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‘Only ones that look like they’re girls,’ he says, purposefully emphasising the offending term.
‘Oh, right. And what are you? Eighteen?’ I point out. Does he think the dirt covers his age?
He taps his grimy forehead. ‘I’m older up here than most men twice my age.’
I don’t ask him why. I don’t want to get too cosy with him. There’s no point. We continue to walk, but his eyes stay locked on me. He must have passed this way many times before, because he doesn’t need to look ahead to see where he’s going.
‘Let me carry you.’ He sounds resigned but there’s a note of kindness to his offer.
‘I’m fine,’ I insist too harshly, and I try to hide the blush that’s creeping onto my neck at the thought of his arms around me again.
He grunts and stops staring at me. ‘So you ran?’
I keep my eyes on the door at the end of the stone hall.
‘Let me guess, you think I’m going to tattle on you?’ He grabs my arm to halt our progression, leaning in to keep his voice from echoing. ‘If you ran, it doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter if you admit it. They’ve marked you and they’ll watch you. So take my advice and play dumb.’
His eyes flicker like the tip of a flame, accentuating his warning, and I know he means it.
‘Why do you even care?’
‘Because they’ll kill you,’ he says without hesitation. ‘And a girl with enough smarts to run is hard to come by these days.’
‘Then they could kill you for talking to me like this,’ I whisper, and it comes out as desperation, fear, everything I’ve been feeling in the cell. He seems to respond to the emotion in my voice, as though I’m putting words to the unspoken tension in the air, and for just a moment, he leans down closer to me, and I wait for what he’ll tell me next, with my breath caught in my throat.
He shrugs. ‘If you tell. And you won’t.’
I try to hide my disappointment, but he’s right. I won’t tell on him, but I’m not sure if it’s because he said I was smart or if it’s because I feel like we share a secret. Neither of us is what we appear to be.
He opens the door to reveal a sterile staircase with bright white walls that feel out of step with the old, musty cell block. My guide flourishes his arm, but as I cross the threshold, he whispers, so softly I barely hear: ‘Besides, there are worse things than death here.’
The clucking disapproval of the Coventry cosmeticians is beginning to wear me out. The boy left me at the top of the steps, and a girl herded me to a shower. The water was painfully cold, reinforcing my belief that I’ll never be warm again unless I start to play along. So here I sit, eyes cast down, quiet, completely malleable to their designs. It isn’t bad. They’ve given me a downy white robe, and despite my fervent desire to hate this, the feeling of having my hair combed and shampooed is relaxing. Maybe I’ve just missed human contact.
A woman snips furiously at my hair, while another smooths cream over my face. They shape my eyebrows into trim arches and line them for emphasis. Then they spread a milky white paint across my face and set it with powder. I remember my mother carefully doing the same, explaining step-by-step what each item was, and stopping to tell me how few cosmetics I would need when my time came – how flawless my skin was. She would cringe to see them paint my face now, and I keep imagining she’ll burst through the door and save me from the powders and rough pots of colour and long pricking pens for my eyes.
‘She’s horribly gaunt,’ the scissor woman notes, now applying thick globs of gel with a brush to my still-wet hair.
‘She was in the cells...?’ Her companion’s voice trails into a question. I look up to see the face I know she’s making – the one that is suggestive and haughty – but instead find a plaster mould of serenity. Only the lingering peak in her voice betrays her curiosity, but it’s not my own interest in what she’s saying that keeps me riveted to her face. It’s her beauty, one rivalled only by that of the woman cutting my hair. Skin as pure as fresh honey, and deep, black eyes painted into exaggerated almonds. The other has silvery skin and corn-silk hair, woven delicately into braids around her head. Her lips are as red as fresh blood. Looking away, I imagine what they think of my dull copper hair and pasty skin. I don’t look back up as they buff and remake me. I don’t bother to speak. They finish, and continue their idle gossip, never once addressing me, and I’m not sure if it is because I am beneath them or above them. When they’re done, they leave me in the chair, and I finally brave a look at the mirrored walls around me. My image confronts me on every side, some staring back and others turning away like a stranger. In my simple robe, I look like my mother – older and more beautiful. I look like a woman.
Standing, I take a few steps forward to touch the cool glass. I’ve never spent much time at the mirror, but it’s comforting to stand here now. A hundred images of me gazing back, proving my existence. I turn my name over in my head and try to attach it to this woman with scarlet hair that drapes down against her snowy robe, and emerald eyes set by dark gold lines against a smooth, sculpted face. This stranger. Myself. Adelice.
As I stare, unable to turn away, one of the mirrors cracks cleanly down the side and for a moment, startled, I back away, unsure how I’ve broken it. The crack grows to reveal a panel in the glass. A woman steps through, and it seals seamlessly behind her. She’s wearing a tailored suit, and her raven hair is perfectly pinned into a twist. Her age doesn’t show in her made-up face, but the angles of her cheekbones and the arch of her eyebrows set over her luminous but clearly artificial violet eyes make her look older to me. But it’s the way she carries herself – it’s the aura of control and authority reflected in her refined face and smart suit – that tells me this is no ordinary Spinster.