Quartz sits on a tree stump in a clearing where the mists of the Cauldron reveal bits and pieces of the Forest of Tears. He’s whitting something, allowing his knife to feel the groves in the wood.
It’s not stone. Still feels good, the knife in his hand. Working with wood. Not sure why.
A tall, thin woman stumbles out of the mists into the clearing. She wears a long gray-green cloak over a gray vest and trousers. Long bangs of short mousy hair fall over her broad forehead. She wrinkles an arched nose, sniffs, trying to keep up an air of unconcerned disdain when she’s clearly uneasy.
Hebe: Who are you? What is this place?
Quartz: (lifting his head from his whittling to look her up and down) Right. You’re from Christopher’s world. Or worlds. Thought this sort of thing would be normal. Guess it’s not.
Hebe: What sort of thing?
Quartz: This. The Cauldron. Cauldron of Eternal Inspiration if you want a mouthful. Way too many words for a blog, but what do you expect from the scribbler?
Hebe: This place is the Cauldron…of Eternal Inspiration? (She draws herself up.) We’re being boiled in some sort of inspiration pot?
Quartz: (snorts) Often enough. Place changes, depending on what we want. Right now it looks more like my world. I’d like to think I was in the Forest of Tears, but I know better.
Hebe: I…see. (She reaches up to touch one of the tear-shaped blossoms hanging from the tree above her head.) Why am I here?
Quartz: You’re a secondary character, right? Stuck in someone else’s story while your own gets forgotten?
Hebe: (She lets out a hissing breath, withdrawing her hand from the tree as if scalded.) You are entirely too easy with getting personal, dwarf.
Quartz: It’s all about personal in this place.
Hebe: That doesn’t explain why out of all the secondary characters you could speak to, you chose me.
Quartz: Got something to say, don’t you? Or maybe something to see.
Hebe turns to face the clearing. A crystal coffin lies in the center, its light reflecting in the sun, illuminating the young woman lying within it. A young woman with a shaggy fall of silvery-golden hair spread out around her head, dressed in the same cloak, vest, and trousers as Hebe.
Quartz: She’s not my Fairest, that girl in the coffin. Nor is she my Fairest’s princess. Figure she’s someone from your world. Someone who needed healing.
Hebe creeps closer to the coffin. She gazes at its occupant as if she were the smitten prince in many a story about maidens sleeping in similar coffins (even if there were glass).
Quartz: Yeah, scribbler, you really messed up the detail of the traditional tale.
Me: (My turn to be a disembodied voice in the clearing) Shut up. It worked out well enough for you, becoming a plot device for Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystals Coffins.
Quartz: Right. (glances back at Hebe) She likes to do that, just interrupt a conversation. Can see it’s not bothering you.
No, it’s not. Hebe hasn’t taken any notice of Quartz or my voice. She keeps her stormy gray eyes fixed upon the sleeping girl.
Hebe: She’s beautiful. Like Gabrielle, yet not. She’s everything I wanted to be.
Quartz: What, blonde? (He snorts.) Too many ruddy blondes running around in stories if you ask me. Worst of all is the scribbler. Least she’s turning gray.
Hebe doesn’t seem to notice our snarky dialogue. She only has eyes for the maiden lying still against the crystal as if waiting to be wakened. Perhaps she is.
Hebe: She’s different. Untouched by the shadow of my parents, my sublings. She hasn’t lost her place at the family table to some pretty plaything of her father’s. She’s not stuck in some village, compelled to visit the Navel again and again to pick up cups. She’s not driven to smash those cups over and over. Only to return to the Navel, continuing the cycle. Choose a cup and destroy it.
Quartz: Know all that just by looking at her, huh?
Hebe: She’d walk away before she could ever be trapped. Her laughter is too large for a single room. (Hebe has reached the side of the coffin.) She was destined to open Doors.
Quartz: Deciding her destiny as well, eh?
Hebe: Yes, because she’s me. She’s the woman I want to be, the woman I should be. She’s not Hebe.
She leans down over the sleeping maiden, pausing when their lips are inches apart.
Hebe: She’s Ashleigh. My beautiful Ashleigh Beyond the Door.
She touches her lips to the sleeping Ashleigh’s.
Ashleigh opens violet-blue eyes flecked with green, opening her mouth to the kiss. She reaches up to embrace Hebe, but Hebe is already disappearing as if she was a ghost. Disappearing into the mists which come to envelop the coffin.
Ashleigh sits up even as she, the coffin, and the clearing around are swallowed by mist. Only her voice remains.
Ashleigh: Where did I go? I have to find me…
Her voice trails off, leaving Quartz sitting on his stump, watching the mists take everything.
Quartz: Quite the mix of self-love with self-hate. Hope she realizes this clearing was in another world she won’t be finding in her own story…
He disappears along with everything else, still muttering.
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On September 29, 2021, P.T. Wyant posted at ptywant.com a Wednesday Words prompt involving a farm for sale, a dog, and ashes.
This Tale of the Navel was the result…
“Ashleigh made her way through the fields of wheat. Somewhere ahead was the next Door. All she could see was a red barn. Everything on this land was for sale, but just what was this farm for?”
Leiwell was just reading a story. Even so, Tayel shivered, not liking the question. He could feel the rough stalks brushing against her legs as if they were his own, hear the rumbling of the gray sky overhead.
“Was that a growl?” Danyel crouched next to him/her to pet a dog. The animal bowed her head, still watching Tayel with her teeth barred.
She needn’t have bothered threatening him. Tayel had no desire to get any closer to the squat building with walls red as blood.
Leiwell’s voice came from far away, mingled with others. “Its secrets would be hers if only she dared to get closer.”
No. Tayel didn’t want her to get closer. Ghosts waited, writhing around the walls, letting out faint moans. No, screams. They couldn’t raise their voices. Their cries came out as whimpers.
They weren’t just coming from the walls. They were coming from Leiwell’s voice. The screams waited in each word, ready to be released. Ready to rage. Something kept them bound, tied within his brother. Something or someone.
The thunder growled right along with the dog.
“That’s enough, Leiwell.”
Lightning flashed. A bolt slammed down from the sky to stab the barn, bathing it in fire. Map’s voice was a bolt of lightning. The barn exploded with its power.
The dog let out a terrified yelp and bolted, running away from the fire across the fields of wheat.
Danyel turned to follow the dog, reaching for Tayel’s hand.
Tayel reached out to clasp his twin’s fingers only to have them pass through him.
“Danyel!” He cried out his twin’s name, but his throat was filled with ash.
Danyel started to run, but he moved so slowly, following the dog. Following her to wherever she might lead, no matter how dangerous it might.
Tayel tried to cry out a warning, but his twin’s form was already fading. If Danyel had ever been here. If he wasn’t a phantom Tayel had summoned to comfort him in this vision.
There was no comfort in the crackle of the wood, the smell of burning things, and the screams finally finding their voices, growing louder.
Tayel shut his eyes, clapping his hands over his ears.
“Enough.” Map spoke again, silencing the screams.
Tayel opened his eyes. Ash rained down from the sky, gathering on the ground like snow drifts. They blotted out the sun, filling the sky.
Tears filled his eyes, blurring his vision.
Once again, the lightning thundered at him in his adopted mother’s voice. “Tayel!”
Tayel blinked, realized Danyel was shaking him. Realized he was sitting in the kitchen of the cottage. He was home.
Leiwell gazed at him above a book’s cover, green eyes luminous with fear and concern. Stupidly Tayel read the golden letters of one of his favorite books: Ashleigh Beyond the Door.
“Wha..” he began, only to see Map shaking her head, graying dark wisps shaking along with her. Fear, concern, and a certain guilty knowledge rested in her wrinkles. Knowledge of the burning wood, the ashes falling from the sky, and the lightning which brought both down on bloody walls which trapped screams within them. For that knowledge which brought nothing but pain.
Tayel didn’t want it. He didn’t want to ask questions about it, any questions. Not about places like the barn or the fire.
Danyel gripped his shoulder, eyes wide with innocent concern. No eerie light which reflected things they shouldn’t see swam in his irises.
Leiwell gazed at him, just as concerned, somber with dark secrets of his own. Secrets he’d never reveal for Leiwell lived to keep both of his little brothers safe.
If Tayel betrayed a hint of what he’d just seen or felt, Leiwell would feel like he’d failed to protect him.
At that moment Tayel decided he didn’t want his brothers to know anything either. He’d keep his visions to himself. He didn’t want Danyel to get any closer to these things. For that matter, he didn’t want Leiwell to either.
Only they’d know if he lied, deliberately hid things. They’d be hurt.
Tayel decided to obfuscate, riddle up his words a bit. “Chasing dogs is like chasing shadows. Fire rains from the heavens, allowing screams to rise.”
Perhaps he was too direct. Leiwell and Map exchanged wary glances as if they understood a little about what Tayel was talking about. Understood and worried.
They might have a clearer idea about the meaning behind Ashleigh’s story and her words when she reached the barn.
“You’re talking about the story right?” Danyel, the innocent fool, frowned, trying to understand. “The dog was all right, wasn’t she? She ran off before Ashleigh entered the barn.”
“Ashleigh lied,” Map muttered, scowling. She seemed to take personal offense at the very concept of Ashleigh Beyond the Door. As if any woman so flawed and unsatisfied, always questing to find Doors to other worlds was insulting her own missing Ashleigh’s memory by having the same name.
Tayel often wondered if Ashleigh Beyond the Door and the twins’s mother weren’t only too alike. That maybe it was the similarity between them Map found offensive.
“She never had a dog. She never had the patience to look after anyone who’d devote herself to her.” Map avoided her sons’s gaze. “The dog belonged to someone else. Someone she’d rather forget.”
“Who?” Danyel asked, fascinated.
Don’t ask. Tayel silently thought these words, not sure if Danyel would hear them. Or acknowledge them.
Map froze for a moment, staring as if she’s caught sight of someone who wasn’t there.
“Custard. She named the dog Custard because she loved custard tarts so much.” A faint smile played at the corner of Map’s mouth while the wrinkles around her mouth became more pronounced. Laugh lines. Lines of pain. One and the same. “The dog belonged to all of us, but she insisted on following me around.”
“Following you around?” Danyel gazed at Map with shining eyes, rapt. This was the first time their adopted mother had ever spoken of her past before Leiwell, Danyel, and Tayel came to live with her. Map never talked of life outside the cottage, not for herself. “Who were all of Custard’s people?”
“We weren’t on a farm. Not exactly.” Map let out a slow sigh. “It was a temple. It was a long time ago. Ashleigh thoughts the sisters there indulged in a lot of nonsense, even though I tried to explain. It’s no longer important. It’s no longer there.”
Because it burned down. Tayel didn’t say it. Danyel gazed at him, lips slightly parted in shock, mouthing the words.
This is why you were crying. You saw the fire, smelled the smoke while Leiwell was reading. You saw it.
Tayel shut his eyes, thought of blue water, lapping layer upon layer over each other. He imagined himself sinking into those layers, dissolving, letting his thoughts go.
He heard Danyel’s hiss of frustration, felt his furious glare. His twin knew Tayel was hiding something.
Hiding things from Danyel was going to be tough. Tayel had to try. He didn’t want his twin to feel those ashes kissing his face or to smell the smoke. Tayel could still feel them clinging to his cheeks.
“That’s enough, Map.”
Leiwell spoke in a voice softer than those ashes, yet every bit as resolute as the lightning.
“It’s no good to hide such things, Leiwell.” Map spoke in a weary tone, not really challenging her eldest. “Not once they start asking questions.”
No. Asking a question isn’t just opening a Door. It’s starting a journey down a path to a place unknown. A place you may never be able to forget, no matter how much you want to.
“Sometimes it’s better not to ask.” Tayel allowed the thought to escape his mouth, float in the air, make it heavier. Too much truth.
“No, I don’t believe that.” Danyel spoke in a hushed whisper, too much like the screams which ended up whimpers trapped in the barn. Not until the lightning released them and silenced them. “This isn’t what you’ve taught me. Any of you.”
Eyes shining with no light but his own naive disbelief moved from brother to brother to mother. “Look. Listen. Learn. Try to understand and care about everything around you. Isn’t that what you’ve always told me? Shown me?”
“Once you learn something, you can never be the same.” Once again Tayel allowed the truth heavy in his heart to escape from his lips. “You can never be the innocent whom once asked the question.”
“Why would I want to be?” Danyel leaned forward, a stray golden curl sliding down over one eye bright with earnestness. “Each question is a step in a journey taking me forward. Bringing me closer to whom I’m supposed to be. Whom I want to be. Why would I be afraid of him? What good is it to be afraid?”
Good questions, dangerous questions. Questions Tayel wouldn’t answer. Once more he smelled the smoke, tasted ashes in his mouth.
“Good may not be a step along the path.” Best to turn his answers into oblique warnings.
“That’s right.” Map stood behind Tayel, lay her wrinkled hands upon his shoulders. How they trembled. “Stories are just stories unless you make more of them. Just what were you doing, Leiwell?”
“What were you doing?” Leiwell found the strength to raise his head, to rise into a sitting position. “All I was doing was making the story interesting.”
“Some interesting things are better hiding from.” Map stilled her fingers upon Tayel’s shoulders, but one still twitched. It saddened him to see this. “You of all people recognize this.”
“You of all people know a story is just a story. You yourself were just telling us not to make more out of them.” Leiwell’s lips trembled right along with Map’s finger. “Putting too much of ourselves, our past into Ashleigh Beyond the Door does exactly that.”
“That particular book is too much temptation.” Her hands trembled again, sending shivers up her arm. “I wonder at your master’s motivations in giving it to you. Us.”
“You mean you doubt them.” Leiwell gave Map a sideways glance. “None of us would be here if not for our lord.”
“I wonder about that as well.” Map dug her fingers into Tayel’s shoulders. It hurt a little. “Don’t give that man too many undeserved accolades. We’re too dependent on him as is.”
“What else would you do?” Leiwell pressed his lips together. “Leave this cottage? Return to the outside world? It’s uncertain if any of us could survive there.”
“It’s uncertain if any of us can survive anywhere. If there’s such a thing as a safe place. Especially when you resurrect old mistakes like the ones in that book.” Tayel felt his mother losen her grip on him, nod at Ashleigh Beyond the Door. “We might all find ourselves seeing, hearing, and feeling things which could hurt us. Unnecessarily.”
Yes. Tayel closed his eyes, not looking at either of his brothers.
No more questions. Tayel didn’t like them, the Doors they opened to uncertainty and fear. No journey felt right which begun with such things. Even when they were innocent things, they caused uncertainty and fear.
Tayel didn’t want to open a Door which would expose himself or his family to any of that. He’d divert any his twin might crack.
Danyel gazed at him, a wrinkle of concern pressing itself into his brow. It was only too easy to imagine a nest of such wrinkles burrowing into his skin, leaving him with a lifetime of regrets and answers.
Not if Tayel could help it.
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Christopher walks out of the mists to find himself inside a temple, a cathedral with rosy marble pillars flanking a series of murals that look out over carved wooded pews. The murals feature beautiful, larger than life figures floating in the sky above the people praying below. Sometimes they smile with benevolence upon the viewer. Sometimes they gaze upon a heaven above filled with light and clouds, rich with color.
Christopher: I can’t blame you for being seduced by the view. I was.
Gabrielle: Fix your gaze too often upon the heavens above and you’ll lose track of what’s happening in the world around you.
Christopher turns in the direction of his mother’s voice. Yes, there she is in one of the murals. She’s one of the figures who looks down and smiles upon you just as she smiles at Christopher. Her golden hair blazes in the light shining above and she floats in loose robes as diaphronous as the clouds around her.
Come to think of it, she always wears such loose, untailored skirts and tunics. No matter what sort of odd hat, veil, or adornment she adds to them. All Christopher sees her wear in the Navel is such garments.
Christopher: (raising a hand to shield his eyes) Mother?
Gabrielle: (Her painted smile becomes a little puzzled.) I don’t think so?
Christopher: (swallowing an odd lump at her lack of recognition) ‘Brie?
Gabrielle: Is that a nickname for me? I can’t say I’ve heard it before.
Gabrielle: Yes, that is my name. Or the name I hope to use. That is who I am trying to be while I pose for this painting.
Christopher: Are you a memory ghost?
Gabrielle: (only the lips of the painting moving) Why, I do believe I am. From a particular time and place at the Temple of Heavenly Directions, given eternity in painted form. This was why my faith burned the brightest.
Christopher: Your faith? In what?
Gabrielle: Why, in us. In Heaven. In being part of something better and brighter than my individual self. In convincing others to do the same, to keep one eye on Heaven, the other upon the people around us who need to us. In helping others to find Heaven in their lives and hearts. In connecting with them, thus connecting to a greater whole. (Her smile falters.) I wonder what happened?
Christopher: What do you mean?
Gabrielle: You called me Mother. I was never meant for motherhood. My body and soul were promised to Heaven’s service.
Christopher: I was sort of an accident.
Gabrielle: (Her smile disappears entirely.) Sounds like I truly strayed from my calling if I allowed such an accident to happen.
Christopher: (swallowing another painful lump) You still have a calling, Mother, one you follow with absolute devotion. I think one of the reasons you adopted me, welcoming me into the Navel is because of it.
Gabrielle: (frowning at both the words and in response to the pain on his face) Forgive me if my response seems cold or cruel. Everything you’re saying is something of a shock.
Christopher: Believe me, I feel the same way.
Gabrielle: (her painted mouth softening) Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it? Once again I’m sorry, but I can’t help being curious. Just what is a Navel?
Christopher: A little shop which people find when they need to go there. A shop where nothing is what it seems. You call it the center of all things bizarre.
Gabrielle: This certainly sounds bizarre.
Christopher: You take great pride in its bizarreness. As you do in being bizarre.
Gabrielle: (frowning again) Pride, ah, I’ve been warned about that. If I’ve let my pride in this bizarre place and my duties there go to my head, it sounds like I’ve forsaken my purpose.
Christopher: If you have, you’ve found one even more important to you. One you’re willing to defend, even against those you love and trust. You never wavered in believing in the Navel’s purpose even when Damian challenged you about it again and again.
Gabrielle: Who is Damian?
Christopher: Your protégé. He’s the one who brought me to you.
Gabrielle: First I learn I have a son. Now I learn I have a protégé who’s bringing sons to me. Right now I’m only Raphaela’s protégé myself.
Christopher: When is now?
Gabrielle: What a curious question. I’m dreaming, aren’t I? I’m lying in my cell, tied to my bed, dreaming of looking out at a strange boy from the mural Mireille painted.
For the first time Gabrielle’s image moves something other than her mouth. She blinks, turns her head, moving within the image to get a better look at Christopher and his surroundings.
Gabrielle: It looks like Mireille has finished painting the temple in this dream. She’s made us look so beautiful, all of the Heavenly Directions.
Christopher: Who is Mireille?
Gabrielle: The painter Michaela asked to come and decorate our temple. You can see Michaela there.
The painted image of Gabrielle shifts, moving her hand to gesture to another mural of an imposing figure with short dark hair, wearing a breast plate, a fiery sky behind her.
Gabrielle: And that’s Raphaela, my master.
Gabrielle motions to a mural at the end of the hall behind an altar covered with white, gold, and purple velvet. A glorious figure of an imposing woman with flowing dark hair and stern, yet loving expression looks down at the pews.
Gabrielle: She’s very wise, but she expects so much of me. I wonder if I can ever live up to her expectations as a Direction.
Christopher: I’m sure you do.
Gabrielle: If only I could get her to laugh just once. I’m lucky if I can get her to smile. Mireille smiles all the time.
Christopher: You seem to like Mireille a lot.
Gabrielle: I’ve never met anyone like her. I wonder if there are more people like her, living outside the temple walls. I’m not supposed to stray far from this place…I think I’m waking up now.
Mists rise from the floor, enveloping the pillars, the murals, the entire temple, engulfing Christopher’s surroundings in white.
Christopher: Was it just a dream from your past? Or did I catch a glimpse of a past you never speak about?
The mists seem to hum a little tune in a voice similar to Gabrielle’s, yet it might not be.
Christopher can never tell in the Cauldron. Or in the Shadow Forest, for that matter.
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I’m posting mine a little early…here a little of A Symposium in Space after Pausania made her entrance…and Phaedra is still ogling her…:)
Her blouse complemented her auburn hair, falling in thick, luxuriant waves over her shoulders.
Those russet tresses were coarser than they looked. They still yielded to brushes, combs, or my worshipful fingers. Tiny strands of copper mingled with the auburn locks, giving her head a halo’s gleam.
It wasn’t natural. Very little about Pausania was natural. She still made everything about her appearance seem artless and unfeigned.
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On September 1, 2021, P.T. Wyant posted a Wednesday Words prompt involving a yellow rosebush, a button, and medicine.
This freebie story for Tales of the Navel was the result…
Gabrielle picked up the button lying in the middle of the floor. One got used to finding an odd objects in the Navel. There was a reason she found them, even she hadn’t met the reason yet.
The moment she touched the small, hard object, the walls around her disappearing.
Gabrielle found herself standing next to a yellow rosebush in full bloom, the blue sky stretching out above her. Too blue, too clear. She could hear the rustling of layered skirts, whispering like ghosts clinging to the fabric of the lady responsible for the flowers. Even if they weren’t her usual choice of color.
“Is this a challenge or a reprimand, Duessa?” She didn’t turn to face the eight-armed woman behind her. She simply knelt to inhale the fragrance of one of the blossoms. “Whichever it might be, it has a divine fragrance.”
“Whichever it might be, it’s medicine for the soul.” Duessa moved forward, each hand waving in graceful acknowledgment. “It is rude to abduct a lady from her Place of Power. For which I apologize.”
Red and golden eyes glittered in amusement. Rose and amber gleamed with anger.
“Almost as rude as allowing your precious protégé to magic himself through a Door.” Gabrielle released a heavy sigh. “If he doesn’t force his dream upon everyone around him, he’ll never have a chance to bloom.”
“Don’t quote past marriage feasts,” Duessa chided, but a tiny smile played across her lips. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of Damian. He managed to slip through our fingers, using us all to achieve his own ambitions. In the end he was a true Ashelocke.”
“Strange how you kept your husband’s…first marriage feast’s name.” Gabrielle slowly turned from the bush. “How much of what happened was your design, Duessa?”
“Why, whatever do you mean?” Duessa pressed her lips into a slight o of professed surprise, but it was a mocking o. “One of the things which makes Damian both delightful and maddening is how he manages to surpass my expectations.”
“No matter what you might profess to other arachnocrats, you wanted him to surpass you.” ‘Brie spread her arms, only two of them to encompass the garden. “If you’d truly wanted to keep him here, we never could have escaped.”
“Ah, ‘Brie, now who’s being deceitful about her design?” Duessa allowed her lips to spread into a grin. “If you were truly serious, you could have burned the Garden.”
“Ah, well, it’s easy to burn things. Destruction comes quickly.” Gabrielle shrugged, trying to hide her distaste. “Creation, however, that’s truly a challenge.”
“Not to mention bringing fire down upon upstart gods and blasphemers would attract Rafaella.” Duessa raised one finger to her lips, pointed another at the sky, while various other pointed in different directions. “I’m not certain if she let you go or not.”
“She couldn’t have stopped me.” Gabrielle allowed this truth to escape from her lips. “I realized my captivity…and my freedom were my own.”
“So was Damian. So are many captives who allow themselves to be imprisoned by their beliefs, their lack of faith in themselves.” Duessa allowed her smile to soften into something more somber. “I was once such a captive.”
“Only you imprisoned your captor in immortal stone,” Gabrielle observed. “Or was it a dream? Does Stefan’s spirit wander in the Shadow Forest along with Damian?”
“Both will get more than they either anticipated if their paths crossed.” Duessa made a slight half-bow to the roses as if sharing a joke with them. “I almost hope they do.”
“I don’t.” Gabrielle admitted this with a seriousness she tried to hide. “I doubt very much Stefan is what he’s looking for.”
“No, Damian found what he was looking for, only to leave him again.” Duessa walked in a rustling of skirts to finger the petals of a nearby bush, heedless of the thorns. “Once he recovered Christopher, tucking his prize away in a safe place, he was free to pursue his vengeance upon you.”
“I don’t think Damian wants revenge.” Gabrielle leaned close to a rose in full flower, proudly displaying its petals. “He simply wishes to overcome you. To overcome both of us in some grand, mystical gesture which will satisfy his hunger.”
“It’s very hard to satisfy an arachnocrat’s hunger,” Duessa observed. “I look forward to seeing him try.”
“Wouldn’t you like to see him happy?” Gabrielle turned slightly from the bush to give the lady a sideways glance. “It eluded him in both Omphalos and the Gardens. I’d like for Damian to catch up with it. Or for it to catch up with him.”
“For Damian, happiness is a boy. A boy he’s sensible enough not to value too highly or let himself be distracted by.” Duessa wrinkled his nose. “As charming as your Christopher is, he’s hardly a future.”
“Just because you’d deny him the future doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one.” ‘Brie rose and straightened, turning her attention to the sky. “Being the embodiment of the future can be many things. Perhaps too many things.”
“Such a cautious, conservative response.” It was Duessa’s turn to give ‘Brie a sideways glance. “I wonder how many people realize what cautious, conservative souls hides beneath bizarre costumes mean to distract the discerning.”
“You, for one.” Gabrielle stretched out her arms. “Is there a particular point you wish to make, Duessa? Your garden is lovely and I appreciate the break, but I have a shop to run.”
“Damian was right. You waste too much of yourself upon that shop.” Duessa looked Gabrielle up and down with a sigh. “Only nobody knows this better than you.”
The sky, the garden, and Duessa herself disappeared. Gabrielle found herself kneeling, touching the button still lying upon the Navel’s floor. A cloth button which could have been on Duessa’s slitted waistcoat.
“You left something,” ‘Brie murmured. “Or perhaps it is who left a part of myself behind in your garden. A part who’s still with you.”
The button didn’t reply.
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Christopher walks through the mists. They cling to him, kissing his cheek and hair, whispering things he should remember, yet he’ll soon forget.
The mists part, almost reluctantly to reveal a sunlit garden with tall hedges and dense rose bushes.
Christopher doesn’t want to look too closely. If he does, he’ll see the spiderwebs, clinging the green. Their mistresses lie in wait next to the roses, ready to bloom.
Christopher: Metaphoric. (He smiles in spite of himself at the word, unsure if it is a word.)
He allows his feet to follow a familar path winding deep into the hedges. The faint sound of children giggling, boys whose voices haven’t changed, boys who’ve learned not to raise their voices is carried by the wind, only to be silenced.
Christopher reaches the end of the path in a clearing where a statue should be at the center.
Only there is no statue. Just Peter standing on a pedestal, striking a pose in his red hose and doublet, cap perched at a jaunty angle upon his head.
Peter: (opening eyes which are half-closed, smiling at the sight of Christopher) Be my valentine?
Christopher: (not smiling) What are you doing here? These are the Gardens of Arachne!
Peter: Are they? (He looks around with interest.) I thought we were in the Cauldron of Eternal Inspiration?
Christopher: Yes and no. (He shivers) If we’re in the Lady Duessa Ashelocke’s gardens, I doubt she’s far away.
Peter: And why should being in this Lady Duessa’s gardens bother me?
Duessa: And what makes you think Peter’s question was just for you?
A shadow with eight arms spreads to loom over and envelop the two young men, accompanied by the hissing rustle of heavy skirts upon the ground.
Of course the shadow is caused by the Lady Duessa. Of course it’s her burgundy skirts making the rustling. She wears a jacket of similar color which actually has eight sleeves to accomodate her eight arms. A ruby heart pin is fasted upon the high white colar of the blouse underneath her jacket. In a gloved hand, she carries a single red rose.
Duessa and Peter look like they stepped out of completely different times and places yet somehow they complement each other. She with her auburn waves pulled up to fall in loose ringlets below a jaunty burgundy hat with a slight veil hanging to conceal one of her four pairs of eyes. He, leaning toward the lady and her rose, auburn waves spilling loose from beneath his cap.
Duessa holds out her offering to Peter, but Christopher is standing on the path between them.
Christopher: Just what are you up to?
Duessa: Damian has been a bad influence on you, tidbit. You’ve forgotten your manners. It’s, “What are you up to, my lady?” We’re in my gardens, remember? Or have you forgotten?
Christopher: (hugs himself) I could never forget.
Duessa: That’s good to know, sweetmeat. (She brushes her rose against his nose.) As charming as I’ve always found your company, I’m not here for you.
Christopher: What? (He glances over his shoulder at Peter, not daring to take his eyes off Duessa. Not completely. After all, he has only two of them.)
Peter scowls and stands up straight, losing his languid posture.
Peter: Just because your answer is always “no” to that question doesn’t mean everyone else’s is.
Christopher: What question? Be my valentine? (He turns back to face to Duessa, dawning horror widening his eyes.) No, you can’t!
Duessa: (smiling sweetly, fluttering four pairs of eyelashes) You’re right, tidbit. I can’t. Peter, however, can.
Christopher: (shaking his head) No.
Duessa: Yes. As guardian of the Gardens, I cannot be your valentine, Peter. You, however, could be mine.
Christopher: Don’t do it, Peter. Don’t even say it. Damian told me what she does with her valentines.
Peter: Oh, and I should spurn this fascinating and exotic lady because the Paragon of Pricks has deemed so?
Duessa: Paragon of Pricks. A curious title for a gently reared Ashelocke bloom. (At least one pair of eyes hardens.) I assume this is my nephew, Damian you’re insulting.
Peter: Your nephew? (He gazes at Duessa in shocked comprehension.)
Christopher: Yes. The Lady Duessa is Damian’s aunt.
Peter: (opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again) This divine goddess is related to Damian?!
Duessa: (chuckles, regaining her amusement) How charming of you to say so, but I’m not a goddess. Merely the proud servant of one.
Peter: (considering her words) Arachne. Christopher called this place the Gardens of Arachne. Is she your goddess?
Duessa: Clever boy. Yes, she is.
Christopher: And as Arachne’s priestess, she has appetities. Appetites you may not survive.
Duessa: Come, come, Christopher. Being my valentine may not grant you eternal beauty as being my Marriage Feast does, but Peter might survive the pleasure.
Christopher: Only for so long.
Peter: This is all very intriguing. Are you a vampire, my lady?
Duessa: (titters) Goddess, no. I can’t simply sink my fangs into someone and drain their blood as if they were a water fountain!
Christopher: You do have fangs. You do sink them into your victims.
Duessa: They’re not victims, tidbit. They’re valentines and bridegrooms. You ought to know.
Christopher raises a hand to touch his neck. Four tiny red marks lay upon the skin. For a moment he feels a faint pain there and in his right thigh, followed a tingling pleasure that spreads completely through his body.
Peter: (watching all of this with an increasing frown) You’ve had Christopher. He was one of your Valentines.
Duessa: He was one of my bridegrooms, my Marriage Feasts. (Her smile fades.) Damian never forgave me for taking him.
Christopher: (looking at Duessa with some startlement) He didn’t?
Duessa: You caused a rift between us before I saw you, much to my surprise at his side in the Navel. I wonder at how you’re talking to me now. I suppose this Cauldron is a place of wonders.
Christopher: (it’s his turn to smile sweetly) That and more. Besides you wouldn’t want everything to be revealed here and now.
Peter: You’ve made quite a few revelations. (not smiling) At least to me.
Duessa: (regaining her amused composure) Don’t worry, Peter. (She nods at the youth on the pedestal.) You’ll remember little of your time here. The mists will take your memories of this place.
Peter: Such a pity. You’re not giving me a chance to consider your offer, my lady.
Christopher: What? You’ve just learned that she…fed on me. You’ve learned a little of what she is. She may well have had a hand in making me what I am. She definitely had a hand in making Damian what he is.
Duessa: If you’re looking for an apology for any of it, you won’t get one. I’ve always been proud of Damian. I’m starting to be proud of you, Christopher, any hand I may have had in your development, even if it’s beyond the Gardens’s expectations. I’m curious what effect I may have on Peter.
Peter: I’m curious, too. Curious about this offer from a woman unlike any other I’ve seen. A woman who’s quite close to a boy I covet and a man who’s become my rival.
Duessa: Please don’t insult my Damian. Don’t call him a man. He’s still a blossom of the Gardens of Arachne where boys are savored, not sacrificed to a rough maturity devoid of sentiment.
Peter: I meant no insult, my lady. (He made a slight bow.) Indeed, I’m sorry I’ll be forgetting what I learned here. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to consider your offer.
Duessa: Oh, you will. In another time. Another place.
Christopher: Don’t listen to her, Peter. She may not consider herself to be a vampire, but she’s too much like one for you to emerge from any sort of…encounter…with her intact.
Peter: You’re making it irresistible! I do hope you’re jealous.
Duessa: I sincerely hope you are. After taking Damian from me, it’s only fair that I take someone from you.
Christopher: No, please don’t!
The mists rise from above Duessa’s skirts, swirling around her. They creep up Peter’s pedestal, enveloping Peter himself. The mists swallow Duessa, Peter, covering the entire garden.
Christopher stands alone with nothing but mist.
Christopher: Don’t punish Peter for my deeds.
What might be a faint feminine laugh floats back through the mists. Or it could be just the wind. Christopher can’t tell.
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For my own, Pausania is about to make her entrance in A Symposium in Space…
Swallowing a sigh, I turned to face Pausania.
She glided into the room with a lazy grace, loose leggings swishing around her slender limbs. As always, she managed not to drag the tassels at the ends of them across her floor. The pants matched the fawn-colored blouse she wore. Tawny beads weighed down the edges of the tunic.
Pausania’s attire was usually a compromise between fashionable and comfortable. Her blouse complemented her auburn hair, falling in thick, luxuriant waves over her shoulders.
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Here’s the last sample I’ve offering at this time of Web of Inspiration. If you’ve enjoyed this taste of this particular Work in Progress, let me know. If you’d like read the rest of the story, please offer up words of encouragement! 🙂
Dyvian knelt to look within, astonished at this secret concealed by the First Marriage Feast. Or perhaps it was someone else’s secret?
A book waited in the recess, a torn book with a dusty magenta cover.
Dyvian reached down to claim it. Some of the pages were loose, but he recognized the curling script. The writing was the Lady Duessa’s.
Clutching the book to his chest, he walked over to one of the concealing hedges. Once he was certain no one watched him, he began to read:
Juno came to me, weeping, betrayed by her own flesh and blood. For Jupitre was still a man even if he sought to be a god among gods. This was all the justification he needed to violate his own twin sister. He wanted her. He took her. She was left with the choice of marrying her rapist or living with the shame of what he did. All the while he gloated and laughed over what he did with other men.
I wonder if it isn’t the society of other men which encourages men to be monsters? A society which puts every woman in danger once a group of men spot her? Once they start to nudge each other, laugh, goading each other on to make sport of their victims, they’ve initiated a prelude to a hunt, a predatory energy which requires prey.
This is not so with all living beings. Among spiders, it is the female who is the predator. The male spider dies after mating with her. Among humans, it is the females who give up their lives again and again for the men they love.
Perhaps the only way to free of this fate is to become less human. Is not the “man” an inescapable part of “humanity”?
There was a break before the next part of the book.
He has been having his way with Dyvian. As he did with Una. As he did with me.
I fear what will become of Vanessa. What he will do to her, or whom he will give her to. There’s nothing I can do to stop him. Not as long as he remains my lord and master.
It has to stop. I must stop him. He won’t be expecting it. He’s too confident in his hold over me.
He has reason to be confident. I still desire him. How can I, knowing what he does?
I must show the same lack of mercy in my desire that he does. No, I must show less.
I will make a pact with the Spider. Arachne is willing. She is waiting for me. She comes to me in my dreams. She will make this estate and its ground a garden. She’s shown me a vision of this Garden. It’s a place of magic, beauty, and peace for women.
Arachne will give me Her power, if I have the courage to take it. To take on her hunger. To share these gifts with all who dare to accept them.
We will create a web of mist to catch any man who dares to disturb us. The only males allowed in our garden will be the young, innocent, and gentle. We will raise those blossoms in grace and beauty. Before they can sprout the thorns of man, they will nourish our hunger. We will spare them the fate of an ugly manhood.
An ugly manhood. Yes, manhood could be monstrous. Many things were more monstrous than the arachnocracy.
Dyvian was still trying to decide if he was one of them.
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