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Little Girl Lost (1668)

Sophia de la Cerda

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“Oh,” she said around a mouthful of a pastry filled with apples. “I guess librarian count them, ja?” Sophia was only just learning how to speak English and had not yet been taught to read or write it. With little concept of distance, she had no idea how far John's estate was. “You show me library one day? And read you to me? I never hear story in English.”


He didn't say anything about her song, so she assumed he liked it. Everyone liked to hear her sing and she had even sung a couple of nights ago at a party held in her father's honor by the people they were staying with. She had only been allowed to sing two arias before being taken upstairs to bed, and she had been awed by the sparkling dresses of the ladies and all the sweets set out on tables. Her papa had promised her that when she was older, she could attend parties and balls and wear beautiful dresses too. Sometimes, Sophia could hardly wait to grow up.


Her lips turned down into a pretty little pout when he spoke of inviting cats to the wedding. Letting go of his hand, she put both of hers on her hips. “You think I just pretending, ja? I not. I be serious. One day we get married and lots of people come to our wedding. Not just cats. Although it be fun to dress them up.”


She didn't know she would be expected to marry a German lord or that he would probably marry an English lady. In her fanciful and impressionable mind, they were perfect for each other. Maybe she would even kiss him, although kissing was kind of eeeuuww.


Sophia was so stuffed now that she couldn't eat another bite. “Think you we go look for mine father?” she asked, a note of worry in her voice. “What if he not come to me because he be hurt? I hope he not get run over by carriage while he look for me.”

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“Sure.” John agreed. “If you’ve c-c-come from Ipswich you’ll pass close by.” Someone heading to Germany would probably at least come close to his home. Ipswich was the largest port on the east coast except London. Though he also doubted her father was going to let her make the travel arrangements.


John laughed at her pout, “I still f-f-find the idea strange. T-t-tell you what, say that again in fuh-five years, eh?” He mussed her hair a bit. “You c-c-can’t get married before then anyway.” And he suspected she’d see it as an embarrassing fancy. If John was even around anymore to get proposed to by a twelve year old. “Though,” She still seemed to be at that age, “You know you have to k-k-kiss your husband.” He said this with great drama.


John was beginning to imagine Katzenberg as a cat palace, with giant felines lazing over the battlements, the fields sewn with catnip, the artisans all busily producing pillows and miniature cat clothing. The thought was fanciful but amusing enough for him to let out a puff of air.


John nodded as to searching for her father. John nodded negatively to him being hurt. “N-n-no, no, he’s fine I’m sure.” John’s belief was genuine but totally unfounded. “Where shuh-should we look?” She would know better than John what sort of places he might be.

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Ipswich? Where was that? It was a funny name. “Tell you my father where you live. He be able to find it.” Sophia knew he would take her there if she asked him. He had never been able to deny her anything she desired. And she really wanted to see John's huge library with its ten thousand books.


“I will!” she declared, lifting her chin defiantly. “I will not change my mind.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or do you not want marry me?” She didn't consider the possibility that she would not be returning to London. The little blonde assumed that she would be traveling with her father wherever he went from now on. And he traveled to England quite often.


She wrinkled her nose and made a face when he told her she would have to kiss her husband. “My governess say when I grow up, I want kiss. I think she be wrong, but if I really have to, then I rather kiss you than anyone else.” Could it be that she was developing a childish crush on him? He had rescued her and bought her sweets and promised he would keep her safe. To a seven-year-old girl, those things meant a lot … especially the sweets.


Sophia believed him when he assured her that her father was all right. “I not know where he be. Maybe he go back to house we stay at? It be very big house, but know I not how to get there. But I tell you who we stay with.” She gave him the title of the family they were visiting. Maybe he would know who they were and where they lived.

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“Oh? T-t-tell you what. M-m-most men don’t get married till their twenties.” That seemed like an eternity to John, “If buh-before I’m betrothed you c-c-can give me a… k-k-kiss of true love, I’ll marry you.” It was a fanciful, fairy tale sort of demand. But John enjoyed fairy tales. “W-w-with as many cats as you can bring, a cuh-cake taller than… you are, and the p-p-prettiest dress we can find.”


John felt a twinge of sadness that he probably wouldn’t be around then. But perhaps she might lay some nice flowers if he wasn’t. He forced a smile.


Unfortunately, John didn’t know where they lived. He tried to puzzle out how to find them. His first instinct was to go to his own home, but that was a long journey just to turn around after asking for directions. “D-d-do you know the name… of the struh-steet?” John took her hand again and they began to walk towards the door.


“Or ruh-remember anything about… your vuh-views from the window?” Maybe there was a landmark.

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Sophia loved fairy tales too, and kisses of true love featured prominently in many of them. It sounded so romantic, but the thought of actually kissing somebody was rather disgusting. No matter what her governess said, the little German girl didn't think she would ever want to kiss a boy. She would only do it if she had to.


At least she seemed to have cheered him up a bit and he didn't feel unwanted anymore. She did want to marry him when she grew up, though. Sophia didn't care how long she had to wait. She knew she would never change her mind. Little did she know that she would one day lose her heart first to a composer and then to a Prince. “You will see,” she said with confidence. “We will live happily ever after with Ilia and all my cats. Ilia has to wear a dress for our wedding too. She will look so cute.”


The name of the family she was staying with meant nothing to John, and Sophia shook her head when he asked if she knew the name of the street. She let him take her hand and lead her toward the door. “Is a garden outside my window. Is the garden behind the house.”


As they approached the door, she suddenly pulled back. “I be afraid to go outside. What if I get lost from you too?”

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John laughed at the idea of Ilia in a dress. He had been distracted from his earlier darker thoughts. The little blonde girl had done wonders in that. “Well, then,” He said to her promises of a fairy tale wedding, “You’d b-b-be my… hero, then. And my luh-love.” John suspected that she would change her mind as she got older and got attention from handsome princes and cleverer men than him. But it was a nice thought. He was not immune to the charms of romance.


“Whuh-what sort of garden?” John wasn’t the gardener he’d yet become, though he did have some interest in plants. Still, that was something to go off of. Unless it was a private garden. “D-d-does it go up to the river?” If it did, that would at least narrow it greatly.


John didn’t let go as she pulled back, but also stopped moving towards the door. John took one of her hair ribbons (one which looked like it would be missed less than the others) and gently untied it. He their hands together, looping around their wrists, and then squeezed her hand. He smiled at her. “I w-w-won’t let you go. Just hold tight to me.”


He waited for some sign she felt secure before continuing. In truth, John himself often felt uncomfortable in public. But other people, people to protect or promote or care for, gave him the strength to endure it gladly.

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“You already be my hero,” Sophia stated. “You rescue me today. When we find mine Papa, he be so happy he want us to get married when we grow up.”


She bit her lower lip when he asked her about the garden she could see outside her window. “It have plants and flowers and trees. And ja, it end at river. I be afraid of water so I not go near it. But is big garden and I not see river from my window. Is boat there, by river. I not like boats.” As she had told him earlier, her mother had drowned on a boating trip.


When she expressed her fear of becoming lost again, Lord Maldon reached toward her and untied one of her hair ribbons. The curls it had held in place cascaded down her back, but at least they didn't fall in her face. She watched as he looped the ribbon around their wrists so that they would not become separated. He was so smart.


Sophia returned his smile, feeling much safer now. “I not let you go either.” She swallowed and tried to put on a brave face. “I be ready now. Just not take me to river. I not want to faint.” Nor did she wish to throw up all those delicious sweets, which she sometimes did when she was close to large bodies of water.

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John smiled as she proclaimed him her hero, and said that her father would give him the princess like at the end of most of the stories. “Then you… w-w-will be my princess.” He said matter of factly.


Unfortunately, her description was a bit vague. But still, he was getting closer. “W-w-was it inside or outside the… city walls?” John asked. If it was inside that narrowed it down to about a single mile of road. While not a small area, it was small enough he was sure they could get through most of the mansions. If it were outside… well, that made things more difficult.


John was a bit amused, though. If she didn’t like water she wouldn’t like his home much. But he wasn’t taking their future together seriously enough to warn her.


“Alright. I’ll k-k-keep you away from water.” John promised. Despite knowing of the trauma, he couldn’t help but think she really was a kitten. He wondered if she liked milk and curling up in the sun. Maybe that’s how her hair became so golden.


“If you nuh-need to stop or are n-n-nervous tell me. We can take breaks.” Perhaps it might help her to duck in the odd store. As he walked through the door, he gave her hand a little squeeze. If he’d been alone he’d be nervous himself, but focusing on her allowed him to ignore his own nerves.


He began to walk in the general direction of the Thames, Ilia tagging along and his bodyguard vigilant as ever.

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Sophia liked the idea of being a princess. She could wear a sparkly crown and beautiful dresses all the time. And if she ever became a queen, she would give everyone in her kingdom their very own kitten and puppy, so that they would always be happy and never alone.


“I not know.” Her curls bounced around her as she shook her little head. “I fall asleep in the carriage and when I wake up, I be in strange bed in strange house. I not remember walls when we come here today. We ride in carriage then too.”


Milk was indeed Sophia's favorite drink, and she loved the sun, although she was much to active to curl up and nap in its warmth. She smiled gratefully when John promised not to take her near the water and accompanied him out of the store, glancing around at the coaches parked in front of stores, hoping that one of them would look familiar.


Unfortunately, they all looked the same.


“I not be nervous while you be with me.” As they started walking, she stopped every now and then to look in shop windows, pointing out the things she liked to John before they moved on. “What you want if you have anything in the world?” she asked him quite suddenly, halting in front of a shop with lace and ribbons displayed in the window. Sophia wanted everything she saw and would find it hard to choose.

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John nodded to Sophia’s comment, his own curls bouncing in reply. He would, at least for the moment, presume that it was inside the city walls. If they were lucky it would be. If not, that would still keep them close enough to the palace that they could check there. Perhaps he could commandeer a carriage or something.


John smiled widely as she said he calmed her. That struck a very warm chord with him. He liked feeling like he was what he imagined a man was, a comforting, warm, protective sort of presence. Usually he felt like he was stupid, useless, and caused anxiety, but sometimes he got hints that wasn’t true, and he cherished those whispers of value.


He was surprised by her next question, though. John spent very little time thinking about what he wanted, except on a mundane level. John had trouble looking within himself. It was one of those little paradoxes of life: John was very adept at taking care of other people, and he got great joy from doing so. But he would need someone else to take care of him.


But fortunately he didn’t feel the need to respond. He saw her eying the ribbons and thought she was about to ask his indulgence. “Whuh-what would yuh-you… want?” He expected her to ask after something in the shop.

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He didn't answer her question, but asked the same thing of her instead. Why didn't he tell her what he wanted more than anything in the world? Maybe he didn't know. Sophia didn't know what she wanted either. The ribbons were pretty but she had hundreds of ribbons at home … well, maybe not that many, but she had a lot of them. There was a pink parasol she liked, but she had one of those too.


“I ask you first,” she grinned at him. “I tell you what I want after you tell me what you want.”


She moved to the next shop, making certain she didn't walk too fast. Their wrists were wrapped together and she didn't want him to fall and hurt himself, not because she would be alone again, but because he was her friend.


There was nothing of interest to her in the shop window, so she moved to the next one. Sophia's eyes lit up when she saw the glittering necklaces on display. “Ohhh!” she breathed. Pointing at one dripping with amethysts and diamonds that was far too large for a seven-year-old girl, she forgot that she had requested that John answer her question first. “I want that necklace!” she exclaimed. “Purple be my favorite color and it look good on me, ja?”

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John rolled his eyes but figured that was fair. He thought on it a bit as they moved to the next shop. He wanted to be loved, to feel valued. So maybe that meant he wanted to be normal? Was that even possible? Doctors had examined John and they’d pronounced him incurable. No, that wasn’t possible. Maybe a duchy. Then however bad a family head he was he’d at least be in a position to see those around him put in a good way.


Then interrupted his train of thought and picked out an expensive necklace. John laughed. She even had a taste for fancy collars. “You h-h-have the tastes… of a giraffe’s daughter.” John said wryly. After all, they were creatures known to take great care of their necks. He looked at the price and frowned a bit. He could afford it, but not without spending more than he had on him. He doubted he could justify the purchase to mother either.


“You c-c-can have it with your dress when we… get married.” John promised, still thinking that wouldn’t come. Even if it did, lavishly spending on a wedding was much more justifiable. “Or one even p-p-prettier.” He wondered if she would wear cat ears as well. Maybe he could have big floppy dog ears and all her bridesmaids could be cats and all his grooms could be dogs. Though wasn’t there a saying about getting along like cats and dogs?


“If it c-c-could be anything,” John shared at last, “I’d l-l-like to be normal.” Then mother would love him and his father would have treated him better and…

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Of course, it will be my fault as I should have been gracious and gone with in the first place, the young blond mentally lamented. He had been ordered to go help in the search for the Graf's daughter, lost in London of all places. Abducted was more likely, but nobody liked to think of the obvious worst. Like most cities, London could be unforgiving. Foreigners were an easy target.


"Sophia!" he called out, hoarse and tired already. Inside, though, there was a growing pit in his stomach. What if she really wasabducted!


He had given up his horse to better see on the streets for her small form, and he tried to keep his boots on the planked main walkway.


The dainty blond held his cloved orange up to his face for a moment and jumped over a small puddle of stench to the next piece of wood.


Though his voice was a bright and boyish tenor, the lordling was tall and had a very impressive rapier. A childhood of exile on the continent had schooled him a bit more harshly than younger boys.


Whether the lost blonde would hear him or see and recognize him was anyone's best guess.

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Sophia gazed at the necklace longingly, and sighed when he said she could wear it at their wedding. Why couldn't she have it now? Her governess had taught her that nobody liked little girls who begged and whined, and she wanted John to think well of her. She supposed that she could wait until they got married, however long that happened to be. “Okay,” she agreed with a smile. “You give it to me when I give you kiss of true love, ja?”


It didn't occur to her that by the time she was old enough to wed, the necklace would be gone and long out of style. To her young mind, it would be sitting in the shop window until John decided to get it for her. “Ilia need pretty necklace too,” she said, leaning forward to pet the dog. “She bring us together so she deserve a lovely gift.”


The tiny blonde tilted her head to the side as her new friend told her that he wanted to be normal more than anything in the world. Sophia wasn't certain what he meant by that. He seemed perfect to her, even though he limped and shook. “If you be different that you be right now, then you not be you. I like you just the way you be.”


Her eyes suddenly widened and she turned to look behind her. “I hear someone call my name! Maybe is my papa! Can hear you it?”

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The necklace was a beautiful thing. John might have wanted to give it if he believed the pleasant future the little girl painted were possible. Maybe one day she would convince him. Until then, he just said, “Ja.” It was playful but not mockery. “And a g-g-great deal more besides.” If they were getting married the patriarchs of each family would be expected to shower the other’s family with gifts.


John began to regret that Sophia would return to her father. He knew their chances of meeting again were fairly remote. But she was indeed a good deal like Ilia, or at least possessed the best traits he imagined in his dog. “We’ll g-g-get her the loveliest… c-c-collar in England.” He agreed.


“Thuh-thank you.” John said. Unfortunately the issue was that not everyone felt that way. Sophia would slip out of his life. Perhaps he would think of the small German girl who liked him as he was. Or perhaps not. At her age John cynically expected her to forget him. “You’ll have t-t-to tell me that everyday.” Perhaps they would get married, and she would make sure he was at least loved by one person… his young mind strained to make it possible.


“Yes.” John replied, less enthused than she. Sophia was sometimes an English name, but there was no harm in investigating. It might well be someone who knew her. He silently hoped it wasn’t so they could spend more time together. He then cursed himself for such a thought.


John went towards the source of the voice and soon came across a blond gentleman. His bodyguard eyed Francis suspiciously as was his way. “D-d-d-do you know… him?” John asked Sophia before they approached.


They were close enough that Francis might see them, though he’d have to look down.

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Sophia giggled when he said 'ja.' and she grinned at his promise to buy her many more gifts besides just the necklace. She loved gifts, and she also liked to give them. “I give you gifts too. And I give some to Ilia. I ask Papa for a doggie. My doggie and Ilia can be friends.”


Her grin brightened. “I will tell you every day. And when I go back to Deutschland, I write you every day.” Her father would like that. He always encouraged her to practice her English, but there were few opportunities to do so in Germany. “You will always know I like you just as you are. And I tell you what my papa tell me all time: Believe in yourself. If believe you in yourself, believe other people in you too.”


So John had also heard somebody calling her name. Sophia followed him excitedly as he led her toward its source. Again, she heard her name and this time she could see the young man who shouted it. He wasn't her papa, but she did recognize him.


“Ja, I know him. He be part of family I stay with.” Perhaps he wasn't, but that was where she had seen him before and she had only arrived in London a few days ago. She had met so many people in such a short time that it was hard to keep them all straight.


“I be here!” Sophia jumped up and down, hoping the tall blond would see her. “I be here!”

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“M-m-maybe you… can g-g-get a… male dog and they c-c-can get married.” John said with a smile. Ilia was probably a spinster at her age, but perhaps she still held out hope in her doggy heart, like in the romance novels.


John nodded when she promised to write. “I w-w-will too.” He said. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to. There was still the fear that the flow of letters would become a trickle and then stop, but for the moment he shoved that down.


At twelve, no one had ever believed in John for long. His father had tried to put him out of the succession. His mother was worse. Their ambitions to improve him had been frustrated. And he’d been examined and told he was unfit for the church. John looked down for a moment and said softly, “I c-c-can’t.” Maybe she could though. He believed her when she said she liked him.


Then the blonde gentleman came into view. This distracted his darker thoughts. It put something else in front of him to focus on. John chuckled at the girl’s eagerness and went over to Francis, still holding Sophia’s hand. “You there,” He addressed Francis, “C-c-can you take… us to L-l-lady Albright’s father, the giraffe?”

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  • 2 weeks later...

Francis was certainly not attired as a kidnapper. In stark contrast to much of London's streets, the Villiers blond probably looked distinctly nonthreatening but for his rapier marking him a gentleman. Right down to the cloved orange in his hand as they approached.


"Lady Sophia!" he shouted with surprise. Ahh, relief!


He was so preoccupied in finding her, which beyond feeling very good inside, he knew his father would surely applaud the act and reward him handsomely. He nearly missed the boy with her.


"You mean Lady Albrecht? And the Graf, her father, he is only German, not from where there are such strange animals!" He giggled some. "Though had he so great a view, he might have found Sophia before now."


Francis probably looked like he could be related to her. They both had similar blue eyes and blond hair. He held his hand out to the girl.


"I can take you to my father's or uncle's where we are all staying. The Graf is probably still out looking, but I can send servants to find and collect him."

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“Ja! I get male doggy and they be married on the same day. And two of my cats get married too. Will be it best wedding ever!”


Sophia grinned when he promised to write, but her little lips turned down into a frown at his confession that couldn't believe in himself. “Then I will believe in you so much that you start believing in yourself. And my father believe in you too when we find him. You rescue me when I be lost and frightened. He be grateful you not leave me alone and he will see how good you are. I know he will.”


And it appeared that they would see him soon, now that the blond boy had found them. Sophia followed John over to him, giggling when he referred to her father as a 'giraffe.' It sounded very similar to Graf. And the tall boy … she could not remember his name … answered in kind. An image appeared in her mind of her father's head on a giraffe's body, peering over everyone while looking for her, and it sent her into another fit of giggles.


When he held out his hand to her, she took it without hesitation. Her other wrist was still tied to John's, and she held it up so that Francis could see it. “My friend come too. He stay with me all time be I lost and I want Papa to meet him. His name be Lord Maldon.”


She turned to John. “You come with us, ja?” Sophia didn't want him to leave her, and she did wish to introduce him to her father. Even though they had promised to write each other, she was afraid that once he left, he would disappear from her life forever, and she didn't want that at all.

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John laughed at Sophia’s view. There had been many good dogs, but he wondered if there had ever been a best dog and best cat at a weddings.


He nodded more somberly as she promised to believe in him, and said her father was too. He believed the first, not the second. But he would see. He squeezed her hand a bit by way of appreciation before they moved over.


John was treating Francis as an unknown gentleman. Had he thought him a commoner, even one of impeccable moral character, he would have offered him money. As it was, he took him for a genteel servant or minor noble, probably of her father or one of his friends.


“B-b-but Germany is full of murderous… c-c-cows and deer… the suh-size of t-t-trees!” John said of German wildlife. He had all the certainty of a child who’d read something in a book once. In fact, the book was The Gallic Wars, and would’ve been known to anyone who learned Latin. At this Sophia dissolved into giggles and John looked around, shocked that Julius Caesar had clearly lied to him!


Sophia asked him about coming with her. John was willing to be a bit more insistent. His word had already been given. “I suh-said I’d… d-d-deliver her to someone… she’d own as a bluh-blood ruh-relative. And stay with her until then,” John said. His tone said that he would follow through on that.


“I w-w-will.” John smiled as Sophia asked him to come along. “At luh-least until you’re back with your… f-f-father.” He didn’t expect an introduction or reward. He was more used to being kept in the background. He rather expected that the blond fellow was going to play up his part in all this, which was fine with him. He just needed to keep his word.

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"Murderous cows and deer?!?" the Villiers heir laughed heartily. "Nay, Maldon. I assure you that the boar in France are far more dangerous than any hart or cow." He added, "Many a servant have been known to meet their death at the hunt. It is very sporting though, there is nothing the like in England."


The young blond was obviously well-traveled and such hunts were not had in modest houses.


Smirking in amusement, Francis tried to keep from chuckling at the boy's stumbling sort of imperiousness. In the face of Sophia's guileless, little girl cuteness, though, young Maldon's demeanor was not of the most importance.


"I am most certain your lord father would wish to meet Lord Maldon," he said, agreeably. He was not the disagreeable sort in general. "And our house is always open to receive guests."


Plus, there was plenty of room in a coach if he mounted his horse again. He had learned how to dispense largesse easily. They could accommodate quite a number so there was no reason to deny her request, especially if it gave her company that put her at ease. Then he wouldn't have to do so himself.


They came across one of the liveried servants with his horse first. Buckingham's lavish style was unmistakable, and the livery of the duke quite common knowledge to any courtier.


"We have found the lady and are going back home. Go and find everyone," he told the young man, who left rather swiftly. They had each been sent to a certain area. He took his reins and led his horse along until they came to the carriage awaiting.


It would not be that long of a ride to Buckingham's house with Francis riding alongside the carriage.

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Sophia beamed when Francis said that John could accompany her to the house where she was staying, and her grin brightened when John agreed to come. “Danke!” she exclaimed to both of them. She hardly knew Francis and didn't trust him nearly as much as she did John, who had already done so much for her. He was her friend, while Francis was merely an acquaintence.


“Maybe we not need be tie together now?” she asked John. She didn't think she would be able to untie the ribbon by herself. “Or wish you to stay attached to me until you meet Papa?”


She rather hoped that the tall, imposing lord who owned the house was not there. Sophia didn't know why, but he scared her. She wouldn't be afraid of him with John by her side. He had promised to protect her, although in truth, she had nothing to fear from Lord Buckingham. He seemed to like her father well enough from what she had seen.


They came to Francis' horse and while the blond boy gave instructions to the servant, Sophia reached up with her free hand and stroked the equine's soft mane. Horses were big too, but they weren't at all scary. “You have horse?” she asked John quietly. “Have I pony at my castle. Like I to ride.”


She was tempted to ask Francis if she could ride on the back of his horse, but before she found the courage, they approached a carriage. “We ride in here, ja?” she asked. “Both of us?”

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John was glad that there weren’t murderous French boars running around the countryside, killing servants. They’d probably be Catholic too, which would be worse somehow.


John was relieved Francis agreed. He wasn’t sure what he’d have done if Hartley’d made an argument of it. Then Sophia asked him to untie her and John glanced at the tie. He’d forgotten it entirely. He nodded to her and, with a bit of difficulty due to shaking, managed to untie his end.


As they approached the carriage, John did recognize the symbols of the Duke of Buckingham. John didn’t understand court very well, so all he knew was that the duke was one of the one’s that wasn’t related to him. Since he wasn’t a royal duke, obviously this meant he was less important than those that were.


“I use m-m-m-my… fuh-father’s.” John said in reply. The topic was too banal to make his chest seize. He liked to ride too, but he found it a bit difficult. Fortunately his father’s horse didn’t seem to disturbed by his shaking. “I l-l-l-like it… too.”


John nodded to them riding together. He helped Sophia up, then lifted in Illia. Then his bodyguard lifted him up and put him inside so he wouldn’t have to fuss with his legs and the stairs. The man then went to the back of the carriage to hang on as it went.


John sat on one side of the carriage. The seats were lushly adorned but tall, so as to create more space, and his legs swung, one a bit more wildly than the other. "How... l-l-long are you staying in England?" John asked Sophia, looking out the window to see if Francis was taking any interest in them.

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Francis was only paying the pair in the carriage half a mind through the London streets as he rode ahead of them. He enjoyed the importance of being followed by such grand equipage. At his age, he did have visions of what it would be like to be his uncle. Thankfully, he inherited the sweet disposition of his father that did not having him wish his uncle to never have children, but he did rather like being the "special" boy of their entire family and would not mind that situation remaining.


I am going to be able to ask for anything in return for aiding so well in locating the girl! Hartley could not help but beam as they pulled through the front of the grand house.


He hoped someone was home to see their arrival!


The climax would not be near as grand if they all returned after Sophia was found.


He swung his leg over his horse and tossed his reins at a servant, trotting up toward the doors while the footmen and servants helped Sophia and Maldon, a few household servant coming outside to see to them as well.

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John untied the ribbon around his wrist, but Sophia kept it around hers. The free end fluttered in the breeze, making it look almost alive. Even if she had been capable of removing it herself, she didn't want to. She felt as if she was still linked to her new friend as long as it remained there. And she wanted to show it to her father when she told him how John had taken care of her.


Her heart was lighter now that she knew she would soon be reunited with her father, but she dreaded Lord Maldon's eventual departure. He couldn't stay with them forever, as much as she wished he could. But they would see each other again. Papa would certainly agree to take him with them when they visited the palace and they could see each other often while she stayed in London. Since he liked to ride too, maybe they could go riding together.


When they reached the carriage, Sophia took John's shaking hand and let him help her inside, even though she could have bounced up the steps on her own. She was so tiny that she didn't have to bend down to get through the door. Settling upon a cushioned seat, she patted the place beside her in case Ilia wanted to sit with her and then watched with interest as John's bodyguard carefully lifted him inside. Perhaps because of his limp, he was unable to navigate the steps. The little blonde felt a bit guilty for being able to do things that he could not.


“I not know how long stay we in England,” she said. “I ask mine Papa. I hope stay we for very long time.” When they returned to Germany, she knew that she would miss him terribly. They had grown so close in such a short time.


Sophia couldn't see Lord Hartley anymore, but she supposed he was riding in front of the carriage to lead them back to the mansion where she and her father were staying. She looked out the window at the passing scenery. “It be long way to house,” she said to John. “Be I glad we not must walk all way.”


When they pulled into the drive, she started bouncing up and down. “We here!” she exclaimed. “I see my Papa again!” Yet when they left the carriage, he was nowhere in sight. Once more, she took Lord Maldon's hand. Hearing the sound of horses' hooves behind them, she looked back and saw another carriage pull up behind the one they had just left.


Her father leapt out of it and rushed toward her. “Papa!” Sophia dropped John's hand and launched herself at the middle-aged blond gentleman, who swung her into his arms and held her tightly.


“My precious Sophia,” he said as he kissed her cheek, relief flooding his deep voice. Bastian Albrecht had been afraid that he would never see his only daughter again. Having visited London many times, he knew how dangerous the streets were, especially for children.


Sophia kissed him back and when he lowered her back to the ground, she led him over to John. “This be Lord Maldon. He help me when I be lost and he buy me sweets and help me look for you.” Indicating Francis, whose name she could not remember, she added: “And he find us and bring us here.”

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Ilia looked confused at Sophia’s offer. She’d never had to choose before! But John made a sign and Ilia eager jumped up and nuzzled her way under Sophia’s arm with a happy huff.


John nodded at not knowing how long she’d stay, and gratitude at not having to walk. As he sat, he idly twisted his little cane in circles and looked out the window at the passing scenery. “It’s a p-p-pity we couldn’t… t-t-take wuh-water taxi.” John said idly. John had, if anything, a mild preference for going by water. It was smoother and faster, and London was supposed to be famous for its Thames taxis. Of course, living near several major ports and at the confluence of several major rivers, John was very accustomed to water.


John smiled as Sophia jumped up and down, the tension and anxiety resolving in front of her bubbly display. John took her hand with a small smile, squeezing it as before, “He’s p-p-probably out looking for you.” He was consoling her, but he also believed that was true.


Then a carriage pulled up and a tiny blond missile flung herself at a rather well dressed lord. John was a bit scandalized by such open displays of affection. He gave a questioning look to Hartley, probing if this was normal for Germans too. For John, who was taught strong emotions were bad on principal, this was more shocking than the idea of murderous cows.


Ilia, meanwhile, was just happy people were happy and wagged her tail, sitting next to John. John’s bodyguard, while still hovering near him, was less on guard. Noble processions and households were unwise to attack. And if Buckingham or the Graf let anything happen to John while at their house it would be to their dishonor. In fact, had John been going straight to a noble household rather than wandering around he would have been unguarded.


John nodded his acknowledgement at his introduction by Sophia. “At your suh-service.” John’s tone was distinctly uncomfortable. He glanced at Sophia, looking for some kind of support.


He was surprised that Sophia mentioned Francis. Hartley’s failure to introduce himself implied to John he was not worth introducing. Had he been a nobleman, he ought to have introduced himself by name. Of course, in day-to-day life such things were often relaxed. It was precisely these casual social interactions that John was kept from. For him, the world was family, friends, or formal.


Still, he’d just completed his word. He was surprised to find he didn’t want to leave immediately. He still didn’t believe he’d see Sophia again and he didn’t want to say goodbye.

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Hartley did not realize he had never said who he was, but in the combination of stress and hurry of the moment, and the fact that he somewhat thought people should know him, he had not bothered. He was very rarely the lowest ranked present, so it almost never fell to him to give introductions and introducing oneself was crass anyway.


When Francis heard another coach coming in behind them, he halted his progression toward the door just as a right horde of liveried servants came out with drinks and trays and all the signs of largesse that Buckingham threw about liberally.


One of them was clearly the blond's valet, for Hartley quickly had a warm, wet linen in his hands to wipe his face, while another servant scurried to wipe some of the muck from his boots before he moved off to meet the other carriage. That they went to him first and foremost was probably a good signal of his rank and importance to the house.


The rest of the horde approached their guests quickly and stood by the ready.


For his part, Harley watched the reunion between father and daughter, but did not see (or hear) Buckingham walk up beside him.


The tall duke gave the boy a clap on the shoulder, "Well, I am not sure if I should be worried my eventual heir has such a knowledge of London's underbelly at such an age. What sort of duke shall you make one day?"


Hartley tittered some, "I wonder where I received such an education, Your Grace."


Buckingham was one to couch much in humor, for none wished to think now of what could have happened, only that the girl was safe and apparently unharmed. She had also picked up a friend or admirer!


"Good fortune!" Buckingham said, in German. "Why do we not all get comfortable in the garden? And who is your new friend, Lady Albrecht?" Indicating Maldon with a drop of his eyes to the boy. "The whole house has gone looking for you. I only just arrived back from the palace..." That was why he had not also gone out. He knew London intimately well and many undesirable characters too.

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Sophia shivered when he mentioned taking a water taxi. She had told him that she had seen her mother die, but not how it happened. He didn't know how terrified she was of water. They'd had to travel by ship for a short time during their trip from Germany, but she didn't remember it. Her father had insisted she be sedated, and when she had awakened, they were once more in a carriage trundling along the road.


She bit her lip as John assured her that her father wasn't among the throng of people who poured from the house because he was out looking for her. It turned out he was right and soon she was swung up into her father's embrace. She loved how the world looked from up so high and was a bit disappointed when he set her back on the ground.


Bastian turned toward Sophia's companion when she introduced him. He immediately noticed the cane in the young lord's hand and the way he was shaking, as well as the hesitation in his voice when he spoke. “Thank you for taking care of my little girl,” he said. He spoke no differently to children than he did to adults.


“We get married when we grow up!” Sophia exclaimed. “And we write each other when I go back to Germany.”


The Graf chuckled and smiled at John. “Is that so? Well then, I think we should get to know each other better. Can you stay for awhile, Lord Maldon?” He wanted to find out who the boy's parents were and where he lived. A reward would be forthcoming, both to him and to Hartley. He would discuss the blond lord's part in Sophia's rescue with his uncle later. Now he watched as said uncle approached them, clapping his nephew on the shoulder and saying something that he could not hear.


Sophia hid behind her father when she spotted Lord Buckingham, peeking out at him from behind the Graf's brocade frock coat. Yet when he spoke to her in German, her father pushed her forward and she gazed up at the tall Duke with wide ice-blue eyes. “This is Lord Maldon,” she replied in German. “He took care of me when I was lost and he is my bestest friend in all the world.”


She took John's hand again and switched back to English. “You stay, ja? Please say you will.”

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“You’re welcome.” John picked up into more normalcy very suddenly. John clung to even small rituals as a form of comfort, a way to know what he was supposed to do. He so often didn’t. “I’m g-g-glad I was there.” He really was. He had a sister about Sophia’s age. If she ever got lost he hoped some gentleman would bring her back safely.


John’s opinion of Hartley did revise itself as he was treated as one of the masters of the house. The swarm of servants wasn’t anything particularly new, and John mostly ignored them.


He was more surprised to find him the duke’s eventual heir. But any feelings he had on that matter were quickly drowned as Buckingham switched to German and John lost all ability to follow what was happening. He looked around as if searching for something to grab onto. He found it in manners and bowed to Buckingham briefly and awkwardly at his introduction, “Your g-g-grace.”


Then Sophia announced they were going to get married. John actually bit his tongue to stop himself from petulantly pointing out she still owed him a kiss of true love. He was a lord and not to be so easily had! But she took his hand and he saw the twinkle in her father’s eye. Perhaps he really was that easy. It would be nice to have someone who believed in him. Maybe his mother would let him stay in Germany for a while.


“Ah…” John hesitated, before finally letting out, “Yes.” There still was some measure of discomfort in his manners, but he could stay.


He looked to her father and then to her, “Yes. It w-w-would be my pleasure.” He said more firmly, “If you c-c-could send… a message to Ruh-ruh-Roehampton saying I’m here.” In that request his tone was that of someone asking for tea. It wouldn’t do for his family to think he was kidnapped or missing. He imagined he would be interrogated over what happened later.


He didn’t let go of Sophia’s hand. He hadn’t even thought of it, but it gave him comfort. Comfort he needed with people speaking strange languages and John being thrust in front of people he didn’t know in a situation he wasn’t familiar with.

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