Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 51 - Darius

It's been forty minutes, and Clarice nor Kat have yet to show. The room is filled to maximum capacity, and it's starting to smell like it too. People are dancing to the music, others staying to the walls, or looking down from the second and third-floor balconies. Several of the girls in the room have been trying to get my attention, but they're not the ones I'm looking for. A few even look like they're willing to brave coming to ask me to dance, but one look at the Bhaltayr who I purposely told to stand in front of the dais, and they stay where they are. I love my friends.

Lord Julyanus has been talking to my father about crops or trade or something boring since I've gotten here. They may be right next to me, but I've mastered how to tune them out. Mother looks like she's going to fall asleep any second now. I tried telling her to go to bed, but she refused and said that she wants to be here for the people. It's nice, but I'd prefer her not here if she's about to fall off her chair. I didn't ask them where the twins were, but Arthur gave me a look as if saying, they're safe.

The ball is in full swing, and I'm once again dying of boredom. I spot a stray strand of thread on my cuff and start wrapping it around my finger. I keep pulling at it, hoping that it's a harmless strand and that the cuff won't fall apart when it ends. I'm so focused on trying to slowly pull the thread out, that I don't even notice that the room has gone into an unnatural quiet until Julyan hits me in the arm. I follow his gaze and find everyone looking at two women as they walk toward the dais.

Heathens burn me. She looks like everyone's worst nightmare. Everyone else is trying to see who she is, but I'm trying to find somewhere not to look. I look at every piece of exposed skin. The leather straps only make it harder to not smile like a damn idiot as I meet her at the bottom of the dais. She's worn all kinds of dresses that have made me stare, but this...

Breeeeethe Darius. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale...dammit, not again.

"You two made me wait in the most uncomfortable chair for forty minutes....so that you could make a grand entrance?"

"Yep." They say at the same time.

"Why am I not surprised?"

Because you had the same idea, Clare's eyes say.

Well, I doubt it would've said the same effect as you did, I say back.

Oh don't blame them, they've just never seen Aglaea in person before.

"You look lovely Katarina."

"Thank you, Darius."

"If I'm not mistaken, not all the eyes in the room were on my humble waterlily."

"Flattered as I am, I only have eyes for one I'm afraid."

"I thought so."

"Well then come up here child." My mother calls. "I've been needing some company."

Kat bows her head, and I give her a wink before she goes to stand by Arthur. Guess all those other men never really stood a chance.

"Care to join me?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Nope."

Smiling, Clarice takes my hand and we walk up the steps. Julyan must've gone back into the shadows, not that I can tell where he is. It always amazes me how easily they all pop in and out of nowhere. It'd be fun if it didn't scare the living shit out of me when they pop in. Then there's me. I hide under the couch to scare Clarice, and she just looks down at me like a disappointed grandma. I tried, that's all that matters.

Clarice sits on my lap, her legs hanging over the arm of the throne. "I thought I told you to dress Thomas." She says looking to where he stands against the wall.

"I did. He left twenty minutes ago and came back like that. He says it was too itchy."

"I'm sitting on the lap of a Prince who can't even get his friend to suck it up for one night. "

"Or keep a plant from dying," Garrison says over his shoulder.

"That was one time."

"It's a plant." They say in unison.

"You know, you two gaining up on me is cruel."

She drags her finger against my throat and says with a glazed look in her eyes, "Would you prefer we rip out each other's throats?"

"It would be more entertaining." Her smile turns into that evil twisted one that makes me cringe with happiness as she turns fully towards me.

I want her in my lap, but at the same time, I know why she did it. With her in front of me, it's harder for an archer to find a clear angle on me without her noticing them first. It scares me to know that someone won't care for her life and just shoot through her to get to me. I know she'd take it and any other they aim at her if it meant that not one of them hit me, and that's not exactly comforting. Not when her ex-boyfriend doesn't seem like the merciless type. Little prick. If he doesn't make his move tonight, then we'll only be living like this until he does.

"Hey." I look back to her, not even realizing that I had been scanning the crowd. "You'll be okay."

"I know I will, but it's not only my life I fear for."

I see the understanding in her eyes, feel as she sinks further into herself. I'm not the only one with the burden on their shoulders, she's been having to deal with this her whole life. She knows the emotions of these kinds of situations all too well, and it kills me every time I remember that she's gone through so much already, and she's only seventeen. I'm only a year older, and to think she's been going through hell the entire time I've been complaining about boredom, it makes me sound like a wuss. A big, spoiled, rotten wuss.

Not wanting to grow up and take on the responsibilities of being an adult and future King, I tug her close and put my head in the crook of her neck. I hate this stupid chair and the way people respect it. I'd much rather be dancing with her to the band's songs, but I don't move. Not because I like holding her, but because I want time to stop. I just got two new siblings, my mother's happy and my father seems to be getting there. Both my childhood friends and new ones are alive and making the sun shine brighter than before. My life finally feels like every piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, and now two bastard idiots are coming to flip the table and scatter the pieces everywhere.

I haven't heard anything about whether tonight will be the night they come, but you can feel it – the change in the air telling you to look, to see. It's no coincidence that everything has gone to hell in the past month. The attacks, the nightmares, Aldred's death, Sibella's arrival, Will's surprise showing...they're all yelling at us that we're in danger, and today they seemed to settle. That's not necessarily a good thing. There's so much at stake, so much to lose if something goes terribly wrong, but there's so much more to gain if they don't.

Closing my eyes, I imagine what everything would look like. Flowers in full bloom, grass green over the hills. The sky clear, save for a few stray white clouds, and the sun hot but kept cool with a spring breeze. People will be in every street smiling and laughing without a care in the world. The castle gates are open, the King's Garden full of the sound of happy kids as they run around for their playtime, before going back into the small orphanage I hope to build by the eastern wall. They'll be fed and clothed and taught by willing teachers like Aracely. They'll have the choice to either train to be a guard – girls included - work in the castle and won't be called servants, but by their names, or venture out of the city in search of adventure when they reach seventeen.

Vandaria will be a place where refuge is sought and trust is given. It'll thrive and aim to be like every beautiful kingdom in the children's stories. Our distant cousin across the westerns sea will be the twin to ours beneath the hands of their Queen. The Queen who will fight on the front lines and be feared but loved by the people. Thralia and Vandaria will be powerhouses.

We won't seek war, but we will fight for peace.

*****

"Darius."

My eyes slowly open, the scent of lemongrass and lavender filling my nose. Clarice. I must've fallen asleep sometime during my mind wandering. Whoops.

"Darius."

"Hmm?"

"Someone's here to see you."

"Tellem imma sleepin'" I mumble as I kiss her neck once, before settling into it again.

"Darius Zandro Rosendal, you get your ass up and hug your favorite cousin right now." My head snaps up at the sound of my full name. Old habit from when my mother used to yell it when I was in deep shit. If you hear your full name called, you know you're in trouble.

"Thea?"

"So this is the infamous cousin you love talking about?" I don't even wait for Clarice to entirely get off me before jumping up and snatching Thea in my arms.

It's been six months since I've last seen her. She's been off in the eastern continent in search of a new adventure and a few – it's more like a hundred – men and women to fool around with. Before you think her a harlot, she can't get pregnant. We found out a while ago when she got sick and thought she was pregnant, but Siscilla checked, only to find that she had a problem and would never reproduce. She cried for about five minutes before cheering up and saying "at least I don't have to take any stupid tonics." She's quite the character.

Her dress is absolutely vulgar in every way. She cares more if someone messes up her hair than if they touch her freely. I tend to want to break everyone's hand if they try and do so in public, but she just jumps in their lap and spreads her legs. If only I had such confidence. Then again, I've been trying to seduce an assassin. I wonder if Thea could somehow get Clarice into bed.

"Well, I hope you told your new whore only the worst about me. Wouldn't want her thinking that we could be friends – though I do love that dress."

Please don't shove a knife up her gut, I plea to Clarice's hard stare at the offensive word.

"I don't befriend fellow whores, and don't worry, he's only said near nothing about you aside from the fact that you're his favorite."

"I thought you were off finding pleasure?" I say cutting Thea off before these two get in a chick fight. Tempting, but I don't think either of my parents would like the scene.

"And miss this shit show of a ball? Please, you know me better than that."

"Do I?"

"We shall put that to the test. You'll never guess this one."

"Guess what?" Clarice says as she takes my hand and pulls my arm around her.

And now I must keep Thea from scratching Clarice's eyes out. "Thea and I have this game we play. Every time she visits, she brings a mystery man or woman with her in which I have to make the attempt at naming."

"Thirty gold coins say you'll lose."

"I'd raise the bet if I were you. He's a horrible observer."

"Fine. Fifty."

I glare at Clarice, trying to debate if I should tell Thea to have at her.

Wait a minute.

"Eighty, and Lily here gets to be the one to guess."

"Deal."

Oh sweet, naïve Thea.

"He's talking to Eleanor by the fiddler." Both me and Clarice stiffen as we look to where a dark-haired man somehow got stuck talking to Eleanor. Poor guy.

Clarice looks to me, raising an eyebrow. How badly do you want me to beat her?

I am in need of eighty gold coins to bathe in.

Full scope then?

Give her hell.

We share a twisted smile, then look to Thea who's squinting her eyes at us. I always forget that no one else can understand us when we have these silent conversations.

"He's a merchant. Based on the quality of his clothing, I'd say first-level. However, by the way he keeps shifting uncomfortable and scratching at the jacket, he's not used to the fabric of such wealth. Therefore – with the support of fact that your dress is the exact same color, fabric, and cut as his attire – you were the one to buy the clothes, likely in an attempt to throw Darius, which makes him a second-level merchant."

"How did you-"

"Since you didn't show up the past two days, nor were you announced later this evening, I'd say you arrived at the castle about two hours ago when the ball started. Your eyes show signs of being travel-worn, but his don't all in. In fact, he looks perfectly healthy and stocked on energy to waste. Which means he's a second level merchant who runs his business from his office in the city. There are only three second-level merchants in Fernweh, and I happen to personally know Christopher Gabren, so I know it's not him. The other two I've seen, and know that Lanceron Baxter has blonde hair, not black. That leaves us with your date for the night. Second-level spice and sugar merchant, Derek Herringer. How'd I do?"

"Absolutely perfect," I say proudly.

Thea looks she someone finally rejected her offer into her bed. Her eyes are wide, mouth hanging open. If I had a painting of her face, I'd hang it on my wall so I could wake up and start my day off on a comedic note. She's so confident and observant herself, that it's hard to catch her off guard. I've been trying my entire life and have only been successful a few times. This is another reminder as to why I should never underestimate Clarice.

"Please tell me you two are engaged," Thea says it with such a straight face, that I'm not entirely sure what to think.

"You've all been one for jokes, Thea."

"I'm not joking. I'm serious. Because if you're not, then I have a ring from this old drunk that has two diamonds, and I'm not afraid to use it."

"Thea."

"For me, not for you. I finally found someone who's as badass as me, and I'm not going to let her go because your chicken ass doesn't want to get married."

"Okay, first of all-"

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