Crewel Page 1

Prologue

They came in the night. Once, families fought them, neighbours coming to their aid. But now that peace has been established, and the looms proven, girls pray to be retrieved. They still come at night, but now it’s to avoid the masses with eager hands. It’s a blessing to touch a Spinster as she passes. That’s what they tell us.

No one knows why some girls have the gift. There are theories, of course. That it’s passed down genetically. Or that girls with an open mind can see the weave of life around them at all times. Even that it’s a gift only given to the pure-hearted. But I know better. It’s a curse.

I’ve trained at night with my parents ever since they realised I had the calling. They taught me clumsiness, making me fumble until it looked natural when I dropped a bowl or spilled the water jug. Then we practised with time, my parents encouraging me to take the silky strands deftly into my fingers to twist and tangle them until they were warped and useless in my hands. This was harder than dropping and spilling. My fingers wanted to weave the delicate tendrils seamlessly with matter. By my sixteenth birthday, when it was time for the required testing, the ruse was so effective, the other girls whispered I would be sent away early.

Incapable.

Awkward.

Artless.

Maybe it was their taunts lodging in my back like tiny daggers that poisoned my resolve. Or perhaps it was the way the practice loom sang out, begging to be touched. But today, the last day of testing, I finally slipped – my fingers gracefully winding though the ebbing bands of time.

Tonight they’ll come for me.

1

I can count the days until summer draws to a close and autumn seeps into the leaves, painting them ginger and scarlet. Right now, though, the dappled light of mid-afternoon is glorious emerald, and it’s hot on my face. With sun soaking into me, everything is possible. When it is inevitably gone – the seasons programmed to begin and end with smooth precision – life will take its predetermined route. Like a machine. Like me.

It’s quiet outside my sister’s academy. I’m the only one waiting for the girls to be released. When I first began my testing cycle, Amie held her pinkie finger up and made me swear to meet her each day after I got out. It was a hard promise to make, knowing they could call me any time and sweep me away to the Coventry’s towers. But I make it, even today. A girl has to have something constant, has to know what to expect. The last bit of chocolate in the monthly rations; the tidy ending to a programme on the Stream. I want my little sister to be able to count on a sweet life, even if the heat of summer tastes bitter now.

A bell tolls and girls pour out in a surge of plaid, their giggles and shouts breaking the perfect stillness of the scene. Amie, who’s always had more friends than me, bounces out, surrounded by a handful of other girls in the awkward stages of early adolescence. I wave to her and she dashes towards me, catching my hand and pulling me in the direction of our house. Something about her eager greeting every afternoon makes it okay that I don’t have many companions my age.

‘Did you do it?’ she asks in a breathless voice, skipping ahead of me.

I hesitate for a moment. If anyone will be happy about my mistake, it will be Amie. If I tell her the truth, she’ll squeal and clap. She’ll hug me, and maybe for a moment I can leach her happiness, fill myself up with it, and believe everything is going to turn out fine.

‘No,’ I lie, and her face falls.

‘It’s okay,’ she says with a resolved nod. ‘At least this way you get to stay in Romen. With me.’

I’d rather pretend she’s right, to allow myself to get lost in the twelve-year-old’s gossip, than face what’s coming. I have my whole life to be a Spinster, and only one more night to be her sister. I ooh and aah at the right times, and she believes I’m listening. I imagine that the attention builds her up and completes her, so that when I’m gone she’ll have enough not to waste her life searching for it.

Amie’s primary academy lets out at the same time as the metro’s day shift, so Mom is waiting when we get home. She’s in the kitchen and her head snaps up as we enter, her eyes rushing to meet mine. Taking a deep breath, I shake my head, and her shoulders slump in relief. I let her hug me as long as she wants, her embrace flooding me with love. That’s why I don’t tell them the truth. I want love – not excitement or worry – to be the lingering imprint they leave on me.

Mom reaches up and brushes a strand of hair from my face, but she doesn’t smile. Although she thinks I failed at testing, she also knows my time here is almost up. She’s thinking that I’ll be assigned a role soon, and married shortly thereafter, even if I won’t be taken away. What’s the point of telling her she’ll lose me tonight? It’s not important now, and this moment is what matters.

It’s an ordinary evening at our ordinary table, and apart from the overcooked pot roast – Mom’s speciality and a rare treat – not much is different, not for my family at least. The grandfather clock ticks in our hall, cicadas perform their summer crescendo, a motopact rumbles down the street, and outside the sky fades into dusky twilight beckoning nightfall. It’s a day just like the hundreds that came before it, but tonight I won’t tiptoe from my bed to my parents’ room. The end of testing also means the end of years of training.

I live with my family in a tiny bungalow outside Romen’s metro where my parents have been assigned two children and an appropriately sized house. My mom told me they applied for another child when I was eight – before they discovered my condition – but upon evaluation they were denied. The cost to maintain each individual makes it necessary for the Guild to regulate population. She explained this matter-of-factly one morning as she pinned her hair up into elaborate curls before work. I had asked her for a brother. She waited until I was older to explain that it would have been impossible anyway, due to segregation, but I was still mortified. Pushing my rations around my plate, I realise how much easier it would be if I had been a boy, or if my sister was a boy. I bet my parents wanted boys, too. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about us being taken away.

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