Tue
Sep 3 2013 12:00pm

Curtsies and Conspiracies (Excerpt)

Gail Carriger

Curtsies and Conspiracies Gail Carriger Finishing School Books We’ve got an exclusive excerpt from Curtsies and Conspiracies, the second book in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, available November 5th from Little, Brown Books!

Sophronia’s first year at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality has certainly been rousing! For one thing, finishing school is training her to be a spy—won’t Mumsy be surprised? Furthermore, Sophronia got mixed up in an intrigue over a stolen device and had a cheese pie thrown at her in a most horrid display of poor manners.

Now, as she sneaks around the dirigible school, eavesdropping on the teachers’ quarters and making clandestine climbs to the ship’s boiler room, she learns that there may be more to a field trip to London than is apparent at first. A conspiracy is afoot—one with dire implications for both supernaturals and humans. Sophronia must rely on her training to discover who is behind the dangerous plot-and survive the London Season with a full dance card.

 

 

THE FIRST TEST
Dangerous Puddings

 

“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 purpleand‐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 petits 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 a mystery; her preference for a simulated nun’s habit—wideskirted 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 through 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 buttlinger 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 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.

“I didn’t know there were rooms above the dining hall,” said Sophronia to Lady Linette.

Lady Linette was not going to give in to Sophronia’s hunt for information. She ignored the comment and quickened her pace.

Sophronia and Dimity bounced in order to keep up—they had not yet had lessons on rapid walking in full skirts, though both of them were admirable gliders at a more leisurely pace.

This section of the ship smelled of old candle wax, chalk powder, and pickled onions. The mechanical track was not oiled properly and there was dust in the corner grippers. The walls were hung with paintings of disapproving elderly females and framed feats of crochet.

Finally, Lady Linette stopped in front of a door. The sign read Assessment Chamber One: Enter at Risk. It reminded Sophronia a little of the record room. She didn’t say anything about that, though. The record room infiltrators of several months ago had never been caught. Sophronia wanted to keep it that way.

Underneath the sign someone had scrawled in white paint No Muffins for You! Underneath that, it said Nor Galoshes, Neither, in what Sophronia knew was not proper grammar.

“Miss Temminnick.” Lady Linette gestured. “If you would?”

Sophronia stepped into the room alone. Lady Linette closed the door behind her.

Sophronia’s attention was entirely taken by the huge mechanical thingamabob in front of her. It looked very like the difference engine she had seen last summer when her family visited the Crystal Palace. This one, however, was not being used for sums. It was rigged and draped with objects—fabric hung at the back, paintings dangled, and a few pots and pans drooped uncertainly to one side.

Sophronia frowned. Didn’t Vieve once describe something like this to me? What did she call it? Oh, yes, an oddgob machine.

Next to the oddgob, positioned to operate a crank, was a mechanical designed to accompany the apparatus.

Sophronia faced both, hands crossed lightly at her waist, a position that Lady Linette encouraged her girls to assume whenever at a loss for action. “The crossed hands denote modesty and religious devotion. The placement draws attention to the narrowness of one’s waist. Bow your head slightly and you can still observe through the lashes, which is becoming. This exposes the back of the neck, an indication of vulnerability.” Sophronia’s shoulders tended to hunch, a habit Mademoiselle Geraldine was trying desperately to break. “We can’t have you tensing up like an orangutan!” she chided. “Do orangutans tense?” Dimity had whispered. Dimity, of course, crossed her hands divinely.

Sophronia worked to relax her shoulders.

Neither the machine nor the mechanical seemed to care, for nothing happened even when her posture was perfect.

Sophronia said, “Good afternoon. I believe you are waiting for me?”

With a puff of steam, the mechanical whirred to life. “Sixmonth. Review. Debut upmark,” it said, clicking as a metal tape fed through its voice box.

Not knowing what else to do, Sophronia said, “Yes?”

“Begin,” ordered the mechanical, and with that, it reached out one clawlike appendage and began to crank the oddgob.

An oil painting flipped over from the top of the engine and dropped down, dangling from conveyer chains. It depicted a girl in a blue dinner dress, decades out of style, that embarrassing nightgown look. The subject was pretty, with cornflowers in her hair, enjoying an evening gathering.

The mechanical continued cranking, and the painting was jerked away. A hatch opened, and a full tea service on a silver tray rolled forth.

“Serve,” ordered the mechanical.

Sophronia stepped forward, feeling silly. The service was for four. The tea in the pot was cold. She hesitated. Ordinarily, she would have dumped the contents into the receptacle and sent it back with sharp words to the cook. Do I act as I would in real life? Or am I to pretend to serve the tea regardless?

The mechanical was still whirring, indicating that she had only a set amount of time to decide.

Sophronia served. She did as etiquette demanded, pouring her own cup first and then the others. With no one to ask if they wanted sugar or if they would prefer lemon, she only checked to ascertain both were provided. The sugar pot was half full. There were four slices of dry lemon. Like the tea, they had been sitting for some time. She opened the top of the pot and checked the leaf. Top quality. As was the tea set—Wedgwood blue, or a very good imitation. She sniffed the pot, the milk, and the cups. They all smelled as they should, although one of the cups might have boasted a slight lavender odor. There was a plate of three petits fours dusted with sugar. Sophronia poked each gently on the side with a glove‐covered fingertip. She was unsurprised to find that one of them was fake, no doubt from Mademoiselle Geraldine’s personal collection. The headmistress had a mad passion for fake pastries. The other two appeared to be real. They both smelled of bitter almond. Sophronia raised up her Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification, a present on her fifteenth birthday from Dimity’s brother, Pillover. It was essentially a high‐powered monocle on a stick, but useful enough to keep at all times hanging from a chatelaine at her waist. The sugar on the top of one of the cakes looked odd.

The tray was whisked away.

Next, a string of dangling hair ribbons paraded before her, pinned like wet hose to a stretch of twine. Sophronia’s dress today was a pale‐yellow‐and‐blue ruffled monstrosity her mother insisted would do, even though it had been worn three seasons already, by three older sisters. Sophronia’s absence from the Temminnick household was combined with an absence from Temminnick expenses. She hadn’t had a new gown in ages. One of the ribbons was cream and blue in a similar shade to her outfit, so Sophronia unclipped it. Because her hair was covered— as it should be—by a respectable bonnet, she tied the ribbon about her neck in the complex knot of a Bunson’s boy. Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique was an evil genius training academy, sort of a sibling school to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. If one thought of those siblings as hostile and estranged.

The ribbons were taken away, and the oddgob machine presented Sophronia with a new selection: a letter opener, a pair of ornate lady’s sewing scissors, a large fan, a crumpet, two handkerchiefs, and some white kid gloves. Sophronia felt she was on firmer ground at last. These were tools of great and fateful weight when applied properly. She chose the scissors and one of the handkerchiefs. The other options were removed.

Next came a slate upon which had been written the phrase Send Help Immediately. In front of it, on a wooden board, lay a piece of parchment with ink and quill, an embroidery hoop with needle and thread, and a bag of raspberry fizzy sweets. Sophronia chose the sweets, cracked one open with the aid of her scissors, and dumped out the fizz. She used the needle from the embroidery to prick her finger, smeared the blood on the inside of the broken sweet, and popped it back inside the little sack. Then she cut off a bit of the ribbon tied about her neck and used that to secure the bag.

The remaining items disappeared into the oddgob, and the mechanical stopped cranking.

Sophronia stepped back and let out a sigh.

Her stomach rumbled, informing her that a good deal of time had passed. She had been given longer to contemplate each test than she realized. A bang sounded at the door. When she opened it, a maid mechanical sat there, bearing a tray of food. Sophronia took it gratefully, and the maid trundled off without ceremony. Sophronia closed the door with her foot and, in the absence of chairs, balanced the tray precariously on one section of the oddgob.

She assessed the food. Nothing smelled of almonds. Nevertheless, she avoided the leg of mutton in glistening currant jelly sauce and the Bakewell pudding and ate only the plain boiled potatoes and broccoli. Better to assume everything was still a test until Lady Linette returned to tell her otherwise. Sad, because she loved Bakewell. When nothing else happened, Sophronia put the tray down and examined the oddgob while it was not waggling things autocratically in front of her.

It was a fascinating apparatus. She wondered if Vieve knew of its existence at the school. Genevieve Lefoux was a dear friend, a mercurial ten‐year‐old with a propensity for dressing like a boy and a habit of inventing gadgetry. If Vieve didn’t know of the oddgob, she would want to, and she was certain to ask all sorts of questions. Sophronia took mental notes in anticipation of conversations to come. When tired of that, she used the scissors to extract a small part from the machine. It was a crystalline valve, faceted, and awfully familiar in shape and style. It looked like a smaller version of the prototype Monique had tried to steal last year. This valve appeared to have been only propped in, so Sophronia was certain that removing it would make no difference to the function of the oddgob. When they’d first discovered the prototype valve last year, Vieve had prattled on about point‐to‐point transmissions. A revelatory breakthrough indeed, since the telegraph machine had recently proved a dismal failure. If this was a new version of that same prototype, Vieve would want to see it.

The door behind Sophronia creaked open, and she hastily stashed the mini‐prototype up her sleeve, where the pagoda style allowed for secret pockets.

“Miss Temminnick, have you finished?” Lady Linette asked.

“Isn’t everyone finished at the same time? The oddgob cycle seems to be prescribed,” replied Sophronia.

“Now, now, manners.”

Sophronia curtsied apologetically, although she did feel as if she had been abandoned for longer than necessary.

“I had to assess Miss Plumleigh‐Teignmott first. Technically, she was admitted ahead of you. If you’ll recall, you went for tea with Mademoiselle Geraldine before you were formally allowed into the school.”

Sophronia recalled it quite vividly, as a matter of fact. All those fake cakes.

“Now for your report.” Lady Linette removed something round and mechanical from her reticule and shook it violently. Was she mad?

Nothing happened.

“They said it was working. Oh, bother.” Frustrated, Lady Linette marched over to the oddgob and jerked a few cranks and switches on the underside of the mechanical’s carapace. In response, the mechanical turned a smaller, hidden crank at the back, well out of human reach. On the far end of the oddgob, a massive roller ratcheted down, dipped into a pan of ink, and rolled across a series of letters. These then beat down in a sequential blur onto a taut piece of parchment. A large pink blotter rocked back and forth across the finished text.

Sophronia was impressed. She hadn’t noticed that the oddgob contained a printing press.

Something rattled in the machine and then whined.

“Stop that,” said Lady Linette to the oddgob, shaking the mysterious object in her hand at it again.

Oh, dear, perhaps the mini-prototype was vital, thought Sophronia.

The oddgob whined louder and began to shake.

“Stop cranking,” Lady Linette instructed the mechanical, shaking the object harder. “Miss Temminnick, I think we had better make haste.” The teacher gestured for Sophronia to precede her from the room.

Too late, however, for the oddgob exploded with a terrific bang. Hair ribbons fluttered up into the air, the tea service shattered, the fake tea cake bounced like a rubber ball, and ink squirted out from the printing press.

Sophronia and Lady Linette flattened themselves on the floor, heedless of crushed dresses and flipped petticoats.

“My goodness,” said Lady Linette into the resulting silence. “What did you do?” She stood and walked to the oddgob, now tilted to one side as if it had a limp.

“Me? Nothing at all!” insisted Sophronia, sitting up.

Lady Linette tutted as she brushed ink spatter off her wellpowdered cheek with a handkerchief. “Where’s the new valve gone? ”

“What valve?” Sophronia blinked wide, confused eyes at her.

Lady Linette gave her a long look. “Probably rolled free during the explosion. I told Professor Lefoux it wasn’t tight enough in the cradle. And I said it wouldn’t work properly regardless.” Sophronia didn’t say anything. “I wish we could have tested it on a less valuable machine. Never mind, we’ve got your results.” Lady Linette waved the oddgob’s printed paper.

Sophronia stood and innocently offered her teacher the additional handkerchief she’d acquired during the test. Lady Linette took it absently, then paused, pondering. She did not apply it to the remains of the ink on her face, instead handing it back with a little smile.

“Oh, very good, Miss Temminnick. Very good indeed!” She examined the printed sheet. Closely.

“Let us begin your review. The painting, time period?”

“Eighteen fourteen, by attire,” said Sophronia. “Give or take a year. Evening party.”

“Dress color?”

“Blue on the central subject, green and cream on those in the background.”

“Bonnet style and decoration?”

Trick question! “None of the ladies were wearing hats. The subject had cornflowers in her hair. As I said, it was an evening party.”

Lady Linette arched an eyebrow over her spectacles. “And have you any additional thoughts?”

Sophronia straightened. “A great many.”

“About the painting, Miss Temminnick. Don’t be coy.”

Sophronia forbore mentioning that Lady Linette had said only yesterday that there was always time for coyness in young ladies of quality. “The painting was well executed, but the artist was probably poor.”

Lady Linette looked nonplussed. “Why do you say that?”

“No expensive pigments, like red and gold, were used. Either that, or the painter feared toxicity. He did not sign it. There were approximately twelve people in the image.” Sophronia paused delicately for effect. “And one cat. The wallpaper was striped, and the garden through the window had a Roman feel.”

Lady Linette nodded, dislodging her spectacles. She reseated them on her nose with a sniff of annoyance. Lady Linette always dressed younger than she was. Spectacles, under such circumstances, might be considered a fate worse than knitwear.

“Moving on to the tea service, Miss Temminnick. The tea was cold. Why did you still serve it?”

Sophronia nibbled her lip. It was another habit her teachers were trying to eliminate. “If you must draw attention to the lips, a small lick is superior. It is too academic to nibble” was Lady Linette’s customary admonishment. “It’s all very well to be an intellectual, but one shouldn’t let others see. That’s embarrassing” was Mademoiselle Geraldine’s opinion.

Sophronia stopped nibbling. “I did consider dumping it entirely, but I thought the oddgob indicated I was to be evaluated on the act of serving. Had there been other people present, I would have sent it back.”

“Milk first, the lower‐class way?”

“But necessary if the cups were lined with an acid‐based poison. The milk would curdle or discolor. Also, one of the cups smelled of lavender.”

Lady Linette said, unguardedly, “It did?”

“Yes. I don’t know of any poisons with that smell, but it might be used to cover over another scent or, of course, it might have been your cup, Lady Linette.”

“My cup?”

“You always smell of lavender.”

“The tea cakes?”

“One was fake. Of the other two, both smelled of bitter almond—one because it was an almond cake, I believe. The other was powdered in cyanide.” Sophronia had been saddened by the cyanide lesson with Sister Mattie. For the rest of her life—unless she learned to bake—almond cake was right out. There was no surefire way to guarantee lack of cyanide in any almond‐smelling confection.

“Moving on to the ribbons.”

Sophronia explained, “I selected the one that matched my outfit and tied it in a Bunson’s knot.”

“There’s a piece missing.”

Sophronia grinned. “I must beg your patience in that matter, my lady.”

Her teacher was taken aback but continued. “Why the Bunson’s knot?”

Sophronia parroted a recent article she’d translated from the Parisian fashion papers. Vieve, of all people, had given it to her. Vieve might dress like a newspaper boy, but she took an interest in current styles, particularly hats. This article had delighted the young girl. “It has a pleasing military feel. I read recently that the juxtaposition and power of masculine elements can inspire confidence in the wearer, and the accompanying aura of authority is never a bad thing,” Sophronia paraphrased.

Lady Linette looked impressed. This was not part of any lesson. “And do you feel more confident and authoritative, Miss Temminnick?”

Sophronia touched the ribbon. “Actually, I do.”

Lady Linette nodded. “It would be a good style for you to pursue. I suggest you encourage your mother to have at least one new dress made up with military detailing.” She gave Sophronia a pitying look.

Sophronia blushed. She and Dimity did their best to make over her dresses. But her older ones had such a narrow silhouette, and with skirts getting progressively wider, there wasn’t much they could do. It was impossible to add volume to a dress. And this was a finishing school—everyone noticed such things. Still, if Lady Linette thought more masculine fashions might suit her, perhaps gold tassels and epaulets were in order. Dimity would be over the moon.

Lady Linette interrupted her reverie. “You chose the sewing scissors and one of the handkerchiefs from the next test. Why?”

“We have not completed knife training with Captain Niall, so I wasn’t confident in the letter opener, but I know I can work scissors to my advantage, and it is always good to have an extra handkerchief.”

“Why not the fan or the gloves?”

“White kid is impractical for a lady of covert activities. We have not had any fan training yet.”

“The crumpet?”

“Oh, no, I’m not worthy.”

“Lastly, we had you send a coded message. Give it to me.”

Sophronia presented her with the bag of sweets tied with the bit of ribbon.

Lady Linette nodded her approval. “Ribbon used to indicate character of the sender. Nice touch, Miss Temminnick. You made use of the scissors from the previous selection.” She opened the bag and poured out the contents, including the one carefully broken sweet with the blood inside.

Lady Linette sniffed it and examined the stain. “Show me your hand.”

Sophronia removed one glove to display the finger she had pricked.

“You would have had to set up the code ahead of time. Nevertheless, an innovative method of getting a message across, and virtually untraceable, particularly as your recipient can eat the sweet.” Lady Linette looked down once more at the printed paper, then produced a stick of graphite and made some notes at the bottom.

Sophronia could feel her shoulders tensing and fought to keep them down. Were my choices correct? Do they want the expected route, or is it better if I did something out of the ordinary? Will they send me down? Sophronia was in ever‐greater fear that her sojourn at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s might come to a premature end. Only half a year ago she had resisted finishing school with every fiber of her being, until she realized Mademoiselle Geraldine’s offered no ordinary education. Now she dreaded the possibility of returning home to her former life.

Lady Linette said, “Everyone’s results are given together. You will receive your final marks in front of your peers.”

Sophronia’s heart sank. This explained the pale faces of the other girls—anticipated trauma. Agatha, in particular, hated public exposure.

“However, my initial assessment is that your capacities are suited to our institution. You are overly independent. I suggest focused study in social congregation and deportment. Groups, Miss Temminnick, are your weakness. Generally speaking, most lone intelligencers are men, not women. We ladies must learn to manipulate society.”

Sophronia could feel herself flushing. It was a fair assessment, but she did not like criticism. She knew she was good. Better than many of the other girls of her age‐group. True, Sidheag could beat her in physical combat, Dimity and Preshea were more ladylike, and Monique was better at social graces, but Sophronia was the best at espionage. Nevertheless, she held her tongue and stared at her hands, forcing herself not to clasp them tightly. Lady Linette had only said that most lone intelligencers were male. Perhaps once in a while there was room for a female.

“Thank you, Miss Temminnick. You are dismissed.”

Sophronia bobbed a curtsy. It was just shy of being too high and too brief and thus rude. But before Lady Linette could comment, Sophronia swept from the room in a manner so grand that no teacher at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s would critique the action.

 


Curtsies and Conspiracies © Gail Carriger, 2013

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