Sophronia levered herself onto the railing and from there, the plank. It was just as narrow and as slippery as she expected. Her wide, heavy dress—held out with multiple petticoats—acted as ballast. She inched toward the vampire, not looking down.
At one point she slipped slightly and wobbled, arms pinwheeling.
Behind her, all the gathered young ladies gasped.
Dimity let out a small shriek.
Sophronia heard Agatha say, “I can’t watch. Tell me when it’s over.”
“Sophronia!” said Preshea. “Come back here this instant. What are you doing? What if you fall? Can you imagine the scandal? This is ridiculous. Agatha, go fetch Lady Linette. Sophronia’s going to get all of us into trouble. Really, Sophronia, why must you always spoil everyone’s fun?”
Sophronia moved closer to Professor Braithwope.
“Ah, Miss Temminnick, how kind of you to join me. Would you care to dance?”
“No, thank you, Professor.” She struggled to guide his fantasy back to safety. “But perhaps you could fetch me a little punch? I’m parched.”
“Punch is it, whot?” The vampire tapped her lightly on the chin with his closed fist. “Mua ha ha! Aren’t I droll? Of course, my dear girl, of course. But would you like blood punch or brain punch?” He paused, shook his head, and then said in a small voice, “Oh, wait, where… Miss Temminnick! What are you doing here? Whot whot?”
“You invited me, sir.”
“I did? Why would I do that? What are you doing at a Buckingham Palace supernatural reception? You aren’t even out yet. Plus, I’m tolerably certain you aren’t a supernatural. You aren’t high enough rank, either. Although I suppose we are both tolerably high up, whot.”
“You were going to fetch me some punch, sir?”
“Was I?” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t think Queen Victoria likes punch. In fact, I know she doesn’t. Would a glass of resin do? For the wood. A nice sealant. Necessary in weather like this. They’re collecting crystals, did you know? Pretty round ones, crystals to rule the world. Then there are mechanicals to think about. I don’t trust them, do you? No, exactly! Not with punch, at any rate.”
Sophronia remembered Westminster Hive. “Do any vampires trust mechanicals?”
“No. Nor do our brother werewolves. Why should they, whot? I mean to say, why should we? I am a vampire, am I not?”
“Yes, Professor, have been for hundreds of years.”
“That long? Miss Temminnick, you should come with me.” With that, Professor Braithwope picked Sophronia up bodily under one arm and carried her away from the squeak deck toward the pilot’s bubble, mincing along the plank.
The pilot’s bubble was the size of two very large bathtubs, one overturned on top of the other. It was supported from below by scaffolding but was otherwise far from the safety of the airship.
Professor Braithwope set her down on top of the bubble on a flat area big enough for two.
“Now what, sir?” Sophronia asked politely.
“Miss Temminnick, what are you doing on top of the pilot’s bubble?”
“You just put me here, sir.”
“Oh, yes. Now, would you like to dance?”
“If you insist. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of space.”
“It is quite the rout, whot? I’ve never known Buckingham to be so crowded. Usually, the queen is more selective. Why, I believe there are even clavigers present. I mean, drones are one thing, but clavigers are little more than prison wardens! Not to worry, little bite, I’ll do most of the work.” He began a gentle waltz on top of the bubble. He was inhumanly strong and unbelievably well balanced. Sophronia trusted in his ability to hold her up and hoped he wouldn’t suddenly forget about her, or think she was a hat and try to wear her instead of the flowerpot.
“Professor Braithwope, really!” came an autocratic voice from the squeak deck.
Agatha had returned with Lady Linette.
“Put Miss Temminnick down and come back here this instant. Shameful behavior, sir.”
The vampire looked like a crestfallen schoolboy and stopped waltzing. Mademoiselle Geraldine was the official headmistress, but everyone knew Lady Linette held the real power. Accordingly, the vampire let Sophronia go, turned, and dashed back along the beam.
Sophronia slipped on the bubble roof. Her feet went out from under her, and she slid over the side. Her petticoats bunched and snagged on a loose nail, but not enough to do more than slow her fall.
Several of the watching young ladies screamed in horror.
Fortunately, Sophronia was accustomed to gallivanting about the hull of the ship. Her instincts kicked in. Instead of grappling for purchase, she reached one hand over to the opposite wrist. Pointing that wrist up, she ejected her hurlie. The hurlie looked a bit like a turtle one wore as a bracelet, but when it was deployed, two grappling hooks sprang out from underneath. The hurlie arced up and over the bubble, taking hold on the other side. It trailed a rope, so Sophronia fell only that distance before her left arm was fairly jerked out of its socket. She got her right hand around the rope to relieve the strain and found herself dangling like a fish at the end of a line.
“Miss Temminnick,” she heard Lady Linette cry, “report your condition.”
“Sophronia,” shrieked Dimity, “are you all right? Oh, dear, oh, dear.”
Shocked and winded, Sophronia needed a moment before she could answer either.