To Best the Boys(8)

“My family’s arrived two days ago.” The white sand crunches beneath Beryll’s feet as he and Seleni jump up and fall in behind me. “What about yours, Miss Lake?”

Seleni squeals. “It came last night. I can’t imagine what the delay was this year, but it arrived on stamped linen paper with a lovely seal. Mum has already ordered a variation for our winter solstice invites. She says a person’s stationery is as important as their fashion—both tell your position, piety, and how well you think of yourself.”

I keep my mouth shut.

“Wonderful. Your families will both be attending the event, of course?”

I keep walking toward the landing and let Seleni answer, since Beryll’s question is more for her anyway. She’s been excited for weeks. My cousin, who is in every way nearly the same as me—same seventeen years, same brown hair and tan skin color—except when it comes to our family stations and interests. She’s the socialite and I’m the proletarian scientist. Meaning, she likes to talk about thrilling things happening. I like to experience them.

And now her reply is breathless. “Of course we’re attending! We’ve already plotted our spot to sit out the competition. And Beryll, you’ll be a magnificent competitor. Just imagine what it’ll be like! Oh, I just know you’re going to win.”

“So my father hopes.”

I stiffen and feel the dull ache of jealousy rise, of what it must be like to compete for such a thing.

“Beryll Jaymes,” Seleni crows. “You’ve got all the smarts to pull it off. You know numbers and equations just as good as anyone. And you’re strong too.”

“Yes. Except so are the rest in my grade—as my father keeps reminding me.”

I fall back to walk beside them, eyeing Beryll. “Maybe. But the fact that you’re aware of that will work for you. You’ll not go in overly confident. And you’re one of the smartest people I know, Beryll. Even if you do scream a lot.”

He laughs and gives me a shy, warm nod. “Thank you, Miss Tellur. I suppose it’s just the practical experience I fear I lack.”

My cousin tips a slender hand at me. “Which is why Rhen took you to the undertaker’s today. And why her father gave you his old lecture notes and let you sit in on their experiments last week. Think of all that knowledge no other contestant will have. You even examined a dead body!”

“Miss Lake, you flatter me.” But Beryll’s countenance lightens with appreciation, and he lifts his hands to tug confidently on his water-spotted waistcoat as we tread through the sand. “I’ve surely not had enough preparation, although you are correct—I’ve had more than many my age. And were I to be pursuing a degree in medicine, this would serve me even better. Alas, business studies it is.”

I bite my tongue and refuse to let his words keep feeding my hunger. And decline mentioning that if preparation is the measure, I’ve had at least as much as a good many of the Stemwick scholarship applicants in the science, engineering, technology, and math areas the competition tests for. Instead, I keep trudging and pretend the whole thing doesn’t prick at that space inside my chest. The one that can’t help wondering what I could do with the type of education Beryll and the young men like him are headed for. What kind of things I could learn. What kind of diseases I might study or cure.

I trail my gaze along the skyline to the boats making port at the wooden docks where Lute’s is already moored, gleaming cleaner—as always—than the rest.

“What about your family, Beryll?” Seleni chatters on as a mum with two small children toddles by. My cousin’s eyes follow them with a wishful mien. “Will they be attending the Labyrinth examination?”

There’s a sudden twinge in her tone, and I don’t have to question her to know what it’s from—what she’s hoping. It’s half of what she’s talked about the past seven months since she and Beryll have officially been seeing each other, even though he’s been a side fixture in our lives since the age of thirteen. Her desire is well known between the three of us—to have his family care enough to spend time with her, and perhaps welcome her like a flower into their fold with open tendril arms.

Sometimes I think being Beryll’s wife and having kids is her highest aspiration. But there are certain things even money and status can’t buy—like approval of a person or marriage. No matter how high standing one’s perfect family is. Especially when in Beryll’s father’s eyes, apparently no one is high standing enough for his only child.

Beryll’s hesitation is so long I finally swerve to glare at him as we step up onto the wide wharf front with its smelly fishing carts and rows of white-curtained shanties stretching on for forever, crossed with the main street leading home. His demeanor is as tight as his voice. “Yes. They’ll be attending.”

Seleni’s sweet, hopeful grin stays, even as a flicker of disappointment and hurt shades her eyes.

I bite my cheek and don an innocent expression. “As will the Schaffer and Newton families,” I say casually. “Seleni, your father mentioned they’re both keen to get to know you. I hear their boys are hoping to earn more than just your parents’ approval.”

Beryll coughs and nearly trips over his feet. “Miss Lake—I don’t think that’s necessary. I doubt—”

Mary Weber's Books