Page 14


She doesn’t speak at first. Instead she runs her eyes down me, and I wonder if it’s permissible to speak to a Spinster. I think of the boy who carried me in the cells. Play dumb. I can’t imagine keeping my tongue still and dry in my mouth day after day.
‘Congratulations on your achievement,’ she whispers, and even in the empty room I strain to hear her. I catch my breath, afraid an inhale or exhale will overwhelm her small voice.
‘Not many make it to this point, Adelice. You should be proud.’ Her smile doesn’t reach her false eyes. ‘My name is Maela, and it’s my job to welcome and train Eligibles. We’ve been processing the other girls. Orientation begins tomorrow. You almost missed it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumble, as shame washes over me, forcing me to cast my eyes down to my bare feet.
‘Sit,’ Maela commands, pointing to the prep chair. ‘The life of the Spinster is full of honour. You can do that which few can. You have power.’ Her whisper-quiet voice is feverish. ‘But, Adelice,’ Maela purrs into my ear, ‘you must not presume you are in control.’
My heart is a war drum, pounding too loudly. She has been sent to break me or at least to begin the process, but it won’t work. I rub my thumb over the hourglass scar on my wrist and remember my father’s final words. I won’t let this woman scare me. But the memory of him burned into my skin sends a surge of renewed hatred seething through me. It burns through my chest and out into my arms, and I have to suppress the urge to attack this sly woman.
Maela towers behind me and strokes my hair. I breathe carefully – in and out – aware of each breath. I watch these strangers in the mirror as she smiles, showing rows of perfect teeth against her lipsticked mouth.
‘We are set above those in Arras.’ Her voice is steady now, and she speaks in a normal, conversational tone as she flicks stray bits of cut hair from my shoulders. ‘But you belong to the Guild.’
Belong. I swallow hard on the word and try to shove its bitterness down my throat.
‘You will have everything.’ She leans down and tucks her chin against my shoulder, taking my strange face into her cold, slick hand. ‘You will be beautiful and young.’ She squeezes my face and looses a quiet, bell-like laugh as though we’re old friends or sisters confiding in one another. ‘Oh, Adelice, the life that awaits you . . .’ With a sigh, Maela draws back up and studies us in the mirror. In one swift motion she raises a long, thin wand and I cringe back. She laughs again and strikes a match. A moment later the spark from her cigarette is flickering back at me in a thousand reflections.
‘I’m almost jealous,’ Maela says.
‘I’m very honoured.’ I manage to push the words out of my mouth.
Her smile widens as I play her game. ‘Of course you are. Only someone very stupid would not want this life.’
She whirls around and somehow she doesn’t look foolish, but even more stunning, even more controlling. ‘Here, you are beautiful, Adelice. Here, you have a chance at something other than serving the ridiculous demands of men. Here,’ Maela adds thoughtfully, ‘you are more than a secretary.’
I know from the way she watches my face that she’s mocking my mother, but I keep my gaze level with hers.
‘But there’s just one thing you have to remember.’ She breathes down on me, and the stench of her cigarette stings my nostrils. ‘There is no running away from here, Adelice Lewys.’
I feel the cosmetics hiding me now, and I see my mother reflected back at me in the mirror.
Do not let her see you worry. Give nothing away.
‘There is no hiding.’ Her sweet whisper sounds strangely like a hiss. ‘There is not even death. So choose now what side you are on.’
I stare back. I hear the boy’s final words to me, and I wonder what could possibly be worse than death. But I know the answer: cold stone and burning darkness.
‘Of course.’ My response is simple and I dare not test myself by speaking more.
Maela’s smile fades into a self-satisfied smirk, and I’m sure this is the only genuine emotion she’s displayed thus far.
‘Well, then.’ She pats my shoulder, dropping ash onto my robe. ‘Your room is waiting for you.’
‘Maela,’ I say, my voice timid but steady, ‘do you know what happened to my mother and sister?’ I have to ask even though I’m terrified of showing her my weakness. I try to look strong.
‘I can imagine,’ she says, but instead of telling me what she thinks, she leaves me to my own desperate fantasies and calls for her assistant to join us. I’m surprised to see it’s a boy, but I suppose the girls here are busy with more important tasks. I watch as she whispers orders to him, throwing meaningful glances over her shoulder at me.
Her personal assistant escorts me to my new quarters. The sterile halls of the compound shift slowly as we enter the housing unit. First, the concrete changes to smooth wood. Then the white walls blossom: vermilion, garnet. We pass velvet divans and marble pillars and enter a bronze-gated lift. It reminds me of Romen’s metro hall, and I shudder, remembering the grotesque figures perched on the exterior corners of the hall of records there. Monsters carved from stone that leered down at the citizens, beautiful and terrifying.
Everything here throbs with brilliant energy, and yet there’s an absence of real life. The lift is silent, and my guide doesn’t speak as we ride further and further up into the tower. I stand behind him and study how his gold hair glistens and waves against his shoulders. It’s not typical Guild-approved grooming, but I suppose it’s a perk of being an errand boy for such a powerful Spinster.