The aeronauts windlass, p.47
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.47

           Jim Butcher

  Littlemouse undid the knots and carefully slid the wide leather cuffs off of his legs. Rowl did nothing as undignified as sigh with relief once the tight, restricting things were gone, but a lesser cat than he might have done so. He felt quite filthy. The foolish silkweavers had not drenched him in their vital fluids as they had some of the slower warriors of Naun’s clan, but his fur was certainly speckled with the stuff, and it smelled.

  Rowl yawned and regained his feet before butting his head against Littlemouse’s knee.

  Littlemouse knelt down to rub the spot behind his ears, which he allowed might also be a particular expertise of human-style fingers. “You were so brave just now, Rowl,” Littlemouse said. Her voice was very soft and warm. “You saved us.”

  It would have been unseemly to wriggle with pleasure at her tone, so Rowl restrained himself to rising and arching his back under her hand so that it went all the way down his body, and possibly wiped off some of the filth. “I know,” he said.

  “How did you convince the Nine-Claws to help?” Littlemouse asked. “I saved their clan chief’s kit.”

  “From what?”

  “From me,” Rowl said. He stretched and flicked his rear legs one at a time until he felt that the fur was somewhat less disarranged. “I would knock down a Spire for you, Littlemouse.”

  Littlemouse made a squeaking sound and scooped him up in her clumsy human arms and gave him a smothering hug.

  Rowl leaned his cheek against hers and purred. After all, he could hardly be called unseemly if a human, even so exceptional a human as Littlemouse, got carried away in a fit of affection.

  And besides, her sleeves were cleaning his fur.

  The moment lasted until the tall younger warrior beside Grim ShipTrees called, “Everyone else form up on me! Let’s go!”

  And at last, only a nap or two after the last fight had ended, they finally began to move.

  The smell of smoke grew stronger and stronger as the humans huffed and puffed down the cramped streets of Habble Landing. Rowl loped along beside them, amused. Of the entire group, only his Littlemouse was moving steadily, clomping along in the same boots she wore while running with the Guard. Evidently all that senseless fleeing about had done its work to prepare her for this evening. She was moving very well compared to everyone else in the little group. Not as well as a cat, of course—that was simply not possible. But better than the other humans, even the half-soul.

  Rowl looked at human Benedict curiously. He had always seemed markedly less clumsy than other humans to Rowl, but that had all but vanished. His legs were moving unevenly, and he was gasping for air just like the rest of them. He must have been weary—though weary or not, he had wits enough about him to lift his nose to the air and inhale, finally noticing the smoke scent that had been obvious to Rowl since before they had begun their run.

  Rowl heard something and focused on the sound.

  “Littlemouse,” he called. “Gauntlet fire ahead.”

  Littlemouse dutifully relayed the message, or tried to. The first man she told to pass it up the line to the captain was wheezing too hard to make himself understood by his fellow humans. Littlemouse shook her head, picked up her pace, and ran ahead to Grim ShipTrees to inform him.

  The humans spread out as they approached the temple and slowed their pace to a more cautious stalk—if one could even truly consider it a stalk. To Rowl, they sounded like the clump and clutter of a steam engine, except for Littlemouse, who, to her credit, sounded only as loud as a particularly clumsy, lame kitten.

  Rowl had no such concerns. He would be seen only if he wished to be seen. He darted ahead.

  There was a great deal of smoke billowing out of the Temple of the Way—probably due to all the fire he could see glowing within it. A number of humans had apparently tried to form a line, where they would have presumably passed buckets of water along to one another so that whichever human was most foolish could throw it at the fire. Metal buckets lay scattered everywhere, along with several corpses of the humans who had attempted to use them.

  As Rowl watched, a human leaned out of the shelter of the wall around the temple, appearing in the gateway, and loosed a gauntlet blast, burning a blazing trail of tiny cinders through the pall of smoke. He quickly ducked back, just as several other blasts hammered against the stone of the wall near him, sending chips of rock flying. The humans of Landing, it would seem, were not taking the killing of their own lightly.

  Rowl broke into a sprint, covering the open ground between the rest of the habble and the temple’s territory at his best speed. From there, finding a convenient stone projecting slightly from the wall made it possible for Rowl to jump to the top and take stock of the situation. There were half a dozen humans inside the temple’s wall, all of them armed, all of them positioned to pop up from concealment and fire gauntlets at anyone who approached.

  Rowl took note of their positions and leapt lightly from the wall, rushing back to Littlemouse. He told her in rapid tones what he had seen, and Littlemouse relayed his words to Grim Ship-Trees as the group approached the temple.

  Ship-Trees nodded once, his expression hard.

  “Why burn a Temple of the Way?” human Creedy asked. “I don’t understand.”

  “Why burn a library?” Littlemouse answered. “There must have been something of value in it. Something that would prompt the Aurorans to make sure that it all burned by leaving men behind to ambush the bucket brigade.”

  “If they aren’t letting anyone in,” human Benedict said, “they aren’t letting anyone out, either.”

  “They aren’t going to get away with it,” Ship-Trees said in a very quiet voice. “Long guns, I believe, Mister Creedy. We’ve an extra with Mister Stern down. Can you use it?”

  “Tolerably well, sir,” human Creedy responded.

  “Then you and the others will provide covering fire while I lead the charge.” Ship-Trees glanced around. “Sir Benedict? I would appreciate your aid in this entry.”

  “Of course, Captain Grimm,” human Benedict said.

  “Mister Kettle, you’re with me,” Ship-Trees said. Then he turned to eye Littlemouse. “Miss Tagwynn, if you are willing, you will accompany Sir Benedict.”

  Littlemouse swallowed but nodded firmly. “I will.”

  The captain turned to the rest of his warriors and said, “The rest in two columns, following us. Get through the gate and blast any hostile targets you see. If the man in front of you falls, keep moving and take the shooter before his gauntlet can cycle.”

  “Mister Rowl,” Ship-Trees said, turning to the cat. “I do not expect you to engage in undue risk in a firefight, but your senses are far better than ours. I would take it as a courtesy if you would accompany us, to see and hear anything we might not realize is happening. Will you do this?”

  Rowl regarded Ship-Trees, amused. He would enter the temple—or not enter it—precisely when, and where, and as he pleased, or else what would be the point in being a cat? But Littlemouse was going, and that meant that he would go as well, to guide and protect her. Obviously. But even if she hadn’t being going, Ship-Trees had consistently showed courtesy and respect above and beyond that of most humans. The very act of it was a statement of respect in itself. Rowl may well have helped him in any case, so he gave Ship-Trees a slow nod.

  “Thank you,” Ship-Trees said. “The rest of you, column up by twos. Keep it tight, people. Give the long guns as much room to shoot in as possible.” Then, without further ado, he drew his sword and began loping toward the temple, leaving four men armed with the odd-looking human weapons behind them.

  Rowl raced to catch up with Littlemouse, who was running in a strange, jerky motion, as though her body longed to break into a mad sprint toward the danger—or away from it. Her best speed would have left the weary aeronauts behind, though, so she kept the pace slow and careful. Then it was all the sound of boots striking the floor in rhythm, and the scent of sweating human, and the kindling glow of gauntlets being primed.

  Then the man in the gateway popped his head around the corner again. The long guns behind them howled, sending streaks of heat and light sizzling by within an arm’s length of the column. They slammed home into the stone of the gateway sheltering the enemy soldier—but these were no mere gauntlet blasts. Long rifles were an order of magnitude more powerful than a gauntlet, and instead of blowing chips of stone from the wall, it blew stones out of the wall, and sent them flying in every direction. Three more blasts struck only half a second later, and rock flew out in a shower as a square yard of stone wall—and the enemy crouched behind it, vanished in a torrent of radiant energy and a rumbling scream of breaking stone. The long guns began to yowl repeatedly, blowing holes in the wall near the positions Rowl had described to ShipTrees.

  Ah, that was what covering fire meant, then. It meant that his humans would shoot at the other humans and make them cower while the true threat came racing toward the front gate, along with all of his humans and his half-soul.

  As they drew near the gate, Rowl took it upon himself to make things easier on the poor creatures he’d been rescuing all day, under the theory that an ounce of prevention would be worth a pound of cure. He darted ahead of Ship-Trees, exploded through the gate moving as low and fast as a cat could, and let out the defiant howl of his battle cry as he did.

  Human voices shouted in surprise, and a wild gauntlet blast blew apart a brick planter several yards behind him while the other splashed harmlessly onto the spirestone floor wide of him.

  Grim Ship-Trees and half-soul Benedict came through the gate at almost the same instant, running, gauntlets primed. Both men unleashed blasts at their opponents without slowing down, and Ship-Trees dropped one of the enemy with a shot to the sternum that knocked the man down and cracked his rib cage with an audible snapping of bones. Littlemouse and human Kettle came in on their heels, also firing.

  Littlemouse’s bolt came nowhere near threatening another being with harm, but before more blasts could be loosed, the enemy warriors were lifting their hands over their heads and dropping to their knees. That would have made it significantly easier to dispatch them all, but for some reason, Ship-Trees and the other humans stopped fighting.

  Rowl puzzled over that for a moment as the rest of Ship-Trees’ warriors came rushing through the gates. Human Kettle took charge, took away the enemy warriors’ gauntlets and blades, and bound their arms— which seemed to Rowl like an excess of preparation for cutting their throats. Over the next several breaths, it occurred to Rowl that the humans were not going to cut anyone’s throat. What was the point in all the fighting with gauntlets if they were only going to stop fighting the moment the outnumbered fools decided the fight was over?

  Rowl flicked his tail in exasperation. Humans.

  This close to the fire, the heat was palpable, and the heavy smell of smoke was almost nauseating. The fire was a constant growling rumble from the interior of the temple. Now that he had time to look about, Rowl spotted several very still forms in crimson-stained saffron robes lying here and there in the gardens, like particularly morbid beds of flowers.

  “Maker of Paths,” human Benedict breathed, sweeping his gaze over the corpses. His eyes shone with unfallen tears. “O great Maker, show me the Path, for I am lost and cannot find my Way.”

  Rowl prowled over to Littlemouse and leapt up into her arms, the better to be able to see through the crowd of humans.

  “Skip,” human Kettle said, nodding to Ship-Trees. “Four prisoners, none seriously wounded. They say the rest of the Aurorans are already gone. They volunteered to stay behind, and won’t say anything about their mission or where their officers are going.”

  Ship-Trees grunted and shook his head, staring at the burning temple. “Burning a library. Damned waste.” He turned to one of his warriors and said, “Go inform Mister Creedy of what happened and ask him to direct the firefighting brigade here at once.”

  “Aye, Skip,” said the man, and hurried off.

  “These guys could save us a world of hurt if they start talking. You want me to persuade them, Skip?” human Kettle asked. He slammed one knob-knuckled fist into his opposite palm.

  “No time,” Ship-trees said. “The Aurorans are already on the move. Why burn a library?”

  “A diversion,” human Kettle suggested. “To draw us away from their real target?”

  “It’s going to get plenty of attention,” Ship-Trees admitted. “But . . .” He narrowed his eyes. “What if this wasn’t a diversion? They only sent thirty men for the bloody Lancaster Vattery. They brought their whole force here. Why?”

  “This entire infiltration and attack?” human Benedict asked, his voice tight and bitter with pain. “Just to burn books?”

  “Books are knowledge, and knowledge is power,” Ship-Trees said.

  “More power than a crystal vattery?” human Kettle asked dubiously.

  “Someone seems to think so,” Ship-Trees said, his voice thoughtful.

  Rowl heard a faint sound and snapped his head around to the proper direction in which to direct his attention. A moment later he heard the sound again—a voice, weak, choking on smoke.

  Rowl turned to Littlemouse and said, “If it matters, someone is still alive in there. I can hear them.”

  Littlemouse blinked at him for a moment in that charmingly witless way she had, and then blurted out a translation of his words to human Benedict.

  Human Benedict’s eyes snapped to Rowl. “Where?”

  Rowl leaned his head toward the temple and said, “Am I an oracle? No, I am not. Inside.”

  Human Benedict stepped up next to Rowl and tilted his head to one side with his eyes closed. They snapped open again a moment later. “He’s right. We have to do something.”

  “The smoke could easily kill you,” Ship-Trees said. “Never mind the fire.”

  Human Benedict clenched his jaw. And then he turned and sprinted into the burning temple.

  “Benedict!” Littlemouse cried. She dropped Rowl like a sack of stale tubers and went running after him. As she did, a full quarter of the roof at the rear of the temple gave way with a rumble of falling stone and a thundercloud of rising sparks dancing madly in the whirlwind.

  Rowl’s heart went absolutely berserk, beating so hard that it threatened to stop up his throat. The building was on fire. What was Littlemouse thinking? Such things were deadly. Had she no consideration at all? Who was going to give Rowl his favorite ear rubs if Littlemouse were burned to char and ash? The very thought made him want to crouch against the ground and curl into a little ball.

  It was a truly shocking discourtesy. He should let her be burned up if she was going to treat him in so cavalier a fashion—except that the very thought of Littlemouse being all burned up made Rowl’s fur begin to tangle with itself.

  Without any further hesitation, the cat growled and rushed forward into the burning building.

  Chapter Fifty-seven

  Spire Albion, Habble Landing, Lumber District

  Major Espira stood wiping the blade of his sword on a white cloth as his men prepared to burn the wealth of this overstuffed den of rats to ashes.

  Gauntlet fire howled around him from nearly every direction as his men held a perimeter against the Albion citizens and odd Guardsmen who had realized that battle was upon them. There were thousands of Albions in this rat maze of a habble, and the fight at the temple, brief as it had been, had been intense. His force had been brought down to a total of fewer than three hundred and fifty men.

  There would be even fewer after they fought their way out of the lumber district, but the more quickly they moved, the fewer he would lose. Though his men were outnumbered incalculably by the locals, his Marines were organized and moving together, not reacting in a confused herd. The most difficult and dangerous part of the mission—the wait—was over. Now it was all straightforward knifework, and no one knew fighting like his Marines.

  He stood in the middle of a street of shops, trying to ignore the presence of
the Cavendish creature and her pet monster. Sark loomed near her, always near her, his presence a silent and constant threat. The warriorborn man was wounded and dripping blood, but moved as if he had not noticed that his forearms and belly looked like so much shredded and bloody meat beneath his tattered clothing. The woman clutched a book, the one book they had removed from the Great Library, open to one of its early pages, her finger tracing the lines, her eyes intent as she read, as if she stood in a reading room, and not a combat area with the cries of the wounded and dying all around her.

  “Sergeant,” he called. “How long?”

  “Setting the fuses now, sir,” Ciriaco replied.

  Espira nodded and continued wiping the blade of his sword, though he knew on a rational level that he’d cleaned the blood from it long since. It gave him something to do besides wait for the proper time to give the next order.

  And besides, he liked having a weapon in hand when Cavendish and Sark were so near.

  The corpse of the young man who had blundered into Espira and surprised him, probably a carpenter’s apprentice, lay inside one of the shops nearby. The boy had been no older than fourteen years—and probably younger. Sheer chance that he’d started up from a sleeping pallet on the floor behind a counter just as Espira had walked past in the gloom. After that, it had all been reflexes, and a gurgling scream that Espira knew he would not be able to wipe away. Now the boy’s body was covered in sawdust and awaiting the fire that would take the guts out of the busiest economy in Spire Albion.

  The charges were being set in small kegs, piled with sawdust from the leavings of the mills and carpenters and woodcarvers who worked this district of Habble Landing. They weren’t standard demolition powder kegs, but incendiaries—a hellish mixture of fireoil, firepowder, and sticky jelly that would explode and then cling to anything it touched, burning fiercely. They were most often used to set fire to airships in close engagements, and Espira had seen their vicious efficiency at destruction with his own eyes.