The Royal Society of London plays home to the greatest minds of England. It has revolutionized philosophy and scientific knowledge. Its fellows map out the laws of the natural world, disproving ancient superstition and ushering in an age of enlightenment.
To the fae of the Onyx Court, living in a secret city below London, these scientific developments are less than welcome. Magic is losing its place in the world—and science threatens to expose the court to hostile eyes.
In 1666, a Great Fire burned four-fifths of London to the ground. The calamity was caused by a great Dragon—an elemental beast of flame. Incapable of destroying something so powerful, the fae of London banished it to a comet moments before the comet's light disappeared from the sky. Now the calculations of Sir Edmond Halley have predicted its return in 1759.
So begins their race against time. Soon the Dragon's gaze will fall upon London and it will return to the city it ravaged once before. The fae will have to answer the question that defeated them a century before: How can they kill a being more powerful than all their magic combined? It will take both magic and science to save London—but reconciling the two carries its own danger…
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
MARIE BRENNAN is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have appeared in more than a dozen print and online publications.
MARIE BRENNAN is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is the author of several acclaimed fantasy novels including A Natural History of Dragons; The Onyx Court Series: Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire; Warrior; and Witch. Her short stories have appeared in more than a dozen print and online publications.
Read an Excerpt
A STAR SHALL FALL
Purged by the sword and beautified by fire,
Then had we seen proud London’s hated walls.
“On Lord Holland’s Seat near M——e, Kent”
The blackness is spangled with a million points of light. Stars, galaxies, nebulae: wonders of the heavens, moving through their eternal dance.
Far in the distance—impossibly far—a bright spark burns. One sun among many, it calls the tune to which its subjects dance, in accordance with the immutable law of gravity. Planets and their follower moons, and the brief visitors men call comets.
One such visitor draws near.
The oblong is frozen harder than winter itself. The sun is yet distant, too distant to awaken it to life; the light barely even gilds the black substance facing it. The spirit that dwells within the comet sleeps, driven into torpor by the endless cold of space.
It has slept for more than seventy years. The time will soon come, though, when that sleep will end, and when it does . . .
The beast will seek its prey.
Mayfair, Westminster: September 30, 1757
The sedan chair left the City by way of Ludgate, weaving through the clamor of Fleet Street and the Strand before escaping into the quieter reaches of Westminster. A persistent drizzle had been falling all day, which the chair-men disregarded, except to choose their footing carefully in the ever-present slime of mud and less savory things. The curtains of the chair were drawn, blocking out the dismal sight, and the twilight falling earlier than usual.
Inside, the blackness and rhythmic swaying were almost enough to put Galen to sleep. He stifled a yawn as if his father were watching: Up late carousing, no doubt, the old man would say, gambling your allowance away at Vauxhall. As if he had much of an allowance to wager, or any inclination to such pursuits. But that was the simplest explanation for Galen’s late nights and frequent absences, and so he let his father go on believing it.
Regardless, he would do well to rouse himself. Galen had visited Clarges Street before, but this would be his first formal gathering there, and yawning in his fellow guests’ faces would not make a good impression.
A muffled cry from one of the chair-men as they slowed. Then the conveyance tilted, rocking perilously up a set of stairs. Galen pulled the curtain aside just in time to see his chair pass through the front door of the house, into the entrance hall, and out of the rain.
He stepped free carefully, ducking his head to avoid knocking his hat askew. A footman stood at the ready; Galen gave his name, and tried not to fidget as the servant departed. Waiting here, while the chair dripped onto the patterned marble, made him feel terribly self-conscious, as if he were a tradesman come to beg a favor, rather than an invited guest. Fortunately, the footman returned promptly and bowed. “You are very welcome, sir. If I may?”
Galen paid the chair-men and surrendered his cloak, hat, and walking stick to the footman. Then, taking a deep breath, he followed the man to the sitting room.
“Mr. St. Clair!” Elizabeth Vesey rose from her seat and crossed to him, extending one slender hand. He bowed over it with his best grace, lips brushing lightly. Just enough to make her blush prettily; it was a game, of course, but one she never tired of, though she would not see forty again. “You are very welcome, sir. I feared this dreadful rain would keep you home.”
“Not at all,” Galen said. “My journey here was warmed by the thought of your company, and I shall carry the memory of it home like a flame.”
Mrs. Vesey laughed, a lilting sound that matched her Irish accent. “Oh, well done, Mr. St. Clair—well done indeed. Do you not agree, Lizzy?”
That was addressed to a taller, more robust woman, one of at least a dozen scattered about the room. Elizabeth Montagu raised one eyebrow and said, “Well spoken, at least—but my dear, have you not instructed him in the proper dress for these occasions?”
Galen flushed, faltering. Mrs. Vesey looked him over from his ribbon-bound wig to the polished buckles of his shoes, and tsked sadly. “Indeed, sir, we have a very strict code for our gatherings, as I have told you most clearly. Only blue stockings will do!”
He looked down in startlement at his stockings of black silk, and tension gave way to a relieved laugh. “My humblest apologies, Mrs. Vesey, Mrs. Montagu. Blue worsted, as you instructed. I will endeavour to remember.”
Linking her arm through his, Mrs. Vesey said, “See that you do! You are far too stiff, Mr. St. Clair, especially for one so young. You mustn’t take us too seriously, or our little Bluestocking Circle. We’re merely friends here, come together to share ideas and art. Dress as if for court, and you’ll put us all to shame!”
There was some truth to her words. Not that he was dressed for court; no, his gray velvet was far too somber for any occasion so fine, though he was very pleased with the new waistcoat Cynthia had given him. But it was true that few of the people present showed anything like such elegance, and in fact one of the two gentlemen present might have been a tradesman, dressed for a day of work.
Galen let Mrs. Vesey conduct him about the room, making introductions. Some he’d met before, but he appreciated her reminders; he always feared he would forget a name. The two gentlemen were new to him. The seeming tradesman was one Benjamin Stillingfleet—who, true to Mrs. Vesey’s word, was wearing ordinary blue stockings—and the other, a stout and loud-voiced figure, was revealed to be the great Dr. Samuel Johnson.
“I am honored, sir,” Galen said, and swept him a bow.
“Of course you are,” Johnson grunted. “Can’t go anywhere in this town without being known. Damned nuisance.” His head jerked oddly on his shoulders, and Galen’s eyes widened.
“If you did not want recognition,” Mrs. Montagu said tartly, “you should not have poured years of your life into that dictionary of yours.” She took no notice of the gesture, nor of his ill manner, and Galen thought it best to follow her example.
Mrs. Vesey’s drawing room was a masterpiece of restrained elegance, its chairs upholstered in Chinese silks that showed to great advantage in the warm glow of the candles. It lacked the ruelles and other accoutrements of the great salons in Paris, but this was a modest affair after all; scarcely more than a dozen guests altogether. Mrs. Montagu hosted much larger gatherings at her own house on Hill Street, and she was nothing to the French salonnières. Galen was glad of the smallness, though. Here he could believe, as Mrs. Vesey said, that he was among friends, and not feel so conscious of himself.
As he retired to a chair with a glass of punch, Johnson picked up the thread of a conversation apparently dropped when Galen entered the room. “Yes, I know I said March,” he told Stillingfleet impatiently, “but the work takes longer than expected—and there’s another project besides, a series called The Idler, which will begin next month. Tonson can wait.” His manner as he spoke was most peculiar—more strange tics of the head and hands. It was not a palsy, but something else altogether. Galen was torn between staring and looking away.
“Shakespeare,” Mrs. Vesey murmured to Galen, not quite sotto voce. “Dr. Johnson is working on a new edition of the plays, but I fear his enthusiasm fades.”
Johnson heard her, as she no doubt meant him to. “To do the work properly,” he said with dignity, “takes time.”
Mrs. Montagu laughed. “But you don’t dispute the lack of enthusiasm, I see. What play is it you edit now?”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a piece of nonsense it is, too,” Johnson said. “Low comedy—quite unappealing, to discerning tastes—full of flower faeries and other silliness. What moral lesson are we to derive from them? Do not tell me he wrote of pagan times; it is a writer’s duty to make the world better, and—”
“And justice is a virtue independent of time or place,” Mrs. Montagu finished for him. “So you have said before. But must there be a lesson in faeries?”
The writer’s eyebrows drew together sharply. “There can be no excuse for them,” Johnson said, “if they serve not a moral purpose.”
Galen found himself on his feet again, with no sense of transition, and his glass of punch clutched so tightly in his hand he feared the delicate glass would shatter. “Why, sir, you might as well say there can be no excuse for a tree, or a sunset, or a—a human, if they serve not a moral purpose!”
Johnson’s white eyebrows rose. “Indeed there is not. The moral purpose of a human is to struggle against sin and seek out God, to redeem himself from the Fall. As for trees and sunsets, may I refer you to the Holy Bible, most particularly the Book of Genesis, wherein it tells us how the Lord created the day and the night—and therefore, we may presume, the transition between them—and also trees; and these are the stage upon which He put His most beloved creation, which is that human previously mentioned. But show to me, if you will, where the Bible speaks of faeries, and their place in God’s plan.”
While Galen sputtered, searching for words, he added—almost gently—“If, indeed, such creatures exist at all, which I find doubtful in the extreme.”
Heat and chill washed Galen’s body in alternating waves, so that he trembled like a leaf in the wind. “Not all things,” he managed, “that exist in the world, are laid out in scripture. But how can anything be that is not a part of God’s plan?”
Somehow Johnson managed to convey both disgust and delight, as if appalled at the triviality of the topic, but pleased that Galen had mustered an argument in its defense. “Just so. Even the very devils in Hell serve His plan, by tempting mankind to his baser nature, and therefore rendering meaningful the exercise of his free will. But if you wish to persuade me regarding faeries, Mr. St. Clair, you will have to do better than to hide behind divine ineffability.”
He wished for something to hide behind. Johnson had the air of a hunter merely waiting for the pheasant to break cover, so he could shoot it down. Oh, if only this debate had not come so soon! Galen was new to the Bluestocking Circle; he scarcely had his feet under him. Given more time and confidence, he would have defended his ideals without fear of ridicule. But here he was, a newcomer facing a man twice his age and twice his size, with all the weight of learning and reputation on Dr. Johnson’s side.
To flee would only invite contempt, though. Galen was aware of his audience—not just Johnson, but Mrs. Vesey and Mrs. Montagu, Mr. Stillingfleet, and all the other ladies, waiting with great enjoyment for his next move. And others, not present, who deserved his best attempt. Choosing his words carefully, Galen said, “I would say that faeries exist to bring a sense of wonder and beauty into life, that lifts the spirit and teaches it something of transcendence.”
“Transcendence!” Johnson barked a laugh. “From something called Mustardseed?”
“There is also Titania,” Galen countered, flushing. “Faeries must have their lower classes as well, just as our own society has its farmers and sailors, tradesmen and laborers, without whom the gentry and nobility would have no legs to stand upon.”
Johnson snorted. “So they must—if they existed at all. But this has been nothing more than a pretty exercise of the intellect, Mr. St. Clair. Faeries live only in peasant superstition and the inferior works of Shakespeare, where their only purpose is silly diversion.”
Mrs. Montagu saved him. Galen didn’t know what words would have leapt from his mouth had she not spoken, but the lady brought up Macbeth, and diverted Dr. Johnson onto the topic of witches, where he was only too happy to go.
Freed from the transfixion of the great writer’s gaze, Galen sagged weakly back onto his chair. Sweat stood out on his brow, until he blotted it dry with a handkerchief. Under the guise of replenishing his punch—for these informal evenings, there was nothing stronger to drink, nor any servants to fill the glasses—he went to the side table, away from watching eyes.
But not away from Mrs. Vesey, who followed him. “I am so sorry, Mr. St. Clair,” she murmured, this time taking care not to be overheard. “He is a very great man, but also a very great windbag.”
“I came so near to saying too much,” he told her, hearing the anguish in his own voice. “It would be so easy to prove him wrong—”
“On one count, perhaps,” Mrs. Vesey said. “He will argue moral purposes until they nail his coffin shut, and then go up to Heaven to argue some more. But you would never betray that secret—no more than would I.”
Even to say that much was dangerous. Of those gathered in this room, only they two knew the truth. Perhaps in time, a few others could be trusted with it; indeed, that was why Galen had come here, to see if any might. Instead he found Dr. Johnson, who made Galen long to blurt out the words burning within his heart.
There are faeries in the world, sir, more terrible and glorious than you can conceive, and I can show them to you—for they live among us here in London.
Oh, the fierce joy of being able to fling it in the other man’s teeth—but it would do no good. Dr. Johnson would think him deranged, and though seeing would convince him, it would also be an unconscionable betrayal of trust. Faerie-kind lived hidden for a reason. Christian faith such as the writer showed could wound them deeply, as could iron, and other things of the mortal world.
Galen sighed and set down his glass, turning to glance over his shoulder at the rest of the room. “I had hoped to find congenial minds here. Not men like him.”
Mrs. Vesey laid her hand on his velvet-clad arm. Sylph, her friends called her, and in the gentle light of the candles she looked like one, as if no particle of matter weighed down her being. “Mr. St. Clair, you are letting your impatience run away with you. I promise you, such minds exist, and we shall speak with them in due time.”
Time. She spoke of it with the placid trust of a woman who had survived her childbearing years, to whom God might grant another two or three decades of life. Mrs. Vesey attributed Galen’s impatience to his youth, thinking it merely the headlong rush of a man scarcely twenty-one, who has not yet learned that all things must happen in their season.
She did not understand that a season would come, very soon, when all this tranquility might be destroyed.
But that was another secret he could not betray. Mrs. Vesey knew of faeries; one called on her every week for gossip. But she knew little of their history, the myriad of secret ways in which they touched the lives of mortal men, and she knew nothing of the threat that faced them.
Already it was 1757. With every passing day, the comet drew closer, bringing with it the Dragon of the Great Fire. And when that enemy returned, the ensuing battle might well spill over into the streets of mortal London.
He could not tell her that. Not while standing in this elegant room, surrounded by the beautiful luxuries of literature and conversation and chairs upholstered in Chinese silk. All he could do was search for allies: others who, like him, like Mrs. Vesey, could stand between the two worlds, and perhaps find a way to make them both safe.
Mrs. Vesey was watching him with concerned eyes, hand still on his elbow. He smiled at her with as much hope as he could muster, and said, “Then by all means, Mrs. Vesey, acquaint me with others here. I trust you will not steer me wrong.”
Tyburn, Westminster: September 30, 1757
Irrith often claimed, with perfect honesty, to cherish the unmediated presence of nature. Sunlight and starlight, wind and snow, grass and the storied forests of England; these were, in her innermost heart, her home.
At moments like this, though, ankle-deep in cold mud and drizzling rain, she had to admit that nature also had its unpleasant face.
She wiped the draggled strands of her auburn hair from her eyes and squinted ahead through the darkness. That might be light on the horizon—not just the scattered glow of a candlelit house here and there, but the massed illumination of Westminster, and beyond it, the City of London itself.
Or she might be imagining it.
The sprite sighed and pulled her boot free of the sucking mud. She was a Berkshire faerie at heart; her home was the Vale, and though she’d spent some years in the city, she’d left it long ago—and for good reason. Yet it was so easy to forget when Tom Toggin showed up, with all his persuasive arguments. She could take over his return journey; let the hob spend time with his cousins in the rustic comforts of the Vale, and relieve her own boredom with the excitement of London. It sounded like such a fine idea when he said it, especially when he offered bribes.
Maybe he’d known what awaited her on the road. The rain started just after she left, and accompanied her all the way from Berkshire.
As she walked, Irrith entertained herself with a vision of stumbling onto some farmer’s front step, drenched and pathetic, begging shelter from the night. The farmer would aid her, and in exchange she’d bless his family for nine generations—no, that was a bit much, for mere rain. Three generations, from him to his grandchildren. And they would tell tales for the remaining six, of the faerie traveler their ancestor had saved, of how magic had touched their lives for one brief night.
Irrith sighed. More like the farmwife would screech and call her “devil.” Or they would stare at her, the whole farm family of them, wondering what strange creature had come to their door, and what she could possibly want from them.
She knew she was being unfair. Country folk had not forgotten the fae; the burden she carried was proof of that. But whether Westminster was on the horizon or not, she was nearing the city, and she didn’t have much faith in their knowledge of their proper duties toward faerie-kind.
How long had it been, since she last saw London? Irrith tried to count, then gave up. The time didn’t matter. Mortals changed so rapidly, especially in the city; whether she was gone for six months or six years, they were sure to have invented strange new fashions in her absence.
She hitched the sack Tom had given her higher on one shoulder. Yes, those were definitely lights ahead, and something looming in the center of the road. Could that possibly be the Tyburn gallows? The triangular frame looked familiar, but she didn’t remember there being so many houses near it. Ash and Thorn, how big had the city grown?
A rustle in the hedgerow to her left was her only warning.
Irrith dove flat against the mud as a black shape burst toward her. Its leap carried it clear over, so that it skidded and went down in the muck. A black dog, she saw as she scrambled to her feet. And not an ordinary hound, someone’s mastiff escaped from its keeper; this was a padfoot or skriker, a faerie in the shape of a dog.
And he was not there to welcome her back to London.
The dog lunged forward, and Irrith dodged. But she realized her mistake as she went: the beast wasn’t aiming for her. His jaws closed around the oiled cloth of the satchel she carried, and dragged it free of the mud.
Irrith snarled. Her blossoming fear died beneath the boot of fury; she had not hauled that bag all the way from Berkshire in the rain just to lose it to a padfoot. She threw herself forward and landed half on the creature’s back. His feet splayed under the unexpected weight, and down they both went, into the mud again. Irrith grabbed an ear and yanked mercilessly. The black dog snarled and tried to bite her; but she was on his back, and now he’d lost the bag. The sprite snatched at the strap, and quite by accident managed to kick her opponent in the head as she slid across the ground. He shook his head with a whimper, then lunged at her again, and this time she was flat on her back with no way to defend herself.
Just before the beast’s massive jaws could close around her leg, a sound broke through the patter of the rain, that Irrith had never thought she would be grateful to hear: church bells.
The black dog howled and fell back, writhing. But the peals broke harmlessly over Irrith, and so she seized her advantage, and the bag; clutching it in her filthy hands, she aimed herself at the Tyburn gallows and ran.
By the time the bells stopped, she was well among the houses that now crowded the once rural road. Irrith slowed, panting for breath, feeling her heart pound. Would the dog track her here? She doubted it; too much risk of someone hearing the disturbance and coming out to investigate. And now the other faerie knew she was protected, as he was not.
Then again, Irrith would have said if asked that no local faerie would dream of assaulting a fellow on the road, so close to his Queen’s domain. A mortal, perhaps, but not a sprite like her.
Perhaps he wasn’t local. But then what was he doing on the Tyburn road, waiting for her to pass with the delivery from the Vale?
It was a good question. She knew the fae of London had their problems, but she might have underestimated them. How much had changed here, besides the landscape?
She hadn’t thought to ask Tom Toggin. Unless she felt like walking all the way back to Berkshire—past the black dog who might still be hunting her—the only way to answer that question was to continue onward, and present herself, looking like a rat drowned in mud, to the Queen of the Onyx Court.
The Onyx Hall, London: September 30, 1757
The crowded and unfashionable environs of Newgate, in the central City of London, were an unlikely destination for a gentleman so late at night, but so long as Galen paid the chair-men, they had no reason to ask questions. With the rain finally ended, they deposited him at the front of a pawnbroker’s, closed for the night, and went on their way. Once they were well out of sight, Galen tiptoed around the corner, trying and failing to protect the shoes and black silk stockings Mrs. Montagu had derided, into a narrow alley.
The door he sought stood in the back wall of the pawnbroker’s, and if anyone noticed it—which they should not—they no doubt assumed it let into the cramped room where the shopkeeper stored wares he could not fit in the display out front. Instead, it admitted Galen to a tiny alcove barely large enough for him to squeeze into and still shut the door behind him. Standing in that stifling space, he murmured, “Downward,” and felt the floor drop away.
It was a vertiginous feeling, no matter how often he experienced it. Galen always tensed, expecting a bruising impact, and he always touched down as lightly as a feather. He would have preferred a more ordinary staircase. But with that word, he shifted from the ordinary world into one that was anything but.
His feet settled onto a roundel of black marble, and cool light bloomed around him. The chamber in which he now stood was a lofty dome—nothing to the soaring heights of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it felt so after the confines of the alcove above. The walls formed slender ribs that seemed inadequate to the weight, and no doubt they were; something other than the architect’s art kept the shadowed ceiling up.
It was far from the greatest wonder here.
Country folk still told tales of faerie realms hidden away in hollow hills, but few if any would expect to find one beneath the City of London. So far as Galen knew, the Onyx Hall was unique; nowhere else in Britain, or possibly in the entire world, did fae live so close with mortal kind. Yet here they had a palace that was a city unto itself, crowded with bedchambers and gardens, dancing halls and long galleries of art, all protected against the hostility of the world above. It was a mirror of that world, casting a strange and altered reflection, and one that only a select few could enter.
Galen sighed to see the muddy track he left behind as he stepped clear of the roundel. He knew that if he left the chamber and came back a minute later, he would find the dirt gone; there were unseen creatures here, more efficient than the most dedicated servant, who seemed to treat the slightest mess as a personal affront. Or they would if they had any sense of self; as Galen understood it, they had very few thoughts at all, scarcely more than the faerie lights that lined the delicate columns along the walls. Still, he wished for a boot-scraper on which to clean his feet, so he would not trail bits of mud around so miraculous a place.
No help for it. Galen was about to abandon his concerns and proceed, when a sudden swirl of air tugged at the hem of his cloak.
Another figure descended from the aperture in the ceiling, dropping swiftly before floating to a halt on the roundel. Galen’s own muddy prints were obliterated by an enormous smear as the dripping and filthy figure shifted, slipped, and landed unceremoniously on his backside.
“Blood and Bone!” the figure swore, and the voice was far too high to be male. Galen leapt forward, reflexively offering his hand, and promptly ruined his glove when the newcomer took the assistance to rise.
That she was a faerie, he could be certain; the delicacy of her hand—if not her speech—made anything else unlikely. But he could discern little more; she seemed to have rolled in the mud for sport, though some of it had subsequently been washed off by the rain. Her hair, skin, and clothes were one indeterminate shade of brown, in which her eyes made a startling contrast. They held a hundred shades of green, shifting and dancing as no human irises would.
She in turn seemed quite startled by him. “You’re human!” she said, peering at him through the dripping wreck of her hair.
What polite answer could a gentleman make to that? “Yes, I am,” he said, and bent to pick up the satchel she had dropped.
The faerie snatched it from him, then grimaced. “Sorry. Someone has already tried to take this from me once tonight. I’d rather carry it myself, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Galen said. Sighing in regret, he pulled off the ruined glove and the clean one both, dropping them to the floor. The unseen servants might as well take those, too, when they came to mop this up. “May I escort you to your chambers? This marble is treacherous for wet feet.”
He thought she might be a sprite, under all that mud; she didn’t carry herself with the courtly grace of an elfin lady. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she sat down again—this time deliberately—and pulled off her dripping boots, followed by her stockings. The feet beneath were incongruously pale, and as delicate as her hands. She set them down on a clean patch of floor, then levered herself to her feet. “I’ll drip,” she said, making a futile effort to wring out the hem of her coat, “but it’s better than nothing.”
Her efforts with the coat revealed a pair of knee breeches beneath. Galen suppressed a murmur of shock. Fae viewed human customs, including notions of proper dress, as entertaining diversions they copied or ignored as they pleased. And he supposed knee breeches more practical in this weather; had she been wearing skirts, she would not have been able to move for all the sodden weight. “Still, please allow me. I would be a lout if I abandoned you in such a state.”
The sprite took up her bag once more and sighed. “Not to my chambers; I don’t believe I have any, unless Amadea’s kept them for me all this time. But you can take me to see the Queen.”
This time the murmur escaped him. “The Queen? But surely—this mud—and you—”
She drew herself up to her full height, which brought her muddy hair to the vicinity of his chin. “I am Dame Irrith of the Vale of the White Horse, knighted by the Queen herself for services to the Onyx Court, and I assure you—Lune will want to see me, mud and all.”
The hour was late, but that scarcely mattered to the inhabitants of the Onyx Hall, for whom the presence or absence of the sun above made little difference. This, after all, was London’s shadow: a subterranean faerie palace, conjured from the City itself, where neither sun nor moon ever shone.
Which meant, unfortunately, that people were around to see the unlikely progress of Irrith and the young man at her side. She carried herself defiantly, ignoring them all, and telling herself it wouldn’t help much if she did go in search of a bath first; given the tangled layout of the Onyx Hall, she would pass as many folk on her way there as she would going to see the Queen. At least the observers were common subjects, not the courtiers whose biting wit would find her disheveled state an easy target. They bowed themselves out of her way, and stepped carefully over her muddy trail once she passed.
Her intention was to go first to the Queen’s chambers, in hopes of finding her there, but something stopped her along the way: the sight of a pair of elf-knights standing watch on either side of two tall, copper-paneled doors. Members of the Onyx Guard, both of them, and as such they owed salutes to only two people in the whole of the court.
They saluted the young man at her side. “Lord Galen.”
Lord— Too late, Irrith realized the bows on the way here had not been for her. Of course they hadn’t—how long since she’d been in the Onyx Hall? And who would recognize her beneath the drying shell of mud? Turning to the gentleman, she said accusingly, “You’re the Prince of the Stone!”
He blushed charmingly and muttered something half-intelligible about having forgotten his manners. More likely, Irrith thought, he was too self-conscious to bring it up. New, no doubt. Yes, she remembered hearing something about a new Prince. The Queen’s mortal consorts came and went, as mortals so often did, and this one clearly hadn’t been in his position long enough to grow accustomed to anyone calling him “Lord.” She pitied him a little. To be consort to a faerie queen, living proof of her pledge to exist in harmony with the mortal world, was no small burden.
“Irrith?” That came from the guard on the right. Dame Segraine peered at her, pike drifting to one side.
“Yes.” Irrith shifted uncomfortably. If Segraine and Sir Thrandin were on watch at this door, then it meant the Queen was on the other side of it. Irrith couldn’t remember what room lay beyond, but it wasn’t Lune’s chambers, where she’d have some hope of a private audience, or at least one with only a few ladies in attendance. Common sense said she should wait.
Common sense, however, was for hobs and other such careful creatures. “I have something for the Queen—two things, in truth. Both of them important. The Prince, being a gentleman, offered to escort me.”
Segraine eyed her dubiously. The lady knight had always been one of Irrith’s closest friends among the fae of the Onyx Court, but she cared more about propriety than the sprite bothered to. “You’ll ruin the carpet,” she said.
Which was, Irrith had to admit, more than a simple matter of propriety. In the Vale, the “carpets” were of ground ivy and wild strawberries, which did not mind a little dirt. Here, they were likely to be embroidered with seed pearls or some other foolishness. She settled the matter by stripping off her coat and wringing the last of the water from her hair onto the damp heap of cloth. “Give me a handkerchief to wipe my feet, and I’ll be safe enough.”
Galen averted his eyes with another furious blush, and Segraine’s fellow guard was staring. Irrith had to admit she’d done it on purpose; she had a reputation in the court for being at best half-civilized, and it amused her to live up to it.
Or down to it, one might rather say.
Standing barefoot on the marble, in nothing more than a damp pair of knee breeches and a linen shirt, she had to struggle not to shiver. Then a square of white lace appeared in her vision: a handkerchief, offered by the Prince, who still would not look directly at her. Irrith dried her feet, looked ruefully at the dirty lace, and scrubbed a little at the bottoms of her breeches to discourage further dripping. The Prince was hardly going to take the handkerchief back after that, so she deposited it gently atop her filthy coat and said, “I’m sure someone can return that after it’s been cleaned. May I see the Queen now?”
“You’d best,” Segraine said, “before you scandalize Lord Galen any further.” She knocked at the door. After a moment, it cracked open, and she conferred in a brief whisper with someone beyond. Irrith could hear noise: the lively murmur of conversation, and a clinking she couldn’t identify. Then Segraine nodded and swung the door wider, and the usher on the other side announced, “The Prince of the Stone, and Dame Irrith of the Vale!”
Galen offered his arm, and together they went in.
Irrith cursed her choice the moment she walked inside. What purpose that chamber had served before, she couldn’t recall; but now it held a long table well filled with silver and crystal and porcelain dishes, and well lined with the favored courtiers of Lune’s realm. A formal dinner, and Irrith in her bare feet and damp shirt, come to face the Queen of the Onyx Court.
Who sat in a grand pearl chair at the head of the table, eyebrows raised in honest surprise. Diamonds and gems of starlight glittered across the stomacher of Lune’s dress, brilliant against the midnight blue of her gown. Her silver hair was swept up into a flawless coiffure, crowned by a small sapphire circlet. Even had Irrith been dressed in her finest, Lune would have made her feel shabby, and the sprite was far from fine. If she could have fallen through the floor right then, she would have done it.
But the Onyx Hall did not oblige her with a pit, and so she had to walk forward, following the guidance of Galen’s arm. Past the seated ranks of the courtiers, elf-lords and elf-ladies, and the ambassadors of other faerie courts, down the length of the impossibly long table, to a respectful distance from Lune’s chair, where Irrith dropped to one knee while Galen went forward and kissed the Queen’s hand.
“Dame Irrith.” Lune’s voice, silver as the rest of her, was unreadable. “What brings you to London?”
There was nothing for it but to offer up the bag she still clutched. “Your Grace, I bring payment from Wayland Smith, King of the Vale of the White Horse. In exchange for two clocks, one telescope, and one thing I’ve forgotten the name of, as delivered by the hob Tom Toggin.”
“An armillary sphere,” Galen said, accepting the bag on behalf of the Queen. The oilcloth was as filthy as its bearer, but he opened the flap, wiped his hand clean on a second handkerchief, and pulled out a small loaf of bread.
Lune took it from him and inhaled the scent as if appreciating a fine wine. Irrith understood the impulse; one could almost smell the mortality in the bread. A peculiar heaviness, but it attracted as much as it repelled. In that simple mix of flour, water, and yeast lay safety from the human world, tithed to the fae by human hands. The food on her courtiers’ plates was for pleasure, but this, in its way, was life: the ability to go among mortals without fear of iron or other banes.
Nodding, Lune handed the loaf back to Galen. He surrendered the bag to the usher, who took it in white-gloved hands and bowed his way out of the room. “We thank you, Dame Irrith,” the Queen said, with just enough dryness to hint that she hadn’t the faintest notion why Irrith had interrupted their dinner with a simple delivery.
Irrith wasn’t about to admit she’d done it merely to live up to that rash declaration of her own importance. She glanced up enough to see that yes, everyone was watching her; the Lord Keeper, Valentin Aspell, had his thin mouth curled in disdain. “I have something further to tell you, that maybe should be said in private.”
“Very well,” Lune said after a moment’s consideration, and rose. Chairs slid back all down the room as her guests rose in echo. “Please, continue your meal. Lady Amadea, Lord Galen, if you please.”
Galen waved one hand at Irrith, and she followed him, Lune, and the Lady Chamberlain into an adjoining room. It seemed to be a parlor of sorts, with chairs grouped for intimate conversation, and the carpet—while lacking in seed pearls—was luxuriously soft against Irrith’s feet. Amadea murmured a brief charm at the door, so their words wouldn’t be overheard by those in the next room, and then they were alone.
Lune seated herself. She made no gesture for anyone else to do so, but in this more private setting, her expression showed greater warmth. “Irrith. This is an unexpected pleasure; I had no idea you were returning to London. Amadea, if her state bothers you, then have a cloth brought to protect the carpet.”
Amadea went to the far door as Irrith curtsied, feeling a proper clown. “Tom Toggin convinced me to bring Wayland’s payment back for him. What in the name of most ancient Mab has been going on in this place, your Majesty? There’s houses out by Tyburn gallows, and the River Fleet has vanished!”
Amusement danced in Lune’s silver eyes. “The Fleet is still there, just underground. They built a culvert over it, oh, how long ago, Galen?”
The Prince thought it over. “The most recent stretch? Not long after I was born. Perhaps nineteen years? The river can still be seen, Dame Irrith, from Ludgate to the Thames.”
Which gave her some idea of how long she’d been gone. “And how does Blacktooth Meg feel about that?”
Lune’s amusement faded. “As you might expect. River hags are not pleasant creatures under the best of circumstances, and these are rather worse.”
Irrith had seen the hideous creature once before, well before the culverting of the river. Shuddering, she said, “I’m just as glad I didn’t have to cross her, then. But that isn’t what I need to tell you—” A hob popped through the door, interrupting her, and laid down a piece of sturdy canvas, all but lifting Irrith’s feet so the cloth could be placed more quickly. The carpet duly protected, she waited until the hob was gone, then said, “You almost didn’t get that bread. A black dog ambushed me at Tyburn and tried to steal it.”
“What?” The Queen came to her feet in a swift rustle of silk.
“I didn’t roll in the mud for fun—madam.” She added the courtesy address belatedly. Being in the Onyx Hall was bringing back the old manners she’d forgotten in the Vale. “He leapt out at me near the gallows, and tried to take the bag. Fortunately, Wayland gave me leave to take a bite of the bread when I neared London, so I could enter the City unharmed; the black dog wasn’t so lucky. I escaped when the church bells rang.”
Lune pressed one slender hand to her brow, then lowered it. “We do not begrudge you that grant from your King. Did you recognize the dog?”
Irrith shook her head. “Maybe if I’d seen his other face. But it was raining; I can’t even tell you what kind he was—padfoot, skriker, or what.”
The Queen exchanged a glance with her Prince. Irrith didn’t miss Galen’s helpless shrug. New, indeed. But there was something more in his manner, that she didn’t have the time to puzzle out; she didn’t want to compound her rudeness by staring at the Prince. Not in front of Lune.
Well, she’d done her duty, handing over the mortal bread the Onyx Court relied on, and telling of the one who’d tried to steal it. Few people in the vicinity of London tithed bread or milk to the fae any longer; Lune had to trade human curiosities to more distant courts, in exchange for their surplus. Those fae with the sense to live in places less riddled with iron and churches had much less need for protection.
But Irrith knew it didn’t end there. Nineteen years since the Fleet was culverted, the Prince said. Tom had hinted at the passage of time, but Irrith had refused to ask for a number. Now she couldn’t hold the question in. “Your Majesty—how long until the comet gets here?”
The Queen sank into her chair, as if suddenly weary, and gestured for her Prince to answer. Galen said, “We don’t know exactly. ‘Getting here’ . . . we know the time of the comet’s perihelion, but not the point at which the Dragon will make its leap.”
What Irrith knew about astronomy would fit into an acorn cap, so she merely rephrased her question. “How much time do you have left?”
“A year and a half,” he said. “Maybe less.”
She shivered. So little time. They’d had more than fifty years, when the seer’s warning first came. Where had it all gone?
“It will be enough,” Lune whispered. She sounded as if she believed it, and perhaps she did; the Queen of the Onyx Court had faced down challenges before. Her face, however, was more than usually pale. Irrith couldn’t imagine what it must be like, living under such a threat for decades, counting the time like a mortal. Knowing that it was running out. Fifty years of that could, it seemed, sap the life from even a faerie queen.
Seeing that weakness, even for a moment, made Irrith uneasy. “With your permission, madam,” the sprite said, “I should like to clean myself up now. I didn’t want to delay getting that bread to you—”
“I appreciate your care,” Lune said, straightening in her chair, either banishing or hiding her weariness. “Amadea will provide you with a suitable chamber. Unless you intended to return to the Vale?”
Irrith thought about the culverted Fleet, and the houses around Tyburn, and the court under the patronage of a new and inexperienced Prince. So many changes. And little more than a year until the comet returned, possibly bringing this all to an end. “I will stay, at least a while.”
“Good.” Lune smiled, but it was a tense thing, carrying a tremendous weight of care. “This court needs all the friends it can find.”
When the muddy and half-clad sprite was gone with Lady Amadea, leaving Galen alone with the Queen, Lune rose once more. Instead of returning to the dining room, though, she went to the fireplace, and laid her hand upon the stone.
“So,” she said, her voice musical and quiet. “How did your evening go?”
Galen wished Dr. Johnson could see her now, shining with all the regal glory so absent from Britain’s Hanoverian King. There was transcendence in the polished gleam of her hair, and a portraitist might have wept for the opportunity to render her serene likeness on canvas. She was the reason he dwelt between worlds, the hidden Prince of a hidden court—despite the threat they faced.
A threat that was never far from anyone’s mind. “Pleasantly, but not productively,” Galen was forced to admit. “We may be able to find other allies among them, open-minded gentlemen, or ladies like Mrs. Vesey. But their interest lies primarily in literature, art, and similar topics; I doubt anyone there can offer much help. Not against a Dragon.”
The word came out hushed. Lune’s hand tightened along the edge of the mantel. A slender hand, long-fingered and pale—but all Galen had to do was look to its mate for a reminder of the danger they faced. A glove concealed the blackened, paralyzed claw of her left hand, the mark left upon her in battle with the Dragon of the Fire.
Her timeless face made it easy to forget that she was there when it happened, nearly a hundred years ago.
Distant history, for the city’s mortal inhabitants. A few old half-timbered buildings still dotted the streets, past the margin of the Great Fire’s reach, and the Monument near London Bridge commemorated the disaster. Beyond those few reminders, who gave thought to it now?
The fae did. No amount of time could dull their memories of those desperate, infernal days, struggling against a beast too powerful for them to kill. In the end, they could only imprison and exile it—and both, in time, had proved imperfect solutions.
The sight of Lune’s gloved and ruined hand spurred Galen’s determination. She would suffer no second wound from the Dragon; he would protect her from it.
He searched desperately for inspiration, and came up short. “Madam—surely fae know better than any mortal how to battle a creature like this. I’m told you had some weapon against it before—”
Her swift turn whisked her skirts out of her way. “We did. And my first act, when Feidelm warned me the comet would return, was to seek it out again. I’ve spent decades chasing the possibility of some weapon, from one end of Europe to the other—Sweden, the Germanies, across the Mediterranean, my ambassadors asking everywhere for some means of destroying the Dragon. I would pay any price for a surety of doing so. So far, unfortunately, all we have are possibilities.”
“But if you cannot kill it,” Galen said, “with all the enchanted power at your command—what makes you think mere mortals can do better?”
He tried not to let the desperation through; it was contemptible of him to show it, especially when she had laid this great honor and great burden upon him, making him her Prince. But it fluttered in his throat, like a panicked bird trying to win free, and rattled his voice as he spoke.
Incredibly, Lune smiled. More emotions than he could name lived in that smile, but none of them were contempt. She said, “Everything of great import done in this place—everything that has made the Onyx Hall the wonder it is, and preserved it against threats—has been done by mortal and faerie-kind together. Without your people, we would not be here. So when I heard the Dragon was to return, my first thought was not of weapons. It was of the Prince at my side.”
A Prince who had aged and passed away without ever finding an answer. And others had come after him, as the years marched in their inexorable course, all of them the bearers of Lune’s trust, all of them—ultimately—failures.
Now it was Galen’s turn, to carry that burden, and to fall beneath it.
I should never have agreed, he thought miserably, clenching his hands until his knuckles ached, when she offered me the title. She deserves better.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” the Queen said, unaware of his dreary thoughts, “what meeting of worlds will save us this time. But I am certain it will need us both to do it. Whether it is some effect of the Onyx Hall’s nature, or simply the consequence of my governance these centuries, that has always been the case. I will contribute what I can, and you will do the same, and out of that will come the answer.”
She did not sound complacent; she had struggled against this question for too many years to be complacent. But the confidence in her voice gave Galen heart.
Though what my kind can do, when so few even believe in magic now . . .
His sudden inspiration must have produced an audible sound, for Lune raised her arching eyebrows. “Yes?”
“I,” Galen said, and hesitated. “I don’t know how this could be of help.”
“We have tried everything that might be,” she said, with a hint of weary amusement. “We might as well try the things that can’t be.”
It seemed thinner and weaker the longer he thought about it, but the Queen was waiting. Galen said, “Natural philosophy.”
She didn’t laugh, or dismiss it out of hand. It was something mortals could contribute, that fae knew little of: the rational understanding of the world, as achieved through observation and experimentation. Every day, new discoveries, sending beams of light into the dark mysteries of nature. It had warned them of their impending peril; perhaps it could also save them.
Lune followed the thought to its inevitable conclusion even as Galen did. If such knowledge were to aid them, there was but one place to seek it out. “The Royal Society,” she said.
A fellowship of the most learned men in Britain, with allies all over Europe. Lune’s growing smile made Galen’s heart soar—until a new thought dragged it down once more. For him to gain entrée into the Royal Society, he would have to beg a favor of the last person to whom he wanted to owe a debt.
She knew it as well as he did. She said, “Can you get your father’s assistance?”
I don’t know. But he made himself smile, because this was what the Queen needed of him, her Prince, and he would pay any price she asked. “Yes, madam, I can.”
Memory: September 12, 1682
In the ordinary way of things, night was the ideal time for sneaking and subterfuge. Honest men were in their beds, with only the occasional watchman to sound an alarm, and darkness provided a friendly veil against such eyes.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich did not operate according to the ordinary rules of society. Here, men slept during the day, and woke at night to observe the stars and moon and the distant planets.
Which became something of a problem when others wished to use their instruments, in secret, without their permission.
But the Onyx Court played home to many creatures that took pride in their stealth. If it was strange for them to operate in sunlight, they adapted. They had good reason to wish for success in this undertaking. So they went to Greenwich in the light of day, and moved either disguised or unseen among the astronomers and clerks and servants who worked there, bearing with them tiny vials of crystal. In those vials lay the essences of faerie herbs, gathered from the gardens of the Onyx Hall, to prepare for the coming night.
The contents of the vials went into food, into wine, into the bitter coffee drink some of the men swore sharpened their wits and kept them alert during their vigils. One by one, the men of the observatory slept, and dreamt the dreams provided to them.
Lune reached the top of the hill as a puck bent to drip visions on the eyelids of the last sleeper, a man who had curled up on the grass at the foot of Flamsteed’s great telescope. Behind her, three stocky yarthkins lugged a heavy crate up the slope. One man in his forties, hair thinning on top but still hale, wheezed theatrically as he staggered through the courtyard gate. “I swear it gets steeper every time.”
“This is the last time you have to climb it, Jack.” Lune stepped from the cobbled courtyard onto the grass, then stood gazing up at the telescope, and the stars beyond.
She could not see the one she sought. But that was what telescopes were for.
Jack Ellin, Prince of the Stone, nodded cheerfully. “Indeed. Either we exile this beast beyond the boundaries of the world—or it gets free and burns us all to ash. Either way, I won’t have to climb the hill again.”
For all his levity, he showed nothing but precision as he directed the various fae to their tasks. Once he’d taken the necessary sights through the telescope of the Astronomer Royal, he sent a few of his more agile assistants up the mast, where they unhooked the ropes that held the sixty-foot tube in place. Others pried open the crate, revealing another, shorter telescope—this one unlike any other in the world.
Lune paced impatiently while her subjects rigged this one to the mast and set up a platform for them to stand next to its eyepiece. Jack ignored her restlessness. Hauling their telescope hither and yon would have jarred the mirrors from their careful alignments, and any error in that respect could lead to disaster. Under his direction, a delicate-fingered sprite tapped them into place, first the great, then the little.
At last he said, “We’re ready.”
“Are you sure?” Lune asked.
His wry face reached for, but did not quite achieve, carelessness. “Am I sure that an inverted model of a revolutionary design of telescope, crafted out of faerie wood and faerie metal, will succeed at focusing and directing the spirit of a Dragon through the aether and onto a comet so far distant it can only barely be seen with the aid of the most advanced astronomical equipment in England? Of course, your Grace. I would never suggest it otherwise.”
Despite the gravity of their task, Lune smiled. But Jack knew the danger quite well, and so he added, too quietly for the others to hear, “What will we do if this fails?”
Lune’s left hip carried the London Sword, the central piece of the Onyx Court’s royal regalia. She touched its hilt with her good fingers. “I yet have another hand. And the prison might hold a while longer.”
Both of them turned to watch the approach of a second crate, this one of hawthorn. Once it was laid in the grass at their feet, all the fae retreated, leaving Queen and Prince alone at the foot of the telescope. All of them drew weapons—as if they would do much good. Jack offered his arm to Lune with a courtly bow, assisting her up onto the platform.
Then he knelt and lifted the top from the hawthorn crate.
Inside that shielding wood lay a small box of black iron, unadorned save for a flame-marked shield on its lid. It had been cold the first time he touched it, sixteen years ago. Now gloves barely protected his hands from the heat. The prison into which they had forced the spirit of the Great Fire of London could not hold it forever. The strange enchantments of the iron were weakening under its power.
He prayed—silently, so the fae would not hear—that this would work. Even if Lune sacrificed her other hand to trap the Dragon once more, it would leave them in hopeless straits. They could not kill the beast, and it seemed they could not imprison it, either. Exile was their only remaining option.
Jack lifted the box free and climbed up to join Lune next to the eyepiece. “Let us hope,” she said, “that Isaac Newton is as great a mind as you say.”
“He is,” Jack promised her, and opened the box.
A radiance like the heart of the sun blazed forth, into the waiting eyepiece. An ordinary telescope gathered up the faint light of space and brought it in small to the human eye; this one, adapted from the reflective design of Professor Newton, took the intense light of the Dragon’s spirit and sent it out into the void. That unbearable blaze struck the flawless craftsmanship of the mirrors and ricocheted outward, in an unerring line, straight to the bearded star Flamsteed had been observing these many months.
Jack could hear nothing past the silent roar of the Dragon. Lune might have been screaming; so might he. But then the light was gone, and the box crumbled to rust in his hands, blistered even beneath the leather of his gloves.
And Lune swung the London Sword, cutting the ropes that held the telescope in position. It fell to the ground, severing the last link between the Dragon and this place.
In the aftermath, the only sound was the steady wind off the Thames.
Lune whispered, “It worked.”
Jack looked upward. He thought he could discern something in the sky, that had not been visible before: the departing comet, glowing unnaturally bright. Then it faded, and was lost to his eye.
The Dragon of the Fire was gone.
The Onyx Hall, London: October 1, 1757
When she first came to the Onyx Hall, Irrith had found the subterranean palace an incomprehensible maze, through which she could follow only a few memorized paths.
In the century since, that opinion had not changed much.
But there was one chamber to which she could find her way blindfolded, for she’d fallen in love with it the first time she stepped through one of its arching entrances. There were many small gardens tucked into odd corners of the Onyx Hall; this, the night garden, was the grandest by far. Here the Walbrook, London’s long-forgotten stream, wound through grassy plots and shadowing trees. Here flowers bloomed, in changeless defiance of the seasons above, blossoms drawn from both the mortal world and the deeper reaches of Faerie. It wasn’t pure nature—with its fountains and charming pathways, the night garden was more like a poet’s notion of the countryside—but Irrith loved it nonetheless.
And so when she left her chamber after a fitful rest, it was to the night garden that her disconsolate steps took her.
She glanced up as she entered the green, breathing space, to see the faerie lights twinkling in artificial night above. Sometimes they shaped themselves into patterns that reflected the current mood of the court, but at present they drifted aimlessly, forming no identifiable shape.
Irrith sighed and walked on. Then she saw something ahead that lifted her spirit, and provoked her into a run.
A pavilion stood near one end of the night garden, surrounded by a wide swath of grass, and a figure moved within that should be—was—utterly out of place in the airless stone galleries of the Onyx Hall. Hooves clopped a startled tattoo against the polished boards of the pavilion floor as Irrith vaulted the ramp, and then a pair of arms caught her at the apex of her leap.
“Ktistes!” she cried in delight. “I thought you had gone!”
“That was my intent,” the centaur said, setting her down gently. “But her Majesty asked me to stay. It has been many a long year, Dame Irrith.”
“Fifty, I think. I lost count in the Vale.”
Ktistes laughed. “And you so often beneath the stars, but so rarely watching their dance.”
He gestured upward as he said it, not to the ceiling of the night garden, with its false constellations, but to the roof of his pavilion. The structure was new, by the standards of the Onyx Hall; Lune had it built following the Great Fire, for Ktistes’s use, when he came from Greece to help repair the damage done to the Onyx Hall. The centaur cared nothing for shelter—he was happy to sleep on the soft grass of the garden—but the roof was valuable to him. It had once been the ceiling of some chamber elsewhere in the Hall, and the chips of starlight set into its surface moved in perfect reflection of the hidden sky above.
Irrith dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Years. Why should I count them?”
“Only for the sake of your friends, who regret your absence. But you thought I was returning to Greece, and so I forgive you. Come, sit with me in the grass.” Ktistes descended the short ramp into the garden.
Next to him, Irrith felt tiny. His sturdy horse body, a gray so dark it was almost black, was as tall as she; his olive-skinned human torso towered over her. But he folded his white-socked forelegs down onto the grass, and she sat a little distance away, and then it was not so bad.
Irrith said, “Amadea told me my chamber is gone. Not ‘given to someone more important than you’—missing. Ktistes, what’s happening here?”
One lock of his black hair, curled in an old style, fell forward as he bowed his head. “Ah. The Onyx Hall is fraying.”
“The wall,” Ktistes said. “That surrounds—or rather surrounded—the City of London, separating it from the towns beyond, that are now part of the city as a whole. The mortals have been tearing it down, because it impedes the flow of their carts and riders. A portion near Bishopsgate was removed not long after you left, and when she saw its effect, the Queen asked me to stay.”
Irrith felt obscurely as if she’d betrayed the Onyx Hall—as if her departure had introduced that crack. “Without the wall, the palace falls apart?”
The centaur made a gesture with his hands, that seemed to indicate it was complicated. “The wall is the boundary of the Onyx Hall. When the boundary fragments, the edges of the fabric begin to fray. But because the reflection is not direct, the fraying occurs in unexpected places—such as your old chamber.”
She had liked that chamber; its pillars were carved in the fashion of trees, with leaves of green agate. She wanted it back. “So mend it.”
“I am trying,” the centaur said, with a touch of grimness.
He had repaired the palace entrances, after they burnt in the Fire. No faerie of the Onyx Court had been able to do it, until Lune finally sent an ambassador to Greece to ask for help. Ktistes, grandson—grandfoal?—of the wise centaur Kheiron, had done what they could not.
He could do this. He had to.
Her disconsolate mood was back, and worse. Rather than think about the Onyx Hall, Irrith diverted her attention to a more personal wound. “I even lost my cabinet.”
Ktistes’ strong white teeth flashed in an unexpected smile. “Do you think me so poor an architect, to be caught unawares by the disappearance of your chamber? Or so poor a friend, to let your prized possessions vanish with it?”
“You saved them?” Irrith leapt to her feet in hope.
“Yes, I did, little sprite. I will have them brought to your new quarters—what, you thought I kept them here, to clutter up my pavilion with all your odds and ends?” Ktistes laughed. “I’ve never understood your fascination with them.”
“They’re mortal odds and ends,” Irrith said, dropping to the grass once more. She had little interest in the gems and fossils others kept in their cabinets of curiosities, but anything made by humans was intriguing. Leaving her collection behind when she went to Berkshire had been a terrible mistake. “Actual mortals are better, of course, but I can’t lock them in a drawer. On that topic—did you know this new Prince is in love with the Queen?”
The centaur stilled, his profile as somber as one of the statues from his homeland. He said carefully, “We do not speak of it.”
“But you know.”
“Everyone knows.” Ktistes didn’t have to tilt his head to meet Irrith’s gaze, even though she was standing. His dark eyes were liquid, more like a horse’s than a human’s. “But no one speaks of it. Lord Galen believes it a secret, known only to his heart.”
Irrith wrinkled her nose. Secret? Hardly, when Galen’s eyes followed Lune’s every movement. “That won’t end well.”
Ktistes nodded, though he managed to make the gesture equivocal. How could it end well? Fae rarely loved, and Lune had already given her heart, a very long time ago. Galen could pine after her all he pleased; it wouldn’t win him anything. And though that was a story as old as the fae themselves, it rarely led to anything good for the mortal.
It would, however, be interesting to watch. Love was something Irrith didn’t understand, any more than she understood mortality, but she found both fascinating: stories in cipher, of which she could translate only fragments. And there was no place in the world better suited to hearing those stories told than the Onyx Hall, where fae lived unseen among mortals.
Or at least below them. Restlessness seized Irrith, a desire to make use of the time she had. But she would need protection before she went above—and thanks to Tom’s bribe, she could afford to buy some. “Ktistes, who could I wheedle bread out of?”
The centaur shook his curled head. “I have no part in that trade, as you well know. It may be difficult, though; from what I hear, people demand more than they once did in exchange.”
Perhaps that was the reason for the black dog: some faerie badly in debt to others, and desperate enough to risk attacking the courier. Despite Ktistes’s discouraging words, Irrith bounced to her feet. “Then I’d best get started. I have fifty years’ absence to make up for, after all, and I’m eager to get on with it. Shall I bring back anything for you?”
“A nice bundle of hay,” Ktistes said gravely.
It was an old joke between them. Laughing, Irrith went in search of bread.
Leicester Fields, Westminster: October 1, 1757
The morning was far enough progressed that when Galen disembarked from his sedan chair, the sun had risen above the rooftops, spilling its excessively bright light into the open square of Leicester Fields. He winced and covered his eyes with one hand while he fumbled out coins for the chair-men, then stood for a moment as they picked up their burden and trotted off, hoping that fortitude might find him.
That proved to be an unwise choice. A disagreeable smell drifted from somewhere, and someone’s housekeeper was haranguing a delivery boy with language more suitable to a Billingsgate fishwife. Swallowing back the sick feeling in his throat, Galen hurried down the narrow steps into the area of his family’s townhouse, and through the door into the cellar.
Inside, someone made a startled noise, and there was a shadowy movement like a curtsy; when his vision cleared, he saw Jenny, with her arms full of linen. Galen tried to edge past her in the narrow corridor, but the maid curtsied again and said, “Beg pardon, sir—your father told us all to tell you. He wants to see you.”
And knew his son’s habits well enough to guess by what door Galen would come in. “Thank you, Jenny,” he said, and abandoned his plan of creeping up the servants’ staircase.
Edward was in his bedroom, laying aside newly polished pairs of shoes. When Galen entered, he rose, bowed, and said, “You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible.” Galen found his way to a chair by memory, and collapsed into it. “And that was before I heard Father wanted to see me.”
“Someone else broke that to you, I see.” Edward didn’t bother to hide his relief. The elder St. Clair deplored the casual manner of his son’s valet, but not enough to sack him; it was miracle enough that Edward had been in their household for more than a year, without wandering off in the usual manner of servants.
At least it seemed a miracle, to the outside observer. Galen knew why the fellow had become a footman in the St. Clair household, and why he stayed: Lune had sent him, after the passing of his previous master, the late Prince. Though not himself a faerie, Edward Thorne was the natural son of one of Lune’s knights by a mortal woman, and as such was a perfect go-between for the two worlds.
It also meant Edward, unlike Galen’s father, did not assume Galen had spent his night carousing in a Haymarket brothel. “Late night at court?” he asked, only a little too briskly, whisking the peruke from his master’s head.
Galen leaned forward in the chair to let Edward slide the tightly fitted coat from his shoulders. “I only wish it were,” he said. “No, for once Father’s assumptions will be something like right: I spent my night drinking, and haven’t slept.”
His eyes were closed, but he heard the brief silence as Edward paused, before laying his coat aside and fetching a fresh shirt. “You don’t sound as if you enjoyed yourself.”
“I didn’t.” The strength he took from Lune’s confidence had vanished like the morning dew after he left her presence. He’d sought inspiration in brandy, and not found it.
A cool glass pressed into his hand. Galen sniffed, eyes still closed. Water, carrying a dose of Dr. Taunton’s Fortifying Drops. He drank the mixture down, sighed, and addressed himself to the washbasin, which Edward had just filled. It had the salutary effect of waking him, though the chill splash made his headache worse.
“He had his electrical treatment last night,” Edward warned, helping Galen into another shirt. “But it doesn’t seem to have taken well. It’s been a devil of a morning already.”
To that, there seemed no suitable response other than a groan.
But delaying would not help anything except the progress of his hangover, and so a short while later, with fresh clothes and wig alike to give him a semblance of dignity, Galen descended the stairs to his father’s study, to beard the lion in his book-lined den.
Charles St. Clair had none of the appearance of a lion, being fat and gouty, with a somber black bagwig and a coat of brick red. He was in his most comfortable chair when Galen entered, with one shoeless foot propped up in front of him—a sure sign that his leg pained him. At the sound of the door, he did not look up from the ledger balanced on his other knee, but made Galen wait in silence for several long minutes, before finally clapping the ledger shut and fixing his son with a gimlet eye.
“When you are married,” St. Clair said, biting off each word, “then you may keep the hours you please, and your wife will suffer the consequences—but while you still live under my roof, boy, you will behave like a civilized man. I won’t have you creeping in the servants’ entrance after cockcrow, after wasting your night in God knows what debauchery.”
There was nothing Galen could say to this. He could hardly tell his father it was a faerie court, not a brothel, that occupied his hours, and no other response had done much good. Galen had tried them all. So he simply waited, head bowed, for his father to move past the opening pleasantries and into the reason for this summons.
St. Clair snorted in disgust. “Can’t even speak up for yourself, just stand there like a spineless worm. I pity the woman saddled with you: she’ll find herself with a wife, not a husband.”
Marriage. Unease churned the medicine and lingering spirits in Galen’s stomach. He should have guessed this might be his father’s purpose. They scarcely talked, save on a small number of unwelcome topics. “I should not want to make myself a burden on any woman,” he ventured to say, “until I was sure I could be worthy of her.”
“Too bad for her, whoever she is.” St. Clair creaked his way to his feet, grunting as his stockinged toes touched the floor, and went to his desk, where he dropped the ledger with a thud. “You will find yourself a wife, boy, and you will do it soon.”
Galen flinched. That was even blunter than usual. “Sir—I cannot simply go through London, weighing women for their dowries, and make my offer when I find a purse heavy enough.”
“Why not? The St. Clair name is a good one, even if its finances are somewhat more tattered. London throngs with rich men eager to marry their daughters into a better family. Your youth will hardly signify—some might consider it a selling point.” St. Clair snorted again. “I dare say you can even find a pretty one, if you look hard enough.”
The words came out before he could stop them. “And affection?”
His father didn’t say anything; the silence was enough. Less than it could have been, in fact; the last time Galen had said anything of the sort, he’d been clouted over the ear for it. But he was not foolish enough to mistake the silence for any kind of softening on his father’s part.
“I know,” Galen whispered, staring at his shoes. “Affection doesn’t enter into it; what matters is money.” Cynthia was nearly twenty, and needed a dowry to attract a worthwhile husband; and behind her waited Daphne and Irene, with the same need. The burden fell to Galen, the eldest, and their only brother, to repair the family’s finances.
Bitterness stung him. Yes, it’s my responsibility to repair them—as it was Father’s to destroy them.
That, at least, he managed to keep behind his teeth. The thought of Lune saved him from speaking: if he angered his father badly enough, he might be confined to Leicester Fields, and then he would be no use to the fae at all. But that was the source of his pain: how could he shackle himself to a wife—how could he shackle a young woman to him—when his heart was already given elsewhere?
Few men would see a problem with it. Men kept mistresses all the time, sometimes under the same roof as their wives; their name and their affection need not go to the same recipient. But Galen could not stomach the dishonesty, especially when his wife could never know of the second world he inhabited. And Lune . . . she would despise him for it.
It was hopeless, and Galen knew it. He could worship the faerie Queen until the sun grew cold, but he would never have her, neither as mistress nor wife. His mind could not even conceive of such an outcome. In which case, he must fill that void with thoughts of Cynthia, and Daphne, and Irene. However much he detested his father, he loved his sisters. If their futures depended on this sacrifice from him, then he must harden his resolve and do as his father bade.
St. Clair was awaiting his answer, with increasing disgust and impatience. Galen gritted his teeth, and prepared to embrace the black satisfaction of martyrdom.
But inspiration touched him as he opened his mouth. He’d come here with a purpose, one he almost forgot under his father’s assault—and now he had a means of addressing it. “If I am to do this, sir, for you and for my sisters—then I must ask a favor in return.”
A flush leapt up toward the edge of St. Clair’s wig. “You are in no position to make demands, boy.”
But he was; Galen could hardly be wed against his will. And he held a bargaining position now, that he hadn’t foreseen when he came home this morning. “I don’t ask much. Simply this: give me letters of introduction to your acquaintances in the Royal Society.”
Now it was the eyebrows leaping upward. “What possible business could you have with them?”
His surprise was understandable. Galen enjoyed learning rather more than the next young gentleman, but he’d never shown any interest in his father’s connection with the Royal Society. The truth was that the connection embarrassed him; Galen knew quite well that Charles St. Clair had bought himself a fellowship because he wanted the prestige and they wanted the money. This, of course, had been when the St. Clairs had money. But his father had never done much with the privilege, and neither had Galen. He said, “I cannot be certain of my business—not until I speak with men better able to advise me. But marriage, sir, is hardly the only way I can be of use to our family.”
“You think to make your fortune with some kind of speculative venture?”
Why not? After all, that’s how you destroyed yours. Galen again flung the thought of Lune between those words and his mouth, and lifted his hands with a faint smile, letting his father draw what conclusions he would.
St. Clair growled under his breath, then said, “I’ll consider it. They’re adjourned until November regardless. In the meantime, you can prove to me you’re serious about your duty to this family. Start hunting a wife.”
It was a miserable time to go looking; with the aristocracy and landed gentry departed to their country estates for the summer and autumn, London’s social calendar offered few prospects for success. The St. Clairs only stayed because Aldgrange, their Essex estate, was too expensive to maintain for residence. “I can offer you a promise,” Galen said, seeing a way to postpone his fate. “I’ll make an offer to a suitable young lady before the end of the next Season. Will that suffice?”
His father regarded him with a cynical eye. “If you fail to make good on it, you’ll suffer the consequences.” The presentation of his back dismissed Galen. Suppressing a sigh, the young man headed for the door.
That gave him until early summer. If London’s safety was achieved by then, did he dare defy the old man, and break his promise? But there was Cynthia to consider, and his younger sisters; he could not pay their dowries in faerie gold.
No, there was no escape to be had. In this, his father was right: he had a duty. Come what may, I must find myself a wife.
Central London: October 7, 1757
The clamor and stench of the city struck Irrith full in the face as she slipped out of a nonexistent gap between two buildings on Cloak Lane. She wrinkled her nose, but grinned despite her distaste. That was the smell of humanity, true enough, right down to their coal smoke and shit.
The street to either side of her teemed with a solid mass of people—none of whom noticed her sudden appearance, thanks to the enchantments that protected the Onyx Hall. A giant wagon sat at rest just to her right, its driver standing on the seat and swearing at whatever blocked his way. Things might change, but obscenity wasn’t one of them: he insulted the offender’s parentage, cleanliness, and sexual habits as his father and grandfather had done for ages before him.
Yet something seemed wrong. The street was full, but it didn’t seem like day. The sprite glanced upward, trying to determine what time it was. Though Onyx Hall didn’t stand outside of time as some faerie realms did, its unchanging gloom made it seem as if it did.
The sky above glowered with unnatural darkness. Heavy, smoke-stained clouds sat low in the air, but it wasn’t merely an impending storm; the light had a strange quality, ominous and weird, like nothing she had ever seen before. Irrith couldn’t even tell whether it was morning or afternoon.
Unease rippled down her spine. Around her, the city went about its business—but now she noticed that others shared her discomfort. They cast nervous glances skyward, or fixed their eyes upon their shoes, trying to ignore this upset to the natural order.
Frowning, she began to make her way along the street, ducking under a low-hanging shop sign and slipping into the stream of passersby where they eddied around the halted wagon. Despite pavements on either side of the street, and the ragged boys with their brooms at the crossings, her stockings and coat were spattered with mud before she went twenty paces; she had forgotten to think of pattens, when she put together the glamour that disguised her.
Up ahead, a knot of people stood talking, tin cups in their hands. These they seemed to have purchased from a shop crammed into a narrow alcove on the ground floor of a larger building. Upon drawing close, Irrith caught a surprising evergreen scent.
“Drunk for a penny!” the man behind the counter called out, when he saw her looking. “A small price, to lose your cares.”
Irrith generally found it simpler to look like a man, when she went above, but she hadn’t bothered to make it a gentleman. Most of the fellows standing about were rough sorts, who probably had little more than a penny to spend. Irrith fished a leaf out of her pocket, charming it as she went, and handed the resulting silver two-penny piece over to the seller. “Only one,” she said hastily, wrinkling her nose at the spiritous evergreen reek. He gave her a tin cup and her change, and Irrith, seeing the barrel, finally realized where she was: a gin shop.
She’d heard of the drink in Berkshire, but never tasted any. One sip later, she decided a single taste was enough. The gin seemed determined to eat away at her mouth, throat, and nose. Coughing, she nodded her thanks and stepped aside.
The sallow-skinned fellow next to her was staring at the blackened sky with a grim expression. “What’s causing it?” Irrith asked him.
He had the cadaverous face of a potter, which went all too well with his reply. “Why, the comet, of course.”
Irrith dropped her gin cup. “The comet?”
Her informant waved a hand skyward. “The one that smart cove said would be coming back. Halley. It’s here.”
“And now,” someone else slurred, “the world’ll burn right up.”
The disguised sprite retrieved her cup from the dirt. Most of the gin had spilled, and now she wished she had it back. “But—I thought it wasn’t supposed to come for another year.” Her heart beat double-time. It can’t be true.
A woman dressed like a maidservant nodded agreement. “My mistress was reading the Gentleman’s Magazine, and she told me not to be afeared, as this was a different comet. Though how they can tell, God only knows. Them stars look all the same to me.”
“Then how d’you explain the sky?” the potter demanded.
No one could. But Irrith discovered, to her startlement, that the mortals of London had not forgotten Halley’s prediction, any more than the fae had. They even seemed to have a presentiment of its danger. “Mark my words,” the potter said, “this comet or the next, one of them’ll crash right into us, and then it’ll be Noah’s Flood all over again.”
“Fire, not flood,” the maidservant insisted. “We’ll pass through the comet’s tail and burn, just like this fellow said.”
Irrith listened with wide eyes. Not everyone shared that fear; someone started an argument with the maidservant, quoting some other magazine to prove they were in no danger. No one mentioned a Dragon. Still, she wondered whether the black sky was in truth a sign. Even if this wasn’t the same comet—which it didn’t appear to be, as London wasn’t on fire—it seemed a terrible omen.
When the argument faded out, she abandoned the gin shop and wandered onward. Her intent had been to enjoy herself today, swindling shopkeepers and picking up new curiosities for her cabinet, but in the grim light she just didn’t have the heart. Irrith stopped in the middle of Cheapside, surrounded by fine shops, and made a face of equal parts frustration and worry.
She’d left for Berkshire fifty years ago because there were things she hated about London. Mostly the faerie courtiers: vipers, all of them, saying one thing and meaning another, then biting you when your back was turned. The longer she stayed, the greater her risk of getting caught in their political coils.
But she also loved the City. She loved it for the smart stone and brick buildings that stood where plaster and timber had once been. For the gin shops, with the poor and working folk standing around drinking poison and talking of what their mistress read in the newspaper today. For the little boxes people rode in, carried along on long poles, and the bewildering variety of their wig styles, and the Chinese wallpaper being sold in the shop in front of her.
A few days here would not be enough to scratch that itch. Not after fifty years of absence, and not if this might all come to an end in a year and a half.
She could always run for Berkshire at the first scent of politics.
Irrith jumped sideways to avoid a carriage forcing a path through the crowd, and found herself against a wall plastered with advertisements. One of them caught her eye, with a word that did not belong on a sheet of paper stuck to the wall of a Cheapside shop.
DR. RUFUS ANDREWS
His MARVELOUS MENAGERIE
featuring many Strange and Rare
Half-Breeds and Homunculi
RED INDIAN MAIDENS,
born joined at the Hip,
and most wondrous strange,
the half-Man, half-Goat
She stared at that last word, then scrubbed her eyes. It did not oblige her by vanishing.
There was more, in smaller print, crammed in toward the bottom of the sheet; it seemed these wonders could be viewed for a fee at some place in Red Lion Square. Ladies were coyly advised that the satyr might be shocking to their delicate constitutions.
Irrith was prepared to be more than shocked, if this Dr. Andrews had an actual faerie in his menagerie. Could he? The Greek fae were not like English ones; iron didn’t bother them. Maybe a satyr could survive in mortal captivity, without wasting away to nothingness.
Her fingers scrabbled at the edges of the sheet. Half stayed behind when she tore it free, but the satyr stayed, as did the address.
Irrith had no idea where Red Lion Square was, and she wouldn’t go there on her own even if she did. Should it be true this man had a captive satyr, she would need help to get the prisoner free.
The Onyx Hall, London: October 7, 1757
The pure ring of silver echoed off the polished stone of the walls as Irrith approached the set of chambers collectively known as the Temple of Arms. Hidden in the heart of London, where outsiders could not easily attack them, the fae of the Onyx Court rarely saw battle. Still, those among them with a martial bent yet practiced their art, no more able to abandon it than rain could stop falling downward.
They had all the accoutrements of war at their disposal, short of seige equipment: axes, maces, swords both large and small, centuries of armor. One long gallery had been converted into an archery range; another was dedicated to pistol practice. But the room Irrith sought was the central one, a large, octagonal chamber, its sleek floor covered with a hard-packed accumulation of dirt and straw the masters of the training ground refused to let anyone clean away. Here she found what looked like the entire fighting contingent of the Onyx Hall, watching two of their number at work.
For the second time that day, Irrith’s heart leapt into her mouth. They were fighting the Dragon.
Her common sense caught up a moment later. When she blinked, she recognized the terrible beast as nothing more than a glamour, roaring silently in the center of the room. But there were plenty at court who remembered their foe; the illusion was uncomfortably lifelike. The serpentine creature, if it reared upward, would nearly strike the chamber’s high ceiling, and its flesh was black char over molten flame. There were salamanders in the Onyx Hall, lizardlike spirits of elemental fire, but they were to the Dragon as a brook was to the mighty sea.
The two facing the beast, a blocky gnome and an elf-knight, were wrestling with a strange weapon. It was nearly invisible, except where the light struck a gleam off one smooth facet or another; Irrith didn’t appreciate its full length until the knight swore and lost his grip, letting the enormous spear collapse to the dirt. He tucked his hands under his arms, shivering and ignoring the gnome’s harangue, and Irrith realized what the weapon must be.
“Elemental ice,” Segraine said, startling her. Irrith hadn’t heard the lady approach. “From Jotunheim, or so the Swedes who sent it to us claim. Whether that’s true or not, it makes a terrible weapon—terrible for us, not our enemy.”
Now Irrith understood the gathering. “You’re preparing to fight it.”
Her friend shrugged. “What else can we do?”
Something new, Irrith thought. She would never say it, though. Under the command of Sir Peregrin Thorne, Captain of the Onyx Guard, Segraine and her fellows had faced the Dragon once already, battling it amidst the flames of the Great Fire. Their willingness to do so a second time showed just how brave they were—or how foolhardy. Irrith herself, though brave on occasion, had no intention of going anywhere near the creature a second time. Love for the city aside, if the appointed day came and they had no better plan than facing down the Dragon in battle, she was going back to Berkshire. London could burn just as well without her as with.
Segraine didn’t seem much more enthusiastic. The lady knight cut an impressive figure, even in a plain silk shirt and old slops; the severity of her tightly queued hair drew attention to her strong profile, and the breadth of her shoulders. She had been Lieutenant of the Onyx Guard, before she gave her place to Sir Cerenel. Irrith wondered if it was because her friend had looked ahead just as she had, and had seen the specter of defeat.
Then Segraine noticed her scrutiny, and the mere touch of her gaze made Irrith feel ashamed of that thought. “Mind you,” the knight added, “this all assumes there’s a Dragon to fight.”
Irrith blinked in confusion. “What? You think the Queen’s lying, that Feidelm made the vision up?”
Her friend’s lip curled in something not quite a laugh. “We should be so lucky. No, we have an enemy; the question is whether it will have a body we can attack. Remember, what they imprisoned was its spirit. And that’s a hard thing to stab.”
The shard lay on the floor, steaming a little in the cool air. The practice was breaking up, and the audience with it; a small group went with Sir Peregrin out the far door, the gnome and another collected the ice, and the rest drifted away, grumbling. “That’s it for today,” Segraine said, “but I doubt you came here to watch us wave a piece of ice around anyway.”
It recalled Irrith to her purpose. “I saw an advertisement in Cheapside,” she said, pulling the torn paper from her pocket. “Do you think this man has a real satyr?”
Segraine took the fragment and studied it. A few of the fae who hadn’t yet left came closer, reading over the lady knight’s shoulders. “I don’t know,” she murmured, peering at the small print near the bottom. “Though it’s happened before.”
Hempry, a short and thick-limbed yarthkin, was reading not so much over Segraine’s shoulder as under her elbow. He said in his broad Yorkshire accent, “That centaur fellow, six years ago.”
“Ktistes?” Irrith said, alarmed.
“No, a friend of his.” That came from a second northerner, a duergar Irrith didn’t know. “Some fool come over from the continent. Got himself snatched at the docks, maybe, or off the ship he came on—never did get the story out of him.”
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing bad,” Segraine said, handing the sheet back to Irrith. “We rescued him before the man who meant to display him was able to make good on his advertisements. Adenant, has Il Veloce gone missing? Or any other fauns or satyrs?”
The questions were directed to one of the knights who had gone with Peregrin, now on his way back across the chamber. He paused, eyeing them in puzzlement, and said, “Not so far as I know.”
“Could be another visitor,” the duergar suggested.
Segraine’s chuckle was dry. “Or just a man in goatskin breeches. That’s happened before, too.”
“Trouble?” Adenant asked.
Irrith shifted her feet when everyone’s attention fell on her. “How should I know? I saw this, advertising a satyr like some kind of Bartholomew Fair show, and thought at the very least that you should see it.” It seemed like a very small matter, after watching their efforts against the illusion of the Dragon—though the possible satyr, if he existed, might disagree.
Adenant and Segraine exchanged looks, and she said, “We should at least look into it.”
“I’ll go with you,” Irrith said, barely ahead of Hempry and the duergar.
“It doesn’t need an entire regiment,” Adenant said dryly. “Ask Peregrin, but I expect he’ll say two is enough.”
Hempry grumbled mutiny, only giving in when Segraine promised to include him in any rescue attempt. Once the others had dispersed, the lady knight said to Irrith, “Arrange a showing. I’ll tell the Captain, and the Queen.”
“And the Prince?” Irrith asked. “This is a mortal thing, after all.”
Segraine’s hesitation was barely visible, but not quite absent. “And the Prince,” she agreed.
Why the pause? Anything having to do with the mortals of London fell under the Prince’s authority; Lune would probably tell Peregrin and Segraine so. That was how it was done with the Princes Irrith had known. But this one was new, she remembered. Perhaps Segraine didn’t fully trust him yet.
She didn’t really want to ask. That was politics, and something she intended to stay far away from. Instead she flicked the advertisement in her hand and offered Segraine her most impudent grin. “Only one question, then.”
“And that is?”
Irrith’s grin got wider. “Which of us has to be the lady?”
Crane Court, London: November 10, 1757
Letters of introduction, unfortunately, were insufficient to bring a man into the hallowed chambers of the Royal Society. To come among that august body, Galen needed his father to bring him in person.
He had, with extreme reluctance, begun attending what small social events offered themselves in this season, when most people who could afford to—and who, therefore, presented suitable targets—had retired from London. He did not enjoy it, and Charles St. Clair growled at the lack of results; in consequence, neither was pleased.
But it achieved what Galen needed: together, he and his father went to Crane Court, a narrow lane off of Fleet Street, to the home of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.
Whatever Galen expected of the place, he didn’t see it. The facade in front of him might have belonged to any one of a thousand townhouses in London, with a narrow front, three windows across, and a short staircase leading up to the door, all in simple Palladian style. But the fellowship that met within its walls counted among its past number some of the greatest minds in all of Britain: Robert Boyle; Robert Hooke; Sir Christopher Wren, the guiding genius that rebuilt London in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Edmond Halley, whose calculations had called the spirit of that Fire home to roost. Sir Isaac Newton himself.
Charles St. Clair said nothing to his son, either during the journey or once they arrived. He merely went up the stairs and rapped on the door with the head of his walking stick. A footman in livery welcomed them in and directed them up to the piano nobile, where a spacious room overlooking the garden would be the stage for tonight’s meeting. It held an assortment of cabriole-legged chairs, an abundance of candles with mirrors to reflect their light, and a small number of gentlemen, all respectably dressed in gray powdered wigs and cravats.
His father introduced him around with a brusqueness bordering on rudeness. Galen bowed, made pleasantries, and was somewhat relieved to be rescued by the beginning of the meeting. Perhaps after it was done, and he had more to converse upon, this would become less awkward.
The meeting, alas, no more displayed the marks of intellectual brilliance than the building did. Galen could forgive it the routine business with which it began: every society that wished to survive for more than a brief time must conduct itself in an orderly fashion. He soon found himself struggling, however, against the urge to yawn, as someone read an interminable extract from what was presumably even more interminable of a lecture on the lymphatic vessels of animals. Galen lost the thread of it a few minutes in, and returned to alertness only when he realized the group was ordering thanks to the doctor who had delivered the lecture.
He made a better effort to stay alert for the letter that followed, and was rewarded with a name he recognized: Dr. Halley. For a moment, he thought someone might mention the comet. But no; the topic was magnetism, and Halley’s work on charts of the same. Which might be of great use to navigators at sea, certainly—just not of use to Galen.
Be patient, he told himself, and put down the hand that wanted to fidget with the cuff of the opposite sleeve. This is only one meeting. The impatience that plagued him at Mrs. Vesey’s had returned; his heart kept beating faster, his breath shallowing, as he thought of his purpose. What did he care, if some laborer had grown extraordinary tumors on his head? No doubt it was a great inconvenience to the laborer himself, and Galen mustered what sympathy he could, but that sentiment was in short supply.
By the time one of the Fellows produced a stone dug up by the New River Company, in which Galen could see no interest or value at all, he was nearly beside himself with impatience. Fortunately—but also frustratingly—that seemed to be the end of the evening’s business. After ordering thanks to the man who presented the rock, the Society broke up, leaving Galen afraid that his inspired suggestion was, in fact, a waste of time.
But there was more to the Society than merely its lectures. The real wealth was the members, whose interests ranged across every field of philosophical inquiry. If there was help to be found, it would be among them—and that meant Galen must not leave yet. Bowing to his father, he said, “I thank you, sir, for bringing me here tonight. I should like to stay a while longer; there are gentlemen I would like to speak with.”
St. Clair grunted. “Hire a chair, not a carriage.” And with that miserly advice, he took his leave.
Drawing in a deep breath, Galen squared his shoulders and surveyed the room. His best prospect was a man he had greeted before the meeting, the closest of his father’s acquaintances here. Galen approached before he could grow too nervous. “Dr. Andrews, if I might trouble you for a moment?”
The doctor was an older gentleman, almost the inverse of Galen’s father: pale instead of ruddy, thin instead of stout, thanks to long illness. “Yes, Mr. St. Clair?”
“That reference to Dr. Halley’s work made me think—did I not read something in the Gentleman’s Magazine a while ago, regarding some predicted return of a comet?”
Andrews gestured to the front of the room. “There, Mr. St. Clair, is the man to ask: Lord Macclesfield is twenty times the astronomer that I am.”
Galen felt like he’d swallowed that supposedly interesting rock. Though the St. Clairs might be a good family, they were nowhere near the rank of the Society’s President, the Earl of Macclesfield. When he formed his intention to speak with men here, he hadn’t aimed that high.
“Come,” Andrews said. “I will introduce you.” When he moved, Galen had no choice but to follow.
The earl was in conversation with another man, but turned as Andrews approached. “My lord, may I introduce to you Mr. Galen St. Clair?”
Galen bowed deeply as Andrews presented him to the earl and to Lord Charles Cavendish, the Vice-President of the Society. Then the doctor said, “Mr. St. Clair was inquiring about this comet business.”
A look of mingled pity and annoyance crossed the earl’s face. “I could damn that Benjamin Martin to the depths of Hell—yes, and John Wesley, too—for filling people’s heads with such fears. No, my boy, the Earth will not pass through the cometary tail on the twelfth of May. And even if it did, there is no reason to suppose it would result in the end of the world. While Halley may have suggested that a comet was the cause of the Deluge, it does not necessarily follow that his comet will be of equal consequence.”
Galen cursed his fair skin, which advertised his slightest embarrassment to all the world. “My lord . . . that was not the intent of my query.”
“Oh.” Macclesfield’s expression was the stuff of comedy. “My apologies, Mr. St. Clair. What did you wish to know?”
Whereupon Galen realized he’d failed to prepare anything like a coherent question. “I—that is—the state of affairs regarding the comet, my lord; the expectation of its return, the preparation for sighting it, anything about the nature of cometary bodies that was not known in Halley’s time . . .” Anything we might use to keep the Dragon upon its chariot, such that it cannot come down to plague us once more. Segraine had tried this, but fifty years ago. Surely astronomers had learned new things since then.
The earl sighed. “Truth be told, Mr. St. Clair, I fear the French will steal a march on us where the comet is concerned. I’ve spoken to Bradley at the Royal Observatory, but at the moment his attention is much occupied with other matters. The most crucial issue, of course, is the timing of the comet’s perihelion—”
“Its closest approach to the sun,” Cavendish supplied.
Galen covered his irritation with a smile. “I am familiar with the term.”
“Good!” Macclesfield said. “And also with Newton’s Principia?”
“In principle, my lord,” Galen said, drawing scattered laughter at his pun, “but not in application. I am no great mathematician.”
“But you know the ideas. The problem is one of gravitation: the comet’s progress will be retarded by its approach near Jupiter and Saturn. And the equations to calculate that, sir, are devilishly hard.”
Hard, but not impossible. The fae had undertaken it already, out of necessity; in fact, that had been the major work of Galen’s predecessor. Perihelion would occur in March of 1759. Their danger, however, might arrive sooner.
“Is Mr. Bradley likely to search for the comet when it comes?” Galen asked. In the best opinion of Wrain, one of the Onyx Hall’s faerie scholars, observation would be their doom: just as the beast had been exiled via telescope, so would it return. It had taken special equipment to banish the creature against its will, but ordinary lenses and mirrors might suffice to draw it back down. And the Astronomer Royal, with his superior instruments, stood the greatest chance of sighting the comet early, at least in England.
“No doubt he will,” Macclesfield said carelessly, “but as I said, he has other things on his mind.”
Cavendish asked then after Bradley’s health, which was not good, and the conversation moved on from there. Disappointed, but mindful of his duty, Galen took a moment to draw Dr. Andrews aside. “Thank you, sir, for that introduction.”
“Not at all,” Andrews said. “It pleases me to see you take an interest in such matters, Mr. St. Clair. Do you intend to go on attending our meetings?”
Galen couldn’t hide his wince. “As much as I may, Dr. Andrews. Dependent upon the goodwill of my father.”
He didn’t have to say any more. Andrews and his father were acquaintances, not close friends; the man had treated Charles St. Clair for gout, before his own illness forced him to retire from active practice. Their degree of familiarity was enough for Andrews to understand, and not enough for him to take offense. “I see. If you would like, Mr. St. Clair, I could serve as your patron in his stead; I attend every week, and would be more than happy to aid you in the same.”
Gratitude warmed Galen to the soles of his feet. “I would be much obliged to you, sir.”
“Then it is easily done,” Andrews said. “I will write to him tomorrow.”
Red Lion Square, Holborn: November 11, 1757
The hackney carriage circled the green lawn in the center of Red Lion Square and rattled to a halt in front of No. 17. The coachman leapt down to open the door, and a tall gentleman in a sober red coat stepped out with a graceful motion, then turned back, one hand extended to help his lady companion maneuver her skirts out the narrow portal.
She needed the help. The false hips that bulked out her dress to either side had been folded up like wings to fit her into the carriage, and now impeded her ability to reach the gentleman’s hand. When she twitched her cloak out of the way to ensure a secure footing on the step, the quilted dimity of her gown caught against the frame of the door. The coachman saved it before it could tear, and with a stumble and an unladylike curse, she was free.
While her companion paid their fare, the young woman sorted her skirts and cloak back into something resembling order. And then they were alone, and Irrith had the freedom to be herself for a moment, rather than the meek mortal girl she was impersonating—and badly at that. “How in the name of Ash and Thorn does anyone manage these things?”
Segraine shrugged, looking every inch the gentleman. “Practice, I presume.”
“Right. Just as you winning our bet was ‘luck.’ There’s magic in both, I’m sure of it.”
The lady knight’s grin was fleeting. Irrith was convinced her friend had cheated at dice, but her best efforts had failed to catch it happening. As a result, she was the one wrestling with yards of fabric and undergarment architecture that would do a cathedral proud, while Segraine got to play the role of her indulgent elder brother, bringing her to see the Marvelous Menagerie.
Which apparently dwelt behind the innocent facade of No. 17 Red Lion Square. The house was like any other in the row: three stories of red brick, with a servant’s attic above and cellars below, and to Irrith’s eye indistinguishable from a thousand others they’d rattled past on their way out of the City. Horsemen rode through the square, on their way to important business no doubt, dodging past a handful of carriages and sedan chairs, scattering folk on foot as they went.
Arranging this visit had taken far longer than it should. The proprietor of the Marvelous Menagerie had been ill this last month—or so his butler claimed—and only now recovered enough to do business. Lune had forbidden them to break in without evidence of a real satyr, and so they’d been forced to wait. But now that the time had come, Irrith was reluctant. She eyed the blue-painted door as if it were the maw of a beast, waiting to swallow her. “Shall we go in?” Segraine asked.
Irrith took a deep breath. “Whatever we find in there—it isn’t as if he’ll know what we are. So we’re quite safe.”
“Quite,” her friend agreed.
They stood a moment longer on the hard-packed dirt of the street. Then Segraine said in a breezy voice, “Come along then, Pru; you were the one who wanted to see the Oronuto savage,” and strode across to the house.
Irrith followed with as much grace as she could manage. Segraine rapped smartly on the door, then waited with her hands folded behind her back. When a footman opened the door, she announced, “Mr. Theodore Dinley and Miss Prudence Dinley. We have an appointment with Dr. Andrews.”
“Yes, sir, you are expected.” The footman bowed them in, took their cloaks, and led them upstairs to the drawing room. Irrith had little to compare it to, but it seemed an odd place; the furnishings were sparse, leaving one half of the room entirely empty except for the carpet upon the floor. This, she supposed, was where Dr. Andrews conducted his exhibition.
Andrews himself came in a moment later. Seeing him, Irrith had to believe the reports of his illness; he was pale, with a hectic flush about his eyes. Old enough to look right in his gray wig, and thin as a birch tree, he could have dropped dead on the spot and she wouldn’t have been surprised. But he greeted them with pleasant composure, shaking Segraine’s hand and bowing over Irrith’s. “I am delighted to welcome you to my exhibition. You understand, of course—this is no simple spectacle for the common people. I am a scholar, and I aim to share with those of discerning minds the many wondrous permutations the world holds. Please, be seated. The display will begin momentarily. Would you like some coffee?”
One servant poured for them while another drew the drapes, leaving them in semidarkness. Candelabras illuminated the bare space where the specimens were to stand. Irrith accepted her bowl of coffee with a grimace. In her opinion, the stuff was only slightly better than gin.
The first marvel to come out, disappointingly, was not even alive. “A mummified pygmy of the African continent,” Dr. Andrews said, and began to drone on about its conformation. Irrith peered at it, wondering if it might have once been a faerie, but no; it seemed that humans really did grow that small.
The Oronuto savage came in next. The dramatic candlelight of the shadowed drawing room seemed designed to give his pitch-black skin and foreign features a sinister air, but the man himself seemed bored, and went out quickly when dismissed. He was followed by more preserved specimens, these not even of entire bodies but only pieces, and Dr. Andrews forever looking to Miss Prudence Dinley to see if she was about to faint. Irrith peered with gruesome curiosity at a skull with a hole cut into it—according to Dr. Andrews, while the owner was still alive.
Large sketches accompanied the young Red Indian sisters, who like the Oronuto were clothed according to their native practices, with some allowances for English sensibilities. The sketches depicted other pairs of twins born with body parts stuck together, and Dr. Andrews lifted the drape that covered the sisters’ hips to show his audience that their strange, awkward manner of walking, with their arms about each others’ waists, was no mountebank’s trick; their flesh truly did meld together. Segraine poked it with one finger just to be sure.
And finally, just when Irrith had almost forgotten their purpose there, a servant ushered in the Olympian satyr.
Her bones melted in relief. The sickly creature who limped to the center of the floor was no satyr, and had probably never been closer to Greece than the south bank of the Thames. His ginger hair made him look more like an Irishman. But there was something odd about his gait, and when Irrith looked more closely, she saw there was a strange deformity in his stocking-less lower legs, clearly visible below the button of his breeches.
Deformity, but no goat fur; they were done. Segraine, however, had more concern than Irrith for their Dinley personas, and showed no sign of leaving. Dr. Andrews steadied the ginger man in front of them and began to explain about the warped bones of his legs.
“Pardon me, Dr. Andrews,” Irrith said, interrupting him. If they weren’t leaving yet, she might as well have some fun. “Is this what you advertise as an Olympian satyr? I was expecting goat hooves, panpipes—that sort of thing.” Fauns were the ones with goat hooves; according to Ktistes, satyrs had human feet. But it sounded better this way.
Dr. Andrews looked disgruntled. “My apologies, Miss Dinley. I’m afraid the advertisement you saw is the work of a man I hired, who persuaded me that such language is necessary to attract attention. Were it not for him, I assure you I would have described this fellow in more scholarly terms.”
“So he isn’t a satyr.”
Evidently the good doctor saw the specter of disappearing profits looming near. He hastened to say, “As it happens, Miss Dinley, I think he may be—in a manner of speaking. The orgiastic behaviors attributed to the satyr in the art of the Greeks and Romans may well be an echo of the practices of those two societies, but why the description of goatish features? I theorize that it owes something to deformities such as those seen here: just as the myth of centaurs may have arisen from a race of horse-mounted men, so may instances of this deformity have become the basis for an entire race of goatish creatures, upon whom men laid the burden of their own licentious behavior.”
“So you don’t think there’s any such thing as a real satyr.” She tried very hard to keep the laugh out of her voice.
“Miss Dinley,” Andrews said in a condescending voice, “I traveled Italy and Greece as a young man, and saw no such creatures. This is the closest I have come.” He gestured at the poor, forgotten man beside him.
Irrith blinked innocently. “But just because you never saw them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Segraine intervened before Irrith got a chance to find out what kind of annoyance she could provoke. “Come, Pru; we’ve taken up enough of the good doctor’s time.”
Sighing, Irrith gave in. “Very well, Teddy. I’m famished anyway. We’ve seen the satyr; now I want my dinner.”
Segraine gave Dr. Andrews their polite thanks, and accepted his offer to send a man for a carriage. Once Irrith was safely inside, skirts and all, she said, “Wouldn’t it be something if we sent Ktistes in to prance all over his fancy carpets?”
“It would be something,” her friend agreed, “but nothing good. Let’s go back; the Queen is waiting for our report.”
The Onyx Hall, London: November 11, 1757
“Weekly meetings,” Galen said, “and I shall attend as many as I can. I fear the time itself will be less than fruitful, unless the quality of presentations improves greatly—”
“But it is worth it, for gaining the acquaintance of the men there.” Lune nodded. “I would be very much surprised if anyone were to stand up and deliver a lecture that contains the solution to our problem, tied up with a bow.”
Harpsichord music formed a pleasant background to their conversation, Lune’s attendant Nemette playing for her mistress’s relaxation. Various other ladies sat at their leisure, playing backgammon or embroidering; one fed bits of candied fruit to a human child. With some of them, he knew, the distraction was a mask. The Queen’s ladies of the bedchamber were not merely for decoration; she made excellent use of them in her political negotiations with other courts. But some of them, he suspected, paid little attention to anything that went on around them.
A knock at the door brought Lady Yfaen to her feet. She spoke briefly to someone outside, then turned to curtsey. “Dame Segraine and Dame Irrith, your Majesty, returned from Red Lion Square.”
“Send them in.” Lune set down the fan she had been toying with and straightened in her chair.
The two had dropped their mortal glamours, leaving behind clothes suitable for their visit above. Masculine garb was a common sight on Segraine, though usually not so fine. But the delicate sprite at her side . . .
The muddy, sharp-tongued creature he’d brought in to see Lune last month had vanished. In her place stood a modest young lady in stays and skirts, her auburn hair neatly pinned up beneath a lace-edged cap, with two curls escaping to dance above her shoulders. The gown, Galen thought, belonged to Nemette; he’d seen that pattern of peonies and bees before. Irrith looked startlingly demure.
At least until the Queen said, “Sun and Moon—I almost did not recognize you,” and Irrith snorted in a manner decidedly at odds with her attire.
“Lost my bet with Segraine,” the sprite muttered, and smacked one false hip with her palm, setting the whole structure rocking.
“I am the taller of us two,” the lady knight said tranquilly, though a smile lurked at the edges of her mouth. “It would have looked odd for you to play the part of my brother.”
“Glamours can cover that, as you know very well. Your Majesty,” Irrith went on, as if eager to escape and change her attire, “the Marvelous Menagerie has nothing of faerie in it. Dr. Andrews says someone else wrote that handbill, to bring audiences in.”
Galen straightened. “Did you say Dr. Andrews?”
Lune raised her delicately arched eyebrows. “You know him?”
“An acquaintance of my father’s, who has offered to be my patron in visiting the Royal Society. That menagerie you went to was his?” They hadn’t mentioned the name, only the location.
“There might be two Dr. Andrews in London,” Irrith answered, shrugging. “This one looked like he had one foot in the grave.”
Blunt, but not inaccurate. “Indeed—he’s a consumptive. I fear his health is very poor indeed.”
“Could he be of use?” Lune asked.
The idea had already occurred to him. Galen bit his thumbnail in thought—a habit his mother had tried and failed to break him of. “I confess, when I thought of the Royal Society, I was considering astronomers more than anything. But I’m not certain they can do much for us; it seems unlikely there’s any effective way to trap the Dragon upon its comet. Which means we are looking for some means to defeat it on the ground. Dr. Andrews is a physician, and also perhaps something of a chemist—well, intellectual men learn about all kinds of things, and I imagine he’s no different. His primary learning, however, is in medicine.”
The Queen folded her fan one stick at a time, fingers trailing over the edge. “It would not be the first time a physician’s been of use to us. My preference, I admit, would be to kill the Dragon; at this point it seems the only way to ensure it never troubles us again. And perhaps this Dr. Andrews might know something that could help.”
“He seemed pretty clever, madam,” Irrith said, with a curtsy that proved she did not often wear so elegant a dress. “And he knows about all kinds of strange things.”
“I will try, madam,” Galen promised the Queen. Visions danced before his mind’s eye: a gathering of fae, like a second Royal Society, and himself standing before them, presenting a scientific plan for the slaying of the Dragon. He would never be able to ride at it in armor, lance in hand, like a hero of old—but this, he could do.
And then Lune would look at him, and those silver eyes would warm, and then—
Irrith was watching him. Suddenly afraid that his thoughts were showing on his face, Galen blushed and took his leave. Dreams of heroism did no one any good if he did not put them to action.
Copyright © 2010 by Bryn Neuenschwander
All rights reserved.