Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 65

Before they lost daylight, Sophronia spent time tinkering with Bumbersnoot. Vieve had taught her how to pop open his casing to clean and oil him properly. She hadn’t noticed any changes after retrieving him from Madame Spetuna. But there was always the possibility that when he visited her and the flywaymen, they got hold of him and installed a tiny crystalline valve. Had he a voice box, Bumbersnoot could become their “Rule, Britannia!” canary in the coal mine. Madame Spetuna had, after all, been infiltrating the Picklemen. But there was no evidence of tampering. Sophronia resolved to leave Bumbersnoot with Vieve for a proper checkup. In fact, she had a real need to consult with Vieve on much of what they had learned, and stolen, and crashed into.

“Getting on toward supper,” said Soap, catching her attention. He looked tired, his face drawn, his eyes only mildly twinkly.

Sophronia closed Bumbersnoot, set him to nibble at a bit of coal, and stood up.

“Food is all in the back.” Only then did she realize how hungry she was.

“We should stop for the night,” said Dimity, sounding unusually decided on the matter.

Sidheag wanted to press on, but Sophronia agreed with Dimity.

“It would be best to stop. It’s full moon night, and the tracks could be crowded with private celebration trains now that the sun is down. It’s not safe. Plus, we all need rest. It should be safe; timetables list this line as vacant all night long.”

“Picklemen might catch up to us,” objected Sidheag.

“I think they have other things to worry about. If Felix holds his tongue, they might continue to disregard us as a group of vagrant boys. Might even prefer us to the drones we stole the train from.”

“Except that we killed one of their dirigibles,” Sidheag answered.

And we’re relying on Lord Mersey’s discretion. Behind Soap’s back Sophronia gestured, making a sad face. Sidheag sighed but agreed. She, too, cared about Soap, and he couldn’t keep going indefinitely. They had to rest for his sake.

They rolled into a tiny station in a town so small they couldn’t even determine its name. It was nothing more than a platform next to a switch. There was no porter. There wasn’t even a ticket box.

Nevertheless, someone was paying attention, for a young lad with a cart pulled up next to the station shortly after they arrived. He hailed Soap from the roadway.

“Aye-up, circus in town?”

Soap looked startled, the gold Dimity dress streamers having slipped his mind.

Sophronia stuck her head around him and said cheerfully, a grin plastered to her face, “Indeed it is!”

The carter looked at her suspiciously. “You don’t seem like a circus.”

“More a tumbling troupe, if you know the type.”

“Oh, indeed?”

Sophronia jumped down to the track and did a little somersault forward, bouncing out of it onto one knee with a flourish.

The lad did not look impressed.

Dimity came to her rescue, jumping down and then doing the same kind of tumble maneuver. She then climbed up onto Sophronia’s shoulders. It was a move they’d practiced in class, for reaching items stashed in high places, but weren’t very good at. Sophronia stumbled to hold her footing. Dimity waggled her hands around madly.

“It’s been a long day,” said Sophronia apologetically.

The carter’s eyebrows were still suspicious, but he was clearly pleased by their friendly manner. He offered up some useful information: “Hamlet probably not sized to do you any favors. Try up a few stops. There’s a market, end of this week, be a good spot for a carnival.”

“Thank you kindly!” chirruped Sophronia. “We may just do that.”

The lad doffed his hat and clicked his donkey into a lumbering walk.

Their inadvertent addition, Dusty the stoker, cleared his throat as the grumbling from the locomotive died down and the steam engine came to rest.

Sophronia looked at him, surprised into remembering that he was with them, not merely an extra feature of the stolen train.

Sidheag hadn’t forgotten him. “Is something wrong, Dusty?”

“Mr. Sid, sir, it’s only that we’re running low on coal. If you lads want to keep going, you’ll need to get fuel from somewheres, and this station’s not big enough to have reserves.”

“I’d better check the tender.” Soap disappeared behind the boiler. He came back a few minutes later, only to nod his agreement with Dusty’s assessment. Soap might be a novice train driver, but he had an excellent working knowledge of boilers and their coal consumption. He was also dragging a very dirty Bumbersnoot in his wake.

“Guess who’s eaten too much?”

Bumbersnoot was leaking steam out his carapace and steam out his ears and had a definite bloated appearance.

“Oh, Bumbersnoot, have you been eating all our reserves? Bad dog.”

Bumbersnoot’s ears sagged, guilty.

“Not a whole lot we can do about it now,” said Sidheag, protecting the mechanimal from Sophronia’s ire.

Sophronia sighed. “I hope he hasn’t damaged himself.” She put Bumbersnoot in a corner and tied his reticule straps to a nearby protrusion so he couldn’t eat any more of their precious coal. He did look unwell; it was troubling. “I should probably check his insides, but he’s running too hot to touch. Who’d like first watch?”

Soap said, “I’ll take it. What do you suggest, a regular walkabout, plus roof and skyline? Say every quarter hour or so?”

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