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A Head that Pounds | 27th after lunch- Xmas 1677

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The Golden Pestle




Sat on Friday street, a few doors down from The Mermaid, and across the road from The Free Clinic.





Nicolette ate crackers and cheese, watching out at Friday street from the upper floor window... awaiting her very own patient. Lord Chatham had said he would call. Though really in all the fuss of the Christmas season, he might have forgot. He seemed to have forgotten her dare after all.


The populace that moved about Friday street were a muddled lot. A dim recollection returned to her, of a Count named Fiorenzi, telling her friend Lady Monmouth that a vile slayer frequented this district. A siver ran down her spine, and hand tightened upon the silver cheese knife. It was nonsense surely.


Still, she'd return home long before dark, perhaps well in time to visit Elizabeth again.

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Charles strolled along Friday Street, whistling softly. He had not eaten lunch, but that was not uncommon for him and the coca leaves had removed any lingering hunger. Unfamiliar with the East End, he had had to ask directions twice.


The Golden Junk is around here somewhere, though, isn't it?


Shaking his head at such thoughts, Charles caught sight of the Golden Pestle and quickened his pace. He did not hold much hope of actually being cured- he had already tried almost everything short of being trepanned- but Nicolette was good company and pleasant to look at.


A nice change from my usual physicians.


He paused before the door to make minute adjustments to his appearance, tweaking his cravat, brushing back a stray strand of hair and plucking some more lace from his cuffs. He raised his hand to knock.

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She thought she saw him any number of times, such was the lot of an optimist, any number of times she restrained a sigh of disappointment, and eaten another cracker.


But that was him surely? Nicolette peered out the window as a man moved into view and stopped a passer by to talk to them. Or perhaps it wasn't him then. Nicci begun to reach for another cracker, but the figure then turned and looked down the street as the other pointed. He wore an eye patch! And then struck a confidant walk towards the Golden Pestle!


"La, he comes!" the tin plate of crackers clattered to the floor as she jumped to the ready. Her eyes flared with dismay at the mess, which she quickly skuffed under her desk before rushing downstairs (with barely a pause to check her look in the hall mirror.)


Down the steps two at a time, and then halting to catch her breath, giving a small dismissive wave to Master Fallon who had looked to her vaulted entry with a modicum of alarm. She was all in all a bundle of nerves of this, and so hoping that she might diagnose a successful treatment. Her previous patient had told her he felt better, but truth be told, Nicci knew Lord Maldon was fibbing to make her feel better.


Through the bleary door pane she saw a figure, moving about a little with wardrobe adjustments - and her nerves were eased with a smile to replace them. For the second time that very day, she opened the door to a guest even before they had knocked upon it.


"Lord Chatham," her eyes found his face, smiled with memory of their pew-bound flirtation, "the infamous." she gestured for him to enter. Not that she thought to keep him in the shopfront, nor did she think the kitchens the place for a diagnosis. That said, she felt deliciously forward suggesting, "My office upstairs may afford us privacy for your consultation." her eyes stole back to him with a trill joie de vie , before turning she made lively steps to the rooms above.

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Knock preempted, Charles let his upraised hand flow down into his sweeping bow.


"Lady Misrule! My day brightens immeasurably." He smiled boyishly at her. "And please forgive my inexcusable discourtesy in neglecting to use your title when last we spoke. I was somewhat the worse for wear, as you doubtless noticed but were too kind to mention."


He stepped inside, carefully wiped his boots and cast an assessing glance about the shop. He liked it, he decided. He enjoyed the smell of herbs, and there was something inherently pleasing in the organisation of the Pestle's shelves.


Nicolette's words drew his focus back to her. His smile sharpened momentarily before resuming it's boyish aspect. Was it wishful thinking to read into that?


"Whatever you think best. I am entirely in your hands."


There. A response that could mean whatever Nicolette wanted to mean. He followed her upstairs, noting that, as he had half expected, her movements shared the vivacious energy of her speech. It was a charming contrast to the sedate languor usually affected by those of gentle birth.

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No, she'd not styled herself after the fashionable parisienne courtiers with their languid eyes and practised moue - though she'd been known to wear a patch on her cheek, and her gown was definitely of the french styling.


"La! I do like my title." Nicolette admitted with restrained grin, "and of such a stimulating Estate... mmm but what do they say? Behind every successful Lady of Misrule is a daredevil gentleman?" she laughed lightly of the jest, that never the less held an invitation.


He had made an impression upon Nicci yesterday.


And perhaps she'd made an impression upon him? His call of consent was so broadly placed, and rang notes of possibility as she trotted up the stairs.


"I might have known you would be a little distracting," upon the landing she stopped, and resting hands upon the railing turned to watch his ascent. "but I am guarded against your charming manner by this reminder." she held up her hand, revealing a piece of string tied around index finger.

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"It's a fine title," Charles agreed with a laugh. "In fact, I will confess to a measure of envy. My own is much less interesting."


Her jokingly extended offer was greeted with another laugh.


"I very much doubt that you will need the slightest assistance in making this Christmas the standard by which all others are judged Mademoiselle, but should you call on me I would be delighted to serve in any capacity you deem fit."


He followed Nicolette up the stairs, her effervescent energy calling out some of his own. She turned at the top of the stairway to watch him and he could not resist giving her a smile. His natural boyish smile, not the sharp, cutting thing that was almost his default expression at court.


"I'm distracting, Mademoiselle? Praise from Caesar." He laughed again at the sight of the string tied around her finger.


"Curses. Foiled. Alas, if only I had thought to take such precautions myself! But I did not, and am thus left exposed and defenceless before you. I have no choice but to surrender and cast myself upon your mercy."

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"Envy?" the word caught her ears, and she turned to look at the Lord sharply. Coincidence?


Of Misrule. "My cousin has all manner of ideas already, I rather fancied the one where anyone speaking with His Majesty must make ever increasing compliments of his person. A challenge we might all take to with relish, and that shall surely delight His Majesty also." she looked to her guest for his thoughts on that, though she was more amused at the moment in thinking of the other capacities in which he could serve.


Atop the stairs was a pleasant perspective. Lord Chatham's ascent could not have been leisurely enough as she watched, his eyes tilted upon a supplicating angle, while his tone carried the confidance of kings. "Do you think you forgot anything, and need to go down, so as to come back up again?" she bit bottom lip, trying not to grin.


Yet as to her memory string, he laughed of the humor of it, but guessed not to the specifics. "Of course..." she caught one end of a string, and commented, "it might be removed simply... perhaps replaced with rubies, sapphires and emeralds that might erase my memory of the peeve I need hold against you."

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"An interesting game, and likely to amuse his Majesty. I look forward to playing." Laying all modesty aside (a task unlikely to cause strain), Charles fancied he would do rather well. He had a talent for grandiose eloquence and a love for petty oneupmanship. "Perhaps a trifle tame, but good fun nonetheless, and you doubtless wish for your more... mischievous plans to remain a secret. I understand entirely."


That use of 'my cousin,' is telling, though what it tells I cannot yet say.


They made their way upstairs, Charles peacocking slight under Nicolette's gaze. (He never had been able to resist a softly bitten lower lip.) He smirked up at her.


"Well, I cannot be certain. Perhaps I should go back down and check, just to make sure, hmm?"


Her memory string provoked fresh merriment, until Nicolette hinted at her exact reasons for wearing it.


"Peeve? Wha- ah." Understanding dawned. "You think that I forgot about the dare."


He finally finished his ascent and moved to stand by her.


"I assure you that I have not. And I may not have brought jewels to apologise for the delay, but I will offer a promise. You will have a grand, public romantic gesture from Roos at the New Year's Ball, or, should plague or invasion distract me from my purpose, you shall an equally grand and public forfeit of your choosing from me."

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Nicolette was inclined to agree, personally she favored a game that was a little more scintillating. "It is a safe sport, and does not preclude outbursts of rash and daring, why that stands exclusively at the players initiative. Dullards shall still be dullards, yet wits shall be given a torch with which to shine."


"I think my cousin was trying to coach me to the... ah, commonly agreeable manner of thing." she revealed. She was unaware that Louis might be under the influence of Davinas warnings, not that it would make much different. Lord Chatham had not known her long, but recognised already that she would wish deviate. "...yet I am of a mind to dare what others might not."


Lip slid free from it's restraint, and she grinned full of his reply. "Oh would you?" though of course it was but a tease. (He was possibly even worse than herself!)


Yet to the mater at hand, or was that string upon finger, he remembered with a pleasing swiftness. Perspectives shifted, and she was looking up at him now, her eyes flaring with his grand claims. "You are working tirelessly?" he has discounted some minor fulfillment. La, your vision, an over achiever surely." her eyes glinted wickedly, "mmm... why I might just let you undo me then."


A pause.


Then offered string on finger.

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"Why, describe it like that and it sounds like court in microcosm," Charles observed lightly, nodding along as Nicolette explained her cousin's part in matters. He bared his teeth in fierce approval as she declared her intent to pass beyond the common bounds.


"The only way to succeed. The only way to live, for that matter. To be restrained by tradition is to stagnate, and to stagnate is to die a little every day. Bring a little colour into the lives of those poor grey creatures and wake them from their torpor Mademoiselle, I beg you."


Atop the stairs they bantered teasingly. Charles mentally congratulated himself on correctly guessing at Nicolette's peeve and preempting her annoyance. He had done rather well, to judge from her flared eyes. (Which, he noted, were wonderfully pretty.)


"Why, every mental sinew is strained to its utmost limits. If a thing is worth doing, it is worth overdoing."


And then the moment of truth, the wickedly delivered challenge and the string bound finger offered forth. The moment called for theatre, and Charles duly responded, kneeling smoothly while his left hand came out to rest under her palm, fingertips pressing lightly upwards against the pulse point in her wrist, and his right hovered, ready to remove the string. He looked up at her.


"An honour unlooked for, and gratefully received." Nimble fingers removed the string. "And now, Mademoiselle, the ground between us is even." He kissed her hand, a brief, formal gesture, but he was relying on context to make it intimate.


Charles released her hand and stood gracefully. He placed the string in his pocket and drew out a coin. He marched it across his fingers once, then flicked it down the stairs.


"Oops. How clumsy of me. I suppose I had best go get that."


Charles turned to do just that, smirking to himself. He had a sneaking suspicion that, should she find her feet, Nicolette would wrap him around her finger. That would be no uncomfortable fate, but he was obliged to make a game of it.

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Nicolette too, knew Charles enough to know she'd find support there, "... the proverbial rug need be whipped out." there was just one lady that she wanted to watch fall. She was a cunning opponent, a worthy rival, and at every turn became a banal fence that stood between Nicci and what she wanted.


But Lord Chatham himself was a more enjoyable contemplation currently, his verbiage of the mental strains taken were enthralling. "Such an athlete," she replied in appreciative softness, "and yet barely a sweat broken."


She was recently discovering herself to be capable of more than she'd imagined -- which gave rise to question what might Chatham achieve if he actually tried? The thought was arousing. Yes and perhaps she goaded him a little. Her finger, with the bow of butchers string tied about it, and offered as though it was highest prize.


The theatre of it seemed to appeal to the man. Nicolette gasped muted delight as he took to the role, adopting knee, and taking her hand so tenderly! Utter love of the moment shone from her eyes, the pregnant pause before the undoing was the stuff of heart ache.


"La, you might undo me completely." she breathed taking up her part, bending to touch his cheek, fingers softly slipping away as he finally arose.


Poignance was sweetest when not actually suffered.


Yet upon arising it became clear that this was a play of two acts - and her cues, a coin tossed, set bouncing and clattering down the stair, and an Earls glance (decidedly cheeky) as he thought to exeunt. It was a dare.


His boot was already upon the stair tread, she had no time to think, but snatched at the first thoughts. "Have you experienced this 'clumsiness' long my lord? And have you the accompanying smirk? Oh my. But yes you have! And don't tell me... yes you have that too; eyes that gloat!" she moved to the railing with her assessment, feigning grave concern, "Why you have no time to bother with trifles..." she paused. Where am I going with this?!


"Shall the coin land heads or tails downstairs, I do not know. I do know I would prefer you to chase the tail that is upstairs." With a small smile of that, she turned and entered her office.

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"Why, the game is barely underway! 'Twould be shameful to sweat so early. No, I've learned the value of pacing myself for the long march." He waggled his eyebrows to underline the suggestiveness. "I might sweat in the final sprint, but not before then."


Charles loved theatrics, and it seemed that Nicolette was a kindred spirit. They played out their respective roles in their little drama as though they had rehearsed them a thousand times. The brief contact, the whispered words, the mischievous glint shared in their eyes, all perfect. It really was wonderful, Charles thought, how easily they played off one another.


"Undo you completely, Mademoiselle?" He whispered as he rose. "That would make for quite the sight."


His next little performance reaped interesting fruit. He had merely intended to grant Nicolette's expressed wish of seeing him descend and climb the stairs again, only for Mademoiselle Vauquelin to redirect his ends. He laughed heartily at her closing comment and followed her to the office.


"I fear the smirk and gloating eye are long standing ailments. The clumsiness, however, is new and manifests only in your presence. My blood grows hot, my mind feverish, my hands stiff and my tongue thick. Can you think of what it might be, and how we might treat it?"

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As a man he positively reeked of innuendo, were he a billy goat she'd smell him miles away (And.. likely vault those miles to better savor his sultry miasma.)


And so they played. Nicolette likewise attune to the way they fed off each other, and so marvelously, with spirits high and a very strong sense of mutual attraction. It was hardly a question of If, but When.


Hips swinging she left the hall, and smiled as she heard clatter of feet behind. Reaching her desk she turned, having now managing to dialed down her amusement. Like he said, this was but the start. "Why that all but confirms it..." she sat at her desk, and gestured to the seat opposite for him, lips rupturing into a smile as she watched his choice in that. Would he actually take the chair? "You are suffering from Sappho, a god before my eyes, and death but a step away."


Or at least his phrases reminded her so much of the poetry.


"Yet to cures? Perhaps I prefer to leave you afflicted?"

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There was a wonderful, simple pleasure in a graceful woman walk, Charles reflected as he followed behind Nicolette to the office. His smirk widened as he ignored the indicated chair, opting instead to perch himself on the edge of the desk, smiling down at her. He was distinctly interested in seeing how she reacted to the proximity.


That smile widened at her diagnosis. He did so love a well-read woman.


"Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear," he quoted. "I had not realised the resemblance until you said it. How does the passage go again?"


He closed his eye and leaned his head back, summoning the quote up from the depths of his memory.


"Ah. I have it." His eye opened and met her gaze. " 'When I look on you a moment, then I can speak no more, but my tongue falls silent, and at once a delicate flame courses beneath my skin, and with my eyes I see nothing, and my ears hum, and a wet sweat bathes me and a trembling seizes me all over.' Ha. You are erudite along with all your other gifts, Mademoiselle. Do you seek to put every other woman in London in the shade?"


He pouted at her playful teasing.


"Fie, you are cruel Mademoiselle." The pout became a grin. "I knew there was a reason I liked you."


He leaned in, voice lowering.


"But if death looms, then would you advise me to savour every moment left to me?"

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Bold. Though that was hardly a surprise, still she gave a laughed as he perched so near, and adjusting herself supposed he had a fine view. Or had she? He tipped back his head and spoke those words of adoration, looking so fine, so carefree as some spright that might fly in the window. This was not the sort of man who'd be netted, it was in that which she felt such an affinity.


Yet for the moment she was caught away upon those words of love. "La... such passion, does it even exist?" she breathed, fingers tracing up his shin, a glint of mischeif appearing in her eyes, "or is it yet another fable?"


"Erudite," she played coy, batted her lashes as though she did not understand, and gleaming still suggested, "But Lord Chatham, you must mistake me for some other 'competitive' girl... when I am the most unassuming sort, relying upon pure luck for my advancement." She tipped her head, and blinked again, fingers tracing a little higher up his shin.


She did rather love his accusation of cruelty, in the games between men and women it was an enchanting role for a woman. So he leaned in, face so well placed for a kiss, yet it was met with the ladies fingertip (it's progress of his shin abandoned.) "One taste shall find you addicted." Whispered. "though perhaps it is already too late."


She had a conflict between a desire for fun, and a desire to apply her skill. If he was like she suspected, and in the grips like Master Cole had been, then she had an experiance that advised caution. "You are taking opium?"

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Heavens, but she's a rare one.


The thought ghosted across his mind as he appreciated the trailed finger and teasingly breathy voice.


"Of course such passion exists, Mademoiselle. The proof sits before you." He cocked his head, offering her his throat. "But touch, and feel the fires that burn within."


Charles laughed again at Nicolette's false humility, pleasantly aware of her finger on his shin. He loved these moments, so full of potential and delicious tension.


"Oh come now, my dear, a little modesty is becoming, but any more is frankly wearisome. If Fortune has played any part in your advancement, I shall wager that it is only because you have made your own luck."


He leaned in yet further, only to find his progress halted by a finger. His eye flashed with delight at this intervention, well pleased to stretch this little dance out.


"Addicted? Perhaps, but what sweet chains to be bound by." He nipped at her digit. "But it is a lady's prerogative to be cruel, even by denying a dying man his succour."


He pouted at her switch to professionalism, but consented to the change and leaned back. He was capable of patience, however little he cared for it usually.


And this has the taste of a deferment rather than a rejection.


"I imbibed last night, but not since. My usage tends to vary. Some weeks are better than others. Some I have no pain at all. Generally a flask of mid-strength laudanum lasts a day, perhaps a little longer. The pipe I reserve for before bed or... social occasions."

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  • 2 weeks later...

It was too tender an offer to resist. Nicolette lifted hand, touched fingers to his pulse point... this unexpected, unlikely even, baring of neck seemed somehow marvelous. It was like he exposed himself, though in a way she had never imagined.


Her eyes met his, searching, enquiring. Who are you Charles Audrey?


Then back to the expected banter they returned, she goading, and he responding. "Am I book so easily read? La, but do you know, there is rather less to luck other than perception. Why, I would wager that the same instance might be perceived by one man as fortune, and another as mystery. Therein is unlocked the saying 'fortune favors the bold' for it is the bold who do not sit about sulking." she enjoyed toking of such things with Charles, he was her peer in this, she simply knew it. From the moment they had first me she'd felt that affinity.


"Though. While we are talking wagers. What sort of wager did you have in mind?"


Yes they would kiss surely. A great storm of desire was brewing, roiling dark clouds rumbling a spine shivering thunder, anticipation of lightening strikes and... her finger tip pressed.


A finger upon a dyke. The dyke would still surely burst. Wouldn't it?


He nipped at her finger, and with a grin she retracted.


"Then it is not a retreat from the world?" she asked of his usage casually, though the question held personal significance. She did not want to become tangled up with a manic. Though if he was, it might already be too late. In her switch to professionalism, she stood, and asked frankly, "May I?" before pressing her hand under his hair to press, massaged through the areas around his neck and the base of his scalp. "Where does the pain exist." she wished to check if it was a muscular or bone problem.

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Charles felt his pulse jump under Nicolette's fingers. Well, no shame in that. Any man who could keep sitting there and remain completely unaffected by her touch was either wholly uninterested in women or so old that any interest was perforce academic.


(It occurred to him that he was unused to the sensation of fingertips on his throat. Lips, yes, but Charles could not think of the last time anyone else had touched his throat. He even shaved himself, on the basis that if anyone was going to be holding a sharp piece of steel to his neck it was going to be him. The whole thing was curiously intimate for something born from a moment's unthinking bravado.)


Pleasant, though, for all that, and he smiled back at her as they danced on, the uncomplicated pleasure he took from such things shining in his eye.


"Easily read, Mademoiselle? Not in the slightest. This is heavy work, and I would appreciate you not making light of it," he mock-chided.


He grinned fiercely and nodded along in agreement with her thoughts on luck.


"Exactly! Luck is the crutch of the mediocre and the lament of the incompetent. For the bold and the talented-" for us, his gaze proclaimed, "- there is no such thing. Oh, there is chance, indeed, but chance levels out if you live long enough and if chance can undo you, you were never fit to succeed." He shook his head. "No, for the great there is only, as you say, the hunt, the opportunity."


Her mention of wagers intrigued him. He had used the word only as a figure of speech, but if Nicolette wanted to play, he was of no mind to deny her.


"I'll admit that I had no specific wager in mind, but I'm sure that between us we can think of something suitably... exciting. But let us be different, and settle stakes first. Lady's choice, name yours and I'll match it."


He accepted her change in demeanour, content to wait for the culmination.


"A retreat from the world? No. Merely an all-too frequent necessity to meet it, if anything."


He closed his eye and sighed in relaxation under her massaging fingers. His previous physicians had done similar, of course, but Nicolette's touch was considerably more pleasant.


"Behind the eyes and forehead, aching in time with my pulse usually. It is quiescent at the moment."


Quite unconsciously, he reached up and stroked the back of her hand.

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It was strangely erotic. Fingertips to the vein, mortality and eternity hung between them, her ears rung. It frightened her, and attracted. It would be too easy to love this man.


She did not want love, love was for the weak.


Mlle Vauquelin was far more comfortable with the witty banter, "The gleam of exertion on your brow is such a pretty thing, pray don't give up." The scent of him, everything about him appealed. She eased away, before she might pinch or scratch him for that (or, either better or worse, throw herself at him with intent to devour!)


"Hah." it was a rough sound of agreement from her lips then, disdain for the unworthy. "Those are the words of personal experiance, tell me, Lord Chatham, of the time you speak."


Wagers. Dares. Verbal contracts. Nicolette's eyes slid over the man, wondering to what she would bid for him to match. "Well... a girl does like pretty baubles, and the thought of tagging a gentleman for all to remark upon. 'Oh this?' you shall say, 'why this is my emerald from Mademoiselle Nicolette.' And we might savor the flare of their eyes, and the wondering of how that came to be." she gave a small smile with the sweet tasting fantasy. But she could afford no gemstones with which to bid.


"Slavery for a day." High stakes. Though as a woman she had trust that the Earl would not abuse. Though if she won, she was a little less likely to be so merciful, as Lady of Misrule she had a reputation to set after all.


Her eyes flashed of the sport.


Stakes set, "And next, the wager itself." she'd chosen the bid, how difficult would he make the gamble?


And then he was relaxing some, her patient with trust closed his eye. She moved closer still, attempting not to heed the warmth of his breath. Fingers pressed into his gleaming locks, worked along his shoulders. Taut, but not rigid, and the bones felt in alignment. "How long has it been so?" voice quiet, she wondered of his injury. "Some wounds leave ghost pain." Apologetic of the question she asked again, "May I?" as her hand shifted to move the eyepatch. With his hand upon hers, she would forgo the effort with any resistance from him.

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His eye glinted.


"'Tis not often that I hear the word 'pretty' directed at me Mademoiselle. How could I give up now, when the rewards are so sweet?"


Charles cocked his head to one side as Nicolette all but growled agreement with him. He rather enjoyed the fierce passion in her voice.


"My whole life is an example of such, as I am certain that your's is Mademoiselle. But if you desire a more specific case," he gestured between them "This, mademoiselle. Another might look at our meeting, and all the benefits that have and might yet spring from it, and deem it the work of fortune. You and I know better. It was on both our parts a thing of opportunities seen and taken, no?"


The talk turned to wagers and stakes. Charles smiled throughout, but was mildly perturbed by her talk of gemstones. If she settled on that, he would have no option but to win. He was actually relieved when she finally opted for slavery for a day.


"High stakes indeed. We shall need a wager to match it in daring. Hmm. Are those candles we scorned the other day still lit? If so, we could race to acquire one. We might even make a proper treasure hunt of it, each seek to hunt down a candle, a lady's garter, a gentleman's handkerchief, perhaps one or two other things... What do you think?"


He relaxed under her touch as she investigated his scalp, neck and shoulders.


"Hmm? I lost the eye very nearly three years ago, but I've suffered from migraines for considerably longer. Over eight years, starting when I was in Tangiers." He gave her a quick smile. "There was some phantom pain from the eye for a time, though."


He made no move to stop her from removing his patch. There was little of interest behind it. Some scarring, and a Venetian prosthetic of gold and glass holding the socket in shape.

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His example gave her pause. While appreciative of the intellect it revealed, she suddenly wished... "I would like to see the accounting." she admitted. What did she have to gain? What did he have to gain? Was it equal, a fair trade? But then with a tip of head she grinned, "Ah. But that hardly matters does it, for the bold shall write their own ledgers."


Still, he brought to the surface her thoughts of ambition, might he be a tool towards that. "Did you spend a little time in Paris, when abroad?" the question popped into mind.


Charles seemed to like the stakes set - it was less cliche than cash. "Ooo... yes a treasure hunt." Nicolette approved, "acquire but not purchase." she added of the church candle, "and the garter and handkerchief need be from persons outside our circles. La! Such fun. Though we could cheat personal effects so easily, why would we trust ourselves to play fair!" she gave a little laugh. "Perhaps because buying those things at the shop would be so dreary. Very well then, but let us promise, that if either of us are caught red handed, the other shall redeem the others innocence or loose by default."


She'd not quite thought that through, and now it was said, wondered if the subclause might prove the most difficult part of the contest if it came into play.


"Mmm... I am sure I could 'explain away' why your hand was caught sliding up Lady Habersham's leg." the thought had her burst into laughter. No he'd steal some young pretty things garter - but it was fun to imagine a more desperate move.


More sensibly though, her study of his ailment. "Ah." with a nod to the timing of the headaches, and her hand left his eye covering in place. "... you recall no cause for their start, you cannot guess to their cause. No doubt you have seen physicians before. Tangiers you say." she thought upon that, hot air, muggy, probably insects. Could it have been a bite introducing a poison to his body. "It is perhaps some imbalance of the humors from that region. Did the Doctors give you Jesuits' bark?" There was something of a fad for quinine in London after King Charles had been successfully treated, but it not that reason she suggested it.

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"Indeed they do," Charles agreed, "But even the bold can benefit from an alliance of mutual-promotion."


His tone was light and his eye half-lidded, but beneath his languid exterior he watched carefully for Nicolette's reaction to his implicit offer. Her question on Paris was not precisely what he had been expecting. He responded, maintaining his external languor while internally wracking his brain to see if he had gotten up to anything in Paris that might concern a beautiful emigre in London. (Paranoid? Perhaps, but that didn't mean the pretty creature in front of you wasn't trying to poison you because you killed her brother in a duel.)


My God, Naples really was an unmitigated disaster, wasn't it?


"Paris? Yes, I've spent a few weeks there. Wonderful city. Have you any particular reason for asking?"


His suggested wager seemed to meet with approval. He nodded along with Nicolette's proposed rules and clauses, hiding a smile at the last, which was eminently exploitable. Not that he would, of course. Charles had a keen, albeit skewed, sense of sportsmanship when matters were not terribly serious. Cheating would ruin the fun.


"I couldn't submit one of my own handkerchiefs in any case," he told her dryly. "They're all monogrammed." He laughed along with her at her imagined scenario. "Oh, I assure you mademoiselle, if I resort to such blatancy, the lady will not be complaining."


He frowned slightly as a thought struck him.


"Ah, but I have named all of our goals. Would you care to suggest a target or two, if only to be sure that I have not stacked the deck in my favour?"


He looked quizzically at Nicolette, awaiting her response.


"That is the prevailing theory," he agreed with her theory on imbalanced humours. He frowned at her next question, summoning up faded memories. "I think... yes, I have taken Jesuits' Bark."


It had been for malaria rather than migraines, but that he did not recall.

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Perhaps he noticed her reserve that had there peeked, evident perhaps in her vagueness of reply, for the man who'd previously been quick to snap up opportunity to digress now pulled her back onto topic.


"Like your introduction into the Merry Gang perhaps?" she batted lashes upon that. She had essentially sent him upon a quest that propelled him into their group. Of course, he might have propelled himself without her prompt, she only knew that he'd cheerfully left with the Gang, while she'd been left talking to the air head Mignonette.


Admittedly Mignonette's husband was quite interesting, and of course she had set about milking him for his worth. Though that had not been due to Lord Chatham, rather her own vision.


Chuckling to his (paranoid?) return of question about Paris, she spoke, "Those were an eventful few weeks, if I guess correctly. No... no reason particularly." she left it there.


Upon lighter notes they planned their scavenger hunt, both laughing of the sport, growing a game that dripped with trouble! "Good Sir, I think you have not met Lady Haversham. She is an elderly eccentric long over due interment in her family crypt, who even so might complain that the sun wakes her up in the morning!"


"Very well." she paused to think. Treasure hunts by their title made one think of maps, and a treasure chest with a big lock. And... Then the idea struck, " What say a key...and you have to know what door it is for." That sounded a fun thing. "And we get to keep the others key at the end."


"They must have treated you for Tangiers disease." Nicolette supposed, "though some illnesses like that can flare up again. Still. You know of this." No, it must be something unknown, and chronic indeed if it took Laudanum to abate it. "I can prepare you a herb tea to take thrice a day, fever few, chamomile, herbs with soothing quietening properties. And a fever-few tincture that you can take as needed. But, can I recommend to you to visit Doctor Winchester. I met him at Church the other day, and he might better assist you than I. Mention my name... he will appreciate that I refer you to him."

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Charles smiled thinly at Nicolette's batted eyelids, adroit enough to realise what dangerous ground he trod upon. Their exchange had been unequal thus far, and mademoiselle was undoubtedly correct in pricking him with the fact.


"A fine example," he agreed dryly. "My own value lies less in the way of introductions, I admit it, but, well, I have keen ears, so to speak."


He fancied her intelligent enough to know what he meant by that.


This brief digression to Paris was vaguely worrisome, though. There had to have been some reason to her asking, hadn't there? But there was no point to stressing over it if she was playing coy. (Charles would in fact give good odds that the point had been to make him stress, so that he would miss or expose something later in the conversation.)


So it was that he replied with full languor, airily dismissing the topic.


"Oh passably interesting, I suppose. I might be prepared to share the stories when we get to know one another better."


He grew more animated as they discussed their treasure hunt, a certain boyish delight in mischief shining out of him.


"Well, if she's that decrepit, she should be doubly grateful, no?" He snorted with amusement. "And a key, yes. That sounds capital."


As a purely technical matter, he considered if knowledge of the servants' passages would fit the criteria. Probably, but he would search for an actual physical key as well, just as insurance. (And, he would admit, out of a desire to keep that knowledge to himself.)


He listened carefully to her diagnosis and prescription. He would try the tea, certainly. It was far from the most onerous or outré treatment he had been given. He frowned slightly as she advised him to seek out another doctor.


"I shall visit the good doctor, I suppose. He cannot possibly be worse than the last I consulted. Fellow told me I ought to get trepanned. I told him that I had seen many men get holes in their skulls and not a one had their health improved for the experience, but I would try the treatment if he demonstrated its efficacy on himself. He demurred." Charles gave a knife-sharp smile in reminiscence. "Where does this Winchester practice?"

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Nicolette met his gaze, he at least did not deny it, though it was not that fact alone that provoked her easing up on him. "I am perceptive that, Lord Chatham, your forecast holds much potential quite apart from your ears." She was not so green to not see her friendship with Charles as something of an investment, and imagined as much from his own view.


Paris. The place held far more significance to Nicolette than some locale she'd interrogate him about. Formative years, where she'd learnt how the world worked. And yet for all of that achieved so very little. But she said nothing of her private thoughts behind the question to him, for he worried about it, and was naught but when she let the subject go.


'When we get to know each other better.' There was something in how he said that, that revealed that day might never come. She felt a distancing. Whatever had happened to him in Paris, the memory of it formed a divide between them.


She tipped her head, gave a small smile and looked away.


"Shall we invite others to join in our hunt?" she thought to ask now, though it had started as a wager, it had rather grown, and, perhaps he...


"The madness stone." she nodded of that, "but that is more common to the traveling quack, in London the Royal College of Physicians are very sober, very serious. You may trust Doctor Winchester I believe. I wish that I could do something more for you. But this pain in your head, it is caused by something that I do not know. You take the strongest pain treatment that is available, so my teas, they shall seem to help you little. To help you much, you need to learn the cause. And I. I do not know this."


If he was disappointed, then she was too. She'd been unable to help Lord Maldon, and now Chatham too. This, upon the heels of being invited to take the exam, made it seem rather pointless.


"I believe he works from Chelsea Hospital, but he has a house in Chelsea, which is probably the best place to call." she leaned back in her chair, something crunched, looking down she saw the crushed crackers she'd forgot.

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Charles frowned internally as Nicolette looked away. Something in it ran contrary to his working theory on her motivations, and he had the sense of an opportunity missed, of ground lost.


Well, nothing to do about that now but retake it and pay more attention in future. Their little wager reintroduced that lost sense of fun to their interaction briefly, before Nicolette seemed to draw away again, suggesting that they invite others to join their game. He shook his head.


"Personally, I would prefer to keep our hunt a... private affair. Intimate. If you want different, then I will accede to your wishes but..." He shrugged.


He could sense her disappointment in failing to heal all his ills instantly. Well, he had surer footing here, knowing what his role was. Diplomatically ignoring the crunching sound, he leaned forward.


"Oh come now Mademoiselle, no pouting. Your tea and tincture will, at the very least, allow me to replace laudanum when treating the milder headaches, which is to the good. Your conclusions tally exactly with those of the finest, or at least most expensive, doctors of England, France, Italy and Austria, which argues a great deal of talent in your chosen occupation. Further, unlike many of the aforementioned doctors, you have delivered your conclusions with courtesy and charm and have recommended another for me to see instead of trying to give me the runaround. Would that all my medical visits were as pleasant or as productive."

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But he did not want invite others. (For a moment she had wondered if he was reconsidering her company upon account of her being French) Nicolette's eyes lifted to meet his gaze again, "An adventure between just you and I is my preference too."


Perhaps she had just a spate of nerves? Lord Chatham was a rare one, sure words and allure draped in a cloak of nonchalance, yet with unexpected depths.


Nicolette gave a small smile. "And I do not truly wish for a crowd when we explore the places led to with our keys. We shall surely venture there wont we? If only to risk being caught." her eyes flared, and lips spread into a full grin.


Still it was a very different mood that descended with perceived failure. As she'd thought it might be malaria, her hopes had risen for a cure, but... but no, of course everyone had tried that already.


Unaware of her pout, she was rather more focused upon trying to sound professional, and not to cry. Perhaps she did not manage that charade very well, for the gentleman before her was called to valour - bending forward to console. Roles rather reversed. Yet needfully so.


"I really hoped." her voice caught as she admitted, "hoped I could help you."


He was brave of it, but then he was a soldier. He spoke as a man who'd accepted what he need endure, without resentment nor bitterness.


"You are kind." she gratefully accused, reaching to squeeze his hand. Upon a pause, she then said, "You once asked me what attracted me to herbal lore, I did not reply. It was my Grandpere. Like any little girl I loved flowers, but he encouraged me to learn more. He brought me books and praised my study, and I discovered a happy purpose. It is that naive little girl in me that is so upset still when I cannot help. Please, do not tell anyone you have seen her." her cheeks had pinked.


It was embarrassing after all, when here she was ever claiming to possess a devil may care spirit.

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"Then we shall keep it a private affair."


His lips curved to match hers.


"That has always been half the fun of it, at least for me," Charles agreed, love of mischief frolicking in his eye. "The threat of discovery adds a certain spice."


But the return of the atmosphere of fun was all too brief, Nicolette becoming upset at her lack of ability to work miracles.


"And you have helped Mademoiselle. If nothing else, these teas should prove a pleasant alternative to laudanum. 'Tis fearfully bitter, as I am sure you know, and I sin grievously in taking it in good liquor to make it palatable. So you see, you have at the very least saved my soul." He smiled down at her and waggled his eyebrows, hoping to provoke at least a grin.


He listened in silence as Nicolette continued, confining himself to squeezing her hand back. He paused for a moment to order his thoughts before answering.


"I have never been called kind before," he said wonderingly.


So much for ordering my thoughts.


He shook his head and pressed on.


"It is good to have a purpose, mademoiselle, and there is no shame in having being passionate about it. That you feel so strongly over this says only good things of you. But if you did not wish me to speak of it, then I will not."


Charles felt the need to reciprocate somehow, offer a personal revelation of his own, but nothing appropriate occurred to him.

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So it was settled - the premise at least for a string of flirtatious conversations as the treasure hunt progressed.


"And I dare say redeeming your soul is just what you most hope for from a lady." Nicolette gave a wry smile, easing away from her discomfort with humor.


"Yes kind, and hold onto your hat, for I shall say you are graceful of it also." Adjusting, she did not feel near so bad after being reminded she kept good company in not being able to solve the riddle of his health.


"... well, not unless you perceive some 'mutually beneficial' advantage of it." she added sub-clause to his vow of silence, with quick smile of her reference of earlier on.


"Then." she arose, "I shall mix you your blend, would you like to see the kitchen. You may call it laboratory if you like, my cousin prefers to call that. I think it helps him mentally qualify his investment to imbue it with academic titles. But, it is a kitchen none the less, even if a rather fantastically prepared one. I would love to show it." Nicolette's smile was honest and warm, ignoring the further crunch of crackers underfoot, though pausing long enough to shake her head and tut of them before stepping away. "And I have saved you a toffee-apple."

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Charles laughed, delighted to see Nicolette smiling again. (It was a principle of his that one should always seek to make beautiful women smile, though he assured his cynicism that this was based purely on aesthetic grounds.)


"Well, it not something that any other can offer me, mademoiselle, and do not underestimate the allure of the unique."


Charles was generally familiar with embarrassment only in the intellectual sense, but as Nicolette insisted on calling him kind and graceful he began to feel what could only be faint stirrings of it.


"Well, far be it from me to argue with a lady." He laughed, seeking to reassert his self-possession. "More allure of the unique."


He nodded at her addendum to his promise of secrecy and stood along with her, continuing his policy of diplomatically ignoring the crackers. He answered her smile in kind.


"It is a masculine thing," he confided. "We like to give things grandiose titles. But regardless of what we call it, I would be delighted to see anything you wish to show me."


He frowned confusedly at her last statement.


"A toffee apple?"

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