Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 17

Jim Butcher

  His eyes glittered brightly and then the old man fell silent, staring.

  Folly rose from her bed, took off her night clothes, and put on clothes that felt right for today: a red stocking, a grey stocking with blue speckles, a plain dress of yellow cotton, and a dozen brightly colored scarves that she tied in a row down each arm, using her teeth to finish the knots. Then she strapped on a pistolier’s gun belt, minus the unreliable weaponry, and filled the holsters with small mesh sacks of dim little etheric crystals instead. They were not used to being carried that way, but it would be a good learning experience for them, she thought. She completed the outfit with several more scarves that went around her neck and wound a long knitted scarf about her head. It was hot, but she thought it suited today, and she felt ever so much better once she had finished dressing.

  She had time to dress and to sit down and begin telling all of her little crystals good morning when the master let out a long, slow breath and lowered the etheric cage with its sullen crystal heart. He looked awful. His face was grey, his eyes sunken.

  “Teacher?” Folly said. She moved to the edge of the loft and crouched beside him, reaching out to touch his head, which was feverhot. “What did you see?”

  “A sending indeed,” he said. “This was no dream, no etheric echo, my girl. I believe it was a message.”

  Folly blinked. “A message? Sent by ether? Is such a thing possible?”

  “A moment ago I would have said that it was not,” he replied, his eyes still far away. “But it would seem that someone has worked out how it might be done—though just as clearly they had no idea that they might be overheard.”

  “You think I’ve been eavesdropping in my dreams? I trust that is not an assessment of my character, teacher.”

  “No,” he said slowly. He often spoke so when his mind was fully focused on some task. “No, child. Your nightmares of late—you’ve been hearing their whispers for what? Two weeks now?”

  “About that, yes,” Folly said. “But, teacher—how is it that I heard them and you did not?”

  “That is an excellent question. I will give it consideration.” He took a slow breath and then said, “By the way, we’re at war as of an hour ago. I didn’t think it was worth waking you for.”

  “I may have missed this . . . dream message, otherwise,” Folly said seriously. “I suppose it would be disorienting to have an Enemy but no war.”

  “Let us not make assumptions,” the master said.

  “Then I will make a question or two, if you do not mind.”

  “Rarely.”

  “You say this was a message. To whom was it sent?”

  “Points for grammar, Folly. Mmmmm.” Ferus rubbed at his chin. “Another etherealist, almost certainly.”

  “Are there any others in Habble Morning?”

  Ferus shook his head. “Not for . . . a great many years now. The nearest is Bernard Fezzig down in Habble Solace, I think. But he’s utterly mad, you know.”

  Folly carefully straightened one of the hundreds of jars of exhausted crystals that had inexplicably become slightly misaligned. “The poor man.”

  “It happens to the best of us,” Ferus said, and slid back down the ladder, bouncing the trapped etheric message in one palm. He had, Folly noted, forgotten to put on his clothing that morning, except for a pair of thick black socks and his sleeping cap. “I have an intuition.”

  “Is it a fine one?”

  “I think we shall need that grim captain.”

  “Captain Grimm?”

  “Don’t correct my grammar; it’s an aesthetic choice of word order. But yes, that fellow whose arm had been infested.”

  “What shall we need him for?”

  “He seemed capable. And polite. And it’s so rare to meet someone who is actually polite for the proper reasons.” He paused. “Is it cold in here?”

  “You need to put on your warm robe, teacher,” Folly suggested diffidently.

  “Ah, yes, I knew I’d forgotten something, child. Thank you.” The master picked up a robe—there were several he’d absently discarded over the past few weeks strewn about the library floor—and put it on inside out. But he was very busy thinking; Folly could tell from the set of his jaw. He was doing very well just to get his arms into the proper holes when he was in that state of mind.

  Folly finished touching each jar of little crystals and then carefully climbed down the ladder. It wasn’t until she was halfway across the room that she heard a sharp, heavy crashing sound from the front hall.

  Ferus’s head whipped around toward the sound, his eyes glittering fever-bright, flicking left and right at random distances. He lifted one hand to point, and his voice was a silken snarl. “Folly, by that wall, down low.”

  Folly hurried to obey. When the master scanned that many futures that rapidly, and spoke in that voice, one really had to be quite stupid to do otherwise. She dropped into a low crouch, kept her feet beneath her in case she needed to run, and reached into her holsters to give her little crystals reassuring pats, in case they had become frightened.

  Ferus nodded and absently held out his right arm. The crystal on the head of his cane let out a soft chime as he sent out a current of etheric energy from his fingertips, and then the implement sailed gracefully across the room and into his hand.

  Just as it did, the doors to the library crashed open, and three men wearing uniforms that closely approximated those of the Spirearch’s Guard entered the room. They carried all manner of soldierly equipment, including gauntlets and blades. One held an ax that he had just used on Ferus’s fine wooden door, and his companions both advanced with their gauntlets raised and glowing. They discharged the gauntlets within a second of one another, and brilliant energy flooded the room, a torrent of destruction meant to rip the old man facing them to shreds.

  Folly winced, and experienced something she felt quite sure was pity for the poor fools.

  Ferus simply lifted his cane, and the crystal at its tip drew in the deadly bursts of etheric energy as a sponge soaked up water. He held the cane forth, and the crystal continued to drink down etheric force from the weapons crystals of the enemy gauntlets, yanking the power from them in one long, continuous burst.

  Gauntlets were not designed for that kind of steady discharge of energy, and they began to shed heat almost instantly. The copper wires that served as a cage for the weapons crystal, encasing the user’s forearm, smoldered, heated, and began to glow. The two men let out pitiable screams and fell, scrambling with leather straps and buckles that scored the fingertips of their right hands even as they tried to unfasten them.

  The third man looked at the other two and showed a spark of intelligence. He stripped his gauntlet rapidly, dumping it on the floor. But then he ruined his brain’s hard work by drawing his copper-clad sword and advancing on the master, holding his ax in one hand, the sword in the other.

  Ferus gave his head an impatient shake, lifted his cane, and sent a single, flickering dart of searing light across the room. It flew in a sinuous, erratic pattern, winding around a column and beneath a table and slithering through several stacks of books before hammering into the broad side of the ax’s heavy, copper-covered steel head.

  The bolt melted a hole three inches across through the steel, sending out an enormous burst of sparks and flares of flickering fire, and the man yelped and dropped the weapon, turning to stare with wide eyes at the master.

  Ferus said calmly, “You are trespassing, sir. Begone. While you still can.”

  With each word, a brilliant, tiny wisp of light like the first flickered out of the crystal and began orbiting around the master’s white-fringed head in a beautiful, deadly crown of etheric fire.

  The man licked his lips and then looked behind him. His wounded companions had managed to rip the gauntlets from their arms, and had drawn their short, straight swords. He turned back to the master and bared his teeth.

  “Don’t,” Ferus said, his voice softening. “Please don’t. There’s too mu
ch pain on that path.”

  The two men on the floor gained their feet. The third man took a deep breath.

  “Folly,” the master said. “Close your eyes.”

  Folly did, at once.

  There was a guttural shout from the intruder. There was a volley of hissing sounds and a chorus of shrieks.

  Then screams.

  And silence.

  And the smell of burning meat.

  Folly swallowed and rose slowly. She cracked open one eye, and then the other. The master hadn’t said she had to keep her eyes closed indefinitely.

  He was unharmed. He stood in the same spot, his head bowed, the crystal of his cane now dark again, resting against the floor as though the implement had grown too heavy for him to hold.

  Folly did not look at what was left of the intruders in their disguises. It was disturbing, and she was at the limits of her skills as a spider already. She needed no further bad dreams. She carefully did not let herself cry, though she wanted to very much. It pained the master to see her cry, and she would rather be burned to death herself than to give him pain. He’d had so much of it already.

  She reached his side and touched his arm gently. “Are you all right, teacher?”

  She watched his hollow, weary eyes stare for long heartbeats at the scorched not-men who now littered their library floor before he answered. “What have we learned today, Folly?”

  “That one ought not to use etheric weapons against an etherealist?”

  “While what you say is very true, I was hoping for a different context.”

  “Ah,” Folly said. She considered for a moment and said, “Someone sent these men here to kill you, specifically.”

  “Good. Continue.”

  “They had to know where you lived. Therefore someone who knows you, or knows of you, is responsible for them.”

  “Correct,” the master said. He lowered his voice to a preoccupied mumble. “I confess, I did not catch the faintest glimpse of this future.”

  Folly frowned suddenly, wrinkling her nose. She knew she could not actually smell it, but her mind told her that she could feel the stench filling her nose.

  Fear hovered around Efferus Effrenus Ferus, master etherealist.

  “You know,” Folly said. “You know who sent them.”

  “I think so.”

  “Who is it, teacher?”

  “An old friend. A friend who has been dead for a decade.”

  Folly considered the words for a moment before saying carefully, “That does not seem probable.”

  “Oh, aye,” the master said. “It’s utterly mad. But there it is.”

  “Teacher, I don’t understand.”

  “There’s no rush,” he said in a very soft voice. “You will soon enough.”

  Folly bowed her head a little. “Teacher?”

  “Yes?”

  “What shall we do now?”

  “Fetch my dueling suit, if you would,” he said. “Also three feathers and a tack hammer. Ready my collection. Oh, and pack a bag.”

  “A bag?”

  “A bag. With . . . food, clothing, books, that sort of thing. We’ll be leaving the habble.”

  Folly blinked several times. “What? We will? To go where?”

  “First we’ll go see the Spirearch and get him to give us the grim captain,” he said.

  “And then?”

  Something dark and hard rose for a moment in the master’s eyes, and the look made Folly shiver.

  “And then,” he said quietly, “we shall visit an old friend.”

  Chapter Eighteen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Spirearch’s Manor

  Twelve hours after the fighting ended, Grimm wanted nothing so much as a bath and his bunk on Predator. He ached for them, in fact. When he was this weary, his sleep would be too deep to be disturbed by dreams of the men he had lost in the fighting. He could put off, for at least one night, being haunted by the faces and limbs that had been crushed, scorched, and mangled by the first battle of what could be a long and costly war.

  Instead of resting, though, he and Creedy followed a slim, aging, gentlemanly sort of fellow named Vincent from the entry hall of the Spirearch’s Manor down a hallway with polished wooden walls and floors, decorated with some of the finest art in Spire Albion. According to the engraved brass plaques beside each piece, there were paintings from the giddy days of the New Dawn, two centuries before, sculptures from the Olympian master McDagget, and other pieces, some of them attributed to relatively unknown artists currently working in Spire Albion. They were exquisite, Grimm thought. He approved of the taste of whoever had decorated the hall.

  They were shown into what appeared to be a study, also furnished entirely in wood and lit with candles rather than lumin crystals. There was a large desk with five chairs set neatly in front of it.

  Vincent nodded to the chairs and said, “If you will wait here, sirs, he will be with you shortly.”

  “Of course,” Grimm said. He and Creedy sat while Vincent departed.

  It was perhaps a matter of two or three minutes before a door on the rear wall of the study opened and the Spirearch came into the room. He was a man of no impressive height and what might charitably be called a scholarly build—but Lord Albion’s eyes were sharp and hard, and he moved with a brisk, no-nonsense sort of energy as he approached them. Grimm and Creedy rose at once to meet him.

  Albion came around the desk to offer his hand to Grimm. “Captain Grimm,” he said. “I hear extraordinary things about your service to the Spire in the face of the surprise attack.”

  “Sire,” Grimm said, bowing his head slightly. “This is my XO, Byron Creedy.”

  Creedy mumbled something Grimm couldn’t understand, and shook the Spirearch’s hand with a kind of numb shock on his features.

  “Well,” Albion said, “I know how tired you both must be, so sit, sit, and I’ll be as succinct as possible.” They sat, while Lord Albion rested a hip against the edge of his desk, looking down at them with calm assessment clear in his eyes. “I’m afraid you made a serious mistake today.”

  “Sire?” Grimm said.

  “You proved yourself extraordinarily capable, Captain,” Albion said. “I can hardly let something like that go unremarked.”

  “I don’t understand, sir,” Grimm said, frowning.

  “Captain, your clarity of thought in the face of unexpected disaster is a rare quality. It’s a poor reward for such heroism, but I’m afraid that I must insist upon continuing to use you for the good of my Spire.”

  Grimm was quiet for a moment. He wanted to sink into a tub of hot water and soak away the violence and fear of hours of skirmishes with Auroran Marines. He wanted to sleep. Hadn’t his men given enough?

  “Sire,” he said in a measured, quiet voice. “I have already offered such skills as I have in the service of Albion. The Spire made it quite clear to me that I was not needed.”

  “The Perilous incident, yes,” Albion said. “I’m familiar with what happened. Or perhaps I should say, I am familiar with both the history of what happened and with what actually transpired. You didn’t have to accept your discharge quietly, Captain. But you did.”

  “It was what was best for the Fleet, sire,” Grimm said.

  “An arguable point, I think,” Lord Albion said. “But your sacrifice was without doubt a good thing for the Fleet, if not for you personally.”

  “I didn’t join Fleet to serve myself, sire,” Grimm said.

  “The best never do.” Albion gave Grimm a faint smile. “But your previous difficulties are irrelevant, Captain. The Spire Council is, as we speak, voting to declare a state of war with Spire Aurora. The Spire needs every capable commander it can get.”

  “I hardly think the Fleet will welcome me back in any capacity, sire,” Grimm said in a voice that came out diamond-hard, though he hadn’t meant it to. “No one wants to work with a proven coward.”

  “I do,” Albion said. “I’m not talking about returning you to the Fl
eet, Captain. I want you for myself.”

  Grimm blinked. “Sire . . . what I did today was what any competent, professional commander would have done in my place. It does not qualify me for a position in your personal service.”

  “Perhaps, Captain, judgments about what qualify a given individual for the Spirearch’s service might best be made by the Spirearch,” Lord Albion suggested, his eyes sparkling with quiet humor.

  Grimm shifted in his chair uncomfortably. “Sire . . . I’m no diplomat, so with your leave I’ll just say it, and beg your pardon ahead of time if this comes out sounding unpleasant or disrespectful.”

  Creedy’s eyes widened slightly, but he stayed as silent as a stone.

  Albion arched a brow. “Oh, by all means, Captain, speak.”

  “I don’t like it here. Spending more than a few weeks in this dreary old mausoleum makes me feel as if I can’t breathe. I don’t understand how any of you can stand it day in and day out. I’m an aeronaut, sire, living on a deck since I ever could remember. I belong in the sky. I belong on my ship. It’s the only place that feels . . . right. Thank you for your offer, but I don’t want another job.”

  “I understand,” Lord Albion said. “But you proceed from a false assumption. I don’t want your service as an adviser on my staff, Captain.” He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes slightly. “I want an airship helmed by a captain I can trust.”

  Grimm and Creedy traded a surprised look. “Sire?”

  “I have need of a ship to serve as transport and support for a mission for my Guard,” Albion said. “I’ve decided that I want Predator, along with her captain and crew, to fill that position.”

  “What if they don’t want to do it?” Grimm asked.

  Creedy made a choking sound.

  “I can be a very persuasive person,” the Spirearch said.

  “You have no legal authority to do that,” Grimm said.

  “You’re right. But I mean to see it done all the same.”

  Perhaps it was the fatigue, but Grimm found himself growing genuinely angry. “Sire,” he said stiffly, “Predator is not for sale. I am not for sale.”