Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 9 - Lance

"Be honest," The Queen says as we walk through the castle halls. "How likely is your sister to harm my son?"

"Well, I suppose it depends on how troublesome the Prince is."

"Perhaps you should check on them tonight then. Or in a few hours."

From my mental map, we're walking through the tower at the throne room's point. The library is somewhere on our left, the Eagle Wing on our right, and the King and Queen's Quarters straight ahead, pass the Queen's Garden. This tower's closed off on the first level, only a single hallway leading from the garden to the dais. I've been scanning the walls and floor for any sign of abnormality. In a place like this, I have no doubt that there's some kind of secret passage that leads to an escape tunnel, just in case the royals need to be rushed out of the castle. I'm beginning to think that perhaps I missed it when I spot a small engraving on the wall.

If I hadn't been looking closely, I probably would've missed the sigil. I'm not very educated on the subject of mystical symbols, but my best guess is that it's the protection sigil. A quick glance, and I take note of how the portion of the wall looks to be slightly pressed deeper than the rest of the wall. I'll come back to it later, whenever I manage to part with the Queen safely.

We walk through the door at the end of the hall, and I help the Queen down the three steps, and onto the narrow dirt path. Twelve guards are waiting along the path, all sizing me up the second the door opens. One: I'm flattered. Two: we're going to need to talk about where they stand when the Queen isn't with them. The first thing someone is going to look for is where they are. If you find the personal guard, you find the royals, and that's the last thing we want. It's like looking at a group of people dressed in black, and asking someone to point out their best friend who's wearing yellow. That or screaming from the castle walls that the King is in his chambers, the Queen in the garden, and the Prince in his own tower. Bad idea.

The entirety of the walk to the Queen's vast chambers, I feel every guard's eye watching me. I'm tempted to stick a sign on my back that says 'kick me' just to see who'd do it. I wouldn't kill them, of course, just turn around right before they do so to scare the shit out of them.

There are four rooms in the Queen's chambers. One bedroom – large bed, trunk, couch, chair, fireplace, two windows on the North wall, two nightstands, and a small desk. A bathroom – a tub that looks more like a pool, no windows, one entry in from the bedroom. Her foyer has three low lying couches, three long and narrow windows on the north wall, a small table, and a painting. Then there's the spacious sitting room – three couches, four chairs, a long table set for six, a fireplace, one window on the North wall, and a grand piano. I haven't seen a piano in nine months, haven't played a single note in about a year.

Mother used to play the piano. She had long fingers that moved as quickly as spider legs over the black and white keys. She never learned to read sheet music, but she could hear someone play the song a few times, watch their hands move through the songs, and then play it as if she learned it ages ago. She'd sing me to sleep, but I wouldn't close my eyes until she started playing again in the room next to mine. The notes would slip through the purposely made thin walls – that way they could hear if anyone came into my room at night – and pull me into sleep's arms.

We didn't carry our mother's gift of memorizing so quickly. It took us a month or so to get a short song down, or half of a long one. Though I wasn't as connected to our mother as Fauna, I always set aside anything to simply watch and listen to her play. I still remember my favorite song to let my fingers move along. It's a little less than seven minutes long, but it always reminds me of her and her cursory fingers. White Clouds. That's the name of the song. It's slow but moves quicker and quicker before returning to its original pace, and then you do the whole thing over again, only a shorter version. Both hands move quickly and smoothly, the harmony weaving through the melody seamlessly. I should've been clearer when I said favorite. It's my favorite solo song. My favorite, above all, is the one Fauna and I played along with her. My Dear, You Can Go Now.

After mom died, Fauna hasn't touched the piano. She's sat and stared at the keys for hours on end, but she hasn't put a finger on them in ten years. She doesn't play for the same reason I don't walk down Coroner Street. Too many memories. I, however, wanted nothing more than to play the old piano in our parent's room. Father doesn't sleep in there anymore, and everything has been covered with white sheets and left to collect dust, so I could always go in and play. I played for Kat a few times, but only the ones that wouldn't drag me down into painful memories. She never once complained about hearing the same three over and over again, and I thanked it for it in more ways than one.

I only ever played when I knew Fauna was away on an assignment or downstairs training. When I played three months after mom died, she burst through the doors and slammed the piano shut. I barely had the chance to pull back my hands before the heavy music stand crushed them. I tried playing late in the night about two years ago, and, thankfully, she didn't barge in, but instead just walked out of the house. I found her at Gretel's in a dark booth two hours later, a still full mug of Kidzra in her hand. Now every time she sees a piano, she freezes. I pray the Gods are kind, and there's not a piano in her rooms.

"Your room is down the hall." The Queen says, pulling me from my memories. "I'll admit that it's not at big as mine, but it's still comfortable."

"Thank you, my Queen."

"Claritia. So long as you do your job, then you may call me Claritia."

"Thank you – Queen Claritia."

"It's an improvement. Now, what is it you need to do first?"

I hadn't thought about that, and everything my father told us to do just flew out of my mind. Typical. "Well, starting with the names and background information on your guards is a good place to begin."

"Easy enough." She plops down in the red chair by the fireplace in the sitting room and picks up two knitting needles, and a ball of yarn from the table beside her.

She tells me about her twelve guards, then the Captain of the Guard named Aillard and the King's personal guard. They all seem to check out, though I do want to speak to Aillard and ask him about which guards are their weakest. I don't much care if he gets offended, a weak link breaks the chain, and right now the chain needs to be pretty dam strong.

She asks if I want to know about her son's guard, but Fauna is hopefully getting that information like she's supposed to be. After speaking to her servants who huddled close to her side, I gave them strong warnings about venturing into the city. From now on, if they wish to go beyond the castle grounds, they need to report to either me, the Queen, Aillard, or my sister. The same spiel went to the guards, though they kept asking questions that drove me to near insanity.

"Why?"

"Because I said so."

"No offense, but who died and made you our boss?"

"No one yet, but never say never."

"Aren't we trained to keep people like you out of the palace."

"Well you're training is downright awful if I'm currently lounging in the Queen's chambers, don't you think?" They didn't like that last answer, but a guy has gotta have some fun, and they need to be questioning everyone – including me - anyways. I have no doubt in my mind that my sister is reigning hell on everyone in her eyesight as much as I am.

It doesn't occur to me that Queen Claritia had told the King that she was to meet with the Anevay, and the healer hasn't shown until there's a knock at the door. She's short, with what once must've been auburn hair, now silver-streaked, but otherwise looks spry. I mean when I heard she was fifty-six, I thought she'd be walking with a hunch, skin wrinkled, and using a cane to keep upright. Instead, she rushes through the doorway with such liveliness that you'd mistake her for a three-year-old.

"Good afternoon my-" She jolts to a stop when she sees me sitting across from the Queen.

"Afternoon," I say.

"Don't mind him, Siscilla. He will not harm you." The Queen says, setting down her knitting.

Both me and Siscilla move to help her up, but she hesitates, and I get there first. It's a curse more than it is a blessing to have such a reputation. On one hand, you're the most feared assassin in Ker and can get someone to talk just by sneaking up on them. It makes assignments easier and quicker to finish. On the other hand, you're the most feared assassin in Ker and no one who knows who you are, nor wants anything to do with you. Living a life where fear is your servant, doesn't allow for many friends to be had. It's why Fauna and I have a close relationship. That, and the last time we made a friend, he ended up stabbing us in the back.

I help Queen Claritia to her bedroom, Siscilla in tow. With a wave, she dismisses me, and I close the doors behind me. I suppose this is a good time to scout the foyer and sitting room. If you're wondering why, then you'll be surprised at how much knowing where every fold in the rug or scratch in a vase is helpful. I start in the sitting room, probing, and feeling around. While checking the floor, my eyes roam to the piano, and I think back to those quiet nights when I would play in the dark. The couches, chairs, desks, and bed were ghosts, and the keys gathered dust that wiped off with a touch of my finger and made it hard to play swiftly. Looking down at the polished keys, I already know that it won't sound the same.

The top is open, all the strings and nobs of the instrument visible and waiting. I drag a finger on its mahogany frame, hearing my mom's voice echo in my head. Life is a song, my son, and even if there's no music left, play for those left listening. My mother was always one for poetry when she spoke, and it's her words in a riddle that I remember the most. If she wanted you to listen, she gave you a sentence with a hundred different possible meanings, and she'd never tell you which one was the right one. It was like learning to play. She gave you the notes, and you had to find your own way to play it.

Play with your heart, not mine.

I look back to the bedroom doors, finding them closed, quiet voices coming from behind them. I should probably ask to play first, but I have a feeling that the Queen wouldn't mind at all. With a deep breath, I sit on the leather bench and feel the peddles under my feet. I lay my fingers on the keys, and within seconds they're moving into a slow song. I barely have to think about which notes come next, as my fingers dance at a steady pace. My foot falls and rises where needed, making it quieter or dragging the notes on when my fingers can't. I was right when I said that it would sound different. The old piano across the town left in the brisk plays in deviant notes from its lack of maintenance. This one, shined and cared for, plays wrong in my own ears, yet couldn't sound better.

Not only are the wires tightened just right, but the feeling of my mother's hand on my shoulder feels more distant than last. I have always been able to feel her near when I played, but now...don't leave me again. My thumb slips, playing two notes rather than one, but I don't stop. Even when you mess up, you keep going. You play until the last note fades out, and once you begin, you can't start over. The song is supposed to be played with someone singing along with it, but no one sings this song like my sister. Despite her refusing to touch the piano, she still sings.

Her voice has always been her own, and only with our father has she kept her words to herself. It's the one thing in my sister that I believe is still free of grief's hands. I rarely hear her sing, but when she does, it carries like a soaring eagle. It's not necessarily this angelic voice that you may be imagining based on my own opinion, but it's beautiful to me. It's the effortlessness of her sound and her tone that suits every song I play. I have a voice of my own, one lower and may be beautiful in the ears of others, but I think I sound like a squawking seagull compared to her. We've duet before, a few songs our mother taught us, some tavern ones from our adventures. We were so young when mother heard us sing, and when Rose heard us sing together a few times, I imagined our mother smiling through her.

Now, the song comes to a quiet ending, and I let the low chord play out the agony. When the notes fade back into silence, I open my eyes and nearly slam my fingers down when a voice comes from the doorway.

"Gumusservi Sonat." Siscilla stands in the doorway, a towel in her hands. She doesn't seem as frightened as she did before. "How do you know it?"

"I learned it as a child." She nods and, uncomfortable, I stand and start to make my way to the bedroom.

"I haven't heard that song in decades." She calls over her shoulder. "Who taught you?

I stand a few feet from her, debating whether or not to tell her. "My mother.

"She must've been a brazen woman.

"That and more."

*****

Siscilla left a few minutes after that, and an hour later one of the Queen's servants – Lena – came in with news of the Prince and my sister. Apparently, the Prince didn't waste any time and matched him and his guard against her. She left before the fighting began, but I already know the outcome. The palace guards are trained well enough to land a few hits, but having fought her last night, I'm not sure how long they'll last. She'll make her strikes where it'll be the most effective, and then she'll take her time getting the last ones to fall. I want to go and watch, but the Queen would rather not see her son and his friends on the ground. That's the best part, I want to say.

She knitted her way through the minutes, and just as I was about to stand and start pacing to ease my bored mind, she asked me about the piano. "How long have you played?"

"Since I was young."

"Know any other songs?"

"A few."

"You're not going to give much detail, are you?" When I don't answer, she nods and places her needles and yarn back in the basket. "Could you at least play the song again?"

I'm still thinking about it for another thirty minutes as she continues knitting. I know I said that I'm more adjusted to the music then Fauna, but I haven't played for anyone since mom. Solitude is an old friend who's opposite makes me shaky.

The Queen doesn't push further, doesn't ask about the piano again, and instead has maps brought if of the castle grounds. My eyes drift over the drawings for another twenty minutes, and then, when I can't take it anymore, I walk over to the piano. I play Gumusservi Sonat, then another quicker song to content my jittery hands, before returning to the maps. They're not that much different from the ones our father had drawn up, which means our eyes have been successful.

The birds-eye view is labeled with the servant passages and secret tunnel from behind the dais. It looks to be between the castle walls and the halls, leading under the King's Garden, and out the western wall. It's the obvious escape route. West of Fernweh lies the coast, the city of Lander a halfway point. If a King is to escape, the seas would be their best bet. It's the closest, the quickest, and if they can leave the shoreline quickly enough, they could disappear into another continent. Stupid pricks are always so predictable.

What they should aim for, is the Dearg Forest to the north. It may be the darkest, cursed, and most feared place in Ker, but if you learn how to get through without casualties or problems, then you're safer than you think. Sadly, my family is the only one who knows how to pass through. At least of my knowledge. I should probably update Aillard on the fact, but at the moment, the only person I trust in this castle is my sister. I don't even trust the Queen - nice and strong-willed as she may be. As you could imagine, trust is very hard to earn in my line of work. Getting correct information from people is only possible through fear, not trust.

Speaking of trust, I doubt that the maps reveal everything hidden in the castle. I'll check the servant passages later, along with the current royal escape route. Tomorrow, I'll see about walking the gardens and marking the guard shifts and positions. From what I saw today, they have the right idea about having guards on every corner and every ten yards in between on the walls, and the ones trying to hide in the sycamore trees. That was hard not to laugh at. If you're going to hide, you could at least try and climb higher than average eyesight. I also didn't necessarily approve of the guards on the outer wall walking back and forth. Not only does it allow for gaps when both guards are looking away, but they're entirely exposed and too focused on their wandering thoughts to spot archers who could be stationed on the nearby roofs.

If it were me, I'd station a few disguised guards on the surround roofs and on the temple, each with a pocket mirror to signal during the day, and matches died different colors for different warnings at night. Then I'd add standing guards to the wall along with the pacing ones so that there are no gaps. As for the tree-dwellers, I'd have one at the top of every two trees. This way there not as visible in the tall and better-covered trees, but also so that it's harder to know which trees have dwellers, and which don't. The guards against the castle walls are fine, but if their shifts are longer than three hours, they need to be shortened. Guards are at their weakest when they're distracted, and on average, they last about three hours. Maybe three and a half.

The gates seem to be monitored already, but I'd add guards along the drawbridge and path to distract them from the trees. There should be guards on the two balconies at the front of the palace, and archers at every tower top. If you think that's a lot, you should see what we do for the Jade House when it's on high alert.

Shift change every hour, sentinels every five feet at the gates, five on each rooftop of the surrounding buildings, one on each building in the ring of buildings after that. Then there are the others hidden within the shadows of the streets, and everyone else stationed throughout the house. Only a group of fifteen rest at a time. The rotation moves so that everyone goes at every station at least once throughout the day - maybe twice. We have to call in every assassin back from their assignments in order to do this, - which is about two hundred or so of us - and when we come out of the lockdown, the Jade House, along with the abandoned rooms in the inn, is filled to maximum capacity.

Normally you don't think that there's that many assassins in a keep, or even associated with one, but with the Jade Assassins, it's different. Other assassins come to train with us and learn a skill here and there, but we never reveal everything unless they plan on becoming a full Jade. If we gave away all our secrets, then we wouldn't be the most feared. It'd basically end with every kingdom and continent doing exactly what Will is doing now. Taking his knowledge of us to use it against us.

This castle has several defense procedures, each with their own different instructions and alarms. When you're in lockdown, there should only be one. Stand and fight. If an alarm sounds, then guards start moving, start paying attention to what they're supposed to do and where they're supposed to go. That causes blind spots and distraction enough for someone to get in or get out, undetected. I should know, I've triggered one before to sneak into the guard's house. It's better to sound an alarm telling every guard to simply pull out their swords and knock their arrows, that way you don't have the problem of trying to pick out who's a servant panicking and running, and who's the invader trying to escape.

This castle needs some work.

Not only will I have to run this by Fauna and my father, but then the Queen and King so that they can approve, and then spread the word to the entirety of those working in the castle. Then we'd have to make sure that there's no mole within the walls leaking out the new system into the ears of the enemy. If there is, then I'd have to start questioning servants and guards alike, and there's way too many to be thorough. Like everyone else, guards and servants can be paid off, and those who can't can be either killed and replaced or tortured until compliant. Just Fauna and I aren't enough to ensure that the walls are impenetrable, and the palace guards aren't much of strong reassurance. If I had the option, I'd start placing the Jades throughout the grounds, but that'd just tell Will more than he needs to know.

I'd basically be leaving the keep unguarded and his for the taking, and the only thing we'd have is the castle to lean on. I could live here, don't get me wrong, but it wouldn't be home. Not like the keep is. I know people say that home isn't a house but where the ones you love are – and it's true – but home is also where the memories are made. Sure those memories will be inside you as you continue your journey, but going back and finding the walls that were once a bright yellow, now turned an ugly brown and eaten away by termites or burned by fire, is like seeing those memories gone for good. If I had to choose between the castle and the House of Jade, I wouldn't even blink before running back into town. The keep is my home to defend, but the castle is also their home, so I shall do my job, and make sure that it's given its best chance to stay standing. Father could probably care less about the castle, but mother would stand at the gates and fight until her heart stopped. So stand I shall.

Just thinking about how long setting all this up and getting it to work efficiently is giving me a headache. Putting the shifts into place isn't the problem, it's getting the guards to do it like second nature to the point where their feet move without being told to do so. That way they can focus more on any signs of abnormal movement. It's like learning to walk, only with more moving parts and principles to follow. Not to mention that it just about sounds and looks easy, until you attempt at trying it and find yourself back on the ground. The transition period between the changing cycles will be our weakest point, and with us being newly acquainted, the first thing people are going to do is point the finger at us.

They'll accuse us of changing the systems so that the Assassins of Cressida can get in and kill the King. They'll be too busy chasing us, that they'll miss a hundred assassins sly footing their way through the gates behind them. Again, another reason why being the most feared assassin isn't ideal. It's cool and all, but like everything else in the world, it has its faults. So I'll have to find a way to keep the walls standing while they adjust.

The other thing I want to look into is the dungeons. One: because it's where the already guilty are being kept and therefore likely to betray the crown without hesitating. And two: it's a place where I hope to keep the more likely to screw up guards at. If you can't trust them on the wall, then put them where they're less likely to be reached. The most loyal guards – based on Aillard's word – will go along the path and the castle walls. Those of slightly less honor will go on the outer wall and at the gate, and then everyone else will be in the towers and halls. With me and Fauna at the Queen and Prince's side, we have a better chance of prioritizing the fewer fealty guards as the first line of defense. We can handle at least a dozen assassins each, and with the guards constantly trailing us, they'll buy us enough time to get to the nearest defensible place until help arrives. If it doesn't, well...bon voyage.

Despite knowing that I should probably write all this down, the eyes of curious servants and untrustworthy ones of the guards will no doubt read a few words. So it's best if I keep it to myself until further notice. In the meantime, I'll learn the names of the servants, habits of the staff, find the castle's secrets until there's none left, and keep the Queen and her growing babe safe. Along with, you know, praying to the Gods and their Saints that Will doesn't try and attack within the next eight days. If he does, then we'll be using that escape tunnel sooner than we thought.

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