“Lady Saint Claire, can I speak to you for a moment?” Lady Beatrice Cave shouts from the steps of the history building.
I wrongfully assumed that everyone was too preoccupied with gathering up their belongings and making dinner plans to bother speaking to me. My heart sinks at the determination that fills her gait. Lady Beatrice Cave is a noblewoman whose father is the Baron of Willington, the land where the academy lies. I’m luckless enough to find myself in this particular barony. Beatrice feels entitled to everything because of who her father is. If she wants my time, I should feel inclined to hand it over as if it were nothing but paper. But my time is very valuable. I can’t spare a single minute getting sucked into a conversation with her. But she does have authority over me, which means that I can’t ignore her.
“What do you need, Lady Cave?” I find it easier to accommodate her by meeting her halfway to the steps. My thick-soled boots make walking on the ice-covered sidewalk bearable, but even so, I find myself slipping a few times.
“You should RSVP for my party soon. Space is running out,” she announces as she comes to a stop in front of me, putting her back to the history building. She’s around my height, with chocolate-brown skin, short, curly hair, and large brown eyes. She wears the academy-issued uniform: a black sweater, and thick dress pants. But unlike me, she wears gold teardrop earrings and an obscenely large diamond necklace over her key-shaped pendant.
“Oh, I’ll do that,” I force out. I hadn’t planned on attending her birthday party. It coincides with one of the times that I’ve set aside to spend with Jonah. But I can’t tell her that. My brother’s one of the forbidden topics that no one would dare discuss. And I hate that it has to be that way. But drawing attention to him could be dangerous.
“Good. I have three dresses for the event. I’m not going to show any of my guests. I want my dress choice to be a surprise. But I would make an exception for you, my lady.” I try not to cringe at being called my lady. I have no noble blood. But that doesn’t matter to Lady Cave. Beatrice looks hopeful, as if I would follow her to her living quarters and marvel over her grand ballgowns. I only have five minutes to make it to the meeting point. And she’s holding me up.
Before I can explain that I have plans, a door opens behind the noblewoman and voices travel to us. I inwardly groan; now I have to be more cautious. Around this time, students are usually flocking to their rooms in search of a reprieve before dinner. I was hoping to be inconspicuous. But it would seem that fate had something else in mind.
“I have no idea,” a familiar voice says. Lady Marigold Flay descends the steps of the history building, speaking to Sarah Brown, one of the noblewoman’s closest confidants. I don’t know much about Sarah. She’s a commoner, poor, and has little social standing. Marigold is the daughter of the Baron of Trout, a minuscule parcel of land about five hours’ drive from the academy.
Beatrice stiffens when she spots Lady Flay.
“My parents insisted that I invite Marigold. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered.” After making that statement, Beatrice promptly walks over to Marigold and Sarah and herds them back into the history building. Good, the coast is clear.
The academy has an efficient layout. The plot of land is a perfect square. The academic buildings line the perimeter. Then the various dormitories fill in each quadrant. And in the center of it all lies the dining hall. My living quarters and the history building are both located near Dormitory 4. My goal is to travel over to Dormitory 1, which is on the other side of the campus.
By the time I make it across the campus, the sun has been eclipsed by a blanket of thick, gray clouds. The wind beats against my coat, and snow flurries begin adding to the mountain of snow already on the ground. One mercy is that the walkways in this quadrant are all plowed, which diminishes my likelihood of falling.
As soon as I arrive at the dormitory, I walk around the building and spot the slightly opened door. I enter, but get little relief from the cold. This is a long-forgotten stairwell, which means that it isn’t properly heated or insulated. I stomp my feet on the threadbare rug that rests by the door and take in a deep breath and then climb the stairs.
When I arrive on the third floor, I breathe a sigh of relief. The closet door is slightly ajar. I enter and shut the door, which engulfs me in momentary darkness. A flashlight clicks on, and I see him.
Jonah leans against the cobweb-covered wall, his big, brown eyes smiling. His cheeks are hollow, and his clothes are torn in places. But he does have a thick black coat, and a pair of black worn boots. That’s a mercy that his owner has afforded him. Owners don’t bother giving illegitimates coats and boots, which results in people getting frostbite.
“Enly, how are you?” Jonah holds out one of his heavily scarred hands as he asks the question. He’s eager for sustenance. I pull a bundle out of my pocket and hand it to him. It’s fortunate that my coat has deep pockets. He unwraps a turkey and cheese sandwich and savagely bites into it. My heart breaks at seeing him so eager to eat something as basic as a sandwich; as if it were a commodity that would be stolen if it wasn’t consumed. This was never supposed to happen.
“I also brought you an apple and crackers,” I tell him. Jonah doesn’t finish his sandwich. He slips it into his pocket and smiles, revealing yellowed teeth.
“How are you, Enly?” he asks again, making me sigh.
“Don’t worry about me, Jonah. I’m fine,” I assure him.
“Do you have any friends, aside from Kip?”
“No.” There’s honestly no reason to draw attention to myself. My aloofness has kept people from discovering my meetings with Jonah. The kitchen maid that smuggles Jonah into the academy was employed by my father until she married a factory worker and had to relocate to be closer to his job. She and Kip are the only allies that I need. Kip is my in with the nobility, while my friendship with Mary endears me to the staff.
“Enly, you need to talk to people. You can’t shut them out. I want you to be happy,” Jonah pleads.
“I’ll be happy once you’re a free man,” I tell him. Jonah shakes his head.
“That could take a few years,” he warns me.
“Then I guess it will take that long for me to be happy. Now, eat up,” I demand as I hand him the rest of the food that I am able to hoard for him. Jonah slips the crackers into his pocket and eats the apple, which is strange. He can’t put aside food for later. If his owner finds it, he would assume that Jonah went out scavenging in a few pantries.
“Thank you for the meal, Enly. Now, tell me about your classes.”
“You didn’t eat all of it. Are you sick?” I ask, worried.
Jonah sucks in a deep breath and then straightens.
“There’s this new girl. I…um…I want to help her,” Jonah confesses.
“That’s too dangerous,” I hiss. “She’ll betray you.” My heart races as panic threatens to give me a coronary. How could my brother be so foolish?
“Enly, she won’t tell. I care about her, and she cares about me too. I…”
“Jonah, you are in no position to be in a relationship. They could kill you,” I cry.
“It’s worth the risk.” He’s so calm, as if being executed is no matter. I’m angry, afraid, and frustrated. After all I worked for, Jonah will throw it away for someone he barely knows. This can’t happen.
“Jonah, don’t be—”
“Enly, whatever you say, it isn’t going to change anything. I love her, Enly. Don’t you understand?” His dark eyes hold mine, but the joy filling his expression does not persuade me. This is a terrible idea.
“Just don’t get caught,” I plead.
“I won’t. Lord Michaels barely watches us. He’s too old. I promise I’ll be careful,” he assures me. Two quiet knocks from Mary announce that we’ve run out of time. I pull Jonah into a hug despite his stench. He holds me close. We tell each other that we love one another, and then he opens the door and leaves me in the dank closet.
I count to one hundred, and then I open the door. My bones are chilled. All I want is a nice hot bath. But my mind is overactive. If Jonah is caught having a relationship, he will be punished. If he impregnates the girl, he will be executed. Illegitimates have lost all rights, including the right to reproduce. The girl would live temporarily. Her baby would be automatically put up for adoption, then she would be executed. I can’t fathom why he would risk it. In a few years, he could be free to date whoever he wishes. Why can’t Jonah just wait? He’s only fifteen. That’s not proper courting age.
“Is everything well, my lady?” Mary asks as she tightens the strings on her blue apron. My inner turmoil has caused me to pause on the first landing. I force a smile, staring at the middle-aged, homely woman that I’ve known for all of my life.
“Yes,” I softly say, not daring to explain what troubles me. Mary looks around then gives me a stern look.
“You need to keep it together, my lady. No one can suspect what’s troubling you,” she warns, and then Mary turns her back and walks up the stairs, brushing past me. I force thoughts of my brother from my mind and exit the building. I am amazed that the flurries have now turned into heavy snow.