To Best the Boys(5)

The smallest of the group nods. “That’s what he does to trespassers too. Sticks ’em under his castle and lets the old knights at ’em.”

The kid beside him shivers.

“You guys still going tomorrow then?” says the first girl, a suddenly nervous lilt in her voice.

“Of course. I wanna hear who dies first,” her friend crows. He casually glances our way, and I catch his eye and offer a smile. He responds by putting on a fierce face and assessing Beryll’s fancy, lined surcoat. He points it out to the others and they all start snickering. “Pretty sure he’s going to be the first to die in there,” the youngest says, before his gaze moves on to gawp at Seleni’s pretty shoes.

“Care to draw a bet on that?” another asks.

I glance at Beryll just as the baker in the nearby booth growls at the kids. “You rats stop lollygagging and scat! I won’t warn you again. Yer scarin’ away my customers.”

Beryll swallows loudly, straightens his soiled sleeve cuffs, and acts as if he didn’t just hear the children’s monetization of his impending death. “Miss Tellur, maybe I should explain the predicament you just put me in. Seleni—I mean, Miss Lake—please pardon my current dishevelment, but I feel it my duty to inform you that the horrific event that has just taken place is not what I had in mind when you invited me to attend such an endeavor. And, as such, I hardly want to speak of it, for fear it’ll upset your delicate constitution.”

Good. Then don’t.

Seleni lifts a hand. “Constitution monstitution. One of you dish it before I throttle you.”

Not in front of Lute. I glare at Beryll to clamp his mouth shut.

The nineteen-year-old’s face falls grave, but he clenches his lips and lifts his narrow chin. “Fine then. In that case, Miss Lake, your cousin here . . .” His tone dips confidentially as he adjusts his sleeve cuffs again and nods at the wide-eyed group of children still observing us from near the baker’s. “Your cousin has just exploded a body.”

“You did what?” Seleni swerves to me.

“Did she really now?” Lute murmurs.

“At first I thought the poor chap was alive.” Beryll wipes at his short brown bangs across his forehead. “Which was its own sort of terrifying. I’d rather you not think on it further, lest you faint.”

“From the smell of you two, I’m surprised she hasn’t already.” Lute’s amused gaze stays on me as Seleni’s cheek suddenly twitches.

“Is there anything left of him?” she demands.

I cough softly into my shoulder.

Beryll lifts a finger to adjust his rumpled collar.

“I’m not sure,” I finally admit. “It was like a spew. It even hit a wall.”

“As well as your faces apparently.” Seleni looks down as if it just struck her that we have actual corpse fluid on our clothes and skin. “Oh dear.” Her cheek twitches again. “Oh my.”

“Well, in my defense, the stomach gases can build up and—”

Beryll’s eyes bulge from their sockets. “Gases—really, Miss Tellur? Perhaps you can keep your voice down.”

Except there’s no need because Seleni has just erupted into a high-pitched peal of laughter that causes the ogling children to stare harder and even a few of the market sellers to turn and look as their customers waver between buying leather shoes or leftovers.

“Miss Lake!” Beryll uses his second-level-of-appalled tone, which is normally reserved for things like exposed elbows, liberal thinking, and every time I talk about undergarments. “I find nothing funny about this or the fluid on our faces. And I’d like to get home to bathe immediately.”

“Oh good grief, Beryll.” Seleni starts to tug away from the growing stares of interest, except a voice ripples out from the market booths opposite us. “Oh, Seleniiiii! I thought that was you over there!”

I freeze. I don’t have to see the owner to know who it belongs to. She’s married to one of the town’s papery owners, with whom my uncle landed me an apprenticeship two summers ago. The woman is squeezed in between two seller stalls with an armful of fresh eggs.

“Did your mother get those cards she ordered, dear? We had our boy drop them off at the estate.”

Seleni makes her voice cheerier than usual. “Yes, Mrs. Holder. My mum received them this morning, thank you. So nice to see you.”

“Oh good. Well, I’d love to hear if she’s pleased with them. If she is, perhaps she could mention it to your father’s parliament friends.” The woman pauses long enough that I think maybe she’s moved on, but I catch her looking at Lute and me. I hold my breath, but her demeanor doesn’t alter other than to adjust the load in her arms—as if to suggest we carry it for her. When we don’t offer, she apparently thinks better of it and turns away.

I let my shoulders ease, until she stops and something flicks across her countenance as she swerves back our direction. She takes a step nearer and my lungs crawl inside my spine. “Miss Tellur,” she says sharply. “I hardly recognized you.”

She glances at my clothes, then at our surroundings, and furrows her brow. “Young lady, I’d hate to mention to young Vincent’s parents that this is how you spend your time. I can’t imagine they would approve.” She purses her lips as if she has more to say and believes it would do me a favor to do so. But instead, mercifully, she tightens her arms around her market load and says nothing further. Just turns and strides away, and I am left with embarrassment flaring in my gut and on my face at the mention of Vincent, and at knowing full well what the rest of her words would’ve been.

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