Etiquette & Espionage / Page 23

Page 23



Sophronia said, “So we are thinking that the missing prototype must be a valve that somehow facilitates… bouncing?”


Vieve nodded. “Which explains the dodechedron shape you said you saw. Multifaceted for multiple directions and to sympathize with the aetheric humors, which we have always hypothesized are trapezoidal.”


Sophronia looked at Soap and Pillover. “You understand any of that?”


Soap shook his head.


Pillover shrugged.


Sophronia said, “Well, I understand I can clean that glove of mine now.”


“Come again?” Pillover looked at her in confusion.


“Long story, you were in it, and it was all for naught.”


“Sounds exciting.”


“Only if you’re interested in the postal services.”


Pillover looked as though he might be, but Sophronia was starting to worry about the time.


Vieve was practically vibrating. “This is so exciting!”


“Yes, well, that said, we had better return to the airship, now that we have a bit of a better idea what’s going on.”


“Yes, I think we better had,” Soap agreed. He was looking at the position of the moon, clearly concerned.


They made their way safely back through Bunson’s—well, mostly.


About halfway down, they rounded a corner and ran smack-dab into a maid mechanical. Literally. Sophronia hit up against her with an oof and stumbled backward, banging into Pillover and stepping on Soap’s foot. This did not give them enough time to do the little dance of obscurity, nor for Vieve to use her obstructor. The maid identified Sophronia as female and instantly sounded the alarm—a high-pitched whistle. This, in turn, triggered a schoolwide alert.


Unlike the bells of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, Bunson’s alarm seemed to be based on the noise made by a wobbling saw, only louder. It was an amusing wob-woob that vibrated through the entire hodgepodge building. The hallways were instantly filled with mechanicals, and one or two humans as well. Sophronia leapt for a nearby door, opened it, and dove inside. The other three crowded after, only to find they had trapped themselves in a broom closet with no possible avenue of escape.


“Simply marvelous. What do we do now?” wondered Pillover.


“Quiet,” said Sophronia.


He ignored her, continuing gloomily, “We’re damned. I’ll be turned away, having achieved only discourteous. What will father say? No Plumleigh-Teignmott has ever been lower than spiteful genius. The family honor is at stake.”


“What’re you still larking with us for?” Soap wanted to know. “You’re allowed to roam free, remember?”


“Oh, good point.” Pillover straightened out of his slouch and made to leave the closet.


Sophronia grabbed his arm. “You can’t leave now! You’ll give away our hiding place.”


“It’s only a matter of time.” Pillover was unsympathetic. “They’ll do a schoolwide sweep.” Then he pointed to a nearby broom sharing the closet with them. “Sweep. Ha.”


“Delightful. Now we’re trapped in a closet with puns.” Sophronia gave him a dirty look. “Wait, of course—you are meant to be here. Perfect! Everyone turn away from me for a moment.”


The three others looked at her in confusion.


“Simply do as I ask, please?”


Despite being crowded into the closet, the other three all managed to turn their backs on her.


Sophronia shimmied out of one of her two petticoats. “All decent.”


They turned back around.


She handed the undergarment to Pillover.


“Ugh. What’s this for?”


“If you put it on and go out there, they will think it was all a false alarm.”


“Absolutely not!”


“Oh, come on, Pill, please?” Sophronia tried batting her eyelashes.


Pillover appeared to be immune to eyelashes. “The indignity of it!”


“We could come up with a reasonable explanation for your wearing it. Would that help?” wheedled Sophronia.


“Justification for my trotting around wearing lady’s undergarments? I hardly see how.”


Soap’s eyes were sparkling with amusement, and Vieve was dimpling openly at the very idea of Pillover in a skirt. Pillover stood holding the petticoat between thumb and forefinger as if it were contaminated with some dreaded chemical.


“Go on, pull it on over your clothes and go out there,” Sophronia urged.


“You could say you were running some experiment dangerous to your nether regions,” suggested Vieve.


“You could say you were testing the response time of the maid mechanicals,” suggested Sophronia.


“You could say you like lady’s undergarments,” suggested Soap.


“I’m doomed.” Pillover rolled his eyes and flapped the petticoat.


“Oh, go on, Pill,” Sophronia pushed.


Pillover, grumbling, pulled the petticoat on and all the way up to his armpits, as it was far too long for him. Sophronia handed him her hair ribbon to use as a belt. Soap was clearly holding in laughter. Pillover took a deep breath and straightened upright with great dignity and aplomb.


Sophronia listened at the door, hand up to keep the others quiet. Then, when there seemed to be a lull in the activities outside in the corridor, quick as she could, she opened the door, dragged Pillover forward, and thrust him out, slamming the door closed behind him.


The rumbling in the hallway escalated for a minute and then quieted. Into the silence a deep voice boomed out, “Pillover Thaddeus Plumleigh-Teignmott, what are you wearing?”


They heard Pillover reply querulously, “A petticoat, Headmaster.”


“So I see. You had better have an excellently malevolent explanation as to why.”


“Well, you see, sir,” Pillover started to say, then, “Ouch. Please, sir, not the ear.”


“Come with me!”


“Yes, sir.”


A clatter of mechanicals on rails and the thud of footsteps followed, leaving the hallway in silence.


“What do you know?” whispered Soap at long last. “He was useful.”


After that, they managed to escape Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique without further incident. Running up the goat path, Sophronia turned back to look at it only once. She thought that the school looked like an ill-decorated, oversized mangle of chess pieces.


“Our academy is much nicer,” she asserted between breaths as they jogged along. The moor mists had not arisen, and the great caterpillar of multiple dirigibles pressed together that was Mademoiselle Geraldine’s floated gamely before them, lit by a picturesque golden moon.


“You believe so?” Vieve tilted her head in the manner of one who rarely considered the aesthetics of buildings. “Well, ours floats.”


“I mean, it’s less cobbled together.”


Vieve said, “I always thought it had a rather hatlike aspect—like a great floating turban.”


Sophronia tilted her head, but did not quite see it.


They raced on.


Sophronia was worried. “Do you think we made our window?”


Soap nodded. “Yes, but there might be another problem.” He pointed over at a distant hill on their right. There, under the light of the moon, was the shadowy form of a wolf. Wearing a top hat.


“Is that who I think it is?” Sophronia hoped despite herself that it might be some kind of very large dog.


“Know of any other wolves roaming the moors in evening dress?”


“He’s not supposed to be near civilization at the full moon!” Vieve objected.


“Guess someone made a mistake somewhere,” said Soap.


“This is not good,” Sophronia said, stating the obvious. The wolf’s muzzle was up and he was scenting the air. Almost as she spoke, his shaggy head turned in their direction.


“We’re closer to the school than he is,” Soap pointed out.


“Yes, but he’s supernatural,” said Vieve, who clearly had some experience in the matter of werewolves. Her little face, normally open and friendly, was pale with fear.


Sophronia took the lead. “Enough talk, everybody—run!” Hiking up her skirts, she suited her actions to her words, feeling no shame over the fact that she was down one petticoat and showing ankle to all the world.


Soap quickly outpaced her. His legs were longer, and he was unencumbered by skirts. When he reached the underside of the forward section he began frantically hopping about and gesticulating wildly. Only then did Sophronia realize that the rope ladder from the boiler room had yet to be dropped down.


She and Vieve came panting up. “Are we too early?”


“Possibly.”


Sophronia picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at the underside of the hull, close to where she thought the hatch might be. She missed completely; the ship was higher up than she thought. Soap and Vieve followed her lead. Vieve also missed, but Soap’s clod hit and spattered against the hatch.


Nothing happened. The werewolf had nearly reached their hill.


At the last possible moment, the hatch popped open and the rope ladder dropped.


“Soap, you go first, you’re fastest.”


“But Miss Sophronia, you’re a lady. Ladies always go first!”


Sophronia threw her shoulders back and looked him in the eye. “I am trained for this.” She wasn’t yet, but it was worth the lie. “Don’t contest a direct order during an active intelligencer undertaking!”


Soap frowned, but he clearly hated to argue with a lady. Least of all Sophronia. He began climbing up.


“Vieve, you next.”


“But—”


“Now!”


Vieve began climbing.


Sophronia started up last, and just as she did so, she snuck one last look at the werewolf.


With a vicious growl, he was upon her.


For the second time that night, Sophronia was grateful to have worn proper dress. Captain Niall dove for her in a tremendous leap of the kind described in countless gothic novels. His jaws were open, his mouth an angry cavern of teeth and dripping saliva, and when he struck he bit down hard, ruthlessly savaging her… other petticoat.


Sophronia screamed and kicked out.


The werewolf’s teeth were stuck in the bottom reinforced hem. This was her strongest-starched underskirt, the kind designed to support a gown in a full and feminine pouf.


Sophronia kicked again and her foot struck the beast’s sensitive nose.


Captain Niall shook his huge, shaggy head, partly in pain and partly to get loose from the petticoat. His top hat wiggled back and forth hypnotically. The combined weight and motion dragged the undergarment off Sophronia. Both the werewolf and the petticoat fell to the ground. Sophronia, remembering that amazingly high leap the captain had performed in order to get them up on board the ship originally, began climbing as fast as she possibly could.


Sophronia’s under-petticoat was of good-quality horsehair, thick and very durable. It should be; it was a hand-me-down that had survived three sisters before her.


But the werewolf, with supernatural strength, tore though the thick fabric as if it were fine muslin. Captain Niall wrestled with the garment briefly before shaking himself loose from the tatters. He crouched down and leapt for Sophronia again.


Sophronia angled her bottom around and swung the rope ladder to one side, avoiding the werewolf by the narrowest of margins.


“Captain Niall,” she said between pants, “I liked you very much better when you weren’t trying to kill me!”


The werewolf landed, shook his head, and whined as from the hatch above someone pelted him with a handful of coal. One particularly large lump hit his already-abused nose.


He tilted his head back and howled.


Sophronia attained the safety of the hatch. Multiple soot-covered hands reached for her and dragged her inside. Meanwhile, Soap threw another handful of coal down at the werewolf. Next to him, a few of the larger sooties stood grimly clutching steel stoking poles, ready to fend off the beast if necessary.


There was no need, for as soon as Sophronia tumbled inside they hauled the rope ladder up after her and slammed the hatch closed. The wolf jumped up, crashing hard into the underside of the airship. Had the hull’s wooden beams not been reinforced with iron bracings, Sophronia was certain they would have shattered.


“What does he think he can do?” wondered Vieve, while Sophronia recovered her breath and brushed herself off.


“I don’t think he’s thinking at all,” replied Sophronia, rising from her hands and knees to her feet, panting and shaking. That was the werewolf of her childhood nightmares. “Someone ought to lock him up! He’s dangerous,” she said finally, when she felt her voice wouldn’t shake.


“And he’s ruined your other petticoat.”


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