Change is a force capable of rocking the coils of Ouroboros, forcing us to cling to those very coils for survival, unless we have the will to drive our sword deep into the meat of the coil, using our focus to anchor ourselves to this World of Ouroboros, piercing the heart of all things, making certain we’ve left our mark upon it. This is what we, Zenobia of Kalanthia, have always striven to do. Seeing the Serpent rise to swallow us all, we sought to chain Her along with Her brood, binding them to ourselves and the empire. We’ve always collected the finest and cleverest of slaves, in spite of the risk, for they gave us insight into the Serpent, creating a connection between ourselves and Her. We would rather stab this world in the gut than simply submit to its whims. This doesn’t mean as we cannot smile or come to a civilized agreement with other sentiment creatures or ruling powers, such as Serena Jasior. We just need to keep our eye on both of Serena’s hands, for we’re guessing that she, too, is concealing a blade behind her back, just waiting to drive it into our guts. What’s worse is she keeps an unchained Serpent-Born at her side, offering him as marriage bait to those seeking alliance. Such reckless folly doesn’t suit a crowned head. Never mind, we’ll smile and play her game right up to the point where we snatch her prize our of her hands. We’ll show the world how the Serpent-Born should be treated. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Serena Jasior too harshly for her indulgence. Stephen Jasior is a lovely creature, it’s true. No daughter of civilzation can deny the power of beauty, including ourselves. At the same time, no crowned head lets itself be ruled by beauty, no for long. Not if it wishes to continue wearing a crown. Anywone who seeks to sway our heart with such sentiment strikes steel. This is A Suitor’s Challenge, to always remember that possessing a prince and a Serpent-Born is about power, not love. Anyone who believes otherwise will find themselves on receiving end of that Serpent-Born’s fangs. Anyone who fumbles with a vessel of deadly beauty with such clumsy naivete deserves to be bitten. We shall not be so foolish. Not in this lifetime.
Change is a part of life I’ve learned to accept. Sometimes change is a gift, offering me beauty, insights, precious moments I’d be less without. At other times, change takes something precious away, leaving me altered, trying to figure out how to cope with what’s left of me. I think my ancestor, the artist Judith Cross, was constantly relearning and adapting to this lesson. Being in love with Elizabeth Hartford, having intimate knowledge of Elizabeth would force her to. A Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Words and the portrait Judith painted of her beloved speaks volumes. I see the marks on replications of that famous likeness of fatal flaws in Elizabeth Hartford, flaws invisible to Westerleigh’s adoring eyes; a tightness around the generous mouth, suggesting arrogance, impatience, and a stubborness that ignores all reason and common sense. That last trait has been passed down to future generations, for Westerleigh has it, too, in abundance. All of these flaws were acknowledged by one who loved Elizabeth, yet was not blind to her faults. If only Wes wasn’t so blind. He doesn’t see the totality of a woman who did great things, yet made great mistakes. When he looks at Elizabeth Hartford, he sees his childhood idol and ideal, everything he’s ever worshipped or adored in a woman. Nothing and no one comes close to her. His love for this imaginary paragon makes me want to scream sometimes, but what would Westerleight Hartford be without it? The way his eyes light up and soften when he speaks of Elizabeth, the flush that colors his cheek takes my breath away. I’m as fixated by his passion as he is by Elizabeth. Heh, what does this say about me? What does this say about my passion? I was only too eager to dress Wes up like a doll in lace and velvet, transforming him into a girl so he could fool Fiona Hartford and visit Hartford Hall. What a lovely girl he made, lovelier than most I’ve sketched or painted. It’s almost as if he was meant to wear these clothes and I enjoy seeing him in them, only I worry there’s a more sinister design at work in transforming Westerleigh into a Hartford heiress, one that’s not mine. I sense it in my dreams, in the glimpses I catch out of the corner of my eye of a face at the window. I find myself wondering about Fiona’s invitation, wondering if a spectral hand is manipulating us all at her convenience. At the same time, I feel that the blouse and the skirt released something in Wes, brought out an aspect lying dormant within him, waiting to be expressed. It’s a change which could help Wes start living for himself rather than Elizabeth. I can’t help hoping this will come to pass, yet Westerleigh’s passion for his idol must play out. I have a feeling that passion will change at Hartford Hall, shattering Westerleigh’s innocence. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Change tends to be both good and bad. Who knows what it will awaken in Westerleigh? Who knows what it will destroy? I just hope I’ll be able to help him when it happens.
Change has often been an ally in my misfortune. Once I was a slave of the Kalanthian Empire until change chanced upon me, enabling me to escape from my mistress. I fled north, looking for my people, only to stumble into the coils of an even more formidable mistress. Nevalyn took me in, taught me to reinvent myself. She instructed me in elegance, grace, and terror. From Her example, I learned how to be someone worthy of the royal “we”. Without the Serpent, Serena Jasior would never have been born from shell that was Xian. Without Nevalyn’s lessons in magic, power, and guile which Xian listened to, the Imperatrix could never have united the scattered human lands into a single empire capable of standing against the Serpent. If not for Xian’s time spent at Nevalyn’s side, she never would have met Daeric Nevalyn, Magdalene, or learned of the Serpent-Born, how useful they could be as allies or slaves. If not for the lessons Nevalyn schooled Xian in, Xian might never have overcome her fears of the Kalanthian Empire in order to court them, woo their secrets of the golden chains which can bind the Serpent-Born, forcing them to submit. If not for timid little Xian’s fears, Serena might never have shared them with the Order of the Dragon, enabling them to rise and oppose those fears. Serena Jasior’s position of power was born from change, the ever-changing nature of Xian. Only now we as Serena Jasior must return to being Xian in order to deal with A Suitor’s Challenge, to patronize from the shadows an extremely valuable young suitor to our beloved brother, Stephen, whom has challenged him in magical combat. Something is wrong with Stephen, of course we’ve noticed that. His reckless behavior threatens all that we’ve built. He is our weakness, our precious adopted sibling, whom we’ve cherished and overindulged, perhaps because he reminds us so much of Daeric. We are not naive enough not to notice how Stephen is being manipulated by an inward force, perhaps even a part of the Serpent Herself. It is time to move a few pawns of our own, to seize control of Kyra, Stephen’s brave little suitor, see that she becomes our pawn. For change may be our ally, but its favor is fickle. It can shift to support our enemies, toppling all that we have built. We must be prepared to shift as well, to meet whatever conflict they oppose us with. We shall ride the waves of change, not be toppled over by them. This we swear.
Here’s hoping things change for the very best, for how could they not? My wish is about to come true. All my life, I’ve worshipped Elizabeth Harford, studied her life, her legend, all the things she dared to do, all the reproductions of her portrait hanging in Hartford Hall in various books and family ledgers. She’s been the central focus of my existence, a guiding light in all my decisions and actions. Only A Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Words. Nothing would be quite like seeing the actual portrait in Hartford Hall, gazing into her painted eyes, and letting her image, the image painted by her beloved Judith Cross speak to me. Now I’ve finally got an opportunity to do so. Fiona Hartford, the family estate’s caretaker and my distant cousin has invited me, Westerleigh Hartford, to come for an extended visit. There’s just one complication. Maybe it’s my name, but Fiona thinks I’m a girl. I’m not quite as feminine as she things, although I plan to put on a good show of it, with the help of my friend, Yuri Cross. Yes, Yuri is the descendent of Judith Cross herself, just as I’m Elizabeth’s. Such a connection could be considered quite romantic, although Yuri doesn’t agree. Nor is Yuri quite comfortable with my deception, but Yuri is more than happy to dress me up in lace and velvet, so I look like a gothic heroine. A little deception is worth the chance to stay at Hartford Hall, if I can pull it off. All right, I do feel somewhat guilty at pretending to be something I’m not. If this is what Fiona Hartford wants me to be, if this is what Elizabeth herself would want me to be, I’ll do my best to be it. Anything to get closer to them and their secrets. I want to be worthy of them. It’s not like I mind cross-dressing. Yuri seems to really appreciate it, plus I do feel closer to Elizabeth when I’m wearing the lace blouse with the high collar and the long, velvet skirt, closer to the woman that Elizabeth was. All my life I’ve wanted to be closer to her. This is my chance. I’m dimly aware of a small, warning voice in my head that sounds like Yuri, reminding me that ideals often lead to disappointment. Perhaps that’s true, but I’ve been chasing this ideal for so long. I want to learn more about Elizabeth, get to know her, even if she disappoints me. I can’t imagine her disappointing me. I’m so overwhelmed by the thought of her, of living her home, standing before her portrait. Whatever the price may be for this experience, it will be worth it.
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Every Saturday or Sunday those participating post and share six sentences of LGBTQIA+ fiction on their blogs. It can be their own. It can be someone else’s. It just needs to be LGBTQIA+.
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For my own, Nathalie and Grace will pick up where they left off last Sunday in Wind Me Up, One More Time…for coherency’s sake, this is just a little longer than six sentences, forgive me…
“The train along with the ships which dock at our harbor.” Nathalie turned to glance back at the path they’d taken along the water. She and Grace could see it easily between the various small wooden buildings. “All this demand needed more than hands.” Nat lifted Grace’s own, lowering her tone as she did to an ominous note. “They required cogs and gears.”
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What is the point of an arachnocracy if we ladies do not share the power generated by our additional limbs amongst us? Why make the Gardens of Arachne, or the entire land of Mystere vulneration by concentrating all of the energy to controls to enchanted mists into the hands of a single Ashelocke? Even if Duessa has eight eyes watching us, and eight arms to block our enemies, we could have more than eight, if we utilized them. If only Damian would yield to me in a Marriage Feast, giving up his power, why, I could help maintain the mists which befuddle invaders. I’m younger, sharper than Duessa. I’m not a pervert like her or her daughter. They waste their precious energy in their diversions, their twisted eccentricities. They risk all that we’ve built in the Gardens with their wanton lust. Melyssa betrayed all of us by walking out without consuming a single Marriage Feast. She might as well be a human woman, the way she acts. Well, she can choke on her principles and preferences. I don’t care. I refuse to miss her or the obscene way she looked at me. I can’t help it if she sometimes crawls into my dreams, whispering her doubts, her depravities. No, we’re better off without her. I’m the only Ashelocke Duessa needs, not that she appreciates me or the very order she created. How often has she told us to let go of our brothers, our sons, our nephews, to respect their sacrifices for the sake of our haven? How could she say such things with the weight of conviction, yet let Damian leave? I would have consumed his power, his energy, leaving him beautiful and eternal. What does she think Damian, a mere boy, is going to do with all the energy churning within him? Paint? How could she have denied him to me? I suspect a truly perverse passion lying behind her motivations. Enough. Duessa may have created the Garden of Arachne to be eternal and unchanging, a haven for its ladies and their beautiful boys, but she’s endangering all of that. Things have to change. It’s time for a younger, fresher Ashelocke of firm principles to hold sway over us all. I won’t let myself be distracted by my appetites as Duessa does. I shall serve the Spider as She was meant to served in Her temple. I shall save us all. I just need to find Damian and consume his life as it was always meant to be consumed. Once I do, I’ll be strong enough to take Duessa. Once I’ve consumed her, yes, I’m going to listen to some of Melyssa’s advice, twisted as it may be, for the greater good, I will rule over the Gardens of Arachne and Mystere. I won’t let all we’ve sacrificed, all that Dyvian and Christopher sacrificed be in vain. I will save us all, no matter who tries to stop me.
Once I was a lady every bit as fine as Duessa Ashelocke, not to mention far less monstrous and unnatural. Once I had a handsome knight at my side, devoted to my protection. Together we strove to turn a beautiful and idealistic young lord away from the shadows, back to the light. That lord was Stefan Ashelocke, Duessa’s husband.
Duessa changed all of that. She reduced her lord and husband to a statue, a standing monument, a memory she drained all else from. She sucked the life out of my knight, turning him into a toy and a snack. As for me, she saved the worst fate for me. She gave me wings, only to rip them to shreds. She turned me into a monster as hideous as herself, only to break me, force me to cringe in servitude at her side.
I’ve never forgotten or forgiven Duessa Ashelocke for anything that she’s done. She taught me how much things can change for the worst, but she’s not immune to the fickle fingers of fate herself. She may rule the Gardens of Arachne, keeping her private, predatory paradise for herself and her ladies, apart from men, raising their Marriage Feasts apart from any male influence whom might inform them of a purpose beyond satisfying their brides, but that is only for now. There will come a reckoning. He is already here. Damian Ashelocke is that reckoning, for why else would he resemble Stefan Ashelocke so closely? His power and his doubts will clear the fog cutting Mystere off from the rest of the world, unless that task falls to Dyvian Ashelocke. Dyvian, who seemed so obedient and submissive, yet had plans of his own. Dyvian, who allowed himself to be drained of his vitality as a Marriage Feast, transformed into a statue, yet has returned as a shadow more powerful than any I’ve ever seen. Dyvian plays both god and devil, such a dangerous game, almost as dangerous as the ones Christopher and Damian play. How delightful. Once I would have balked at toying with such forces, but I’ve been corrupted by such forces myself. Anyone who wields them could be My Tool, My Treasure. I welcome sources of power capable of bringing Duessa Ashelocke down, no matter how perilous. See how I’ve changed, how much she’s changed me. I play the part of her cringing servant, I let her think she’s broken me. It’s true, Duessa has broken my heart. Every jagged fragment that remains is a dagger I’ve aimed at hers. All I need is an opening, a chance to strike. She’ll discovered how cruel tools and treasures can be.