Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port have received a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. The poorer residents look to see if their names are on the list. The wealthier look to see how likely their sons are to survive. And Rhen Tellur opens it to see if she can derive which substances the ink and parchment are created from, using her father’s microscope.
In the province of Caldon, where women train in wifely duties and men pursue collegiate education, sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur wants nothing more than to become a scientist. As the poor of her seaside town fall prey to a deadly disease, she and her father work desperately to find a cure. But when her mum succumbs to it as well? Rhen decides to take the future into her own hands—through the annual all-male scholarship competition.
With her cousin, Seleni, by her side, the girls don disguises and enter Mr. Holm’s labyrinth, to best the boys and claim the scholarship prize. Except not everyone is ready for a girl who doesn’t know her place. And not everyone survives the deadly maze.
Welcome to the labyrinth.
Praise for To Best the Boys:
“Atmospheric, romantic, inspiring.” —KRISTEN CICCARELLI, internationally bestselling author of The Last Namsara
"Smart, determined, and ready to take on the world: Rhen Tellur is an outstanding heroine with every reason to win a competition historically intended for boys." —Jodi Meadows, New York Times bestselling author of The Incarnate Trilogy and coauthor of My Lady Jane
A “Hunger Games/Handmaid’s Tale mash-up.” —BN Teen Blog
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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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 blood-slicked 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 for- got 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 storm-grey 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.CHAPTER 2
I grab the door handle and yank it open as a popping sound occurs from the dead man's body — right at the place I'd made the first inspecting incision. I must've cut too deep — too near the bowels — because the noise is accompanied by a sud- den bursting, and then a haze of gas and fluid erupts from the poor soul's left side like a decrepit volcano. It sends flecks flying across the room to spatter against our skin and hair and faces. With a hard shove I thrust Beryll out into the shimmering light of the dying afternoon — where we both slam into Seleni in her new lace skirt and take her sprawling to the ground with us.
"What in —? Rhen, I beg your —"
I don't speak, just jump up and pull the two of them with me while gulping in briny ocean air to exorcise the death stench, then turn and propel the undertaker's door shut behind us. Oops. I push too fast and the string attached to the bell clapper above the doorway — the string I always pull taut before entering or leaving in order to keep it from ringing — gets tugged, and the thing goes off with a clang.
The sound rings too sharp, too loud, in the narrow stone passage, spiraling up to echo across the rooftops to rouse the constables, and down into the old underground catacombs to wake the ghouls.
Seleni gasps and flips around as her beau, Beryll, turns the color of a late-harvest apple. "Rhen, what in King Francis's —?"
"Nothing. Just go!" I snag her arm and shove her toward Beryll, then click the door's footlock in place before I take off after them down the narrow cobblestone alley that is all filth and stone beneath our feet — and walls of rotting wood on either side of us — with a thin ribbon of sapphire sky peeking through the patchwork of eaves overhead.
The tall, two-story houses slip past, dark and creaky, as we sprint through the winding alleyways. My gloved left hand grips the sealed vial while my right hand tugs my flimsy cloak closer against the specter of cold that haunts every recess and shadow of our otherwise overbaked coastal town.
Behind us, the bell on the inner door starts ringing. The sexton.
"Getting sloppy, Rhen," I can almost hear Sam and Will say.
"Overhead!" Seleni squeals.
I look up, then slow down, just as a waterfall of swill lands on the path fifteen steps in front of us. It splatters the ground and walls and our boots as the woman in a shawl tossing it from her window doesn't even bother giving us a second glance.
With a leap and a skip, Seleni and I dance past the mess in the same pattern we did as children when we'd play hop frog along the Tinny River. We wait for Beryll to gingerly step around it before we turn the corner and pick up running the narrow labyrinth of more lanes.
Just above the midway street, which cuts widthwise through the entire sloping hill of cottages and alleys, we reach a clump of steps, which we clear in one jump, to arrive in the middle of the cobblestoned heart of Pinsbury Port. Namely, its teeming and smelly afternoon market.
Seller booths and mingling bodies rush into view, as does a tall, flamboyant flutist trying to earn coin as children dance and giggle. I slam my soles into the ground to avoid hitting them, except my body keeps flying — straight into a man walk- ing in front of the herbalist's booth.
"Look ou —" My strangled yelp retreats down my throat as my face plants into the back of the gentleman's broad frame, right between his massive shoulder blades, just as Beryll and Seleni skid up behind me.
The poor man lurches forward enough for my face to peel off his damp fisherman's coat. "Sorry, sir," I choke out. "I —"
He flips around with dark eyes and a darker countenance, and my words drop away like the damp autumn leaves scattered at our feet.
If I could evaporate into the sea-foam air I would. Instead, I stand there, stolen blood in hand, beneath the irritated gaze of Lute Wilkes, best fisherman of the port and school chum who was two grades my senior growing up, until a couple summers ago when I left to be educated at home and he to go support his family on his dead father's trawling boat. His full lips still have that pucker the girls liked to swoon over. The same one I wondered more than a few times if the tissue was actually formed that way, or if he was just perpetually in the mood to kiss things. I once imagined dissecting his face to find out.
A storm behind Lute's eyes suggests we interrupted something. His scowl flickers over my disheveled appearance — my cadaver-stained hands, wrinkled outer coat, and hair that at some point unraveled from its bun into a forest of wild bri- ars. His gaze slowly registers recognition before it moves on to Beryll and Seleni, who are doubled over, gasping.
Two seconds go by and he returns his attention to me. And just like that, his eyes do the nice thing that used to illuminate the earthen cider cellar behind Sarah Gethries's house — the one none of us were supposed to know about, but we all hung out there anyway.
I blink, and the skin on my wrists turns the color of sweet pomegranates. My bloody, gloved fingers suddenly feel very bloody, and my hair very briar-y. And all I can think of is that maybe the whole lip-swooning thing had a point after all because they are rather anatomically balanced.
"Rhen, what in pantaloons?" Seleni half laughs, half demands. "You set off the alarm!"
I swallow and nod at her but keep my eyes on Lute, who smells of salt-wood and morning tides and freedom. He's a bit more sun drenched than the last time I ran into him a few months ago when Roy Bellow called my da crazy and my mum an independent woman. At the time, Lute had been helping his mum and brother in the glassmaker's shop where I'd been "borrowing" a particular set of magnifying lenses. Lute frowned at Roy, but I'd already taken it upon myself to suggest that being crazy and independent were far better than being a suckling calf.
Which apparently isn't something one should say.
Roy has tried twice since then to corner me in an alley.
Lute tips his chin down, and a swag of black bangs falls forward as a sprinkle of sun rays catches his dark lashes and scatters thin shadows across his brown cheeks. Like firelight from an evening burn. He raises a single thick brow in a smart look, as if he's remembering the interaction, and slips into an easy smile. "Did you at least hide the body this time, Miss Tellur?" I bite my cheek and freeze. "Body? I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Wilkes."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Best The Boys"
Copyright © 2019 Mary Christine Weber.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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