The aeronauts windlass, p.51
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.51
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           Jim Butcher

  “God in Heaven,” he whispered. “Thank You for Your grace.”

  There was a stir on the ship, and Mister Journeyman appeared from belowdecks. He peered around and let out his breath in a low whistle when he saw the broken remains of the shipyards that still clung, here and there, to the outer wall of the Spire.

  “Mister Journeyman!” Grimm bellowed.

  The engineer straightened his back like a schoolchild caught in the middle of some mischief, and threw a hasty salute toward the Spire. “Skipper! There you are!”

  “You, you, you . . .” Grimm began. He ground his teeth and called, “What have you done to my ship!”

  Journeyman repeated his salute. “Beggin’ the captain’s pardon, sir, but we got her all hooked up and took her for a test dive.” He coughed and said, “It seemed like the thing to do, sir.”

  “Ah. A dive on lift and trim crystals alone, with no pilot,” Grimm said. He took a breath and asked casually, “How’d she do?”

  Journeyman waggled a hand. “Could use some fine-tuning,” he replied.

  “Very good,” Grimm said, nodding, and folded his hands behind his back. “Should you ever do such a reckless and muzzleheaded thing with my ship again, there will be hell to pay, Mister Journeyman! Am I clear?”

  Journeyman’s face went a bit pale. He braced to attention and snapped off a salute. “Yes, sir!”

  “Predator is not your personal playtoy, placed there by God in Heaven for your amusement!”

  “No, sir!”

  “Do you hear me, Journeyman?”

  “I do, sir!”

  “Good. Now get my ship in close enough to throw us some lines so that we can belay you and get the planks down! Move, Journeyman!”

  “Yes, sir!” Journeyman said, snapping off a last salute, and dashed back belowdecks, roaring out orders.

  Grimm spun on the rest of the crew, to find them grinning at his back.

  “Miss Folly,” Grimm asked, ignoring them for the moment. “Can you confirm the location of Master Ferus’s collection?”

  The oddly dressed young woman’s eyes slipped out of focus for a moment and then she frowned indignantly, muttering to her crystal, “It is moving away from the Spire rather rapidly. That horrible puppet woman has them on that ship.”

  “Can you follow her, miss?”

  Folly frowned. “If the master’s collection doesn’t get too far away from us, I believe I could follow them.”

  Grimm nodded once, rounded on his men, and raised his voice to an authoritative roar. “What are you pack of apes gawking at?” Grimm snapped at them. “We have men suffering from silkweaver poison. Doctor Bagen cannot help them, but the etherealist can. To do so, he needs his gear, currently sailing away from us on the Mistshark, along with the Auroran Marines who have caused so much harm to our fellow Albions.”

  A round of growls, led by Kettle’s deep-chested snarl, rose up among the men.

  “I mean to take Predator after Mistshark, run her down, hammer her until she surrenders, and get Master Ferus his equipment so that he can save our shipmates. Given the losses we’ve taken, we’ll be running short on hands, but make no mistake—we will speak with our cannon nonetheless. Any man who wishes to stay behind will not be censured.”

  Kettle glanced around at the crew, taking the measure of their stances and expressions, and nodded once. “We’re all in, Captain.”

  “Then make ready to belay the ship and secure our loading ramp into position as soon as Journeyman warps her in.”

  “Aye, Skipper!” Journeyman said. “You two with me and the rest of you into two lines on either side of the hallway!”

  Grimm let the pilot take charge of the situation and turned to Miss Folly and her companion. “Miss Tagwynn? How are you feeling?”

  The tall young woman blinked her eyes closed and open and then managed a slight nod. She still leaned slightly against the etherealist’s apprentice for support, but now cradled Master Rowl in both arms. The cat was awake, though distant, his body limp, his eyes focused on nothing. “Better, Captain.”

  “You’ve done enough,” Grimm said. “I’ll be sending the most grievously wounded men to the care of a hospice. You will go with them.”

  Miss Tagwynn pondered his words for a moment before she shook her head and said, “No, thank you, Captain. I will remain with Sir Benedict.”

  “I am the captain of that vessel,” Grimm said gently. “We will be going into battle, and you have no training or experience that would make you useful to our cause. The decision is not yours to make.”

  The young woman nodded, and said, “I am certain you can have me beaten until I am not capable of boarding the ship, sir.” Then she looked up and met his eyes. Her gaze was steady, penetrating, and eerily feline. “Is that what you mean to do?”

  Grimm felt his mouth twitch at the corner. “No, Miss Tagwynn. It certainly is not. But if you are to insist on coming along, I will have your word that you will accept my orders as the voice of God in Heaven Himself once you are aboard.”

  “Very well,” she said.

  Grimm nodded to her. “What you did, back at the Temple. That was quite remarkable.” He felt a smile touch his eyes. “Sir Benedict is a fortunate man.”

  “He would have done the same for me, sir,” Miss Tagwynn assured him.

  “Of that I have no doubt.”

  Behind him, Journeyman had gotten Predator close enough to toss a pair of lines to Kettle and the crew. The men began taking them up, and working together to carefully pull the ship into position at the opening in the outer wall of the Spire. It would take only a few more moments to get the loading ramp into position.

  Mister Creedy came shuffling up to Grimm and saluted wearily. The strain on his face, from carrying one of the wounded, was evident. “Captain,” he panted. “What did I miss?”

  “Next payday, schedule a bonus month’s pay to Mister Journeyman and his engineering team,” Grimm replied.

  Creedy blinked. Then he glanced past Grimm, to the shadow of Predator hovering where the Habble Landing shipyard had been only moments before, and his jaw dropped open. “God in Heaven,” he breathed.

  “It was the Mistshark,” Grimm said simply. “The Aurorans and that Cavendish woman are aboard her. We’re going to run her down and take her.”

  “We’re short on crew,” Creedy said. “We’ll be light on guns.”

  “Yes,” Grimm said.

  “Mistshark is larger and more heavily armed than Predator.”

  “Yes.”

  “Very good, Captain,” Creedy said. “What are my orders?”

  “Get the wounded aboard and secured; then report to me on the bridge.”

  Creedy nodded sharply, and turned to go. He paused. “Captain . . . if Mistshark is already away, how are we to catch her? She’s the fastest thing in the sky.”

  Grimm felt his mouth stretch into a wolfish smile.

  Chapter Sixty-three

  AMS Predator

  Folly stood on the deck of Predator and felt the ship rouse herself to life.

  It was, she thought, really rather disturbing. The wooden deck felt quite solid, and did not at all move, and yet she could feel it shiver and flex slightly, like some enormous beast waking after a sleep, and slowly stretching its limbs. Men rushed about and began climbing her masts, plying lines and preparing to unspool the great reels of vibrating, glowing ethersilk, as bright to Folly’s eyes as coiled lines of living light.

  There was a deep shudder below the decks, and Folly had to catch her breath in sudden shock, as something like the beat of a great, living heart thrummed through the air. The ship quivered and creaked and then began to rise. There was a sense of focused attention, as if an enormous pair of eyes had begun to look around, and Folly felt them pass over her, as if she were a mouse that had been glanced at by a distant cat. She felt as if her heart were going to stop.

  There was, she felt, a sense of gentle amusement that thrummed through the air.

  And
then, quite clearly, a voice said, Peace, child. I have no quarrel with you today—and much more interesting prey to consider.

  “Oh,” Folly said. “Oh, my. Pray, do not let me distract you.”

  A passing crewman eyed Folly with a decidedly skeptical air.

  You do not, said the great voice. Come this way, child. Pray excuse me. I have work to do.

  Just then, the grim captain called out and flicked his wrist in an authoritative gesture, and with that, Predator began to soar upward.

  Folly stood transfixed in a sudden rush of fierce, rising joy as the ship rose up through the mists and the wind began to rush around them. Her feet drew her forward, following the current of attention and focus toward a tower that stood at the front of the ship. She climbed it, slowly and carefully, to find herself standing a few feet behind the grim captain, and the young captain, and the pilot at the controls of the ship.

  “Good God in Heaven, Skipper!” the pilot called over the wind. “Can you feel her?”

  “Aye,” the grim captain called back. “Moving rather well, isn’t she?”

  “Well?” the pilot roared, laughing. He twitched the controls slightly and the ship banked left, then right, graceful and light. “God in Heaven, wait until we fight her!”

  The sense of joy Folly had felt became suffused with an equally ferocious pride, and a sudden pulse of love so palpable that she felt tears filling her eyes.

  “Steady as she goes, Mister Kettle,” the grim gaptain said, his voice stern. His eyes, though, were smiling as he glanced around, and looked brighter than she had ever seen them, more alive.

  “Oh,” Folly breathed. “It’s like seeing a caged bird suddenly fly. You never really saw it until then.”

  His eyes switched to her. “What was that, Miss Folly?”

  Folly touched her crystal and told it, “Very revealing.”

  The grim captain arched an eyebrow at her. “Very good. I was just about to send for you.” The grim captain turned to the young captain. “Mister Creedy, fetch the young lady a harness, if you would, and help her into it. I doubt we’ll need it soon, but best we get her settled.”

  “Aye, sir,” said the young captain. He nodded politely to Folly and went down the steep stairs to the bridge by bracing his feet and hands on the rails and sliding neatly down them.

  “Miss,” the grim captain said, holding out a hand, gesturing for her to join him.

  Folly stepped up to the space beside the captain at the front rail of the ship and nearly lost her breath. From here she could see the great reels of ethersilk spreading like enormous wings for hundreds of feet around the ship, pulled forward by currents of etheric energy, suffused and illuminated with it, blazing through the mist like some vast cobweb of living lightning. A faint sphere of flickering light surrounded the ship at a distance of thirty or forty yards, a screen of energy that sparkled against the individual droplets of mist as the ship raced forward through them. Air and light filled her vision—the rest of the ship’s crude matter vanished, here at the very prow, and only the vast, spreading space of the sky and its flow of energy, modestly veiled in mist, opened up around them.

  “It’s a pleasant view,” said the grim captain, in a voice that told Folly that the man made a habit of taking understatement to new heights. “I never get tired of it. Do you, Kettle?”

  The pilot, who stood on a small platform just behind the grim captain, let out a belly laugh as his only answer.

  The grim captain smiled, an expression in his eyes that was an exact reflection of the fierce, joyous serenity of purpose flowing through the ship around Folly. He put his hands on the rail and leaned forward, into the wind, his eyes narrowed with pleasure.

  “Oh,” she breathed. “I see it now. Predator is you, and you are she.”

  He blinked and turned to give her a curious look. “Were you addressing me, Miss Folly?”

  “Yes, Captain,” Folly said. “I can, here. You are . . .” She waved a hand. “. . . appropriate.”

  The great voice of the ship said, Precisely, child. Those are my feelings on the matter precisely.

  “I . . . I see,” the grim captain said. “Then I hope you will not find it too inconvenient if I ask for a bit of guidance. I need to know where Mistshark is to catch her.”

  “Oh, I couldn’t possibly tell you that,” Folly said, shifting her feet uncertainly. “I can only tell you where the master’s collection is.”

  The grim captain’s mouth spread in a rather politely predatory smile. “That will do, Miss Folly. That will do nicely.”

  Folly nodded and turned her focus inward. She could see where the master’s collection was, if only she gave the matter some consideration. She focused her thoughts on it, on the energy of the crystals she’d placed with the collection and marked with the proper patterns, and there it was, like a glowing star on the horizon. She could see the star blazing clearly, despite the mist, and could have seen it if a wooden wall or twenty yards of spirestone were blocking her view. By focusing on the star, she could even draw it closer, and view the space around it—an enclosed wooden space, a cabin aboard a ship with a second great beating heart, much like Predator’s but thrumming with a labored note.

  “There,” she said, pointing her finger left and at an angle upward.

  “She’s running for the blue,” said the grim captain with a certain note of satisfaction. “She’ll want to stay hidden at the edge of the mist until she can get outside of Albion’s defensive carousel, I expect. Two points to port and let’s match her ascent, Mister Kettle.”

  “Two points to port and match her ascent, aye,” said the pilot, his hands steady on the controls. “You called that one pretty close.”

  “I know her skipper,” the grim captain said calmly.

  “Then you know she’ll have some kind of trick at hand,” the pilot growled.

  “This time, Mister Kettle, I struck first.”

  “Sir?”

  The grim captain’s voice grew a few shades more satisfied. “I sent Mister Stern aboard Mistshark a while ago. He painted the inside of their Haslett cage with what was left of that stew I almost cooked in the galley the other night.”

  The pilot made a choking sound. Then his belly laugh emerged again. The grim captain did not bend so far as to laugh, but the smile that suddenly suffused his features was beatific.

  “I’m sorry, Captain,” Folly said. “I don’t understand.”

  “Grease and other organic material, Miss Folly,” he told her. “The Haslett cage conducts power from the ship’s core in the form of electricity. The closer you move the cage, the more current flows into it— and the hotter it gets.”

  Folly frowned. “Then . . . I beg your pardon, but wouldn’t that . . . burn the soup?”

  “Burn it black,” the pilot said, an unrepentant leer in his tone. “Burn it to baked jelly and soot.”

  “That would . . . would not be very good for the Haslett cage, one assumes?” Folly asked.

  “Precisely,” the grim captain said.

  “Play merry hell with their power distribution,” the pilot said. “Put a huge strain on their system. Reduce the power being conducted to Mistshark’s web by maybe ten percent. It’s the same trick that bi—”

  The grim captain gave the pilot a sharp look and flicked his eyes toward Folly.

  The pilot coughed. “. . . that big bunch of cheaters pulled on us in the Olympian Air Trials a couple years back,” he said. “It’s the only reason they beat us.”

  The grim captain said nothing and kept smiling—but there was a fierce glint pulsing in his eyes, and Folly could feel the ship’s heart beat in time with it.

  “It’ll take some time,” the pilot continued. “But once it sets in, we’ll overhaul Mistshark quick enough, and have control of the engagement to boot.”

  “But until we do,” the grim captain said, “we’ll need you to stay here, Miss Folly, to help us follow them in this mist.”

  “I will,” Folly said thought
fully. “But I should be near the master. . . .”

  She frowned and closed her eyes for a moment. She ordered her thoughts and then asked tentatively, Can you hear me like this?

  Of course, said the voice of the ship.

  Folly found the pattern of the crystals in the master’s collection, found the glowing red star of retreating energy. Do you see this?

  I do. Why are you showing it to me, child?

  It is aboard the ship we hunt, Folly said. Can you show it to the others?

  Can they not see it as you do?

  I do not think so, Folly told the ship.

  Poor things, the ship said, the voice suffused with fondness. They mean well.

  Folly opened her eyes to see the point where the red star blazed suddenly echoed with a halo of red light sparkling off the sphere of defensive energy that surrounded the ship.

  “God in Heaven,” the pilot breathed. The ship quivered in response to the jerk of his hands on the controls, then steadied again. “Skip?”

  The grim captain peered ahead at the ghostly, scarlet star of light hovering in the mist. “Miss Folly? Is this your doing?”

  “Oh, yes, well, no, not precisely,” Folly said. “I asked Predator to show you where the master’s collection is.”

  There was a long silence on the bridge, broken when the pilot said in a flat voice, “What?”

  You must forgive them, the ship’s voice said to Folly. The dear things are blind and almost deaf. Except for my captain, of course. He hears me better than all but a few, like yourself.

  “I’m sure they try very hard,” Folly said aloud. Then she bobbed a courtsy to the grim captain. “Predator can guide you now that she knows what to look for, sir. May I go to the master?”

  The stairs and guide rail rattled as the young captain began to climb them.

  The grim captain turned to regard her and nodded rather deeply. “Aye, miss. As soon as Mister Creedy has shown you the harness and how to use it to stay safe. We’ll be maneuvering before long, and I don’t want you to be hurt.”