But Soap, who certainly could be a gentleman when he tried, left the subject at that and moved the discussion delicately on to the latest boiler room excitement: the sooties had adopted a kitten.
Sophronia visited the boiler room regularly for the next few nights. Things remained uncomfortable in class and chambers. Dimity was barely passing polite, and the other girls ignored Sophronia.
Of course, Bumbersnoot tried his best, but a mechanimal hadn’t much conversation and wasn’t really interested in speculating as to what might be afloat. Sophronia refused to volunteer any information to the others. The possibility of a visit to Swiffle-on-Exe and Bunson’s—which meant young gentlemen—would have her compatriots in ecstasies of delighted anticipation. So Sophronia held on to the news out of spite. She didn’t try to warn Dimity that someone might be after her. Dimity would take it as a pathetic excuse for interference. Without knowing the motive behind that mystery attack, Sophronia had no way to make her case. She’d no idea how lonely such a life could be. So she escaped to see Soap, and occasionally Vieve, most evenings. It was a risk. She might get caught, but it was better than the pointed silences.
Then one morning at breakfast, Mademoiselle Geraldine made an official announcement.
Mademoiselle Geraldine was a source of amusement to the students. She was, supposedly, the headmistress. She thought her school was a real finishing school and had no idea about the espionage side of things. This was an ongoing covert operation lesson for the students—all the girls had to participate in keeping their headmistress in the dark. She always addressed them at breakfast with such concerns and inanities as might be important were they attending an actual ladies’ seminary. And, upon occasion, she was given something of substance to say by Lady Linette.
Over a light repast of giblet pie, boiled whiting, brawn, cold roast capon, and broiled haddock together with tea, brown bread, and sweet butter—the teachers did not approve of a heavy breakfast—Mademoiselle Geraldine informed them that they were headed to Swiffle-on-Exe for a brief stopover and that they could expect company once they arrived. The headmistress did not look pleased. Mademoiselle Geraldine might boast the rinsed red hair, loud voice, and well-upholstered figure of a former opera singer, but she took deportment seriously. Whoever their passenger was going to be, Mademoiselle Geraldine did not approve.
Accordingly, they arrived at the outskirts of Swiffle-on-Exe the next evening after dark. Instead of taking up their customary mooring point, off a goat path west of town, they went south and put down lines near the banks of the Exe.
The girls were all atwitter over this shift in tradition. Only Sophronia knew it was because they must take on boiler water. When everyone else was asleep, she crept out of quarters. It was dangerously busy in the hallway; the tracks were screaming with maid mechanicals, bustling to and fro carrying extra linens and washbasins. Sophronia had to flatten herself behind doors and inch along the walls at a pace so slow they wouldn’t register her. She decided not to visit the sooties, who would be too busy, and instead headed out onto a mid-level balcony. She leaned over the railing to watch as the airship sunk down and nested, nose first, over the river, rustling the willow trees along the bank. Eventually, the front section, which housed the teachers’ residence and engineering, bridged the water.
With a belch of smoke out the stacks and a loud rumbling, a huge articulated metal pipe ejected from the lower front of the hull. Standing on a mid-level deck, Sophronia was in good position to observe under the light of a half-moon.
The pipe was massive. Near its end was a set of four small inflated balloons. These rested atop the river and held the pipe, presumably, at exactly the right angle. Round steps collapsed out like flower petals as the pipe telescoped down. Sooties in the boiler room must have been cranking up a storm to create suction, for with a slurping noise the pipe shuddered and began to take on water. It looked as though the airship were drinking up the river through a flute.
This task complete, sooties, tiny figures below her, ran down the finger keys of the flute. There were a few joyful whoops and splashes. Mortified, Sophronia realized they were bare. Having left their soot-covered clothes above, they were taking this as a rare opportunity to bathe. The water must be freezing, but they looked to be having a rollicking good time. Sophronia supposed Soap was among them, but she couldn’t distinguish individuals and wasn’t certain she should. Nevertheless, she was so taken with the spectacle she nearly fell over the railing. There might have been some small part of her that wished for Vieve’s binoculars.
The next morning, the airship was back in its customary position, hovering over a hill west of town. The hodgepodge of buildings and mixed architecture that made up Bunson’s school was in view down the path. Sophronia blushed to think upon what she had seen the night before, and regretted not having Dimity to share it with.
When Sophronia entered the communal parlor wearing a carriage dress because she could not do up the back of her day gowns by herself, Dimity was in huddle with Sidheag. Sophronia walked over to their group with an open expression, but the girls stopped talking and only smiled back. Fake, unfriendly, cutting smiles of the kind Lady Linette had made them perfect over the course of six lessons. Sophronia sighed. Still not forgiven? But I have such interesting things to tell.
Then, before breakfast commenced, Mademoiselle Geraldine made a most shocking announcement, one that clearly distressed her.
“Ladies,” she said. “We will be taking a trip. A great trip.”