Jan 16 2014 9:00am
The Tropic of Serpents (Excerpt)
Check out The Tropic of Serpents, the second novel in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Memoirs, available March 4th from Tor Books!
Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.
The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell… where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.
My life of solitude—My sister-in-law and my mother—
An unexpected visitor—Trouble at Kemble’s
Not long before I embarked on my journey to Eriga, I girded my loins and set out for a destination I considered much more dangerous: Falchester.
The capital was not, in the ordinary way of things, a terribly adventurous place, except insofar as I might be rained upon there. I made the trip from Pasterway on a regular basis, as I had affairs to monitor in the city. Those trips, however, were not well-publicized—by which I mean I mentioned them to only a handful of people, all of them discreet. So far as most of Scirland knew (those few who cared to know), I was a recluse, and had been so since my return from Vystrana.
I was permitted reclusiveness on account of my personal troubles, though in reality I spent more of my time on work: first the publication of our Vystrani research, and then preparation for this Erigan expedition, which had been delayed and delayed again, by forces far beyond our control. On that Graminis morning, however, I could no longer escape the social obligations I assiduously buried beneath those other tasks. The best I could do was to discharge them both in quick succession: to visit first my blood relations, and then those bound to me by marriage.
My house in Pasterway was only a short drive from the fashionable district of Havistow, where my eldest brother Paul had settled the prior year. I usually escaped the necessity of visiting his house by the double gift of his frequent absence and his wife’s utter disinterest in me, but on this occasion I had been invited, and it would have been more trouble to refuse.
Please understand, it is not that I disliked my family. Most of us got on cordially enough, and I was on quite good terms with Andrew, the brother most immediately senior to me. But the rest of my brothers found me baffling, to say the least, and my mother’s censure of my behaviour had nudged their opinions toward disapproval. What Paul wanted with me that day I did not know— but on the whole, I would have preferred to face a disgruntled Vystrani rock-wyrm.
Alas, those were all quite far away, while my brother was too near to avoid. With a sensation of girding for battle, I lifted my skirt in ladylike delicacy, climbed the front steps, and rang the bell.
My sister-in-law was in the morning room when the footman escorted me in. Judith was a paragon of upper-class Scirling wifehood, in all the ways I was not: beautifully dressed, without crossing the line into gyver excess; a gracious hostess, facilitating her husband’s work by social means; and a dedicated mother, with three children already, and no doubt more to come.
We had precisely one thing in common, which was Paul. “Have I called at the wrong time?” I inquired, after accepting a cup of tea.
“Not at all,” Judith answered. “He is not at home just now—a meeting with Lord Melst—but you are welcome to stay until he returns.”
Lord Melst? Paul was moving up in the world. “I presume this is Synedrion business,” I said.
Judith nodded. “We had a short respite after he won his chair, but now the affairs of government have moved in to occupy his time. I hardly expect to see him between now and Gelis.”
Which meant I might be cooling my heels here for a very long time. “If it is not too much trouble,” I said, putting down my teacup and rising from my seat, “I think it might be better for me to leave and come back. I have promised to pay a visit to my brotherin-law Matthew today as well.”
To my surprise, Judith put out her hand to stop me. “No, please stay. We have a guest right now, who was hoping to see you—”
I never had the chance to ask who the guest was, though I had my suspicions the moment Judith began to speak. The door to the sitting room opened, and my mother came in.
Now it all made sense. I had ceased to answer my mother’s letters some time before, for my own peace of mind. She would not, even when asked, leave off criticizing my every move, and implying that my bad judgment had caused me to lose my husband in Vystrana. It was not courteous to ignore her, but the alternative would be worse. For her to see me, therefore, she must either show up unannounced at my house… or lure me to another’s.
Such logic did little to sweeten my reaction. Unless my mother was there to offer reconciliation—which I doubted—this was a trap. I had rather pull my own teeth out than endure more of her recriminations. (And lest you think that a mere figure of speech, I should note that I did once pull my own tooth out, so I do not make the comparison lightly.)
As it transpired, though, her recriminations were at least drawing on fresh material. My mother said, “Isabella. What is this nonsense I hear about you going to Eriga?”
I have been known to bypass the niceties of small talk, and ordinarily I am grateful for it in others. In this instance, however, it had the effect of an arrow shot from cover, straight into my brain. “What?” I said, quite stupidly—not because I failed to understand her, but because I had no idea how she had come to hear of it.
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” she went on, relentlessly. “It is absurd, Isabella. You cannot go abroad again, and certainly not to any part of Eriga. They are at war there!”
I sought my chair once more, using the delay to regain my composure. “That is an exaggeration, Mama, and you know it. Bayembe is not at war. The mansa of Talu dares not invade, not with Scirling soldiers helping to defend the borders.”
My mother sniffed. “I imagine the man who drove the Akhians out of Elerqa—after two hundred years!—dares a great deal indeed. And even if he does not attack, what of those dreadful Ikwunde?”
“The entire jungle of Mouleen lies between them and Bayembe,” I said, irritated. “Save at the rivers, of course, and Scirland stands guard there as well. Mama, the whole point of our military presence is to make the place safe.”
The look she gave me was dire. “Soldiers do not make a place safe, Isabella. They only make it less dangerous.”
What skill I have in rhetoric, I inherited from my mother. I was in no mood to admire her phrasing that day, though. Nor to be pleased at her political awareness, which was quite startling. Most Scirling women of her class, and a great many men, too, could barely name the two Erigan powers that had forced Bayembe to seek foreign—which is to say Scirling—aid. Gentlemen back then were interested only in the lopsided “trade agreement” that sent Bayembe iron to Scirland, along with other valuable resources, in exchange for them allowing us to station our soldiers all over their country, and build a colony in Nsebu. Ladies were not interested much at all.
Was this something she had attended to before, or had she educated herself upon hearing of my plans? Either way, this was not how I had intended to break the news to her. Just how I had intended to do it, I had not yet decided; I kept putting off the issue, out of what I now recognized as rank cowardice. And this was the consequence: an unpleasant confrontation in front of my sister-in-law, whose stiffly polite expression told me that she had known this was coming.
(A sudden worm of suspicion told me that Paul, too, had known. Meeting with Lord Melst, indeed. Such a shame he was out when I arrived.)
It meant, at least, that I only had to face my mother, without allies to support her in censure. I was not fool enough to think I would have had allies of my own. I said, “The Foreign Office would not allow people to travel there, let alone settle, if it were so dangerous as all that. And they have been allowing it, so there you are.” She did not need to know that one of the recurrent delays in this expedition had involved trying to persuade the Foreign Office to grant us visas. “Truly, Mama, I shall be at far more risk from malaria than from any army.”
What possessed me to say that, I do not know, but it was sheer idiocy on my part. My mother’s glare sharpened. “Indeed,” she said, and the word could have frosted glass. “Yet you propose to go to a place teeming with tropical diseases, without a single thought for your son.”
Her accusation was both fair and not. It was true that I did not think as much of my son as one might expect. I gave very little milk after his birth and had to hire a wet-nurse, which suited me all too well; infant Jacob reminded me far too much of his late namesake. Now he was more than two years old, weaned, and in the care of a nanny. My marriage settlement had provided quite generously for me, but much of that money I had poured into scientific research, and the books of our Vystrani expedition— the scholarly work under my husband’s name, and my own inane bit of travel writing—were not bringing in as much as one might hope. Out of what remained, however, I paid handsomely for someone to care for my son, and not because the widow of a baronet’s second son ought not to stoop to such work herself. I simply did not know what to do with Jacob otherwise.
People often suppose that maternal wisdom is wholly instinctual: that however ignorant a woman may be of child rearing prior to giving birth, the mere fact of her sex will afterward endow her with perfect capability. This is not true even on the grossest biological level, as the failure of my milk had proved, and it is even less true in social terms. In later years I have come to understand children from the perspective of a natural historian; I know their development, and have some appreciation for its marvellous progress. But at that point in time, little Jacob made less sense to me than a dragon.
Is the rearing of a child best performed by a woman who has done it before, who has honed her skills over the years and enjoys her work, or by a woman with no skill and scant enjoyment, whose sole qualification is a direct biological connection? My opinion fell decidedly on the former, and so I saw very little practical reason why I should not go to Eriga. In that respect, I had given a great deal of thought to the matter of my son.
Saying such things to my mother was, however, out of the question. Instead I temporized. “Matthew Camherst and his wife have offered to take him in while I am gone. Bess has one of her own, very near the same age; it will be good for Jacob to have a companion.”
“And if you die?”
The question dropped like a cleaver onto the conversation, severing it short. I felt my cheeks burning: with anger, or with shame—likely both. I was outraged that my mother should say such a thing so bluntly… and yet my husband had died in Vystrana. It was not impossible that I should do the same in Eriga.
Into this dead and bleeding silence came a knock on the door, followed shortly by the butler, salver in hand, bowing to present a card to Judith, who lifted it, mechanically, as if she were a puppet and someone had pulled the string on her arm. Confusion carved a small line between her brows. “Who is Thomas Wilker?”
The name had the effect of a low, unnoticed kerb at the edge of a street, catching my mental foot and nearly causing me to fall on my face. “Thomas Wil—what is he doing here?” Comprehension followed, tardily, lifting me from my stumble. Judith did not know him, and neither did my mother, which left only one answer. “Ah. I think he must be here to see me.”
Judith’s posture snapped to a rigid, upright line, for this was not how social calls were conducted. A man should not inquire after a widow in a house that wasn’t hers. I spared a moment to notice that the card, which Judith dropped back on the salver, was not a proper calling card; it appeared to be a piece of paper with Mr. Wilker’s name written in by hand. Worse and worse. Mr. Wilker was not, properly speaking, a gentleman, and certainly not the sort of person who would call here in the normal course of things.
I did what I could to retrieve the moment. “I do apologize. Mr. Wilker is an assistant to the earl of Hilford—you recall him, of course; he is the one who arranged the Vystrani expedition.” And was arranging the Erigan one, too, though his health precluded him from accompanying us. But what business of that could be so urgent that Lord Hilford would send Mr. Wilker after me at my brother’s house? “I should speak with him, but there’s no need to trouble you. I will take my leave.”
My mother’s outstretched hand stopped me before I could stand. “Not at all. I think we’re all eager to hear what this Mr. Wilker has to say.”
“Indeed,” Judith said faintly, obeying the unspoken order woven through my mother’s words. “Send him in, Londwin.”
The butler bowed and retired. By the alacrity with which Mr. Wilker appeared, he must have sprang forward the instant he was welcomed in; agitation still showed in his movements. But he had long since taken pains to cultivate better manners than those he had grown up with, and so he presented himself first to Judith. “Good morning, Mrs. Hendemore. My name is Thomas Wilker. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I have a message for Mrs. Camherst. We must have passed one another on the road; I only just missed her at her house. And I’m afraid the news is unfortunate enough that it could not wait. I was told she would be visiting here.”
The curt, disjointed way in which he delivered these words made my hands tighten in apprehension. Mr. Wilker was, quite rightly, looking only at Judith, save a brief nod when he spoke my name; with no hint forthcoming from him, I found myself exchanging a glance instead with my mother.
What I saw there startled me. We’re all eager to hear what this Mr. Wilker has to say—she thought he was my lover! An overstatement, perhaps, but she had the expression of a woman looking for signs of inappropriate attachment, and coming up emptyhanded.
As well she should. Mr. Wilker and I might no longer be at loggerheads the way we had been in Vystrana, but I felt no romantic affection for him, nor he for me. Our relationship was purely one of business.
I wanted to set my mother down in no uncertain terms for harboring such thoughts, but forbore. Not so much because of the sheer inappropriateness of having that conversation in public, but because it occurred to me that Mr. Wilker and I were engaged in two matters of business, of which the Erigan expedition was only one.
Judith, fortunately, waved Mr. Wilker on before I could burst out with my questions unbidden. “By all means, Mr. Wilker. Or is your message private?”
I would not have taken the message privately for a hundred sovereigns, not with such suspicions in my mother’s mind. “Please,” I said. “What has happened?”
Mr. Wilker blew out a long breath, and the urgency drained from him in a sudden rush, leaving him sagging and defeated. “There’s been a break-in at Kemble’s.”
“Kemble’s… oh, no.” My own shoulders sagged, a mirror to his. “What did they destroy? Or—”
He nodded, grimly. “Took. His notes.”
Theft, not destruction. Someone knew what Kemble was working on, and was determined to steal it for their own.
I slumped back in my chair, ladylike dignity the furthest thing from my mind. Frederick Kemble was the chemist Mr. Wilker had hired—or rather I had hired; the money was mine, although the choice of recipient was his—to continue the research we ourselves had stolen in the mountains of Vystrana, three years ago. Research that documented a method for preserving dragonbone: an amazing substance, strong and light, but one that decayed quickly outside a living body.
The Chiavoran who developed that method was not the first one to try. What had begun as a mere challenge of taxidermy— born from the desire of hunters to preserve trophies from the dragons they killed, and the desire of natural historians to preserve specimens for study—had become a great point of curiosity for chemists. Several were racing to be the first (or so they thought) to solve that puzzle. Despite our best efforts to maintain secrecy around Kemble’s work, it seemed someone had learned of it.
“When?” I asked, then waved the question away as foolish. “Last night, and I doubt we’ll get any time more specific than that.” Mr. Wilker shook his head. He lived in the city, and visited Kemble first thing in the morning every Selemer. This news was as fresh as it could be, short of Kemble having heard the intruder and come downstairs in his nightclothes to see.
I wondered, suddenly cold, what would have happened if he had. Would the intruder have fled? Or would Mr. Wilker have found our chemist dead this morning?
Such thoughts were unnecessarily dramatic—or so I chided myself. Whether they were or not, I did not have the leisure to dwell on them, for my mother’s sharp voice roused me from my thoughts. “Isabella. What in heaven is this man talking about?”
I took a measure of comfort in the irreverent thought that at least she could not read any hint of personal indiscretion in the message Mr. Wilker had brought. “Research, Mama,” I said, pulling myself straight in my chair, and thence to my feet. “Nothing that need concern you. But I’m afraid I must cut this visit short; it is vital that I speak to Mr. Kemble at once. If you will excuse me—”
My mother, too, rose to her feet, one hand outstretched. “Please, Isabella. I’m dreadfully concerned for you. This expedition you intend…”
She must be concerned indeed, to broach such a personal matter before a stranger like Mr. Wilker. “We will speak of it later, Mama,” I said, intending no such thing. “This truly is a pressing matter. I’ve invested a great deal of money in Mr. Kemble’s work, and must find out how much I have lost.”
The Tropic of Serpents © Marie Brennan, 2014