Authors: Lily Blake
A novella by Lily Blake
Based on the series created by Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie Sengupta
Little, Brown and Company
New York Â Boston
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Inside his gleaming burgonet helmet, Francis could hear nothing but the beating of his own heart. The roar of the crowd was silenced and he saw nothing and no one, he could think of only the task at hand. The blood that ran through his veins, that pounded so hard it deafened him, was the same blood that flowed through the veins of the man he saw in front of him.
Narrowing his eyes, Francis focused on the king. He had been left with no choice. Henry was madâit was clear to all now and it was only a matter of time before France's enemies heard tales from court. He couldn't risk exposing his country to such a show of weakness, her armies were depleted after Henry's campaigns and the royal debts ran wild, deeper than even Francis's mother's rich Medici pockets could bear. Moreover, Henry had set his sights on a new prize, Francis's wife, Mary. Participating in this joust was foolish, perhaps, but Francis cared little for the risk to his own life when he saw his wife in danger and while Henry's sanity continued to slip away, she was absolutely in danger.
His horse moved uneasily, unused to the weight of her new rider. Only she knew the truth. As far as the baying crowds were aware, the man facing the king in the joust was the heroic Lord Montgomery, but behind the shining steel of his helmet, if Henry only cared enough to look, he would see the blue eyes of his own son. Approaching the starting position, Francis sat low on his mount, his lance held high. The beat of his heart grew faster as his breath became shorter. His father circled the grounds on his horse, enjoying the applause of his people, before settling her down, taking his lance, and preparing to begin.
But there was no preparing for what came next. It all happened too fast, the thunder of hooves, the smell of dirt and straw mixed with the leather of his saddle and the movement of the horse. The lance was heavy in his hand, sailing through the air until it found its target. Until it found the kingâ¦
Francis woke with a start, his shirt sodden with sweat. Every night since he had taken his father's life, it had been this way. The dreams, the nightmares would not let him be. He felt it over and over, the lance under his arm, sinking into his father's skull, the silence, and then the screams. It was all too much.
“What is it?” Mary stirred beside him, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything is fine,” he said, willing his voice to remain calm, pasting a smile onto his face. “It was just a dream.”
He looked across at his wife, but instead of seeing Mary's fair skin and dark hair, he saw his father in her place, a bleeding hole where his eye should be and their white silken sheets stained with blood.
“Beware wild roses that reveal your secrets,” Henry said, staring straight at his son. “Blood will have blood, my son.”
This time Francis woke for real, his arms and legs tangled in the bed linens, Mary cowering in the corner of the bed, clutching a pillow in front of her.
“Francis?” she whispered, fear in her pretty eyes. “What's wrong?”
“It was a dream.” Francis pushed his hair away from his face and climbed out of the bed. “I'm sorry if I scared you.”
“You were saying the queerest things.” Mary followed him over to the window and rested her hands against his soaked shirt. “About your father?”
When he discovered that Catherine and Mary had plotted to kill his father, to poison him and push Francis onto the throne, he had been appalled. How could the two people he trusted most in the world plot, against the king, his father? His mother, perhaps, but not Mary. The madness that had overcome Henry had made villains of them all. But in the end he saw there was no other option. In his madness, Henry risked destroying all he had ever fought for and there was only one answer. A coup was too volatile. Without a clean death, a rightful succession, Francis's reign would always be in question and always at risk, but he couldn't allow another to carry the burden of taking his father's life. Francis knew he had not had a choice. If he were in the same position today, he would do it again.
“People tell all manner of stories in their sleep,” he said, steeling himself against the guilt of lying to his wife again. What he would have given to confess all, to tell Mary that he had only done what had to be done. But he couldn't. “Perhaps I ate something strange at supper, too much cheese again most likely?”
“Then you must be a mouse,” Mary said with a light smile that belied her concern. “It's been almost every night since you returned to the castle.”
“I'm sorry.” Francis turned, the nightmare not fading as fast as he would have liked, but fading all the same, and took his wife's face in his hands. “So much has been happening lately, I have been having strange dreams. But they mean nothing, I promise.”
“Nostradamus says our dreams tell us of the truths we fear to speak,” she said, placing her cool, smooth hands over his. “You have taken on so much. Henry's death, the plague, all the trouble with Narcisse. Becoming a king and a fatherâ¦”
Her voice drifted away.
“It's nothing, Mary, I promise you,” Francis said. Their inability to conceive weighed heavily on him and he hated that he could not simply tell her the truth and remove the guilt from her shoulders. She may have forgiven him for fathering a child with her friend and lady's maid, Lola, but she still could not forgive herself for losing their baby and nothing he could say seemed to help. And now she was blaming herself for his night terrors. “You need your rest. We both do, we have a kingdom to rule.”
“And visitors arriving tomorrow,” she reminded him, leading him back to the bed. “Your cousin Lorenzo arrives in the morning. Catherine is quite beside herself.”
“Have you ever seen my mother so happy about a cardinal visiting the palace?” he said, a genuine smile spreading across his face. “Surely there is a story to be told.”
“And surely we shall hear it,” Mary said. She brushed his damp golden hair away from his face and left her hand against his cheek. “Try to get some sleep, I'm almost certain that we will need our wits about us.”'
“I'm almost certain that you're right.” Francis settled in beside his wife, waiting for her breathing to slow and shallow, staring up at the ceiling and waiting for the dawn to come.
*Â Â *Â Â *
“Queen Mary requests an audience with the Queen Mother.” Catherine's page entered her chambers, eyes lowered to the floor, fully aware that he was not bringing desirable news to his mistress.
“How is it possible to take two words that have brought me so much joy and turn them into the most foul of insults?” Catherine asked her reflection as she straightened her crown. “Who was that man who called me a mewling hedge-pig?”
“Lord Ingegneri, your grace,” Beatrice, one of her lady's maids replied. “You had him hung, drawn, and quartered.”
“Ah, yes.” Catherine smiled at herself in the mirror. “How I miss the olden days. Send her in.”
“Catherine.” Mary rushed through the door, her braided hair and lush forest-green velvet gown nothing but perfection to an untrained eye. But to a fellow queen, it was evident that Mary's dressing had been hurried.
“Leave us,” Catherine commanded her maids and guards before her daughter-in-law could speak. Without a word, they bowed, curtsied, and removed themselves immediately. Catherine never asked twice. “From the look on your face and the creases in your attire, I can only assume you have raced over to interrupt my morning with the most wonderful of news.”
“It's Francis,” Mary replied in a tight voice, brushing down her skirts. “Something's wrong.”
The alliance between the two queens was precarious at very best, but they were, as always, tied together by one golden thread: their love for Mary's husband, Catherine's son, Francis.
“Has something happened?” Catherine was alert at once. “Where is he? What have you done to him?”
“It's nothing like that.” Wringing her hands, Mary paced the former queen's chambers. She had spent most of the night awake, pretending to sleep while her husband did the same, and it was only after many hours of contemplation that she had decided to come to her mother-in-law for help. “He isn't sleeping. Every night he has theseâ¦dreams. Every night he wakes screaming and it's not right. He's so tired, Catherine, he could barely get out of bed this morning.”
“So let him lie in for the morning, he's the king of France,” Catherine replied with feigned carelessness. “He has only just taken the crown, Mary, and born to it or not, the title of king carries weights and burdens you and I can never dream of. As much as you and I bear as queens, it isn't the same.”
“It's not just that,” Mary replied, her dark eyes narrowing slightly. She hated when Catherine compared herself to Mary, it was a mirror she didn't care to look into. “He talks about his father, about blood. And day by day, his temper is suffering. Francis isn't a man who thrives without his rest. I'm worried for him.”
“His father was the same,” Catherine said with a sigh. “Highly strung at the best of times and unmanageable without his sleep. I used a sleeping draught when things got difficult, knocked him right out. Let me see if I can't find a batch.”
“I don't wish to drug my husband,” Mary said, still pacing. “Francis and I are not you and Henry. I know he would feel better if he would talk to me, butâ¦for whatever reason, he cannot.”
Catherine rolled her eyes at the young woman before her. From time to time, her heart softened toward her daughter-in-law, they had loved each other when Mary was a young girl, after all, but she had little time for indirect requests and the refusal to deal with a problem using the simplest solution available.
“Mary.” She sat tall in her pale yellow robes, the silk echoing the color of her carefully pinned hair. “Would you like me to speak to Francis?”
“I would,” Mary said, taking a deep breath.
“You believe he might be more comfortable speaking to me about whatever it is that is troubling him, than to you?”
Reluctantly, Mary nodded.
“Perhaps the lack of a legitimate heir is what keeps him awake at night?”
Mary stood stock-still, stunned by Catherine's bluntness.
“I understand, Mary,” she continued, turning her back to her visitor and carefully tracing her eyebrows with her ring finger. “Although it was never Henry who worried himself out of dreams over his illegitimate son and mistress. Are you sure you aren't the one who is losing sleep?”
“I came to you out of concern for your son,” Mary said in a low and dangerous voice. She was not in the mood to be tested.
Although she knew she had crossed the line, Catherine couldn't help but smile, it was always fun to rattle the royal cage. “The country is in a weakened state, Elizabeth sends spies to infiltrate our household and our own court is being poisoned against us by Lord Narcisse's mere presence. All while you are planning parties for your cousins. I would worry less about my ability to have a baby and more about keeping your head on your shoulders. If Francis makes even one mistake right now, says one wrong thing to one wrong lord, we are at risk. All of us. And your secret bolt-holes won't help you if enemies come for you while you sleep.” Catherine pursed her lips, but did not turn to face the Scottish queen.
“At least Francis and I will likely already be awake,” Mary said, turning toward the door. “Thank you for your help, Queen Mother.”
, Catherine said to herself as the door slammed shut.
had some color to it.