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Eliza, the now trifle-less maid, was trying to put some order to the chaos that had resulted from finding an unexpected Sophronia departing the dumbwaiter.
Sophronia crawled over to help with the strawberries and cake that now covered the room. “Sorry, Eliza. I didn’t mean it.”
“You never do, miss.”
Petunia was not to be distracted. “Sophronia!”
“Well, sister, to be perfectly correct, I did nothing.”
“Tell that to the poor woman’s lovely bonnet.”
“The trifle did it.”
Petunia’s perfect rosebud pout twisted into a grimace that might have been an attempt to hide a smile. “Really, Sophronia, you’re fourteen years old and simply unfit for public consumption. I refuse to have you at my coming-out ball. You’ll do something dreadful, like spill the punch on the only nice-looking boy there.”
“I would never!”
“Oh, yes, you would.”
“No, I wouldn’t. Besides which, we don’t happen to be acquainted with any nice-looking boys.”
Petunia ignored that jibe. “Must you be so tiresome? It’s always something.” She looked smug. “Although I believe Mumsy has finally determined what to do with you.”
“She has? Do? Do what? What’s going on?”
“Mumsy is indenturing you to vampires for a proper education. You’re old enough now for them to actually want you. Soon you’ll be putting your hair up—what else are we to do with you? You are even starting to get décolletage.”
Sophronia blushed with embarrassment at the very mention of such a thing, but managed a sputtered protest of, “She never!”
“Oh, yes! Who do you think she’s talking to right now? Why do you think it’s such a secret meeting? Vampires are like that.”
Mumsy had, of course, made the threat when any of the Temminnick children were being particularly wayward. But never could Sophronia believe such a thing actually possible. “But it’s tea! Vampires can’t be here. They can’t go out in daylight. Everyone knows that.”
Petunia, in her Petunia-ish way, dismissed this defense with a careless flap of one hand. “You think they would send a real vampire for the likes of you? Oh, no, that’s a drone Mumsy is talking with. I wager they’re drawing up the papers of servitude right now.”
“But I don’t want to be a vampire drone.” Sophronia winced. “They’ll suck my blood and make me wear only the very latest fashions.”
Petunia nodded in an I-know-more-than-you manner that was highly aggravating. “Yes. Yes, they will.”
Frowbritcher, the butler, appeared in the doorway. He paused on the threshold while his rollers transferred to the parlor tracks. He was the very latest in domestic mechanicals, about the size and shape of a daphne bush. He trundled over and looked down his beaky nasal protuberance at Sophronia. His eyes were jet-colored circles of perpetual disapproval.
“Miss Sophronia, your mother wishes to see you immediately.” His voice, emanating from a music-box device deep inside his metal body, was tinny and grainy.
Sophronia sighed. “Is she sending me to the vampires?”
Petunia wrinkled her nose. “I suppose there is a possibility they won’t take you. I mean to say, Sophronia, the way you dress!”
The butler only repeated, without any inflection whatsoever, “Immediately, miss.”
“Should I make for the stable?” Sophronia asked.
“Oh, do grow up!” said Petunia in disgust.
“So I can be a puffed-up poodle-faker like you?” As though growing up were something one could do contagiously, caught through associating with officious older sisters. Sophronia trailed after Frowbritcher, nervously brushing her custard-covered hands against her apron. She hoped the pinafore would hide the disreputable—well, absent—state of her skirt.
The butler rolled down the hall, leading her to her father’s library. An elaborate tea service was arranged there, including lace tablecloths, sponge cake, and the family’s very best china. This was far more effort than was ever spent on Mrs. Barnaclegoose.
Across from Sophronia’s mother, sipping tea, sat an elegant lady wearing a sour expression and a large hat. She looked like exactly the kind of woman one would expect to be a vampire drone.
“Here is Miss Sophronia, madam,” said Frowbritcher from the doorway, not bothering to transfer tracks. He glided off, probably to marshal forces to clean the parlor.
“Sophronia! What did you do to poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose? She left here in a dreadful huff and—oh, simply look at you! Mademoiselle, please excuse my daughter’s appearance. I’d tell you it was an aberration, but, sadly, it’s all too common. Such a troublesome child.”
The stranger gave Sophronia a prim look that made her feel about six years old. She was painfully conscious of her custardy state. No one would ever describe Sophronia as elegant, whereas this woman was every inch a lady. Sophronia had never before considered how powerful that could be. The strange woman was also offensively beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair streaked with gray. It was impossible to discern her age, for, despite the gray, her face was young. She was perfectly dressed in a sort of spiky lace traveling gown with a massive skirt and velvet trim that was much more elegant than anything Sophronia had ever seen in her life. Her mother was more a follower of trends than a purveyor of fine taste. This woman was truly stylish.