The aeronauts windlass, p.10
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.10
 

           Jim Butcher

  “Become ready,” Gwen called back, a merry edge in her command. “I’m glad to pay very well for your trouble.”

  There was a sigh from inside the stall and then an older man with eyebrows approximately as thick as his wrists appeared from the pantry in the rear. Mr. Beech blinked once at Gwen and then said, “Miss Lancaster? This isn’t your usual hour. What are you doing here?”

  “Securing your profit margin for the day,” Gwen said, smiling and dropping a coin purse on the counter. It jingled invitingly. Neither the sound of the coin nor her smile seemed to displease the vendor. “I’m in need of one of your dumplings before noon.”

  “Simple enough, miss, coming up. And for the young sir?”

  “Two more of the same,” Gwen said firmly.

  “Coz,” Benedict protested. It was, Gwen thought, a decidedly feeble protest, undermined by another rumble from his stomach.

  “Right away, miss,” said Mr. Beech, and he turned to his stove, where a pan of oil awaited, and produced a number of sausages from an insulated cold cabinet. Mrs. Beech appeared from the back, her grey hair held back under a kerchief, stirring vigorously at a batch of dough. She spread some flour on a board and plopped the dough onto it to begin kneading it with swift, confident hands.

  “I’ll hear no backtalk from you, Benedict,” Gwen said, offering him a tart smile. “Or rather, I shall hear none from your belly, for an hour or two at least. Honestly, it’s most unbecoming a Lancaster, grumbling and growling like that.”

  Benedict rolled his eyes again, but his mouth quirked at the corners. “Fortunately for me, I am not so limited as you poor, pure Lancasters, having the Sorellin bloodline to broaden my mental, emotional, and artistic horizons.”

  “What’s that?” Gwen asked, and propped a hand to her ear, raising her voice slightly. “I’m certain I didn’t hear you correctly over the sound of your belly howling. It almost sounded as if you were questioning the utter and unquestionable superiority of the House of Lancaster.”

  Benedict’s smile widened. “Go play with your crystals and let the rest of us get on with the real work, eh?”

  “For shame, sir,” said Mr. Beech, peering up at Benedict from beneath his bushy eyebrows, his eyes glinting with amusement, “to speak so of the young miss’s family.”

  Gwen gave Benedict a triumphant smile. “There, you see? The Lancasters have the support of the people.”

  Benedict laughed. “You’re only taking her side because she’s paying.”

  “The young sir is wise,” commented Mrs. Beech.

  “Aye, he is, he is,” agreed the old man—as Gwen counted out a generous number of coins into his palm. She stuck out her tongue at Benedict cheerfully and said, “Thank you both very much.”

  A rather bookish-looking man of middle years entered the alcove, muttering, “. . . just don’t see how that’s going to work.” His clothes, though fine, were rumpled and askew, and his violet weskit was an affront to the sensibilities of a generation against the plain brown tweed of his coat and trousers. His hair was brown and overgrown, muddled with strands of grey, and his hands were long fingered and fine. He was writing in a journal with a pen fitted with a glowing crystal, muttering to himself as he did. “Good day, Mr. and Mrs. Beech,” he said without looking up. He stifled a yawn with one hand, and then continued writing. “A double of your finest and with some coffee, if you will. Nice and dark.” The pen flew over the page, scrawling out a line of some sort of figures Gwen didn’t recognize.

  “Good day, Addy,” said Mrs. Beech, her voice warm. “Up all night again?”

  “The curse of an academically inclined mind, I’m afraid,” the man replied. “Miles and miles of different ways to think the same old useless things.” He never stopped writing as he spoke, and he bumped into Gwen with the edge of his journal. “Ah, pardon me, sir.”

  “Sir?” Gwen asked in an arch tone.

  “Yes?” Addy asked, finishing a line with a flourish and beginning the next.

  Gwen cleared her throat, quite obviously indicating that she expected him to look up.

  “Out with it, man,” Addy said. “If you’ve something on your mind, just say it! I’m a bit too pressed for time to dance about!”

  Gwen’s eyes narrowed and turned steely. How dared this person be so discourteous to a lady? And most particularly to a lady of House Lancaster?

  “Coz,” Benedict said quickly, putting a hand on her arm.

  She shook it off. “A moment, cousin,” Gwen said. “I am faced with a distasteful quandary.”

  “But—”

  “Benedict,” Gwen said in her sweetest, gentlest voice.

  Benedict grimaced and took a small step back.

  Addy, if such was his name, was still writing, all but ignoring her. Intolerable!

  “Mmmm?” he asked absently. “Quandary?”

  Gwen’s voice came out cold and precise. “Whether to settle for a tongue-lashing for someone so impolite, or to take offense at this slight and demand satisfaction, as is my right!”

  Addy blinked several times and only then did he look up at Gwen. “I say. Really? Demand satisfaction?” Mirth bubbled underneath the words, as if he could hardly contain laughter. “You’re considering challenging me to a duel?”

  “I will have your name first, sir,” Gwen snapped.

  “Does it matter?” Addy asked.

  “Of course it does,” Gwen said. “I would know which House has been so slovenly as to allow one of its scions to wander about Habble Morning without the manners God gave a goat.”

  “Goats are actually rather gentle, sensible creatures,” Addy replied in a mild tone, “and they rarely burst into duels. Certainly not after an all-nighter.” He sighed. “Miss, should my name matter?”

  “What?” Gwen asked.

  “My name,” Addy said. “Are my actions not my own? Should it matter if I belong to a low House or high? Am I any more offensive as a common citizen than as one of the aristocracy?”

  Gwen blinked several times. His questions were so odd that they might have been phrased in a foreign tongue. Then she said, “Of course it should matter. I judge you no commoner by your clothes, sir, but if you are, I can hardly castigate you for your lack of graces when no education in such matters has been yours.”

  Addy tilted his head sharply to one side, and his dark eyes glittered. “You would hold me more accountable if I belonged to the aristocracy?”

  “Of course,” Gwen said. Her tone suggested that the man was an idiot. “Protocol between members of the Houses is the standard by which appropriate respect is given to one’s peers—respect that keeps those Houses from feuds and civil war. It is your duty to behave properly, sir. To those whom much is given, much is required. Of course I expect more of you.”

  A slow smile spread over Addy’s face. “How interesting.” He looked past Gwen to the two vendors. “How long?”

  Mr. Beech was already moving to draw a brass-wire basket from the heated oil, and he began setting the dumplings out onto square bits of cloth. “Coming up now.”

  Addy nodded at him and turned to Benedict. “All right,” he said. “Would you be so good as to introduce me to your cousin, sir? I think I like her.”

  Gwen blinked several times. “I beg your pardon?”

  Benedict drew in a deep breath and eyed Gwen with fond exasperation. “Coz,” he said. “You really must learn to shut your mouth from time to time. You’ll taste less shoe leather.” Straightening his coat, he bowed and said, “Gwendolyn Margaret Elizabeth Lancaster, daughter of Lord Minister and Lady Lancaster, it is my . . . singular pleasure . . . to introduce you to His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion, First Citizen and Spirearch of Albion.”

  Gwen stared at Benedict in shock for a second.

  Her stomach absolutely disconnected itself from the rest of her vitals and plunged into some unimaginable abyss.

  She slowly turned her gaze to the pleasantly smiling Spirearch. Then her face began to turn very, very
hot.

  “Miss Lancaster,” the Spirearch said with a small, pleased bow. “What a unique pleasure it has been to make your acquaintance.”

  Gwen stared at him, appalled. “You don’t . . . you don’t look like . . . your portrait.”

  “I was younger and a good deal angrier when it was painted,” he replied. “I don’t blame you one bit, Miss Lancaster. I haven’t been to a public function since you were a small child, I should think. There’s no reason at all you should have recognized me.”

  “I . . . I just . . . s-sir . . .” Gwen stammered. She felt her hands twitch, and could only assume it was because the endless hours of instruction in protocol had instilled the proper forms into her very nerves. He smoothly captured her hand and bowed over it.

  “Young lady, you are every bit as beautiful as your mother was when she was your age. Ah, breakfast! Or lunch. Lunchfast, perhaps,” the Spirearch said, as the Beeches produced the fresh, hot dumplings and glasses of chilled juice on a serving tray. “Would the two of you care to join me?”

  “I . . . we . . .” Gwen gave Benedict a rather desperate look.

  Benedict took a moment to smile at her and, she realized, to bask in the expression on her face. He was clearly enjoying the situation with an absolutely sadistic amount of amusement.

  “We should be delighted, sire,” he replied.

  “Excellent!” the Spirearch said. “There are fine tables just there, I think.” He picked up the tray, smoothly leaving coins for his own dumpling on the counter as he did. He favored Gwen with a polite smile and a nod in the proper direction. “Ladies first?”

  Gwen took a slow breath. Then she said to Benedict, “I am a perfect idiot,” and began walking to the tables.

  The Spirearch lifted an eyebrow and glanced up at Benedict.

  “That’s Gwennish for, ‘I apologize,’ ” Gwen heard him say soberly behind her. “After you, sire.”

  They set to the food in an awkward silence that soon changed to an appreciative one.

  “My word, that’s good,” Benedict breathed. He obviously tried to restrain himself, but just as obviously was having trouble doing anything but cramming the entire mass of dumpling into his mouth all at once. His food disappeared in large bites.

  Gwen had just offered the most appalling insolence to the monarch of Spire Albion. She felt as if whatever she’d had at breakfast that morning might come up, and barely touched her own dumpling.

  “The food here is better than anything I could get in the manor, without waiting for hours,” the Spirearch acknowledged. “The Beeches moved up to Habble Morning from Habble Landing ten years ago. I offered them a position on my staff, but they preferred to make their own way. I like that.”

  Benedict nodded, but he didn’t stop chewing.

  “So, Master Sorellin,” the Spirearch said. “I’m surprised to see you back this year, after what happened last spring.”

  Benedict shrugged a shoulder. “It hardly left a scar.”

  “Too bad,” the Spirearch said, his eyes sparkling. “I’m told young ladies swoon over them.”

  Gwen lifted her eyebrows. “Benny? Whatever is he talking about?”

  Benedict suddenly looked uncomfortable and kept his eyes focused on his food.

  “Benedict was serving a year with the Guard,” the Spirearch said. “I sent him as part of a small team down to Habble Risen to track down a missing shipment of weapons crystals. The thieves who had them declined to yield up their prize.”

  Gwen’s eyes widened. “You were in battle?”

  “It wasn’t a battle,” Benedict replied quickly. “Just a scuffle over getting through the door of their hideout. Hardly worth mentioning.”

  “A scuffle in which a Guardsman was badly wounded,” the Spirearch said. “And in which your cousin killed two armed men who were beating one of his fellow Guardsmen with clubs. After that, he pushed six more back through their own front door despite all they could do to hold it against him. One of them stabbed him in the arm for his trouble.”

  “It wasn’t much of a wound,” Benedict said. His face looked flushed.

  “He saved a number of lives,” the Spirearch said, “including those of his companions and most of the thieves—never mind the havoc that could have been loosed if those crystals had flooded the black market.” He blinked and looked at Gwen. “He received the Order of the Spire. I assumed you knew.”

  “To my knowledge, he never said anything about it,” Gwen said, staring hard at Benedict. “This is the first I’ve heard of the matter. You told me you hurt your arm in a sparring match, Benny.”

  Benedict ducked his head and picked up the second dumpling. The first had vanished with unseemly haste, despite his efforts to slow down.

  The Spirearch smiled. “Miss Lancaster—may I call you Gwen?”

  “Of course, sire.”

  “Excellent. But you must not call me ‘sire.’ Addison will do nicely.”

  Gwen hesitated. “Sire . . .”

  The Spirearch waved his hand. “I know the protocol. But it was created two centuries ago, when Gregor the Strong united the habbles and formed the Council—when he still had active executive power and an army to back it up.”

  “Sire . . . Addison, sir,” Gwen stammered. “You are still the Spirearch.”

  He laughed. “The monarchy was a necessary evil at one time, Miss Lancaster. Now I’m largely obsolete, and quite content to have it that way. Your father and the Council manage the affairs of the Spire by consensus, and all the habbles are represented in a fashion that at times borders upon being fair. The only armed forces we need within the Spire are the Guard—and they generally coordinate humanitarian efforts. I don’t rule, Miss Lancaster; nor did my father or grandfather. I just try to help my people when they need it.”

  “You are the Spirearch, sire,” Gwen insisted. “All the nobility honor you. All are honored to serve you.”

  “Merciful Builders, but you’re young,” he said with a whimsical smile. “Wait until I issue some sort of proclamation that cuts into their bank accounts, and I suspect they’d honor me with a mob and clubs.” He shook his head. “It’s tradition, true, for young nobles to volunteer to serve in the Guard, a mark of status. But it’s an arbitrary one in many ways. If I attempt to push past my boundaries, I expect some other activity might suddenly replace the Guard for high-profile service to the community.”

  “Not everyone feels that way, sire,” Benedict said quietly. “Not all of us see you as a relic.”

  “Not the Lancasters,” Gwen added.

  “Perhaps not,” the Spirearch said thoughtfully. “But be that as it may, I’m interested, Gwen, in why you wish to join the Guard.”

  “I am the only child of my father’s line,” she replied.

  “And as such may be excused from such duty with no loss of honor to you or your family. No one would think ill of you for avoiding your term of service.”

  Gwen lifted her chin slightly. “I would, sire.”

  The Spirearch sat back in his seat and eyed her for a moment. Then he said, “I will show you no favoritism whatsoever, Miss Lancaster, despite your importance to your father’s house. You will be given assignments like any other recruit. Some of those assignments might carry you into danger. More young men and women than I care to remember have been hurt or killed in the line of duty while following my commands. Do you understand?”

  “Yes. I do, sire.”

  He finished the last few bites of his dumpling with a pensive frown. Then he turned to Benedict. “The same goes for you, Master Sorellin. I choose those best suited to the tasks at hand based upon their ability. You’ve been put into harm’s way in my service and might be again.”

  “Yes, sire,” Benedict said, as if the Spirearch had stated that water was wet.

  Addison nodded and said, “We’re to have about forty new recruits this year, and as many returning veterans. I’ll see you both at the palace at the end of the training cycle to take your vows and sign your
contracts.”

  “Of course, sire,” Gwen said. “Sire . . .”

  “Miss Lancaster,” the Spirearch said reprovingly.

  “Addison,” she said, and then added, “sir.”

  He smiled, mostly with his eyes. “Yes?”

  “Had I known who you were earlier . . .”

  “You would have been well within your rights to react in precisely the same way, Miss Lancaster,” he said firmly. “Please excuse me for my rudeness. It’s very seldom I get to be impolite for fun—and I’m afraid I have a rather depressingly low sense of humor. I trust you will forgive me.”

  She felt her cheeks heating up again. “Of course, sire.”

  There was a sudden deep, hollow chime. Someone was ringing the bells at the center of the habble’s common area, near the marketplace.

  Benedict tensed. Then he popped the second half of his second dumpling into his mouth in a single bite. Gwen pushed her dumpling toward him automatically, and he scooped it up in what was clearly an unthinking, instinctive reaction.

  “Ah,” the Spirearch said. “I believe I saw something in the notices about a duel to be fought today. I may have heard that the situation has the potential to be quite messy and ugly for those involved. You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you, Miss Lancaster?”

  His voice was calm, even whimsical, but there was something in his words that carried the hint of steel.

  “I suspect you know very well that I do, sire.”

  His teeth showed briefly. “Then I suspect that you plan to see it to the end.”

  “We do,” Benedict said in a quiet voice.

  The Spirearch nodded. “A great many eyes are on what you do today, Miss Lancaster—among them my own.”

  Gwen swallowed. The great chime tolled several more times and then fell silent.

  The Spirearch glanced toward the source of the sound and nodded in what was undeniably a dismissal. “The Tagwynns are good people. House Lancaster has always had my respect, miss. I expect today’s events to vindicate that respect.”

  Gwen could recognize a command when she heard it, and her heart suddenly beat a little faster. This situation was no longer a simple mess caused by her lack of judgment. The attention of the Spirearch meant that it had ramifications for her House as well.