Etiquette & Espionage / Page 28

Page 28



Dimity chewed her bottom lip. “It’s possible. Not that you’d take her place, but that she might not make it through. I don’t mean to be unkind, but she really isn’t very good. She might be better off at a real finishing school, and even then… I mean to say, have you seen her? It’s not so much her figure as her confidence.” Dimity shook her curly head in sympathy. “If only her posture were improved.”


They heard a little gasp from the doorway and looked up to see Agatha’s round, crestfallen face as she ducked away.


“I thought you closed that!” Dimity said to Sophronia, horrified.


“I thought I did, too. Perhaps she’s not so bad an intelligencer as you thought.”


Dimity was clearly upset with herself. Dimity was many things, but no one would call her mean-spirited. “Should I go after her, do you think?”


Sophronia sighed. “Perhaps we both should.”


They went to knock on the other girl’s door. Sidheag opened it, wearing a sour expression. Well, more sour than usual. “She doesn’t want to talk to you.”


“We came to apologize.” Dimity looked hopeful.


“Well, it’s a bit late for that.” Sidheag crossed her arms over her bony chest and glared at them.


“Oh, don’t take that attitude with us, Sidheag Maccon. We know you’re not so bad as you make out.” Sophronia pushed past the taller girl and into the room. Dimity followed, shutting the door firmly behind them.


Agatha and Sidheag’s chamber was much the same in structure and layout as Sophronia and Dimity’s. Which is to say it was small, with two beds, two wardrobes, and a vanity with a wash basin, and not much else. It did not, however, have Dimity’s touch. Dimity’s touch in their sleeping chamber involved draping brightly colored silk scarves on all the surfaces and pinning sparkly glass brooches to them. Sophronia didn’t mind, although she did think it made the place look a little like an opera singer’s boudoir.


Dimity approached the bed where Agatha lay facedown in a hunch, head buried in her pillow. “I’m sorry, Agatha, I shouldn’t have said that.”


Agatha didn’t move.


Sophronia came over and said, “Couldn’t you let us help you, just a little bit? I mean, we are trying with Sidheag.”


Sidheag snorted.


“Well, we are. She helps us with boy-type stuff, and we coach her in how to be a girl.”


Sidheag snorted again.


Sophronia gave her a look. “Well, we do. You’re simply bad at it!”


Dimity patted Agatha on the back. “We could do it with you, too.”


Agatha sniffed and rolled over. Her face was, as Mademoiselle Geraldine had pointed out, very blotchy indeed. “But what can I exchange?” she asked shakily.


Sophronia and Dimity grappled for a reply.


Finally Sophronia said, “You’re good at sums and calculating household management. I heard Sister Mattie compliment you the other day. And we could all use help being more mild-mannered. You are particularly good at that.”


Dimity came in to assist. “Yes, I talk too much, and Sophronia is overly bold.”


“How kind of you to say, Dimity.” Sophronia raised her eyebrows.


“And of course Sidheag is perfectly hopeless,” added Dimity.


“Yes, thank you, Dimity.”


“Well, it’s true!” Dimity was truculent.


Agatha started to chuckle damply. “There you go, talking too much again, right, Dimity?”


“See, that’s the spirit!” said Sophronia.


KEEPING PROPER RECORDS AND HOW TO STEAL THEM


So their little private study parties of three became four. If Agatha observed Sophronia and Sidheag’s occasional midnight jaunts to the boiler room, there was one thing Agatha was really very good at, and that was holding her tongue. Their private club didn’t help modify Monique’s behavior, however. Later that week, a rumor sprouted up that Dimity had stepped out with Lord Dingleproops, alone and unchaperoned.


Dimity was absolutely crestfallen. “I never! I’m a good girl, much to Mummy’s disappointment. We always stayed in company. Besides, I don’t think he likes me in that way.”


Sophronia began pacing about the room. “Monique started the rumor, I know it. Something is going to have to be done about her.”


“I don’t think any of us are ready for a full-on covert reputation destruction. Monique has four extra years’ training. She may not be a natural intelligencer, but she certainly is a natural pain.” Dimity chewed her lip, still upset.


“She’s a natural cod-slinger, is what she is.” Sidheag had rather taken to Dimity. Dimity is like that; she wears you down eventually.


“Sidheag, language!” Dimity gasped, then she turned to Sophronia. “What do you suggest?”


“I don’t know yet, but it had better be good. And something where I don’t get caught or turned in.”


Dimity, who was on Sidheag’s bed, flipped over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. “You mean to say, where we won’t get caught.”


“We?”


“I’m going to help you,” said Dimity.


“Me, too,” insisted Sidheag.


“And me, though I probably won’t be much good,” said Agatha.


“And there’s Bumbersnoot—he’ll help,” added Dimity.


“Really? What’s Bumbersnoot’s difficulty with Monique?”


Dimity considered this seriously. “I don’t know, but I wager he has one. Oh, she dented him once. Didn’t she, Snooty darling?”


Sophronia took a deep breath. “We could go after the prototype. That would show them all. And she wouldn’t be able to pass it on to her employer, whoever that is.”


Sidheag and Agatha, who hadn’t really been involved in her covert investigations thus far, looked as though they were trying hard to understand what she was talking about.


“So what’s the plan, then?” asked Sidheag.


“You’re not going to like it.”


“Why not?”


“It involves a ball.”


Sidheag and Agatha paled at the very idea.


“I’m not ready for a ball!” said the taller girl with an uncharacteristic look of panic.


“Oooh, a ball.” Dimity clapped her hands.


“Well, there’s one the night I return home. It’s a good excuse to bring you three to visit. I can’t write to ask, of course. But it will be an excellent cover for searching the house and grounds while Frowbritcher and the other mechanicals are distracted.”


“But that’s the start of winter holidays. How are we to get the prototype into the appropriate hands?” Dimity wanted to know. “Even supposing we do find it.”


“That’s the other part of the plan. Someone told the school to recruit me. We have to figure out who reported on me to Lady Linette. We find out who that person is, we can give her the prototype.”


“I don’t suppose you know who that might be, do you?”


Sophronia grinned again. “No, but—”


Dimity said, “I know that look. That’s the look she gets right before she goes off exploring.”


“But?” prompted Sidheag.


“But we could break into the school records to find out.”


“Sophronia, that’s a terrible idea!” protested Dimity.


“You’re mad,” added Sidheag.


Agatha only looked wide-eyed.


“Ah, but I have the trump card.”


“You do?”


“Oh, yes. I’m going to borrow an obstructor and some soap.”


“I could, but it’ll take a long time. I spent years learning how. I’m thinking you need it before the holidays?”


Soap and Sophronia were sitting watching Sidheag take on a small herd of sooties in a rousing game of dice during a break in the late-night shift. The two girls had come for coal and stayed for conversation and, in Sidheag’s case, gambling. She really was a lost cause. Sophronia had hoped she might get Soap to teach her his neat trick of getting inside locked doors.


She nodded glumly.


“What do you want to know lock-picking for, anyway?” Soap asked.


“I need to find out about school-affiliated intelligencers in my home area who might have recruited me for Mademoiselle Geraldine’s.”


“You’re wanting to break into the record room?”


“That’s about the sum of it.”


“Sounds like fun.”


“Soap, what if you get caught up top?”


“Now, there, miss, you think every time you come visit us we aren’t at risk? It’s a good thing there are so many sooties and so many places to hide. And that you bribe all of us with them smallish cakes. Because otherwise someone would have long since put a stop to these little visits of yours.”


Sophronia only gave him a look. She didn’t like Soap taking too many risks for her.


He grinned at her, sidled over, and bumped her shoulder. “Stop your fretting. I can get away. Plus, how you going to do it without me?”


Sophronia felt a little giddy despite her worry. “Oh, very well! But this is becoming quite the expedition.”


It took them a week to plan their raid on the record room. Vieve agreed to lend Sophronia the obstructor with remarkably little fuss. She was involved in some new invention and it was taking up most of her time—even the temptation of a midnight record room break-in could not lure her away. She also told them where the room was located. “ ’Course I knows. Whatcha take me for, an amateur? They keep records of inventions there, too.” After that there was a good deal of arguing about who should go and who should stay behind.


Sophronia didn’t tell anyone Soap was coming; she only said she had a way of getting inside once they found the place.


Dimity advocated most strongly. “I want to come! I haven’t had any exciting excursions yet.”


“It’ll be either you or Sidheag; we have to keep the numbers down.” And Agatha clearly isn’t interested.


Dimity looked pleadingly at Sidheag, who, not unsurprisingly, shrugged.


Dimity took that as an affirmative and clapped her hands in excitement.


“You may have to tone down your sparkles, you know. The point is not to be seen.”


Dimity, with great reluctance, removed all her jewelry and put on her darkest gown, a royal blue walking dress.


“Will I do?”


“Admirably.”


Soap was waiting as arranged on the deck outside Sister Mattie’s empty classroom, lurking among her potted plants. He materialized from darkness behind a tall foxglove. Good as a poison in large doses or for trouble breathing in small amounts, Sophronia remembered.


“Good evening, ladies.”


“Good evening, Soap. All prepared?” He was looking cleaner than usual, and his clothing almost fit. He put on his sunday best for me. Sophronia was chuffed.


“Of course. You have the obstructor?”


“I do, indeed.” Sophronia showed him her wrist.


Dimity remained silent, her mouth a perfect O of amazement as she looked at Soap.


“Dimity, this is Soap. Well, Phineas B. Crow is his proper name.”


Soap grinned his perfect white grin and doffed his cap at the still-dumbstruck Dimity. “How-d’ye-do, miss?”


“This is Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott.”


Dimity bobbed a curtsy and recovered her voice, fortunately remembering to keep it low. “How do you do, Mr. Soap?”


“Oh, just Soap will do, miss.”


Dimity looked up at him, eyes wide. “You know we have a stable lad just like you. You know, in color. Perhaps you know him, name’s Jim, he—”


“I’m loath to cut introductions short, but we really must get moving,” said Sophronia, mostly to forestall anything further Dimity might come up with.


The three of them turned and proceeded in a measured way toward the teachers’ section of the ship. They spent a good deal of time pausing to let the obstructor work its invisible magic, dashing around a frozen mechanical, and then going onward.


Fortunately, the record room was exactly where Vieve said it would be: on the upper floor of the front section of the airship.


Getting there was rather less easy than it might have been. Dimity was no climber, and she kept wobbling around and squeaking about the distance to the ground—far—and the difficulty in bridging gaps—impossible. Eventually they climbed a rickety set of steps that wound in a corkscrew around the outer hull from Professor Lefoux’s balcony to a small, cupboardlike door.


Directly above was the forward squeak deck, where Sophronia had stood on her first day and acquired Bumbersnoot. Below were the levels containing the teachers’ private quarters; below that, the massive boiler room. The forward section housed everything important, and the attic level was one of the only ones Sophronia hadn’t visited. Consequently, she was dying of curiosity.


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