Who: Francesca and James
When: Spring, 859 ROK
Where: Castile Estate, Eastern Woods
When Francesca had received news that James was alive, she had insisted on using a fairy circle to make the trip to see him. They were unreliable, yes, but she didn't care. She knew her heart would take her directly to her betrothed; his heart would pull hers toward him. It was only because her mother insisted that Francesca found herself in a bumpy carriage heading East…
Francesca wished that this reunion would be clean, but the truth was that James had been gone a year, and she had already taken another fiance - the youngest son of the Royal General. He couldn't hold a candle to James' station, nor the sincere love Francesca had developed for James himself, over their time together as children…
Francesca pushed the door of the library open, slowly. James read more than anyone she knew; once upon a time, she had even tempted him into taking her right here, her skirt lifted up around her hips, knowing she had to leave him and return to the West in the morning…
All the apprehension, all the guilt, all the sorrow, melted away when Francesca saw James again, It was him! A smile beamed across her face, and she ran, jumping into those strong arms that she knew would catch her. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her arms around his neck. "Jamie," Francesca cried, equally sad and elated. "You're home. You're home…."
Arms came around her, but not in affection. Castile tilted his head down and his brow furrowed deeply in an almost angry expression, before minutely easing out. He pried her loose to lower her to the floor, studying the young noble through narrowed eyes. “Home….? Yes, I suppose…” he replied finally releasing his hold on her to drop his arms to his sides.
He had been staring out the window at the forest beyond the edge of the town surrounding the fortress like estate of his mother. “Francesca?” James said questionably as if just recognizing her, like he had just woken. He blinked, and frowned harder as if she were an out of place object in a puzzle and asked “What are you doing here?”
Castile glanced to the corner of the room for a moment at a suit of strange green armor. “Where are your parents, did they come with you?” he grunted out flatly taking a step backwards to put a socially polite distance between them. He had been bathed, hair trimmed and shaven after his returned. But all the finest clothes and luxuries of the Eastern Duchy did not remove the dull spark in the young man’s eyes, or the permanent furrow between his brow.
His hands tightened into fists. No King, no Crown Prince, not even the Western Duke and Duchess…. Just Francesca and his mother… to herald his return. James unfurled his fingers and let a hand reach up to rest against his chest for a moment at some phantom ache. Manners seemed to filter through whatever thoughts were in his head and Castile gestured to a chair for Rossi to sit.
"I came to see you," Francesca answered quickly, as her feet returned to the ground. "I came as fast as I could…" Her voice trailed off as it became clear he was returning none of her affection. Instead, he was moving away. "My parents?" she repeated, baffled by the question. "My mother traveled with me…" She was no doubt doing the political work of re-establishing their engagement with the Eastern Duchess at this very moment.
Francesca looked at the seat with a frown, as if it symbolized the rejection she was feeling, but given the aggression implied by that first had her reluctant to refuse. He had been gone so long, she couldn't expect him to be the same, Francesca told herself. Rafael had been taken for only a few days, and he was a broken man. She had been so wrapped up in her excitement, her relief, her guilt, even, that she hadn't mediated her expectations and seeing the anger on James' face was crushing.
"James, I'm - I'm sorry, I didn't have a choice," Francesca said, making an assumption as to the nature of that anger. Her voice trembled with emotion. "I had to take another suitor. We all thought you were dead."
Her words seemed to attract his full attention, and he tilted his head at her like a puzzled animal. Mulling over all the noise in his head that was no longer guided by that unnecessary organ that he had sacrificed…. Castile leaned his hip against a large table next to where the young noble sat.
He bit his lower lip for a moment, an old habit ingrained into his personality. “Do not apologize, Francesca…. One must do what is necessary, such things can be unavoidable…” James replied curtly, he didn’t look at her but kept his gaze focused on the window.
His brow furrowed again, and he asked in a dull tone with only a hint of annoyance “Was it my father that proclaimed me dead?” Leave it to the king to underestimate his bastard. Now James did turn his head to look at Rossi. “Who is he….. This suitor?” he asked dryly. He tried to recall the fire he once felt at those refine features, blue eyes and his hand moved from his side to touch the golden, silken tresses for a moment……
James recoiled his fingers liked they had been burned. “You mourned for me…” his brow furrowed deeply again at the thought. “...did you think me so weak?” he grunted turning to stare at the armor as if it had said something.
He really wasn't going to blame her for getting engaged again? Or if not blame her, at least… be sad about it. Or jealous. Last time they had seen one another, they had been lobbying their parents to let them marry early. Wondering if that was why he asked who it was, she answered, "Rafael Gonzalo." The family was well known across Eventyr now, but she couldn't quite recall how long ago Rafael's father had been appointed - had it been before or after James' disappearance…? "The Royal General's son. He's…" Francesca paused, unsure of what to say about her new fiance. Did she want to reassure, or inflame? She didn't know, and so she let the sentence die on her tongue.
Hope sparked when James touched her hair, for the briefest moment, and she remembered how fond he had been of it. She had taken to wearing it loose instead of braided like most ladies because he preferred it that way... and then he pulled back his hand as if he had been bitten. He couldn't stand to touch her, just like Rafael, and it broke her heart. And his words cut deeply, because no, the King had not declared James dead. There hadn't even been a funeral. Until a successor could be chosen to replace him, James was officially both alive and dead, and Francesca had moved on under the common-sense assumption that one simply could not survive in the Deep Woods alone for so long. A blink, tears fell down both her cheeks, and a sob choked in her throat as she tried very hard not to fall apart. "I'm sorry, Jamie. I'm so sorry…"
She hadn't even noticed the armor until then, so fixated on James instead to have taken even a cursory glance around the room. There was something… strange about it, that she couldn't put her finger on. "What is that?"
At first he didn’t seem to notice her tears, or distress until she asked about the green armor. And his hand moved to touch her shoulder, gently but firmly James pulled her to stand. “Beautiful Francesca…” he said using a thumb to rub at her tears, his hands were cold. ”....Come see....I… found it...It’s how I got out” Castile said as if he were explaining some dull theory from a book.
Francesca prickled when he pulled her to her feet - he had always been strong, but there was something in this that felt controlling, and not in the way she liked it, like the way he handled her hips that afternoon at the riverside...
She flinched away from his cold fingers on her cheek. The gesture was sweet enough, but it didn't feel right. The concern or affection that should have accompanied it was missing. Why did he call her beautiful in one breath, but seem so ambivalent about looking at her?
He looped his arm around her in a semblance of an embrace, but instead stepped the young woman closer to the green metal. “It’s power, Francesca…. And now it’s mine” he said looking at it the way he might have once looked at her. His mouth curled into a mockery of a smile, “Touch it…”. James eyes glittered in the half dark of the light in the room from candles and the fireplace, “...it’s alright…”
She quickly regretted her sadness that he wouldn't touch her hair, for his hand around her waist felt intrusive and uncomfortable, but it was because of that sadness earlier that she didn't pull away. She wanted to be wanted.
But the expressions on his face were the worst of it. The handsome face she had known her whole life, that she had fallen in love with, that she had twisted into pleasure… it couldn't smile anymore. Its lips moved like a smile, but it wasn't one. She was so disturbed that she barely heard what he was saying until he was telling her to touch… what? the suit? The way he spoke made her certain that she would never lay a hand on the thing, like it was diseased. She shrank back, and her voice came out a strained squeak. "You're scaring me."
James frowned his arm squeezing her to him harder, and for a moment something flitted across his face. A look of longing, hurt and he said softly, “Frannie….how could you say such a thing?” And then his grip tightened around her wrist and he pulled it forward toward the armor, with a wicked smile…
Francesca wrenched away from him. Her whole body broke out in goosebumps, and her wariness turned instantly into cold fear. James wouldn't hold her like this, he wouldn't use her nickname to torment her, he wouldn't… but he was much stronger than she was, and panic set in when she realized she wasn't going to get away. There was a scream in her throat when the doors opened...
Just as her fingertips grazed oddly warm metal, Johanna Castile burst in with Gianna Rossi and a bevy of servants. James fingers curled around Francesca’s hand, and held it. “Mother, Duchess Rossi…. I’m so glad you and your daughter came to see us”. A charming smile curled his mouth.
The Eastern Duchess arched a brow at her son, and how possessively he held Francesca. She tried not to show how delighted she was. “You should be resting James, you had a traumatic journey. But we wanted to tell you the good news first….”
The young noble arched both his brows upward in some kind of show of curiosity. “...That your engagement is still valid. And after the appropriate amount of time for you to recover from your ordeal, and the two of you to get reacquainted the wedding will be planned” she continued, since this was her realm and she held more power than her married counterpart that arrived with her daughter. “Isn’t it exciting?!?”
“Yes, isn’t it” he repeated smiling as his fingers tightened around Francesca’s.
Francesca stared in dumb horror at the Eastern Duchess as she spoke. Of course, it was exactly what she had hoped to hear until just a few minutes ago, exactly what she had begged her mother to ensure on their journey across the kingdom. Rafael was a mess of a man, and even if she cared about him, she wanted a husband who could… be a husband. But now the idea of marrying James repulsed her, made her physically sick, and when she turned her horrified expression toward James again, she saw that same fake smile, smug and false and dangerous. She didn't know if she was going to scream or cry.
"Francesca," Duchess Rossi scolded softly, under Joanna's louder tones, giving her daughter the most disapproving glare at being found so inappropriately close to James. Sure, it looked like James was the one in control, but Gianna knew her daughter and seriously doubted she hadn't invited the attention.
Francesca had no composure left. Her body and voice were shaking, as she pulled away from him again, harder this time even though she knew he wouldn't hold onto her in front of their mothers. "No. No, no, no - how do you not see it?" Francesca said, pointing an accusing finger at the thing that looked like James. "He's a monster!"
James let her go and he feigned that hurt expression again for a moment, before turning to face the armor. Duchess Castile looked alarmed and insulted at the same time, her face reddened and she looked from one face to the other in the room. “EVERYONE NOT OF NOBLE BLOOD, GET OUT!” she exclaimed and the servants scurried out of the library.
“What is the meaning of this?!” she exclaimed, she had always liked young Francesca but such an accusation. She looked at Gianna and then the two youngsters that were barely holding onto their teens. James let his shoulders come up in a shrug, “Forgive me, ladies… I have been untoward my betrothed because of my absence. I fear perhaps this is all too soon…”
His mother waved her hands dismissively, and like any parent saw no wrongdoing in her offspring’s part. Of course he was different, the poor boy had been abducted in the enchanted woods for a year, feared dead. She looked at Duchess Rossi to do something about her daughter...
Francesca's teeth clenched in rage when she saw James look back at the stupid suit of armor, and she realized she was hyperventilating. Her mother was meekly grabbing for her, offering quiet shushes, hoping to de-escalate the situation that had Francesca higher strung than she had ever seen the girl. She was impulsive, but usually discreetly so, hatching schemes far from the eyes of adults. This was entirely new.
"Untoward? Fuck you!" Francesca shrieked, grabbing for the strongest, most unladylike language she could find, in complete outrage as he tried to play off the behavior that would give her nightmares for years. How did their mothers not see what he was doing? What was he doing? What was he?
She was furious - at James for his strange games, and their mothers for allowing it - and she knew only one way to lash out at him. Let him try to stop her; he would only show their parents the maniac he was. She threw all her rage and her weight into shoving over his precious suit of armor, destined to tumble right into the fireplace with its roaring flames…
The young Duke only reached out to pull his mother clear of the sharp edges of the armor as it clattered to the floor from the stand. “FRANCESCA!” the Duchess exclaimed, as her son pulled her behind him. “Mother, it’s not her fault” James said slowly.
He picked up the pieces of metal dusting them off and setting them on the table. “It’s been a year, and I am different. And the same… it’s difficult to explain, mother” he grunted out. And using the poker he fished the helmet out of the fireplace, and crouched down to touch what should have been searing hot metal. “No one is the same as we remember….”
Of course, Duchess Castile would hear none of it. Mothers were set in their ways, and physically James had returned in better shape than when he had left. He was sullen, but who wouldn’t be after a year in the deepest woods? “Enough of all this talk” she said, sure that Francesca only protested now because of the Royal General’s son. Perhaps James had some village maiden he had set eyes on…
She was not about to let young hormones unravel the plans she and Gianna had since they were children. “Clearly everyone is tired from their journeys, things will be clearer after dinner” she insisted looking at the Duchess of the West for confirmation. They would clearly be talking afterwards she hoped these two children would work out whatever their problem was. “I will hope that manners and sensibilities will return by then?”
James had been staring at the green helmet, he tilted his head at the women in the room. “If I may speak to Francesca alone, please… ladies” he gestured to the door and looked at the girl he had spent most of his life preparing to wed. His expression was unreadable at the moment.
Gianna grabbed her hysterical daughter roughly and slapped her face - not hard enough to hurt much, but enough to get her attention, and it worked. Francesca gasped and froze, staring wide eyed at her mother as Gianna made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Francesca's behavior was childish and would stop immediately - but even then, Francesca couldn't help her eyes straying back to James, who seemed to have no fear of burning himself…
"It's foolish to make an enemy of your husband." Gianna hissed, her voice low in warning and hard to hear over the noise of collecting the armor pieces. Francesca realized that even if she was right, even if James was a monster and even if she would live in fear every day, her mother wouldn't help her. The alliance was too important to their family. "Make nice," Gianna advised, with a glance downward that made Francesca self-conscious. "I know you know how."
Then, Gianna pulled Francesca along by the arm until she stood in front of James, and patted her gently on the back as she withdrew, giving James an approving nod. As far as she had seen, he seemed perfectly gentlemanly to her, and he had kept his composure like a true lord even though her daughter was being ridiculous. "Communication is the key to a happy marriage," Gianna said, heading toward the door with Joanna and leaving the young lovers to sort out their differences.
James watched them leave and of course the door was slightly ajar. He was sure both women were to the other side discussing the whole matter in hushed whispers among their handmaidens and servants. He turned to look at the blond young woman left in his presence.
“I will rule this realm, and no one will get in my way” Castile said in a dull matter of fact way. He leaned his hip back against the heavy table, hands rubbing the green metal of the helmet he held. “You will not spoil this, Francesca. We will be married, and you will play the good wife. I, in turn, will not interfere with whatever social you wish to attend…. Nobles, or otherwise. Whatever frivolous affair, whatever material status symbol, your estate by the ocean, I care not…”
His hands stroked the curve of the helm’s crown, and James looked up to smile in an unpleasant way. “You may live as you choose, but you will not impede upon my own plans”. His face melted into something like that boy that disappeared into the woods a year ago. “I was so frightened, and alone, Francesca. I was so much less…. I will never feel that way again”.
Francesca felt torn in half. On the one hand, his promise to give her some autonomy was a relief, because it was all too easy to imagine being locked up in this fortress with this beast and his creepy armor. Maybe she could take long trips home, alone, since he would be needed to rule. Having friends and maybe even lovers might make it bearable…
But it was so unfair, to ask such a young girl to look forward to a life that was bearable. She wanted love and excitement, like the ladies in the stories with their prince charmings. But instead, she would count herself lucky to have a husband who had once vowed to cherish her, now promising that he would treat her like a utility, a necessity, as if it were a favor. She would have to bear children for this shadow of a man who terrified her with every one of those smiles… and wonder if the babies would know how to smile when they were born. The thought made her stomach turn over miserably.
She scowled at his final words, and at the images that had plagued her dreams that they dredged up. James, alone in the dark and the cold, the howling of wolves echoing through the trees, mysterious crunching of branches under the foot of whoknewwhat. She had wept for that boy, and after months, been unable to decide if she hoped he was persevering or if he had died quickly.
"Stop that," Francesca snapped. She meant for her voice to sound like a demand, but it came out resolved, but too tinged with sadness, fear, and anger to have any bite to it. "You might be able to fool them," she jerked her head at the door, "but I can see that you're not James." And even though she wasn't sure she wanted to know, she knew she needed to, so she asked, "What are you? What did you do to him?"
His fingers dragged from the helm to his chest, “I am James Castile...and so much more, Francesca”. Looking up at her his eyes narrowed slightly, “And I am also the son of the King, it would be unfortunate if word were to spread to his ears of such ill will to his offspring. It could even be considered treasonous…”. He tilted his head at her, “...and my brother the crown prince, would concur. So be reasonable, Francesca Rossi...and see this marriage for what it always has been… a business arrangement”.
James stood and began to reset the armor on its stand, he paused to see if there was any of his old self… Maybe, just bits and pieces, disjointed and held in place by old magic. Like butterflies pinned to a board, flapping vainly to be free. “I am home, and in a generous mood, Francesca… do not tempt our nature, we are not as forgiving as a year ago”.
Francesca's already pale skin managed to pale even further. Treason was a capital crime. Using his connections to the crown to accuse her of it would be murder. While it was uncommon for nobles to actually be sentenced with more than a hefty fine, especially if they showed remorse at their trials, the public undoubtedly had a fascination with the executions of pretty young women. With the cruelty behind those eyes, Francesca didn't like her chances.
As much as she wanted nothing more than to take her leave, she squeezed her eyes shut for a determined moment to force more tears back. Their engagement hadn't always been a business arrangement. They had loved each other. And this monster wearing James face and using his voice had no right to say otherwise...
His words were a clear dismissal, but the peculiar turn of phrase - our? - frightened her as much as his strange tone. Watching him as she made her way to the door as she might have watched a spider to make sure it didn't crawl toward her, Francesca whispered a shaking farewell that seemed to admit her defeat: "I will see you at dinner, my lord."