Who: Francesca and Rafael
When: Spring, 859 ROK
Where: Duke's Castle, Western Plains
"...I liked the second band best, if I'm honest, but would it be a scandal to have players from the South at our wedding? Does that say we don't have good enough musicians here in the West? The South might be a wasteland, but they do know their music… I don't think it matters; we should have the band we like," Francesca prattled on.
Francesca's tongue was quite loose since she was well into her second cup of wine since settling onto the plush chaise in the guest quarters where she sat, watching her father's personal tailor making adjustments to Rafael's suit for the wedding. It had been a long day of wedding planning - since she saw so little of her fiance these days, she'd tried to pack as much as she could into the few days they had together. The few days that Francesca was pretty sure she only got because she had insisted that her mother talk to Rafael's mother…
But it had been a frustrating day more than anything, and although Francesca had done her best to be patient, she was annoyed that Rafael wasn't meeting her halfway. "Do you have an opinion at all?"
Rafael had long since tuned out Francesca's words, her voice melting into nothing but white noise as he struggled to keep his composure. His skin was crawling, muscles so taut they threatened to cramp, his heart beating against his ribs like a trapped thing, as Duke Giovanni's tailor messed with the waist of his pants. It was innocent, the man simply doing his job, but every base instinct told Rafael to screamfightrun . . .
Suddenly Rafael couldn't breathe, the soft velvet collar of the doublet suffocatingly tight, and he reached up to tug at it. Sweat sprang up on his forehead and the faint tear of popped stitches had the tailor glancing up sharply.
"Stop," Rafael gasped, shoving the man's hands away and taking three quick strides across the room. He pulled at the collar again, panicked fingers unable to navigate the tiny pearl buttons holding it closed . . .
Francesca straightened at the outburst, brows raising in confusion as Rafael suddenly withdrew. Her lips parted as she prepared to ask what the matter was… but she stopped short. Rising, setting her glass aside, and pulling her skirt away from her feet as she stepped forward, Francesca made enough of a show of herself to draw the tailor's attention away.
"Please - go have your dinner," Francesca said, her voice artificially pleasant as she reached for the first plausible reason to get rid of the man who seemed to have upset her fiance. "We will send for you when you are needed."
The tailor made his exit immediately, leaving behind his kit, even though craftsmen were known for treating their tools like an extension of their bodies. So, any hope Francesca held out that he hadn't noticed how very odd Rafael's behavior was went out the window.
Once he was gone and the door clicked to signal as much, Francesca turned back toward Rafael, but all she could do was lift her hands in a silent inquiry.
"I--I can't . . ." Rafael gasped, and then there was another rip of careful stitches and a handful of tiny buttons clattered across the floor, bringing with it the oddest sense of relief. He sank down into the nearest armchair, elbows on knees as he sucked in deep lungfuls of air and it was only then, as his heart began to slow and panic began to ebb, that he allowed himself to look at Francesca.
She seemed confused, and maybe a bit annoyed, and he realized then that he'd done something wrong. "I'm sorry," he said softly, embarrassed. "It was just . . . it was too tight." That was a lie and he knew that Francesca would recognize it as such. The doublet had fit like a glove, yes, but it was hardly too tight. "And it's warm in here," he continued, grabbing for any excuse he could find and wishing that his wine hadn't been left on the other side of the room because he could really use a drink . . .
Francesca was quick on the uptake, for her first instinct was to turn and fill Rafael's cup to the brim with wine. She brought it to him, but offered it as she parted his legs and sat in his lap. She thought she was being helpful when her hand went to undo the buttons that he was struggling with so much. She buried her face in his neck, inhaled deeply, let her hand play across his chest.
"There's no problem," Francesca reassured him, her voice low and smooth, as she placed a kiss on his neck. His excuses didn't make sense, but she didn't care. He was a Lord, and his servants would be or not be wherever and whenever he wanted them. And if he wasn't pleased with his clothing? Well, Francesca was the perfect companion for that problem. It had been so long since she had seen Rafael, and with the sun setting, she finally had enough excuse to touch him the way she wanted to, and it was her intent to rid him of the clothing he did not like. Her teeth seized his ear, as every cell in her body ached to be touched, "I missed you, Hapha."
Rafael took the offered wine and had the goblet halfway to his lips when Francesca was suddenly there, climbing into his lap and nuzzling into his neck, her hands working the buttons open further down his chest. She was so beautiful, so alluring, and this was the sort of attention he'd always enjoyed from her so why were his hands suddenly shaking and drenched in sweat?
Touch her, he told himself. She's your wife-to-be and she deserves to be touched . . .
Yet no matter how hard he tried, Rafael couldn't seem to get his hands to obey. His entire body felt heavy and non-responsive - numb - and he felt apart from himself, as if watching their moments together from some dark corner. He could see her hand sliding across his chest, her lips on his neck . . . but when her teeth nipped at his ear, bringing a quick flash of pain, Rafael was suddenly in his body again. He sucked in a gasp and jerked his head away, eyebrows knitting as he tried desperately to find the words he needed.
"Fran--" He was barely aware of the wine sloshing over the rim of his glass, dripping over his hand. "I don't--wait. Wait."
Francesca, though, was quite absorbed in the direction she was going. She was starved for his attention; while she had never exactly been the faithful type, having a fiance so close had curbed her desire to mess around, and that made her desire potent. His scent easily took her back to that abandoned manor, her fingernails raked across his scalp.... Even when he turned his head away, Francesca just took that as a prompt and moved to her knees between his legs.
It wasn't really until she felt wine wet her sleeve that she pulled back. He hadn't been drinking like she had; it was weird that he was so careless with his glass. Her gaze lifted to study his face - and she had no idea what to make of the expression she saw there. Her hands rested on his knees, and she shook her head as she looked up at him expectantly. "You don't what?" Francesca asked. She cast a glance over her shoulder as if she expected that he had seen her father there, but they were quite alone. "Why? What's wrong?"
Rafael pulled in a deep breath, trying to focus on calming his racing heart, and he found himself desperate to not disappoint his future wife. "Nothing," he answered quickly, setting the goblet on the floor next to the chair. "I'm fine."
There was still a fine tremor in his hands as he settled them on Francesca's slim waist but, even so, he leaned in to kiss her as he'd done countless times before. The wine on her lips reminded him of their first night together and he latched onto that memory. Her skin had been pale and lovely against his, her hair had slipped through his fingers like spun silk, and she'd been thoroughly captivating with every breath and gasp and moan that had escaped her lips . . .
So much so, that even now he only wanted to make her happy. He wanted to give her the wedding of her dreams, be a husband worthy of her attention, and in this moment, he wanted desperately to ignore the whispering in his head. And he could, he knew it, he only needed distraction. So he forced his hands to work her bodice loose, sure that once he had access to that flawless bare skin, his body would wake and he could get this over with.
Her clothing was much easier to remove than his and loosened quickly. Her dress was a lightweight cotton dyed a vibrant blue - "...to match your eyes," the handsome merchant had purred, punctuating his sales pitch. Well, more likely it was merchant's son; the shrewd traders of the West knew the Duke's daughter was more likely to be entranced by a pretty face, charm, and compliments than the actual quality of the goods. Between Rafael's fingers on the gold laces and her tugs at the shoulders, the lovely fabric fell away and pooled at her waist.
But especially without the buffer of fabric, it was impossible for Francesca not to notice the trembling in Rafael's hands. Hoping to quell whatever nerves were plaguing him, Francesca pulled one hand up to her mouth and kissed the center of his palm. At first, her kiss was gentle and reassuring, as if all he needed was permission to touch her freely or affirmation he was doing it right... but she was quite excited and the act did not remain chaste for long. The kiss became more sensual, and before long she sucked a finger into her mouth as her hands eagerly worked around the fabric at his waist.
Between Francesca's teasing lips and the soft skin under his hand, there should have been plenty to get Rafael warmed up - not that he'd ever needed 'warming up' in the past - but the distractions didn't prove to be enough when her hands dropped between them and that panic simmering just under the surface bubbled over.
"Stop!" The word came out a strangled shout. He was drowning, overwhelmed by her attentions, and without thought he was suddenly moving, maneuvering himself out from beneath his wife-to-be to deposit her rather unceremoniously onto the chair. He retreated across the room, knowing that she was going to be upset but unable to stop himself from moving toward the windows, keeping his back to her as he put as much space between them as possible. "I don't want--" he bit the words off, giving a rough shake of his head as he wrapped his arms around himself. "I can't . . ." he trailed off, too ashamed to say the words aloud.
It was the first time anyone had turned her away, and it left Francesca absolutely dumbfounded. Of course, her mother - who, unlike her husband, had not failed to notice when their daughter stopped being a child - had always scolded her, insisting that boys who always got what they wanted would lose interest, but Francesca had never actually believed her. Left suddenly alone on the chair, she stared after Rafael for a long, silent moment, then down at herself, as if wondering if there was something wrong with her, then slowly pulled her dress up back over her shoulders.
"You don't want --" Francesca repeated, "Me?"
He was shaking his head, though, and folding into himself, and she couldn't tell what she was seeing. All she knew was the it wasn't the emotions she feared - disgust, boredom, annoyance, or apathy, nothing like that. He looked like he was being torn apart, but somehow, she knew that her instinct to go to him, to hold him and soothe him, was the wrong one…
Then, it dawned on her. She hadn't thought it, not for a moment, since he had come home, but all of the sudden it was clear as day. A storm of emotions replaced her bewilderment, ranging from pity to anger and back again. "Rafael, did they…?"
Rafael went very still, his blood suddenly running cold in his veins. His father knew, and his eldest brother, Javier, because they'd been the ones to find him, but none of them had spoken a word about it since that moment. It was like some dark secret the three of them shared . . .
But now Francesca was asking him directly and the shame he felt was staggering. He should have fought harder. He never should have given up, or allowed himself to be disarmed and taken in the first place. He should have forced them to kill him instead, because he was so broken that he may as well be dead. He had no future anymore and he'd never be able to give Francesca the life she deserved . . .
It was a painfully stark realization, bringing with it feelings of guilt and remorse and profound loss that acted like a spark to a tinderbox. "I don't want this!" he exploded, his face twisted into ugly, hurtful, misplaced anger as he turned to her. His hands tugged at the doublet again, tearing the fine fabric even further. "I don't want marriage or children, I don't want your father's fucking land!"
Distantly, Rafael knew that he was losing control, that his actions were completely unwarranted and Francesca had done nothing wrong, but he couldn't stop himself either. His fist twisted into a woven tapestry and he ripped it from the wall, he kicked an ornate side table, sending it skittering across the floor before it tipped and broke against the flagstones, and finally he whirled back to face Francesca.
"I don't want you!" The words broke his heart even as they passed his lips but he couldn't take them back - wouldn't. He needed to set her free.
"Stop, stop!" Francesca screamed, shooting to her feet. When the table went over, she cowered and covered her face as if she worried it might hit her - or, perhaps, that she would become Rafael's next target. She had never thought before that he would hurt her; but, then again, she had also never thought he himself could be hurt. His father was Eventyr's most successful knight and now the Royal General. Selfishly, Francesca's thoughts strayed no further than her own safety, and the sudden feeling of terror, of being alone in a room with a man who could easily overpower her, made her suddenly resolve to learn how to fight. She had two arms and two legs like a man - and she could put them to use with a sword and a bow as easily as a needle and embroidering thread.
The sympathy Francesca felt, the concern, evaporated when those nasty words spilled out of her betrothed's mouth. How was this her fault? Why was he punishing her? He was her father's subject, and he had no right to speak to her that way! Her jaw clenched and her mind raced.
"Is that what you're going to tell my father?" Francesca spat, with a venom she hadn't known she possessed until she heard it aloud. "That you don't give a shit about his daughter or his land?" She glanced up, daggers in her eyes. "He's going to ask questions..." And there was no affection left in her voice when she punctuated her threat with a sneer of his full name, "Rafael."
As fast as the flood of emotions had taken him, they evaporated just as quickly, leaving Rafael's shoulders sagging and tears burning at the backs of his eyes. There was an apology there, clinging to the tip of his tongue but he swallowed it back. The disgust in her voice felt deserved and he wondered why it had taken this long before he'd heard it. Surely she knew how damaged he was now . . .
"I don't care," Rafael said with a sad sort of acceptance, his eyes drifting down and away from her. He didn't deserve to lay eyes upon her golden beauty, not anymore, but he certainly deserved the anger that was bound to come from, not just Francesca, but also his parents, her parents.
He sank down onto the chaise that she'd vacated earlier, elbows on knees and head in his hands. This was for the best though, he told himself. Now she could find a husband who would look at her the way he used to, who would cherish every second he was allowed to touch her, taste her, love her.
When he calmed down, Francesca did as well, and regret felt like bile in her mouth. Her hand grasped the chair she had tried to hide behind; a glance at the door, the nearest point of escape…
But a deep breath escaped her mouth. Knowing what she knew - his lack of denial was enough - it had been cruel to throw a threat in his face. Emotions crashed over her, but if Rafael was going to be dismissive, then at least one of them had to be practical.
"Maybe you get to not care," Francesca said, "But I don't. If your father backs out of this engagement for you," because there was no use trying to pretend that the choice was their own. Rafael, as the youngest, was already not an ideal match, and the decision had only been made because she'd been enthusiastic. But without him? She would go to some widower knight or noble, probably. "I could end up married to someone… old, or ugly, or awful." She wanted to love and be loved, for sure, but she was still the daughter of a duke and her marriage was a powerful political tool, and her preferences would only go so far. With a swallow that sounded like she was trying not to vomit, Francesca added, "...A lot of men beat their wives."
It took a lot of courage, but Francesca approached, and knelt down at Rafael's side. She extended a hand toward his knee, but she let it hover there, hesitant to touch him. "Maybe we can try? Maybe there is a medicine we don't know yet..."
Rafael didn't want to recoil from her touch, but he couldn't quite stop the minute twitches of muscles that gave him another inch of air between her hand and his knee. While he may have physically pulled away though, his eyes lifted to look at her.
She was right, of course. He could dodge marriage for the rest of his life, go on to become a knight like his father and Javier, or a soldier, or anything, really, but expectations for Francesca were far different than his own. She had to marry, if not him than someone, and there was no guarantee that her marriage would be filled with love or laughter or even kindness . . .
"I can't give you what you want, Francesca; what you need," he said softly. "Not anymore." His eyebrows knit earnestly, almost begging her to understand what he was struggling to put into words. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to touch you; not the way I used to. It's not fair to you but . . . if that's something that you can live with, then I'll marry you and I'll try but . . ." He trailed off, shaking his head and then the apology that had been hiding just out of sight escaped along with a tear, tracing it's slow path down his cheek. "I'm sorry, Fran. I'm so sorry."
Francesca's tears just about broke Rafael all over again. Her anger had felt right. She'd have been able to close the door on their relationship, to move on with her life and never look back. She'd have been able to hate him. But the sobs that wracked her body had his breath evening out and, surprisingly, he found himself reaching for her with the intent of pulling her closer and comforting her. "Francesca--"
But before she could even draw more than a shuddering breath, the door was bursting open. Three guards poured in, seizing Rafael forcefully, one at each arm. Their aggression shocked Francesca until she realized what the scene looked like: the tapestry on the floor, the table broken, his clothing ripped and her bodice on the floor, their lady on her knees, sobbing hysterically, and a moment before, her screams…
"No, no, no, stop," Francesca managed to blurt out, even though she could not quell her crying quickly enough.
The guards ignored her, of course expecting that she would defend her betrothed and assuming they knew better. It was hard to deny what they saw.
But the horrifying irony was not lost on Francesca and she forced herself to stand up, to clear her throat, and turn her words from a plea into an order. "Stop. I am your lady, and you will unhand him."
The sound of the door bursting open, the clatter of footsteps and weapons and armor, had Rafael's heart leaping into his throat and he started to rise to his feet to defend himself, only to be roughly grabbed. The room fell away as darkness surrounded him, the pounding of hooves echoed through his ears, and Rafael fought blindly, twisting and shoving, his fist connecting with the jaw of a guard and rocking the man back on his heels.
The smell of a fire, of burning flesh. The sound of his own screams, muffled against the gag tied around his head. The cruel taunts whispered into his ears. The chilled air against his skin. And then the hands were falling away and he was stumbling free, collapsing to the floor - hard flagstones that bruised his knees, not soft earth.
There on the floor, Rafael curled into himself and now it was his sobs that filled the air, causing his ribs to ache, his throat to go raw . . .
Francesca stood back, watching Rafael lash out and then collapse, a shaking hand covering her mouth. She had never seen so much pain trapped in one person; the closest she could think of was the criminals on their way to the gallows. Maybe he was right - maybe there was no healing from this….
Then, uncomfortably, Francesca realized that she wasn't the only one staring. The guards were, as well, even the one with blood on his lips. A handmaid was even peeking through the door, probably the one who had alerted the men to the screaming and crashing.
Francesca sucked in a breath as she tried to get her composure. She knew there was no comforting Rafael, but she could try to help save face, somehow. Tossing an accusing glare at the guard rubbing his jaw, she said, "You've hurt him."
He opened his mouth, as if to protest, but thought better of it - her threat was clear, that he would be punished for assaulting a lord and her guest, if rumors about what they were seeing began circulating. "Apologies, my lady." He bowed, and the others followed only a moment after him, and then they left.
Would this be their life, if they married? Francesca wondered miserably, unable to decide if she should move closer, further, or just leave. Rafael unstable, prone to outbursts and violence; Francesca's efforts to help only making it worse… Rumors would get around, eventually. Would people laugh? Would they have friends? She couldn't imagine how they could throw parties or host tournaments if they never knew if Rafael would have an episode…
"My… my lady, I'm so sorry," the young woman said, stepping into the room with steps as if the ground were covered in broken glass. Her small voice snapped Francesca out of her trance, and she stared at the girl, having no idea why she thought this was a moment to speak. The girl gulped. "A rider just arrived from the East." She held out a letter with a distinctive green seal, already broken, probably by the Duke.
With shaking hands, Francesca opened it. It was probably an invitation to the funeral - he had been gone a year at this point, and even if it was just ceremony, it would give them all some closure…
Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes skimmed over the words. Her mouth opened in shock, gaze lifting to the handmaid who was watching her expectantly, and then at Rafael on the floor.
"James Castile is alive."