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Sorcerer to the Crown
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Sorcerer to the Crown

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Author: Zen Cho
Publisher: Ace Books, 2015
Pan Macmillan, 2015
Series: The Sorcerer Royal trilogy: Book 1

1. Sorcerer to the Crown

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
Alternate History (Fantasy)
Fantasy of Manners
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Synopsis

Zacharias Wythe, England's first African Sorcerer Royal, is contending with attempts to depose him, rumours that he murdered his predecessor, and an alarming decline in England's magical stocks. But his troubles are multiplied when he encounters runaway orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon English magic's greatest discovery in centuries.


Excerpt

1

Lady Frances Burrow's guests had not noticed her butler particularly when he showed them into the house, but the self-important flourish with which he now flung open the door piqued curiosity. Those who broke off conversations, and raised their head from their ices, were duly rewarded by his announcement:

"Lady Maria Wythe and Mr. Zacharias Wythe!"

It had not been three months since Zacharias Wythe had taken up the staff of the Sorcerer Royal--not so long since his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, had died. He was an object of general interest, and to the great increase of Lady Frances's complacency, more than one pair of eyes followed his progress around her drawing room.

Zacharias Wythe could not fail to draw attention wherever he went. The dark hue of his skin would mark him out among any assembly of his colleagues, but he was also remarkable for his height, and the handsomeness of his features, which was not impaired by his rather melancholy expression. Perhaps the last was not surprising in one who had entered into his office in such tragic circumstances, and at a time when the affairs of English thaumaturgy were approaching an unprecedented crisis.

Stranger than his colour, however, and more distressing than any other circumstance was the fact that Zacharias Wythe had no familiar, though he bore the Sorcerer Royal's ancient staff. Lady Frances's guests did not hesitate to tell each other what they thought of this curious absence, but they spoke in hushed voices--less in deference to the black crepe band around Zacharias's arm than out of respect for his companion.

It was Lady Wythe whom Lady Frances had invited, overbearing her protests with generous insistence:

"It is hardly a party! Only one's most intimate friends! You must take it in the light of a prescription, dear Maria. It cannot be good for you to mope about at home. Mr. Wythe, too, ought not to be left too much to himself, I am sure."

In Zacharias, Lady Frances had hit upon the chief remaining object of Lady Wythe's anxiety and affection. Lady Wythe's bereavement was great, and she had never been fond of society even before Sir Stephen's death. But for Zacharias she would do a great deal, and for his sake she essayed forth in her black bombazine, to do battle in a world turned incalculably colder and drearier by her husband's departure.

"I wonder what Lord Burrow is about?" she said to Zacharias. "It cannot do any harm to ask him about your spells to arrest the decline in our magic. Sir Stephen said Lord Burrow had as good an understanding of the science of thaumaturgy as any man he knew."

It had formed no small part of Lady Wythe's desire to attend the party that Lord Burrow chaired the Presiding Committee that governed the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. Lord Burrow had been a friend to Sir Stephen, but he had regarded Sir Stephen's scheme to educate a negro boy in magic as an unfortunate freak--an eccentricity only tolerable in a man of his great parts. The turn that had bestowed the staff of the Sorcerer Royal on that negro boy was not, in Lord Burrow's view, one to be welcomed. He was learned enough not to ascribe Britain's imminent crisis of magical resource either to Zacharias's complexion or to his inexperience, but that did not mean he looked upon Zacharias himself with any warmth.

His support would do a great deal to bolster Zacharias's position, however, if it could be got. It was with this thought in mind that Lady Wythe had chivvied Zacharias along, for Zacharias was as disinclined for society as Lady Wythe could be. Though he had, at four and twenty, all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime's intercourse with the good and great of the magical world, by nature he was rather retiring than sociable, and his manners were impaired by reserve.

He had agreed to accompany Lady Wythe because he believed society might enliven her spirits, but he balked at her directive to make up to Lord Burrow:

"Like as not he will think it an absurd impertinence in me to presume to have identified a solution for our difficulties, when so many better magicians than I have failed. Besides, my researches had hardly advanced in any degree before they were suspended."

Before Sir Stephen's death and Zacharias's subsequent elevation, Zacharias had devoted the bulk of his time to the pursuit of thaumaturgical inquiries. He had surveyed the household magics clandestinely transacted by females of the labouring classes, to which the Society turned a blind eye; he had studied the magics of other nations, producing a monograph on the common structures of African and Asiatic enchantments; but in the period preceding Sir Stephen's death, he had been chiefly engaged in the devising of spells to reverse the ongoing decline of England's magic.

It was a project of considerable practical interest, but Zacharias had not so much as looked at it in several months. For Zacharias, as for Lady Wythe, Sir Stephen's death was the point at which the ordinary course of time had been halted. What ensued after that date had been life of quite a different kind, scarcely connected with what had gone before.

"I should not like to show my spells to anyone, in their current state," said Zacharias now.

Lady Wythe was too wise to press the point. "Well then, perhaps we ought to see to your being introduced to some of the young ladies here. Lady Frances said they might get up a dance after dinner. There cannot be any objection to your joining in, and it would be a pity if any young lady were compelled to sit out a dance for want of a partner."

Zacharias's look of consternation was comical. "I scarcely think they will be pleased to be offered such a partner. You forget in your partiality what a very alarming object I am."

"Nonsense!" cried Lady Wythe. "You are precisely the kind of creature girls like best to swoon over. Dark, mysterious, quiet--for a young man who talks a great deal always seems a coxcomb. The very image of romance! Think of Othello."

"His romance came to no good end," said Zacharias.

It seemed he was in the right of it, for it soon became evident that Zacharias was having a curious effect upon the other guests. Whispered discussions were hushed suddenly as he passed. Thaumaturges who might be expected to greet the head of their profession nodded to Lady Wythe, but averted their eyes from Zacharias.

Zacharias was not unaccustomed to such treatment; if it troubled him, he had no intention of letting Lady Wythe know it. Lady Wythe was not so hardened, however. Though the other guests' withdrawal was scarcely overt, her powers of observation were sharpened by affection, and what she saw wounded her.

"Can I credit my eyes?" she said in a low voice. "Did I see Josiah Cullip cut you?"

Zacharias said, in a dishonourable fit of cowardice, "Perhaps he did not see me."

"Zacharias, my dear, I do not believe I am misled by partiality when I say you are impossible to miss in this room," said Lady Wythe. "To think of that linen draper's son presuming to cut you, when you recommended him to Sir Stephen to be Secretary of the Committee! What can he be thinking?"

"I am not popular, you know," said Zacharias. He had already suffered and swallowed his bitterness regarding Cullip's defection. To show he minded it would only increase Lady Wythe's distress. "I suppose he thinks to curry favour with the Society by disowning his connection with me."

"But what complaint can the Society have with your conduct? I am sure you have done nothing but what redounds to the credit of your office. If anyone has a right to repine, it is your friends, for the Society has taken up all your time since you became Sorcerer Royal."

"There is the decline in our magic," said Zacharias. "It is not surprising that my colleagues have linked our difficulties to my investiture. It affords the possibility of a simple cure: remove me, and all will be well again."

"It is never surprising for thaumaturges to latch on to a silly notion, but that does not excuse their stupidity," said Lady Wythe. "This lack of magic plagued Sir Stephen for years, yet no one ever thought to fault him for it. It is those wicked fairies that will not let us have familiars, and that is nothing to do with you. Mr. Cullip ought to know that."

"He cannot help feeling the prejudice against him," said Zacharias. "A large part of the Committee dislikes the notion of any but a gentleman being counted among their number, and Cullip has a wife and children to support. Without his post he should have been compelled to give up thaumaturgy."

"Now that is the trouble with you, Zacharias," said Lady Wythe. "You will go out of your way to help the most undeserving creature, but never have any regard to yourself. I wish you would not run yourself ragged for these ne'er-do-wells. You are quite grey! If I did not know better, I would suspect you of having contracted some illness and concealing it from me."

Discomfited, Zacharias rolled his shoulders, as though to shrug off Lady Wythe's searching gaze.

"Come," he said, with an attempt at lightness, "are not we at a party? We are hardly making a fit return to Lady Frances for her kindness. Should you like some punch? Or I believe there are ices--I am sure you would like an ice."

Lady Wythe looked wistfully at Zacharias, but she knew that despite his mildness, he had all the traditional stubbornness of a sorcerer. She should like an ice of all things, she said.

Zacharias was as anxious that Lady Wythe should be easy as she was concerned that he should be well--and well liked. It was not within his power to reassure her on either point, and there was more she did not know, that he knew would only distress her further. In his preoccupation he did not hear John Edgeworth say his name, though he spoke it twice.

"I say, Wythe!"

"I beg your pardon, Edgeworth," said Zacharias, starting. "I did not think to see you here."

John Edgeworth was the scion of an old thaumaturgical family, but though he had inherited his ancestors' intelligence and enterprise, he had, alas, none of their magical ability. He had made the best of an awkward situation, and was much esteemed in the Foreign Office, where he was valued for his understanding of Britain's wayward thaumaturges and their relations with France's sorcieres. These days Edgeworth was more likely to be found at the dinner parties of political hostesses than among the Fellows of the Society.

"I don't propose to remain for any time, for I've another engagement and cannot be late," said Edgeworth, glancing around as though he was anxious not to be overheard. "Great men, you know, will not be kept waiting! But I had thought there might be a chance of catching you here. Indeed, Lady Frances gave me her word I should. The fact is the Government is in a quandary, a magical quandary, and I have been tasked with bespeaking your assistance. Will you come and see me tomorrow?"

Zacharias hesitated. They both knew this was not truly a request. In theory the Sorcerer Royal was independent of the Government, and even of the Society. His only allegiance was to the nation, and it could not be allowed that anybody but a sorcerer was capable of judging how magic might best be employed for the good of the nation--certainly not any mere politician or civil servant.

In practise, however, a Sorcerer Royal whose profession was facing such a scarcity of magical resource must endeavour to keep his Government in good humour. The Government knew the Society's influence had waned of late, even if it did not know of the extent of its difficulties, and it would be on the alert for any sign of weakness or incompliance. Yet it sat ill with Zacharias to overturn his plans at such a peremptory order.

"I have a meeting of the Committee of Thaumaturgical Standards tomorrow, which cannot easily be postponed," he said, but John Edgeworth cut him off:

"Then you must come on Wednesday. But stay, you are in the Sorcerer Royal's quarters now, are not you--those vastly alchemical rooms? They would be just the thing. We will attend upon you on Wednesday. Whether we come in the morning or afternoon will be no great odds to you, I am sure."

Before Zacharias could protest, or ask who was encompassed within Edgeworth's "we," his interlocutor had swept off, leaving Zacharias in a state of suppressed indignation, and with a rapidly melting ice. The latter prevented his lingering too long upon the former, and he hurried back to where he had left Lady Wythe.

England's scarcity of magic was a matter of common knowledge among the magical. Edgeworth could not have escaped knowing something of it. But magicians were a secretive lot, and no one but a practising thaumaturge could know how very ill matters stood. If the Society were to retain its position and privileges, its dearth of resource must be concealed--most of all from the Government, which had little fondness for England's magicians.

Was the significance of Edgeworth's air of mingled mystery and importance that thaumaturgy's secret had been discovered? Zacharias would not know till Wednesday. It was a pity his research had been interrupted! If only he had been able to complete his spells to increase England's magic, it might have been within his power to take the sting out of these anxieties. If he had time to travel to the border of Fairyland, he might yet be tempted to try them.

Lady Wythe was absorbed in conversation with their hostess when Zacharias approached. Lady Frances Burrow affected a penetrating theatrical whisper when imparting confidences, which had the effect of drawing far more attention than her accustomed tones. She was saying to Lady Wythe, very audibly:

"My dear, you could have knocked me down with a feather when Mrs. Quincey told me! I did not credit a word of it, of course, but I hope you will forgive me if I did not quarrel with her over it."

Zacharias did not hear Lady Wythe's response, but Lady Frances seemed disconcerted. She protested, in a whisper more piercing than ever:

"But you know, Maria, that Mr. Wythe should have been the last creature to see Sir Stephen alive is rather strange. And then to emerge from Sir Stephen's study the master of the staff, and Leofric nowhere to be seen--you cannot deny it all looks very odd! You could not fault Mrs. Quincey for wondering."

This time it was impossible to miss Lady Wythe's reply.

"I find myself perfectly capable of faulting Mrs. Quincey for wondering whether Zacharias might have murdered my husband and his familiar," she said. "If she believes Zacharias of all people would be capable of lifting his hand to anyone, much less he who was a father to him, she is even more foolish than she seems. And I am surprised that you should repeat her ill-natured fancies to me, Frances!"

"Why, Maria," cried Lady Frances, injured. "I only wished to help! As for its being merely Mrs. Quincey's fancies, you should know that it is not only Mrs. Quincey I heard it from. It is being talked of everywhere one goes, and it will look very bad for Mr. Wythe if he does not put a stop to it. If you must know--"

But Lady Wythe would never hear what she must know, for Lady Frances caught sight of Zacharias, and blushed scarlet. Lady Wythe's eyes were damp, and her nose reddish, for to her own vexation she always wept when she was angry.

"Zacharias, I was just saying to Lady Frances that I think we had better go home," said Lady Wythe, composing herself. "Your Committee meets early tomorrow, does not it? And I find I am too tired to remain. But Lady Frances will forgive me, I am sure. She is too good-natured to hold a grudge."

Though she had been chiding Lady Frances but a moment ago, Lady Wythe pressed her hand now. To Lady Frances's credit, she responded splendidly:

"I should, only there is nothing to forgive! It was kind of you to come. I only hope," she added in a lower voice, "I only hope I have not added to your troubles, Maria, my dear."

Though her friendship with Lady Frances was salvaged, Lady Wythe's evening was beyond repair. Once Zacharias had handed her into the carriage, she burst out:

"Wretched creatures! How can they say such appalling things! They would never have dared to be so odious in Sir Stephen's day. How I wish--!"

She took a handkerchief out of her reticule with shaking hands, and pretended to blow her nose. Zacharias knew exactly what she would have said, however, if she had permitted herself to conclude her sentence, and she could not have wished for Sir Stephen to be restored to his life and office more urgently than he.

"How I wish I could help you," she said instead.

"I beg you will not let such talk distress you," said Zacharias. "My office confers on me immunity from any charge, you know, so it is only an unpleasant rumour, and cannot have any real consequence. I do not let it concern me." This was not wholly true, but he spoke evenly enough, he hoped, that Lady Wythe would believe him untroubled.

Lady Wythe lowered her handkerchief and fixed anxious blue eyes upon Zacharias. "You had heard this rumour before?"

Zacharias nodded. "I hope--" But he could not say what he hoped. It would make it too clear what he feared. He averted his face, so Lady Wythe could not see his expression, and said, with difficulty, "He was--dead, you know--when I arrived."

"Oh, Zacharias," said Lady Wythe, distressed. "Is there any need to explain yourself to me? Sir Stephen told me of his complaint even before he confided in his physician. We knew his heart would be the death of him. I only wish we had prepared you for it. Sir Stephen knew he ought to tell you, but he could never bring himself to the point: he could not bear to think he must leave you so soon. He would be so proud if he could see how well you have done--and so sorry to have caused you such trouble."

Zacharias shook his head, twisting his hands together--a nervous habit Sir Stephen had sought to rid him of, but to which he reverted in times of intense emotion. He opened his mouth to speak, scarcely knowing what he was about to confess, but the ghost spoke first.

"If you tell Maria about me, I shall never forgive you," said Sir Stephen.

Zacharias did not choose to address his guardian's spectre, but sat in furious silence throughout the remainder of the journey, to poor Lady Wythe's confusion. It was only when she had been restored to her home, and Zacharias was safely ensconced in his study, that he exclaimed:

"I wish you would not jump into my conversations! It is extraordinarily difficult not to betray you by my response. Did not you say we should do everything within our power to prevent Lady Wythe's becoming aware of you, since she has such a horror of ghosts?"

Zacharias would never have spoken so abruptly to Sir Stephen in life. Though they had by no means always been of one mind, Zacharias had not often ventured to make Sir Stephen aware of the fact. Perhaps there had lurked in him the old childhood worry, that if he did not make every effort to please--if he showed any sign of being less than his benefactor desired--he might find he was no longer wanted.

But death, in its backhanded kindness, had torn that ancient fear from him, even as it had robbed Lady Wythe of her chief support, and Zacharias of the man he had esteemed most in the world. There was now no reason to put off any quarrel, and Zacharias could not doubt Sir Stephen's disinterested attachment when his ghost continued to haunt him with such unwelcome persistence.

"Had I remained silent, you would have forgotten your bond," said Sir Stephen, with an aggravating lack of remorse. "You promised me, you know, that you would not tell her of what happened that night."

Zacharias shook his head.

"Lady Wythe ought to be told," he said. "Of all people in this world or the next, she has the best right to know what happened the night you died."

"If it were only the manner of my death that would be revealed, I should not disagree," said Sir Stephen. "But to confide in Maria would be to entrust the details of the Exchange to a member of the laity--a female, no less! You are unpopular enough, Zacharias, not to draw your colleagues' opprobium upon you by divulging sorcery's greatest secret."

"There can be no question of Lady Wythe's breaking a confidence," argued Zacharias. "The comfort it will give her to know that you are well will be incalculable, and... even she must wonder." His voice dropped, so that only someone possessed of the preternatural hearing of the dead could have heard his next words: "Even she must doubt."

Sir Stephen was a tall, bluff man, still vigorous despite the grey in his hair. His broad frame recalled that of a general more than a scholar and sorcerer, but the frank countenance and clear blue eyes concealed an unsuspected shrewdness. It had been said by his thaumaturgical enemies, half in disapprobation and half in envy, that Sir Stephen ought to have set himself up as a politician: he would not have ended as anything less than Prime Minister.

"Maria, doubt whether you might be a murderer?" cried Sir Stephen with an air of incredulity. "Never believe it, Zacharias! Because she knew Nurse's authority must not be questioned, she would pretend to credit the stories of your wickedness, but when punishment had been dealt and you were borne off bawling to the nursery, what dark suspicions Maria raised then! What aspersions cast upon poor Nurse Haddon's probity! 'She was not certain Nurse understood Zacharias. He never meant to be naughty. Such a nature as his needed only patience and affection to govern it.' It would take more than the whisperings of a parcel of ill-bred magicians to shake her faith in you."

But nursery reminiscences would not do. Zacharias's countenance wore a stubborn look with which Sir Stephen was intimately familiar. So had Zacharias frowned when he was four, and did not wish to eat his porridge. So he looked now, twenty years later, when prevented from doing what he believed to be right.

"I might be persuaded to release you from your promise, if you agreed to tell Maria of your complaint," said Sir Stephen. "She might be able to help relieve your distress."

"My complaint is not such as any mortal can remedy," said Zacharias, but he said no more. His battle was lost, as Sir Stephen knew it would be the moment he referred to Zacharias's illness. That was an aspect of the secret of Sir Stephen's death that Zacharias would not willingly speak of, however highly he valued honesty.

Zacharias proceeded to busy himself with preparations for the next day's work, as though he had not already begun to feel unwell--a pretence that would not have deceived Sir Stephen even before he possessed the intuition of the dead.

"Does it hurt you much?" said Sir Stephen.

"Not much," said Zacharias. This line of inquiry made him uneasy, and when he spoke again it was to divert the conversation:

"Do you have any notion what Edgeworth desires of me on Wednesday?"

It was not necessary to explain to Sir Stephen anything that had happened, now that he hovered between the mortal and celestial realms. He seemed to know every detail of Zacharias's days as well as Zacharias did himself.

"I expect he will want a spell," said Sir Stephen. "It will be some outrageous overturning of nature that he wants--a tripling of the Navy's ships, or the undoing of some military reversal. The Government can never ask for a simple chantment--an illumination, say, or a glamour to enable Members of Parliament to doze unnoticed in the Commons."

"I shall have to decline to assist, then," said Zacharias. He paused, glancing sideways at Sir Stephen. "What ought I to say to him? The Government has habitually overestimated our powers, but it cannot be wished that it should be disabused of its notions of our abilities."

"No, indeed!" said Sir Stephen. "No monarch has ever liked a sorcerer, and it is only wariness of how we might revenge ourselves for any incivility that has kept our Government in line. It is a delicate point, and will require finesse."

But he cast a knowing look at Zacharias, who had assumed an ingenuous air of attention.

"Very well!" said Sir Stephen. "You know I like nothing so well as to be asked my opinion. But mark, Zacharias, your reprieve is but temporary. I shall not forget our quarrel!"

Copyright © 2015 by Zen Cho


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Sorcerer to the Crown

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Sorcerer to the Crown

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