Notes: I found this chapter challenging to write, for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones was that so much content had to be covered for this chapter to make sense. Another was that this chapter is kind of dark, and the main characters have to go through a lot. However, I really felt like the events of this chapter (and the next) are a necessary part of Mary's journey in order for her to realise who she really is, what she really wants and what her true feelings are. I hope you all continue on this journey with Mary and Francis. As the popular saying goes, 'The darkest hour is just before the dawn.'
There were times, in the aftermath of the attack on the castle in France, when Mary had gone over her memories and her recollections of the days, hours, moments leading up to the first explosion, obsessively trying to work out whether there had been some sort of hint, or clue, or sign put forward to her in advance that her whole life had been about to change.
And yet, she had never been able to come up with anything; there had been no metaphorical signposts laid out before her to warn her that the events of her life were about to take a dramatic turn.
And, in the hours between Mary's return from London and the final night before James and Kenna's wedding, again the universe gave Mary no indication that something out of the ordinary was about to happen…
Mary returned to the castle from the visit to London, feeling like she was walking on air.
Both Francis and Mary had to remember their roles and their royal duties as they got out of the royal cars and posed for photographs for a few of the official royal photographers who had assembled on the castle driveway to cover the upcoming royal wedding before they headed inside through the front doors, but every now and again, the two of them shared a couple of knowing smiles whenever they caught each other's eye. It was like they were both sharing in a fond recollection of their recent kissing on the train as it passed through the Scottish countryside; they were like two young lovers with a romantic secret, rather than a prince and a princess doing their official duties, and Mary found this idea to be both romantic and thrilling.
Mary could barely even think about the future, about what her choice to wear only the key over her heart on her necklace was likely going to mean for the two of them; she could only think about the present moment, and how happy she felt.
Mary's happiness could not even be dampened by the fact that several guests had already arrived at the castle in advance of the wedding, and they were currently gathering for drinks outside in the royal gardens.
As was typical for the two of them, after a quick greeting with Mary's father in the entrance hall, who looked delighted to see them both, Francis was called away for a meeting, and Mary was taken to meet with her mother, so they could go over the events of the official visit to Edinburgh and London, and deal with any negative press that might have arisen as a result of the visit to the two cities.
Mary's mother was all business when Mary walked into her office, but this was only what Mary had long since come to expect of her.
Mary filled her in on her negotiations with the two Prime Ministers, and she suggested that they would have to do more to repair relations with the English Prime Minister. Surprisingly, her mother nodded along with her in agreement, and for the first time, Mary felt as though the queen of Scotland was taking her seriously.
The queen then showed Mary a selection of the online news coverage of the royal visit. Mary couldn't help rolling her eyes as she noticed that several online news sites had chosen to put their focus on criticising the Scottish royal family's 'excessive' use of private jets throughout the visit, questioning whether other methods of transport would perhaps have been more economical, but Mary's mother didn't seem overly perplexed by this. "There will always be something for them to criticise," she told Mary, her tone of voice calm. "What's important is that you have given them plenty to praise."
Mary couldn't help wondering if her mother was mellowing, now that her time as queen was coming to an end, but Mary tried not to dwell on this thought for too long, as it only made her feel a sharp pang of pain in her chest.
Mary's mother started to focus on the positives of the royal visit, telling Mary that she had made the Scottish royal family appear strong through her speeches, and she had brought them a lot of good PR by developing a good professional bond with the Scottish Prime Minister, and by praising England throughout her speech in London. "Perhaps there is hope for a reunion between the two countries after all," said the queen, her tone of voice full of optimism.
In spite of her mother's professional distance during the meeting, she seemed unable to hide her joy and her relief as they talked about the security budget that France had agreed to provide for Scotland. She did however warn Mary not to get too complacent about the security money, as it was likely that the king of France would not be thrilled by what Francis had offered to Scotland, and they might therefore meet with some resistance for a little while.
"It would be helpful if you and Francis could put in an appearance in the gardens for an hour or so," said Mary's mother as the meeting came to a close, "just to keep our guests happy. But after that, why don't you take the evening off, get some rest before the big day tomorrow? You must be tired after the trip…"
"Really?" Mary asked her, feeling surprised at this. It was rare for her mother to grant her any time off from royal duties, especially when the castle had official visitors, and a royal event was waiting just around the corner.
Her mother nodded in confirmation. "Mary," she added, looking almost amused now, "you did well on your official visit; consider an evening off as your reward."
For a moment, Mary felt a little surprised, a little taken aback by her mother's praise. For once, her mother really believed that she had done well. But then, an all-too-familiar feeling of guilt washed over her. Would her mother still be so full of praise, if she had known that Mary had snuck out to 'talk politics' with Conde last night? Would she still be so proud of her, if she had known that Mary had briefly considered taking Conde up on his proposal for her to leave the Scottish royal family and head to England to work alongside him?
But Mary said nothing as she headed out of the office. She could only hope that nobody would ever find out about that impromptu meeting. Maybe then Mary could start to erase it from her own memory.
Mary briefly returned to her room to change into smarter clothes, and then she met Francis outside in the gardens.
Francis smiled at her as she approached, but the two of them were distracted for a little while by the groups of guests who immediately seemed to surround them, offering their congratulations on James's upcoming wedding, and asking seemingly endless questions about the matchmaking show.
It took all of Mary's effort to smile and to be polite and to remind herself that she was supposed to be acting like she was thrilled about the wedding.
Kenna was holding court on the other side of the garden, surrounded by various noble families, as well as her parents and her official wedding planner, but James was nowhere to be found. Mary suspected that he was still intent on ignoring his sister after their recent argument, and would probably only emerge from the castle and head into the gardens after Mary had headed back inside.
Luckily, the camera crew from the matchmaking show wanted to get some footage of Mary and Francis walking around the gardens together amidst the guests, and so Mary finally had an excuse to be close to Francis again.
They didn't have the opportunity to say very much to one another, as no conversation would truly be private with so many people standing close to them, but Mary was content to simply walk next to Francis, their arms linked.
Francis seemed to sense that Mary was feeling a little stressed out, especially when a few of the guests started to smile at the two of them and place their hands over their hearts, like they were watching their favourite couple on a TV show share a romantic gesture, because he occasionally whispered words of reassurance to her, letting her know that everything would be all right.
He also tried to distract Mary from the guests by updating her in whispers about a recent conversation with his father. As Mary's mother had suspected, the king of France was not happy about the security budget agreement, but he had eventually agreed to start to pay it, if only to ensure that his wife and son continued to do his bidding for the foreseeable future.
Mary then went on to tell Francis about her meeting with her mother, and how the visit to Edinburgh and London had generally received positive coverage.
Francis seemed happy on Mary's behalf about this news, and the two of them shared another smile as they looked into each other's eyes.
For the first time, Mary allowed herself to believe that everything might be okay. No news articles about her meeting with Conde had emerged, the late afternoon sun seemed to be shining brightly in the sky, and something about walking around the royal gardens with Francis just felt so…right. She could picture herself doing this in the future; she could imagine the two of them attending events like this together; she could imagine a life for the two of them. Perhaps continuing her role as a royal would not be so bad after all, if it meant that she could have this with Francis…
Mary tried not to think too much about the fact that she could see Bash watching the two of them out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning against the outside wall of the stables, with what looked like a resigned look on his face. After a few minutes, he sighed and walked away, retreating from Mary's line of vision.
Although Mary would have liked to have spent more time with Francis, she was grateful to be able to retreat to the sanctuary of her room after her designated hour in the garden was over.
Francis walked her back towards her room, taking her as far as protocol would allow (it would not be right yet, for Francis to be seen standing outside Mary's bedroom door-it would probably start a few rumours).
Francis paused to place a gentle kiss to Mary's hand when they reached the corridor that led to her room. The gesture might not have seemed like much to the outside observer, but after everything that they had been through to get to this point, it was possibly one of the most romantic moments of Mary's life.
Francis would be driven to the local airport before breakfast in the morning, so that he could be there to greet his parents, who would be arriving in Scotland by private jet. The king and queen of France had been invited as royal guests to James and Kenna's wedding, as part of a diplomatic bid on the queen of Scotland's part to help achieve an alliance with France.
Mary therefore encouraged Francis to head back to his room, so that he could rest and get an early night in anticipation of an early start and a long day ahead, but still, Mary couldn't help watching his retreating back almost longingly as he walked away from her and back in the direction of his royal rooms in the Scottish castle.
Francis turned his head and smiled at Mary one more time before he headed around the corner of the corridor, and Mary couldn't help smiling back at him.
Mary might even have leaned against her bedroom door for a little while after she had stepped inside and closed it gently, holding her hand over her heart and giggling to herself like a schoolgirl with a crush.
Perhaps this was what true happiness felt like.
She should have known that it was not going to last.
After a few minutes of daydreaming about Francis, Mary changed back into casual clothes, before she made a call to ask for her evening meal to be brought to her room, and then she made plans to do very little at all; maybe she would catch up on a few episodes of the matchmaking show, or maybe she would read a book or complete a sketch…Anything to distract herself from the thought that in twenty-four hours' time, James and Kenna would be exchanging their vows, and in what could only be a matter of months, or weeks, her brother, who was still ignoring her, would be the king of Scotland.
Mary was more than a little surprised when a member of staff knocked on her bedroom door and informed her that Lady Kenna had requested to eat dinner with Mary this evening. She would have thought that Kenna would have more important things to do on the evening of her wedding.
Mary eventually agreed to the request however, as she was concerned that Kenna had found out some not-so-pleasant information about Sebastian, and perhaps she needed to share this information with Mary in private, and so she sent a message for Kenna to come and meet with her in her room.
When Kenna walked into her room however, Mary took one glance at the anxious expression on her face and her nervous body language as she started to pace up and down the room, and she realised that this 'meeting' probably had very little to do with Bash; Kenna was terrified about the wedding ceremony that was awaiting her the following day, and she wanted to spend some time with somebody who understood her fears.
Mary watched Kenna for a little while as she continued her frantic pacing. She looked pretty, even though she was only dressed in casual clothes-a long, light pink skirt and a white T-shirt, with a white flower pinned into her hair. Kenna did not need designer dresses and fancy jewels to look elegant, Mary realised, but now she also knew that Kenna wore those expensive things like armour, so that nobody could see the vulnerable girl hiding behind the jewels.
As Kenna walked around the room, she ran her fingers along Mary's old patchwork blanket, and then she moved her hand to run along the outside walls of Mary's doll's house. There was almost a look of longing on Kenna's face as she looked at the little doll family inside the house, and Mary felt a pang of sympathy.
Kenna's eyes then seemed to go to the window, as though she had caught sight of something outside that had distracted her.
Mary took a few steps closer to the window and saw that Bash was walking around outside, carrying bags of supplies as he walked towards the stables.
It seemed that Kenna had been right about Bash unbuttoning his shirt when the weather was warm, because several of the top buttons of his white shirt were currently open, and Kenna seemed to be watching him as though mesmerised.
For a moment, Mary was certain that she saw the outline of the top of a tattoo peeking out of the exposed part of Bash's chest. She tried to get a better look at it-Mary had always been fascinated by people with tattoos during her school years-but Bash was much too far away in the gardens for Mary to see clearly what it was. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, and he did not in fact have a tattoo at all.
Kenna seemed to mistake Mary's intense look for a look of judgement, because she sighed and said, "Mary, please; allow me one last look before I become a married woman…"
There was such a tone of longing in Kenna's voice; a sad sense of resignation in the face of the inevitable that Mary felt upset on her behalf. She almost felt guilty, for indulging in her kisses with Francis on the train and giggling after Francis had kissed her hand, especially when it was obvious that Kenna was going through so much anguish in the run up to her own wedding. And James was probably feeling exactly the same way.
Mary hoped that James and Kenna could maintain their friendship at least. Maybe they would be able to share a few light-hearted moments together in between the more serious times. Maybe they would enjoy going to parties together. Maybe James would take Kenna on holiday to Paris every now and again. Maybe James would allow Bash to continue to work at the castle after the wedding, so that Kenna would have something pretty to look at through the castle windows as she went through the motions of doing her royal duties…
This last thought only served to make Mary feel even more upset, and so she tried her best to think of other things as she looked out the window with Kenna for a little while longer.
She noticed that Bash was now talking to Lola, who had recently stepped outside the castle to take a walk in the gardens. The two of them seemed to be making polite conversation.
A few moments later, Narcisse also stepped outside. He stopped when he noticed Lola and he seemed to stare at her for a long while from a distance, like he was debating going over to talk to her, but he seemed to lose his nerve at the last moment.
With a sigh, he headed back inside the castle.
Lola looked over her shoulder the moment Narcisse left, a frown on her face as though she had sensed that somebody was watching her, but then she seemed to sigh and shake her head, and she returned to her conversation with Bash.
Kenna seemed to be watching the scene with a sad sort of look on her face. Mary suspected that Lola had been confiding in Kenna over the past couple of days about her argument with Narcisse, and Kenna probably knew more about the situation than Mary did.
Finally, Mary persuaded Kenna to tear her eyes away from the gardens and sit down, and then Mary made another call to the kitchens to ask for enough food for the two of them to be brought to the room.
Kenna seemed to be putting on a brave face as she and Mary shared food that probably contained a few too many calories for Mary's mother's liking, but Mary noticed that Kenna's hands shook a little as she picked up a slice of pizza.
Kenna updated Mary a little on what Bash had been up to since Mary had left the castle for the royal visit, but it seemed that he had not been up to much in particular, or nothing that would raise any suspicions, anyway.
Mary told Kenna about her visit to London and Edinburgh, and Kenna seemed interested to hear the details of Mary's time spent with Francis. She was equally interested to hear about the political aspects of the visit, something that surprised Mary all over again, and Kenna even offered to throw some sort of garden party at the castle for the English politicians after she was married to James, in the hope of smoothing over any bad relations.
After Kenna asked about how things were going with the French alliance, Mary told her about the security budget (a financial gift for Scotland that Kenna seemed equally happy to receive), but she also mentioned the king of France's reluctance to pay the money to Scotland. It was nice to have somebody to confide in; somebody who was not directly involved with the matchmaking show and could therefore be a little less biased.
"I fear that King Henry will be a constant obstacle in our lives," Mary confessed to Kenna with a sigh.
"I'm sure Francis won't allow that to happen," said Kenna, in what Mary guessed was an attempt at reassurance.
"Hopefully not," said Mary, wishing that she could believe Kenna's words. "I'm not sure I've ever met someone who I dislike more than King Henry," Mary added with an exasperated grin, trying for something close to humour to lighten the mood.
"The king is rather handsome though, isn't he?" Kenna asked with a grin of her own.
"Kenna!" said Mary, unable to hide her disgust at the idea that Kenna thought that King Henry was attractive. It seemed that Kenna had a rather bizarre taste in men.
The two of them looked at each other and burst out laughing.
As they laughed, Mary savoured the moment. She imagined that they were two ordinary girls; two friends who were eating junk food together and sharing amusing stories about embarrassing crushes. Mary had disliked Kenna when she first met her, always seeing her as someone who had somehow manipulated James into making her a queen, as well as someone who would one day throw Mary out of her own home…but lately, she was starting to see that she had been wrong about Kenna.
As the two of them shared tea and cake for dessert, Mary took some time to check through all the latest news and social media updates on her phone. Thankfully, no pictures of Mary's meeting with Conde had emerged, but Mary was shocked and a little hurt to discover that the photos of Francis and Olivia at the party together in France had for some reason been put back into circulation.
Kenna glanced over to see what was holding Mary's attention on the phone screen, and a look of sympathy crossed her face.
"Why did they decide to share those photos again?" Mary asked Kenna, unable to keep the apprehension out of her voice. She would have thought that the pictures of Francis and Olivia would have been old news by now.
"Mary, you have nothing to worry about," Kenna insisted, her calm tone of voice suggesting that she was trying her best to offer reassurance. "Francis loves you; anyone can see that…"
Mary nodded, wanting to believe Kenna's words, but still, the reappearance of the photos had unnerved her.
"I think I need some fresh air," Mary told Kenna as she put her phone down on the nearest table and stood up.
And so Mary and Kenna ended up standing on the balcony just outside Mary's room that overlooked the gardens.
A quick glance around the gardens showed that several members of staff and a team of wedding planners had now arrived. They were all working to prepare the outside of the castle for the wedding celebrations-various decorations were being put up, and tents and stalls and a stage were being set up in order to provide some of tomorrow's food, drink and entertainment in the run up to the wedding ceremony. Kenna's main wedding planner was also directing various other members of staff as they attempted to raise a Scottish and an English flag on one of the top tiers of the castle.
"Oh god," said Kenna, as she also took in the preparations that had begun in the garden, "it's really happening, isn't it?"
She brought both hands up to her face, like she wanted to cover her eyes, and her breathing seemed to be getting heavier. All composure was abandoned now in light of the very real future that was being laid out for her, beyond her control.
Mary recognised a moment of panic when she saw one. "Kenna, it's alright," she whispered, trying to keep her tone of voice calm as she gently patted Kenna's shoulder. "It's all going to be alright."
Mary wasn't sure if she was truly offering any real comfort, and she didn't like to promise that things would be alright when she really wasn't sure if they would be, but what else could she do? What else could she say? She could barely protect herself, let alone anybody else.
The marriage would have to go ahead-Mary could not see a way out of it; not now, when everything had been put into place. Scotland was counting on this marriage for an alliance with England, and for some sort of financial support from their estranged neighbour; if Kenna backed out of this wedding now, it would be a diplomatic disaster. Relations with England would likely never fully recover, and they could kiss goodbye to any sort of English support in the face of any possible disasters. An alliance with France was not yet guaranteed, and so, without the England-Scotland alliance, Scotland would be at great risk of being all alone in the world, with no allies. Kenna knew all that, too; Mary could see it written all over her face.
Like Mary, Kenna understood how it felt, to feel like there was no escape…
"James is a good person, truly he is," Mary continued, hoping that she was getting through to Kenna somehow as a couple of tears started to fall slowly down Kenna's cheeks. "He will always protect you and defend you. And tomorrow, I will be with you every step of the way…"
"Do you promise?" Kenna asked her, her voice still sounding shaky. It was as though they were both about to head into some sort of battle, and Kenna was depending on Mary to walk next to her in order to get through the fight.
"I promise," said Mary.
Mary had only really had two friends throughout her life-Greer and James-but right now, this bond that she seemed to have forged with Kenna felt very similar to those bonds of friendship.
"And can I trust that I will have your friendship and support when I am queen?" Kenna asked her.
Mary wasn't sure exactly what Kenna was asking her-was she simply asking for this friendship to continue, or was she asking for Mary to not put any obstacles in the way of James and Kenna's reign as king and queen of Scotland?
"Of course," said Mary, deciding to believe that Kenna was simply looking for assurance of her friendship.
Kenna managed a smile at that, but she still looked terrified, and her hands continued to shake.
"Remember when we were at school in London?" Mary asked Kenna as she attempted to lighten the mood. "And you used to tell everyone that you would be a queen one day? So many people didn't believe you, and look at you now; you showed us all. You're about to get everything you ever wanted…"
"A lesson to be very careful what you wish for…" said Kenna with a sigh.
Something about those words left Mary feeling even more uncomfortable, as though they were serving as some sort of warning to her, as well as to Kenna.
Mary fell into a fitful sleep that night.
She dreamed that she was back in the ballroom in France, spinning around and around, moving fast but going nowhere.
Every now and again, she was able to make out the faces of various people in her dream who surrounded her as she span around in circles.
Narcisse was there, dressed in black and white, with his face partially covered by a Venetian mask. He raised his glass in a toast when Mary caught his eye, as though the two of them had accomplished some mysterious task. Or perhaps he had accomplished it all on his own.
Then she span around again and saw Bash. "Your Grace," he greeted her with a smile, holding out his hand to her. He looked impatient, like he was eager to get out of this ballroom, or eager to get out of Mary's dream of the past. It was like he was inviting her to go somewhere else with him; somewhere far away.
Mary span a little further around and saw Louis Conde. He was dressed smartly in one of his work suits. In one hand he was holding a red rose. He held it out to her, tempting her. He opened up his other hand to reveal the tiny silver house charm, which appeared to be sitting on the palm of his hand.
Suddenly, Mary span in a full circle, and she could see Francis, standing in front of her, looking as handsome as ever. In Mary's dream, he was wearing a crown; he was already king. He smiled at her and said her name softly, the word full of love, but then suddenly, he vanished.
Even in her dream, Mary could feel a sense of panic setting in. She span around several more times, desperately trying to find Francis, to see where he had gone…but he did not reappear.
Mary felt more afraid than ever. Everything about the scene now felt wrong…
"Francis!" Mary tried to call out several times, even though the effort of it made her feel breathless.
Mary awoke with a gasp.
She sat up rapidly, struggling to catch her breath.
Her heart was beating fast. She hated revisiting that ballroom, that night, even though she only went there in her mind, in her worst nightmares.
"It was just a dream," she told herself in a whisper, trying to reassure herself.
She covered her eyes with her hands and took a few deep breaths as she tried to slow her breathing and calm herself down.
Eventually, she relaxed enough that she could settle back down to sleep. It was still very early in the morning, and Mary was hoping to get a few more hours of sleep before she had to face the day ahead.
But still something about the dream had unnerved her, and it took her at least another hour before she drifted off again.
This time, Mary was unable to manage much more than a light doze. In her state between sleep and wakefulness, she was sure that she heard the sound of footsteps, along with the constant sound of soft, deadly whispers that seemed to float around the room and through Mary's mind…
"The plan is in motion…"
"It will happen at sunset…"
Then, she heard a voice that sounded even more sinister: "You will burn…"
Mary awoke for the second time with yet another gasp. She sat up and looked around frantically, but her room was silent. Everything was as it had been the night before.
The room almost looked peaceful now, with the morning sunlight filtering in through a gap in the curtains.
Mary shook her head, deciding that she had simply had yet another nightmare. For the past couple of years, she had been prone to nightmares and flashbacks, and she was certain that the voices and the footsteps and the whispers that she'd thought she'd heard all over the castle over the past few weeks were all a part of hallucinations brought on by stress. The fact that she'd also just heard these voices and footsteps in her dreams only seemed to confirm the idea that they were all a figment of her imagination.
Trying to wake herself up a little more, Mary got up from her bed and walked over to the windows.
She took in the view of the gardens and realised that they looked busier than usual, with the banners and stalls and stands now fully set up for the pre-wedding celebrations.
A few of the wedding guests who had arrived at the castle early were already milling about in the gardens, network and making introductions as they posed for a few photographs taken by the castle's official photographers.
Suddenly, Mary's eyes fell on two people in particular.
Mary felt a horrible flash of anger as she saw that Francis and Lola were taking yet another stroll around the gardens together.
She shook her head slowly, glaring at them from a distance, even though they would not see her. What was it about all their strolls in the gardens? Did they really have to do that now, when there were wedding guests from noble families all over the castle grounds? This was not a private event, and people would talk if Francis and Lola appeared to be particularly close, even if that closeness was nothing more than a friendship. Surely Francis knew that? Did he want to be seen with Lola?
A message coming through on Mary's phone served as an annoying reminder that she was expected in the royal dining room in less than twenty minutes. It seemed that she was already running behind schedule. And so Mary was forced to tear her eyes away from the window and start to get ready for what was no doubt going to be a long, tedious day.
Mary went through the motions of getting ready, brushing her hair, applying a little makeup and putting on a rather formal black trousers-and-shirt combination that the stylists had picked out for her yesterday. Mary and her family would be eating in the large dining room in the company of several important wedding guests, and the idea was for Mary to look smart, but at the same time not stand out so much as to take the attention away from James and Kenna.
As she headed to the dining room, she desperately tried to reassure herself that Francis and Lola were just friends, and the two of them had taken plenty of strolls with other people in the gardens over the past couple of weeks, and Mary therefore should not worry herself about what she'd just witnessed.
When Mary arrived in the dining room, James and Kenna were nowhere to be found. Kenna's absence was understandable, as nobody was expecting to see the bride before the wedding ceremony, but Mary found it a little sad that James had not even bothered to show his face. Perhaps he would refuse to be in the same room as Mary from now on.
Mary made polite conversation with many of the guests, graciously accepting several congratulations on her brother's behalf, but really, all she wanted to do was finish her breakfast and get out of the crowded dining room as soon as possible.
As Mary tried to eat as much as she could of her breakfast, which was rather difficult, as her stomach seemed to have tied itself into a knot since she had spotted Francis and Lola together in the gardens, she glanced over at Narcisse, who was eating at a table in one of the far corners of the room, along with several other members of Mary's Publicity Team. Mary was rather shocked and surprised to see that he looked a little perplexed by something-he looked pale, and like he was barely aware of what was going on around him. He kept staring into the distance, as though his mind was somewhere else.
Before they could all leave the room, Mary's mother stood up to address the guests about the arrangements for the day.
Mary had heard all the plans for the wedding day over and over for the past several months, but still she tried her best to look serious and attentive as her mother spoke.
Mary's mother reminded everyone that the wedding ceremony would be taking place in the castle's private chapel later in the evening. James had already rejected the idea of a wedding on a grander scale in Edinburgh or London. Mary's mother had allowed the press to come to the conclusion that James simply wanted a private, intimate ceremony at home in the castle with the woman he loved, but Mary suspected that James simply could not bear to make the wedding any more public than it already had to be.
The queen then informed the guests that refreshments and entertainment would be provided throughout the day in the run up to the evening ceremony, both in the gardens and in several ground-floor rooms of the castle.
After the evening ceremony had taken place, the queen continued, celebrations would go on into the night, with a party scheduled to take place in the ballroom, and fireworks scheduled to go off at midnight outside in the grounds. Of course, photographers would be present all day to document the event, as Kenna and James had sold the rights to the official wedding photos to a well-known celebrity magazine, and so security measures had been put in place to ensure that no unofficial photos were leaked.
At last, Mary was allowed to leave the dining room.
She was due to meet with Narcisse and the rest of the team in the television room, where the stylists would be helping Mary to dress in her second outfit of the day-an outfit that would be both elegant and comfortable enough for Mary to walk around the royal gardens and mingle with the wedding guests.
Before Mary could head into the television room however, she took a quick detour and headed back to her own room, so that she could have one more quick glance out of her window at the gardens, to get an idea of which guests she would soon have to talk to out there.
The moment Mary walked back into her room, she had the strange sense that something wasn't right.
After a quick scan around the room, Mary's eyes landed on a large brown envelope that seemed to have appeared from out of nowhere on her desk.
Instantly, Mary felt her heart start to beat faster. That envelope hadn't been there before she left for breakfast, had it? Had somebody been in her room? She hadn't been expecting any official documents to be sent to her today; most official paperwork was sent directly to her mother or her brother anyway.
Mary was torn between a sudden instinct to call for the guards and a feeling of curiosity as to what the envelope contained.
After a few moment's hesitation, Mary took tentative steps towards the envelope on her desk. She was terrified about what she would find, but at the same time, she knew that if she called for the guards, the envelope and its contents would quickly be confiscated as a safety precaution, and then Mary might never know what the envelope contained.
Still Mary's hands were shaking as she slowly started to tear the envelope open, making sure to place a piece of fabric as a barrier between her skin and the envelope, just in case this mysterious letter had been laced with anything deadly.
When the envelope was finally open, Mary put her hand inside it to take out what appeared to be printed copies of a couple of A4 photographs.
The moment Mary looked at the photos, she let out a loud gasp.
The two photographs showed Mary and Conde, sitting opposite each other at the table at the pub in London.
The photos were clear, in sharp focus, leaving no doubt as to the identity of the people in them.
Mary almost dropped the photos in her shock. She felt as though she were holding a poisonous snake in her hands, and she had to get rid of it before it could bite her. But already, she felt as though the venom was coursing through her veins. How could she escape from this particular brand of poison?
Mary's heart started to beat at an alarming rate.
Who had sent these photos to her? And why now, on a day like today?
Was this some sort of blackmail attempt? Was somebody about to phone her or have a letter sent to her, to demand some sort of payment in exchange for silence? Would she have to enter into some sort of negotiation to stop these photos from being leaked to the press?
With her hands still shaking, Mary took her phone out of her pocket and started to run a search on the latest news and gossip about the Scottish royal family, saying a silent prayer that these photos had not yet been leaked, even though this might mean that some sort of blackmail attempt was about to take place.
Unfortunately, tt seemed that Mary's prayers had not been answered, because several gossip sites had already started to publish stories about the princess of Scotland's 'secret meeting' with a handsome politician in London.
The main points and questions of the articles seemed to dance in front of Mary's eyes, taunting her as she felt her heart sink…
Is the matchmaking show over?
What does this mean for the Scottish-French alliance?
Does Mary Stuart have a secret lover?
Is the matchmaking show a sham?
Mary was starting to feel dizzy, and like she might vomit. She knew that her state of anxiety was the only thing stopping her from bursting into tears.
"No, no, no…" she said to herself, over and over, like this would change anything.
All of this had been timed, calculated. From the sending of the photos to Mary's room, to remind her all over again that somebody was watching her and intentionally going out of their way to hurt her, to the leaking of the photos to the press, deliberately waiting until the day of James's and Kenna's wedding for all hell to break loose in the media, in order to discredit the matchmaking show and by extension the Scottish royal family.
She could not stand for Francis to see these photos-from the angle they had been taken, and the way that the journalists had span the story, Mary and Conde looked friendly, close, intimate; almost like they were on some sort of date.
This would not look good when viewed from Francis's eyes, especially as Mary had snuck out at night to meet Conde-it would look like she had intentionally kept the meeting a secret; it would look like she had headed to London for the sole purpose of meeting with Conde; it would look like she'd had something to hide.
Francis had told her that he'd understood from the start of the matchmaking show that she might have other suitors, but perhaps he would not be so understanding this time, not after their kiss on the train yesterday and the unspoken understanding the two of them seemed to have reached that they wanted to choose each other. It would look as though Mary had only kissed Francis as a result of her guilt about her actions with Conde…
You foolish girl! Catherine's voice seemed to reappear in her mind to taunt her all over again.
Why had she gone to meet with Conde? Why had she kept the meeting a secret? Why had she met him in such a public place? Why had she assumed that she would be safe from the ever watchful eyes of the press?
Mary's state of panic was momentarily interrupted when her phone began to ring. She jumped, shocked; it seemed that any sudden noise or movement was going to startle her in her current state.
She almost considered not answering her phone, but she saw from the number that the call was from the main office in the castle, and she decided that she'd better hear whatever the senior staff had to say to her.
She could barely even think straight as she pressed the button to answer the phone. She was more than a little surprised when the member of staff from the office informed her that a Louis Conde was on hold on the line, before asking Mary if he could be put through to her.
"Mary?" said Conde, the moment his call connected. "I promise you that I didn't leak those photos to the press…"
Mary felt like she was in a daze. She could barely process what was being said to her. So Conde had seen the photos, too. Mary was sure that half of the population of England must have seen them by now, along with most of the people of Scotland. She had really got the Scottish royal family into a mess.
Up until now, it had not occurred to her that Conde might have leaked the photos in an under-handed attempt to sabotage the matchmaking show, but when she thought about it, she wondered if this thought should perhaps have struck her right from the start.
But from the way Conde was speaking to her-his tone of voice sounding so nervous, so shocked that the photos had got near the tabloids in the first place, Mary was finding it difficult to be suspicious of his actions.
"The Prime Minister is not happy about the pictures of the meeting appearing on the gossip sites," Conde continued, his voice barely more than a whisper now. "He said specifically before I met with you that no details of that meeting were to get out until you officially accepted the job. The English Parliament sees it as something of a conflict of interest. I could be facing an enquiry at work…"
Mary could tell from the stress and the worry in his voice that it was unlikely that he had personally leaked the photos. Perhaps she didn't yet know Conde well enough to believe in his integrity as a person, but she believed in his attachment to his career. Conde loved his job, and it enabled him to live a lifestyle that he enjoyed. If the Prime Minister had asked for Conde's discretion when he met with Mary, then Conde would not have done anything to jeopardise the Prime Minister's trust; not intentionally, anyway; not if it could put his career at risk.
Mary tried her best to reassure him that she did not think that he was responsible, but she could barely focus, and she was relieved when he finally hung up the phone.
It was only as Mary pressed the red button on her own phone that she finally seemed to snap back to her senses.
What must he be thinking about all this?
She had to speak with him, explain herself; maybe he hadn't seen the photos yet; maybe she could try to explain things before he had the misfortune of seeing the pictures and the news articles for himself…
Hurriedly, Mary locked the incriminating photos in her desk drawer and ran out of her room.
Mary ran through the castle's corridors, no doubt breaking all royal protocol. Right now, she didn't care. She had to find Francis.
Mary headed in the direction of the part of the castle where she knew that Francis and his French team had been staying during the filming of the matchmaking show, only for her path to be blocked at the end of a corridor by two French security guards.
They explained to her in a mixture of English and French that Francis had already left over an hour ago to head to the local airfield to meet his parents when their private jet landed.
Mary felt rather foolish. Of course, he had already told her that this was his plan for the morning. She felt a sick sense of dread at the thought of Francis discussing the photos of Mary and Conde with his parents on their way back to the Scottish castle. If they chose to come back at all, that was.
"Is-is he coming back?" Mary couldn't help asking the guards, her voice trembling.
"Of course, Your Highness," one the guards responded. His tone was polite, but Mary noticed that he looked slightly confused by her question, and he seemed to exchange a look with the guard who was standing next to him.
Perhaps they secretly thought that the stress of James's wedding had really got to Mary. Perhaps they would not be too far from the truth.
And so Mary had no choice but to start to head towards the television room to get ready for the day ahead and wait for Francis to return.
As Mary headed in the direction of the television room, her heart still beating fast, and still feeling sick with nerves, her thoughts finally started to become more organised, angrier instead of panicked.
If she chose to believe that Conde had not leaked the photos, then who had?
She had been almost certain that she'd caught a glimpse of someone looking through the pub window that night; her instincts must have been right all along; she had not simply been seeing things. No doubt it had been a photographer, a member of the press. The photos seemed to have been taken from the angle of somebody looking through the main window.
But how and why had the photographer known to be there in the first place? Who had tipped them off? It could not simply be an unfortunate coincidence, could it?
The only other people who had known about Mary's decision to meet with Conde at the London pub (apart from the English Prime Minister, who had apparently wanted to keep the whole thing secret) were a couple of the Scottish guards, who always swore an oath of secrecy to the Scottish crown when they were officially employed, and would therefore probably not risk their reputation and their livelihood by selling pictures to the media.
But only the guards had been there…and…and…
Mary didn't even bother knocking before she stormed through the door to the television room.
Narcisse looked up from his phone to stare in Mary's direction. He looked completely worn out, and more than a little stressed. In this moment, Mary didn't care.
"Did you sell me out to the press?!" Mary demanded of him, fighting every urge to simply scream and throw things around the room. "Is this what you have lowered yourself to, to get your petty revenge on France? I hope the money was worth it, Narcisse, because if I find out this is true, you will never receive another penny from Scotland!"
"Leave us," Narcisse demanded of his staff, who all seemed to trip over themselves as they rushed to get out of the room.
Mary felt a rush of irritation that Narcisse could order people around with such authority; it was almost as though he outranked her, in this room.
Narcisse did not shout, or insistently profess his innocence, or deny all knowledge of what Mary was talking about.
Instead, he sighed and slowly sat down in a chair that had been placed right next to the room's chessboard.
"Well?" Mary demanded of him, trying to hold her nerve in light of his eerie calmness.
"Perhaps you will not trust in my own personal integrity," said Narcisse, speaking slowly, with almost a hint of resignation in his voice, "but you can at least trust my professional and financial motives…"
Slowly, Mary sat down opposite him, facing him from the other side of the chessboard. It felt oddly as though the two of them were competing in a game of chess of their own. Mary just wasn't sure how to outmanoeuvre him.
"What good would it have done me?" Narcisse asked her. "What benefit would it have brought me to sell those stories to the press? A one-off financial payment from the media would have been nowhere near as lucrative as a life-long role working for royalty. The doors that such a role can open alone would have been enough to buy my silence, not to mention the salary and the potential connections I could make…It would have served no purpose to me, to discredit you to the media; such an action would have ensured I was blacklisted from any future employment with royals or celebrities. No public figure would work with someone who could not be trusted with their secrets…"
Everything he was saying made sense; it had a logic to it, but still Mary had her suspicions. Narcisse had a much bigger plan; a plan that went far beyond working as a Publicist, and Mary was afraid that she had already become a pawn in his game. "I'm still not sure I believe you," Mary told him with a sigh.
"Maybe you will, when you see the far-reaching consequences that those leaked photos will no doubt have," he muttered, cryptically.
Mary frowned in confusion, but a look of pain crossed Narcisse's face, and Mary was almost afraid to ask him what those consequences might be.
At the look on Narcisse's face, Mary felt the all-too-familiar sense of foreboding that she had carried for the past two years; she felt like something terrible was about to happen.
"And," Narcisse added, "although I'm sure it's escaped your notice, you are not the only one who has been criticised in the media lately…"
As Mary asked him what he was talking about, Narcisse picked up his phone again and pulled up several articles, one after the other.
Mary frowned as she glanced at the articles on his screen. It seemed that her Publicist had faced some sort of attempt to discredit him on the part of the gossip sites over the past few days; one of his ex-girlfriends had sold a story, and several sites had run with it, portraying him as a man who had had numerous 'girlfriends' and affairs, and also as somebody who could not be trusted, in both his personal and his professional relationships. The gossip sites seemed to find it suspicious that he had left France so suddenly to go and work in Scotland, especially in light of the attack on the French castle at the time.
Mary felt a shiver run down her spine as she read all the negative gossip. Somebody was behind this; somebody was out to get the Scottish royal family, and everybody who happened to be connected to them. Stories like these did not appear in the tabloids by accident; somebody was watching their every move; somebody was feeding this information to the press. But who was it?
Mary knew that her mother would be furious about all this, too-publicists were supposed to stay in the background, to not let their own personal lives overtake their client's, and to not bring scandal to their role. But still, Mary couldn't help feeling sorry for Narcisse. He had not put himself out there as a celebrity or as a public figure, and he therefore did not deserve this level of scrutiny in the press.
"Is this the reason why you and Lola have been…arguing recently?" Mary asked him, as she held up the phone, which currently displayed an article that listed all of Narcisse's ex-girlfriends, some of whom were minor celebrities and young women from French noble families, along with the details of some of his messy breakups.
With another sigh, Narcisse nodded. "It seems that these stories have led Lola to doubt that I was taking our…relationship seriously. She fears she will just be another name on my long list of relationship disasters; somebody who I will brag about among friends at the local pubs. Her family is well-connected, but Lola's relatives have faced several scandals and financial losses over the past few years; she does not want to bring anymore scandal to her family's doorstep…"
Mary nodded in acknowledgement of what Narcisse was saying, but she was not really sure what else to say; she wished that she could offer some sort of helpful advice, especially as Narcisse looked genuinely disappointed by Lola's rejection.
"I have already tried to gain back control of the narrative, with regards to you and Conde," Narcisse went on to explain, turning the subject back to Mary's predicament, as though the matter of his potential guilt was now closed, and they were back to having one of their usual meetings. "I have put out an official statement that Conde is a long-time friend of yours, and a friend of your brother's, and that you were simply meeting socially with several of your friends during your free time in London. It was easy enough to spin the story a little and place you and Conde at other previous events that you have attended with your family over the years; enough to explain some kind of friendship between the two of you, or mutual friends, at least. Your friend Greer has even agreed to tell the press that you also met with her while you were in London, to make the story about meeting with several of your friends look more authentic. I have also implied that it is not the business of the press to intrude on your private life, or your friendships. It should keep the focus off the gossip for a little while, anyway, so you mother can focus on her son's wedding day…"
And so Mary was left with no choice but to thank him for his efforts as a few of the stylists headed back into the room. Narcisse was at least still doing his job as her Publicist, and helping her to manage this publicity crisis. She tried not to think too much about how her mother would have reacted when Narcisse first explained all of this to her; Mary was already dreading having to face her later in the day.
Narcisse briefly left the room so that the stylists could dress her in her next outfit.
When she was ready, Mary stood for a little while and looked at herself in the full-length mirror.
The stylists had dressed her in a long, flowing yellow skirt, coupled with a white shirt. Her makeup was minimal, making her look young and fresh-faced, and her hair was flowing in loose curls over her shoulders. They had even pinned a white flower into her hair; it looked similar to the flower that Kenna had worn yesterday evening, yet while Kenna was able to make this look seem both casual and stylish, Mary simply looked childlike.
She knew exactly what Narcisse and his team were doing-they were trying to make her look young, innocent; they wanted her to look like a teenager who only cared about appearing on a dating show, and not a woman who had taken the dating process into her own hands and entered into potentially conflicting political negotiations with another rival country. Who would believe that she even had the capacity to do anything like that, when she was strolling through the gardens in a flowing skirt and a flower in her hair, no doubt grinning serenely whenever she was asked about the matchmaking show?
This look was a far cry from her queen-like appearance when she had been giving her speech in London, Mary realised as Narcisse walked back into the room, and already, Mary was not very happy about it.
"You need to play up to this role today," Narcisse instructed her in a low voice as he paced up and down behind Mary, who was still looking in the mirror. "Look and act sweet and innocent, talk about how much you're looking forward to the wedding, how well you already get along with your soon to be sister-in-law, how much you're enjoying spending time with Francis. Smile, flip your hair over your shoulder, look interested in what people have to say, maybe even try to blush a little as you talk about your dates with Francis; do whatever you need to do…Mary," he added, his voice lower still, "it's very important that you come across as non-threatening today. Any talk of your negotiations in London could jeopardise your family's alliance with France. Get through the wedding, and we can handle…other matters from tomorrow."
Mary wanted to protest; she did not want to play the innocent teenager who was flirting with a handsome prince anymore. She wanted to be strong, credible in her own right; she wanted to face this crisis head on. But Narcisse was looking so worried, and Mary suspected he had a lot more at stake at the moment than just his employment, and for her part, Mary was determined to do anything to avoid jeopardising her bond with Francis.
Mary sighed as she headed out of the television room. She already felt defeated. And she was no closer to discovering the mystery behind the leaked photos. If she chose to believe that Narcisse had nothing to gain from tipping off the press about her location that night, then who had betrayed her? Mary still had no idea.
Things did not get better when Mary arrived at the gardens.
She stepped outside in time to see Francis agreeing to pose for a photograph with Lola. The two of them stood with their arms around each other, and Mary really felt like kicking something.
So Francis had returned from meeting his parents, but he had not rushed to find Mary. He had gone to talk to Lola instead. It seemed that Francis's parents had deemed the pre-wedding celebrations to be beneath them, as they had not joined the other guests in the gardens; either that, or they were no longer even bothering to pretend that they wanted to play nice with Scotland. This thought was even more unsettling than the other one.
Another unsettling thought suddenly appeared in Mary's mind-had Catherine and Henry been behind the leaked photos? Had Catherine sent someone to follow Mary in London? Had Henry had copies of the photos sent directly to Mary's room as a way of scaring her, in the same way that he had sent his list of demands? Mary would not put it past them. She just wasn't sure what they would have to gain, from such a public humiliation of Scotland.
A few more photographers took photos of Francis and Lola, reminding Mary of the problem at hand. It was not good for Mary, if Francis was being so open about his friendship with Lola in front of all of the photographers and guests. As much as she hated to think about it, Mary suspected that he must have already found out about her meeting with Conde, and now the French royal family were fighting back.
For her part, Lola did not look like she was enjoying the attention. Every now and then, she glanced over her shoulder, a sad expression on her face as she looked up at the window that marked the place where Narcisse sometimes liked to stand to look out at the royal gardens.
Lola might have been trying to do the right thing by her family, but it seemed her heart had other ideas.
Mary also noticed Greer and Aloysius, but they were not walking around the gardens together. They were standing at opposite ends of the garden with their backs to one another. Mary wasn't sure where the thought was coming from, but something about their body language made her think that they were deliberately avoiding each other.
Amidst all of this tension, it took all of Mary's strength to head out into the gardens and mingle with the guests. A part of her wanted to just run over to Francis and ask him if he had seen the photos, but Mary knew that she could not do that; not here, not now, when they were surrounded by guests in the build up to a big, official event.
Mary took slow, tentative steps in Francis's direction. A part of her wanted to turn and run and never have to face any of this, but she knew that she couldn't do that; not here, not now, when it felt like the eyes of the people of Scotland were upon her. She had to be brave and do her duty.
Mary was forced to stop and make polite conversation with several of the wedding guests along the way. It was extremely tedious, to have to smile and be polite and make the same comments over and over about how much she was enjoying taking part in the matchmaking show, especially as murmurs and whispers seemed to follow her with every step she took. Mary didn't know if people were whispering about the tabloid pictures of Mary and Conde, or the fact that Francis and Lola had been standing next to each other in the gardens for the past several minutes. Mary wasn't sure if she wanted to find out.
Francis seemed to register Mary's approach as she got closer to him, but his face did not appear to light up at her arrival the way it had done yesterday when the two of them had glanced at each other.
Instead, he bowed politely to her, while the photographers and the camera crew from the matchmaking show gathered around to capture the moment.
Lola seemed to take a few steps away from the scene, blending back into the crowd. Mary suspected that she was glad to get away.
A member of the film crew suggested that Mary and Francis take a stroll around the gardens together, amongst all the guests and the stalls and the decorations that had been put up for the wedding celebrations, so that the scene could be filmed and used as part of the show.
And so Mary and Francis walked side by side through the gardens, with a camera crew and several photographers in tow.
Things did not seem as happy or as light-hearted as they had been yesterday, and Mary knew that she could not blame the presence of the cameras this time for the unspoken tension between the two of them.
The expression on Francis's face was almost unreadable, and the two of them seemed to resort to making polite conversation about the weather and the upcoming ceremony. Mary felt like they were right back at square one, back when they had walked awkwardly through the gardens the morning after the matchmaking show had started.
Mary knew that her efforts to appear happy and content in Francis's presence for the sake of the cameras were no better. She still felt sick with fear over the recent photos, and she was sure the tension was written all over her face, and in her body language.
She also felt angry with Francis, for allowing the pictures with Olivia to resurface, and for allowing himself to be photographed with Lola, and she was annoyed at not being allowed any privacy on a day like today to discuss things with Francis, and it was difficult not to just glare right at the cameras as a result.
Mary wasn't sure if the constant approach of wedding guests was an irritation or a welcome interruption.
Greer waved encouragingly as Mary and Francis walked past her, but she seemed to be doing her best to put on a brave face, as she let out a sigh when she thought that Mary was no longer looking at her, and her eyes looked a little red, like she'd been crying. Mary felt angry all over again that she would not be allowed much time today to speak to her best friend and find out what was wrong.
Finally, the camera crew had all the footage they needed, and Mary was ushered back inside to speak to several of the guests who had gathered for refreshments. She almost felt relieved, to get away from the gardens, and to get away from that unreadable expression on Francis's face.
She managed to play the role of sweet, innocent teenager for all of fifteen minutes in the throne room before everything started to get too much. The room felt too hot, too crowded, and she had too much on her mind. She excused herself, telling the guests that she was going to take a quick break and insisting that she would be back soon.
Mary hurried up a flight of stairs and paused in a corridor on the first floor with its large windows that provided a decent view of the gardens.
Mary leaned her forehead against the windows, taking deep breaths. She felt overwhelmed, claustrophobic. She wished that everybody would leave the castle, and that this day could just be over. She couldn't even begin to imagine what James and Kenna would be feeling right now.
The sky had started to go grey, and Mary noticed that the majority of the wedding guests were heading back inside, now that there was a threat of rain.
She was glad that she had already escaped the confines of the throne room, as the majority of the guests would no doubt head into there, seeking warmth after spending time outside.
Mary was distracted by the sound of footsteps behind her.
She sensed who it was before he even moved to stand next to her by the window.
Mary turned her head a little to the side to see Francis standing next to her.
He looked handsome, even though his golden curls already looked a little dishevelled after what had been a morning of greeting his parents on the airfield and then spending time outside in the gardens. There were touches of gold in his outfit today, too-in his tie and on several rings he wore on his fingers; Mary guessed that the rings all bared various symbols of France and French royalty.
Francis seemed to be taking deep breaths, as though preparing some great speech. He looked stressed out, conflicted.
In spite of all of this, Mary could not shake off an image of Francis and Lola, together in the gardens. Already, her anger was threatening to overwhelm her, especially when it was mixed in with so much anxiety about her brother's upcoming wedding ceremony.
The feeling of jealousy was almost unbearable; it was clouding her judgement, preventing her from thinking rationally. It all made for a toxic combination.
"What are you doing?" Mary asked him, before he could say anything to her. "Do you really think it's appropriate, to be seen in so many photographs with Olivia and Lola, when we are in the middle of a matchmaking show?"
A long, tense silence seemed to follow Mary's question.
"Mary, I know," Francis said finally with a sigh. "About the meeting with Conde. It seems that it's all the gossip magazines can talk about at the moment, both in Scotland and in France…"
Mary practically felt her heart break at Francis's announcement. She'd had a feeling that he already knew, so why did it hurt so much, to have this truth confirmed to her?
As though her inner thoughts wanted to torment her, Mary couldn't help wondering how Francis had found out. Had Catherine and Henry thrust the pictures right under his nose when he'd met them at the airfield this morning? Had a mysterious envelope containing the photos been delivered directly to his room? Had he simply been searching through the Internet, looking for any photos of the Edinburgh and London trip, and he had stumbled upon the photos of Mary and Conde instead? Perhaps the French royals had already been tipped off that photos such as these were about to appear-yesterday evening, maybe, when Mary had still been in her false sense of security, happily believing that a future with Francis was easily within her grasp. Maybe that was why they had allowed the photos of Francis and Olivia to be circulated by the press again, as some sort of pre-emptive strike; maybe that was why Francis was being encouraged to be seen with Lola now.
Mary felt shaken, and a little unsteady on her feet, but she knew that she had to say something; she knew that she had to keep her head above water in this discussion. If she took all the blame here, or if she begged for forgiveness, then she would look like the only guilty party, and that would allow for the king and queen of France to have far too much control in upcoming proceedings. They would demand more, give less in return, use the incriminating pictures as blackmail, expect Scotland to concede to more demands laid down by France in order to keep the matchmaking show running smoothly. Mary had to protect her own country, more than she had to protect her heart.
"And so this is an act of revenge?" Mary asked him, struggling to keep her voice steady.
A look of anguish seemed to cross Francis's face for the briefest of moments, but he seemed to find his composure as he responded: "It's much more complicated than that, Mary."
"Those photos meant nothing!" said Mary, annoyed with herself for sounding like a petulant child. "There is nothing going on between Conde and I!"
"You're considering him, Mary!" Francis snapped at her, raising his voice in a way that he hardly ever did. "It would be so much easier for both of us, and for the matchmaking show, if you could at least admit it…"
Mary had never given Conde any serious consideration as her suitor, had she? Surely she would know this deep down, if it really were the case? Why was Francis trying to tell her how she thought and felt?
"Conde and I are friends. You have nothing to prove that there is any truth to the rumours that I am considering him in a romantic sense. Perhaps you are simply using false newspaper stories as an excuse to enjoy your flirtations with other women!" Mary snapped back at him, voicing an insecurity that she had held throughout the matchmaking show. She hated the idea of Francis preferring to spend time with women who were not her.
"I had already heard rumours that Conde was going to officially put himself forward as your suitor," said Francis. "The two of you have met before, in France, and if he was not a serious option for you, then there would not have been so much secrecy around your meeting; a secret meeting that has now backfired terribly on both of our countries!"
"You accuse me of dishonesty," said Mary, not even trying to keep her voice down, "and yet you have clearly not been honest with me about just how close you are to Lola!"
The two of them were fully arguing now, facing each other by the large castle window, neither of them troubling to keep their voices down. Mary could only hope that there were no wedding guests close by, as this argument would only bring more disgrace upon the royals, if it was overheard.
Mary could hardly believe that this was happening; she didn't know how they had got here, to this argument, when less than twenty-four hours ago, everything had been so perfect to between them. Who had done this to them? Was all of this really Mary's fault and Mary's fault alone? Who had been responsible for taking those photos and selling them to the media?
"I have to consider other options, too!" said Francis, his tone of voice sounding slightly desperate now. "You are considering Conde, in the same way that you were considering an engagement to Sebastian, and now that your secret meeting with Conde is out there for the world to speculate over, I have to have some kind of backup, Mary, in case the matchmaking show does not work out, or our families are unable to reach an agreement. Taking part in the matchmaking show was a huge risk in itself, for France, and if the process were to end with you accepting the hand of another, and France leaving with nothing, then it would be humiliating for my country!"
Francis talked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Mary suspected that Catherine had given him this speech over and over; she must have put all of this out there as a warning, and put all of these ideas into Francis's head, back when Francis had first agreed to appear on the matchmaking show. And Mary's behaviour with Conde and Bash had no doubt played into all of those insecurities.
But Mary had her own heart, and her own mind, and her own country to consider. She didn't think that she had done anything wrong by not bowing to France's every whim during the matchmaking process. Francis could just as easily reject her, regardless of what happened with Conde, and then where would that leave her at the end of the show? Or was that not important, because she was not an heir to a throne? Was everybody okay with her leaving with nothing, as long as the kings were all right? Why should she not have other options, too?
"My behaviour with Conde, and your fears about France, do not justify your behaviour with Lola, or with Olivia!" Mary responded, unable to back down now that she was so angry. "And you know it!"
"This is not about petty revenge, Mary," said Francis, sounding equally irritated. "I could become king of France at any moment, and there is a threat of instability if I become a young king who is trying to rule alone, with no queen by my side and no allies. I should not even be revealing this to you, but a strong alliance between England and Scotland could potentially be a threat to a vulnerable France, especially if we lose our alliance with Italy. If Conde has offered you such an alliance, and there is even a possibility that you are considering it, then I have to think about my own reign…"
Mary felt another sense of despair wash over her. Francis was speaking as a future king now, putting his country before everything else and keeping his heart locked away. It seemed as though the photos with Conde had injured his pride more than his heart, and Mary wasn't sure why this bothered her so much.
"I will give you every fair consideration in this matchmaking show," Mary told him, somehow unable to stop herself from talking as though she were in the middle of a business negotiation. "My Publicist will clear up any…confusion about the pictures with Conde. All I am asking from you in return is that you prevent any photos with Lola from appearing in the papers tomorrow morning, and that you put a stop to any gossip or speculation that you are considering her as one of your options…"
Mary could not stand the thought of photos and stories about Francis and Lola's 'friendship' appearing in the papers tomorrow, on the day after James's wedding. Things would be difficult enough, after James and Kenna were married, without Mary having to read rumours about Francis and Lola. Surely Francis could see that? Surely he would understand?
"I'm sorry, Mary," said Francis, as he turned away from her to look out the window, "I can't promise to do that…"
Mary let out what was almost a scream of frustration as she threw her hands up in the air. With that, she turned on her heel and stormed away from Francis.
She was sure that she heard Francis calling after her, but she ignored him. She was so angry, and hurt, and she had nothing more to say to him at the moment.
Mary's rapid walk soon turned into a run. She ran down a flight of stairs, and through a corridor, ignoring a few of the guests who gave her strange looks as she passed.
She pushed open the large double doors that led out into the gardens, which were now thankfully empty, and she ran past the now empty stalls and drinks stands.
Her mind barely knew where she was going, but her feet seemed to carry her along all the same.
Mary ran faster, hoping that if she ran fast enough, she could somehow outrun the images of Francis and Lola and Olivia that seemed to be dancing around in circles in her mind, tormenting her.
How would they spin the news stories, if Francis decided not to forgive Mary for her meeting with Conde?
Would they tell a fairy tale-like story of how Francis had travelled to Scotland for an arranged marriage with a princess, and had fallen for a 'commoner' instead? The public would love that-the tale of the underdog; the 'ordinary girl' who had won the heart of a prince.
Or would they tell another tale, of how the matchmaking show had only served to show Francis that he had truly been in love with his ex-girlfriend all along, and now he missed her and wanted her back?
Or would the press take the more pragmatic route, and focus on how Francis had simply switched one useful alliance for another?
None of these options were anywhere near tolerable; there was no comfort to be found in any of these possible stories; Mary could hardly stand the thought of any of it.
And the way Francis had just spoken about 'other options'; he'd seemed so cold, so business-like.
Mary thought about how Francis had kissed her under the tree, telling her that he would have chosen her, if the choice had been his and his alone; she thought about how the two of them had danced together in Paris; she thought about how Francis had kissed her on the train as it travelled through the Scottish countryside, the two of them seeming to share so many unspoken feelings in that kiss; she thought about all the times when Francis had held her hand, how he had held her and comforted her when she cried. It had all felt so real, as though something deep and meaningful had taken place between the two of them.
But had any of it been real? Had it truly meant anything? Had it all just been for the cameras, for the show? Was Mary just another option to Francis, too? A means to an end? A useful alliance?
Finally, Mary arrived at the place where her anger and her confusion had carried her.
She leaned against a tree at the end of the gardens, gasping for breath.
The garden wall was only a few feet ahead of her. She could just keep running, climb right over it, escape from this ridiculous wedding ceremony of her brother's, run away from her argument with Francis…
Mary turned to look over her shoulder at the sound of an all-to-familiar voice.
She was not standing too far away from the stables, and she saw Bash approach her from around the back of the small building.
"Mary, are you all right?" Bash asked her as he got closer.
Mary noticed that he was holding what looked like a bottle of vodka in his left hand, and she suspected that Bash had been sharing a few drinks with the other members of staff who worked in the gardens, all of them trying to pass the time as they waited for the evening celebrations to commence.
There were also several packed bags piled up by the stable door, and Mary wondered who they belonged to. Was Bash going somewhere?
Bash looked so concerned for her wellbeing that Mary almost felt guilty for interrupting his moment of merriment with his colleagues. She was sure that her bad mood would be enough to bring down anyone's mood.
With a sigh, Mary felt her body sink down so that she was sitting down on the grass. It was like her legs could no longer bear the weight of all the heavy thoughts in her head.
Slowly, Bash sat down next to her, his movements cautious. He watched her for a few moments, as though trying to read the expression on her face.
Wordlessly, Mary held out a hand, silently demanding a sip of the vodka. She needed something to soothe her nerves, to help take the edge off the day.
Looking like he was fighting off a grin, Bash handed the bottle over to her.
Mary took a long sip, and then another, while Bash watched her with a raised eyebrow.
"Mary, I'm here for you if you need to talk about anything," he said slowly, looking even more concerned now.
Mary stared back at him for a long while. She hadn't gone to the stables with the deliberate intention of confiding in Bash, but, as she opened her mouth to insist that everything was fine, she somehow ended up ranting to Bash instead; she told him everything about Francis, and Lola, and Olivia, and the pictures with Conde.
"But of course," she rambled, already starting to feel a little light-headed from the strong alcohol on an empty stomach, "I get all the blame for agreeing to…platonically meet with Conde in London, while Francis can stay in touch with his ex throughout this process and pose for official photos with women with…with no recourse…Perhaps I could get away with more, if I were an heir to a throne, in the same way that everyone has turned a blind eye to my older brother's indiscretions...Pretend you didn't hear that last part…"
Mary paused briefly to take another sip of the drink, certain that she probably sounded incoherent now.
"Am I being unreasonable?" she asked Bash, hoping for a second opinion. "Is this all my fault?"
"No," Bash answered, almost immediately. "Why shouldn't you have other options? Anyway, Francis would be a fool to let you go. He must know how lucky he would be to win your heart. Why would he throw away his opportunity for happiness? Surely he sees you and only you…
Mary shifted around a little to look right at Bash, trying to read between the lines of what he was saying…
He spoke with such conviction in his voice. Mary wished that Francis would talk to her like that, look at her like that; she wished that Francis would look and see only her; she wished that he would make her a priority over the crown; she wished that the two of them could put their happiness first.
Bash looked right back at her, his expression intense.
Francis was going to allow his pictures with Lola to appear in the magazines tomorrow. People were going to speculate over those pictures, and Mary would no doubt be left humiliated. People were also going to talk about the nature of her relationship with Conde, now that those pictures were in circulation, and it seemed unlikely that she would escape criticism.
Mary could barely think clearly, but still her jumbled-up thoughts seemed to be trying to come up with some sort of solution.
Mary looked into Sebastian's blue eyes.
If she was going to be disgraced in the media, Mary's mixed up thoughts decided, then she might as well give Francis and the royal family and the general public something to truly be angry about; she might as well have her revenge, before Francis got his…
Mary leaned forward a little, towards Bash.
Bash seemed to get the hint immediately, because he moved even closer to her.
And then Mary's lips were on his.
Kissing Bash felt almost like some kind of inevitable conclusion after their weeks of silent flirtation in the village before the matchmaking show got started; perhaps they both would have ended up here sooner, if Mary had had no other responsibilities.
The younger version of herself who still seemed to live somewhere in Mary's head, dreaming about riding around London on motorbikes with bad boys, was secretly sort of pleased by all of this.
Bash was not slow, or careful. He kissed with a passion, an urgency. It reminded Mary of running through the wilderness, or riding on horseback into an unpredictable future…
Kissing Bash was thrilling, but it was nothing like her kisses with Francis…Mary did not feel as though the world around her had faded away, leaving only two people; time did not seem to stand still; all of her most precious memories did not dance before her eyes…
For a few moments, this act of revenge was nothing more than the press of lips on lips, but it wasn't long before Bash made a move to deepen the kiss.
Suddenly, Mary felt all of her senses snap back to reality.
What was she doing? This was not like kissing Francis, she already knew that; it was nowhere near as perfect, as special, as emotional. If she continued to kiss Bash like this, if she let this happen, then it was unlikely that she would get to kiss Francis again, and some deep part of Mary's soul did not want to let go of Francis…
Quickly, she moved away from Bash, effectively ending the kiss.
Bash looked disappointed, but not surprised by Mary's actions.
"I'm sorry," Mary spluttered, sobering up in a matter of moments as the guilt started to consume her. "That was a mistake; I shouldn't have done that…"
She moved even further away, and then, to Mary's horror, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye.
As the sense of guilt was replaced by a feeling of dread, Mary turned her head slowly to her right to see Francis, standing only a few feet away from her, his face a mixture of surprise, shock and devastation.
Mary felt like she was frozen to the spot, unsure what she was supposed to do, or say. All she could feel was a feeling of utter horror.
Why him, of all people? Why did Francis have to stumble upon them, in this moment? How must it have looked, from his point of view? How would Mary have felt, if she had stumbled upon Francis kissing Lola, or Olivia?
For some reason, Mary became aware of the fact that Francis had changed into a casual grey jumper and faded jeans; he must have gone back to his room to change, Mary realised, putting all the sharp pieces together in her mind. He must have been going for a more casual look, so he could step out of his role as future king for a little while; so he could try to communicate as a normal person. He must have been trying to find Mary, so that they could talk. Maybe he had even wanted to apologise to her. And instead, he had found her kissing Bash at the end of the royal gardens, less than half an hour after Mary had insisted that she was not considering other men.
She had never seen that look on Francis's face before; it was as though the mask and the crown had fallen away, and now he was just an ordinary boy, watching in horror as Mary kissed somebody else; somebody who Mary had already suggested that she was prepared to marry, in order to stop Francis's father from taking over Scotland.
Through Francis's eyes, it must have seemed as though Mary and Bash had secretly been kissing all along; it must have looked as though they had been secret lovers from the start, unable to be together due to Mary's forced participation in the matchmaking show; all of Mary's words and promises and kisses with Francis must have looked like a lie, a performance for the cameras, a duty to her country…
What had she done?
Abruptly, Francis turned on his heel and started to walk away.
Within moments, he had vanished from Mary's view.
"Francis!" Mary heard herself call out, already on her feet.
She had to go after him; she had to explain; she could not let him go.
As she started to run after Francis, she was vaguely aware of the sound of Bash calling out to her, as though he was pleading with her not to go after him, to save herself from the drama, to let it all go and simply stay with him instead, but Mary barely heard him.
"I'm sorry!" she called out to Bash from over her shoulder, before she continued in her pursuit of Francis.
Mary ran back in the direction that she had come from, but Francis was nowhere to be found.
She was starting to panic now. The wedding ceremony was fast approaching, and Mary was already expected in the television room, where she was due to start getting ready, and still she could not find Francis.
Already, a few guards seemed to be searching for her in the gardens. Time was running out. If Mary could not get to Francis before the ceremony, if she could not explain things from her point of view, then they would have little time to talk for the rest of the night, and the consequences could be disastrous by the next morning.
Mary was forced to hide behind a few of the trees to escape the guards' view as she continued her search for Francis. She managed to run to the front of the castle, searching the front gardens and up and down the long driveway that led to the castle's main gates, but still she could not find him.
Mary ran back through to the gardens on the other side of the castle, trying desperately to retrace her steps. She was running out of energy.
Finally, she was forced to lean against a tree in the far corner of the gardens to catch her breath.
She was just contemplating going back inside and continuing her search for Francis in the castle, and maybe even begging the French guards to allow her to enter the French royal family's private quarters to see if Francis was there, when she heard the sound of footsteps from behind her.
Mary turned her head to see Francis walking towards her.
She remained frozen to the spot, still struggling to catch her breath, unsure what to do, what to say.
She felt her chest tighten as she took in the expression on Francis's face-he looked so lost, so tired, so conflicted. She was sure that his expression matched her inner turmoil.
"Francis," said Mary in barely more than a whisper. She had so much to say; she knew that she had to explain herself, before all hope was lost, but right now, she was lost for words.
Francis looked so beautiful, with his messy blond curls and his casual grey jumper, but Mary felt too ashamed, too afraid to think too much about his beauty right now. It was almost painful to think about it.
Francis opened his mouth as though to say something, but he seemed to be equally lost for words.
Finally, he took a rapid step towards her, and placed his hands gently on her cheeks, and then he was kissing her.
Mary kissed him back, losing her trail of thought for a few moments in favour of obeying her body's instincts.
Kissing Francis always felt so wonderful, so magical, but something about this kiss also felt disturbingly final; it was like Francis was taking what he could while he could…it was almost like a goodbye kiss.
Feeling frantic, desperate, Mary put her arms around Francis's neck, trying to bring him in closer, trying to hold on, trying not to let him go. She could not let him go.
But, all too soon, Francis ended the kiss. He took a step back, the look of anguish still written all over his face, but now, that look was mixed in with a look of determination.
With his hands held out as though silently asking Mary not to come any closer, he looked at her, as though he was trying to memorise her, trying to take in everything about her.
"Marry Sebastian, Mary," he told her after a long silence, his voice sounding pained. "He is the one you always run to, even though he has nothing to offer your family or your country in return. He is the one you seem care about, deep down, without conditions or promises. Men like Conde and I will only ever be an alliance to you, even if you don't see that yet. Sebastian could make you truly happy, and I only want you to be happy…"
Mary felt as though the gardens were spinning around. She felt dizzy, breathless. She felt like she was trapped in the ballroom in France, under attack with no prospect of escape.
What was Francis doing? What was he saying? This could not be happening.
"Francis, no…" she heard herself mutter, but Francis ignored her.
"I was naïve," he continued, "to think that an alliance between two rival families, bourne out of a television show, could ever really work. It was unfair of your family to force you into this process; you should not have to bear the weight of your country's burdens on your shoulders…"
"I want to bear the weight of my country's burdens!" Mary heard herself shout out. She almost placed her hand to her lips in shock at these words; for years, she had wanted to run away from her role as a royal, but now, as she spoke these words out loud, she knew deep in her heart that they were true. She loved Scotland, and she was determined to do anything to protect her beloved country. What good would it do, to flirt with handsome young men in the local village, if her country went to ruin? What would be the point of any of it, if she could do nothing to save Scotland?
For a moment, Francis seemed to stare intently at her, looking equally shocked by her words. But then he shook his head, like he didn't want to believe that they were true, and the resolute look reappeared on his face.
"Perhaps it's for the best that we stop all of this now," he said, "before we go even further and we both end up getting badly hurt…"
"Francis, don't do this…" Mary practically pleaded with him.
Something about him was so cold now, so distant; it was like he had already shut down; it was like he was already gone.
"France will continue to pay the security money," said Francis, as though these words were somehow supposed to offer any sort of comfort. "I'll do what I can to protect Scotland. I will not allow the press to discredit you. We'll release an official statement to say that we parted on good terms…"
"Francis…" Mary said simply as she shook her head. What else could she say? Francis did not seem to be listening. She felt her own body starting to shut down; her mind could barely comprehend that this was happening.
"I don't have the luxury of choosing happiness over a crown, Mary," Francis continued. Now, his voice almost sounded like it was breaking. "But you do. I will have to agree to a marriage alliance that will be in the best interest of France; I will have to protect France, in the way that your brother has to marry to protect Scotland. But you don't have to do that. Please, Mary, be happy; choose with your heart…"
Francis looked at though he had so much more to say, but it seemed that words had now failed him.
With one last look at Mary, Francis turned around and started to walk away, heading back in the direction of the castle.
Mary took a step forward, as though to chase after him, but then her mind seemed to tell her that there would be no point. Something about the look on Francis's face, something about the way he had kissed her, told Mary that he had already made his decision.
Mary could barely think straight; she could barely breathe. The world around her seemed cold, dark, empty.
Vaguely, she was aware of the fact that she had to head back to the castle to start getting ready. She attempted to put one leg in front of the other, to start moving, but her legs felt like lead. Her whole body felt heavy. A weight seemed to have settled onto her chest, making it difficult to breathe.
Barely even aware of her surroundings now, Mary felt her whole body sink down to the ground.
She remained seated on the grass, under the tree, no longer caring that her skirt was probably going to be ruined by all the mud; no longer caring about anything.
She stared out into the gardens, lost in thought…
How had she managed to unravel things so quickly? How had she messed things up so badly, in the space of just a day? Yesterday, Mary had been so sure, so certain. Francis had seemed to look back at her with an equal certainty in his eyes. Mary had chosen to only wear the key over her heart, a key that she had associated with Francis for quite a while now, making a symbolic gesture of her loyalty. She had kissed Francis on the train, never wanting to kiss anybody else again, only Francis. The two of them had held hands and shared secret smiles, and Mary had wanted to make things work between them; she had even been prepared, for the first time ever, to take on the role that would have been expected of her in France, if it meant getting to be with Francis.
And now it was all over.
Mary wasn't sure how long she sat there defeated on the ground. Perhaps it was minutes, or maybe even hours.
Without warning, it started to rain, the droplets falling heavily on Mary's head and shoulders. A part of Mary knew that she should take shelter, get out of the cold; her mother would be furious, if Mary allowed her hair to get wet so close to the wedding ceremony, but a greater part of Mary no longer cared. She continued to stare at nothing in particular, unmoved. She wasn't sure if she would ever get up again.
In the midst of the downpour, she was vaguely aware of the outline of somebody walking towards her.
She blinked a few times and saw a hand reaching out to help her up, and Mary had no choice but to take it.
She was helped to her feet and found herself standing almost face to face with Sebastian. His was perhaps not the hand that she wanted to be holding right now, but given her circumstances, she would have to take all the help that she could get.
"Are you all right?" Bash asked her as he looked her up and down, a look of real concern crossing his face. He must have known that something had gone terribly wrong, for a girl to be sitting outside on the ground in the pouring rain, less than two hours away from her brother's wedding, at which she was going to be bridesmaid.
A long silence passed between them as Bash waited for her answer.
"I'm leaving the castle tomorrow," Mary heard her voice announce, even though she had been unaware that she was going to say it, or that such a thing was even going to happen. Yet, as she said it out loud, she felt a strange sort of certainty; it was as though she had already made the decision during the time that she had been sitting on the cold ground, before Bash had arrived to help her up. Already, Mary knew that this escape attempt would be shrouded in secrecy, and she felt like she just had to tell someone; someone who had plenty of secrets of his own.
If Francis was going to arrange another marriage on Scottish soil, if the French royal family was going to formally put in a request to withdraw from the matchmaking process, if Mary's brother was going to continue to ignore her, then Mary could not stand to be around to watch it all unfold.
Bash frowned at her. "Mary, wha-"
"It's over. It's all over; the matchmaking show…F-Francis…" her voice really was trembling now, but still she could not back out of her decision. "My mother does not have long left to live. James will soon be king. There is nothing here for me anymore…"
Bash did not look thrilled by this news, in the way that Mary had assumed he might have been thrilled when the show had first got started. Instead he looked genuinely sorry for her. "Where will you go?" he asked.
At first, Mary started to shrug, but she knew that she could not be so indecisive about her course of action; not anymore; not now that she had so few other options left; not now that she was on her own. "To England, at first; I have to get out of Scotland for a little while. I…I w-will go to London, somewhere close to G-Greer…"
Mary wasn't sure if her voice was shaking out of cold or fear now.
"B-Bash," she continued, as he held both of her hands in his, like he was trying to share his warmth with her, "nobody can k-know about this, especially not my family; t-they would n-never let me go…."
Even as Mary said this, she was not so sure. Perhaps they would be glad to be rid of her. But still, Mary was running away, and they both knew it, and so her actions would have to remain a secret.
"Mary, I'm so sorry," Bash told her with a sigh. He sounded like he meant it, too. "This is all my fault. I should never have kis-"
"Bash, no," Mary insisted, her voice sounding a little stronger now. "You shouldn't blame yourself. This is the fault of my own actions, and mine and Francis's failure to communicate and be honest with one another, and now I have to live with the consequences…"
Bash looked like he had something to say about that, but he seemed to hold back at the last moment. "I'll go with you," he said instead, his voice sounding just as determined.
"Bash, I can't ask you to do that," said Mary. She had already let so many people down, and she could not ask Bash to give up his employment and his income for her sake.
"Mary, I was already planning on leaving anyway," he confessed.
Mary remembered how there had been several packed bags placed close to the stables earlier, and she realised that they had belonged to Bash. She had sensed for the past few days that he would not be staying much longer at the Scottish castle. But who, or what, was he running away from?
"There is nothing left here for me anymore, either," Bash continued. "I cannot go into detail, but believe me when I tell you that I must get away from Scotland for a little while, too. I will run anyway, but it would be easier to have somebody by my side along the way. I was planning on leaving this evening, but I can wait until tomorrow morning, if you want me to wait for you…I'm not asking for anything in return," he continued, as he took in the hesitant look on Mary's face. "I know that after…after everything that's happened…you are not thinking about any of that now; all I can hope for is that at some point, when you are far away from all of this, you might come to me with an open heart…"
Mary stood in silence for a long while, considering what Bash was offering her; what he was asking from her in return, one day. Finally, she nodded, accepting Bash's offer. What other choice did she have, apart from heading to London on her own?
"We'll leave during the early hours of the morning, before we are missed," said Mary, formulating a plan in her head, even as it broke her heart to say it out loud. "I will ensure that I am seen at the wedding celebrations tonight, and then I will meet you at three am, in the village, so that nobody can see us leaving the castle together. If I do not meet you within half an hour of the arranged meeting time, you should go on without me…I will have to find my own way to London…"
Mary's voice almost caught as she said the last part of that sentence. Was she really doing this? Was this really happening? Yesterday, she had kissed Francis on the train, and it had felt like it was just the two of them against the world, and now…and now…
"I'll be there," said Bash, his tone of voice soft, reassuring as he continued to hold Mary's hands in his. He could probably see the pain and anguish written all over her face.
Mary nodded. "But for now, I must get through the grand finale of the Scottish royal family's big show before I can leave…"
Bash nodded, but then his eyes seemed to settle on something above Mary's head.
Mary turned and glanced over her shoulder, looking in the direction of the castle, where she spotted Kenna, who was looking out on the gardens from a couple of floors above, already wearing her white wedding veil.
Kenna must have excused herself from the rooms where her team of staff was helping her to get ready, Mary realised. Perhaps she had been overcome with nerves, or it had got too much, having everyone surrounding her and acting like this was the happiest day of her life, and she had got out for a few minutes to try to get some air.
And she had walked out of the confines of her dressing room only to look down on the gardens in time to see Mary and Bash standing close to one another, their hands still joined.
So many unspoken words seemed to pass between the three of them as they all looked at one another.
Mary wasn't sure how, but somehow, she could tell from the expression on Kenna's face that she had worked out exactly what Mary and Bash were planning to do. Perhaps she had been hearing gossip throughout the day that things were not good between Mary and Francis; maybe she had even heard about Mary and Bash's kiss, and now this 'meeting' with Bash had confirmed what Kenna already suspected.
Kenna's face was a conflict of emotions for a few moments, and each emotion seemed to be warring against the other.
For a moment, Mary caught a glimpse of the old Kenna, the spoiled teenage girl who was planning on telling the guards exactly what Mary and Bash were planning on doing out of jealousy and revenge.
But then, a look of sadness crossed Kenna's face, and this look was quickly replaced by a look of resignation.
She caught Mary's eye and gave her the subtlest of nods.
Mary nodded back at her as a silent understanding passed between the two of them.
Kenna was going to let them do this; she was not going to send the guards after them; she was not going to order Mary back to Scotland as soon as she became queen. She was giving them a clear path so that they could run away. She was going to let go of Bash.
Mary saw Kenna put her hand to her mouth, as though she was trying to stifle a sob. She shared another quick look with Mary, and one last longing look at Bash, before she turned on her heel and walked back in the direction that she had come from.
"Kenna will look beautiful at the altar tonight…" Bash muttered, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
Mary had the strange feeling that she was not the only one who had lost something today.
Mary felt the unbearable wave of guilt wash over her again. If she left for London tomorrow morning, she would not be able to keep her promise that she had made to Kenna yesterday; she could not stay by her side and support her as she attempted to navigate her arranged marriage to James while ruling a country. Mary would also be taking Bash away from the castle; away from Kenna. Kenna would no longer even have the possibility of sneaking glances at Bash from the castle windows. It seemed that the only thing Mary was good at was breaking her promises and letting people down.
Mary shook her head, determined not to get dragged down again by her despair. Not yet. There would be plenty of time for tears, on the road to London.
The sound of the bagpipes started to ring out from all around the castle, reminding Mary that the proceedings for the wedding ceremony were already underway; James and Kenna would be married in a matter of hours...
"I have to go and get ready for the ceremony," Mary told Bash, her voice still sounding a little shaky. "Everybody will be wondering where I am; my mother will probably be angry…"
"Do what you have to do," said Bash, his voice gentle. "And, when it's all over, I'll be waiting for you, in the village, where we first met…"
Mary let go of his hands and started to walk away from him, back in the direction of the castle. Again, her legs felt heavy. She wasn't even sure how she was going to find the strength to get back to the television room, let alone get through the wedding ceremony.
The bagpipes continued to play. Mary was sure that the were playing a traditional Scottish song of celebration. Yet, as she walked back through the castle doors, Mary couldn't help feeling as though she were about to attend a funeral.
The hair and makeup team were beside themselves by the time Mary finally dragged herself over the threshold of the television room.
They ran towards her, their faces a mixture of shock, anger, worry and disappointment, all of them talking over one another, demanding to know where Mary had been, and talking about how worried they had been, and talking about how the guards had been trying to find her, and crying out in horror about her wet hair, and despairing about how little time they had left to help Mary to get ready.
And yet Mary barely heard a word they said. All of their voices sounded muffled, and she allowed herself to be led towards a chair, where the team could begin to attempt to fix her hair and apply her makeup for the evening celebrations.
The only face that could just about make out among a mass of hair and makeup artists was the face of her Publicist. He had been looking out of the room's window when Mary had first walked into the room, but he'd turned to face her the moment the team of staff acknowledged her arrival.
He frowned and then raised an eyebrow at her, asking her a silent question as a look of what could pass as genuine concern crossed his face.
He had not spoken any words, but he hadn't had to; Mary knew what he was asking.
With a sigh, she shook her head.
Mary's head felt heavy. Something about this small gesture of acknowledgment had made all of it seem so real; so final. It was as though her fate had been sealed.
"I'm sorry…" Narcisse mouthed to her. He actually looked like he meant it.
The hairdressers styled Mary's hair into perfect curls, congratulating themselves on having 'rescued' her hair from the mess that she had allowed it to get into outside in the rain, but Mary found that she didn't care.
The makeup artists applied Mary's eye makeup perfectly, before they selected a bright shade of red lipstick that perfectly matched the shade of red of her dress, but all Mary could feel was sadness. Francis's lips had been on hers not so long ago, and now Mary felt as though the kiss was somehow being erased as each layer of lipstick was applied.
Mary's limbs felt heavy as the stylists helped her to change into her bridesmaid's dress. She had to admit that the dress looked beautiful, especially as her newly styled hair and her makeup complemented it so perfectly, but Mary was still struggling to muster any sort of enthusiasm. Already, she wasn't sure how she was going to get through the next few hours. It would take all of her energy, to simply put on a brave face.
Finally, Mary was allowed a few moments to herself. She felt herself sinking down onto the nearest couch, just opposite the chessboard.
Slowly, Narcisse walked over to her and pulled up a chair to sit down opposite her.
"I will go with you," he announced, his voice soft, low, like he was trying to keep the conversation as private as possible.
These strange words startled Mary out of her thoughts.
"What do you mean?" she asked him.
"Wherever you and that boy from the stables are planning to go…I will go with you, offer you as much assistance as I can in your escape…"
Mary looked back at him with wide eyes, unable to hide her surprise. How had Narcisse worked out what she was planning to do? Had he been watching her and Bash through the window and put two and two together? Or had he always known that this was how things would end up? Was this an inevitable conclusion that Mary had failed to see, even though Narcisse had?
Mary debated denying all knowledge of what Narcisse was suggesting, but she decided against it. If the past few weeks had taught her anything, it was that Narcisse was not to be under-estimated. "Narcisse," she said instead, "I can't ask you do to that. You would be giving up too much-I can't guarantee that I will have anything to offer you, once I have left Scotland and the protection of the royal family. Your career prospects would be so much better here, in the castle-I have no doubt that Kenna would wish to employ you as her Publicist, as soon as she is queen-"
"Do you really think I could stand to be here?" Narcisse asked her with a frown. "Do you really think I could sit back and watch while Lola agreed to-"
He didn't finish his sentence, but he didn't have to. Mary already knew what he was trying to say; she already understood the reason why he did not want to stay here.
Narcisse could not stand to watch Lola agree to a marriage with Francis. He would rather risk a life on the road, a life on the run, a new, uncertain life in another place than stay here with money and security, if there was any possibility that he would have to witness Lola marry another man here.
Narcisse had known that this was a very real threat, a very real possibility-Mary realised that now. It was the reason why Narcisse had put so much effort into trying to save Mary from criticism about meeting Conde; he had been terrified that any rift between Mary and Francis could potentially push Lola into Francis's arms.
Something about this motivation of Narcisse's reassured Mary, in a strange way; this was a part of him that she could believe; some part of him that she could trust.
"I'm leaving regardless of whether or not you agree to let me go with you," said Narcisse, using the tone of voice that had always made Mary feel like he was the one who was truly in charge of proceedings. "It's your choice as to whether you want me to accompany you, or whether I do this alone. I can however be a very useful ally to those who are not necessarily travelling by honest means…" he added with a shrug that almost looked casual.
Finally, Mary nodded in agreement. It would be wiser, to have Narcisse as a friend in London, rather than a rival. He would also no doubt know a lot of useful contacts who would be of use to Mary and Bash on the road. "I'm meeting Bash in the village at three in the morning," she told him in barely more than a whisper. "Nobody is to find out about our plans."
Narcisse nodded, looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. "I'll be there. Let's just get through this joke of a wedding tonight, and then the show will finally be over."
Somehow, Mary knew that she could trust him with all this; he wanted to get away just as much as she did; he was a man who did not want anyone to follow him; he would probably know ways to travel to London without being too visible along the way.
And when the three of them crossed the border into England, it would be much more difficult for Scotland to put out an order to recall Mary back to the castle. Especially if Mary had the protection of the English Prime Minister and his inner circle of politicians…
Narcisse went to stand up.
"Narcisse?" Mary asked him, before he could walk away.
Narcisse paused, looking at her with a confused frown.
"Can you have a message sent to Louis Conde on my behalf?" Mary asked him as she reached yet another painful decision. "Tell him that I will meet with him in London next week to discuss…to discuss his proposal…"
A look of what could only be described as pity crossed Narcisse's face for a moment, before the cold mask of indifference returned. "Consider it done," he said with a polite nod, as though the two of them had simply agreed to a business deal. Perhaps that was all it was. With that, Narcisse walked away. It seemed that in the private battle that had been going on between Francis and Narcisse, Francis had finally won; Narcisse had conceded defeat. Maybe Francis cared more about that than he did the matchmaking show.
The declaration of Mary's intentions about her future in London felt like the final nail in the coffin. Her life here was over. It was all over.
Mary shook her head in disbelief. This was what she had always wanted, wasn't it? This was the life that she had dreamed of, before the matchmaking show got started and she'd been dreading taking part. Finally, she had found her escape from the show, the cameras, the confines of life in the Scottish castle, the restrictions that went with being a member of the royal family.
Now, she had the opportunity to go an adventure with Bash; she had always thought that he was handsome, and now there was a very real possibility that the two of them might end up together. And, as an added bonus, she had the chance to forge a new life for herself in London, one of her favourite cities. She could accept her dream job, live close to Greer, work alongside a man who would have been just the type of man she would have picked out for herself, before the show got started. She might even end up with him instead, and then they could live together in the house that looked just like Mary's doll's house, and they could go on holidays together to Paris.
She was free.
She had won, hadn't she?
So why did this victory feel so hollow? Why did she feel so empty?
Be very careful what you wish for...Kenna had told her. Now, those words were coming back to haunt her.
When Mary was finally dressed for the ceremony, she stood in front of the full-length mirror, taking in her reflection. She looked at her bright red bridesmaid's dress with its lace sleeves, and the several expensive pieces of golden jewellery that were hanging from her neck and her ears, and her hair that had been styled to perfection in elegant curls, and her makeup that perfectly complemented her dress. Narcisse had even asked for a golden hairpiece to be pinned into her hair, to accentuate her look. Perhaps, for a few hours, Mary could pretend that the golden hair piece was a crown.
Mary blinked in surprise a few times when she suddenly spotted her mother's reflection in the mirror. She had not heard the queen enter the room. She tensed, expecting her mother to start shouting at her about the pictures with Conde, or her argument with Francis, or the fact that Mary had arrived late to the television room to start getting ready, but she did not mention any of it.
Her mother seemed to inspect Mary's outfit carefully for a few moments, and Mary fully expected some sort of criticism, or a call for some sort of adjustment, but her mother said nothing of the sort.
"You look beautiful," her mother told her, her expression sincere.
Mary was so taken aback that she was temporarily lost for words.
Mary turned her head to the side a little, so that she could look directly at her mother. She could no longer stand to look at reflections in mirrors.
Her mother was dressed in a long, flowing royal blue dress, complete with expensive jewellery and diamond hair pins. She looked every inch the queen. For the first time, Mary was struck by how similar they looked.
A strange sort of silence seemed to pass between them.
"Mother, I'm sorry." The words had left Mary's lips before she could stop them.
Her mother frowned, looking surprised by this statement. "What are you sorry for?" she asked her daughter.
"For not being the daughter or the princess that you always wished I could be," said Mary, trying to fight off a tear. This apology was a difficult one to make, as Mary had always been so stubborn, so determined that she was always in the right while everybody else was wrong, but if felt imperative now, for Mary to get this apology out into the open, before it was too late.
"Nonsense," her mother told her with a dismissive wave of her hand, her reaction taking Mary by surprise. "Do you really think that I was always the perfect queen in waiting? Do you really think that I never made mistakes? I spent my teenage years sneaking into parties that I wasn't supposed to be at," her mother added, when Mary continued to look at her with a frown on her face. "I practically tore down the walls of the castle when my mother tried to arrange my marriage to your father," she added, with an almost fond look on her face now. "Your only 'fault' is that you are too similar to your mother, while my faults run a lot deeper…"
Mary watched her for what felt like a long time, not really knowing how to process these words. Finally, something clicked into place…
"D-did you know?" Mary asked her, a strange sort of clarity starting to form, a nagging suspicion that Mary could not let go of. "A-about the night in the castle in France?" Mary flinched as she mentioned that night. These words were practically a confession, but now that she had started to wonder, she couldn't not know. "Did you know that I was there?"
"I suspected," her mother confirmed, looking right into Mary's eyes, a pained look on her face. "Something about your behaviour afterwards, and your brother's, told me what I needed to know. But I was too cowardly to broach the subject with you, and for that, I can only ask you to forgive me. A part of me hoped that you might come to me to talk about it, but when that didn't happen, I tried in my own way to help you to heal; but, it seems my methods have been nothing but a hindrance to you…"
Mary wanted to say something in reply, but before they could discuss the matter any further, Mary's mother was called away by her own team of staff. It seemed that her presence in the chapel was now required.
"I'm proud of you, Mary," her mother told her as she started to walk away. "When you stood up to give your speeches in Edinburgh and London, you truly looked like a queen. You've always known your own mind. I'm going to say what I should have said so much sooner…I will support you, whatever you decide; whoever you choose to be; wherever you might choose to go…" she added, with a pointed glance.
It was a look that told Mary that she knew more than she was letting on.
Her mother knew, or at least suspected, that Mary was going to run tonight, in the same way that she had known deep down that Mary had snuck into the French castle that night. She was not going to stop Mary from leaving, if that was what Mary wanted. What a time for Mary's mother to start to allow her to make her own decisions!
With that, the queen was gone.
After her mother had left, Mary stared back at her reflection, blinking away tears. Perhaps it was for the best that she was leaving. Since that night in the French castle, she seemed to have brought nothing but bad luck to her family's doorstep; it almost felt like everything she touched turned to poison. Perhaps working with Conde would be the only good thing she was capable of doing in order to help her family.
In the minutes before she was due to be escorted downstairs, Mary felt herself sinking down into a chair near the chessboard and the television screen. An episode of the matchmaking show was playing on the television, the show's producers apparently unaware that the whole process would be over soon.
A few feet away from her, a few members of the Publicity team were playing a game of chess, passing the time before Mary had to head downstairs to the chapel for the ceremony, all of them oblivious to the fact that Mary's whole world had shifted in less than twenty-four hours.
Almost without thinking about it, Mary found her phone in the pocket of her now discarded skirt. She carried out an Internet search and pulled up a series of photos of her and Francis that had been taken throughout the matchmaking show.
There was the photograph of the two of them in the gardens, on the first official day of the matchmaking show, when Mary had tripped over as they filmed together and Francis had reached out to catch her before she could fall.
There was a photograph of the two of them smiling at one another as they stood on the steps outside the castle, waiting to greet Lady Kenna.
There was a photograph of the two of them standing with their arms around one another at the front of the castle drawing room, with Aloysius beaming at them.
There were photographs of the two of them in Paris, walking around the Louvre and standing on the viewing deck of the Eiffel Tower.
And of course, there were more recent photographs of the two of them in Edinburgh and in London, giving speeches and walking up Arthur's seat and standing outside 10 Downing Street.
Mary had saved her own personal photographs, too-the selfies she had taken with Francis by the Arc de Triomphe and at Buckingham Palace, the two of smiling at the camera, looking happy, relaxed.
The photos all seemed to tell the story of a couple who had slowly started to fall in love; a future king and queen who had been preparing for a life together as royals.
Mary could no longer stand to look at the photos. Every photo seemed to taunt her, reminding her of what she had almost had; a future that might have been possible, but now it was no longer within her grasp. It was only now, after all of it was gone, that Mary was finally starting to realise just how much she had lost; just how much she had given away.
She locked her phone and watched as the staff members manoeuvred the black and white chess pieces around the board. One side was about to get the other into checkmate. The players could not yet see it, but Mary could.
"I have lost everything," Mary said to herself.
Two guards arrived to escort Mary to the chapel.
Narcisse nodded at Mary as she left the room, as though silently telling her that she just had to get through the next few hours, and then they could be on their way-Mary, Bash and Narcisse.
Mary nodded back at him, letting him know that she understood.
Then, with her head held high, she walked out of the room. Bizarrely, she felt like a queen from times past who was about to walk to her own execution, but was still determined to put on a brave face all the same.
The guards kept close as Mary headed down flights of stairs and through various corridors towards the castle's chapel, which was located near the back of the building. Mary knew that the royal family had tightened security in the run up to the wedding, and the second-born princess was clearly no exception to the heightened security measures.
The sound of the Scottish bagpipes might still have been ringing out happily from outside the castle, but the presence of the stony-faced guards only served to make Mary feel like a prisoner.
She was almost relieved to catch sight of Greer and her husband close to the corridor leading to the chapel as she rounded a corner, that was until she saw the look of sorrow on Greer's face, and she heard the harsh tone of Aloysius's voice; it sounded like the two of them were in the middle of some sort of argument.
Mary hung back a little, ignoring the guards' look of obvious irritation at the delay as she tried to hide herself around the corner and listen to what they were saying…
"Now is not the time or the place, Greer," she heard Aloysius tell his wife, the impatient tone of his voice suggesting that they had had this argument many times over.
"Then when will it be the right time or place?" Mary heard Greer snap back at him. "You won't communicate with me; we have barely even talked for the past week…"
Mary frowned a little in confusion. She had never heard Greer and Aloysius argue like this. They had always seemed like the perfect couple; so happy and so carefree all the time.
But then, who truly knew what went on behind closed doors, in any marriage?
"If any of those accounts are traced back to you…" Greer continued.
Aloysius opened his mouth as though to say something in response, a look of panic crossing his face, but then he looked over in Mary's direction, apparently only just realising that she was standing a few feet away.
"Mary!" he called out, the smile suddenly returning to his face, although Mary couldn't help noticing that his smile looked a little forced.
Mary made a great effort to make her movements look natural as she stepped out from around the corner, in the hope that it wouldn't seem as though she had been listening in on what seemed like a very personal conversation.
"Mary, you look beautiful!" Greer told her, although her smile seemed a little forced, too.
Mary attempted to smile in return, but something must have shown in her facial expression, because Greer suddenly frowned and muttered, "Walk with me," to Mary, while Aloysius seemed to take the hint that Greer wanted to talk to her friend in private. He mumbled something about heading to the chapel and conducting a few interviews with the guests before the ceremony started, and then he left them alone.
"Mary, what is it?" Greer asked her in barely more than a whisper, as they walked down the corridor with their arms linked, the guards only a few feet behind them. Greer had apparently picked up on something in Mary's facial expression.
Mary let out a sigh of despair before she spoke: "It's all over, Greer," she whispered, her voice still shaky. "Francis does not want to marry me."
"Oh Mary," said Greer, as she looked right at her friend, a look of sorrow on her face that Mary was sure was a mirror image of her own. "I'm sure it's not as bad as you think," Greer attempted to reassure her. "Francis is just upset about the photos of you with Louis Conde..." So Greer knew about the photos. Soon, the whole country would know. "You know what men are like," Greer continued, "with their jealousy and their insecurities," she added with a roll of her eyes. "As annoying as this behaviour can be, it won't be permanent; this moment will pass; Francis will come around, and you will be able to talk things through…"
Mary wanted to believe her best friend, she really did, but she could not be so optimistic. Something about the look on Francis's face after he had kissed her earlier had been so resigned, so final, that Mary wasn't sure he would ever forgive her.
"I don't think things are that simple, Greer," said Mary, her voice now sending empty, monotone, hollow. "So much history has passed between us; there have always been so many obstacles in our way, and alternative arrangements for both of our futures have already been put in motion. I'm not sure that we can come back from this…"
Greer opened her mouth as though to disagree, or to tell Mary to go and talk things through with Francis, but Mary cut her off. False hope was so much worse than no hope, after all. "Still, I have to try to look on the positive side," she said in a voice that sounded very falsely upbeat. "It seems that you and I will be able to live in the same city after all; I am considering opportunities in London," Mary explained.
Instead of greeting this comment with joy, or enthusiasm, a shadow almost seemed to pass over Greer's face, and then her facial expression seemed to show a mixture of hesitation, guilt, and anguish.
Something about the look on Greer's face sent a fresh wave of despair crashing over Mary. Greer's move to London with Aloysius was still happening, wasn't it? For Mary, the prospect of getting to live close to Greer was one small glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. If somebody took that glimmer of light away from her now…It would be such a cruel turn of fate, if Greer did not end up in London after all. It would be yet another torment, if Mary was forced to run to London while Greer ended up staying in Scotland.
"Mary," said Greer hesitantly, her voice full of trepidation. "Things are not so simple or so certain for me right now, either. Aloysius and I…"
Before Greer could continue, the two friends rounded another corner, to be met by another one of the guards, who coughed pointedly, which Mary took as a hint that the guards had allowed Greer to walk far enough with Mary. Now, Greer had to go and take her seat among the other wedding guests in the chapel, while Mary had to take the next part of this journey alone.
With one last worried-looking glance at Mary from over her shoulder, Greer headed into the chapel through its main doors, leaving Mary to wonder what she had been about to say.
Mary was ushered into a makeshift dressing room that was located directly opposite the chapel's main doors, just across the corridor.
Kenna was already waiting inside the dressing room. She had been standing with her back to Mary, looking up at a large portrait of a king that was displayed on the wall, but she turned around to face Mary the moment Mary walked through the door.
Kenna looked beautiful and elegant, Mary thought, dressed in an old-fashioned cream-coloured wedding dress with long, lace sleeves that Mary was sure had once belonged to Mary and James's grandmother, complete with a net veil that sat just below her eyes.
Already, Kenna looked like a member of the royal family; she looked like a woman who would soon be crowned queen.
Mary started to drop into a bow, out of respect for Kenna's soon-to-be role as queen, and out of acknowledgement of Kenna's new rank among the royal family, but Mary had barely inclined her head when Kenna practically ran at her, throwing her arms around Mary and pulling her in for a hug.
Mary put her arms around Kenna in return, and the two of them held each other tight. It seemed that any animosity over Mary's plans to leave the castle with Bash had now been forgotten in light of the significant event that the two of them were about to face.
"Kenna, it's all right; it's going to be all right," Mary whispered in her ear. "I'll be there; I'll be right behind you the whole way down the aisle; we will get through this together…"
Mary could not afford for Kenna to break down now. The wedding ceremony was only moments away, and the two of them had to be strong; they both had to think of their countries.
Mary felt Kenna nod against her shoulder. With that, she straightened up and took a step back from Mary. Mary could see from Kenna's facial expression that Kenna was steeling herself, mentally preparing herself to face what was ahead.
At that moment, two guards opened the dressing room doors, letting them both know that it was time.
"Let's go," Kenna said to Mary as she squared her shoulders and held her head high.
Just before she stepped out of the door, Kenna looked back over her shoulder at Mary. "I really am sorry," she said, "about Francis."
"So am I," said Mary.
Kenna and Mary crossed the hallway as the guards opened the large wooden doors that led to the chapel.
The castle's chapel had always been beautiful, with its dark wooden floors and beams, and walls painted in red, and a large chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. The room was well-lit by large, arch shaped windows at intervals along the side walls, and a few candles flickered at the front of the room. The flags of England and Scotland had been displayed on the walls. The room had also been decorated with a variety of red, white and blue flowers, marking the colours of the two countries, and no doubt serving as a visual reminder to the guests of the purpose of this wedding and the alliance it would hopefully bring about. Yet right now, Mary could not appreciate the room's beauty. Instead, she simply tried to stay focused and keep walking.
The wooden chairs and benches in the room had been separated into two sections, so that an aisle had been created in the middle of the room for Kenna to walk down.
A red carpet had been laid out on the long section of floor that marked the aisle, and Kenna took slow steps along this carpet as she headed in the direction of the altar while the wedding march played, with her father walking next to her, ready to give her away.
A couple of years ago, Kenna probably would have been thrilled at the idea of walking down a red carpet like a celebrity, but Mary imagined that today, she barely even noticed.
Dutifully, Mary followed in Kenna's footsteps, taking slow steps down the aisle.
Mary glanced around at a few of the wedding guests as she walked. Most of the guests were from noble and political families, and they were all dressed in designer dresses and suits and fancy hats. The tabloid magazines would have plenty of inspiration for articles on the wedding, what with all the well-known guests and the designer gowns. Mary could only hope that they would fill enough pages to distract everyone from the photos of Lola and Francis that were sure to emerge soon.
Mary caught sight of Lola, who was sitting on the second to last row near the back of the room. She was leaning back in her chair, as though she was struggling to hold herself upright, and she kept closing her eyes and taking deep breaths. She seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. Mary almost felt sorry for her.
Greer was sitting next to Aloysius on one of the middle rows of chairs. Greer seemed to throw concerned-looking glances at her husband every few seconds, but the look on Aloysius's face was distant; it was like his mind was somewhere far away.
Mary felt a little worried by this; normally, on a day like today, Aloysius would have been grinning from ear to ear, practically bouncing on his feet in anticipation of a royal match and a long night of celebrations.
Mary's father caught Mary's eye as she got closer to the front of the room. He smiled at her, silently mouthing something to her about how lovely she looked.
Mary did her best to smile back at him, but she felt another wave of guilt wash over her. After she left the castle tonight, she didn't know when she would see her parents face-to-face again. It could be weeks, or maybe even months. Maybe they would not want to see her at all, after they found out that she had accepted a role working for the English Prime Minister. They would forgive her for considering Conde as a suitor, as they had suggested this idea in the first place, but would they forgive her for her loyalty to a rival country over Scotland? Would Mary ever forgive herself?
They were getting closer to the altar now; Mary could see it a little more clearly.
A priest stood at the top of the two steps that led up to a podium on the altar, ready to perform the ceremony.
Two large, red curtains hung from the chapel's ceiling, on either side of the altar's stone steps, so long that the ends of them brushed against the floor. Normally, when the room wasn't in use, the curtains were drawn across the altar, obscuring it from view, but this evening, the curtains were wide open.
James was waiting for Kenna at the altar. He was dressed in dark trousers and a bright red frockcoat that had been decorated with various royal badges; it was something of an official uniform for princes who were about to be wed.
His face seemed to be set, determined. He still would not look Mary in the eye.
Finally, they arrived at their destination, and James and Kenna were standing face to face.
James nodded at Kenna, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between the two of them. Mary imagined that they had discussed this moment over and over, preparing themselves for what was to come.
Kenna nodded in return, and James reached out and took Kenna's hands in his.
A few sighs from the guests echoed around the room, and Mary guessed that they believed this to be a gesture of a man who was seeking physical contact with his bride, the two of them unable to be apart for a moment longer, but Mary saw it for exactly what it was. This was a gesture of comfort, of reassurance. In spite of his own misgivings, James was going to help Kenna to endure this as best he could. The two of them were going to cling to each other for support as they got through the ceremony.
The gesture and the reactions of the guests seemed to be too much for Kenna. She bowed her head and closed her eyes as she started to sob silently.
Kenna's tears drew more sighs from the guests as a few of them even placed their hands over their hearts.
Mary felt sick. Most of the wedding guests clearly thought that Kenna was crying with happiness.
James closed his eyes in return, and he seemed to be taking deep breaths.
Mary could not bear to watch anymore. Instead, she turned and looked out on all the guests in the room; her eyes were seeking one guest in particular. She had not been brave enough to look for him as she walked down the aisle; she had been too afraid that she would fall over or lose any strength to keep walking if she saw him. Now, as much as it pained her to look, she had to see if he was here; she had to know that he was okay.
Francis Valois sat in the right-hand corner of the room, on the very back row, next to his parents. All three of them looked miserable, as though they would rather be anywhere else.
Francis was dressed smartly in a dark suit, but his hair still looked a little messy, and he looked tired-no, more than that, he looked exhausted, and his eyes looked strangely red-rimmed as he looked out the nearest window.
This defeated look of Francis's surprised Mary more than anything. She wished that she could reach out to him, tell him that she was sorry, tell him that everything was going to be all right. But she couldn't do that. Not now.
She wished that she had been more honest with Francis from the start about her feelings and her bad memories of the past; she wished that he had opened up to her more in return. Perhaps then they could have salvaged the alliance…no, more important than that, perhaps they could have saved their relationship.
Mary was also a little surprised by the seating arrangement; she would have thought that her parents would have placed the Valois family front and centre of the room, showcasing the French royals to all the other guests, sending a message that relations between Scotland and France were strong. But it seemed that the Valois family had other ideas. Perhaps they had already decided that they would not be seeking any sort of alliance with Scotland. Mary had ruined that opportunity for her family.
Francis must have sensed that Mary was watching him, because he turned away from the window and looked right at her.
Time seemed to stand still as the two of them looked into each other's eyes. So much history and so many memories seemed to pass between them in that look.
Mary wished that she could turn back time, erase the past, do things differently. But that was impossible. She could not change the past, and now she was facing a future without Francis.
Finally, Francis couldn't seem to stand to look at Mary any longer. He turned away and looked back out of the window, and Mary felt like her heart was breaking.
Mary followed Francis's gaze. Outside, the sun was setting in a cloudy sky.
Suddenly, the room felt far too warm; Mary felt like she was burning up.
For a moment, she was certain that she could smell a strong smell of smoke, but she told herself that she was only imagining things, or perhaps it was merely the smoky smell coming from one of the candles that had just flickered out.
As the air around her seemed to thicken, and her breathing started to get heavier, Mary frantically tried to pull herself back from what she assumed to be some kind of anxiety attack; she recognised the signs, as she had felt this breathless, too-hot-and-too-cold sensation before during scary moments of her life; moments when she felt like she was trapped with no escape.
She couldn't break down, not here, not now; Kenna and James were just about to make their vows; she had to be strong for Kenna, for James, for her family. She had to show her support for this marriage alliance before she ran. She did not want the Valois family to see her crumble.
Breathe…breathe…Mary silently told herself, even as her breathing started to get heavier.
She could do this; everything was under control…
But then, the sound of a terrified scream pierced the air.
Mary looked up in time to see Lola, who was still screaming as she pointed in the direction of the altar.
"Fire!" another guest screamed.
Mary gasped and looked over her shoulder. The red curtains on either side of the altar were enveloped in flames, and the flames were rising up higher and higher; the fire was spreading.
Almost paralysed by fear and confusion, Mary looked back at the guests in time to see that several of the flower displays around the room had also caught fire, and all of the colours of England and Scotland that the flowers represented were now burning, crumbling to ashes.
The room was starting to descend into chaos. The screams and shouts were almost deafening.
James and Kenna had sprang apart, the wedding ceremony momentarily forgotten, and Mary could see from the look on James's face that he was getting ready to take charge, to spring into action, to get everybody out of the room as soon as possible.
Mary felt like she was spinning in circles, going nowhere.
What was happening? Was this some sort of freak accident? Had a few stray flames from the candles in the chapel caused the curtains and the flowers to catch fire?
But then, Mary glanced upwards and saw that the flag of England that was displayed on the wall was also going up in flames, while the Scottish flag remained suspiciously intact.
Mary span around a little more and realised that there were no guards in the room, about to come to their rescue. Where were they? There were supposed to be guards stationed all around the room, ready to protect them.
And then, on the back wall of the room, Mary saw it…
The bird in flight symbol appeared in flames on the wall, as though it had been marked out with flammable liquid and set alight.
As the room descended into further panic and confusion, the words that Mary had heard earlier seemed to reappear in her mind…
The plan is in motion…
It will happen at sunset…
You will burn…
All this time, Mary had thought that she had only been imagining things; the whispers and the footsteps and the constant feeling that somebody was following her and watching her family's every move.
But now, as the bird in flight continued to burn right in front of Mary's eyes and Francis started to run towards her, holding out his hand, Mary realised, perhaps too late, that she had not imagined any of it; all of it had been so heartbreakingly real.