Chapter 32 - Fauna
The last two days have been...rough. Trying to move on with your life when you feel like another weight has been added on your shoulders isn't easy, but it has been. I don't necessarily feel...better, but I don't feel as broken as I did when mom died. Is that normal? To nearly die from losing one parent, but only feel dented when the other goes? I know it's not, but something tells me Darius has something to do with it.
I meant what I said two nights ago. I trust him. He's done nothing but be a friend when I thought a friend was the last thing I needed. My life was like a pattern. I'd wake up, find an assignment ready for me, carry it out, get some rest, maybe train, and then be back to step one. Now, I don't know what the day holds. I have a small idea about what may be coming, and yes, I'm still keeping up my guard, but there's no telling. For once in my life, I finally feel like I can run free without being pulled down one path or the other by a rope.
When I woke up the morning after my father died, it was strange to wake up with the sun in my eyes rather than a demented Darius. The sun marked midmorning, and I felt like I've finally gotten a good night's sleep. Not that one night does much after weeks of sleep deprivation. And when I looked across from me, I found that neither of us had shifted off of our sides. He was sound asleep, his dark hair falling over his face like a mask of his own. Even when his eyes were two different colors and his hands are on my neck, I can still see the kind yet sharp lines of his jaw and cheekbones. Despite all the darkness within him, there's still a...beauty to it. Beauty in his darkness.
Gods books really do change you. Maybe I should lay off the romance, rhymes, and riddles section for a while. Anyway, he hasn't had a nightmare since. We both fall asleep, and wake up facing each other.
Yesterday was alright. Lance and I took a walk in the garden, the Queen and Darius a few steps in front of us. We spoke in hushed tones and kept it to a minimum so that no one would think we're trying to plan an assassination attempt on the royals. We didn't need to talk. We just wanted each other's company. Actually, thinking about it now, I think we just wanted to know that we were still alive. I know I did. Sometimes I shift into this other world and wonder if I'm really looking at the world through my eyes, or if I'm dead and looking at it through another's. Seeing Lance alive helps me know that I still have something to live for. That and the fact that Darius keeps trying to scare or sneak attack me. He literally tried hiding under a couch and grabbing my ankle to try and scare me. It didn't work.
Looking at him now, the sun still rising through the curtains, I'm thankful that he's keeping me on my toes. When mom died, all I had was Mary's arms and the taste of salt from my tears to try and distract me. Now all I have to do is look away for one second, and he's already moving to poke or pinch me. It's annoying, but it keeps me grounded.
His eyes flutter open, and I release a breath of relief when I find that they're the same color. I can't believe I'm saying this, but his blue eyes are the best thing in the world to wake up to. I hadn't realized this before, but his eyes kind of look like they have a slight flame to them. I'd say that's why he's always angry, but he's rarely angry. It's probably why I tolerate him. He's not like many people in town I meet who always have anger in their eyes even when they smile.
"You have some explaining to do," I say when his eyes find mine.
He looks at me like he has no clue, so I sigh and raise our conjoined hands between us. He looks at them as if they're a rare species and he's trying to determine if it's real, or just his imagination.
"Are you trying to make a move on me, Clarice?" He asks eyeing me sweetly. "Because if you are-"
"Oh for Saint's sake." I pull my hand from his and move to slide out of bed, but his hand snags my shoulder keeping me in place.
"Oh no, you're not getting away that easily. Is this love I sense in you, Clarice?"
"Love to crush your spleen, yes. How did you know?"
"I feel it too. The force of love that guides you to me even in the darkest of moments."
"Bold choice of words for a shirtless man with a knife aimed at his gut."
"I don't have a-" He stops mid-sentence as I press the tip of the knife I keep hidden at my hip into his stomach.
Don't worry, I keep it in a sheath so it isn't poking and cutting me as I sleep. Slowly, he lets go of my shoulder and holds up his hands in surrender. Point me. I slip the knife back into its sheath and shift to rest on my back. Quicker than I anticipated, Darius grabs hold of my wrists and pins me down. I'm all too proud that he's learned from the last two times he's tried this to be mad.
"Didn't see that coming, did you?" He says with a big smile.
"Or did I?" His expression turns confused and I can't help myself. "Didn't see that coming, did you?"
"But you haven't moved." He says eyeing me.
Before he can register what I meant, I lift my right knee and drive my heel in to his thigh, just as my elbow raises and hits the inside of his own elbow. With his left side left unstable, I shove his right side up, and he falls off the bed onto the ground. He's already moving to stand, but he makes the mistake of doing so with his back to me. Please, like I'm not going to have some fun of my own.
Smiling, I jump off the bed and right onto his back, my legs hooking around his waist, feet interlocking, and my arms going around his neck in a chokehold. I don't tighten my arms, knowing that he'll take his loss and surrender yet again.
"Lesson four." I remind him.
"Never turn your back to your opponent." He finishes. "Can you get off now?"
"Nope," I say releasing my headlock but still keeping my arms around him.
"And why not?"
"Are you hungry?"
"A little. Why?" He asks trying to turn his head to look at me.
"Good. Then you can carry me to the other room to eat."
"I-" My arms move back into a headlock, this time I give him a "loving" hug around his neck. "Alright, alright. Your face covered?"
"Yep." I say finishing pulling my "sleep mask" down my nose. After revealing my face to Darius, I had Kat find a plain mask that covers the top half of my face so that I can still eat without the hassle of the balaclava. I used to have to slide my hand beneath it to feed myself. Now I can eat like a normal person in the morning.
Smiling wider, I let go of his neck and he starts walking to the doors. This is both for my amusement and his embarrassment. I'll take whatever chance I get to make the Crown Prince do my bidding. As we - or rather he - opens the bedroom doors and walks toward the sitting room, I pointedly ignore Ethan and Alex who have the last shifts guarding the doors. This is so much fun. Isn't it?
"Ah, Thomas," Darius says as we walk into the sitting room where both Thomas and Kat are finishing putting some tarts on two plates. "Would you mind fetching some ointment from the Anevay. It seems I have a rather large growth coming in on my back."
"Seems bigger than just large, Prince," Thomas chimes.
"Actually, she's lighter than she looks."
Darius stops right beside the table and starts doing squats to prove his point.
"Are you calling me fat?"
"I said you were lighter than you look, not heavier."
"So then I just look fat?"
"Put me down."
"Oh, I don't think so." His hands grip my hamstrings, keeping me from lowering my legs.
Watch it, boyo.
I'm about to put him in another headlock, when he sits in his chair so I'm now pinned between his back and the back of the chair. At least it's cushioned. Squinting at him, I watch as he bites into a tart and makes a low moaning sound.
"This is soooooooooo good. You want some." He says waving the bitten tart in front of my face.
"You know I'll still eat that right?"
"Who's stopping you?"
Snatching the tart from his hand, I sit back and enjoy the tart. He goes onto taunting and telling me how good the food is before handing me a plate of already bitten into food over his shoulder. I'm not kidding, he took a bite out of every single thing on my plate. Even the blueberries. I still eat it of course. I'm hungry, not picky. Though I can be a very picky eater when it comes to certain things. Like how my potatoes have to be peeled and mashed. I can't eat a potato with skin or when it's still the same shape as it was when they picked it from the ground. It's weird, I know.
After eating breakfast, Darius went to bathe and change while I stayed and talked to Kat and Alex. Ethan and Thomas went with Darius. Why Ethan went, I have no idea. That reminds me, the pouch my father told me to grab before leaving is still hidden. I know that I told Darius I would look at it two days ago, but I still can't look at it without seeing his body hanging on the wall. Darius was right, I want to know what it is, I just don't want to know what the note says.
Darius returns, and I leave to bathe and change myself. Kat picked out a nice blue gown that ombrés into white at the bottom. The long sleeves are soft and tight-fitting, the bodice of it hugging my waist and then flawlessly falling to the ground. The front has a small plunge, but the back is...low. I can feel the morning air touching the near entirety of it, the open back ending about three inches from my low crack. I'm about to ask Kat what the hell she was thinking when she pulls a royal blue coat over me with white fur lining the edges.
"What's this for?"
"The Queen has asked to go into town, and she wants Darius with her."
"What?" I say spinning around.
"They are the Queen's orders, Clare. Not even Darius can deny his mother."
I open my mouth to argue, but she's right. If the Queen wants something, then she gets it. Not to mention that if the Queen asked this, then she already got the whole "This is dangerous" shmeel from Lance. Probably already has a dozen of safety measures in place with both the castle guards and Jades. Hell, he might even have the Jades watching from the roofs, windows, and grounds. That's actually really smart.
Biting my tongue, I let Kat do my hair. She makes two small braids from the front of my head that meet in the back leaving the rest of my hair to fall down my waist. Sometimes I think she thinks of me as a doll whose hair she plays with all the time. I don't entirely mind. I mean who wouldn't mind being plumped and primped? Not me.
Walking to Darius who's playing some sort of ninja game with Alex, Ethan, and Mal who must've come in while I was looking fabulous, I let them finish before smothering them with warnings and tips on how to expect the unexpected. Garrison and the others came in just as Darius lost his footing, and fell off the top of the couch. He asked me why I wasn't watching Darius more carefully, and I simply said that a child learns not to do something by doing it, and getting it wrong.
An hour later, we're walking down the halls and out to the dirt road, where the Queen and Lance are waiting in an open-top carriage. Way to go Lance. You're giving anyone and everyone a clear view and shooting path directly at the Queen's head and heart. There are already about four dozen guards, some on horseback others on foot, surrounding the carriage, but they're not going to see the dam arrow until it's lodged in her skull. Must I do everything?
We walk up beside the carriage and I can't stop the burst of laughter that escapes me. Knowing that it's completely inappropriate to be laughing, I slap my hand over my mouth and look away from Lance before I throw a laughing fit. If you're wondering, Lance is dressed in a castle guards uniform, and his face is absolutely priceless. I've said time and time again that the guard's uniform is bulky where it doesn't need to be, and simply just outright hilariously sculpted. Especially when seeing Lance's "Kill me now" face to go along with it.
"What's so funny?" Darius asks.
I shake my head keeping my hand over my mouth. I wait a second trying to get enough control of my vocal cords to greet the Queen.
"Good morning, your majesty." That didn't sound strained at all.
"Good morning, Lily. I'm glad to see you're in a good mood."
"Better than ever, my Queen."
Not being able to resist, I look to Lance whose still waiting for that arrow in his heart and snort. Yes. I SNORT! My hands fly back to my mouth but do little to muffle the sound. I've grown up seeing Lance in all kinds of awkward situations, but this...this is by far the worst. I mean his chest looks like he's constantly puffing it out. Then again, he does do that. Still, this is never going away. It's embedded in my mind now.
"I think Lily and I will walk for a while, mother."
"What?" Both the Queen and I say in unison.
"We'll be alright. Won't we, waterlily?" He gives my hand a tight squeeze and all I can do is nod and keep my mouth shut. It's like sitting in a quiet room full of people, and then you remember something funny and make your eyes water with the effort of trying to not laugh out loud.
"Very well." Queen Clarita says.
Darius tugs me down the dirt road, The Dozen creating another layer of protection between us and the castle guards.
"You're impossible." Darius relishes.
"Impossibly attractive, I know." I see him look at me out of the corner of my eye, and I can't wipe this smile off my face.
"Try to be pleasant. The people don't take kindly to arrogant and smart assed women."
"That's because they've never met a wealthy lady with some tood. I can fix that you know."
I feel myself laugh again. I feel lighter than I have in weeks, and yet I'll be back to normal by nightfall. Just thinking about what tonight holds has my smile lowering and my mood shifting. I grew up in a world where killing is considered normal and expected, but that doesn't mean I agree with it. The Jade code is there for a reason. So that we're both feared but controlled. My father knew the demons he would create with his teachings, so he made sure those demons were kept in check and chained down. Sadly, you can't keep them all locked away, and you can't control every beast you create.
Father always thought that he could keep a chain around the Jade's neck, and he only used it for discipline when called upon, but otherwise, he let the chain slack. We all thought he could keep everyone in line, but then Will became greedy, and the chain snapped. He punished Will greatly for his actions, and it satisfied me to hear him scream in the late nights, but he got out. Someone helped him escape, and they planned it carefully so that Lance and I were both out of the House when they did so. If we were there, they knew that Will wouldn't get far.
I came back from an assignment and found the entire House quiet and empty, save for my father who looked like someone had raised him from the dead. He sent every Jade and trainee out to search for Will and his accomplice, but he disappeared into the shadows, and we never found him. Now he's back. He killed my father, watched me slaughter his pig, and his next target is looking at me strangely.
"Why is it every time you smile you think back on that night?" Darius asks as we start our trek across the drawbridge.
"Old habits I guess."
I can feel him wanting to ask and push more, but he doesn't. He never does. That's the thing with Darius. I don't need to tell him to back off or mind his own business, he already knows not to push. It's refreshing to have someone who gives you your space rather than breathing down your neck, but sometimes I wish he would.
I look back at Lance, probably to say something snippy, but I laugh before I can even think of what to say.
"Perhaps I should have a painter capture your brother in that uniform if it gets you to smile so easily."
"Agh." I say in my best "hag" impression voice, making him laugh.
We make it to the dome, the sound of the carriage's wheels bouncing on wood going quiet behind us. People run about the vendors, children chasing each other as usual. Another twenty-four guards line the entrance, all standing at attention like good little dogs. Everyone stops and turns to us. Normally I'm on the other side of the walls, but now I'm on the inside. A perfect little parasite waiting to spring the trap. Only the trap isn't for me, and I'm a part of the bait.
People start waving and wailing as usual. It's like hearing vultures fight over who gets to eat the carcass. Very high-pitched vultures, I'll tell you that. The children smile and gawk at everyone including the guards. The teenage girls whistle sweet things to Darius and aim challenging glares to me. I'm tempted to go up to them and drag them down to the House of Jade by their ear, but that wouldn't be "pleasant" now would it.
Men and women alike, however, all smile and bow to the Queen. Not just out of formality, but like her mother, the Queen holds a special place in the town's heart. Everyone knows that the cold shoulder of the King comes from him and him alone. The Queen is an innocent who just so happens to love a madman. Odd, but a great bedtime story for the kids.
"You look uncomfortable. Never thought I'd live to see this day." Darius says, returning the people's waves.
"I'm used to the attention. Just not the chic fight kind."
"Well, what did you think was going to happen? You are after all on the arm of the Crown Prince."
"A very humble Crown Prince." I catch a noticeably big-chested girl about a year older than me, striking a pose against a vendor's cart in hopes to catch His Highnesses eye. "Maybe I should plant a big smucker on you just to get the rest of them in a fit."
His head snaps to me and I can't help but give him a dirty look. "Would you really do that?" Oh, how sweet. He really thinks I'll kiss him to throw off a sad lot of women.
"Handsome you may be, Darius, but you still have the mind of a child." His look of utter disappointment has me laughing again.
I can feel Lance's eye digging into the back of my head, but acknowledging that would give nearly everything away to wandering eyes. Instead, I scan the crowd, waving to a few girls whose dresses seemed to have dropped lower on the top and hitched higher on the bottom. I know it's unladylike to flaunt your stuff in front of everyone, but how else am I supposed to enjoy this?
A few older women look me up and down with suspicion and disgust, others with proud satisfaction. Usually, I'm looked at with fear and uncertainty, now I'm getting looked at like some kind of trophy. Especially from the men. Gods, they're all dogs looking for the freshest meet. Even old man Jerry who sells dye and fabric is looking at me like I'm some kind of new toy. Normally I only get these looks from foolish drunks with a death wish.
Averting my gaze from the hustlers, I try distracting my mind by scanning the crowd for any possible spies or assassins. No matter how much experience one has with blending in, you can always spot something off with a person. How they look at you too long, or the way they're dressed or who they're with or not with. I'm still searching when my gaze catches on three children standing in a nearby alley. Their clothes are worn and as dirty as their skin. The oldest looks to be about twelve, the boy eight or nine, and the younger girl about five. No adults around mark any resemblance, no one even sensing their presence.
Their orphans, I realize.
A memory of Queen Adelina strikes my memory, and an idea forms in my mind.
"You said you wanted to be a better King than your father," I say in a low voice. "The one your grandmother hoped you'd become."
His hand stops mid-air, his focus now on me.
"Well," I say looking back to the orphans. "The best way to do that is to understand your people and their needs." His gaze follows mine, and I feel him stiffen when he spots the children. "Your father's demands are taxing on the people, especially on the unemployed. Many go out, and many don't come back. Without reason, they are killed, and their children are left to find their own way. Being king isn't just ruling and changing the world in hopes it brings about peace, but rather to give your people somewhere to find peace and hope when the rest of the world tries to tell them there's not."
Darius's eyes land on mine, and I can see the question in his eyes.
How am I supposed to do that?
"One step at a time."
His eyes fall to the ground, the alley in which the children are still standing, now only a few feet away. It's a lesson my mother taught me. The best way to lead is to know what the worst looks like. So when the time comes for you to take your place as a leader, you know what your actions could bring about. I never understood why she told me this when Lance was the one who was taking father's place. Now I see that maybe it was for me to understand and pass on.
With another glance at me, Darius turns his head over his shoulder to where Garrison has been keeping step behind us. "Garrison."
Already understanding, Garrison lets out a high whistle, and the guards and carriage stop moving. The crowd stirs with anticipation and curiosity about what will happen next. Darius waits until The Dozen have formed two lines at our sides before walking toward the orphans. A few girls start grinning ear to ear when they see us head in their direction. I try not to let my smirk show when they're pushed aside, a clear path now leading us straight to the two girls and boy.
The oldest grabs her younger sibling's hands, her eyes and grip telling me she's debating whether to run. I grip Darius's hand and pull him to a halt. He looks at me in question, but a second later he nods and lets me continue on without him. I approach them slowly, my face carefully settled in a calm state.
"It's okay. We haven't come for you, or your brother and sister." I say to the oldest. "We mean you no harm. I swear it upon my mother's grave."
The girl eyes me warily as I lower myself onto my knees in front of them. The little one looks to my hair with an interest only a little girl could have. I give her a smile and hold out my hand to her. Her sister's grip tightens slightly, but she doesn't stop the youngling from taking my hand. She laughs a tender laugh as her fingers skim over the silver bracelet Kat slipped on my wrist earlier. She laughs again when I slip it off my wrist and onto hers.
I look back to the older girl and find that she's still scared, but at least won't run. "We only want to help." She looks to her sister who's shaking her hand and smiling in delight at the clinking noise the metal makes. When she looks back to me, her expression changes into a sadness. One I know a little too well.
The boy taps my shoulder getting my attention. I follow his gaze and turn to look at Darius. "Would you like to meet him?" I ask the boy. He bites his lip and nods only once, his eyes gleaming. I turn back to Darius and wave him over. This time the oldest doesn't move to protect her siblings as Darius comes up behind me and kneels on one knee before the boy.
"Hello there. What's your name?"
"Levi." The boy says in a sweet and shy voice.
"Well, Levi, I'm taking a walk to the fields by the pond. Would you like to join me?"
The boy nods eagerly and takes Darius's offered hand. The little girl follows her brother, taking Darius's other hand. He stands and leads them back to where Garrison is standing between the parted crowd. People start trying to reach out to Darius scaring the boy and girl into grabbing onto his legs. Orphans and scared they may be, but they still smile and dream the way everyone should.
I turn back to the oldest who's still standing against the wall, watching her brother and sister with careful eyes.
"You know, I'm in need of some company too. I'm sure your brother and sister would want you to be with them." She looks at me, and again I can't ignore the pain her eyes. "I know."
Understanding what I mean, her eyes glisten with tears. I stand and, slowly, pull her into my side. Her arms go around my waist, and I feel my own tears threatening to fall. This girl lost her parents, and now she has to come up with ways to feed and care for her siblings who probably don't fully grasp what has happened to them.
It's things like this that the Jades are sworn to protect and avenge. Of course, we can't just go marching into the castle and kill the King, but we can still help those left in the dust. Darius knew of the things his father did, but until now, I don't think he really understood what those actions cost. I'll have to ask my brother to send word to the Jades to have the streets searched for any more orphans just to comfort my guilt.
I wipe the tears from the girl's face and keeping her tucked beside me, lead us to Darius and her siblings who now wait for us in the carriage. People snicker, others thanking me. It's moments like this that people will remember when Darius is to be put on the throne. And just as promised to Adeline, I will see to it that he does.