The aeronauts windlass, p.23
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.23

           Jim Butcher

  “Master Ferus?” human Gwendolyn asked. “Where should we go, sir?”

  “Hmm?” Ferus said. “What’s that?”

  “Lodging, perhaps?” Littlemouse suggested.

  “Ah, excellent, yes.” He glanced back at human Benedict. “Young man, do you know of a decent inn?”

  “I believe there are a great many of them in the habble, but I stayed at the Guard house while I was here,” human Benedict said in an apologetic tone. “I do know that we should be able to hire a runner who can assist us.”

  Human Gwendolyn frowned. “Should we not stay there as well? This is an official inquisition for the Spirearch, after all.”

  “We can’t make it official, and we can’t stay at the Guard house,” Littlemouse said. “If there is a traitor amongst the Guard, and we march in and announce our intentions, we might as well blow trumpets everywhere we go.”

  “Quite right,” Master Ferus said. “Quite right. A runner, then.”

  Human Gwendolyn seemed to take that as a command. She nodded and strode off through the crowd. Rowl waited with infinite patience. There were many things to see and smell. One human vendor had a great many little creatures in little cages. Some of them had wings, and some scales, and some fur. Rowl managed to sort out scents to their owners and studied them thoughtfully. Then a gentle stir and shift in the direction of the ventilated air announced the arrival of afternoon, as the sun began to warm the other side of the Spire, and brought with it a deliriously savory scent of cooking meat.

  Rowl whipped his head to one side to stare in the direction from which the scent came—and noted, as he did, that human Benedict had wit enough to smell it, too, and was showing exactly the same interest. The human’s stomach made growling, grumbling sounds.

  Human Gwendolyn returned shortly, in the company of a rather scrawny little human kit. The little human’s hair was a mess, its face was dirty, its clothing ragged, and Rowl, who found humans drearily like one another most of the time, could not tell whether the apparent runner was male or female.

  “This is Grady,” human Gwendolyn announced. “He has graciously consented to guide us to an inn.”

  “Aye, aye,” said the little human. “Just come with me, ladies and gents, and we’ll get you squared away with a clean bed and a hot meal.”

  “Good, good,” said the oldest human. “Proceed.”

  “Yes, sir!” said the little human. “Right this way!”

  They followed the little human from the gallery that led to the shipyard, and into a side tunnel, where he produced a medium-size lumin crystal and made everyone utterly blind to anything happening more than a few paces away. Humans were inconsiderate that way. Rowl could see perfectly well, after all. It was hardly his fault if humans couldn’t tell the difference between mere dimness and true darkness.

  Which was ironic, because they were, as a whole, among the dimmest creatures he knew.

  They walked a short way through the side tunnel and then exited into a long, narrow street where the human buildings crowded in close on every side and thrust up from the floor all the way to the ceiling in many cases—but the building heights were uneven and jagged overall, like so many broken teeth. The street was only dimly lit, and there were considerably fewer humans walking along it than they had seen near the shipyard.

  Rowl found that . . . inconsistent. The presence of danger brushed along his fur as the little human led Littlemouse and her companions down the street, and Rowl found himself gathering and releasing his muscles. He could not pinpoint any particular threat and yet . . .

  Littlemouse, wise enough to look to a cat for guidance, noticed Rowl’s reaction almost immediately. Her own posture became tenser, her eyes flicking around, searching for any threat just as Rowl did.

  Suddenly Rowl heard soft footfalls behind them, and he turned his ears quickly to listen in that direction.

  “Littlemouse,” he said quietly. “We are being hunted. Behind us.”

  She looked down at him, but did not swivel her head to look over her shoulder toward their pursuers. Excellent. Such a gesture would have alerted the hunters to the fact that their prey had sensed them. Littlemouse was so clever—for a human, of course.

  “Benedict,” Littlemouse said quietly. “Rowl thinks someone is following us.”

  Human Benedict frowned at her, but did not ask questions. Instead, Rowl saw his nostrils flare, and he began to use his eyes, looking around him, though he did not turn his head.

  “Damn,” human Benedict said a moment later. He took a step forward, drawing even with Master Ferus, and tapped human Gwendolyn on the shoulder. She turned to look up at him, but didn’t stop walking. Human Benedict leaned down to speak quietly to her. “Coz, I’m afraid we’ve been marked.”

  Human Gwendolyn frowned. “Marked?” She looked down at herself. “Did someone put something on my dress?”

  Human Benedict let out a breath through his teeth. “Marked, coz, as prey. We’re being paced and followed.”

  “By whom?”

  “Footpads, most likely,” human Benedict replied. “There are several gangs that operate in Habble Landing.”

  Human Gwendolyn narrowed her eyes. “I see. And which person has marked us, specifically?”

  “To your left,” human Benedict said. “About ten feet behind us, dark brown coat, black hair, about twenty. He’s keeping track of us by watching our reflections in windows as we pass them. And there’s another one ahead of us, on the right, in that slouchy hat.”

  “I see,” she replied. “What is the usual course of action for dealing with such things?”

  “Avoid them.”

  “We’ve already failed at that,” human Gwendolyn said, her tone irritated. “What else?”

  Human Benedict sounded a bit flustered. “Coz, how should I know? I’ve never been marked by footpads before.”

  She considered that, and nodded. “I see.”

  Then, without hesitating for more than the time it took to take a step, human Gwendolyn turned, raised her gauntlet, and discharged it.

  An almost invisible bolt of force and heat howled through the air and slammed into the stone wall of a building’s front side, not two feet from the head of the footpad pacing them from behind. The light made Rowl duck his head to shield his eyes, and the force of the blast threw chips of stone from the wall, sending them skittering around the street.

  The footpad (and perhaps a dozen other humans who happened to be nearby) let out a shriek and flinched back, staring at the smoking, scorched gouge in the stone. He lost his balance and fell to the ground and onto his rear. The entire street, in fact, froze in its tracks, everyone staring at little human Gwendolyn.

  She stepped toward the footpad, her gauntlet’s crystal still glowing in her palm, and raised her voice to a pitch and volume that would carry it to the entire street. She pointed the forefinger of her right hand at the stunned footpad and said, her voice hard, “You.”

  The man just stared at her.

  “Run home,” human Gwendolyn said. “Do it now. And inform your masters that we are not prey.”

  Her words echoed around the stone building fronts for a few seconds.

  Then the footpad’s mouth twitched a couple of times. He gave a jerking, frantic nod, scrambled to his feet, and dashed away down the street and out of sight.

  Rowl turned his eyes back to human Gwendolyn, impressed. That was precisely how one should deal with a would-be predator. Human Gwendolyn’s instincts and response had been practically non-incompetent.

  “Maker of the path,” human Benedict swore beneath his breath. “Coz, you just discharged a gauntlet on a crowded street.”

  “And stopped us from being attacked by thugs,” human Gwendolyn replied. “No one was hurt. Honestly, coz, we have no time for this sort of nonsense.” She took a step forward and knelt down to stare in the eye the little human who had led them there. “Grady,” she said in a sweet tone, “why did you bring us here to be attacked?”

  “I didn’t!” the little human said, his face bloodless. “I wouldn’t! I won’t, miss!”

  “You just happened to bring us down a crowded chute full of men seeking targets to mug? Is that what you want me to believe?”

  The little human swallowed. Then he said, “I know another inn, miss. Right by the gallery, out in the open. I could take you there if it pleases you.”

  “Fool me once, shame on you,” Gwendolyn said. “Fool me twice, and I may feel inclined to blast you purely on principle.”

  The little human stared at her, agog.

  “Boo!” Gwendolyn shouted, and stamped her foot.

  Grady turned and sprinted off.

  “Are you certain you don’t want to blast the ground at his feet as he runs away?” Benedict asked, his voice dry.

  “Don’t be tiresome, Benny,” Gwendolyn replied. “If we can’t trust one runner, we can’t trust any of them. There’s no guarantee that the next time it might not be Auroran agents instead of simple thieves waiting for us. Present me with options.”

  Benedict frowned for a moment and then shrugged. “There’s one place we can go where I feel certain we can at least get honest guidance, if nothing else.”

  “Excellent,” Gwendolyn said. “Let us proceed.”

  “This way,” Benedict said, and they started walking again. After a moment or two, human Benedict turned to look directly at Rowl. “Thank you,” he said.

  Rowl yawned, feeling rather pleased with himself for having saved his humans from footpads, and said, “It is what I do.”

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Monastery of the Way, Habble Landing

  Bridget walked carefully through the cramped passages of Habble Landing, trying to pay attention to any other sources of potential danger—but she felt as if she’d been sent to the store without anyone telling her what she was supposed to buy. What would danger look like? She supposed that if it was overt and obvious, just anyone could see it coming, but she had no idea of what an ambush might resemble before it actually began to happen. She saw no one in a great black cape, or twirling a waxed mustache, which all the villains in the theater seemed to have, though she supposed true villains would rarely do one the courtesy of identifying themselves and declaring their intentions in a forthright manner. It was one of the things that made them villains, after all.

  She kept one eye on Rowl constantly. She would never admit it to the little bully aloud, but he probably had a much better idea than she of what might prove a threat. He was already even more insufferably pleased with himself than usual today, having warned them of the footpads. If she admitted it to him, he would never let her forget it.

  Rowl, for his part, looked and sniffed and flicked his ears this way and that, taking in all the sights and sounds of the busy, even maniacally industrious habble.

  The crowded labyrinth of vendors’ stalls and counters near the airship docks had been only a foretaste of the habble proper. There were more shops in operation in one quadrant of Landing than in the entirety of Habble Morning! And they had divided their vertical space in half, so that there was a whole second level above them presumably filled with even more enterprise.

  Entire lengths of cramped street were dedicated to specific crafts and businesses. There was a street of tinkers and smiths, the air hot and filled with the sound of metal on metal. There was an entire street of paper makers, the smell of their labors so appalling that Rowl buried his nose beneath Bridget’s arm until they were past. There was a street of vatteries, next to the street of tanners, next to the dyemakers, and absolutely everyone seemed to be in a great hurry, passing their slowerstepping group with grumbles and dire glares.

  The people were just as dazzling in variety. She’d always assumed that Habble Morning was the most cosmopolitan habble of the Spire, the absolute hub of Albion culture, but though visitors weren’t precisely unheard-of there, there was simply no comparison to be made.

  In the space of ten minutes, she spotted half a dozen different groups of foreigners moving through the streets of Landing. She saw a group of ruddy-cheeked Olympians in their traditional green-and-gold garb, most of them wearing the device of their home Spire’s laurel wreath upon their breasts or pendants or rings. Not five steps later, a pair of women with the golden-brown skin marking them as Nephesians strolled by wearing long, sweeping skirts in half a dozen fine, patternslashed layers of different colors. They were followed by a tall warriorborn man with the nearly black skin and ice-blue eyes of an Atlantean, wearing an airship captain’s coat of indigo, and not long after that she spotted a crew of rather small, lean, worn-looking men and women whose faces were marked with the fine, swirling ritual scars of Pikers.

  “Is this your first time out of Habble Morning, Miss Tagwynn?” Benedict asked her.

  Bridget jerked her eyes away from the Pikers rather guiltily. “Is it so obvious?”

  “Totally understandable,” he said. “After all, something like seventy percent of the residents of Spire Albion never leave their home habbles at all.”

  “I should think it would reduce one’s chances of being preyed upon by footpads,” she observed.

  Benedict grinned. “Oh, of course. Crews like that never pick on anyone from their home habble. Too easily identified to the authorities. And their leaders would never allow it.”

  “Leaders?” Bridget asked. “They aren’t just . . . like, packs of marauding ventrats?”

  “Naturally not,” Benedict said. “Far too messy and chaotic, and therefore easily stopped. Everything they do has to be coordinated and carefully organized.”

  “Organized robbery?”

  “Among other things, yes,” Benedict said. “Smuggling, the sale of dangerous intoxicants, trafficking in weapons, in medicines, in flesh.” His eyes darkened slightly. “All controlled and precisely applied by the guilds.”

  Bridget blinked. “The guilds? Like the Vatterists’ Guild?”

  “I doubt it’s much like the Vatterists’ Guild in Habble Morning,” Benedict replied. “All of the guilds are in competition here, and most of them engage in one kind of shady activity or another. Some are worse than others, but as a rule, if someone gets his head broken in Habble Landing, it was because one of the guilds decided it needed to be done.”

  “It would seem to be a great deal of trouble to manage a group of men who would do such things,” Bridget noted.

  “Indeed it is.”

  “Wouldn’t it be simpler for them to . . . just do honest work?”

  Benedict showed his teeth. “Probably. But there will always be those who seem to think that simply taking what they need through strength is easier and more enjoyable than working to create it. Certainly it leaves them more leisure time.”

  “I don’t understand,” Bridget said. “Why would guilds that behave this way be permitted to exist?”

  “Any number of reasons,” Benedict said. “If there is a law, someone will work to break it. That’s human nature. The guilds have a certain code of conduct to which they adhere that makes them a somewhat less appalling proposition than independent criminal activity. They are the devil we know.” He pursed his lips. “And they are extremely powerful.”

  “Not more powerful than the Guard, surely.”

  “More focused than the Guard,” Benedict said. “Much harder to find than the Guard. And of course, they aren’t burdened by the restrictions of Spire law. Atop that, they also control a number of legitimate businesses, and through their influence can significantly alter habble politics. They command a combination of fear, respect, money, and professional craft that makes conflict with them a difficult and dangerous proposition.”

  Bridget frowned, thinking about that. “Then . . . pardon me if my understanding falls short, but did not Gwendolyn just issue a rather blatant public command to these powerful and dangerous men?”

  “Yes,” Benedict said placidly. “Yes, she did.”

  “Oh, dear,” Bridget said. “That seems . . . less than ideal.

  Benedict shrugged, his feline eyes constantly sweeping the streets as they walked. “Perhaps. Perhaps they’ll respect it as a show of strength. Men like that tend to refrain from unprofitable enterprises such as preying upon victims who can fight back—and the Lancasters can certainly do that.”

  They turned down a final cramped street, and as they did, Bridget could actually see the tension go out of Benedict’s lean frame, and his face relaxed into a smile.

  “What just happened?” Bridget asked.

  “This is safe territory. We’re close now,” Benedict said. “The Guilds won’t operate in this portion of the habble.”

  “Why not?”

  “They’ve been taught that it is more trouble than it’s worth,” Benedict said.

  They passed through a last bit of street crammed with buildings and suddenly emerged from the warren into the open space of a standardheight habble ceiling, stretching out fifty feet overhead. The rest of the habble’s buildings simply ended, the twin levels connected by a heavy deck and several large wooden stairways, as if their designers had simply forgotten to carry the conversion of the original space beyond the point they had just passed.

  Before them stood a solid wall of masonry ten feet high, set with a single heavy gate of bronze-bound wooden beams. In front of the gate sat a man in a rather odd-looking saffron robe, the material loose-fitting around the upper arms, but bound in by wraps on his forearms. His pale head was shaved entirely bald, and he sat with his eyes closed, his legs crossed, and his palms resting lightly on his knees. A simple rod of copper-clad metal about three feet long rested on the floor beside his right hand.

  “Oh,” Bridget said. “Is that a monk of the Way?”

  Rowl stirred in her arms and looked up at the man, the cat’s ears focused forward and his tail twitching with interest.