Aeronaut’s Windlass: Prologue
Spire Albion, Habble Morning, House Lancaster
“Gwendolyn Margaret Elizabeth Lancaster,” said Mother in a firm, cross voice, “you will cease this nonsense at once.”
“Now, Mother,” Gwendolyn replied absently, “we have discussed the matter at length upon multiple occasions.” She frowned down at the gauntlet upon her left hand and rotated her wrist slightly. “The number three strap is too tight, Sarah. The crystal is digging into my palm.”
“Just a moment, miss.” Sarah bent nearer the gauntlet’s fastenings, eyeing them over the rims of her spectacles. She made a series of quick, deft adjustments and asked, “Is that better?”
Gwendolyn tried the motion again and smiled. “Excellent. Thank you, Sarah.”
“Of course, miss,” Sarah said. She began to smile but glanced aside at Mother and schooled her expression into soberly appropriate diffidence.
“There has been no discussion,” Mother said, folding her arms. “Discussion implies discourse. You have simply pretended I wasn’t in the room when I broached the subject.”
Gwendolyn turned to smile sweetly. “Mother, we can have this conversation again if you wish, but I have not altered my intentions in the least. I will not attend Lady Hadshaw’s Finishing Academy.”
“I would be more than pleased to see you enter the Etheric Engineering Academy along with—”
“Oh!” Gwendolyn said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve been working with those systems in the testing shop since I could walk, and I’m quite sure I will go mad if I have to endure two years’ worth of introductory courses.”
Mother shook her head. “Gwendolyn, you cannot possibly think that—”
“Enough,” Gwendolyn said. “I will enter the Spirearch’s Guard. I will take the oath. I will spend a year in the Service.” She turned to regard her reflection in the long mirror, adjusted her skirts marginally, and straightened the lapels of her short bolero jacket. “Honestly, other daughters of the high Houses take the oath. I cannot imagine why you’re making such a fuss.”
“Other Houses are not the Lancasters,” Mother said, her voice suddenly cold. “Other Houses do not rule the highest habble of the Council. Other Houses are not custodians of the sternest responsibility within all of Spire Albion.”
“Mother.” Gwendolyn sighed. “Honestly, as if the people living in the lower levels of the Spire are less worthy somehow. And besides, those great vats and crystals all but mind themselves.”
“You are young,” Mother said. “You have little appreciation of how much those crystals are needed, and not only by those of Habble Morning or the Fleet, or of all the planning and foresight that must go into producing a single crystal over the—”
“The course of generations,” Gwendolyn interrupted. “No, apparently I have not been enlightened to your satisfaction—I would, however, submit to you that another repetition of this particular bit of pedantry seems unlikely to correct the situation, and that therefore the least frustrating course of action for all involved would be to abort the attempt.”
“Gwendolyn,” Mother said, her eyes narrowing. “You will return to your chambers in the next ten seconds or I swear to God in Heaven that I shall beat you soundly.”
Ah. Now they came to it. Gwendolyn suppressed a flash of purely childish fear, and then one of much more reasonable anger, and forced herself to consider the situation and the room in a calm and rational manner.
Mother’s outburst had been so entirely appalling as to freeze Sarah in place. The maid was perfectly aware that such a display of emotion from one of the leading ladies of Habble Morning was not something that should be witnessed by the hired help. Mother, in her anger, had been quite inconsiderate, since Sarah didn’t dare simply leave the room, either. How was the poor girl supposed to react?
“Sarah,” Gwendolyn said, “I believe I heard Cook mention that her back was still giving her trouble. I would appreciate it if you ease her duties this morning. Would you mind, terribly, delivering Father’s breakfast to him, and sparing Cook the stairs?”
“Of course not, Lady Gwendolyn,” Sarah said, bobbing in a quick curtsy. She flashed Gwendolyn a swift smile containing both gratitude and apology, and moved from the room with sedate efficiency.
Gwendolyn smiled until Sarah had left the room, then turned and frowned faintly at Mother. “That was not very thoughtful of you.”
“Do not attempt to change the subject,” Mother said. “You will take off that ridiculous gauntlet at once or face the consequences.”
Gwendolyn arched one eyebrow sharply. “You realize that I am armed, do you not?”
Mother’s dark eyes blazed. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I should think I would have no need to do such a thing,” Gwendolyn replied. “However, I care to be beaten even less than I care to live out my days in this dreary mausoleum or one precisely like it. I daresay that at least in the Service I should find something to interest me.” She lifted her chin, narrowed her eyes, and said, “Do not test me, Mother.”
“Impossible child,” Mother said. “Take her.”
Gwendolyn realized at that moment that Mother’s threat and outrage alike had been feigned, a pretense that had distracted Gwendolyn until a pair of the House armsmen could approach her silently from behind. She took a quick step to one side and felt strong hands seize her left arm. Had she not moved, the second man would have had her right arm in the same moment, and her options would have been far more limited.
Instead she seized the wrist of her assailant, pivoted her weight into him, robbing him of his balance, breaking the power of his grip at the same time, and continued her smooth circular motion into a throw, dumping him over one hip and onto the floor at the feet of the second armsman. The fallen man tripped the second, who struggled to push up from the floor. Gwendolyn lifted her skirts slightly and kicked the second man’s arm out from beneath him. He dropped down onto the first man with a surprised grunt, and glared up at her.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Gwendolyn said. “It isn’t personal.” Then she gave him a calm, sharp kick to the head. The man let out a short grunt and dropped limply, stunned.
“Esterbrook!” Mother said sharply.
Gwendolyn turned from the two downed men to find Esterbrook, captain of House Lancaster’s armsmen, entering the room. Esterbrook was a lean, dangerous-looking man, his skin worn and leathery from years of the pitiless sunlight borne by aeronauts and marines. He wore a black suit and coat tailored in the same style as the uniform of the Fleet Marine he had once been. He bore the short, heavy, copper-clad blade of a Marine on one hip. The gauntlet on his left hand was made of worn and supple leather, though the copper cagework around his forearm and wrist was as polished and bright as Gwendolyn’s newer model.
Gwendolyn focused her thoughts at once, stepping away from the stunned men and lifting her left hand to present the crystal held against her palm to Esterbrook. She sighted her target, the captain’s grizzled head, in the V shape made by the spread of her first and second fingers. By the time she had, her gauntlet’s crystal had awakened to her concentration. Cold white light blazed from it, changing all the shadows in the room and causing her mother to blink and squint against the sudden radiance.
“Good morning, Captain Esterbrook,” Gwendolyn said in an even tone. “I am well aware that your suit is lined with silk. I feel obliged to advise you that I am aiming at your head. Please do nothing that would require me to put my training to such tragic and wasteful use.”
Esterbrook regarded her from behind his shaded spectacles. Then he reached up very slowly with his right hand, removed them, and blinked a few times against the etherlight of the weapon Gwendolyn held trained upon him. His eyes were an eerie shade of gold-green, and his feline pupils contracted into vertical slits against the light.
“Quick,” he commented.
Gwendolyn felt herself smile slightly. “I had an excellent teacher, sir.”
Esterbrook gave her a very small portion of an ironic smile, and tipped his head to her in acknowledgment. “Where in the Spire did you find someone to teach you the Way?”
“Cousin Benedict, naturally,” she replied.
“Ha,” Esterbrook said. “I kept smelling the perfume on him. Thought he’d taken up with a woman.”
Mother made a wordless, disgusted sound held tightly within her throat, barely audible past her tight-closed lips. “I have expressly forbidden your close association with him, Gwendolyn.”
“Quite, Mother, yes,” Gwendolyn agreed. “Captain, if you would be so kind as to disarm yourself, please.”
Esterbrook stared at her for a moment more, and then the lines at the corners of his eyes deepened. He inclined his head to her, then moved only his right hand to unbuckle his sword belt. It fell to the floor.
“What are you doing?” Mother demanded of him.
“My lady,” Esterbrook said in a polite tone, “Miss Gwen holds a deadly weapon, and one which she is fully capable of using.”
“She won’t use it,” Mother said. “Not upon you. And not upon her family.”
Gwendolyn felt a surge of frustration. Mother was quite right, of course. Such a thing would be unthinkable—but she had no intention of continuing to live her life cloistered within Lancaster Manor, venturing out only for the constant, meaningless, regular, deadly dull boring routine of balls, dinners, concerts, and school. She could not allow Mother to call her bluff.
So she shifted her arm very slightly and unleashed radiant etheric energy from the crystal against her palm.
There was a howling scream of suddenly parted air and a blinding flash. It was followed an instant later by a deafening roar, like thunder, and a marble statuette sitting on a side table just behind Esterbrook exploded into dust and flying fragments. The fragments rattled and bounced around the room in the silence after the blast, and grew quiet only a few seconds later.
Mother stood staring with her mouth open, her face pale, half of her body already coated with fine marble dust. Esterbrook was coated with the dust as well, but he hadn’t moved or changed his expression.
“Captain,” Gwendolyn said. “If you would be so kind as to continue.”
“Miss,” he said, bobbing his head again. Moving very slowly, and keeping his left arm completely still and at his side, he unbuckled the straps of the gauntlet and let it fall to the floor.
“Thank you, Captain,” Gwendolyn said. “Step aside, please.”
Esterbrook looked at Mother, spread his hands in a silent, helpless gesture, and took several steps back and away from his weaponry.
“No,” Mother snapped. “No.” She took three quick strides to the chamber’s fantastically expensive door, made from wood harvested from the deadly, mist-bound forests of the surface and bound in brass. She twisted its key until it locked, and then withdrew it. She returned to her original position with her chin lifted in outrage. “You will obey me, child.”
“Honestly, Mother,” Gwendolyn said, “at the rate we’re going, we’ll bankrupt ourselves redecorating.”
Gwendolyn’s gauntlet howled again, and part of the door was blown to splinters and twisted brass. The rest was wrenched from its brass hinges and flew out into the hallway beyond, tumbling once before it crashed to the ground.
Gwendolyn raised her arm until the crystal at her palm was parallel with her face and walked calmly forward, toward the door. The armsmen behind her groaned and began to gather themselves together. Gwendolyn felt a flash of relief. She hadn’t wanted to inflict any serious harm upon the two men. Benedict had informed her that, with blows to the head, one could never be sure.
“No,” Mother breathed, as she walked by. “Gwendolyn, no. You can’t. You don’t understand the horrors you might face.” She was breathing very quickly and . . .
Mother was crying.
Gwendolyn hesitated and stopped walking.
“Gwendolyn,” Mother whispered. “Please. You are my only child.”
“Who else, then, will represent the honor of the Lancasters in the Service?” Gwendolyn looked at her mother’s face. Tears had made clean tracks through the thin layer of dust.
“Please don’t go,” Mother whispered.
Gwendolyn hesitated. She had her ambitions, of course, and her proper Lancaster reserve, but like Mother, she also had a heart. Tears . . . tears were unprecedented. She had never seen her mother weep except once, with laughter.
Perhaps she could have been . . . somewhat more thoughtful about how she had approached her decision to enlist. But there was no more time for discussion. Enrollment for the Guard was this morning.
She met her mother’s eyes and spoke as gently as she could. And she would not cry. She simply would not. Regardless of how much she might wish to.
“I love you very much,” she said quietly.
Then Gwendolyn Margaret Elizabeth Lancaster walked out over the shattered door and left her home.
Lady Lancaster watched her daughter go, tears in her eyes. She waited until she heard the large front doors of the manor close to turn to Esterbrook.
“Are you well, Captain?”
“A bit surprised, perhaps, but well enough,” he said. “Lads?”
“Lady Gwen,” said one of the guardsmen, touching his cheek and wincing, “hurts.”
“You didn’t show the opponent sufficient respect,” Esterbrook said, amused. “Go get some breakfast. We’ll work on takedowns this morning.” The men shambled out, looking rather embarrassed, and Esterbrook watched them, evidently pleased. Then he paused, and blinked at Lady Lancaster. “My lady . . . are you crying?”
“Of course I am,” she replied, pride swelling in her voice. “Did you see that? She stood up to all three of you.”
“All four of us,” Esterbrook corrected her gently.
“Gwendolyn has never had a problem standing up to me,” Lady Lancaster said in a wry tone.
Esterbrook grunted. “Still don’t see why you feel a need for such dramatics.”
“Because I know my daughter,” she said. “And I know very well that the only way to absolutely ensure that she pursues any given course of action is for me to forbid her to do so.”
“Reminds me of someone else who insisted on joining the Service, my lady,” Esterbrook said. “Let’s see. . . .”
“I was quite young and willful at the time, as you know very well. But when I left it was nothing like that.”
“Indeed not,” Esterbrook said. “As I recall it, my lady, you reduced three doors to splinters on your way out, not one.”
Lady Lancaster eyed the captain and sniffed. “Honestly, Esterbrook. I’m all but certain that you’re exaggerating.”
“And half a dozen statues.”
“They were tasteless replicas.”
“And a ten-foot section of stone wall.”
“Mother was standing in the door. How else was I to leave?”
“Yes, my lady,” Esterbrook said gravely. “Thank you for correcting me. I see now that there is no comparison to be made.”
“I thought you’d see it that way,” she said. “You have good sense.”
“Yes, my lady. But . . .” Esterbrook frowned. “I understand that you wanted to steer her toward the Service. I’m still not sure I understand why.”
Lady Lancaster eyed him thoughtfully for a moment. Esterbrook was a faithful soldier, an invaluable retainer, and a lifelong friend and ally—but the warriorborn’s feline eyes tended to focus best on their immediate surroundings. She had no doubt that Esterbrook, if she so requested, could close his eyes and tell her the exact location of any object she could name in the room. But he’d have no idea where they were before the room’s most recent redecorating, or where they should go now that the centerpiece statue had been destroyed. The warriorborn dealt best with the present, whereas she, like the Lancasters before her, had to concern herself with the far past—and the near future.
“Events are in motion in the Spires,” she said quietly. “Signs and portents appear. No fewer than four fleet aeronauts have reported sightings of an Archangel, and swear that they were neither drunk nor sleeping. Spire Aurora has recalled her embassy from Spire Albion, and our fleets have already begun to skirmish. The lower habbles have become increasingly restive and . . .”
Esterbrook tilted his head. “My lady?”
“The crystals are . . . behaving strangely.”
Esterbrook arched a skeptical eyebrow.
Lady Lancaster shook her head. “I don’t know how else to explain it. But I’ve worked with them since I was a small child, and . . . something isn’t right.” She sighed and turned to regard the shattered door. “There are dark times ahead of us, old friend. Strife such as has not been seen since the breaking of the world. My child needs to see it for herself, to learn about those who will fight against it, to understand what is at stake. She’ll do that in his service, as she cannot anywhere else.”
“Strife,” Esterbrook said. “Strife seems something of a handmaiden to Lady Gwen already.”
Lady Lancaster looked at the shattered door and at the drifting dust, still swirling in the wake of her daughter’s passage.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “God in Heaven, Archangels, merciful Builders, please. Please go with my child.”