Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 3 - Darius

Every morning is the same. Wake up, wash up, eat breakfast (brought in by the Thomas), get dressed (with the clothes Thomas, picked out), and finally, read until summoned, training starts or a special event or activity in which I had no idea was in my schedule, begins. A typical, boring morning for a typical prince like myself.

“Anything special today, Thomas?” I say looking at the clothes he has laid out for me. Cream-colored pants, white tunic, and a royal blue jacket with gold embroidery.

“Not of my knowledge, Prince.”

“Bummer.”

Though my life is simple and ordinary aside from the crown, title, and enormous amount of wealth, I do find ways to make it interesting. For example, two weeks ago after sleeping in until late afternoon, training, and doing late lessons in the library with Professor Aracely, I threw a small party in the training rooms in which everyone but my parents and their guards were invited to. Later that night, one of the lower guards ended up with an ax lodged in his head after a young maiden claimed she could hit the bullseye in one go. Of course, she was drunk and had horrible vision, but she did hit an eye. Just not the bullseye. After that unfortunate event in which my mother found out through the gossiping servants, she made me promise not to do anything else of the sort when I got bored.

“Let’s go into town today, Thomas.”

“Come again?”

“You. Me. Walking. To town.”

“I heard you, I just wanted to see if you were being serious.”

“Of course I’m serious! We’ve got nothing to do today and I don’t think another party is a wise choice.”

“Correction sire, you’ve got nothing to do today. I, however, have several chores in which I can busy myself with. You’re welcome to join if you’d like.”

This is why I like Thomas. Though he knows I could have him hanged for the most idiotic of reasons, he still has no fear in telling me my wrongs in my face. He’s my age so he understands most of what I’m going through, despite our difference in status, and that’s why I keep him around. If only I could get him to be a little more normal in other ways. He’s helpful and practically the only true friend I have aside from my guard and favorite cousin.

“Oh come on, I’m sure one day of missing chores won’t do much damage.”

“Well, I guess it depends if you’d like your sheets changed after the night you had with a commoner’s daughter? Or if you’d like your clothes washed and refreshed with the rose scents you love so much?”

“Oh, that can hold off for one day, Thomas. It’s not like I have anything to dress for tomorrow.” I say brushing off his false acquisition about my bedsheets. Despite the rumors, I don’t have sex with different girls every night. Or every year. Believe it or not, I was the one to start those rumors. I knew from a young age that I was one day going to be forced to marry someone who I’ve likely never met or have no interest in marrying, so I told fibs that I slept with every girl in sight – servant or commoner – just so that my options would shrink when the eligible wealth came waltzing in. It got to the point where girls started claiming to have slept with me and fallen in love, and my mother’s scolded me ever since. Sometimes, I can see her studying me in question of whether they’re true or not. You’d think that with me being so close to her, she would’ve caught on that they’re all lies.

I watch as Thomas bites his tongue, as he always does when he’s trying to think very hard on a decision. Some people during balls or small occasions in the castle have asked if Thomas and I are… involved. The truth is, we’ve grown up together in this castle, and we’re just really good friends who both have an interest in women only. At least, I do. Thomas is rather closed lip on his personal life, and I’m not one to go poking around. Most of the time.

“A few hours in town and then we come back before dark,” Thomas says with a stern look. Though I could just send him off to do his chores and leave myself, everyone knows for me to go out alone is a suicide mission in itself.

“Fine.”

“And we bring Malen with us.”

“Deal.”

With that, Thomas goes to get my long, dirty coat from the armoire that I only use for when going into town. Normally when going into town, I’m on top of Melody, my prized and beloved mare, surrounded by my twelve highly trained guards and not at all trying to blend in. Times like these, however, call for a different wardrobe and entourage.

I switch my shirt for the dirty one from yesterday off the floor and then throw on the coat. Thomas puts his on that he also stashes in my armoire, and then I open the door slightly and signal for Malen who’s posted outside my door to come in. The other eleven of my guard are likely stationed throughout the long staircase of my tower. They won’t miss us.

“Going into town, wanna come?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really.”

He gives a loud a heavy sigh before nodding once and taking the third coat in Thomas’s hand.

Malen’s handsome, and when we’re out together, the women gravitate right to him and, somehow, skip over me entirely unless I speak aloud. I believe it’s the blonde hair and blue eyes that turn them on, but Thomas always loves to debate it’s his accent that gets them. Malen hasn’t told anyone where he’s from, and I’m smarter than to go asking and probing in his past. He’s not necessarily a quiet person, he’s just…guarded.

Finally ready, we walk to my bedroom and open the secret passage behind my bookshelf that leads to a forgotten sewage tunnel, leading to an alley just outside the castle grounds. When I was younger, I’d travel down these dark tunnels and imagine an ancient dragon or beautiful creature with a lion’s face roaming the castle. I used to sneak bites of my meals down here to try and lure the creatures out, but all that came were fat rats and stray cats. Don’t pet them, they’re not friendly.

Walking in the tunnel now, all I can do is think of how creepy and easy it would be to kill someone or stash a body down here. Oh, the imagination and fearlessness of children.

We walk in silence, Thomas and Malen at each of my sides and a torch in hand. Malen knows that trying to convince me not to do something, is like trying to tell my mother she’s not currently pregnant. I mean the woman’s stomach is practically going to explode any day now. That’s the other thing. Brother? I mean, the word hasn’t settled in me yet. I don’t even know what to think or make of it. The gender of the child has been kept strictly to the knowledge of my parents and the Anevay. Outside of that circle, only rumors of the gender roam about. Every servant has a baby name in mind for my mother, but everyone knows not to mention it to her or my father unless they ask for it.

Personally, I don’t even know if I want to be a brother. I mean, I know little of the responsibility and rules the position holds, not to mention I’m not exactly Vandaria’s best role model. I mean look at what I’m currently doing under the noses of the entire castle. Speaking of which, we reach the sewage tunnel’s end thirty or so minutes later, and I let Malen climb the metal ladder and move the heavy plate that covers the hole, before following him onto the cobblestone street. I’m instantly greeted by the smell of fresh air and Vandarian spices from the food carts in the main street. Though I’d like to one day walk freely and alone through my kingdoms’ lands, some things are better left to fantasize about.

“Where to now?” Thomas asks pulling on his hood.

“Gretel’s,” I respond with, before pulling on my hood and heading to the tavern I always go to.

As we weave our way through a small crowd, making sure to keep our heads down and ears open, I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure Malen and Thomas are still there. I know that trying to pry them from me would be like trying to get a leech to stop sucking your blood, and though I have the training, I still feel better when I know they’re there. I do it again before opening the door to Gretel’s and taking a seat in a dark corner.

“Can I get you, boys, anything?” A young waitress asks.

“Kidzra,” Malen says without so much as a second glance.

The waitress nods, entirely oblivious to the fact that the Crown Prince is sitting in the dark corner, wearing a dirty old cloak. Or the fact that two eighteen-year-olds and a nineteen-year-old are asking for the strongest liquor. I smile at the thought of me standing up on the table and taking off the cloak, only to see the surprised expressions of everyone in the tavern. I nearly did one time when I came with Ethan – who loves having a grand old time – but thankfully Thomas was there, sober as always. He only ever sips the drink, leaving two-thirds of his mug still full, and it bothers the shit of me most of the time. Drink it for Saints' sake! I yell to myself every time he does so.

Coming into town isn’t just to have fun and get drunk, I especially love coming into town to hear the gossip the commoners have to say when surrounded by women and drunk thoroughly themselves. Malen and Thomas both know this, of course, they’ve been out here with me enough times to know I search for the rumors regarding, more specifically, stories.

“Nah, I hear she’s got light brown hair that smells of the forest after a storm. Not to mention lips as red as strawberries.” A man of small stature and greying beard says at the table behind me.

“Foley! She’s got red hair as bright as the reddest apple. Isn’t that right Jack?” Says another dark-haired man.

“So rumors claim. Though there have been recent rumors in which say she’s a blonde.”

“As bright as the sun.” The other remarks.

“Though it’s supposed to have some brown in it too.”

“Always had a thing for dirty ones you did, Rulf.”

“An’ what’s wrong with that, Cedric?”

“Notin’ only that-”

“Pardon me,” I say. I mean how can you not be fascinated by this talk of a naturally beautiful and mysterious woman. “But I couldn’t help overhear your conversation. Who’s this woman you’re speaking of?”

“Ain’t no woman lad.” Says the green-eyed man - Jack, if I recall correctly.

“Young girl then?” I lean further onto the two hind legs of my chair trying to get closer to them.

“Nope.”

“Who’s it you speak of then?”

“Are you from out of town?”

“Of a sort, yes.”

“Well take my word for it and don’t go looking for the girl. You’ll find she ain’t so pretty and nice as the rumors may claim.”

“Very well, but who is she? Just so I know who to avoid.”

They all look at me quizzically, probably wondering if I'm really out of town, or am looking to get in bed with this woman because I have a death wish. Which, depending on the woman, I might.

“You speak of the Jade, do you not?” I snap my head to Thomas who has known this entire time very well of whom they were referring to. One look at Malen’s face and I know he knows who this mystery woman is too. No wonder they looked at me oddly, I’m the only who isn’t in on the joke. “The one who sings?”

“We do.” Cedric, I think, says to Thomas. He turns to me and says, “Best not go near that one boy, or your life will be over before its begun.”

Thinking on his words I turn back to Malen and Thomas, just as the waitress brings three glasses of Kidzra out, and plops then on our table. I wait for her to leave, and the conversation at the men’s table to start up again before looking at Thomas. “Jade?”

“The assassin.”

“Assassin?”

“For the Gods sake Darius, they speak of the Jade Assassin.” The confusion must’ve been written on my face because Malen gives a long sigh.

“The. Jade. Assassin.” Emphasizing it Malen doesn’t help. “You still have no clue, do you? Of the rather large amount of time you spend here in town, Darius, I would expect you to hear rumors of the Ebony.”

Ebony. The Ebony Nightingale? The trained from birth, daughter of the Jade King, relentless killer, defender of the defenseless, infamous, assassin? The Jade Assassin? She’s known for killing a person with one blow. With and without a blade or weapon in her hand. Rumors, or so I’ve heard, say she could make a man think suicidal thoughts with one look. One word. No one, and I mean no one, has seen her or her brother’s faces. Only the color of their eyes is rumored truth since it’s the only feature besides skin color one can see. Now to mention, those who manage to survive their horrors, say hers are brown but have a speck of gold, and his are grey like the clouds before a storm.

Her brother, better known as the Sinister Fox, is just as skilled, wicked, and cruel. Though he does have a few more years of experience on her, they’re both relentless and the most feared above my father. To get a visit from both of them is to practically be visited by Griselda. They show no mercy unless ordered to by their father - The Jade King. There are rumors and stories about him too, just as notorious and gruesome as his children’s.

Though I’ve fantasized about meeting her, I’ve never once seen the Nightingale or the Fox before.

“I know that look, Darius,” Malen says from across the table,

“What look?” I feel myself contorting my face trying to hide my thoughts.

“The look that says you’re going to go searching for her.”

“I’m not-”

“No need to search,” Thomas says interrupting my lie.

“And why is that?”

“Because she’s at the House of Jade.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“The two girls behind Malen said they were admiring a sentinel at the Jade House when the Nightingale spotted them, and they ran off.”

Twenty minutes later, I casually stand from the table and leave Gretel’s, forcing Thomas and Malen to follow.

“This is a bad idea, Darius.”

It’s taken us about thirty minutes to walk from Gretel’s to the other side of town to the House of Jade. All the while Malen has been so kind as to fill those thirty minutes by telling me how bad of an idea it is. Maybe we should’ve brought Ethan, at least he would be more interested in seeking out the Ebony.

I just want to see her - from a distance, of course. If the rumors have spoken true, then I’d be best by staying away from her rather than test my chances with death by approaching her. I mean it’d be nice to see what she’d do if I told her, or rather she realized, who I am. What would she do? Kneel? Bow? Or will it just make her want to kill me more? Either way, I’ll try not to get caught.

Or will I?

“I heard you the last fifty times you’ve told me so, Malen. I just want a glimpse is all.”

“A glimpse? At the House of Jade? And how, exactly, do you plan on getting past the sentinels they have posted at every rooftop surrounding the house?”

“Just…watch my back.”

As we turn a corner in an alleyway that leads straight to the House of Jade, I pull my hood ever so slightly back. If their sentinels are posted above as Malen claims, then seeing my face may make them hesitate on the whole killing me thing. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry. So I walk closer to a shaded wall trying to blend in with the shadows. Usually, I’m out here at night where sneaking about is far easier in the dark, but there’s a first time for everything. Luckily, there are a few crates stacked at the end of the alley we can use to hide behind.

As I crouch down behind one, I find a perfect view of the house across the street. From here the place looks absolutely vicious and elegant at the same time. There’s a garden behind the tall, metal fence where two very broad-shouldered Jade Assassin sentinels stand. I can barely make out a few daggers, throwing knives, and a sword hidden in their clothing and under the distinct black and jade cloak. Unlike the Nightingale and Fox, these men don’t bare a balaclava to hide their identities. Of course, they probably have ten aliases in which they use to confuse people on who they are.

Nothing is subtle about the House of Jade. I mean they have Jade flowers all in the garden and at almost every windowsill. There’s the Jade kill mark plastered directly over the door for everyone to see, more assassins on the roof, balconies, and some I can spot just inside of a few windows, not to mention the very, very obvious sign on the gate that says:

House of Jade

Enter if you so dare.

Everything looks purposely and expertly arranged to get in the minds of those who wish to walk in. I’d say everyone but a Jade Assassin would be absolutely terrified of entering their stronghold. It’s all one big masterpiece that I must admit, I admire. The only thing that keeps bringing up questions to mind, is the black carriage posted just to the side of the gate entrance. There’s no sigil, no luggage, not even the driver gives a hint as to who owns the carriage. Then again, whoever it does belong to is visiting the House of Jade. Better not to be recognized by the enemy in which you may be trying to overthrow.

My thoughts must be written on my face, because Thomas leans over to me and whispers, “City-owned, people can rent them out.”

Smart. Rent an inconspicuous carriage that has many just like it is roaming the city, and it’ll be hard to track and figure out who’s inside. I’d know this if my parents would just allow me to walk down there at least once a week. I mean we rule over these people, shouldn’t we dinge to wonder and ask what the people themselves need and do down here?

“Look,” Malen says pointing up to a window on the second floor.

At first, I can only see the Jade flowers and a slight glare on the window, but as I look more closely, I can see it. Or rather, see her. By the Gods, it’s the Ebony Nightingale. Though I can only see her side and the silhouette of her hood and cloak, she’s still a sight to see. Still, a force to be reckoned with, and still someone in which people, like me, rightly fear.

“Alright, you’ve had your look-see, now let’s go.”

“Wait.” I grab Malen’s arm and tug him back down beside me.

From behind the crates, I watch as she puts her arm across her chest and bows from the waist. Whoever’s meeting with them must be of great importance if two highly trained assassins bow to them.

“Do you think it’s a lord?” I ask Malen.

“They wouldn’t bow to a lord. They wouldn’t even salute them.”

“So then who is it that they’re bowing to?”

“Could be their father, he’s the only person any of them bow to,” Thomas states leaning closer to the crates. At least I’m not the only one interested in this.

“My father is likely the last person they’d bow to. This is someone else.”

“Who?”

As if on cue, the two double doors from the House of Jade open, and the King of Jades himself walks through them, a woman at his side. It wasn’t seeing the face of the notorious king himself that had me going instantly still, but the woman in which is unmistakably wealthy and of high ranking. I mean how do you forego the wealth in the clothing, or the ring on her finger, or the big lump of a belly that can be seen from a block away. She’s-

“The queen,” Thomas says.

“What in rutting hell is your mother of all people doing at the House of Jade?”

“I-I don’t know.”

Once she’s in the carriage, I look back to the window and find the Ebony watching my mother climb into the carriage. I can’t see the color of her eyes from this distance, but I can feel the change in the air. A shadow comes up behind her, and it’s the calmness in her stature that tells me exactly who that shadow is. The Sinister Fox. Gods, he’s tall and just as broad-shouldered as the two sentinels at the gates. Both have scary-looking suits on underneath the traditional Jade cloak. I can’t imagine what the entire suit looks like, or what they hold underneath.

The sound of wheels on cobblestone pulls my gaze from them, and I look to find my mother heading back to the castle. With one last glance to the house and the now empty window, I turn on my heel and walk quickly back down the alley.

“Where are we going?”

“Home. Mother has some explaining to do.”

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