Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 33 - Darius

We spent the whole day with the three orphans. Roseia who's the oldest, took a while to finally talk to me. She and Clarice got along just fine and talked while I played with Levi and Mirabilis in the dwarf everlasting flower fields. I even managed to get Al and Ethan to join us in a game of tag. After a while Alex joined in, putting Levi on his shoulders and chasing the rest of us around. Garrison argued against it, but a few words from Clarice and he brooded on a rock. They enjoyed the smoked meat, fresh fruit, and bread for lunch. It was hard to watch them eat like they haven't had a meal in months, but it was nice to know that I helped solve a problem - no matter how small - that my father created.

After lunch and playing for another two hours, Clarice and Lance started getting antsy, so we packed up and made our way back to the carriage. Levi and Mirabilis - who we now call Mira - were too tired to climb in the carriage, so I held Mirabilis and Levi jumped into Clarice's arms. I suppose days of little sleep in the cold and little food can do that to you. They both fell asleep in our arms, their own arms around our necks and cheeks on our shoulders.

Clarice and I argued over bringing them to the castle or not. She says it's a bad idea and has a bag full of arguments to combat my reason of just wanting to make things right. I won, in the end, thanks to the support of my mother, and now we're getting out of the carriage and heading to my tower. I always thought it was weird to refer to it as my tower. It makes me seem like I'm a bitch no one wants to hear, talk to, or be around.

Kissing me on the cheek, my mother thanks us for the company, and walks off to her rooms. As we walk through the hallway by the garden, I hear familiar voices echoing off the walls. I look around trying to find their faces, but don't find any. Those voices...I've only heard them in one place. My dreams. They're the ones that stand closest to the stranger, the only ones who talk and respond to questions in clipped answers.

"What is it?" Clarice asks noticing my searching eyes.

"You hear someone talking?"

"Yes, but it's just Eleanor and Charles across the garden."

My steps falter and I'm moving toward the garden before Clarice can move to stop me. She may have a child in her hands, but I've seen her chained down and still able to kick our asses. Silently cursing, Clarice follows me down the steps and onto the narrow stone path, Roseia clinging to her arm.

It couldn't be them. I would've known. A week has gone by from the first dream. For a week I've heard their voices over, and over again, and never made the connection. I know Charles has had it out from me since we were young, and Eleanor has been trying to pry Clarice from my arm, but them. My mind tracks back to that first night when the stranger told the cloaked woman to stay near me. When she asked what to do if she were forced or told to leave, and he told her to find a way. Four days later, the Lord was scheduled to leave, but Eleanor stayed behind, and the Lord left with a limp.

Eleanor I can connect, still working on believing, but Charles? I've grown up with him, heard his voice when it was cracking everywhere. and still can't believe I haven't put two and two together. I can feel Clarice's "defensive system" going off. Hell, with the pace I'm setting, I'm surprised Mira is still fast asleep. Levi too. Roseia, however, looks like she's preparing to see a monster with big teeth and claws that cut through brick like paper. With the dreams I've had, I'm not entirely sure there won't be.

I turn the corner and find myself staring right at Charles. I feel as air leaves my lungs and I find myself picturing a dark hooded cloak over him.

By the Gods and their Saints.

"He's just tired is all," Clarice says beside me. I hadn't even realized that he asked a question.

"It's not yet five bells though." My head snaps to Eleanor, and I can't unhear the voice. Her voice. The one that has been driving me crazy every night because it sounded so familiar.

"We've had a busy day," Clarice says in a stiffer tone.

"Are you sure you're alright, Darius?" Charles says looking at me closely.

"Since when do you care?" It comes out harsher than I wanted it to, but I'm not really in a talking mood.

Eleanor opens her mouth to say something, but Clarice cuts her off. "Come, my dear. We should let the children sleep."

Charles is the one to open his mouth this time, only Garrison and Vlad are the ones to cut them off. Setting my face into a bored expression, I look to Roseia and take her hand, leading her through the garden. The next half an hour was a blur. We laid them down in my bed, assured Roseia that we'd be just in the other room, only a call away. Then I sat on one of the low-lying couches faintly listening to Kat and Clarice talk. I know Clarice wants to ask me about what happened, but she hasn't pushed. At least I've made a good influence on one person today.

Replaying the sounds of their voices over and over again, it's not hard to match their appearances to that of the strangers in my dreams. All this time we've been trying to put faces to descriptions, and to think that they've been right beneath our noses. None of the others except the stranger and the two have spoken. They just stand there like statues in the night. The only reason that I know they're alive, is that they walk into the throne room and how they shift on their feet here and there. Other than that, you'd dismiss them for stone.

If Eleanor and Charles are the two strangers, then who is the leader stranger? He'd have to be someone nearby so that they can reach him. Unless the dreams are the only time they're in contact with one another. It would make sense. Every time he asks questions about my whereabouts and activity, and every time they give it to him. Clarice and her brother have been suspicious about the guards and servants from the start, even some Lords and Ladies, but we never really questioned Charles. Eleanor, yes, but not Charles.

To be honest, I've always had a funny feeling when around him though. I hadn't really noticed it until recently, but whenever he's nearby, it's like my gut tugs at me trying to get my attention. I guess I should've listened. My mind keeps racing through times I've been with Eleanor and Charles, and me being completely unaware of their intentions.

"Darius." I look to Clarice and find her kneeling in front of me, a concerned look on her face.

"Sorry, I'm just-"

"Distracted." Sighing, she grabs my hand and pulls me into the sitting room. "All right. Spill."

Garrison comes up beside us. She must've told him to come.

"You remember how I told you about the stranger and his companions?"

"Yes, the two idiots who never stop talking." Her tone tells me she wants me to get to the point.

"Exactly. They never stop talking. I can't see their faces, can't match their body to fit anyone..."

"Holy shit." Clarice breathes.

"I don't entirely follow," Garrison says.

"When you meet someone new, what do you do to try and remember them?" She asks with a little too much joy in her eyes.

"Memorize what they look like."

"Right, only he can't see them and the only way for him to remember them by-"

"Is their voice-yeah- I got that."

"Garrison," I say stepping in before Clarice's head explodes. "Eleanor and Charles are the stranger's second and third in command."

His face pales to a color I didn't even think it could turn. In all my years of being his friend, I've never seen Garrison so disheveled. To be fair, they slipped through all our radars, including Clarice and her brother's. And my father, but he's always letting things slip. It's like second nature to him.

"I always knew that little shit was a goddam hellion." The wild look in her eyes makes me shift uncomfortably on my feet. They're like a lion's eye before she pounces.

"What do we do?" Garrison asks.

"We-"

"Talk about it tomorrow," I say cutting off whatever evil and demented plan Clarice had in mind.

"Darius-"

"We're not about to have a secret meeting with snooping children nearby. After we get back tomorrow morning, we'll find somewhere safe and warm for them to stay, and then we can talk about this."

"This isn't just something we can put off-" Garrison cuts in.

"No, it's not." Clarice intervenes. "But we don't have another choice. He's right, we need the kids out of danger and earshot before figuring out what to do. As of right now, they only suspect that we know after Darius looked at them like they were ghosts. If we kill them, then the stranger will know we know, and come sooner than we need him to."

"You really still think that they're waiting until the Elysian Festival?"

"Yes."

The Elysian Festival is a grand celebration of the Gods and Saints. It lasts three days and two nights, and no matter who the King or Queen is, the festival happens. People dress in costumes modeled after the Gods and Saints, the streets are always crowded and decorated in bright colors and filled with the sounds of musicians and laughter of all kinds. People all over Vandaria come to the castle to celebrate and party day and night.

The first day is filled with the smells of pastries and sweets. It's the day where people go around exchanging things – jewelry, clothing, food, wood, flowers, you name it – gathering items from all over. The second day is the day for rivalry. My father will host a day of games and entertainment out on the everlasting fields. The third and final day is the day of the Elysian Ball. The gates are opened, and the castle throne room is filled to maximum capacity. Those who don't fit inside, drink themselves dirty in the gardens.

The ball is in less than two weeks from now. It's on the last day of this month, and then the first two days of the next. We've been planning and preparing for the attack on the castle for a few days, and still, I feel nowhere near prepared. Clarice and Arthur both think that the attempt will happen then. It makes sense. The streets will be filled, inns cramping five to seven people in a two-bedroom room. Taverns have already had their barrels of kidzra and wine imported from the west and stocked in their reserves. It's closer than it feels, and we're just now figuring out who these people are.

"Fine. But I'm not babysitting."

"Of course not." Clarice puts her hand on his shoulder, and I already know what's coming. "You're child sitting."

"You little motherfucker."

"Motherflubber."

Slowly, we all turn to the soft and high-pitched voice behind us. Smiling innocently, Mira stands in the doorway with a small comb in her hand.

"Your right. You're not babysitting."

We all stare at Mira, trying to figure out what to do now. Out of the three of us, Clarice is probably the one with the most child experience. Ethan walks in behind Mira bearing the same face as her. He even starts swaying side to side and purses his bottom lip. Clarice and I exchange a look as Garrison walks to Ethan, pulling his head into a headlock and ruffling his hair with his knuckles.

"Ow, Garrison!"

"Now," Clarice walks to Mira, picking her up and settling her on her hip. "We are going to have a little talk, little lady."

"Hair." Mira responds in a cute tone that makes adults fall their knees and do anything they want.

"You want me to do your hair?"

"Hair."

"Alright, but only if you do the Prince's hair after."

They both look to me, Mira matching Clarice's mischievous stare. I'm both surprised and slightly frightened about what my future holds for me. Especially if Mira has already learned Clarice's facial expressions.

Clarice formed Mira's hair into two braids down her head. She then went onto doing Roseia's hair while Mira tied mine in a hundred small sections. Levi wrestled with Ethan for a little while before dragging Clarice to the piano and making her play a song. Mira went on to doing Alex and Benny's hair, and I moved to watch Clarice. If it weren't for the danger of my life, I would keep them here. Sadly, my life may always be in danger one way or another, so children aren't safe here.

When it was time for Arthur, Clarice, and I to leave for their father's ceremony, it was Roseia we had to convince she'd be fine. The two little ones were happy to stay and fool around with The Dozen, who Clarice threatened to skin if any of them came to any harm. Roseia had a tough time trusting them, so we sent all of them to my mother's quarters. She was more than happy to have some company and entertainment for the night. It also allowed The Dozen who have been training under Clarice's wing, to protect her. The other guards I knew could at least buy enough time for them to get into the tunnels. The Dozen would last long enough for us to get back. Hopefully.

Clarice had Kat buy some dark clothes and grab an extra cloak Arthur kept hidden in a tavern. The second task sounded difficult, but Kat said all it took was a simple seduction and a press of her fingers to the bartender's neck to grab it. The latter was thanks to Clarice, who taught Kat how to defend herself. She hasn't come to the training at night despite her strong will to do so. Part of me knows that Clarice refused to teach the moves to Kat because she didn't want Kat to ever need to use them.

After dressing and gaining a snort from Clarice, we headed down into the tunnels and up into a sewer grate that leads right into an alley across the street from the House of Jade. Hidden beneath the low hood, I follow the two assassins through the iron gates, and into the assassins keep.

It's far grander than I expected. Then again, I suppose being highly trained and highly paid assassins have to do with it. It seems their father had a rather elegant and expensive taste. Pulling my eyes from the décor, I remember what they told me before we left.

Try not to talk to anyone.

Don't make eye contact for more than two seconds.

Keep your eyes on the ground or on us.

Stay close and don't wander.

If someone asks you a question, answer with a question.

Blah, blah, blah, and more blah.

Basically, I'm their shadow and anything they say and do, I say and do. I don't mind it, really. This is their private home, their father's ceremony, and I'm just a visitor. Not to mention that every man that walks by us carefully avoids their stare, but tightens theirs on mine. That's the other thing. When you think of assassin you normally picture a man. Walking up the stairs and looking down on the ground floor from the second level, I can see there are as many women as men. It's both comforting and disturbing. I mean any one of these women could dress up as Clarice does to become Lily and fool a man sober as can be. With men, you near instantly put a guard up and question their every move and word. Women, however, could bat their eyelashes, say a sweet thing or two, touch you to make you forget, and then slit your throat like it's butter. Perhaps that's why I overlooked Eleanor. She's no Clarice, but she's still a woman, and I'm a foolish man who's been tormented and played with like a doll, and I'm not talking about getting my hair done by a five-year-old.

As we head up the stairs leading to the third floor, I catch sight of all the lights being blown out. One by one candles are lit, and soon stand out like stars in the night sky. Clarice hands me a candle and motions to a torch beside the iron door that I assume will lead us to the roof. Lighting my candle, I make sure to hold the flame low enough to where it won't give up too much of my face, just like Arthur told me to.

They put out the lights with small droppers filled with water, and then we walk through the iron door, up the stairs, and onto the roof, a whole parade of assassins file in behind us. Arthur and Clarice leave me by the bottom steps of the platform that the huge bowl that will be lit with blue flames, stands upon. It's like a dais, only no throne sits at the top. I ignore the two men who come to stand behind me and focus on the horizon.

Dusk has long since passed, the only sign of the sun is the light reflected off of the new moon. Stars shine in the clear night sky and I can't help but make constellations out of them. I'm not talking about the typical big dipper and little dipper constellations, but the ones you find that are your own. Like how you watch clouds and make shapes out of them, I watch the stars and find meaning to them. Grandmother Adeline was the one to teach me how to find them.

As the last of the Jades fill the entirety of the flat roof, Arthur takes his candle and touches the flame to the dark bowl. Blue light instantly blooms from the orange, and the ceremony begins.

"We are not only here to honor our dead leader, our dead Jade King, but as well the ones who died fighting to protect this house." Arthur's voice rings throughout the crowd, and the amount of respect flowing through the people around me is overwhelming.

This is what it means to be a leader. To be united.

"With their last breath, they gave their lives to see to it that the rest of us lived another day, and for that, we pray and release them into the next life. Our friends, our family, our peers...our heart and soul we owe them. Their deaths weren't for nothing, but for everything. Gathered today, we stand here to say our final farewells...and to celebrate the life of the man that started it all."

We all watch in silence as Arthur and Clarice lift their father's body off the ground, and lower him into the flame. Following the others, I lower myself to my knees, and bow my head in prayer. I never knew him, never even saw him from the window that day I followed my mother to this very building. To me, he was myth and legend, but I can't help but feel like he was so much more. To the people around me mourning, he was. It's for that reason that I grab Clarice's hand when she comes to kneel beside me.

A small sniffle comes from beneath her balaclava as she squeezes my hand, and we wait for Arthur to start. His voice is low but carries, and as he reaches the second line, Clarice takes the melody. The next line a girl somewhere across the way joins in, and soon enough the voices grow, surrounding me in a labyrinth. Remembering the sound of Clarice's voice as she sang it to me, I join their song and thank the man who has undoubtedly saved my life.

The chorus of voices flows through me like the force of life. The men's voices carry out the baritones, the women the altos, and Clarice's single voice floats above all of them. Opening my eyes, I watch and hear the voices fade with the lights of the candles, until the only ones left are Clarice and Arthur's. Their voices could tear this world in half. One with a low agony, the other with the highest of pains. Listening as she fades and leaves her brother to finish, I squeeze her hand back, and her flame goes out.

Ending the song, Lance stands and places what looks to be a gold ring in a metal bowl sitting above a smaller blue flame. No one will leave until the ring is completely melted, and I won't leave until my eyes dry and my hands grow weak.

Watching the Jade King between the dance of the flames, I join the Jades in mourning, and not only release his soul from here, but the part of the soul of my grandmother in which has lived inside me.

I will be everything you've hoped, and so much more.

*****

The royal purple and deep mauve of dawn, paint the sky. The silence of the waking town blows through the morning breeze, the scent of dew tied along with it. The gold metal of the ring melted a while ago, no footsteps sounding until the first sign of the sun rising. Clarice told me of how instead of just leaving, the Jades will walk to the blue flame and drop something of their own belonging to burn with the Jade King.

Now with only Arthur, Clarice, a few others, and I are left kneeling on the ground. Arthur won't leave until everyone is gone, including me and Clarice. She won't leave until I and the others are gone, and it's knowing that that has me releasing her hand and standing. My knees, back, and neck ache from staying in the position for most of the night. With sore muscles, I walk up the four steps, and up to the flame that warms up my cheeks when I'm only a few steps from it.

I reach into my pant pocket and pull out the bundle of letters I brought. They're letters Grandmother Adeline used to send me during her travels. They're the last thing I have left of her, pieces of paper inked with her words in a flowing font. I've held them for so long wanting to keep her here, and now I let them fall into the fire and set her free. I talk about Clarice needing a helping hand through the pain of losing her father, yet I've been clinging to my grandmother's cold hand for years. It was time I learned to walk this earth on my own two feet.

Watching as the last of the letters disappears, I let myself feel the warmth of the rising sun on my back. I swear I feel a hand touch my shoulder, but find no one there when I turn. Leaving the rest of them, I walk down the stairs and to the door, back inside. The house is quiet and faintly lit by the few rays of the sun. Knowing that wandering the empty halls isn't the best idea, I stand at the rail and look down into the gloom.

Their father didn't just create the most feared assassins keep, but a home in which those who have never had a home to find. Yes, they become trained and honed into deadly machines, but it's all to teach them how to defend themselves and beat their demons. At the castle, you're trained so that you can defend the lives of the royals. There are not many other reasons aside from that, and that's the difference between the castle and this home.

The two men who were left kneeling walk in, not even giving me a passing glance. I watch them walk all the way down to the first floor and disappear somewhere by the stairs. Despite having been around and trained by one of them, it still amazes how quietly and easily they move. It's like a feline grace that they somehow master. Their feet don't make a sound, their legs still strong and full of muscle honed to kick you across the room. Sometimes it's hard not to see Clarice as Lily and ignore the way her body moves. Confident and strong, where others in the castle are straight-backed and have hands folded neatly.

I hear the door open again, and find Clarice walking through. She comes to stand beside me and looks down. "Lance is going to stay until noon. We'll head back with Blight who will keep tabs on Eleanor. Lance will bring back two others who can keep tabs on Charles and anyone else." I nod too tired for words. The Dozen and I have stayed up all night and day several times, but this is a whole other kind of all-nighter.

"He's really gone." She says in a broken voice. "How did you handle it? When Adeline died?"

"I didn't," I say honestly. "I haven't, until just now."

She turns her body to me, and I find her eyes sparkled with hope. The same hope that still runs through me in prayer that my grandmother won't leave me entirely alone. Understanding her voiceless question, one that didn't even need to be seen in her eyes, I turn to her and offer her my arms. She doesn't even hesitate as she wraps her arms around my waist and buries her face in my chest.

People don't always need the comfort of words to lead them to the light at the end of the tunnel, but a comfortable presence. Okay fine. I needed a hug too. Leave me alone, men aren't known to cry and show their weak sides. Especially a Prince. I was raised to always stand tall and fake strength if you have to. Learning that your weaknesses aren't your downfalls has been a new lesson we were both in need of learning. Being here for someone isn't something you need to hide or push away the urge, but something you should thrive in.

I feel as her breathing gets steadier and less shaky, my own steady but thin. We stand here for a few minutes, the only sound coming from the birds outside. Wiping her eyes she leads us down the stairs to the ground floor, stopping a few feet from the doorway. A figure steps out from the shadows and approaches us. This must be Blight. I've heard quite the stories about her. Her eyes are emerald green, the small braid peeking out from under her hood is a dirty blonde. She's smaller than Clarice but has a way of seeming far larger.

"Who's he?" She asks sizing me up.

"As far as you're concerned, he's my lover."

"So he's available then?" Now she looks me up and down for an entirely different reason. Good thing she can't see my face or else her eyes would be popping out of her head. She lifts her hand to touch my arm.

"Touch him, and you'll lose the hand." Snatching her hand away, Blight crosses her arms and gives Clarice a boring look.

"Rykiel." Just as she turns around, a man bigger than I've ever seen comes out of the small shadow in the corner. How did I not see him there before?

Clarice goes on to giving Rykiel some directions, but I'm too busy watching Blight out of the corner of my eye to really pay attention. She's drifted closer to me, a small smile barely seen forming on her lips. Clarice warned me about this. Just as instructed, I catch Blight's hand that was reaching for my arm again and tug it across my chest so that she's standing with her back to me. She goes to elbow me in the stomach just as Clarice said she would. In a swift movement, I catch her elbow, move my hand around her arm grabbing the hilt of her dagger, and pull it out of its sheath, slicing the inside of her arm in the process. With one arm down, I pull the other behind her back and push her wrist up towards her shoulder blades.

"Ow." She says between her teeth.

"Funny how you thought I'd be the one to cut off your hand," Clarice says turning around. "Are you done?"

When Blight doesn't answer, Clarice looks to me and I bring the knife up to her neck. When she doesn't yield then, I let the dagger dig deeper into her skin.

"Alright, I'm done." I drop the dagger letting it hit the ground with a clink and release her wrist.

"Good, let's go."

We follow her out the door and back into the alley across the street. We make our way back through the tunnels in silence, Blight still eyeing me but not making any more moves to touch me. Clarice is staying closer than normal, even as Lily. Either there's something she hears that I don't, or she really doesn't want Blight near me. The latter makes me flattered but question Blight.

Before leaving the castle last night, we told my mother about Eleanor and Charles and asked what she wanted to do. She didn't want to believe that they were two of the seven people behind this, so it was an effort to get her to agree to have a few Jades be our eyes in the shadows. My mother needs evidence to make her convinced two people she holds close have turned against her. It's hard to think such a thing, that someone whom you've trusted and loved for so long has betrayed you.

Betrayal is normally marked with a brand on your skin, but betray the royal family or those of higher rank, and the penalty is death. So no, this is not something we can just take to my father without evidence, not with Eleanor being a Lady and Charles a member of the family. I wish there were another explanation, another way that made the situation make more sense, but there isn't. Eleanor and Charles have come to kill me, and the only people stopping them are the people I've come to oddly and slowly care for.

We make it back to my rooms okay, no attacks or wandering souls to worry about. Clarice sent Blight back into the tunnels with Kat to show her the way into Eleanor's room. In the meantime, Clarice and I change into more comfortable clothes and fall asleep minutes after lying down. It was a good few hours of sleep until we were woken by two hipper kids who decided that the mattress was in need of being jumped on. It was all fun and games until Gabe, Ethan, Alex, and Ozzie hopped up and joined in.

Unlike Clarice who managed to slide off the bed and pass out again in the sitting room, I got trapped beneath Levi and Mira. It took what felt like forever to escape their madness. Letting them ruin a perfectly good bed, I walk over to where Arthur and Kat are talking in the doorway.

"I don't know, kids would be nice once this is all over," Kat says, smiling at the nearly grown men in armor dancing around like the five-year-olds in the middle of the chaos.

"Good luck," I say, passing them and heading to the sitting room. How is Arthur not tired?

I find Clarice already lying face down on the couch, looking like she tripped and fell right onto it, too tired to try and get comfortable. I don't know about you, but that's a whole ass mood. Shaking my head, I walk over and slap her foot.

"Scoot over." A muffled moan is all I get from her. "Fine."

A plan forms in my head and I give her a mischievous smile as I pull a chair up to the couch, pick up her feet, sit on the couch, and now the chair I moved serves as a leg rest. Why'd I think bringing children to the castle was a good idea again? Clarice shifts so that she's on her back and violently drops her feet on my lap. I'll probably have a fresh bruise by dusk from the impact of her heel.

We're asleep for what feels like five minutes, and then the circus is once again forcing my eyes open. Luckily, I'm not the one lying down. Levi, who has a sudden urge for aggression, climbs on the couch's edge and plops down right on top of Clarice's stomach. As you could imagine, that woke her right up. Everyone in the room starts laughing and telling Mira to join him, which she does. Then Ethan and Mal and the others yell "Me too!" and doggy pile on top of us.

I manage to free my head from under Henry's leg and find Garrison with a big smile on his face. It's not often that you see Garrison let his guard down long enough to smile or laugh, but we love him despite his seriousness and brute attitude. Kat and Arthur and nowhere to be found, but before I can mention it, Henry's leg hits me in the nose.

After a few minutes of lying in each other's odors, they start their struggle to get back on their feet. I can't stop the smile on my face from reaching my eyes when I see Clarice's disheveled hair and glaring eyes. For the first time since I've met her, she actually looks like a moody teenager. Me? Well, I look like that every morning. It's a skill I've learned to master through my many years of sleeping in.

The room has gone quiet when Arthur walks in, Kat at his side looking a little disheveled, and he lets out a booming laugh when he spots Clarice. I pinch my lips together trying to keep myself from joining in, but it doesn't last long. Soon enough we're all laughing, the children giggling and chasing each other through Amel's legs.

"Five," Clarice speaks through her teeth.

"Four." I turn to Arthur, his laugh gone.

"Run." He says making the rest of go quiet.

"What?" Ethan asks.

"Three."

"Run," Arthur repeats before running off.

"Two."

Cursing under my breath, I grab Mira and follow Arthur into the bedroom and down the tunnel. The sound of a dozen footsteps following mine.

"One."

How did she say it so quietly but still loud enough for us to hear?

*****

For an hour she chased us through the tunnels. An hour. I don't know about you, but running for an hour in dark tunnels after staying up all night in the cold, is not an ideal day for me. Five minutes in, she somehow managed to get Roseia on her side, and damn, that girl is fast. We ended up playing a game of freeze tag, and take my advice, don't have an easily bored kid in your arms when you play.

In the end, we all waved our white flags, and headed back to my room and settled down. Thankfully, Mira and Levi were tired from running and playing, and settled down for a nap. Now we're back in the sitting room, The Dozen back at their posts, and Arthur disappeared during the game. We need to get Roseia and her siblings somewhere safe by tomorrow morning at the latest.

"Roseia," Clarice says in a gentle voice. "There's something you should know."

"We can't stay." She finishes grimly.

"Believe me when I say I want nothing more than to keep you and your sister and brother here, but right now isn't the right time," I say.

"Why not?"

"Darius's life has been threatened. There have already been several attempts on his life."

"The last thing we want is for you to get caught in the crossfire."

She drifts into silence, me and Clarice sharing a look of concern. It's wrong to bring them here, clothe them, give them warm baths, feed them delights, and play with them all day, only to send them back out. Me walking and taking them under my wings yesterday was a step closer to gaining the people's respect. Sending them back would change their minds entirely. I'd look just as bad as my father, maybe worse.

"Where would we go?"

"That's what we wanted to talk to you about." Clarice answers. "I have an idea, but I'm afraid you'll refuse." Clarice's eyes land on mine, and I know she sees the answer in my eyes by the way her shoulders stiffen.

"Where?" Roseia asks drawing my attention back to her.

"The House of Jade."

"What?"

"Roseia, listen to me," Clarice says when I open my mouth. "The House of Jade isn't all that it seems."

"So it's not a house full of murderous assassins?"

"No. Assassins, yes. Murderous, no. They're trained to protect themselves, the ones they love, and anyone in need of help."

"But they're assassins," Roseia says flatly.

"I was raised there," Clarice says carefully. "It's weird and gorgeous and...safe. The people there may be killers, but they're one big family. I promise you on my mother's grave that there's nowhere safer in Vandaria. They'll take care of you and your siblings, treat you as we have treated you, and they'll teach you to defend yourself without having to use a weapon. If you don't want to learn they won't teach you, but it's safe. It's my home."

Roseia takes a minute to think about it. The past few days have been hard for her. Just yesterday morning they woke up orphans on the streets. Then she and her siblings were shown kindness and the love of strangers. She's watched Levi and Mira smile and eat and eventually joined them. Now she has to decide where they are to go next because of the threat to my life. It shouldn't be like this, but it is, and it isn't fair. Nothing in this world is.

"If you don't want to, then I know of a few good couples who have been looking to have kids of their own," Clarice says when Roseia doesn't answer.

"Didn't the House of Jade just get attacked?"

"Yes, but they won't be going back."

"How do you know?"

Clarice falls silent, the memory of her father passing over her face.

"They got what they came for." Her voice cracks, and the struggle to not say what can be seen on her face.

Both of them have been through hell this past week, and here I am, the Crown Prince with only a hand to offer. It's poetic, but lame.

"Will you take us?" Roseia asks me.

"If you want."

Nodding, she stands up and faces us. "Alright. Just...one more night. Please." Both Clarice and I nod, guilt keeping us from arguing. The rest of the world can wait.

Sighing, she goes to Clarice's other side and motions for her to scoot down. Clarice does, but not by much, so Roseia sits on the couch and pushes Clarice closer to me. Moving to make room I scoot all the way against the arm of the couch, but she just keeps pushing. It isn't until Clarice is as close as she can be to me that Roseia stops and lies down, her head on Clarice's lap.

Awkward tension is in the air people! You know we normally don't have a problem with being close to each other... well, it's definitely awkward when a twelve-year-old pushes the girl into you and lies down so neither of you can move without her knowing. Like...really weird. We're sitting there for a good few minutes when Roseia grabs Clarice's hand and looks at it.

"My mother always said Nightingales have the purity of gold."

She drifts into a seamless sleep, Clarice's hand still clutched in her hand. As I watch Clarice run her hand through Roseia's hair, a poem I read only once a long time ago, rises from my memory.


She's loved and feared,

Both caring and cared for.

In her eyes of innocence,

Sings the truth so dear.

Her face of the Gods,

Holds a story never told.

But this story is forgotten

Because of the wound to behold.

With the nature of a dreamer,

A smile lined in red of devotion,

Withholds the pain,

Of one's imagination.

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