By E.K. Johnston

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"The Storyteller Queen lives, and her name is E. K. Johnston." — Rachel Hartman, New York Times best-selling author of Seraphina

The follow-up to A Thousand Nights, Spindle is the feminist retelling of Sleeping Beauty where the princess saves herself and owns the narrative.

The prison is crumbling. Through years of careful manipulation, a demon has regained her power. She has made one kingdom strong and brought the other to its knees, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When a princess is born, the demon is ready with the final blow: a curse that will cost the princess her very soul, or force her to destroy her own people to save her life.

The threads of magic are tightly spun, binding princess and exiled spinners into a desperate plot to break the curse before the demon can become a queen of men. But the web of power is dangerously tangled — and they may not see the true pattern until it is unspooled. 


Copyright © 2016 E. K. Johnston

Cover design by Marci Senders

Cover art © 2016 by Peter Strain

Designed by Marci Senders

All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

ISBN 978-1-4847-7628-5

Visit www.hyperionteens.com

To Rachel, who dealt the worst game of

Settlers of Catan in the history of humankind.

We know exactly how we came to these cold, hard mountains, and we remember everything that we have lost since we arrived here.

We were a proud kindred, once, taking what we wanted from the petty humans, and nesting on our ever-growing power. We were made strong in that desert heat, tempered by sand and blood and bones. We stretched out our hands and our will, and used that which we seized however we wished. We made bodies that could not be killed, and we began our slow domination of the world we inhabited. Then one of us rose too high, took too much, and was brought down.

The world is made safe by a woman.

She took the evil that she knew and bound it up with bright iron she had dreamed into existence. She found a place for evil to roost, far away from the people she loved. She made for evil a home where it would be weakened and starved, where the earth itself would be a poison to it. She did the very best she could.

And, for a while, that was enough. The mountains were not kind to us, as she knew when she sent us here to suffer. For generations of human life, we were too weak to leave them. We would not die, but we could no longer send out our spirits with the fiery vengeance we had carried before our defeat. We were beaten. Lowered. Angered. We hungered and we thirsted, and we lamented what we had lost in the hot desert sand. And we remembered every modicum of it.

The creatures she made to be our keepers hemmed us in, keeping us weak and struggling. Their iron horns and fiery breath caught us on the slopes without mercy, and their flames brought out new strength in the earth’s power over us. Their songs and laughter were torture to our ears. Even their little feet and little stingers made our unending lives a misery, turning the ground again and again to magic beyond our control.

But we endured.

Humans came to the mountains, to cross them at safe passes, seeking a pathway to the sea. The land on the other side was better, fertile enough for growing food and soft enough for cattle. First, villages sprouted up to mock us, prospering where we could not go; then, towns and trade routes; and finally, a kingdom in its own right. We knew that if we were to rise again, we would have to do it before they gained full mastery of the land they had claimed.

Our first attempts to leave the mountains were met with disaster. Time, perhaps, or hubris had dulled our sense of ourselves, and we were hopelessly overmatched. We were not yet strong enough to face a horde of human fighters, much less the creatures who jailed us. There was iron everywhere now, it seemed, plucked from our very prison and smelted into bright weapons, and even jewelry, that we could not abide. Our wounding was beyond the mortal measure of pain. We retreated. We regrouped. And, oh, we abhorred it.

From my hated sanctuary, I looked down upon that kingdom, and I knew that another way must be found. We could not take, as we once did. We could not force and pillage as we liked. I would not wheedle, and I would not beg; but I would ask, barter, and trick. I would find weakness, and I would push it until it cracked. They would give me what I wanted and think that they had bested me. I had only to outlive them, after all, as my kind did not die. And so I learned.

There are corners in the world that are too dark to see, and there are edges that are sharper than they appear, ready to snag the unwary. There are those who do not fear the things they should, and there are those who would bargain with the devil herself for the sake of their greed.

The world is made safe by a woman, yes, but it is a very big world.

THE LITTLE ROSE was only five years old when her parents ruined my mother and brought ruination to my own life. I can tell the story like I was there, though I wasn’t. Even if I had been, I had only six years to my life then, and my memory would likely fail me on the finer details. So it is better that I heard the story from others, others I trusted. That means I know the truth.

My mother told it to me, and the others who fled with her repeated it, and I learned it at their knees. By then, I was old enough to card the wool and spin the thread—I was my mother’s son, so my spinning was to be expected. When you spin, there isn’t much to do besides talk and listen, but at the time I needed to learn more before I could do my share of the talking. As a result, I was a very good listener. The words I heard were woven into my heart, and I wrapped myself up in the details I gleaned from them as I would a blanket: once my mother had been a proud woman, and a wealthy one, and then a spoiled little princess had ended it all.

The Little Rose was born in Kharuf to the king and queen of that land. It had been seven generations since the King Maker had split his country along the mountain seam, bequeathing half to each of his sons to avoid a civil war. In Qamih, prosperity was easy. The soil was fertile and the weather was fine for much of the year. The Maker Kings still ruled there, throne passing from father to son when they died. There was an unnatural blessing upon that land, for even when it should have gone ill for them, it did not. We in Kharuf might have a drought—heather withering on the slopes, while the sheep starved—but their fields were always well watered. We might have too much rain, and lose villages to mudslides, but their crops never faltered.

Even with such a neighbor to compare with, Kharuf was not always unpleasant. I do not recall much of my early years there, but my mother assured me that we were always well kept and cared for by the king. Ruling a smaller kingdom as he did, it was said that King Qasim knew all of his subjects by name. This was of course an exaggeration, but Qasim and his wife, Rasima, did well by their people, and their people loved them for it. The Maker Kings might live in a castle three times the size of theirs, and never fear that the game in their forests would run out, but in Kharuf we had a king who was not afraid to shear his own sheep, and a queen who could tend a flock as well as she could weave a tapestry.

The birth of the Little Rose, called Zahrah by her parents, did not change that, not at first. The Little Rose was a pretty child, my mother told me. She had the same dark skin as her parents, brown eyes, and a mouth that smiled before she had teeth. Her hair was the color of wheat in high summer, which was unusual but not unheard of. It was said that long ago, one of the Little Rose’s ancestresses had married a man who had pale skin and hair the color of rice cooked with saffron. Pale skin was not ever seen in the line again, unless someone fell ill and the color was unnatural, but every now and then, light hair reappeared. It was less a mark of kingship, though, than it was a reminder of where our people had once come from. No, in the Little Rose’s case, her kingship was assured by her parents’ careful stewardship of Kharuf—at least, it was until the day that the Little Rose turned five.

No one ever argued that the birthday party was less than magnificent, even afterward, when talk of the day was confined to hushed whispers of faded hope. At the time, the partygoers were thoroughly charmed. All I remember is that I was in bed with sheep pox and couldn’t attend, but my mother told me that the queen herself had made sure to send me a plate of sweetbreads, and a handkerchief she had embroidered with her own needle in an attempt to make up for it.

In the main gallery, where the castle people gathered to celebrate, it was a much merrier time. The subtle glow of the candles highlighted the gold thread and deep purple silks of the tapestries. The royal harpist played so perfectly in tune that the crystal goblets at every place setting sang with her as she plucked each note. And the food, the food was perfection beyond the sweetbreads I had been given, each succulent morsel resting in finely decorated vessels.

This was why Kharuf loved its king and queen so much. The Maker Kings sat at high tables and did not speak to any but the most important lords and merchants. They had fine glass and inlaid spoons to eat with, but the lower tables had only rough fare. They lorded their creations over each and every one: their roads and their harbors, the bright steel of their soldiers’ helmets. In Kharuf, what the king ate was eaten by all, and the cutlery in the queen’s hand was the same as that in the hand of the lowest scullion.

Qasim and Rasima had, as tradition dictated, invited each of the magical creatures that guarded humanity to the feast. Where a common shepherd might put out purple cloth and a few iron nails if they wished to attract the attention of our protectors, the king and queen had commissioned wrought-iron figures of each creature, paying the smiths quite handsomely, it must be said. They had placed each gift in a purple silk bag that the Little Rose had, with help from my mother, stitched herself.

Perhaps it was the care that they had put into the invitations, or perhaps the creatures themselves sensed that they might be needed at the party, but each of them came. This was not tradition. We might pay lip service to them, or see a fiery feather or bright flash flitting through the heather at night, but no one had laid eyes upon any of the guardians in decades. I was devastated for weeks afterward to have missed them, for I did not think I would ever see their like again. My mother described them to me, though, as lovingly as she could, even while her life was falling to shreds all around her.

The piskey and the sprite had been the most entertaining. Both of them fliers, but small enough not to cause alarm on the scale of the others, they had danced with one another in the air above the tables, the harpist providing accompaniment for their antics. The sprite swooped and dove, to the delight of the children, while the piskey shed fine gold dust behind her as she flew in stately circles.

The dragon arrived with an apology, of all things, as she was only a child herself, and was worried she would appear uncultured in so fine a court. Her mother, she explained, would be unable to fit inside the castle without breaking the roof, and so the younger, smaller dragons had cast lots to see who would get to attend. Rasima did an admirable job of keeping her face straight and welcomed the dragon with all the pomp and ceremony she would have given an elder statesman, before calling the steward to settle the great beast somewhere close to the main hearth.

My mother could never quite recall where the gnome had sat. Sometimes when she told me about her, the gnome stayed at the king’s knees, and whispered to him about which flocks should graze in which meadows. Sometimes, the gnome disappeared to the kitchen garden and sank her hands into the soil there. Sometimes my mother forgot the gnome entirely, which I would have thought unfair, except gnomes were shy, and far happier to repay any gift they received quietly and immediately before going on their way again.

The phoenix perched on the back of the unicorn, and the two did not eat, nor speak to anyone once they had greeted the king and queen. They took their place, unbidden, beside the princess, and the Little Rose stared at them, quite forgetting that she had gifts she was meant to be opening and food she was meant to eat. They had gifts of their own for her, of course—gifts that would ensure she grew to be a good and wise ruler—but they were not the sort of gifts a child could open, or even readily understand. Instead, they were gifts to her body and to her mind: discernment and resilience and grace and the like, each tailored with a ruling queen in mind.

And so the birthday celebration was a remarkable success, a wonder for all those in attendance, even for the small boy who was sick in bed and would only ever hear about it secondhand. If the feast had ended as well as it began, the stories would have been much shorter. My mother would not have been forced out of her home, I would not have lost all I cared about, and the kingdom of Kharuf would have continued its quiet march through history.

As it was, a demon came, and the march was not so quiet after that.

I ROLLED HARD ON THE DIRT, and would have come up spitting grass had we not trod it all to mud some hours ago. I had to use my fingers to scrape my teeth clean.

“Come on, Yashaa,” said Saoud. “You can do better than that.”

It was true, and we all knew it. Saoud hadn’t laid me out on the ground like that since I was twelve, and I’d been only just tall enough to carry a bow staff without tripping on it. With six more years of experience to my credit since then, I hit the ground only when I wished to, as part of a feint or as a way to lure my opponent past his center of balance.

“Get up.” Saoud waved his staff in front of my face. “Unless you yield, of course.”

I had no intention of yielding. Usually when Saoud and I sparred, we were evenly matched, but he had finished another growth spurt in the past few weeks and was still finding out where his arms and legs had ended up, and I was trying not to take advantage of it. Moreover, I had argued with my mother again, trading words until she could no longer speak for coughing, and that made me angry. I didn’t want to hurt Saoud like I had hurt her.

“I do not yield,” I said, bracing my weight on the staff to get to my knees, and then my feet.

“No mercy, Yashaa!” That was Arwa, cheering from the fence post. Her voice was still high with youth at eleven years of age, but hearing it always made me feel better. Tariq sat beside her, four years older and far more unsure of his seat upon the rails.

“Oh, please have mercy,” Saoud taunted, grinning so I would know he didn’t mean it. “Spare me, Yashaa, from your powerful blows and quick—”

That was as far as I let him get. I could have hit his staff aside and taken him at his knees, but that would not have been sporting. Instead, I tapped lightly on his left hand where it gripped the wood; well, as lightly as you can tap with a bow staff, which is to say: not very. He bellowed, of course, but he did drop back into guard, which gave him half a chance. It was still over very quickly.

“I’m glad we’re on the same side,” Saoud said, as I pulled him to his feet. “When it counts, I mean.”

It always counted, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. He knew it as well as I did, and if I said the words it would only remind him that his father, once our teacher, had left him here with us and gone off to do who knows what. And that my mother had probably been the one to drive him away. Instead we bowed, and I passed my bow staff to Arwa, who used it to balance herself on the fence rail; first standing, then walking, and finally spinning on one bare foot, the staff whirling in the other direction above her head. Tariq gripped the rail harder, as though his balance was transferable to her.

“That makes me so uncomfortable,” Saoud said, and I smiled.

Arwa had come with us from Kharuf, strapped to her mother’s back. Almost a year old, she should have learned to walk while we journeyed, but because of the steep slopes we climbed and the wagons on the roads we traveled, her mother had been afraid to set her down very often. She was held by everyone in the convoy at one point or another during our two years of travel, and by the time her feet finally touched the ground, we were all a little worried that she wouldn’t ever take to walking as she should. Technically, I suppose she didn’t. Now, she had no fear of heights, and could climb almost anything. Her balance was so perfect that Saoud’s father used to joke that she must have been crafted by a sword-master. I looked forward to facing her at her best in the sparring circle someday, once she had mastered the basic forms. It would certainly be an interesting match.

Tariq was less gifted, less sure of his physical strength. He excelled at strategy, though. Saoud’s father would tell us that Tariq might only strike one blow, but it would be the only one he needed. Tariq could hold his own, at least for a while, but his chief talents lay in other areas.

“Yashaa!” came a voice from our circle of tents. “Your mother wants you.”

Saoud grimaced, but I knew he wished he still had a parent to yell at him. Arwa threw me my staff, and laughed as I nearly dropped it. Saoud looked away as she jumped down from the fence, but he needn’t have bothered. She didn’t show off.

“I’ll come with you,” she said. “Your mother has my spindle.”

I nodded my head, and we headed back toward the tents. Tariq watched, ever keen-eyed, even if it was something he had seen a hundred times, while Saoud began one of the solitary drills that his father had taught us. I had only known Saoud a few years. He and his father were from Qamih, and had no ties to Kharuf at all, except through us. We tried not to treat him as an outsider, Tariq and Arwa and I, mostly because we knew how much that hurt, but he didn’t understand the spinning, or why we still clung to it, though it had been some years since spinning had done us any good.

There were four main tents and two smaller ones in our encampment, plus an open-air kitchen. It was a far cry from the castle that my mother talked of when she was feeling nostalgic, but it served us well. We camped near a crossroads, and merchants knew where to find us. We did not have very much to offer, but we were cheap, and the work we did was good.

After the demon laid its curse upon the Little Rose, most of the spinners had gone on the Silk Road, into the desert. Across the burning sands was the kingdom from which our ancestors had come, and they could do their work there, which they could no longer do in Kharuf. We knew the desert kingdom still existed because their traders crossed the desert with camel caravans, but few people from Kharuf ever made the trek. My mother hadn’t gone because she loved Queen Rasima, and because she was afraid that I was too young to survive a desert crossing. She waited for two years, until I was eight, while everything in Kharuf fell apart around her. Then she took the last few spinners still at court and went, not through the desert after all, but across the mountain pass to Qamih.

They had hoped that in this kingdom of tradesmen and merchants, they would find a place where they could do their work and be paid for it. But Qamih was different from the home they had left, and on this side of the Iron Mountains, a harsh guild system prevented unlicensed crafters from selling their wares in public markets. The guilds were also behind the trade agreements that Qasim had been forced to sign with the Maker King, which beggared Kharuf at every turn while the coffers in the Maker King’s capital overflowed. It was impossible for a spinner from Kharuf, even one as highly respected as my mother, to be given the credit she was due. New spinners, especially talented ones, were unwelcome competition.

We couldn’t stay in the cities or towns, and so we wandered for two years, Arwa on her mother’s back and me carrying my mother’s loom, until Saoud’s father, who had found us on the road and hired on as a guardsman even though we could barely afford him, took us to the crossroads, to camp with the other non-guild traders there. He understood spinning even less than Saoud did, and wanted to train all of the children in combat. My mother disapproved but never directly forbade it, even when it became clear that I was more enthusiastic about fighting than I was about spinning. For Arwa and Tariq, spinning was a game that, once they had mastered it, became as important as breathing. For me, who could remember the castle and the king’s face and the way the Little Rose laughed from her place at the table, it was a hateful reminder of what we had lost.

We could hear my mother coughing before we reached her tent. Arwa stopped in her tracks, and looked up at me.

“Can you get my spindle?” she said. “Maybe bring it to dinner?”

“I will,” I told her. “Go and see if they need help cooking.”

Arwa’s mother had died of the sickness that plagued my mother. It wasn’t contagious—at least, not in the traditional sense, or we would have been driven out of the crossroad camp—but it was hard to watch, and harder still when you knew the outcome. Magic is not common in the world, but from what I have seen of it, it is mostly cruel; and, at least when it comes to the magic that hurts the ones I love, tied back to the Little Rose. Tariq’s father had died of it first, a drowning gurgle that grew more and more quiet, until all breath was gone; then Arwa’s mother; and now my mother was ill. I didn’t know what we would do if she died. The other merchants were reluctant enough to keep us as it was.

I took a deep breath, and lifted the tent flap. There was light inside, because of the lamps, but the air was heavy with the herbs my mother burned in the brazier to help clear her lungs. I didn’t like the smell very much. Mother was sitting up, and spinning. I had asked her once why she could never keep her hands still. She hadn’t answered, but instead had smiled, and told me to coil the yarn so it didn’t knot on the floor. I was glad to see her spinning now. Some days, her hands did not have the strength for it.

“Yashaa,” my mother said to me, “thank you for coming. Do you feel better now that you have hit Saoud for a while?”

“Yes, Mother,” I said, my voice clipped. I had hoped, for a moment, that she was going to apologize for being so obtuse earlier. We had quarreled over Saoud’s father, again, and it had brought us no closer to understanding each other than it ever did. “It is not from hitting him, though. It is from moving with purpose.”

“There is purpose to all movement,” she said to me. “Even in the simple coil and rhythm of spinning.”

“What did you wish to tell me?” I hoped I was changing the subject. I didn’t want to fight with her again.

“I have had word from Saoud’s father,” she said. “I wanted to tell you what he discovered.”

“Is he coming back?” I asked, unashamedly eager. He had turned a little strange when Tariq’s father died, as though seeing our curse play out in front of him made him regret throwing in his lot, and Saoud’s, with us in the first place. He traveled much more after that, but he always came back—or he always had before.

“No,” said my mother. “He is too busy to come back. But he has sent me important news, and you need to hear it.”

“Then tell me,” I said, sitting at her feet as I might have done once to hear stories of the Little Rose.

“Kharuf is dying,” she said. “The people are starving and there is no money. Even the king and queen struggle. The Little Rose cannot spin, and so no one can.”

I wanted to say something about how Kharuf had been dying for years, and that Qasim and Rasima’s struggle meant nothing to me, but my mother raised a hand, and I held my peace.

“There was a blight in the wool last season,” she continued. “They could not sell very much, which meant they had no money to buy cloth.”

Once they had spun their own thread and woven their own cloth, I thought. But I knew better than to say it out loud. It would be wasted breath, and my mother had no breath to waste.

“Qasim has made a deal with the Maker King,” my mother said. “The Little Rose is seventeen now. When she is eighteen, she will wed Prince Maram, and by that marriage, Qamih and Kharuf will be united again, and the Maker King will get whatever name his people choose to give him.”

“What has this to do with me?” I asked. “We have left Kharuf, and we have never been welcome in Qamih.”

“If the kingdoms are united, there will be a treaty for the spinners. There must be,” my mother said. “You shall go to the Maker King’s court, by the sea. You must find out who is negotiating the treaty, and make sure you are included in it. Take Tariq and Arwa with you.”

“No,” I said.

I couldn’t leave. We were barely surviving here with the work spread between all available hands. If we left, if I took Tariq and Arwa and we left, then there would be no one but strangers who barely tolerated us to watch over my mother. I shook my head.

“What about Saoud?” I asked, my words slow as my thoughts raced.

“He will stay at the crossroads,” my mother said. She had never loved Saoud, so I didn’t understand why she would keep him behind, especially since his father was gone. Maybe she wanted to be sure of his father’s loyalty, though neither he nor Saoud had ever given us cause to doubt them, as far as I could tell. “He will be old enough to hire on as a guard, soon.”

“What about you?” I asked then. “I could stay too, and be a better guard than Saoud. We could all stay here.”

“No, Yashaa.” She started to cough. I waited. It seemed now that when she coughed, she coughed for hours. Finally her throat cleared. “You will go. Take the others. If you do well, you will be able to make a real home.”

“I have no home,” I told her, anger flooding into my voice. I didn’t look at her face when I said it, because I knew I would hurt her. “The Little Rose saw to that.”

“Yashaa,” she said. “It is a terrible net, that magic. The Little Rose suffers as much as any.”

I did not care about the suffering of the Little Rose, beyond an ugly gladness that she did. I only wanted the conversation to end.


  • "The most powerful stories encompass a paradox. SPINDLE is both mythic and true, old beyond reckoning and dazzlingly, gloriously new. You've known this story all your life; you have never heard its like before. The Storyteller Queen lives, and her name is E. K. Johnston."—Rachel Hartman, New York Times best-selling author of Seraphina
  • "The framework of 'Sleeping Beauty' plays out against a hot desert setting, with Yashaa playing the reluctant hero and Little Rose possessing far more agency, wit, and intelligence than is afforded to most fairy-tale princesses... Pleasing readers who would prefer their ever afters to be bittersweet."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
  • "Despite taking the perspective of Little Rose's potential savior, the story has a decidedly feminist slant, focusing on the princess's growth, power, autonomy, and eventual self-rescue... Hand this clever work to fans of the companion book."—School Library Journal

On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
384 pages

E.K. Johnston

About the Author

E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.

You can follow Kate on Twitter (@ek_johnston) to learn more about Alderaanian political theory than you really need to know, on Tumblr (ekjohnston) if you’re just here for the pretty pictures, or online at ekjohnston.ca.

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