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.