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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 35

Jim Butcher

  Grimm nodded back. “Guardsman,” he said. “I have friends inside that building. I see that the doors have not been opened.”

  “They’re stuck fast,” said the second Guardsman. “There are people inside shouting, but it’s a demon’s torment to hear them.”

  “I’ve an ax here,” Grimm said. “Perhaps you would care to use it.”

  The Guardsmen looked at each other. While the Spirearch’s Guard might have been popular with the scions of the great Houses of Albion, for a symbolic year or two at least, the majority of its long-term members were common men and women with widely varying backgrounds—and most of them had less extreme levels of endemic confidence.

  “Bloody wooden doors are expensive,” muttered the second Guardsman. “It’ll be a months’ pay to replace one.”

  “Bill it to Captain Grimm of the airship Predator,” Grimm said. “Kettle.”

  “Aye, sir,” Kettle said. He fired off a crisp salute and strode confidently toward the door.

  “Can he do that?” the first Guardsman asked the second.

  “Um,” the second said.

  “Guardsmen,” Grimm said calmly. “Perhaps you should supervise the opening of the door, to make sure no one is harmed and to be on hand to assess the situation and render assistance as needed. Misters Bennett and Harrison, come here, please.”

  The two men did, firing off salutes of their own.

  “You and the rest of the men will accompany these two Guardsmen and assist them in any way you can.” He turned back to the two Guardsmen. “You’ll find my men cooperative, sirs. Master Bagen is my ship’s physician, and he will be able to render aid to anyone who is wounded.”

  “Right,” said the first Guardsman, nodding. “Thank you for your assistance, Captain.”

  “But . . .” the second Guardsman said.

  “Shut up, Malkie. There’s people in there need helping,” said the first one. He turned to the men from Predator, his stance and bearing more authoritative and confident. “You lot, come with us. Malkie, clear those people back from the doors, eh? Last thing we need is someone to take that ax on the backswing.”

  Grimm watched things develop with a certain amount of satisfaction. Once given a direction, the young Guardsmen seemed willing and capable enough. It would probably eventually occur to them that they’d essentially been given orders by a civilian with no legal authority whatsoever, but they seemed to be more in their element now.

  He wondered whether either of them was secretly working with the Aurorans. It hardly seemed likely—but then good spies never seemed likely, did they?

  He took a couple of steps back as the second Guardsman herded the small crowd away from the doors of the inn, and bumped into a woman who had been watching, sending her to the ground in a sprawl.

  “Oaf!” the woman said, her expression a war between astonishment and anger. She wore an excellent suit of clothing in steely shades of lavender accented with grey, skirts and a bolero jacket with a matching hat. She was an attractive, sharp-edged woman perhaps a few years older than Grimm, with large grey eyes devoid of any other color, and dark hair. “How rude.”

  “Madame, you are entirely correct,” Grimm said. “I was careless and do beg your pardon.” He straightened and offered her a bow, and then his good hand. “Moreover, I ask your forgiveness. In my eagerness to comply with instructions of the good Guardsmen, I fear that I did not adequately survey the space behind me before I moved. I am entirely in the wrong.”

  The woman stared at him for several seconds, and Grimm had two sudden impressions: First, that she was searching his words for something that might displease her. Second . . .

  Second, that this woman, whoever she was, was dangerous. The hairs on the back of his neck simply crawled.

  The woman narrowed her eyes abruptly, and for a wild instant Grimm wondered whether he might have been weary enough to have accidentally spoken his thoughts aloud.

  Then the moment was gone, and the woman offered him a tight, restrained smile. “Of course, Captain. You are an airship captain, are you not?”

  “Indeed, madame. Captain Francis Madison Grimm of Predator, at your service.”

  Her wide, expressive mouth twitched at one corner. “Oh, indeed? My name is Sycorax Cavendish.” She took his hand and rose. “Thank you.”

  “You are quite welcome, Madame Cavendish,” Grimm said.

  She smiled, though the expression was an empty bowl, somehow barren of what a smile was meant to contain. “Are you the same Francis Madison Grimm as he who took command of the Perilous all those years ago?”

  Grimm stiffened. Was that damned ship and the choices he made upon it to haunt him for the rest of his days?

  Yes, it was, he supposed. That was part of the price he had paid to do his duty.

  “The same,” he said.

  “Oh, Captain,” Madame Cavendish breathed. “I have often wished to meet you.”

  “Then you are an exceptional individual. Such infamy as mine does not generally draw admirers, madame.”

  “I am,” she replied, “and as such, I am well aware that there are often two sides to any given story. Even when one side is Fleet Admiralty.”

  He gave her the wooden smile he’d presented to so many others over the years. “I pray you will forgive the bluntness of a simple aeronaut, madame, but I have nothing further to say about the matter.”

  “I can hardly fail to forgive when such a request is so politely offered,” Madame Cavendish replied. There was something very hard and covered in jagged spikes behind her eyes as she said the words, as if the courtesy itself had somehow displeased her. Grimm found himself fighting a sudden desire to edge away from the woman.

  There was a movement in the crowd behind her, and then several people sidled away from a large man who had approached them. He was a tall, lean warriorborn, his pale head covered in sparse, grizzled fuzz. He was no beauty, and one of his eyes was fixed slightly to one side, making his gaze vague and a bit unsettling. When he saw Grimm, he let out a low growling sound in his chest and stepped forward, his body language aggressive.

  Grimm had no desire to come to blows with a warriorborn. That fight could not be won in a gentlemanly manner, and his instincts were warning him that any such action would be a mistake in the presence of Madame Cavendish. A flutter of white flickered downward in the corner of his eye as he faced the man. “Good evening, sir.”

  The large warriorborn scowled. He looked aside, giving Madame Cavendish a quick glance, or so it seemed to Grimm. The disparity of the man’s gaze made it difficult to know for certain. Grimm was unaccountably reminded, looking at the man, of an enormous spider, something patient and lethal waiting for its prey to come within reach.

  The moment the man looked away, Grimm turned on his heel, bent, and retrieved the handkerchief from where Madam Cavendish had let it fall to the ground near her feet. “Pardon, madame,” he said, “but you seem to have dropped this.”

  “And so I did,” Madam Cavendish replied. Her dark eyes glittered brightly, almost feverish in their intensity. “You have excellent manners, sir.”

  “My old protocol teachers at the Fleet Academy would be startled to hear you say so, I am sure,” he said, adding a little bow to the words. Just then, Kettle’s boarding ax crashed through the door of the Black Horse, and men began entering. “If you would excuse me, Madame Cavendish. I must attend on what happens next.”

  She offered her gloved hand and, he felt, only barely managed to avoid speaking through clenched teeth. “Of course, Captain. How could I do otherwise?”

  Grimm bent over her hand and brushed a polite kiss over the glove, though he thought his skin might ripple entirely up the length of his spine and pile up atop his head as he did so. “It was my pleasure to meet you, Madame Cavendish.” Acting again on instinct, he added, “If you so desire, I am sure I can convince a Guardsman to see you safely from this place.”

  Madame Cavendish’s eyes flickered to the Guardsmen and back to G
rimm, too wary to be the gaze of a simple woman of the upper classes. Her expression froze as she found Grimm watching her, and then the barest hint of a smile touched her lips. She inclined her head to Grimm like a fencer acknowledging a touch, and then said, “That will not be necessary. I’m sure Mister Sark can see me safely home.”

  The large warriorborn made another growling sound in his throat.

  “Then, Madame Cavendish, Mister Sark, I bid you good evening.” He bowed again, then turned and walked away. He did not allow himself to hurry. He didn’t know what the two were up to, but he knew predators when he met them eye-to-eye, and it was never a good idea to show fear to such creatures.

  He walked past Malkie with a firm step and a steady nod. The young Guardsman didn’t seem to question his presence, and Grimm joined Kettle at the door of the inn a moment later.

  The reek from inside was horrible. The first floor of the building looked and smelled like an abattoir.

  “Merciful Builders,” Grimm breathed. “What happened here?”

  “Looks like a silkweaver attacked them,” Kettle reported. “A big one, sir. Webbed the doors shut and killed a lot of people.”

  “A silkweaver? Here?” Grimm demanded. He squinted around the street. Though there were fewer lights here than one might expect in Habble Morning, it was still bright enough to clearly see objects fifty feet away. “We’re near the center of the habble. How did it get here without being seen?”

  “How’d it know to web all the doors shut and trap everyone inside?” Kettle asked. “Those things ain’t that smart, sir.”

  Grimm grunted. He turned to check on the presence of Madam Cavendish and her companion, but they were no longer in sight. “And it just happens to attack this inn. Has a bad smell to it, wouldn’t you say, Mister Kettle?”

  “Even worse than your cooking, sir,” Kettle confirmed.

  Grimm glanced at the man. “That bad, was it?”

  Kettle scratched at his short beard. “Naw, suppose not,” he replied. “Mind you, a hundred meals like that’d be a mutiny. One is just a good story.”

  Grimm grinned, briefly. “Doctor Bagen?”

  “Inside with the others,” Kettle said.

  Harrison appeared a moment later and saluted Grimm. “Captain, Doctor Bagen’s compliments, sir, and he says the Lancaster girl is wounded. He needs her in his infirmary at once.”

  “The others of her party?”

  “Alive and well, sir, but two are missing who were sent out a few hours ago.”

  Grimm nodded. “Have Bagen make the girl ready to move, then. Let’s get them all back to Predator quickly. We’ll leave Mister Bennett and yourself here to round up the missing members of their group.”

  “Sir,” Harrison said, and hurried back inside.

  Grimm watched the man go, and then looked around, scanning the crowd. He still found no trace of either Cavendish or Sark.

  “You’ve got your thinking face on, Captain,” Kettle noted.

  “Mmm,” Grimm said. “I was thinking that the Spirearch sent his team to the right place.”

  “Sir?” Kettle asked.

  “The enemy is here, Mister Kettle,” he said, “and they’re clearly onto us. Let’s get Master Ferus and his people out of here before the next attack.”

  Chapter Forty

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  Grimm and the shore party headed back to Predator, though he had an acutely uncomfortable sensation of being watched. He walked beside a quite inebriated Master Ferus, framing the old man between himself and Sir Benedict. The old etherealist could barely stagger along in a straight line, and was humming bits and pieces from a bawdy song beneath his breath as they traveled.

  “Captain,” said Sir Benedict. He was walking on Ferus’s other side, keeping the old man moving along with the crew of Predator. He dragged Master Ferus’s two overloaded wagons along behind him. “The other two young ladies of our group were sent to—”

  “I’ve left two men behind at the Black Horse to await them and bring them along when they return,” Grimm said, interrupting the young man.

  “But what if they do not return?” Sorellin asked, his voice tight. “They were to—”

  “In that eventuality, I will dispatch a search party,” Grimm said shortly, pointedly cutting him off again. “Let us not discuss anything further here where we may be overheard, shall we, sir?”

  The young man scowled but then seemed to think better of it, and schooled his expression. “Of course, Captain. You are correct.”

  Grimm gave him a short nod, and felt a bit of his tension ease. Young Sorellin was both warriorborn and of high birth. Grimm had met all sorts from the upper classes in his time—most of them unremarkable in most respects. The ones who had prided themselves too much upon their position, by contrast, could be the most obnoxious human beings on the face of the earth, with Hamilton Rook representing the worst portion of that particular bell curve. Grimm would not care to deal with Hamilton as a warriorborn—but this young man seemed a more or less decent sort.

  They passed the rest of the walk back to the ship in silence, and Doctor Bagen and the men detailed to carry Miss Lancaster proceeded directly to his infirmary.

  Master Ferus tottered up the boarding ramp to the ship and promptly wobbled about to face Benedict. “My cane, if you please, Master Sorellin.”

  Sorellin shrugged the strap of a carrying case off of his shoulder. A walking cane with a leather-wrapped head was strapped to the case, and Benedict removed it and passed it to the old etherealist.

  “I’ll just have a word with your ship, shall I?” Master Ferus slurred.

  Grimm arched an eyebrow at him and said, “As you wish, sir.”

  The old man beamed and then turned and walked carefully down the deck, his wobbling steps steadied somewhat by the cane in his hand.

  “All right,” Grimm said, turning to Sorellin. “What happened in there?”

  Grimm listened as the young man told him of the silkweaver attack in terse sentences. He finished with, “And then Gwen took up a firing stance right in front of the thing as it charged Master Ferus, and blasted half of its little head into pulp. It had enough momentum to slam into her and carry her into the wall, and it bit her at least once, but she killed it.”

  “Remarkable,” Grimm murmured. “That took more than a little courage.”

  Sorellin smiled, briefly. “My dear cousin has a very odd relationship with fear—though mostly she’s too busy to be bothered with it.”

  “I’m glad the rest of you are well. The enemy has made his first mistake.”

  “Sir?” Sorellin asked.

  “It would have been smarter for them to do nothing,” Grimm said. “To give us no clue at all as to their presence. Instead they’ve attacked Master Ferus.”

  “With . . . a silkweaver, sir?” Sorellin asked, his tone skeptical. “They’ve never been domesticated.”

  Grimm glanced up at him. “Did it seem particularly tame to you?”

  Sorellin frowned.

  “They’ve told us that Ferus is a threat to them,” Grimm said. “Therefore we must be looking in the right place.”

  “If it isn’t just a random attack of a surface creature, sir,” Sorellin said. “It might be a coincidence.”

  “I don’t believe in the stuff, myself,” Grimm said, and idly flexed his wounded arm in its sling. “Though you’re right. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility. But how many large creatures do you think have harmed folk in the center of Habble Landing?”

  “We could ask the Verminocitors’ Guild, I suppose.”

  “An excellent thought,” said Master Ferus, as he came back along the deck toward them. “If there’s anything odd afoot, or an enemy force in the habble, they’ll be in the ventilation tunnels and crawl spaces. The verminocitors will be the next-most-likely group to have spotted something.”

  “After who, sir?” Grimm asked.

  “The cats, of course,” Ferus
said. “Your ship is quite insouciant.”

  Grimm found himself frowning. “Is she?”

  “Terribly,” Master Ferus said gravely, “but I believe she understands the importance of cooperation.”

  “Ah,” Grimm said.

  “Well, I must see what I can do to ensure that brave young Lancaster’s sacrifice was not a vain one,” Master Ferus said. “Master Sorellin, perhaps you and I could make inquisitions of the verminocitors.”

  “But, sir,” Sorellin said, “Bridget and Folly are still out there.”

  “Folly is quite capable of taking steps to protect them both, if need be,” Master Ferus said, “And time is of the essence. But I suppose if you prefer to search for them . . .”

  “I’m not supposed to leave your side, sir,” Sorellin noted.

  Master Ferus flipped his hand in an impatient gesture. “Did the Spirearch place me in command of this mission, or did he not?”

  “You may have heard about my issues with authority,” Grimm said. “Master Ferus, I believe it may have become too risky for you to roam about Habble Landing without taking extraordinary precautions. And certainly I believe Master Sorellin is correct in not wishing to leave your side.”

  “Ah?” Ferus asked. “And why is that?”

  “I met someone outside the Black Horse while we were getting the doors open,” Grimm replied. “A woman who struck me as extremely odd and somewhat dangerous. She did not look like the normal sort out and about at that time of the night; nor did she behave in a manner consistent with a genuine passerby. She was accompanied by a warriorborn man. They seemed to be entirely too interested in seeing the results of the situation inside the Black Horse, with entirely too little interest in speculating upon what had happened. I suspect that they may be Auroran agents, or employed by them.”

  Ferus narrowed his eyes. “Odd, you say? Why so?”

  “If she is indeed connected to the Aurorans, an agent here in Albion, she would have to have ice water in her veins and be somewhat addled to be standing in plain sight at the scene of an attack,” Grimm replied. He added rather delicately, “The woman seemed at least as odd as yourself, sir, meaning no offense by it.”