Etiquette & Espionage / Page 22

Page 22

The boy looked up, caught sight of them lurking in the shadowed hallway, let out a shriek of surprise, and dropped his book. The door slammed closed behind him and all was once more dark.


Who’s that?” came a querulous voice into the darkness. “I know you’re there; show yourselves!”

Sophronia stepped forward. “Buck up, Pillover. It’s only me.”

Pillover squinted. “Miss Sophronia? What are you doing here? How’d you get in? Is that my sister with you?”

Sophronia dragged a reluctant Vieve and Soap forward. “No, but I do have company. Pillover, may I introduce Genevieve Lefoux and Phineas B. Crow? Vieve, Soap, this is Pillover Plumleigh-Teignmott, Miss Dimity’s brother.”

Pillover gave his two new acquaintances a very haughty look. “Riffraff?”

“Only on the surface. They’re both good eggs. Vieve here is an intellectual, and Soap’s, erm”—she paused, struggling—“an engineer of a kind,” she managed to come up with.

Soap gave a little snort, but Vieve looked childishly delighted to be described as academic in any way.

Pillover looked Vieve over and seemed to accept her title readily enough for all that she was nine. Then he turned to look up at Soap, illuminated by a bit of moonlight. “But Miss Sophronia, he’s colored!”

Sophronia tilted her head and contemplated Soap as though she had never noticed his skin tone before. “It’s irrelevant. Or do I mean irreverent?”

“It is?” Pillover arched one brown.

Sophronia nodded firmly. “Yes.”

Pillover bent and picked up his book. “If you say so.”

“Pillover, what are you doing here, instead of at the theater?”

The boy shrugged. “I’m tired of dealing with Pistons. Oily pains, the lot of them.”

“Pistons?” He can’t possibly mean roving bits of steam engines, can he?

Soap sidled in. “Miss Sophronia, we don’t have much time.”

“Oh, of course. Want to come, Pillover? We’re going to the roof to look at a transmitter.”

“Rather!” Pillover’s normally dour face brightened at the idea.

So the infiltration party increased to four, and they trotted onward.

“Is he going to be useful?” Soap asked Sophronia.

“You never know,” replied Sophronia wisely. She turned to their new companion. “So, these Pistons?”

“Oh, they think they are something quite exclusive, skulking about in riding boots, and wearing black shirtwaists, and being all gloomy about the state of the Empire. They sew cogs on the breasts of their jackets in a non-useful manner. Really it’s only an excuse to push everyone else around. And no one does anything about them, because half of them are supposedly the sons of Picklemen. I think it’s all faked, but they’ve got most of the school stitched up. You’d think we were here to learn, but apparently not.”

Sophronia was awed by Pillover’s chatter. “Oh, I know what you mean. We’ve got Monique de Pelouse living with us.”

Pillover wrinkled his nose. “Must be quite the lark.”

“Indeed. She’s already tattled me out.”


“Oh, yes.”

“And how’s my pestilence of a sister settling?”

“Better than I. Although she fainted again.”



“From what I hear of your school, that’s to be expected.”

“We had lessons in knife-fighting from a werewolf.”

“Werewolf? Bully! We don’t have any supernaturals here. It’s quite a dearth in the deanship if you ask me. Any reputable school ought to have at least one vampire professor. Eton has three. You lot are only girls, and you’ve a vampire and a werewolf. Jolly unfair, that’s what I call it.”

By this time they had climbed up several flights of stairs, getting ever closer to the roof, when they came face-to-face with a maid mechanical. Instantly, Vieve and Soap stepped in front of Sophronia and began bouncing about.

“What are you doing?” Pillover demanded.

“Keeping it from deducing that I’m a girl,” explained Sophronia.

“Oh, of course, I forgot.” After a hesitation, Pillover too began an awkward gyration. They all looked so ridiculous that Sophronia had to suppress a giggle. She managed to slip past the distracted maid and thought about reminding Vieve of her obstructor, but it was so much fun watching them dance she decided not to.

They climbed the last set of stairs up into one of the many turrets, only to be faced with a locked door. Sophronia rattled the handle hopefully. Nothing.

She looked around. “Anyone know how to pick a lock?”

“Some intelligencer you are,” complained Pillover.

“I’ve only been there a month! I can curtsy now, and my eyelash fluttering is practically unparalleled.”

“Well, why not flutter your way into the locked room, then?”

Sophronia ignored this and looked at Vieve hopefully. “Inventions?”

Vieve shook her head.

“Stand aside, ladies,” said Soap gallantly. “I shall rescue you.”

Pillover gave Soap a disgusted look at being included with the “ladies,” but made room for him to approach the door.

The tall sootie pulled a tiny leather pouch from some mysterious inside pocket and unrolled it to reveal a set of variously sized metal rods. He examined the lock closely and then selected one of the rods. He stuck this into the keyhole, and after a good deal of fiddling, there came a click.

Before they could push inside, Pillover said, “Careful! It might be booby-trapped.”

Everyone stopped and looked at him.

“Evil genius training school, remember? I’d booby-trap it, if I were them, and I’m only discourteous genius level.”

Sophronia stepped forward. “This was my idea. I’ll do it.”

Acting on instinct—they had yet to cover contravention of houses, house parties, and seating arrangements—Sophronia opened the door a tiny fraction and ran her finger slowly down the crack. A handbreadth up from the ground, she encountered a taut piece of twine. She twisted her fingers around the door, following the string, feeling along the jamb for a tie point. She found it with some relief, as the trap would be impossible to thwart without knowing which end activated it.

She pulled out her sewing scissors, and keeping the twine taut with one hand, cut it with the other. Is it activated by additional tension from the door opening, or a release in tension when the string snaps? she wondered. She put her sewing scissors back in her pinafore and pulled out a hair ribbon. She had to give her teachers credit: they were right to insist all students carry scissors, handkerchiefs, perfume, and hair ribbons at all times. At some point she’d learn why they also required a red lace doily and a lemon.

She tied the hair ribbon carefully to the end of the twine and then, keeping the tension as steady as possible, pushed open the door, belaying the hair ribbon at the same time.

The boys and Vieve watched all of this in impressed silence.

Finally, Pillover said, “You are getting a good education!”

I suppose I am. By that time Sophronia was all the way inside the room, hand extended, twine and ribbon stretching toward a crouched toadlike device to the right, slightly behind the door.

Vieve bustled over to it. “Compressed tension vent with boiled beet projectiles. Ingenious! Not dangerous, but it would cause quite the mess and definitely identify any intruders. Just a moment; let me disarm the catapults.”

The young girl made a few adjustments. There was a sad squelching noise, and the pull against Sophronia’s hair ribbon relaxed. She untied it from the twine and put it back into her pinafore. This is fun!

The room in which they found themselves was built of gray stone and was bare of all furniture, even chairs. There were only the trap and a series of telescopes and other devices set to look up at the skies. These were spaced out, with one to each of the many slotted windows, none of which had glass. The place felt very old, as if they had stepped into some fairy tale. Rapunzel, perhaps? If Rapunzel were a particular fan of astral observation.

One of the windows was bare of devices, and outside it, someone had built an unstable-looking balcony.

“There we are,” said Vieve proudly.

They all went over to the window and looked.

“Rickety,” pronounced Pillover.

Sophronia pointed to a lever and pulley system on one side. “I think it raises and lowers, like a dumbwaiter. Follow me.” She climbed out onto the platform.

“This is not a good idea,” Pillover said, following her.

Soap only grinned and bounced after. Vieve came last and immediately went over to examine the pulleys.

“Looks sound to me,” she pronounced.

Well, Vieve hasn’t led us astray so far, thought Sophronia. “Shall we?”

Vieve turned a little crank. Nothing happened.

“You aren’t strong enough,” accused Soap.

Vieve looked frustrated and not a little offended. “Actually, I don’t have enough mass. Being young is so terribly inconvenient!”

“On the bright side, you’re only nominally young,” consoled Sophronia. “You don’t act your age at all.”

Vieve blushed crimson in delight. “Oh, why, thank you very much!”

Soap went over to help her man the lever. He looked gangly, but with all the coal he had to move every day, Sophronia suspected him of being quite strong. So he proved.

The contraption raised them up to the roof, where they disembarked to finally face the infamous communication machine. It looked like a deformed cross between a potting shed and a portmanteau.

“That’s it?”

“I guess so.”

“It looks like two privies,” objected Soap.

Sophronia elbowed him. “Don’t be crass.”

“Well, it does!”

They made their way over to the structure. It looked, if possible, even more odd up close, perched in embarrassed shabbiness atop the turret, which was all ancient stone and crenellated edges. They opened the door. The shed was divided into two human-sized compartments, each filled to bursting with a peculiar assortment of tangled machinery. There were tubes and dials, and what looked to be glass boxes filled with black sand, and here and there blank cradles in obvious want of further enhancements.

Vieve immediately dropped down and crawled in, squirming her small form under various compartments to examine the undersides and any attachment points.

Pillover looked around in a lackluster manner, poked at a few things, and then mooched away. Sophronia and Soap were more entertained by watching Vieve’s antics than by the communication machine itself, which was utterly incomprehensible to both of them.

“Well, I’m glad we came all this way for this,” said Soap eventually.

“I did think it might give us some kind of indication as to the nature of the prototype, and thus where Monique might have stashed it.” Sophronia’s tone was apologetic. It seemed like a wasted trip.

Vieve reemerged at that juncture, very animated. “This is amazing! This isn’t like that benighted telegraph invention. I don’t think it requires any kind of long-distance wiring!”

“Then how could it possibly communicate from point to point?” Sophronia’s forehead crinkled.

“It looks like there might be an aether conductor in there!” Vieve came over, wiping her small hands on her jodhpurs, leaving greasy black streaks.

Sophronia frowned, wishing she’d read more on the atmospheres. “Do you think they might be trying to bounce directed messages through the aethersphere?”

“It would explain why it has to be on the roof—closer to the aether.” Vieve dimpled at her.

“And why they would involve our school. If necessary, we could lift the whole thing right up inside the aether,” added Sophronia.

Vieve’s eyes glowed. “Can you imagine, point-to-point messaging, long distances? It would revolutionize the whole world.”

Soap and Sophronia exchanged looks. Sophronia was thinking about the fact that she’d had no letters from her family on board, nor had she been able to write any. Theoretically, the students should have been asked for letters before arriving in Swiffle-on-Exe. But nothing had been said on the subject, and Sophronia was pretty certain her punishment, like Monique’s, probably extended to communication off-ship. She wondered if Pillover had received anything since she saw him last. I suppose it’s possible parents simply ship us away and then forget about us.

Soap was probably thinking about the nefarious applications for a communication device. Vieve, a true scientist, saw only the upside of any contraption. Sophronia could imagine why flywaymen might want access.

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