Read Secrets of the Dragon Tomb Online

Authors: Patrick Samphire

Secrets of the Dragon Tomb (3 page)

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Mama rose to her feet in a rustle of green and gold fabrics as we entered.

“Frederick! We are delighted you were able to come visit with us.”

I frowned. Had Mama known Freddie was coming? Surely she would have said?

“Bit of a surprise for everyone, eh?” Freddie said. “One minute here I wasn't, and, well, the next here I was.” He gave a wide, vacant smile.

“But a delightful one,” Jane said, rising elegantly to join Mama.

Jane was my oldest sister. She was nineteen years old and probably the sweetest person on Mars. She also had the power to make young gentlemen fall in love with her from a hundred paces. We hadn't seen Freddie for almost two years, while he'd been away at university, and it would be an interesting scientific experiment to see if he still had any immunity to Jane.

“Couldn't stop myself dropping in when I, ah, found myself in the area. Or should I say
over
the area.”

My next oldest sister, Olivia, looked as stiff-backed as a new book as she inclined her head. “Mr. Winchester. You are most welcome.” For some reason, her cheeks had turned pink. A wisp of brown hair had escaped from the tight bun at the back of her head.

“Hugo!” Mama said. “Frederick is here.”

Papa blinked over his dirty eyeglasses. He'd been scribbling notes on a pad of paper. His bushy eyebrows rose.

“Ah. There you are, my boy. I'd wondered where you'd gotten to.”

For a moment, I thought he must be talking to me. Had Papa actually been looking for me?

“Frederick has been on Earth, attending Oxford University,” Mama said, and I thought,
Of course, he meant Freddie. Why would Papa be looking for me?
He never seemed to notice whether I was there or not.

Sighing, I slid into the chair next to Olivia. She was still sitting as stiffly as an automatic servant whose springs had run down.

“What's wrong with you?” I whispered.

Olivia shook her head minutely, her cheeks still flushed.

The door burst open, and Putty hurried in. She had taken off her old frock coat and replaced it with a pair of waistcoats just like Freddie's.

“What is the meaning of this?” Mama snapped.

“Er … Of what?” I said cautiously, as the ro-butler trundled in carrying a dish of plesiosaur steak flavored with cracked pepper and rosemary, and fire-beans.

“Parthenia!” Mama exclaimed, flinging a hand out in such a dramatic gesture that it almost sent her glass flying across the table.

“We've all been wondering that for a long time,” Olivia murmured to me.

I leaned back as the ro-butler splatted food down onto my plate.

“What have I done?” Putty said.

“That
outfit
,” Mama sniffed. “You are supposed to be a young lady. What must Frederick think?”

“Well—” Freddie tried.

“Frederick has been to Earth! To England! He must think we are savages here!”

“Oh, I don't—”

“I almost traveled to England myself, you know,” Mama said, turning to Freddie. “I was invited. England is so much more civilized than Mars. I am not too proud to admit that the experience did much to refine me. I would not be the lady I am today without it.”

“Er … experience?” Freddie asked, but Mama wasn't listening. She turned back to Putty.

“It is bad enough that you are late—”

“My fault,” Freddie said. “Awfully sorry. Delayed everyone. Couldn't quite remember where I'd put my spare cravat. A gentleman can never be seen without a properly tied cravat.”

Papa, whose own attempts at tying a proper cravat rarely lasted more than a few seconds, raised his eyebrows at that.

“It is remarkably handsome,” Jane said. “Is that the latest London style, Cousin Freddie?”

Jane might be as sweet as a syrupberry, but as far as I could tell, she'd never had a single thought that wasn't about fashion or young men.

Freddie reached for his ridiculous cravat. “Ah, now, well, that is to say, it is a style I am
debuting
myself. I call it the Winchester Cascade. Do you think it might catch on, Cousin Jane?”

“Oh, I'm sure it will!” Jane gushed.

“You know,” I said, “I'd have thought you'd want to
debut
your new fashion in London, Freddie. What exactly made you come back to Mars before your university term ended?”

“Ah!” Freddie's eyes lit up. “As I started saying before, what happened was that old Podgy—er, that is, Viscount Podwood—got rather merry one night and he had this fantastic idea that we should all bet on him in, well, it was a boxing match…” He trailed off as Mama, Jane, and Olivia all stared at him.

“Right,” Freddie said. “Not suitable for mixed company. Apologies.” His eyes flicked toward me. I stared back. Had he done that deliberately? He must have known he couldn't talk about that kind of stuff in front of Mama, Jane, and Olivia. I knew he was an idiot, but even he must have known better.

Freddie cleared his throat. “Uncle Hugo. Father said you were working on some new invention. Couldn't make head nor tail of what he was talking about, but it sounded thrilling.”

Putty bounced in her seat, almost overturning her plate. “The water abacus.”

“A water abacus, eh? Is that to help fish count? Ha-ha.”

Papa was a mechanician. Like the hundreds of other mechanicians on Mars, Papa took the fantastic mechanical devices found in the dragon tombs of Lunae Planum and turned them into the inventions that had changed the face of both Mars and Earth. But none of the other mechanicians even came close to Papa's genius.

Papa's first great success had been the clockwork automatic servant. Before Papa, automatic servants had been steam-powered, bulky, simplistic machines that were useful only for carrying and lifting. They lumbered around, belching smoke, leaking steam, and horrifying good society. Then Papa invented an automatic servant that was entirely spring driven, completely clean, and totally silent, and he'd turned their brains into delicate things of beauty, capable of carrying out thousands of tasks. He'd set up a manufactory to build the things, and when he brought out his first ro-butler, it was a tremendous hit. Every good family on Mars had wanted one, and Papa had made a fortune. The
Tharsis Times
had described Papa as “the greatest success story of British Mars.”

Until a couple of years ago, when he'd started work on his latest invention, the water abacus. He'd left his business to run itself, and the only place it was running itself was into ruin.

As far as I could tell, the water abacus was just a room full of machinery that added up and subtracted enormous numbers. While I could see the appeal of avoiding arithmetic lessons, I couldn't quite understand why Papa wanted to spend every free minute poking away at it.

“It is a calculating machine,” Papa said. “With it, one might solve problems a thousand times faster than if one was forced to carry them out by hand.”

“Wouldn't be hard to be faster than me,” Freddie said. “Never could quite get the hang of my abacus. Beads all over the place. Still, dashed clever of those Greeks to come up with it. Or was it the Romans? Always get them mixed up. Drives my Greek master mad. Or maybe my Latin master.”

“In fact,” Papa said, ignoring Freddie's blithering and rooting through the papers around his plate, “I received a letter only today from my old colleague Professor Lane.”

“Good heavens, Hugo,” Mama cried. “No one cares about your blessed letter. Jane was talking to Frederick.”

How had Papa received his mail? My
Thrilling Martian Tales
was still missing. Putty shifted nervously on the other side of the table, and I narrowed my eyes suspiciously.

“You must remember Professor Lane,” Papa said, entirely missing Mama's quelling look. “We worked together on the dynamics of dragon paths.”

“I can hardly be expected to remember your friends, Hugo!” Mama said. “They do not exactly”—she sniffed—“move in good society.”

“In any case,” Papa sailed on, “Professor Lane wondered if my water abacus might help in deciphering the functions of the artifacts from the dragon tombs. There is quite a lot of higher-order mathematics in understanding them, you see.”

“Hugo!” Mama snapped. “This is not a proper topic for conversation.”

“But, my dear, imagine the great leaps of science that might be made if he is right.”

“I shall not! Dragon tombs, indeed! I will not have
people
”—she shot a glance at Freddie—“think this family so poorly mannered.”

“Oh, Freddie's not people,” Putty said cheerfully.

“Parthenia!” Olivia said, her gaze flicking across to Freddie. “Don't be so rude!”

“It's true enough,” Freddie said. “Most days I'm barely
person.
Ha-ha.”

“Cousin Frederick,” Olivia said, her gaze fixed resolutely on her plate, “you have traveled the dragon paths. What is your opinion as to their origin? Are they a natural phenomenon or a creation of the Ancient Martian civilization?”

“Olivia!” Mama squawked, sounding half strangled.

The dragon paths stretched through the void between Mars and Earth. Although I'd never ridden one, I'd read plenty about them. Great currents of wind rushed up from the surface of Mars through the void all the way to Earth, then twisted back to Mars again in an unending double spiral. Carefully constructed ships could ride the dragon path winds, swept along by their great sails, carrying people and cargo between the planets.

So far, only half a dozen dragon paths had been found. The one that connected Oxford, England, to the slopes of Tharsis Mons on Mars had first been discovered in 1602. Within a couple of years, Britain had established its first trading post with the native Martians who lived near the ruins of the Ancient Martian city of Tharsis, and the British colonization of Mars had begun. It was only years later that they discovered that both the Chinese and the Mapuche Indians from Patagonia had already established colonies on Mars.

Admittedly, most of what I knew about how dragon paths worked I'd picked up in the pages of
Thrilling Martian Tales
. In one particularly exciting adventure, Captain W. A. Masters had battled the tyrant's minions as they were swept along a dragon path, exchanging fire.

Freddie's gaze darted back and forth between Olivia and Mama. “My opinion…?”

“I believe they must be natural,” Olivia said. Unusually for her, she was ignoring Mama's furious glare. “Surely no technology, no matter how advanced, could create such miracles.”

“Oh, for heaven's sake, be quiet, Olivia!” Mama exploded. “No one wants to hear your opinion.”

Olivia hunched over her plate. I opened my mouth, but before I could think what to say, Freddie interrupted.

“Oh, I say! I would hardly say that.”

This defense only made Olivia huddle closer to her plate.

Mama reached over the table and patted Freddie's hand. “You are very gallant, Frederick, but it is not necessary. We have all quite come to terms with the knowledge that Jane has inherited all the beauty and grace in this family. In fact, Jane is quite the most beautiful young lady on Mars, as I am sure you must admit.”

Freddie cleared his throat awkwardly. “Ah. Well.”

Next to me, Olivia's cheeks reddened again.

Mama smiled like a hungry serpent-shark. “Now, Jane. Tell Frederick about the ball at Hardhaven Court last season. That gown you wore was the envy of the other ladies.” She glanced at Freddie. “I chose the silk myself. I have impeccable taste. In fact, Jane reminds me of myself at that age. They called me the Crystal Rose of Tharsis, you know. Every young gentleman admired me.” She sighed. “I was to travel to all the great cities of Earth and Mars. I would have set fashions and presided over the most elegant of salons.” She sighed again.

I met Olivia's glance. We all knew how the story ended. Mama's father had gambled away everything. Mama had been left with nothing, and her admirers had slipped away as quickly as mist over the desert.

I cleared my throat. For the first time since the meal had begun, there was a break in the conversation, and Freddie couldn't escape my question.

“Freddie—” I started, but too late.

Mama's eyes flashed. “And as for you, Edward!”

“Me?” What had I done?

“Why didn't you invite your friends to stay for the summer? When Frederick was a boy, he frequently visited families of higher social standing. I remember Arabella boasting about it.” She sniffed. “Why can't you be more like your cousin? How can you expect Parthenia to marry well if you don't bring your friends home to meet her?”

That wasn't fair! I'd been invited to stay with Viscount Harrison. Mama would have swooned if she'd known. And I'd wanted to! I'd come back because this family would fall to pieces without me.

Across the table, Putty choked on a spoonful of fire-beans. “I'm nine years old,” she spluttered. “And I'm not going to marry anyone!”

Mama ignored her. “She can hardly be expected to attract a husband by herself, running around like a street urchin. Attend, Edward! Frederick is the perfect image of a young gentleman. You would never catch your cousin having a career or”—she shuddered—“doing anything
useful
.”

“Good Lord, no!” Freddie said.

With a sigh, I turned back to my dinner.

“Now,” Mama said, “we will have no more talk of dragon paths, dragon tombs, or Hugo's wretched inventions at this table. We shall confine our discussion to the weather, fashion, and the social calendar.”

I slumped down. That was that. There was no way I could ask Freddie again at dinner. But when the meal was over, the ladies would retire, and Mama would expect Papa, Freddie, and me to remain. I would get another chance, and Freddie would have nowhere to run.

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Bound by Lust by Shanna Germain
Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder
Trial By Fire by Coyle, Harold
The New Uncanny by Priest, Christopher, A.S. Byatt, Hanif Kureishi, Ramsey Campbell, Matthew Holness, Jane Rogers, Adam Marek, Etgar Keret
Esther Stories by Peter Orner
Wildcatter by Dave Duncan
Fourth and Goal by Jami Davenport