Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 40

Jim Butcher

  Grimm’s hands closed into impotent fists.

  What was he to do?

  Kettle came striding up the deck and whipped off a quick salute. “Skip,” he said. “There’s a cat here. Bloody little creature just came running up onto the deck.”

  Grimm’s gaze snapped up to the pilot. “Show me.”

  Chapter Forty-seven

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Ventilation Tunnels

  Bridget sat quietly, bound and taken prisoner, and fumed. It was even more annoying than it had been the first time, and nearly as uncomfortable.

  She twisted her wrists, or tried to, attempting to loosen the leather cords binding them, and once again she accomplished nothing except to make the skin of her wrists even rawer and to make her shoulders ache with the effort of the motion.

  She puffed out her lower lip and blew several fallen strands of hair from her face. The hair that had escaped her braid was driving her slowly insane—but her wrists had been bound at the small of her back to her own belt, and thence to her bound ankles, and there was no help for it.

  She wasn’t going anywhere.

  She felt a terrible surge of frustration well up in her belly and rise toward her throat, and she knew that it was being lifted on a tide of sheer terror. Her heart started racing, and tears began to well up in her eyes. She struggled to fight against them, but in vain.

  All she had wanted was to stay home with her father and in the places she knew. Instead she was quite probably to die here.

  And Rowl wasn’t with her.

  At that thought, a quiet, small sound escaped her throat despite all she could do to restrain it. She shook her head fiercely. Such despair was foolish, of course. Had Rowl been captured as well, he would surely be in no position to do anything to help her. Free, he would certainly go for help, and was quite possibly her best hope of survival.

  If he was free.

  If he had not been killed by the enemy.

  She shook the gibbering terror away from her thoughts and forced herself to remember her survival lessons. First she had to take stock of her assets.

  While Bridget may have been bound, she was at least whole. No one had shot or stabbed her, which seemed an excellent foundation from which to build, all things considered. She was trapped in the darkness of a ventilation tunnel, one that had been barricaded with a tremendous mound of broken masonry not far from where she sat. Her gauntlet had been taken, as well as her knife and her coin purse, but her captors had not mistreated her or taken her clothing away—another mercy. The tall warriorborn Gwendolyn had wounded in Habble Morning, the man who insisted that he was a murderer and not a rapist, had been one of the men to secure her bonds when she had been brought to the tunnel.

  There was a paltry amount of illumination coming from the entrance to the tunnel, which had been blocked off with tarps on a light framework of some kind. Only a little illumination leaked around the tarps, barely enough to let Bridget see their outline, and not nearly enough to see her companion as more than an immobile lump on the floor beside her.

  “Folly,” Bridget said quietly, trying once more. “Folly. Are you awake?”

  The form beside her did not stir. Bridget heard a faint, hopeless moaning sound, hardly human, as if she was in terrible pain. Bridget had seen the men remove Folly’s possessions while she lay insensible. When she had woken, an hour later, Bridget had heard her move about for a moment, making frantic, animal sounds, and then let out a low keen of undiluted despair.

  And then she had simply lain still.

  Bridget felt abominably weary, and desired nothing so much as to lie down on her side and go to sleep. But though she was new to the business of being an agent of the Spirearch, she felt that she understood the concept well enough to know that having a nice lie-down when she and the Spire were in such dire straits would, perhaps, be unprofessional.

  Bridget closed her eyes for a moment, though it hardly made a difference, and cudgeled her brain into motion. Had she anything else at her disposal?

  She blinked her eyes open a moment later. She did, for what it was worth. She had a small lumin crystal in the pocket of her bolero jacket. Granted, the little thing wouldn’t show her anything she hadn’t already seen, even if she could get it out of her pocket, but it was something.

  Perhaps a light in this darkness was what she needed most.

  Bridget tried to lie down and wound up pitching over onto her side. She rolled onto her back, though it hurt her arms to do it, and began to wiggle her elbows, struggling to flap the sides of the bolero and spill the lumin crystal onto the floor.

  Had anyone been able to see her, she felt certain, she would have looked utterly ridiculous.

  It took her several moments of difficult, uncomfortable motion, and the skin of her wrists felt as though it had been wrapped in hot copper wire, not leather, before she was done. But then she heard it—a little click of crystal falling to spirestone floor.

  The next part of the task was more difficult. She had to find the crystal, reaching awkwardly behind her with bound fingers, walking on her buttocks to scoot around the floor. That part took her at least a quarter of an hour, she was sure, and had anyone been there to see, they would have been laughing themselves sick.

  And her hair kept falling into her eyes. Maddening.

  But at last she found the crystal with the tips of her fingers, and willed the little thing to life.

  Wan light rose up in the hallway, and Bridget let out a sigh of relief, and enjoyed a minor thrill of triumph, followed quickly by a wave of enervation that nearly had her falling over again for that nap.

  Instead she forced herself to turn until she could get a good look at Folly.

  The etherealist’s apprentice was curled up in a fetal positon on the floor. Though her eyes were open, they were unfocused. Her skin was pale, almost grey. For an awful second, Bridget thought that Folly might have been dead, but then she saw the girl’s body rise and fall with a slow, shallow breath, and Bridget nearly wept with relief.

  “Folly,” Bridget said. “Folly.”

  The girl’s eyelids flickered, and her eyes swept about for a few seconds, as though darkness still blinded her. But there was no further response.

  Bridget chewed on her lip. Then she shook her head and said, “Oh, of course. They’ve taken your crystals. You’ve no one to talk to.”

  Tears filled Folly’s eyes. She shook her head, once, slowly.

  Bridget nodded, thinking. “Folly,” she said, “You can hear me, can you not?”

  The girl looked at her for a few seconds, and blinked.

  Bridget tried to give her a warm smile. Then she said, “I’ve a crystal here, but I’m going to throw it away now. Do you hear me? I’m going to throw it away. It’s not mine anymore.”

  Folly’s eyes widened.

  Bridget walked herself about until she could take the crystal in her fingers and flick it toward Folly.

  “Oh!” Folly said, as the lumin crystal landed in front of her. “Oh, look how alone you are. And you’re covered in blood, which I feel sure is not good for you, or at least premature.” She scooted her body protectively toward the little lumin crystal until she was curled into a human crescent around it.

  Bridget let out a slow breath and felt her body sag with relief. Then she blinked and opened her eyes. Blood? She peered at the crystal and saw fresh scarlet smears there.

  Her blood, then. The bonds must have cut her wrists while she was trying to move them.

  “Folly, can you see my hands?” Bridget asked.

  Folly peered at Bridget and then sighed. “Oh, poor Bridget. That must have hurt terribly.”

  “How bad is the bleeding?”

  The odd girl shook her head. “I shouldn’t think it would be deadly to her. Would you?”

  Bridget nodded. “Very well then. Folly, I need to know what’s happening. Why didn’t you talk to me?”

  “She knew already,” Folly said, frowning at the little crystal. “She
already said it.”

  “I know, because you didn’t have any crystals here,” Bridget said. “But I must know why you need to have them here to talk. I need to understand.”

  Folly frowned and was quiet for so long that Bridget thought she might have not heard the question. Then she opened her mouth and spoke very slowly, as if choosing her words with tremendous care.

  “Bridget doesn’t understand the toll etheric energy takes on the mind. How there’s a price for power—always, always a price. How heavy it is. How it tears holes and holes and holes everywhere inside one’s head.” She shuddered. “And she doesn’t realize how one must find other things to fill in the holes or else one simply falls into them—and falls and falls and falls.”

  “It’s not just your speech then,” Bridget said. “You couldn’t have acted at all.”

  Folly shivered again, and whispered to the crystal, “I was falling and falling. Lying right there, but falling and falling.”

  Bridget inhaled slowly. “Oh,” she said quietly. “I didn’t know.”

  “We don’t speak of such things often,” Folly said in a sober tone. “It’s bad form. Especially around someone who has practiced longer than you.”

  “Like Master Ferus?” Bridget asked.

  “Yes, yes, my poor master. He’s more holes than not, by now. And yet he holds himself together with pure will.” Folly bit her lip. “Most etherealists fall, you know, eventually. They die that way. Falling while they lie in bed. One cannot feed oneself while falling.” She shivered. “Someday it will happen to me and I’ll not be able to come back.” She closed her eyes for a moment and then whispered to the little crystal, “Be sure to thank Bridget for me. She’s very kind.”

  “We’re friends,” Bridget said. “There is no need to thank me.”

  Folly smiled slightly. Then she moved her head, resting her cheek against the crystal, which plunged the hall into blackness again.

  No more than a second later, there was a sound at the tarps at the other end of the hall, and the warriorborn man named Ciriaco stuck his head into the hall, holding up a lumin crystal of his own. He scowled at them in suspicion for a moment, but he did not come any closer. Instead he simply snapped, “Keep quiet in there.” Then he departed, closing the tarp again.

  Folly lifted her head after a moment and said softly, “Don’t worry. I won’t let the mean men take you.”

  Well, Bridget thought. She had made her situation that much better, at least. She had a functioning ally again, even if she was trussed up as thoroughly as Bridget herself was. If only she weren’t bound, things might be less hopeless. Very well, then. What could she do to become unbound? What did the heroines in dramas and books do in such circumstances?

  Frequently, it seemed, they would use their feminine wiles upon their male captors, promising them amorous attention and then turning the tables upon the foe when the moment was right (but before, of course, sacrificing anything like their virtue for the cause).

  Bridget hadn’t been an agent of the Spirearch for very long, but she felt that she had the concept sufficiently surrounded to see that such a ploy was unlikely to work. Even if Ciriaco had been amenable to such a thing, he had no real reason to release her from her bonds, now, did he? And, in point of fact, what captor with any professionalism at all would be taken in by such a ploy in the first place?

  Besides, Bridget was not at all sure that she had any feminine wiles. And even if she did, she felt certain that they would not function as flawlessly in life as they did in tales and dramas.

  Leather cords. She should know what to do with this problem. Part of growing the great sides of meat in the vattery was harvesting the leather casing that grew around them as they matured. Her father could strip a skin from a side of meat with several long, deft cuts and a few expertly applied tugs. Of course, they didn’t tan the leather into usable form there, instead delivering the skins to a tanner with whom they had an arrangement, but all the same . . .

  Bridget blinked again. Of course. The skins had to be stored in a tub of very watered-down solution to prevent them from drying out. Skins shrank considerably as they dried—and expanded once more upon being wetted down.

  Bridget began twisting her wrists again, this time in earnest. It burned, and she did not care.

  “Oh,” Folly said. “She’s making it worse. She should stop.”

  “No,” Bridget said. She felt trickles of blood slither silently over her palms and across the pads of her fingers—and knew it had to be soaking into the leather bonds as well. “Folly, I need you to tell me when the bonds have been thoroughly soaked.”

  Folly stared at Bridget with her odd, mismatched eyes, and shivered. “Oh, goodness. Um. The left needs more, wouldn’t you say?”

  “Fine,” Bridget said, and focused on twisting and wrenching her left wrist especially. It took an eternity of self-inflicted torment, but finally Folly said, “She should try it now.”

  Bridget nodded her thanks. Then she closed her head and bowed her head forward. And then, very slowly, she began to apply pressure to her wrists, straining against the bonds.

  It hurt, hurt terribly, and not simply in her wrists. Her arms and shoulders ached with the strain she began to put on them. Bridget was a strong girl, strong enough to toss a hundred and fifty pounds of meat onto her shoulder and carry it from the vat to the cutting table without pausing to rest or put it down. She had never felt that it was really a terribly impressive thing to be able to do, since her father, Franklin, could toss one up onto each shoulder and walk along with them without breaking the rhythm of a working song. But for whatever her far less significant strength was worth, she pitted it against the Auroran bonds in a contest of endurance, determination, and slow power.

  And though it spread fire up and down her arms, the bonds began to stretch.

  It took her several tries, several painful, straining moments, but finally she rested and felt her wrists wiggle loosely. She stretched the moistened bonds one more time, and then managed to wrench her hands loose.

  “Oh!” Folly said, her tone gleeful and quiet. “Oh, that should be in a play! That was amazing!”

  Bridget winced as she got a look at her raw, bleeding wrists and forearms. “Well,” she said. “It’s a good start, at least.” Then she leaned down and started picking at the knots on her ankles with determination. “Give me a moment and I’ll get yours, Folly.”

  “Will it make any difference, do you think?” Folly asked.

  “We shall know when we are victorious,” Bridget said.

  “Or not.”

  “When,” she said firmly. After all, a few moments ago Bridget had been bound, helpless, and alone in the dark. Now she was able to move, she could see, and she was working with a friend and ally.

  What had changed things? What had made the difference?

  She had. All by herself. When the enemies of Spire Albion were in the walls, the great-great-granddaughter of Old Admiral Tagwynn had refused to have a nice lie-down, and it was as simple and as profound as that.

  Bridget looked up at the etherealist’s apprentice and showed her teeth in what she felt was a very Rowl-like, predatory smile. “There’s no way to know what’s going to happen, Folly. But we’ll bloody well be on our feet when it does.”

  Chapter Forty-eight

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, NineClaws Territory

  Rowl hurtled down the ventilation passageways that led toward the central dominion of the Nine-Claws, taking no heed for silence. Speed was everything.

  Littlemouse was in danger, doubtless a prisoner, and the humans could not be trusted to handle her rescue with appropriate violence. They might be willing to leave someone alive, and Rowl was not prepared to tolerate incompetence where his personal human was concerned. He had just gotten her properly trained.

  The first of the Nine-Claws’ sentinels heard him coming and emerged from the shadows to intercept him. But Rowl, kit of Maul, had been fighting for his position since the tim
e he could walk. He was large and he was strong, he was young and he was swift—and he was in no mood to tolerate such niceties as protocol.

  Rowl let out a war cry and left the first sentinel with both eyes, half his whiskers, and an entire ear undamaged once he permitted him to flee. Then he hurtled on. The scent of blood on him was enough to make the next pair of sentinels wary, and Rowl’s hiss sent them leaping aside. They took up pursuit behind him—but were careful to keep their distance.

  The prince of the Silent-Paws scattered guardians from his path and collected a trailing tail who raced along behind him, their scents ablaze with wariness, chagrin, and, of course, curiosity.

  There was nothing like playing to their curiosity when it came to catching the attention of cats.

  Rowl ran an entire circuit of the Nine-Claws’ central chamber, gathering up every cat within dozens and dozens of pounces of the tunnels in question, and by the time he snapped to a halt in front of Naun’s central chamber, there were a hundred warriors and hunters following him.

  The entire group tumbled to a sudden halt, with the Nine-Claws gathering in close to be able to observe Rowl with their own eyes— even, Rowl noted, pleased, the guardian who had been luckless enough to be the first in his path.

  Two of the largest warrior cats stood before Rowl, blocking his way forward. Rowl was through with diplomacy. He padded toward them, his fur bristling, his tail lashing, and made his displeasure known with a sudden hiss.

  One of the warriors flinched, and Rowl discounted that one immediately from his consideration. He stalked around the other, back arched, blood on his claws.

  “I will speak to Naun now,” Rowl snarled. “You will escort me to him.”

  “Naun has not said th—” the warrior began to say.

  Rowl struck.

  The warrior let out an earsplitting yowl and reeled away, spinning madly and pawing in desperate pain at the rake Rowl had fetched him across one eye.

  Rowl whirled to the other guard, who skittered a half pounce away and came to guard, his own back arched.

  “I will speak to Naun now,” Rowl said, in precisely the same tone of voice he had used a moment before. “You will escort me to him.”