Aeronaut’s Windlass: Chapter Four

Spire Albion, Habble Morning

For Gwen, the following two weeks were absolutely dreadful.

“I really don’t quite see the point of all this,” she panted. Her legs hurt. Her feet ached. Her chest felt as if it were on fire. All in all, she saw little reason for this running about the Spirearch’s manor, and they’d done so for increasing amounts of time every single day during their training.

“It’s good for you,” Cousin Benedict said. He was a tall, lean young man less than two years older than Gwen herself, with tawny brown hair cut into a soft, thick brush. He wore the same exercise uniform Gwen did, though he loped along beside her lightly, without any apparent effort at all.

There was no detectable strain in his voice. None at all. The rotten, cat-eyed, thoroughly disgusting lout.

“It’s all very well for you,” Gwen gasped. “You’ve done it before.”

“For the last two years, yes,” Benedict agreed.

“You aren’t wearing these ridiculous clothes.”

“I’m wearing exactly the same clothing,” Benedict countered.

“Yes, but you’re used to them. Augh, pants, how do you stand running in these things?”

“Better than I would in skirts, I daresay,” he answered. “I thought you’d love the running, Gwen. I personally grew to find it invigorating.”

Gwen sputtered. “Invigorating? Benedict Michael Sorellin-Lancaster, you may personally kiss my—”

“As you wish, coz,” Benedict said, smiling. “I must say, you’re shaping up rather nicely.”

Gwen kept pushing herself to keep moving, and felt that she hardly had the energy to regard the compliment with the proper suspicion. “What?”

The tall young man smirked. “You were barely able to complain at all the first few days. Just listen to you now. You’ve had something to say all the way to the end of the run.”

Gwen glared daggers up at her larger cousin and let out an incoherent growling sound. It was all she could manage as the crew of training Guardsmen rounded the corner and pounded their way down the final length of wall to the courtyard. As they ran, people in the market watched them pass—Gwen herself had seen this peculiar practice of the Guard on many occasions. She had been aware that she would perforce engage in the same activity upon joining, but no one had told her that it was so very . . . taxing.

“Company!” bellowed the grey-haired Captain Cavallo as they reached their destination. “Halt! Fall out, people.”

The grey-clad Guardsmen staggered to a ragged stop. Though the new recruits had set off in a neat formation, four abreast, that hadn’t lasted long, and the crew that flopped down onto the cinderstone floor did so in an unruly, panting mob. The shapeless tunic and trousers that they’d run in were all identical, and all of them were dampened with sweat.

The veterans came to a relaxed stop, their breathing controlled, and stood grinning at the recruits or else speaking quietly to one another. Gwen disliked being gawked at by absolutely anyone, though that blocky blond Reginald Astor annoyed her more than most. He thought himself handsome, and was, in an irritatingly self-assured way, and he always had a habit of staring when she was disheveled and covered with sweat, with her uniform sticking to her in a most unladylike fashion. She looked up with a scowl and found Reginald staring again, an insolent smile on his face.

She glared at him and said to Benedict, “I don’t suppose you mentioned to Reggie how much I dislike his gawking.”

Benedict looked down at her, smiling. “It would only make him be more obvious about it.”

“Such a needless trial,” Gwen muttered. “In addition to the needless trial we’re already undergoing.”

“Would you like me to go protect my helpless little cousin, then?” Benedict offered.

Gwen frowned for a moment. Benedict’s offer was tempting, and it shouldn’t have been. Normally she would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion of bracing some leering cad and pinning his ears back properly. For some reason, though, allowing her cousin to manage such a thing for her seemed . . . simpler.

Perhaps it was the exhaustion of all the running and classwork. Cavallo lectured the recruits for several hours every afternoon about the various habbles, their laws, and their relationships with one another—and while her own tutors had long since given her a similar grounding, it seemed that they had left a good many things out of their lessons. Or at least they had never made any particular effort to bring the ramifications of all those dry facts to Gwen’s attention, and she had found herself stammering like a perfect nitwit when confronted with them during the captain’s lectures.

Gwen was unused to being less than excellent at anything she pursued. She was not an excellent runner. She was not an excellent student of Spire politics; nor did she seem to be able to gain a proper grasp of the morning inquisition classes, a subject to which she’d had no prior exposure whatsoever. Oh, she had done well enough in the practice hall, when it came to the use of gauntlets at least, but her blade work remained every bit as inept as it had ever been, and she felt glumly certain that when live blade training commenced in a few weeks, she would continue working with a wooden training blade.

Being incompetent was surprisingly draining upon one’s confidence. And annoying.

Was that why she didn’t want to deal with Reginald? Was she afraid that she would find herself insufficient to the task of dissuading him? She’d had a considerable amount of practice in insufficiency of late. What if it had become a habit?

Nonsense, she told herself firmly. It appeared that she was going to have to face a great many challenging circumstances if she was to remain a Guardsman—and she had to remain a Guardsman. Any other outcome was unacceptable, since it would mean returning home and admitting to Mother that she had been correct.

Now, that was something that could not be borne.

“I will deal with him,” Gwen said firmly. “But thank you, coz, for offering.”

Benedict nodded as if that had been the answer he expected all along. “May I recommend you wait for a bit of privacy? A young woman bracing a peer in public is one thing—a recruit who confronts a veteran Guardsman that way is another matter entirely.”

“I’ll consider it,” Gwen said.

Benedict did his best not to wince, Gwen could tell, but he didn’t try to gainsay her, either. “Very well.”

She sat for a time, breathing hard, her legs and feet aching most unpleasantly. It would pass, though. Already she felt she had recovered better from this run than she had after a night’s sleep subsequent to her first run, two weeks before. Gwen had to admit that the exercise was quite practical. Each level of the Spire was simply enormous, and if one could maintain a hard pace for hours at a time, it would not be difficult to outrun an enemy or to catch some kind of criminal. Thieves, she felt sure, did not run as a matter of daily training—they wouldn’t have someone like Cavallo pushing them. Were they the self-motivated sort, they would hardly be thieves, would they?

When Gwen looked up again, most of the recruits and veterans had moved back into the walled courtyard of the Spirearch’s palace. Only Reginald and a handful of his cronies remained outside, along with Gwen and one of the largest young women Gwen had ever met. The girl was a quiet one, and her blond hair was long and thick. She had shoulders as wide as some men, thick wrists, and strong-looking hands and forearms. Her name was . . . bother. Gwen couldn’t remember her introducing herself to anyone. Actually, Gwen couldn’t remember her speaking at all, unless questioned by an instructor in the classroom. The other recruits all referred to her as the cat girl.

The cat in question came scampering out of the courtyard and ran over to the large young woman. It was a ginger-colored beast and would have been quite appealing had it not been such a filthy creature. Cats lived in all the crawl spaces and vents and other unsavory, dank, vermin-infested regions of the Spire as a matter of course.

One would see cats now and again when moving about the habble, but they rarely associated directly with humans. Occasionally a household might be adopted by a cat or a small group of them, and some businesses found it wise to offer them food in exchange for their services as exterminators. It was a much simpler arrangement than refusing the pay the cats, and then finding one’s stores emptied without a trace in the dead of night. She had heard of cats who had been employed as tenders and guardians for young children—but such arrangements were almost always business-oriented. Gwen had never heard of a cat who showed affection.

The lithe creature flowed into the cat girl’s lap, turning in several circles and rubbing against her as he did. He nuzzled her cheek with his nose, and sniffed curiously at her sweaty uniform. The girl absently ran her hands over the cat’s fur, and the beast settled down to enjoy the attention.

“What I want to know,” said one of Reginald’s group, “is what, precisely, that vermin is doing running loose about the manor.”

“It’s quite unnatural,” Reginald agreed. He folded his arms and regarded the cat girl speculatively. “It makes one wonder what could motivate a reasonable person to shelter such a pest.”

At that, the cat girl looked up at Reginald. The large young man gave her his widest smile. “Well, how about it, Bridget, love? What rewards do you reap from having the beast nearby?”

The cat girl—that was right, her name was Bridget . . . something-or-other—looked at Reginald for a few seconds before answering. Her face was a neutral mask. “You wouldn’t understand.”

That drew a round of chortles from the young nobles. “Really?” Reginald asked. “And why is that?”

Bridget frowned thoughtfully for a moment, choosing her words with deliberate care. Then she nodded slightly to herself and said calmly, “Because you are an ass, sir.”

Had the cat girl slapped him across the face, she could not have drawn a more startled reaction from the young noble. Reginald opened his mouth silently a few times, and then said, “Excuse me.”

“I’m sorry,” Bridget said. She rose, still holding the cat in her arms, and raised her voice slightly, enunciating the words. “You. Are. An. Ass.” She smiled faintly. “Sir.”

Gwen felt her eyebrows climb toward her hairline.

“You . . . you cannot speak to me in such a way,” Reginald said.

Bridget and the cat regarded him with unblinking eyes. “Apparently I can, sir.”

Reginald’s eyes flashed with anger. “You shouldn’t even be here,” he snarled. “Your House died decades ago. You and your father are nothing but the last few scraps of meat clinging to a rotting bone.”

Something shifted.

Gwen couldn’t tell precisely what had happened, but the air was suddenly thick. Bridget’s face never moved. Her eyes didn’t narrow; nor did she bare her teeth. She said nothing. She did not so much as twitch a muscle. She only stared Reginald.

It was the cat, Gwen realized. The beast’s eyes seemed to have grown larger, and the very tip of his long tail had begun to flick left and right in slow rhythm. The cat stared at Reginald as if he were preparing to spring upon him with murder in mind.

When Bridget spoke, her voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “What did you say about my father?”

Gwen rose hurriedly. Reginald was a practiced duelist, and while most such confrontations ended in only mild injuries, it was quite possible for one or both participants to be killed when tempers were hot—and she was abruptly certain that the heavy silence now gathered around the cat girl was a thundercloud of undiluted rage.

An insult like the one Reginald had delivered was ample grounds to demand satisfaction, though she was certain the ass hadn’t deliberately set out to provoke the reaction. If, however, Bridget was as upset as Gwen suspected, that might be exactly what he got—and Reggie, for all his oafishness, was more than competent with both blade and gauntlet. Bridget was very nearly as bad with blades as Gwen was, and her gauntlet work was atrocious. A duel could not end well for her.

“Excuse me,” Gwen said, walking over to Bridget as though nothing at all were happening.

Bridget’s eyes and those of the cat both flicked toward Gwen at the same time.

Goodness, that young woman was tall. She had at least a foot on Gwen. “We haven’t been introduced,” Gwen said pleasantly. “I’m Gwendolyn Lancaster.”

Bridget frowned faintly. “Bridget Tagwynn.”

Gwen cocked an eyebrow. “The House of Admiral Tagwynn?”

The corner of Bridget’s mouth twitched, perhaps in irritation. “The same.”

“How wonderful,” Gwen said, a slight edge to her tone. “He was the finest naval commander in the history of all of Spire Albion. In fact, the Spire might not be here at all if not for his courage and skill. You come from one of the greatest families in our history.”

Bridget frowned again. Then she ducked her head in a small, awkward bow. “Thank you.”

“She comes of a footnote in Albion history,” Reginald said, his voice sullen. “What has her family done for the Spire lately? Nothing. Their house grows meat, for Heaven’s sake, like a common trog.”

Bridget’s eyes went back to Reginald. “You say that as if it is an insult, sir.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Reginald demanded.

“That I would rather be a common trog than an ass of House Astor, sir.”

Reginald’s face turned bright red. “You dare cast an insult into the face of my House?”

“Not its face,” Bridget said, arching an eyebrow. “Its ass.”

“You vile little trog,” Reginald said. “You think that because you’ve been to the Spirearch’s Manor, because you are in training for the Guard that you are worthy of such an honor? You think you can yap and taunt your betters because of it?”

“I’m not sure,” Bridget said. “I’ll let you know once I meet someone better than me.”

Reginald’s eyes blazed, and with a snarl he ripped one of his gloves from his belt and flung it hard at Bridget’s face.

Bridget never moved—but Gwen did. She snatched the glove out of the air and turned to face Reginald. “Reggie, no.”

“Did you hear that bloody slab?” Reginald snarled. “Did you hear what she said about my House?”

“And what you said about hers,” Gwen said. “You started this, Reginald Astor.”

“Stay out of this, Gwendolyn. I demand satisfaction!” His furious gaze went back to Bridget. “Unless the famed courage of the House of Tagwynn has dwindled away to nothing along with its bloodline.”

Bridget’s frown deepened and her mouth opened slightly. She glanced aside at Gwen and said, “Miss Lancaster . . . did this man just challenge me to a duel?”

“Hardly a man,” Gwen replied. She looked up and met Bridget’s eyes. “And yes. He did.”

“Lunatics,” Bridget breathed. “Must I accept?”

“If you don’t,” Gwen said, “he can litigate. The Council could assess a punitive fine against House Tagwynn.”

“Could?” Reginald said. “Would. I guarantee the High Houses would rule harshly against such a display of disrespect to one of the leading Houses of Albion.”

Bridget looked at Gwen again. “Is that true?”

“Courts are never certain,” Gwen said. “But . . . it probably is.”

“But I never insulted the Astors. Only him.”

“He’s the heir to the House, I’m afraid,” Gwen said. “The Council may not make that distinction.”

Bridget closed her eyes for a moment and muttered beneath her breath, “When will I learn to keep my mouth shut?”

“You don’t have to do this,” Gwen said.

“We’re barely holding on as it is,” Bridget said. “If . . . if we were fined, my father would have to sell the vattery.”

Reginald barked out a harsh-sounding laugh. “Which is why insignificant little nothing Houses should show more respect to their seniors. You should have thought of that before you spoke.”

The cat’s claws made scratching sounds against the sleeve of Bridget’s shirt. She put a hand on the beast, as if restraining it.

“Apologize,” Reginald snarled. “Now. And I will forget that this happened.”

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.”