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No one breathes as Maela takes a long silver instrument from the caddy at the edge of the loom. ‘Simply hook this end,’ she says as she gently threads the crook between the strands and with a swift motion rends the piece. A shimmering thread hangs from the end of the hook and she holds it out for us to inspect. ‘Simple.’
My stomach flips over. What does it feel like to be removed? The piece still exists, but where is that person now?
‘Now, who is ready for her turn?’ asks Maela.
A dozen girls crowd forward, eager to prove themselves. Pryana meets my eye, and I see horror reflecting back in her almond eyes. At least I’m not the only one sickened by this test.
Girl after girl steps up and attempts the test. One girl nearly takes out an entire section, but Maela swiftly stops her. I wonder if her mistake will doom her to a life slaving away at the mercy of the Coventry. Soon only Pryana and I are left. I see how unnerved she is, and I step forward, not only to give her a few more moments to compose herself, but also to get it over with.
Maela leads me to a new piece. It is more intricately woven than the other pieces we’ve seen so far; thousands of glinting threads lace and wind together in a rainbow canvas of light. A few girls eye it apprehensively. It is much more complex than the rest, but it’s not what scares me.
‘Let’s see what you can do,’ she says encouragingly.
I reach forward and softly touch my fingertips to the piece. The sensation is shocking. I’ve touched pieces of a weave before, but never sections that contained people. There’s a charge running through the piece, and I realise that what I’m feeling is the energy of the thousands of lives that rest under my fingers. Despite the complexity, my hand immediately senses the weakness. It’s so minuscule I can’t imagine trying to remove it without damaging all the other strands around it. I also can’t imagine that this tiny weakness could be a real threat to such a large, tightly woven piece.
‘It’s here,’ I murmur, and I hear an impressed buzz from the others around me.
‘Very good,’ Maela replies simply. She brandishes the hook like a weapon, and I see the dare in her eyes. She must know this ripping is unnecessary – possibly dangerous – but it’s clear I’m being tested at a more advanced level.
‘No need.’ I remove my hand from the spot. ‘It’s no danger to such a beautifully woven piece.’
‘That’s not really a determination for you to make, Adelice,’ she hisses, and she holds the hook out further.
‘Removing it would risk all the surrounding threads. It’s not necessary.’ I lift my chin and meet her eyes, daring her to defy my proclamation.
‘Adelice, I won’t tell you again. You put us all in danger when you don’t do your part,’ she says, as though she’s instructing me on simple addition and subtraction.
‘And I’m telling you there is no risk,’ I reiterate, my heart beginning to race. ‘In fact, it would be more dangerous to remove it.’
‘Is that so?’ She seems genuinely interested in my opinion, but I know it’s just a show. ‘In that case . . .’
Her motion is so swift, I don’t see it coming. She wields the hook like a razor, slashing across the piece and brashly ripping an entire section out. Hundreds of shimmering threads hang off the hook, and she beckons for the burly officer.
‘Take these – and the others – to storage, and inform the Spinster on duty that we need an emergency patch.’ She hands the hook to him nonchalantly. No one else speaks; we only stare.
I try to bite my tongue, but the flood of hot anger rising up my body and into my cheeks prevents it. ‘That was unnecessary.’
‘I told you that even one weak thread was a danger.’ Maela frowns and shakes her head in a gesture meant to convey sympathy. Or perhaps remorse. Neither is believable.
‘Do you want to be responsible for a tragedy?’ she asks me, her gaze travelling around the room. The question is rhetorical, but several of the girls shake their heads.
‘If we fail to do our job, we compromise everything that’s been built,’ she continues, and as she stares me down, she turns a tiny knob on the side of the loom. The weave before us, mangled and torn open, begins to shift into clearer focus. At first it looks like a piece of cloth, intricately woven, stretching across the machine, but as she zooms in and adjusts the visual it becomes a town. It’s as though I’m looking at a map with a hole in it, and then she clicks the wheel another notch and it becomes a street view. A perfect tree-lined lane, much like the one at home, leading up to a building, an academy. There is the arch of a doorway and the brick façade of the entrance and then nothing. The rest of the building is gone, simply ripped away, leaving bits of bricks tumbling and disappearing into an abyss. It just isn’t there any more.
I haven’t been able to grasp what she’s done until now. Seeing the weave in tapestry form couldn’t call up the anger this image did. This for a lesson? And what have we learned? That Maela is a psycho. Sure, I could have guessed that. Is this why they need cleaning technology, to sweep away the actions of people like her? Is she who we need to forget?
She keeps her violet eyes on me, until the hint of a smile flits across her face. She doesn’t allow it to settle there long enough for anyone but me to notice. ‘I think we’re done for today.’
I glance back at Pryana, who may be my friend now. I’ve saved her at least, if only for the moment. Her face says it all – she’s not ready for this. As eager as she was to become a Spinster, it’s clear she didn’t expect this. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t either.