The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 36Jim Butcher
“Oh, none taken,” Ferus said. He considered the crystal at the end of his cane gravely. “Inevitable that at least one Auroran operative would have talent. I had hoped it would be otherwise, but . . .” He shook his head. “You are a man of uncommonly acute instinct, Captain Grimm. What else can you tell me about this person?”
Grimm pursed his lips. “She seemed unnaturally concerned with manners, sir. I gathered the impression, in fact, that if I had slipped up, she might have become violent, or asked her companion to do so on her behalf.”
“Of that I have little doubt,” the etherealist replied, his expression distant.
“She said her name was Cavendish.”
Ferus grimaced. “So she’s calling herself Cavendish now.”
“Sir?” Grimm asked. “Do you know the woman?”
“Most thoroughly, I suspect,” Ferus replied.
“Then you must surely see the wisdom in keeping you here in order to protect you,” Grimm said. “If she was involved in an attempt on your life once, why not do so again? More directly this time. Should a warriorborn assassin surprise you inside the habble, even Master Sorellin could be hard-pressed to defend you.”
“I see your point, Captain,” Ferus replied.
“That said,” Grimm continued, “I find it interesting that only hours before an Auroran attack upon Spire Albion, I should be assaulted in the ventilation tunnels by creatures unknown—creatures that left poison in my blood, much as silkweavers would. You helped me then. Assuming you are capable, perhaps you could help Miss Lancaster the way you assisted me.”
Ferus frowned, and his eyes began darting here and there. “Yes . . . yes, we really ought to do whatever we can for Miss Lancaster. So be it. You and Sorellin will go.”
“Um, sir,” Sorellin said. “Still not supposed to leave your side.”
“Ah, but I will be here, and quite safe surrounded by the grim captain’s ship and crew,” Ferus said, smiling. He tilted his head to one side and eyed Grimm. “Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to remember saving your life, Captain. Did I not?”
Grimm sighed. “You did, sir.”
“And does that not oblige you to me in some way?”
“You must trust me in this. I know precisely what I am doing.” The old man turned and began to walk with a determined stride toward Doctor Bagen’s infirmary. Then he paused, looked back at Sorellin, and said, “I say, dear boy, could you get the doorknob for me? I never could learn the trick of the blasted things.”
Sorellin gave the etherealist a perfectly bland look. Then he smiled amiably, if wearily, and strode off after him, returning a moment later.
“Shall we speak to the verminocitors?” Grimm asked him.
“What, now? In the middle of the night?”
“A silkweaver matriarch has killed some of their neighbors tonight,” Grimm replied. “Word will have spread by now. I doubt any of them will sleep for some time.”
Sorellin grunted and nodded, and the pair of them started down the gangplank. Halfway down, Grimm looked up to see Stern returning to Predator. The wiry young man was dressed in disgraceful-looking tattered rags, and covered in grease, oil, and soot. When he saw Grimm coming down the ramp, he stepped aside to let his captain pass.
“Mister Stern,” Grimm said. “What is that covering you from head to toe? For a moment I took you for my shadow.”
“Soot and engine grease, Skip,” Stern said, grinning.
“I take it you amused yourself thoroughly this evening.”
“Indeed I did, sir. All went well.”
“I am relieved to hear it—but I can’t have one of my aeronauts wandering about looking like a tunnel rat. Clean yourself up.”
Stern grinned, and his teeth were a very white contrast to the soot. “I’ll do that, sir, right away.”
“Good man,” Grimm said, and began striding toward the archway leading into Habble Landing.
Sorellin looked back over his shoulder as the small sailor scampered up the gangplank. “What was that about, Captain?”
“Accounts payable,” Grimm replied. “Do you know where the guild has its headquarters?”
“If they haven’t moved them,” Sorellin said.
“Then lead on, sir.”
The warriorborn took the lead, and as he did, Grimm took note of the young man’s appearance. “You seem to be somewhat the worse for wear, sir. Did you take part in the fighting?”
“Some,” Sorellin said. “Though it was Gwen who made the difference.”
Grimm nodded. “What is her condition?”
“The bite wound was not severe, but it was poisoned. She has what might be a broken wrist,” Sorellin replied, his tone wooden, but steady. “She also took a severe blow to the back of her head, and has been insensible ever since. Her head is swollen. The physician wasn’t sure if her skull had been cracked or not.” He showed his teeth in an unpleasant smile. “To think of all the times I ribbed her about having a hard head and a stiff neck. Now she’s barely breathing.”
“Hold fast, Master Sorellin,” Grimm said. “I’ve seen men who recovered from severe concussions in a day or two. Mister Bagen knows his trade—and Master Ferus knows some things most of us don’t, I daresay. There is ample reason to hope.”
The warriorborn frowned. “I’m not sure how comforting that is, sir. Master Ferus is . . . I do not wish to sound disrespectful, but the man is . . .”
“One grip shy of a steering column?” Grimm suggested. “Ten degrees short of a compass? Aviating without goggles?”
Sorellin’s expression flickered through surprise and amusement before he schooled it to neutrality again. “A bit eccentric, sir.”
“Hardly,” Grimm said. “He’s mad.”
Benedict frowned for a moment. “Truly?”
“Every etherealist I’ve ever met has been,” Grimm said, as they passed into the Spire proper. “Something about the energies they work with. It affects each of them uniquely, as far as I’ve been able to see.”
“Is that why he’s so odd about doorknobs?”
“I assume so,” Grimm said. He nodded toward the two piled wagons. “I’ve seen him demand a number of strange items from his apprentice for no sensible reason I could detect, and add them to that collection of his—the one he insists on taking everywhere with him. And you’ll note that his apprentice seems unable to directly address anyone else, apart from Master Ferus.”
“She’s mad too?”
“She seems a pleasant enough child,” Grimm said. “But yes, presumably.”
Sorellin considered that for several steps. “Sir . . . is it quite safe to be around such folk?”
“If they were safe, I suspect the Spirearch would not have sent them into the enemy’s teeth the way he has,” Grimm replied. “None of us on this mission are particularly safe to be around, Master Sorellin, yourself included. Of course they aren’t safe. The real question is whether or not they can be trusted.”
“And . . . do you trust them, sir?”
Grimm considered the question for half a block before he said, “The Spirearch has extended his trust. I am willing to do so as well.”
“Even though they’re mad.”
“There is madness and madness, Master Sorellin,” Grimm said. “Ferus and Folly are quite odd, and I take considerable comfort in that fact.”
“In my experience, the worst madmen don’t seem odd at all,” Grimm said. “They appear to be quite calm and rational, in fact. Until the screaming starts.” He glanced up to find Sorellin staring at him, frowning. “Let me put it this way, sir. If ever you meet an etherealist who does not seem odd, you will have ample reason for caution. An etherealist who speaks to things that are not there and cannot track the day of the week is par for the course. One who is perfectly well dressed, calmly spoken, and inviting you to tea? That is someone to be feared.”
Spire Albion, Habble Landing,
Do permit me to pour you tea, Sergeant Ciriaco,” Cavendish purred.
Major Espira adjusted his cup on its saucer, controlled himself from raising his voice in alarm, and said, “Madame, I pray you will forgive the sergeant, but he has duties to which he must attend.”
“Ah,” Cavendish said. “Duty must be the soldier’s primary concern, of course.”
Cavendish had returned to the Auroran staging area with her pet monster wheeling a little cart behind him. The cart had produced a small folding table, chairs, a tablecloth, and tea service, complete with a bubbling hot pot of water ready for steeping. Sark now loomed over one side of the table where Espira sat across from Madame Cavendish, while Sergeant Ciriaco stood behind and slightly to one side of his chair, watchfully facing Sark.
Espira ignored the spatters of blood on the floor and walls of the tunnel in which the little table sat. This was where Cavendish had tortured the luckless verminocitor. Ciriaco, with his enhanced senses, would not be able to ignore it. The smell of blood and terror was doubtless responsible for a great deal of the sergeant’s tension.
“Go ahead, Sergeant and see to the men,” Espira said. Ciriaco was a good man, but in his present frame of mind, the warriorborn was too bluntly spoken to survive tea with Cavendish.
“Major . . .” Ciriaco said, hesitant. Espira looked back to see the man shift his weight, eyes warily locked on Sark.
Sark, for his part, didn’t seem to be looking at anyone. The grizzled warriorborn simply stood, relaxed, as if the presence of a wary, armed, and dangerous warriorborn Marine were of no greater consequence to him than the color of the cloth he’d spread over the little table a moment before.
And as long as Cavendish was there, it wasn’t.
Espira suppressed a shudder.
“That’s an order, Sergeant,” he said calmly. “See to the men. Post a guard on the mouth of the tunnel so that we are not disturbed. Dismissed.”
Espira could all but hear the sergeant’s teeth grinding. But he said, “Yes, sir,” snapped off a salute, and stalked out of the tunnel.
“He seemed a trifle impolite, Major,” Cavendish said diffidently.
“The sergeant has had little experience with the niceties of proper society, I fear. Additionally, he was wounded in the attempt to destroy the Lancasters’ crystal vattery,” Espira replied. “I suspect he is experiencing more pain than he is willing to admit.”
“And he is valuable to you?”
“Indispensable,” he assured her.
Cavendish sipped at her tea. “I suppose allowances must be made. He is, after all, warriorborn. We cannot expect them to maintain perfect poise indefinitely.” She glanced up at Sark and murmured, “Inevitably, the beast emerges.”
For a second, Espira saw some kind of smoldering heat in Sark’s blank eyes. The bloodstains on the walls glistened in the light of the little table’s lumin crystals.
“You speak with great perception,” Espira said. “This tea is excellent.”
“Why, thank you, Major,” Cavendish said with a smile that on anyone else would have seemed genuine. “It is my personal blend. I mixed it myself.”
Espira struggled to keep his smile from becoming wooden. He had a strong instinct that he did not want to know precisely what a madwoman like Cavendish would have mixed into her tea. “Madame, you are too generous.”
“That remains to be seen,” Cavendish said. “The enemy is here, Major.”
Espira arched an eyebrow. He took a sip of tea and suggested diffidently, “It is the Albions’ home Spire, madame.”
She made an impatient flicking gesture with the fingers of one hand. “All the trogs of Albion cannot impede my designs,” she said. “But there are other hands moving now, other minds bending their wills upon this habble. They have the power to deny us our goals if improperly handled.”
“May I assume then, madame, that this is the purpose of your visit?”
“Obviously. It is time to employ contingency measures.”
Espira leaned back in his chair and cupped his tea with both hands for a moment. “Madame,” he said slowly, “the timing of our strike must be precise. Otherwise we shall not have the support of the Armada nor any means of escape. Any action we take before the appointed hour jeopardizes the entirety of the plan.”
Cavendish looked at him over the rim of her teacup and her expression was utterly blank. “Major. I begin to find myself disappointed in the paucity of your motivation. Must I find a way to increase it?”
“Madame, with all respect, I must remind you that my men are Marines, not spies. They fight well, but they have neither the training nor the experience to blend into the populace of an Albion habble for any length of time.” He cleared his throat. “I might even suggest that your own resources might be better put to such a task.”
“They have been,” Cavendish replied calmly. “It was how I managed to confirm the presence of the foe. And I have been identified, I suspect, so I dare not address the matter personally from my current position. Your men will still possess the advantage of surprise.”
Just then footsteps sounded in the hallway, and Lieutenant Ibarra, one of the younger officers of the force under Espira’s command, appeared from the shadows. Ibarra had gone missing during the initial incursion and had been presumed lost, and the broad-chested, quicktempered young nobleman walked toward them with tired but hurried steps.
“Major!” Ibarra called. “Lieutenant Ibarra reporting for duty, sir.”
Dammit. Why hadn’t the guards stopped the man? Because the young officer had ordered them to let him pass, of course. Damned young hothead. “Lieutenant, I am currently busy.”
Ibarra looked strained and a bit white around the eyes, but he grinned and gave Cavendish a lecherous leer. “I can see that, sir. Rank doth have its privileges, eh? Can I afford one of those on a lieutenant’s pay?”
“Lieutenant,” Espira snapped.
“How rude,” Cavendish said. Her smile was one of absolute pleasure.
She flicked a finger. Only that.
Ibarra’s eyes suddenly flew open wide in an expression of utter terror, and an instant later the man began to scream and kept screaming. His hands flew to his eyes, his palms pressing against his skull, and he staggered and collapsed to the ground one joint at a time.
Cavendish watched with flat, passionless eyes and noted, “I cannot abide boors.”
Ibarra shrieked on as Espira put his tea down and lunged toward the young man. “Guard!” he bellowed.
Espira had seen this before. He desperately pried at Ibarra’s wrists, but despite his strength he was unable to remove the young man’s hands from his eyes.
The guards came running, but they didn’t get there before Ibarra had clawed his eyes out with his own raking fingers in mindless, howling terror.
At Espira’s command, and with his help, the two Marines managed to haul Ibarra’s hands from his face and bind them behind his back, but the bloody ruins of the boy’s eye sockets were bleeding freely by the time they were done.
“Get him to a medic, fast,” Espira snapped. Then he shot a glance at Cavendish.
The mad etherealist regarded him through slitted eyes, a small smile dancing upon her lips. She was, he realized, enjoying herself—and waiting for his reaction.
“Was that necessary, madame?” he snarled.
“That depends entirely upon you, Major,” Cavendish murmured. “And upon how motivated you are feeling. How many more of your men will be visited by such horrors before you elect to cooperate? You may decide.”
Espira ground his teeth. He wore his gauntlet. Would he have time to prime and discharge it before Cavendish could . . .
. . . what? Twitch a finger?
And even if he did manage to kill her, what would Armada admiralty say about the action? Cavendish was their darling.
Espira felt his shoulders sag.
“Very well,” he said, and his own voice sounded ragged to him
. “How many?”
“Six should be sufficient.”
Six. Six men. If he sent them out on Cavendish’s hunt, absolutely anything could happen. He might well be signing their death warrants.
But at this point . . . what choice did he have?
He ground his teeth and nodded. “Whom do I tell them to kill?”
She lifted her cup and took another sip of tea, briefly concealing her skeleton smile.
Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Near the Black Horse Inn
Bridget spotted the sign for the Black Horse and felt a surge of relief—only to have it sublimate into anxiety when she realized that something was very, very wrong.
There was a crowd around the building. The front door had been broken from its hinges and lay in shattered pieces on the ground nearby. A number of uniformed Guardsmen were present—as were nearly a dozen silent, motionless human forms lying in a row on the ground, covered by bloodstained bedsheets.
Bridget promptly took Folly’s arm and drew her around the nearest corner and out of sight of the Black Horse.
“Oh,” Folly said, surprised. “I thought Bridget and I were returning to the master in the inn. But now we’re hiding in a dark alley instead. I wonder why we’re doing that?”
“Didn’t you see?” Bridget asked.
The etherealist’s apprentice frowned down at her jar of crystals. “One of you should tell Bridget that I was watching to make sure none of you fell out on the return trip.”
“I’ll watch them for a moment, Folly,” Bridget said. “You should take a look.”
Folly gave her a grateful smile and then crept up to the corner and peered carefully around it. After a moment, she reported dubiously, “I can see what she’s talking about. But don’t know what that means.”
“Something has happened,” Bridget said. “We don’t know what. But what are the odds that so much violence would come to the same inn where our inquisition was based?”
“Oh, I can’t tell her that without more points of data,” Folly said seriously. “If I knew how many inns were in Habble Landing, and the general rate of violent incidents over a statistically significant duration . . .”