Gresham College, London: 20 June, 1705
The room was a shabby one to contain the intellectual brilliance of England. Small and scant of windows, it was nearly unbearable in the warmth of an early summer day, and filled with gentlemen looking forward to the pleasanter air of their country estates, away from the stinks of London. Some listened with interest to the letters being read, an exchange between two of their fellows regarding the island of Formosa; others fanned themselves futilely with whatever papers came to hand, wishing they dared 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 sombre-coloured 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 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 unfavourably—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 vapours 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 burnt 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.”
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Game of 100 Candles and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent along with several other series, over seventy short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written the epic Rook and Rose trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.