When: (Malia’s wedding) 866 ROK
Where: Duke Friedrich’s Castle, Northern Mountains
James Castile wasn’t at all surprised that the Duke of the North was going to marry so quickly after his wife’s untimely death. He had a daughter to raise and he wasn’t exactly a young man. And the future Duchess was a divine creature, surely attracted by Friedrich’s title. Although the Duke of the East had to admit the man’s betrothed interested him past mere want of power…..
She was an exotic beauty with skin that said she might be from the Southern desserts, or possibly the Western ocean islands. But he was told she was from the far North, even beyond the great mountain. She intrigued him…. There was a duality there, something like himself and yet different.
But there were other faces he was looking for before the bride to be made her appearance. His brother manage to avoid rearing his royal head until the last minute. The queen and his two children in tow, they were better at showing their enthusiasm for the event at least than Philip.
The Southern contingency, who were probably complaining about the cold from the expressions they wore. Still they were not the face he was looking for… He could feel the rabbit searching for her, and it made him want to see her too. His love fueled the creature’s desire to have her again…
Do better. It probably meant letting the rabbit have his freedom, but the wolf was the one that wanted Francesca Rossi… Using the rabbit was beneath him.
The Duchess was late - an undiplomatic move if ever there were one. As the final preparations for the ceremony were being made, the already overworked servants had to divide their attention to welcome the Duchess of the West.
The servants of the North knew that their duchess-to-be could be touchy about giving other high-ranking women too much attention, and Francesca's arrival had many of them hesitant and whispering worriedly. But the authority with which she held herself left little room to question.
Winter was as yet another month away, but in the North, that meant that the cold had long-since been unbearable. While in the region, furs were common, Francesca instead opted to warm her shoulders with thick scales -- the appearance implied dragon, but might have been just mermaid, although unfamiliar eyes would be unlikely to distinguish them. The effect echoed through the shine of the fabric of her dress, a deep color that echoed the ocean so much that it might well have been as green as it was blue.
The duchess made her way to her seat for the ceremony smoothly, drawing attention from plenty of onlookers with every step. As usual, the East and West were seated together, and this convention annoyed her as she sat, and her handmaid gently adjusted the train of her gown to tuck comfortably beneath her.
Francesca drew her gently-braided blonde locks over her shoulder, and gave her aisle-mate an annoyed look. He did not, now, look as offensive as her dreams convinced her. "Waiting until dinner to sicken me, are you?"
Castile’s eyes flick downward before he looked over at the Duchess of the West. “My indiscretion at our last meeting, was a childish transgression and poor judgement. My sincerest apologies, Duchess Rossi” he said bowing his head to her politely.
“I was angry, and had no right to be…” James frowned slightly because he wasn’t sure if two beings in one skin could coexist equally. His emotions bled into the creature that shared his body, and it was incapable of dealing with them on its own. He did not want to willingly share himself with anyone other than his Francesca…. But she was no longer his, and he didn’t want to die either.
Her words had hurt him so much, and the beast reflected it back in vindictive discourse. If anything Francesca had taught him he must take responsibility for this thing, he couldn’t just hide in the shadows and let it do as it pleased. “...You were right, to let me go. I ask forgiveness for not being equally strong to have done the same”.
Francesca sent the Duke an annoyed glance, fully expecting to see sarcasm on his face to accompany the apologies, and when she didn't find it, the narrow squint in her eyes was replaced by a lifting in her brows. At first, hope lit up in her heart - maybe Jamie had returned? Defeated the changeling? No - if that were the case, he would have told her explicitly, for it would have been a triumph like battling a werewolf.
Confusion and curiosity colored her voice, even though she bit back with the same traditional nastiness he had received in spades now for years. "Have you been drinking, my lord?”
Castile’s mouth curled in a boyish expression, “Not as of yet, Duchess Rossi. But if Southern Duchy give one of their long speeches, I may be inclined to such activities”. He almost laughed about it, and covered his mouth as if not to seem rude. “We all might feel that way” he added.
His gaze dropped downward for a moment before he looked up at her again. “You look beautiful as always, Francesca” James said before he leaned forward in his seat upon spying his half-brother.
When Francesca laughed alongside him, it was less the light, musical sound she had developed as a lady, and instead included a strangled snort that James hadn't heard since she'd been a girl, so long ago, climbing trees and scraping knees and drinking from streams. Francesca covered her mouth in response, as well, and for that moment, they looked every bit the couple they could have been.
"Thank you, J--my lord," Francesca responded to the compliment, but there was little heart in it. She wondered how much of the beauty he saw was real, and how much was a memory, from the days before the light in her eyes had been so thoroughly extinguished. These days, much of her rumored beauty had more to do with her wealth and finery, since both the joys of youth and innocence had been destroyed and with them, her feminine curves...
Not that it would stop her. When Philip arrived, a smile twitched at her mouth, and where many of the King's subjects bowed or raised a hand in respect, Francesca ran the pad of her thumb across her lip gently, and although the glance the King gave her was brief, it was heated.
"The new duchess will make a poor addition to our ranks," Francesca said, quietly. While she had not offered any forgiveness of the sort he'd asked, it was also the first comment she'd made to her once-fiance that regarded him anything other than a monster. "She has no family; it's like she was born from the air."
James looked toward the Duke of the North, Friedrich stood waiting for his bride to be and the older man was positively beaming from ear to ear. Castile had never thought him a particularly intelligent man, although like any noble he knew enough to get by.
“Do you think she is a commoner that Friedrich has elevated so that he may marry without contention from the other nobles in his realm?” James asked curiously. Francesca had always loved the court gossip, even when they were young. He use to find humor when she would tell him what the other boys thought of him, although he was sure she had saved him from the uglier insults about being a bastard.
Women were expected to marry upward socially, so catching a Duke… even a widowed one was an improvement to any lady. Being a Duchess, Francesca could dally with a man of lower position but it would be folly for her to ever marry one. Philip flashed some kind of brief look their way, and James could feel something like ire tickle his spine.
“I think maybe the court could use some new blood. Give them something to talk about beside taxes, and what realm they think the king favors this year over the others”. The Duke gave a dismissive wave of his gloved hand, such things were tiresome to his ears. If one did not have the fortitude to give opinion to another’s face but only to speak when backs were turned…. He wanted nothing to do with them.
He beamed her a boyish grin, “Of course the Southern Duchy will stake the claim that they are the favored realm as they do every year”.
"She was born from air," Francesca said, distastefully, and with the unreasonable disposition as if James had been too obtuse to understand her meaning - nay, her warning - the first time. A bristle worked through Francesca's posture, tension in her lips, then her shoulders, her hips, her knees, her feet.
The discomfort accompanied the procession of the bride. She was tall, the color of coffee with a generous amount of cream. Pretty; probably a year or two younger than Francesca herself, but with full, pleasant features that might have been attractive without make-up of any kind, which Francesca could never claim. Her gown was a creamy pearl color, with pure-white fur protecting her soft skin from the harsh Northern weather.
Francesca was obviously absorbed in her observation of the bride, feeling undermined by the younger woman's vitality. Her words worked against that feeling. "The South has been weakening," Francesca said. "They report losses, now, and pay less tax…"
Castile watched the woman in the pale clothing move as the ceremony took place, eyes narrowing as he clearly was in a hunter’s state of mind. Studying her as one studied game to find its lair….
He purposefully avoided his former betrothed words about the new Duchess because it might generate the subject of if the woman was a creature. Which of course would bring up his own condition… James rather not have that happen.
He made a distasteful sound from between his teeth. “The South has its own kind of strength. And are not so poor they can not afford to barter with West, and North in stone, gold or electrum. Or the King’s ear with their spies…” Castile tilted his head slightly and wondered if they had information on the new Duchess…. Not that he would ever go to them for it.
Francesca's sapphire eyes slid over to watch the Duke's face, quickly. He was interested in her, she could see plain as day, and while Francesca obviously thought they would be two peas in a pod, there was a bit of her that bristled. She wanted the monster that had claimed her betrothed to find somewhere else to look, of course, but it was a bit jarring. She had never seen him look at another woman, not in more than half their lives…
"I think they're lying," Francesca said, her voice a whisper, and it blended in to the hundreds of other whispers that arose to compliment the bride's gown with his opalescent shine, the impressive train, speculations as to whether the fur was werewolf or not… "They are further from the crown than they have been in a decade. They look to leave those of us too close to Philip with the burden of funding the monarchy."
James turned his full attention to the Duchess next to him, preferring her biting candor to the practiced words of the ceremony. Or the false comments in hope of garnering some kind of favor with the Duke of the North by heaping praise on his vanities and his new bride.
His brows arched slightly at his former love. All the other duchies traded among themselves, and the East was something of the low man on the pole…. It had always been this way, or at least as far as James could recall. His mother would tell him it was his father’s petty way of getting back at her.
But his mother was no longer in power, and his father was dead… Castile wondered if Philip simply maintained the taxes out of sheer laziness to change them. Or if he thought somehow he could keep a leash on his half-brother by taxing his realm so heavily?
Francesca had a duchy to rebuild after the zombie crisis, and the West could hardly afford to be taxed heavily on top of it. For the briefest moment the Duke’s ire rose as he wondered if she laid with Philip to reduce those taxes more than to drive a spike of jealousy into that part of him that pined for her still.
“Then we should be vigilant, for their land borders our own”.
Perhaps in confirmation, Francesca said, "I've always been vigilant. I could never afford not to be." Not by her own insight, though - Seo-jun was a master economist, and his guidance was the only reason the West had not absolutely imploded under Francesca's weak leadership. But the East would never know the truth of those dynamics, and the Duchess fell quiet for the rest of the ceremony, offering only her polite applause when necessary.
The banquet, afterward, was extravagant. Steaks and sausages were plentiful, according to the region, and the vegetables and fruits that Francesca could stomach were scarce. That wasn't a problem - the Duchess of the West was no stranger to either nausea or hunger - but her habits did leave her conspicuously unoccupied while many ate and she only had her wine as company.
James made a point that if he ate meat to not face Francesca, he did not wish to appear as a bad guest and not partake of the dinner. He nodded to a servant, and a plate was placed in front of the Duchess of the West…. with a slab of apple pie.
The Green Duke offered a little smile, as a piece of pie was placed on his own plate. “Do you remember how we would sneak into the kitchens of the Eastern estate and liberate entire pies as they were cooling to bring into the library?” he asked amused as he cut into the dessert with his fork.
Francesca laughed, a dry, snide, noise, that tried very hard to sound angry and cynical enough to cover up the swelling of nostalgia that threatened to make her frown or cry.
"Of course I remember - I was the one who stole the pies," Francesca said, and instinctively flexed her hands, remembering the tenderness she had felt after doing so. She had been convinced they were burned because her palms were pink, but James had known what a real burn looked like and assured her she was fine.
"Jamie never stole anything," Francesca said, recalling but in the most defensive way. "He was a straight arrow, if ever there was one. The riverbank, that day," she worked hard, not to react to the memory too much, but her chest rose and she bit her lip, ever-so-gently, "was the only time I ever convinced him to do any more than consent to my mischief..."
So she cast a suspicious glance toward the face that had once belonged to her Jamie. "What are you after?" She supposed he needed something, a resource from the West or maybe a spy had raised a concern…?
“Sometimes a pie, is just a pie...Duchess Rossi” the Duke replied although he seemed lost in thought or perhaps the memory of which she spoke. His face reddened slightly, and he scratched at an ear. “We liberated the pie” he said in a tone of fondness.
The part of him that was James Castile wanted to correct the Duchess, he had hardly been angelic as a youth. He gave a coy smile and wondered if Rossi wanted to hear about how he would think of her at night when he was alone and long for her touch…. For the feel of her.
“It hardy took convincing, Duchess” he said softly as he cut into the pie with his fork.
"Oh my god, Jamie, court is not a battlefield; pie is never pie," Francesca said, not realizing the easy slip of the tongue that addressed her companion as she had once known him, and as he seemed now - blushing and incapable of owning their mischief. One 'liberated' a village from a warlord; one did not 'liberate' a pie from the turned back of a cook who had probably panicked, later, that she would be accused of eating the lady's pie…
Maybe it was because Francesca assumed James was too straight-forward to think of poisoning her that Francesca finally gave in and took a bite of pie - a bite that might well have been half the slice, all at once. Her words had every bit of her intended derision, but the memories seemed to soften them. "Honestly, I don't know how you function without a Duchess." Probably no better than she did, without a Duke… they had always expected to go on the journey of adulthood together, after all…
He smiled at her as he used his fork to cut a piece of his own pie. “Truly it is one of the great mysteries of the court” James replied. “Good staff, I suppose….” The Duke glanced over at Rossi’s plate and his mouth curled as Francesca devoured the dessert.
And then he briefly cast his eyes about the table, his brother talking politics as always. The queen, who seemed less than pleased to be ignored or to be seated at the table …. Francesca wasn’t exactly as discreet as she thought, nor Philip. The Southern duchy were talking non-stop, and his gaze shifted to… the North, the Duke and his newly wed Duchess.
James looked at Francesca again, and asked “Would, my lady like another slice?”
Francesca shook her head and added, "Thank you, my lord," quickly because she was no longer so hungry that she couldn't focus on the dynamics of the room. She sent Philip a flirtatious smirk, and deliberately slid her eyes past the Queen. Honestly, Francesca knew she could take the woman's crown if she'd wanted to - really, really wanted to - but she was quite unwilling to make the same sacrifices…
And then there was the glance between her former fiance and the new Duchess of the North. Francesca had a gift, surely, but she would have had to be blind to miss the intent and heat behind the look, and she leaned toward James, weight on her elbow and fingers on her chin as she spoke.
"You're not imagining it," Francesca whispered, amusement in her voice. "She's looking at you. She wants you." A smirk played across her lips; she was toying with him. "The commoners call women like her gold-diggers. Now that she has a Duke, she wants more… and to her, you're more." Bastard or not, royal was royal. "She won't care if you're a creature…" Which also meant she wouldn't care if he was a good man, or a worthwhile partner, that she would want him for his title and his blood, no more, no less.
Francesca bit her lip, gently, and lowered her voice as she dropped the tantalizing suggestion, "You could have her, on her wedding night to another man, if you chose…" Lifting her glass to take a sip, Francesca asked, "Or is there too much of that noble knight left in you to try it?"
The Duke stared at the Western Duchess for a moment, before pushing back his chair loudly and getting to his feet. Bowing his head to the other guests James excused himself from the table. It was simpler than subjecting himself to Duchess Rossi’s odd whims, or the possibility of humoring them. He was better off away from the other guests……
Francesca was right, he could have the new Duchess of the North on her wedding night. Just like he could have the Queen, a joint act of vengence for Philip’s affair with Frannie. Or he could simply take Rossi in some corner of the Northern Castle’s dark corners….. His other half would like that. Love it.
But Frannie was right about another thing, there was too much of the noble knight in him, bastard that he may be. And now that James spoke as loudly as the beast, they shared this body now. He would not be put away like a toy once someone was done playing with it.
The Green Duke strolled through the gardens of the Northern Castle, a pale ghost of the greenery of the enchanted forest.