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The Aeronaut's Windlass

Jim Butcher

  “Excellent,” Esterbrook said. “Miss Tagwynn?”

  “I’ll go first,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”

  “As you wish, miss,” Esterbrook said.

  And a moment later Bridget found herself standing upon a platform looking out over the crowd that had gathered to watch the duel. There were . . . more people than she had ever seen in her life in any single place, and she absolutely could not let herself think about the number of eyes that were upon her. She might simply scream. So instead she took Benedict’s words to heart and started breathing in a slow, steady tempo, focusing upon her surroundings and her opponent.

  Reggie climbed onto the platform at the opposite corner, his second standing on the ground just behind him. As he stood up, the crowd let out a cheer and began clapping and shouting and whistling. The sound was enormous, terrifying, like the rumbles of thunder that sometimes reached down into Habble Morning during the fiercest thunderstorms of spring.

  “Littlemouse,” came Rowl’s voice from behind her. “Remember who you are. This creature wants to take it from you. Do not let him.”

  She turned to give the cat a glance and a quick nod. Then she turned to face Reggie again.

  Esterbrook hopped lightly up onto the platform and went to stand in the center of it, holding a simple red kerchief in his right hand. The symbolism of the color of the cloth was not lost on Bridget. The color of blood. This was a place of blood and pain and death, and any of them were a possibility in the next few moments.

  Focus. She had to focus. She kept breathing and systematically blocked out everything but herself, the platform, Reggie and the cloth.

  Esterbrook restated the circumstances of the duel for the public, and that Bridget had chosen to face her challenger in unarmed combat. Reggie was smirking at her. It was meant to be a smug, confident expression, but . . . she fancied she could see something darker and uglier hiding within his eyes. He might not even know it was there, she realized—but he hated her. Or at least he hated something that, at this moment, happened to be Bridget-shaped.

  Reggie had been trained. He knew how to fight this way. She’d been training, too, but she knew so very little.

  Victory isn’t about the quantity of what you know, Benedict had assured her during the past days, but the quality.

  She hoped he was right.

  Esterbrook raised the kerchief. In a moment he would drop it. When it touched the surface of the platform, the duel would begin.

  Just breathe. Focus. Concentrate. Breathe.

  He released the kerchief.

  And a sudden low, loud, urgent shriek went through the air, piercingly loud.

  The crowd froze. Bridget looked around in confusion, only to see Reggie standing, looking upward, with his mouth wide-open. Esterbrook’s expression was, for an instant, one of disbelief. Then, as the sound droned on and on, rising and falling in a slow ululation, his expression turned grim.

  Thunder, louder than even the storms of spring, began to rumble through the very stone of Spire Albion.

  For some reason her eyes settled on the man in the crowd who had winked at her earlier. His face contained neither confusion nor fear as he stared up at the translucent vaulted ceiling of Habble Morning. His expression was full of a cold, steely rage. He turned at once, sharply, while everyone else was still looking around, and began stalking through the milling crowd, moving swiftly and in a straight line, as if by some effort of sheer will he made the folk of Habble Morning find other places to be than in his path.

  Bridget found herself standing beside Esterbrook, though she had no recollection of stepping forward. “What is this sound?” Bridget asked him, shouting over the racket. “What’s happening?”

  “Air-raid siren!” Esterbrook shouted back. “The first in twenty years! You need to take shelter, Miss Tagwynn! Spire Albion is under attack!”

  Chapter Eleven

  Spire Albion, Fleet Shipyards

  Creedy!” Grimm called as he made his way over the mistshrouded gangplank from the airship dock in the Fleet shipyard atop Spire Albion, and onto Predator. “With me!”

  “Captain on deck!” called Kettle, down in the hold. “Mister Creedy to the deck!”

  “My cabin,” Grimm said with a grimace, and headed that way.

  “Aye, sir,” Kettle said. Then in an astonished voice he said, “Captain. Your clothes . . . Sir, you’re wounded.”

  Grimm sighed and looked down at the borrowed outfit Ferus had lent him. It was not, strictly speaking, an actual suit, being made from two or perhaps three vaguely similar suits, none of them particularly fine. He’d rigged his wounded arm into a sling. “Aye, aye, summat came out of the vents and tried to make a meal of me in a side tunnel. My own fault for taking a shortcut.”

  “Bloody hell,” Kettle said, clearly angry. “Doesn’t Habble Morning employ verminocitors anymore?”

  “No permanent harm done,” Grimm said, giving Kettle a quick wink. “How many men are on shore leave; do you know?”

  “We’ve a quarter crew aboard,” Kettle said. “The boys are off seeing some duel happening in the market today. Couple of highborn sprats going bare-knuckle, ’twould seem. There’s a group bet against a bunch of those rascals from Glorious.”

  “I hope they make out,” Grimm said. “They’ll need to, after what Itasca did to our accounts.”

  “Never fear, sir,” Kettle said. “The boys will be fine.” He finished folding the long web of ethersilk he’d been untangling, secured it with leather ties, and then stowed it in one of the lockers beside the base of the rigging—despite the fact that the masts and spars were currently missing from the ship’s upper deck, not yet having been replaced. “Let me get the door for you, sir.”

  “Thank you,” Grimm said. Kettle opened the door to his cabin and Grimm stepped in, turning to pass his sheathed sword to Kettle. “See this cleaned for me, would you? Bit hard to manage with one hand.”

  “Aye, sir,” Kettle said, accepting the weapon and shutting the door behind him.

  Grimm settled down in his chair. His wounded arm ached quite uncomfortably, though Ferus assured him it was healing. Folly had presented him with a small jar of rather sharp-scented unguent, and he was supposed to apply it to the wound every time he changed the dressing. Something else he would have to ask for help with. Mister Bagen, the ship’s doctor, would doubtless find it tedious and complain interminably about the haplessness of wayward captains.

  Creedy knocked and entered when Grimm bade him do so. The tall young officer had to duck his head a bit to keep from bumping it on the ceiling.

  “Sit, sit,” Grimm said. “You look like you’re apologizing for something, just standing there.”

  Creedy smiled faintly and settled on the bench along the cabin’s wall, opposite the bunk. “Kettle says you were injured, sir.”

  “Some damned creature came out of the vents, I suppose,” Grimm replied. “Worse attacks have happened.”

  “Bad luck,” Creedy said. “We’ve had a bit of a run of it, haven’t we?”

  “I suppose that depends on how one regards it,” Grimm replied. “We had a rather good bit of luck in surviving an engagement with a Cortez- class and Itasca, after all. We’re here to tell the tale.”

  “That’s true, sir,” Creedy said. He bit his lip. “You were gone overnight. I hope you don’t mind that I granted the men liberty.”

  “They’d have hung you from a spar and taken it if you hadn’t,” Grimm said. “Keeping a quarter crew aboard was the right decision.”

  Creedy looked slightly relieved and nodded. “Good.” He glanced up at Grimm and said, “Captain . . . I don’t want to overstep my place, but . . .”

  “Go ahead. Ask. Pour us a drink while you’re at it.”

  Creedy looked relieved to be given some orders to follow while he spoke his mind, and he drew glasses and bottle from their usual places. “Sir, I’ve been taking a survey of the damage.”

  “How accurate was Journeyman�
€™s estimate?”

  “Spot-on, sir,” he replied, somewhat reluctantly. “The blighter is insubordinate, but he knows his job.”

  “Yes, he does,” Grimm said, accepting the glass Creedy offered him.

  “Sir,” Creedy said, “the estimate for repairs is . . . considerable.”

  “I’m aware,” Grimm said.

  “I’m afraid that . . . times being what they are, there might be those in the High Houses who might begin to put pressure on you to sell.”

  “Really?” Grimm said. “Well, I suppose they have the right to make offers.”

  “I’m afraid they might be more aggressive than that, sir,” Creedy said earnestly.

  “If they get out of line, I’ll just slap them around and threaten them until they stop,” Grimm said.

  At that Creedy all but spat out some of the drink he’d just taken. He managed to choke it down and after a moment managed a chuckle. “My sister told me you had an odd sense of humor, sir.”

  “I suppose I do,” Grimm said.

  “But . . . joking aside. What are you going to do with her, sir? I mean, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get a loan, not in these times. If you won’t sell her and you can’t repair her . . . what?”

  Grimm studied the young man for a moment. Creedy seemed almost painfully earnest, and Grimm had always thought well of the young man’s family, but . . . Rook had obtained a description of Predator’s wounds sooner and more thoroughly than he should have. Someone had talked, and while Grimm had no reason to suspect that it was an act of malice in general, or Creedy’s act in particular, it was perhaps best to employ a modicum of caution.

  “Let me worry about that, XO,” he said. “There are several possibilities to explore, and I’m going to examine them all. Meanwhile, we stick to Journeyman’s proposal for refitting her. I saw to having the death benefits paid before my, ah, little adventure in the ventilation tunnels. We’ll replace her spars and her web out of what’s left of our current funds, as well as the bulkheads and the number three gun emplacement. There’s enough money to do that much, and it will be your concern. I’ll secure the new crystals we’ll need.”

  “Sir, uh. I thought we might take on a cargo.”

  “Cargo?” Grimm asked. “In her shape?”

  “No need to strain her, sir,” Creedy said quickly. “But . . . a short run could yield some quick, modest profit.”

  “A short run . . .” Grimm frowned. “You mean down to Landing, don’t you.”

  “There’s always cargo coming and going from the lower habbles, sir,” Creedy said.

  “In barges. In scows,” Grimm said quietly, “and on windlasses. Predator is an airship, Commander.”

  “With all due respect sir,” Creedy said, looking down, “she isn’t. Not right now. Not until you’ve secured the funds to mend her.”

  “I’ll consider it,” Grimm said, and managed to avoid growling as he did. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

  “Sir,” Creedy said, “it might take you several years of work to earn it that way, but it would be honest work at least. There’s no shame in it.”

  “And no joy, either,” Grimm said. “Not for me, not for the crew, and not for Predator. You can’t expect a cat to change his fur for you because you think it would be better.”

  Creedy blinked at that. “I . . . I don’t understand.”

  “A ship is more than wood and crystals and ethersilk, Byron,” Grimm said. “Some thick-skulled vat counters have always said it was nonsense, but the men on the ships know better. Airships aren’t just vehicles—and the men who treat them like more than that get more out of them.”

  “In the academy, we were taught that it has never been conclusively—”

  “I went to the academy, too, thank you,” Grimm said. “The academy is where knowledge begins—not where it ends. You’re a solid man. You’ll understand in time.”

  “If you say so, sir,” Creedy said dubiously.

  “I do,” Grimm said. “But for now, why do we not consider ways we might—” He stopped abruptly. There was a faint, faint sound, something he had heard before, hauntingly familiar.

  Then he placed it—a high-pitched humming, like an etherwasp gliding effortlessly on an etheric wind, but louder, wider, deeper.

  It was the distant war cry of an Auroran destroyer—if he remembered correctly, the Ciervo.

  But that would mean . . .

  Grimm bolted to his feet and flung open his cabin door. He stomped onto deck, bellowing, “General quarters! General quarters!”

  Creedy came out after him, gave him the briefest of stunned looks, then whirled and started ringing the ship’s bell.

  Grimm hurried to the speaking tube and shouted, “Journeyman! Get your drunken ass out of that chair you think I don’t know about and run up the main crystal! Get us off this dock and bring up the shroud!”

  Journeyman didn’t reply, but only seconds later the planks of the deck began to quiver and vibrate as Predator’s main power crystal stirred to life—and less than a minute later she let out groans and squeaks of protect from her battered timbers and began to rise.

  “Kettle, the lines!” Grimm bellowed—but he didn’t need to do it. Kettle was already taking an ax to the heavy lines that secured Predator to the dock, cutting the wounded ship free.

  Meanwhile, the Ciervo’s war cry grew louder and louder and louder. Around the shipyard, vessels of the Fleet began to call general quarters as well, the alarm bells ringing in strident cadence. Somewhere in Habble Morning, immediately below the shipyard, an air-raid siren began to wail.

  And then the enemy was on them.

  Ciervo, Grimm was sure of it now, appeared out of the mists above in a screaming dive that took her streaking down past the shipyard at a steep attack angle. Her guns spat thunder and howling light into the docked airships and into the shipyard itself, detonations flinging men and equipment about like tea leaves whirling in a stirred cup.

  And behind her, following her same dive, were half a dozen more vessels like her.

  Fire began falling from the far side of the shipyard, marching toward Predator in a swath of hellish destruction. Even as Grimm watched, Chivalrous, a heavy cruiser three times his own ship’s size, vanished into a cloud of fire and light and screams of anguished ship and crew. Other ships were struck, though the heavier vessels, even without their shrouds up and active, were only minimally harmed by the light guns of the enemy destroyers. The oncoming fire destroyed a merchant ship named Tinker only a hundred yards from Predator. Then another merchant vessel called Surplus blew into flaming splinters only fifty yards away, in the neighboring slip. Splinters and bits of metal—and worse—flew past Grimm in a deadly cloud, some of the pieces so close that he heard them go by.

  Grimm planted his feet as he felt his ship wallowing up off of her dock, lifted his chin, and wondered whether he’d realized the danger in time to stop the Auroran squadron from finishing what Itasca had begun.

  The fire of the final ship in the column fell upon Predator. . . .

  And shattered into light and whistling shrieks against his ship’s nowactive shroud, the light blinding without his protective goggles. Grimm held himself perfectly still, as if his entire field of vision had not at all been converted into a tapestry of dancing colors, and then the screams of the diving vessels faded abruptly as they plunged past the edge of the Spire and on down into the mists below.

  Grimm blinked his eyes until he could see again, and scanned the misty sky around the shipyard. He saw what he’d been afraid he would see, and turned to Creedy calmly. “Form a shore party to bring the crew back to duty,” he said. “Tell Kettle that he’s acting armorer. Crew to be armed with gauntlets, sidearms, and tunics immediately.”

  Creedy only stared at Grimm, stunned. His eyes flicked around the shipyard, where dozens of fires had begun to blaze, consuming the costly wooden structures that had been erected to expand upon the original Spirestone design. People were screaming
and dying.

  “Creedy!” Grimm snapped.


  He repeated his orders.

  “Aye, sir,” Creedy said, blinking, and set about them. Given a task, Grimm thought, Creedy was excellent at seeing it through. Within a moment he had dispatched Kettle with an armed shore party, and put Journeyman in charge of distributing weapons to the crew and preparing more for quick issue when Kettle returned. “I don’t understand, Captain,” he said when he was finished. “Why arm the men?”

  Grimm pointed at a bit of debris floating lightly on the wind. A stray current of air or ether sent it gliding down to the deck of Predator. It was a small rectangle of ethersilk. He picked it up and held it out to Creedy. The square of silk stirred and rippled in the shipyard’s etheric eddies, moved just as it might by wind, though in a slower, more graceful manner.

  “Is that . . . ?” Creedy began.

  “The etheric sail from a boarding rig,” Grimm confirmed. The flagsize squares of ethersilk were used to help propel and guide the flight of a parasail. With decent etheric currents, a well-managed parasail, and a bit of luck, a man could climb, descend, and alter course. In the Fleet, such rigs were used in boarding actions, with Marines leaping from their airship and using them to glide down to the enemy vessel.

  Grimm held up a few broken cords fastened to the ethersilk and said, “It would appear that they frayed and snapped when the rig opened. Whichever poor bastard was using it as part of his gear is on his way to the surface now. The Aurorans always were cheap about the equipment for their Marines.”

  Creedy finally understood and stared up into the pale mists overhead. The sun was a dull circle. Some days the top of Spire Albion could see open blue sky. Today the typical blanketing mist had reduced visibility to a few hundred yards at best.

  “You think there are enemy Marines on the way?”

  “This isn’t a full fleet assault,” Grimm said. “The Spire’s batteries were surprised by that dive, but you can be sure they’re ready now. If the Aurorans intended to seriously assault Albion, their battleships would have blanketed the shipyard batteries with fire the instant their own ships had completed their pass.”