Malia waited a full day - until the morning sun rose on the second day of the passing of King Philip II - before making any approach toward the Green Duke. The hours were early, the sun barely blinking over the horizon, and Malia had dressed simply. Her gown was gray with green trim, hair loose and curly instead of done up like a noblewoman's, and none of the sleepy guards took much note as Malia, along with her most trusted handmaid and her most mute guard accompanied her toward the Duke's borrowed rooms.
Malia was not hiding, but not making a scene of herself, either. Malia usually would have hated to impose… but something in the back of her mind said that it was unlikely she would be disrupting James' sound sleep when her handmaiden informed the green-clad guard that the Duke had a visitor.
Although tensions were high in the castle the guard gave a nod, and sent the handmaiden to retrieve her mistress. “The Duke is grieving, my lady… but he gave us instructions for the Duchy. He’s waiting…. I’ll attend to your people here” the guard informed her politely. It wasn’t out of the norm for nobles to speak privately, so the guard opened the door and gave Malia a… sympathetic expression.
The Duke’s Green armor stood by the window of the room, stiff and imposing. And then the helmet turned toward her, “Duchess” the hollow voice from within greeted her. Gloved hands reached up to pull the ornate helm off, and a weary looking James Castile appeared. He blinked as if he had just woken, “Is it morning?”
Malia ignored the servant who addressed her, brushing past into the room with concern, helping lower that helm down to a safe space on the fine table beside the bed. On the younger, more beautiful face she wore, the grandmotherly concern was likely lost but no less insistent.
"It is barely morning," Malia confirmed, and tossed a look over her shoulder that told the servant to close the door up and get on his way before she continued, concerned. "James, have you not rested?" It had been a full day! When his face was free of the armor, Malia pressed both her hands against his cheeks and shook her head.
"You were the only thing that kept Eventyr from falling apart without a king. No one can afford to let you go ragged." As if in illustration, her thumb made its way down his cheek, enjoying the rough growth of hair there, and she suppressed the smile the sensation elicited. Without considering rank, Malia pointed at the comfortable mattress yet untouched, and she ordered, "Take all this off, and get in bed, now."
The door clicked shut as the servants and whoever else lingered at the door retreated. James turned his eyes toward the portal, and then the bed that the Duchess was trying to entice and order him into. “I…. can not...:” he grunted out in clear dismissal of the notion.
Pulling a thick glove off and tossing beside his helmet Castile reached a cool hand to touch Malia’s much warmer skin. “You are well?” he asked, it was his own way of showing some kind of emotion. His brows furrowed slightly, “I must make arrangements for my brother, the prince regent is too young and distraught. The consort….” James hesitated as if he considered the truth or a polite lie, “.... would not do Phillip justice in this matter”.
His hand caressed her cheek, “I will not tire, my lady, have no fear”.
"I am fine," Malia answered, a little surprised that James took the time to ask after her own well being. It was endearing… but did not deter her from the true mission.
"James… when the kingdom did not know where to look, they looked to you," Malia whispered, drawing close. When he spoke, she agreed with a nod, "Elliot, the Consort… they might matter in the long run, but right now, the kingdom knows mostly that the King's brother has royal blood. And that he knows how to command in a time of crisis."
But, shaking her head, Malia insisted, "Tiring is not weakness. It is natural." Stepping in, Malia's hand wrapped around the back of James' neck, and her breath was warm against his lips. "But you cannot command if you are exhausted. Everyone else is sleeping. Let us rest until the sun is high, and then..."
The Duke tilted his head and allowed her to pull his head down, before he leaned in close. “But I am not a natural creature, my Duchess” he whispered softly in her ear. “You should know that better than anyone, Malia”. His fingers drifted down to the smooth skin of her shoulders.
“My armor… I don’t have to sleep, or eat when I wear it” he confided to her. “I will rest later, my Duchess”.
Clear surprise crossed Malia's face. She'd known James didn't have a heart and had been floored by the prospect of magic able to support an entire circulatory system for decades, but the same was able to suspend more than that? Not needing to sleep - that was the nervous system. Not needing food - how did his…?
It was magic, Malia had to remind herself, not a treatment whose clinical trials she was researching before her doctor's visit. Cancer might have been spreading through her body but her mind was sharp as ever and she hated being condescended to.
"You really are extraordinary," the Duchess said, with a renewed sense of awe in her smile. Since his first thoughts had been about Philips arrangements, Malia picked up there. "Of course I've already sent word to my craftsmen to prepare a coffin worthy of a king." Only the North had the abundance of fine marble, gold, and jewels to create a truly regal resting place for display in the tombs beneath the castle, but it was an expense the Northern people would likely protest given Philip's recent theft of three of their young women. "It will be here within the week."
James graced her with an empty smile, as he pressed her hands against the warm metal and corrected her. “It is extraordinary, I am merely the one that can wear it” coming from anyone else it would almost sound like modesty. But he wasn’t here to brag about the Green Duke…
His head tilted down, “You are most gracious in your condolences, but I think all the realms should contribute….” James paused clearly on the horns of something, and his own fingers reached for the emerald chest plate and touched the hollow spot deep within.
“Go and rest, my Duchess...I will join you...soon”. Perhaps it was foolish vain pride that he actually would lay in a bed with the Duchess of the North, and make a semblance of sleeping. But his physical form did require rest and nourishment, when it wasn’t in the armor. His mouth curled into something more genuine, because Malia was a wonderful lover and the odd hints of almost motherly affection and concern tugged at some thread of humanity in him.
But he still had duties to attend, and whether the consort or anyone else object James did not care… He would spend time alone with Philip. Part of him mourned the loss of his half sibling, but mostly there were tasks that needed doing and only blood should handle those tasks.
“We seemed oddly linked to funerals” he said stepping back to retrieve his glove and helm. A grim smile crossed his features, “People will talk”.
"Which would make you extraordinary, wouldn't it?" Malia returned, teasing, dismissing the hints of modesty. Surely, James' was not the witch's only prize in the last two decades, but he was the only one with such power. His nobility at the least but his royal blood at most must have afforded him an advantage in the witch's power. How and why, though, was a mystery, and one Malia found herself enamored with.
At his bid to go and rest, Malia could only bow her head and nod, for there was no objection in her heart. Until developments became reality, there was little for her besides gossip, books, and the promise James offered. "I look forward to it," she invited, with a final squeeze of his hand before his glove was returned.
Moving back to the door, Malia hid the smirk at her lips before turning back. "How curious," the Duchess said, an interested gleam in her eye even if her mouth remained thoroughly tamed, "I will be interested in what they have to say..."
The Duke leaned in for one unsavory, but almost passionate kiss from his ally, before disappearing under his helmet. The armored figure straightened and gave a grim nod of the ornate helm to her, before marching off to attend to the protection of the castle.
DEATH THE LEVELLER by James Shirley
THE glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield—
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow:
Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon Death's purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.