Fragile


Niamsha Pereyra skulked at the edge of the scorching hot room, watching the other candidates trading jokes—and some coin—with the journeymen. Glasswright boys she’d called peers barely three quarters a year past. No one called her anything but gutter scum now, no matter that her papa would have given his last coin to aid these same children when he’d had the coin to spare. At least her now-ragged clothes helped the sweat keep her body cooler.

A series of furnaces built into the walls kept the temperature just within bareable, the breeze coming through the windows serving only to push the heat around as if to ensure everyone felt as uncomfortable as possible. But the tests couldn’t be held anywhere else. The guild craft hall was the only space large enough for a dozen amateur glasswrights to work at once with the masters that would be supervising. Niamsha had only been here once before, when her papa had brought her as a girl to introduce the guild to his intended apprentice. Long before his illness had robbed her of any chance to practice her craft.

“Nia, girl, come here.” The heavily-built guildmaster stood barely a head taller than the hopefuls. Too short to comand his own respect. But the guild gave him enough.

Niamsha slunk through the crowd, feeling the stares and smirks of her former peers as her too-short skirt swayed just below her knees. She’d barely managed to keep her and Emrys fed since her papa had sent the away. New clothes were no more than a dream. Or they had been, until the guildmaster’s servant had found her crouched under the eaves of a market stall and told her the news. Her papa had gone to the guild and done what he swore never to do: sold his personal secrets to the guild in return for a chance at apprenticeship. For Niamsha.

“Aye, Master Ferndon. Whatcha—” Too late she remembered her papa’s endless warnings. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. They didn’t need any more excuses. “What can I do for you?”

Master Ferndon smiled, gesturing to the furnaces. Behind him, seated at a work table with a fruit tart dangling from his hands, sat a tiny copy of Master Ferndon. His son, Janne Ferndon. Clumsy, slow-witted, and guaranteed an apprenticeship despite the new high lord’s change to the laws. All apprentices had to pass a trial, and any born beyond the guild given training before the tests. But Master Ferndon would never let his own son be rejected from the guild.

Niamsha’s stomach rumbled against the day’s emptiness. She’d never hated someone just for their luck before, but in that moment she hated Janne Ferndon.

“Just wanted a look at ya, girl,” Master Ferndon said. “Guild ain’t heard from ya or yer father since he took ill. Shame he didn’t make it ta see ya here.”

A lie, but one she couldn’t challenge. Master Ferndon had heard plenty of pleas for help from her papa. And, later, from her.

“Papa always…” The words clogged her throat like a hunk of burnt bread dug from the scrap cart. Her only chance to protect Em. “He ain’t been at gettin’ help.”

Another smile on Master Ferndon’s thin mouth, cutting across his pale face. “Glad he came to reason at the end. Yer always welcome in the guild. If you’ve the skill, of course.”

Niamsha clenched her jaw and nodded. No one could doubt her skill. She’d had apprentice offers when she was barely old enough for them but her papa wanted her schooled before she learned the trade. And now, because the gods-damned high lord thought he knew how to manage craft, she might not get a trade at all.

“Now.” Master Ferndon stepped away from the table and clapped his hands. “Let’s begin!”

A cluster of children—all too young to have apprenticeships yet—hurried in from the side alcoves, each attaching to a candidate as if it had all been rehearsed. Guild-provided assistants, each chosen specifically for their inability to influence the quality of the craft. The last girl stood frozen in the middle of the room, sweeping her eyes across the group before finally settling on Niamsha. With a determined smile, the girl scampered across the floor and grabbed Niamsha’s hand. They crossed to one of the massive furnaces. Two stations down from Janne Ferndon with his hands still sticky from the fruit tart.

Niamsha scowled at the boy before scanning the station. Colored glass rods, serviceable tongs and blowpipe and a proper marver and table where she could shape the glass. One of her father’s stemmed goblets with speckled color across the base would be a good piece.

The heat from the furnace throbbed against her skin, a call to the craft like a lost friend pinching her to make sure she was real. For the first time since entering the craft hall a smile tugged at Niamsha’s lips.

Grabbing the thick leather apron and gloves hanging beside her table, Niamsha snapped orders at the girl she’d been given as an assistant. A solid base of clear glass, then—

The clatter of glass rods scattering across the table interrupted her thoughts and she spun around, a sharp reprimand ready. The girl looked up through wide, terrified eyes, pale face gone white and the last couple rods slipping from her fingers. Niamsha snatched the rods away. Incompetent. They’d given her a useless, untrained girl who couldn’t even be trusted with cold glass. How could she hope to match the skill of apprentices who’d been training for this test for months?

Two furnaces down, Janne Ferndon fumbled his blowpipe into the glory-hole of his furnace, grunting as the heavy metal rod clanged against the interior wall. Master Ferndon’s invitation suddenly made sense. He couldn’t just give his boy an apprenticeship. Law forbade it. He needed Janne to do a passable job in a test where another guild-born apprentice failed so he could justify giving his son a place. And he’d chosen Niamsha, over a year out of practice and saddled with an inept assistant.

“Pick ’em up.” Niamsha smiled at the girl. Eiliin take Ferndon’s plan for her. She’d survived more than he knew. “One at a time. Set them here.”

Niamsha took one of the uncracked rods and slid it into the furnace with the long-handled tongs. She’d have to change her plans to something simpler. Cracked glass was dangerous to heat too fast and if she let it blow she’d do more than lose a test. But she could still best Janne Ferndon.


The simple glass goblet sat on the bench, riddled with bubbles from her haste, cool enough to touch, and in one piece. Far from Niamsha’s best work. But Janne hadn’t even managed to properly attach his base, presenting two separate—and therefore useless—bits of glass instead.

The judge gave a final opinion to the boy next to Niamsha and came to her table, offering a cursory nod before turning to her goblet. No one Niamsha had known, and not anyone her papa had talked about in her memory. But the judge seemed to know the craft. She checked the weight of the piece against the glass Niamsha had used, noted the size and distribution of the air bubbles. Finally, she set the piece down and consulted a list her servant held out for her.

“Niamsha, yes?” She drew the name out, hesitating over unfamiliar syllables, but made no attempt to shorten the name. “A commoner?”

“I—” Niamsha considered her choices. Her papa had told her to leave his name behind and Master Ferndon hadn’t marked her as born to the guild. But her papa had a reputation that should have reached beyond the city. That reputation could be her salvation. “Me papa was Master Treiu. He took ill, but taught me basics. Only I ain’t—”

“Oh.”

The disappointment told Niamsha her choice was wrong. The judge shook her head.

“A guildie, then. Guildies typically get clearer glass than that.”

“I’s all rushed ’cause—”

“Everyone had the same time, Miss Treiu.” The judge shot her a glare, a hint of reproach in the words. “We know the time is short but we haven’t all day to leave our craft. Young master Janne didn’t even finish his piece, but his glass is clean. His can be salvaged. Yours…”

“But…”

The word died on Niamsha’s lips, unheard or ignored. It didn’t matter. Niamsha had assumed a finished piece would be worth more. Few commissions tolerated delays and with unguilded, foreign glasswrights sending their wares in the guild couldn’t afford to lose commissions. But Master Ferndon must have known this judge. He’d told his son what to do.

The judge scanned her list again and shook her head. “I’m sorry, girl. With that impatience your only fit for cheap work and we’ve no room for scrap ‘prentices. Cheap glass doesn’t sell through the guild under the new laws.”

“I can do better!” Niamsha leaped forward, grabbing for the judge’s sleeve. “I can. Jus’ need ‘nother chance. I—”

“Let go.” The judge tore her sleeve free from Niamsha’s grasp. “You’re kind are the reason High Lord Arkaen instituted these tests. Assuming you’ve a place simply because you’re born to it. A guild-born child has plenty of chances to learn and take these tests. If you could do better, than you should have. As is, the guild is best rid of you.”

The judge spun around and stormed off to the next table, leaving Niamsha staring in her wake. How was she going to care for Em? The scrap-glass traders didn’t want someone else to pay and no guilded master would risk an unguilded apprentice. She hadn’t been given any chances. By design.

Master Ferndon’s smirk from his son’s table caught her eye. He’d planned this. Brought her in to fail. Tricked her papa into selling his trade secrets for this chance and then assigned her an incompetent assistant. And he’d done it all to steal her place for his own boy. He’d won.

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