The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 37Jim Butcher
“Folly,” Bridget said quietly. “There are dead bodies there. And we don’t know who they are.”
Folly stared blankly at Bridget for several seconds. Then her eyes widened, and the blood drained from her face. “She thinks one of them could be my . . . her fellow Guardsmen?” She swallowed. “Oh, I’m sure that I don’t like that thought at all. We must not rush to conclusions. How can we even be sure that those are dead bodies?”
Bridget glanced up to the cat on her shoulder. “Rowl?”
“I smell death,” Rowl reported.
Bridget forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly, though her heart lurched at the thought that some of the forms beneath the sheets might be her friends. She tried to address the problem with dispassionate rationality.
“One of us should go look,” she murmured. “Perhaps Master Ferus and the others are simply inside. We must know what happened.”
“Of course,” Folly said, nodding to her jar. “Bridget is so sensible. Oh, except that . . . if there truly is an enemy nearby, he might be watching the inn. We would be revealing ourselves to him.”
“I will go,” Rowl said calmly.
Bridget peered around the corner again. “That is not advisable, Rowl. There are half a dozen verminocitors there now. See the scalelashes and the leather coats and boots? They might not take kindly to the presence of a cat in the middle of the habble.”
Rowl made a growling sound in his throat. Cats had historically been hunted by verminocitors—and vice versa. Though there was a working alliance of cooperation between them in Habble Morning, cats and verminocitors kept communications to the absolute minimum necessary to make that alliance function. Neither group trusted the other. She had no idea what that relationship might be in Habble Landing.
“In order to harm me,” Rowl said, supremely confident, “they would first need to know I was there.” And with that, he leapt lightly to the ground and vanished into the shadows deeper in the alley.
“Oh, that arrogant little monster,” Bridget murmured.
“Don’t worry,” Folly told her jar. “I’m sure Rowl will be quite careful.”
Bridget sighed. “He’s not one-tenth as clever as he believes himself to be.”
“You mustn’t judge Bridget for saying such things,” Folly murmured. “She is only under strain, and I can hardly blame her. I don’t want someone I care about to be dead, either. Thinking of it makes me feel as though my stomach had curled into a ball and rolled away.”
Bridget grimaced. “It seems so useless to be skulking about like this. Those Guardsmen wear the same uniform I do. Or would, if we were wearing our uniforms. I should be able to walk up to them and ask questions.”
“Perhaps Bridget does not remember that the Spirearch was concerned that one of the Guardsmen might be an enemy spy.”
“Or they might not,” Bridget said. “Traitors do not pose the true threat to Spire Albion. They’re nowhere near as dangerous—or toxic— as fear.”
Folly frowned quietly down at the ground. “And yet, what choice does Bridget have? If this situation is the result of enemy action, and the enemy does have a traitor within the Guard, is it not logical to assume that the traitor would be present here, watching and reporting to his Auroran masters?”
“I suppose it is logical.” Bridget sighed. “But I feel no obligation whatever to like it.”
“Oh,” Folly said, more brightly. “I’m relieved that she feels that way—I thought I might be the only one.”
Bridget drew back from the corner, lest someone spot her and be curious as to why a young woman might be acting in such a clandestine fashion around such dire events, and settled down to wait.
Rowl returned within ten minutes, sauntering forth from the shadows calmly and padding over to climb onto Bridget’s lap.
“I know,” Bridget said. “You told me so.”
Rowl curled his tail around his paws and looked smug.
“What did you see?”
“I could not get close to the dead,” Rowl said. “They were too closely watched. There is a very large silkweaver inside the stone box. It is most thoroughly dead. Death-scent overpowers all other smells. I could not identify the bodies. I could hear the moans of many wounded humans inside the stone box, but there is only one door leading inside, and that was too crowded and well lit to risk. Even humans would have seen me.”
“Rust and rot,” Bridget snarled in frustration.
“Oh!” Folly breathed, and tried to cover up the jar of crystals with her hands, as though cupping an infant’s ears. “Such language.”
“I do beg your pardon,” Bridget said. “I’m . . . tired and overwrought, is all.”
Folly nodded seriously. “Everyone begs everyone’s pardon, but I’ve never seen a pardon. Is it near the spleen?”
Bridget blinked, then gave her head a little shake to keep the odd thought from crawling into her ear. “Folly, we need to decide on our next move.”
“All right,” Folly said. “What should we do?”
Rowl looked up at her, waiting.
Bridget could feel the pressure of two sets of eyes on her, and she felt her chest tighten. Somehow she had become the leader. How on earth had that happened?
“We make a sensible, conservative move,” she said. “We can’t know where the others are, or if they are hurt or in danger. Either way, we are ill-equipped to assist them as we are, and the chance of an enemy agent spotting us is simply too great. We will return to Predator and seek the help of Captain Grimm in getting back to Master Ferus and the others.”
“Sensible,” Rowl said, his tone one of firm approval. “I can watch for danger from the top of the ship-tree.”
“Yes,” Folly said. “That seems like a very fine plan to me.”
“Good,” Bridget said, nodding. “Yes. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “Rowl, could you please find us a way to circle around the Black Horse without being observed?”
“Of course I could,” Rowl purred, clearly pleased as he rose. “Wait a moment while I ensure our safety and success.”
The cat ghosted away and returned to lead them deeper into the alley and through an alarmingly narrow passageway to the next street over from the Black Horse. They walked in silence, with the cat padding well in advance of them, his whiskers and ears quivering as he watched for potential threats.
By the time they got back to the archway that led out onto the wooden shipyard, Bridget’s alarm had begun to fade. She was simply too exhausted to sustain a case of nerves. Once they were back on Predator, she could report what she had learned to Captain Grimm and perhaps sit down for a few moments and rest her aching feet.
And so she was utterly unprepared when a tall, lean form detached from a shadow only a stride or two from Folly and abruptly seized her around the throat with both arms. Folly’s eyes flew open wide, but she never had the chance to make a squeak. One instant she was walking, and the next her eyes were rolling up into her head while her knees buckled beneath her.
Bridget stared for a moment, trying to drag her mind into focus, to confront the threat. She abruptly remembered her gauntlet and lifted it, struggling to prime the crystal against her palm with her thoughts— only to suddenly feel her hair seized in an iron grip while something cold and terrible and sharp pressed against the base of her neck.
“Now, now, miss,” growled a man with a rolling Auroran accent. “Lower your hand or I’ll shove this up into your brains.”
Bridget ground her teeth, hesitating, and the hand jerked her head back. She had a sudden, horrible image of her head being pulled onto the knife and let out a little sound of panic, lowering her hand.
“Alley,” the man growled, and Bridget could do little as she found herself marched into a darkened alleyway out of sight of the guarded portal to the shipyard.
The first attacker seized the back of Folly’s jacket in one hand and dragged her limp form along behind him. Her little jar of expended
crystals went rolling free, and the odd pistolier’s belt joined it. There were other men waiting in the alley, and one of them scooped up Folly’s fallen gear like a man tidying up after a mess had been made. Bridget rapidly found her hands bound behind her back, and a cloth gag forced into her mouth.
Her heart pounded with sheer panic, her weariness forgotten.
A low voice rumbled in Auroran. It was answered by the voice of Bridget’s captor, its tone annoyed. A small lumin crystal appeared, being held in the fingers of a man she did not recognize. He was in his early thirties, perhaps, with fine dark hair and an olive skin tone. His eyes were dark and very, very hard. He held the light up to her face, and then up to that of the unconscious Folly, and muttered something else beneath his breath.
The first voice answered him, and Bridget recognized it even as the light from the little crystal revealed the man’s features. It was Ciriaco, the warriorborn Auroran sergeant who had captured her in the tunnels of Habble Morning.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he saw her, and he said, “You again.”
The shorter man frowned, looking between them, and switched to speaking Albion. “You are acquainted, Sergeant.”
“This girl was one of the ones we had trouble with.”
“Forgive me for saying so,” he said, “but she doesn’t look particularly dolllike.”
“This is another one,” Ciriaco said.
“Ah,” said the smaller man. Something about him screamed “officer” to Bridget. He was obviously the warriorborn’s superior. “Then there’s no real need to remain clandestine, if she already recognizes you.”
“Young woman,” the officer said. “I hope that you believe me when I say that I truly regret the necessity of detaining you.” He nodded to two of the other men in the alley, and they loped out silently, obviously intending to scout for the major just as Rowl had been scouting for them.
“Where are you taking us?” Bridget demanded, or tried to demand. The gag made it sound like a muffled echo from a distant tunnel.
The officer’s expression became grim. Chillingly, he seemed to understand her question, despite the gag. Perhaps he’d had practice. “To someone who wishes to speak to you. Sergeant, take the odd little one. If this young lady tries to escape or make any sounds, cut her friend’s throat.”
“Aye, sir,” Ciriaco said. He picked up the bound and limp form of Folly by the back of her jacket again, and drew a knife into his other hand.
Bridget felt her eyes blurring with tears of pure frustration.
“I regret the necessity of such measures, young lady,” the officer said. “But I implore you not to test my resolve. It will cost your friend her life if you do. Do you understand?”
Bridget closed her eyes and felt ashamed that she had shown the man her tears. She nodded once.
“Excellent,” the officer said. “Young lady, my name is Major Renaldo Espira of the Auroran Marines, and you—both of you—should consider yourselves my prisoner.”
Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Verminocitors’ Guild
The Verminocitors’ Guild was on the upper level of Habble Landing, and Grimm found it profoundly uncomfortable, somehow, to walk habble streets made of anything other than spirestone.
The black stone from which the Spires had been constructed was all but indestructible, and had withstood the ravages of time for millennia— but the Builders had taken the secret of its working with them when they vanished from the world. Modern architects were skilled, but when anything collapsed in a habble, it was inevitably made of inferior masonry.
Grimm knew he was being ridiculous. God in Heaven knew that he walked far more fragile wooden decks without a qualm, both upon Predator and on the platforms of Landing. Nonetheless, he fancied he could feel the masonry floor beneath his feet flexing and shifting ever so slightly with each of his steps.
The guild hall was down a narrow side alley, and if Benedict hadn’t been there, Grimm might not even have noticed the alleyway at all. Its battered wooden door had the faint remnants of a scalelash carved into it, worn down to a faded design by time. A single small lumin crystal hung from a string that had been fixed to the doorway above.
By its light, Grimm could see a placard on the wall beside the door. It stated, simply, “No Unauthorized Entry.” A second, smaller placard immediately beneath it read, “No, You Are Not Authorized.”
“Friendly,” Grimm noted.
Benedict smiled tightly. “They’re a breed unto themselves. And they like it that way. Which is why I’m not sure what the crystal is for.”
“It’s a shadelight,” Grimm said quietly. “Some of my men put one up whenever I lose a member of the crew. To light his shade’s way back to his bunk, so he can rest.”
“A bit heathen of them, I suppose,” Benedict said.
“It’s a tradition,” Grimm said. “Were traditions rational, they’d be procedures.” He touched the light gently and then said, “We all feel a need to mark the Reaper’s passing somehow.” He frowned for a moment. “Were any verminocitors in the inn when the silkweaver attacked?”
“No,” Benedict said.
“Ah,” Grimm said. “And how many of these men do you think are killed in a given year?”
“Not many,” Benedict said. “They’re professionals.”
“I believe it strains coincidence to consider this death unrelated to our current troubles.”
“I agree,” Benedict said.
“Then this,” Grimm said, “is what I believe professional inquisitors refer to as a clue.”
“In my considered judgment as an occasional inquisitor for the Spirearch,” Benedict said, “I believe you may be correct.”
Grimm nodded and said, “Excellent.” Then he turned and pounded hard and steadily on the door.
The guildmaster was a man named Felix. He was grizzled and short, standing only a scant inch taller than Grimm’s friend Bayard, though the resemblance ended there. Felix was blocky and solid-looking, though his nose was reddened with burst blood vessels and his eyes were sunken, heavy things lurking back beneath a heavy brow. He was dressed in breeches and a tunic of heavy leather, with matching gauntlets tucked in his belt, next to the coiled circle of his scalelash, a long braid of metal rings woven together with metal scales throughout, forming a long, flexible reptilian coil. Grimm had seen them used before. In skilled hands they could rend flesh like some kind of horrible mechanical saw.
“Gentlemen,” Felix said in a low, growling tone. “I have little time to waste on foolishness.” He nodded back toward a side room off the main chamber of the guild hall, where a form lay on a table, shrouded under cloth. “We’ve lost one of our own today, and our habble’s folk have suffered. What do you want?”
Grimm considered the man for a moment and then nodded to Benedict.
“Sir, you may not remember, but we met briefly about two years ago,” Benedict said. “I was in the uniform of the Guard at the time. I was taking a deposition from one of your guild members about the stolen weapons crystals.”
Felix squinted at Benedict for a moment and then reluctantly grunted acknowledgment. “Sorello, right? The one that broke down the door.”
“Sorellin,” Benedict said, “Yes, sir.”
Felix nodded. “I remember you.”
“I’m in the midst of an inquisition, sir,” Benedict said. “And we need to speak to you regarding any unusual activity your members may have noticed since the Auroran raid.”
The verminocitor’s expression turned sour. “Other than losing a man and having a rotting silkweaver matriarch tear apart half the habble, you mean?”
Benedict smiled patiently. “There were a dozen casualties, sir, some dead, some wounded, and some still hanging in the balance. One of them is my sixteen-year-old cousin, Gwendolyn, whom I love quite dearly.” His smile vanished abruptly, and his feline eyes went flat and glinted with flecks of amber and gold. The barest hint of
a rumbling growl came into the young man’s voice. “We’ve all had a long evening, sir.”
Felix became tense immediately, and one of his hands twitched, as if to move to the handle of his scalelash.
Benedict regarded him calmly, with absolutely no hint of hostility anywhere in his stance. Only in his eyes. Anger smoldered there, far back, and Grimm took note of it. Young Master Sorellin had presented himself as a calm and gregarious young fellow of Habble Morning’s upper classes, but Grimm had, in his time, met a certain number of dangerous individuals.
Though he was young, Benedict Sorellin, Grimm judged, was one of them.
Grimm turned his gaze to Felix. What happened next would depend a great deal on whether or not Felix had the sense to see what Grimm had in the young man.
Felix was no fool. He grunted, turned away, and casually put a little more distance between himself and the looming warriorborn. He picked up a mug and swallowed whatever dregs were left in it before turning back to them and eyeing Grimm. “Who is he?”
“My associate,” Benedict said calmly.
Felix grunted, looking back and forth between them. “He’s Fleet. Eh?” The verminocitor snorted. “Oh, civilian clothes, sure. But them boys could be naked and you could still see their uniform.” He squinted at Benedict. “You aren’t in uniform either. Rot and ruin, what does that old man up in Morning think he’s about?”
“Do you really want to know?” Benedict asked.
Felix shuddered. “And get drawn in further? God in Heaven, no. I have troubles enough.”
“Wise man,” Grimm said.
“I’d like to examine the remains of your man, if that’s all right,” Benedict said.
Felix shrugged and nodded. “Suit yourself.”
Benedict nodded his thanks and withdrew to the side chamber. He drew the cloth back. Grimm couldn’t see much of the form beneath it, and felt glad that he couldn’t. What he could see was horribly torn and mangled.
Felix didn’t look toward the room. He stared down at his mug, turning it in hard, scarred hands.