A/N: Thank you all for the feedback I've been receiving on this story! I'm glad people are enjoying it, and appreciate all reviews left. In response to some feedback given on fictioncentral, I'd like to explain that the pace of the first couple of chapters is a bit quick because the actual story begins when she is seventeen. Thank you all again, and without further ado:
It turns out that I was very, very good at getting threads snarled. When weaving my mind would wander with the curiosity that overtakes children's heads and distracts them from the world. I think the final time- near the end of winter- I botched up a bolt of fabric. I was imagining an elaborate arrow. There was a tribal tattoo-like design on the deep mahogany wood, and the "feathers" were actually stiff spikes of sewn-together bee's wings. The thread knotted and caught around my fingers abruptly, cutting off my daydream and the circulation in my fingers.
Mrs. Huthby was not a patient woman, and she would never let you hear the end of it if you supposed to tell her as much. I know because I tried. From then on she has always called me rude nicknames and given me the evil eye. After being cooped up together all winter, we were set to throttle one another.
"Clarice!" Mrs. Huthby called for my mother, that one squinty left eye damning me to the depths of hell, "She's gone and dun it again."
I kept my eyes down, face heating with anger. I didn't trust myself to look the grumpy old bat in the eye without spitting on her so I set to untangling my fingers from the mess of string. It wasn't an easy job; while I wasn't paying attention they had gotten very well bunched. The only way to loosen me from my captivity would be cutting the warp threads, and that would lower the quality of the overall piece of fabric. Mrs. Huthby was right. I had done it again. But that didn't mean she had to be so… ill-mannered.
A surge of guilt washed through me as Ma rose from her loom. She had aged over the winter and my guess was because the cranky demeanor of the lady she worked with was wearing her down. Ma bore the brunt of our neighbor's complaints, particularly the ones about me. This made me feel bad for being such a horrible, inattentive weaver. Who wants a daughter without talent or use?
"Aw," Ma replied with a dismissive wave of her hand and the snip of her scissors. That was one the best things about my mother. She always minimized people's faults. "Nothin' a cut of the shears can't unfurl. There, now, Eva, yer fingers are all unsnatched, just fix up the warp threads and get back to it."
To Mrs. Huthby she turned and said with a small, tired smile, "See? It's easily fixed. And the fabric'll still hold its value even with the littlest of knots in it from the new warp threads."
Mrs. Huthby only offered a skeptic snort and turned back to her loom. My cheeks were burning with embarrassment and anger as I attempted to fix yet another one of my mistakes.
Winter faded into spring and my little eight-year-old form was seen running through the town every day at lunch, popping into shops and stores and workplaces searching for prospective jobs. In the meantime I helped mother set up the hives and clean out jars for the new honey stores. The bees flocked to our hives by the thousands, and Ma taught me their ways and what it was to be a beekeeper.
I was stung numerous times during the one month I helped Ma. Even through the fabric of my suit they relentlessly pierced me for absolutely no reason. I thought they just didn't like me because I couldn't speak their language like Ma, while she was absolutely befuddled.
"They've never reacted to anyone this way before," she mumbled, brows creased while she pumped smoke into one of the other hives. I was in the creek near our house, hiding under the water from a vicious hive after attempting to smoke them to sleep and take their honey.
Once in despair I even apologized to them for thinking about fletching an arrow with their wings, but perhaps that upset them more and made them sting me harder. By the end of the month I had a personal vendetta against bees, squashing one whenever I got the chance. This upset Ma, but I was covered in bee stings and no matter how many times she scolded me for it I savored the squish of a bumblebee under my boot. Served the cruel little buggers right.
"Teach ya to mess with me," I'd mutter spitefully at the bee, twisting the toe of my shoe so it was crushed into paste on the ground.
My apprenticeship with Ma ended after the longest four weeks of my life. It was a relief, to be honest. Getting stung at least twice a day for a month is enough to put anyone off of beekeeping for good. Over the next handful of months during spring and summer I went through at least six apprenticeships.
After my failed attempt at being an apiarist, Ma recommended me to the lady she sells her beeswax to, a candle maker who told me to call her "Auntie Audie." Audrey Beecher was an overly friendly woman with short graying hair and a turned-up nose. Her face was like an inverted triangle, her eyes a little too narrow for her face and her mouth a little too wide, which produced the effect of her looking like a poorly proportioned draft of a painting. Whenever she talked she stood way too close and shoved her too enthusiastic face into your own, like she wanted to be such good friends with you that the both of you would even share the same air! It was enough to drive anyone crazy, the way Auntie Audie constantly seemed as if she wanted to smother and crush someone in a huge embrace.
She was clumsy, and I wasn't much better, so throughout the entire process of making candles we would spill huge puddles of wax and tallow over the floor, ourselves, anything around us. "Audie" would constantly bump into me—maybe intentionally sometimes—and I would accidentally shift the candle I was holding in the pot and the layer would become bumpy, uneven, full of air pockets. This isn't an excuse for my inadequacy at candle making, but Mrs. Beecher wasn't cut out to be a teacher. She was unable to explain things properly and part of the problem was that she wasn't much better at making candles than I was.
We amicably parted, and the search for another apprenticeship began. Thankfully Audrey hadn't charged my parents much for the brief schooling, and there was still plenty of money set aside to pay for my next excursion. Little did they know, the next was far from my last.
Mr. Alden Halsey was a very kind man and one of Papa's closest friends. He had two sons, one seven and one twenty, along with a gruff, wide wife who told me that boxing people on the ears was how she showed affection. They were as well-off as us, but recently they had been tight on money because their youngest son had been sent to the Emperor's palace as a serving boy. To place one's offspring in the palace is a very expensive venture initially, but if the worker is good and strong they can make a reasonable sum of money. It just takes awhile. I missed James dearly, as he was the most fun of the boys to beat up on, but had gotten over my loss many moons ago.
Agreeing to take me in as his assistant for a small fee, Mr. Halsey was a master farrier, which was why his family was rather snug. At first I feared that I would not be good with horses—particularly after bees had despised me so. This fear was soon put to rest when Mr. Halsey showed me that the horses were very nice to people who were steady and gentle. I got along fairly well with horses, only one or two incidents occurred where I was nearly trampled or kicked. The main problem of the profession was, for me anyway, my inability to nail on the horseshoes made by the blacksmiths. I was so terrified of injuring the horse; no matter how many times Mr. Halsey told me it was impossible. It was very difficult for someone so small to manage, even though I was eight and a half years old. Eventually I succumbed to the realization that I was not meant for this occupation after all.
I kicked my foot in the dirt of the stall, waiting as Mr. Halsey packed up his tools for the night. This was the last day I'd be helping him, and I knew he was sad to see me go. He was such a nice man, always listening and encouraging my chatter as we worked. Never once did he call me ideas silly, or think I was useless or rude. He let me call him uncle, like I was his own niece, and even let me bring in my quiver of ornate arrows one day to let him see. I flinched as I heard a buzzing noise near my right ear, about to swat at it, and then noticed it was only a fly. My hand fell to my side with relief.
"Eva, girl, com'ere," Mr. Halsey waved me over, his eyes smiling and something hidden behind his back. I assumed it was his work tools and thought nothing of it until he said, "I've got a last day of work surprise for ya."
My eyes lit up, but I couldn't possibly imagine what he had. "Really, Uncle Alden? But ya didn't hafta get me nothin', just puttin' up with my talkin' all the time is kind enough, really."
"Aw, yer full of it. Ye know yer practically my own little girl, so shush up and close yer eyes."
I did as he said, holding out my hands, and felt something smooth and ropy drop into my outstretched grasp. I opened my eyes, unable to contain my excitement; a look of confusion crossed my face.
He caught it, and explained, "The strap on yer quiver was lookin' a bit worn through. I figured ya'd find a new strap eventually, but I wanted to give ya somethin'. 'Sides, I knew ya'd find it so 'romantic' since ya've got such a wild fancy in that head of yers."
It was a silky braid of horse hair, thick and strong and the perfect length to be the strap on a quiver. I jumped up for a hug and he scooped me up as I spouted my thanks. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I'd ever received, so I wouldn't shut up about it for weeks. As soon as I came home I immediately fashioned it to my quiver, and observed the effect. He was correct. It had such a romantic look about it, as if it were straight from my flights of fancy.
Next I worked with a milliner. She was a young woman who wore too much rouge and low-cut dresses and spent more time flirting with the young men who passed by the shop than selling women the pretty hats and ribbons she displayed. By now I was the talk of the town, the child who was nearly nine and still hadn't settled down. The opinions varied from scolding my parents for giving me such a big decision to offering reduced price apprenticeships to help "that poor Eva-girl find her callin'," to a simple pat on the head and good wishes. Shelly, barely twenty-five, was the lattermost response, babbling over how cute I was and how I was bringing in business for the shop, when in reality she treated me like a slave while she relaxed.
Needless to say, an outspoken kid like me did not stay long at Shelly's.
One of the people offering a cheaper apprenticeship was Kira's father, who had heard how I had longed to attempt falconing. As I walked into the Emperor's forests my first day, I could only hope this would be the occupation I was destined for.