On the second day, Mary found herself sitting on a spare wooden chair in the castle's entrance hall, waiting for a car to take her to visit the local prison, as she'd requested.
Within the castle, she had been met with a lot of resistance to this planned visit.
She had spent the night in the hospital wing, and the hospital staff had insisted that she was not yet well enough to be venturing outside the castle. The rest of the remaining castle staff seemed to agree, believing that she was not physically ready for any sort of royal visit, while her mother and brother believed that she was not emotionally ready for it.
Perhaps they were right, but still Mary had been determined to go. She had done as she was told after her speech yesterday, staying in the hospital wing and taking her painkillers and trying to get some rest. She had only paid a brief visit to Francis's hospital bed this morning, feeling somewhat heartened by the fact that he had been moving around a little and talking in his sleep. His mind seemed to be active, even as his body recovered.
But now, Mary needed answers to her unspoken questions, and she was prepared to go against her mother and brother's wishes one more time to find out what she needed to know.
The role that Bash, Narcisse and Aloysius had played in her story remained something of a mystery to Mary, and she felt as though she could not fully help to rebuild the castle and move her country forward if she could not put all of the missing pieces of the puzzle into place.
She was exhausted, and so worried about Francis, and the grief over the loss of her father threatened to overwhelm her with each passing minute, but still Mary knew in her heart that she needed to make this journey today. If she didn't go, she would only be putting off the inevitable.
She was still waiting for the familiar sound of a royal car pulling up in the driveway outside when she was distracted by the sound of footsteps as somebody approached her.
Mary tried not to tense up or to jump in surprise; since the attack, the sound of anyone approaching her made her feel nervous.
Slowly, she turned to see Catherine walking towards her. Catherine walked with her head held high, still projecting a strong exterior to the world, in spite of everything that had happened, but Mary noticed that there was something almost hesitant in the way she walked toward her this time, and her facial expression definitely looked a little guarded.
Mary braced herself for yet more revelations; something else that she probably would not want to hear.
Catherine stood next to Mary in silence for a few moments before she finally spoke. "Whatever you might hear today, I ask that you don't judge Narcisse too harshly…"
Mary frowned at her, wondering where this was going.
"Whatever his original intentions might have been," Catherine continued with a sigh, "I feel he has…re-evaluated his priorities during the time that he was been working here. Whatever he has done, he was motivated by the need to find his son. He is no saint, I can assure you, but I don't believe he was involved in the attack, and, as impossible as it might seem, I do believe he has grown to feel something like fondness for you over the past few weeks."
Mary continued to watch Catherine as he addled mind tried to read between the lines of what she was trying to tell her.
Finally, something seemed to make some sort of sense. "You and Narcisse," Mary said slowly, as she stated what she probably should have known all along, "you were in on some sort of scheme together; something to do with the matchmaking show; something that brought you both a mutual benefit. You'd arranged it all before Narcisse arrived here."
Catherine said nothing to confirm or deny it.
Of course, Mary thought to herself. It was no coincidence that Catherine seemed to know what was going on behind the scenes of the show. She'd had someone on the inside, feeding information back to her. It would have been unlike Catherine after all, to send her son blindly into the process without having spies of her own to keep watch over the proceedings. Perhaps it had given her some sort of thrill, to work with a man who was an enemy of her husband.
And now Catherine was letting Mary know about this strange alliance, before Mary went to the prison and found it out from Narcisse.
"A little plotting is nothing compared to what happened here two days ago…," said Catherine.
Catherine was trying to soften the blow, so that Mary wouldn't judge her too harshly.
Before the attack, Mary might have felt angry about what Catherine had just told her. Maybe she would have raised her voice, argued with her; a part of her was appalled by Catherine's actions, but right now, she didn't have the energy to scream or shout at her.
The car was pulling up outside. Mary decided that she would have this discussion with Catherine at another time.
Mary still felt a little dazed as the car made its way through the hills and fields of the Scottish countryside, on its way to the local prison. She knew that she should be feeling a nervous anticipation about what she was about to encounter, and what she might be about to hear, or not hear, depending on how much the men chose to tell her.
Perhaps she would soon have the answers she was seeking, but this knowledge would come at a price.
In other circumstances, her heart would have been racing with nerves, but still she felt numb. She wondered if she would feel a full range of emotions again. She wondered if she would ever feel happy again.
The Highland prison was an old, grey stone building nestled in the hills of the Scottish countryside. It had the look of a building that had once been a castle, a fortress. In many ways, it still was. Mary already knew that prisoners were usually held here temporarily before they were transferred to larger prisons, like the one in Edinburgh. Whether their cases went to trial or not, Sebastian, Narcisse and Aloysius would not be held here for long, and Mary felt as though she had a limited timeframe to try to discover their side of the story.
The sky was grey when Mary stepped out of the car, with the threat of rain hanging in the air. She hardly even noticed.
Taking a few deep breaths to steady herself, Mary walked up the stone steps that led towards the prison's main doors. Two police officers held the door open for her as she stepped inside.
The staff working at the prison today were already expecting her arrival.
Mary was shown into the visitors' room on the ground floor of the prison, where, accompanied by her newly employed security guards, she sat down on a wooden seat and waited for the first prisoner to be brought out to her.
She had no way of knowing for sure if these prisoners would be truthful with her. They would probably share something, in the knowledge that their connection with Mary might be their only possible defence in a trial; that she might be the last person who could help them, but she suspected that she would get heavily edited versions of their stories.
It was Lord Castleroy who was shown into the room first. Mary struggled not to let out a gasp on seeing how pale and drawn he looked. He usually looked so healthy, so vibrant, but today there were dark circles under his eyes, and he walked with his head bowed. He seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He sat down in a seat opposite Mary. Only a glass partition separated them.
"What happened?" Mary asked him slowly, hoping more than anything that he would tell her that this had all been a big misunderstanding; that they had got the wrong man; that he was innocent.
Out of all the men here today, Castleroy was the one she would have least suspected to have been involved in anything like this; he was one of the few people in her family's inner circle who she had trusted; who she had truly considered a friend. She was still in a state of disbelief about his arrest two days ago.
Aloysius seemed to stare thoughtfully into the distance for a little while before he responded, like he was considering his words before he spoke...
"There were always 'political' groups who were in the opposition to the crown, even back when England and Scotland were united," he began, after a few more seconds' hesitation. He sounded like he wasn't entirely sure where to start. "I got involved with one particular group when I was young and foolish. I allowed myself to believe that we were only trying to do good; to allow for a more equal society, with more help for the poor and the needy, and less of the wealth and the privilege that came with being royal as a result. I was naïve, back then, to some of the more extreme methods these rebel groups could resort to to advance their cause."
"I put money into some of their causes," he admitted as a frown crossed his face. "I became close to several journalists and politicians in order to gain access to information-I could make use of my father's title, you see, in inner circles, and back then, I was dating a woman who worked in media. However, it wasn't long before several of my acquaintances began to recognise that I had a talent for debating politics and current affairs, and I was offered television work. Those involved with the rebel groups thought that they could make use of my new-found earnings and connections to further their anti-royal agenda, especially as this was at the time when a royal family had also been instated in Scotland, and there was further scope for rebellion…but then something life-altering occurred…"
"Which was?" Mary prompted him.
"I became a father," said Aloysius, with a flash of pride in his eyes, even despite his current circumstances.
Mary could tell from his tone of voice that this had been the proudest moment of his life.
"Children have a way of putting everything into perspective," he said. "They make us re-evaluate our priorities; show us what's truly important. By then, the actions of the rebels were becoming more aggressive, more violent. I feared for my children's safety, and I no longer had any interest in being a part of a rebel group. And so, I began to break away. But of course, they do not let people get away so easily. I had to resort to bribery and secret payments and promises to keep certain things quiet, in order to have a hope of cutting ties with them. I had to make a few 'donations' to their causes before I left, to buy their silence. I knew my career would be ruined, if my past ever got out; those in the rebel group knew that, too; it was always something they could use against me…
"I hoped that it would all just go away, with the passing of time, especially as more groups were discovered by the authorities and they started to move on and disband. But it was not to be…"
He sighed, looking exhausted, and like every word was costing him a great effort.
"The authorities were starting to get suspicious about rebel group activity, not only in Edinburgh but also in the quiet country villages around the castle. They had started their investigations, and it turned out that some who were envious of my career-and angry that I had not used my position to further the rebel cause-decided to give information about my past dealings to the authorities. They traced my name back to previous accounts; they were starting to ask questions about my past financial dealings. The night of the attack was all the opportunity the authorities needed to place me under arrest and bring me in for questioning."
Mary watched Aloysius Castleroy in stunned silence, hardly able to believe that he had been carrying this secret with him for so long. Perhaps she did not know him at all.
"Does Greer know about all this?" Mary eventually managed to ask him. She did not yet know what to think, what to feel, but her feelings of concern for her friend were very real.
Lord Castleroy did not meet her eye this time. "She knew bits and pieces," he told her. "I'm afraid that the secrecy has put a lot of strain on our marriage recently."
Mary could feel her heart sinking at his words. Before she could say anything else, two prison guards were at Aloysius's side, ready to lead him away; it seemed that his visitation time was up for today.
"Will you check on Greer for me?" he asked Mary hurriedly, his tone of voice full of genuine concern. In spite of everything, he still wanted to make sure that Greer was all right.
Mary could only nod in agreement; Greer was her best friend, and she had to speak to her soon; no doubt she was going through her own personal turmoil, in the same way that Mary was, every time she thought of Francis.
Castleroy managed a brief nod in Mary's direction as he was led away.
He left Mary feeling utterly confused; her mind was still foggy from the trauma of the attack and her injuries and her medication, and she could not quite process everything he had just told her; she did not know what to think of him.
Mary might have slumped in her seat a little after speaking with Aloysius, but she had to quickly regain her composure when she saw that Narcisse was approaching the recently vacated seat, with two new guards walking close by.
Mary straightened up, trying to keep her gaze impassive as she looked him right in the eye. Narcisse was not the sort of person to show weakness in front of.
Narcisse might have been staring into the distance a little as he walked towards her, but he did not look tired, or wary, or defeated. He walked with his shoulders squared and his head held high, still defiant, even in the face of defeat.
Mary hadn't expected anything else of him.
The two of them stared at each for a few moments after Narcisse sat down, as though challenging the other to be the one to speak first.
Narcisse almost looked amused on seeing her here; as though it entertained him, to know that he had a captive audience, and this idea infuriated Mary.
"Well?" she prompted him after she had glared at him for a few moments. Unlike with Aloysius, Mary was in no doubt as to Narcisse's guilt; somehow, somewhere along the path that had taken them here, there had been some sort of wrongdoing on Narcisse's part, she just knew it, but Mary was not yet sure exactly what he was guilty of. From Narcisse, she was not expecting an explanation as much as she was expecting a confession.
"I'll admit," Narcisse began, speaking slowly-Mary wasn't sure if he was trying to be cautious or calculated-"that at first, I only took the Publicist job because I saw it as an opportunity to get revenge on the Valois family. But you already knew that, didn't you?" he asked Mary with a raised eyebrow.
Mary simply continued to glare at him.
"If it wasn't for them, my son wouldn't still be missing, forced to live a life on the run; it's rather difficult to forgive and forget, when it comes to our children," he added. "Perhaps one day, you'll find that out for yourself."
Mary chose not to remind him at that moment that Narcisse's son had likely been responsible for an attack on the French castle in the first place, and that was probably the real reason why he had been on the run for the past two years.
Narcisse hesitated for a few more moments before he continued, and Mary sensed that some sort of confession was coming: "Before I left France, I came to an... agreement with Catherine," he said. "She needed someone to keep tabs on you during the matchmaking process, to dig up any dirt that would make you ineligible to marry into the French royal family, and she offered a generous sum for my services. It wasn't personal, you see," he added with a shrug, as though he did these sorts of deals all the time. "I needed the extra money to fund the search for my son, and I was ideally placed to earn it."
Mary thought back to Catherine's words to her earlier this morning; this was what it had all been about. Catherine had paid Narcisse to spy and to send information on Mary back to her, in the hope of sabotaging the matchmaking process.
"What information did you send to her?" Mary demanded of Narcisse, a sense of anger overwhelming any sense of sadness or fear. The anger was invigorating, almost, in the same way that it had been when she'd been delivering her speech outside the castle last night; anger was the only emotion that was truly keeping her grounded right now.
Narcisse went quiet, looking reluctant to share anymore with her.
"You will have no hope of any sort of pardon if you are not entirely honest with me," Mary told him in a low voice, almost shocked by just how threatening her voice sounded right now.
Deep down, she knew that if Narcisse had harmed Francis in any way, then she would ensure that there was no pardon for him at all.
"I had a few photos of you and Sebastian sent to her," he answered, as though this wasn't even important, "along with a few photos of you sneaking out of the castle. Just enough to keep her happy and ensure I got paid, but nothing too incriminating that could potentially damage my reputation. I always had acquaintances who owed me favours; people I could depend on to follow you, and it gave me a thrill, to know that all of the 'evidence' I obtained would no doubt hurt Francis in the process…"
Mary felt a fresh wave of fury as she remembered the photographs of her and Bash dancing together at the local pub that Catherine had paraded in front of her during her visit to the French castle, along with the photos of the two of them at Greer's wedding, and the photos of the two of them dancing together at the ball on the first day of the matchmaking show. How many other private moments had been recorded and used against her and her family? How many people had been following her during this process, in the hope of working against her?
"Did you send someone to threaten me in the alleyway during Greer's wedding?" Mary asked him, desperately trying to fight off furious tears at the memory of it.
"That I know nothing about," he insisted, looking sincere. "It was around that time that I called off my deal with Catherine. I knew it wouldn't be helpful for my search in the long run, to be so closely tied to the Valois family and their money. It was more honourable even to win the money through gambling, than to have to depend on pay outs from a member of that family…"
"And what about the photo of my meeting with Conde?" Mary asked him again, just to see if he was going to change his story now about that betrayal.
"Again, I had no involvement in that," he told her, again sounding like he was actually telling the truth. "Perhaps you would be better served interrogating the guards who accompanied us that night," he suggested.
Mary's thoughts were all over the place, and it took all her strength not to simply jump up from her chair and hit him, so she could wipe the smug expression off his face.
"It was all going to be so easy," Narcisse continued, his tone more serious now, as though he had sensed Mary's rising anger. "I despised the French royal family for what they did to my son, and I despised the Scottish royal family for seeking an alliance with the French royals; the only thing I loved was the money, the power; I was going to play you all off against each other and then run away to London rich and with new leads on my son's disappearance, and leave all the mess behind me…"
"So, what changed?" Mary asked him through gritted teeth. She was almost surprised, that he had not yet confessed to any involvement in the attack. Could it be, that he had not been involved at all? Would that really make up for all his other under-handed dealings?
"Well," said Narcisse with a sigh, "as I am sure you have discovered throughout the matchmaking process, things have a way of getting more…complicated than we first anticipate…"
He paused for a little while, as though letting the weight of those words hang over Mary's shoulders.
"I began to develop…feelings for Lola," he said, looking a bit uncomfortable now. "I think perhaps I was falling in love, even though I've never felt that way before, but I have no other explanation for what I feel. And, although I am sure you will not believe me, I came to realise as the matchmaking process continued that I did not dislike you as much I'd originally thought I would; I respected you, I suppose; I could see that you had been thrown into this process against your will, and that you had no desire to simply be a puppet for the French royals; you care about your country and your family, in the same way that I care about my family. As much as it surprised me, it gave me no joy to see you end up getting hurt at the end of all this…"
And yet I got hurt anyway…Mary thought to herself, resentfully. She was not sure that she believed any of this from Narcisse, anyway.
"And then there was another…complication," he added. "I was not to know that the men I had been meeting with in secret to discuss the search for my son also had ties with rebel groups. Money had changed hands between us as I paid them increasingly large sums to try to track down my son, and, when one of the men was arrested during a riot in the capital, it wasn't long before the authorities started to track his accounts and his earnings and his previous whereabouts, and soon my name started to fall under a cloud of suspicion…"
Mary thought of the times when she had encountered Narcisse at the local pub, looking secretive and talking in hushed voices with groups of men. Was this what he had been doing the entire time? Making deals with people to try and find his son? Or was Mary being naïve to think that this was all they had discussed? Was it so far-fetched, to think that he might have been meeting with rebels to plan the attack?
"I knew I had to get out of Scotland," said Narcisse. "I had a reputation in France, and the authorities were starting to ask questions. I had all the information I could obtain about my son, and I had no reason to stay, apart from Lola," he said, looking almost distressed for a moment. "But she had already called off our relationship, and there was talk that her family was going to try and arrange a marriage with Francis in an attempt to elevate their status…"
Mary felt as though ice-cold water had been poured over her at the mention of this prospective marriage between Lola and Francis.
"What reason did I have, to stay around and watch that tragedy play out?" Narcisse asked. "When everything started to fall apart with the matchmaking process, I felt I was doing you a kindness, to see that you got to London safely, to help you escape," he explained. "Perhaps it would ease my karma a little, I thought, to give you a chance at starting a new life before I continued on in search of my son. I thought perhaps I could buy myself some sort of immunity from prosecution for a while. But I did not anticipate that there would be an attack on the Scottish castle the night before we left…"
He looked genuinely regretful that this attack had happened. Mary had to remind herself that he most likely only cared because the timing of the attack had inconvenienced his own plans, and not because he was drowning in sorrow over the tragedy that had occurred.
"Just like with the attack on the French castle, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was already under a cloud of suspicion, with too many unsavoury connections to my name, and all of it combined was enough of a reason for the authorities to place me under arrest."
Mary regarded him for several long moments, still not sure what to make of his story.
"I doubt you will believe me," he said, "but that night…when I was faced with losing Lola, I really did feel regret for some of my past wrongdoings; during those moments, surrounded by flames, I truly saw what I had done over the years, and I did not like the reflection staring back at me-"
Narcisse was interrupted by the booming voice of one of the prison guards.
With a roll of his eyes, Narcisse started to stand up.
"You know, I never really trusted you," Mary told Narcisse.
"And you were right not to," he replied, as ambiguous as ever.
With that, he walked away before Mary could ask any more questions.
Finally, it was Sebastian's turn to face her.
Like Aloysius, he looked tired and weary as he walked towards Mary. His blue eyes seemed to have lost their usual sparkle, and his expression was intense, as though he had been lost in thought for hours on end.
As Bash sat down, Mary noticed that there was a cut on his lip, and another across his face that seemed to have only just started to heal. He also looked a little bruised.
The female guard who had led him into the room seemed to regard him with an expression of sympathy, in spite of the current circumstances. Bash seemed to have a way of inspiring sympathy in people, especially women.
A perfect weapon for a rebel, Mary thought to herself with a hint of bitterness; to be able to play on the sympathies of others…
She had the distinct feeling that she too had been taken in by him, at first. She had fallen for the charm and the smiles and the flirtatious winks, in the same way she had fallen for all this with other boys during her school days. It had all seemed like so much fun, at first, but now she could only feel fear and regret at the thought that she might have been the one who had foolishly put her family in danger by trusting the wrong people.
Bash's expression looked a little guilty as he sat down opposite her, but still there was a determined look in his eyes as he held his head high and refused to cover up his injuries; he looked like a soldier who had just been in battle.
Mary regarded him with confusion. Bash had always been something of a mystery to her, and still she felt like she did not truly understand him. She thought of the tattoo on his chest, and how he had tried for so long to conceal it. She thought of how he had run into the castle on the night of the attack, speaking with the rebels like he was one of their own while also helping Mary to escape them and rescuing Kenna.
"Why?" Mary asked him. As with Narcisse, she had no doubt of guilty actions on Sebastian's part. She was not going to hope that he would plead his innocence, but she wanted some sort of explanation as to who he truly was, and what his motivation had been for being in the castle on the night of the attack, so close to the rebels, with his mother as the leader of their gang.
Unlike Aloysius and Narcisse, Bash started talking immediately. It seemed that he had nothing left to lose, and so did not care to hide anything…
"For a long time," he began, "a life with…them was all I knew."
Mary assumed that he was talking about the rebels.
"I can't remember very much before that life," he added. "My mother only told me certain stories from her past. I knew that my father had been a rich and powerful man from another country, maybe even royalty. My mother always insisted that she had been in love with him; she found out very quickly that he was married, although he had led her to believe that his marriage was an unhappy one. I think she hoped that he would one day leave his wife and be with her, but it seemed he had only ever been interested in finding a mistress. When my mother found out she was pregnant, he refused to claim his child. My mother left the country in disgrace…"
Again, Mary wondered if Henry had been Bash's father. This thought brought her little comfort.
"She headed to Scotland, where she had a few friends and extended family. She had very little, and those in the rebel groups offered support to her and her new-born child. She was bitter and angry about her circumstances, and the rebels' views and teachings had an influence on her. She rose to prominence within their ranks, became something of a leader for a few of the groups. I was immersed in their organisation before I was even old enough to make decisions of my own."
"Did their views have an influence on you?" Mary asked him. "Did you believe in what they taught?"
Bash sighed before he spoke. "I was young, and poor, and impressionable," he said. "The rebels were the only friends and family I had. I loved Scotland, and I was angry about the injustices and the inequality I witnessed on a daily basis; the royals never seemed to care, and my rich father had abandoned us; for so long, I believed that I was following the right path-no, the only path-to bring about a fairer Scotland…"
Mary could see the conflict on his face. She wondered what it was like, to love people like family while also finding out about the awful things they did.
"And then," said Bash, "as I got older, I started to see another side to the rebels."
A pained look crossed his face as he seemed to get lost in memories.
"Some of the actions, among certain groups, the methods they resorted to in order to make a change, to bring about 'justice'; the lies, the threats, the cover ups…it was all becoming too extreme, too violent; they were moving too far away from their original message. Anyone who spoke out against the more prominent groups ended up missing or injured; there was no real democracy within those rebel groups; they were becoming just as bad as those they claimed to be fighting against. I was being pressured to partake in their more violent acts, and I knew I had to try to get out…"
"And so, you thought the solution was to head to the Scottish castle?" Mary asked him with a frown.
She wasn't sure she entirely believed that Bash had been on the run from the rebels when he arrived at the castle, but she let him talk all the same.
"It was not my original choice of hiding place," he replied. "For a while, I travelled through the Highlands, from village to village, accepting temporary work, and never staying anywhere for too long. But I knew I was being followed wherever I went. It was only a matter of time before they caught up with me. When I saw the job advertised at the castle, I thought it would be the perfect cover up, the perfect double bluff; who would look for me there? They would assume that no rebel would be reckless enough to hide in plain sight among the royals...that was what was genius about it."
"Did your mother know about your plans to hide out?" Mary asked him.
"Not at first," said Bash. "She thought I just needed to get away for a little while. It was only when she moved her group to the local village that I realised she knew of my whereabouts and was hoping to exploit them. Those who were close to her seemed to have convinced themselves that my actions were all part of some grand plan; a plan that matched their own to one day invade the castle."
"And yet you went to the meetings at the local pub, to speak with your mother," said Mary, still not convinced that Bash had not been involved in the planning of the attack.
Bash seemed to hang his head in shame for a moment. "I still believed in a lot of her messages," he admitted. "I wanted you to see the other side of the story, to see the suffering that went on outside the castle walls, so you could better understand the anger of your people. I still hoped that my mother would be able to find the justice she had been seeking within those groups; that she could help those in Scotland who had suffered. It is difficult to fully detach from what we have been taught all our lives, and I think a part of me still planned to return, if things changed within the groups; if my mother could exert more influence over some of the rebels and change their ideas. It was not until the night of the attack that I realised her ideas were just as extreme as the most violent of the rebels. Her anger at my father had made her just as ruthless as the rest of them. She did not care about helping the Scottish people; in the end, she only cared about power."
"Do you know where she is now?" Mary asked him.
"No," Bash answered quickly. Perhaps too quickly.
Mary wasn't sure if he was being truthful, but she knew it was pointless to push him for further answers about Diane's whereabouts; he would not fully betray his mother.
"Did you know that the attack was going to happen?" said Mary, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice.
"I never thought they'd try something like that," said Bash. "Even taking their morality out of the question, it always seemed like too big a risk, too dangerous, too…impossible. Yet, when I saw the flames that night at the castle, I knew what they'd done. I thought if I could help, if I could save you, the royals, then my efforts would overpower the rebels' intentions. You might not believe me, but I wanted more than anything to ensure that you and Kenna were safe…"
Mary sat back in her chair a little as she processed everything that Bash had told her.
She remembered those early days before Francis had walked back into her life, when Bash had walked past her in the local village and the two of them had shared secretive smiles. But he had not just been any other handsome young man; he had not been in the village just to flirt with her. He'd had secrets, and conflicts; he'd been linked to the rebels, whether he liked to admit that or not.
Bash must have read something in her facial expression, because his look softened for a moment. "I really did care about you, you know," he said. "You were a welcome distraction in a world full of conflict. Perhaps," he added, looking hesitant now, "if you and I had just been an ordinary boy and girl, meeting in the village; if I had not been connected to the rebels, if you had not been royal, with all the expectations of an advantageous marriage and alliance; if you'd come to me with an open heart, do you think things would have been different? Do you think things ever could be different?"
"Bash…" Mary started. She knew what he was seeking from her; some sort of reassurance that the two of them could have had a chance, if not for all the other baggage they both carried; that there might still be a chance, if they could both break away from all this.
Mary looked at Bash through the glass partition, where she could also see her own reflection.
Bash looked like everything she used to want. If she had met him, back in London, during her school days, he would have been her type. But that girl was long gone. There was a different woman looking back at Mary through the glass now. Although she had not realised it at the time, everything she used to want had started to fade the moment she'd stood up on the stage in the Throne Room on the first day of the show and she'd seen Francis looking back at her.
Slowly, Mary shook her head. "Francis..." was all that she could say in response.
"You love him," said Bash, as he bowed his head.
Mary felt the tears in her eyes as his words hit her. As the tears started to fall, it was as though fresh waves of realisation were crashing through her body.
Love. She had never truly acknowledged this feeling for Francis, but now that somebody else had said it out loud, spelled it out to her, she knew deep in her heart and soul that this was the truth.
She was in love with Francis.
Perhaps she had been in love with him all along. Up until now, she had pushed this feeling down, denied it as much as she could, refused to let herself believe it. It had been easier to ignore how she felt at first, because her feelings had been so wrapped up in so many layers of negative emotions; anger at having to partake in the matchmaking process, painful memories of the past, hatred of the French royals, the belief that Francis could never truly care about her in that way, that he would always put his duty first, no matter what.
Now that Mary was allowing herself to acknowledge that she was in love, it was something of a relief to finally admit it, but still the feeling terrified her; it made her feel so raw and vulnerable; she had almost lost Francis on the night of the attack, and now it scared her even more to lose him again, to find out that he could not forgive her for her betrayals, or to discover that her feelings for him would not be reciprocated in the cold light of day.
It was one thing, for Francis to confess his love in what he believed to be his dying moment, but would he have second thoughts, now that he was faced with ruling a country and doing his duty? Mary was scared to even think about the possibilities.
Bash seemed to be waiting for some sort of acknowledgement on Mary's part.
With a quick nod of her head, Mary got up and walked away. What more was there to say?
It had started to rain by the time Mary stepped outside again. The sky was a deeper shade of grey, and a rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance, but the droplets of rainwater almost came as a welcome relief.
Mary tilted her head up towards the sky and allowed the rain to wash over her.
Her thoughts were still muddled. She barely knew what to think about everything she'd just heard. She wasn't yet sure if she felt better for knowing the truth, or something that was perhaps close to the truth, anyway.
The feelings of guilt and blame threatened to overpower her. Aloysius, Narcisse, Sebastian…They had all arguably had increased access to the castle due to their connection with her. Was she responsible, in some way, for all their plotting and their unsavoury connections?
Mary sighed to herself. She so desperately wanted to make things right, to do her duty to Scotland, but she was terrified that she was not the right person to do so; she was afraid that there would be no chance of redemption on her part.
She was only sure of one thing; that rebuilding the castle, the country, and bringing those responsible to justice were not going to be simple, black-and-white matters; not when there were so many shades of grey.
The castle was quiet when Mary returned; it was like the whole building was still in a state of shock.
One of the new guards let Mary know that her mother was in a meeting with her advisers, preparing a statement for the press, while James was apparently in a meeting with Kenna. Mary frowned in surprise and confusion on hearing this news; she hadn't known that Kenna would be paying a visit to the castle today, and she wondered what Kenna and James were talking about.
Mary was on her way to pay a visit to Francis in the hospital wing when she noticed Greer, who was sitting on a bench in the hallway just off the entrance hall. It seemed that the guards had authorised her to visit the castle today. With Greer and Kenna already here, Mary wondered how long it would be before she also had to face Lola.
Mary's heart caught as she looked at her friend; Greer looked so lost.
Her head was bowed, but she looked up when she heard Mary approach.
She looked more remorseful than any of the men at the prison had looked.
"Mary, I'm so sorry," said Greer, with a tremble in her voice and tears in her eyes.
"Greer…," said Mary. She didn't really know what else she should say; she wasn't even sure how she was supposed to be feeling right now, but all she knew was that her friend was distressed, and she wanted to comfort her.
Slowly, Mary sat down on the bench next to Greer.
Greer seemed to be trying to find the words to talk about what had happened, to offer some sort of explanation, in the way Aloysius had. She had probably already found out where Mary had been this morning.
"I'm sure you've talked to Aloysius by now," she muttered, as a tear fell slowly down her cheek. "I didn't find out everything about his past until we were married," she continued. "I didn't know at first, that he had been involved with…them, years ago. I had no idea…he seemed to be so close to the royal family."
Mary tried her best to stay silent, to let Greer talk and give her side of the story.
"I was angry, at first, that he had been keeping secrets from me. When I found out, he insisted that it was all in the past, just a part of his history, not a part of his present or future. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I just wish he had confided in me earlier."
Mary could understand Greer's anger, about being kept in the dark about something so important. It felt like everybody had been keeping secrets from her.
"But then, as the matchmaking show progressed, people from his past started to reappear. I knew that he was paying certain people off to keep quiet. Then I found out that the authorities had started to investigate payments that had been made to prominent people in the rebel groups; those who had been involved in serious acts of violence. I was afraid…afraid for him, and his children, and my own family. Aloysius and I had been arguing on the day of the attack…I wanted to believe his assurances that he could no longer be connected to any rebel activity, but I was scared that we would somehow be accused of plotting against your family. I never thought an attack like that would happen, but when it did, I felt so guilty…I felt like it was all my fault; as though by keeping quiet I had helped to bring all this upon your family…"
Greer was really crying now. At a loss for what to do, Mary leaned her head on her friend's shoulder, seeking the support herself, as much as she was trying to comfort Greer.
"I don't blame you for what happened," Mary told Greer. And she meant it, too. She wished that Greer had said something to her sooner, but how could Greer have known that all these under-handed dealings would have allowed the most extreme of rebels into the castle to carry out an attack?
Greer shook her head, as though she did not believe Mary, or as though she felt undeserving of her forgiveness. "Things have been strained between Aloysius and I for a little while now," she admitted.
Their marriage had always seemed so perfect, at least in public, and Mary sensed that Greer had not admitted its flaws to anyone before now, for fear of shattering this perfect image.
"With all the secrets, and work and financial pressures, we started to argue more. When we first met, I believed he would be my prince, my knight in shining armour who was going to rescue me after my past heartbreaks, but now I'm not so sure…We thought that a move to London, away from all his past connections in Scotland, would be a fresh start, a chance to work on our problems; but then the attack happened, and now our future is so uncertain."
Mary wished she could offer some words of reassurance, but she wasn't sure what the future held for any of them. Since the attack, time seemed to have stood still. "It's going to be all right, Greer," she said, hoping that the words didn't sound hollow. "We'll work something out."
"Everyone thought our marriage was like a fairy-tale," said Greer. "I thought the same, at first. It's difficult to face up to the fact that that wasn't necessarily the case."
Greer's words led Mary into thinking again about just how deceiving appearances could be.
Greer and Aloysius had chosen each other, with no arrangements or political pressures. They had been perfect for one another; their relationship had had all the elements of a fairy-tale romance, all the right ingredients for happiness. And still it hadn't been enough. It seemed that there was no guarantee of a happy marriage, even if everything looked perfect on paper.
"Greer, I'm sorry," Mary told her. She was sorry that she had not had more time to spend with her friend, to be able to offer her support and advice. She was sorry that Greer had been deceived, that she had been carrying this secret on her shoulders, that she was now troubled by feelings of guilt and regret. Greer must have felt so lonely, going through all this.
"Greer," she added, "no matter what happens, you will always have a place here, in Scotland, in the castle." She felt like this was the least she could do for her friend.
Greer seemed to sense that Mary had somewhere else she needed to be, and she did not stay at the castle for much longer. She had been staying with her father and her younger siblings since the attack, and Mary arranged for one of the cars to drive her back there, making Greer promise that she would visit again tomorrow as they said their goodbyes.
After that, Mary went to the hospital wing to check on Francis.
She was still processing everything that had been revealed to her today, and she felt rather nervous now on approaching Francis's hospital bed, after Bash's words had helped her to admit to herself her true feelings for Francis.
The air seemed to be heavy with unspoken words.
Francis was still asleep when Mary sat down next to his bed, but his breathing was even, and he blinked a few times in his sleep, and he even squeezed Mary's hand when Mary reached out to take his hand in hers.
Mary took this as a sign that he was not fully out of it, and that he was making some progress in his recovery. The knot that seemed to have been present in her stomach since earlier in the morning loosened a little as she thought about this.
When Mary arrived, Catherine had been in conversation with a couple of doctors in the corner of the room, but she quickly excused herself on seeing Mary. Mary was grateful for the privacy, and for not having to have another conversation with Catherine just yet. She would think about Catherine and Narcisse tomorrow.
Mary sat and watched Francis for a little while, holding his hand in hers.
Then, without planning on it, words suddenly started falling from her lips…
"The river was surprisingly still that morning…" she began.
Next minute, she was telling Francis the whole story, her whole story, starting on that first morning by the river.
She talked of the conversations she'd had with her brother and her parents, and she mentioned how nervous she had been, about the matchmaking process; how she had resisted its rules and the arrangement at first.
The words seemed to have been pulled up from her subconscious as she re-lived all of it, trying to make sense of everything. She wanted to tell Francis the royal matchmaking story, in the only way she knew how; she wanted him to know the truth. After so many years of lies and half-truths and secrets, Mary wanted nothing more than to be honest; to be true to herself. She only hoped that Francis was conscious enough to hear her words, her confessions.
She talked and talked, going through the first day of filming with Aloysius, and how she had looked out at the crowd to see Francis standing there, and how seeing his face had plummeted her back into that memory of the past, and how surprised, how shocked she had felt on seeing him there; how she had been so unprepared for all of it.
She talked about the acts of kindness Francis had shown her throughout the process, and how she had been grateful for those moments of support.
She talked about Bash and Conde and Narcisse and Lola and Kenna and Greer, trying to explain their roles in the story to the best of her knowledge.
She talked about her mother's illness, and her father's financial difficulties, and James's determination to do his duty.
She talked about Edinburgh and Paris and London, and her memories of moments spent with Francis along the way.
And, as painful as some of the more unpleasant memories were to discuss, still she talked about politics, and secrets, and threats, and the recent attack on the castle, hoping that Francis would understand some of her actions and her poor decisions, even as she tried to understand them herself. She felt like Francis deserved the whole truth, even if that truth could be ugly at times.
As she spoke, Mary was still trying to process all of these events of the past few weeks, as much as she was trying to help Francis to understand them from her point of view.
She then tried to focus on the happier moments as she recalled their kiss under the tree, and the childhood memories the kiss had unlocked in her.
She talked and talked, telling her story, and she could only hope that Francis was listening.
By the time several of her mother's advisers insisted that Mary had to leave Francis's room in the hospital wing and get to bed, Mary might have felt tired from the events of the day, and irritated by the interruption, but her heart felt a little lighter, now that she had got everything off her chest.
The castle's staff wanted Mary to return to the hospital wing for another night, but this time, Mary insisted that she wanted to sleep in her own bed. She knew that she would only be facing a sleepless night, in the cold, impersonal surroundings of the hospital wing. She would lie awake all night, replaying flashbacks in her mind.
After some arguing, the staff finally relented. They settled on giving her more medication to help with the aches and pains and bruises, before they instructed her to get a good night's sleep, and they made her promise to call if she felt ill during the night.
Two female guards escorted Mary upstairs to her bedroom, and, at her mother's request, they were also to be stationed in the hallway outside Mary's room all night, keeping watch. Mary wasn't sure if she felt reassured or anxious at the idea of two guards being close by through the night.
Mary might have felt exhausted as she took slow steps into her room, but the moment she crossed the threshold, she suddenly felt wide awake.
She started to pace up and down, feeling restless, agitated. She knew that her mind was still too active, too full of everything that had happened recently.
Her room looked exactly the same as it had always been, and yet she felt so different; it seemed like everything had changed, and this made her feel unsettled.
She needed something to do; something to occupy her mind.
Her eyes fell on the old patchwork quilt in the corner of her room, the one that her and James had helped to sew when they were children. It was frayed around the edges, and some of the patterns had faded, and a lot of the stitching had started to come undone. Perhaps the painkillers were just confusing her emotions, but Mary suddenly felt guilty for not taking care of the blanket as much as she perhaps should have done; for allowing it to start to fall apart like that.
She walked towards it and gently picked it up, suddenly determined to repair it.
She had just found a needle and thread and started to apply a few stitches to the Scottish flag that had previously been sewn into the blanket when she was distracted by the sound of gentle knocking outside her bedroom door.
For a second, Mary tensed, her anxious mind anticipating a potential intruder as she gripped her needle as though it were a weapon, but then she heard the familiar sound of her brother's voice and she let out a sigh of relief.
"Mary, it's me," James said softly.
Her limbs still feeling heavy, Mary stood up and went to let him in.
Mary half-expected James to have something important to tell her; some specific, duty-bound reason for being here, but he simply stood in the doorway in silence for a few moments, looking very tired and like he wasn't sure why exactly he was here.
Perhaps he just needed to see a familiar face.
Wordlessly, Mary turned around and walked back to her blanket, which she'd spread out in the middle of the floor. She resumed her stitching, leaving the door open, in case James wanted to join her.
James did just that, although his steps were a little hesitant as he walked towards her. They had not had a moment to properly talk since the attack…since before the attack, even. The two of them had been united throughout the attack, but Mary felt uncertain now as to whether they had truly resolved their differences, now that the battle was over, and they were facing a few harsh realities. It was like neither of them knew where they stood with each other.
James sat down opposite Mary. Without a word, he picked up a needle and thread and took hold of a frayed corner of the blanket. And then he and Mary were stitching up the Scottish flag together, just like they used to do when they were children, before James became so serious and so distant and so focused on his duty.
It was as though the two of them could repair the damage and stitch their country back together piece by piece, as long as the needles and thread kept moving. Perhaps it was simply an impossible dream; perhaps too much damage had already been done, but Mary knew that they were both determined to try. At the very least, the two of them were working together at last.
She sensed that James had something to tell her, some news to share, but perhaps no words were needed right now. Perhaps all of their emotions were still to raw, too close to the surface. It was enough that James was here, supporting her.
Mary imagined that she could also put herself back together with every tiny movement of the needles through the fabric. Perhaps in a way she could, now that James was here with her, and they were back on the same page.
The clock struck midnight, and the two of them continued to stitch the Scottish flag back together.