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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 32

Jim Butcher

  Goodness, think of what trouble they’d be in if Folly hadn’t practiced.

  So because it was right and necessary to do so, she simply imagined a thousand different complex, unique little paths for her baby lumin crystals, all at once. Well, she shouldn’t exaggerate, really, since that was boastful. There were nine hundred and eighty-seven crystals on the floor. So she modestly imagined nine hundred and eighty-seven patterns, one for each little crystal, to show them how to use the energy she was feeding them.

  And the hallway behind them—and every silkweaver in it—was suddenly wreathed in a latticework of blinding, blue-white lightning.

  The noise of it was really quite startling, a cloud of individual snapcracks that sounded rather similar to the discharge of a weapons crystal—only since there were nine hundred and eighty-seven of them, all within the same second or two, the noise was equivalent to a small army firing a fusillade within the confines of the little access corridor. The heat was fearsome as well, and with the heat came a blast of wind that was, Folly felt, really quite unnecessary to the process, adding neither significant fearsomeness to the unleashed energy, nor accomplishing anything other than to knock Folly and Bridget down soundly, and to scatter her matrix of lumin crystals hither and yon.

  Folly lay on the floor after, because it seemed the proper thing to do. She blinked several times up at the ceiling and realized that, without her ethersight, she could not be sure she was in fact looking at the ceiling at all. When one assumed, one quite frequently was correct, but it was hardly a constant.

  There was etheric energy spilling from the nexus still, and Folly waved her hands at it vaguely, sending it out toward her little crystals. Without Folly’s thoughts to guide them, they were once more innocent of the knowledge of how to turn etheric force into violent death. The little crystals began to glow cheerfully, lighting the entire length of the access tunnel.

  Folly turned her head to find Bridget staring, most definitely, at the ceiling. The larger girl had a scorch mark on her chin, and a long scratch along her hairline that had bled toward her eye without obscuring it. She blinked several times and then looked around them dazedly.

  Folly turned her head the other way to find Rowl standing over her. The cat’s fur stood straight out in every direction, though there were uneven gaps here and there where it had been singed away. The cat’s expression, Folly noted, was very catlike.

  Rowl swatted her nose firmly with one paw, claws sheathed. Then, with massive dignity, he rose and firmly turned his back on Folly to walk over to Bridget, nuzzling her and letting out an encouraging purr.

  Folly continued to lie meekly on the floor. Rowl, she thought, probably had some sort of point. She really hadn’t expected quite that much excitement. What would the master think? He did so disapprove of showing off. And besides, she felt quite thoroughly exhausted, at least as sleepy as her brood of tiny crystals.

  Bridget sat up slowly. She turned her gaze up and down the hallway. The air was full of the stench of scorched silkweavers, though there really wasn’t a great deal left of them—a leg here, a bit of shell there, a fang there. The hallway was black with fine ash.

  The former vatterist shook her head slowly and said in an awed tone, “Folly. Your little crystals did this?”

  “Don’t brag,” Folly admonished her crystals firmly. “You couldn’t have if I hadn’t shown you how.”

  Bridget blinked several times. “You did this.”

  Folly sighed and closed her eyes. She really did feel quite tired. “As an exercise,” she mused aloud, “it was really quite simple. Not at all easy, but quite simple.”

  “I don’t . . .” Bridget began. “I had no idea . . . That was . . .”

  Folly had been trained for this as well. Most folk had no idea how formidable an etherealist’s skills could be when applied properly. When they learned, their general reaction was, she had been assured, one of understandable if irrational fear. Which was a shame, because it had seemed that Bridget might have been a rather lovely friend, and she really didn’t want to start crying. It would be perfectly awkward.

  “. . . amazing!” Bridget finished. “God in Heaven, Folly, I thought we were finished. Well-done!”

  Folly blinked open her eyes and stared at Bridget for a moment. Then she felt herself smile, and she looked down very quickly, as Bridget’s shape went all blurry. How odd that suddenly her tears did not feel awkward at all.

  Then Rowl let out a sharp hiss.

  Folly felt it at the very last instant, too late—the awful attention of the awareness she’d sensed before, while they were searching for the Nine-Claws. It was the Enemy; she felt almost certain. She couldn’t think of a better sobriquet for the malevolent presence that had been driving the silkweavers like an enormous threshing machine intent on murdering them. It was as if the spirit of hatred itself had been given a mind and a dark will, and was eager to convey its malice through the medium of the hideous creatures of the surface.

  What kind of creature could have such a horrible will? How could such an intangible thing be fought? In a lifetime of strangeness, Folly had never heard of such a thing before, and she found that it frightened her a very great deal.

  That same Enemy presence now sent a trio of the little creatures— burned and mangled but alive and obviously dangerous—toward Folly’s weary, recumbent form.

  Everything happened very, very quickly. Rowl let out a shrieking snarl and flung himself on the silkweaver farthest to one side. Then there was the howl of a discharging gauntlet, and the second silkweaver vanished, burned and blown to bits by the blast of Bridget’s gauntlet.

  The third silkweaver flung itself onto Folly’s face— —and was intercepted just short of it by Bridget’s fist. The larger girl simply drove her arm down like a steam engine’s piston, crushing the silkweaver to the spirestone floor and ending its attempts on Folly’s life with a perfectly brutal finality.

  “Oh,” Folly breathed. Her heart was racing painfully. “Oh, my.”

  “There,” Bridget said, nodding in satisfaction. “Rowl?”

  The cat had finished dispatching his opponent and approached, shaking one of his front paws in pure distaste. “They are the last,” the cat reported. “Can I use my metal circles to hire a human to clean my paws? Is there a human who could do so competently?”

  “I shall do it,” Bridget said, rising. She winced and touched her cut lightly.

  “But I desire competence,” Rowl protested. “You are too rough with your wet cloths. If you would only use your tongue, as is proper—”

  “I think not,” Bridget replied firmly. “I know where your paws have been.” She offered Folly her hand. “Can you rise?”

  Folly took her friend’s hand and rose. She wobbled for a moment, but Bridget steadied her until the hall stopped spinning hatefully about.

  “Rowl,” Bridget said. “Are these silkweavers grown?”

  “They are grown as much as they ever shall be,” Rowl said with satisfaction.

  “You know what I mean.”

  “I do not think they are mature,” Rowl replied. “My people’s lore suggests that adults are two or three cat-weights, or larger.”

  “Hatchlings,” Bridget said, frowning. “Could little silkweavers like this have spun the lines we saw back at the hole in the ceiling?”

  “Oh,” Folly said. “Oh, Bridget is clever. In a very horrifying sort of way. No, these little things could not have done so.”

  “Adults had to lay eggs, and spin those lines,” Bridget said. “But . . . if only the hatchlings remained to attack us . . . ?”

  Rowl growled. “Indeed. Where are the adults?”

  Folly’s heart began to race in real panic this time. “Oh,” she breathed, her instincts screaming to her precisely where the Enemy would direct its deadliest weapons. “Master.”

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, the Black Horse Inn

  It was well after midnight, Gwen felt simpl
eminded with exhaustion, and the Spirearch’s master etherealist was leading the bar in an enthusiastic round of “Farmer Long’s Cucumber,” a song that featured a number of shocking concepts Gwen had scarcely encountered before that night, along with what seemed to be an infinite number of verses.

  “Really, Benedict,” she complained. “I’m sure I’ve no idea where you could have learned such a crass piece of exploitative trash.”

  “. . . and she hid it there again!” Benedict sang, grinning, before turning to his cousin. “From Esterbrook, naturally.”

  “The cad. Are you almost out of verses, at least?”

  Benedict took a sip of his drink, his expression scholarly. “Marines on an airship apparently make a custom of writing more verses to their favorite songs during their tours of duty. Only the best—”

  “You mean most obscene,” Gwen interjected.

  Benedict bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “Only the best are retained, but even so after several centuries of sailing tradition . . .”

  Gwen arched an eyebrow. “You’re telling me that they’re going to go on all night, aren’t you.”

  “Well past that, if they don’t get tired of it,” Benedict said. He squinted up at the cheery, ruddy-cheeked etherealist. “One wonders, though, where Master Ferus learned them.”

  “I was once a Marine, of course!” Ferus bellowed. Then he and several customers of the pub shouted in unison, “Semper fortitudo!”

  Gwen sighed.

  “Fortitudo, Miss Lancaster,” Master Ferus said, and plopped from the table down into his chair with the grace (or at least the drunken recklessness) of a much younger man. “An old, old word, even by my standards. Do you know what it means?”

  “Strength,” Gwen said promptly. “ ‘Always strong.’ ”

  “Ah, but what kind of strength?” Ferus asked, over the roar of a new singer taking over more verses of the song.

  This one featured Farmer Long’s cucumber falling in a mud hole, and Gwen wanted nothing to do with it. “Sir?”

  “There are many, many kinds of strength. Fortitudo refers to something quite specific.” He poked a finger at Benedict’s biceps in demonstration. “Not this kind of brute power, not at all. It means something more—inner strength, strength of purpose, moral courage. The strength required to fight on in the face of what seems to be certain defeat. The strength to carry on faithfully when it seems no one knows or cares.” He swirled his cup and eyed Gwen. “And the strength to sacrifice oneself when that sacrifice is what is required for the good of others, even when one could offer someone else up instead. Especially then.”

  Gwen smiled briefly. “How, um, . . .”

  “Pointlessly trivial?” Ferus suggested quickly.

  “I was going to say ‘interesting,’ ” Gwen said in a mild tone.

  “And that’s as close to diplomatic as she gets,” Benedict noted.

  Gwen kicked her cousin’s ankle beneath the table. “Master Ferus, it grows late.”

  “Indeed,” the etherealist said, and stifled a yawn with one hand. “Perhaps we should consider discontinuing our investigation until we have heard from our field agents.”

  “You mean the cat?” Gwen asked.

  “Quite.” Master Ferus suddenly peered at Benedict. “I say, boy. What’s caught your interest?”

  Benedict’s feline eyes were focused on the bar at the far side of the room, where the master of the house was speaking in a low voice with a newcomer, his expression intent. The fellow was a broad, burly man in green aviation leathers and a greatcoat trimmed in the thick greybrown fur of some creature of the surface, making his already massive shoulders look inhumanly broad. The coat’s sleeves bore the two broad rings of an airship’s captain. His square face was ruddy and getting ruddier, and he slammed a blocky fist down onto the bar hard enough to be heard even over the singing crowd. “What!?”

  One thick fist shot across the bar and seized the innkeeper by the front of his suit.

  The frantic innkeeper darted a nervous glance over toward their table, and spoke in a low, hurried voice to the burly aeronaut.

  “Ah,” said Benedict. “I think now I see why our host was so reluctant to rent you the room, coz. He’d already promised it elsewhere.”

  “That isn’t a Fleet uniform,” Gwen noted.

  “It is not,” Benedict said. “Not a uniform at all, really. He must be a private captain.”

  “Olympian, I should think, from the colors and the fur trim of his coat,” Master Ferus put in. “Olympian and, it would seem, possessed of a fury. Which is funny, if you know enough history.”

  The Olympian released the innkeeper after a few more low, choice words, and then stalked toward their table, scowling. Gwen studied him the way she’d been taught to consider possible opponents, and found herself growing alarmed. The man moved far too lightly on his feet for someone with a build so powerful, and his balance (as one might expect from an aeronaut) was excellent. Worse, his eyes were quick and alert, sweeping the room as he moved, the mark of a man who was on guard for trouble.

  Gwen had attained some modest skills in the hand-to-hand combat arts of the Wayists, but she had, or so she thought, no illusions about her ability to deal with a much larger or better-trained opponent without the element of surprise to support her skill. “Benny?” Gwen said. “Unless you think we should shoot him . . .”

  “I’m not the one who bought his bed out from under him, coz,” Benedict said. “This situation looks like it needs smoothing to me.”

  “I’d rather not be transmogrified into paste while trying it,” Gwen said.

  Benedict sat back in his chair, his eyes amused, and said diffidently, “Did you, however briefly, consider talking to him? Just for the sake of novelty?”

  “He doesn’t look like a man who would react well to threats.”

  “An extremely fine coat,” Master Ferus mused. “They don’t give those to just anyone, do they?”

  Benedict arched an eyebrow at the etherealist and said to Gwen, “I said talk, as opposed to threaten. Though one hardly need struggle to see the possibility that you might not understand the distinction.”

  “You make me sound like a perfect ogre,” Gwen said.

  “But an articulate, wealthy, and very stylish one, coz,” Benedict said. “Beautiful, too. Try it. Just for fun. And if it doesn’t work out, we can always grind his bones to make our bread later.”

  “Or,” Master Ferus mused, “be ground, as the case may be.”

  The Olympian captain reached their table, slammed his fist down on it hard enough to make all of the crockery and utensils jump up off the surface, and demanded, “Get out of my rooms.”

  Gwen didn’t mind the threat display so very much. God in Heaven knew she’d made a few herself in the past several days. But neither did she care for it, nor feel terribly frightened by it. She was, after all, wearing a gauntlet—but then, she noted, so was the Olympian.

  “I’m very sorry to have inconvenienced you, sir,” Gwen said. “But my associates and I required the room. It might be better if you looked elsewhere.”

  The man, who had been staring hard at Benedict, turned his eyes to Gwen for a flickering glance before tracking back to the warriorborn. “She speak for you?”

  “For purposes of this discussion, I’m afraid so,” Benedict replied.

  “Fine,” the man said, and turned to face Gwen, looming over her. “Then you. Go gather up everyone’s things and get them out of my room, girl. Now.”

  She recognized the tone of absolute authority in the man’s voice, and she did not care for it at all. “Introductions,” she said crisply.

  That gave the Olympian an instant’s pause. “What?”

  “You have not introduced yourself, sir,” Gwen said, her voice hard. “I should like to know your name before I exchange another word with you.”

  The man straightened, his eyes narrowed, and then shook his head. “Bloody Albion fussbothers . . .” He took a deep breath, visi
bly controlling more vile language, and then said, “Pine. Commodore Horatio Pine, of the Half Moon Merchant Company out of Olympia. And I don’t give a tenth-crown who you are. That suite is reserved for my captains and myself, and we’ve just walked a mile on the surface to get to this bloody Spire and nearly got shot up by your own bloody Fleet when we finally made it through. I am in no mood for games.”

  Gwen nodded. “My name is Gwendolyn Lancaster of the House of Lancaster—yes, before you ask, those Lancasters, the ones who made the crystals that are most probably keeping your ships in the air, sir, and while I sympathize with your plight, I am afraid that I still require those rooms.”

  “So yourself and your friends can do some comfortable drinking?” Pine spat. “I’ve got wounded men who need good rooms and the attention of physicians, and this bloody habble is packed to the roof. Get out of those rooms, or by God in Heaven and the Long Road both, I will leave you all unconscious in an alley and move my men in anyway.”

  “Perhaps such brutish thuggery is how things are done in Olympia,” Gwen said, her voice lashing out like a whip’s crack. “But in Albion, sir, there is rule of law, and I shall be pleased to defend myself against any such violence.”

  Pine narrowed his eyes. Then he said to Benedict, “You sure she speaks for you?”

  Benedict sighed and leaned forward to lightly thump his forehead down onto the table. Several times.

  “I didn’t threaten him!” Gwen protested to her cousin.

  There was a sharp sound of crockery breaking, and Gwen turned to find that Master Ferus’s mug had dropped from suddenly limp fingers. He made a soft sound and twitched several times. Then he shivered and his eyes closed.

  Gwen traded a look with Benedict, and held up a forestalling hand to Commodore Pine. “Master Ferus?” she asked after a moment. “Master Ferus, are you quite all right?”

  Ferus opened his eyes, rose calmly, and said in a level tone, “Sir Benedict, I wonder if you would be so good as to draw your sword. Miss Lancaster, prime your gauntlet, if you please.” He took his chair and slid it over to Commodore Pine. “This, sir, is for you. You’ll find it quite wieldy, I expect.”