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“I didn’t know there were rooms above the dining hall,” said Sophronia to Lady Linette.
Lady Linette was not going to play into 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 whirled to life. “Six-month. 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.