Prologue

Mary, Queen of Scots had clutched King Francis's hand for so many days that her palm was sweaty and her muscles were aching. She had refused to give in though. This was her husband, her true love, who lying in their bed, holding onto the last string keeping him in this world rather than the next. Physicians had come and gone, but none were optimistic.

"King Francis is dying, your Majesty," they said. "We cannot help him now. Let him go in peace. We are sorry."

Mary found that she could not let him go. He had been there for her time and time again, when she thought she needed no help. He had protected her and Scotland to the best of his ability, even when she betrayed him for another, Prince Condé. This was a highly treasonous act, but after Mary ended it abruptly, nothing came to blows. Condé had betrayed France by marrying Elizabeth by proxy, and aligning himself with England, Francis and Mary's worst enemy, for his beloved brother Antoine in Navarre. He was lucky his head wasn't on a pike outside of Paris.

The entire family was on tenderhooks. Charles was on the brink of succeeding to the French throne, Claude's future was hanging from the deicision of the King of France, and Catherine, who had fallen out of favour within the Privy Council, could face severe opposition for a regency if Charles were to succeed. Lola had visited numerous times with her son, Jean-Phillipe, so that Francis could say a proper goodbye to his infant son. The heavily pregnant Kenna had returned to court after a failed courtship with an Eastern European lord, and Greer had remained in the village throughout.

Things were also difficult for Mary because of her mother's rapidly declining health back in Scotland. She was hiding in Stirling Castle as the English had taken Edinburgh. Mary had received barely any letters from her mother, as transportation of documents was becoming more and more fragile. She clearly did not have long left.

Mary had also promised Lola an annulment to Lord Narcisse, and Francis had promised Bash an annulment to Kenna when the time was right. Both couples were living separately, but had promised to be civil with each other. Mary was sceptical about Bash and Kenna's marriage, but she knew that Lola's was long finished. They had confided in each other during a quiet meeting.

"He's just the most vile man I've ever met," Lola had growled. "He tricked me into marrying him. He was the one who planted that rat in my bath and left the note that I assumed was by Catherine's hand. It's a long story, Mary, but please, I beg you, promise me that when the time comes, you'll help me get an annulment."

Mary sighed. "Lola, you are one of my dearest friends, and I would risk my life for you, but Lord Narcisse is on the Privy Council. He is amongst the highest-ranking men in France, and to bring the matter of your marriage into the Vatican, he would bring down the name of this country."

Bash had been gone for days, with his friend from the woods. Her name was Delphine, and she was a type of healer. She could lay her hands on someone and save them from death, but the price was damage to another person. Mary had sent Leith, Claude's personal bodyguard, to find Bash and bring him and Delphine back to the castle to heal Francis. Mary remained by his side throughout.

"Tell me about our future," Francis managed weakly. "Our children...I can see them playing right now. James and Anne."

"Yes, James and Anne," Mary sniffled. "Anne always catches James."

"And James is the slow one. Everyone catches James. Anne runs everywhere. She is just like you. Brave, headstrong, beautiful, couragous." Francis's eyes began to glaze over.

"James needs to improve his French," Mary laughed sadly. "It's terrible."

Francis turned his head, and gazed into his wife's eyes. "I'll have him work on it."

The look that they shared was one of completion. Francis's life was ending, and Mary knew it. She couldn't deny her husband's death any longer. And this time, she let him go.

"If it's more comfortable for you, Francis, let go. I love you and I always will."

And with one final breath, Francis uttered the words, "I love you too" before he closed his eyes and died.

"Mary!"

Bash had burst into the room, with Delphine at his side. Leith remained by the door, with some other guards.

"He's gone! No! He's gone! Francis, wake up! Francis!" Mary lay by the bed, sobbing her heart out. Bash turned to Leith.

"Get Catherine, and Charles and Claude, and bring them straight here!" Bash said. Leith nodded and disappeared. Delphine walked around Francis lying on the bed whilst Bash took Mary away from him.

"Save him!" Mary sobbed. "Please! Do what you must, Delphine!"

Bash went over to Delphine and cupped her face in his hands.

"Can you heal him?" Bash whispered. She nodded.

"Yes. But, there will be a price, as always," Delphine replied, loudly so that Mary could hear.

"What kind of price?" Mary questioned.

"Someone else will lose their life if Francis regains his." Bash spoke for Delphine, who climbed onto the bed. The door burst open, and Leith with Catherine, Charles and Claude entered.

"My son," Catherine whispered. "Mary?"

Catherine took Mary into her arms, who continued to sob. Charles went and stood next to Bash and Leith took Claude into his arms to comfort her. Claude began to cry.

"The price will be a life," Delphine said.

"Whose?" Catherine inquired.

Delphine shook her head. "I don't know. I don't control that part."

"Please!" Mary sobbed. "Do whatever you have to do to save him! If it's my life, then God willing I will be commended."

"And mine," Charles added.

"Me too," Claude blinked.

Delphine glanced at everyone in the room, who nodded and gave their consent. She lingered a little longer with Bash, who knew that healing Francis could easily kill Delphine, on top of the life lost in conjuction with Francis. Delphine swirled the curtains around the bed and laid her hands on Francis, who began to jerk slightly. Delphine shook. Mary, despite Catherine's warnings, watched the event unfold.

There was a screech, and as all the ladies covered their ears, and the men winced, Delphine fell, limp and weak, off the bed with a thud. Moments later, there was a loud male cough from the bed. Francis.

"Francis?" Mary whispered, advancing towards the bed. Charles had pulled back the curtains, and Bash carried Delphine to the rug near the fire, where he gently shook her and tried to wake her.

"Francis!" Mary threw herself onto a now-healthy Francis, who sat up and kissed and embraced his wife. He was now alive. Delphine awoke, coughing, and fell into Bash's arms. The couple, Catherine, Claude, Charles and Leith all gathered around the bed, to congratulate Francis and welcome him back.

Meanwhile, in her chambers at Stirling Castle, Marie de Guise signed her letter, and added her seal to the back. She left the letter on the table, and she stood to look out of the window. She saw light from a nearby village, reminding her of France and her daughter Mary. She should be happy, but she had clutched her throat in pain, struggling to breathe, and then collapsed on the floor, dead.

King Francis was alive. Marie de Guise was dead.