The aeronauts windlass, p.59
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.59

           Jim Butcher
 

  Grimm’s spine felt like rigid, copper-clad iron. “So he just gets away with it, sire?”

  “He gets away with it,” Albion said. “For now.”

  Grimm heard his knuckles pop as he clenched his hand into a frustrated fist. “Yes, sire.”

  Albion regarded him steadily for a moment and then set aside the report and folded his hands into a pointed steeple. “Off the record,” he said, “how would you review Albion’s performance in this crisis?”

  “We failed, sire,” Grimm said.

  “In what way?”

  “We didn’t stop the attack on Landing. Our enemies escaped, after burning down a priceless collection of knowledge. Innocents died. The Landing shipyard was destroyed. There’s only a single bright point in all of this mess.”

  “That being?”

  Grimm withdrew two identical volumes from the pocket of his coat, and laid them on Albion’s desk. “This is what Cavendish and the Aurorans were after. She took one copy and burned every other one she could find. One of the monks managed to bring one out of the fire— and I took the stolen book back from her prior to Itasca’s arrival.”

  Albion put his fingers on the books very, very slowly. He drew them both toward him and separated them so that they lay side by side. “You did not mention these in your report.”

  “No, sire. The Aurorans went to an awful lot of trouble to get that book. It seemed best not to mention it in any kind of record.”

  Albion nodded slowly. “Indeed, Captain. You did precisely the right thing.” He took both books and swept them into his desk drawer. “This entire incident has been extremely unfortunate.”

  “It could have been more so,” Grimm said.

  “Ah?”

  “The criminal guilds in Landing, sire. If they hadn’t intervened and coordinated firefighting efforts and evacuation, a lot more people would have died. We might have lost the entire habble.”

  “Yes,” Albion said. “We were fortunate they reacted so quickly.”

  “Aye,” Grimm said. “It was almost like someone warned them of what was coming. Sire.”

  Albion blinked once, slowly, and gave Grimm a bland look. “What are you implying, Captain?”

  “You couldn’t trust your own Guard,” Grimm said. “But you needed someone with the numbers and the muscle and the organization to do the job—and while the motivation of the guilds might be distasteful, it is utterly constant. Money.”

  “That is a very interesting theory, Captain Grimm,” Albion said. “But it isn’t terribly credible, I’m afraid. I am a figurehead of the government and little more. Everyone knows that.”

  “Oh,” Grimm said. “My mistake.”

  Neither man smiled. But Albion inclined his head very slightly to Grimm, like a fencer acknowledging a touch.

  “Why, sire?” Grimm asked. “Why would they want that book?”

  “I’m not sure,” Albion said. “I suppose we could ask.”

  “Itasca’s officers and crew won’t know a thing about it, beyond their movement orders and objectives,” Grimm said. “That’s basic military security.”

  “Then we must ask this Madame Cavendish, I should think.” Albion looked up at him. “Can we catch Mistshark?”

  “The moment Captain Ransom got back to her ship, she’d have taken her down into the mist and raised sail,” Grimm said. “She’s a smuggler. You could send half of Fleet to hunt her, sire, and never see so much as her shadow.”

  “And that is your professional opinion?” Albion asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.

  “No, sire. It is a fact.”

  “Mmmm,” Albion said. “Well. At least they didn’t get the book.”

  The storm roiled all around Mistshark. Unpredictable winds buffeted the airship randomly and violently, sometimes shoving her back and forth, and more often sending her hurling violently up or down. Espira sat through it on the floor, his safety harness strapped tightly and securely, his back against the hull. His men were Auroran Marines, used to bad weather in airships, but even so, after three days of wind-driven propulsion, more than a few had been forced to clutch for a bucket as they lost the contents of their stomachs.

  Espira closed his eyes and drifted in limbo until, some unspecified amount of time later, Ciriaco tapped his shoulder, waking him. “Again,” the sergeant said.

  He sighed and hauled himself to his feet. He unfastened the safety harness and began the laborious process of traversing the length of Mistshark to get to Madam Cavendish’s cabin.

  Espira was tired. He didn’t feel like knocking—but simply barging in would have been impolite, and he wanted to live to see Spire Aurora again. He knocked, and a moment later Sark opened the door. The big warriorborn looked leaner, like a half-starved cat, but he was up and moving again despite the terrible injuries he had suffered. He grunted and stepped back from the door as Espira entered.

  Madame Cavendish looked a fright. Her hair was mussed. Her sleeves had been rolled up, and ink smudged her fingers and made a random spatter of droplets on her lean forearms. She grimly gripped a quill, as if the muscles in her hand had long since locked into position from overuse, and she was writing furiously on a piece of paper.

  A stack of several hundred more pieces of paper sat on the table beside her, their edges lined up with maniacal precision, and every one of them was covered in her bold, angular writing.

  She finished the page she was on, the last, blew across it gently to help dry the ink, and then carefully placed it atop the stack. She sat back from it slowly, her eyes gleaming, and only after a moment of silence did she acknowledge Espira. “Major,” she said.

  “Madam.”

  “I need the use of some of your men. Copies must be made of these pages.”

  Espira frowned. Had the woman . . .

  “Madame?” Espira asked. “Did you write this . . . from memory?”

  “Why do you think I’ve been sitting here writing for the past three days?” Cavendish said in a waspish tone. “Why do you think I yielded the book to Captain Ransom when the Albions overhauled us?”

  “I . . . I see,” Espira said. “Madame, I will make inquiries about which of my men can read and write, but you should know that they aren’t chosen as Auroran Marines for their penmanship.”

  “Acknowledged,” Cavendish said. “It must be done.”

  “If I may be so bold,” Espira said, “may I ask what was in the book that was so important?”

  “Names, Major,” Cavendish said, her eyes glinting with hungry, fey sparks. “Names.”

  Folly sat up screaming, and kept on screaming until she realized how uncomfortable it was. Her cries died out to little whimpers, and then she shivered and felt tears on her cheeks.

  Master Ferus came clomping up the ladder to her loft, his wild white hair waving, his face concerned. “Folly?”

  She tried to speak, but her voice came out very quietly. “Again, master. I dreamed it again.”

  “Tell me,” he said.

  Folly shivered. “I dreamed a Spire, surrounded in darkness, with Death pouring in through its walls. I dreamed of thousands of ships like crystal, rising from the earth—and wherever they went, people died.” She shivered and took a breath before finishing in a whisper. “I saw a Spire fall. Collapse as if it had been made of sand. And I dreamed of Predator on fire. Burning. Breaking up. Men falling from her like tiny toys . . .”

  The memory of their screams of panic brought tears to Folly’s eyes again. When she blinked them free, the master was regarding her with compassion.

  “Master,” Folly said quietly. “These are not dreams, are they?”

  “No,” he said, his voice rough.

  “It is the future.”

  “Yes.”

  Folly shivered.

  He put a hand on her shoulder and rested his forehead against hers, his eyes closed. She leaned against him, grateful for his simple proximity.

  “Why am I having these dreams?”

  “Because it is begi
nning.”

  “What is beginning?”

  “The end,” Ferus replied.

  His tone was heavy, weary.

  “Master?”

  “Yes, Folly?”

  “I’m frightened.”

  “So am I, child,” the etherealist said. “So am I.”

 


 

  Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut's Windlass

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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