The aeronauts windlass, p.13
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.13
 

           Jim Butcher

  “Then this was a raiding force?” Creedy asked.

  Grim frowned, looking at the yards. The Fleet vessels had not reacted as swiftly as Predator and her crew, but they were now in the process of leaving the shipyard, gathering together two hundred feet above the Spire, concentrating their armor and firepower. Albion’s home fleet consisted of a corps of twenty Roc-class battleships, absolute leviathans a hundred times the mass of Predator—and correspondingly sluggish and slow to respond. They were accompanied by a screen of lighter vessels, around fifty cruisers and destroyers of various tonnages. All of them had sounded general quarters and were under way.

  Grimm watched the Fleet lurching into motion, which he suspected to be futility in action, and jerked his chin up toward the mists above them. “You’ve got to admire how well the Aurorans managed that pass of the Spire, and in mist like this. But those destroyers can’t lock horns with the home Fleet, or with the Spire’s batteries. They damaged or destroyed a few lighter ships, but they couldn’t possibly have hoped to inflict serious harm to home Fleet.”

  “You think the attack was a distraction,” Creedy said.

  “Why do it otherwise?” Grim nodded overhead again. “I suspect there’s a troop transport up there, dropping its complement.”

  “Merciful Builders,” Creedy said, his eyes widening in understanding. “They knew the Fleet would mobilize. They wouldn’t have any choice.”

  “Precisely,” Grimm said. “If they can get a body of troops into the Spire, God in Heaven only knows what mischief the Aurorans could manage. And as we speak, every Marine in home Fleet is aboard his ship. Up there. Where he can’t defend the Spire.”

  “We’ve got to tell Fleet,” Creedy said.

  “I’m an exile, and you’ve been habbled, Byron,” Grimm said quietly. “All I have is a theory and an old piece of ethersilk. Even if we could get word to him, do you think Admiral Watson would stand down?”

  Creedy’s face looked pained, frustrated. He nodded slowly, his eyes thoughtful. Then he said, “The men are a fine crew, but they aren’t professional soldiers—and a regiment of Auroran Marines will outnumber us three to one. They’ll tear us— That is, we’ll never defeat them.”

  “We needn’t defeat them,” Grimm said, “but only slow them down. Bayard has a crooked mind but it works perfectly well. He’ll realize what’s happening before long.”

  “Yes, sir,” Creedy said quietly. “What are we to do?”

  “Gather the crew, arm them, and defend the Spire, Mister Creedy,” Grimm said. “Make ready to repel boarders.”

  Chapter Twelve

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning

  To shelter, then,” Benedict said, turning to Gwen as the sirens wailed. “Back to Lancaster, I think.”

  Gwen stared around at the rising panic spreading through the market. “I . . . Yes, the house is supposed to be under a structural strongpoint of some kind, but . . .”

  Bridget hopped down from the dueling platform and caught Rowl as he jumped up into her arms. The cat’s eyes were very wide, his head jerking back and forth as he tried to track all the frantic movement.

  “My father,” Bridget said. “I need to get to my father.”

  “Wait,” Gwen said, catching Benedict’s wrist as he was turning to go. There was something in her that was screaming for attention, and she had to take a moment for the thought to crystallize.

  The young man arched an eyebrow and looked down at her—but he waited.

  Then there was a hideous sound, as if a thunderbolt could scream in anguish and rage. Part of the translucent ceiling of Habble Morning suddenly burned with a light brighter than any mist-shrouded noonday sun. The very floor beneath their feet shook with it, and a pall of dust fell from the ceiling high overhead. A second later there was another shrieking impact, and another, making the Spirestone of Albion toll like a titanic bell.

  Dust fell in a choking haze, and the screaming redoubled. Pieces of masonry that in the past had been used to repair the not-quiteinvulnerable Spirestone fell, some of them larger than a man.

  Gwen took note of them and simply lifted her chin. The stones would fall where they fell. Panicked flight might as easily carry her beneath a falling mound of masonry as save her from it. Her father had always said that when one most wanted to panic was when one most needed to think clearly, so despite the falling stone, Gwendolyn Lancaster stood quietly.

  Then she spoke in a slow, firm tone, realizing the truth of the words even as she said them. “We are members of the Spirearch’s Guard. We don’t run from trouble. We run toward it. We should report for duty.”

  Bridget blinked at that, and her expressive face showed a flicker of fear, then resignation, and then annoyance. “Oh, bother. I should have remembered that myself.”

  Benedict smiled with tight lips. “Ah. I had rather hoped to get the two of you stowed in some nice safe strong-room, but . . . you’re right, of course. We should.”

  “Benny, don’t be tiresome,” Gwen said. “Where do we go?”

  Again the Spire shook with thunder, and more rock fell. Screams began nearby, high-pitched and terrible. Gwen could not be sure whether it was a man or a woman or a child.

  “There,” Benedict said, nodding toward the source of the sound. “Our first duty is to protect and aid endangered citizens. Follow me.” The three of them and Rowl started forward through the panicked residents and dust-filled air, Benedict’s tall, lean form leading the way.

  A waterfall of shattered stone roared down abruptly, only a few yards away, and Gwen absolutely could not believe how violently loud the impact sounded. Small chips of stone flew out, one of them stinging as it struck her hip. She saw Bridget flinch, and a tiny spot of blood appeared on her right cheek.

  They ran perhaps fifty strides, the screaming growing louder, and suddenly from out of the haze of shattered stone the shape of a mound of rubble appeared. Someone was pinned beneath a large piece of masonry. Some of the dust had been matted into scarlet mud. He was clearly in agony.

  “Benedict, lift the stone,” Gwen said. “Bridget, help me slide him out.”

  “Wait,” Benedict snapped. “If he’s bleeding under there, the rock could be holding the injury shut. We have to be ready to stanch it immediately when we get him out. We need cloth for bandages.”

  Gwen nodded sharply and promptly reached for the hem of her skirt and started tearing it into strips. “Bridget,” she said.

  Bridget knelt down and started to do the same thing, while Benedict crouched beside the trapped man. Then Gwen’s cousin let out a swift curse.

  “It’s Barnabus Astor under all this dust,” Benedict said.

  “Bad luck,” Gwen noted, still tearing. “If there were any kind of justice, it would be Reggie there.”

  Between the two of them, Gwen and Bridget managed to reduce the outermost layer of Gwen’s skirts into strips and folded pads. Once it was done, Benedict nodded and said, “Bridget, haul him out when I lift. Don’t dawdle.”

  “I won’t,” Bridget said seriously.

  Then Benedict turned to the fallen stone, a mass the size of a small coffin, dug his fingers beneath one edge, and heaved with the entire power of his lean frame. For a second nothing happened. The muscles in Benedict’s back and shoulders swelled out and shook. But then there was a groan and the rock shifted ever so slightly. Poor Barnabus let out a shriek of new agony, and then Bridget was dragging him out from beneath the rock.

  There was blood, Gwen noted, what seemed an entirely unnecessary amount of it. A few weeks ago she’d have had no real idea what to do about it, but their first long day of weapons training had been composed entirely of lessons in how to deal with injuries like this one. Gwen slammed a thick pad of cloth over a spurting wound in Barnabus’s leg, then wrapped strips of cloth around it, tightened them, and tied them off. The young man let out another breathless gasp of agony as she jerked the knots tight.

  “That will do to get him to safety,” Benedict said, panting.
“Bridget, I’m going to pick him up. I want you to get his wounded leg up onto your shoulder. Keep it elevated, eh?”

  “Of course.”

  Thunder roared again, and stones began to fall nearby. There was a low, deep groaning sound from overhead, and Benedict’s face went white. “Hurry!”

  He scooped Barnabus in his arms and Bridget immediately braced the wounded man’s leg on one of her shoulders.

  To Gwen’s great alarm, rocks began to fall more rapidly all around them. “We’ve got to get out of the atrium! There, a side tunnel.”

  “Go, go, go!” Benedict shouted, and began to half run, half shuffle toward the relative safety of the smaller tunnel.

  Just as they slipped into its cool dimness the tower groaned again, and suddenly a section of masonry the size of an average home crashed down onto the space they’d just vacated. The noise was deafening. The dust became a throat-closing, choking pall.

  “Farther in!” Gwen gasped, and they continued their retreat down the dim side tunnel, into what rapidly became blackness.

  Finally they reached a turn, and once they’d rounded the corner the air suddenly grew sweet again, the gentle current flowing down the tunnel evidently dispersing the dust, and they came to a halt. “Light?” Benedict asked, coughing.

  Gwen reached up to the small crystals on her earrings with the fingers of her right hand and willed them to life one at a time, just as she would have done to discharge a gauntlet. The tiny crystals winked alight. It wasn’t particularly bright light, but contrasted with the blackness it was dazzling.

  Benedict lay the wounded man on the ground and examined his injuries. “Bother,” he said quietly. “Barney, old man, I’m afraid you’ve sprung a few leaks.”

  Barnabus answered through the pained clench of his teeth. “Normally that only happens when I’ve been engaged in epic drinking.”

  “We’ll put some corks in you, then, until we can get you to a physician.”

  Bridget turned to Gwen and started ripping at the second layer to her skirts, while Benedict examined the bandage Gwen had put in place. Evidently he thought it sound, because as Bridget handed him more cloth, he moved on to other injuries and began stanching them in turn. Gwen ran out of skirt before Barnabus ran out of injuries, leaving only one thin layer of skirts between her legs and the cold air of the habble.

  “Come on, then,” Benedict said. “Keep the bandages coming.”

  “I hardly think so,” Gwen said. “Benny, take off your shirt and we’ll rip it to bits.”

  Benedict shot her a glance, then eyed her last layer of skirts and grunted understanding. He slipped out of his jacket and weskit, and stripped off the shirt beneath in a single ripple of motion, passing it back to Bridget.

  Gwen sometimes forgot that her cousin was, like all warriorborn, a particularly athletic-looking, masculine specimen of a man lined with hard, lean muscle. The effect was impressive. Bridget blinked at his unclothed torso in such shock that his tossed shirt fell through her hands as if they’d suddenly gone numb. “Oh,” she said. “My.”

  Gwen arched an eyebrow and felt herself smiling. So it was like that with Bridget, was it? Well. God in Heaven only knew that Benedict deserved someone’s affection. Amongst the families of the High Houses in general, the warriorborn were considered . . . unseemly—and best put to use as armed retainers or bodyguards—and certainly not as members of a House.

  Gwen nudged Bridget with an elbow. The girl blinked again, shook herself, and went back to tearing cloth as the air-raid sirens continued out in the habble’s main atrium.

  “Hang in there, Barney,” Benedict said as he worked. “I know it hurts, but I think we’ll keep your body and soul knitted together.”

  Barnabus answered with a faint, pained grunt, his eyes closed.

  “I still don’t understand why this is happening,” Bridget said. “Airships attacked the Spire? Whose?”

  “The Aurorans, most probably,” Gwen answered.

  “But why would they do such a thing?”

  “Economics, mostly.”

  “What?”

  “The government of Spire Aurora is greedy, corrupt, and inefficient,” Gwen said. “Taxes are quite high. Each habble struggles against its neighbors to claim funding and favors from their government, and the actual business of government is generally neglected. As a result, their enterprises suffer and do not grow—while their population does. So once every generation or so, the Aurorans become aggressive. Their fleet gobbles up outposts, and in the past entire Spires, plundering their wealth to keep their own Spire going, and getting a lot of their own people killed to reduce the pressure on their population.”

  Bridget sounded baffled. “They want to go to war . . . for money?”

  Gwen snorted. “You’ll never hear them say that. They always manage to find or contrive a rationale. But in the end they are nothing more than glorified pirates. Tension has been building between their Armada and our Fleet for a year or so—mostly raids on Albion merchantmen, and small-scale engagements with Fleet ships.”

  “Didn’t think they’d move this soon, though,” Benedict put in. “I don’t think anyone did.”

  From the darkness just outside the little circle of light Gwen’s earrings cast, there was a quiet, rather unnerving feline sound.

  Bridget tensed and looked down the tunnel. “Rowl says someone is coming.”

  “Thank God in Heaven,” Gwen said, peering. “Perhaps it is some of the Guard.” She called, “Hello? Who is that, please?”

  A few moments later, eight men in uniforms of the Spirearch’s Guard stepped into the outskirts of Gwen’s light. Two of them were carrying a stretcher, its occupant covered by blankets. Another, wearing the weapon-crystal insignia of a junior officer, touched a finger to his brow and said, “Miss.”

  “Lieutenant,” Gwen said. She didn’t recognize the man, but that was hardly unusual. The Guard had several dozen outposts throughout the Spire, with most of two thousand individuals serving. “I’m quite glad to see you. We’ve a wounded civilian here. Can you help us?”

  “Sorry, miss,” the man replied. “I’m afraid we’ve duties of our own to attend to.”

  “Gwendolyn,” Benedict said.

  Gwen shot Benedict a glance. He never called her by her full name. He was waiting for her to look, his face calm, but his eyes were intent. “I’m sure the lieutenant regrets the need to fulfill his duty. It’s nearly miraculous that he is in motion at all this soon after a surprise attack.”

  Gwen frowned at her cousin. Then Benedict flexed his left wrist, his gauntlet hand, in a slow circle, and with a cold shock Gwen realized what he meant.

  The attack had happened only moments ago. The four of them had been involved in it, had seen it happening, and yet they’d barely had time to duck into the tunnel for safety and apply rapid field dressings to poor Barney Astor. Yet here stood a full squad of the Guard, already armed and organized and carrying a casualty on a stretcher. And, Gwen noted, wearing large field packs as well.

  No one could have thrown that together in mere moments, not in the terror and confusion currently raging through the habble. Not unless they’d known the attack was coming.

  And who would know better than the enemy? An enemy wearing Guard uniforms, operating in secret—an enemy who would have no compunction in killing anyone they came across in order to maintain their disguise.

  Someone like herself, for example.

  Gwen’s heart started pounding so loudly she fancied she could hear it.

  Benedict gave her a microscopic nod, then deliberately closed his eyes and turned back to the wounded man.

  Closing his eyes. He’d done that on purpose, so that she could see it. Why?

  Ah. Obviously, yes.

  Gwen pivoted back to the false Guardsmen, raised her left hand, and discharged her gauntlet into the officer’s face from less than five feet away.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Ventilation Tunnels


  There was a truly blinding flash of light. When one discharged a gauntlet, the light was bright enough to clearly show the bones of one’s hand through the seemingly translucent flesh. The force of the gauntlet’s blast screamed into the echoing expanse of the tunnel, smashing into the officer like a blazing sledgehammer. It flung his abruptly limp body to the ground as if he’d been bludgeoned with an enormous club.

  Then Gwen willed away the light of the little crystals on her earrings and plunged the tunnel into blackness.

  She couldn’t see a thing but a blinding swirl of colors—and her own eyes had been at least partly shielded from the light of the gauntlet’s discharge. The false Guardsmen who had been able to see the crystal directly would be in even worse shape. Absolutely no one would be able to see in the sudden contrast of brilliance and pitch-blackness.

  No one but one of the warriorborn.

  Gwen dropped to the floor as a sudden sound she had never heard before, a snarl indistinguishable from the coughing roar of a large hunting cat, burst forth from the blackness. There was a quick, scuffling sound of boots pressed sharply against the stone floor, an exhalation, and then a cry of pain in the darkness. There were more scuffling sounds, a voice shouting something in Auroran, more screams, and then the flash of a gauntlet gave her a burned-picture image—two men were already on the ground, and Benedict was locked in grips with a third man, whose gauntlet had gone off while Benedict, fighting bare-handed, held it aimed at a fourth enemy.

  That flash image gave Gwen only an instant to understand where her cousin stood, and an even briefer time in which to act. She aimed her own gauntlet wide of Benedict’s position and triggered another shot, sending a blast in the general direction of the disguised invaders. She had no idea whatsoever whether she’d hit friend or foe, but thought it a very good idea not to remain in the same place, in case any of the Aurorans had the same idea she’d had. She rolled to her left until her shoulder fetched up rather painfully against a cold stone wall.