Imperial Clock - By Robert Appleton

Chapter One


Niflheim, Norway


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