Etiquette & Espionage / Page 32

Page 32



“My house,” replied Sophronia promptly.


“All righty, then.”


The trip began pleasantly enough. For the first few hours, Sophronia and Dimity chatted idly about what they might wear and how they might wear it. Pillover rolled his eyes and tried to behave in as dignified a manner as possible under the circumstances of girlish prattle and open-air transport. Monique ignored them. Roger paid attention to the road.


Sophronia thought she spotted a carriage following them, a high flyer. But it stayed well back and might have simply been utilizing the same byways.


The pleasantness was marred only by Bumbersnoot. Sophronia had tucked her mechanical pet, after some debate, into a hatbox for transport. She’d given him a small lump of coal for a travel snack and strict instructions not to stain the interior with smoke, or to singe it, or to catch it on fire. He did, as it turned out, all of these things, but that is not what disturbed the drive.


Sophronia was not aware that anything was amiss until she looked up in the midst of an entertaining debate with Dimity over the relative merits of pearls versus diamonds for a ball to find that Monique’s blue eyes were fixed in horror upon the luggage pile. Sophronia’s eyes followed the older girl’s gaze, coming to rest on her paisley hatbox, which was vibrating rather more than any of the other luggage.


Sophronia put the hatbox next to her on the bench and put a hand firmly atop it.


Bumbersnoot, as it turned out, might have been trying to tell her something, for moments later, out from behind the hedgerows, they caught sight of an approaching airdinghy.


“Oh, goodness, look,” whispered Sophronia. “Flywaymen!”


Dimity let out a gasp.


Pillover closed his book with a snap. “What is it now?” Upon following their pointed fingers, he added, “Here we go again,” in tones of the deeply put-upon.


However, the flywaymen only kept pace with them for a long time, apparently content to watch from several yards away to determine whether they were worth approaching. Sophronia suspected the pony and cart of throwing them off. As a rule, such a contraption wasn’t worth attacking, given the general quality of the merchandise within. Unless, of course, they had determined that Monique was the one worth following in order to regain the prototype.


Roger, slumped and staring at the road before them, finally noticed they had company. He pulled the pony up.


“Don’t do that,” said Sophronia.


“Miss?”


“If they are going to leave us alone for now, then there is no point in delaying our travel. They will come at us if they want something. Otherwise, keep driving. I think we may have additional followers, as well.” She gestured at the carriage behind them.


“If you say so, miss.” Roger gave her a look that said he thought she had changed a good deal while she was away at school, and not for the better.


Sophronia turned back to Dimity and Pillover. “What kind of defenses do we have this time?”


Dimity canvassed her options. “Handkerchiefs, fans, two parasols, assorted hatboxes, hats, gloves, and jewelry—although I’d rather not use that.”


“Much better equipped than before.”


Dimity grinned. “And better able to make use of what we have.”


Pillover looked resigned. Then he reached inside the pocket of his greatcoat and produce the Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification. “Still got this.”


Dimity glanced at Sophronia expectantly. “So what’s the plan?”


Sophronia looked through her binoculars at the airdinghy. “Three of them. Four of us. Five, if you count Monique. Unless the carriage following us is also flywaymen.”


“More likely Pistons,” said Pillover in a resigned tone of voice. “You told them about the ball. They like to go to events uninvited, put gin in the punch, and steal all the spoons. Stylish shenanigans like that.”


“Charming,” said Sophronia.


“Not Lord Dingleproops,” protested Dimity.


Pillover turned a disgusted look on his sister.


Monique had wrapped herself in a velvet shawl and was staring at the surrounding countryside, ignoring them, the Pistons, and the flywaymen. It seemed she was secure in her own scheme, confident in Sophronia’s ability to handle the situation, or simply uninterested.


Sophronia continued planning out loud. “Roger really has to keep his attention on the road. Too bad we haven’t any good projectiles.”


“They’ve not actually done anything against us yet. Remember what Lady Linette says; never engage first unless absolutely necessary,” protested Dimity.


“I should say they started it by attacking us last time,” said Sophronia. “Not to mention the two times they threatened the school.” Monique probably figured they were following her with no intention of engaging. An open confrontation had yielded up nothing substantial the first time around, after all. Sophronia, however, had no intention of letting either them or Monique dally along without interference.


The flywaymen continued to track them for another hour, giving Sophronia and dimity ample opportunity to discuss defensive maneuvers, until a break in the hedgerows allowed the airdinghy a mooring point with easy access to the road. Evidently having decided that the cart was indeed worth their attention, now that they had spent the better part of the afternoon alongside it, the flywaymen lowered their airdinghy, lashed it to a tree, and leapt out to stand before them.


CONDUCTING ONESELF PROPERLY AT A BALL


The flywaymen approached with ready smiles and half-cocked pistols, in the manner of gentlemen highwaymen since the dawn of time, or at least the Middle Ages. They seemed, as before, interested mainly in dismembering luggage. This time, however, the girls would have none of it. As soon as the two flywaymen were close enough, Sophronia gave the signal, and she, Dimity, and Pillover threw hatboxes at them.


In the same instant, Roger whipped the poor pony into a trot and charged directly at the two surprised flywaymen, who jumped aside. Before they had a chance to turn around, Roger had the cart alongside their airdinghy. Sophronia and Dimity committed themselves in grand leaps out of the cart and into the gondola forthwith.


The flywaymen, no doubt planning a quick escape, had lashed their transport loosely to a small tree. Sophronia pulled the tail end of the rope. The airdinghy bobbed upward. Abandoning the notion of attacking the cart in favor of rescuing their own conveyance, the flywaymen dashed over, leapt upward, and attempted to grab on.


It was all to no avail. Perhaps as the result of carrying two girls and not two fully grown men, or perhaps by design, the airdinghy rapidly attained considerable height. Sophronia and Dimity peeked over the edge and down at their erstwhile pursuers, grinning. The flywaymen shot at them with their pistols. Sophronia and Dimity dove back into the basket, giggling.


Only then did they realize they had no idea how to steer the thing.


“Oh, dear, we might have used Pillover, with all his book learning.” Sophronia looked in confusion at the many cords dangling down from the four corner balloons, not to mention the sail lines in the middle and the levers for the propeller below.


“We might, but my brother hardly troubles himself with practical matters like balloons; he is such a philosopher. Embarrassing for everyone.” Dimity plucked at one of the cords.


They decided to start tugging on things and see what happened. Pulling on one rope made the airdinghy spin one way, and another caused it to bob alarmingly. One spiderweb linking system opened vents in all four of the balloons at the same time, at which they all began to collapse. Sophronia quickly let that rope go, and they stopped sinking.


They spent a half hour or so lurching about. The airdinghy bobbed up, down, and around in circles while Roger, Pillover, Monique, and the pony trundled merrily along the road, followed at a respectable distance by the Pistons. The flywaymen jumped around and shouted for a bit before leaving the road, stumbling and running through gorse and farmland, tracking the airdinghy over the countryside, and making the acquaintance of far too many hedgerows, and hopefully a thistle or two.


Finally, through some kind of fluke, Sophronia and Dimity managed to trap a wind with the sail and set a stately pace after the pony and cart, catching it up in a little less than an hour. At that point, Dimity dropped the mooring rope, which, after several botched efforts, Pillover managed to tie to the cart. Thus attached, they made good time, coasting happily all the way through Wootton Bassett and out the other side onto the Temminnick estates. They made quite a spectacle of themselves through the town, which was already in a tizzy over the upcoming ball. The pony, being of the long-suffering variety, hardly seemed to register that he was tugging a somewhat levitated cart.


Mrs. Temminnick looked up from a consultation with the gardener over which flowers to cut for the ball. She caught sight of Sophronia and Dimity disembarking, gracelessly, from the edge of the gondola into the cart. Airdinghies were not made for copious skirts. Her expression was that of a woman with multiple children who was no longer surprised by anything they did, up to and including arriving home from finishing school in an airdinghy.


“Have you learned nothing at that academy of yours?” she asked, marching over. “What have you brought with you? An air balloon? Gracious, Sophronia, what next?”


“Mumsy, may I keep it? Please?” Sophronia jumped from the cart to the ground, swayed elegantly up to her mother, and executed a perfect curtsy. “Balloons always lighten up an event, don’t you feel? We could host small trips over the vegetable patch.”


“Oh, Sophronia, really! And who will operate it? This is intended to be a dignified celebration, not a carnival!” Mrs. Temminnick was distracted by the need to direct the greengrocer’s boy with his hamper to the staff entrance. “Frowbritcher will tell you what to do,” she explained to the lad. The baker’s boy, the cheesemonger’s boy, and the fruiterer’s boy were met with equal exasperation and stern guidance.


By the time Mrs. Temminnick returned her attention to her youngest daughter, Sophronia had chivvied Roger off, with pony, cart, and balloon. “It’ll be all right in the stable for now.”


Roger expressed his feeling that the size of the stable and the size of the airdinghy might be mutually exclusive.


“Put it in the barn if you must,” was Sophronia’s answer.


“Oh, goodness, child, how will it fit?” Mrs. Temminnick’s hands fluttered.


“Roger will manage.” Sophronia had to speak over the delighted cries of her two younger brothers, who had arrived on the scene and were far more excited about the balloon’s arrival than Sophronia’s return. “Mumsy, please make them stop touching it! They might hurt it.”


“Now, dear, don’t fuss.”


Sophronia hoped Roger could hold the course and that her bothers wouldn’t do any major damage. “Mumsy, I should very much like you to know my friends.”


Mrs. Temminnick paused in her frantic organizing, remembered her manners, and said, “Oh, dear me, yes.”


“This is Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott and her brother, Pillover. That is Monique de Pelouse. I understand she is here at your behest, not mine.”


“Oh, Miss Pelouse, of course! Your father and my husband have some business dealings, I understand? You are most welcome. Sophronia, if you wouldn’t mind showing Miss Pelouse where she might freshen up? And, of course, I’m confident your little friends are delightful.”


Monique curtsied, keeping her bonnet low and her face well-shaded. It seemed to do the trick, for Sophronia’s mother did not recognize her from her guise as headmistress. Mrs. Temminnick only smiled wanly, and then scurried off.


Sophronia jogged quickly after her. “Mumsy, did you get my warning?”


“Warning? What warning, dear? Oh, your odd little note? Yes, but dear, flywaymen are only a myth.”


“Oh, Mumsy! Of course they aren’t. Where do you think I got the airdinghy?”


“Well, dear, you know… somewhere.” Mrs. Temminnick waved an airy hand in the air and consulted her list of pending deliveries. “Now, where is that confectioner’s boy? I ordered three dozen sugared violets and two bags of candied citron, and they are absolutely vital to the success of this evening.”


“But Mumsy, I think it might be even worse than that. There might be Picklemen involved.”


Mrs. Temminnick let out a little gasp that was half laugh, half shock. “Now, Sophronia, why trouble your pretty head about such things? You let your father handle that. I’m quite certain none of them would dignify our paltry little country ball. Now, dear, really, I must get back to it. You run along with your little friends and get fancy.”


Sophronia was not surprised by this dismissal. Frustrated, but not surprised. She would simply have to manage everything herself. She whirled and trotted back to where the others waited, Pillover and Dimity bracketing Monique with all the embarrassed menace of two small but dedicated poodles. Grabbing the hatbox that contained Bumbersnoot and corralling one of the footmen to help with the rest of the luggage, Sophronia led the way up to the top-floor nursery, a room that she knew from experience had no escape route. Nevertheless, she set Pillover to guard the hallway while all three girls together, despite Monique’s protests, washed and changed for the ball.


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