"Have you heard that Lord Narcisse is Francis's prisoner? The head of one of the most powerful noble houses in France! Bash does not speak of it, but he did say that Narcisse presented a pitiful sight in the dungeons."
Kenna had been the one to deliver the news. In truth, it had not been surprising. Francis had left to capture Narcisse based on confidences she'd betrayed. She knew she'd done the right thing. But why then did she continue to feel so wretched?
Lola punched her pillow for the third time in an effort to try and wrest a measure of comfort. It proved pointless. She sighed in frustration and curled onto her side, staring off into the darkness. The drapes around her bed were drawn, leaving her to the cocooned privacy of her conflicted feelings.
Lord Stéphane Narcisse had blown into her life as suddenly as the thick grey Scottish mists did, clouding matters that had previously been clear. Initially repulsed, then intrigued, she was aware enough of her own feelings to know that along with loathing, attraction had sparked to life between them. He was a cunning man and there were rumours that he could also be cruel. Of his cunning she had firsthand experience. Of his cruelty she was not as sure, yet was not naive enough to place it outside of the realm of possibility. He scared her. Or, she revised, the feelings he encouraged – despite knowing everything he was capable of, everything he had done – that scared her.
But it had been so long since a man had made her feel desirable, did not fear her connection to the King, a man who challenged her thinking, appreciated her opinions – welcomed them – a man who, despite her better judgement – made her feel just a little bit reckless. He was dangerous, but she couldn't deny that she was drawn to his burgeoning flame like a moth. He radiated charm, confidence, a blazing sexuality and the promise of untold delights between his sheets. Danger and raw sexuality was a heady combination that she wasn't immune to. Lola shook her head to clear it. This was not the time. She'd entertained more than enough fantasies on that particular subject.
She had not gone to see him despite knowing about his incarceration for more than a week. Kenna had asked but Lola had briskly shaken her head in a negative before changing the subject, not wanting to discuss the matter. In an unusual turn for Kenna, she hadn't pressed Lola and had easily segued into an amusing treatise about the latest French fashion.
But each day that passed brought the onslaught of guilt she couldn't bear any longer. He had secured his own fate with his actions, she reminded herself. His determined blackmail of the King had lead to his inevitable and deserved demise. And yet, in a strange turn, Mary had defended him.
"Lord Narcisse is a scoundrel, I cannot deny that. He's a shrewd and opportunistic foe. Yet Francis abdicates any blame for what has transpired. We might have started this when we killed his son."
"Mary," Lola had begun gently, "Francis tried to protect you. What happened to Éduard, to you... He-"
"Francis made a choice to exclude me - his partner, his co-regent, his wife," she said bitterly. "He made a decision to bend to Narcisse's will and edict. As such, he placed the crown in jeopardy and has ensured that half of France sees our rule as feeble and therefore intermediate. He has undermined every principle we vowed to alter from the undesirable legacy left behind after Henry's rule. Even now there are ramblings of revolt. These consequences are not because Narcisse dared to blackmail the King." Mary turned, the force of her gaze meeting Lola's. "These consequences exist because the King allowed it."
Lola came back to the present and shifted onto her back. Between a fracture in the drapes she saw light filter through. Dawn was approaching. Perhaps it was time because her mind, it seemed, wouldn't rest until she had laid eyes upon him. Lola had no idea what she would say – but she was a lady and good breeding ensured that there was always something to say. She relied now on that cultivated talent not failing her.
She attended to her own toilette, donning a simple gown and leaving her hair loose. She fussed about a little, somewhat embarrassed to acknowledge that she took some time on her appearance. Disgusted, she abandoned her cause and checked on Jean-Philippe. The baby still slept soundly. When his nursemaid rose, Lola waived to her to remain seated, slipping from the room before her courage failed her.
It seemed as though the temperature dropped with every step that took her in the direction of the dungeons. She drew her cloak close, hurrying along the old stone passageways. The guard was reluctant to allow her access, but a threat of the King's displeasure should the mother of his child be denied put paid to it.
The groan of the iron gate caused a shiver to ripple along her spine as it swung open, creaking again as it shut behind her. For a moment, her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, trying to gain her bearings. The cell was small, the walls rough, jagged in places and damp - if the incessant plop plop plop was any indication. There were two barred windows which allowed for some, but not much, light to enter the depressing space.
In the corner, something stirred in the shadows. Her eyes widened as she saw Narcisse shift into the dim, pre-dawn light. Her initial reaction she couldn't hide. Goosebumps exploded along the surface of her skin and in shock, she took a step back, her hand gripping the clasp of her velvet cloak to anchor her.
"Lady Lola," he drawled, his voice low. "What an unpleasant surprise. I had often wondered when you might arrive to celebrate your glorious coup d'état."
"I would never-"
"-betray me and come to see me brought so low? Yet here you are, having effortlessly accomplished both those ambitions."
She was recovering her composure, troubled at seeing him thus. He was filthy; evident by the stale smell and the smears of dirt on his hands and bare feet. His clothes, nothing more than a peasant's threadbare breeches and a worn shirt carried evidence of mud and what she was sure was his own blood. His face was covered in a thick beard.
Despite his measured words, she was not immune to the reality that this would be an indignity to a man such as he. Was it necessary to keep him chained?
"You cannot blame me for your own actions," she said, poised, determined to hide just how unpredictably affected she was by his dishevelled state.
"No, I cannot. I blame myself for placing faith where I should have been wiser. Lesson learned."
The shackles around his hands and feet scraped across the stone floor as he struggled into a sitting position. Lola was appalled. Nothing about this felt right, just even, despite what he'd done. The aim was clearly Narcisse's humiliation and Francis had achieved it.
"Why have you come then, if not to gloat at my misfortune?" His head rested against the stone wall at his back, his legs stretched out before him. Lola felt pity stir within her and immediately rejected it. Narcisse would not want her pity, despite the fact that she felt sure he deserved it. Not even an animal deserved this.
Lola wasn't sure what to do with herself. Beside him a small, low, crude wooden table stood, a lone battered candle resting atop it. Carefully, she moved forward, reached beside him and placed the candle on the floor. Before she could move the table, he caught her hair in his hands and brought the shackled palms to his nose. Her heart squeezed when his eyes closed, breathing in the floral scent of her curls. He'd been beaten, the bruises on his face testament to it. His wrists were raw, caked blood congealing where the iron cuff ended.
"Stéphane," she whispered, confused by her own feelings as empathy, guilt and hopelessness swirled inside her. Instinctively she reached her hand towards his face and let it hover above his scruffy cheek uncertainly.
He seemed to collect himself at her soft whisper and dropped her hair abruptly, his eyes burning into hers as he shrunk back from her touch. He was angry, the thought. Good. It meant he was not yet defeated.
Lola sat primly on the low table, now a makeshift chair. She smoothed her skirts, words failing her. The plop plop plop of water hitting the floor somewhere became louder until it filled her head and the burgeoning silence that stretched between them.
"I'm not quite sure what I'm doing," she began. "But I do know that I'm sorry that you're here. Despite your words, I've not come here to lord over you." Her eyes travelled over his face again. The skin was raw and broken, bruises purpling on the surface. Her voice softened. "I suspect Francis does that well enough."
"I'm now the King's man, to do with as he sees fit, or until my usefulness no longer exists." His words were not self-deprecating; in fact, they contained some of his confident insolence of old. It stirred her anger.
"You regret none of your actions?"
"On the contrary, I regret them all. If I could change the past, the things I've done, I would." His tone had changed, taking the fire from her. He was contemplative, regretful even. "Whether you or the King choose to believe it, my actions have always been based on my beliefs of what would be best for France. I was wrong perhaps in that. And I now faithfully pledge myself to serve France with honour. But I do not change my affirmation that Francis is not the right King-"
"That is treason!"
"-yet it does not make the sentiment less true. He is a boy playing in an arena with gladiators."
"Then teach him! Help him be the King he can be. Instead you work to undermine his authority and sow discontent in his marriage."
"I did no such thing. That, my dear Lola, Francis needs to accept responsibility for. I fear the vengeance exacted upon me with regimental frequency," he touched his face gingerly, wincing when his fingers hit a tender spot, "is more about soothing the King's conscience."
She gasped, outraged and verbally attacked. "You threatened my son! Your own hunger for power threatened all the people I hold dear. Why would you ever believe I would choose to stand with you when you hung the noose above their heads?"
He was silent, his eyes burning into hers. She was not intimidated, staring back. She felt it between them then, despite the soiled setting, the energy that surged, the battle of wills, the illicit excitement.
"If it is still your belief, after everything we've shared, that I would harm your son, then I should thank you for betraying my trust before I fell so completely that I was blinded by your charms."
Lola felt her face heat. Half because of his words, the other because she knew her accusation had been excessive. Despite her sentiment, she no longer believed he would hurt Jean-Philippe. Like his word on what had transpired with his previous wives, she couldn't explain it, but she believed him.
"You were in no danger from my charms," she defended.
"Is that so? I beg to differ." His eyes blazed, his voice cold. "I might have dangled the carrot but I did not force Francis to bite. The King knows I'm right. But he refuses to accept his own part in this tragedy. My only son was murdered without a trial," he said passionately, his voice strong and clear. "I was aware of Éduard's flaws – he was insolent, inconsiderate and foolish – but he was my heir. Is it just that I accept his murder?"
Lola hung her head, aware that his sentiment reflected Mary's. There was a deep truth to it. Not the whole truth, but a part of it.
"We had words, he and I, before he came to court." The anger had left him and he swallowed hard, looking off into the darkened distance. "His errant behaviour was becoming increasingly problematic. I'd threatened to sever his allowance if he did not show some respect for the privilege bestowed upon him. That's what I have to live with, the fact that despite how imperfect he was, he was mine and we parted in anger."
Anything she thought to say sounded trite and inadequate. He couldn't hide his pain and something permanent shifted inside of her. I am not a soulless monster, he had once told her. No, no he wasn't.
"We've all played a part. Perhaps if I'd acted sooner, we would not be where we are."
"By acted sooner you mean betrayed my trust earlier?" He cocked a brow and it infuriated her.
"I mean stopped your asinine flirtation." Her head spun. He could inspire her compassion and her fury within the blink of an eye.
"By your you surely mean our? I never took you for a woman who did not recognise her willingness to participate." Lola rolled her eyes as he continued. "You enjoyed every moment as much as I did. I saw your fire; you blossomed under the challenge I presented you."
"Your arrogance knows no bounds," she scoffed.
A small smile flitted across his lips and her heart betrayed her by tumbling. I've missed him. The realisation troubled her.
"No other man at court valued you for anything more than your beauty. They feared the King's wrath and I was the only up to the challenge, willing to scratch beneath the icy facade you present to the world and uncover the passionate women beneath. No man at court could have made you happy."
Lola stiffened at the sting of his words. "And you would have?" she challenged. "You are impossible."
"Perhaps I was. But now I've learnt my lesson. Once a fool is the mark of a man. Every instance thereafter is the mark of a halfwit. I'm many things, but not that." He stared at her through hooded eyes and she shifted uncomfortably. He had the ability to disconcert her as no one else. "You are forever safe of my advances Lola. No message is received more clearly than a knife to the proverbial back."
"I did what was right," she reiterated, refusing to feel disappointed. This was what she wanted, for him to leave her alone. "I'm sorry that you were hurt, but I'll not feel the burden of it across my shoulders."
"Sleep well then. Although I suspect, if the circles beneath your eyes are any indication, that sleep eludes you as much as it does me." He was shrewd, even brought so low, his eyes missed nothing. "Your conscience stirs." He grimaced, regret etched into his weary features. "In that we are aligned for mine torments me in equal measures. I stay awake in this pit and play the past months over in my head." I do too, she cried silently. "I see many opportunities to have done things differently. But foresight comes too late."
Their eyes locked and eventually she looked away, confused by the regret she saw there, the twin emotion she felt stir within her.
"I should go." Lola hesitated. "I will speak to Francis." Although she was not sure what she would say.
His eyes hardened. "No."
She didn't contradict him. He had his pride.
Now that she'd seen him, should she feel peace? Relief? She felt none of it. Discontent stirred in her blood because Mary was right. Grudgingly, Narcisse was too. They were all to blame for where France now found itself. It began the moment the King and Queen had orchestrated the death of his son Éduard. No matter how they might justify it, it was the moment they had lit the tinder that now threatened to engulf them all in a raging fire.
She knocked on the door to alert the guard and turned back, seeing for the first time how he shivered. There was no blanket, nothing to stave off the cold. Impulsively she untied her cloak and returned to him. Ignoring the stern warning in his eyes, his pride making him vulnerable, she draped the fabric around him. Narcisse was unable to stop his body curling into the warmth it provided.
Lola felt tears prick behind her eyes and blinked them away rapidly. This is not right, her conscience screamed, louder this time. He was clearly beaten with frequency, forced to endure shackles when he was already caged and stripped of his dignity. Not even he deserved this. She would speak to Francis, even if all it did was release him from the iron restraints.
He began to speak but she shook her head, her finger pressing lightly against his lips. Their eyes met and she flushed, dropping her hand as if scalded.
"Thank you." The sentiment was genuine, heartfelt, his voice low and gruff with emotion.
Her insides clenched and she stood, leaving the stone chamber as fast as her legs would carry her. Back in her rooms, Lola sagged against the door, sliding down to the floor.
She knew she'd done the right thing. But she also knew that what was being done to Narcisse was wrong. How do I make this right? They'd all made mistakes and they were all paying for it in cruel and unimaginable ways.
Lola thought again of Narcisse shivering in the corner of his cell and bit her lip anxiously. She was in great danger, she realised, of falling in love with a man who was an enemy of the King of France. She breathed out slowly, somehow simultaneously relieved and dismayed to acknowledge the truth.
Wiping at the tears that had rolled silently from her eyes, she moved, rummaging through her old chests. Armed with what she needed, she left her room and summoned a guard.
"See these clean clothes taken to Lord Narcisse directly. Also provide him with clean water to bathe."
"My Lady, the King's Deputy has left orders-"
"If Bash questions the edict, direct him to me. Now go!" Her tone and expression brooked no opposition. When he disappeared from sight, she went back to her chambers and sunk into a nearby sofa. Whether to sooth her own conscience or not, she had to find a way to make things right. Determined, she penned a note to Francis requesting an audience and left it for a servant to deliver.
If France was on fire, she would have to be the cooling rain.
a/n: This was planned as a one-shot. And now I'm finding myself thinking about it - a lot- so its about to become a multi-chapter. Thank you for reading