A fever ravages New London, but with the Brotherhood sending suspected witches straight to the gallows, the Sisters are powerless against the disease. They can’t help without revealing their powers—as Cate learns when a potent display of magic turns her into the most wanted witch in all of New England.
To make matters worse, Cate has been erased from the memory of her beloved Finn. While she’s torn between protecting him from further attacks and encouraging him to fall for her all over again, she’s certain she can never forgive Maura’s betrayal. And now that Tess’s visions have taken a deadly turn, the prophecy that one Cahill sister will murder another looms ever closer to its fulfillment.
"A tale so captivating you don't want it to end."(Andrea Cremer, New York Times bestselling author of the Nightshade series)
"An intriguing story of witchcraft, family responsibility, and unrequited love."(Booklist)
*"Spotswood's debut is enchanting and addicting."
(VOYA, starred review)
"...the fate of the Cahill sisters inspires genuine dread by the time the cliffhanger ending arrives."(Publishers Weekly)
"Born Wicked is like a sizzling, more fun version of The Witch of Blackbird Pond."
"There are enough stolen kisses to hold those with romance on their minds, and enough chase and escape to hold others."
- Pages: 368 Pages
- Series: The Cahill Witch Chronicles
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780698158467
An Excerpt From
BRENNA IS DANCING UP THE MARBLE steps to the front door, and I’m following her when there’s a sound—flesh smacking against wet pavement—and I turn. Finn’s on his hands and knees; he’s tripped over the curb. He picks himself up, pokes his glasses into place, and walks back toward his carriage, but his gait lacks its usual gangly grace. He pauses, examining the carriage, looking as though he’s puzzled by it.
“Are you all right?” I call down.
He looks up at me, then ducks his head. His ears are red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, miss—is this my carriage?”
His voice is awkward, formal. As though he’s speaking to a stranger.
His words echo in my head: I’m sorry, miss.
I thought I was numb before. This is worse. I don’t understand. I glance around the empty street. It’s only Brenna and me and Maura here—
My sister stands on the sidewalk, eyes narrowed at Finn. My Finn.
She wouldn’t do this.
Not my own sister.
I LEAVE MAURA IN THE SWIRLING SNOW and ice. I cannot look at her scheming face one moment longer, or I will not be responsible for my actions.
Inside the convent, I lean against the heavy wooden door. My black cloak is dripping, but my eyes are dry. It all feels—impossible. Harwood is empty and Zara is dead and Finn won’t remember any of it, nor anything about us. Our future has been the touchstone guiding me through this war; the promise that at the end of it we’d be together has driven me forward, even when the odds against us felt insurmountable.
How can I go on without that? Without him?
Tess runs down the hall, flinging herself at me. She must have been listening for the door. “You’re back! How did things go at Harwood? I’ve been so worried, I—” But I’m stiff in her arms, and she draws back, eyes fastened on my face. “What is it?”
“Maura knows you’re the oracle.” I wrap my arms around myself as if it will prevent me from flying into a thousand pieces. I can’t help noticing the streak of scarlet on my right palm.
Tess bites her lip. “How could Maura know that?”
My shoulders hunch. “I told her.”
“But—” My sister looks stunned. “You promised.”
It’s not like me to break a promise to my sisters. To anyone, really. I don’t give my word lightly.
That’s Maura’s fault, too. She’s made a liar of me.
Tess’s blond brows draw together over eyes that have gone as stormy as thunderclouds. “Why would you tell her, after we agreed to wait?”
That truth comes out easily enough. “I wanted to hurt her. I couldn’t think of anything else.” Maura wanted to be the oracle—the prophesied witch who would save New England—so badly. Badly enough to betray me.
What else did she erase, besides me? For the last few months, Finn’s life and mine have been intertwined. He won’t understand why his mother closed the bookshop. He’ll hate himself for joining the Brotherhood, especially now, with the Brothers subjecting innocent girls to their dungeons, to torture and starvation.
I clench my hands into fists, carving half-moons into my palms. It’s either that or scream, and if I start, I don’t know when I might stop.
“You wanted to hurt her,” Tess repeats, as if it’s incomprehensible. She stares at me as though I went away to free the Harwood girls and came back a stranger. “And you used me to do it. You shouldn’t—”
“Zara’s dead,” I interrupt, angry. I am so angry suddenly. “You saw that coming. You could have had the grace to tell me!”
Tears spring into Tess’s eyes. “I’m sorry. She asked me not to and I—I was afraid it would distract you. There was nothing you could do to stop it.” Her shoulders bow, and she looks much older than twelve. Her sigh pricks at my heart. “Is that why you told Maura? To get back at me?”
“No.” Everything is awful but it’s not Tess’s fault.
“The little one!” Brenna Elliott pops out of the parlor like a spooky jack-in-the-box. “You’re safe. I didn’t tell. They wanted me to, but I wouldn’t, not even when they hit me.”
Tess freezes as the mad oracle reaches out and pets her, stroking her blond curls. “Thank you?”
“They broke my fingers.” Brenna waggles them in Tess’s face. “But the nice crow healed me.”
Sister Sophia, she means. Sophia taught me to heal, too. It’s the only magic I’ve ever excelled at. I found satisfaction in nursing—and in proving the Brothers wrong, that not all magic is selfish and wicked.
Tonight I used my gift to stop Zara’s heart.
She asked me to help her die with dignity, and I did. But her staring brown eyes and the coppery scent of her breath already haunt me.
“You’ll be safe now, too. No one will hurt you here.” Tess pats Brenna’s arm.
“Rory will be here soon. With her sister.” Brenna’s eyes flit around like mad blue butterflies. “You and Cate-as-in-fate and the other one. The three sisters.”
“Is that Cate?” Alice Auclair strolls around the corner, smiling like the cat that ate the canary. “The Head Council is destroyed. Eleven of the twelve, anyway, including Covington!”
“I’ve heard.” If she’s waiting for my congratulations, they won’t be forthcoming. Her smile makes my skin crawl. She and Maura and Inez used their mind-magic on the Head Council, ravaging their memories so entirely that they’ll be reduced to mewling babies. The Brothers have already been teetering on the edge of violence. Less than a hundred years ago, witches were hunted almost to extinction—and a good many innocent girls were killed in the process. The Brothers have been wanting an excuse to return to their old ways, and now Inez has given them one.
The women of New England will suffer for Inez’s foolishness. Anyone a bit too educated, too eccentric, or too outspoken may be murdered outright instead of sent to Harwood. And what can I do to stop it? Nothing. There are tens of thousands of Brothers and only a few hundred witches to fight them. Our only hope is winning the public’s favor, and now Inez has mucked that up, too. The Brothers have trained the people to be terrified of mind-magic. After a horrific attack like this, we’ll be the monsters in the dark again, the stories told at bedtime to frighten children into good behavior.
Brenna grasps at my sleeve with her bony fingers, startling me out of my reverie. “It’s her,” she hisses. Her terrified eyes are trained on Alice. “The crow who pecked out all my memories!”
Alice stumbles back, looking from Brenna to me and then back to Brenna. Her porcelain skin flushes patchy and red.
Tess wraps her arm around Brenna, though she only comes up to Brenna’s chin. “She won’t do it again. It was an accident,” she soothes. Brenna whimpers like a child.
Alice turns, ready to retreat. I expect she never thought she’d have to face Brenna again. Her accident.
I step forward, blocking her way. “Look at her. Look at what you did.”
Alice looks. Takes in Brenna’s stained white blouse, her brown sack of a skirt, her tangled chestnut hair. Her emaciated face, one eye still darkened by a bruise where the Brothers hit her for refusing to cooperate. Her skinny scarecrow arms. The livid scars at her wrists from when she tried to kill herself six months ago.
“I’m sorry,” Alice whispers. “I didn’t mean to.”
She tried to make Brenna forget that the Sisters were all witches, but the compulsion went wrong.
Mind-magic is unpredictable that way.
“That’s not enough.” I take her by the shoulders. “You can’t undo it. You can never undo it!”
“Let go of me!” Alice struggles, but I’ve got a good grip. I give her a little shake.
It’s not a small thing to meddle in someone’s memory.
Our first kiss, with the Brothers just outside the door and Finn’s hands on my waist and feathers in the dark.
Our second, in the gazebo on the hill, with the wind whipping at my hair and the smell of sawdust and wet earth all around us.
Our third, on the day I told him I was a witch and he asked me to marry him anyway.
“Cate!” Tess pulls at my arm.
I relinquish Alice, stepping away. My breath is coming fast, my throat choked with tears that I will not—will not—let out. I stare at the wooden floor. At the round green rug wet with snow from my boots.
“Have you gone mad? What’s wrong with you?” Alice demands, skittering back down the hall to the sitting room. She pushes through the group of younger girls peering out the door at the commotion.
“What did Maura do?” There’s dread in Tess’s voice.
I raise my head. “She erased Finn’s memory. He doesn’t remember me.”
Tess raises a hand to her lips. “Why would she do that?”
“She’s jealous of what we have. What we had,” I correct myself. “She wanted me as lonely and bitter as she is. It worked. I’m so angry, I could kill her.”
Tess stares at me with eyes round as saucers. Those aren’t just words. Not since we uncovered the prophecy that one of us will murder another before the turn of the century. I’ve always found it impossible. We’re sisters; we love and protect each other. Nothing is stronger than that.
Brenna peeks out of the sitting room doorway. “That’s not how it goes.”
“Hush!” Tess snaps, whirling on her.
Tess never snaps.
What has she seen?
“No one is going to kill anyone.” Tess grabs my arm again, fingers pinching, trying to tow me toward the steps. There’s a touch of desperation in her voice, and I wonder if it’s me she’s trying to convince, or Brenna, or perhaps herself. “We’ll fix this. Let’s go upstairs, Cate.”
“It can’t be fixed.” Finn’s memories are gone forever; no magic can put them back. Maura betrayed my trust and there’s no way to get that back, either. I spot Tess’s friend Lucy Wheeler pacing at the other end of the hallway. “And I’m not going to run away from her. Besides, I’ve got to tell Lucy and the others how things went at Harwood.”
I wave Lucy forward, and she comes running, her chipmunk cheeks flushed, eyes full of worry. Before I can open my mouth to tell her that her big sister is fine, that we got her out of the asylum, the front door opens again and girls spill in, all dressed in the black cloaks of the Sisterhood.
“We’re home!” My roommate, Rilla, announces the obvious. “The other carriage will be along shortly. They’re going in the back.”
She’s beaming, delighted by our victory. We freed hundreds of girls who were falsely imprisoned in Harwood Asylum. Some of them fled on their own; some are being transported to safe houses in the country; six girls with important talents or ties to the Sisterhood are coming here. They’re safe—or safer than they were at Harwood with the Brothers out for blood, at any rate. Zara was the only casualty; our mission was an unqualified success—and yet I can’t find any joy in it.
“Grace!” Lucy shrieks.
“Lucy?” Grace Wheeler is a taller, skinnier version of Lucy, with snarled caramel hair and brown eyes too big for her gaunt face.
Lucy hurls herself at her sister, tears streaming down her face. “I thought I’d never see you again!”
“I thought I’d never get out of that place. I thought I’d be there until I died.” Grace looks around with trepidation. “You’re a—a witch, they said?”
Lucy nods. “All of us. But we’re not like the Brothers preach, Grace, we’re not bad—”
“I don’t care if you dance with the devil every night,” says another stranger—an older girl with vivid orange hair and a smattering of freckles. “You’re angels as far as I’m concerned, for saving us from that hellhole.”
“Caroline,” Maud chides. The redhead must be her cousin, then.
Caroline rolls her blue eyes expressively. “I believe in calling a spade a spade. That place was full of rats, and the meat they gave us was crawling often as not, and the Brothers who visited weren’t above giving us pretty ones a pinch or two. If we fought back, they gave us extra laudanum.”
My eyes flit to the third newcomer, a pretty Indo girl around my age leaning against the hall table, fiddling with the lyre-shaped letter holder. According to the nurses, Parvati was the Brothers’ favorite target.
“You’re safe now,” I assure her. “No one will—”
My words die in my throat as Maura steps out from behind the others. “Welcome to the Sisterhood, girls. I’m Maura Cahill. You’re safe here—so long as we can expect your loyalty.”
My body goes taut as a bowstring just before the arrow sails home. “Oh, you’re a fine one to talk about loyalty!”
“This isn’t the time, Cate.” Her sapphire skirts rustle as she positions herself in the middle of the hall, a bluebird surrounded by crows. “We’d all be executed if the Brothers discovered what we are. The secrets of the Sisterhood are not shared lightly. Particularly not with outsiders.”
“Grace is my sister,” Lucy protests.
“But she’s not a witch.” Maura waves a dismissive hand at Grace. “The Sisterhood comes first, Lucy.”
Lucy shakes her head, braids dancing. “Not before my own flesh and blood it doesn’t.”
I give a strangled laugh. “Oh, not according to Maura.”
Rilla wrinkles her freckled nose. “I don’t see how Maura gets any say in this. She didn’t lift a finger to help these girls.”
“It was all Cate. Elena and Cate and that marvelous beau of hers.” Violet van Buren gives me an arch look, and my stomach twists. “Now I see why you wouldn’t give Finn up. My Lord, the way he looks at you!”
“Vi—” Tess begins, her fingers fluttering like trapped moths.
“I’d give my eyeteeth to have someone look at me like that.” Vi clasps her hands to her bosom, sighing. “It’s so romantic. You’ll marry him, won’t you? When all this is over?”
That’s what I wanted. More than anything.
I’ve kept Finn a secret for weeks. I was afraid that the more people who knew he was spying for the Sisterhood, the more danger he’d be in. But all the girls at Harwood tonight saw him. Now they’ll ask me about him and—
I don’t know if I can bear that.
“I don’t think so,” I choke out.
“Why not?” Vi’s plummy eyes are puzzled.
“Ask Maura.” I jerk my head at her. “Tell them what you did.”
Maura won’t meet my eyes. “Don’t make this about us. There are more important things to discuss.” She turns her back on me, and her condescension makes me want to yank her red curls out by the roots. I wish we could settle this as easily as one of our old childhood brawls.
“I’ll tell them, then.” I step into the center of the hall, the center of attention—a place I’ve never relished. The words spill out of me, jumbled and passionate. “Finn joined the Brotherhood for me. He hated every minute of it, everything they stand for. He knew I was a witch, and he loved me anyway—no, not anyway. He was proud of me. He risked his life to spy for the Sisterhood and to help free you all. If they’d caught him, he would have been executed.” I feel as though I’m giving a eulogy, and perhaps I am. “But Sister Inez wanted Maura to prove just how ruthless she could be. She didn’t approve of a Brother knowing our secrets. And Maura—she’s always been jealous that I had Finn, so she went into his mind and erased me. That’s the kind of girl she is—the kind of sister. She would betray any one of us in a heartbeat.”
Maura stares at me, wordless, cheeks flaming. The other girls draw away from her as if the brush of her skirts contains some contagion.
“Go, Maura. Go to your room,” Tess says finally, her voice low. “Cate shouldn’t have to look at you right now. Frankly, I don’t want to see you, either.”
Maura whirls on her. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
The oracle. The prophesied one. I want Tess to toss it in Maura’s face, but I know she won’t. She’s not power-mad like Maura or vengeful like me.
Tess purses her lips. “I’m the sister who’s still speaking to you.”
Maura’s face falls. “You haven’t even heard my side of things!”
Tess hovers between Maura and me, her gray eyes like knives. “I don’t know what you could possibly say that would make me understand why you’d do this.”
“Fine. Take her side, like always. I don’t need either of you! You’ll see.” Maura pushes through the crowd of gaping girls and runs upstairs, boots clattering on the wooden steps.
And I’m left feeling—how?
Unsatisfied with my petty vengeance.
Rilla is the first to recover her wits. She takes my hand, hazel eyes full of sympathy. “Come upstairs, Cate. You must be—”
I yank away. “No.” She means well—she always does—but her kindness makes me want to fling myself onto the floor and cry.
I look around at the girls gathered in the hall. I can’t fall to pieces, because they need me. I’m not the only person Maura hurt tonight. Even now, the Head Council’s subordinates will be finding them, childlike and confused, unable to recall their own names. Tomorrow, New London will be in an uproar against witches, and it will only get worse once the town learns of the mutiny at Harwood.
The Brotherhood will strike back. We’ve got to prepare ourselves for that.
The Harwood girls have been starved and drugged and brutalized. They need a place to heal, and the convent isn’t that kind of haven anymore. Not with Sister Cora dead and Inez in charge. She’ll do anything to oust the Brothers and put herself in power; she doesn’t care who might be destroyed in the process.
But I do.
I’ve cast off one sister tonight, but now I’ve got dozens.
I mean to make New England safe for all of them.
My magic rises, sparking through my fingertips. The candles on the hall table burst into flame, followed by the old-fashioned brass candelabras along the hall.
I am tired of hiding what I am. There’s got to be a better way. Not Inez’s way. Not Brother Covington’s, either.
If it’s war the Brothers and Maura want, it’s war they’ll get. I’ll fight both of them.
“Welcome to the Sisterhood.” I tilt my chin up, meeting each girl’s eyes in turn. “As you’ve probably figured, I’m Cate Cahill, and this is my sister Tess. Let’s get you all something to eat, and then we’ll show you to your rooms. This is your home now. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you’re protected.”
• • •
We get the six Harwood girls settled before the fire in the sitting room, eating yesterday’s bread with slabs of butter and strawberry jam, drinking cups of hot cocoa. Once I assure myself that Rilla and Vi will take care of them, I make my way up to the third floor, to Sister Cora’s suite.
Sister Gretchen opens the door at my knock. Her hazel eyes are bloodshot and rimmed in red. “Cate. You’ve heard?”
I nod, brushing a hand through my tangled blond hair. “I’ll miss her, but I’m glad she’s at peace now.”
Gretchen swallows a sob. “I knew it was coming, but I don’t quite know what to do without her.” She and Cora have been the best of friends since their days studying in the convent school.
“I know.” I press her hand. “I’d like to say good-bye, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course.” Gretchen ushers me in, and we cross through Cora’s shadowy sitting room to her bedroom. Her body is laid out on the four-poster bed, dressed in a plain black gown. Her white hair cascades over her shoulders; her thin hands are as bare as winter trees without her dozen rings. “I’ll give you a moment alone.”
I step closer to the body. Most days, I don’t know what I believe insofar as religion, but I suspect Cora’s soul is elsewhere now. Instinctively, I glance toward the ceiling, as though expecting to find her spirit floating there.
I’ve never found much comfort in the notion of my mother watching over me. At her funeral, that was the Brothers’ favorite platitude. They stopped short of suggesting I should ask her spirit for guidance. That would be sacrilegious; a girl should turn to her father or her husband or the Brothers themselves for wisdom. But they insisted she would still be looking after me from heaven, thinking that would bring me solace. Mother’s instruction to keep my sisters safe weighed heavily enough on me, though; I didn’t relish the notion of her spirit peering over my shoulder, judging whether I was doing a good enough job of it.
Sister Cora set me an even bigger task—to protect the entire Sisterhood. Tess may be the prophesied witch, but she’s too young to lead, and neither of us trusts Inez to do it for her.
“I won’t let Inez ruin everything you worked for,” I vow. My voice is soft, swallowed up by the rug and the heavy green curtains pulled shut against the snowy night.
I rather like the idea of Cora looking down on me, I discover. She demanded a great deal, but she made her own mistakes, like with Zara. She’d forgive mine.
The notion gives me courage.
“Thank you,” I add. “For believing in me.”
I leave her with candles burning on the dressing table to chase away the darkness. In the sitting room, Gretchen is slumped in Cora’s green flowered armchair.
“You’ll sit up with her?” I ask, and Gretchen nods. “Do you want me to take a turn?”
She shakes her head, gray sausage curls bouncing. “You need your rest. How did things go at Harwood? I should’ve asked straight off.”
“It went well, for the most part.” I purse my lips. “Zara’s dead. Shot by a guard.”
“Oh, Cate.” Gretchen’s lip wobbles, but she masters it. “I’m sorry to hear it. Zara was a good woman. She would have been a great help to you.” Gretchen squares her shoulders, her hazel eyes meeting mine. “If there’s anything you need, I’m on your side in this. What Inez did tonight to the Head Council—it wasn’t right. It’s certainly not what Cora would have wanted.”
“There is one thing.” I take a deep breath. “I’d like to get word to Brother Brennan. Arrange a meeting as soon as possible.” Brennan was Cora’s spy on the Head Council. His mind would have been erased tonight along with the others’, but Finn slipped herbs into his tea to make him sick and ensure he’d miss the meeting.
I hope that Brennan will be voted the new leader of the Brotherhood. By all accounts, he’s a progressive sort. If I can make him understand that not all of us supported Inez, perhaps he’ll guide the Brothers along a less vengeful path. It’s asking him to forgive a great deal, I know. The men on the Head Council were Brennan’s colleagues. Perhaps some were his friends. And unless we can figure out some way to render her powerless, Inez will be in charge of the Sisterhood until Tess comes of age in four years.
“There’s a stationery shop, O’Neill’s, down in the market district. We left messages for Brennan with the proprietor,” Gretchen explains. “You already know the code he and Cora used. I can transcribe a letter for you, if you like, though I daresay Tess could, too.” Tess is brilliant at cryptography, just as she is at nearly everything else.
Gretchen unclasps the ruby necklace around her throat. The gold chain pools in her hands, reminding me that Zara’s necklace—the locket with Mother’s picture inside—still rests in my cloak pocket. As I watch, the ruby transforms into a brass key. “The key will get you into the shop through the back door. We could use magic, of course, but the others have keys and they’ll be more likely to trust you if you’ve got Cora’s. In the storage room, there’s a staircase to the cellar. That’s where they hold the Resistance meetings.”
She hands me the key. It’s small and cold and slight in my palm, but this intelligence feels momentous. I sink into the chair next to hers. “Resistance meetings?” I echo.
Does she mean to say there are people working in secret against the Brothers, besides witches? Zara alluded to such a thing, and we gambled that they still exist, sending the Harwood refugees to several of their safe houses. I had no notion Cora was involved with them.
Gretchen brushes a hand over her plump cheek. “Brennan isn’t the only man in New England who disagrees with the Brothers’ methods. The Resistance leaders meet once a week. The next meeting is scheduled for Friday night. I’ll go with you, if you like. It won’t be an easy thing to win their trust; it took Cora years. They knew she was a witch, but they don’t know we all are. And even those who don’t mind a witch don’t believe a woman their equal. I won’t lie to you, Cate. Trying to win over Alistair Merriweather will be no picnic.”
I frown. “Who is he?”
Gretchen raises her eyebrows at me. “Good Lord, girl, don’t you read? He publishes the Gazette.”
Truth be told, I’ve never read the Gazette. The Sentinel is the official New London newspaper, the Brothers’ mouthpiece. It’s forbidden to be caught with a copy of any other paper, though I’ve often seen half-hidden copies of the Gazette when we’ve delivered rations to the poor.
“You should find a copy and educate yourself a bit before you meet him,” Gretchen suggests. “If you can get him on your side, it will be a great boon to us. One-fifth of New London reads his paper, as he’ll be only too happy to tell you.”
I lift my head, a spark of hope racing through me. “That’s quite a lot of people unhappy with the Brothers.”
“And those are only the ones bold enough to buy the paper. How many borrow it from a neighbor, or can’t read to start with?” A wry smile kicks up the corners of Gretchen’s mouth. “The poor are frustrated by the new restrictions. Look at the hundreds who protested last month in Richmond Square.”
“Half of them were thrown on a prison ship for their trouble,” I point out, remembering Mei’s sisters. “Don’t you think that put a damper on any ideas of rebelling?”
Gretchen shakes her head. “I suspect it only fanned the flames. They protested peacefully enough. That shouldn’t be an offense that warrants getting sent away for years, should it? How do you think those unfortunate souls are managing now? Barely, that’s how, with the help of family if they’ve got it, or our charity. The people are angry, especially the working poor. They’re looking for leaders.”
“Like Tess,” I suggest. She’s the oracle meant to win the people’s hearts back to the witches.
“And you,” Gretchen says. “You and Merriweather working together could be a formidable team.”
I glance over my shoulder at the half-open door to Cora’s bedroom, confidence wavering. If it took Cora years to win over the Resistance leaders, how will I manage it? I’m not half as clever as she was.
“Cora had faith in you, Cate,” Gretchen says. “Don’t let her down.”
I use my magic to transform the brass key back into a ruby, then hang it around my neck. I welcome the weight of it. Like a talisman.
“ATTENTION, GIRLS.” INEZ’S VOICE CUTS through my exhaustion at breakfast the following morning. “I have a few announcements to make.”
I have been studiously avoiding her and the look of triumph she must surely wear. Her plan is falling into place. She’s destroyed the Head Council. Sister Cora is dead. Maura proved her loyalty beyond any shadow of a doubt, and Inez likely thinks it’s broken me.
Let her think it. Her triumph won’t last. She will rule the Sisterhood and New England over my dead body.
I’m sandwiched between Rilla and Mei at one of the five long tables that fill the dining room, pushing eggs and ham around my plate. I take a bite of buttered toast. Tess is sitting at the table behind us with the younger girls, but I suspect she’s keeping a watchful eye on me to make sure I eat.
Inez stands. She’s dressed in unrelenting black bombazine, with no ornament save the ivory brooch at her collar. She doesn’t look like one of Brenna’s crows—more like a predatory hawk with her beak of a nose. I could slice cold butter on her cheekbones.
At the sight of her, my exhaustion fades. Maura erased Finn’s memory, but it was at her request. Maura’s always so blasted desperate for someone to choose her, love her most, and Inez played on that. I don’t absolve Maura of responsibility—but Inez asked it of her.
“To those of you who joined us from Harwood last night, welcome,” Inez says, without so much as a smile. “I am sorry for the harm you suffered at the Brothers’ hands. I assure you, you will have your chance at vengeance.”
I glance down the table, where Parvati’s hands are trembling as she holds her fork poised over her eggs. Maud’s cousin Caroline is a bit green around the gills. The other new girls—Grace Wheeler, Livvy Price, and Sister Edith’s niece Angela—all look shaky and sick. At Harwood, their tea was drugged with laudanum. Now they’re reacting to the lack of it. Mei and I dosed them with herbs, but that only keeps the worst of the nausea at bay. These girls don’t need vengeance; they need someone to look after them, and the time and space to heal.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that Sister Cora passed away last night.” Inez pauses, and the girls around me cast their faces down. “I make no pretense that Cora and I were friends. We did not agree on how to lead the Sisterhood forward, and I thought her overly cautious.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gretchen bristling. Inez holds up a hand, the silver ring of the Sisterhood glinting in the early-morning light. “Nonetheless, Cora devoted her life to the Sisterhood, and that is worthy of our respect. Her funeral will take place tomorrow morning at Richmond Cathedral. I expect all of you to attend.
“In accordance with the plan of succession, as the eldest witch capable of mind-magic, I am your new headmistress.” Inez’s dark eyes meet mine. “The Sisterhood has been divided for years, but I hope you will soon see that I have your best interests at heart. We all have the same aims now, don’t we? And the same enemies?”
My fork falls out of my hand and lands on the china plate with a dull clink, and I choke on my indignation. I know who my enemies are.
Inez gives a dry chuckle like the crack of an old twig. “Cora put great stock in the prophecy that one of the Cahill sisters would lead us into the next century. She believed that Cate was likeliest to be the oracle. However, it has come to my attention—”
I bite my lip. Is Inez going to cast her support for Maura? There’s no more evidence of Maura being an oracle than of me being one.
“It has come to my attention,” Inez repeats, relishing the way we all hang on her words, “that it’s not Cate who has been blessed by Persephone with visions of the future. It’s little Tess. Isn’t that right, Tess?”
Everyone swivels in her seat to look at Tess. Except me. I stare at Maura, who gazes down at her lap, her fingers fiddling with the lace tablecloth. I never dreamed she’d tell Inez.
Even now, I give her too much credit.
Tess lifts her pointy chin. “Yes, ma’am.”
“How marvelous,” Inez practically purrs. “There’s never been an oracle who was also a witch, much less a witch capable of mind-magic. I assume you are capable of that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tess flushes from all the attention. I half expect her to squirm and sink in her chair, but she does not; she sits tall and straight, and I feel a swell of pride.
“I see. Well, it wasn’t very nice of you to keep it all to yourself.” Inez shakes her head, tsking as though she’s scolding a child for stealing a penny candy. “But I understand why you might hesitate to steal the limelight from your sister—”
“It wasn’t that,” Tess interrupts. “It was a matter of my own safety.”
Which has now been thoroughly compromised. Tess is the oracle prophesied to gain the people’s favor and bring about a new golden age of magic—or, if she falls into the Brothers’ hands, a second Terror. The Brothers have been murdering girls on just the suspicion of having visions. And now it’s gone from three of us knowing about Tess’s prophecies—Tess, Mei, and me—to the entire convent: fifty-odd students, a dozen teachers, and a dozen more governesses. What is Inez playing at?
Inez clasps her hands earnestly to her bosom. “Your secret is safe with us. We are your sisters. We would protect you with our lives!”
Would they really? Is it reasonable to expect them to? What is Tess to the people in this room? She’s well liked, certainly, but it’s no small thing to sacrifice one’s life.
“In any case, I’m delighted to have such a powerful student,” Inez says, and comprehension floods through me at the way she stresses the word. “Tess is gifted, yes, but she is still a child. A twelve-year-old cannot lead the Sisterhood, particularly not during these troubled times. She’ll require guidance, and I am happy to provide it—to rule in her stead, as a sort of regent, until she comes of age and we see if there is any truth to the prophecy.”
Tess rakes a hand through her blond curls. I can read her frustration in the way she grinds her jaw, in the tightness of her shoulders. She won’t challenge Inez publicly, she’s too clever for that, but oh, she loathes being patronized.
“Thank you,” she mutters. “I appreciate your support.”
“You’re quite welcome.” Inez prowls down the aisle. “I have one more announcement. Between the Harwood breakout and the strike on the Head Council, the Brotherhood will be up in arms. It is important that, should we be apprehended, we are able to free ourselves, be it through animation or illusion work. Miss Auclair, if you were in a crowd and the Brothers called you out as a witch, what would you do?”
Alice smiles. In the blink of an eye, she becomes a girl with black curls and brown skin and a red plaid dress. “Or, better yet,” she murmurs, and a moment later, she’s transformed into a stocky Chinese boy with a shock of black hair and a denim shirt.
“Brava, Miss Auclair!” Inez claps. Alice has always been her prize pupil. Rilla is even better at illusions, but she’s not half so obsequious. “We do not know how the Brothers will retaliate, girls, but I feel sure that they will. It will be increasingly difficult to avoid their notice. I am changing your schedules to double up on illusions and animation classes. Art, music, botany, and other electives will be postponed until further notice.”
Rilla flings a hand into the air. “Will you continue as illusions teacher as well as headmistress?”
“I shall teach the advanced classes in the mornings. Miss Auclair will teach the introductory ones in the afternoons.” Inez lays a bony hand on Alice’s shoulder, and Alice—transforming back into her pretty blond self—preens.
I glance at the table behind me. Rebekah Reed looks as though she’s swallowed a lemon, and Lucy is cringing. Alice is a bully, and the younger girls already get the worst of it.
“Why Alice?” Mei demands. “Why not Rilla?”
“Rilla would make a wonderful teacher! She’s the best in our class!” Pearl adds.
“That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it?” Inez snaps. “I am under no obligation to explain staffing decisions to students. However, Miss Auclair will turn seventeen in March and has already announced her intention to become a full member of the Sisterhood. Miss Stephenson’s birthday is not until September, and she has made no such guarantee. What good is it to me to train a teacher, only to have her run off and get married?”
Rilla flushes behind her freckles. She’s a romantic, yes, but she doesn’t have a beau. None of the girls at the convent have. There are not many opportunities to meet boys when one masquerades as a nun in training.
“Now, if there are no further interruptions”—Inez glares at Mei and Pearl—“we are already behind schedule for the day. Miss Kapoor, Miss Price, I would like to see you in my office after morning classes, if you’re feeling up to it.”
The room explodes into whispers as she turns away, her heels tap-tap-tapping into the hall.
Rilla reaches for the jam. “What does she want with Parvati and Livvy?”
I hand her the sticky jar. “They can do mind-magic.” Most of the girls we rescued from Harwood aren’t witches, so they’re being shepherded to one of three safe houses in the countryside. Grace, Caroline, and Angela are here only by virtue of their connections with students or staff. Parvati and Livvy are here because I found their files in the National Archives and realized how powerful they are. Mind-magic is terribly rare; only my sisters, Alice, Elena, Inez, and I are capable of it.
I’d like to go to Tess and see to it that she’s all right, but she’s surrounded. Her friends are all pelting her with questions. I catch her eye and she gives me a tiny nod. She can manage this. I head toward Parvati and Livvy.
“Could the two of you come with me for a moment?” Perhaps I can thwart Inez in another way.
Parvati shies away from the hand I put on her shoulder. “Are we in trouble?”
“No, not at all.” I give her a reassuring smile. “I just want to talk to you.”
Last night we took up a collection of dresses for the new girls. Livvy, a short, buxom brunette, is wearing a pink and red plaid dress of Alice’s. I was rather surprised that Alice volunteered it—she’s not known for her charity—but Livvy looks well in it. I lent Parvati a navy-blue frock, but it hangs on her skeletal frame like a shroud. Mei’s a good hand with a needle; perhaps she can take it in for her.
I guide them upstairs to the room I share with Rilla and gesture for them to sit on my bed. Parvati perches on the edge of the mattress while Livvy kicks off her borrowed red slippers and curls up.
“Why does the headmistress want to see us?” Parvati’s hand trembles as she tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear.
“Because of your mind-magic.” I drag the bench from the dressing table across the room and sit in front of them. “She’ll want to test you.”
“Test us how?” Livvy frowns.
My shoulders go tight. “She’ll ask you to compel other girls. She asked me to make them walk from the sitting room to her office.”
“Did you do it?” There are blue shadows beneath Parvati’s eyes.
I shake my head. “I wasn’t comfortable going into my friends’ minds without their permission.”
“But you could have done it, if you’d wanted to? You did mind-magic at Harwood on the nurses, didn’t you?” Parvati presses, and I nod. “Will you teach me how? I’ve never been able to see my compulsion through. The laudanum, I think—it wouldn’t let me focus on anything for long.”
“I will—though I hope you won’t have need of it. I don’t think compulsion is to be used lightly. But after—well, after what you’ve been through . . .” I trail off, flushing. “If it would help you to feel safer—”
“It would help me to know that if I ever see Brother Cabot again, I could compel him to put a bullet through his brain,” Parvati says grimly. “I appreciate your delicacy, but Livvy knows. Everyone knows what happened to me and no one came forward to stop it.”
“Parvati, I—” Livvy begins, leaning forward.
“I don’t blame you for it.” Parvati turns to me. “I tried to fight back. Strangled him with his own cravat once, but he slapped me and got away while I was seeing stars. Another time I compelled him to blind himself, but he came out of it right before he stuck the matron’s letter opener in his eye. He beat me for it—but it was almost worth it.”
“Oh, Parvati.” Livvy tries to embrace her, but Parvati shrinks away.
“I don’t want your pity,” she snaps. “I want vengeance, like Sister Inez promised.”
“Sister Inez,” I say quietly, “is not to be trusted. I understand that you must—”
“No,” Parvati interrupts. Her back is ramrod straight, her legs crossed delicately at the ankles, but anger fairly vibrates through her. “You cannot possibly understand. Not unless you’ve been there yourself.”
I trace the blue pinstripes on my skirt, trying to redirect the conversation. “Inez is leading the Sisterhood into a war we can’t win. We’re powerful, yes, but we’re outnumbered. The prophecy says Tess can win the people to our side—but until then, we need to work with the more moderate Brothers to keep the peace. If Inez continues to do terrible, reckless things, compromise will never be possible.”
“Good,” Parvati spits, her brown eyes narrowed. “I don’t want compromise. How can you expect us to work with Brothers after what they’ve done to us?”
“They’re not all bad,” I say, thinking of Finn. Always of Finn. He told me there are moderates within the Brotherhood, men like him who joined to protect their wives or sisters or sweethearts. “And if we don’t want inhumane treatment, we can’t dole it out. Even if Brother Covington and the others were wrongheaded, they didn’t deserve—”
“Wrongheaded?” Parvati leaps to her feet. “That’s what you’d call them? You don’t think they deserved what was done to them? Do you think I deserved what was done to me?”
“No! No, of course not.” I jump up, flustered. “I misspoke. They were—are—cruel. But we’ll never gain the people’s trust Inez’s way. Lord knows what else she’s plotting. She’s such a schemer; I wouldn’t trust her to—”
“She’s a schemer?” Parvati plants her hands on her thin hips. “You called us up here to undermine her. I suppose you’re angry with her on account of what she and Maura did to your beau?” I can’t deny that—but it’s not only that. Parvati’s lip curls in disgust. “I can’t believe you were letting a Brother court you!”
“He wasn’t—you don’t understand,” I insist. “Finn isn’t—”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand.” Parvati strides across the room and throws open the door. “You’ve been sheltered all your life. You put yourself in my shoes, and then you tell me what the Brotherhood deserves.”
Livvy stares at her red slippers. “I should—excuse me, Cate,” she mumbles, fleeing after Parvati.
I should have asked Elena to be here. She would have known how to finagle such a delicate conversation. Now Parvati thinks I’m a fool who sympathizes with the Brothers, and Inez will have at least one more witch with mind-magic on her side.
I pause beside the window, pushing aside Rilla’s yellow curtains and staring at the dreary gray morning. What’s happening out there? Are the Brothers already meeting to elect a new leader? A great deal depends on whom they choose and whether he’ll lead with vengeance or mercy. Finn predicted they might well vote to resurrect the burnings. I wrap my arms around myself, wishing he were here to comfort me.
I miss him already.
This fall, when I was in New London and he was still in Chatham, I hoped perhaps he was thinking about me, too.
Now he won’t even know to miss me.
I push those thoughts away. If I stop moving—stop doing—I’m going to fall apart. I can’t give Inez and Maura the satisfaction of that.
I have little faith in the Brotherhood these days, but I’ve got to believe most men wouldn’t vote to set me on fire if they knew what I could do. It’s one thing to lock a girl up in Harwood for the rest of her life; it’s quite another to burn her at the stake.
Are Parvati and Inez right? Will the Brothers go that far?
The prospect of going downstairs, sitting behind a desk, and taking notes seems impossible. How can I concentrate when I don’t know what the Brothers are doing or how the people have reacted to Harwood and the attack on the Head Council? I’m sure the Sentinelis painting both events with the same brush—dangerous witches on the loose. But what of the Gazette? Can Alistair Merriweather see the gulf of difference between what Inez did and freeing innocent girls?
There’s a knock on the half-open door.
“Come in,” I call, and Tess peers into the room, face scrunched into a frown.
She kicks the door shut behind her and flops onto my bed. “Everyone’s staring at me,” she announces, her jaw set. “I’d like to throttle Sister Inez. Maura, too.”
“I ought to be first in line.” I sigh, twisting my hair up into a chignon. “Maura had no right to tell anyone without your permission. But neither did I.”
“No, you didn’t.” Tess scowls. “Still, I forgive you. It was under awfully extenuating circumstances. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me.”
“I would never,” I promise, skewering pins through my hair.
“Maura had time to think about it, though. And Inez made me look like such a child.” Tess’s eyes narrow. “This is why I wasn’t ready to tell. Bekah and Lucy are acting differently around me already. Careful. Like I could break at any moment.”
“You won’t break,” I assure her. “They just found out. Give them some time to get used to the idea.”
Tess groans. She’s more patient than I am, but that’s not saying much. “Don’t you see? I won’t be just Tess anymore! Everyone will see me as the Oracle now. The Prophesied One.”
“It won’t be that way forever.” I hope not, anyway. I step into my sturdy boots. “I’m going out. Would you like to come with me? Escape the staring for a bit?”
“We have class,” Tess reminds me, picking up the history book at the foot of my bed.
“I’m not going. I need to find out whether the Brothers have elected a new leader. And I’ve got an important errand to run. Sisterhood business.” I pick up an ivory envelope lined with green birds—part of a set Tess gave me last Christmas, though who I had to write to then, I don’t know—and wave it at her.
She snatches it from me and withdraws the matching ivory paper. A green and blue hummingbird is embossed at the top, and the note itself is written in code—a Caesar cipher of three shifts to the left. “Did you do this yourself?”
I nod. There wasn’t much else to do at quarter to five this morning, while Rilla was snoring and I was trying not to think of Finn, so I took a candle down to the library and wrote the note. It took three tries to get it right and then I copied it onto my best stationery. A man like Brother Brennan might appreciate such niceties. Having never met him, I don’t know.
“Does it sound all right?” I ask.
Tess skims the short letter: Sister Cora has died. I do not trust her successor, who led the attack on the Head Council. It is my hope that you and I can work together for peace. I have Cora’s key and look forward to meeting you at tomorrow night’s gathering.
It’s unsigned. Even using a code, I’m not fool enough to leave my name for anyone to see.
“It’s good.” Tess’s gray eyes meet mine. “You’re going out to deliver it now? Did you already talk to Sister Gretchen?”
I nod. “I’m to leave it with the proprietor of a stationery shop. And Christmas is coming up. Too bad I haven’t any idea what you might like.”
Tess’s smile is its own reward. She could spend days in a stationery store, same as a bookshop.
“I’ll miss class for this,” she decides, jumping up.
“Good. You can help me figure out how to buy an illegal newspaper, too.”
TESS AND I SLIP OUT THE FRONT DOOR unnoticed and make our way through the quiet residential streets. Above us, the sky is shrouded in gray; the roses are withering on our neighbors’ gate. After a few blocks, the lawns shrink, the trees become sparse, and the houses grow closer together. Narrow two- and three-story brick buildings are the norm in the market district, with shops on the ground floors and living quarters above. Men of all classes hurry along the cobbled sidewalks. Vendors hawk meat pies and fresh hot bread, offer to shine gentlemen’s shoes—and sell newspapers.
I make a beeline for the nearest shouting paperboy. “Witches attack the Head Council! Brother Covington in Richmond Hospital! Jailbreak at Harwood Asylum!” he chants. “Read the horrible news for yourself! Two pennies!”
I fumble in my pocket for coins. “This is the Sentinel?” I can’t see the masthead because he’s waving the paper so furiously in the air. He looks respectable enough, but Mei swore her brother gets the Gazette from regular paperboys, bold as you please.
The boy gives me a cheeky grin, black hair falling into his eyes. “Course it is, Sister. What else would I be selling?”
I step closer, lowering my voice. What will he do, arrest me for asking? He can’t be older than Tess. “Do you know where I could get the—other paper?”
“I don’t know anything about any other paper, Sister.” He edges backward, dark eyes darting sideways. “I work for Brother Augustus Richmond, publisher of the New London Sentinel. That’s the only legal paper in town.”
“Of course it is.” I smile with a conspiratorial air. “But perhaps you would know where I could procure a copy of—?”
“No, I wouldn’t! What kind of trouble are you after?” The paperboy stalks away.
“For heaven’s sake, Cate.” Tess plucks at my sleeve, sighing. “You’re going about it all wrong. He thought you were trying to set him up!”
My face flushes. “Well, what should I do, then?”
“Think. Who reads that paper? Not Sisters or upper-class girls.” She tucks her arm through mine, and as we walk through the crowded street, her black cloak turns gray. A moment later, the pink lace hem of her skirt turns into tattered blue wool. Her nice fur muff morphs into worn blue mittens.
“Tess!” I hiss, terrified. I scan the block ahead of us. I don’t spot any Brothers, but two of their guards are lounging outside a café. They could have seen her. Anyone could have seen her. My heart is racing. It’s not like her to be this reckless; this is the sort of thingMaura would do.
“I’m not a child,” she snaps.
“I know you aren’t!” I run a black-gloved hand over my chilled face. “You’re very powerful. And very important. Too important to risk your safety like this.”
“Because of what I am?” she challenges, coming to a halt outside a flower shop.
“Yes,” I admit. But that wasn’t my first thought. “And because I love you and I would be lost—utterly lost—if anyone tried to take you away from me.”
Tess bites her lip, staring at the imported tulips in the window. “Sometimes I think it would be better for everyone if I were arrested.”
I grab her arm. “What? Why would you say that?”
Tess doesn’t respond. She just tilts her head to the opposite street corner. There’s another paperboy lounging against a grocer’s window, talking animatedly with three working-class men in jackets and suspenders and blue jeans. “I think he’s the one you want.”
He’s got a bag full of papers slung over his shoulder—a bag with SENTINEL printed on it in wide white letters. “Why do you think that?”