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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 6

Jim Butcher

  Bridget paused again before she spoke. Then she squared her shoulders, faced Reginald, and said, “But I wouldn’t.” She glanced at Gwen.

  “How does this work? Do we fight right now?”

  Gwen blinked up at the large girl. “You . . . actually intend to accept his challenge?”

  Bridget nodded her head once. The cat made a low, eager growling sound.

  Gwen sighed. “It doesn’t happen here. You’ll need a second, someone to accompany you, help you prepare, and to schedule the duel.

  You’ll also need a Marshal to adjudicate it.”

  Gwen blinked. “That . . . seems like a needlessly complicated way to do something so adolescent.”

  “There are excellent reasons for it,” Gwen said.

  “I see,” Bridget said. “How do I accept his challenge?” Gwen wordlessly held out the glove.

  “Ah,” Bridget said, and took it.

  Reginald nodded tightly, and gestured at one of the young nobles beside him. “This is Barnabus. He will be my second. Have your second contact him. Good day.” He spun on a heel and marched away, into the palace, taking his entourage with him.

  Bridget and Gwen watched them go. After a moment Bridget said, “I didn’t need your help.”

  “Pardon?” Gwen asked.

  “Your help. I didn’t need you to come over here and make things worse.”

  “Worse?” Gwen asked, startled. “In what way did I make things worse?”

  “I didn’t ask you for your help. When you got involved his idiot pride was at stake. He was forced to start defending the honor of House Astor for fear of showing weakness to a Lancaster.” Bridget shook her head. “If you weren’t there, all I had to do was stop talking. It would have left him with nowhere to go.”

  “I was trying to help you,” Gwen said.

  Bridget rolled her eyes. “Why do all you people in the High Houses think that you are the only ones who can possibly manage matters that are none of your bloody business? Did you even consider the fact that I might not want your interference?”

  Gwen folded her arms and scowled. She . . .

  She hadn’t, had she? Not for one second. And of course Reggie had been more stung by Bridget’s words, because he wanted Gwen, and resented being humiliated in front of her. Gwen hadn’t thought things through. She’d simply charged into the situation, attempting to pour oil on troubled waters—only she’d set the oil on fire instead.

  As a result, it looked like someone was going to get burned. She couldn’t leave things in that state, not when she’d helped put them there. She couldn’t bear it if anyone were hurt because of her foolishness—well, perhaps if it was Reggie, and if he wasn’t hurt too badly, but she’d feel awful if anything happened to Bridget. “You might have a point,” Gwen said quietly. “But that doesn’t matter now.”

  “Why on earth not?” Bridget asked.

  “Have you the faintest idea of what is involved in a formal duel?”

  “Two fools.”

  Gwen found herself smiling faintly. “Other than that.” Bridget seemed to withdraw into herself. She hunched down a little, as if trying to hide her height. She frowned down at the cat, stroking its fur. “Other than that . . . no. I have no idea.”

  “Reginald does,” Gwen said quietly. “You might not want my help, Miss Tagwynn—but as of now, you most assuredly need it.”

  Chapter Five

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning

  Bridget regarded the nobleman uncertainly. “I’m not at all sure about this, sir.”

  Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster stood facing her, in the gloom of what could only loosely be considered early morning in Habble Morning’s marketplace, outside the training compound of the Spirearch’s Guard. He was a tall man, as tall as her father, but lean with youth and a natural inclination. Benedict gave her a smile that he probably meant to be reassuring, but it showed a little too much of his larger-than-average canine teeth. “That’s the problem, isn’t it?” he said. “You aren’t sure and you need to be. Come on, then. I need to assess what kind of physical strength you have. You’ll not hurt me, Miss Tagwynn, I assure you.”

  “It seems . . . improper,” she said, frowning. Of course she wouldn’t hurt him. But even had that been her intention, Benedict’s golden, vertically slit eyes showed him to be warriorborn, with the blood and the strength of lions in his limbs. “Are you quite sure this is sanctioned by the Guard?”

  “Normally, open-hand combat is taught after your initial training course, but there’s no regulation that says you’ve got to wait that long to learn. As long as it’s your time you’re spending, and not the Guard’s.”

  “I see,” Bridget said. “That seems equitable. How should I attack you?”

  Benedict’s face remained serious, but his eyes suddenly sparkled. Bridget’s stomach did an odd little shuffle-step, and she looked down straightaway.

  “Just come at me,” he said. “Try to pick me up.”

  Bridget frowned but nodded at him. “I see,” she said. She took several steps closer to the young man and said, “Excuse me, please.”

  “Don’t say ‘excuse me,’ ” Benedict chided. “You won’t be saying ‘excuse me’ to Reggie on the dueling stage—”

  Bridget bent, faintly irritated by his tone, got a shoulder beneath Benedict’s stomach, and dragged him up off the floor. He wasn’t much heavier than a slab of red meat from one of the large vats back home, and she lifted him, held him there for a moment, and then continued the motion, tossing him over her back and onto the cinderstone floor behind her.

  She turned to find him sitting on the ground, staring at her with his mouth slightly open.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “Was that acceptable?”

  “You. . . . uh,” Benedict said. His golden eyes glinted in the gloom. “You’re . . . rather fit, Miss Tagwynn.”

  “I work for a living,” Bridget said. She regretted the words almost instantly. She hadn’t meant them as an insult to him, implying that he did not, but a prickly scion of one of the great houses of Albion could readily interpret them that way.

  But no anger touched his eyes. Instead his face spread into a slow, delighted smile. “Oh, Maker of Ways,” he breathed, and the sound flooded out into a bubbling laugh.

  Bridget liked the way his laugh sounded. She found her mouth tugging up into a small smile. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

  “We should issue tickets to this duel,” he said. “Reggie could spend his life trying and still not live it down.”

  “I beg your pardon?” Bridget repeated. “Whatever do you mean?”

  “The duel,” the young man said. “He challenged you, which means that you have the right to choose the location of the duel and the weapons to be used.”

  “How nice for me,” she said. “But I still don’t follow.”

  Benedict pushed himself back up to his feet, smiling. “You don’t choose a weapon at all. You make it an unarmed duel.”

  Bridget tilted her head. “That does seem less likely to result in someone being maimed or killed for no good reason. But I don’t know how to fight that way.”

  “I do,” Benedict said. “The basics are reasonably simple to learn. And you’re strong enough.”

  Bridget frowned. “But . . . presumably Reggie has had a great deal more training than I have. And while I am quite strong for a woman, I am surely not much stronger than he is. Would that not mean that he would have little difficulty in overcoming me?”

  “That depends on what path you take,” Benedict said.

  Bridget felt her frown deepen. “My path . . . You aren’t going to attempt to convert me to your religion, are you? I hope you are not, sir. That would be awkward.”

  Again, that easy laugh rolled forth. “Those who follow the Way have no need to proselytize. One does not convert to the Way. One simply realizes that one already follows the Way.”

  “God in Heaven, not that speech again,” came a new voice. Gwendolyn Lancaster appeared from the
gloom, dressed in the plain grey exercise clothing of the Guard, just as they were. It was difficult for Bridget to reconcile the absolute confidence in the noblewoman’s stance and voice with her utterly diminutive size. Bridget felt quite certain that even without training, she could break Miss Lancaster like a ceramic doll.

  “Dearest coz,” Benedict said, his voice turning even more pleasant. “You are looking . . . particularly Gwennish today.”

  Gwendolyn arched one dark brow sharply at that statement and then said, “What are you doing on the ground?”

  “She threw me here,” Benedict said, his tone pleased.

  Gwendolyn frowned at him, and then her eyebrows lifted. “Did she?” Her eyes turned to Bridget. “She doesn’t look warriorborn.”

  “She isn’t,” Benedict said. “But she works in a vattery. I don’t suppose I weigh too much more than a side of red meat, do I, Miss Bridget?”

  “Not much more at all, sir.”

  Gwen narrowed her eyes. “Oh, you aren’t thinking . . .”

  “For Reggie? I most certainly am,” Benedict said. “It’s perfect.”

  “Stop it,” Bridget said at last, exasperated. “Both of you. Stop it this instant. It’s like you’ve both read a book that I haven’t and you won’t stop talking about it. It’s most impolite.”

  “I’m sorry,” Gwendolyn said. “I take it you weren’t raised to be as underhanded and devious as Benny and me.”

  Bridget blinked. Goodness, that the noblewoman would just say it outright like that seemed very, very bold. But at the same time . . . somewhat reassuring. Gwendolyn Lancaster might have been many things, but at least she didn’t seem as smugly capable of self-deception as many of the other children of the High Houses. “I would not care to make such a judgment of your families,” Bridget said carefully. “But . . . no. It would seem not.”

  Rowl came padding out of the darkness, silent, as always, offering no explanation of where he had been, as always. Bridget bent one of her knees slightly, hardly needing to think about it, and he used it as a springboard to hop lightly into her arms and then flow up onto one of her shoulders. The cat nuzzled her cheek and she leaned her head in toward his slightly.

  “Listen carefully, Littlemouse,” Rowl said, in an almost inaudible tone. “I have sought word upon these two. They are dangerous.”

  Bridget flicked her eyes toward the cat and gave a tiny fraction of a nod to tell him that she understood. Being called “dangerous” by a cat could mean a great many things, but it was generally delivered as something of a compliment. She thought the two nobles to be rather selfinvolved and entirely overflowing with arrogance they hardly seemed to know existed, but she had learned long ago not to treat a cat’s opinion lightly.

  So she said to Gwendolyn, “Please excuse me, Miss Lancaster. You were saying?”

  Gwendolyn had tilted her head, her bright eyes studying the cat sharply. “I was saying that if you can come near to matching Reggie in physical strength, then you can fight a duel he cannot win.”

  “I don’t really care if anyone wins,” Bridget said. “I just want everyone to walk away alive, and for this nonsense to be over.”

  Gwendolyn blinked and suddenly flashed Bridget a smile that looked as warm and true as an aeronaut’s sunrise. “You have an absolutely wretched attitude about fighting a pointless duel for the sake of pride. Did you know that?”

  “Thank goodness,” Bridget said.

  “The point is,” Benedict said, rising easily to his feet, “that if you can offer him anything like a real fight, there’s no way he can win the duel. If he defeats you barehanded, it likely won’t be by much, and he looks like a brute and a bully. And if you defeat him, he’ll forever be the Astor who was beaten soundly by—” Benedict broke off and gave Bridget a slight smile.

  “By the vattery trog,” Bridget said. She smiled slightly. “That . . . would be quite the vile thing to do to him.”

  “Wouldn’t it, though,” Gwendolyn said, beaming.

  “But . . . I’m not going to do that,” Bridget said.

  “Why under Heaven would you not?” Gwendolyn asked. “He more than has it coming.”

  “Possibly,” Bridget allowed. “But to humiliate him would be to invite some other kind of indirect reprisal—if not upon me then upon my father. My father is a good man. I won’t see that kind of mischief brought to him because of me.” She looked at Benedict. “Is there some weapon that we could use that would allow him to win without slaughtering me or looking like a fool?”

  “There’s no weapon, tool, or clockwork in the world that could make Reggie not look the fool,” Gwen said in an acid tone.

  “I don’t care about victory,” Bridget said. “I don’t care about making him look bad. I just want to move on with my life as if we’d never traded words.”

  “You’re right, coz,” Benedict said, nodding slowly. “She has a wretched attitude about dueling for pride.”

  The two traded another, longer look, which again made Bridget feel that she’d skipped the necessary background reading needed to understand.

  “Food?” Gwendolyn suggested suddenly. “The two of you came out here so early, you’ve missed breakfast call. Inquisition class is in half an hour, and you don’t want to run on an empty stomach after that.” She looked up at Rowl and added, “And for you as well, Master Cat. I’m buying.”

  Rowl said smugly, “This one has her priorities well sorted. Tell her my favorite food.”

  “Rowl,” Bridget said. “That is not how one goes about such things.”

  She looked up to find both of the Lancasters staring at her.

  “You speak cat,” Benedict said. “I mean, I’d heard that some people claimed to do it but . . . For goodness’ sake, you sounded exactly like a cat just now.”

  “He has no idea how terrible your accent is,” Rowl observed.

  Bridget rolled her eyes at the cat and said to Benedict, “Yes, of course. Do you . . . not have any cats in residence at House Lancaster?”

  “Certainly not,” Gwendolyn said. “Mother wouldn’t hear of it.”

  “We do, actually,” Benedict said, cutting over Gwendolyn smoothly. “The servants have an arrangement with several cats to handle vermin. But as far as I knew, it’s an old understanding, and no one there has ever actually communicated directly with a cat before.”

  Gwendolyn blinked several times. “How is it that you know that when I do not?”

  “Because no one tells you anything, coz,” Benedict said. “Perhaps because you spend so much time with Lady Lancaster and often do not pause to think before you speak.”

  Gwendolyn tilted her head to one side as if to acknowledge a fair point. Then she blinked again and said, “Then I am afraid that I have been quite rude. I have neither introduced myself to your companion nor sought introduction to him. Please convey to him my apologies, if you would, Miss Tagwynn.”

  Bridget looked carefully at Gwendolyn for a moment, waiting for the flash of mockery that would appear in her eyes, as they would have in Reggie’s, but it didn’t come. She seemed sincere. Imperious and obsessed with protocol—but sincere.

  “What is this she asks, Littlemouse?” Rowl said, leaning forward to peer intently at Gwendolyn.

  “She seeks an exchange of names,” Bridget told him, in Cat. “Human names, not cat names. She feels she has wronged you by not seeking it sooner.”

  Rowl stiffened in indignation. “Has she?”

  “Perhaps not intentionally,” Bridget allowed. “She wasn’t sure what to think of a cat appearing among humans. I suspect she genuinely seeks to avoid giving offense.”

  Rowl’s tail lashed back and forth. “What would Wordkeeper say of her?”

  Bridget smiled slightly. She knew precisely how her father would treat Miss Lancaster. “He would ask her to tea and extend all courtesy.”

  Rowl nodded his head sharply, once, a very human gesture. “Then I will also extend courtesy. Tell her my name, and that she has not yet earned a c
at name of her own, but that breakfast is a good start.”

  Bridget turned to Gwendolyn and said, “Miss Lancaster, this is Rowl of the Silent Paws tribe, kit to Maul, chief of the Silent Paws.”

  “A prince of his house, as you are of yours, coz,” Benedict noted.

  Gwendolyn evidently had the grace to avoid looking skeptical at this pronouncement. She gave Benedict a decidedly unreadable look, which only made him smile.

  He had, Bridget thought, a very nice smile.

  Gwendolyn turned back to look at Rowl seriously and said, “Welcome, Sir Rowl, to . . . the human part of Habble Morning. It would please me very much to buy you breakfast, if you would permit it.”

  Rowl promptly plopped down into Bridget’s arms, his throaty purr needing no translation. “A very good start,” he murmured.

  “Yes, Miss Lancaster,” Bridget said. “That would be fine.”

  Chapter Six

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning

  Rowl watched Littlemouse and her fellow humans behaving foolishly, and wondered how soon she would need him to intervene and set things right.

  Once more they had slept less than all the humans in the Spirearch’s Guard, and once more the human Gwendolyn and her half-souled cousin thought that they were preparing Littlemouse for some kind of combat, which was ridiculous. The best way to prepare for fighting was to fight. Any kitten knew that.

  Currently Benedict was having Littlemouse practice falling, which was similarly ridiculous. One didn’t practice falling. One simply landed on one’s feet. Yet over and over, Littlemouse fell from her feet to her back, sometimes alone, sometimes helped along the way by Gwendolyn or Benedict. Rowl had been suspicious of this activity at first, assuming that it would be used as an excuse for Gwendolyn to eliminate a rival female, or for Benedict to claim mating rights with Littlemouse. But over the past few days it had proven to be more foolish than nefarious, and did not seem to harm Littlemouse to any significant degree, so Rowl permitted it to continue.