The aeronauts windlass, p.52
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.52
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           Jim Butcher

  “Yes, Captain,” Folly said.

  The grim captain flashed her a sudden grin and turned to face front again, hands sliding thoughtfully back and forth along the railing. “Mister Kettle.”

  “Aye, Skipper?”

  “Follow that star.”

  Chapter Sixty-four

  AMS Predator

  Bridget abruptly realized that she was sitting on a stool in a crowded room with a low ceiling. There was a plain pewter cup in her hands, half-filled with water. A thick blanket had been laid across her shoulders. She was shivering. She was thirsty. Her head hurt. Her leg hurt. Her hands ached horribly. She lifted the cup and stared for a moment at the swelling and bruises on her hands, at the torn flesh on her fingers and knuckles. Then she shivered, finished the water, and took in her surroundings carefully.

  The walls and floor and furniture were all made of wood, so she must be on an airship. There were a number of wounded men in the room on pallets. Several of the men were faces she recognized from the desperate battle in the ventilation tunnels, so it stood to reason that she was back aboard Predator.

  Bridget frowned, trying to put together her memories of the period between now and that battle. She remembered a fire, and a terrible weight on her shoulders, a sharp blow to her head from a falling stone.

  And a man. A man in an Auroran uniform. A man she had killed with her battered hands.

  She remembered that perfectly.

  Bridget contemplated that in silence for a moment. She decided that she neither liked nor regretted the act, and that it had been absolutely awful. If she had not done it, neither she nor Benedict would have— Bridget shot to her feet abruptly. Benedict! Where was Benedict?

  The wooden room swayed, and she felt herself sink back into the chair before she fell down. She had to grip the seat of the stool beneath her to keep from falling off.

  “Easy, easy,” said a young woman’s voice from next to her. A hand on her shoulder steadied her. “You look as though you’ve had quite enough adventure for the time being.”

  Bridget looked up at the speaker and blinked twice. “Gwen?”

  Gwendolyn Lancaster looked exceptionally odd. In the first place, she was wearing men’s clothing that was much, much too large for her. The clothes were covered with grease and soot, as was perhaps twothirds of her face. Her right hand was so thickly wrapped in bandages that it could not be seen as anything but a lump, and her hair, beneath another stained bandage, resembled the spreading wings of an airship’s charged ethersilk web, standing out from her head in a small cloud.

  “You look awful,” Bridget said.

  “You’re one to talk,” Gwen said. She sighed, leaned back against the wall, and slowly slid down it until she was sitting beside Bridget.

  “What happened?”

  Gwen waved her bandaged hand. “I learned that one ought to be extremely cautious when connecting live wires during free fall.”

  “Are you well?”

  Gwen grimaced as she looked around the room. “More so than some, it would seem.” Her eyes came back to Bridget. “And you?”

  “I feel ill. And my leg hurts.”

  Gwen nodded toward the center of the room, where a pair of aeronauts were carefully lifting a wounded man down from an examination table and over to a pallet. Doctor Bagen, looking worn, tired, and bloody, nodded to another pair of aeronauts, who lifted the wiry young man named Stern onto the table. “Doctor Bagen doesn’t think your injuries are life-threatening. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait the longest to be seen.”

  “Sitting quietly sounds quite agreeable at the moment,” Bridget said. “Where is Benedict?”

  Gwen’s face clouded. “On a pallet on the other side of the table. He’s unconscious.”

  Unconscious? Unconscious meant alive. He was still alive. Bridget slowly unclenched her hands. “What is his condition?”

  The smaller girl pressed her lips together into a line, and her expression became a careful mask. “Less than ideal. Like several of the crew, he has been poisoned by silkweaver venom.”

  “Then he’s”—she couldn’t bring herself to say “dying’—“in serious condition.”

  “He’s dying,” Gwen said.

  Bridget felt her stomach clench.

  Gwen continued in a level voice. “They all are. Apparently Master Ferus can help them, if we can recover his gear from the Mistshark.”

  Bridget nodded. “And Rowl? I remember he had a cut on his head.”

  Gwen glanced up toward a set of cabinets on one wall and flipped her bandaged hand toward them. Bridget followed the direction of the gesture, and spotted the ginger cat asleep on top of a cabinet. One side of his head was wrapped in a clean white bandage. “He’s quite the hero at the moment. The men say he saved their lives.”

  “Well, yes,” Bridget said. “Though I almost feel that they shouldn’t go about saying it aloud. He’s already impossible to deal with.”

  Just then the world lurched sideways. Bridget all but fell off the stool. For a second she thought her head injury had caused her to lose her balance, but then she realized that several of the pallets on the floor of the infirmary had slid half a foot across the floor before being brought to a halt by tethers attached to odd rings in the walls.

  “What was that?” she asked.

  “Crosswind. We’re underway, in pursuit of the Mistshark,” Gwen replied. “We have been for nearly two hours.”

  Underway? On an airship? Then there was nothing around them. Nothing at all. No walls, no Spire, no ground. Just the vast and empty reaches of the sky. Bridget’s heart labored quicker, and the ache in her head and leg increased. Rowl hurt. Benedict dying. Terrible, irrational fear knotting her guts. Blood on her hands.

  That was enough for one day, she supposed.

  She bowed her head and began shuddering with silent tears.

  “Oh,” Gwen said. Bridget could sense her make a few abortive motions before she patted Bridget on the shoulder and said awkwardly, “There, there. It’s all right. All’s not lost yet. Captain Grimm is quite confident we can bring the Mistshark to battle.”

  “Yes, of course,” Bridget said, nodding. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to take a few moments to cry, in any case.”

  Gwen was silent for a while. Then there was the sound of ripping fabric, and she pressed a length of somewhat stained cloth torn from her too-large shirt into Bridget’s hand.

  The small gesture of kindness broke something. Bridget leaned toward Gwen, sobbing.

  Gwen grunted a bit with the effort, but braced herself and held the larger girl steady with an arm around her. Bridget leaned against her and wept so hard that stars spun across the insides of her eyelids—but she did not make noise doing it. She simply couldn’t.

  She didn’t give herself long. Five minutes, perhaps, passed before Bridget forced herself to steady her breathing. She sat up slowly and wiped her face with the cloth, then blew her nose. She nodded to Gwen and said, “Thank you.”

  “You are welcome.” The heir of the most powerful family in Spire Albion regarded Bridget soberly. “I’m not a very good friend,” Gwen said. “I’m willful and blunt and arrogant, and I’ve not had a great deal of practice. Frankly . . . I’ve never been good at stomaching the company of the other children of the Great Houses.”

  Bridget let out a short, subdued laugh. “Neither have I.”

  “Well, then,” Gwen said. “Common ground.”

  Just then, outside the infirmary, a bell began to ring.

  Bridget looked at Gwen in question, but the other girl shook her head. She didn’t know what the sound signified, either.

  “General quarters, lads!” Doctor Bagen called.

  The room stirred with sudden activity. The men assisting him immediately began belting the wounded man down to the examination table with straps apparently made for the purpose. After that, they methodically, quickly did the same to the men on the pallets, while Bagen himself began clipping leather strap
s attached to a wide leather belt to rings set in the examination table. Another pair of aeronauts began putting jars and bottles and other supplies away in close-fitting storage cabinets, apparently determined to leave nothing sitting loose around the compartment.

  “Here,” Gwen said. She reached down and produced a similar wide leather belt, and began passing it around Bridget’s middle. “If you don’t strap up, and the ship is forced to maneuver quickly, you could be thrown into the wall or the ceiling with enough force to kill you.”

  Bridget let Gwen secure the thick belt on her. Then Gwen showed her how to clip the straps to rings set into the walls and floor all about the compartment, evidently for this very purpose, and how to cinch the lines in tight. Bridget felt a bit like a vegetable hung up to dry by the time the process was over, but she could see the need for it.

  And then a terrible thought struck her.

  “Gwen,” she said. “What about Rowl?”

  Gwen blinked and then turned to Doctor Bagen, who had resumed work on Mister Stern. “Sir? What about the cat? Is there a belt for him?”

  “No,” Bagen said, without looking up. “Nothing that small.” He finished tying a knot in a length of suturing thread and looked up, frowning. “But we can’t have the little blighter flying about my infirmary, can we.”

  The rhythm of the ringing bell changed, and Bagen cursed. “Maneuvers! Get hold of him, quick!”

  “Rowl!” Bridget called, opening her arms.

  Rowl rose up, his movement slower and less fluid than it normally was, and leapt toward her.

  Predator lurched, and a weight like a loaded tank from her father’s vattery pressed her mercilessly to the deck.

  Chapter Sixty-five

  DMS Mistshark

  Major Espira looked around the hold of the Mistshark at his command. His Marines had performed with most excellent discipline. Their losses had been serious but not utterly outrageous, and if they had not accomplished absolutely every objective on their mission, their main objectives had been achieved. The presence of his force had inflicted a paralytic fear on the citizens of Spire Albion. The Landing shipyard had been destroyed, and it would take months, if not years, to rebuild after the internal economic chaos bound to ensue in Spire Albion. Cavendish had recovered her book, though Espira had not been made privy to its significance, and every duplicate copy of the volume had been destroyed with the monastery.

  He had led his men on a mission of extraordinary ambition, and extraordinary danger. More important, thank God in Heaven, Espira had also led most of them out again. His losses had been lighter than he’d dared to hope for.

  Of course, he’d paid a price to do it. He’d led an attack on a temple of the Way and its resident monks. He’d set fire to a habble full of civilians—enemies, true, but civilians nonetheless. If he hadn’t, there was no way his men would have made it out with such light losses. He had traded the lives of people he did not know for those of men he did.

  That was, he supposed, human nature.

  He was proud of his men. He was proud of what they had accomplished, how hard they had trained, and how that training had paid off. He was proud of the blow they’d dealt to the Albion menace. He was proud that he’d taken command of them, knowing that he had a better chance to bring more Marines home alive than any other commanding officer available for the mission.

  But he was not proud of the things he’d had to do to get them home again.

  And, he reminded himself grimly, they weren’t home yet.

  The weary men were stacked fairly closely in the airship’s hold. Most of his Marines, being good soldiers, were already asleep. Some were still too wound up from the action and were speaking quietly together. Some of the wounded lay quietly suffering as they waited their turn with Mistshark’s doctor. A quartet of seasoned veterans had simply broken out a deck of cards and begun playing, despite the dimness of the hold.

  The mood wasn’t as joyous as it could have been. Men had been wounded. Men had fallen. The elation that each man felt in having survived the mission was tempered by the knowledge that others like him had not been so fortunate. No, not joy. But definitely relief. Relief that it was over. Relief that the Reaper had not chosen them today. Relief that they were going home.

  Though, he reminded himself again, they weren’t home yet—but they had a good running start toward getting there.

  Ciriaco approached through the gloom. The tall sergeant ducked under the beams that supported the airship’s deck above them, nodded to Espira, saluted, and said, “She wants to see you in her cabin, sir.”

  “Of course she does,” Espira said. He sighed and pushed himself up from his comfortable bed of lumpy cloth sacks. “Time enough for sleep when I’m dead, I suppose.”

  Ciriaco made a grimacing expression that passed for a pained smile. “You want me to come with you?”

  “No, Sergeant. I expect that if she was going to snap, she’d have done it before now. I’ll be fine.”

  Ciriaco frowned but nodded. “I’ll ride herd on the boys for you, sir.”

  “Make sure everyone’s strapped in and battened down. Then get some sleep. I’m sure it won’t take long,” Espira replied.

  He started climbing the steep staircase to the deck, and hoped that he knew what he was talking about.

  The Mistshark was not a ship of the armada. The heavily tarred planking and decks looked smudged and dirty, though he imagined it provided excellent protection from the elements—and of course it made the ship less visible in low-lighting conditions, which was doubtless useful to a captain who was up to no good.

  That said, however, the ship was run with all the professionalism of a vessel of the Armada, even if the crew looked like a pack of cutthroats and scoundrels. Certainly the Mistshark’s gunnery had been excellent, efficiently destroying the Landing shipyard. Granted, any target that could not shoot back was hardly a challenge, much less one a bare hundred yards away, but not a single blast had gone to waste, and the Mistshark had managed to destroy some thirty times her own weight in enemy merchant craft, as well as millions of crowns of priceless Albion infrastructure.

  The men around him were a crew of evil-eyed, pitiless apes—but they had done good service to Spire Aurora. He did not need to like them to respect their ability.

  Espira reached the door to Madame Cavendish’s cabin and raised his hand to knock.

  “Come in, Major,” she called, before his knuckles had touched the door.

  Espira suppressed a shiver, and entered the cabin.

  Cavendish sat inside at a small tea table, calmly, primly, her gown’s bodice unfastened and hanging down to her waist. She was clad in only a thin shift from the waist up. Mistshark’s doctor, a wiry Piker covered in outlandish tattoos, was tying off a bandage that had been wound ’round and ’round Madame Cavendish’s ribs. Her position left an unseemly amount of skin on display, and Espira forced himself not to look at the smooth strength of the woman’s shoulders or the clean, graceful line of her neck.

  It would not do to permit himself to think of Cavendish as a woman. She was a monster.

  She still held the slender volume in one hand, and was reading with unnervingly steady attention, even as the doctor ministered to her.

  There was a bunk bed in the room. The lower bed had clearly been reserved for Cavendish, but the top was occupied by the bags of miscellaneous objects she had insisted upon bringing aboard. It took Espira a moment to notice that Sark was in the room. The bandaged, wounded warriorborn wasn’t on one of the bunks—instead, he lay under Madame Cavendish’s bunk, like some hideous spider lurking beneath an imperfect bit of decorative molding. Espira could see for a second the glitter of gold-green light reflecting from warriorborn eyes, and then it was gone.

  “Major,” Cavendish said, smiling faintly. “The good doctor is nearly finished ministering to me. Do sit down.”

  Espira doffed his hat and bowed politely before seating himself in the room’s only other chair, across the sma
ll table from Cavendish. “How can I be of service, madame?”

  “I need your professional assessment,” she replied. “How quickly could your men seize this ship?”

  For a second, the doctor’s hands froze in place.

  Espira frowned, staring at Cavendish, looking for some clue in her features as to how she expected him to answer.

  Judging from her expression, Cavendish had noticed the doctor’s reaction too. Her mouth quirked up at one corner. “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”

  Ah. She wanted the man to hear what he had to say. “The crew is outnumbered and outgunned,” Espira replied slowly. “And my men are the best. On the other hand, we don’t know what measures the crew has put in place to even the odds in such an action. But I am confident to say that my men could take this ship eight or nine times in ten.”

  “That is excellent news,” Cavendish said. “Doctor, have you finished?”

  “Ayup,” the doctor muttered to Cavendish. The man never looked at her face. “Should heal up fine. Can’t see as the ball tore any bone off the ribs, so no splinters. Clean it twice a day, fresh bandages each time, and don’t go jumping about.”

  “You’ll tend to it, Doctor,” Cavendish replied. “I will see you after breakfast and after dinner. Plan accordingly.”

  The man clearly resented the command, but he only touched his fingers to the brim of a hat he was not wearing and hurried out of the cabin.

  Espira waited for the man to go before turning to Cavendish and asking, “Why?”

  “Our pace is too slow,” Cavendish replied as she carefully slipped back into her gown. “If that does not change, we may not reach our escort before Albion’s Fleet catches up to us. I notified Captain Ransom of this fact several times, and have received no reply. I do not care to be ignored. Tea?”

  “Yes, thank you,” Espira said.

  Cavendish rose smoothly, turned her back on the major, and stopped. It dawned on him after a moment that she was waiting on him, and Espira rose immediately. “Madame?”