Sophronia was not prepared to mount a defense, but she didn’t want anything to happen to Dimity. She threw her bread roll from dinner at the men. It hit one in the head but didn’t appear to do any permanent damage, even though it was a very hard roll. The man swore and looked up at her.
Sophronia cursed herself. All she had done was attract their attention, and one of them now pointed a pistol at her. Banking on the fact that he wouldn’t want to fire because of the noise, she wrapped one arm tightly about the railing that was her current anchor and pointed her hurlie at the airdinghy. She ejected the grapple toward one of the four balloons. The grapple sailed over, but on the pull back she felt the barb catch and tear through the fabric.
The airdinghy lurched to one side.
The man guiding the dinghy yelled. The other shot his pistol at Sophronia, who swung out and to one side, avoiding the bullet.
Above them, Dimity said, “What’s going on? Lord Dingleproops, is that you? Was that gunfire? You’ll wake the teachers!”
Sophronia shot her grapple again, catching another one of the balloons and gashing it open. Two ripped balloons was more than the airdinghy could manage, and it began to spin and sink, gaining speed as it went. The men inside were now more concerned with their own safety than with Sophronia or Dimity.
Dimity squeaked in alarm, calling, “Wait, come back!” But her imagined suitor was gone.
Sophronia yelled up to her, “That wasn’t Lord Dingleproops.”
Dimity was annoyed enough to actually speak with her. “Sophronia? What are you doing following me?”
“Keeping you safe.”
“By sabotaging my assignation?”
“I don’t know what they wanted, but they weren’t Pistons. No top hats.”
Clearly, Dimity preferred to believe in her own romantic visions than to see reason. “Oh, Sophronia, he was probably in disguise! Must you ruin everything?”
Sophronia couldn’t think of anything to say. Since she hadn’t determined what the strange men wanted with Dimity, she could hardly argue that she had protected Dimity from some sinister unknown. Perhaps one of them had been Lord Dingleproops, but she doubted it. Lord Dingleproops was the type to disguise himself, certainly, but he would dress up as a jester and still wear his top hat. Those men had been after Dimity, and they weren’t lordlings; Sophronia would stake her reputation on it.
As Sophronia climbed back to quarters, she reflected that perhaps it was best if Dimity didn’t believe that someone was after her, at least for the time being. Sophronia simply would have to keep an eye on her, whether she liked it or not. Of course, the question remained: who were they and what did they want with Dimity?
DIAMONDS FROM SOOTIES
Given that all her female friends were aloof and noncommunicative, Sophronia took refuge in the boiler room. There, fire and smoke turned scurrying workers into creatures of shadow, and boys not much older than Sophronia worked to keep the steam engines running and the airship afloat. Among these sooties, Soap stood out as the tallest, boldest, and shadowiest. Sophronia would have sworn he’d grown a foot in the months she’d known him. She was no petite lady herself, but Soap’s lean, muscled form towered over her, his wide face made all the more handsome by its perpetual smile.
“I hear you did particularly well, miss.” Phineas B. Crow—Soap for short, sootie by profession—attempted to look serious by concentrating on Bumbersnoot, but he couldn’t hide his inherent cheekiness. He also couldn’t hide the fact that he didn’t care one whistle for her high marks.
“Soap, I wish I had access to your sources of information.”
“You do, miss. Through me, a’course!” This comment was accompanied by a flash of glee from his dark eyes. “Here you go, Bumbersnoot.” Sophronia’s mechanimal was snuffling about in black dust, his clockwork tail tick-tocking back and forth in excitement. He expressed his delight at the small bits of coal Soap dropped from above by eating them—little puffs of smoke made his floppy leather ears flap.
“Didn’t bring Miss Sidheag south with you this time?” Soap prodded gently.
Sophronia gave him a look.
“What, even her? You’d think she’d grog to the fact that you’d been pickled.”
“Not Sidheag. Takes everything at face value, that girl. It’s one of the reasons she didn’t do well….” Sophronia trailed off, realizing what Soap had said. “Even you figured out I’ve been pickled?”
Soap took offense. He stopped feeding Bumbersnoot. “Even me? I’ve been around this here school long enough to pick up a few tricks.”
The mechanimal’s tail slowed to a steady tick-tock, tick-tock.
Sophronia looked at her friend: his buoyant demeanor, his skin so dark it was often difficult to tell where he began and the soot left off. “Are you happy here, Soap?”
“Why, miss, what a question.” Soap’s ready smile faded slightly.
Bumbersnoot, ignored, puffed steam at them, as if to say, What about me? No one asks if I’m happy. You know what would make me happy? More coal. Yoo-hoo, down here. You, with the coal! There was, of course, a pile of coal nearby, but Bumbersnoot wasn’t too bright. He was only a simple mechanimal, with very basic protocols.
“I mean, are you happy as a sootie?”
“Suits me well enough, miss. Decent hours. They let me get away with fooling about a bit. Not a bad life. Both my parents were slaves, miss. Or that’s what I’ve been told. Never knew ’em myself.”