The fell thread is the most important. It is forever changing, one thread, immediately before the weaver. The beginning and the end of the cloth do not matter, only the one thread where creation—or destruction—is happening with each pass of the shuttle. It is the weaver’s heartbeat, the place where everything can change in an instant, for good or ill.
—Reflections on weaving from a Lividian scroll
As soon as the green-eyed noble arrived at her audition, Rena focused on the threads before her. Would he recognize her, after all these years? Rena convinced herself he wouldn’t — no one here would. The secrets of her past would remain hidden. She ignored the bead of sweat on her temple and the painful ache of her shoulder lump, thinking only about the imaginary colors she saw, colors that told her which treadle to step on next. Red, green, black, white, red, green, green, white .... Pride in her work, in the endless call of the patterns, created the perfect escape for her. The blur of shifting warp threads soon hypnotized her as she deftly passed the shuttle back and forth between them, forgetting the room once more.
She blurred her eyes, the imaginary guiding colors glowing like little fires, fires of seven different hues. This Valian loom she wove on was an intricate device, regarded by most as useless because it was hopelessly complex. It was made by a technology now forgotten, a relic in collectors’ homes, and this machine had belonged to Rena’s mother. Yet when Rena came before it, she knew what to do. She merely set the warp threads into the harness spools, then opened her mind to the colors. The colors were always there, begging to be expressed. There was no planning involved. It always worked.
Her gift had been secret — it should have stayed that way — but there was no reversing the mistake that had brought her here, now, in this crowded room where she crouched before her loom, reluctantly showing off her skill before the Keldarian officials. They’d hauled her Valian device here, into the Rector’s Hall, a few buildings from Rena’s shop. The officials had driven the Orn Monks out; ever since the occupation began, the Monks’ safe houses had become their most popular meeting places, mockery of the former god-king’s empire. Uncle had promised Rena this was only an audition, but now, in this bare room with its sparse lighting and black-and-gray tapestries that stunk of oil, with more than forty royal spectators crowded close together, scrutinizing Rena in silence, it felt like a trial. The worst part was that half of them wore obsidian robes, marking them as the tyrannical troupe of King’s men known as the elite guard.
That was the true source of Rena’s fear, and the reason she did everything she could now to focus only on her work, to pretend that she was elsewhere. In Gholheim, it was illegal to be an artist. King Fyrian’s ruthless reforms, which only got worse with each moonspan, saw artists hauled away every day. The elite guard came to do inspections of shops at random, and many of them ended up with boarded-up doors and windows. Never once did they come to Rena, but even if they did, she had gone to great lengths to keep her secret.
Was she truly a criminal? Late at night, while she wove cloth secretly in her shop, it was easy to forget the danger when her passion came to life, as patterns transformed from mind to cloth. For more than a year she basked in this secret pleasure, every day coming home well after first moon. There was fear—a sliver, easy to ignore—but she was never caught. No, she hid her tracks well, and she truly believed that the one thing she loved above all—that thing considered to be wrong—was not wrong. This did not hurt people, not like the drawings had.
How stupid then to let it be exposed. Uncle. I should never have trusted him. The thought caused Rena’s attention to return to the room. She glanced briefly to where Uncle stood next to his three noble friends. Francas was the hawk-nosed southerner, Mikas, the head of House Dulvar, was stone-faced, squinting around his monocle. And the third noble... He had joined last, his emerald eyes like glass, his face unreadable—exactly how Rena remembered him from her years of imprisonment years ago. He still had the same anchor tattoo on his left cheek and half a missing ear. Rena did not stare long enough, but even in her quick glance she saw that he was looking at her with uncanny fascination. Does he recognize me? I was still a child, and I look nothing now like I did then. Maybe he won’t remember me.
Uncle had reassured Rena that this audition was to show off her skill, to reveal a useful opportunity to develop Gholheim’s textile industry. But as Rena wove on, she wondered if she truly could trust him. For the last five years she’d tried to be simple Rena, the seamstress, mending dresses and trousers for royalty and paupers alike. It was enough to hide, to pretend the uprisings that marked the growing brutality of Fyrian’s reign would not touch her.
Why had she let Uncle Kurt discover her secret? Why hadn’t she just continued to lie to him and pretend all her money came from hard work and high demand? Really, she shouldn’t have let herself get so drunk with him that night he’d appeared, eager to spend time with his “favorite niece”. Perhaps she would have stamped her foolish pride flat and avoided all this.
Instead, she’d told him everything, and when he said he didn’t believe her, she’d led him, drunk and staggering, through the streets of dark Gholheim to her shop, where she kept her loom in the attic. She’d made a kerchief in half a clockturn as Uncle leaned in close, wreathing her with the stench of Kerran scotch, the world swimming with blurry colors. It seemed a small victory, seeing the man’s eyes widen, hearing for once praise instead of criticism. It seemed a small victory, until this.
Red, red, red. Green, green-blue, green-yellow, violet, black, black-white, black... Rena wove, trying to forget, but it was impossible. Colors danced before her; her feet replied with an effortless dance of skill. Gears screeched. Someone coughed. A housefly smitten with the cold of fall buzzed a lazy drone. Course thread grazed her deft fingers. Black, green, black, violet, black, white...
What had happened to the promise she’d made to herself? Life as she now knew it had begun when she was fifteen winterdays. The bite of deep fall had nibbled her cheeks as she’d sneaked down the secret alleyways of Gholheim with her now-mother, Jane Arwelle. Drawing in the cool, alpine air, Rena had taken her private vow. I will start anew. I will remain quiet and hidden. I will forget and live in peace. In those first days, she’d hidden in the basement of House Arwelle’s Oldbert Estate, where Jane’s antique Valian handloom had first drawn her attention. Mother had said it was impossible to operate, a marvel from the previous Age. Yet it seemed to call to Rena, an urge she could not resist, just like the time when she was only a girl, when she had done the drawings—the drawings that had caused such destruction for her. It won’t be the same. I will do something good with my art this time. That was her promise, as she mastered the device it was said none could master. I’ll keep it secret. Another promise, and the reason she’s taken the Valian device to her seamstress shop, the reason she kept it hidden away and only went down to weave cloth at night. Effortlessly her fabrics came together, and it was easy to sell it as Allvaran cloth. No one will suspect. A rationalization; it had worked just fine. Mother had asked no questions, and her customers loved her. Rena grew wealthy and helped mend the debts of House Arwelle, the least she could do for the woman who had come and rescued her from the labor camp, the woman who had given her a new life.
It could have stayed that way. It should have stayed that way. What have I done?
The Keldarian Officials had at least granted Rena her request that she send for her brother, Manwen, though only because he was a soldier in the King’s Legion. With Manwen came Skippy, one of her closest friends and favorite visitors during her work days. They’d both slipped in when she was halfway through her work, Manwen in his silk blue trousers and elaborate black vest, the one with the golden serpent, and Skippy in his rags, shifting his weight between his good leg and his bad.
Violet, green, blue. Violet, green, white. Green... Rena’s heartbeat sped up; the cloth was almost finished. It was an armspan by an armspan, large enough to swaddle an infant. Even this size, sold as Allvaran cloth, it would have earned her ten days’ wages as a seamstress. A glimpse at the Valian clock that hung on a nearby wall showed her she’d now been working for nearly one clockturn, but it felt like mere clockticks. How many times had she worked well past second moon in her attic, thinking it was not even first? The end was near, again, and Rena grew excited, almost enough to forget her fear. She nearly had a smile on her face.
For a wonderful moment her world became threads and colors. She felt the cloth, swirling with something like liquid that reached out and caressed her skin, reached deeper even, into her heart, setting her belly astir with something like the patter of a thousand little feet. The cloth became alive, it breathed and her breath became it. Her skin rushed with fire and ice and her nipples pebbled. Yes. Yes!
Done. Rena stopped, threads falling from her fingers. She sagged in her chair, her vision blurred, her shoulders slumped. She breathed. In. Out. Done. Only when the room and its ugly royal faces resolved again did she forget the euphoria that had temporarily seized her. The cloth, completed, dangling from her Valian handloom, shimmering with symmetric patterns—diamonds, violet arcs, rectangles—seemed to mock her. There would be no ritual this time, no lighting three candles for each of the Airs to thank the Goddess for her gift.
Applause burst forth and fear spread through Rena’s body like ink in water. I should have kept this secret. I shouldn’t have tried to impress Uncle.
The green-eyed noble was watching her. Rena averted her gaze, purposely scanning the crowd. Uncle was speaking to the other two nobles. Manwen was pushing through, toward her, Skippy hopping behind him.
“That was amazing,” Brother said with his smiling eyes. He patted Rena on the shoulder.
“I knew there was more to you than needle and thread, Rena.” Skippy gaped at her.
Rena gave him a private smile. “I hate sewing, actually. But now you know.” She sighed, turning her attention to Manwen. “I wish Uncle hadn’t set this up.”
“You know him, Sister. Anything Kurt Estelle sees to benefit his family, he seizes. He thinks he’s the head of our house now with Father gone, but doesn’t realize that Mother only gives him latitude because he’s her brother.”
“Uncle wants to get rich, especially now that he knows where Mother’s secret wealth is coming from. He won’t want to risk becoming redundant.”
“Sister...” Manwen exhaled sharp and shook his head. He called her sister whenever he strongly disagreed with her, but Rena wondered if maybe he did it to remind himself that she was supposed to be his relative and accordingly he had to tolerate her.
Uncle neared with the other nobles now, waving his arms dramatically toward the cloth. “This is just one masterpiece—one example of what she can do. Think, my friends. Think about the benefit to the capitol.”
“So it is true then that you make all this cloth on the looms of your shop basement? How do you move so quickly? You create with such skill, such finesse.” Mikas angled his monocle her way, running a bolt of the cloth across his fingers.
“Lots of practice.” Rena laughed, though nothing was funny.
“It is a rare gift,” Uncle said, waving his arms again. “All this time she has kept it secret, but now that Rena has decided to show her talents, perhaps House Arwelle can better contribute to the royal trade?”
Mikas grunted, still studying the cloth. Frankas, though, leaned close. He was the tallest of the three, his broad, patterned green collar marking his office as royal treasurer. “A gift like this should not be hidden in a shop basement, or the guise of a simple seamstress. You were right to bring this to our attention, Lord Arwelle.”
Uncle grinned, the smug bastard. I hope you’re happy now.
“She only chooses seven colors, why is this?” The third noble approached with serpent-like grace, his green gaze tracing the patterns of Rena’s cloth. “Seven colors, just like the Sacred Stones.”
Rena kept her eyes down when she spoke. “I like those colors.”
“Hmm.” The unnamed noble came closer, looking at Rena curiously. “It does not do for this girl to work in a shop basement, no.” The man smirked, obscuring the tip of his anchor tattoo. “Perhaps she will be more...productive if we were to find her better quarters.”
Uncle nodded frantically. “Of course, Inquisitor. Of course!”
Inquisitor. Rena eyed the man, remembering the times he came to the labor camps, walking with the guards and inspecting the prisoners. She’d seen him so many times and was sure he’d seen her, but every time she’d been crowded shoulder to shoulder with other prisoners. This inquisitor—whatever the title meant—he had never spent time with her, and back in that dark time her face was always dirty, her hair shorter. In her gray and brown scrubs she blended in with every other offender. He doesn’t recognize me. Oh please, let it be so.
“I like my shop,” Rena protested, trying to meet the inquisitor’s eyes casually. “As you can see, I don’t need a bigger space. This is enough. If you see any...use for my skill, then by all means I will be happy to make extra cloth in my work day. The Cup and Biscuit next to me closed last moon, and I was thinking of expanding shop anyway.” The Cup and Biscuit was one of the shops closed because the owner, Farel, had been caught with paintings in his cellar. In truth, Rena now wondered if her shop might end up like his.
“We will have to discuss this matter with the council,” Mikas said. “As you say, Lord Arwelle, this talent can be of use to the King’s trade, and jealousy abounds in this troubled time. It would not do for someone to cause trouble for our young seamstress.”
“No, it would not do,” the green-eyed inquisitor agreed. “That will be all for today. We will be in touch. Meanwhile, do not show this talent to anyone else.” He fixed Rena with a cool stare before turning to depart.
Uncle nodded at Rena before following the nobles and most of the Keldarians officials out. The Rector’s scribes were returning, and the obsidian-robed officers shooed out the curious peasants who tried to crowd in through the now-open door. Skippy left too, telling Rena that he had some work to do—he was an errand boy, making what meager living he could; if he wasn’t so clumsy with his hands, Rena gladly would have taken him in as her assistant. Rena watched the crowd thin, thinking of the inquisitor’s words, of Uncle’s promise. Would they have arrested her now if they thought her guilty of practicing a form of artistry? Was it possible they were merely waiting?
“They think you’re brilliant, Rena!” Manwen said, pulling her from her brooding.
Rena tried to smile. “And now they won’t forget,” she said. “This is trouble. Uncle is always causing trouble.”
“Not so angry, sister. You know he wants to help our house. Ever since Father died he’s seen it as his role to look out for our interests. You’ve been hiding that talent of yours all these years and he sees a way to do something better with it.” Manwen said nothing about the possible connection to artwork, and Rena could not read his neutral expression—did he worry too?
“He’s going to cause trouble.” Rena glared at the doorway Uncle had left through.
“There’s no trouble. We’ll be rich. Those men all sit on the High Council and will soon turn your gift into a coveted good that will bring wealth to Gholheim. We might even become one of the Head Houses.”
“You see the good in everything, brother.”
“And you see the bad in everything. Stop worrying.”
Rena got up, cutting free the cloth she’d made and bunching it up so she could get it out of the room quickly. “Mother will hear about this, I’m certain.”
“Mother will be proud,” Manwen said.
Rena held her bundle of cloth close, studying her brother. Manwen had always been close, the closest person she had in her life, even though he was not her brother by blood. Could she trust him with her secret—the one thing she’d never revealed to anyone? Now was not the time to be alone, especially if something were to happen to her.
“Are you able to come home with me?” she asked. “I need a warm bath, and my drawing pad, then...I’d like to talk with you, privately.”
“You can do that,” Manwen said. “I have to go to the barracks. The squadron leaders are having a meeting—apparently Captain Phae arrived this morning with important news about the skirmishes in the south.”
“Please come,” Rena insisted. “I would like to speak to you before I sleep. Something important that must not wait.” Something I should have told you long ago. Yes, Manwen, if I can’t trust you, then I can’t trust anyone.
“Of course, sister. But you might want to light a candle—you know how these meetings go sometimes.”
“I won’t sleep until you come.”
Manwen left, leaving Rena with her cloth. Against the plain tapestries of the Monks of Orn, her cloth might have been blasphemy to the brown-robed men who returned with their books and boxes, but the Monks showed no sign of what they thought—they never did. The Monks believed in logic and simplicity as a path to enlightenment, and scorned all things elaborate. Rena tried to bunch up the cloth as small as she could, but even folded up it was impossible to hide the brilliant patterns that stood out on even the smallest of surfaces. Fortunately, two of her errand girls appeared, come to haul the Valian loom and all her things back to the shop, rescuing Rena from having to haul the intricate cloth down Cobble Way. She put the bundle down on the table and crossed the floor, keeping her eyes down. A monk gave her the customary blessing of departure and she politely interlaced thumbs and forefingers to indicate the Eternal Rings.
The chill fall air filled her lungs as soon as she left the room. A restless wind flapped her skirts and curled under her petticoats as she hurried back to the Estate Oldbert, and for the first time in a long time she felt unsafe walking down the street she’d walked with ease for the last five years.