Etiquette & Espionage / Page 29

Page 29

Dimity signaled them to keep their voices down. “Professor Braithwope, remember? He’s still awake, and he’s only a level or two below us, with vampire-acute hearing.”

Wish she’d thought of that when she was squeaking, thought Sophronia.

They continued along in silence. The level was somewhat squashed. Even Sophronia felt cramped, and she was by far the littlest of the three. It was not rigged with gas parasol lighting. They had to feel their way along in the dark.

They found the room, conveniently labeled RECORD LIBRARY—CONTAINING RECORDS OF IMPORT in big gold letters.

There was a soldier mechanical directly outside the door. It spotted them approaching and whirred to life, puffing steam out from below its headpiece in a huff of alarm. Before Sophronia could even raise the obstructor, the mechanical raised one cannonlike arm and shot at them.

Soap dove down on instinct. Sophronia and Dimity flinched.

They found themselves covered in a net of some spongy, sticky material, like tripe, that was nevertheless very strong. The mechanical advanced toward them, hissing menacingly.

I feel like a partridge wrapped in bacon, thought Sophronia. Most unpleasant. Sophronia couldn’t raise her arm to point with the obstructor, as the netting held it firm at her side. “Dimity, can you reach your sewing scissors?”

“I can’t move,” peeped Dimity, and then she made a puft noise as some of the sticky netting got into her mouth.

“Soap?” Sophronia tried to look about to see the sootie.

“I’m better off than you are, miss. But it’s a little embarrassing.”

Sophronia glanced down. In diving to avoid the blast, Soap had ended up partly shielded by the skirts of her dress. Only one side of his body was trapped to the floor by the netting; the other half was under her petticoats.

The mechanical was upon them, and had apparently been instructed to try to capture any intruder, but was confused to have caught three at once. It was making bewildered whirring noises and rocking side to side on its track as it sifted through its protocols for the correct approach.

“Do you have any sewing scissors?” Sophronia asked Soap.

“No, miss, but I have a knife.”

“Can you get to it and try to free up my wrist?”

Soap squirmed, fluffing out petticoats as he wiggled his free arm. Dimity made a muffled squeak of alarm at this indignity to Sophronia’s person. Soap managed the task barely, cutting away enough of the strands to allow Sophronia to raise her arm and point it at the mechanical. Unfortunately, the strands were now stuck to his knife.

The soldier mechanical appeared to have reached a decision. It leaned back and brought up its other arm, this one spouting smoke.

“It’s going to burn us alive!” gasped Dimity.

Before the mechanical could do anything further, Sophronia hit it with the invisible blast from the obstructor. The mechanical froze, but they still had to extract themselves from the net. Soap continued to hack from below with his knife, using the hem of Sophronia’s gown to clean it as he did so. Sophronia managed to access her reticule with her free hand and pulled out her sewing scissors. She cut away at the netting around Dimity until she, too, could get to her scissors.

“This stuff is so sticky. I’m sure it’s food by nature. Should we be handling raw foodstuffs? My dress is entirely ruined, and even using it to wipe with isn’t very effective.” Dimity was not pleased.

Sophronia checked the tackiness of the net between two fingers. I wonder if oil might work. She fished some perfume oil out of her reticule—rose-scented. She cleaned her scissors as best she was able and then coated the blades with the oil. It worked a treat.

“Would you look at that?” Soap was impressed. Sophronia dropped the bottle down to him. He coated his knife, then handed the oil up to Dimity. Things went much faster after that, although they all ended up smelling like roses.

All the while they were working to get free, Sophronia had to pause to blast the mechanical with the obstructor. When the sticky stuff was finally gone, they could not push the huge, heavy soldier mechanical out of the way, for it was somehow locked down.

Soap couldn’t manage to pick the lock in the space of one obstructor blast. So Sophronia had to stand before the sentry and disable it with the obstructor every six seconds while Soap worked diligently behind it.

Sophronia worried the obstructor might run out or fade in its effectiveness. Vieve had not explained exactly how it worked, and Sophronia could hardly believe it would continue indefinitely, but it showed no signs of stopping.

Eventually Soap got the door open. Sophronia hit the mechanical with one last blast and they squeezed inside the room before the thing woke up again. They closed the door firmly behind them.

Only to be faced with an entirely new problem.

The record room looked like a small factory or cotton mill—machines and conveyors and rotary belts ran along the walls and filled the corners of the room.

“Look up,” hissed Sophronia.

Dimity and Soap did.

Above them dangled the records. They were clipped to conveyers mounted on the ceiling, like an upside-down, dangling version of mechanical tracks. The records themselves looked like nothing so much as laundry hanging from a clothesline. They were far too high up to reach, and there seemed no way to know where any particular record was. There were hundreds there, if not thousands—it was a nightmare.

“There must be some method of search and recall,” Sophronia said, looking around desperately.

There were three desks in the room, each with a small leather seat, an oil lamp, and a writing pad. Each also boasted a large brass knob with a lever sticking out of the top. Around the base of the knob, and taking up a good deal of the desk space, was a circular piece of parchment paper with writing on it.

Soap went to one desk, Sophronia to another, and Dimity to the last. Each bent to light the oil lamp and examine the writing on the round parchment.

“Try not to touch anything; we are still all-over sticky,” warned Sophronia.

Even as she said it, a quill adhered itself to Dimity’s bosom as she leaned in. Dimity didn’t notice. She said, “Mine is labeled with locations.” She craned her neck to the side to read around the circle. “Cities, counties, a few districts, and even some wards. Here’s London. Here’s Devonshire.”

Sophronia looked at hers. “Mine looks like it’s skill sets. Knife, seduction, armored umbrella, flirtation. What’s yours, Soap?”

Soap was standing over his desk with his head down, not even looking at the paper.

They didn’t have much time. “What’s it say, Soap?”

Soap looked up, clearly embarrassed. “Sorry, miss, can’t tell.”

“Goodness me, why not? Is it something horrid and unladylike?” Soap was proving, often, to be far more conscientious of Sophronia’s dignity than Sophronia was.

Soap only shook his head.

Dimity said in a sympathetic tone, “You can’t read, can you, Mr. Soap?”

“No, miss. Sorry, miss.” His voice was almost a whisper.

Sophronia blinked. Poor Soap! What a thing to go through life without books. “Oh, right.” She ran over. “It’s the alphabet.” She pointed, “See, A, B, C, D, and so forth.”

Soap only backed slightly away, looking hugely embarrassed. Sophronia bumped up against his side, much in the manner he had done to her in the past, and gave him a little smile. This seemed to only embarrass him further. “Aw, miss.”

“What do they mean?” asked Dimity.

Sophronia shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”

She grabbed the lever on Soap’s desk and pushed it toward A.

All around them, with what seemed to be a tremendous amount of noise, the machinery of the record room came to life. Steam hissed out from pistons and rotary mechanisms as they whirled up, thundering, shaking, and groaning. Above them the records moved on those tracks, shifting from one part of the room to another, parting and regrouping. They whizzed around one another, the parchment flapping and crackling. Finally a large cluster moved purposefully in Soap and Sophronia’s direction, coming to a stop directly above the desk.

“Now what?” wondered Soap.

Sophronia searched around the desk for some other operational mechanism or switch.

“This is when I wish we had Vieve with us,” she said, frowning. She returned to the original lever, and after tapping and picking at it, pressed down hard on the round brass nodule at the base.

With a loud clunk, the records above her dropped.

She and Soap both ducked out of the way, narrowly missing being whacked by dangling paperwork as the collection above the desk came flying straight down and stopped, hovering, in a manner undoubtedly convenient to whomever was seated at the desk.

Sophronia unclipped and examined one of the pieces of paper, mindful of any stickiness. She read bits aloud, in deference to Soap, and to the fact that Dimity still stood at her desk some distance away.

“ ‘Comtesse de Andeluquais, Henrietta, née Kipplewit,’ it says at the top of the file.” Below this was a sketch of a personable young woman, with written vital statistics such as hair color, eye color, social position, and fashion preferences. Then came a string of locations and dates, starting with what Sophronia assumed was a birthplace and ending with what must be the comtesse’s current residency in France. Below that was written a list of particular skills, which in Henrietta’s case appeared to be “Parasol manipulation, hairstyles for concealment, ballistics, quiet footsteps, fast waltz, and rice pudding.”

There were a goodly number of additional papers covered in neat handwriting. Sophronia tried to sum up for her audience. “Reports on various assignments, I believe. Yes, here it says she infiltrated French diplomatic offices. And here is a report on her marriage to the comte.” Sophronia looked over at Dimity. “You mean we are going to have to marry whomever the school chooses?”

Dimity was unconcerned. “Within reason. This is a finishing school, after all. That’s what all finished girls do—marry well. Besides, how else would we infiltrate positions of power?”

Sophronia postponed any protestations for a later date and turned her attention to the issue at hand. She replaced Henrietta’s paperwork and depressed the brass knob of the lever, and the records rose back up to the ceiling.

“Which desk had locations?”

Dimity pointed at hers.

Soap and Sophronia went over.

“We need a location close to my home. That’s near Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire.” Sophronia began reading the place names. “Aha, Swindon should do it.” She grabbed the lever and pulled it.

The records shifted and whisked around, rearranging themselves until a cluster coalesced and came to hover above the desk. This time there was a much smaller number of records—three, to be precise. Sophronia depressed the nodule and the paperwork plummeted down.

They were all ready this time and didn’t duck or flinch.

It was a moment’s work to read through the names of the three women in Sophronia’s area who had also once attended Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. Of the three, one was now dead, the second had lived there for only a brief time in 1847, and the third… well, the third was…

“Mrs. Barnaclegoose!” said Sophronia.

“I take it you know her?” asked Dimity.

“Yes, indeed.”

“Then we’ve got what you came for, miss?” said Soap.

Sophronia desperately wanted to read the entire file on her mother’s dear old friend and chronic teatime companion. She’d always thought Mrs. Barnaclegoose no more than a meddling busybody with stylish propensities at odds with her ever-increasing waistline. “Please, wait!”

“Now, miss, we’d best move. Them machineries make enough noise to spook a poltergeist, and we got us vampire hearing to worry over. Best get the records back the way they were to start and get out.” He seemed very nervous. Sophronia wondered if it was all the paperwork.

“No point in trying to make the break-in invisible.”

“No?” Dimity was confused.

“No. The place reeks of rose oil, and there is sticky netting all over the hallway. We are going to have to try to cast the blame on someone else. I’ll simply put this lot back up and dial in something random. At least that’ll throw them off the trail.”

Sophronia depressed the nodule, and they watched as the three Swindon records rose up to the ceiling. Then she dashed over to the final desk and pushed the lever toward the “tea leaf encryption” skill set. A new cluster of papers came over to that desk. Instead of pushing them to ascend, Sophronia left them there. They snuffed out the oil lamps and made their way out of the record room.

They managed to blast and then sneak by the soldier mechanical, which was rocking back and forth in confusion. Something about having trapped an intruder and then suddenly having that intruder be multiples and then vanish had put it into a protocol loop. It was paralyzed by indecision and hadn’t sounded the alarm. Luck, thought Sophronia. Is that something an intelligencer should count on?

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