Harriet inched nearer the edge of the bed, hardly daring to breathe. Her mother stirred, muttering something in her sleep. Don’t you go waking up, Harriet thought. You might think Sibelius is dirty an’ dangerous, but he’s me only friend, so you can stuff that where the sun don’t shine. She’d never speak like that to her mother’s face, but thinking it now made her grin.
She slipped out of bed, bare feet finding the cold floor. Wish we could afford heating. This nightdress might as well be made o’ cobwebs for all the good it does keeping the drafts out. She pulled on a shawl and crept towards the door.
Following her usual zigzag route, she avoided the creaking floorboards that had betrayed her in the past. Harriet didn’t mind harsh words – and she’d tolerate a cuff round the ear – but she’d rather avoid trouble if she could.
At the door, she ran her fingers over the hinges. They were greased with butter she’d snaffled at dinner last night. She lifted the latch and slipped out. A cast-iron walkway skirted the inner walls of the tower. Harriet ran, barefoot, unworried by the absence of a railing and the dizzying drop into darkness. Balloons floated up and down, with baskets beneath carrying messages and supplies. No people at this time of day, though. She climbed a ladder to the level below and pulled back the door to the Laundry.
This was her time; no one to tell her what to do or say; no one to tweak her ear or shout at her for day-dreaming. Aside from the bubbling boiling-pots and the distant clanking of engines, the laundry room was quiet.
Harriet pushed the window up. The city of Lundoon spread out below and around her. The city’s fumes mingled with the scent of detergent flakes. There was no sign of Sibelius. She stoked up the fires under the boiling-pots. Best to make meself useful. A smog-horn boomed above the rapid chugging of an airborne engine. Skipping back to the window, she leaned out. He’s late. Wonder what’s keeping him.
Between the towers opposite hers, a merchant vessel lifted from its mooring. The vast structure of the dirigible’s gas chambers dwarfed the cargo hold suspended beneath.
The airship rose through the yellow smog, propellers turning lazily. Emerging above the layer of cloud and into the bright morning air, the silvered surface of the ship glowed. The engines roared, firing to full throttle. The propeller blades sped up until they were no more than a blur and the airship moved upward towards the pale disc of the Moon, still visible in the deep blue of the Dark Sea above.
Harriet grinned. That’s beautiful, ain’t it? She imagined the grease and steam in the engine room, polished brass pistons pumping. She fancied herself the captain, taking command at the controls. Looking up, she saw a multi-colored air-balloon draw closer to the window. “Sibelius!”
Beneath the balloon hung a wicker basket covered with a tent of painted canvas stretched over a bamboo frame. Around the basket bags of ballast, pots, pans and supply sacks were hung. The craft’s propeller idled as the balloon came level with the window.
leaned on the basket’s edge. His cap was cocked to one side in a jaunty fashion and his brass goggles were pushed up onto his forehead. He wore a loosely tied neckerchief, a necklace of shark’s teeth and a copper talisman. A brass ring pierced his left ear. A long-healed scar ran down the side of his face.
“Bonjour mademoiselle,” he said, agile fingers grasping one of the ropes. He pulled himself up and sat sideways on the basket’s edge. One leg dangled lazily over the side. He appeared entirely nonchalant about the vast distance of sky between himself and the teeming city below.
“You’re late,” said Harriet again.
He pulled out a clay pipe and a smoking pouch and began stuffing dark tobacco into the bowl. “I have arrived en retarde only because I was delayed by adventure.”
“Tell me all about it, then,” said Harriet, settling down to listen. Then she added, grinning, “Or I’ll burst your blooming balloon.”
“Tu es très charmant, mademoiselle,” he said, his tail flicking. He tamped down the tobacco with a dirty-nailed thumb and fingered a packet of matches from his jerkin pocket.
The monkey grinned, flashing a golden tooth. His intelligent eyes watched her brightly a moment before returning to their usual languid expression. He struck the match, lit the pipe and puffed swathes of pungent smoke into the morning air.
“Three times in the year The Monkey Nation meets. Sky monkey families gather from all over the city. It is an airborne empire of multi-colored balloons. Qu’une vue pour voir, mademoiselle! You should see it!“
“I’d love to!”
“But you may not, ma petite. We gather not only for celebration but…for business.” He leaned towards her and lowered his voice, “C’est un très grand secret. We trade in information passed between gentlemen merchants Up Top and Groundlings below the smog. We trade in secrets, conspiracies, lies. This makes it dangerous work, tu comprend?”
“Yeah, you told me before hundreds o’ times. What happened today?”
“I received information that would compromise the reputation of a very important gentleman. To verify the story I had to venture into the most dangerous back-alleys of Lundoon. There, I was set upon by a gang of cut-throats…”
“Did you have to fight ’em?”
“Mademoiselle, I was out-numbered six to one, and every man of them a heavy-weight.” He paused, and then winked. “Of course I had to fight them…”
Several boiling-pots bubbled over at once. Copper lids rocked and clattered. Hot suds exploded into the air, splashing slippery patches over the laundry floor.
Harriet swore. “Now look!” she said, jumping up. “Mum’ll throw a dicky fit if she sees this.”
“Quelle domage, mademoiselle. It is my fault for distracting you.”
“Nah,” said Harriet, busy lifting up the steaming-hot lids, hands wrapped in towels. “It ain’t your fault. It’s mine for being such a dreamer.”
“Ah, but it is our dreams,” called Sibelius, swinging back into his basket and firing the engine, “it is our dreams that give meaning to our lives, mademoiselle.”
Harriet mopped vigorously. “You’re a bad influence, you are! I’ll have no life to give meaning to if she sees this mess. Can you come back later? Tonight maybe, after she’s abed?”
“I will do my best. Au revoir, mon amie!”
Sibelius tapped out his pipe, pulled down his goggles and started the propeller. His balloon chugged out of sight just as the laundry door flung open and Harriet’s mother stormed in, still in dressing gown and slippers, her hair in disarray.
Harriet stood in a puddle of hot suds, nightdress damp at the hem, mop and bucket in hand. Through the fog of steam, her mother’s face was pale and angry. Blimey, she thought, the colors of adventure rinsed from her mind, I’m in trouble all right.
Having endured a lecture underlined with a cuff round the ear, Harriet spent the day up to her arms in soapy water, scrubbing, rinsing and hanging out until her body ached and her hands were raw.
After supper, with a look that silenced her protests before they had even formed on her lips, her mother sent her to bed.
She lay beneath the blankets feeling pretty miserable. Before long her mind wandered to the countless stories Sibelius had told her during their many secret rendezvous at the window: Tales of ancient worlds lost among the stars of the Outer Archipelago, of creatures unknown on Earth or Moon, of pirates and adventure. She rolled over, pulling the blankets around her, and smiled. One day I’ll go to the Moon, she thought. An’ I’ll be the captain of me own sky ship!
Through the bedroom window she could see the Starline marking the flight ways between Earth and Moon. Just twinkling lights from this distance, she knew they were as big as towers and home to crews of hundreds who kept the crackling electrostatic lanterns alight and re-fueled ships on their long voyages back and forth.
This blooming Laundry’s my whole world, she thought. I ain’t even been to the foot of the tower. I wonder what it would’ve been like if me dad was still alive. Mum would be happier. Maybe we’d live in one of them houses Up Top, with trees and flowers and fountains …
Violent crashes sounded below. Harriet cursed and sat up. Now what? I set everything to rights before I come up to bed. Another crash. Raised voices. Sounds like someone smashing up the furniture! Harriet zigzagged silently to the door. She opened it just a crack. Her skin was cold. Her heart pounded like a foundry hammer.
“Where’s the girl?” snarled a gravelly, masculine voice.
Her mother said, “I don’t know what you mean. There’s no girl here.” A sharp slap followed and a stifled scream.
“Listen, lady. We can make this easy or we can make this hard. It’s up to you. We know you’re hiding the girl here and we can go an’ find her but it would be easier for all of us if you just…Urgh! Kneed me in the pods, the wicked …!” Another crash. “Don’t let her get away! And find that girl…”
Harriet shut the door, panicking. Another shout of pain followed.
Footsteps rattled along the iron walkway.
Harriet backed away from the door, pressing herself against the opposite wall. She breathed hard, limbs trembling. The door crashed open and a dark figure loomed against the sudden flood of light.
This is the first chapter of Beyond the Starline by Austin Hackney. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
Author Website: The Dark Sea