Star Cursed - Page 14/73

With that, she turns and walks upstairs, a dark figure disappearing into the shadows. Girls hang their cloaks on pegs in the front hall and then scatter in all directions. Most hurry upstairs to their bedrooms; some wander into the library, though I can’t imagine how they would study; some rush to the sitting room, eager to talk over the night’s horrors. Rilla catches me as I put my hand on the carved wooden newel at the bottom of the stairs.

“Come have some cocoa,” she urges. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

Being alone is what I want. But I did promise that I would try harder and be a better friend, didn’t I? So I let her tow me into the student sitting room. There are two parlors in the convent, as befit the private and public facades of the Sisterhood. This is where we take tea at the close of classes each day, and where girls gather in the evenings to socialize. It’s a cheerful room with blue gingham curtains at the windows, gas lamps aglow, and colorful hooked rugs underfoot. There’s a piano, a chess set on a little tea table, a basket of knitting supplies, and a stack of fashion magazines.

Mei sinks into a blue plaid chair, and I take the ottoman at her feet. Rilla hurries to the kitchen to fetch cocoa. Alice and Violet take their usual seats on the plush pink settee, and a few other girls scatter on various chairs and poufs around the room. For a few minutes, the only sound is the crackle of logs in the fireplace.

“Mama has a stack of novels hidden in a secret compartment in her closet,” Lucy Wheeler blurts out, shifting on the piano bench.

“My aunt teaches the old dances.” Daisy Reed is a tall girl with skin like cocoa and a slow molasses drawl. “She holds lessons in her barn. Girls come and waltz with each other, and my uncle plays his fiddle for the reels. My grandmother taught Aunt Sadie, and my great-grandmother taught her.”

Daisy’s little sister, Rebekah, sitting next to Lucy, gnaws on a fingernail. “They keep it secret from Gramps ’cause he’s on the town council.”

Mei slips a hand into her pocket, drawing out her carved ivory mala beads. “My family still practices the religion from the old country. We speak Chinese at home. And we’re immigrants, so that makes us suspicious right off the bat.”

“My father commits treason every day.” Violet van Buren is the coachman’s daughter and Alice’s bosom friend. “He’d be executed for certain.”

“Stop it. You’re acting like scared little ninnies, all of you. This is what they want.” Alice sneers at us. “They want us frightened. Too scared to defy them.”

“I’ve only got the one parent now. The notion of losing him—” Vi swallows. She’s a pretty girl, with shining black hair and big plummy eyes that must have inspired her name.

Alice rolls her eyes. “You should be proud of your father! Most people are sheep.”

Vi takes the pins out of her hair, laying them on the arm of the settee, running her fingers through the glossy strands. Anything to avoid Alice’s eyes. “I am proud. It doesn’t mean I don’t worry.”

“I wonder if more people are dissatisfied with the Brothers than we know.” My voice is quiet, but every head in the room turns. “Those boys who hit Mei were aiming for the Brothers. I’ve never seen that before.”

“I saw my folks yesterday,” Mei says, bending to unlace her boots. “Baba’s not the political sort, but he was hollering about that new measure against girls working. My sister Li turned sixteen a few weeks ago, and she got a job embroidering corsets right off—making good money, too. Baba hopes they’ll let her keep on sewing from home, but if not—”

“It won’t make a difference to anyone with money. Their wives and daughters don’t go out to work,” Alice says, her heels tapping out an impatient rhythm against the wooden floorboards.

I flush. Father started off as a poor teacher, but once he inherited his uncle’s shipping business, he became a merchant like Alice’s father, with enough money that my sisters and I would never have to seek employment to make ends meet. Finn used to worry that people would say I was lowering myself by marrying into his family. That I would grow to resent him for having to sew on my own buttons and cook my own suppers. That was one of the reasons he joined the Brothers—to be able to afford a wife.

My mind keeps returning to his note.

Meet me at the garden gate at midnight. I need to talk to you.

That was all it said.

“Papa hardly talks politics to me, but I’d wager he couldn’t care less,” Alice continues. “The Brothers might listen to someone like him—someone they respect—but they won’t pay any mind to shopkeepers.”

“But if enough people are angry—” I begin. I feel like a child sitting on the ottoman, with my knees halfway to my ears, so I stand.

“It won’t change anything. We have to be the ones to change things. Why can’t you see that?” Alice demands, throwing up her hands. “‘These dark times won’t last forever,’ Sister Cora says—but they won’t end without some help from us! We can’t just sit here waiting for you to start having visions.”

I flush. She has no idea what it’s like to feel so utterly useless. “If there was something I could do to make them come, I would!”

“Would you?” Alice sneers, and my eyes fall guiltily to the blue rug.

“We’ve got to do something,” Lucy says. She’s one of the youngest girls at the convent, only twelve, with ruddy cheeks and long caramel braids. “We can’t just wait for them to lock up more girls or—or start setting them on fire!”

“See, even Piggy here understands that much,” Alice snaps. Lucy is a plump girl, and even a child’s harmless love for sweets is fodder for Alice’s malicious tongue. “Don’t fool yourself, Cate; these people don’t give a fig for women’s rights, only for putting food on their tables. The Brothers keep them frightened—perhaps we should, too. Perhaps that’s the only way to keep them in line.”

“Isn’t that what got the Daughters of Persephone ousted in the first place?” I ask.

My words fall into silence. The hair on the nape of my neck prickles, and I turn slowly.

“Miss Cahill?” Sister Inez stands in the doorway. “A word, please?”

Her voice still carries a heavy Spanish accent, musical and distinctly at odds with the rest of her. I’ve heard rumors that she stole across the border from the Spanish territories to the south when she was just a girl, risking execution to come to New England and find other witches. It makes her sound quite romantic, but I pity the border guard who might encounter her. I’m fairly certain she could eviscerate men with those eyes.

“Yes, ma’am.” I follow Inez down the hall. She marches through her shadowy classroom to the wide oak desk at the front and sits behind it, her back ramrod-straight.

“Times are dark for the Daughters of Persephone, Miss Cahill, and I suspect they will get darker before this is through. The Brothers reminded us tonight what they are capable of.” She straightens a pile of student papers and sets them aside. I recognize Rilla’s messy scrawl on top. “I daresay it’s time for us to do the same. And for that, we need a leader. Some sad little waif drifting through the halls won’t do. The girls here need you to be strong.”