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Gresham College, London: June 20, 1705
The small chamber was nearly unbearable in the warmth of an early summer day. Soon many of the men gathered there would depart for their country estates, away from the stinks of London, but for now they filled the rows of chairs facing the speaker at the front of the room. Some listened with interest to the letters being read, an exchange between two gentlemen regarding the island of Formosa; others fanned themselves futilely with whatever papers came to hand, wishing they dared to nod off. But the gimlet eye of their president was upon them, and though Sir Isaac Newton might be more than sixty years old, age had not slowed him in the least, nor dulled the sharp edge of his tongue.
They gave an impression of agreeable uniformity in their somber-colored coats, so very different from the young gallants of London’s beau monde who took every opportunity to quarrel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nullius in verba was their motto: on the words of no one. This was the temple of facts, of careful observation and even more careful reasoning; the men of the Royal Society of London, the premier scientific body of the Kingdom of England, were no respecters of ancient authority. They respected only Truth. And when they found themselves in disagreement as to what that Truth was, their arguments could grow very heated indeed.
But there was little to argue in the second piece of that day’s business, presented by Oxford’s new Savilian Professor of Astronomy. In all honesty, hardly any men there had the capacity to debate it; the proof hinged on Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which fewer of them understood than pretended to. Edmond Halley’s calculus therefore meant little to them. The fundamental point, however, was clear.
The orbit of a comet was not a parabola, but an ellipsis. And that meant that a comet, having departed from view, would in the fullness of time return.
A point that held rather a high degree of interest for two members of Halley’s audience.
“The measurements made by Flamsteed at Greenwich in 1682 are exceptionally precise,” the professor said, with a nod that acknowledged the contributions of the absent Astronomer Royal. “They provide us with a basis for examining the less-precise accounts of cometary apparitions in the past — 1607, 1531, 1456, and so on.”
Back to the days of the Stuart kings, and the Tudors, and the Lancastrians. Many here today remembered the comet twenty-three years before, but a man’s beard would have to be grey indeed for him to have seen any of the others Halley named.
The one member of his audience who could claim that distinction had no beard at all. He was a young gallant more often found haunting the halls of London’s fencing masters, and his friends would have been surprised to see him in such sober costume, attending with hawklike intensity to the dull minutiae of astronomical mathematics.
Though not half so surprised as they would have been, had they ever seen their friend’s true face.
“A question, if you please,” the gallant said, interrupting Halley’s presentation of his Astronomiae cometicae synopsis, and drawing a swift frown from Newton. “Could anything divert the comet from its path?”
The Savilian Professor’s well-rehearsed presentation faltered. “I beg your pardon?”
“You say the comet travels far away from the sun, returning only every seventy-five years, or seventy-six. Could anything prevent that return, sending it out into space?”
Halley’s mouth opened and shut several times without anything coming out. “I suppose,” he said at last, with bewildered uncertainty, “that a large mass might exert gravitational force upon the cometary body, perturbing its path such that the return would not occur as expected. But to make it depart entirely…why, sir, would you be concerned with such a thing?”
Now all eyes in the room were upon the gallant — save for those belonging to Lord Joseph Winslow, who’d brought him there as a guest. Winslow had a most peculiar expression on his face, as if he wished dearly that his companion had not interrupted with such a bizarre question . . . but he also craved Halley’s answer.
“It seems to me,” the young gallant said, “that the eccentric wanderings of such a body might pose a danger to us here.”
A startled voice came from elsewhere in the audience. “If the orbits aligned unfavorably — could a comet strike the Earth?”
“Nonsense.” Newton’s sharp reply cut them all off like a blade. “The Lord designed the heavens to His purpose; if it should come to pass that anything in them brings calamity to the Earth — as may have occurred at the Deluge — then it will likewise be the Lord’s will. We may conclude, therefore, that there is no need for diversion of a comet’s path.”
The gallant was brave indeed, for he pressed his point, even in the face of Newton’s displeasure. “But what of smaller threats? Have not natural disasters been ascribed to the influence of comets? If one should –”
“Enough of this.” The President of the Royal Society stood, glaring at Winslow’s guest. “Comets are mechanical bodies, obeying the laws of motion and universal gravitation; if they have any effect beyond that, it is beneficial, distributing vapors that fuel the processes of vegetation and putrefaction on Earth, and perhaps supplying the spiritous component of air. Your fears are foolish, and you will waste no more of our time with them.”
Sir Isaac Newton had a piercing eye; but so, too, did the young gallant. He stood, not breaking his gaze from the great man’s, and made a curt bow before exiting the room. Winslow murmured his apologies and followed.
Pacing at the base of the stairs outside, the gallant growled a string of curses. “It isn’t the will of his divine Master — it’s our doing, and our fault.”
“I wouldn’t tell Sir Isaac that,” Winslow said, trying for a hint of humour. “He isn’t likely to believe you if you tell him there’s a Dragon on that comet, and a bunch of faeries put it there.”
Dragon. A word not often spoken in the enlightened halls of Gresham College. Neither was the word faerie, and yet here she stood: Dame Segraine of the Onyx Court, lady knight to a faerie queen, come in masculine and mortal guise to confirm the warning they’d received.
She put one hand on the corner post of the wall at her side. The architecture was old; this building hadn’t burned in the Great Fire of 1666. It was one of the few that hadn’t. Flames had consumed four-fifths of the land within London’s walls, and some of the land without them, while the mortal inhabitants of the city fought to stop their progress.
One of two battles that raged during those infernal days. The other was between the city’s faerie inhabitants, and the spirit of the Fire itself: a Dragon.
Which, in 1682, they exiled to a star in the sky — not knowing that the star would return.
Inside the chambers of the Royal Society, Edmond Halley was concluding his presentation, saying, “I advise posterity to watch for it most carefully in the year 1758, at which time may science be vindicated in its prophecy.”
“We have fifty-three years,” Winslow said to Dame Segraine. “Thanks to your Irish seer, we’ve been alerted to Halley’s work, and its consequence for us. We have time to prepare.”
And prepare they must — for without a doubt, their banished enemy had not forgotten them. Whether from a desire for vengeance or simple ravening hunger, it would seek out the meat it had before.
Fifty-three years. As Winslow opened the door to the quadrangle of Gresham College, Dame Segraine murmured, “I hope that will be enough.”
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 clamour 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 grey 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 accouterments 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 fairies 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 fairies?”
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 fairies, 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 demons 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 fairies, 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 this 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. Fairies 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 candle-lit 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.