Etiquette & Espionage / Page 18

Page 18



She counted twelve air airdinghies and behind them two larger airships. Nothing to the school’s size, but full dirigibles of the kind that were rumored to be in production for overseas postal delivery.


Sophronia scanned the occupants, searching for the shadow gentleman. He must be there. It was dark and she had to squint so hard she developed a headache, but she managed to make him out in one of the dirigibles. The silhouette of a man not dressed for riding, like the other flywaymen, but in full evening attire, including a stovepipe hat. Sophronia had no doubt that the band about that top hat was green. He was standing to the back—seeming, as before, to be an observer rather than a participant.


Sophronia wondered if he observed her, in her dressing gown, with an evening bag about her neck, clinging to the side of the ship.


She supposed the dirigibles must be sky pirates. Like flywaymen, she had thought them mere creatures of legend. After all, how does a pirate afford a dirigible? But there was no other explanation. The two dirigibles floating among the crowd of smaller ships, like mallards among the ducklings, looked as though they matched each other. It was as if the trappings of weaponry and flags were merely that, trappings, and the dirigibles were a stylish set intended for something far more grand than threatening a finishing school. Sophronia concluded that, like the galleons of old, these must have been stolen from the government.


One of the flywaymen put a bullhorn to his mouth. “Give us the prototype!”


The teachers said nothing.


One of the dirigibles fired, a flash of a cannon on the deck, and a large object came hurtling in their direction. It whizzed right by where Sophronia clung, only just missing the school.


Sophronia suppressed a shriek.


“Fire, Professor Braithwope,” she heard Lady Linette order.


Professor Braithwope came into Sophronia’s line of sight as he took two vampire-quick leaps to the front of the deck. He pointed his tiny crossbow at the fleet arrayed before them.


Sophronia doubted a crossbow of such daintiness would be very effective.


He fired.


As one, all the mechanicals, whose little cannons had been pointed at the professor the entire time, swiveled, tracking the arc of the crossbow bolt.


They target the bolt! Sophronia realized. I hope Professor Braithwope is a good shot.


He was. The bolt hit and stuck into the side of one of the airdinghies, well below the edge of the carrier basket, out of reach of its occupants.


Lady Linette came into view as she reached over the side railing and pulled at something hidden there.


The soldier mechanicals all fired at once in a tremendous boom of noise.


Sophronia winced and wished she could cover her ears, but she needed both her hands to hang on.


The squeak deck disappeared in a cloud of gunpowder smoke. The sweet, tinny smell floated down to Sophronia. When it cleared, she could see that one of the small airdinghies was listing to one side, two of its balloons collapsing. It started to spiral down and out of the sky. The ones to either side of it had also taken hits.


One of the dirigibles returned fire. This time it aimed higher. The cannonball tore a massive hole in the school’s middle balloon. Sophronia tilted her head back, trying to look into the cavity and assess the damage. But the balloon was one deck over, and it was too dark for her to see anything. One side of the balloon looked to be caving slightly, and the whole ship listed in that direction.


“Get the sooties up there!” she heard Professor Lefoux yell, pointing at the damaged balloon.


Professor Braithwope did his fast scuttle out across the plank to the pilot’s nest, presumably to call down to the boiler room.


Lady Linette stepped forward to the very front railing of the squeak deck. She needed no bullhorn, for she was very good at projecting her voice. There is no doubt about it; she must have had considerable experience on the stage.


“Stop firing. We will give you the prototype! Send over your ambassador.”


They are giving up very easily, thought Sophronia. Seems orchestrated, perhaps to pass along the fake prototype? Use it as a means to buy more time?


The flywayman with the bullhorn shouted back over the intervening distance, “Agreed.”


THE CORRECT WAY TO GET CAUGHT


What happened next?” Dimity was positively riveted by Sophronia’s tale.


“Professor Lefoux gave the flywaymen a fake prototype. It looked like a shiny metal dodecahedron.” It was the following morning, and they ought to be getting ready for breakfast, but instead they were lying in their beds chatting.


“I started to worry when you weren’t back after the bells stopped sounding.” Dimity’s pretty face was somber with reprimand. “You could have said something to me about where you were going.”


“I didn’t want to get you into any kind of trouble. Bumbersnoot is my concern. Also, I hoped to return before anyone noticed. In the end, I had to wait while the teachers cleaned up after the battle. Did you know they brought sooties up top and had them climb inside the balloon to make repairs?” Sophronia was pretty darn certain, from a gangly silhouette, that one of those sooties had been Soap. She did not say this to Dimity. For some reason she felt very private about and possessive of Soap. Also a little embarrassed. She suspected Dimity might scoff. Petunia had always been very mocking whenever Sophronia befriended the stable lads. Then she hadn’t minded so much. Now, after weeks of finishing school, she was beginning to concern herself with appearances.


“Regardless, I had to wait while everyone fussed over the balloon. I overheard the teachers talking.”


Dimity’s eyes widened appreciatively.


“Professor Lefoux said that the flywaymen would be back, because the prototype they passed over was a fake. She said it would fool them for a while, but that it was no guarantee of safety.” Sophronia rolled over and pulled her black velvet reticule out from under the bed. She extracted a few lumps of coal and placed Bumbersnoot, asleep at the foot of her bed, barely warm. He was conserving all of his energy, his tiny internal steam engine almost completely shut down.


Sophronia tapped him on the head with a chunk of coal and then placed it in front of his face. He made a low whirring noise, heated up slightly, and then began to eat. Shortly thereafter, steam emanated from his underbelly, and he got to his four tiny feet with a few squeaks and clunks.


Sophronia continued her story. “Professor Braithwope said something about taking refuge in the mist—going gray, he called it—to buy us extra time.”


Dimity looked thoughtful. “No mail drops for a while, then. Monique will be disappointed.”


“As indeed am I. I was going to write to Mumsy for more clothes. And we were going to drop your brother that glove.”


Dimity urged her on. “What happened next?”


“Sister Mattie asked about Bunson’s. Professor Lefoux said something about them doing their best.”


“I suppose that means Bunson’s is trying to build a replacement prototype,” Dimity suggested.


“Or a better-looking fake.”


“I suspect we’re heading in that direction, anyway,” said Dimity.


“Goodness, how can you tell? The moor always looks the same to me.”


“Well, the school will need proper repairs. I believe those are always conducted at Bunson’s.”


“Oh?” Sophronia was excited by this idea. She felt like they had been floating about aimlessly for an aeon.


“Well, the propeller is winding strong this morning.” The girls looked up to see Sidheag, arms crossed over her bony chest, wearing a long pink flannel nightgown and slouching against the doorjamb. Pink!


“Is that what that vibration means?” Sophronia asked without missing a beat. She ought to have known someone would overhear their conversation. At least it was Sidheag, and not Monique. Speaking of Monique, she’s going to try to send that letter as soon as we arrive at Bunson’s.


“Indeed.”


“How long have you been standing there?” Dimity wanted to know, drawing the covers up over her own red brocade nightgown.


“Long enough,” replied Lady Kingair, coming inside their room. She bent to pat Bumbersnoot, who was working busily on his second lump of coal.


“So you managed to scarper back here without being discovered?” she asked Sophronia.


“Yes.”


“Convinced of that, are ya?”


Sophronia felt a cold chill go up her spine.


“Yes, why?”


“Because Lady Linette is waiting for you in our sitting room, and she does not look pleased. She told me to tell you specifically, Sophronia, to dress and get yourself in there right sharp.”


“Oh, bother,” said Sophronia. “Dimity, will you keep an eye on Bumbersnoot for me?”


“Of course.”


“Bumbersnoot, stay here with Auntie Dimity, please.”


The mechanimal sat back on his haunches and sent a puff of smoke at her, tail wagging back and forth hopefully. Sophronia tossed Dimity another lump of coal, hoping to keep the dog’s attention in their room, and climbed out of bed. In the interest of appearing as innocent as possible, she donned her simplest dress—a blue muslin with white flowers—and Sidheag helped her do up the buttons. Over this Sophronia pulled a white pinafore. She elected simply to plait her hair, as it was fastest. With Lady Linette such things were always a bit dodgy—take time to be particularly presentable, or dress quickly? She popped a lace cap on her head and went reluctantly into their drawing room to see how much trouble she’d gotten herself into.


“Miss Temminnick, good morning.”


“Good morning, my lady.” Sophronia bobbed a curtsy. She’d been working very hard with Dimity on the art of the curtsy—how to bend the knees without sticking out the bottom, a smooth dip and rise. Dimity had even shown her how to lower her eyes and glance up through her lashes.


Lady Linette, who looked rather irked, nevertheless noticed the improvement. “Much better, young lady. Not so much tilt to the head, not with a lady or a vampire. With another woman, it comes off as coy. With a vampire, it comes off as invitation. Otherwise a very commendable effort.”


Sophronia rose from her curtsy. “Thank you, my lady.”


“However, it does not make up for some very disturbing news I’ve recently had.”


“Yes, my lady?” Sophronia’s stomach fluttered ominously.


“I have been informed that you were seen out last night. You were spotted through one of the portholes climbing the exterior hull.”


Sophronia narrowed her eyes. Someone’s ratted on me! That’s certainly not in the spirit of this school. “One of the teachers, my lady?”


“Oh, very nice. No defensive tone, merely a query for further information. You are trying to take advantage of my annoyance in the hope that I will be indiscreet about the informant. You are learning well, Miss Temminnick, very well indeed.”


Sophronia widened her eyes hopefully, trying to look both nonthreatening and inquiring.


“Simply in honor of such a creditable effort, I will tell you that it was a student. And this is a concern. On the one hand, no one else saw you. On the other, you have made an enemy of one of your fellows in such a way as to cost you a covert operation. You should pay very close attention in your blackmail lessons in order to forestall such behavior in the future. Then again, so should the student in question. She might have used this information to manipulate you, rather than coming directly to us. A questionable choice of application, but perhaps she thought the matter was time sensitive.”


“My lady?” Sophronia’s heart was in her throat. Please don’t turn me out.


“Yes, of course. So, for being seen, you are hereby ordered to report to Cook. She will have you cleaning the pots and pans after supper in the mess for the next two weeks.”


Sophronia started to let out a breath of relief, but then Lady Linette continued, “For being told upon…” She paused, considering.


I’m being sent home when we get to Bunson’s. I know it. Sophronia clenched her hands.


“For being told upon, you are being denied attendance at the upcoming stopover at Swiffle-on-Exe. There is an acting troupe in town. You will have to miss the show. And for being out during lockdown, you will not be allowed off the ship at all.”


Sophronia let out a breath and relaxed her hands. “Thank you, my lady.”


“Goodness, girl, what are you thanking me for?”


“You aren’t going to expel me.”


“Of course not! Don’t be silly. None of the professors actually saw you, and you avoided the mechanicals during a high-order alarm. That’s very good work indeed. And you’ve displayed untapped skills in climbing and night stealth. I’m considering extra lessons as a result. We were told you had gumption. Our mistake was in underestimating how much. Why were you out and about?”


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