Aravena

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Chapter 8

Nathaniel

I was staring at the ceiling, dull and grey and lifeless. My body was plastered against the bed for the last few hours. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and that mysterious companion of mine was sleeping his daylights away.

My stomach grumbled, reminding me that I was hungry. But I couldn’t go out to find the kitchen until night. I looked around in the darkness. The left side of mine was the only bright spot as I could see moonlit slip through the window. Isn’t it midnight already? My stomach answered for me. After a couple more minutes I decided to suck it up and sat on the bed.

Just as I was about to stand up, I noticed the stirring on the other bed.

“Finally, the sleeping prince in awake,” I muttered under my breath.

I saw him stretching his limbs and yawn before he took his sweet time to wake up to the bright and shiny world. I didn’t know why, but his relaxed state irritated me. I wasn’t a hateful person, but tonight I was finding myself disliking him for no reason. What was wrong with me!

I cleared my throat, making him snap his head back to me. What he said next was beyond my imagination of our first conversation.

“What kind of ghost are you?” He half screamed, half talked.

I smirked. “The kinky kind.”

He gave me that skeptical look I was waiting for. “You sure your head screwed right?”

I crossed my arms. “Very much. Though, not sure about you. The way you screamed, you might have woken up half of the palace by now.”

He sighed. “Great! Now, I have to deal with a small brain.”

I furrowed my brows. “Pardon me?”

He got up from his bed and stood before me. “Rothland B. Noble candidate. You?”

“What’s with that B?”

He chuckled. “You only got that! However, B means Buckerhen...”

I bowed my head slightly. “Nathaniel Valendard. Professional wrestler and-”

“So, a warrior candidate. Good!”

His presumption surprised me, though, it was kind of evident after I stated that I was a wrestler. I nodded with a smile. Just then, my stomach grumbled again. To say, I wanted to hide inside the bathroom was an understatement. I saw his lips twitch before clearing his throat.

“Okay, Valendard. Let’s go search for some food. It’s close to midnight. I believe you know your audition starts tomorrow.”

My stomach knotted at the mention of the audition ceremony. I didn’t want to go to the audition but who would listen to me? I had dug my own grave. But there was another thing.

“Wait! Aren’t you going for the audition?”

He gave me a sly smirk. “I’m done for the next five days, and I did it with excellency yesterday.”

He was too arrogant for my liking, though, I kept that opinion to myself. I just nodded and went along with the flow. We left the confine of our room and walked in that vast maze of hallways. But, thankfully, Rothland seemed to know his way around, so I was hoping to find kitchen sooner. After a few twists and turns here and there I could finally see the grand kitchen.

It had not one but three stalls. Who needed that much space to cook? Anyhow, Rothland managed to fetch me a plate full of stakes and buns and a jar of water. He had his plate in his hand, and he too had the similar food items like mine. I, however, had to carry the jar to the candidates’ dining hall.

There weren’t many people in the middle of the night, but Rothland did his best to introduce me to most of the people. Halfway through, I forgot most of their names even after trying so hard to remember.

However, the dinner was quite pleasant. I’ve talked to fellow warrior candidates and some noble candidates, even two lord candidates as well. They were generous and welcoming as a man should have been. I liked them. But I wasn’t a fool enough to let my guards down.

Pleasant or not, they were still strangers to me. Who would backstab you from where you couldn’t tell. Even, though it was a friendly competition by some of their words, they took it grave serious so I would have to watch my back with them.

“So, Nathaniel, how did that merchant find you?” Kinserlen, a warrior candidate asked which munching on his bread.

I took a sip of water from my chalice. “It was luck, I believe. I wasn’t expecting to be caught in the spotlight during a fight.”

“A fight, you say. What kind of?” Deberson, a noble candidate asked.

I took a deep breath before answering. “It was wrestling, of course. A fist fighting.”

I didn’t lie. I didn’t brush the truth yet.

His lips formed into a smirk. “You don’t look like a fool enough to not understand my question, Valendard.”

I clenched my fist under the table while making sure my face didn’t express my real feeling. I was seething at this point. Who gave him permission to pry into my life? Noble candidate or not, he didn’t have any right.

“Would it being a personal reason be enough to suffice your curiosity, Deberson?” I arched my brows.

He smirked before bringing his chalice to his lips. “Sure. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

Oh, is that so? I didn’t know that!

“Glad you understood.” I finished off the water in one go.

The rest of the dinner went smoothly until I was done with my stakes. “So, I believe all of you are in the palace for quite a while now.” Some of them nodded. “Well, tell me about the palace. Is there any secret tunnel or door I should be aware of? Any dark place that’s hiding the deepest, darkest secrets of the royals?”

I was half-joking, half-serious. But, I really needed to be cautious of this place and the ruthless ruler of this place.

“I don’t know about any secret tunnel, but I’ve heard of a forbidden wing of the palace. It’s on the fifth floor of the palace, and no one is allowed to go there.” Rothland said, intriguing me.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, I’ve heard there’s a black door there. The Queen has some past with that room there.” Deberson said.

I frowned. “What could it be?”

“I doubt it’s wise enough to pry a secret that is rumored by many and twisted by many more. Only the queen knows the real reason behind her actions.” Rothland said while wiping his mouth with a napkin.

I somehow agreed with him and kept quiet. The rest of the after-dinner talk went well. When it was time for us to go to bed, Rothland informed he would have to spend time with other noble candidates for the study session. It meant he ditched me and I had only myself to find my way back to our room in this maze of a palace. I tried to ask around, even tried to find Darla in the crowd to show me the way, but everyone was so busy they barely had the time to talk. The competition was in five days, and the situation was a hell lot of tight here.

I sighed before leaving the dining hall on my own and kept wandering around the palace just like this evening. I crossed so many hallways, countless doors, and stairs after stairs that I lost count.

I was presumably in the fifth or fourth floor by now; I didn’t know. I paid no attention after passing the second floor and wandering around the palace for hours. This night was silent, the hallways were empty of souls, except for the guards. But they were just like statues, void of any emotion or movement so they didn’t count.

I took a left turn to some hallway again and walked further. The place was eerily quiet, and cold. But, I could hear a distant hum of music from there. I stopped momentarily.

Music? Yes, music! That meant there was a man. I could finally ask him for the direction. My heart leaped up with joy as I let out a sigh of relief before following the sound blindly. The more I walked, the more I felt the music getting louder. And, finally, I was there standing just a door away from the source of the pleasant sound.

But, my steps halted just as I realized that it was a black and the only door in this entire hallway. I felt a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t a good feeling because other doors that I crossed was brown or dark brown in the shade but not pitch black like this.

My eyes widened at the realization. Was it that door they were talking about? Was it that infamous door that held many secret and the queen forbade everyone from entering.

I gulped before taking a step forward to the door. I touched the cool knob as my heart drummed against my ribcage — the senses of excitement, curiosity, and wariness flooding me at that moment.

It took me several deep breaths and a mental pep talk to finally peek through the forbidden Black door. My breath hitched as the scene unfolded before me. What could I say it was so magical, so unreal. I couldn’t believe I was witnessing such exquisite beauty before me.

The grand room was mostly dark, leaving a soft blue ambiance thanks to the glorious shining moon. The big, wide window had cast the light of heaven. Polished, tiled floor reflecting the soft light enhanced the beauty of this room tenfold. It was a scenery only fit for some fantasy novel.

But what made this beauty, extraordinary was that woman who was sitting before the window. Many white fluffy cushions surrounded her, and she was oblivious to the world. A soft white glow engulfed her body as if the moon was embracing her. So, pure, so beautiful!

Her soft dark curls were dancing in the soft breeze. Long, black gown pooled around her with a violin resting on her left shoulder. The body was still with straight posture, gracefully pulling those strings. With each stroke, she elicited a deep, mournful melody, which struck my heart while pleased my ears.

The music, so hypnotic, pulled me toward her. Each note made my feet her slave. I couldn’t control myself. I had this strange urge to reach out to her. I needed to protect her from whatever pain she was feeling. It was insane, but I couldn’t help myself. So, I let my feet carry me to the source of my demise.

I came close to the window. Her notes turned higher, wriggling out the most profound feelings from my heart. The melody didn’t stop even when I went close enough to feel her warm presence. I didn’t know what came over me, but I reached out to touch her shoulder. Perhaps, I wanted to feel her, to see if she was real.

My heart drummed against my ribcage as my fingers grazed her bare shoulder. But before I could proceed any further, a soft, pale hand gripped my wrist harshly. Her slender figure stood up with the swiftness, and she turned around, swiping her soft curls across my face. Next thing I know, a dagger was firmly pressed against my neck. And, I didn’t even get the time to breathe.

“Speak!” A voice so rich and smooth spoke with a certain kind of authority.

Before I could reply, my eyes landed on that beautiful pair of sapphire in her eyes. They narrowed in suspicion. Call me mad, but I couldn’t stop drinking in her pale porcelain skin, her sharp nose, heart-shaped face, and those thin, pink lips. So soft, so kissa...

I hissed when I felt the knife cutting deep through my neck.

“Damn, woman!”

All the effect of magic vanished in the air as I glared at her. Her eyes slit into a thin line as well.

“How dare you!” Her voice boomed in the empty room.

I was taken aback by her sudden outburst. Who was she?

“Look, lady, put that knife down. I mean no harm and I certainly don’t want any trouble on my first night.”

Her grip on my wrist loosened. But the knife didn’t move an inch.

“Who are you?” She quirked her left brow, which looked quite... I didn’t know, appealing!

What was wrong with me?

“Nathaniel Valendard, my lady.” I squirmed beneath the sharpness. “One of the recruitment candidates.”

She looked at me for a few seconds, must have been contemplating whether to believe me or not. She lowered the knife. Finally!

“What are you doing here? Aren’t you aware of the Queen’s rule?” She crossed her arms after she distanced herself.

The Queen. Ah, that lady who loved to put herself on the highest pedestal. The woman who ruined my life and the reason behind my presence here. Damn her and her rules! I felt a bitter taste in my mouth.

“Well, forgive me, my lady. But I don’t reside here and just arrived this evening, so the news didn’t reach my ears.” I touched my neck only to find it wet with thin blood and a stinging feeling. “Thank you for the warm welcome, though.”

Her lips tilted up slightly into a smirk. “You know, the way you speak invites trouble. I would watch out who I speak with if I were you.”

“Glad to hear, my lady. However, I like to make an acquaintance with the person I interact with.”

She smirked.

“Smooth Talker. Hmm... Good. Why don’t you use this skill to ask around and know who I am?”

“Why? Are my charms not working enough for you to tell me, my lady?”

I couldn’t believe I was trying flirt with this lady. What was happening with my rational mind?

Her smirk turned into a smile. I must say, it was angelic, dark and alluringly angelic.

“See you around, stranger,” Her smooth voice pulled something in my heart.

She turned away and glided on the floor, making her smooth arm brush with mine. I shivered at the chill yet addictive touch. If just a bit of touch was enough to make my mind hazy with delight, I wondered what would happen if I could...

Nathaniel!

I snapped out of my inappropriate thoughts and watched the black angel walk away through the very door I came in. I didn’t know if she was a royal or not, but it was sure that she belonged to a noble family. And, this noblewoman was a mystery.

“Perhaps, my stay here in this hateful place won’t be too painful.” I smiled with one thing on my mind.

I needed to know about this Dark Angel.

“Oh, and one more thing,” I turned around to see her peeking through the door. “Take down the hallway, turn left twice, you’ll reach the stairs. From there, take the right three times to reach another set of stairs. Follow the hallway and listen carefully; you would have to take the left twice, right thrice and again left one more time. You’ll reach your place down there.”

Before I could ask how she knew I was searching for the way or thank her for the directions, she left closing the door with a soft thud.

I smiled before memorizing her words carefully. Once I felt confident enough, I made my way to the door, but not before making a mental note to thank that enigma of a woman later. She was truly a blessing for me tonight.

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