To Best the Boys(6)

That a young woman hanging around the midday market is appropriate if, like Seleni, she has prospects. But for me? It’s further proof of why I couldn’t hold on to a shop maid apprenticeship at her husband’s “fine letters and script” store. “Apathy is unbecoming for a woman of any position,” she’d told a client within my hearing the day before I was let go.

Seleni flashes me a glance that says she’d speak up if it didn’t expose my secret—that it was never a matter of apathy. That words and letters have shifted order in my head for as long as I can remember, and cleaning trays of letter blocks day in and day out was a mix-up waiting to happen. I misplaced the arrangements one too many times and got fired within two weeks.

“No wonder she and her husband drink a lot,” Lute says quietly, conscientiously not looking at me.

Seleni snorts.

“As I was saying,” Beryll interrupts. “I’d like to get home and wash up.”

Seleni shoots him a look. “I can’t go home with my shoes like this—Mum would fall into fits. And Rhen’s house won’t have enough water for washing her clothes and hair.” She grips me and screeches. “And tonight’s party! Mum’ll be horrified if we’re late, especially with members of parliament there! We need to fix ourselves now, Rhen.”

I wave toward the wharf. “It’ll be fine. We’ll take a quick dip in the sea. Fully dressed,” I add as Beryll turns five shades of berry.

“Because Mrs. Holder’s right about one thing.” Seleni keeps talking as if I’ve not spoken. “Vincent can’t see you like this. We have to make you presentable.”

“Vincent? As in Vincent King?” Lute peers from Seleni to me.

I grimace and note the wary shift in his countenance.

She nods.

I grip the vial tighter and wish she’d stayed quiet, even though I don’t know why it matters or why I care what Lute thinks, but for some reason I do.

“He’s pursuing Miss Tellur’s hand for courtship,” Beryll blurts out.

“Beryll, don’t—” But it’s too late. My lungs fall as I watch Lute’s mood from earlier return and cloud his countenance.

He studies me a moment, as if absorbing this information and analyzing my expression. Whatever he finds there, it’s as if the shutters close on his thoughts and his lips pucker in disdain.

He straightens from me and looks to the distance. And when he glances back, his own expression is an ocean away. “That reminds me. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some business to get to.”

He strides off quickly—almost as if he can’t escape fast enough—and I am left staring after him, wondering what about Vincent had upset him. Or was it the fact we’re attending Seleni’s rich father’s party?

Both, probably. The Lowers don’t take well to the indulgences of the rich.

I swallow and ignore the squeezing in my chest that says I of all people should know.

“We have to hurry.” Seleni yanks my arm as Lute disappears into the crowd.

I push back the urge to go after him—because really, what would you say, Rhen?—and, instead, allow her to pull me toward the walkway between the textile maker and millinery booths while Beryll discreetly points out the herbalist nearby. He’s got his fingers clamped over his nose and his red cap is askew. He rakes his gaze up and down us as his eyes grow round from his spot in the rickety grey stand that, up until we arrived, probably smelled delightfully of medicinal mint and sweat.

I tuck the vial of stolen blood along with my gloves into my coat’s inner pocket—the secret one I sewed into the lining a few months ago after thieves grabbed a bottle from my hand and dropped it on the cobbles whereupon it shattered. They didn’t know exposing blood like that is a good way to spread the plague.

“Soldiers, help! Beasts!” A voice roars through the rows of market stalls behind us. “Robbers! Someone tore open a body and—”

We don’t wait for the sexton to finish. We plunge down the alley toward the fork that splits the hill, where one side leads up for home and the other leads down to the ocean. Turning onto the latter, we bolt along the shadowed, serpentine stone path that winds past the sloping houses peering out to the sea beyond. More specifically, peering out over our town’s livelihood and Lute’s dead father’s boat.

To the old wharf of Pinsbury Port.


There’s something about knowing death is on the horizon. About knowing life hangs on a few strands of genetic material, and knowing the only hope for a cure might currently be sitting in a little glass vial inside the toe of my shoe up on the beach, forty paces behind Seleni and her beau. On the shore of the only town I’ve ever lived in.

According to Da, aside from the abnormal death rate, Pinsbury Port is just like any other place. We have the usual fare of rich and poor, old people and babies, gossipy constables and cat-dressing biddies, all neatly tucked away along the lower tip of a tiny green kingdom called Caldon, also known as King Francis’s Emerald Heart. It sits in the middle of a much larger collection of kingdoms commonly referred to as the Empyral Lands.

Mum says Caldon’s greenery wakes with the morning along the Rhine Mountains and spends the day stretching down the valleys and hillsides until it reaches our little town along the Midian Sea, where it likes to lick away the last of the afternoon sun rays and also a few more lives. Because apparently green and death are what we excel at.

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