"Sir, pardon for the interruption, but her Majesty has requested a private audience with you."
Francis looked up from the documents he was signing and focused on the maid standing in front of his desk in surprise. His candle was nearly burnt out; if the maid hadn't arrived when she had, he would have been sat in the dark with a stack of papers and an entire bottle of ink, but no light to see what he was doing with them.
Still, the maid's presence was unexpected but by no means unwanted, although she did bring with her a request quite unusual. His quill, after looping ink blots in the corners of white parchment, was put back in its place to process the young girl's words.
"A private audience? Did she by any chance mention what purpose this gathering was for?"
Calling on his queen was something he often did; though war had not been declared for more than a decade, maintaining the kingdom’s militia was challenging, to say the least. Though he was more than capable of keeping the soldiers in line, (Name) would always have an interesting topic or other concerning them – a new battle strategy, if needed, or new ways to revolutionise armour or weapons.
Or if he was feeling lonely and wanted some time alone with her, he would make the necessary arrangements. Though, whenever she was in need of his more... illicit services, she would never take it upon herself to call for him, insisting that it was only proper for an invitation to be issued by gents if wishing to consort with young ladies.
"Sir, indeed she did not. She was very brief with her message, but I daresay Queen (Name) has been of a restless temperament since her return to the courts. It would be wise not to keep her Majesty waiting."
That was expected. If the queen was indeed in need of her paramour, she would under no accounts mention this to a mere maid. However, he had to say his interest was piqued at the mention of her 'restless temperament'. He briefly wondered what brought that on. (Name) was always travelling to various lands to secure foreign trade and maintain friendly relations with her neighbouring countries.
His chest burned slightly at the thought of (Name) without a confidant there with her – though she had all number of servants and officials travelling with her at all times, he still held the selfish desire to accompany her, but of course only her official advisor had the pleasure of her company on trips, and so he remained in the palace with no real purpose until her return. "If that is her desire. I will make my way to her immediately. If you please: send refreshments up to meet us there."
"Very well, General."
Heaving a heavy breath, Francis pushed back his chair and muttered an oath at the painful sensation of stretching his bones back into place; he remembered the first time he had undertaken a similar action in (Name)'s presence, and she had made pleasant jokes in his name about old age for the many weeks that followed after. Small lines crinkled around his eyes at the memory. Though at the time, he was less than amused, looking back he admired her surprising wit and suppressed the deeper feelings that bubbled to the surface.
As her leading general and commander of her troops, he played a single purpose: to stand by her side as a defender of her lands, and that was where his role ended. To do otherwise would be to forgo his duty and betray his country, betray her trust. He rationalised that there was no point in pursuing pointless, boyish fancies, ideals likely also shared by the bulk of his troops, and hoped that his feelings, though insistent, would eventually fade over time as his infatuation passed. He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose; deep down he knew the feelings would never truly subside.
"This way, my lord."
Francis smiled, despite the inner unrest. He did not recognise the maid; deeming her a new recruit in the Queen’s employ which made her unaware of the happenings of the palace. "I know the greatroom in which we often assemble, there really is no need to personally take me there yourself."
"Her Majesty bid me take you to a different lounge, sir." At the maid's words, Francis furrowed his brows, but said nothing more.
However, he was not expecting the place the maid eventually led him to. He bowed to the maid, who bobbed a quick curtsy back with a red face, noting that he had been led to and escorted into (Name)'s private drawing-room, complete with a footman waiting to open the doors for him, rather than the stately greatrooms they normally occupied together.
He didn't even need to look up to know that (Name) was nervous. She had been pacing, something she only did when she had troubling thoughts on her mind. He hoped it wasn't war, or at least one that did not directly involve his nation. He did not care to see armies invade his country, and yet he was anxious to put his and (Name)'s combined combat tactics into action. In addition, a real battle would be just what Francis could use to give his newer recruits some firsthand experience.
At the sound of the doors being opened and Francis being ushered in, she looked up and stopped her pacing. She skirted past him, shooing both the maid and the footman away to notify the other staff in the estate to not disturb them until further notice, and shut the grand mahogany doors with a hurried lack of grace, quickly locking them and depositing the key on a low table carrying a polished silver tray with a teapot, cake and two teacups.
Finally noticing his questioning glance and raised eyebrows, her childish grin turned sheepish as she drew her hands behind her back. "A good evening to you, Francis. I need us to be alone for some time."
He decided not to comment any further on her strange actions. Though he was intrigued, was this outburst of forwardness what was making (Name) so uneasy before?
"My queen. As always, a pleasure." This was the first time he had stepped foot in the room; lavishly decorated in red velvet, purple brocade and gold leaf - a sultan’s dream come true.
Her smile was quick to appear on her face, as she kissed his cheeks heartily. Making her way back to the low table and the settee placed next to it, she sat, poured a small amount of tea in the two cups, placed the porcelain pot back in its original position and motioned for him to join her.
"Please, sit. I have much on my mind, and... many matters to discuss." Taking a sip from her cup and offering another to him, she stretched her lips into another smile, although one far more strained.
Francis moved towards her, but avoided the chair she had prepared for him completely, instead placing himself at her feet and slowly pushing up the heavy fabric of her dress, eliciting a long, drawn-out sigh from the woman above him as she relaxed into the furniture.
"I am sure your travels have been taxing. Allow me to release some of that tension."
(Name) placed both cups back on their saucers and took off her gloves, and closed her eyes as she felt some of her pent-up emotion leave her. "Francis, you restore order to my chaotic life! I may have to fire my official advisor; you do her job just as well, only with twice the vigour. Truly, I am blessed to have you by my side. There is no true way to convey my thanks, but I will attempt to do so anyway."
He could think of many ways she could convey her thanks, but none of them ended with her purity intact. He held his tongue and continued to knead the soft flesh of her calves. "So, what is this issue that has been pestering you since my recent arrival? Am I to alert our army? Is there perhaps conflict to be dealt with?"
"Of course. No, we do not have any need to prepare for war. Our allies are strong and our neighbours are still friendly – those that are not still rebuilding, of course. What I have to say is no less important, however," she dropped her smile. "As you are well aware, after the passing of both mother and father, God bless their souls, I ascended to the throne in their place at the tender age of seventeen. However, this was over a half-dozen years ago–"
"Ah, yes, the peak of twenty-four. A grown woman to many, but no less lovely in my eyes." He crooned, and continued to caress her thighs.
She exhaled deeply before continuing. "Yes, and this current position of my age leads us to a slight; I believe that I am now in a rather precarious position; my parents left me but a single sister, who is already married and therefore ineligible for the throne in my place in the event of failure to complete my royal duties. It is for this reason and my status as a young, unmarried queen that I now seek a husband to help me procure and raise an heir, before... before it is too late, I suppose."
(Name)'s words stunned him, and he immediately let go of her legs, but she seemed unaware, and continued to stare ahead with a faraway look in her eyes, as if under a spell. As queen of her country, it was, of course, expected of her to marry and bear children – but he had not expected it. Of course, he had always known he would eventually have to let her go, but he had not realised how soon it would happen – the years had simply flown by him. Gently getting to his feet, he eased himself into the chair (Name) had prepared for him earlier as he waited for her to continue.
"Though I am loath to offer my hand to another king, or any noble for that case, I recognise that at my age, I can no longer put off a royal union any longer if I am to raise a child and live long enough to see them take the throne in my place. My sister has written me many letters informing me of this... situation, and I have finally decided to heed her advice."
Francis pursed his lips. "Indeed we are not overflowing with riches like our neighbouring countries, nor are we producing many materials; you know as well as I that silk is our only major export, but surely this is not the only reason why you refuse to marry another royal. If you want a suitable match close to your own home, you should consider Prince Arthur as a viable option. He has a good head on his shoulders, with a strong bloodline, and you may be able to remain in your palace due to the close proximity of your lands, if you so desire."
(Name) almost laughed out loud. "You must be joking. Artie is my close friend, and I do love him to bits, but by God, he has the personality of a stick insect. He is more devoted to maintaining his gentlemanly image than he ever would be to me."
"Perhaps, but you realise that even if Arthur is unsuitable, he has four other brothers, all eligible bachelors." Francis pointed out.
This time, she did laugh. Very hard. "Not all. Do you remember little Peter? He is still a young babe – I do not think he has yet reached fourteen. I suppose they all have their quirks, but really, all five brothers manifest the same, or at least similar issues related to poor Arthur’s plight. Plus, the eldest, Allistor, has a mighty terrible temper. I should not like to be forced to deal with that daily if I can avoid it."
"Surely it is not so bad as you say."
"Francis. Yes, it is terrible. No woman with any whit of sense would suffer themselves to marry him; not unless they have a temper to match his – even then, still would I worry for their safety."
"Well, then. Who else would you offer your hand to; aside from yourself, of course?" She then laughed again, but her laugh was cut short as she looked like she had only just remembered something, feeling quite uncomfortable. She picked up her teacup, intending to take a sip from it, but decided against it at the last moment, setting the fine china back down again on the tray. Francis couldn’t help but ponder on the root of her discomfort and strange behaviours.
"Francis, you need to hear me now. I have no desire to marry Arthur! I share the same desire to avoid a union with any of his brothers – especially Allistor. None would make me happy, I am sure of it. I also refuse to leave my country or place her in the hands of another; I am loyal to my subjects and I would regret leaving them to the mercy of foreign dignitaries."
Francis leaned over and encased her left hand in his, caressing her soft knuckles with his thumb. "My queen. Marriage cannot be focused on what one party wants; this will not bring about happiness. And I am afraid, in your case, you have more than one person's happiness to worry about: not simply your own, but that of your subjects, as well."
She glanced down quickly at their entwined hands, inhaling sharply as recalled her hand and folded both in her lap, still unable to meet his intense gaze. "I know. But–"
He interrupted her, at this time not caring for societal graces or the differences in station. "Then, pardon my impertinence, but how do you expect to find happiness and comfort if you rebuff any and all potential suitors to take your hand?"
"I– well, I..."
"Speak, (Name). It is unbecoming of a queen to stutter in front of her subjects."
"I wish you would no longer refer to yourself as my subject, Francis! I wish for you to marry me!"
Francis couldn’t believe what he had heard, and by the shocked expression on (Name)'s face that no doubt mirrored his own, she thought the same. The silence that followed stretched to a near unbearable point, but neither party was eager to break it. He didn’t know what to say. (Name) was looking anywhere but at his eyes, the teacup she had once again picked up at some point shaking very slightly in her hands. Moments passed as he chose best how to proceed with his next words, his heart hammering in his chest. But as he opened his mouth to speak, she hushed him with a single gesture.
"That was an outburst I did not intend for you to hear. But please, I beg that you listen to my reasoning before you refuse my proposal, and know that I am coming to you not as your queen or a royal, but simply from the place of a woman entirely infatuated with a man."
Francis' heart leapt at your admission, but he shushed his emotions and allowed you to continue.
"For the better half of a year I have been burdened by my title. The list of nobility eager to take my hand and assert themselves as ruler seems to never end. But I am not blind, Francis. I see their schemes and I know their intentions are less than noble. To them, I am seen purely as a tool to seize power and control from. Some target my treasury, others my titles, and few lecherous others my bedchambers. But you are different, Francis; I know you hold this great nation in high esteem and I know that she would only continue to flourish under your care. I simply cannot marry another with full trust in their motives. I believe this will be the first and only matter in which I can put my heart first and still be confident in the choice I have made."
"Francis. No more formalities, please. You must know by now that I am utterly and irrevocably in love with you, and now you know my other reasonings. I want us to be on equal standing – I want to hear you call me only by name, not by my title. Please, do your country and her people a favour and accept my offer of marriage. Take my hand, and become my lawful husband and the righteous king of our country."
He thought over his options. Though she was young and inexperienced (in more than one area), she was not naïve – (Name) had a strong head on her shoulders and a heart that beat, first and foremost, to her country and her responsibilities. Francis smiled - she would make for a perfect wife.
"It would be my honour, (Name)."