Sophronia scrambled to see if she made it.
But the duke was on her, his hands around her throat. “Give me that parachute, young lady.”
The Chutney struggled to his feet, nose bloodied by Monique’s heel. He heard those words and then he, too, closed in, eyes desperately fixed on Sophronia’s back.
One thing at a time, thought Sophronia. She heaved hard, trying to shake the duke from her throat. She’d dropped her fan. She hadn’t any more explosives. Her nails scored at the duke’s wrist.
He was yelling and punctuating each word with a shake. “You. Are. Not. Permitted. To. Marry. My. Son!”
If Sophronia hadn’t been struggling to breathe, she would have disabused him of the notion. The very idea!
Then the Chutney was on her as well.
The men were fighting her but also fighting each other.
“It’s my parachute,” yelled the duke.
“Come now, Golborne.” The Chutney sounded cool and reasonable. “I outrank you. Think of the good of the Picklemen. By rights the chute belongs to me.” He shoved at the duke’s face with one hand while with his other he tried to rip the pack from Sophronia’s back.
The ship lurched.
Any moment now, thought Sophronia, the gas below us will ignite. She had no idea how fierce an explosion that would be, or how it might affect the decks above and below. But now that Monique had provided her a means to escape, she actually wanted to live.
Her original plan had been to run to the midship and ride out the crash there, it being the least damaged part of the school. The whole point was that they crash down on the belly of that section, on top of the hold full of mechanimals, destroying their ability to function, but keeping them in one place for the authorities to find as proof of the Pickleman plot.
But right now, the parachute felt like a much better idea.
Sophronia twisted around and got a look up into the sky, or rather down toward the ground. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it certainly looked like the lights were getting closer. They were falling faster than they had been.
Then there came an animal scream. Like nothing Sophronia had ever heard before, human but not. Not werewolf, either.
Something hit the Chutney full force and landed atop him, carrying him backward.
Professor Braithwope’s lips were stretched wide, his fangs impossibly long. His mouth seemed to split his head in two—a black maw slashed with sharp pointed death. Above it the mustache was all spiky menace.
The Chutney screamed, “You can’t! You can’t! We haven’t been introduced!” But the vampire was beyond introductions. He bit down on the man’s fat neck and began to suck.
Sophronia had only a brief moment to take this in, as the duke was still on her, trying to get one arm around her neck while the other tore at the pack on her back.
Not that I want you up against a strangler, ladies, Lady Linette’s voice said in her head, but remember one thing—if they are very earnest in their concentration, they forget to protect elsewhere.
Sophronia wasn’t wearing skirts. She kicked back, not at his gentleman’s area, but hard to the inside of the man’s knee. An unexpected strike toward a questionable choice of leg wear—yellow hose indeed!
He cried out in pain and his hold loosened.
Sophronia turned in his grasp so they were face-to-face. She scraped with her good hand, trying to claw out his eyes, but she couldn’t get her arm up far enough. The most she got was an ear, which she yanked as hard as she could. Desperately, her bad hand searched her pockets for something, anything, a weapon, a… small bottle.
Almost of its own accord, her hand remembered what her brain did not, the execution of the fan and sprinkle maneuver. With her thumb she popped open the lid of her perfume container, specially designed by Vieve to be opened one-handed. She dashed the contents into the duke’s face. The world smelled briefly of grain alcohol and lemon. The duke squealed, piglike, and let her go, more, she thought, in surprise than in pain.
Sophronia took several quick steps away, leapt over the railing of the squeak deck, and launched herself, as if she were diving into a lake, out into the star-studded night. Well, to be less poetic and strictly truthful, it was a damp, misty night, full of smoke and the sparks of a dying dirigible.
She cleared the widest point of the airship, barely. She had jumped overboard at a point between balconies. A little to either side, and she would have landed with a splat instead of free-falling. It was not a graceful dive, more a frantic tumble. Thus, she was facing up when the whole forward section of the school exploded into flames—billowing orange gas and fire. The brightness of it lit up the sky, illuminating the carnage that had once been a friendly caterpillar-like dirigible.
Two balloons gamely tried to hold up the wreckage. In fact, as half the ship dropped away, the lighter burden caused what remained to bob upward. Until one of the balloons caught fire, flames licking at the oiled material.
Sophronia became occupied with her own problems, grabbing desperately for the deployment ribbon for the parachute. I probably should have held it when I jumped, like Monique.
The lights of the city below her were getting dangerously close. Sophronia finally found the ribbon and pulled. Something whuffed out behind her, and a moment later she jerked. Her bad shoulder screamed in pain, but she caught wind and was drifting instead of falling, like dandelion fluff upon a breeze.
She landed in someone’s backyard in the outskirts of London.
Sophronia was not ashamed to admit that she positively flopped. She sprawled back onto a damp patch of earth, among what once had been, before she landed on it, a vegetable box full of Brussels sprouts. She lay on her back watching the carnage she had wrought flash in the sky above her and smelled the cabbage-fart scent of fresh Brussels sprouts. All her brain could contemplate was the fact that, of all vegetables, she was rather fond of sprouts.
IN WHICH WE ARE ALL FINALLY FINISHED
When the school exploded above London that night in early January of 1854, there were fewer witnesses than there might ordinarily have been. Many were occupied with a mass mechanical shutdown. Those who did see, dismissed it as one more eccentricity in a very eccentric night. Few knew what it was that died. Those who did, set out to find where the school landed when it fell from the sky.
The werewolves got there first. By the time the others arrived, they’d snuffled through the wreckage and extracted Picklemen and flywaymen—some already tied up, some bloodied, some bashed, some burned. All were annoyed with life, except, of course, those who were dead. The werewolves stacked them neatly in three piles—dead, not dead, and snack-sized.
Conveniently, one of the dead Picklemen had turned ghost and proved willing to cooperate. After all, he had nothing left to lose. After the werewolves found a vast number of illegal mechanimals, the ghost explained the whole invasion plan. The werewolves sent off for the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, various government representatives, the Staking Constabulary, and all manner of other authorities who might be spared from one mechanical crisis to see about another.
Soap was there. A wolf none of the others knew, a loner unwilling to fraternize with a pack. He hunted long after the others had stopped. His nose, although miraculous in its abilities, couldn’t find the one scent it was looking for. The scent that lingered with him even when she wasn’t near. So his hope turned to fear.