“Miss Temminnick, keep with that one. Now, class, after sunset prepare for a co-lesson with Professor Braithwope, at which point we will use a moving target.”
“What target?” Preshea looked wary.
Professor Lefoux looked at her as if the answer should be self-evident. “Professor Braithwope himself, of course. He’ll hold up a large wood trencher. We’ll use metal bolts so as not to do any permanent harm should you actually hit him.”
Dimity trembled in agitation. “We have to shoot directly at a living target?”
“Not exactly living, but yes.” Professor Lefoux was remarkably unperturbed.
Sophronia felt bound to object. “I, for one, should prefer not to shoot at someone I like.”
“Admirable scruples, Miss Temminnick. Get over them, for you will do it anyway.”
“Yes, Professor.” Sophronia wanted to object further. Professor Braithwope wasn’t in his right mind. It didn’t feel sporting to shoot at a crazy person, even if that person was a vampire who’d agreed to the job. Then again, mental fragility might make him unpredictable and harder to hit. Still, Sophronia would hate to add crossbow injury to her long list of transgressions against a teacher who, in the end, was nothing more offensive than undead with excellent taste in clothing and a curiously unstable mustache.
“I suppose she’d know if it weren’t a good idea.” Agatha was obliquely referring to the fact that Professor Lefoux, as the vampire’s drone, was responsible for his well-being. She was his food source.
They continued the crossbow lesson until sunset, at which point they were allowed a short rest. It was one of those rare clear nights on the moor—a midwinter rain had washed the mist away. Soon the fog would be back. It was like table settings. The skies of Dartmoor were perpetually set for visitors, rarely bare of decoration.
The girls, tired from their physical exertions, leaned against the rails and watched the sun sink over the upland heath, gossiping quietly. There was some argument over an article in last week’s popular papers, retrieved for analysis by the teachers in Swiffle-on-Exe. Gossip columns were a vital part of training, as one had to read between the lines not only to understand the way society worked but also to puzzle out aristocratic machinations, determine the bias in the press, and look for encoded missives within the back promotionals. An advertisement for muffs was getting a great deal of attention. A few girls were contemplating essays on the subject. Sophronia thought it was simply an advertisement, but others believed there was an embedded message concerning Scandinavian infiltration into northern Scotland. Something about the muffs’ looking more like the hats favored by the Danish guard. Add to that the fact that the Scandinavians had been keeping an awful lot to themselves recently, and many were left wondering if they could be trusted. Pickled herring was, in the end, a hugely suspicious food.
Professor Braithwope joined them after sunset. He was dressed quite somberly, his dark burgundy cravat tied neatly in the waterfall style, his waistcoat, jacket, and trousers all charcoal gray. His eccentricity of mind sometimes reverberated in his attire, causing him to wear odd items like a stovepipe beaver hat or a satin cape, but he never wore them badly. He might have lost his mind, but never his fashion sense. Tonight, however, he looked more undertaker than vampire.
The girls were tentative about the assignment, but it became clear that Professor Braithwope, while batty enough to insist on dancing an Irish fling the entire time, still had all his reflexes in working order. It was impossible to shoot him. He either dodged or intercepted the dart with his wooden trencher.
“Do you see? Not so easy to kill a vampire, is it?” Professor Lefoux sounded smug.
Sophronia wondered if the vampire had noticed anything different about the pilot’s bubble recently. She decided to try to converse with him. She hoped Professor Lefoux would see this as an attempted diversion tactic for getting in a shot.
“Professor Braithwope, have you seen anything interesting dancing ’round the school recently?”
“Condiments are scarce in the skies, whot.” The vampire was serious on this subject.
“Not so much as you would think,” Sophronia contradicted, wondering if he was aware enough to actually be referring to the Pickleman break-in. “Lost your mustard powder, have you?” She loaded in a bolt, taking her time.
“No, relish.” The vampire twirled away. Preshea’s shot went wide.
“Thought as much,” said Sophronia.
The vampire’s eyes focused on her. “Why would I have lost anything? Not all wandering mechanicals are lost. Besides, often you’re left with a hold full of pets, whot.” He said this as though offering a special tidbit of information.
Sophronia took it as such. “I’ll keep that in mind, Professor.”
“Sooner your mind than mine, little miss. Mine seems to be full of holes, like a tea strainer.”
Professor Lefoux interrupted. “I don’t think your tactic is working, Miss Temminnick. Take your shot or try something else.”
“How about a variation on the fan and sprinkle?”
“For a vampire?” Professor Lefoux was skeptical, for that was a werewolf manipulation.
Sophronia produced a cream puff from within the confines of her pagoda sleeve. She broke it open to reveal the white filling. With her left hand she tossed this at the professor’s immaculate trouser leg. Occupied as he was, fending off crossbow bolts, he did not expect an attack of low-flying stickiness.