Perfect for fans of The Scorpio Races and Caraval, To Best the Boys is a new fantasy novel from the beloved and bestselling author of the Storm Siren trilogy, Mary Weber.
“To Best the Boys is an addicting read.” —JODI MEADOWS, New York Times bestselling author of The Incarnate Trilogy and coauthor of My Lady Jane
The task is simple:
Don a disguise.
Survive the labyrinth.
Best the boys.
In a thrilling new fantasy from the bestselling author of the Storm Siren Trilogy, one girl makes a stand against society and enters a world made exclusively for boys.
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.
“Atmospheric, romantic, inspiring.” —KRISTEN CICCARELLI, internationally bestselling author of The Last Namsara
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Mary Weber is the award-winning HarperCollins author of the bestselling young adult Storm Siren Trilogy, and The Sofi Snow duology. An avid school and conference speaker, Mary’s passion is helping others find their voice amid a world that often feels too loud. When she’s not plotting adventures involving tough girls who frequently take over the world, Mary sings 80s hairband songs to her three muggle children and ogles her husband who looks strikingly like Wolverine. They live in California which is perfect for stalking LA bands and the ocean. She gets nerdy at maryweber.com; Facebook: marychristineweber; Instagram: maryweberauthor; Twitter: @mchristineweber; and Goodreads.
Read an Excerpt
The problem with siphoning blood from a warm cadaver is that sometimes its belly makes an involuntarily twitch just as you're leaning over the bloated, cooling skin.
The problem with being the girl currently stealing the sticky blood is that while the logic center of my brain says there's an explanation for such phenomena, my spine knows it must be one of two things. Either the good king's clerics are up on Mount Scourge somewhere trying to raise the dead ...
Or I've just discovered the town's first certifiable vampyre right here in the cloying cellar of the local undertaker's lodgings.
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 right here and now of heart failure is incredibly magnanimous of me. Instead, I stay alive and spring backward with a curse, muted by the scarf covering my mouth, inside the tiny room in my even tinier seaside town that sits on the border of a tiny green kingdom that believes itself the center of the entire Empyral world.
Unfortunately, my launch backward sends my curved hind side against another cadaver-laden table and knocks the thing so hard, the wood creaks loudly beneath the lady cadaver laid out on it. Next thing I know, the legs start to tilt away from my rear (which the cadaver's face is now ungraciously pressed up against), and I flip around to grab the poor woman, but it's too late. The whole thing's already tipping and sliding and — ah, hulls — it upends between my fingers and disturbs the old gal's resting place by unceremoniously dumping her stiff body onto the cold sloped ground. Like a white oak dropping a tree branch in summer.
I stall and take a breath, and — oh, you've got to be jesting —
The dead lady starts to roll.
I jerk a gloved hand out to grab the edge of a third table, but the lady's body clips its legs and promptly sends it rocking. It slips from my grasp, and that table slams into the next. And that one into the next, and so on and so on, until five of the eleven dead people in here have suddenly taken the phrase "from dust to dust" literally as they join the old lady cadaver on the ground in a scene that looks like a dramatic retelling of The King's Fair Predator.
This, of course, is when Beryll starts to high-pitch scream.
And 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, and Mum says it's like our own version of township pride. What doesn't kill you makes you compelling. Except for Beryll, who's never been compelling in his life.
I swerve toward his yelping face to find it turning the color of heifer's milk beneath his lengthy nose and high-cut bangs. He looks like a puffer fish standing there. 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, his lady, Seleni, is keeping watch in the village alley.
Unfortunately, he does neither. He just keeps screaming.
I scramble toward him beneath the low, curved ceiling that's already got the wretched air locked in too tight and thrust my hand over his mouth. "Beryll, shut up! You're gonna get us caught!"
His screeching stumbles into a strangled falsetto, and he pulls away to shove his dainty handkerchief back up over his lips, then turns to lock 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," he snarls. "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. The body's still cooling," I hiss. "The belly was reacting to my first 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. If 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.
"What do you mean reacting?" His voice sharpens to a whistle. "Dead things don't react!"
I shake my head, recalling what Da's told me before 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 decomposition fumes that are extra thick in here today.
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, but Will and Sam say he's heard my disturbances often enough to believe the room's haunted. Thinks it's our dead armies that still rise on the moor at night because some fool forgot to tell them the war's been over a few hundred years now.
A moment longer and I ease my shoulders and let out a rush of breath. No movement of the handle or metal bell. "Are you trying to get Seleni and me sent to the workhouse?" I mutter, turning to Beryll, who's edging toward the rear door on which Seleni's now tapping from the outside. The sounds of horse and carriage clipping by emerge, then fade.
"Of course not." He huffs. "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 a funny shade of green.
I purse my lips and scowl, then force a deep breath. And abruptly end up bent over. My scarf must've slipped off in the chaos because the atmosphere's just hit my stomach too. I scramble sticky fingers across the knitted rag 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 that's working the dissolution faster and ramping up the rank smell — like the graveyard and underground catacombs last year when the storms flooded the marsh. The miasma nearly suffocated half the town and drew the sirens in with the smell of rotting flesh. King Francis's army was almost called in to deal with them.
"Besides," Beryll murmurs, 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, that I've wished I could, too, for as long as I can remember. But society's more likely to embrace cross-stitch as a sport than toss out its long-standing history of gender roles. No matter that Mum and I can cut up a corpse or do an equation the same or better than half the blokes my age.
My stomach squeezes. I bite my tongue and force the frustration aside with the nausea. "Here. Just help me get these slabs and 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, let's go!"
His steps are cautious in my direction. "In my defense, Miss Tellur," he hisses. "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 forgo mentioning that 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, and that's simply because Beryll is always appalled. It's like the one emotion he allowed himself at birth when he discovered he'd had to travel through his mum's delivery canal in order to exist. 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, to ensure none of the precious liquid has spilled. It hasn't.
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 tipped-over 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 —"
"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 to take a calculated look at what's making the noise. Beryll's right. It's not just another odd twitch of the muscle. 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 and goes limp.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 incision. I must've cut too deep — too near the bowels — because the noise is accompanied by a sudden bursting, and then a haze of gas and fluid erupt 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, and I have to slap Beryll to get him to move.
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 shove 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, I imagine, into the old underground catacombs to wake the ancient ghouls.
Seleni gasps and flips around as 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 chilly 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 walking 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 briars. 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Best the Boys"
Copyright © 2019 Mary 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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