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Little Girl Lost (1668)

Sophia de la Cerda

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~London, 1668~


The streets of London were quite busy in the early afternoons, and today was no exception. Men and women went about their daily business, and children ran about chasing each other. No one noticed the small blonde girl roaming among them, wearing a pretty pink silk dress, her long blonde ringlets held back by matching ribbons. Nor did they notice the panicked expression on her face, the way she looked up at each person she passed as if searching for someone in particular, or the tears sparkling in the corners of her eyes.


Seven-year-old Sophia stopped beneath the awning of a store, biting her lower lip in consternation. Her heart pounded in her chest and she was more frightened than she had been since the day her mother had drowned right in front of her eyes.


England was new and exciting to the little German girl, and she had begged her father to take her into the city. She had never thought they would become separated. Sophia had dropped his hand and wandered a few steps away from him to look into the window of a bakery that displayed sweet pastel confections. She had turned around to ask him if he would buy her something, but he had not been behind her … or anywhere else in sight. Since then, she had been desperately searching for him, and she knew he must be looking for her as well … worried that something would happen to her. Sophia did not want to cause him any distress.


She listened for the sound of her name, assuming he would call for her, but all she heard was the voices and laughter of the crowd, and occasional shouts of children. Two boys ran by her, tossing a ball back and forth between them, their dirty faces washed in smiles. Sophia looked after them longingly, wishing that she, like them, had not a care in the world … that she was back with her father and happily munching on the sweets she knew he would have bought her. Instead, she was lost and confused and alone, one small child adrift in a churning sea of humanity. How would she ever find her uncle among so many people?


Eyes wide and heart fluttering, she left the shade of the awning and continued her search. She had no idea how long she had been walking, but her feet were starting to hurt and her legs were getting tired. “Papa!” she called, looking around her frantically. “Papa! Where are you?”

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John’s father had passed recently, leaving him the Lord Maldon at the age of twelve. There was, as always, a great legal to do about such things. John’s mother wished to use her connections and influence to secure his regency for herself with minimal fuss. That meant coming to London to deal with the courts and meet with her relations.


That didn’t mean she wanted John around any more than usual, though, so he had been left free to wander. She had seen him given a bodyguard, for whatever her opinion of John she had a lower one of the rabble. She’d seen John dressed well too, in bright reds and pure blacks and a full suit, complete with a junior periwig and cane. His appearance was going to embarrass the family anyway, she told him, but there was no need to make it worse.


John did not notice Sophia peering up into his bodyguard’s face, he was too busy looking in a shop window, but Ilia did. Ilia was a nursery dog. Protecting and seeing to the growth of children, specifically John, was more or less her entire task. So a young girl in distress was just the sort of thing to attract her attention.


Ilia suddenly jumped to life and began to run after Sophia, stopping to run back towards John until he caught up, then going back towards Sophia until she’d led the pair together. Even when he’d found her, she ran back and forth between them, happy at having made the connection.


There was just curiosity at why Ilia’d led him to the small girl. Then she cried out for her father and suddenly a pain constricted John’s chest. The strength drained from his limbs. He missed his father too. He blinked a few times, mother had told him he wasn’t supposed to cry anymore, and especially not in London. It would be unmanly. But he did so want to cry.


Well, at least he knew why Illia’d led him here. Perhaps he could do something for her. He breathed deep, and put on a face far too brave for a twelve year old. The pain in his chest lessened just a bit, and the weight of his depression lifted. There was something in looking after others that gave John comfort.


“Are you luh-luh-luh” John paused and started over, “Are you lost… miss?” John asked. He offered her a hand to hold, since that was a great comfort to him and to his younger siblings. In fact, he was pantomiming some of the kinder men he knew.


Behind John was a rather large, armed fellow, who was looking about vigilantly. He had briefly glanced at Sophia then discounted her as any sort of threat, and was now scanning the crowd.

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A fat tear slid down Sophia's cheek and as she wiped it away, she noticed a dog running up to her. The little girl loved animals and she momentarily forgot that she was lost. “Hier kleines Hündchen,*” she crooned softly, leaning over and stretching out her hand for it to sniff. But it darted away and then came racing back to her.


Curious, she watched it run off again, and when it returned, a finely dressed boy in red and black was following it. Did the doggie belong to him? He looked rather sad to her and she wondered why. If she had a puppy, she would never be sad.


She tilted her head sideways when he spoke to her. Sophia didn't speak English well, and it was difficult to understand his words. She looked at the hand he held out to her and then up to the huge man standing beside him. He looked mean, but the boy seemed kind. Maybe he could help her find her father. “Ja, I be lost. I look for mein Vater … my father. I not know where he be.”


Tentatively, she reached out and took his hand, glancing down at the dog. “Is that your doggie?” Her boundless curiosity was temporarily eclipsing her fear.


*Here, little doggie.

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“Ah.” She was a foreigner then. John paused for a moment then asked, “What’s your… name, miss? I am the Lord M-m-maldon.” His tone trailed off into slight sadness at his own name, as that reminded him of the man who’d held that title until just recently.


He recovered. A young, pretty foreign girl separated, lost in London. John wondered if she wasn’t a theater girl. A pretty girl sold or sent by her parents to relieve the family of some poverty and employed to serve patrons and learn the craft. It was sometimes done without the girl’s consent, and often led to a life of infamy and disrepute, as the theater did generally. “Whuh… whuh… whuh-where and when did you… see him last?” John asked.


John smiled when she took his hand. He squeezed it gently, trying to reassure her she was safe now. John’s hand shook, but his grip was firm enough. “Yuh-yuh.” John paused and enunciated every word, giving his speech a stilted but clearer tone. “Yes. She’s. Called. Ilia.” Ilia briefly glanced at John when she heard her name, but for the moment she was focused on Sophia. “I thuh-thuh-think she… likes yuh-you.”


Ilia indeed was mostly bouncing around Sophia, and begged Sophia to pet her with moves and whimpers.

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Sophia nervously bit her lip when the boy who introduced himself as Lord Maldon asked for her name. Should she tell him? Her father had warned her against strangers. In fact, he had told her not to talk to them at all. But she was lost and alone and he seemed genuinely concerned about her. “My name is Lady Sophia Albrecht,” she said, deciding to trust him. “And I am seven years old.”


He asked her where she had last seen her father and she pointed to the bakery with the sweets in the window. “We walk by that shop. I stop to look in window and I when I turn around, he be gone. He must be looking for me, but I not see him anywhere.”


Sophia didn't understand enough English to recognize that he was stuttering, but she did feel his hand shake in hers. And that strange sadness still lingered in his eyes. Had he become separated from his father too? Was he as lost as she was?


No, he had that mean man with him. Maybe the mean man was his father and he was afraid of him.


“Ilia.” The little girl repeated the dog's name and reached out to pet her. “She is a pretty doggie.” Looking up at the mean man and then back to Lord Maldon, she asked: “Is he your father?”

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So she was of the aristocracy. John was surprised her father hadn’t started tearing the crowd apart looking for her. And he meant that quite literally. If he was a nobleman, armed servants might be running around roughing up the commoners searching for her.


“A p-p-pleasure, Luh-lady Albright.” John had misheard her name as an English one, unfamiliar as he was with German ones. She shared her age and John smiled, “My, but that’s a v-v-very special age to be. How luh-luh-long until you’re eight?”


“D-d-d-d-do you want some… sweets?” John smiled. If they had been together last near the sweets shop, then it was best for her to stay near it. Maybe her father would come back looking for her. Maybe he was still there.


John smiled as Sophia and Ilia got along. Ilia was very happy with Sophia’s attentions, and showed it in ecstatic motion and a bit of happy barking.


But John’s face immediately shattered at her question. John looked down, and his curls came around his face. His tone became hard, somewhat choked, in the way of one fighting grief. “N-n-n-n-no.” John’s eyes began to mist, he blinked and then pushed his eyes closed in an attempt to fight tears.

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Sophia's golden brows furrowed when he asked when she would be eight. Her governess had taught her the months of the year, but sometimes she got them mixed up. “I will be eight in the winter,” she said. “After Christmas.” In truth, her birthday was in the middle of February.


Her perplexed look transformed into a bright smile at the mention of sweets. “Ja. Is why I stopped. I want to ask Papa to buy me some but ...” Her smile faded and she bit her lower lip again. “He be not there.” Blinking back tears, she concentrated on petting Ilia, Had he left her alone in London on purpose? Had she reminded him too much of her mother and he decided he didn't love her anymore? Or was he searching for her even now? If so, why did she not hear him calling for her? She hoped he had not been run over by a carriage.


Lord Maldon's reaction to her question caused her to look up. He was staring at the ground, but the way he hung his head made him look even sadder, and his choked-out denial confused the young girl. Why would he not look up at her?


She squeezed his hand. “What is wrong, Lord Maldon? Be you lost too?”

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Ilia was very used to being used as a comfort by John, and was equally happy to do the same duties for Sophia. She would alternatively act sympathetic and try and cheer the young girl up, always encouraging more petting.


But John was too caught up in his own pain to be helpful. He only half heard her question, and spoke very quietly, “N-n-no.” He was fighting back tears and losing. They began to fall down his cheeks, and there was a soft sniffling sound. He was trying to resist outright bawling.


John hid his face when he was acting in a shameful way. Or at least a way his mother told him was shameful. Crying and blushing, among others, were weak, feminine things. Mother had told him so. And sometimes she punished him for it, especially if he did it in public. Though not if she didn’t find out. Which was why his instinct was to shrink from it. To hide it.


It was also why even a slight reminder set him over the edge. He’d been suppressing it.


“M-m-m-m-m-my…” John stopped and started over. “My f-f-father’s gone. Duh-dead.” His voice was dead and flat, but he managed to say it. Somehow he still managed to resist outright bawling, though his eyes burned as he pushed them tightly closed. His grip on her hand tightened. Even though he didn’t know her that comforted him.

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Sophia was confused by John's reaction. He said he wasn't lost, but tears began to flow down his cheeks. And he still wouldn't look at her. She could barely see his face from beneath the curls of his periwig. Her question seemed to make him even sadder, and she wished that she could hug him like her father always hugged her whenever she was distressed.


And then he told her that his father was dead and his hand tightened around hers, which was a good thing because her head suddenly begin spinning with memories she had tried her best to push aside. She suddenly found it difficult to breathe as she recalled the way the water had closed around her, pulling her ever downward. She had been too young to know she should hold her breath underwater, and she had thrown up the water that had filled her lungs as soon as she had been pulled back into the boat.


Once she had recovered, she had looked around for her mother but she wasn't there. The servants were staring over the side, horror written on their faces, and when she had moved over to the edge of the boat, she had seen her mother floating face down just beneath the surface, her long blonde hair spread around her. When she was lifted into the boat, Sophia thought she was sleeping but she didn't wake up even when she called for her and touched her face. And she had been so very cold.


Her father had told her later that her mother had gone to heaven and that she would not be able to come back. She had been only three then, and unable to understand death. She still didn't understand it fully, but she knew that dead people went to heaven to be with God.


“I be sorry,” she whispered to John. “I know how you feel. My mother be also dead. I see her die when I be three. It is all right to cry. I still cry for my Mami. I miss her very much and I wish she not go to heaven and leave me. Your father is there too … in heaven. Maybe they know each other. My father say my Mami watch over me. Perhaps your father and my mother be looking down on us now.”

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Prior to this, John had been very much alone in his more sensitive feelings. His dogs and plants never judged him, and that was part of why he cleaved to them so desperately. But now this little girl, though a foreigner and a stranger, had been the first to tell him it was all right to cry.


He reached out and brought her into a tight embrace, squeezing her almost to the point of desperation. His arms shook as he did so, though his arms were as strong as would be expected of a twelve-year-old boy. Even though he didn’t know her, it brought him some comfort, and he cried bitterly, still half fighting it on instinct.


It was a bit before he cried his last. “S-s-sorry.” He apologized, seeming to regain his senses. John was not really a sexual being yet but at twelve he was above the age of consent and so expected to follow sexual mores. He didn’t really understand them yet, though, so he could only follow them in a rote sort of fashion. And in rote fashion, hugging her like that had been an impropriety. In fact, emotional intimacy was inherently not proper. Especially between an unrelated man and woman “Sorry.” He repeated softly.


He let her go, but only reluctantly. “I… uh… th-th-thank you.” He didn’t know what he was thanking her for. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “You d-d-d-don’t… need to worry about being luh-luh-lost. We’ll f-f-f-f-find your father. And I’ll protect you until we do.” He smiled, an attempt to seem like he’d fully recovered. In truth, he was feeling better. And it was one of those little paradoxes of life that John’s position often meant he could solve other people’s problems but rarely his own. And helping others made him feel better.


“I p-p-p-p-promise.” John was still naïve enough to believe that his word was the end of the matter.

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Sophia wasn't a Catholic, but she was only seven and believed that dead people went to heaven immediately because it made sense to her and she was too young to understand any view but her own. Nor had anyone ever corrected her. She went to church in Germany, but she saw it more as a place to sing than a place to worship. Yet she did possess a child's pure faith and believed that God was always with her and would protect her.


Maybe He had sent John to her … or her to him.


She didn't protest when he embraced her, even though he held her so tightly it was a bit difficult to breathe. The little blonde sensed that he needed to cry, just as she sometimes needed to cry and she patted him awkwardly on the back like her governess did when she burst into tears.


Sophia was confused when he apologized. She saw nothing wrong with him hugging her. In fact, she rather liked it, because she needed comfort herself. It would be quite some time before she understood what was proper and what wasn't, and even then, she wouldn't always obey the unspoken rules of propriety, much to the chagrin of her long-suffering guardian.


Yet that wouldn't happen for another nine years.


And then Lord Maldon puzzled her more by thanking her. As soon as he stepped away from her, she reached out for his hand, not wanting to lose all contact between them. He made her feel safe, and she smiled when he promised that they would find her father and that he would protect her.


“Danke,” she said. “We look for him now, ja? Where you think he be?”

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John did take her hand. His face was still a bit puffed and red from crying, but he seemed a good deal less sad. He smiled back, though a bit weakly. He was able to turn more fully to the matter at hand.


She seemed to be more comfortable, less sad, and that made John feel particularly good. He felt like an imitation, perhaps a pale imitation but still, of the old heroes he read about. He couldn’t slay a dragon, of course, so he’d never be quite as good, but this was almost like that…


John considered offering to have his bodyguard lift her up. But Sophia was in a dress, and he knew things that revealed what was under a lady’s dress were wrong. He didn’t know why, but that was true of most rules. So that was probably not a good solution.


But he did have another idea, “I w-w-was thinking… of checking the sweet shuh-shop.” His offer earlier had not entirely been an attempt to ingratiate himself with the young girl. “He m-m-m-might be still there looking for you. And even if he… isn’t, we c-c-can buy a few sweets.” John had money, and he didn’t care a bit about paying for Sophia.

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Sophia did see John as a hero. He had stopped to help her when others had just pushed passed her, not caring that a little girl was hopeless lost in a big city. She felt secure with him, and knew that as long as she stayed with him, she would come to no harm. The child was still a bit wary of the mean-looking man, but he stayed in the background and didn't say a word. He was probably Lord Maldon's servant.


It was fortunate that he did not ask if she would consent to be lifted up by the mean man. She never would have agreed and it had nothing to do with keeping what was under her dress hidden, as she had no concept of such things. Sophia loved her father to pick her up and swing her around, but the big strange man was scary and she didn't trust him.


Her little face lit up when he suggested they go to the sweet shop. Her father had been nowhere in sight when she realized she was lost, but maybe he had returned to search for her. She was so small that all she could do was peer between the legs and arms of the people who hurried by them, and she could hardly see anything at all.


“We have sweets while we wait for him, ja?” Sophia had no money of her own, and in fact, didn't even know what it was. Everything had always been bought for her, and she had never seen coins exchange hands. To her young mind, all things were free.


“Come, we go now.” She started heading toward the bakery, pulling on his hand to bring him along with her.

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Someday John would learn that women had more need of kindness and mundane aid than dragon slaying. He would learn that heroes and good men were not all knights, and that most knights were not good men. And that people would see him as one if he acted as one. But that was many years hence (and indeed, probably later than 1677). As it was, he knew he lacked the features that were so lingered upon in his novels.


John’s bodyguard was James, and he was trying to look scary on purpose. The easiest way to do his job was to frighten away anyone who might see his little lord as a target. John actually trusted him implicitly. He came from a family that had served John’s for a long time, and his family was living in John’s castle, so he felt very safe against betrayal.


“Yes. P-p-p-p-perhaps you might… stand in the wuh-wuh-window and see if you see… him.” That would also make her a good deal more visible to her father since windows were meant to display things. And he doubted the shopkeeper would mind having an angelic looking little girl munching on his goods standing in the window. And if he did, a guinea ought to smooth that.


John followed her, though a bit slowly on his leg, and the four of them entered the shop. The bakery was full of wonderful, sugary smells and a wide selection was out on display. “P-p-pick out what you… want.” John said to Sophia with a smile. He squeezed her hand, then dropped it just for the moment.


John moved over to talk to the storeowner, James going with him and still looking menacing. Ilia, meanwhile, stayed with her new friend.

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To Sophia, heroes were brave and kind. She was too young to think of them … or boys in general … as handsome. Most of the time, she found boys annoying, but John was an exception. She didn't even notice his disabilities. In the innocent way of small children, she simply accepted him the way he was and walked slowly so that he could easily keep up.


He suggested that she stand in the window and look for her father, and as they neared the shop, she saw that there was plenty of room for one little girl among the goods on display. “Ja, I will do that,” she agreed. “Maybe he see me if he come this way.”


She hoped that he would be outside searching for her, but he was not among the people milling around in front of the bakery. As they entered, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the sweet smell. Her stomach rumbled. Even though she wasn't very hungry, she always had room for candy and pastries and other delightful confections. Her father knew how much she loved sweets. He would certainly find her here.


Sophia felt bereft when John dropped her hand, but Ilia stayed beside her as he moved away. Peering through the glass of the counter, she pointed out what she wanted to a shop girl, who placed her selections on top of the counter. It was too high for her to reach but Lord Maldon would hand them to her.


“Are you Lady Sophia Albrecht?”


The little girl turned to face the man who had spoken. He had a nice smile. “Ja,” she replied.


“Your father is looking all over for you. I promised that I would find you and bring you to him.”


“You know where he be? Really and truly?”


“Yes, really and truly.” He reached out for her hand, smirking inwardly. This was going to be too easy. He had been watching the girl ever since she had become separated from her father, and had been about to approach her. But the stuttering boy had gotten to her first and he had lingered in the shadows, listening to their conversation. That was how he had found out her name. She was clearly from a wealthy noble family and would fetch a good ransom. And she seemed only too willing to trust him.


Sophia looked at his hand and then over at Lord Maldon, nervously biting her lower lip. “I tell my friend that I go, ja?”


“You must come with me now,” he urged, grabbing her hand and pulling her toward the door. "Your father is very worried about you." He had seen the boy's bodyguard and wanted to avoid a confrontation with the large man.


Startled, Sophia cried out, suddenly afraid.

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The shopkeeper proved quite sympathetic and amenable, so John paid her a little extra in gratitude. He took the sweets (plus some for himself) and placed them down on the floor as he awkwardly tried to carry them and use his cane. James didn’t help because carrying things could distract him from his purpose.


As John fiddled with this, the strange man entered and John took little notice. He didn’t hear what they were saying, and decided, in a childish way, eating one of the cakes would help him figure out how to carry the tray. He picked up a fluffy cake absolutely loaded with icing and prepared to bite. Then all hell broke loose.


Sophia cried out and John’s head twitched but then immediately shot over to look at her. He only saw a man dragging her away, having not heard any of the prior conversation. The moment the man grabbed her Ilia began barking and energetically bouncing around. This was a trained behavior, meant to alert John’s caretakers he was in need of assistance. The shopkeeper and her girl nearly panicked to see their shop quickly descend into chaos.


James stepped forward. But his instinct was to put himself between the man and John. If the girl was carried off that was sad but if John was carried off that would be much worse for him. This did little to stop the other man.


John, however, limped into action. “Hey!” The man didn’t appear responsive so John began to move towards him, still somewhat slow on his leg but moving as fast as he could. He did have a way to register his displeasure, though: he threw the frosted cake at the man with one shaking hand and waved his cane a bit with the other. “Stop!”

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When Ilia started barking and bouncing around him, the man (whose name was Hugh) tried to kick her away. All he needed was a stupid dog alerting the others in the store that he was about to walk off with the girl. Unfortunately, his boot never connected with the dog's body. She was very quick. However, he was not going to let this opportunity slip past him. The girl was his and he tightened his hand around hers and yanked her toward the door.


Sophia became more alarmed when the stranger started kicking at Illia, and she pulled against him when he attempted to drag her out of the shop. Nice men didn't kick doggies. Only mean men did that. She cried out again when he clenched her hand to the point that it ached horribly. “Lass mich gehen!*”


Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lord Maldon limping toward her and she turned her head just as he threw a little cake at the man and shouted for him to stop. Some of the frosting splattered on her dress, and she hoped that the man would let her go.


Hugh wasn't about to let a child … a shaking, limping child, at that … stop him from carrying out the abduction. The guard didn't move against him, which he had feared he would do. Apparently, his job was to protect the boy and he didn't care about the girl. Children were easy to deceive. All he had to do was convince this boy that he meant the girl no harm and coerce her into going with him willingly.


He let Sophia's hand go and she immediately ran behind John, peeking out from behind him. “Please call off your dog, milord,” Hugh said, smiling kindly. “I mean the little lady no harm. I just want to take her to her father. He is looking for her and is asking everyone who will listen to help him find her.” In truth, he was making the whole story up. He had no idea where the girl's father was.


He bent down to Sophia's level. “You do want to go to your father, don't you?”


“Ja,” she whispered, biting her lower lip, but she didn't move from behind her new friend.



*Let me go!

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John viewed the man suspiciously. He gave a sharp whistle and Ilia stopped barking and ran over to stand next to him. James, meanwhile, moved again so he was at John’s side. His hand rested on his sword. He looked at the man, the threat, rather than at John, for he didn’t need to know what John thought. He only needed to protect the young lord.


John was a child, but he was a lord and puffed up on his idea of the importance of this fact. He also had had propriety and etiquette pounded into his head. That meant he had a framework for how people ought to act that he believed in with child-like absoluteness.


The man had acted in disrespect of his rank and against propriety, and had obviously disturbed his new friend. The correct response was to have him whipped or piqueted or something like that. John had a dungeon. Maybe that was the right thing for it.


“You are in the p-p-presence of an earl.” John said flatly. Hugh ought to have at least bowed and introduced himself and asked to take Sophia. The shopkeepers hadn’t bowed either, but he was willing to relax standards for people who were friendly. They also hadn’t tried to grab a lady under his care.


John held out his hand behind him, to where Sophia was, offering to take hers again.


“Return to her f-f-father. You w-w-will tell… him that she is safe under the c-c-care of the Lord Maldon. And that I w-w-will not let her go with any man who she duh-doesn’t own as a blood relative of hers.” This was the strict rule of propriety and in an uncertain situation John would generally revert there. A learned saying ran through his head, Propriety is like armor. It is harder and less pleasing than the softness of silken morals. But it protects you.


“He m-m-might inquire after muh-me at Roehampton in the evening. Or you m-m-might tell me where he is.” Roehampton was a large mansion estate a few miles outside London owned by John’s cousins. He and his family were staying there.

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A common criminal had little respect for nobility. To Hugh, they were only good for robbing, blackmailing, and kidnapping. Nor did he give a damn about propriety. All he cared about was relieving toffs of their money and valuables.


Unfortunately, this pompous little boy had him at a disadvantage and there was nothing he could do but bow before him when he revealed himself to be an Earl. All he needed was to be imprisoned … or worse … for not showing proper deference to a noble. At least the little brat had called off his dog.


Sophia grasped John's hand and squeezed it tightly as she listened to him tell the bad man to let her father know where she was and who she was with. She didn't want to go with him. He was not as nice as his smile.


Hugh knew that he had been beaten. The boy and his bodyguard would protect the little girl and he could kiss his ransom good-bye. The best thing to do was to leave and slip back into the shadows from whence he had come. “I will tell him what you said, milord,” he said with another bow. “And he can fetch her here. Good day.”


He turned and walked out the door, quickening his pace as soon as he crossed the threshold and disappearing into the crowd. He could still make a bit of coin if he alerted the proprietor of one of the shadier brothels that there was a pretty little lost girl in the candy store. Their own thugs might have more success in abducting her. It was a horrible fate for a girl so young. They never lasted very long, but at least Hugh would make a profit.


Sophia was still too frightened to move from behind John. She was glad the bad man was gone, but he had taken the knowledge of her father's whereabouts with him. “He tell my father where I be, ja?” she asked in a scared little voice. “And he come for me?”

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John let the man go, thinking he was letting him off lightly since he might do the good service of informing Sophia’s father. Still, the man had been rude until the end. John had told him what to do and he had ignored that and demanded John and Sophia stay here. He almost left petulantly just on account of that.


“There are s-s-such people in the world!” John repeated one of his mother’s favorite gripes about moral failings. Then again, she would apply it much more liberally than John would. James went up to the window and peered out, and seeing the man go away stood down. Ilia, meanwhile, moved up to Sophia and whined and rubbed against her.


John then turned to attend to Sophia. He pulled her into a tight embrace (which always made John feel better). “I duh-don’t… know.” John said truthfully. “Listen. We m-m-might f-f-find him… in the next fuh-few minutes. It m-m-might take a l-l-longer. What’s important t-t-to remember is… that-that we will find him. And I w-w-will be here for you… until thuh-then.”


John meant it. Even if he had to take her home with him or send her all the way back to wherever she was from. In his juvenile mind that prospect was more like adopting a pet though, right down to wondering if Sophia could sleep at the foot of his bed like Ilia did.


John squeezed her one more time and then fetched the sweets, and offered them to her. He hoped they might make her feel better. He felt no particular need to flee. The idea that the man might come back with friends didn’t occur to him.

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When Ilia started whining and rubbing up against her, Sophia smiled in spite of her fear and reached out to pet the little dog. She felt comforted by her presence, and when John turned toward her and drew her into his arms, she finally felt safe again. The little girl threw her arms around his waist and clung to him as if she never planned to let him go.


He did seem certain that they would find her father eventually, and she was content with that. “You stay with me until he come? You not leave me alone?” She would be happy to remain with him until her father came for her. But wouldn't he have to go home at some point? What would happen to her then?


The sweets also helped ease her anxiety. She sat down at a table by a window while he brought them to her and she picked up a little cake with pink frosting and popped it into her mouth. “Where live you?” she asked him, forgetting that it wasn't polite to talk with her mouth full. “Your mother not worry that you be gone so long?”

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John so loved Ilia because she worked so hard to make him happy. When people had started to pull away from John, realizing he would always be how he was, Ilia had just loved him harder to try and make up the difference. It was why he still kept her at his side, even though he was far out of the nursery. So he smiled to see her taking on another charge, knowing she would be an inexhaustible source of joy and energy.


John sat next to her on the table and took her hand again. They only needed one hand each to stuff themselves, and by giving comfort John received it as well. “I w-w-will keep you with me… until then.” John said, “You wuh-wuh.” John paused to force the word, “won’t be alone so long as you’re with me.” He smiled, though his head twitched again.


John would take Sophia home with him if necessary. He wasn’t worried about his mother. She was charitable in a dutiful sort of way. And her mistreatment of John was somewhat unique. She was not abusive generally, though she was strict. Besides, in the way of the world it was less problematic for a boy to bring home strange girls than the other way around.


John ate a small crusty filled pastry, but finished it before speaking. “Muh-maldon Castle.” John answered at first, but realizing she was probably asking after London rather than his general home, “I’m stuh-stuh-staying at R-r-roehampton nuh-now.” John shook his head at his mother missing him, not wanting to speak of it. It did not hurt him as much, but his face did fall a little. He took a big bite of a frosted confection to make up for it.

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Sophia was glad he took her hand again. The physical contact between them was indeed reassuring, and she hoped he wouldn't let it go. She smiled when he claimed he wouldn't leave her and licked a piece of frosting from her upper lip. The cake was really good and after she finished it, she followed it with a piece of nougat, reaching down to pet Illia as soon as she popped it in her mouth.


Maybe when her father found her, she would ask him if she could have a doggie. He had hunting dogs but they weren't pets and she wasn't allowed to touch them unless he was with her. Sometimes they even growled at her, but perhaps that was because she was usually carrying a cat around. Cats were plentiful at their German estate.


Her eyes lit up when he said he lived in a castle. “Live I too in castle. In Germany. Is pretty castle, but I be scared of moat around it. I be afraid I fall in. My Papa be der Graf von Katzenberg. In German, Katzenberg mean 'mountain of cats.' Is funny name for Graf, ja?” She didn't know the English translation of 'Graf.'


Sophia didn't know where Roehampton was. She did, however, notice his sad expression when he shook his head, indicating that his mother wouldn't miss him. Now she wanted to cheer him up, but she wasn't sure how. “We stay with friends of my father. They speak only English and have they no children for me to play with. Papa told me he take me to palace. Have been you there? See you the King?”

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Ilia smiled and wagged her tail at the attention. John did let go of Sophia’s hand for a moment, grabbing Illia and placing her between them. Ilia shortly placed herself on the young girls lap, nuzzling her head in. John took her hand again and smiled at the two getting along so well.


John didn’t know the word graf, and in his ear it became ‘giraffe’. Which actually made perfect sense in his mind. The Prince of France was called the Dolphin. The Prince of England was called Whales. Perhaps the prince of Germany (such was his knowledge of politics that he thought it was one country) was called the Giraffe. So he heaped on top of his faulty assumption of Catholicism that Sophia was royalty or something like it.


“Is there one?” John asked, his eyes wide. “A m-m-mountain of cats?”


“M-m-m-m-maldon… means ‘Hill with the Monument’, m-m-more or less.” And there was, in fact, a monument on a hill. He didn’t share that his castle wasn’t pretty. It was, however, fairly strong in his mind. Just last year it had been shot at by the Dutch and no one had gotten hurt.


John got even sadder at her questions. He hadn’t, on either account. He thought was because of the way he was, for surely the King wouldn’t just overlook an earl becoming a ward of the crown. He had been skipped over for honors time and again, and was probably going to continue to be. It all made him feel rather inferior, and like his existence did material damage to his family.


“No.” John said again, this time softly and forlornly.

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Sophia giggled when Ilia climbed into her lap, and she put down the fruit-filled pastry she had been about to take a bite of to pet the dog's head and scratch her behind the ears. She was more accustomed to cats and assumed that dogs liked the same things that cats did.


The young girl was far from royalty. She was just the daughter of an Earl, but she liked to pretend that she was a princess. Sometimes she imagined that a handsome prince would come along and that she would fall madly in love with him, like in the stories her father read to her. She was unaware that her fanciful wish would really come true less than a decade in the future.


At the moment, John was her knight in shining armor. He had rescued a little damsel in distress and was protecting her from those who meant her harm. And the best knights always bought sweets for the damsels.


“Nein. Is no mountain of cats. But our castle be on hill and we have many cats. People drop them off on estate and we keep them. I climb trees to rescue them when they be scared. If you not want get scratched, you grab them like this.” Sophia demonstrated by grasping Ilia gently by the nape of her neck and then letting go. “They can't move when you hold them that way and you can pull them out of tree. I too small to lift cats, so I just rescue kittens.”


She tilted her head to the side when he explained the meaning of his title. “Mon … u … ment,” she repeated slowly. “What be mon-u-ment? Is it kind of animal?”


Sophia noticed the sadness in his voice and expression when he admitted that he had never been to the palace or saw the King. She squeezed his hand reassuringly. “You come with me when I go to palace. I know King will see me. Hear I my father's friend say King like pretty girls. And say everyone that I be pretty.”

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Ilia twisted and shifted happily at Sophia’s attentions, letting out forceful sighs and letting her leg twitch. When Sophia pulled on the back of her neck, she was mostly concerned with looking as cute as possible. She wanted more.


Oddly enough, John would have described himself as a prince more readily than a knight. And indeed, on certain formal and ceremonial occasions John was styled as ‘most noble prince’ and assumed the majestic plural. But he was an earl, not royalty, and often he didn’t feel as if he was even that.


John was glad that what Maldon was named for didn’t happen too often. The monuments were mostly reminders of invasions. He wished that it was something nicer like bringing him kittens. Maybe next time the Dutch or Vikings or Romans or whoever invaded they could just bring kittens. The soldiers could just spend the battle petting them and zapping each other with static electricity. Then his sisters wouldn’t cry in fear of the booming cannons.


Still, John chuckled slightly and smiled at her description of rescuing kittens. He grabbed the nape of Sophia’s neck in jest. He made a contemplative sound, as if debating what to do next, since he couldn’t pick her up, before peeling into giggles at his own joke.


“Monuments are a b-b-building… t-t-to remind puh-people that something… important happened there.” John said.


“P-p-perhaps it’s better… you g-g-go without… me.” John said. “You are p-p-pretty. I will only… make things worse.” Being told he was inferior, being treated like it, led him to feel it. His face had a shadow on it, and his voice had gone quiet.

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When Sophia saw how much Ilia enjoyed being grabbed by the scruff of the neck, she thought about trying to lift her up, but she knew she was not strong enough. She contented herself with petting the little dog again as she tried to decide what to eat next. There were so many yummy sweets to choose from.


The little girl knew nothing of invasions and had never even heard a cannon fire. She was aware that her father had fought in some wars, but he never spoke of such things to her. A war was just something adults did that meant they had to leave for long periods of time. It was peaceful on her secluded estate and the outside world had never touched it … except when it came to the cats abandoned on their property.


Sophia giggled when he grasped the nape of her neck, immediately curling her hands close to her chest. “Hold kittens their front paws like this when lift you them by neck,” she explained, “and their tails curl between their legs.” At first, she thought he might try to pick her up like that, but he let her go, his giggles joining his. “Meow,” she said, and rubbed her little blonde head against his arm, pretending that she was a cat.


She turned back into a human when he explained what a monument was. “Is Denkmal in German. I never see one except in books. I love read. I can read in German and Italian.” At only seven, she didn't read well, but she was improving every day. “Like you read too?”


He sounded so sad when he told her that she should go see the King without him, that he would only make things worse. “Nein!” she exclaimed. Sensing that he needed comfort now, Sophia took his hand and held it against the pink silk of her dress. “Why think you to make things worse?” Her head tilted to the side like a curious little kitten. “You make everything better. Be you mine friend.”

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John laughed as she explained what cats were like, and a bit harder when she rubbed her head against him and meowed. He scratched and petted her blond hair gently, as with a cat. Then he gave her an affectionate pinch on the cheek, his eyes dancing with boyish joy. He’d definitely adopt her if he could. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d brought home a stray.


“Oh yes.” John says, “I spuh-spend a lot of t-t-time in my c-c-castle’s library. And there’s an evuh-even luh-larger one in M-m-maldon. It has over t-t-ten thousand books. B-b-but I only read English.” He was taking lessons, among other non-linguistic classes, but he was far from being any good. And only some of them would stick. Still, reading was one of John’s great pleasures.


“Nine?” John was confused at her exclamation. But he smiled a bit weakly at her assurances. He kissed her head, purely a platonic, affectionate gesture. “B-b-because I am not pretty. Because n-n-no one is happy to see me. I’m just an obligation. A b-b-burden.” John seemed very sad to say it.


“One d-d-day you will be a beautiful woman, and you w-w-will find a huh-handsome prince, and have d-d-darling children.” John said, adding quietly And so won’t need friends like me. “And I w-w-will still be an unwanted burden.” His mother said such things. His father hadn’t, but even he had tried to push John out of the succession. What other conclusion could a young boy come to except that he was unwanted?

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Sophia liked his laugh and she enjoyed how he played along, pretending that she was a cat by petting her. She giggled again when he pinched her cheek, reaching up to pinch his right back. The little girl was glad she had met him, and she was no longer afraid. Her father would find her and until he did, she was safe with her new friend. She hoped that she would see him again while she was in London, and that they could spend more time together.


“How you know is ten thousand books?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Count you them?” Sophia wasn't sure she could even count that high. Her own castle also had an extensive library, but she didn't know if it had that many books. “My stepmother teach me to speak and read Italian. She be from Venice. She teach me sing opera. Like this.” She sang a verse of an Italian aria, her voice pure, sweet, clear … and loud. Several of the people in the shop turned to stare at her and not all of them looked pleased. The art of opera had not yet reached England.


Sophia didn't notice. She was more concerned about Lord Maldon's sadness. “Boys be not pretty. And I be happy to see you. My papa be happy to see you too.” She didn't understand the words 'burden' and 'obligation,' but she assumed that they meant something bad. “You be kind and brave and fun to be with. And you save me from bad man. All that mean you good.”


Why did he think he would be unwanted when he grew up? “You be lord. That make you important. And you get married too.” She gazed up at him with shining blue eyes and gently squeezed his hand. “You get married to me when we grow up, ja? Who tell you no one want you? No you listen to them. They be dummkopf … that mean dumb head.”

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“Hoy,” John objected when she pinched his cheek, though still in good cheer. He laughed after she let go, rolling his eyes while grinning. He was glad Ilia had found her. He needed friends, people to care for. It was really the only way he could pull himself out of the miserableness and gloom that had descended on his life.


The library was owned by the city, not by John. His castle had its own library but it was smaller. “The l-l-librarian tuh-told me.” John said. He supposed he didn’t know if it was true. But it was such a point of pride that they had a bigger library than there was in Colchester or Chelmsford that he figured someone would’ve debunked them if it were wrong.


John flinched and his eyes went wide as she sung. It was surprisingly pleasant to listen to, most girls her age couldn’t sing well at all, but it was also a bit inappropriate for a public place. He didn’t understand the words in the least, though. His smile was somewhat awkward when she finished, before he descended into his sadness.


It was nice to hear her confidence in him. But John wasn’t even sure he was going to grow up, especially not now. And there wasn’t anything she could say that would change his family or court situation. He wished there was, that the world was as simple and kind as she thought. But he was old enough to see what was happening and too young to know what to do about it. But that was his burden, not the sweet girl’s. He hoped she had a nicer life.


John forced a smile, just a bit too wide, and said, the faintest hints of what he was hiding in his voice, “Oh, and are-are… you g-g-going to invite all the cuh-cats to our wedding? In l-l-little cat dresses and… suits?” He latched on to the sillier thing she’d said.


He doubted he'd be married. He knew of two other lords like him. Neither of them were. Of course, they were actually simple in the head, not just malformed, but John didn't appreciate the difference yet. Especially because, in his ignorance, he thought he might be simple too.

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