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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 22

Jim Butcher

  “To Captain Castillo of Itasca, briefly,” Grimm replied. “I took my leave before the conversation could go any farther than it did. What are you doing here, Alex?”

  “We heard that you’d been injured again while playing hero during the attack, and Abigail insisted that I look in on you.”

  Grimm gestured to his arm. “The rumor mill is performing to specifications, I’m afraid. I already had this when it started.”

  “I remember,” Bayard said. “So. You repelled an assault by Auroran Marines . . . with one hand.”

  “My crew did the majority of that.”

  Bayard made a little ah sound. “Naturally. While you stood about offering critique, I suppose.”

  “It’s as if you know me.”

  Bayard’s teeth shone in a sudden smile. “And you had no further injuries—from a critically pilloried crewman, perhaps?”

  “A few scrapes and bruises. I’m well.”

  “That will ease Abigail’s mind greatly,” Bayard said. “Now, about that brandy.”

  “What brandy?”

  “The excellent brandy you’re about to pour me in your cabin, naturally,” Bayard said in a cheerful tone—but his eyes were quite serious.

  “I see,” Grimm said, nodding. “I suppose if it gets rid of you more rapidly, it’s a worthy investment. This way, Commodore.”

  Bayard grinned. “And to think that they call merchant captains uncivilized.”

  Once inside the cabin, Grimm shut the door behind them and turned to his old friend. “All right. What’s this really about?”

  Bayard made a half circle out of the fingers of his right hand and frowned down at them in puzzlement. “That’s odd. There’s no drink there.”

  Grimm snorted. Then he went to the cabinet and came back with a couple of small glasses of brandy. He offered one to Bayard. Bayard took it, lifted it, and said, as he ever did when they drank together, “Absent friends.”

  “Absent friends,” Grimm echoed, and the two of them drank.

  “It’s official,” Bayard said after. “The Spire Council has declared a state of war with Spire Aurora.”

  Grimm frowned. “Inevitable, I suppose.”

  “Inevitable and ugly,” Bayard said. “We’re already sending out word to call in our ships in First and Second Fleets alike. The Admiralty, in its wisdom, has decided to remain in a defensive posture until we have concentrated our entire Fleet presence.”

  Grimm felt his eyebrows rising. Aerial warfare was the very soul of sudden and overwhelming violence. A commander who surrendered the initiative to the enemy was a commander who might well be obliterated by a surprise offensive at the time and place of the enemy’s choosing before he could ever give the order to engage. “What?”

  Bayard flopped down onto Grimm’s narrow sofa. “Exactly. This raid has rattled old Watson rather badly, I’m afraid.”


  “Because the enemy set this attack up to manipulate him and they succeeded. They jerked him around like a puppet on strings. If some poor fool hadn’t been randomly wandering by the Lancaster Vattery . . .”

  Bayard lifted his glass to Grimm.

  Grimm rolled his eyes.

  “. . . Watson’s response might have cost Albion its most precious resource.” Bayard sloshed down a bit more brandy. “So he is proceeding with utmost caution in order to avoid falling into another such trap.”

  “Unless, of course,” Grimm said, “they’re trying to manipulate him into sticking one of his feet to the floor and piling up all our ships in one place.”

  “Exactly.” Bayard sighed. “Every element of First Fleet is currently sailing in a giant circle around the Spire to watch for trouble, like some kind of bloody carousel. Several of us tried to talk sense into him, but you know old Watson.”

  “He’s a rather brilliant defensive tactician,” Grimm said.

  “I agree,” Bayard said. “The problem is that he’s an inept defensive strategist. We should be dispatching ships to hammer the Aurorans hard in their home skies, force them to think defensively. The damned fool’s encouraging them to take the initiative.”

  Grimm frowned down at his drink and said, “What does this have to do with me?”

  Bayard scowled. “Don’t give me that. You’re Fleet, Mad. Same as me.”

  “The Fleet rolls say otherwise.”

  “There’s a war upon us,” his friend replied. “This is no time for petty grievances. We need every skilled captain we can get. I want you to come back.”

  “I have been dishonorably discharged. I can’t come back.”

  “You’re an experienced combat commander,” Bayard countered. “And you’ve won more than a little respect for your actions at the Lancaster Vattery. The prime minister of Albion himself watched you defend his home, his people, and his livelihood through his study window. If you come back to Fleet and offer your services, I think the winds are right to make it happen—and there happens to be a captain’s slot I need to fill in my squadron.”

  Grimm looked up sharply.

  “Valiant,” Bayard said simply. “I need a flag captain.”

  Something lurched inside Grimm’s chest, something that he’d forgotten over the past decade—the voice of a much younger, much less experienced Francis Madison Grimm, determined to win command of a Fleet ship of his own. He wasn’t sure whether it felt like fireworks exploding in his chest or the vertigo of a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs. “You’re insane. I never commanded a Fleet ship.”

  “Yes,” Bayard said, his voice hardening. “You did.”

  “Not officially,” Grimm spat. “Not on paper. And no officer, no matter how popular or favored, is given a bloody heavy cruiser as his first command.”

  “Rules are made to be broken,” Bayard replied. “What they did to you wasn’t right. I don’t see how reversing that injustice could be wrong.”

  “I’m working for the Spirearch now,” Grimm said.

  “I know. But this is your chance, Mad. To make it all right. Come back to Fleet command with me. Offer to rejoin.”

  Grimm narrowed his eyes. “You want me to go to them. You want me to go to them with my hat in my hands and ask them to let me back in, pretty please, your lordships.”

  “War, Mad,” Bayard said, leaning forward. “This is bigger than me. It’s bigger than Hamilton Rook and his family. It’s even bigger than your wounded pride. We need you.”

  “Then I look forward to being notified, in writing, of the clearing of my name and the restoration of my rank and standing in Fleet,” Grimm said.

  Bayard’s face became furious. “Dammit, Mad. You have a responsibility. A duty.”

  “You’re right about that much, at least. But my duty to Fleet ended years ago. I have other responsibilities now.”

  Bayard simply stared, anger radiating from his every pore. Grimm met his gaze without hostility and without yielding.

  After a moment, Bayard seemed to deflate. He made a disgusted sound and finished off the brandy in a gulp. “Damn your pride.”

  Grimm finished his own glass and let the liquor burn down his throat, half-afraid that the turmoil in his chest might set it alight. “Alex . . . What you’re asking me to do—I won’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t.”

  Silence fell.

  “Abigail said as much,” Bayard said finally. “But I had to try.”

  “Thank you,” Grimm said. “Truly.”

  Bayard moved one shoulder in a shrug, set his glass aside, and rose. “I also wanted to give you some advance warning—your XO is about to be put back on active duty. They’re calling in everyone they’ve habbled and every reservist they can from the merchant fleet.”

  “I suppose that’s hardly surprising,” Grimm said, rising with him. “How is he?” Bayard asked.

  “He’ll do,” Grimm said in a firm tone. “When?”

  “A week at the longest,” Bayard said.

  “I’ll make adjustments,” Grimm said, and the pair of them walked
back out on deck together. “Please give Abigail my regards.”

  “You’ll need to have a meal with us soon,” Bayard said. Then he grimaced. “Wartime permitting.”

  “I should enjoy that.”

  “This . . . arrangement you have with the Spirearch,” Bayard said. “Will it last?”

  “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

  “Then I reserve the right to speak to you on the subject again.”

  “My answer shall not change.”

  “No. I don’t suppose it shall.” Bayard glanced up, and then tilted his head a bit to one side. “Captain,” he said. “What is that at the very top of your forward mast?”

  Grimm looked up, following Bayard’s gaze to where a small, solid form was outlined against the sunlit mist. “Apparently,” he said, “it is a cat.”

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing

  Rowl found the view from atop the foremost of the two ship-trees to be less exciting than he had assumed it would be. Oh, he could see over the ship itself well enough, though based upon his understanding of the vessel’s name, as if it needed one, he felt that its master should have been thanking cats for the obvious inspiration, at the very least. Perhaps there was an arrangement to be reached here. Certainly, if they named something after cats, even the dimmest of humans must understand that there was recompense to be discussed.

  The vessel itself had proved to be interesting. He had seen Littlemouse safely ensconced in a small room with a cup of hot drink, which tasted terrible but which she insisted upon having frequently in any case. After that, he had gone exploring. There were many hallways and rooms upon Predator, as well as a number of things that needed chasing and catching. Probably not eating, though, unless he was truly hungry. Rowl felt sure that Bridget’s fragile feelings would be crushed if he denied her the pleasure of sharing her meat with him.

  There was certainly a place for a cat on a construct such as this, provided he didn’t mind the company.

  Once he had inspected the vessel, he had promptly climbed the ship-tree, but the only thing of interest to be seen from there were the humans moving about the ship, and honestly, it would be a long and dull day indeed before they proved more than momentarily interesting. A smaller ship, possibly also bearing a name inspired by his people, came alongside Predator. A human of significantly less clumsiness than most came aboard, a small male, and despite its diminutive stature, it moved with a warrior’s confidence and wore a very large and fine hat.

  Such hats often signified humans who considered themselves important, which was adorable for the first few moments and trying ever after.

  The visitor had, however, entered the ship as if waiting to be permitted on another’s territory, which was the proper way to do things. Rowl had begun to approve of the human Grimm, who had thus far acted with less than utter incompetence in every aspect of his life. If Grimm was able to command such respect even from humans with very large hats, he might make suitable help, and even humans were wise enough to realize that good help was the most elusive of quarries.

  Rowl followed the conversation Grimm had with the visitor. It seemed largely to be concerned with inexplicable human madness, though he understood the anger and raised voices that signified what might have been a bloodletting. As so often happened with the fickle beasts, it did not develop into a proper battle, and the visitor left in apparent defeat.

  Shortly after that, there was some activity between the tall second in command, and a human operating several long levers with colored cloth on the ends. They were apparently signals of some kind, because the humans peered down at something below them for a time, after their flags waggled. What they saw seemed to satisfy them. The ship, which had been motionless, finally descended toward a wooden platform that, apart from minor details, looked almost precisely like the one they had just left.

  Rowl found that disappointing. It seemed a great deal of trouble for him to spend half a lifetime bored up a ship-tree to gain very little in the way of an interesting change of environment. But such things were to be expected when dealing with humans. He would remain patient until they fumbled past such foolishness. Was he not, after all, a cat?

  He descended the ship-tree. It was rather less enjoyable than the climb had been. It was an activity better suited to humans and their spidery fingers. He would have to see to it that there was a human prepared to climb up and carry him down with proper dignity next time. Perhaps it would be an opportunity to test the capability of human Benedict. Clearly he was unworthy to be the mate of Littlemouse, but perhaps with the right guidance some kind of adequacy could be nurtured.

  Rowl returned to the little room where Littlemouse and her companions were drinking their stinking water, and leapt up to grip the handle upon its door, hanging from it long enough to make it come open. Then he prowled in and shut the door again with a press of his shoulders.

  The human Gwendolyn blinked at him several times and then said, “When on earth did he leave? How did he leave?”

  Littlemouse nodded at him and said to human Gwendolyn, “He is a cat, Miss Lancaster. Asking such questions is an exercise in futility.”

  Rowl leapt up onto Littlemouse’s lap and nuzzled her cheek affectionately. He liked Littlemouse. She was far less stupid than most humans.

  “The ship is landing,” he told her. “We should go see what this new habble looks like at once.”

  He waited for Littlemouse to repeat what he had said to the other humans. Honestly. He sometimes felt that humans simply had to be deliberately obtuse. What was so difficult about understanding civilized and excellently enunciated speech? His father had often opined that, in fact, humans really were exactly as foolish and helpless as they seemed— or that life was simpler if one assumed it to be true, at any rate. But Rowl was not yet sure.

  A moment later, an acutely unpleasant sound of metal striking metal sliced across the deck. It was one of those human noises that had been, he felt sure, created for no purpose whatsoever but to annoy cats.

  The sound did seem to galvanize the humans, though. Littlemouse and her companions rose and began fussing about the way humans often did. The humans who operated the ship did the same, and after a pointless delay for the humans to collect all their toys and keepsakes, he was finally able to take his rightful place in Littlemouse’s arms and herd them all in the proper direction.

  They descended from the ship onto a wooden platform that seemed to simply hang in open air from the side of the Spire. He had to give humans credit where it was due—they did seem to have a knack for building interesting places for cats to explore. They walked over the creaking wooden planks, their steps echoing.

  “Littlemouse,” he said, “if the human platform fails, will we not fall to the surface?”

  He could hear her heart speed up, and her hands became somewhat clammy against his fur. “Nonsense. I’m certain it will do no such thing.”

  But she began to walk slightly faster.

  Littlemouse and her companions joined a rather large herd of humans who were standing around doing nothing interesting or profitable. They stayed there interminably, only occasionally taking a step forward. Honestly. Was it any wonder their clan chief had finally begged Rowl’s father for the guidance and support of the Silent Paws?

  At last they funneled through a relatively tiny opening in the wall of the Spire along with a column of similarly placid humanity, and took their turn wasting even more time by talking to armed humans who were not even so important as to have large hats. And only after all of that indecipherable human ritual was complete to their satisfaction did they enter Habble Landing.

  Rowl reminded himself that cats were eternally patient, and that he would not simply explode if he did not fling himself from Littlemouse’s arms and go exploring. Which was not to say that he could not do so if he wished, because cats were also their own masters. He decided that his patience was practically legendary—which was fortunate for Littlemouse, or Rowl w
ould already have taken care of this problem or mystery or whatever it was while she was still milling about in the line to talk to the armed humans at the entrance to Habble Landing, thus robbing her of the glory of success.

  Though, now that he thought about it, he was the most important member of the party. Any glory gained was rightfully his in any case.

  He decided to tolerate the situation for the present. But if the humans became unmanageable, he might have to take steps. And who could blame him? Not even his father would assert that it was practical to manage five humans. It was a well-known fact that humans became more addled than usual when running in herds.

  Habble Landing was fascinating. For one thing, the ceiling was only half the height of other habbles he’d seen. It was still far above even Littlemouse’s head, but the more enclosed space reminded him of the ducts and ventilation tunnels that were traditionally the territory of his people. And it was thick with humanity. Habble Morning was considered to be a well-populated habble, but Habble Landing absolutely teemed with people by comparison. Hundreds and hundreds of them were coming and going through the hole in the Spire wall. Dozens of humans who were selling trinkets and keepsakes (all of which Littlemouse would say were absolute necessities for a human) were lined up along the walls in neatly arranged stalls—and this wasn’t even the market area.

  Voices filled the air, so many of them that it was impossible to pick out a specific conversation—taken as a whole, the voices created a low murmur that sounded a bit like the sighing of air through a junction point in the vents. Scents were thick, too—foul smells that always came with humanity, savory smells of various foods, and absolutely fascinating scents he could not identify.

  “Goodness,” human Gwendolyn was saying. “Have you ever seen so many people coming and going?”

  “It would be a lovely setting for slipping an enemy agent into the Spire,” human Benedict agreed.

  Human Folly was apparently frightened of something, though she was in no danger that Rowl could see. Her heart beat very quickly, and she stank of nerves strung tight. She kept her eyes on the floor and stayed within inches of the senior male of the group, Master Ferus. The older man’s eyes were almost closed, as if he wanted an observer to think he was nearly sleeping, but Rowl could see them flicking around in an almost feline fashion, taking in the sights just as he was.