When: 864 ROK
He had not seen Francesca Rossi for several years, James Castile was Duke of the Eastern Realm having exiled his mother and taken over a few months after the tragedy in the West that let his former betroth become Duchess.
But all the high nobles, and even the lesser ones, were in the King’s city to celebrate the birth of the crown prince, his nephew Elliot. His niece, the princess was born twelve years earlier when James was still a youth, barely a teen himself. Philip was older than him, and Castile wonder how he had ever looked up to his brother and yet…. Here he was congratulating him on the birth of a male heir like all the other loyal subjects.
He should have expected that he would be seated right next to his former betrothed, East and West on one side of the table. The Dukes and Duchesses of the South, and North across from them. It made the things seem rather uneven until the Royal Scholar and General sat next to Rossi at the other end….
Dinner, there was no avoiding it. Castile could barely contain a growl when the married duchy gave him and Francesca a look like pity. “Duchess Rossi, you look...eloquent…” he said aiming for politeness, when there was a time he would have compared her to the evening sky, or the dawning sun. She was thin, but still beautiful.
Francesca had lost no less than twenty pounds since James had last seen her. Sensuous curves that had once spoken of youth and wealth had given way to a lean slenderness that quite contrasted with the ladies her age, who were mostly growing round with child, hips widening and breasts heavy with milk. Instead, Francesca's slim figure became firm with muscle as she had taken to practicing the arts of men - riding, swordplay, archery - everything short of hunting, which she couldn't stomach.
But, quite aware that her physique was more boyish than womanly, Francesca made up the difference with quite an ostentatious dress, in classic Western cerulean. Her long hair draped down in loose curls, the neckline of her dress low enough that it didn't bother to hide her shoulders, sleeves just transparent slips of fabric that did nothing to hide the newly defined musculature to her arms.
Francesca didn't want to be there. She and Philip had developed a sort of intimacy that she hadn't expected - at first, the affair was to get her position, and then her voice heard. And then, just to annoy his half-brother, and to further her own secret plans…
But she didn't care about this baby, or what a male heir's birth meant for Philip. If it was up to her, succession wouldn't have anything to do with gender. Or, better yet, it would be passed from woman to woman.
Men were trash.
Her disinterest met discomfort spectacularly at dinner. Her posture was tense, one hand grasping the arm of her chain every ten seconds. She sipped at a glass of red wine with determination, but no servant could tempt her to taste food, and she tried very hard not to watch while anyone chewed. It brought back too many memories of her family, turned to zombies, and the grotesque way they kept chewing, even on air…
The last complication she needed was fucking James Castile at her side, making her evening harder.
"Eloquent?" she sneered, careful to keep her word separate from her serene expression. "How's this for eloquence?" Francesca said lowly: "Choke and die." Eloquently. "Please. Sir."
A curl at the corner of his mouth, as some of the others at the table looked taken aback. “Charming as ever I see, Duchess Rossi. How your parents would be so very disappointed…” he said gripping a knife to cut into the meat on his plate like it was an enemy.
He quite purposefully stepped on one of her dainty slippered feet that was too close to him under her voluminous skirts. Castile leaned in as if to apologize, “Perhaps if you kept your legs closed, my lady”.
The queen cleared her throat and looked at her husband. She clearly did not want her dinner ruined by jaded former lovers…
Her parents? That was low. Francesca was constantly compared to them - somehow, her people expected her to be both as resolute as her father and diplomatic as her mother at the same time, but she was neither and she did not appreciate the reminder. James' rebuke was louder than her insult, but it drew attention all the same - even from the Queen. Francesca's eyes darted nervously to Philip, the only one with the actual power to sanction her (in either sense of the word) and was relieved to find that, although he looked up and clearly saw what was going on, he chose to continue with the distraction of joking with the Southern Duke.
The Duchess didn't have long to be relieved, though, and she flinched, drawing her leg away when her foot was accosted, to drape over her other. "I'll be glad to consider it, in exchange for you keeping your lips closed," Francesca responded rudely, unable to help the disgusted twist of her lips when her attention was drawn to James' plate and the meat on top of it...
Castile’s mouth curled into an unsavory smile. One thing he had discovered was that his appetites were voracious…. James jabbed a hunk of meat with his fork, and ate it like a hungry animal. His eyes staring at the Duchess of the West, unblinking. The meat was rare to the point of almost being bloody. He gave his former betrothed a red stained smile.
Francesca couldn't force her eyes away from the handsome face she had once loved, now chomping and bloody, and that reminded her so much of the pain and trauma of seeing her family turned into zombies.
Eyes wide and brows furrowed in horror and disgust, Francesca realized she was going to vomit. And that was not an exaggeration - maybe it was the fact that she had been drinking strong wine on an empty stomach, but the Duchess had no doubt that this blatant display of carnivorism was more than she could handle. Her hand went quickly her stomach as if she could steady herself, and when it became clear she could not, she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and made her way to her feet, the heavy wooden chair scraping loudly against the marble floor.
"My lady?" her lady-in-waiting said, stepping forward in concern, to help move the chair and see that Francesca did not trip over her expansive skirt.
The Green Duke stood as well and pushed his chair back, apparently the Royal Scholar and General weren’t aware enough not to trap the Duchess at her spot. “Bring some ginger tea, now” he ordered a servant before pointing the handmaiden to take her mistress to the nearest way outside.
“She needs air….” he stated, and when Philip looked as if he might stand up James turned on him. “You are so very much like our father, my liege. You should remain with your guests, I’ll see to her….” he grunted, before giving the queen a polite nod of his head.
James followed the Duchess of the West and her lady in waiting at a leisurely pace. His eyes watched Francesca sharply taking in her gait, and the extreme silhouette she gave in her dress.
Francesca collapsed, only a few yards outside the dining room, as soon as she saw a potted tree that provided a place for her to empty her stomach. Her staff knew she had a weak stomach, but they hardly followed her around with bowls and ginger. It stank horribly - nothing more than bile and wine - and that made her want to vomit all over again, so she spent no less than a few full minutes heaving and groaning in misery. Her lady-in-waiting whispered soothing words and pulled the Duchess's long hair away from her face.
Antonio, though, stepped boldly into the Duke's path. While James had first seen him at the Rossi family funeral, an obvious commoner uniformed above his station to hide that Francesca wanted her shameful lover close at hand, Antonio had been promoted to her head of security and followed her faithfully around King's City since. What was laughable was how much Antonio resembled Francesca's brothers - if not for his low-class accent, he might well have been a Rossi boy himself.
"My lady does not want your chivalry," Antonio said, chewing on the word as if it were rotten. Overstepping himself but honestly not caring, he gave the Duke a dismissive order. "Return to the dining hall." Without even a 'my lord,' he had to know he was picking a fight…
“Hold your tongue, knave, or have it removed from thy head” Castile growled. “I am Duke, and the King’s brother, I have no need of the opinion of lesser men” he stated in a way that was clear he didn’t just mean their stations in life.
He gave an unsavory smile at the younger man, “You do your mistress no good in my brother’s dungeon”. Castile was more than aware that there plenty of the King’s guards about, and his own captain at his heels. And with that he literally pushed Antonio out of his way, as the annoyance that he was.
However the Duke approached Francesca’s lady in waiting rather than the Duchess herself. And his whole demeanor changed as if he was another person, as he spoke in a gentle tone to the girl. “Do this for your lady” James instructed taking the girl by the hand and turning it over. He pressed two fingers at her wrist and drew them along the tendon that ran to her forearm. “Use an even pressure, do it several times. It will help ease her nausea, as will ginger tea. She must eat bananas, rice, bland foods...no alcohol” he said to the handmaiden until she nodded her head in understanding.
James looked tempted to reach out and touch the Duchess, but he refrained and stepped back from her instead putting some distance between them. Once the girl did as he said, he would take his leave. They could not both be away from the dinner…. Not that rumors bothered him, but Francesca didn’t need anymore clinging to her like the train of her dress.
Francesca's lady-in-waiting was familiar - Flora - the same who had watched James take Francesca into the forest years ago, now, and bring her back a shivering, disheveled mess. While Flora knew better than to protest, as Antonio had, her passivity as he instructed her had a tension to it, as if she were watching a snake intently to see if it would bite.
"I'm not sick," Francesca snapped, her lip curling in annoyance. At all of it. Antonio letting himself be shoved aside, Flora's silence, and fucking James' weird-ass duality. "You don't get to cause the problem and try to fix it. Fuck you." The vitriol in her voice was new - she had, now, given up on the idea of two James', and she simply hated them both. If one was a monster, the other was complicit, and therefore just as bad.
She fought her way to her feet and shoved Flora aside out of sheer annoyance, and advanced on the Duke with spitting rage that made her seem bigger than she was. "You don't touch my men, and you definitely don't touch my ladies. Get out of my sight, or I will show you how little 'brother' can mean." As long as she had known James, he had lived in his brother's shadow, but that was a privilege as much as a burden. Francesca was certain, though, that she had earned Philip's preference, and she dared James to try to trump her. She was no longer the frightened, powerless girl he had once dominated - nor the one he had once loved. She had become hard and strategic, and even if her stomach was weak, she wore her fortitude like an armor as strong as his green one. She spat, "Go back to dinner."
An annoyed sound came from the Duke at her sudden usage of such crass language. But if you slept with dogs, so the saying went…. “Put a leash on your pet then, and teach him some manners, Duchess” he grunted and turned to Flora to bow with impeccable mannerisms. “My sincerest apologies, young lady if you felt accosted” he said graciously.
And then he straightened to take in her mistress…. “I did not imply that you were sick, it is just a simple way to prevent such things. I did nothing but simply partake in the meal my brother’s cooks saw fit to prepare….” He stepped in close to her, encroaching on her personal space but also to speak in a low barely human growl.
“We see that spreading your legs for commoners has you speaking like them, so I will be frank… Fucking my brother insures nothing, you should have learned that lesson from my mother. But I thank you, Francesca… because without your kind assistance I would have never been able to wear down the last of your Jamie’s resistance. He’s ours now…” The Duke knew she felt some kind of guilt over it, as well she should, and he wanted to grind it in her beautiful face.
“And to think we were worried that such a creature as you might actually be able to steal him back from us. Continue your show of poor behavior, please...it only brings me favor from our peers”. A horrible smile curled his mouth, “Oh, it gives me such pleasure to feel your boy squirm inside us and melt away with your every poisonous word”.
Francesca liked that her language disgusted him - she hated him so much that even the casual appreciative glances that anyone gave a well-dressed, high-born lady made her skin crawl, when they came from those eyes. His attack was well placed, and if Francesca had not hardened so effectively, she might have frowned or shed a tear in sadness or shame… but instead she just held her ground when he moved in, glaring up at him. Plenty of servants about witnessed the argument, and James was probably right that he would come out ahead in the wake of the rumors, but Francesca didn't care. Philip wouldn't punish her - not for this, or for leaving dinner, or for never returning. And to drive the point home, Francesca countered, "I am twice the woman your mother was." Joanna had been a trailblazer, for sure, but Francesca could improve on her methods...
"Am I to feel guilty?" Francesca scoffed. "That, when the dust settled, my knight was in fact a damsel?" It was cruel, but it was true. Any man who needed a woman to save him… was he a man at all? Was he worth saving? Her affection for the boy she had loved had been natural, but so was her disenchantment. "I was never a knight; I couldn't save him, but I will avenge him…" And she echoed him, tit-for-tat, "And I thank you, James, for continuing to underestimate me. You will make this infinitely easier."
The Green Duke looked at Rossi from down his nose, and his mouth curled as he appraised her. “I underestimate no one, Duchess…You are exactly as I hoped you would be. Oh but I will miss fucking you, Francesca….” Castile shrugged a large shoulder as if the whole thing was an afterthought.
He gave a polite nod to take his leave, there was no point in talking to Francesca Rossi any longer. But Castile could not help a parting shot ,“You could not save the boy, because deep down…you never wanted to….”.
"Is that why you constantly try to shame me, for finding fulfillment elsewhere? You miss me?" Francesca couldn't help but laugh and roll her eyes. He missed fucking her? Well, she was a damn good fuck, that she knew - but it also wasn't that simple. They had been each other's first - first fuck, but first love, too. It was still a source of undue stress, that Francesca still could not experience a joy or sorrow in her life and not think of how she wanted to share it with James, latent instincts harkening back to the years and years when those emotions had poured into letters that would be carried across the kingdom to the East.
She was relieved he was withdrawing, and Francesca held out a hand to beckon Antonio closer. He touched her cheek and her waist, attentions chaste, professional - Roberto would have said brotherly, but Francesca knew they would rub the Duke the wrong way. He still saw her as his property, she expected, like the forest. The way she drew the once-commoner close was her own parting shot, but she answered his with little strain. "Tell my Jamie that, if you need to keep him quiet, when you're trying to sleep." In the years that had passed, the conflict between them had become less about her, and likely more about the desires of one James against the other. But that was their quarrel now - Seo-jun had given her a larger vision, and she couldn't concern herself with that now.
Castile had meant the comment as a jab to that time when she screamed the name of the Duke and not her young lost love. He had been generous in letting that side be with her, that good, gentle, loving boy of hers. But those two times he took her...especially the last time…. It had been delicious.
He was patient, after all unlike James Castile’s form that he shared he was old and used to waiting.
Francesca didn't like the way he was looking at her - it brought back memories too vivid, of her second encounter with the beast and only renewed her hatred of him. No one had ever managed to make her feel so ashamed…
She stepped a bit forward, and - now, without fear - met his eyes. That shame was gone, now, replaced by a stronger understanding of the unique magic Eventyr had gifted her. But she suspected she could use that to her advantage, now, and curiosity couldn't be sated until she tried. "If you want to make me scream - ever again - James," the name he had asked her to use was silky even if her breath was sour. Her lips curled into an expression that was every bit as false and rotten a smile as the one he gave her, so regularly, for years now. Her words seemed to suggest she could get behind another hatred-fueled fuck, but her demeanor was too skeptical he could entice her into it. "Do better."
The Duke’s brows arched upward in curiosity, and a spark of hope ignited in the empty spot where a heart once laid.