March 13th, 872
Since the zombie invasion of the city, nothing remained of routine. This was fine with Malia, who had spent decades and decades without any expectation that she would be treated as the Duchess she now was. So, on her second - or third, who knew - day in the castle, the Duchess, clad in the simplest clothes she could find, made her way to the royal kitchen. Without fine fabrics or imposing orders, the tired servants paid her little mind, and Malia found herself free to construct a sandwich without expectation. A couple slices of bread, cheese, meat shredded off the bone…
She ended up sinking her teeth into the crude meal at the same moment as her hips sank back, tiredly, against the kitchen counter top, and her eyes lifted to find a new - although familiar - companion.
James nodded his head, and greeted her “Duchess”. He had a bare hand on his nephew’s head, and the pair were surrounded by dogs. “Elliot” he grunted softly and the boy flashed her a half smile, “Hello”. The Duke patted the chair next to Malia, and the boy wearily climbed into it.
Leaning against the heavy wooden table with his hip Castile nodded toward her plate. “Is that bread laden with meat?” he asked curiously as the dogs settled around the groups’ feet in the hopes of scraps.The prince had his head laid on his arms on the table and was asleep before a servant could find them something to eat.
The boy had become clingy since the King’s death and the infestation of zombies. It was understandable…. But a nuisance. “How are you holding up, my Duchess?” James asked quietly letting a hand settle against her shoulder. She had a strength of character unlike any woman he knew, but there was always something about Malia….
"Thank you, I've got it, " Malia whispered to a servant, who was all too happy to take her leave. The prince needed sustenance, but he had little energy or enthusiasm, so Malia quietly put a pot over the stove and began warming a bit of milk, gently enough that it wouldn't burn.
When James' hand touched her shoulder, she tilted her head and gave his fingers an affectionate kiss. "I'm fine," Malia lied, unwilling to engage with the guilt she felt, that she had known something so awful was coming and yet been unable to prevent it. She sighed, heavily, looking between the dozing boy and the expectant dogs and deciding she did not feel disinhibited enough to share her feelings. With a tired smile, Malia bid him, "Find us some wine, James. Of the strong variety?"
Once the servant was gone and they were alone except for the sleeping lad, James leaned in to kiss the Duchess tenderly. “Of course, my lady…” he replied although he reluctantly pulled away. James could tell that she was not fine as she had said, but did not push the subject for now.
The Duke gather not only a bottle of wine, but also cups and plates to eat together in a semi civilized fashion. Cut some bread and meat, tossing the bone to the dogs, who erupted into a flurry of activity and noise.
Castile was not usually a tender man, but there was a time and place for everything. Elliot had lost both his parents, his sister had been missing and was considered dead for years now. The consort and his supposed half-brother were also missing now…. And all he had for family was the half-brother of his father, who wasn’t quite human anymore….
His hand rested on the boy’s back heavily in a firm, yet gentle gesture. “Elliot...my prince… come eat, and then we will find you a proper place to sleep...nephew” the Duke said in a dry, quiet tone. “Yes, uncle James” the boy replied sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
The Duke moved to relieve Malia of the pot so she could sit and partake of her food, and to pour the milk for Elliot. It would help the boy fall into a dreamless sleep for a while. “Elliot has told me that you were very brave in saving the citizens at the bank” James said to Malia as he poured her a generous amount of wine.
The give-and-take quickly felt familiar to Malia. It was not unlike the dynamic at her home in New York - once, her husband had graciously relieved her of household duties like cooking, knowing that she was exhausted after a day of constant supervision. The child was, luckily, accommodating and respectful.
And there was wine. Malia was, perhaps, too quick to settle into the offered seat of rest and gulp down a few mouthfuls, her mind occupied with the faces and cries of all those civilians she had not been able to admit. Each and every one was a failure; not just a failure of her "bravery" as James called it, but her magic in being able to prevent any such incident at all.
"I wouldn't say brave. I problem-solved an awful situation, alongside Lady Sanya," Malia said, in all seriousness, but then leaned over to give Elliot a kiss on the forehead, giving the boy the same term of endearment she had defaulted to, with all of her own babies, "But thank you, sweet pea. Drink your milk; it'll make your bones strong."
James reached under the table and laid his hand on Malia’s leg, tilting his head at her. His mouth curled slightly at the interaction between her and the prince. He pushed some of the meat on his plate to the boy as well.
The prince beamed at the endearment from the Duchess, his own mother rarely spoke in such a manner. Using both hands he drank from the cup, and after a little reluctance dug into the meat and bread. “Are you going back out with the guards, uncle?” he asked clearly hoping he would say that he was staying.
“Your guards need rest, like you” James stated. He even looked tired and gazed at the Duchess for a moment, “And you as well, my lady”.
Malia's hand closed over James' on her leg, giving it a squeeze as she, rather innocently, nodded along and agreed, "Perhaps we should rest together."
Watching the boy, and feeling that longing nostalgia for her children, Malia stroked the boy's head. "Elliot, did you know that sleep is more important for your body than food, even?" She was such a geek for these things, and she enjoyed seeing the interest in the boy's eyes as he tilted his head at her. "It's true! You can live, maybe, 25 days without food. Without sleep? Only eleven." It had been, at most, three or four, but with education what it was, Malia doubted the kid was a number whiz.
The prince's eyes widened. He took another determined bite of meat and bread, and then a long drink of his milk, and then he was on his feet. "I had better go to bed," he declared.
"You will be a wise king, indeed," Malia praised, as one of the nurse servants entered to collect the prince and the Duchess sent James a smirk and a playful kick of his ankle under the table before another drink from her glass.
The Duke smiled as he tore his bread in half, but was caught off guard by a simple hug from his nephew. His brows raised upward as Elliot bid him and the Duchess of the North a good night. The horde of dogs followed the child and the servants out leaving James and Malia alone.
Castile shook his head, “The resilience of a child”. He looked up at the Duchess, “You seemed comfortable with him, he likes you… “ His brow arched slightly because she had once told him that she did not want to be one of these noble women who simply bared the next heir.
She didn’t seem old enough to have the experience for the motherly displays she showed the prince. Perhaps she had siblings that she helped raise. There was something maternal about the Duchess at times, she even displayed it subtly with himself.
It was strange that he liked it, he was a grown man and a noble after all. His own mother never neglected him, but James knew he was always a tool to her. A way to get back at his father… He turned his thoughts away from such things. “Is what you told the prince true?” James asked curiously.
"Taking no magic into account, yes, it's true." Malia nodded - she had read many the survivalist adventure novels, many well-researched on the physiology involved.
But she was more interested in both the way he seemed surprised by the child's affection and her ease in dealing with him. "Does that surprise you?" She had been a mother, a grandmother, and had spent her prime years reading aloud to children Elliot's age on summer afternoons in the library. She knew the ropes - but she was done with them, with living a life all about caring for others. It was her time to shine, now, and setting up a positive image in the crown prince's eyes was one part of that. "It is I who should be surprised, should I not?" An amused smile pulled at her lips and she almost make a joke about the heartless uncle, but then a messenger arrived at the door. By his uniform, he was one of the Royal Captains, and his presence raised Malia's eyebrows in concern. He was of too high a rank to be in the kitchens…
"Duke Castile," he greeted, with relief and a bow. He extended a still-sealed document. "A… proclamation, from the West, my lord."
James furrowed his brow heavily. “A proclamation?” he repeated the man’s words. Picking up a knife from the table the Duke cut the seal easily with a frown set on his features. As he read the paper within it his face changed to a hard, angry scowl.
“Insufferable bitch!” he snarled eyes flashing green Castile slammed the knife into the table leaving it embedded in the wooden surface.
"What is it?" Malia asked, insistent, and she stood up as she plucked the paper away from James and lifted it to read herself. Having lost faith in the Paxton reign…. Rossi, Queen of the West… vampires, legal citizens…
The paper crumpled in Malia's hands, when they fisted in outrage. Fire burned through her heart. "How fucking dare she!" the Duchess seethed, her mind reeling. "If she wanted to be Queen, she could have had Philip…" It was true, even if it was disrespectful of the late king to say. Shaking the paper as if it were a wayward child, Malia went on, angrily, "Why would she do this to Eventyr?"
For a moment the Duke looked like he would unleash violence on anyone who even made the mistake to step on his shadow. James Castile was livid, which made his other self murderous with Francesca Rossi as the target. He couldn’t feed the beast, or he would never keep it contained.
“Why wouldn’t she do this to Eventyr?” he growled out, turning on Malia but staying put in his spot. “This world took her family”. But he had no sympathy for his former love, because he had no heart. But he could hate her, he needed no heart for that. And that last shred of what he was did, he hated Francesca with a cold determination.
She was going to force his hand, and make him become the last thing he wanted to be…
Where: Merchant's Quarter, King's City
When: March 14t, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
"Yeah," he said after a moment of self-chiding. "There's bound to be a circle around here somewhere. I'll help you find it. I should probably do some travelling myself. Errands to run and the like. Where is your home again...? Not sure I've asked. Sorry."
Theo hadn't meant for his appeal to hit Tristan with quite so much guilt. Home wasn't supposed to be a thing that mattered in Eventyr. This was the escape, the vacation, the video game where you didn't have to worry about whatever was going on in the real world. It wasn't supposed to be the Sword Art Online of escapism, though--an inescapable work of escapism. Thus far, he'd never really had to lean on Tristan in this way. It felt odd. He leaned back a little and put on his best relaxed-happy smile--the kind you threw around at press conferences or when the paparazzi caught up with you "unexpectedly."
"No need to apologize, Sir Knight," he said. "Even if I'd told you, you wouldn't remember it. Little place out called Greenwich Village."
This was one of those times when Theo felt absolutely comfortable using a real-world name. It sounded like the sort of name one of these medieval villages would have, after all. He knew from experience that it was often easier to come up with close truths than spin falsehoods. Some day, if Tristan ever asked him again, and Theo went and changed the name of his home, he might start to make Tristan suspicious that he was hiding something from him.
"It's far enough away that it would be too expensive and take too long for me to get home by horse or ship," he said. "I know fairy circles are risky business, but for the honor of training with such a skilled knight, it's usually worth it."
With: Kyky, Kira, Manny
Where: Brickstone Tavern, Merchant's Quarter
When: March 14t, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
Jaya was glad to have a bowl of predominantly vegetable stew sitting in front of her. Sure, it was refugee rabbit food, but also she didn't know if she would want to touch meat in Eventyr again for a long while after what she'd just been though. The fever, the hunger, the way it had affected her thoughts and her perception in such a powerful hallucinatory way... She'd never had such cravings before in her life, and she never wanted to experience them again. It was a good thing that Kira hadn't eaten any of the meat pie, a doubly good thing that somehow Kyky had been there to bring her and Kira to safety.
Her roommate had just been trying to bring Jaya something she'd forgotten, and for that good deed, now she was stuck in the middle of a medieval zombie apocalypse.
"Look, Eventyr's not always like this…"
"It's true," Jaya agreed, trying to muster a smile. "More often than not, you can get caught up in the sort of adventure that builds up to being knighted by the king. Well, except the king..." She swallowed, the pause a little too long. "I guess we still don't know who the next king is going to be at this rate."
She didn't know Manny well enough to know if he was from New York or if he was pure Eventyrian, but at the very least it seemed like Kyky trusted him. Still, Jaya intended to keep the Earth talk close to her chest and subtle.
"Things have just been... more sour lately than usual. I'm sorry I got you stuck in this, Kira," she said, knowing the words were weak, shallow. "We'll get home soon."
Vincent Gonzales <alchemicalnonsense2578@...>
Where: Merchant's Quarter, King's City
When: March 14t, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
The last couple of days had been exhausting. Not only had Tristan found himself in the middle of a fucking zombie apocalypse, he'd done so as a knight in shining armor with a ever-driving sense of duty to protect the people around him. While he'd always found himself drawn to do what was right and protect those he could, it'd never felt so...visceral. Like he needed to save these people. Still, he was bone-tired and wary, absent-mindedly picking what appeared to be a bit of...zombie that was stuck under the straps of one of his greaves. What he wouldn't give for a hot shower right about now...
As Theo dropped down warm food in front of him, Tristan looked up with a thankful smile. A bit of chicken and bread would go a long way to easing his mood, he knew. While it lacked the portability of meat pies, he didn't think any merchant with half a mind would be selling those in King's City any time soon.
"So," <...> "I've got to get home. Check in with my family. You know how it is. The only problem is that usually I use fairy circles to do it, and I haven't seen a one around the city since before the Plague Night. Can you help me?"
Tristan looked up from scarfing down his meat and nodded slowly, mulling over the young man's words. He...likely had responsibilities to a homestead or something to attend to. And here Tristan had been, all ready to keep playing to hero with no consideration to Theo's needs. No better than all the other knights in this town. Damn. He'd have to do better. "Yeah," he said after a moment of self-chiding. "There's bound to be a circle around here somewhere. I'll help you find it. I should probably do some travelling myself. Errands to run and the like. Where is your home again...? Not sure I've asked. Sorry."
If I Smile With My Teeth #Brandy
With: Zaire, Gwen, Hawkins, Jude
Where: Reception at Francesca's Palace
When: March 14th, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
The reception was gorgeous. The new Queen's estate - for how Game of Thronesy it still managed to look to Brandy's eyes - had a much more modern feel than she expected. The stones were polished and not yet chipped with age, the stained glass windows still bright and clear to let in the last of the dwindling daylight. The party was held in an expansive parlor rather than the imposing throne room, which seemed to encourage networking and socializing over exalting the queen's authority. Seating was plentiful, plush couches big enough for two or three people to share, and shaped widely, as if they were more meant for lounging than sitting. Heavy curtains of deep hues draped from the ceiling, providing the illusion of private spaces.
If you asked her, Brandy would have said she much preferred the turn-ups that happened with the commoners in the inns, taverns, and brothels because the people tended to have no expectations except to have fun. The rich? They were all propriety and politics and Brandy wanted no part of that…
But Queen Francesca seemed to be subverting that norm, firmly, right off the bat. The reception was full of all types of people - from the splendidly dressed lords to regular folk hoping to take a step up the social ladder. And, to her surprise, they seemed to be interacting. Something about the total upending of social order had high-born and low-born alike second-guessing their stature in the eyes of the Crown, and everyone who'd made a point of attending, it seemed, was looking to make friends instead of enemies.
The food was delicious, but Brandy had been in the food business long enough to notice a theme when she saw one. Oysters, figs, almonds and pistachios, strawberries, dark chocolate… lots and lots of wine.
Brandy's eyes were drawn to the slim silver shape of a cheese knife; she didn't know why she, all of the sudden, needed to possess it, but she absolutely did. With a cursory glance around, Brandy sidled up to the table, and, her actions hidden by the generous curve of her hip, snuck the small utensil into the purse at her side. And to disguise the theft, her hand darted out to pluck a up a strawberry and raise it to her lips.
Where: A private room in the Merchant's Quarter
When: March 14th, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
Typically a person leaving the city for points west would leave out through the Soldier's Quarter, but considering its current state, Sanya had not been the least bit surprised to catch Bert leaving the city through the Outer Wall in the Merchant's Quarter. She'd heard that he had gone above and beyond in assisting in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and she knew that the king himself had bestowed land and title to him due to the good deeds he had performed in the past.
If all she knew was true, he wasn't a fearful man or one of the nobles who were more concerned with wealth and status than responsibility. And, if he was responsible, there was a chance she could count on him.
So she sat across the table from Bert in a fairly plain cream dress, tawny brown cloak over her her shoulders, hood down. She didn't even wear any of the typical gold and jewels of her station. Her cat Moswen's collar was overtly fancier than anything she was wearing, really.
"You must be wondering why I stopped you before you left the city," Sanya said aloud to him. "First, I wanted to thank you personally for your service these last few days."
She paused there, though, to judge his reaction, to get a better feel for him. How did he take praise?
With: Kira, Manny, Jaya
Where: Brickstone Tavern, Merchant's Quarter (A designated refugee/recovery location, due to the fact that its owner was killed by zombies and not there to object to this use.)
"Okay, so, great news," Kyky said, settling down at the table with her friends with a bowl full of food and a mouth full of gossip. Manny was there, along with Kira, who'd just come into the fold, and Jaya herself, who was - hopefully - enjoying her first meal that in no way involved any actual or desired human flesh. Kyky wore a fresh dress - it was of the most common make and made her look very low-class - but she wore a smile that clearly said nothing mattered except what she was saying.
"The city is secure!" It felt good to say, and so Kyky said it, even though she immediately had to hedge. "It's, like, mostly secure? Anyway, we can leave. We can go home." Kyky cast a significant glance toward Jaya - who she was sure wanted nothing more than to hit up a Walgreens for some fucking dramamine - and then a less-sure glance toward Manny, who… well, who she'd be sad to leave. Not just in all this, but at all. With all that conflict, Kyky's glance rested on Kira. "Look, Eventyr's not always like this…"
With: Rafael, Mathias Gonzalo
Where: The Castle, King's City
When: March 14th, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
Malia felt more and more anxious with every step she took, up to the tower that once housed the sequestered Royal Scholar and General. Because the quarters were safe and secure, they became the jail-slash-prison cell to keep Mathias Gonzalo for these few days, and the Duchess of the North kept her distance. She learned her lesson back at the bank, and had no interest in any guards, nurses, or the General's son himself hearing her called "man killer" …
But now that the General was declared healthy, after all this time, and so Malia ventured upstairs, pausing outside the General's room to smile, tightly and unhappily, at his son. Rafael's expertise had been invaluable during this whole awful process, reluctant as he seemed to step into the role fate seemed to have crafted for him.
As soon as she met Rafael's eyes, though, Malia felt how difficult and fraught the whole situation was… and, with sympathy in her gaze, she asked, "Would you prefer to question, or to listen? I am comfortable with either."
Where: Merchant's Quarter, King's City
When: March 14th, 872 RoK - Late Afternoon
After another day of valiantly slaying zombies and helping with the city clean-up efforts, Theo appreciated the chance to sit down and rest for a meal with his mentor-knight Tristan. The city officials had opened their coffers to pay individuals who were helping with the efforts--not a large sum, but enough for one of the more premium hot meals being served by street vendors. Theo sat down across from Tristan at the table and passed him a plate.
"So," Theo said. He'd been thinking about this for a while now. He wasn't sure how the time difference between Eventyr and New York worked, but he did know that if he was stuck here much longer, he'd miss a recording gig, and everyone would be furious with him. It had been four days. Probably at least a day, maybe more, on Earth. Someone was bound to have noticed he was missing by now. "I've got to get home. Check in with my family. You know how it is. The only problem is that usually I use fairy circles to do it, and I haven't seen a one around the city since before the Plague Night. Can you help me?"
"Ohh, James, no, of course fucking one was not the same as the other, not like it is for me," Malia shook her head at the naive misconception. She had, now, enough female lovers to suppose herself an expert. "Men fuck bodies. Male bodies - no offense! - are just not that aesthetically appealing. Women fuck…. dreams. Being a woman is very cerebral."
The Duke laughed, “I believe I have just been insulted in the most polite and pleasant way”. He ran his fingers along the sleeve of her dress. “ When we were divided we did many regrettable things”. He sighed, “We were very conflicted”.
James smiles slyly at Malia, “Do you not find me aesthetically appealing, my Duchess?” He leaned his face upward from his position on the floor giving her a warm expression. It was a clear tease... boyish.
"You know what I mean," Malia returned with a smirk, and she shrugged in play-defensiveness. "I'm just being honest! In the realm of fleshy bags that hang off the body, for example. Breasts: beautiful." And with that, she guided his hand to her own. "But come on, testicles have none of that appeal." Her legs parted a bit beneath his head to illustrate. "A woman is like a blossoming flower in her passion. A man is a…. veiny battering ram. If you're lucky." She laughed a bit, and shrugged, cupping his cheek to lean down and kiss the corner of his mouth. "Even a handsome man needs to have some charm to earn his place in a woman's bed. Men are build for utility. That's just true."
Malia paused, contemplating whether to shroud her illustration in secrecy, but she decided against it. If he was willing to share a secret, she could, as well. "My first husband," she said delicately as no one in Eventyr knew she had been married before the late Duke. She wasn't old enough for it. She then went on, "Was my professor, in college. He was old enough to be my father, but I only needed to listen to him discuss literature for two, three hours a week to fall utterly in love with him. He was nothing special, physically; he had none of this muscle…" Her hand trailed over James' massive arm, wistful, "But he would quote Shakespeare or Milton or Douglass and I would melt."
The Duke grinned widely and pulled Malia closer to him, "From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world."
A shoulder shrugged, “Not to ruin a lady’s dream, but the ability to repeat another man’s words rather speak one’s own? Hardly more of an advantage than a good sword arm…. But I do appreciate the arts, as well as the physique of both the female and male”. James twined his fingers in her hair, and he gave an amused snort and repeated her early words. “Veiny battering ram…. Where do you come up with such things?”
"It's not repeating, James," Malia chided, teasingly, but smiled through her faux annoyance as he pulled her closer. She leaned in, nuzzling her nose along his jawline gently. "It's synthesizing. Using knowledge and stories to tie one end of the world's expanse to the other - and then bring it all back, to show me how there's a whole universe, living and thriving, in one girl's little heart...?"
Speaking of her first husband made Malia desperately nostalgic. He had been dead now for years; and those last decades had not been their best. His infidelity bred resentment, enough that it spilled over to their children, but he had been the breadwinner and Malia would have been lying to say she hadn't literally discussed speeding up her access to his life insurance seriously…
She laughed at his teasing criticism, and she joked, "I have eyes. And a cervix." Which enjoyed a good battering, truth be told. "I thought it appropriate Eventyrian imagery, if I do say so myself!"
James stroked her arm, and tilted his chin downward slightly as if he seemed to pick up that he had overstepped himself in his opinion. He gave an apologetic expression, and curled his fingers into her hair. “You are an enigma, my duchess…” he said in a soft tone.
“You speak of poetry, and literature so eloquently. And then so crassly of the male anatomy, and yet with affection…. You are a mystery, my duchess on her silver mountain. The day and the night, youthful beauty with learned wisdom…”
His fingers touched the leather bound tome that always seemed close by to her. “You interpret this, or do you write what is within….?” James mouth curled and he patted the green armor covering his thighs and calves still, “....It’s your armor isn’t it?”
Malia felt herself tilting her head against his touch, ever so slightly. She smirked and admitted, "I may be more sapphic than I would have admitted in my younger and more vulnerable years." Fitzgerald. She knew it was odd for a woman in the middle of her childbearing years to lament youth as if it were gone, but she did.
Sappho, the first lesbian poet, from ancient Greece. Malia knew that she was not a lesbian, no. She loved men, even if the male physique did not quite enrapture her the same way a woman's did, although she was not sure how much a man's entitlement played into that versus a woman's tendency to be open and grateful. Eventyr had opened another dimension to Malia's sexuality that she had never explored on Earth, as herself, and it was an exciting aspect she wanted to know more about..
Dark eyes followed James' large hand to her book. It was there, always within her reach, but it was so unremarkable that hardly anyone noticed it. A nervous smile pulled at her lips, and she hesitated before answering.
"In not so many words, perhaps," Malia answered, vaguely, and pulled the book against her chest firmly. "I trust it to protect me, yes."
He gave her a look, magic knew magic. “Be at ease, Malia. I have no wish to take your book, I would not be able to read it anymore than my horse or hounds” James surmised. Some magic was for specific people, just as if you were not heartless his green armor would kill the wearer.
The Duke curved his palms under her arms and the book, to gently fondle her breasts although the bodice of her dress was also in the way. He leaned up to kiss her jawline tenderly, “Read to me, my Duchess” he crooned to her.
Malia smiled and obeyed, reading aloud and telling the uncomfortable tale of a man who could not mourn his mother. He worried about his comfort - his coffee and the softness of his seat and the heat of the day and even the opinions of the other guests who might have judged him - but never for the woman who had given him life. The protagonist walked the line of humanity, in some ways ultimately relatable, and in other ways totally alien. Meursault reminded Malia so much of James in that way: sometimes so boyish, sometimes so alien… and honestly, he made her wonder whether her own act was as convincing as she hoped. Whether James bought it, or doubted it.
The desire to know that, though, melted over time. Reading was easy enough to continue even as Malia's attention drifted, first to the movement of his hands, and then to the careful prying away of his clothing, and then her own. Before she knew it, Malia's bare back was cushioned by the bearskin rug, and she was more inclined to summarize than read. "The next chapter is just Meursault drinking wine and looking out the window, so…" Her dark eyes darted from their glasses to the white-topped mountains outside and she joked and pulled James closer, "I feel like we've got that covered."
James seemed more interested in comparing his pale skin to her darker color. He raised his arm under hers and held them both upward. “It has been a long time since we have been…… content….” he said with a pleasant little smile.
He stretched himself like some animal and moved like a great reptile with purpose between the Duchesses legs to nip at her thighs. “Meursault should have spent his time looking to better things” James grunted tilting his head back to inhale the scent of the Duchess’ skin.
His rough hands stroked her legs and he looked up at Malia’s face to give her a charming smile. “One should take the time to watch flowers, and women, bloom. Now let me warm you properly so you can sing to the heavens since they are so near”. The part of him that was James needed her touch, and that feeling she gave that was something like affection. She wanted him, and it was good to feel wanted again.
Malia's eyes followed his, to the contrast in their skin. It was one thing she adored about Eventyr - the racism she had dealt with her entire long life, just wasn't a problem here. As just one nation, Eventyr had never had the sort of imperial, colonialist history that her world had. Slavery had never happened, nor the subsequent Jim Crow, black codes, or segregation, which she had personally seen the tail end of. Well, the legal tail end - the implications and consequences would be waiting for her on the other side of a fairy circle, easily. But here, she was able to just appreciate what they saw: her palms were several shades lighter than the rest of her skin; the faint green of his veins were visible through his…
Excitement thrummed through Malia at his touch, those words, the smile on his lips, an exhilaration that - before Eventyr - she hadn't known since she had been young. As a wife and mother for most of her life, Malia had assumed that her boredom with her marriage (especially in the bedroom) had been natural. Women enjoyed sex less than men, she had always been told, and hadn't really questioned that until Eventyr gave her youth back. Now she knew that she had just been missing out.
Her mocha-skinned hand ran affectionately down his neck and substantial shoulder, encouraging. There was something so very beauty-and-the-beast about making love in a library, and she couldn't get enough of it. She smirked at his words and nodded, "Let's let the dragons hear us."
Castile rubbed the bristles of his goatee against Malia’s thigh later. It was rare that this body tired out, but he was comfortably worn from their activities. He curled between her legs before getting up to stoke the fire… again.
He turned, the fire cutting his silhouette in its light. “Why the Duke of the North, my lady?” Castile asked curiously. She could have just as easily tried to become the Duchess of the East. “Was it because he was a widower, or because of this library?”
Malia felt the light sheen of sweat on her skin - the chill of the air outside contrasting with the heat pumping through her veins made an intoxicating combination, and she compounded it by taking a break for a long sip of her wine.
"I love the North," Malia answered - and it was true. Ruggedly beautiful but rich in resources, the North was a treasure trove. But given the context, the intent of his question was easy enough to pick up on, and so she propped herself up on an elbow, a finger following the indentations of muscle down his chest, and answered. "I never wanted to play second fiddle, James. Ferdinand was easy to enchant… and then eliminate." Her hand lifted to stroke his cheek, and she frowned, a bit. "It is unfair, I know. No woman worthy of you could ever be your wife."
James laughed and nuzzled his face into Malia’s breasts fondly, “I prefer our arrangement as is… I believe the North is fitting for you, it’s looks are deceptive. There is more here than snow and a mountain…” He lazily stroked her thighs and purred to her in a low animal growl.
“Read to me, my Duchess…” but James moved his hand to the leather bound book. “...from this”.
The Duke was quite a bit more effective in persuasion than Malia had expected. Even when he wasn't directly propositioning sex, he had a way of teasing her senses that kept her interested and excited and a tiny bit off balance. She liked that about him - Ferdinand had been a conquest, but James was an ally. She wanted to feel like he could meet her on her level, and she was pleased to see that he would, and rise to the challenge. It was fun, to succumb to the pleasures he offered, and then entice him in return. It was more exciting than any of her other dalliances…
So when he touched her book, and her instinct was to protect its magic and its secrets at all costs, Malia hesitated. She kissed his temple, a distinctly motherly gesture, then shifted her weight on the floor until she rested on her side, inviting him to curl up behind her, offering the pages to his eyes as she opened them. Malia fully intended to read aloud what was inside, even though she knew he wouldn't be able to read along…
But, even as she laid comfortably to gaze at the pages, the words were jumbled. Gibberish. Her brows raised, then pinched, in confusion. She turned two, three, then five pages, but they were all a mess. Words strewn to look like sentences, but none two together made a lick of sense.
It might have surprised the Duchess, but it didn't confound her. "I would… but these words aren't for you. I can't."
The Green Duke gave a sound of pleasure at the sweet gesture, sometimes it was the little things…. He curled up against her back pressing his cooler skin to Malia’s much warmer, and curvaceous one. However James’ brow arched only slightly when the Duchess found she could not read anymore words from the book to him.
His chin came to rest over her shoulder, lips close to her ear. “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once, my Duchess” James said with a boyish grin. He pressed a kiss to her skin, she did not try to deceive him it was simply… not meant to be. Not yet. But it did answer certain questions, while raising others…
“Does my Duchess wish to ask a favor in return?” he inquired pressing his hips against her playfully although the question was quite serious.
Malia closed and pushed her book away, turning her attention back to her partner. The press of his body against hers was powerful, alighting her nerves and also blatantly pointing out how much bigger he was. She tucked against his form, even with the curves that differentiated her from the common woman, and he could still wrap her up with no effort…
His words drew a small, sly smile that she did not try to hide - he knew that she was a crafty woman with designs aplenty, and she had been more than transparent as she'd courted him. She would ask him favors, probably many more than he asked her, but she had no intention of squandering them until she needed them. At least, the big ones - his access to the King was huge, as was his familiarity with at least one Witch of Eventyr, a mystery that few understood…
But the small ones? Malia abandoned those lofty ideas and instead focused on the moment. She pecked at his cheek, and then requested the smallest favor, "Kiss me." Her voice was at a whisper, her intonation lifted in questioning, continuing to ask, "And my neck…?"
Words became both softer and more and more explicit as she asked him to continue down her body.
“A pleasure, my Duchess, hardly a favor” James said, although he was happy to comply. He thought she might ask about his armor, or something more along those lines. He could be extremely passionate in a carnal way for a creature with no heart. It was a form of conquest in a way, and he was the consummate hunter.
As pleasurable as the thought of spending his entire stay in the high tower might be, eventually they were dressed and making their way down the long steps for a bath before partaking of the feast that was the massive NorthEastern elk.
Castile even carried Malia down the first hundred steps or so, having made sure to make walking a difficulty in the most pleasurable way possible. “I will see what I can do to help you with your werewolf problem. I know of some reputable creature hunters”.
Malia smiled softly - see? She did not need to ask favors to receive them. They would come freely in time, from loyal and capable allies. So far, it had been a profitable strategy, enough to circumvent her lack of family ties: Foster friendships, lovers, and problems will solve themselves. She clung to James' neck fondly, enjoying the dual nature of his arms - strong enough to hold her but somehow quite gently, and gave him directions toward the Duchess' chambers.
It was a relatively dark space, the walls made of large stones in a dark grey hue, but there was a peculiar sparkling quality to them that reflected the large fire and the glittering candles. And even though the bed was huge and covered in in plush, deep red blankets, the centerpiece of the room was a mirror that stood taller, even, than the Duke, framed with jewels of every kind. It would not actually answer Malia, when she playfully asked it who was the fairest in the land, but she liked the idea of it anyway.
"That's good to know," Malia answered, at his offer. "My men tell me that little can be done about werewolves in the winter. That they are heartier in the wild than the men who could hunt them, and we must wait for spring. Which could mean losing another..." She shrugged helplessly at the thoughts, "hundred men before then."
James settled her to her feet, and tilted his head at the image of them in the mirror. “A hundred men are far too many. The werewolves are desperate and hungry in the winter as any animal, but they still prey on the old and weak….. Solitary targets, and at night”.
He grazed his fingers along a silver inlay on her large mirror. “You must mine silver, and fortify your weapons with it. They are prone to the purity of the metal… But mostly they use fear, and sentimental well wishes of love ones to protect them”. Castile was hard on his own people if he found them harboring a werewolf because they were once blood.
The Duke stared into the eyes of the man in the mirror before him. He looked over his shoulder and flashed Malia a wicked smile, “I have a present for you other than the elk...”.
Malia nodded along... slowly, though - she wanted to take in the wisdom of more experienced leaders, especially one who had wolves in his own realm, but she was wary of appearing too eager. Wary or not, though, she expected she had shown James enough that he would read her well, now, if not easily. "We mine plenty of silver in the North," Malia answered, affirmatively.
She settled on the edge of her bed, massive posts standing tall around her, as she pulled her hair over her shoulder and gently began untangling it, pulling pins to deposit them on the table beside her. Her dark eyes watched him - and his mirrored form - curiously, with an interested smirk on her lips. Final comb freed, Malia's hand smoothed over the soft velvet fabric beside her and lifted an eyebrow, curious and expectant at his words. "My lord is generous?"
James gave her an almost coy smile, “When it suits me… but I must say you make it easy, my Duchess”. He produced a leather bound book from his traveling cloak that was tied shut with a green colored ribbon. “My gracious host, you brought me a gift of knowledge on your visit to my lands… I can do no less”.
He gave her a wily, boyish smile. “From my brother’s royal library of course…”
There were fewer ways to get Malia's heart rate quickening faster than a book, and the leather-bound pages did the trick, her dark eyes lighting up with interest. "No," Malia breathed, in an ecstatic sort of disbelief, as she popped up off her perch on the bed with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. Practically skipping across the room, she claimed the gifted book with wonder.
"The Gita?" she asked, hopefully, and bit her lip gently as she began flipping through pages. Since her visit to the East, she had gone home, and spent a generous amount of time studying the ancient text that might be the only connection she had found between Eventyr and her own world… there was so much to find, but her eyes were drawn upwards, her words a bit coquettish. "Philip did not part with this. It might be the most ancient text in Eventyr…"
“There are some very ancient manuscripts in Eventyr… but this has always been a mystery. The way it is written, the manner of speech… Clearly someone took the time to translate it from whatever language it had been, and into basic” he replied. Castile smiled at how pleased she was, it oddly warmed something inside of him.
“There are a few such treasures locked away in the royal library, away from the eyes of even some of the highest ranking nobles. Phillip bears them no mind however, or the stories attached to them” Castile said letting a shoulder shrug upward. “I do not like to waste...potential….”
Malia hesitated, not eager to share her knowledge or insight except with the most worthy of conspirators. But, she could not find any reason to suppose James did not fit that category, and so she nodded along with him. The original language, she supplied: "It was written in Sanskrit." An ancient African language. Malia added, "Originally written 2500 years ago..." Pressing the text against her heart, she whispered as she met James' eyes, "Eventyr's history stretches back little more than eight hundred…"
"Which makes this book three times as old as this entire world." Malia's lips pursed, serious and business-like, imploring. This world was incomplete; it needed more history, in context. This book was doing nothing, gathering dust in Philip's library. "Any other texts you can get me will help put this puzzle together."
James was trying to think of where Sanskrit might have come from, it sounded Southern to him. His brow furrowed slightly, “Eventyr’s written history…the land is older than that”. But still he didn’t recall anything as old as the context of the book she held, which made little sense. It wasn’t as if Eventyr grew overnight, even the great trees of the enchanted forest were only as old as the first written manuscripts.
For a moment he sat silently his gaze locked into……… nothing. And then James blinked and shook his head, “My other self is old, but not as aged as either of these things”. He reached out to gently lay his fingers over her hand covering the book, “My father had a section of the royal library sealed away…. I can try and see what he hid away on my next visit to the King’s city…”
Malia nodded her agreement - surely, Eventyr had a history, she just wasn't convinced that this land had been its own for that long. She was pleased, to find that, when faced with this information, that James - even his older half - was as baffled as she was. And hopefully, therefore, as curious and committed to finding out the truth.
She leaned in, beckoning a kiss, and shared, in a whisper as secret as she might have disclosed a murder, Malia said: "Before I was a Duchess, I was a librarian. You can trust me with any text, I promise."
The Duke’s mouth was on her neck without much encouraging, his body pressing the book between them. “I do trust you with the rarest of tomes, my Duchess…” he said softly in her ear. “Even if you are as foreign to Eventyr as the Gita itself…” he tilted his head at her and his mouth curled on one side. “I may be a bastard, but I am no fool, my lady”. His hand reached up to play with a curl of her hair, “But you have accepted this place, and… myself…. I could do no less”.
Leaning in James sighed and kissed the softness of her skin just below her ear. “When I first saw you someone told me you came from the sky…. They were right, for you are heavenly… my Duchess”.
When: Winter 871 ROK
Where: Castle of the Northern Duchy
The winter in the North was harsh, freezing, dangerous, but ruggedly beautiful and the castle in the mountains glittered with ice in the cold sunshine. While Malia would have preferred to spend these months in King's City, it was a perilous time in her lands, with people holed up in their warm homes but werewolves roaming freely and vampires, in contrast, growing desperate as their food rarely ventured outside their residences where the creatures were unwelcome. Every day, Malia received reports about deaths and had to constantly manage her manpower to address the threats. But busy as she was, the weather made her work isolating and so she was grateful to receive a visitor.
"Duke Castile," Malia greeted, her voice warm, almost motherly, as she took pleasure in fussing, ordering her servants to help James and his men with their things and to bring hot drinks. "How wonderful of you to brave the snow!"
“My Duchess! How lovely you are!” James replied with a smile. He was wearing a furred cape over part of his armor that several men were marveling over. “I took the liberty to bring you a gift, come see!” He said like an excited boy.
“I could not resist, we came across them crossing the borderlands between our realms”. Normally he offered his elbow when escorting Malia, but instead he took her warm hand in his cooler one.
He led her outside into the cold air of the courtyard where men were taking horses to the stable. There was a wagon with a huge elk inside, “He’ll be quite the feast!”
Malia laughed as she skipped along behind the massive, impressively clad Duke, holding hands as if they were children. The cold air outside stung at her mocha skin, but it was the offering that took her breath away.
Hunting was such a feat in the winter, not just because mobility was difficult in the heavy snows but also because predators would lie in wait to steal your kill and then add you to their menu while they were at it. As such, there was rarely fresh meat, and most of what they ate was salted or dried. The pleased smile on Malia's face was echoed with chatter from her guards and servants, who all turned to a friend to wonder at the size of the beast or imagine how it might be cooked.
"You know how to make an entrance!" Malia said, and pulled him in for a grateful kiss. "Thank you, and welcome, my lord."
A few cheered to echo that sentiment.
“Save me the hide and rack, eh?” he asked of one of her servants as they tried to think of how to transport the beast down to the kitchens. James folded his arm and moved Malia’s hand to the crook before anyone spoke of their informal nature.
“I only wished it was one of the werewolves that plague your domain” he said sternly, thinking about the creatures. Grasping the end of his fur cape James draped it around the duchess’ shoulder, and frowned that he had pulled her outside without a proper cloak. “You’re cold” he said. “Come my lady, let us find a warmer place”.
"In that regard, I believe your advice may prove to be worth ten, or perhaps a hundred, werewolf carcasses," Malia said, her voice formal and flattering, although not devoid of truth. He had been a Duke twice as long as she a Duchess, and his lands were infested with werewolves as much as her own. She could learn a lot from his experience. A wide, happy smile spread across her face as her bare hands ran across that magical armor in their embrace, warm inside his cloak. He made the cold bearable, but she nodded when he directed them inside.
Her people’s cheers felt good, after the whole affair with the maidens in the woods he rarely heard sounds of good will at his approach. Mostly people feared him even more and the rumors that always trailed his wake were tenfold and rather outlandish. Such was the weight of keeping Philip’s own status clean and clear….
No one blamed the King, just the Duchies, and mostly the East for the missing maidens. There were nights when James wondered if there would be more roses in the deepest part of the woods… Or young women talking in the plural, with armor. No their fate would not have been the same as his had been so long ago…
More than a decade, it all seemed… like a dream, like his childhood was just a fable someone had recited to him. But of course Philip always found a way to remind him with some unusual request. “I have not been this far North since boyhood”.
"Is that so?" Malia asked, brows lifting in surprise. That was wonderful, though, and a wide smile crossed her face as she pointed toward the sky… no, not the sky exactly, but the towers that seemed to pierce the clouds. It was a climb, but the view was spectacular. "If you aren't too tired, let me take you further."
Heading back into the castle, James and Malia were greeted by a young woman, standing demurely with a smile and a curtsy in greeting. She was beauty personified, with her big eyes, her long hair tumbling past her waist in neat curls, and a figure just starting to hint at womanhood. It was clear that Malia had not actually sent the North's most beautiful maidens when Philip asked.
"Duke Castile, may I present my stepdaughter, Lady Anastasia," Malia said, and her tone clearly said that if she had spared the girl, it wasn't due to any affection.
The Duke stared at the girl, and a wave of nostalgia rose up…. Frannie…. He frowned and bowed politely, “An honor, young lady”. He waited for a moment, before looking at Malia “Interesting...and beautiful in the way of youth, I’m sure she will make some young lord quite happy”. The girl would make a nice bargaining chip for an alliance if a suitable ranking noble were available.
“You wanted to show me the view, my Duchess” he reminded her with a sly arch of his brow.
James' response clearly pleased the Duchess, and she nodded her head approvingly, giving his large arm a tug toward the stairs. They were an intricate series of spiraling staircases, but she knew the way well.
"There is less oxygen at these altitudes," Malia said over her shoulder as she ascended the first flight, before glancing over her shoulder, suddenly second-guessing whether "oxygen" or its availability in "altitudes" were common knowledge in Eventyr. Usually, natives would ignore references they didn't understand, but James wasn't among them, she knew well. "Don't be surprised if you get winded when you shouldn't…" Dark eyes, though, ventured down toward that armor and she recalled its supernatural abilities. How far did they reach? How did one without a heart oxygenate, anyway? "Or if I do," Malia compensated, with a joking smile as she lifted her skirt and began skipping up steps. "I'm not as young as I look."
His brow furrowed for a moment and James looked up at the spiraling stairs, he allowed himself to be lead to them. “The air is shallow higher, one can not swim in a puddle…” James said in understanding, his hand slipped down into hers so he could follow her up the stairs but remain in contact with Malia.
“I will be vigilant” he grinned as she skipped up the steps ahead of him. James followed clearing two steps at a time in her wake, “You are but a babe, my fair Duchess, but wise”. The Duke seemed to be enjoying the view of her swaying hips as she ascended the stairs.
Malia paused - yes, to catch her breath a moment - and turned. She was pleased to catch his eyes weren't quite on the steps, and also by his unique turn of phrase. "I like that. Babe," she said, wistfully. The common term of endearment reminded her so much of home, and - well - she enjoyed the irony of it. Her son was about James' age… She squeezed his hand and continued the climb, pausing briefly with each door to give a brief summary of what was there. The servant's quarters, the ballroom, the dining hall, the library, bedchambers… Many had suggested that the castle in King's City be rebuilt in the style of her own. It wasn't the newest duchy's estate - Francesca boasted that, but the Northern style was classic where the West was edgy and modern.
Soon, they arrived in Malia's favorite room of them all. It was tiny, but plush and comfortable, high in a tower. Books lined the walls - many of them not of Eventyrian origin and transcribed by her own hand and bound in leather by her printer - a bearskin spread on the floor, the chairs lined in soft velvet, and, of course, a massive window that looked out across mountaintops that peaked as far as the eye could see.
"When I saw this," Malia said, with a tone of secrecy to her voice. "I knew I had to have the North."
James was at the window and practically hanging half out of it. “I can see the Eastern forest from here, and the Western ocean!” he exclaimed, certainly the Northern mountain afforded a vantage point he had never had.
"Eventyr is magnificent," Malia agreed, enjoying watching the wonder on his face as he took in the view. This was where she needed to be, whenever her ambition got the best of her and she needed to look back at the big picture…
He looked over his shoulder at the rest of the room in the high tower. “Your...sanctuary?” the Duke asked walking around the room to examine the books, which attracted his attention after the view. Removing an armored gauntlet James let his fingers caress the leather spines like they were lovers…
He looked up to smile at Malia, and inhaled deeply. “I am honored”.
"Yes - my inner sanctum. And you are most welcome here," Malia said with cheerful smile, and her gaze followed his fingers and she sighed, as if he had been touching her. She stepped up to his side, closer than necessary. "It is the most unique collection in the kingdom, I promise you that. You must read while you're here; I would love to know your thoughts on some of my novels…"
Her eyes skimmed the familiar writers: Shakespeare, Dumas, Fitzgerald, Sophocles, Camus… "Oh, James, this one!" She plucked out a slender book titled in gold, The Stranger. "It's about a man who never quite fits in, the way everyone says he should. The world puts him on trial for it - " Meursault reminded her so of the man in front of her and so again, that grandmotherly instinct broke through and she pleaded excitedly, "Let me read it to you."
His eyes glittered in delighted, and then his face reddened slightly as James admitted. “I like being read to…” He has read many manuscripts, documents and scriptures in his life, but there was something pleasing about discussing the subjects with another.
Philip only chose to learn what he had to as King. Francesca was intelligent in her own way, but not much of a reader. James pulled his other glove loose, and devoid himself of enough armor to be comfortable.
He and his other had long gone from us and we, to simply I. But every now and then his speech would slip, “We would be most pleased to be graced with your lovely voice, and sensible opinion of the story”.
"Everyone likes being read to, my dear," Malia said warmly. For children, like her own and the ones she had grown fond of in her library, being read to was a formative experience necessary to develop synapses in the brain. As adults, it explained the rise of audiobooks, their popularity and their quality. If her hearing hadn't been going faster than her eyes, Malia would have been happy to test them out.
Malia helped with his armor, gentle with the pieces she touched and her lingering glances showed her curiosity. Her eyes ticked up, though, at his peculiar phrasing. She couldn't help it - she glanced over her shoulder as if she might see who else he meant, when he said "we." No one. Her eyebrow raised. "Did you say we?" Malia asked, polite but straightforward. "Do you identify as non-binary?" It wasn't uncommon in progressive New York, but he came across very male to her…
He paused and seemed to consider whether to answer or not. Only Francesca Rossi had known about their duality, and even she had only slightly more of a glance than most. But Malia was attracted to what they were now, not for some lost boy…
“Yes,if you mean two have become one. We...us...when we were new and conflicted, but now we are I”. Clearly James had not understood the meaning of her question, and was thinking on more of Eventyr’s lines than Earth’s. He gestured to the armor, “I wear his skin, as he wears mine”.
A slow smile curled the Duke’s mouth, “Does it disturb, my Duchess? That I am...more?”
"Quite the opposite, my Duke… it makes me curious," Malia said with a smile that suited a girl half her age, her mind reeling with questions in a delightful way as his explanation took her thinking from gender identity squarely to multiple personalities: a sensational plotline for many stories, but questioned by the scientific community. Malia had no doubt it had roots in Eventyr and, when presented with a mystery, she lit up.
She turned to the bookshelf - for Malia, all the answers laid in books - but she turned back quickly enough to send her hair flying over her shoulder to grasp his hand warmly and add, "But I will be glad to use they/them pronouns if you - collective 'you' - prefer it." She relished grammar a bit too much, as well.
"You're describing dissociative identity," Malia said, in a thoughtful sort of trance as her eyes skimmed titles. "You had a traumatic experience, in your formative years? Many describe feeling… fractured, afterward, as if they become two people… or more. Sometimes dozens or even hundreds - can you imagine?" Her words, even her speculations, were so academic that they might have come from a scholar rather than a duchess. "I don't have a Diagnostic Statistical Manual - god, my hand would fall off! - but I do have…" She carefully crouched to her knees: Stevenson, Stevenson, Robert Louis… oh, yes! Her hand found her copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then she reached for a hand to help her up again.
His cool fingers wrapped around her hand, as James used his other hand to take an arm. He laughed pleasantly at her girlish excitement at learning something new, and then proposing theories that would shame some of the realm’s most learned scholars.
“Fascinating, my Duchess…. But we are not fractured in two, but two that have become one. Like trees growing together until they are inseparable” James having always liked the imagery behind it, although he was sure that the Green Duke was hardly as romantic a thought.
He rested a palm on the book in her hands, “Is this about a fractured man?”
"Think about it," Malia prompted, with intense eye contact that, again, made her feel something like a mother asking a child to do his first metacognition, "Either way - if you were fractured and grew together, or if there was an invader you accomodated - how would you know the difference? Will one not always call the other other?"
Her eyes fell to the book, and her hand covered his. "This is a book about two men, who share the same body. We should read it together, and decide whether we find him fractured or not." She smiled. "I have only read it with one mind; how we might interpret it, between the three of us."
He smiled, oh how they liked her. “And then you will read us, Camus?” Castile asked as he took the cushions from a few chairs that he could and threw them on the bearskin. He tossed his own fur cape down with clear intent where they should lounge.
“You should have a bed brought here” he mused and offered her a space to sit and read conveniently between his thighs.
Malia happily sank down where he bid her, the velvet of her dress only a sensual inhibition. The bearskin was soft enough to cushion her lounging on the floor, especially with the Duke's cape. Her fingers spread out across the fur and long-past days of club ecstasy triggered a serious sensational response…
"You prefer the Camus to the Stevenson?" Malia asked, although her own preference was clear. Camus addressed humanity, authenticity. Something that transcended reality, whatever anyone decided it was.
The Duke shrugged a shoulder in frank indifference. “We are ignorant to either, I defer to your judgement in this, my Duchess” Castile answered, as he inhaled the scent of the oils and flowers that she used in her hair. “I wouldn’t want to consume all of your time with books alone”.
Malia chose, and set the other book carefully aside. "My servants would revolt, if I asked them to haul a mattress up all those stairs…" Malia joked, although it was a telling one. As a new duchess, she did not yet have the whole-hearted support of her subjects. In addition, she did not have a family name or a powerful clan to legitimize her. She had a network of friends and allies, but the truth was that in order to earn her place, it would take several careful years of proving competence to earn loyalty that went deeper than fear of punishment.
As if on cue, a servant girl, breathing hard, arrived with refreshments, mulled wine, cheese, cured sausage, and bread. She did not look happy about the chore, but, of course, said nothing, and Malia gave her no more than a moment's attention. When she looked back at the Duke, she smiled, a laugh slipping through full lips as she teased, "What would you consume it with?"
The Duke took pity on the young servant and poured her half a glass of wine, frowning when she tried to refuse it. “Drink it and have a care, girl. Good deeds are sometimes rewarded…” James went to the door and looked down the treacherous stairs as they seemed to spiral out of sight.
Sending the girl off with her drink the Duke jerked his head toward the stairs. “You should have your men build a pulley system to draw up a basket, it would keep food warmer. And spare your servants from carrying it…” He smiled at Malia, and gestured to the window “Such a fine view”.
Pouring wine for her and himself he returned to his spot on the furs. “Perhaps more pillows then if not a proper bed” he suggested, and smiled slyly at her question. “You’ll get no reading done with that tone, my duchess”.
The servant girl smiled - a radiant expression on her pretty young face - as she accepted the cup from the Duke and thanked him, although she was careful not to speak more than a quick, "my lord," and take up any of his attention. Already she could feel her Duchess's eyes burning into her…
Although Malia's eyes snapped quickly back to James when he returned and offered her a glass. She couldn't help the irrational jealousy that flared up when younger women were around, no matter how silly she knew it was. She nodded at his advice and joked, "I need a pulley system for people - I'll call it an elevator…" The duchess kissed that cheshire smile from James' lips, then opened the book and read aloud the famous first lines: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure... "
The idea of mothers and sons and seeing the kindly way James handled that servant girl, Malia found herself leaving the book tented open to their page on the rug while she took a sip from her cup. She asked, "Why no children for you, James?"
He had laughed at the very image of people being drawn up the tower in a giant basket, or perhaps the cliffs by the Western sea. He closed his eyes to listen to the words, curious if the writer was so grieved he had lost track of time or if he felt such an indifference as not to care?
His eyes opened at her question and another sly smile curled his mouth. “Is that a proposal, my Duchess?” Castile teased her sliding his hand to cover her flat belly. “I was told they would be cursed, I have no wish to pass such misfortune to a babe”.
"Most certainly not!" Malia laughed, and gave that massive shoulder of his a playful shove in response to his tease. She had been pregnant twice and had no desire to repeat the experience, even though such arrangements could well have helped make up the deficit she suffered not having been born in Eventyr. But the aching back, swollen ankles, stretch marks… not worth it. She moved an inch or two closer when he touched her, though, and returned the jest, "A child would ravage this body, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
Her brows rose in curiosity, and concern. That was a terrible thing, to curse a child to spite its father. "Cursed?" She went on to assume, "The witch who keeps your heart - she cursed your children as well?"
Castile leaned down to kiss her stomach sweetly, “I think you would be a goddess, round with child… but I prefer you as you prefer yourself, like this...high over the world and so very beautiful”. He nuzzled her side glanced upward shaking his head.
Malia's hand smoothed over his hair affectionately. It was a sweet sentiment, to be sure, but his conclusion was the right one and that pleased her. Just as he mentioned the view again, Malia gasped softly and pointed, at a peculiar burst of light and smoke on a mountainside. "Look!" she whispered, with all the sweet wonder of a child pointing out lightning from a car window, "A dragon."
“No...thrice cursed now, it was my former betrothed that placed the final one” he said nonchalantly as if being cursed three times over was an everyday thing. Shrugging a large shoulder he simply added, “I was ill fated at birth being the royal bastard, cursed by my own blood. Such things mean little to me now…. I will not sit, simpering like a cornered rabbit waiting for the dogs to find me”.
His mouth curled into an unsavory grin, “We survive, it’s what we done for a very long time. Our day is due…”
At his conclusion, Malia nodded, with a smile that betrayed the hint of wolf she had in her own heart and raised her glass, "I'll drink to that." And already, she needed to refill her glass, so Malia claimed the bottle, poured more, topped off James' drink, and set it out of the way, as her mind mulled over the idea of curses. "Betrothed, who, Francesca?" Malia asked, with bewilderment on her face. She knew her Eventyrian politics more than well enough to know that the Duchess of the West and Duke of the East had been engaged their whole lives, before the zombie tragedy that broke it off out of necessity. "It seems silly to curse the children of your betrothed - she would have to bear them…" Malia shrugged off the inconsistency with a dismissive, "Francesca was never the brightest candle in the room, was she? Perhaps you ought not put too much stock in her," Malia raised one hand to make air-quotes, "Curse."
The Duke looked at the light outside of a distant magical beast, “Is it true that they hoard gold? What a silly habit”. He tilted his head at the beautiful woman sitting with him, “Do not underestimate Francesca Rossi… we all have some sort of power here, my Duchess”.
He sipped his wine and gave her a thoughtful expression. There were some things that people didn’t need to know about him, but he did like a good reaction… And perhaps he wanted to shock her. “I believe it was mostly metaphorical about being my children, but one probably has difficulty focusing while being raped”. Castile leered around the goblet he drank from...
Malia's eyebrows lifted, and her head tilted a bit, studying that expression on his face. It was hardly that she hadn't thought him capable of it - she had seen the pleasure he'd taken torturing those two Marauders and the rough way he handled her in the bedroom - but it was surprising that he would tell her about it. Women, as a rule, did not excuse the rape of other women, even the vapid Kardashian of the West, and Malia wouldn't. But it did explain why Francesca always seemed so hostile when required to attend events with the four of them, and why she skipped so many, why she took up an affair with the king - probably to have his ear without needing to meet the crown's normal expectations. She was unsure James' aim in telling her this, though - was it just to warn her about Francesca?
"You deserved it, then," Malia concluded, after a long moment of contemplation. "Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turned. Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned…
“Well, half of me did at the time…” he said letting his eyes drift downward. “...Our union was still new, full of turmoil” he admitted in a regrettable tone.
“She was stubborn, willful, selfish… we had negotiated a fair bargain. But they are very superstitious in the West, she only wanted the boy. She never was good at sharing” he gave a mirthless smile.
“So we tried to punish her….She was more than willing to fuck the same body minutes later when he took over”. Clearly in Castile’s mind it didn’t matter who was driving the coach if you were willing to jump in.
“She betrayed us”.
"Punish her?" Malia repeated, curiously or perhaps ominously, and deft fingers flipped the book from page one to the middle of chapter four. An odd interaction, where a vindictive man asked his odd neighbor for an unthinkable favor, to lure his unfaithful mistress close enough for him to assault her: Malia quoted, with a finger tracing the words as she spoke, "What bothered him was that he 'still had sexual feelings for her' - but he wanted to punish her." Then the duchess lifted the book as if in a shrug, asking if this was what James meant.
Zaire watched the anger play across his son's features, watched him drain the liquor from the glass in a single pull to rival any grown man and the pirate felt a well of pride fill him at the sight. But there was one thing that growing up hadn't tempered, and that was Killick's ability to cut to the quick with nothing but his words. They were accusing and just as sharp as any warrior's blade and while Zaire's temper may not have risen in response to Killick's earlier words, he found himself fighting a losing battle now.
"Ev'ry man an' woman on my crew 'as chosen t'be there, lad, and ye know that," he fired right back, hand tightening around his own glass, still filled to the brim and waiting to be drained. "I make no decision without their say-so."
To a point. In battle, his word was law, but there was a certain democracy aboard a pirate ship and he'd spit in the face of that when he'd made that deal with the Duchess. He hadn't given a second thought to whether his men would agree to it because what choice had any of them had? No, Zaire had saved each and every one of them who had made it from the deck of the 'Song to Francesca's dungeon and he'd not have that thrown back in his face.
He drew a deep breath, downed the rum, and then added in a much calmer tone, "Every minute I sat in that dungeon, all I could think'uv was gettin' back t'yer mum, yer brothers an' sisters. Gettin' t'see you again."
"Oh, aye?" There was a snarking edge to Killick's own voice even as he watched the signs he ought to back down from. Knew to back down from - that line in his father's brow, and the way his words went even as a keel on flat water. The calm that lulled inexperienced sailors into a false sense of security as the storm brewed just out of sight...
"So when'd we get t'choose? When's our say-so factor inta yer decidin', ah?" But Killick wasn't an inexperienced sailor. He'd grown up on the water as much as anywhere else, and he knew exactly what he was doing. Spitting in the eye of a hurricane and daring it to do its worst, as he reached out for the bottle with every intention of refilling his glass.
There was half a second of disbelief as Zaire simply stared at his son, wondering if he'd somehow misheard him, then the pirate's hand was reaching out to snatch the bottle of out Killick's reach and he was rising to his feet again only to explode: "You made yer choice, lad!"
Zaire was halfway around the table before he managed to rein himself in, drawing to a stop but still bubbling with anger. Who the fuck did Killick think he was, anyway? It was because of Zaire that his children hadn't grown up in a poor fishing village, that Killick had the freedom and the money to chase his dream of going into medicine rather than being forced into piracy the way Zaire himself had been! Ungrateful little bilge rat!
"T'wasn't I who sent ye here," he sneered, making his already well-known opinion on the King's City and it's fancy college perfectly clear. "Ye can go on wit blamin' me f'everything bad in yer life, but yer here because y'want t'be an' I didn't stop ya."
Killick bristled, a pup too young still to know better than to posture and snap at someone twice his size. Part of it was knowing his father was right. Part of it was knowing Zaire had willingly funded his decision to break away from the life that brought him this far. Not that he'd meant it the way Zaire had taken it -
But by the time the bottle was swept out of his grasp, Killick had no hope of smoothing down those raised hackles - his or his father's. They were never really good at seeing eye to eye... but things had got so much worse when Killick grew old enough to mouth off, just not quite old enough yet to think about it first.
The silence that fell for those few moments between them made it clear he knew he'd pushed his luck too far, until he straightened up and pulled his shoulders back. "Thanks f'the money, then, pa. S'do this again, next time y'almost get near e'ryone I know killed," Killick offered as he turned to go - thinking himself quite smart trying to get that last word in...
For half a second, Zaire thought that would be the end of it. That Killick would keep his mouth closed and they could, awkwardly, finish their visit before going their separate ways once again - and then the boy's shoulders had straightened and his mouth had opened--
Zaire dropped the bottle in his hand, leaving it to bounce on the threadbare rug before spinning wildly and splashing rum across the floor, and then that same hand was curling into the soaked fabric of Killick's cloak as he shoved his son into the wall with a slam that rattled the door on its hinges. "Next time," he ground out, lip curling over one gold incisor, "Ye'll be watchin' that tongue, boy."
It was a threat, without a doubt, but Zaire's family had a way of making those threats as empty as Mr. Larsen's pockets after a night of gambling. He wouldn't cut out his son's tongue, even though the next time they shared space they'd likely end up right back in this same situation. Still, Zaire held Killick's gaze in challenge, even as his speckled hands eased their grip in silent permission for the boy to leave if he so wished . . .
Killick couldn't help bristling - it was in his nature the very same way that vulgar violence was in Zaire's, the threat of it radiating from his body as searing hot as midday sun reflected off the water. It didn't matter that his back ached from where his shoulder blades struck the door, or that he was momentarily disoriented by how suddenly he was, once again, not in control...
Every inch of him wanted to fight back, to prove he wouldn't and how much he knew he didn't have to. After all, he was a bit old for whippings, wasn't he?
The struggle pulled the muscles in his face in tiny, barely perceptible twitches as he stared back, but couldn't bring himself to reply. Snarling words or thrown hands were neither of them forthcoming, and when Zaire let go, Killick found himself taking the out - no matter how much he wanted to do anything but. The night rain welcomed him back, at least...and gave him an excuse to keep his head down on the way home.
Who: Zaire, Killick, various NPCs
When: February 28, 872 RoK, late evening
Where: The King's City. A seedy inn near the pier.
"Pacin' ain't gonna make it easier, Cap'n."
"I know," Zaire answered, pausing by the rain-pelted window and shooting his Sailing Master a dark look. Pacing wouldn't make seeing his son easier, but it did give him an outlet for the anxious pent up energy in his muscles. Oddly enough, it felt similar to those moments as they drew up alongside a prize, where there was nothing to do but wait to board and anticipate the battle to come . . .
"I know th'boy," Henry Gladstone continued, tearing another chunk of bread off the loaf and using it to sop up the last bit of stew in his bowl. "Y'two may 'ave yer differences, but he'll be 'appy t'see ya alive."
Zaire didn't answer, his eyes instead going to the window again. Out of all his crewmates, Mr. Gladstone knew his family the best. His wife, Cissa, was close to Eloise and while most of their children may have been older than Zaire's, they'd all grown up together on the Island. Henry's son, Omar, had even saved Killick's life when the boy had tried to sail away from home on a raft he'd lashed together himself. Out of all of them, Zaire trusted Gladstone's judgement the most in these sort of matters, but that didn't stop him from second-guessing and wondering if this would be the time the sailor was wrong.
A moment of silence stretched between the two and Zaire found himself nearly convinced that Killick wouldn't show up. It wasn't far fetched, the idea that Killick would refuse the summon simply to spite his father; he'd been known to make many questionable decisions for that reason alone. Zaire had sent Chaz, close in age to Killick and the most likely to be able to navigate his way through the College campus without drawing attention, but he'd told the young pirate to not push the issue if the boy wouldn't come.
"An' if he refuses?" Zaire asked.
Gladstone shook his head, the scar bisecting his dark face catching the light from the fire and making him look far more menacing because of it. "He thought ye were dead, Cap'n. He'll be 'ere."
Killick didn't know what he was doing. Still, he'd followed Chaz because at least the time spent with someone else leading the way gave him the opportunity to think. Unfortunately, there was no amount of time in the world that would have been sufficient. Chaz alone was a good sign that his father was alive and well - did he really need to see him for himself to be sure of it?
He'd paced when Chaz first found him. Paced and fidgeted as Chaz explained as much as he needed to, and hated how small he felt.
Because even after being gone for months, even after being dead, Zaire could just show up and make demands and expect everyone to snap-to. Because they would. Because he would. It was enough to make Killick reconsider, for him to stop twice to argue with Chaz, whose job it wasn't to convince him, but even the second time ended in Killick throwing his arms up for Chaz to lead on. Because he might as well.
And because, if he was wholly honest, that moment they pushed through the door and out of the rain was relief he hadn't known he'd been waiting for. That wash of cool, calming water swept over every inch of him with his father finally in sight, and even the deepest well of spite couldn't keep the anger in his shoulders or the hint of a smile off the corners of his lips. Nor did it do a damn thing for the crack in his voice that managed its way into even as small a word as "Pa-"
And then the moment arrived right along with Killick and Zaire felt every ounce of anxiety seep from his muscles in a rush of relief, his chest tightening with emotion at the crack in his son's voice.
His men didn't hang around, Gladstone collecting his food and then ushering Chaz out the door only to close it behind them, leaving father and son to have their reunion in private.
Zaire crossed the room, reaching to take his son's shoulders and move them both closer to the fire. "Yer soaked to the bone, boy," the pirate murmured, his dark eyes skimming over Killick's familiar features. His son was taller than he was now, Zaire realized, by at least an inch or two, but that didn't stop the pirate from wiping rainwater from his son's cheeks all the same. Cheeks coated with the scruff of whiskers.
"Look atcha," he said with a sudden smile and unmistakable pride in his voice. "You went and became a man in t'last year." And before he could allow himself to think twice about it, to hesitate, Zaire pulled his son in for a hug.
He shouldn't have been seen with Zaire - that much Killick knew was detrimental to the whole persona he'd been trying to craft, here. To be that man that his father saw, someone new and different and wholly his own, he needed not to be associated with pirates. It threw a wrench in the whole facade.
Just the way his father being there, alive and whole and preening over him, sunk every intent to keep his back straight and his chin high and his emotions in check. Chaz and Gladstone were gone anyway, but it wouldn't have stopped Killick stepping in to the relative warmth and safety and home that was his father's arms, the smell of sea-salt that would never be scrubbed free of his skin, the very physical presence of every memory of every hail that inevitably preceded a farewell...
He stood again to pull back once he'd satisfied the boyish need to be certain the man in front of him was no spectre, that he did seem to have all his arms and legs... only for it to be replaced by another childish urge: blame-throwing. "What happened? Where were you?" Things happened at sea. He knew that - they all did. Sometimes the weather was rough and no one came home on time. But months, half a year, that wasn't normal.
Zaire sighed and took a step back, running one hand over his beard, but his anger didn't rise to meet his son's implied accusations. Was Killick ready to know the truth? Zaire had always been careful about what sort of information he brought home; not only to keep his family from worrying, but also because Eloise had been clear about how much she wanted to know and that preference had influenced how much he told his children. But Killick was a man now and it didn't matter that he'd turned down Zaire's offer to bring him out on the sea, he had the right to have his questions answered honestly.
"Duchess Francesca 'ad us arrested," he admitted, settling down into the chair recently vacated by Gladstone. "Me an' Chaz, Jimmy too." He shook his head, "Wasn't enough to 'ang the three'uv us though; she wanted the whole crew and she got'em." He reached for the bottle of rum and poured two glasses, pushing one across the table toward Killick. "I talked her out'uv an execution and struck a deal instead but it meant a risky hunt for a helluva prize and those things take time, lad."
Impatience had Killick near to fidgeting until his father was speaking again, and then he really was - looking back after the door Gladstone and Chaz had left through, worry knitting his brow and twisting in his chest. He'd long since decided not to be part of this, not to sail on his father's ship or any other when the goal was piracy. He'd made that choice to divest himself of that birthright, but it was as much a part of him as the blood thrumming nervously through his veins.
Chaz, Jimmy, Bosede, Gunther, all of them - they were family, and it gripped his gut to think they could all have been hung for criminals without him ever knowing. Without ma ever knowing-
He forced himself to breathe again, but with it came a snap: "Talked her outtuh-" Killick felt the slip back into that rural dialect he'd fought so hard to strip away, along with everything else that painted him as not from here, but he grabbed the glass - if for nothing else than something to hold, something to jab in Zaire's direction after it had been drained sufficiently. The liquor helped him keep his voice down, if not any more level; Killick let the current take him. "You coulda got'em all killed. None'uv us the wiser, not that you'd cared."
Kyky: "Hello again," ... "Rafael, right?"
The familiar sound of blunt force trauma had Rafael turning to find himself staring at a face he hadn't expected he'd ever see again. "Kyky?" he asked, redundantly. It wasn't really surprising that she was in King's City though; this was the sort of event that drew a crowd, which was exactly what made all of this so very devastating.
He moved closer to her, attention going back to the zombies pushing in around them, clamoring over the felled body of the vampire. If they could manage to make clear some of these zombies out, then they could recover the body and maybe he could learn something usef--
Castile: *Ha! You thought!*
The thought wasn't even finished percolating before James appeared like a towering green mountain, his sword cleaving through the vampire's neck and his heavy boot sending the head sailing through the air. "Fucking hell!" Rafael snapped, thinking the Duke of the East could use a lesson in restraint. Had he always been such a 'kill first, think later' type?
James: "Gonzalo, you know this girl?" he grunted when he heard her use his name. "I suggest we reunite with the Duchesses. And try to get some answers from your father...." … "Young lady, you should come with us".
"Yes, I know her," Rafael answered, trying his best to erase the annoyance from his tone. He met Kyky's eyes, tipping his head toward where the Duchesses of the North and South had disappeared with the crown Prince. It'll be safe there, the rise of his eyebrows seemed to say, and he turned to decapitate a zombie to buy them a moment to move. "And if you want answers, My Lord," Rafael said, as the trio fell into step together, "then consider allowing me to deal with my father . . ." The last thing they needed was James Castile removing another potentially useful head.
Rafael: *Arrows of death! It's been real, it's been fun, it hasn't been real fun.*
KyKy: *Hey gang!* "Hello again," Kyky said, with a tired sort of smile, her voice hoarse and rushed, and quickened breaths that betrayed her fatigue. But she was glad to have found a partner - against zombies especially, you needed someone to watch your back. "Rafael, right?"
With: Jaya, Bridgette, Open
Where: Artisan's Quarter, King's City
When: Sunset, Tuesday, March 11th, 872 RoK
When Jaya lurched towards her, she stumbled back.
”You...” she tried but couldn’t bring herself to finish the phrase, eyes a bit wider now. The attacks she had seen happening around her now made sense... sort of. But even then, it was a ridiculous concept to wrap her mind around.
Much like being told to run when she hadn’t even been in Eventyr for a half an hour.
“But, where? Jaya what happening?” Her tone was taught with confusion and, notably, fear as well.
Kira glanced around. She likely should run, because if someone did want to eat her it was the best option she had. At the same time, she had very little idea of where she was and where she would be going with Jaya being the only person she knew.
Not all that she what to do, she stepped back again. However, with the growing panic and people rushing to get out of what apparently were similar situations, Kira backed into someone. That someone then decided to shove her in an attempt to get through the chaos a little quicker.
Due to the force of the push, she was sent right into Jaya.
Kyky's eyes widened as the reserved man who had brought her into this cave suddenly became lively and animated. She hadn't thought of her reckless behavior quite the way he put it before - she would have just called it escapism, but he was right: she could have read a book or watched Netflix if she just wanted to feel outside her own head for a while. She preferred this because it made her feel - and not just helpful, but exhilarated at the same time. A connection was buzzing between them, and the sudden exposure of skin in addition to that made Kyky's heart skip a beat.
Her hand hesitated a moment as she lifted it, as if asking for permission, then her fingertips trailed gingerly behind his. The scars were smaller than her own, but they had the same familiar texture. She hated when hers were touched - the bullets had torn her apart severely enough that the nerves were damaged, and left the scar tissue on her right side strangely numb. But, if he was doing this to himself, maybe he wouldn't mind the discomfort...
Her eyes darted up, past the scars, to his face. "Healing yourself," Kyky whispered in repetition. And while she had never cut herself, exactly, she had been cut, bruised, or twisted enough times, for a friend in Eventyr, and never lamented the injuries. So she nodded, barely, and added, "I see. I see you."
On the surface it seemed such a strange thing to say. I see you. Obviously she did; she was looking right at him! It was easy enough to put the words into context, though, when her gentle fingertips were tracing so lightly over the scars and he was watching her face oh-so closely, and when he realized what she meant, Rafael found his breath catching.
I see you. I see your pain. I see your trauma. I see your past. And instead of judging, I'm understanding.
It was exactly what he'd been hoping for when he took this risk, but he hadn't realized how little he'd been expecting to receive acceptance until relief hit him hard in the chest. He blinked rapidly, clearing the sudden emotion from his eyes, and found himself at a loss as to what to say in response. Thank you seemed the natural thing to say, but it also inadequate. How could those two little words encompass the sheer magnitude of what he was feeling?
Dark eyes lowered to her lips, suddenly more inviting than any he'd seen in the last few years. Rafael wasn't big on kissing - not anymore. It always seemed too intimate an action to share with the occasional working girl, much like bearing his scars to the eyes of those same women. Yet, in that moment, he very much wanted to kiss Kyky and it was likely obvious in the tongue that slipped out to wet his lower lip, the hand that came up only to hesitate just before touching the soft curve of her jaw . . .
Kyky felt the same hesitation - he was undeniably handsome and the attraction between them was far more than just physical, but she wasn't the promiscuous type and she hadn't ever kissed a boy on the same night she met him. That didn't mean she didn't want to, though, and hadn't he just pointed out that her risk-taking was therapeutic in its own weird way?
She first tilted her cheek toward his hand and then looked up from his arm to his expression. She thought she saw loneliness pinched into his brows, relief in his eyes, and desire on his lips. Her own hand lifted to smooth down his face, as if all she wanted in the world was to wipe them all away. Pain like this couldn't be spilled and wiped away like tears, she knew, but maybe the edge could be taken off with a kiss.
Kyky leaned in, settling her hand on his chest, just over his heart, and found herself enraptured by the impression that it was beating in time with her own. Letting her eyes drift shut, she let her lips brush gently against his in what felt like the most natural extension of the silent intimacy in the air between them.
Rafael was out of practice and that first brush of her lips against his felt nothing but clumsy. When was the last time he'd simply kissed someone? Not since Francesca, he was sure. Still, it didn't take long to shake the rust off, his hand sliding around to cup the back of her neck, fingers buried in the warmth of her hair.
Slowly, cell by cell, Rafael swore his body was waking again. He wanted to be close to her, rather than push her away, and it was a feeling so far removed from his everyday life that he almost didn't trust it. Was his body lying? Was he really as safe as he felt in that moment?
While those questions were still spinning distantly in the back of his head, Rafael's instincts were guiding him and his other hand slipped around her waist, pulling her a bit closer. Her hand on his chest, index finger still pressed against the scars there, was a sort of acceptance that was almost an aphrodisiac all its own. He wanted her, and that sudden lust hit him from out of nowhere, blossoming low in his belly and made clear in the way he deepened their kiss, tongue teasing along her lips in a silent request . . .
Her hand traveled over his arm, then shoulder, feeling the firm indentations and bulges of muscle under the slide of his clothing, and the down his back and around his neck for support as he pulled her closer. Her touch had a gingerness to it; she wanted to feel him in return, but for all she knew, some of those scars were still fresh enough to hurt, like the one on his wrist. Her eyes would flutter open with every gasped breath as he deepened the kiss, at first to watch if she was hurting him, and then just to see the way he was looking back at her.
Their chests pressed flush together, and for a moment Kyky became aware of herself - was she going to do this? Not just kiss a guy she just met, but make out with him? More than that, maybe? At this point in the process, usually, the reality of the ugly scars down her leg pulled her to a halt... but here, in Eventyr, in this dark cave a world away from home, she had as new a lease on passion as her partner was feeling. So when that particularly sensual attention to her lip sent the most wonderful electricity through her body and pulled a soft, needy noise from her, Kyky nodded.
And then she was lost, to the sounds of heavy breath, the feeling of his rough hands, strong arms making sure that she wouldn't be bumped or bruised from the stone floor when she found herself on her back. Her hand ran over his hair as she looked up at him…
But when she met his eyes, she had the strangest urge. Hardly familiar with what she was doing, running mostly on instincts, she couldn't be sure that the impulse was a normal one, but it was powerful enough that she couldn't ignore it… so Kyky plugged his ears.
Distantly, Rafael knew that something wasn't right. He felt like a teenager again, made of nothing more than raging libido and bad decisions, and as soon as she was situated underneath him, he was maneuvering himself between her thighs and trailing those eager kisses from the softness of her lips to the smooth skin of her throat. It wasn't enough though. He wanted to feel her skin against his and he broke the kiss long enough to begin unbuckling the leather jerkin he wore, shrugging out of it and tossing it aside, his shirt following closely after.
It was strange that he didn't even stop to consider his actions - until her hand running through his close cropped hair drew his attention back and he met her eyes . . .
No. This wasn't right. Rafael's eyebrows drew down in confusion and he nearly pulled away as she reached for him, but then she was blocking his ears and that confusion gave way to horrified understanding. His eyes widened and, awkwardly, he braced his weight on one hand above her, eyes darting to the waterfall doorway as he dug through the pouch on his belt and came up with those handy bits of cotton. "Cover your ears," he whispered, stuffing the cotton into his ears the second she moved her hands.
Climbing off of her, Rafael went for his sword, though it was hardly the best weapon in such tight confines, and once it was in his hand, his other dipped back into the pouch. "It's here," he said, though it was obvious Kyky knew. He held out the cotton for her to take, only to have it fall to the ground as the waterfall parted and a figure leapt toward them . . .
Kyky nodded, moving her hands quickly and deliberately from his ear to her own when he inserted the cotton. When her own were plugged and the haze of lust inspired by the vampire's voice faded - and any of her own authentic lust was quelled by fear - Kyky was relieved to see that the vampire was not yet in sight. She knew they could be completely overlooked by those in their thrall, distracted as they were by their own desire, but it became clear that wasn't the case and they might have time to arm themselves. As it was, Leo was going for his sword…
Then, she appeared. Well fed as she was, the vampire was breathtakingly beautiful - flame red hair, flawless skin, an hourglass figure accentuated by a dress as emerald green as the forest beyond the falls. But, her steady diet meant she was also strong, and less inclined than usual to play with her prey. She went for Rafael first, clearly sensing that he was the bigger threat, grabbing him, slamming him into the cave wall, and holding him there by the throat…
Rafael knew full well just how fast vampires were, especially well fed ones, but still she managed to sweep him backwards, his sword flying from his hand and his bare back scraping across the rough stone of the cave walls as her hand locked around his throat. A string of vehement curses paraded through his brain, directly mostly at himself for becoming so thoroughly distracted, but they didn't stay there long before other more pressing thoughts took over - specifically, that he was going to die.
Kyky had fully expected her to just snap his neck, and that knowledge had her quickly rolling toward that cotton drifting to the ground. She wanted to help, but hearing while doing so was impossible. In the moments it took to stuff her ears, luckily, the vampire stopped humming, and Kyky heard her speak…
"Oooohhh," the vampire purred. Her free hand dipped to the scars on Rafael's chest, a lewd sensuality to her touch. "I didn't know there were any of you left…" an excited smile spread across pretty lips. "I should turn you!"
Any of what left? Kyky wondered as she stopped up her ears. Didn't matter - she needed to get that bitch off of Leo... An idea suddenly struck her, and Kyky grabbed the nearest flaming log. Her hand burned, but she ignored the pain, lifting the flame up behind the distracted creature, slamming it against the back of her neck, and lighting her hair on fire. The vain bitch couldn't ignore that, and she hissed, grip loosening on Rafael as she whirled around.
His chest was burning, his eyes too wide, but still Rafael struggled against the hand holding him, even though he knew it was useless. His lips pulled back in a snarl at her words, fingers working furiously at the junction between her pasty-pale skin and his own, managing just enough space to suck in a rasping breath . . .
Of course she'd realize what he was, with his scars so prominently displayed, and again Rafael felt disgust at his carelessness. How could he be so stupid? He knew better than to let his guard down this close to a vampire's territory!
Movement drew his attention to Kyky, just the barest flicker of his eyes away from the vampire, and hope flared as she grabbed one of the burning logs and set the bitch on fire. The hand disappeared from his throat and Rafael's knees nearly buckled at the sudden loss of counterpressure, but the movement made it easier to unsheath the dagger strapped to his calf and leap forward to plunge the short, but vicious, blade into the side of the vampire's neck. With his other hand braced on her shoulder, he hauled back on the hilt, wrenching the razor sharp edge toward him, not only slicing open the skin but also cutting straight through her vocal cords.
The vampire's other weapon was her eyes, which she immediately tried to fix on Kyky. Luckily, the young sidekick knew to avert her gaze. She wanted to search for another weapon, but with a vampire this strong and this dangerous, either herself or Leo could become a danger to the other too easily. Any direct eye contact and they could lose their minds, fighting on the vampire's behalf first, then offering their neck to help her heal. It wasn't a risk they could take. So Kyky did the unpleasant - while her partner held it down, Kyky groped at the vampire's face, from the forehead down to avoid teeth, until her thumbs found eye sockets, and she pushed until she felt a pop, and felt the disgusting sensation of ooze and blood dripping…
With its hypnotic power gone, all the vampire could do was thrash. Her strength made her like a raging bull, and with Kyky's thumbs in her eyes, she was the first to go. Even though Kyky was ready for it - hoped for it, actually, since it would ideally give her partner enough time to slice through the rest of the vampire's neck - the vampire's push felt like getting hit by a car. It slammed her into the opposite wall of the cave - but if it hurt, adrenaline made up for it, because Kyky bounced back, getting to one knee, ready to jump back in.
It was messy work, dispatching a vampire, and when Rafael lost his grip on the vampire's shoulder, he grabbed a handful of it's hair instead. The grip gave him a bit more control as Kyky took away the creature's eyes and it began thrashing wildly in a desperate attempt to gain the upper hand.
Again, Rafael found his back slamming and scraping against the wall as it kicked Kyky away and then threw itself backwards with a vile strangled sound. The impact caused him to lose his grip on the knife, his blood-slick hand slipping off the worn leather of the hilt, and it clattered away from him as the vampire twisted erratically. He still had his hand tangled in its hair, making its movements not only awkward but unnerving, as well, though the thin skin of its scalp was no match for the force being exerted upon it and it pulled free with a bloody chunk of skin attached.
"Sword!" he shouted, breath rushing from his lungs as the creature slammed into him, pinning him between it and the wall. Teeth snapped toward his face, kept at bay only by the arm he managed to brace against its torn throat, but his muscles wouldn't hold out long and if she managed to get fangs into his skin, they were done for . . .
Kyky was so glad she had cut those inches off her skirt because otherwise, the dive she made for the weapons would have tripped her up. But instead, she was able to keep her weight low as she moved back across the small space, grabbing the sword by the blade to offer her partner the hilt. It was her burned hand and the action left a fresh cut across her palm, but she paid it no mind and focused instead on getting her hand out of the blade's way before he snatched it. The result was a beautiful moment of synchronicity where she tossed the sword and he caught it that reminded Kyky, distantly, of how she had thought she felt their hearts beat in sync, not a few minutes ago.
Kyky knew the best way to take the strength out of this vampire was to bleed it, so as soon as her hands were free, she grabbed at the bloody dagger that had been dropped, and then hesitated. Any random stab would cause it to bleed, but it would also tell the vampire where she was and while Leo was holding the beast off pretty damn well, Kyky knew she wouldn't. So she zeroed in before moving within arm's reach, then, fast as she could, Kyky grabbed one of the vampire's hands and sliced at its wrist, knowing exactly where to cut for maximum bleed because of the faint scars on her own wrists…
Despite the adrenaline coursing through his system, Rafael knew he wouldn't be able to keep the vampire off of him forever. But Kyky was there to toss his weapon to him and though he caught it easily, it was enough of a distraction for the vampire's tooth to catch his eyebrow, causing him to jerk his head back in response and crack it against the wall.
Freely bleeding from both neck and wrist, the vampire began losing strength quickly, though it wasn't willing to turn its attention from the potential victim in its hands to the one who'd cut its wrist. With a final burst of strength, Rafael shoved the creature back, creating enough space for him to bring the sword up and, in a move that was likely just as much luck as skill, cleanly remove its head from its body.
Panting, Rafael let the tip of the sword drop and he brought his other hand up to absently wipe blood from his eye with the back of his wrist. "Are you alright?" he asked, his attention going to Kyky. Her hand was freely bleeding and he remembered her hitting the wall when the vampire threw her, but much like himself, she was alive.
Kyky let out a huge sigh of relief when the vampire's - scalped - head finally fell free from its body. It was a disgusting scene; there was a body bleeding sluggishly between them, a severed head without eyes, and they were both covered in gore… but they were in the clear. She sank back from her knees onto her heels, and Kyky closed her eyes, and nodded. There was only a brief moment left of adrenaline where she could enjoy the victory, before the aches of injuries set in. It was an odd euphoria, but a totally authentic one, and she took the moment to look across at her equally blood-soaked partner and smile.
"I'm alive," Kyky answered, before even allowing herself to look at her injured hand or think about the impending pain from when the back of her head had slammed into the stone wall of the cave. As her breath slowed, she looked toward him as well. He had come within an inch of not just death, but being a creature afterward. "Are you alright, Leo?"
Rafael gave a breath of a laugh, the ebbing adrenaline bringing with it the pain from numerous aches, scrapes, and that nasty bump on the head. He was going to be feeling this tomorrow, that was for damn sure. It also brought on the sudden self-consciousness of standing there in front of her without a shirt, painfully aware of the scars marching down the center of his chest and stomach and disappearing into the waist of his pants, Rafael plucked up the shirt he'd discarded earlier. There was blood on it, though not as much as one would expect, considering, but still he pulled it over his head only to have it promptly stick to the abrasions on his back.
He went to the waterfall next, to rinse the blood from his hands in the icy water, then to his pack, where he pulled out the Eventyrian version of a first aid kit, a skin of water, and another of wine. "Let me look at your hand," he said gently, circling the fire and settling down beside her. They'd have to get rid of the body but they could take five minutes to patch her up, he decided. She had saved his life, after all.
Once she held her hand out to him it became quickly apparent that she'd need more than a bandage though. "This is going to hurt," he warned, popping the cork out of the water skin and pouring it over her hand. With the blood rinsed away, Rafael could clearly see that she'd need stitches and he took a second to hand her the wine skin before he began readying a clean needle and catgut. "And, uh," he glanced up, "it's Rafael. Not Leo."
Kyky noticed the immediate self-consciousness that he displayed, going for his shirt before his wounds even though his physique was more than pleasing. She averted her eyes out of respect, and quickly assumed that all the affection he had shown he was a result of the vampire. If his first instinct was to cover up, then the one to disrobe must have been part of the thrall. She was not as sure that her own had been…
She held her hand out when he requested it. It was tempting to push him away and say that she had a healing potion that would take care of it - but she knew that if she could be patched up, the recovery time would be half as much, even if it hurt on the front end. It was her dominant hand, and it had reddened and blackened burns as well as the gash through the middle. "It's okay," Kyky said, voice tight but resolved, and knew that he heard her true meaning: I am no stranger to pain. The stitches, she was ready for, but not the bit about his name.
"Oh," Kyky said, and tried not to sound disappointed that he'd lied. There had been zero reason to trust her, so why was she surprised? No reason. But all the same, she had kissed this guy she had just met, at least thinking she had known his name, when she hadn't. Maybe her feelings hadn't been as real as she thought. When she spoke again, she hoped that her voice sounded grateful, that he had decided to let her in at all.
"Rafael. Like the ninja turtle." Kyky smiled, tightly, knowing he would miss the reference but that she would never forget it. And, dumbly, she added a weak, "Nice to meet you."
Yeah, it was okay. Just as his own wounds were; he'd deal with them eventually. That second of understanding only lasted about that long though, before he was lifting his eyes at the note of disappointment in her voice. His lips parted and he blinked, wondering what he'd done wrong, and as she continued, it didn't become any clearer. What the hell was a ninja turtle, anyway? Either way, he hated the idea of Kyky being upset with him; they'd connected and he wasn't ready to let that go yet.
"I . . . that's, uh, that's the name I give when . . ." he trailed off, unsure of why he should feel bad for having given her his alias when, well, why wouldn't he? They were strangers to each other and he'd thought she was noble . . . was she noble? She had been trained to fight by Bertilak Weston and she was dressed quite well.
"I'm sorry," he sighed, dark eyes going back to her hand as he tied off another neat suture. "It's just . . . I don't always do this," he tipped his head toward the vampire's body, "but when I do, I tend to go by Leonardo Carreras. It keeps things . . . simple." He glanced up again. "Usually."
He swallowed and then found himself continuing, his eyes going back to his work, "Lord Rafael Gonzalo. Royal General Mathias is my father."
Understanding dawned across Kyky's face, and she nodded. She had been so interested when she had arrived to learn how Eventyr's government worked - she had actually put more work into learning their ways than she had into the coursework that her Political Science major asked of her. If she was remembering right, the Royal General sort of shared the role of vice-president with the Royal Scholar. It was one of the only ways to become royal without birth or marriage. It was a big deal. Name recognition was probably through the roof, and that must have made hunting anything tough.
"I bet anonymity is pretty important in this line of work," Kyky said, and winced when the needle pierced her skin again. The pain would be gone by the morning, she told herself, and she appreciated the care he was taking with his work. She remembered distinctly how irrationally angry she had felt, waking up from surgery to find staples on her wounds. Maybe it was some new technology, but it made her feel like someone's fucking homework. She put aside the thought and tried to look away from the wound to Rafael's face. She wondered if she ought to feel differently now, knowing that he was not just a lord but also the son of one of Eventyr's most important men. But she didn't, not really. "I'm nobody; you don't have to worry about me saying anything."
"Important enough," he answered. If everyone knew who he was, it would be impossible for him to move freely around Eventyr. Everyone would be offering to host him, in hopes of getting on his father's good side, or offering up their daughters for marriage . . .
Rafael tied off the last suture and then poured more water over the wound. It was a clean slice but the burns around it needed tending. "I doubt you're nobody," he said, rifling through the medical kit until he came up with a glass vial. Pulling the cork, he dipped his fingers into it and then smoothed the herbal cream over the burn as gently as he could. "You're dressed like a noble and you know Lord Weston," he added as he began wrapping her hand.
"But," he lifted his eyes to meet her gaze, "I trust that you won't say anything. About . . . any of this." He paused, swallowed, and hoped that what had happened tonight meant as much to her as it did to him. "You said the fairy circle brought you here to help me and . . . you did." Here, he looked away from her, suddenly self-conscious again, "And not just with the vampire."
Kyky felt a sardonic little smile pull at her lips at Rafael named literally the only two reasons that she wasn't a nobody in Eventyr, although that was banished by the the water on her wounded hand. It stung the cut and alternately soothed the burns, and Kyky found herself watching the gentle circles of Rafael's rough fingers on her palm. Her muscles and posture relaxed as much because of the relief of pain and the return of that comfortable connection.
"I'm glad. They say fairy circle are unreliable, but it came through after all," Kyky joked lightly, her voice warm and her smile small but genuine. When Rafael looked away, she figured that was normal so she moved a bit closer, enough that the length of her thigh pressed against his on the hard stone floor. It made her feel connected to him, even if eye contact got uncomfortable; she had read a ton about oxytocin and was a big believer in its power.
Rafael's eyes went to where her thigh pressed against his and mind drifted back to their earlier kiss and the groping hands that went along with it. It had been so easy to lose themselves in that moment, fueled as it was by the vampire's close proximity, but now the vampire was dead and he couldn't blame their connection on it. Which meant that they were connecting on their own and that was scary and awkward enough for Rafael to pull away.
He rose to his feet, eyes sweeping over what had been his comfortable den for the last week and was now a blood-soaked horror show. "That fairy circle should still have enough magic left to take you where you need to go," he said, carefully pushing away any hint of regret he felt at the decision. "I'll walk you there and then come back and clean this up." He paused, for a second unsure of what else to say, then decided on a simple, "Thank you for your help, Kyky."
Who: Rafael and Kyky
What should have been a victory party had instead essentially turned out to be a massive lay-off. Kyky, along with forty-nine other staffers, volunteers, and interns, were all suddenly out of work. It wasn't a surprise, exactly, but Kyky had prioritized this over her schoolwork and that seemed a massive mistake now.
It was eleven at night. As Kyky distractedly scrolled through social media, she was annoyed to find her candidate had made a concession post, congratulating her opponent…
Kyky felt her jaw tighten as she closed out the app. This wasn't just another race to her; it was a step toward common-sense gun laws, and pretending that was just another campaign issue hurt Kyky's soul.
Maybe that was why she noticed the fairy circle. On another night, maybe she would have walked right by and down into the subway tunnel. But, with a cursory glance over her shoulder, Kyky tucked her phone into her pocket, diverted her steps, and soon felt that familiar sensation of falling…
For the last week Rafael had been staking out the tiny eastern village but it wasn't until just last night that he'd managed to spot the vampire. There was only one of them, which explained why the scent had been so very faint, and tonight he'd learned that the female with fiery red hair had taken up residence in the largest of the small cluster of homes. The adults of the village - all five of them - had been taking turns feeding her, while the children had been keeping the small orchard up and running to avoid suspicion.
He'd go in the morning, after the sun had been up long enough for the children to be busy with their work and the humans to be asleep, and sneak into the home. His target was the vampire, but enthralled humans could be dangerous, as well. He'd do his best to keep them alive but not at the expense of his own life . . .
Rafael had just been about to call it a night, to melt back into the forest and retreat to the small den he'd been calling home, when just in front of him a girl appeared. Blonde and lovely, her pale hair and fine dress stood out like a beacon in the darkness and Rafael was moving before he'd even decided on a course of action, quickly and quietly closing the distance between them to come up behind her and clasp a gloved hand over her mouth and pull her into a crouch. "Shhh," he hissed into her ear. "We're not alone."
Kyky's eyes went wide. Before she could even get a sense of where in Eventyr she'd been dropped, she was being grabbed, and a scream of equal parts surprise and fear was muffled by the hand covering her mouth. She quieted quickly, though, hoping that her chances would be better if she didn't make her attacker angry…
Kyky sucked in a steadying breath through her nose, her hand reached up to tug at the arm holding her face, and she tried to turn her head to see who it was. The crouched position was awkward enough that Kyky had to lean against the form behind her to keep any type of balance. He wasn't hurting her - his grip was firm, but not painfully so. What was he talking about? They weren't alone?
Confused, afraid, but at least compliant, Kyky nodded. She made an effort to quiet her panicked breath, and gave the wrist near her jaw a squeeze, a silent promise that she would not scream if he let her go.
Slowly, Rafael's hand eased, as if he expected her to scream the second he let up. His other hand lifted and he pointed over her shoulder to the small cluster of buildings through the trees ahead of them, pale light shining from a few windows but mostly dark.
"Vampire," was all he said in explanation, the word barely more than a breath against the curve of her ear. He eased back just a bit, giving her room to move and pressing his finger against his lips to reiterate: Don't make a sound. He dug two small bits of cotton from a pouch at his waist and handed them to her, gesturing first to his own ears, where a bit of white fluff could just be seen, and then to her own.
Under normal circumstances it would have been both stupid and dangerous to deny oneself a perfectly functioning sense while in the forest in the middle of the night, but this close to a vampire's lair meant the rules were different. Denying his sense of hearing could be the only thing to save his life should the vampire happen to realize he was there.
Tipping his head, Rafael signaled for the girl to follow him, backing away slowly and quietly and keeping a weather eye for any sign of movement around them.
Vampire? Kyky pulled back enough to see the man's face, and her lips made an "O" of recognition. He wasn't a creeper, he was a hunter. That was why his attack hadn't felt aggressive. She accepted the cotton with a mouthed "thank you" as she pressed the fluff into her ears. She knew very well how enticing a vampire's voice was; too well, in fact. It actually took a measure of willpower to stuff her ears at all - god, a vampire's thrall was good.
Once she was free, Kyky followed the man deeper into the forest. It was disconcerting that she could not hear anything, and she stumbled more than she should have. This dress was excessive - Kyky tried to tuck some of the fabric up into her belt. Why hadn't Eventyrian ladies come around to pants yet?
Kyky stopped only briefly, when her eye caught the shape of a prime piece of wood on the ground. It wasn't straight, exactly, but it was as long as she was tall, and Kyky scooped it up, hefted it over a shoulder, and continued.
Rafael bit back a sigh as he led the way through the trees, glancing over his shoulder the third time the girl tripped over her dress. He had no idea who she was or where the fairy circle had spit her out from but it was obvious by that dress that she hadn't exactly planned on trekking through the forests here at the edge of the Borderlands and the Near-Woods. This also meant that he felt a certain amount of responsibility for her safety - and also if he had her, then it meant the vampire wouldn't grab her and add yet another innocent human to his potential list of kills.
Once they were far enough from the village, Rafael pulled the cotton from his ears and gestured for her to do the same, letting in the faint rush of a waterfall. It was closer than it sounded due to the press of trees around them, and was growing louder with every step they took.
Within minutes, they came upon the river then and, to the right, a waterfall about twelve feet high. Rafael walked toward it, picking his way along the bank with sure steps before disappearing behind the curtain of water.
Behind was a small cave, plenty big enough for one but a bit cramped for two. His things were off to the side - weapons and a pack and a bedroll spread out on the ground - and there was the remnants of a small campfire, the ashes cold but kindling and firewood stacked at the back of the cave.
"It's not safe for you here alone," he said, unbuckling his sword from his waist and setting it aside with the other weapons. "Not with that thing in the area."
Kyky followed along closely, plucking the cotton from her ears when he signaled. This was the East, she guessed first because of the forest, but maybe more like the North-East, given the rocky waterfall. She had never been in this area before, so Kyky wondered: why had the fairy circle brought her here?
Her jacket had transformed into a fur shawl, and Kyky pulled it up over her hair to protect it from the water splashing off the rocks as she followed her companion into the small cave. It was a smart spot - he was a professional.
"Yeah, seriously, thanks," Kyky said with a nod and a childish puff of a sigh. When he removed his sword, Kyky held out a hand and asked, "May I? If I have to run from a vampire, I'm not going to make it in this skirt." She knelt down to make the rough alteration, slicing through the fine fabric to take off six inches or so, just enough to free up her feet. "Does it have a captive, or is it hunting?"
Rafael handed over his sword, not worried about her turning it on him; she'd shown trust by even following him and the least he could do is return that kindness. While she worked to make her dress a bit more wilderness friendly, he grabbed a handful of kindling and began getting a fire going and then raised an impressed eyebrow at her question.
Vampires were hardly unknown across the realm but the average citizen rarely knew more than the basics. Either she'd read some books - possibly even his father's - or she had experience and he wasn't sure which he preferred.
"Five of them," he answered, blowing gently on the spark until the kindling caught. "Every adult who was working the orchard." He placed a log on the fire, then sat down and pulled his bag closer. Just inside was his pelt, folded neatly, and he dug down next to it to find the wrapped loaf of bread and cheese. "How much do you know about vampires?" he asked curiously, using a dagger to carve off a chunk of cheese and then held it out in silent offer.
"More than I should," Kyky answered, as she set the sword neatly with the other weapons and settled down on the other side of the fire. She tipped her chin up and brushed her fingers over the scars on her throat, one side and then the other. She was lucky they weren't worse - Bert had guessed that the vampire who'd held her had been one for at least a decade - because so many people were paranoid about creatures that sometimes just being touched by one was enough to get you ostracized. "Enough to know that five captives means bad news. They're going to fight, and at least four of them will be awake during the day..."
The fire slowly coming to life allowed Kyky to finally get a good look at her companion. He was a little older than she was, strong, handsome, well-prepared. She hadn't ever met someone hunting creatures on their own - it was such a dangerous job that everyone she knew worked in groups. Maybe that's why the fairy circle dropped her here; maybe he needed help. Kyky leaned forward to accept the cheese with a grateful smile. "I'm Kyky."
Rafael's expression didn't change as she pointed out the scars on her throat, easily missed in the dark and with pale locks framing them, but it did leave him with a wary sort of feeling in his gut. Not that he'd hold it against her, having been fed on by a vampire - it wasn't something most people chose, after all - but it did make him wonder if she was enough of a liability that he should be seeking out the nearest fairy circle to send her through rather than hosting her for the night.
"Leonardo," he answered, giving her the alias he'd adopted for the sake of hunting. With the way she was dressed, he wouldn't be surprised if she was a noble of some sort and he didn't want to risk her recognizing his name.
He tore off a chunk of bread and then set the loaf close enough that she could help herself if she wished. "Thank you for the advice, Kyky," he said, amused that she seemed to be just as worried about him as he was about her. "But, I'll be fine."
His head tipped slightly as he regarded her, absently scuffing a foot over the dirt floor of the cave to erase an errant paw print. "So why would a fairy circle bring you this close to a vampire?" he asked, directly.
"No idea!" Kyky declared, with a wide, cheerful smile that befitted a child at a birthday party more than someone facing the possibility of a deadly creature. There was something very empowering about being in Eventyr - perhaps it was the fresh new body, or the smaller population: here, you could feel like what you did mattered. At home, a new gun law may or may not save a handful of kids Kyky would never know. Here, she could see these give farmers' faces. "Maaaaybe because I have an axe to grind with vampires." That was an appropriate turn of phrase, she thought, and was proud of herself.
"I did not set an intention for my travel," Kyky said, using a term she heard from yoga all the time because she didn't hear people discussing fairy circles very much. But it was the same sort of thing, she supposed. You went where you wanted to go. "But -- I usually turn up where someone needs help." She took a bite of the cheese and took a portion of bread as well. She watched her new friend, and detected a bit of… skepticism? Dismissiveness? Which was fair, to be sure, but she tilted her head.
At her words, Rafael's brow did, indeed, furrow with skepticism. Who just hopped into a fairy circle without a destination in mind? It seemed stupid and reckless and more than a little dangerous, especially considering she came without any sort of supplies. What if she'd been dropped into the middle of a sandstorm in the South? Or the tundra in the North? Or in the middle of a battle? A warlord's camp? As it was, she'd been dropped on a vampire's doorstep.
"You take me for a damsel, Leo, don't'cha?" Kyky assessed, with a shake of her head, and going ahead to assume enough familiarity to shorten up the name he'd given her. Only hoity-toity nobles cared about those long names, didn't they? And certainly none of them mutilated their fine dresses, so she was glad to embrace the tossing away of that norm. "I'm not. And I suspect that if you were actually 'going to be fine'.... the fairy circle wouldn't've dropped me here."
"Not a damsel," he answered with a shake of his head. But profoundly stupid, maybe. "But I'm hardly the person here who needs help." She was lucky she'd run into him, otherwise she'd likely have a set of fangs in her neck right this moment. And he still wasn't completely convinced that hadn't been her intention, even subconsciously.
Slicing free another chunk of hard cheese, Rafael popped it into his mouth and then set the wedge aside with the bread. "I mean no offense, Kyky, but you'll be on your way come sunrise." He reached for his sword, intending to sharpen it, but as he did, he felt his sleeve catch on a scab, pulling it free from the underside of his wrist. Fuck. He changed course, instead grabbing his bag and digging a clean cloth out and, as he did, he used his teeth to pull his leather glove off.
"I work better alone," he added, a touch of annoyance in his voice as he stuffed the cloth up his sleeve to soak up the blood.
Kyky wasn't stupid - well, maybe that was up for debate, as many a friend might have called her a ditz - but it wasn't hard to follow the line of his skepticism. He must have assumed she was one of those vampire devotees; Kyky had heard they were popping up now all over the West. And the truth was that she totally understood them; it was like drugs, but for people who believed an overdose was just going to give them eternal life and super strength, which was not exactly a hard sell. Kyky didn't see it that way. She had felt such deep love for a man she had never actually knew, to a man who saw her as nothing more than food, so she knew it was all fake and she had no desire to go back there. Or let anyone else.
Kyky hardly missed a beat, chipper as ever. "Well then, maybe I came to help those five enthralled humans." She clearly hadn't taken offense, but hadn't conceded that she would leave in the morning, either. "Someone rescued me, after all. He's a Sheriff now, in the West..." She trailed off and tilted her head a bit as she caught the sight of blood in the dim light and her face crinkled in concern. "Oh no - did it get you?" Vampires usually went for necks - for blood flow and intimacy - but they would take a wrist in a pinch...
Rafael lifted his eyes, focusing on the woman sitting across the fire from him. There was a lot of information there in her words, so casually thrown out, and while he silently admitted that maybe she had a point about helping the vampire's thralls, he was also curious about this Sheriff from the West who'd saved her. Was it someone he knew?
Either way, her positivity was both annoying and refreshing and Rafael found himself wondering if maybe she could be some sort of help. Bait, maybe? The thought had a breath of amusement sneaking out, even though he'd never actually do that.
"No," he answered, turning his attention back to the wound on his wrist. It was from his own tooth, sharp and canine, and inflicted just this morning when he'd shed his pelt. He'd gotten quite good at locating the seams amongst his fur, but catching those first few threads was challenging and the first couple of days afterwards were always a mess of torn scabs and itchy, healing, wounds.
"If I'd tangled with the vampire, it would be dead and I'd already be on my way." He pushed his sleeve up just enough to wrap the bandage around his wrist and begin clumsily tying it in place one-handed. "Can you even fight?" he asked without looking up.
"Technically, it's already dead, so," Kyky said, and pursed her lips together in an obvious attempt not to laugh at her own joke as she watched to see if a little creature-humor could break through her companion's stony exterior. He looked like he needed a laugh.
Rafael's glance was accompanied by a twist of lips and a hint of mirth in his dark eyes as he rolled them. She wasn't wrong but the joke wasn't that funny either - not enough to warrant that pleased-with-herself expression on her face anyway . . .
"Here, let me help," Kyky said, scooting carefully around the fire and extending her hands in offer. When he seemed reluctant, she gave him the same face a mother might give an obstinate child as she added the most logical argument she could. "Shoddy bandaging means more blood. Blood makes us a beacon for the vampire. Let me help." First aid, Kyky was great at, and it showed in the way she first applied pressure to the wound with both thumbs. It always uncomfortably reminded her of the way her friend had leaned both palms on her gunshot wounds, putting all her weight into it, and how Kyky had tried not to scream at the pain, knowing the shooter could come back any moment... But afterward, she had taken First Aid/CPR classes - it was a way of taking back some control.
"Yes, my sheriff friend taught me," Kyky said, and readily supplied his name. She wondered if he was famous yet. "Bertie… Bertie…. Bertilak." Tying the bandage carefully, she searched for his last name. "Bertilak Weston. You know, I love that about Eventyr. Everything seems to be called what it is. Lake City, it's a city on a lake. The city where the King lives, King's City. He's from the West, he's Weston…" Kyky shrugged and laughed, and realized she'd gotten off topic, and circled back to answer the question. "I can fight. I don't kill, but I'll have your back while you do." There was a certain hopeful expectation in her words, an unasked question, if he would have her…
Rafael watched her with a wary eye as she took over bandaging the wound on his wrist. It wasn't bad, not really, maybe an inch long and two or so inches from the heel of his hand and it could have come from any sort of accident, but it was the possibility of her spotting the other scars that had his heart beating just a hint faster. If she noticed them though, she didn't say a word.
Bertilak Weston? Rafael knew the name and the family, though if he remembered correctly, Bertilak was a bit older than he was, closer to Miguel and Mariana's age, and he'd been a bit . . . awkward the few times the families had interacted - not that Rafael was one to talk now. Still, he'd heard enough about the Sheriff and his combat prowess to be somewhat impressed that Kyky had learned from him and as she prattled on about this and that, he found himself wondering if he'd underestimated her. Maybe there was more to her than pretty blue eyes and cornsilk hair. Maybe she'd even be--
"Don't kill?" he repeated, giving her a dubious look as he took his hand back and pulled his glove on. He knew exactly where this was going. "If you're not willing to kill than you're definitely no use to me," he added, not missing the implication of her words. "Though I appreciate your . . . zeal."
"Oh yeah?" Kyky said, twisting her long hair it into a loose ponytail over her shoulder as she joked in a mocking, almost cartoonish voice, "Nevermind, then! I'm Jane McMurderPants…"
There was a subtle shift in her body language - a slight turn of her torso back toward the fire, the way she drew her knees up closer to her chest, a glance toward the door. It might have been nothing but getting a little more comfortable on the cold floor, but it accompanied discomfort with the idea. She had gone through so much anger, at her shooter who had wounded her and killed her classmates and then gone to Walmart and bought a soda. At fucking Laura Ingraham, at the Florida legislature that voted down a gun safety bill while she and her traumatized senior class waited in the wings…. Kyky had wanted to kill. In the end, she'd understood her shooter's anger better than she expected she would.
"I don't think we need a vampire or a zombie bite to make us monsters," Kyky said, some of the cheer gone from her voice, replaced instead with a sort of practical resignation. "Humans can be just as bad or worse on their own. Everyone's got to find their own paths, and that one is just not one I'm willing to walk."
Even if her words were nonsense to his ears, Rafael understood the sarcasm just fine and his own snarky retort was all ready to be fired back at her, but he hesitated. There was something in her body language that struck a familiar chord within him but it was her words that had understanding dawn.
She'd been victimized and not just by the vampire who'd enthralled her; someone human had hurt her. Immediately, his brain led to the assumption that her trauma was akin to his, though he hadn't even the slightest bit of proof that could be the case. This silent revelation left him conflicted, partly wanting to tell her that he understood while simultaneously wanting to preserve the walls he'd constructed.
I wish I had another patient like you, Rafael, Scholar Abraham had told him. Because I think connecting with someone who had been through something similar would be good for you.
"Creatures are dangerous because it's in their nature," Rafael said, eyes going to the fire to watch the flames dance into the air because it was easier than looking at her. "They don't know any better and they can't control it." He swallowed, "Humans choose to be cruel. They choose to be monsters." But killing to survive didn't make someone a monster any more than hunting to eat did. Sometimes it was necessary. Still, he could understand and respect not wanting to become the thing that had hurt you.
Kyky nodded, her gaze also settling comfortably on the fire. She noticed the softening of his tone, the way his words seemed to meet hers on the same level. He had been keeping her at arm's length until now, and it made conversation easier.
"And it's not fair because they're, like, more effective. Pain, and hatred, and fear spread faster and last longer than a zombie plague. Even if we tried, we couldn't spread joy or love that fast, and even if we could, it would be gone as soon as another threat showed up…" Which was why Kyky preferred to spend her days fighting against suffering instead of for happiness, to make the world a better place. She could have tried to be a musician or comedian or healer, but there was more value, she thought, in preventing or at least mitigating the pain in the first place.
"My therapist calls it negativity bias," Kyky said, complete with air quotes, before she realized that she didn't think therapists were a thing in Eventyr. But she tended to find that Eventyrians ignored references they didn't understand. Just a moment ago, Leonardo had skipped over her McMurderPants joke. So, she just went on, explaining, "It's impossible to feel happy until you feel safe. Which is good to know, and all," therapists could be overeducated sometimes, she thought with a ghost of a smirk, "but isn't exactly all that useful."
For a moment, silence settled between them as Rafael digested her words and realized that they made sense. He hadn't truly felt happiness until he'd stitched the wolf pelt to his human skin and part of that was because of how very safe it made him feel. When he was on four legs, armed with teeth and claws and superior senses, he felt like nothing could - or would dare to - touch him. And he was happy . . .
"I think that's true," he admitted, finally pulling his eyes from the fire to look at her instead. "What your . . . therapist? says, I mean." He paused, as if trying to decide whether or not to continue, then the words were coming anyway. "Someone told me once that not all wounds were to the body, that some affected who you were on the inside and changed the person you were. He told me that healing those inside wounds came from facing what hurt you in the first place. That you had to acknowledge it, otherwise it would just continued to injure you, over and over again." But it was hard to acknowledge something that caused so much pain to begin with and sometimes it was easier to just keep stitching it back up inside you.
Kyky shrugged and nodded, looking at her hands as if in illustration. "You get a splinter in your finger, you can pull it out, wash it, move on. But, you get an arrow, you can't just pull it out and move on. Someone put it there, and that's a thousand percent worse…"
Kyky laughed, a sound that was cathartic more than humorous. "You have a therapist too, huh?" Just friends or family did not give such thoughtful, constructive advice. "Your brain wants to do literally anything else…" Like escape away to another world? Maybe it wasn't exactly another world, though, Kyky thought, raising her eyes up toward her companion. "But even if you face it, then what? And you see clear as day, that you're powerless against cruelty far and beyond what you ever dreamed. And you're not sure how much your life mattered in the long run…" Seventeen kids had died, and she could have been number eighteen, and what difference would that have made?
"I don't know, I think it's always going to hurt you. Maybe less, over time, but... " Kyky said, and for the first time, really let herself wonder what Leo here had gone through. It must have been something like herself, because he didn't sound like the type to try to comfort a random girl, spouting vague nonsense. His thoughts met her own, step by step. She understood every word and every tone, and she wished she had something more hopeful to offer in return, but she wasn't a therapist. She was one of thousands of gutshot victims, actively avoiding the world that had hurt her and then continued to fail her in the most extreme way possible. "So, I figure, we've just gotta figure out how to heal ourselves. Inside out. Over and over. Forever, probably."
Is that what he was doing? Healing himself over and over again by injuring his body? Absently, Rafael's hand went to his chest, where under the layers of fabric and leather lay the physical manifestation of his hurt, even more so than the scars left from his actual assailants. Every stitch brought with it a tiny release, pleasurable in a way that was different, but no less addictive, than sex. But maybe it didn't matter. That was certainly the takeaway he got from Kyky's words, anyway. Do what worked; whatever helped you get through each day.
Chewing his lip in thought, Rafael poked at the fire with the toe of his boot, pushing the unburnt end of a log into the glowing coals, then he asked something that he probably shouldn't have: "What do you do to heal yourself?"
It was a question that he wasn't even sure why he asked. In fact, had it been turned on him, he'd likely have hit the roof, but he'd never met anyone who was so willing to speak candidly about this sort of thing and maybe it was an opportunity that he simply couldn't pass up. And it was this thought that kept him from apologizing, from absolving her of any need to answer before she even decided whether she wanted to or not . . .
Kyky paused before answering. She had tried so many things. Therapy hadn't helped enough, nor medication. A vampire's fangs hadn't helped, either. Pot was nice, but hardly a solution.
"I wish I knew," Kyky said, honestly. A few minutes ago, she had felt like she was holding her ground, selling herself as a competent sidekick. But she did not really have an answer… nor any desire to lie. "All I know is that I want to make the world a little better, every day. It seems that's different, each time...?" Giving a sandwich to a homeless man certainly didn't have the payoff as saving five enthralled humans from becoming vampires. Some days were more satisfying than others.
Kyky laughed, again humorlessly, and shrugged. Her hand ran through her hair, fingernails against her scalp. "Mostly, I wander through fairy circles and hope for the best. I find good people, and I support them. I fight, but I don't kill. I don't know, for sure, what I'm looking for - but I know I'm looking for something." A sad smile tugged at her lips. "I hope I'll know it when I find it."
Rafael stayed quiet as she talked, listening and absorbing, reading between the spoken lines and finding that he related to a lot of what she said. Didn't he spend the majority of his time wandering from place to place, staying just long enough to shift to his fae hound form, find a target and dispatch them? He wasn't sure what - if anything - he was searching for either and, probably, he didn't stay in one place long enough to find it. The good people he met were avoided before any meaningful connections could be made and the bad . . . well, that just depended on the situation.
"You do this," he said, gesturing around the small cave as the dots connected inside his head. "You go through a fairy circle, without any destination in mind, without any thought of what could be waiting for you." His voice grew just a touch louder, something that could almost be described as passion creeping into his tone; they were the same. "That's dangerous but you still do it anyway. Whatever you find brings temporary peace." This was just Kyky's version of stitching a wolf hide to her skin. She got it, even if she didn't realize it.
Biting his lip, it took Rafael approximately four seconds to make what was potentially a stupid decision. He turned to face her and began unlacing the leather bracer from his wrist, pulling it off and pushing his sleeve up to bear the entire underside of his forearm and the scars traveling up the center. Some, like the one she'd bandaged earlier, were raw and fresh but others healed long enough to be white against the copper gold of his skin. And others, still, somewhere in between. "This is how I do it." Then he reached up and pulled the knotted collar away from his throat, "See?" He touched fingertips to the scars that started just below the hollow of his throat, continuing down a few more inches to disappear into his shirt.
With: Kira, Bridgette, Open
Where: Artisan's Quarter, King's City
When: Sunset, Tuesday, March 11th, 872 RoK
"Jaya? Are... you okay?" Though she already figured that it was a reasonably worthless question.
How something could simultaneously feel so natural, so right, and so soul-wrenchingly wrong at the same time, Jaya didn't know. She didn't know--or really care--why a nasty brawl was starting to break out between several others who'd been eating the same meat pies as her. She didn't really care that there was something of a chorus of screams starting to pick up somewhere in a distance--far enough away that the sound wasn't exactly clear but still odd and piercing on a day that should have been celebratory.
Kira was her roommate. Kira was a living, breathing human being.
Kira was food.
She took another lurching step forward and reached out for Kira, but then suddenly pulled her arms in tight around herself, in horror of what she was thinking. But why would it be horrible? Eating was natural. A part of life. And wasn't someone as absolutely lovely as Kira worthy of becoming food?
Jaya's gut churned at the thoughts that were running through her, or it churned because of the tainted meat pie she'd jus eaten, or some miix of the two.
"I... really, really want to eat you right now," Jaya said, very literally between clenched teeth. She wasn't sure what would happen if she let her jaw unclench, or if she stopped holding onto herself. With all the skills she'd gained over these last years in Eventyr, she doubted that Kira or anyone else could stop her. "I... think you need to run. Now."
Kyky lost the vampire flying overhead at the mouth of a narrow alley. She just couldn't justify venturing forward, when it would be so easy to get cornered. Instead, the young adventurer turned back, and found herself faced with three zombies immediately behind her. Their fragile skulls smashed easily under the powerful and practiced swings of her staff, but she knew she was up a creek without a paddle on her own. So, carefully as she could, Kyky began running…
Quickly, she deduced that - given that most prey was moving either toward the docks or the bank - the path of least resistance was actually the other way, toward the wagon where the first zombies had emerged. There were plenty of felled bodies being torn apart that Kyky, who put up a fight when she was noticed, was not the zombies' greatest interest. They seemed happier to gorge on already-downed victims.
After slamming down a particularly ripe zombie, Kyky spat and gagged when the spray of blood slapped her across her face. The rancid smell turned her stomach, the grotesque splay of the dead body… Sucking in a breath, Kyky's eyes turned toward the familiar ziiip! of an arrow. The noise broke through the barriers of her own experience because it instantly triggered a fear response - it was the Eventyr equivalent of the pop! of an AR-15.
But even though it was a panicked gaze that fell on Rafael, Kyky's demeanor quickly changed when she saw a familiar face. Determination etched there instead, and she stepped forward to intercept a pair of zombies who approached Rafael from behind. One end of her staff broke one skull, and the other just disoriented the second, but once it was on the ground, Kyky shoved the blunt end through its eye…
"Hello again," Kyky said, with a tired sort of smile, her voice hoarse and rushed, and quickened breaths that betrayed her fatigue. But she was glad to have found a partner - against zombies especially, you needed someone to watch your back. "Rafael, right?"