My uncle Jose sat next to me in the pews, dark hair falling across his face rogueishly as he watched the service in quiet amusement. He knew that it was mockery for him to be in Theus' church, and he delighted in it. There was a glint in his eyes that could almost be mistaken for a dancing flame...Did the candles burn a little brighter? No, it was only my imagination. Heretic or not, sorcerer or no, my uncle was not a fool. He would not dare use his power here. He whispered to me "Rafael, do you actually believe this crap? I expected better from my nephew." I set my jaw and continued to ignore him. My sword was strong, but my faith stronger still. He would not get a reaction from me.
On my other side sat Josephina, my...sister..., wearing her finest red dress and a flower in her hair, Dmitri beyond her. He towered over everyone else, and he was causing quite a stir. Though he was nothing but friendly and polite, most people here had never seen a Ussuran, and those who had had never seen one quite so large, nor one whose eyes were quite so green. The brightly-colored beads in his hair shook slightly as he whispered to Josephina, whose eyes were rolled in annoyance. From what I could hear, he was translating the Mass from the traditional Numan to our native Castillian, "To better her understanding of the Vaticine faith." Or perhaps, just to be an ass. It was amazing how often those two motives intersected with him. I did not speak Numan, but I knew the Mass by heart and dutifully followed along, using this time to reflect on the past month.
It had been an eventful one.
Then, Josephina was nothing more than my ward. Someone had set fire to an inn we were staying at. Dmitri and I were woken by the would-be assassins, but by the time we dealt with them and got everyone else out to safety, we realised that Josephina was not with us. Dmitri had to use all of his freakish strength to keep me from running in after her. Though at the time I hated him for it, he was right; No one could have survived that inferno.
So imagine my surprise when Josephina came walking out the front door, appearing to be wreathed in flame but completely unharmed. I've always believed that Theus protects us and provides miracles when all seems lost, and for a time I could believe that was what had happened. But I could not ignore the voice in the back of my mind, whispering of the sorcery that Legion had once cursed Castille with. El Fuego Adentro...The Fire Within. And so, I arranged for us to return to Castille, to speak with her father. It was high time for this anyway, and surely he could set our minds at ease.
Sadly, the illness that had confined him to his bed upon our departure had claimed him in the intervening months, Theus rest his soul, and his only brother Jose had returned from...wherever it was he'd been to run the estate. We found him at the dinner table seated with the Montaigne Marquis whose amorous advances had made it necessary for us to flee in the first place, sharing a glass of wine.
What followed was perhaps the most awkward dinner ever eaten...
"Josephina! My beautiful little flower! I am delighted that you could join us!" Marquis Francois des Gaulles stood up and bowed deeply, the locks of his powdered wig nearly brushing the floor. He was a tall 35 year old man wearing white shoulder-length gloves and a fashionable yet subdued suit, every garment exceedingly well-made. He straightened up, then pulled out a chair for her next to him. "Please! Sit down and eat with your husband!"
Pointedly ignoring the Montaigne man, Josephina addressed her uncle in cool tones. "Uncle, why is this man here? Why was I not told of my father's dea..." Horrible realization crossed her face. "Husband?"
The darker, shorter man seated at the head of the table shot des Gaulles a dirty look, then slowly stood himself. His slowness was not born of sloth, nor of age; rather, he had the look of a predator about him, as of a cat stretching after it has awoke. "Josephina, darling, is this how you greet your family? Please, sit down and all shall be explained in good time. You as well, Rafael. There is much to discuss."
Dmitri politely raised one finger. "Erm, I hate to impose, but it has been a long journey. May I...?"
Jose waved a hand dismissively. "Of course, of course! There is always room at the table for friends of family, especially one who has saved her life."
The large Ussuran clapped his hands, making everyone flinch a little from the resounding noise. "Fantastic." He sat down in the seat that the bewildered des Gaulles had pulled out for the lady and began to eat.
Heh. Clever man, Dmitri. Should this dinner go sour, he was in the right spot to keep the Marquis from grabbing Josephina. Or perhaps he's just hungry and lazy; it's hard to tell with him sometimes.
I stood by the seat directly across from Dmitri; Josephina suspiciously sat next to me. Once the lady was seated, the standing men sat themselves down once more, myself included. I looked at my plate; it was full of ...Montaigne food. I wrinkled my nose at the snails and frog legs, contenting myself with a sip of Castillian wine. Josephina did not touch anything. "There, Uncle. I have sat. Now explain. Why did you not tell me of my father? Why is this man here? Why did he say husband?"
"Lovely to see you as well, child. My brother died two months ago; I wanted to tell you, but your bodyguards took such great pains to hide you that it was impossible to give you a message. It is for the best, I suppose: I didn't want him to have to be the one to tell you. Josephina...The man who raised you, he is not your father." Jose breathed in deeply, then leaned across the table and locked eyes with Josephina.
Josephina's face drained, and she began to breathe in short, shallow pants. "No...No! You lie!"
"My daughter, I wish I did. Your mother did not love my brother, not at first. Arranged as her marriage was, she had little choice in the matter. She played the part of dutiful loving wife by day...But when Carlotta would cry in the night, alone where she thought none but the river could hear her, I was there to comfort her. I did not mean to betray my brother..." Jose turned his head, swallowing hard. "...But your mother was...bewitching. Beautiful, charming, and oh so vulnerable, I could not help but..." He trailed off, dark eyes staring at...no, past Josephina, perhaps reliving that night. "You have all of her beauty, Josephina. We hid our love for a while, but we were found out. All my life, I haven't seen a fury so great as the one Antonio bore in his heart that day. He challenged me to a duel to the death, and though I knew he was a master swordsman, I thought myself his better. Perhaps, another day, I would have been. But that day, he was possessed by Legion, a raging animal who overwhelmed me with strength born of madness. At his mercy, I prepared for death...but it never came. Poised to deliver the death strike, Antonio broke down. Suddenly, all the fury left him, and he collapsed, sobbing. He could not kill his baby brother, no matter what I had done, but neither could he live with me in his life. And so, I was banished. I went to Montaigne, and I found myself in the court of Monsieur des Gaulles here. The rest, as they say, is history."
A single tear ran down Josephina's pale cheek. "You...you have betrayed us? My own unc...Mi padre? A traitor for Montaigne? This is how a Castillian man says thank you?"
Jose slammed a fist onto the table. "A traitor!? No, it was Antony who betrayed ME! He disgraced me, EXILED me from my home, mi amor! I could not have my love, so I will have his land. And all it took was your hand in marriage." At this, the Marquis smiled. "Yes, you and des Gaulles were married the very week your father died."
"What!? I never consented to marriage with this frog!" Francois tilted his head at Josephina, almost as though his feelings were hurt.
"Perhaps not, my daughter. But someone who looks very much like you did. Someone who used your name to sign the certificate. Someone who vowed to honor and obey this frog, in front of Theus and everybody!" Francois whipped his head around to look at Jose, disbelief on his face.
I slapped my hands down on the table, pushing my chair out and drawing my sword. "Enough! You are nothing but a pretender, Jose, a charlatan and a fool! No one gave you authority over Josephina's life, OR her land, and I demand that you dissolve this marriage and go back to hiding in Montaigne, where you belong!"
For a full minute, there was a silence, interrupted only by Dmitri asking a servant for seconds. Then the Marquis stood, sneering at me. "And who are you, to make such demands?"
"I am Valiente Rafael Luis Zepata de Castille. I am a swordsman, and I am a matador. I have stood against a rampaging beast stronger than any man, and I have slain him when no one could tame him. I am sure that I can kill a frog such as yourself, AND your dog!"
Jose called out "That is not your name."
I blinked in confusion. "What? Don't be silly, of course it-"
"Your name is Valiente Rafael Luis de Torres del Castille. Now sit down; I've had enough family violence for a lifetime."
Stunned, I sheathed my sword and sat down. "You mean...?"
"Yes. Carlotta was with child when Antonio found us. He assumed, incorrectly, that our affair was a recent development, that the child in her belly was mine and not his. And though he could not bear to raise another man's son, nor could he abandon his nephew. And so, you were raised among the servants children: One more brat running around would make no difference, but you would be well looked after. He was not at all surprised when you showed talent with our family's sword, but he took it as proof that you were my child. If he'd been wiser, he'd have looked for a different...talent that marked a child as mine." He grinned, dark eyes suddenly dancing like flames. It was then that I knew. "Such is life, I'm afraid. You are his son, and rightful heir to this estate...But who will ever believe you?"
Still standing, the Marquis suddenly clasped his hands. "Such a tense atmosphere! I have something that ought to cheer everybody up. Servants, bring the surprise!" Two nervous-looking boys flinched at his voice, then scurried past the double-doors into the kitchen.
Within a minute, they were wheeling a cart out. I gasped, then rubbed my eyes. The sheer audacity! "Is that..."
"Yes! It's our wedding cake! Lovely, isn't it? I saved the first cut for you, ma petite." Josephina stood, then walked over to the cake, entranced by the extravagant baked good. "It is tradition, is it not?" Francois picked up a cake knife, then held it out to Josephina, handle first. She looked from him, to the knife, to the cake, and back to the knife, incredulity painting her face. She laid her hands on the handle of the knife...
And shoved it into the Marquis' belly.
Pandemonium broke out, and everyone who wore a weapon was wielding a weapon and shouting, while the servant boys screamed and ran to fetch the Montaigne garrison. I was about to leap for Jose, when des Gaulles called out "Quiet, quiet, mes amis! It is nothing. It is only a love bite. My wife is very eager!" He pulled out the knife, and typical Montaigne inanity aside, I could see he was right; the wound wasn't deep, and it wasn't anywhere vital, though he was bleeding. "Laramie, be a dear and go intercept the boys, will you? No need to rouse my soldiers." A shaking servant boy nodded, and ran off. "Yes, a love bite only. Nonetheless, I think I shall retire for the night. Sleep well, my dove." Placing a laced glove over the wound, he limped out of the room, presumably to see the field surgeon.
Jose sheathed his sword. "Yes, sleep well, all of you. We must attend church in the morning. You'll find your quarters exactly where you left them." Then, cloak billowing behind him, he left the room.
Josephina was trembling, on the verge of tears. My weapon put away, I reached out to touch her shoulder, to offer some form of comfort. She broke, falling into my arms and weeping openly. For the first time, I embraced my sister.
"You gonna eat that?" Josephina and I both turned to look at Dmitri, who was gazing longingly at the cake. In unison we rolled our eyes and sighed in disgust, then left the room for him to do as he pleased.
Mass came to an end, and everyone began to file out of the pews, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands. More than a few of the young women were glad to see me again, and I spoke with them shortly, deflecting their attentions. I caught the eye of fair Diego, my old rival, from across the building; he tipped his hat in my general direction, then switched his focus to the flirtations of a girl who not minutes ago had been fawning on me. Dmitri and Josephina came to me, asked if I was ready to go. I demurred, told them I had someone else to catch up with, told them I'd meet them at the estate. They left with Jose.
I found my way to the confession box.
"Theus bless you, my child." An old, familiar voice, warm and kind. A voice that could calm any storm, that stood against Legion. A voice who would surely know what to do.
"And you, Father."
"What sins do you need to confess?"
I breathed in deeply, steeling myself for this.
"I fear for the safety of my soul."
"Why is this?"
"I believe that my bloodline may contain sorcery."