Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 10 - Fauna

I'm not entirely surprised that the thin boy standing next to Garrison knows my name. How I know him though...I can't put my finger on it. When Darius and the guards raise their eyebrows at him from his implication, he looks to me and swallows. Is it weird that the gesture seems to turn me on?

"I was on a nearby roof when you killed those three dozen men on the streets. You looked right at me too when you finished..." he drifts off, swallowing again at the memory. So that's how I know him. I followed him to a house in the eastern part of town, trying to keep my bloodlust from snapping his neck. That and he looked like someone easy enough a target for a stupid drunk or untrained pickpocket. I wasn't necessarily in the best of mindsets that night.

"And you didn't bother to tell any of us about this - encounter, Alister?" Garrison says, giving Alister an incredulous look.

"I...I was afraid if I did...the Ebony would come after me next." I see him blush, even as he tries to hide his face. Just like a child, I think.

Darius bellows a laugh, putting his hand on his stomach. He's apparently getting a kick out of this. "Though I'm eager to see the skills Clarice here has, I can promise you, she won't do more damage than necessary."

I know it scares the living shit out of Alister and the other guards at how I'm glaring and leaning towards him, but no one makes promises for me. Not even my father. Promises are the only thing you can trust about me. I use them only when necessary and I always keep them. Even if the one I made the promise to dies. I keep my promises.

"And how do you know I'll keep to your promise, Darius?"

"On a first-name basis, and without the title? Not taking a liking to me already are you, Clarice?"

"I don't see how that's possible."

"Oh?"

"After all, you're a real pain in the ass, Prince Darius." He chuckles and motions for us to step into the sparing ring. I turn angrily on my heel, annoyed about how easy it was for him to get under my skin. Lance is the only one who has had that skill, and I'd like to keep it that way.

"I believe you will keep my promise, as you call it- "

"That's because it is, I never promised the stick anything." Over my shoulder, I hear Alister whisper "Stick?"

"You'll keep the promise because you'd never hurt a sixteen-year-old orphan."

I whip my head to Alister, who instantly goes white as a bedsheet. Now that I survey him again, I can indeed see the young features hidden beneath the muscles of his torso and wide shoulders. Though I suppose the face should've been a dead giveaway, it's way too young compared to the others surrounding him. I survey everyone else in the room, looking for any other possible surprises that I may have missed. Each has a weapon in their hands, and all look like they're confident in their ability to use them based on the loose but firm grip.

"I wouldn't make such assumptions, Prince. After all," I pause at the far end of the ring surveying all of them again, finding weak spots, nervous ones who will mess up on their own and give me an opening, staring down the ones who are getting cocky, and smirking at those who don't seem to know which one to be. "Once I start singing, even I can't spare those who challenge me."

A few guards look like they might bolt at the thought of me cutting them down. Of course, Darius is right. Though they are cocky bastards who thought that because they worked in the castle that they have a higher social status, I'd only disarm and temporarily injure, rather than kill. It was my father's only rule in the sparring rings – no major damage, only lessons learned - and I'll honor it, never mind where that sparing is.

Just for the fun of it though, I began humming a slow lullaby my mother used to sing me to sleep with. I never forgot the tune. It's a peaceful song that tells of long-lost faeries and fields of gold, but if you slow it down and sing it a lower key, it sounds like the death song of Helias. Lance taught me that when I was nine, and my mother nearly beat him out of my room that night.

Others inside the room inch closer to the ring, but keep with their backs against the wall. I see a few run through the iron doors just as I began humming. Cowards. I simply start singing the words after that.

Harp once did pluck

I walk to the rim of the ring, pulling out an ebony blade.

A wizardry tune

I reach down to the outer part of my right thigh and pull out the ebony blade's twin. The Dozen and their prince shuffle across from me, and I glimpse a few men behind them burning holes in the back of their heads.

Mirrored my delicate words

As I sing the next line of the first verse, I stop my walk and face them, letting my eyes glaze and harden, before closing them and schooling my body into a temporary and subdued killing calm.

Through Destiny's hands

When I open them, I raise my arms slightly at my sides and find that The Dozen have spread out in front of me. Darius, as I suspected, is still on the opposite edge of the ring. Coward.

An unyielding touch

Garrison is the first to attack. He swings down with one dagger, and across towards my torso with the other. I block both with one swift movement of my left arm. Before Garrison can recover, I elbow him with a purposeful blow, making his left arm go temporarily numb and giving me the opening I need. I swing my leg and hit the back of his knees forcing him on the ground. Another man lunges for my exposed back, and I turn on instinct, bringing up my knife and feeling his swing meet my own. Using my momentum, I bring my knee to his gut and slice into his left bicep with the other knife. I'm instantly in motion the next second, kicking his chest, and running him into Alister who's too stunned to move out of the way. Sorry kid.

Then the fun begins. Six more, including the slightly disheveled Garrison, all lunge for me. With two swift movements my father taught me at age twelve, I have three of them on the ground and the other three finding nothing but air to meet their blows. In another three maneuvers and four hits taken to my chest, legs, and hip, I have two of them with shallow cuts on their abdomens and necks. I engage the last one, along with two more who join him. They work in exquisite tandem, landing punches to my shoulder, thigh, and stomach. At least they're not holding back.

Where one deflects, the other swings high and the third goes low. Unfortunately for them, my father is extremely strict with us knowing how to take down such movements. It's only ten seconds before they're hunched over and groaning outside of the ring. I turn to find the two with matching cuts on their necks, still inside the ring. Yay, more fun for me. I lunge, getting them both off-balance, and then a swipe of my leg has them landing on the ground outside of the white line. You're out.

Ducking on instinct, Alister's blade goes high. I whirl, placing my hands beside me on the ground, catch his arm between my legs, and twist. Now on my stomach, Alister on his back, I rise on my knees and bend backward, cutting into his obliques and tricep. He hisses as I roll to the side, letting the leg of a surprisingly silent guard hit the air. I grab his leg as it comes back down, and pull, just as I hook my knee around Alister's neck.

Alister puts his hands on my shin trying to pull it away, but I bring my other leg under his head and squeeze slightly, just to try and knock him out for a minute. While he keeps trying to pry my leg from his trachea, I plant the edge of my blade against the other man's neck and dig my elbow into the center of his chest. If his hands even twitch to my elbow, the blade digs deeper.

Keeping an eye on both of them, I pin my eyes on the others still standing. Idiots should attack now, that way I'm forced to release the child and gasping idiot to engage them. Sadly, at the same time, both the bellowing man and Alister tap twice on the mat, and I release them. I don't double-check to see if they've stepped out from the ring before I go on the defensive. The last four guards attack as one, and I only smile as I duck, twist, lunge, slash, and swing. Two go flying out of the ring, surface gashes on their backs and temples. The other two are both kneeling in front of me, blood leaking at the back of their left knees, and through their pants. Despite my cuts being shallow, it seems they bleed more so than the average Jade Assassin.

I watch as Darius paces behind them and looks at me without a droplet of surprise. One of the kneeling men swings upwards and the other goes for my legs. Had they been smarter, they would've noted that my footing told them I was prepared for the two movements, and I sidestep, missing the blow to my legs and block the other with my forearm. Now off balance on one knee, I pulled the arm of one, and kick the leg of the other, sending them to meet the ground. Within the next second, I have both knives angled across their throats, and they tap twice on the mat when I draw blood.

They limp off, blood still leaking from the back of their knees. I find the very disbelieving looks of a few men behind Darius, as I stand and back to the other side of the ring. Darius spins my knife in one of his hands as he gets in a defensive stance.

"Don't worry Prince, I'll be sure to take it easy on you." I don't bother sliding into my own defensive stance, and instead just began humming again.

Hath discord thou golden melody

"Though I'd love to hear the rest of the song, I think giving you matching cuts will be more satisfying." He attacks, swinging, then blocking a blow of my own. His movements are swift and calculated from watching me, and I'm having too much fun to not let him last a little longer. I keep my arms strained to let him stay in one piece and as picture-perfect as when he first walked in. But then I find his tell and use his momentum to get him off balance, spin him around, and plant my knives against his neck right where the main artery is, and the other angled between the fourth and fifth rib, ready to plunge into his heart. I have to stand on my toes to get my chin over his shoulder.

Just because I can, and I don't want the fun to end, I sing the last line of the song in his ear.

"Love the sinner cold."

The room again goes quiet as I wait for Darius to tap twice or try and get out of my hold. When he doesn't move, I ram my right foot into the back of his knees and force him to the ground. My blades stay where they are, and I dig them in ever so slightly. Garrison and Alister move to grab me, but Darius raises his hand, halting them, before taping twice on the knife angled at his neck.

When I remove my blades, a small stream of blood leaks from his neck and side. I wipe my blades with my cloak, sheath them, and then hold out my hands towards my knives in Darius's hands. He runs a finger over their edge, cutting himself like an idiot, and then puts the blades in my hands.

"They're sharp as hell." He looks back down to his cut finger and sucks on it to stanch the bleeding.

"As they should be, for a quick kill."

I turn to The Dozen, who are either sitting trying to stop their own bleeding, standing but looking weary or bent over staring at the ground. Well, one thing's for sure. They're not entirely Gods awful fighters, but they wouldn't last a few minutes with Will and his troop. I gave them what my father would call a mild fight compared to what reality will be.

"Any pieces of advice for us Ebony?" Darius asks gesturing to everyone else in the room.

"It was sloppy. Nice tandem when you attack in pairs or groups, but sloppy." I look to The Dozen while speaking, though I make sure my voice is loud enough for those in the far corner to hear. If you're going to give advice, better for everyone to hear it and learn from each other's mistakes. "Your emotions got the best of you, and your anger leads you to swing harder rather than precisely, and you paid for it. Had I been an Assassin of Cressida, you'd be dead. I have a strong theory on why you're all glaring at me, but I couldn't care less. When it comes down to a fight – especially with a trained assassin – you need to have your mind cleared, because they will only have one thought as you look into their eyes, and they're not going to sing it out for you."

"Anything else?" Garrison says, obviously quite annoyed. He'll be a joy to be around.

"You don't have to cut to disarm."

"Noted." He said gesturing to his arm in which I temporarily numbed.

"And do you know how I did it?"

"You hit me?"

"Right where your spinal nerves run down your arm. Hit it the right way, with the right force and your arm goes numb." He gives me a very annoyed look, and I can't help but smile at it. I don't care that he can't see it. "Knowing how the body works and where to hit it will give you more of an advantage than you'd think."

"And how is that?" Darius asked looking very interested in whatever I'd say next.

"I cut you all in at least one place. Had they been deeper, you wouldn't be able to lift your arm or move your neck or twist around to defend your back. It makes you easy prey when I can make you defenseless with one cut. But, of course, you know this. Guard training and all." They all look at me and then directly to the cuts on them.

"Alister, I cut you in the triceps and chest."

"Y-Yes." He stutters, peering on the underside of his upper arm.

"Come here."

He glances at Garrison and Darius, giving them a 'help' look. They don't. He keeps his eyes on me as he slowly walks over. When I sheath the knives, he loosens a sigh of slight relief, and I'm half tempted to tell him that I don't need a knife to get him to tap out again. Father said we needed to learn everything about everyone in the castle, and I have no doubt that my brother is currently questioning the Queen about those very details. Not to mention that the guards throughout the entire castle grounds are placed in such a naïve way, that we're going to need to make some changes. Giving them even the slightest of upper hands through one lesson is a good way to start.

He stops in front of me, shifting on his feet as I face him. "Turn around."

He again looks to Darius before he spins to face his back to me. I grab his left injured arm, and he flinches at my touch making me want to laugh. My hands tend to get ice cold when I'm in motion. I hate sweaty hands. Other's hands get clammy and cause them to have a weakened grip, but mine go dry. It's weird.

I bend his good elbow, then lift his arm so his hand is behind his shoulder and motion for him to do the same to the other arm. Already I could see his triceps begging in protest and blood running quicker down the side of his shirt from the stretching of the chest. Moving my hand to grip his own behind his back, I glance to the others to make sure they're watching.

"Now pull your arms back over your head."He does as I instruct, but after a few seconds, he winces and lets his left side curls, proving he has limited movement in his side. I let go of his right hand and turn him so The Dozen have a side view of what is happening.

"Now pull."

"It hurts."

"Okay. Give me your other hand." He reaches behind him and I slightly pull one down and say "Lift." He does and doesn't wince or have trouble doing the motion. I let go and turned to The Dozen and Darius, who seems bored as ever.

"By making even a shallow cut into the center of his muscle I limited his movements and gave myself an advantage, as well as another weak spot to strike." I poke Alister's left side of his back for emphasis, and he again flinches.

"And me?" A blonde askes. I look to the back of his knee to find a bloodstain on his pants.

"I sliced slightly into two of your hamstring tendons, eliminating some of the bending motion of your knee. You had to hop off the mat due to not being able to completely and properly move it." He looks skeptically to his knee before attempting the movement and wincing.

I watch as The Dozen look to each other's cuts and calculate the damage I've done with practiced precision. I look to those on the wall who are also eyeing their friend's injuries. I watch as one hesitantly steps away from the wall, and comes to the ring's edge. He's a few inches taller than me and perfectly lean with broad shoulders. When I look at his eyes, I see the question he wants to be answered.

"Your weak spots are on your left abdomen, right thigh, and back. Your right knee seems damaged most likely a past injury based on the way your left leg is compensating for the pain and the slight limp. Your shoulders are wider than most, your arms short, making it hard for you to reach the center of your back, which means it's a weak spot and you probably prefer a sword to cover the blind spot."

I click my tongue and turn to Darius who now looks at me with utter surprise. I raise an eyebrow, and wait for another test from Garrison, but when I look to him, he just stares at the man whose weaknesses I just exposed.

"Jonathan?" I turn back to the blonde – Jonathon - and wait for him to reveal his history.

"She's right. I busted my knee jumping off my parent's balcony when the house was on fire. My left leg compensates for the pain I still feel, despite the healers doing their best to mend the torn tendons and ligaments and shattered bones. I have a hard time guarding my back, and the twin swords are my preferred weapons of choice."

I look back to Garrison, who's now gone pale and doesn't seem to know what to do with himself. The others look to me with wonder, and it makes me wonder myself of what kind of training they really do around here. They know the basics and perhaps have a few tricks up their sleeves, but this just shows me how much more our father forced us to learn, and why. Enemies would underestimate and be unprepared, he just wanted to give us the upper hand. Scanning someone as they approach you and letting your eyes snag on their tells was one of our first lessons. He taught us by having us stand on the roofs over Howler street and pointing out someone's tells. He'd tell us which were useless and which we should prioritize in aiming for. We spent weeks on those roofs, hours at a time finding targets until it became second nature. Now it's hard for me to walk anywhere without my eyes scattering over everyone's body. Sometimes I do it pointedly when there's a rather attractive man nearby. It's too bad they look me up and down in fear rather than interest – and if it is interest, it's the wrong kind.

"Perhaps while you're here, Nightingale, you could show us a thing or two to add to our strategies."

"Well since you don't seem to have much of a life, I suppose with all the free time we'll have my time would be better spent teaching you bastards how to win next time. Not to mention how to make a deal in which you actually have a chance at winning."

"She has a sense of humor," Garrison mutters flatly.

"At least we won't be bored while in her company." A red-haired man says from beside Garrison.

"Indeed." Darius walks to my side and looks like he's debating asking me something. "Well, I suppose if you'll be training us you might as well know our names."

"I already know your name."

"Not my name smart ass" He flicks my nose despite it being under the balaclava. I smack his hand away and give him another vulgar gesture in return.

When we turn back to The Dozen, Garrison's eyebrows are raised and the others are giving amused smiles. If I don't throw a knife at one of them, they'd be so lucky. Darius needs to stop making me seem so soft.

"You know Garrison and Alister-"

"Ah yes, the angels of the group."

"The redhead is Ethan, the blonde Malen, the two who's knees you sliced are Gabriel and Osiris. The two dark-haired males in the back are Henry and Alexander. The ginger is Winston, that blue iced demon is Vladimir, and the two brothers up front are Amel and Bernard. Got it?" He looks at me expecting me to not remember. Prick.

I look to The Dozen, and point as I recall their names. "Garrison, Al, Ethan, Mal, Gabe, Ozzie, Henry, Alex, Winston, Vlad, Amel, and Benny."

"I didn't take you for a fan of nicknames."

"Considering you've only known me for less than an hour, I'd say there's a lot you don't take me for."

"Fair enough."

"So, when do you guys want to start?"

"Now would be just fine." When I raise my eyebrows, he simply says "We have another thirty minutes before you get to meet my dear cousin, and as you said, I don't have a life."

I smile beneath the balaclava and turn to The Dozen, now mine to command. For now, at least, until they beg for mercy. "In that case...get in a circle around the ring and sit if you can't stand."

I wasn't at all surprised when those standing against the wall join the thirteen of them and make another circle behind them. I look to Darius and give him a coy smile in return, though he can't see it. "Care to help demonstrate, prince of royal pains?"

"Do I have a choice, lady of heathens?"

"Not anymore."

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