The aeronauts windlass, p.29
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.29
 

           Jim Butcher

  The Marine swallowed, staring ahead, and said nothing. “Well? What have you to say for yourself, Marine?”

  “No excuse, sir,” he replied.

  Espira passed the weapon back with a sharp motion and said, “Report to the armorer, scour the rust off, and seal the bare spot with lead. Once that is done, you will perform maintenance on every spare weapon in the armory—and you will do so with flawless attention to detail. Understood?”

  “Yes, sir,” the Marine replied, saluting.

  Espira glared all the way down the line of Marines from Second Company’s first platoon. “In fact, why don’t all of you prepare your weapons and gear for inspection? Again. When I return in one hour, each and every man of you will turn yourselves out like Auroran Marines, or God in Heaven bear witness, I will send every one of you up the ropes.”

  The faces of more than twenty hard-bitten professional soldiers went pale in a single wave of acute unease, and Espira let the silence weigh heavy before he said, “Dismissed.”

  The Marines all executed a drill-ground right face, despite not being ordered to, and marched quietly and efficiently away from the intersection chamber and back down the length of ventilation tunnel to their designated bivouac area.

  “Barely looked like a real spot to me, Major,” rumbled a deepchested voice from behind him.

  Espira turned to find Sergeant Ciriaco standing a few feet away, having approached in total silence. The warriorborn Marine threw him a crisp salute, which Espira returned with equal precision. “Sergeant. Once upon a time, the first sergeant I worked with taught me to keep nervous men focused on their mission with familiar routine and fear of my wrath if they deviated from it.”

  The other man relaxed, smiling a bit. “Did he? He teach you anything else?”

  “Only to never expect him to arrive in a timely fashion,” Espira said, not quite allowing himself a smile. “Where is Lieutenant Lazaro?”

  Ciriaco’s feline eyes glinted with buried rage. “Dead, sir.”

  Espira tilted his head. “How?”

  “He ignored my advice and made a bad call,” Ciriaco said. “Ran into what he thought were civilians tending wounded after the air strike. He tried to bluff his way past them instead of shooting them and moving on with our payload.”

  “Why?”

  “One of them was a pretty girl. Looked like a porcelain doll. He was young, sir.”

  Espira frowned and nodded. Chivalry was a virtue held in high esteem in the upper echelons of Spire Aurora. It took young officers time to learn how seldom it could be indulged in combat. Unfortunately, actual combat could often be abruptly, lethally parsimonious in the matter of how much time it gave young soldiers to learn. “What happened?”

  “They caught on to him, and the little doll lit up his face with a gauntlet from about two feet away.”

  Espira grunted. “Damn. The boy had promise. At least it was quick. The vattery?”

  The sergeant shook his head. “Waited for the strike team to rendezvous but they never came, and we never got the explosives to them. Some kind of reserve Fleet officer with far too much initiative assembled a militia, brought it into the tunnels, and intercepted us. I presume the vattery team is dead, sir.”

  “Bah,” Espira said. “It was only a side errand, and a sensible gamble, but it would have been a nice feather in our caps to have destroyed that damned crystal shop of theirs.” He tilted his head, frowning at Ciriaco. “Are you shot, Sergeant?”

  “A bit,” Ciriaco said. “It’ll pass. Damn fool Lazaro. Lost half the squad.” He squinted down the hallway after the departed platoon. “Would you really send them up the ropes, sir?”

  “Half a tithe of my strength? Don’t be absurd. But at the moment, they need something to fear more than a Spire full of angry Albions.”

  Ciriaco’s nostrils flared and his eyes shifted to one of the other tunnels leading off from the intersection chamber. “That why she’s here?”

  “Mind your tone, Sergeant,” Espira said to the larger man. “You’re one of the finest soldiers in Spire Aurora—but we all have our orders.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Espira nodded, and then followed the sergeant’s glance to the darkened tunnel. Madam Cavendish’s batman, Sark, stood at the entrance to the tunnel, a sober, frightening figure in black, his walleyed face locked into an expression of perpetual boredom. No one with half an ounce of brains in his head would mistake him for anything but a lethal sentry.

  Espira had been blocking it from his attention deliberately, with constant attention to the men—but now that all voices had fallen silent, he could hear it again: a high, pitiable, hopeless keening sound that came drifting brokenly out of the darkness.

  “Ren?” Ciriaco asked in a whisper.

  “A verminocitor stumbled onto the base,” Espira replied, equally quietly. “We caught him, but not his partner. He says he was alone. She is here to verify his story.”

  “Knives?” the warriorborn guessed.

  Espira shook his head and suppressed a shudder. “She took nothing with her.”

  “She’s a mad beast,” Ciriaco said.

  “She is our mad beast,” Espira corrected him. “Be glad she is on our side.”

  The warriorborn narrowed his eyes, staring intently at Sark, and rolled one of his shoulders stiffly, as if it pained him. “No, sir, Major,” he said. “I don’t think I will.”

  Just then footsteps sounded in the black hallway, firm and decisive. A moment later Madame Cavendish emerged from the darkness. She paused at Sark’s side, and her batman handed her a small towel. It was only then that Espira noted that her nails and fingertips were wet and scarlet. The sobs in the tunnel continued unabated.

  The etherealist calmly discarded the cloth and walked over to Espira. Sark loomed in her wake.

  “Major,” she said, “we have had a stroke of luck. He was indeed working alone, though he believes there will be a search for him in the next twenty-four hours or so.”

  “Disappear the body, ma’am?”

  “God in Heaven, no,” she replied. “That would only make the Verminocitors’ Guild turn out in increasing numbers, searching more and more tunnels to find one of their own. Take the body and leave it where it will be found in the next few hours. Then there will be no search.”

  Espira nodded slowly, struggling to keep his face neutral. He looked down at the darkness from which weak sounds of despair still drifted. “He’s alive, ma’am.”

  “What is left in that tunnel is a technicality,” Cavendish said. “But it wouldn’t do to have him found with sword strokes and blast wounds in him.” She mused for a moment and then smiled. “Send him up the ropes.”

  Espira felt his throat tighten again, and his stomach twisted at the idea of doing that to any man, much less a hopeless, broken one. “Ma’am?”

  “No more than a minute, or there won’t be enough left to be identified,” Cavendish said. She paused and then said, her voice harder, “Do you understand, Major? Do you know how long a minute is?” Espira ground his teeth but said, “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Very well. Do your best not to interrupt my preparations again, won’t you, dear? I’m expecting guests, and I must be ready to receive them.”

  With that, she turned and began walking calmly away. Sark watched them in silence until she was several paces away, and then he turned to follow her.

  Ciriaco waited until Sark was gone to let out a low, leonine growl.

  “We work with the materials we are given, Sergeant,” Espira said.

  The sobbing continued in the darkness.

  “Ren,” Ciriaco said quietly, “don’t order me to send a living soul up the ropes.”

  “Of course I won’t, old friend,” Espira said quietly. “Break his neck. Send up the corpse. Dispose of it as Madame Cavendish specified.”

  Espira could feel Ciriaco’s gaze on him, and then the warriorborn Marine sighed and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

  Chapter Thirty-three

>   Spire Albion, Habble Landing

  Bridget had nearly fallen asleep when, a number of hours later, both bored-looking cats abruptly whipped their heads in the same direction, ears pricked forward as if they’d heard something—although Bridget hadn’t, beyond the normal muted noises of later hours in the habble.

  After a moment frozen, both cats simultaneously rose, stretched, and yawned.

  “Folly, wake up,” Bridget said. “It’s time.”

  Folly blinked her eyes open from where she’d been dozing with her head against the wall and looked around, apparently disoriented. “Whose time is it?”

  “Shhh,” Bridget said, listening intently.

  “Adequate?” Rowl asked the other cat.

  “So it would seem,” the strange cat replied.

  “Introductions?”

  “Appropriate.”

  Both cats turned at the same time and sauntered toward Bridget and Folly, walking exactly shoulder-to-shoulder.

  Folly peered sleepily at them as they approached, and whispered to her jar, “I wonder which of them won.”

  Bridget felt her eyebrows lifting. “I . . . I believe it was a draw,” she whispered back. “This is a formidable member of his tribe.” She sighed. “Just our luck, when we’re in such a rush, to meet someone who could ignore Rowl for so long.”

  “Ought we stand up?” Folly asked her jar worriedly. “Won’t it be seen as disrespect if we do not?”

  “A human who is sitting down is a human who cannot possibly pounce on a cat faster than the cat can spring away,” Bridget replied. “Stay sitting. It’s more polite.”

  “Oh, Bridget makes it perfectly sensible,” Folly said, smiling. “I’m so glad I wondered aloud.”

  Rowl prowled over to Bridget and settled comfortably in her lap.

  “Oh,” said the strange cat. “They belong to you. I had wondered why they waited about.”

  “This one belongs to me,” Rowl said, leaning his head up to nudge the underside of Bridget’s chin. “That other one works for me.”

  “With you,” Bridget said, beneath her breath.

  Rowl flicked a careless ear. “It’s the same thing.” He turned to the strange cat and said, “I am Rowl, kit of Maul of the Silent Paws. This is Littlemouse. That one has not yet earned a real name.”

  “Her name is Folly,” Bridget put in, saying all but Folly’s name in Cat.

  “No real name,” agreed the other cat. “I am Neen, kit of Naun of the NineClaws.”

  “I have heard of the Nine-Claws,” Rowl said. “They seem perfectly adequate.”

  “I have heard of the Silent Paws,” Neen replied. “I find nothing overly objectionable about them.”

  “The humans of my habble sent Littlemouse here to ask for help from cats.”

  Neen lashed his tail thoughtfully. “That seems overly intelligent for humans.”

  “I thought the same,” Rowl said. “Littlemouse, ask.”

  Bridget stared calmly at Neen, matching the cat’s enigmatic, confident expression as best she could. “If it is not too much trouble, I would like to speak to your clan chief.”

  Neen tilted his head and returned her stare. “It almost sounds like a cat.”

  “It sounds precisely like a cat,” Rowl replied, some of the hair along his spine rising. “Littlemouse is mine and I will thank you to remember it.”

  Bridget ran a hand down Rowl’s spine in just the way he most preferred and hastened to add, “I know that this request is unusual, Neen, kit of Naun, but it is very important to the Spirearch, Lord Albion, and it may be that only the Nine-Claws can help us. I beg your indulgence in this matter, and will accept whatever decision you make in it.”

  Neen lashed his tail left and right for a moment before rising and saying, “It is Naun’s place to decide, I think. Remain here. Naun will see you. Or he won’t. Farewell, Rowl’s Littlemouse.” Then he turned and vanished into the shadows.

  “Goodness, so abrupt,” Folly muttered.

  “Cats are not to be rushed,” Bridget said. “On the other hand, it’s rather difficult to slow them down, once they’ve decided to start.” She traced Rowl’s ears with her fingertips and said to him, “I take it we should wait.”

  “You should,” Rowl said approvingly, turning in a circle and then lying down in her lap. “I, however, am weary from all that diplomacy. I shall sleep.”

  The Nine-Claws kept them waiting for all of half an hour.

  Then a pair of large male cats appeared from the shadowed hallway. They sat down at the very limits of Bridget’s vision, where the yellowgold gleam of their eyes was the thing she could best see.

  “Folly,” Bridget said. She touched Rowl’s back lightly, and the cat lifted his head at once. “Of course,” he said, and yawned. “Now they are quick.”

  “It’s as though they have no consideration for others at all,” Bridget said in a dry tone.

  “I suspect that they do not,” Rowl growled. “But this is their territory. We must show them . . .” He shuddered. “Respect.”

  Bridget nodded firmly and said to Folly, “Let Rowl walk first. Stay even with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, and try not to look at any specific cat for more than a second or two—it makes them uneasy. Very well?”

  “Don’t worry,” Folly said to her jar. “I’m here to protect you.”

  “Yes, thank goodness for that,” Bridget said, rising as Rowl climbed out of her lap. She offered a hand to Folly and hauled the slender apprentice etherealist to her feet.

  Rowl looked back and up at them, his expression enigmatic, then turned and prowled forward.

  They followed the pair of male cats into darkness that rapidly swelled and swallowed them. Bridget would have been blind if not for Folly and her jar of expended lumin crystals. There must have been several hundred of the little crystals in the girl’s container, each producing a faded remnant of their original glow. Any one of them could have barely produced light enough to be seen from the corner of one’s eye—but taken together, they cast a very soft, nebulous radiance that at least allowed Bridget to follow the cats without walking into a wall or tripping over debris on the tunnel floor.

  The pair of warriors—they could be nothing else, given their size, their silence, and their arrogant demeanor—led them into the ventilation tunnels of the east side of the Spire. While the Builders had created Spire Albion in the shape of a perfect circle, each habble was laid out as a square fitting within that circle. The extra spaces, at the cardinal points of the compass, were filled with a variety of supporting structures— cisterns, ventilation tunnels, waste tunnels, and the like. Cats generally preferred the smaller ventilation tunnels for habitation. Bridget could barely squeeze into one of the little tunnels and still wriggle forward, and she devoutly hoped that Naun would meet them in one of the larger tunnels or intersection chambers.

  It took them only a few minutes to reach a large intersection chamber where, apparently, the Nine-Claws had decided to receive them. It was a roomy space, with ceilings that stretched up out of the meager light of Folly’s jar, forty feet wide and perhaps twice as long. Eight ventilation tunnels intersected at this point, and the moving air of the Spire’s living breath swirled around the chamber, a constant, droning sigh.

  The far side of the chamber featured several pieces of wooden furniture, including a footstool, a wooden chair, a high bar stool, and an impressive, darkly stained table. They were lined up in that order as well, obviously as stairs leading up to what amounted to a dais.

  A score of warrior cats were arrayed on the various pieces of furniture or on the ground at their feet—up to the large table, where a single, heavily muscled tomcat of purest black sat with his eyes mostly closed. On the bar stool, just below the level of the table, sat Neen, with a bored expression, though his tail lashed left and right in agitation.

  “He has his own furniture?” Rowl demanded, under his breath. “Oh. That is simply outrageous. What is he doing with those? Cats have no need for such thing
s.”

  “Why do I suspect you’re going to want me to buy some for you?” Bridget asked.

  “That is not the point.” Rowl sniffed. “We will discuss such matters later.”

  Bridget kept herself from showing any teeth when she smiled and looked carefully around the large chamber. There were a great many cats looking on. In the wan light Folly held, she could see little of them but for indistinct shapes and the flicker of reflections of green-gold eyes. Hundreds of them.

  “Oh, my,” Folly whispered. “There are certainly more cats here than I have seen in the duration of my life. And oh, look. Kittens.”

  Bridget arched a brow sharply, and turned her head to follow the direction Folly was pointing out to her jar. She did indeed spy several tiny sets of eyes, many of them coming closer as the curious kittens crept forward, noses extended, their ears pricked toward the visitors. That was odd. Cats did not expose their kittens to humans. Even Bridget and her father, with their strong relationship with the Silent Paws, had seen kittens no more than half a dozen times in her life.

  And now the Nine-Claws had received them in the very same communal chamber where their kittens were being cared for. In fact . . .

  “This is all of them,” Bridget breathed to Rowl. “This is the entire clan. Kittens and all.”

  Rowl narrowed his eyes and made a quiet sound in his throat. “Impossible. Too many tunnels must be watched and guarded and held against encroachers.” But even as he said it, Bridget saw his eyes scanning the room, taking an approximate count of their hosts.

  “They’re nervous,” Folly whispered. “Banding together for safety.”

  “Cats don’t do that,” Bridget said, or began to say—but she stopped herself. Cats absolutely operated in groups to hunt and defend territory more safely. But they certainly did not ever allow themselves to appear to be doing such a thing. Such a lack of independence would be seen as unacceptable.