Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 31 - Lance

I exit the tunnels through a dusty secret door behind a painting in a dark hallway. My muscles still have some energy to give, but I'm just so...tired. This day has been hell, and with every step back to my rooms, I can feel the wormhole inside me pulsing. It yearns to pull me into its abyss, and I'm not entirely sure why, but I refuse to let it do so. Maybe it's the fact that I've lived with it there for ten years now and am used to its presence, or maybe because I've fought against death my whole life that it's hard to surrender to it now. Either way, I'm in no happy mood when I find Lena waiting in front of my door.

"The Queen has asked for your presence."

I motion for her lead the way, too many words crammed in my throat to speak. Fauna could've gone on longer, but I saw her start to pull her punches and keep her knives at a shorter distance so she wouldn't cut me, and I knew that the killing calm had slipped up in her. I can still feel it lingering in me, but it's easy to ignore since my thoughts are elsewhere.

I find the Queen sitting upright in her bed, Siscilla holding her hand and standing at her bedside. "Come sit, Arthur."

My legs move on their own accord, walking up to the bed and sitting me down beside her knee.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm just tired. It's been...it's been a long night."

"I heard. Alister came in about an hour ago with a message from my son."

"We're sorry for your loss, Arthur," Siscilla says, placing her other hand on my shoulder.

My mind's moving to slow to care about how Darius knew what happened. I'd say my sister told him, but the other's didn't seem to know, so I erase that idea. "You could've saved him," I say to the healer.

"Perhaps."

"That's what I keep telling myself. That he could've been saved, but he was low on time, and he knew it. He felt it."

"Death will always be a mystery, no matter what kind of relationship we try and make with him."

Not to me. I can still see him in the corner. Still feel him breathing along my neck. He's been hovering around me for ten years, slowly plucking the things that give me reasons to live from my life. All that's left is my baby sister, and I'm not sure how much longer I can keep her from his grasp. She'll fight against him, even when she does take her last breath, but if that happens, then that means I've failed her.

I could run. I could grab her and run and never look back, just like father told me to if things go badly. There's plenty of supplies here in the castle to prepare us for whatever trip we need to take, but I won't do it. I won't steal from the castle, I won't grab her hand and hold it tight as we tread the barren land. I won't run, because then I would've failed him. He said I've never failed him, even when I thought that I did, I didn't, and if I were to do so now...the weight I'd be carrying from that fact alone will be relentless. My father gave me an order to protect my sister and the prince, and I've never disobeyed him. Death can drag its spindly finger down my spine, but what he can't do is take the small drops of love that they left within me.

I have no one left in this world but Fauna, but I do have everyone I've loved waiting for me in the next life, and for them, I will stay here. For their lives given so that I can stand here now, I will fight. My chest is caving in, and though I'll likely allow the whispers to keep me in distant mourning for a few days or weeks, I won't let myself forget all I have left.

"I can't always save people," Siscilla says. "I can't always heal the wounds quickly enough to keep their heart beating, and every second of every day I feel the weight of that fact threaten to drag me down."

"How do you not fall beneath the weight?"

"By remembering that there are lives I can save. By knowing that Asclepius, the God of the Healed, gave me the power to heal, not the power to perform miracles."

"We're all given gifts, Arthur, and though yours may not seem like a blessing at the moment, they're more a blessing to you than those of which others carry. We can't even begin to understand what you've been through, but we do understand that letting yourself being overtaken by grief and pain, isn't the path you should take."

"The Queen and I stand here now to tell you that you have more than you think in this world. We may not be family, may barely know each other given only twelve days' time..."

"But we are not going anywhere. We're not going to let you and your sister go through this alone. Not because we owe you for keeping me and the others alive, but because we refuse to let darkness win." I feel my eyes burning, tears threatening to rush out furiously as the healer and the Queen both give their comforting words.

"I've seen enough death in that tower, boy, and the last thing I need see is you and your sister's bodies being covered with white sheets in the morning. You're not alone."

"And you never will be again." The Queen finishes.

Tears fall silently down my cheek and onto the satin sheets. This is the balance of good and evil in the world. The dark claimed another life, and for it, the light provided me with the legs I needed to stay standing. Siscilla's right, we may not know each other that well, but I have a feeling that they both just became family. I wish Fey was here to see this, but something tells me that she's got at least eleven people doing the same for her.

"Thank you," I say, nothing inspirational or supportive in return for theirs coming to mind. That was always left to my parents to handle.

"Your welcome."

"Go get some sleep"

I hug them both before saying goodnight and walking down the hall to my rooms.

I'm not sure how they did it, but some of tonight's weight has fallen. I still feel like I need to lay down in bed and cry myself to sleep, but I feel less likely to be zoning out the entirety of tomorrow. My heart's still cleaved in two, but without being fractured, bones don't grow stronger. Sadly, the healing takes time, and all I want to do is grab my sister and hold her all throughout the night. I want to smell her scent of lemongrass and lavender, feel her breathing in my own scent, and let it coax me to sleep. I love that annoying asshole with every broken piece of my heart, and it's practically killing me not to be able to keep her within arm's length of me at all times.

I scrub off the blood in between my fingers and on my face, my skin turning pink with my vicious efforts. I could probably use a bath, but I'm honestly too lazy and tired and smart enough to know that if I take one, I'll end up overflowing the tub with my tears. I won't even get out when I start shaking from the water going cold.

As I start shucking off all my knives and hiding them throughout the room, I let my mind wander into the memories left of him.

I was twelve, and we were in the training halls at three in the morning. Everyone who wasn't on guard duty was sleeping in their beds, while my father drilled me and my sister. She just turned ten a month ago, and we had a whole day off from training, so we ate ourselves sick with cake and highly sugared sweets. Father was teaching us how to place our hand between our necks and the knife placed at our throats. We learned using fake wooden daggers, and when he decided that we were ready to try with a real dagger, he woke up Helen just in case we didn't raise our hand in time.

She refused to watch and faced the wall when he grabbed me from behind and placed the dagger's edge against my skin. I looked down at my nose, watching his hand and arm carefully. I felt the tell he told us to look for and shoved my fingers into the blade's edge. My hand screamed in pain as the blade sliced into it, but I didn't scream aloud, and my father began patting me on the back and telling me it was a job well done. Helena healed my hand, muttering her disapproval while she did. Then it was Fey's turn.

We were taught to hide our fear, but with her being two years younger and still a child learning the ways of the world, her eyes were moving too quickly to spot dad's tell, and she didn't get her hand up in time. The cut was shallow since he pulled back and didn't hit anything of major concern, but that didn't stop her from crying and her hands shaking in panic. My father was angry that she didn't do it, but he never could bring himself to yell at her when such panic overcame her. I myself ran over to try and calm her down, but dad moved first and slit his own neck. It was shallow and harmless like hers, but it still scared the living shit out of me to see his blood drip down his skin.

He kneeled down in front of her and took her face between his hands. "It's only a scratch, little one. See," he said extending his neck so she could see his. "It's alright."

It took her a second, but she took a few steadying breaths before nodding. He pulled her into a hug, apologizing for scaring her, and when he pulled back, she just looked in his eyes and said, "again."

Three tries later, she got it. We kept going like that for another hour until even the slice of the cut in our hand barely registered. Helen said it was because the nerves were being damaged over and over again, but Fey thought it was because we had super strength, and neither I nor my father had the heart to tell her otherwise.

Her nickname, Fey, came up two years before that. I don't remember exactly how we got Fey from Fauna, but it stuck. The earliest memory of the name that I have of first using it, was when we were practicing climbing the House of Jade walls. Father was at the bottom, along with Rykiel and a few other hefty sentinels. They gave us instructions on where to grab and what to look for in certain spots to see if we should use or avoid it. Fauna thought they were there to cheer her on, but I knew very well that they were there to catch us if we fell. h

We were three quarters up the wall when I hear her give a strangled squeal. I looked down to find her staring between her legs at the long drop that beheld her if she let go. I was a few feet above her and not skilled with the art of lowering myself down the wall to get back to her. My father and the others were yelling at her to keep going, but she was stuck. She was only eight, and though we had just gone through tough times that aged her a bit, she was still a little girl. I had the cockiness of every kid brother at a young age, but I hated hearing the muffled sobs she gave off hanging on the wall.

"Fauna look at me!" I called down to her. She just shook her head quickly, her knuckles white with her grip. "Fauna look! We're almost there! Don't stop!"

"Shut up, you're not helping!" She yelled back.

"Just look up!"

"No!"

"Fauna!"

"No!"

"Fey!" I screeched louder.

"What!" Her head shot up, and I smiled down at her in triumph. She couldn't see it through the balaclava, but I still smiled nonetheless.

"I promise you won't fall." I reached down as far as I dared, my other hand wedged deep inside a crack.

"You're being mean."

"How am I being mean?"

"You're showing off."

"Oh for Saint's sake, Fey, climb."

"Shut up."

"Unless you want to fall, you need to keep moving up." She didn't answer, so I looked back down to find her watching me with glistening eyes. "Have I ever broken a promise, Fey?"

"No." She said weakly.

"I promise you won't fall." I kept my hand outstretched to her, even went so far as to wiggle my fingers to get her to ease up.

Just when I thought that I'd have to brave the unknown and attempt at lowering myself down, she gripped a crack above her and started moving higher. I waited until her feet reached the same level as my hands before following her. When she reached the top, I pushed her butt over the edge and heard as she landed on the roof with a thud. Dad and the sentinels whooped from below, the guards stationed on the roof happily giving the now hyper Fauna high fives. I sat on the edge of the roof watching as she danced around and started yelling "let's do it again!" We did, and we kept doing it until our nails cracked and father threw us over his shoulders and carried us into our rooms for a bath.

That same night, he came into my room to talk. He let Mary go tuck in my sister and waited until she left before leading me beneath my own blanket. My father hadn't tucked me in or said goodnight in a while, so I was over the moon that he was doing so. At least, that was until he looked at me with the face that said, "I'm worried." He stayed silent for a few minutes, him just looking at me as I fiddled with my fingers and picked at the skin that had peeled from climbing so much.

"Lance, how much do you love your sister?"

"A lot."

"How much is a lot?"

"Mmmmmm...Too much to measure."

"And what you do for her?"

I took a minute to think about it. I wasn't sure what he meant. Like would I catch her if she fell off that wall? Cause, of course, I'd do that. "Whatever I needed to. I love her too much to see her as scared as she was today. I would've climbed down to her if I needed to, even if I didn't know how."

"For your sake, my son, I pray you'll never have to see your sister like that again. Now get some rest." He patted his hand atop my own, and then stood, walking towards the door.

"Father?"

"Yes." He stopped in the doorway, his eyes worn and tired, and it was for that alone that I swore to do everything so that I wouldn't see him as scared as Fey was.

"Will you stay with me? Please? Just for a bit." I added when I saw the refusal in his eyes.

"Alright." He said with a sigh.

He walked back over to the bed and motioned for me to scoot over. When he settled down next to me, I didn't give him the chance to refuse before I swung his arm behind my head and settled into his side. He didn't argue, didn't pull his arm out from under me, or push me off, but instead, he wrapped his arm around me and pulled me closer. I don't know why, but I started crying. He didn't say anything, just kept me tucked beside him.

"I miss her," I said grabbing the edge of his jacket.

"Me too, son. Me too."

I let myself fall asleep, sure that he would likely slip out from under me when I dozed deeply enough. But when I woke up, he was still there. I still hand his jacket clutched in my hand as if I clutched him here all night, and he still had his arm keeping me against him.

That was the only night he did that. The only night that I look back and remember hearing the slight crack in his voice when he told me he missed mom too. I've kept that memory to myself, not even telling Fauna about it. It's like this sacred thing that I've buried so deeply into my heart I forgot was there. All up until now, when I want nothing more than to be that ten-year-old boy clutching to his father's jacket to keep him tethered to me.

As I drift back from the memories, I find myself still in the bathroom. My hands are braced on either side of the sink, drops of my tears sitting on its rim. I wipe them away, rubbing at my face as I walk to the bedroom. I'm about to hop in bed and use the long pillow to hold as if it were him when there's a soft knock from the door. It's nearly two in the morning, who the hell is knocking on my door now?

I trudge through the foyer, pulling up my balaclava and grabbing the knife I hid in the crack of the couch. I'm half expecting Fey to be there, half expecting a guard with bad news. What I didn't expect when I open the door, is to find Kat standing there.

"Kat? Is something wrong?"

"No, I just...I heard what happened."

"Oh. Um, what did you hear?"

"I may or may not have pestered Alister into telling what message Darius had for the Queen. I'm sorry. About your father."

Well, that didn't take long. Alister, it seems, is going to need a talking to in the morning. I step aside, and she walks in. I check the hall to make sure the guards aren't being idiots, and then close the door. She still stands near the doorway, but I head straight for the couch and plop down. I need a drink. Maybe five.

"Are you okay?"

"Not really." She slowly makes her way closer to me but stops a few feet away. "You know," I say before I can stop myself. "I was trying to replace the memory of him bleeding out with those of him when I remembered him the best, to try and distract myself."

"Did it work?"

"I actually think it made it worse." My head falls forward, and I start rubbing at my face again.

"I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for. You're not the one who shot the arrow."

"No, but it still hurts to know that you and Clarice are hurting."

I don't respond, don't let myself think about the amount of support that we've already been given tonight. The Queen and Siscilla's words mean more to me than I can describe, but I can't get attached. Not when there's a possibility that they end up exactly like my father. I can't care, and yet I find myself wanting to tell Kat everything. Needing to. I try biting my tongue to keep the words in, but the truth always finds a way out.

"If it weren't for my sister, I'd likely be standing at the top of the temple debating whether to walk back down the stairs...or jump." I hear her breath catch, hear my own still run steadily at the truth.

"Don't say that."

"Why not?" I say looking up at her. "It's true."

"Arthur-"

"Don't. Please."

"Don't what?"

"I don't need your pity-"

"Pity? Do you think this is pity? My parents were murdered." The crack in her voice has me reaching for her, but she steps out of my reach. "I don't know why, and I don't know who did it. All I know is that they ended up spiked on their bedposts and I was sent off to be a servant in the castle at age three. I know what it feels like to not be able to hold your parent's hand again, I know what black hole is looming inside of you, but you still have someone. You still have your sister. All I have is a strict old hag for a boss and the small room that I grew up in. You have someone left, and for her sake, I hope you don't mean it when you say you'd even house the thought of suicide."

"Kat..."

"I don't want your pity."

I nod, knowing that I rightly deserved that. I watch as a tear falls from the corner of her eye and reach for her hand again. She pulls away again, and I go to apologize realizing that our roles have switched, but she lets her hand fall, and I gently grab it. She's still eyeing me, so I take it slow as I pull her back toward the couch. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know."

She stops right in front of me, and I stare at her hand, running my thumb over the edge of her nails. It's been a long day. My head is running this way and that way with emotions and my words aren't coming out the way I want them to. I've been acting like an asshole, and Kat's been the only one to point it out so far.

"You know, even if Clarice wasn't here, you wouldn't be alone." I gaze up at her, finding her looking as somber as I feel. "If you decided to jump," Another tear falls down her cheek, and I feel my chest heave as I watch it fall. "I'd be following you. I don't have anything here telling me to stay aside from some annoying voice in my head."

"Kat that's...that's not what..." My head drops again, and my grip on her hand tightens so as to keep her from running to the balcony in my sitting room.

"I know. I just thought you should know."

It doesn't necessarily bring me joy to know that she'd jump off a roof because I did. I mean I know people ask their kids all the time if they'd jump off the cliff because their friend did, but I never thought someone would actually do it. I feel like an even bigger idiot for bringing any of this up to her. This stupid brain always has to do the opposite of what I want.

"Please don't jump." She whispers. Her face is contorted, trying to keep her from breaking down.

"I won't"

"Good, because I kind of like how my life is going right now." Despite the dark turn this conversation made, I laugh.

Standing from the couch, I smile at her. "I kind of like how my life is going right now too. Aside from my dad being dead."

"Good." We stand there for a minute, nothing but the sound of our breathing to fill the silence. We're...really close, but I don't move, and neither does she. I don't know what this is, don't know if it's a good or bad thing that my heart's beating against my chest. With all the bad that's been pulling me apart all night, a sorry attempt at trying to break the ice is oddly enough what I needed. I go to tell her as much, but she beats me to it.

"I don't mean to be rude, but you...you need a bath."

Not what I imagined coming from her mouth, but...okay.

"I'll, um. I'll go run some... hot – warm. Warm water." She backs away slowly, jumping when she runs into the corner of the table, before turning around and walking toward the bathroom.

I'm both grateful for her honesty about my stench and willingness to get warm water, and I'm all too content to tell her that it's two in the morning and I could just take a shower in five hours.

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