Authors: Martha Wells
Tags: #YA fiction, #YA science fiction, #action, #adventure, #sky world, #airships
Once they reached the airyard, the rest of the day became a blur of activity. The larger airship that was docked there was technically airworthy, but it had to be completely checked over and prepared for aetheric travel. And the air-producing equipment, similar to what had been used on the
, needed to be installed in it and brought up to working order. Apparently, the air got thinner the higher up you went, and the aether current would be taking them very high. They would need the protective shield spell and the devices for making breathable air, just as the
had in its voyage through the sea bottom to the Hollow World.
Except it’s not really the Hollow World,
Emilie reminded herself.
It’s just the next step down.
The way they were the next step down for whoever was coming in from above them.
Emilie was introduced to a dozen or so men and a few young women, some of whom worked as Dr Marlende’s mechanics and engineers, and others who were students of aetheric principles. The mechanics and engineers accepted her matter-of-factly, possibly because she was with Miss Marlende and had been on the
. The students stared jealously, probably for exactly the same reasons. She was very relieved to find Seth, Cobbier, and Mikel there. They had been with Dr Marlende on the Hollow World expedition, and she had helped rescue them. They greeted her like an old comrade. When she had first seen them, they had all been quite dirty and scruffy, having been held prisoner for some time. Now they all looked like what they were: advanced scholars of aetheric engineering and philosophy. She wished Charter was here too, but he had been badly wounded in their escape and had been sent home to recuperate.
Once everyone had gathered in the big work shed, Dr Marlende climbed atop a table and said, “I believe you’ve all had a chance to hear what we’re about to do and why. We’ll leave as soon as we prepare the airship. I’ve done some calculations, and the optimum moment to enter the West-Median aether current is this afternoon shortly after the fourth hour.” He glanced around at the group. “I know many of you had volunteered, but we will be taking only a limited crew, comprised of Miss Marlende, Professor Abindon, Daniel, Mikel, Seth, and Cobbier.” Behind him, Lord Engal made a throat-clearing noise. Dr Marlende added, “And Lord Engal.”
Emilie felt her heart sink. But then, she had only been on an airship once, and she knew very little about making aetheric observations or navigating aether currents. And everyone who had been chosen had far more practical experience than she did. You would think the others would all realize this as well, but she still heard a good bit of disappointed muttering from the ones who hadn’t been chosen. Emilie thought if she could manage not to stamp her feet and mutter, the others could as well. Dr Marlende continued. “Now, I appreciate your efforts to work as quickly as possible so that we may launch on time!”
Emilie followed Miss Marlende and was immediately put to work checking supplies and making sure everything on Dr Marlende, Lord Engal, and Professor Abindon’s lists was brought aboard. This sounded easy until they kept changing the lists, and things had to be moved around, checked for their weight, moved around again, and in some cases taken off the airship because they were too heavy or were taking up room that was needed by something more vital. That meant a lot of writing, crossing things off, asking for clarification, and listening to debates about who got to keep what.
She did have a chance to walk around the airship’s gondola, which was nearly twice as large as the one that had been taken to the Hollow World. It had two levels, a lower one with the control and steering cabin, a central living cabin whose crew facilities were mainly cabinets for storage and bench seats, and then the rooms toward the back that held the fuel tanks, the engines, and the various aetheric apparatuses it needed to travel the air currents. It also held a small water closet, though from what Emilie understood, no water was involved. The second floor held three large rooms with big glass ports in the walls, all meant to hold telescopes and aetheric devices, and provide room for philosophical observations and experiments.
On one of her errands, Emilie stood there for a moment and looked out over the view, which at the moment was just of the airyard and the rooftops of the buildings beyond it. Not this time, she thought. But maybe the next.
Half daydreaming about the possibilities, she went down the little spiral stairs into the main cabin. Dr Marlende was there, checking the contents of one of the cabinets, and there were muted banging and some loud voices from the engine compartments. She went out the doorway and down the gallery stairs, then ran across the gravel yard and into the open doorway of the work shed.
Miss Marlende stood at the chart table, making notes from one of Professor Abindon’s drawings. Before Emilie could give her the checked-off list from upstairs, one of the students stepped into the doorway behind her to say, “Miss Emilie? There’s two men here to see you.”
“I don’t know any men,” Emilie said, startled. She amended, “That is, I don’t know any men who aren’t here. Not in this city.”
Miss Marlende glanced up. “Is it a journalist?”
The student seemed startled. “Maybe, I didn’t think–”
A figure pushed past him into the room, and the bottom dropped out of Emilie’s stomach. She gasped in horror. “Uncle Yeric! What are you doing here?”
It was her uncle, not a terrible hallucination. He was a gray-haired, stocky man, his brown skin marked by deep-set lines caused by years of judgmental frowns. He was wearing a very carefully tailored town suit and didn’t look as if he had ridden all night in a coach. She wondered if he had been here in the city already, when the newspaper had pointed him to her location.
As if he had caught Emilie knee-deep in the pond looking for tadpoles, as if there was no one else in earshot, he said, “You’ve caused a great deal of upset and difficulty, young lady. I hope you’re satisfied with it! Now come along away from here.”
Emilie’s pulse pounded and her face flushed from heat. She was shocked to realize it was from fury, not fear. Well, there was a little bit of fear. Maybe more than a little bit. But it was mostly fury. She said, “How did you find me?”
He seemed taken aback she hadn’t followed his orders immediately, then his glare deepened. “I’ve been searching the town for you since you left, of course. Until I saw that disgraceful mention of you in the newspaper. Now come with me!”
“No.” It felt very good to say no to Uncle Yeric. “I work here. As the newspaper said, I’m Miss Marlende’s assistant.”
Uncle Yeric’s lip curled. “Don’t spout that nonsense at me. Get your things and come with me at once. We’re leaving the city immediately.”
“I will not.” Emilie felt her hands curl into fists.
Be an adult,
she reminded herself,
not a child
. “I told you, I work here. And you’re interrupting the preparations for an important expedition–”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” He stepped forward, but Miss Marlende stepped forward, too.
Her voice hard, she said, “She is stating the facts, sir. I have hired her to be my secretary and personal assistant, and we are in the middle of some very important preparations.”
“Secretary!” Uncle Yeric glared. “I don’t know what your game is, young woman, but you have no right to play it with my niece. I assure you, she is not some unprotected young unfortunate whom you can do with as you will!”
“What?” Emilie was strangled speechless with outrage. “You… You were the one who said I was a–”
Uncle Yeric’s face darkened even further and he cut her off. “Emilie, stop this nonsense at once and come away–”
Teeth gritted, Miss Marlende said, “Sir, I assure you we are perfectly respectable scholars here, and my father–”
“You will surrender my niece at–”
The door across the room slammed open and Professor Abindon stood there. She started forward. Her face and voice so cold that icy waves practically radiated off her, she said, “This is private property. Leave it immediately or I shall have a constable summoned.”
Uncle Yeric stepped back and Professor Abindon stepped forward. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again and said, “And who may you be, madam?”
“I am Professor Abindon of the Menaen Mainland University.” She kept walking toward him, and he kept backing away. “I am Miss Marlende’s mother, and I deeply, deeply resent the implications you have made about her. Leave at once, and you may wait for my solicitor to bring an accusation of abuse of character against you.”
Professor Abindon is Miss Marlende’s mother
, Emilie thought, stunned.
That explains a lot
. The awkwardness between Abindon and Dr Marlende. The reason why Miss Marlende had ignored Professor Abindon’s wires. She must have thought it was some continuation of a former argument, or an attempt to interfere in her life.
Professor Abindon had backed Uncle Yeric up into the outer doorway and his choices now were either to turn and leave, or to tumble down onto the gravel yard. Or he could start physically fighting with Professor Abindon, which would probably also result in a tumble down onto the gravel yard. He sputtered and said, “This isn’t… I’ll be back with a constable!”
As he retreated, Professor Abindon called after him, “Do that. It will be convenient when I have you taken in charge for trespassing!” She turned away, dusting her hands off. “Is that loud, tiresome person really your uncle?”
“Yes.” Emilie took a deep breath.
Lord Engal came out of the back room, clutching a rolled-up sheath of papers. “What in the blazes was all that noise? Was it a journalist? Get his name and I’ll summon my solicitor.”
“No, it wasn’t a journalist.” Miss Marlende cut him off impatiently. “Emilie, are you all right?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t, but she didn’t have time to be upset now. “I didn’t think he’d come to Meneport after me. I thought they would assume I was hiding in the neighborhood. I thought at worst they would write to Silk Harbor, to bother my cousin.” Someone must have seen her making her way along the road, and told Uncle Yeric. She remembered the student had said there were two men, and she stepped to the doorway to look out. The sight made her set her jaw. Uncle Yeric stood in the yard with her younger brother Efrain.
she thought. Coming here to help Uncle Yeric carry her away like a prisoner.
I don’t like him anymore either, but I wouldn’t turn on him like this
. Emilie had always gotten on with her brothers, up until Erin, the oldest, had left to join the navy. After that, the two youngest had seemed to blame Emilie for the fact that he had taken her into his confidence before he left. They had sided with Uncle Yeric in every argument and seemed to completely take on his opinion of Emilie, even though they had to know better. “One of my brothers is with him.”
Miss Marlende stepped to her side to look, too. Emilie saw Uncle Yeric stomp away, leaving Efrain standing in the yard. Emilie said, “He must be going for a constable.” The professor’s bluff hadn’t worked. She turned to Miss Marlende. “I’ll have to leave before you all do. Sneak away and hide until you get back. Otherwise, when the airship takes off, they’ll drag me home. They’ll tell the constable I’m a vagrant, or morally compromised, or something.” Emilie bit her lip and made herself take a deep breath. After all, she wasn’t friendless and moneyless anymore. She hadn’t spent any of the pay Miss Marlende had given her in Silk Harbor, and she had more than enough for several days of food and lodging. Though she would need a good suggestion of where she could hide. Uncle Yeric might search for her in hotels or boarding houses, but there must be a lot of them in the city.
“Morally compromised?” the professor said, startled. “By us? I may have to bring an action against that man.”
Lord Engal told her, “You may use one of my solicitors.”
Ignoring them, Miss Marlende asked Emilie, “Is he your legal guardian?”
“He was, but when my oldest brother turned nineteen, it switched to him.” Emilie had known that Erin had been designated to be their guardian at his majority, since the time she had been old enough to ask about her parents’ death and see the papers they had left behind. She had even daydreamed that Erin would get a position somewhere in another town, and she and her other two brothers would live with him in a little cottage. Her aunt and uncle hadn’t been nearly so bad back then, but Emilie had still known things would be better if it had just been the four of them. And surely Erin would want to go somewhere to make his own life. Well, Erin had, but he had done it more than a year before his majority, when he had run away to join the navy. But it didn’t matter where he was; he had turned nineteen several months ago and was still Emilie’s legal guardian now. “Uncle Yeric still acts as if he is, but he has no legal right. However, my brother’s in the navy, I don’t know where, and there’s no one to defend me.”
“Is this recorded somewhere?” Miss Marlende asked.
“In the village hall at home.” Emilie thought that perhaps Lord Engal’s natural inclination was right, that maybe there was a legal solution. “I need a solicitor, I think. How much do they cost?”
Miss Marlende started to speak, stopped, frowned, and turned to Lord Engal. “Where’s your wife?”
Lord Engal was taken aback, but replied, “She’s at our country home with the children. She took them out of town when Ivers started shooting at me. She should be back by tomorrow morning.” He followed Miss Marlende’s reasoning and added, “You want someone to take charge of the girl so her family can’t remove her without the older brother’s consent? Your instincts were quite correct; my wife is obstinate and determined and would have made an excellent ally. But since she is unavailable, perhaps Professor Abindon–”
“No, you’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Professor Abindon interrupted. She grimaced in frustration and said, “Why not simply bring the girl with us? There’s room, and if she doesn’t lose her head–”
“Emilie doesn’t lose her head,” Miss Marlende cut in, her voice so acid, even Professor Abindon stopped talking. Miss Marlende turned to Emilie. “Would you do that, Emilie? Come with us?”
Combined relief and excitement made Emilie’s knees weak, and she lost what little control she had over her mouth. “Yes, of course! I wanted to come all along, but I didn’t want to make trouble by insisting… I mean, asking.”
“That would be a first,” Lord Engal put in.
Professor Abindon glared at him, apparently just on principle, then said, “Well, that’s settled.”
Lord Engal turned away. “Good. Now if we can get back to work without any more interference from overbearing relatives…”