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Basildon's: look who is coming to lunch [24th, noon]- Xmas 1677

Heather O`Roarke

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A spacious home made out of fashionable geometric shapes with details in sculpting, and the walls painted terracotta and white. The front lane was dotted with white gardenia's, blooming early. The entry was covered in vines with little white blooms and two hanging baskets with fresh spring flowers in different shades of pink.


The mansion was three stories high, with enough room to house guests and hold several events. Downstairs one would find the parlour, the study, the dining room, the library and of course the garden room filled with a multitude of ferns and a jasmine brush. In the back a large lawn and a teahouse that looked small and frivolous.


The Countess was no stranger to this house, yet it was not the same house were she had once known Basildon. This building held no immediate memories. Today, she felt as light as feathers, not concerned with the past, only wickedly exicted about the future. Heather looked around the hall, conscious of her burgundy, figure hugging dress with the plunging neckline. There were some rubies once gifted to her by Buckingham. The redhead always tried to look her garish best for Louis.


"Right," she turned around to the butler, "Do announce me to your master. Lady Nicci too if she's about." Just barely Heather refrained from assuming control, allowing the servant to see her into an appropriate waiting room. In day's past she would have sat nervously on the couch. Not today. Heather felt over confident almost, so sure of herself and her place in life. Not even Louis would shake her. She positioned herself near the window and glanced out.

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Louis had planned to have departed for his office by now, but the interlude with Nicolette had delayed his departure. It was a good thing because he hoped to have an private conversation with a previous protege ... the notorious Countess of Atherstone.


Heather did not wait long before a servant escorted the visitor back to the master's private study. She was admitted and the servant withdrew immediately, closing the door completely.


"Countess," Louis hailed in good humor. Taking to his feet he declared "happy Christmastide. Congratulations on your latest son. I trust your other son is doing well?" That other son was his own as well. "God has blessed you with two."


Moving her to the two padded seats beside the roaring fire, the Earl held up the decanter of brandy as a offer to fill a glass. "I had been hoping to visit you. Good fortune that you arrived today. First, tell me of your long absence from court. Was Nicolette a nuisance or did you enjoy her visit?"

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With swaying hips Heather entered the study and briefly embraced Louis, airkissing his cheeks, a habit she had picked up from her cousin Darlene, her lush body pressing close for mere seconds before she released him.


"Merry Christmastide, my dear friend," she declared with a warm genuine smile. Louis she counted among her oldest friends at court, an ally even, against all reasonable expectations. They made an odd pair for their attitude in life could not be more different. Louis was all ambition, while Heather was full of nothing but genuine enjoyment. She was intellectually curious but did not put much thought in political issues, while he hungered for political power but was bored out of his skull by book reading, including those she wrote. And yet, while they had once been nothing but casual lovers, now Louis and Heather were co-conspirators, contributing to each others intricate schemes as easily as breathing, sharing thoughts that remained closed to most of their acquintances.


Heather repressed a smile as Louis, true to style, didn't speak of "our son" as he gestured for her to take a seat near the fireplace. She did not correct him. The walls had ears, even in this mansion. He had pressed the need for discretion upon her often enough, and had remained true to his promise to look after his offspring, so far. She rather liked their enduring connection.


"He grows more like his father every day," the redhead announced while settling herself "Handsome, full of mischief and bringing his nurse maid nearly to tears daily. It seems Caleb does not like sharing attention, prefering to be the centre of it. The arrival of his younger sibling has brought nothing but the most passionate temper tantrums from the little Earl. His most favourite word is no."


Heather gave a nod to Louis to indicate she'd love a glass of brandy, even this early in the day. It had grown on her, a sign perhaps of her growing maturity, or dissipation. "Do you recall what it was like to have a sibling? It must not have been easy for your elder brother, to make room for you and your wiles. Nor, do I suspect, has it been easy for my five brothers either all these years to deal with such a wild sister as I am. Oh well, Caleb shall learn to endure and rise above it. What choice does he have?"


Accepting the glass from his long elegant fingers, Heather savoured the scent of the brandy before sipping, unconciously mirroring Louis' movements. "No no, no trouble. Nicci was a delight, a bright spark in the long dreary business of confinement, far beyond her herbal treatments," the lady exhaled "She really is most imaginative, and brings life to any room that she enters. Soon many other courtiers will experience the same."


There was another careful sip, and Heather allowed the brandy to roll over her tongue before swallowing it. "She has only two things holding her back in her conquering of court ... her lack of self esteem and her inexperience. At times I wondered if you were related at all. None of that Killington cockiness ."

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Louis and Heather were not alike; yet, at their core, they were not so dissimilar. As carefree as she might appear, there was a driving ambition within her. She did not sleep with kings, princes and dukes by coincidence.


The brandy was poured and Louis allowed himself to sit back and enjoy the description of their son. "Naughty boy," he laughed. "He just needs a strong woman to guide him."


The Earl had not thought of his older brother in years. They had been unlike each other in every way. His brother had been the perfect son while Louis was the prodigal. The death of his brother was so unfair to his father that it broke the old man's heart. If God had been fair, it would have been Louis that perished; but then, life was not fair.


"Do not allow them to become rivals. Rather, teach them to be allies in all things." There was strength in unity. He could not help himself but state in jest "I am certain that he shall be better in ... say ... 20 years."


The subject of Nicci was the most important topic of conversation at the moment. "I suppose that the Killington confidence is found in the English blood, rather than the French," he declared lightly. He was not so sure that it might not be the result of her gender, or perhaps her humble upbringing.


"I shall look to the King to give her the experience while we work upon her self-esteem. She really is quite charming. Do you know that one day she brought home Princess Mary quite on her own? On another day she charmed the entire French embassy and had them over for tea, including Orleans, the Comte de Saint-Aignan and Duc de Chevreuse. Yet another night she brings home a stray English earl new to court," he chuckled. "It seems that there is little need for me to go to court because my cousin will bring them to me one at a time."


"I appreciate your aid in this enterprise," Louis declared quietly. "It would be an excellent time for me to earn the favor of His Majesty."

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Heather resisted the urge to ask Louis if he had a strong woman to guide him. She knew the answer to that. The Countess Basildon was a formidable woman in many respects, but she was far away, doing her duty by James' daughter. Poor Mary, so far away from all those that love her. Heather pushed the pity for her soon to be wedded friend away.


"In 20 years time my son will no doubt be just such a rake as his father was at that age," she declared with amusement instead "breathtakingly handsome, charming and a woman at every finger. I fear nothing I'll teach him will prevent a certain arrogant confidence to settle upon him. It is inevitable really. It is in the blood."


The redhead nodded when Louis laughed about the antics of his cousin. Yes, that sounded just like Nicci. "She is an original and that enchants people. They are drawn to her like a moth to flames." A fine ginger eyebrow lifted as she heard Louis speak, then turned into a small frown. So he was aware of the ambitions his cousin harboured, but did he just suggest... Foolishness. That will never work. The King is not made in your image Louis.


"It was Buckingham that had the making of me, you know," the Countess declared abruptly, waiving away any possible protest with a careless lift of her procelain wrist 'Oh, you taught me much about my own body, and men. Yet it was Buckingham who taught me about the King. His likes. His dislikes. His darkest sides. He taught me the foolishness of picturing him like some hero in a song, a white knight ready to do battle for his lady." I should have listened. "Not even the power of my imagination could have turned the King into that."


"Louis, if you wish me to aid .. "... you.. Nicci..myself if I'm honest... "In this endeavour, then let us not mince words. Somebody will have her teaching.. Buckingham. Kingston. Dorset even, but it will not be the King. He has Gentlemen for that. Convenience, Louis, His Majesty wishes for convenience in all things."

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As Heather prognosticated about the nature of their son in 20 years Louis could only smile at the embedded flattery. "And he shall dote on his mother no doubt because she will have encouraged him rather than attempted to thwart him." That had been the problem with his own mother.


He was glad that Heather saw Nicci in the same way. How was it that his cousin could not see that gift in herself?


It was the next topic that would lead to a debate. She was right that one could not make the King into something he was not; yet, he was a man and men thought in different ways than women.


"I disagree Heather," he replied with a more sober expression. "If the King wants convenience he has whores at the ready and at least two mistresses and the Queen. Nicci must offer him something unique or she will become nothing more than a convenience and cast away as a convenience. She must maintain her virginity for the King to pluck. The King is still a cavalier. He would feel more bound to a lady he debauched than one that had been well-practiced before she entered his bed."


If a gentleman felt he had ruined a woman for other men potentially, he would become obligated to help that woman in the future. If the same gentleman swived a woman with many lovers, he would feel no obligation other than to pay the value of her services in coin or favors. Did Heather not understand?

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Oh Louis. Dark dastardly Louis. So confident with his piercing blue eyes that he knew would melt or scare his opponents. Always so confident he was not only right, but positively brilliant in the executions of his plans. Normally this would have amused the redhead as in some strange way it added to the allure of the Earl. She would have teased him of course, or allowed him to fall flat on his face if the plan failed, ready with an I told you so before she helped him back up. What else are friends for after all. Yet she could not do this to Nicci. In some strange way that she did not wish to explore further, Heather deeply wished Nicci to win where she had lost.


Heather briefly pinched the bridge of her nose, briefly praying for patience. She could already see where this was going. Convincing men, specifically this very stubborn if excellent specimen in front of her would be difficult. Yet she had to try and make Louis see the truth of it.


"That is so utterly male of you," the Countess breathed as she opened her green eyes again, focusing on her friend "and just as utterly ridiculous. Womenkind is not divided into whores and virgins, men only think they are." She let that insult, worthy of Aphra Behn she thought, sink in for a second. Did he think about his wife that way? Or Heather? Nicci?


"Besides, you think you have been the first to try that? Find something the King's never had, and it will make him addicted, ready to do your bidding." Golden red curls dance as she shook her head.


"He's had virgins before Louis, in another life, one that he does not care to remember, at foreign courts were people tried to make him into their puppet. What is there to like? Bedding a virgin is a messy business. There is blood and tears. Tears Louis. Charles handles tears as well as he handles temper tantrums. To be avoided at all cost. It would make him feel very bad, wrench his gut. You would have handed him an obligation, not something to be enjoyed for which he will feel gratitude."


"You want her to be unique? Then make sure she is his equal in all ways that count. One that can meet him on his own terms and not be intimidated by it, " the redhead softly counselled. It was one of the most important traits of Charles that he had been raised to acknowledge the worth of women, but none yet had managed to be precisely that. Oh, Barbara had held out that promise once. In a perverse way Charles had loved the way she dominated him, for a long, long time, until he had outgrown that. Heather had not managed either. She was too independent, too strong, making trouble for him that Charles could well have done without. Nicci would not allow the King, the man, to be put in turmoil because of her, yet would not allow him to avoid her reality either.


"His equal outside the protocol of court, one that provides lightness of being when all else is so drab and foul. Someone who gains original and unexpected results. You know Nicci can do this. You have said it yourself." In fact, Louis had been full of praise, and none of it empty.


Heather leaned back as a realization hit her. He actually cares. It made her exclaim softly "For God's sake Louis, if you do not teach her how to be his equal in bed, somebody else will. You cannot be that cruel."

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As Heather accused him of being male, Louis smiled and quipped "so is the King." She thought he insulted her, but no insult had been intended. "That is why I added mistresses as a separate category," he reminded her. "Of course, becoming a mistress to the King labels one with such repugnant name. Think of Louise," he offered, being friendly to her. "She has likely slept with only the King but the crowd labels her otherwise."


"Rest assured Heather that I know bedding a virgin is a messy business. I find virgins tedious mostly; but, if you mentor them appropriately then they become quite devoted to you." More than one memory flooded his mind as he thought about all of the devoted debauched women he had encountered in his short life. A smile graced his features as he looked to the fire as if it might transport him back in time. There had been exceptions certainly. Some had hated him and one had become so attached to him that he could not rid himself of her.


Heather correctly determined that Louis cared about Nicci. He did. He had a bond with all of his past lovers, Heather included. He worried more about Nicci because he was her male guardian. Heather could take care of herself. She had demonstrated it many times in the past.


"She thinks Kingston might be the right one to teach her." It was as much a question as it was a declaration. He would be interested in Heather's response.

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Heather waved away his attempt at soothing her pride by mentioning another royal mistress "Even the King rarely sleeps with her. It is not why he is so devoted to her. He can have ten actresses a night to satisfy his urges. There is only one of her. It is a pity the mob doesn't understand her true importance, or perhaps it is for the better." As it was she was already reviled for being a French Catholic spy in the royal bedroom that he spent entirely too much money on.


Heather wondered if Louis had guessed at it, having a wife of his own he was quite devoted to, if not exactly faithful. "We already established there is more to being a mistress than sex, more to an experienced woman than the number of men she has slept with."


The redhead leaned forward, her look quite serious as she observed his profile while he watched the flames play. She could almost reach out and touch that very stubborn jaw, those dark tousled curls. "Look Louis, you are not the same kind of man as Charles. You enjoy it.. the manipulation, even the cruelty, the thrill of having one so utterly devoted that she'll do anything, anything, just for you... the power it gives you."


"Charles is not that man," she softly admonished her friend after that damning analysis. For one thing, though the King was shrewd and sometimes very cool and detached, he was not cruel. He did not taunt and tease, he indulged, he gave.


The next words out of Louis' mouth were unexpected, said with a deceptive casual air, as if he didn't care. So, matters were even more openly discussed than she had even contemplated. Heather's mouth opened slightly as her jaw dropped. No.


"Francis," the redhead gasped as she leaned back, before recovering slightly, thinking it through.


"Francis will be kind, and loyal in his way," Heather frowned as she considered the idea. It was not that she was adverse to sharing any of her bed fellows, nor could she stop them if she tried. It just didn't feel right for an entirely different reason. "He is a gentle lover, and an experienced one, with an exotic touch that I am sure the King will appreciate in due time. As a Gentleman of the Bedchamber he is well placed." She thought of Venice again and her time with the courtesan Bianca, while Francis watched. Just watched. It was one of her most erotic experiences. Oh yes. Francis could teach. It was just that she never thought he would be the one teaching.


"Louis, is this what you want?" Heather asked, curious now "For another to take your place?" For while the King did not give one fig about virgins, Louis did. He would fear Nicci to become another one's creature. Why was he allowing her to slip from his fingers?

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Louise probably was a French Catholic spy , and the King definitely spent too much on her. That was beside the point for this conversation. Nicci would be the French Protestant spy and not likely given the same measure of wealth. That might make her more palatable to the mob -- a poor persecuted Hugenot fleeing tyranny in her land. It was the portrait they would paint together.


The earl's face lit with guilty delight as Heather correctly noted the thrill Louis enjoyed over women. Power, in all forms, was a heady wine. "A pity that the King shares no similar desire," he chuckled. It was not just the Earl that lusted after power. It was the greatest aphrodisiac of all, followed by wealth, wit and physical beauty. Louis had all four in large measure, certainly in his own mind if not others.


The subject of Kingston initially disarmed Heather. How interesting. He listened carefully to the description she gave of Francis. "Tell me more," he urged. "I do not know the man well." It almost sounded as if Heather had claimed to have past relations with the man. "Don't hold anything back. Is he a worthy patron?" Heather had touched upon the uncomfortable subject of his own ministrations. "I had considered it, but it seemed awkward given that I am her guardian." Besides, she has independent reasons to be devoted to me. "What about Buckingham? Would he be a better choice?"

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"Propriety? From you Louis, of all people?" a ginger eyebrow lifted questioningly, Surely, behind closed doors there was no need to pretend among old friends. Perhaps he lies even to himself. He would not be the first. Heather suffered from a healthy dose of that herself.


Heather hesitated. It wasn't that she was overly discrete. She shared information on her sexual partners, well nearly all her sexual partners, with York. He took pride in it, because in the end he was the victor over them all, binding her to him. There were limits however, even to that frankness. She hadn't told him about Louis for instance, though he might have guessed having a good look at her son. James was not stupid, a military strategist rather than a shrewd politcian perhaps. It was left unadressed for to confess it would mean confessing to grand scale theft and then he would be forced to take action against such a sin and that would hurt more than just herself.


Francis was a friend. She did not want to confess to something that would hurt him, yet Louis... he needed reassurance and Heather didn't want to hurt him either. "I know him well enough," the redhead allowed the Biblical meaning to shine through "From.. ah.. all angles you might say. He will not hurt Nicci if it comes to that."


"Buckingham... well, " .. she popped a little bubble of air trying to come up with something diplomatic "He's old Louis. What do you expect from an old man? Experienced. Passionate but with less energy than a younger man. A trifle selfish and self centered, but generous in the old fashioned way. " She touched the very expensive rubies at her pale neck, a gift upon having been caught in delicto flagrante some Christmas past.


"George would be ideal to teach her about the King for they know each other like no other and he takes great pride in the game, but not as her first lover. No, don't do that to her. Besides, Francis is his protoge, he can easily introduce her when the time is ripe."


Heather sighed briefly. She still did not agree this was ideal, but she didn't voice that thought, her turn to watch the flames play. Courtly intrigue wasn't always sunshine and rainbows. Heather Abigail. You are a romantic.

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"Yes, propriety," Louis replied while suppressing a laugh. "Have you not read the newspapers? I am proper now. I am told that those in the libertine circle lament my absence." Heather would know better than others that it was a well-played perfomance by the Earl


Heather was right, of course, about Buckingham. He was old. Louis could not imagine being in his 50s. Surely he would be bald and grey with no ability to maintain an erection. Old men were pitiful creatures, except for the power they wielded. "Yes, I suppose he would be too impatient with a virgin."


He noted the redhead's gaze into the fire. She had all but confessed intimacy with Kirke. She did have a knack for getting around. Was there something she was not telling him?


"The plan seems rather straightforward," the Earl voiced allowed. "Kingston will break her in. Buckingham will help guide her. We place her in His Majesty's path whenever possible. It sounds all too easy." He sounded disappointed, favoring more complicated plotting; but, this was his chance to probe Heather for more ideas.

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Heather was not in doubt that Louis was not in the least sincere about propriety. "Was that in the fiction section?" she asked sweetly.


Just like that Louis gave way, pretending it had been all his own idea in the first place. No more virginity games with the King then. "Nicci is not a horse and this is not a business transaction," the Countess disapproved faintly of his choice of words. She was a poet and words mattered. Perhaps he used crass words to hide his own feelings on the matter but it was still not well done.


She had caught his disappointed tone easily enough though "It is not that easy, Louis. Just throwing her into the King's way will not be enough. She must not just be charming but surprising, and then know of his ways well enough to keep him intrigued. It will require all our ingenuity to keep everything balanced, and prevent her enemies, our enemies, from thwarting such plans in the meantime. You must guard her back."


Heather pursed her lips "Do you have any one in particular in mind that might be trying to gain the same kind of influence with the King? Any enemy that might trip her? And will she not run afoul of the Queen? What are your plans Louis, tell me all." There was a thin smile as she prodded her friend.

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Heather reacted poorly to the way he laid out the plan for Nicci, as he suspected she might. He fought a grin as he managed to provoke a response. There was a boyish delight in manipulating female responses.


Though it sounded like he had adopted Heather's plan as his own, there were continued misgivings about losing the virgin card to play with the King. He would need to consider the matter further, though he was willing to be swayed with the redhead who had graced the beds of the royal brothers.


"Are you suggesting that I would have any enemies?" he announced with a laugh. "Only behind my back." He supposed he owed Heather an explanation. They were allies after all.


"As you may recall, I have chosen to align myself with the Court Party generally. The Earl of Danby became something of a patron to me by teaching me the world of finance and assisting me in gaining my current office. It was always my plan to ascend with him or, if he fell, to replace him. A man trained by the Lord Treasurer is well suited to become the next Lord Treasurer." His brandy needed refreshing.


"A most curious turn of events occurred in March when Danby's cousin Peyton came to see me and asked me to take the lead in supporting the Earl's new Test Act. Though I had supported him on everything else in the past, I declined. I find the Act to be a threat to the succession of the Duke of York and I am inclined towards His Majesty's policy of religious tolerance. When asked who should take the lead, I gave the only answer that made sense and humor -- the Duke of Monmouth. You know that Monmouth and I have little love for each other and any effort he leads is bound to failure, so what better plan?" Even after all of the trouble the suggestion had given Louis, he was still convinced the suggestion had been perfect.


"Months passed and little more thought was given to the topic until Monmouth apparaently inspired a riot against Catholics and his uncle. As you might expect, it was a complete disaster, managing to anger the King. Weeks later, Danby summons me urgently to his house and explains that Monmouth and Peyton are missing, and what I knew. I told him all I knew, which was nothing. He then starts insinuating why I should be worried about their disappearance, since I seemed nonplussed about it. It put me on guard that I was being drawn into something and that I had best be careful."


"Later, at a party at Buckingham's, the old fox tells me that I've been betrayed by Danby. I was suspicious of this revelation because the Duke has sought to turn me against Danby in the past. I am not fickle in my alliances Heather, so I declined the Duke's prior entreaty. This time, however, Danby went too far. I was told that he told the King that I had been the one behind Monmouth's riot and that the King was planning to arrest me as a result." He paused to watch the effect on his guest.


"Danby was an idiot," Basildon observed. "He could have sacrificed Peyton or incriminated some innocent that he did not like; but, instead, he offers me up to the cart? I was one of the few lords supporting him without the need for a bribe. If I were Danby, I could have concocted a much more believable story and managed to convict an enemy in the process." Louis laughed at the thought. It would have been something he would have enjoyed.


"Having the truth on my side, I convinced Buckingham to help me and, in doing so, bring about the downfall of his rival. Given Danby's betrayal, I was no longer honor bound to protect him. It was arranged for me to happen upon the King at breakfast with Buckingham and set forth the facts. Kingston was there too. To my surprise, the King was suspicious of me. No one that knows anything about me would ever accuse me of working with Monmouth on anything, and to have such a poorly thought out plan," he laughed. "Of course, it would have been brilliant of me to have Monmouth do something stupid, convince Danby to become immersed in the enterprise, and then take then both out in one swoop. I did not need a brilliant plan to take down either lord, however," he added. "Each are doing a good job of that on their own.


"The King asked me if I am interested in being the next Lord Treasurer. I replied that no one was better suited than me. I have ideas to save the King money and I can do a better job of rallying votes than Danby. I made clear that I was not seeking to become Chief Minister ... just yet anyway. Let Buckingham do that. Danby has fled and the King is loathe to replace him despite his treachery; so, I await the reckoning."


There was more to tell but he had provided Heather with morsels of gossip and scandal to thrill her heart for the whole season already. Now, he awaited her reaction.

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"It would be a foolish enemy indeed that approached you from the front," Heather scoffed. She leaned back to listen as Louis updated her on political happenings in the last season or so.


Heather wasn't a real political person, into it for the power. She was a people's person. She understood people and their wants and needs... which did allow her to grasp some of this story.


Heather nodded to the Earl's description of his relationship with Monmouth, though she recalled that back in the day he had been in close contact with the King's son. Their estrangement was of a later date. Emotion, it was all emotion though men, in Heather's experience, would never admit to it.


"York must have taken pride in your support," Heather murmured soothingly It was likely the truth though James had ever right to expect such loyalty from one whose wife was a member of the York household through Mary. It also meant that the King would likely not object to that part in the story. He was supportive of his brother.


"So Peyton might have taken you more literal than you intended? Danby must have been frantic. Is Peyton not his ward? He might have been implicated himself and in general the King is not amused about any riot surrounding Monmouth, or his brother." In fact, she knew Charles was weary of the entire situation.


There was a surprising turn in the story. "George did you an enormous favour," Heather gasped as Louis revealed how he narrowly escaped "What did he want in return? He never does something like that without expecting something back."


"The King, by nature of his position, is suspicous of everyone," the redhead shrugged, though she wondered if Charles had been set on edge by a lord who betrayed his patron, even though the patron had done the betrayal first. Disloyalty was a grave crime in the eyes of the King.


"So, Buckingham is your friend, Danby is your enemy," Heather concluded "What is it that Buckingham wants, do you know? He always has a scheme. " Not unlike some people she could name.

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"Who is to say what Peyton took away from our meeting," Louis replied with a casual air. "Whatever he did, he made a hash of it and managed to suck Danby into the whirlpool with him. I suppose I should be grateful."


As for Buckingham, Basildon gave a knowing smile. "Yes, I suspect he is looking for more than a hearty thank you." He chuckled in an inviting way. "Simply put, we are to become friends. As friends do, like you and I here, we will share information and plans while looking for ways to help one another. He has made no specific request. It is clear that he wants Danby's fall. That is still yet to happen. There can be no doubt that he wants to take Danby's place in the King's attention. I am happy to accommodate that if I can."


"I am not so sure that I am an enemy of Danby at this point," the Earl added with a wry smile. "We have not spoken since he fled court. I am resolved to act the part of the betrayed lover. Let him try and beg my forgiveness. It would be an entertaining role for me to play methinks."

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Heather ignored any instincts that Louis, being Louis, had probably been hugely misleading towards Peyton, if only for mischief. Ignored the sense that Danby for some reason might have been in a panic. Men in a panic did stupid things and surely the Earl was aware of that. There was no point in deliberating how much had been calculating, and how much of it had been ignorance.


Instead the redhead focused on a subjec she did know about.. George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. "Yes," Heather breathed "He is gathering an alliance, a group of misfits to rise to glory.' How often had she heard him wax on such posibilities. So, you are finally doing it George, getting back in Charles' graces. At what cost? There was a twin of worry, for Louis but also for George, who still held a piece of her heart, as old lovers do. Charles, if you kill any of them, I shall be cross, she thought firmly and sat up straight.


"Right, so who else has Buckingham indicated to be part of your new alliance Louis? Make no mistake. Buckingham won't just expect your compliance.. he is expecting your full loyalty to the group and your ability to anticipate his wishes before he has even formulated them." There was a wan smile. Heather had not been particular good at that game, prefering her ducal lover to spell out things. It was a major difference between them.


How ironic, Heather thought, that she was now serving Louis with advice on Buckingham, the lover she had left Louis for. It was all coming full circle.

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"Misfits?" Now it was Heather's turn to get a rise out of a conversation mate. Though his voice professed indignation for being considered suitable to join such a poorly named group, there was humor hidden therein. "I am anything but a misfit," he insisted in good fun. "I am the courtier that is envied, studied, and followed, not rued. If I do not fit it is because I lead." His lips were curled in a smile. "At least I would tell you that if I were not so modest."


"Do tell me what you know of his plans in this regard. As she asked further as to other members, Louis was at a loss. "Kingston of course, but he is kin." Other members were less obvious. "He has taken some poet and some composer under his wing; but, surely, they are not part of this company. If he wishes to topple Danby, he is in league with Shaftesbury, Arlington, and probably Lauderdale, though I have seen him only with Cooper. No doubt he has alliances with the French." They hated Danby. "Perhaps I am the first," he ventured, unsure he was happy with such an outcome. "I suppose he wanted to start with the best," he chuckled. "He needs my Seymour connections."


Some might fear the commitment that was intended by the Duke. Louis did not. He rather liked Buckingham's style and reputation. The man was clever, witting and charming ... just like a certain younger version imagined himself. Of course the Duke's weaknesses: vanity, pettiness; and a need to be admired were things Basildon did not see in himself. Such men rarely did. "Buckingham is the best for me anyway," Louis confessed to Heather. "He is the King's boyhood friend; likes the French, is tolerant with religion and sems of a similar political and philosophical outlook. He's no prude," Louis hastened to add with a knowing smile. "Of course, now that I am proper, no one should expect me to emulate that."


Frankly, there were few other patron candidates at court. York had little power. Monmouth was a failure. Ablemarle made Monmouth look good. Lauderdale seemed to be teetering. Arlington was finished. Shaftesbury was no patron to a royalist Danby was set to fall. The old guard were fading away, making room for the young. Only Buckingham remained relevant, other than the Earl's uncle by marriage ... the Lord Chancellor.

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Heather resisted the urge to stick out her tongue to Louis, finally getting a rise out of him. When he was impossibly arrogant it become irrisistable to try to do so. It was perhaps part of his charm, but that didn't mean she didn't want to hit him when he put it on show.


"I know little," Heather admitted "George hasn't confided in me.. yet. I can find out though. If I ask him the right way.." She frowned lightly when Louis could not name who else was on Buckingham's list of preferred candidates. Keeping his cards this close didn't sound like him at all. Was Louis paying proper attention? Sometimes his ambition blinded him. It would not be helpful to point this out. There was teasing and then there was insulting.


"Those are some strange bedfellows," she commented on Louis observation on the allies of Buckingham "There must be strains on that relationship." She shuddered inwardly at the thought of Lauderdale. Good thing he was in Scotland.


The redhead only nodded sagely when Louis confessed why Buckinghams patronage was important to him. Yes, even with his star somewhat dimmed as Charles did not rely on him so much, George was still a force to be reckoned with. "Do you need York's support on the matter, or would it be better if he kept silent on it?"

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"Do see what you can learn from Buckingham," Basildon encouraged. Perhaps the man would lower his guard with his old lover. He could only hope that the Duke had other powerful allies to support his gambit.


"York's assistance would be useful," Louis agreed, "but, as you know, it is best relayed privately to his brother. His Grace exercises his greatest influence privately while he is quiet publicly." The Duke could be his own worst enemy, much like his nephew; yet, he was more seasoned and able to avoid the worst outcomes. "I am not sure how well Buckingham gets along with York," he admitted. "I suppose it is cordial." Louis speculated that Buckingham thought himself the smarter of the two and might poorly mask that belief. If so, he might have offended the younger Stuart brother in the past. "York must have no love loss for Danby, given the man's efforts to chase Catholics from Parliament, if not London." York already thought well of Basildon, based on past experience. The Earl could only hope that York would be more understanding of Basildon's break with Danby, Heather could certainly help in that regard.

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"Buckingham and York grew up as brothers," Heather pointed out logically "So there is a lot of good natured ribbing involved." In fact ,that sibling sentiment extended to Mall, the Duke's sister who was not above posing like a man, and the King. As George was the eldest of the gang, it made it somewhat akward that he had to be subservient to the younger ones. There was always that slight tension, the unfairness of it all.


"There is love and affection though," Heather felt the need to stress, as not all siblings had similar feelings "Well hidden, but it is there. In fact, I think York and Buckingham will agree on a great many things in their discussions with the King, including a love for all things French."


Heather sighed as Louis mentioned the persecution of Catholics. For some reason, since she arrived in London, all those that she cared about were either Catholic or associated with them. This sword of Damocles was constantly threatening to fall. It caused her to greatly sympathise with their fate, understanding the undercurrents of resentment.


"It is a great injustice Louis, and James is a soldier. He wishes to do battle to protect his people, his loved ones, from such injustice, but this is a battle he cannot win. No love lost for any that do not support tolerance is the understatement of the century. He is like a caged lion, poked time and time again and one of these days he'll not just growl but bite of some limbs, starting with Danby."


She shook her head "He's always said that Charles is weak, wishing him to act more forcefully. Charles won't of course. Politics is not warfare."

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"Excellent." It was good to hear that York and Buckingham viewed each other with brotherly affection, even if well hidden. That would mean that Basildon could count on both York and Buckingham for his elevation to Lord Treasurer. The Earl was already confident of his success. This only encouraged Louis further.


"It is an injustice," Louis admitted readily. "Tell him he must allow his friends to argue for him. Both Buckingham and myself will seek to avoid a war with France. Both will urge tolerance in Parliament towards Catholics. This will allow your Duke to seem above the fray, though he should encourage his other friends to support us when we speak out. There are too many peers frightened to speak out. I fear nothing," he proclaimed with an amused smile, certain that it would cause Heather to urge caution. He enjoyed provoking her, and most anyone. It was all a game really, and he was a man who enjoyed games above most anything else.

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Heather was slowly getting the hang of advising her Prince in a manner that not only promoted her self interest, but that of James as well. However, that did not mean she was suave in all matters political. She had difficulty seeing the road ahead, yet Louis.. was being impossible Louis.


"Louis," Heather gasped, predictably scandalized "You really are too arrogant, you impossible beast! Don't you know that declaring yourself fearless is just an invitation for somebody to cut you down?" The redhead worried her lower lip with her pearly teeth.


"Honestly Louis, its a viper's nest. Do be serious and take a care that you are not devoured," she implored the wicked Earl. It did not sit well with her, this grand gamble, his confidence. Too much could go wrong, and above all she feared Louis might misjudge Buckingham despite her earnest advice.

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In contrast to Heather, Louis believed he saw all the roads ahead. A good strategist knew alternate routes to take when the game took an unexpected turn.


As expected, Heather reacted with concern to his flippant declaration. The more concerned she acted, the bigger the smile. "It is a grand game," he proclaimed with passion in his voice. "It would not be challenging if there were not vipers at every turn," he laughed in his carefree manner. "It is my goal to see that they devour each other, rather than myself."


Crossing one leg over the over as he finished his brandy, the Earl looked at ease. "If I have York, Buckingham, and Finch supporting me, Danby with nowhere else to turn, and whispered words of support from Portsmouth and Nicci, where else would the King look?" There was John Ernle, but Louis planned a bit of poison to take care of that particular rodent.

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Heather gave an exasperated sigh. "You and Buckingham are well suited" she muttered under her breath as she finished her drink. Most men of her acquintance thought themselves invincible, damned male pride, no matter their age.


"Well if you think you can have Charles dance to your merry tune," the redhead shrugged with casual intimacy banding about the King's Christian name, putting down her empty glass with a decisive clank on a side table. Charles was as shrewd as any politician, and as Heather had reason to know, could be coldly calculating for all his generousity to womenkind, She had only to think about the moment he had shoved her out on a balcony, to avoid a diplomatic disaster with some German cow. She had been so insulted she'd thrown herself right in the arms of the first man she could find. Her heart clenched.


Yet, the King too had his unreasonable male pride. Hadn't he punished her because his ego wouldn't tolerate her throwing herself at a lowly Scot after she left his bed? She doubted Charles would be played quite so easily. His pride forbade it. Louis however, was not ready for this advice, if he ever was.


"You hardly need my help, now do you?" the lady rose, trying to hide her fit of feminine pique. At least he will no longer thrust Buckingham at Nicci so this trip wasn't an entire failure she thought wistfully, unaware of where the young lady was right this very minute.

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That Heather thought Buckingham and Basildon well suited drew a sly smile from the Earl. He planned to mimic the Duke's ways, but told himself that he would not make the same mistakes.


"No, the King dances to no one's tune," Louis admitted with a bit of realism. "He is no simpleton. No, you have to maneuver him, like on a chess board, so that he has few options other than the one you suggest; or, suggest something so clearly in his favor that he has little choice." That was the way to capture a fox.


Louis began chuckling as Heather declared he hardly needed her help. "Of course I need your help," he corrected. One never made an ally feel unimportant. "While I have good relations with both York and Buckingham, it is you that shall prove to be the key to unlocking their support. They will be suspicious of me, as they should. Having someone of your straight forward and heartfelt insight tip the scales on behalf of myself and Nicolette will be important to our ultimate success," he admitted. "The King's consent will need the assistance of many, not just that of two dukes." Nicolette would have an easier time obtaining the position she sought than Louis would. As such, he needed to seek out the assistance of all his allies and friends.

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Heather felt slightly mollified that Louis lowered his tune. Any passion in her pique came from her honest worry that friends might be in deep over their head and feeling helpless to stop any trouble that might meet them. It really was quite dreadful not be taken seriously.


Not sitting down again, Heather instead stood in front of the fire and made to warm her hands to the flames. It was the middle of winter after all and she was made for warmer climes. The heat started radiating through her body in a most comfortable way, melting her softly.


"Tell me what to expect of this season Louis," she begged him softly "I have barely got my bearings yet. When should I grab my opportunity to push our plan? Are there special events beyond the expect ball and banquette?"


Heather tried not to think of that winter two years hence, when she thought all was lost, hiding in the library in Windsor and off all places in Rochester's apaprtment. Surely no winter could be as cold as that.

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As Heather stood at the fire, she asked her host what to expect from the season. Louis needed little urging to share his views of court.


"I expect little to be accomplished this season," Louis admitted. "As far as I know, there will be no meeting of Parliament. If so, there will be no war with France, no impeachment of Danby and no second Test Act." All of these items would wait for the next Parliament. "I see this as a time for gaiety for our economy is sound, we are at peace, and trade is thriving. There is reason to be merry again. It is only the Catholic issue that shall put a damper on things. If the mob behaves, I think things will be quiet," he predicted.


"This will be a time for parties and making merry, which will get the King in good spirits. With Monmouth gone, Danby on the run and the Test Act stalled, your Duke of York will be in fine spirits. As such, he will be easier to influence and to think well of you and his friends. Word has it he has cast out his prior mistress Sedley, so you are the only lady that holds his eye" at the moment. "With the royal brothers merry, it shall be easier to launch our plans. The King will be looking for a fresh mistress with which to enjoy the holidays. He merely needs the people like his brother and Buckingham to note how charming and witty Nicolette is. As for me, the King will not wish to consider business. So, unless Danby comes back this week, I see that I can do little this season other than building the foundation of my case for the Lord Treasurer next season. Meanwhile, I think some remarks questioning the ability of my rival, John Ernle, would be wise." Sadly, he expected little more than that.


"As for balls, I believe there will be many parties. There is an opera tonight, I am going with Nicci and the Somersets. We need to be seen. I believe there is a ball on Saturday, but I am not sure. The King is expected to have his New Year's feast. I plan a dinner for some of the more influential lords to discuss politics. I would expect all sorts of parties, masques, and the like. It should be a season to relax, for most."

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"It sounds like a merry season indeed," the redhead declared, though she knew such outside cheer might hide much sadness. With no parliamentary session to bite their teeth in politics might seep in deeper into all the other events. Catholics will still be persecuted. Heather was fed up with the puritan streak that ruled the Anglican church these days. Time and time again loved ones were made to suffer. "Yes, lets pray for a bit of peace and quiet," the Countess agreed/


The disappearance of Sedley's daughter was no sadness to Heather though. She threw a look over her shoulder "It is true then? I heard rumours from Edmund but thought him optimistic." The loyalty of James was one of his endearing qualities, but it sometimes irritated her when it was aimed at people other than herself. For now, though, she seemed to have the upper hand.


"Ah yes, the Dorset theatre," Heather commented on a slightly sour note. Well, that did it. "I really should be going, there are plans to make," she announced with false cheer.

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Heather was ordinarily a merry gal; yet, her enthusiasm for a merry Christmas seemed dampened. Was it motherhood or something else weighing heavily on her?


Louis did not know if the rumor about Catherine Sedley was true or not; but, usually something so bold would be denied quickly if false. "I suspect it may be genuine."


The mutter about Dorset Theater seemed out of place until he remembered that the opera was hosted there. It took but a moment to link the redhead's sour disposition with Dorset. He had not asked her about the other scandalous rumor that circulated. Louis felt he knew her well enough to ask and her reaction to the Dorset Theater opened the door to the inquiry. "Is it the theater or is it Dorset that has you so upset. Whatever happened between you and Dorset? Rochester has been saying that the two of you were married." He was certain that the reaction would be amusing.

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