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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 57

Jim Butcher

  Grimm saw Thunderous’s starboard trim crystal array fail in a shower of small explosions, and her aft lift crystal faltered, so that she slumped abruptly to stern and starboard, her deck tilting at a precarious angle, and she began dropping swiftly. The strain on her timbers was too much, and with a cracking sound as loud as a cannon, her back broke. The rear half of the airship simply plunged—and became fouled in the long lengths of ethersilk web, jerking the forward section of the doomed, burning airship down, down, down. She vanished into the mists—but not before a quick-thinking aeronaut deployed an emergency buoy, basically nothing more than a tiny lift crystal attached to a colored pennant.

  “Shift fire to her webs!” Grimm bellowed. “Let’s give the commodore the chance to wear her down!”

  “Fire on enemy web, aye!” Creedy responded, and Predator’s cannon began raking Itasca’s webs, preventing her from building any speed beyond that provided by her turbines.

  Itasca kept up her original turn, trying to shelter her ravaged flank from her enemies, but Valiant and Victorious split apart like a pair of wolves circling a lumberbulk. The two Albion ships had been unable to entirely halt their descent in such a short distance, and they slid under the Itasca’s plane and to either side of her, each ship tilting on its axis to keep one broadside on the enemy. In response, Itasca rolled her undamaged starboard broadside down toward Victorious, exposing her belly to Valiant.

  Itasca’s fresh broadside fired first, and this time all of her cannon were focused on Victorious. The gun crews of Spire Aurora’s prize battlecruiser knew their trade well, but had a poor shooting angle, and their hits were more dispersed. Victorious’s shroud flared brilliant emerald green, blunting much of the fire, but even so what got through pounded her dorsal and starboard mastworks to splinters and tore ragged holes in her starboard gun deck, taking a horrible toll among her gunners and setting much of the starboard side of the ship ablaze.

  Victorious and Valiant fired again, but Victorious’s broadside was at a feeble half of its strength. Between Itasca’s shroud and her heavy armor, the battlecruiser shrugged off the hits, though she rang like some vast gong as Victorious’s fury pounded her hull.

  Valiant, meanwhile, rolled almost to the horizontal as she slipped beneath Itasca—and then ripple-fired directly up into her belly.

  Itasca’s shroud held for the first half dozen impacts, but then Bayard’s gunners began to gouge out great pieces of her armored hull, wrecking her forward ventral mastworks and pushing more and more deeply up into the ship, like a fine, slender knife being pressed into a man’s belly beneath the ribs, questing for the heart.

  Itasca shuddered and simply took the pounding, keeping her starboard guns on Victorious until her cannon cycled and howled again.

  The second salvo was of no great accounting in terms of its accuracy, with Bayard pounding its gun crews with regular shocks of impact from below—but against wounded Victorious, it was enough. Though the cruiser tried to turn her mangled flanks from Itasca’s guns, the only thing she could do was rotate her wounded side down, exposing her only lightly armored deck to enemy fire. Her shroud failed in a catastrophic burst of sparks, and the heavy cannon of the Auroran vessel pounded her deck, tearing open huge sections, and setting dozens of fires in the unarmored compartments of her interior.

  Victorious faltered and dropped like a man hit with a sledgehammer. A power surge must have hit her starboard trim crystal array, because she abruptly rolled, flipped, and began tumbling as she sank, whirling over and over her long axis, entangling herself hopelessly in her own web.

  Itasca shuddered and continued her turn, descending with too much grace for a vessel so large, steam engines chugging, turning her intact starboard broadside toward Valiant with a ponderous sense of finality, a behemoth ready to crush the last of its smaller opponents.

  The proper thing for Bayard to do would have been to increase his pace and stay ahead of Itasca’s spin, just as Grimm had done only moments before—but instead Bayard broke in the other direction, as if seeking to disengage.

  It was a seemingly foolish movement, one that might have been expected from a panicked merchant skipper or a green captain in his first action. It would only carry Valiant into Itasca’s sights that much more quickly, and could not possibly open up enough range to make a significant difference in the accuracy of Itasca’s gunners. Worse, the move exposed more of the ship’s stern, where armor plating was thinner and the ship’s superstructure more vulnerable. Grimm could all but see Itasca’s sudden eagerness to bring her cannon to bear and destroy the last of her serious opponents.

  And in doing so, to expose the gaping hole in her belly armor to Predator.

  “Kettle!” Grimm shouted.

  “Aye!” the pilot called. He had seen the opening as well, and nimble Predator banked and dipped lower, sliding into the shadow of Itasca’s hull into the dead area where her guns could not reach—and where, if she rolled, Predator would be annihilated in a single glorious flash of luminous thunder.

  “Creedy!” Grimm called. “Prepare salvo fire!”

  “Salvo fire, aye!” Creedy screamed.

  “Mister Journeyman!” Grimm called into the speaking tube. “Cut the port trim array!”

  Grimm felt it when the power to the port-side trim crystals went out. Predator’s deck suddenly flipped entirely to the vertical, the motion a shock against his safety harness, a blow to his rib cage. Miss Lancaster let out a sharp cry of surprise, her voice tight with a terror that she quickly choked off.

  And Predator’s starboard guns rolled up to Itasca’s belly from a range of fifty yards.

  “Fire!” Grimm roared.

  Predator’s starboard cannon howled as one.

  There was no shroud left to defeat the lighter charges Preadtor’s guns could throw, and Valiant’s heavier weapons had taken a disastrous toll on Itasca’s armored hull and interior armor alike. In the open space of the sky, Predator’s rounds may not have done much more than put redhot dents in Itasca’s outer hull—but within the contained spaces of her interior compartments, the salvo of the lighter guns exploded with savage fury, a jet of fire washing back out of the relatively small opening in her armor.

  Itasca staggered violently, and the salvo sent after Bayard’s ship went sailing wildly in every direction. The roar of the Auroran’s thrusters abruptly stopped, and for a few seconds the only sounds in the sky were the creak of timbers and the crackle of fire and the distant chugging of Valiant’s engines.

  And then with a sound like furious thunder, Itasca’s boiler exploded.

  The shock wave of it smashed into Predator like some vast, fleshy hand, and knocked the air from Grimm’s lungs. He tried to give an order to Kettle, but no sound came from his lips. Kettle was already descending, though, and continuing forward, sailing out from under Itasca.

  The enormous armored ship had been entirely deformed by the explosion, armored hull warped and dented outward by the force of the blast, torn open in dozens of places. Her mastworks were wreckage, around the clock, and multiple trim crystals had failed, so that she was listing to one side and adrift, rotating slowly. Helpless aeronauts dangled from safety lines. Her entire port-side gun deck had been consumed in fire, and aeronauts were screaming as they struggled to escape the blaze, many dying as the safety harnesses meant to protect them now trapped them within the flames.

  Valiant’s steam whistle wailed in triumph as she came about, taking a course that would bring her back to Itasca without crossing the firing arc of her remaining gun deck, and one of Bayard’s chase cannon sent a single shot flashing across Itasca’s bow.

  “Hold fire!” Grimm called.

  “Hold fire, aye!” Creedy echoed from the guns.

  For a long moment, Itasca hung in the sky like a great, stunned beast, too dazed to understand its surroundings. Grimm could hear orders being shouted frantically up and down the larger ship.

  And then her colors came fluttering off of their few remaining mas
ts, and went spinning away into the breeze.

  Predator drifted far enough forward on Itasca that Grimm could see her captain on his listing bridge, braced against the tilt of his ship, held in place by three neat, taut safety lines. He looked of an age with Grimm, a tall, lean man with weathered skin and a blaze of silver in his otherwise coal-black hair. The man stared back at Grimm, then nodded, unhooked his sheathed sword from his side, and held its handle out toward Predator.

  Grimm straightened as much as he could in the nearly vertical position from which he depended from his own safety lines. He doffed his cap and nodded in reply to the Auroran captain.

  Itasca had surrendered.

  The battle was over.

  Chapter Sixty-nine

  AMS Predator

  Bridget woke up almost instantly when Benedict stirred in his sickbed.

  She sat up in her chair and wiped her hand at her mouth, as she always did. She had a wretched tendency to drool when she slept heavily. But she forgot, and came near to knocking out her teeth when the cast over her forearm and wrist smacked into her lips.

  Bridget hissed out a curse and raised her unwounded arm to her mouth to rub at the sting. That was all she needed, for Benedict to wake up to see her lip split open and swollen.

  The young warriorborn stirred and let out a soft groan. His body twitched, and then his arms moved--only to be held down by the straps of the infirmary cot he occupied. He opened his eyes and looked around blearily.

  The infirmary was crowded, with men strapped into cots covering nearly every spare foot of floor space. Doctor Bagen, after laboring for nearly a day straight in the wake of the battle, was in a hammock strung up in one corner of the infirmary, snoring with the force of an approaching thunderstorm. A second hammock had been hung up in the other corner, and Master Ferus lay in it, arms folded over his belly, sleeping with a small, contented smile on his face. Folly lay curled up in the open space beneath her mentor’s hammock, between the etherealist’s two wagons, sleeping with her mouth open.

  “Don’t try to sit up yet,” Bridget said to Benedict. “Here, here. Let me unbuckle it.” She leaned down and unfastened the straps that held Benedict flat to his cot, and he took a deeper breath after she had, and raised his hands to mop at his face. Then he lowered them, his eyes snapped into focus, and for a moment there was something wild and dangerous in them. When they locked on her, she felt that she hardly recognized him.

  Fortunately, Bagen had prepared her in advance for the kind of response a wounded warriorborn might have after a battle followed by most of two days of unconsciousness. Benedict’s accelerated metabolism had burned fiercely for all that time, and he seemed more lean and dangerous than at any other time she had known him.

  Without a word, she passed him a large tankard that had been sitting ready, and he all but snatched it out of her hands, clutching it clumsily due to the burns and thick bandages over his own—but he guzzled the water down with such urgent thirst that some of it spilled out around the corners of his mouth. By the time he lowered the mug, she had uncovered the large bowl of thick stew and the small loaf of bread that had been waiting with the water. He sat up, took it from her with a growl and a flash of teeth, and began eating the stew directly from the bowl, as if he couldn’t get it into his mouth quickly enough. He supplemented gulps of stew with enormous bites off of the loaf of bread, hardly chewing them before he swallowed.

  Bridget followed Doctor Bagen’s instructions and sat very still while Benedict ate, without speaking, moving, or offering to take the bowl from him when he seemed to be done.

  It was only after he had finished the bowl and the loaf alike that the wildness seemed to die out of his eyes. He blinked them several times, and then abruptly focused on Bridget again. The lower half of his face was stained with his meal. He lifted his hand to his mouth in a short, abortive gesture, and something like shame touched his eyes.

  “Ah,” he said, his voice low and rough. “I’m . . . I beg your pardon,

  Miss Tagwynn. I was not myself.”

  “It’s all right,” she assured him. “How do you feel?”

  “Awful.” Something deep and dark flickered in his eyes for a moment—but then it was gone. “Where are we?” he asked. “Aboard Predator, in the infirmary.”

  He peered around him. “Ah. How did we get here? We were at the temple, the last thing I knew.”

  “You collapsed from the silkweaver venom,” Bridget said quietly.

  “We knew Master Ferus could help you and the others who had been poisoned, so the captain brought everyone aboard and set out to recover Master Ferus’s equipment.”

  “Successfully, obviously,” Benedict noted. “What happened?” He blinked and suddenly sat up straight. “Bridget, what happened to your face? Your arm?” He lifted a hand and touched her bruised cheek. His fingertips were light and hot and a tiny bit rough. Bridget thought her heart might stop. She felt her eyes grow very round.

  Benedict’s spine seemed to stiffen in the same moment. Then he lowered his hand abruptly and cleared his throat. “Um. That is, if you wish to tell me.”

  “I was struck on the face while the temple was collapsing around us,”

  Bridget said, which was technically true. She held up her cast. “This happened as the battle began.”

  “What battle?”

  “Oh, we chased down and fought Mistshark, the champion ship of the Olympian Trials, then fought something called an Itasca alongside several ships of the Fleet. We captured her, which is apparently quite a significant thing, and we’re now bringing everyone from the battle back home.” Bridget sounded to herself like a terribly nervous child reciting poetry for the first time in front of her classmates, speaking too quickly but unable to stop herself.

  Benedict blinked and shook his head. “I . . . How did you say you hurt your wrist?”

  “The ship was maneuvering and I was trying to hold on to Rowl. I had no idea the motion could be so violent.” She shook her head and felt herself blushing. “It’s nothing, honestly.”

  “Where’s Rowl?”

  “Not speaking to me at the moment,” she said. “I’m afraid his pride is wounded. But he’ll come around. Eventually.”

  Benedict smiled faintly. “And Gwen?”

  “She’s fine,” Bridget said. “She’s good.”

  The young warriorborn quirked an eyebrow at the thoughtful tone in Bridget’s voice. “Yes, she is,” he said quietly. “Arrogant, headstrong, occasionally careless, and slow to consider that she might be wrong— but she has a good heart. Beneath all the annoying bits. Occasionally a goodly distance beneath.”

  Bridget let out a little laugh and shook her head. “You always tease her.”

  “Someone must. Otherwise she’d get an enormous, swollen Lancaster head.”

  He grinned and looked at her for a moment. Then, moving very deliberately, Benedict Sorellin picked up Bridget’s hand and rested her palm atop his fever-hot fingers. He pressed her hand between both of his. Bridget’s heart raced and she felt herself blushing again and smiling and staring intently down at her own feet.

  But she closed her fingers gently against his, and felt his firm, careful grip tighten in response.

  It was amazing, she thought. She didn’t feel a need to say anything.

  And apparently he didn’t either. Her hand was in his, and that was saying enough and more than enough. She was exhausted and the past few days had been terrible—but now she sat quietly beside Benedict, and held his hand, and felt happier than she had in months.

  Gwen stood very quietly on the windy deck, her goggles in place, and stared out over the railing to where a large cargo-loading platform from Itasca had been stacked with the cost of the opening days of the war.

  There had been no room to lay the bodies of those who had died in state. Instead they had been wrapped in cloth and stacked up like cordwood, Albions and Aurorans alike. The platform now floated a hundred yards from Predator, tethered with a length of line
.

  The deck of Predator was crowded. The officers of surrendered Itasca stood, weaponless, in their dress uniforms, as did the officers of Valiant and Victorious, and the single surviving officer from Thunderous.

  “For as much as it has pleased God in Heaven to take out of this world the souls of these men,” Captain Grimm intoned, his voice calm and steady, his hat in his hands, “we therefore commit their bodies to the winds, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, looking for that blessed hope when God in Heaven himself shall descend to earth with a shout, with the voices of the archangels, and with the trumpet of God, and when that which is no more shall be again. Then we which are alive and remain shall see a new world born of this veil of tears, and be rejoined with them in peace. Amen.”

  “Amen,” came a general rumble from the assembled officers and the aeronauts of Predator.

  “Funeral detail,” Creedy said from his place at Grimm’s right hand. “Proceed.”

  One of Predator’s cannon had been adjusted for the task at hand, and what lanced out from its barrel was not the usual streaking comet of light, but a small, glowing sun. It sailed gracefully toward the float, expanding rapidly, and when it hit there was a flash of light, a cough of thunder, and a sudden thundercloud made of pure fire, so bright that Gwen had to shield her eyes against it, even in goggles.

  When she blinked her eyes clear again, the float and the bodies upon it were gone, replaced with a swiftly dissipating cloud of ash and soot, already being taken by the strong breeze.

  There was a long moment of silence, during which no one moved. Then, as if by an unspoken signal, scores of men suddenly redonned their hats, and the stillness of the funeral service was over. There was a brief period of mingling among the officers, in which the captured Aurorans spoke calmly with their Albion counterparts, differing only in their uniforms, and in that none of them wore gauntlets or blades.