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Ach Tannenbaum! [Just Before Noon, 24th]- Xmas 1677

Guest John Bramston

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The Spanish Embassy


Located 5 doors up from the Dutch Embassy, the Spanish Embassy is also unassuming. Its gates are high and the guard out front dressed in the uniform of the Spanish Army. A large flag hung next to the main door, displaying the Spanish colors.


John had decided to take a bit more of a direct reply to Sophia’s letter. Perhaps it was making a nuisance of himself, but indulgence was ultimately a mark of friendship.


He presumed that the lady had already taken up her new residence. If not, surely the staff could direct him to where her old one was. Behind him trailed some servants carrying a few boxes.

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It was just about noon when Sophia's carriage pulled up to the Spanish Embassy. After what Davina had told her about the receptions given to Ambassadors by the King and Queen, she wanted to ask Esteban if they would be received in such a grand fashion, considering that they had both already been at court for more than a year. Her husband was new to his position, though, and it was possible that he would be honored because of it. However, he had said nothing to her, which wasn't surprising considering that most of her time had spent rehearsing since they had returned to London.


A pleasant surprise greeted her as the coach came to a stop. Lord Maldon was walking toward the gates, followed by servants who were carrying boxes. Had he brought her more books? She had not yet returned the ones she had given her to read during recess. Or had he brought the boxes to carry them home in? It seemed like too many boxes for such a small number of books.


Ever curious, she practically leaped from the carriage and strolled toward him, a bright smile curving her lips. “Lord Maldon!” she exclaimed. “How wonderful to see you again! Have you come to retrieve the books you loaned me?”

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John was surprised to see Sophia pulling up but he smiled and bowed, “Your excellency.” Ambassadors ranked very highly. As the wife of one, Sophia now outranked John. In fact, Sophia was now the second highest ranked person he’d spoken to at court.


After a moment he rose. He didn’t expect the shift to change much about their relationship except that she would now be the one giving him indulgence to be at ease. “Ah, yes. If you’re d-d-done with them.” He replied to her inquiry. In that he was in no hurry. “And I… have a smuh-small surprise as well.” John gestured to the servants.


He gestured a servant over and, fishing into the box, took out a small angel tree topper. He held it out to her, smiling with the weight of implication. He’d been to Germany and he’d learned a bit about Christmas trees and that Germans gave gifts on Christmas eve. It was a completely foreign custom to him but that just made it exotic. And indeed one of the boxes was rectangular and could contain a tree large enough to fit on a table…

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Sophia had thought that 'Your Excellency' was a form of address reserved for an Ambassador and not his wife, but she had to admit she liked the sound of it. Her servants called her 'my lady' and the only other courtiers she had interacted with since her return to London had been those involved in the opera. She had tried to downplay her position at rehearsals, and she wasn't even certain if Master Cole was aware that Esteban was the new Spanish Ambassador. Davina and Caroline had referred to her as Lady Toledo.


She grinned as Lord Maldon bowed to her. “There is no need to be so formal,” she told him. “We are friends, are we not?” He was an Earl and she only a Baroness. She still considered him higher in status that she. The petite singer had been so busy with the opera, she'd had no time to ponder the implications of her new rise in prominence at court.


“I am done with them.” She had particularly enjoyed the tales of Don Juan, imagining her Prince in the role of the notorious lover. Sophia had read other stories about him in Italian, in which he was called Don Giovanni. She had made the connection between her royal lover and the fictional character who shared his name last spring, and it never ceased to amuse her. “They are not here, though. I have them at my new residence, which is only a short walk from here.”


He had a surprise for her? Her ice-blue eyes lit up when he pulled a pretty angel from the box. The blonde German knew exactly what it was. “Für meinen Weihnachtsbaum!”* she exclaimed. Unfortunately, she had been too busy to even think of acquiring a tree.


“I do not have a tree yet. I know I should set one up today, but I have been so swamped with rehearsals, I have been unable to think of anything else.” She did not yet notice the oblong box.



*For my Christmas tree!

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John had defaulted to a position of total formality until she gave him permission to do otherwise. Having given him permission, he smiled and said, “Yes, of c-c-course.” They were friends and that was a matter quite apart from the demands of etiquette or rank. Whether he bowed to her or she bowed to him wouldn’t affect that.


She said that the books were at her home, which was a short walk. “Ah, really?” John seemed slightly embarrassed at having shown up at the wrong place. But the action had not been particularly well planned from the start. “Then we ought to g-g-go there.” John hoped she could lead the way, and that it was as close as she said.


He was glad in particular that Sophia didn’t comment negatively on the works about Don Juan. He did not know, nor suspect, their relationship. He knew she thought highly of Don Juan, but that was natural since her husband served him. And it would not have been entirely out of place for her to be offended at the implications of sending her tales of an infamous rogue with her master’s name. Her lack of comment, to John, implied she’d taken them in at least good humor.


John smiled widely as her eyes lit up. He pressed the angel into her hands. He’d presumed she wouldn’t have a tree, since her husband was Spanish and Catholic, but even if she had one she might countenance two. “Oh r-r-really?” John failed at feigning distress at her treelessness. He seemed almost delighted by it.


“If you’d t-t-take me… to your home perhaps we c-c-could find a place for it.” John offered, a slight tone of mischievousness underpinning his voice.

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Sophia was glad that he agreed that they should be informal with each other, at least as informal as propriety allowed. Sometimes she wished that she could simply be called 'Sophia,' but even as a child, she had been 'Lady Albrecht' for as long as she could remember. She only knew of three people who called her by her given name … her father, Juan, and Esteban.


He looked a bit embarrassed for some reason, but she had no idea why. She thought that looking for her at the Embassy was perfectly natural. Until they had returned to London, she had thought that they would live there, and had been worried about having to keep her pets confined to a small area so they would not disturb Esteban's visitors. She had awakened after her illness in their new residence and had explored it as soon as she had been able to get out of bed. It was not decorated as artistically as the house they had rented last season, but she planned to remedy that as soon as she had time.


Sophia studied the little angel he handed her, admiring its fine craftsmanship. How, she wondered, did he know so much about German traditions? She noticed that he appeared pleased that she didn't have a tree, and she gazed more carefully at the boxes the servants held, wondering if one of them contained one.


“Come with me,” she said, gesturing for him to follow her. “I have a surprise for you as well.” She had brought back plants from Spain back, some for her and some for him. Unfortunately, not all of them had survived the journey, and not all of those that had made it were thriving. Hopefully, he would be able to show her how to revive them.


It wasn't long before they reached the house, and she led him inside and to the large drawing room on the ground floor. The wallpaper and furnishings were a bit too dark for her tastes, but she would change that eventually. A pair of comfortable chairs was arranged in front of the fireplace and Sophia took off her cloak and handed it to a servant, instructing her to fetch the books that Lord Maldon had loaned her. Another servant stood by to take any outdoor garments that John wished to relinquish. “Please sit down,” she said, concerned that he might be in pain for having been on his feet too long. “The boxes can be placed on the floor.”


She was curious as to what they contained, but she would let him show her what was in them. Sophia set the angel on the small table that stood between the chairs. “I hope you will stay for lunch. I'm sure my cook has prepared something delicious.”

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John smiled as she glanced over, wistfully even, at the boxes. But he nodded and followed, curious what surprises she had for him. He had not seen her last house, or her embassy, so he was not much to judge. He did suspect her husband had seen to the home’s decoration. His imagination was that Sophia would fill the place with art and bright colors.


John, with just a bit of difficulty, took off his great coat and handed it to the servant. John smiled, thanked her, and sat down in the chair, and while obviously glad to be off his feet, he didn’t appear to be in any sort of pain. He gestured to the servants and they piled up the boxes next to the table. There were three, one oblong and two smaller square ones. The servants then departed.


John nodded as she invited him to lunch, “Of c-c-course.” So far she’d stuff him full of exotic and interesting fare, so her table was a good one.


There was a pause. John was truthfully not a great showman, and the realization a good moment had dawned only came once its sun was a bit into the sky. “I thought I m-m-might give you a bit of home in Luh-London.” He explained.


John picked up the oblong box and, opened it, pulled out a small Christmas tree, one sized for a table. It had a base on the bottom and he placed it on the table. It was undecorated, but he opened the second box that was full of candles and other decorations that went on and beneath the tree. There was also a mixture of German sweets and nuts, as well as some fruit, which would both be placed under the tree and eaten.


And there was one box still unopened.

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Sophia was pleased that Lord Maldon agreed to stay for lunch and she sent Anna to the kitchen to tell the cook that she had a visitor and to have an extra place set at the table. She didn't know if Esteban planned to take lunch at their residence or at the Embassy. He had never discussed his daily plans with her, and she didn't expect him to start now.


She had forgotten all about what she wanted to ask him when she had seen John heading toward the Embassy with his boxes. Now she sat upon the vacant chair as the boxes were piled next to the table. Sophia could hardly contain her excitement. Whatever had he brought her besides the pretty angel tree topper? She would have to make certain one of the servants found a tree for her before this evening.


“I do not know what she is preparing, but it is likely to be Spanish fare and quite spicy.” She grinned mischievously, remembering the day they had met. “I will make sure you have lots of wine.”


His words intrigued her and she watched as he opened the oblong box and pulled out a small tree. “Oh, thank you!” she exclaimed. “I was just considering sending my servants to find a tree, but I doubt they would know what to look for.” She exclaimed in delight at the contents of the second box too, which contained everything she needed to decorate the tree. How did John know so much about German traditions?


Standing up, she picked up the angel and set it on top of the tree. “There. It looks lovely, does it not? I hope you will help me with the rest of it. It is no fun to decorate a tree alone."


Her eyes strayed toward the last box and then locked on his, her sparkling eyes full of expectation. “And what is in this one?”

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“Ah, l-l-look at you,” John said with a bemused grin, “The Spanish ambassadress, already p-p-plying English lords with wine.” From his tone it was very apparent he was teasing her in reply, though nefarious Spanish schemes were still far from jokes. Especially to the mob.


John smiled gladly and indulgently at Sophia’s exclamations. She expressed doubts her servants would know how to find a Christmas tree. “Say you w-w-want a fir tree.” They weren’t called Christmas trees but they were extremely common. Though this particular tree had been brought from the Palatinate, as had the decorations.


He watched as she set the little angel upon the tree with great interest. He was still more provincial than not. To the average Englishman Sophia and her north German traditions might be familiar but to John they were exotic. He smiled in delight as she seemed pleased and he got to witness a fun little moment.


John nodded, a pleased smile gracing his face, as she said it was lovely. Then she asked him to help and John hesitated. “I’ll huh-help as I can.” He was not very dexterous and had not actually seen a done up Christmas tree. He trusted that Sophia would be understanding, though, and so was willing to try. He looked at her a bit expectantly. He’d need her to take the lead.


John let out a small puff of amusement as her eyes went to the last box then to his. He took the box up and opened it. Most of the box was filled with German candies and nuts. There were also some small gifts. A potted pair of pepper plants with some immature peppers already growing and another pot with some mint. The Behemoth, a book. And a set of musical pipes.


“F-f-for underneath the tree.” John explained. “For you,” the plants, “your husband,” the book, “and your sister,” the pipes. John meant Maria with the last one.

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Sophia chuckled. “I would never resort to such underhanded tactics,” she replied with a teasing smile. “There are more creative ways to get what I want.” She doubted that Esteban would ask her to spy for him. If he had discussed her interest in spying with Juan while they were in Spain, it was unlikely that her royal lover would allow her to put herself in harm's way. If she met someone whom she thought had information that would be useful to Spain, though, she would not hesitate to try and charm him out of it.


“A fir tree,” she repeated. “I did not know the English word for tannenbaum. and none of my servants are German.” Her bodyguard Karl spoke German, but she didn't know if he would be willing to go out and cut down a tree for her. Or if Esteban would be displeased with him if he did.


“I will show you what to do,” she assured him. Because of his shaking, he would not be able to light the candles, but he could adorn the tree with some of the decorations he had brought. All it needed now was some paper flowers, which she could make herself when she had a bit of time. She remembered creating them out of colorful paper when she was a child, supervised by her governess. They always decorated their tree before her father came home, so that he would be surprised. And when he saw it, he would pull little gifts from his pockets and place them beneath it. It was a Christmas tradition she sorely missed.


Lord Maldon's box contained gifts as well, along with nuts and German candies she had not seen in years. She gazed with interest at the pepper plants, which looked much healthier than any of the plants she had brought from Spain. And he had even remembered Maria. Most of the time, her mute sister-in-law was overlooked, and Sophia believed she preferred it that way.


She picked up one of the candies and popped it into her mouth, and then, quite impulsively, she leaned over and hugged John briefly, being careful not to upset the contents of the box he still held. “Thank you so much!” She smiled warmly and returned to her chair. “I have gifts for you too. In my orangery.” Sophia hoped that he wasn't too disappointed at the condition of the plants that had traveled with her from Spain. There were some Spanish peppers among them.


“So tell me, my dear friend, how do you know so much about German traditions?”

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“I f-f-fear for England.” John said in reply, with mock gravity. He expected that Esteban would use his pretty and Protestant wife to try and bridge the religious and cultural divides. And that he would use her friendship with John to try and get in touch with the whiggish elements pushing for war with France, since that was in Spain’s interests but those same elements were theoretically anti-Spanish.


But John would play politics with his German friend later.


John smiled as she apprehended his fear. He took up an ornament and, carefully, hung it from one of the branches. He looked over at her as if asking for approval. He felt keenly self-conscious just then. What he was trying to give her, ultimately, was not a few schillings worth of baubles and candies and a tree but a German Christmas in miniature. And as authentic as he could make the tree or the candy he was not a German. He feared he might ruin the experience.


At showing the gifts, she hugged him. John was surprised for a moment, but letting the box fall to his lap he returned her embrace. It was just a brief squeeze in reply. While perhaps skirting impropriety no one could have accused it of containing amorous passions. John’s eyes were sparkling, but it was the sort of joy he got from seeing little Lizzie’s eyes light up at a new stuffed dragon. “You’re very welcome. Ah, frohe weihnachten.” John said Merry Christmas in German. His accent was frankly terrible.


When she said she had gifts in return, “D-d-don’t feel obligated. I’m not German and I’ll be… v-v-very pleased to receive only at New Years.” He didn’t want to pressure her into giving something before she’d intended. Or into buying gifts for him twice. He placed the gifts underneath the tree and then emptied the nuts and candies so they fell onto the table beneath. He then placed the box aside, and they had a more or less complete Christmas tree. It only needed to be decorated and to have a full family around it.


She asked how he knew all this, “Oh, I vuh-visited my siblings when they were abroad.” John realized he hadn’t told her he would actually go himself, just that he was sending his siblings. “My c-c-connections among the House of Nassau tuh-took us in.” The House of Nassau ruled over a German state directly to the north of the Palatinate and also was the parent house of the House of Orange.


“When I heard c-c-court was to be… at Christmas...” John thought the rest filled itself in. He’d inquired and arranged but the specific details of how were unimportant.

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Sophia grinned playfully when he said he feared for England. “And well you should,” she replied cryptically but her mischievous wink would tell him she was only jesting. She was aware that Esteban might try to get information from her, and she would gladly give it … if she thought it was something he needed to know. Private conversations would never be repeated, and if he pressed her to reveal what she and her friends talked about, she would make up something he wouldn't be interested in. Lying came as naturally to her as breathing, and because of her training in acting, she was quite good at it.


Perhaps she shouldn't have asked John to help her decorate the tree. She could tell he was a bit uncomfortable and she smiled reassuringly as he hung an ornament from one of the branches. Picking up a couple of the candles, she stuck them securely in the prickly leaves of the boughs on either side of the ornament. “Perfect,” she said. He wouldn't be able to ruin her joy even if he tried. His thoughtfulness had made her very happy.


She didn't know what Esteban would think when he saw the tree, but she wasn't concerned about that. He had once told her that having a foreign wife would be an advantage if he became Ambassador; therefore he should accept a few German traditions. If he didn't like it, she would just move it to her private chambers.


John returned her hug, and Sophia was glad that her husband had not walked in at that moment or he might have thought there was more than friendship between his young wife and the Earl. But nobody saw their brief embrace and they pulled away from each other almost immediately. A soft blush suffused her cheeks, and her smile brightened when he wished her a merry Christmas in German. Had he found a tutor to teach him her native tongue? “Frohe Weihnachten für Sie als auch.”*


As to gifts: “If I do not give them to you now, they may not survive until New Years Eve. And I have something else to give you then.” Which was true. The plants were not meant to be Christmas gifts. She had brought them back because of his interest in gardening, thinking that he would like to grow some plants unique to Spain.


So he had spent at least part of his recess in her homeland. She knew of the House of Nassau and if she remembered right, her father had been acquainted with a few gentlemen from that family. However, she couldn't be certain so she said nothing of it. “You thought of me,” she finished his sentence for him, her voice full of wonder. “I appreciate it more than I can say … in any language that I know.”


Taking another candy, she leaned against the cushioned back of her chair. “What did you think of Germany? And did you bring your sisters back to court with you?”



* Merry Christmas to you as well.

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John was visibly relieved at her assurance he’d done well. Seeing that he had done it right, John began to decorate with more ease. He was still slow, overly careful, but he was able to take joy in it. He smiled at her and tried to place things near her candles or her own ornaments. As he went on his smile widened and he seemed to greatly enjoy himself, fascinated and childlike at this strange pleasure. He had delighted in investigating local customs earlier and foreign customs gave him the same joy.


As for what her husband would think, John had a somewhat parochial view. John would not object to his wife performing her own Christmas traditions, so long as they didn’t directly conflict with his own, so Esteban would give Sophia similar indulgence. He would not mind his wife getting a brief, chaste hug, because in England that was an acceptable way to greet a friend, so Esteban would not mind either. The idea that Spanish customs might be different didn’t even occur to him, though he knew it intellectually.


So John didn’t know what to make of her blush. He didn’t say anything, though. Drawing attention to such a thing was incorrect. But he wondered if she hadn’t just indulged some secret desire of hers.


He grinned at her reply, though he didn’t understand her. He didn’t speak German but he’d learned the words for the occasion. And John nodded when she assured him that the gifts were no burden. He had wanted to free her from the obligation, but wasn’t going to refuse.


John was again surprised at her wonder that he’d thought of her. She seemed well and truly pleased, and praised him so greatly John blushed himself. “You are muh-my friend.” John said, as if that made everything natural. And for John it did.


Then Sophia took a candy and spoke of more mundane things. John took one himself. On Germany, “It’s an interesting p-p-place. The puh-plants aren’t much different, but there was a lot of g-g-good architecture and history. A pity they’re fuh-falling to ruin due to the war.” John had enjoyed his trip on the whole. The least pleasant parts were also those it would be improper to complain about.


“I d-d-did.” John said of his sisters, “One… stayed in the Netherlands and will t-t-try at Princess Mary. My brother and eldest suh-sister went to Germany.” There had been a small change but not one that significantly altered the plans he’d shared. He wasn’t sure how much their prior plans still held, but he would let her bring it up or not. If she didn’t want to speak of it prior to her big night he would understand.


“D-d-do you know, by chance, anything about the House of Schwarzburg?” John asked curiously.

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All he seemed to need was a little encouragement. Soon his awkwardness completely disappeared and he looked as if he was enjoying himself. Sophia knew that adorning a tree was new to him, but he seemed liked the kind of person who enjoyed new experiences, just as she did. She took care of the candles, fastening them securely to the branches so that they wouldn't fall off when lit, trying to place them as evenly as possible.


Once that was done, she helped Lord Maldon with the ornaments while a servant fetched a lighted candle. Sophia took it and held the flame briefly to the candles on the tree, adjusting the position of a few of them so that the flame would not touch any of the leaves. Finally, she blew out the candle she held and smiled at John. “It is beautiful. Thank you for helping me with it.”


The young Baroness was not certain that Esteban would approve of the tree, and she was quite sure he would not have been pleased that his wife embraced another gentleman, no matter how innocent it was. She knew how much importance Spaniards placed on honor, and it was possible that even a brief, friendly hug was considered insulting. However, her husband and Lord Maldon had gotten along quite well at the harvest festival and she believed he knew that the Earl was no more than a very dear friend to her.


And if he had not brought her the lovely little tree and the decorations, she would probably not have had one at all due to her preoccupation with the opera. She wished to thank him yet again, but he appeared a bit embarrassed by her praise. Sophia had rarely seen a gentleman blush before and she found it quite endearing.


“I am glad you liked my homeland. I have seen very few ruins myself. I lived mainly on my father's estate and only traveled as far as the local village. But I know a bit about the devastation Germany suffered during the war. My father fought in it and he told me stories.” Stories of a time long before she had ever been born. “It is still a lovely country, especially in the summer when the fields are full of flowers and it does not rain so frequently.”


It sounded to her as if his sisters and his brother were still abroad, but perhaps she had misunderstood his words. “If you still wish me to teach them … and yourself … German, I will be pleased to do so.”


She frowned when he mentioned the House of Schwarzburg. “I have heard of it, but know little about it. I remember thinking the name sounded quite intriguing. Schwarzburg means 'black castle' in German. I wondered if they really lived in a black castle.”

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John watched with a sense of childish wonder and in rapt attention as she lit the candles. He smiled widely and banged his cane once it was done, which was a gentlemanly sign of support or delight. “It’s v-v-very beautiful,” John agreed. “Thank you f-f-for showing me.” He would no doubt talk to some of his friends back home of the oddity and beauty of the German custom with some excitement.


John certainly would not have done anything to impugn on either Lord or Lady Toledo’s honor, at least not by English standards. Esteban had been entirely correct to trust John. The concept John failed to comprehend was that English customs might have different particulars than Spanish or German customs. So Sophia’s reaction and fears were completely mysterious to him.


“Yes, hopefully it w-w-will be at peace soon.” John said. “I suh-saw the more ruh-recent damage… It was terrible.” John’s tone shifted down. The Palatinate was still very much at war. John had seen the damage, and even much of the destruction of the French assault on the capital of the Palatinate had not been repaired in the two years since it happened.


Most strikingly, he had visited the Palatine Gardens. The image of one of Europe’s most beautiful gardens destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly, only to be left to rot, had stuck with John. It was poignant. A garden turned into an artillery platform.


John picked himself up again, only a moment of sadness being allowed.


“Oh yes I’d stuh-still be most glad for your help. W-w-would you prefer… they c-c-come here then?” John smiled. When she brought up lessons John contemplated a bit, “You muh-might have to do us separately. They’ve… had a g-g-great deal more experience than I.” They had lived in Germany for the whole of recess and had daily lessons with a tutor. John had not.


John grinned, “B-b-besides, then we m-m-might do the other things we discussed… without boring them.” Sophia was interested in gardening on her own account and was at least interested in history and politics as a way to get closer to her husband. John’s family, on the other hand, knew as much about either as they cared to.


“Duh-did you manage to get any use out of The Peloponesian Wars?” John was curious if his little maneuver had helped. Since his meddling had not been discouraged he might still try and push their marriage to a happier state.


John nodded to her knowledge of the Schwarzburgs. He’d investigated a little himself, but had thought there was no harm in asking his German friend.

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Sophia jumped slightly when he banged his cane on the ground, unaccustomed to that particular mode of approval. He seemed quite delighted by the tree, though, and she was now glad that she had asked him to help her decorate it. “It was my pleasure. Perhaps the Weihnachtsbaum will become popular in London someday.” She hoped that the English would embrace the Italian tradition of opera tonight. If that succeeded, then maybe they would be open to a few German customs as well.


“I know little of the recent problems that have been plaguing the Palatinate,” she confessed, “although I suppose I should. In truth, I have been gone for nearly six years, and when I returned from Venice, I was focused mainly on my father's failing health.


They are still at war then? At my estate, it was very peaceful and quiet. I do hope it stays that way. We were only there a few days before Don Juan called us to Spain and I do not remember seeing any recent damage on the journey.” She had been so excited by Juan's success, she doubted she would have noticed if their carriage passed wounded soldiers or crumbling ruins. It was sad, but she knew more about the state of affairs in Spain than she did about her own country. She was becoming less German and more Spanish by the day, although her accent and her fair coloring proclaimed her heritage loud and clear.


John had probably seen much more of the land than she had. He seemed quite despondent about it. Maybe he would enlighten her about the condition of her homeland. Sophia had asked him to help her to understand politics, and it was more important than ever that she know what was going on in the world, not just in Spain.


The conversation turned a more pleasant subject, his sisters and German lessons. “It might be better if they come here.” She had no idea how old his sisters were or how mature, but if they were quite young, they might behave better in unfamiliar surroundings. “I have many German books that might help them in their studies. And you as well."


He suggested that he meet with her at a different time and she nodded when he explained his reasoning. “I can give you separate lessons and then you can practice together when you are at home. And I can definitely use your help with gardening. The plants I brought back with me are not doing very well. My gardener says that he can take care of them, but I wish to learn how to do it myself. I have allowed him to care for the ones I brought for you, for I feared that they might die before I got the chance to give them to you.”


Sophia gazed at him thoughtfully when he brought up 'The Peloponesian Wars.' “I understood some of it, but I think I need your help on that as well. My lord husband did not have time to discuss it with me. He had important matters to attend to in Spain, given his new position.” And on the journey back to London, she had been too ill to think at all.


“And I wish to know more of politics and world affairs. It will be expected of me now.”

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John considered the idea of these Christmas trees. “P-p-perhaps.” John said. It wouldn’t be too hard to transplant, the trees were readily available and it was a Protestant custom. “You muh-might ask the Queen nuh-next… year.” John suggested.


“That’s guh-good.” John said of Sophia’s estate. “Oh yes,” John said of the war, unable to hide his surprise completely. “So is Spuh-spuh-Spain.” John wasn’t interested in dwelling on the war just then. He’d had orphans and widows and wounded soldiers and the like paraded in front of him to try and pull on his heartstrings so he’d aid the Germans. The entire thing still was depressing. But perhaps once he was talking of politics and the war more fully she could bring the issue up again.


John nodded, as she said they ought to come to her house. “Thank you. I’m sure they’ll b-b-be interesting.” John was genuinely curious what Germans wrote about, “As I suh-said, my b-b-brother and eldest sister went to Germany, so they’ll be along. She is the one I w-w-wish to serve the Queen. If you wuh-wish to meet my youngest sister, I’d b-b-be happy to arrange that as well, but she w-w-wishes to serve Princess Mary.” And so was learning Dutch.


John’s entire family was about Sophia’s age range. John himself, the oldest, was only about four years older. His youngest sister was about a year younger. While none were very small, Sophia herself was ample proof that girls her age weren’t always well behaved. And her Venice trip might advise her about the effect of new surroundings…


“Yes. And b-b-besides, no one wants to hear me t-t-try and… sing.” John was newly eager for things that might cause some improvement, and Sophia had said she knew someone whose stutter went away when they sung. The two were alike both in their eagerness to learn new things and inflict that knowledge on anyone who was willing to learn. No doubt they’d be exchanging skills as quickly as they learned them.


She spoke of ailing plants, “I w-w-would be happy to look at them at your leisure. And to help you as I… can.” In truth John specialized in plants from a different climate than Spain, but there were at least common principles. “And I’d buh-be glad to answer any questions on the book.”


At hearing Esteban had not discussed the book John suppressed a sigh. Esteban had not taken his advice to heart. In truth he was not eager to be Sophia’s educator in her duties to Spain. In things that were not matters of state yes. But as much as he enjoyed her company, there was much danger in it now that she was an ambassador. To some degree, even keeping a friendship with her was dangerous now.


Yet Sophia was his friend. John rarely failed to help a friend, “It w-w-will not, in fact.” John said of her expectation that she should be knowledgeable of politics and world affairs, “You might act p-p-perfectly pleasant and stupid without an unkind w-w-word ever passing about you. But I d-d-don’t think… you’d be happy like that.”


John paused and seemed to be turning something over in his mind, “Yes, alright. Send f-f-for a map of… Europe.”


After a moment, “These conversations… m-m-must remain a strict secret, only between us.” John said, his tone low and serious, “If anyone asks, we d-d-discuss gardening or… history or literature. Something innocent.”

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“I shall ask her this year if I have the opportunity to speak to her.” Did John think she was closer to the Queen than she actually was? Given their shared nationality, it was a fair assumption and Sophia wished that it were true. Only this morning, Davina had promised to speak well of her, but she had also warned her that the Queen would be more wary of her now that she was the Ambassadress of Spain. If they conversed again, the petite singer was certain she could put Her Majesty's mind at ease. But would she want to see her again or would she think that being friendly with Sophia would be a foolish political move? It seemed that every choice she made or was made for her pushed her farther away from the Queen.


Maybe the little tree would bring them closer. She would move it to the Embassy for her banquet if Esteban allowed it. Word would spread as it inevitably did, and the Queen would know she still upheld the traditions of her homeland even though she was now tied to Spain by marriage.


Sophia nodded sadly. “I know there is much turmoil in Spain. I hope that things will get better now that Don Juan is in charge. Maybe he can even stop the war.” Even knowing as little as she did about the politics of war, she doubted that one man could make that much of a difference. Yet she knew from reading the histories of several countries that it had happened before. No one would ever be able to convince her that war was not pointless and that disagreements could not be settled more peacefully.


So she would be teaching German to his brother and one of his sisters. The other sister was learning Dutch so that she could serve Princess Mary. “Dutch and German are very similar. When I visited Amsterdam, I could occasionally comprehend what was being spoken about, although I did not understand every word. Learning both languages at the same time would be confusing, though.”


A thoughtful expression crossed her face. “The lessons can be held in the library. I think you will be interested in some of my books on German history. And I have many books of tales that your brother and sister might like. If they already have some knowledge of German, they may be able to read them now. You must bring them over soon. I look forward to meeting them and seeing how much they already know.”


She smiled warmly when he claimed that nobody wished to hear him sing. “You might be surprised. You have a nice speaking voice. But I will make certain that we are alone when I give you singing lessons. I am turning one of the parlors into a music room. I hope it will be ready soon. We can practice there even before it is finished, whenever it is convenient for you.” Sophia was looking forward to teaching him to sing. She truly believed that training his voice could help his stutter, perhaps when he spoke as well as when he sang.


“Before you leave today, I will take you to the orangery and you can have a look at them. And it is a good thing you brought servants with you. They can carry the plants I brought for you back to your carriage. There are quite a few of them and I hope you like them.” She looked toward the pepper plants beneath the tree. “Some of them are pepper plants. We will be able to grow several types of peppers now.”


The maidservant returned with the books that Lord Maldon had loaned Sophia and placed them on a table by the door. The young Ambassadress laughed when her friend pointed out that she could simply charming, but that probably would not satisfy her. “You know me well. If everyone is discussing politics, I do not want to be left out. I may pretend to be stupid, though, just because I can.”


She reached out and gently squeezed his hand when he swore her to secrecy. For the first time, she realized that educating the Spanish Ambassador's wife about such things might be frowned upon. “I promise I will speak of it to nobody. I am very good at keeping secrets. Yet if you would rather not teach me, I completely understand. My life has taken an unexpected turn since I first asked you to help me with it. I do not wish to make things difficult for you or put you in any sort of danger.”

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“W-w-would you like a chuh-chance to speak with her… majesty tonight then?” John offered. “I w-w-was going to give her a small something at the opera. You might guh-give it instead after your performance. It would be a triumph. After your… highest m-m-moment, to come to her and shuh-show you have f-f-forgotten neither her nor Germany.” It was the sort of gesture that made favorites.


John nodded at Sophia’s comments on Spain. She had an idealistic view of her master, but that was only to be expected. “How c-c-close are you to Don Juan?” John asked. His tone was casual, carrying no deeper implications. He simply wished to know how much influence she had in this new administration.


“P-p-perhaps she’ll be interested in German after Dutch.” John said, though he didn’t sound like he believed in that too strongly. He nodded to her lesson plans, “You w-w-will meet them all soon.” John had particularly decided that Sophia would help with Catherine becoming a lady to the Queen, but it was best she knew all of them. One never knew what would happen.


John started slightly as Sophia complimented his voice. No one had ever done that before. No one had commented on it at all apart from his speech impediment. But he nodded quickly when she said they’d not have an audience. “P-p-perhaps one day… I w-w-will let others hear. But I will be… vuh-very good by then.”


It seemed they needed a schedule, considering how the events were piling up. “P-p-perhaps luh-language lessons can be on Suh-saturday afternoons, first my siblings then me. And singing and guh-gardening on Wednesday?” John suggested.


“I am suh-sure I’ll be fuh-fascinated.” John said with a smile. His body shifted. He was excited, eager even. “You w-w-will…. have to show me how these nuh-new peppers are used.” John said. Her kitchen was a place of wondrous spices to him. He wondered how they grew…


John didn’t notice the servant return the books. He nodded knowingly as Sophia said she might play dumb from time to time but didn’t want to actually be ignorant. John didn’t understand why Toledo wasn’t eager to educate his wife. He knew it was common enough sentiment though.


John didn’t take her hand in turn, letting its warmth rest upon his gently shaking hand. She offered him the chance to go back on his word. John paused for a moment, then taking her hand briefly he kissed it in the normal fashion. To John the gesture was an intimate one but not romantic. To London society it wasn’t even intimate.


“If you w-w-want to be my friend,” John said, “D-d-don’t promise to keep me away from the difficult and dangerous things. P-p-promise you’ll be there… for me, whuh-when they come. Whenever I n-n-need a friend.” There was no safe way forward for them. Maybe they would navigate the dangers, maybe they would not. But John was perfectly willing to fight for his friends, if only they would be friends.

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“That is an excellent idea!” Sophia enthused. “Usually, it is the singers who receive gifts from the audience, but this is the first opera to be held in London. We can make our own traditions. But I do not want you to lose the opportunity to speak to Her Majesty yourself. It might lead to your sister being chosen as one of her ladies. Perhaps you can mention me when you give her your gift and tell her that I am teaching your sister German.”


She smiled brightly. “I might give her a gift of my own. I bought a few things for her while I was in Germany. There is one that is much fitting to be presented around Christmas. Weihnachtspyramiden* are quite popular in my homeland and they are very beautiful. The heat of the candles turn a fan on the top that make the platforms spin. I will bring the one I picked out for her tonight.”


With any luck, she could present it to the Queen with the candles already lit. The three-tiered wooden platforms depicted the Nativity and each figure was intricately carved and painted. As soon as Sophia had seen it in a shop window, she had wanted the Queen to have it. She had brought several others back with her as well, including some she had found in the attic of Katzenberg Castle that she remembered from her childhood.


Sophia kept her expression neutral when he asked how close she was to Don Juan. She wished she could tell him the truth. It was fairly bursting out of her and she desperately wished for somebody to confide in. It was probably best to share that secret with another lady, not a gentleman. And she wouldn't be able to bear it if he was disgusted and never wanted to see her again. He might even think that his sister's reputation would be harmed if she associated with her. For now, at least, her secret must remain just that … secret.


“I have met him,” she replied with a casual shrug. “And we danced together at a few balls. He asked me to sing at a party in Spain and seemed pleased with my performance, but we have had little contact with each other. I know from my lord husband that he is intelligent and wise and will make an excellent leader.” Her head tilted to the side. “Maybe you should ask my husband again about that expedition to the colonies you wanted to arrange. He might be able to help you with it now. Or I can bring it up myself and see what he says.”


Lord Maldon seemed rather startled when Sophia praised his voice. As a singer, she noticed voices before she noticed anything else, and his was quite pleasant despite his constant stutter. If she had believed that he wouldn't be able to learn to sing well, she would not have offered to teach him. And if he diligently practiced the exercises she gave him, he might be able to hold his own against other courtiers with vocal talent. And singing without stuttering would most likely give him more confidence. Maybe some day the two of them would entertain the court with a duet.


“Saturdays and Wednesdays will be splendid. Do you wish to start tomorrow or the week after?” Did the English do anything special on Christamas Day? Tomorrow she would be despondent over the end of the opera, unless the King enjoyed it so much he wanted it to have a longer run. Meeting John's siblings and assessing their command of German would give her something to look forward to, as well as teaching John himself and showing him the library, which contained books in German, Italian, English, Spanish, and French. She would have to remove the racy ones before his siblings came over, even though most of those were written in Italian.


“If you do not mind, I would like you to look at my plants today. If you tell me what to do, maybe they will be thriving by the time you return on Wednesday.” Her gardener had offered to care for the plants himself, but he had not offered to show her how to do it herself. In a way, it was a smart move. If Sophia became an accomplished gardener, he would be out of a job. “I do not know how to prepare the peppers myself, but my cook can show you or your own cook how to use them. She specializes in Italian and Spanish fare.”


Had she offended him by offering to release him from his promise to teach her about politics? She held her breath as she waited for his reply, letting it out only when he lifted her hand to lips and kissed it. His answer made her grin. So he was no more afraid of gossip and danger than she was, and his words confirmed that he, too, had an adventurous spirit.


“I will be right beside you whenever you need me,” she vowed. “And I will defend you against anybody who speaks ill of you. You are one of my dearest friends and I will never abandon you. I will do anything for you, anything at all. You mean a lot to me."


The tender moment broken, Sophia placed her hand back in her lap and smiled at him. “We will be holding a banquet at the Embassy on Thursday. If you have not received your invitation yet, you should receive it soon. Your brother and sisters are welcome to come as well.”



*Christmas pyramids

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John quietly noted that it was customary for opera singers to receive gifts from the audience. He would pick up something small for Sophia before going tonight. In the country plays female leads often got a bouquet of flowers or a flower garland and his mind tended towards those.


“Why d-d-don’t you and Lady Catherine g-g-go together?” John suggested. “She m-m-might give the guh-gift I b-b-brought as p-p-part of her suit and… it w-w-would mean something for her to see you… together.” Besides, John expected Sophia to encourage the Queen to take in his sister more than himself. He had no idea how the mind of a teenaged German girl worked. He imagined it had something to do with music and cute boys with funny foreign names like ‘Raining Katzendogen’.


“And if you n-n-need some help carrying or lighting the… whynot…” John failed to say the German word, but gestured thinking she would know what he meant. “I c-c-can provide some hands.” He wasn’t sure if Sophia would be able to bring servants to do so, or whether her husband would be around. And John wanted to see this interesting Christmas contraption.


Sophia lied to him outright. He believed her without reservation. He made a small sound and sunk, chin in hand, into contemplation. He couldn’t think of anything to be done about that.


“I suh-see,” he said finally, sounding a bit disappointed. She was neither as close to the new leader of Spain or the Queen as he’d thought. He could fix the Queen but the Spaniard was beyond his reach. And his interest in helping shore up the new regime fell alongside his belief that Sophia had close ties to it.


“As for the expedition, I w-w-will next tuh-time we meet.” John presumed they would. John thought that Esteban found him good company, even if he gave little sign, and John was going to be in his home frequently enough. The man who had proposed it originally had disappeared, it seemed, but he could find other partners.


“I w-w-was thinking tomorrow, unless you’re d-d-doing something for Christmas D-d-day.” John had guessed tomorrow would be a difficult day for her. In fact, he thought today would be as well. All this was his way to try and ease the pressure of before the performance, the malaise of after it, and the sadness of being away from her home during its grandest festivities.


“Of c-c-course. At your leisure.” John said of the plants. “If any d-d-do die, keep them. I cuh-can still make use of them.” He could examine them or dry them or possibly even get a few live seeds. He nodded with a small smile as she offered up her cook.


As he briefly took her hand in his for the kiss, there was just a moment of closeness and intimacy. A connection formed by more than just the mutual and small act of handholding. She swore quite seriously that he was dear to her, that she would do anything for him. “Thank you.” John said, his thick and sticking with the force of emotion. It was all he could say.


John let go of her hand quite casually as she pulled away. There was no grip or tight hold and his hand settled easily on his armrest again. He took a moment to center himself and after a moment smiled, a quiet but very happy smile.


When she invited him to the banquet, he let out a puff of air. He would never have guessed that Sophia would hold serious diplomatic banquets while he threw distracting amusements.


Still, she was as welcome in his as he was in hers, “Yes, of course. We’ll be along for certain. The b-b-book club will meet on the fourth in the Ruh-ruh-Royal Library. And,” A childish grin crept over his face, “I’m having a snowball fuh-fight on the thuh-thirty first in St. James.” John became excited though in a restrained sort of way, “It’ll be gruh-grand. I’m g-g-going to make a huge snow castle and there’ll… be a suh-siege.”

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Ahh, so he planned for his sister to give the Queen his gift. Smart move, but then she already knew that he was an intelligent man. “I must arrive very early to prepare for my role. I do not even know if the auditorium of the theatre will be open. It might be better to meet after the performance is over. We can present our gifts then." If the Queen did not leave immediately. Sophia hoped that both the King and Queen would congratulate everyone involved. “I would be happy to introduce Lady Catherine to Her Majesty, either tonight or on another occasion.”


If there was a ball tomorrow, she might get a chance to speak to the Queen and she could introduce his sister then, as well as present her gift if it proved impossible to give it to her after the opera. “It is not very large,” she said of the Weihnachtspyramid. “But I might need some help with the lighting. I would like to give it to her with the candles lit. You would have to meet me backstage, unless you wish to take it with you and give it to me when the opera is over.” She assumed, as an Earl, he would have his own box and the gifts could be kept there during the performance.


And if he did take it with him, she wouldn't have to explain the presence of the gift to Esteban when she took it along with her in the carriage. She had not told him she planned to give a present to the Queen, as it had nothing to do with Spain. Sophia hoped it would be considered a Christmas gift from one friend to another, with no political implications attached.


He seemed a bit disappointed that she wasn't very close to Don Juan. And in truth, she didn't know how Juan would react if she tried to meddle in affairs of state. They had never spoken of such things before. She tried to take his mind off of his responsibilities when they were together and the conversations they had shared in bed after lovemaking had been light and playful and affectionate. If he brought up more serious matters, she would listen and give him advice if he asked for it. Perhaps he would trust her with those things in the future. But it had to be his choice. She was not the kind of mistress who desired power and influence. Sophia desired Juan the man and not Juan the Prince. Even if he was only a simple farmer, she would still adore him.


And so she directed John's attention to her husband instead. Esteban would be able to help him with his expedition and anything else he wished to discuss concerning Spain. In fact, she hoped that they would become friends. They had gotten off to a good start at the Harvest Festival that summer. “He will be at the opera tonight. You can speak to him then if you wish. I am sure he will be pleased to see you again.”


As to German lessons: “Tomorrow would be lovely, either in the morning or the afternoon. We have no specific plans for Christmas. My lord husband will likely go to the Embassy as he usually does.” Sophia had been thinking of going with him and planning the decorations for the banquet, but she would much rather spend time with John and his siblings. Christmas was not a day to be alone.


Sophia didn't understand why he would want her dead plants, but he could have them. "Hopefully, they will all live if you show me how to take care of them." She had as much faith in his gardening skills as she had in her ability to learn new things.


He seemed genuinely moved by her declaration of friendship and she smiled at him warmly. She had meant every word she said with all her heart and she believed that he would stand beside her through thick and thin as well … perhaps with two exceptions. He might never want to speak to her again if he discovered she was Juan's mistress or that she had sung for the public like a commoner in Venice. And yet she hoped that if those secrets were ever exposed that he would understand and not abandon her forever.


Her eyes lit up when he mentioned the book club. “Oh, you did it!” They had spoken about organizing a group for readers on the day they had met. “I will definitely be there.”


And he was throwing an event of his own … one that sounded like a lot of fun. His playful grin was endearing and Sophia could tell that he was excited about his plans. “It sounds thrilling. I made snow castles when I was a child and it was fun tearing them down.” An idea insinuated itself into her mind and she nearly bounced upon her chair. “Do you need a princess trapped in the castle who needs rescuing? I think I could play that part convincingly if you do.” And being shielded from the wind by a wall of ice would allow her to stay outside longer before she had to seek the warmth of her carriage. The young Baroness had never tolerated the cold very well.

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“Yes, of c-c-course.” John agreed. He had already been speaking of them meeting after her performance so he agreed with her suggestion. “Thuh-thank you. I'll be c-c-counting on you.” John said with a small smile. And for more than the introduction at that.


John nodded as she spoke of what she needed for her pyramid, “I'll t-t-take care of everything. I'll tuh-take... it back with me today. You need only meet me... afterward and luh-lead us to the royal box.” She had enough to deal with the night of the opera. John could alleviate this particular detail.


“At your luh-leisure.” John left the decision of timing to her. He didn’t know exactly what she would do after her big night, but he wanted to accommodate whatever celebrations were to come after.


John nodded when she said she hoped the plants lived. John did too, but it was best to prepare for failure even if he didn’t expect it.


John smiled back at her, unaware that thoughts of secrets and lies and hopes for forgiveness swirled in Sophia’s head. John was trusting, especially of his friends. And he only thought that the petite blonde’s declaration must mean she felt their friendship very, very strongly.


John was a bit surprised she held up his book club as an accomplishment, “Oh, I’ve j-j-just got the Royal Library for a buh-bit. Invite your fruh-friends and I’ll invite who I c-c-can.” He had been planning to invite Greyson to speak a bit, but the man had unaccountably decided to run off to Italy. When he came back John planned to avenge himself in silly fashion. Sophia might have her role to play in that too.


John was a just few years older than Sophia. For all his knowledge and responsibilities his joys could be quite childish. In at least a few ways Sophia was actually the more mature of the pair. She certainly had more experience of love. After all, she did not sneak away into Don Juan’s chambers in a lacy nightgown hoping he would hold her hand shyly.


“I huh-hadn’t thought of that.” John said quite honestly when she suggested there be a princess to rescue. Still, it was a good way to get ladies involved, and by waiting inside they might have a better view and more protection from the elements. And no doubt some of them would delight in gentlemen climbing over walls for them.


Sophia seemed eager to be a princess, bouncing in a cute way that brought a small smile to John’s lips. But John thought the role would best be filled by an unmarried lady or, even better, a widow. Sophia needed to be studiously loyal to her husband and there would be some expectation of gratitude to the princess’s rescuers.


Still, John didn’t want to say no, “If your husband allows… it.” He acquiesced, “You m-m-might not be alone, though. We m-m-must leave… something for the unattached ladies and lords.” John seemed to ponder, “Perhaps I’m a T-t-turk.” And so was kidnapping a harem. After all, if this was to be a plot and it was his castle he was the villain of the piece. Then each man could have his own rescue (and lady rescuer).

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“It will be my pleasure.” And if his sister did become one of the Queen's maids of honor, the situation could work in her favor as well. Lady Catherine could mention her to the Queen from time to time, and perhaps Karoline's curiosity would be piqued and she would call for her again. As long as she wasn't forgotten, Sophia was hopeful that they would become good friends in time. Germans were stubborn and they rarely gave up when they set their mind to something.


“I will give it to you before you leave. And I will show you how it works first. It is in a box so nobody will know what you are bringing with you. It will take me some time to get out of my costume and join everyone else, but I hope the King and Queen will be in no hurry to depart. If for some reason, things don't go according to plan, there might be a ball tomorrow, which will give us another opportunity to present her with gifts.” A lit and spinning Weihnachtspyramid would certainly be an interesting diversion for the English court, she believed.


He left the time of their meeting up to her, and her face took on a thoughtful expression. “Is tomorrow after lunch good for you?” Sophia could prepare for their visit that morning. It was doubtful she would have much time tonight after the opera. Not much needed doing, but she wanted to send a servant to a German bakery for some authentic refreshments (assuming a bakery was open on Christmas morning), and she needed to remove the bawdy books from the library.


“I will tell everyone I know about the book club,” she promised. “You might also post fliers around the palace. Then everyone will know of it.” She did hope there was a good turnout and that she wasn't the only foreigner unfamiliar with English literature. Of course, that could be a good thing. The others could recommend books for her to read. And perhaps Esteban, an avid reader himself, would accompany her if his schedule permitted.


Maybe one of the reasons she and John got along so well was that they were similar in terms of maturity. Sophia thought that he was much smarter and wiser than she was, but he had never called her silly or frivolous or looked at her in the stern way Lord Kingston sometimes did. Just as she accepted him the way he was, he accepted her.


She was surprised that he had not thought of having his guests rescue a 'princess' and pleased that she had given him an idea he seemed to like. A little sigh escaped her lips when he asked that she receive her husband's permission first. Sometimes she forgot that she needed Esteban's approval for almost everything she did. And it was even more important now that he had risen in status. It might insult his honor if another gentleman rescued her, even if it was all in fun.


And there was a good chance that no one would rescue her at all, as they would not wish to offend him. Or maybe he would like to come along and join the fun. Snow was more a novelty to him than it was to her and he might enjoy a snowball fight. She remembered how happy he had been at the Harvest Festival. Although he presented a serious front to the world, she believed that Esteban had a playful side as well. He just didn't show it often.


“I will ask him,” she promised. “He might want to rescue me himself. If he does not agree, then maybe I can be a Turk too. Or we can both be dragons.” Sophia grinned mischievously. “Two villains are better than one and I have a wicked aim when it comes to throwing snowballs.” Or at least, she'd been quite accurate before she had moved to Venice at the age of eleven. She could use a bit of practice before she participated in a snowball fight again.

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John was perfectly aware that Sophia and he would be sharing the presence his sister would provide into the Queen’s household. He didn’t mind. As he saw it, Sophia needed a highborn Anglican Englishwoman to fill roles she couldn’t fill personally. In setting her up with his sister he ensured both his friend could overcome the obstacles of her birth and that his family would benefit from the favor Sophia seemed to accrue so easily.


John smiled, a bit of eager light in his eyes when she said she'd show him. But it faded back to practicality, “I m-m-might… tell them you are coming and ask them to wait.” John said, though of course that would only be a request. “B-b-but why would you need to change?” He imagined her coming off stage in costume might make the meeting more memorable. But he also wasn’t aware that the theater probably owned the costumes and wouldn’t be too happy about them being used outside the production.


John nodded his agreement to tomorrow after lunch. He smiled as she promised to help with recruiting, but as to fliers, “I d-d-don’t intend it to be open to… all and sundry. It’s supposed to be informal, luh-like a g-g-group of friends.” Still, John did have a list of people he’d be sending invitations.


John noted her little sigh when he said to ask her husband. It reinforced his impression their marriage was not a happy one and had been formed of convenience. It’d be prying to inquire directly though.


“P-p-perhaps it would be better that way.” John suggested, “He m-m-might be a Moor in my service. You c-c-could… be the beautiful harem guardianess…, my last line of duh-defense b-b-before the ladies are rescued.” Of course, John suspected Sophia would let any sufficiently moon eyed couple get away. But John had no intention of winning anyway.


And it would be a bit more proper if Sophia, perhaps with a troop of women soldiers, were guarding the women.


He imagined Esteban would consent, or that Sophia could at least persuade him to that. Actually, John thought, It might be good for them. A bit of fun, some danger and racing blood… John was still convinced that the only thing keeping them from conjugal bliss was Sophia learning to deal with a serious and proper man, Esteban learning to respect a woman’s intelligence, and a bit of physicality between them. They did not seem ill matched at the root.


John felt a mild sinking, though, as he realized he’d be alone at the end of it. Sophia would have her husband. The ladies would have their rescuers, the gentlemen their ladies. And he’d be left alone with the servants he was going to turn into snowball throwing soldiers. This caused him to visibly fall a bit and sink into thought.

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“Thank you, but I am afraid we both might seem presumptuous if you ask them to wait on me. There is a chance they might call Master Cole and the principal singers to their box to congratulate us. Or they may wish to meet us privately afterwards. The invitation must come from them. But if I am called into their presence, I want you and your sister to join me.” It was a risky move, perhaps, but he would have the Christmas pyramid, and what better time to make introductions than when presenting a gift to the Queen? And she probably needed more maids of honor. She might appreciate being introduced to the Earl and his sister.


“I will only change if I go backstage directly after the performance. I will no longer be Diana but the wife of the Spanish Ambassador. I think that remaining in costume would be considered inappropriate then. However, if we are encouraged to mingle before going backstage, I will stay in costume. It all depends on Their Majesties.” And Master Cole. Even after the final curtain fell, she would still do as he asked. Tonight was his night, and she would do whatever she could, both onstage or off, to make his opera a success.


“Wonderful!” she exclaimed when Lord Maldon agreed to the time she had suggested. “I will have everything ready in the library for your visit.” She looked over to Anna who stood nearby, and the middle-aged maidservant came over and curtsied to both John and Sophia. “Please bring the gift I plan to give the Queen tonight.”


“Yes, my lady,” Anna replied, curtsying once more before leaving the room.


So he wanted his book club to be a small affair, consisting only of those he knew or who were invited by his friends. She could understand why he wouldn't want it to open to all courtiers. Some might come out of curiosity or just to be seen, not because they had any interest in reading. And if everyone knew each other, they would be more likely to give honest opinions rather than worry about what others would say about their views. “It is probably best that way,” she agreed. “I certainly look forward to it.”


Sophia's marriage wasn't exactly unhappy; it was just rather awkward. She had, indeed, married Esteban for convenience so that she would be able to see her royal lover more often and without suspicion. She believed that Esteban held himself distant out of respect for his master, not because he found her disappointing, as she had thought during the first few months of their marriage. They actually complemented each other quite well … he was serious and reserved while she was outgoing and charming. They were a good match. There just wasn't any affection involved. Or as much communication as she would have liked between them.


“I will ask him. I hope he will wish to accompany me. He may have some ideas of his own to add to ours.” Sophia didn't know if he would rather be a knight who rescues a princess or if he would rather help defend the snow castle from attack. She hoped he would choose the latter, for now that she thought about it, she would rather have an active part in the battle instead of waiting behind the walls to be saved. It was rare that ladies were given the chance to participate in any kind of fight.


Whether she would let any couples slip away easily remained to be seen. The petite Baroness took her roles seriously. If she was to play the part of a villain, she planned to be the most formidable villain that John's guests had ever seen … a tiny whirlwind tossing snowy projectiles at her opponents. Maybe the good guys wouldn't win this time, and she, John, and Esteban would make off with all the princesses.


Her friend seemed suddenly sad and she had no idea why. He had been so excited just a few moments earlier. Once more, she placed her hand upon his. “Is there something wrong?” she asked. In her concern for him, she hardly noticed Anna return with a large box which she placed beside Sophia's chair.

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John nodded to Sophia’s comments. He didn’t understand her thoughts, truthfully, but he did trust her to handle this. If Sophia thought it was best he not try and get their attention or direct them together then John wouldn’t do anything.


John felt a pit in his chest. It spoke volumes that Sophia was so often called into the royal presence she expected to be sooner or later. That she actually advised against trying to arrange it, since it would just happen. John, a relatively senior earl and of one of the best bloodlines in England, had barely seen the King over his ten years.


But John had already known he was excluded.


“So I am t-t-to wait for you to c-c-come to me unless I see a general mingling with the actors, in which cuh-case I’m to come down? And either p-p-place the pyramid will be duh-delivered lit.” John tried to confirm what she wanted him to do.


John nodded as she agreed about the book club being private, “I m-m-might be doing something to get attention… for the snowball fight, though." John pondered a bit. Then a grin crept over his face, "How about m-m-making a little snow p-p-platform in the… Whalebone Court and throwing snowballs at p-p-people until the g-g-guards come.”


John contemplated for a moment, and said in the tone of an announcement, “On the platform base: The Siege of Maldon Snowcastle, in St. James. Siege begins at noon on the 31st, arrive earlier. Kidnapped Princesses, Gentleman Rescuers, and Villainous Turks Wanted. Inquire Before Siege Day Of.” John looked over at Sophia for approval.


Hopefully the snow platform, with the announcement, would remain. And people would gossip about it.


“If Lord Toledo d-d-doesn’t want to come,” John smiled mischievously, “We’ll ruh-replace him with a snowman: Lord Snowledo.”


John was not planning for the ladies to be inactive. The princesses and their knights were not to be given safe conduct. Once rescued, they would have to fight their way out. Perhaps some of the more playful ones would prefer to stay behind with their gentleman and participate in the melee.


But that would take place within the walls, protected from the worst of the elements, and avoid all the contortions of scaling the walls. They’d also spend less time in the cold. Ladies were more delicate but John believed they’d find the fight fun. And John tried to accommodate rather than exclude.


John wasn’t sure what he’d do if they won though. He’d probably sally out with the princesses to kidnap the gentlemen.


John smiled a bit weakly as Sophia asked if anything was wrong. John briefly squeezed Sophia’s hand but then let go. “It’s fuh-fine.” John replied. It was a selfish thought. He felt it unworthy of being shared.

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Sophia knew from performing in Venice that what happened after an opera could not be predicted. It was different each time. Sometimes the singers were congratulated by important personages either onstage or in their private boxes and at others they were met backstage by those who wished to give them gifts. Occasionally, nothing of note happened at all. The singers changed out of their costumes and slipped quietly out the back entrance, as if unworthy to mingle with the audience.


It was absolutely impossible to foretell what would happen tonight. To her knowledge, this was the first opera performed in a theatre in London, and only nobles were allowed to attend. Some of the singers would outrank some of the audience members. She hoped that both performers and audience would be encouraged to linger and mingle with each other, but as she had told John, it all depended on Their Majesties. The King and Queen would decide what would ultimately be done.


“We will have to play it by ear. There may be some kind of reception afterward, or there may not. If you have the opportunity to speak with the Queen, do not wait for me. Take the initiative and perhaps mention that I have a gift for her. If they call for me, watch for a sign that I want you to come forward. Otherwise, I will seek you out as soon as I have changed. It is difficult to plan ahead when you have no idea what is going to happen.”


Sophia paused for a moment, turning over various possibilities in her mind. “Maybe it is not wise to light the pyramid before we approach Their Majesties. Their guards may see it as a threat. It might be better to light it after it is presented to the Queen. She will, of course, know what it is. After I show it to her, you can help me place the candles around it and we can both light them. The platforms will start turning before all the candles are lit. And your sister can help too. It will look as if she is familiar with German culture, which might work in her favor.”


The young Baroness grinned when he explained how he planned to attract attention to his siege. “That sounds like much fun, and I doubt the guards will get involved if nobody complains. If we do not hit anybody with the snowballs but just toss them in their direction, it should be all right.” She sighed again. “I will have to ask my lord husband if he minds. I do not think he will care if I help build the snow platform but he might not want me tossing snowballs.” Maybe Esteban would like to help build the platform as well. “And you should ask other friends to participate too. What is the English saying … the more, the merrier?”


The thought 'Lord Snowledo' brought forth a peal of lyrical laughter. “We can only call the snowman that between the two of us. But perhaps we could have snowmen as the first defense before the rescuers reach the wall. They will have to tear apart the snowmen, which will give us more time to figure out how to defeat them.” At least as one of the villains, she would be safe behind the walls and would not feel the cold as keenly. Still, it was possible that she might have to seek warmth before the event reached its conclusion.


John seemed unwilling to tell her what was wrong. Sophia could sense that something was bothering him, though. “You can tell me anything,” she coaxed. “I do not like to see you sad.”


If he still didn't want to confide in her, she would show him the Christmas pyramid and how it worked. Discovering something new should cheer him up again and he seemed quite interested in German traditions.

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John nodded to her instructions, “I wuh-wasn’t going be there. J-j-just Lady Catherine.” There was not only no reason for him to join them but the message would be stronger if he wasn’t shepherding his sister around. It would make it look like she and Sophia were already close and that this was on Sophia’s initiative. Or perhaps his sister’s. “B-b-but I can give my suh-sister my lighter and she’ll help.”


Realizing that they were going over details when they didn’t know what would happen, and that Sophia was gently intimating this, John sighed. He smiled over to his blonde friend, “I t-t-trust you to do… this. And I w-w-will do as you say. I’ll try and… get an orange girl to ruh-relay messages too.” That way they could be in contact.


John was unaware that an orange girl running messages between an actress and a lord was usually a sign she was going to be taken into keeping or at least pimped.


John’s platform was a spur of the moment idea. Sophia was wise to refine it and suggest they not throw too accurately. In truth, there wasn’t much of a danger of that with John’s condition. “Yes, well, you m-m-must at least come. Even if you c-c-can’t throw, you can sit up… there in a c-c-costume.” Sophia seemed to attract attention easily. She seemed to like being on stages too. If her husband let her be an actress, which even in a private performance was very improper, surely he’d let her sit there.


And John felt she might be coaxed into throwing one or two.


He nodded to inviting friends, smiling. “It’ll be a b-b-bit merry surely. You c-c-can invite people too, if you want. Both to the event and the p-p-platform. It’ll be in the morning p-p-probably, when people… arrive to start the day. Mmm, the tuh-twenty eighth say?”


She demanded the new Lord Snowledo be kept secret. “Hmmm.” John seemed to be debating, “Alright, I’ll k-k-keep his name secret. But you must… stuh-steal one of your husband’s huh-hats and coats to keep him warm.” John smiled at an innocent little amusement. The world of libertine pleasures or passionate romance were all quite beyond him, strange new things. That did not mean he was meek or obedient in his delights. As to the army of snowmen, “I d-d-don’t know how many we’ll… be able tuh-to make, but certainly at least a few suh-sentries.”


She coaxed him. He wanted to reply, but his first, more polished instinct won in the immediate. “Oh, it’s n-n-nothing.” John said.


Yet something deeper stirred. “It’s just-” John did trust Sophia but he had great trouble actually putting his issues abroad. But he did trust her. His eyes fell and his tone with it, “There’s to be a b-b-ball tomorrow. And one on New Years. It is how young lords and… ladies meet and d-d-delight of each other, I am told.”


His tone sunk further to outright depression and he fidgeted just a bit, “But I do not dance.”


He picked up, still low but rising above the depression. His eyes met hers again, “Now, with the… rescuers and the princesses, once again there’s… l-l-lords and ladies coming together and I will be separate for the… whole of it. That’s all.”


Such a thing was more properly shared with a gentleman, both for propriety and understanding. But John trusted Sophia to rise above the sectionalism of gender. He thought their trust deep enough, and their relationship proper enough, that he could be honest.

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“Oh. I thought you wanted to meet the Queen as well.” Maybe he thought that he would be looked down upon because of his disabilities and was worried that his presence might hurt his sister's chances of becoming her lady-in-waiting. She believed that the Queen would not judge him on his appearance but on the goodness of his heart, just as she had done when they first met. He was intelligent, clever, and charming. How could he not impress the Queen?


“I hope your trust is not misplaced.” A note of doubt crept into her voice. “I have never been to any show in an English theatre.” She smiled wryly. “I tried once, but the theatre burned down. Master Greyson and I barely escaped with our lives. It is strange that my first experience in an English theatre will be on its stage.”


Oranges weren't sold at Italian operas, so Sophia was unaware of the implications of the messages sent between lords and actresses. And she wasn't an actress, but a noble who would be singing for the King. Messages between nobles might be viewed differently. “Yes, we can do that,” she agreed. “Master Cole may speak to us before the performance and tell us what to expect afterward. He may have it all planned out. If so, I will send you a message. And if you know before I do, please do the same.”


Everything she did now needed permission from Esteban. He gave her more freedom than most Englishmen gave their wives and from what she saw in Spain, much more than Spanish wives were allowed. Spaniards were a conservative lot. However, Sophia knew his magnanimity would only go so far. She would leave her part in the snowball fight and the preview up to him. As long as she was allowed to attend, she would be content.


“I can play the part of a kidnapped princess if he does not want me to throw snowballs. I have no plans on the morning of the twenty-eighth, so I should be able to come.” And she would tell her friends, as well as any new people she might meet between now and then, if they weren't too proper and had a sense of adventure.


“I shall try,” she said in response to John's suggestion that she steal one of Esteban's hats and coats to clothe 'Lord Snowledo' with. It might be better just to ask him outright. He might see the fun in it. If he accompanied her, there would be no need for a 'Lord Snowledo' but he might like to dress one up as the former Spanish Ambassador and tear it apart himself.


Once more, Lord Maldon declined to tell her the reason for his sudden despondency, and she reached for the box that held the Christmas pyramid. Yet before she could lift it onto her lap, he changed his mind. Sitting back up, she gave him her full attention, and her heart went out to him when he explained what had depressed him.


He was lonely, and he didn't think he would ever find somebody to share his life with. Sophia loved him as a friend, but there was no romantic feelings involved. Perhaps if she had met him before she met Juan, things might have been different, but it wouldn't have mattered. She doubted that Lord Kingston would have let her marry him, even though he was an English Earl.


But that was neither here nor there. She despised the fact that his appearance worked against him while hers definitely worked in her favor. Doors opened to her because of her beauty, the same doors that were closed to him because of his infirmities. It didn't seem fair. But when had life ever been fair?


Sophia believed that there were others like herself who could look beyond his appearance and see the kind, intelligent gentleman he truly was. “Not all ladies like to dance. You will see some who are trying to avoid being asked. If you approach them, they will probably be pleased to converse with a gentleman whom they know will not ask them to dance. Maybe one of them will come over to talk to you.”


As to his siege: “I think you will make quite a few friends simply by hosting such a fun event. And not all lords and ladies will pair up. Maybe one of the 'princesses' will decide she likes being kidnapped and wants to join your harem.” To her, his status as an Earl would make him a good catch for any ambitious young noblewoman.


If he was looking for love rather than marriage, she believed he would find that as well. And perhaps he would have more luck than she'd had before she'd met Juan. The first man she had thought she was in love with had turned out to be a con artist who had only wanted to swindle her out of her money. That deceitful but handsome Italian was dead now. He had attacked Esteban and Lord Kingston when they had hunted him down and her husband and former guardian had killed him.


“You are still new to court,” she told Lord Maldon now. “People will take notice of you in time, and I will help all I can by introducing you to people I know and mentioning you in conversations.” Including tonight, if she got the chance to introduce his sister to the Queen.

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