The aeronauts windlass, p.27
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.27
 

           Jim Butcher

  “I wonder what is being established.”

  “A more capable cat is never impressed by a less capable cat.”

  “Oh,” Folly said. “I see what she’s saying now. They’re seeing which of them is the proudest.”

  Bridget sighed and nodded. “Or at least which has the biggest ego.”

  “By ignoring each other,” Folly said.

  “Yes.”

  Folly frowned down at her jar. “I don’t know all about cats, like Bridget, but it seems to me that this could be a prolonged contest.”

  “It often is.”

  “I wonder what we should do to hurry things along,” Folly said to her jar.

  “Hurry two cats?” Bridget asked, smiling at Rowl. “No. The cats didn’t come to our habble looking for our help, Miss Folly. This is their custom, their way. We shall wait.”

  “We shall wait for three hours, apparently,” Folly yawned to her jar of crystals.

  “One learns patience, working in a vattery,” Bridget said. “It doesn’t matter how much one wants a batch to be done. It won’t happen any faster. It’s the same with cats.”

  Folly leaned down to her jar and whispered, “I don’t think cats grow in vats, but we shouldn’t say so aloud, for that might be hurt her feelings and be unkind.”

  “You know what I meant,” Bridget said, “though that was very amusing.”

  The other girl smiled downward, clearly pleased. “So few people understand my jokes. Usually they just give me very strange looks.”

  “I’m the girl who associates with cats,” Bridget said. “Please believe that I know precisely the look you mean.” Bridget checked on Rowl again, but the two cats remained locked in their war of mutual indifference. “I’ve been thinking about what the Spirearch said earlier. About the nature of Master Ferus’s mission.”

  “She means ‘secret mission,’ ” Folly said to her jar.

  “Did he tell you what he was up to?”

  Folly traced a fingertip along the outside of her jar. It might have been Bridget’s imagination, but the tiny crystals inside seemed to give off the faintest glow of light where Folly’s fingertip touched the glass. “Bridget doesn’t understand the master very well,” she said. “He guards knowledge like a banker guards coins.”

  “So you don’t know exactly what he’s looking for, either.”

  Folly smiled faintly without looking up. “He gave me a few pennies. They’re quite frightful.”

  Bridget frowned. “But surely it isn’t difficult to deduce that he means to locate the Auroran infiltrators and foil their plans.”

  “Bridget’s logic seems sound,” Folly said. “I was thinking almost the same thing.”

  Bridget nodded. “We’re seeking the help of Albion cats to thwart the Aurorans. But they’ve been so successful at keeping their movements concealed that we still have no idea exactly where they are. That seems a remarkable accomplishment, to descend through the vents of half the habbles of a Spire without being observed by a cat somewhere. They must be doing something to make sure they go unseen. Do you think it possible that the Aurorans are also using cats as scouts, Folly?”

  The etherealist’s apprentice ducked her head a little at the mention of her name. The pitch of her voice dropped to a bare, low whisper. “Not cats. Not cats.”

  “Not cats,” Bridget said. “It’s something else, then. Something that frightens you.”

  “It’s a terrifying penny,” Folly said to her little jar. “I’m slightly mad, but not a fool. If Bridget knew, she’d be as afraid as I am.”

  Bridget felt a chill run neatly up her spine and leaned toward Folly, speaking more quietly. “You mean . . . something from . . .” Her mouth felt quite dry and she swallowed. “From the surface?”

  It wasn’t unheard-of for the creatures of the surface to gain access to a Spire. In fact, the smaller beasts did so regularly. A Spire contained literally hundreds of miles of ventilation tunnels and ducts, water channels, cisterns, sewage channels, and compost chambers. Metal grates were regularly installed where they could be, but constant contact with the outer atmosphere degraded their cladding and eventually left them vulnerable to iron rot.

  Cats did far more to protect the residents of any Spire than humans realized, by hunting and killing such intruders. Granted, the lovely little bullies would have done so in any case, and not simply for food, but because they loved the hunt. Most folk tended to assume that cats preyed solely upon rodents and the like, which was certainly true, but in fact by working cooperatively, a tribe of cats could stalk and bring down prey considerably larger than themselves.

  Sometimes, however, something too large and too dangerous for cats to handle managed to enter a Spire’s tunnels. That was why every habble employed verminocitors, men and women who hunted such predators professionally, who maintained and repaired the defensive grates, and who tracked and killed nightmarish interlopers before the beasts could begin hunting the people of a Spire.

  But those were wild creatures. If, somehow, the Aurorans had managed to train something from the surface to fight with their military . . . There were many stories and books and dramas written around the concept of some misguided soul attempting to tame the creatures of the surface, to train them to do their will. Such fictional figures universally met an identical fate: agony and death at the hands of their would-be pets—generally after a great loss of life.

  Wild beasts could not be tamed. They could not be controlled. That was, after all, what made them wild.

  “They don’t belong here and they want to destroy us,” Folly said to her jar, her eyes sick, but her tone matter-of-fact. “All of us. They don’t care what Spire we call home.”

  “Well,” Bridget said. “If the Aurorans truly are playing with that fire, it’s only a matter of time before it burns them.”

  “I once had a dream of the world,” Folly said. She gave Bridget’s face a quick, flicking glance before looking down again. “And it all burned.”

  Bridget felt a shiver gather at the nape of her neck, and she said nothing. She looked away, back toward Rowl, waiting.

  Chapter Thirty

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, the Black Horse Inn

  Benedict fetched their drinks when the bartender waved at them, and Master Ferus seized his rather large mug of beer with obvious enthusiasm and began tilting it back at once.

  “Goodness,” Gwen said, shaking her head. “I’m quite certain that a gentleman does not simply attack a drink so.”

  Ferus lowered the mug and wiped foam from his upper lip, beaming. “No, indeed, he does not. Fortunately I am absent any of the qualities that make a gentleman, and thus need not bother with the gentlemanly approach.” He waved his empty mug at the bartender and said, “Another, Sir Benedict!”

  Benedict, who had just sat, gave the old man a rather lopsided smile and then rose again, without complaint, to make another trek across the room and back. He came back with one enormous mug in each hand, and sat them both down before Ferus.

  The old etherealist beamed and said, “A man who plans ahead. Foresight, always foresight, it’s the first trait of any formidable person at all.”

  “I just hoped to be able to sample mine before I had to get up again,” Benedict said, and sipped demonstratively at his own drink. “How is your tea, coz?”

  “Perfectly tepid,” Gwendolyn answered, but she added a dollop of honey to it in any case, stirred it, and sipped. Even scarcely warm tea was tea, thank goodness, and something that felt very normal amidst all the strange events of the past few days. “Master Ferus . . . my word.”

  Ferus lowered the second emptied mug, coughed out a quiet, rather unobtrusive little belch, and smiled at her. “Yes, child?”

  “I take it that you are not obliterating your good sense for no reason whatsoever.”

  He narrowed his eyes at her and gave Benedict a shrewdly conspiratorial glance. “Doesn’t miss much, does she?”

  “Despite what everyone tends to think,
no,” Benedict agreed in a polite tone. “I think she rather enjoys letting everyone believe she’s too self-absorbed to notice anything that’s happening around her.”

  “It’s either that or let them think I’m some vapid twit. Like Mother,” Gwen said. “I simply can’t bring myself to stoop that low.”

  Ferus nodded sagely. “No, not a bit like your mother. Can’t have that.” He took the third mug in a comfortable grasp and smiled. “In fact, you are quite right, Miss Lancaster. There is a method to my madness. Well. To this particular madness, at any rate.” He took a deep draft from the third mug, though at least he hadn’t finished it in a single gulp.

  “And what would that be?” Gwen prompted him.

  “You must understand something of what we do,” Ferus said, “or this will seem like foolishness.”

  “We? Etherealists, you mean?”

  “Precisely,” Ferus said, with another politely suppressed belch. “A great deal of what we strive to achieve happens as . . . as an instinct, I suppose one might say. We touch upon forces that others cannot sense.”

  “You mean the ether.”

  Ferus waved a hand in a rather exaggerated gesture. “That’s simplifying a monstrously complex concept to its barest core, but yes, that will do. We sense etheric forces. Most people do, to some degree, though they rarely realize it.”

  “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Gwen said.

  “In fact, you do,” Ferus replied. “That gauntlet you’re wearing, for example.”

  “Yes?”

  “What do you feel in it?”

  “Nothing in particular,” Gwen replied. “The crystal is a bit cool against my palm, but it always is.”

  “In strictest point of fact, miss, it isn’t,” Ferus said. “If you found yourself a thermal meter and compared the crystal’s temperature to that of your skin, you would find them to be almost precisely the same.”

  Gwen frowned. “I assure you, sir, it is quite cool.”

  “It isn’t,” Ferus replied. “What you feel is the etheric energy that courses through the crystal. But your sensation of it is . . . something your mind was not sure what to do with, when you first encountered it. A wonderful place, the mind, but if it has any kind of disappointing failure, it’s that it always attempts to put new things into the context of things which are already familiar to it. So your mind apparently decided, upon encountering this new sensation, that it might just as well label it ‘cold’ and get on with your day. And you are far from alone—it’s one of the more common reactions to the first direct exposure to an intense field of etheric energy.”

  “The crystal on my gauntlet tingles,” Benedict said, nodding. “A bit like when you’ve fallen asleep on your hand and the blood comes rushing back in. Though I’d never heard it explained in quite those terms before, Master Ferus.”

  “That sounds like nonsense,” Gwen said. “Something is cold or it isn’t, sir.”

  “Ah!” Ferus said, pointing a finger at her. “I had no idea you had an interest in philosophy! Splendid!”

  “I beg your pardon,” Gwen said. “I never mentioned philosophy.”

  “Didn’t you?” Ferus replied. “You just heard Sir Benedict confirm that his experience with a weapons crystal was significantly different from your own. There is but one reality, that is true—but the two of you experience it in slightly different ways. The older you get, I should think, the more you will come to understand that the universe is very much a looking glass, Miss Lancaster.”

  “Meaning what, precisely?”

  “That it reflects a great deal more of yourself to your senses than you probably know.”

  “Rubbish. If I look at a blue coat, I see a blue coat. The fact that I’m looking doesn’t change that.”

  “Ah,” Ferus said, raising a finger. “But suppose that what you see as the color blue is the same shade that Sir Benedict sees when he looks at something you would call green.”

  “But that doesn’t happen,” Gwen said.

  “How do you know?” Ferus replied. “Can you see with Sir Benedict’s eyes? And if you can, I should love to know the trick of it.”

  Gwen blinked several times. “So you’re saying that it’s possible that when I see blue, he sees green?”

  “Not at all. He sees the color blue,” the etherealist said. “But his color blue. Not yours.”

  Gwen frowned. She opened her mouth to object again, thought about it, and put her teeth together. “And if Benedict does, then perhaps everyone else does, too?”

  Benedict smiled down at his cup. “It would do a great deal to explain the aesthetic tastes of House Astor, you must admit.”

  “Ugh,” Gwen said with a shudder. “Yes, those people simply cannot coordinate their wardrobes properly.”

  “Now then,” Ferus said, after another pull of his mug. “That’s something perfectly simple and relatively minor—colors. What if other fundamental aspects of life seem quite different to others? What if their experience of heat and cold is different? What if they sense pleasure or pain differently? What if, to their eyes, gravity draws objects sideways instead of down? How would we know the difference, eh? We’ve all learned to call the same phenomena by certain names from the time we are quite small, after all. We could see things in utterly unique and amazing ways, and be quite ignorant of the fact.”

  “That sounds remarkably slipshod,” Gwen said. “I’m sure that God in Heaven would not have created the world and its residents in such a ramshackle fashion.”

  “Ah!” Ferus said, beaming. “There, you are a philosopher already! A great many reasonable folk who have gone before you have put forth a similar argument.”

  “The real question, of course,” Benedict said, “is why on earth it matters? After all, we seem to have a common frame of reference for blue, and when she says ‘blue’ I know what she is talking about, even if my blue is her green.”

  “It matters because it is philosophy,” Ferus replied with an expression of sly wisdom. “If all philosophers took questions like yours seriously, Sir Benedict, they’d find themselves straight out of a career, now, wouldn’t they?”

  Gwen sipped at her tea, frowning some more. “But . . . I’m not saying that I agree with your proposition, of course, Master Ferus, but let us suppose that you are correct, for the sake of argument.”

  “Let us suppose,” Ferus said.

  “Then it would mean that . . . for all practical purposes, each of us lives on our own . . . universe-Spire, would it not? Perceiving all of it in our own fashion.”

  “Go on,” Ferus said.

  “Well,” Gwen said, “if that is the case, then it seems quite remarkable to me that we’ve managed to establish any kind of communication at all.”

  Ferus arched an eyebrow. “Quick study, Miss Lancaster, very quick. Indeed. When we connect with our fellow mortal souls, something quite remarkable has happened. And perhaps one day, if we all work at it diligently and manage not to exterminate one another, we may even be able to see through another’s eyes.” He beamed. “But for now, we’ll have to make do with making good guesses, I suppose. Food for thought.” He finished the third mug in another pull and waved for more.

  Benedict cleared his throat. “Master Ferus, I’m afraid we’ve wandered from the original point.”

  “Have we?”

  “Why are you getting drunk?” her cousin prompted gently.

  “Ah!” Ferus said. He held out his empty mug to Benedict. “Would you mind terribly?”

  “Your turn, I think, coz,” Benedict said easily.

  Gwen sighed, and fetched another pair of mugs for the etherealist.

  “Lovely,” Ferus said, and gulped some more. “Perceptions of etheric energy change from mind to mind, just as you and Sir Benedict demonstrate with your weapons crystals. And if one changes one’s mind, that also changes the nature of those perceptions. This will allow me to perceive those energies in ways in which I would not normally be able to do so.”

&nbs
p; “You’re getting drunk,” Gwen said slowly, “so that you can experience etheric energy differently?”

  Ferus held up his mug and said solemnly, “Think of it as goggles for one’s mind, instead of one’s eyes.”

  Benedict sipped at his drink, frowning. “You think you’ll be able to sense the Aurorans’ weapons crystals?”

  Ferus waved a hand. “No, no, there are so many of those things about, it would be like searching for a needle in a barge-load of needles.”

  Gwen turned her teacup idly in her hands and said abruptly, “You think there’s another etherealist here, don’t you? And you think that . . . by changing your mind, it will be easier for you to find him.”

  Ferus nodded, though the gesture made his head wobble a bit. “Top marks.” He put away another mug, and this time his finishing belch was rather louder. “Extrapolate.”

  Benedict suddenly smiled. “If you could sense him, he could sense you. So you are also changing your mind to make that more difficult.”

  Ferus slurred his sibilants severely. “Astute, sir, sincerely astute.” He peered down toward the bottom of his mug. “Though I confess, I have not changed my mind quite this thoroughly in some time.”

  “Why?” Gwen asked. “I mean, why do you believe there’s another person like you here?”

  “It’s complicated,” Ferus said. “Or I seem to remember that it is, at any rate.”

  “The Auroran fleet,” Benedict said thoughtfully. “Their attack was precise. As if they’d had some kind of beacon to show them exactly where to dive through the mists. Could an etherealist manage such a thing, sir?”

  “I daresay,” Ferus said.

  Gwen set her teacup aside. “And have you . . . changed your mind sufficiently to locate this person?”

  Ferus eyed her and then his mug, unsteadily. “It would seem not. But it’s likely a question of distance, methinks. If we get closer, I’ll have a better sense of it.”

  “And that’s why you’re contacting the local cats,” Gwen said. “To give you an idea of where to start looking.”

  “Time,” Ferus said. “There’s no time for a search pattern.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and Gwen thought that he suddenly looked several years older, and several years wearier. “There’s never enough time, you know.”