Emilie and the Sky World
Paperback: Strange Chemistry, March 2014.
Cover by Amazing15 Studio.
When Emilie and Daniel arrive in Silk Harbor, Professor Abindon, an old colleague of the Marlendes, warns them that she's observed something strange and potentially deadly in the sky, a disruption in an upper air aether current. But as the Marlendes investigate further, they realize it's a ship from another aetheric plane. It may be just a friendly explorer, or something far more sinister, but they will have to take an airship into the dangerous air currents to find out. Emilie joins the expedition and finds herself deep in personal entanglements, with an angry uncle, an interfering brother, and an estranged mother to worry about as well as a lost family of explorers, the strange landscapes of the upper air, and the deadly menace that inhabits the sky world.
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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 facade 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 Menean 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, except everyone in town had seen the Sovereign and the airship arrive. Daniel's wound and Emilie's bruises 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 were 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 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."
Professor Abindon lived further down in the town, closer to the port, and so they had to walk back down the hill and wend their way through streets with shops and townhouses. There were a lot of people out now, doing early morning shopping or heading to work in cargo and shipping offices down near the port. It wasn't as busy as Meneport, but the people were the usual mix of brown-skinned and dark-haired Southern Menean and fair-skinned and light-haired Northern Menean, and every variation in between. Not much different from Emilie's village. She found she preferred Meneport's excitement and bustling atmosphere, though she could see why people liked to live here.
Emilie couldn't help thinking about what Daniel had said. She had never considered the idea of going to the university before, it not being something her family would have encouraged. She wasn't sure she wanted to consider it now, though she had always like learning new things. She wasn't sure she wanted to take on the work of a university student, particularly as it would surely mean curtailing her duties as Miss Marlende's assistant. Even if she could afford the tuition and living expenses, which she couldn't, she wasn't sure they would let her in. She didn't think her village school would compare well to a school like Karthea's, or Shipands Academy, and surely she would need more basic instruction before going on to advanced classes.
Daniel found the right street, which curved away from the shops and up a hill. There were three-story townhouses along here, crowded together with no front gardens, their stones weathered with age. The carvings of ships and fanciful fish and sea serpents above the windows and pediments suggested they had originally been ship captains' or cargo merchants' homes. It was too quiet for Emilie to tell who lived there now, though some of the houses had signs indicating there were rooms to let. Professor Abindon's didn't have a sign, and while it was as old as the others and a little crumbly on the edges, its stoop was recently washed and the windows on the upper floors were open to catch the sea breeze.
"I normally send a wire or letter when I visit," Daniel was saying as they climbed the steps to the door. "But of course this time I didn't have an opportunity. I hope she's home."
Daniel knocked on the door. A housekeeper in a somewhat floury apron opened it, and the first indication that Professor Abindon didn't keep a terribly formal household was when the housekeeper exclaimed, "Why, it's Daniel!" She turned to shout down the hallway, "Professor, Daniel is here!"
"Well, tell him to come in!" a voice shouted back, but the housekeeper was already ushering them into the front hall.
It was small and a bit dark, but smelled of beeswax polish and bread-baking. Before they had a chance to move, a tall figure burst out of a door down the hallway. It exclaimed, "Daniel, why hasn't Marlende or Vale answered my wires? What the hell is wrong with them?"
"Uh," Daniel began, and the housekeeper gave him a gentle prod down the hall. Emilie followed, now certain this visit was going to be even more interesting than she had thought. Daniel said, "They've been away. Very far away. They just arrived back in Silk Harbor yesterday, but they meant to leave last night before dark."
"They were here?" Daylight fell through the open doorway, illuminating a tall woman with silver-gray hair that was as wild as Emilie's on a bad day. Some of it was confined in a band but the rest had escaped to hang in frizzy locks around her face. She was strikingly beautiful, with a mix of Southern and Northern Menean descent in her features and her light brown coloring. "Why didn't they… What were they doing here?"
"Didn't you see the newspapers this morning?"
"I don't read the newspapers, it's a lot of gossip and idiocy. Why was Marlende in the newspapers?" She frowned at Emilie, though more in confusion than disapproval. "Who are you?"
"I'm Emilie Esperton, Miss Marlende's assistant," Emilie said, but Professor Abindon was already dragging Daniel into the parlor.
It was a more of a study, Emilie saw immediately, with tall windows facing the house's tiny overgrown back garden letting in morning light. The walls were lined with shelves crammed with books and papers. More books and papers and writing materials covered the desk and the library table, but a small sofa and two armchairs were free of clutter. Flustered, Daniel said, "We went to the Hollow World, Professor, we used the aetheric currents." He dropped down into a chair and Emilie took the other. "It worked just like you and Dr Marlende thought, but we had mechanical trouble and couldn't return. Miss Marlende had to go to Lord Engal to get help
"Engal! Vale went to Engal? Was she out of her mind?" Professor Abindon waved her hands. "Why didn't she come to me?"
Daniel opened his mouth but no words came out. Professor Abindon shook her head sharply. "I'm sorry, I don't intend to drag you into the middle of this. Just go on."
Emilie wondered what "this" was, but she thought Daniel needed help and she dove in. "Yes, we should tell it from the beginning. Daniel, start from when you and the others took the airship to the Hollow World."
Daniel took a deep breath and launched into the story, telling it as briefly as he could given Professor Abindon's impatient expression. As he spoke, Emilie watched the professor's face. She was older than she had looked at first, though the lines around her eyes and mouth were slight. And she looked vaguely familiar, as though she resembled someone Emilie knew, though she couldn't think who it would be.
When he got to Emilie's part of the story, Professor Abindon considered her, her expression skeptical. "How do we know you aren't working for Ivers?"
"I distracted him while Miss Marlende shot him," Emilie said.
"And me," Daniel added ruefully, indicating his arm. "I was in the way."
"Hmm," the professor said, but didn't comment further.
When they were done, Professor Abindon said, "At least Marlende had a good excuse for not answering my wires, but this doesn't change the situation."
"What situation?" Daniel asked. "What was so urgent?"
Professor Abindon started to speak, then hesitated, eyeing Emilie thoughtfully. She still doesn't trust me, Emilie thought, which she supposed was fair. Fair, but not pleasant. Though she was burning with curiosity, Emilie said, "I can walk back to my cousin's house."
As she started to stand, the professor gestured impatiently. "Don't go. If you work for Vale... I trust her judgment. Come upstairs, I'll show you both."
They followed Professor Abindon up the narrow stairs to the second floor, then kept following her up a still narrower set of stairs to the third, then up again to what should have been a small attic. Emilie followed the others through the door at the top of the stairs and saw why the professor had chosen this house.
The room had once been made into an artist's studio, with one whole side of the pitched roof turned into windows, which could be unlatched and propped open with metal poles. Another set of large windows looked down into the back garden, so the room was full of light. A tiny spiral stair led up to a trapdoor in the roof, which Emilie bet opened into a small railed platform atop the house. She had seen them on many of the houses in Silk Landing and knew they were common for sea captains' and ship owners' homes. But Professor Abindon wasn't using this room for artistic endeavors or to watch the ships come into port.
A large gleaming brass telescope stood on a stand beneath the slanted windows, pointed toward the sky. Emilie had seen drawings of big star-gazing telescopes before, but never one in person. This one had extra parts, wheels and platter-like contraptions, mounted above the eyepiece, as if for fine-tuning the view. A big table in the center of the room was spread with maps and drawing paper. Pencils and inkstands and broken pen nibs were scattered around instruments that looked like they were for navigation. Emilie thought she recognized a sextant, from the same book with the drawings of telescopes, but the rest were a mystery.
Professor Abindon went immediately to the telescope and looked through the eyepiece. She straightened up and carefully adjusted some knobs. She beckoned Daniel over. "Look here."
Emilie hadn't thought there was much point to using telescopes in the daylight. But Daniel didn't object, going immediately to peer through the eyepiece. He said, "What am I looking at, Professor?"
"Nothing, yet." Professor Abindon took one of the plates attached to the telescope and turned it upright. Emilie saw the silvery stuff running through glass insets on the metal plate and realized it was a device for viewing aether. An aetheric telescope? she wondered, taking an involuntary step forward. She had known there were aether currents in the air, just like there were in the sea, but she hadn't thought about what the devices for detecting them might look like. And did the aetheric streams in the air lead to another world, like the aetheric streams in the seas? Emilie's heart started to pound in excitement.
Suddenly the professor's claim of something urgent to show to Dr Marlende began to seem far more worrisome.
The professor slid the plate into a slot in the telescope, made another adjustment, and Daniel gasped. "How long has it been there?"
The professor's voice was grim. "I first noticed it twenty-two days ago. It was much smaller then." She pushed her hair back from her face in an exasperated gesture. "I should have gone to Meneport then, instead of just sending a wire. But it's been getting steadily larger. I kept expecting it to stop."
Daniel straightened up and motioned Emilie over. She hurried forward and leaned down to the eyepiece, trying to look as if she knew what she was doing. Fortunately it was fairly straightforward, and she found the right angle to see through the glass lens without much trouble.
She saw intense blue sky, and in the center, a ring of brilliant colors -- reds, greens, deeper blues than the sky -- with a silver-white spiral woven through it. A description of it would have sounded like something rather beautiful, rather like the description of lines of dark storm clouds against the sky sounded like something beautiful, until the hail and wind started. Emilie stood up and stared at the professor. "It looks like a hole."
"That's because it is a hole," the professor said, "It's an opening in an aetheric stream."
"But why would that happen?" Emilie said. She wasn't sure if that was a stupid question or not, but the hole didn't look like something that was supposed to happen. It looked wrong, strange, threatening.
"That's what we'd like to know," Daniel said, leaning down for another look through the eyepiece.
"Yes," Professor Abindon said, "There are a number of possible reasons I can think of, none of them good. But the one I'm rather afraid of is that it's opening because something is making it open. Something is out there, pushing its way through to our world."
end chapter one
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