Crewel Page 2

‘Adelice,’ my mother says quietly, ‘you aren’t eating. Testing is over. I would think you’d have an appetite.’

She’s very good at projecting a calm demeanour, but I sometimes wonder if the carefully painted cosmetics layered until her face is silken with rouged cheeks and plump lips are a ruse to help her stay balanced. She makes it look effortless – the cosmetics, her perfectly pinned scarlet hair, and her secretary suit. She appears to be exactly what is expected of a woman: beautiful, groomed, obedient. I never knew there was another side to her until I was eleven, the year she and my father began training my fingers towards uselessness.

‘I’m fine.’ My response is flat and unbelievable, and I wish I had a perfectly painted face to hide under. Girls are expected to remain pure and natural – in body and appearance – until they’re officially released from testing. Purity standards ensure that girls with weaving abilities don’t lose them by being promiscuous. Some of my classmates look as beautiful in this state as my mother – delicate and fair. I’m too pale. My skin is washed out against my strawberry hair. If only it was the brilliant fiery red of my mother’s or soft gold like my sister Amie’s, but mine is as dull as dirty pennies.

‘Your mother made a special dinner,’ my dad points out. His voice is kind, but the implication is clear: I’m wasting food. Staring at the potatoes and too-dry slices of roast beef, I feel guilty. This meal probably ate up two nights’ rations, and then there’s the cake.

It’s a large frosted cake from a bakery. My mom has made us small cakes for our birthdays, but nothing like this fancy white cake with sugar flowers and lacy lines of frosting. I know it cost half a week’s rations. Most likely they’ll resort to eating it for breakfast later in the week while they wait for their next disbursement. The frail white scallops edging the cake make my stomach turn. I’m not used to sweets, and I’m not hungry. As it is, I can barely bring myself to eat a few bites of the overcooked meat.

‘This is exactly the cake I want for my birthday,’ Amie gushes. She’s never had anything like a bakery cake before. When Amie came home from academy today and saw this one, my mom told her she could have one for her next birthday. It’s a pretty big deal for a kid who’s only had hand-me-downs her whole life, but my mom obviously wants to soften her transition into training.

‘It will have to be a bit smaller,’ Mom reminds her, ‘and you won’t be having any of this one if you don’t eat your dinner first.’

I can’t help smiling as Amie’s eyes widen and she begins scooping food into her mouth, gulping it down hard. Mom calls her ‘an eater’. I wish I could eat like her when I’m excited or tense or sad, but nerves kill my appetite, and the fact that this is the last dinner I’ll ever share with my family has my stomach in knots.

‘Did you get this for Adelice?’ Amie asks between bites, revealing bits of chewed food.

‘Close your mouth when you eat,’ my dad says, but I see the corner of his own curling up a bit.

‘Yes, Adelice deserved something special today.’ My mother’s voice is quiet, but as she speaks her face glows and a faint smile plays at her lips. ‘I thought we should celebrate.’

‘Marfa Crossix’s sister came home from testing last week crying and hasn’t left her room yet,’ Amie continues after swallowing the meat. ‘Marfa said it was like someone died. Everyone is so sad. Her parents are already setting up courtship appointments to cheer her up. She has an appointment with pretty much every boy with an active marriage profile in Romen.’

Amie laughs, but the rest of the table falls silent. I’m studying the scallops in the icing, trying to make out the delicate pattern the baker used. Amie doesn’t notice the quiet resistance of my parents to the Guild-approved curriculum and marriage laws, but they haven’t exactly been honest with her either. I’m old enough to understand why they don’t want me to become a Spinster, even if they’ve always been careful with what they say to me.

My father clears his throat and looks at my mother for support. ‘Some girls really want to go to the Coventry. Marfa’s sister must be disappointed.’

‘I would be, too,’ Amie chirps, shovelling a forkful of potatoes into her mouth. ‘They showed us pictures at academy. Spinsters are so beautiful, and they have everything.’

‘I suppose,’ Mom murmurs, slicing small bites of meat with her knife in slow, precise strokes.

‘I can’t wait for testing.’ Amie sighs dreamily, and my mother frowns at her. Amie’s in too much of a daze to notice.

‘Those girls are very privileged, but if Adelice was called, we would never see her again.’ Mom’s response is careful. My parents have started trying to plant doubt in Amie’s head, although her tendency to rattle on to anyone listening makes it hard to talk to her about important stuff. But I don’t mind listening to Amie relate the dramas of every girl in her class or the programmes she saw on the Stream. It’s my break before spending every night practising and rehearsing what to say – and not to say. Curling up with my sister before she falls asleep is when I get my only sense of normal.

But a cake can’t buy more than a night’s happiness. My parents will have a long road ahead of them preparing Amie to fail at her testing. She’s never shown an ounce of weaving ability, but they’ll prepare her. I wonder if she’ll still be eager to go when it’s her turn in four years.

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