Who: Duchess Francesca Rossi and Duke James Castile
When: February 24th, evening, (four days before the royal festival), ROK
Where: Royal archery range
Physical fitness was important to the Duchess of the Western Plains, and she pursued it with the same zeal that other ladies put into more feminine skills like embroidery, dancing, or style. Francesca wasn't opposed to running, lifting, riding, or generally sweating her way there, either. So after arriving in King's City that morning for the festivities surrounding the impending royal birth, early enough that it was still dark out, and resting through the day, Francesca was ready for a workout.
Her destination was the royal archery range. As a Duchess, she always had enough security on hand that knowing how to shoot on her own was hardly necessary and she was the last person who would go hunting, but the practice gave her a fresh, new way to move her muscles.
Francesca was… frankly annoyed to find that the range was already in use by the Green Duke and his men. She arrived with two of her own men who, while they were well built and wore the blue and gold uniforms of the West, had almost certainly been chosen for their classically-Western beauty. It was nearly time for supper to be served to staff in the kitchens and nobles in the royal dining room. Technically, she was supposed to attend, but Francesca had no such intention. She hoped that meant the Duke would be on his way soon.
As Francesca strapped her left forearm with a leather guard to protect her skin from bruising, she spoke up. "Castile." It was a traditional Eventyrian pleasantry, but one she delivered with obvious disdain: "How is your mother's health?"
The Duke gestured for his men to move further down the range. Although he often ate, rode and on occasion slept in the same quarters when traveling they had no place being so near the Duchess of the West. “So formal, Duchess?” he replied letting his mouth curl into a poor imitation of a smile.
He drew back on the heavy bow and fired a silvery tipped shaft at his target, werewolf killers if one believe the tales of the metal’s purity. “She is alive, or so my men tell me….” he said nonchalantly. The Duke had not seen his mother since her exile, nor did he care to.
Castile notched another arrow to land it right beside its partner. “It’s kind of you to ask…………… Francesca”.
Francesca answered the farce of a smile with a disgusted sneer of her own: "Do not try to smile, Castile. You have forgotten how." She was one of few, now, who remembered the charming, carefree smiles of a young James Castile who had been lost long, long ago. She had loved that boy, once upon a time, and whatever wore his face now had no business trying to emulate him, and so Francesca accepted a quiver, took her available space beside the Green Duke, and focused her eyes toward her target.
Francesca enjoyed the pull, the strain of muscles in her chest and arms as she released her first arrow. It landed - on the edges of hay outside the target itself - but that made her smile in triumph and knotch the next arrow.
That grin was quickly quelled by James' nonchalance. He had a mother. Francesca's was gone, eaten by zombies and executed as Creature by Francesca's own order. She refrained from letting tension in her posture - that would affect her accuracy - but Francesca spat, "And so it would be kind to answer. I did not ask if your mother was alive. I asked if she was in good health." Her second arrow missed the target completely, and Francesca sighed, plucking up another. "But you do not know the difference, do you?"
Castile paused with his third arrow, and lowered his weapon to look over at Francesca with a stoic expression. “Keep your elbow up, Duchess…..” he stated before raising his bow to fire again. The third shaft split the first in half, “She is well enough, I will tell my men to inform her of your kind inquiry when they go to relay news of the festivities”.
He tilted his head at her and lowered the weapon again. “Why do you ask for the well being of an individual, who only concerned herself about your existence to further her own play for power?” James asked dryly, but with a hint of something like…..naive curiosity.
There was a snide comment on Francesca's lips, but she refrained. She had come here to practice. So instead she let out a breath, lifted her elbow, focused on her posture, and released the arrow. It hit, two stripes closer to the bullseye. She shot her peer on Eventyr's Eastern side a look that was reluctantly grateful, as if to say you got lucky. It was a painful reminder of how easy their teases and jokes used to be, electrified with excitement and tension that now felt like… bark dust in her mouth.
But Francesca did not like the creature that had replaced her husband-to-be to see her pine for that which was lost, so she quickly redirected her emotions.
"Your mother was a shrewd politician," Francesca asserted, and recalled how curious she had been about the King's mistress in her early teenage years as she had visited the green realm that had been slated to become her home. Focusing on pulling back another shot, Francesca's eyes diverted but her words were as pointed as the arrow she sent into her target, "Her only fault was trusting her own flesh and blood." A tinge of sarcasm marked the Duchess' words, as if she were calling James a bastard in more ways than the usual. "In some ways, I learned more from your mother than my own." Joanna had made the mistake of getting pregnant by the king, but her experience had taught Francesca such a sacrifice was hardly necessary…
“She was a greedy harlot, her fault was in betraying me and then thinking my morals were so low that she could fuck her way out of it like she did with my father” Castile replied without batting an eye as he drew back on his bow. Sinew and muscle held the arrow poised on the verge of firing…
“Your mother was a naive creature, but she was honest,” he grunted and then released the arrow to split the other two. “And loyal…. You would have done better to admire her instead”.
The Duke lowered his bow and turned to narrow his eyes at his former betrothed. “My flesh and blood belong to the Green realm and the forest, and no one else”.
"Bite your tongue!" Francesca objected, and her arrow skidded against the floor. The Duchess of the West might have been unconventional in a thousand ways, but she could not abide this sort of talk. "You speak of your mother!"
But that was the least of his offensive statements, and Francesca planted her bow's end on the ground and her hand on her hip as she squared her shoulders. "You understand morals, do you? Am I not honest?" Tossing her golden braid over her shoulder, she made a gesture welcoming the Green Duke into what was clearly a political trap, especially with so many bystanders in attendance. "What exactly are you saying, Duke Castile?"
James frowned slightly, and tilted his head at her. “It is because she is my mother that she still lives, and in relative comfort” he replied with a tone that was close to being annoyed. The Duke took a step closer to look down at the blond through half lidded eyes. “I did not bring your honesty into question, Duchess. What exactly are you implying, Francesca?”
"That's what I thought," Francesca concluded. Because aside from the fact that Francesca was a liar whenever it suited her, and the word honest's subtext of chaste could not have been further from the truth, Francesca would not abide being compared to her mother - because it usually found the current Duchess of the West wanting. Gianna Rossi had been not just an effective politician but also a thousand other things. Loving wife, warm mother. Well-loved as a Duchess, an effective problem-solver, as resolute facing a looming zombie horde herself as she was the grieving father of a victim, or a farmer with failing crops, or a family battling sickness. Francesca was none of those things, and she did not appreciate any insinuation as to that fact.
As the range dimmed in the setting sun, torches were lit to allow practice to continue. Picking up her weapon again, Francesca said, pointedly, "Philip will be expecting his brother at dinner."
Castile returned to his spot, and raised his bow again. “You only know what you perceive to know, Duchess. The King expects many things of me, dinner is not one of them” he stated. The Duke held his arms steady and looked over at her. “Form is everything in archery, Francesca”.
He gestured slightly with his stance for her to emulate it.
“Are you not expected at dinner, Duchess Rossi?”
Francesca had received quite a bit of flack about her recent unwillingness to play the games at court. Denying invitations, arriving late, "resting" through functions she had planned to attend… Although she knew James would understand that better than most, there was no way not to bristle when called out for her lack of conventionality.
"I have told Philip quite clearly not to expect me in the royal dining room again," Francesca said, by way of a defensive excuse, and did a poor job of disguising the way she cast her gaze at the Duke's posture for guidance as she readied her next shot. Her shoulders pulled back a bit, her feet widened. The arrow made it only an inch or two closer to the bullseye than her previous, but she took that as an improvement and her attitude toward her model soured, as expected, rather quickly, replaced with a distinct disgust. "Had I known you would not be there, perhaps I would have reconsidered." He knew exactly the incident to which she referred, she had no doubt….
Castile turned to arch a brow slightly, “It would be poor form not to partake of the food a host has worked to provide, Duchess”. If there was part of the Green Duke that retained that upstart boy he had been before getting lost in the woods, it was that he liked to tease her. But it was no longer those funny little forgivable jokes….
Francesca had a weak stomach to meat, especially the rarer it was, after the attack on her parents. He took great pleasure at their last dinner together to sit right next to her and consume it in the most voracious manner, until she fled the table looking a lovely shade of green.
“Well, my absence will not change the menu, Duchess. I suppose we can not both be absent, rumors would generate…..” James let his mouth curl in that mocking emulation of a smile, “....We wouldn’t want that, would we...Francesca?”
He gave his bow and quarrel to one of his men and left it to them to retrieve the silver arrowheads from the target. Not that he needed to eat, but dismissing Phillip and his consort would be poor manners that the Eastern Realm could not afford.
Francesca rolled her eyes in disgust at his implication, but held her tongue because she was relieved he would be making his exit…
With the torches at full flame and the sun decidedly set, Francesca's ever-silent shadow finally made his appearance. Although his features were distinctly Southern, he proudly wore the colors of the West… but not in the traditional sense. While Francesca's other guards wore blue uniforms with gold accents, her bodyguard was clad in all black, with intricate blue-and-gold trim. The man drew in close to the Duchess, proximity intimate but gaze merely analytical, and as he waited for the Duke to return out of the line of fire, he made silent adjustments to Francesca's form using only slight touches that she seemed to instinctively understand.
And when the firing range opened again, Francesca released her arrow… and planted it dead center in the bullseye. She sent a triumphant smile toward her shadow, but enthusiasm faded when, as usual, the man in black refused to meet her eyes, and the Duchess's gaze turned instead toward her former husband-to-be, and mustered a little bit of civility.
"Thank you, Duke Castile," Francesca met his sad excuse for a smile with her own forced one. Maybe they were a pair after all. "Good night."