Chapter 22 - Fauna
"Does he sing in the middle of the song?" I ask the Queen.
How long has it been since I've heard that song? Since I allowed myself to remember those familiar notes that meant more than the world to me?
As I walk to the piano, I feel my heart begin to race and my eyes water. There's this pull coming from my chest leading me to the eighty-eight keys, black and white alternating colors, and I can't stop myself from running my trembling fingers on them. When I first saw the piano in my sitting room that first day, I couldn't stop the rush of memories that flooded inside of me. There were too many, and I didn't want to get lost in them, so I followed Darius to the bedroom and left those memories in the back of my mind where I keep them locked behind a door marked DO NOT ENTER.
Now, I can't stop the last memory of when I last heard Mi Vos Can Vado Nunc. My Dear, You Can Go Now.
We were at the House of Jade in my parent's bedroom, my father at his desk planning some kind of assignment, me and brother sitting on either side of our mother on the bench before the big brown and detailed piano. She played the notes I'll never forget. Her left hand in front of my brother moved in a quick and steady pattern, while her right hand before me sang a slow and mourning lullaby. Then, as her lullaby falls to the lower scale degree, and her left hand continues with the pattern, only louder, her voice rises with the tempo in a sinful song.
Nos sunt lux, et vita
(We are light, and life)
(Guardians of the living)
Nos autem non in perpetuum vivere
(We will not forever live)
Eius lux est, et defluxit
(His light had faded)
And as she sings the last two lines twice, Lance and I would come in singing the overlay.
Hoc casus est super
(This adventure is over)
Mi vos can vado nunc
(My dear you can go now)
And when she finished the second round of the verse, Lance and I continued with ours three more times, and she echoes beneath in her final farewell.
Amor meus, vita mea
(My love, my life)
Then, after our three repeats, we all glide into her line - "Amor meus, vita mea" – once, and in tune with the fading melody of the dying climax that her fingers let play out on dark and misery notes.
Lance and I would then take the place of her long and soft calloused hands, and we'd play the beginning tune. Lance with the quick and steady pattern, and me back on the higher scale degree to play the lullaby. Though we played quieter than her trained fingers, she never once scolded us for it. In fact, she said it added more to the songs, like a missing puzzle piece to a bigger picture. And as we would play the tune in which embedded deeper into our bones with every press of a key, she'd serenade the room with the final verse.
The song sounds
Forever I will find him
Hidden in these notes
Hidden in these notes
Hidden in these notes
The song ends with our mother's voice on a low note and me and Lance on the higher notes of our scale.
Father stopped his planning to listen to our song, and watch with glossy eyes as we sang with our mother for the last time, though none of us knew of what was to come.
Lance and I had begged her to start it again, but she'd simply pulled us beneath her arms and said it was time for our minds to take its own adventure within our dreams. They tucked us into bed, and then went back to their room to fall asleep themselves. The song replaying itself in my mind, sang me to sleep, never to do the same after it was her we had to find hidden in those notes.
Darius's voice jolts me back into the Queen's sitting room, my hand slamming on the keys.
"If that's how she plays then I think we should wait for Arthur to get back."
"Kat." Darius snaps.
"I'm sorry, what is it you said?" I say, ignoring Kat
I look around the room trying to figure out how long I've been standing here, only to find only no less than a minute has passed. Kat and Thomas are still standing at the wall, the Queen still in her chair by the soft fire, though I'm sure she can't really get up and move on her own. The only person who isn't where I last saw them is Darius, who's now at my shoulder.
He eyes me carefully, an arm extended in my direction as if to comfort me, but still not touching me like he's unsure if he should or not. It's comforting and weird to know that we don't get awkward around each other with our situation and closeness and all. I mean we've held hands several times and I haven't cringed yet. What's wrong with me?
"She asked if you could play a song on the piano," Darius explains slowly.
"Oh. Um." I stutter unsure of what to say. "I can't. I mean I can play but I..." haven't played since that last night.
My thoughts must've shown on my face because Darius changes the subject to the events of the day. He started off by informing his mother about his lessons and then discovering me with my nose buried in a dozen books. He keeps the conversation focused on him, steering away from me when he can. I'm grateful for it, but my mind keeps drifting to the many songs my mom taught me and Lance to play. Then I think of all the songs that I've learned since then. Some while she was still here, a small few just after she passed from listening to the Melodic Orchestra in the amphitheater.
When I finally got out of mourning, I had to still cope with it. I often would sneak into the theater and sit on a beam to listen to the orchestra, rather than watch whatever play was being performed. And when the orchestra had a concert, I'd sneak under the stage, lay down on the floor, close my eyes, and let the music sweep me away. Music has always been my release, both playing and listening to it, but it hasn't sounded the same since. Even when I listened as the orchestra for hours on end, I'd find myself walking out with puffy eyes and a runny nose. Sometimes I'd lay right beneath the conductor's feet, but I mainly stuck to watching the pianist through the floorboards as their body swayed with the melody.
You play what you feel, or you play what was written.
Slowly, I sit on the piano bench but make no move to touch the keys. There's a part of me that wants to play, that wants to just put everything I'm feeling and have felt for so many years, into one long song. But there's the other part of me that knows that it's something that I need to do on my own. Not with an audience of people I've barely met.
So I sit at the piano, look over the keys, remember which chords were my favorite to play, but keep my hands firmly in my lap.
What's felt like only an hour - but has really been three times than that - I've done nothing but sit at this piano. My butt hurts from the wooden bench, and my back is aching from slouching for long. I'd get up, but I'm pretty sure that if I do, my legs will give out. Also, I really don't want to leave the piano yet.
I still haven't played a single note. My fingers yearn to dance on the ivory keys, but my head keeps saying no. My heart says, "just one song to feel the warmth of the words," but my mind says, "if you start, you'll never stop." Then my heart asks "what's so wrong with that?" And my head starts listing all the reasons.
It's a long list.
The Queen called for dinner a while ago, and even then, I still didn't stir. Not even when Kat pulled off the leg of the turkey and waved it in front of my face.
"It's like she became a statue."
After she gave up on trying to get me to eat, Darius came over and sat next to me. He hasn't touched the keys either, but I can see his hands twitching toward them every now and then. I'm not sure if it's just been a while since he's played and he doesn't want to embarrass himself, or if he's waiting for me go first. If it's the latter, we may be here for a few more hours.
Though my mind is focused on the piano and trying not to lose my shit, I still tune into the conversations that have been going on in the room. The Queen, it seems, likes Kat's slightly wild behavior and very opinionated voice. Thomas is still shy and polite as usual. I'm going to have to open him up if he's going to keep hanging out around us. I can't have a dull person in my life or else I'll start going crazy.
"You should eat," Darius says from beside me.
"Not hungry." Lie! I'm freaking starving. I'm surprised my stomach hasn't screamed it's status yet.
He drifts back into silence, releasing a long sigh through his nose. I know that it's contradicting, but I wish he'd start talking. His silence is worse than when he just won't shut up, and it's killing me to sit here thinking about my mother and the piano, and still somehow thinking of him too. It's revolting.
Just when I think he's not going to talk again, he opens his mouth. "You've been sitting here for hours, staring at the piano like it's a dead body, and not saying a word." He pauses waiting for me to look at him, but I don't. "What's going on?"
"Bullshit." This time I do look at him.
He looks like he's trying to keep his face neutral, but is failing miserably. His eyes are hard and angry, his mouth in a flat line, and the vein on his forehead is beginning to pop out.
"One minute you look like you're going to cry, the next like you want to chuck the dang instrument through a window. And in between that you look happy and smile at a distant memory."
I open my mouth to deny it, but I can't. Has he really been watching me this whole time?
Not knowing what to say or do, I shut my mouth and go back to staring at the keys.
"Your hands drift over the keys, but never make a sound. What's stopping you?"
"Her." The word jumps from my mouth before I can stop it.
It's not that the fact that it's the truth that has me pushing myself to my feet, but now I basically just told him everything that has been flying through my mind with one word. And why did I say it in the first place?
If I see a piano, I freeze and start to panic. It's weird, but so is biting your toenails, and I see people doing that all the time. In their own confined room, yes, but doing it, nonetheless.
Turning my back to the room and gazing out the small slit of a glass window, I gaze up at the stars and imagine the words that would've come from her mouth if she were here.
"Beneath the greed of men and hunger for power, this world is full of harmony. It's a song in need of listening, but it cannot be complete without its melody to recite its purpose."
"And you want to try to be its melody?" I ask her whispered voice.
"No. You need not try, for the music is already within you, Everglow. Simply listen and let its hymn ripple from your heart to those of others."
"And if I can't?"
"You are a strong, sweet girl. If you cannot, then you have chosen not to, and the silence of this pristine world will consume us all."
Well, that's comforting.
My mother was always speaking in riddles when it came to something important she wanted me to remember. Though I know that she's gone, and I can't talk to her face to face, I can always hear her when I look to the stars. I always knew she'd end up somewhere vast and beautiful, I just didn't think it would happen so soon. I wouldn't have even shied away from the piano if she were here. I would've played until my fingers were so tired that they began twitching uncontrollably.
"Clare?" I jump at the sound of Lance's voice.
When the hell did he get here?
"The piano?" He asks calmly. He knows me too well to not guess that it was the piano.
"They wanted me to play," I respond blandly.
"How long have you been sitting there?"
"A few hours. At least that's what Darius said."
I tend to lose track of time and my sense of awareness when I have these episodes - if you couldn't already tell. Lance knows how to pull me out of it, just like I know how to pull him out of it when he sees a rose or the scent of maple reaches his nose. There are other things too that send him thinking about Rose, but those are the ones that are the most common.
I know, how do we not get distracted during assignments? Well, let's say we've had a while to practice. Now, we only get stuck in situations like this when we know we can slip up for a moment or two. Or an hour or two. Maybe three.
"You're going to have to face her sooner or later."
"Look who's talking."
He sighs, and we both go back to looking at the stars. He's thinking about Rose, I'm thinking about mom. When you go through the things we have, you tend to find there's no real escape from those moments. You don't forget the life you saw in their eyes, their smile that felt like it could melt even the coldest of hearts. People are right when they say your loved ones never leave you, but what they don't tell you about, is the heave your chest does whenever you hear their name or see someone in a crowd who looks like them from behind. They don't tell you how you never know what their worth until they're gone, or how you'll never be able to tell your mother that she's the best mother a girl could ask for again. You'll never feel the warmth of their arms, nor the comfort of their presence.
Rose's death was a different kind of pain. She was the only real friend I've ever had. She gossiped and laughed with me about things I could never talk to Lance about. You know, girly things. Like how our monthly cycles sucked butt with all the cramps and surprise waterfalls that came out when you stand up after sitting for a long time. Or how we wished we had bigger boobs, or we would braid each other's hair or line our eyes in kohl and shade our eyelids different colors.
She wasn't afraid of me, never asked about the balaclava, or if she could see my face. I asked her about it once and she said, "Your face isn't going to change what you mean to me, so I see no reason as to bother you about it." That was the day I decided I'd never let anything bad happen to her. Rose was just another person I failed to protect, and another person who's eyes I can see in the stars.
After losing my mom, I vowed never to let anyone suffer the way she did. Then, after Rose, I realized that you can't always save everybody, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to try. Neither of them would want me and Lance standing here like abandoned puppies searching for a new owner to love them. They would want us to mourn in memory, then move on with our lives, keeping them within our hearts until they too stop.
"I'll make you a deal," I say to Lance.
"Don't do it, you'll lose," Darius calls from the piano.
"I never lose," Lance replies, his eyes still distant. "I'm in." He says in a lower tone so Darius doesn't hear.
"I'll start playing the piano again to get over mom if you start trying to get over Rose."
"We don't really have time for this, Fauna."
"Well, I have time. Plus we're in a place full of the cute and desperate woman for you and your...small friend to please."
He releases a heavy sigh, his jaw moving at an angle so he can bite the inside of his lip. It's a horrible habit he's had since he was a child. Father would scold him and tell him that if he didn't stop, he'd have no more teeth to use. Lance being the idiot he was, responded with, "I can still bite it with my gums." It didn't end well.
"Okay. But no setting me up." He jabs a finger at me and I'm very tempted to bite it off.
"I would never," I say. You know, like a total liar. "Hey Kat. Have you ever fu-" Lance cuts me off, putting his over my mouth.
"Have I ever what?" Kat says with an innocent smile.
Oh, come one, Lance. She's perfect for you.
"Have you ever hugged someone so hard that they fainted?" Lance says. Oh no.
"Well, allow me to show you how."
My eyes go wide and before I can elbow him in the gut, his other arm wraps around my chest, and he pinches my nose, his hand still on my mouth. Slowly.
Everyone but the Queen stays quiet and calm.
His grip doesn't loosen, and I can start to feel myself getting lightheaded. If father were here, he'd watch like everyone else and not bother to stop Lance. I know better than to tap out, but it's embarrassing to lose to your older brother. Is it just me or do older siblings have this thing where you can't embarrass or ruffle their feathers in public, but they sure as hell can do it to you? It's not fair, and I'm not giving up.
If I can sidestep slightly and manage to hit him hard enough in the groin, then his arms should loosen, and I can put him to sleep. I let myself relax slightly, slowly letting my legs bend underneath me. Darius shifts uncomfortably like he wants to jump in, but knows better and stays on the bench. At least he's smart.
As my head gets heavier and I feel my eyelids falling, I muster up whatever strength I can, and swing my fist right between Lance's legs. He immediately lets go and doubles over in pain. Air floods through my lungs, making my head spin slightly.
"You started it." My voice is slightly hoarse, and I have to cough out the scratchiness to sound normal again. "I was simply going to as Kat if she's ever fucked another servant. I've got to do my research if you plan on holding up your end of the bargain."
Kat's eyes go wide with surprise and horror. Oh, this is going to be fun. Don't you think?
"I should have known your pretentious ass would be a pain in mine," Lance mumbles in Galdian. It's another language we both were forced to learn. It's tricky on the tongue but entirely fun to use.
Blowing a kiss to my favorite brother, I turn back to Kat to still find her gawking.
"I'll take that as a yes. So. Who was it?" Unlike Kat who slams her mouth shut and gives me a defiant glare, Thomas is not so slick with hiding his fear, shame, and blush, and I instantly burst into laughter. Thomas? Of all the handsome guards and dreamy-eyed servants I've spotted in the halls, Thomas is who she decided to give her purity to? Don't get me wrong, Thomas is cute and polite, but he's just so...quiet. Maybe quiet is her type?
"Dear Gods, Kat. You surprise me more and more with each passing day."
"Oh stop your criticism, you've done worse." My smile fades at Lance's indication. He just has to ruin my fun by bringing up Will. Bitch.
"Yes well, we all learn from our mistakes."
I walk over to Kat who's standing behind the couch, Thomas still furiously red next to her. Putting one hand on her shoulder and the other on the tomato's, I give them my most generous smile and say, "I wish you both the brightest of futures, and pray to the Gods your children will be just as entertaining as you both."
Kat blushes and Thomas, somehow, turn redder. Gods this boy needs to sit in the sun every now and then. My smile turns into a wicked giggle. If only you could see the looks on their faces because it's too funny and hard to try and explain them to you.
"Good Gods, Clarice." He may have his balaclava on, but I can hear it in Lance's voice that he's fighting a smile.
"Is she always this vulgar?" The Queen asks my brother.
"Always." Both Darius and Lance answer in unison.
"Oh, stop it. You know you hope your pupil of a daughter turns out just as confident as I am, Your Highness." I plop down on the couch, not caring for manners as I take up the entire space.
"Confident, yes. Vulgar, no."
"Well, where's the fun in that?"
"It isn't your child, Clarice." Says Lance.
"I'd be concerned if it was." The Queen states.
"I'm concerned about any children Clarice might have," Darius says walking over to the couch I'm sitting on. He motions for me to move my legs, and when I don't, he grabs my ankles and throws them aside so he can sit. Prick. Naturally, I merely brush off his disruption of my bubble and burst his by flopping my feet onto his lap.
"All talk and yet you're the wench warming the Prince's bed." Lance snickers in Galdian.
"Oh look, the giant's turd can talk."
Before he can respond, the Queen's hand shoots out slapping me in the arm. "Ow!" I exclaim surprised that it hurt considering how many beatings I've taken over the years.
"That's enough of your dirty tongue for the night. Or I could talk to your father about your behavior." She adds when I open my mouth to respond. Just like Kat a few seconds ago, my mouth slams shut, and I give her a defiant glare.
When I look away from her knowing just what my father will do if he finds out that I'm acting a little too comfortable here, I find Lance equally scared as me, and Darius smirking.
"Nothing." He says looking away.
"Are we just going to ignore the fact that Kat and Thomas hooked up and none of us know how, or when, that happened?" He says changing the topic. If I wasn't so interested in the true topic at hand, then I would scold him for thinking he could get away with his judgment so easily.
In unison, both Lance and I say, "Storytime."
When we were younger, if someone brought up a subject or memory during a conversation, we would yell "story time" and that person would have no choice but to tell us the story from beginning to end. It was more of a family thing that we did when mom was still around. She and dad would talk about their old adventures before she got pregnant with Lance, and my brother and I would give them their cue and settle in close to each other, ready to hear their tales of old.
Preparing for the juicy story that's about to be spilled, Lance walks - or rather skips - toward me and Darius. Knowing what's coming, I pull myself into a sitting position so Lance can sit, and then plop my head back down on his thigh. Most of the time when we did storytime, he and I would sit like this. I liked to lay down and relax while I pictured everything being described happening in front of me, and Lance could never lay down and sit still while our parents talked.
"No." Kat protests. "Not storytime."
"Oh come on. I do love a good sex story." I plead.
Before the Queen can once again slap and threaten me, I turn to her hands raised. "Okay, okay. I'm done."
She gives me a doubtful look but puts her hand back in her lap, nonetheless. Gods this woman went from sweet to sinister really quick. I wonder if she's considering leaving the King anytime soon. It's been years since my father's smiled.
"Whatever you're thinking," Lance says interrupting my train of thought. "Don't do it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
I look back to Kat, a careful challenge written on my face.
"Fine." She relents.
"What?" Thomas says looking horrified.
"Only because I know that you'll go snooping around until you find out, and it's better if you hear it from us."
Ignoring Thomas, Kat walks around the couch and sits in the open chair. Lance and I smile in anticipation and hunger for a good story we haven't had in a while. Darius looks calm as always, but the Queen looks like she'd rather be in meetings with the council than in this room. I don't blame her. I mean I can be a handful, and this sort of conversation topic can get pretty detailed. Especially since I'm here. Though to be completely honest, I'm just asking the questions that Lance - and maybe even Darius are too afraid to ask. I don't mind though, it's fun to be the inappropriate one.
"It happened last year..."
"I do love a good story before I go to sleep," I say standing from the couch and stretching my arms.
Turns out I was right about Kat and Thomas's love story. It was juicy as hell. Not only did I find out that Thomas is actually "a God in the bedroom" (just to quote Kat), but also that servants have a lot more fun than I originally thought.
Settled on the couch with my legs on Darius's lap and my head on Lance's, I didn't hold back a single question. I was surprised when the Queen didn't throw her slipper at my head for the details I requested. Not that she could necessarily reach down and pick it up with her stomach being blown up and all. Some part of me thinks that deep down, she wanted to hear the gossip just as much as I did.
Thomas cowered by the window I sulked at earlier, but he did comment and "correct" Kat when she told us certain things. Like how it was her that begged and not him. They fought on the topic for a good three minutes before Kat turned back to us and continued the story. When she finished, I considered trying to seduce Thomas, but I came to the conclusion that he would probably run every time I came near him if I did. Plus, he's still too quiet.
"That's your idea of a good bedtime story?" Darius asks standing beside me.
"Well, what's yours?"
"Oh, Darius loves the Tales of the Drifter and the Dame." The Queen says proudly.
"The Drifter and the Dame, huh?"
"I was nine."
"Oh, how he begged and begged me every night to read it to him before his nursing maid took him back to his rooms. Sometimes, he'd even ask her to read it again." Her face is set in a calm remembrance that is the complete opposite of Darius's expression. He's in a state of annoyance.
"Well, I'd be honored to carry on the tradition and read him the Tales of the Drifter and the Dame every night before he sleeps. Wouldn't you like that Darius." Based on his glare and stormy eyes...I'd say no. "Kat could retrieve the book from the library."
"Oh, no need." The Queen chimes. "The book is lying on my night dresser in my room. Fetch it for me please, Katarina."
As Kat disappears to retrieve Darius's childhood dreams with a pinched smile, Lance gives me a knowing look and Darius looks like steam should be coming out of his nose and ears.
"Promise me you won't ruin the book." The Queen asks taking my hand between her soft ones.
"I wouldn't dream of damaging such treasured memories." Okay, maybe that was a little too much.
Or was it?
No, it definitely was.
Kat returns, a small red worn book placed atop her hands. Darius looks at it as if he wants to chuck it in the fire. It's all I can do to not to take it and wave it in front of him to see what he does. Kat hands the Queen the book, and I watch as a small tear falls down the tired woman's cheek.
"To think that I'll be doing it all over again..."
She hands me the book, a content smile on her lips that makes her look younger. Without being told, Lance steps around the chair and helps the Queen out of the chair.
"Well, I think it's about time we all retire for the night."
"Goodnight, my Queen," I say giving her a small but suitable curtsy.
"Dream well." Kat offers, curtsying as well, Thomas bowing behind her. Does he know that he's drifted closer and closer to her?
"Sleep well, mother," Darius whispers as she wraps her arms around his neck.
Watching as mother and son hug each other, I can't help but think of the last time I hugged my mom and what it felt like. It's a faded memory, worn by the time that's passed since it happened. Lance and I share a look of mirrored thoughts before he leads her to her bedroom, and we make our own way out of the Queen's chambers.
We walk through the halls in silence, the only noise coming from the owls and crickets and commotion of servants and guards attempting to fix the damage conceived earlier this evening. Darius and I don't hold hands or each other's waist. We just walk in silence, enjoying the nighttime breeze and the company of The Dozen who were waiting just outside the doors of the Queen's quarters.
Kat and Thomas left to see what clothing they could find in which Darius and I could use to sleep in. No doubt that there's a full collection Thomas can look through to find something for Darius. I, however, am completely okay with sleeping in my suit.
Speaking of which, I probably need to send Kat to go get it from the secret tunnel entrance behind the bookcase before a snooping servant finds it and puts two and two together. You didn't want to think about that before Lance's voice says to me. I call it my conscience. Odd that it sounds like Lance rather than my father.
We reach one of the doors in the Canary Wing, which literally has a giant canary painted on its doors. The rooms are bigger than mine but smaller than the Queens. A perfect guest room for Lords and Ladies and primped princesses. It's colored in gold and, of course, only has one bed. Before Darius could say anything, I grab a pillow and toss it onto the low lying couch at the foot of the bed.
"If you try and insist that I take the bed, I will read this every night before you go to sleep," I say, waving the book when I see him open his mouth.
"That was cruel to take advantage of my mother like that."
"Oh don't get your pants in a twist, I'll give it back to her tomorrow. Along with a sweet story of how you sucked your thumb as I read it to you before you slipped seamlessly into a deep sleep."
"Unbelievably gorgeous, funny, and-"
"I was going to say deadly, but that too."
He rolls his eyes and waits for Thomas to walk in before heading into the bathroom to bathe. While he's doing that, Kat helps me with the pins in my hair and taking off the gown. As I slip into a silky, royal blue nightdress that's, in my opinion, too short, I ask her about the rest of her love life. It's a short story. Really short.
I go to lay on the couch when I realize that I'm in a thin, shiny dress that's held up by two small straps, goes only to mid-thigh, and is very revealing. What the hell was Kat thinking? What the hell was I thinking about putting it on?
Thankfully, Kat also brought in a big blanket, and I throw that over me just as Darius walks out of the bathroom.
Of for saints sake.
Guess who's not wearing a shirt. Again. Like I said before, he's got nothing to hide, but can't he just be a little more civilized and cover the fuck up? Then again, I'm the one wearing practically nothing under this wool blanket.
Thomas and Kat leave saying soft goodnights. Those smug lovesick birds think I didn't catch the suspicious glance they share before they close the bedroom doors. Idiots. As Darius shifts in the bed, I hear footsteps walk into the room, stopping just outside the bedroom doors. Two taps of a foot and I know it's only Garrison and one of the other Dozen taking the first watch.
Once again, I wait for Darius's breathing to get slow and deep, before letting sleep claim me, and dream of a faraway land to keep my thoughts happy.