The aeronauts windlass, p.20
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.20
 

           Jim Butcher

  The Spirearch regarded her gravely. “Do you know what the phrase ‘operational security,’ means, Miss Tagwynn?”

  “No.”

  “It means that not everyone has all the information,” he said. “That way, if you are spied upon, or captured and interrogated by the enemy, it will not benefit them. You cannot accidentally let slip secrets you have not been told. You cannot be tortured and forced to reveal information that you do not possess.”

  Bridget’s eyes opened very wide. “My goodness.”

  “I leave it to Master Ferus to decide how much each of you must know to perform your duty adequately,” the Spirearch said. “He will inform you at his own discretion. Until such time as he does so, you have your duties. Is that clear?”

  “It seems simple enough,” Bridget said.

  “The most difficult things often are,” said Lord Albion. “Pack for the trip, and do it swiftly. You leave within the hour.”

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Spire Albion, Fleet Shipyards

  Bridget held Rowl in her cradled arms as they walked up the spiral ramp leading from Habble Morning up to the shipyards on the Spire’s rooftop, and tried to keep her breathing steady.

  “Honestly,” Rowl said. “What are you so concerned with, Littlemouse?”

  “I’ve never . . .” Bridget said. “I’ve never really been . . . outside.”

  “There are many things you have never done,” Rowl responded. “To be frightened of them is of no use to you.”

  Bridget glanced over her shoulder, where Benedict was walking with Master Ferus, never more than a couple of strides away from the old man. He’d shouldered his own pack and an enormous duffel apparently meant for Master Ferus and his apprentice, and carried them absently, his eyes sweeping everywhere, even here in Habble Morning.

  “I’m not frightened,” Bridget replied. “I’m . . . simply considering the possibilities.”

  “Such as falling off the Spire?” Rowl asked.

  Bridget swallowed. “Yes.”

  “Or some enormous monster flying from the mist and devouring you?”

  “I’m certain the tower’s defenses are perfectly adequate to repel mistmaws.”

  “Or being driven mad by the light of the sun?”

  Bridget’s fingers immediately went to her neck, where her goggles with their protective lenses hung. “Rowl, my friend, you are at times a perfect little monster.”

  Rowl gave his tail a disdainful flick. “I am a perfect everything.”

  “You speak with the cats, Miss Tagwynn?” asked the man walking beside her. Captain Grimm, his arm still in its grimy sling, looked like a man who should be collapsing from exhaustion, but his voice was steady, polite, his eyes alert.

  “Imperfectly,” Bridget said. “Though honestly, I think most of them understand every word we say. Except when they don’t, of course.”

  He glanced at Rowl, smiling. “An unkind thing to say of a hero.”

  Rowl flicked his tail again, his expression unrepentantly smug.

  Bridget smiled at that, and rubbed her nose against Rowl’s furry head. “He is a hero. And a tyrant.”

  The cat looked up at her and yawned.

  Grimm let out a short bark of laughter. “Aye, aye. The cat who lived on Perilous was much the same. He didn’t take orders well, and we were lucky to have him.”

  “This one,” Rowl said, looking at Grimm. “This one seems smarter than most humans, Littlemouse. I have decided that he may stay.”

  “Given that it is his ship that will carry us,” Bridget said, her tone dry, “that seems very practical.”

  Grimm seemed to infer Rowl’s portion of the exchange, and inclined his head slightly to the cat. “At your service, sir. Ah, the guard station, good.”

  Their small group had reached the top of the ramp leading up to the shipyards. A large metal grate had been lowered over the doorway out, and at least twenty Marines stood on guard at it. Gwendolyn Lancaster had evidently taken her duty seriously—she was already there, speaking quietly with a senior sergeant, showing him the letter of authorization from the Spirearch. The Marine did not look pleased with her. Gwen frowned, put one fist on her hip, and said something to the man with a rather tart expression on her face.

  The Marine’s weather-beaten face grew redder, but he growled and jerked a hand in a quick motion. One of his men went to the grate and began pulling on a rope that lifted it, opening the way to the shipyards.

  Light, nearly as bright as the flash of a discharged gauntlet, poured down the ramp from the outside world. With it came a breath of wind and air that was much colder than that of the habble in which Bridget had grown up. There was a strange scent to it—wood, and burnt wood, and metal, and something else, something sharp and fresh. Bridget’s heart started pounding.

  Captain Grimm said something to her, but she wasn’t sure what. They walked up the ramp and into the sharp-scented air and the dazzling light.

  It was bright, painfully bright, like suddenly understanding a truth she would prefer to be anything else. She had to blink her eyes closed as the cold air hit her in the face, an utter shock of sensation. She had never felt anything like it.

  Then she remembered, in a panic, how dangerous it was to let the light touch her unprotected eyes, and she fumbled blindly at the goggles around her neck. It was difficult, with only one hand to use, but she finally managed to lift them to her face and hold them there with her quivering fingers.

  The dark lenses reduced the glare of the light and she could suddenly see.

  For a moment she wished she couldn’t.

  There were structures and airships and people everywhere in the shipyard, but that was of distant, secondary importance. She looked up and felt as though she might simply fall over onto the ground out of sheer disorientation.

  There was no ceiling.

  There was no ceiling.

  She looked up, and up, and up, and up, and there was simply nothing overhead, nothing but a light, fine veil of mist that rose into infinite distance above her. She felt an irrational conviction that she was balanced on a precipice, and that a single misstep might betray her and send her body flying up into the void. She jerked her eyes back down to the floor. She fought away a sudden, overwhelming impulse to throw herself prone and hang on to the solid spirestone floor for dear life.

  “Easy,” she heard Captain Grimm saying. “For some, the first time is a shock, Miss Tagwynn.”

  “I’m sorry,” she managed to say. “I don’t mean to make a scene. Normally I am quite composed.”

  “You’re doing better than I did,” Grimm said. “I lost my breakfast, and couldn’t make myself look up again for days.”

  “What did you do?”

  “I kept trying until I looked up,” he said. “It got better. Don’t be hard on yourself, miss. It will pass.”

  “I think it is very interesting,” Rowl said in a calm, pleased tone.

  Bridget choked off something that might have come out a laugh or a sob. She wasn’t sure which. She still felt dizzy, sickened, but clearly this problem wasn’t going to solve itself. The sky wasn’t going anywhere. So she took a deep breath and forced herself to lift her eyes again.

  She could see a burning orb, outlined in the mist. The sun. She had never seen it like this, without it being filtered and diffused through the translucent sections of spirestone around the habble. It burned like no candle or crystal she had ever seen.

  “That’s . . .” she breathed. “That’s lovely.”

  Grimm glanced up and then smiled. “A bit of a dingy view,” he said. “When time serves, you should see what the sky really looks like.”

  “You mean,” Bridget asked, pointing, “up there?”

  She turned to find Captain Grimm staring up and smiling serenely. “Up there. Up in the deep blue sky. If you think the sun is beautiful, wait until you see it without all the mist. And the moon. And the stars. There is no beauty like that of the stars on a clear night, Miss Tagwyn
n.”

  “But,” she said, “isn’t it dangerous? To see such things? I thought men who did went mad.”

  “Oh, you’ll need goggles during the day; it’s true,” Grimm replied. “Airships sail in etheric currents, and they interact oddly with sunlight. If one doesn’t protect one’s eyes from them, it can do strange things to one’s mind.”

  Bridget glanced ahead of them at Master Ferus. “Is that . . . is that why Lord Albion’s man is so . . . so odd?”

  “He’s an etherealist, Miss Tagwynn,” Grimm replied. “For most of us, etheric currents flow around us, like a stream of water flowing around stones. But for some folk, etheric energy doesn’t go around—it courses right through them. They draw it to them.” He shook his head. “Goggles are sufficient for the likes of you and me, miss, but there’s no protection for a man like Master Ferus.”

  “He’s mad?” Bridget asked in a quiet voice.

  “So is his apprentice, though less so,” Grimm said. “Master Ferus is the fourth etherealist I’ve met in my lifetime. They’ve all been mad. The only question is whether or not it shows.”

  “Oh,” Bridget said. “I do not mean to pester you with more questions, Captain, if you have duties to see to.”

  He shook his head. “By all means, miss, ask. I am to provide you with my support, after all. Presumably sharing what modest knowledge I have falls into the purview of that duty. Ask your questions.”

  “Thank you. The etherealists—can they really do what the stories say?” asked Bridget.

  “It depends on which stories you’ve heard, I suppose,” Grimm said.

  “The usual, I think,” Bridget said. “Burnham’s Tales. The Stories of Finch and Broom.”

  Grimm smiled a bit and spread his hands. “Well. They are perhaps a touch overblown.”

  “But etherealists really can do such things?” Bridget asked. “Call lightning with a word of power? Make a mystic gesture and fly?”

  “Try not to think of it that way,” Grimm said. “Etherealists are, in many ways, simply etheric engineers.”

  “Etheric engineers cannot call lightning, sir. Or fly.”

  “No?” Grimm asked. “But they can design etheric weaponry, such as gauntlets, long guns, and cannon, can they not? Can they not design an airship and send it aloft into the sky?”

  “True,” Bridget said. “But those are . . . they’re weapons and ships. Of course they do that. They design and build devices to a function. It’s what they do.”

  “My point is that an etherealist does the same sorts of things, miss. It’s just that he skips the troublesome part in the middle.”

  Bridget found herself smiling. “Oh,” she said. “Is that all he does?”

  Grimm winked at her.

  “Are they dangerous?” she asked.

  He was silent for a moment before he said thoughtfully, “Anyone can be dangerous, Miss Tagwynn. Etherealist or not.” He smiled at her, but then his face sobered. “But between the two of us, I think they are capable of more than we know. For myself, I think it wise to keep a very open mind.”

  They had walked down the length of the shipyard as they spoke, and come to a large boarding ramp that led up to an airship.

  “Captain Grimm,” Bridget asked, “is this your vessel?”

  “Aye,” Grimm replied, unmistakable pride in his voice. “This is Predator, Miss Tagwynn. I take it you have not been aboard an airship before?”

  Bridget shook her head, staring up. “I’ve never even seen one.”

  Predator was, Bridget thought, rather impressive. The main body of the ship seemed to be a large and oddly contoured half tube suspended between three rounded towers that rose up at either end of the ship and in her very middle. Folded along her flanks were a number of bundled rods of some kind that looked like they could be folded out, and oldstyle canvas cloth hung from them—sails, she realized, made to be extended horizontally, along the ship’s flanks. Other masts had been folded against her belly, which was held clear of the stone of the shipyard by heavy struts that supported the vessel’s weight. And, she saw, two more masts on the ship’s main deck rose up above the ship, their yardarms spread, with more sails reefed against them. Running up the length of both masts were large metal rings that encircled twisted lengths of ethersilk sail—the ship’s etherweb.

  Most airships she had read about had steam engines in place as their secondary propulsion system. The only ships that favored sails were those operated by the fleets of very poor Spires—or by scoundrels, such as pirates, smugglers, and the like, who were willing to dare the dangers of the mists rather than sail in open skies.

  Positioned all around the vessel, at the bases of the masts, she could see large reels lined with the netlike woven ethersilk webs that harnessed etheric currents that would drive airships faster than any other transport in the world. She understood the principle simply enough. The more webbing one let out of the reel, the more etheric energy it could catch, and the faster it would drive the ship forward. Of course, the web had to be charged with electricity in order for it to function, so airships were limited in the amount of web they could charge by the strength of their power cores.

  And there were the weapons.

  The gun emplacements protruded bulbously from the ship’s deck, the copper-barreled cannon snouts nosing out from a costly rotating ball assembly that would allow the gun crews to swing the cannon forward and aft as well as up and down. She had no way to judge how large the weapons were in comparison to others of the breed, but they certainly looked formidable.

  One of the gun emplacements, Bridget noted, was simply missing. There were a number of freshly cut boards around it, suggesting that it had been damaged in some fashion, necessitating the removal of more wood in order to provide a stable platform to replace the missing assembly.

  And the entire ship, she realized, was made of wood, so much wood that it beggared her imagination. She remembered how proud her father had been when they had been able to afford the polished wooden service counter at the vattery, and how careful he was to clean and maintain it. It had cost a week’s profit for enough wood to build a counter ten feet long and three feet wide.

  And Predator, Bridget realized, was a dozen times that length, and as high as a two-story house. All of it wood.

  There were men on the ship, moving all over it. Men carrying crates and bags up the boarding ramp, men on lines hanging down the side of the ship, applying oil to her hull, men atop the towers, men climbing the masts and working with the reefed sails, men scrubbing down the deck, men inspecting the weapon emplacements, men coiling costly ethersilk webbing more neatly onto its reel.

  There was a small army aboard this vessel, Bridget realized, all of them performing some kind of specific task. And it was a good thing there were so many of them. They might not have survived the confrontation in the tunnel without the aeronauts, whatever Gwendolyn seemed to think.

  “If you will excuse me, Miss Tagwynn,” Captain Grimm said. “There are many things to which I must attend before we can leave.”

  Bridget inclined her head. “Of course, sir.”

  He nodded and bowed slightly at the waist. “Someone will be down momentarily to show your party where to go.” He ascended the ramp, weaving between several men carrying various burdens without missing a step.

  Rowl was staring up at the ship, his eyes intent, tracking motion, his ears pulled to quivering attention, straight forward. “Littlemouse,” he said. “That looks interesting.”

  “Not too interesting, I trust,” Bridget said. “Airships are quite dangerous, you know.”

  “Dangerous,” Rowl said, contempt dripping from the word. “For humans, perhaps.”

  “Don’t be foolish,” she said. “There could be any number of hazards in there. Machinery, electrical wiring, weaponry—if you go exploring, you might find something that could hurt you.”

  “If one doesn’t, one is not truly exploring,” Rowl replied. “But since you worry so badly, and s
ince I know you will not stop speaking of it, regardless of how foolish you sound, I will remain near you—to make sure that you do not run afoul of hazards aboard the ship, of course.”

  “Thank you,” Bridget said.

  “But those tall . . . ship-trees, standing up on top.”

  “We call them masts,” Bridget said. She had to use the human word for them. The tongue of the cats had the occasional shortcoming.

  “Ship-trees,” Rowl said in an insistent tone. “Those interest me. I will climb them.”

  “All the way up there?” Bridget asked. She felt slightly dizzy just thinking of the view from the mast tops. “It seems unnecessary.”

  Rowl turned his head and gave her a level look. Then he said, “I sometimes forget that you are just a human.” He flicked his ears dismissively and looked back up at the masts. “A cat would understand.”

  “Just so long as the cat doesn’t fall,” she said.

  Rowl made a growling sound, an expression of displeasure that needed no special skill to understand. Bridget smiled. She couldn’t help it. The little monster was so full of himself that she couldn’t help but tease him from time to time.

  She hugged Rowl gently and rubbed her nose against the fur on his head.

  Rowl growled again—but with much less sincerity.

  Suddenly there was a presence beside her, and Bridget looked up to see that the etherealist’s apprentice was standing next to her. The girl with the oddly colored eyes stared up at the ship—but not, Bridget noted, at the features to which her own eyes had been drawn. Instead, the girl seemed to stare intently at the featureless planks of Predator’s flanks, and left Bridget with the slightly unsettling impression that the girl’s mismatched eyes were peering straight through the wood.

  “Oh, my,” the girl said, ducking her head enough to make it clear that she was speaking to the jar of expended lumin crystals she still held cradled in one arm. “Have you ever seen one like that?”

  “Beg pardon, miss?” Bridget said politely.

  “Oh, they’re talking to me again,” the girl told the jar. “Why must people always talk to me when I leave the house?”