the thing when surrounded by evil geniuses. Then again, there’s the jewelry to consider. I’d have to wear my pearls, and pearls may be too drab for a winter ball. But they are really the only thing that works with the pink. So then I thought perhaps the orange. It is such a bold statement. The level of maturity and consideration required to wear orange at my age might make the young men take me seriously. But do I want to be taken seriously? And then I thought the peach, but it never really recovered from the whole kidnapping and werewolf transport operation. So then I thought—”
Sophronia and Agatha were content to let her ramble. There was something comforting about the force of intellect Dimity brought to bear on her apparel. Manipulation through proper dress was by far her best subject. She could prattle on happily about exactly the amount of disregard engendered by eight ruffles, as opposed to six, and why one might, or might not, want to add a sash into the equation.
Then Lady Linette arrived at their table. “Your attention, please. Miss Buss, you as well. Now, I appreciate you are all excited about the winter ball, but we teachers are adding our own special twist to the occasion.”
No one at the table was surprised. They were old hats at this kind of thing. Perhaps not old hats, but instead, they were last season’s gloves, soiled but still suited to any occasion, including inclement weather and dead body disposal.
“You are all to attend. Yes, even you, Miss Woosmoss. But you are not attending as yourselves. Instead, in consideration of our recent schoolwide focus on identity shift, you are to attend this ball as each other, within your year group. As you four are established students, better acquainted with one another than the younger girls, I expect you to execute perfectly and set a good example. You will, of course, be evaluated on your performances. Miss Temminnick”—she pointed to Sophronia—“you are to go as Miss Woosmoss. Miss Woosmoss as Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott. Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott as Miss Buss. And Miss Buss as Miss Temminnick.”
Preshea gave Sophronia a horrified look.
Sophronia was thoughtful. There were dangerous avenues of mockery inherent in this assignment. They would all have to be careful not to insult the person they emulated, while doing a good enough job to convince the teachers. That was probably part of the test. No doubt they would each be asked how well they thought the other person enacted them.
Agatha looked terrified and Dimity nonplussed.
Preshea wanted the important particulars. “Do we have to borrow each other’s clothing? Sophronia only has one ball gown. Could I use something of mine and make it look as old-fashioned and boring as her dress?” Preshea always spoke in a clipped tone. Sophronia thought she would have to work on her diction if she wanted to sound like Sophronia.
Lady Linette had been expecting that question. “You may. It’s better if you can borrow, but I’m well aware not all of you have the means, or the ability, size-wise, to dress as one another. You are to obey the style, but not necessarily the stitching, of the assignment—as it were.”
Sophronia was privately relieved. She’d hate to give her only ball gown to Preshea. The girl would spill cranberry cordial all over it out of pure spite.
Lady Linette drifted off, having thrown a veritable stoat among the woodcocks.
The heavy silence was broken by Preshea’s loud “Well, at least I didn’t get Agatha. Can you imagine? Me in olive drab.” Her various cohorts at the next table tittered obligingly.
Agatha, accustomed to such barbs, didn’t flinch. “I will have to wear so many sparkles.”
“Can I dress you as me, Agatha?” Dimity fairly vibrated. “Oh, you will look stunning!”
Agatha was doubtful. “Will I fit your bodice?”
Dimity’s smile was evil. “You’ll have to cinch very tight.”
Agatha blanched and said hurriedly to Sophronia, “You can borrow anything you like of mine, of course. The lemon ruffles, even, although we’ll have to lengthen the skirt.”
Sophronia thought yellow would make her look jaundiced. It suited Agatha well enough, but Sophronia had indifferent brown hair, skin prone to freckles, and the occasional spot. It would play hell with her complexion. “Perhaps the brown stripe?” she asked hesitantly.
Dimity was appalled. “Sophronia, you’ll look like a gangly sparrow! No offense, Agatha.”
“Yes, but it’ll be easier to add a ruffle to the bottom.”
Dimity had to agree with this assessment. She had it the easiest, for Preshea was always elegant. Well, perhaps that wasn’t easy for Dimity. She’d have to leave off her customary jewelry, and the personality switch was going to be rough. Dimity would have to be cruel and calculating.
Sophronia figured Lady Linette had chosen specifically with such challenges in mind. Each of them had been assigned the girl most unlike her own personality. Although Sophronia bet Lady Linette was in for a surprise. She had a certain amount of Agatha in her. And she’d wager good money Dimity could be quite mean—she was plenty brutal to her brother given the slightest provocation. Sophronia also felt Agatha had untapped sparkling abilities. Even Preshea was more like Sophronia than she liked to admit. They certainly both had the same interest in calculated manipulation. It was only that Sophronia had a conscience and Preshea didn’t. She was grateful Preshea had been assigned to act like her instead of one of the others. Preshea’s goal would be to humiliate the object of her imitation, as well as obey the letter of the assignment. She would be good at both. Sophronia was able to withstand humiliation—her friends were not.