To Best the Boys(2)

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.

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