To Best the Boys(10)

Lute peers our way and his face is a scowl. His eyes hold the same expression they did when at the age of thirteen he caught a group of bullies making fun of his little brother’s features and the way he rocked back and forth. Lute had found them in the alley cornering Ben after school and had taken them all on at once. Despite a bloody nose and sliced chin, he’d won.

I’d offered him a cloth, then gotten Da to stitch him up, and while Lute’s mum had been none too happy, Da said he was a good kid and those boys had no place teasing a young’un with a special mind.

It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Lute fight.

I try to catch his eye, but he’s busy greeting the boys who’ve headed for him. If Lute notices me, he doesn’t acknowledge it, and I don’t know why I wish he would, because it’s a silly thing. But I do. And then Seleni is dragging me off with the comment that the sun’s almost down and her parents’ party is waiting, and it occurs to me that the blood vial that’s burning a hole in my pocket is waiting too.

“Oh good, you’re here, Rhen.” A woman steps in front of us as we pull away from the crowd. “You got my order for tomorrow, right? Three buns and five Labyrinth cakes.” It’s Mrs. Lacey.

“Mine too,” her sister adds. “Except I’ve only the six cakes.”

I nod at the women, then cast a glance back at Lute and the boys. “Of course. I’m baking them tonight and will drop them by in the morning.” I offer the women a polite smile before Seleni and I take off to follow Beryll up the road toward home.

“Sounds like you’ve got a full night, Miss Tellur,” Beryll says when we catch up.

I absentmindedly acknowledge his Beryll-like attempt at humor and try to ignore my desire to look back at Lute and the crowd again. I’d rather spend the evening with them.

A quarter mile up the walk we arrive at my street, where the air is grimy with a layer of grey floating around the shingled rooftops of our sloped village turning pink in the evening light. Much like the steam gathered in the clefts of the far-off mountains where the rare basilisks breathe fire. The hearths have already been lit, and the smell of smoldering cattle-manure chips stings the nostrils and eyes as the dinners are cooked quickly, before the cheap fuel dies out.

“All right, love. We’ll see you in an hour.” Seleni gives my hair a hopeful eye and waves, as does Beryll, and the next moment they are gone—hurrying up the hill away from the beat-up houses and broken streets, to the river that cuts like a thread to separate the Lowers from the rich estates. That separates people like Da and Mum and me from those I used to wish we could be: my aunt and uncle, and Mr. Holm of Holm Castle, proprietor of the legendary Labyrinth exams that Beryll and every other eligible young man is set to enter tomorrow. While the children thrill in terror, and the women and girls cheer the young men on with cups of tea and the type of Labyrinth cakes I will bake tonight.

I watch Seleni and Beryll disappear, then slip up to my door before old Mrs. Mench can catch sight of me through her window and rush out with the evening lecture. “You’re awfully noisy at night, Rhen. Who’s your father treating now? How’s your mum? What have you done all day?”

I sniff and unlock the latch. I’ve been out with boys, showing them my ankles, Mrs. Mench.

The house is dim when I enter, and the interior smells of leftover yeast and spice from last night’s scant baking. I peek into the small kitchen with its washbasin, wood hearth, and tiny round table surrounded by three rough-hewn chairs that only Da and I sit at most days now.

I glance toward his and Mum’s room, where she’s likely lying down. My lungs and stomach fight the urge to run back outside where the air doesn’t feel like a shroud and my dread doesn’t sound so loud. Because in here? The grief and fear are a ticking clock that is perpetually winding down on the mantel.

I swallow and pause a moment to listen.

The rustling beneath the floorboards says Da’s still working in the cellar.

Good. I head for the stairs.

“And where’ve you been all day?” he asks upon my descent of the curved, rickety steps to a shelved room lined with alchemy books and medicines, many of his own creation. His pepper-grey hair is sticking up like a puff of smoke, and he’s standing between two tables. One we use for cutting up specimens, and the other holds an assembly of his invented equipment and machines—the latest of which has been transformational in our work. He calls it cell fractionation.

“Thought you’d be back in bed when I left this morning. Did the deliveries go all right?” He hovers over the nearest table, where he has Pink Lady, the smallest of three rats we’ve been performing tests on. As a rule I don’t name our subjects, but from the moment Da brought her in, I’ve felt she’d be the one to help unlock the cure. She twitches her rosy nose and bites his thick-gloved finger. She’s actually the tame one compared to the other ten in our current possession.

I draw near, watching for the movement of the rat’s muscles. Da said if we were going to find a cure, we needed live subjects. I insisted we only use already infected ones—of which, so far, there’s been an endless supply.

And so far, she’s lasted the longest.

I pat her head, then pull out the few coins my baked goods brought in and set them on the bill shelf. My scant business earns little, but added to Da’s income, it helps us live. And it’s work I understand—the way the ingredients come together to create a chemical reaction. It’s soothing.

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