“True success requires sacrifice.”
~ Rick Riordan, The Mark of Athena
Proxima looked back at the forest as she walked away from it, her hood up. There wasn’t a need to discuss Target III. It was quite clear Roderigo would not help her on this one. Mose Ruict was his friend. He would not aid in Ruict’s assassination. End of story.
Proxima could respect that.
But she was between a rock and a hard place all over again:
Kill a possible friend. Kill one of your friend’s definite friends. Kill one of your own, a Half-Caste. Kill or have your loved-one dead.
Kill or be killed – “Neca ne neceris.”
Not very human.
Proxima sat down all of a sudden, the grass cushioning her fall, and she cried.
What am I going to do…? she thought.
She sniffed, looking back at the forest one more time. She’d told Roderigo one thing before she left: “Take care of Medea.”
He’d nodded, and didn’t say more. Medea wanted to talk to Proxima before she headed out, but Proxima wasn’t in the mood.
Proxima sniffed again and went on her way once more
* * * * *
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
Proxima turned her head slowly, a tingling sensation of danger rippling through her, but then sighed. The man had a smile on his face – the warm, friendly kind – and he had his hands out-stretched. His hair was dark and his skin, pale: only very faint freckles dotted it. His green eyes sparkled with an unpredictable edge. He was tall, broad-chested and his longish face was complemented by what could only be described as the world’s most perfect side-burns. He was, by all means, good looking.
“That back-pack looks heavy,” he said, “Can I help you with that?”
“Such a gentleman,” Proxima said smiling back, but gripped the handle of her bag tighter, “But I’m good, thanks.”
“You don’t need to worry,” said the man, “I’m no thief,” he chuckled, lowering his hands and walking alongside her.
“I recognize you,” said Proxima, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“My darling, how can you not know me?” he spread his arms and smiled.
“Ambassador… Wait, no,” said Proxima, her eyes widening and her heart skipping a beat.
This is who I’m meant to kill?! she thought.
Apparently, Ambassador Mose Ruict was used to this kind of reaction, so he laughed and said, “Yes! Ambassador Mose Ruict. At your service,” he performed a mock bow, “And who might you be?”
Proxima felt her face go red.
I need a name! she thought.
Ruict misread the expression and said, “Don’t be shy.”
“M…Messina,” said Proxima, “My name is Messina.”
Ruict turned his head to a side, “Sounds like a city in Ancient Italy…” he shrugged, “Ah, well. No matter,” he smiled again, and put a hand into his breast pocket, “Have you been invited to the mansion this weekend.”
Proxima shook her head, “Your party’s this weekend?”
Ruict grinned, “You didn’t know?”
She hesitated, “I… I go from place to place. A traveler. You know; that sort of thing. Not much of a party person,” the words rushed out of Proxima’s mouth so fast, she wondered if she’d said the right things.
“No parties? A pretty girl like you?” Ruict grinned, “Why not just this once? For a poor old celebrity like me, eh?” he handed her his business card.
Proxima held the card between her hands, unable to form a response, and then nodded mumbling, “Alright.”
“You look a little shaken up,” Ruict frowned a slightly, “Everything okay?”
Proxima laughed, the frustration bursting into nervous energy, a single thought ringing through her mind: Nothing is okay.
She wiped the tears of laughter out of her eyes, she said, “I’m, er, not used to getting strangers helping me with my bags, or finding out that the stranger is, like, super-famous, or getting invited to his party,” she also wanted to add: Or knowing that he’s been so nice to me, but I still have to kill him.
Ruict stared at her like she’d gone mad, and composed himself quickly, “Erm, okay then. Do I walk you to your inn or something? I don’t really know what course of action I’m meant to take right now,” he grinned sheepishly.
“I haven’t actually lodged anywhere yet,” said Proxima, “What would you recommend?”
A shrill beeping sound filled the air, and Ruict sighed.
“Always when I’m talking to the pretty girls,” he muttered, taking out a slim cell-phone from his pocket and shaking his head, “I’m sorry, Messina, I have somewhere to be right now. The best I can recommend in this area is, uh…” he looked around quickly and pointed, “The Chasing Horn. Excellent service.”
They both laughed.
“You just made that up,” said Proxima.
“Eh, you got me,” Ruict put his hands in his pockets, “I’ll see you on the weekend then?”
Proxima nodded, “On the weekend.”
He winked and walked off.
Proxima took a few deep breathes, leaning against a wall for support.
What the hell just happened…? she thought.
She looked at Ruict’s business card.
Or a curse…
* * * * *
Proxima looked at herself in the long mirror. She grimaced. She’d always hated dressing up. Even more at this point in time than ever before.
Stupid, stupid Empire, she thought angrily.
She didn’t want to go to this orgy anymore than she wanted to kill Mose Ruict. Philanderer or no, the man was decent. He acted decent. He worked decent. He looked… well, more than decent. He was fine. Proportioned perfectly. In face. In body. In voice. In manner. And Ruict took advantage of it: Which man in his right mind wouldn’t?
Proxima shook her head, upset with herself. Ruict was a Target. There was nothing more to it. It didn’t matter who he was, where he came from, or what he looked like – he had to die. He was a thing to Proxima, not a person. Or he ought to be, anyway. Like General Jier Rustin and Madam Lenea Meszog and four others after them. Things. Sitting ducks, just waiting to pop off. And Proxima would be the one to get rid of them.
Proxima scrutinized her face in the mirror, applying ‘locally acceptable cosmetics’ to it. A white face without freckles was fashionable in Methist society, since it was said that the Queen didn’t have freckles. Corsets, gloves, bonnets and dresses were in, also; but Proxima wasn’t going to a fancy ball. She was going to an orgy. Personally invited by the Ambassador himself.
She wore a red corset-dress [that was threatening to constrict her breathing as easily as a boa constrictor] that was laced with black thread, and it had a deep neckline [far too deep for Cato’s protective taste] which descended into a flared black skirt and happily fluttered freely around Proxima’s knees. The sleeves of the dress were puffed but short; and the black velvet clasped around Proxima’s pale upper arms. Proxima was not a fan of high-heels [she wasn’t a fan of any of this] but she chose a pair of plain black ankle-boots with six inch stiletto heels [which she swore to kill Sheldon with after all this was over]. Her shoulder-length auburn hair – thoroughly washed and brushed so that it gleamed in the light of her hotel room – tickled her neck as she applied the make-up.
Proxima grimaced at her reflection. The mascara’d and kohl-lined eyes stared back at her; the rouged lips composed into a deep, contemptuous frown, wrinkling the spotless white face. It was her reflection all right, but it was not her. The character in the mirror was the type printed in magazines and newspapers.
Helen of Sparta. Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Marilyn Monroe.
And, by no means, plain and ordinary Proxima.
She, this… person, was never supposed to be in the mirror. The make-up and clothes felt so outlandish to Proxima – clinging like wet dough on raw flesh. She felt sick and disconcerted.
But she was a catch.
If Proxima didn’t catch Ruict’s eye dressed like this, nothing would. No doubt, she’d be catching more than just Ruict’s eye. But that was her Target. And this was her plan.
Taking one last, exasperated sigh – gazing as the unfamiliar reflection did that same; Proxima grabbed a red shawl that was folded neatly on the bed, and covered her arms with the soft, woolen material. She strode out of the hotel – all eyes fixating on her – and hailed a horse-drawn cab in as lady-like a fashion as possible. As she entered the ancient vehicle, Proxima noticed that the driver was staring at her, mouth agape. He was scruffy, but he wore a tall black top-hat. That was a good sign. All the trustworthy people in this place wore hats… Or that’s what she’d been told, anyway. Proxima waited for the driver to stop gawking – acting normal – and he said nervously, “Where to, ma’am?”
Proxima handed him the business card in a lingering, rather tart-like fashion wordlessly, and the driver took the card – raising his brows for a moment and then sighing as though the address explained everything – and dipped his hat lower. He turned, whipping the horses, and cab began to move.
Proxima watched as the hotel disappeared.
Room 41, The Chasing Horn, Runorks.
She’d have to remember those names. All her belongings were resting there, waiting for her to return. Except the daggers. The diamond-bladed weapons felt awfully heavy all of a sudden in the garter of her black skirt.