The three Picklemen were better equipped than she, for they had managed to climb up the scaffolding and were now crawling over the outside of the bubble. One of them appeared to be already inside. The ship’s pilot was a mechanical comprised of a jumble of gears, levers, chains, and valves, many of which were probably valuable. Her only guess was that the Picklemen needed something for which they didn’t hold the patent. Some nefarious part of their scheme to take over England.
There was nothing she could do to stop the invaders. She’d once been stuck inside the pilot’s bubble precisely because of its precarious position jutting out on spindly supports into nothingness.
Where are the teachers? Distracted by something? Did the Picklemen plan for that, too?
The smallest of the three emerged, and they all began to climb down. Sophronia couldn’t see if the man’s satchel was bulging in any recognizable manner. She scuttled out of view, hiding behind a balcony support beam.
She peeked around in time to watch them rappel off the bubble, dropping rapidly, like spiders extending threads. She’d never done anything like this before, but someone had to do something. Not sure of her timing, she hooked her hurlie over a sturdy rail and with a deep breath kicked out off the side and swung out on an interception trajectory.
She was a little off. She didn’t exactly knock into the littlest Pickleman. But she did knock off his hat, which tumbled sadly to the moor below. In their desperate grapple, she also managed to rip the satchel off his back, before swinging back toward the ship. It was all done in a weird silence, because even startled by a flying female, the three men did not yell, intent on getting away as quickly and quietly as possible. They landed on the ground below, unsnapped themselves from their ropes, and took off at breakneck speed down the goat path.
Sophronia was left, dangling, clutching a sack. At which moment, Lady Linette, Professor Lefoux, and Sister Mattie finally emerged onto the front squeak deck. Lady Linette stuck her head over the edge.
“Sophronia Temminnick? Is that you? I might have known. Get up here this minute, young lady.”
Sophronia sighed. “It may take me more than a minute, Lady Linette.”
Sophronia tried to explain what had happened, but they focused on the fact that she had been caught. They thought she was concocting a wild story to explain triggering the alarm. They refused to believe there had been an attack. “We have people in place to warn us of such things,” dismissed Professor Lefoux. They thought she’d been off at Bunson’s trysting with a boy! That was the downside of training intelligencers—it was impossible to tell when they were fibbing.
Of course Sophronia couldn’t defend herself with, “I’ve been climbing around for years without triggering your infernal alarm!” That would only incriminate her further, and they’d likely confiscate her obstructor and her hurlie.
She showed them the satchel she’d managed to grab off the Pickleman.
“How do we know it isn’t yours, young lady?” asked Professor Lefoux.
“But it’s so ugly!” objected Sophronia.
“Exactly, to throw us off.”
“This is ridiculous. Would one of you at least check the pilot’s bubble? See if anything is amiss.”
Lady Linette was firm. “We have wasted enough time on your shenanigans this evening, young lady. To bed with all of us. Tomorrow we will come up with a suitable punishment.”
Sophronia turned to a more sympathetic ear. “Sister Mattie?”
The friendliest of her teachers shook her head. “A ladybug cannot change her spots.”
Lady Linette sighed heavily. “Tomorrow night I’ll have Professor Braithwope run over and—”
“Professor Braithwope! What good could he possibly do?” Sophronia was so frustrated that she interrupted.
Lady Linette was equally frustrated. “That is enough, young lady. To your chambers this instant, and if I see you outside of proper hours or classrooms at all in the next week, you risk being sent down permanently! Am I understood?”
“Yes, Lady Linette,” said Sophronia.
CHARTING AN UNSTEADY COURSE
Sophronia’s punishment was a course of such rigorous training and scullery duties that she could not find the time, let alone the energy, to check the bubble. Every free moment was spent assisting Sister Mattie to repot her prize begonias, or cleaning out every vial in Professor Lefoux’s lab, or decanting deadly perfumes for Lady Linette. She was constantly under such focused instruction that she was practically escorted by each teacher from one lesson to the next.
While she labored under the consequences of lack of evidence—Oh, why was the satchel empty?—her friends concentrated on their lessons. As older students, they were encouraged to focus on their strengths. Agatha was showing affinity for Encrypting with Flower Arrangements with Sister Mattie, which surprised everyone, including Agatha. She was doing a special study on tussie-mussies and airborne poisons, creating stunning—in all ways—nosegays. Dimity focused on Millinery and Machinations. She would never admit to decorating her own hats, but there was something to be said for the concealment possibilities inherent in a well-endowed bonnet.
The only lesson they had together anymore was weaponry with Professor Braithwope and Professor Lefoux. In the old days this would have been Captain Niall’s purview, but since the werewolf teacher had left to clean up a pack mess in Scotland, the school hadn’t replaced him.
Today the class was working with crossbows, much to Sophronia’s relief.