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‘What else is up there?’ Pryana asks Erik, edging a little too close to him.
I watch as she ventures from the safety of our group. She’s so at ease, clearly secure in her tight dress suit that shows off her long, amber legs. I can’t help marvelling at the way confidence rolls off her, and if I’m being honest, I’m a bit jealous, too. Erik barely notices her, though, which means he’s either very good at his job or my suspicion that he’s more than Maela’s personal assistant is correct.
‘Everything else is classified information,’ he says, stepping away from Pryana and beckoning to the group to show that it’s time to go.
‘Maybe he doesn’t like girls,’ Pryana mutters as she drifts back over to me.
‘He’s trained to keep us at a distance,’ I say. ‘I doubt he’d last long here if all the new Spinsters couldn’t keep their purity standards around him.’
‘You’re probably right,’ she says with a sigh. ‘I can keep looking at him though.’
We continue on our tour, and I struggle between wanting to ask Pryana about everything I missed and trying to play it cool. Thankfully, she seems eager to fill me in on all the gossip.
‘We had ten retrievals in Cypress,’ she says as we walk with the group. ‘I think it broke some kind of record.’
I hear pride in her voice.
‘And they found you all at testing?’ I ask, wondering if girls from Romen are particularly untalented.
‘Of course,’ Pryana says. ‘They’re up there mostly.’
She points to the girls who had trailed at the back of the original group and now led it. They have the same shiny black hair and tawny skin as she does.
‘Were you friends with any of them?’ I ask.
Pryana shakes her head in disgust.
‘No, girls in that town only care about getting their courtship appointments. Northern cities are like that. I hear they’re more ambitious in the east.’
I wonder for a moment what they say about us westerners, but I don’t ask. I’m more interested in why Pryana wants to be here. ‘What about you?’ I ask. ‘What about your family? Were they happy you were called?’
‘Sure,’ she says, looking at me like I’m crazy. ‘My mom’s a maid. She always dreamed I’d move up, and my kid sister can’t wait to get called in a few years.’
My heart aches at the thought of Pryana possibly getting to see her sister in a few years. After my parents’ struggle, the Guild will probably ensure that Amie never winds up here, even if she is called. And I’m more than a little jealous of how easily Pryana is adjusting to her new life.
To my surprise, when we reach the entrance to this wing of the compound, we’re stopped. Erik whispers with another guard and disappears into the next room. Instead of leading us forward, the guard motions that we should wait here. A few moments later, more guards appear, and my stomach twists. We’re asked to return to the hallway, and then we’re herded to a long, winding staircase. We climb up the towers like the tragic princesses in the family storybooks secreted away in my parents’ cubby-holes.
The staircase opens into a grand stone room with oddly shaped windows speckling the walls, too small to fit through but easy to see out of – the kind of room you hide a girl away in. Everywhere there are large, steel looms like the ones from the vlip, but these are cold and slick and empty. Each connects to the others through a series of gears and wheels. Tubes run along the walls, curving and wrapping around the great steel beasts. Evenly spaced around the room are short padded stools. I wonder if they’ve dismissed the Spinsters who work here so we can use the machines.
The other girls point and whisper, with wide eyes, and I feel left out again.
Maela, looking as stunning as she did in the room of mirrors, sweeps into the room followed by Erik and another bodyguard. The other guard’s hair is cropped close to his scalp, but both men are perfectly angular, striking, and clearly dangerous. Maela towers in front of us, her crimson dress a splash of blood against the dark backdrop of the men. I know she wants to intimidate us, but I straighten up and raise my jaw ever so slightly to show it’s not working.
‘Good afternoon,’ she trills, flourishing her arms. ‘Today we begin your journey to becoming Spinsters, and you will have your first test. It will measure your natural ability to read the weave and your control over your ability. It will also provide immeasurable benefit to the cities you see before you now.’
Several girls applaud this announcement, but I stare straight ahead.
‘We have an unexpected treat for you. Normally you wouldn’t have access to a real loom until your talent has been confirmed and honed, but we have occasion to do a little pre-emptive pruning this year. I know how excited you are to have this opportunity.’ Her eyes flick over to me as she speaks. ‘But as the orientation vlip told you, not all of you will become Spinsters.’
The group around me shifts and fidgets. The buzz of delight that filled the group an hour ago has faded into quiet panic.
‘Rest assured that when you were invited—’
I laugh before I can stop myself.
‘Adelice, is something humorous?’ Maela asks sharply, and every head swivels around to stare at me.
‘You reminded me of something that happened earlier.’ I smile, forcing myself to meet her gaze. ‘But please continue.’
If looks could kill.
‘As I was saying . . .’ Maela only misses a beat, but I’m sure I’ve drawn unnecessary attention to myself. ‘You will all remain here in service to the Coventry. Many of those dismissed from Spinning or Crewel work are quite happy working in our mill or in various other necessary positions.’