The aeronauts windlass, p.58
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.58

           Jim Butcher
 

  Then men began boarding launches and returning to their ships—to Valiant and Victorious, both of them hauling the battered, gutted form of Itasca behind them. Then the three ships began to make their way slowly back toward Spire Albion, moving at only a fraction of the speed that had carried them away from the Spire.

  Gwen waited for several minutes after the ship had gotten underway, and then watched as Captain Grimm returned to his quarters. She followed after, and knocked on his door.

  “Enter,” he said.

  She slipped off her goggles and went in to find him sitting at the little table in his room, a fresh stack of blank pages in front of him, along with a pen and ink. He set them aside and rose politely as she entered.

  “Captain. Good afternoon.”

  “Miss Lancaster,” Grimm said. “What can I do for you?”

  Gwen found herself clenching her fists on the hem of her jacket and forced herself to stop. “I . . . I need to talk to someone. But there’s no one about who seems appropriate. If I were at home, I would talk to Esterbrook, but . . .”

  Grimm tilted his head slightly to one side. Then he gestured for her to sit down in the other chair, and drew it out for her. Gwen sat gratefully.

  “Tea?” he asked her.

  “I . . . I’m not sure this is a tea conversation,” Gwen said.

  Grimm frowned. “I pray you, Miss Lancaster, say what is on your mind.”

  “That’s just it,” she said. “I . . . I am not sure what it is. I have a horrible feeling.”

  Grimm drew in a breath through his nostrils and said, “Ah. What sort of horrible?”

  Gwen shook her head. “I killed a man a few days ago. An Auroran officer. I chose to do it. He never had a chance.”

  Grimm nodded slowly.

  “And I saw that silkweaver matriarch. I saw it . . . do things.”

  Grimm said quietly, “Continue.” He turned toward a cabinet, opened it, and withdrew a bottle and two small glasses.

  “And . . . and I was here for the battle. I saw . . .” Gwen found her throat closing off. She forced herself to speak more clearly. “It was terrible. When I close my eyes. . . . I’m not quite sure I need to be asleep to have nightmares anymore, Captain.”

  “Aye,” Grimm said. He returned to the table, poured some of the liquor into each glass, and passed one to her before he sat.

  Gwen stared down at the glass without really seeing it. “It’s just that . . . I was among these things. I saw these things. And now . . .”

  “Now you’re on the way back to be among people who didn’t,” Grimm said quietly.

  Gwen blinked and felt her eyes widen slightly as she looked up at him. “Yes. Yes, that’s it exactly. I . . . I had no idea what the world could be like until I saw it. Felt it.” She shook her head, unable to continue.

  “How are you going to talk to someone who has no idea?” Grimm said, nodding. “How can you explain something you can’t find words for? How can you get someone else to understand something for which they have no frame of reference?”

  “Yes,” Gwen said. Her throat tightened up again. “Yes. That’s it exactly.”

  “You can’t,” Grimm said simply. “You’ve seen the mistmaw. They haven’t.”

  Gwen blinked slightly at that. “I . . . Oh. Is that what that phrase means? Because I haven’t seen a literal mistmaw.”

  Grimm smiled faintly. “That’s what it means,” he said. “You can describe it to them as much as you want. You can write books about what you felt, what you experienced. You can compose poems and songs about what it was like. But until they’ve seen it for themselves, they can’t really know what it is you’re talking about. A few people will clearly see the effect it had on you, will understand that much, at least. But they won’t know.”

  Gwen shuddered. “I’m not sure I want them to.”

  “Of course not,” Grimm said. “No one should have to go through that. Why fight, if not to protect others?”

  Gwen nodded. “I thought perhaps I was going mad.”

  “Possibly,” Grimm said. “But if so, you won’t be alone.”

  She felt herself smile a little. “What do I do?”

  In answer, he held up his glass, extending his arm to her. She picked up her own and touched her glass to his. They both drank. The liquor was golden and sweet and strong, and it burned into her as it went down.

  “Talk to me about it, if you wish,” Grimm said. “Or Benedict. Or Miss Tagwynn. Or Mister Kettle, if you don’t mind the cursing. They’ve all seen the mistmaw.”

  “And they know how to live with it?” Gwen asked.

  “I’m not sure anyone knows that,” Grimm said. “But they’ll understand you. It helps. I know. And in time it isn’t as hard to bear.”

  “What we’ve done,” Gwen said quietly. “The violence. The death.” She shook her head, unable to articulate what she felt.

  “I know,” Grimm said very quietly. “There’s a question you need to ask yourself.”

  “Oh?”

  He nodded. “If you could go back to exactly those moments, with exactly the knowledge you had at that time—would you do it any differently?”

  “Don’t you mean, if I knew then what I know now?”

  “No,” he said firmly. “I mean exactly the opposite of that. You can’t see the future, Miss Lancaster. You cannot be aware of all things at all times. In combat situations, your choices can be judged based only against what you knew at the time. To expect anything more of a soldier is to demand that he or she be superhuman. Which seems, to me, unreasonable.”

  Gwen frowned, thinking, turning the empty glass in her fingers. “I . . . If I had done anything differently, I think I would be dead right now.”

  “There you have it,” Grimm said simply.

  “But I feel horrible,” Gwen said.

  “Good,” Grimm said. “You ought to. Anyone ought to.”

  “It doesn’t seem very soldierly.”

  He shook his head. “The moment you can see the mistmaw without feeling horrible, you aren’t a soldier anymore, Miss Lancaster. You’re . . . something of a monster, perhaps.”

  “You seem all right,” Gwen said.

  “Seem. Yes.” Grimm gave her a smile with a bitter tinge to it, and poured himself another drink. He held up the bottle, and she shook her head. He put the bottle back down and threw back the drink in a single swallow. “I’m not. But I haven’t the luxury to fall apart just yet. I’ll be a gibbering wreck later, I assure you, but for the moment there is work to do. I know what you are feeling.”

  Gwen nodded and felt a shudder go through her, and then leave her body feeling a fraction less tense, a fraction less painful.

  He was right. It helped.

  “It’s funny,” she said.

  “Miss?”

  “After the way I left, I suddenly find myself wanting very much to go home. But . . . it won’t be the same when I get back. Will it.”

  “It will be the same,” Grimm said. “You’re the one who has changed.”

  “Oh,” she said quietly. They sat in silence for a moment. Then Gwen rose and put her glass back down on the table. Grimm rose with her.

  “Captain Grimm,” she said. “Thank you.”

  He bowed his head to her and said, “Of course.”

  Rowl crouched in his newly claimed lair and contemplated which was the greater evil—to return to his home in his current condition, or to fling himself off the side of the airship. That he could not readily discern the answer to his question spoke volumes of his situation.

  Perhaps ending it all would be better. He could not face his clan as he was. Foolish humans, to make their airship in such a fashion as to maim a cat who was there only to guide and protect them. It was a wonder they hadn’t exterminated themselves centuries ago.

  Rowl stirred, and moved with considerable pain to rise and lie down on his other side. The inside of this crate smelled like sawdust, but its open mouth faced one of the airship’s walls, so at
least his crippling hideousness was not on display for every human who might walk by.

  He heard when Littlemouse approached the crate for the fourth time.

  “Rowl,” she said. “This is foolish. You need to come out.”

  “Go away, Littlemouse,” Rowl replied. “I am contemplating suicide.”

  “You can’t be serious,” Littlemouse said.

  “Perfectly serious,” he replied. “I cannot go home like this.”

  “Oh, for pity’s sake.” Bridget sighed. Her heavy boots walked away, and Rowl went back to his brooding.

  He had almost perfected it when the boots approached again and someone lifted the crate and turned it ninety degrees to one side. Littlemouse leaned down and peered into the crate, frowning. “Rowl, you’ve been in there for two days, and we’ve landed back at Spire Albion. Are you ready to come out yet?”

  “I will never come out,” Rowl said morosely. “I am a freak.”

  “Merciful Builders.” Littlemouse sighed. “Would you please come out and talk to me?”

  Rowl shuddered. Littlemouse was his friend—but he did not owe her everything. He should not have to display his freakishness for her entertainment.

  “Please,” she said. “Rowl, you’re beginning to frighten me.”

  Rowl rolled his eyes. That was a ploy. A cheap one. Trying to gain his sympathy because her odd human face was contorted with concern and affection. But . . . it was Littlemouse’s ploy.

  He rose, stiffly and uncomfortably, and then began his asymmetrical, halting, hideous limp to bring him out of the crate. The horrible thing on his right front leg and paw clacked against the wooden deck with each loathsome, short, unbalanced step.

  “If I asked you,” Rowl said, “would you kill me, please.”

  “I would not.”

  “You are a terrible friend,” Rowl said. He tried to move his leg, which itched horribly, but the deformity kept him from being able to scratch it. He had tried.

  “For goodness’ sake, Rowl,” Littlemouse said. “It’s just a cast. The bone will heal. Why are you so upset about it?”

  “Look at it,” Rowl said spitefully. “It is hideous. It is the most hideous thing there has ever been.”

  In answer, Littlemouse held up her broken arm, with its similar cast, and said nothing.

  Rowl lowered his ears a little. “That is beside the point. Humans always look foolish and clumsy. I am a cat, and the prince of the Silent Paws. There is no comparison to be made. And my head,” Rowl said. He would have shaken it for emphasis, but shaking would not make the cloth the human butcher had fastened there come loose, and it made his legs feel oddly unsteady when he tried. “Look at my head. And beneath it the fur was shaved. I look like I have mange.”

  “You don’t have . . . Augh, Rowl,” Littlemouse said. “You don’t need someone to help you commit suicide. You need proper food and rest.”

  “I no longer need interest myself with food,” Rowl said. He summoned up as much of his shattered dignity as he could, and turned to begin walking deliberately toward the stern of the airship, which protruded out into empty air.

  “No,” Littlemouse said firmly. She caught up to him in two strides and reached for him. Rowl tried to dodge, but the monstrous cast on his leg slowed him, and Littlemouse scooped him up, made a cradle of her arms, and hugged him gently. It gave him a brief, glowing surge of delight, which was cheating.

  “Littlemouse,” Rowl said, “you are squishing my fur.”

  She held him a little closer and said, “Yes. You are my oldest friend. I would be lost without you.”

  Rowl hadn’t considered the issue from that angle before. “Of course you would.”

  “If you like, you can stay with me until Dr. Bagen says the cast can come off. Then no one from the tribe need see you.”

  “You are trying to bribe me out of an honorable death,” Rowl said in severe tones.

  “I just sent a runner to purchase your favorite dumplings.”

  At the very mention of the food, Rowl’s stomach gurgled hungrily, which was also cheating.

  He let out a heavy, heavy sigh. “Fine,” he said. “But know you, Littlemouse, that I would endure this humiliation for no one else.”

  She rubbed her face into the fur of his back, and Rowl felt himself purring, which was cheating only if he was still trying to kill himself, which he now was not. He had decided.

  So he rolled over in Littlemouse’s cradled arms so that he could nuzzle her back while she nuzzled him, if only for a moment, patting her face with his uninjured front paw. Then he said, “Where?”

  Littlemouse blinked. “Where what?”

  “Where are my dumplings?”

  Grimm sat quietly across from Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion, Spirearch Albion, until he had finished scanning the pages of Grimm’s written report. The Spirearch, Grimm noted, read very, very quickly.

  “I see,” Albion said, “that no mention was made of putting the captured crew of Itasca in chains.”

  “They weren’t,” Grimm replied.

  Albion arched an eyebrow and looked up at Grimm over the rims of his spectacles.

  “Captain Castillo gave us his parole, and that of his crew.”

  The Spirearch’s other eyebrow climbed. “Just like that?”

  “More or less,” Grimm said. “We could have shot them down. We didn’t.”

  Albion pursed his lips thoughtfully and then turned back to the report with a faint smile. “Tell me about our losses.”

  “Thunderous was shot down. She took heavy casualties—one hundred and fifty-three dead, including all but one of her junior officers, and forty injured—but managed to stay afloat on her trim crystals until rescue launches could find her in the mist.”

  “It says here,” Albion said, “that special commendation should be given to Captain Castillo and his Marines, who aided in the rescue effort.”

  “Itasca had more functional launches than all of us together,” Grimm said. “No Marine or aeronaut wants to see anyone fall to the surface.”

  “And why is that?”

  “Because we all have nightmares about it,” Grimm said. “The fighting was over. So they helped.”

  “And none tried to escape?” Albion asked.

  Grimm shook his head once, firmly. “They had given their parole.”

  “I see,” Albion murmured. “In your opinion, is Thunderous salvageable?”

  Salvage operations were always terribly risky affairs. One never knew what horrors one might face in a simple mission to recover the precious lift and core crystals from a downed ship. After all, one had to risk a ship to attempt to recover a ship, and the success rate of such recoveries always wavered precariously between sustainability and throwing good crystals after bad. “I’m not a salvage expert, sire,” Grimm said. “But we’re in a war with Aurora now. We don’t have the luxury of playing it safe.”

  Albion tapped a thumbnail on his desk, musing over the statement.

  “Sire?”

  “Yes, Captain?”

  “What is going to happen to the Aurorans?”

  “They are prisoners of war,” Albion said. “I should imagine they will be set to work at the base of the Spire.”

  Grimm tightened his jaw. “No, sir.”

  “No?”

  “No, sir,” Grimm said. “I’ve seen that place. You might as well tie a noose around their necks and stand them on blocks of ice, if you want them to die a slow death. It will be cleaner.”

  “I’m not sure why this concerns you, Captain,” Albion said.

  “Because they surrendered to me,” Grimm said. “They gave me their parole, sir. They could have fought on with no real chance of victory, and it would have been bloody. But that surrender saved blood and lives of Albions and Aurorans alike. I will not see Captain Castillo repaid with such churlish treatment.”

  “Mmmm,” Albion said. He nodded to the report and said, “Continue.”

  “Victorious took moderate casualtie
s among her crew, with eleven dead and forty-one injured. She took heavy damage to her hull and mastworks, but can be repaired within ten days. Valiant took only light damage, with no deaths and half a dozen injuries, and Commodore Bayard already has her back in fighting condition.”

  “And Predator?”

  “Twenty-two men dead, in all,” Grimm replied, careful to think only of numbers. “Thirty-three injured.”

  “We lost a single heavy cruiser,” Albion mused, “and captured Itasca.”

  “What’s left of her,” Grimm said.

  “In Bayard’s report,” Albion said, “he notes that the only reason Itasca could be taken at all was because you lured her into pursuing Predator.”

  “It was the right thing to do,” Grimm said.

  “Yes,” Albion said, “and many men recognize the right thing to do. But when it means putting themselves at risk, relatively few will still do it.”

  Grimm felt a sudden flare of rage in his chest. “Rook,” he said.

  “Your report,” Albion noted, “accuses him of cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

  “It does,” Grim said. “He got scared. He ran. If Glorious had stood fast, we wouldn’t have lost Thunderous, and might well have taken Itasca whole and functioning.”

  “So it says in your report,” Albion said. “Commodore Rook’s report to the Admiralty reads somewhat differently. He claims that blast concussion shorted the leads to his lift crystal temporarily, and that he could not maintain altitude.”

  “He’s a damned liar,” Grimm said. “Ask Bayard.”

  “I did,” Albion said. “Commodore Bayard reports that he was too far from the fighting at too poor an angle of visibility to see what happened clearly, and cannot in good conscience swear to the truth of either report. Without his testimony, I’m afraid it is your word against Commodore Rook’s.”

  Grimm ground his teeth. He was outcast from Fleet. Rook was the darling of one of the many factions within its command structure. “Shall I ask Captain Castillo for the courtesy of a report?”

  Albion threw back his head and barked out a short laugh. “I believe you. I’m certain the good captain would back up your report. But I’m afraid his word wouldn’t carry much weight with Fleet Admiralty either.”