Star Cursed - Page 54/73

I go to Cora. Insist on seeing her. After a moment of studying me, Gretchen gives in, perhaps sensing my desperation. I don’t imagine I hide it well.

“Just a few minutes,” she agrees, opening the door to Cora’s bedroom and taking up her sentry position outside.

Cora lies propped up on pillows in her four-poster bed, her eyes sunken in shadows. She looks a decade older than she did just yesterday. Is this all the time my healing bought her?

I saw death in my mother’s face, and seeing it now makes me feel twelve and frightened all over again. It makes me want to promise any number of reckless, impulsive things if only she will stay. I’ll listen and be a proper young lady, and I won’t fight with Maura. I’ll do anything. I am older now and know better, but the way it hits me, this childish urge to bargain death away, is so visceral. It hunches my shoulders and roots my feet to the hooked brown rug on the threshold.

“Catherine,” Cora says, through cracked and bloodless lips. Her shining white hair cascades down over her shoulders. The green coverlet is pulled up to her breast. “What is it?”

“I—I just wanted to see you,” I lie.

“Time to say our good-byes,” Cora says.

I pull the green and white flowered chair close to her bed. Everything in me wants to protest that she may yet rally, that perhaps this isn’t the end. But that is the selfish thing, and a lie to boot. I bite back the words. She is in pain, and she has made her peace with going, and I must let her.

“Inez won’t wait. My body will hardly be cold before she takes the Sisterhood, Cate.”

It’s the first time she’s ever called me by my nickname.

If this is our good-bye, I owe it to Cora to help settle her mind, not the other way around. “I’m going to fight her for it.”

“Good girl.” Cora smiles. “Gretchen knows where my papers are hidden, and how to contact Brennan and our spies. She’s known all my secrets since I was a girl. I trust her implicitly. She’ll be a great help to you, as she has been to me.”

My mind races. “Brennan—that’s your man on the Head Council?”

Cora nods. “A good sort. Has daughters of his own and educates them in secret. You can trust him.”

But I can’t go to him and warn him not to attend the council meeting. He would want to know why, and if he is a good man—and I trust Finn and Cora that he is—he would try to stop it. Even an anonymous letter would raise suspicion that might cancel the meeting and risk our exposure.

“Who else among the staff?” I ask.

“Sophia, but she doesn’t always have the stomach to do what must be done. The rest of them have allied themselves with Inez, except for Elena,” Sister Cora muses, twirling her ring of office around her finger. It’s loose from all the weight she’s lost, wrapped in string to keep it from falling off entirely. It’s the only one she wears now, and it’s strange seeing her hands unlined with silver. “You might ask her for counsel. She’s a very canny girl, you know, and I wouldn’t have sent her to Chatham unless I trusted her.”

I wonder how much Cora knows about what happened between Elena and Maura. Ugh. I make a face. I hardly relish the notion of being civil to Elena, much less asking her for favors.

There’s a sudden hoarse, choking sound, and I leap up in alarm, worried that this is it—that Cora is dying now, here, right in front of me—until I realize she is laughing.

“What a lemon face,” she wheezes. “Like I told you to eat a worm.”

“Are you—can I help you?” I ask as she struggles for breath. Her hand next to mine is paper-white and stark with blue veins, and it looks small and naked without all her rings. Unthinkingly, I put my hand over it.

Her pain almost swallows me, its razor teeth nipping and tearing, and I snatch my hand back, chastened. “How do you bear it?”

She manages a few deep, full breaths, sinking back against her pillows. “You can’t heal me, and I won’t have you wasting your strength,” she snaps, folding her hands across her chest. She closes her eyes for a moment, and without their vibrant blue, she looks dead already.

I find that I will miss her.

“I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to know each other better, Cate,” she says. “I’m tired now. Sophia insists on drugging my tea, though I told her I don’t want it. Will you send Gretchen in? And pull the curtains, please. The light makes my head ache.”

“Of course.” I undo the tasseled gold ties that hold the emerald curtains back.

“May Persephone watch over you.” Sister Cora’s voice is softer now, already slurred with sleep. I turn back to her, my eyes adjusting to the dim room. “I have faith that you will do what is necessary, when it comes down to it.”

“Thank you.” Knowing Cora, that’s the highest compliment she could give. She’s shaped her life around it.

• • •

That night after supper, there’s a commotion in the hall. I peer out my bedroom door and see Maura dragging her trunk down the hall. Her quilt and pillows are stacked neatly on top.

Tess is following her. “Maura, this isn’t necessary.”

Three doors down from me, Vi emerges from the room she and Alice share. She’s carrying a brown valise, with a handful of dresses draped over her other arm.

Alice leans out the doorway. “Mustn’t forget Bunny,” she sneers, tossing a tattered stuffed rabbit at Vi. “I know you can’t sleep without him.”

Flushing, Vi catches it. “Shut up, Alice.”

I look down the hall to Tess. “What’s going on?”

Vi hears me and whirls around. “I can’t stand living with this shrew one second longer, and as Maura seems to enjoy her company—”

Maura straightens, an icy smile on her lips. “It will be a relief to room with someone my own age.”

Tess stops in her tracks, all her apology fading to anger. “Well, perhaps it will be a relief to me to live with someone who hasn’t tried to drown me lately!”

“I didn’t do that on purpose, and you know it!” Maura huffs, shoving the trunk another foot.

Tess plants her hands on her hips. “Well, perhaps you ought to learn to control your temper. You wonder why people don’t trust you!”

Alice appears at her door again. This time she tosses a lacy lavender petticoat down the hall. “Well, I’ll be glad to room with someone of my own station. Imagine me being friends with a coachman’s daughter! Just think of all the nice presents I gave you. All my charity was wasted.”

“Charity!” Vi shrieks. She bends to snatch up the petticoat, and her dresses tumble to the green carpet. Tess darts past Maura to help her gather them up. Vi reaches into her valise and pulls out a pair of black satin gloves with purple buttons. She pelts them at Alice, who shrinks back against the wall. “Here! Take these back. I don’t want them anymore. I wouldn’t put up with you for one more day—not for all the diamonds in the world!”

“Girls!” Sister Johanna, the mathematics and natural sciences teacher, storms down the hall. “What on earth is going on? Sister Cora is very ill. She doesn’t need all this screeching.”

Maura shoves her trunk past Vi and Tess. “Sorry, Sister,” she says sweetly. “Vi and I are switching rooms. We’ll be finished in just a minute.”