“Did I? How curious of me. Yes, drop of blood would be nice right about now. You offering, pretty lady? Or, um, is it lad?”
“No.” Sophronia’s tone was flat, and she tilted her head at Mademoiselle Geraldine.
“Oh, me, neither, Professor, but we do have some gentlemen in mind for your breakfast. If you’d like to follow me. There may be a bit of tightrope walking involved, but I’m sure you aren’t averse.”
“Whot? Tightrope, you say? How lovely. Used to be quite the carnival artist in my day, did you know that?”
“Yes indeed, Professor. That’s why you came on board my school, remember? The only vampire to tether the skies. Said you liked heights too much to stick to the ground and you’d take the risk.”
“Did I? Well, there you have it.” He trotted after Mademoiselle Geraldine.
Sophronia left the room with no little reluctance. It had felt like sanctuary for that one day. Even if the safe feeling was false, she had enjoyed it. She could not deny her love of adventure, not after the last few years, but right now she almost understood Pillover’s reluctance. Nevertheless, she had a ship to save and possibly a nation. She shifted the wicker chicken on her back and checked that Bumbersnoot was dangling over her shoulder. He wagged his tail at her.
They were off.
Over halfway to London, thought Sophronia. The small town far below had gas streetlamps. She couldn’t tell exactly where they were—possibly near Salisbury—but they were definitely making good time. They were now floating over increasingly populated areas.
Sophronia imagined reports in the local papers concerning a massive chubby dirigible spotted in the skies. Was the government spying on them? Or was it an invading enemy? The papers could get hysterical about such a thing.
She was surprised that they hadn’t yet come under investigation by local authorities. Surely some of the wealthier districts kept their own investigative dirigibles for use by the constabulary? Or perhaps they had approached and the Picklemen had eliminated them.
Mademoiselle Geraldine and Professor Braithwope had disappeared to see about the pilot’s bubble. After that, they would take out the two gunmen on the squeak decks. Sophronia had suggested Mademoiselle Geraldine get herself a gun first. The headmistress had muttered something mysterious about visiting her chambers and not needing a gun after that. Sophronia let her be mysterious—she had a dining hall to liberate.
She approached it with caution, heading for one of the side entrances. As hoped, the Picklemen inside were nervously running about, wondering why their men were missing. Accusations were being hurled back and forth in loud voices.
Sophronia let the door open wide enough for her observe as much as possible. This allowed her to learn something of the Pickleman plot. They did intend to use the pilot’s bubble to control all the mechanicals in London. There was something about the way Mademoiselle Geraldine’s pilot mechanical was designed that allowed it to transmit to multiple mechanicals at once. Or more precisely, transmit to all those fitted with the new valve. That makes sense, thought Sophronia. After all, the school boasts a huge number of mechanized staff that always work in consort without crashing. There was some feeling that if the ship were high enough, near the aether, the Picklemen might even be able to extend the reach to the whole of Southern England. The Chutney found this idea very exciting.
When the flow of men became concentrated around the high table, bent over some kind of chart, the flywaymen nearby craning their necks to see, Sophronia took a breath and entered the room. She clutched the wicker chicken to her chest, one hand on the trigger.
No one noticed her for what felt like a long time, although it could only have been a minute or two. Then again, she did look like a boy, so she didn’t stand out as much as she might have ordinarily. She’d used some of Bumbersnoot’s coal reserves to smudge up her face. They might think, at first, she was an escaped sootie.
Madame Spetuna was the first to notice Sophronia. In that first flash of recognition Sophronia realized she had maligned the woman in thinking she would betray the school. Madame Spetuna looked horrified to see her and made a frantic hand motion for Sophronia to get out.
Sophronia pointed at the chicken and mouthed explodes, making a bursting gesture with her free hand.
Madame Spetuna’s eyebrows rose up, and she made a quick toss motion and pointed to herself. She clearly wanted to be in charge of the chicken.
Sophronia was frozen by indecision. It was awfully tempting to give up the responsibility to an experienced intelligencer. Then again, the chicken was her burden. But Madame Spetuna would know better how it should be deployed.
While she tried to decide what to do, Madame Spetuna turned and said something that drew everyone’s attention. It was a bold move, designed to protect Sophronia and keep her unnoticed that much longer.
Sophronia was charmed, but wished she hadn’t bothered. Because in that moment she saw suspicion suffuse the Chutney’s face.
“I always thought it silly to have a female on board with us. After all, any woman could be working for the enemy.”
“Now, now,” said the head flywayman, “I vouched for her.”
“And your cooperation was predicated on us allowing her aboard. And yet my men have been going missing. The prisoners have not been recovered. We have a traitor in our midst.”
Oh, no, thought Sophronia. They are blaming her for my actions.
Madame Spetuna spat in disgust. “And you pick me because I am a woman? I’ve hardly left this room. How would I accomplish this miraculous interference?”
“But you have left the room a few times, to use the facilities, you claim. I find it interesting that Spice Administrator Bawkin disappeared after we sent him to the record room. As if someone on board had something to hide that school records might reveal. The only possible person… is you.”
Madame Spetuna turned to her lover for aid, but even the head flywayman was looking at her distrustfully now.
“It would be exactly like this place to put their best agent in our midst. And you would have to be one of their best.”
Madame Spetuna made no further protestations.
Sophronia realized that she was trying to take the blame, so that she, Sophronia, would remain safe. She wished they’d had time to consult, but decided she would honor the woman’s wishes. In the end, Madame Spetuna knew more of what was going on than she did. Clearly, this inside intelligencer thought it more important for Sophronia to remain an unknown element and to destroy the center of the Pickleman operation herself. Sophronia put the wicker chicken down, tucked it against the wall with her foot, and slipped back out the door before anyone could see her. Then, fast as she could, she climbed outside to one of the upper portholes so she could see what transpired next.
The Chutney was saying something curt, issuing an order. Then he signaled his two bully boys and a runner to follow and strode from the room. This left Madame Spetuna with the gangly Pickleman, one runner, and five flywaymen. Several of the flywaymen closed in on her.
Madame Spetuna leapt away, managing to evade capture long enough to scoop up the wicker chicken.
With a manic look in her eye, she waited, clutching it to her chest, while the men closed in on her. Sophronia, horrified, realized that the intelligencer intended to sacrifice herself!
The chicken exploded.