Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 13 - Lance

Day three of shadowing the Queen is as boring as you’d think. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all relaxing and nice to live in the most expensive type of luxury, but I so dearly wish that someone would try to make an attempt on her life just to spice things up. The days are filled with lounging around, taking walks in the Queen’s Garden twice a day, waiting in the foyer for Siscilla to finish doing her daily check on the progress of the pregnancy, and staring at maps and notes of the castle staff. I resent the fact that Fauna gets to walk around and have fun and train, rather than sit on her butt all day.

She’s gathered information on the servents thanks to her new friend Kat. who she speaks so kindly of. Turns out, my sister has managed to get someone to act somewhat normal around her. “They’re more compliant if you say hello rather than saying run.” I took the blow, knowing that she’s talking about my “don’t do this and do this instead” speech I gave the Queen’s servants and guards on the first day. Her approach is working alright, but so is mine.

The brightest part of my day is playing the piano every night as a lullaby for the Queen. After that first night, I haven’t been able to stay away from it. I’ve branched out to three more songs, and every now and then, after she’s long since fell asleep, I’ll let my fingers move on their own, creating my own music.

Since Fauna has been free to waltz around the castle grounds, she has a better understanding of the layout. Apparently, the Eagle Wing was moved from the tower across the Library, to the east wall. She hasn’t been into the stables, library, or the healer’s tower yet, but they’re not top priority at the moment. She went onto talking about the habits of the guards and marking which ones should be put into the dungeons when she snuck into my rooms last night. I didn’t ask her how she got there, the less I know, the better. Fauna then went on about how much she loved picking on everyone and scaring the others. My sister has always had a dark side when it comes to pushing people’s buttons, but once you stab her back a few times, she reels it back so that it’s more playful than bitter. By the sounds of it, her and Darius are acting...oh who am I kidding? They’re still at each other’s throats. It’s the others who are still cautious. “As they should be.” I told her.

I sent word down to my father two nights ago about the guard shifts and the ideas I had about their shifts. He took an entire day drawing up the plans, and then had them sent back last night. I took the whole day to read through them myself. My father used every one of my alterations, which made me proud, and then added his own in. There’s safety nets everywhere. Protocols of what to do if something goes wrong, who goes with the royals if they’re moved to escape – also changing the escape route and having servants and guards posing as the royals using their current tunnel – and even the way shipments of food and other goods coming and going into the castle are checked and monitored.

No one likes it when you walk into their world and start making changes to it, but in for the safety of the royal family, change is adamant. If my sister taking on thirteen men and getting nothing but a few minor cuts and bruises doesn’t prove that, then I’d say they’re all drinking a little too much. They may not know Will, nor know that he’s willing to give up his own pigs to the slaughter so that he can get through easily, but if they have even a single brain cell left, they won’t try and resist so much to the adjustments. Cracking open the window in my bedroom, I’m most likely about to get an earful of disapproval.

I’m on my way to go give Aillard the shifts and changes to the watch system my father drew up. He sent a sentinel to the east wall with them in hand, and as both guards had their backs turned, I retrieved the papers and easily slipped back down in the shadows. The papers were put into an airtight tube, sealed with a wax stopper, that way when I quietly swam across the moat, the papers were still protected and dried. By the time the sun rose, my wet hand and footprints on the wall were gone. Told you that gap was a recipe for disaster.

It’s easier than you might think to get from the large tower and across the garden to the Guard House. It takes me a few minutes to find Aillard’s rooms, but thanks to Fauna’s eyes scanning the halls when she walks over here for training, I know roughly where to look. His window has no curtains, allowing me to see clearly into his neat and empty room. The lock on his window gives way to the lockpicks in seconds, and I slip through, leaving it unlocked. No one will notice the dangling lock while there’s shadows to cover it up. With a quick assessment of his things, I move his desk chair into a dark corner, and wait for him to enter.

Once again, Fauna’s information holds true. She had Kat figure out Aillard’s routine and told me that he comes into his room every night at ten bells. Two dozen guards are stationed in his place when he’s not with the King, and that’s on top of the already assigned twelve. I think he overestimates his abilities, just a tad.

The door opens, and he walks in dragging his feet. He doesn’t notice me or the chair’s absence until he looks up into the small mirror above his sink. It probably wasn’t a good idea to sneak into his room and then act like I’m here to kill him, but I’m bored.

“What is it you want?” He doesn’t turn to face me, doesn’t even seem to be breathing.

“To talk.”

“How’d you get in here?”

“Your window has a rather poor conceived lock.” I flash the two lockpicks in my hand, and then released them, the coil pulling them back beneath my sleeve seamlessly. “Took mere seconds to get it open.”

“You’re supposed to be guarding the Queen.” This time, he did turn around, and he didn’t look very happy.

“Trust me, no one’s getting into that room without losing a limb. Traps are more helpful than you’d think. As for you, I’m here to give you these.” I toss the stack of papers onto his bed, and stand. I can’t get through a verbal smackdown without being able to move around, and chairs restrict those movements.

“What are they?”

I wait for him to look them over before responding. “Your walls are weak.”

“They still stand, don’t they?”

“It’s not the stone so much as your men that’s the problem.”

“My men are strong-”

“I was able to get from the Queen’s chambers, across the garden, through the moat, and scale the eastern wall without being caught or suspected of having left my rooms last night. I was able to sneak out again and into your room without so much as rat spotting me, and your men have five times the brain size as them. The Assassins of Cressida will attempt such actions, and your men aren’t capable of catching such things without some adjustments to be made. You have the men for the shifts, and with them the castle walls will be harder to penetrate.”

“You’re changing everything. The amount of time it will take for it to work efficiently-”

“A week at the least. Three at the most.”

“And you’re certain that they won’t try attacking sometime in between then?”

“Jade Assassins will be placed on nearby rooftops and scouting the north wall while the change is made.”

“So we’re to rely on assassins to keep other assassins from entering the castle grounds?”

“I knew you’d understand.” I turn, heading back to the window. There’s a low creak in the floorboards, and I don’t stop him when he pins my back against the wall. “Drinks first, Captain.”

“Do not mock me. My job is to ensure the safety of the royal family, and the last thing I’m going to do is agree to your demands so that you and your deranged friends can kill us all.”

“If we wanted you to fall, then we would’ve left you defenseless entirely, and aided the Cressidian in overthrowing the King. Instead,” I put my fingers on his wrists, searching for his pulse. “We’re here helping cover your asses and offering our services to help keep that precious heart of yours beating.”

He starts blinking, trying to get rid of the sudden sleepiness trying to pull him under. Had he been paying more attention, he might’ve realized that it’s his artery in which I’m compressing, forcing his nervous system to go haywire and brain wanting to shut down. Simple trick, and just as effective as making a cut. He finally pulls out of my grasp, and I don’t hesitate before continuing my stride to the window.

“It has been approved by the Queen, and I’m sure the order can be given if you’re still insistent on your current failing system. Sleep well.” With that, I exit the room, and walk through the shadows.

I spent all day reviewing the plans with Queen and answering her questions. She seemed skeptical about them too, but once I explained the several ways for anyone skilled to get through, she agreed to them, and signed on the last page. The last part was for my amusement. That way, when Aillard looked at the papers, he’d see that he didn’t necessarily have a choice. Also it stands as evidence of her support if the King chooses to come after us. You can never be too safe.

As much as I would love nothing more than to fall on my bed and let sleep come, I have one more person to talk to. I don’t bother sticking in the dark when I reach the hallways. The lingering servants keep their heads down, the guards tracking me as always. The night breeze finds it’s way to the back of my neck, and I really start wishing that I could be in my rooms at the moment. Two guards stand by the door leading to Darius’s Tower. Based on Fauna’s descriptions, they must be Malen and Osiris. I’ll admit, they look like they could give a brutal beating, though I also have to point out that looks only do so much. I should know after all, if I was wearing servant clothes, they’d likely stop me and tell me to go do my chores, but with my distinct clothing, they don’t say a word. I see them tense as I draw closer, likely debating whether or not to stop me.

“Relax, I’m only here to speak with my sister.” They tense more, and I stop two feet from the door. “That is, of course, unless she’s tending to one of your friends.” They don’t answer, and I continue walking on smiling like the devil. Fauna was right, they are fun to unsettle.

I’m still walking up the unbelievable number of steps, my eyes downcast on my feet, and I nearly run into a slender, auburn haired, green eyed, and pale skinned servant. Yes, I did just list all her main characteristics, I am trained to do such things. We stand there for a moment, staring at each other like ghosts. I know why she’s staring, but I don’t know why I am. She’s stunningly beautiful with the flawless skin, and her hair still shines despite the lack of lighting. I’m still admiring her, when a deep pain shoots from my stomach. She looks like Rose. The red-brown hair, eyes dark enough to look brown from afar...

“Sorry, I didn’t realize...” At least she doesn’t sound like Rose. That would’ve scared me shitless.

“You must be Katarina.” I say, trying to keep my voice steady.

“Yes. I suppose you must be...”

“Arthur. Clarice’s brother.”

“Right. Brother. Assassin.”

We stare at one another for a few seconds, and then she turns and walks down the stairs muttering to herself. I can’t quite make it out, but she doesn’t sound pleased. Shaking my head, I keep walking up the stairs. I feel my heart still hammering against my chest. I would’ve thought that I would be having a meltdown or something after that, but it turns out I’m just internally screaming my head off. Those eyes...they were hers. The ones that were the emeralds of my life, the ones that made my head spin and eyes dance with wonder. The ones that meant the world and more, and the ones that I had to close shut when they lost their glow. They were hers, and then they weren’t. They still reminded me of the jewels, but they’re more like peridot than emerald, and maybe that’s what kept my mind on the edge of the cliff, but either way I’m still rubbing the sweat off my hands as I reach the door.

I honestly thought my sister was overexaggerating when she said the stairs were like walking into hell, but now, I’m starting to see what she means. I don’t bother with a knock, and walk right in. Her room is set up exactly like mine, though I do notice the extra spark of elegance in the furniture. The sitting room door is closed, so I walk into the bedroom, and find her laying face down, limbs spread out like a starfish. I stand there shaking my head and wait for her to start ranting about how annoying Garrison is, or how tiring they all are, but she doesn’t. I’m only partially considering that she might actually be asleep. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s knocked out in an odd position.

“Rough day?” A low moan is the only answer. “Oh it couldn’t be that bad.”

She rolls onto her back, and I sit on the edge of the bed. She doesn’t look tired, but I can tell when my sister’s in a mood. Either something is really bothering her, or she’s performing her monthly demonic ritual. I prefer the former to the latter which includes so many mood swings and odd cravings, that it’s become a monthly ritual for me to get headaches of my own during this time.

“No, I’m just trying to debate what would happen if I cut into my abdomen and pulled out the dam thing that’s making my back hurt, and stomach stab me from the inside. Why can’t I just die already?”

Dammit.

“Because you’re too stubborn to go down without a fight.”

“Shut up dickhead. Get out.”

“I just got here.”

“Yeah well you and your balls are mocking me, and I don’t like it. So get.” She points to the door, but I just stare back at her. Though I hate having to deal with the random mood swings, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching my sister go from crying over that fact that there’s a wilting flower in the garden, to throwing a knife at another girl’s head because she breathed too quickly.

There’s plenty of things to keep her in a happy and non-maniacal state. Sometimes it’s rubbing her head works, or carrot cake. There’s also hot chocolate, but you have to use dark chocolate that you can only get at one bakery in the center of town, or else she chucks the mug at your head or starts having a breakdown about how it’s not dark enough. I learned that the hard way. It’s rare, but if lay down with her, she’ll just calm down by herself. There’s another way, but it’s a little weird.

“You want me to go find some carrot cake?”

She lowers her still pointing finger slowly, her eyes softening. “No.”

“Hot chocolate?”

“No.”

“Then what do you want?” She purses her lip, her entire demeanor changing. “You know I don’t like doing it.”

“Have I ever told you how much I love you?” She says wrapping her arms around my waist.

“You just called me a dickhead!”

“You love me or not asshole?” And there goes the pretty princess act. “I’m literally bleeding out.”

“Alright, but only because you owe me big time for this.”

“Whatever.”

She rolls to the other side of the bed, grabbing a small bronze tin before rolling back over to me. Some might think this isn’t weird at all, but to me, it’s downright embarrassing. She pulls up her nightshirt, crumbling just below her breasts as I open the tin and scoop a generous amount of the familiar cinnamon scented cream into my hand. I spread the cream on my palms, before placing my hands on each side of her naval and start rubbing. She says that the cinnamon scent helps, along with the cream being filled with other supposed relaxants. I’ve tried it on my sore muscles before, but it did nothing but make my head dizzy from the strength of the scent.

It’s a shame I love my sister too much to deny her things when she’s on shark week. That’s what dad calls it. I didn’t necessarily understand what he meant the first few months, but then she turned thirteen, and it all made sense. She smells blood, then her eyes turn to slits, and no one’s safe in the water. I feel sorry for the thirteen men who have to deal with this for the week, though the first three days or so are usually the worst, the rest she can manage to stay in control of them if she bites her lip hard enough.

“I met Katarina.” I say trying to fill the silence.

“She’s a headache.”

“She didn’t seem much of a troublesome girl.”

“She’s not, she’s actually really sweet and kind and not afraid to speak her mind once she warms up to you. She’s real genuine friend material. It’s just...”

“Not who you wanted to see.” Her eyes find mine, and I see the memories flashing through them.

“No,” she says, numbly.

We stay like that for a while, me easing her pain, her drifting into thought, until the cream has thinned and I go to wash my hands. As I scrub between my fingers, I feel each callus rub against each other, and then on the softer parts of my hands. Rose used to do it - run her fingers on my palm, feeling every inch of them like she was committing them to memory. I’d be knocked out cold, and she’d still be up in the dead of night searching my hands. Some people need to be kissed to know that they’re loved, others need more than a few kisses, but all I needed was her hand in mine. I could live off the feather light touch alone. Some yearn for three words to be spoken, others just a hand on a shoulder, but I simply yearned to fall asleep with her finger tracing the lines of my hand. I’d give anything to feel her hand in mine again, but that’s not how death works. She said that if people looked hard enough, they’d know exactly who I am with a glance of hands.

“How so?” I ask while we lay in bed, her head resting on my shoulder. I can feel her breath on my skin as she talks, and her eyelashes brushing against my jaw when she blinks. She has the sheets wrapped around her, her leg intertwined with mine as she draws lazy circles in the center of my hand.

“The calluses, they only form when the skin is irritated from overuse. They protect you with their roughness, just like the suit and balaclava keep you from revealing your identity. But then there’s these soft spots in between, unscathed and still entirely vulnerable, and they show you how even the most heavily armored and dark souled people can have the brightest of souls. Then there’s these lines on your palm, and they remind you of how everyone has certain scars they’ll never rid of. Eyes can still deceive, but hands, they never mislead.”

I stare at myself in the mirror, balaclava still pulled over my nose, hood shadowing my eyes, and suit standing out against the blood color inside of my cloak. They protect you with their roughness. Pulling down the balaclava and hood, and I find my grey eyes staring back, tired and full of longing. Unscathed and still entirely vulnerable. A glance at my brow and the small wrinkles from furrowing them so much, and though they’re not actual scars, they still tell you enough about my resting bitch face. Rose always saw the world from a different point of view, and though it was the complete opposite of mine, I’ve never seen a better one than the glimpse she gave me.

Before I start questioning everything in my life, I dry my hands, and walk back into the bedroom. Fauna’s still laying on her back, her fingers drumming on her chest. She does that whenever she needs her mind to focus on something else rather than what it’s threatening to think of. We’re a mess. A fractured and still trying to heal, big pile of rotten pasts, mess. But that’s what makes life interesting. Troubled backstories and a badass costume to go with it.

I lay down next to her and drum my own fingers. “Aillard took the news well.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Pinned me on the wall.”

“You compress his pulse?”

“Yep.”
“Gods I don’t even want to think about what The Dozen will do when they hear about it.”

“The Dozen?”

“It’s temporary. I’m going to come up with something better.”

Fauna does this thing where she gives names to groups of people. It’s like a nickname, only it describes the group, not a person. There was this group of girls who would always wear lace gowns that showed nothing but their underlings, and they’d walk by the House of Jade every night to try and pull a sentinel from their posts. It’s only because they knew what our father would do to them if they did move that kept their feet where they were. At least while they were on shift. Anyways, she dubbed them the Mirela, the admirations. It was more of an insult than compliment. They were the ones begging for admiration, and they failed at getting it every night, until they finally gave up and went elsewhere.

“Something dark and fearsome.”

“I was thinking something along the lines of twigs, but they might like your train of thought better.”

“By the way you describe them, I wouldn’t pin them for the snapping type.”

“It’s only been a week, give it time.”

“How’s twelve hours?”

“Too long.” We both laugh, still staring at the ceiling.

“You’re not going to try and break them,” I whisper.

“And why’s that?”

“Because you’re beginning to like them.”

She stays quiet, and I turn my head to find her biting her lip. It’s not like my sister to befriend people she’s just met - let alone a group of men. She hasn’t let herself get close to anyone for a year, and sometimes I wonder if either of us will find more than what we think is best. I want to go out and try to find someone else again, but every time I think of doing so, I find myself thinking about how no one will ever make me feel the way she did. You only ever get fated once, and once you lose them, you lose a part of yourself with it. Even if I was to find someone else, they will never know the entirety of my being. The part of me that was embedded into Rose that day she walked in my father’s office, is now gone. Fauna may not say it, but we all know that I haven’t been the same Lance she grew up knowing.

“Caring brings chaos.” She says, her voice hoarse.

“Yes, it does. But sometimes, caring gives you more than you ever thought you can have. Even if it’s only for a little while.”

“Maybe, but you’re still left with less than what you began with, and soon you find yourself with nothing left but your own heartbeat.”

Saints we really are messed up, but it’s the only world we know, and as such, we survive by staying isolated. It’s lonely, and you often find yourself wishing you had someone to hold at night, but it’s better than holding them one night, and then finding yourself reaching over to grab them the next, and all you get is a handful of air and cold sheets.

“Caring bring chaos.” I echo

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