Etiquette & Espionage / Page 6

Page 6



“It’s very high up, isn’t it?” added Dimity nervously.


As the carriage drew closer, Sophronia realized that the floating academy was moving much faster than she had initially thought. It was probably riding the stiff wind that seemed to rush over Dartmoor constantly, tilting small trees into lopsidedness. Just when she thought they might actually catch it, the horses screamed in terror and the carriage jerked to a stop.


The door burst open. A young man stood before them. He was a tall, swarthy fellow of the type that Petunia would swoon over; rakishly handsome in a floppy way. He was wearing a black silk top hat and a greatcoat that covered him from neck to ankle. Papa would call him a “young blunt” in a disgusted tone of voice. Sophronia was briefly afraid that this was some new form of flywayman—except that he wore no goggles and was grinning at them.


“Ladies!”


Monique colored becomingly. “Captain.”


“Winds are fierce this evening. Can’t float down for a pickup. You ladies will have to wait until after sunset, then I’ll give you a lift.”


“Oh.” Monique’s delicate little nose wrinkled. “Must we?”


The young man’s cheerful expression didn’t falter under the weight of her dissatisfaction. “Yes.”


“Oh, very well.” Monique gave the man her hand and he helped her down.


He did not turn to accompany her, instead looking inquiringly at Dimity and Sophronia. “Ladies. No time like the present.”


Dimity gathered up her little basket, also blushing furiously, and put her hand into the man’s large one.


He helped her down and returned for Sophronia. “Miss?”


Sophronia busily checked the cab for any forgotten items.


The young man observed this with a twinkle in his dark eyes. “Cautious girl.”


Sophronia didn’t dignify this with a reply. She hadn’t pinpointed the particulars yet, but there was something odd about this man, aside from his being adorable.


Outside, the wind was biting, and the great airship was even more impressive. The horses were restless, rolling their eyes and straining against their traces. The coachman fought to hold them. There seemed to be no reason for their panic. The young man strode forward to pay the driver. This only terrified the animals further. The coachman managed to take possession of his fare and keep hold of the reins, but only by dint of real skill. Then he turned his steeds around and let them have their way, careening across the heath at a breakneck speed.


Dimity sidled up to Sophronia and whispered, “Isn’t he simply scrumptious?”


Sophronia pretended obtuseness. “The coachman?”


“No, silly. Him!” Dimity tilted her head toward their new escort.


“He’s a little old, don’t you feel?”


Dimity considered the age of the young man. He was, perhaps, one-and-twenty. “Well, I suppose. But Monique doesn’t believe so. Look at her flirting! Shameless.”


The man and Monique were discussing the lack of luggage. With animated hand gestures, Monique described its loss, their recent attack, and their subsequent escape. She downplayed Sophronia’s part and accentuated her own. Sophronia would have defended herself, but there was something about the way Monique told the story that was about more than ego.


“She’s hiding something. Has been all along—and not only her real identity.”


“A brain?” Dimity suggested.


“And he isn’t wearing any shoes.”


“Oh, I say! You’re right. How peculiar.”


“And the horses were afraid of him. Every time he got close, they shied.”


“But why?”


“Perhaps they have equine standards—an abhorrence of bare feet.”


Dimity giggled.


The man, apparently tired of Monique’s tales, came to join them.


The older girl trailed behind him and finally remembered her manners. “Girls, this is Captain Niall.”


Dimity bobbed a curtsy. “Captain.”


Sophronia followed suit a second later with a much less tidy curtsy and a much less pleasant “Captain.”


Monique said, “Miss Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott, full credentials, and Miss Sophronia Angelina Temminnick, covert recruit.” Her lip curled.


The man touched the brim of his top hat and bowed to each in turn.


Captain Niall had a nice smile, and Sophronia liked his boneless way of moving. But she had a sinking suspicion he wasn’t wearing a cravat under the greatcoat. Also, it looked as if his top hat was tied under his chin like a baby’s bonnet. Since she figured it might be rude to point out the man’s deficiencies in attire to his face, she said instead, “I do hope the coachman finds his way back to civilization safely.”


“Commendable conscientiousness, Miss Temminnick, but I shouldn’t trouble yourself.”


Behind them, the sun had completely set. The airship, drifting away, began to fade into the misty, purpled sky, becoming increasingly difficult to see.


“Back in a jiff.” The young captain ambled down a little gulley, disappearing behind a large rock.


The ladies could still see his top hat bobbing, but nothing else, and that only for a moment. The hat began to melt down and out of sight. Was he crouching? It was difficult to hear anything above the wind, and Sophronia’s ears were already starting to ache from exposure, but she thought she could detect a moan of pain.


Then, out from behind the rock, trotting up the gulley, came a massive wolf. A rangy beast with dark, mottled, black-and-brown fur and a fluffy, white-tipped tail.


Dimity let out of a squeak of alarm.


Sophronia froze, but only for a moment. Werewolf! said her brain, putting everything together in one split second. The lack of shoes. The full greatcoat. Now he was coming at them.


She turned and ran straight for the nearest coppice of trees, thinking only in terms of safety. She ignored Monique’s instructions for her to stop. She didn’t even think of poor Dimity. Her only instinct was that of prey: to scurry and hide, to escape the predator.


The werewolf leapt after her far faster than any normal wolf ever could. Not that Sophronia had ever met such a monster before. She had heard the rumors about supernatural speed and strength, but she had hardly given them credence. This werewolf proved all the fairy tales true. Before she had gone more than a few paces, he caught up to her and jumped over her head, twisting in midair and coming to rest facing her and blocking her path.


Sophronia crashed right into him and fell to her back on the rough grass, winded.


Before she could rise, a massive paw descended onto her chest, and a vicious wolf face appeared above her—black nose damp and teeth bared. The face descended and… nothing.


Sophronia screwed her eyes shut and turned her head away, waiting for the deathblow to come from his other massive paw, or for those glistening canines to close about her neck.


Still nothing.


I guess I’m not dead. She cautiously opened her eyes to look up into the wolf’s yellow ones. They crinkled at her, and the beast lolled out his tongue, grinning. His massive, sweeping tail brushed back and forth behind him. She noticed then, much to her shock, that the top hat was still tied securely to his head.


This incongruity served to calm her as nothing else could have. Later, Sophronia was to wonder if this was the reason Captain Niall always wore a top hat, even when he changed—to put people at ease. Or if he believed that, whatever the form, a gentleman should never be without his hat.


She made to sit up. When he refused to let her, she said, “I won’t run again. I’m sorry. You startled me. I’ve never met a werewolf before.”


With a small nod, he backed away.


Dimity offered Sophronia a helping hand up. “Sophronia’s parents are conservatives,” she explained to the creature. She moved cautiously, suggesting that she, too, was unfamiliar with werewolves, for all her progressive upbringing. Or perhaps that is the way one is supposed to behave around them. Sophronia decided to take her cues from her new friend, and stood very slowly.


Monique minced over. “If you are quite done making a fool of yourself, Covert?”


Sophronia snapped back, “I wouldn’t want to make a promise I couldn’t keep.”


“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. I’d better go first, Captain. Show them how it’s done.”


The wolf nodded his furry, top-hatted head.


Then Monique de Pelouse did the most remarkable thing. She sat down sidesaddle on top of the werewolf’s back, as though he were a Shetland pony.


“One holds on, like so,” she explained officiously, burying her hands in the wolf’s thick neck ruff. “Then one leans forward as much as possible.”


Sophronia thought she heard the girl’s stays creak.


The werewolf trotted off, gaining speed until he was nothing but a blur racing across the heath toward the floating school.


Sophronia squinted, trying to follow his movements. He leapt impossibly high into the air, toward the ship. He was a supernatural creature, and clearly very powerful, but even werewolves couldn’t fly. It became clear, however, that he didn’t intend to, for he appeared to have landed midair.


“Must be some kind of platform,” said Dimity.


Sophronia nodded. “Suspended on long cords, perhaps?”


Monique dismounted, and Captain Niall jumped down and came racing back to them.


He looked expectantly at Dimity.


Dimity glanced at Sophronia and said, “Oh, dear.”


Sophronia smiled. “If you’re afraid of falling, you could ride astride. It’s much easier to hang on to a horse that way.”


Dimity looked affronted at the very idea.


“It was only a suggestion.”


“You’re very calm.”


Sophronia shrugged. “I’m overburdened by strange occurrences at the moment. I’ll go next, if you like.”


Dimity looked relieved and gestured expansively with one hand.


Sophronia climbed onto the werewolf. Her mother would have had hysterics—leaving aside the whole werewolf steed aspect—at the very idea that a daughter of hers would ride astride! Sophronia merely wrapped both her arms and legs about the wolf. “I’m ready.” His fur smelled of hay, sandalwood, and pork sausages.


He started slowly, accustoming her to his gait—which was not at all like that of a horse!—then picked up speed. Sophronia hunkered down, watching the grass and rocks rush by beneath them. They neared the airship, and with a tremendous bunching of haunches and a surge of power, Captain Niall leapt into the air.


For a brief, glorious moment, Sophronia felt as close to flying as she ever would. The wind lifted her hair and dress, the emptiness of space surrounded her, the ground was far below. Then the werewolf touched down lightly onto a small platform beside a bored-looking Monique.


Sophronia climbed off. “Thank you, sir, most enjoyable.”


Captain Niall jumped back down to collect Dimity.


As Monique was ignoring her, Sophronia examined the workings of the platform. It was made of thick glass, hollowed on the inside like a box, and hung on four chains. These were looped about pulleys at each corner, which meant the whole thing could be raised and lowered as one unit.


She craned her neck, but saw neither hole nor docking structure in the underside of the airship.


A distant shrieking, getting louder and louder, heralded Dimity’s arrival.


As soon as they landed, Dimity stopped screaming—embarrassed—and dismounted. Then she sat down on the platform abruptly.


Monique laughed.


Sophronia hurried to her friend’s side. “Are you unwell?”


“My nerves are a little shaky, I must confess. No, please, leave me until I recover the use of my knees. That was a tad overwhelming.”


“I thought it was quite a wheeze.”


“I’m beginning to understand that about you. I’m not convinced it is a good personality trait, but it certainly appears to be useful.” Dimity pushed her hair out of her face with a trembling hand.


Captain Niall deposited Dimity’s basket, which he had carried in his mouth, next to her and barked imperiously. He then tilted forward over one foreleg in a lupine bow.


Sophronia and Monique curtsied politely, and Dimity nodded from her seated position. Then he was away, jumping down to the moor below.


“Isn’t he joining us?” Sophronia was confused.


“Oh, he doesn’t live at the school. He’s a werewolf. They don’t float. Didn’t you know?”


Sophronia, who did not know, felt unjustly chastised. And also strangely bereft. Now that she knew what Captain Niall had been hiding with his bare feet and oddities of dress, she rather liked the man. He might have made for an ally of sorts.


Still, she had Dimity.


As if in reply to this thought, Dimity grinned at her. “I’m glad you’re with me. I was so nervous about coming in alone. Everyone will know one another already.”


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