Star Cursed - Page 15/73

“I am strong.” Irritation stiffens my spine, and I throw my shoulders back.

“Prove it.” She touches the ivory brooch at her throat. As usual, she wears black bombazine from wrist to throat to ankles, without any ornament, save this brooch.

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me so far. If there’s something more I need to do, tell me and I’ll do that, too.” I left everything. Finn. My sisters. My garden. I left everything I love to come here, to protect them. What more of myself could I possibly give up?

“Mind-magic,” Inez says softly. “It is our greatest weapon against our enemies. I want to see what you’re truly capable of.”

I hesitate, my eyes falling to the thick leather-bound dictionary at the corner of her desk. “You want me to do mind-magic on you?” I don’t know anyone who would volunteer for that, and she doesn’t seem the sort to relinquish control easily.

“No.” Sister Inez’s mouth twitches, as though I’ve suggested something absurd. “I want you to go into the parlor and compel as many girls as you can to come to me.”

The gas lamp hisses on the corner of her desk. From this angle, I can see that the blue glass shade is thick with dust. Sister Inez doesn’t strike me as the sort to care for anything ornamental; there are few personal touches in her classroom. No paintings or fresh flowers or pretty vases. “With such simple commands, there’s very little risk to the subjects, if that’s what concerns you,” she says.

I bite my lip. Surely she wouldn’t put her own students in danger unnecessarily, but—

“It feels wrong to me, to go into their minds without their consent,” I explain. “Perhaps I haven’t acted like it, but I do want to make friends here. How can I expect them to trust me if I do something like this?”

“If you do it properly, they’ll never know,” Sister Inez says. “You aren’t here to make friends, Miss Cahill, and you are not their peer. You are the prophesied witch. They don’t need to trust you, or even like you; they need to respect you. If they fear you a bit—well, so much the better.”

Her words unsettle me. She may be right, but that’s not the sort of leader I want to be.

“Why now?” I ask, taking a seat behind a desk in the first row.

Inez’s brown eyes narrow, her thick brows drawing together in the middle. “Would you rather wait until some moment of danger and then find you’re not capable of it? Your squeamishness on this matter disappoints me.”

I fold my hands on the scarred wooden desktop. “I’m confident that I could do it, were it necessary. But I won’t do it just to please you, against my own conscience. I’m not a hurdy-gurdy monkey, you know, performing magic on command.”

Sister Inez looks at me in amazement, but I won’t drop my eyes.

“Of course not,” she says finally, restraightening the already-perfect stack of papers as though she needs something to do with her hands. “I apologize. I understand that this must be overwhelming. We don’t even know if you’re the prophesied witch, now that this oracle business has come up. But until we discover otherwise, we shall proceed as if you are. And if it’s true—well, you may be called to lead sooner than you think.”

“Because Sister Cora is dying.”

“She’s told you?” Inez looks momentarily thrown by this. “Yes. It will be a miracle if she lives until the New Year. And when she is gone, there will be those who look to you for leadership, despite your youth and your inexperience, simply because you are the prophesied witch. I want you to know that when that time comes, when we lose Cora, you may count on me. You’re just a girl, Miss Cahill. Difficult decisions—heartbreaking decisions—come with the position. I’ve been Cora’s second-in-command for years. I can make those decisions with you—make them for you, if you like.”

She rises and comes around the corner of her desk. “You come of age in March, but there isn’t any rush. I’m happy to lead for as long as you like.” She puts a cold, bony hand on my shoulder. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, ma’am.” She’s giving me an out—a tempting one. “Thank you.”

“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow in class, then.”

I stand, recognizing that I’ve been dismissed. But I’ve got the eerie sensation that I’ve just been given a test, and I’m not certain whether I’ve passed or failed.

• • •

Two floors down, the grandfather clock chimes midnight. I glance at Rilla, curled on her side beneath her yellow quilt. She lets out a reassuring snore. I tiptoe across the room and ease the door open, holding my breath.

I cringe at every creak in the old wooden steps. Down in the kitchen, I pause to wrap my cloak around my shoulders, tugging the hood up over my long blond braids. The November wind whistles eerily in the chimney.

The cold inside the convent is nothing compared to the cold without. As soon as I step into the backyard, it bites at my nose and cheeks and fingertips. The water in the marble birdbath is frozen solid. I hurry past the fogged windows of Sister Evelyn’s conservatory, longing for the steamy warmth within.

The wind slices through my cloak, blowing my hood back and sending my hair whipping around my face. The half-moon throws shadows onto the slate path. It would only take one girl pressing her nose to the chilled windowpane of a garden-facing room, and I’d be discovered.

The garden stretches the entire width of a city block; a wrought-iron gate at the far end opens onto the lane behind the convent. I grip the freezing metal and drag it open. A tall figure darts around the corner.

For a minute, I grin foolishly. Then I rush toward him, heedless, wanting.

“Why?” His face is shadowed by his black hood, but I’d know that voice anywhere—only I’ve never heard it sound so furious with me.

I slam to a halt as though a glass pane separates us.

It was the last thing Finn said to me that day in church. The first thing he’s asking now.

We’re so close. Inches apart. I could reach out and—

“We had a plan. I went through with my part. I expected you to go through with yours. I expected you to announce our betrothal. What happened, Cate? Did you—” His hood blows off, revealing coppery hair that’s unrulier than ever. His cheeks are red, and the tips of his ears. He takes a deep breath, fighting for control. “Have your feelings for me changed?”

“No!” I stare at him, shocked. Does he think me so fickle, so faithless?

“Then tell me why you would do this.” His shoulders are stiff beneath his black cloak, and the way he looks at me—I can’t believe I thought him cold earlier.

I’m meant to tell him we can’t be together. Convince him that I don’t want him. It would be safer for him to forget me, go back to Chatham, and find some other girl. I should make him hate me.

I’ve told a great many lies, but not this. I can’t bring myself to do it.

“Tell me.” His voice is clipped, but his brown eyes search mine for answers. I’m tempted to spill everything. To let him comfort me, convince me, obliterate my fears with kisses.

The first time I kissed Finn, his lips hungry on mine, his hands gentle as feathers on my waist, all my good sense was lost in a flurry of wanting—and then there were feathers everywhere: crunching beneath my slippers, drifting over the forbidden books piled in the closet, stuck in his ridiculous messy hair.