To Best the Boys(4)

He flips around with dark eyes and a darker countenance, and my words drop away like the damp autumn leaves scattered at our feet.


If I could evaporate into the sea-foam air I would. Instead, I stand there, stolen blood in hand, beneath the irritated gaze of Lute Wilkes, best fisherman of the port and school chum who was two grades my senior growing up, until a couple summers ago when I left to be educated at home and he to go support his family on his dead father’s trawling boat. His full lips still have that pucker the girls liked to swoon over. The same one I wondered more than a few times if the tissue was actually formed that way, or if he was just perpetually in the mood to kiss things. I once imagined dissecting his face to find out.

A storm behind Lute’s eyes suggests we interrupted something. His scowl flickers over my disheveled appearance—my cadaver-stained hands, wrinkled outer coat, and hair that at some point unraveled from its bun into a forest of wild briars. His gaze slowly registers recognition before it moves on to Beryll and Seleni, who are doubled over, gasping.

Two seconds go by and he returns his attention to me. And just like that, his eyes do the nice thing that used to illuminate the earthen cider cellar behind Sarah Gethries’s house—the one none of us were supposed to know about, but we all hung out there anyway.

I blink, and the skin on my wrists turns the color of sweet pomegranates. My bloody, gloved fingers suddenly feel very bloody, and my hair very briar-y. And all I can think of is that maybe the whole lip-swooning thing had a point after all because they are rather anatomically balanced.

“Rhen, what in pantaloons?” Seleni half laughs, half demands. “You set off the alarm!”

I swallow and nod at her but keep my eyes on Lute, who smells of salt-wood and morning tides and freedom. He’s a bit more sun drenched than the last time I ran into him a few months ago when Roy Bellow called my da crazy and my mum an independent woman. At the time, Lute had been helping his mum and brother in the glassmaker’s shop where I’d been “borrowing” a particular set of magnifying lenses. Lute frowned at Roy, but I’d already taken it upon myself to suggest that being crazy and independent were far better than being a suckling calf.

Which apparently isn’t something one should say.

Roy has tried twice since then to corner me in an alley.

Lute tips his chin down, and a swag of black bangs falls forward as a sprinkle of sun rays catches his dark lashes and scatters thin shadows across his brown cheeks. Like firelight from an evening burn. He raises a single thick brow in a smart look, as if he’s remembering the interaction, and slips into an easy smile. “Did you at least hide the body this time, Miss Tellur?”

I bite my cheek and freeze. “Body? I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Wilkes.”

He glances behind us, then puckers those well-balanced lips and dips them toward my bloody gloves. “I’m assuming one of your verbal carvings has rid the Port of yet another fool.”

Dimples. Deep, genuine, and stupidly distracting while my mind is trying to decipher his words. When it does, I frown and feel my cheeks warm. Oh. I sniff. “If such a fool’s been rid, Mr. Wilkes, it’s by his own doing and likely well deserved.”

He chuckles, and the casualness in his tone and grey gaze makes me feel light-headed, as do the cloying market smells assaulting my senses. I frown because I’ve no interest in feeling that way, particularly not around Beryll and Seleni. So of course I do the only thing I can think of:

I glare.

“Rhen, I asked what happened!” Seleni thumps my arm.

Lute’s gaze slides over to her and Beryll.

I blink. Right. Blood and alarms.

Clearing my throat, I turn. “It was nothing. Just an accident. I was going too fast and Beryll screamed. Sorry we bumped you, Lute.” I reach up to dust off his fishing-coat sleeve, only to leave behind a streak of body fluid. I wince and with a meaningful glance Seleni’s way make a “let’s go” head motion to her. “Nice seeing you again.”

My cousin doesn’t move. Just sticks a mischievous hand on her hip and points at her beau. “Go? Just look at poor Beryll. He can’t go anywhere! You traumatized him!”

What? I turn to assess him. He’s not traumatized, he’s just . . . I sniff. He does appear to be holding back his lunch. “Okay, so he’s traumatized. But I didn’t traumatize him. The dead man’s body was too bloated and I—”

“Dead body?” Lute leans back and crosses his arms. Those dimples deepen.

I stall and hear Mum’s voice rush like a tide in my head. “Rhen, people aren’t as impressed by dead bodies as you are. You can’t just talk about them in public.”

I pinch my palms and turn to peer back into the alley for the angry sexton, because this might be a convenient time for him to appear. Instead, I find a group of kids with snot-smeared faces whispering excitedly and pointing toward the northern hillsides where the fancy estates all sit. The highest up of which belongs to Mr. Holm. “Holm’ll pluck out your eyeballs with his pointy teeth if you try to sneak in,” a girl says.

“And gnaw your fingers off!” another squeals.

“My old man says Holm comes down here at night looking for kids to steal, and when he catches one, he sticks ’em in his Labyrinth. That’s what the scholarship test really is—to see how many you can free before he eats ’em.”

Mary Weber's Books