Sofia looked out the window of her aunt’s London townhouse, at the chimney-sweep spiders clattering along the slate rooftops, their glass abdomens full of ash. Her lip curled.
“Are you feeling unwell, Sofia?” inquired Lady Obermann.
“Oh no,” said Sofia, standing and smoothing out her skirts—her favorite, a soft rose color, covering a simple dress of sprig muslin. “The air is wonderfully refreshing.”
Lady Obermann sniffed. “Excellent. I do so dislike illness in young people.” When Sofie didn’t respond, she continued. “I believe I spotted your cousin Valerian downstairs. He would no doubt like to take a turn about the park. You should accompany him rather than perch here like a gargoyle.”
“I should enjoy that immensely,” said Sofia, perhaps a shade too brightly. She set the cake she’d been holding back down on its tiered silver platter, beside several untouched sandwiches. One of the side tables unhinged itself to stretch into a mechanized parlor maid who began gathering up the tea things with jerky motions.
Sofie turned her head, so she didn’t have to look at it.
She knew she was the victim of fortunate circumstances: an heiress, and having recently lost her papa to an illness born of dissipation, an orphan. Her aunt had been kind enough to take her in, but it was quite obvious that she intended to foist her son on Sofia before she was properly out. All done with such kindness, however, that Sofia would have been hard-pressed to refuse his attentions, should he have ever decided to actually favor her with them.
For her cousin Valerian’s part, he clearly thought of her as a child when he thought of her at all. When she actually was a child, he had been kind, carrying her on his shoulders so that she could pull down crisp green apples from trees. He had pulled splinters out of her fingers and once made a bandage from his neck cloth and moss when she skinned her knee trying to ride one of the mechanized gardening beasts.
Back then Sofie had looked forward to holidays in the country, when the whole family would be together. She had looked forward to Valerian, who alone among them was unfailingly patient and kind. But he had words with his father one year and the next went home with his friends from Eton. She’d missed him then, but she did not need him now. Especially because he had made it so perfectly clear that he’d never missed her at all.
Yes, she would be hard-pressed to refuse his attentions, but it was still maddening that he never gave her the opportunity.
Since it was her duty to be an obedient niece, Sofia went to look for him. She told herself—repeatedly—there was no other possible reason for seeking him out.
Passing through the house and down the stairs, she was careful of the brass and cloth wires connecting the automaton servants to the walls. They turned their metal faces away as she passed, bowing their heads, so silent that she only heard the faint whirring of their gears.
She found both her cousins in the Blue Salon. Valerian, a gentleman of six and twenty, had carelessly thrown himself into a chair at the edge of the room and glowered as his sister, Amelia, waltzed about with her mechanized dance instructor.
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