“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.
Nothing for it, thought Sophronia. I must get on board and set off the alarms myself. And quickly, before they steal whatever it is they’re after.
She broke cover and sprinted toward the ship.
Monique gasped. “What?” But whatever Monique’s orders, they didn’t include stopping Sophronia.
The Pickleman guard, on the other hand, was a different story.
Stupid, Sophronia. Vieve had said four Picklemen. Only three were climbing.
He stepped into the path, facing her, pistol drawn and very deadly.
Sophronia froze. After what had happened to Soap and Felix, she was not particularly fond of guns. She thought them quite vulgar. However, she would wager this man didn’t want to fire, as that would awaken the school.
“Running around the moors alone at night, little girl? That’s not safe at all. That’s how little girls get hurt.” He wiggled his heavy gun around almost casually, although keeping it pointed at her.
Sophronia was not impressed by threats. “What are you after?”
“Currently? Stupid little girls.” He moved closer.
Sophronia almost wanted him to get within striking distance. Except there was the gun to consider.
A shot fired. Loud in the silence of the late night, but it wasn’t from him. Instead, the man looked startled and dropped his gun to clutch at his side with both hands. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees.