The wheel constantly turned in the back of Gabrielle’s mind. She tried to ignore its grinding sound by adjusting her hat. Today, it was a fedora with a fishnet veil. Within the fishnet were tiny bits of seashell, which gleamed like sequins.
“Imagine how much more powerful you’d be, if those bits of shell were souls,” Damian murmured into her ear. “If you caught a piece of every customer who came into the Navel and turned her into a bit of shell. You could keep them all in your veil.”
“What makes you think I don’t?” Gabrielle said, turning so her face was inches away from Damian. She smiled into his startled face. “Objects in the Navel are never what they appear to be.”
Sure enough, Damian took a step back. He coached his expression into a neutral mask, as he made her a quick bow.
It saddened Gabrielle to have to play such games with her protege, but Damian was an Ashelocke. It was in his nature to test her limits, probe his master for weakness, see if she was truly worthy of following. She didn’t like it, though.
“Besides, binding people is your aunt’s method,” Gabrielle said, pointedly. One of the reasons Damian was with her was because he didn’t want to be with his aunt. Gabrielle had to remind him of that, along with the fact that Gabrielle was a very different creature than Duessa Ashelocke. “Not mine.”
The front door of the Navel jingled, announcing a customer. Gabrielle turned the force of her smile in its direction, but Damian was way ahead of her.
“Welcome to the Navel!” he said, flashing a grin of bright toothed charm at a thin girl, who raised a bony hand in confusion.
“Center of everything bizarre!” Gabrielle finished, stepping up beside Damian. Musn’t let herself get shown up by her employee. “How can we help you?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said, lowering her hand. She looked at Gabrielle, not Damian. Gabrielle tried not to blink at that violet blue gaze, shot with silver and green flecks. She failed.
When she raised her eyelids, the girl’s eyes were an ordinary grayish green. Or bluish grey. Nothing remarkable about them at all, except in the hungry way they locked onto ‘Brie, taking in every inch of her. She seemed particularly fascinated by Gabrielle’s hair, studying every wave and curl with an ardent admiration.
“I felt compelled to come,” the girl breathed. She took a step closer to Gabrielle’s, running a hand along a shelf. She fingered a deck of tarot cards in a wooded box with an almost intimate caress. “I suppose that sounds strange. I don’t even understand it myself.”
“Oh, dear, did you actually compell her?” Gabrielle heard Duessa’s voice, as if she was actually there, whispering in her ear with sweet mockery. The Wheel no longer turned. If Gabrielle closed her eyes, she’d see Duessa, lounging on top of the Wheel, halting its process. Only instead of being half spider, she’d be half sphinx. Unless she was sprawled over the generous bed, auburn hair fanning out over the crimson coverlet, while her eight arms played with scarlet hangings dangling over her naked form. “You’re such a sly little girl, ‘Brie.” She smiled, exposing all four fangs. “I guess that shows you’re still mine.”
“I guess it does,” Raphaella grumbled from the top left corner, opposite the Wheel. She stared at the manuscript, trying to ignore Duessa and the Wheel. Trying to reduce them to something unimportant. Of course they were important. She glanced up at to glare at Gabrielle from that place in the back of her mind, where Raphaella always lingered. Always waited for Gabrielle to disappoint her. “Here I thought we raised you better than that.”
“Better?” Michaela asked scornfully from the top right corner, opposite the Wheel. Possessing the dark eyes and fair skin as Raphaella, she kept her hair short, her scowl, near, and a weapon always ready. Even if it was only her tongue. “When will you learn, Sister?” A shadowy suggestion of wings opened at her back. “Our Gabrielle is no better than she’s destined to be.”
“Now that’s not true,” Mireille said, walking through the Wheel to stand very close to Gabrielle, even though Gabrielle wasn’t here. None of this was real.
“That’s right,” Mireille said, smiling, with a defiant little toss of her coppery curls. She raised a dusky hand to brush against Gabrielle’s cheek. Gabrielle raised a hand to cover it…
….only to touch the fishnet of her own hat. Of course. None of it was real. Not even if Raphaella, Duessa, Micheala, and Mireille all continued to live in the back of her mind. Haunting her. Mocking her. Letting her know that being the proprietor of the Navel was a waste of her talent. Or even worse, a dereliction of her true duties.
“Take your time,” ‘Brie said. She looked straight at the customer, concentrating on this strange girl, who’d come to the Navel, because she needed to. “It doesn’t matter, if you don’t know what you want.” She smiled at the girl, whose cheeks were quite flushed. “You’ll figure it out when you’re ready to.”
Damian frowned a bit at this advice, but the girl’s lips parted, revealing a hint of something beautiful waiting in her smile.
“Thank you,” she said, incling her head towards Gabrielle.
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