It was another long night of work for Jacqueline. She stood before the door to the young master's bedroom, arms crossed and posture professionally straight-one did not get into the business by slouching. Her expression was its usual cold self, calculating gray eyes panning over the hall for any sign of an intruder. Her breathing had grown slow and methodic, her muscles quivering but not jumping, her heart pounding like distant jungle drums somewhere within her ears. The knife handle felt warm in her hand, soft and familiar as a third arm.
"Okay, now you pick a card-"
"Six of clubs."
"Hey! You're not supposed to tell me!"
Beyond the door, the voices of the two boys rose and fell in a steady, harmless series of waves, their childish bickering analyzed, acknowledged, and promptly discarded by the bodyguard. A weaker person, having spent the past several hours listening to them play, would have felt envious, even indignant, at the contrast. Here she stood, humble and anonymous Jacqueline, ever-observant and watchful of one who regarded her services with apathy and selfish indulgence, staying silent and prepared while the young master gleefully did all in his power to get himself killed. Jacqueline, however, was stronger than petty grievances such as that, and guarded without a word of displeasure.
"Jeez, Pip, how much stuff do you have in this trunk of yours?"
"About half of it. I just picked the real bare essentials. You might want to watch out for-"
"Augh, damn it, Roon, you almost crushed my hand!"
And here was a glorious example, yet again, of young Phillip's undying passion for self-endangerment. Jacqueline recognized the new pattern to the flow of conversation, one of the few standing members of their diminutive group of allies. This was Julia, a pigtailed pyromaniac who had gleefully fed Pip's latent love of pranks even as she attempted to burn down the library and drew on sleeping peoples' faces in permanent marker. For some unfathomable reason, the two had formed a parasitic sort of bond, and it was not uncommon to see them waste hours discussing practical jokes or playing big sister-little brother.
This, roughly translated, meant Pip was spending his time joyfully playing with a sociopathic pyromaniac, a mentally unsound necromancer child, and someone that had apparently turned his trunk into a rat's nest of a hideaway.
If the older Master Ashworth caught wind of this, Jacqueline would be looking for work faster than one could count to ten. However, Jacqueline-normally not a superstitious person by any stretch of the imagination-suspected that he both would not and could not impede on manners within the mansion, held back by the same force that kept them within. It was, perhaps, the only good thing that had happened to her since they'd arrived.
"Now… was this your card?"
"We… Wait, what? …Oh, you so cheated! Wizards always cheat!"
A laugh, taunting and immature. Jacqueline listened to it for a moment, listened to Pip growl in reply and Julia struggle to make peace between the two, and felt… strange. It was a subtle and persuasive sort of feeling, unidentifiable, somewhere between bitterness and a perverse, directionless kind of longing. For a moment, barely notable, Jacqueline's expression flickered to something slightly more open than her usual stoic demeanor, and her hand whispered against the pocket where-and here it flashed across her mind, a burned-in image meticulously memorized down to the last delicately trimmed grassblade-the treasured photograph lay.
Distantly, a small part of her mind asked her what it would be like to have a purpose again.
She shushed it, slicing off the free-spirited thought as easily apathetically as a scythe across a cornrow. It wouldn't do to wonder such things, not while she was assigned to the overview of young Master Ashworth, less while they were in the manor. They were dealing in wizardry now, as bitter as Pip was towards the thought, and thoughts of personal indulgence would simply have to be set aside and masks firmly worn until the old masquerade could be resumed.
The thought was almost laughable, in a strange way. They'd left their disguises behind for nothing more than temporary replacements. Dorothy had woken up just as she'd gotten her bearings together in Oz, and even that which should have been familiar was painted in an unfamiliar light. Children's laughter was grating, conversation was jagged and painful, and keeping a distant poker face was proving harder by the minute.
What a day. Jacqueline cradled her forehead, frowning at herself. Her thoughts were confusing at best, and served less as supposedly apt metaphors than reasons why she was beginning to dislike the moments of solitude. It gave her and her mind far too much time to renew their rivalry, to prod curiously at doors best left locked and ask questions best left unasked. It-
"Are you planning to stand there until morning?"
A voice, ethereal and alien, seeming to less speak than echo within Jacqueline's head. At one second, she was standing at the door, arguing pointlessly with herself; the next she had a knife in hand and was several steps forward, pressing the cool metal against a pale throat.
There was a silence. Jacqueline glared up at the sudden intruder, forcing down a far-too-loose fluttering of confused thoughts asking how he'd managed to arrive here without her hearing his footsteps, coupled with the usual interrogations-who was he, what did he want, did this regard Pip, et cetera.
The newcomer was a markedly strange sort of man, looking like he belonged in the manor better than just about all of them. His eyes were black slits in a feather-lined mask, hair black, looking both almost laughable and almost admirable in a blue vest, white shirt, and black slacks, all dated around the time of kings and knights. A smile flickered at his lips, as if Jacqueline had done nothing more notable than a particularly savvy chess move.
"Impressive," he said, again in that echoing voice. "You seem to be a very volatile individual."
"I have been hired to guard my target. All potential threats should and will be promptly relieved," she ticked off robotically.
"A noble cause. However, I can assure you that your target holds no interest to me."
"Good. Then you can leave." The knife was withdrawn, allowing the masked man to breathe again. He did so, turning around to fix Jacqueline with a graceful smile.
"However, I assure you that leaving is far from my intention. Has it never occurred to you that there may exist people who are less interested in squalling children than one such as yourself?"
Silence. Jacqueline's eyebrows slanted a steeper fraction, one quirking up in an unspoken question. The masked man, if he was able to translate her expression, made no motion to expose such abilities, and finally, carefully…
"…I hold no reason to pique interest."
"Precisely!" The sudden exclamation, startling in its shift from the masked man's normal eloquent speech, broke through the familiar waves of conversation, and Jacqueline felt herself backing into a subtly more defensive position in reply. The masked man began to pace, smirking with conclusive satisfaction. "In a way, your utter inability to harbor interest is an interest onto itself. No one here acknowledges your existence, nothing past you as you drift, wraith-like, through the manor."
"I fail to see why this is relevant. I have years of experience in my career." Then, bitingly, "Part of being a decent bodyguard is learning to not draw attention to yourself."
"Then I suppose we could consider you a most wonderful guard, indeed, if the only thing that cares to observe you is a mere shadow upon the dusty halls." He laughed, then, the bitter chuckle of an old veteran overlooking the ruins of a battlefield his brothers died upon. "You are everything I wish to be."
"My life is hardly something worth envying." Dimly, Jacqueline was aware that she had stopped listening to Pip's childish babble somewhere along this conversation. She struggled to return to it, and it was like wading against a hearty current. She found that, despite her uncertainties, she was quite interested in what this sudden stranger had to say.
It would help her decide what was the best way to eliminate him, should the need arise.
"My name is Ciaros. I am a humble servant to the Vitias Court, a masked shadow sent to slip among dreams and destroy that which does not belong. Evil, in other words."
"I must warn you, if this has to concern my charge or I, I'm far from afraid to kill you." The knife was out again, twirling neatly between her practiced fingers.
"I already stated it was not. I cannot promise the same for his friends, but I suppose I am correct in assuming they are irrelevant to you."
"I've been watching you for a long while now, Jacqueline."
"I'm honoured." It was hard to miss the sarcasm. "But what do you want?"
"The same thing you desire." Pip's voice had faded again, but Jacqueline made no movement to gain it back, enraptured in the conversation. The old Master Ashworth, if he knew of her callous abandonment of her charge, would have been enraged, but once again, he wasn't here, and likely never would be. Pip was likely fine, enjoying time with his insipid friends, and if he wasn't, yelling for Jacqueline's help would be the first thing on his mind. She had lost count of the number of times she'd been summoned to assist with the tragic horror of a scraped knee.
The same thing you desire…
He knew. Jacqueline didn't know how he knew, so certain she'd avoided any and all possible signs of emotion, but he'd somehow slipped through behind her mask and found the broken shards lying behind it.
"You have many traits we could use. The Vitias Court deals in changing the world, in eliminating evils and spreading a banner of peace. We could show you such doors that could be opened, such talents left untapped. Such beautiful purpose." He drew her hand up, then, and gently pressed soft, icy lips against it. "I admire you deeply, Lady Jacqueline. You are a saving raft in an ocean of fools. We would be honoured to have you join our cause."
And suddenly he was gone, vanished into the shadows as if he'd never been, leaving only a whisper of a breeze and a curious feeling of coldness against Jacqueline's hand. Reality reasserted itself in a rising wave, the voices of the others fading back into perception in their tide-like way. One of Pip's damnable 'fire tricks' had gone awry, and the usual conversation was jagged with the magician's stuttering attempts to talk the device into calming down, Julia's objections for peace, and the necromancer's grating wailing as he nursed a new burn. For a moment, Jacqueline blinked and listened to it in a way she hadn't attempted strongly before, and realized that listening to them was like listening to a foreign language just beyond the cusp of her understanding.
A purpose… What a tempting idea. Surely, there was nothing for her here, sitting on the edge of a world she was no longer allowed to partake in. It was a bleak and hungry thing, a ravenous creature that devoured all you cared for and left you as an inedible shell, innards sucked dry. She wanted no part of it, except those pitiful items still left undone. After that, she'd be a directionless nothing, a mere shadow.
Hmm. Strange. Jacqueline felt her cheekbone, noting with a raised eyebrow that it felt oddly warm.
Perhaps she should see if the manor held a jacket somewhere within its dusty confines. It wouldn't do to catch a cold now. Not while she had… purpose.
Alone in the hallway, watching the shadows with a gaze more curious than wary, Jacqueline smiled.