The aeronauts windlass, p.38
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.38
 

           Jim Butcher

  “What was his name?” Grimm asked quietly.

  “Moberly,” the guildmaster said quietly. “Harris Moberly.”

  Grimm nodded. “How old?”

  Felix grimaced. “Twenty.”

  Grimm nodded. “Family?”

  “Wife, brother, mother,” Felix said. “Wife’s expecting.”

  Grimm made a soft sound and shook his head.

  Felix nodded. He eyed Grimm. “You know.”

  “Wish I didn’t.”

  Felix let out a wry chuckle. “Drink?”

  “Obliged.”

  The verminocitor poured from a bottle into his mug and a second one like it he took from the shelf. He held up his mug to Grimm briefly, and Grimm mirrored him. They drank. The spirits in the mug were not particularly fine, but neither were they feeble. Kettle would have loved them. Grimm swallowed it carefully.

  Felix glanced into the room and then back down.

  “How did it happen?” Grimm asked.

  “Moberly was out on a contract on his own,” Felix said. “Against the rules. Not supposed to run without a partner. But with the baby on the way, he wanted to lay in some extra money. Silkweavers got him.”

  “Weavers? Plural?”

  Felix grunted. “Hatchlings. Matriarch like the one at the Black Horse will lay fifty eggs a day. One hatchling wouldn’t have been a problem for Moberly. Six or seven wouldn’t have been a problem. A few hundred, though . . .”

  Grimm shuddered. “Bad way to go. You sure what killed him?”

  “Those mouths of theirs make marks you can’t mistake. Not hard to measure them and do the math.”

  “No offense meant,” Grimm said.

  Felix shrugged. “All right.”

  “What will you do next?”

  “Sweep the tunnels as soon as we get enough of the lads together. Handle those hatchlings before they grow up. Coordinate with the guilds above and below Habble Landing, make sure it doesn’t become an infestation.”

  “Difficult job?”

  “Hard enough,” Felix said. His eyes flattened, though his voice stayed gentle. “But we’ll get it done.”

  Grimm nodded.

  Benedict reappeared from the side room. He had covered Moberly’s body again. “Hatchling marks?” he asked Felix.

  “That’s what we saw,” Felix said. “That much venom, he never had a chance.”

  “I don’t think so,” Benedict said. “The wounds aren’t right.”

  Felix squinted at the young warriorborn. “How’s that?”

  “The blood,” Benedict said. “It’s congealed in the wounds.”

  “That’s what blood does,” Felix said.

  “What are you getting at, Benedict?” Grimm asked.

  “I don’t think your man Moberly was alive when those things caught up to him. He didn’t bleed enough.”

  “Didn’t bleed enough?” Felix asked. “What does that mean?”

  “I think his heart wasn’t beating when the hatchlings started on him,” Benedict said seriously. “Did you notice his neck?”

  “Neck?” Felix asked.

  “We’d need to consult with a physician to be sure,” Benedict said, “but I think someone broke his neck. Clean.”

  Grimm pursed his lips. “And then tossed him to the silkweavers?”

  Benedict nodded.

  “Why?” Felix asked. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

  Benedict looked at Grimm. “What do you think?”

  Grimm swirled the spirits in his mug and said thoughtfully, “I think . . . they had to kill him.”

  “They? They who?” Felix asked.

  Benedict’s eyes widened in understanding. “Moberly got close to the Aurorans. He saw them.”

  Grimm nodded sharply and rose. “The Aurorans are here, in Habble Landing.” He turned to Felix. “You say Moberly was pursuing a contract?”

  “Yes,” the Guildmaster said.

  Grimm clenched his jaw and felt his hand fall to the hilt of his sword. “Where?”

  Chapter Forty-four

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Rowl moved with flawless competence through the shadows behind the group of men who had seized Littlemouse and her odd friend. This meant, of course, that he was unobserved by anyone whom he did not permit to observe him.

  This was all Littlemouse’s fault. She had specifically asked him to seek out any possible danger lying in their way. She had said nothing whatever about danger that might steal up on them from behind, and Rowl had assumed that, between the pair of them, they might have enough wits about them to avoid being stalked and taken down like a pair of silly tunnel mice. He had therefore been ahead of them, looking for reasonable dangers, and it was quite thoroughly Littlemouse’s own fault if she had not taken adequate precautions to watch over her shoulder while Rowl was busy watching absolutely everywhere else.

  By the time he’d heard the half-souled human warrior and the smaller one who was the leader close in on Littlemouse and her friend, it had been too late to warn them or accomplish anything apart from exposing himself. Their enemies had been inconsiderate enough to be too many in number for Rowl to manage comfortably with only his four paws.

  So instead he followed the men who held Littlemouse, and calmly plotted their deaths.

  They hurried from the main human area into the ventilation tunnels on the southern side of the habble, and Rowl kept pace with them. There was a familiarity to the air of the tunnels, to the scent and the sensation, and Rowl suddenly realized that they were somewhere near the tunnel where he had battled and destroyed the silkweavers who had tried to harm Littlemouse.

  So.

  Was that the message Naun of the Nine-Claws had meant Rowl to receive? That surface creatures were inside his territory, along with invading humans of Spire Aurora?

  It would explain much. If the silkweavers were indeed under the control of the enemies of Littlemouse’s people, they would be a threat too great for the cats to face. When humans came hunting them, cats simply scattered into the endless tunnels. They moved much more swiftly and silently than any human could hope to emulate, and avoided them with relative ease.

  Humans with the aid of silkweavers, though—that would be an entirely different ball of string. Silkweavers, in great numbers, could threaten the Nine-Claws, pursuing them through the tunnels the clumsier humans could not or would not use. Worse, they would use the vertical shafts as easily as the horizontal tunnels, providing them with a tremendous advantage of mobility.

  Most particularly, they would be a threat to the kits of the NineClaws. A single silkweaver, if it struck a nursery, could kill the offspring of a generation. Working together, they could force the cats to flee through tunnels, where humans could employ their gauntlets and long guns.

  Rowl suppressed a snarl. No wonder the Nine-Claws had been keeping their kits close. And of course Naun could not simply ask Rowl for help—any cat would understand that. He would probably be obliged to explain to Littlemouse the importance of a clan chief’s pride of place and absolute autonomy. She would fail to comprehend it, naturally, but what else could one expect? She was human.

  The warriors who had taken Littlemouse made her walk with them into a section of the tunnels that Rowl felt immediately wary of entering. There were watchers there somewhere, hidden sentries posted in the darkness, concealed even from his eyes, at least from this distance. But his instincts warned him that they were certainly there.

  Rowl prowled to a particularly deep pool of shadow and had just settled down to regard the tunnel more intently when something soft flicked his whiskers and caused him to whirl about, claws and fangs bared, ready to fight.

  Shadows stirred and a pair of green eyes blinked slowly and insouciantly at him from only inches away. There was a low, chuckling purr, and a small female cat curled her tail back neatly around her paws.

  “Mirl,” Rowl said, keeping his voice pitched below the volume a human would hear. He flicked his
tail stiffly in displeasure. “I might have killed you.”

  “You will need to notice me first,” Mirl said back, her tone insufferably pleased with herself. “O mighty Rowl.”

  He regarded her for a haughty moment, then sat down and composed his fur. “What are you doing here?”

  “My duty,” Mirl said. “Maul and Longthinker set me on a trail. It led me here. Or did you think I had come to throw myself at your paws and beg for your affection?”

  Rowl gave her a gentle bump of his shoulder against hers to take the sting from his words. “I have no time for games this night.”

  “I saw,” she said, sitting down beside him. “They took your human.”

  “They took two of them,” Rowl said, disgusted, “and they will answer for it.”

  “Of course they will,” Mirl said. “But I have been studying the Auroran defenses. I do not think there is a way to get close enough to observe them without being seen.”

  “Why not?” Rowl asked.

  “The deepest shadows of the roof,” Mirl said. “Thirty pounces back.”

  Rowl stared intently for a long moment at the spot she had indicated. Finally, a vague shape took form there, and a faint glitter upon a gleaming eye.

  “Silkweaver,” Rowl murmured quietly. “An adult.”

  “Others guard each passage in,” Mirl said. “We can draw no closer to your humans without being seen.”

  Rowl lashed his tail left and right once. That was ample time to consider the situation. Then he rose.

  “Mirl,” Rowl said.

  “Yes?”

  “I will ask you to do a thing for me.”

  “Will you?”

  “Yes,” he said. “This thing I ask of you is not a command. You need not do it. I could manage it without you perfectly well.”

  Mirl looked at him with merry green eyes, but her voice was serious. “Of course you could, O Rowl.”

  “That needs to be understood.”

  “It is,” Mirl said.

  Rowl nodded once. “Excellent. This problem has some one or two facets that are beneath the dignity of cats to manage. The humans must be told of what has happened here. I will ask you to do this thing.”

  “Humans are too stupid to understand plain speech,” Mirl said. “Am I to find one and scratch him until he runs in the proper direction? Then hope he has wits enough to notice?”

  “Do not be difficult,” Rowl said. “There are humans on a ship of wood with tall trees on it. As its sole purpose is to transport me, I have declared it mine, and my scent is upon it. Contact the human warrior with two red stripes upon his sleeves and a reasonably sized hat. He is less dense than most.”

  “That seems simple enough,” Mirl said.

  “But important, Mirl,” Rowl said quietly. He faced her and said, “Very important to me.”

  Mirl tilted her head, abruptly very still. “You trust me to do it?”

  Rowl sniffed. “It is a proper task for a Whisker. I am a prince. I have princely business to attend.”

  “What business?” Mirl asked.

  “Is it not perfectly obvious?” Rowl rose and began to pad calmly toward the proper tunnels. “I am going to conquer the Nine-Claws.”

  Chapter Forty-five

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  Every man to be armed and armored,” Grimm said to Creedy as he strode down the deck. “Every single one, Mister Creedy, apart from Journeyman and his hired hands. They’re to keep working on the ship.”

  “We have a little more than half the complement we had during the initial attack, sir,” Creedy said, walking quickly beside Grimm. “If an entire battalion of Auroran Marines have landed . . .”

  “Then it is imperative that we catch them while they’re still in the tunnels to prevent them from using their superior numbers against us.” Creedy got a little paler but nodded. “Aye, sir. That will even things up. Some. But even so . . .”

  “Relax, Byron. I have no intention of fighting them to the death.

  We’re merely confirming their presence—this is a reconnaissance in force. Their security is evidently good enough to catch even someone familiar with the local tunnels, like a local verminocitor, traveling alone. I mean to find them, and I mean to make sure they don’t take me the way they did that poor fellow.”

  “And if we do find them, sir?”

  “We fight just long enough to get an idea of their numbers, break contact, leave pickets at the tunnels they can escape through, and send to the Spirearch for reinforcements. Divide the crew into five-man squads, have them pick a squad leader, and brief the leaders on the plan. Snap to.”

  Creedy threw a crisp salute and said, “Aye, Captain.” Then he spun on a heel and went belowdecks, where most of the men were either sleeping or working on refitting Predator’s systems, bawling orders as he went.

  Grimm stalked to his cabin, took his coat from his shoulders with an impatient shrug, and eyed his wounded arm. All things considered, he thought he might need both hands and his gauntlet for the next few hours, and he was tired of the damned nuisance of a sling in any case.

  So he flung it into the corner and flexed his arm experimentally. There was pain, but not nearly so much as he had expected—and the discomfort was of a peculiar, stretchy sort, as if every muscle in his forearm had cramped unbearably and were only now beginning to loosen again. He winced and he flexed his wrist, but decided that the arm, if imperfect and uncomfortable, was serviceable. So he opened the locked cabinet, rolled up his sleeve, and strapped on his gauntlet.

  The wounds hurt beneath the bandages, but the cloth windings didn’t suddenly turn scarlet with fresh blood. It would do.

  Grimm donned his captain’s coat, secured his hat firmly in place, and strode out of the cabin to find the men assembling on the deck. He checked to his right and spotted Sir Benedict pacing outside the door to Mister Bagen’s sick bay. He walked over to the young Guard and nodded. “Is Ferus in there?”

  Benedict nodded. His golden eyes were strained, hollow. “They’re just finishing up.”

  “How is Miss Lancaster?”

  Benedict shook his head. “They didn’t say.”

  Grimm pursed his lips and nodded. Bagen wasn’t the sort of physician to say anything he wasn’t certain about. The man would always remain silent rather than risk giving false hope to those waiting on news of his patients’ prospects. He didn’t shirk from giving bad news, either, though.

  “Then there’s hope, son,” Grimm said. “If she was dying, Bagen would have said so.”

  Benedict forced a small, brief smile to his mouth and nodded his thanks. His expression of worry did not change, but his pacing subsided.

  A moment later the door rattled fitfully, and Benedict all but pounced on it in his hurry to open it.

  “Thank you, my boy,” Master Ferus chirped, and bustled outside. He turned, shut the door in Mister Bagen’s rather startled, drawn face, and added, “Excuse me.” Then he peered intently at the wood for a long moment.

  “Ah,” Ferus said, beaming. “I am not a braggart by nature, Captain Grimm, but I must say that in my own small way, I do excellent work.” Grimm cleared his throat. “What is the child’s condition?” Ferus rounded on him with an arched silver brow. “Child, sir? Have you ever slain a silkweaver matriarch?”

  “Point taken, sir,” Grimm said, with a small bow. “What is Miss Lancaster’s condition?”

  “Oh, she’ll be fine,” Master Ferus said offhandedly. “Assuming, of course, that she wakes up.”

  “What?” Benedict asked.

  “She’s unconscious,” Ferus replied, his voice turning graver. “Both Doctor Bagen and I believe that her condition is stable, but the blow to her head was severe, and she has shown no signs of rousing. It is possible that she may sit up in the next few moments. It is also possible that she may never awaken. We simply cannot know.”

  “Oh,” Benedict said in a very small voice. “Oh. Oh, coz.” He swallowed and blin
ked his eyes several times. “May I see her?”

  “Of course,” Master Ferus said. He reached for the doorknob and fiddled with it fitfully for a moment. Then he sighed and said, “They worked when I was young. Standards must be slipping.”

  “Doubtless,” Grimm said, and opened the door for Sir Benedict, who paced inside and began speaking quietly to Doctor Bagen. Grimm shut the door and turned to Master Ferus. “Sir Benedict tells me that you can locate our enemy if I can take you to the correct general vicinity.” Ferus raked a bony hand through his wispy grey hair and nodded absently. “Yes, quite probably.” He blinked. “You mean to say that you’ve found it, Captain Grimm?”

  “I believe so,” Grimm said. “I mean to leave the ship and find them as soon as my men are armed and armored. I would ask you to join us.”

  “Yes, yes, obviously,” Ferus muttered, waving a hand. His eyes were locked on what appeared to be a random point on the ship’s deck.

  “Though . . . we won’t be leaving right away, I’m afraid.”

  Grimm tilted his head slightly. “No? And why not?”

  Ferus suddenly stiffened. His expression flickered with a rapid mix of emotions, and then a slow shudder seemed to roll down his spine. He turned slowly, pointed a stiffened finger toward the ship’s boarding plank, and said, “We have no need to seek the enemy. She has come to us.” Grimm turned in time to see Madame Cavendish stride calmly to the top of the ramp and halt, her hands folded neatly in front of her.

  She wore a steely lavender dress and bolero with grey accents and a matching lavender blouse. She wore her hat at a rakish angle upon her pinned-up hair, and a crystal the size of a big man’s thumb glowed with gentle light at the center of a velvet choker about her slender throat.

  Her gaze was focused directly upon Master Ferus even as her head rose above the level of the deck, as if she had known precisely where he would be standing long before she had actually laid eyes upon him. Those flat grey eyes took in Ferus for a moment, and then Cavendish smiled. It was, Grimm thought, the cruelest expression he had ever seen on a human face.

  Then she turned to Grimm, and her smile reminded him of nothing so much as a primed gauntlet ready to be discharged. “Captain Grimm,” she said. “What a pleasure to see you again, sir. And what a lovely ship this is. Permission to come aboard for parley?”