No expenses were spared for the exiled half-brother's return to Swedish Court. As mistresses aimed high in Sweden, so did former heirs apparent. The Duke of Scania, Hugo Lukas Bernadotte was twenty-four years of age. He had been the son of Oskar I and his first wife, Marie, a woman of noble birth in Austria. When Marie died after Hugo's first birthday, his father remarried to Agnes, a Swedish noblewoman whose family were very wealthy and had rooms at Court. Soon after Oskar II came along, Agnes managed to convince her husband to exile the then three-going-four-year-old as she'd given him a new heir for Sweden, a legitimate one not that Hugo was not. He'd grown up with nannies at his duchy of Scania, away from Court and he had been titleless. Before his death, Oskar I had frequently visited twice a year. On Hugo's birthday and two weeks before Christmas without fail. He had eventually been allowed to come to Court following Oskar I's control over Agnes's horrid behaviour but following Gustav's birth eleven years ago when he was thirteen, Oskar died and left Agnes regent of a then nine-year-old king, Oskar II. Then he was exiled for good.

Oskar loved his brother, they seldom wrote to each other and now he had more freedom, Anne found out of his intentions. "I wish to make him my First Minister."

"You trust him?"

"He will not steal the throne from me. He has no desire to be a king," Oskar said as they waited for Hugo's arrival in the throne room. She was nervous and he could tell so he gave her a warm smile. "He would love you. He always had a taste for the French ladies but you're mine."

Anne smiled wryly. "Yes, Sire," she replied, letting him kiss the back of her hand, the one with the bruised wrist and she saw he noticed it because he rubbed it and pressed a quick kiss against the purpling bruise and hit it before anyone noted.

"I will make it up to you," he promised, sending shivers down her spine. He was always guilty afterwards. Anne knew this wasn't an ordinary marriage. Her parents hurt each other's hearts but never did they laid a hand on each other. She blushed when she asked her mother why one day she had bruises on her neck and her mother had sat her down and explained some scenarios when it came to sex. She was going to be a wife soon back then and her mother had announced her and Rose had received certain gifts following their wedding.

"Sometimes sex can be too good that the pain accounts for pleasure," Mary had told her eldest child and daughter. "But only if you both are consensual with it must you take that step. It's not abuse, it's... it's quite masochistic, I guess but you feel safe with the one you love and vice versa. We even tie each other up-"

"That's enough for me!" A younger Anne had replied, her cheeks and ears staining red in mortification as her mother laughed. "Jesus, forgive me for taking your name in vain but that is too much information one needs to know about their parents!"

"Sex, Anne, it's most peculiar," Mary had mused.

But Oskar didn't hurt her during sex. In fact, he was gentle and kind whenever they assumed their duty. He'd hold her afterwards before leaving for his bed - he never stayed. Oskar hurt her because he could but if he felt guilty, why did he do it?

Was Oskar like the grandfather she never met who tried to kill his own sons, her father and uncle over their shared love for her mother? How times have changed though...

"Your Majesties," the announcer began. "His Royal Highness, the Duke of Scania, Prince Hugo."

"I gave him his titles back," Oskar whispered as they stood and everyone bowed to the man walking through the centre of the room, his eyes fixed on the couple as Oskar beamed happily in relief and joy at finally seeing his brother after so many long years.

Anne's eyes widened a little when she saw Hugo. His hair was blonde unlike Oskar's whose hair was dark brown as it could get. But Hugo's hair was blonde like her father's, his eyes hazel like hers used to be before they turned light blue, very different to Oskar's brown eyes. He had a smooth jawline, his face round but handsome and he wasn't as tall as Oskar, but he was average and well-built. He wore fine navy blue clothes, which reminded her of something her Uncle Bash would wear to parties he had to attend (he hated parties but her aunt always made up for it) and she figured navy blue just happened to be the colour of half-brothers to kings because they always wore it with such grace and acceptability.

Hugo's eyes landed on her and they sparkled, sending sparks into her skin as Oskar's hand remained gripped to hers. Hugo swallowed hard before bowing low and raising to kiss the back of Anne's hand, holding it like a delicate flower as their eyes met.

Anne had never felt such a feeling before, it had left with Oskar but it had seemed to erupt with Hugo who gave her a smile. "Duke Scania, it is a pleasure to meet the brother my husband speaks so highly of."

Hugo scoffed lightly, giving his younger brother a raised brow as he let her hand go. "Do you seriously talk about me in bed?"

"Hugo!" Oskar cried out, looking scandalised before smirking. "Where else would my wife be quiet enough to listen?"

Anne was appalled but she didn't let it show as Hugo gave her a quick wink that followed a wince. She smiled to herself, he didn't like that either. "Welcome to Court, Duke Scania. I hope we would become fast friends."

"I hope we'd become more than just friends. Good friends, perhaps," Hugo replied easily before turning to Oskar. "You said you had something to tell me, which was the whole reason you dragged me away from my duchy. I've got a taste for fishing of all things!"

"You can fish all you wish here," Oskar said, letting go of Anne to wrap an arm around Hugo's shoulders and leading him away as everyone bowed and Anne followed after with her guards flanking her. "You'll be here permanently as my First Minister."

Hugo turned to his brother in surprise before smiling. "Anything for you, Your Majesty."

"Wonderful!" Oskar breathed out before going into a conversation about art as Anne stopped and sighed, her guards stopping with her.

"Take me to my rooms, I am tired," she told them, John leading the way. When they arrived, she let John inside as the other guards remained outside and he immediately grabbed her gently, inspecting her body. "He hasn't, not since yesterday."

John sighed, resting his forehead against the side of her head. "I'm sorry I can't do much."

"You'd lose your life and Father won't be too happy. Neither would Mother," Anne told him, cupping his cheek and kissing the other one before she let him go to remove her jewellery. "One must never get involved in the matters between a king and his wife."

"If our father knew-"

"No-"

"He'd protect you-"

"He'd start a war," Anne hissed, coming to stand in front of him. "I can't risk it all, John. What if France and Sweden go into war, we all know Father would destroy Sweden and everyone would be wary of our family! Think of us as warmongers!"

John sighed heavily, pacing the room. "I know. Would that be a bad thing?"

"Then where pray tell, will I find another husband? Rose is to become the next Queen of Scotland and England. Maybe our parents will be kind and separate them so I'll have England but that is wishful thinking. I love Oskar, John."

"He doesn't love you," John mumbled, closing his eyes. "I saw how the Duke of Scania looked at you. Don't you dare think-"

"Do you think so low of me?!" Anne cried out in disbelief before lowering voice and hissing, "That I'd be stupid enough to pursue a... romantical relationship with my King Husband's brother? I am not my mother." No offence, Mother, she thought. "I am already on borrowed time. Barren and Catholic, my husband's mistress doing way better than me, good Lord!"

John watched as she started to pace, running her fingers through her neatly styled hair and ruining it, her locks flowing over her shoulders as pins scattered to the floor. "You are the strongest woman I know."

Anne turned to him, tears springing to her eyes. "I'm not."

"I love you, you are my sister but I can't stand there and do nothing as he controls you, hurts you, berates you and then soothes it with touching words to make you forget-"

"I never forget."

"We need to plan," John told her. "Just in case. I will rally up some supporters, seek aid from Uncle Bash, he won't tell Fath-"

"You and I both know he and Father are like-minds," Anne breathed out, rolling her eyes. "They don't do anything without confirmation from the other. As you are loyal to me, Uncle Bash is to Father."

John groaned. "That is true," he admitted. "Perhaps, Robin! You will need doctors, you can secure aid from French doctors as that will make you most comfortable as you trust them and can speak in your mother tongue-"

"You genius!" Anne laughed, hugging him. "All we need to do is request Robin to keep away from his doctoral duties in France and serve me as we build an army or-or whatever we need to. Just in case."

John hugged her tightly, pressing a kiss on the side of her head. "Just in case."

...

"Good morning, Your Majesty."

Anne smiled, gesturing for Birgitta to take a seat. "Please, it's just 'Anne' when we're in private. Or 'Marie' if you prefer."

Birgitta nodded. "As you keep saying but old habits die hard," she replied. "Your Majesty."

Anne bristled briefly but began pouring their tea as her servant organised cakes between Queen and Princess. "French delicacies. Not as good as the ones from home but your cooks are trying."

"Hmm," Birgitta hummed, eyeing the pastry in disdain.

"Croissant. Oskar loves them," Anne told her. "I can't believe I've barely introduced you all to my customs."

"Well, we have been scattered across the country in our shells of duchies," Birgitta replied. "We love our brother but we don't always adore being paraded about. It's Mother's funeral that we're all here... Do you wish to return to France soon? For a visit?"

I can't. "We will see," Anne said tightly. "So, what is the duchy of Eyland like? I'm sure everyone was happy to house their Duchess for these many years."

"They are a wonderful bunch," Birgitta said happily. "I can't wait to return. I hold science lectures at the local school for the children. My lands are more prosperous than my sister's and well, Gustav. He's eleven, he doesn't know better or how to run a household. It must have been interesting, becoming his surrogate mother. You teach him, French, don't you?"

Anne nodded, beaming. "He is a quick learner."

"Perhaps you could teach me too," Birgitta suggested. "I'd love to visit France one day. Mother never let us girls leave Sweden. Only the King and Prince of Gothenburg get that luxury."

"Well, I'm sure your brother will allow you to leave-"

"He won't," Birgitta said, lifting her cup to her lips as her eyes cast down to her plate. "You and I both know he controls the women in this family. He is like Mother in that way. We will never see any other world than Sweden, the one he wants us to see."

Anne couldn't believe that Birgitta was talking so ill of her brother, the king and as much as she wanted to berate her, she couldn't as she was very understanding. She'd witnessed first hand of Oskar's controlling ways and now her brother and she were planning escape route after escape route for just in case reasons. First, she must bear a child though.

"Anyway," Anne moved along as walls had ears. "Tell me about the Duke of Scania."

Birgitta beamed warmly, placing her cup down. "Hugo is wonderful. Father would sneak us out to visit him halfway. We write frequently, he keeps in touch always. He loves us and we love him. Mother was too harsh on the poor boy. If Oskar hadn't been born, Hugo would have been king."

"He carries himself with such grace and formality," Anne said curiously. "How could he after all he suffered from the late Queen Mother's hands?"

"Hugo hasn't got a hateful or spiteful bone in his body," Birgitta explained. "He is humbled.

Anne nodded slowly. "I see. I want to get along with all of you. Sweden is my home now and my siblings and I were very close so naturally-"

"Sigrid would never," Birgitta cut her off. "She is like Mother. Bitter and cold. Even when we shared the same womb, she kicked and prodded me. Came out first and almost killed me in the process."

Anne was so shocked, even Birgitta let out a laugh. "I-"

"Don't worry about Sigrid. She's jealous that you are married since you were young and she hasn't even got admirers," Birgitta told her, turning to the window thoughtfully. "We should travel to France soon. I want to feel the air there and enjoy the food properly."

Anne smiled wryly. "All that's left is to convince your brother..."

"Hmm."

...

When her guards bowed, including John, Anne stopped in her tracks and looked up to see the newly dubbed First Minister of Sweden, Hugo himself, the Duke of Scania.

He bowed low, kissed the back of her hand and beamed as he rose. "Your Majesty."

She curtseyed. "Your Highness."

"You are looking ever so delectable this fine day," he told her, inhaling the perfume on her good wrist. "Oh, French lavender?"

She smiled. "It is the sweetest," she said, blushing. "And thank you for your lovely compliment."

"When one sees a pretty flower, one must acknowledge it," Hugo replied, offering his arm. "Do you like archery, Your Majesty?"

They started to walk, Anne's brows raised in surprise. "Have you done your research on me?"

"The benefits of exile is that as long as I didn't step into the capital, I was free to travel wherever I wished," Hugo explained gently. "I had gone to France many times. Rumours of the King's strong daughters who could hunt, perform archery and ride horses expertly went around. I was quite impressed."

Anne chuckled, rolling her eyes as she mentally thanked her father. "As one should be when graced with such wonder."

Hugo guffawed, squeezing Anne's hand on the crook of his elbow. "You are lively."

Anne caught John's warning gaze but she shrugged a little. "I am exactly as I am. Anne of France."

Hugo's eyes widened. "Not Marie, Queen of Sweden?"

"No," Anne said softly. "Well, yes. But Anne of France, always."

"You're brave if you are going to be saying things like that so publicly," Hugo replied carefully, eyeing around.

Anne scoffed, meeting his hazel eyes. "My father is Francis II of France. My mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. I am not threatened in any way," she said but she knew she was scared deep down.

Oskar's concern was never misplaced. He had a funny way of showing her how much he loved her but he never wanted to risk her life. She was a precious asset to him.

Hugo nodded. "I'd love to get to know you better. My brother thinks it wise for his wife to get along with his dearest siblings," he told her. "Join me for archery this afternoon."

Anne stopped and smiled. "Then I better start looking for something to wear."

...

"You shouldn't put your trust in Hugo," John told his sister as he walked her to the archery grounds. "You cannot trust him. What if he's playing you for the King?"

Anne turned to her brother with a smirk. "Papa taught us well, don't you think? I can play Hugo, get him to do as I wish because he runs the Blue Guards now."

The Blue Guards were anything but blue in uniform. They wore golden armour and were the official army and soldiers of the Crown. In France, they had the newly instated Red Guards, ran by no other than their uncle, Sebastian who continued to serve their father as his loyal King's Deputy and First Minister. At times, he even played French Ambassador and Anne wondered if she could invite him regardless of his loyalties. He could offer her some counsel in running the affairs of her husband.

As they walked on, Anne's blood turned to ice when Elsa of all people skipped happily with her friends, talking about the baby. She rubbed her small bump and the women crooned all over her much to Anne's disgust. If not for Elsa's father saving Oskar when he choked on some food, he wouldn't have been made a lord and his daughter would still be working as a kitchen maid. But now, the girl had the money for pretty but inexpensive dresses and swanned about with the jewels Anne's husband gave her.

The damned mistress halted upon seeing Anne and she and her ladies quickly curtseyed.

"I didn't see you there, Your Grace," Elsa said, straightening up with a blush.

Anne so wished that Elsa wasn't Oskar's official mistress otherwise she'd keep her tongue sharp but instead, she planted a fake smile on, coming up to take one of Elsa's hand, her other hand extending to Elsa's bump.

"Oh, you must be so happy," Anne said feigning sweetness. "Have you been throwing up more than usual?"

"Yes," Elsa said, surprised. "It's is every so annoying."

Anne chuckled. "Well, that confirms it."

"Confirms... what?"

Anne smiled cruelly. "My mother always said the sickness was worse with girls. They are more troublesome."

Elsa's face paled and she frowned. "Is that so?"

"Indeed! You mustn't worry though," Anne told her, patting her shoulder. "I will give her a brother soon enough."

She kissed Elsa's cheeks, a French custom, and she swanned off with John and her guards flanking her. She could feel John's humoured gaze on her.

"That was splendidly dealt with," he said.

"One thing about a Valois," Anne began. "You never cross them."

...

"Accurate shot, Your Majesty!" Hugo called out, impressed. "I was planning a hunt with the King. Perhaps, I'd take his wife instead."

Anne chuckled, handing her bow to John as she removed her gloves. "Well, he'd be spending time with the mother-to-be."

Hugo scowled. "That Lady Elsa... What a wench."

"Oh?"

Hugo sighed heavily, shaking his head. "Nothing. It's trivial."

"No, tell me," Anne urged him, stepping closer as he placed his bow back onto the rack.

"She called me a 'bastard'. That is something I most certainly am not," he snapped angrily. "God knows why that whore has my brother's side but each to their own."

Anne smirked. "She has forgotten that your mother was married to your father before she died."

Hugo hummed, his eyes glossing over. "I don't even remember her. If you were to tell me to imagine my mother, I'd bring out all the governesses who tended to me my whole life."

"I am so sorry," Anne replied softly. "My mother and I have a good relationship. Until now."

"What happened now?"

"I can't go to France," Anne said. "I am a queen, a wife to a king so my place is by his side."

Hugo scoffed, tutting as he crossed his arms. "I may have some business to carry out in France. You could join me and show me around as you attend your parents' Court."

Anne smiled but shook her head. "Unfortunately, if I step away from this castle, I'm dead."

"The conversion?" Hugo guessed. "My mother was a Catholic. I was brought up as a Catholic. My brother, he's easily swayed. He won't get a conversion from me."

"Nor me," Anne said, meeting his gaze for a long while. If she was honest, she would admit that she found something beguiling in Hugo. He was handsome, kind, witty and it scarily reminded her of her father's charms. His locks weren't that far off either.

"My Queen, I..." Hugo breathed out, swallowing hard as he withdrew his gaze and bowed his head. "Forgive me."

"What for?"

Hugo smiled wryly. "There are lines that can never be crossed."

"What if they were to try one moment of freedom?" Anne asked softly.

Hugo's eyes warily glanced around her guards. "Then that may cost one's life."

"My guards are loyal to me, not your brother," Anne said knowingly. "They're French. Do you think I'd allow Swedes with my life? Given the current situation?"

Hugo laughed in disbelief. "The people must hate you."

"No more so than they do already," Anne quipped, their moment lost. "They hurled horrible words about French people. And Scottish people. Dear God, if my parents were to step in Sweden... They'd run back to France and condemn the country. And those horrible drapes everywhere do not help."

Hugo snorted and sat down on a chair, pouring them both wine as she sat too. "Sorry for forging-"

"No," Anne cut him off. "I am not easily slighted. And it is just a seat. I don't really care for people rising and sitting when I enter and sit. It's a chore and I had to do it in guests for my parents."

"What was it like, growing up in French Court?" Hugo asked before gesturing for John to take a seat. "General de Valois, you fought in many wars beside your father. You are impressive as much as your sister. Do all the Valois children share such wonderful qualities?"

John shared an amused glance with Anne. "Yes, we do, Your Highness."

"We're friends here," Hugo chastised, sliding the cup John's way before sipping his own glass when Anne refused. "As much as I love my siblings, apart from Sigrid who can burn in hell-" Anne giggled. "We're not close nor does the Swedish Court satisfy me." He sighed. "So, growing up in French Court?"

Anne sighed sadly. "It was wonderful..."