To Best the Boys – Mary Weber

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. Sincerely, Holm 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. 1 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 bloodslicked 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. Except for Beryll, who I doubt has ever been compelling in his life. I swerve toward his yelping face to find it turning the color of heifer’s milk beneath his high-cut bangs and lengthy nose. Oh for the love of—“Beryll, be quiet!” His gaze veers to mine with an expression promising I’m definitely going to the underworld and he’s got a mind to help send me there. That, or he’s about to lift his impeccably pressed knickers and scurry for the back door, outside of which my cousin, Seleni, is keeping watch in the village alley. Unfortunately, he neither attacks or scurries. He just keeps screaming. With a groan, I grip my glass vial and scramble toward him beneath the low, curved ceiling that’s already got the wretched air locked in too tight, and thrust my other hand over his mouth.

“Beryll, shut up! You’re gonna get us caught!” He pulls away to shove his dainty handkerchief back over his lips, while his screeching stumbles into a strangled falsetto. He locks his brown eyes on mine in the stuffy space that’s lit like a halo by the two oil lanterns hanging from the rafters. “Miss Tellur. That thing’s belly just moved. I think expressing nerves at such a time is completely acceptable, considering it’s still . ” He tightens his fingers on the linen covering half his face. “Alive!” “It’s not alive,” I hiss, my mind finally wrenching into gear. “The body’s just bloated. The belly was reacting to my abdominal incision. But if you keep up your whining, we’ll likely join him on these slabs!” I point the glass vial I’m still holding toward the narrow, oil-stained door in front of us, where the sexton’s quarters lie beyond and a shiny copper bell hangs above, and hold my breath.

That bell’s made to ring if anyone enters or exits—mainly in case the dead in fact ever do rise. Whether it’s the religious rapture or an outbreak of undead, the good folk of Pinsbury Port believe it’d be equally important to know which they’re specifically missing out on. Beryll’s voice sharpens to a whistle. “What do you mean reacting? Dead things don’t react!” I shake my head, recalling Da’s mention of such things. “Sometimes they move. It’s the nerves or gastrointestinal system. Now for goodness’ sake, Beryll—you wanted to come.” I put a finger to my mouth. “So shush!” He shushes, although I’m guessing it’s only because he just got a good inhale of the extra-thick decomposition fumes. I flick my gaze back to the sexton’s door and count six heartbeats as I watch and wait.

The spiritual man has yet to catch me. Still, he’s heard my disturbances often enough to believe the room’s haunted. Thinks it’s our dead armies—the ones that still rise on the moor at night because some fool forgot to tell them the war ended two hundred years ago. I wait a moment longer. No movement of the handle or metal bell. Then release my breath, ease my shoulders, and turn to Beryll, muttering, “Are you trying to get Seleni and me sent to the workhouse?” “Of course not.” He edges toward the rear door on which Seleni’s now tapping sharply from the outside. The sounds of horse and carriage clipping by emerge, then fade. “And they wouldn’t send you there anyway. Your cousin’s father would bail her out and just convince the constable you’re off your head.

Best case, they’d post a sign on your parents’ house to warn folks—and really, I’m not sure I’d blame them, Miss Tellur.” He tugs at his shirt cuffs and waistcoat, then swallows as he turns an unusual shade of green. I purse my lips. I start to tell him to pull himself together, but I abruptly end up bent over. The atmosphere’s just hit my stomach too. I scramble my glove across my knitted scarf and yank it up over my nose to plug my nostrils tight and slow the rolling in my gut. The baking afternoon sun has heated this room to a steamy level—like the graveyard and underground catacombs last year when the storms flooded the marsh. The rank miasma nearly suffocated half the town and drew the sirens in with the smell of rotting flesh. “Besides,” Beryll says, still inching for the door. “The constables are about to have better things to worry about than people stealing organs and blood from the dead.

” I glance up. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. Can we just leave?” I assess him with a frown. I assume he’s referring to the competition tomorrow at Holm Castle— the one Beryll’s participating in and that I’ve wanted to for as long as I can remember. But the fact that Mum and I can cut up a corpse or do an equation better than half the blokes my age means nothing when it comes to Caldon’s long-standing tradition of gender roles. I bite my tongue. Force my comments down. “Fine. Help me get these corpses back up, and then we’ll go.” I hurry back to the toppled tables and bodies as Beryll peers at the dead man still on the upright slab behind me—the one who started this whole thing with his twitching stomach.

“Beryll!” I whisper. “Let’s go.” He takes cautious steps in my direction. “In my defense, Miss Tellur, I’m unaccustomed to dead bodies, let alone ones that move. And I can only imagine how Seleni—Miss Lake—would react. I expect she’d be absolutely appalled.” I snort and stop at the first slab. In spite of Seleni’s high civic standing, she joins me in this endeavor near monthly—and while she may be many things, appalled is rarely one of them. Mainly because Beryll is usually appalled enough for both of them. It’s like the one emotion he allowed himself at birth upon discovering he’d had to travel through his mum’s delivery canal.

I highly doubt he’s ever forgiven the woman. I roll my eyes and glance down at the vial I’d been siphoning the body fluid into. Good. None of the precious liquid has spilled. But the lid . I disregard the fallen table and the smell that’s permeating every fiber of my scarf—and scan the dirty floor. Where’s the vial lid? “Rhen, hurry up in there.” Seleni’s delicate voice muffles through the rear door. “Beryll, tell Rhen to get a move on. We have my parents’ party to prepare for.

” “Miss Tellur . ” I ignore them both and search the floor around the upright table with the dead man. Then around the lady’s body still lying stiff with the others on the floor. The old woman’s skin matches the stormgrey slate tiles, like the petrified hand of a knight I’d once unearthed. “Miss Tellur—” “I heard her, Beryll.” “Good, because I feel the need to inform you—” “I know, Beryll, but I’ve dropped the lid.” “Not your cousin. The corpse. Something’s happening. The stomach’s moving again, and—” “Oh for heaven’s sake, if you’re that nerved out, just go stand by the—” A gurgling sound emits from the table above my head.

I grab the glass lid that my boot’s just bumped against and slowly rise, lifting my face eye level with the cadaver. One calculated look informs me what’s making the noise. Beryll’s right. It’s not just another odd twitch of the nerves. The guy’s bloated stomach is rippling. I frown. No, not just rippling. It’s . I plunge the lid onto the vial. “Beryll, get to the door.

” “What? Why? Is he actually alive? I told you—” I launch for him and pull us both toward the back entrance just as Beryll lets out a horrified whimper.

.

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