“Everything looks in order.” Vieve drew Sophronia’s attention back to Bumbersnoot. “What was it you wanted adjusted?”

Sophronia tossed Vieve a small object. It was a faceted crystal valve, almost like cut glass with metal components embedded within. It was awfully familiar looking to those who knew the style.

Vieve knew it. “One of the newest crystalline valve frequensors. Where’d you get it?”

“You heard about my train misappropriation last winter?”

“I heard you eliminated a shipload of these pretties. Terrible waste.”

“Let’s say one of them came into my possession. Only, this one is special.”

“How so?”

“It’s the one the vampires were using to track the Picklemen. Bumbersnoot and Dimity smuggled it out.”

“You think it’s somehow tracing the other valves?”

“The vampires would have triggered this valve to react to the activation of the new ones. Could you hook this into Bumbersnoot? I know he’s only a mechanimal, so he wouldn’t be able to react exactly as ordered to whatever new protocol the Picklemen transmit. But if we could get him to do that steam whistle alarm he makes in times of crisis?”

Vieve followed her reasoning. “You want him to be the canary in the coal mine? Alert you when the Picklemen make their move?”

“I do.”

Vieve grinned. “Brilliant idea. It’s large for such a little beastie. I’ll have to install it in his storage compartment. You’ll lose half that capacity. Hooking it in so it activates his alarm, when I’m not sure…” She rubbed the side of her nose in thought, smearing it with grease. “Plus, not knowing precisely what the Picklemen intend the valve to trigger…” Vieve had a habit of leaving her sentences unfinished in times of contemplation. “Well, it’s a unique idea, I’ll give you that much.”

She looked intrigued enough to take on the assignment. That was the thing with Vieve, she wouldn’t do it if she didn’t think it a challenge. Sophronia had once asked her to construct a bladed fan. Vieve had scoffed at the very idea. “It’s already been done. Why would I bother?”

But this, this was something new and subversive.

“It’s going to take time. I’ll need to keep him with me.” Vieve stood, decided.

“Of course. How long do you need?”

Vieve frowned. “A week. Will that work?”

“Perfect timing if you can make it. The school should be back at Swiffle for the holiday break. Meet you here the night we come in? Midnight? You’ll have to keep an eye to the moor, for the airship.”

“I always do. If I don’t make the deadline, I’ll send him to the sooties while the school is in port. They’ll pass him along to you after Christmas.”

Sophronia nodded. “You aren’t going home?”

“Can’t go to my aunt, since she stays on board with Professor Braithwope, and I’ve no other family. Honestly, I like having Bunson’s to myself. No one tries to stop me using the expensive equipment. I may visit the sooties if I have time.”

“They send their regards, by the way.”

Vieve smiled wistfully. “Of course they do.” Her small face fell, dimples vanishing. “I miss Soap.”

Sophronia could feel her own face shuttering closed. “Me, too.” She quickly changed the subject. “Anything else you neglected to tell me about the Picklemen?”

Vieve considered the question, pocketing the valve and slinging Bumbersnoot over her shoulder by his reticule strap. “Four of them. Lower down the ranks—I’d suspect merely Spicers. Younger. Saw them leaving Bunson’s, on foot, just before I did.”

Sophronia frowned. “What did they want?”

“That’s your business to find out, no? I’d best get back.”

“Thank you, Vieve.”

Vieve gave her a mocking little bow. “Pleasure is all mine, as always.”

Sophronia watched her friend stride confidently back toward Bunson’s. Then she left the seclusion of the rosebushes to shadow the goat path, rather than walk down the middle of it. Too visible from the air. As a result, she almost ran into Monique, who was standing in the dark under a holly tree, binoculars to her eyes, watching the front half of the school.

Sophronia froze, terrified that she would step on some loud twig and give herself away. She’d been intent on not being seen. She should also have been thinking about not being heard.

If Monique had heard her, she gave no sign.

Sophronia crouched down slowly, shifting so she was on the other side of the tree. She watched, trying to determine what the blonde was staring at. Sophronia never went anywhere without the standard Geraldine’s armament: sewing scissors, handkerchief, perfume, lemon, hair ribbon, and red lace doily. She also carried her own special items: hurlie, obstructor, fake mustache, tea sachet, and chatelaine, from which hung her carnet de bal, a Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification, and a velvet pouch containing a small pork pie. Unfortunately, this vast collection did not include binoculars. She pulled up her lens. It was better for examining details and setting things on fire, but could be peered through over distances if one had no other option.

Something was going on at the pilot’s bubble.

Sophronia squinted, wishing the moon were fuller and the mists not quite so low. Shadows, three of them, climbed toward the base of the scaffolding that held the bubble up and away from the front decks of the dirigible. Shadows wearing top hats.

Picklemen were breaking into her school! They were scaling the outside by stages, using grappling hooks not unlike Sophronia’s hurlie. They were positioned in such a way as to be entirely out of view from the teachers’ balconies. What in all aether do they want with the pilot’s bubble? Sophronia was one of the few students who’d been inside it. It was a mess of gears, coils, valves, and cables. It contained nothing particularly worth stealing. Certainly not for the Picklemen, who were generally wealthy in all that mattered: property, technology, and consequence.

Why take such a risk? Mademoiselle Geraldine’s was the nest of the enemy. It was one of the few institutions that not only knew all about the Picklemen’s secret society but opposed them, and had the spy network to do so properly. Yet this was obviously a well-planned penetration. They would have had to see schematics of the airship to know that an approach from down low and in small numbers was most likely to succeed. Sophronia could not help but admire the operation.

“No proximity alarm?” Monique muttered to herself.

Sophronia was wondering the same thing. The pilot’s bubble had extra protections. How had the Picklemen disabled the school’s soldier mechanicals? Did they have an obstructor? They made mechanicals. She wouldn’t put it past them to have the means to turn them off. She wouldn’t put it past Vieve to have sold the technology to the highest bidder, either. They must be doing something, for the school remained slumbering and silent.

Then Sophronia remembered—the alarms around the bubble had been disabled. Something to do with Professor Braithwope continually setting them off. He’d had a fascination with walking the top stabilizer beam out to the bubble—or dancing along it—ever since his fall and tether snap. It was one of his more consistent symptoms of separation insanity.

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