“Pity.” The vampire returned focus to his knitting. “I’m not hungry for either, whot.”
The boys looked a treat. There wasn’t much leeway in the dress of a young man attending a tea party, so they were of a set. A few had gone to the pink, peaking up their collars and donning very tight and very loud plaid trousers and impossibly enormous cravats. These stood out among the rest like peacocks among the chickens. After all, Bunson’s was a school for evil geniuses, and scientists weren’t encouraged to experiment with fashion, only weaponry.
The boys having boarded and the staircase retracted, the school rose slightly. It wasn’t going to drift off for an hour yet, in case there were stragglers. With nothing left to see and the night turning chilly, Sophronia and Dimity prepared to chivvy the vampire indoors. It had taken them an age to get him outside in the first place, so they were ready for a battle.
“Come along, Professor, do,” wheedled Dimity.
The vampire jerked to his feet, head cocked. He sniffed. “Broiled monkey.”
“Later, Professor.” Sophronia opened the door for him.
A cough at their feet interrupted the coaxing.
Dimity squeaked as a small soot-covered face appeared by their toes. A sootie had climbed up to the bottom edge of the balcony and was peering at them through the rails.
Professor Braithwope looked down, his mustache quivering like a hound scenting the fox. “And this one comes to the table burned and dirty? I think not. Fire the cook! What terrible presentation. Send it away and demand another, whot.” With which he drifted sedately into his chambers.
Dimity assumed—quite rightly—that any lowbrow visitor must be for Sophronia. So she merely gave her friend a telling look, snatched up the vampire’s knitting, and followed him inside.
“Yes, Handle?” Bumbersnoot tottered over to join Sophronia in looking down at their visitor. The little mechanimal seemed thrilled—rarely was anyone at his level. Perils of being a sausage dog, mechanical or no.
The sootie grinned up at Sophronia. “You look mighty fine this evening, miss. Mighty fine, indeed.”
Sophronia clutched her shawl to her bosom, realizing it was horribly visible when she bent forward to talk. “Thank you kindly.”
“You got yourself a visitor groundside. Old friend. Says he made the trip special and you might want to hurry.”
Sophronia nodded. “Drift-off is in an hour?”
“That’s orders, miss, as they stand now. You know the Uptops—could change at any moment, and we can’t hold the ship for you. Not even in that dress.”
“You wearing your sproingy?”
Sophronia fished her hurlie out of Bumbersnoot. There was just enough room to stash it and the obstructor inside him, what with Vieve’s modifications. She couldn’t wear them outright, they clashed with her dress. She strapped her hurlie on and considered the obstructor.
“Will this take long, do you think?”
“That’s rather up to you and the visitor, miss.”
“It had better not. I’m not dressed for this. You’ll have to provide an assist? Up for it?”
“Of course, miss. My pleasure.” No doubt he was thrilled by the opportunity to look down her dress the entire time. Why did I listen to Dimity?
Sophronia hooked the hurlie grapple on the edge of the balcony, hiked up her skirts—much to the sootie’s delight—and climbed over the railing to drop next to him. She looked down to the ground directly below, and there, indeed, was a familiar figure, waiting patiently.
Her skin prickled in a much less fear-driven manner.
She kicked herself off to swing down and then in to catch a lower balcony. Handle unstrapped her hurlie from Professor Braithwope’s balcony and dropped it to her. It was always easier to go up the outside of an airship. Usually, for down, Sophronia utilized stairs and hallways inside, but with help, this method was fastest.
She hooked and dropped again. Then had to wait while Handle climbed down and unhooked her. He had no hurlie, so his descent was all skill. Sophronia though he ought to be teaching the young ladies of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s lessons on climbing. Then again, climbing was part of his job. In addition to feeding the boilers, it was sooties who ran the rigging and repaired the outside of the balloons.
She dropped to the lowest balcony, the level above engineering, and tried to estimate the remaining distance to the ground. Should be fine.
One last unhook, reel in, and hook again, and she dropped the final length. She dangled about one story up, but considering who was waiting for her, she figured he could give her a lift back when she needed it.
“Catch!” Sophronia unstrapped the hurlie from her wrist and let go, falling the remainder of the distance.
She landed in his arms, easy for a supernatural creature to catch someone her size. The poufy skirts added cushioning.
Dimity’s head poked out over the balcony edge far above.
“Oh, really!” her friend yelled. “I leave you for five minutes to have a conversation and this happens? You are certifiably impossible.” Her eyes widened as she took in Sophronia’s position, wrapped in a gentleman’s arms. “And a strumpet!”
“You chose this dress,” Sophronia objected.
“Bunter!” said Dimity.
“I’ll be quick, I promise.” Sophronia was not worried about being overheard, as everyone was now inside at tea.
“Yes, I understand that’s part of the strumpet’s profession.” Even Dimity could be crass on occasion.
Sophronia tried not to laugh. “Just keep him knitting!”
“Thank you for your sage advice.” Dimity snorted loudly enough for Sophronia to hear, even on the ground. Or perhaps she imagined it, because she knew Dimity would snort.
Sophronia turned in Soap’s arms to look shyly up into his dark eyes. “You can put me down now.”
“No.” His smile was wide and his teeth were still startlingly white, but immortality had given them points where most humans had none.
Sophronia had always loved Soap’s smile, but now it was more predatory than comforting. Fortunately, the twinkle in his eyes was the same.
Soap pretended to consider her request and finally set her gently on her feet.
Sophronia took a moment to put herself in order, touching her hair and untucking and smoothing down her skirts.
Soap’s eyes widened into saucers at the cut of her gown. She swore she could hear his breath hitch. It was ridiculously satisfying. Then, annoyed with herself and the dress, she wrapped the shawl tightly ’round her chest. I’m supposed to be putting a stop to Soap’s romantic notions, not be charmed that he finds me attractive.
Caught up in reprimanding herself, she gave a startled squeak as he snatched her up into his arms once more, unbalancing and kissing her. No hesitation, no tentative touches, a full deep hungry kiss. It left her breathless and discombobulated, and even angrier at the dress.
“Soap, we really shouldn’t.” Sophronia pushed herself away.
Soap was panting a little. She was secretly delighted to find that he was just as affected as she. It would be horrible to be the only one.
“I thought, after what happened when I died, that you loved me.”
Sophronia winced and looked down at her hands. How to say anything to that without lies or heartbreak?