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She was young. Younger than most, with luscious coppery hair and bright eyes. Her porcelain skin was webbed with intricate veins of ice, twisting across her high cheekbones and spiraling across the bridge of her slightly aquiline nose. She was a pretty thing, tiny and fragile. And quite dead.
The two figures standing over her, a healer and a boy, dressed in a posh leather jacket and fine silk gloves. The young man’s eyes were red from crying, and stuck out of his handsome face like globes.
“I had only left her for a moment,” He sobbed, burying his face in his felted sleeves. “I found her like this after I went to fetch some tea from the next room. We were to be wed the next day.”
The healer, a hunched old woman with frizzing grey hair and steady hands, listened patiently to the boy’s blubbering, although she did not attempt to console him. She had seen this cycle of grief many times before, and it did not shake her now.
“She was strangled to death,” The crone said in a steady, but cracked voice, gesturing to the splotched bruises arranged like a necklace around the girl’s pearly throat. “You were at your house when this happened?”
“Y-yes,” the man snuffled. “We owned a small cottage in town, away from her parents.”
The boy’s hands fluttered to his collar nervously. “Her parents would not give their blessing for our marriage. So we ran away.”
The old woman nodded, as though this were a completely ordinary answer. She reached out with a crooked finger and absentmindedly touched the funeral markings on the young woman’s face, her own handiwork. The thin white tendrils of paint encircled the girl’s face like a mask, making her features even more exquisite. They especially contrasted her eyes, which were as blue as cornflowers.
“Nothing was unlocked,” The boy continued, prompted by the healer’s silence. “The window was broken when I got there though. I think someone crawled in there and took my...my dear Camilla away from me.”
A fresh wave of sobbing racked the boy’s body as he uttered his fiance’s name. The healer took no notice, still partially enraptured in Camilla’s funeral makeup. But one thing did strike her as odd. “You heard no screaming?”
The boy paused and looked up at her, his face as pale as the moon. “No. I heard nothing.”
“I thought you said you were in the next room.”
“Then, how did you hear no screaming? Was your Camilla asleep when you left her?”
The boy paused again, digging a handkerchief out of his pocket and furiously blowing his nose. “No.”
Curious. “And the window was shattered, instead of simply opened? How did you not hear that?”
The young man was looking very uncomfortable now, peeking out at her from beneath buttery eyelashes. “We have a radiator in the kitchen. It gets very loud at night. It’s a miracle we can get to sleep at all with it on.” He tried to force out a laugh, but the sound got stuck in his throat.
The elderly woman gave no sign of response, looking back down at Camilla, cold and lifeless on her table. They didn’t have a funeral service or mortician in their tiny village, so she was often charged with burying the dead. But if this girl had been murdered, brutally strangled by an unseen intruder, why hadn’t her beloved gone to the police?
Camilla was now dressed in an eburnean gown, her would-be wedding dress, a nest of creamy flowers woven around her head in a wreath. Her hands were folded peacefully over her belly, small and delicate, enveloped in soft white gloves. Underneath those gloves however, the healer knew that Camilla’s fingernails were torn and bloody, a result of her clawing desperately at her killer’s hands as he drained the breath from her lungs. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling with an expression the woman could only describe as disappointment, dead and flat, like pressed flowers. The healer closed them with two gentle fingers.
“Very well,” She said to the young man, who jumped. “I shall have her ready to be buried by morning, sir.”
The young man sighed, brushing his sandy hair away from his face, as though a terrible burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, causing the sleeve of his jacket to ride up. The healer raised an eyebrow when she saw his forearm.
“Those are some nasty scratches you have on your arm there, boy.”
The boy startled and quickly pulled down his sleeve, but not soon enough. The old woman’s eyes might not have been as quick as they used to, but they were still sharp, and they caught full view of the bloody gouges left in the boy’s skin.
“Yes,” He said quietly. “The cat got me.”
“You need me to bandage it?”
He flinched away from her, but responded evenly. “No, no, that will not be necessary.”
He threw a wad of bills into the crone’s arms, and turned towards the door. It was still dark outside, barely five o’clock in the morning, and pouring rain, but he seemed ecstatic to leave. He looked at Camilla one last time, his face rippling with unknown emotion. Was it sadness? Fear? Guilt? He parted his lips briefly, as though to say goodbye, then ducked out of the woman’s low door, and disappeared.
Now left alone, the healer turned back towards the girl in the old wooden casket. It was a plain wooden box, hardly fit for her beauty.
“Quite a catch, isn’t he?” The hunched woman murmured to the corpse, pulling up a chair next to the table that held her coffin. “Handsome enough, I suppose. And charming. I can understand why a young flower like you would want to marry him.” The girl did not respond, her lips cold.
“You probably thought you loved him,” The old woman continued, unabashed by the silence of her conversational partner. She brushed a stray curl from Camilla’s temple, revealing a yellowing bruise. “Probably thought that he loved you back. That he was perfect. Well, let me tell you something Camilla, you should have listened to your parents. You should have never run off with that boy to marry him. Look where it got you.”
She took the young girl’s hands in their own. They were much more cracked and calloused than Camilla’s, but they had the same frailness to them. The old woman thought about the young man and how easy it could have been for him to use his sharp tongue to lure this young flower out of her home, to convince her they were meant to be together. It would have been so easy of him to grow bored of her, to grow angry. It would take practically no effort for him to use his fists to make her stay, his charming smile to make her lie to herself in saying he still loved her. That he ever loved her at all.
When the young man had brought his betrothed to the healer’s doorstep, she had shaken his hand. She had noticed his flinch when she squeezed his fingers, his knuckles which were probably still bloody and embedded with glass under his gloves from when he punched through the window. Whether out of anger, or to throw off those investigating his lover’s death, she’d never know. She had noticed the scratches on his arms from when Camilla had lashed out at him as he beat and strangled her to death. She had noticed the relief in his eyes when he realized he would get away with it.
The old woman, crooked and bent with age, squeezed this young bride’s hands, just as frail as her own. She squeezed until she felt the hands grow warm and soft under hers, until she felt the joints begin to twitch. The old healer had never been capable of doling out justice. She was not strong. But she had been given a gift. An ancient power to give vengeance to those who wished it. To give the blood of the unworthy to those who wanted it. And this girl, this beautiful girl lying in her plain wooden box, wanted to taste blood between her full red lips.
The healer leaned down to the girl’s ear, smiling a crooked smile, and whispered, “Wake up, little flower. Make him pay for it.”
Camilla’s eyes, blue as the sea and twice as deadly, opened and blinked.