Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 47 - Fauna

Today is the day of rivalry. It's one of my favorite days of the year. The others being my birthday, Lance's birthday – which I'm still mad about not celebrating, - the Summer Ball, and any day I get to rest and sleep in. There's archery, dueling, jousting, knife throwing, wrestling, and, of course, the Bedeviled Path. It's basically an obstacle course. You have to jump and roll under logs, run through large and sharp swinging axes, crawl in the mud, dodge arrows, swing from ropes, run on barrels...everyone loves it. I like watching people slip up, but I love getting a few challenges from bulky and confident men, and then leaving them to eat my dust for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Too bad I won't be getting that privilege today.

The events are held in the dwarf everlasting fields so that there's plenty of room for everyone in town to attend. If you try stopping at each event, you often find yourself only on your fourth or fifth by the time the sun is setting. It's hard to see everything when there's so much going on.

The only problem with all of this, is that it's completely open to the public and entirely exposed. If I were Will or Dúghall, today is the day I'd take aim and shoot. Thankfully, Lance convinced the Queen to stay at the castle, both because of her current health and the risk of danger. He'll have Julyan and forty or so pouting guards who wish they were enjoying the fun with him. The King and Darius will be surrounded and kept at a distance from the people, and guards stationed at every event and circling the fields. I'm still not reassured.

Now I know what you're thinking, "Why continue to hold the events?" Well, the Elysian Festival is tradition, and you'd be basically crazy to cancel such a thing. There's also the fact that if the people knew of the danger possibly surrounding them, they'd go nuts and lock themselves in their houses or ditch Vandaria and take their chances elsewhere. We mind as well as ring the War Bell and watch as people run, scream, and flee. Not to mention that everyone's already here and it was too late in the year to try and cancel it.

Dressed in a coral color gown with lace sleeves going just past my elbow, a low neckline, matching low back, with slits, I feel...alive. I don't know what it is, but something about today makes me want to laugh and smile all day while skipping around, rather than walk. I'm normally cheery on the Day of Rivalry, but not like this. Not – for the lack of a better description – giddy. I've never been giddy. Or woozy.

Gods, Lily is changing me.

Darius is dressed in tan pants, a white tunic, brown knee-high boots, and a coral, Carolina blue emblazoned jacket. I must admit, the coral color does wonders for his sea-green eyes. Looking into them kind of feels like you're looking into a cove, the water clear so you can see your feet as you walk. Declan Cove is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen with its caves that open right up on the beach and straight into the paradise water. His eyes make me want to go back there and just enjoy the sea salt breeze.

Anyways...

Kat didn't show up to dress me this morning, and though I could've used her fashionista eye, I was more than happy to tend to myself. I'm a grown woman, not a child who needs to be pampered. I did, however, have a little help from Thomas and Darius, embarrassingly enough. They insisted, and I did need some help. Thomas helped me by tightening the back perfectly – not too tight and not too loose – which made me wonder if he's done this before. And to whom, because Kat doesn't wear tightened gowns like this.

Darius was the one to do my hair. He found some silver clips and pins with pearls on the end, and pulled my hair into a half up half down, bringing the half up into an impressive, curly loose bun. After sliding a few pins into the bun and making it pretty, he pulled a few strands loose from the front and side of my head, letting them frame my face. I never pegged Darius for the women's hairstyling type, but I kind of like that I'm not the only one who has surprising hidden talents. Once he was happy with his work – and my jaw dropped – he sent Thomas off to go get breakfast. When he came back, he ended up bringing a small golden leaf diadem.

"No Queen should go unmarked." Was all Darius said, before carefully placing it atop my head. I will admit, I felt nauseous seeing myself with the diadem on, so imagining it becoming a Queen's crown was enough to make me dizzy and near fainting.

Sitting in the thankfully roofed carriage, watching the town pass by, I find the weight of the diadem comforting in a way. Even if the intricately designed metal is making me self-conscious, it's beautiful.

"You're drooling." Facing Darius, I find his own crown sitting crooked on his head. On an entirely teen girl note, it makes him look adorable in a toe-curling way.

"Jealous that it's Benny I'm pining after, and not you?"

"I'm more concerned that he hasn't noticed."

"I noticed," Benny yells from atop his horse outside the carriage window.

"Well, in that case, I am jealous."

"You think too much of yourself, Prince." I reach up to right his crown, but my hands get swatted away before I can lay a finger on it.

"Hey, I like it like that."

"You are not getting out of this carriage looking like that."

"And why not?" This time he catches my wrists as they raise again. "Jealous that it'll make a pretty lady swoon and whisk me away from you?"

I open my mouth to tell him, no, but nothing comes out. Of all the comeback and retorts I've stored in my mind for situations like these, not a single one steps forward to be used. Typical.

Darius lets go of my wrists, smiling at his victory as he sits back in the seat. Kicking myself for several reasons, I turn back to the window and try not to squirm and calm down my pounding heart before it bursts through my ribs. It's not often that people irritate me to the point of fidgeting, but Darius always seems to make me want to shift in my seat uncomfortably or twiddle my fingers.

The last of the factory buildings pass, and then we're drifting onto a dirt road and entering the dwarf everlasting flower fields. The sounds of cheering and metal clashing sounds, and as my heart beats faster in excitement, I shove my entire upper body out the window and take in the commotion. People are everywhere. Dressed in costumes, normal clothing, and dresses like mine. A good handful so far with gowns of less coverage, and others – mainly wives and older women – with more. Some are singing songs already sounding drunk, while kids run around with wooden swords and shields pretending to have fights of their own. There are smiles everywhere, laughter everywhere else.

My mother used to say that the Day of Rivalry should be called the Day of Freedom. She said that though people come to the fields in search of competition and a good fight, if you looked closely enough, you could see the people entirely free. Their smiles come easier, their laughter lighter. There are no masks worn aside from those of costumes, and people come to do what the rest of the year can prohibit. The only sad, mad, or gloomy faces you see are those who lost their fight or their money where they placed bets. It's on this day that the Jades often dressed in anything but their assassin attire, and find themselves as just another commoner.

The people would welcome them as travelers, and they'd fit right in with everyone else. When you come with a reputation of the Jades and walk the streets with our color, you're always avoided rather than welcomed. Today is the day that they get to relax and step into a life that they could've had. With me and Lance, we'd change it up every year. Sometimes we'd come in our suits, other times dressed in costumes or the normal clothing of a traveler. One time, someone saw us in our suits and decided to play a prank on his friends visiting from the east coast.

He told them that we were wearing costumes and to come to try to steal the blades at our hips. Three of them approached us asking about who we were supposed to be and if we made the suits ourselves or had them made. Then the other two who had heavy and loud feet scratching against the dirt tried to come from behind, and grab the blades. Thirty seconds later, all five of them were on the ground with bruises, and the people nearby clapped thinking it was just another event. Their prankster friend was also on the ground, but he was laughing rather than moaning in pain.

"Scoot over." Pulling myself back into the carriage, Darius's head pops out next to mine, and a few screams and squeals sound, making me jump and hit my head. I pull my head back inside, rubbing away the pain, and stick a finger in my ear trying to shake out the sound of hormones spiking.

"So which one are we going to do first? Archery? Knife throwing? Wrestling?" Darius looks back at me wiggling his eyebrows and pointedly looking at my legs popping out from the slits.

"We aren't going to do any of that."

"What?" He falls back into his seat, his face falling.

"Darius, after Will showing up, and no sign of The Demoni or Dúghall in weeks, I don't want to take any chances."

"I know, but you can't blame a guy for trying. We're still going to have fun though, right?"

"I'm offended you'd think so little of me."

"I would've thought you'd be used to it by now."

"Touché."

The carriage comes to a stop, and my excitement shoots up so fast, that I choke. We may not be able to kick some ass – literally speaking – but I'll be dammed if I don't enjoy the day. Vlad opens the door, the sound of a crowd already gathering outside filling my ears. Darius straightens his crown and moves to get out, but I shove him back into his seat, climb over his legs, and then spring out of the carriage. A small breeze hits my skin, and I instantly smell something roasting somewhere nearby.

Gods I'm hungry, and that meat smells good.

"After today," Darius says straightening his jacket. "We're going to discuss Queenly manners and how not to treat your fellow royalty."

"I think I'm doing an excellent job so far."

"That's clearly debatable."

I'm about to start debating, but then I hear someone calling Darius's name, Lily's along with it, and turn to find Kat pushing her way through the crowd. Her hair's up in a messy bun, her cheeks red and sweat glinting on her forehead. Has she been running?

"Glad to see you're in a happy mood, Kat," I say, noticing that she's finally glowing as bright as the afternoon sun.

"Shut up."

"What is it you're so excited to tell us?" Darius asks.

Kat doesn't answer right away. Instead, she stands there catching her breath and smiling like a lunatic. Okay, one, she needs to get more exercise. I don't care how thin she is, her lungs are struggling. And two, "If you tell me Arthur proposed, I'm going to-"

"What? No, it's not – why did he say something? Is he going to propose? What did he tell you -"

"Kat."

"Right. Um...the Queen has gone into labor."

"What-" Before I can go on, Darius's hand snatches mine and pulls me back toward the carriage.

"Wait, you can't go."

"Why not?" I ask planting my feet and stopping Darius. Huh. I would've thought I'd need more force to hold him back. Guess not.

"Let's go." He says trying to tug my arm.

"But-"

"I'm not waiting one more second. Now if you'll be so kind as to get in the carriage, I'll be-" Kat moves so quickly, that I don't even know what to do when she jumps onto Darius's back. Everyone, including me, gawks at her. Normally, servants don't jump on a Prince's back, but with us, as promised, Kat can do as she pleases. "Kat!"

"The Queen requests you stay and enjoy the festival and come to her in the morning."

"Kat-"

"I'll pinch your nose." She warns.

???

"The Queen said if you didn't cooperate, to pinch your nose. Apparently, he has a sensitive nose." She says to me. Of all the things, I would've never thought to use his nose as a reinforcer. Or just for my satisfaction. Thank you for that, Queen Claritia.

"Alright." Kat hops off his back once again smiling. She never ceases to amaze and surprise you. Never a dull moment with this one, that's for sure.

"Well," I say stepping closer to Darius just in case he tries to make another break for it. "Thank you, Kat."

"No problem. I should get back, I told Arthur that I'd-"

"Go. And take the carriage."

"What?" Both Darius and Kat say at the same time.

"So long as that carriage is here, you're going to try to escape back to the castle and disobey your mother's request. Take the carriage, Kat." He glares at me, mad that I knew exactly what kind of plan was forming in his head.

Trust me, I want to go back to the castle to give Lance another thirteen pair of hands, but a woman can be in labor for hours on end, and I'd much rather be here. Not to mention that the scattered mood swings they go through while giving birth, is a headache. One second their crying and telling you that you're the best thing that's happened to them, and the next they're ripping off your head and cursing at everyone in the room. It's like our monthly cycles times a hundred, and Darius didn't necessarily take mine with a grand smile.

Darius steps aside and gestures for Kat to take the carriage. She doesn't even hesitate and walks up the step and into the luxury within. More gasps and comments come from people behind us, but a glare from me and The Dozen has them quickly shutting their mouths. Oh, what King Neven will do when he hears about this. He can suck it for all I care. It's not like he can get mad at me when I stop his fist from contacting with Darius's face. I mean, he did bring me here to protect Darius, so protect him I will.

A minute later, the carriage leaves back to the castle, Kat's breathing finally returning to normal. "I think I sense another babe on the way."

"You're unbelievable."

"Unbelievably attractive in every way, I know." He rolls his eyes, looking back to the shrinking carriage with nervous eyes. Mother hen.

Reaching up to his crown, I shift it so that it's once again hanging crooked. "There, now you're almost as attractive as I am."

We walk into the celebration, The Dozen cleaving through the parade of estrogen who extend their shoulders, pushing out their chest, and then scowl and size me up. I'm flattered, really. There have been many times when I've been them myself, but after Will and the whole shenanigan, I've bitten my tongue and schooled my face into neutrality when it comes to handsome men. If I'm swooning, I'm either faking it, or drunk.

*****

Two hours later, cracking jokes and having enjoyed watching two scrawny men wrestle forever before they both fell to the ground tired, I keep bouncing on my toes. It's hard for a fighter like me to just watch people fight and not join in. I'm thinking about what I can do to get rid of my burst of energy, but Darius has a different idea.

"Want another piggyback ride?" He says wiggling his eyebrows.

"Are you only asking because you know the dress has slits?" I ask narrowing my eyes. If his wild grin isn't answer enough, I don't know what is.

"You do have nice legs," Mal mutters beside me.

"That's true." Gabe agrees.

"You should wear slit dresses more often," Amel says.

"To bed too," Ozzie adds with a devious grin.

There are a few mumbled agreements from everyone, earning a "Watch it." from Darius.

Wow, I must be doing something right if they're all staring at my legs. That or something very wrong. It's funny how when I first got here, I was trying to purposely seduce them. Now I've got them wrapped around my finger like snakes. The blooming friendship between us might also be the cause of their clear eyes. They've become like brothers to me. I used to have one, now I have a potential thirteen more. Odd.

With a wink to Mal, I jump onto Darius's back. No one needs to try and convince me this time. I mean when does an assassin get to say that they got offered a piggyback ride from a Prince? I don't have to walk, I can cover his back from possible archers, and I can keep an eye out for anyone in front of us at a higher advantage point. I'm short, it's not often that I get to walk around seeing the tops of people's heads instead of staring at their noses.

"I'll try not to trip this time."

"My hero."

He walks off to the hand to hand combat rings, where two very muscled men fight shirtless and gleaming with sweat. Mother of Gods. They look and move like machines. Sloppy and undertrained machines, but shaped like how you would imagine Gods. I've seen them before, of course, as they're the group of men who call themselves the Firebrands. Suiting when you think about it, as they're often found starting small fires from fighting too recklessly. I've had to settle a good chunk of them because they get too passionate.

The small crowd around the ring parts letting us through. Winston, Garrison, and Vlad stand between us and the red line on the floor. If I wasn't on Darius's shoulder, I probably would've had to stand on my tiptoes to peer over their shoulders. The top of my head reaches their chin, so I'd be looking over them like a hippo in the water.

Rufus – the blonde, baby blue-eyed, and ripped twenty-year-old – executes a nicely done feign, and long knee maneuver that hits Hotz – the brown-haired, chocolate eyed, a twenty-one-year-old married man whose name is damn right fitting – right in the gut. A cry of cheers rings in answer, and then Rufus catches Hotz's second blow, and they're on the ground, wrestling and punching and rolling. Rufus lands a blow, then Hotz hits him in the groin and rolls to pin him down. Watching them now, I find myself mumbling their mistakes and where they should be aiming to hit each other.

You can put me in a dress, put a diadem in my hair, and give me a new name and identity, but the mind of an assassin I will forever have. It sounds darker than I originally thought, but you get the idea. Especially having been a teacher for the past month, my mind just automatically switches into teacher mode when I see people going at it. Hell, if I weren't dressed all fancy-schmancy, I'd be walking right into the red circle, in the middle of their fight, and give the crowd a show to watch.

The fight ends with Rufus getting his arm around Hotz's neck – who could get out of it if he just took a deep breath and used his distinct abs to pull his legs up, and kick Rufus in the head. Rufus takes his victory, thrusting his arms in the air as the crowd hoots and howls. Hotz walks off to where his wife and year-old son wait nearby. They're a cute family. Rufus, however, walks to the rest of his Firebrand friends. I'm still eyeing him when a redhead walks up to him, no one stopping her, and jumps into his arms kissing him deeply.

"Well, there goes Plan B," I say jokingly.

"And C, D, E, F, G-"

"There are not enough letters in the alphabet for the list of men I have."

"Well, in that case, don't let keep you." Darius drops my legs, letting me fall to the ground, before turning and walking off.

Okay, so maybe my list is more like less than a quarter of the alphabet, but it's not like he doesn't know that. The Dozen follow him, his pace obviously slows so that I can catch up. Winston is the only one who waits for me at my shoulder. It's been weird having them at my back – The Dozen – but it's comforting, in a way. I've gone through every assignment alone, only my life to worry about and defend, but with Darius and The Dozen, I now have thirteen other people to think about. They've become family to me. They don't take my shit, they ruffle my hair, punch me in the arm, joke and call me a bitch. Above all, they've let me into their friendship, their family, and it scares me. The ones you care for, and the ones who care and will defend you, will always be in danger. I can't lose them too, not a single one.

So rolling my eyes at Darius's turtle walk, I follow after him. Little prick always knows what I'll do. I've just reached Vlad's shoulder when motion catches my eyes, and I turn to find Marrieta. No Will. Where the hell is Will?

I feel my feet falter, my heart skips a beat and breath hitches. Will isn't here, not a sign of him. Will disappeared once, and it cost me a life. Now he's disappeared again, and just like last time, I have no idea what's going on or what's going to happen. He could be anywhere, doing anything. He could be at the castle, looking for weak spots and either paying them or killing them off and putting his own men in their place.

The Queen's in labor, utterly defenseless if Will somehow gets past the guards and Lance. I have complete faith in my brother, but I haven't seen Will fight in a year. Who knows what he's picked up? Or he could be here, waiting for the opportune moment to take his shot. He could be – my eyes land on a cloaked and hooded, broad-shouldered figure. He's surrounded by a group of people, all listening to him as he speaks. I feel my feet take a step toward him, but just as I'm taking my second, he turns around.

His hair's blond, eyes blue, not green. It's not Will. My relief is short-lived. I'd rather see Will and know where he is then to look for him and never find him. He's doing exactly what we were taught to do on assignments, and he's doing it on purpose. Shadow your target, learn their habits, let them see you once, make them remember you, warn them, and if they don't heed your words, then read them a bedtime story and put them to sleep. He's shadowed me for my entire life, and he knows my habits. I saw him on the roof after he killed my father, and I never forgot him. He warned me yesterday, and I've listened to his words echo in my head since.

Time for bed, says a voice in my head.

The hair on my arm stands, and instinct has me catching his hand before it lands on my shoulder. My fingers run up against calluses on his palm, and I don't wait. I turn, prepared to give Will a piece of my mind, and finish the scar on his face, but his other arm goes around my waist, and I find myself being pulled into his chest. What the hell is this? I try shoving him away, but his arm holds tight and I end up closer to him.

"It's me – it's Darius."

Darius.

"You're okay."

My head whirls and I find myself slowly slipping back into my body. My hands are shaking, a small sweat at the edge of my brow. Never has the killing calm felt so...natural. It slipped around me like butter on a frying pan. Had he not said something, I might've ended up killing the one person I was assigned to protect. I would've killed the Crown Prince of Vandaria.

Fear and shame hit me, and my hands shake faster. It felt so easy, so easy for the killing calm to show up. Never in my life – not when my mom died, or Will killed Rose, or when he killed my father – have I lost myself so much as I did just now. I get it, Rose's death was over a year ago, I should be further along with the acceptance of it and make peace, but everyone's different. I just wish this would all go away. The pain, the anger, the fear, all of it.

Please, I plead. Just leave me in peace. Let me go.

"Clare, look at me." Darius pulls back, holding me by shoulder like he's afraid I'll snap again. Saints, I put that fear in him. I did that.

My vision focuses again, and I find The Dozen standing in a tight circle, their backs to us, hiding me behind them. I know they're there as protection, but I can't help but think that they're standing there so that no one saw me nearly slit the Prince's throat. Everything was going so well. Dam you. I say to the Gods and their Saints. Take it.

"Look at me." I force my eyes to his, and just like that, I feel the raging waves inside me like the sea during a storm, settle to tranquil water. "He can't break you."

No one can break you, my father used to say.

He said it during every training session with Lance and me, or before we left onto an assignment, and it was always his way of telling you that he'd miss you while you were gone. It was his final goodbye, his love crammed into five words. Five words that to anyone else would sound like a motivational speech, but to me and Lance, it was like saying I love you. He told us that, of course, - that he loved us – but his five words spoke more than those three.

But it's not just Darius's words that made stillwater, but his eyes. My mother used to have the eyes of a lion. They were fierce and sharp and always full of willpower. Even if she was seen as this delicate flower, she was strong-willed. Her hands were soft and gentle, but her eyes were calloused. So like calluses, her eyes protected what was beneath. A raging fire wanting to be set free. It warmed my heart that I always knew that no matter how sad, angry, or scared I was, my mother would always be there to push them away.

When I watched her chest rise and fall for the last time, it felt like watching a fire sputter out, and you had nothing but the cold to now keep you company. That's what hurts the most. Not the loss of her physically, or her arms or voice, but her eyes. A tidal wave of darkness could be descending on the world, and she would stop it with a flick of her wrist and the fire in her heart. I lost them the day I lost her, and then I tried imagining them in others. I looked for them in Mary's eyes, in Adeline's, but it was no use. My mother was dead, and she took the warmth with her.

When Ella told me that my mother controlled the earth and water elements, and not fire, I thought that maybe she was mistaken. With the fire that burned inside her, she had to have at least a piece of it in her. And I was right. It wasn't the piece that I thought she was born with, but one she was given. Not by the Spirits of the Living, but by Kerrigan. My mom fell in love, married him the same day she became Queen, and as a gift and way to show her his love, he gifted her a piece of him. The one thing he could give her that she would forever have, no matter what trials they faced. That's what he gave her.

I hadn't known it then, hadn't pieced it together until now when I looked up into Darius's eyes and found the same inferno, once in my mother's, now in his. The sadness, fear, and anger that riled through me were pushed away by my mother, and when she left, it all came back with twice the pain. I became so accustomed to it, that I forgot what it felt like to have them subdued, leaving only joy and a sense of calm to run along my bones. The loss of my mother, Rose, and my father, and the pain I've felt since once felt like a wormhole threatening to pull me into darkness. Now it feels more like a shadow on a wall. It's there and I can see it, but it can do nothing to me aside from following and hide behind me from the light.

I feel...free. I feel like I can finally see the world with warm colors, rather than like a dog who only sees in shades of grey. This world is held by both good and evil hands, tugging in opposite directions trying to claim us for their own, but we are no ones to claim. We choose our paths, we choose where to walk and what to do, and we don't need the Gods and Saints to tell us what we're supposed to – or destined to do. For so long I've been thinking that they're the ones who have been imposing the heartache, but when Darius repeated the words of my father, I saw that it was me. I was the one who put myself into the agony, and I've been letting it swallow me whole. No more. No more grief, not when I just found the light at the end of the tunnel.

So screw the universe. Screw what the Gods want, and Saints wish, I will do what needs to be done for the better of the world, and what's best for me. Not them.

First order of business...I wrap my arms around Darius's neck, and kiss him.

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