Exclusive Excerpt: A Young Weaver Struggles to Make Ends Meet in Beguiled

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Exclusive Excerpt: A Young Weaver Struggles to Make Ends Meet in <i>Beguiled</i>

How far are you willing to go to change your life? What would you be willing to risk to change your fortune—and your future? That’s one of the central questions posed by Cyla Panin’s Beguiled, a novel that explores themes of poverty, power, and exploitation, and the unfortunate ways that lower-class women are often taken advantage of.

The story follows Ella, a young woman who learned how to weave from her father when she was just a child and who has long dreamed of opening her own shop. But in the wake of his death in debtor’s prison, she’s struggling to make ends meet, pay her bills and satisfy the few demanding clients she has left, so when her loom breaks, she turns to the Bean-Nighe, a mythical spirit often called the washerwoman or the laundress, who is cursed to forever wash the blood out of a shirt by the river. It’s said that can grant you a wish. But at what cost?

This dark and enthralling tale of a desperate young woman who makes a deal with a spirit to try and save her chance at a future on her own terms—for a price, of course—is full of Scottish-inspired folklore and seemingly impossible choices.

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

Ella is a 17-year-old weaver whose entire livelihood depends on her loom. She dreams of opening her own shop, but when her father died in debtor’s prison, she had to support herself by taking whatever clients she could get. In order to buy her supplies, she goes into debt of her own, and when her loom breaks, Ella realizes she needs more help than a repairperson can give her. She, like everyone, has heard about the old washerwoman spirit called the Bean-Nighe who will grant anyone a wish—for a price.

But Ella is desperate, so she asks the Bean-Nighe to fix her loom. And it works. The loom is fixed, and she’s creating beautiful pieces she could have never imagined before. All she has to do is feed the loom a drop of blood each time she weaves—a small price to pay for such magnificent silks. And when she brings two bolts to a rich client, she meets a mysterious young man named Callum and bargains for an invitation to his exclusive party. At that party, he’s so mesmerized by her talent, he offers Ella a place to live and patronage for her art. It seems like Ella’s fortune is finally turning for the better . . . until she begins to notice the loom taking more from her than she offered.

As she becomes entangled in the lives of the city’s rich, swept into Callum’s allure, and trapped by the Bean-Nighe’s magic, Ella must figure out a way to secure her future while she still has a future at all.

Beguiled arrives on bookstore shelves on August 23, 2022, from Amulet Books. But we’re thrilled to offer an exclusive excerpt from the story to help tide you over until then.


Chapter One

The sequins glinted in the sun like the edge of a knife. And these trimmings always were a weapon, in a way. Dazzle the viewer so they couldn’t see any cracks underneath.

These silver disks weren’t adorning a dress though. The trimmed cloth butterflies hung in the window, twirling in the breeze from the open pane. A parody of freedom.

“Beautiful,” I said. I usually had eyes only for bolts of fabric, but I couldn’t stop myself from admiring anything truly enchanting.

“Thank you. The lady who does them is just brilliant.”
My client, Odina, caught one of the butterflies in her palm. She did it with such reverence, barely letting the iridescent fabric touch her skin.

The bundle in my arms, however, she pulled free without hesitation. No reverence there. The callouses on my fingers caught at the fine wool as I let go of hours of work, supplies bought on credit and the hope of a sale. All that work was Odina’s now, and what she thought of me would be weighed by the pattern I’d woven, the skill I’d shown.

“It’s nice,” she said after a moment.

I swallowed, and it was like forcing down a ball of raw wool. I’d worked hard on that piece. My own blood had gone into it, actually—I’d had to scrub and scrub to get it out. Nice. Not beautiful. Not even lovely. My stomach soured. Nice wasn’t good enough and I knew it. Plenty of cloth shops sold nice things. I had to make breathtaking, gorgeous fabric to make sure clients kept coming back. My father used to say that’s what could set us apart from all the others. Being the best weaver in the city was the most important thing to him, and I’d understood why from the time I was very small. We were two of many in the square of buildings so old they seemed to ache as they leaned against each other. Most of the people there were the same—scurrying from place to place in an effort to outrun the hunger clawing at their backs. Like ants in a hill or bees in a hive. But our weaving was a rope that could pull us out of there. It was the only thing that gave us a chance for more. A talent we could sell.

Odina held the blue wool up to her warm brown cheeks, and even I could see it didn’t set off her complexion as it should have. It wasn’t quite the right shade. I pressed my thumbnail into the palm of my hand and cursed myself for not weaving in more green to give it a rippling, teal hue.
She’d notice the fabric wasn’t very becoming when she looked into a mirror—I needed to complete the sale now while she stood in the middle of her parlor. She was my only chance at any money this week and I desperately needed coin.

“It brings the color up in your cheeks,” I lied. “And the wool itself is from a village in the mountains where the sheep are said to graze in faerie rings.”

Odina caught her lip with her teeth and ran one hand over the wool. Would she have any dry patches it would catch on? Probably not. She likely owned more pots of cream than she needed.

My whole body clenched, waiting, and my stomach took another sickening turn. If she refused to buy, I’d have no way to pay back the debt for supplies. I’d have to take the fabric to market and pray to all the gods someone would stop for a girl standing in the street without a stall.

“It’ll make a handsome day dress,” Odina said.

I took a breath and dropped my shoulders. My muscles burned from how tightly I’d been holding them.
“But Ella, look, I need to bring you into my confidence.”

Odina took my white hand and I almost snatched it back. I didn’t want her to feel the nervousness in my damp palms, but it would be rude to refuse her touch. In any other situation, I might have welcomed it. She was one of those people who drew others into them, who were lovely—yes—but more than that, compelling. Something about her made me want to look at her, want to hear the laugh she’d let loose one time that was much deeper and freer than anything I expected. But as it was, she was my client. And from the too-sweet smile on her face, I suspected she was about to give me bad news. I clenched my stomach and firmed my shoulders again, trying to make myself sturdy against whatever blow was to come.

“My dress allowance is fully spent this month, and Kiju simply won’t give me any more silver. My mother doesn’t understand. But I need a new dress. I’m going to a . . . a party next week and everyone has already seen everything I own. Can you imagine if I show up in an old dress?”

I owned exactly three dresses made of my own cast-off fabrics. What I couldn’t imagine was having more options than that. And I knew she wasn’t talking about just a garden party, but I nodded anyway. The party would likely be with the Chieftain of our city and with the Players. I knew that, even though she seemed to want to keep up the pretense of a secret. Perhaps she thought she kept a veil of mystery over them, but there really was no need for it. People in town knew the influence the Players had over the Chieftain and his council. A group of young, wealthy people, the Players had sprung up around this Chieftain a few years ago, though there’s always been a group of them hanging around each prince, playing to each of their desires. They were meant to be his eyes and ears in town, reporting the trends, the people’s sentiments, advising him on how to please and gain loyalty, but it was them who really set the trends. They got to choose what people wanted to wear next, what patterns and fabrics and hats, where they’d spend their money. And they got richer by just being close to the Chieftain, it seemed.

“I can’t imagine,” I said, my words dripping with a sweetness that was as fake as the smile Odina wore.

“Exactly. So I want to buy this wool but I’ll have to give you something else for it. Silver still! Just not coins.”

Her smile fell into a hard line.

No, no, not again.

My heart sank like a stone. This had never happened with Odina. Before Papa was taken, I’d sometimes sold cheaper fabric to farmers and mill workers and their families, and they’d offer something else for payment. A thing I couldn’t take to market and trade for something to eat: a cracked earthenware pot painted a fading blue, a black plate that would reveal itself to be pewter if I just scrubbed it enough, a dress two sizes too small that smelled of someone else under the arms.

None of these things did me much good, but I took them anyway because I couldn’t look at the faces of the children and think of them going without warmer clothes for the winter. Odina, though, was certainly not going without.

“I’m afraid it’ll have to be coin, Miss.”

I had a debt to pay, for the supplies to make this bolt, as well as many others. I had to deliver some money to Gregory today, or he’d call on the debtor’s prison to come take me away too. Odina had to pay coin or I’d have nothing.

“But Ella! Just wait until you see.”

Odina took a little brown box off a side table and pulled out a necklace. The pendant was a leaf with three points wrought in silver, darkened around the edges by time. It was beautiful in a way so few things I saw were. Made for no other purpose than to be admired. Like the butterflies in the window.

But it wouldn’t pay off anything. She didn’t realize how that felt, not when she lived in this beautiful house. Panic gripped my insides like a blacksmith’s clamps, and I tried to steady myself enough to make my words clear.

“I can’t take that, Miss.”

Odina waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not that sentimental. I have others like it that we brought from back home.”

I wasn’t worried about its sentimentality at all, but she couldn’t know that. She had to continue thinking I had money from other clients, that I was successful and she was buying from a known weaver. It was the perception I’d worked hard to cultivate. If I begged for coin now, I’d shatter it. But Gods, I needed the money. “Please, Ella. I promise I’ll come back to you right away when I have my dress allowance for next month.”

Odina was the only one I had right now—my only client. People didn’t feel any loyalty toward the ones who make their goods. We were interchangeable. The only thing that mattered to clients is who wove the most beautiful silk at the best price. I flushed, shame creeping into my blood. It was why I couldn’t stop, couldn’t make mistakes—like weaving the wrong shade of blue for Odina.

“What if your mother noticed it was missing? You don’t want that, do you?” I asked.

Odina batted my comment away and smiled.

“Look, I’ll even tell everyone at the garden party where I got the fabric from! They’ll all be rushing to you after that!”

With more clients, I wouldn’t have to rely on Odina. I wouldn’t have to worry about my debts anymore. If Papa were here, I could explain it to him and it would make sense and he would nod his head with a wink and a glimmer in his eye. Hope. Plus, he wouldn’t want me to show Odina any weakness—or have me scraping for coin.

With a sour taste on my tongue, I held out my hand for the necklace, and her eyes lit up with a smile.

“You’ve saved my reputation, you know that?”

I stared at her, at her lovely dark eyes and her full body and her long, scented hair. She didn’t need me to save her. I swallowed the rancid phlegm in my throat and forced a smile.

“Happy to, Miss.”

I could only hope this trade bolstered my reputation. But first, I’d have to go to the market and try to sell this old necklace and avoid Gregory so he couldn’t ask for the money I wouldn’t have enough of.

“I’m working on something lovely for you, and I’ll bring it soon. I promise you’ve never seen anything like it,” I said and left the stifling, cluttered parlor.

Adapted excerpt from the upcoming book Beguiled by Cyla Panin, published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams; © 2022.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.