Etiquette & Espionage / Page 25

Page 25



“Girls, yes; boys, no. They are much more forthright.”


“Have you heard of the Pistons?”


“Yes; how did you…?”


Sophronia shrugged. “I’m learning my lessons at this school.”


“Pistons is some kind of Bunson’s school club, I gather. Lord Dingleproops is a member.”


“Is he indeed?”


“Yes, an engineering concentration. They put smudges of coal about their eyes. Very dark and brooding.”


“How sootie of them.”


Monique, whose own conversation had paused and who had taken to listening in on theirs, seemed unable to help interjecting at this juncture. “Sophronia, don’t even say such a thing! Imagine comparing highborn lords to, well, the lowest of the low. Really.”


“Sooties aren’t as bad as all that,” Sophronia protested, rather more loudly than she ought.


Preshea, Monique, and Agatha all stared at her in dumbfounded horror.


Sophronia was truculent. “They can hardly be blamed for their station!”


Monique said with confidence, “Yes, they most certainly can!”


“Oh, come now, the poor sooties only some require social reform and a little charitable assistance with their wardrobes,” said Dimity staunchly, no doubt thinking she was supporting Sophronia’s unusually progressive social stance.


Sophronia closed her eyes in horror at the very idea of Dimity trying to reform Soap. Or worse, taking him on as a charity case.


A loud knock sounded on their door.


Lady Linette’s voice said, “Gas out soon, ladies. You need your beauty rest. Well, most of you do, and there’s no cause to risk any of the others.”


“Yes, Lady Linette,” replied all the girls in singsong unison.


Lady Linette moved on without coming inside. It was school policy for the students not to be disturbed unduly during their spare time. Even children, Lady Linette said, must be allowed some time to conspire together.


Dimity leaned in as close to Sophronia as possible and whispered, “Why are you defending sooties? How do you even know them with any intimacy?”


“Information gathering, Dimity, remember? It’s what we do now.”


“Yes, but sooties? They can hardly be of any use. They live in the boiler room.”


Sophronia came up with her best excuse. “I need to feed Bumbersnoot, don’t I?”


Dimity blinked at her in silence, the concept of befriending sooties as alien to her as having to choose between two necklaces. “If you say so. Come on, let’s go to bed.”


But before they could leave the sitting room, another knock sounded, startling the girls. This was not part of their normal routine.


A male voice said, through the door, “Miss Temminnick, a word, if you would be so kind, whot?”


Preshea let out a little gasp and dove for her room, she being still in her underthings.


Sophronia glanced about. “Agatha, pick your gloves up off the floor. Dimity, you aren’t wearing shoes.” Once the others were back in reasonable order, Sophronia opened the door.


“How can I help you, Professor Braithwope?”


The vampire was looking once more like his dandy self: no greatcoat. “Ah, good, you are not abed yet. Take a little walk with me, if you would, Miss Temminnick?”


Sophronia curtsied and reached for her wrap from a nearby hat stand. The other girls watched in dumb silence. Sophronia gave them all a quelling look and followed the vampire.


As she was in the company of a professor, none of the mechanicals were aggravated by Sophronia roaming the ship after hours. Professor Braithwope led her up and out onto a small balcony that bridged the gap between the middle and forward sections. They stood staring out at the clouds and the moon setting over the moor.


Finally Sophronia said, “Sir?”


“You understand, Miss Temminnick, that I am a vampire.”


“Yes, sir, I had noticed the fangs.”


“Don’t be pert, young lady.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Yet I am tethered to this roaming ship far from all meaningful society.”


“Yes, sir. But you did go down to the ground to fight Captain Niall.”


“I am not a vampire queen to have so short a tether as all that.”


“I see, sir.” Although she didn’t. Why did that make him defensive?


“Tonight when you came to my room…”


Sophronia cocked her head, remembering what must have been blood around his mouth. “I didn’t hear or see anything. Although I have been wondering, sir, how you eat? Or should I say who?”


The vampire said nothing.


Have I revealed that I saw too much? Quietly Sophronia added, “And the soot on my dress, sir?”


“I didn’t see anything.” Professor Braithwope smiled down at her, showing a small hint of fang.


Sophronia grinned back. “I’m glad we understand each other, sir.”


The vampire looked out into the night. “This is the right finishing school for you, isn’t it, whot?”


“Yes, sir, I think it might very well be.”


“A piece of advice, Miss Temminnick?”


“Sir?”


“It is a great skill to have friends in low places. They, too, have things to teach you.”


“Now, sir, I thought you didn’t see any soot.”


Professor Braithwope laughed. “Good night, Miss Temminnick. I trust you can make your own way back to your room without causing an alarm? It seems to be a particular skill of yours.”


“Actually, sir, I could use your escort tonight.”


“Whot, whot? Interesting.”


“Even a vampire can be surprised on occasion?”


“Miss Temminnick, why do you think I became a teacher?”


They turned together and walked back toward the students’ residential section.


Sophronia thought hard about what it must be like to live forever. I suppose one would get bored easily. That’s one thing about Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. So far, it’s not been remotely dull. What she said was, “It can’t be all that bad, being away from cities. You’re one of the few vampires who gets to travel.”


“So long as we don’t go too high.”


“Really?”


“Whot, whot, there goes that curious mind of yours, Miss Temminnick. I think perhaps there has been enough of that, for the time being.”


They arrived back at her door.


“Good night, Miss Temminnick.”


“Good night, Professor.”


School life carried on course after that, as did the school itself, except that it did so in the gray, as Lady Linette called it. It turned out mail had been retrieved from Swiffle-On-Exe when they stopped over for the play. Sophronia’s loot was comprised of a package of clothing, including her winter cape, and one uninformative letter from her mother. They were told they could not send replies. Swiffle-on-Exe was already leagues behind them. The school’s deadline from the flywaymen had been exceeded and they were now on the run and in hiding.


The great airship floated deep into the gray of the wild moor. The mists were more common and longer lasting now that autumn was upon them. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality did not go low; lessons with Captain Niall were canceled for the time being. They had enough fuel and supplies for a good, long stint away from civilization. So they floated, shrouded by cool, wet gray, hidden from friends and enemies alike—for three whole months.


At about a month in, Sophronia overheard Monique complaining to Preshea about the ban on outside communication. Clearly the restrictions had finally gotten to her, and she hadn’t managed to get her message out on the night Sophronia, Soap, and Vieve had infiltrated Bunson’s.


“I cannot believe they won’t let me—me!—send a message.”


“They aren’t letting anyone, Monique. I heard Sophronia complaining about it only the other day.”


“But mine is terribly important.”


“Oh, really? Is it an order for next summer’s hats?”


“Oh, yes, of course. Something like.” Monique neatly avoided Preshea’s interest. “Gloves and a few fans as well.”


Sophronia discussed the conversation with Dimity later that evening.


“I really do think that Monique was hoping to get information to someone about where she hid the prototype. Do you suppose the teachers actually imprisoned her on the evening of the theater jaunt in an effort to prevent this from happening? I mean to say, I saw neither hide nor hair of her all evening.”


Dimity’s round porcelain face scrunched up in suspicion. “That’s a terribly medieval approach. I can’t imagine they’d be that strict with her.”


Sophronia lay back. “Dimity, we are missing something.”


“On board? Decent cheese,” suggested Dimity.


“No, I mean, if Monique hid it somewhere, why did we never see her do it? Is it still in the carriage, do you think? Were you ever separated from her during the beginning of the journey?”


“Only when she went to interview you.”


“Of course! Dimity, you’re brilliant!”


“I am?”


“While I was packing. She asked Mumsy if she might take a turn about the grounds. The prototype must be hidden at my house!”


“Goodness gracious, I suppose you’re right. Oh, Sophronia, what if the flywaymen figure that out? Or what if Monique is working for someone else even more sinister, and they figure that out?”


Sophronia’s stomach twisted in panic. “Then my family might be in danger. I must get a message to them somehow!”


Of course, Sophronia could no more send out a letter than Monique could. She and Dimity even made an abortive attempt at pigeon training. The pigeon was not interested. Sophronia began to see the appeal behind the transmission machine and the prototype. She tried to talk herself down. I am, after all, the only one who knows Monique was alone for that small space of time. And even if the flywaymen do figure it out, they will, hopefully, use nonviolent stealth to retrieve the prototype, and leave my parents and siblings alone.


ON INTERMINGLING THE CLASSES


Professor Braithwope took on some of their weapons training, giving them tips on how to wield a cane versus a parasol versus an umbrella, and the correct application of each to the skull or posterior as occasion demanded. Like Captain Niall, he seemed particularly pleased with Sidheag’s abilities in this arena.


“Some slight advantage to being raised by soldiers.” After lessons, Sidheag was self-effacing about the extra attention.


“So sad there don’t appear to be any other advantages.” Monique sniffed.


Sidheag’s shoulders slumped.


Sophronia and Dimity exchanged a look and caught up to the other girl, one on each side.


“Don’t let Monique bother you. You know how she gets,” said Sophronia sympathetically.


Dimity was more direct. “She’s a pollock.”


Sidheag looked back and forth between the two of them. Then she shrugged. “I don’t intend to be here much longer, regardless. She may do as she pleases.”


Sophronia decided at that juncture that she’d had enough of Sidheag’s recalcitrant nature. She’d put up with it for months. Preshea and Agatha were hopeless. But Sidheag had the makings of a decent friend if she would only open up a bit. Sophronia grabbed the taller girl by the arm and steered her out onto a balcony, rather than to their next lesson.


“What are you—?” The Scotswoman was clearly startled.


So was Dimity, who, with a little eep! noise, followed.


Sophronia braced herself, put her hands on her hips, and faced Lady Kingair. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s did not encourage unequivocal confrontation under any circumstances. But Sophronia had a feeling that it was necessary with Sidheag.


“You must stop being so afraid of us,” she said.


Of all the things Sidheag had been expecting, this was clearly not one of them. The taller girl actually sputtered. Finally she managed, “Afraid? Afraid!”


“Sophronia, what are you doing?” hissed Dimity, backing away from both girls.


“Sidheag, whether you like it or not, you are stuck here for years. Slouching about like a grump won’t get you anywhere. You might as well learn what is being taught and attempt to get along with some of us.”


“It’s all chattering behind one another’s backs. I dinna ken how females manage it.”


Dimity said, timidly, “Like it or not, Sidheag, you are actually a girl.”


“For my sins.”


Sophronia had an idea. Perhaps Sidheag simply wants to be included in something. With a guilty look at Dimity, she asked, “How good are you at climbing, Lady Kingair?”


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