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Left My Baby Blue

Manda
 

Who: Altansarnai

With: King Philip

Where: Castle courtyard, King's City

When: February 28th, evening


"Oh," Altansarnai said, forcing a smile as she stared down into the giftbox at the fourth silver rattle she'd been presented with thus far that evening. "It's . . . beautiful," she insisted, just as she had with each of the others. It took an impressive amount of control for Sarnai to keep her polite smile in place as she expressed her thanks to the merchant standing in front of her and the nearest servant swept the gift away.


To put it simply, Sarnai was miserable. Not only was she expected to accept gifts with gracious smiles, mingle with a castle-full of nobles and commoners alike, but she had do it all in Philip's company. And as if that wasn't bad enough, he couldn't even be bothered to pick up any of the slack, leaving her to navigate this entire day with nothing but her wits and her etiquette lessons.


Brown eyes cut toward her 'date' and she bit back an exasperated sigh at the way his gaze darted around the crowd. Sarnai had always found him to be a little off and while she was hardly an unbiased opinion, today he seemed worse that usual with his attention everywhere but where it was supposed to be. Which, in this moment, should have been on the man stepping forward to place a gilded rocking horse before the two of them.


"It's lovely," Sarnai praised, but this time there was sincerity in the words and the smile on her face was genuine. The horse was beautiful, masterfully carved with attention paid to even the smallest details, and the Consort found herself positively enchanted. She reached out and touched Philip's wrist, making an attempt to draw his attention, "Isn't it, Your Majesty?"


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Rachel Balla
 

For how regal King Philip Paxton III appeared - his deep purple jacket, the gold crown on his head, the soldiers standing at attention at his elbow, the servants coming and going to remove gifts or to offer food or drink - his presence was decidedly less so. There was a bit of slump in his shoulders, a jerking movement in his chin as his eyes darted about. The realities were crushing him, and with this being his first public appearance in months - and his consort's first ever - he was painfully aware of how much he aligned with suspicions he had lost his mind…


But that awareness didn't help him avoid the telltale signs. A hopeful flutter would flit across his face when he spotted a quirky smile, and he thought he saw Bridgette… but no. And dread, a moment later, when Francesca, the Duchess of the Plains, took a step in his direction, offered him a flirtatious wink, or let her gaze linger on his beautiful young consort. She was getting a little too closer for his comfort…


Young. God, she was younger that Bridgette would be, if she were alive. The thought twisted his stomach and he was staring at the horizon, determinedly watching the sun inch downward and downward, when he felt a touch on his wrist.


Sarnai: "It's lovely," "Isn't it, Your Majesty?"


Altansarnai hadn't touched him of her own accord since… quite a few months now. The unexpected contact seemed to snap him immediately out of his daze. In a blink, he seemed to remember how to be a King. The charm fell back on him comfortably like a cloak over his shoulders on a chilly day. A broad smile and a cheerful, booming voice.


"Lovely, indeed!" The King said, boisterously, before he looked down at the gift. A rocking horse. Seeing why she appreciated it, and happy to see she had found a sliver of happiness in the day, he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her in for a kiss. Then, addressed the gifter - who looked to be a craftsman in his middle age - as if they were friends. "Do you know, my queen-to-be is a talented rider. I hope our child will be, as well!"


But this praise was hardly sufficient because the King stopped to ask the man his name. When it came without a title, the King inquired, "You are a commoner?" And then shook his head. "This man has pleased my Consort. Give him a manor!"


"I have a manor in need of a lord."


The immediate response came from the Duchess of the Plains, a slender blonde woman in a stunning black-silver gown. When Francesca spoke, her words seemed to have a teasing subtext… even if no one else was in on the joke. "If this man has pleased… the Consort, I would be honored to have him."


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Manda
 

 

King Philip: "Lovely, indeed!" *kissy face*


Sarnai couldn't quite stop the stiffening of her shoulders as Philip's arm wrapped around her and there was no doubt that a perceptive guest would pick up on her discomfort as she leaned in to reluctantly accept the kiss. This wasn't the sort of reaction she'd been hoping for when she'd sought to get his attention. She should have just continued to ignore him . . .


That regret was felt keenly, coupled with her thudding heart and queasy stomach, and as he released her Sarnai lowered her eyes. It took a staggering amount of effort to bring that pleasant smile back to her face and, of course, it ended up not mattering much anyway because Philip was still talking . . .


King Philip: "Do you know, my queen-to-be is a talented rider. I hope our child will be, as well!" … "You are a commoner?" And then shook his head. "This man has pleased my Consort. Give him a manor!"


Francesca: "I have a manor in need of a lord." … "If this man has pleased… the Consort, I would be honored to have him."


Sarnai turned surprised eyes to the King, unsure of what to make of his sudden generosity. If she had known that he would bestow gifts on those who'd pleased her, perhaps Sarnai's reactions would have been far more enthusiastic!


Her eyes narrowed slightly though, when the Duchess of the Plains spoke up. Altansarnai didn't care that Francesca was Philip's lover - it kept his hands off of her, after all - but there was something about the way the Duchess spoke that left the Consort feeling just a bit uncomfortable. As if she were the butt of some joke or there was an ulterior motive that she wasn't privy to.


"That is kind of you, m'lady," Sarnai spoke up, her gaze steady. It was easy enough to channel her discomfort into an icy sort of anger and maybe a tinge of spitefulness. "This man has an impressive talent, though. I'm sure any of the duchies would be pleased to have him." She turned to Philip, fixing him with a hopeful look as she continued, "My King, I would prefer he stay nearby, so I could easily commission him again . . ."


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Steph
 

Who: A Servant
With: King Philip, Sarnai, Duchess Francesca
Where: Castle courtyard, King's City 
When: February 28th, evening

>>>>
"This man has an impressive talent, though. I'm sure any of the duchies would be pleased to have him." She turned to Philip, fixing him with a hopeful look as she continued, "My King, I would prefer he stay nearby, so I could easily commission him again . . ."
>>>>

A servant stepped forward along with those who came up to lift the rocking horse, curtstying low to both the King and the Consort. She wore a dress and cloak in the king's livery, hood modestly framing her face. 

"If it pleases the consort and His Majesty," she said with all the obeisance of a perfect servant. She waited to proceed until the king gave a nod of his head. "There's a carpenter's workshop in the Artisan's District that… closed recently, due to failure to pay taxes. I believe His Majesty has the deed on his desk and could sign it over now, to give this talented craftsman a place to work a mere stroll from the castle walls."

King Philip's smile grew only a touch at this news, only so much as would be appropriate for a noble in response to the words of a servant. "An excellent idea." He rose from his seat then, regal. "You know where to find this deed, yes?"

The hooded servant dipped again, nodding her head.

"Take me to it. I shall sign it immediately, for the one who has brought the brightest smile to my consort's face today," he declared.

The servant gave yet another curtsy, then turned to lead the way.

The King dipped and kissed Sarnai's cheek before he followed the servant into the castle and away from the line of gift givers, yet again leaving her alone to receive the gifts intended for her and her child.

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Rachel Balla
 

The Duchess observed the consort closely, with interest but not without sympathy, when she noted the young woman's shoulders tense at the King's kiss - she hadn't wanted it, and the diplomatic smile on Francesca's face soured until Philip released her. Her distaste of the action might have been jealousy, or perhaps not, but either way, it was fleeting.


Sarnai: "That is kind of you, m'lady," "This man has an impressive talent, though. I'm sure any of the duchies would be pleased to have him." "My King, I would prefer he stay nearby, so I could easily commission him again . . ."


The dismissal of Francesca's offer was not insignificant, and the Duchess's head tilted in annoyance when she was leveled with the other Dukes and Duchesses, none of whom bothered to make themselves available when a king's request was made…  


Servant: "If it pleases the consort and His Majesty," "There's a carpenter's workshop in the Artisan's District that… closed recently, due to failure to pay taxes. I believe His Majesty has the deed on his desk and could sign it over now, to give this talented craftsman a place to work a mere stroll from the castle walls."


Philip: "An excellent idea." "You know where to find this deed, yes?" "Take me to it. I shall sign it immediately, for the one who has brought the brightest smile to my consort's face today,"


When Philip dipped to give his consort another kiss before his departure, Francesca cringed. Poor thing. If the King spared Francesca a glance upon his departure, she returned it only with a judgmental half-glare.


In Philip's absence, Francesca approached Sarnai, pausing several paces back to offer a low, slow curtsy in the traditional formality. "Your majesty," she greeted, her term of address assuming royalty of the consort before it had been officially declared. Her ensuing words had every air of calculation, but even so, they were wholly authentic. "You could not be lovelier. How is the child?"


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Manda
 

Servant: "If it pleases the consort and His Majesty," ... "There's a carpenter's workshop in the Artisan's District that… closed recently, due to failure to pay taxes. I believe His Majesty has the deed on his desk and could sign it over now, to give this talented craftsman a place to work a mere stroll from the castle walls."

King Philip: "An excellent idea." He rose from his seat then, regal. "You know where to find this deed, yes?" ... "Take me to it. I shall sign it immediately, for the one who has brought the brightest smile to my consort's face today,"


Sarnai felt a rush of triumph as she managed to kill three birds with one stone; not only would this wonderful artist gain possession of a suitable shop to work out of, but she also managed to shut down Francesca and get rid of Philip! It was certainly a confidence booster and the Consort found herself sitting a bit straighter and not even minding as much when Philip placed a soft kiss on her cheek before taking his leave.


Now alone, Sarnai briefly turned her attention back to the gift-giver, who was thanking her profusely. "Thank you, sir," she returned with a kind smile, then assured him that she would be visiting his shop once the baby had been born.


Francesca: "Your majesty," ... "You could not be lovelier. How is the child?"


Expecting retaliation for her 'attack', Sarnai wasn't surprised when Francesca stepped forward and delivered a lovely curtsy. But - oh! - the Consort was simply parched and, with one small finger held up, Sarnai leaned toward the nearest servant and held her hand out for her cider. Surely Francesca could understand how dry her throat must have been, what with all the talking and smiling she had to do . . .


And then, was that a dog barking? The small commotion had the young Queen-to-Be craning her neck to see what was amiss and only when she saw, further down the courtyard, a small pack of Wolfhounds circling the Green Duke, did Sarnai turn her full attention to the Duchess of the Plains. "Strong and healthy, of course," she answered with a smile, sipping again at her drink with expectantly raised eyebrows. Surely if the Duchess felt compelled to approach without Philip around then there must have been something on her mind aside from pleasantries.


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Rachel Balla
 

Sarnai: "Strong and healthy, of course,"


Francesca's fingers released her skirt and slowly found their way to her hips as the Consort deliberately ignored her for a painful stretch of time. Although, of course, Francesca felt the natural instinct to glance around - to see how the other partygoers regarded the slight - but she resisted the urge and kept her gaze firmly locked on the young mother-to-be until she answered. The barking of dogs was nearly enough to startle her out of that resolve, but not quite.


"Of course," Francesca echoed promptly, adding, "Our new prince or princess has only the very best parentage." The words might have held a double meaning, perhaps a sarcastic dig at Sarnai's common background or a glorification of the Duchess' lover, Philip, but the light charm of the Duchess' voice didn't waver either way.


Taking the Consort's reluctant attention as the invitation to converse that it absolutely was not, the Duchess took two steps closer. The craftsman moved, too, well out of the rumored witch's periphery. Stories said that she could make any man her slave with the wink of an eye, and with such an opportunity from the Consort in front of him now, he intended to keep his distance.


Close enough to speak without needing to make her words an announcement, Francesa said, "I fear that I have managed to incur the displeasure of the… strong, beautiful woman whom I will call my queen within a fortnight." There was almost a flirtation more than exaggeration to her sugary sweet tone, accentuated by the way her chin tilted and her eyes flickered downward. After all, she doubted the young woman was jealous - as far as Philip told her, his consort gave her blessing to the affair and there was no desire between husband and wife.


But that hardly meant that there were not sore feelings of other varieties, and so the Duchess offered her gift. Her servant, wearing a yellow dress rich in quality but simple in design, stepped forward to hand the Duchess a small bottle, that Francesca brought to offer Sarnai.


"It is traditional to offer a gift to the baby, but I am of the opinion that the mother is as deserving," Francesca said, and she looked fondly on the bottle of perfume - cut crystal from the North that managed to catch and reflect every single ray of sunlight as it sank - before offering it up. "I made this of rose oil, local to the Western Plains." Her ownership of the creation implied at least a personal touch, but perhaps a magical quality for those superstitiously inclined. "Enjoy it as you will, your majesty."


"Oh ho," one guard joked, quietly, with the friend at his side, obviously aware of not just the rarity of rose oil or its expense, but its famous qualities as an aphrodisiac. "The King will be too busy to rule now!"


Unfortunately, that joke didn't just hint at the obvious, but also insinuated that the King had multiple lovers and even Francesca cringed at his obvious misstep...


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Manda
 

Francesca: "I fear that I have managed to incur the displeasure of the… strong, beautiful woman whom I will call my queen within a fortnight."


Sarnai's only response to that was the slight uplifting of one eyebrow as she regarded the Duchess over the rim of her glass. It wasn't so much what Francesca had done today, though the Consort certainly could have done without her earlier comments, but rather her presence. Everyone knew the rumors circulating about Philip and Francesca, and their very existence made Sarnai's position both precarious and embarrassing, whether the people believed what they heard or not. It was bound to make any woman a bit prickly . . .


Servant: *has a bottle!*


Francesca: "It is traditional to offer a gift to the baby, but I am of the opinion that the mother is as deserving," ... "I made this of rose oil, local to the Western Plains." ... "Enjoy it as you will, your majesty."


Curiosity had Sarnai ignoring the barking of the Green Duke's dogs as she leaned just a bit forward to more easily see the elegant little bottle. She knew better than to take it in her own hands though, instead nodding to a servant to receive it. Sarnai would examine it later, when she was sure it was safe. Not that she truly believed the Duchess would poison her here, in front of the entire Kingdom, but one could never be too careful.


"Thank you, m'lady," Sarnai returned with a smile that wasn't wholly forced. "What a--"


Guard with a Death Wish: "Oh ho," ... "The King will be too busy to rule now!"


The sentiments died on Sarnai's tongue as the whispered words managed to reach her ears and the gaze she fixed upon the man said all that needed to be said. How dare he speak such a way about his future Queen! And, maybe, there was an irrational part of her that still managed to be offended for the father of her child; it was one thing for her to think such treasonous words about Philip but quite another for one of his loyal subjects to do the same.


As the guards moved forward without hesitation, surrounding and disarming their comrade, Sarnai focused her attention back on Francesca. "Your gift is a thoughtful one, Duchess, and I look forward to enjoying it." And it was thoughtful! With so many of the gifts focused on things the royal baby would need - though perhaps need was a strong word, with so many of those said gifts being frivolous nonsense that Sarnai doubted she'd ever use - Francesca recognizing her as more than simply a vessel of new life was surprisingly appreciated.


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Rachel Balla
 

Francesca actually thought the guard was rather funny - but then again, she had always loved a good dirty joke. Years ago, now, she'd relished her nights in the bars on the coast, dressed as a commoner, hearing the deliciously crude language and graphic suggestions with an air of jest. But since assuming leadership, everyone watched their words around her. Always, "yes, my lady," or "apologies, my lady," except in the most intimate circles of friends and lovers.


Sarnai: "Your gift is a thoughtful one, Duchess, and I look forward to enjoying it."


"My pleasure, your highness," Francesca said with another curtsy out of respect. As she lifted her eyes to straighten, though, her gaze caught the figures of three of her peers - Sanya Nimr, heiress to the Southern Duchy, Malia Von Oehsen of the North, and James Castille, the infamous Greek Duke of the East, who looked to be suiting up as if he planned to go into battle… at a party?


He was an odd duck if ever Francesca had seen one. Authoritarian, but unambitious. Handsome, but without charm. She had done more research on the King's brother than she would admit…


"Our fellows in ruling Eventyr see fit to look down on us, it seems," Francesca said, with a pointed tilt of her head upward as she took a step closer to the consort. Though Altansarnai had higher status than Francesca herself, she was young and new in her station, and the optics of her sitting alone suggested she did not have the support of the infrastructure of Eventyr. Where had Philip gone off to? Signing a paper should not have taken this long… Francesca's eyes flickered to the horizon and the sun dipping beneath it. She could send Seo-jun to investigate soon. "Do you know them well, your grace?"


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Manda
 

Francesca: "Our fellows in ruling Eventyr see fit to look down on us, it seems," ... "Do you know them well, your grace?"


Sarnai followed Francesca's line of vision to where the three nobles in question stood, their attention seemingly on herself and the Duchess, and her brow furrowed at the sight of James' armor. He hadn't been wearing it earlier, which meant that there was a reason he'd begun to don it.


"Well enough," she answered, a bit distractedly as the clouds above them darkened the natural light of the early stars and the full moon. Her neck was prickling uncomfortably, instincts telling her that something wasn't right and, had she a weapon nearby, she'd surely have been reaching for it if only to reassure herself that it was close. Dark eyes skimmed over the crowd, lingering on the doorway through which Philip had disappeared and she waved a servant closer, "Is the King accounted for?"

"I believe so, my lady," she answered, automatically reaching for the Consort's goblet when Sarnai offered it.


"Send someone to make sure."


Above them, the sudden crack of thunder had Sarnai's heartbeat picking up and she smoothed a hand over her belly as the child inside squirmed in response. Something was wrong but she couldn't, for the life of her, pinpoint exactly what it was. Rising to her feet just as the first drops of rain began to fall, Sarnai accepted the lovely dove grey cloak her handmaiden presented, allowing the woman to help her drape it around her shoulders and pull the hood up. It was silly, really - as if she'd melt in the rain - but with the rain was likely to come the cold and the Southern born consort could do without that.


"Come, my lady," her handmaiden prompted and guests and nobles alike began clamoring for shelter against the oncoming storm. "Let us get you inside . . ."


Sarnai hesitated though, her eyes again going to where she'd last seen the Green Duke. Malia and Sanya were looking for shelter, the Duke apparently ready to battle . . . what? Turning to the servants and guards moving in around her, Sarnai lifted her voice enough to be heard over the commotion. "Someone tell me what's going on! Where is the King?" When no one could give her an answer she was satisfied with, Sarnai focused on the guard nearest her, "You, take three men and find him."


Then she was being ushered towards the doors and, almost as an afterthought, the Consort's attention went back to Francesca and she held out a hand to beckon the Duchess along with her. "Something is wrong," she insisted, her voice soft.


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Rachel Balla
 

Sarnai: *tossing around orders like a boss!*


Francesca's blue eyes lifted to the sky as it too-quickly darkened. Night was falling anyway, but the clouds crowded out even the light of the stars, the moon glowing only dimly through their thick haze. The lightning made the Duchess jump, a cold chill creeping up her spine, and her skeptical glance made its way up the walls to her former betrothed, James Castile. He was wearing that infamous armor of his. It took little for her to conclude that whatever nefariousness was causing this unnatural storm, he was at the center of it.


The sound of rushing water met her inquiring ears, and all the pieces clicked into place.


Francesca's eyes fell again on the king's consort when she spoke. Not all of Sarnai's words got through the confused, angry, apprehensive emotions playing across Francesca's pale face.


Sarnai: "Someone tell me what's going on! Where is the King?" … "Something is wrong,"


Francesca fell quickly in step with the pretty young Southerner. Her demands had an impressive authority to them, but the guards and servants did not have enough status or wherewithal to be speak up even if they had speculations. Their one goal was to get their future queen, heavy with child, to safety, as comfortably as possible.


Francesca, however, offered her insights and opinions in a hushed, secretive voice, filling in the gaps. "If the river diverts, that means they are flooding the dungeon," Francesca said, tone grave, even as she hurried along. "The only reason to do so would be if the werewolf prisoner had escaped. Just as the full moon rises..." Pausing only to grab up a handful of skirt to make her feet quicker, Francesca met Sarnai's eyes to add, significantly, "...the creature Duke Castile brought into the capital."


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Manda
 

Francesca: "If the river diverts, that means they are flooding the dungeon," ... "The only reason to do so would be if the werewolf prisoner had escaped. Just as the full moon rises..." Pausing only to grab up a handful of skirt to make her feet quicker, Francesca met Sarnai's eyes to add, significantly, "...the creature Duke Castile brought into the capital."


Sarnai very nearly missed a step, so quickly did her head snap in Francesca's direction, and it was only her handmaiden taking her arm that allowed her to steady herself as quickly as she did. The connections were made whip-fast, the implications making her blood run, first cold with shock, and then fiery hot with anger. Castile.


Sarnai hadn't given much thought to the werewolf that the Green Duke had brought along with him to the King's City. Word was that the creature was going to be executed, which made sense, considering the state of things back in the East. A warlord employing creatures to bolster his effectiveness was not the sort of thing that the crown could simply shrug their shoulders at; an example needed to be made but the Consort had been of the mind that the spectacle of it all was unnecessary when combined with the week-long party to celebrate the impending birth of her child. In Sarnai's opinion, there really had been no good reason for James to bring it along though and now it was likely loose and rampaging through the castle grounds and--


"Has the King been located?" Sarnai asked, grabbing the arm of the nearest guard.


"I don't know, my lady," he answered, not slowing his gait as they were ushered inside and out of the rain.


"The prince?" was her follow up question.


"You'll be the first notified when we have news, my lady."


That was an unacceptable answer and Sarnai's stomach churned with nausea, her belly tightening uncomfortably - but not painfully - in response to her sudden stress and the surge of worry she felt. Every part of her was screaming that disaster was inbound and here she was, being swept helplessly up the stairs to one of the tower rooms. There were others better suited to handling whatever was happening, Sarnai knew, but it wasn't in her nature to sit back and let others do for her - as her handmaiden could well attest.


Soon enough, Sarnai and Francesca were closed in the observatory at the top of the tower, guards posted outside the door, and Sarnai allowed to worriedly pace to her heart's content. Was this some sort of coup? Was she reading far too much into what was simply an accident? And where was Philip? Where was Elliott? She was far more worried about the Prince's safety than Philip's, though if something happened to the King, then where did that leave her? It was a predicament that she didn't even want to consider.


Pausing at the window, Sarnai's hand went to her abdomen again as another painless contraction hugged her middle. It was too dark to see what was happening below them, but it was easy enough to imagine the chaos. Chaos, but hopefully not carnage.


"What you said earlier," she ventured, not turning to look at Francesca. "About the Green Duke . . ." She stopped there, unable to let the next words pass her lips, though she was sure the Duchess knew what she meant.


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Rachel Balla
 

Sarnai: "What you said earlier," "About the Green Duke . . ."


The tower room was comfortable and safe - plush seating, soft blankets, beds just around the corner, and only one entrance that could be easily defended - but Francesca paced and fidgeted quite anxiously as soon as they arrived. She hated enclosed spaces. Although Francesca knew that as soon as the last ray of sunlight disappeared Seo-jun would be outside that door defending her and… the King's child, still her nervous energy manifested in the way she paced, bit her fingernail, sat down, then stood again to continue pacing. She tensed when a servant entered the room, but the girl was only bearing a tray of refreshments. Cheese, fruit, honey, drink. The Duchess accepted a goblet of wine gratefully.


Francesca almost envied the way Philip's consort managed to look so composed. When she spoke, the Duchess's movements stilled as she considered her answer to the unasked question. Francesca had shared her suspicion with exactly two women before. One, her own mother, was dead, eaten by zombies. The other, Joanna Castile herself, now lived imprisoned and in exile. This sort of talk did no one any good, Francesca had convinced herself superstitiously over the years, and weighed the merits of speaking openly to the consort. Soon, she might well have real power.


"As you may know," Francesca opened, to avoid speaking down to Sarnai if indeed her knowledge of political affairs over the last two decades had indeed been thorough. "James Castile and I were betrothed as children. If any of my brothers had survived, I would be Duchess of the Eastern Woods now." Angelo, Mario, and Roberto would all have been better rulers for the West than she, but here she was, and she couldn't deny she preferred her current role over marriage to the Green Duke.


"James and I were friends when we were young. I… even loved him, I will admit." Not an easy thing to say for a woman whose entire career relied on forming only superficial attachments.


"But as you know better than most," Francesca said, stepping forward to peer out the same window, "the Woods are a dark and mysterious place. James Castile disappeared there as a youth… but I do not think he ever came back." And Francesca allowed the silence to do the work of connecting and insinuating for her as she took a slow sip of her wine.

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Manda
 

Francesca: "As you may know," ... "James Castile and I were betrothed as children. If any of my brothers had survived, I would be Duchess of the Eastern Woods now." … "James and I were friends when we were young. I… even loved him, I will admit."


That was something Sarnai did know. Her tutorings had included any pertinent history of the dukes and duchesses of each of their respective duchies, though she'd assumed it was likely the information she got was watered down and-or sweetened up. For example, the betrothal of James Castile and Francesca Rossi had been explained but that they had been friends - and maybe even in love - was a detail that had been conveniently left out. The emotions weren't important, just the political machinations.


Francesca: "But as you know better than most," Francesca said, stepping forward to peer out the same window, "the Woods are a dark and mysterious place. James Castile disappeared there as a youth… but I do not think he ever came back."


A chill ran up Sarnai's spine and she pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders, glad that she hadn't allowed her handmaiden to take her cloak despite the rainwater still dotting it. Her eyes slid to Francesca as the Duchess stepped up beside her and emotions that the Consort would rather not engage with bubbled up in her chest.


There was so much here to unpack that it was nearly overwhelming and, for a moment, Sarnai had no idea where to begin. She didn't like being reminded of her night in the Eastern Woods, of her missing memories and what had happened while she was unable to consent - and so much of that blame she placed squarely on Castile's shoulders. All he'd had to do was look the other way . . .


It almost sounded as if James Castile hadn't always been the way he was, but the Consort was unable to imagine him any other way and her next words came out with raw emotion coloring them - hatred, mostly. It made it clear that she was forging her own path through this conversation, one without a map of polite phrases and canned responses to guide her.


"How could you love a man like that?"  


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Rachel Balla
 

Sarnai: "How could you love a man like that?"  


The young woman's particular hatred, dripping from each word from her lips, surprised Francesca. There was no helping the speculation that danced across her mind as to why that would be, but now was not the time to ask and Francesca did not, in any way, doubt James' capacity for cruelty. The raw, authentic quality to the girl's voice seemed to dispel Francesca's hesitations about being frank herself.


"I loved the boy. Not the man, never the man," Francesca clarified, feeling free to express her own hatred and finding it a strange comfort to have a partner in her vitriol. "Once upon a time, he was immature as all young men are, of course. He would tease me, pull pranks, make jokes, but he was... charming. Good. I would have been glad to be his wife." A bit of wistful sweetness, almost mourning, crept into her voice and as she concluded, it became clear why: "But I believe that boy died in the forest ten years ago."


Turning away, Francesca settled into a seat lined with warm furs, helping herself to a few grapes and a bit of cheese. The servant girl refilled her wine, although it was still mostly full. Glancing up, Francesca assessed Sarnai's face carefully. "When he returned, nearly a year later, I was overjoyed… until I met him. He was not the same; everything I loved about him was gone." Her lip curled. "Soured, perhaps… My mother tried to assure me that the changes were just trauma, and that he would recover, in time." Her eyes lowered, perhaps in shame, as she admitted, quietly, "I begged my mother to break the contract. I could no longer imagine marrying that brute, that beast…. but she would not do it." It was a painful memory because it pretended to temper the pain of the loss of her family, but in reality Francesca had found no comfort in their loss.


Blue eyes lifted back to the Consort and, feeling security in their secret space, spoke plainly. Forcefully, even, her gaze piercing and sure. "That thing down there is not James Castile," Francesca said, although she remembered how every man of Eventyr had heeded his call and knew that her words could be treasonous. But the hatred in Sarnai's words gave her an implicit permission, and Francesca spoke her accusation: "It is a creature that wears his face..."


"A changeling."

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Manda
 

Francesca: "I loved the boy. Not the man, never the man,"... "But I believe that boy died in the forest ten years ago." … "That thing down there is not James Castile," … "It is a creature that wears his face..." … "A changeling."


As Francesca spoke, Sarnai allowed herself to be drawn from the window, beckoned closer by the tale the Duchess of the Plains shared. Like her other tale, this one wasn't completely unknown to the Consort either but the personal touches she added continued to intrigue the young mother-to-be. She appreciated the older woman's candor and, perhaps naively, wondered if this meant that the two of them were somehow bonding over their shared distrust of the Green Duke.


"A changeling?" Sarnai repeated, glancing at her handmaiden as she finally settled down into a chair. In her time here at the King's City, the Consort had become close to the woman, Rebecca, trusting her in a way she trusted no other person she'd met since coming here. Later, she would ask her handmaiden's opinion on the Duchess of the Plains' theory.


It held water though, Sarnai had to admit. She didn't know much about changelings but she did know that they were inherently selfish creatures and some of the Duke's actions could certainly be described as such. But this entire conversation had started because of Francesca's implication that James may have brought the werewolf here for the sole purpose of it getting loose - was that something a changeling would orchestrate? Sarnai really wasn't sure . . . unless Castile's goal was to make a bid for the throne.


"Could he have brought the creature here for a purpose?" Sarnai asked, her voice low. Of course there had been a purpose to his actions, and one that everyone had found to be sound, but could there have been another purpose was the implication behind her words.


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Steph
 

It hadn't been Jaya's intention. She was supposed to meet up with Kyky, in the courtyard, and enjoy the feast and the music. This whole sneaking in as a servant thing was the cover, not the exit plan. And now Jaya was starting to feel a little bit worried about when or if she'd even have a solid exit plan. Because somehow, she'd been swept up in a wave of servants summoned to see to the needs of the Consort and the Duchess in their very safe, very secluded tower panic room.

She didn't need to leave. She was between temp jobs. Her rent was paid. No one would miss her on Earth if she stayed in Eventyr even a few days. But she also just... really wanted to be with familiar faces right then, not carrying a tray of cheese and fruit up to the Duchess of the East.

Whatever little voice of instinct that came to her whenever she was in Eventyr was in overdrive. She understood exactly how she ought to stand and carry the tray, exactly how she could be close to the Duchess without invading her personal space. Fingers splayed beneath the tray to keep it stable. Eyes downcast, chin tucked in, but paying attention all the same.

It would all be over soon. She'd be out of here soon.

And, in the meantime, she did her best to control her expression and keep her feelings and her thoughts tightly locked down--especially when the Duchess came straight out and accused the Duke of the East of being a Changeling. A creature, ruling the whole Duchy? Well, that would explain some things. The missing maidens, especially.

Had the king been complicit? A changeling, as well?

If he had been...

She did her best to keep from pursing her lips too tightly or looking too much like she was listening to a conversation she wasn't actually part of.
Jaya was just a servant girl for the time being. She had to be just a servant girl, until she found her opening and got out of there.

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