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‘Yeah, he’s cute,’ I say, trying to be friendly. ‘His hair is awfully long though. I’m surprised they let him wear it that way.’
‘I guess they’re not going to have any problems with you and purity standards,’ Pryana teases. ‘Besides, I hear long hair is common in coastal villages like Saxun. Oh, it’s time to go!’
Most of the girls are already in the hallway, and Erik takes the lead, while several other officers trail behind us.
‘Ladies, today I’ll be leading you on a tour of the compound. As you may know, I assist Maela, the Spinster in charge of training, but her duties require her on the loom today. We’ll be visiting the studios and departments housed in the Western Coventry,’ Erik says loudly, so the whole group can hear. ‘Rest assured that I’ve been well trained to guide you.’
‘Drat,’ Pryana mutters. ‘No looms, but at least we get to follow him around today.’
Instead of agreeing with her, I grab her arm and drag her to the front of the group. I’m not missing a minute of this tour. Erik raises one eyebrow as I push to the front, but he doesn’t say anything.
‘Girl,’ Pryana whispers, ‘he’s looking at you.’
‘Yeah, because I knocked over half the group to get up here,’ I whisper back.
‘About that – I like your style.’
I give her an appreciative grin, and then turn my attention back to Erik, who has continued his spiel. At the end of the hallway, three corridors split off, and he leads us into the leftmost hallway.
‘Most of you will be working in entry-level positions,’ he says as he opens a door into a large room. Inside, rows of small looms form perfect lines and each is occupied by a Spinster busily working with her piece of Arras. On the far wall, a couple of square windows allow light to stream through, but the packed atmosphere of the studio is claustrophobic.
‘You’d think they could give us more light,’ Pryana says.
‘Especially since those aren’t real windows,’ I mutter back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Erik frown.
‘Not real windows?’ Pryana repeats.
Between her surprise and Erik’s annoyed look, I realise I’m not supposed to know that the walls and windows of the compound are programmed screens. Wild creatures are happy enough if they don’t know they’re being kept in a cage.
‘Yeah, the windows in my room are huge,’ I lie. ‘They could put bigger windows in the studios.’
Pryana relaxes, happy to believe my explanation, but Erik tilts his head and stares me down before he motions for the group to move on.
‘At the entry level, you will handle rationing – weaving food from the farm cities into cities across Arras. You may also watch for loose threads or any other signs of decay,’ he tells us as we pass room after room like the first one. There must be hundreds of Spinsters focused on these simple tasks.
‘From there,’ he continues, leading us into a new passage, ‘you may progress to studios that focus on weather, ensuring the right amount of precipitation falls throughout each sector. In others, you may perform standard removals and alterations like rebounds.’
The weather studios are roomier and only a dozen or so girls work in each. The looms they occupy are larger, and none of them seem to notice the new girls watching them. Or maybe they don’t care.
‘I think I’d rather work here,’ Pryana says to me.
I have to agree with her. I’m not sure I could handle the stuffiness of the earlier rooms, or the menial tasks expected of entry-level Spinsters.
‘The most gifted Spinsters will work in the next wing, though,’ Erik calls to the crowd.
We follow him out of the passage and into a circular room. The heavy door to these studios is guarded and requires security clearance.
‘Unfortunately, the work done in these studios is so sensitive that we can’t risk interrupting the Spinsters working there,’ he says.
The girls around me groan and hiss, but he raises a hand to indicate he wants to finish his lecture.
‘I understand that it’s disappointing, but it’s also necessary. The upper studios house the Emergency Department, which ensures no accidents occur in the Western Sector. They also house our Western Department of Origins. The Spinsters there oversee the delivery of babies into Arras.’
‘Say what?’ Pryana asks loudly, and a few girls around us chuckle. ‘There’s babies up there?’
Erik shakes his head, but I spy a smile tugging at his lips.
‘No,’ he reassures her. ‘The process of bringing new life into Arras is very precise. Once a pregnancy has been approved through local Guild clinics, the department of origins in that sector works in tandem with the local doctors and hospitals to bring the new life into Arras smoothly. To accomplish this, Spinsters schedule births, so the new thread can be woven in as the baby is delivered by the doctor and surgical team. It’s a routine procedure here at the Coventry, but it requires a delicate touch.’
‘I want to deliver babies,’ a short girl with light brown hair says. ‘Wouldn’t that be so nice?’
I nod my head automatically, but my mind is on my mother and the scar that marred her perfect figure, right across her belly. My parents made sure I knew how babies were made, insisting it was unfair to expect me to meet purity standards without knowing what I had to stay away from, but they never explained how babies actually came into the world. Now I understood why it was impossible for her to have another child without permission. And all those years I had pleaded with her to have a baby and talked back when she said it was impossible. Why couldn’t she have opened up more to me about the expectations and rules? Maybe then I would have known to run from retrieval instead of waiting in my chair for them to come.