Mary hardly noticed the soft click of the door that signaled Catherine's departure, so intent was she upon the still figure lying stretched out upon the bed. "Is there anything I can bring you?" she asked, carefully moderating her words to ensure that they were calm. Even. Ordinary. It was an innocuous question, after all—the sort that any wife might ask of a husband before retiring for the night.
But she was no ordinary wife, her husband no ordinary man. Their lives and responsibilities were nothing if not extraordinary, and whatever normalcy they had been able to carve out for themselves in those early days of their marriage was now long past.
Francis said nothing and simply blinked at her in that slow, painfully endearing way he had whenever he felt sleepy or unwell.
"I've sent for oranges from the trees in Nice," she went on, her manner both matter-of-fact and cheerful as she crossed the room and swept up her skirts with both hands so that she might step up easily to their massive four-poster bed. "They'll be arriving tomorrow morning—"
"I don't care about any of that anymore," Francis interrupted softly, and whatever words she had been preparing to speak died in her throat as he settled his luminous, sad eyes upon her and smiled faintly. "I just want more time with you."
It sounded like a goodbye—the expression of a last, unfulfilled wish—and though she tried to smile reassuringly at him, her chin wobbled and the ready tears which were a constant threat that she now lived with, day in and day out, threatened to spill down her face.
Attuned to her mood as always, her husband slid over and lifted the bed clothes in a wordless invitation for her crawl against him and wrap herself in his arms, and this she did because it was the only thing she ever wanted to do anymore, the only feeling in the world that comforted her.
He's been so strong, she thought as he sighed and turned his face toward her, the sensation of his exhaled breath against her cheeks suddenly so precious that she could hardly bear it. Francis soon dropped into an exhausted sleep, but Mary did not. She simply lay there, wide-awake, as the candles burned on, listening to the slow thumping of his heart and the quietly labored intensity of lungs drawing in air, frightened that if she relaxed her vigilance for even a moment they might cease. Eventually, one of her maids came in to stoke the fire and coax her into her nightgown, but long after the lights had been dimmed, she continued to stare sightlessly up into the canopy draped above them, tenderly stroking his soft golden hair, until finally the darkness of a fitful sleep claimed her.
She awoke sometime later and instinctively turned her head, seeking the comforting sight of his tousled curls on the pillow next to hers, only to find herself alone.
No, no, no. He cannot be gone.
"Francis?" she called out pitifully, barely able to get air into her lungs so afraid she was that he would not answer.
"It is alright, Mary. I'm here."
Hearing her name upon his lips sent a flood of relief coursing through her, though it quickly dissipated when she pushed herself onto her elbows and found him sitting frozen at the edge of the bed, his back to her and his head in his hands. The moonlight that poured through the casement outlined him in burning silver, casting him in a pale, unearthly glow.
He had never looked more beautiful, or less real.
"Darling, what are you doing?" she asked, her words heavy with interrupted sleep. "Come back to me where it is warm."
"I am not cold." He did not turn around, and his back, firmly to her, remained rigid. "Go back to sleep, Mary. I'm not going anywhere tonight."
Tossing back the blankets, she gathered the long hem of her nightgown into her fists and crawled across the bed toward him on her knees, stopping only when she had nestled herself firmly against his back. "Do not ask me to fall asleep without you lying by my side, Francis," she whispered as she twined her arms around him and leaned her cheek against the curve of his shoulder blade. "I have the whole rest of my life for that."
He did not relax against her as she had hoped he would. Instead, he placed his hands over hers where they lay clasped upon his chest and patted them in what she assumed was meant to be a reassuring manner. "I am by your side, Mary," he murmured, but his voice sounded so coarse, so strange, that she raised her head from his shoulder in alarm.
"Francis? Are you all right?"
"Are you…are you crying?"
She could feel him swallow thickly. "Mary, please go back to sleep. Please."
"Is it the pain?" She glanced over her shoulder toward the bedside table, thinking of the vial of opium the physician had left there for just this purpose, then cursed under her breath when she remembered that Charles had swiped it in an effort to spice up his evening with the Duke of Toulouse's daughter.
Damn him, she thought fiercely. Who steals a pain-relieving tincture from their dying brother?
How lucky you are, Charles, that I have decided not to marry you. It would be too tempting to kill you in your sleep for this.
"I am not in pain, Mary," Francis whispered, and in her immense relief at those words, she began pressing frantic kisses against the feverish skin of his neck.
"Then what is it, my love? Why can you not sleep?"
"I was thinking of my sister."
Well, that was an unexpected answer. "Claude?"
Elisabeth. His eldest sister.
Elisabeth, queen of Spain and step-mother to Don Carlos, whose quest for a royal bride had most likely altered the trajectory of Mary's life just that very evening.
"What about her?" Mary asked cautiously.
"I was thinking of her letters."
"Yes," he replied, and though she could not see the wistful smile on his face, she could hear it in his voice, "her letters. I was trying to recall if she had ever described the royal palace in Madrid. I woke up having dreamed of you there, but…the details were not clear. The colors, the sounds…everything was muted. Everything but you, Mary. You—you shone like a star, but I could not…I could not place you. I could not imagine your life there, even in my dreams."
In her mind flashed the image of his face earlier that evening when she had reported the news of Don Carlos's suit, the stricken expression which he had quickly masked behind a practical remark concerning the strength of the Spanish navy. In the moment, she had chalked it up to a hastily covered disappointment that she would not be there to serve as Charles's regent, but she realized now that there had been something else in those brilliant, devastated eyes of his. Something he had not told her.
"I know you are worried that I will not be able to secure protection for Scotland—"
"It's not that."
"Then what is it?" she pressed on desperately. "You have been so strong, so selfless through all of this—"
At those words, to her horror, he burst into tears.
"Francis, please," she begged. "Tell me what is wrong!"
"I wasn't being selfless," he confessed wretchedly. "I want what is best for you, Mary. I will always want what is best for you. But, I was not being selfless."
"I don't understand."
"I never would have suggested that you marry Charles if I had not thought it a sensible plan. I hope you know that. But when you told me tonight of Don Carlos's search for a wife, I realized I had not just been thinking of you, or Charles, or France. I had been thinking of myself, as well."
"What do you mean?"
He closed his eyes, and she could see the glittering tears that slipped from their corners and slid, unheeded, down his face. "I don't know what happens after this. I only know that, after I am gone, I will no longer have any control over what happens to the people that I love. But what of me? Where will I be? They say the soul lives on, but does it remember? Will I remember you, Mary? Will I mourn you as you mourn me?"
"Stop it," she pleaded, wrapping herself around him all the more tightly, as if somehow her heart and her body could tie him to the earth.
"Before tonight, I never thought that my proposal of a marriage between you and Charles was about anything other than the security of your futures. But I was wrong. It wasn't…it wasn't just about that. If you had married Charles, your children would have carried Valois blood in their veins, just as ours would have. They would have grown up playing in the very same gardens where we spent so many of our own childhood hours—sleeping in the same rooms, praying in the same chapels, dancing in the same ballrooms. I could picture you in that life, Mary, for it would have been our life. You would have been safe in a position that I had provided for you, and I wanted to give you that. I so very much wanted to give you that."
She wiped her streaming eyes with the sleeve of her nightgown, unprepared for the crushing tide of emotion overtaking her. "You have given me more than enough."
He drew in a shaky breath and fell silent, and several long, painful heartbeats passed before he finally spoke again.
"Mary…I am going to miss you so much."
"I know," she said in a tiny voice.
"Knowing that I will not be by your side…that I will never see you age, never know you as a mother…it hurts more than I could have ever believed possible. But, when you agreed to marry Charles, I took comfort in the thought that I could at least imagine your life, even when I am long gone. You would be here in our home—our home, yours and mine. The thought of leaving you behind breaks my heart, Mary, but…it hurt a little less, I think, when I knew where I was leaving you."
He plunged on as if she had not spoken. "I remember enough of history to know that I will be forgotten. I've reigned only a handful of seasons. I've accomplished nothing of real merit. And I…I can accept that. But not from you. I can't bear to think of being forgotten by you. Maybe here, among our things…I want to stay real to you, Mary. I know that sounds silly and selfish. I know that. But that did not stop me from picturing you walking with Jean in the garden, holding your own son, the next Valois prince, by the hand, and telling them both stories of our childhood adventures, and letting them know how happy the late king would have been to see you all together as a family."
For a moment she could briefly picture it, too, before the image became too heart-wrenching to stand. She had so longed to be the mother of the next Valois prince, but more than that, she had longed simply to be the mother of Francis's child. "Do you not understand that I cannot bear the thought of that future without you?" she whispered. "That it means nothing to me if you are not here?"
"I told you," he reminded her softly, "I wasn't being selfless."
Unable to bear not seeing his face any longer, she placed her hands upon his shoulders and gently pushed him sideways until she was able gaze into the sapphire pools of his eyes. "I will never forget you, Francis. Never. Do you hear me?"
"Of course I know that. It's just—"
"No. I don't want to hear another word. I will remember you. I will remember you always. There aren't enough princes and castles in Spain or anywhere else that could ever make me forget the magic of what it feels like to be in your arms. I am your wife, Francis, and I will be your wife until the day that I die. Don't you ever doubt that I will remember you. As for the world…This war with Elizabeth…There has never been anything like it before. Two rival queens—sovereigns in their own right—bound by blood and torn apart by religion…The world will mark the outcome of this power struggle, whatever it may be. It will be remembered. I will be remembered, and for as long as that proves true, I swear to you upon my own aching heart that you will not be forgotten, my love, not by me or the world, for your story is my story. Hundreds of years from now, when most of what we have said and done is nothing more than dust and shadow, the world will know how much I loved you. It does not matter whether I am in France or Spain or back in my own native country…I will never forget you Francis, nor stop loving you, and anyone who chooses to tell my story will know that it begins here in France. That it begins with you."
He digested this silently for a moment, then smiled dimly and tilted his neck to drop a tender kiss upon her forehead. She could see that the exhaustion was once again quickly overtaking him, and it did not take much cajoling on her part to convince him to lie back against the pillows and pull the coverlet up to his chin.
"I hope I didn't upset you too much, Mary," he said, staring up at her longingly as she brushed the curls back from his forehead, his tone colored with regret and approaching sleep.
"I told you to stop worrying about me," she reminded him, the corners of her eyes crinkling in a way that managed to be both teasing and sorrowful.
"You are making the right choice," he assured her solemnly. "The right choice for Scotland. The right choice for you. I don't…I don't want you to believe that I feel otherwise. You were only telling the truth when you said that Charles cannot be counted on to aid you as I have, however much we would both like for him to. It's just as you said: he won't be me."
"No," she sighed, settling down beside him and nuzzling her head against his chest as she was so wont to do. Curled up beside him, she felt safer than anywhere else in the world, and the knowledge that the day was rapidly approaching when she would no longer have him at her side tore savagely at her. "You have been my husband. My lover. My very best friend. My shield and my shelter. You are both my refuge and my home. It wouldn't matter if Charles pledged to send 20,000 soldiers to protect Scotland, or if Don Carlos sent his whole armada to patrol the waters and keep our ports safe. They aren't you, Francis. No one can be you."
He did not hear her final words, for he had succumbed once more to the deep slumber of a man who has used up every ounce of his strength in his battle to survive yet another day. Mary watched him for a moment, marveling as always at his beauty, before she, too, drifted out on the dark, restful tide, thankful to have one more night in which she could fall asleep to the glorious music of his beating heart.