Imperial Clock (The Steam Clock Legacy), page 1
Copyright @ Robert Appleton 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Table of Contents
About the Author
“Of two sisters, one is always the watcher, one the dancer.”
— Louise Glück
“We acquire friends and we make enemies, but our sisters come with the territory.”
— Evelyn Loeb
Arm in arm as they weaved their way through the crowded garden party, the McEwan sisters were inseparable this evening. Insuperable. At long last, they were closing in on their prey.
While the youngest, Sonja, preferred to march, to tromp wherever she went, Meredith was naturally inclined to glide. Even now, approaching their long-time nemeses for this showdown in Professor Sorensen's garden—three years had passed since the last vicious encounter here—Meredith felt as cool and smooth as vichyssoise. Maybe it was because she was approaching womanhood now and was more composed, on the threshold of society, while the last time they'd visited Niflheim she and Sonja had been little more than skittish girls, easily humiliated.
Tonight, together, they would end that humiliation once and for all. Tonight they would be formidable.
Sonja stopped them, brushed a stray white curl from her goggles, and motioned away to the hedgerow to their left. “Hags ahoy, east-north-east—with extra ballast this time.” Meaning the three Sorensen cousins had brought reinforcements, anticipating this full-blown McEwan offensive.
“Age and class?” Meredith loved it when they reduced people they didn't like to nautical metaphors. It always sounded deliciously coded, for their ears only, and really brought out Sonja's cruel wit.
Her little sister adjusted the magnification on her spectrometer goggles—the current night-time lens would be illuming everyone in a ghostly green hue. “Um, rather tight lines, I'm afraid, but a little older. Ballonets fully inflated. She's luring men like a siren.” Sonja lifted her goggles, cast Meredith a forlorn gaze. “It's Lady Catarina. They've gone and recruited Lady bloody Catarina!”
“Hell.” The prudent thing to do would be to turn back and bide their time, wait to catch the Sorensen bullies on their own, for Lady Catarina Fairchild, the only daughter of wealthy English emigrant parents, was a notoriously accomplished peahen back in London. Yes, she had more men on the go at any one time than a tramp steamer on a boom town run, and knew how to talk her way into or out of anything.
But damn it, Meredith had drummed herself up for this encounter for weeks, ever since Aunt Lily had announced they'd all been invited to Niflheim for the grand opening of Father's science exhibition. He and Sorensen were good friends, and Father's historic subterranean discoveries had been given pride of place in the local museum. After tonight, the evil trio might not visit their uncle's estate again before Meredith and Sonja returned to Southsea. That would not do. Years of pent-up humiliation needed an outlet, and this was it—sweet, sweet vengeance—now or never.
“We see the mission through, no backing out.” Meredith’s lips receded from her teeth at the sight of Helga, Brigitte and Freya Sorensen giggling away by the large baroque fountain in the shade of a Norway spruce tree. Their leg-of-mutton sleeves flapped in the manner of fat penguin wings as the girls cajoled one another around Lady Catarina’s energetic regalement.
Though none of the cousins held a candle to their older chaperone, they were all passably attractive—frustratingly so, for it gave Meredith precious little verbal ammunition with which to cut them down to size. Their prominent high cheekbones and striking golden-blonde hair, both classic Nordic attributes, gave them an immediate advantage over Meredith and her sister, who each had rather anaemic-looking, almost white hair and whose facial definitions, though promising, had not yet escaped the last of their adolescent roundness. Sonja in particular had a chubby face and a button nose that belied her fully-developed figure—nor did it help that she preferred to hide the latter behind her conservative dress and slightly masculine carriage.
Yet Meredith secretly hoped her sister would stay that way forever. As things were, boys did not pay Sonja much mind, and Meredith loved being the sole gatekeeper for any and all male attentions. Not that she ever accepted such callers or invitations, but it was encouraging to know that their sisterly clique—on which she relied so much, indeed, more than she dared let on—was hers to ensure for as long as she wished.
Yes, while they were together and no one breached their confidence, everything was as it should be.
“What are you girls up to?” Aunt Lily sashayed across their path, tilting her white fur hand warmer and Cossack fur hat toward her latest conquest, a dashing beau at least ten years her junior. She was forty-one, looked twenty-five, and had a waist you could almost pinch between your forefinger and thumb. Kind of an architectural miracle, in fact, as she also boasted an ample bosom—one imagined her having to scurry hither and thither to maintain balance lest she topple over, yet she moved with swan-like grace.
“We’re showing all these scallywags how to behave,” Sonja replied. “This place is far too rowdy.”
Meredith snorted. “If somebody blew their nose here, it would qualify as a riot.”
Aunt Lily cast them a haughty glance from the corner of her eye, then beamed at her gentleman admirer. “You’d best behave, young ladies—” She gave her best ventriloquist impression through the teeth of a fixed smile, “—if you want to see daylight for the next month.”
An empty threat. She’d tried grounding them in the past, but it was tough to be a jailer when you were rarely at the prison in person. Aunt Lily was one of the most popular women in Portsmouth and Southsea, or at least she had been before Father’s latest scandal. Her endless engagements kept her away from her home for much of the time. But despite what she said about Meredith and Sonja hating having to stay with her while Father was away on his subterranean adventures, they honestly didn’t. She was fun to be around when she actually bothered to talk to them, and the empty house and grounds gave them endless opportunities to explore, idle, and otherwise hide from the world.
A world that hated them, that they hated in return.
“Your father was asking for you earlier.” Aunt Lily coyly turned her nose up at her gentleman admirer across the garden and looked straight at Meredith, masking a yawn with her fluffy hand warmer. “There’s someone he wants
“Yes, Auntie.” Sonja motioned to put a finger down her throat.
“That’s enough of that, little madam. You know how important this visit is for your father—for all of us.” The glint in her questing eyes sparked, as though she’d caught the scent of wounded prey somewhere in the garden. So honed was her social survival instinct, Darwin himself might do well to follow her exploits at one of these eclectic functions. No matter what gossip ailed the McEwan family back in England, Aunt Lily would sniff out an antidote and peddle it tirelessly until she came up smelling of roses. She always did. Her motivation might be selfish but that social finagling had also helped revive Father’s reputation in the past.
He needed it now more than ever.
A little over eighteen months had passed since Ralph McEwan’s heroic return from his second expedition to the subterranean realm he himself had discovered back in 1899, a vast underground network of chambers and tunnels that, as far as he’d ascertained, went farther and deeper than man had ever thought possible. On his first expedition, he’d penetrated the earth in his famous mechanical iron mole, and his discovery of a world far beneath the surface had stunned the world. But shortly after his return from that adventure, claims that he had stolen the design for his burrowing machine from an American colleague had tarnished his reputation.
It had taken him seven years to mount his second expedition and a further eighteen months to complete it. In that time, Meredith and Sonja had grown up together, mostly alone. They’d watched Mother grow weaker every day until the tuberculosis had claimed her. They’d also developed keen instincts for deflecting insults aimed at Father from classmates, idiotic neighbours, and other pesky insects. Had Father returned home triumphant from Subterranea this time, things might have changed.
But history cruelly repeated itself. No sooner did he arrive back from Central Africa with a trove of samples and artefacts than the mud began to fly once more.
Reports that he had maimed his expedition partner, a Frenchman named Armand Clochefort, weeks before embarkation—to claim sole authorship of all discoveries—and that that had caused the Frenchman to commit suicide, had landed Father in serious hot water. The reprieve the McEwans had hoped for did not arrive—rather their name was blackened further still.
Only a handful of loyal colleagues openly honoured Father’s achievements these days. Professor Sorensen was one of them, which meant all Norway held Father in high esteem, for Sorensen, an inventor of some note, was a much-loved and well-respected figure in his home nation, and the people trusted his judgement implicitly.
If only the same were true of his nieces—the Niflheim trolls—who had humiliated Meredith and Sonja so viciously the last time.
But not tonight, harpies.
Sonja tugged Meredith behind a group of sporty-looking gentlemen while their aunt was distracted. “We need to make our move.” She folded her goggles and slid them into her dress pocket. “Father will parade us around like maharanis once he gets hold of us—and we’ll have blown it.”
Leaning close, Meredith parted the loose curls from her sister’s brow. “Let’s make it sharp then. Exchange a few volleys, then go in for the kill. They’ll never know what hit ‘em.”
Sonja sprouted a wicked smirk. “You take Freya and Brigitte. I want Pimple Face.” The youngest, Helga, had taken special delight in mocking Sonja’s “accident” two years ago. The little troll might not have instigated the prank but she’d milked it in front of the entire party nonetheless.
The recollection cut anew. Her gaze darting over the dark hedgerow, Meredith winced as she fought back the memories...
They’d stood alone, away from the crowd one moment, sharing silly observations; the next, they’d fought to break free from their frocks pulled over their heads and tied with curtain cords. No warning given. It had happened so quick, supernatural quick. For Meredith’s part, the shock had left her truly panicked. Tears had streamed down her hot face undercover, the shame of her undergarments on full display for high society while she’d bumped into tables and walls and Sonja, desperately trying to free herself and put an end to the humiliation.
Lord, that endless laughing, whooping, cackling.
No one had helped her, not until she’d crashed into the punch bowl and the contents had spilled all over her. Even when Father and Professor Sorensen and a few other gentlemen had finally put an end to the spectacle, freeing her and Sonja, the evil cousins had celebrated long into the night, taunting them at every opportunity, bragging to other interested young parties about how they’d “struck a blow for justice.” They’d said “the McEwan girls are obnoxious little sows” and “fraud spawn,” referencing Father’s rumoured illegal practices.
But all of that might have been at least surmountable had she seen, or even come to learn who’d actually performed the malicious prank. For God’s sake, the Sorensen cousins had not been anywhere near them. No one had, unless that person had been hiding under the drinks table. But even so, how had neither she nor Sonja felt their frocks being pulled up, let alone tied overhead?
It was as if the prankster had slid in through a nick of time, done the deed in the blink of an eye and then sneaked out again unseen. Father had questioned the witnesses afterwards, and not one of them confessed to having seen the culprit.
In the intervening years, that last part had haunted Meredith more than any other. She knew the Sorensens had orchestrated it, but how—and with whom—had they deceived a room full of guests? Only one thing was for certain: her payback would not disappoint. No, she and Sonja would have the last laugh tonight.
“Are you sure your friend understands the signal?”
“Aye, he’s watching us right now.” Sonja glanced to the pavilion roof behind them, gave her mysterious young acquaintance a discreet wave. “For ten bob, there’s no way he’ll let us down.”
“Ten bob? We both owe him a big sloppy kiss if this works.”
“Yuck! You can if you like,” Sonja replied. “He rather fancies you anyway, poor bloke.”
Meredith didn’t pay her sister’s comment much mind. “I’ll have to meet him later.”
“You’ve already met him, Merry—three years ago, remember? Sorensen’s English ward, the little urchin from up north. Lancashire, I think. Could hardly tell what he said back then. He’s, um, changed somewhat since.”
“I remember,” she lied. The only thing she recalled from three years ago laid siege to her defiance once again. It screamed in the deep, private chasms of her being, summoning forth hate and blasts of molten shame. She ground her teeth, gripped her parasol in a moist lace glove patterned with the fleur-de-lis motif. “All right, here we go.”
Sonja gave her sister’s arm a quick soft punch for luck. “Let’s do it. It’s our turn now.”
The eldest, Brigitte, cast a dark shawl over her trim shoulders. All three cousins turned to greet Meredith and Sonja. But something wasn’t right. They smiled—uncommonly warm and genuine smiles that lit their pale, chiselled faces.
Meredith swallowed, didn’t know what to do next. She had agonised over the awful events from three years ago, nary a day free from stomach-twisting pangs of shame; she had dwelt on this moment of revenge for endless nights; but had they, for all love, given the matter so much as an idle thought during that time?
The notion wrung her insides bitterly.
“Miss McEwan, Sonja, how do you do?” Brigitte extended her arm, inviting them to join the group. Either an expert lure or sickeningly sincere. “Lady Catarina just remarked on how handsomely you’ve grown. Not that we ever doubted it—your mother outshone all of Niflheim when she visited.”
Um, where is Brigitte Sorensen, and what does this automaton run on? Butter milk?
“Thank you, Miss Sorensen. And Lady Catarina, very kind.” Two can play at this. “Did you find Father’s presentation agreeable? We’ve never seen him happier. How he loves sharing his triumphs with eager listeners. And you must thank your uncle for
Let them choke on that.
“He was pleased as punch when your parliamentary whatsits announced he was to be honoured.” Venom was brewing in Sonja’s words. “I dare say a few people will be eating crow about now. Nice buffet earlier, hmm?”
The younger cousin snorted, then engaged in an ill-advised staring contest with Sonja. Now this was more like it—both sides testing their strengths, flying their true colours. The game was afoot. Or was it?
“Helga! Manners.” The middle cousin, Freya, closest of the three to strawberry blonde, slapped her younger cousin’s shoulder, then turned to Meredith. “Pay no mind to my sister. She was born a pest.”
“Shut it, sow.” The smallest received a clip to the ear for that retort, and Meredith lost her bearings again. Divided enemy forces? Not fighting back? This wasn’t at all how things were supposed to happen. What next—exchanging Christmas cards?
If any of them use the word sorry, I’ll throw up.
“How is your Aunt Lily?” Lady Catarina stepped forward, adjusted the ribbon on her wide-brimmed touring hat, while the buns in her ebony hair shimmered in the light from several blue-tinted oil lamps. There was nothing subtle about the woman’s beauty: high rounded cheekbones; a scaled-down voluptuous figure, generous in hips and breasts yet a long way from plump; and big hazel eyes that seemed to reflect the best of everything else but the worst of you. Yes, all women were jealous of her. One could clock her appeal in a single glimpse from across the fullest room.
“She is well and in good spirits, ma’am. Thank you. And you?”
“I am enjoying my Arctic trip immensely. An airship took us far north last week, and such a thing you never saw—flat white as far as the eye could see, and uncommonly still, not a quiver of a breeze. Now I understand why your father insists on his explorations. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of being somewhere man has not yet trod. I envy him deeply.”