Calmly, deliberately, Roxanne lit the candles on the mantelpiece, observing herself critically in the looking glass as she did so. Her face was indeed very pretty – and it had served its purpose – but now, she thought, it was lacking something. It was very pretty, and yet it was not beautiful. Tonight, she needed beautiful.
She was a purple Acara, dressed in the simple, brown-and-white maid’s uniform of Meridell Castle, and at the moment she stood alone in the rooms of a Royal Sorcerer. It was nearing evening, and from the luxuriously curtained window to her right a single shaft of sunlight fell on her face, illuminating the glowing depths of her indigo eyes.
In the mirror before her, however, her features began to change, shifting almost imperceptibly and yet giving the whole of her countenance a different impression. She was very nearly the same; certainly no casual observer would have detected a difference; but nevertheless it was there. With true artistry, Roxanne had made the curling eyelashes a little longer, the hint of a smile more pronounced, the slender waist more slender still. She was far prettier, now, than the woman off of which she had modeled herself.
“Less would probably have sufficed,” remarked a dry voice behind her, and she turned to face the Halloween Kougra who now stood behind her. “Based on what I’ve heard, your task shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Sir,” she greeted him with a slight bow of her head, “it is an honor to see you here.”
“Delegation has its limits,” he replied.
She only nodded. “Everything is going well. I have some new information for you concerning the plans for the next Faerieland conference, dropped by that careless King’s Champion, but I sent it through the usual channels. I didn’t realize you would be coming here.”
“Very good. It’s time we got moving.” He looked around the room, one eyebrow sarcastically arched, at the priceless magical tomes and the lovely tailored jackets and the gold cufflinks on the dresser. “People are starving, Roxanne, all over Meridell. And this sorcerer is nothing but a parasite.”
“How well I know it,” she agreed coolly.
There was a short pause as they looked at one another.
“I had better go,” the Kougra said curtly, his voice cutting through the silence. “It’s not safe for me to be here. Not yet.”
Even as she turned slightly to the side, gathering up a glass and pitcher, she could feel his cold yellow eyes fixed on her intently.
“Whatever happens, Roxanne, I hope you will not forget what we are fighting for. This is much bigger than you or me – than anyone.”
She knew it. At first it had been only a mercenary job, one like countless others she’d taken on as a shapeshifter. She had talents and so she was paid for them; it was as simple as that. But over those long summer days, honing her skills, learning his plans, hearing the truth about what he had to do, she had come to be convinced. He had convinced her that what she was doing was more than just a job.
“This is for all of Meridell,” he continued quietly; but there was a burning passion in his voice which belied his stoicism. “And all of Meridell will thank you. It’s long past time this corrupt monarchy came to an end.”
Roxanne nodded almost imperceptibly. “You still... haven’t made a statement of purpose?”
“No. What does my purpose matter to them? They can think what they like of me, and they will take me more seriously as a criminal than as a revolutionary. Actions matter, not words.”
Her heart ached for what nobody would ever know, not until it was too late. But she knew that what he said was true.
“I trust you will perform to the best of your ability. You are a true artist,” he told her. His manner was slow, almost reluctant. “You’ve done well. If all does not go well – goodbye, Roxanne.”
“Goodbye,” she whispered, but he was already gone. She stood there for a moment, the light casting an odd glow on the pitcher and the glass and on her lovely face; and then she remembered that she had a job to do, and that she intended to do it.
At first, it had been only a necessary task to be performed – fueled perhaps by her own idealism, by her experiences, but nevertheless no more than a necessary task. Then, later, it had become a cause, one for which she was willing to die. But now – now it was different. It was personal.
Maybe it was something in the way that sorcerer looked at her, or rather through her: appreciating her beauty perhaps, but never once pausing to consider that she might have an intelligent thought in her head, or that she was anything more than a maid. It had obviously never crossed his mind that she might dislike him, or that she could possibly fail to be enthralled by him. He had no value for anybody else, apart from what they might do for his immediate pleasure. He was kind when it suited him, utterly cold when it did not. Roxanne had watched with infinite disgust his treatment of the palace servants, and even of his sister and of Lady Borodere.
One of the hardest things about what she was going to do was that she knew there were some good people here at Meridell Castle. There were people who thought what they were doing was right, people who honestly tried to do good in the world, and people who simply didn’t know any better. Sir Jeran, Lady Borodere – they weren’t bad people; they were not cruel or vindictive, they tried to do what they could for Neopia. Nevertheless, they were part of the system, and they would go down with it. Sometimes, you just had to see things practically. That was what he had taught her.
And that was her favorite thing about the task she was about to perform – there was no ambiguity in it at all. Her mission was to rid the world of something it could well do without, something which nobody would ever regret when it was gone.
It was nearing time now. Calmly, she straightened her skirt and adjusted one curling lock of hair in the mirror. Then she drew an old, dusty photograph from her pocket, and she looked at it for a moment, one last time. If she was unsuccessful tonight, the person in it would never see her again.
Then, without blinking, she placed the fading paper into her pocket once again and left the room.
When she returned, the night had fallen and Mr. Lockwood was seated in a chair in front of the fire. The shadow Gelert was as handsome as ever, entirely at his ease, caring for nothing but the fact that he was comfortable. How she hated him and that expression of cold, cynical amusement, those impeccable cravats, that self-centered malicious arrogance. How glad she was that she could do this for herself, for her superiors – for the people of Meridell.
She would not fail.
And if she did, she knew what she had to do.
“Punch, Mr. Lockwood?” she offered with her sweet, dimpled smile. “I felt sorry for you here all alone.”