The aeronauts windlass, p.34
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.34
 

           Jim Butcher

  Bridget paused and looked back at the etherealist’s apprentice. “Folly,” she said, “I understand that you’re frightened. I am too. But we were sent out to get information—and what do we have to show for it?”

  Folly didn’t look up at Bridget, but frowned down at her gently glowing jar of crystals.

  “If you don’t want to go,” Bridget said, “then we can walk back to an illuminated hallway and I’ll go myself, if you’ll lend me your jar.”

  Folly clutched the jar of little crystals to her bosom and bit her lower lip. “Oh, no. No, no, I couldn’t do that. That would be a violation of trust.”

  “We have a mission,” Bridget said. “We’ll need the light.”

  “We?” Rowl asked smugly.

  “Oh,” Bridget said, scowling down at the cat for a moment. Then she looked up at Folly. “Please, Folly. We’ll do just a little more, and then we’ll go back.”

  Folly took a deep breath. Then she nodded, very quickly, as if eager to get the motion over with.

  Climbing the ropes was difficult, and it was made no easier by the fact that Rowl insisted upon riding up on her shoulders.

  “Why do you breathe that hard?” the cat asked her curiously. “Does it help in some way?”

  Bridget made an incoherent snarling sound, secured her feet on the too-narrow length of ethersilk wedged between them, and strained to push her arms up another foot or so.

  “Your shoulders are shaking,” Rowl noted. “It isn’t very comfortable for me. Are you sure you’re doing this correctly?”

  Bridget ground her teeth and kept climbing.

  “It’s perfectly simple,” Rowl said impatiently. “Watch.”

  And with that the cat seized the length of ethersilk with his forepaws, taking it firmly in his stubby grip. Then he hunched up his rear quarters, lifted his back paws, and sank his claws into the ethersilk line. He slid his front paws up, and with effortless grace shinnied up the last three feet of line and disappeared into the opening in the masonry ceiling.

  “You see?” his voice came down. “You should be more like that. It’s faster, and one need not puff like a steam engine.”

  This time Bridget managed to growl, “. . . kill that cat . . .” putting as much threat as she could into the words. Then she hauled herself laboriously up the last few feet, heaved her upper body over the edge of the hole. and tried not to panic at how exquisitely vulnerable she felt, lying on her belly in what was presumably a silkweaver nest.

  There was a strange, acrid odor thick in the air, a scent that made her skin crawl, and she could see almost nothing in the darkness. Had a foe been present, Rowl would have warned her—that was, after all, why he had proceeded into the nest first, bless his fuzzy, arrogant heart—but even Rowl couldn’t sense everything, every time.

  Bridget wasn’t sure she wanted to come any farther up. If a silkweaver should leap at her, she wanted to be able to drop back down at once. Of course, if she did so, and lost her grip on the lines, she would fall twenty feet to the spirestone floor. Statistically, she had heard, surviving such a fall was a toss of the coin. Granted, the chances of surviving the poison of a silkweaver were worse.

  Bother, she didn’t need mathematics. She needed to look and get it over with, and get out of this horrible place.

  She primed her gauntlet, and the crystal on her palm glowed and crackled with power, sending a wash of tingles up her arm to the elbow—but it hadn’t really been designed for illumination, and the light from it seemed to spread out and accomplish nothing practical. All it really did was to leave her blind to anything more than a few feet away. But at least, she supposed, its glow managed to make her into a much better target than she’d been a moment before.

  “Folly,” Bridget called, trying to keep her voice steady. “Send up the light.”

  Bridget expected the etherealist’s apprentice to tie the jar to the line of ethersilk so that Bridget could haul it up. Instead she heard Folly open the jar. Bridget grunted and pulled herself the rest of the way up, so that she could turn and peer back down through the hole at the other girl.

  Folly took the end of the ethersilk line in her hand, closed her eyes for a moment, and then slipped it into the jar of gently glowing crystals. She said something quietly, speaking in the same tone of voice one might use when addressing small children—and then there was a flickering of light amongst the crystals, and their quiet luminance abruptly spread into the ethersilk line and up it, like water flowing through a pipe.

  Bridget watched in amazement as the light spread up the line, branching out into the other strands of ethersilk it crossed, until it passed into the silk at the edge of the hole and beneath her, and then on into the silk-covered chamber beyond, until the entire thing pulsed with a muted, aqua glow.

  Rowl let out a quiet sound, an expression of pure emotion Bridget had heard only a few times in her life, when a cat was impressed but did not wish to acknowledge the fact.

  The nest was covered in ethersilk. The walls, the floor, the roof, like some vast cocoon, spreading from the hole in the floor up to the height of the spirestone roof above, with walls composed of more silk—it was, Bridget thought, stunned, the fortune of a commoner’s lifetime, the silk representing enough value to buy her father’s vattery whole, a dozen times over.

  She gave her head a small shake and forced herself to look past the treasure the silk represented. She scanned the nest again, straining to see details. There were tiny nodules of silk all over the floor and lower walls of the nest, each the size of an adolescent’s fist. Some sort of . . . cradles for the little silkweavers? Each bore a similar funnel pattern, where the silkweaver would obviously have eased into the cradle.

  High above the floor of the nest was a much, much larger cradle, one seemingly large enough to host three or four of Bridget. The silkweaver matriarch’s bower?

  And between the enormous bower and the tiny cradles were more funnel shapes, much larger than those below, yet smaller than the one above.

  None of them, as far as Bridget could see, were occupied.

  “This is why the Nine-Claws were all huddled together,” Bridget breathed.

  “This is what Naun wanted us to see,” Rowl said, his tone that of a teacher correcting a student.

  “Also that,” Bridget said quietly. Then she nodded. “Let’s go back. Master Ferus must know of this at once.”

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  Grimm spent the evening filling in for the ship’s cook, who had been given leave along with a quarter of the ship’s crew. Unfortunately, Journeyman hadn’t bothered to inform the cook or his assistant that he’d brought an extra twenty men aboard to labor in the engine room. Journeyman was a simple soul, and the length and breadth of his universe could be described in precisely the same terms as the area of the ship’s engineering spaces. The evening meal had therefore been woefully inadequate, and someone had to step in.

  Creedy had been nearly apoplectic when Grimm had calmly removed his captain’s coat from his shoulders and donned an apron. In Fleet, such a thing would never have been conceived. A ship’s captain was her master and the right hand of God in Heaven Himself, and concerned with matters of such grave importance that minor issues like food for the mortals in his command were entirely beneath him.

  “I’ll get someone else to take this duty, sir,” Creedy said stoutly. “The nonessential personnel are already on leave, XO,” Grimm replied. “All the remaining hands are fully engaged in installing the new systems and making repairs. You know that.”

  “But, sir,” Creedy said. “What will the crew say?”

  “What they won’t say, Byron, is anything like ‘my captain allowed me to go hungry while demanding that I work without cease,’ ” Grimm said.

  Creedy moved his arms in an abortive gesture of frustration. “Sir . . . it just isn’t natural for a ship’s master.”

  “Nonsense. The Olympian Navy holds t
hat a captain should know the details of every position in his ship’s company by working them with his own hands, stem to stern. It’s the only way to be sure you know what each man needs from his captain in order to be able to perform his duty.”

  Creedy’s handsome face screwed up in protest. “We are not Olympians, sir.”

  “Surely as Albions we need not believe that we already possess all the sum of the world’s wisdom. Are we not better bred than that, Mister Creedy?”

  “But . . . sir, you can’t possibly expect me to . . . to take my meal from you as if you were any other cookie in the galley.”

  “Indeed not,” Grimm said gravely, and held out a second apron. “As I still have only one reliable arm, I require your assistance. Coat off and look sharp, Mister Creedy. There are tubers need peeling.”

  Kettle walked through the crowded mess hall and brought his bowl and spoon back up to the galley counter after the meal, grinning broadly at Creedy.

  The XO scowled at him. There were bits of something, perhaps shavings of tuber skins, in his hair, and he’d cut his hand twice. Grimm had cleaned and covered each wound carefully before sending the young officer back to work, and Creedy’s temper was worn thin. “Do you have a problem, Mister Kettle?”

  “No, sir,” Kettle drawled. “Just wanted to give my compliments to the skipper on his captaining.”

  “His captaining?” Creedy asked.

  Grimm kept a grin from spreading over his mouth.

  “Yes, sir, indeed. The hands and I all agree he’s a damned fine captain.”

  Creedy regarded Kettle without humor. “I see.”

  “Best captain in the sky, maybe.”

  “I understand,” Creedy said.

  “There’s rarely been a finer captain, we reckon,” Kettle said expansively.

  “You have made your position clear, Mister Kettle,” Creedy all but snapped. “I’m sure the captain appreciates it.”

  Kettle nodded and put the bowl down.

  Creedy snatched it up, scowling.

  “So, Skip,” he asked, with perfect innocence. “When will Waller get back into the galley, so you can get back to captaining?”

  “Why, Mister Kettle,” Grimm said. “One is tempted to think that you do not approve of your captain’s cooking.”

  “No, sir!” Kettle said. “You’ll never hear me complain, sir. I’m just a much bigger admirer of his captaining, sir.”

  “Mind your heading, Kettle,” Creedy snapped. “Why, I should—”

  Grimm put a gently restraining hand on Creedy’s shoulder. “Cook should be back on board by midnight, I daresay.”

  “I’ll spread that around,” Kettle said, noddeing to them pleasantly and went back to his place at a table.

  Creedy frowned after him for a moment and then turned to Grimm, lowering his voice. “Sir . . . the men shouldn’t be able to criticize the captain openly like that.”

  “I didn’t hear a word of criticism, XO,” Grimm replied. He grunted with effort and dumped the last of the simple stew he’d made of the insufficient meal Waller had left behind into a large bowl, which held a double-size portion of the . . . food. “Kettle was merely expressing himself. That man knows how to complain flawlessly.” He looked at Creedy. “You had a few mouthfuls when you could, Byron. I saw you. What did you think of my stew?”

  Creedy looked suddenly discomfited. “It was . . . perfectly nourishing, sir. With salt, practically palatable.”

  Grimm smiled and began cleaning up.

  Creedy blinked several times. “Sir . . . do you mean to say you made . . . that . . . on purpose?”

  “Command is about more than knowing the protocol, Byron,” Grimm said. “Whose fault was it that not enough dinner had been prepared?”

  “Mine, sir,” Creedy said stoutly. “I should have kept an eye on Journeyman, sir. His section was extraordinarily busy. There are small grounds to reprimand him.”

  “By the book, perhaps. But you and I were both supervising different sections of the ship, and he’s the chief of the engine room. He should damned well be thinking about his men and the hired hands, as well as his systems.”

  “That’s . . . a very fine distinction, sir.”

  Grimm shook his head. “The men know exactly what happened. And there are reprimands that have nothing to do with the book.” He carried the double-portion bowl over to the counter. “Mister Kettle,” he called.

  The pilot looked up. “Aye, Skip?”

  “The chief hasn’t come up out of his precious engine room to eat. Perhaps you and some of the men can see to it that he sits down long enough to feed himself.”

  Kettle eyed the double-portion bowl askance and then slowly beamed. “Aye, Captain. He’s working so hard, he deserves nothing less.”

  Creedy watched Kettle pick up the bowl and head out. Virtually every man in the mess hall went with him.

  “What are they going to do?” Creedy asked with a certain amount of fascination.

  “Watch Chief Journeyman eat every bite without salt, I should think, upon peril of their extreme displeasure,” Grimm said. “And go very hard on him the entire time for forgoing such a basic responsibility and costing them a decent meal.”

  The young officer frowned. “Sir . . . it seems a bit hard on the men to proceed this way.”

  “Nonsense, XO,” Grimm said. “The food was technically nourishing and they all ate their fill. We’ve done our penance in their eyes for not making sure the problem was avoided in the first place.” He winked at Byron, and started shrugging back into his coat. “And after all, we can hardly have them wanting their captain to cook dinner when someone screws up by the numbers, now, can we? After all, I have a ship to run.”

  Creedy considered that for a long moment before he said, “You have a devious mind, sir.”

  Grimm looked up at the tall young officer and dropped his voice into a more serious register. “Strategy and tactics, discipline and protocol are necessary, but they’re just the beginning. You have to know people, Byron. How they think, what motivates them. Watch. Learn.”

  Creedy stared at Grimm for a long moment. Then he nodded and said, “I will.”

  “Good man.”

  “You’ve hardly slept, sir,” Creedy said. “I’ll take the next watch. Go get some rest.”

  “Good of you,” Grimm said, and took up his coat again. “I’ll be in my cabin if I’m needed.”

  Grimm nodded to Byron, tried to ignore the pervasive ache that had spread from his injured arm out into every other fiber of his being, shambled to his cabin, hung up his coat, and flung himself down on his bunk without bothering to undress. He was asleep before the faint scent of Calliope’s perfume that still lingered on the covers could bring back memories, unhappy or otherwise.

  A sharp rap at his door brought Grimm abruptly out of his first sound sleep in days, almost before it had begun. He managed to sit up and swipe the rather less-than-captainly drool from his chin before the door opened and Creedy poked his head in with an apologetic expression. “Sir?”

  Grimm suppressed a groan. Captains were not subject to such mortal infirmities as sleep deprivation. “Yes, XO?”

  “Several of the men came back early from their leave, sir. They say there’s been some kind of situation involving your passengers, sir. Trouble. People were killed and injured.”

  Grimm swung out of his bed at once and rose, ignoring the protests of his weary body. At least he was still dressed. “Kettle and an armed party of four to be ready to leave with me, including the men bearing the report. Doctor Bagen and his bag will accompany us. We leave immediately, to be briefed en route to Master Ferus’s party.”

  “Aye, sir,” Creedy said with a brisk nod, and withdrew from Grimm’s cabin, bellowing orders.

  Grimm took his wounded arm out of its sling long enough to properly don his coat, then added the sword belt and the sling again. The damned thing was a nuisance. The moment his arm was serviceable, he’d toss the blasted sling over the side of
the Spire.

  It seemed likely that would happen faster if he could only get several hours of sleep, all in a row.

  He checked to be sure that his sword would draw smoothly, slid it firmly back into its scabbard, settled his hat onto his head, and strode out to meet the moment.

  A deckhand named Harrison guided them to the Black Horse, an inn and pub. Even at the late hour, well after midnight, a small crowd had gathered around the place.

  “Don’t know what happened exactly, sir,” Harrison was saying. “But there was screaming like souls in Hell from inside, and what looked like smoke from a fire.”

  Another crewman named Bennett saw them coming and hurried over, flicking Grimm a quick salute. “Sir. Been watching it since Harry and the others left, sir.”

  “And?”

  “No one has gone in or come out. The doors won’t open, sir. But your passengers are inside. I was having a drink in there earlier, and that elderly fellow was leading a round of ‘Farmer Long’s Pickle.’ ” He nodded toward a couple of uniformed Guardsmen over by the doors. They were young men, their uniforms not quite tidy, perhaps the least valued of their garrison, to be drawing the late shift. They seemed somewhat at a loss for what to do. “These lads seem to be out of their depth, sir.”

  Grimm sighed and said, “Boarding ax, Mister Kettle.”

  Kettle turned to one of the other men of the party, and caught a heavy-headed boarding ax as it was tossed to him. The thing was part ax and part sledgehammer, meant for battering down the doors or bulkheads of an enemy ship, not for true combat. It would make short work of the doors of the inn, Grimm judged.

  “With me,” Grimm said, and strode toward the young Guardsmen, Kettle at his back.

  They turned to him with a mix of uncertainty and anger on their faces. “Here now,” said one of them. “What’s this, then?”

  Grimm eyed the young man steadily. In moments of confusion, young soldiers were often comforted by authority figures who seemed to know what to do.

  The Guardsman’s back stiffened a little, and he nodded. “Captain,” he said, with at least a pretense of respect.