I was far too overdressed for the crowd, but the people were more focused on the poster than me. My mother was right—it was advertising Estrel Charron's services—and the girl who looked like me was mouthing the words to herself as she read. I slipped into place next to her and tilted my head till my mouth was even with her ear. I was slightly taller and certainly heavier, but we had the same hazel eyes. The silver moon necklace at her throat glowed with power.
"Wouldn't you love to meet her?" I asked the girl.
She couldn't pull her eyes from the poster. "Love to, but it's tomorrow, and I've got to be home tonight."
"What if I could offer you the chance to not only meet her but learn from her?"
Her face whipped to me, and her eyes widened. She whispered with all the gentleness one said a prayer. "What?"
"I am Emilie des Marais, comtesse de Cote Verte, and I'm supposed to start my training at Mademoiselle Gardinier's today but would much rather study the noonday arts at university," I said, smile growing. She didn't stop me, so some part of her was listening. "How would you like to pretend to be me and study the midnight arts at Mademoiselle Gardinier's with your beloved Estrel while I take your last name and study the noonday arts?"
She stared. She did not say no.
"It will be dangerous, and I will do what I can to protect you if we are caught," I told her softly, "but some dangerous things are worth the risk."
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes."
I would prove myself, prove I wasn't a disappointment or insult, and I would change Demeine. If the world wouldn't give me the chance, I would take it myself.
I ate dirt as a child. Nothing grew the summer I turned six; Vaser's dry fields filled only with cicada husks. Lord Sun had not been merciful, giving us endless days of heat without rain, and Monsieur Waleran du Ferrant, comte de Champ, whose family watched over our lands, hadn't sent near enough help. Maman was pregnant with Jean, Papa was busy working, and Macé was seven and going through a growth spurt, crying till I gave him my supper. I'd cried too, but quiet, and pulled at my sides like I'd be able to pry open my ribs and scratch the hunger out of me. I'd been a good sister, then, and dirt was better than Macé crying. Tasted like the air after Alaine's funeral pyre.
"Your family must be proud." The shopkeeper smiled up at me and handed over the little satchel of everything Macé would need in Serre. "A varlet. There's a good career for a country boy."
I was not a good sister now.
"They're very proud of him," I said, tucking the packet into my bag. It wasn't a lie. They were. Of him. "He's leaving next week, and I'll be sad to see him go."
I'd be sad to see him go alone.
It was supposed to be us going—to university, not to Serre—to be hacks. We were supposed to study together, him the noonday and me the midnight arts, so we could both get jobs channeling magic for some rich artists who wanted all the results without getting worn down. I was supposed to go with him.
I'd always known I wasn't as good as him, but I didn't think Maman would make me stay in Vaser. Figured she'd be happy to see me go.
Probably why I'd been sent to pick up his supplies in Bosquet.
"Thank you," I said. "There a baker in town? I'm supposed to buy him something sweet to celebrate."
Our parents wanted to have a nice dinner before he left, and make sure he had some nice things to take with him so he wouldn't be too out of sorts from the others training to assist the chevaliers. So long as no one asked him to do something that required paying attention for longer than five minutes, Macé would make a good varlet. Macé would be a step above a hack, helping Chevalier Waleran du Ferrant stay alive and channeling the noonday arts for him during fights so his noble body didn't wear down too fast. They were honorable, varlets.
They were worth the money and time and sacrifice. I wasn't.
The shopkeeper told me how to find a baker—said Bosquet was too small for a proper patisserie, which I didn't believe for one second because there were more people and buildings here than I'd ever seen. As I'd left his store, he said, "Good luck to your brother, girl."