Her eyes were wide, nearly sightless orbs staring into the sky. She watched as the clouds drifted overhead, gasping. She could hear her own blood bubbling at the corner of her mouth as it slithered out and slipped in a gob onto her neck. For a moment she felt nothing, her eyes went dark, and she felt herself suck in the air once more. Never had simply breathing given her such happiness, at least, not as far back as she could remember. Maybe this is exactly how she felt with the very first breath of her life.
At her throat was the dead head of Adrian, his blonde hair was tousled gently about her. It was the first gentle thing he had done with her all day. His blood was mingled with hers now, predator and prey, dead and dying lying in the beauty of the summer meadow. Somewhere beside her lay sandwiches and colorful plates. Ivy had wanted pretty plates and had made certain that the silver was polished very well. The last she had seen of her little sister had been her lifeless form, knocked hard into the Faettan soil. She was a few feet away now, a little body lost in the sea of tall grass ... like her own ... and like that of the young lord with his head still on her breast. The sun was warm on her face, illuminating exactly what had taken place only a little while ago, showing all of Faetta true darkness in the brilliant light of day. Somewhere, drifting in on the summer's breeze, was the sound of people passing on the ridge, chatting about their lives as she was dying just down the hill, in the meadow.
Her eyes were fixed; the transformation of the day into dusk was recorded behind those lenses. Her body rigidly awaited death. Her blood gummed up in the stab wounds in her chest, cold and nearly luminescent against her deathly pale skin, as the faintest of starlight lit her young woman's form. The spider's web danced in the cool breeze. It was assembled beautifully in the branches of the black trees whose backs arched, and arms stretched to the sky, silhouetted against the setting sun. The meadow was turning dark. This was the moment he had been waiting for. The sun was soon snuffed out, and he did not waste any time. He burst forth from the dark house at the clearing, his black boots beat down the tall grass and the wildflowers growing in the meadow. He was tall and thin, rigid in appearance, nothing more than wispy black gauze against the stark nightfall, running like a wild animal toward his prey. He quickly fell upon the picnic basket, half-eaten food, and silverware fallen askew under the waxing moon. The forks and knives glittered in the starlight.
A fog rolled out from under the thick of the treeline; it ebbed along as if it were alive itself and fanned out with its smoky tendrils snaking around the bodies that lay there. Haffef's black eyes found the form that he had longed for and saw the child in the distance. As he swept past the older sister, he saw the distinct rise and fall of her chest. This had been the scene of a horrible crime, and as he knelt to look into her eyes, he took in her ripped gown and saw the rape that she had endured at the hands of the others at this picnic, seeing vividly what she had seen. Her body was covered with stab wounds, and to one side of her bruised and bloodied body lay the dead body of a man. Clutched in her fingers was a paring knife slick with blood.
The fog crept over her battered form, as if it would steal her life away and take her with it as it moved. Haffef glanced over his shoulder at the girl who was just a few feet away, then back at the teenager in front of him who had a cameo brooch embedded in her collarbone. Kneeling beside her, he tossed the dead body off of hers, moving it with such force that he nearly took off Adrian's head. A young woman he had seen before in Terrence, he realized, now lay here amidst yellow flowers, nearly dead. He was amazed she had actually lived through the day. She felt the long, black hair against her face, caressing her body. It was light like the frail web of a spider. She felt his slender fingers against her back, the gentle feel of him raising her neck and the shocking pain it caused. After all she had endured earlier, she found herself unable to fathom what was happening to her now. It felt like ice ripping open her throat, its shards coursing from this icy bite to her heart. She took in a breath like one she'd never known; her lungs expanded, but it was almost as if they had hardened, and it nearly hurt to make them work again. It was renewing, but there was death in that breath of life. She blinked with eyes that were dry, and all she saw were black boots that were slick with dew and long, black hair that fell to the ankle of his boots. She pried her fingers from the paring knife, opening and closing her hand to see if it still worked. Her breath was visible in the cold night air.... The stars moved across the sky as she regained strength. She watched the cool slivers of silver-tipped clouds as they slipped overhead. The moon and stars shifted position while she remained, her eyes capturing the moments that were lost to her. With a sudden surge of energy, she flipped her body onto her stomach and pulled herself away from Adrian's corpse.
She was gazing out the tower window when he walked in. Her eyes were on the black waters of the Avon, the canal that ran through Lockenwood, way down below her. It was like a twisted black ribbon from that height, and the moonlight was caught here and there, causing the water to twinkle at her. She smiled thoughtfully back at it and turned to face the man whom Wick had sent up to see her.
He watched her smile drop as her eyes met his. He felt himself visibly pale; he had never been that close to Cameo and had never actually looked into those eyes. Now he knew the rumors were all true. They were very odd, gray, with the coating that was somewhat like that of a corpse. It was as if something almost dead was residing there. Oh sure, he now worked for Wick, so he knew she sent out her Associates to slay those unfortunate enough to get in the way of the royals, the rich, whoever could afford it really. He had been in the presence of many of her other Associates, but not Cameo. She was one of the longest-serving in Wick's employ, and she was known both in Lockenwood, the high seat of the Kingdom of Sieunes, and in some of the other local areas around there, which was probably not the healthiest situation for an assassin to be in, but it did keep her loyal to Wick. Without the protection of the Associates, Cameo would be hauled off to the headsman’s block instantly.
He thought that she probably knew it too, because she did not seem like a very happy person, more like a person who hated her job.
"Well?" she asked flatly.
"What?" he said looking behind him unsure if she was talking to him or if someone else had ambled in after him.
"What does Wick want me to do now?" she asked, raising an eyebrow in annoyance.
"Oh that, yes ... yes," he said, bringing forth paperwork he had under an arm and proffering it to her.
She gave him an ominous look as she took it. She was older, although it was hard to tell how old. Her long, dark blonde hair hung down over her shoulders as she spread the paperwork on a table before her. He was a boy when he first had heard her name. It was a name to scare him to sleep, something about going to bed at a reasonable hour or Cameo would get him. Now he was just two steps away from her! Really quite amazing that a young man like him, from a poor family, could end up in such a wealthy organization working for someone as influential as Wick. Fate was smiling on him now with her sweet face. Cameo sighed and folded up the documents. She glanced at Wick’s secretary as she packed up. He was staring at her, somewhat starry-eyed. She rolled her eyes. “So,” she began rather loudly, hoping to break him from the little dream he was in, “tell the Lady I’ll get right on this," she paused, "assignment.”
“Oh, certainly I will,” he beamed, waking from his trance. As the young man turned to leave, Cameo stopped him, “What was your name again? I don’t think we’ve met.” He spun around and met her eyes, then lowered his rather disgustedly to the cold, black floor. “Pindray." She studied the young man—shorter than she with shaggy red hair—as he left the room, and she wondered when Wick would want her to kill him. There were no favorites in Wick’s employ; everyone was a target at some point. Her eyes dropped to the scrap of paper she had left behind.
She picked up the paper and brushed it against her chin. Leon was the prince of Sieunes. He was fair haired and fair skinned and, according to his file was partial to wearing blue. He was athletic and enjoyed hunting and had an award-winning dog named Spangler. The only part Wick's secretary left out of the biography was that Leon was the heir to the throne. She had no idea what Wick's plans were with this hit, but if she were ever caught—well, they would kill her, and it probably would not be quick and painless.
Her room in the tower was small and dark. She had very few comforts when she was home in Wick's castle. A roaring fire in the hearth and a bottle of wine was how she had come to pass her evenings alone, away from the other killers and couriers in this place. And that is exactly where she deposited herself now, into a familiar antique chair, in front of the cold fireplace. She ate sparsely, a little cheese and slender crackers while her colleagues had a fine dinner many floors beneath her.
Wick, like Cameo always dined in her personal rooms. She enjoyed her dinner with the youngest and most appealing secretaries. The assassin suspected Wick was manipulating their thoughts with the use of witchcraft. Staring into the cold ashes in the hearth, Cameo toyed with the piece of parchment and wondered how she would do it, with pistol or blunt trauma to the head. The moon's light fell over the floor before her in one long line. She lifted her gray eyes and saw the shadow beside the hearth, it seemed at first to be part of the darkened room, but as she lingered on it, she saw the outline of a person emerge. She looked at it dispassionately, unmoved by the ghostly creature standing before her. It was the size of a man, about six feet and of average build. It had shape but no features, and for this, she was thankful. The assassin glanced around the darkness knowingly as the other shades appeared, many shades; they filled her room.
Cameo lifted a bottle of wine from its spot on the floor and took a liberal gulp. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. She rested her face in one hand. The shades stood in her room, unmoving, watching her alone in the darkness.
As the morning rolled around, she packed lightly—her pistols and daggers—and threw on a cloak. She had to get moving in order to catch the coach out of town. Cameo had to leave Lockenwood in the light of day, witnessed by other passengers in order to make the assassination of the prince not quite so easily pinned on her. She had a large suitcase of nothing with her to keep up the ruse; it would not seem as believable otherwise. It wasn't really packed with nothing; it had some blankets to give it a little weight, but she had plans to discard it once she actually got out of town. She had one such spot she had been using for a while for just this purpose.
The city was still dark and misty as she neared the coach. People were already boarding. The coachmen were loading luggage onto the roof. Cameo handed her suitcase to one of the men; he went from mindlessly laboring to pretending he was mindlessly laboring. He studied her entirely black ensemble, and the cut of her clothes; from this he gathered that she must be a hired assassin from that society of operatives called the Association. It was unusual, although not unheard of to see one of the assassins. They had to travel, buy clothing, do all the typical things anyone did, but it did always put him in an anxious state of mind when he caught a glimpse of one in a crowd. Cameo smirked as this knowledge seemed to openly cross his mind while he took her suitcase. He must have been new, she assumed, for taking the coach was not unusual for her. Wick sent her out of town to run errands a lot.
"Lovely morning," she quipped.
The horses spooked.
"Oh yes, yes. Very nice." He nearly dropped her baggage.
Some of the other passengers turned around at the sound of her voice, as if they were going to express their personal feelings about the weather, but when they saw Cameo they decided that they had forgotten what weather was and stared dumbly ahead at the coach they would soon be boarding. Ah, those bench seats looked very inviting indeed.
She soon found herself riding along in uncomfortable silence with what appeared to be a rather wealthy older couple. They whispered to each other silently and attempted to bury their faces in novels in the hopes that Cameo would become disinterested in them and not want to actually communicate. It worked.
There was also a young woman of perhaps seventeen. She was unfortunate enough to have a seat right beside this person in black. Her hair was piled high on her head, like that of the older woman across from her, and she wore a pale blue dress of shiny material. Could be satin, Cameo thought detachedly. The woman seemed so fragile and new. The assassin's eyes wandered to the older couple, gray and delicate.
She turned away from the others, slid back into the purple cushion of the bench seat, and folded herself up into the shadow against the window. They were passing through the forest of Yetta. The forest and subsequent graveyard went on for miles. This was not the safest place to travel through, and the people sitting across from her seemed a little unnerved by this leg of their journey. Cameo watched mile after mile of wet, black tree trunks, missing most of their leaves, while the girl beside her searched for little pieces of candy in her purse. It was nice to be free of Wick's tower for a little while, even if it felt like Wick was watching the same scenery roll by her window, as if painted on a scroll by the coachman himself.
Somewhere in the middle of Yetta forest, the coach stopped. The older couple looked across the coach, into her eyes, confused, then at each other. "Why are we stopping?" "Maybe the coach needs a repair?"
Cameo sat up and leaned to look around the young woman and out the door of the coach. There was movement outside; the coach heaved from side to side as the two coachmen climbed down. A moment later there was a loud banging on the carriage door, and then a voice that belonged to neither coachman.
"Knock, knock, my lords and ladies." The door opened, and the step was lowered so the passengers could get out comfortably. "Please join us outside." "I'd, I'd really rather not," the older gentleman said as his wife met him with a hard look. "Well, I wouldn't." The old couple climbed out, followed by the young woman. Cameo rolled her eyes in annoyance. Perhaps if she sat really still no one would notice. Outside she heard the typical catcalls being made at the pretty young woman who had been stuck sitting next to her. She searched her boot for her flask.
"Ah ha, I thought we'd forgot someone inside," she heard as a dark haired man was beckoning her to join the party outside.
Cameo climbed out into the drizzling rain, her grim visage in stark contrast to the others who had been on board. She stepped down onto the dead leaves in the forest that she felt she knew intimately from watching that scroll of trees roll by her window repeatedly. The coachmen were standing close to the horses. The group of three other passengers was just a little closer to the coach, and Cameo moved herself to the other side of the door. It was obvious just who was most comfortable to be robbed together.
She was not keen on losing her weapons, or her flask of whiskey, but she highly doubted they were going to rob her anyway. They must be aware of the Association, she thought, hoping that they had no idea who she was. It was awful getting too recognizable.
From the edge of the forest, a second highwayman strode toward the older man, with a bag in one hand and a black-powder pistol in the other, "Your money or your life, my lord."
"We're being robbed!" the girl shrieked, as if she had just figured it all out.
The new highwayman grinned at her and tipped his hat. which was topped with feathers.
"I never carry money when I travel," said the man.
Both the coachmen rolled their eyes.
"Baubles, trinkets, any shiny items you might possess, put them in the bag if you don't mind," said the highwayman, giving the bag a little shake as if to emphasize his point.
Cameo nearly laughed when she heard his sing-song voice, then she took a sip from her flask. "That silver?" The dark haired one tapped it as she drank. A trickle of whiskey ran out the corner of her mouth as she slowly lowered the drinking vessel and met him with her eyes, unappreciatively.
Looking more closely, he saw the tattoo on the palm of her right hand: the three black tears—a symbol of the hired killers in Lockenwood. "I suppose so," was her disinterested reply.
He took a step back with his pistol nearly on her. A few steps away the triad of travelers was hastily removing earrings, necklaces, pocket-watches, and purses.
"Bel, are you finished? Come over here and keep an eye on this mob," the blonde, more garishly dressed highwayman called to the man with the pistol trained on her chest. "Opal, will you stop calling me that!"
He swaggered over to the coachmen. The blonde highwayman took a step up on the stair and moved into the coach.
"Bel, did you see this?" Opal jumped down and moved over to Cameo with the bag jingling. "Lovely purple cushions inside. I really should get one of those.
"You're next, my dear," Opal intoned.
Opal looked up at her with one green–hazel eye. He wore an eye patch over his left eye, and although he was probably once rather striking, his face was pox-marked, especially on the left side.
"Time for your donation. You know, baubles, trinkets. Even cold, hard coin. It's not beneath me." She smirked, "Alright," and dropped her purse into the basket. It was Wick's down payment for her next kill, but she didn't need it for anything. She supposed she could support the livelihood of a highwayman for one day.
"The flask; that is not beneath me either." She dropped it in. "The brooch, as well." "Brooch?" She clasped the cameo brooch at her collar, the last remembrance she had of her mother, and slowly removed it, placing it in the bag.
He took several steps back, then looked up at her gingerly, pawing through the baubles with the barrel of his pistol. "Not too bad, not too bad at all, ay Bel?" "Stop calling me that!" "And now, gentlemen!" he yelled at the coachmen, "luggage, if you don't mind." Cameo was cursing them under her breath, her entire mission was being compromised. How unfortunate her pistols weren't loaded. A moment later, Bel was going through everyone's luggage.
The old man's allegedly missing travel money was recovered. Her own luggage yielded two blankets, black powder, and bullets. "A rather curious suitcase," Opal mused. "I wonder who the owner is." The two moved back toward the forest. "And now we must bid you all a fond farewell," Bel winked at the young woman, and bowed with a flourish. "Yes, it has been a wonderful time,"
Opal tipped his hat at the young woman, and then looked at Cameo as if he were sharing a little joke with her. Her expression was far from amused as the men skulked into the trees.
Once the danger of the highwaymen was past, the group comforted each other as they picked up their muddy garments, which were strewn on the road, and began to repack them.
"Lady, are you alright?" asked the coachman whom she recognized from routine cross-country travel. She only nodded and waved him away. He had to ask; even if he despised her; the woman she worked for was extremely powerful.
Cameo moved into the shade of the trees, wishing she had a flask of whiskey. More than that, she wished that he hadn't decided to take her brooch. Unfortunately for that highwayman, she had to get it back.
After a moment of calm, she began to make out the figure of a shadow among the trees. It broke free from the trees and moved to her. Inclining her head towards the shade, she hissed, "Follow him," and pointed to where Opal had been minutes before. Never hesitating, the shade moved forward with no staggering, no ghostly footsteps, but rather with a gait exactly like that of a man—a silhouette of a man ambling into the wood.
Cameo looked over at her group near the coach, but they did not see the shade at all.
"A round of drinks for everyone!" Opal's booming voice positively rang with laughter as he burst into the Tavern Pipe Inn, the only tavern in Yetta. To this he received cheers from a devoted crowd.
"Black Opal, you're our savior!" Opal grinned at the old drunkard,
"Your servant, sir."
"Good lad," he murmured as he pushed past to get his free ale.
"It's a bad business, Opal. I've a bad feeling about this one," Bellamy intoned as he followed the fop to an empty table.
"Hello, Bellamy," a tavern wench purred, on his lap in seconds. "Hello, Opal," she smiled more platonically at him. "Charlotte," he grinned. Bellamy pushed her off, "get us some of that swill you call ale."
"Well, well, well. I think that was rather top-notch," said Opal.
"How often do we end up with such a pleasing haul and get to make a fool out of one of the Association? Ha, ha!"
"Yes, well about that. Walking all the way through the forest since we couldn't steal the coach because of that assassin was one thing, but robbing her—" Bellamy broke off as Charlotte returned with the ale.
"Cheers, Charlotte," Opal smiled. "Why don't you get a mug for yourself as well?"
"What? Are you trying to get me drunk?"
"I am planning on getting everyone in this tavern drunk. We had a great haul this time." "Opal," Bel shushed him. "Oh, everyone knows who I am. Did you see all those lovely wanted posters?" He pulled one from a bag, "Fair likeness. I am, of course, far prettier than this. Apparently this artist didn't finish school."
"Opal, you are going to be more than just a wanted man; at this rate you're going to get us killed."
"And, I like this Black Opal moniker they've saddled me with. Sounds so much more nasty than plain old Opal," he gushed, glancing at Bel as if he had a great lockbox of happy and could barely contain it.
"Try not to be so gloomy, Bellamy my dear. So, we didn't get the pretty coach this time, but as I remember, that coach passes daily."
"Perhaps we should consider moving on now," Bel said, looking into Opal's good eye. Opal rolled that eye, annoyed at the idea.
"Perhaps I should have a bath, good wine, if any can be procured, and a bit of rouge for these lips.... Ah, then I'll feel fit enough to have this conversation."
Bellamy watched Opal get up and walk toward the bar of the tavern, when another bar wench nestled into the crook of his arm and helped him move away from the main room. But Opal didn't just get up and walk out, he did it all with a flourish, attracting too much attention. Bel sighed in annoyance, and suggested Charlotte get her own chair now that his legs had gone completely numb. The tavern landlord closed up the bar as soon as Opal was out of sight. Bel was not known to be as generous with his cut of the booty as was his partner in crime.
Opal slid into the hot, cloudy water with a bottle of something—he tried to read the label—something red. He took a swig, which was terrible, but it did its job nonetheless, and he wondered what actually was going to happen to him now that he had robbed one of the assassins. As soon as Lorraine left the room, he pulled the cameo from his pack, which was lying at the foot of the large metal tub that he was in. He held the pink-backed trinket up to his eye for a better look; he squinted even at that distance.
The pin in the back looked newer than the face did; the gold foil around it seemed smashed in. He had heard of an assassin named Cameo and wondered if that was whom he had just obtained quite a large sum of money from—money he was throwing away on terrible alcohol and whores.
Why would a killer have that kind of money on her person unless she was recently paid that money? She probably wouldn't, which meant she was on her way to either kill someone or she had just killed someone. Either way, it could place her in Yetta at a specific time.
This information wasn't something he needed to know. He wasn't a gentleman, nor was he even an innocent passerby. Oh no, Opal was expendable. He was a villain, so what Bellamy said about getting out of Yetta did make a lot of sense.
He needed to get rid of all the items from that haul as quickly as possible, starting with that brooch, and sadly all the pretty sparkly items he had acquired from the gentlewomen in that hold-up too.
"Such a pity, that," he sighed. Lorraine returned to put more wood in the hearth.
"Does seem very dark in here, doesn't it now?" she asked.
Opal looked up at her with his right eye. The room was gloomy, much darker than he remembered when he had first slipped into the bath.
"Well then, we'll just get a roaring fire going and chase away all these shadows."
An early morning came fast; Opal scurried down the dirt road in his fine clothing, with a terrible headache. He moaned to himself as the sun's light came out of the heavens through two clouds and directly into his eye.
He pulled his lapels up to ward off the cold morning air and the feeling of nausea that was threatening to overtake him. He stood on the step of the pawn shop for a moment, appraising himself. He wasn't wearing makeup, he realized with a disgusted snort, and he had forgotten his eye patch. Opal put one hand to his face absently, and then saw he had at least taken the time to wear his beautiful blue velvet gloves and best lace shirt.
"Black Opal," the store owner beamed, as Opal finally walked in.
"Have yourself a good time last night, huh? You look like shit."
Opal made a half-hearted attempt to get his hair pushed back into its tie.
"Oh do I? Too much wine."
The pawn shop man laughed at this, "Well, if you can afford it, why not? Right?"
"Yes," the fop said. "About that...." he drifted off as he took a couple pieces of diamond jewelry out of his pocket and laid them on the counter in front of Paul.
"Hmm, now where'd these little pretties come from?" the owner grinned.
A wave of nausea came over the dandy for a moment as he stood leaning against the counter.
"I don't know if I would have a market for those all the way out here in this craphole,"
Paul hedged. "What about this?" Opal asked, reaching into his coat to bring forth the cameo.
"I'll have that." Opal's hand fell open as a dagger pushed it to the countertop, and the brooch slid out. Paul took a step back. "
I'm sorry, Opal. She was going to kill me if I didn't go along with her."
"I'm sure Black Opal will find it in his heart to forgive you. Come back to the counter and stay put," Cameo commanded.
She inspected the highwayman in his blue velvet trousers and jacket. He looked as if he might be playing the piccolo in a symphony somewhere elegant, somewhere he had never been himself.
Opal put a hand over his face instinctively, covering his left eye, which was a white, sightless orb. Some of his loose blonde hair fell over the left side of his face as he lowered his head. For a moment he considered going for his sword.
"You really don't look much like your wanted posters at all," she smirked. He tilted his head to one side as he looked at her finally. Her eyes were gray, and cloudy. Her face, although well proportioned, seemed too gaunt, too white—quite eerie, actually.
He wondered if there was more to tell than the stories of murders she had committed for the Association. There were tales of her residing in the graveyard of Yetta, tales that said she was not one of the living at all.
He had lived in Lockenwood a long time, he had watched the Association grow over the years, and he knew Cameo was someone who had been part of that group for a long time, long enough that she must be someone to be reckoned with. She was smiling at him in a knowing and amused sort of way.
"Yes, well, I'm afraid that artist had some difficulty representing an outlaw who possesses so much dash."
"Indeed." She held out her hand, "The brooch."
Opal set it in her hand slowly. Her eyes went to the rapier hanging on his hip then back up to his face realizing he wasn't going to fight.
She put the cameo in a small pouch on her belt, and then backed out of the shop, dagger in hand. In one quick turn of black wool, she was out the door.
"She didn't even want the rest of your loot?!" asked Paul, incredulous. Opal rushed to the door, only to watch her heading north through the woods, presumably on her way back to Lockenwood, through the graveyard.
"Was that really Cameo? I can't believe we aren't both dead. I've heard she's a heartless killer."
"Yes. I've heard that too."
"Why didn't you draw your sword?"
"She—she had a pistol."
"You could've beaten a pistol."
Opal ran a blue velvet hand through his hair, "No, I couldn't."