Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Growing Boy

I've finally posted the last part of Waiting for Rebirth at inspirationcauldron.blogspot.com.  It's time to share Paula Wyant's inspiring prompt on May 24, 2017. Every Wednesday, she posts one at ptwyant.com. I've held back from sharing this one, worried about spoilering my prelude at the other Cauldron. Now that Waiting for Rebirth is finished, I can finally post this Shadow Forest teaser. It gives you a glimpse of what's happening to Damian on the other side of the Door.  A Growing Boy reveals some of my other characters who play a part in my Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest series.

This blog uses cookies I must warn you about, especially if you live in the U.K. Please don't feed the cookies to the shadows. In fact, don't feed the shadows period if you can help it. :)

His winter was melting into greenery, into rebirth. 

Damian shivered and shut his eyes. He didn’t want to look at the abandoned cottage, forlorn and alone amidst the lush greenery reaching for the sunlight. 

“He’s hungry.”

The voice was older than it had been on the day of his Marriage Feast, deep with a maturity unknown to the males of his kind. Damian was the only one who’d survived his sixteenth birthday, much to the scorn of the other boys. 

Or so he’d thought. 

“Dyvian Ashelocke,” Damian murmured, turning towards the owner of the voice. 

The purple flowers of his Feast Day were still fresh, caught in the long tresses of Dyvian’s silvery white hair. Damian and Christopher had picked them themselves, trying to fake an enthusiasm for the day which was so natural to other arachnocratic boys. 

Dyvian had smiled with the same blissful joy every bridegroom showed, but his pale, violet rose eyes had been sharp and shiny as reflected sunlight on a glacier. Only when Christopher leaned forward to whisper something in his ear did his expression change. His white cheeks colored, giving him more of a marriage blush. 

“Is this where your spirit fled after Vanessa feasted upon you?” Damian asked, taking in the open, lavender robe his kinsman wore, exposing his hairless chest. Typical attire for a feast night, but Dyvian was far more wiry and muscular than any arachnocrat bridegroom could ever be. “Your flesh remains in its consumated form, within Vanessa’s garden.” 

“Someday, you’ll be here, too,” Vanessa had whispered into his ear, snaking her tongue into his ear. “Once Duessa gives you to me.”

Damian tried not to shiver, tried to swallow the sickness which made his knees weak whenever he thought of being Vanessa’s Marriage Feast. He hadn’t visited again, no matter how many times she invited him. 

This hadn’t stopped Vanessa from coming over to see him. Whenever she could. 

Damian gritted his teeth. This was why he was here in the Shadow Forest. To get stronger. To let go of the fear of being feasted upon by Vanessa or any other arachnocratic lady. 

“You shouldn’t be afraid, kinsman.” How gentle, how kind Dyvian’s voice was. Deep with confidence, a purring assurance Damian imagined Sebastian Ashelocke must have had.  “My spirit didn’t flee. It sought strength and power.”

Dyvian took a step towards his cousin. He was taller than Damian, with broader shoulders than he should have possessed. Damian had only seen such a thing in another male outside of the arachnocratic lands. 

“How is it possible?” Damian marveled, taking in the play of muscle. Dyvian’s chin was completely untouched by any trace of a beard. His hands were still slender and uncallused, yet they were long and strong. “You’re a man, yet not like any man I’ve ever seen!”

“I’ve have realized our true potential.” Dyvian moved with an almost feline grace towards his kinsman. It was an invitation to a dance, yet the air quivered with unrealized peril. “Marriage isn’t the end for us, kinsman. Not if we’re strong enough.”
Damian took a step back, away from the unspoken offer. He wasn’t quite ready to meet it, not yet. 

“You said he was hungry.” Damian turned back towards the cottage. Every leaf and frond of ivy clinging to the house quivered with need, with longing. It stretched out, silently pleading, almost like a small, pale hand reaching out from Damian’s own memories, trying to return to him. 

No. Don’t think about Christopher. He’s safe back in Omphalos. He’s real, enjoying the existence that never quite satisfied Damian. 

Perhaps he was, but just how much of Christopher had Damian pulled from the Shadow Forest? Some of him might still linger here in the leaves and grass.

Or in the cottage. 

“Boys get hungry, too,” Dyvian murmured. He took a flower from his hair. Someone had painted his fingernails purple. They were longer and sharper than Damian remembered. “Among arachnocrats, only girls get to eat, growing extra arms and eyes from their marriage feasts.” He lifted the flower to his nose. “I wonder what we’d grow, if we were allowed to blossom?”

“In order to blossom, we must eat.” Damian glanced back at the cottage. “What’s his name?” He gave his kinsman a sly glance. “I’m guessing he has another form, other than this.”

“Leiwell.” Dyvian shivered at the sound, the taste of the name on his lips. “He’s mine, Damian.” His eyes glistened with an emotion arachnocratic ladies revered, but seldom allowed themselves to feel. “Mine to create and feed without the interference of Duessa, Vanessa, or any other lady. He’ll never be anyone’s marriage feast!” The pupils of Dyvian’s eyes darkened and elongated. “Except, perhaps my own.”

“Such a naughty thought!” Damian grinned at the novelty of it. Play and romance happened between boys, but to actually feast on each other? It wasn’t just outrage, it was deliciously obscene. 

Ah, but who was he to judge? Hadn’t he let Christopher claim him right in front of Duessa herself? 

He turned to Dyvian, only to find his kinsman grinning back at him. 

“Ah, Damian! How I’ve missed you!” Dyvian’s grin softened into something more grave. “All the confidence of a lady and the shamelessness to back it up! One might also imagine you to be an incarnation of Sebastian Ashelocke.”

“No need to flatter me,” Damian said, feeling a flush creep up his neck. Sebastian Ashelocke had been his secret hero, the only male in the Ashelocke line who’d ever studied magic. 

“I don’t.” Something glimmered in Dyvian’s eyes, caught in his silver eyelashes. “You were always the clever one, the strong one, yet it never diminished your beauty. You outshone us all, except perhaps Christopher.” 

“Don’t mention him,” Damian murmured. Leaving Christopher, hearing Christopher cry out, when he stepped through the Door had been the hardest thing he’d done. Damian had thought his resolve was solid, but one thought of those liquid, imploring eyes, looking up at him with refound innocence was enough to shake him to the core. 

Damian couldn’t let himself be shaken. Not if he wanted to be strong. 

“Why not?” Dyvian asked. “Christopher was the loveliest of us all, the perfect ideal to aspire to. Delicate, slender, and filled with the yielding grace we tried to possess, yet something in him never yielded.” Dyvian brought his slender, white eyebrows together in a frown. 

Dyvian never frowned like that. He always tried to smile, to please, to win others over, to charm them, seduce them into following him. Somehow, it made Christopher and himself recoil, although neither of them had been sure why. 

“Did you take that frown from someone else?” Damian asked. He took another step back from Dyvian and the cottage. “Is that why you’ve managed to grow?”

“Yes, but it’s an ugly strength from an ugly lady.” Dyvian twisted his generous mouth in a sour grimace, but his eyes glittered with childish glee. “It is possible for us to feed on ladies, you know.”

“True, but I doubt you want your Leiwell to taste such fare,” Damian countered, glancing at the house. Everything about the greenery suggested youth, inexperience, and need. If only he wasn’t so like Christopher. It made Damian want to yield to that need. “Which is why you lured me from the path.”

“Don’t hate me, kinsman, but I want my Leiwell to have the very best.” The light dimmed in Dyvian’s eyes. “No one could ever compare to you, unless it’s Christopher.”

“You’ll never touch him.” At last, Damian voiced a jealousy he’d never admitted back when the three of them had been boys. “No matter how much you might seek him out, he’s found a place in a real world you and the other shadows can’t dislodge him from.”

“Ah, but what if you were in peril?” A sly smile tugged at Dyvian’s long mouth. “Once you leave the path, you’re fair game.” He dropped the flower from his hand. It drifted, slowly spinning to the grass. “What would Christopher give to steal you back?”
“He knows better than to return here.” Damian looked down at his feet. Darkness pooled around them, gathering, hissing. “To open a Door is to lose part of yourself.”

“He’d rather lose himself than you.” Dyvian allowed his smile to grow. “He’ll come, searching for you. He’ll find us.” Dyvian glanced the shadows swarming across the ground. “My boy and I have need of your strength. Yours…and his.”

“So do I.” Damian smiled back at Dyvian, delighted to feel the sharp curl of fangs, peeking out. Here, in the Shadow Forest, he was a lady’s equal. “Perhaps I’ll leave you a little, once I’ve feasted on yours.” He glanced at the cottage. “Both of yours.”

“Perhaps.” Dyvian moved with a swiftness Damian couldn’t follow with his eyes to stand between his former kinsman and the cottage. “Shall we find out if you can, Lord Damian Ashelocke?”

“I do enjoy being called ‘Lord’.” Damian allowed his tongue to caress his fangs, pricking it. A single drop of blood fell among the shadows, coloring them red. 

Dyvian’s own shadow grew, spreading out from his form to meet it. 



Did you enjoy this Ashelocke exchange? Curious about what’s going to happen next? Look for my ‘Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest’ books, when they’re released. Also keep an eye of both of my Cauldrons and this page. There’s a lot more of the Shadow Forest and its denizens to come…

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Paula's Prompt

The redoubtable Paula Wyant posts a prompt every Wednesday at ptwyant.com. On July 5, 2017, this involved fireflies/lightning bugs, the smell of food cooking, and an otter.

This proved to be surprisingly challenging. Not the least considering I'm juggling edits, Camp NaNoWriMo, and a host of other projects right now.

I managed to deliver a snapshot of part of Gabrielle's life to you, my Cauldron. Gabrielle is one of the major characters in my Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest series. She's the proprietor of the Navel, which is much more than simply a shop.

Here's a time in her life when she was much less formidable.


Fireflies danced around Mireille, forming a halo around her springy curls and bare arms. 

Gabrielle shivered at the sight of her. It was as if Mireille had become one of the Divine, a sacred spirit which ran through the earth and the air. 

“Look.” Mireille gestured to the river which flowed past them. 
An otter swam in its currents, bobbing her small brown head up and down, chasing a fish. 

Gabrielle had seldom seen such a playful beast. Perhaps she and Mireille could walk along the river, following her pursuit of the fish. 

The smell of roasting meat filled the air. Jean-Paul’s hum accompanied it, insistent and demanding. 

“I have to go.” Mireille backed away from the river and the freedom which awaited them. Towards Jean-Paul. 

Don’t go, Gabrielle wanted to cry. Already she was waking up herself. A hard cot lay beneath her prone body. Buckles bound her to the bed. She opened, resigned to wait and pray. 


Eventually, Rafaelle would release her. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A New Tale of the Navel

This poor little Cauldron doesn't get as much attention since Facebook blocked it. Necessity has made me favor inspirationcauldron.wordpress.com. I haven't forgotten it, though. I try to stop by with something every week. Normally, it's on Wednesday, but the week has been insanely busy, what with edits to a new version of 'Fairest' for Nine Star Press, revising 'Stealing Myself From Shadows' for Camp NaNoWriMo, and everything else which is going on.

I'm here, though, with a fresh Tale of the Navel, thanks to Paula Wyant. During Wednesday Words on June 28, 2017, she offered up a prompt at ptwyant.com. It involved a bag of garbage, a ring, and a prison. This Gabrielle centric story was the result.

It looked like nothing more than a bag of garbage. Soiled ends of hair ribbon tangled themselves up with unwoved bits of basket. A chunk of matted hair with a piece of stained green cloth trapped with it. 

“It’s all trash.” Gabrielle might be the smallest and least accomplished of the Four Directions, but even she could figured that out. “There’s nothing here of value.”

“Are you sure, ‘Brie?” No one other than Mireille called Gabrielle ‘Brie. No one was quite like Mireille. She sat, with her orange skirts flared out around her, printed with red poppies and twisted green vines. Mireille arranged them around the fallen log in the forest, completely comfortable in her surroundings. Light shone off the golden charm around her ankle. It didn’t matter where she walked. Mireille always went barefoot. “Look closer.”

Gabrielle decided to humor her. Mireille was, after all, only part of a dream. ‘Brie could wake up whenever she wanted to. 

She stared at the strands of black, golden, and red hair clumped together in a fuzzy mess. The golden tendrils gleamed bright, no. It wasn’t the hair. Something was caught inside the hairy tangle. 

Gabrielle reached inside, trying not to grimace. “I don’t like touching other people’s hair. Not like this.”

“Yes, it’s a part of someone which has been discarded.” The green flecks with Mireille’s hazel irises glinted. “That someone didn’t want to touch it, either.”

“Why should I, then?” Gabrielle demanded, tearing her way through the messy strands. She found something hard, smooth, and solid. Fingers locked around its rounded edges, she tugged it loose. 

‘Brie looked down at the golden ring she’d discovered in the lump of knots. 

“How did you know?” She held it up to the light, admiring its gleaming edges. “How did you guess it was really a treasure?”

“Everything is a treasure, not just that shiny metal.” Mireille sniffed at the sight of the ring, completely unimpressed. “Typical. You tore through what was once human to get at the gold.”

“What of it?” Gabrielle was hurt by Mireille’s attitude. She’d just discovered a golden ring in a mat of hair! Why wasn’t her mentor proud of her? “Humans are weak!”

“Maybe.” Mireille stood up, letting her skirts fall around her long, brown legs. “You might be, too, if someone just ripped through a part of you.”

“It’s just hair!” Gabrielle protested, but her own words made her uneasy. 

“So it this.” Mireille raised a hand to touch one of the loose, coppery brown curls which fell to her shoulders. “It’s still attached to me, but it may not always be.”

“What do you mean?” The air prickled in warning. Gabrielle could feel her body quiver, where it was strapped down to the bed. 

Of course. She was still in the Temple of Direction. Rafaelle was coming. Perhaps she’d noticed Gabrielle sneaking off into her dreams. She hadn’t mentioned Mireille to any of the other directions. Not that Mireille was one of the many things that were forbidden, but too many things were. Gabrielle didn’t understand why there were so many things she couldn’t do, when she was awake. This was why she decided to keep Mireille secret. Best not to mention that she dreamed of Mireille on such a regular basis, Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she was real or not. Best to not to say anything. Dreams with Mireille were her only escape from being Gabrielle, the Western Aspect.  

“Sometimes people lose parts of themselves.” Mireille piroutted. Tiny motes of light drifted down to settle on her coppery tresses and bare brown shoulders. “They think they’re better off without them, but they can throw away things of value when they do.” 

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Gabrielle stood up from the log. “Throwing away something of value?”

“You said it was just hair. I might say your Temple of Direction was just a building.” Mireille stopped twirling. “You could leave it.” She stared straight at Gabrielle. “Your temple is just a building, though, not to you.” She pirouetted again to face the path before her. “It’s your prison.”

Mireille started walking away, heedless of the brambles beneath her feet. 

“What do you expect me to do?” Gabrielle yelled after her. “Rafaelle ties me to my bed every night so I can’t escape!”

“Does she?” Mireille glanced over her shoulder. “Have you ever tried to escape?”

Gabrielle shuddered, half expected to feel the cot in the temple beneath her. Relieved, she pressed her lips to the smooth counter of the Navel instead.

“I’m home.” Home in her Place of Power, where Rafaelle could never find her, let alone drag her from. 

“If you can call this that.” Damian popped his head out from behind the shelves. “Presiding day after day over a pile of junk.”

Gabrielle smiled to hear the echo of her former self in her protege’s words. 

“Look closer.” She repeated what Mireille had once said to her. “Once everything here was part of someone.” 

“Which is why someone discarded it.” Damian grimaced. “Right.”

“Maybe, but you never know when that someone might want it back.” Gabrielle glanced at the crystals, the chicken statues, the robes with smiley faces. 

One could consider it all to be trash. Until you looked closer. Until you saw something you hadn’t noticed at first glance. 



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Paula's Prompt

Welcome to QueerBlogWed! A day to blog about all things queer. This story should qualify in more ways than one. :) It's a response to last week's Wednesday Words prompt provided by Paula Wyant (see ptwyant.com). Every Wednesday, she offers up one. I've been trying to get myself into the habit of responding the following week at this Cauldron.

On Wednesday; June 21, 2017, she offered up a wren, a bowl, and a wreath. Here is the story inspired by those things.

“Wren, pretty wren, take a flower from my wreath. Wren, pretty wren, come and drink from my bowl.”

Wren called for the bird she’d been named for. She lay a dish filled with water right in front of the stone. If she stared hard enough at the rock’s surface, she might see a face within its bumbs and ridges. 

She averted her eyes, taking the wreath from her head. Wren put it down on the stone, covering the face. 

She rose to her feet, backed away a few steps, before falling to her knees once more. She didn’t know if the wren would come. 

A small, brown bird flew down from a nearby tree. It must have been watching. The little creature fluttered over to the bowl. It dipped its beak within the dish. After a few moments, it raised its small head. It hopped up to the stone, bent down to snatch a white blossom from the flowers and vines embracing each other. The bird took flight afterwards. 

It hadn’t been a wren. The girl exhaled in a sharp hiss of disappointment. 

“Once more, the ritual failed. The wren didn’t come.” She dropped her head, looking down at the grass stains on her white skirt. 

“Didn’t she?” A voice, low, feminine, and teasing came from the grass, the rocks, and the earth beneath her. “Your efforts were appreciated, if not in the way you expected.”

Wren frowned, trying to comprehend these words. She didn’t understand the force she worshipped, yet it was part of her, all around her. It spoke to her in a way it did to few others. 

“Why do you ask me to sing songs and complete rituals, which never work?” Wren raised her head, dared to look at the rock she’d crowned. “Your purpose is a mystery to me.”

“Who knows?” The murmur tickled the hairs on the back of Wren’s neck, slipping under her heavy mane of hair. “Perhaps I simply like the sound of your voice.”

“Why do you ask for specific songs and offerings?” Wren dropped her gaze to the bowl, sitting silently before her. Ripples disturbings its surface were finally stilling, returning to something more tranquil. “Why not just as me to sing?”

“Who knows?” A breeze crept under the girl’s skirt, making her ankles itch. “Perhaps I simply like it when you bring me gifts.”

Wren trembled, but she looked up at the stone once more. “If all you want are gifts and to hear me sing, why have me kneel before you?”

“Who knows?” The grass beneath her knees turned into tiny fingers, stroking and caressing her flesh. “Perhaps I want more.”

Wren’s legs wobbled. She lost her balance, falling on her side. Her skirt rode up. She moaned to feel the earth and the very life pulsing with it while it moved against her. 

Never had her worship been more directly rewarded. 


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Paula's Prompt: Crossed Paths

Here's my response to Paula Wyant's Wednesday Words! Check out her excellent prompts at ptwyant.com . Last week's was a card, whittling, and a backpack.

The result was the Tale of Navel, 'Crossed Paths'. Here's a sample containing not too many spoilers, I hope! :) I'll share the rest once all of 'Waiting for Rebirth' has been posted at inspirationcauldron.wordpress.com.

Damian Ashelocke wasn’t used to whittling. He preferred clay. Somehow the knife ended up in his hands, a small, silvery blade. Its edges fluted out, looking like a spade. Spade or blade? When did the blade become a spade?

Gabrielle would have preferred spades, a shovel she could use to plant a garden, rather than a sword to cut down her enemies. No matter how well a sword suited her. 

Ah, well, it had been an old, sour argument. One he’d left behind in the Navel, along with everything else. Not to mention everyone else. 

Damian closed his eyes against the sudden surge of pain. Violet blue eyes with traces of rose, purple, and other forgotten colors swimming in their irises met his, filled with liquid pain. 

He forced his own to open, fighting against the sticky wetness which swelled beneath his eyelashes. He scratched the blade with especial gentleness against the wood, feeling for the grooves within rough material. Finding the boy’s limbs, his arms, and his legs. 

Why couldn’t he stop thinking about Christopher?

“May I sit?” 

Damian looked up to see a girl with shaggy golden hair, cropped short, wearing a loose tunic which could have been from any number of worlds and time periods. The backpack she slung over one shoulder limited those possibilities. 

All serious dreamers ended up in the Shadow Forest, sooner or later. 

“Why ask?” Damian asked, lifting one hand to shade his eyes from a sunbeam, coming through the trees. Once more, it was sunset. Not that time was measurable by any standard of reality here. “You’re already walking my path. Why not simply take a spot in my resting place?”

“Once inconsiderate, courtesy is considered the second time around.” For all her fancy words, the girl plopped from herself down right against tree trunk next to Damian. “I wanted to talk to you, Damian Ashelocke.”

“You’re assuming I want to talk to you.” Damian cursed himself for the defensiveness in his own voice. It was a sign of weakness. He didn’t inch away from the girl, although her proximity made his skin crawl. “Did my aunt sent you?”

“No, Duessa isn’t our mutual acquaintance, unless my path crossed with hers and I didn’t realize it.” The girl unzipped her backpack and started pulling out items. Rumpled shirts and tunics from differing time periods, stinky underwear, ripped bloomers, a battered flashlight, and several small sachets. “It’s someone else. Ah ha!”

She flourished an intricately carved wooded box with a pattern of flowers and vines upon it. Carefully, she popped open a drawer on the side. 


“The Fool!” She withdrew a card and displayed it. “Looks like our minds are on the same boy.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Haunted Dress

This prompt was offered up by Paula Wyant at ptwyant.com exactly a week ago on Wednesday; June 7, 2017. A haunted dress, nothing more, nothing less.

I instantly found myself thinking of 'A Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Words', my attempt at a 19th century style ghost story. Only the characters who populate this tale are queer and or/gender bending. Elizabeth Hartford has been in my head as a character in the World of Darkness for years. Sometimes she's been a mage. At other times she's been a vampire.

While Blogging From A-Z, she returned to me, forceful and arrogant as an original character. Being a lady of a certain stature, she demanded an entourage. She wanted a Victoria Winters of her own, a girl who worshipped the past, who would worship her portrait.

Elizabeth is not a woman to be denied, even if she's fictional. My brain started playing with the notion, "Ah, but what if her Victoria wasn't a girl at all? What if he was truly male, but looked extremely pretty dressed up as a gothic heroine? What if he had a friend, who dressed him up as a girl and sent him to his living relatives as their kin?"

If you're going to play gothic heroine, however, you're going to run into all the perils gothic heroines face, along with the temptations. Westerleigh Hartford is discovering this.

In the meantime, I'm discovering there's much more to this story than a simple retelling of old ghost and vampire tropes. One of the things which made Victoria Winters a compelling character in 'Dark Shadows' was her lack of a past. This gave her a hunger to have one.

Westerleigh Hartford has a hunger of his own, which he's being able to feed under Elizabeth Hartford's roof, touching Elizabeth Hartford's possessions. What direction will his desire take him? This fragment flirts with the possibilities.

My eye was drawn to the intricate design of the lace peeking out of the sleeves and crawling upward from the bodice. Stars, flowers, and tiny beasts were caught in a web, struggling to be seen against the dark green of the gown. 

This had to be one of her dresses. I reached out for the velvet, my finger trembling at its proximity. 

“What are you doing?” 

I let out a guilty yelp and jolted away from the wardrobe. 

Fiona, my cousin, stood before me, hands on hips hidden beneath her white labcoat. She peered at me from behind a thick pair of spectacles. 

Heat rushed to my face. I clutched my finger, rubbing it as if it had been burned. 

“I’m sorry!” I stammered. “It’s just…I thought-“

“Thought what, girl?” Fiona demanded. “Why are you standing here, like an idiot?” She withdrew a hand from her pocket to wave it in the direction of the wardrobe. “Try it on!”

“What?” I scuttled to the side, away from both my kinsman and the wardrobe. “How can you say such a thing!” Outrage welled up within me, eclipsing the shyness I’d felt since I entered Hartford Hall. “This gown belonged to…must have belonged to…” I faltered, unable to say her name. 

“Elizabeth Hartford, yes,” Fiona interrupted. She dropped her arm to tug at the lapel of her coat, drawing attention to a yellow stain on the pocket. “I’ve tried it on myself, but she’s never been satisfied with how I looked. Or me, for that matter.”

“She?” Once more, I let my gaze be drawn to the dark, emerald green of the bodice, the thick folds of the skirt. I couldn’t say her name. It remained, tingling on the tip of my tongue, like a spell I dared not utter. 

“Elizabeth Hartford, of course! Who else would we be talking about?” Fiona raised her hand in an attempt to smooth her unruly red hair, making it even more of a tangled mess. “Death hasn’t made her any less the mistress of Hartford Hall and everything in it!” She dropped her arm, abandoning the coppery tangles on her head. “Others might try to wear that damned dress, but she decides who’ll succeed in slipping it on.”

Here was my kinsman, uttering the madness I’d sensed ever since I crossed the threshold of Hartford Hall. Elizabeth was still here. Her spirit lingered in the rooms, among her former possessions. Such was the force of the lady’s character. Elizabeth Hartford had never done what she was supposed to in life. Why would she in death?

“If the dress is still hers, why would she wish for me to try it on?” I shivered, raising my arms to touch the rough silk of my own blouse. No, not mine. Yuri’s. I needed to careful not to move too freely, not to rip the material. Was this part of being a lady? “It would never suit me as it suited her.”

“You wouldn’t have been drawn to this room, if she didn’t want you to try.” Fiona let out a sigh. “You’re her blood, You’re her heiress. If it’s not me, it must be you.” She rubbed her nose, pushing her glasses back on her bridge. “Otherwise, the gown will never be worn. She needs you to wear it for her.”

Elizabeth Hartford needed me? All my life, I’d turned to her for guidance, for inspiration, when I didn’t dare utter my doubts to any of the living. I took a deep breath, feeling the floor, the room, and everything around me swim. 

“I’m not worthy,” I whispered, putting a hand against my forehead. Cold sweat slicked against my fingers. “Much as I wish I was.”

“Well, don’t whine about it!” Fiona snapped. “I had my chance with her and I failed!” Her fingers spasmed around her face, stabbing one of the lenses of her glasses. “Don’t blow it, girl!”

Don’t blow it. I found myself standing up a little straighter at that command, delivered from Elizabeth’s descendant. It almost seemed to come from Elizabeth herself.

“All right, I’ll try on the dress,” I said, taking a deep breath. If I stripped down in front of Fiona, our secret would be revealed. Mine and Yuri’s. The girl Yuri had transformed me into through lace and make up would vanish at the naked evidence of something else under my skirt. “However, I need to do it in private.”

“Don’t you understand?” Fiona let out a short, barking laugh. “There’s no privacy here!” She waved her arm at the room, the wardrobe, and the dress itself. “She’ll be watching you! She’s always watching!”

“It’s all right, if it’s her.” I swallowed at the raw truth of my words. I’d always belonged to Elizabeth, every since I was a child. I’d sought her secrets growing up, trying to probe the mystery of whom this sorceress and infamous female truly was. This infamous female I’d come to worship. I was still trying to uncover them, to find out who Elizabeth Hartford truly was.

Shouldn’t I offer Elizabeth one of my secrets in return? 

“I’ll strip down, but only for her.” I raised my head. I looked deep into Fiona’s eyes, which were wide and wounded behind her glasses. “I’m sorry, Fi, but it needs to be just the two of us.”

“Figures.” Fiona stiffened and raised her own chin in response. “She’s always had an eye for a pretty girl, even in her own family. Now that she has a tender, sweet young thing, she has no need for her old sidekick.”

I opened my mouth, but didn’t have a chance to answer. 

Fiona turned her back on me and stalked towards the doorway. 

“You’ll have all the privacy you need and more than you could ever want!” she snapped, before kicking the door closed behind her. Heavy, wooden, and ornately carved, it creaked a dignified protest, while it shuddered. 

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Poor Fiona. I might know exactly how she felt in a moment. 

I tried not to tremble, while I reached for the pearl buttons of my blouse. It truly was a lovely thing. I marveled that Yuri had leant it to me. It was too fine and feminine a garment for one such as myself. Now, I was going to wear a lady’s gown. The lady’s gown. 

My fingers shook as I undid each small, white nub, revealing the flatness of my chest. 

“I wanted so badly to come to Hartford Hall.” I let my skirt fall, revealing my bulging secret. “I tried to transform myself into the girl you wanted, the heiress you hoped would appreciate all that you’ve created.”

Exposed in my panties, I stood for a moment. I stared at the green gown, reluctant to reach out for it. It took every bit of courage I possessed to stretch out my hand. I half expected to feel a chill, or an electric shock. 

Nothing happened. I brushed my fingers against the velvet, feeling its welcoming softness. It stroked my fingers in return, urging me to come a little closer. 

This was enough to dispell my fears.

“Thank you.” I moved forward to slip the dress of its hooks, to hug it to my chest. “I’ll never be as beautiful as you were in this. I’ll do my best to be worthy of it.”