ENEMIES IN THE ROSES
Vieve was waiting for Sophronia behind the Nib and Crinkle as arranged. She smelled as though she had managed to persuade the proprietor to serve her a pint—and then gone swimming in it.
“Really, Vieve, ale?”
“It’s the kind of thing a boy would do. I spilled most of it intentionally, caused a fuss, and got myself booted out. Now if Bunson’s discovers I’m out, they have a story about where I’ve been.”
“All that for little old me?”
Vieve winked at her. “Never say I don’t care, green eyes.”
Sophronia laughed. Clearly Vieve was also working on how to flirt like a boy. Following in the footsteps of Pistons, was she? “Vieve, you’re turning into a rake.”
“Do you really think so? Topping.”
Bumbersnoot chose that moment to shoot a bit of smoke out his ears, flapping the leather in greeting. He didn’t like being ignored. Sophronia had him flung over her neck and one arm for transport. He was still wearing the frilly lace reticule disguise they’d devised for the ball.
Vieve’s attention was diverted. “There you are, my beautiful boy.”
Much as she adored Bumbersnoot, Sophronia would never describe him as beautiful. Vieve, however, possessed an indescribable love for technology. She saw Bumbersnoot not for his dented and rusty carapace, his patchwork metal bits, or his mismatched leather ear flaps, but for the work of mechanical genius beneath all that. Inside, Bumbersnoot had a high-grade aether-tapping miniature boiler and a steam-processing mechanism so sophisticated the rest of Europe still hadn’t discovered the technology. Vieve loved him for the cranks and valves that made him move with realistic smoothness and for the cyclical protocols and punch commands that told him how and where to go. She appreciated the two ways he could swallow—into storage or into his boiler. Vieve saw Bumbersnoot for what he really was—a technological masterpiece. She’d had the care of him ever since he came into Sophronia’s possession. While they both knew mechanimals were a Picklemen product, Bumbersnoot had never yet led them astray.
Vieve set the mechanimal reverently on the ground and popped him open to check his internal workings.
Sophronia let her tinker in silence. They were secluded near the pub behind some large rosebushes. A good spot, for it afforded them a decent view of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, anchored outside of town. The massive dirigible bobbed quietly. It was low to the ground, fortunately for Sophronia. She’d be able to get back on board using the sooties’ rope ladder.
“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.”
“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?”
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.”