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Dawn McCullough-White

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Cameo the Assassin
by Dawn McCullough-White   

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Category: 

Fantasy

ISBN-10:  B003QCIQ3M Type: 

Copyright:  December 18, 2008
Fiction

The Kingdom of Sieunes is rife with taverns, dirty streets, and clay pipe smoking citizens all toiling to feed their families and keep themselves in something little better than rags. With a foiled revolution just ten years prior still burning in the hearts of many, the royals enlist the aid of assassins to keep things in order.

The townsfolk entertain themselves by dreaming of better times to come and regaling in stories of the undead said to walk the graveyards at night... and of Cameo the killer with corpse-like eyes... Scarred and jaded Cameo is one of the most effective assassins in the employ of the Association, moving from one mission to the next as long as the alcohol keeps flowing.

Her acceptance of the murder-for-hire lifestyle is thrown into doubt when she meets a local highwayman with a penchant for fine clothes and women, and then she begins to think about breaking with the company but no one ever breaks with the Association under good terms.

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Cameo the Assassin


Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

Years Later
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.
"Leon Belfour."
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.
"What?"
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.
"Morning, Paul."
"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."

Chapter Two

The hunting party fanned out into the woods on Belfour's estate. Cameo stood behind a blackened tree, bored and waiting. She had two shots—two loaded pistols—and if she missed, she was likely going to be stuck following Leon around for weeks. Wick wouldn't be too terribly pleased either, but there wasn't a time limit on the death of the prince, as far as she knew.
She followed a lot of prettily dressed lords and servants roaming the grounds. There was one large gentleman in a spectacular ensemble of pale blue loading a blunderbuss while talking to another man in brown. For a moment she thought about that silly, deep blue frock that Opal had on days ago, when last she had seen him. She smiled to herself.
Leon and his dog burst out of the wood suddenly and ran toward the man in the pale blue. Hidden in the trees, she lifted her pistol and waited for the group of hunters to take a shot at their prey, and then she took her shot as well, at the somewhat portly prince.
The man fell to the ground instantly.
Cameo dropped her used weapon and dashed toward the town. Moments later, a gang of lords and servants had been rounded up to find the thug who had just shot their prince. Heavy gray smoke hung in the air where she had just been standing.
The assassin ran for a few minutes until she got close to the town of Lockenwood, then she fell into the pace of the people on the busy street. She slid on her gloves to cover the black powder, bought a new flask, and had it filled at the local tavern on the walk back to Wick's tower. She took a swig of whiskey to calm her nerves. Reflecting on the shot, Cameo was somewhat impressed that she had actually hit the target through that wooded part of the estate.
"Good day to you, Lady." One of the coachmen recognized her and tipped his hat.
She nodded at him; it was easier than trying to catch her breath.
The sun was starting to go down; it was nearly time for dinner, and she was glad to know that she would actually be getting a bath, a change of clothes, and a decent meal for the first time all week.
As she met the familiar guards at the front door, she knew she was going to be safe. Leon was going to have a beautiful funeral with lovely bouquets of flowers, and a large mausoleum in the graveyard of Yetta, and she was going back to her room at the top of the tower.
Cameo was at the foot of the stairs when Pindray came around the corner.
"The Lady wants to see you."
"This moment?"
"Yes, I'm to take you to her."
She dusted off her clothes and followed the lad unhappily. He led her through the dining hall and back further until they came to the large, oak doors, polished beautifully, which slid open and inside revealed Wick's livingroom.
There was a very large fireplace, and the woodwork in the room was done on a large scale, with most of it painted white. Cameo's eyes lingered on the gaudy turquoise and gold wallpaper and the animal heads mounted on it.
Pindray pointed her toward Wick, who was seated on a sofa near the hearth, and the figure of another assassin standing nearby waiting for her to join them.
As she grew closer she realized it was Clovis Gail DePell. He was a man of about fifty, with black, shoulder-length hair and leathery skin. He was the other long-time assassin with the Association. She would rather be sticking a pointy implement into Clovis than standing next to him.
"Lady." Cameo's voice came deep and flat as she inclined her head in a bit of a bow to Wick.
"Ah, Cameo, you've finally gotten back. That little trick took you long enough, didn't it? A week. Isn't that a bit long for a job that simple?" Wick chewed her pipe as she was searching the cushions of the sofa for something, perhaps the tobacco, perhaps a light?
Clovis moved to light her pipe.
"Ack, no. I don't need that." She turned to Cameo once more, "Have you greeted your Associate?"
"No."
Clovis pretended that he was taken aback by her response.
Wick tossed a bag of coin at Cameo, "there, now you're paid. The man died in case you hadn't heard."
"Was that why you asked me—"
"No." She looked over at Pindray, "You can leave us now."
The lad left the room, shutting the door as he retreated.
Once he was out of sight, Wick sat back and lit her pipe. Smoke bloomed around her white hair; she sighed and rearranged her girth a bit. "Alright, Cameo, I have to send you right back out the door. You'll go tomorrow morning."
"Oh?"
"It seems you had a bit of trouble on the road?"
For a minute she wasn't certain what Wick was getting at, "We got stopped on the way to Terrence, if that's what you mean."
"Exactly. Got held up by highwaymen is what the coachmen told me."
"Yes."
"And you had your cameo taken."
Cameo touched the brooch at her collar to make certain it hadn't fallen off. "Yes, but I got it back."
"Mmm hmm," she pulled out two pieces of parchment and handed them to the assassins before her. Cameo's eyes fell upon the sketch of Black Opal once more.
"Avamore wants him taken out."
She met Wick's eyes quizzically. Avamore was the duke who actually ruled over Shandow, an isle in the ocean off the north coast of Lockenwood. But it was unpleasantly cold there, so he spent most of his time living near his brother, the king, Bainbridge Belfour in Lockenwood. Wick catered to Avamore's requests more than any other noble that Cameo was aware of. He was a young, handsome man, and she assumed Wick was enamored with him. He probably hired the hit on Leon Belfour.
Cameo took a swig from her flask in the middle of the meeting. "What did he do to Avamore?"
"That's not important. The important thing is that he needs to be deceased, and soon."
She looked over at Gail in disgust. "Why is he at this meeting?"
"Because he's going to help you kill this Black Opal person."
"I don't need anyone's help, especially his," she hissed.
"You got your cameo brooch back I noticed, the one that was robbed from you," Wick clicked the pipe between her broken teeth.
"Yes."
"And yet that highwayman is still alive. Why is that Cameo?"
"Shocking as it may seem, I don't kill every man, woman, and child I meet. I leave some of them alive for you to bully."
Wick croaked out a bit of laughter.
"The Lady thinks that you maybe need a little help killing that fop," Gail interjected.
"Are you still here?"
"Heh, heh. I'm going to enjoy this little journey into the countryside with you, Gwen," using the name Cameo hadn’t called herself by in years. "It will be just like old times. Maybe we can have a little picnic lunch—"
Cameo pulled her pistol on him.
"Put your weapons away!" Wick's voice cracked.
"Bang," Cameo whispered. There was no expression in her voice at all, just the simple idea that Gail wouldn't be in the room with her anymore. Well, just his nice, quiet, bleeding corpse.
He kissed the air back at her.
She turned to look at Wick, "Why must I endure this animal? Don't you trust me to kill this petty thief?
"Word is he might be good with a sword. You might need Clovis."
Cameo snorted in amusement. She slowly slid her pistol into her belt. "Isn't there another Associate?"
"None as good as Gail." Wick looked up at Gail, smiling, then called after Cameo, who was walking out the door, "I thought you two were old friends."
"You know very well that is not the case."
* * * * *
The morning after, Cameo and Gail sat alone in the same coach she had taken just days ago. They sat facing each other, sharing the same window. Cameo would've preferred him to sit further from her, but he knew this and opted to stay as close and as annoying as he possibly could.
"Are you sure you know where he is?"
"Yes," she said confidently. She knew exactly where he was; she had left the shade with him, just in case—in case she wanted to find him again, she guessed.
"How do you know?"
She looked up at him with her dead eyes. The coach was dark, and she could only make out the indistinct shape of his face in the shadows. "Stop talking to me."
He laughed, "You'll feel better after we kill someone."
"I'll feel better after I polish off a bottle of wine."
"Whatever vice you prefer."
Gail hadn't changed a bit since the first time she had seen him. She had lain in a meadow for hours, clinging to life, after she had been brutally attacked. She had been raped, her sister had been taken away, and she clawed her way up and out of that terrible scene. She was on her way through Yetta when Gail first laid eyes on her.
She was dirty, and hungry. Her dress had been torn to rags. She was weak and still recovering from the wounds that she had endured. Gail was a killer even then, although he wasn't working for the Association at the time. He was younger, but he still looked the same: the same greasy hair, the same brutish man. Gail named her Cameo because of the brooch she wouldn't let go of; he gave her the name that she had gone by for years. She had just gotten through running away from the scene of horror that she had endured at the hands of Adrian and his friends, and ran right into Gail.
Clovis Gail DePell was a killer of young women; she suspected he still was, although he was protected by the Association now. He liked to torture women and let them linger until they died.
Wick was aware of their history, yet still put them together for this mission. Cameo glanced at Gail from the corner of her eye and wondered what had transpired to make her employer want to torment her. Was Wick really so upset at the length of time it had taken for her to finish off Leon, or was there something more to it? Was it possible that she actually believed Cameo wouldn't be able to finish off a highwayman easily and would need Gail's help?
The sun seemed to be caught in the woods outside. It was a murky, depressing day. Cameo checked her pistols. She had loaded them before they left. For this trip she decided she preferred to have the ammunition on her body, just in case Gail got some smart ideas.
The ride was boring, heightened only by the whiskey she had brought along. The trek back through the Forest of Yetta reminded her of the trip days ago. She wanted to put her boots up on the seat across from her, but Gail was in her way, and she didn't trust him with her feet. He was likely to break one, or twist her legs around and throw her to the floor.
She began to see Opal through the shade that she had sent with him; this meant they were very close now. Gail watched Cameo suddenly draw her pistols, and uncertain what she was doing, he did the same.
Wick wanted to find where Opal was hiding the booty from the many thefts, as well as to have him killed. To that end, Gail was a necessary component in this mission because he was more than happy to torture people to get as much information as he could. Cameo never took the time to really dissect her victims; she just killed them and left.
"What is that?"
Gail rearranged some rope and something resembling an ice pick. "Nothing."
"We are just supposed to kill Black Opal."
"No, you're just supposed to kill him." Gail whipped open a black case, within which was an entire set of surgical tools. He let them sit on the bench seat for a moment and looked up at Cameo smiling, hoping to see her blanch as she recognized each and every implement.
He was gifted with the look he was hoping for. Her eyes went from the tools to his eyes. "But why?"
Gail laughed, "She wants his ill-gotten gain."
"That's why he's a target?"
He rolled the black case back up, "I dunno. Maybe. That's part of it, anyhow."
Cameo took a drink. "I think she's going to be disappointed. He partied pretty hard with some of the loot he gained from the robbery that I was a part of. I doubt he's really stashing it all away somewhere."
"Hey, it's my job—heh, heh, heh—and I love it. Just think how many people wish they could take the kind of satisfaction in their work that I do."
Cameo stuck her arm out the window and knocked on it with her pistol, "Driver, stop here!"
* * * * *
"I can't believe we're back here again," Bellamy groaned.
Opal loaded his pistol, "I'm out of cash."
"How can you be?!"
"Well," Opal smiled impishly, modeling the stunning black brocade ensemble he was wearing. "I simply cannot deny myself."
Bel sat down on a rock fence and sighed. "This has to be the last one Opal; this is just getting too tricky. We are too well known in these parts; we should move on.... Maybe to Shandow."
"Awfully cold there."
Bel met Opal's hazel eye, serious and annoyed.
"It's something to think about. But for now, where is that coach?"
"Maybe highwaymen got to it," a deep female voice interrupted.
Both Opal and Bel turned with pistols in hand, but Cameo's was drawn on them already.
"There are two of us little lady," Bellamy coaxed.
Cameo raised an eyebrow and smirked, "Indeed. Well, I have two pistols."
Opal bit his lip, gently amused, one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Gail ran up behind Opal and cracked him in the back of the head with the butt of his gun.
Bel looked in surprise at the second assassin who had come out of the woods to knock his partner to the ground rather viciously.
Opal collapsed as if the strings that held him up had been cut, and Gail sat down on top of his broken form.
"Put your pistol down, sir," Cameo said to him, her voice devoid emotion.
Bellamy set down his weapon. Now he was more concerned. What could a pair of assassins want with a couple of petty thieves like them? Cameo motioned for Bel to sit down, and as he did so she pushed him over with her boot, and then stood over him as her partner pulled out his black case.
"You don't need that."
Clovis grinned, "Of course I do."
Opal came to and grabbed for a dagger hidden inside his coat, but Clovis overpowered him. "Try that again, and I'll blow your brains out."
"What do you want? Have I wronged you in some way?"
"Nope." Gail unlaced the black case lying on the ground beside Opal. "My employer was just wondering what you've been doing with all of that money you've hijacked, that's all. What with all those wanted posters around, you must have robbed a lot of coaches, lifted a fair amount of ladies' jewelry."
Cameo beheld the implements in the case and remembered how he had taken her as his prisoner after all she had already endured, how he had used those same tools to cut her, for days, before she had escaped.
"Here's his ill-gotten gain," she ripped off Opal's jacket suddenly. "It's in his clothes. He doesn't have anymore!"
Opal reached for the lovely brocade jacket that Cameo was shaking at Clovis. As she shook it, playing cards fell everywhere.
Clovis only smiled serenely, "I'm sure there's got to be more."
"Oh, there's not, fellow. I assure you," Opal chimed in as Gail pulled a scalpel from his case. "Really, I'm a complete clotheshorse—"
"He's also a drunk!" Bellamy yelled from under Cameo's boot heel. "He throws his money away after every larceny, buying drinks for everyone!"
"Yes, yes," Opal nodded his head in agreement.
Gail looked over at Bel, "Well, maybe we should switch partners, Cameo."
"Let's just shoot them and be done with this."
Clovis grinned, "I thought you enjoyed playing with my toys. Jealous? Missing my attention are you, Gwen? Maybe you preferred being the pincushion?"
Cameo fixed him with a hard look.
"I thought so," he smiled with a set of filthy teeth and licked his cracked lips.
She moved her pistol from where it had been poised to shoot Bel and aimed it at Gail.
Gail laughed. "You would be on a wanted poster so fast your head would spin. You don't think Wick would let her favorite die so you could have your petty little revenge on bad boy Gail, do you?"
Cameo considered this for a moment.
"Besides, you loved it."
Cameo pulled the trigger, but it misfired.
Gail's eyes widened, and he reached for his pistol, but Opal took that opportunity to throw the assassin off of him.
Cameo threw her pistol at Clovis' head in exasperation; it connected and knocked Gail back for a moment, leaving him very angry. Cameo stepped back off of Bellamy's prone form and pulled her second pistol.
Bel grabbed for his pistol, which was lying on the ground nearby him.
Opal had his rapier and his pistol.
Bellamy jumped up and turned on Cameo. They were facing each other, pistols aimed at one another.
"I have no quarrel with you," Cameo said.
Gail had his pistol and took aim on his fellow assassin, but Opal tapped him on the shoulder with the sword from over his right side, and as Gail swung 'round, he slashed Opal's face with the scalpel in his left hand.
The highwayman shrugged it off and ripped the pistol from Gail's other hand with his sword. The pistol flew through the air beautifully, landing in some weeds behind Opal.
Clovis stabbed Opal in the chest with the scalpel, the only weapon he had on him, and Opal shot him in the stomach with his pistol.
Clovis Gail fell to the ground.
Cameo took a couple quick steps to reach Gail's wounded body.
"Cameo..." he gasped.
She shot him a second time in the chest. The cool air was filled with heavy, gray smoke.
"Are you alright?" Bel moved over to Opal.
He winced as he pulled out the scalpel. "My best shirt is ruined. My new jacket is lying in the mud...."
Cameo slid down onto hands and knees and pressed her face into the cold, damp, black soil. She had just doomed herself. She had set her own fate in motion by killing Gail. He was right; she had just lost the protection of the Association.
Bel still had his pistol pointed at her, but Opal pushed his hand down.
The assassin sat back up and ran her hands over her face, shaking her head in disbelief. All for what? She let her anger get the better of her.
"Well," he smiled at Cameo, "that was loads of fun. Join us for a drink then?" He took a shaky step forward then fell down on one knee.
"Opal?"
He swayed for a moment, thinking he was going to laugh it off and stand back up, but instead toppled over.
Bellamy looked from his partner up at Cameo, "Did your friend poison his blade?"
"I doubt it; slow painful torture was more Gail's style. He probably just lost that rush from the fight and started to feel the effects of his injuries. He did take quite a blow to the back of his head.
"Black Opal," Cameo tapped his cheek with her hand as if she knew what she was doing.
"Opal?" Bel attempted, also not knowing how best to help.
His eye fluttered open. Unable to focus at first, he then he realized the assassin and his fellow highwayman were staring at him.
"Are you alright?" Cameo asked fixing him with those milky gray eyes.
He felt a little woozy, but he wasn't going to tell her that. Instead he improvised, "You see I'll do anything to get a lady to have a drink with me."
"Uh huh."
"The back of your head is bleeding," Bel informed him.
Cameo stuck a flask in his face. "Drink with me then."
His hand was shaking as he lifted the flask to his mouth, but he managed to swallow a couple shots of whiskey. It woke him a bit.
When the flask was returned to her, the assassin took a shot of it herself, and since Bel was looking left out, she handed it to him next. Might as well make some friends; she presently had none.
"Yes, well I feel much revived." He stood up. Both Bel and Cameo caught him by an arm as he wobbled. "Now then...." Opal felt himself swaying once more, but he didn't want to faint again, so he tried to pretend that wasn't happening. "Where was it we ... were going?"
"Shandow," Bel spoke up quickly, happy to have the opportunity, no matter how underhanded, to get out of Yetta.
The two of them staggered forward as they held Opal up.
"I don't remember agreeing to that."
"Perhaps we should find someone to bandage you up?" Cameo interjected.
Opal felt her hand on his arm, steadying him, and the warmth of her breath in his hair.
"We could stop at the tavern, have Lorraine look at it."
Opal stole a glimpse of her profile as she and Bellamy were conversing around him. When she looked back he pretended to be admiring the silver flask.
Cameo handed it to him.
"Oh, please stop. We'll be dragging him to the tavern if you keep this up."
She smiled a crooked little smile, which made Bel feel less giddy and more nervous. He watched her finish the liquid, which seemed to have little effect on her, except for maybe numbing her pain.
* * * * *
It was nightfall by the time the little party of three crossed the threshold of the Tavern Pipe Inn. Cameo was tired from helping to carry Opal through the forest for hours, and she looked forward to a meal and something alcoholic as she and Bel set Opal in a chair.
"What's happened?" The tavern landlord called to Bel. "Are you two alright?" This suspicion was directed at Cameo—dressed in black and an unknown in that particular tavern.
"It's okay; she's with us," Bel motioned toward Cameo. He was worn out and thirsty from the long walk back to the tavern, and he moved to the bar for something to drink.
Black Opal checked his face in a hand mirror. Gail had left him with a long scar on the right side of his face, the mostly unblemished side. This annoyed him somewhat. Opal leaned in to Cameo a bit, "Isn't your employer going to be a bit unhappy about Clovis?"
She silenced him with a look.
Bel returned with ales.
"I can't go back." She drank some of the ale and wiped her mouth with a black glove.
"Going to be a bit hard on you, isn't it Lady?" Bellamy asked seriously.
"I haven't left anything behind that I can't find again somewhere else."
"Bellamy!" Charlotte swooped down on him, carrying some empty mugs. "When did you lot get here?"
"Ah—hello, Charlotte."
She slid comfortably onto his lap.
"Charlotte," Opal faked a smile.
"Black Opal, are you alright?" She noticed his face was slashed open.
"Oh yes, yes, tops."
Rising from Bellamy's lap, she moved around the table to look over Opal's wounds. "Lorraine, did you see your lad? He's all beat up."
Another barmaid scurried over. "Opal what happened to you?"
Now both of them were examining all his cuts and bruises.
"Please, ladies, if you don't mind."
Cameo tried not to laugh as two rather dingy-looking tavern wenches pawed over him.
"And who's she?" Charlotte exclaimed, looking at Cameo.
"A hungry patron wondering where her dinner is," Cameo replied jovially.
"She's not important," Bel assured them.
Cameo raised an eyebrow. A moment later the landlord set a plate of food in front of her, apparently having just overheard what she said.
"Maybe you two have some bandages around here somewhere?"
"No, not really," Charlotte scoffed. "It's a tavern, Bel.... But maybe we could come up with something suitable, and there's always wine. That usually seems to help."
"I think you should eat something, Opal," Cameo pushed her plate toward him.
"Yes, thank you." His voice was faint, and he helped himself to the lump of meat now sitting in front of him.
Charlotte's eyes went to the brooch at the assassin's collar, and then the two met each other's gaze for a moment before the barmaid excused herself to get something for bandages.
"Shall I run you a bath, Opal?" Lorraine whispered into his ear.
His eye immediately went to Cameo, wondering if she heard that last bit, but she was talking with Bel. "Uhh, no I think I'll just need my rest tonight."
"Uh-huh, sure you will, Opal," she cooed and went to help the men at another table.
When he looked up from his food this time, Cameo was smirking at him.
"I'm glad someone here wants to take care of you," Bel said as the barkeep dropped two more plates onto the table. Apparently everyone had heard what Lorraine said. "Heaven knows my back is aching from carrying you home."
"It's not as though you carried me—"
"No, it just felt a lot like that," Cameo interjected.
"Exactly," Bel said putting a lump of meat into his mouth.
Just then, the relative calm of the inn was interrupted as two men in the corner of the room jumped to their feet, shouting at each other. The barkeep hurried in their direction as one man threw playing cards into the face of the other.
Ignoring the commotion in the corner, Opal continued, "It's not as though I could be very heavy anyhow."
"You're almost as light as a girl."
"You certainly swoon away like one," Bel grinned.
"You try having a trained assassin hit you over the head with his pistol, dear boy," Opal said, hungrily stabbing more food.
"A trained assassin?" Charlotte appeared again with something resembling bandages. "Is that what happened to you? Poor baby." Her eyes went immediately to Cameo.
This time she did not respond to Charlotte as favorably as before. She certainly wasn't going to have some barmaid report her to Wick.
"Oh wonderful, you brought us some bandages!" Bel exclaimed, trying to distract her.
"Yes, and I brought you some wine."
"Lovely, very kind." Opal stood up and took a shaky step as he regained his balance. "Can I have a word with you Ca—" he looked at the assassin, "my dear?"
"What about your bandages?" Charlotte said, annoyed as Opal started upstairs.
"Why don't you dress his wounds later," Cameo hissed into her ear as she moved past.
* * * * *
Cameo took a swig from the wine bottle and gazed around the rather dreary and sparse little tavern room.
Opal was looking in his hand mirror again, tracing the gash Clovis had left him, clearly unhappy with its placement, on the other side of his pox-marked face. He reapplied the rouge on his lips while he was at it. This was somewhat tricky after taking the blow to the back of the head; he was still quite shaky.
"What can I help you with?" She asked at last.
Opal looked up at her from his seat on the foot of the bed. "Why did Wick want to kill me?"
"No idea."
"You really don't know? Didn't Gail say something about my ill-gotten gain?"
"Gail told me that Wick asked him along on my mission to get you to tell him where you were hiding your loot."
"Your mission? You were hired to kill me?"
She smiled darkly.
He searched for a weapon somewhere nearby, like actually on the bed, but found none.
"Your pistol or your rapier? You've left them both over here near the fireplace," she observed, leaning against the mantle where she had planted herself as soon as the two entered the room.
"Are you still being paid to kill me?"
"I'm not going to kill you, Black Opal. I wouldn't have helped you get back here if I wanted to kill you. And unless my master compels me to, I don't kill my friends."
"Isn't your master Wick?"
"No." Her eyes lingered on the ashes in the hearth; she had never told anyone that.
"Friends, hmm?" His voice was deep, and then the subject was abruptly changed just as Cameo glanced up at him. "Yes, but if she wants to kill me and wasn't successful, is she going to give up? I doubt it. She's going to send someone else after me.... And besides all of that, what about you? Are you free to do as you please?"
"Once she figures out Gail is dead, I think the three of us are probably in big trouble."
He moved to the wash basin and poured some water into it from a large white pitcher. Opal wasn't about to wash the makeup from his face though, oh no, just the clotted blood from the stab wound to his chest.
"I asked Charlotte to come up and help you with that."
Opal stared into the bowl of water clouding over with his blood, "I see."
She swallowed down the wine as if she was desperate to be drunk.
He sponged the wound and used the hand mirror to see if he could get a better look at it. "Where are we going after our brief stay here in Yetta?"
"We?"
"Yes, we are friends, aren't we?"
She followed the profile of his body, the black brocade jacket and white dandy's shirt, until he caught her doing so, then she found the vintage of the wine much more interesting. "I don't know … south maybe … further from the Association."
"Not much of a plan."
She frowned, "plans are generally made for me."
He followed the sad line of her lips, her long, blonde hair hanging down like a mane against her Association clothing. Her hair seemed very gold against the black woolen cape she still had on.
"Would you help me with this?" His voice seemed quite deep and confident. Opal was certain she couldn't see him holding his breath as he waited for a reply.
She hesitated as their eyes met, then she set the bottle down on the mantle and strode over to him. "I have never dressed anyone's wounds before."
"I am very tired, and Charlotte is taking her time coming up here—"
"Oh well, I'll just call her then—"
"Is that really necessary?"
She looked down at him.
"I mean, how difficult can it be?"
The words hung there in the cold room with the two of them gazing at each other.
"Alright," Cameo knelt down on the floor in front of him. "I have no idea how we're going to bandage your face. I think it needs to be stitched."
He touched his cheek protectively.
She took one of the bed sheets, judged it somewhat clean, and ripped it into several pieces, then she turned her attention to the chest wound. Reluctantly, Cameo received the wet cloth from his hand and sponged the wound at his collarbone. "Gail sunk that scalpel in pretty deep."
"It can't be too bad. It was only a scalpel."
"That's true. Well," she paused, bandage in hand, "did you want me to tie this over your shirt?"
"Uhh, no, I guess not."
The fop shucked off his jacket and untied a couple of the laces of the white shirt so that it was loose enough to get under without actually taking it off. He became very conscious of the scars all over his body. Opal felt her breath against his skin and her gloves deliberately on his body as she tied the dressing into place.
"Did you have the pox?"
"Yes," he said turning his gaze from her to the wall in front of him. "When I was a little boy. I nearly died."
"Is that how you went blind in one eye?"
"Yes."
She sat down next to him on the bed, bringing the basin of water with her, and dabbed the slashed cheek with bloody water.
"My family all died from the pox epidemic that was around at that time ... many years ago."
"My mother died then as well."
"Really? You don't look old enough to be my age."
She managed a small smile.
"You never got sick though?"
"No. My sisters and I were all spared. Well, we had to fend for ourselves after my mother died."
"Yes, I know what that's like. I have been kicking around Lockenwood for a long time.... Ah, the life of a vagabond." He flashed her a smile as he closed up his shirt hastily, very aware of his scarred flesh.
Her eyes went to his graceful hands, then back up to his face.
"You don't have to do that," he reached for the cloth she had been using on his face.
She handed it over.
He deposited it in the basin.
"Much better, thank you."
The room seemed to be very cold and very quiet, and Cameo felt suddenly conscious of the fact that they were sitting on a bed together.
"Knock, knock! Black Opal?" Lorraine poked her head inside. "I thought maybe you would be interested in that bath now...."
Cameo took the basin to its spot in the corner beside the pitcher.
Lorraine's eyes followed the assassin.
"No, I don't think so," Opal said, never leaving the comfortable place he had been in.
"Did you need that bandage then?" the barmaid asked, somewhat perturbed.
"No, I don't need that either."
Lorraine twisted her lip visibly irritated. "Well then, if there's nothing else, I'll see you tomorrow."
"There's nothing else," Opal confirmed.
The assassin watched the door close. "Why don't you finish up that wine, and we'll get some sleep?"
"Uhh, yes, I think wine would do the trick."
She piled some wood into the hearth and broke up some kindling.
"What are you doing?"
"Building a fire. It is pretty cold in here, don't you think?"
He pulled off one tall, black boot, revealing a striped black-and-white stocking as she took some of the blankets from the bed.
Cameo put these together before the fire and made a little nest for herself on the floor. "Goodnight, Black Opal."
"Oh yes, yes. Pleasant dreams." Opal drank down the wine.
* * * * *
"Well, Lady, you know it isn't often that I take the time to sneak off to the back rooms of the palace to address the common people.... So what is it I can do for you?"
His attitude was less than pleasant, but—oh, it was difficult to find the duke anything but stunning in his finery, and wickedly charming to listen to. Only the nobility really ever looked that good, that clean. Heavens, his hair was a rich mahogany that looked almost soft to the touch. Wick mustered up her professional face and glanced unhappily over at the palace guards.
Avamore dismissed them.
"Wait outside, Pindray."
"Yes, Lady," he said, bowing deeply to the duke before he left the room.
Avamore offered her a seat, considering her rather decrepit age.
"Thank you," she grumbled.
"And now, what have you interrupted my day for?"
"You remember that Black Opal fellow? The highwayman? The one you wanted to pin the murder of the prince on?"
"Yes."
"It seems we weren't able to eliminate him—yet, of course. It can still be arranged."
"I thought you had your best assassin on that situation." He sat down in front of her in a large, beautifully carved chair.
She wanted to smoke and reached for her pipe, but she remembered that he wouldn't appreciate her doing that here in the palace where no one smoked. This was a secret visit, after all, and should remain so. Wick pretended she was just buttoning a stray button instead.
"Cameo was on it, and Clovis DePell.... Funny, but neither of them made it back to the coach. The coachmen reported—"
He waved a hand for her to please stop; he didn't care about the details. This was what the hired help was for.
"What do you think happened anyhow?"
She released a bit of a grumble, "There were two shots fired."
He raised an eyebrow and gave her a sarcastic look. "Seems awfully simple, doesn't it?"
"It's possible those two dandies got the better of two trained assassins, although not probable. Cameo always had some distain for Gail—"
"Gail?"
"Clovis. It was his pet name."
"Ah, I see. You make pets of your assassins, Wick? That's very motherly of you."
"Heh! Yes, I'm too good to that lot."
"Well, then," he said as he stood back up. "Perhaps they are all responsible for Leon's unfortunate demise. I'm sure we could get the common people to raise a rather large reward for the two most infamous killers in Lockenwood, don't you agree?"
She grinned at him with her broken smile. "Whatever you want, my Lord, I can do."
A foul taste rose in his mouth at that prospect. "Yes, indeed.... Well then, I look forward to seeing the likes of them in the tower. And then, who knows ... at the end of a rope, I think."
She got to her feet as he swept out the door.
Pindray moved back into the room and gave her his arm. "Tall isn't he?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a man."
As the guards escorted them out, Wick considered the current list of assassins she had on hand for the removal of Cameo and Gail.
* * * * *
Cameo called to the barmaid for another ale as she inspected the hand of cards she had been dealt. Opal, Bellamy, and Charlotte all had their lips pursed and their eyes squinted as they looked over their own hands, then Opal lowered his chin and threw a small bet on the table.
"Whose money are you playing with?" Bellamy asked, cocking his hat to one side.
Opal grinned and plucked a clay tavern pipe from a jar.
"Not really fair to watch you bet away my gold," Bel said, and then turned to Cameo. "I trust you have the cash you're betting."
Her dark eyes met his, "Don't worry. I've got it."
"Yes. Well, Charlotte?"
Cameo lifted her eyes and briefly saw the face of Wick, which faded into a shade that now stood across from her—the shade that Cameo had placed to follow Wick ages ago. She felt a price had just been set on her head.
"Oh no," she muttered.
"Bad hand, my dear?" Opal coaxed.
"I fold." She set the cards on the table, paid for her drink, threw on her woolen cape, and swept out the door of the tavern.
Opal met Bel's eyes, then hurriedly dashed out the door after her.
Bellamy glanced over at Charlotte, not really certain what had just happened, but she appeared just as bewildered. Unaffected, he peeked at Opal’s overturned cards.
* * * * *
Cameo had moved fast down the road out of Yetta. She pulled her cape around her body, but her hair looked like something alive as it twirled and pulled tight in the strong wind.
Opal called to her, but the wind caught his words and sent them somewhere far behind him. He broke into a sprint.
Her pace seemed nearly supernatural.
"My dear, wait!"
The assassin stopped suddenly, already out of the little hamlet. She turned to face him, almost as if she knew when he was directly behind her.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"I'm leaving. I have to go, now."
He glanced back at the inn in the distance and tried to catch his breath. "How did you move that fast?"
She smiled at him as if he were a child.
He noticed that she had removed the brooch from her collar. "Why did you decide to go so suddenly? I thought we were all going."
"Well, Wick knows. I'm not safe here anymore."
"How do you know that?" He glanced around as if he expected to see a messenger running back to Lockenwood. "Did you receive a missive?"
"I just know."
Opal adjusted his jacket, which had fallen half off of him as he ran to catch up with her, and then straightened his white shirt. He appeared somewhat annoyed that he was so disheveled.
He looked into her eyes, and then he touched the patch on his left eye, aware that it might be somewhat off-center as well. It wasn't. Feeling a bit more like his old self, he drew himself up to his full height, as tall as Cameo, and said, "I can't believe you were just going to leave me behind."
She cracked a smile, "Yes, how could I do that?"
"After all, we are friends, aren't we?"
"You can follow me if you want." She turned around and started to walk away.
"Wait! I don't have my things, and Bellamy. We don't have Bel."
She ran her fingers through her hair and looked back at him somewhat annoyed. "Maybe you should just meet me up ahead."
"I will never be able to find you."
"Well, why don't you have a horse? You are the only highwayman I've ever seen who doesn't own a horse."
He held out his hand for her to take, "Come on, we'll go get Bel."
Cameo stared at it.
"I used to have a fine steed, but I lost him in a card game."
His gloved hand was still waiting for her to take it. He flashed her a smile.
She reluctantly gave him her hand and he quickly covered it with his other hand, capturing her very charismatically. He practically dragged her back down the hill toward the inn, although he did it in such a way that seemed rather charming to her. He prattled on about how nice the area was, and which outfits he would be taking on their little outing.
The assassin could not help but notice the press of his palm against her own, even if it was through gloves.
* * * * *
"Ales for everyone!" Opal called as he swung through the tavern door with Cameo in tow. "Look who I've found," he beamed at Bel.
Bellamy turned to the tavern landlord, "No ales! This fop is not spending my hard earned cash."
"Ha, ha. But I've brought this lady back. Isn't that a reason to celebrate?"
Bel met Cameo's eyes critically then turned his attention to Opal, "That's all very nice, Black Opal."
Bel noticed the interlocked hands with uncertainty.
"I need a quick word with you, Bel," he said, slightly more seriously as he released Cameo's hand.
"Alright. I'm listening."
Opal took a quick look at Cameo over his shoulder. "No, I need to tidy up my room a bit. Why don't we talk there?"
Bel rolled his eyes, "Fine Opal."
* * * * *
"Well, what is it?"
Opal's eye widened to emphasize how wonderful this information was. "We're all leaving: you, me, and Cameo."
Opal threw some of his clothes into a shoulder-pack and cursed when there was not enough room to take more without completely crushing the jackets.
"We're going now?"
"Yes."
"I don't suppose we're going to Shandow?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Well, where are we going?"
"South."
"South?"
"As far as I know, yes," Opal smiled and threw the pack over his shoulder.
"While you might be very taken with the assassin, I am not. Nor am I in such a big rush to go somewhere, where ... I have no idea where we are going."
"Taken with her?" He laughed.
"Quite. I don't really know why. She looks half dead—those ghastly eyes!"
"I came all the way back here to get you, Bel."
"And your clothes. I wonder which was more important."
Opal rolled his eye. "You don't need to feel maudlin, my dear. You're coming along. We can get out of Yetta for a while, just as you wanted."
"I don't see why we have to leave with her. I think it would be safer if you and I separated ourselves from that assassin and went to Shandow."
"Shandow is a dreadful place," said Opal from the door, hoping to convince Bel before Cameo decided to leave.
"Shandow's lovely, lots of snow, wonderful for skiing."
"What are you going to do, buy a little cabin, settle down with a wife and children?" Opal's laughter fell silent nearly as quickly as it came out of his mouth when he saw that Bel was actually nodding. "What? How can you afford it?"
"I, unlike you, have been saving my share of the loot."
Black Opal fixed the ruffles at his sleeves fastidiously. "Well, it's amazing how much a fabulous wardrobe can cost isn't it?"
Bellamy put his hand on Opal's shoulder, "You can come with me. We don't need her help. The Association wants her head, not yours."
"If they wanted to kill me prior to her leaving them, then they want me no less dead now."
"She was the one trying to kill you. What makes you think she still won't?"
Opal absently studied the floor for a moment. It was quite dusty; someone should really get in there with a mop. "I believe what she told me."
"Her?! She kills people for a living—"
"And we brutalize people and steal their money." He removed Bel's hand from his shoulder. "She's a killer. Does that make her a liar?"
Bel stepped in front of him. "You're right: We aren't good men, but she is so far out of our league when it comes to the level of the crimes she's committed. No one tells children horror stories about us, Opal, think of that."
"Well," he said soberly and looked up at Bel with his hazel eye, "I'm sorry you aren't going with us." He pushed Bellamy gently to one side, "I wish you well, old friend."
"Opal, are you sure?"
Black Opal set a rather dazzling hat on his head and flashed Bel a smile. "You know me; I have to go where the fun is."
* * * * *
Cameo was having her flask refilled when Opal sprang down the last three steps. He had apparently decided purple was a much nicer color for traveling inconspicuously.
"All ready?" He grinned.
Lorraine ran toward him, "Opal, are you leaving so soon?"
"Will you be gone long? That looks like you've packed," Charlotte called out, going over to him as well.
"What's this, then? I don't remember you wearing this before. Is it new?" Lorraine ran her rather grubby hand over the lavender jacket.
"It's not new." Opal peeled her fingers from his shoulder, and attempted to dust it clean with his glove.
Cameo strode past this scene on her way out the door.
"Goodbye, ladies." He disentangled himself from Lorraine who was kissing him farewell.
Cameo smirked a little as he caught up. "Where's Bel?"
"He ... he had other plans, I'm afraid. Where are we going?"
"Graveyard of Yetta."
"Graveyard—" Opal's cheeriness seemed to dissipate. "But, that's north of here. I thought we were going south?"
"No." Cameo lifted her gray eyes, which where suddenly fixed. Her voice seemed to drop an octave, "We're going north."
* * * * *
The coachman who had been so uneasy at first meeting Cameo watched as a young man who worked for the printing press of Lockenwood tore down Black Opal's old wanted poster and nailed up one that fingered him in the killing of Prince Leon. The price on Opal's head had gone up substantially, so much so that the coachmen hoped they would run into that nefarious rogue so they could put a bullet in him and bring him in for the bounty. The lad from the printer's also nailed up posters of Bellamy, Clovis Gail DePell, and Cameo herself. They were all wanted for the murder of the prince, and their posters were now hanging at the coach stop in Lockenwood.



Professional Reviews

ForeWord Clarion Review
Cameo The Assassin
Dawn McCullough-White

Five Stars (out of Five)
Cameo the Assassin, a historical novel from Dawn McCullough-White, is an engaging, fast-paced romp about highwaymen, assassins, Lockenwood vampires, their victims, and their evaders in an age when “who knew there were so many vampires running around.”
Cameo, an alias for Gwen, “the thrall of a vampire,” has two masters to serve. One is Wick, the aging, spell-casting head of the Association of Assassins, who assigns missions to the battle-scarred Cameo. The other is Haffef, Cameo’s vampire “Master,” who years ago rescued her from certain death after her vicious rape and beating and a deadly attack upon her younger sister. The one wants her to kill the prince of the Kingdom of Sieunes; the other wants her to unearth her sister’s bones and return them to him. Her life is further conflicted when she agrees to become the bodyguard for Kyrian, a fifteen-year-old acolyte healer who needs to travel to the Temple of the Sun at King’s Basin. As she balances her missions and battles the forces of evil set against her on all sides, she overcomes assassins sent to kill her, seeks revenge against highwaymen who have robbed her of her namesake cameo brooch, develops an arms-length relationship with one of the brigands, and confronts Wick in a deadly duel.
The action is rapid and the multi-layered plot is well-constructed and paced accordingly, with several instances of wry humour despite the overall darkness of the themes. The characters—whether likeable or detestable—are credible. The historical settings, although imaginary, are recognizable, with their references to weaponry like rapiers, swords, and muskets,
and travel by horses and coaches. Images of Haffef when he “slipped through the floor feet first” or of the world-weary Cameo swigging from her ever-handy flask create clear pictures in the reader’s mind. The majority of the novel’s text is made up of dialogue, and the way each character speaks is well-suited to their personality.
McCullough-White produced this novel through “spontaneous trance writing.” A sequel to Cameo is obviously in the making, and readers will hope the next instalment is as much fun as the first.
M. Wayne Cunningham


Review: Cameo the Assassin by Dawn McCullough-White
Four Stars (out of Five)

At the end of the day, the art of writing fiction comes down to simply this: telling a good story. Sometimes there are other aspects involved, other points to be made. Yet, if those points of contention aren’t held within the framework of a tale interesting enough for the reader to endeavor, they will be words used for naught. They will remain unread.

More on this later.

First of all, it’s synopsis time. Cameo the Assassin is the story of, well, an assassin named Cameo. She is a woman with eyes white as a corpse, the best killer of a group called simply The Association. She resides in her tower when not off stalking her next victim, drinking copious amounts of liquor and being generally a miserable sod. She is a legend in her time, seemingly much older than she appears, never questions orders, and uses very unusual (and unknown to her employer) methods of both finding her prey and keeping herself safe.

Cameo seems content to live out her life in whatever perverse way she can, until she runs into a pair of highwaymen (coach robbers) while they hold up her carriage. These two men are named Black Opal, a “dandy” who wears too much makeup and enjoys women’s clothes (seemingly in an attempt to compensate for his scarred appearance) and Bellamy, a lawyer-slash-poet-slash-playwright turned criminal. When our heroine meets these two, and falls into line with them, her known life takes a turn for, if not worse, at least very, very different.

It is with these two characters, and one who comes later, that the joys of this little tale are met. Cameo herself is a one-note creation – and she has to be, especially when one considers her backstory – and cannot carry the novel on her own. Which is why having two enjoyable, fleshed-out characters such as Opal and Bel is important. In many ways, they steer the plot more than the main character. Cameo does what she does because she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Opal and Bel, however, have free will, and they use that will to choose and follow a dangerous killer, for reasons of love. This is beautiful, it is necessary, and it’s also interesting, because many times it’s hard to figure out who exactly loves who. That guessing game in particular is quite fun.

The world that Dawn McCullough creates is one of magic and monsters, along with the type of technology one might see at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are vampires, witches, corrupt royalty, and killers for hire, all plotting, both together and separately, to bring down our small band of antiheroes. This is something I really liked, as well. There are very few purely “good” characters in the book. All are deeply flawed, and some downright contemptible. They change very slightly, if at all, and yet seem to develop at least a sense of honor and duty, which presents itself in the loyalty they have to each other. I found this to be unusual and pleasing. It isn’t often that I’ve read a book like this.

Now, onto what I started out this review saying.

“Cameo the Assassin” is an adventure novel, and one that works, but that isn’t what I found to love the most about it. No, it’s the underlying message that snatched me by the eyelids and forced me to look deeper. You see, to this reviewer’s eye, Cameo the character isn’t just an alcoholic killer. No, she is much, much more than that. She is a metaphor for the battered woman; a survivor, dead on the inside, strong in a certain way, with a knowledge of all the horrible things that have happened to her, and yet always, around every corner, she is a slave to that pain and the men in her life who inflict it upon her. She was a rape victim, an abuse victim, and a victim of the supernatural, and she allows them to define her. Even her relationship with Opal, who is outside that sort of misogynistic realm, is defined by his feelings for her, and not the other way around. This shows great character weakness, and is sorrowful in its reality, though presented in a fantastical way. This is my favorite part of all, and a reason in and of itself to pick up this book.

Now, one might wonder, with all the praise I’ve heaped upon this book, why I gave it four stars instead of five. I do this because of the only problem I had with the novel, which is the way it was written. It is constructed in third person omniscient, which is to me the worst of all points of view. We jump into and out of every character’s head from one paragraph to the next, which can be 1) confusing, and 2) irritating. Now, I understand that it isn’t technically the wrong way to do things, but I personally can’t stand it, and think it’s actually a bit lazy, so I’m docking a point.

With that being said, I still loved it, which should tell you something about how good the story is. It’s definitely worth the couple bucks it’ll take to try it out, and I think anyone who reads this review should do just that.

Robert J. Duperre



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