Gabrielle staggered to a halt and straightened, trying to orient herself in the room as the pinching sensation of a rogue pin stabbing her skin beneath the bodice made the young woman suck in her breath and squirm in discomfort. The sudden realisation that she was being watched made her stop in her tracks and quickly take a look at her surroundings.
Much like last night’s bedroom, the walls were made of sandstone, the windows were floor-to-ceiling, and the floor was a bright, beautifully polished stone. Three enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling down the centre of the room, and ornate tapestries decorated the wall opposite the windows. In the middle of the room was a very long, stately table made of dark wood, gleaming and inlaid with what looked like carved ivory. There were enough matching tall-backed chairs surrounding it to seat at least two dozen. At the far end of the table sat five vardii and her father, all sporting bewildered expressions on their faces. The only one not seated, and the only one besides her father that she recognised without hesitation, was Aeoulys. He was standing with his back pressed against the wall, his arms folded over his chest, and his countenance sombre.
The silence stretched out for a short but uncomfortable amount of time, and finally one of the males Gabrielle had not yet met blurted, “I’ll hand it to her: she knows how to make an entrance.”
“Qinnan, shut up,” k’Lejn Szapiorus snapped with a reproachful glance in the young male’s direction. Qinnan responded by screwing up his face and muttering something under his breath as he leaned back in his chair with hands folded behind his neck.
Beilor stood up from his chair and walked to his daughter, his expression becoming warm and inviting. He tugged on the grey vest beneath the formal, dark green waistcoat that highlighted the colour of his eyes, and finished by straightening the grey cravat at his neck. “Gabrielle, how good of you to join us.”
The young woman managed to reply with a pained smile, finding his statement ridiculous because she’d had absolutely no choice in the matter. She was sure Issa would have hoisted her over her shoulder and carried her there kicking and screaming if she hadn’t cooperated willingly. The sharp piercing sensation felt like some horrible insect had inserted its stinger and refused to stop, but short of tearing off the bodice, there was no relief. She took a shaky breath and kept her eyes on her father as he came toward her; she’d tried scanning the rest of the pack around the table, but eye contact with any of them was too intimidating to handle, and Aeoulys – the only other being in the room she wanted to talk to – had lowered his gaze to the floor and barely acknowledged she was there.
“Good morning,” Beilor said quietly. Gabrielle noticed that he looked tired, like he hadn’t slept well. He took her hands in his and just looked at her for a moment, and Gabrielle could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. Turning to the others, he stated, “I’d like to introduce all of you to Gabrielle, my daughter from my former life.”
All of them nodded and uttered indistinct greetings to her except the statuesque female in the centre, whom Gabrielle instantly picked as Icalpi. The young woman might have wondered if this dark female was at all alive if she hadn’t blinked her vibrant lime-green eyes every now and again. Not a hair on her body moved, not an ear twitched, and her hands remained folded on the table in a cool fashion. She was dressed in a beautiful burgundy gown with flowing sleeves and gold thread through the bodice. She wore a simple, golden circlet upon her head which contrasted perfectly with the dark chocolate colouring of her fur that, like Sharrie’s, was greying with age.
With a small motion of his head, Beilor invited Gabrielle to follow him to the other end of the table. She tried twisting her body away from the pin but only succeeded in making the situation worse, and her eyes started to water.
“As you can see, this is your…family,” he looked at Icalpi, and she shifted her icy gaze from Gabrielle to Beilor. Some silent conversation took place between them; Beilor raised an eyebrow, and she flared her nostrils, taking a deep breath. Beilor swallowed and pursed his lips for the space of a heartbeat, and he continued the introductions. “This is your mother, Gabrielle. I’d like you to meet Lady Icalpi Eidarre Gendreyllen k’Tira Szapiorus. Icalpi, this is Gabrielle Doubek, but I think bestowing ‘Szapiorus’ on her might be appropriate at this point?”
“Do you?” She turned her flesh-rending glare back on the young woman.
Gabrielle had no idea what she should say or how to respond to Icalpi’s gelid reception. She wondered if she should bow or curtsey, but no one had said anything about that. She put on her best brave face, donned an uncomfortable grimace, and inclined her head the way she’d seen the servants greet her father, hoping this show of respect would be appropriate enough.
“And these are your siblings,” Beilor continued, starting at the right side of the table. “Beitor, our eldest,” and the silvery-gold male smiled, rising out of his chair in greeting; his expression was genuine enough, and his incredible green eyes sparkling with interest.
“And Alexander, next in line.” Alexander nodded to her, but he made no move to stand as Beitor had, and he offered no kind expression.
“Aeoulys at the back,” he paused a moment, and his voice took on a hard edge as he added, “but the two of you have already met.”
Aeoulys raised his eyebrows, but he still didn’t look at Gabrielle; the young woman was beginning to feel sick that he was giving her the cold shoulder, and she wanted to talk to him as soon as possible to understand what the problem between them apparently was.
Beilor, however, moved along to the two seated on the left side of her new mother. “This beautiful creature is Myrrha,” he pointed to an otherworldly female with striking white fur, and she understood why their father singled out her loveliness: she was physically impressive, even to Gabrielle’s untrained eye, and she seemed to radiate a delicate grace that elevated her above everyone else in the room. Myrrha nodded sympathetically and met Gabrielle’s eyes with a warmth she’d not yet felt from anyone else in the room.
The k’Lejn sighed as he arrived at the last male. “And, of course, Qinnan…the youngest of the group.”
“Until now?” Qinnan offered. He made an effort to look like he was standing out of respect as Beitor had done, but part way through the motion he just flopped back in the seat and grimaced. “Or does she just look young for her age?”
“Forgive him,” Beitor, the eldest, interjected suddenly. “He must have left his manners in his quarters this morning.”
“Oh no, wait,” Qinnan reached into his jacket and pulled out an empty hand, passing it under his chin as his nose wrinkled and his lips twisted into a sneer, “I have them right here.”
“Dzechi,” Icalpi hissed and quickly looked at both of them in turn. “Enough.” She stood up and glared at her husband. “Introductions are over; I’d like to speak to this girl. You’ll have opportunity to meet your new sister in due course.”
They needed no further instructions; Icalpi had ordered them out, and they stood and left the room with barely another glance in Gabrielle’s direction. Aeoulys was the last one out, and she noticed he’d finally decided to look at her just before stepping into the hall. She wanted to run after him, but her feet might as well have been nailed to the floor. She clasped her hands together in front of herself and took a deep breath, clenching her teeth as the pin gored into her skin.
“Very nice, Beilor,” Icalpi reposed against the chair, looking as relaxed as an impending thunderstorm. “They managed to cobble something together for her, I see, but the shoes are ridiculous, and that expression on her face leaves much to be desired. She does resemble you, though…sadly for her, I’m sure.”
He emphasized every word as he placed his hand on his daughter’s elbow. “She looks fine. It was short notice. And not everyone can be as beautiful as you, my love,” he said, the steely edge in his voice indicating he didn’t appreciate Icalpi’s assessment of his daughter.
Icalpi’s lip quivered, revealing angry, gleaming canines for a split second. Quickly pulling herself together, the dark female rose from her chair and began walking toward Gabrielle, assessing her with such critical eyes that the young woman wanted to melt into the floor. She’d never liked being scrutinized, and right now she felt like a germ under a microscope. “You should have left her in her own garments; I would have liked to see how females dress in your world. They must compensate for their physical inadequacies somehow.” With a perturbing height advantage, the dark wolf stopped her advance so close to Gabrielle that the young woman noticed flecks of gold in Icalpi’s eyes and smelled the faint sweetness of her perfume. The k’Tira’s lips drew back slightly as she glared down her nose at Gabrielle, her loathing so palpable it might as well have been a fourth entity in the room. “Tell me, what is it you want?”
Gabrielle didn’t know how to answer. Her mind latched on to the first thought that materialised through her terror. “I just want to go home.”
“Then why did you come here in the first place if don’t want to be here?”
Beilor stepped between them. He was almost exactly the same height as his wife, and he used that physical advantage to shield his daughter. “Icalpi,” he growled, “be fair. She fell through; it wasn’t her intention to end up here. How can you begrudge her wishing to go back to the place she knows and loves when you know she’s unable?”
“If I fully believed either one of you, perhaps I wouldn’t. You can train someone to behave in a particular way, to say certain things,” she stated. “Even a creature like her.”
“This again,” Beilor sighed, closing his eyes and squeezing his hand into an angry fist. “How many times must we go over this? Nothing’s going to change because I’m telling you the truth!”
Icalpi looked like she wanted to spit at him, and Gabrielle unconsciously held her breath, waiting for the response and fighting her own physical discomfort. She wished she could say something to improve the situation, but she knew better; any words out of her mouth would only fan the flames of Icalpi’s anger, and as long as her father was the focus of the dark female’s rage, Gabrielle didn’t want to do anything to draw that attention to herself.
“Your truth, Beilor, means nothing to me,” Icalpi growled, snapping up the chain around her husband’s neck in her hand, “same as this. Both these things obviously mean nothing to you either.” She let go of the necklace and turned away, walking slowly toward the door with her arms crossed over her chest. “Do what you wish with your Bieskurak affliction; she’s no child of mine, no matter what is prescribed by law.”
“These are your laws, not mine.”
“Oh, that’s a precious irony, isn’t it?” She stopped and turned to look at Beilor, and her contemptuous gaze slipped to Gabrielle. “My laws protecting your offspring. Speaking of whom, I’m less and less pleased with the manner in which your bastard is conducting himself these days. I notice he even assigned Nortaj to accompany Gyndelle in his place so he could be here this morning. But I’m not surprised: two of a kind, sticking together, eh?”
“Leave Aeoulys out of this; his performance in his office has been beyond reproach, and I think he had every right to be here this morning. Just because he found Gabrielle doesn’t mean –”
“Fine,” she put her hands up to silence her husband, treating his rebuttal like the chirping of an insect. She threw her shoulders back, and a spiteful smile curled the corners of her mouth as her eyes sparkled with malice. “Seeing as I have no recourse in this situation, I must accept this strange, unsightly creature as my daughter.” Icalpi waved her hand in the air and turned away. “I look forward to imposing her future upon her, Beilor. We shall speak on this soon.”
Icalpi’s words hung heavily and morbidly in the air after the dark female left the room. Gabrielle exhaled all the air in her lungs and took a deep breath, pretty sure that she’d just been insulted, rejected, and was facing certain torture in her near future. She tugged at the corset, whimpering as the sharp pain got worse before she managed to shift the right way and gain some measure of relief.
She glanced at her father and noticed that his face was a bit pale, his expression grim. He put his hand to his forehead and muttered something in – what Gabrielle was beginning to recognise was – the Sykkhonian language. He exhaled and ventured a look in her direction, smiling wearily as he met her gaze. “Well, that went about as well as I’d expected. You don’t have to cry.”
“No, I had a wardrobe issue,” she said, putting her hand over the lingering pain where the pin had embedded itself. All the tension and fear of the encounter, which Gabrielle had managed to keep at arm’s length at the time, rushed back and swamped her like a tsunami. She started shaking and felt weakness creeping into her limbs. “But I think I need to sit down,” she whispered, reaching for a nearby chair.