Christopher finds himself walking out of the mists of the Cauldron into a temple, deceptively open air, half-bathed in sunlight, half-drenched in moonlight, shrouded by shadow. Statues stand in the alcoves of nude boys with slender, developing physiques, arms lifted imploringly to a lover unseen. The pillars of the temple rise high above them, connected by a delicate lacework of cobwebs, becoming thicker and stronger as they rise out of sight. He can see the cocoon at the interstices of the webs, large enough to be the prison of a human being. Many of them are. The strands glisten with light, forming a pattern of deceptive beauty.
Duessa Ashelocke: Do you remember this place, tidbit?
Christopher turns to face the lady arachnocrat among arachnocrats. She moves with a slow grace, her slitted gown with flowing sleeves allowing space for each of her eight arms. Two of the left hold a candle and a glass goblet filled with sparkling liquid. Two on the right hold a knife and a coin. Her seventh and eight hands are free, one clenched in a fist, the other palm open in a gesture of benevolence. One side of her gown is black, the other is white, both pooling into a shadowy mass at her feet. The lady’s face is human save for the six additional eyes, some half-closed, others open. Duessa Ashelocke’s auburn hair falls in loose waves over her shoulders and down her back, yet there are knots, symbolic ties within her russet tresses when something is bound.
Christopher: Memories of you come and go, my lady. (He slowly turns to face her, wearing a tunic that fall to just below his knees, sandals, and a wreath of roses in his coppery-golden hair.) They emerge like a seductive nightmare or perhaps a nightmare seduction, only to fade away.
Duessa: Come, come. Is that all you can say of our Marriage Feast?
Christopher: (nodding at her seventh and eighth arms) I gave you those. Along with the power to reinforce the mists surrounding the Gardens of Arachne, concealing us from our enemies.
Duessa: Those mists have been there for some time, protecting the Gardens and its blooms from the world of men.
Christopher: Thus no boy is allowed to grow up, disturbing the tranquility of the Garden.
Duessa: Are we arachnocrats truly so bad to you? We’ve been much gentler with our boys than the world of men is with its rough, crude rituals and demands. You’re allowed to cry, to show your emotions without shame. No unnatural expectations of inhuman strength, stoicism, or demands of protection are forced upon you. You play all day in the sunlight within the Gardens, embracing quiet pastimes which you’d be mocked for outside. You’re allowed to hug, kiss, and love each other without shame. And when you discover true passion in your bride’s arms, when it’s drawn forth with her lips, hands, and fangs, you experience an ecstacy beyond any fleeting, fumbling passion a man tries to satisfy with an endless parade of living creatures.
Christopher: And any experiences after that ecstacy are lost.
Duessa: Better to have one more of pure joy than to stumble around life, never achieving it, and hurting everyone else in the process.
Christopher: And what’s left of the boy after you’ve feasted upon him is nothing but a statue.
Duessa: Preserved in a state of eternal beauty.
Christopher: (He pivots to face the alcove once more. He walks with slow, deliberate steps toward the frozen boy and reaches out his hand. He strokes the boy’s cheek with his fingers.) He feels very like marble. Do we turn into stone, Duessa, after you arachnocratic ladies have your way with us? Or do we still think and feel, even if we no longer speak or move?
Duessa: (lifting her other eyelids to fix her gaze upon him) You tell me, tidbit. (She takes a step closer of rustling skirts but stops, not quite closing the distance between them.) I had you here in this very temple.
Christopher: The Temple of Arachne, the Great Spider. The one you made a pact with to create the Gardens and the arachnocracy. After which you surrounded Mystere with a barrier of fog. Any outsiders who tried to cross the barrier would be lost in that fog, unless you wished it.
Duessa: I didn’t create the barrier. Stefan Ashelocke is the one who summoned the barrier.
Christopher: Stefan Ashelocke, the First Marriage Feast, whom holds a place of honor with the Gardens.
Duessa: Before that he was my lord and husband in a different Mystere and a very different time. You might say he was the…inspiration for the Gardens and this temple.
Christopher: What he did to you and the knowledge he brought you of how other women were treated.
Duessa: I’d been sheltered. His world and his ways were a shock. I wanted a sanctuary from all that. The price of that sanctuary, of freedom from our husbands, fathers, and brothers, of freedom from men in general was to become like the Spider Herself. To give Arachne the lives of our sons, nephews, and brothers while we feasted on those life forces ourselves before they could become men, like our husbands, fathers, and brothers.
Christopher: And when you took those lives, nothing was left but a statue, an immortal shell.
Duessa: Or so we thought. How is it that you still speak and move, tidbit? I drained you of your life, your energy, just as I drained Stefan and my two other Marriage Feasts. Why aren’t you a shell of your former self?
Christopher: What makes you think I’m not? I’m a shadow of what I once was.
Duessa: A shadow with will and purpose, very different than the other bridegrooms in this Temple.
Christopher: Maybe it’s because I’m not a bridegroom. (He turns from the statue to face Duessa, looking into all eight of her eyes. Two are the same rose-purple hue as Damian’s. Two are bright golden, slitted. Two are blood-red. And one pair is an all-too human amber. Perhaps they were Duessa’s original eyes before she became an arachnocrat. All of them look out of a woman’s face.) I was your Marriage Feast, my Lady Duessa, never your bridegroom.
Duessa: (taking a step closer) You desired me. I caught the scent of your desire awakening, like the fragrance of a rose.
Christopher: (making a slight bow) You are overwhelming, my lady. Just being in your presence is an experience unlike any other, even if one lacks the hunger for such experiences.
Duessa: You offered yourself to me willingly.
Christopher: I feared the fog around Mystere was weakening. I feared for the Gardens’s safety, for my sister, for…(he stops, looks down at his sandaled feet)
Duessa: You feared for Damian. You gave up your life to protect him.
Christopher: My memories of the Gardens, of this temple are fleeting, my lady, but you return them with the power of your presence. I told you. I was your Marriage Feast. Never your bridegroom.
Duessa: You loved Damian. You love him still.
Christopher: Didn’t you? Don’t you still?
Duessa: (stiffens) Damian is my nephew. (She averts all eight of her eyes.) Perhaps I am over-fond of him because of this. There is also his almost witchy cunning, his witty irreverence, his charm, and his beauty, which even in the Gardens of Arachne is considerable. He has a mind and a power behind his lovely face which I cannot help hoping he’ll have an opportunity to use. It’s a tragic waste that he wasn’t born a girl, that he can never be an arachnocratic lady. I could have shared everything with him if he was.
Christopher: Could you, my lady? From what I recall of the arachnocracy, the ladies were very jealous of the power in their arms and eyes. Jealous, suspicious of each other, and isolated in their suspicion. Plus there were those who didn’t fit in, who never embraced their arachnocratic nature. They simply lacked the appetite or the right appetite.
Duessa: You speak of Vanessa, you sister, when you mention jealousy and suspicious. The lack of appetite you’re referring to was my daughter’s. (She sighs.) Damian is stronger than Melyssa, stronger than Vanessa, too, even without an additional pair of eyes or arms. Fate has almost been cruel in gifting him with so much strength.
Christopher: And yet Damian can never be a rival for your power, not like Vanessa is. You have an ease with him you never show with your female kin. Plus he’s your nephew, so he’s safe from your hunger.
Duessa: If only the hunger was that simple. Vanessa keeps pestering me to give Damian to her. He’s ripe, he’s overly ripe for a Marriage Feast. Why do I hesitate to give him to the Spider’s ritual when I’ve told so many arachnocrats to give up their brothers, their sons, their nephews, even when they wept to sacrifice them? I’m betraying the very arachnocracy I established by sparing Damian. Perhaps I’m even betraying Arachne Herself. And Damian looks so much like my beloved Stefan, my former husband and betrayer as well as Marriage Feast. Damian’s very beauty seems like a warning.
Christopher: (gazing at her in growing alarm) You want Damian for yourself. You fear if you keep him too close to you, you’ll eventually take him for yourself. Or he’ll betray you as Stefan did.
Duessa: (heaves a sigh) I’ve used the excuse that he’s my nephew to protect him and have power over him, but Damian is not really my nephew. He’s Stefan Ashelocke’s son with another. I’ve used our alleged kinship to keep him at a distance, but it’s not enough. And now because of what I did to you, he has a grudge against me.
Christopher: This is why you sent him away with Gabrielle to Omphalos. To protect him from not only Vanessa and the arachnocracy, but from yourself. And to protect yourself from him.
Duessa: Possibly betraying all I stand for if Arachne decides this is so. Besides even if Damian is safe from me, from Vanessa, even safe from Arachne, he’s not safe from himself, something you’re only too aware of.
Christopher: Yes. (He lowers his gaze.)
Duessa: I’m hoping you, little shadow, will be more effective at protecting Damian than I was.
Christopher: I haven’t been thus far, my lady. (He lifts his head to show the swimming colors in his eyes.) I intend to change this.
Duessa: (for the first time lowering her head) For what it’s worth you have my blessing in your schemes.
Christopher: Thank you, my lady.