Star Cursed - Page 11/73

I don’t want Finn miserable, but the thought is still cheering. I stuff Sachi’s handkerchief in my pocket and try to pretend I’m not scanning the crowd for his face. “Truly?”

“Truly. But you aren’t the only one with news.” Sachi raises her cider in a toast, then clinks her mug against Rory’s, ignoring her sour look. “I’m betrothed!”

That snags my attention. “To your cousin Renjiro?”

“Father wouldn’t stand for anything else.” Brother Ishida is head of the Chatham council. He has no notion that his daughters are witches—or that Sachi knows about Rory’s paternity. Rory herself doesn’t know. Sachi thinks it’s safer that way, as Rory has a tendency toward heedlessness enhanced by her sherry habit.

“She can’t marry him. He’s a dreadful prig. That’s where you come in, Cate.” Rory gives me her rabbity smile. Save their dark, straight hair, she and Sachi look nothing alike. Rory is tall and voluptuous and always a little coarse-looking; Sachi is petite and dark-eyed and elegant. But they’re both dressed in the latest fashions, with heeled calfskin boots and fur hoods and bright, gaudy lace dresses peeking out beneath. At a glance, one would assume they’re vapid society girls—not the sort to make trouble.

That would be a grave mistake.

“Me?” I ask. “How?”

“I don’t see how I can get out of it, unless—” Sachi’s cheeks go as violently pink as her gloves. “I hoped you might put in a good word for me with the Sisters.”

“The Sisters?” I echo stupidly. I glance over at them. From here it’s hard to discern one figure cloaked in Sisterly black from another; I can’t even pick out Rilla. It would be a boon for me to have a friend in New London—a true friend I could trust with all my secrets. And Sachi is a witch, though she doesn’t know the Sisterhood’s true purpose. She must be truly desperate to suggest posing as a nun for the rest of her life.

“Do you think they would take me? I’m not very religious, but Lord knows I’m good at pretending to be things I’m not,” she sighs.

“I don’t know,” I say slowly, though my heart leaps at the thought. “I could speak to Sister Cora for you. You, too, Rory?”

Rory lets out a raucous bark of laughter, tucking a strand of black hair beneath her hood. “Can you imagine me a nun? No, thank you.”

“Do you really want to go home and marry Nils?” Sachi frowns. “You’ll become his property. And you’re twelve times cleverer than he is. You can’t want—”

“I do,” Rory interrupts. “I want to be a wife and a mother. I want to be a normal girl. I’ve never had that. I want my daughter to have that.”

Sachi’s hands clench around her mug. “But—if you go back to Chatham, we’ll be separated.”

“We were always going to be separated. You can come visit me at holidays.” Rory smiles. “And I suppose I’ll have to behave, since you won’t be there to intervene with your father. I don’t want to end up like Cousin Brenna.”

“Father wouldn’t send you to Harwood,” Sachi insists, lowering her voice despite the cacophony of the crowd.

Rory raises her thick eyebrows. “You give him more credit than I do. I suspect he’d be glad to see the back of me.”

I bite my tongue out of deference to Sachi, but I suspect Rory’s right.

Rory’s wide mouth is set as she lounges against the trunk of the maple, staring at the bonfire. “Old hypocrite. He had no right.”

“We’ll find another copy,” Sachi promises, tucking Rory’s arm through hers. “Perhaps, when you get home, you could ask Mrs. Belastra.”

Rory shakes her off. “It won’t be the same! It won’t be mine.”

“Who? What’s happened?” I ask, perplexed. At the front of the square, guards emerge from the cathedral, escorting a broad-shouldered figure all in black, and I know that must be Covington. People begin to press eagerly toward the stage. They say Covington is a wonderful speaker; people travel for days to hear his sermons, though they’re printed the next day in the Sentinel for anyone to read.

“Father wanted to contribute to the bonfire,” Sachi explains. “He went through our things while we were out shopping yesterday and took some of our books. There was one that was very special to Rory.”

“Cassandra,” Rory says. Tess had that book when she was little. I thought it was creepy, myself—the adventures of a doll that comes to life while the child is sleeping. “I know that book by heart. There’s a jam spot on page thirteen. Mama was in such good spirits, she wasn’t even cross with me for it. We had a tea party with my dolls that afternoon.”

“You and your mother had a tea party?” Sachi asks. Around us, children pick up their toys and return to their parents, fidgeting as they wait for the ceremony to begin.

“She wasn’t always the way she is now.” Rory blinks away tears, her shoulders hunched, hands shoved in the pockets of her cloak. “When I was little, she was sweet. She used to sew dresses for my dolls. We’d make up stories about the adventures they had while I was sleeping, like Cassandra.”

I think back, trying to recall this version of Rory’s mother. She must have been respectable once, but I can’t remember it. I know her only as a strange shut-in, supposedly suffering from nerves, actually plagued by drink. It’s a wonder she hasn’t been arrested—or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps Brother Ishida worries what secrets might come out if she were put on trial.

I know what it’s like to miss a mother. I can’t imagine having to miss her when she’s right there.

Sachi loops her arm through Rory’s, and we take a few steps toward the stage as a handsome, broad-shouldered man steps up onto it. He has sharp cheekbones and black hair peppered with gray at the temples, and somehow he makes the Brothers’ standard black cloak look like a fine suit. I’ve never seen him before, but I know who he is. Everyone in New England knows who he is. Brother William Covington is the head of the National Council.

Now he stands above us all as the crowd sputters into silence. Fathers lift children up onto their shoulders for a better look. A dozen guards in their black and gold livery surround the platform. I lift my face respectfully toward the stage. Covington is speaking now, in a drawl rich as honey:

“Fiction cultivates the imagination in dangerous ways. It encourages our girls to play dangerous games of what-if, when the truth is, it does not matter what if. What matters is the here and now. What matters is the path the Lord has set out for you.” Covington’s eyes scan the crowd, and he gestures in a way that makes it seem as though he is speaking directly to me. “We must cultivate other qualities in our girls. We must raise them to be good, obedient daughters and humble, obedient wives. Our girls must be pure of heart, and meek of spirit, and chaste of virtue. If they have questions, if they have longings they do not understand, they must offer them up to the Lord—and to us, the Lord’s vessels here on earth.”

The sky is an inky blue now. The bonfire crackles and belches smoke, but the night air has grown cold. Across the street, Richmond Cathedral looms up, blotting out the stars. I shove my hands into my fur muff, trying to search the crowd for Finn while giving the appearance of listening to Covington.