Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 45

Felix sneered outright at that question. “How should I know?”

“Your father is a Pickleman,” pointed out Sophronia mildly, again, trying to make him understand his own bias.

“He’s also a peer of the realm, and would never deal in trade! That’s Cultivator rank responsibility.”

“Picklemen have a ranking system?” This was news to Sophronia. She altered her attitude to one of inquiry rather than instruction.

Felix winced. “I shouldn’t have said that.” After which he clamped his mouth shut despite Sophronia’s big, pleading eyes.

She inched closer and tilted her head, looking at him from under her eyelashes. Perhaps if I’m winsome enough, he’ll tell me more and realize how misguided the Picklemen are.

Sidheag interrupted her tactics by asking, “Would Picklemen sell valves to the East India Company?”

Felix nodded. “Of course. We haven’t any proof of vampire backing.”

Another slip-up, he said “we.” Sophronia genuinely liked Lord Mersey. He was, frankly, adorable. But if Piston membership really was a means for recruiting Picklemen, she and Felix were ill matched. Sophronia bit her lip, looking disappointed.

Felix tilted his head at her, inquiring, the corner of his mouth tilted up in a “forgive me?” smile.

Why does he have to be so pretty? “You know, Lord Mersey, so far as I can tell, supernatural creatures come some good and some bad. Just like everyone else.”

Felix bristled. “And the fact that they hunt humans for food doesn’t bother you at all?”

“On occasion. But I’m not one to judge anyone’s character based on diet. I myself have an unacceptable love of mincemeat.”

Felix couldn’t seem to help but smile at that. Sophronia could be awfully charming when she was self-effacing. “And the fact that we are apparently stuck on a vampire train doesn’t trouble you?”

“Of course, but we aren’t supposed to be here. Anyone would be in their rights to get annoyed.”

“And the fact that the hive kidnapped Dimity?”

Dimity looked up, startled at being suddenly dragged into an argument. “Oh, now, see here.”

“To counter a Pickleman monopoly. Frankly, it struck me as something the Picklemen themselves might do, were circumstances reversed.”

“This is ridiculous. No matter what I say, you will always give them the benefit of the doubt. Even now!” Felix was losing much of his simulated boredom under Sophronia’s pointed remarks, but he didn’t seem to be losing his opinions.

“Just as you will always see them as less than human and unworthy of trust, or even decency.”

“They are monsters,” hissed Lord Mersey through gritted teeth.

That raised Sidheag’s hackles because of the implied slur on werewolves.

Fortunately, a voice interrupted them before it could descend into an all-out fight. “Um, pardon me?”

“Soap?” Sophronia was grateful for the distraction.

“It’s not that I don’t find this conversation fascinating, miss. I most assuredly do. I never seen you tongue-lash a lordling afore.”

“Soap!”

“It’s the clouds, they’s lifting a bit, and up and ahead of us there’s a ruddy airship.”

“What?”

“Midsized, kinda disreputable looking.”

“Is it attacking?” asked Sidheag.

“No, I think we may be following them.”

“What?” Sophronia and the others rushed to the window and forced it open, craning their heads to look up.

Just as Soap said, there was a dirigible. It was a bit scruffy, like a fur muff left too long in the attic. If the train hadn’t been on tracks, Sophronia would have agreed that they were following it. They chugged along in its wake until the tracks inevitably steered them one way and the dirigible drifted in another.

“That was odd.”

“Coincidence?” suggested Sidheag, not sounding confident.

“I don’t believe in coincidences, not in our line of work,” replied Sophronia.

“Escort?” Dimity wondered.

“Could be that’s the reason we have so few drones on board—they’re all up there,” Sidheag said.

“In which case we’re in trouble because they’ll have spotted the airdinghy.” Sophronia looked hard at Felix. “Did you recognize that ship?”

Felix shook his head. Sophronia wanted to trust him but wasn’t sure she could anymore.

After a pause, Dimity said, “What have we landed ourselves in the middle of?”

Sidheag looked guilty. “Sorry, everyone, you’re all here because of me. If I didn’t want to get home…”

Dimity said, “Nonsense. Be fair to yourself, Sid, we all insisted on coming with you.”

The two boys nodded.

Dimity grinned and added, “Besides, did you forget? It’s always Sophronia’s fault.”

Sophronia nodded. “Too true.”

They made it safely into Oxford. Although the train paused several times, no one ever came to look into their coach, or noticed the airdinghy on top. With the others diligently on watch, Sophronia and Soap finally napped. Soap took the floor, scooting partly under the bench on which Sophronia slept.

“I’m used to it,” he said when the others protested.

Sophronia’s hand fell over the bench side as she dozed. She woke to find it resting gently on the top of Soap’s head. His cap had fallen off. His hair was short and rough to the touch. Like the autumn heath of the moor, warmed by the sun. She liked the texture, her fingers stroking it without meaning to. Quickly, guiltily, she stopped herself and looked around. Dimity was staring out the window. Sidheag was stationed at the door. Only Felix had seen the caress.

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