“You’re quite smart, you know.”
Soap raised his eyebrows.
Sophronia took out a little book from her reticule. It was an early primer, meant for young children. She’d been teaching Soap to read lately. They used what bits of time they had and the light from one of the boilers. “I don’t mean book learning, but smart in other ways.”
Soap began to follow where the conversation was headed. “Your school don’t train them like me,” he said, “even if they took boys.”
“I ain’t got the brain for science, miss. Only other stuff. Naw, leave me here; it’ll do for now.”
“Now, miss, just because you ain’t got any projects to work on, don’t be casting them pretty peepers my way.”
“Projects? What do you mean, projects?” Sometimes Sophronia couldn’t understand a word that came out of Soap’s mouth. She got the meaning underneath, mostly. How could she not, when his own “pretty peepers” twinkled at her something terrible? Flirt.
“Miss Sidheag and them others you collect. Them as needs a little help to make it through. Them’s your projects. I ain’t interested. Course, if you wanted to make me somewhat else…” He trailed off and waggled his brows suggestively.
Sophronia cocked her head and lifted the primer. “You sure you aren’t a project?”
“Aw, miss, reading’s one thing, but I can’t be a gentleman, and that seems part and parcel of that secretive work of yours.”
“Doesn’t have to be.”
Soap was not to be persuaded. If Sophronia were to make an intelligencer of him, she’d have to do it without his knowing. “Well, I appreciate your sources; that’s all I’m saying,” she said.
Soap smiled, a flash of white teeth. “Speaking of which…” His eye had been caught by someone coming up behind Sophronia.
She whirled around to see a purposeful newsboy silhouette walking straight across the boiler room, like a delivery lad.
The engineering chamber was a mere hum of activity at night, unlike the crashing cacophony of daytime. Most of the sooties and greasers were asleep, and all of the officers, but the boilers always had to be tended. The flickering orange glow from the burning coal turned the cavernous room into a waltz of light. Sophronia adored it. Sooties trotted about, but none of them moved straight across the open space between boilers—they stopped to feed them. Only one person moved with such directness—Genevieve Lefoux.
“What ho?” said the scamp, dimpling up at them. Vieve was from above stairs; she belonged to Professor Lefoux, as much as she might be said to belong to anyone. But she was rather catlike about the situation. She never sat lessons and went wherever she pleased at whatever hour. Since she liked engines, much of her time was spent in the boiler room.
After the customary pleasantries, Vieve said in a sprightly manner, “Hear my aunt got you good, Sophronia.”
Sophronia cast the primer up at the ceiling in a gesture of appeal to higher powers. “You, too? Isn’t my business secret at all?”
“Well, I might have read the report. You made them allover sticky with the highest six-month marks ever. Good on you, Miss Poofy Skirts.”
“You turning against me, too?”
“Oh, I’m not miffed. Amused you had to go up against the brunt of Aunt’s charms.”
“She’s a dragon, your aunt.”
“Sing that! Now, about—oof!” Vieve stumbled as a sootie hurtled into her, knocking her over.
“Hey!” he yelled as Vieve bounced upright. “Watch it there, runt!”
Sophronia pulled her shoulders back. “You watch it, you turbot!”
The boy snorted at her. “Oh, mighty Uptop, what could you do to me?”
Soap stepped in when it looked like Sophronia might actually launch herself at the boy. “Run along now.”
Strong from shoveling coal most of his life, Soap loomed over the smaller sootie. The boy scuttled off.
Sophronia sputtered. “Why, that turnip! Who does he think he is? Vieve, are you well?”
Vieve dimpled at her. “Don’t concern yourself, miss. I’m not easily damaged.”
Soap said to Sophronia, “Now, miss, don’t go causing a ruckus in my domain, please.”
Sophronia stopped vibrating. “Oh, dear. I am sorry. This thing with everyone angry at me has rather put my nerves on end.” Sophronia hoped Soap couldn’t see how hurt she was by the ostracism. Soap’s eyes were so direct, she rather thought he might see into her heart better than anyone.
Soap shook his head at her sympathetically. “Still, miss.”
Sophronia agreed with the reprimand. She should have minded her manners, even with a sootie. Especially with a sootie. “Who was that unpleasant creature?” She thought she knew most of the boiler room staff by sight, if not by name.
“Don’t know,” admitted Soap, embarrassed.
“Don’t know? But you know all the sooties!” Soap was like the unofficial mayor of boilers.
“That’s just it. We’ve taken on double numbers this week. Double! Some pretty dubious types, too. Second Assistant Fireman should have checked their characters better, if you ask me. Us old guard been trying to get most of them assigned to forward engine and propeller, but they don’t need that many when we’re drifting. So we’ve got ’em all mucking about here.”