She was backing away in a flutter of orange skirts and red tassels. A flash of golden gleamed beneath her skirt, revealing a bracelet clinging to one brown ankle.
“I have to leave you, Gabrielle, my poor little ‘Brie,” Mireille said. As always she smiled. As always she tossed her coppery curls to one side in a gesture of complete abandon. As always, Mireille seemed free.
It was lie. She wasn’t free. She’d been the symbol of freedom, ever since she walked into a church and led a scared little girl out of there, away from the repressive sisters who kept her voice and body in bondage.
“‘Brie,” she’d said, reaching out her hand. “Want to come with me? See what’s outside these walls?”
Gabrielle had taken her hand, under her spell from the first time she looked into those laughing hazel eyes.
Now she was backing away, like she’d done long ago. Like she always did in Gabrielle’s nightmares.
“I have go, ‘Brie,” she said, moving back across the bridge towards the swamp. “Jean Paul is calling me and I’m still his woman, no matter how much I might wander.”
“You don’t have to go.” Gabrielle tried to force the words out, although they got trapped in her throat, squeezed tight in the emotion clogging it up. She couldn’t let Mireille walk away. Not again. “Mireille!”
“Wake up, Gabrielle,” Mireille said with a smile, before she turned away. “I’m already gone. Wake up and smell the tea that pretty boy is offering you.”
“Mireille!” Gabrielle cried. She opened her eyes and gasped for breath, inhaling cinnamon, cloves, and something which tickled her nostrils.
“Who’s Mireille?” the boy asked. He held a cup inches away from her. Yes, he was pretty, with tendrils of raven hair clinging to a heart shaped face without a trace of a beard. He regarded with slightly slanted eyes, ruddy with curiousity and purple with patience. Rose colored irises. Only one boy had eyes that color.
“Damian Ashelocke,” she murmured. She looked up at the ceiling to see cobwebs, only they were made of the finest silver mesh. Only the arachnocrats spun webs here. “How did I get here?”
“I’m honored you remember my name,” Damian said. “You’re here, because my aunt has taken a fancy to you.” He offered her the cup, a pretty delicate thing, painted with flowers. “Drink this. Perhaps it will chase this away this phantom Mireille who haunts you.”
“Perhaps I don’t want her chased away!” Gabrielle retorted, but she snatched the cup from the boy’s hand. Very rude of her, considering that Damian might be trying to help her, but he was an Ashelocke. She didn’t trust any Ashelocke to offer aid without an ulterior motive.
Damian didn’t show any offense at her behavior. He simply bowed his head in acceptance. It reminded her of how Mireille had always bowed her head in Jean Paul’s presence, even when he pushed her head down.
It infuriated Gabrielle. She stared hard at Damian, while she gulped her sweet tea, for it appeared to be only tea. She couldn’t see his chin. It was a shame. It was a nice chin. Very like Mireille’s. All right, it was completely different than Mireille’s, but it was meant to be held high. Just like Mireille’s.
“It’s a crime to tuck such a chin away from the world,” ‘Brie muttered, after swallowing. “Those who tolerate dominion invite it.” She looked for a place to put down her teacup. “Why do you tolerate it?”
“You are a lady,” Damian said, taking the cup out of Gabrielle’s hands with a deft gentleness. “What’s more, you are my aunt’s current favorite.” He rose to his feet. Gabrielle marveled at the intricacy of the lace tunic he wore, a pattern of spiderwebs, roses, and vines. It went very well with the tea cup, along with the uncomfortable black velvet vest and breeches covering his slim legs. Damian Ashelocke was a slight boy, much slighter than boys in other places were.
“Meaning you’ll put up with me until you’ve learned my secrets or my weaknesses,” Gabrielle said. She watched as he set the tea cup down on a shelf nearby. A spindly bent woman with a mousy blonde mop of a head shuffled over to claim it. “Isn’t that right, my dear?”
The bent woman raised her head to show an eye much brighter and bluer in an unwrinkled face. She grinned at Gabrielle, exposing needle sharp teeth.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Damian said with a submissive sweetness, but the corner of his mouth twitched. He nodded at the woman. She shuffled out of the room, carrying the teacup in a long, spindly hands. Her fingers reminded Gabrielle of twigs.
“Of course you don’t,” Gabrielle said with a wry grin. “Well, milord, why am I so favored by your aunt’s regard?”
“With Duessa Ashelocke, who can tell?” Damian countered. “By the way, there’s no need to address me as ‘milord’. There haven’t been any Ashelocke lords in a very long time.” The corner of his mouth drooped. “Only the arachnocratic ladies along with their lordlings, poppets, and sweetmeats.”
“Which are servants or favorites of one kind or another, I’m guessing,” Gabrielle said. She tried to sit up. Her body felt entirely too relaxed to move. “What we be, you and I? Lordlings, poppets, or sweetmeats?”
“That remains to be seen,” Damian murmured. He returned to the seat next to Gabrielle’s bed. “You don’t strike me as being any of these things, Lady Gabrielle.”
“Please call me ‘Brie,” Gabrielle said. The scrawny woman with the wild mop of hair had returned. She crept up behind Damian to rub her hands together. Yes, her fingers were extremely long and twig like. “Who’s our companion?”
“This is Una,” Damian said. He glanced up at the woman. She simpered at him and bowed her head. Such a thin face she had with a long, narrow nose. “She’s belonged to my aunt for centuries.”
“I’d never have guessed,” Gabrielle muttered, keeping a wary eye trained on Una. Una grinned at her, exposed those needle like teeth, longer than any human ever possessed. They belonged to a child eating monster out of a fairy tale. “Hello, Una. How very nice to meet you.”
Una winked in an almost coquettish way, showing very long eyelashes. Malice gleamed in her bright blue eye.
“I do believe she likes you,” Damian said in a very dry voice. Once again the corner of his mouth twitched.
“Hopefully not with mustard,” Gabrielle said, before she could think better of it. She could not seem to control her tongue. Blasted tea.
Una let out a low cackle at this. “Never fear, Lady ‘Brie, I’d never have you with mustard.”
“No, you’re more of a honey and sugar kind of girl,” Gabrielle said, utterly deadpan. Mireille would have been proud of her sense of humour in her monster’s lair. “Aren’t you, Una?”
Una cackled again.
“Not to mention a ray of sunshine,” Gabrielle said wryly, glancing from Una to Damian.
Una stopped cackling abruptly. She shook her head, sending shaggy locks flying around her head.
The corner of Damian’s mouth dropped, once more. He lifted a finger to his lips.
“Careful,” he said. “Light of any sort is not a favourite of Aunt Duessa’s.” He glanced up at Una. “She’ll snuff out any sign of it, even in those closest to her.”
“Yet she uses candles,” Gabrielle retorted. “I find it hard to believe she’s that against illumination.” She ought to leave it at that, but she couldn’t shut up. “Light and darkness are two halves of a whole.” This had been one of Mireille’s favorite sayings, especially when Gabrielle used to mouth all the phrases she’d been taught to say. Someday the light will overcome the darkness. Someday, the light will blaze in every corner of the universe.
Maybe some corners would rather not be illuminated. What would you say to that, ‘Brie? Mireille had raised a hand to point at the stars twinkling in the sky overhead. Look at all of that, up there. Would those light be half as bright if they weren’t sparkling in the darkness?
“Two halves, until one eclipses the other,” Damian said. “One day, the darkness will swallow the light, just as it swallows every other color in existence.” He watched Gabrielle’s face carefully. “This is the Ashelocke way.”
“What do you mean?” Gabrielle demanded. A little thrill of fear, of uncertainty coursed through her limp limbs, bringing them new energy. “How is it your way?”
“This remains to be seen,” Damian said. He looked away, down at his hands. “Every Ashelocke must find her way.”
“Or his?” Gabrielle asked, almost challengingly. She managed to lift her head, just a little bit off the pillow.
“There is no ‘his’,” Damian said. He didn’t bother to hide the bitterness which trickled into his words. “Not here. Not any more.” He rose from his seat. Una backed away, bowing her head. “Get some rest. My aunt will see you when she’s better.”
“Damian?” Gabrielle called, but the boy was gone, opening a door to go outside into halls she hadn’t yet fully explored, filled with dangers she didn’t understand.
“Yes, you get some rest,” Una said, rubbing her hands. “We so seldom have guests here at the Ashelocke estate. At least not ones like you.” She grinned at Gabrielle again, baring her needle teeth. “Things are about to get very interesting.”
Gabrielle shuddered. She’d had enough of interesting things, but interesting things kept catching up with her. This was the problem with dealing with magic. You never stopped paying the price for the choices you made. Those bill collectors kept catching up with you.
Una bowed, while continuing to grin. She backed out of the room, letting out another low cackle.