The Green Duke listened as the Duchess of the North rally their troops, his Eastern soldiers just as enthralled by her spirit as they were in fear of his. She knew how to keep their attention whether making sure their bellies were full, or their simple heads with thoughts of revenge and justice. She was quite the... actress, he almost believed she felt remorse for the spies that had not returned.
"The times have found us," Malia began. The words weighed heavy a moment, then she went on. "Eventyr hovers on the edge of chaos. Fear, uncertainty, and death have knocked on the door of every household in our Kingdom… but it is still our kingdom. It belongs to us - the people - not to pretender queens or to the creatures. Today, we will stand against that chaos; and we stand together. With our countrymen, and our allies."
She took his hand, and James easily lifted with hers as if they were already the victorious champions of the battle.
"Blasting powder in the hands of our enemies - not unlike creatures on the loose - presents an existential threat," Malia went on, more somberly. "Entire castles," built as fortresses, "can be brought down…"
"Let's find these motherfuckers," Malia said to James, while most of her words were drowned out by cheering, and she smirked, "And eat them alive."
Where: The North, Military camp
When: March 28th, 872 RoK
Malia's soldiers were tired, at best.
At worst, the red rim around the eyes of even the biggest men, the fiercest fighters toughened by the harshness of the North, was the result of grief. Those who knew the fate of their friends and relatives in the massacre at King's City, ironically, had the advantage because at least they knew enough to mourn, to channel their pain constructively toward Marcus the Vile, whose associate had been held responsible for the King's death and thus the instability in the land…
But those who had yet no word were torn up, compelled to fight for their Duchess when what they wanted was to either be home to greet their loved ones upon their return or travel to find them.
At least they had food, for now. Malia had made certain to read every book on every famine on Earth and in Eventyr, years ago, now, to best prepare for the worst. The fare was boring, but it kept bellies full and men on their feet.
That wouldn't be enough, though, for the fight that laid ahead, and so the Duchess made her way, on horseback, toward her commanders as the men mobilized, with the Green Duke at her side. After a brief update, including the somber news that their spies had not returned on schedule, Malia nodded, casting her eyes down in a brief moment of mourning respect, and then looked to James for support before she rode forward to address her people.
As the hush fell over the crowd and all eyes turned toward her, Malia searched for words. It was philosopher Thomas Paine who arose first.
"The times have found us," Malia began. The words weighed heavy a moment, then she went on. "Eventyr hovers on the edge of chaos. Fear, uncertainty, and death have knocked on the door of every household in our Kingdom… but it is still our kingdom. It belongs to us - the people - not to pretender queens or to the creatures. Today, we will stand against that chaos; and we stand together. With our countrymen, and our allies."
Casting a smile toward James, Malia reached for his hand and lifted both over their heads between them, to much applause.
"Blasting powder in the hands of our enemies - not unlike creatures on the loose - presents an existential threat," Malia went on, more somberly. "Entire castles," built as fortresses, "can be brought down…"
With a deep breath, Malia continued. "Today, we reclaim power. For the people, and for the nobles who represent them. Any less will allow Eventyr's descent into chaos."
The applause erupted, and Malia basked in it, drawing James forward to share in it, for a long, long moment, before they needed more practical planning.
"Let's find these motherfuckers," Malia said to James, while most of her words were drowned out by cheering, and she smirked, "And eat them alive."
Who: Oseanie With: Zaire, Siren's Song Crew Where: The Eastern Forest, rivers When: March 28th, 872 RoK
The new information, sensory and intellectual, interested the young pirate as much as it overwhelmed her. A crewmate had pulled her back from peering too keenly over the ship's edge just that morning. And while she finally had something to say in the mess hall - "did you see the tall goat, this morning, off the starboard side?" - few had responded, most still celebrating.
They had cause to celebrate, though. The Captain had ordered the raid on an Eastern ship not two days ago, and the prize had proven valuable - a dozen casks of cider, along with a chest of gold that had been used to purchase the other dozen earlier along their route. Nothing made pirates happier than both gold and drink in one fell swoop.
And then they had - despite the Quartermaster's misgivings - still been in good enough shape to collect the package Queen Francesca had paid them to transport. The cloaked figure had seemed rather mysterious and dangerous, flanked as it was by the winged vampires who flew overhead to guard them, but since the evening whoever it was had kept to themselves. The dawn came and, with the vampires now safely in the hull, it seemed a normal, cheerful morning.
With: Sarnai, Killick, Marcus (Note -- If you want to start a separate thread within the Marauders camp, feel free! We will also be mixing up with Malia and James once the fighting breaks out)
Where: Marauders Camp, Northern Duchy
When: March 28th, 872 RoK -- Morning
Tonight was the full moon. That would be the turning point for the Marauders in the fight to come--as long as the attack came late enough. As long as the fight lasted that long. It would be Liam's first full moon with the Marauders. His first full moon when he didn't use a shrinking potion to contain himself in a mouse cage.
Potentially the first full moon when he killed.
He was trying not to think too much about this as he ate a hasty breakfast near a now-smothered cooking fire and stared over the schematics he'd been working on since joining the Marauders. Smaller, more mobile cannons. Handheld weapons that would utilize the blasting powder to propel small projectiles that would puncture as deeply as arrows and be harder to fish out. He was only at the very start of his research--and thinking about his research kept him away from thinking too hard about teeth and claws and the taste of blood.
He glanced up and around himself to see if Killick or Sarnai were around, or Marcus perhaps. Surely the leader of the Marauders would be busy with the news that the scouts had brought--soldiers incoming, searching for their camp, soon to attack. But Marcus had shown interest in Liam's research.
When he finished eating, then he'd close his books and get started helping ready the camp for the attack. He had an axe at his feet, and his satchel of research books near him, as well. Whether they planned to stand and fight or scatter into the rocks and trees and harry the soldiers, he'd be ready to follow Marcus.
Where: The Eastern Forest
When: March 28th, 872 RoK
From the second that Theo stepped through back to Eventyr, he could hear the voice in his head again. Her voice. The voice that referred to herself as Minnie. The strangest thing to happen to him since discovering that there was liTerally another magic world on the other side of pretty much any circle of flowers. While he trusted Tristan's skill as a warrior, he'd come to learn that Tristan didn't have much more actual Eventyr-centric experience than him. So he returned with one person distinctly in mind: The Red Spirit, the first person he'd met in all of Eventyr.
If anyone knew about magical diamonds that sunk into your skin and left you with voices in your head, it had to be the a hermit-witch in a forest, right?
He took a shallow breath when he stepped through, testing the air for any signs of carniflower pollen before he chose a direction and started walking.
"Red!" he called out, hoping he'd luck out. The fairy circles could be spotty, but in his experience, they brought you close to people as well as places when you focused just right. "It's Theo."
*Who's Red?* asked the voice in his head.
"A friend," he said aloud, without meaning to. Part of him thought the best tactic to deal with the unknown voice in his head was to ignore it entirely. "I think she might be able to help me understand... you."
*If you would talk to me, I could explain myself to you,* she replied, annoyance in her town. *How long did you stay in New York?*
"It was Christmas," Theo murmured softly, as if that explained it well enough. It was an excuse. He could have popped back over--would have, under normal circumstances. Under I-have-a-mystery-voice-in-my-head circumstances, though? He needed that break. He brushed through some low branches and peered carefully through the forest. "Red, are you here?"
With: Brandy, Tristan
Where: The Western Plains, approaching Lord Oskar's Manor
When: March 28th, 872 RoK
If warlords threatened the local populace, there was one assassin they could call upon to face the threat--for the right price: The Ghost Blade. This was the persona that Jaya had developed over her years of time in Eventyr. This was an identity she'd enjoyed building up. The ways that she cleverly infiltrated warlords' camps and worked to thwart them, the satisfaction of knowing that she'd done right by the common folk and repaid a debt to them, the stories that followed her, the way that she swore her cloak billowed with more and more ominous power over the years.
After everything else that had gone down lately, it was satisfying to have the jingle of commoners' coins in her pocke again and the assurance that she was about to face off with a true monster. And two friends at her side--both well and unexpectedly met at a nearby tavern. Brandy, as it turned out, had just been in the area doing her roaming bartender thing. (Jaya tried not to be too mad at her for renting out her room in King's City--again.) Tristan had been looking for some heroic things to do. And Jaya didn't mind splitting the coin for this job.
"Since they're vampires, we should be able to approach their home by daylight and take them both by surprise," Jaya said. Her shadowy cloak rippled around her while she walked, but she had the hood down since it was just her and two generally trustworthy companions. "They're weaker by daylight--some of them are so weak they just sleep all day. Somehow, I don't think we'll get quite that lucky. They'll have tricks up their sleeves, considering their status. But the humans of the manor are our allies in this. They're afraid. They'll help us--or at least they won't get in our way."
She hoped, at least. Fear could do strange things to people, and vampires could do still stranger things, after all.
With: Raphael -- Kyky, Manny
Where: The grasslands between the Western Plains and the Southern Desert
When: March 28th, 872 RoK
These were the lands of Sarnai's people. Sanya knew this, and in some corner of her mind, as she surveyed the wide wild plains, she knew Sarnai's family deserved to know what was happening to her. But she could not give them what they deserved. Unless or until Killick returned to the King's City or sent a message, it was best if no one knew where Sarnai was. And that wasn't Sanya's purpose for being here in the Southwest.
She'd come with Raphael to intercept her grandmother and thwart an alliance between the Dune Witch and the self-declared Queen of the West.
"The Witch can sniff out hypocrisy, insolence, crassness," Sanya said softly to Raph as they rode through the grass, following a horse trail. Two travelers on horseback, in modest clothes, no one important. This wasn't a meant to be a visible mission, even if it needed to be successful. "When she curses someone, they deserve it--but she is old and perceptive. She can find a deserving reason to curse anyone, no matter how slight their offense. If you bow with respect you do not feel, she could curse you to crawl on your belly as a snake until you feel the humility and respect you ought to feel in her presence. If you refuse to bow, she could curse you to be an unbowing, unyielding tree until you take a thousand lightning strikes. Every curse she utters, she uses to her advantage. But if you can somehow avoid slighting her, if you can be honest enough before her, she can't touch you with her magic."
She'd been avoiding talking too much about her family because it started her worrying unproductively. She couldn't waste time and energy wondering how her grandmother had gotten free or what the woman had done to her parents. She just had to shoulder ahead.
When: (Malia’s wedding) 866 ROK
Where: Duke Friedrich’s Castle, Northern Mountains
James Castile wasn’t at all surprised that the Duke of the North was going to marry so quickly after his wife’s untimely death. He had a daughter to raise and he wasn’t exactly a young man. And the future Duchess was a divine creature, surely attracted by Friedrich’s title. Although the Duke of the East had to admit the man’s betrothed interested him past mere want of power…..
She was an exotic beauty with skin that said she might be from the Southern desserts, or possibly the Western ocean islands. But he was told she was from the far North, even beyond the great mountain. She intrigued him…. There was a duality there, something like himself and yet different.
But there were other faces he was looking for before the bride to be made her appearance. His brother manage to avoid rearing his royal head until the last minute. The queen and his two children in tow, they were better at showing their enthusiasm for the event at least than Philip.
The Southern contingency, who were probably complaining about the cold from the expressions they wore. Still they were not the face he was looking for… He could feel the rabbit searching for her, and it made him want to see her too. His love fueled the creature’s desire to have her again…
Do better. It probably meant letting the rabbit have his freedom, but the wolf was the one that wanted Francesca Rossi… Using the rabbit was beneath him.
The Duchess was late - an undiplomatic move if ever there were one. As the final preparations for the ceremony were being made, the already overworked servants had to divide their attention to welcome the Duchess of the West.
The servants of the North knew that their duchess-to-be could be touchy about giving other high-ranking women too much attention, and Francesca's arrival had many of them hesitant and whispering worriedly. But the authority with which she held herself left little room to question.
Winter was as yet another month away, but in the North, that meant that the cold had long-since been unbearable. While in the region, furs were common, Francesca instead opted to warm her shoulders with thick scales -- the appearance implied dragon, but might have been just mermaid, although unfamiliar eyes would be unlikely to distinguish them. The effect echoed through the shine of the fabric of her dress, a deep color that echoed the ocean so much that it might well have been as green as it was blue.
The duchess made her way to her seat for the ceremony smoothly, drawing attention from plenty of onlookers with every step. As usual, the East and West were seated together, and this convention annoyed her as she sat, and her handmaid gently adjusted the train of her gown to tuck comfortably beneath her.
Francesca drew her gently-braided blonde locks over her shoulder, and gave her aisle-mate an annoyed look. He did not, now, look as offensive as her dreams convinced her. "Waiting until dinner to sicken me, are you?"
Castile’s eyes flick downward before he looked over at the Duchess of the West. “My indiscretion at our last meeting, was a childish transgression and poor judgement. My sincerest apologies, Duchess Rossi” he said bowing his head to her politely.
“I was angry, and had no right to be…” James frowned slightly because he wasn’t sure if two beings in one skin could coexist equally. His emotions bled into the creature that shared his body, and it was incapable of dealing with them on its own. He did not want to willingly share himself with anyone other than his Francesca…. But she was no longer his, and he didn’t want to die either.
Her words had hurt him so much, and the beast reflected it back in vindictive discourse. If anything Francesca had taught him he must take responsibility for this thing, he couldn’t just hide in the shadows and let it do as it pleased. “...You were right, to let me go. I ask forgiveness for not being equally strong to have done the same”.
Francesca sent the Duke an annoyed glance, fully expecting to see sarcasm on his face to accompany the apologies, and when she didn't find it, the narrow squint in her eyes was replaced by a lifting in her brows. At first, hope lit up in her heart - maybe Jamie had returned? Defeated the changeling? No - if that were the case, he would have told her explicitly, for it would have been a triumph like battling a werewolf.
Confusion and curiosity colored her voice, even though she bit back with the same traditional nastiness he had received in spades now for years. "Have you been drinking, my lord?”
Castile’s mouth curled in a boyish expression, “Not as of yet, Duchess Rossi. But if Southern Duchy give one of their long speeches, I may be inclined to such activities”. He almost laughed about it, and covered his mouth as if not to seem rude. “We all might feel that way” he added.
His gaze dropped downward for a moment before he looked up at her again. “You look beautiful as always, Francesca” James said before he leaned forward in his seat upon spying his half-brother.
When Francesca laughed alongside him, it was less the light, musical sound she had developed as a lady, and instead included a strangled snort that James hadn't heard since she'd been a girl, so long ago, climbing trees and scraping knees and drinking from streams. Francesca covered her mouth in response, as well, and for that moment, they looked every bit the couple they could have been.
"Thank you, J--my lord," Francesca responded to the compliment, but there was little heart in it. She wondered how much of the beauty he saw was real, and how much was a memory, from the days before the light in her eyes had been so thoroughly extinguished. These days, much of her rumored beauty had more to do with her wealth and finery, since both the joys of youth and innocence had been destroyed and with them, her feminine curves...
Not that it would stop her. When Philip arrived, a smile twitched at her mouth, and where many of the King's subjects bowed or raised a hand in respect, Francesca ran the pad of her thumb across her lip gently, and although the glance the King gave her was brief, it was heated.
"The new duchess will make a poor addition to our ranks," Francesca said, quietly. While she had not offered any forgiveness of the sort he'd asked, it was also the first comment she'd made to her once-fiance that regarded him anything other than a monster. "She has no family; it's like she was born from the air."
James looked toward the Duke of the North, Friedrich stood waiting for his bride to be and the older man was positively beaming from ear to ear. Castile had never thought him a particularly intelligent man, although like any noble he knew enough to get by.
“Do you think she is a commoner that Friedrich has elevated so that he may marry without contention from the other nobles in his realm?” James asked curiously. Francesca had always loved the court gossip, even when they were young. He use to find humor when she would tell him what the other boys thought of him, although he was sure she had saved him from the uglier insults about being a bastard.
Women were expected to marry upward socially, so catching a Duke… even a widowed one was an improvement to any lady. Being a Duchess, Francesca could dally with a man of lower position but it would be folly for her to ever marry one. Philip flashed some kind of brief look their way, and James could feel something like ire tickle his spine.
“I think maybe the court could use some new blood. Give them something to talk about beside taxes, and what realm they think the king favors this year over the others”. The Duke gave a dismissive wave of his gloved hand, such things were tiresome to his ears. If one did not have the fortitude to give opinion to another’s face but only to speak when backs were turned…. He wanted nothing to do with them.
He beamed her a boyish grin, “Of course the Southern Duchy will stake the claim that they are the favored realm as they do every year”.
"She was born from air," Francesca said, distastefully, and with the unreasonable disposition as if James had been too obtuse to understand her meaning - nay, her warning - the first time. A bristle worked through Francesca's posture, tension in her lips, then her shoulders, her hips, her knees, her feet.
The discomfort accompanied the procession of the bride. She was tall, the color of coffee with a generous amount of cream. Pretty; probably a year or two younger than Francesca herself, but with full, pleasant features that might have been attractive without make-up of any kind, which Francesca could never claim. Her gown was a creamy pearl color, with pure-white fur protecting her soft skin from the harsh Northern weather.
Francesca was obviously absorbed in her observation of the bride, feeling undermined by the younger woman's vitality. Her words worked against that feeling. "The South has been weakening," Francesca said. "They report losses, now, and pay less tax…"
Castile watched the woman in the pale clothing move as the ceremony took place, eyes narrowing as he clearly was in a hunter’s state of mind. Studying her as one studied game to find its lair….
He purposefully avoided his former betrothed words about the new Duchess because it might generate the subject of if the woman was a creature. Which of course would bring up his own condition… James rather not have that happen.
He made a distasteful sound from between his teeth. “The South has its own kind of strength. And are not so poor they can not afford to barter with West, and North in stone, gold or electrum. Or the King’s ear with their spies…” Castile tilted his head slightly and wondered if they had information on the new Duchess…. Not that he would ever go to them for it.
Francesca's sapphire eyes slid over to watch the Duke's face, quickly. He was interested in her, she could see plain as day, and while Francesca obviously thought they would be two peas in a pod, there was a bit of her that bristled. She wanted the monster that had claimed her betrothed to find somewhere else to look, of course, but it was a bit jarring. She had never seen him look at another woman, not in more than half their lives…
"I think they're lying," Francesca said, her voice a whisper, and it blended in to the hundreds of other whispers that arose to compliment the bride's gown with his opalescent shine, the impressive train, speculations as to whether the fur was werewolf or not… "They are further from the crown than they have been in a decade. They look to leave those of us too close to Philip with the burden of funding the monarchy."
James turned his full attention to the Duchess next to him, preferring her biting candor to the practiced words of the ceremony. Or the false comments in hope of garnering some kind of favor with the Duke of the North by heaping praise on his vanities and his new bride.
His brows arched slightly at his former love. All the other duchies traded among themselves, and the East was something of the low man on the pole…. It had always been this way, or at least as far as James could recall. His mother would tell him it was his father’s petty way of getting back at her.
But his mother was no longer in power, and his father was dead… Castile wondered if Philip simply maintained the taxes out of sheer laziness to change them. Or if he thought somehow he could keep a leash on his half-brother by taxing his realm so heavily?
Francesca had a duchy to rebuild after the zombie crisis, and the West could hardly afford to be taxed heavily on top of it. For the briefest moment the Duke’s ire rose as he wondered if she laid with Philip to reduce those taxes more than to drive a spike of jealousy into that part of him that pined for her still.
“Then we should be vigilant, for their land borders our own”.
Perhaps in confirmation, Francesca said, "I've always been vigilant. I could never afford not to be." Not by her own insight, though - Seo-jun was a master economist, and his guidance was the only reason the West had not absolutely imploded under Francesca's weak leadership. But the East would never know the truth of those dynamics, and the Duchess fell quiet for the rest of the ceremony, offering only her polite applause when necessary.
The banquet, afterward, was extravagant. Steaks and sausages were plentiful, according to the region, and the vegetables and fruits that Francesca could stomach were scarce. That wasn't a problem - the Duchess of the West was no stranger to either nausea or hunger - but her habits did leave her conspicuously unoccupied while many ate and she only had her wine as company.
James made a point that if he ate meat to not face Francesca, he did not wish to appear as a bad guest and not partake of the dinner. He nodded to a servant, and a plate was placed in front of the Duchess of the West…. with a slab of apple pie.
The Green Duke offered a little smile, as a piece of pie was placed on his own plate. “Do you remember how we would sneak into the kitchens of the Eastern estate and liberate entire pies as they were cooling to bring into the library?” he asked amused as he cut into the dessert with his fork.
Francesca laughed, a dry, snide, noise, that tried very hard to sound angry and cynical enough to cover up the swelling of nostalgia that threatened to make her frown or cry.
"Of course I remember - I was the one who stole the pies," Francesca said, and instinctively flexed her hands, remembering the tenderness she had felt after doing so. She had been convinced they were burned because her palms were pink, but James had known what a real burn looked like and assured her she was fine.
"Jamie never stole anything," Francesca said, recalling but in the most defensive way. "He was a straight arrow, if ever there was one. The riverbank, that day," she worked hard, not to react to the memory too much, but her chest rose and she bit her lip, ever-so-gently, "was the only time I ever convinced him to do any more than consent to my mischief..."
So she cast a suspicious glance toward the face that had once belonged to her Jamie. "What are you after?" She supposed he needed something, a resource from the West or maybe a spy had raised a concern…?
“Sometimes a pie, is just a pie...Duchess Rossi” the Duke replied although he seemed lost in thought or perhaps the memory of which she spoke. His face reddened slightly, and he scratched at an ear. “We liberated the pie” he said in a tone of fondness.
The part of him that was James Castile wanted to correct the Duchess, he had hardly been angelic as a youth. He gave a coy smile and wondered if Rossi wanted to hear about how he would think of her at night when he was alone and long for her touch…. For the feel of her.
“It hardy took convincing, Duchess” he said softly as he cut into the pie with his fork.
"Oh my god, Jamie, court is not a battlefield; pie is never pie," Francesca said, not realizing the easy slip of the tongue that addressed her companion as she had once known him, and as he seemed now - blushing and incapable of owning their mischief. One 'liberated' a village from a warlord; one did not 'liberate' a pie from the turned back of a cook who had probably panicked, later, that she would be accused of eating the lady's pie…
Maybe it was because Francesca assumed James was too straight-forward to think of poisoning her that Francesca finally gave in and took a bite of pie - a bite that might well have been half the slice, all at once. Her words had every bit of her intended derision, but the memories seemed to soften them. "Honestly, I don't know how you function without a Duchess." Probably no better than she did, without a Duke… they had always expected to go on the journey of adulthood together, after all…
He smiled at her as he used his fork to cut a piece of his own pie. “Truly it is one of the great mysteries of the court” James replied. “Good staff, I suppose….” The Duke glanced over at Rossi’s plate and his mouth curled as Francesca devoured the dessert.
And then he briefly cast his eyes about the table, his brother talking politics as always. The queen, who seemed less than pleased to be ignored or to be seated at the table …. Francesca wasn’t exactly as discreet as she thought, nor Philip. The Southern duchy were talking non-stop, and his gaze shifted to… the North, the Duke and his newly wed Duchess.
James looked at Francesca again, and asked “Would, my lady like another slice?”
Francesca shook her head and added, "Thank you, my lord," quickly because she was no longer so hungry that she couldn't focus on the dynamics of the room. She sent Philip a flirtatious smirk, and deliberately slid her eyes past the Queen. Honestly, Francesca knew she could take the woman's crown if she'd wanted to - really, really wanted to - but she was quite unwilling to make the same sacrifices…
And then there was the glance between her former fiance and the new Duchess of the North. Francesca had a gift, surely, but she would have had to be blind to miss the intent and heat behind the look, and she leaned toward James, weight on her elbow and fingers on her chin as she spoke.
"You're not imagining it," Francesca whispered, amusement in her voice. "She's looking at you. She wants you." A smirk played across her lips; she was toying with him. "The commoners call women like her gold-diggers. Now that she has a Duke, she wants more… and to her, you're more." Bastard or not, royal was royal. "She won't care if you're a creature…" Which also meant she wouldn't care if he was a good man, or a worthwhile partner, that she would want him for his title and his blood, no more, no less.
Francesca bit her lip, gently, and lowered her voice as she dropped the tantalizing suggestion, "You could have her, on her wedding night to another man, if you chose…" Lifting her glass to take a sip, Francesca asked, "Or is there too much of that noble knight left in you to try it?"
The Duke stared at the Western Duchess for a moment, before pushing back his chair loudly and getting to his feet. Bowing his head to the other guests James excused himself from the table. It was simpler than subjecting himself to Duchess Rossi’s odd whims, or the possibility of humoring them. He was better off away from the other guests……
Francesca was right, he could have the new Duchess of the North on her wedding night. Just like he could have the Queen, a joint act of vengence for Philip’s affair with Frannie. Or he could simply take Rossi in some corner of the Northern Castle’s dark corners….. His other half would like that. Love it.
But Frannie was right about another thing, there was too much of the noble knight in him, bastard that he may be. And now that James spoke as loudly as the beast, they shared this body now. He would not be put away like a toy once someone was done playing with it.
The Green Duke strolled through the gardens of the Northern Castle, a pale ghost of the greenery of the enchanted forest.
When: 864 ROK
He had not seen Francesca Rossi for several years, James Castile was Duke of the Eastern Realm having exiled his mother and taken over a few months after the tragedy in the West that let his former betroth become Duchess.
But all the high nobles, and even the lesser ones, were in the King’s city to celebrate the birth of the crown prince, his nephew Elliot. His niece, the princess was born twelve years earlier when James was still a youth, barely a teen himself. Philip was older than him, and Castile wonder how he had ever looked up to his brother and yet…. Here he was congratulating him on the birth of a male heir like all the other loyal subjects.
He should have expected that he would be seated right next to his former betrothed, East and West on one side of the table. The Dukes and Duchesses of the South, and North across from them. It made the things seem rather uneven until the Royal Scholar and General sat next to Rossi at the other end….
Dinner, there was no avoiding it. Castile could barely contain a growl when the married duchy gave him and Francesca a look like pity. “Duchess Rossi, you look...eloquent…” he said aiming for politeness, when there was a time he would have compared her to the evening sky, or the dawning sun. She was thin, but still beautiful.
Francesca had lost no less than twenty pounds since James had last seen her. Sensuous curves that had once spoken of youth and wealth had given way to a lean slenderness that quite contrasted with the ladies her age, who were mostly growing round with child, hips widening and breasts heavy with milk. Instead, Francesca's slim figure became firm with muscle as she had taken to practicing the arts of men - riding, swordplay, archery - everything short of hunting, which she couldn't stomach.
But, quite aware that her physique was more boyish than womanly, Francesca made up the difference with quite an ostentatious dress, in classic Western cerulean. Her long hair draped down in loose curls, the neckline of her dress low enough that it didn't bother to hide her shoulders, sleeves just transparent slips of fabric that did nothing to hide the newly defined musculature to her arms.
Francesca didn't want to be there. She and Philip had developed a sort of intimacy that she hadn't expected - at first, the affair was to get her position, and then her voice heard. And then, just to annoy his half-brother, and to further her own secret plans…
But she didn't care about this baby, or what a male heir's birth meant for Philip. If it was up to her, succession wouldn't have anything to do with gender. Or, better yet, it would be passed from woman to woman.
Men were trash.
Her disinterest met discomfort spectacularly at dinner. Her posture was tense, one hand grasping the arm of her chain every ten seconds. She sipped at a glass of red wine with determination, but no servant could tempt her to taste food, and she tried very hard not to watch while anyone chewed. It brought back too many memories of her family, turned to zombies, and the grotesque way they kept chewing, even on air…
The last complication she needed was fucking James Castile at her side, making her evening harder.
"Eloquent?" she sneered, careful to keep her word separate from her serene expression. "How's this for eloquence?" Francesca said lowly: "Choke and die." Eloquently. "Please. Sir."
A curl at the corner of his mouth, as some of the others at the table looked taken aback. “Charming as ever I see, Duchess Rossi. How your parents would be so very disappointed…” he said gripping a knife to cut into the meat on his plate like it was an enemy.
He quite purposefully stepped on one of her dainty slippered feet that was too close to him under her voluminous skirts. Castile leaned in as if to apologize, “Perhaps if you kept your legs closed, my lady”.
The queen cleared her throat and looked at her husband. She clearly did not want her dinner ruined by jaded former lovers…
Her parents? That was low. Francesca was constantly compared to them - somehow, her people expected her to be both as resolute as her father and diplomatic as her mother at the same time, but she was neither and she did not appreciate the reminder. James' rebuke was louder than her insult, but it drew attention all the same - even from the Queen. Francesca's eyes darted nervously to Philip, the only one with the actual power to sanction her (in either sense of the word) and was relieved to find that, although he looked up and clearly saw what was going on, he chose to continue with the distraction of joking with the Southern Duke.
The Duchess didn't have long to be relieved, though, and she flinched, drawing her leg away when her foot was accosted, to drape over her other. "I'll be glad to consider it, in exchange for you keeping your lips closed," Francesca responded rudely, unable to help the disgusted twist of her lips when her attention was drawn to James' plate and the meat on top of it...
Castile’s mouth curled into an unsavory smile. One thing he had discovered was that his appetites were voracious…. James jabbed a hunk of meat with his fork, and ate it like a hungry animal. His eyes staring at the Duchess of the West, unblinking. The meat was rare to the point of almost being bloody. He gave his former betrothed a red stained smile.
Francesca couldn't force her eyes away from the handsome face she had once loved, now chomping and bloody, and that reminded her so much of the pain and trauma of seeing her family turned into zombies.
Eyes wide and brows furrowed in horror and disgust, Francesca realized she was going to vomit. And that was not an exaggeration - maybe it was the fact that she had been drinking strong wine on an empty stomach, but the Duchess had no doubt that this blatant display of carnivorism was more than she could handle. Her hand went quickly her stomach as if she could steady herself, and when it became clear she could not, she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and made her way to her feet, the heavy wooden chair scraping loudly against the marble floor.
"My lady?" her lady-in-waiting said, stepping forward in concern, to help move the chair and see that Francesca did not trip over her expansive skirt.
The Green Duke stood as well and pushed his chair back, apparently the Royal Scholar and General weren’t aware enough not to trap the Duchess at her spot. “Bring some ginger tea, now” he ordered a servant before pointing the handmaiden to take her mistress to the nearest way outside.
“She needs air….” he stated, and when Philip looked as if he might stand up James turned on him. “You are so very much like our father, my liege. You should remain with your guests, I’ll see to her….” he grunted, before giving the queen a polite nod of his head.
James followed the Duchess of the West and her lady in waiting at a leisurely pace. His eyes watched Francesca sharply taking in her gait, and the extreme silhouette she gave in her dress.
Francesca collapsed, only a few yards outside the dining room, as soon as she saw a potted tree that provided a place for her to empty her stomach. Her staff knew she had a weak stomach, but they hardly followed her around with bowls and ginger. It stank horribly - nothing more than bile and wine - and that made her want to vomit all over again, so she spent no less than a few full minutes heaving and groaning in misery. Her lady-in-waiting whispered soothing words and pulled the Duchess's long hair away from her face.
Antonio, though, stepped boldly into the Duke's path. While James had first seen him at the Rossi family funeral, an obvious commoner uniformed above his station to hide that Francesca wanted her shameful lover close at hand, Antonio had been promoted to her head of security and followed her faithfully around King's City since. What was laughable was how much Antonio resembled Francesca's brothers - if not for his low-class accent, he might well have been a Rossi boy himself.
"My lady does not want your chivalry," Antonio said, chewing on the word as if it were rotten. Overstepping himself but honestly not caring, he gave the Duke a dismissive order. "Return to the dining hall." Without even a 'my lord,' he had to know he was picking a fight…
“Hold your tongue, knave, or have it removed from thy head” Castile growled. “I am Duke, and the King’s brother, I have no need of the opinion of lesser men” he stated in a way that was clear he didn’t just mean their stations in life.
He gave an unsavory smile at the younger man, “You do your mistress no good in my brother’s dungeon”. Castile was more than aware that there plenty of the King’s guards about, and his own captain at his heels. And with that he literally pushed Antonio out of his way, as the annoyance that he was.
However the Duke approached Francesca’s lady in waiting rather than the Duchess herself. And his whole demeanor changed as if he was another person, as he spoke in a gentle tone to the girl. “Do this for your lady” James instructed taking the girl by the hand and turning it over. He pressed two fingers at her wrist and drew them along the tendon that ran to her forearm. “Use an even pressure, do it several times. It will help ease her nausea, as will ginger tea. She must eat bananas, rice, bland foods...no alcohol” he said to the handmaiden until she nodded her head in understanding.
James looked tempted to reach out and touch the Duchess, but he refrained and stepped back from her instead putting some distance between them. Once the girl did as he said, he would take his leave. They could not both be away from the dinner…. Not that rumors bothered him, but Francesca didn’t need anymore clinging to her like the train of her dress.
Francesca's lady-in-waiting was familiar - Flora - the same who had watched James take Francesca into the forest years ago, now, and bring her back a shivering, disheveled mess. While Flora knew better than to protest, as Antonio had, her passivity as he instructed her had a tension to it, as if she were watching a snake intently to see if it would bite.
"I'm not sick," Francesca snapped, her lip curling in annoyance. At all of it. Antonio letting himself be shoved aside, Flora's silence, and fucking James' weird-ass duality. "You don't get to cause the problem and try to fix it. Fuck you." The vitriol in her voice was new - she had, now, given up on the idea of two James', and she simply hated them both. If one was a monster, the other was complicit, and therefore just as bad.
She fought her way to her feet and shoved Flora aside out of sheer annoyance, and advanced on the Duke with spitting rage that made her seem bigger than she was. "You don't touch my men, and you definitely don't touch my ladies. Get out of my sight, or I will show you how little 'brother' can mean." As long as she had known James, he had lived in his brother's shadow, but that was a privilege as much as a burden. Francesca was certain, though, that she had earned Philip's preference, and she dared James to try to trump her. She was no longer the frightened, powerless girl he had once dominated - nor the one he had once loved. She had become hard and strategic, and even if her stomach was weak, she wore her fortitude like an armor as strong as his green one. She spat, "Go back to dinner."
An annoyed sound came from the Duke at her sudden usage of such crass language. But if you slept with dogs, so the saying went…. “Put a leash on your pet then, and teach him some manners, Duchess” he grunted and turned to Flora to bow with impeccable mannerisms. “My sincerest apologies, young lady if you felt accosted” he said graciously.
And then he straightened to take in her mistress…. “I did not imply that you were sick, it is just a simple way to prevent such things. I did nothing but simply partake in the meal my brother’s cooks saw fit to prepare….” He stepped in close to her, encroaching on her personal space but also to speak in a low barely human growl.
“We see that spreading your legs for commoners has you speaking like them, so I will be frank… Fucking my brother insures nothing, you should have learned that lesson from my mother. But I thank you, Francesca… because without your kind assistance I would have never been able to wear down the last of your Jamie’s resistance. He’s ours now…” The Duke knew she felt some kind of guilt over it, as well she should, and he wanted to grind it in her beautiful face.
“And to think we were worried that such a creature as you might actually be able to steal him back from us. Continue your show of poor behavior, please...it only brings me favor from our peers”. A horrible smile curled his mouth, “Oh, it gives me such pleasure to feel your boy squirm inside us and melt away with your every poisonous word”.
Francesca liked that her language disgusted him - she hated him so much that even the casual appreciative glances that anyone gave a well-dressed, high-born lady made her skin crawl, when they came from those eyes. His attack was well placed, and if Francesca had not hardened so effectively, she might have frowned or shed a tear in sadness or shame… but instead she just held her ground when he moved in, glaring up at him. Plenty of servants about witnessed the argument, and James was probably right that he would come out ahead in the wake of the rumors, but Francesca didn't care. Philip wouldn't punish her - not for this, or for leaving dinner, or for never returning. And to drive the point home, Francesca countered, "I am twice the woman your mother was." Joanna had been a trailblazer, for sure, but Francesca could improve on her methods...
"Am I to feel guilty?" Francesca scoffed. "That, when the dust settled, my knight was in fact a damsel?" It was cruel, but it was true. Any man who needed a woman to save him… was he a man at all? Was he worth saving? Her affection for the boy she had loved had been natural, but so was her disenchantment. "I was never a knight; I couldn't save him, but I will avenge him…" And she echoed him, tit-for-tat, "And I thank you, James, for continuing to underestimate me. You will make this infinitely easier."
The Green Duke looked at Rossi from down his nose, and his mouth curled as he appraised her. “I underestimate no one, Duchess…You are exactly as I hoped you would be. Oh but I will miss fucking you, Francesca….” Castile shrugged a large shoulder as if the whole thing was an afterthought.
He gave a polite nod to take his leave, there was no point in talking to Francesca Rossi any longer. But Castile could not help a parting shot ,“You could not save the boy, because deep down…you never wanted to….”.
"Is that why you constantly try to shame me, for finding fulfillment elsewhere? You miss me?" Francesca couldn't help but laugh and roll her eyes. He missed fucking her? Well, she was a damn good fuck, that she knew - but it also wasn't that simple. They had been each other's first - first fuck, but first love, too. It was still a source of undue stress, that Francesca still could not experience a joy or sorrow in her life and not think of how she wanted to share it with James, latent instincts harkening back to the years and years when those emotions had poured into letters that would be carried across the kingdom to the East.
She was relieved he was withdrawing, and Francesca held out a hand to beckon Antonio closer. He touched her cheek and her waist, attentions chaste, professional - Roberto would have said brotherly, but Francesca knew they would rub the Duke the wrong way. He still saw her as his property, she expected, like the forest. The way she drew the once-commoner close was her own parting shot, but she answered his with little strain. "Tell my Jamie that, if you need to keep him quiet, when you're trying to sleep." In the years that had passed, the conflict between them had become less about her, and likely more about the desires of one James against the other. But that was their quarrel now - Seo-jun had given her a larger vision, and she couldn't concern herself with that now.
Castile had meant the comment as a jab to that time when she screamed the name of the Duke and not her young lost love. He had been generous in letting that side be with her, that good, gentle, loving boy of hers. But those two times he took her...especially the last time…. It had been delicious.
He was patient, after all unlike James Castile’s form that he shared he was old and used to waiting.
Francesca didn't like the way he was looking at her - it brought back memories too vivid, of her second encounter with the beast and only renewed her hatred of him. No one had ever managed to make her feel so ashamed…
She stepped a bit forward, and - now, without fear - met his eyes. That shame was gone, now, replaced by a stronger understanding of the unique magic Eventyr had gifted her. But she suspected she could use that to her advantage, now, and curiosity couldn't be sated until she tried. "If you want to make me scream - ever again - James," the name he had asked her to use was silky even if her breath was sour. Her lips curled into an expression that was every bit as false and rotten a smile as the one he gave her, so regularly, for years now. Her words seemed to suggest she could get behind another hatred-fueled fuck, but her demeanor was too skeptical he could entice her into it. "Do better."
The Duke’s brows arched upward in curiosity, and a spark of hope ignited in the empty spot where a heart once laid.
A lot can happen in a month…. For one Castile spent the better part of several weeks hunting down his armor. The brothers were quite devious in splitting it up and hiding across the Western realm at the behest of Francesca. He’d punish her for this inconvenience later, once they were wed… But he and the armor were reunited.
And then an unspeakable tragedy, the entire Rossi clan was wiped out in a zombie outbreak. That is all save Francesca, who was out on one of her carnal, social forays to try and sate that void inside of her. Her mother had been eaten alive in the kitchen, while planning the wedding menu………. An irony, Fate had such cruel humor.
The undead creatures were eradicated, the castle cleaned out… and Philip insisted on a public display of respect and grief for the family. It was considered bad form to refuse the king anything, and James never could refuse his half brother.
The Rossi’s were already sealed in the family crypt, because they bodies (what was left of them) had to be burned. There was nothing to view… other than poor Francesca Rossi, sole survivor and representative. Castile stood off to the side of the line of respectful mourners, his mother….inconsolable over the loss of Gianna. The king, his half-brother so newly crowned, full of polite empty words.
He moved closer to his betrothed and lean in close to ask, “Do you want him...here...now? Your James...I am not so unkind as keep him during this time”. A gift, he could be generous.
Francesca could not have been lovelier in her grief. Her face was shrouded in a lace veil, but that was the only shred of modesty on her. The dress she wore was an appropriate black, the skirt long and trailing elegantly, but the fabric glittered like the sky on a clear western night, and featured a plunging neckline that would have been scandalous if anyone could be manage to be scandalized by a young woman who had lost everyone she loved.
Francesca clearly knew that this funeral was an audition for her role as Duchess, and she held her composure as if it were her very life, tears hidden behind her veil. The only time she struggled, visibly, was at the mention of her brother Roberto, who had been her closest friend in the world.
This horrible tragedy left her in the unique position where she could claim the role of Duchess in either the East, as James' wife, or in the West, where she would have to single-handedly rebuild in the wake of the attack, as even the household's scholars, guards, and servants had been lost. The king was there, and Francesca knew that if she showed weakness, it was possible that he would choose to appoint another to the seat in the West and never think twice about it, as there was no reason to suppose she would be less happy with one duchy than another…
No reason, except the one leaning over her shoulder. The monster wearing her once-beloved's face.
"You doubt your capacity for cruelty?" Francesca responded, her voice icy cold. "Because I certainly do not." Her jaw clenched and she spoke with more disinterest than she had ever been able to, with him. Now, they were on much more equal footing. "I know your games. If James needs to be with me, you can loose him for him. I will not ask you for anything."
Castile frowned because this was definitely not the tone he wished to hear, and his eyes gaze over toward the King. A throaty growl escaped him just audible enough for the blonde noble to hear. He straightened next to her and stood like a statue, he was her betrothed and it was rude not to be respectful of the dead Rossi’s. But this bored him, and like a snake he shed his skin silently…
A large cool hand moved stiffly to touch Francesca’s arm. “Frannie...sorry...so sorry” red rimmed blue eyes blinked down at her. Tears. The beast was cruel letting him see his love at last after so much sorrow.
"Don't touch me. I don't want anyone to see you touching me," Francesca snapped curtly. She wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in the arms of a man who loved her, who could cry with her, but there was too much at stake. Far too much…
And that was why she didn't look at James' face, especially when she heard emotion breaking through that told her, clearly, that it was her Jamie. She had missed him, desperately, and dreamed about what she would say if she could see him again.
But it was too difficult - she had earned him an undue punishment, banishment from the monster who infected him, and been unable to resist the heights of pleasure he forced her into… She couldn't, wouldn't face her Jamie, and so she dismissed him, grateful for the veil obscuring her face. "Your monster is just trying to make me emotional, Jamie. I can't afford that."
The hand slid away, unsure… and then rested on the hilt of the green sword at his hip. “Yes...he is...I will not be a weapon against you…” and James moved stiffly away from the dias where she sat to intercept a noble, and his half-brother.
Francesca's eyes flit up from her determined stare as James' half brother, newly crowned King Philip, approached. She rose to her feet, offered a polite curtsy, and took a deep breath. This was an incredible opportunity, and even though it wrenched her heart to do it again - to reject and betray Jamie again - it was a window she hadn't expected the monster to give her, and she needed to take it. So she stepped to Jamie's side and nodded her gratitude as the king offered condolences and assured her the full resources of the crown to assist during the transition…
"As it happens, James and I were just talking about this," Francesca spoke up, lying rather convincingly. The tightness in her voice was easily explained by grief, and the veil made her features hard to see.
"We've decided to - amicably," she tossed a glance to James, pleading with him to play along. "End our engagement, so I can assume duties as Duchess while the land recovers from this loss. You know the land risks civil war in a vacuum of power; if I marry, it would be best if I chose a lord of the West, from one of our powerful families - a Ferrari, or a Lopez, perhaps." This little speech had clearly been prepared and rehearsed, and it showed more political savvy than Francesca actually had. James would know immediately that she had a tactician behind the scenes, but Philip would only see an informed leader who knew her people.
But the way she leaned a bit forward, and managed to make an obviously flirtatious touch of Philip's arm seem harmless was all Francesca. It was awful, to flirt with his brother - the brother he had been passed over for his whole life - in front of Jamie, but she had to do it. "With your advisement, of course, your highness."
The King looked at his half-brother, and asked “Is it true, you wish to end things?” James shook his head, but stayed his brother before he could say anything. “I always wish to be with Francesca…. But it’s better this way. For our people, and realms…”
Philip nodded his head although he seemed far more interested in Francesca’s little touches and smile. James inhaled hard, an almost painful gasp. When it elicited an arching brow of curiosity from his brother James lied to him. “I was injured on a hunt recently. I fear I have over extended myself… if you would be so kind as to make an announcement Philip...I'd like to take my leave”. He could do this one last thing for his betrothed, just hold the beast at bay for a moment.
“It is done, brother. A noble sacrifice…”
James all but growled at the royal as he gritted out. “Indeed….. By your leave, my King…..Duchess”. He moved away even as Philip was raising his hands to make the proclamation and announce Eventyr’s newest ruler of the Western realm.
Francesca bristled, hearing James' gasp and knowing full well it was no accident causing him pain. It was her, using his sincere love to reject him forever. Even though she knew he would be alone, with the terrible creature that shared his skin…
But when Philip agreed to make her Duchess, relief and satisfaction and pride coursed through her. This power cost her every member of her family, but - strangely - she felt… what?
A confused look passed over her features all of the sudden, and she, irrationally, asked a servant, "What time is it...?" They answered, and she frowned, but the fact that it was still hours to sundown couldn't dampen her success, and she stood tall at Philip's side as he made the announcement.
Her hand even slipped into his.
No one blamed Francesca for taking her leave early, after only pretending to take a few bites of the feast that her guests would enjoy. She hadn't had an appetite since laying eyes on the way her family had been torn apart, as if they were only meat, but continued to be insatiably hungry even after death… she wondered if she would ever feel hungry again.
The twilight hours were beautiful, and if Jamie were still around - which she couldn't be sure of, except from her surety that the monster would allow him to stew in his grief and pain if at all possible - Francesca knew she would find him in her mother's extensive gardens. She was not alone, more than half a dozen guards with her as well as one handmaid whose whole job it was to maintain her beautiful and excessive gown.
The new Duchess approached cautiously - she had learned her lesson. "Jamie? Is it you?"
James was thoughtfully standing near a massive rose bush, its blooms a sharp contrast to the green of its leaves. His brow arched slightly, and he replied in a low tone so her entourage wouldn’t over hear. “Frannie… you’ve come to say goodbye?”
He dragged the back of his fingers across his face, and rubbed at his eyes. Straightened and made himself more presentable, smoothed down his tunic. “I...can’t come back here” he said a little more strongly, and touched one flower that had particularly sharp thorns
Hearing what was undeniably Jamie's voice, Francesca cast a glance backward and made a gesture to dismiss her attendants, giving them more privacy. They wouldn't go far, though - she had told Antonio, her lover she had put in charge of security, to bring an army if he heard her scream. "I've thought so much about what I would say to you, Jamie, if I had the opportunity…" She drew close, taking that hand from the thorn's edge and kissing it gently. Her eyes met his, and there was so much love and sadness and unrealized joy in their blue depths that when she spoke, her words were a stark contrast: "Hate me. I know you won't want to, you'll want to hang on to a romantic notion of me, but don't."
She wanted to tell him that she loved him, and that she longed for the life they could have had. That if he had never gotten lost, they could have been happy. But if she did, she would leave Jamie - her loving, wonderful, gallant fiance - with regrets that would be hard to process. A clean break was easier for them both, and the fact that she had just used him and betrayed him helped - even if it was out of necessity. "I was never the woman you wanted me to be."
“I can not hate you, Francesca…..” he stated, because it was true although the beast had enough hate for both of them. “.....but I understand now that I can not love you either….” James moved his hand into a much more formal hold on hers. “...It was folly to try to hold onto you as I am…” James patted her hand as if he were congratulating her to keep her men from gathering close.
“He won’t bother you… I’ve arranged things...and I will speak to mother” he tilted his head with a little smile. Cupped her chin and then stepped back, it was better to put distance between them.
Francesca smiled, and it was the most polite, political, fake smile she had ever worn, when James promised his monster wouldn't bother her, and it took all her willpower not to shudder at his touch of her face.
"I doubt that," the new duchess said, wearing diplomacy like a mask. Her people were backing off, giving them more privacy the more comfortable Francesca looked. "He has his retribution from me. We just need to wait for it. I just regret..." that it would affect Jamie, as well, she intended to say, but she didn't. Francesca let her words get ugly, because she had no grace in her, not that day. "That you wed him before me, Jamie." Literal or metaphorical, honestly, she had no idea how changeling magic worked, but it was all the same. Jamie had not been hers to win since he disappeared, and she couldn't blame herself for that.
“So cold…” he said seeming disappointed, and surprised at the same time. Castile gave a resolute nod of his head, was anything else to be expected. “...James… if you must, there is no Jamie. That boy is gone, and we are no longer betrothed to use such informal titles….” She was his sun… but even the sun was eclipsed by the moon.
His eyes grew dull and faded. “Goodbye Francesca” Castile said flatly and walked away, he never looked back. But reached out to crush the rose he had been admiring earlier before seeking out his half brother to take his leave. He had a realm to take...
(ooc: JP title is a line from Six Feet Under's Zombie Blood Curse)
It had a been two days of bliss, his other half seemingly content to let James have run of things while they were here in Francesca’s home. Her family seemed equally content to see the couple arm in arm in the gardens, laughing and talking. The marks left by her brothers were explained away as a riding accident, horses could be fickle creatures.
There was the hope that perhaps he could bargain with the beast, and have time with his beloved once they were married. But halfway through an afternoon together James Castile discovered it was foolish to hope when you were cursed.
He could already feel something was wrong before entering the guest chambers of the Western castle. His brow furrowed deeply for a moment before turning to Francesca, who was virtually on his heels. They had snuck away for a midday session of exploring some of the other knowledge she had… acquired… in lovemaking.
“Frannie….. Where is my chest…. Where is the armor?” he asked looking at her. James mentally begged her to say it was some prank, a ladylike joke, and that it was hidden in the next room. The cellars among grain and produce...the stables even… a feeling of dread and the expression on her lovely face told him what he already knew. It wasn’t here.
Years of sadness and desperation and fear had taken only days to cure, to most onlookers, and Francesca glowed with happiness. Her tight braids loosened back to curls, heavy fabrics traded for those she could skip about in, her polite smile traded for giggles and dirty jokes that James didn't understand yet, but would soon enough with the right tutoring…
Her skin felt warm as the ventured back into the castle, and she suspected the sun might have kissed her too much, but she didn't care, not with her hand in Jamie's and excitement building as they headed toward a comfortable bed together.
But James' bearing changed suddenly. Although the look on her face might have been telling - Francesca was not yet the practiced liar she would become - she tried anyway. "In your chamber, surely." He didn't buy it. So she made another attempt to deny any wrongdoing. "I don't know."
His hands were trembling when James grabbed her by the shoulders. “Frannie...what did you do?” he asked her in the most desperate pleading tone. “Please, Frannie, you have to tell me!”
How could she do this to him? He told her it wasn’t the key to his freedom, asked her to leave it be. How could she betray him like this? How could she betray them?!?
He knew. The realization that he knew, by whatever magic was at work, hardened her resolve. Even if she seemed happier over these few days, she had known well that she was playing a devil's game. Jamie was the hostage she was being allowed to see, to keep them both compliant - but she loved him too much to subject them both to the whims of a monster for the rest of their lives because he had been benevolent for a few days… The wedding was coming up.
She spoke quickly, knowing full well that she might not be talking to her Jamie soon. "Bargaining with a creature never works," Francesca said, quoting a book that she read exactly one page of, but it had answered her question and that was enough. "We have to defeat him. That armor is clearly fueling him, and getting rid of it will give us an advantage…"
His hands tightened on her arms, and he laughed… an almost hysterical sound. “Francesca! The armor protects me, not him! My poor beloved Frannie, you have doomed us both” James said defeated, bowing his head.
When he looked up at her again his eyes glittered green, and his mouth curled into an ugly smile. “Betrayal most foul, Francesca Rossi. We gifted you with the rabbit and you sought to injure the wolf?” Castile hissed at her in a low tone of venom. “Poor sad rabbit, he has gone to hide deep in his den”.
Shaking his head as if he felt pity for her, the beast caught her chin in ice cold fingers. “We were going to be generous to you. Let your rabbit boy spend his nights with you, keep you warm in his bed. Fuck you sweet and full of his love…” He leered at her, “...But now we’ll be wed, and you’ll be ours instead. I will rape you every night, again and again Francesca Rossi…”
He licked her face from her jaw, up over an eye to her temple. “...And we’ll breed you...Your Jamie will thank us, for putting such a traitorous creature in her place. We knew you could not keep your word…. We thank you, our Francesca”.
Francesca felt fear shivering through her, and revulsion made her muscles tense as his tongue so clearly reminded her of that night in the woods and the pain that had accompanied it. She wanted to cry out - her brothers were away, she knew, and servants wouldn't speak a word, though. His hand wrenched her chin to him and lifted frightened eyes to his as she trembled…
But as she realized that help was not coming, that she needed to deal with this threat on her own, Francesca found a sudden fire in her chest. Her blue eyes lifted to meet green in a challenge, fiery and intense. But her words were soft, a witch's curse, the power of which he had seen the likes before.
"You will," Francesca assented, nodding at his threat. Her voice had a harshness to its low tone, and it clearly pained her to speak it, although the words didn't seem to be coming from her mouth. "You will give me three daughters. The fairest in the Eastern realm. They will be beautiful and terrible, and they will serve me and hate you."
He hissed at her like a cut snake, angry and writhing with menace. “Silence, bitch! Or I’ll make sure your rabbit suffers more than shattered dreams, and a broken heart” Castile vowed because her boy was what kept her tied to them, like a chain forged from fine gold was their love. Beautiful and delicate, yet held together by some magic beyond the wolf’s own…
“You’ll bear sons, girl. Beasts who walk like men, and they’ll be the fiercest warriors of the realm. They’ll serve Eventyr… just like we do…” Castile wanted to spit on her, but even now the damn rabbit still championed for her dignity. He made some horrific sound deep in his throat, but the unsavory gesture never came forth. “Weaklings…” he snarled and pushed her out of his way.
As he pushed her away, Francesca turned back although she was curled on the floor, her words soft but intense, anger burning even moreso. Prophesy continued forth from her lips as she met his words only in counteraction. "I will have one son. I shall not bear him, but I may love him…"
The words made little sense. But as Francesca turned her vitriol on James' face, that changed. "You call yourself a wolf? Then, we shall see." Her eyes darkened as the Green Duke claimed to banish her sweet Jamie from his say at his table and she could only retaliate; she could only fight in the face of cruelty, no wars had been won with cowardice.
Her words dripped with power, as her eyes bore into his. "I curse you with the King of Wolves, in your lands, your precious forest," she sneered, "He shall make a fool of the Green Duke. His name will be scorned, but it will be mighty."
“We are already cursed with your mewling rabbit, stupid girl. If we could we would curse you to always remember that you brought this upon both of you….” Castile stepped around her calling for one of his men. “Inform the duchy we are leaving, we have regrettable business to attend”.
He looked down at Francesca and kicked her legs apart with his feet. “Would you like one last rut before our wedding, wife to be? Say goodbye to your boy?” The Duke asked with that mockery of a smile.
"I will not marry you," Francesca vowed - although this time, her voice faltered. The spell was spent, now. She was trying to force her words into fate's mouth, rather than the other way around. That knowledge scared her, then, and even the prophecies she had spoken were terrifying; she had just said she would have four children, and the last thing she wanted was to carry this monster's baby…
Could her Jamie really be gone? Forever? No, not gone, just trapped, in a horrible sunken place where he would have to watch what the beast did to her. That was worse, a thousand times worse, and because of her? She tried to tell herself no, that you could not coexist with a creature, but there was a horrifying resonance in his voice that told her that it was true. The thought tore at her heart, and in the absence of her curses, she felt tears falling down her face.
And then he was kicking her feet apart, and she realized that no one would believe her, this time, if she claimed he had attacked her. They had been happy lovers for days now; everyone had seen it. Her heart beat fast, and she pushed him back, but she may as well have been pushing a wall. "No! No, don't touch me, you fucking beast!"
His hand clamped firmly over her mouth, oh they had learned from her deviousness. There would be no marks, it would just be her word… for what it was worth. They grinned at her, pinning her down and whispered in her ear…. “He’s here, just behind my eyes. Because I want him to see you for what you really are, Francesca Rossi”.
Rucking up her skirts with his free hand he nuzzled her neck lightly biting his way to the laces of her dress. “We’ve learned so much from you in the last few days” he murmured in an appreciative tone. His fingers traced her skin as he pulled her bodice open, followed the curve of her breast to the bud.
He didn’t smile because it would break the spell he was physically casting with the tip of one finger. There was more than one way to storm a castle, and still leaving it standing unscathed. No, there would be no marks on her body. They were in her mind and soul, her heart…. It pleased him to no end that he’d make sure her own body betrayed her. No one would believe her, they would simply think she wanted to keep up her sordid lifestyle of sex and drink.
Pushing a thigh between her legs he made a soft growl, “No undergarments, my duchess? Oh, you were just waiting to get your little rabbit in bed”. Laving her bosom with his tongue he asked lazily, “Did you like his soft boyish touches? Compared to your other lovers I would think the lack of experience boring…” Oh, but he knew what she liked because she had been kind enough to whisper all those secrets into her rabbit’s long ears, and he had been listening too.
Francesca's brows rose in confusion at his tender touch and his odd threat. See her for what she was? What did he think she was...? When she heard herself groan at his light touch, felt her nipple harden and excitement rush between her legs, she realized the answer with horror. She was a whore.
The fact that she loved sex had never bothered her before. She had pleaded with Jamie to give it to her that day by the river, and even when she'd known she was supposed to be the virginal duke's daughter and the faithful fiance and felt some guilt about failing in those roles, she had never, ever been ashamed to enjoy her body… until now, knowing that her Jamie, who might now be imprisoned forever, had to watch the monster they both loathed make her wet for him. The shame was crushing, and brought with it hatred more powerful than she could ever have imagined.
She tried, again, to push him away - she knew she couldn't make him move, but at least she could make his pleasuring more difficult, disrupt the illusion. His words hurt worse than the bruises from the woods. She had wanted this, she had planned exactly what new tricks she wanted to show him...
"I hate you," Francesca cried, when her body so obviously responded that yes, she did like those touches. "I hate you, I hate you..."
“Shhhhhhh….. Is that how you want your rabbit to remember you? He’s just a boy… we are so much more, Francesca…” his tone was low and throaty. Fingers deftly seeking the junction between her thighs to touch her with a far more expert hand than James ever did, and yet they felt so familiar. It was James’ flesh after all…
“You may hate us, but you want it...and you are so beautiful when you want it” he purred rubbing her in just the right way. Sitting up between her legs, he looked down at her like a predator. “We know what you want, little Western bird. What will set your wings fluttering… Your rabbit tells us, whispers it in our ear”.
Castile pulled her by the legs against him until her head laid between his knees, and her legs were up in the air. Craning his head down the beast licked her firmly in one slow drag from stern to stem. And he wasn’t about to stop for anything until she was begging them, not her rabbit, to finish.
"I hate you," Francesca repeated, her eyes squeezed shut in loathing. While Francesca was certainly more adventurous than most, she was still barely more than a teenager herself and most of her lovers were about her own age, the rebellious children of Western nobles (plus, one brave stable boy and two squires). So she recognized the difference in a skilled hand, and that just made it worse, for just as her breath hitched and she gasped instead of carrying on with her hateful mantra, she wondered how old this creature was, and what had happened to the other girls he'd touched.
As he pulled her toward him, she turned her face away; she hated the way he was looking at her, like prey. His tongue brought forth a scream, surprise and pleasure, but that quickly turned into a frustrated growl. "Stop - no, no, stop, it's not fair…" She would have preferred to be fucked - at least then, he would be worried about his own pleasure but she was painfully aware of how closely he was watching her squirm. And Jamie, through his eyes… But that revulsion couldn't stop how she whimpered and arched, racked with sensation that she couldn't shut out.
But he didn’t stop, if anything the Green Duke intensified his efforts biting at her thighs and feasting on her core like the most ravenous animal. And when her legs started to shake, he didn’t stop. And when her protests fade, he would not stop.
Castile let the hands holding her move down to stroke her breasts, and touch her just below her ear in all those places lovers like to leave little kisses. He wasn’t going to stop until she was begging for him. The Duke would bring her right to the edge, and then he would shift to bite at her thighs again. “Say it…Francesca….” he crooned. “Or can it be that you wished to be tortured all night long?”
When his hands moved enough that Francesca could have leveraged her weight to get free, she didn't, instead arching her back so her breasts would fill his large hands. Every time she felt her climax coming, she would resist until the last moment, when he would pull away… it was maddening. But it also built a pressure against that coil in her belly that she hadn't yet experienced.
It took that verbal stimulation for Francesca to fold, and she squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't have to see the smug grin she knew would come with her words: "Please, fuck me…" But then, hearing the words aloud - crass and taboo - seemed only to ignite her passion more, and she went on, lost in her need for satisfaction. "Fuck me, hard… please, now…."
Letting her slide down onto her back on the floor, the Duke held both her legs together against him with one arm. His free hand unlaced his breeches while occasionally stroking his fingers up her backside, and tipping into her. Castile certainly didn’t want her coming off that razor’s edge she was on yet.
Reaching down the Duke took one of her slim hands and covered his engorged member with it. “Guide me, my Francesca” he said in a low hoarse tone, and having the wits not to remind her while she was sex drunk exactly who she was with. He kept his eyes hooded, looking at her through long lashes.
He writhed against her like a headless serpent, undulated in a way no normal man could. The Duke was sure that any servant outside the chamber had heard her request, but he was going to ensure that there would be no turning back for this marriage. Gianna Rossi was his unwitting ally in this endeavor, and he wanted her to hear her daughter all the way in her pristine gardens.
Pushing Francesca’s legs forward at an angle, Castile made sure to get the deepest penetration with his first thrust, and to go all the way to the hilt.
Francesca was reluctant to comply, her hand twitching as she gave a frustrated whimper and added another refrain of her obscene plea, but she knew she wouldn't get what she needed unless she obeyed. There was a magic whispering deep inside her, so low she couldn't hear the words, because all she could focus on was how shameful it was, to hate this monster and still want him, so desperately. So she did, giving in and pulling him toward her and rubbing the head of him against her opening, ripe and swollen and aching with desire.
The degradation was rewarded swiftly, though. As soon as he filled her, the tension in her body finally exploded, sending mind-numbing pleasure through every nerve, her core spasming around his length, and tearing that scream of release from her throat. Usually, her climax lasted only a few brief, glorious moments, but this time, it stretched on and on, completely overwhelming her and robbing her of any control of the way her body bucked against him or the volume of her cries…
The Duke churned against her, and large palm stroking her thigh. “Do you want more, Francesca?” he asked in a breathy growled against her ankles. He slid his hands forward to touch her breasts leaning his weight down in a particularly deep thrust. Grinding like a massive millstone, he arched a brow and smiled at the sounds coming from his betrothed.
Somewhere deep in the ancient, enchanted forest… a heart was breaking.
When he was done with her, when she could take no more, Francesca was so exhausted, so spent, she could barely move. Curling up to hide her face was a herculean feat. Usually, at this stage, she wanted to be embraced, kissed, and allow herself to catch her breath and slow her heartrate in her lover's arms. But she shoved at Castile instead, hoping he would leave her alone now that she had given him everything he'd demanded…
The weight of it all crushed her, as her mind cleared. How Jamie must hate her, how she would never be able to escape this wedding now, not to mention the strange prophecies where she had doomed herself to having this monster's children which was the most appalling of all - she couldn't bear it, and she started crying, again. "Please, go, leave me alone," Francesca begged. "Go look for your godforsaken armor."
The Green Duke straightened his garments, and looked down at his betrothed…so beautifully broken. He could practically taste the guilt that clung to her, the doubts. Castile was satisfied on many levels, and left without a word to retrieve his armor… his other property.
To say his mother was less than pleased would have been an understatement of all time. But Joanna Castile was convinced her son’s poor behavior was clearly something inherited from his father. Old feelings died hard, and she still harbored ill ones toward the king for spurning her.
All the more reason for her to put pressure on Francesca’s mother that the wedding had to go on. They even agreed to move the date up in case there should be an heir as the result of the little incident in the woods. Joanna was mortified when her son confided to her in private, that the indiscretion wasn’t his idea the second time around… Of course he left out certain details. But it was more than enough for Duchess Castile to convince Duchess Rossi that Francesca was equally at fault.
As cursed as this marriage seemed to be, they were insistent it would happen. Reputations and allegiances were at stake. So a month later Castile found himself with a handful of his men visiting the West, while his mother presided over the Eastern region. He didn’t like being so far from the forest. His armour traveled with him although wearing it was mostly forbidden, Francesca’s doing he was sure.
The Rossi clan were polite as society demanded, but Castile could see the looks the three sons were casting his way. And despite the promise he made Francesca, he bestowed a curl of his mouth at the brothers. “My lady, you’ve been missed in the East. My mother sends her well wishes” he greeted his fiancee.
The tension in the room was palpable. Nothing in the Rossi family had been easy during the last month - her mother, always judgmental, agreed with Duchess Castile that Francesca held some responsibility for what happened. Her father didn't agree, but he had heard so much complaining from his daughter that he didn't doubt she needed to work on ingratiating herself with her betrothed better. He adored his daughter and frankly blamed Gianna for not doing a better job raising a young lady, and when the Duke and Duchess fought, no one in the estate was happy.
Francesca's brothers, though, were much simpler. They needed no more information than their little sister's tears or her bruises. Angelo had been so incensed by their father's inaction that he had nearly challenged Duke Rossi to a duel, insisting that it showed his weakness as a leader of both the family and the duchy, and had only decided against it at Francesca's wish. Duels had to end in death, and she would not bear the weight of either her father or brother's blood.
The throne room where the Rossis greeted their unwelcome Eastern guest was bright with sunlight from the tall stained-glass windows, illuminating the golden-colored stones that made up the walls. Francesca stood beside the imposing throne that her father usually occupied, when he wasn't busy with a pressing zombie horde as he was today. She wore a dress of soft blue, the color of the ocean that made her eyes sparkle. Her hair was tightly braided, an intricate design that arched over her head and down one shoulder, in the style she knew James liked least. Francesca was determined to be civil, gracious even, to prove her father wrong, so she curtsied politely. "Welcome to the West."
Angelo spared her from having to say any more. He was almost as tall as James although ten years his senior, well tanned and muscled from his years at sea, hunting pirates. He stepped forward and gave his Eastern counterpart a smile almost as false as the one he received. "Come now, James, let's work up an appetite in the ring before dinner."
Francesca had never understood how young men spent so much time practicing with their swords or, in Mario's case, axes, but she was grateful that her brothers would take James off her hands for the afternoon, and she sent Angelo a grateful smile. "I will see you at dinner, my lord."
Castile frowned slightly, but nodded his head. Social graces demanded that he get along with his future brothers in law, allies…. Francesca was fortunate he was an only child, and his father made no such demands to see James. She only had his very formidable mother to contend.
“My lady” he replied as Francesca took the opportunity to avoid him. It was easy to impress her father at least by donning armor and going to cut down a few of the shambling dead. But he wasn’t here…. And Castile wasn’t an idiot, nor did the sons hide their intent from their faces… At least not Angelo, the Green Duke admired that at the very least.
“Very well, my lords” he addressed the three brothers and motioned for his men to be dismissed. They would only be an encumbrance reporting back to the Duchess of the East, he tilted his head because surely things would take place elsewhere. “Let us get at it”.
It was Mario who filled the silence as the four men departed. A learned economist, he had questions for James about how the price of Eastern wood had risen over the last year and wondered if that was related to an increase in quality, scarcity, royal taxation, or just greed.
"Lumber, Mario?" Roberto said with a roll of his eyes, the youngest brother a pace behind the rest. "Let's worry when the price of Eastern cider goes up." It was better than wine, in his opinion, even if Francesca had copiously joked that he was a traitor for preferring Eastern drink to Western over the last few years. Drunk was drunk, he'd told her, and, well, she couldn't argue with that.
The courtyard where the nobles and knights practiced was conspicuously empty. Usually, they would armor up and grab dulled weapons for practice, but as soon as they hit sunlight, Angelo's tense silence through the whole walk exploded into a punch toward James' face.
A genuine smile curled Castile’s mouth when the two younger brothers argued about lumber and cider. It was an interesting distraction, which was probably the idea. The fist wasn’t unexpected, perhaps just the timing of it. He reeled from the force of it…
And hand to his nose came away with the blood he was sure was oozing from it. Castile gave a particularly wry grin at the older lord, “Do we have an issue, Angelo Rossi?” He raised a hand to find himself restrained by the other brothers. “Ah…. I see, well then…. Let’s get this over with or we’ll be late for dinner”.
They seethed under Castile’s skin, baring teeth. This was an indignity they did not want to suffer, fighting back was not an option if they wanted this marriage to happen. Damn the rabbit and his ridiculous feelings for that mewling…. The Green Duke couldn’t even think an insult for Francesca Rossi… The parts of him that were that stupid boy wouldn’t allow it.
“It must be tiring having to find all your sister’s lovers, eh?” he leered. This was her idea, they were sure of it. Oh, he wed her, bed her, but he would twist this love of theirs. The Duke couldn’t stand it. “Come on Angelo, you can do better” he hissed.
Angelo didn't quite make the association between Francesca's complaints that James' smile was "creepy" and the immediate impulse to punch that smile off his face, but punch he did, at his victim's request. He was a brute among the worst, and if he hadn't been a noble, Angelo would probably have been an executioner. He laid in, seeming intent on making James' handsome face unrecognizable.
"What does that mean?" Mario asked, offended at the obvious suggestion that his sister was some kind of harlot. He hooked an arm around James' neck, which allowed Roberto to toss a punch to the duke-to-be's kidney.
The Duke gasped at the impact. He was larger than them, but this thing they were tethered by was flesh and bone. “You ask when you already know the answer, fool” he wheezed out and laughed at these three lords. They had no idea….goad them, they were angry enough as it was. The eldest was easy to rise to the challenge. This was the rabbit’s fault, he’d let him take the brunt of it…. No… They were not being cowardly, this was revenge for filling them with useless emotions.
James blinked his eyes as if waking from a dreamless sleep to...pain. The Rossi brothers? What have they done this time? He grunted as a fist collided with his side, and said the only words they allowed him too. “Find...Frannie...find me” he muttered being pummeled by rightfully angry siblings.
Roberto knew (approximately) how many lovers Francesca had. He had, after all, taken her to the parties where she met them. "We only bother with the ones who hurt her," Mario chimed in, when Roberto hooked an arm around James' neck to allow his brother to add his own blows.
Francesca was upset by the way her hand-maids kept gossiping about the wedding. They had already taken to calling her "duchess," playfully, but she hated that. Flora had a thousand opinions about the wedding gown, which was ironic because it was another girl, Stella, had a thousand opinions about the flowers…
Bored and annoyed, Francesca took the quickest route back to her quarters. She hoped that maybe Roberto would take her out to one of his parties tonight. The Gonzalos were no longer staples even though she loved to see them, but Francesca had found a new lover who got her blood pumping. Antonio, a commoner but a decidedly fun one. Roberto had laughed himself breathless as he observed that the young blonde fit right in with the other Rossi boys, and it was one of the few things that made Francesca blush.
Francesca's path took her through an open hallway that looked down on the courtyard where she had watched her brothers practicing with fascination as a child, back when she had envied them, fantasizing that she, too, wanted to swing a sword or shoot an arrow. Her hand-maids twittered behind her, empty noise. But her attention was drawn by real noise - the sound of blows, grunts, angered words. She paused, eyes drifting downward…
Her brothers, all three of them, were beating James Castile. She paused in her step, watching interestedly. Could the monster even feel pain…?
"You raped our sister," Angelo accused, when he paused to examine his bloodied fist and let Roberto have his turn. He was surprised and disappointed when the man seemed to start calling to a girl for help - he had expected Castile to be tougher than that. "Lovers don't do that."
Their words were worse than the abuse they were physically putting him through. James struggle against them, growling because he knew it was true but unable to hear it. This thing he had become had hurt the one person he cared about the most, and would probably keep hurting her.
“nnnNNNnnn…..Frannie….!” he rumbled out her name, and dragged the two younger lords forward. Maybe they would kill him, if he riled them up. He doubted it, they were all pieces of a game and wouldn’t be removed from the board until it was time. Fate was a cruel thing. He snarled in frustration.
He rolled his head as Roberto laid into his side, looked up and saw….her. Oh no….anyone but his Francesca, why did Fate treat them so badly? What had they done to merit this cruelty? He had a hand free and raised it, not against the young lords but in a common signal to pause in a spar. He had to shift his gaze, not in front of her…. He shook his head, he’d take whatever he deserved but not in front of her.
His Frannie had suffered so much already. Don’t let her look at him.
Francesca held her breath as she watched. She had never cared for violence, blood made her stomach uneasy, but she hated that monster and it was strangely satisfying to see him suffer. But it didn't take long for her to notice that something was wrong. He should have been fighting back, and taunting them while he did. It wasn't hard to imagine the kind of things he would say… And when he looked up at her, she clearly saw the sadness that let her know the monster had left the building, just like he had in the woods. The realization made her feel like a hand reached into her chest to rip out her heart… a cold hand.
"Stop! Stop! Angelo!" Francesca screamed. She was certain this was her eldest brother's idea, and she had no idea how far they would go. Her hands grabbed up her skirt so she could run, down the stairs at the edge of the hallway.
"Stay back, Francesca - " Angelo said, but his sister was running at them fast enough that he had to intercept her, lifting her easily and tossing her over his shoulder to walk the flailing girl back to the bottom of the staircase. "This needs to happen so he knows he can never hurt you again."
The other two lords continued their assault; as far as they were concerned, Francesca should have been happy to see that they cared enough to do something even if their father wouldn't.
"Jamie? Jamie, I'm sorry!" Francesca cried.
His face contorted in utter anguish at the sound of her voice crying out for him. James literally drag the two young lords around even as they restrained and assaulted his form. He put his back to her so she couldn’t see his face.
His heart hurt more than anything to have caused her so much pain. James never thought the choice he made in the deep woods would affect his love in such a way. He had hoped she would have moved on and married. But Fate didn’t care what he wanted… or what Francesca wanted… they were just pawns.
He wished he could say more than her name, but his curse… the deal he made… this thing he had become wouldn’t allow it. James flicked his fingers in a gesture for her to just go, spare herself and in turn she would spare him.
Mario and Roberto were trained fighters, and they weren't phased by James fighting back. They expected it, and continued their attacks, without realizing the significance of him turning away. Both, though, were distracted by Francesca's insistent cries, not understanding why she was objecting. James had hurt her, after all….
"Angelo, no, this is awful," Francesca cried, tears of horror and fear running down her cheeks. Crippling weakness and nausea had her falling to her knees as sobs racked her body. He assumed she was just being a woman, sensitive and caring, even when there was no reason for it.
Angelo returned to the beating to speak intently to James, as his brothers teamed up to drag James to the ground. He seized the man's brutalized jaw forcefully and spat, "If you hurt my sister again, I will bring an army, and we will burn your forest down."
What could he do beside nod his head in response? But how could he trust the thing he had become to keep its word. If this remain between young lords and one young lady, none of their parents would know what had come to past. James squeezed his eyes closed, and nodded his head.
The Rossi brothers did not stop until they were certain their message was written across Castile's entire body. His injuries would be conspicuous and their father angry, they knew, but it was only fair to assume that his assault would be treated no differently than Francesca's had, quietly and politically. When they were done with him, Angelo and Mario took James to his chambers.
Roberto went to his sobbing sister. He reached for her, but he was covered in the blood of her betrothed and Francesca couldn't bear to let him hold her. He could only nod, accepting her anger but refusing to apologize. Her hand-maids came to her side instead, speaking soft reassurances while Roberto withdrew.
Francesca's pretty face was contorted in horror and sadness, eyes red, cheeks wet, hands shaking. Her Jamie was trapped, he had so little time in this world, and the fact that he was spending it paying for the crimes of the monster who…
As she caught her breath, Francesca realized, hopefully, that if the beast had abandoned Jamie for the beating, it was likely he would let Jamie do the painful work of cleaning and dressing his wounds. There might yet be time for her to see him! Flora and Stella helped their lady to her feet, and Francesca was off in a hurry toward the guest quarters.
By the time she arrived, her brothers were nowhere to be seen, the door unlocked, so Francesca slipped in, quietly, but left her hand on the door. "Jamie? Are you still here?"
“Yes...Frannie…” he roughly grunted from the far side of the room. Standing half cloaked in shadows he stepped backwards when she came in further. “Don’t look at me…” he rasped out, fingers going to his mouth in surprise that words actually issued forth.
James wasn’t sure if it was a gift, or more likely a simply lapses in control of the thing that shared his skin. But he knew the cursed deal he had made would not let him explain to Francesca, how could she ever forgive him for being so foolish… for becoming this beast?
“I’m...so...sorry...Frannie” he wheezed out the words passed aching, bruised ribs. James had his head low, and turned with a hand raised to block her from seeing the damage. He hurt, but seeing her and hearing her cries were more painful than any fist.
The sight of him broke her heart, and it was worse because she knew it was her fault. As he asked, she looked away as fresh tears fell down her cheeks. She had baited the monster in the woods and she had been willing to suffer in the hope it would break their engagement, but she hadn't wanted this… "Flora, bring warm water and wine!" Francesca asked through the door, then closed it.
When she heard James speak, her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Did it work?" Francesca asked, her voice full of desperate hope. She crossed the room - she needed to see his eyes, even if they were quickly blackening and swelling. Her hands itched to touch him, to hold him, to kiss away the pain she had brought on him. Quickly, she explained, "The scholars say that if you can make the changeling suffer enough, it will abandon the person it infected. Did it work, Jamie? Is it gone?"
“W-what?’ He asked at first, face making an unsure expression around damaged skin. Grunting an acknowledgement to her words James shook his head.
“It’s...sleeping…like a bear in winter” he said in a low tone like they could awaken it. “I’m a fool...doubly cursed…I have brought nothing but misfortune”. His hands reached out to Francesca, “I am so sorry my beloved”.
His words were so sorrowful that the hand around Francesca's heart twisted again. As soon as his hands moved toward her, she eagerly moved close. She was careful not to embrace him and risk pressing his bruises, but she leaned into him as she cried freely and calmed as James comforted her. Francesca was not exactly an intelligent woman, but her brain was working through all the information she had. James knew that the monster was still there, but it was sleeping. Why? He could speak… why?
With a gasp, Francesca pulled back. "The armor. You haven't worn it, have you? Maybe the wolf's weaker without it..." Maybe this was the key, and she stepped back as her eyes searched the room frantically, but it was all trunks yet unpacked. "Where is it, Jamie? Angelo has a ship - he can dump it in the ocean…."
Touching the side of his temple, James frowned slightly at the lump there. “It’s not that simple, Francesca” he said glancing at the huge wooden chest where the armor currently resided. “I… made a bargain…” there were very few devils to do such things in Eventyr.
He moved to the chest and opened the lid, the armor sat like glittering green treasure. James rested a hand on the helmet, “Everyday I become more and more tangled, like the roots of two trees. We either grow together, or strangle one another…”. He patted the armor, “This is not where it lives, my sweetest Frannie…” James moved his hand to his chest. “...he’s here, in this skin. Just as I am in that one”.
Francesca wanted nothing more than to be in his arms, but… as soon as she asked about the armor, he was there, stroking it the way he should have been stroking her. It made her feel cold, and alone and maybe jealous, even though she knew it was Jamie with her. He made their situation seem hopeless, as though it would only get worse over their years as husband and wife. She stood behind him, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder.
"If…. if that's true, Jamie, and the armor doesn't matter…." Francesca said, suspicious. If his fate was intertwined with the beast's, he would want to downplay his weaknesses. "Then give it to me. Angelo will dump it. We can ask scholars about how to move forward."
He sighed tilting his head to rest a cheek against the top of her hand. “Frannie...it does matter, it’s part of it”. James angled his face toward hers slightly, “Our scholars are fools with their collective heads stuck in their books.” His brow furrowed, “I’ll fix it, Francesca…..I promise”.
His hand covered hers gently, “Or I’ll end it”. But James Castile would try to find a way to be truly free. He had escaped one prison…… mostly….. he could find a way again. He laced his fingers with hers.
Francesca managed to crack a smile at his joke about scholars - for just that moment, he felt so authentically James that her heart warmed and she fell in love with him all over again. And so she nodded, trusting once more that he would figure this out. She had expected him to take care of her her whole life, and it was easy with his gentle touches and sweet words, to believe that he would after all.
A soft knock announced Flora's return and Francesca withdrew to retrieve the supplies she brought - more than she had asked for, actually, which impressed the young duchess-to-be, even if she didn't know what the various creams and herbs were for. Francesca herself didn't know anything about dressing wounds, but James would since hunters often needed to tend their own wounds before healers could be reached, and he could direct her. She pulled James gently to the bed and gave his tunic a gentle tug.
"You didn't deserve this, Jamie," Francesca whispered, her lips brushing skin on his collarbone that didn't look bruised in the gentlest kiss. There was heat in her voice, but she tried to restrain it as she said, "I want to help you feel better."
He mentally begged the beast to allow him to have this time with his fiancee…. There was a yellowish flower among the ingredients her haid-maiden brought and if one didn’t know better they would have thought it a simple decoration. Pulling off a few petals he tossed it into the warm water.
“You make me better by just being here with me. You are my light, Frannie” James replied as he smelled a few of the items that were more Western in nature. His curiosity seemed to have survived all the trauma of the last few years at least.
He unbuttoned the large polished fasteners of the vest over his tunic, and half undressed himself. Taking a cloth to the water with the petals he soaked it and then wrung it out, folded it and held it against one eye. James glanced at Francesca from the side of his good eye, moved the bowl and pulled her closer.
Re-soaking the cloth he wrung it again, before examining a jar and sniffing the cream inside. “Use a cloth, or your hands will feel..funny…” James explained as he pressed the cloth back to his eye, the water was taking on a pink tinge. “...If...you could do my back…?”
She had asked to help but he felt he was a burden to her. James stifled a bitter laugh, idiot… you are a burden, the worst kind. And yet when they were together, even with him being...incomplete… a vessel… she still wanted him, loved him. He did not deserve such devotion.
She may have bedded others, but James knew it was never like they were. He reached up to cup her face lovingly, his sun.
Over the last years, Francesca had become fundamentally sad. She still sought her pleasures, of course, but it was hard for a young woman who had been raised with the express mission of becoming a wife to suffer the different but both abhorrent losses of both her betrothed. Rafael couldn't touch her, and - usually - she preferred it when James wouldn't.
But getting these moments alone with Jamie made her sadness glow, with a strange hope. He pulled her in close and she moved against him, careful not to worsen his injuries, even though she wanted to feel his skin against her own. When he cupped her face, her lips hovered over his, the ache apparent more in the desire in her face than the swelling of his.
"I'll try to be gentle." Francesca maneuvered to her knees on the mattress, pulling her skirt out of the way and coaxing James gently to his stomach. At his advice, she used a cloth to administer the cream across his bruises, but her eyes were keen and to any inch of skin that did not look blackened or swollen, she pressed a kiss. She thought she felt him wince, and she withdrew as quickly as if she had been struck. "Jamie, I'm sorry, did I hurt you?"
“The cream….it’s cold...it’s a foolish thing considering….” he half turned to give her an embarrassed expression that was nothing but simply all James. His skin was flush where there were no bruises, and he reached to place a reassuring hand on her.
He rolled over and gestured with the hand that wasn’t holding the compress to his eye. “Just come lay with me, Frannie” James insisted before she got called away. He would have her in his arms, pressed against him. Breathe in the scent of her hair, feel her hands on his bare flesh…her warmth. Just to be together in this moment of peace, even if it had to be so hard won.
"Considering my hands are warm?" Francesca assumed the end of his thought, and she enfolded his hand in hers when he touched her, and then pressed his palm to her cheek, still hot from crying. She remembered what his hands had felt like when they were warm, too, years ago, the way he would run them over her back and down her thighs…
At his bidding, she moved in close and tucked her body against his as she laid down beside him. As her eyes and her fingertips gently ran over his torso, she couldn't help but think of her brothers. Mario would be furious to know she was laying in bed with James now, but Roberto would be glad to see that their treatment had changed the way he was treating her. Even though they couldn't understand - even if she tried to tell them, no one would see the duality of her fiance the way she did. The quiet intimacy of the moment was lovely, perhaps especially because they knew that, like a flower, it would wilt and die soon, but Francesca wasn't willing to squander it. She pressed a kiss to his bicep, right by her face, and tugged at the laces below her collar bone, eager to feel his skin against her own.
A hum of pleasure escaped his frame even if it made parts of him ache a little. Her hands were warm and they felt good against his skin. “Why can we not hold onto this peace…?” he mumbled softly into her golden hair. And he had been right...it did smell good.
James reached up to touch her red painted lips with the ends of his fingers, and rub at the dried tracks of her tears. “You deserve better, my love” so much sadness, what had she ever done to merit it?
His fingers drifted to her collarbone to just below where she had unlaced her bodice. Feeling the warmth of her skin, the beat of her heart.
"No, no, James, don't let that monster tell you that," Francesca whispered, shaking her head and knowing how many times he had said as much to her, and she could only imagine what it was like to hear that in your own head. His sweet touches and his soft voice comforted her, made her feel less alone in all of this. "You deserve me - just you, but you. We would have been happy." If he had never disappeared, if he hadn't been infected by this monster that they hid from, that they didn't know how to defeat. They could have had those lazy days in bed that she had dreamed of from a kingdom away…
Francesca propped herself up on one elbow and pulled the loosened fabric of her dress away, baring skin down to her navel. Her usually-pale skin had a warm golden color after time back home, after being kissed by the sun again, and it was conspicuous that there was no distinction in tone where her dress' neckline should have been, alluding to afternoons on the beach clothed only in the blue waters of the West.
James dropped the cloth back in the bowl, and abandoned it altogether to press his mouth against Francesca’s neck. “I should have refused Philip’s ridiculous idea to venture so far alone”, he grunted out.
But his brother was the crown prince, one day to be king. And truthfully curiosity had gotten the better of the young duke to be. James’ fingers traced the slight curve of his betrothed’s breasts, “I walk and talk, and yet I am cursed to not only be unable to free myself. But I can not speak of it beyond vague...clues. I am a puzzle with the pieces of another in all the missing places”.
He sighed and placed a kiss at the top of Francesca’s bosoms and worked his way around the supple flesh. “So beautiful” he mumbled in an approving tone.
"Yes, you should have refused!" Francesca chided. So this had been Philip's fault? Not completely - Philip couldn't have known what he was getting into, but James surely had. "How many times did you warn the forest was dangerous?" It was a childish notion to suppose that what was dangerous for a lady was just as dangerous for trained knights and princes, but it made her frown all the same. As did his vagueness about a curse. Surely, a changeling was a type of curse, but that didn't tell them how to solve it…
But his kisses were quickly wiping the displeasure from her face. She was visibly frustrated that she couldn't freely touch him in return, desire written clearly across her features and the taut flesh under his lips. If she couldn't touch him with her hands without hurting an injury, though, she supposed she still could with her words. "I still think about you," Francesca whispered. About their afternoon at the river, yes, and their stolen encounter in the wine cellar, absolutely… but she even if she wouldn't admit it, there had been something powerful about the fear in the woods as well. "When I'm alone in bed."
“I can never say no to my brother’s requests, however it is my own folly I can blame no other…” James said nuzzling her flesh. He looked up at her from between her breasts at those sweet words. “I always think of you...in the darkness… I wait to find you” he replied in a low hoarse tone, nipping at her skin.
“If I recall… you like to be touched… here” James purred to her, his hands venturing under her skirts. “I want to give you something to think about besides our troubles” he peppered her with little kisses. He wanted to have something for when the beast but him back in the darkness.
“Show me what you like, my Francesca so I can think about you”.
Francesca melted under his hands, already biting her lip and grasping his shoulder tighter than she should have. But she realized that and shook her head, "Jamie, you're hurt - you don't have to…" It was selfish, she knew, to have imposed on him to help dress his wounds and then instead let him satisfy her instead, but James was clearly stronger than the pain and how often did they have this chance…? When his hands made their way under her skirts, she let out a squeal loud enough that she worried Flora and Stella would hear outside, and she clamped a hand over her mouth and tried to breathe.
His question, though, brought a rare blush across her cheeks. She loved to be touched there, but what she really liked? Well, she didn't think lords did that sort of thing. Antonio would do it for hours, but he was a commoner of the lowest class. It was one reason she liked him, even if Roberto joked otherwise. And, sure, she had gotten Rafael to do it, but he hadn't known anything when she got to him and he had been so excitable he would try anything. So, torn, Francesca did not actually answer James question', but she did bite her lip when James' large hand moved and swallowed another cry that might have given them away..
James kissed her to swallow the sounds of her pleasure, stroked her slowly. He smiled lazily at her, “I don’t have to, Frannie, but I want to….” he said between soft little kisses. A hand touched her cheeks as they grew rosy, the other kept a slow, steady rhythm.
“Don’t be shy, my love” he teased her almost boyishly. James wanted to give her something to remember him by… even when she wasn’t alone.
Francesca knew that if he kept on like he was, with those strong, steady pulses, that she would climax, and soon. Her steady panting made that clear enough; it was mostly the way she kept trying to grab or kiss him in her desperate pleasure that kept her from getting completely lost in her pleasure, because she was not willing to hurt him anymore…
Embarrassed, she glanced away, toward the corner with the window that looked out on a rosebush. "Could you…" her eyes rolled up and she had to force the words out, even though her hand still stoked his neck gently. His hand was moist and skillful and she wasn't sure it was worth it to disrupt an already-good thing. "Could you… kiss me? Right there, where you're touching me?"
His brows arched up high curiously and in surprise, and then he smiled widely and boyishly. “Where ever do you come up with such ideas, Frannie?” James asked her playfully, although truthfully he didn’t want to know. He moved to find a better position, and pushed Francesca’s skirts out of the way.
Leaning down he pushed his arms under Francesca’s legs to angle her pelvis upward more, and pressed his lips to the juncture between her thighs. His brow furrowed slightly, sure that he wasn’t doing what Frannie wanted… at least not right. He leaned down again and pressed his lips to her a second time, and mouthed her. Curiously tasted her. His mouth curled slightly as his betrothed seemed enthralled by the action.
It didn't take him long to figure it out, and Francesca's hands gripped the fine blankets beneath her as she restrained a scream that surely would have reached beyond the castle walls. Usually, Francesca closed her eyes to focus on the sensations, but this time, she couldn't tear them away from her fiance's face as he tasted her and watched her, in turn, writhe and arch with pleasure powerful enough that a weaker man might not have been able to hold her. The fact that it was so taboo made it so much better, and it didn't take long before she crashed over the edge.
She only took a moment to catch her breath, and she was drawing James up to kiss him, happily and gratefully and the taste of herself on his lips was desperately erotic. So she smiled, saucily, and promised, "You're going to love it too," as her hands dipped to his breeches.
James looked like a confused boy, although he was no longer a teenager. He trusted Francesca, embarrassingly she had more experience than himself in these situations now. At least...the real him...he wasn’t so sure about his other half.
He lifted his hips to help push his leather riding pants out of the way. James would be a poor liar to say he wasn’t aroused by the strange notion of her kissing him someplace other than his lips.
Francesca's experience was quite apparent, from the comfortable position she assumed to the pressure of the strokes of her hands, to the fact that she no longer looked intimidated but rather excited by his size. Although she it was once her plan to try to hide that fact in their wedding bed, hardly wanting her knight of a husband to wonder how many times or with whom she had done this before. But, the cat was out of the bag on that, and she was more interested in using what she knew to make this rare moment they shared the best it could be. And damn what the wolf would say about it later.
It began as kissing, and Francesca was amused to see the paint from her lips left behind, but then it progressed to licking, then longer licks, and after a leisurely period of teasing, Francesca began trying to swallow as much of his length as she could…
“Oh!Oooooohhhh….” James eyes widened and his back arched involuntarily. She was right. He did love it, he loved her… And he tried not to think about Francesca being like this with another. His fingers snaked into her hair, and fisted the golden tresses but he resisted pulling on them.
“Frannie...please…” his voice was rough, and strained. “I-I need you… now…”
Francesca loved this part - when her partner needed her so much he begged for her - but she had no intention of relegating this first time for him to mere foreplay. Of course, he probably thought that seed belonged only between her legs, but he was wrong and she relished the idea of torturing her proper-knight fiance with pleasure…
So she released him from her mouth with a pop! of suction, but even though her lips were free, for just a moment, she didn't explain or reassure, she just smiled seductively, shook her head, and went back down on him, even more aggressively.
Much like she had been earlier, James had to find a way not to cry out loudly in ecstasy and surprise. His lower lip suffered being gnashed between his teeth. His legs scrambled nervously trapped in his breeches, as he clearly tried to resist the inevitable. Either to prolong the heady feeling of Francesca’s mouth or to spare it from what he clearly thought was ‘most undignified’ to do to his beloved.
But James was very much that boy without his other half, and like any young man nature and will power didn’t always commune. He couldn’t help himself and her name erupted from his mouth in a long garbled moan. Back arching, and coiling as sweet relief came….
And a moment later instant mortification. “Frannie! I’m- I’m so sorry!” James stammered out. He wasn’t exactly ever a proper young noble, but this would definitely put both their mothers in an early grave.
So why did his fiancée look like the cat that ate the canary?
As soon as she had swallowed, Francesca burst into a fit of delighted laugher at the horror on his face. She hated that there was so much stigma around the act - it should have been the most joyous thing in the world! She crawled up into his arms and enjoyed looking at the wild array of their clothes, loose around the sheets in utter chaos.
"What in the world were you worried about?" she teased, "You enjoyed tasting me; I know you did. And this way, no one has to worry about babies..." The thought reminded her, uncomfortably, that their wedding had been moved up due to just that concern, and she wondered if she would be able to hold on to Jaime until then, or even after. If she could have such days with him, maybe she could be happy after all.
James bit his lower lip… face going slightly red, but not as rosy as one would expect. He smiled around the expression and lean forward to kiss her, and lick at her mouth. Cool fingers combing through her hair in affection. “We’re fortunate your handmaidens didn’t come in to see what the noise was about…. I’m sure someone would have thought you were murdering your betrothed” he laughed, and then his face fell…
He cupped her face with his hands gently, “Oh...my dearest love…”. Seeing her laugh and tease him, seemingly so happy… James would give the world to see her like this always, he had already given up part of himself to come back to her… To come back home.
"Either way, they knew to stay outside and keep watch," Francesca joked in return, kissing his fingers gently and settling in at his side, the length of her body pressed against his. The roller coaster of emotions through the day, exertion, and deep satisfaction, she realized, had exhausted her, and the warm comfort of his embrace had her dozing before she knew it.
The way she spoke, her mannerisms, all screamed of Francesca Rossi. The part of him that was James Castile felt something, perhaps some misguide guilt. But the Green Duke only felt an almost orgasmic sense of pleasure at the sound of Jocasta's scream as he hacked through her wing. Watching that haughty look of pride and her taunts faltering.
Jocasta: "You're so angry. No wonder you laid a red carpet in your land for the king of wolves…"
Jude: "Oh not too far for the honor, your grace," "Many seem to agree."
"Oh, yes!" Francesca said, her whole body lighting up. Her brows raised, her shoulders sashayed, her feet seemed rhythmic in their shifting for a moment as her attention moved to the room. Indeed, Bryonie was right - many people had arrived, and that was delightful.
...Rafael had not.
It was better, that Rafael was not among the many who had arrived…
It was better.
"Many see, now, that King's City is hardly the beacon of… stability and security that it once was," Francesca said, and took a sip of her drink - and, conservatively, made sure-sure-sure her partner did the same.
"I knew that the unconventionality..." the queen said, thoughtfully watching her companion for any struggle with the unnecessarily complicated term. "...of the West's independence might reasonably worry the civilians." A smile. "I am so glad that it has not."
Francesca tilted her head a bit, studying Jude's face with piercing eyes. "...What brought you tonight, Bryonie?"
James: "As if you do, Jocasta?" "I'm sure he'll be more than happy to discuss it with you""Insufferable weed" "Bloodsucking whore"
The way that Jocasta's reacted - watching James as he put his helm back on and cut down the carniflower, the feeling of that sticky steel blade at her throat - was peculiar and quite telling. The tilt of her head, the heaving of her chest as she lifted her chin, the way she sucked in and hissed out her breath… she seemed to do it just to satisfy the Duke's expectation that she would. It was exaggerated, performative… strangely, familiar.
And her words came out with exactly the same rhythm and cadence that Francesca's would have: "I am not a whore. Whores do it for money. I do it for fun." So close, in fact, that it sounded an intentional taunt.
James: "How doth your garden grow, Jocasta?" "Why it grows with sunlight doesn't it?" "I hear that you won't die unless I cut off your head, let's find out".
The scream Jocasta let out of her throat made the trees shudder. She convulsed, her hands reaching to apply pressure to the seeping wound where her wing used to be. The energy - indeed, even the energy from her attacker gleaned from her scream - helped, but not enough. It hurt like hell… and how would she get back to her sisters without the gift of flight?
Knowing she was already dead, the Duke's threat didn't land. Pain mattered, but not life. Jocasta gritted her teeth as her bravado fell away and her lips pulled back savagely: "You're so angry. No wonder you laid a red carpet in your land for the king of wolves…"
Mathias: "...I'm sure you know, vampires take this to an unhealthy degree. Their needs consume their partners. And, sometimes, they take their partners and change them into new vampires. More of the same, historically-speaking. But, maybe, if dark magic were involved, some licentious ritual, some sacrifice drawing on the most profane corruption of passion, a new, more powerful form of vampire could be born of it... And one aware and capable of dark rituals to create new creatures would be a great threat, indeed."
Raf: "A dark ritual in the deep forests of the East, maybe?" "Perhaps one involving twelve maidens and a grief-stricken King," "who had been having an affair with Francesca?"
"Francesca played Philip like a fiddle," Malia concluded, the distasteful curl on her lip broadcasting her disgust and the resulting nausea loud and clear. Malia understood it, instantly, because the plan had crossed her own mind - many times. But she had never been able to risk Eventyr in her pursuit of status. Killing the king had been her most extreme move, but she had made it only once the king had lost all confidence of the people and she'd set James up as the clear successor….
Malia had never expected such a betrayal from a quarter of the kingdom. Her jaw clenched, but she gritted out, "So… you suggest that Francesca Rossi is the greatest existential threat Eventyr has ever faced?" A breathy exhalation betrayed how very floored the Duchess was to speak those words...
"But..." Malia pushed, and the intensity of her panic redirected to a focused steadiness now, as she placed her hands on the back of her seat and leaned forward. "How would Francsca know how to execute such a ritual?" Perhaps the king had told her?
But that wasn't the most compelling question, was it?
Why? Why would a Duchess do this?
"Why… why would Francesca want to open a plague on Eventyr? Or, two plagues?" The zombies and the winged-vampires both…
And, unbidden, Malia's eyes darted toward - and then settled - on Rafael. The truth was that Mathias knew Francesca no more than Malia did, but Rafael knew the rogue duchess on a level they couldn't dream.
Malia's lips didn't move - her dark eyes smoldered with expectation as she held Rafael's gaze. Was Francesca power-hungry? Out for revenge? Or just the vampires' pawn...?
James frowned at the vampiress and her critical view of him. He was tired of being judged by the living, and the not quite dead. Jocasta was a brainless slip of a girl when she was alive, and that hadn't changed with her death. She snarled and the Green Duke bristled to the challenge. Her queen..... Francesca, how did they fall so far from what they had been?
<"That thing inside you is not one of us. It does not even wear green…." "You ask me what I am, but do you even know what you are?" >
>>>Sarnai: "You have a wife," ... "And children. That is how you know so much about new babies?" ... "Or," she tipped her head in curiosity, "do they have baby classes at the college?"
Her question, once she got around to it, was almost startling - a wife? Kids? With what time? And while he didn't doubt there were 'baby classes' at the college, it hadn't occurred to him to need any. Which, it was occurring to him now, might have been a bit odd. At least enough for someone to take notice, which lead Killick to wonder how exactly babies survived in a place where people knew so little of them.
>>>Marcus: “Dangerous parts, these woods are. What sort of business do you have out here?”
So it was that moments after his companion had been stricken briefly wordless, so was he - only for a shout to cut through the answer he'd nearly managed to get his mouth around. Instinctively, his hand slid over the pommel of the knife at his side. He hadn't seen nor heard the approach and so it set on him uneasily.
>>>Sarnai: "Just passing through,"
"As the girl says," Killick agreed with a smile that said he didn't want any trouble. "We'll be out of it quick as we can." Which, hopefully, was enough not to incur any of the myriad fees folk who announced themselves with those words liked to exact - crossing tolls, and the like.
>>>Francesca: "Have you travelled far to join us tonight?"
Her smile was small, tight, a little uncertain as the Queen repeated her name - not once, but twice, and in the back of her head, Jude wondered if she had made a misstep. Was there a well known family in the area of the name? Or was it too generic, to actually wind up being suspicious after all?
But Jude, of course, was no simpleton. The pallid lack of tint in the woman's face wasn't powder the way some courts preferred their ladies - none settled into even the most requisite creases, and Jude was fairly certain that the kind of tinted creams Earth offered for that dewy, pale look weren't available in the Realm. So while she might have overlooked that the Queen of the West was on the thinner side, a little too eager about this evening, altogether... It smelled fishy.
How, though, was precisely her aim to discover.
"Oh not too far for the honor, your grace," She smiled humbly, tucking her chin in a brief display of reverence. She did let her gaze sneak back upward, just a bit, though - the Queen was, after all, lovely. It wouldn't do to pretend otherwise, and might honestly be an offense. "Many seem to agree." Her subtle gesture outward with her one free hand echoed the very constrained way she seemed to broach the entire affair - as though, of course, she had no business being in such a place, among such people, and ought to take up as little space as possible.
In the quiet between her question and what she assumed would be Killick's answer, the perk of her horse's ears caught Sarnai's attention only seconds before she heard the sound of footsteps. No, she realized, not footsteps but hoofbeats. Too heavy for a deer or elk, could be a moose, maybe, but what it really sounded like was--
A shod horse. Carrying a rider.
Marcus: “Ho, travellers!” ... “Dangerous parts, these woods are. What sort of business do you have out here?”
Beneath her, the gelding drew to a stop at the soft tug on his reins, her sudden wariness causing the animal to toss his head and snort a puff of steam into the cold air. Sarnai's hand went to the hilt of her short sword, resting there but not gripping; she wasn't helpless, the gesture clearly stated, and she'd defend herself, her son, and her companion if this stranger meant them harm. She wished she had a bow instead, though. And her own horse. "Just passing through," she answered vaguely, eyes cutting to Killick before settling back on the man in front of them.