Who: Malia and James
When: Five years ago; Queen's funeral
Where: Castle at King's City
The Queen was dead, and that was a crying shame.
Malia had no authentic tears - but she did know, from a Google search she'd done at home, that she could generate them by purposefully refusing to blink and stimulating her sinuses. So she returned from the restroom with a healthy swelling in her eyes, an unadulterated streak of moisture down one mocha cheek.
The funeral was extravagant. The palace might have been primitive by "modern" architectural standards, but the heavy black drapes made a statement against the high stone walls; the jeweled coffin; the moaning of sad string instruments singing through the echoing chambers. It was already a space of mourning, and the death just made it worse.
Her new husband was mingling by the table laid out with food. She didn't take a step toward him; instead, Malia's dark eyes zeroed in on the only figure that mattered, in her opinion - the king's brother, James Castille, of the Eastern Woods. He must have been six and a half feet tall, and young, probably still in his twenties. Younger than her son, Malia mused, but nothing about this thought dissuaded her. Massive and powerful, in more ways than one, Malia dared to approach. Her bodice was so restrictive and her skirt so massive that an Earth-Malia would have absolutely scoffed at the choice, but the distinctive military pattern contrasted with the feminine details worked wonders in her current setting.
"I am so sorry for your loss," Malia whispered, pausing at the duke's side.
The Duke would have found the Duchess of the North beautiful, and sophisticated in her dress if such things still interested him. Still he was not beyond polite civilities, and he was heartless…. Not dead. “You look elegant as always” he replied dryly and bowed his head to her, half in greeting and partly in acknowledgement to her words… Even if they meant nothing to him.
Castile tilted his head slightly and replied flatly, “Gratitude, Duchess… but I was hardly close to the queen”. His indifference to such matters was hardly surprising, but his inability to cover it might be considered gauche to some. His gaze shifted to her husband, and his refined clothes, and then the King, who bore a more stoic expression at the affair than Castile. A frown pulled at the corner of the Green Duke’s mouth, it was the most emotion he showed during the whole event.
His attention focused back on the Northern Duchess, who was thankfully a tall woman and didn’t make him crane his neck downward to speak to her. “She was soft, no more useful than a broodmare to a stallion…. The king misses her not, he has what he wanted…” he said frankly nodding his head to the grieving children. He blinked dully at her, “I hope I have not offended your sensibilities with my honesty, Duchess”.
The corner of Malia's mouth twitched upward - but it was subtle, fleeting, and, with a forced breath as though she were lifting something heavy, the Duchess frowned solemnly again. God, his assessment of the Queen's role was so archaic. Had the Queen lived, said-broodmare would have outranked him and he would have had to follow her every order. But his words were still telling. He was a classic sexist. Her daughter posted memes about just this sort of rhetoric weekly. She, herself, was less condemning, having grown up in an age where all Jasmine raged about had been so very commonplace.
"Oh, far from it, my lord. I would laugh, were it not so inappropriate if we were to be overheard." Notes of amusement were subtle in her voice. "You answered the only question I came here to ask - why there is not a woman on... that massive arm of yours." Bowing to propriety, Malia allowed her words alone to convey her flirtation while her tone held only reverence for their dearly departed monarch. Lowering her conversational tone a touch, she added. "I trust you not to tell anyone - that I have no sensibilities."
Castile’s mouth curled, although it seemed a simple reflex than real amusement. “Your secret is safe with me, my lady…” he replied, although he oddly glanced down at one limb as if the duke was trying to picture someone there. A large shoulder shrugged upward, “I would be far less… inappropriate...if power was attained by some other ability than bearing offspring”.
It should have been no surprise how he felt about queens, considering he was a son of a king but treated like far less because his own mother was not the royal consort. Castile’s gaze shifted to the king, Phillip the 3rd, his half brother…. And then he offered his arm to the Duchess. “Would you care to see the gardens, my lady?” he asked, a common excuse to have a more private conversation.
It took only that one sentence for Malia's opinion of the Green Duke to turn on a dime. Power should not be afforded only to women who bore children to powerful men - Malia had struggled herself to find a space within the system while being totally unwilling to go through pregnancy again. She'd done it twice, and it hadn't exactly been a walk in the park! And finding contraception in Eventyr wasn't impossible, but it wasn't a phone call and a pap-smear away either. While being a mother remained a fundamental part of her femininity, the Duke's words resonated fully within the echo chamber of her own quite empty heart and she realized it wasn't so easy to label him. Was he a sexist, who believed women were just vessels? Or was he somehow a feminist, who believed women should never be limited by their reproductive choices? She allowed this thought process to show on her face - contemplative, insightful, resolved, then pleased. At the least, he intrigued her.
The Duke's invitation was so very proper… but Malia was a newly-wed Duchess, and she didn't want to invite rumors. Or did she? With a notable disregard for convention, she hooked an arm through the tree-trunk of a limb the Duke offered and made a point to walk by the table offering beverages as they exited toward the gardens, claiming a glass of white wine for herself.
When the polite crying and sniffling of mourners had fallen away to the steady padding of their feet beneath them, Malia glanced up, interestedly, at the duke's face. He had royal blood, even if its benefits had been denied him, and so once the gardens were quiet, she inquired: "If you were king, how would things be different?"
Castille seemed oblivious to any eyes on them, as if he didn’t know better that perhaps it would be thought improper. Or maybe he simply did not care what others thought other than the woman attached to his arm.Her question, however made his brow furrow deeply and gave his mouth the hint of a bitter twist.
James was not king, nor would he ever be according to his late father’s rule…. He did not normally like to humor ‘what ifs’, or speak of how he felt. He had no wish to actually be king, however more importantly he did not want to be ruled by someone inferior to him. What had Philip ever sacrifice than others for his own survival and rule?
“Duchess, such talk would be considered dangerous… in the wrong company” he replied finally glancing at her. “But hypothetically… I think a king would benefit from being more aware of the difficulties his people face”. Castille shook his head, his brother was like a animal with blinders on. He paused and although it was polite to ask, he was genuinely interested. “And you….hypothetically, of course…?”
Finally free to indulge laughter at a funeral, Malia let out a light chuckle as she countered, "Oh, but I think I'm in the right company." If she could trust the little book she had acquired, of course - a careful reading had encouraged her to look for an ally in the Green Duke. She hoped that by putting herself out there, he would see the extent to which she put herself at risk for his approval and decide to buy in. Time would tell.
"Hypothetically," she prompted along agreeably. His answer surprised her: pay attention to the plight of the people. It was a noble answer, to be sure, and had this been a CNN debate for royal candidates, she would have politely clapped. After all, on Earth, she was 'the people' and damn did she ever have plights. But she saw past the political words as she snuck a glance at his face over her wine glass and saw that there were emotions there that he likely hadn't even acknowledged himself. He would never be king, and musing on the impossible was an uncomfortable exercise.
Well, wasn't he lucky she had come along to push the issue.
"Me?" The reversal caught the Duchess totally off-guard. Her mind reeled a bit as she weighed options in response. "I have no royal blood," she hedged, as if to dismiss the question, but it only bought her time.
"Everyone has difficulties. I do not think the people know what they need," Malia answered, honestly. Farmers and tradesmen had problems, and they would fix their problems. Instead, she shrugged, leaning in a bit more as they walked, and she said - quite philosophically, if she did say so herself - "A rising tide lifts all boats." And, to mix a metaphor, she went on, "I would make every inch of the kingdom sing, and then… enjoy the music."
“King Ferdinand Paxton was Duke of the North, when he came to rule after the Undead war. Blood means nothing except to the Vampire, and courtyard gossips” he replied. Although he tilted his head and raised a brow in a quizzical manner at odd quote on boats and music. Something glinted in his eye, but was quickly snuffed out.
“The people are like….” cattle, sheep, livestock “....children, they need guidance”. The Duke stopped to admire some kind of massive flowering bush and ran a hand over both the flora and the thorns hidden behind them. His mouth curled in an unsavory way as the little spikes pricked his skin.
He shifted his gaze to the Duchess, “Will you help rule the North, or be satisfied with being Friedrich’s…” Broodmare, trophy “...consort?” Castile didn’t really know the Duke of the North beyond common courtesies among the nobles, but he was sure that the Duchess had married below herself in some manner.
Malia couldn't help but laugh at his comment about blood mattering only to vampires - the imagery was just too amusing. She imagined a vampire sipping from throats like a sommelier sampling fine wines. She caught an emotion in the duke's eyes, that he too quickly squashed. It gave him a mysterious quality that she hadn't expected. What was his secret?
He was one hundred percent right about the people, though, and so she nodded along. This wasn't a democracy, and frankly, for people of color in the US, democracy hadn't exactly been a pillar of excellence. She felt no need to bring the American Dream to Eventyr.
She watched James step toward a rosebush and caress it, and she watched his hand with perhaps too much interest, with her wine glass pressed against her full lower lip even though she was no longer sipping. His question prompted a smile - one perhaps more conspiratorial than happy.
"Satisfaction is an interesting concept, isn't it?" the Duchess mused. "One day, you have a powerful craving, and there's only one path to satiate it. And then the next… you've had your fill. And then you want something else entirely." Maybe something bigger, she said, without saying.
Apparently you didn’t need a heart to be funny, the Duke blinked at the Duchess when she laughed and his mouth curled slightly as if he remembered a time when he enjoyed the sound. “There are those that are meant to rise above….like a dove. And there are those that rise like a phoenix…and they burn everything in their path” James replied, as he broke a rose away from the bush letting thorns bite into his skin.
The Duke held it out to Malia, “A dangerous beauty for a dangerously beautiful woman”. His gaze turned out toward the garden again, and asked in seeming polite conversation “Where do you hail from originally, Duchess?”
"There's a poet in you," Malia noted, careful not to let her lips spread too far into a smile - it was a funeral, after all - but there was a light in her eyes all the same. She would know. After decades as a librarian, she knew a thing or two about imagery and symbolism. And she liked where he was going with both. Even moreso when he offered her the fresh-plucked rose, complete with a tender bead of royal blood on it (no matter what his father said). Malia accepted the small gift and the monumental compliment with a gentle, subtle curl of her lips.
His question presented her with a familiar dilemma. Of course, she had a practiced script about a childhood in the mountains of the north. The storyteller in her had spun a tale that was complex enough to pique interest, but not enough to merit a fact-check. But, as she tucked the rose behind her ear beneath the voluminous curls there and she looked out at the sun setting low over tops of the bushes in the gardens, standing beside the man, she believed, was the second-most powerful in Eventyr, Malia didn't feel much like lying.
So instead, she lifted a finger and pointed at one of the few, small shining dots peeking through the lingering sunlight in the sky above them. "Second star to the right," she whispered back. Her words were obscure, but absolutely authentic. At the last moment, she turned her eyes to meet his, with plenty unspoken but all the same un-hidden in their depths. "And straight on 'till morning."
For the briefest moment an expression of childlike awe spread over the Duke’s features as he looked upward and followed her hand. But as soon as his head tilted back down to look at her it was gone, as if it never existed. “I am incline to almost believe that such a lovely creature must be from the heavens” James stated in what would have been a charming compliment if it hadn’t been delivered so dryly.
He forced his mouth to curl into a smile, “Some stories are better than the truths behind them”.
Poet would have been a better job for him than politician, Malia mused. It wasn't that his ideas lacked charm, but his delivery left much to be desired. It left her wondering if perhaps he was on the autism spectrum… but that didn't quite click. He was not just intelligent, but also had some intuition and there were measures of beauty in there as well. He wasn't missing cues.
She understood, now, the stories that painted him like a statue of a man. She had thought they referred mostly to his impressive stature, but now she saw they also referenced his stony affect. All the same, she offered a warm smile of gratitude because it was the thought that counts, and she had told her children and grandchildren that a thousand times.
"Stories are an extension of truth." The words of a librarian, for sure. He wanted honesty, she could tell. She couldn't tell him about New York, but that didn't mean couldn't say anything.
Taking two steps forward resulted in showing her back and thus hiding her face, which was, in a way, a sign of deference, showing that she was not watching, interpreting, or judging his every expression. She ventured forward into honesty that felt like a stretch, but she trusted her book. "I did not venture across the kingdom for the queen. I came for you. Not to tell you lies - but facts…" she shook her head, "facts are problematic, perhaps even dangerous." Incriminating, she meant. "So instead, I come offering stories. Truths, placed into... hypotheticals."
She was being cryptic, but it was a clear allusion back to her initial question as they ventured out into the gardens and his assessment of it.
James arched a brow slightly at the Malia, but he nodded his head. “What is life, without danger?” he asked stepping forward to stand closer without hovering over her. “The queen is dead, and yet my brother sheds no tears….” he stated going back to examining a series of plants.
“Do you not find that strange….. Duchess?” he asked looking up.
There was a certain skeptic in Malia that wanted to scoff and dismiss, to suggest, perhaps, that it was totally possible to excuse oneself from emotional investment when it suited them. However, she had been a widow herself. To a much less than perfect husband. He'd cheated. He'd lied. He cared more about his job than his children. But when he passed…. She cried. Absolutely. Even if your partner wasn't the be-all-and-end-all of your life like Romeo and Juliet, losing them was huge. And so yes, it was suspicious that the king wasn't emotional.
"I do find it strange," Malia answered, honestly, glancing back up at the Duke. As a man enculturated in Eventyr from birth, his analysis was worth ten of hers, anyway. "What does it say to you?"
The Duke gave a tight frown, “My half-brother would do better to show anything even utter contempt than nothing at all…. Although the people would gossip whether he cried tears to turn the desserts of the south as green as the enchanted forest. The sound of them, like the mad clucking of hens when a fox has entered the coop…” Castile didn’t bother hiding his disgust of such habits, even when they were to his advantage.
He glanced up from the fauna that he had been examining. “Philip….” James paused the familiar use of the name had almost a hint of concern, but it was gone a moment later. He continued, correcting himself “....The King, even privy to the queen’s impending demise and having emotionally prepared himself for the event, would still have some emotional investment…”
The large man rested a hand flat against his chest where no scar showed to evidence the lack of the organ there. “He is not beyond sacrificing others for his own purposes… Like our father”. Such talk was definitely considered treasonous, truth or falsehood didn’t matter, but he had no fear that his current company would repeat it.
Indeed, the sentiment the Duke spoke locked away in Malia's heart securely. His offer of treasonous speech validated the one she had earlier shared, and it solidified the trust between them - soon, she hoped, between the second and third most influential people in the kingdom, if she had her way.
His secret, she would keep. His insight, though, she dissected in her mind, curious like a student all over again. Had the queen been sickly? If she had, perhaps the king had already moved on in his heart… or his bed, or both. But it was the final thought that caught her attention - her chin jerked up, brows raising in surprise, although she made no verbal acknowledgement, not even a stray breath. James spoke to a mystery of Eventyr she had not yet decoded… although the presence of which she could not deny.
"Sacrifice... to what?" The preposition was tricky. Was it "to what?" or "for what"? Nevertheless, Malia's instinct didn't waver, and she stuck with her choice.
Castile tilted his head curiously at her, brow furrowing slightly. “To whom…..” he replied turning fully to examine the woman now rather than the foliage. He was looking at her rather expectantly, as if she should know the answer. He blinked at her, “....Surely you’ve heard of the witches, Duchess?”
"The Four Witches?" Malia asked, taking a step closer. As a noblewoman, the gesture likely looked to an outsider as if she wanted to lower her voice in a secretive whisper, but the truth was written across her face for James as an upclose observer: it was nothing short of the way a child drew in when a story captivated them. Malia knew the tales, but she had not legitimately regarded the so-called witches as actual beings - the stories reached back too many decades and varied too widely for her to suppose they were rooted in fact. But this was a magical land, and she was beyond intrigued to find out differently. "They are real?"
A amused little smile curled the corner of the Duke’s mouth slightly. “My dear Duchess, of course they are real” he replied softly. “Most of the stories surrounding them are exaggerations and rumors, but some are very true”.
Castile bent his arm for Malia to take, and stated “You can see for yourself, Duchess. Will you allow me to escort you to the royal reading room, my lady?” No one was going to miss them during the procession of mourners. And no one short of the king would interfere with the Duke waltzing through the castle.
With curiosity strong enough that it became enchantment, Malia linked her arm through the Duke's hefty one. Her desire to know what he knew transcended description - to say she was hungry for it, or horny for it would have sold the burning in her heart short. She had known from her magical book that James was the one she needed to see, but not why - and now she learned something of potential infinite worth. She gripped his arm firmly and smiled, "I love to read."