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‘You must approach your work with precision and delicacy, regardless of what is going on beyond this room,’ she continues. ‘We call this a stress test.’
She turns, but looks past me, and I follow her gaze. For the first time I notice a large oak loom with thick steel strands stretched across it. It’s nothing like the modern automated machines I’ve been training on. There’s a crudeness to it. The wood is warped and scratched, and the small bench that accompanies it is made of a solid piece of unfinished tree stump. This isn’t going to be comfortable.
‘If you are gentle, you can weave anything,’ she murmurs, beckoning me to take a seat on the stump. ‘How else can a Spinster weave time? It’s so precious. Once we had no control over time. It slipped right through our fingers. No power over death or famine or disease. And then science gave us weaving. But if we are not careful we could lose the control we have now.’
I’ve had enough of this patronising charade. ‘Is this because of what happened between Erik and me?’
Maela’s nostrils flare and she moves away from me. ‘This exercise,’ she continues, bypassing my question altogether, ‘will teach you delicacy and control.’
She leans toward the loom and deftly, but very softly, fingers a steel line. It pings as she releases it. Taking a thin wirelike thread, she gracefully weaves it through the steel cables on the loom. In. Out. In. Out. Until she yelps and draws her index finger up to her mouth, wincing.
I want to ask her what’s wrong, but it seems bad form since we’re enemies and everything, so I wait until she removes her finger. Blood blossoms from a small cut, and the nature of this test becomes clear.
‘This spool,’ she says, holding a large metal cylinder out to me, ‘needs to be woven through by noon.’
‘That’s it?’ I ask suspiciously, afraid to take the thread from her. Light glints off its coils.
‘That’s it.’ She presses her lips together in a smirk. ‘By noon, or you’ll be reassigned.’
‘I assume the ministers will need to see my work.’
Her jaw flexes under her skin, but she maintains her composure. ‘Naturally.’
‘Naturally,’ I agree.
She leaves the room, and I gingerly touch the ‘thread’. It’s razor sharp. Even more carefully, I reach out to feel the steel bands that comprise the warp of the loom. They’re almost totally rigid. Razor wire and a fake loom. She’s outdone herself this time. I’ll be lucky to have fingers at the end of this.
My first pass goes through easily and I avoid cutting my fingertips. It makes me overconfident, and the next pass slices off the tip of my left index finger. Tears sting my eyes as air hits the open flesh. This is no minor wound, but Maela is looking for any excuse to banish to me to kitchen work or worse, so I pull on the cylinder until I have enough slack to reach the hem of my skirt and use the wire to slice a few inches off it. Cutting several smaller pieces, I wrap each of my fingers, starting with my bleeding pointer. I’ll have to adjust to my clumsy covered fingers, but I can’t leave them exposed.
It’s slow work. Occasionally the wire catches on the tops of my hands and leaves angry streaks of blood across them, but I press on, fighting against the growing pulse from the wounds. The makeshift bandages last for a while, until the one covering my bloodied finger is soaked through and the others are in tatters. The sun is rising in the east window, and I have five hours left at most, but the spool looks untouched. Taking a deep breath, I peel off the fabric covers, except the one blocking my bleeding left index finger, and grip the wire firmly between my right index finger and thumb.
I focus on breathing, filling my lungs completely with each inhale and then slowly releasing. Bleeding welts cover my hands, but I press on, ignoring the dizzy, light-headed feeling. And between my body expecting breakfast – stupid set mealtimes – and dripping blood everywhere, my mind drops into oblivion.
The lack of noise in the room roars in my ears, or maybe it’s my heartbeat. There’s no clock, only the faint glow of morning light breaking in patches on my work. It reflects back off the white plastic-covered walls, heating them, so their synthetic stench fills the air in the studio, making my stomach hurt. Everything is bright, blinding in its artifice. Only my warm blood on the cold, steel lines contrasts with the harsh brilliance of the space. But despite the searing pain, I get through three-quarters of the spool before Maela returns.
She smiles at the sight of my wounded hands. ‘You have two hours left, Adelice.’ Leaning over my work, she continues, ‘I was thinking about how rude it was for us not to give you more updates on your sister.’
I lose my careful grip on the wire and slice a fresh cut into my palm.
‘It’s common for us to allow a letter or to provide some information during the initial training,’ she says, still hovering over me. ‘But we generally don’t do that for traitors.’
‘Yes, I’m aware of what you do for traitors,’ I say.
‘Then you already know we can be merciful,’ she replies innocently. I want to wrap the wire around her thin, pale neck.
‘Unfortunately, your parents committed treason, and of course there was the issue of the contraband found in your house,’ she tells me, ‘so your parents have been removed.’
‘Cormac told me,’ I respond. But even though I already knew, I feel the heat of tears when I blink. I have no energy to fight them.