Authors: Martha Wells
Tags: #YA fiction, #YA science fiction, #action, #adventure, #sky world, #airships
To the Fort Worth, Texas, Public Library System: you helped me survive long enough to grow up.
Emilie took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
Twilight had fallen, and the quiet street smelled strongly of dinner. Karthea’s house, like all the others, had a chunky stone façade and wood-framed windows with cheerful curtains and potted flowers on the stoop. The gas lamp on the corner had already been lit, glowing bright in the failing daylight.
There was no answer immediately and Emilie began to wonder if Karthea had closed the school temporarily and gone on some journey. If so, it was less of a disaster than it would have been a fortnight ago. Emilie had money enough for a room at an inn or boarding house, but it would be disappointing not to see her cousin. And wandering through town looking for a suitable place to stay was considerably less daunting than it had been a fortnight ago as well, especially considering that she had company.
“Maybe she didn’t get my letter or the package I sent,” Emilie told Daniel, who stood patiently beside her. “Though I’m not arriving when I said I would.”
“I think I hear someone inside,” Daniel said. “It’s nearly time for dinner, maybe she’s just busy with–”
The door flung open, and Karthea stood there, wearing an apron and holding a partially peeled beet. “Emilie, you’re days late! I was so worried!” Her eyes fell on Daniel, and she frowned in confusion. “Where have you been?”
“Karthea,” Emilie said, smiling. “I have had an adventure!”
Karthea’s eyes widened, then narrowed. She grabbed Emilie’s arm and dragged her inside. To Daniel, she said, “Excuse us, please,” and shut the door.
They stood in a dim hall, lit by a gas sconce and from brighter lights in the room at the far end. Emilie could hear the voices of young girls somewhere nearby, and a clatter of dishes. It smelled homey and comfortable, of books, dust, boiling beets from the kitchen. She took a deep breath. She had meant this place to be her refuge; it felt better to be coming to it as a guest.
Karthea still held her arm, and was trying unsuccessfully to look intimidating. Karthea was mostly Southern Menaen like Emilie, with warm brown skin and dark eyes. She and Emilie looked a little alike in the face, though Karthea was taller and myopic and always wore eyeglasses. She had inherited their side of the family’s somewhat unmanageable hair, and hers was just as frizzy and curling as Emilie’s, in the process of escaping from the band she had tried to use to confine it. “Are you eloping?” Karthea demanded.
It was so unexpected, Emilie laughed. “Of course not!”
It was the laugh that convinced Karthea; Emilie saw the relief and chagrin in her expression. Karthea said, “Oh. But who’s that young man?”
“He’s Daniel, one of Dr Marlende’s students. He needs a place here in town to stay while we’re waiting for the doctor and Miss Marlende to get back from Meneport. I thought you would know of a boarding house.”
“But who are the Marlendes?”
Emilie lifted her brows. “So can Daniel come in?”
“Oh. Oh!” Flustered, Karthea pulled open the door. “I’m so sorry. Please do come in.”
Daniel stepped inside, smiling diffidently, trying to look harmless. He was only a few years older than Emilie, and Southern Menaen as well, with brown skin and curly dark hair. He had replaced his cracked spectacles with a spare pair kept on Dr Marlende’s airship, and looked much more respectable than when Emilie had first met him in a cell in the sea people’s fortress. Emilie said, “Daniel, this is my cousin Karthea.”
“How do you do?” Karthea frowned again, but this time in concern. She nodded toward the sling Daniel wore. “Your poor arm. What happened?”
“He was shot in the shoulder,” Emilie said. At Karthea’s horrified expression, she explained, “It’s part of the adventure. And it’s a long story, so we should sit down.”
The house was in the middle of dinner preparations for Karthea, the six girl boarders, and the Therisons, the older couple who helped with the cooking and housework. Emilie and Daniel ended up at the long table in the kitchen, while the others helped finish peeling the beets and cutting the other vegetables for the cold salad. A loaf of round bread from the baker sat warming on the stove, with a pot of sliced beef and gravy. Emilie had eaten lunch aboard the ship before she had left, but her stomach was grumbling at the savory odors. Karthea and Mrs Therison were good cooks, and it had been a while since any of her meals had included fresh vegetables.
Mrs Therison gave Emilie and Daniel tea, and the girl boarders sat in rapt silence while Emilie told the story.
She glossed over her reasons for leaving home, making it sound like she had simply been on her way to visit Karthea when things had gone wrong. Karthea knew the truth, but Emilie didn’t want to talk about it to the Therisons or Daniel. Especially Daniel. She also found herself glossing over the more dangerous parts of her adventure. She didn’t want to talk about how frightened she had been, and she knew she couldn’t describe what had happened to the people who had died, unless she wanted to break down and cry. And talking about what she had done suddenly seemed like boasting, which was terribly inappropriate, considering all the brave things everyone else had done. So she concentrated on the beautiful things they had seen, and the friends they had made, and the exciting discoveries.
To her surprise, Daniel followed her lead when he spoke. Maybe she shouldn’t be surprised; these were people she knew and he didn’t, so it was natural that he should take his cue from her in what to say and what to leave out. But Emilie still wasn’t used to people trusting her judgment in anything, so it was somewhat diverting.
The story was so wild Karthea and the others might have thought Emilie was mad. Emilie knew she didn’t look like she had been on an adventure, except for the bruises; before she had left the ship, Mrs Verison had run out and bought her this new set of clothes, a skirt, shirtwaist, jacket, cap, and a set of walking boots, so she probably looked more like she had been out shopping. But everyone in town had seen the
and the airship arrive. Daniel’s wound also helped. And Daniel finished with “Some of this will be in the newspapers tomorrow. We saw journalists talking to Lord Engal on the dock.”
“Journalists?” Karthea exchanged a startled look with Mrs Therison. “Emilie, will your name be in the newspaper?”
Emilie nodded, then shrugged, then nodded again. “Maybe. Probably. They took down everyone’s name, I think.”
With all the talking and questions, dinner went late. After they were finished, everyone helped clean up, and then the students were sent off to the parlor with teacakes left over from lunch for their dessert. Karthea told Emilie that the girls were supposed to study in the evening but there was also a good deal of novel-reading and playing the piano. The other students lived in their own homes in town, and only came in during the day for their classes.
Mrs Therison was finishing up the last of the dishes and Mr Therison had taken Daniel to their cottage, which was across the yard from the back of the larger house. The Therisons had a spare room in their attic, kept for their son on his visits home, and they were going to lend it to Daniel for the night. Karthea led Emilie to her own parlor, a small room attached to her bedroom.
It was cozy, with a couple of overstuffed armchairs that had somewhat worn upholstery, bookshelves stuffed with novels, poetry, history books, and battered old schoolbooks. It was mercifully free of tattered lace table covers and arm covers, which Emilie’s aunt draped over everything and which did nothing but get caught on clothes and fingernails. Karthea’s knickknacks were all old university awards and plaques, gifts from former students, and her grandmother’s silver tea service which took pride of place on the tiled fireplace mantel.
Emilie moved some books out of an armchair so she could sit down, and sank gratefully into the soft cushions. It had been a long day, and she had eaten too much of the excellent dinner.
Karthea sat down opposite her and flopped back in her own chair. “So, you’re really taking this job with the Marlendes?”
“Yes, I’m going to be Miss Marlende’s assistant. Like a secretary, but I’m not really sure what secretaries do, besides use typewriting machines, and I don’t know how to do that.” Emilie supposed she could learn. If they were going to be in Meneport for any length of time, there should be a place where she could go for instruction. It couldn’t be any harder than learning how to sail a small boat, and she had learned that quickly enough.
Karthea looked a little worried. “Didn’t you want to work here and go to the school?”
Emilie almost said,
But this would be a real job
, and stopped herself just in time. It wasn’t that she thought teaching or cleaning up after other people’s children weren’t real jobs. As far as the actual labor went, a job mucking stables would probably be easier than teaching at a school. What she really meant was
This is a job I earned for myself and that my cousin didn’t hand me on a silver plate
. She said, “I know, and I’m sorry. I hope it won’t leave you short-handed. But… I think I’m better suited to a job with the Marlendes.”
“Will you be at their home? Or do they keep offices? I mean…” Karthea fiddled with the loose threads on the chair arm, frowning. “You wouldn’t be in the airship, would you? The next time they go off to explore something?”
“Probably all three,” Emilie said. She thought she knew what Karthea was thinking. “I believe they travel a great deal.”
“But it’s dangerous travel.” Karthea leaned forward, watching Emilie with concern. “You were almost killed. What if it happens again?”
Emilie was glad she had glossed over those bits. But even without every frightening detail, it had still been obvious that the trip had been fraught with peril. She said, “I’m counting on it happening again.” At Karthea’s aghast expression, she hastily shook her head. “I don’t mean that. I didn’t like almost being killed, and it was so terrible when other people were killed. I won’t ever forget it and I hope it never happens again, but… I can’t let the other part go.” She wasn’t certain she was explaining it well. “The part with exploring strange places, and meeting wonderful people, and learning new things. That’s what I want to do.”
Karthea sat back, thinking it over. “I do understand. It’s an incredible opportunity, and I know you never really wanted to be a teacher. It was just a way to get out of your uncle’s house. I always thought you would be so much better off if you could take university courses, instead of just working in a shop or taking care of some family’s children.” She sighed. “But I just worry about you, flying around in an airship with people who get shot at regularly.”
“I’m worried about me, too, but I think it’s worth it.” Emilie really wasn’t keen on being shot at. It took the fun right out of exploring and meeting new people. She admitted, “And I really don’t know what I’ll be doing. We didn’t have much time to discuss it. I may end up sitting around in a dusty library helping sort papers and books, or something.”
Karthea brightened at that thought. “You can always come back here if you change your mind. Though I suppose working for the Marlendes in Meneport means that it will be harder for your uncle and aunt to cause you trouble.”
Meneport might be closer to her uncle’s house, but while Emilie wouldn’t put it past him to send a solicitor to Karthea demanding she throw Emilie out, she didn’t think he would do it to the Marlendes. Uncle Yeric was a bully at heart, and Emilie felt bullies were always afraid to bite people who might just bite them back.
Emilie also noted that Karthea hadn’t made any suggestion that the Marlendes’ level of respectability should be examined before Emilie accepted the position. That was one of the reasons she liked Karthea. “I suppose they’ll know where I am, once they read the newspapers.”
Karthea groaned. “Oh, the newspapers. The town news always gets passed along to Meneport, so any articles written about it here will show up in all the nearby towns and villages. I just hope your uncle doesn’t write to me when he sees it.”
“You could throw the letter in the bin,” Emilie suggested. Karthea wasn’t rich, but she had been independent for years. And if something ever happened to the school, she had other family to go to while she found a way to get back on her feet. If Karthea did need help, Emilie’s uncle would provide nothing but censure anyway, and Emilie didn’t see why Karthea should give him the satisfaction of shouting at her in a letter about something she had had no control over. “Problem solved.”
Karthea raised her brows in surprise, then slowly smiled. “Problem solved.”
Emilie couldn’t help checking the clock during breakfast, which was tea, fresh bread from the bakery down the street, butter, and sausage. Mrs Therison apologized for the lack of eggs, explaining that the hens hadn’t been laying well and she was saving what they had to make a pastry crust for dinner tonight. Emilie and Daniel assured her it was far better than anything they had had on board ship, and this was true.
Apparently everyone else had been checking the clock as well, because when it struck the hour, Mr Therison, without being prompted, announced his intention of going to fetch the newspapers.
Karthea shooed the boarders into their parlor to get ready for their first lesson and to wait for the other girls who lived outside the school to arrive. Emilie helped Mrs Therison clean up the dishes. Daniel tried to pitch in as well, but since he was under doctor’s orders not to strain his injured shoulder by moving his arm, they didn’t let him do much more than hand them towels at strategic moments.
Finally, the kitchen door opened and Mr Therison stepped in, waving the folded newspaper. “Here it is! It’s on the front page.” He spread the paper on the kitchen table as they all gathered around.
Emilie scanned the article, searching for her name, not sure whether she was hoping to see it or not. If it wasn’t there, nothing would have changed, but if it was, her uncle would know exactly what she had been doing. She thought about her brave words to Karthea and grimaced in annoyance at herself.
You’re going to have to take your own advice. Not so easy to do as to say, is it?
The article quoted Lord Engal the most, and didn’t go into much detail about the Hollow World, concentrating more on the treachery and machinations of Lord Ivers, and the rescue of Dr Marlende.
Then she saw it and her heart started to pound. Karthea spotted it a moment later and read aloud, “‘…Lord Engal said that essential to the survival of the ship was the quick thinking of Dr Marlende’s daughter, Miss Vale Marlende, and her assistant, Miss Emilie Esperton, both of whom bravely held off Lord Ivers. Miss Esperton joined the ship’s crew in Meneport, and is an accomplished young scholar of aetheric philosophy.’” She looked up and met Emilie’s gaze. “Well, there it is. Your uncle will see this as soon as the news reaches Meneport and goes out with all the village papers. If he doesn’t see the article, someone is bound to point it out to him.”
Baffled, Emilie said, “Why did they say I was a scholar of aetheric philosophy?”
“They had to say something about you,” Daniel explained. “They always say something like that about the women, like the way they described Miss Marlende as ‘a lovely lady much sought after by Meneport hostesses for musical evenings and card parties’ when she hasn’t gone to any silly society events for years. But if they said you were a stowaway or made it sound like you were an adventuress, Lord Engal would sue them. He’s sued the newspapers all the time for things like that. Sometimes on behalf of people he doesn’t even know. So they just made up something that made sense and that wouldn’t make him angry.”
“Oh.” Emilie looked over the article again, this time with a little less trepidation. “They didn’t mention you. Oh, wait, you’re listed here on Dr Marlende’s crew. But they didn’t say anything about the other things you did.”
Daniel snorted. “I’m glad of that. I can live without reading ‘Mr Daniel Allwight fell down and bled on the deck while his companions fought bravely.’”
Once everyone had had their fill of the article, Karthea carried it off to read to the boarder girls and to get ready to start the day’s classes. Mr Therison went to work in the back garden and Mrs Therison left to do the shopping. Emilie was left in the kitchen and wasn’t sure what to do with herself. This was the first free time she had had in what felt like ages, but the article had unnerved her a little, and she didn’t feel like just sitting and reading in the parlor or the garden.
Daniel was still lingering over his last cup of morning tea, so she asked him, “Were you going to visit your professor today?”
“Yes, I was.” He hesitated. “Uh, would you like to go along?”
“To meet your professor?” Emilie hoped the desire to not sit around the house while Karthea was busy hadn’t somehow been written all over her face.
Daniel explained, “She isn’t really a professor, because she went to university before they gave degrees to women. But she writes a great deal and is very important in aetheric circles, and Dr Marlende got her advice on some of his work.” Suddenly a little shy, he added, “I thought you might want to meet her.”
“I do want to meet her,” Emilie said. She sounded like a very interesting person.
“Good.” Daniel smiled. “I thought she could be an inspiration to you, since you want to work with the Marlendes. And you know, she could help you if you ever decide to go to the university.”