Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 18 - Fauna

You put yourself in this position, you idiot.

"Be my fake lover."

"What could go wrong?"

Oh, I don't know. How about the fact that the Gods dammed Queen would find out and insist that Darius and I now share a room? How about that!

But "Oh come on, it'll be fun." Is this fun, Darius? Because to me, it sounds like the plan is getting a bit out of hand, buddy!

Another one of my blades embeds in the wood. The entire cabinet is now filled with thin, small gashes. Back at the House of Jade, there's plenty of walls in the house that have been at mercy of my anger. Every time I did so, my father makes me do pull-ups or pushups until my arms gave out and I couldn't even pick up a pencil. Gods am I happy he's not here to see this. He'd make me do pull up, pushups, crunches, squats, wall sits...pretty much any debilitating exercise you could think of.

I turn to start yelling at Darius, but he's not there. Last I saw him he was standing in the doorway scared that I'd throw a knife at him, but now the door is shut and there's no sign of where Darius went.

Tired and angry I turn to go get him and drag him down here when I notice my bedroom door is slightly open. Yanking my knives from the scarred wood, I quietly approach the bedroom and peek in.

Oh for the love of the Gods.

Already tangled in the sheets and fast asleep in my bed, Darius looks like he has no problem making himself feel at home. Then again, this is his tower. Still, it's not like I've been up throwing knives that long-

Ding.

Ding.

The temple bell rings twice, telling me it's two in the morning.

Shit.

I've been massacring the wall. For three. Hours. At least that explains why my arms hurt more than usual. Sighing, I toss the knives on the trunk at the end of the bed and sit on the linen chair. There is no way in hell I'm sleeping in the same bed as Darius. Not only would Lance scorn and slap me for it, but my father might kill me. I mean he'd be surprised at first, but furious in the end. He did assign me to Darius so that something like this could be possible, but I still don't think he anticipated it happening so soon.

I toss my feet over the arm of the chair and begin pulling the pins out of my hair. Gods, I am tired. Not physically tired, but mentally exhausted. The events of today feel like they've aged me a few years. I do have to give my father some very past due credit. Our plan we made today doesn't feel as reassuring as when my father makes it. We had a dozen safety nets, a dozen more alternatives, half a dozen codes in cipher we would speak if there was an emergency, and way too many details and things to remember to count. It's no wonder my father looks like Merlin from the child tales. If I were my father, I'd start telling people to figure shit out themselves and move to the coast. Gods what I'd give to feel the sand between my toes and the salted wind on my face. More than anything in the world, I sometimes wish that I was raised in a small hut of the Seaside Cliffs. No worries, no training...no killing.

Mom would be making fish sticks for lunch while Lance and I swim in the sea, father fixing up the boat that's been broken countless times. We'd play all day and fall asleep under the stars, our only fear of the coast cold. Father would teach us how to ride the waves and mother how to weave baskets with coconut palm tree leaves. Every time I'm alone or in need of some sort of cheering up, I think of what a life like that would feel like. After all the horrors of my past, I've learned that clinging onto something entirely impossible is better than clinging to something possible. If you fall in love, then that's just someone for your enemies to hunt and torture to get to you. If you build a home, then they burn it down and watch you crumble. If you get attached to something that doesn't and couldn't exist, then they can't take it away or use it to make you do anything.

"Love brings pain, and pain causes corruption."

I've always thought my father is a wise man, but I believe all that wisdom comes from firsthand experience. Just thinking about all the advice he's given me makes me shiver imagining what had to happen for him to learn those lessons. Though I do know the situation that brought out this one. A little too well if you ask me.

Turning my head to look at Darius, I know that we could never be more than what we are now. I've had my lessons learned with Will and Rose, and I don't need anymore. Lance, my father, and Mary are the only people I've allowed myself to love after Will. It's been a year and he's is still managing to affect my life. Maybe that's why I agreed to do this. Will has destroyed my life in ways I didn't know could be done, so why not do something to prove to him that he can't control me. Or convince me that I'm not as changed by his actions as I believe myself to be.

My thoughts begin to crumble together as I feel my hand fall from my hair, and my eyelids drift shut.

The sound of a small creek jolts me from sleep. I'm instantly on my feet and ready to pounce when I spot Kat and Thomas both staring at me, eyes wide.

"Saints, Kat." I sigh and move out of my crouch.

"We were trying not to wake you."

"You were trying to sneak past me?" I usher them out of the bedroom, trying to at least give Darius an easier wakening then I had.

My neck feels stiff and sore, and my back feels like I should've woken with a hunchback. The clenching pain in my stomach isn't helping the situation either. At least there's no blood sputtering like a dropped egg. Yet.

I close the bedroom door and catch a glimpse of Darius. His brown hair is falling over his eyes, leaving only his lips visible. At least he slept with a shirt on, and thank the Gods I won't be here to see if he decided to wear some pants when he wakes up. That's not something I need - nor wish, to see. The doors close with a soft click, and I release a long sigh.

"We came to give you some clothes for the day, but you both were still asleep."

I examine the ultramarine blue gown, with chiffon lining she has in her arms, and instantly forgive them for barging in. However, a glance at the matching jacket Thomas has in hands for Darius, makes my mood drop. Then I feel my heart skip a beat and instantly look away. Stupid hormones never make up their mind.

"Was that the only reason you were trying to sly foot your way into the bedroom?"

"Of course," Thomas exclaims too quickly. Liar.

"No." Kat sighs. "We were here to see if you two..."

"Slept together?" I finish. Ever the nosy servant. You can't always help what you're born into, I suppose.

"And to see if you were still wearing your mask."

"You've been near me for little over half a week, Kat, and you're already making bad decisions. I don't know whether to be impressed or disappointed." I head into the sitting room and find that there's some fruit, seasoned meat, warm bread, eggs, bacon, and orange juice already laid out on the table. At least they brought up breakfast along with clothes and a failed attempt at finding out my identity, but I'm not sure how much I'll eat before feeling queasy.

I take a seat at the head of the four chaired table, and Kat follows, placing the dress on the couch and then sitting next to me. We begin filling our plates when I notice that Thomas is still standing in the doorway gawking at us.

"You're more than welcome to join us, Thomas."

"I..." He drifts off, his eyes darting between me and Kat. I nearly forgot that servants aren't meant to be sharing the food of those superior to them. He's probably freaking out about Kat eating and me not restraining her.

"Look," I say standing and walking towards him. "I'll tell you the same thing I told Kat. When you're within these rooms or near me, you need not hold your tongue. If you wish to say something, say it - and preferably without those annoying manners. You want to do something, then do it. I won't shame, harm, or kill you for anything you say or do."

"Think of her as your lifelong friend," Kat says, her mouth already stuffed.

"And as your friend, if you ever need anything, you come straight to me. Don't go to the King or the Queen or even Darius. If you're in danger or need something done, then you come and ask me. And I would take my words seriously, for it is not often that I make promises like this." I watch as he searches my eyes for any sign of me lying. People always do it when they find me making promises they believe an assassin would never make. I can see in his eyes that he's asking himself if my word is any good.

He glances at Kat before turning back to me. "So...I can speak freely?"

"As free as a horse on a prairie."

"Then I should probably tell you that you have a drool stain on your dress." I look down to not only find that he's right, but that I'm still in the mint green gown from last night. I don't even want to see what my hair looks like at the moment.

"Seriously?" I ask Kat.

"I wanted to see how long it would take you to notice."

"Unbelievable." I sit back down, glaring at Kat as I shove a strawberry into my watering mouth. Its sweetness makes me want to moan in delight, but I've never been one to moan. At least not while eating food.

Sorry about that flash of imagery you likely just had.

Thomas cautiously takes a seat at my other side, and awkwardly looks at the food.

"Go ahead. No one's going to stop you."

Hesitantly, he picks up a few grapes and berries before moving onto the seasoned meat. Unlike me, Kat doesn't hold back her moan of joy as she sinks her teeth into a piece. Her calmness seems to put Thomas at ease as he begins slipping a few berries into his mouth. He kind of reminds me of a child whose parents are trying to get him to taste something new, and he's not entirely sure he wants to put it in his mouth. It's both strange and entertaining to watch as he slowly bites into the fruit as if waiting for the poison to kick in.

Once he seems satisfied the food's not contaminated, he begins stuffing more and more into his mouth. Servants rarely get food of this variety and richness. Normally they eat whatever the guards didn't finish the day before. Stale bread, half-eaten pieces of chicken, or the vegetables in which no one touched. I had an assignment in the house of a wealthy merchant once, and acting as a servant was a test of my skills. If the man didn't like the dish, he'd toss it through the window so that when the servants went to go clean it, they'd end up cutting themselves with pieces of glass. A smudge on a mirror? He'd break it then use a shard to cut the servant in charge of cleaning the room. I was all too happy when I hung him from his bedroom beam and watched him wiggle and squirm until his lungs couldn't catch air. An old servant of his who managed to make his fortune, paid me a pretty penny to kill the merchant. Though he did ask that his death looks like an accident. When he found out that I made it look like suicide, he kept going from yelling at me to kissing my hands or bowing at my feet.

Since the dead merchant's servants no longer had a job to pay for their family, my client ended up employing them all and raising their old earnings. That was my condition. If I was going to kill the bastard, he had to find jobs for every single one of the servants under his employ.

I hear as the bedroom door opens and not so soft footsteps walk into the sitting room. Thomas freezes when Darius walks into the room. Kat doesn't even pay him a glance as she bites into a piece of bread. I, however, am just happy that he at least had the decency to put some pants on. "Oh look. The royal pain has decided to grace us with his presence after all."

"Heinous morning to you too, Clarice." He slumps down into the chair across from me and looks to Thomas. "Well, I'm glad to see you've finally started acting normal, Thomas."

"Oh leave him be. If you wanted him to stop showering you with pleasantries, then all you had to do was tell him."

"I have. Several times."

"You have?" Thomas asks.

"Five times in the past year, if I recall correctly."

"Huh."

Obviously, Darius didn't promise or give Thomas anything in return for his normalcy. It's been my experience that people won't act normal unless they feel reassured the act won't end them up in a coffin.

"Maybe he just needed a pretty face to persuade him."

"Or half of one." Kat mumbles.

We eat in silence, - well, technically, Thomas ate in silence, Darius and I went on with our now normal banter and staring contests, and Kat joined in, switching loyalties from me to Darius. After we cleaned all our plates, Darius bathed and got changed while Kat and I gossiped about Eleanor. She did ask me about what the Lady said to make me cry, but I told her it was all just a part of the act, and that I baited Eleanor into insulting me. Also that my cycle decided to do a one-eighty on me. The truth, however, is something far more disturbing.

After Darius walked off with Garrison, I asked Eleanor about her family and how Lander was fairing. Her answers were short and clipped, so I could tell there was something she didn't want to be revealed. I had opened my mouth to change the subject when I saw her eyes turn hard, and she took a step toward me. I retreated a step, trying to keep some distance between us, but she kept walking as she spoke.

"I know who you are. I know what you are."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said in my most innocent voice. We were far enough away from the crowd that no one could hear her, and I spotted Darius beginning to walk back when she spoke again.

"Your coward of a mother deserved the pain she endured."

It was that sentence that made my mask slip and my breath catch. How...how does she know what happened to my mother? Was all I could think at that moment.

"Oh, how you must've thought that we just left you three there in the cabin that day. But oh...oh do we have more planned for you."

I felt as my hands began to shake and my eyes water, but I still couldn't believe what I was hearing. She knows. How does she know what happened ten years ago in the cabin? How does she know all of this when she would've been the same age as me when this happened? A child like her couldn't possibly be a part of that madness. Could she?

"Your mother may have taken her secrets to her grave, but we know what she did. You, your pathetic father, and dirty blooded brother didn't suffer enough that night. And looking back at it now, your mother didn't bleed or scream loud enough on that bed."

I felt as if the world had just been swept from beneath my feet. This girl, this Lady, was there the night my mother died. She's likely not only knows my real name and who I am, but who my brother is. She knows everything my father worked so hard to keep secret, and she can do whatever she wants with that knowledge.

I didn't hear what Darius said when he walked up to us. I didn't even feel him touching me until he forced my eyes onto him. It was his eyes that reminded me of where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. I let my tears fall, and let him pull me to his chest, not entirely faking the performance. I heard her pathetic excuse for my behavior and had to clutch Darius's jacket to keep me from wrapping my hands around her throat and breaking her windpipe.

Thinking back at it, as I threw my knives at the wall, I knew that killing Eleanor wouldn't do much. Her stupid monologue and the break-in happening on the same night couldn't be a coincidence. Which means that she's not the only one already inside the castle walls. Not to mention that killing her would only lead the King to put me and my brother at his top suspect list. I know that I'm going to have to tell both my brother and father about this when we go to the Jade house in three days. Lance will be mad that I didn't tell him last night after it happened, but I can handle his disappointment. Plus, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it and act as if nothing happened, because there's more than one role I have to play, and worrying about something that could've just been a nightmare isn't going to help anyone.

After both me and Darius are cleaned and clothed, we called in The Dozen and went over the storyline and plans for our scheme. We didn't talk about the whole boob thing, but I could see a few of them sliding glances at me. The gown doesn't help either. Kat claimed that the very low V shape design of the front is to show Eleanor that she's got nothing on me. Like I needed a dress to show her that. At least the back of the dress covers my back, though Kat did vow to fix that issue for the future. I'm still praying to the Gods she forgets. I'm all for looking hot as hell, but I still need to be covered. Darius stared at the tight dress for what felt like an hour, but did not comment on it other than "Good job, Katarina." I still don't know if I should be insulted by the dismissal or glad he didn't make the situation more awkward than it needed to be.

After answering all their questions, I told them that I would still train them, but it would be at night, and underground. When we walked through the tunnels last night, we had to cross this big empty room, and the idea popped in my head. It's not as big as the training room, but it would be big enough for at least three sparring rings. Plus, this way, we can keep their training a secret so a spy can't blend in with the crowd and report back to Will about what I'm teaching them.

Garrison, of course, objected to the idea, along with the change in guard shifts, again, but when I pointed out that Lily would somehow disappear within the hours that I trained with them, and then pop up soon after that, he came around. Nosy people are smart, and smart people are dangerous. So, I'll be Lily by day, Ebony Nightingale by night. It's kind of exciting to be going undercover again. It's been months since I've gotten to wear a disguise and be someone else – or rather me – for a change. A year since I've even looked at a gown like the ones now filling my closet. I didn't even have to ask Kat to go shopping, she just hauled another ten through the tunnel and hung them up. I think she has a slight obsession. Maybe a big one.

Anyhow, we're all headed to the library for another lesson with Aracely now. The Dozen don't normally tag along, but after they meet with Aillard, they don't have a choice. It's kind of funny to see him riled up and twitching at every snap of a twig or howl of the wind. Speaking of wind, couldn't the four Gods of Wind take their power somewhere else. I mean it's doing absolutely nothing for my hair. Trying to pull a strand of my hair from my mouth for the hundredth time, we finally reach the library doors, and I feel myself become lighter. Not only because I'm around books, but I can actually walk around this time. I know I'm still Darius's personal guard and all, but what harm could drifting down an aisle or two from the room do?

I spot a few books whose titles look tempting and instantly mark where they are for later. A few librarians and others who are in the library stop to look at us, and for a second, I forget that I have a mask made of blue feathers covering the top half of my face. I'm used to being looked at with fear or slight curiosity, but once again I'm thrown off about the awe that now fills their eyes. I only ever remember being looked at like that by my mother, and I would treasure the emotion in her eyes deep within my heart so I would never forget it. And I haven't. Her eyes would brighten, her cheeks lift proudly, and her chin would raise ever so slightly.

I know I speak of my mother a lot but refuse to talk about what happened to her ten years ago. Everything I do, say, or even look at reminds me of her. It's like I can't escape her memory that plagues my soul. These books, they remind me of her small collection of fifteen healing scripts she kept atop a shelf over the burner. This dress reminds me of how she loved the bright blue sky but loved it, even more, when it darkened, and the stars came out to dance. Or how she could easily take down my father in the sparring ring still dressed in her thick skirted dress. She'd lay him out on the floor, he'd laugh and smile the widest of grins, and then she'd kiss him silly while Lance and I cringed and groaned our disgust.

The sun reminds me of her smile, the moon her gentleness. The stone beneath my feet makes me think of her strength, and The Dozen around me of her might. Darius reminds me of her wild side that only came out when we were in the woods, and Aracely reminds me of her voice. Hell, even Eleanor reminds me of my mother with her idle threats. It's not that I don't want to forget my mother, she was my moon and more. It's the night ten years ago when she died that I want to forget. It's that night that makes me go back into the woods and into the crumbling cabin every year on the same night, to give commemoration I want to leave behind.

I know you want to know what happened, but I don't want to think about it, and I'm not ready to face the emotional rollercoaster it brings. Not to mention that when I end up do remembering, I end up destroying everything within sight. I nearly killed my brother once when I forgot to go to the woods during one year. I felt like I failed her, and so I killed three dozen men to "make up for it." When Lance found out, he yelled at me and tried getting me to talk. Instead, we fought in the hall between our bedrooms until our father ran in with flames coming from his head.

Aracely is sitting at the table when we enter, her fingers tap in an impatient pattern, and foot setting the quick beat. She starts to mutter in Hisperian, then stops suddenly when she spots me. All I want to do is hop into the chair next to her and start gossiping and making her spill the beans on Darius and The Dozen, but I can't. New face, new me and all that. I don't know what makes me sad to not sit through Darius's lesson, but hopefully, some books and exploring will cheer me up.

"Are you going to make introductions or should I?"

"Aracely, esta es Lily. Lily this is my professor Aracely."

"Mucho gusto, Lily," Aracely says with a slight dip of her head. Gods that's oddly unsettling. All the women in the world wish to be treated with respect, and I am on certain days, but not this kind of respect. It's like biting into a bright red apple only to find it's all mushy inside. It's not something I want to get used to.

Darius takes his seat, and I stay standing between Mal and Alister. I have no doubt Garrison scattered the others between the library entrance and the room. It's exactly what I would do. My father, however, would probably have one of us inside the room, and the other eleven dressed as librarians or crouching in a dark corner, or sitting atop a beam on the roof.

"You hit them when the mark believes it to be the best time to attack."

Right now, everyone knows where the Prince is and what he's doing. Of course, the whereabouts of the royal family are hard to cover up, but changing a few things in Darius's schedule to oppose the plans of outsiders might not be a bad idea. Lance has already shortened the Queen's visitors to the Anevay and one servant, along with a small force of guards that stand outside her chambers. He's also managed to learn a lot about the castle grounds just by listening to the Queen talk and talk and staring at maps.

You should've seen him when he waltzed into my room earlier. We were about to leave and be on time to Aracely's lesson for once when he walked through the door. I knew Garrison was about to get on my brother's ass about leaving the Queen, but I told him that my brother wouldn't leave the Queen unless he was a hundred percent sure she wouldn't be killed. He argued, and I pointedly ignored it. Darius didn't seem too concerned either, but his fidgeting hands were hard not to notice. So after venting to me about how "she never stops talking," he punched me in the arm and left. Everyone else was asking why I didn't punch or kick him back, but I knew that the punch was for what we are currently doing. Also, because he did need to get back to the Queen, and I needed to see if I could find any maps on the underground tunnels

I need to know where each one leads and how many entrances there are from the outer wall, and into the castle grounds. I need to know how long it would take someone to walk from one end to the other, and I need to know if there is any place or anyone that has a copy of the maps. I can't be at two places at once, and I surely don't trust anyone else to guard Darius against one of Will's trainees or explore the tunnels. This means that if I go down there, so is Darius, and so are The Dozen. They'll be the only ones who know what I know, and if the information leaks through, then at least I know where to look. Though I highly doubt that any of The Dozen would betray Darius.

Kat could do it, but I haven't known her long enough to tell if I can trust her to not tell Will what he wants to know if she's captured and tortured. Anyone who can't do that, shouldn't be trusted with any of this, but I'm short on time these days. I trust Darius enough to let him know, and if he'd give up his crown for The Dozen, then I can trust them too. Kat is sweet and all, but I need to be sure. Thomas too seems a little sketchy.

Since I don't want to drift too far from Darius, and I doubt that old maps will be on this level, then I'll have Kat do the searching for me. I know, I know. But you just said you're not sure if she could be trusted. Well, what other choice do I have? If I send one of The Dozen, then Garrison will question me with the face that looks like he just sat on a sharp stick and it hurts every time he moves. Then the rest of them will keep an eye on me and miss the knife that has been thrown at them until it's lodged in their chest. I need them focused, and I need them to not worry about me and Darius being in a room alone. So I'll research what I need to know, and then tell them the gist of it after.

They may have stayed outside last night, but I still heard one of them walk in every hour to make sure I didn't hang him. I'll have to fix that too. Hourly check-ins aren't nearly enough. I could stab Darius in a minute, which means that an hour gives a killer enough time to drug or somehow disarm me, and kill Darius. Amateurs.

"I'll be outside," I whisper to Mal.

I wait for him to nod before leaving. As I suspected, Garrison is right outside the door. I give him a sheepish smile before walking towards the first books I spot. Oh, this is too easy. Benny is at the end of the hall, not bothering to try and blend into the wall. Gabe is in walking down the curve of the railing looking all too confident. I can see Winston doing the same thing across the way, and Ozzie on the floor above us, a bow and quiver across his back.

I turn around and give Garrison a 'really' look. He doesn't even look ashamed of his poor decisions. Not to worry, I'll have them in tip-top shape by morning.

Praying to the gods that Will isn't planning on attacking right now, I begin going over a few books.

Keeper of the Guild

Forever yet Never

Tales of the Goddess of All That Lives

I grab all of them. If I didn't recognize them and liked their title, they ended up in my hands. I'm not a book worm, I a freaking dragon. If I don't have something to read, I may just go out of my mind here or there. Maybe. I wouldn't know because I've always had something to read.

With ten books take up the room in my arms, I easily carry them to a small table ten feet from Garrison. I can feel his judgment like a knife on my back, but I could care less what he thinks. I set my books down with a semi-quiet thud, and then sit and start digging in. Sometimes I feel like I read too much to the point where I sometimes forget what my reality is. Like is it good? Is it bad? Am I in some faerie world? Is Crator - that handsome, muscled, dark-haired, sea green-eyed, all-around hunk of a faerie male - real? Or is it just in my dreams? If you know, please do tell me. Because I'm still searching for him.

I open Forever yet Never and begin reading about a girl who seems like a real bitch.

This is gonna be good.

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