(set a month or so after the virgin-solstice incident)
Early autumn in the Eastern Woods was undeniably beautiful. The trees' leaves turned all shades of oranges, yellows, and browns, and the crispness in the air wasn't yet cold, so only the faintest breath of steam followed the Duchess' breath when it left her lips. Her feet found the firmly-padded ground that marked the entryway to the Duke's estate, which was exactly as she expected of him. Well-kept, orderly.
Her half-dozen servants surrounded her - one ran to the door to alert the Eastern staff that their guest had arrived, some calmed the horses, another offered her leather gloves, which Malia pulled on gratefully.
Although she and James had maintained a good-but-ambiguous alliance since they met at the Queen's funeral, Malia had decided to take it up a notch and invited herself to visit when the summer finally turned. It was nearly impossible to say no to such a proposal from another high-ranking noble, but if anyone would have rejected the kingdom's norms, James would have, if he didn't want to host her. And so when he didn't object, Malia took heart -- perhaps this could be a fruitful visit after all. With that hearty levity in her chest, Malia made her way from the carriages to the grand doors of the estate.
The estate was not as grand as in the North, it was more fortress than castle but expansive enough for the Duke. Its massive wooden beams and structures help to soften the stone architecture, as did the sound animals in the courtyard. There were more soldiers than servants, but the staff had been alerted to her arrival.
“My lady, the Duke is awaiting you in the library...if you’ll kindly follow me” a rather young man in uniform stated pleasantly.
Malia offered the young man a nod - he reminded her very much of her grandson, Jordan, a tragedy and a half ago, back when he'd worn that military garb with cheer and not quite so much heft.
The library? The very idea sent a bright, almost school-girlish smile spreading across the Duchess's face. Oh, what incredible stories these woods had to tell - the best of which likely made it no further than the Duke's own study… Shrugging off her warm wool traveling cloak into her servant's waiting hands, Malia followed the young man further into the handsome home.
The reading room or library was a sizable, although nothing compared to the king’s or even the Duchess’ formidable collection. A set of comfortable chairs by the sole window and fireplace made it cozy, a suit of green armor oddly facing the window seemed the only decor. The officer asked politely, “May I bring your ladyship a drink?”
He kept his eyes casted downward before adding, “Perhaps something for you, my lord?” The helm turned slightly, and sun reflected off of brass and copper highlights. The armor seemed to copy the season, and the gauntlets raised slowly to remove the headpiece to expose a weary Duke Castile. “Tea, wine for my guest….” he replied before setting the helmet down with care and approaching Malia.
“Duchess, you are a vision as always. My apologies for not greeting you personally outside, I have just returned from my borders. Excuse my appearance…” James gave her a smile that was warmer than most received before bending to kiss her hand cordially.
"I have heard tales far and wide about the cider from this region, if you would be so kind as to indulge me," Malia said, sweetly, as she caught the boy by the wrist and offered him a smile so sugary it had to raise red flags. He was a dutiful lad, though, and promptly departed, leaving the Duchess to turn back to the Duke with the extension of her hand and returned the attention with the dip of her knees and neck. The setting sun cascading through the window across the metal of his armor was poetry on its own, she mused.
Formalities aside, Malia stepped in, chocolate hands drifting over the complex metal plate of James' armor, saying, "Let me help with all this. I can barely get my own corset off in the evenings," she joked, not inaccurately, although it was a struggle wholly Eventyrian. Spanx were not nearly the struggle of laces and leather. The Duchess moved in close, but her movements were subtle, unobtrusive, and waited for direction. He well might have told her to back off, and that was not out of the realm of possibility. "I would ask who you were worried about meeting… but I expect the better question is, who worried about meeting the…" Her hands skimmed across the iconic green metal the armor offered, "Green Duke of the East?"
Castile nodded to his steward as the young man departed to get the Duchess her request. The Duke smiled when she asked for cider, most nobles rather the wines of other regions. He tilted his head and his brow furrowed slightly as if he might refuse her offer...but he didn’t. The metal was oddly warm like the skin of a fine steed after a hard ride, perhaps it was the sun or some strange quality of the armor.
Removing his gauntlets and laying them down alongside his helm, Castile raised an arm to expose the buckles hidden under the pauldrons on his shoulders to remove the arm harness. Some might find the task beneath them, but James knew the underlying message in the offer. He trusted her… to a point, more than most.
“Unicorns….” he answered her question, and glancing out the window at the forest beyond and below the estate’s wall. “....that is….poachers….” James corrected himself turning his gaze down toward her slender fingers moving over ornate metal and supple leather. “No one hunts without permission here…” he said in a matter of fact tone. Outsiders often wasted resources, the forest and the Eastern Duchy’s populace had a fine balance and so as it was maintained everyone was happy… at least happy enough.
“And what brings the lovely Duchess of the North to my realm, aside from the changing of the seasons?” he asked in an uncharacteristically soft tone. His hand reached out to rest warmly on her half bare shoulder to make it easier for her to loosen a buckle. Calloused, roughened fingers played with the soft velvet of her dress just at the point where it met her skin.
Yes, the task was likely one usually relegated to squire boys, but Malia was curious about the armor and its peculiar warmth under her fingers only made her moreso. There were so very many stories about the infamous Green Duke, after all…
Like many noblewomen, Malia had enjoyed her fair share of trysts with knights and knew her way around a suit of armor - especially the removing of it. As he answered her question, Malia's hands worked at the clasps, her fingers lingering a heartbeat or two on muscles as she revealed them, her gaze unapologetically appreciative of each detail on his impressive frame. Unicorn poachers - that was bold of them, and Malia had to wonder if profit or desperation were the key motivators?
When his voice lowered and his hand found her shoulder, Malia invited the attention, stepping in close enough that she couldn't see the buckle itself, which meant her hand, working blindly, explored a bit more before finding purchase. "I came for the company. It's so cold in the North, even in the autumn," Malia answered, choosing her words carefully. "And lonely - especially since my husband passed."
James tilted his head curiously, watching her hands as his own explored tentatively just under the hem over her shoulder. “Such a beautiful lady should not spend her time alone… But I am...socially awkward...usually resulting in poor company” he replied twisting his fingers into the material of her dress.
The return of the young cadet with the cider and goblets made him recoil his hand like it had been burned. James loosened and removed the arm harness, frowning at the man. “Get out” he hissed hand moving for his sword hilt. The steward stumbled over his feet, “My apologies, my lord!”
The Duke stared at the abandoned pitcher and cups, before he moved slowly toward it. “Hmm…” the large man hummed out softly, before releasing his sword to grip the metal handle to tilt the container to fill the cups. “I don’t allow my men to see me in… transition…” Castile explained as he held out a goblet of cider with his unarmored arm to Malia.
Malia froze, gasping in her breath while, for a moment, she completely believed the Duke was going to kill the boy. But he was better versed in his Lord's peculiarities than Malia was and high-tailed it out of there, quick as a rabbit. At first, she assumed James was embarrassed to be caught in what might have been an intimate moment with her… and his explanation did not completely change her mind. As she relaxed, tension leaving her in a breathy chuckle, she noted, "We did tell him to bring the drinks."
His gaze dropped to where their hands met on the cup. “Do you think me crass, my lady?” James asked almost tentatively except when he looked up at her his mouth curled into a mischievous smirk, and his eyes glittered like the green armor he wore.
Accepting the cup, Malia made sure that her fingers brushed his, and his question drew an equally amused smile from her lips. "Crass?" A shrug, a friendly toast, a sip. Crass might have been in the top fifty words she used to describe James Castille, and so she didn't deny it. He would know well she was lying and she highly suspected she would lose credibility with the effort. "The truth is, my lord, I do not know what I make of you yet. You are not what you are supposed to be, given your station. As far as I can see, you do not make efforts to change that, to align closer to the expectation." A note of sympathy crossed her face, and she measured the wisdom in finishing her thought, but she decided to go on. Mincing words, she thought, wouldn't win her points, here. "And yet, you apologize for it - again and again and again." Already twice since she had arrived, and how many times before…
“I do not deny these things you say…” James replied as he removed the other arm harness. “...Indeed I believe you to be quite perceptive, and refreshingly… honest”. He smiled coyly at her, as if he knew this was not always true. And his fingers moved to the ornate buckle of the belt to his scabbard, dancing over the metal and leather.
“You would I rather be unapologetic for my behavior?” the Duke asked letting his eyes trail over the Duchess from above the rim of his cup. “My cuisses… leg harness… my lady” he said with a boyish grin. “Unless you tire of assisting me”.
"Oh, my lord," Malia laughed, shaking her head with an amused smile. "Is asking my preference much different than apologizing?" He seemed to care and not care in equal measure, and while that was confounding, it was also interesting. Was he simply crass and abrasive, or was he tortured by the isolation? Or was it simpler, and he was a fine Duke but out of his depth at court? She liked that he seemed ready to judge himself instead of her - but if his apologies indicated a defensiveness, then her job became a lot harder.
But the smirking expression that accompanied his evaluation of her assured her that he knew well what she was. Fundamentally a politician, with all the doublespeak that came with the territory. It was entirely possible that this made them incompatible, but the invitation that proceeded defeated that thought and Malia took a determined final sip of her cider that made her smirk at the term young people used on Earth: thirsty.
Malia set her cup aside and stepped forward, her eyes dipping and her hands exploring a bit too much about the Duke's waist, taking her time. "One of my favorite poets - Nietzsche - once implored us to become who we are." Her hand gripped the hilt of his sword, idly, and her eyes flickered up suggestively although her voice remained so very conversational. "Apologize, or do not. All that matters is that you are authentically you." Finally, the belt loosened. "And that when I'm with you, perhaps I can be, too."
The Duke tilted his head shifting his eyes downward to watch her slim hands on the heavy, thick belt that held his weapon to his hip. “I must confess, I am not familiar with this… Nietzsche….he is a scholar from the East?”
"No - the North," Malia responded easily. Germany was in the northern hemisphere back home, and frankly her territory echoed it quite closely. An easy fabrication. She had, in fact, been memorizing and transcribing her favorite literary works over the years, fudging details to fit them them into Eventyr, and so any copies of a Nietzschean work would originate from her duchy. It made her feel so very much like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451!
His own large hand covered Malia’s to stop the scabbard from coming away completely. He seemed reluctant to be without the jeweled weapon. Castile took a step forward until there was hardly any space between them. “My Lady…..” Castile said her title almost possessively, in a soft tone.
He leaned forward and breathed into her ear, warm and masculine. “....Why are you here?”
There was such a power in his voice, even when he lowered it, that it sent a pleasant shiver through Malia's body, causing her breathing to quicken and her pupils to dilate, and her hand found his waist in an invitation for James to come closer still. But his question raised a red flag - he had already asked her essentially the same thing, and she wondered if raising it again indicated that he found her answer insufficient. It hadn't been a lie - she had come with every single intention of seducing the Green Duke. He was young, handsome, and powerful, physically and politically. He was an ally she wanted… no, needed, if her plans were to succeed. But he was such a wildcard, so unpredictable, all sweet whispers one moment, and nearly slicing his officer in half the next. That made this risky, but also interesting, exciting.
So instead of answering again, Malia returned his question with her own. "Why do you think I am here?" Fair was only fair - she had just give him the same honest assessment…
Half lidded eyes contemplated both her and the answer that came as a question. It was an artful dodge, truly the Duchess was far better suited to life in the courts than himself. “You want something…” Castile replied, his mouth curling at the obvious innuendo as he finally allowed the sword and scabbard to slid away from him. To be seemingly… disarmed.
James moved his hands to explore the neckline of her dress again, the fine embroidery and velvet that surrounded her neck and shoulders. His calloused fingers drifted to soft, supple skin and followed the long column of her neck. “You seek knowledge… and through it power” he continued as fingers tangled in her hair and were on the verge of pulling it.
“You’re not afraid, Duchess? Have you not heard the rumors… the stories? How I bath my armor in the blood of innocents, and eat their hearts on the nights of a new moon?” Castile smiled widely and laughed as he loosened his hold on her crown of silken tresses. He removed his own leg armor and breastplate to stand before her in nothing but mail and a tunic. “Am I frightening?” he asked giving a boyish grin that he was clearly teasing her, however the tales were quite scary. And he clearly revelled in them.
His fingers at her hem and throat were welcome, and a low sigh of approval indicated as much. When his fingers gripped her hair, Malia's head tipped back and her eyes squeezed closed for the space of a few heartbeats as the pain - palpable but not unbearable - awoke nerve endings in her body she hadn't known for some time…
When had she last enjoyed a rough lover? As a Duchess, even her very handsome, very fit knights all knew their place far too well to pull her hair - but it was a deliciously erotic sensation when contrasted with the warm, solid frame in front of her against which she pressed.
When he released her, the Duchess' shoulders relaxed but her feet stayed firmly put. Her dark eyes opened, and watched the reportedly-blood-soaked armor as it was removed, piece by piece. When he finished and offered his final question, Malia let an authentic, musical laugh dance out of her mouth and across the room… but, curiously, it held dark, minor notes, where her usual tone implied major ones.
"Yes. You're terrifying," Malia said, although her words had an eager admiration to them, as if she had just complimented James himself. When the duke stood, finally freed of his armor, she knew he expected her to deny any fear and offer a passive invitation to her body, like a good lady, but she went ahead and threw that out the window. Stepping forward aggressively, she shoved him backward with both hands… right into a plush armchair behind him. Hiking up her skirt with one hand so it was bare knees and thighs pushing that tunic up, and nudging the shoulder off her dress with the other, Malia climbed on top of the duke, bending down to catch his ear with her teeth, "I want you because you scare me."
Castile grasp her arm in one large hand and growled softly at the feel of little teeth gnawing at a lobe. His eyes looked up at her from under a heavy brow that furrowed deeply, before he pulled her harshly up his thighs to close the gap between them again.
“I’m a monster, my Duchess” he breathed out into the skin of her neck. Castile’s fingers returned to her hair and twisted into the ringlets tightly. This time he did pull it, just hard enough to tilt her head back. His eyes perused her jugular for a long moment, before he bit her neck hard enough to leave a mark.
“There are eleven dead maidens in my forest, what makes you think you would not join them?” he asked sliding a hand down to the front of her dress and gripping a fistful of the material. “You would look better in green…”
"Careful," Malia whispered when his fingers closed firmly around a handful of her hair, the warning heaved out between breaths quickened with excitement. At first, the warning might have implied she wanted him to slow down, but the press of her hand on the back of his head as the pleasured hiss that accompanied it said otherwise. When he released her, that hand darted to her own head, where she plucked out a golden comb near her temple. Holding it between their faces, she turned the exquisite decoration in the light just so... and the metallic shine turned blood red - the color of a deadly poison. One scratch and her victim would die choking - then all she had to do was drop a grape in the corpse's mouth before rigor mortis set in and oh what a tragic unforeseeable accident! "As you can see... I am hardly a maiden."
Setting the tiny weapon on the book table beside them, Malia looked down and wondered for a moment at the entirely feasible possibility he might decide to rip the dress off her. His comment came so out of the blue that Malia took it to be unplanned - that, along with his mark on her throat, the pointed way he called her my Duchess… all pointed to a possessiveness that boded well for the alliance she hoped to establish. With a saucy smile that contrasted with her facetiously too-polite words, "If it does not please my lord," Malia invited, reaching around her back to tug at the ends of the laces there, "Take it off."
Castile arched a brow at the poisoned hairpin, a fitting weapon for a lady of the court. Being heartless he wouldn’t die, but it wouldn’t save him from the agony of the poisons effect on his body. That she was armed was not surprising…. That she set it aside was.
“Hmmmm….you are an interesting creature, my Duchess” he replied loosening his hold on the fabric of her dress to instead fondle her through the material. Yes, she was a manipulator like many women he had dealt with of the court. Seeking power through their titles, bloodlines and bodies….and yet she was not, there was something beneath her elegant veneer that attracted him more than simple lust.
Castile tugged the top of Malia’s dress downward, but his brow furrowed slightly and his hand stopped between her breasts. “I can feel your heart beating like a fluttering bird inside a cage” he said in a low rumble.
Malia had allowed her eyes to drift shut, her hand braced on the duke's strong shoulder as she enjoyed the sensations of his attentions… but when he paused and his words struck her as so very strange, she blinked her eyes open, perplexed. It couldn't have been an allusion to Maya Angelou's famous work - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - although that was right were the former librarian's mind went. And her heart felt fine to her - rapid, but strong, without any of the skipped beats or palpitations of age that she'd become accustomed to on Earth. It must have been some odd form of dirty talk? After all, the Green Duke was odd as they came…
Her hand moved slowly, hesitantly, from his shoulder to his neck. Two fingers pressed against his adam's apple, where his pulse should have been...
Realization struck her like a physical blow. Her mind darted back to their first meeting, at the Queen's funeral, and the stories James had told her in the library about the 'Four Witches of Eventyr,' he'd called them. The one from the Eastern Woods stole hearts… or, traded them, if she remembered correctly. That idea that those stories were true - in a literal sense and not just a literary one - sent Malia's mind reeling, but she felt nothing but warmth and breath under her fingers. "Are you…" she intended to finish with ….quite all right, my lord? but what escaped instead was, "for real?"
James gave a rather bemused expression, and replied “I believe I am real, therefore it must be so, my lady”. He turned her hand in his and kissed her wrist, rolling his eyes up to look at her. “I assure you I am not so unusual to be a fable of utter myth….. Does it trouble you, my Duchess, that someone else has possession of it?”
He smiled wryly, “I believe you have enough spirit for us both, and the rest is yours if you want it”. Castile crudely maneuvered her hand between his legs, a lack of heart didn’t seem to affect the rest of him...physically.
Malia's brain raced, a million miles an hour. How did blood get to his extremities? Why was he warm? There was only one explanation: he had magic performing a vital function for him, every moment of every day. While she milked the magic she had at hand - small amounts of precognition - there were witches out there with abilities far and above her wildest imaginations. And she couldn't help but wonder if one of them would have a cure for her body on Earth, plagued with tumors and even more so with the chemotherapy meant to heal her that only made the aches, pain, decay worse…
His question was a good one, but it was utterly lost on the duchess as she tried to understand the basics of what she was encountering. How she felt about it would have to come much later. The wonder on Malia's face stripped away all the calculated, purposeful personas and when she looked back at the duke, her expression was one she might have offered to a god. "James," the familiar term wasn't intentional, but it was authentic. "You are not a monster. You're a miracle."
And from awe sprang a new sort of excitement, when her hand moved downward. Not the measured version she'd expected and practiced. Malia had known the duke's handsome smile, his broad shoulders, his impressive… stature would turn her on. She hadn't anticipated the fresh curiosity that made her feel like a maiden again as she bit her lip and explored the hard, hot flesh for a pulse that just wasn't there. It did not take more than a few of (her) heart beats for arousal to insist she skip ahead and soon her own fingers were tangled in his hair or clawing at his shoulders for stability…
It was much later that the Duke and his guest resided in the same chair, like a pair of sated animals. He lazily curled his fingers in the ends of Malia’s hair, never had someone known his condition and seemed attracted to it. Castile normally didn’t care if his partner in carnal activities was satisfied… Sometimes, he didn’t even care if they were even willing. And yet here he was caressing the Duchess of the North as if she were his finest treasure.
“My lady….” he purred in her ear. “...My men have prepared rooms for you and your handmaiden” he said pulling the lacing at her dress idley. “Dinner will be served shortly, and perhaps then you will tell me what it is you wish of the Eastern realm.”
He smiled slightly, “I can not flatter myself to think that your sole purpose for this visit was to warm my bed…” James looked at the books on the shelves around them, “These are not the knowledge you seek, tell me what you are searching for, my Duchess”. The Duke tied the dress and smoothed the fabric with all the care he would use with his own armor. Oh, she did fascinate him so.
Relaxing in a warm after-glow, Malia let her new lover tie up her laces while her hand traced along his thigh and down his knee, a gesture absent meaning except that she wasn't ready yet to disconnect. She thanked him for his hospitality with a smile and nod as he spoke, keeping her words for his more substantial questions - again raising doubt about why she was truly there. Now that the playing field was leveled and she had a monumental secret of his, she felt safer being totally honest.
"I have a hundred questions, of course. Your brother, your mother, the maidens in your forest, the witch there as well..." But she paused to shrug as her torso turned back to face him. "But I didn't come here to learn the answer to a question, or ten questions, or a thousand. I came here because I want to ask you any question, any time, from now and for years to come. And for you to ask me in return."
Parched, Malia found her way to her feet on tired legs and retrieved her glass of cider, taking a long drink from it. With a wry smile, Malia opened up a bit. "I do not want a husband. I do not want children. These are the ways women make alliances, usually; I have no interest." Returning to the chair, she lowered her voice a bit. "But together? You and I govern half of Eventyr. I am sure your history lessons were better than mine, but I haven't found yet an account of two duchies working together, truly and authentically. Imagine the power we could wield."
Castile inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, when Malia returned to his side. “I would answer each and every of your inquiries, my duchess. And I also have no wish for a spouse or offspring…” he replied before rolling his eyes to look up at her. “Is it only power you seek, my lady….. A duchy is not enough?”
He glanced over at a bookshelf, “There have been cases of the duchies working together, but nothing long term or that was not fraught with danger or fighting”. James turned back to the duchess, “I have no need for any realm other than my own…. But it does not mean I am not interested in your offer, my lady”.
James' responses sent the librarian's mind reeling. On the one hand, he was such an existential hero - a Meursault, a Sisyphus, as she had guessed ahead of time - who had decided to thrive in his position, even if it was unjust. But that confirmation awoke her inner Lady Macbeth, and there was this powerful urge to push him toward the greatness that was so clearly untapped…
But that hadn't gone well for Lady Macbeth, and so Malia held her tongue. "I respect that." Malia drew in closer, wrapping one arm around the Duke's wide shoulders and, conspiratorially, she smiled. "But I did not come this far… to only come this far."
“And what of the Western Duchy, have you allied yourself with them as well? Or is it only the bastard son of the King you seek?” He asked smiling slightly because many thought his ousted position would make him seek power one day. Royal blood in his veins meant nothing when it came to taxes and the crown.
But he was tied to his realm by the bargain that took his heart and gave him his armor. James wondered if the enchanted forest would stretch beyond its borders with him should ambition grow in the empty spot in his chest.
Castile pulled the Duchess closer to kiss the spot just above her breast where he could feel her heart. “Tell me, Malia…” he mumbled into her skin. “....that it is for the good of the realm. That Phillip has been irrational .That the people cry for justice….”
The king and his children were the last ties to a family he had. A family that had barely acknowledged his existence except when it was convenient for them. No, he had little use for ambition but revenge was a suitable substitute.
Malia's head tilted back and forth, a bit uncertain and plenty critical. "You know as well as I do that Francesca is…" on some other shit, "a wildcard. She barely pretends to be a Duchess anymore." A shrug, "And in the South, they are traditionalists..."
But when James drew close this time, even though his kiss was intimate, his words had a particular need to them, she stroked his hair in an almost motherly fashion. With an amused smile, she didn't point out that the last thing James Castile worried about was the people crying out for justice. But if he wanted her to paint a rosy picture behind her ambition, that was not unreasonable, and when she spoke, her words were perhaps the most authentic of the whole evening. "Eventyr is everything to me. This Kingdom literally gives me life," her hand rested against his chest and the strange absence of a beat there, "As magic gives you life…"
"The King is unfit." Her words were a high crime, and she spoke them lowly. "He has asked too much of us all, but most of all, I suspect, his brother. His reign is over; he's a shell of a man, a husk of a king."
Castile smiled against her bosom, and tilted his head to look up at Malia. “Yes….” he replied softly, although there was no reason to lower their voices in the library. They were alone, and had been noisey enough in the carnel sharing of bodies to drive any of his soldiers from standing guard too closely to the door.
Her assessment of the Duchess of the West, almost made Castile laugh. Oh, how Francesca Rossi would fume over that. And drool over whatever rumors, and possible half truths were bound to hatch from her Northern neighbor’s visit to the green realm.
“...Unfit…” James repeated the word as if it were a promise more than a statement. Turning his head he looked up at her with a little smile that made him appear boyish. But his words were anything but childlike in nature, “...I do not like being used, my Duchess....” Castile’s eyes narrowed dangerously for a moment, and then the furrow of his brow eased.
“Do not betray me as others have done, Malia….” he purred her name out, using it for the first time. “....And my sword will be yours”.
Malia leaned in to seal his vow with a promise of her own: a kiss, worthy of a storybook.