Preshea was wearing a lovely black gown with gray lace ruffles and wine trim. It was more modern and stylish than Sophronia could afford, but certainly to her taste. Preshea had fashioned a dog-shaped reticule, which she wore slung crosswise across her body. She was chatting companionably with one of the teachers. Am I really such a goody-goody, as well as a flirt? wondered Sophronia. Or is Preshea mocking me?
Bumbersnoot, the real Bumbersnoot, was slouching about the cloakroom. Knowing her little dog mechanimal was a dead giveaway that she was not obeying the identity shift protocols, Sophronia had smuggled him in under Agatha’s fur cape. She certainly wasn’t going to loan him to Preshea, of all people!
Agatha twirled past in the arms of some handsome young buck.
Sophronia was pleased. “I think she’s doing very well.”
Pillover subsided into glumness, slouching forward and putting his elbows onto his knees and his chin into his hands. It was a shockingly lower-class way to sit, as though he were in a public park, or worse, the House of Commons.
“Go cut in,” suggested Sophronia quietly. It was a non-Agatha suggestion, so she did her best to deliver it in an Agatha tone.
Pillover didn’t move. “I never,” he objected to the floor.
“You must act as if Agatha is your sister, or you won’t get anywhere.”
“That is a disgusting suggestion.”
Sophronia sighed. “No, I mean, treat her as you would a young lady of your sister’s type.”
“Dimity is a type? You mean, there may be others?” Pillover was horrified out of his moroseness.
“Do shove off, Pillover. How can I be a proper shrinking olive tree with you here? Shrinking olives are solitary creatures. Oh, and don’t forget,” she hissed, “we have to throw each other over at some point. I can’t afford to stay indefinitely engaged to you.”
Pillover looked a mite less glum at the prospect of a broken engagement. Accordingly, he stood and mooched away. He could be a bit of a wet blanket, but one had to admire a boy who followed instructions.
Sophronia continued to sit, watching her classmates employ each other’s personalities as weapons against the young men around them. It was almost pretty.
Dimity was twirled to a stop by a tall young man with unfortunate ears who looked most interested in further twirls. Dimity delivered what was clearly a barb about some other girl, and the young man laughed appreciatively. Dimity looked upset with herself, but soldiered gamely on into Preshea’s sour temper.
The tall boy was not alone, for as soon as she sat, Dimity was surrounded by interested parties. Sophronia was willing to wager her friend’s dance card was full. Dimity sent various admirers off in pursuit of nibbles and punch, much as Preshea would have, leaving herself accompanied by only the two most persistent. Through the cleared masses, Sophronia caught her eye.
Dimity gave the chin-tap fan signal of important information to impart.
Sophronia flicked open her own fan. It was her filigree bladed one, safely capped for the evening with a leather guard, and delicate enough to pass for a normal fan.
What? she fluttered at Dimity.
Dimity flicked hers open and gave the swirl and dip for enemy among us. Then she tilted her head, as if flirting with a pale-haired boy to her left, but really pointing Sophronia’s attention to that side of the room.
A woman had entered the ballroom. Her hair was dressed in the high curls of maturity that Geraldine’s girls were permitted to practice but not wear in public, so she was no student. She faced away from Sophronia, talking to Lady Linette. Even from the back, Sophronia’s training told her many things. The woman’s bearing marked her as an aristocrat, or at least trained to the correct posture to pass as one. Her hair was naturally blonde, and her dress was certainly Parisian—snow white with rose-pink ruffles, and silk roses sewn into the drapes of the overskirt and clustered at the puff of the daringly short sleeves. A coronet of roses, real, not silk, which meant hothouse, perched atop her hair, an amazing expense for a provincial school ball. Instead of a necklace, the stranger wore a lace ruff tied about her neck, likely to disguise the fact that she had vampire bite marks.
Sophronia knew who it was before she turned.
Monique de Pelouse.
INVASIONS AT A BALL
Why? Sophronia fluttered the question at Dimity. What on earth was Monique doing out of London during the holiday season? It was true much of the town shut down, but the vampires took that as an excuse to throw lavish parties.
Dimity couldn’t answer even if she knew, for Monique left Lady Linette to stand in front of her instead. As Monique was a former student, fan fluttering communication was useless against her. She had left Mademoiselle Geraldine’s to become a drone to Countess Nadasdy, vampire queen of the Westminster Hive, some years ago, but she would keep turning up, like grease at the top of the dishwater. At their last encounter, Sophronia had had the great pleasure of throwing her out of a train.
Dimity and Monique appeared to be exchanging pleasantries, of all things. Then Monique moved on about the room.
Sophronia sank into the shadows. She couldn’t afford a confrontation with her old nemesis, not if she wished to stay in character. Sophronia had to bite down her pert answers at the best of times, and Monique practically begged for them. Agatha was never pert and rarely had answers. Better to avoid all contact.
So far as Sophronia knew, Monique’s main drone assignment was to keep an eye on the Picklemen. Their free enhancements to all mechanicals over the past six months must have driven her crazy. Despite vampire opposition, anyone who owned a mechanical was delighted to see it upgraded with a new crystalline valve frequensor, which reputedly fixed the spontaneous opera problem of last winter and improved performance.
Sophronia, her friends, Monique, the vampires, and a handful of others knew the real reason for the valves. The Picklemen wanted complete control over all the mechanicals in England. Yet since the upgrade, no attempt to seize that control had occurred. The vampires’ fuss over the enhancements had been dismissed as supernatural hysteria by the government and passed unnoticed by the popular press. Everyone who knew there would be a problem was forced into waiting for that problem to occur. And they had no idea what the Picklemen intended to do with their army of mechanical domestic servants. Last time all they’d done was have them sing “Rule, Britannia!” What was next? A ruthless bout of ballet?
Still, if Monique is supposed to be monitoring the situation, static as it may be, what is she doing here?
Someone sat down in the chair recently vacated by Pillover.
“Ria, my dove, it has been too long.”
Sophronia had actually relaxed her guard. Debut move! She marshaled her irritation into a defensive mask of Agatha-like nervousness. “Why, Lord Mersey, how do you do?”
“Like that, are we?”
Felix was no intelligencer. His training was in machinations and evil machinery. He cut directly to the point, with no attempt at subterfuge, “He’s my father, Ria. I had no choice.”
There is always a choice, or at least evasive tactics, would have said Sophronia. “Why, my lord, I’m afraid I fail to follow your meaning,” she said as Agatha.
“Please don’t be like that. He is working to save the country. Save the Empire. His ends are noble.”