The aeronauts windlass, p.39
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.39

           Jim Butcher
 

  Grimm turned his head slightly toward Master Ferus but never took his eyes off of Cavendish. “Sir?” he said quietly. “Ought we take her?”

  “You can’t,” Ferus said, his voice roughened with emotion. “You haven’t the necessary tools.”

  Grimm frowned. “You think we should parley with her?”

  “Merciful Builders and God in Heaven, no,” Ferus murmured back.

  “She cannot be trusted. Offer her tea.”

  Grimm pursed his lips. “For what reason?”

  “She has us at a disadvantage, Captain, or she wouldn’t be here at all. She wishes to talk, or she would simply have attacked. Let us see what she has to say.”

  “Is she a danger to my men?” Grimm asked.

  Master Ferus’s teeth showed briefly. “To all men. Invite her to take tea before the winds change.” He touched Grimm’s arm and lowered his voice intently. “And, Captain. Do let us be gracious about it.” Grimm frowned at the old etherealist for a moment more before nodding. Then he turned, doffed his cap, and swept a politely proper bow to the lady. “Permission granted, Madame Cavendish. Welcome aboard Predator. May I tempt you with a cup of tea?”

  Cavendish stepped onto the deck of Grimm’s ship, and her smile didn’t widen so much as sharpen. “Why, what a gracious offer. Yes, Captain, tea would be lovely. Tea would please me to no end.” Grimm fought down an odd sensation of manifest dread, and offered the woman his arm. She took it, and the contact made him feel as if his flesh had begun to desperately bunch up in an effort to avoid contact with the woman’s fingers.

  But he allowed none of that to show in his bearing or voice. “This way, please, madame. If I may be so bold as to ask: Do you prefer sugar or honey in your tea?”

  Chapter Forty-six

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing Shipyards, AMS Predator

  Grimm did not, as a rule, believe in extravagance. That said, he did own a rather finely made teapot.

  The device was specifically made for use aboard airships, plugging into the electrical system of a ship upon two slender copper prongs. Electricity flowed into a coil upon which sat the copper teapot, and heated the water inside to the ideal temperature in well under a minute, shutting off immediately when the water was perfectly heated. As it was the deluxe model, it even had a dial on the side to adjust for altitude in order to make sure the pot was heated to precisely the correct temperature every time.

  Grimm heated the water, then added the leaves and let them steep for a few moments. Then he brought the tea to the little table in his cabin around which sat Master Ferus and Madam Cavendish.

  “Oh, is that the Fedori model, out of Spire Jereezi?” Cavendish asked, looking up with interest. “I’d considered acquiring one myself, for when I’m traveling, but so few airships have their passenger cabins wired for electricity.”

  “Something of an indulgence of mine, I’m afraid,” Grimm said. “I don’t mind missing meals, when it comes to that, but I simply can’t do without a good cup of tea in the afternoon.”

  “At least you and I can agree on that, Captain,” Cavendish said firmly. “If you would care to do the honors, Master Ferus?” Grimm said. “Why, certainly,” Ferus said. He poured the tea, his expression neutral.

  “I have less-than-fresh cream, I’m afraid,” Grimm said. “But I believe you said that you prefer it with honey, madame?”

  “Please,” Cavendish said, holding out her cup to Grimm. He dipped what was very nearly the last of his rather expensive honey out of its ceramic bowl and into the matching cup upon its saucer. “Master Ferus?”

  “Sugar, if you please,” Ferus said calmly.

  Grimm served them, added a bit of both to his own tea, and left it sitting on its saucer to cool a bit, as did his guests.

  “I must say,” Madame Cavendish said. “Given the innovations made in simple quality-of-life contrivances upon airships, it seems that there is vast potential in electrically powered products, such as your fine teapot, that could be expanded into the lifestyle of Spire dwellers, as well.”

  “In a gentler world, perhaps, madame,” Grimm said.

  “Oh?”

  “Power crystals are valuable resources,” Grimm said. “Given the amount of time required to produce them, they are nearly always slated for use aboard airships—and the expansion of each Spire’s navy, in today’s troubled world, is an absolute priority.”

  Cavendish’s eyes glittered with an amusement that hardly seemed to match the topic. “Much to the loss of the poor citizens of the Spire, whom the airships are meant to serve and protect, I daresay.”

  “Necessity and survival, Madame Cavendish, needs must take precedence over convenience.”

  “Except for airship captains, it would seem,” Cavendish said. “Consider the Fedori Company. Think how rapidly their shops would grow if they could supply demand for so large a market. And who knows what other products might be made available. Supplying to the citizenry of the Spires could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.”

  “Well said, Cora,” Master Ferus murmured. “I almost believed you meant that.”

  Cavendish lifted her nose and sniffed lightly. “You have always believed the worst about me, Efferus.”

  “And rarely have been disappointed,” Ferus replied.

  “Your notion seems perfectly sound,” Grimm said smoothly, “in theory. But I am afraid it would suffer once exposed to the harsh realities of life.”

  Cavendish stared hard at Master Ferus. “A valid point, Captain. So many theories do.”

  Master Ferus did not quite flinch at the woman’s words, but Grimm sensed the slow, long-term pain in the etherealist’s face. The old man looked up at Cavendish and said gently, “It needn’t be this way between us, you know. The future has many branches.”

  “No, Efferus,” Madame Cavendish said.

  Grimm was startled by the precise vitriol the woman managed to fit into the two words. They dripped with it to such a degree that he nearly checked the decking beneath the woman’s chair for damage.

  Master Ferus sighed and nodded. “Then you never learned to See, I take it.”

  “Perhaps I had a poor teacher,” she replied calmly. “But in time I learned to create the future I desired.”

  “Oh, Cora,” Ferus said. “Is that what you think this is? Creation?”

  “Building a new world is never easy, my old friend,” she replied. A small smile touched the corners of her mouth. “What fun would it be if it were easy?”

  As a loyal son of Albion, Grimm knew more or less to the second when his tea would be cool enough to drink. He reached for his cup, and the other two moved to do the same at precisely the same time. They all sipped.

  Cavendish closed her eyes in pleasure for a moment before opening them. “To business, then, shall we?”

  “Of course,” Master Ferus said. “Where do you propose to begin negotiations?”

  Cavendish lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, Efferus. I am afraid you misunderstand me. I am not here to negotiate.”

  “Then if I may be so bold as to ask—why have you come, madame?” Grimm asked.

  Cavendish took another sip of tea. “This is a Dubain leaf, is it not?”

  “You have a discerning palate,” Grimm replied. “My question stands.”

  “I am here for Efferus’s collection.”

  The old man stiffened in his seat. He covered it with another sip of tea, swallowed, and asked in a mild tone, “And why, precisely, should you believe I would allow you to take it?”

  Cavendish smiled pleasantly. “Because if you do not, the two lovely young women from your group have already eaten their last meal.”

  Ferus stared at his tea for a moment. Then he said, “If I give it to you, then you will release them?”

  “Pardon me,” Cavendish said to Grimm. “I fear Efferus is suffering from the first stages of senility, as I have already explained to him that this is not a negotiation.” She turned to the old man and spoke in slow, measured tones.
I have them. I can destroy them with a thought. If you do not give me your collection, immediately and without protest, I will do so.”

  “And then?” Ferus asked, his voice roughened at the edges.

  “And then, if you value their lives, I will continue to do exactly as I please with no further interference from you. I may even spare them when my business is concluded.”

  “I know you, Cora,” Ferus said. “You offer scant hope for their survival.”

  Her eyes hardened until they looked like chips of glass. “No, Efferus. All I offer you is the absolute certainty of their deaths.”

  The old man bowed his head and did not speak.

  Cavendish sat back slightly in her seat, her expression pleased. “You needn’t do it, of course. Neither child is of any long-term value to your campaign. All you need do is ask yourself one simple question, Efferus.”

  “Oh?” the old man said. “What would that be?”

  “Do you have it in you to sacrifice two apprentices in one lifetime?”

  This time the old man did flinch, as if from a slap.

  Grimm murmured, “Excuse me,” and rose with the teapot, to take it back to its heating plate. He took the mesh leaf holder from the pot, and poured water from a ewer to cleanse it, then cleaned the pot out. He put the pot back down and rested his hand on the cabinet, out of sight of those seated at the table.

  “Ah, a soldier’s thinking,” Cavendish said.

  Grimm looked back at her. She had never taken her eyes from Master Ferus.

  “Captain,” Cavendish said, “you can draw that pistol if you choose, but you will wish you were dead before you can bring it to bear upon me or pull the trigger.”

  “You are a foe of Spire Albion, madame, and an active ally to her enemies. I am presuming, of course, it was indeed you who guided the Auroran destroyers in for their attack on the shipyards.”

  Cavendish tilted her head, her expression pleasant, though her eyes never left Ferus. “This is the work of that spider at the top of the Spire, isn’t it? He always did have a knack for picking capable agents. I’m surprised he dared to involve himself.”

  “How little you know Addison, Cora,” Master Ferus said quietly.

  The handle of Grimm’s hidden pistol was cool beneath his fingertips. He’d meant to have it ready in the event that Calliope had turned on him, if not unexpectedly then at least suddenly. Only a fool would bother to attack an etherealist with a gauntlet. The simpler, sometimes treacherous service offered by a firearm was the best weapon available for such a task. “I’m sure someone as intelligent as you can comprehend my dilemma, madame.”

  “Yes,” Cavendish said, her tone dry. “You are insufficiently astute to understand the situation. Or do you honestly believe I would have boarded your ship without taking appropriate precautions?”

  “If you would be so kind, do elaborate,” Grimm said.

  “Should I not appear unharmed and safely leave this vessel in the next quarter hour, observers posted nearby will alert my allies—and those two children will die horribly.”

  Grimm regarded Cavendish calmly, weighing his options.

  The woman was clearly dangerous and capable. Master Ferus seemed extremely cautious of her. Grimm had no doubt that she would order the execution of Miss Tagwynn and Miss Folly with no more emotional investment than she might show when asking for another cup of tea. She seemed intelligent, as well. He could readily believe that she would have taken precautions to prevent some sort of assault.

  And yet . . .

  He had little patience for one who would callously leverage young lives against her ambitions. She was not seven feet from him. In the space of a heartbeat he could draw the pistol and discharge it, then immediately order his men to sweep the docks, and trap Cavendish’s eyes and ears before he could report to the Aurorans. Information could be extracted from the watcher, and a rescue operation mounted for the young women.

  Such a course seemed unlikely to succeed in the face of their foe— but judging by Ferus’s reaction to Cavendish, he should think it would be at least as likely to save the young women as leaving them to Madame Cavendish’s tender mercies.

  She might be telling the truth about her ability to stop him. Etherealists could accomplish feats that would astound most men. But he had no proof of that. Did he not have an obligation to at least try to put down this foe of his home Spire?

  He narrowed his eyes. Besides. No one gave him orders aboard his own ship.

  His hand settled on the pistol’s grip and he began the turn that would draw it from its hidden holster and into the open.

  “Hold, Captain,” Master Ferus said, his voice suddenly sharp. “Do not shoot.”

  Ferus hadn’t looked at him, either. Grimm felt somewhat annoyed by that. Etherealists or not, these people should bloody well at least need to glance at him to know what he was doing.

  “She’s telling the truth,” Ferus continued, his voice very quiet. “You won’t be able to take the shot—and you’ll be worse than dead if you try.”

  Cavendish’s mouth split into a sudden, wide smile.

  Ferus shook his head. “I wonder, Captain, if you would be so kind as to have the pair of wagons in my cabin rolled out to the deck for Madame Cavendish.”

  “Sir?” Grimm asked.

  “I believe the Spirearch ordered you to support my mission, sir,” Ferus said quietly. “Did he not?”

  Grimm exhaled slowly. Then he released the grip of the pistol and lowered his hand. “He did.”

  “How very civilized of us,” Cavendish said. She set her saucer and teacup down and rose, folding her hands in front of her. “I have porters standing by to manage the wagons, Efferus.”

  Master Ferus rose with her and nodded shortly. “Let it be done.” He waited until she had turned toward the door before he said in a low voice, “Sycorax.”

  Madam Cavendish paused and looked back at him.

  “If any harm befalls those girls, the world is not large enough to hide you from me.”

  She lifted her chin, her expression cool. “I’m not the one who has lived in hiding, old man.”

  Ferus ground his teeth. Then he glanced at Grimm and nodded.

  Grimm escorted Cavendish from the cabin to the deck, and it was done in short order. The two little wagons, piled high with seemingly random objects, rolled down the gangplank after a couple of hired porters from one of the companies local to Habble Landing.

  Cavendish watched them go, smiling, and straightened the cuffs of her sleeves. “Captain Grimm,” she murmured. “Do yourself a favor. Live a little longer. Remain on your ship. Do not attempt to follow me.”

  “I will do whatever is necessary, madamr,” Grimm said. He bowed politely, and accepted her rather pensive nod in response. Then she swept down the gangplank and departed.

  The moment she was out of sight, Grimm spun on a heel and marched back into his cabin. “Master Ferus, we shall leave with the shore party imme—”

  He broke off his words suddenly. The old etherealist was lying on the floor curled into a fetal ball, clutching at his stomach. He rocked as if in agony, weeping silent tears.

  “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t. This isn’t, grim captain, I’m not capable of it.”

  Grimm moved to the old man’s side and knelt over him. “Master Ferus. Can you hear me?”

  “I can and no matter,” Ferus said, his voice twisted as if he were being crushed beneath some brutal weight. “I’ll not be, not for, oh, I need thirteen needles and a ball of wax. Hat pins, a lump of green chalk and two left slippers.”

  Grimm blinked several more times. The old man’s collection. Was that what he was babbling about? Why?

  Obviously, Grimm thought, for the same reason that Cavendish insisted that he give it up: It must have been some kind of totem or fetish to the old man. He was broken and needed the collection to help him function, just as Folly needed her jar of crystals for communicating with speech—and just as Madam Cavendish seemed obs
essed with the observation of courtesy. That madness seemed to follow every etherealist he had ever met. Their power, it would seem, did not come without a price.

  “Folly always got them for me. Got them perfect, every time. Now she’s in the dark, and it’s my fault for sending her there.” The old man’s eyes snapped up to Grimm, clearing for a second. “You must find her. You must make her safe.”

  “I will,” Grimm said. “Of course I will.”

  Ferus clutched at him. The man looked twenty years older. His hands shook. “Promise me, Captain.”

  Grimm took the old man’s hands in his and squeezed. “Everything in my power. I swear it.”

  Ferus nodded once and then his face twisted in new agony and he shut his eyes tightly, muttering to himself beneath his breath at a frantic rate.

  Grimm shook his head, got his good arm beneath the old man, and lugged him to his bunk. He straightened from the task slowly.

  He meant what he had told Ferus—but everything in his power was worth little if he did not know where to apply it. The plan had relied upon Ferus’s guidance to locate the enemy. How was he to locate the enemy, pinpoint where the young women were being held, and rescue them, all without being seen by his foes?

  He dimmed the lumin crystals in his cabin and departed quietly, leaving Ferus to his feverish muttering. The enemy was here, in Landing, but he did not know where. They were up to no good, though he did not know what their plans might be, or where they might strike. He had inherited a mountain of ignorance when the old man had been incapacitated, and if he acted without knowledge, the lives of those two young women might be forfeit.

  Miss Tagwynn, he supposed, was a soldier in service to the Spirearch. Sacrificing her, for the good of the Spire, might be an ugly and unavoidable necessity. The apprentice etherealist was a civilian, but she too was deeply involved in this business, and in service to the Spirearch. Yet he could not throw away their lives except as a last resort.