Emilie & the Hollow World - By Martha Wells



To Jennifer Jackson: another one she never gave up on


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 eight 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