Etiquette & Espionage / Page 17

Page 17

“Don’t you think he’s moving slower than before?” Dimity wondered, reaching down to pat the top of the little mechanimal’s head. Bumbersnoot’s tail began to tick-tock in pleasure, but it did seem less rapid than usual.

Sophronia frowned down at her pet in concern. “He probably needs to be fed.” She’d not managed to visit the sooties again. Someone else had been thinking of Bumbersnoot’s health, however, for last week one of the mechanical servants had appeared at their door with a platter. Upon lifting the silver lid, the girls found a small mound of coal and nothing else. Not even a note. Sophronia had surmised both whom the platter was for and whom it was from. She also surmised that it was now her turn to visit Soap to renew the acquaintance and extend her gratitude.

She’d not mentioned the sooties to anyone but Dimity, and even then not in any detail. Dimity had been rather dismissive, and Sophronia figured it was best to keep the sooties to herself when possible.

As they watched, Bumbersnoot’s interest in the fallen gloves waned and the flow of steam from his underbelly began to slow. He sagged down, and his tail stopped moving.

“Oh, dear,” said Dimity. “Poor little mite.”

Sophronia waited until the others were asleep before climbing out of her cot, pulling on a dressing gown, and letting herself into the hall. The gas lights were doused for the evening, and it took valuable moments for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.

As soon as they did so, she made out a shape that caused her heart to pound in her breast. It was the conical metal form of a mechanical maid. The creature was stilled in its tracks, with no steam escaping from under the crude white pinafore someone had dressed it in. It was either dead or asleep. Nevertheless, the maid was between Sophronia and any possible access to the outer hull of the airship. I wish I knew more about the workings of these faceless mechanicals. Can it see me, the way Frowbritcher could see me, or will it only notice when I’m in its way? Does it matter if I move slow? Or fast?

Sophronia decided to simply proceed with as much caution as possible. She flattened herself against the wall and inched toward the maid, attempting not to step on the tracks, worried that any vibration might transfer to the mechanical.

She moved closer and closer, and then, sucking in to make herself as skinny as possible—glad she was in her nightgown and not full skirts—inched past the maid.

The mechanical did not stir. Sophronia made it. Throwing caution to the wind, she took off down the hallway.

At that, the maid whirled to life and came after her, far faster than any household mechanical Sophronia’s mother had on staff. No alarm bell sounded, however. Sophronia charged through a door and onto an outside deck, past another slumbering mechanical, and slid nimbly over the railing to hang suspended on the other side.

The mechanical on the deck also awoke as she passed. It was a footman model, faceless like the others, but wearing an old-fashioned manservant’s white lace cravat. The cravat fluttered as the mechanical’s internal steam engine puffed to life. It began trundling back and forth. However, it did not sound the alarm, either, and its tracks did not allow it to spot Sophronia on the other side of the railing.

Sophronia barely breathed. She noticed that the previous week’s book-balancing, dancing, and lessons with Captain Niall had given her new muscles and better balance. She found this position far more comfortable than she had the first time around.

She also found that edging along the outside of the rails, jumping from deck to balcony to deck, was far easier. This school really is training me.

She flung herself, almost automatically, at Lady Linette’s private balcony—the one with the rope ladder. From there she climbed down and into the hatch of the boiler room with a sense of relief. At least this part of the ship did not house any professors. She was liking the school rather more than she had thought possible and would prefer not to be asked to leave just yet. She was fairly certain that pursuit of food for an illicit mechanimal was not an acceptable activity.

The boiler room was far quieter at night than it had been during the day. But it was still active. The massive ship had to be kept afloat, and the balloons must be augmented by both heat and propeller action. Plus, Sophronia had to assume, much of the rest of the ship ran on steam power—the kitchens, the gas containment, the glass platform, the lighting, the heating, the tea.

She had intended merely to sneak in, liberate some coal, and sneak out—a plan far simpler to execute when the outside of the ship was as dark as the inside. But someone observed her stealthy entrance, and even as Sophronia was straightening up, the small, cherubic face of a young boy appeared next to her elbow, grinning.

“Well, well! Who are you, then?” The boy had a bit of a French accent and a very cheeky demeanor. He was also much younger than any of the other sooties, with remarkably twinkly eyes. Sophronia suspected those eyes of being green, but it was impossible to tell by the light of the boilers. He had dark, cropped hair, trousers that were too big, and an upmarket-looking cap. An incongruous character all round. He was also slightly less smudged than any sootie Sophronia had seen before. Only slightly, mind.

“Good evening,” said Sophronia. “I’m a friend of Soap’s.”

“Who isn’t?”

“Point taken. I’m Sophronia.”

“I heard of you. The Uptop Soap’s sweet on.” The boy grinned at Sophronia again, showing dimples.

“How old are you?” was all Sophronia could think of to say to that.

“Nine,” said the boy, sidling up to her.

“Are you a sootie?”

“Nope.” The boy winked. Actually winked!

“Then what are you doing down here?”

“I like it here.”

“How’d you get in?”

“Came in, like you.”

“You from up top as well?”

“Sort of.”

Frustrated, Sophronia said, “I only came for some coal.”

“Well, let me go wake Soap.”

“Oh, no need to disturb him.”

“ ’Course there’s need. Why do you think I was set to watch the hatch? Waiting on the ghost of boilers past? He’ll box my ears if I don’t tell him you came.”

“What’s your name?” Sophronia felt no compunction about disregarding proper introductions with a child.

“They call me Vieve.”

“Odd name.”

“Suits me.”

“Right. I’m going to go over there and get some coal. Does that meet with your approval, Vieve?”

Vieve gave her another one of his dimpled grins and scampered off, holding his trousers up with one hand. He returned moments later, before Sophronia had a chance to collect any coal, with a sleepy Soap in tow.

They made for an odd pair: the scamp of a nine-year-old in overlarge clothing and the tall, gangly sootie with shirtsleeves so short his wrists poked out the ends.

“Good evening, miss.” Soap’s dark face lit up with that wide, white-toothed smile.

“Are you well, Soap?”

“Well and good, miss, well and good. Got my little meal, did ya?”

“Yes, thank you. Bumbersnoot and I were most appreciative.”

“Bumbersnoot?” wondered Vieve.

“The miss here’s landed herself a mechanimal.”

The young boy’s face lit up. “You have a real live mechanimal! Can I see it?”

“Well, no, not right now. He’s in my room, up in the students’ section.”

“No, I mean later. Can I see it later?”

Soap explained the boy’s evident enthusiasm. “Vieve here is fixing to be the next great inventor.”

Sophronia was shocked. “That’s a grand ambition for someone your age.”

“Not when your aunt is Beatrice Lefoux.” Soap twisted his mobile mouth into a funny grimace.

Sophronia flinched at that statement, glaring down at the nine-year-old before her. “Your aunt is Professor Lefoux! Why didn’t you say?”

Vieve shrugged in a way that managed to look particularly French. “Why should I?”

“You won’t tell her, will you?”

“Tell her what?”

“About Bumbersnoot? Or my being in the boiler room?”

“ ’Course not. Why would I?” Vieve looked offended.

“Oh, thank you.”

“So now can I see your mechanimal?”

Feeling as though she had been somehow trapped, Sophronia said, “Yes, very well. How will you get up to my room, though?”

“Oh, I get round most anywhere I wants.”

“No one bothers to keep track of this scamp,” Soap said, pulling off the boy’s cap and ruffling his hair in a manner Vieve clearly found unnecessary and annoying.

“Are you not a real Uptop?” Sophronia felt a little silly using the word.

Vieve shrugged again. “I’m whatever I want to be, so long as alarms don’t sound.”

“That must be nice.” Sophronia exchanged a look of amusement with Soap.

“Get a small stock of black for the lady, would you, Vieve?” Soap tilted his head in the direction of a mound of coal.

Vieve gave the tall boy a measured look and then trotted purposefully off.

“Arrogant little blighter,” said Soap affectionately, once the lad was out of earshot.

“I suppose you’d have to be, if Professor Lefoux were your aunt.” Sophronia was philosophical.

Vieve returned with his pockets bulging. Sophronia transferred the coal to her black velvet reticule. It was her very best evening bag, but it was the only one that wouldn’t show coal smudges.

“Nice keeper,” Vieve commented on the reticule.

“Thank you.”

“Vieve here has an eye for accessories.”

“I like a nice hat on a lady,” was Vieve’s dignified response, with which he trundled off about his own business.

“Nine years old, you say?”

“Well, when your only ma is French and a Lefoux, gotta develop some ways to cope. That barrow contraption of mine, the one you saw last time you was here? That’s Vieve’s.”

Sophronia was impressed. “I thought you built it.”

“Nope, I tested it. Vieve’s got the brains.”

Sophronia tilted her head and looked up at the tall young man. “I don’t know about that.”

Soap pulled at one ear self-consciously. “Why… miss.”

Sophronia was trying to come up with a way to extract herself from what appeared to be an awkward conversation—That’ll teach me to try flirting outside the classroom—when one of the boilers nearby sparked to roaring life and far away she heard the clang of alarm bells on the upper decks.

“Oh, blast it! Do you think they noticed I wasn’t abed?”

Soap hustled her over to the exit hatch and held it wide while Sophronia climbed out. “No, miss, that’s a perimeter alarm, that is. School’s under attack. Technically, you’re supposed to stay put, here with us.”

“If I’m going to get caught, I’d just as soon it was outside. Better for my reputation.”

“My thinking exactly. Good luck, miss.”

Must be flywaymen, back for the prototype. Sophronia slung the reticule full of coal around her neck and climbed up the rope ladder. On the positive side, none of the teachers would still be in their rooms. On the negative side, she might well encounter any number of them on deck as she tried to make her way back to her own room.

She considered hiding out on Lady Linette’s balcony until the alarm stopped, but if this was the promised attack from the flywaymen, she wanted to see what would happen next. They had threatened to return three weeks after the first aborted attempt, but the school must have eluded them an extra few days. The school’s aimless floating on the winds of the misty moor made them as difficult to track from the air as it did from the ground.

Sophronia began to climb steadily up the side of the ship. It was tougher going straight up than moving around the side. She had to find handholds and footholds in the woodwork to get through the points where one deck met the hull and another jutted out again. She managed it, mainly by not looking down. Once past the midpoint, she consoled herself with the thought, Even if I do fall, I’ll land on a lower deck, with probably nothing more dramatic than a broken bone or two. It was small consolation.

She looked up. She could see the squeak deck above her. The soldier mechanicals were once more assembled, their little cannons out and pointed inward. Professor Braithwope no doubt stood in the middle with his crossbow. The attackers, if there were any visible, were around the other side of the hull, out of her view.

Sophronia climbed until she was on the level directly below the squeak deck. She used the outer railing method to slip around to the opposite side of the ship. As she rounded one last deck she saw that indeed the flywaymen were back, this time with reinforcements.

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