Read an Excerpt from C.L. Polk’s Magical Regency Novel The Midnight Bargain

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We were excited to reveal the gorgeous cover of C.L. Polk’s highly anticipated fantasy novel The Midnight Bargain, and now we have beautiful words to go with that image. Feast your eyes upon an excerpt from The Midnight Bargain, which is coming out from Erewhon Books on October 13, 2020, and grab your preordered copy here.

The premise of The Midnight Bargain had us instantly hooked: “a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.”

Oh, do go on. Here’s where we’ll meet up with our protagonist, Beatrice Clayborn, in the excerpt below.

After missing her chance at the grimoire which is key to Beatrice proving her magical prowess, she is whisked off to meet with a potential suitor, looking for an advantageous marriage in the Bargaining Season to come. We pick up at the local Chapterhouse of Bendleton, where Beatrice, reluctant and focused more on that grimoire, is one of many young women to be competing.

Okay, we’re all in. Let’s do this.

_

The Bendleton chapterhouse was the newest one built in Chasland, with a soaring belltower and matching spires. Its face was polished gray stone. The windows sparkled with colored glass. Beatrice stood on the promenade, glaring at the building as if it were her nemesis.

She glared at the heart of social life and education for mages all over the world, the exclusive center of men’s power and men’s influence denied to women like her. Even when she was finally permitted to practice magic in her advanced years, the chapterhouse had no place for her. She was permitted—when escorted by a man who was a member—to enter the Gallery and the Teahouse, and no farther.

Boys aged ten to eighteen sheltered within, learning mathematics and history alongside ritual procedure and sorcerous technique. Full members shared trade secrets with their brothers, decided laws before they even reached the Ministry, and improved their lot through their magical skill and fraternal vows.

The chapterhouse held facilities for crafting and artificing, suitably appointed ritual rooms, even apartments where brothers of the chapter could claim hospitality. Thousands of books of magic rested in the scriptorium, written in Mizunh, the secret language of spirits. Centuries of tradition, of restriction, of exclusion were built into the very stones of this building—Beatrice stared at her nemesis, indeed.

“Don’t scowl so, Miss Beatrice. You can’t ruin this with every feeling that flits across your face,” Clara urged. “Smile.”

Beatrice stretched her lips and made her cheeks plump.

“With feeling. Think of something pleasant. Imagine doing something wonderful.”

Beatrice imagined that she had a right to every inch of the chapterhouse, that she and her greater spirit would be known scholars of the mysteries. That gentlemen smiled at her not because she was beautiful, but because she was respected, and girls hurried from one lecture hall to another, openly studying the art and science of high magic. She thought of the world she wanted and remembered her posture. 

She smiled as if the chapterhouse were her friend.

“That’s much better!” Clara praised. “I’ll take these gowns home, as you will be returning with your father. Good luck!”

“Thank you,” Beatrice said, and set her path for the tall double doors. 

Cool and dim, the arched ceiling of the grand foyer picked up her footsteps and flung the sound across the room purposed as the display of the ingenue’s gallery. Vases of costly flowers stood next to fourteen painted canvases, their scents mingling with the clean, cool stone of the hall. Beatrice walked toward the portrait of Ysbeta Lavan, stunning and vibrant in a gown of deep turquoise, her hand outstretched to catch a topaz blue butterfly attracted to the lush, drooping blooms of the perfume tree in the background. A jeweled diadem held back her light-as-air crown of tightly curled hair. She dominated the room with her splendor and beauty; her portrait hung in the principal position in the center of the room. Empty spaces flanked her image as if nothing and no one could compare.

Beatrice’s own painting was in a dim corner next to a couple of girls who were plain-faced, but still obviously wealthy. She had sat in velvet, and the painter had captured both the soft glow of the fabric and the unfashionable puffed sleeves on her gown. She held her violon across her lap.

She barely remembered the smell of linseed oil and the cursed dust in the air making her want to sneeze. Or the incredible boredom of having to sit very still with nothing to occupy her mind but the desperate desire to scratch an itch. But most of all Beatrice remembered the peculiar feeling of being so thoroughly examined while the truth of her remained invisible as the artist from Gravesford painted her.

It could have been interesting. He had been on fire to paint Beatrice with a rifle after he met her carrying one tucked in the crook of her elbow after a morning ride through the wood. Beatrice tried to explain she only had the rifle due to the dangers of encountering wild boar, forest manxes, and even the occasional bear, but the painter was too enamored with his vision. Father ended the painter’s inspiration by threatening to send him home without pay.

If only he’d gotten his way. The canvas Beatrice was exactly what a viewer would expect. She ought to have carried a rifle under her arm—or a pistol, dangled from one hand while she slouched in her seat like a gentleman at ease. Something to show that she was a person, anything to show that she was something more than what people expected of a woman: ornament, and trained silence.

“Starborn gods, what an aura. You must be Beatrice,” a voice in accented Llanandari said.

She turned and regarded a young man who must have been—”Danton Maisonette. Good afternoon. Have you seen the new chapterhouse?”

“They’re all new, in Chasland,” Danton said with a dismissive little sniff. “Valserre’s been part of the brotherhood for seven hundred years. Chasland is running itself to tatters, trying to keep up with the better nations.”

Beatrice pressed her lips together at the string of slights and insults. “It’s not to your standard, then?”

He glanced up to the stone, laid with all the skill of Chasland’s masons, and dismissed it with a shrug. “It’s the latest style. Chaslanders are all gold and no taste.”

Beatrice had to search for a hold on her temper and the right words. “Then what would you have done? Valserrans are known for their—knowledge of beauty.”

“Aesthetics,” Danton corrected. “Building in an earlier style would have been pretending to a legacy that doesn’t exist here, come to think of it. But chapterhouses ought to have gravity. They should be timeless, rather than fashionable.”

Beatrice searched for the right words, but Danton filled the silence for her. “Though the quality of the sound in the working rooms is startlingly good.”

“That would be thanks to the builders,” Beatrice said. “The designer was a Hadfield, the family who build holy sanctums for generations.”

“Built,” Danton corrected her Llanandari once more. “You all sing to the gods for worship. It must sound impressive at Long Night. Can you sing, then?”

“I have trained,” Beatrice began, “like any Chaslander lady.”

Danton’s mouth turned impatient. “But are you any good?”

This rude…oaf! The arrogance! Beatrice lifted her chin. “Yes.”

“You’re rather sure of yourself.” He contemplated her for a moment. “But I believe you.”

He turned his head, taking in the sight of Ysbeta Lavan’s portrait, then back to her.

Danton Maisonette was scarcely taller than her, but his brown coat and buff-colored weskit were satin-woven Llanandras cotton, well made and embroidered in tasteful geometric patterns. He was handsome enough, but his thin little mouth clamped up so tight Beatrice couldn’t imagine a kind word escaping it. He stood with an upright, chest forward posture, his bearing reminding Beatrice of a soldier—which made sense. As a Valserran heir to a Marquessate, he was expected to take a high position in that nation’s army. His hooded eyes were a watery blue, and he had a direct, pointed stare.

Or perhaps it was just that he was staring at her. He examined her so completely it made Beatrice’s stomach shiver. When he turned his chin to compare what he’d seen to the portrait Beatrice on the wall, Beatrice seethed behind a smile that matched the demure curve depicted on the canvas. 

“You really are pretty,” he said. “Too many redheads look like they’re made of spotty chalk.”

“Thank you.” That wasn’t what she wanted to say at all, but she promised Father she’d be kind. If only someone had made Danton promise the same. Her wish for honesty had been answered. She hadn’t expected to be treated like a clockwork figurine, incapable of being insulted by whatever thought flitted from Danton Maisonette’s mind to his lips.

“This meeting’s going to be boring talk. Trade and investment. Did you bring hand-work to amuse yourself?”

If only she could widen her eyes. If only she could drop her jaw. But she smiled, smiled, smiled at this rude, demanding man. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything with me.”

One side of his mouth turned down as he said, “I had an interest in joining the conversation.”

Instead of the labor of keeping her amused, since she hadn’t brought a lace hook. Beatrice kept her smile up and asked, “Have you seen the chapterhouse gallery?”

“The only thing that’s new is the ingenues,” he said, leaving the hint to escort her through the gallery gasping on the floor. “Only fourteen of you this year. Private negotiations are becoming too popular.”

Beatrice blinked and cocked her head, and Danton knew an opportunity to explain when he saw one. “People are arranging marriages outside of bargaining season. Ha! Chasland’s number one export, since you all have children by the bushel. Most of the best-bred ladies are already bound. Where are you from, that you don’t know this?”

Ladies do not strike people. Even rude, insufferable churls. “Mayhurst.”

His eyebrows went up. “The north country,” he said in titillated horror. “That’s practically the hinterlands. Have you ever been to Gravesford?”

No. Not this man. It didn’t matter that he was heir to a Marquis. She would not marry him and travel to distant Valserre, far from her family to become his wife—indeed, she would not spend an unnecessary minute in his presence. “We traveled there before coming to Bendleton.”

“For your wardrobe, I imagine.” He took in her walking suit and shrugged. “I don’t think you have much need for fine-woven Llananadras cotton when you’re outrunning boars.”

“Oh, we have rifles.” Beatrice realized what she’d said, but too late.

He stared at her, aghast. “You shoot?”

“I am good at it,” Beatrice said, and at last her smile had some real feeling in it. 

“I see,” Danton said. “How perfectly ferocious of you. We should have tea. Do you have tea, in the country?”

Beatrice coated her grin with sugar and arsenic. “When it comes to us. By dogsled, one hundred miles in the snow.”

“Really?”

Beatrice’s smile widened. “No. There’s at least six ports up north.”

Now he didn’t like her at all. Perfect. 

Beatrice glided beside him as he took her to the tearoom. She smiled prettily at the Marquis and took her seat, ignoring the hired musician toiling over a piano sonata to pay attention to the talk of trade and investment Danton had promised would bore her. She asked questions and ruined her genteel display of curiosity with remarks of her own. Father bore it well, but he frowned at her once they bid the Marquis and his son farewell and boarded the landau hired to take them back to Triumph Street. 

Father settled on the bench across from her and sighed. Beatrice’s heart sank as Father, handsome in brown cotton, even if the jacket and weskit bore a minimum of adorning needlework, gave her a look that deepened the worry lines across his forehead, his mouth open as if he were about to say something. But he glanced away, shaking his head sadly.

“Father, I’m sorry.” 

Beatrice had a decent guess what she was supposed to be sorry for, but Father would fully inform her soon enough. she waited for the inevitable response, and Father gave it with a pained expression. “Beatrice, do you realize how important it is for you to be agreeable to the young men you meet while we’re here?”

“Father, he was awful. Snobbish and arrogant. If I had to marry that man we’d square off from morning ‘til night.”

Father ran a hand over his sandy, silver-shot curls, and they tumbled back in place, framing his fine features, lined by experience and too many burdens, including her willful self. “That perfectly awful young man will be a Marquis.” 

“Marquis de Awful, then. I couldn’t be happy with him, not for a minute.”

“I had hoped you would be less difficult,” Father said. “This meeting was a special arrangement. And you told him you knew how to shoot? What possessed you?”

“It just slipped out. And I apologize. But he laughed at me for being from the country, and assumed me an ignorant fool, as if Chaslanders didn’t have an education of any kind.”

“I probably should have sent you to a ladies’ academy abroad,” Father sighed. “Too late now, though perhaps Harriet could enter a finishing school.”

Paid for with the financial support of Beatrice’s husband. “Harriet would adore that.”

“If we can manage it, she will go. But there are only fourteen of you.” He brightened at the notion of a Bride’s market, and the number of young men who would crowd around Beatrice simply because she was one of only a few ingenues left to woo. “But if you’d kept him on your string…”

“There are more young men where he came from,” Beatrice said. With luck, she’d alienate them all. And then she needed more luck, to get the grimoire in her hands once more—

The thought clanged in her mind like a bell. She could get the book back. She knew exactly how. Excitement surged in her, filling her with the urge to leap from the landau and run faster than the showy black horses could trot. She clasped her hands and fought to appear attentive as Father chided her.

“It’s not that I want you to marry a man you can’t abide, Beatrice. Just—try, will you? Try not to judge them hastily.”

Beatrice nodded, but her mind was already consumed by her plan. “Yes, Father. I will try harder next time.”

She watched the tree-lined streets of Bendleton, hazed green with new spring buds and heavy with sweet blooming flowers and couldn’t wait to get home.

_

While we can’t get our hands on The Midnight Bargain until October 13, 2020, we can preorder the book to manifest in paper form or as a digital read as soon as it’s released.

(The Midnight Bargain at Erewhon Books, image: Erewhon Books)

Author C.L. Polk

C.L. Polk is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Witchmark, which was also nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Aurora, and Lambda Literary Awards. It was named one of the best books of 2018 according to NPR, Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Review, BookPage, and the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. She lives in Alberta, Canada.

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.