Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 14 - Darius

You ever get that feeling where you know that something's different, that it's changing, and you don't know whether it's good or bad? Like when you're walking down an alley and then a cold wind blows through, carrying a strange scent, and you don't know if it's just the sewage, or if someone's planning on jumping you? Well, that's how the past few days have felt. Though there's probably nowhere safer than in my bed mid-morning, with two guards outside my door and Clarice not far away, I can't help but feeling...strange. Like I woke up, ended up in another alternative universe, and I'm living a small possibility of my future. Four days ago, if a seeker came to the castle and told me that I'd be here, in danger with no other than the Ebony Nightingale to protect me, I would've called them an imposter and sent them off.

I don't know what this feeling that bubbles in my chest as if I've drunk crimson cider means. All I know is, is that it's frightening to not know what my day holds for once in my life. Normally, I would go on with my day, allowing myself to be pulled and tugged like a puppet, but not knowing what I am to content myself with today, gives me unsettling anxiety. As I toss off my sheets and head into the bathroom to wash my face, I can't help but think of the interesting past few days. I mean who would've thought the Ebony Nightingale would allow herself to laugh with a boy - let alone the Crown Prince - in which she's never met before. Before that, she's been very adamant about proving that she dislikes the idea of being at my side to protect me. Now, or at least for a while yesterday, she showed me that my professor, dull as she may be, is wiser than I thought.

Evil is never in which one is, but rather in which one does.

Aracely's words followed me since our first lesson that day. I can't remember my argument then, but I know that I didn't react kindly for whatever idiotic reason I had. Though Clarice is a trained assassin, skilled in the many arts of cruelty, she is still a girl and still someone with a heart. She may never admit that to me or anyone besides her brother, but it's still nice to know she at least has one. Or at least I think she does. I haven't really had the chance to check if she has a pulse.

After we returned from the willow incident with Charles, I found Garrison and the rest of them waiting in my room. They weren't happy.

"I told you not to go anywhere until we returned."

"You were taking too long, and besides, I took Clarice with me."

"Is that supposed to make us feel better?"

"It will once you hear what she did to Charles-"

"I don't care what she's done to that little shit. I don't trust her."

"Well how in Saints sake are you ever going to trust her if you don't give her a dam chance to earn it?"

That argument went on for about an hour before she walked in. I could tell that she heard the entire thing based on the way she kept glaring at Garrison. For the next two days, they lunged for each other's throats like two stray dogs. They bickered and stabbed each other with sharp glares every five minutes. It was getting annoying and I was fed up with having them both at my shoulder everywhere I went, so I made everyone else suffer through it with me. They lasted about two hours before all twelve of us lashed out on them. Since then, they've held their held their tongues and kept the glaring to a minimum. Sadly, it didn't last half of yesterday, and Clarice started picking on him through other means. She is not making this whole trust thing easy.

Despite their quarrels, she still trains us, keeping us on our toes and sore by dusk. So far she's taught us how to make limbs go numb, drilled us on how to keep our necks from getting sliced when a knife's placed against it, and is now showing us how to keep up with the speed of her movements. More men come in every day when they're not on duty, but most watch rather than participate. It's okay for us to train whenever and however we wish, but everyone else is still under the watchful eyes of Aillard, and he won't take kindly to his guards using their free time to train more rather than rest up for their shifts. Even if it will help them in the end.

Aside from the bruises I now have, there is an up-side to all of this. Clarice and her brother managed to convince my mother that the extra training would be better suiting to my afternoons then the time to have more lessons with Aracely. I was in a lesson with the my professor at the time, so I sadly didn't get to hear the arguments they used on her and memorize them for future reference. Either way, my lessons have been put off, and I don't go back until the end of the week. Convincing as they were, the assassins only got six days from her. She agreed to let me train during my tutoring hours, but only for six days before I am to figure out a new schedule.

Clarice has been a rather interesting joy to have around. Everyone but Garrison has begun to slowly accept her into our group. Ethan and Alister have become the closest to her, making jokes and acting like they've known each other for years. They've always been the more curious and friendly of us all, and the training seems to make being around her less threatening. I'm somewhere in between them and the awkwardness of the rest of the group. They're all just being cautious of trusting her, letting me go anywhere with her so long as - at least - two of them are nearby. It's like having another ten mother's all trying to hold your hand at the same time. They're constantly peeping over my shoulder or eyeing her like she's about to chuck a blade at my heart. They've loosened her leash – not that they really had her under their control – but they still grip the end tight.

She notices, of course, but she doesn't do much to make them move in between us. She's smart, she knows that they don't trust her and that she needs them to. That doesn't stop her from letting her thoughts fly freely on their faults, but she does limit herself to how she treats them physically. She still pulls a few punches when we spar, and her hits are no where as hard as they were that first day. When we land blows of our own, she doesn't necessarily lash out – though her hands twitch to do so constantly – but instead she tells us that we need to hit harder and with better accuracy and purpose. I asked her about it once – why she holds back but tells us to go harder – and she said it was because we need to get the moves down first, before we try and take her own entirely. "If you can't execute the maneuver, then you won't stand a chance when I go all in. Practice makes perfect."

Training and brutality aside, I've had more fun with her than I've had in a while. Don't get me wrong, my best friends are a blast to have, but they're required to act a certain way outside of the tower. With Clarice, she has no filter, nor does she need to act pleasant like the rest of us. It's like that first day with Charles. She can say what she wants without consequence. Aside from her father, I highly doubt that she'd really listen to anyone if they told her to sew her lips shut. My father wouldn't even try to tell her to stop. I mean, what could he possibly do to the most feared assassin in Ker that she won't be prepared for? It's pointless. It's the reason why I and the others enjoy her company. She can say what we're all thinking to anyone and everyone, and we don't have to say a word for her to do so. I'm both envious and entertained whenever she does so.

From the other room I hear as the door opens and closes, but no footsteps sound. Either someone is waiting for me in the front room, or -

"How long is it going to take you to comb your hair and tell yourself that you're the most beautiful male in the land? Cause I don't have all day."

Clarice has decided to pay a visit.

It's not her sly footing that has me surprised, but the fact that she just waltzed not only into my bedroom, but my bathroom, where I could be doing Gods know what. I'm not sure whether to be flattered that she's okay with seeing me half naked, or violated that she feels she has the right to see such things.

"Technically speaking, we do have all day."

"Well in that case I'm going to go have myself some of those tarts in the other room. They smell delicious." Leave it to Clarice to do what she wants, when she wants.

"Didn't you get some of your own in your chambers?" I call after her.

"Nope!" She yells back. By the sound of her voice, I can already tell she has one in her mouth.

Brat.

I wipe my dripping face with a towel, and then head into the front room, ignoring the purposely placed shirt on my satin chair. If she's planning on barging in on me every morning, there's no use in hiding myself now. Plus, I'm sure she's seen plenty of male bodies to not care for mine. Probably cut into one too.

Though it's only been a few seconds since she's walked in, half the tarts are already gone, and Thomas put six of them on the plate. "By the Gods, you could at least try and breath in between your bites."

"Hey, you're the one who slept in, and they were getting cold. Besides, it's not like we have a King's cook at our disposal in the House of Jade."

"Well at least cook will be glad to know you like his tarts.

" 'like' doesn't do justice," She mumbles, stuffing the rest of her fourth tart in her mouth.

I snatch the plate from the table, but she's quicker than I anticipated, and manages to snag one last tart, leaving me only two to go with breakfast. "You ravenous, large pig. You only left me two for my morning meal."

"You can have it back if you want. I was trained to empty my stomach contents on que." Her raised eyebrows tell me she's not joking, as I hoped she was. I fear the one who trained her just as much as I fear her now.

"I'd prefer to see that when I'm not hungry."

"Shame, it would've made more room for more tarts."

"You could always just ask Katarina to bring you more. As your servant it's her job to do whatever it is you ask."

Whatever I said must've triggered something in Clarice because one second, she's staring at the tart like she's fated to it, and the next her eyes lock onto mine, a silent anger withering inside them. Maybe if I give her the tarts, she won't throw a dagger at my head.

"People are meant for more than what they are born into. Servants aren't just meant to serve and smile, they're meant to serve a greater purpose."

"Like what?" I really am curious. I mean Katarina and Thomas were both low born and instantly put to work in the castle as soon as they were old enough. What grander purpose could they be meant for?

"Depends on who they answer to and what they're passionate about. Same goes for everyone else." Though her words are soft her voice is as sharp as knives. It's the voice of the Nightingale, not Clarice, and that scares me just as much as it intrigues me.

"Apologies if I poked at a soft spot-"

"I don't have soft spots."

"Your words say otherwise."

"My words are just that. Words. They mean nothing."

"Technically speaking, every word has a meaning, and yours seem rather meaningful." Her eyes slowly raise to mine as I take a seat on the couch across from her. I know I'm standing close to the edge with her, but I'd rather not die, and humor seems to be the thing that softens her.

Sometimes.

I hold her gaze, letting her imagine how and where she'd kill me and with what weapons. Of course I'm entirely terrified of the strength of her stare, but I'm too big headed to back down. Me and Charles used to always do staring contests when we were younger. I won most of the time, but every time he beat me, he seemed to cheat on way or another. Blowing hard in my face, feigning to hit me, flashing a light in my face. I hated how he cheated and then bragged about winning after.

Staring into Clarice's eyes, however, is entirely different. It's not just looking at one another's eyes to see if they lower and give out, but rather there's a different sort of challenge that lies in this. It's as if the balance of the world will be determined of who blinks first and who outlasts the other. I can feel my eyes beginning to burn, as I haven't done this in quite some time. Clarice however looks to be doing perfectly fine. I know I'm not going to win, but I'd rather not surrender sooner than I can.

"You're reddening, Prince. Best quit now."

Before I can answer, the door opens and the sound of boots stopping is the only sign that it's one of the guards. I should probably look and see who it is, but I'm not willing to give up yet. I can see Clarice realize this, as her eyes crinkle at the ends, the only sign of a smile.

There's a pointed cough from whoever is standing at the door, but I don't break my gaze as I speak. "Go on, we're only playing a game. I can still listen and speak."

"The Queen requests your presence." The soft, quiet voice tells me it's Henry who's walked in.

"I'll be a moment. Wait outside."

"As you wish." With that Henry leaves the room closing the door behind him.

"Mind rapping this up, my mother has asked for me, and she doesn't like to be kept waiting."

Clarice's only response is leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. Her eyes somehow intensify and give me the feeling she's been holding back. My eyes are truly burning now, and I can feel the emotionless tears that were piling up, start to fall over my cheek. Before blinking, I vow to practice and challenge her constantly until I finally defeat her. Competitiveness has always been a weakness for me.

Resistantly, I allow my eyelids to lower and take my loss. I will beat her, just once, before either she leaves, or I die...

On that rather dark note, I stand and walk back into my room to change. My mother used to always call me to her rooms to play games or tell stories, and sometimes to simply talk and eat away at sweets. Once I turned sixteen, she began only calling me to her rooms when it was important, or she wanted to ask me a question regarding my "wellbeing." Wellbeing is a soft word compared to the things she actually asks about in my life.

Though I haven't married yet and am almost certain I am not to become King anytime soon, my mother questions me on having a child. Nothing is more awkward than having to sit there and answer questions about your sex life with your mother. It's even more awkward when your mother begins talking about "in my experience." With Clarice and Arthur now being here, I pray to the Gods my mother doesn't wish to speak of this now. Not only will they hear about my personal life, but Clarice will never stop finding a way to bring it up at least once a day. Or every hour.

*****

Fully dressed and still praying, I slide on my boots and deep blue coat, and walk back to the front room. Clarice is still sitting on the couch, though I do take note of my two missing tarts. "Seriously. You're tasked with being my personal guard, and as such you eat my breakfast?"

"It could've been poisoned," She says simply.

"Something tells me that even if they were poisoned you would've instantly noticed and throw them out the window."

"Throwing them out the window allows for someone else to be poisoned. I'd toss them in the fire."

"Ever the saint."

In response, she rolls her eyes and stands. I hadn't noticed before, but her cape in which was colored jade on the inside, is now colored blood red, the color of Vandaria, though it's normally a rose red than blood red.

I follow Clarice through the door and down the stairs to where Henry and Alex wait in the hall. As they take the lead guiding us to my mother's chambers, Clarice wordlessly falls into step slightly behind me. There's no doubt she has experience being someone's guard. She knows where to stand without being told, knows who to have outside my door and who to have elsewhere. Then again, she could've spied in the castle many times before this to know what to do and how to act.

As we walk through the halls, I notice that less servants look my way. Normally, the women would be giggling and watching as I walk by. It's unsettling to know that Clarice has that effect on people. No one wants to draw her attention more than necessary, and if they do look in our direction, they quickly look elsewhere and quicken their pace.

"Does this happen everywhere you go?" I asked her two days ago when I noticed it happening every few seconds.

"Oh, don't be so surprised."

"I'm not. At least not entirely."

We reach my mother's chamber, the fifteen guards standing outside her door barely give me a passing glance. It's Clarice in which their eyes take hold of. Good luck with that, gentlemen.

My mother's chamber are always changing, more so now that her emotions are circling with the baby. Just two weeks ago, they were decorated in sunset orange and navy blue. Now they're clothed in canary yellow and lilac purple.

"In here darling." My mother calls from her bedroom. She must still be lying in bed.

As I walk to the chair by her bedside, Clarice stands in the doorway beside her brother. I have no doubt they're quietly exchanging words in which I can't hear.

"You called for me mother."

"Yes, I wanted to tell you that there is to be a party out in the garden tonight, and I'd like for you to make an appearance." The room goes unnaturally quiet telling me that Clarice and "Arthur" are now listening.

"An appearance for what?"

"Lord Roland of Lander has come to the castle to speak of political things with your father."

"What does this have to do with me?" Don't say it mother, I plead.

"He brought Eleanor with him."

Dammit.

"Oh don't look so put out. She's quite lovely."

My mother says that of all my potential suitors. Last time it was Lord Julyanus's daughter in which my mother had me spend an entire afternoon with. Though she was physically attractive, all she ever talked about was her sister. "Mary this" and "Mary that." I could bring up poppy seeds and she'd have a story about Helena that would go on for an hour. If she wasn't talking about her sister, or her love for her kingdom and family, then she was spreading her legs or pushing out her chest.

Not all the women in which my mother has tried to play matchmaker with have been disasters. There's been certain maidens in which I'd taken a liking too. However, I don't want to marry just to marry. I want to marry a woman in which I adore and cherish, and in which adores and cherishes me. I know royals don't always have that luxury, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give up so easily.

"Just speak with her tonight and see where things go. If you end up disliking her - like every other girl I've thrown your way so far - then I'll let this one go."

"Just this one? Mother you've sent at least thirty women my way in the past month."

"And I won't stop until you have a wife to stand by your side."

It's useless to try and get her to stop playing matchmaker. She starts something she keeps persisting until she gets the results she wants. It's like trying to stop a boulder from rolling down a hill. You can put whatever you want in front of it to try and stop it, but it'll end up in pieces, and the rock just keeps on going.

"Alright. I'll entertain her for one night. But that's it." She takes a loud long sigh knowing that I won't endure this for longer than necessary. The apple doesn't fall from the tree.

With that settled, I take my mother's hand and give her a polite smile. She may be meddlesome woman in my life, but if she were gone, I don't know what I'd do. She's the glue that holds our fragile family together. With my father's anger and my stubbornness to surround her, her willingness and love balance us out. And keeps me and my father from tearing each other's heads off.

Me and my father weren't always so dismissive and repulsed by each other. There was a time I remember as a young boy, when all I wanted to do was be like my father. The Great King. He was kind then - at least to me he was. Every seventh day he would take me riding through the woods atop his mahogany Morgan horse, and I'd shoot arrows at targets as we rode in and out of the trees. My father always told me I'd be a terrifying enemy with my skill with a bow. Any time there was a ball or party being held on the castle grounds, my father would allow me to be at his side, and sometimes would carry me atop his shoulders in the midnight air. I could see all our people below smiling and waving to me as we passed them. He was the father I never feared, the one I was proud and happy to have. He never hit or threatened me as he does now, but it all changed the day my grandmother died.

He loved her just as much as I did, maybe more, and losing her broke everything in him. His kindness became anger, his love became hostile, and his gentle smile I once would mimic, became strident. The Great King now became known as the Seethe King, and the castle went dark. I'd give anything to see my old father again, but my hopes of that diminished when I saw that not even my mother could reach him in his despair.

"Oh and Darius," My mother calls as I reach the doorway. "Everyone's to dress in floral attire."

"Lovely." I whisper.

We walk in silence throughout the halls. Not wanting to return to my rooms, I lead us to the training room. Garrison and the boys won't be there for another hour or so, but I'm sure Clarice won't mind some extra training. Right now they're off reporting to Aillard.

My thoughts bounce from my father, to my mother and the babe in her stomach, to Eleanor and how to get out of talking to another potential bride. Whenever I do talk to someone in which I could consider to be my wife, I always find that they're putting their best mask on to impress me, rather than just be themselves and let me get to know them. It's exhausting.

"You're really that adamant on not choosing a wife?" Clarice asks with no interest at all.

"If you lived my life and were forced to put up with women who only tell you the good parts, then you'd be just as stubborn as I am."

"I would think that the good parts are all that should matter to a Prince."

"Not this Prince."

"Hmm." What does that mean? Hmm?

We reach the training room where it's practically empty save for the four men sparring in the rings. I'd rather not get a black eye before tonight, so I walk in the opposite direction, right for the archery targerts. I can practically feel Clarice's surprise and curiosity flowing off her. It's insulting to think she thinks that I have no skill whatsoever.

Despite my father's change in character, I didn't stop shooting an arrow. Shooting always gave me this sense of freedom despite me being locked in my own home. The rules I must follow give me a headache, and the language in which must be formal makes my tongue taste like lead. But archery never felt like a burden.

"I'd ask if you knew how to shoot, but I'd be an idiot to assume you don't." I say over my shoulder.

"You're right. You are an idiot."

"Brat."

"Bastard."

I turn around, and we instantly go into another staring contest. The only difference is that this time, is that I'm prepared for it. I'm going to win, or at least get dam close to winning.

"To make this fair..." I bend over, putting my hands on my knees so that I'm at her height.

"You little sh-"

"Ah, Darius. Making lovey dovey eyes with the assassin again are we?" Charles interrupts.

"How's your head Charles?" Clarice asks, still holding my gaze.

"You're quite the bitch you know?"

"I've been called worse."

"I wonder why."

I see her temptation to turn her deathly stare to him, but she doesn't move. My eyes aren't watering yet, and it's only a matter a time before they do.

Come on, just blink.

Growing tired, Prince? Her eyes seem to say.

Only of your horrendous face.

You can't see my face.

No need, I can tell from what I can see.

Prick.

Twit.

"Not again." It's Henry this time who walks in on our staring contest. The sound of several other boots scuffling tell me he's not the only one this time.

"They've done this before?" Charles asks.

"No less than an hour ago."

"Why am I not surprised."

I'll give him something to be surprised about. Clarice's eyes say.

Okay, now I can feel my eyes beginning to burn. She doesn't even look like she's halfway tired.

"My money's on her." Henry bets.

"Same." What sounds like to be Winston, agrees. Traitor.

"Well he doesn't really stand a chance." Charles chimes.

"Nonsense," Amel? "I'm standing by the Prince." That's a true friend.

"I wouldn't." I say sticking my hand toward him.

"Why not?"

"Because. I surrender." I blink my eyes furiously attempting to hide the water that almost streamed down my cheek. It's one thing for Charles to see me loose, an entirely other thing to see me cry. Not to mention my dignity and self-esteem is lowering by the second.

"Well, now that that's over with." Clarice slowly turns to Charles who idiotically has a smug expression on. "What was it you called me?"

Anticipating what she's about to do, Henry, Winston, Amel, and I all take two steps back in unison. I know that as his cousin, I should save Charles from the consequences of his words, but seeing as to what Clarice will do to him is much more rewarding.

"You'll have to more specific, darling. I've called you many foul things many times since we last saw each other."

"Such as?"

"Whore. Bitch. Bigot. Troll. Daughter of a bastard. Need I say more?"

Her silence is answer enough. Nonetheless, the rest of us take another step back and watch as she takes an ever-slow step toward him. I must give Charles credit. I mean he doesn't even flinch when a knife snaps out from somewhere in her suit and into her hand.

It's to our surprise as she hands it over to him.

"You hit the center, and I leave you alone." She gestures to the furthest target which is roughly thirty yards from the shooting line. Or in this case, throwing line. "Miss, and this daughter of a bastard will make your life a living hell. One throw, and no pressure."

He hesitates before grabbing the knife from her hand and turning to the target. Shooting an arrow from this distance isn't all that hard, but to throw a knife that far and hit that target...good luck to the both of them.

Charles stands behind the painted line on the ground and stares at his target. His demeanor says he can hit the target, the odds against him say otherwise. I look to Clarice and find her not even a little worried that he could hit the center. Though something tells me that there's more to this than what she purposed.

He reels back his arm, and with a grunt, releases the knife barreling for the target.

You're not going to believe this but...he missed. He landed about five inches from the red dot in the center. I'm still surprised he even hit the target if I'm being honest.

"Nice try dickhead, but it seems you'll be dealing with my cruelty for longer than you thought."

"I want another chance."

"I said one shot."

"Fine," he says absolutely frustrated. "Then take yours. You hit it you get to be a pain in my ass. You miss, and you leave me be."

The knife itself seemed to tear through the air as if clearing a path, all the way until impact of her knife on the target rings throughout the room. Right smack dab in the center. That's...impressive – and nerve-racking. I was impressed with Charles's throw, but I'm entirely bewildered with hers. I mean it took me months to even hit the closest target with an arrow, and she just threw a knife like it was nothing but air.

We all stand there wide eyed and staring at the knife as if it is all an illusion, and any second now it's going to disappear to reveal her tricks.

In all my life I've never seen anyone be able to throw a knife so far and with such accuracy. I've seen plenty hit the target - though not always in the center - at the twenty yard mark and especially the ten yard, but they always came short when attempting the thirty. Remember when I said that I would learn all in which she knows? Well I mean that more than ever right now. I follow her to the bow and arrows at the wall, my gaze still looking back at her knife. She's probably very confident that no one will try and steal the ungodly thing if she's just leaving it there for all to take. That or she knows they won't get far.

"Stop looking so shocked." She grabs a hickory bow and weighs it in her hand.

"How am I not supposed to be shocked at something like that?"

"Easy, stop underestimating me."

Cause that's not hard at all. I don't give up so easily.

For the Gods sake I'm becoming my mother.

"Come on, we don't have all day." She grabs a quiver and heads back to the thirty-yard line where Charles is still gawking. "Kat claimed you're like Saint Aris reincarnated with a bow. Care to support her claim? Or was that another lie?"

"Anyone can shoot straight." I say as I grab a bow and quiver. "Shooting dynamically...that's where I'll prove your doubt wrong."

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