Notes/Disclaimer: The first chapter of this fan-fiction kind of came about through an idea I had about writing about a story focusing on a royally-arranged marriage in modern times, and also through wanting to write something based on the characters of the television series, Reign. I started writing it as an original story but then I really felt like it could fit in with the characters of Reign and some of its romantic pairings, especially Mary and Francis.
The story is set in a modern AU (or an alternate 'verse), with Francis and Mary still having their connections to French and Scottish royalty, respectively. The characters are all based on the Reign characters, although aspects of their personalities, several romantic pairings and their roles/connections to others may change.
There will be some Mary/Bash and Lola/Narcisse along the way.
I thought I would try it out anyway and see if it works. :) More about the political situations, backstory and matchmaking process will be revealed as the chapters go on.
For the past couple of minutes, Francis Valois had been staring out the window of his family's private jet, attempting to catch a glimpse of the country of Scotland as the plane glided smoothly through the dark, almost cloudless sky. For a moment, he'd been certain he could make out the outline of a castle on the ground below, before those two words from one of the plane's air stewardesses had distracted him.
Slowly, he turned his head away from the window, unsure as to whether he felt relieved at no longer having to observe the country beneath the plane-a country that felt increasingly unknown, unreadable, mysterious to him with each passing moment, in spite of several official visits to Scotland in the past, or whether he actually felt reluctant to be turning away.
"We'll be landing soon," the air stewardess informed him with a friendly smile the moment he turned to look at her, as she leaned down a little to address him. Her voice with its French accent sounded kind and gentle, but unfortunately not reassuring enough to calm his nerves.
She was dressed in a dark blue uniform, with a white shirt underneath her blue jacket, and a red scarf fastened around her neck. The colours of France, he thought absently to himself.
His father had wanted him to wear similar colours for the ceremony that would take place late tomorrow afternoon, just in case anyone was in any doubt as to who would truly be in charge of the upcoming proceedings, but Francis had already refused, opting instead to wear black clothes tomorrow. He felt that this would be more fitting to the occasion.
Besides, there were times when France itself felt almost as unfamiliar to him as Scotland did, after so many years spent in London before he had to return to his 'home' country on a permanent basis. He was still getting used to the place, and now there would be a whole new country to consider. He wasn't sure he felt ready yet, to throw on the French colours and act as its main representative.
"Thank you," Francis responded politely to the air stewardess, trying his best to smile back at her before she walked away to speak to his father, who was currently barking orders at other staff members travelling on the royal private jet, between his usual hacking coughs. Unlike certain family members of his, Francis always tried to be kind to their staff. He knew all too well how tedious it was to deal with bad-tempered royals.
As the plane began its slow descent, he felt his stomach give a lurch that had nothing to do with the change in cabin pressure, or the ever-increasing dread of facing the cameras, the journalists, the all-too-personal questions…
Soon, he would see her again. She would be there, in that small but beautiful country below, most likely in the castle that he still imagined he could see from the plane's window…
Perhaps the thought of getting to see her again was the only good thing about this mess that his father had got him into. But then again, perhaps that was the worst thing about it.
He couldn't help all the troubled thoughts and questions that instantly came to his mind: Did she hate him now? She'd seemed rather indifferent to him for a long time as they'd grown up, but perhaps those feelings of indifference had grown into a strong dislike, especially after what happened a couple of years ago…
Would she remember any of it? That night at the palace in France? Or had she pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind? Had she tried to forget the noise, the fear, the terror, the confusion, the same way he always did? Did she blame him for what happened?
"Cheer up, Francis!" his father snapped at him from across the aisle, abruptly interrupting his dark thoughts. He glared at Francis with folded arms, a commanding figure in his elegant suit, with his closely-cropped dark hair. Everything about his appearance was a contrast to Francis's, who was currently brushing a stray strand of wavy blond hair away from his eyes-try as they might, the palace hairdressers had never really succeeded in making his hair look neat and tidy.
People sometimes commented that Francis looked more like his mother.
And then there was the sneer that seemed to be a permanent fixture on his father's face these days.
"The last thing we need," his father continued to snap at him, "is for the press to take pictures of you looking miserable the moment we arrive in Scotland!"
Francis couldn't help glaring back at his father. He'd always aspired to be a kind person-a tolerant king, one day, but the current king of France was enough to test anyone's patience, as most of his subjects would probably attest to.
He was sourly tempted to start sulking like the teenager he still was (just about, anyway), to insist that he had nothing to be cheerful about; that no part of this had been his choice; that all of it was for his father's benefit; that no good could come of this. But he knew it would be pointless. His father wouldn't care.
He couldn't help thinking about his younger brothers, Charles and Henri, and he wished that they could have come along with him on this strange adventure instead of having to stay at home in France. It was so much easier, when he could be the protective older brother, when he had people to take care of, something to distract him. Right now, in spite of his father's not-always-welcome presence, he felt terribly alone.
"Most princes would consider something like this to be beneath them," he chose to say to his father instead through gritted teeth.
"Nonsense!" his father retorted with a dismissive wave of his hand. "You're doing your duty, like all the others before you. Never forget that."
This is what his father and his advisers had told him over and over: that he was doing his duty; doing them all a favour; that this alliance would be of great benefit to his country.
"Anyway," his father continued with a sneer, "I don't know what you have to complain about. You're about to get everything you ever wanted…"
Francis felt his grip tighten on the armrest of his seat as his father finished his sentence with a significant glance in his direction, as though he could see into his mind and read his most secret thoughts-or worse, as though he could see into his heart. The one part of himself that he truly had to keep guarded, as the heir to the throne of a country that would always require so much of him. The one part of himself that he wasn't even sure he was ready to share. Right now, he wasn't sure if he would ever be ready.
Is this what you want? he asked himself as the plane continued to bring him closer to Scottish soil, carrying him towards the ground before he'd made any conscious decision to move, like fate was bringing him here much faster than he desired, in the same way that it had brought him back towards the French throne not so long ago.
For a moment, his mind was full of images of her, standing opposite him under the tree in the clearing in the French countryside when they were children, spinning around over and over in a circle in the middle of the castle ballroom ten years later as the music played, with an almost mischievous grin on her face, her long, dark hair flowing around her as she moved, her hands held high above her head almost in a gesture of victory as she smiled; so free, so beautiful, almost like a bird in flight…
You're about to get everything you ever wanted…
But then he thought about everything else:
He thought about his mother, blinking back tears as she hugged him just before he boarded the plane, almost as though he would no longer be the same person when he returned to her. As though she was about to lose him, somehow.
Then he thought about Olivia, sobbing, begging him to reconsider, asking him not to sign up for this, telling him to find a way to back out, in the hope that they could be together again.
And again, his thoughts drifted back to everything that had happened in the past, that moment of shared history with the girl from the castle in Scotland.
He thought about how this whole thing had been fixed, negotiated, stage-managed, entirely beyond their control. He thought about how she probably hated him, how she would hate him even more after the show tomorrow afternoon. He thought about how neither of them had had any real choice in this. He thought about what she would think when she saw him in her country and she finally realised what her family had got her into.
Bizarrely, he thought about the chandelier in the ballroom, how it had crashed to the ground that night as his whole world shattered all around him, with only her to hold onto. He felt that same feeling right now.
"She is what you want, isn't she?" his father asked him with another sneer, as though this very idea was incomprehensible to him.
Francis glared at his father again before he spoke.
"Not like this."
The river was surprisingly still this morning.
Mary Stuart stared at her reflection in its waters, taking in her long, dark hair, her brown eyes, her olive skin. And then she saw her furrowed brow, her expression that was so full of anger, her barely-disguised fear that kept threatening to push its way to the surface…
With a sigh of exasperation, she smacked her hand into the water, causing it to ripple almost violently.
"How can a teenage girl's parents possibly know who would make the best husband for their daughter?!" she demanded.
She'd aimed the question at her older brother, James, who was sitting beside her on the river bank, although she wasn't sure if she truly expected him to answer. He hardly ever answered her when she launched into this rant. James had agreed to sneak out of the castle with her this morning, the way they had both done ever since they were children, but that was often as far as his acts of rebellion went these days.
As the eldest of the two of them, three years older than her, and the 'precious first-born', James was the heir to the country's throne, and so would be king of Scotland one day. He took his duty as heir to the throne very seriously-more so with each passing year, Mary had noted-and he often expected the rest of the Scottish royal family to do the same.
She suspected that he'd only accompanied her on her walk this morning because he'd sensed her ever-growing tension within the walls of the castle, and he'd probably hoped she'd be less likely to fall into a sense of anger or panic or despair if she could just get away for a little while.
"I mean," she went on, when James continued to sit in silence, staring at his own reflection in the water, probably looking at his hair that was so like their father's, who he was named after, and his eyes that were so like their mother's, "this arranged marriage idea is ridiculous! How could my parents ever understand what's in my heart? How could they know who I could be attracted to, who I could fall in love with? Do they seriously think I'll end up with this man who they're going to introduce me to later?"
Mary wasn't sure she even understood much about love herself, as she wasn't exactly experienced in matters of the heart, but right now, that was beside the point. "And, to make matters worse, the whole process will be broadcast on television, James!"
She shuddered as she finished her sentence, thinking about how that was probably the worst part about it. Her mother might have thought it was a good idea, to allow the cameras into their lives to document the matchmaking process that would hopefully lead to her second-born daughter's marriage, but that didn't mean that Mary herself felt any sort faith in the process, or happiness at the thought of being the 'star' of a television show, even though the whole country was apparently 'very enthusiastic' at the idea of getting to see more of the royal family-according to her mother, anyway.
She felt increasingly anxious every time she thought about the fact that it had been left up to her mother and father to find her a suitable husband, as well as giving the rest of the country an insight into how royals dealt with marriage negotiations, while the cameras filmed it all as part of their show. Then there would be all the magazine interviews that she would be expected to give, and 'couples photo shoots', and other television appearances with her 'new boyfriend'…
"Our parents understand wise political decisions, Mary," her brother finally chose to say as a response, with a sad sense of finality in his voice.
Mary could easily read between the lines of what he was saying: this whole process wasn't about falling in love, or understanding what was in her heart-it was about finding her a match who would help to bring a little political stability to their small country; it was about encouraging positive publicity for a relatively new royal family, to make them seem more accessible to the public; it was about providing entertainment, in order to distract the country from all the protests, all the discord and dissatisfaction, all the calls to rid the country of the monarchy entirely.
She'd heard all of this before, of course, from her mother, and her father, and all of the palace advisers, over and over since her sixteenth birthday two years ago, when they'd all persuaded her to agree to allow her parents to find her a suitable match, and to allow the cameras to film it all.
"Yes, well, it's all right for you," Mary told her brother with a sigh, unable to keep the hint of resentment out of her voice. She had never envied his position before, but right now, anything seemed preferable to this. "You don't have to go through any of the humiliation that I'm about to be subjected to."
As the first-born, James's matchmaking process was considered far too delicate and important to be documented on a television show. His future marriage had been negotiated and decided upon in private. He was engaged to be married to 'Lady Kenna', as she always insisted on calling herself, the teenage daughter of an old British noble family.
As the second-born, the expectations of Mary from her family and the public were a lot lower (not that anyone would admit this out loud). As long as she showed up to royal events wearing pretty dresses and behaved herself and said all the right things in the few interviews she was required to give, they seemed to be satisfied that she was doing her duty. And now, they expected her to show up to this particular show in a pretty dress, to allow her 'romance' to be played out on screen for them all while she had to act happy and grateful and say all the right things in her interviews, before she married a pretty husband for their entertainment. Or so her parents hoped, anyway.
"Do you really believe I got the better deal?" James asked her, and for a second, Mary could hear the hint of resentment, and bitterness, in his own voice; she could see the flicker of rebellion on his face that she used to see so often when they were children.
But then, the look was gone, and he was serious, solemn again, his face a picture of duty and responsibility, which made her wonder if she'd only imagined his look of distaste in the first place.
"Everyone has to make sacrifices, Mary," he muttered, using another line she'd heard so many times before. "This is the responsibility that goes with the privilege."
Mary sighed at his words. Of course, he was right, in part. They were lucky, in many ways, especially as they had only been named as the Scottish royal family fairly recently through a mix of chance, and the good fortune of having an old royal connection to Scotland in their family tree, along with a recent change in political circumstances. Most people seemed to envy their lifestyles, and their so-called privileged position. And, with all great privilege came great sacrifice. According to James, anyway.
And yet, this attempt at rationalisation did nothing to ease her fears of inviting the media into her life, of giving away her heart to the cameras.
"Are you ready?" James asked her as he stood up, abruptly turning his head away from the water and taking a few steps back from the river, almost as though he couldn't stand to look at his reflection right now.
More than ever, Mary missed the younger James of her childhood, the one who'd laughed at the stuck-up royals along with her; the one who would have once been horrified at their parents' attempt to arrange her future marriage; the one who would have run away from the castle with her without a second thought.
I'll never be ready, Mary suddenly wished she could say out loud, but instead she simply pushed herself reluctantly up to her feet, making sure to pull the hood of her jacket up, partially disguising her hair and face before they started to head back the way they came.
Even in disguise they were putting themselves in danger by doing this-their status as royals meant that they were constant targets for threats and kidnapping plots. There might have been undercover castle guards stationed all over the village closest to the castle, but still, they were taking a risk, and they both knew it. With another sigh, she thought about how it was only a matter of time before James tried to put a stop to this completely and insisted that they abandon any future attempts to sneak out just the two of them.
As she walked as slowly as possible towards the local village that would take her and her brother to the path leading towards the castle, Mary tried to take in all of her surroundings-the sights, the smells, the sounds of rural Scotland around her, almost as though she were seeing all of it for the last time, even though that idea was ludicrous.
She trod on all of the damp blades of grass, brushed her hands against the bark of trees, brushed her fingertips against the flowers, and she breathed in the cold, damp air. Wherever she went, she always tried to memorise her surroundings, so that she could attempt to interpret her experiences on paper later on, through her paintings and sketches. She hoped that she would still have time for all that, once the show had started.
As she walked, with that inner feeling of dread mounting with every step, she couldn't help hoping, wishing, that her parents would somehow have been tricked into setting her up with someone who would turn out not to be of noble birth after all-someone who lived a normal life, whatever a 'normal life' was; someone who would understand just how much she hated the idea of the whole matchmaking process; someone who would allow her her freedom; someone who wouldn't be too upset if she withdrew from the show altogether, or refused to get married at all, by the time they reached the end of the programme; someone who could perhaps help her with her escape.
For months, she'd secretly been formulating her 'escape plan'-coming up with all the ways that she could use to get out of this process while seeming to play along; all the ways she could avoid a marriage altogether, in the end. As the opening ceremony drew ever closer, however, all of the imaginary escape routes in her mind seemed to be closing themselves off.
And then she felt a twist of guilt, to even be having these thoughts in the first place. Her mother was counting on her to do her duty; her parents had probably both tried their best to set her up with someone who she could at least get along with, and they would never set her up with anyone who was powerful or controlling enough to pose a genuine threat to their power, after all...and all she could think about was betraying them.
When they finally arrived in the small village close to the castle, Mary focused on the crowds of people.
There were several groups of young people who looked to be about her age, talking and gossiping as though they didn't have a care in the world. Perhaps some of them would watch her on television later, relaxing and talking and laughing together about the events playing out on screen, most of them secretly glad that they could choose to go out with whoever they wanted and would never have to go through the same public process.
It would be so much easier, she thought, if her love life wasn't currently being treated like some sort of national event.
She couldn't help shuddering as she overheard a bit of gossip from a group of people standing outside the village pub about a royal family arriving in Scotland last night. She walked quickly on, feeling no desire whatsoever to know which royal family was apparently in the country at the moment.
There were lots of couples in the village square, too, walking hand-in-hand or sitting close together on benches outside shops. She couldn't help but wonder what it would be like, to meet someone and fall in love, to go through all of the usual rites of passage of first dates and blossoming romances. She had no experience with any of this, and yet she would somehow have to do all of that on camera later. She would have to meet the man her parents expected her to marry for the first time ever in a makeshift television studio while the whole country had the opportunity to see her reaction first-hand.
There was an elderly couple sitting close together on a bench outside the local book shop, the two of them holding hands, looking like they had been together for years, like their love had stood the test of time.
As she stared at them, Mary suddenly felt a rush of sadness, of jealousy, almost. Quickly, she turned her head away from the elderly couple and forced herself to keep walking.
The next bench along was littered with discarded newspapers. At a glance, she could see from the headlines that there had been several arrests at an anti-royal protest close to Edinburgh yesterday. Another paper revealed that the police were searching for members of so-called anti-patriotic groups who had been secretly meeting all over the country.
Mary sighed, wondering how her mother could possibly think that one television show would ever distract the country from all its problems.
Suddenly, her eyes were drawn to a group of people dressed all in black with tattoos on their arms. She'd noticed tattoos on people's arms so often lately during her secret 'excursions' out of the castle.
All of the tattoos were strikingly similar-they depicted what appeared to be a bird in flight. Every time she saw those tattoos, she was overcome with a burning curiosity to find out what they meant, what they symbolised; she wanted to find out who these mysterious people dressed in black were.
Mary had tried to conduct a little research of her own into the meaning of the tattoos, consulting the old books in the castle's library and searching through the royal archives, and even asking some of her tutors, but so far, she hadn't been able to come up with much. The most she'd been able to put together was the theory that the bird was perhaps an old Celtic symbol, now used as a lesser-known emblem of Scotland, although she suspected that there was more to it than that.
She was so distracted staring at the tattoos that for a moment, she didn't realise that a young man who had been standing close to the group was watching her as she passed.
But then she looked up, right at the man, and she saw that he had dark brown hair and striking, beautiful blue eyes. Her heart gave a little jolt as she remembered that she'd already passed this same young man a few times lately, here in this village and on its outskirts. She'd remember those eyes anywhere. Every time, she'd tried to glance discreetly at him from underneath the hood of her rain coat, pulling her makeshift disguise to one side a little as she attempted to pass him slowly so that she could get a good look at him. She always felt like she never had enough time to stop and stare.
This time, as soon as she caught his eye, he smirked and winked at her.
Startled, Mary didn't react for a moment, but then she felt a smile creep slowly to her face. Up close, she noticed that he was wearing a leather jacket, his clothes somehow casual and smart at the same time, and there was a ring on his middle finger. The ring was only plain, brown in colour, and it looked like it had been carved out of wood-it was nowhere near as elegant as the jewels that the people in the castle often wore, but there was something beautiful in its simplicity.
He walked almost with a swagger, with something challenging in his step. He was just the sort of boy who she would have been drawn to, when she'd been a rebellious young teenager studying at a strict London boarding school a few years ago.
The young man smiled back at her and he seemed to look her up and down for a few moments, before he turned and walked in the opposite direction. There was also a real purpose in his step, like he had somewhere to be, like he knew exactly where he was going.
Unintentionally, Mary pressed her index finger to her lips, almost as though the stranger had actually left a kiss there. She was overcome with a desire to giggle, just like the young girls she always passed in local towns and villages.
As she kept on walking, Mary knew that she was still grinning. She allowed herself some time to just enjoy the moment, to think about the fact that the boy with the blue eyes had looked at her like that-like she was just an ordinary girl who had made him smirk and wink. Perhaps this was how people felt, when they flirted with someone for the very first time, or when somebody finally noticed them.
James, who had kept his distance from her for most of the walk home, suddenly reappeared at her side. He looked over his shoulder and stared at the blue-eyed boy's retreating back with an expression that seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and concern.
"He is very handsome," Mary couldn't help telling her older brother. Things like this never happened to her within the castle walls, and she just needed to tell someone. As she finished her sentence, she felt a pang of loss, even though she'd just lost something that she'd never really had in the first place; something she was never meant to have.
She knew she shouldn't be doing this, not now. She wasn't allowed to do this. She chanced a glance at her brother, and she couldn't help noticing the look of sadness written all over his face. Or perhaps it was a look of pity. He seemed to allow himself one last sigh before his face was the picture of duty again.
They both stopped underneath the crooked signpost just outside the village, with its many arrows pointing in different directions.
For a few moments, Mary glanced longingly towards the path that was headed in the opposite direction from where she was expected to go, towards the forest. The group of people with their tattoos had just started walking down that path, all of them whispering to one another as though they were in on some kind of secret.
She wondered what it would be like to just take off after them, to leave her life as the second-born daughter of a queen behind and follow the group into the darkness of the forest, to find out what the big secret was. To run away. To escape.
The sound of her brother's voice pulled her out of her thoughts. He might have said her name softly, but still she picked up on the firmness in his tone, in his eyes. A reminder of her duties. Perhaps even a warning not to run.
With one last longing glance at the tattoos of the birds in flight, she followed James down the path that would lead them both back to the castle.