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

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He held her hand tightly and Sophia sensed that her touch comforted him. Something was troubling him greatly, as evidenced by his shaking voice. “He did,” she confirmed, wiping away another tear. "He never stopped loving me. And I think he would be proud of what I have achieved. It is not the future he envisioned for me, but it is just as honorable.”


John looked down again, and as she listened to him describe his parents' attitude toward him, she felt a burst of anger and a fierce need to protect him. How dare any parent treat their child so dreadfully! No, he was not perfect, but nobody was. She couldn't believe that his father had tried to disinherit him (which had obviously not been successful) or that his mother had admitted that she didn't love him.


Sophia assumed they had loved their other children. What a horrible childhood he must have had, watching his siblings bask in their parents' affection while he was ignored and neglected. Her heart went out to him and the next stream of tears she dabbed away were for him. Even if she had a child who was disabled or blind or crippled, she would still love him and cherish him and tell him she loved him a million times a day.


She could see how his emotionally abusive childhood had made him see himself as unlovable and repulsive. How could she convince him that he was worthy of being loved and that once one got to know him, one forgot all about his afflictions? She didn't even notice his stutter or his shaking anymore. He was more deserving than many men at court; he was not arrogant, greedy, cruel, or lecherous. John's soul was kind and gentle and to Sophia, it shone from within him as brightly as the sun.


He had misjudged her, and while she was a bit disappointed that he had jumped to the wrong conclusion about her, she understood that his belief had nothing to do with her personally. His pain ran deep and one's perception of oneself was difficult to change. She squeezed his hand softly. “Do you know what I thought when you said that?” she asked with a warm smile. “I was pleased that you might have considered courting me if I had still been single. It is not because you are an Earl, which was what my father wished for me, but because I like you for you, and I believe you would make an excellent husband for any lady.”


Sophia didn't regret marrying Esteban, but if she had not fallen in love with Don Juan, her life might have turned out much differently. She would probably not have found true love, for she truly believed that she and her Prince had been made for each other, but she could have found another kind of happiness. Or perhaps she would have ruined her relationship with another man by becoming Juan's mistress anyway and running away to Madrid to be with him. Unless they had never met, she would have fallen in love with him. Some things could not be changed.


“Other ladies will feel the same way when you get to know them. Those who are disgusted by you are not worth your time. The loss is theirs, not yours. Do not even think about them. Put them out of your mind and concentrate on your friends and the courtiers who are kind to you. The right lady will come along when you least expect her."

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John had left out of the worst of it and felt even a little guilty that Sophia began to cry for him. He didn’t like that it hurt her, even though he warmed at the sympathy. She was right that his reaction had little to do with her. When John panicked, or felt anxiety, his senses often fled him. Underneath a very calm, polished exterior there was a tangled and even violent swirl of emotions, many of them painful. It could provoke some strange reactions. John was grateful for those who tolerated them.


John blushed at Sophia’s praise and gently squeezed her hand back. He at least felt he hadn’t meant it that way but, so long as she didn’t hate him, it hardly mattered. “Thank you.” He didn’t regret anything like a missed opportunity with Sophia. He was most pleased to have her just as a friend. Still, it would hurt if he felt she found him unattractive or unlovable. No one liked feeling that.


As with much good advice, her words were true but harder to feel than to hear. “I hope so.” John said. She was, in many ways, repeating how John tried to feel. But his confidence had been shaken by how his time at court had been so far. With ladies, it felt worse because John’s list of potential matches, at least those that wouldn’t excite comment, was very short. And the marriage would likely be made for dynastic reasons rather than personal ones.


John had never feared he wouldn’t be able to get married. He would, and he expected he would marry in line with his expectations, which were very high. But he feared his wife would hate, or despise, or just regret him.


“It w-w-will be easier once I have more than sunlight to go on.” Sunlight being a somewhat casual way of saying ‘nothing’. Or he had some notion that his time at court wasn’t going to continue to be as unpleasant and profitless as it had been.


John let out a heavy sigh and, with a small squeeze and a somewhat fortified smile, withdrew his hand. “I’ll be fine.” He said. And that was true, at least in the short term. There was a subtle shift but he seemed to return to normalcy, though with perhaps just a bit too much force. “My apologies. What were we t-t-talking about?” John hardly remembered.

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Her heartfelt words seemed to cheer him up a bit. Sophia's tears stopped falling, and she placed his handkerchief on the table beside her chair. It was soaked through and she doubted he would want it back immediately. But it was there in case he did. If he left it, she would have it washed and return it to him later, maybe with a second one that she embroidered herself, one that would always remind him of her friendship. When he felt lonely or depressed, he could take it out and remember that she believed in him.


Sophia did not lament over missing the opportunity to marry John either. She was quite happy with her life the way it was, although she wished that she could spend more time with Juan. If she and John had married, she might have unwittingly added to his insecurities by running off to be with her beloved Spanish Prince. His emotional state was fragile enough. If his wife left him for another man, he might think that her betrayal was confirmation that he was unlovable. However, it would have had nothing to do with him. Even if she had married an exceptionally handsome, insanely wealthy young King who loved her dearly, she would have left him for Juan.


“It will happen. You will see.” She didn't understand what he meant by having only sunlight to go on, but she supposed that he meant that finding a wife would be easier when he became more established at court. “It will take time to make a name for yourself. It took me about a year to become known for my voice and my sense of fashion and I have yet to be accepted in the more exclusive court circles.” Maybe becoming friendly with his family would help her with that.


He let go of her hand and she placed it demurely in her lap. “Good,” she said. “Believe in yourself like I believe in you.”


As for what they had been talking about, she gazed around her thoughtfully, and her eyes lit upon the plants sitting upon the table. “Plants, I think. You told me you thought that they would be fine. On another subject: did you bring the Christmas pyramid with you? I plan on leaving it by the door of the ballroom with my maidservant and when I am ready to give it to Her Majesty, you and your sister can accompany me.”

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“If I am generous, and say that my career began upon my majority,” which was last season. John thought it was better measured from when he’d become an earl ten years ago, “then it’s b-b-been half a year already. I m-m-made arrangements to aid a someone who promptly failed to show up. I d-d-did a favor for a powerful lord who proceeded to forget me. I won a wager with the same lord who p-p-promised to give me my due there and never did. And a p-p-plague swept through my first session of Parliament, ruining my political debut and killing a relative.”


John sighed, “I c-c-could go on. I’m leaving things out.” There had been some positives, but they were much fewer and lighter, “Was your experience like that? It seems to m-m-me I’ve just been cursed.” Johns’ depression was beginning to creep back in.


“It’s difficult.” John said with the tone of someone carrying a great deal of weight. Realizing he might seem inconsolable, he said reassuringly, “Your words d-d-do help. I am glad to hear it.” It just wasn’t enough to turn his entire attitude upbeat.


“Plants?” John didn’t feel that was right for some reason but that did sound like him. As for her packages, “Yes, I had a servant bring them. He should’ve left them d-d-downstairs along with the nutcracker.” John figured it was her turn to bring the gifts. Actually, he’d brought three packages and left them downstairs. He made no comment on the third one.


“I’ll have a striker if you w-w-want to light it in front of her.” John added. It was the sort of thing some gentlemen carried around generally, to light candles or pipes. “I c-c-can give it to you when we approach.”

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He had been busy last season, but it appeared that on one had apprecated his help. Sophia remembered him talking about participating in the House of Lords and she had thought that he had looked forward to it. She had planned to go after the meeting of the Ladies Adventuring Society, but it had already dispersed. Something about cannon fire. She was unaware that anybody had been killed.


“I am sorry about your relative,” she said softly. “It seems as if you were taken advantage of by some of those courtiers. It was the same with me. I think some of them make a game of annoying those who are new to court. I was shunned and ignored for being foreign, rumors spread about me that were nothing but lies, and men believed that because of my looks, I was loose with my favors.”


Now it was her eyes that sought the floor. “Shortly after I arrived in London, a man sent me anonymous gifts and when we finally met, he said he loved me. He almost convinced me that I loved him too, and then one day his friend asked for money so that the man who loved me could present an extravagant gift to the Queen. I was not in charge of my own funds, and when I told Lord Kingston, he said that both men were trying to swindle me out of my fortune and didn't care for me at all.


"One of them was caught, but the other one eluded capture until last season. He was planning to leave England, and I believe he wanted to abduct me and take me with him, but I was too smart to meet a mysterious man in a carriage. My lord husband and Lord Kingston killed them both.”


She lifted her eyes to his. “So you see, you are not the only one who has been taken advantage of. I think it happens to everybody. For a time, I thought I was cursed as well and that my reputation would be ruined and nobody would want to marry me.”


Her experiences were much different than his, but the concerns of a lady differed greatly from the concerns of a gentlemen, as did the way both genders were treated. Believing in oneself was difficult. It had been easy when she had been a child, but now even her strong confidence faltered at times. She was growing up and beginning to realize that the would didn't revolve around her and that the opinions of other people mattered when it came to how she was perceived. Hence, her fear of displeasing the paragons of court propriety.


“Thank you,” she said about the pyramid. “Please do bring your striker. Perhaps your sister can hold it while I light the candles. Or the other way around. First, though, we have to get close to her. I was thinking of waiting until the ball is winding down.”

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John still thought Sophia had had a strong position as she described it, being a beautiful, talented, wealthy heiress to a count. John briefly squeezed her hand as she looked down, but didn’t stay to hold it. He was still not sure how comfortable she was with that, though at least he didn’t think she disliked it, “There are such people in the world.” He said of her con artists, condemnation in his voice.


John nodded when she looked to him, but hesitated, “They were lords, though. P-p-powerful lords.” That deepened the entire affair, made it graver. People like Buckingham were not going to be killed to neatly tie up what had happened, and that lack of attention and gratitude was a significant hobble to a courtly career. “And they g-g-gained nothing by it.” Which was, in some ways, the part that bothered him the most. He couldn’t understand it, which gnawed at him.


John nodded when she insisted things got better. Nicolette’s medicines and Sophia’s voice lessons provided hope there. And there was enough power in his family that he might rise even without such men. Perhaps one day he would be repaired, at least somewhat, like Sophia’s reputation.


“I’m sorry that happened to you.” John said. “And thank you. I know I’m n-n-not a great deal of fun to be around when I’m like this, but it helps to talk about it.” At least with the right people. John smiled a bit wanly, but gratefully. “I’ll m-m-make it up to you,” He promised, feeling a bit guilty for unloading on his friend, and guiltier for his panic earlier.


John nodded to her plans. “As you say.” John agreed easily. “I w-w-will try and introduce you to the ladies before then.” So she might have some chance to help them find partners, or at least spend part of the ball making friends of them. “Perhaps around the middle. They’ll need the m-m-most help once the gentlemen are a b-b-bit drunk.” For they would be less gentlemanly then.


“A small warning. The men of my family might flirt with you. If their wives see that, it m-m-might earn you their jealousy.” Especially Lady Cavendish. Of course, once she had friends among the women, she would be safer.

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“I did not know that then.” Sophia felt comforted when he squeezed her hand. She didn't know he had thought she was disgusted by his touch, but even without that knowledge, she could perhaps show him that it did not appall her as time went on. Now she squeezed it back before he let go. “I was so gullible then. It might sound horrible of me but I am glad that they are dead. They will not be able to prey on other innocent young girls. I doubt that I was the first lady they tried to deceive, but at least I was the last.”


She sighed as he elaborated on his own unfortunate experiences at court. “Some powerful lords probably think that it is amusing to fool with those who are less influential than themselves. It is a game to them, just as it is a game to some men to seduce maidens. I believe they underestimated you. If they had followed through with their promises, they would have gained something from it.


“They might also expect you to grovel for their favor, but do not do it. That will mean they have won. Do not mention what they failed to do when you speak to them again. Pretend it never happened. That should confuse them and show them that you are not a sycophant who will cater to their every whim. Maybe that will earn you their respect.”


Sophia thought her advice was sound, but she was only a sixteen-year-old girl who didn't understand the minds of men and had little life experience to draw on.


“It is all right. Friendship is about more than just having fun. Friends help each other when they are hurting, and they always listen to each other's concerns. I hope I have been a comfort to you. The best way to make it up to me is to listen to me when I am distressed and give me advice when I need it.” She looked over at the handkerchief on the table and smiled wryly. “Lending me your handkerchief helps too.”


The young Baroness nodded. “I will look for you and I will do my best to protect them from drunk gentlemen and guide them toward dance partners who are sober.” She had been propositioned many times by men well into their cups. Some of them refused to take no for an answer and she'd had to resort to more physical forms of rebuffing them.


“Gentlemen always flirt with me. It is something I have no control over. I can ignore their flirtatious comments, though, and just speak to them politely. If I do that, do you think their wives will understand that I have no interest in their husbands?”

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John's thoughts were not stuck on the subject and he smiled when she squeezed him back. “I learned it early. I think it’s a g-g-good thing you learned it so late. The young especially should be shielded.” This belief showed certain nonconformist influences, but John had always had those.


Truthfully, he envied her a bit. His life had made him much less naïve, more adept at certain things. But he’d trade all that skill and worldliness for her happiness and self-confidence. John looked a tad serious but his eyes met hers, “It’s alright. It might be horrible, but it’s how such things are.”


John sighed. They were fools to trifle with me though. Even if John had been personally weak, the ire of his family was something to be feared by everyone. “I w-w-won’t grovel.” He assured her, “I sent reminders to most. I w-w-won’t send more than one because that would look like groveling.” But he would remember. John was not much one for vengeance, it was a profitless thing. But people needed to know that was a choice, not weakness. He would see which it felt like.


“It'd be easier to not care about their respect if..." John trailed off, "You’ve accomplished much in a year. In half that t-t-time I don’t feel like I’ve… accomplished a quarter as much.” John said, clearly frustrated. It was easier to write off people when things were going well.


"And I d-d-don't know what to do. I have g-g-good blood and rank and I worked to accomplish what I wanted. It's all amounted to nothing for months and months. So obviously it's not rank, or blood, or work, or initiative that gives success. It c-c-can't be patronage or connections either. I have my family." So John didn't know. He couldn't explain it except by a personal curse and he didn't want to believe that.


John nodded, and he smiled when she asked him to repay her in like, “Of c-c-course. Always.” He would, and was, comforting and advising her. And he’d help her too. He really was very fond of her. He chuckled lightly at her wryness, his sense of humor returning. “It’s yours. As is my shoulder. We all need someone we c-c-can vent to.”


John nodded as Sophia understood. “Really?” John said, obviously surprised people just flirted with her constantly. “In that c-c-case, I suppose that’s the best you can do. It’s better than encouraging them.” But it wouldn’t necessarily shield her. “I’d stay away from the married men then and t-t-try to approach the women on their own. If the men walk up and interrupt the lady to flirt with you, you’ll be suitably annoyed… and so hopefully f-f-faultless.”

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“I think it is not so good. When I have children, I will teach them about the dangers of the world so that they will not be as gullible as I was. I do not want the same thing to happen to them, or something even worse.” She shivered. “I was lucky. If they had kidnapped me, I might be dead now. Or since I did not fall for their ploy, they could have sold me to a Turk who would lock me in his harem and make me sing for him. I would have still brought them money.”


So he had sent reminders to the gentlemen who had forgotten him. “Perhaps they are just busy and have not yet had time to respond. You may see them at the ball tonight, and they might speak to you then.” Sophia was eternally optimistic about most things, and she truly believed that Lord Maldon would rise at court and earn respect. Because of his afflictions, he might have to work a bit harder, but it was the same with her. She was foreign, and now that she was married to Esteban, she was foreign twice. Foreigners were not trusted and often shunned or ignored outright.


“I have not accomplished all that much and most of it was through my marriage. I became known for my voice by entering a competition at a ball. It was the first time that anyone at court had heard me sing. I did not win the competition but that one impromptu performance led to many more and finally culminated in last night's opera. Whenever you see an opportunity, grab it and do not let go. You never know where it might lead.”


Sophia didn't know what else to tell him. He had more than she'd had when she first came to court. He was English and came from a powerful and influential family. In time, he would benefit from their patronage and their connections. Maybe he was as impatient as she was. She remembered when she attended the opera in Windsor, how she had wanted to show off her voice then, which would have only made the singers … and maybe even the King … hostile towards her. She'd had to work for her chance to sing in an opera, moving slowly but steadily toward it. John would achieve his goals as well, but it wasn't going to happen overnight … maybe not even in only one year.


He was one of the closest friends she had and she treasured his compassion and his advice. “My shoulder is yours as well.” She glanced again at the handkerchief and then smiled at him. “I will return it to you after it has been washed, and I will also send along something extra.” Her smile turned mysterious. “But do not ask what it is. It is a surprise.”


Gentlemen didn't flirt with her constantly, but happened so often that it seemed perpetual. Not all gentlemen found her attractive either. Maybe his male relatives would have no interest in her. It would certainly make things easier on everybody. “I can act annoyed if they approach me, as if I would rather speak to the ladies alone. I guess it would not really be an act. I do wish to befriend the ladies of your family.”

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“Maybe the best is a b-b-balance. Somewhere between keeping you entirely innocent and showing me… the depravity of humanity is the ideal.” John said. He hesitated a moment when she shivered but took her hand again with a small squeeze, “I…” He hesitated, “I know it’s hard. What helps me is thinking of the p-p-people who do care about me, who’d p-p-protect me. In time, you g-g-grow strong to it.” He quickly withdrew.


“Would, uh…” John hesitated, “Would us dressing as Turks at the snowfort… m-m-make you uncomfortable then?” That detail could be changed. He didn’t want to bring up past traumas.


“P-p-perhaps.” John said. It was hard for him to be optimistic. Precious little had gone well in his life of its own accord. Even just staying alive had required an emotionally devastating fight. “I hope so.” John was too used to being ignored, to being forgotten. And too ready to believe that he was ignored, forgotten, or despised.


“I think you’re being overly modest. Surely you had some… hand in your husband’s success?” John said. He imagined that a wife supported her husband, was a help and aid to him. He didn’t imagine specifically how she’d had a hand. “If nothing else, in m-m-making him more attractive to be the English ambassador.”


John nodded to her advice. It was sound, but John’s condition necessarily made him a bit inflexible. There had been opportunities last season right in front of him, but he couldn’t take advantage because he couldn’t run. It was simply the nature of things.


To some degree, John was just venting. He’d have been pleased if she did have a solution, but he didn’t seem displeased by her lack of reply. Despite his frustrated tone, he still seemed better. Sometimes simply being heard by a sympathetic ear was cathartic. He let out another frustrated sigh but the matter seemed to be ending. “Thank you.” He said again.


John smiled. He would have offered to let her keep it, but giving a lady a handkerchief could imply something more intimate than John wanted. “I l-l-look forward to that.” Normally he might have said some polite nothing about how that wasn’t necessary, but he felt above such things with Sophia.


Unfortunately, John knew that there were men in his family who were interested in her. He’d heard at least one lady speaking of it in an annoyed voice. He also knew that many of the men in his family were not above such indulgence. He had purposefully steered her to make friends with the unmarried ones. They didn’t have husbands and so less reason to fear her. John nodded, “J-j-just be careful to avoid them thinking there's anything untoward. They c-c-can cut you out of their lives more... easily than their husbands.” Whatever the specifics that was the important part.

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“Yes, balance. I will teach them that evil exists, but I will protect them from it and teach them to be cautious and to think before they do something they might regret. They will not be as naïve as I was when they debut at court.” No one had the right to treat their children the way John had been treated. His parents had been insufferably cruel and Sophia hoped they burned in hell forever. There were some things she didn't think even God could forgive and hurting a child was one of them.


He squeezed her hand again and she smiled gratefully. “I will remember that.” There were quite a few people who cared for her and were protective of her, including John himself. Esteban was protective, but she didn't think he cared for her. He was just keeping her safe for her Prince.


Her smile faded when he brought up dressing as Turks. “No, I think it may have the opposite effect. Last spring I was told that Turks liked to kidnap fair-skinned blondes with beautiful voices. Since then, I have been afraid of being abducted by one or sold to one. I even have nightmares about it. It is a silly fear, I know, and I want to get over it. I am hoping that pretending to be a Turk and kidnapping princesses will show me how ridiculous it is to be frightened of what is probably only a fictional tale.”


John seemed quite depressed about his prospects at court. Sophia vowed to build up his confidence little by little each time they met so that eventually he would believe in himself as much as she believed in him.


“I had nothing to do with him being chosen as the new Ambassador. I think Don Juan planned to give him the position long before I met either of them. But I am trying to help him now, although I didn't do a very good job of it last night. I will make it up to him, though.” How, she wasn't sure.


As for alienating the married women in his family: “I will not even look at their husbands unless they address me directly and I will show no interest in them. It also might help if you tell them that I am in love with my husband if they ask you about me. Tell them I am interested in no other gentleman but him and that I take my marriage vows seriously.”

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John nodded. Sophia was young, but she was conscientious and loving. She’d make a good mother, especially matched with a husband who was a little less naïve (for John naturally presumed he would be her children’s father).


John did think of the Turks as fairytales. He knew, of course, there was such a place and something of its political effects on England. But foreigners were mostly strange and exotic to him. Even Sophia had seemed exotic and strange at first. John was, in many ways, parochial.


“Since I’ll be the Sultan, you’d be safe even if you were kidnapped.” All ladies would be safe from such a Sultan. John was hardly a villainous lecherous slave taker. “Is there anything I c-c-can do to help, or make it more comfortable… for you?” John asked.


John still thought Sophia was being modest. Even if she had done literally nothing, marrying a German Protestant made Esteban more attractive to be posted to a northern state like England. But he wasn’t going to argue the point. “You’ll have your chance, I’m sure.” John said, “Some m-m-men are utterly inflexible but your husband d-d-doesn’t seem so. Be helpful and supportive and I’m sure he’ll appreciate you.”


John paused for a moment, hesitating, "Truthfully? If n-n-not for you I don't think I'd even be trying to meet with the Spanish ambassador. I wouldn't have thought it c-c-could lead anywhere. So anything that c-c-comes of that, anything good that d-d-does or bad that doesn't happen, is your credit."


John seemed surprised when she asked him to intervene on her behalf, but he quickly nodded. “If it c-c-comes up, I will. And if they ask me about you, I’ll say nice things. And I’ll be doing what I c-c-can to discourage the m-m-men from dishonorable intentions.” John promised. He realized he hadn’t specifically assured her of that, but he’d always intended to.


He added, for he’d believed she knew this as well, “You do know, when someone says something like I told you earlier, I say that you’ve only ever slept with your husband and that the… rumors are swill?” That was, in his mind, the truth. “I c-c-could hardly do otherwise.” She was, after all, his friend, and John was hardly going to abandon her.

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“I will be fine. It will be fun to play the villain and after it is over, whenever I think of Turks, I will think of your snowball fight instead of being kidnapped.” It was more likely that Sophia would be abducted by enemies of Spain than by Turks, and she hardly ever worried about that. For all she knew, the Turks were enemies of Spain. Maybe that was something to ask Lord Maldon the next time they discussed politics. It would be helpful to know who might mean her harm.


Being the kidnapper instead of the victim would also help her overcome that particular fear. She knew that it was just a game and that everyone would be safe, unless someone sneaked in and dragged one of the participants away in the midst of the chaos. “Who will I be?” she asked. “The keeper of your harem?” She didn't think playing his Sultana would be wise. Esteban would not approve of her even pretending to be somebody else's wife.


Sophia hoped he was right about her husband. If she did nothing else to displease him, maybe he would forgive her and start trusting her again. He had never been overly strict with her, and she was determined not to disappoint him again. Now she had an image to uphold. No one would take him seriously if his wife ran wild like a libertine.


Her eyes widened when John admitted he would not have thought approaching Esteban would be productive if not for her. “So I can help him by being friendly and approachable?” she asked. “People who might be hesitant to speak to him can come to me first, and I can tell him what they wish to speak to him about. Then he can decide whether or not to contact them.” She had never thought of her husband as formidable before, but perhaps other courtiers saw him that way. He was a man of few words who kept his own council. The young Baroness could see now how that could be intimidating.


“Thank you,” she said with a sincere smile. “I will always say nice things about you too. Has anyone you have spoken to mentioned those rumors? I first heard them last spring. It seems to me that they would have blown over by now, unless my performance last night rekindled them. Do you know how your family feels about it? Or did they not attend the opera with you?"

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John had been careful of her reputation and her relation with her husband yesterday. After last night’s events, he would be even more so. “I w-w-was thinking the women should be guarded by women.” John said, “But what d-d-do you want to dress up as? An ice queen or a harem keeper or some German g-g-goddess perhaps?” There had never been any pretensions to realism or accuracy in the affair. “I’m not writing a p-p-play, it’s just a bit of fun.” John smiled, “What d-d-do you want to be?”


As for what she’d done with John, “I think you c-c-can help him by being honest and trustworthy,” John replied, “And by encouraging p-p-people that Spain will be friendly and helpful. And by actually being f-f-friendly and helpful, of course.” John wouldn’t have been intimidated, but he’d have doubted it could come to anything.


John hesitated again, “If you’d asked me l-l-last season, before I met you and your husband, whether anything would come of relations with… Spain, I would’ve t-t-told you that the Spanish are untrustworthy and unfaithful friends. There’s too much bad blood between our nations. And that isn’t an isolated opinion, though it’s n-n-not one most will actually say.” John smiled apologetically, “But I d-d-do trust you. And if your husband is trustworthy and Spain really wants friendship, then perhaps things can start to get better.”


Not that John set English foreign policy. But his opinion did mean something, and the fact he was talking to Spain rather than Portugal or some other nation meant something too. If he did send an expedition to the Spanish colonies, it could stimulate trade and give some prestige to Spain, which could have some helpful secondary effects on diplomacy.


“The ones about your virginity? No, I hadn’t heard them.” John said, “Just what I t-t-told you earlier.” Earlier he’d said there were rumors that she was promiscuous and unfaithful, or soon would be, based on her performance. The odd mention of her aiming for the King to be the Spanish Portsmouth as well. And some speculation on how her charms could be won.


“How my f-f-family feels about the opera?” John sought to clarify, “That it was scandalous, though that b-b-bothers some of them a great deal and others not at… all. Several of the m-m-men were quite p-p-pleased by you, but in a lecherous sort of way. Their wives took displeased notice.” That was why he’d brought up avoiding the men and treading lightly around the married women.


“They d-d-did like your singing, I think.” He added, weakly. Hopefully once she had a few female friends among the family and he’d arranged for her to sing, probably garbed in more modest attire, they’d appreciate her talents more than her assets.

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“I will be Chione, the goddess of snow.” Sophia loved mythology, and the Greek myths had always been her favorite. Norse mythology had a goddess of snow as well, but Skadi was darker in personality. She was also a giantess, which was a role the petite Baroness could never pull off.


As for costumes, she would wear her white fur coat and matching hat. Underneath it, she could wear the gown she had worn when she sang for the King's birthday, but without the wings. Anna could fix her hair in a Greek style like she'd done at the opera, and maybe add some sparkling ribbons to the hat to look like icicles. “I could have made the snow castle for you out of thin air and the snowmen can be my guards.”


Sophia considered herself trustworthy, if not completely honest. She only had two secrets, and she had told John one of them. The other was better kept to herself. She didn't think he would snub her if he knew she was Don Juan's mistress, nor did she think it would ruin their friendship or that he would refuse to introduce her to his family. And she knew that he would never tell anybody else. But unless Juan told her that he didn't mind if she spoke of their affair, she would keep quiet about it.


“I try to be all of those things.” It surprised her that John's opinion of Spain had changed so drastically after meeting both Esteban and herself. Maybe she was helping to change England's perception of Spain without realizing it. Perhaps her natural charm really was working in her husband's favor. “I never thought that I was capable of influencing opinions just by being friendly and genuinely caring about others. I can promote friendship between the two countries simply by being myself. The banquet at the Embassy should help as well and that was my idea too.”


John knew how to make her feel good about herself. She could still make her husband proud of her, even though she had disappointed him last night.


“Oh.” When she thought of rumors, she automatically recalled the ones that had flown around court last spring. “I hope the rumors about my performance will be quelled tonight when everyone sees how properly I behave at the ball. They will see that I do not throw myself at every gentleman I meet or act in a promiscuous manner. Even the gown I chose is more modest than I usually wear.”


Now she knew why he had warned her to avoid showing interest in the gentlemen. Some of them had found her performance enticing and might think that she would be interested in a dalliance. And she would have to work hard to earn the trust of their wives, who probably believed she might try to seduce their husbands. They had seen the way their husbands looked at her. “Thank you for being honest with me. Now I know why you want me to befriend the single ladies first. I just hope that the women who think poorly of me will not try to keep them away from me because they think I will be a bad influence on them."

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“You are Queen Chione the Ice Nymph then, one of my subjects.” John smiled. It was hardly the first fantastical element involved. He’d already made plans to dress up his dogs in dragon costumes and have them running around. "Oh, no wait," John grinned, "How about Queen Snowphia?" John was unabashedly fond of puns, even bad ones.


He chuckled at her having conjured snow castles and snowman guards, “Very good! Perhaps you should t-t-tell everyone you invite to… wear white. And they’ll be your regiment.” Maybe he could turn it into a competition between his friends to invite the most people.


John did consider Sophia honest, but that wasn’t what had made him bring that trait up. In John’s mind Spanish diplomacy had been markedly dishonest over the past century. Of course, all diplomacy was self serving but the Spaniards were stereotyped as liars whose word was worthless. Restoring the credit of the nation’s diplomats would be one of her husband’s tasks if he wanted to build a lasting relationship with England.


John nodded to her sentiment. She could help by being charming and making it easier and fruitful to be friends with her husband’s country. And she’d done that quite naturally with him, it seemed. “Hopefully your husband w-w-will realize it too when you tell him I still want to speak with him. You’re the one b-b-bringing us together.” John said encouragingly, “And it m-m-might relieve him a bit to know I’m still your friend and trying to help you mend your reputation.” John perhaps wasn't proper in the stricter sense, but he felt he could help her.


“I hope so too.” John said, “It w-w-will take time but eventually I think it will... not go away, but not weigh so heavily.” Truthfully John felt a bit guilty over the whole affair. He felt he had failed her as a friend yesterday. He should’ve advised her, objected. He'd felt it wasn't his place but his hesitation had harmed her. What was done was done, though, and he could help her recover.


When she thanked him for his honesty John looked down briefly, “I d-d-do wish it were better news.” At her fears though John looked back up, “I’ve chosen l-l-ladies of good character who are a bit shy and looking for husbands. Hopefully the family w-w-will think that if your influence makes them a bit bolder and more flirtatious it would be for the best.” And perhaps Sophia might learn a bit of their restraint in the bargain. "You should be careful to keep them out of trouble though. You m-m-might be blamed even if it isn't your fault."


“And I w-w-will discourage the family from objecting. I don’t know how much that counts for, but it will be something.” He added with a small smile. He was her ally, not just her advisor.

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A bright peal of lyrical laughter danced through the drawing room. “We will already have a Lord Snowledo.” After Esteban's anger abated, she needed to ask him if she could borrow some of his old clothes. “I am afraid that if I call myself Snowphia, everyone will start calling me that even after your party is over. I shall be Queen Chione, and I will defend your harem with my magical snowballs.


“As for the people I invite, it depends on which side they want to be on. If they want to be one of my minions, they can wear white. If they wish to be a hero or a princess, it will be confusing if they are dressed like the villains. Perhaps they should dress in bright or dark colors to indicate what role they are playing.”


She had already brought John and Esteban together at the festival, but now that he wanted to meet with him again, maybe her husband would appreciate her for encouraging her friend to speak to him. Sophia hoped something positive came from their meeting and that she could bring Esteban to the attention of the courtiers he wished to impress. John had told her that the Spaniards were considered liars by the English. Much of that perception was probably due to Ronquillo. He was a snake and most likely as corrupt as they came. Esteban was nothing at all like him, and perhaps she could assist him in undoing the damage that his predecessor had done.


“I do not think it is a good idea to tell him that you are helping me repair my reputation, for that will only remind him that it is no longer flawless. But he will notice if your family accepts me and understand that you are my friend and have no intention of abandoning me just because of a few baseless rumors.”


The new rumors were not exactly baseless, but she liked to think that they were.


Sophia did not blame him for failing to warn her about the effects her performance could have on her reputation. He had not attended a rehearsal and had no idea how she was going to act. The fault was hers and hers alone. He could have advised her not to sing at all, but she wouldn't have listened. The King had commissioned the opera and she would have had to go through with it even if she'd had doubts. In truth, she did not regret it. It had been a thrilling and satisfying experience. The only part of it she regretted was her seductive portrayal of Diana. She could have played the goddess as sophisticated and elegant instead of flirtatious and wanton.


“I will keep them out of trouble and away from gentlemen who only want to take advantage of them.” If they were shy, they were probably not prone to mischief as she had been before she was married. She was also quite good at discerning a gentleman's intentions now that she was no longer an innocent maiden.


“I am grateful for anything you can do. And I promise not to let you down. I do not want your family to become angry with you because of me. I would never be able to forgive myself.”

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“And you w-w-will be his lady wife, Snowphia, the Lady Snowledo.” John replied. But when she said she was afraid of the name sticking it was John’s turn to laugh, “Alright, Queen Chione. Thrower of magic snowballs.” He agreed. He nodded to her clarification. He hadn’t given much thought to the idea but he trusted Sophia would make it work.


“As you wish,” John agreed to not bring it up. “I won’t mention anything about it unless he brings it up.” John nodded as well to her comments. The meeting wasn’t going to be about Sophia in the main but she might come up. If she did, he hoped he could assure Esteban over the whole affair.


“A little trouble might be good.” John said, “I’m hoping you’ll show them a safe sort of t-t-trouble and they’ll show you how to avoid some of what you’ve been… running into.” It seemed between Sophia and them lay some sort of golden mean, “Aside f-f-from the politics of it.” He still believed Sophia would be a useful friend and could help maneuver his sister to a more advantageous state, whether her reputation was stained or not.


“If you do let me down,” John replied, “I know it’ll have been an accident and you’ll work to make it right.” There were things that he could never forgive her for. But they were graver than even what had happened to Sophia last night. Things he felt certain she knew were wrong.


“I will do all I can.” John assured her. He had a few other things to do but he had more time than most since he wouldn’t be dancing. And it would be nice to have something to keep him occupied. “Ultimately, we’ll j-j-just have to be adaptable.”

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They wouldn't be able to dictate what the participants actually wore, for some people would probably join in who were just passing through the park. She would ask Anna to make something that they could fasten to their clothing … such as different colored ribbons or a fabric rosette … to indicate which side they were on. Sophia decided not to bother John with that minor detail, at least not until she knew what Anna came up with. Her maidservant was a genius with a needle and thread.


“He might do that. I told him that you would be visiting me yesterday and today to check on the plants. He knows that you are a very dear friend of mine, but he might be curious as to how close we are. Sometimes he seems a bit possessive of me, although that could just be my imagination. You both got along well at the festival. I think he knows that we are no more than friends.”


She grinned when he mentioned getting his relatives into trouble. “So they need to be more adventurous? I know some things that we can do that will get them out and interacting with other people. And if they can show me how proper English ladies are supposed to act, we can definitely help each other.” Signora Grimani had taught her how to behave in a respectable manner, but her mind had been so full of opera and singing that those lessons had went in one ear and out the other. Now she wished she had paid more attention.


He knew she would never do anything to hurt him on purpose, and so she just nodded. Everything would be fine, though. She knew it would, and the ladies would become her friends. He was giving her a way to redeem herself for her unintentional mistakes at the opera, and she was grateful for his assistance. “Ja, we have to play it by ear. The way I am treated at the ball tonight will be a good indication of what damage my performance has done. Maybe most courtiers will remember the beauty of my voice and forget the rest of it.”

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“D-d-did you have a chance to… give him the book?” John asked. He’d left presents for him and his sister with her yesterday. It would be a fine bit of small talk, especially since he was interested in history.


“It’s n-n-natural for him to be possessive of you, especially now. He feels threatened in his p-p-position of husband, I suspect.” John said, “You should d-d-do whatever you can to assure him he is first in your affections and that you are faithful and happy with him. It might help d-d-discourage wanton interest too.” John was missing a crucial component that made the advice useless, but he didn’t know that.


John couldn’t resist a puff of air when she said he knew they were just friends, “I think everyone knows that.” The idea Sophia would be interested in him still seemed perfectly absurd to him. She was beautiful and charming and he had the sexual appeal, in his own mind, of a raw turnip. Even if he didn’t, John was one of the most sexless lords at court.


If Lord Toledo did suspect them of anything John would think him paranoid. Though John also thought Sophia was faithful.


John chuckled at her grin, “A lady who d-d-doesn’t know how to misbehave a little will have trouble finding a husband. A lady who doesn’t know how to behave will have trouble keeping one.” The same was true of gentlemen. “You lack one. They lack the other. I hope you might blend a bit.” John wasn’t quite sure how, the specifics of most of this was mysterious to him, but he felt comfortable putting it in Sophia’s hands.


As for her performance, “Hopefully.” John said, though he doubted it. Court would generally focus on the scandalous. John expected she would find a legion of flirtatious men probing her chastity but didn’t expect her to be shunned outright. Whether the Queen and other members of proper society would look upon her unfavorably would be more interesting.


Unfortunately, John couldn’t offer much advice as to how to deal with flirtatious gentlemen. Or flirtatious anything really.

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“I took it to the library. I meant to tell him about it yesterday, but all I could think about was the opera. And this morning, he was too angry at me. It was not on the table when I was preparing for your visit, so maybe he found it.” Or maybe one of the housemaids had put it on a shelf while she was cleaning. “I will tell him that it was from you as soon as he will talk to me again.” Or she could send it to his office with a note explaining who it was from. Before the night was over, she would make certain he knew about it.


Sophia did not see John's advice as useless. Esteban was more like a guardian than a husband, keeping her safe for his master and making certain she did nothing to dishonor him. She was not certain if Juan would share Esteban's misgivings about her performance. It would have most likely enchanted him and he should know that her heart was his and that she would never be unfaithful to him. She needed to assure her husband that she still loved her Prince, and that he always came first in his affections. Then perhaps, he would trust her again.


The petite blonde misunderstood John's next comment. “I hope everyone knows we are friends. And if not, I will tell them.” Her perception of him was quite different than the way he saw himself. She thought he would make a fine husband for some lucky young lady. If they were fortunate, his wife would not be jealous of their friendship and would become her friend as well. And hopefully, she would care for him and not just his title and the prestige of belonging to a powerful family. He deserved a loving and helpful wife, not an ambitious and entitled one.


Now it was her turn to scoff. “My former guardian did not see it that way. Whenever I got into a bit of mischief, he scolded me for it.” What Sophia seemed to have forgotten was that most of the mischief she had gotten herself into could have easily harmed her reputation. He had only been trying to protect her, but her rebellious teenage mind still couldn't see that. “I really look forward to meeting them. We will have a lot of fun together.” Unless they disliked her on sight.


There wasn't much else to say. Soon it would be time to get ready for dinner. She thought about inviting John to stay, but it was better that he didn't. There was no telling what kind of mood Esteban would be in or if he would even join her for dinner. He might resent her inviting another gentleman to share what he probably hoped would be a lonely meal that would make her further regret last night's folly. She didn't think it was possible to regret it anymore than she already did.

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John nodded. He wouldn’t bring it up until it had been mentioned. It was better to avoid the awkwardness of trying to discuss a gift her husband may or may not have received.


I think he knows that we are no more than friends.

I think everyone knows that.

I hope everyone knows we are friends. And if not, I will tell them.


John misunderstood her reply as well. To John it seemed Sophia had just assured him she would make sure everyone knew their relationship was completely platonic. That did little to help his feeling that she found him unattractive, especially when no one had accused them of being anything but platonic friends.


But he said nothing. After his previous overreaction he would stew on that a little before bringing it up. Perhaps he was misinterpreting her words.


John amusedly rolled his eyes at her reply to his call for moderate mischief. He could guess what had actually happened but nodded. If nothing else, Sophia would be the youngest so perhaps the others could look out for her. But the hour was growing late. She needed to get dressed and he needed to fortify himself for another night that would, in all likelihood, leave him feeling worse for wear.


As for the meeting, John was actually fairly sociable once he got to know people and he enjoyed whiling away time in even idle conversation. But the time had grown long and he felt he’d been monopolizing the young blond somewhat.


He hesitated again, hoping she wouldn’t be upset by his exit this time. “I should l-l-leave you time to get ready. I’ll see you in a few hours.” John said. While there were several hours until the ball, no doubt Sophia put a great deal of time into her appearance. "If you are shunned, I should still spend time with you at the ball." John promised, though he didn't think that would happen.


He stood to leave with a smile and a small, courteous bow.


OOC: And I think that’s it. Thank you for another lovely thread! And for putting up with the density of John these past two IC days.

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Sophia wanted everyone to know they were friends because she treasured his friendship. She was proud of it. Although, she was not attracted to him romantically, she didn't think he was unattractive. In truth, she never thought much about his appearance. His mind and his soul were beautiful, and that was all that mattered to her.


By the way John rolled his eyes, she could tell that he didn't believe that the mischief she had been scolded for was harmless. She wondered if he had met Lord Kingston and been regaled with stories of her willfulness. The petite blonde knew that she had not been a perfect ward, and now she wasn't a perfect wife, but nobody was really perfect, were they?


She pouted prettily when he said he should go, but they both seemed to know it was time. He had to prepare for the ball as well, though she doubted it took him nearly as long as it took her. Only dandies took as long as ladies to dress, and her friend was not a fop.


Sophia stood. “Yes, I will see you at the ball.” When he promised to spend time with her even if she was shunned, she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Thank you.” She didn't think that she would be snubbed either, at least not by everyone. Those who did look down on her would be the ones she would need to impress with her good behavior.


“I will see you to the door,” she said. After he was gone, she went back into the drawing room and moved the table that held the sick plants a bit closer to the fireplace, hoping that they would survive.




{OOC: Thank you for an enjoyable thread as well.}

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