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‘Go away.’ Happily, my speech is clear.
‘I can’t.’ It’s Jost’s voice, but he speaks in a firm tone – confident of his right to be here. ‘I’ve been sent to retrieve you for a meeting with Ambassador Patton.’
The voice sounds so like him, but different, too. More professional, arrogant. Something clicks in my brain, and I flip onto my other side. Big mistake. Stars burst across my eyes, making my head swim. Maybe I am a little drunk.
‘Been a while,’ I say.
‘I thought it was better to—’ Erik begins.
‘Stay away?’
‘I didn’t want to push things.’
‘I think we crossed that line,’ I say with a cold smile.
Erik’s jaw tightens and then relaxes. I hold out my hand, and he helps me up. My balance is shaky, but, ever the gentleman, Erik takes my arm without a word. It’s strange to touch him now. I can see my arm looped through his, my skin scrapes against his wool suit jacket, even the back of my clenched fist brushes against his bare wrist, but there’s no spark. My nerves don’t react to the contact. I replay the memory of our kiss in the garden. My first kiss. But now I feel like a watcher not a participant. If there was something there, Maela destroyed it, along with the tips of my fingers. Or maybe it’s the numbing effects of that wine I drank.
We travel in silence, and Erik’s stride is purposeful. Getting me to the meeting: that’s his only objective. It’ll be a relief to get rid of him. The delightful numbness has worn off by the time we reach the closed door. Erik nods to a tall, stern guard in that way that men greet each other.
Erik peels my arm back from his and guides me inside. He doesn’t follow, but as he bows his farewell, I catch a simple ‘I’m sorry’ escape his lips.
Bit late for that.
Inside, Loricel sits at the far side of a large circular oak table and Maela perches on a leather-backed chair by the door. She straightens up and thrusts her chin forward as I enter the room. I’m pretty sure she’s going for proud, but really she just looks constipated. And my old buddy Cormac is at a small bar in the corner, pouring a drink.
‘Good to see everything’s back to normal,’ I say.
From her seat across the room, Loricel’s smile turns into a frown of disapproval.
‘Adelice,’ Cormac says, stirring a squat crystal glass, ‘always a pleasure to see you.’
Such a politician.
‘Have a seat,’ Loricel says.
I take a deep breath and plop down into a chair. I start to cross my legs, but remember I’m wearing trousers, so I lean forward, legs wide, and give Maela a baiting grin. Her face stays serene, but her knuckles go white.
‘I was shocked to hear of the unfortunate incident with your mentor,’ Cormac says, taking a chair next to me.
‘Were you?’ I ask with wide eyes.
‘I was,’ he repeats in a tone that dares me to ask again. ‘Sometimes the demands of a Spinster can be overwhelming, and with the important work we do here we can forget to look after our own.’
‘I’ve felt very looked after,’ I assure him.
Maela clears her throat beside me. ‘Enora struggled with—’
‘Save it,’ I snap at her. ‘We know what Enora struggled with.’
‘Remember your place—’
‘Enough,’ Loricel says in a quiet voice. ‘Adelice knows her place, and you would do well to learn your own, Maela.’
‘She’s barely even been on a loom,’ Maela says.
‘She’s got more talent in her left pinky than you have in your whole body,’ Loricel responds.
I have to bite back a smile.
‘Don’t be arrogant,’ Loricel says, turning on me. ‘She’s right. With this political nonsense, you’ve had no real training.’
‘The Coventry needs to maintain a face of power,’ Cormac says, sipping his drink. ‘Adelice is key to that.’
‘Cormac, you worry about the political and I’ll keep this world working,’ Loricel says, slamming her hands down on the table. ‘If you plan to move her into my position, she needs to be prepared, not indoctrinated.’
‘Do I even need to be here for this?’ I ask.
‘Watch your mouth, girl,’ he growls.
‘I’d play nicer with your future Creweler, Cormac,’ Loricel says to him. ‘She may not be as forgiving as I am.’
‘The point is, she’s not ready,’ Maela reminds them, and they both glare at her.
‘I’m ready enough.’
‘You understand the fundamentals,’ Loricel says, ‘but you have a lot to learn before you can assume my position.’
‘What if I don’t want it?’
‘I wouldn’t worry about that,’ Cormac says, shaking his head. ‘You’re under stress with the loss of your mentor, but we’ve arranged for you to receive some evaluation and counselling. Enora’s death – it reminds us how demanding this work can be.’
‘Guess it’s not all fancy dinners and dresses,’ I say coldly.
‘No, it’s not,’ he says. ‘We’ll need you here more than ever now.’
‘Loricel planning a vacation?’
Cormac’s eyes flicker to Maela’s, and he shakes his head.
‘Loricel has opted to forgo further renewal treatments.’
I look from him to her, but her eyes are vacant. ‘What does that mean?’