Etiquette & Espionage / Page 26

Page 26



Sidheag was startled by the change of topic. “Do ya ken that’s what I mean? Why ask me an obscure question? Why not tell me forthright what you think we should do and why it might help?”


Sophronia wondered, what with Vieve skulking about, how she ended up at a finishing school surrounded by girls who would rather be boys. Well, except Dimity, of course.


Dimity said, even though the conversation had already moved on, “What’s wrong with liking girly things? I like petticoats and dancing and perfume and hats and brooches and necklaces and—” Her eyes glazed over slightly as she contemplated sparkles.


She seemed likely to continue in this vein for some time, so Sophronia interrupted her. “I have someone I think you should meet, Sidheag. By way of a coal supplier.”


Dimity blinked. “How could coal possibly help, Sophronia? Are you cracked?”


“Have faith, Dimity. Well, Sidheag, can you climb?”


“Of course.”


“Tonight, then?”


Which was how Sophronia ended up introducing Lady Kingair to a group of sooties.


“Good evening, miss!” Soap grinned at her as she climbed up through the hatch. She’d tried to visit once every other week ever since the school had gone to gray. Soap, as a result, was only becoming more and more familiar, and more and more captivating. Sophronia would rather she didn’t enjoy his company so much—he was so very dirty, and so very unsuitable, and so very black, and so very boy, but there it was: liking him couldn’t be helped.


“Good evening, Soap, how’s the boiler room treating you?”


“Topping, miss, topping! You’ve brought a friend. You’ve never brought a friend afore now. I figured you didn’t have any. Save us, a’course.” He chuckled.


“This here is Miss Maccon. Sidheag, this is Soap, and these are the sooties.” Sophronia made a wide gesture to include both the small collective hovering around Soap and the others scurrying back and forth behind him. She didn’t give out Sidheag’s title, afraid Soap and the others might be cowed by rank.


Sidheag didn’t object to the demotion. She’d climbed up through the hatch and inside and was looking around with eyes as big as saucers. “What is this place?”


“Boiler room, miss. Ain’t it grand? Lifeblood of the ship down ’ere. How-d’ye-do? I’m Phineas B. Crow. But most calls me Soap.”


Sidheag grinned at him. A real grin, with no caution or stiffness to it. That’s more like it, thought Sophronia.


While Soap pointed out the wonders of the boiler room to their new visitor with great pride, Sophronia turned to the other sooties. She emptied her pockets of the treats and nibbles she’d filched at high tea the day before, passing them out to the waiting group. It had taken her a few visits to realize the sooties were not, in fact, fed so well as the students, instead subsisting mainly on porridge, bread, and stew.


She pretended to be fully absorbed in distributing tiny lemon tarts so that Soap could work his inexplicable charm on Sidheag. No one could help but like Soap. Anyone not immediately set against him for the color of his skin or his station in life was bound to enjoy his company. And Sidheag might be many things, but Sophronia didn’t think her particularly bigoted.


The tarts were Dimity’s idea of reform. Sophronia had agreed to distribute them to the sooties so long as Dimity agreed not to try anything else altruistic. Nevertheless, Dimity had watched her creep out that night with an expression that was part fear and part jealousy. “Why take Sidheag, but not me?”


“But Dimity, you can’t climb.”


“I could try!”


“And you don’t like getting dirty.”


“I could wear my oldest dress.”


“And you aren’t interested in boiler rooms.”


“But they clearly need my help! If I am to be a proper lady I must practice charitable endeavors as soon as possible. I want to be good.”


“Be sensible instead!”


Dimity had only pouted.


So Sophronia was stuck passing out lemon tarts. She was paying so little attention to Sidheag and Soap that when the scuffle started, it took her a moment to react. They were fighting! Oh, no, did I misjudge Sidheag?


But a quick observation proved the fight was not with any real intent.


Sidheag and Soap were squared off, fencing, each with a stoking poll and a fierce expression. They were almost matched to each other by height, and they were also causing a stir of excitement. The sooties about them began to place bets, wagering the lemon tarts Sophronia had taken such care to distribute fairly.


“What are you two up to?”


“This is brilliant, Sophronia. Did you know this boy knows proper streetside fisticuffs?” Sidheag’s dour face was animated with delight.


“Does he?” Streetside, but he lives in the air?


“Dirty fighting. It’s capital! Look at this!”


Soap ducked in under Sidheag’s swing and kicked her ankle.


Sophronia was shocked. One is not meant to ever kick during a fight! It isn’t gentlemanly, isn’t proper, isn’t done! “Soap, that’s unscrupulous!”


Soap stopped and turned to grin at her. “Yes, miss, but it works.”


While he was distracted, Sidheag poked him in the side with her pole.


Soap let out a woof and doubled over.


Sidheag came up next to him, and after he managed to straighten, threw a companionable arm around his soot-covered shoulders. She was more relaxed than Sophronia had ever seen her. “It makes sense. Why should we fight like gentlemen? After all, as you keep reminding me, Sophronia, we aren’t gentlemen. We aren’t even soldiers. We’re supposed to be intelligencers. We should learn to fight dirty. We should learn to fight any way we can.”


Sophronia tried to put her doubts aside and be sensible. It was more difficult than she thought. “That’s reasonable, I suppose. But kicking?”


“Well, miss, not to be rude, but you ladies aren’t sooties or soldiers. You don’t have much in the way of arm muscle. You ought to be kicking more; you’ve got more power in your legs, don’t ya? And you’re usually wearing them sharp-toed boots.”


Sophronia nodded. “Good point. But we’re also wearing lots of skirts.”


“Could get special boots made with metal reinforcements and attachments,” said Sidheag.


“Sidheag Maccon, did I just hear you mention designing a fashion accessory?” Sophronia made her tone all-over appalled, but she was thinking, Vieve could do something along those lines.


Sidheag grinned. Another one of those genuine smiles that made her look, if not pretty, at least less plain. It crinkled up her remarkable caramel eyes and softened her normally harsh features. Sophronia, at that moment, decided that the idea to bring Sidheag among the sooties was a resounding success.


But then a looming shadow appeared above them and said, “What’s this, what’s this?”


“Greaser—scatter!” yelled Soap.


Sophronia and Sidheag did as directed, running hard alongside the sooties down and around the back of one of the coal piles and squeezing into a crevice.


Soap, who was a noble idiot, intercepted the greaser.


“He isn’t going to get booted off school grounds for this, is he?” Sophronia asked, her heart sinking.


“What, Soap? For stopping and engaging in some mock swordplay?” One of the other sooties scoffed.


“So long as they didn’t mark you ladies as Uptops, the most he’ll get is an ear-boxing,” added another.


“Greasers like him. He keeps us all in line, and he works harder than any two of us put together,” explained the first.


Sophronia and Sidheag both let out sighs of relief.


Sidheag turned to her. “This is fun!”


“Finishing school’s not all bad, now, is it?”


“It’s not fair. I’m your first friend here! Why is it you persist in skulking off with Sidheag all the time?” Dimity was clearly trying not to whine.


“I hardly persist; we only go off once a week or so.”


“And you two keep giggling together about things.”


“I do not giggle without purpose. Lady Linette says you should never misapply a giggle. And Sidheag never giggles at all.”


“Well, it’s definitely not fair.” Dimity was perched on the edge of her bed, looking down at her feet sadly.


“She’s been helping me with fighting techniques.”


“I could use extra fight training.”


“Dimity, you don’t even want to learn. You told me you decided to entirely give over that subject. That you really only wanted to be a lady.”


Dimity sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”


Bumbersnoot, who was snuffling around the bed frame looking optimistically for a stray lump of coal or perhaps a small spider he might incinerate, came waddling over.


Dimity patted him on the head, and he blew a little blast of smoke out one ear.


Sophronia nibbled a fingertip in thought. “I tell you what—how about you help me with etiquette in court and ball settings? You’re much better at remembering the order of precedence than I.”


Dimity brightened.


Which was how Dimity and Sophronia ended up doing extra practice in the evenings. After some initial reticence, Sidheag joined them. Dimity managed to recover from her jealousy and, as a result, attacked the Scottish girl with her customary rapid-chatter teasing, which prodded Sidheag out of her awkward ways. In exchange, Sidheag started showing Dimity some of the easier knife tricks. No blood, of course. Nothing further was said about mysterious late-night jaunts.


“I don’t feel like I’m really contributing to our little study group,” Sophronia said to Dimity one night before they went to sleep.


“Don’t be silly, Sophronia; you’re the best of any of us.”


Sophronia could feel herself blushing. “I’m not!”


“ ’Course you are. We simply haven’t covered your subject yet in classes.”


“Oh, really, and what’s that?”


“You see opportunities. And you learn things and combine them in ways the rest of us don’t.”


Sophronia contemplated this. “I do?”


“I wager you’ve made a million connections in that brain of yours that I’ve never even considered. You say things to teachers that I know you’ve never told me. You’ve gone places on this airship I don’t even know exist. Then again, you aren’t always the most ladylike about it.”


Sophronia remained silent.


“For example, your two best petticoats are missing. They vanished the night of the play.”


“You noticed that?” How embarrassing. If Dimity noticed my lack of proper foundation garments, why, anyone else might have as well—Monique, or Professor Braithwope!


“I always notice clothing. I can’t imagine you sat around all evening in this room alone that night, either.”


“But…!”


Dimity lay back on her pillow and sounded self-satisfied. “I know you think I’m only paying attention to the etiquette side of our training, but I can’t help picking up other stuff up along the way. I may want to be a lady, but I’m learning how to be an intelligencer whether I like it or not. And you are my closest friend.”


“So you spy on me?”


Sophronia could only just make out the movement of a shrug under Dimity’s covers. “I’m not Monique. I’m not going to use it against you.”


“She hasn’t done anything to me directly since she turned me in.”


“I know. Doesn’t that worry you?”


“Yes. I think she’s still trying to get a message off the ship. Luckily, she’s as stymied as I am.” Sophronia felt, rather fancifully, that they were lost forever, floating in the mist. Time had taken on an atmospheric quality.


“Do you think she knows that we know?”


“I certainly hope not.”


The two girls went silent.


Finally Sophronia said, “You really do care about clothing and fashion, don’t you, Dimity?”


“Very much. It’s important—even Lady Linette says it’s a method of manipulation. You can dictate what people think of you simply by wearing the right gloves, not to mention jewelry.”


Sophronia was lost in remembering that second flywaymen battle. “What would you say of a man who went floating in fine evening dress and a top hat with a green ribbon about it?”


“Run,” Dimity answered instantly. Her voice, normally full of bright fun and mockery, had taken on a completely sober tone.


“Why?”


“I don’t know about you, Sophronia, but I’m certainly not ready to meet a Pickleman face-to-face. Not yet.”


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