Etiquette & Espionage / Page 9

Page 9

“Well,” said the headmistress to Lady Linette, watching Sophronia eat with ill-disguised horror, “we have our work cut out for us.”

“Indeed we do.”

Sophronia stopped chewing long enough to ask the one question that was still really bothering her. “What was the prototype of?”

Mademoiselle Geraldine looked deeply confused. “Prototype? Linette, what is the child talking about?”

Lady Linette gave Sophronia a fierce look, and then covered it up by toying with a curl. “I have no idea, Geraldine, no idea at all. You know these modern girls—they will have their little joke.”

Oh, dear, thought Sophronia, I might be failing Lady Linette’s discernment and discretion mandate already. Exactly how much am I suposed to be concealing from the headmistress?

“Ah, Linette, sometimes I feel as though I know nothing of what is going on with young persons these days. They seem to talk in cipher. Don’t you find?”

“Indubitably, Geraldine.”

Sophronia, for lack of any other option, gave a huge, guileless smile and stuffed her face with more tea cake.

A knock came at the door. It swung open, and Professor Braithwope’s unstable mustache, followed by its unassuming owner, trotted in.

“Do pardon me, ladies, but Lady Linette, something musically related has come up. It requires your immediate attention.”

Lady Linette stood. “You’d better come with me, Miss Temminnick.”

Sophronia grabbed a handful of finger sandwiches. “Thank you for the tea, Headmistress. It was most illuminating.”

“Very prettily said, my dear. At least we know we won’t have any trouble with your elocution. No, dear, don’t curtsy. I couldn’t bear it—not twice in one night.” With that, the headmistress turned back to her tea. Sophronia surmised that they had been dismissed.

Lady Linette hustled her and Professor Braithwope out into the corridor. “What could possibly be so important, Professor?”

“The aetheric long-scan monocular sensors are picking something up. Possibly adversaries.”

Sophronia said, “She doesn’t know, does she?”

“Who doesn’t know what?” Lady Linette’s attention swiveled.

Discernment and discretion, indeed! “The headmistress doesn’t know what’s really going on here.”

“Oh, and what is that?”

“I haven’t quite figured out the particulars myself, but you’re keeping her in the dark intentionally, aren’t you?”

“No, dear, you’re keeping her in the dark intentionally. You students. It’s part of the training.”

“You’re keeping me in the dark, too. Am I supposed to figure something out? Is this a test?”

“Lady Linette,” interrupted the professor, “we really haven’t the time.”

“Oh, yes, lead on, do. To the squeak deck.”


“I suppose you’d better follow, Miss Temminnick. Can’t have you gallivanting about the tassel section on your own. The mechanicals are already overwrought.”

They moved through a series of corridors. Professor Braithwope led the way with a kind of controlled speed that hinted at a truly heightened fitness level under those fancy clothes—he must be a sportsman. Cricket, perhaps? Exiting onto one of the observation decks, he veered off and felt around the back of a railing. There must have been a lever hidden there, for a secret door snapped down, revealing a set of stairs. The three of them climbed up. These stairs were not lit by gas, and there were no windows. It was only the regularity of the steps that kept Sophronia from stumbling.

Eventually, they emerged out onto one of the very top decks, directly under one of the three colossal balloons. This deck was a full circle, stretching from one side of the ship to the other. It was like being on a rooftop. Looking down over one of the railings, Sophronia could see various other sets of decks bulging out, like enormous semicircular steps leading down into cloudy nothingness. Looking across, she could see there were two other decks just like hers, one under each of the other two massive balloons. Out the far back of the ship was a crow’s nest, raised up to be almost touching the underside of the last balloon. Turning about, she saw that at the front, near them, was another crow’s nest. This one was enclosed. It looked like a bathtub overturned on top of another bathtub. There was no apparent means of access, as the only thing holding it up was a set of struts and one long beam.

She pointed. “What’s that?”

“Pilot’s bubble,” Lady Linette answered from behind one of the several telescopes that dotted the edge of the deck.

Professor Braithwope merely stood, squinting, into the night sky. His mustache quivered, due either to the slight breeze or to agitation—it was difficult to tell which.

“How does it land?” Sophronia wanted to know.

“What?” Lady Linette was distracted.

“The school, how does it land?”

“It doesn’t, dear. Not all the way. Mostly, we drift,” replied Lady Linette.

“Then why do you need a pilot?”

Professor Braithwope turned piercing eyes upon her. “You ask a lot of questions, little bite.”

“Well, Professor, sir, you are providing me with a number of curiosities.”

He returned to scanning the skies. Suddenly he pointed. “There!”

Lady Linette swiveled her telescope around, following his pointing finger. “Ah, yes, I see. Oh, dear. Flywaymen.”

“A direct attack? I hardly think that likely, whot?”

“Nevertheless, best warn the engine chamber. Have them wake up all the sooties.”

“Of course.” The professor straightened the shoulders of his fine-cut tails, touched the brim of his top hat at the two ladies, and was off. Instead of going down, as Sophronia assumed one would in order to contact an engine room, he did the most extraordinary thing. He ran up the beam to the pilot’s bubble. He did it with perfect balance and complete fearlessness, despite the wind and the ground far below. He did it so quickly, like a spider, that Sophronia wondered if she’d really seen it at all.

“Can he teach me to do that?” she asked Lady Linette.

“I’m afraid not, dear. That is a skill that has taken him more time to master than you have.”

That only caused Sophronia to look militant. I wager he was in the circus. But there was no time to argue, for the professor had already returned. His attention was distracted by a group of six airdinghies heading purposefully in their direction.

Lady Linette said, “Best to sound the alarm.”

Professor Braithwope nodded and did his rapid scuttle over to a small brass box affixed to a railing. He opened this with a key from his waistcoat pocket, reached inside, and toggled something. A loud bell began clanging—a bell that seemed to have sister bells throughout the ship.

Lady Linette said, “When you hear that in future, Miss Temminnick, it means deck access is restricted and all students are to remain stationary and not involve themselves.”

Sophronia didn’t say anything in response to that. In all her fourteen long years, she had never stayed stationary and uninvolved in anything. Nevertheless, she did end up following her new teacher’s orders this once, for the squeak deck became suddenly covered in mechanicals. Sophronia was hard put to find a spot safe from being bumped.

In a synchronized movement, the mechanicals all settled back onto their rear wheels, locking down to the deck with a clunk, and altered themselves. Like the porter at the boy’s school, these had open hatches in their chests, only much bigger ones, so that their whole upper torsos were sliding back. Each hatch ejected the barrel of what appeared to be a small cannon. Then, in one smooth motion, they all swiveled and pointed their little cannons at… Professor Braithwope. Goodness, thought Sophronia, what did he do that was so bad?

“Soldier mechanicals?” asked Sophronia of the air. At which juncture she noticed that the professor had a tiny crossbow in his hands. The bow was armed but pointing harmlessly down at the deck.

“Wait for it, Professor. We are an institution of high learning and higher manners. We simply cannot shoot first;, it isn’t done. Now, remember that, Miss Temminnick, do—a lady never shoots first. She asks questions, then she shoots.”

“Yes, Lady Linette, I’ll remember,” said Sophronia, riveted.

The fleet of airdinghies was now near enough for Sophronia to make out figures in the carrier baskets. They were dressed as their compatriots had been earlier that day, in goggles and riding outfits. There was one odd man out, however. In the airdinghy farthest to the left. Standing at the back, in the manner of an usher at the theater, was a gentleman. Sophronia couldn’t make out his features, but he was dressed in black with a stovepipe hat. His cravat was green, as was the band about his top hat. Despite his upper-crust dress, he remained in the background.

“Why aren’t you firing, Professor Braithwope?” A French-accented and imperious question came from Sophronia’s right. Professor Lefoux appeared out of a nearby hatch, all angles and disapproval.

“No just cause,” explained Lady Linette.

“But those are criminals out there. Flywaymen. We need no other cause.”

“Patience, Beatrice. We must understand what they want of us.”

“We know what they want! They want the prototype!”

“Did you get the location out of Monique?”

“No, she’s closed-lipped, that one. Some of her lessons she learned well.”


“So I punted her down to debut status. We shall see if the boredom of relearning everything with the new girls loosens her tongue.” Sophronia did not like the sound of that. It meant Monique would be in all her classes!

One of the flywaymen hoisted something to the edge of his dinghy.

Professor Braithwope tensed and pointed the crossbow toward the airdinghies.

“Not yet,” said Lady Linette.

The flywaymen’s object made a loud sput and fired. A white mass hurtled toward them and landed with a splat against the side of the deck near Professor Braithwope.

The professor began to cough and fan the front of his face frantically while backing away at the same time. He was wheezing, and his eyes were tearing up.

The ladies, however, did not seem to feel any ill effects. Professor Lefoux approached and bent over to examine the white substance.

“Garlic mash,” she said, without emotion.

“That’s simply petty!” said Lady Linette. “Are you handling the exposure well enough, Professor?”

He sneezed at her.

Professor Lefoux occupied herself with kicking the mashed garlic into a pile and then covering it over with a handkerchief.

Through his wheezing, Professor Braithwope said, “Now can I target them?” His tiny crossbow was up. All the while, the mechanicals’ little cannons remained trained on him. The mechanicals, at least, considered him the greatest threat. Must be the mustache, thought Sophronia.

“No, no. That was only a warning shot, meant to discombobulate.”

“Whot? Warning, you say? Achoo! Well, it worked.” Professor Braithwope rubbed at his eyes with his free hand.

Sophronia watched in fascination as one of the airdinghies hoisted a white flag on the end of a mop and approached even closer. The small airship wafted one direction and then the next, as if confused.

“They want to parley?” Professor Lefoux was incredulous.

“Let them. We shall see what they have to say.”

When the dinghy was only a few lengths away, the flywaymen inside mounted a catapult onto the carrier basket edge and hurled something else at the squeak deck.

It landed with a clatter and rolled across the planks, coming to rest against the base of one of the mechanicals. The object unfurled, revealing that it was also a mechanical, only much smaller than the ones standing guard. It was not human-looking at all, nor any attempt at human-looking. It had four legs—four very short legs—and a small, spiky tail. Steam emanated slightly from its underbelly, and smoke came out from under its leather earflaps. It looked a little like one of those sausage dogs the Germans were so fond of.

“Mechanimal!” yelled Lady Linette. “Everybody hide!”

Sophronia took refuge behind one of the defensive mechanicals, as did the two female teachers. Professor Braithwope did not obey the command. He stood firm. His sneezing subsided and his crossbow remained trained on the airdinghy.

The sausage dog didn’t seem to understand the fear it caused. It trotted hopefully up to Professor Braithwope, mechanical tail wagging back and forth in perfect clockwork rhythm—tick-tock, tick-tock.

Upon reaching the professor, the mechanimal stopped, and then—Sophronia blushed—it squatted down and emitted a tube of glass out its backside.

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