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A Christmas Visit [25/12, afternoon]- Xmas 1677

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The Toledo Residence


Like most rooms in her new residence, the library was larger than the one in her previous house, but fell quite short of immense. Books in several different languages lined the shelves on three of the walls and there was a desk and chair in one corner. There was also a small table and two comfortable chairs upholstered in dark leather that usually sat in front of the fireplace. A longer table stood along the one wall that was not covered by bookcases.


Today, Sophia had instructed her servants to move all three chairs to the long table and they had also brought in two chairs from the drawing room. If Lord Maldon brought his three siblings, they would all have places to sit. She had selected a few German books that were not that difficult to read and they were arranged in a stack in the center of the table. The Christmas tree sat beside it. It was small enough that it could be moved from room to room and since they would be discussing German, it seemed appropriate to have it here.


The petite Baroness stood in front of the fireplace, watching the flickering flames and letting her thoughts wander aimlessly. When her guests arrived, a servant would bring them to the library where she was waiting for them.

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John sighed at the gate. He was, theoretically, the head of a household and the parental figure of his family. And while he did that well enough, he found it very difficult to be strict on some matters. So he’d come alone, doubtful they’d be joined by the promised introductions.


Hopefully Sophia would forgive him. While he’d perhaps not given his word in the strictest sense, he had told her they’d be here, and John took such representations very seriously. Regardless of whether it was his fault (though in his mind it was), she would at least have a proper apology.


Hopefully it wouldn’t disrupt their plans too much, though John was increasingly finding it a battle to remain… well, he hadn’t been optimistic to start with. Now he was trying to avoid losing more hope.


Regardless of what happened, Sophia would help with that. She’d helped several of his bad moods.


John was ushered upstairs. He smiled widely and bowed briefly, Sophia might notice it was a bit of a shallow formality. He was carrying a satchel. “Lady Toledo, a g-g-great pleasure to see you again.” His tone showed equally those words were not shallow formalities.


He moved to sit without any more pomp, “I d-d-don’t think we’ll be joined, unfortunately. You have my deep apologies.” John smiled somewhat awkwardly and very apologetically. He was nervous. Sophia would be perfectly within her rights to be cross and John hated disappointing his friends.

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Two sets of footsteps echoed in the corridors. Sophia turned as Lord Maldon entered the room, alone save for the servant who had brought him to the library. She smiled warmly as he approached her. His siblings were not with him. Perhaps they'd had other plans. As he bowed to her, she nodded for the servant to stay. They would not need the extra chairs.


“It is a pleasure to see you as well, my lord.” Her words held as much meaning as his and she curtsied prettily and then held up her hand to be kissed. He seemed a bit distraught at the absence of his family, and she hastened to reassure him. “There is no need to apologize, my friend. You know how delightful I find your company.” She grinned playfully. “I am glad I do not have to share it. Maybe I can meet your siblings tonight at the ball. I still plan on giving the Queen the pyramid tonight.”


Sophia noticed his satchel, but said nothing about it. “Would you prefer to sit by the fire? Now that it is only the two of us, I can have the chairs moved back where they were. Or would you rather stay here at the table?”

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John kissed her hand, although in bending over he looked a bit awkward. While it wasn’t a gesture of unusual intimacy at court, John was reserved. Doing it so freely was a sign of comfort with his friend. He smiled widely, “Your excellency.”


He smiled with palpable relief at her reply. “Thank you.” And he laughed at how she wanted him for herself. That he could give her, and as often as she wanted.


John nodded, “My p-p-plans haven’t changed either. I still w-w-want to present the nutcracker to the Queen.” Ideally in his sister’s hands, but John could be adaptable. And he was, as always, well prepared. He had another nutcracker. He’d actually brought back three. One of them was destined for Sophia, though he hadn’t yet met her without some other gift to give. Yesterday, at the opera, and today he all had other gifts.


John thought for a moment as to where they should sit, “I n-n-need the table for my part. But if you d-d-don’t for yours, I’d p-p-prefer to be nearer the fire, Lehrenin.” John seemed quite pleased with knowing the word for teacher. His pronunciation was bad though.


As John looked around the library, Sophia might notice that John looked as if he had been outdoors most of the day. There was just a hint of dampness from melting snow that had worked its way under the coat he’d left with her servant. His face had a slight rosiness to it from exposure.


John placed his satchel on the table. There were a variety of sounds as the objects shifted.

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Sophia always held out her hand to be kissed when she greeted a gentleman. It was a playful gesture to express her delight in seeing them, and she liked to watch the way they reacted now that she was married. She had been a bit wary to do so when she had first arrived in England. Lord Kingston had warned her again and again not to ruin her reputation and she had been afraid that gentlemen would get the wrong idea if she offered her hand to them. Until she had joyfully surrendered her virginity to Don Juan, she hadn't even known what the 'wrong idea' was.


Lord Maldon looked a bit awkward. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the tradition for reasons of his own. She would not offer her hand to him again unless he reached for it himself. “I do hope she will be there tonight. I'm sure you have heard the rumors that she is pregnant. If they are true, she might not be feeling well.” Sophia knew very little about pregnancy, except that it had eluded her after making love with Juan nearly every night for two weeks. She'd had no mother to explain such things to her.


She grinned when he used the German word for 'teacher.' “You have been learning already, I see.” His accent left a lot to be desired but so had Lord Kingston's when she had first began teaching him. Her former guardian needed more practice, but he had not approached her about it and she assumed that his duties to the King kept him too busy. He had been teaching her French in exchange for learning German and Italian (which he was much better at than German). However, Lady Kendishall had offered to help her with French last season. Hopefully, her offer still stood. Mademoiselle Vauquelin might be willing to help her as well.


“It will be more relaxing if we sit by the fire to learn German.” She beckoned to the servant to move the chairs that had been in front of the fireplace back to their usual positions. There were three chairs left at the table. She knew that John would prefer to sit rather than to stand.


When he placed the satchel on the table, she heard its contents rattling. “What did you bring with you?” she asked curiously. “Is this why we need the table?”

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John’s awkwardness came not from his demeanor, which seemed entirely comfortable, but from his leg. In the gesture, the man bent over to kiss a hand, often scraping with one leg. John was simply not capable of doing that smoothly. His bow had been similarly awkward.


There hadn’t been any sign of discomfort, though. He felt comfortable around Sophia, else he would’ve shaken her hand rather than kissed it at all.


“Yes.” John confirmed he’d heard the rumor, “And one she isn’t.” Such was the nature of courtly gossip. “Even if she… is, she w-w-won’t go into confinement until… at least the sixth m-m-month. Some women d-d-don’t go at all anymore.” Frankly, the Queen didn’t have the luxury of withdrawing from court for a full traditional confinement.


John smiled with frankly undue pride at her praise. He perked up a little. He was always eager to learn and one day he wanted to speak many languages. “Well, I’m already b-b-behind you. I’ve got to catch up.” Despite her youth Sophia seemed worldly and experienced to John.


John nodded as she said they could sit by the fire. And he smiled at her question, “A f-f-few things.” He opened the satchel to reveal several books, some boxes and tins, a thick folded piece of paper, and a wooden box. One of the books, one of the tins, and one of the boxes were tied together with twine and bow, clearly made up to be a gift.


He pulled this out and held it out to her with a smile, “I thought you m-m-might like these.” The book was A New Orchard and Garden with The Country Housewife’s Garden. The tin was filled with dried catnip. The box had a rod with a cloth mouse on a string that could be stuffed with catnip to play with.

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“I suppose we shall find out tonight which rumor is true. I plan on giving her the Christmas pyramid, so I do hope she is there.” Sophia felt a bit better about the gift now that she had Esteban's approval. She had not thought of asking him before this morning. The petite singer had lived and breathed opera ever since they had returned to London. Now that it was over, she could concentrate on other things, although she missed the excitement and anticipation. There were still many things to look forward to, such as this evening's ball, but she still felt empty inside. It was a feeling she knew well, and it would pass with time.


Lord Maldon looked pleased with her compliment. One of the many reasons they got along so well was because they were both so eager to learn new things. She too, wished to be able to speak many languages. Currently, she was fluent in German and Italian, proficient in English, and able to get by in Spanish and French. At the moment, she was focusing mainly on Spanish, and received lessons from a private tutor twice a week. Sophia hoped to surprise Juan with how much she had learned when they met again. She had improved quite a bit since they had parted in Spain.


“You will,” she assured him. “I will make sure of it.” She'd already been successful with Lord Kingston and she was confident that she could teach John as well. First, she would have to figure out how much he already knew, which could be accomplished by conversing in German by the fire. If he only understood a few words, she would begin teaching him the basics.


After moving the two comfortable chairs back in front of the fireplace, the servant stood by the door in case his mistress needed him for anything else.


Sophia's eyes lit up when John handed her a package tied with twine and a bow. “Thank you!” she exclaimed. He seemed to enjoy giving her gifts. She had a few for him besides the plants that were still in her orangery, but she was saving them for New Year's Day, since he was English and observed English traditions. After removing the twine, she thumbed through the gardening book, pausing to read a few paragraphs on various pages before setting it on the table. “I think this book will be more useful than the ones I brought from Venice.”


She grinned when she took the rod from the box and she held it up, playfully batting the cloth mouse. “My cats will love this.” Finally opening the tin, she peered inside and sniffed its contents. It smelled unfamiliar to her. “What is it?” she asked. Sophia knew what catnip was, but she had never seen it before.

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“Will we still be t-t-trying together?” John asked. He had presumed they would try again but she’d said ‘I’ twice now so John wondered if she was hinting at something. As for her pregnancy, John wasn’t sure how far along the Queen was. Regardless, he was fairly cynical on the succession crisis being resolved easily.


John smiled gratefully at her promise, “Gratitude.” He spoke only some academic languages but he did have the benefit of significant formal education. Still, Sophia’s ability to converse in living languages was more useful and John was envious regardless. Of course, since Sophia was learning new languages all the time too, he might never exhaust her supply of foreign languages to teach. That prospect was a pleasant one.


John was pleased as Sophia’s eyes lit up. He liked seeing her happy and thought that she might be feeling low after the opera’s end. He hoped he could ease her through it a little. When he was feeling down, a good book, gardens, and playing with his pets was usually how he cheered himself up. So he’d given her a book on gardening and a way to play with cats.


“I hope you… like it. There’s some g-g-good advice besides gardening in there as well.” Like many domestic books it veered into tangents on how to do other things a wife might need, such as home remedies or cooking.


John let out an amused puff as his friend played with the cat toy. Truthfully he’d done the same himself. “C-c-catnip.” John supplied, “Dried and treated for your c-c-cats’ taste. P-p-put some in the… mouse and they’ll go wild. Go on, t-t-try it.” John’s eyes shone with a childish and playful gleam.


“P-p-perhaps we can practice German with your cats.” John felt a chill and ambled over to the fire. He plopped himself quite casually into a chair and bent towards the fire. The entire motion was just a bit different from how John acted normally. There was usually a polished formality to him, a sort of respectable stiffness over a pathetic broken frame. He still seemed broken but he was now… relaxed, casual. Like he’d laid aside a weight for a time.


“D-d-do they speak it?” John smiled. “How d-d-do you say ‘meow’ in German?”

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“Yes, of course, we will present it to her together. Your sister can come along too, and I can introduce the two of you if she consents to speak with me. You have a gift for her too, ja? I think she will appreciate it if you gave it to her tonight instead of on New Year's Day.” Sophia knew that there was a chance that they would not be able to get close to the Queen, especially if she was pregnant. The King would be extra protective of her, but gifts from her homeland might bring her joy. She could watch the pyramid spin while she was resting and reflect upon the true meaning of Christmas.


Sophia had been taught a bit of Latin, but she had forgotten most of it and didn't see the point in learning languages that were only spoken by scholars. They had no place in her daily life and if she wanted to impress learned gentlemen, she could do that with her voice. Music was a language in and of itself and transcended all cultural boundaries.


“I will start reading it tonight,” she told him. Cooking advice would be lost on a young lady who didn't even know how to boil water, but she might find the home remedies useful. She didn't have a talent for healing with herbs like her friend Nicolette, but she was casually interested in their medicinal properties. Knowing how to treat wounds and ease pain would be invaluable if she or someone else was injured in a place where they could not easily send for a physician, such as while riding horses in the forest. She remembered how helpless she had been when she had been lost in the woods at Windsor with an injured knee. Mistress Wellsley had found her and taken her back to the palace to be treated. That had been the day they had first met.


“Oh, catnip! I cannot wait to see how they will react to it.” Sophia removed a bit from the tin and placed it inside the fabric mouse. “I am not certain where they are right now but maybe I can attract them.” Picking up the open can of catnip, she set it on the floor beside the door. The servant moved a few feet away. Maybe he was not fond of cats?


Carrying the rod over to the fire where John had settled himself, she sat down in the other chair. The mouse swung back and forth and she batted it again. “If they join us, we can practice with them. 'Meow' in German is 'Miau' but cats in all countries sound the same. They can differentiate between languages, though. The cats I brought from Venice look at me strangely when I speak to them in English and the two I got while I was here are sometimes wary of me when I speak anything other than English.”

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“Thank you, Lehrenin.” John said, “I have another for New Year’s Day.” John shared. John was still English and he was indulging rather than adopting German customs. He’d prepared something a bit more special for the actual event. He smiled as she said she’d start reading immediately.


John chuckled lightly as she placed the catnip out to attract them. He thought that playful German speaking kittens would be a great way to learn German. But then again, John would insert kittens and puppies into nearly everything if he could. He was not a man overstuffed with dignity.


And John laughed outright as she batted at the mouse. He gently took the rod with a small apologetic smile and held it out in front of her. He jerked it in front of her as one would before a cat, “Well, you m-m-must stand in then, Lehrenin. It’s of the utmost importance. I d-d-don’t… think I’ll be able to go back to Germany without being able to play with German cats!” John mocked horror.


John toyed with the rod a bit before letting it sink to the floor, “Say I’m b-b-back in Heidelburg and I see a cute kitten. How would I g-g-get it to play with me? Kommen du hier katzisch?” John’s German was actually full of errors this time and his pronunciation still needed work.

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“Danke,” she said. “That is how you say 'thank you' in German. “I have another gift for you as well,” she confessed. Actually, Sophia had two gifts for him in addition to the sickly plants she had given him yesterday, which, thanks to him, would most likely recover. She had as much faith in his gardening skills as she had in her ability to teach him German.


After she batted the mouse, he took the rod from her. Despite his laughter, he probably thought that she was being too childish. Yet he dangled it in front of her and she laughed and tried to bat it again, missing the flying mouse more often than she hit it. She never had to pretend to be mature with him, and it was refreshing to be able to act her own age.


“You can play with German cats even if you don't know a word of German. When I was exploring Amsterdam, I sometimes came across a stray or two, and they would come to me although I don't speak Dutch.” Looking toward the door, Sophia smiled. Allegro, a semi-long haired kitten with chinchilla fur, was rubbing himself against the tin. “You do not need a pretend cat to practice on when you can have a real one.”


She stood up and walked to the door, scooping up the kitten and carrying him over to her chair, where she settled him onto her lap. “This is Allegro. He is one of my English cats. You met the other one, Lyra, yesterday.” The little feline gazed at John with large golden eyes.


“Nein. That means 'no.'". It appeared that John did know enough German words to make a sentence, although his grammar was incorrect. “A cat is a 'katze.' Two or more cats are 'katzen.' When I call cats to me in German, I usually say ' Hier kleine kätzchen,' which means 'Here, little kitty.' 'Kätzchen' is also the word for 'kitten. Two kittens are also ''kätzchen.' The singular and plural are the same for some German words.”


Allegro sniffed the air and then hopped down to the floor, tentatively pawing at the catnip mouse. Sophia smiled at him. “If I say Allegro ist ein kätzchen, what do I mean?”

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“Danke.” John said in return, grinning. He had been talking about the Queen but it was true for Sophia as well.


John laughed uproariously as she batted the mouse. He too was often pretending to maturity, though he had less excuse to speak of his age. Still, it was nice to have a friend he could indulge in petty childishness with. And frankly, it gave him hope he could find someone who, like him, took their adult responsibilities seriously without acting as serious as an adult all the time.


John rolled his eyes at her teaching him how to play with foreign cats, “I know.” He said in the half-whine tone that said Sophia should’ve known he was joking. His attention came to the cat in her arms as she picked him up. “Hello.” He waved to Allegro. He smiled and blinked a few times at the cat, which his cats seemed to like.


John listened studiously to her lesson. “And is it kleine katze and kleine katzen as well?” John asked. He knew that some foreign languages modified adjectives based on the noun. “And is it hund, hunden, and hundzchen?” John was trying to figure out the rules.


“Something is a kitten.” John replied. “I d-d-don’t know… Allegro.” He repeated it back to her with a German accent. It sounded like a different word to his ear. John suddenly jerked the rod so the mouse seemed to jump and disappear behind Sophia’s chair. He watched with interest and a sense of wondrous delight.

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Unfortunately, Sophia didn't take her adult responsibilities seriously, but it was more a matter of not knowing how than blatantly disregarding them. At sixteen, she was little more than a child and didn't have the maturity to make wise decisions. She was too young to be an Ambassador's wife but she knew she had to grow up now and start thinking things through. The young Baroness had not known why her husband had been infuriated at her until he had spelled it. She still felt guilty for disappointing him.


Batting the mouse did more than just amuse her; it let her vent some of her frustrations over in a playful way. It was certainly better than throwing things, which was her usual way of handling frustration. She was a bit disappointed when Lord Maldon set the rod aside, and her lips turned down in a pretty pout.


Sophia wasn't always able to tell when someone was joking in the English language, and had thought that John was serious about not being able to play with German cats if he didn't know how to speak German. In Amsterdam, she'd had to do more coaxing to get a cat to let her pet it than she did in Germany or Venice, and because of her own felines' reactions to different languages, believed her inability to speak Dutch was the reason. If she had not spoken German, which was similar to Dutch, she wondered if they would have come to her at all.


Allegro batted at John's hand when he waved and then settled down on Sophia's lap. He and Lyra were the most playful of her cats. Romeo and Juliet were arrogant and refined, except when Juliet went into heat. Then they were … amorous … to say the least. “Ja, a 'small cat' is a 'kleine katze' and the plural is 'kleine katzen.' It is a bit different for dogs. One dog is a 'hund,' two are 'hunde,' and a puppy is a 'hündchen.' A small dog is a 'kleiner hund.' The adjective is different because 'katze' is a female word and 'hund' is a male word.


Had she said Allegro with an Italian accent? Was that why he had not understood? She supposed it was possible. “Allegro is his name, not a German word. It is also a musical term and means 'cheerful' in Italian.” She was afraid that she was confusing him and they hadn't even started on the articles yet. Sophia had intentionally used English articles instead, because most people found the sheer number of German articles overwhelming. She hoped to ease him into them before the lesson was over.


When he jerked the rod, Allegro hissed and leapt into the air, surprised. Sophia laughed. “You startled him.” Crouching, the kitten slunk silently behind the chair toward the mouse.


{OOC: I don't speak a word of German, so if I get something wrong, that's why. Sophia's German is courtesy of Google Translate, a German/English dictionary, and a little help from my hubby, who admits his German is a bit rusty.}

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In John’s mind, Sophia took her responsibilities very seriously… she just wasn’t terribly good at them. He had the impression Sophia longed to be respectable and the responsible head of a household. She just didn’t understand how and was a bit reluctant to make sacrifices. For John, that would not be as much of an issue, since he’d be glad to help his wife to understanding. There was a difference between someone willing and able to be taught and someone who wasn’t.


John chuckled at her pout. He had no clue of any deeper inner turmoil. In his mind Sophia was still as she’d been yesterday, blissfully unaware of negative consequences. He thought even that his caution might have been in error.


John nodded at her lesson and tried to speak, “Die k-k-kleine hübsche… Kätzen spielen mit sie mouse rute.” John said, still making errors. “Und die t-t-talented Sänger, ihre Herrin, hat nicht kleiner… hündchen.”* He’d managed to make a mess of the articles, noun adjective agreement, and conjugating the verbs. He’d also accidently called her cat a she and inserted several English words wholesale.


“Ah.” John seemed embarrassed at his mistake. Yet a moment later he was laughing with Sophia. As Allegro stalked behind the couch John pulled it back between them, hoping to encourage the kitten to pounce on it. He briefly looked at Sophia to confirm she wasn’t offended by his manner or his attention on her furry pet and with a small smile looked down to continue playing with him.


OOC: My plot to learn German by infiltrating an internet pbp roleplay has been foiled! More seriously, it’s fine and you’re doing great! If you want we can summarize.


*The small pretty kitten plays with the mouse rod. And the talented singer, his mistress, doesn’t have a little puppy.

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Just as she was caught between childhood and adulthood, Sophia was also torn between impropriety and respectability. She lived in a gray area as the wife of an Ambassador and the secret mistress of a Prince. Maybe she would always be fighting against the two extremes or perhaps she would find a middle ground that would satisfy everyone she cared about. Her impulsiveness didn't help matters; she often did things she regretted later. But anybody who said growing up was easy had not done it well. How did one learn without making mistakes?


Which was exactly what John was doing with German. She remembered how people sometimes cringed when she spoke English and refused to submit her friend to that kind of humiliation. Instead she smiled. At least he was trying, and he already knew more than she had thought he would. In fact, his German was better than her English when she had first arrived at court. Most of her sentences had been peppered with German words, her accent had been so thick it was hard to understand, and her grammar had been positively dreadful. But she had improved, and so would he.


“Das kleine, hübsche kätzchen spielt mit der maus stange. Und der talentierte sänger, seine herrin, hat nicht einen hündchen.” she corrected him. When he jerked the rod, Allegro cocked his little head and crouched again, shaking his butt before pouncing at the mouse. For as long as John chose to play with him, the kitten would continue to swat and leap at the toy, occasionally rolling around on the ground and meowing due to the effects of the catnip.


Sophia defined the errors in his sentence, breaking it down word by word, explaining the proper grammar as she went along. She also spoke a bit more about adjectives and taught him an easy way to memorize all of the articles. Using examples drawn from Allegro's antics, she drew him into a simple conversation. When she thought she had given him enough to digest for one day, she grinned. “Would you like to go on or should we stop for tea?”

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John was cautious by his nature. Sophia had the privilege of being pretty and desired. Her mistakes were indulged and covered for. John had grown up in a significantly less kind world. If he had made a mistake as grievous as what Sophia had done last night when he was sixteen, in all likelihood he wouldn’t have survived.


John had actually prepared for the lesson. He would not yet be so good out in general society, though his siblings, who had studiously taken lessons for months, might be. But he was, at any rate, accustomed to people cringing when he spoke even in English. He trusted that Sophia, as a teacher, would not expect him to be any good till she’d gotten through with him.


John listened studiously, distracted at times by the kitten who he’d soon learned how to speak to in German, if not well. He memorized her lesson on articles as best he could and conversed as well as he might. By the end he was still not very good but there was a noticeable improvement, mainly in the articles where she’d focused her time.


John smiled as she suggested they break for tea. He sensed she thought he’d done enough for the day (or perhaps had had her fill of working through his accent and stutter). “Tea sounds lovely.” He managed to coax Allegro onto his lap and began to scratch under his chin. He smiled, “What d-d-do you want to do next?” John had to look at the plants and he’d also offered to teach her a bit of what he knew about politics.


If they were to talk about politics, she’d have to dismiss the servant. He trusted Allegro to keep the secret but the fact he was helping her in that arena should be secret.

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Sophia had suggested they stop because she didn't want to overwhelm him with too much at once. From her own experience, it was easier to learn a language a little bit at a time. They had practiced for as long as her instructor practiced with her when she had first began learning Spanish. As he became more comfortable with the language, their lessons would last longer. She expected that her first lesson in politics would be brief as well.


When John agreed to tea, she looked over at the servant by the door. He bowed and disappeared into the corridor. While her attention was diverted. Allegro hopped up on Lord Maldon's lap, settling down and purring when he was scratched under the chin. Sophia smiled at the two of them. “I think I would like to learn a bit about politics first, and then we can go look at the plants. If you'd like, we can have tea at the table. I picked out a few German books that are easy to read. If any of them catches your interest, you can borrow them for as long as you wish.”


She glanced over at kitten, who was still purring happily. His eyes were beginning to close. “Or I can bring them over to you. Allegro looks as if he is ready to fall asleep in your lap.”


Her smile faded slightly. “What did you think of my performance last night? My lord husband was very angry with me this morning. He thought it was too scandalous for the wife of an Ambassador.” The petite singer trusted John more than she trusted almost anyone else, and she believe that he would tell her the truth, even if it wasn't what she wanted to hear.

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John nodded to her decision, “As you w-w-wish.” John chuckled as she offered to bring everything to him on account of Allegro. “I’m p-p-pinned, it seems.” He stroked the kitten gently, “He’s d-d-dear.” John knew that his love of cute animals was childish but he hoped he never had to give it up.


“P-p-perhaps you could tell me what you w-w-would help you most and I can tell you whether I need the maps I b-b-brought?” If they did, the sleepy kitty might become a bit grumpy. Though a mildly grumpy kitten was cute in its own way. John was looking into his lap at the increasingly sleepy kitten.


John looked up at Sophia when she asked him about last night. It seemed like her entire demeanor shifted and John wished she had a kitten too. Loving animals usually made him feel better. “Musically, it w-w-was lovely.” John said. Normally he would have left it there, but he felt Sophia was asking for a bit more than the normal polite comments.


“He’s right. You humiliated him l-l-last night and m-m-marked yourself as a libertine, as m-m-merry.” By which John meant easy, open for sex. “The whispers among the men are whether he’s a c-c-cuckold or a pimp. And speculation on who you’re sleeping with and h-h-how a gentleman m-m-might join that club.”


John didn’t know what the whispers among women were. He was hoping the Queen still favored her. They still shared a common background, they were alike in rank at the moment. Regardless, John wasn’t about to abandon her because her reputation had taken a turn for the libertine. He didn't think it worth saying he wasn't abandoning her. He was here, after all.

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A love of animals, to Sophia, was not childish. Even the King had dogs and he was nearly old enough to be her grandfather. Pets brought one joy and happiness and unconditional love, even cats, aloof creatures that they were. They liked affection on their own time and expected one to immediately drop everything and pet them.


She didn't blame John for wanting to stay where he was so that Allegro could sleep on his lap. The kitten's eyes were closed now, although he hadn't relaxed completely. If her friend didn't look so content, she would have picked Allegro up and settled him in one of the window seats. All of her felines ... and her monkey ... liked to sleep there, even in winter when there wasn't much sun. The cushions were soft and comfortable and her cats had thick fur to keep them warm.


When he asked her what she wanted to know about politics, she gazed down at Allegro, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I wish to know about war. Why the French are fighting with Spain and the Netherlands, and why some Englishmen want to join it and others don't. And where Spain stands with England and with other countries, especially those who have Ambassadors here. I need to know who my friends and enemies are.” Not so she could avoid those enemies, but so she could charm them. Perhaps they would be more inclined to listen to Esteban if he had an enchanting wife. And maybe when she conversed with them, she could subtly coax them into revealing useful information without being aware of it. Sophia had not given up on spying.


Sophia sighed again and nodded. She knew she had humiliated her husband without intention, but she still thought that some good could come of it if she played her cards right. Perhaps, because of her performance, some of Esteban's enemies might be more amenable to her. And if she could gain their trust, he would eventually thank her for it.


“I did not mean to.” Even though they were alone in the room, her voice lowered. “My mistake was acting like I did in Venice when I was pretending to be a commoner. Because the cast and the audience were all nobles, I thought that I could portray Diana as seductive and alluring, and no one would think ill of me for it. Now I know that I should have given a more subtle performance.


“Men look at me with lust all the time. I have been propositioned often and I have always turned those opportunities down, sometimes with a slap to the offending man's cheek. I doubt my lord husband realizes this. The opera has not turned me into a strumpet. I will still refuse anyone who makes advances toward me. They will realize that nothing has changed and I am still the respectable young lady I have always been.”


If Sophia had not been confident that John wouldn't abandon her, she would not have brought the opera up at all. Another reason she confided in him was that he was the only person at court … besides Lord Kingston … who knew of her double life in Venice.


Anna arrived with the tea and set it on the table between the chairs. Allegro, fast asleep now, didn't even stir. Sophia picked up the delicate white teapot, which had been painted with pastel flowers, and poured the dark liquid into two matching cups. Setting the teapot back down, she held one of the cups toward John. Her hand was shaking slightly. “The King seemed quite pleased with me. I am hoping that everyone else will follow his lead. At the ball tonight, I suppose I will find out how my performance was received.”

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“The French and Spanish disagree about who should own p-p-parts of the low c-c-countries and Germany.” John said, “The Dutch b-b-back the Spanish since they want neither side to b-b-become strong enough to threaten them and Spain is currently weaker. But they d-d-don’t like the Spanish particularly.” It was a frank, realistic assessment of the situation in John’s mind.


“England and Spain are b-b-bitter enemies. Your master is accused of trying to overthrow the English government. There’s barely been a few years of p-p-peace in our lifetimes.” John was only a few years older than Sophia, so ‘our lifetimes’ was a few decades to him.


“England is d-d-divided between the Court party, who w-w-want to fight with France, and the Country Party, who want to fight against them. Spain has no friends in England, b-b-but the Country and Spain’s interests mostly coincide at the moment.” Nothing John said so far was privy, at least in his mind. He looked over at her, implicitly offering to answer any more specific questions she might have. As it was, she’d asked for everything, so John had given a very rough overview.


John sighed. He wasn’t sure how Sophia couldn’t know the risks of going on stage. “I t-t-told you yesterday I could help you perform if you liked it. Do you remember the pyramid experiment? Knowing the rules allows you to c-c-control the outcomes.” Or at least, that was the tack John took. It had worked for him so far, mostly.


“All the time?” John seemed surprised by that. He had no experience of what it was like to be desirable. “Then there w-w-will be more now, and less subtle.” John said. “You should realize it seems to everyone that you offered to… sleep with every man in the… theater last night. Refusing to is no… panacea. It m-m-makes you look like a tease.”


John quickly added, “Not that I think you should accept. Remaining f-f-faithful to your husband is c-c-correct, but it won’t necessarily restore your reputation.”


“In m-m-matters of respectability, the King’s opinion is worthless.” John said. “And in politics, he is against Spain’s… interests, p-p-preferring to back France. You are n-n-not going to be another Portsmouth so I d-d-don’t think you’ll win there.” Part of the reason Esteban was suspected of being a pimp was because the French ambassador was.


He nodded as she said the ball tonight would be her test, “Hopefully they’ll have at l-l-least enough respect to not say anything to your face.” John said. He’d been laughed at and insulted many times and his eyes fell slightly in memory of the pain. John took the tea with a thankful smile.

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Lord Maldon had a talent for explaining things in a way that Sophia could understand, including politics. She found it easy to follow what he said, although she blinked when he revealed that Don Juan was accused of trying to overthrow the English government. “He did not do it!” she exclaimed, quick to defend her royal lover. “They know that now, ja? Or do they still distrust him?”


Was that one of the reasons that he was staying away from England? “He rules Spain now. Does that make relations worse between the two countries?” If so, it would be Esteban's responsibility to smooth ruffled feathers and regain their trust. If she was able to charm key players in the political game, she might be able to assist him. And then he would not hate her anymore, particularly if an alliance could be forged between England and Spain.


She dismissed Anna and the other servant and lowered her voice, even though she and John were now alone in the room. “Besides the King, who holds the most power in England? Which gentlemen are most influential at court, the ones whose advice other courtiers usually follow?”


Back to the opera: “I did like performing. If you can help me find other opportunities to sing, I will be most grateful, as long as it is not in a theatre. My lord husband has forbidden me to sing onstage again.”


She picked up her cup and took a sip. “I did not know the rules. How can I when nobody has explained them to me?” Sophia sighed in exasperation. “There are so many unwritten standards of behavior here. Maybe the English learn them as children and expect everyone else to know them too. Most of my mistakes are made out of ignorance, not willfully, but nobody seems to take that into consideration. I think somebody should write down all the rules in a book. Then foreigners would not make so many errors.”


The petite blonde smiled wryly. “Well, not all the time, but much of it. And why did it seem as if I was offering to sleep with every man in the theatre? I was playing a role. I was Diana last night, not the wife of the Spanish Ambassador. When I watch an opera, I do not think that the singers are anything like the parts they play. Will there be rumors that I am a murderer now, because Diana killed Actaeon? I do not understand this way of thinking at all. It makes no sense to me.”


They were delving into politics again. “So the King does not want to go to war with France? He would rather fight against Spain?” Was it possible that the opera could have changed his opinion? Would he think more highly of Estaban now that he had allowed his wife to entertain him? Most of her focus had been on the King. She had been performing mainly for him. And while she would definitely never be another Portsmouth, you didn't have to share a gentleman's bed for him to admire you. She doubted he would forget her portrayal of the goddess of the hunt and what man didn't want what he couldn't have? In an indirect way, perhaps she could influence him to favor her husband and her lover.


Sophia noticed Lord Maldon's sadness and knew that he must have been maligned many times because of his disabilities. If those idiots had taken the time to get to know him, they would respect him instead. So many people judged books by their covers. She was judged by her cover too. Because she was beautiful, many people thought she was promiscuous. She would never forget those vicious rumors at one of last spring's balls.


Reaching across the table, she squeezed his hand briefly and let it go. “I hope they have the audacity to insult me to my face. But they will not. They will hide behind their baseless gossip like the pitiful little cowards they are. I will watch their eyes. Eyes never lie. If I know who disapproves of me, I can find ways to change their views.” Failing that, she would plot her revenge.

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“They still d-d-distrust him.” John confirmed. It was part of the allegations surrounded the Popish Plot, bolstered by the fact the Spanish had tried to overthrow the English government before. Though, he supposed, they had been correct in some sense. Don Juan had been plotting to overthrow a government. “No.” John said of whether the new regime had hurt relations. “It’s hard to hurt relations. They’re already so b-b-bad.”


“P-p-probably my family, the Cavendishes etcetera, that g-g-group.” John replied, “Followed by the Howards. B-b-but what you want to do will d-d-determine who you want to talk to. If you w-w-want to draw England into the war, c-c-convincing the Howards will go farther because they have m-m-more reason to oppose it.” John said. “They t-t-tend to favor Catholics and the last war was a great blow to… Catholic power in England.”


“I c-c-can’t tell you too much about how to do that. I’m f-f-fairly certain the duke is a crypto-Catholic who hates my connections.” Though John was a distant relation, the Cavendishes and the Howards didn’t get on. The Bramstons weren’t as directly opposed to the Howards, but there was no question what side of the line they fell on. “I w-w-would see if the Duke is more amenable to war though. He’s nominally Anglican and… m-m-married his mistress which means he’s weak within the f-f-family. I imagine, and I d-d-don’t know this, but I imagine that if he c-c-could drag the family behind him with outside help he’d do it to shore up his own authority.”


John nodded when she asked him to give her opportunities to sing. He was unsurprised she was banished from stage, though he knew she could get around that if she wished. “D-d-do you still want me to help build the theater? The Opera House.” John corrected himself. “You c-c-can have my name, if you want it.” By which John meant not that she could name it after him but that she could portray it as his idea and initiative.


John didn’t understand her thought process any more than she understood society’s. “You d-d-didn’t pick up the wrong spoon, though.” John said, “Nor were you ignorant of how theater was perceived. Since you’re fashionable I can’t imagine you d-d-don’t know about how what you wear affects what people think. I c-c-can give you a deportment book if you want, but what didn’t you understand?”


“Hmm.” John had observed leering but didn’t think it was that common. He’d only done it a few times himself, and both of the ladies seemed not to mind. “B-b-because most actresses are. And because you… actually did strip n-n-naked in front of court.”


As for politics (the two were related in John’s mind), “He d-d-did for two years and was f-f-forced to withdraw. Now he wants peace, which is to say to allow France to c-c-continue to fight since they’re winning.” John said, “But at this p-p-point the same people who forced him to withdraw have, I think, managed to convince him to acquiesce to the war.” They had spoken of this a little last season. John suspected Sophia had earned some currency with the King, but he also knew the women who held the King’s ear usually also held his cock and one rarely came without the other.


John smiled and squeezed her hand back, taking it for a moment when he realized she was shaking. “I’m s-s-sure you will. You’re very charming.” Her reputation would probably never again be unblemished but it wasn’t as if she’d ruined her chances at court. “And I w-w-will help you, if I can.” He promised. “You are kind, and a g-g-good friend. Even if you were all they said, I would still be your friend.” He let go then.


“This won’t destroy you. I won’t let it.” He said, solemnly.

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“He did not do it,” she repeated vehemently. Juan had been too busy planning to depose the Spanish Queen to subvert the English government. Sophia doubted the idea had ever crossed his mind. “Was there any proof against him? Or was it only speculation and rumors?” If relations between Spain and England couldn't get any worse, than Esteban had his work cut out for him.


She understood a bit better now why he believed that her performance in the opera was so damaging. With a poor reputation already, Spain could suffer in the eyes of the English because the Ambassador's wife had flaunted her … assets … on stage, even if it had not been intentional and she was German. She had married Spain when she married Esteban, and everything she did reflected on the kingdom her beloved Juan ruled.


So John's own family was politically powerful. She knew of them and of the Howards. In fact, her husband had asked her to find out how the Howards felt about the war. Sophia had not met the Duke of Norfolk, but she had spoken with his son a few times. Perhaps she could charm both of them into dancing with her at the ball. “Your family wants England to fight against France?” He and Esteban already got on well, but her husband might be more interested in him if he knew that the Earl's family supported his cause.


“I am sure you know that Spain wants England to join the war. It is one of the goals my lord husband wants to achieve, and though I am against war in general, I must stand beside him in this. I am not certain what I can do but socialize and throw parties, but if I am friendly to those who oppose it, they might be more willing to listen to him. Unfortunately, none of the Ambassadors have wives or I might be able to influence them.”


She grinned when he mentioned her dream of having an opera house built in London. “Ja, I have not given up on that. With the success of the opera, more people may be willing to invest in it. If you can help me get support for it, I will be forever grateful. I will be speaking about it more often now and if you do the same, the word will get out more quickly. Your name may also open more doors than my voice. You are English and I am a German who is allied with the Spanish. Those who don't listen to me might listen to you.”


Young women were held to similar standards of respectability in every civilized country, but Sophia didn't know that. She had been taught proper deportment by the lady she had stayed with in Venice, but she had been so immersed in her music, she had paid little attention and had ignored those lessons in favor of gallivanting secretly with commoners. As she had debuted into society in England, she thought the unwritten rules of appropriate behavior were unique to her adopted country. “If you have a book that will help me learn what the English expect of me, then I would like to borrow it.”


As for what she didn't understand: “I have been making accidental mistakes ever since I arrived at court. It seems that every time I believe I understand English customs, I do something else wrong. Now that everything I do reflects upon my lord husband, I must make certain my behavior is beyond reproach. But I do not know how.”


Her eyes widened when he said she had undressed in front of the entire audience. “I was not naked,” she insisted. “I was wearing a sheath and breeches that were the same color as my skin. If the veils had not concealed me, it would have been obvious, but the point was to look nude while bathing in the pool. I never realized that anyone would think I actually was.


His explanation about the King's opinions on war were quite enlightening. “Now that he has made an alliance with the Netherlands through marriage, he cannot let the French defeat them, ja? So he must go to their aid or his own niece could be killed.” Her head tilted to the side. “Who is the ultimate authority? The King or Parliament? Can the King go against the decisions of the Parliament if he thinks it is in England's best interests or must he do as they say or risk another civil war?”


Sophia smiled softly when he squeezed her hand. “Thank you. You are very dear to me, my friend. If I think my reputation will hurt yours, I will not be seen in public with you. I do not want you to be shunned because of me. We can pretend we do not know each other, or that you want nothing more to do with me because of the opera. But I hope it will not come to that. My lord husband might be fretting for nothing. There will be some who disapprove of me, but with any luck, that number will be small and I will be admired for my voice, not disparaged for my costumes or my flirtatiousness.”

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“The Spanish have… t-t-tried to overthrow the English government… some twenty times in the past hundred and fifty… years or so.” John said. “I think there were witnesses and Don Juan is… known to have k-k-killed English soldiers and Portuguese civilians in the Restoration War.” So he was not well liked and the story was plausible seeming. “B-b-but I wouldn’t get involved in that if I were you. You won’t win.” The wife of the Spanish ambassador talking to Titus Oates would only give him legitimacy.


“Want is too strong a w-w-word. We are mostly in favor.” They weren’t expended great effort to make it happen though. Devonshire was against the war only because he felt it was how the King was best served. As the King increasingly seemed to accept the idea, John imagined that feeling would evaporate.


“Yes.” John confirmed he knew that was the Spanish priority, “The other is to encourage w-w-warm relations between England and Portugal, no?” Sophia seemed uncertain of what she could do, and John smiled. “No one who is alone is p-p-powerful. Find out who f-f-follows who within a group, find out their opinions, and then work to g-g-give the person whose opinion you agree with more p-p-prestige and power. Then the opinion you want will hold more weight.”


John smiled back as Sophia seemed to dream of theaters, “You m-m-must find someone, at any rate, to own and build the thing. You’re a f-f-foreigner, setting aside the message, I don’t think you can, legally.” Perhaps someone like Nicci could because she’d permanently settled in England, but Sophia was married to an ambassador and wholly a foreign national. “B-b-but I will do what I can.” His earlier promise had been anemic, if genuine. If he could find a faster way to do it, he would, but he still thought her best hope was in petitioning Buckingham.


John nodded. He would send over manners books, though frankly he thought it was the sort of book Sophia found dull. “It’s about empathy r-r-really. Understanding how other p-p-people feel, how what you d-d-do is perceived by them, rather than how you think of it or feel.” That really was the core of the thing to John.


“You w-w-were? Truly?” John was surprised. The performance had been a bit too artful. “I m-m-mean, I believe you. But r-r-regardless, pantomiming the action isn’t… proper either. Nor is that appropriate c-c-clothing, you must have known?”


As for politics, “Yes, though he’s r-r-related to both sides. So he chooses b-b-between them, I think. Ultimately I think he hopes b-b-both of them weaken and his own power increases as a result.” John said, cynically.


“He risks civil war, or at luh-least Parliament fighting him politically and often w-w-winning.” John confirmed. “The majority of people are sympathetic to the Country and Parliament. Something like seventy out of a hundred in the House of Commons. But the supporters of Court are wealthy and p-p-powerful and believe the King should be absolute.” John suspected it would only be resolved by another Civil War, probably once James came to the throne. In fact, he expected he would die in that particular conflict.


“Hope is g-g-good.” John says, “At any r-r-rate, I wouldn’t abandon you. At w-w-worst I might ask you to stay away from my sisters, but I hardly fear rumors about us.” The idea that society would come to the conclusion they were sleeping together was ridiculous to John. Women like Sophia tended to end up with powerful handsome men, not people like John.

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Sophia couldn't imagine Juan killing anyone in cold blood, but there were always casualties in war, and she knew he had fought in many of them and distinguished himself in the Spanish military. She had also learned of the restoration war in Portugal while she was in Madrid. However, she did not know that England had become involved in it. If Juan had fought against the English, he had likely killed a few of them, but it had not been personal. Still, she could see how he would be blamed and later implicated in a plot he had not taken part in. The 'witnesses' had probably been bribed.


Juan had also been one of the King's guests at the concert she had given for him last spring. If His Majesty didn't trust him, he wouldn't have been welcome at court. “When was he last accused of trying to overthrow the English government?” she asked. “He was here last spring and was treated well. That was when I first met him and my lord husband. And do not worry. I will not get involved.” Unless Esteban asked her to.


“May I tell my lord husband that your family favors the war?” It was possible that he already knew. If not, perhaps he and Lord Maldon could help each other.


He might be only a few years older than Sophia, but John was more worldly. His advice was excellent and her mind whirled with possibilities. She held no power herself, but she might be able to promote the interests of gentlemen who supported Spanish interests simply by speaking well of them to those who were influential and subtly pushing them together. The petite Baroness was charming and she could be persuasive when she wanted to be. “Those are wonderful ideas,” she said, her expression thoughtful. “Thank you. I wish to help my husband and make him proud of me. I thought he was, but I ruined it last night."


She knew she would not be able to own the opera house herself. What she wanted was to find someone … or several people … who were wealthy enough to have one built. If she succeeded, she didn't know if she would still be in England when it was completed. Esteban might not remain the Ambassador to England forever. Eventually, he might be sent to another country in the same capacity or Juan would want him by his side in Madrid. “Again, I thank you. At this point, I wish to spread the idea around and perhaps someone will see an opera house as a good investment due to the popularity of last night's show.”


As to manners and etiquette: "I have been told that I am perceptive, I cannot predict how others will feel if I do not know the rules. I did not think that anything was wrong with my performance last night until my lord husband lectured me this morning. I was not an Ambassador's wife when I was onstage. I was the goddess Diana. I thought that everyone would know that I was only playing a part and would be able to separate me from my role. It was art, not reality. A noble lady would never strip in front of anyone but her husband.” And her lover, she added silently to herself. “I knew my costume was inappropriate for wearing anywhere but on the stage, but it was perfectly respectable there.”


She had forgotten that the King was the King of France's cousin and the Prince of Orange's uncle. Were all royals related to each other? It seemed to Sophia that because they were kin, they should be able to live in peace, but instead they fought each other and sent their subjects to their deaths.


“A monarch with absolute power makes me think of the Emperors of Ancient Rome, although I doubt that kind of depravity would be accepted now. Nor do I think the King would abuse his power but one of his successors might. It also seems odd to me that the wealthy and powerful support it. They have the most to lose. If the King can do anything he wants, he could have anyone killed who opposed him, and make up crimes against the rich and take all of their money and property. Of course, if he tried it, there probably would be civil war. Was not that what started the last one? The King had too much power?” She paused for a moment. “Do the Kings of any country have absolute power now?”


She nodded when he warned that he might ask her to stay away from his sisters. “Watch how people act around me tonight. If their reactions are mostly negative, I can present my gift to the Queen without her assistance."


If the Queen was willing to receive her at all.

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“I d-d-don’t know.” John said, “I d-d-don’t keep up with it.” The Popish Plot was more interesting to John as a political phenomenon than an actual threat. “B-b-but the rumors still swirl around, wildly.” The investigation was probably stalled for the moment, what with a ministry falling and Christmas being the order of the day.


“If you w-w-wish.” John said of his family’s position. He nodded as she seemed to plan her next move. He said nothing of having ruined her husband’s pride in her. There was nothing he could say to make that better, though perhaps if she helped him he would be fine. John thought he knew why he was worried, and half of it was not as justified as it might seem. Of course, he couldn’t know that.


John noticed she didn’t speak on the subject of Portugal at all but decided not to press. If she didn’t feel comfortable revealing more he wouldn’t force her. John nodded to her reply on the opera house, “As you w-w-wish.”


“How d-d-did you imagine they’d feel w-w-watching you? And why did you think that?” John asked.


“You d-d-did know these rules, though.” John said, “Your f-f-father taught you that you w-w-will be judged for what you do on stage.” How could she possibly believe that when it was the exact lesson she’d learned a year ago? John was confused, he really did not understand her reasoning. "If you think the s-s-solution is rule books, I can teach you rules. But I think there's something else here."


John disagreed. He felt the King would go back to things like mutilating historians and executing writers like his father and forefathers had, and many other abuses besides. “I agree with you.” John said. “B-b-but in most absolute states the highest groups are granted more wealth and… privileges at the expense of others so they’ll support the King’s absolutism. F-f-for example, French nobles are… exempt f-f-from most taxes and c-c-can tax non-nobles for their p-p-private purses. So obviously the nobles luh-like that and the p-p-people they get to tax don’t.”


“No, what started the l-l-last Civil War is that the King wanted more p-p-power than he had and tried to take it. This c-c-caused Parliament to oppose him and try to weaken him. And eventually the King t-t-tried to set up a separate government and the two of them went to war.” John said. The book he’d given her for her husband yesterday actually was a royalist description of the Civil War, albeit one which had the opposite bias. It said it was Parliament’s fault.


“Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, the Turks, and several states in Germany and Italy are absolute.” John replied. “England, Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and several other states in Germany and Italy are not.”


John nodded to her instructions. Both her reputation and his sister’s chances with the Queen were still her affair and he would do as she said.

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“Hmmmm.” Sophia murmured thoughtfully. “Maybe I can change how the English feel about him. If he was accused recently, he had no time to plan on overthrowing the English King. He was too busy overthrowing the Spanish Queen. Maybe now that he rules Spain, he will try to mend relations with England. He seemed to like it here. If England joins the war against France, it will be even easier, ja? They will share a common goal.”


He didn't mind if she told Esteban that his family condoned the war. “Maybe you can introduce me to them?” she asked. “I love to meet new people. But before you do, find out what they thought about the opera. If they were offended by my performance, then they may not want you to associate with me.” She didn't think that would stop him. They could always meet privately as they were doing today.


“I thought that the focus would be on my singing, that I would be admired by my voice, not criticized for my appearance or actions. I do not judge actors and singers by their roles, so I did not believe that the audience would think that I, personally, was anything like Diana. A lot of them are acquainted with me. They know that I am not a tease and that I don't want to sleep with every man in London. Or any man besides my lord husband. It is hard to believe that courtiers are so shallow that they cannot separate truth from fiction. It is more likely that they do not want to, that they prefer to turn any situation into a scandal if there is the merest hint of impropriety.”


Sophia sighed. “My father saw me pretending to be a commoner and singing in a public opera house. I was taught that nobles do not perform for the public, and I was foolish to ignore it. I know that now. But this time … this time I was singing only for nobility. There was an opera at Windsor when I first came to court. It was performed by nobles as well and no scandal resulted from it.”


The main roles had been performed by a mistress of the King and a mistress of a Duke, but she always forgot that important fact. They had both been known libertines. Her good friend Lady Alyth had been one of them, and she was respected at court even though she was the King's mistress. Lady O'Roarke, who had not been in the opera but was the mistress of the Duke of York, was respected as well. Nothing was consistent in the English court and that was part of what confused her.


“So I believed that it would be the same with this opera, since I was performing for the King at his request and that it was not a public show. It was composed by nobles too.” She gave him a quizzical look when he implied there was something besides rules that she didn't understand. “Am I missing something important? All I want to do is understand English customs so that I quit making stupid mistakes. If learning the rules cannot teach me, what can?”


He clarified the role of the wealthy in an absolute monarchy, and she understood it much better. A King with absolute authority gave his supporters more privileges so that they would continue to support him. And the poor just got poorer because they were taxed so much, and that was how revolution began. The vast majority of a kingdom was made up of commoners and there was power in numbers.


“I see,” she said, her voice contemplative, after he had explained the reason for England's civil war. “So the people took the power away from the King and governed England themselves and made everyone wear black. But it did not work because they did not know how to run a country? And that is when the current King took over?”


Spain was an absolute monarchy? Juan could do anything he wished and his people would have to obey him? He was not the King, but she had seen the King in Madrid and he was a sickly boy around her own age who could barely speak coherently and was probably mad. He was not fit to rule. Sophia knew that Juan would never abuse his power, but other rulers might. However, there were so many countries whose Kings had absolute power, it obviously worked, and much better than it had in ancient Rome.


“Portugal and Spain are still enemies?” Perhaps she would be able to befriend the Portuguese Ambassador. “And why did the English fight with them? What was in it for them? I knew about the war and that Spain lost, but not that the English were involved. I think Don Juan might have led the Spanish forces that were defeated, but I am not certain.”

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John said, “A c-c-common war would be a g-g-great step. And one that Spain d-d-desperately needs right now.” And one that was achievable. Rehabilitating public opinion on Spain or her master was a bit less likely, though Sophia didn’t seem to understand that a man could be well treated at court and despised by the country.


John smiled apologetically, “I huh-have been introducing you t-t-to my family.” John said. “Or t-t-trying to.” He was actively trying to introduce her to his siblings, and she’d promised to sing for the Devonshires, which John still wanted to happen. “I w-w-want you to meet my sister first, then Lady Frances. If you help them, you m-m-might make friends of them, and they w-w-will help you with the ladies of the family who… might judge you more harshly.” And once she had the ladies she could get to know the men, if she wished. But approaching them directly would just stir more jealousy. Perhaps more importantly, if the women of John’s family stood behind her Sophia’s reputation would be more secure.


“I think I know what m-m-most of them think, actually.” John said, “And they d-d-don’t care that I associate with… you. I d-d-don’t have a wife to be jealous, I d-d-don’t have a temperament to be scandalous, and I’m n-n-not going to do anything treasonous.” And John thought that was known. He was used to being ignored and he still found the idea anyone would think the two of them were involved ridiculous. Sophia was beautiful and vibrant, he was not.


John shook his head at her interpretation, which was wrongheaded to him. “They d-d-don’t. They think you’re like someone who g-g-goes on stage to play Diana and strips all b-b-but naked.” John said. “N-n-no one thinks you’re a murderer, or that you’re a v-v-virgin goddess. But they d-d-do think you’ll go in front of a b-b-bunch of powerful men and take off your c-c-clothes to please them.” Which she had. In John’s mind, she wasn’t even playing Diana really. It was obvious the character had been changed specifically to tantalize men.


“The issue w-w-wasn't just that it was done before commoners... though. And for that opera, it probably w-w-was the same. Those p-p-people are libertines. They’re n-n-not respected or respectable.” John said. He didn’t know the specific opera, but just the fact they participated in an opera at all pointed in that direction. “And j-j-just because the King asks you to d-d-do something or you involve nobles d-d-doesn’t mean anything in regards to your reputation. If anything, r-r-royal favor tends to m-m-make your reputation worse.” Even legally, obeying the King was neither obligated nor was it a defense if, in obeying him, you committed a crime. Danby had just learned that during his impeachment.


When she asked whether she was missing something, “Where d-d-do rules come from? And who d-d-decides whether you’ve violated them?” John asked.


Back to the Civil War, “No, Parliament won and tried to negotiate a new w-w-way of running things with the King. But the King escaped and started another w-w-war using foreign armies. When he l-l-lost again, Parliament t-t-tried to impose harsher terms but the King simply refused to cooperate. Angered at this impasse and the f-f-fact Parliament did not wish to execute or remove him… from p-p-power, a general named Oliver Cromwell sent a man named Colonel Pride to Parliament with his soldiers. He removed everyone who d-d-didn’t support Cromwell by force, they executed the King, and g-g-gave Cromwell absolute power. This c-c-caused another Civil War which Cromwell won, unfortunately. And he and his supporters made everyone wear b-b-black and let the army run the c-c-country. And banned theaters.”


“When he d-d-died, his son w-w-wasn’t strong enough to continue the d-d-dictatorship, so it collapsed. Almost no one l-l-liked the Protectorate, so Parliament was restored and the King was invited b-b-back after b-b-both sides agreed to resolve some of the issues that c-c-caused the war.” John said.


John nodded at Portugal and Spain being enemies. “B-b-because Portugal and England are very old friends. And b-b-because Portugal was occupied by Spain but rebelled, and England w-w-wanted to weaken Spain. It’s the s-s-same thing with Spanish Italy. They are unhappy b-b-being ruled by foreigners that exploit them so they rebelled and the French support them t-t-to weaken Spain.” If there was peace, and France abandoned them, John felt they were probably in for a terrible slaughter at Don Juan’s hands. “And the Spanish t-t-try to do the… same with Ireland.”


As for Portugal, “Spain is still stronger than… Portugal so Portugal needs a f-f-friend or Spain will invade them again. That f-f-friend used to be England, but without the Queen being Portuguese relations have been… l-l-less friendly. So they m-m-might turn to France. If they do, they m-m-might declare war to support France and that w-w-would be disastrous for Spain.” Or at least that was John’s thoughts.


As for Don Juan, “I heard he d-d-did, for a time. They say, after he l-l-lost, he snuck out wearing a nun’s outfit to avoid being… captured.” Though whether that was true or propaganda John couldn’t say.

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“Then I must support the war myself,” she sighed. “Even though I think that disagreements between countries could be solved by negotiation instead of violence.” But men were hot-headed and action-oriented and saw it as an honor to die for their country, despite knowing that their wives would be widows and their children orphans. It was those left behind who suffered the most, particularly the poor. It was difficult for women to support themselves, let alone their children, without resulting to thievery or prostitution. Was there a charity for war widows and orphans? If not, maybe she could start one.


Once more, he was wise, wanting her to win over the ladies in his family first. “Hopefully, I can meet your sister tonight at the ball. Did your cousin come to court, the one you want me to sing for? Or is he still in the country? If I sing hymns for your family, lifting up my voice to God as I have already done several times at court, perhaps that may help as well. And if they do not mind if we are friends, that is another point in my favor, ja?”


Another sigh. “I wish I could show everyone my costume so they would know that I was not nude.” She smiled wryly. “But showing up at a court event in a flesh colored chemise and breeches would be just as scandalous. The gown I am going to wear tonight is modest and tasteful. And I will not be taking it off until I get home. If I do not dress like a libertine and behave like a respectable young lady, perhaps they will forgive my youthful folly. I suggested to my lord husband that we say I was drunk and did not realize what I was doing. It is not true, but I will not be the first lady who has lied to save her reputation.”


Now that he brought it up, she remembered who had starred in the opera at Windsor. “Yes, they were libertines, but they were respected at court by most people … or at least by most people I know anyway. I have never seen anyone shun Lady Alyth, and she was one of them. Why does one set of standards apply to her and another to me? Is it because she has been at court longer and has made more friends? Or it because she is not a foreigner? Or are Scots seen as foreigners. Lady O'Roarke is respected too, and she wears gowns that make me blush. They are both mistresses of royalty.” And so was Sophia, though nobody was aware of it.


Who made the rules? Her eyes took on a faraway look as she contemplated the question. “Men make the rules, but … perhaps they make them up as they go along and change them when it suits them. The ones who decide that I violate them are those who are jealous of me or do not like foreigners in general or Spain or Germany in particular. Perhaps the only real rule is that there are no rules? That if you please the right people, you can get away with anything? Is that what I have been missing all this time?”


Sophia understood the civil wars much better now. She had read several books on English history, but none had touched upon recent events and she had always wondered how the King had taken back his throne. She had known that his father had been killed and that theatres and anything remotely thought of as enjoyable had been banned, but not the other details John had just imparted to her. “That must have been a horrible time. But now things are better and nothing like that will ever happen again, ja? This King is kind and good.” At least that was how she saw it.


His explanation about Portugal was a bit more difficult to follow, but she understood most of it, including who was allied with who and why. “I did not know the former Queen was Portuguese. I know very little about her. When I came to court, The King had just married Queen Karoline. She is the only Queen of England I have ever known.


“My lord husband told me that Spain is only a shadow of the power that it once was, that it is weak compared to what it had been in the past. Maybe things will change under Don Juan's rule. He is an intelligent man and I think he will rule wisely. I do not know what his plans are, but I think he should leave Portugal alone. If they know that he will not invade them or try to take their country back, they could become allies and both countries will be stronger. I do not think he will try to hurt England either. But those are just my own views based on the little I know of him.”


Now that she understood more of what was going on in the world, it was possible that she could influence Juan in the direction she believed he should take. Sophia had never aspired to power, but she did have her own opinions and all she would ever ask was that he listen to her. He could always disregard her advice. She also needed to talk to Esteban again and ask him about Spain's goals now that she could speak of such things in an informed fashion.


Her eyes widened and she chuckled at the image of her beloved Prince dressed like a nun. “He did? And he was not called a coward for escaping? I hope that he did not abandon his men.” If he had, then Sophia didn't know him nearly as well as she thought she did.

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John thought her position was naïve still, but he just nodded. They’d already discussed the issue, and frankly he didn’t dislike her innocence. It was certainly a kinder sort of world she wanted.


“Yes, he’s c-c-come.” There was a hint of sadness in that. John had wanted him to come to shepherd John through court. Instead it seemed like he was determined to worry and rage himself to death in politics. “I w-w-want you to put my sister with… the Queen and make friends with Lady Frances first. Once she’s w-w-with the Queen and you’re friends with Frances, then you w-w-will perform for my family.”


“You see, you w-w-will have two allies at the performance then. One of whom w-w-will have the Queen’s ear and one of whom is sister to Lady Ablemarle. You m-m-might gain the Queen’s and Ablemarle’s protection. That w-w-will help restore your reputation immensely.” John laid out precisely how he was trying to maneuver his friend. Of course, it would also benefit his family, but he didn’t think Sophia would begrudge him that.


“The t-t-two things you can do, for both of them, is t-t-to help bring them to the Queen’s attention… positively and help them attract honorable gentlemanly interest.” Both of which seemed like things Sophia was skilled in, although she also attracted a good deal of dishonorable interest. "Neither of them huh-have an intensely negative opinion of your performance, I think. Some of the other w-w-women of the family do."


“P-p-perhaps they all knew? I’m not as experienced.” John said comfortingly. He was not familiar with stage tricks. John chuckled at her wryness. He shook his head at her drunk plan, “That w-w-won’t help much. It wasn’t at all spontaneous. And you d-d-did it very deliberately.” There was a brief moment when he examined her slightly differently as she said many ladies lied to protect their reputations. But he didn’t say anything.


John shook his head at her reply, “P-p-proper men and ladies determined what the rules are to be a p-p-proper lady, and who has violated them. If you wish to be thought of as a proper lady, p-p-please the proper. If you wish to be thought of as a royal mistress, p-p-please the men who makes women royal mistresses.” If Sophia wished to be proper, she would do better to have proper friends than read a manners book in John’s mind.


“Lady O’Roarke and Lady Alyth are not respected.” John said. “At all.” Royal mistresses were well liked by the King and those who they helped directly… and almost no one else. “They are shunned f-f-from polite society. They j-j-just don’t care about it and m-m-make do with libertine society.” John explained. “They’re also not m-m-married, I think. At least not really.” That Dorset affair was not a real marriage to John.


“We’ll see.” John said of Civil War never happening again, his tone pessimistic. John actually thought it was almost inevitable. He didn’t comment on the kindness and goodness of the King.


As for Portugal, “I think he m-m-might wish to. But he won’t. Spain has t-t-too many enemies and too few allies to wage a war. My g-g-guess is he’ll wait for peace then start killing people. Internal enemies, rebels, p-p-people who want independence from Spain.” To John, it was what Don Juan did. But, while it was not entirely a figment of his imagination, John had a great deal of anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish bias in his information.


And Don Juan’s interesting sartorial choices, “They say he d-d-did, though he’d already l-l-lost the battle and everyone was running away. I d-d-don’t know if it’s true, though.” The newspapers could be terribly unreliable. “He w-w-was c-c-called a coward by his enemies. But it’s normal to run away f-f-from a lost battle when the army is scattered.” The King had done it too, several times.

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