The aeronauts windlass, p.30
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.30
 

           Jim Butcher

  Even a “team” of cats working together tended to be a loose coalition more than anything, and lasted no longer than was necessary. Clan chiefs like Maul or Naun maintained their position through a dense, complicated network of one-on-one relationships, through building a general consensus, and when necessary through the exertion of personal pressure where possible, and force when necessary. Getting half a dozen cats to agree upon almost anything was the next-best thing to impossible. Getting several hundred to move together, to abandon their individual territories, to share a single living space was . . .

  . . . unheard-of. Literally. From all she knew of cats, Bridget would never have believed such a tale if someone had told it to her.

  What in the name of God in Heaven was happening in this habble?

  Rowl strolled forward through the chamber as if there weren’t enough potentially hostile cats surrounding them to smother them all to death beneath their sheer weight. As deaths went, Bridget thought, being asphyxiated by warm, soft, furry little beasts seemed a bit less ghastly than some she had considered lately, but nonetheless she preferred to avoid it. Rowl, generally speaking, knew very well what he was about—but when his natural ability and confidence failed, the results tended to be the sorts of events one felt obligated to write down in one’s diary. She hoped, rather fervently, that this would not be one of those occasions.

  Rowl went straight to the lowest stool and mounted it as calmly as if it had belonged to him, and the cats who sat there were forced to give way awkwardly at the last moment or else find themselves bowled over. Rowl proceeded up the pieces of furniture until he reached the high stool upon which sat Neen. Once he had reached that, Rowl calmly took a seat beside his counterpart and faced Naun attentively.

  Naun watched this display with narrowed eyes, and the tip of his tail twitched once or twice. Then he eyed Neen.

  Neen idly lifted a paw, cleaning it fastidiously. He was not precisely ignoring his clan chief—but he was, Bridget felt, walking near some sort of boundary.

  Naun’s voice was a deep growling tone. “You are Rowl of the Silent Paws.”

  “I know that,” said Rowl. After a moment he added, “Sire of the NineClaws.”

  Naun growled in his chest. “Arrogant. Just like the other Silent Paws who have visited my domain.”

  “I know that, too,” Rowl said. “You know why I have brought these humans to you.”

  “Yes,” Naun said. His green-gold eyes flicked to Folly and Bridget. “They believe we owe them some sort of service.”

  “Sire of the Nine-Claws,” Bridget said, taking a small step forward.

  That drew the eye of every cat there. Bridget felt rather abruptly severely unnerved by the attention of so many consummate predators, however small each of them might be individually. She swallowed and kept her voice steady. “Lord Albion, the Spirearch, sent us to request your aid in a matter in which we believe only the Nine-Claws can help us.”

  Naun peered at Bridget and tilted his head this way and that for a moment. “Is that some kind of trick, kit of Maul? Like when the humans make those hideous dolls appear to speak?”

  “It is no trick, sire,” Rowl said easily. “This is my human, Littlemouse.”

  “And it speaks,” Naun mused.

  “As I told you,” Neen noted.

  The elder Nine-Claw eyed his kit and considered his own front paws for a moment, as if deciding whether or not he needed to choose one with which to reply.

  Rowl feinted at Neen’s nose with one paw and the other young cat flinched. Instantly every warrior cat in the place was on its feet, and Bridget felt almost certain that she could actually hear the mass of fur upon spines suddenly springing straight up. The air whispered with hundreds of low sounds of feline warning.

  Bridget found herself holding her breath.

  Rowl ignored the chorus of angry growls with a certain magnificent indifference to reality, looking at Neen in strict disapproval.

  “Respect your sire,” Rowl said severely. “Or you will oblige him to teach you, here and now, when he obviously has greater concerns before him.”

  Neen blinked at Rowl several times. He took note of the room, and all the cats staring at him, and abruptly became disinterested, looking out at nothing in particular, his eyes half closing.

  There was a long silence. And then Naun let out a low sound of amusement, and his ears assumed a more relaxed, attentive angle. Bridget felt her pent-up breath slowly easing out of her again, as several dozen of the watching cats joined their clan chief in sharing their amusement.

  “You have courage, Rowl Silent Paw,” Naun noted. “Or you are mad.”

  “I know that, too,” Rowl replied. “Will you hear Littlemouse’s request?”

  “Littlemouse,” Naun said, his gaze traveling up and down Bridget’s large frame. “A fine name for her.”

  “She grew more than was expected,” Rowl explained. “It was most inconsiderate, but what can one expect?”

  “Humans rarely concern themselves with the needs of cats,” Naun agreed. “And those who do are rarely to be trusted.”

  Rowl lifted his chin. “Littlemouse, kit of Wordkeeper, is exceptional.”

  Naun studied Bridget with unblinking eyes for a time. Then he said, “Rowl, kit of Maul, you are a welcome guest in my domain.”

  Rowl tilted his head sharply to one side. “Whatever do you mean, sire?”

  Naun’s unreadable eyes, for an instant, were hot with rage. “The Nine-Claws are no friends to humans. No matter to whom they belong.” The older cat turned to stare hard at Bridget. “Littlemouse, kit of Wordkeeper, you and your companion are unwelcome here. You will depart immediately. You will not return to these tunnels; nor will you attempt to make contact with my clan. Should you refuse to abide by either of these commands, your lives are forfeit.”

  Bridget opened her mouth, startled. “But . . . sire, surely if you would only hear me out.”

  “I know why you are here,” Naun snarled, rising to all fours. “I know you seek to enlist our aid as eyes and ears in the coming conflict, but you will not have it. The war is a human war. It is not a cat war. The Nine-Claws will not care if your enemies slaughter every last man, woman, and child—it is all the same to us. We will go on as we have with whatever batch of humans rules this habble.”

  Bridget bit her lip. Well. That was unacceptable. She couldn’t simply return and explain to Master Ferus that the cats had said no, and what might be his next idea? Miss Lancaster would surely not simply abide by that conclusion. But what could be done? Within this setting, Naun’s word was law. And though most people thought cats to be little more than vicious little vermin, good mostly for killing even worse little vermin, Bridget was perfectly aware that cats were willing and able to bring down human beings if they chose to do so. Naun could absolutely make good on his threat. If Naun so ordered it, none of them would leave this chamber.

  Even so, Bridget had a duty to perform. She had no intention of failing in it. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, ready to try again.

  Folly abruptly seized Bridget’s wrist, and the slender girl’s fingers felt like cold, hard bronze.

  “No,” Folly hissed. “Can she not see it?”

  “See what?” Bridget whispered back.

  Folly turned her head slowly, her eyes raking over the chamber, the shadows, the silent, tense forms of the Nine-Claws clan.

  “They are afraid,” Folly breathed, barely audible, her lips hardly moving at all. “They are being watched.”

  Bridget’s mouth suddenly felt dry, her throat tight. “Here? Now?”

  Folly nodded her head in so slow and slight a motion that Bridget almost thought she had imagined it.

  Naun turned, the motion deliberate, his dark fur rippling in the dim light of Folly’s jar, speaking in a slow, heavy voice. “You will be shown from this place and put on a path back to the human quarter of the habble.” He paused to glance over his shoulder at Neen and said, his voice heavy
with weariness, “Show them to the ropes.”

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Rowl, Littlemouse, and the slightly odder-than-usual human girl walked in a circle of Naun’s hardiest warriors, half a dozen big, battle-scarred toms, most of whom were nearly Rowl’s size.

  Each warrior wore a pair of fighting spurs—curved metal blades fashioned by humans and attached to leather cuffs that wrapped around a cat’s rear legs. The spurs were sharp enough, when used properly, to be more than a little dangerous.

  Rowl felt that the escort was largely symbolic. None of them were his match, spurs or not, and Littlemouse, of course, was both armed and an exceptional human, with strength that had even impressed the halfsoul, Benedict. It would take a dozen experienced warriors, at least, to bring down a human like Littlemouse.

  Rowl growled in his throat. The first to try it would not live long enough to touch her.

  And that was what this was about. Naun had extended his hospitality and with it his offer of protection—to Rowl. He had made no such offer for Littlemouse and Folly. Clearly Naun had no love of humans, for which Rowl could hardly blame him. As a matter of history, cats had usually come to regret entanglements with humans. Humans were fickle, prone to changing their minds without warning or reason. There were very few reliable human beings, even with the half-souls among them—which was why those such as Littlemouse and Wordkeeper were so very exceptional. It was why no sane cat allowed kits to come anywhere near human beings. Humans seemed to feel that it was perfectly acceptable to teach kits to accept food from their hands as a matter of course, rather than teaching them the importance of hunting skill and selfreliance.

  Once one had to depend upon someone else for food, one had to depend upon someone else for life itself. To give humans such power over cats was an abomination, but it was far from the only indignity or injustice that humans had meted out over the centuries—including active hunts of cats, at times, blaming them for things no cat would have done for any reason, attempting to poison their food supply or their water. Cats and humans regularly clashed in places where their understanding of the local human population was incomplete, and mutual pain was the inevitable result of such a breakdown of basic comprehension. If Naun had suffered through something like it, or if those he cared for had suffered, it could easily drive him to irrational hatred of even exceptional humans like Littlemouse.

  There were only a few reasons Naun would send them from his territory on a course so different from the one they had taken when they arrived, none of them pleasant. Certainly, Rowl thought, Naun meant for something to happen—something of which he did not (and perhaps could not, if Folly was correct) speak aloud. Rowl’s instincts kept repeating calmly that Naun intended to expose them to some kind of danger.

  Which was perfectly fine. Rowl could handle any reasonable amount of danger, and between himself and Littlemouse he felt that there were few challenges that need occupy his thoughts with undue concern. The real question to him was why Naun would do such a thing. It seemed somewhat rude, especially to a visiting clan chief’s heir, but then, Rowl did not yet know everything that was happening—practically everything, he felt certain, but there might be some nuance to the situation, or to Naun’s motivations, that the local clan chief intended to show him. Or it could be simple treachery.

  Rowl had no preference. In either case, he would deal with the problem and then respond to Naun in whatever manner was most appropriate and tasteful. When had he done anything else?

  The little group reached the mouth of a side tunnel, and the leader of the escort of Nine-Claws toms came to a halt. “There,” the cat said. “Down that tunnel. Keep going and it will lead you out into the human section of the habble.”

  “Will it?” Rowl asked calmly.

  “Yes.”

  “But you aren’t going there,” Rowl said.

  “No.”

  “You are stopping here,” Rowl said.

  “Yes.”

  “Because you are afraid.”

  The other cat stared at Rowl with flat eyes.

  Rowl yawned his unconcern. “If you wish to keep those eyes,” he said pleasantly, “move them elsewhere.”

  “Rowl,” Littlemouse breathed in protest. Littlemouse was such a tender, sensitive thing. Threatening to rip out someone’s eyes was probably something she regarded as shocking, no matter how sincere Rowl might be, or how well earned the threat had been. Rowl looked up at her fondly, then turned his attention back to their escort.

  The threat drew a response from the rest of the Nine-Claws present, and they all turned to stare at Rowl.

  Rowl returned their gazes one by one. And one by one they turned disinterestedly away from him, as if they’d found their conflict to have suddenly become unspeakably dull.

  Rowl lashed his tail in satisfaction and said to Littlemouse, “Shall we?”

  “Of course,” Littlemouse replied. “Would you like me to carry you?”

  Rowl considered the question gravely. “No,” he decided. “You should be ready to use your gauntlet instead.”

  Bridget’s eyebrows went up, but instead of protesting, she calmly rolled her sleeve all the way up and away from the gauntlet. As Rowl understood it, there was no real need for such an action, as long as Littlemouse didn’t use the gauntlet too much—but the copper cages around the devices grew very hot after a time, and could set cloth aflame.

  Folly, meanwhile, stared at the new tunnel’s blackness with wide, frightened eyes. Rowl approved. Fear was wisdom in a situation like this, and he was pleased that Folly was obviously intelligent enough to know it. He hoped that she would use the fear to make her cleverer, rather than more foolish, but that was asking much of a human, relatively odd or not.

  “I wonder,” Folly said to the jar, “could we go another way? A way that is not down this tunnel?”

  “Unlikely,” Rowl said. “Naun means us to walk down that tunnel. To refuse him would be to challenge his rule.”

  “Oh, dear,” Folly said.

  “I think you should walk on my right,” Littlemouse said to Folly. Littlemouse was afraid—Rowl could hear her elevated heartbeat—but her voice was as calm and regular as a cat’s. He felt that he deserved most of the credit for teaching her that. “That way I can lift my gauntlet hand without bumping into you.”

  “Oh, yes, she’s quite right,” Folly said, nodding, and stepped up to stand a little behind Littlemouse and to her right. “But one of us should tell her that I would prefer another tunnel—any other tunnel at all in the world—to this one.”

  “Hold the lights up, please?” Littlemouse asked. “The sooner I can see a potential threat, the sooner I can attempt to blast it.”

  Folly solemnly lifted her little jar of crystals to her chin.

  “Thank you,” Littlemouse said.

  “I will go first,” Rowl told her. “Please do not tread upon my tail. I find it demeaning.”

  “I haven’t done that since I was eleven,” Littlemouse said, smiling.

  “Yet,” Rowl said. Then he flicked his tail left and right and started down the tunnel. After he had taken a few steps, the clothing of the humans rustled and they began walking steadily along behind him.

  There was a strange scent in the tunnel, and Rowl noted it immediately. It was creature flesh—he knew that much—something that had come into the Spire from the surface, its scent pungent and unsettling in his nose. There was the foul taint to it that Rowl had learned to associate with poisonous, inedible kills while he was still a fuzzy little kit. So something particularly strange and perhaps particularly dangerous had recently been in this tunnel.

  Rowl objected. Granted, the Nine-Claws territory was not his to defend, but it seemed grotesquely inappropriate that something should go to all the trouble of coming this far up the Spire from the surface, only to prove utterly useless as food after it should be hunted. It seemed very rude to make a cat go to all the work of hu
nting and killing it and then not provide the victory feast after the successful conclusion to the hunt.

  “Ahead,” Folly breathed. “Something. The ceiling.”

  They had to walk another forty steps (fewer for the humans, he supposed) before even his eyes could make out something in the nearperfect shadows of the tunnel’s ceiling. The ceiling was perhaps two or three pounces above them, and made of conventional stone, rather than spirestone. The humans of Habble Landing had halved the height of the tunnels as well, though Rowl was sure he did not know why they would do such a foolish thing. To provide more tunnels for the top half of their habble, Rowl supposed.

  There was, Rowl noted, a hole in the ceiling, as wide as the length of his body and tail. From the hole trailed dozens of long lines of some kind, something like all the long ropes on Grimm’s airship, but made of different material than those had been. They stirred gently in the breeze of the tunnel. As they did, they reflected hundreds of tiny, random colors of light from the jar Folly carried.

  It was a moment more before Littlemouse and Folly were able to see the lines, and at that point their steps slowed and stopped.

  “What . . . what is that?” Littlemouse breathed. “What are those ropes made of?”

  “Ethersilk,” Folly whispered.

  “Ethersilk rope?” Littlemouse asked, her mouth open. “Who could afford to make such a thing?”

  “It isn’t rope,” Folly told her jar. “But she doesn’t know that. She’s probably never seen what it looks like before it’s been harvested.”

  “Harvested?” Littlemouse asked. Then she drew in a short, sharp breath. “Silkweavers. That’s what you mean, isn’t it.”

  Folly stared at the hole as though she could not look away and nodded in silence.

  Bridget shook her head. “But they live on the surface, and in the mists. They don’t . . . To weave a strand that big, they would have to be enormous. And God in Heaven, what lunatic would attempt to tame them? Fools have been trying to domesticate them for their silk for two thousand years with no success. With no survivors.”