Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 23

“I think we’d both find that rather uncomfortable.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. Let’s talk about something else, shall we? How about telling me more of your lessons at that school of yours, outside of seduction class.”

When Sophronia smiled quite wickedly at that, Felix changed his mind. “Maybe that is unsafe, too?”

“Why don’t you tell me a little of life at Bunson’s? How are the Pistons? How is your father?”

“Oh, now, my father is definitely not a safe topic.”

Sophronia edged in, testing the waters. “Pickleman problems? They do seem overly demanding.”

Felix didn’t take the bait. “Aren’t all worthy causes? You know he still grumbles about your tricks at the Westminster Hive.”

“Indeed? How on earth did you get his leave to come to my brother’s engagement party?”

“Fortunately for me, he doesn’t know your name, so he did not make the connection. He still thinks Lord Akeldama was involved.”

“And you didn’t tell him the truth?” Hope sprang so hard in Sophronia’s chest, she swore she tingled with it. If he covered for me against the Picklemen, perhaps I can change his mind about them.

“I claimed one of your other brothers was a friend from my early days at Eton. You know I was at Eton before Bunson’s?”

Sophronia nodded.

“I suspected you probably had some brother who was about the correct age. You seem to be lousy with brothers. We might have been at school at the same time.”

“You’re right. Gresham would have been older than you, but you could have crossed paths.”

“Father won’t look into it thoroughly. He’s been distracted recently. He’d check the name Temminnick and not a whole lot else. Whatever your father does for the government, it obviously does not impede Pickleman policies. So I’m allowed to attend.”

Felix’s father, Duke Golborne, was something terribly high up in the Picklemen as well as a peer. The Picklemen were, so far as Sophronia could tell, evil. Not that there was anything especially wrong with being evil. But this evil seemed particularly centered on monopolizing political control and undermining everyone else’s power but their own, and that Sophronia didn’t like. She was finding, as she grew older, that she was rather fond of balance… in all things. “Oh, indeed. And what has been distracting the duke of late?”

“Now, now, Ria, you think I don’t remember that look of yours?”

“What look?”

“Not unlike a hound on a scent. A very pretty hound, of course.”

Sophronia sighed. “I know, it’s my worst giveaway. I’m mostly good at schooling my features for anger and love and suchlike emotions, but curiosity gets the better of me.”

Felix, clearly thinking of Sophronia and Sidheag’s spectacular rescue infiltration of the Westminster Hive, added sarcastically, “I should say that it does so in more ways than one.”

“Now, now, my lord, you know it’s part of my charm.”

Felix looked as if he doubted it. “You do wear breeches well.”

“They are comfortable and mobile. Why should you boys have all the fun?”

“Next thing you’ll have me in stays.”

Sophronia was surprised to find she rather liked that idea. She thought Felix would look well in a corset, perhaps a black-and-blue one to match his eyes and hair. “Would you like to try? You might fit one of Sidheag’s.”

Felix actually blushed. “Oh, now, I say!”

“It was only an offer.”

Their conversation remained a great deal livelier after that, ranging on topics of interest both evil genius and finishing related. Sophronia even successfully teased him about Pickleman politics, and he looked as if he might have been second-guessing the Picklemen’s interests. Or at least actually thinking about the implications. Eventually, they moved toward the front of the cart to include Dimity and even Pillover in their conversation. The boys managed to put any animosity aside for the duration of the trip. It helped that tea and sandwiches plus hard-boiled eggs and winter apples were consumed. It was hard to be antagonistic over the comfort of food on a rainy day.

SESSION 6: MASQUERADING MECHANICALS

It was a pleasant trip, in the end, despite the weather and the conveyance. They arrived at Sophronia’s family estate early that evening. It was too late for tea, although Frowbritcher, the mechanical butler, laid out a reserve for the weary travelers.

The engagement party was Mrs. Temminnick’s opportunity to exhibit her hostess technique. With eight children, thrift was a matter of course, but this was her eldest son and no expense was to be spared. There were floating lanterns ready to launch as soon as the sun set. There were freight carriers full of goods and errand boys on donkeys arriving at an alarming rate. Sophronia was relieved to see that there were no cheese pies. Mumsy had borrowed extra mechanical staff from the neighbors as well. Sophronia spotted six clangermaids and two buttlinger models of the latest design, certainly not belonging to her family. Frowbritcher, who ordinarily had the most regal of bearings, as it were, seemed shabby next to the shiny new technology. Extra tracks had been laid down in the public areas of the house, crisscrossing the sitting room and card parlor and bordering the ballroom in artful waving patterns.

After tea, the girls and boys separated to change for the main event. Pillover and Felix were bound to be quicker and so were instructed to attend the other gentlemen in the billiard room once their toilette was complete. The young ladies were put in with Sophronia’s sisters, a milling, giggling throng of primping and gossip.

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