The aeronauts windlass, p.16
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.16

           Jim Butcher

  The Auroran made a rumbling sound.

  “But consider: If you retreat and take me with you, you have the means to prevent my friends from opening fire—the threat to my life. Nor will you be pursued—if you leave the explosives, they will have little choice but to remain with them to prevent you from using them for their intended purpose.”

  “If not the explosives, then what profit do I have from this proposal?”

  “You get to survive the hour,” Bridget said. “Your men survive. You get to escape into the tunnels and fight another day.”

  Ciriaco grunted his acceptance of the statement. “And what do you get?”

  “You don’t get to blow up whatever you’d planned to blow up,” she replied. “And both of my friends survive the hour.”

  He growled. “And what do you get, miss?”

  “Raped and murdered, likely,” she said. “But as that decision will hardly be up to me, there seems no point in dwelling on it. I’m a bit new to this sort of thing, Sergeant, but it seems to me that standing around hoping for some soldier who might or might not come along to be perfectly stealthy and to make a perfect shot at the correct target on his first attempt seems to be a course of action with a very low probability of success—especially when any failure or incorrect decision on his part means that everyone dies in an explosion. By contrast, my proposal guarantees your immediate survival and gives you hope to survive the future, to possibly negotiate better terms for a surrender, or even to escape Albion altogether.”

  One of the other soldiers evidently spoke Albion, because he looked from Bridget to Ciriaco and said something in a tense voice. The warriorborn Marine snapped out a brief, savage-sounding answer.

  “By all means, discuss it,” Bridget said. “The more we talk, the more likely we’ll find some sane way to end this.” And, Bridget thought, it would give Rowl more time to find another solution. She only hoped he had better sense than to stage some sort of one-cat surprise assault. “Sergeant, surely you must see that—”

  Ciriaco’s fingers tightened again, shutting off her air, and he said in a mildly irritated voice, “You people can’t get enough of the sound of your own voices, can you? I’m thinking.”

  “She doesn’t say it well,” Benedict said in a low, hard voice. “But she’s right. Whatever your mission was, you’ve little chance of accomplishing it as planned now. And the longer you stay here, the more likely it is that something bad happens to all of us.”

  “Something tells me,” the Auroran said, “that you aren’t going to just stand there while I walk away with the girl.”

  “That will depend,” Benedict said.

  “On what?”

  “What happens to her,” he said. “Treat her with respect and release her unharmed, and we’re all just soldiers.”

  “And if I don’t?”

  Benedict was quiet for a moment before he said, “It’s personal.”

  Bridget, who had not been able to breathe during this exchange, slapped the fingers of one arm against Ciriaco’s steely forearms, as if tapping out of one of Benedict’s holds in training.

  “Hmm?” Ciriaco said. Then, “Ah, yes.” His fingers loosened, and Bridget sucked in a lungful of air. The motion shifted her weight by some minuscule degree.

  And, so quietly that she almost thought she’d imagined it for a moment, Ciriaco made a sound of pain.

  Bridget froze, considering that. That was right; the Auroran had taken a gauntlet blast to the shoulder. She could still smell the stench of charred cloth and what might have been burnt flesh. The wound had been significant enough that he had feared to challenge Benedict to battle. In fact, now that she considered it, the hold Ciriaco had on her was hardly an efficient one. A few weeks of training did not make her an expert, but she knew that he could have been holding her locked quite easily with his right arm, freeing his gauntlet hand. Instead, his left arm was wrapped around her midsection—and not particularly tightly.

  Why not? Obviously because he could not. He might not be able to lift his arm at all. That would explain why he wouldn’t allow her to shift her position. His left arm might be a good deal less strong than he would like her to believe—and she was tall enough that if she altered her posture, the fingers on her throat would not have as sure a grip. Granted, the fingers of his right hand held her windpipe like a vise, and were perfectly sufficient to the task of killing her—or to dissuade her from testing the strength of his left arm.

  There might be a way for her to escape, she realized. But it all depended upon the Auroran’s resolve. How willing was he to kill her?

  “Albion,” Ciriaco said. “Do not for one second think that I’m afraid of your taking things personally.”

  “If you’re not afraid, let go of the girl,” Benedict said.

  “I’m fearless,” Ciriaco replied in a dry tone, “not stupid. And as smart as it would be to accept her offer, it isn’t going to happen.”

  Bridget turned her head toward him again. “Why ever not?”

  “Because I am a loyal son of Aurora,” Ciriaco said. “And I have a duty. I’ll fulfill it or die trying.” After a moment he said in a softer tone, “And, miss, however this turns out—if we’d taken you, I’d have gutted any man who tried to lay a hand on you. If it had to be death, I’d have given it to you clean and quick.”

  “To be clear, you are not a rapist,” Bridget said, “but you are a murderer.”

  “You seem to have it surrounded, miss,” he said.

  He sounded entirely sincere—which made any attempt to exploit his weakened arm something best left to a moment of desperation. Though her back began to twinge again, and she feared that moment was rapidly drawing nigh.

  The two groups fell into a tight, withering silence for a moment more. And then the rather eerie voice of a cat echoed through the dim hallway.

  “Littlemouse,” Rowl said. “Help comes.”

  Ciriaco tensed at once at the sound, looking up and down the hallway as though seeking its source, but even the remarkable eyes of the warriorborn were not able to see into blackness from a small and relatively well-lit area.

  “This may be your last opportunity, Sergeant,” Bridget said. “Walk away.”

  Ciriaco made a growling sound in his chest. “Cats are a vicious little plague, but they don’t frighten me either, miss.”

  Several of the other Aurorans spoke in their home Spire’s tongue, a quick, terse exchange, which was ended when Ciriaco growled the same phrase he’d used a moment before. Then his eyes widened and he snapped out another order. The Aurorans looked at one another, but lowered their gauntlets and started backing out the way they’d come.

  “Stay with me, miss,” Ciriaco said in a low tone. “Albion—you, step over by your little friend on the ground. We’re going.”

  Benedict narrowed his eyes, but then his nostrils flared, and he nodded as if in understanding. He took several steps until he stood over Gwen.

  “Remember,” he said to Bridget, “our first lesson.”

  Bridget blinked at him.

  The first thing to learn, as he had often repeated while instructing her, was how to fall.

  Of course . . . that hadn’t been the first lesson, had it?

  It seemed rather suicidal, but . . . perhaps Benedict’s judgment in these matters was better than her own. So though it made her heart race with sudden, quivering terror, Bridget moved. She braced her feet and clamped her hands down onto Ciriaco’s right forearm, bending forward with all of her strength, much as she would when tossing a side of beef forward and over her shoulder.

  And several things happened very quickly.

  First, something like a collar of fire closed around her neck. Ciriaco was no novice of battle—instead of being thrown over her shoulder, he took a smooth pair of steps, circling around her, and as a result he was only lifted a few inches clear of the floor.

  As soon as she felt his weight pivoting away from him and onto her own legs, Bridget pushed her body back a
s hard as she could—and slammed his wounded shoulder between her body and the spirestone wall. He let out a startled snarl of pain, and the deathly grip on her throat loosened.

  A crackling lance of etheric energy burned across Bridget’s field of vision and struck one of the Auroran Marines square in the head. He went down in a heap of motionless limbs. The first bolt was followed by three more half a heartbeat later, and though two failed to score, the other struck an Auroran in the thigh, sweeping his leg from beneath him and slamming him to the floor.

  Bridget had no chance at all in pitting her muscles against the warriorborn’s stony strength. Both of her arms did not serve to overpower his single limb.

  So she kept slamming her body against his wounded shoulder, seized upon a single one of his fingers with both of her capable hands, and bent it back savagely.

  Ciriaco screamed a furious word, and then Bridget found herself flying forward though the air, until she struck the far wall of the tunnel. It was a rather startling experience, particularly the sudden stop. Her arms and legs stopped working properly, and as she bounced off the wall she felt herself falling, and she couldn’t breathe.

  She wound up on the floor, and then the two crystals the Aurorans had been using for light winked out, leaving nothing but blackness broken only by dazzling flashes of etheric light.

  The floor seemed quite cool and comfortable for some reason, and she was content to remain there. The flashes of light ceased their bickering, and a moment later she felt Rowl’s nose gently nuzzling her cheek. She made the effort to move her hand and assure him that she was all right.

  Then she heard voices and light sprang up in the tunnel. A great many men with weather-worn clothing, weather-worn faces, and odd, heavy-looking tunics had appeared. They were all armed with gauntlet and blade but for four who carried long guns, their copper coils gleaming, their overheated barrels giving off trickles of steam as they boiled away the water from their little storage tanks.

  One man appeared from their midst, and Bridget picked him out immediately as their leader. He was of only average height, his suit was rather mismatched and patchy, and one of his arms was held in a sling, but there were the marks of gauntlet fire on the suit, and he was sprinkled with blood that did not appear to be his own. The man moved with an absolute surety of purpose, with unbroken focus, and the men around him deferred to him with an obvious, silent respect that could not have been expressed in words. He took a quick look around and said, “Excellent shot, Mister Stern.”

  A slender little man holding a long gun touched a finger to an imaginary cap. “Baker made the good shot, sir. Legged him. We’ve got a prisoner to talk to.”

  “Good work. See to him.”

  “Aye, Captain.”

  The man turned and approached Bridget.

  Rowl immediately stepped up onto Bridget’s chest, sat, and regarded the man with narrow eyes and a low growl.

  “Excuse me,” he said to the cat. “But you did wish me to help her, did you not?”

  The cat’s eyes narrowed further.

  The man extended his hand to Bridget and asked, “Can you rise, miss?”

  Bridget made a hushing sound of reassurance to Rowl, took the man’s hand, and slowly rose, gathering Rowl into her other arm as she did. “Yes. Thank you, sir.” It hurt to speak.

  The man inclined his head politely. “My name is Grimm.” He looked over to where a tall and very handsome younger man was helping Gwen to her feet. “Mister Creedy, detail a squad to secure those explosives, if you please.”

  “Aye, Captain,” said the tall young man.

  Bridget suddenly felt a bit dizzy, and then Benedict was at her side, one of his hands beneath her elbow, offering her gentle support.

  “The Aurorans,” she asked him. “What happened?”

  “They took your advice—minus the part where they abducted you, for which I cannot help but feel grateful,” Benedict replied.

  “I was going to lift him and throw him like you told me,” Bridget said, “but it didn’t work. I’m sorry.”

  Benedict blinked. “Is that what you thought . . . No, no. I caught the scent of Captain Grimm and his men coming once Rowl returned, and thought a cross fire was imminent. I meant for you to fall.”

  Bridget blinked. “Oh. It’s . . . In retrospect, it’s rather obvious when you phrase it in that manner.”

  Benedict lifted her chin gently with a couple of fingers and peered at her neck. “I must admit, though—he certainly didn’t see it coming.” He poked at her throat gently with his fingertips.

  “Ow,” Bridget said calmly.

  “A physician should look at this,” Benedict said, his voice worried.

  Gwen had gone to Barnabus’s side and looked up from the wounded man. “Him, too. He seems to be unconscious.” She rose and went to Grimm. “Captain, can you spare any men to help us with our wounded?”

  “Of course, miss,” Grimm said, inclining his head in a little bow. “I’ll have them taken to where my own men are being treated at House Lancaster, if that suits you.”

  Gwen arched her eyebrows rather sharply and said, “I suppose that will do.”

  “Mister Creedy,” Grimm said. “You will take a squad to get the civilians to safety and the prisoner and confiscated material to a secure location. I will continue the sweep and meet with you back at House Lancaster. Mister Stern, take point again, if you please. . . .”

  And as quickly as they had come, most of the aeronauts and their captain departed.

  The tall young man saw to the loading of the explosives back onto their stretcher, and men to carry them, and made sure the captured Auroran wasn’t going to bleed to death or bolt. Then he turned to them and said, “Ladies, sir, if you could come with me, please. We shouldn’t linger here until we’re sure it’s clear of more of the enemy.”

  Bridget still felt somewhat confused. “Benedict,” she said, “I’m sorry but . . . I don’t understand. Is the fighting over?”

  His expression darkened. “No,” he said quietly. “I think it’s just getting started.”

  Chapter Seventeen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, House of Master Ferus

  Folly sat up in her bed in the little loft over the master etherealist’s library, covered in a cold sweat, her heart racing, her breath heavy. She sat there dully for a mute moment. Terror left a sour miasma in the air around a person—not something one could smell, even if she had the sharpest of noses, but she always felt that she could detect its stench, for some reason.

  “Teacher,” Folly called. “It would seem I’ve had the dream again.”

  “Did you catch it?” the master called back. “If you didn’t, I should say that the dream has had you.”

  Folly sat up and looked around her little loft. Her stacks and stacks of jars full of little-used illumination crystals—she would never understand the phrase “burnt out” in reference to the crystals that no longer responded to an average human will—gave the entire place a soft aqua glow. She turned to check her dream catcher.

  Between two stacks of glass jars was a funnel web woven of individual strands of ethersilk. Folly checked the web and the small etheric cage at the narrow end of the funnel, built of a neutral crystal in a frame of copper wire.

  Really, Folly thought, it was quite a good thing that she was an etherealist’s apprentice, because she would have made a remedial spider. The funnel web had dozens of sagging strands, and several of them had even parted completely, their loose ends floating away from her fingers as she brushed them near. It was lopsided, the curl of the spiral didn’t close in a steady curve, and there were several obvious lumps in the design, where her knots and glue-work had been clumsy.

  But, she thought, that didn’t mean that it was necessarily a bad web, especially for someone who had never had the same opportunity to learn afforded every spider.

  And the little crystal in the etheric cage was glowing with sullen, flamecolored light.

  “I am a succes
sful self-taught spider, I think,” she called down to Ferus.

  “I always hoped you would grow into one,” Ferus said. His chair scraped on the floor, and footsteps approached the ladder to the loft. The ladder groaned as he came up it and eyed the trap. “By the Builders, Folly. What a marvelous little gnatcatcher you are!”

  Folly smiled and bounced a little as he spoke, reaching for the cage.

  The small assembly promptly retreated from her outreached hand, and the crystal seemed to strain against its copper cage, buzzing and vibrating against the metal like an angry wasp. She blinked several times and took her fingers away from it, reminded of the unpleasant relationships enjoyed between some spiders and some wasps.

  “Ah!” Ferus cackled. “Ah, you did it. I thought as much!”

  “I just told you that I did it, teacher,” Folly pointed out.

  “Not you,” Ferus said in a testy voice. “I was speaking of the Enemy.”

  Folly tilted her head and regarded the little copper framework. “There’s an Enemy?”

  “God in Heaven, yes,” Ferus said. “I’m sure I told you. I distinctly remember doing so.”

  “Perhaps that was tomorrow, teacher.”

  “It may be,” Ferus said. “But yes, quite. Enemy, capital E.”

  “If one is to have an Enemy, one might as well have a respectable one. And this dream? It is an Enemy sending?”

  “I rather suspect it was more of a Folly taking,” Ferus replied. “Give it to us; let’s have a look.”

  Folly considered the problem for a moment, then carefully reached her hand down on the far side of the copper cage. She moved her hand toward it, and it began to buzz again, moving away. She herded it over to the edge of the loft, and Ferus caught it handily as it leaped away from her.

  “Excellent,” he said, his tone pleased. The old etherealist leaned down to peer at the crystal. “Let’s see what’s been on your mind, eh?”