Quick as the vampire had dashed in, he dashed out again.
Sophronia grabbed Dimity by the hand and nipped behind a tipped-over tea table. While the others obediently grouped by age, they made for the nearest door. Sophronia turned in the doorway and, pretending to breathe hard, dashed toward Professor Lefoux, dragging Dimity behind.
“Have you seen Professor Braithwope?” she gasped.
Professor Lefoux glared at them. “He was just here, but now he’s gone again. Wasn’t he your responsibility?”
Dimity fell in with the story easily. “There was all sorts of chaos, and then he grabbed up this tiny crossbow and ran off.”
“We couldn’t possibly hold him. He’s too fast and strong.” Sophronia padded the lie further.
“I hardly think that would stop you, Miss Temminnick.” Professor Lefoux was not playing along.
“You didn’t give us permission to use force. Certainly not on a teacher.” Sophronia made her face as blank as possible.
Professor Lefoux shot them a suspicious look. “Why are you dressed like that?”
Dimity was ready. “My idea. Even if we were only going to see the professor, we wanted to look our best. It’s New Year’s Eve, after all.”
Lady Linette came up, tutting. “We should never have put students in charge of a teacher. If we had known this would happen… Ah, well, can’t worry over spilled tea. Where is the good vampire?”
“That’s what I asked.” Sophronia’s tone implied that this was a most sensible question.
Professor Lefoux snorted. “He was here and then nipped off, with our sighting bolts, mind you. Could have used those half an hour ago. I had best go after him.”
Lady Linette countermanded her. “No, he’ll be fine. The ship is grounded and he can’t very well stray. We are taking all possible victims with us. I need you to help with the students. Your drone duties will have to wait.”
Professor Lefoux looked more annoyed at being told what to do than being denied the opportunity to check up on her master. Sophronia supposed being drone to an insane vampire was a bit different from being drone to a regular-type vampire.
“What about us?” she asked.
“You are absolved of your responsibility with regard to Professor Braithwope. Line up with the others to disembark. We’re away until I’m certain all the leaks have been dealt with. Is that understood?”
Sophronia and Dimity curtsied.
A thought occurred to Sophronia. “Wait—Lady Linette?”
“What is it, Miss Temminnick? I have an evacuation to conduct.”
“What about the sooties?”
Lady Linette arched one brow. “Concern for the lower orders? How terribly civic-minded of you, Miss Temminnick.”
“Who do you think is responsible for fixing those gas leaks?”
Sophronia clamped down an immediate protest. Of course, sooties always got the dangerous tasks. The last time a cannon tore through one of the balloons, it had been sooties who climbed to repaired the damage. Gas leaks, by comparison, were easier dealt with—so long as they took care not to spark.
“And what about the danger to the sooties from Professor Braithwope?”
“You should have thought of that before you let him free, now, shouldn’t you? I’ve no time to worry about the grubby necks of the working class. Do as you are instructed.”
Despite Lady Linette’s dismissive sneer, not to mention her own upbringing, Sophronia considered many of those grubby boys her friends. Soap adored them all. If they got hurt, he would never forgive her. That reminded her of Soap.
Suddenly, she wasn’t so upset about being evacuated to Bunson’s. She could warn Vieve that the Picklemen knew about Soap, perhaps even stop whatever evil they had planned for him. Although half of her still wanted to stay and protect the sooties.
“There isn’t enough of me to go around,” she muttered, climbing after the other students.
So it was that the tea party attendees—still in fancy dress—as well as the human staff and a handful of the off-shift greasers and engineers found themselves walking across a moor. The night was clear and the moon so near to full that, despite the cold, it looked to be a pleasant hike. One could easily pretend the lump of a tor off to the left was picturesque. Privately, Sophronia always thought tors looked like cow pats. Young men offered young ladies their arms. Bunson’s teachers offered Geraldine’s theirs. All was amicable.
Mademoiselle Geraldine stayed on board. She was still a little tipsy. Sophronia hung back in hopes of catching a roving sootie. If she could get a message to Handle about the fact that there were loose Pickleman intelligencers—not to mention a loose vampire—on board she’d feel much better about the whole situation.
She overheard the headmistress’s brief exchange with Sister Mattie.
“No, dear, no. You know I never leave the ship. I shall be perfectly topping here. I will avoid open flame, and roving fang, and finish the bubbly. Don’t concern yourself on my account. I’ll see you in the morning. Enjoy your midnight jaunt.” She belched quietly.
“Oh, really,” said Sister Mattie. “Just be careful?”
“Oh, my dear, what could possibly go wrong?”
Sophronia was never more sensitive to the headmistress’s ignorance than at that juncture. It felt horrible, leaving the school without any protection. All the fallen dirigible had now was a headmistress who knew nothing, a crazy vampire who knew a whole lot but couldn’t remember any of it, and a handful of sooties.
“Lady Linette.” Sophronia wove her way through the long line of strolling couples to her teacher. Preshea had found herself a tall moon-faced lad who looking nothing short of stunned at his good fortune. Poor chap. She exchanged a brief glance with the deadly brunette, and then left her to her work.
“Permission to speak freely?” Sophronia had once heard a soldier use that phrase.
“At a school for spies, Miss Temminnick? Surely you jest.” Lady Linette stared at her, unblinking. They were of a height, for Lady Linette still wore her heeled slippers.
Sophronia was impressed—only Lady Linette would hike across the moor in Paris kid shoes with a military lift. She looked meaningfully at Lady Linette’s escort, the oldest and most severe of the Bunson’s teachers.
Lady Linette sighed. “Excuse me a moment, Professor Faldetta? I’m certain you understand. She’s one of those students. You must have those?”
“Say no more, dear lady. Say no more.”
Sophronia and Lady Linette moved away, out of everyone’s hearing.
“I wish to stay with the ship.” Sophronia almost shocked herself with the statement. My goodness, she thought, I am growing up. Either that or I’m learning the value of putting in the appearance of playing by the rules.
“What did you just say?”
“I’ve no intention of actually going aboard, and I shall certainly stay away from any possible explosion. It’s only that I don’t feel right about leaving the professor unguarded.”
“He has Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
“She’s partaken rather freely of the champagne.” Quite apart from her being a figurehead and incompetent.