Gabrielle shallied down the narrow medieval streets of Melif university town, imagining the cobbles covered in filth and black lanterns swinging from the old iron posts dotted at intervals along the way. Strings of cloth and washing arched over the walkways even at that time, and Gabrielle's characteristic romance of imagination visualised the jeans as breeches and the T-shirts as blouses and capes.
As she emerged from the lane to a dusty walkway beside the canal, she began to feel weighed down on her left side, as if the murky water was a whirlpool, sucking her with a deadly coercion into its dark depths of mud and grime. She paused once, and took a deep breath, straightening herself with a conscious effort. A ripped envelope lingered in her left pocket, its sharp corner pricking her through her skirt. A card and a slip of paper rested inside the envelope, and Gabrielle was ever-aware of their unwelcome presence.
At last she reached a large white town house overlooking one of the five bridges of Melif. The door was painted with a thick forest green paint and a polished brass door knocker in the shape of a harpy adorned the place of pride. The letterbox was wide and shining and the door was sheltered under a veranda held up by two fat white pillars.
Gabrielle knocked, ignoring the door knocker. The beady brass eye of the gold-feathered harpy seemed to be watching her; it was disconcerting, although she didn't really think it was alive. Gabrielle had always been wary of birds for some reason. She wasn't quite sure, but she had a distant memory of a hawk and a nasty experience, and maybe resulting in a white a scar somewhere just beneath her hairline behind her right ear.
The door was answered by Meriel, the mid-teenager, who looked a little flustered, with wet hair and red-rimmed eyes, but she ushered Gabrielle into the high-ceilinged sitting room, or parlour, as she called it, and pulled out a large upholstered armchair.
"Do you want mum?" jabbered Meriel as she adjusted the curtains with hasty efficiency.
"I'd like to speak to your sister, please?" Gabrielle replied, and was surprised that her voice sounded so haughty. Surely she was shy?
"Of course, of course. She's just in the attic, I think. I'll fetch her. Tea or coffee while you're waiting?"
"No, thank you."
"Something stronger?" Meriel giggled, tossing her damp hair across her shoulder.
"No, no. I'm just here to speak to your sister."
"Alright then! Won't be a min!"
Meriel shimmied out, eyes dancing, and Gabrielle leaned back gratefully. The elaborate plaster flowers and leaves sculpted over the ceiling glared down at her, spinning and swirling like a kaleidoscope. Gabrielle hadn't seen a kaleidoscope since Grannie was alive. Grannie had bought her one for her sixth birthday. Gabrielle wondered what had happened to the old treasure. Her old home loomed up in her head, but with it came an engulfing hatred for her sister Dianna more powerful than any feeling Gabrielle had ever felt.
Except one. She had felt love. And love was more powerful than hate. But love was gone, and hate was the only thing left.
"Hello?" a harshly-tuned voice said, and a dark head peered from the doorway. "Hello, is that...?"
Gabrielle sat up abruptly, and immediately felt overwhelmingly dizzy. "You're not Alba," she said accusingly as the body of the head inserted itself into the room. Then she blushed. "I apologise for sounding so rude," she added. "I was expecting Alba."
"I was told there was a visitor for me. I was expecting a visitor anyway, but..." replied the woman Gabrielle recognised as the third sister, Trudy. She had wild-looking green eyes and tousled dark hair. Gabrielle had met her before at the Christmas party, but she hadn't paid much attention on that occasion. In any case, the lights had been dimmed in the kitchen, and she hadn't seen the woman properly. Now she took an abrupt antipathy to Trudy O'Brian.
"Oh, I must've just said 'sister' to Meriel. I meant Alba. I'm so sorry if I've interrupted you. It looks like you've been working hard," said Gabrielle, a little dismayed. "Is Alba actually in?"
"You're Gabrielle Mountain," said Trudy, taking a long stride further into the room and pointing a bony finger at our heroine. Her voice was accusing, and Gabrielle, cornered like a frightened deer and feeling tiny in her huge armchair, let a look of aversion cross her face.
"Yes," she said timidly, and to her surprise, Trudy straightened up and smiled. But it was a crooked smile, and Gabrielle did not feel entirely safe. She knew she was biased. Something about Trudy disappealed to Gabrielle's soul, and made her crinkle and cringe. Anyone else watching the same events would have no misconceptions. Gabrielle knew her mind was twisting words, twisting gestures. But there was nothing she could do about it. She did not like Trudy O'Brian.
"You are to be maid-of-honour at my sister's wedding?" Trudy inquired, and though her voice was now mild, Gabrielle still felt undermined. "Aren't you?" She leaned forward again, and Gabrielle felt the threat in her coarse tones.
"Yes, that was what I was coming about," she replied, thanking her stars that she could find courage at the worst moments.
"So you are?" pressed Trudy.
"Yes, I am," said Gabrielle in such decisive tones that she startled herself. Since when had she decided finally to do such a thing as play one of the most important roles at the wedding of the forbidden fish of her heartstrings.
"I see." There was a pause. "Alba is currently out of the house. I believe you might find her at the Aelbert Ramsage Public Gardens, in the centre of the rose garden maze. She likes to paint there."
"Paint?" Gabrielle hadn't known Alba was a painter.
"It's her hobby. Meriel and I have rather different hobbies, you could say," Trudy said, squinting her eyes with a dry humour Gabrielle didn't like. Especially as she didn't get the joke.
"Well, Alba does share my favourite hobby," added Trudy, "but she doesn't like to practice it by daylight. She says it isn't suitable. I think she's stiff, myself. I don't bother about that."
Gabrielle ignored the underlying sinister meaning of the words which gnawed at her conscience, just preventing her from knowing the ansewrs, and rose as if to leave.
"I think I'll look for her, then. We really do need to talk," she said, steadying a giddy feeling by resting her hand on the sideboard. She must've got up too fast.
"I'll see you there," said Trudy's voice as she showed Gabrielle from the room, and Gabrielle was struck by the voice's melodic musicality. How could it have been so hard and cruel-sounding just moments before.
"Pardon?" she said dazedly.
"At the wedding," responded the voice just before the door closed, and Gabrielle came eye-to-eye once again with the watchful gaze of the harpy guarding the door.