Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 4

Jim Butcher

  “They aren’t chasing us,” Creedy breathed, bringing his own goggles down.

  “Of course not. Itasca’s too damned big,” Grimm replied. His voice sounded hoarse and thin in his own ears. His neck and shoulders felt as if they’d been replaced with bars of brass. “A monster like that can’t dive with Predator. Besides, no Auroran captain would try to follow us in this murk for fear of looking ridiculous. Two blind men can’t have a very dignified chase.”

  Creedy snorted through his nose.

  “Damage control,” Grimm said quietly, unfastening his safety lines. “Make sure Doctor Bagen has everything he needs to see to the wounded. Call the roll. I’ll be in my cabin.”

  Creedy nodded, looking slowly around them. “Sir?”

  Grimm paused.

  “This ship’s shroud . . . it’s extremely powerful for a vessel of this size.”

  The young officer hadn’t actually asked the question, but it hung unspoken in the air between them. Grimm didn’t like prevarication. It complicated life. But though he thought the young officer was a decent enough sort, he wasn’t ready to extend that much trust. Not yet. So he gave the XO a flat gaze and said, “See to the ship, if you please, Mister Creedy.”

  Creedy snapped to attention and threw him an academy-perfect salute. “Yes, sir, Captain.”

  Grimm turned and went to the privacy of his cabin. He closed the door behind him and sat down on his bunk. The battle was over.

  His hands started to shake, and then his arms, and then his belly. He curled his chest up to his knees and sat quietly for a moment, shuddering in the terror and excitement he hadn’t allowed himself to feel during the engagement.

  Aricson’s scream echoed in Grimm’s head. He closed his eyes, and the purple blotch the dying number three gun had burned on his retina hovered in his darkened vision.

  Stupid. He’d been stupid. He’d been tearing huge swaths of profit from the Auroran merchant fleet. It had been inevitable that they would eventually respond to him. Some idiot would probably say that the fact that they’d sent Itasca to deal with him was a high compliment. Said idiot wouldn’t be visiting the families of the dead men to give them his condolences and their death pay. He knew that he’d made sound decisions given what he’d known at the time, but some of his men were dead because of them nonetheless.

  They were dead because he’d commanded them, and they’d followed. They’d known the risks, to a man, and every one of them was ex-Fleet. Things could have gone immeasurably worse than they had— but that would be little comfort to the newly minted widows back at the home Spire.

  He sat and shuddered and regretted and promised dead men’s shades that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

  He was the captain.

  By the time Creedy arrived with the damage report, Grimm had reassembled himself.

  “Captain,” Creedy said respectfully. “I don’t think your accomplishments have been properly appreciated at home.”

  “Oh?” Grimm asked.

  “Yes, sir,” Creedy said. Controlled admiration crept into his tone. “I mean, for the Aurorans to dispatch Itasca to mousetrap a lone privateer . . . when you think about it, it’s really a kind of compliment, sir.”

  Grimm sighed.

  “Captain Castillo is one of their best,” Creedy went on. “His attack was nearly perfect, but you slipped right through his fingers. If you were a captain in the Fleet you’d have merited tactical honors for . . .”

  Creedy’s face reddened and his voice trailed off.

  “There are worse things to happen to a man than being drummed out of the Fleet, XO,” Grimm said quietly. “Casualties, then damage reports. How bad?”

  “Bad enough,” Creedy said. “Five dead, six injured—shrapnel, mostly, and a concussion from an aeronaut in engineering who unhooked his second line too soon.”

  Grimm nodded. “The ship?”

  “The dorsal masts are stubs. We’ll need to get to a yard to replace them. We had to cut the rigging loose and drop it, so we lost most of the dorsal web. There’s a hole in the gun deck where the number three gun was—we’ll need a yard to repair that, too. And we blew two cables in our suspension rig.”

  Grimm took a slow breath. The suspension rig was the central structure of the ship, built around the main lift crystal. The weight of the entire ship hung suspended from the rig, and was distributed through its cables. There were eight of them, any two enough to bear the weight of the entire vessel . . . but the more cables broke, the more likely it was that those remaining would break—especially during any high-speed maneuvers. The loss of the occasional cable was expected, but was never to be taken lightly.

  “You’re saving the best for last, I think,” Grimm said.

  Creedy grimaced. “Chief Journeyman says there are fractures in the main lift crystal.”

  Grimm stopped himself from spitting an acid curse and closed his eyes. “That second dive, so soon after the first.”

  “That was his theory, sir. He’s cut power to the lift crystal, and is running extra to the trim crystals to make up the difference in buoyancy and keep us afloat.”

  Grimm smiled faintly and opened his eyes. There would be no prize money on this trip, and no bounty, either. The trim crystals that helped adjust the ship’s attitude were expensive, and using them to help maintain the ship’s lift would be hard on them, but replacing them was a standard operating cost. The large crystals sufficiently powerful to suspend airships were another matter—they were far rarer and much more bitterly expensive. Only a power core cost more, assuming one could be found at all.

  Where would he get the money?

  “I see,” Grimm said. “We’ll simply have to replace it, I suppose. Perhaps Fleet will put in a word with the Lancasters.”

  Creedy gave him a smile that contained more artifice than agreement. “Yes, sir.”

  “Well,” Grimm said. “It seems we need to return home. A bit earlier than we’d planned, but that’s all right.”

  “Set course for Spire Albion, sir?”

  “We’re in the mist, XO,” Grimm replied. “We can’t take our bearings until we get back up into open sky. Where Itasca is doubtless hunting for us.”

  A low, groaning tone rumbled through the cabin’s portal. After several seconds it rose higher and higher and higher, into a kind of distorted whistle, and then faded away.

  Creedy stared out the portal and licked his lips. “Sir, was that . . . ?”

  “Mistmaw,” Grimm replied quietly. “Yes.”

  “Um. Isn’t that a danger to the ship, sir?”

  “Swallow us whole,” Grimm agreed. “They aren’t usually aggressive this time of year.”


  Grimm shrugged. “If it decides to come eat us, we can’t stop it, XO. Our popguns will only make it angry.”

  “The beasts are that big?”

  Grimm found himself smiling. “They’re that big.” He inhaled and exhaled slowly. “And they’re attracted to powered webbing.”

  Creedy glanced out the portal again. “Perhaps we should cut power to the web and reel it in, sir.”

  “I think that would be very wise, XO,” Grimm said. “Though I expect Journeyman cut power to the web within a moment after we pulled out of the dive. Unfurl the sails. We’ll spend the night moving with the wind, come up sometime tomorrow, and trust that Itasca won’t be sitting there waiting for us.”

  Creedy nodded. Once again the strange, long call of the sounding mistmaw vibrated through the cabin. “Sir? What do we do about that?”

  “The only thing we can, XO,” Grimm said. “We stay very, very quiet.” He nodded a dismissal to Creedy and said, “Raise sail. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we get back to Spire Albion.”

  Chapter Three

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Tagwynn Vattery

  Bridget sat in the dim vaults of the vattery, back in the shadowy corner where the cracked old vat had been removed. She wedged her back against the corner and
held her knees up close to her chest. She was cold, of course. The chamber was always cold. She noticed only when she paused to think about it: She’d lived too much of her life in this room for it to be truly uncomfortable.

  “Bridget?” called her father’s deep voice from the entrance of the chamber. “Bridget, are you back here? It’s time.”

  Bridget hugged herself harder and pushed a little farther back into the corner. The rows and rows of vats scattered the sound of his voice, sending it bouncing around the chamber. She leaned her head against the cold, reassuring solidity of the cinderstone wall and closed her eyes.

  This was her home.

  She didn’t want to leave her home.

  Her father’s voice, gentle and deep, came again. “Take a few more moments, child. And then I want you to come out, please.”

  She didn’t answer him. She heard his gentle sigh. She heard the doors to the chambers shut, leaving her with the quietly gurgling vats and the faint glow of a few scattered secondhand lumin crystals.

  It wasn’t fair. She was perfectly happy doing exactly what she’d done ever since she was a small child. And it was a good and necessary duty. Her father’s vats provided the finest meats in all of Habble Morning, after all. Without someone to tend them, people would starve. Or at least eat inferior meat, she supposed. Personally, she took pride in her craft. She’d rather starve—to death, if necessary—than eat that ridiculous rubbery chum that Camden’s Vattery produced.

  It was ridiculous. Her family wasn’t one of the High Houses, except in a fussy technical sense. She and her father were the only remaining members of the Tagwynn line, for goodness’ sake, and it wasn’t as though they were running out buying new ethersilk outfits every other week. Or at all. They lived no better than anyone else in Habble Morning. She hadn’t asked to be born to the lineage of some overachieving, bloodthirsty Fleet admiral, no matter how respected a role he played in the history of Spire Albion. It wasn’t as though she and her father enjoyed any particular privileges.

  Why on earth should she submit to an outdated, rigidly traditional obligation?

  She felt a small surge of outrage and tried to ride it into something larger and more determined, but it dwindled and flickered out again, leaving her feeling . . . small.

  She could pretend all she liked. She knew the real reason she didn’t want to spend her year in the service of the Spirearch.

  She was afraid.

  There was a rustle and a very light thump, and she looked up to see one of her favorite people bound lightly from the top of the next vat, land in silence only a few feet away, and sit down, regarding her with large green eyes.

  “Good morning, Rowl,” she said. Her voice sounded little and squeaky in her own ears, especially compared to her father’s basso rumble. The dark ginger cat purred a greeting and padded over to her. Without preamble, he climbed into her lap, turned a lazy, imperious circle, and settled down, still purring throatily.

  Bridget smiled and began to run her fingers lightly around the bases of Rowl’s ears. His purr deepened and his eyes narrowed to green slits.

  “I don’t want to go,” she said. “It isn’t fair. And it isn’t as though I can actually help anyone with anything. All I know is the vattery.”

  Rowl’s purring continued.

  “We don’t even own a gauntlet or a sword, unless you count our carving knives. We don’t have enough money to get them, either. And even if we did, I don’t have the faintest idea of how to use them. What am I supposed to do for the Spirearch’s Guard?”

  Rowl, having had his fill of getting his ears rubbed, stretched and turned over onto his back. When she didn’t begin immediately, he swatted lightly at her hand with a soft paw, until she started scratching his chest and belly. Then he sprawled in unashamed luxury, enjoying the attention.

  “But . . . you know Father. He’s so . . . so good about honoring his obligations. When he gives his word, he keeps it. When he sets out to accomplish something, it’s not enough simply to accomplish it. He needs to be the best at it, too. Or at least try to be. He served his time. He says it’s important for me to do it, too.” She sighed. “But it’s a whole year. I won’t get to see him at all. And . . . and the neighbors and the people in this corridor. And . . . and the vats and the shop and . . .” She bowed her head and felt her face twist up in pure misery. She gathered Rowl in her arms and hugged him to her, rocking back and forth slightly.

  After a few moments, the cat murmured, “Littlemouse, you are squishing my fur.”

  Bridget jerked guiltily and sat up, loosening her embrace. “Oh,” she apologized, “please excuse me.”

  The cat turned to meet her eyes with his and seemed to consider that for a moment. Then he nodded and said, “I do.”

  “Thank you,” Bridget said.

  “You are welcome.” The cat flicked his tail back and forth a few times and said, “Wordkeeper wishes you to leave his territory?”

  “It isn’t that he wants me to go,” Bridget said. “He thinks it is important that I do so.”

  Rowl tilted his head. “Then it is a duty.”

  “That’s how he sees it,” Bridget said.

  “Then there is no matter for consideration,” the cat replied. “You have a duty to your sire. He has a duty to his chief. If he has agreed to loan one of his warriors to his chief, then that warrior should go.”

  “But I’m not a warrior,” Bridget said.

  The cat looked at her for a moment and then leaned his head forward to rub his little whiskery muzzle against her face. “There are many kinds of war, Littlemouse.”

  “What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.

  “That you are young,” the cat said. “And less wise than one who is old. I am wiser than you, and I say you should go. It is obvious. You should trust a wiser head than your own.”

  “You aren’t any older than I am,” she countered.

  “I am cat,” Rowl said smugly, “which means I have made better use of my time.”

  “Oh, you’re impossible,” Bridget said.

  “Yes. Cat.” Rowl rose and flowed down onto the floor. He turned to face her, curling his tail around his paws. “Why do you wish to dishonor and humiliate Wordkeeper? Would you change his name?”

  “No, of course not,” Bridget said. “But I’m just . . . I’m not like him.”

  “No,” Rowl said. “That is what growing up is for.”

  “I am not a child,” she said.

  The cat looked around speculatively and then turned back to her. “Rather than do your duty, you are hiding in the darkest corner of the darkest room in your home. This is very wise. Very mature.”

  Bridget scowled and folded her arms over her stomach but . . . she said nothing. She was acting like a child. Rowl was right. He generally was, but did he have to be so irritating about it?

  “You are afraid,” Rowl said. “You are afraid to leave the territory you know.”

  Bridget felt the tears welling up again. She nodded.

  “Why?” Rowl asked. “What is there to fear?”

  “I don’t know,” she whispered.

  Rowl just sat, green eyes penetrating.

  Bridget bit her lip. Then she said in a very small voice, “I don’t want to be alone.”

  “Ah,” Rowl said.

  The cat turned and vanished into the deep shadows of the chamber, leaving her feeling smaller and colder and even more alone than before.

  Bridget wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and swallowed the tight feeling in her throat. Then she stood up. She left her hand against the cool stone for another long moment, and tried to think of that familiar sensation coursing into her, infusing her with strength. Rowl was right, in his smugly annoying way. Her family did have a duty. There might not be much left of House Tagwynn, but it was still a good House. After all her father had done for her, after all the love he had given her when her mother passed, she owed him more than embarrassment—even if no one thought it embarrassing but him.
  It was only a year. Only one . . . long . . . strange . . . lonely . . . terrifying year.

  She walked slowly to the chamber door.

  When her father opened it, she looked up at him. Franklin Tagwynn was an enormous block of a man, his shoulders almost as wide as the doorway. His arms were thicker than many men’s legs, and the muscles sloping up to his columnar neck were like slabs of stone. He wore his white apron, and his belt with its vatterist’s carving knives. His rumpled hair was the color of bare iron, and his eyes looked tired and concerned.

  She tried to smile for him. He deserved it.

  His answering smile was tired, and she knew she hadn’t fooled him. He didn’t say anything. He just enfolded her in a gentle hug. She put her arms around his solid warmth and leaned against him.

  “There’s my brave girl,” he said quietly. “My Bridget. Your mother would have been so proud of you.”

  “I’m not brave,” she said. “I’m so afraid.”

  “I know,” he said.

  “I won’t know anyone,” she said.

  “I expect you’ll make friends quickly enough. I did.”

  She huffed out a tired little breath. “Because I’ve made so many friends in the Houses already.”

  “Bridget,” he said, his voice a gentle reproof. “You know you’ve never really tried.”

  “Of course not. They’re pompous, spoiled, egotistical brats.”

  His chuckle was a low rumble against her cheek. “Yes. I know that they seem that way to you. But you had more responsibility thrust on you than most children when you were young—especially the children of the Houses. You had to grow up so fast. . . .” He leaned his cheek against her hair. “I can hardly believe it myself. Seventeen years went by so quickly.”

  “Daddy,” she said quietly.

  “I know you haven’t cared much for the other children of the Houses, but they aren’t all bad. And most of them will grow up. Eventually. You’ll see.” He leaned back from her and held her at arm’s length. “There’s something I must speak to you about. One more responsibility I must ask of you.”