Who: Rafael and Francesca
When: August 858 ROK
Where: Duke's Castle, Western Plains
The Duke was the last to offer a toast to the newly betrothed. He was not a tall man, exactly, but when he rose to his feet and lifted his (frankly, mostly empty by now) glass, the crowd of excited guests at his table quieted in respectful anticipation. The cakes and pastries were mostly consumed, the sweet wine almost gone. The evening of celebration was over, and needed only the final punctuation.
"Congratulations, to my precious daughter," Duke Giovanni began in the fresh silence, and he met Francesca's eyes and spoke to her as if she were the only one in the room. It was well known that he had a soft spot for her - soft enough, many knew, that she had grown up spoiled and careless, but he cared not. "I want nothing more than your happiness…" He took a breath and took a look around the room, filled with all their family and friends, and announced, "And so I will grant to your betrothed, as a wedding gift, land for your home." Cheers began, but he cut them off to conclude, "Any, and all land that my Francesca chooses."
Now, the cheers were preceded by surprised and delighted gasps. The Gonzalo family had land, yes, but they had earned it through acts of bravery and valor, and it was, while not unheard of, at least unusual for those sort of people to be gifted land like nobles. And to allow Francesca the choice? It was a blank check, for potentially unthinkable wealth. If she chose a prosperous coastal area, taxes from ships would make them rich without needing to employ more than accountants and guards. If she chose vineyards, the sales of the West's fine wine would keep even their great-grandchildren fat and happy….
Francesca smiled back at her father, trying very hard to communicate her gratitude. But her smile was tight, a tinge of sadness in the corners of her mouth. Even though her training was extensive, as a Duke's daughter, at putting on a proper face any day, any time, she could not fool her own father. So instead, she placed a hand over her heart in silent thanks, then reached over with that hand to grasp her new fiance's.
Rafael couldn't stop the look of surprise that crossed his face at Duke Giovanni's proclamation. Any and all land Francesca wanted? He'd grown up wanting for nothing, his family possessing plenty of money and lands to see that all five of their children got a sizable inheritance upon marriage, but the Duke of the West was gifting he and Francesca with far more than that. Enough to make him the richest of his siblings, even more so than Valentina and her Northern husband with his silver mines . . .
His eyes went to his parents, who both appeared to be just as surprised as he was, but his mother was quick to replace the look with a pointed smile in his direction. Say thank you, her look implied.
"Thank you, my lord," Rafael spoke up, and there was nothing feigned in his gratitude. He glanced at Francesca as she offered her thanks with nothing but a heartfelt gesture and then reached to take his hand, and he gave hers a squeeze in response. It would have been nice to see some actual joy on her face, some sign that she was actually happy to be sitting here beside him while their families and friends celebrated their future marriage, but as his mother had reminded him before they'd arrived at the Duke's sprawling castle, Francesca was mourning the loss of her betrothed and he needed to respect that.
So he leaned a little closer to his wife-to-be and said, simply, "Your father is generous."
Francesca looked back at him. Rafael looked so handsome dressed up - although, she would have preferred him naked and covered in dust and cobwebs any day. But she had a hard time pushing any real appreciation through her eyes, eyes that had spent the last three months crying for another boy. Every time a messenger arrived, she got her hopes up that it was good news from the East… and every time it wasn't, it broke her heart all over again. Even news that they had found his body would have been something.
As the Duke finished, the meal was over, and guests began to say their goodbyes and make their way out. Their parents gravitated toward one another, and Francesca saw the Royal General and the Duke shaking hands and smiling. Servants arrived to take dishes and leftovers away.
She nodded agreement to Rafael's words, her smile waning, and for a moment she simply brushed her thumb over the back of his hand. Then when most people were up and moving and she was least likely to be overheard, she added, "My father suspects I am upset because I can no longer be a Duchess." It was a promise he'd made to her for her whole life, and one he had been proud of, but given her age, there were no prospects besides the now-missing heir in the East. But considering everyone knew that Francesca had no interest in leadership or ruling, it made sense he would try to please her instead with enough wealth to support whatever extravagant lifestyle would make her happy. She did not look happy, though, even though she forced a smile for Rafael and made her way to her feet.
"But you don't care about being Duchess," Rafael determined, his voice low. Maybe at one point being Duchess of the East would have been enough, but it was clear that Francesca had developed real feelings for James Castile. It put Rafael in an awkward position as he wondered if she would ever feel that way about him or if he'd always play second fiddle to a dead man. There was no way to know the answer though and all the two of them could do was forge ahead.
Rafael rose to his feet as well, his hand still in Francesca's, then he led her toward the doors. "Let's get some air."
Their parents could handle the thanks yous and the good-byes and no one would begrudge the couple a few moments alone before they had to go their separate ways; in fact, by tomorrow there would likely be a wealth of rumors about the two sneaking off for a romantic interlude in the gardens.
The night air was rich with the scent of flowers and earth, the sky above them bright with stars, and now that they were alone, Rafael allowed himself a deep breath. "Francesca," he started as they walked down the cobbled path. "I know this isn't what you wanted but . . ." He trailed off for a second, struggling to put his feelings into words, and drew to a stop. "But I want to wed you. I want to make a life with you. And . . . I hope that, someday, you'll feel that way about me, as well."
As they walked out into the gardens, Francesca rested her head on Rafael's shoulder. She was ashamed of her puffy eyes and her sniffling nose, and it was easier not to look at him while he spoke. His words just layered on another level of guilt - not only did she feel like she was betraying James, but here she was embarking on a new relationship by making her new fiancee uncomfortable as well.
"Rafael…" she said, and there was a strain in her voice that might have been frustration. Straightening, taking his other hand, she finally looked up. "My father suspects I am upset because I cannot be Duchess because I have assured him a hundred times that I am pleased with this match..." She wanted, so much, just to tell Rafael how excited she was. That she could stay at home in the West. The parties she imagined they could throw every weekend. But it felt wrong to say those words, and she let his hands go just as soon as she'd taken them.
Breaking away, Francesca made her way over to a carved stone bench and sat down, averting her eyes again as they overflowed. "I just… I know that if I was the one missing, James wouldn't rest until he'd found me." Her eyes squeezed shut as emotion struck her, hard, and she took her time continuing. "I might not be able to go on a quest, but… I could wait to secure another engagement until, at least, we knew he was truly gone." Which he was, according to everyone. She did not believe it, but she had no reason not to except her own expectant heart…
Rafael's eyebrows drew downward, confusion clear on his face as she struggled to explain and he struggled to understand. So she was happy with their betrothal? He opened his mouth to interrupt, the questioning words right on the tip of his tongue, but somehow managed to hold himself in check and instead followed her closer to the bench. She felt guilty, which he supposed was to be expected, but what could any of them do? James was gone, even if Francesca was having a hard time accepting that . . .
"But…" her neck rolled back and she stared at the sky for a long moment while she caught her breath. "But I couldn't say no to this because… I do want it. I want to wed you, and make a life with you, as well." Her breath choked, she shook her head, and her gaze fell to the ground.
"Which just shows that I am…" she struggled, and spat out the words, poisoned with self-hatred, "An unworthy and dishonest woman. And so why should anyone want me?" In light of the evening, the answer was obvious: her father had land to give away. And that just brought on a fresh bout of tears.
Something close to pride puffed up his ego just a bit as Francesca admitted that she did want him, in the same way that he wanted her, but then Rafael's eyebrows knit and his lips parted and he was shaking his head. "No, Francesca," he soothed, finally settling down on the bench beside her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders to draw her in close. "Why wouldn't anyone want you? You're smart and charming and funny and," he shook his head, touching her chin and prompting her to meet his gaze, "and so beautiful." One thumb traced across her cheek, catching a tear and wiping it away. "I want you, Francesca. Not because of who your father is or your inheritance, but because every part of you is just . . . perfect."
Francesca's hand smoothed down Rafael's cheek. There was no way to hear those sweet words, see the way he looked at her, and feel any doubt. It didn't help her feel less guilty about James and wouldn't stop her from watching out her window for word from the East, but she was weak. Rafael was here, he loved her, and she wanted that. She was grateful that it was dark, that the lights from the house were at a distance now, so there was only meager starlight to illuminate her tears, of shame and sadness and gratitude in equal parts.
When she pulled Rafael in to kiss her, it was at first because she did not want him to look at her, but the luxury of his soft, full lips quickly worked its magic. She couldn't feel happy, she didn't want to feel so awful... but there were other things to feel.
Francesca shifted as they kissed, never letting his lips go, so that he couldn't see what she was doing until she took his hand and guided it beneath her skirt and toward the heat between her thighs. It was risky, with the house still in view if at a distance, guards always roaming the grounds as they monitored signs of danger, and knowing their parents would soon be looking for them, but in the moment, all the tumult in her heart seemed to transfer to physical desire…. so Francesca murmured a quiet plea as she sucked gently at Rafael's lower lip.