Aug 1 2014 1:00pm
The Midnight Queen (Excerpt)
Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power.
He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.
Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety.
Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed...
Check out Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s The Midnight Queen, available September 2nd from Ace!
If the library of Callender Hall contained any clue to the Professor’s intentions, or to Lord Carteret’s ciphers or the identity of the Mmentioned in the latter’s diary, Gray had not succeeded in finding it; nor, so far as his numerous and fervent searches could determine, did the library contain a copy of the Sapientia Delphi. Having, at some risk of discovery by Mrs. Wallis and the housemaids, returned to rifle the Professor’s study once more and, finding no further evidence of wrongdoing, dared his bedchamber as well with exactly the same result, Gray had not held out much hope of the library in any case.
He had, however, discovered a quick and enthusiastic pupil in Sophie, and there was some small consolation in knowing that for the first time since his arrival at Callender Hall, he could be of genuine use to someone.
One morning after breakfast, when the Professor and Amelia were gone to call upon a neighbour and Gray was balancing on a milking-stool, doing battle with some especially vicious species of beetle for dominion over Pellan’s beloved climbing roses, Sophie emerged from the house, carrying in her arms a large codex bound in faded green leather, and took up a station on the bench beneath the rose-arbour.
Gray winced as a dead beetle fell onto a verso page; Sophie, unperturbed, brushed it away.
“Listen to this passage, Gray,” she said. “Gaius Aegidius was rather tiresome in life, I suspect, but this fellow must have been perfectly insufferable!”
Gray granted himself a momentary respite from the beetles to listen. Alas, he recognised the style before she had read a dozen words. “I see you have discovered Xanthus Marinus,” he said.
The beetles, he decided, were much to be preferred; Xanthus Marinus called to mind subjects he had rather not dwell upon.
Gray had received his first-class degree amidst theproud families of his year-mates—Convocation being one of the few days in the year when even female guests are welcomed indiscriminately into the closely guarded preserve of Merlin College—and the resounding absence of his own. In the pocket of his new Mag.B. gown reposed a letter from his sisters, which he had read and reread, taking some comfort from their evident pride in his achievements, but troubled by Jenny’s news that she was soon to be married to a wealthy Breton nobleman more than a dozen years her senior. It is a good match,she assured him, but Gray, reading between the lines, could see that, thus far at least, the affection was all on one side.
He had begged leave to return home for part of the Long Vac., and received from his father, via his mother, grudging assent to a fortnight’s visit. He had been eager to see Jenny and Celia, relieved to learn that George would be from home nearly all the summer; he had pretended quite successfully, he thought, that his father’s refusal to speak to him caused him no pain.
Master Alcuin—who, having no wife or children to call him elsewhere, spent most of his time in College, among his books—had called on Gray in his rooms the week after Midsummer. A full circle of the College grounds at last brought him to the point: that Gray, if he was to continue his studies, must do so with some other, more senior tutor.
“You have already learnt much of what I can teach you,” he said.
“Have you a recommendation, then, Magister?” Gray inquired.
“I have several,” said Master Alcuin. “But it does not signify; such decisions are taken by the Registrar, as you well know. You are to study with Appius Callender.”
“That p-p-pompous old—”
“Guard your tongue,” the older man hissed fiercely.
This, as it turned out, was wise counsel indeed, and Gray now rather wished he had better heeded it.
He had approached the first meeting with his graduate tutor with trepidation. With Master Alcuin he had achieved a happy sort of harmony, but while Everard Alcuin was the sort to let the teakettle boil dry or miss dinner in hall because he had become involved in translating some obscure text and lost track of time, Appius Callender’s reputation was of an influential man, well connected outside the University.
Their acquaintance did not begin well. Gray, anxious to make a good impression, took care to put on a fresh neck-cloth, straighten his hair, and mend an unaccountable rent in his gown; as a result, however, he was late in presenting himself—by less than a quarter-hour, which Master Alcuin would scarcely have remarked—and the Professor greeted his arrival with a disapproving glare.
“Marshall, is it?” he said, and, consulting a notice from the Registrar, “A student of that reprobate Alcuin’s. Of course. Well, Mr. Marshall, you will find that we do things differently here. At the very least, a student at your level might be expected to understand the importance of punctuality—do you not agree?”
“Y-y-yes, sir,” said Gray miserably. “I am sorry, sir.”
The two other graduates already seated in the Professor’s study were introduced as Henry Taylor and Alfric Woodville. Both were well known to Gray by reputation—Woodville being much in demand as a forger of extraordinary furloughs and letters lamenting the imminent deaths of elderly relatives, and Taylor renowned as a special protégé of Professor Callender’s. And both, it transpired, had studied with the Professor since matriculating to Merlin. As the session proceeded, Gray wondered how the latter could endure their sycophantic replies to his every utterance; he soon learnt, however, that such was exactly what the Professor expected—nay, required—of his students.
He had never thereafter, perhaps unfortunately, learnt to march quite in step with Taylor and Woodville.
At a second meeting, Gray had been strenuously interviewed and thoroughly dressed down by his new tutor; despite having recently sat a rigorous set of examinations and passed them with the highest possible honours, he was made to feel inadequately trained and insufficiently well read.
“You have not studied Xanthus Marinus?” the Professor repeated, incredulous.
“X-x-xanthus Marinus?” Gray stammered, riffling through the closely written pages of his memory. What he found, at last, might better have been left unsaid: “D-do not most modern thinkers b-b-believe his ideas to have been superseded by—”
“Ha!” Professor Callender cut him off with a scathing bark of laughter. In a tone Gray later came to know all too well, he said, “You must learn to walk, Mr. Marshall, before you aspire to run.”
Gray had briefly demonstrated his proudest achievement—the flawless and nearly effortless shape-shift—and ventured to note that he could now sustain it for half a day without ill effects. The working which had so impressed his Baccalaureate examiners that, to a man, they rose to their feet and applauded its astonished author, the Professor had at once pronounced a foolish, frivolous waste of magick.
“I shall tell you,” Gray said to Sophie, shaking his head irritably as though he could thus erase Appius Callender’s contempt, “what there is to be learnt from Xanthus Marinus: that a man of little talent may deprecate in another, achievements which he cannot match himself.”
And Sophie, turning on him that sharply appraising gaze by means of which both she and Joanna occasionally made him feel thoroughly so wrong-footed, said, “The Professor thinks very highly of Xanthus Marinus, I suppose?”
Gray sighed. “If you will come to the library tonight,” he said, “I shall bring you something more worth your trouble.”
Not a se’nnight later, Gray was descending the staircase, bound for his afternoon’s labours, when the sound of raised voices drew him to the large drawing-room. He ducked in through the door at the south end of the room just in time to hear Sophie say, “Yes, Father, I did read them. And not only those.”
Father and daughter faced each other squarely at the drawing-room’s north end; Sophie’s expression was mutinous, the Professor’s verging on apoplectic.
“Sophia, these books are deeply unsuitable reading for a young woman,” said the Professor.
“My mother read such books.”
“So she did. You would do well to remember what became of her.”
And what didbecome of her? wondered Gray.
“I am most surprised at this underhanded behaviour, Sophia,” the Professor went on—and looked it. Evidently he knew his own daughters no better than he knew his students. “Whatever did you mean by it?”
“I meant to learnsomething,” Sophie said, impatient. “Something else than embroidery or dancing, or playing pretty tunes on the pianoforte. I am not a decorative object, Father. I have an intellect, also, and I wish to make good use of it.”
Gray had seldom seen the Professor look more outraged.
“That you should undertake to decide such a matter—I should not have thought it possible for a daughter of mine to be so insolent—and to me!” He paused for breath; the codex with which he had been gesticulating also came momentarily to rest, and Gray, dismayed, saw that it was the copy of De Consolatione Magicæ that he had given Sophie to restore her faith in scholarship after her encounter with Xanthus Marinus. Had she forgotten it in the library? Or been reckless enough to carry it about the house with her when her father was at home?
“And the foolishness…” the Professor continued. “Well: I have been too trusting. Henceforth, Sophia, the library doors will be locked at all times, and the keys in my own care, and you shall not speak to Mr. Marshall unless I or one of your sisters is present.”
The Professor gave a great sigh. “I must accept the responsibility,” he said, with exaggerated patience. “I have allowed you unreasonable freedom, and have let a Breton peasant have the raising of you, and this is the consequence. Perhaps it was unwise to allow a person of Marshall’s character into my home—”
“I will thank you to leave Mr. Marshall’s character out of this!” Sophie cut him off. “I had been reading unsuitablebooks for years before ever I met him. The worst that can be said of Gray is that he has some respect for my intellect.”
For shame! said a voice in Gray’s mind. Will you let her defend you, and stand silent?He started forward, determined to say something—anything—in Sophie’s defence, but she was speaking again, dark eyes narrowed in her pale face. “What is it you imagine will become of me, if—”
This time the Professor cut her off. “This is all done for your good, Sophia,” he said, “as you will appreciate one day. If you hope ever to quit my home for one of your own, you would do well to learn womanly submission.” He turned sharply and strode out of the drawing-room by the north door, calling for Gwenaëlle to fetch Miss Callender, Mrs. Wallis, and his hat and gloves.
“Amelia!” he was heard to demand. “Where is Morvan with the carriage?” And a moment later, “Mrs. Wallis, Miss Sophia is to be confined to her room until I decide otherwise, and on no account is to be permitted to communicate with Mr. Marshall. I shall deal with both of them tomorrow.”
Gray heard, but did not catch, the housekeeper’s murmured reply; he was watching Sophie, who clearly—far from having learnt submission, womanly or otherwise—was consumed with fury. Her hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists; her hair seemed to crackle with energy. Gray could hear her rapid breathing. His every hair rose on end; he struggled for breath in the suddenly airless room, feeling dizzy and sick; there was a roaring in his ears, and dark blots swam before his eyes.
He heard a sort of shimmering, shattering sound; then small sharp pains freckled the right side of his face and neck, his arm, his ribs. Something trickled down his face; he put a hand to his temple and brought it away wet with blood. A breeze, briefly gentle but growing more savage, jostled the potted plants and curios that cluttered the room. The sound came again, and again, louder and louder; at last Gray saw that the drawing-room windows were bursting inward, each more violently than the one before. Sophie, oblivious and rigid with fury, was perfectly aligned with the last, northernmost window when a horrified Gray hurled himself at her, knocking her to the floor.
The Midnight Queen © Sylvia Izzo Hunter, 2014