When: Winter 871 ROK
Where: Castle of the Northern Duchy
The winter in the North was harsh, freezing, dangerous, but ruggedly beautiful and the castle in the mountains glittered with ice in the cold sunshine. While Malia would have preferred to spend these months in King's City, it was a perilous time in her lands, with people holed up in their warm homes but werewolves roaming freely and vampires, in contrast, growing desperate as their food rarely ventured outside their residences where the creatures were unwelcome. Every day, Malia received reports about deaths and had to constantly manage her manpower to address the threats. But busy as she was, the weather made her work isolating and so she was grateful to receive a visitor.
"Duke Castile," Malia greeted, her voice warm, almost motherly, as she took pleasure in fussing, ordering her servants to help James and his men with their things and to bring hot drinks. "How wonderful of you to brave the snow!"
“My Duchess! How lovely you are!” James replied with a smile. He was wearing a furred cape over part of his armor that several men were marveling over. “I took the liberty to bring you a gift, come see!” He said like an excited boy.
“I could not resist, we came across them crossing the borderlands between our realms”. Normally he offered his elbow when escorting Malia, but instead he took her warm hand in his cooler one.
He led her outside into the cold air of the courtyard where men were taking horses to the stable. There was a wagon with a huge elk inside, “He’ll be quite the feast!”
Malia laughed as she skipped along behind the massive, impressively clad Duke, holding hands as if they were children. The cold air outside stung at her mocha skin, but it was the offering that took her breath away.
Hunting was such a feat in the winter, not just because mobility was difficult in the heavy snows but also because predators would lie in wait to steal your kill and then add you to their menu while they were at it. As such, there was rarely fresh meat, and most of what they ate was salted or dried. The pleased smile on Malia's face was echoed with chatter from her guards and servants, who all turned to a friend to wonder at the size of the beast or imagine how it might be cooked.
"You know how to make an entrance!" Malia said, and pulled him in for a grateful kiss. "Thank you, and welcome, my lord."
A few cheered to echo that sentiment.
“Save me the hide and rack, eh?” he asked of one of her servants as they tried to think of how to transport the beast down to the kitchens. James folded his arm and moved Malia’s hand to the crook before anyone spoke of their informal nature.
“I only wished it was one of the werewolves that plague your domain” he said sternly, thinking about the creatures. Grasping the end of his fur cape James draped it around the duchess’ shoulder, and frowned that he had pulled her outside without a proper cloak. “You’re cold” he said. “Come my lady, let us find a warmer place”.
"In that regard, I believe your advice may prove to be worth ten, or perhaps a hundred, werewolf carcasses," Malia said, her voice formal and flattering, although not devoid of truth. He had been a Duke twice as long as she a Duchess, and his lands were infested with werewolves as much as her own. She could learn a lot from his experience. A wide, happy smile spread across her face as her bare hands ran across that magical armor in their embrace, warm inside his cloak. He made the cold bearable, but she nodded when he directed them inside.
Her people’s cheers felt good, after the whole affair with the maidens in the woods he rarely heard sounds of good will at his approach. Mostly people feared him even more and the rumors that always trailed his wake were tenfold and rather outlandish. Such was the weight of keeping Philip’s own status clean and clear….
No one blamed the King, just the Duchies, and mostly the East for the missing maidens. There were nights when James wondered if there would be more roses in the deepest part of the woods… Or young women talking in the plural, with armor. No their fate would not have been the same as his had been so long ago…
More than a decade, it all seemed… like a dream, like his childhood was just a fable someone had recited to him. But of course Philip always found a way to remind him with some unusual request. “I have not been this far North since boyhood”.
"Is that so?" Malia asked, brows lifting in surprise. That was wonderful, though, and a wide smile crossed her face as she pointed toward the sky… no, not the sky exactly, but the towers that seemed to pierce the clouds. It was a climb, but the view was spectacular. "If you aren't too tired, let me take you further."
Heading back into the castle, James and Malia were greeted by a young woman, standing demurely with a smile and a curtsy in greeting. She was beauty personified, with her big eyes, her long hair tumbling past her waist in neat curls, and a figure just starting to hint at womanhood. It was clear that Malia had not actually sent the North's most beautiful maidens when Philip asked.
"Duke Castile, may I present my stepdaughter, Lady Anastasia," Malia said, and her tone clearly said that if she had spared the girl, it wasn't due to any affection.
The Duke stared at the girl, and a wave of nostalgia rose up…. Frannie…. He frowned and bowed politely, “An honor, young lady”. He waited for a moment, before looking at Malia “Interesting...and beautiful in the way of youth, I’m sure she will make some young lord quite happy”. The girl would make a nice bargaining chip for an alliance if a suitable ranking noble were available.
“You wanted to show me the view, my Duchess” he reminded her with a sly arch of his brow.
James' response clearly pleased the Duchess, and she nodded her head approvingly, giving his large arm a tug toward the stairs. They were an intricate series of spiraling staircases, but she knew the way well.
"There is less oxygen at these altitudes," Malia said over her shoulder as she ascended the first flight, before glancing over her shoulder, suddenly second-guessing whether "oxygen" or its availability in "altitudes" were common knowledge in Eventyr. Usually, natives would ignore references they didn't understand, but James wasn't among them, she knew well. "Don't be surprised if you get winded when you shouldn't…" Dark eyes, though, ventured down toward that armor and she recalled its supernatural abilities. How far did they reach? How did one without a heart oxygenate, anyway? "Or if I do," Malia compensated, with a joking smile as she lifted her skirt and began skipping up steps. "I'm not as young as I look."
His brow furrowed for a moment and James looked up at the spiraling stairs, he allowed himself to be lead to them. “The air is shallow higher, one can not swim in a puddle…” James said in understanding, his hand slipped down into hers so he could follow her up the stairs but remain in contact with Malia.
“I will be vigilant” he grinned as she skipped up the steps ahead of him. James followed clearing two steps at a time in her wake, “You are but a babe, my fair Duchess, but wise”. The Duke seemed to be enjoying the view of her swaying hips as she ascended the stairs.
Malia paused - yes, to catch her breath a moment - and turned. She was pleased to catch his eyes weren't quite on the steps, and also by his unique turn of phrase. "I like that. Babe," she said, wistfully. The common term of endearment reminded her so much of home, and - well - she enjoyed the irony of it. Her son was about James' age… She squeezed his hand and continued the climb, pausing briefly with each door to give a brief summary of what was there. The servant's quarters, the ballroom, the dining hall, the library, bedchambers… Many had suggested that the castle in King's City be rebuilt in the style of her own. It wasn't the newest duchy's estate - Francesca boasted that, but the Northern style was classic where the West was edgy and modern.
Soon, they arrived in Malia's favorite room of them all. It was tiny, but plush and comfortable, high in a tower. Books lined the walls - many of them not of Eventyrian origin and transcribed by her own hand and bound in leather by her printer - a bearskin spread on the floor, the chairs lined in soft velvet, and, of course, a massive window that looked out across mountaintops that peaked as far as the eye could see.
"When I saw this," Malia said, with a tone of secrecy to her voice. "I knew I had to have the North."
James was at the window and practically hanging half out of it. “I can see the Eastern forest from here, and the Western ocean!” he exclaimed, certainly the Northern mountain afforded a vantage point he had never had.
"Eventyr is magnificent," Malia agreed, enjoying watching the wonder on his face as he took in the view. This was where she needed to be, whenever her ambition got the best of her and she needed to look back at the big picture…
He looked over his shoulder at the rest of the room in the high tower. “Your...sanctuary?” the Duke asked walking around the room to examine the books, which attracted his attention after the view. Removing an armored gauntlet James let his fingers caress the leather spines like they were lovers…
He looked up to smile at Malia, and inhaled deeply. “I am honored”.
"Yes - my inner sanctum. And you are most welcome here," Malia said with cheerful smile, and her gaze followed his fingers and she sighed, as if he had been touching her. She stepped up to his side, closer than necessary. "It is the most unique collection in the kingdom, I promise you that. You must read while you're here; I would love to know your thoughts on some of my novels…"
Her eyes skimmed the familiar writers: Shakespeare, Dumas, Fitzgerald, Sophocles, Camus… "Oh, James, this one!" She plucked out a slender book titled in gold, The Stranger. "It's about a man who never quite fits in, the way everyone says he should. The world puts him on trial for it - " Meursault reminded her so of the man in front of her and so again, that grandmotherly instinct broke through and she pleaded excitedly, "Let me read it to you."
His eyes glittered in delighted, and then his face reddened slightly as James admitted. “I like being read to…” He has read many manuscripts, documents and scriptures in his life, but there was something pleasing about discussing the subjects with another.
Philip only chose to learn what he had to as King. Francesca was intelligent in her own way, but not much of a reader. James pulled his other glove loose, and devoid himself of enough armor to be comfortable.
He and his other had long gone from us and we, to simply I. But every now and then his speech would slip, “We would be most pleased to be graced with your lovely voice, and sensible opinion of the story”.
"Everyone likes being read to, my dear," Malia said warmly. For children, like her own and the ones she had grown fond of in her library, being read to was a formative experience necessary to develop synapses in the brain. As adults, it explained the rise of audiobooks, their popularity and their quality. If her hearing hadn't been going faster than her eyes, Malia would have been happy to test them out.
Malia helped with his armor, gentle with the pieces she touched and her lingering glances showed her curiosity. Her eyes ticked up, though, at his peculiar phrasing. She couldn't help it - she glanced over her shoulder as if she might see who else he meant, when he said "we." No one. Her eyebrow raised. "Did you say we?" Malia asked, polite but straightforward. "Do you identify as non-binary?" It wasn't uncommon in progressive New York, but he came across very male to her…
He paused and seemed to consider whether to answer or not. Only Francesca Rossi had known about their duality, and even she had only slightly more of a glance than most. But Malia was attracted to what they were now, not for some lost boy…
“Yes,if you mean two have become one. We...us...when we were new and conflicted, but now we are I”. Clearly James had not understood the meaning of her question, and was thinking on more of Eventyr’s lines than Earth’s. He gestured to the armor, “I wear his skin, as he wears mine”.
A slow smile curled the Duke’s mouth, “Does it disturb, my Duchess? That I am...more?”
"Quite the opposite, my Duke… it makes me curious," Malia said with a smile that suited a girl half her age, her mind reeling with questions in a delightful way as his explanation took her thinking from gender identity squarely to multiple personalities: a sensational plotline for many stories, but questioned by the scientific community. Malia had no doubt it had roots in Eventyr and, when presented with a mystery, she lit up.
She turned to the bookshelf - for Malia, all the answers laid in books - but she turned back quickly enough to send her hair flying over her shoulder to grasp his hand warmly and add, "But I will be glad to use they/them pronouns if you - collective 'you' - prefer it." She relished grammar a bit too much, as well.
"You're describing dissociative identity," Malia said, in a thoughtful sort of trance as her eyes skimmed titles. "You had a traumatic experience, in your formative years? Many describe feeling… fractured, afterward, as if they become two people… or more. Sometimes dozens or even hundreds - can you imagine?" Her words, even her speculations, were so academic that they might have come from a scholar rather than a duchess. "I don't have a Diagnostic Statistical Manual - god, my hand would fall off! - but I do have…" She carefully crouched to her knees: Stevenson, Stevenson, Robert Louis… oh, yes! Her hand found her copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then she reached for a hand to help her up again.
His cool fingers wrapped around her hand, as James used his other hand to take an arm. He laughed pleasantly at her girlish excitement at learning something new, and then proposing theories that would shame some of the realm’s most learned scholars.
“Fascinating, my Duchess…. But we are not fractured in two, but two that have become one. Like trees growing together until they are inseparable” James having always liked the imagery behind it, although he was sure that the Green Duke was hardly as romantic a thought.
He rested a palm on the book in her hands, “Is this about a fractured man?”
"Think about it," Malia prompted, with intense eye contact that, again, made her feel something like a mother asking a child to do his first metacognition, "Either way - if you were fractured and grew together, or if there was an invader you accomodated - how would you know the difference? Will one not always call the other other?"
Her eyes fell to the book, and her hand covered his. "This is a book about two men, who share the same body. We should read it together, and decide whether we find him fractured or not." She smiled. "I have only read it with one mind; how we might interpret it, between the three of us."
He smiled, oh how they liked her. “And then you will read us, Camus?” Castile asked as he took the cushions from a few chairs that he could and threw them on the bearskin. He tossed his own fur cape down with clear intent where they should lounge.
“You should have a bed brought here” he mused and offered her a space to sit and read conveniently between his thighs.
Malia happily sank down where he bid her, the velvet of her dress only a sensual inhibition. The bearskin was soft enough to cushion her lounging on the floor, especially with the Duke's cape. Her fingers spread out across the fur and long-past days of club ecstasy triggered a serious sensational response…
"You prefer the Camus to the Stevenson?" Malia asked, although her own preference was clear. Camus addressed humanity, authenticity. Something that transcended reality, whatever anyone decided it was.
The Duke shrugged a shoulder in frank indifference. “We are ignorant to either, I defer to your judgement in this, my Duchess” Castile answered, as he inhaled the scent of the oils and flowers that she used in her hair. “I wouldn’t want to consume all of your time with books alone”.
Malia chose, and set the other book carefully aside. "My servants would revolt, if I asked them to haul a mattress up all those stairs…" Malia joked, although it was a telling one. As a new duchess, she did not yet have the whole-hearted support of her subjects. In addition, she did not have a family name or a powerful clan to legitimize her. She had a network of friends and allies, but the truth was that in order to earn her place, it would take several careful years of proving competence to earn loyalty that went deeper than fear of punishment.
As if on cue, a servant girl, breathing hard, arrived with refreshments, mulled wine, cheese, cured sausage, and bread. She did not look happy about the chore, but, of course, said nothing, and Malia gave her no more than a moment's attention. When she looked back at the Duke, she smiled, a laugh slipping through full lips as she teased, "What would you consume it with?"
The Duke took pity on the young servant and poured her half a glass of wine, frowning when she tried to refuse it. “Drink it and have a care, girl. Good deeds are sometimes rewarded…” James went to the door and looked down the treacherous stairs as they seemed to spiral out of sight.
Sending the girl off with her drink the Duke jerked his head toward the stairs. “You should have your men build a pulley system to draw up a basket, it would keep food warmer. And spare your servants from carrying it…” He smiled at Malia, and gestured to the window “Such a fine view”.
Pouring wine for her and himself he returned to his spot on the furs. “Perhaps more pillows then if not a proper bed” he suggested, and smiled slyly at her question. “You’ll get no reading done with that tone, my duchess”.
The servant girl smiled - a radiant expression on her pretty young face - as she accepted the cup from the Duke and thanked him, although she was careful not to speak more than a quick, "my lord," and take up any of his attention. Already she could feel her Duchess's eyes burning into her…
Although Malia's eyes snapped quickly back to James when he returned and offered her a glass. She couldn't help the irrational jealousy that flared up when younger women were around, no matter how silly she knew it was. She nodded at his advice and joked, "I need a pulley system for people - I'll call it an elevator…" The duchess kissed that cheshire smile from James' lips, then opened the book and read aloud the famous first lines: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure... "
The idea of mothers and sons and seeing the kindly way James handled that servant girl, Malia found herself leaving the book tented open to their page on the rug while she took a sip from her cup. She asked, "Why no children for you, James?"
He had laughed at the very image of people being drawn up the tower in a giant basket, or perhaps the cliffs by the Western sea. He closed his eyes to listen to the words, curious if the writer was so grieved he had lost track of time or if he felt such an indifference as not to care?
His eyes opened at her question and another sly smile curled his mouth. “Is that a proposal, my Duchess?” Castile teased her sliding his hand to cover her flat belly. “I was told they would be cursed, I have no wish to pass such misfortune to a babe”.
"Most certainly not!" Malia laughed, and gave that massive shoulder of his a playful shove in response to his tease. She had been pregnant twice and had no desire to repeat the experience, even though such arrangements could well have helped make up the deficit she suffered not having been born in Eventyr. But the aching back, swollen ankles, stretch marks… not worth it. She moved an inch or two closer when he touched her, though, and returned the jest, "A child would ravage this body, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
Her brows rose in curiosity, and concern. That was a terrible thing, to curse a child to spite its father. "Cursed?" She went on to assume, "The witch who keeps your heart - she cursed your children as well?"
Castile leaned down to kiss her stomach sweetly, “I think you would be a goddess, round with child… but I prefer you as you prefer yourself, like this...high over the world and so very beautiful”. He nuzzled her side glanced upward shaking his head.
Malia's hand smoothed over his hair affectionately. It was a sweet sentiment, to be sure, but his conclusion was the right one and that pleased her. Just as he mentioned the view again, Malia gasped softly and pointed, at a peculiar burst of light and smoke on a mountainside. "Look!" she whispered, with all the sweet wonder of a child pointing out lightning from a car window, "A dragon."
“No...thrice cursed now, it was my former betrothed that placed the final one” he said nonchalantly as if being cursed three times over was an everyday thing. Shrugging a large shoulder he simply added, “I was ill fated at birth being the royal bastard, cursed by my own blood. Such things mean little to me now…. I will not sit, simpering like a cornered rabbit waiting for the dogs to find me”.
His mouth curled into an unsavory grin, “We survive, it’s what we done for a very long time. Our day is due…”
At his conclusion, Malia nodded, with a smile that betrayed the hint of wolf she had in her own heart and raised her glass, "I'll drink to that." And already, she needed to refill her glass, so Malia claimed the bottle, poured more, topped off James' drink, and set it out of the way, as her mind mulled over the idea of curses. "Betrothed, who, Francesca?" Malia asked, with bewilderment on her face. She knew her Eventyrian politics more than well enough to know that the Duchess of the West and Duke of the East had been engaged their whole lives, before the zombie tragedy that broke it off out of necessity. "It seems silly to curse the children of your betrothed - she would have to bear them…" Malia shrugged off the inconsistency with a dismissive, "Francesca was never the brightest candle in the room, was she? Perhaps you ought not put too much stock in her," Malia raised one hand to make air-quotes, "Curse."
The Duke looked at the light outside of a distant magical beast, “Is it true that they hoard gold? What a silly habit”. He tilted his head at the beautiful woman sitting with him, “Do not underestimate Francesca Rossi… we all have some sort of power here, my Duchess”.
He sipped his wine and gave her a thoughtful expression. There were some things that people didn’t need to know about him, but he did like a good reaction… And perhaps he wanted to shock her. “I believe it was mostly metaphorical about being my children, but one probably has difficulty focusing while being raped”. Castile leered around the goblet he drank from...
Malia's eyebrows lifted, and her head tilted a bit, studying that expression on his face. It was hardly that she hadn't thought him capable of it - she had seen the pleasure he'd taken torturing those two Marauders and the rough way he handled her in the bedroom - but it was surprising that he would tell her about it. Women, as a rule, did not excuse the rape of other women, even the vapid Kardashian of the West, and Malia wouldn't. But it did explain why Francesca always seemed so hostile when required to attend events with the four of them, and why she skipped so many, why she took up an affair with the king - probably to have his ear without needing to meet the crown's normal expectations. She was unsure James' aim in telling her this, though - was it just to warn her about Francesca?
"You deserved it, then," Malia concluded, after a long moment of contemplation. "Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turned. Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned…
“Well, half of me did at the time…” he said letting his eyes drift downward. “...Our union was still new, full of turmoil” he admitted in a regrettable tone.
“She was stubborn, willful, selfish… we had negotiated a fair bargain. But they are very superstitious in the West, she only wanted the boy. She never was good at sharing” he gave a mirthless smile.
“So we tried to punish her….She was more than willing to fuck the same body minutes later when he took over”. Clearly in Castile’s mind it didn’t matter who was driving the coach if you were willing to jump in.
“She betrayed us”.
"Punish her?" Malia repeated, curiously or perhaps ominously, and deft fingers flipped the book from page one to the middle of chapter four. An odd interaction, where a vindictive man asked his odd neighbor for an unthinkable favor, to lure his unfaithful mistress close enough for him to assault her: Malia quoted, with a finger tracing the words as she spoke, "What bothered him was that he 'still had sexual feelings for her' - but he wanted to punish her." Then the duchess lifted the book as if in a shrug, asking if this was what James meant.
"Ohh, James, no, of course fucking one was not the same as the other, not like it is for me," Malia shook her head at the naive misconception. She had, now, enough female lovers to suppose herself an expert. "Men fuck bodies. Male bodies - no offense! - are just not that aesthetically appealing. Women fuck…. dreams. Being a woman is very cerebral."
The Duke laughed, “I believe I have just been insulted in the most polite and pleasant way”. He ran his fingers along the sleeve of her dress. “ When we were divided we did many regrettable things”. He sighed, “We were very conflicted”.
James smiles slyly at Malia, “Do you not find me aesthetically appealing, my Duchess?” He leaned his face upward from his position on the floor giving her a warm expression. It was a clear tease... boyish.
"You know what I mean," Malia returned with a smirk, and she shrugged in play-defensiveness. "I'm just being honest! In the realm of fleshy bags that hang off the body, for example. Breasts: beautiful." And with that, she guided his hand to her own. "But come on, testicles have none of that appeal." Her legs parted a bit beneath his head to illustrate. "A woman is like a blossoming flower in her passion. A man is a…. veiny battering ram. If you're lucky." She laughed a bit, and shrugged, cupping his cheek to lean down and kiss the corner of his mouth. "Even a handsome man needs to have some charm to earn his place in a woman's bed. Men are build for utility. That's just true."
Malia paused, contemplating whether to shroud her illustration in secrecy, but she decided against it. If he was willing to share a secret, she could, as well. "My first husband," she said delicately as no one in Eventyr knew she had been married before the late Duke. She wasn't old enough for it. She then went on, "Was my professor, in college. He was old enough to be my father, but I only needed to listen to him discuss literature for two, three hours a week to fall utterly in love with him. He was nothing special, physically; he had none of this muscle…" Her hand trailed over James' massive arm, wistful, "But he would quote Shakespeare or Milton or Douglass and I would melt."
The Duke grinned widely and pulled Malia closer to him, "From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world."
A shoulder shrugged, “Not to ruin a lady’s dream, but the ability to repeat another man’s words rather speak one’s own? Hardly more of an advantage than a good sword arm…. But I do appreciate the arts, as well as the physique of both the female and male”. James twined his fingers in her hair, and he gave an amused snort and repeated her early words. “Veiny battering ram…. Where do you come up with such things?”
"It's not repeating, James," Malia chided, teasingly, but smiled through her faux annoyance as he pulled her closer. She leaned in, nuzzling her nose along his jawline gently. "It's synthesizing. Using knowledge and stories to tie one end of the world's expanse to the other - and then bring it all back, to show me how there's a whole universe, living and thriving, in one girl's little heart...?"
Speaking of her first husband made Malia desperately nostalgic. He had been dead now for years; and those last decades had not been their best. His infidelity bred resentment, enough that it spilled over to their children, but he had been the breadwinner and Malia would have been lying to say she hadn't literally discussed speeding up her access to his life insurance seriously…
She laughed at his teasing criticism, and she joked, "I have eyes. And a cervix." Which enjoyed a good battering, truth be told. "I thought it appropriate Eventyrian imagery, if I do say so myself!"
James stroked her arm, and tilted his chin downward slightly as if he seemed to pick up that he had overstepped himself in his opinion. He gave an apologetic expression, and curled his fingers into her hair. “You are an enigma, my duchess…” he said in a soft tone.
“You speak of poetry, and literature so eloquently. And then so crassly of the male anatomy, and yet with affection…. You are a mystery, my duchess on her silver mountain. The day and the night, youthful beauty with learned wisdom…”
His fingers touched the leather bound tome that always seemed close by to her. “You interpret this, or do you write what is within….?” James mouth curled and he patted the green armor covering his thighs and calves still, “....It’s your armor isn’t it?”
Malia felt herself tilting her head against his touch, ever so slightly. She smirked and admitted, "I may be more sapphic than I would have admitted in my younger and more vulnerable years." Fitzgerald. She knew it was odd for a woman in the middle of her childbearing years to lament youth as if it were gone, but she did.
Sappho, the first lesbian poet, from ancient Greece. Malia knew that she was not a lesbian, no. She loved men, even if the male physique did not quite enrapture her the same way a woman's did, although she was not sure how much a man's entitlement played into that versus a woman's tendency to be open and grateful. Eventyr had opened another dimension to Malia's sexuality that she had never explored on Earth, as herself, and it was an exciting aspect she wanted to know more about..
Dark eyes followed James' large hand to her book. It was there, always within her reach, but it was so unremarkable that hardly anyone noticed it. A nervous smile pulled at her lips, and she hesitated before answering.
"In not so many words, perhaps," Malia answered, vaguely, and pulled the book against her chest firmly. "I trust it to protect me, yes."
He gave her a look, magic knew magic. “Be at ease, Malia. I have no wish to take your book, I would not be able to read it anymore than my horse or hounds” James surmised. Some magic was for specific people, just as if you were not heartless his green armor would kill the wearer.
The Duke curved his palms under her arms and the book, to gently fondle her breasts although the bodice of her dress was also in the way. He leaned up to kiss her jawline tenderly, “Read to me, my Duchess” he crooned to her.
Malia smiled and obeyed, reading aloud and telling the uncomfortable tale of a man who could not mourn his mother. He worried about his comfort - his coffee and the softness of his seat and the heat of the day and even the opinions of the other guests who might have judged him - but never for the woman who had given him life. The protagonist walked the line of humanity, in some ways ultimately relatable, and in other ways totally alien. Meursault reminded Malia so much of James in that way: sometimes so boyish, sometimes so alien… and honestly, he made her wonder whether her own act was as convincing as she hoped. Whether James bought it, or doubted it.
The desire to know that, though, melted over time. Reading was easy enough to continue even as Malia's attention drifted, first to the movement of his hands, and then to the careful prying away of his clothing, and then her own. Before she knew it, Malia's bare back was cushioned by the bearskin rug, and she was more inclined to summarize than read. "The next chapter is just Meursault drinking wine and looking out the window, so…" Her dark eyes darted from their glasses to the white-topped mountains outside and she joked and pulled James closer, "I feel like we've got that covered."
James seemed more interested in comparing his pale skin to her darker color. He raised his arm under hers and held them both upward. “It has been a long time since we have been…… content….” he said with a pleasant little smile.
He stretched himself like some animal and moved like a great reptile with purpose between the Duchesses legs to nip at her thighs. “Meursault should have spent his time looking to better things” James grunted tilting his head back to inhale the scent of the Duchess’ skin.
His rough hands stroked her legs and he looked up at Malia’s face to give her a charming smile. “One should take the time to watch flowers, and women, bloom. Now let me warm you properly so you can sing to the heavens since they are so near”. The part of him that was James needed her touch, and that feeling she gave that was something like affection. She wanted him, and it was good to feel wanted again.
Malia's eyes followed his, to the contrast in their skin. It was one thing she adored about Eventyr - the racism she had dealt with her entire long life, just wasn't a problem here. As just one nation, Eventyr had never had the sort of imperial, colonialist history that her world had. Slavery had never happened, nor the subsequent Jim Crow, black codes, or segregation, which she had personally seen the tail end of. Well, the legal tail end - the implications and consequences would be waiting for her on the other side of a fairy circle, easily. But here, she was able to just appreciate what they saw: her palms were several shades lighter than the rest of her skin; the faint green of his veins were visible through his…
Excitement thrummed through Malia at his touch, those words, the smile on his lips, an exhilaration that - before Eventyr - she hadn't known since she had been young. As a wife and mother for most of her life, Malia had assumed that her boredom with her marriage (especially in the bedroom) had been natural. Women enjoyed sex less than men, she had always been told, and hadn't really questioned that until Eventyr gave her youth back. Now she knew that she had just been missing out.
Her mocha-skinned hand ran affectionately down his neck and substantial shoulder, encouraging. There was something so very beauty-and-the-beast about making love in a library, and she couldn't get enough of it. She smirked at his words and nodded, "Let's let the dragons hear us."
Castile rubbed the bristles of his goatee against Malia’s thigh later. It was rare that this body tired out, but he was comfortably worn from their activities. He curled between her legs before getting up to stoke the fire… again.
He turned, the fire cutting his silhouette in its light. “Why the Duke of the North, my lady?” Castile asked curiously. She could have just as easily tried to become the Duchess of the East. “Was it because he was a widower, or because of this library?”
Malia felt the light sheen of sweat on her skin - the chill of the air outside contrasting with the heat pumping through her veins made an intoxicating combination, and she compounded it by taking a break for a long sip of her wine.
"I love the North," Malia answered - and it was true. Ruggedly beautiful but rich in resources, the North was a treasure trove. But given the context, the intent of his question was easy enough to pick up on, and so she propped herself up on an elbow, a finger following the indentations of muscle down his chest, and answered. "I never wanted to play second fiddle, James. Ferdinand was easy to enchant… and then eliminate." Her hand lifted to stroke his cheek, and she frowned, a bit. "It is unfair, I know. No woman worthy of you could ever be your wife."
James laughed and nuzzled his face into Malia’s breasts fondly, “I prefer our arrangement as is… I believe the North is fitting for you, it’s looks are deceptive. There is more here than snow and a mountain…” He lazily stroked her thighs and purred to her in a low animal growl.
“Read to me, my Duchess…” but James moved his hand to the leather bound book. “...from this”.
The Duke was quite a bit more effective in persuasion than Malia had expected. Even when he wasn't directly propositioning sex, he had a way of teasing her senses that kept her interested and excited and a tiny bit off balance. She liked that about him - Ferdinand had been a conquest, but James was an ally. She wanted to feel like he could meet her on her level, and she was pleased to see that he would, and rise to the challenge. It was fun, to succumb to the pleasures he offered, and then entice him in return. It was more exciting than any of her other dalliances…
So when he touched her book, and her instinct was to protect its magic and its secrets at all costs, Malia hesitated. She kissed his temple, a distinctly motherly gesture, then shifted her weight on the floor until she rested on her side, inviting him to curl up behind her, offering the pages to his eyes as she opened them. Malia fully intended to read aloud what was inside, even though she knew he wouldn't be able to read along…
But, even as she laid comfortably to gaze at the pages, the words were jumbled. Gibberish. Her brows raised, then pinched, in confusion. She turned two, three, then five pages, but they were all a mess. Words strewn to look like sentences, but none two together made a lick of sense.
It might have surprised the Duchess, but it didn't confound her. "I would… but these words aren't for you. I can't."
The Green Duke gave a sound of pleasure at the sweet gesture, sometimes it was the little things…. He curled up against her back pressing his cooler skin to Malia’s much warmer, and curvaceous one. However James’ brow arched only slightly when the Duchess found she could not read anymore words from the book to him.
His chin came to rest over her shoulder, lips close to her ear. “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once, my Duchess” James said with a boyish grin. He pressed a kiss to her skin, she did not try to deceive him it was simply… not meant to be. Not yet. But it did answer certain questions, while raising others…
“Does my Duchess wish to ask a favor in return?” he inquired pressing his hips against her playfully although the question was quite serious.
Malia closed and pushed her book away, turning her attention back to her partner. The press of his body against hers was powerful, alighting her nerves and also blatantly pointing out how much bigger he was. She tucked against his form, even with the curves that differentiated her from the common woman, and he could still wrap her up with no effort…
His words drew a small, sly smile that she did not try to hide - he knew that she was a crafty woman with designs aplenty, and she had been more than transparent as she'd courted him. She would ask him favors, probably many more than he asked her, but she had no intention of squandering them until she needed them. At least, the big ones - his access to the King was huge, as was his familiarity with at least one Witch of Eventyr, a mystery that few understood…
But the small ones? Malia abandoned those lofty ideas and instead focused on the moment. She pecked at his cheek, and then requested the smallest favor, "Kiss me." Her voice was at a whisper, her intonation lifted in questioning, continuing to ask, "And my neck…?"
Words became both softer and more and more explicit as she asked him to continue down her body.
“A pleasure, my Duchess, hardly a favor” James said, although he was happy to comply. He thought she might ask about his armor, or something more along those lines. He could be extremely passionate in a carnal way for a creature with no heart. It was a form of conquest in a way, and he was the consummate hunter.
As pleasurable as the thought of spending his entire stay in the high tower might be, eventually they were dressed and making their way down the long steps for a bath before partaking of the feast that was the massive NorthEastern elk.
Castile even carried Malia down the first hundred steps or so, having made sure to make walking a difficulty in the most pleasurable way possible. “I will see what I can do to help you with your werewolf problem. I know of some reputable creature hunters”.
Malia smiled softly - see? She did not need to ask favors to receive them. They would come freely in time, from loyal and capable allies. So far, it had been a profitable strategy, enough to circumvent her lack of family ties: Foster friendships, lovers, and problems will solve themselves. She clung to James' neck fondly, enjoying the dual nature of his arms - strong enough to hold her but somehow quite gently, and gave him directions toward the Duchess' chambers.
It was a relatively dark space, the walls made of large stones in a dark grey hue, but there was a peculiar sparkling quality to them that reflected the large fire and the glittering candles. And even though the bed was huge and covered in in plush, deep red blankets, the centerpiece of the room was a mirror that stood taller, even, than the Duke, framed with jewels of every kind. It would not actually answer Malia, when she playfully asked it who was the fairest in the land, but she liked the idea of it anyway.
"That's good to know," Malia answered, at his offer. "My men tell me that little can be done about werewolves in the winter. That they are heartier in the wild than the men who could hunt them, and we must wait for spring. Which could mean losing another..." She shrugged helplessly at the thoughts, "hundred men before then."
James settled her to her feet, and tilted his head at the image of them in the mirror. “A hundred men are far too many. The werewolves are desperate and hungry in the winter as any animal, but they still prey on the old and weak….. Solitary targets, and at night”.
He grazed his fingers along a silver inlay on her large mirror. “You must mine silver, and fortify your weapons with it. They are prone to the purity of the metal… But mostly they use fear, and sentimental well wishes of love ones to protect them”. Castile was hard on his own people if he found them harboring a werewolf because they were once blood.
The Duke stared into the eyes of the man in the mirror before him. He looked over his shoulder and flashed Malia a wicked smile, “I have a present for you other than the elk...”.
Malia nodded along... slowly, though - she wanted to take in the wisdom of more experienced leaders, especially one who had wolves in his own realm, but she was wary of appearing too eager. Wary or not, though, she expected she had shown James enough that he would read her well, now, if not easily. "We mine plenty of silver in the North," Malia answered, affirmatively.
She settled on the edge of her bed, massive posts standing tall around her, as she pulled her hair over her shoulder and gently began untangling it, pulling pins to deposit them on the table beside her. Her dark eyes watched him - and his mirrored form - curiously, with an interested smirk on her lips. Final comb freed, Malia's hand smoothed over the soft velvet fabric beside her and lifted an eyebrow, curious and expectant at his words. "My lord is generous?"
James gave her an almost coy smile, “When it suits me… but I must say you make it easy, my Duchess”. He produced a leather bound book from his traveling cloak that was tied shut with a green colored ribbon. “My gracious host, you brought me a gift of knowledge on your visit to my lands… I can do no less”.
He gave her a wily, boyish smile. “From my brother’s royal library of course…”
There were fewer ways to get Malia's heart rate quickening faster than a book, and the leather-bound pages did the trick, her dark eyes lighting up with interest. "No," Malia breathed, in an ecstatic sort of disbelief, as she popped up off her perch on the bed with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. Practically skipping across the room, she claimed the gifted book with wonder.
"The Gita?" she asked, hopefully, and bit her lip gently as she began flipping through pages. Since her visit to the East, she had gone home, and spent a generous amount of time studying the ancient text that might be the only connection she had found between Eventyr and her own world… there was so much to find, but her eyes were drawn upwards, her words a bit coquettish. "Philip did not part with this. It might be the most ancient text in Eventyr…"
“There are some very ancient manuscripts in Eventyr… but this has always been a mystery. The way it is written, the manner of speech… Clearly someone took the time to translate it from whatever language it had been, and into basic” he replied. Castile smiled at how pleased she was, it oddly warmed something inside of him.
“There are a few such treasures locked away in the royal library, away from the eyes of even some of the highest ranking nobles. Phillip bears them no mind however, or the stories attached to them” Castile said letting a shoulder shrug upward. “I do not like to waste...potential….”
Malia hesitated, not eager to share her knowledge or insight except with the most worthy of conspirators. But, she could not find any reason to suppose James did not fit that category, and so she nodded along with him. The original language, she supplied: "It was written in Sanskrit." An ancient African language. Malia added, "Originally written 2500 years ago..." Pressing the text against her heart, she whispered as she met James' eyes, "Eventyr's history stretches back little more than eight hundred…"
"Which makes this book three times as old as this entire world." Malia's lips pursed, serious and business-like, imploring. This world was incomplete; it needed more history, in context. This book was doing nothing, gathering dust in Philip's library. "Any other texts you can get me will help put this puzzle together."
James was trying to think of where Sanskrit might have come from, it sounded Southern to him. His brow furrowed slightly, “Eventyr’s written history…the land is older than that”. But still he didn’t recall anything as old as the context of the book she held, which made little sense. It wasn’t as if Eventyr grew overnight, even the great trees of the enchanted forest were only as old as the first written manuscripts.
For a moment he sat silently his gaze locked into……… nothing. And then James blinked and shook his head, “My other self is old, but not as aged as either of these things”. He reached out to gently lay his fingers over her hand covering the book, “My father had a section of the royal library sealed away…. I can try and see what he hid away on my next visit to the King’s city…”
Malia nodded her agreement - surely, Eventyr had a history, she just wasn't convinced that this land had been its own for that long. She was pleased, to find that, when faced with this information, that James - even his older half - was as baffled as she was. And hopefully, therefore, as curious and committed to finding out the truth.
She leaned in, beckoning a kiss, and shared, in a whisper as secret as she might have disclosed a murder, Malia said: "Before I was a Duchess, I was a librarian. You can trust me with any text, I promise."
The Duke’s mouth was on her neck without much encouraging, his body pressing the book between them. “I do trust you with the rarest of tomes, my Duchess…” he said softly in her ear. “Even if you are as foreign to Eventyr as the Gita itself…” he tilted his head at her and his mouth curled on one side. “I may be a bastard, but I am no fool, my lady”. His hand reached up to play with a curl of her hair, “But you have accepted this place, and… myself…. I could do no less”.
Leaning in James sighed and kissed the softness of her skin just below her ear. “When I first saw you someone told me you came from the sky…. They were right, for you are heavenly… my Duchess”.