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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 24

Jim Butcher

  “Oh, I can’t do this,” Master Ferus said. “Sir Benedict, would you mind?”

  “Of course, sir,” Benedict said. He raised his voice a little and said, “This is Brother Vincent. He has gate duty because his handwriting is terrible.”

  Brother Vincent smiled without opening his eyes. “Sir Benedict. Have you come to teach or to learn?”

  “Shall we find out together, brother?” Benedict asked.

  Brother Vincent smiled and did not open his eyes.

  Benedict promptly unbuckled his sword belt and stripped off his gauntlet. He held them out to Bridget and asked, “Do you mind?”

  She blinked and then assured him, “Not at all.” It took a bit of juggling to hold Benedict’s weapons and Rowl at the same time, but she managed.

  “Thank you, miss,” Benedict said. Then he turned and began stalking toward Brother Vincent on cat-quiet feet.

  “What is happening here, precisely?” Gwendolyn asked Master Ferus.

  “Tradition,” Ferus replied, watching Benedict with bright eyes.

  She frowned. “Meaning what, precisely?”

  “Isn’t it traditional for a Lancaster to know something about tradition?” Master Ferus asked acerbically.

  Folly gave a little curtsy to no one in particular, and then told her jar of crystals, “The monks take their guardianship of the temple very seriously. They won’t allow anyone to enter casually. One must prove to the monks that his desire to enter is sincere.”

  Gwendolyn lifted one delicate eyebrow. “And how does one—”

  Silent as darkness itself, Benedict sprang upon Brother Vincent.

  “Oh,” Gwendolyn said. “I see.”

  Bridget had never seen the warriorborn move so quickly, but somehow the monk was already on his feet, and the two men met in a flurry of blows and counterblows that made Bridget’s heart skip several beats. She could barely see what they were doing, they moved so quickly, and it was laughable to think that she might be able to anticipate what might happen next. By comparison, her own knowledge of unarmed fighting was, she could see now, a pebble beside a Spire.

  And then something terribly complex and lightning-quick happened, and Benedict wound up with his face pressed against the spirestone floor while Brother Vincent held one of the warriorborn’s arms straight out and up behind him at what seemed an extremely uncomfortable angle. The monk stood over him with one foot braced against his back, until Benedict grimaced and slapped the floor twice.

  Brother Vincent obligingly released his arm, and the younger man lay quietly for a moment before gathering himself and rising to his feet. He rolled his shoulder several times, wincing. “What was that?”

  “It would seem,” Brother Vincent said, “that you have come to learn, young knight.”

  “I was fairly sure of that five minutes ago. You never showed me that combination.”

  “Didn’t I?” Brother Vincent asked, smiling. “Goodness. Such an oversight. But I’m sure I haven’t forgotten to show you anything else.”

  “I’m sure you didn’t forget, brother,” Benedict replied, his tone wry. “I think you just want me to come visit more often.”

  Brother Vincent smiled and clasped Benedict’s shoulder with one hand for a moment. “It took time to soften your skull enough for ideas to slip in, but you proved a good student eventually. It is good to see you, son.”

  Benedict smiled and the two exchanged a bow. “Brother, we’ve come to the temple for help.”

  Vincent’s dark eyes became troubled. “You know that we do not involve ourselves in politics, Sir Benedict.”

  “Nor would I ask you to do so,” Benedict said. “Perhaps you could spare a cup of tea and a few moments of conversation?”

  Brother Vincent studied Benedict’s face for a moment before his gaze turned to take in the young man’s companions. Bridget felt slightly uncomfortable beneath that gaze. It seemed as though the man could see a great deal more of her than he had any right to. Brother Vincent’s stare lingered on Master Ferus the longest, and he sighed. “Then the rumors are true. War again.”

  “And the walls have ears,” Benedict said.

  “Of course, of course,” Vincent said. “I’ll get someone to cover my post. Do bring your companions inside.”

  Benedict nodded, and beckoned the rest of them. Bridget walked over to him and passed his weaponry back. “That was amazing,” she said.

  “That was typical,” Benedict said, smiling. “Amazing would have been if I’d beaten him.”

  “How do you know him?”

  “He was my mentor when I first came, several years ago,” Benedict said. “I was considering joining the monks at the time.”

  Gwendolyn made a slight sniffing sound. “Ridiculous, Benny. You’d look wretched in saffron.”

  “It’s not my best color,” Benedict said gravely, nodding.

  “He mostly wore purple back then,” Brother Vincent said cheerfully.

  “Purple?” Bridget asked.

  “Bruises,” Benedict clarified, smiling. “I was the kind of student who sometimes had difficulty listening.”

  “A teacher can always find other paths,” Vincent said. “Ladies and gentlemen, won’t you please come inside. Welcome to the Temple of the Way.”

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Temple of the Way

  Gwendolyn watched Bridget hand her cousin’s weaponry back to him and carefully did not smirk. For goodness’ sake, Gwen had been standing just as close to him, and with empty arms as well, and yet Benny had turned to the girl with the cat almost instinctively when he began to disarm himself.

  Benedict had expressed to Gwen his determination to avoid entanglements with a wife in no uncertain terms on any number of occasions. He had even been something very nearly rude to Mother when she had pressed one too many partners upon him at a dance two years ago.

  It was not as though there were no young ladies interested in him. Oh, granted, none of the highest tier of eligible ladies would have considered a union with a young warriorborn, even if he’d been a full member of House Lancaster—well, perhaps if he’d been the heir, she supposed. But the ladies of the lesser Houses could very well better their position through a union with Benedict.

  There was also, she thought, always That Sort of Person, who would gladly seek a tryst with one of the warriorborn simply for the thrill of something so outré. Benedict was of course a fine-looking young man. He had been pursued by any number of young (or youngish) widows when he came of age, but he had ignored them all with steady, polite reserve.

  Now he spoke quietly with Bridget and the Wayist monk, and Gwendolyn felt immensely pleased for him. She had known Bridget long enough to feel certain that she had no designs on Benedict for the sake of his endowments, monetary or otherwise. And while Bridget seemed to have very little in the way of social graces, such things could be learned. Anyway, courage and integrity were more important, and the girl had those in excess. The name of Tagwynn still carried weight in some corners of the habble, too. Mother could be convinced to bless such a union.

  Of course, Benedict would be sure to make a hash of things if left to his own devices. Thank goodness he had someone to smooth the way for him—when the time was right, naturally.

  Gwendolyn smiled in satisfaction and followed the monk into the temple with the rest of her group.

  She was entirely unprepared for what she found in the interior of the temple. She had expected a rather simple arrangement—and indeed it was, in the extreme. But the monks had transformed the courtyard behind the temple’s heavy gate into a garden so lush and thick that even those in her family’s estates simply could not compare.

  Every square foot that could be spared, she saw, had been devoted to planters of masonry filled with rich black earth transported painstakingly from the surface. Each planter supported a fine net of silken threads above it, spangled with small lumin crystals that glowed like a thousand stars, bathing the whole of the c
ourtyard in rich silver radiance. Beneath the woven nets of light grew fruit trees, grapevines, rows of vegetables and grains—as well as flowers, small trees, ferns, and leafy bushes she could not identify. Foodstuffs growing from the filthy soil of the surface, rather than in a proper water garden treated with nutrientbearing vatsand. The very thought was somewhat nauseating. Why do such a thing?

  The smell of the place was simply shocking. It filled the air with a riot of scents, sharp and pungent, rotten and sweet, and above all, very, very alive. The air itself seemed different, thick and swollen with moisture. The impression of the whole was that of rampant life, growing as wild as the deadly green hell covering the surface of the world, and she felt her heart speed up in an immediate, irrational reaction of instinctive fear.

  Her rational mind told her that clearly there was no danger here. Any number of monks were moving quietly through the plants in their saffron garb, trimming and tending and weeding. Insects buzzed through the air, many of them striped with yellow and black. Bees? Goodness, she hadn’t known anyone had been able to successfully transplant a colony to Spire Albion. As far as she knew, only the Pikers had managed to successfully manage beehives, and their near-monopoly of the honey and mead market provided the cornerstone for their economy.

  Well. If this garden could support something as fragile as bees, surely the place couldn’t be all that threatening, regardless of how nightmarish it might look. She took a breath and steadied herself, and pressed forward through the vegetation, following her cousin and Brother Vincent.

  There must have been two hundred feet of the bizarre gardens between the gate and the temple proper, which rose up to a height of four stories and was built of excellent masonry. The building looked nearly as square and as solid and as fixed as if it had been made of spirestone by the Builders themselves. Despite its height, it managed to appear squat and thick, as if determined to resist the sheer idea of any assault, much less the actual attack that might spring from such a notion. Two more of the monks, armed as Brother Vincent had been, stood at the main doors of the Temple, and watched in stoic silence as Gwendolyn’s group followed their guide within.

  Gwen expected the inside of the temple to match its stony exterior, but to her surprise she found that it was warmly lit and decorated with paintings and banners bearing proverbs in Wayist script.

  Some of the paintings, though they depicted iconic figures of the Wayist faith, had been masterfully produced. In their own way, they were a match for the collection they’d seen in the Spirearch’s Manor.

  The floor was made of stone blocks, but was painted a deep green color, except for a brown path that wavered back and forth down the hallway. So many feet had walked upon the painted path that in its center, the paint had worn away and the stone itself had been worn down along with it. With the others, Gwen found herself naturally following the depression along the hallway, the soles of her feet an inch below the proper level of the floor.

  “The meal room?” Benedict asked.

  “It seems simplest,” Brother Vincent said. The monk looked over his shoulder and smiled at Gwen. “You seem surprised, miss.”

  “It’s . . . very lovely in here, really,” Gwen found herself replying. “It’s not at all like it appears to be on the outside.”

  “Is anything?” asked Brother Vincent with a small smile.

  “Here we go,” Benedict said beneath his breath.

  Gwen arched an eyebrow at her cousin and turned back to Brother Vincent. “Wouldn’t it be faster to walk in straight lines rather than wandering back and forth like this? This way does not seem sensible.”

  The monk’s smile widened. “Did anyone forbid you to do so?”

  “Well, no,” Gwen said.

  “Why aren’t you walking the way you believe to be sensible, then?”

  Gwen blinked. “Well . . . it was obviously the way everyone walks here, I suppose.”

  “Did you wish to avoid offending our sensibilities?”

  “No. Not exactly,” Gwen said. “It just . . . it seemed the proper thing to do.”

  Brother Vincent nodded. “Why?”

  “Because . . . well, look at it. The stones are all worn down where everyone has walked.”

  “Do you feel you should walk the same path because so many have walked it before you came, miss?”

  Gwen glanced at Benedict, but her cousin only looked back at her in silence, apparently interested in her answer. “No, of course not. Except yes, in a way. I hadn’t really given it any thought.”

  “Few do.” Brother Vincent bowed his head and turned to continue leading them down the hallway, and Gwen had the sudden impression, from his body language, that he was a teacher who had just concluded a lesson.

  She felt her back stiffen slightly. “Brother Vincent,” she said, in what she felt must be a tempered, yet iron tone. “Are you trying to trick me into becoming a Wayist?”

  She couldn’t see his face, but from where she stood she could see his cheeks round out as he smiled. “In the void, there is no distinction of east and west.”

  Gwen blinked slightly at that. “I know all of those words, and yet when strung together like that I have no idea what they mean.”

  The monk nodded. “Perhaps you are choosing not to hear them.”

  Gwen sighed in exasperation. “Benedict?”

  Her cousin turned to walk backward for a few paces and smiled. “He’s like that, coz. I don’t know what he means, either. It’s his way.”

  The monk carefully did not turn, and Gwen suddenly felt that the man might be laughing at her. So she sniffed once, lifted her chin firmly, and started walking in a straight line down the hall, Wayist custom be damned.

  She tripped on the irregular surface a few seconds later, and all but fell. After that she lowered her chin enough to make sure she could watch where she put her feet.

  “Pardon me, brother,” Master Ferus said a moment later. “But might I trouble you to show us the collection, if it isn’t too much trouble? My apprentice has never seen it.”

  Brother Vincent’s face lit up as if the etherealist had just offered to cook him a fine meal. “Of course, sir. It’s on the way, after all.”

  Master Ferus beamed. “Excellent. Attend, Folly.”

  “Yes, master,” the apprentice said.

  “Collection?” Gwen asked. “What collection?”

  Vincent’s eyes gleamed. He stopped at a very large, very heavy door, and opened it with a gentle push of his hand. The enormous thing swung open wide silently and smoothly to reveal an immense chamber beyond.

  “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a quiet, vibrant tone. “The Great Library of Spire Albion.”

  Gwen felt her eyes widen.

  The Great Library was huge—it must have taken up three-quarters of the space of the entire temple all by itself. The ground floor was filled with shelving and worktables, and every inch of shelf space was crammed with books—books of every size and shape and color. Why, the collection here beggared the one at her academy—that had been a library of nearly three thousand volumes, and it wouldn’t have taken up a tenth of the space of the ground floor of the library—and there were three tiers of shelves circling the outer wall of the library above the ground floor, each accessed by balconies and multiple series of staircases. More monks moved around the upper floors, dusting and tidying the shelves. All in all there were more books in the library, Gwen felt sure, than she had seen in the entirety of her life outside it.

  A dozen saffron-robed monks were seated at the tables, copying volumes by hand, while younger initiates carried paper, sprinkled sand over pages to dry the still-wet ink, and performed any number of other tasks to support the effort. Gentle music drifted through the air, from a pair of monks playing wooden flutes in elegantly interwoven melodies.

  Gwen stared for several silent seconds and then realized that she was attempting to calculate the approximate value of the books, based solely upon their materials. The paper for each book w
as representative of more wood than its volume would suggest. House Lancaster had a library of several hundred volumes, but it was one of the wealthiest Houses in all of Spire Albion. Habble Morning’s Academy had nearly a thousand volumes collected over two centuries, some of them quite old and valuable. But this place . . .

  The Great Library could scarcely have been more costly, in a purely monetary sense, if its walls and floors had been coated with gold.

  But that was, she supposed, in keeping with the rest of Habble Landing. Entire buildings had been made of wood here, in their mad division of their working space. She had known the local economy was vigorous, but she’d had no idea that the level of commerce taking place here dwarfed that of Habble Morning itself. All that construction would have required milling of the wood, resulting in mountains of sawdust. Perhaps that had been the source of raw materials for the paper in the volumes before her. That might have lowered the price—but all the same, the books represented a genuine fortune, amongst a group of men and women who were known for their pathological avoidance of excess or material gain.

  It also went a great way toward explaining why the monks so strongly discouraged casual visits to the temple, she supposed. Her own family’s vatteries weren’t precisely open to the public, either.

  “Oh,” Folly breathed out loud. The oddly dressed girl was staring at the library with round eyes. “Oh, is that . . . ?”

  “Oh, yes,” Master Ferus replied.

  “I’ve never . . . never felt this in our library, master.”

  “Felt what?” Ferus asked. His voice was gentle but his eyes, thought Gwen, were rather sharp.

  Folly was silent for a moment before she said, “I am not sure.”

  “Think on it,” Ferus suggested. He turned to Brother Vincent and asked, “Might she remain here, quietly, while we take tea, Brother? I give you my word that she will give you no offense.”

  Brother Vincent bowed at the waist. Then he stepped aside and murmured something to one of the apprentices before moving back toward the group. “Miss, please do not touch any of the volumes without consulting with one of my order.”