The aeronauts windlass, p.28
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.28
 

           Jim Butcher

  Gwen traded a frown with her cousin. “Sir?”

  Ferus shook his head. He took a swallow from the mug and put it down again. “Time to slow down now, I think.”

  Gwen nodded, and felt somewhat relieved. “Too much of such an indulgence can be dangerous, sir. What now?”

  “Now?” Ferus sighed, without opening his eyes. “Now we wait.”

  “Is that wise, sir?” Benedict asked politely. “You do say that we’re short on time.”

  “We always are,” Ferus said. “At the moment it is all we can do, I’m afraid. Best get comfortable.”

  Gwen and Benedict traded another look, and Gwen nodded firmly. “In that case,” she said, “I shall ask for properly hot tea.”

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Spire Aurora, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  The door to Grimm’s cabin opened a few inches and Kettle said, “Skipper, something you’ll want to see.”

  Grimm blinked his eyes open, long-accustomed reflexes swinging his legs out of his bunk and his feet to the floor before he was able to focus his gaze. Night had fallen and the cabin was lit only by the light of a few large lumin crystals that were hung around Landing’s shipyards, shining wanly through the small windows. He felt as though some kind of gum were squeezing his eyelids shut, but he knew it was nothing more than simple weariness. He must have been asleep for less than three or four hours for his body to feel so reluctant to get out of his bed.

  “Skipper?”

  Grimm felt an irrational surge of annoyance at the pilot and promptly clubbed it into submission. Kettle hadn’t slept much more than Grimm had, and the man wouldn’t have woken him if it wasn’t important. “I hear you, Mister Kettle. I’ll be out directly.”

  “Aye, sir,” Kettle said quietly, and closed the door.

  Grimm fumbled a lumin crystal to life, quickly washed himself from a basin of tepid water, and dressed. Captains did not arrive to address a crisis looking like an unmade bed. They were always calm, confident, and neatly turned-out. If an enemy battleship was about to unleash a full broadside on a ship, the captain would face it with his hat straight and his cravat crisp and square. Anything else undermined the faith of a crew, increasing the chances of casualties, and was therefore unacceptable.

  That said, a captain knew very well how time-critical any number of issues could be. On a Fleet ship, Grimm would have had a personal valet to manage a good many things and save him considerable personal time on a given day—but Predator, as a private vessel, could not afford the luxury. The upshot being that it took him nearly four minutes, instead of three, to cleanse himself, dress, buckle on his sword, tug his hat on firmly, and appear on the deck. His arm ached restlessly without its sling, and he could have done with a shave, but all things considered, it could wait until morning.

  “The time, Mister Kettle?” Grimm asked as he emerged. “Sixth bell,” Kettle replied. “Three o’clock, sir.”

  Grimm strode to the ship’s starboard rail and scowled up into the misty night sky at the vessel that was making its descent to the landing slip beside Predator’s.

  She was a large armed merchantmen, a third again Predator’s size, flying a Dalosian flag this night. She’d been painted smuggler-black all across her hull, though there were sharp white marks painted on her decks to show the way to her crew in darkness. Like Predator, she had masts for raising sail when the use of her web was not possible, though Grimm knew her sails to be stained storm-cloud grey and smudged with black smoke. A blazon of garish red paint at her prow named her the Mistshark.

  “There, you see, sir?” Kettle growled. “What’s she doing here?”

  “Whatever it is,” Grimm mused, “I think we can safely assume it is unlikely to make our sleep more restful.”

  “Could be we have a problem with that new number three gun, skipper,” Kettle suggested darkly. “Maybe it goes off completely by mistake. Blows that bitch clean out of the sky. Terrible accident, sinecere regrets, we all go to the funerals.”

  “Now, now, Mister Kettle. You know I would never condone such an action.” He glanced aside and added in a whimsical undertone, “At least, not when it could be traced back to Predator.” He narrowed his eyes, scanning the decks of the Mistshark for familiar faces. “Still, you know she took that slip intentionally. Make ready a side party if you would. She’ll be here to gloat in a moment.”

  “There could be a horrible accident with a gauntlet,” Kettle growled.

  “If you please, Mister Kettle,” Grimm said, keeping a firm note of reprimand in his tone.

  “Side party, aye-aye, Captain,” Kettle said, and stomped off, muttering under his breath.

  Grimm nodded and went back to his cabin. He picked up his nicer bottles of liquor, his cutlery, his gauntlet, and a number of small, valuable objects, placed them all in his heavy cabinet, and locked it. Then he made the bunk neat and turned up his crystal lamps to their brightest levels. By the time he had finished, he could hear men on the deck of Mistshark shouting. Her captain would be on the way.

  Grimm went back out on deck and eyed the other ship. A lean woman of an age with him but half a foot taller was coming down the gangplank onto the pier.

  “No,” she said firmly to the burly one-eyed ape of a man walking beside her—Mistshark’s first mate, Santos. “I absolutely forbid it. Unless you can find a way to make it look like it was someone else’s ship that had the accident.”

  Santos spat out a curse, scowling, and put his hands on his hips. He glowered at his captain and then up at the deck of Predator.

  The woman took notice of Santos’s reaction, and turned on a low, heavy boot heel to gaze up at Grimm. Her expression turned into a perfectly amused smile. She wore an aeronaut’s dark leather pants, a white blouse with roomy sleeves, and a tailored vest bearing intricately embroidered designs. She swept a hand up to her head and doffed her cap, giving him a formal bow, her arms spread at her sides.

  Grimm scowled.

  When she straightened again, the woman replaced her cap and said, “My dear, dearest, lovely Francis. You look absolutely delightful.”

  Grimm folded his arms and continued to scowl.

  The woman laughed. “Francis, I do hope that in your usual charmingly predictable and courteous way, you have prepared to receive me. I’m coming aboard. With your permission, of course.”

  “Kettle keeps asking me to let him shoot you, Captain Ransom.”

  “But you never would,” Ransom replied, smiling. “Not Francis Madison Grimm of the Albion Aetherium Fleet. Even though he isn’t.”

  Grimm gave her a sour smile. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

  Ransom put a hand to her chest and made a sad face. “Oh, sweet Francis. You wound me with your lack of enthusiasm.”

  “I shall certainly wound you if you try to take anything that isn’t yours while you’re here.”

  “Everything’s mine, Francis,” she replied in a merry tone. “The only question is whether or not it knows it is yet.”

  Grimm jerked his head toward Predator’s gangplank in a peremptory gesture, and walked toward it without ever quite turning his back entirely on Captain Ransom.

  The woman strode down the pier and around to Predator’s gangplank with steady, quick strides, and came up the ramp like a visiting monarch.

  “Side party,” Kettle snarled. “ ’ttention!”

  Tension indeed, Grimm thought. Half a dozen armed men, three on either side of the gangplank, snapped to attention, and every single one of them kept his hand on his sword, his gauntlet primed and gently glowing. Kettle faced the gangplank and gave his best glare to Captain Ransom as she came up to the deck.

  “Sweet Kettle,” Ransom said. Something quite predatory came into her smile. “Does your knee still ache when it rains?”

  “Aye,” Kettle snarled. “And I make it feel better by breaking the noses of mouthy, sucker-punching, welching, treacherous Olympian bi—”

  “Mister Kettle,” Grimm sa
id, his tone hard. “Captain Ransom is my guest. You will maintain courtesy and discipline aboard my vessel or I shall terminate your contract. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

  Kettle looked over his shoulder at Grimm sullenly. He grunted. Then he turned and snapped off a textbook salute to Captain Ransom.

  Ransom returned it genially. “Permission to come aboard?”

  “Granted,” Kettle said through clenched teeth.

  Grimm stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Conditionally, Captain Ransom. I believe you are familiar with my terms.”

  Ransom beamed and unfastened her gauntlet. Kettle stepped forward, warily, to accept it. Then she unbuckled her sword belt and passed that over as well. “Satisfied?”

  “And the knives in your boots, if you please,” Grimm said.

  She reached down and withdrew two slender copper-clad blades from the tops of her boots, smiling without a hint of shame or repentance as she surrendered them. “I only put them there to give you an excuse to gaze at my lower half, Francis.”

  “How thoughtful,” Grimm replied, his tone disinterested. “What’s that at the small of your back?”

  Ransom reached behind her, and every man in the side party rattled their swords to make sure they’d come clear of their scabbards if need be.

  Her smile widened and she produced a small silver flask. “A lovely drop I picked up in Ethosia. You’d like it.”

  “Fool me twice, shame on me,” Grimm said. “You won’t be needing it.”

  She rolled her eyes and passed the flask over as well. “Don’t you touch a drop of that flask, Kettle.”

  “No worries there,” Kettle growled. “I know where it’s been.”

  Ransom ignored the comment loftily. “Anything else, Francis?” She bobbed an eyebrow at him. “Should I strip out of my clothes as well?”

  “That shall not be necessary,” Grimm replied stiffly.

  Ransom winked at him. “I do so appreciate the courtesy that is always shown me when I visit the second-fastest ship in the sky.”

  Grimm felt a flicker of utterly irrational annoyance at the mention of the race, and had to fight to keep from clenching his jaw. “It is how decent, civilized people behave, Captain Ransom. Though I suppose that to someone of your level of moral fortitude, it must seem remarkable.”

  She barked out a quick laugh. “I would say you’d scored a touch, Francis, if I had the least shred of desire for your good opinion.” She strode across the deck breezily. “Don’t bother to show me the way to your cabin, Captain. I’m sure I’ll find it in the same place.”

  Grimm watched Ransom walk away, and permitted himself a slow exhalation and a narrow-eyed glare. Kettle stepped up next to him, his eyes wary.

  “That woman,” Grimm said quietly, “drives me quite insane.”

  Kettle grunted. “Why’d you marry her, then?”

  Grimm followed her to his cabin and shut the door behind them. He leaned his shoulders back against the door and folded his arms over his chest, mostly to use his right arm to support his wounded left. “All right, Calliope,” he said. “What are you going to make me regret this time?”

  She tossed her hat casually onto his writing desk, settled onto his bunk, and stretched out along it with a smug assumption of the space. “Perhaps I missed you. Can’t I pay an old friend a social call?”

  “Friend,” he said, his tone carefully devoid of emotion. “Empirical evidence suggests that you cannot.”

  She smiled, the expression impish, her green eyes sparkling in her strong, square face. Had an artist painted Calliope, no one would accuse her of extraordinary beauty, but somehow it was present in any case—in the way she held her head, the glitter in her eyes, in her sheer physical confidence. A still-life image of her was something of an oxymoron. Calliope was never still. Even when she was seemingly motionless, he could see her mind at work, sorting ideas, seeking solutions, cataloging the space around her. To see her beauty, one had to see her in motion.

  “You’ve grown so cynical since the Admiralty cashiered you for obeying orders, Francis,” she said. “It’s most unbecoming.”

  Grimm simply stared at her.

  Calliope rolled her eyes. “I’m almost certain that I remember you having a sense of humor sometime in the murky past, at the dawn of history.”

  “We used to have a lot of things,” Grimm said in a neutral tone. “What do you want?”

  “I want to make you an offer. An easy job with an excellent profit margin.”

  “How believable,” Grimm said. “But I’m afraid I’d rather not lose another year’s earnings to your amusements.”

  “It isn’t about money,” she replied.

  “Since when?” Grimm said mildly.

  “I’m doing quite well for myself now,” Calliope replied. “Why, not a month ago we stumbled upon a damaged Cortez-class merchantman. She’d had a battlecruiser escort, but apparently it went haring off in pursuit of some dim-witted band of amateur pirates who had made a mess of attempting to take her. Her entire belly was as naked as a newborn. Took the ship and her cargo, sold them, and ransomed back her crew. I’ve enough money to bathe in at the moment.”

  Grimm snorted and opened his door. “I believe I’ve heard enough. Good day, Captain Ransom.”

  “No,” she replied, her eyes hardening. “You haven’t heard enough. Not yet. Hear me out. Give me one minute. If you don’t like the offer, I’ll go.”

  Grimm twisted his mouth into a frown. “We’re done here.”

  Calliope sat up, her brows knitted, her gaze intense. “Mad,” she said very quietly. “Please.”

  Grimm stared at her for several seconds. Then he shut the door again. “One minute,” he said.

  “Due to a clerical error, I find myself double-booked,” she said. “I’ve half a load of vatsand bound for Olympia and the other full of medicine bound for Kissam. I can’t make both deliveries in time. Help me out by taking the Olympia run, and I’ll split the net profits with you.”

  “In theory, I should think a ninety-ten split would be more reasonable,” Grimm said.

  “You want ninety percent of my cargo?” Calliope asked.

  “Ten percent and a solid reputation is a great deal more than nothing and a broken contract,” Grimm said. “Theoretically.”

  She narrowed her eyes. “There’s no point in trying to argue with you over this.”

  “None whatsoever. I’m not the one who needs help.”

  She pressed her lips together and then nodded once. “You leave me little choice, it would seem.”

  “In fact, I leave you none at all. I’m not available. That battlecruiser you mentioned gutted Predator. It’ll be days before we can put sky under her again.”

  Calliope frowned. “What? She’s not skyworthy?”

  “Yet,” Grimm said.

  Those green eyes slipped into calculation and seemed to reach some sort of conclusion. She rose abruptly and reached for her hat. “Then I suppose I should seek help elsewhere. I’m sure someone would like the work.”

  Grimm nodded and opened the door for her. Captain Ransom strode out of the cabin and over to the gangplank, where Kettle warily returned her effects. She glanced back over one shoulder at Grimm, just for a second, and then departed the way she had come.

  Kettle came over to his side. “What did she lie about?”

  Grimm shrugged. “I’m not certain. All of it, likely. Said she had an easy-money job for us.”

  Kettle snorted.

  “Precisely.”

  “And you told her no,” Kettle said, rather carefully.

  “Of course I did.”

  The pilot sagged a little with evident relief. “Ah. Fine. It’s never good news when she shows up.”

  Grimm found himself frowning thoughtfully. “No. No, it isn’t.”

  “Sir?”

  “Mistshark arrives just as the Spire comes under attack?” Grimm asked. “Are we to think it a coincidence?”

  Kettle grunted. “W
hat do you mean?”

  “The Spirearch sent us down to Landing to smoke out an enemy force,” Grimm said. “And it just so happens that by chance, the fastest ship in the sky is docked in the Landing shipyard?”

  Kettle scowled. “Predator only lost that race because Santos sabotaged our main Haslett cage.”

  “Regardless of how it happened, she won,” Grimm said. “She claimed the fame and glory. Such renown is a marketable commodity.”

  Kettle’s frown deepened. “You think she’s enemy transport?”

  “I am disturbed by the presence of inordinate levels of coincidence,” Grimm said. “I want eyes on Mistshark at all times, reporting anything, no matter how trivial. See it done.”

  Kettle nodded. “Aye, sir.”

  Grimm narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “And after that . . . send misters Journeyman and Stern to my cabin, please.”

  Kettle’s concerned frown twisted up into a little smile and his eyes glittered with a sudden malicious light. “Ah. Yes, sir. I’ll be delighted to.”

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Major Espira seized the sword from the hand of the Auroran Marine braced at attention in front of him. He held up the weapon and inspected it minutely before snarling, “You’ve allowed the copper to wear through, right there, Marine.” He held up the weapon a few inches from the Marine’s eyes, so that the tiny spot of brown-red rust was clearly visible. “The iron rot’s already begun. Can you see that?”

  “Yes, sir,” the Marine said.

  “Why do we clad iron and steel with copper, Marine?” The man’s cheeks colored slightly. “To prevent iron rot from destroying the weapon, sir.”

  “Excellent. You do know. And once the iron rot sets into the steel, how long will it be before it spreads from this point and turns the entire thing to rust?”

  “A few days, sir. Give or take.”

  Espira nodded. “This weapon will not kill whom you need it to kill if it shatters on the first stroke, or snaps when you attempt to draw it from the scabbard. I don’t mind if your carelessness kills you—but it might also kill your brothers in arms, myself among them, when you fail to fulfill your duty.”