The aeronauts windlass, p.9
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.9
 

           Jim Butcher

  Grimm blinked down at himself and fumbled for the bedcovers with one hand, pulling them up. “Ah, please excuse me, young lady. I seem to have lost my shirt.”

  “He thinks I’m a lady,” she said, and beamed at him. “That’s quite unusual, in my experience.”

  Grimm racked his mind for the proper thing to say in such a circumstance, and found little. “To be called a lady?”

  “Thinking,” the young woman said. “Now, here is some fresh soup, which doesn’t taste very good, but he should eat it all because the poison thinks it’s even worse.”

  Grimm blinked. “Poison?”

  The young woman turned toward him and came close enough to lay a hand on his forehead. “Oh, dear. Is he feverish again? No, no. Oh, good. Perhaps he’s just simple. Poor dear.”

  Before she could turn away, Grimm caught her wrist in his hand.

  The young woman . . . no, he decided, the girl’s breath seemed to catch in her throat. Her entire body went stiff and she breathed, “Oh, dear. I hope he doesn’t decide to harm me. He’s quite good at doing harm. It took forever to clean off all the blood.”

  “Child,” Grimm said in a low voice. “Look at me.”

  She froze abruptly. After a silent second, she said, “Oh, I mustn’t.”

  “Look at me, girl,” Grimm said, keeping his voice gentle and calm. “No one is going to hurt you.”

  The girl flicked a very quick look at him. He saw only a flash of her eyes over the spectacles when she did. One was an even, steady grey. The other was a shade of pale apple-green. She shivered and seemed to sag, her wrist going limp in his hands.

  “Oh,” she breathed. “That’s so sad.”

  “Who are you speaking to, child?”

  “He doesn’t know I’m talking to you,” the girl said. The fingertips of her free hands rose to the crystals in the little bottle around her neck. “How can he hear me without realizing something so simple?”

  “Ah,” Grimm said, and released the girl’s wrist very slowly and carefully, as he might a fragile bird’s body. “You’re an etherealist. Forgive me, child. I didn’t realize.”

  “He thinks I’m the master,” the girl said, ducking her head and blushing. “How can he be so clever and so stupid all at once? That must hurt awfully. But perhaps it would be more polite if we didn’t say anything. He seems to mean well, the poor thing. And he’s conscious, mobile, and lucid. We should tell the master that it looks like he’ll survive.”

  With that, the girl scurried out of the room, nodding to herself, her soft litany hanging for a moment in her wake.

  Grimm shook his head. Whoever the girl was, she’d been serving her apprenticeship for a goodly while, despite her apparent youth. All etherealists were odd and became more so as they aged. Some were a good bit odder than others. The child was at least as strange as any other etherealist he’d met.

  He went to the tray and uncovered it. There was a bowl of soup and several flatbakes, along with a spoon that would have been modest had it not been made from dark, glossy wood. He tasted the soup, bracing himself for the bitter taste of most medicines, and found it surprisingly bland but pleasant.

  He fetched out a stool, sat down at the desk, and devoured the soup, along with the flatbakes and two more glasses of water. By the time he finished, he felt almost like a human being. He took note of a plain robe that had apparently been left for him, and managed to tug it on onehanded and belt it at the waist.

  No sooner had he finished than there was a heavy thump upon the door to his chamber.

  “Ow,” said a man’s voice. “Damnation to you.” The latch rattled several times and the man sighed in a tone of impatience. “Folly.”

  “He doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” said the girl in an apologetic tone. “He’s just too brilliant for you.” The door opened, and the girl stepped back hurriedly without meeting Grimm’s eyes.

  A man entered the room holding a rumpled handkerchief against his apparently bleeding nose. He was a scrawny specimen except for a small potbelly, and it made his limbs look out of proportion, almost spidery. His hair was a dirty grey mop, his face covered by sparse white stubble. He was dressed in a suit about two decades out of date, in sober shades of brown and grey, and large, soft slippers made of some kind of creature with green-and-black-striped fur. Too old to be middle-aged, too young to be elderly, the man had eyes that were a vibrant shade of blue Grimm had seen only in the autumn skies high above the mists. The man walked with the aid of a wooden cane tipped with what might have been a weapons crystal from a ship’s light cannon. It was the size of a man’s clenched fist.

  “Ah!” he said. “Aha! Captain Grimm, welcome, welcome, so good to be able to speak to you when you aren’t delirious.” He glanced aside at the girl and mumbled out of the corner of his mouth, “He’s not delirious, is he?”

  The girl shook her head with wide eyes that didn’t leave the ground. “No, master.”

  Grimm was quite unsure how to respond with courtesy to such a greeting, but he settled for bowing slightly at the waist. “We haven’t met, sir. I’m afraid you have the advantage of me.”

  “Yes, we did, tomorrow,” the old man said. “And no, you aren’t, and the last is a matter for debate, perhaps. What do you think, Folly?”

  Folly bit her lip and touched her vial of crystals. “He doesn’t realize that Captain Grimm is quite uncomfortable because he doesn’t know anyone’s name.”

  “Untrue!” the etherealist stated with conviction. “He knows his own name, I daresay, and at least one of yours. He’s had seconds and seconds to transfer that knowledge into his memory. Unless, of course, he remains delirious.” The old man squinted at Grimm. “You’re quite sure that you are lucid, sir?”

  “At times I wonder,” Grimm replied.

  Something very young and very full of mischief flickered far back in the etherealist’s eyes, and his face stretched into a wide smile. “Ah. Ah! A man of modesty, either so false that it may be true or so true that it seems entirely false. I can see why Bayard speaks so well of you, sir.” The old man touched the tip of his cane to the floor far to one side and sank into an elaborate bow of dancelike grace. “I am Efferus Effrenus Ferus, at your service, sir. And that’s Folly.”

  “Folly,” the girl said, and bobbed a curtsy toward the far corner of the room.

  “Sweaters,” Ferus said soberly. “Sweaters, dear. And two pairs of socks, one of them wool. Oh, and fetch me a gentleman’s hat of a size no larger than six and then soak it in vinegar.”

  The girl curtsied again and hurried from the room.

  Ferus beamed. “Such a sweet child. And she always remembers perfectly. Now, then, Captain.” He turned back to Grimm. “You have questions, I answers. Shall we see if they match?”

  “Please,” Grimm said. “I appear to be your guest. Have I you to thank for caring for me?”

  Ferus’s shoulders sagged in evident disappointment. “Apparently they do not match. I was going to say strawberries.” His lips compressed and he shook his head. “You aren’t very good at this game, Captain.”

  “I take that to mean that you did help me, sir.”

  Ferus waved a hand. “Bayard did more for you than I did, I daresay. But that said . . . yes, I was compelled to employ my skills on your behalf.”

  “Skills, sir?”

  The etherealist nodded. “Today I am a physician with the cure to a condition hardly anyone ever contracts. If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I’d have told you it seemed a very poor long-term investment with very little commercial viability. But here we are.”

  Grimm found himself smiling. “Indeed. Here we are. Thank you for your help.”

  The old man beamed and drummed the end of his cane on the floor. “Just so, just so. Whatever beastie it was tried to eat you, it left a good many dangerous structures behind in your blood—quite rude, sir, quite rude, and most unfair.”

  “Poison?” Grimm asked.

  Ferus waggled his hand back and fo
rth. “Yes. No, actually, not even remotely, but for purposes of this conversation, yes.”

  Grimm frowned. “Ah. Um. Am I in any danger?”

  “You’re dead as a stone, man!”

  “I am?”

  “Yes. No, actually, not even remotely, but for purposes of this conversation, yes.” Ferus nodded at his arm. “You’ve clouded the issue. I should check your wound to ensure my work was thorough. Do you mind?”

  “No,” Grimm said. “I suppose not.”

  “Excellent,” Ferus said. Then he turned and left the room, banging the door shut behind him.

  Grimm stood for a moment, frowning. Then he shook his head and began to seat himself again.

  “Ack!” cried Ferus from the hall. “No, stop moving, man! How am I supposed to see anything with you dancing jigs about the room?”

  Grimm froze in place. “Ah. Is . . . is this better?”

  “You look rather awkward, halfway down like that. You aren’t by chance having a bowel movement of some kind?”

  Grimm sighed. “No.”

  “Well, try not to until I’m finished.”

  “Ah, Master Ferus. If you don’t mind my asking, how exactly are you examining me? Surely you can’t see the wound from out there?”

  “Untrue!” Ferus said. “From out here I can see little else! There, done, I do good work, if I do say so myself.” Footsteps shuffled up to the door and then stopped warily perhaps a foot away.

  The doorknob rattled again fitfully and then went still.

  “Bother,” Ferus said. “Confounded thing. Why do you mock me?”

  Grimm walked across the room and opened the door.

  Ferus let out a sigh. “Thank you, young man, thank you. Were I your age I’m sure I would learn the trick of it straight off, but the mind, you see. It goes rather stale.”

  “It’s the least I could do,” Grimm said.

  “Incorrect!” Ferus proclaimed. “The least you could have done would be nothing! Goodness, I hope you’re brighter than you seem. We’ve really no more time to waste upon your education, Captain.”

  “No?” Grimm asked. “And why not?”

  And in an instant the old man changed.

  His previously animated voice went low and steady. Something shifted in his spine and shoulders, conveying a sense of perfect confidence and strength wildly at odds with his innocuous stature. And most of all his eyes changed: The sparkle in them transformed, distilled itself into a muted fire that met Grimm’s gaze without expectation or weakness.

  Grimm became abruptly certain that he was standing before a very dangerous man.

  “Because, Francis Madison Grimm, we’ve come to the end,” Master Ferus said.

  “The end? Of what?”

  “Of the beginning, of course,” the etherealist said. “The end of the beginning.”

  Chapter Nine

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning

  I can’t believe you’re going along with this,” Gwendolyn told Benedict. She tried to keep her voice pleasant and neutral.

  Her cousin eyed her and slipped a half step farther away from her as they walked together toward the duel.

  “Oh, please,” Gwendolyn said, allowing her tone to become openly cross. “Now you’re just teasing me.”

  Benedict smiled very slightly. “Rowl seemed insistent.”

  “Rowl,” Gwendolyn said, “is a cat, Benedict.”

  “Have you ever tried to stop a cat from doing what it wants to do?”

  Benedict asked her.

  “No, of course not. There are no cats in House Lancaster.” Benedict barked a sharp laugh. “That again.”

  Gwendolyn felt her face heat slightly. “I’ve never seen one there,” she continued, as if he hadn’t interrupted her at all. “The point is, Benny, that if I spent a lifetime thinking they were little more than clever beasts, you can be sure that many others have as well.”

  “And?”

  “And word has spread. Everyone in the habble will be watching this duel today. This will be the first time House Tagwynn has impinged upon the awareness of the Great Houses in a generation. Can you imagine what they’re going to be saying about Bridget and her father if she shows up with a bloody cat as her second?”

  “I can,” Benedict said, his voice maddeningly calm. “Yes, indeed.”

  “Now, what is that supposed to mean?” Gwen demanded. “Honestly, coz, I know you’re still a recruit, but I can’t very well go explaining everything to you. You’ve seen everything I have. You’ve had the same education I have. You have an excellent mind—when you bother to bring it in on a consult with your temper, I mean. Use it.” Gwen scowled at him. “I have. It tells me that the name of Tagwynn is in danger today,” she said. “And it’s there because of my own stupidity, and that we can’t allow them to come to harm because of my mistake.”

  “Yes,” Benedict said. “All true. But take it a step further. What are the consequences of today?”

  Gwen pressed her lips together for a moment before speaking. “If she loses the duel, the Tagwynns will be both a laughingstock and a highly visible target of economic opportunity. At the very least, their income might suffer. It’s probable that one of the hungrier Houses with interests in that market will find a way to buy out their vattery or legislate them out of business.”

  “True,” Benedict said. “And if she wins?”

  “That’s a far worse circumstance,” Gwen said. “If she beats Reggie, she incurs the ire of a major House. ‘Might’ and ‘probably’ transfigure to ‘will’ and ‘certainly.’ ”

  Benedict nodded. “House Tagwynn, House Astor, yes, you’ve done the math.” He considered. “Well. Two-thirds of it, anyway.”

  “What do you mean, two-thirds?”

  He held up a forefinger. “You’ve accounted for the Tagwynns.” He held up the next finger. “You’ve considered the Astors.” He stuck his thumb out to one side. “What about the cats?”

  Gwen let out an impatient breath . . . but then she paused. “There are really cats inside House Lancaster?” Gwen asked. “And I’ve just never seen them?”

  Benedict spread his hands as if displaying that fact’s self-evidence. “But . . . I suppose it does not necessarily follow that they have not seen me.”

  “Ah,” Benedict said, his tone pleased. “The light dawns.” Gwen considered that for several steps. “Are they truly that intelligent? I know the little beasts are clever, but . . .”

  “It is often very useful for others to think you less intelligent than you are,” Benedict said, his tone amused. “It works particularly well against those who aren’t as intelligent as you in the first place.”

  Gwen blinked. “Goodness.”

  “I must admit that I hadn’t thoroughly considered the situation before meeting Rowl,” Benedict said. “It’s just a theory, coz—but it seems sound.”

  “It . . . does, doesn’t it?” Gwen said. She looked up at Benedict shrewdly. “You’ve never been known for your acute political intellect, Benny. Most of the House considers you a distant and disinterested observer—not a political asset.”

  Her cousin looked pained. “And I shall remain so in their eyes, if you please,” he said. “Politics is the purview of scoundrels, tyrants, and fools.

  I only observe because I prefer not to become their victim.” Gwen snorted. “You’re safe from everyone but me,” she promised. “Oh, dear.”

  His stomach made a rumbling noise and Gwen smiled up at him.

  “Hungry?”

  “I’ve eaten,” he replied.

  “You’re warriorborn, Benny,” Gwen said firmly. “Your body needs more fuel. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

  He pressed his lips together, and his feline eyes became remote. Gwen let out a mental sigh. She knew how much Benny disliked being born different, and the pains to which he went to conceal those differences. She knew he never moved as quickly or as powerfully as he could have during runs or in combat training. He carried lumin crystals with him and
employed them in the darker sections of the habble, despite the fact that his feline eyes had no need of them. He ate on a rigid schedule in the Guard’s dining hall, downing exactly the portions dealt out to each recruit—despite the fact that he could quite literally starve to death on a diet that would be more than adequate for anyone else. Benny was a wonderful, sweet, dear idiot, Gwen thought. “We’re eating before the duel,” she said firmly. “Come with me.”

  “Gwen,” he protested.

  “I’m hungry,” she lied smoothly. “And you wouldn’t be so rude as to make a lady eat alone, would you? Come along.”

  Benedict scowled. “I haven’t any money with me.”

  “I have lots,” Gwen said cheerfully. “Come along.”

  “Honestly, Gwendolyn,” he muttered. “You simply cannot take a hint.”

  “Oh, I am more than capable of it, coz,” she said airily. “At the moment I choose not to. Shall we have those dumplings you like?” Benedict’s stomach rumbled. Louder.

  He eyed her. “That’s cheating.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gwen said, and gave him what she liked to think of as her very firm smile, the one where she locked her jaw. She spoke through her teeth. “Now. Come. Along.” Benedict glowered for a moment more and then sighed. “You’re going to insist, aren’t you?”

  “I’m a lady of House Lancaster, Benny. You are a gentleman of House Sorellin-Lancaster. I shouldn’t need to.” She smiled. Firmly. Benedict rolled his eyes, plucked a white handkerchief from his pocket, and gave it a solemn wave. “I yield.”

  Gwendolyn beamed. “Commendable.”

  The little stall where a stout, silver-haired old couple named Beech served hot food to order was off to the side of the main market area, out of the immediate swirl of trade and foot traffic. The backs of other stalls formed a little C-shaped alcove where a few simple tables and chairs had been set out, creating the impression of seclusion.

  Gwen marched up to the stall but found no one in sight. “Hello?” she called. “We’ve come for some lunch!”

  “We’re not quite ready yet,” called a voice from inside the stall.