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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 21

Jim Butcher

  Bridget blinked several times at her response. What did one do in such a situation? It seemed unthinkable that they should stand together looking at such an impressive creation and not carry on some sort of polite conversation.

  “I . . . I’m afraid I don’t know your name, miss. We are to be working together, it seems. My name is Bridget Tagwynn, and this is Rowl.”

  The girl smiled and said to the jar, “This is Bridget Tagwynn and Rowl, and we’re to be working together.”

  Bridget frowned. The girl’s response had not been rude, precisely. It had simply been so disconnected from the situation that etiquette utterly failed to apply. “May I know your name, please?”

  The girl sighed. “She wants to know my name, but I’m simply awful at introducing myself. Perhaps I should tattoo ‘Folly’ on my head and then people can just read it.”

  “Folly,” Bridget said. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Folly.”

  “She seems very sweet,” Folly told the jar. “I’m sure she means well.”

  Rowl said, “This girl has too many things in her head, I think.”

  Folly replied, “Oh, the cat is right. All the things I’ve forgotten plus all the things I haven’t. I keep forgetting over which ones I need to throw a dust tarp.”

  Bridget blinked again. Before she left the vattery, she could have counted on one hand the number of people she’d met who actually understood cat. She glanced down to find Rowl staring into infinite distance, exhibiting no reaction. Bridget knew the cat well enough to know that he had not been surprised.

  Gwendolyn and Benedict caught up to them, finally, with Benedict staying close to a bemused Master Ferus’s side.

  “. . . simply saying,” Benedict said, “that perhaps you could have gained the guard’s cooperation without resorting to threatening to arrest him for impeding an inquisition.”

  Gwendolyn frowned. “Ought I have threatened to charge him with treason, do you think? That one bears the death penalty.”

  Benedict gave his cousin a rather hunted look. “Gwen, you . . . I don’t even . . . I can’t possibly . . .” He shook his head, mouth open for a second.

  A very small smile touched Gwen’s mouth, and her eyes sparkled.

  Benedict sighed and shut his mouth again. “Touché. I’ll stop telling you how to do your job now, coz.”

  “Thank you,” Gwen said.

  Bridget smiled slightly at the exchange, and even Rowl seemed amused.

  Not a minute later, a very tall young man, dark haired and square jawed, descended briskly from the ship and approached them dressed in an aeronaut’s leathers, his goggles hanging around his neck. He came to a stop before them, gave them a bow, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Byron Creedy, Predator’s executive officer. Master Ferus, Captain Grimm has asked me to bring you and your party aboard at your earliest convenience.”

  The old etherealist blinked and looked up from whatever private thoughts had preoccupied him. He looked the young man up and down, nodded, and said, “Convenient would have been yesterday. Now will suffice.”

  Creedy arched a brow at this answer, but he bowed his head and said, “Then if you would all please follow me? Welcome aboard Predator.”

  Chapter Twenty-two

  AMS Predator

  Gwendolyn Lancaster looked around Predator with what she felt was well-earned skepticism. It seemed that in following the orders of the Spirearch, she had fallen in with scoundrels.

  Oh, granted they had been fierce enough in battle—and granted that they had, in fact, quite possibly saved her life. Probably, even. But after asking a few questions of passing crewmen, she had determined that the help of Captain Grimm and his men had gone first to the Lancaster Vattery. Possibly that had been coincidence at work, but Gwen’s father put precious little store by such notions.

  The crystals her family’s vattery produced were quite literally the most valuable resource in the world, the most expensive piece of equipment one could purchase. It seemed to strain coincidence that the captain of a ship in dire need of replacement crystals should happen to wander by the vattery. It seemed an equal stretch that he should then proceed to rescue the heir apparent of House Lancaster, purely by happenstance.

  She supposed that a military-minded man might have deduced that the Lancaster Vattery would be a prime target of attack—but if Grimm had managed to piece all of that together in the chaos of the attack, he was the tactical equal of old Admiral Tagwynn himself, and Gwenn hardly thought that the Fleet would have cast out a captain of such ability. Of course, coincidences happened, and this could be one. But if it was not coincidence, then it meant that Captain Grimm had known enemy movements and intentions.

  It was possible that she was doing a courageous and capable man a grave disservice, but a determination to protect the vattery was something that had been fed to her with her mother’s milk and drilled into her during every hour of every day that had passed since. As theirs was the only crystal vattery in the Spire capable of producing core crystals, there simply was no alternative but to take every precaution possible. So while she felt a regret that perhaps Grimm deserved better of her, she faced her duty squarely, and kept a quiet, calm eye upon the man.

  She mounted the steps to the airship’s bridge—the conning tower at the forward end of the ship. The roof of the tower had a small raised platform at the rear, where the ship’s steering grips were. The pilot would stand upon it, with the clearest view of anyone aboard of what was in front of the airship. The captain and his executive officer stood on the deck in front of the pilot, enjoying a similar view. Gwen supposed clear sight of the ship’s surroundings would be quite vital in wartime.

  At the moment, the view was rather pedestrian. The mists had thickened as Predator cast off from her pier, and the ship currently hung in cloudy limbo, the sun only a dim suggestion somewhere far above. The dull black walls of Spire Albion stretched out ahead and astern of the airship on its left (or “port”) side. A pair of heavy lines were fastened to a long tether cable that ran down the side of the Spire, in order to prevent winds from causing the ship to drift away from the tower. A pair of long poles set out to the side of the ship kept winds from pushing it into the tower, either. They had already been under way for a quarter of an hour, and the black stone of the Spire rolled slowly upward as the vessel sank down into the mist, heading for the shipyards of Habble Landing.

  The pilot, a rather hard-looking man whose name was Kettle, took note of her presence first, and cleared his throat loudly.

  Captain Grimm and Commander Creedy looked back at Kettle, and then at her. They glanced at one another, and then Creedy came over to her wearing a polite smile. “Miss Lancaster,” he said. “How may I be of service to you?”

  Gwen straightened her dark blue uniform jacket and said, “I wished to ask you a few questions, sir, if that is quite all right?”

  “Certainly, miss.”

  Gwen nodded. “Are you the same Byron Creedy who lately served on the battlecruiser Glorious?”

  Creedy’s friendly expression suddenly became very closed. “Indeed, miss. I had that honor.”

  “Were you not habbled by the Fleet review board for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman?”

  A muscle along the young man’s jaw twitched, and Creedy gave her a brief, stiff nod.

  “I see,” Gwen said. “I may be required to place the success of our inquisition and our very lives in your hands, Commander. I need to know what kind of man you are, and whether or not you will be there to help if I should call upon you.”

  “Thus far, miss,” he replied in a very precise, polite voice indeed, “the captain and crew of Predator have been there to help you even when you have not called. Or so I judged the situation we found in the tunnel.”

  “Forgive me, sir,” she said. “But we have little time and I fear I must be direct and plain. You were cast in disgrace from the active service rolls of the Fleet. Your captain was exiled from the service entirely. Many
of your crew members have similar service records with the Fleet. It is quite the collection of men in disgrace.”

  “Perhaps, miss,” Creedy said with a coolly lifted chin, “you would prefer to travel the remainder of the distance to Landing without enduring the disgrace of our company.”

  “Byron,” said Grimm in a gentle, firm tone.

  Creedy glanced over his shoulder, let a breath out through his nose, and then turned back to Gwen to speak in a low, hard voice. “Miss, if I were you, I would have a care what you had to say about the captain in front of any of his officers or crew—myself included. None of us particularly care to hear ill spoken of the man, and none of us will care who your parents are if you insult the captain. Do I make myself understood?”

  Gwen arched an eyebrow at him. “Have I said anything that is untrue, Commander?”

  “You have said nothing untrue,” he replied. “You have also said nothing that is complete. There is more to the world than what a review board publishes about an officer or aeronaut, Miss Lancaster. Guard. Your. Tongue.”

  And with that, he gave her a rigid bow and strode off the bridge. His boots thumped solidly on the deck and the stairs as he left.

  When Gwen turned back to the front of the ship, she found Grimm standing two feet from her. The man had not made a sound to give away his approach, and Gwen had to force herself not to flinch as she found him facing her.

  He was, she thought, a rather striking man. He wasn’t beautiful. His features weren’t balanced. He had a rather heavy brow, which gave him a slightly brutish look—one that was belied by the glitter of intelligence in his dark eyes. His cheekbones were sharp and wide, and contrasted with his thick jawline. His mouth was narrow, though whether that was its natural form or simply his current expression, Gwen couldn’t say. He was of unimpressive height, but well muscled, and he had the look of a man who could do heavy work for hours without tiring. His hands were blocky, square and strong, and he carried himself with the rigidly proper posture of the Fleet, despite his disgrace.

  It was the blood on him, she thought, that made her uneasy. He had not yet changed out of the clothes he had worn in battle, not even the sling that cradled one of his arms.

  “Captain Grimm,” she said calmly.

  “Miss Lancaster,” he replied. “Why were you provoking my executive officer?”

  “Because I’ve always found that people’s reactions are more honest when they’re tired, and I wanted to test his before he went to his bunk.”

  He seemed to consider this for a moment and then nodded. “And you’re speaking to me now for the same reason, I take it.”

  Gwen gave him a tight smile. “Something like that.”

  The captain grunted. “You’re too young to be that ruthless.”

  “My nanny and several instructors told me the same thing,” she said. “Your men still think well of you after the battle, Captain. That’s remarkable.”

  “Do you think so?”

  Gwen shrugged. “There are many Fleet captains whose men would sour on them if they suffered the casualties your crew did in battle.”

  “There are many Fleet captains who are idiots,” he replied.

  “Your men do not seem to have been fazed.”

  “It was a fight that needed to happen,” Grimm said. “They understand that. I didn’t kill those men. The Aurorans did. They understand that, too.”

  “All the same,” Gwen said. “I asked around about you, Captain Grimm. I have some questions for you as well.”

  “I’m certain that you do, miss. Please proceed.”

  Gwen nodded. “What can you tell me about the Perilous incident, Captain?”

  Grimm’s weary expression never flickered. “I have nothing to say about it.”

  “That’s what everyone seems to think,” Gwen said, nodding. “The records of the inquisition afterward have been sealed. Not even my father’s influence could acquire them.”

  “It’s done,” Grimm said. “It’s in the past, and best left there.”

  “So the Admiralty seems to think,” Gwen said. “A Fleet captain dead in midcruise, his executive officer beaten into a coma. Three young lieutenants left to bring a warship and her crew safely home through pirate skies. Lieutenants Grimm, Bayard, and Rook, to be precise.”

  Grimm regarded her impassively.

  “To this day, no one is sure what happened on Perilous,” she told him. “But she came home with heavy losses—and when the dust cleared, lieutenants Rook and Bayard had been promoted to lieutenantcommander, while Lieutenant Grimm was summarily drummed out of the service for cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

  His voice turned dry. “I am somewhat familiar with the tale, miss.”

  “It gives me serious concerns,” Gwen said. “Are you a coward, Captain?”

  The man stared at her with those shadowed eyes for several moments before he said, his voice very soft, “When needed, miss. When needed.”

  Gwen tilted her head. “I’m not sure what to make of that answer, Captain.”

  “Good,” he said shortly. “Mister Kettle, if you would send for me a quarter of an hour before arrival.”

  “Aye, Captain,” said the pilot in a laconic tone.

  Grimm gave her a short, brief bow. “Miss Lancaster,” he said. Then he turned and walked wearily down the steps to the deck.

  Gwen watched him cross to the center tower and enter his cabin. The man did not seem much like a scoundrel to her. Nor did he seem to be a coward. She frowned thoughtfully, until she felt the weight of the pilot’s gaze on her. She looked up at Kettle and said, “Do you believe what they said about him at the court-martial?”

  Kettle grunted and peered ahead for a moment, and Gwen thought he had simply declined to answer. She had turned and begun to leave when he said, “Miss Lancaster?”

  She paused. “Yes?”

  “I didn’t know him when he was in the Fleet, miss, but . . .” Kettle took a slow breath, his lips moving slightly, as if composing his answer before he spoke. Then he nodded and turned his eyes to her, his expression intent. “Miss Lancaster, spirestone is heavy. Fire is hot. And the captain does his duty. No matter what it costs him. Understand?”

  Gwen regarded Kettle’s unshaven face for a slow breath and then nodded slowly. “I believe I’m beginning to. Thank you, Mister Kettle.”

  “It’s nothing, miss.”

  “How long will it take us to reach Landing?”

  “Another hour of travel. Then we wait in line for a berth. Few hours, probably. We’ll ring the ship’s bell when we arrive.”

  “Thank you,” Gwen said, and she turned to leave the pilot to his duties.


  Her father had always said that a man could be fairly judged by the quality of his allies and that of his enemies. Captain Grimm seemed to have a number of rather staunch allies, despite his disgraced status, apparently including Lord Albion himself. And despite what had happened to him, his pride was unbowed. If what Kettle said was true, then Grimm was a rather remarkable man—perhaps even the kind of man who could match tacticians of historic brilliance, the kind that made coincidences happen, rather than letting them happen to him.

  Perhaps he had saved her family’s vattery and her life because he had believed it his duty to do so.

  Or perhaps not.

  Time would tell.

  Chapter Twenty-three

  AMS Predator

  Grimm’s dreams were unpleasant, and concluded in a hectic racket that eventually resolved itself into the sound of someone knocking firmly at the door to his cabin. Before he’d had time to realize that he was actually awake once more, his legs had already swung out of his bunk, and he was sitting up by the time he muttered, “In.”

  The door opened and Stern leaned his head into the cabin. “Begging your pardon, Captain.”

  Grimm waved a dismissive hand. “We’re there already, Mister Stern?”

  “Still waiting for a berth,” the wiry young man replied
. “But you’ve got a visitor from the Fleet, sir.”

  Grimm gave the young man a sharp glance, and then a brisk nod. “I’ll be out momentarily.”

  “Aye, Captain,” Stern said, and shut the door again.

  Visitors from Fleet? Now? At least Grimm had been able to wash himself down at a basin of water before he slept. Now he rose, dressed himself as best he could in clean clothing, and awkwardly tied off a fresh sling for his wounded arm. He raked a comb through his mussed hair several times, scowled at himself in a small mirror, and eyed the stubble of a beard that marred any chance he might have of presenting himself in an officer’s proper condition.

  Of course, he wasn’t an officer of Fleet anymore, was he?

  Grimm shook his head, tried to shake off the bone-deep exhaustion he still felt, failed to do so, and went out of his cabin anyway.

  “Captain on deck!” Stern barked as Grimm opened his door. Grimm stepped onto the deck to see every crewman in sight stop whatever they were doing, turn toward him, and snap him a perfect Fleet salute. He kept himself from smiling.

  “Mister Stern,” Grimm said beneath his breath. “Why is it that the crew bothers with formal protocol only when a serving member of Fleet comes aboard?”

  “Because we like to remind the uptight bastards that on this ship, you’re in command, skipper. Regardless of what Fleet thinks of you.”

  “Ah,” Grimm said. He lifted his voice slightly. “As you were.”

  The crew snapped out of the salute with near parade-ground precision and returned to their duties. A dapper little figure in the uniform of a Fleet commodore swaggered across a boarding plank laid out between Predator’s deck and that of a Fleet launch, hovering alongside Grimm’s ship. The man hopped down onto the deck and shook his head in brighteyed amusement. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?”

  “Bayard,” Grimm said, stepping forward and offering the other man his hand.

  “Mad,” Bayard said, trading grips with him. “Good God in Heaven, man, I knew Predator had been injured, but . . . Were you talking to strangers again?”