Star Cursed - Page 69/73

After an interminable wait, the guard calls out, voice sharp with authority, and Finn responds, low and calm and self-assured. Across from me, Elena’s black boots tap out an incessant, impatient beat against the floorboards, and she leans forward as though poised to perform magic at a moment’s notice. Rory bounces on the leather seat like a child. But Finn’s new ring of office and the Brotherhood’s seal on the carriage must carry weight even at this late hour. The next sound is the screech of the gates swinging open.

I am here of my own volition, and yet I cannot help the irrational fear that swamps me again, the nightmare vision of the gates clanging shut and trapping us inside.

The carriage stops halfway through. I open the door and lean out.

“What’s the matter, sir?” the guard asks.

Leave the gate open. Don’t stop anyone who tries to come or go, I command, and he sways back into the guardhouse with a shambling, drunken gait.

Our carriage rolls up the hill, coming to a halt outside the wide front doors. I jump to the ground, taking a moment to trace the hard new angles of my face and—strangest of all—the brown whiskers covering my cheeks. Rilla’s illusion is still in place.

The matron opens the door. This one is fat and jolly-looking, with blond sausage curls and red chipmunk cheeks. “Good evening, sirs,” she says. “I’m Mrs. Harris, the night matron. Can I help you?”

“Yes, we’d like to—” My voice comes out high and effeminate, and I cough.

“We’re here to carry out an inspection of the oracle. Covington’s orders,” Elena says, in a husky voice that matches her now-considerable girth.

“The oracle?” The matron’s pale eyebrows shoot up to her hairline.

Finn steps forward. “Brother Robbins,” he lies, bowing officiously. Elena’s glamoured him, too, so that no one will be able to give a proper description of him. “Good evening, ma’am.”

“I wasn’t told to expect anyone, sir. It’s very late. Most of our patients are abed by now.”

I frown. I’d rather bluff our way in, if we can, and save the mind-magic for later. “We’ve been busy day and night with the annual meeting, but Covington wants us to take a look at her before we leave town. We’ve been trained in psychological disorders.”

Finn steps forward, lowering his voice as if to shelter us from unpleasant truths. “I understand the Brothers who were here earlier lost their temper with the patient for being uncooperative.”

Mrs. Harris gives Finn an uneasy look. “She’s bad off. Begging your pardon, sir, but it seems harsh for men of the Lord to handle a woman that way.”

I shiver, imagining Brenna bloodied and beaten. When Finn met us on the street behind the convent, he told me that she refused to cooperate today and had been punished accordingly. What have they done to her, for Mrs. Harris to risk speaking up against it?

“You forget yourself. That girl is a damned witch,” Finn snaps, his voice harder than I have ever heard it. “She is a detriment and a danger to New England, and it is only by our mercy that—”

“Forgive me. I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on your judgment, sir.” The matron looks at him with fear in her pale eyes. Finn gestures to the ground, and she kneels before him, knees cracking as she settles on the cold stone steps.

Finn lays a hand on her frilly white cap. “Lord bless you and keep you this and all the days of your life.”

I take a step back, horrified, at the Brothers’ words coming out of his mouth.

Oh, he must loathe this. I loathe watching it. It’s not him, not my Finn at all.

“Thanks be,” she murmurs, head bowed.

“We clear our minds and open our hearts to the Lord.”

The rest of us join in on the refrain: “We clear our minds and open our hearts to the Lord.”

“Get up.” Finn gives her a scornful look. “And do not doubt your betters again.”

“Yes, sir. Please. Come in, sir.” She ushers us inside. “Miss Elliott is on the third floor, in the isolation wing. There’s a nurse outside her door.”

Finn’s boots ring out against the warped wooden floorboards as he strides across the empty front hall.

The matron ducks behind her desk. “Wait!” she calls out, and I freeze, terror coursing through my veins, certain she’s seen through the entire charade and is pulling out her pistol.

She only holds up a candle. “Here, sir, take this. It’ll be pitch-dark upstairs. Patients aren’t permitted fire, you know. Can be downright eerie up there.”

“Thank you.” I take the candle, and the matron lights it for me.

We scurry up the shadowy stairs. When we step into the isolation wing, the night nurse is peering into Brenna’s cell. She whirls on us when she hears our footsteps.

Her mind feels easy, pliant. I compel her to go help in the uncooperative ward, on the instructions of Mrs. Harris, and erase her memory of ever having seen us. She walks away from her post without a word of resistance. It’s terribly simple, and I don’t even feel exhausted afterward.

My magic has gotten much stronger since I’ve arrived in New London. This spell would have incapacitated me before, and now it’s nothing.

The cell that held the little blond girl is empty now. I wonder if she’s been sent back to the uncooperative ward.

“Make sure there aren’t any other girls in this wing. I’ll get Brenna and then we’ll pull the alarm,” I say. Rilla releases my illusion, and I use my magic to unlock Brenna’s door and slip inside. She’s curled up in her nest of blankets on the floor, wearing the same white blouse and brown skirt as before. But now one of her eyes is blackened, her lip cut and bloodied.

“You came back,” she says, peering at me with her good eye.

“I said I would, didn’t I? So here I am.”

Brenna struggles to her feet. “I had a vision today, but I wouldn’t tell.” She holds her left arm close to her body, like a wounded bird.

“They hit you for it.” I don’t know why I’m surprised. It’s what they did to Thomasina. It’s what they would do to Tess.

“They said I was insubordinate.” Brenna holds out her left hand, and I gasp when I see the way her pinky and ring fingers are bent at odd, unnatural angles.

“Rory’s here. She’ll take you downstairs in a bit, and Sister Sophia can heal you.” I pause. “What you saw—did it have anything to do with my sisters? Or me?”

Brenna fidgets with her long, chestnut braid. “I told you before, remember? I remember. We were in the graveyard.” She lowers her voice. “Sacrifice.”

“Like leaving Finn?” I ask, hopefully. “That turned out all right.”

“The worst sacrifices are yet to come. Three sacrifices. And—” Brenna cocks her head at me, the candlelight casting shadows over her wasted face. “You’ll bring death.”

To whom? I drop my eyes to the floor.

“I told you that you wouldn’t like to know.” Brenna eyes me sadly. “Is it time? We ought to go. The war is about to start.”

I freeze in the midst of opening the door. “War?”

“It will start tonight,” Brenna says.