Etiquette & Espionage / Page 4

Page 4



Dimity interrupted her brother. “Yes, thank you, Pill.” Clearly, prattling was a family trait even Pillover was prone to indulge in sometimes.


“So?” said Sophronia. “Resources. What do you two have?”


Pillover emptied the pockets of his oversized greatcoat: some pine-sap gum, a monocle on a stick—the Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification, perhaps?—and a long piece of ribbon that probably started life in his sister’s hair. Dimity produced a box of sandwiches, a wooden spoon, and a knitted stuffed octopus out of the small covered basket at her feet. All Sophronia had was the piece of sponge she’d swiped at tea and stashed in her apron, now sadly crushed.


She split it into three and they ate the cake and thought hard.


None of the enemy paid them any mind. The three flywaymen had given up demolishing the luggage and now stood about arguing. Mademoiselle Geraldine was still firmly fainted.


“No time like the present,” said Sophronia, grabbing Pillover’s magnification lens. She climbed out of the small window of the carriage, the one on the side facing away from the flywaymen.


Carriages, as it turned out, were a whole lot easier to climb than dumbwaiters. Sophronia hoisted herself onto the top of the cab, unseen by the men below. There she found a large and colorful airdinghy tied to the roof. It wasn’t made of one balloon, but four, each attached to a corner of a passenger basket about the size of a small rowboat. In the center of the basket sprouted up a mast, higher than the balloons, with a sail unfurled. Steering propellers were suspended below. These were moving slightly, hovering directly above Sophronia’s head as she crawled across the carriage roof. They looked quite sharp. Keeping an eye on them, she made her way over to the mooring point.


The rope was tied firmly about the luggage rail and impossible to work lose.


Sophronia pulled out Pillover’s magnification lens and, angling it to catch the sun, began to burn through the rope. The acrid smell of scalded fiber permeated the air, but her activities remained unobserved. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the rope burned away to a point where Sophronia could break it. The airdinghy bobbed up, caught a slight breeze, and drifted away.


Without pausing to survey the effects of her handiwork, Sophronia crawled over and lowered herself down onto the driver’s box. The coachman lay slumped to one side. There was a large red mark on his forehead. She relieved him of the reins and clucked the horses into motion. She was perfectly well aware of how inappropriate it was for a young lady of fourteen to drive a coach, but circumstances sometimes called for extreme measures.


At that point, the flywaymen noticed what was happening and began shouting at her. The leader shot his gun rather ineffectually into a nearby tree. Another took off after the airdinghy, chasing it on the ground. The third began running toward her.


Sophronia whipped the horses up and set them a brisk canter. The cab behind her swayed alarmingly. It might be the latest design, but it was not meant for such a frantic pace. She gave the horses their heads for a few minutes before drawing them back to a trot. When she came upon a junction wide enough, she turned the carriage about and pulled up. She jumped down and stuck her head inside the carriage.


Pillover and Dimity stared with wide, awed eyes back at her.


“All righty, then?”


“Tremendous,” said Dimity.


“What kind of girl are you?” grumbled Pillover, looking rather yellow about the gills.


“Now I see why you were recruited,” added Dimity. “I’m surprised they left it until you were so old.”


Sophronia blushed. No one had ever praised her for such activities before. Nor had anyone looked upon her as old. It was quite the honor.


“How on earth do you know how to drive a carriage?” Pillover asked, as though this were some kind of personal affront.


Sophronia grinned. “I spend a lot of time in stables.”


“Nice-looking stable boys?” suggested Dimity.


Sophronia gave her an arch look. “So what now—go back for the headmistress?”


“But we’re safe, aren’t we?” Pillover looked alarmed by the idea. “Is she really worth it?”


“It is the polite thing to do. Hardly fair to abandon her among criminals,” pointed out his sister.


“Plus the coachman is insensible. And he’s the only other one who knows where we are heading.” Sophronia was all for logic as well as manners.


“But they have guns,” replied Pillover, also logically.


Sophronia considered this. “True.” She looked at Dimity. “Mademoiselle Geraldine—how useful do you think she is?”


Dimity frowned. “Did she fib with you?”


Sophronia nodded.


“I’m not convinced she can be relied upon to follow any kind of plan; you know how adults are. However, we must do something.”


“Did I mention the guns?”


“Oh, stuff it, Pill.” Dimity dismissed her brother, turning her attention entirely on Sophronia. “What do you suggest?”


“If I go in quick, could you and Mr. Pillover tie yourselves down and see if you can’t simply grab her off the road?”


“Remember, ladies, the guns?” Pillover repeated.


Dimity was nodding. “It’ll require both me and Pill. Mademoiselle Geraldine is slim, but not that slim.”


Pillover would not let up. “What about the whole shooting at us part of the equation?”


Sophronia and Dimity said together, “Stuff it, Pill.”


“We don’t have any rope.”


Sophronia dangled the long ribbon from Pillover’s pocket. Dimity firmed up her mouth, grabbed it, nodded her head sharply, and went to work.


Sophronia shut the cab door and climbed back up onto the driver’s box.


The coachman was blinking blearily and clutching his head.


“Hold on, sir,” suggested Sophronia. “It’s about to get a mite bumpy.”


“What? Who are you?” was all he managed to say before the young lady in the blue dress grabbed up the reins of his horses and whipped them into a fast trot.


They dashed back toward the pile of clothing and luggage in the middle of the roadway. Mademoiselle Geraldine now stood a short distance away from the head flywayman, wailing tragically over one of the hatboxes. The other two men had vanished.


Seeing the carriage charging toward him, the flywayman took aim and fired.


The bullet whined over Sophronia’s head. She thought dark insults at the man; slander she’d learned from Roger, the stable lad.


The coachman, after a yell of horror, hunkered down. Luckily, he did not try to wrest the reins away from Sophronia. He probably thought he was in the midst of a bad dream.


She slurred the carriage around, bringing it up alongside the headmistress and pulling back on the reins at the same time. On cue, the cab door banged open and four little hands scrabbled for purchase on the black lace of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s fabulous dress. They yanked. Something tore. Mademoiselle Geraldine squealed and fell forward and into the carriage. Her legs dangled.


The flywayman dropped his gun and dove for Mademoiselle Geraldine. The headmistress dropped her pathetic act and kicked frantically, eventually losing her shoes, but also the flywayman’s grip. He fell to the road, clutching to his chest a pair of black satin slippers.


Sophronia turned to face forward, flashing the whip. The horses hardly needed the encouragement, as they were already terrified by the gunfire and the erratic driving methods of their new coachgirl. They sprang into a gallop.


HOW NOT TO MAKE INTRODUCTIONS


The coachman finally regained his senses, realizing this was not some nightmare. There really was a fourteen-year-old girl with mousy hair and a serious expression driving his carriage. He yanked the reins away from Sophronia and pulled the horses up short. They hung their heads, sides heaving.


“Well, then,” said Sophronia to the coachman, sticking her nose in the air. She jumped down. A series of cries and wails emanated from inside the carriage. She opened the door to find Pillover sitting and reading his book, while his sister lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.


The boy gestured with his chin at Dimity. “She was shot.” He sounded remarkably unconcerned for a brother with any degree of affection for his sibling.


“Good lord!” Sophronia jumped in to see to her new friend’s health. The bullet had grazed Dimity’s shoulder. It had ripped her dress and left a partly burned gash behind, but didn’t look all that bad.


Sophronia checked to make certain Dimity had no other injuries. Then she sat back on her heels. “Is that all? I’ve had worse scrapes from drinking tea. Why has she come over all crumpled?”


Pillover rolled his eyes. “Faints at the sight of blood, our Dimity. Always has. Weak nerves, father says. It doesn’t even have to be her blood.”


Sophronia snorted.


“Exactly. And the smelling salts were in her suitcase. Which is now some distance behind us. Leave her be. She’ll come ’round eventually.”


Sophronia turned her attention to the source of the wails. “What’s wrong with her, then?” Is Mademoiselle Geraldine also injured? The headmistress was curled into a ball, hands covering her face, whimpering.


Pillover was as disgusted with the headmistress as he was with his sister. “She’s been like that ever since we pulled her inside. Nothing damaged except her brain, so far as I can determine.”


Sophronia looked closer and caught the headmistress watching them slyly from behind her hands. She was shamming. But why? So she doesn’t have to explain anything? Such a peculiar woman.


It was then that Sophronia noticed that Pillover was also looking unwell behind his sneer.


She turned her full attention on the boy. “And are you quite all right, Mr. Pillover?”


“I’m not a very good traveler at the best of times, Miss Sophronia. You might have taken that last half mile a little smoother.”


Sophronia tried to hide a smile. “I might. But what pleasure would there be in that?”


“Oh, wonderful,” said Pillover. “You’re one of those kinds of girls.”


Sophronia narrowed her eyes. “You could ride on the box next to the coachman. Fresh air would do you a world of good.”


Pillover looked most offended. “Outside, like a peasant? I think not.”


Sophronia shrugged. “Suited me.”


Pillover gave her a look that suggested that her valiant rescue was no excuse and that she was, in fact, now quite low-class in his eyes.


Sophronia returned her attention to the whimpering headmistress. “What are we going to do about her?” And then, more directly, “You’re not fooling anyone, you realize?”


Pillover evidently had been fooled. “She’s shamming? Well, there’s nothing we can do about her. The coachman knows where to go. He can get us to Bunson’s. Someone there will know what to do.”


Sophronia nodded and stuck her head out the carriage window. “Coachman?”


“Yes, little miss?” The man looked generally upset with life.


“You can drive us on to this Bunson’s locale, can’t you?”


“Yes, little miss. I know the school. But I’m not convinced I intend to continue on, now. Never been held up by flywaymen afore.”


Bugger it. How would Mumsy handle this? Sophronia looked the coachman full in the face and straightened her spine as stiff as she could. “You will if you wish to be paid. Keep a decent pace and an eye to the sky and it shouldn’t happen again.” The moment she said it, Sophronia became completely shocked by her own daring. She was also mildly impressed by how imperious she sounded.


So was the coachman, apparently, because he resumed his post without another word and set the horses a sedate trot.


Pillover glanced over the top of his glasses. “You do that rather well, don’t you?”


“What?”


“Order other people around. I’ve not yet got the way of it myself.”


Sophronia rather thought Pillover was, regardless, doing pretty well at snobbery, for a grubby boy. She was about to say something of the kind when Mademoiselle Geraldine’s whimpering escalated.


“Oh, do stop it and explain yourself,” Sophronia ordered, feeling she was on an autocratic streak.


Much to her surprise, the headmistress listened, transforming her simulated whimpering into outright ire, directed at Sophronia. “I didn’t attend for this, you understand. Easy assignment, they said.” Sophronia noted with interest that Mademoiselle Geraldine had lost her French accent. “Nothing to it but improvisational theatrics. Some on-point assessment of new candidates. Simply act older. Put on a bit of an accent and a pretty dress. Such an easy finishing. Others should be so lucky. You’re certain to make it through. But no. Oh, no. I had to have a combination retrieval and recruitment undertaking with an unexpected attack from unknown counterintelligencer elements, and no second. How dare they send me on without a second? Me! I mean, did I ask for this? I didn’t ask for this. Who needs active status? I don’t need active status. This is ridiculous!” She seemed to be progressively building herself up to sublime self-righteousness.


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