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The Midnight Bargain

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The Midnight Bargain

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Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Erewhon Books, 2020

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Fantasy of Manners
Romantic Fantasy
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(33 reads / 14 ratings)


Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice's first kiss... with her adversary's brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries - even for love - she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?


Chapter One

The carriage drew closer to Bookseller's Row, and Beatrice Clayborn drew in a hopeful breath before she cast her spell. Head high, spine straight, she hid her hands in her pockets and curled her fingers into mystic signs as the fiacre jostled over green cobblestones. She had been in Bendleton three days, and while its elegant buildings and clean streets were the prettiest trap anyone could step into, Beatrice would have given anything to be somewhere else-anywhere but here, at the beginning of bargaining season.

She breathed out the seeking tendrils of her spell, touching each of the shop fronts. If a miracle rushed over her skin and prickled at her ears--

But there was nothing. Not a glimmer; not even an itch. They passed The Rook's Tower Books, P. T. Williams and Sons, and the celebrated House of Verdeu, which filled a full third of a block with all its volumes.

Beatrice let out a sigh. No miracle. No freedom. No hope. But when they rounded the corner from Bookseller's Row to a narrow gray lane with no name, Beatrice's spell bloomed in response. There. A grimoire! There was no way to know what it contained, but she smiled up at the sky as she pulled on the bell next to her seat.

"Driver, stop." She slid forward on the fiacre's padded seat, ready to jump into the street by herself. "Clara, can you complete the fitting for me?"

"Miss Beatrice, you mustn't." Clara clutched at Beatrice's wrist. "It should be you."

"You're exactly my size. It won't matter," Beatrice said. "Besides, you're better at the color and trimmings and such. I'll just be a few minutes, I promise."

Her maid-companion shook her head. "You mustn't miss your appointment at the chapterhouse. I cannot stand in for you when you meet Danton Maisonette the way I can at the dressmakers."

Beatrice was not going to let that book slip out of her grasp. She patted Clara's hand and wriggled loose. "I'll be there in time, Clara. I promise I won't miss it. I just need to buy a book."

Clara tilted her head. "Why this place?"

"I wrote to them," Beatrice lied. "Finding it is a stroke of luck. I won't be ten minutes."

Clara sighed and loosed her grip on Beatrice's wrist. "Very well."

The driver moved to assist, but Beatrice vaulted to the street, tightlaced stays and all, and waved them off. "Thank you. Go!"

She pivoted on one delicate pillar-heeled shoe and regarded the storefront. Harriman's was precisely the kind of bookstore Beatrice sought every time she was in a new town: the ones run by people who couldn't bear to throw books away no matter what was inside the covers, so long as they could be stacked and shelved and housed. Beatrice peered through the windows, reveling at the pang within her senses that set her ears alert and tingling, their spell signaling that a grimoire awaited among the clutter. She hadn't found a new one in months.

The doorbell jingled as Beatrice crossed into the book-keeper's domain. Harriman's! O dust and ink and leather binding, o map-scrolls and star-prints and poetry chapbooks--and the grimoire, somewhere within! She directed her smile at the clerk in shirtsleeves and weskit waiting at the front counter.

"Just having a browse," she said, and moved past without inviting further conversation. Beatrice followed her prickling thumbs between stacks of books and laden shelves. She breathed in old paper and the thin rain-on-green-stones scent of magic, looking not for respectable novels or seemly poetry, but for the authors certain young women never even dared whisper to each other in the powder rooms and parlors of society--the writers of the secret grimoires.

It was here! But it wouldn't do to be too hasty, to follow the pull of her senses toward the stack where the volume rested, its spine bearing an author name like John Estlin Churchman, or J. C. Everworth, or perhaps E. James Curtfield. The authors always bore those initials on all of the books in her modest collection, stored away from curious eyes. The clerk might wonder at how she knew exactly where to find the book she wanted in all this jumble. She browsed through literature, in history, and even in the occult sections where other patrons would eye her with disapproval, because the realm of magic was not suitable territory for a woman of a certain youth.

Just thinking of her exclusion made Beatrice's scalp heat. For women, magic was the solitary pursuit of widows and crones, not for the woman whose most noble usefulness was still intact. The inner doors of the chapterhouse were barred to her, while a man with the right connections could elevate himself through admittance and education among his fellow magicians. Anyone with the talent could see the aura of sorcery shining from Beatrice's head, all the better to produce more magicians for the next generation.

Oh, how she hated it! To be reduced to such a common capability, her magic untrained until some year in her twilight, finally allowed to pursue the only path she cared for? She would not! And so, she sought out the works of J. E. C., who was not a man at all, but a sorceress just like her, who had published a multitude of volumes critics dismissed as incomprehensible.

And they were, to anyone who didn't know the key. But Beatrice had it by heart. When she lifted a dusty edition of Remembrance of the Jyish Coast of Llanandras from the shelf, she opened the cover and whispered the spell that filtered away anything that wasn't the truth hidden among the typesetting, and read:

'To Summon a Greater Spirit and Propose the Pact of the Great Bargain.'

She snapped the book shut and fought the joyful squeak that threatened to escape her. She stood very still and let her heart soar in silence with the book pressed to her chest, breathing in its ink and magic.

This was the grimoire she had needed, after years of searching and secret study. If she summoned the spirit and made an alliance, she would have done what every male initiate from the chapterhouses of sorcery aspired to do. She would be a fully initiated magician.

This was everything she needed. No man would have a woman with such an alliance. Her father would see the benefit of keeping her secret, to use her greater spirit to aid him in his business speculations. She would be free. A Mage. This was her miracle.

She'd never leave her family home, but that didn't matter. She could be the son Father never had, while her younger sister Harriet could have the bargaining season Beatrice didn't want. Harriet would have the husband she daydreamed about, while Beatrice would continue her studies uninterrupted by marriage.

She stepped back and pivoted away from the shelf, and nearly collided with another customer of Harriman's. They jumped back from each other, exclaiming in surprise, then stared at each other in consternation.

Beatrice beheld a Llanandari woman who stood tall and slim in an saffron satin-woven cotton mantua, the under-gown scattered all over with vibrant tropical flowers, the elbow-length sleeves erupting in delicate, hand-hooked lace. Hooked lace, on a day-gown! She was beautiful, surpassing even the famous reputation of the women of Llanandras. She was blessed with wide brown eyes and deep brown skin, a cloud of tight black curls studded with golden beads, matching a fortune in gold piercing the young woman's ears and even the side of her nose. But what was she doing here? She couldn't be in this affluent seaside retreat away from the capital to hunt a husband just as Beatrice was supposed to be doing. Could she?

She stared at Beatrice with an ever-growing perplexity. Beatrice knew what the young lady found so arresting--the crown of sorcery around Beatrice's head, even brighter than the veil of shimmering light around the woman's. Another sorceress attracted to the call of the grimoire Beatrice clutched to her chest.

"Ysbeta? What has your back like a rod?"

He spoke Llanandari, of course, and Beatrice's tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She knew the language, but she had never spoken it to an actual Llanandari. Her accent would be atrocious; her grammar, clumsy. But she plastered a smile on her face and turned to face the newcomer.

Beatrice beheld the same features as the lady, but in a man's face, and--oh, his eyes were so dark, his hair a tightly curled crown below the radiant aura of a sorcerer, his flawless skin darker than the girl's--Ysbeta, her name was Ysbeta. He was clad in the same gleaming saffron Llanandari cotton, the needlework on his weskit a tribute to spring, a froth of matching lace at his throat. Now both these wealthy, glamorous Llanandari stared at her with the same puzzlement, until the young man's brow cleared and he slapped the woman on the back with a laugh like a chuckling stream.

"Relax, Ysy," he said. "She's in the ingenue's gallery at the chapterhouse. Miss..."

"Beatrice Clayborn. I am pleased to make your acquaintance," Beatrice said, and hardly stumbled at all. This young man, achingly beautiful as he was, had seen her portrait hanging in the ingenue's gallery at the Bendleton chapterhouse. Had studied it long enough to recognize her. He had looked at it long enough to know the angle of her nose, at the shape and color of her eyes, at the peculiar, perpetually autumn-red tint of her frowzy, unruly hair.

Ysbeta eyed the book in Beatrice's grip, her stare as intense as a shout. "I'm Ysbeta Lavan. This is my brother, Ianthe. I see you admire the travelogues of J. E. Churchman." She spoke carefully, a little slowly for the sake of Beatrice's home-taught Llanandari.

"His telling of faraway places enchant me," Beatrice said. "I am sorry for my Llanandari."

"You're doing fine. I'm homesick for Llanandras," Ysbeta said. "That's a rare account of Churchman's, talking about the magical coast where Ianthe and I spent a happy childhood. It would do my understanding of your language some good to read books in your tongue."

"You speak Chasand."

She tilted her head. "A little. You are better at my language than I am at yours."

Flattery, from a woman who knew exactly what Churchman's book was. Beatrice's middle trembled. Ysbeta and her brother walked in the highest circles in the world, accustomed to wealth and power. And Ysbeta's simple statement betraying a feeling of loneliness or nostalgia confessed to an assumed peer were the opening steps of a courteous dance. The next step, the proper, graceful step would be for Beatrice to offer the book to soothe that longing.

Ysbeta expected Beatrice to hand over her salvation. The book carried her chance at freedom from the bargaining of fathers to bind her into matrimony and warding. To hand it over was giving her chance away. To keep it--

To keep it would be to cross one of the most powerful families in the trading world. If Beatrice's father did not have the acquaintance of the Lavans, he surely wanted it. If she made an enemy of a powerful daughter of Llanandras, it would reflect on every association and partnership the Clayborn fortunes relied on. Weigh on them. Sever them. And without the good opinion of the families that mattered, the Clayborn name would tumble to the earth.

Beatrice couldn't do that to her family. But the book! Her fingers squeezed down on the cover. She breathed its scent of good paper and old glue and the mossy stone note of magic hidden inside it. How could she just give it away?

"It hurts me to hear of your longing for your home. I have never seen the coast of Jy, but I have heard that it is a wonderful place. You are lucky to live in such a place as your childhood's world. I wish I knew more about it."

Her own desires presented as simple sentiment. A counterstep in the dance--proper, polite, passively resisting. She had found the book first. Let Ysbeta try to charm her way past that! Frustration shone in her rival's night-dark eyes, but whatever she would say in reply was cut off by the intrusion of a shop clerk.

He bowed to Ysbeta and Ianthe, touching his forehead as he cast his gaze down. "Welcome to Harriman's. May I be of assistance?"

His Llanandari was very good, probably supported by reading untranslated novels. He smiled at the important couple gracing his shop, then flicked a glance at Beatrice, his lips thin and his nostrils flared.

"Yes," Ysbeta said. "I would like--"

"Thank you for your offer," Ianthe cut in, smiling at the clerk. "Everyone here is so helpful. We are browsing, for the moment."

The clerk clasped his hands in front of him. "Harriman's is committed to quality service, sir. We do not wish you to be troubled by this--person, if she is causing you any discomfort."

"Thank you for your offer," Ianthe said, a little more firmly. "We are quite well, and the lady is not disturbing us."

Ysbeta scowled at Ianthe, but she kept her silence. The clerk gave Beatrice one more forbidding look before moving away.

"I'm sorry about that," Ianthe said, and his smile should not make her heart stutter. "It's clear you both want this book. I propose a solution."

"There is only one copy." Ysbeta raised her delicately pointed chin. "What solution could there be?"

"You could read it together," Ianthe said, clapping his hands together. "Ysbeta can tell you all about the tea-gardens on the mountains and the pearl bay."

Beatrice fought the relieved drop of her shoulders. People would notice Beatrice's friendship with such a powerful family. And to make friends with another sorceress, another woman like her? Beatrice smiled, grateful at Ianthe's suggestion. "I would love to hear about that. Is it true that Jy is home to some of the most beautiful animals in the world?"

"It is true. Have you been away from Chasland, Miss Clayborn?" Ysbeta asked. "Or do you simply dream of travel?"

"I dream to--I dream of travel, but I haven't left my country," Beatrice said. "There are so many wonders--who would not long to float through the water-city of Orbos for themselves, to stroll the ivory city of Masillia, or contemplate the garden-city of An?"

"An is beautiful," Ianthe said. "Sanchi is a long way from here. You must call on my sister. She was born in the middle of the sea. The horizon has captured her soul. You should be friends. Nothing else will do."

On a ship, he meant, and that last bit made her blink before she realized it was poetic. Beatrice gazed at Ysbeta, who didn't look like she wanted to be Beatrice's friend. "I would like that."

Ysbeta's lips thinned, but her nod set her curls bouncing. "I would too."

"Tomorrow!" Ianthe exclaimed. "Midday repast, and then an afternoon--it's the ideal time for correspondence. Bring your copy book, Miss Clayborn, and we shall have the pleasure of your company."

Access to the book. Friendship with the Lavans. All she had to do was extend her hands to let Ysbeta take the volume from her grasp and watch her grimoire walk away, tucked into the crook of a stranger's elbow, taken from this unordered heap of insignificant novels, saccharine verse, and outdated texts.

She glanced from Ysbeta's dark gaze to Ianthe's merry-eyed humor--he meant for his compromise to be fulfilled. Beatrice sorted through a mental selection of her day gowns. Would they suffice for such company?

This was no time to worry about gowns. She had to tread this situation carefully. She offered the volume to Ysbeta. Once in her hands, Ysbeta offered her only smile, betraying slightly crooked lower front teeth.

"Thank you," she said. "Excuse me for a moment."

They left her standing in the stacks. Ianthe left for the carriage as Ysbeta signed a chit guaranteeing payment on billing, then marched straight for the exit. The bell rang behind her.

Ysbeta had no intention of giving Beatrice an invitation card.

Beatrice had been robbed.

Copyright © 2020 by C. L. Polk


The Midnight Bargain

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