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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 8

Jim Butcher

  “She’s wounded,” Grimm said firmly. “Not a derelict.”

  “Wounded,” Rook said, rolling his eyes. “She can barely limp up and down the side of the Spire on a tether. Predator isn’t an airship any longer. She’s barely a windlass.”

  Grimm suddenly found himself facing Rook, his hands clenched into fists.

  Rook apparently did not notice that detail. “I am making you an open and friendly offer, Francis. Don’t force me to resort to other means.”

  Grimm stood silently for a moment, staring up at Hamilton Rook’s sneer. “And what means, sir,” he asked quietly, “would those be?”

  “I can pursue it in the courts, if need be,” he said. “Report on the dangerously slipshod handling of your ship. Report on the number of casualties you’ve suffered. Report on the complaints and accusations of criminal behavior other Spires have forwarded to the Fleet.” Grimm ground his teeth. “I incurred those accusations while acting on the Fleet’s behalf, and you know it.”

  “And would be ordered to deny it,” Rook said, his smile widening.

  “Honestly, Francis. Do you really think the Fleet would rather stand by you, a disgraced outcast, than suffer a public humiliation like that?”

  The smile vanished. “I will have that core crystal, Grimm.” Grimm nodded thoughtfully. And then, quite quickly and with no restraining gentleness whatsoever, he slapped Commodore Hamilton Rook across the face.

  The smack of the impact echoed down the empty corridor. Rook reeled back, stunned by the fact of the blow more than the force of it, and stared at Grimm with wide eyes.

  “Predator is not property,” Grimm said in a calm, level tone. “She is not my possession. She is my home. Her crew are not my employees.

  They are my family. And if you threaten to take my home and destroy the livelihood of my family again, Commodore, I will be inclined to kill you where you stand.”

  Rook’s eyes blazed and he drew himself up to his full, intimidating height. “You arrogant insect,” he snarled. “Do you think you can slap me about without paying for it?”

  In answer, Grimm took a quick step forward and did it again. Rook tried to flinch away from the blow, but Grimm’s hands were too quick for him. Again the sound of the slap echoed down the hallway. “I’ll do it any damned time I please, sir,” Grimm said in the same level voice. “Take me to court. Let me tell the judges and the public record precisely what incensed me enough to strike you. You will be publically humiliated. If you hoped to keep any shred of your reputation, you would have no choice except to challenge me to a duel. And, as the challenged party, I would insist upon the Protocol Mortis.” Rook leaned his head back slightly from Grimm, as though he had opened his pantry to fetch cheese and found a crawlyscale waiting for him instead. “You wouldn’t dare. Even if you won, my family would have your hide.”

  “I’d change my flag to Spire Olympia,” Grimm said. “They’d be glad to have me. Let the Rooks attempt their little game with the captain of an Olympian vessel. Do you think your corpse is worth that, Hamilton?” Rook clenched his fists at his sides. “That’s treason.”

  “For an officer of the Fleet, yes,” Grimm said, baring his teeth. “But not for a disgraced outcast like me.”

  “You wretched little nothing,” Rook said. “I should—” Grimm took a step forward, never breaking eye contact, forcing Rook to take a step back. “You should what, Commodore?” he said. “Say nasty things behind my back? Challenge me to a duel? You haven’t got the spine to look in a man’s eyes when you kill him. That’s something else we both know.”

  Rook clenched his teeth, seething. “I will not forget this, Grimm.” Grimm nodded. “Yes. One of your many excellent failings, Hamilton, is that you forget favors and remember insults.”

  “Indeed. My House has a long memory—and wide vision.” Grimm felt a surge of anger threaten to shatter his demeanor, but he suppressed it from everything but the tenor of his voice. “Wide vision?

  Is that how you style it? Know this: If anything happens to any of my men, or to any of their families—anything, no matter how small—I shall hold you personally responsible. I shall denounce you to the Admiralty and the Council within the hour. And in the duel that follows, I shall kill you and cast your body from the top of the Spire—and not necessarily in that order. Am I perfectly clear, Commodore?” Rook swallowed and took another half step back.

  Grimm pointed a finger at him and said, “Stay away from my home.

  Stay away from my family. Good day, sir.”

  Then the captain of Predator turned precisely on a heel and continued marching toward the palace.

  Grimm hadn’t been walking for two minutes when a calm, amused voice spoke from the darkness of an unlit side corridor. “What’s happened to you, Mad? You’ve acquired a few shreds of discretion. I remember a time when you would have braced that pompous twit in the middle of the habble market at noonday.”

  Grimm snorted and didn’t slow his steps. “I’ve no time to fence with you, Bayard.”

  A small, slender figure of a man appeared from the gloom and fell into step beside him. Alexander Bayard wore a commodore’s uniform almost precisely like Rook’s, if not quite as richly fashioned. It was also a great deal more weatherworn. Bayard loved to spend his days aboard ship out on the deck of his flag vessel, the heavy cruiser Valiant, whereas Rook hid from the elements whenever he could.

  “Yes,” Bayard said easily. The smaller man lengthened his strides to match Grimm’s. “I’ve heard. You’ve a ship that can barely stay afloat and no means to repair her, so I’m certain you’re in quite the rush to clear port again.”

  “Don’t make me duel you,” Grimm said.

  “Why on earth not?” Bayard said, putting a bit of extra swagger in his step. He had dark, glittering eyes and hair that had gone magnificently silver decades before its time. “You’d lose and we both know it.” Grimm snorted.

  “You’re a true tradesman of violence, my stiff-necked friend,” Bayard continued. “But you’ve no ice in your soul and not a speck of reptile in your blood. It takes calculation to win a duel against a reptile, and you’ve always been impatient.”

  Grimm found himself smiling. “You’ve just called yourself a reptile, Commodore.”

  “And so I am,” Bayard agreed. “I’m a viper who plays every angle to his advantage.” His smile faded slightly. “Which is why I’m in uniform and you aren’t, I’m afraid.”

  “There was no point in both of us being drummed out,” Grimm replied. “You know that I don’t hold it against you, Alex.”

  “You needn’t. I’ll do it for you. And as for Rook . . .” Bayard shuddered. “If it comes to a duel, I hope you will call upon me to be your second.”

  “I find it unlikely that I should be so desperate,” Grimm said. “I suppose that if everyone else says no, I may consider you.”

  “Excellent. A day in advance at least, if you please. My mistress would never understand if I walked out on her abruptly.”

  Grimm barked out a laugh. “Neither of you is married, and you’ve been seeing each other exclusively for . . . eleven years now?”

  “Thirteen,” Bayard said smugly.

  “God in Heaven. And yet you persist in the fiction that she is your mistress even now. Why?”

  A boyish grin spread over Bayard’s face. “Because scandal, old friend, is ever so much more enjoyable than propriety. Such things are the spice of life.”

  “You’re a degenerate,” Grimm said, but he was smiling widely now, and the rage and frustration he’d felt at his encounter with Rook had faded away. “How is Abigail?”

  “Rosy cheeked, starry-eyed, and content, my friend. She sends her love.”

  “Please convey my warmest respects,” Grimm said. He cocked his head to one side and regarded Bayard. “Thank you, Alex.”

  “Rook would try the patience of an archangel,” Bayard said, inclining his head. “You are not without friends, Grimm. Don’t waste another moment in concern fo
r the fool.”

  “I would not consider the time spent thrashing him wasted.” Bayard let out a rich, warm laugh. “Few would, I daresay.” They came to a dim section of largely unused tunnel, where the lumin crystals were spaced widely apart. Grimm put his hand lightly upon the tunnel wall to guide his nearly blind steps. “You didn’t just happen upon me when I needed a boost in morale. You were following me.”



  “I think you need to speak to the Spirearch.”

  “That’s where I’m going now,” Grimm said.

  “Ah, yes,” Bayard replied. “But you see, he is not in his manor. He sent me to bring you to him—”

  Bayard stopped abruptly in his tracks. Grimm followed suit almost instantly. The tunnel was full of whispering sound: the echoes of their steps, of their voices, the distant empty exhale of air moving through the Spire’s vents, and their own breath.

  Grimm was never sure, after, what tiny hiccup of sound or what flicker of motion in the gloom gave the ambush away—his instincts simply screamed that danger was at hand, and he drew his sword in a liquid whisper of copper-clad steel. Beside him, he felt as much as heard Bayard do the same, and then something, some thing, shrieked in the dark and a cannonball of howling hot agony hurtled into his chest.

  Chapter Eight

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Ventilation Tunnels

  There was no time to react and no room to wield even the short, straight blade of his sword. Grimm fell before the horrible, painful weight and thrust at it with an arm, shoving something that snarled and spit and drew blood with teeth and claws. The creature was perhaps the size of a large child. It flew up and away from him. “Grimm!”

  “I’m fine!” Grimm snapped, rolling swiftly to his feet. He tore his jacket from his shoulders and wrapped it swiftly around his left arm. “Cats?”

  “I think not. No cat ever made a sound like that.”

  The howling sound repeated itself from either direction of the tunnel. “More than one of them,” Grimm said.

  “Back-to-back,” Bayard replied, and Grimm felt the sudden, wiry pressure of the other man’s shoulders pressed against the middle of his back.

  “I should be friends with taller people,” Grimm panted.

  “Bite your tongue, old boy, or I’ll hack apart your ankles.”

  There was another motion in the dark and the creature flew at Grimm again. This time he interposed his leather-wrapped arm, and felt claws and teeth sink into it. Grimm let out a shout and spun to his left, slamming the creature against the stone of the Spire’s wall. He continued the motion of the spin with his right arm, thrusting his short blade home into the thing, and felt the weapon bite sharp and deep. A warbling shriek like nothing he had heard before filled the hallway, even as he heard Bayard cry out, “Hah!” A snarling cry came from somewhere behind Grimm.

  Grimm had no time to turn to Bayard. The creature was thrashing madly, its claws biting into Grimm’s arm even through the layers of thick leather hide. He struck with the sword as swiftly and viciously as he knew how, praying that he didn’t misjudge its length in the dark and impale his own arm. He could see nothing but a vague shape struggling against him, but he could feel hot blood splashing from the wounds his blade inflicted.

  The thing let out another scream and then it was abruptly gone. Cries echoed up and down the halls from both directions, fading as they retreated. Grimm instinctively found Bayard again, and made sure his back was against the other man’s for the next several moments. They both gasped for breath. Grimm’s wounded arm throbbed and burned in a most unpleasant fashion.

  “Cowards,” Bayard panted a moment later, when it was clear that the attack was over. “Bloody cowardly things.”

  “Indeed,” Grimm said. “Shouldn’t we be running now?”

  “Absolutely,” Bayard said. “But half a moment. I’ve a light here somewhere.”

  Grimm waited impatiently while Bayard’s clothing made rustling sounds. “Ah!” he said. “In my weskit, I’d almost forgotten.” A moment later there was a dim source of pale blue light as Bayard removed a lumin crystal the size of a fingernail from one of his pockets and held it up.

  The tunnel was unsightly. Blood that looked black in the pale light was splattered everywhere—more near Grimm than Bayard. Bayard himself was scarcely mussed from the action. His sword, though, was stained dark to half the length of its blade.

  “God in Heaven, you’re a sight,” Bayard said, lifting an eyebrow. “There’s more blood than man.” He looked past Grimm to the heavy splatters on the wall. “My word, old boy. You missed your calling as a butcher.”

  “Tried,” Grimm said. “But I couldn’t manage. I had to settle for the Fleet.”

  “Bitterness does not become you, my friend,” Bayard said. His dark eyes flicked around the hallway. “How’s your arm?”

  “Painful,” Grimm said. “I’d as soon not unwrap the coat from around it until we’re somewhere where we might find bandages.”

  “Best we move deliberately, then,” Bayard said. “It would be rather funny to watch you run until your heart pumped all your blood out, but I’m afraid Abigail would be cross with me. She might refuse my attentions for hours. Even days.”

  “We can’t have that,” Grimm said. He shook as much blood as he could from the blade of his sword, and then grimaced and wiped it off on the leg of his trousers not already soaked with the stuff. He returned the weapon to its sheath just as Bayard finished wiping his sword clean with a kerchief and offered the cloth to Grimm.

  “You might have said something,” Grimm growled.

  “That outfit’s ruined anyway.”

  Grimm glowered at him and opened his mouth to say something more, when Bayard abruptly pitched sideways and began to fall.

  No, that wasn’t it at all, Grimm thought. Bayard was standing perfectly still. His friend hadn’t fallen—Grimm had. He could distantly feel the cold Spirestone floor beneath his cheek. Bayard’s mouth was moving, but the words seemed to be coming at him from several hundred yards down the tunnel, and he couldn’t quite make them out. Grimm tried to put a hand beneath him and push himself up, but his limbs wouldn’t move.

  “Bother,” Grimm mumbled. “This is rather inconvenient.”

  Bayard leaned down and peered closely at Grimm’s face. The last thing Grimm remembered of the moment was the feeling of being hoisted up onto Bayard’s slim, wiry shoulders.

  Grimm opened his eyes and found himself in a warm, dim room. The ceiling was made of hardened clay—one of the most common construction materials for the more modest residences within Spire Albion. It hadn’t been painted white, but instead was covered with a colorful and rather fanciful mural that looked like it had been done by a particularly enthusiastic child. It made little sense, containing seemingly random images of airships, the sun, some sort of odd-looking plants that only partially resembled trees, and an image of the moon that was much too large in relation to the sun opposite it. Strange creatures occupied the same space, none of them familiar to Grimm, though he might have seen some of them in his more fanciful childhood storybooks.

  The room was lit by dozens and dozens and dozens of tiny, nearly dead lumin crystals, collected in jars of clear glass. Their light was a nebulous thing, showing everything clearly and seemingly originating from nowhere. It was a small, spare chamber, sporting a student’s desk and a small and overstuffed bookshelf. He lay on a bed of woven ropes with a thin pad over them, and blankets had been piled over him until they more threatened to smother him, than keep him warm.

  He began to push them away, only to find that his left arm had been bound to his chest. Both were wrapped in what seemed to him irrational amounts of cloth bandages. They weren’t white. Instead they had been made from a broad spectrum of every color and texture of cloth imaginable. One of the strips had little pink heart shapes alternating with bright yellow suns.

  Grimm sat up, wincing at the pain from his arm. He had
a number of other cuts on his upper body, apparently, which were also covered in bandages and some kind of pungent sterilizing ointment. He didn’t remember receiving the minor wounds, but that was hardly unusual in combat. There was a foul taste in his mouth, and his throat burned with thirst. A pitcher and mug on a tray on the bed’s nightstand stood ready, and he poured the mug full of water and drank it down three times running before his body began to relent.

  Someone tapped on the door and then opened it. Grimm looked up to see a young woman enter the room. She was dressed . . . not so much untidily, he decided, as randomly. Her grey shirt was made of ethersilk, patched in several places, and looked as though it had been tailored for a man almost two hundred pounds heavier than she was. Though the shirt was long enough to serve as a gown itself, she wore a green undergown, with rustling skirts that fell to the floor. As she walked toward him, he saw that she wore stockings instead of shoes—green and white polka dots on one foot, and orange and purple stripes on the other. She wore an apron— but it looked to be made of leather, and was burned in several places, a smith’s garment rather than kitchen wear. Her hair had been dyed in crimson and white stripes, and then braided so that it resembled a peppermint candy. One lens of her spectacles was pink, the other green, and the band of her too-large top hat was fairly bursting with folded pieces of paper. She wore a necklace from which depended a glass vial of nearly spent illumination crystals, and she carried a covered tray in her arms.

  “Oh,” she said, pausing. “He’s awake. Goodness. That was unexpected.” She tilted her head, peering at him first through one lens of her spectacles and then through the other. “There, you see? He’s fine. He’s not mad. Except that he is. And I should know.” She carried the tray to a small table against one wall and whispered, “Should we tell him how improper it is for a gentleman not to wear a shirt when there is a young lady present? It isn’t that we don’t appreciate the view, because he’s quite masculine, but it does seem like something one should say.”