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Emilie and the Hollow World

Emilie and the Hollow World Cover Paperback: Strange Chemistry, April 2013.
Cover by Amazing15 Studio.

While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie's plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure. Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende's missing father. With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange races of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

Chapter One

Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor. So far, her great escape from Uncle Yeric's tyranny hadn't been great, or much of an escape. It's going to be embarrassing if I don't get further than this, she thought, exasperated at herself.

Emilie reminded herself failure wasn't an option. She scrambled behind a row of barrels, her boots squishing in foul-smelling muck, and squinted to get a look at the slip numbers next to the pier entrances. It was a cloudy night, the half-moon mostly concealed, and this end of the docks had only a few widely-spaced gas lamps. At the other end there had been tap houses and inns, and more people to blend in with, sailors or dockworkers heading for home and passengers waiting for the ships with a late boarding. This boardwalk was empty except for the occasional armed watchman, and if Emilie was stopped, she couldn't very well say indignantly, "I'm not a thief, I'm a stowaway, thank you very much!"

And she had to leave the city tonight; Uncle Yeric was a penny-pincher, but he might very well hire a hedgewitch to track Emilie with magic. Uncle Yeric and Aunt Helena would never lower themselves to hire a hedgewitch under normal circumstances, but considering what they thought Emilie was running off to do, they might make an exception.

Emilie had passed the gas-lit graving docks and the warehouses, looming dark and quiet. The hydraulic tower and the smaller pumphouse, its chimneys still billowing smoke against the night sky, made a good landmark; at least she knew she was in the right place. The Merry Bell and the other short-range steamers should be down here somewhere.

If Emilie hadn't spent money on food, she would have had enough to get to Silk Harbor by buying passage on the Coastal Ferry, which had departed late this afternoon. That had been her original plan.

She had formed the plan very carefully, stealing the newspapers out of the scrap paper bin to study the steamship lists and to learn where the passenger ferries berthed and the best route through the city of Meneport to reach the harbor. But none of the newspapers, or the storybooks that featured romantic heroines thrown out by their evil stepmothers (or stepfathers, or stepuncles) to make their own way in the world, had mentioned how painful starvation actually was, how once past the stage of acute pain, it made your thoughts slow and your body weak. It had taken Emilie two days to walk to the city, and by the end she had been footsore, exhausted, and so blind with hunger that she had stopped and bought a pork pie at the first shop she saw. It had fortified her for the walk across the city to the port, where she had succumbed again and bought a sausage roll and tea. Then she had found the booking office for the steamship lines and discovered that she was half the passage price short. If Emilie had had any inclination to see herself as a romantic heroine, this experience would have cured her of it.

I'm not a heroine, she thought, blending in with the shadows as she ran lightly to the next stack of cargo. I just want to live where I choose, like any reasonable person. She spotted a posted brass plate with the number 8 on it. Finally!

The Merry Bell was a passenger steamer that made the short trip up the coast to Silk Harbor every other day, and it was due to leave at dawn. From what she had heard in the shipping office, it would carry a number of passengers, few of whom would bother with staterooms, since the ship would be docking before nightfall. Everyone would be sitting in the lounges or wandering the decks, and it would be easy for Emilie to slip in among them once the steamer was underway. That was the plan, anyway. She only hoped the state of her clothes, a somewhat-the-worse-for-wear shirtwaist, jacket, and bloomers, with stockings and walking boots, didn't call attention to her, especially if she had to swim in them. She didn't have any luggage, either. Before she had left she had made up a small bundle of her belongings and posted it to her cousin Karthea on the overland mail, so no one would see her leaving the house with a bag.

Emilie stepped out from behind the crates and took a careful look up and down the dock. A light mist had come in, clinging to the infrequent gas lamps, and the only movement she could see was far down the boardwalk. Her heart pounding, she darted across the wide expanse to the pier's entrance.

The walkway was roped off, but that must be the bulky stern of the Merry Bell tied up at the end. In the dark all she could see was the shape of a long steamer with two stacks and a paddlewheel, with a closed promenade along the second deck. A few lights shone from cabin windows, though there was no movement out on the decks. Only the crew should be aboard now, and most of them sleeping. Hopefully.

Now Emilie had to figure out how to get onto the thing. She expected that trying to sneak up the gangplank would be impractical. She was going to have to swim, but first she wanted to see if there was a ladder or net she could use to climb up the hull. She ducked under the ropes blocking the pier and started cautiously down toward the ship.

There was something lumpy between the end of the gangplank and a stack of crates, barely visible in the dark. She thought it was a tarp thrown over a piling. When she was barely five steps away, it stood up.

Emilie flinched back with a smothered curse. The looming figure became a bearded watchman in a battered gray coat. In a voice rough with suspicion, he said, "Hey you, what are you after here?"

Emilie backed away. She should have had a story. "Um, I just wanted to look at the ship. I'm not a thief." She realized a heartbeat later that it was the wrong thing to say. He hadn't accused her of being a thief, just implied that she was a trespasser. Now that she had blurted out the word "thief" like a guilty...thief, he was going to think she was one.

"Having a look at the ship in the dark?" He came forward, still looming, and even more suspicious. "Wouldn't be waiting for the mail, now, would you?"

"I'm not expecting any mail," Emilie said, trying to sound innocent. Maybe if he thought she was daft, he would let her go.

It did give him pause. She couldn't read his expression in the dark, but he said, in a different tone, "Are you with old Migiltawny's crew?"

Emilie considered the odds. The only choice was between yes or no, and one or the other had to be right. She took a chance. "Yes," she said brightly.

"Migiltawny the dock-pirate!" the man roared. "So you're his look-out!"

"What? No!" Oh, hell, Emilie thought. "I didn't know that. I mean, I'm not here for that. I'm not a pirate, either!"

"Oh, you aren't! Let's have a look at you." He flipped the slide on a dark lantern that had been concealed by the crates, and in the light he looked bigger and more threatening than before. Emilie started back and he grabbed for her arm.

She wrenched away, heard her jacket rip as she twisted out of his grasping hand, and bolted back up the pier. He didn't chase her and for a moment she thought he would let her go. He had to see she was a young girl, though it would be hard to tell how young in the dark, and she thought herself an unlikely prospect for a mail thief or a dock-pirate. But as she reached the pier entrance a piercing whistle split the air, and she heard pounding footsteps. Two more watchmen ran toward her from down the dock.

Emilie stumbled to a halt, looked wildly around, and took the only route left: three quick steps to the edge of the pier and a dive into the dark water.

The cold was a shock; Emilie gasped and swallowed foul salty water. She choked, coughed it up and started to swim away from the pier.

Behind her the men shouted and light shone on the water as they brought lanterns out. Emilie took a deep breath and went under. She swam as hard as she could and wished she could afford to get rid of her boots. If she ever got the opportunity to try to pass herself off as a legitimate passenger, she couldn't do it barefoot.

She surfaced when her air ran out, close to the pilings of the next pier. She clung to one and looked back at the Merry Bell, and was startled to see its decks lit by a dozen or more lamps, with crewmembers running back and forth to gather near the gangplank. She groaned to herself. Running away and then jumping dramatically off the pier probably hadn't helped convince them she wasn't a mail-thief-pirate-robber, but she couldn't tell them the truth, either. She had no idea what they did to stowaways. It probably isn't as bad as what they do to pirates.

This plan was turning into a disaster, and it was all her own fault. The Merry Bell, as disturbed as a trodden-on anthill, was out. She would have to look for another day steamer, or wait until the Coastal Ferry returned late tomorrow and try to sneak aboard it. In the meantime, she needed a place to hide until they grew tired of looking for her, and convinced themselves there was no gang of robbers ready to descend on them.

She should be better at this. Her mother had been a runaway too, and Emilie had never been allowed to forget it. Obviously it didn't run in the blood. Uncle Yeric would be so surprised. She paddled to the end of the pier, trying not to splash too much, and looked for another ship.

There was one two piers over, the decks lit by several lamps. Her teeth already chattering, she paddled toward it for a better look.

It was large, made of flashy bright coppery metal, but shaped like a round top heavy tub. Its hull was bulbous, and widened out to support platforms along the main deck. There were four decks, and it had three smokestacks, but they were set side by side across the width of the ship. There were no windows on the upper decks and few doors, though there was an open promenade. Some of the windows were lit, and she saw two men walking along the third deck, just turning into an open hatch. There was no gangplank down, and as she drew closer she saw the ship wasn't tied up to the pier, it was standing at anchor a short distance from it. The name on the bow was the Sovereign.

Emilie threw a look back at the dock. More men were gathering with lamps, agitated shadows searching the crates and barrel stacks, darting into every corner. Swearing to herself, Emilie swam toward the other ship.

She had to swim out and around the bow, to get to the side facing away from the lighted pier. I can't do this much longer. If there was no way to climb up to the deck, she was going to have to find a piling to cling to. The cold water sapped her strength, and she didn't think she could swim anywhere else after this, not without a rest.

But for once, the first time in three days, luck was with her.

The ship had a cradle for a launch or lifeboat that had been lowered down the side, and sat just above the water. The boat was gone; someone must have taken it to go to shore. The cradle had a small platform with a ladder leading up the side to an open gate in the railing.

Emilie didn't know how exhausted she was until she tried to climb up onto the platform. Her soaked clothes weighed twice as much as she did, at least, and her arms ached with the strain by the time she dragged herself onto the narrow metal shelf. She lay there for a while, breathing hard and dripping, rivulets of water running away across the platform. But it was warmer out of the water than it was in.

After a time her breathing returned to normal, and the metal platform began to feel cold and very uncomfortable. She sat up and started to wring out her clothes as best she could. Listening hard, she could still hear muted commotion from the docks, but she had a refuge for the moment, and that was all that mattered. She could stay here until the men on the dock stopped looking for her, then swim back to shore.

She heard the putt-putt-putt of a small boat motor. "Oh, no," Emilie muttered weakly. Out of the kettle, into the coals. What were the chances that it was this ship's launch, returning? After the events of the past night, she thought the chances were rather good.

She had had time to rest and to let several pounds of water drain out of her clothes, so tackling the ladder wasn't as difficult as it would have been earlier. The motor boat was drawing closer somewhere out in the dark, and that spurred her on.

She dragged herself up onto the polished wooden planks of the deck, and staggered upright. She started toward the nearest hatch, a heavy door with a thick crystal porthole. It stood open a little, and she cautiously peeked inside. It led into a wide interior corridor running parallel to the deck, lined with fine dark wood, the floor covered with a thick patterned carpet. An electric ceramic sconce about midway down provided wan light, enough to show her the richness of the brass fixtures and fittings. This must be someone's private steam yacht, she thought, startled. Not a good place to be caught if she didn't want to be mistaken for a thief again.

Emilie heard the boat motor sputter and turned. The launch was entering the slip, the light on its bow giving her enough of a glimpse of the occupants to see that there were several figures in dark clothing aboard. This isn't the best place to hide but it's the only one I've got. She wiggled through the doorway without moving the hatch and started down the corridor.

She was still dripping, but fortunately the dark pattern of the carpet didn't show it. Anxious and feeling exactly like the unwelcome, uninvited intruder she was, she took the first turn to a cross passage.

The lights were brighter here which made her feel horribly exposed. She hurried past cabin doors, but they were all closed, and she was afraid to walk in on someone sleeping, or worse, awake. She passed a narrow stairwell, hesitated, then decided to stay on this deck.

Then the passage opened out into a lounge. It had deep upholstered couches built back against the walls, and glass-fronted bookcases, and a white porcelain heating stove. There was a partially open door at the back. She hurried over to peek inside, and saw it was a steward's cubby, with a gas ring, a tap, and storage cabinets. As a hiding place, it was a good possibility. Surely it was too late at night for someone to want to sit in the lounge and call for a steward--

Footsteps sounded from somewhere nearby, and Emilie whipped into the cubby and pushed the door nearly to, leaving a slim gap. She crouched down on the tile floor, wrapped her arms around her knees, and tried to make her breathing silent.

Two sets of footsteps drew near, and she heard a man's voice say, "Lord Engal, I wish you wouldn't do this." It was a light voice, with a cultured city accent.

"You mean proceed with the expedition, or trust Kenar's word, Barshion?" another man, presumably Lord Engal, answered. His voice was deeper, with the same accent, and Emilie immediately pictured a much larger man. He sounded amused and dismissive. Emilie thought of Uncle Yeric, not in a complimentary way.

"Perhaps both." Barshion's tone was serious. "You know what I think of Kenar. We can't be certain what his motives are. There's too much at stake--"

"Dr. Marlende's life is at stake, and the lives of his crew! This expedition must leave as scheduled. We've already delayed too long." The amusement had gone from Engal's voice, making him sound far more commanding. Expedition? Emilie wondered. Lives at stake? Fascinated, she edged forward and angled her head to see out the gap.

A man paced into view, slender, with sleek blond hair and the pale skin of northern Menaen ancestry. He was dressed in a very correct tweed walking suit with a carefully starched neckcloth. He said, "Marlende my friend as well." From his voice this was the one called Barshion. "I want to go to his assistance as badly as you do, but if we have the wrong information, we're risking Marlende's life and the lives of his surviving crew as well as our own."

"I understand your concerns, but we can't wait any longer. Even if Kenar is overstating the urgency, the entire party must be in real danger." Emilie heard a rustle, the click of what might be a pocket watch, then Engal stepped into view. He was big, burly enough to work on the docks, gray-haired, gray-bearded. Like Emilie, and most of the people she had seen in Meneport, his looks were more southern Menaen, with warm brown skin and dark eyes. "Hickran should be back soon. What's keeping the man?"

"Ricks said he saw the launch returning a moment ago. It should be coming alongside now--"

Sharp cracks sounded from somewhere nearby, and Emilie flinched and knocked her elbow painfully against the cabinet. Startled, Engal said, "What the--"

"Gunshots," Barshion gasped. "The launch--"

The two men ran down the corridor, and Emilie pushed to her feet. Gunshots? she thought, astounded. Maybe the guard of the Merry Bell and the other watchmen had been so touchy and suspicious for a good reason. Maybe there really are dock-pirates. She felt a little like she had stepped into a play.

A door banged open somewhere, men shouted, muffled by distance. Emilie bit her lip. She couldn't stay here. The watchmen would be called, the city constabulary too, probably, and if they searched the ship... Her disastrous plan was getting more disastrous by the moment. Emilie eased to her feet, peeked to make certain the lounge was empty.

She stepped out of the cubby, heard shouts and running footsteps but couldn't tell the direction. She had to see where the robbers were before she knew which way to flee.

She ducked out of the lounge, heading back to the stairway she had passed on the way in. She hurried up to the next deck, finding a foyer with four closed cabin doors and an entrance to another cross-corridor. She ran back toward the starboard side, passed two open doors that led to a darkened dining area, then found a hatch out onto the unlit glassed-in promenade. She went to the railing, looking down through the windows streaked with damp and saltwater spray. It's robbers all right, she thought grimly.

There was a fight on the deck below, near the gate in the railing, above the ladder to the launch platform. Five or six men in blue coats common to sailors and several others in dark-colored uniforms. She had no idea which were crewmen and which were the robbers.

A gunshot went off and glass shattered at the far end of the promenade. Emilie jerked back with a muffled yelp. Her throat went dry from fear. If she had stepped into a play, she wished she could step back out of it. She bolted back through the hatch and down the corridor.

It didn't go straight through to the port side, but turned into a confusing maze of service cabins and smaller lounges. Emilie had forgotten how absurdly wide this strange ship was, and blundered into a smoking room and a small pantry before finally tripping over the rim of a hatchway out into another larger corridor.

Before she ran ten steps down it, three men in black livery shot out of an intersecting passage and slammed past her, heading starboard. She gasped and flattened herself against the wall. One threw her a confused glance but they clearly didn't have time to stop and question stray girls, whether there were supposed to be any aboard the ship or not. In the light of the crystal sconces, she clearly looked a lot less like a scout for robbers than she had to the watchman on the dark pier. Those must be crewmen, she thought. The bluecoats are the robbers. That was handy to know.

Figuring she had truly used up every bit of her small store of luck by now, Emilie ran faster.

As she reached a passage that ran parallel to the outer port side, the deck shuddered beneath her and she heard the muffled grumble of the engines. They're casting off? she wondered, heading for the nearest hatch. A quick look through the small porthole told her the deck just in front of the hatch was empty, and that this side of the ship was facing the pier. The hatch was closed and locked and she had to wrench the bolts back before she could yank the heavy door open.

Emilie stepped out into a cool breeze, and heard fighting and shouting from the other side of the ship. The vessel wasn't moving yet, but the throb of the engines was growing louder. There were a few deck lamps lit, but there was no one out here to see her.

The ship was anchored some distance from the pier; Emilie would have to swim for it again. She went to the railing and realized she couldn't jump from here: the deck below was wider than this one. Also, she was much higher up now. She hurried along to an outside stairway, tucked into a sheltered nook in the side. She made her steps quiet, but she was only halfway down when someone stepped out of a hatch on the lower deck.

Emilie froze. It was a man in a greatcoat that was far too heavy for the cool night. He stepped to the railing, stretched to look down, then turned away from Emilie and started away down the deck. She just had time to take a breath in relief when a bluecoat slammed out of the hatch just behind him and swung a cudgel.

"Look out!" Emilie shouted in reflex. The man whipped around and ducked, lightning quick, and the cudgel missed completely. Before the bluecoat could recover, the man seized the cudgel, wrenched it away with a quick twist, and delivered two stunning blows to the bluecoat's chest and head.

Another bluecoat stepped out of the hatch, and Emilie surged forward. She had no idea what she was going to do, just that she had to do something. Then she tripped over a water bucket abandoned at the bottom of the stairs, seized it, and flung it at the bluecoat.

The bluecoat cursed and ducked, giving the man time to whirl around and hit him with the cudgel too. As the bluecoat collapsed, the man caught sight of Emilie, and froze for an instant, staring at her. He was standing under a lamp, and the light fell on his face. Emilie yelled in pure shocked reflex.

He wasn't human. The matte black fur, the glitter of reptilian scales were only an impression, but she clearly saw the gold split-pupil eyes and the pointed teeth.

Another hatch opened further down the deck and half a dozen bluecoats spilled out, brawling with just as many black-liveried sailors. They spread across the deck, shouting and fighting.

Emilie turned to run, but the deck heaved suddenly, rolled under her feet, and knocked her flat. Emilie struggled to her knees, trying to stand. It had to be the engines, an explosion in the boilers. The deck shook again and kept shaking, as if something huge had grabbed the ship's hull from below. The dock lights started to recede, as the ship moved out of the slip and into the harbor. Gunshots sounded nearby, and Emilie looked up to see two sailors with rifles stood on the deck above, aiming down at the bluecoats.

The strange man -- creature -- man shouted at her, "Stay down!"

That sounded like very good advice, despite the source. Emilie scrambled under the stairs and huddled back against the wall.

The deck shuddered continuously, the water churning below. She heard splashes, saw two bluecoats tumble over the rail. They were losing the fight, or fleeing the potential explosion, or both. The gunshots stopped and the ship's horn blew frantically. You have to get off this ship before it gets any further from shore, Emilie told herself, her heart pounding in her ears.

She crawled forward and peered around the stairway. Several sailors and bluecoats still struggled at the far end of the deck. She saw the strange not-human man toss another bluecoat overboard, then a door crashed open somewhere on the deck above. She looked up to see Lord Engal stood at the rail above her. He shouted, "Get off, jump, you bastards, if you don't want to go with us!" He fired a pistol into the air, emphasizing the order.

That seemed to convince the few remaining bluecoats that retreat was a good idea. Three went over the rail. Two others paused to drag a fallen comrade upright and toss him over, then they jumped after him.

The roar of the engines reached a deafening pitch, and Emilie had to follow them, before the ship broke apart. She pushed to her feet, staggered as the deck rolled violently, then flung herself at the rail.

"No!" someone shouted, and grabbed the back of her jacket, jerking her to a halt. "Too late!"

Barely three steps in front of her a glimmering gold wall sprang up along the rail and arched to form a dome over the ship. "What's that?" Emilie demanded. She looked up, realized it was the not-human man who had grabbed her. She tried to pull away, and he let her go.

He looked toward Lord Engal, who was still on the deck above them, and seemed to be studying the gold barrier with an air of great satisfaction. The man said, "The way home."

"Whose home?" Emilie tried to ask, but the roar of the engines blotted out the words. The deck shook and water rushed up all around them, the brown churning water of the harbor, kept out by the gold wall. No, the water wasn't rushing up, the ship was sinking, sinking fast, as if something dragged it below the surface.

As Emilie stared upward in baffled horror, the water covered the dome of light overhead as the ship sunk faster and faster, and the brownish water gave way to deep blue.

end chapter one

Emilie and the Hollow World

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