Etiquette & Espionage / Page 20

Page 20



Vieve’s green eyes lit up with pleasure at seeing the mechanimal. “May I?”


“Of course. Here you are.” Sophronia picked up Bumbersnoot and presented him to the young boy.


The lad examined the creature closely, popping open various hatches and spending a good deal of time studying the tiny steam engine inside Bumbersnoot’s stomach. “Incredible. Such intricacy. But he needs to be serviced, I think. Has he been squeaking at all?”


“As a matter of fact, he has.”


Vieve nodded. “I’ll come by tomorrow, when everyone is groundside, with some oil and bits of kit. Give him a spiffing up.”


“That’s very kind.” Sophronia wasn’t certain how she felt about a nine-year-old taking apart her pet, but she wasn’t about to turn down the offer, either. If Bumbersnoot needed a look-see, Vieve was the closest she had to an expert.


“It’d be a pleasure. He’s quite the little beauty, isn’t he?”


Bumbersnoot had a long, sausagelike body, and while he was mostly bronze, it was clear he had some brass and iron parts, so that he was rather a patchwork. Fond of him though she was, “little beauty” was not a phrase Sophronia would have used to describe him. “If you say so.”


Vieve put Bumbersnoot back on the bed and doffed his hat. “Until tomorrow, then, miss?” Such an odd child.


“Until tomorrow. Shall I show you out?” Sophronia fell back on her recent training in how to dismiss a gentleman caller without rancor.


“I think I can manage on my own.” With which the boy left through the parlor, doffing his hat to the girls as he did so.


Dimity appeared in the doorway, glaring at her. “Who on earth is that? Or should I say, who in the clouds is that?”


“Vieve.”


“So I gathered, but Sophronia, you never told me you had befriended Professor Lefoux’s eccentric niece!”


“Niece?”


ON THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPER DRESS


Vieve was as good as her word. Her word. Sophronia still could not quite believe it. It seemed that Professor Lefoux’s nine-year-old niece liked to dress as a boy and fraternize with sooties. And that apparently Professor Lefoux let her!


“What-ho, Miss Sophronia!” said the girl, standing at the door and clutching a chubby reticule before her.


“Good evening, Miss Genevieve,” replied Sophronia formally. “Won’t you come in?”


Vieve didn’t look at all embarrassed at being found out. “So you know, do you?”


“Why on earth would you want to go about as a boy?”


“Boys have it far more jolly.” Vieve gave one of her dimpled grins. “I assure you, I find female dress fascinating. I simply prefer not to wear it myself. It’s very confining.”


Sophronia looked her guest up and down. This evening the girl was wearing her customary cap paired with an oversized man’s shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a brown vest, and brown jodhpurs. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely trust your judgment in matters of appearance.”


Vieve laughed.


“There is your patient.” Sophronia pointed to Bumbersnoot, who had taken advantage of the absence of Sophronia’s fellow denizens to lounge in the parlor under the tea table in a position of prominence he wasn’t normally permitted.


Vieve dumped the contents of her reticule onto the top of the tea table. Her kit appeared to be mainly mechanic’s tools and a few unlabeled glass bottles with corks. The girl coaxed Bumbersnoot out from under the table, sat down on the settee, and lifted him into her lap.


“Can I do anything to help?”


“Don’t think so. I take it you got caught climbing during shutdown and that’s why they banned you from attending the play?”


“I didn’t get caught; someone saw me and told.”


“That’s not on!” Vieve tipped the mechanimal upside down, opened up his stomach, and began tinkering and poking about with a sort of long squiggly stick made of iron. She picked up one of her little bottles, uncorked it, and poured a drop of some dark, viscous liquid down the stick so it went directly where she wanted it to. Vieve really was remarkably adept for a nine-year-old.


“So you’re Professor Lefoux’s niece?”


“That’s what she tells me.”


Sophronia sat back on the settee and tried to look casual. “Know anything about this prototype?”


“Now, miss, why would you think that?”


“You like mechanics and inventions, and so far as I can gather, the prototype is both.”


The girl looked up and smiled, looking far more her age than when she was concentrating on Bumbersnoot. “It’s for a special communication machine.”


“A what?”


“Ever since the telegraph failed, stymied by the aether currents, they’ve been working on this new idea for communication over long distances—one station to another. Unfortunately, there seems to be some difficulty making them transmit back and forth. The researchers at the Royal Society in London came up with a new prototype to fix this. They made two: one for London, and one to come here, to Bunson’s.”


“Why Bunson’s?”


“Well, that’s where the other communication machine is located, of course. Anyway, something happened to that prototype.”


“Monique hid it.”


Vieve looked impressed. “Really? How do you know that?”


“I was with her at the time. That’s when I was recruited.”


“It was her finishing assignment?”


“Yes. And she failed.”


“That explains why she’s bunking down with debuts. And why she wasn’t allowed to attend the play either.” Vieve’s dimples disappeared and she once more looked unnaturally serious for a nine-year-old.


That little bit of information was news to Sophronia. She’d sent Dimity off with strict instructions to keep a very close eye on Monique. Instructions that Dimity would find very hard to follow! “Monique didn’t go? Why isn’t she here in quarters?”


“Skulking about the teachers’ section, ain’t she? Nasty piece of work, that one. And gets away with it, what’s worse.”


Sophronia pursed her lips. She didn’t have time for Monique’s tomfoolery at the moment. “So do you know where it is?”


“The prototype?”


“No, the communication machine at Bunson’s.” If I could get a look at it, I might learn why everyone thinks it’s so important. Besides, I’d like to see inside Bunson’s, where girls aren’t supposed to go, on principle.


Vieve looked up at that, her green eyes narrowed. “I can see why you keep getting into trouble. Are you sure you’re a girl?”


“That’s rich, coming from you.”


“You don’t act like a girl.” Vieve cocked her head. “You want to go after it?”


Sophronia nodded. “See what all the fuss is about.”


This didn’t appear strange to Vieve. “We’re going to need help. Can’t get on and off this airship that easily.”


“Good thing we’re friendly with the sooties, then, isn’t it?”


Genevieve Lefoux dimpled down at her work. “Good point. Right.” She put Bumbersnoot back on his feet. “That should do it.”


The mechanimal shook himself, like a wet dog might, and trotted about the room. His tail wagged excitedly, ticktockticktock!


Sophronia watched him. “He’s moving much easier, and he doesn’t seem to be squeaking. You do good work.”


Vieve blushed. “I try. He might… oh, there he goes.”


Bumbersnoot crouched down in one corner of the parlor and deposited a pile of ash in a small mound.


“Oh, dear. Bad mechanimal!”


Vieve defended the dog. “He is a tiny steam engine. There’re bound to be a few deposits.”


“What about his capacity as a storage device?”


Vieve said, “About the size of your fist. Any larger and it might get stuck.”


Sophronia nodded, hoarding the information away for future use. “So are you any good at climbing?”


“Yes, but fortunately, we don’t have to.” The girl held out her wrist. On it she had strapped a wide leather band with what looked like a small brass jewelry case affixed to it. She flipped open the lid and held up the gadget for Sophronia to see.


At first Sophronia thought it might be a music box, but when she looked closer, she saw there were all sorts of dials and wheels and small knobs.


“What is it?”


Vieve grinned. “I call it my anti-mechanical mobility and magnetic disruption emission switch. Soap calls it the obstructor.”


It took only five minutes for Sophronia to badly want an obstructor of her own.


Vieve simply marched out into the hallway, and when a maid came trundling threateningly in their direction, the girl pointed her wrist at the mechanical and clicked a switch with her free hand.


The maid froze in place. Steam stopped emanating from the base of its carapace, and the gears and dials where its face ought to be stopped moving. It was as though the mechanical had seen something scandalous and been seized by a fainting fit. Ingenious!


“Come on!” Vieve grabbed Sophronia by the hand and dragged her past the mechanical. “The effect wears off in six seconds. I’m trying to figure out how to extend it, but that’s the best we’ve got at the moment.”


They ran past the maid, pausing at a bend in the hallway and peeking around the corner in case there was another mechanical, or possibly one of the students who was being punished by confinement and had similar escapist tendencies.


So they proceeded through the sections and levels of the airship, engaging in a kind of transdirigible hopscotch. Anytime they happened upon a mechanical, Vieve froze the poor thing for six seconds while they dashed past and continued on.


They crossed the midpoint of the school and immediately headed down toward the lower levels. As Vieve explained, “There are still two teachers aboard.”


“Professor Braithwope?” Sophronia said, hazarding a guess. “He can’t leave the ship. And”—she paused to think—“your aunt?”


“Because she doesn’t care for anything fun or entertaining,” explained Vieve without rancor.


Eventually, they found themselves at the entrance to the boiler room. Sophronia felt odd approaching that room from above rather than below. They pushed aside two massive brass doors emblazoned with images of fire and all sorts of symbols of danger. Sophronia squinted. One of the symbols looked to be a badger with his tail in flames. Another was a skull like that on a pirate’s flag, but with its mouth open and long vampire fangs. If that’s a vampire, perhaps the badger on fire is meant to be a werewolf? Another, Sophronia could swear, was a robin in a bowler. What, she wondered, is dangerous about a robin in a bowler?


They climbed down a small flight of stairs out onto an internal balcony that overlooked the boiler room. It was like being in a box at the theater. From that vantage, Sophronia and Vieve could see the entirety of the boiler room spread out below them: the four huge boilers with orange mouths agape, the mountain of coal over to one side, and smaller piles near the boilers. There were giant pumps and pistons, and rotary gears and belts, some cycling round, others moving up and down, and some utterly still. Lit by the flickering glow of the boilers, the colossal machinery glowed. Even all the coal dust and steam in the air had not dulled the shine. Sophronia wondered if they polished the metal regularly. Threading through and around and within the machines were the sooties, like ants. The larger forms of the greasers, mechanics, and firemen stood as points of stillness within this movement; fulcrums to which the sooties would periodically gather for instructions, as if those selfsame ants had discovered a nice crumb of cheese.


“Impressive, from this angle,” said Sophronia.


“Beautiful.” Vieve’s eyes gleamed. “Someday I want a whole massive laboratory exactly like this all to myself.”


“Oh?”


“I shall name it my contrivance chamber.” She had clearly given this a great deal of thought.


“Excellent name. Perhaps we should move on before we’re noticed by an engineer?”


“Well put.” Vieve led Sophronia over to a set of steep stairs that spiraled to the boiler room floor. Vieve scuttled down. Sophronia, who was in a dark blue visiting dress with multiple petticoats, followed as nimbly as those petticoats would allow.


Vieve knew the way once they got down. She moved with purpose through the machines and around the coal heaps, in easy avoidance of greasers, sliding in and out of the sooties as if she were one. With her cap pulled low and her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her jodhpurs, she looked like a sootie, only shrunken and a little less dirty.


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