Florence watched through the window, as the lamplighter worked down the street. The methodical routine soothed her jangled nerves. The man bent to twist the knob and start the gas flowing, then reached up with the pole-mounted lighter. He pulled a lever and the striker sparked. A cheery glow spilled across the cobblestones as he moved onto the next post. Twist. Spark. Glow. Repeat.
Florence sighed and twitched the curtain over the glass. For the tenth time she pulled the pocket watch out of her waistcoat. The minutes chugged forward like a steam engine on its last shovel of coal. With shaking fingers, she tucked the watch back in place and turned to survey herself in the mirror.
The crisp, brocade vest was too large, but helped conceal her feminine curves. She shrugged on the tailcoat and straightened lace trimmed sleeves. The ruffled cuffs skimmed her fingertips. It wouldn’t be noticed – the aristocracy wore their sleeves long.
Round, wire rimmed glasses completed the facade, giving her an owlish look. There was nothing she could do about her smooth cheeks, but some of the students were starting eschew the mustaches of their fathers. In crowded lecture halls the guise had held, but this meeting was face-to-face. It would have to do.
With a twinge of regret Florence settled a silk stovepipe hat on shorn curls before glancing at the wide four-poster. Raven locks that had once skimmed her shoulders were stark against the white linen. The bedclothes had been drawn up over lumpy pillows. She’d retired early with a fabricated headache, asking not to be disturbed. With the lamp turned low, anyone who checked would see a slumbering figure. She hoped.
A thrill flipped Florence’s stomach as she touched her pocket. A crinkle of paper sounded loud in the silent room. To be summoned to a Maester’s home was unusual. Had they found her out?
She screwed up her courage, tiptoed down the servants’ stairs, and disappeared into the night.
An hour later, a steamcart rolled up in front of a large chateau. It belched out a white cloud and lurched to a stop, gears grinding. Florence fished a livre from her pouch to pay the cabbie.
“Thank ye, sir!” The coin disappeared into his grubby palm.
The driver waited. Cleared his throat.
Florence flushed and scrambled out onto the sidewalk. She chastised herself – only ladies needed assistance disembarking. As least her disguise held up.
A butler greeted her in the marble foyer. She pulled the creamy parchment from her pocket. The old man’s sullen expression didn’t soften as he ushered her into the inner sanctum.
He rapped on a thick door at the end of the hall, and proceeded to open it without waiting for a response. “Presenting, Monsieur Frederick Dampierre.” The servant’s voice was as dour as his face.
The parlor was filled with familiar faces from the University. Five pairs of eyes fastened on Florence and with a jerk, she transitioned the instinct to curtsey into a hesitant bow. “Maesters. Good evening.” She pitched her voice low. A haze of smoke made it difficult to breathe. Or perhaps it was her nerves.
“Ah, young Frederick! Welcome.” The Dean of the Mechatronics department flashed a wolfish grin at her. “I imagine you’re wondering why we asked you here.” He sniggered. “I’m sure it seems most clandestine.”
Florence nodded, hesitant.
“As you know, the University is a sacred place of learning. A place where the brightest young men in our nation may study.”
Sweat trickled down Florence’s back as the Maester spoke.
The grey-haired man’s eyes flashed. “What you may not know, is a vote has been proposed to allow entry to woman scholars.” Around the room the other professors grumbled and frowned. The Dean sneered. “Can you imagine? Women.” His lips twisted, as if the word tasted bitter.
Florence swallowed hard and opened her mouth.
Another professor held his hand up, cutting her off. “We cannot allow our traditions to be sullied. However, the Maesters are evenly split on the matter.” He raised an eyebrow. “Students cannot vote. Teaching Assistants can.”
Florence held her breath.
“Frederick. Your work on the dirigible navigation system was brilliant.” The Dean leaned close and clapped Florence on the shoulder. His breath reeked of stale whiskey and pipe tobacco. “I will sponsor your appointment. In return you’ll cast the pivotal vote in this matter. What say you?”
Florence let out a shaky breath. “I would be honored.” Inside she roared in victory.