To Best the Boys

To Best the Boys

Mary Weber


No one needed to bother opening the letter to know what it said.

* * *

All gentlepersons of university age (respectively seventeen to nineteen) are cordially invited to test for the esteemed annual scholarship given by Mr. Holm toward one fullride fellowship at Stemwick Men’s University. Aptitude contenders will appear at nine o’clock in front of Holm Castle’s entrance above the seaside town of Pinsbury Port on the evening of 22 September, during the Festival of the Autumnal Equinox.

For Observers: Party refreshments will be provided at intermittent times. Watering facilities available at all times. Gratitude and genial amusement are expected. (Those who fail to comply will be tossed out at our amusement.)

For Contestants: Those who never risk are doomed never to risk. And those who’ve risked previously will be ousted should they try again.

For All: Mr. Holm and Holm Manor bear no responsibility, liability, or legal obligation for any harm, death, or partial decapitation that may result from entering the examination Labyrinth.



* * *

Each family had received the scripted invitation every year for the past fifty-four years of good King Francis’s reign, exactly one week before the autumnal equinox. And every year with its annual arrival, each family breathed a sigh of relief, signaling that whether they had a male youth of university age or not, their status as members of the strange little community had been remembered and, more importantly, recognized. The chance for a scholarship to the top secondary school of Stemwick University in the Empyrical kingdom of Caldon was the highlight of most men’s lives (aside from the annual Cheese Faire, obviously) since it was the one time of year such things as mental and physical prowess trumped the favors of wealth and political leverage.

To the odd, underprivileged people of Pinsbury Port, the contest was seen as a step up in equality. To the wealthy, it was a good-natured rivalry among themselves. And neither cared how any of the other provinces of Caldon saw it, so long as they played hard and fair, and cleaned up their mess before returning home.

Still, despite knowing the letter’s contents, each recipient opened it anyway. The wealthy wives to check the parchment type—to promptly order it for their own fashionable invites to winter solstice bazaars and their husbands’ hunting parties. The poor to check and double-check the wording—to ensure nothing had changed.

Rhen Tellur opened it simply to see if she could scrape off the ink and derive which substances it’d been created from, using her father’s strangely fashioned microscope. Which is how she discovered that this time the lettering was created from two types of resin, a binding paste, gold flecks, and a drop of something that smelled quite remarkably like magic.


The problem with siphoning blood from a bloated cadaver is that sometimes its belly makes an involuntary twitch just as you’re leaning over the discolored skin.

The problem with being the girl currently stealing the sticky blood is that while logic says there’s an explanation for such phenomena, the rest of me says it must be one of two things.

Either the good king’s clerics are out somewhere trying to raise the dead again . . .

Or I’ve just discovered the town’s first certifiable vampyre right here in the cloying cellar of the local undertaker’s.

Either way, it hardly matters because—while a bloodsucker would be an interesting twist on my day—the cadaver just moved, and the fact that I’m not keeling over from heart failure right now is rather magnanimous of me. Instead, I stay alive and spring backward. “Of all the—” Only to ram into another cadaver-laden table behind me. The table creaks loudly inside the tiny room of our even tinier seaside town that sits on the border of a tiny green kingdom that believes itself the center of the Empyral world.

I freeze. Drat. I’ve bumped the table so hard the thing’s starting to tilt away from my hindside (which the cadaver’s face is now ungraciously pressed up against), and when I flip around, the whole thing’s suddenly tipping, and the dead lady laid out on top is tipping with it.

I reach out to grab the slab. But deadweight and wood are heavier than you’d think, and the next second the table upends between my fingers and—No, no, no, no!—unceremoniously dumps the old gal’s stiff body onto the sloped floor. Like a white oak dropping a tree branch in summer.

I stall and wait for the sound to fade. Except—

Oh you’ve got to be jesting.

The dead lady starts to roll.

With a lunge, I shove a hand out to grab the edge of the table she’s headed for, but my blood-slicked gloves graze the wood just as the lady’s body clips the base and promptly sends it rocking.

That table pitches and slams into the next.

And that one into the next.

And so on and so on, until five of the eight dead people in here have suddenly taken the phrase “from dust to dust” literally as they join the old gal on the ground in what looks like a dramatic retelling of The King’s Fair Predator.

This, of course, is when Beryll starts to scream.

Not just scream, but the kind of bloodcurdling wail that’s used by pregnant mountain basilisks just before they give birth, or by the sea sirens out hunting sailors. Both of which our town is famous for, because apparently being famous for things that can kill you is better than no fame at all. In fact, Mum says it’s like our own version of township pride. What doesn’t kill you makes you compelling.

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