Author's Note: Hello everyone! Thank you for taking an interest in this story.
A quick note before I begin: "The Heir and the Spared" is inspired by the "warming pan" rumor involving Mary of Modena, second wife of James II. The rumor was that Mary secretly brought in someone else's baby boy into her birthing chamber, and passed the baby off as her son. While the rumor was proven absolutely false, I thought it was a very interesting idea for a story. If you are a history buff who is familiar with the real story, this is not based on true events so much as inspired by it. I do not mention James' first wife or his children by her, and thus this story does not contain the Glorious Revolution; instead, other parties will threaten the throne.
This plot has been in my head for years now, and I enjoyed writing it. I hope you also enjoy reading it! Thanks again for reading.
The Heir and The Spared
"And… there." Sarah stepped back to judge her handwork. The queen's hair had been coiffed with care in Her Majesty's favorite style: tight, close-lying curls adorned the top of her head, then cascaded into looser curls that spilled down her back and shoulders. "You look most becoming, Your Majesty"
"Thank you, Sarah."
Queen Mary gazed into the looking glass, studying herself, turning her head this way and that. Pearls dangled from her ears and circled her neck - presents from the king. Over the years, the skin around her soft round chin had started to loosen, but her dark eyes were as sharp and bright as ever.
"His Majesty will not be able to take his eyes off of you tonight," Sarah conjectured.
Pausing in her visual survey of herself, the queen froze. The words that she had overheard earlier that day floated back to her, unwanted: ...getting older now, and you still have no son. It would certainly not be the first time a king looked elsewhere…
She had been walking to James' chambers to surprise him, for once unattended by any of her ladies-in-waiting, when she had recognized Sunderland's voice, speaking low and urgent to her husband. While the rest of the conversation remained unknown to her, the implications of those words was quite clear enough. She had not stayed to hear more.
Tonight, of course, Sunderland would be at the feast and ball - the ones being thrown in her honor - and he would smile at her, bow to her, and drink to her health. And she would have to smile mildly back, all the while pretending she did not know of his treachery.
"And may I say, Your Majesty," Sarah added with a smile, "happy birthday. May God bless you with another year of health."
Remembering herself, the queen forced a smile. "Thank you, Sarah. But I shall thank you not to remind me of my birthday again."
Though the queen's tone had been collected, her Italian accent, which had faded over nearly fifteen years in an English court, edged into some of her words when she was displeased.
Sarah swallowed, withdrawing and hastily beginning to put away her tools. "Of course, Your Majesty. I apologize."
Rising from the chair at her vanity, Queen Mary drew herself up to her full height. Thirty was not a bad age, really. But by this time, she should have been a mother many times over, not considering with fear the last dwindling of her childbearing years.
As she'd had to remind herself many times over the last decade, she was not a mother, but she was still a queen. As she longed for the duties of motherhood, the duties of queen still called. She had no real interest in politics; when she and James had married, he had been the second son of a king in good health. Politics, however, had found her nonetheless.
With a final glance in the looking glass, she smoothed her hair over her shoulders, careful not to cover her ornate brooch.
"They will be waiting for me," she said, lifting her skirts with a practiced hand. "Thank you for your help. That will be all. Go, enjoy your evening"
"Yes, Your Majesty." Sarah curtseyed low, and the queen swept out of the room. Guards, waiting for her outside of her door, escorted her down the corridor to meet the king.
In the servants' dining hall, there was a merry clatter as the servants hurried to eat between tasks. Words were exchanged hastily between bites of food. This was the only time that they were free to be themselves, without worrying about who was watching them.
Tonight was merrier than usual. There was a great deal of chatter about the birthday feast and ball. The valets and lady's maids had sent their lords and ladies off to the feast, and so their work was done until the ball was over. And, more happily, Mrs. Smith, who watched over the servants to ensure their Christian conduct, was occupied with the steward to ensure that all of the last preparations were made for the ball. With Mrs. Smith absent, and the servants' dining quarters at a remote end of the castle where they would not be overheard, they were free to do as they pleased.
Sarah was sitting at the long table with Bess. They had both been at the castle since they were only fifteen or sixteen, and at that tender age, they had become fast friends. Now of course, they were experienced enough to be more comfortable, which was evidenced by their laughter at the table.
"I hope we can hear the music tonight!" Bess said, raising her voice over the chatter. "Could you imagine being dressed in finery and having a tall and handsome lord take you 'round the floor?"
"I cannot!" Sarah admitted, laughing at the thought of a lord taking an interest in the likes of her. "But I should be very glad to dance with you, Bess!"
"And will Miss dance with me?" another voice asked.
Sarah turned around to see Philip, one of the castle's valets, leaning up against the wall behind them.
"Certainly not," Sarah replied coolly, returning to face her plate so that Philip could not see her smile.
"Oh? And why not?"
"You are far too long of limb," Sarah decided, calmly cutting a potato. "You shall step on my feet, I am sure of it."
Philip chuckled. "I assure you, I am a very charming dancer."
"Perhaps you could convince me, sir," Sarah teased, moving just slightly so he could see her profile as she raised an eyebrow; "only, Mrs. Smith won't permit me to dance, even if I wished."
"Ah, now Mrs. Smith confounds me!" Philip put the back of his hand to his forehead and leaned more heavily against the wall in his theatrical woe.
Sarah had to try to suppress a giggle, and did not entirely succeed. "She does, sir."
Philip drew closer, raising his eyebrows and sharing a conspiratorial smile. "And what if Mrs. Smith didn't find out?"
"Impossible!" Sarah declared. She lowered her voice so that he had to lean in, and she felt his warm breath tickling her ear. "Her spies are everywhere."
Philip whispered in her ear: "Then let us take a risk."
Just for an instant, Sarah froze, unable to think of a clever reply. Her wits had momentarily left her. Blinking, she finally turned her head fully to face Philip, but he had gone.
Bess' eyes were round as saucers when Sarah looked back at her.
"Oh, Bess," Sarah laughed. "Don't be so horrified. Philip may be silly, but he's no fool. He wouldn't dare be so bold if Mrs. Smith were here."
After giving a shake of her head, Bess took a bite of her food. "I should hope not, for your sake."
As she faced the grand doors that led into the great hall, Mary slowly exhaled. James had glanced at her a few times during the feast, and she had given him a smile, which he had returned in kind. If there was one convenience about his mind always being so occupied with his worries, it was that he never thought to suspect hers. They had walked from the feasting hall to the place where the ball would be held while exchanging only meaningless pleasantries. She wondered what Sunderland had said to him over dinner.
She could determine, like clockwork, precisely how many seconds would pass after the doors were closed behind the last guests, and opened up to announce them again.
"You look ravishing tonight, my dear," James whispered, pressing her hand.
Despite herself, Mary's lips curled into a smile. What had made him suddenly sentimental, she could not know, but she was grateful for it. "Do I?" She turned to look at him, his head proud and straight despite the weight of the crown it bore. "You look quite well."
"I feel well."
"And I feel just as I did the night when we first danced." She held his gaze for a moment, praying he would believe this, for she truly did still feel some youthful vigor.
"Her Majesty, Queen Mary, and His Majesty, King James," the crier announced, and the doors began to creak open.
"How you captivated me," James murmured. And then he fell silent, bestowing a smile and a wave to the gathered lords and ladies around the great hall.
Mary had not intended to melt a moment. She wished to harden herself against him like flint, to never let him have the power to hurt her again. But such a wish was vain, and she knew it. She had loved him for more than ten years now, and she could never stop - even if he did not maintain the same loyalty.
"Our honored guests," James boomed. "We thank you for joining us tonight to celebrate our wife's birthday. I trust you have eaten and drunk, and now - may we be merry!"
The crowd cheered and raised their glasses of spiced wine. Mary could not help but smile, touched, as James bent over her hand and pressed a kiss to it. When he straightened again, he led her to the center of the dance floor. Other couples filed in and the music struck up. And just for that moment, looking into his eyes, and caught up in the whirl of the dancers, Mary truly did feel just as she had when they had first danced.
The pulse of music ricocheted through the stone walls of the castle dully some distance away from the great hall. The music, though soft as it was here, muted the sound of laughter and light footsteps.
"That isn't it at all!" Sarah insisted, as Philip teasingly placed one hand on her shoulder and the other on the top of her head.
"Oh, right - sorry. Er, how about… here?" He lifted his hand from her head, and touched one finger to the tip of her nose.
"You are ridiculous," Sarah decided.
Philip chuckled. "Right then. How about… here?" His fingertips brushed her cheek, and his other hand skimmed over her hip.
Sarah swallowed, her eyelids fluttering closed for just a moment as she relished the racing of her heartbeat. Then Philip remembered herself and drew back. He glanced around at the few other servants who were talking or pretending to dance nearby; none of them had ever learned the steps of a proper courtly dance, but that didn't stop them from trying.
"I hope I didn't offend Bess too much earlier," Philip said finally, grinning.
Raising one eyebrow in suspicion, Sarah replied, "You don't seem too sorry about it, if you had."
"I think a little fun would do her good."
Sarah looked up at Philip, his cheeks rosy, his warm brown eyes alive with merriment.
"A lot of good it's done me," she said with a wry smile.
Philip frowned a little. "Come on then, love, what's that supposed to mean?"
Sarah gave a little shake of her head. "Never mind. We should be getting back. Look."
The music was slowing, almost without their noticing. But the other servants were hurrying back up the corridor to beat their masters and mistresses back to their chambers.
"Sarah," Philip started, putting a hand on her arm. "Just… stay a moment, please."
"I've got to get back. The queen values punctuality," she said firmly. She glanced at the other servants, now rounding the corner and moving out of sight, but made no effort to shake him off.
"Look here." Philip cupped her cheek softly. "I know nothing will ever come of it, and I'll make my peace with it as best I can. But that doesn't mean I'll stop loving you."
He leaned in to kiss her then, his lips pressing gently to hers, his arms sliding around her waist in the comforting gesture she'd come to cherish just as much as their stolen kisses. Standing on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his more firmly, her arms slipping around his neck. For just a moment, she let herself be lost in him.
Then with a sad little smile, she drew back, and hastened to catch up with the others.
The moment of the queen's joy did not last. While she had been conversing with the Earl of Shrewsbury's wife, Mary had seen Sunderland leaning in close to speak with James. The countess, of course, had gone on about her children, driving Mary nearly mad; Mary began to wonder if the woman did it to spite her, given their religious differences. The ball had gone into hours of this: drinking, dancing, conversing with people who she did not particularly like or trust. So it was with every ball.
Finally, however, the last guests had retired to their rooms, and James approached her. He did not look flush with the pleasures of a ball; his eyes were downcast and half-lidded, and he rubbed his jaw in thought.
"Thank you for arranging all of this," Mary said. "It was a lovely ball."
He gave a hum of acknowledgment, but did not meet her gaze.
"James," she said softly, and he looked at her with new clarity, as though he had come to her from another world.
She only hesitated for an instant. "Shall I join you tonight?"
James stifled a yawn with the back of his hand. "I think not. The day has been long, and we are both weary, I know."
Though Mary was determined to give no sign of disappointment, she clenched her jaw slightly. A queen did not beg. She could only hope no one else joined James this night. "Very well. As you wish."
He paused then to kiss her cheek before they reached the guards waiting for them at the exit of the hall. "Good night, Mary. And happy birthday."