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In The King's Presence Chamber | 28/12, early afternoon- Xmas 1677

Sophia de la Cerda

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The Kings Presence Room was the first room of the Kings Apartments, and open to all those of the gentry and even well respected merchants. Built in Tudor style the room had a vaulted ceiling and lovely Gothic windows. More modern paintings by Lely among others graced the wall. The room easily held over 50 gathering courtiers and seating, lovely plum coloured chairs and couches provided for their ease. Here one waited, hopeful to catch a glimpse of the King. To guard what little was left of his privacy, Charles Rex had ordered that none may enter past the Presence room without his personal permission, save for those he considered family.


Sophia had requested that Lord Kingston not reply to her letter if he was able to meet her this afternoon. Since she had received no note from him, she assumed that he would be in the King's Presence Chamber and that they would have a chance to speak together. He was no longer her guardian, but she missed him. He had been very good to her during the summer by allowing her to walk around his yacht to help her overcome her fear of water and she hoped maybe there would be some way that she could assist him in the future.


She was still wearing the same gown she had worn this morning on her trip to the Curiosity Shop with Nicolette. It was made of crushed velvet gown in hues of violet, teal, and amber, shot through with golden threads. Her underskirt was of amber silk and the long puffed sleeves were trimmed with golden ribbons and violet fabric rosettes. Rosettes adorned the modestly-cut neckline as well. Around her neck she wore a golden necklace with a small teardrop shaped amethyst in its center and matching earrings in her ears. Her hair was arranged in an updo held in place by amethyst-studded golden combs, and long fat ringlets streamed over her shoulders and down her back.


Stepping into the chamber, Sophia wondered if Francis would already be there or if she had arrived first. She looked for his tall figure and blonde curls, at the same time taking note of any others who were also milling about the room.


Would she see the King today? She rather hoped that she would.

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Francis had gotten to the palace rather early since his sailor's instincts told him by the first light of the horizon that it might be a fine day. With his long legs he was a favoured companion for His Majesty's morning walks for the mere fact that he could easily keep up.


Thus, he had entered the Presence Chamber from the other door not long before Sophia arrived and busied himself speaking to a few gentlemen whilst he waited. She would likely catch sight of his blond hair peeping above many of the others in the room before he would sight her diminutive form. He was wearing a velvet justacorps accented with gold embroidery with tan breeches and boots. Brocade was not conducive to cold weather walking, so only his waistcoat was of the lighter fabric. His expensive finery that morning was mostly in the copious lace, more Buckingham's taste than his own but he was representing more than just himself as his mother always reminded him.


One pearl and sapphire hung from an earring. He had decided that if jewels were required of him, they would be in his style and perhaps a homage from his sea-faring days.

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Even when she looked up, Sophia was so small she had a difficult time seeing over other people's heads. She caught a flash of blonde hair and moved in that direction, finally spotting Francis looking quite dashing in his fine clothes. If he keeps dressing like that, soon he'll be as well-known for his fashion sense as I am. Despite the lace, there was absolutely nothing foppish about him.


He's rather handsome, she thought, and immediately berated herself for it. She wasn't supposed to find her former guardian attractive. The petite singer didn't fancy him, though. She thought of him more as an older brother, someone she could count on if she ever needed assistance or protection. He had helped her husband stop those two Italians who had tried to swindle her out of her money and attempted to kidnap her. He was no longer responsible for her, so he must care for her at least a little to have put his own life in danger for her.


Sophia wanted to impress him, to show him how she had changed from a rebellious young girl into a sophisticated Ambassador's wife (even though she'd really not changed much at all). He had been against her marrying a Spaniard, but if she had wed one of those untitled Englishmen he had introduced her to at the King's birthday ball, she would not have risen much in status.


She smiled as she approached him, smiling engagingly. “Lord Kingston!” she exclaimed. “Happy Christmas! I hope you have been enjoying the season so far.”

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Francis had not noticed her approach, but as soon as she came up to him, he smiled.


"Happy Christmas," he returned, with a dip of his head. "You are looking very well." She did not seem to be pregnant yet.


"Excuse us, gentlemen," he said, taking his leave of his temporary conversation partners.


"I have been, although I prefer the finer weather I think. It is uncommonly cold and snowy. Were you in the mountains enough for snow in your province?" he asked, speaking of Germany. He did not wholly know how much she had seen of snow.

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“Thank you,” she replied, preening a bit at his compliment. As soon as they were away from his companions, she added: “I love that earring. Soon all of the gentlemen will be wearing them and you will start a fashion trend.”


Like her, Francis seemed to prefer warmer weather. “Do you miss Venice too?” She had first met him there when she was still a child. He had done business with her father and the family she had been staying with. Except for Lord Maldon, he was the only other person who knew that she had sung opera for the general public.


“Yes, it snowed quite often on our estate. I used to make snow forts and have snowball fights with the children in the nearby village. There was a pond there that froze every year and I would watch them skate, longing to join them, but too afraid that the ice would break.


“It is not usually this snowy England? Do you know if there are any frozen ponds or lakes? I think I would like to try to skate now that I am overcoming my fear of water.” She failed to mention that she had already attempted it with the handsome and alluring Lord Arundel. Sophia had found it exciting and exhilarating and wanted to try it again. “Do you know how to skate, Lord Kingston?”

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"Won't my cousin, His Grace, be proud then," Francis replied, with a brief laugh. Fashion was more the duke's thing, but Francis was more subjected to it. If an earring could be his claim, then he would surely run with it.


"In many ways, yes. I miss the sunshine and some of my friends. I am adjusting to this new life, though, and my lady mother is happy I am on solid ground. His Grace seems to enjoy me being in the house."


He nodded as she spoke of the snow in her home country. He could not remember ever building a snow fort or anything the like.


"Not usually. It is rarely cold enough for things to freeze." In fact one could generally ride and hunt through winter in England without worrying about catching one's death. "No, I confess to never ice skating before. I seems like a good way to fall on one's arse," he whispered the last bit, not wanting to be overheard being so frank.


"Have you, my lady?"

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“I'm sure he is very proud of you already, and your lady mother as well. You have achieved so much.” The way he dressed reminded her a bit of the flamboyant yet intimidating Duke. It was good to hear that both of them were happy with his current living arrangements and Sophia wondered if Buckingham had been partially ... or fully ... responsible for his position with the King.


She nodded in agreement. “It could get chilly in Venice, but nothing like it is here or in Germany. I have never tolerated cold temperatures well. I miss my friends too, particularly Signora Grimani. She was like a mother to me. Have you spoken to her since I left? I have been thinking of writing her a letter to tell her about my marriage and that I am now the wife of an Ambassador. I hope she has forgiven me by now.”


Sophia remembered little of the previous winter. Most of it had been spent indoors, grieving for her father. She had spent part of it with Francis' mother and grandmother when her other guardian and his family had gone to the country after the death of his wife.


She knew for a fact that one pond had frozen. Perhaps others had as well. His assessment of the sport made her laugh. “Yes, I imagine that would happen quite often. But once you learn how, I think it would feel like flying.


I have never tried it, but I plan to buy a pair of skates either today or tomorrow. Do you know anyone who might be able to teach me? And you too. It would be fun if we learned together.” Sophia had always felt safe with him.

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Francis smiled at her. He was not sure he had achieved much of anything other than being agreeable to His Majesty and his newfound uncle, but he had been very fortunate which was a different feeling altogether. One led to ego, the other to gratitude, so Francis fit the latter.


"Of course I correspondence with the Grimanis," Francis replied. He did do business with them and within their circle. He had not, however, spoken of Sophia. It was something of a gentle measure dealing with Italians. They were quite good at holding grudges, so he had little idea of the lady's feelings for Sophia.


"You should write to her if you wish to. I could hardly think what her state must be in your regard. I should like to think the wound healed, but you know how Italians can be."


Chuckling, Francis shook his head. She was quite adventurous for someone who had once been scared of water. He preferred his water liquid. Ice was wholly appealing, and Francis was one who horribly disliked making a fool of himself; he even avoided his mediocrities, let alone things he had little experience in.


"I'Faith I do not!" He tried to hold in another laugh. "If I have never had the desire to, how would I know of someone who could teach such a thing? I should think it more trial and error."

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Both of them had moved up in the world since he had brought her to England a little more than a year ago. Sophia hoped that both their stars would continue to rise, although she believed that he would become more influential than she. It was a man's world and ladies could only achieve so much, but she could stand behind Esteban and help him fulfill his ambitions, both here and in Madrid. If he let her.


She had figured that Francis was still in contact with the Grimanis. Both he and her father had done business with them. Her pert little nose wrinkled when he implied how stubborn Italians could be. How well she had learned that when her secret had been revealed. Signora Grimani had been livid with her for repaying her kindness with dishonor.


“Yes, I know, which is why I have hesitated to write her. I have been thinking of it since I married. I want us to be on good terms again, so that when my lord husband and I visit Venice, I can introduce him to her.” She really wanted the woman to meet Don Juan, whom she hoped would accompany them on their travels if he came to London at the end of the season as he had promised.


Sophia shrugged her delicate shoulders. “I suppose I will. The worst she can do is throw it into the fire unopened. Will you deliver it for me the next time you go to Venice? I would like to know what her reaction is. Or do you think it would be better for me just to send it to her myself?” She didn't want to put him in an uncomfortable position.


He was obviously not interested in learning to skate with her, nor did he know of anyone who could teach her. She grinned playfully. “You will change your mind when you see me gliding gracefully across the ice. Then you will ask me to teach you. I guess I will keep asking people I know until I find someone to give me a few lessons. Preferably another lady, so that my lord husband will have no reason to object.” Sophia thought he would have approved of Francis teaching her, since he was her former guardian.


“Did you attend the opera?” she asked. “If you did, what did you think of it?”

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"Do you plan to visit Venice?" Francis asked. His brow furrow. "Did you tell your lord husband of your secret, or do you simply not fear him finding out about it?"


Thoughts about her writing to the Grimanis went out the window when she spoke of visiting Venice. Those prominent in the city knew enough that Sophia could never look for a husband there, and Italians loved scandal to the same degree they held grudges. He worried for her and how she made decisions with her heart instead of her head, or so it seemed to him. She had not given him any information to lead him otherwise.


"I shan't be going to Venice anytime soon, my lady. His Majesty has given his word to my lady mother to keep me on solid ground. It must be some form of treason for me to be the cause of my royal master breaking his word," Francis replied, his smile seeming more innocent when framed by soft features and blond ringlets. In reality, he was happy he would not be going and thus could not be put in the position of deciding whether or not it was a good idea for him to be the bearer of such a letter. The fine, Italian lady might slap him right across the cheek for his cheek, or she might be of kinder mind after some time. Francis did not truly wish to make a gamble; the Grimanis were important to his business. He could not put his workers at risk by making foolish decisions.


"I should think were I to do it, the methodology would be trial and error," he said of ice skating.


"I did attend it and sat next to Master Cole. I enjoyed it very much. You should be very pleased of your incomparable voice, but do not tell His Grace or Lady Gwendolyn that I said as much." Although Gwen was not at court, she still held the duke's heart. He was, in some of the most important matters, not a very fickle man after all.


He, of course, did not mention her bosoms. That was a matter for a husband, not a former guardian.

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“I want to take my lord husband there, but I have not suggested it to him yet. He will probably want to return to Madrid during recess, but maybe he will be willing to take a detour, even if it is a bit out of the way.” Sophia still felt more at home in Venice than she did anywhere else, and she longed to visit again. In truth, she wanted to live there. If Esteban loved it as much as she did, maybe he would ask Juan if he could be Spain's representative in Italy eventually.


As usual, she had not thought things completely through, and she sighed when Francis asked if she had told her husband about her past. If she introduced him to the Grimanis, it was possible that they would mention the scandal. They would wonder why he married a lady with a tarnished reputation. Maybe she should tell Juan about it. It was his opinion that truly mattered. Esteban's views would echo his. Sophia thought that her Prince would understand a young girl's mistake and forgive her for it.


“He does not know. I guess if we do visit Venice, I will have to keep him away from the Grimanis, unless they promise not to speak of it. I doubt that anybody else remembers. There have probably been many other scandals since then, some much more interesting than mine.” She wasn't even Italian. A German girl would be easily forgotten, or so she hoped. “I did tell Lord Maldon about it. He did not condemn me for it and is still my friend.”


It seemed as if she would have to send the letter herself since the king had promised Francis' mother that he would stay in England. “I do not blame your lady mother for wanting to keep you close to her. She must have missed you terribly when you were at sea. And you have such a good life here. You have done very well for yourself and I am absolutely positive that you will go even farther, and become a dear friend to the King. By the time you are your cousin's age, you will as influential as he.”


She grinned at his praise. “Thank you. I am glad you liked it. My voice was truly at its best that night, thanks to Master Cole's perfectionism during rehearsals." She was unaware that her huge heaving bosoms had been nearly as mesmerizing as her voice. “I did not see you when Master Cole was applauded, but being on stage is like standing in full sunlight and looking into a dark room. All you can see is shadows. And do not worry. I will not say a thing."


Sophia tilted her head to the side. “Did Lord Buckingham enjoy it as well? Has he or the King said anything about my performance?"

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Sophia had rarely listened to him, so he doubted that would change now that she was officially free of him, but he still felt the familial bonds which held him to her welfare. He had to at least try.


"Sophia, you cannot bring your husband to the place of the ruination of your reputation," he hissed quietly into her ear. His eyes were wide but serious, as if daring her to tell him that the risk was worth it. As always, she was too young to understand how the world worked. It was a mother's duty to explain reputations and ruination and such matters to a girl; not to mention all rituals and obligations of marriage. One of the prime ones was not to expose your husband's to ridicule. Such a trip would break a host of other rules, and from his undertanding the Spanish were even more staunchy about such things.


"It is your duty not to expose Lord Toledo to ridicule. You cannot do so because you selfishly wish to go back to a city that you miss. You made choices, the most unwise of choices, and there are consequences to that," he continued in the same urgent whisper, looking around to make sure nobody was near enough to overhear. "People do not forget such things. Not to mention common folk can make a fortune blackmailing such a secret in Italy."


This girl would be the death of any man! I could barely survive one year with her reputation intact.


Sophia's name should be folly.


He could not think of anything else she spoke of with such a thing yet in her mind!

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Sophia did listen to the words Francis hissed into her ear. Young and idealistic and too willing to ignore anything she didn't want to see, it had never occurred to her that simply taking Esteban to Venice would be dangerous. It was a large city and she was just one small girl. Certainly they would not stand out from all the other foreigners who regularly visited the heart of music in Italy, as long as she kept him away from the Grimanis.


Except for her diminutive stature, she looked nothing like her alter ego, Giuliana Fiore, She had worn a black wig and her skin had been darkened to make her look Italian. And it had been such a long time since her secret had been uncovered (a year and a half seemed like an eternity when one was sixteen). Why would Francis think that her shocking indiscretion had not been forgotten. Had people still been talking about it the last time he was there?


She sighed as he continued to speak. Sophia did not want her husband to be ridiculed for her foolish mistakes. It wouldn't only reflect badly on him but also on Spain. And while she read about people being blackmailed in books, she had not considered that it might actually happen to her.


She remembered Nicolette's advice that morning on the matter of her marriage. The capricious blonde wanted to improve her relationship with her husband and prove to him that she could be a proper Ambassador's wife. She didn't want to cause a rift between them that could never be mended “So I must stay away from Venice forever?” she asked, her voice soft and forlorn. “I can never go back at all?”


What if she told Esteban what she had done? Maybe he would understand that she had just made a youthful mistake that she now regretted (except that all she truly regretted was getting caught). She would forgive him if there was something scandalous in his past. However, gentlemen didn't think like ladies. Their standards were different when it came to a woman' behavior.


“As long as he does not know, I am still vulnerable to blackmail, even here in England. What if someone who heard me sing in Italy hears me sing here and puts two and two together?” Sophia looked up at Francis, curiosity in her ice-blue eyes. “Do you think I should tell him? If you were married and you found out that your lady wife had performed publicly for a couple of years and that she was sorry for it, what would your reaction be?”

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"That is typically what happens in such cases, yes. You should never go back. The risk is too great."


Perhaps at some time she would learn that her choices could oft have long-term consequences. Of the sort that would impact her future happiness. She might have become an ambassador's wife, but she was still young.


"You are a million times more vulnerable there than here."


Her next question gave him complete pause. Their whispers ceased as he contemplated his answer.


"Sophia...you do not truly wish to ask that question and have me answer it," he finally replied gently. That was probably answer enough. His response would not be favorable. No man's response would be favorable. He did not wish to hurt her, but he would think he had been tricked into marriage by a woman who was a shame and probably a whore. To perform publicly in such a way was to lower oneself to the class of people who could not afford to turn down a generous bit of coin for an increase in luxury. It was not a lapse to forgive; it was, to any with no deep emotion involved, an act of lack of breeding.

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How could she stay away from Venice forever? Sophia loved it there and always would, and she didn't want to give up her dream that Esteban might become its Ambassador, assuming that Spain was represented there. Maybe republics didn't need Ambassadors. It was yet another question to ask Lord Maldon when they met to discuss politics again. Now she knew that her dream was impossible anyway unless she told her husband about her checkered past.


“Oh.” The word emerged from her lips in a startled puff, as if she had been hit in the stomach with a ton of bricks. She had asked Francis how he would react so that she could get a gentleman's point of view, and now she had it. If he were married, he would not forgive his own wife if he found out she had done the same thing. And he was a libertine and much more easy-going than the inflexible and conservative Spaniard she had married. “I guess I can never take him to Venice or tell him what I did.”


But she could tell Juan, and he would make Esteban forgive her. It was a risk, because if Juan didn't understand, he might cast her aside and then she would be completely at her husband's mercy. He could send her away from court forever and condemn her to some isolated estate in the middle of nowhere to live out her life in misery and solitude. Or maybe he wouldn't, because it would look as if he couldn't control his wife and everyone would laugh at him behind his back.


No matter whether or not he sent her away, he would hate her and attempting to gain his trust and approval would be futile.


Sophia refused to dwell on that now. “Change of subject.” She smiled at Francis, although it might look a bit forced. “Has the King or Lord Buckingham said anything about my performance in the opera? His Majesty applauded so loudly I think he loved it, but did your lord cousin enjoy it as well?”


To her knowledge, he had paid for most of it, so she hoped that she had pleased him.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sophia went from one subject that was a rather poor one to another one which was somewhat related. It made him rather uncomfortable, but she was not his wife nor his ward. He had been in the box with Buckingham and next to the King's box; there had been quite a bit of banter back and forth. There had, of course, been much appreciation of her bosoms.


"I think His Majesty made his pleasure clear at the end of the performance. The King has to receive many people around Christmas time, but I am quite sure he will wish to thank you himself at some point," Francis answered.


"His Grace was quite happy, to be sure." The duke, though, was mercurial and did not work on anyone's schedule; the prerogative of one who was raised as a prince with princes. Francis could tell his uncle was caught up in other matters, court machinations. His focus was rather singular. "He has matters of some importance which are eating up much of his time. I have not much spoken to him. Truly I have not much seen him since the performance aside from attending on him and the King whilst they were sparring the other day."


Sophia had something of a singular focus on herself Francis had always noticed. He had always hoped that she would outgrow the conceit of youth.

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Sophia had once thought that the world revolved around her, but now that she was married, she was beginning to realize that she was not the center of the universe. Like most teenage girls, she was still rather self-centered and a bit arrogant about her voice. She had not only performed in the very first opera in London, but she had sung for both Their Majesties, and had been the Queen's birthday gift to the King. And like all performers from the most humble to the most esteemed, she thrived on admiration and praise.


“I do hope he thanks my lord husband too.” The King's gratitude could possibly change Esteban's poor opinion of her performance. Maybe he would even give him a reward for allowing his wife to perform for the English court. She wanted her musical talent to aid him in achieving his goals. Though she wished that she had a voice that could launch a thousand ships, she doubted that her singing would prompt the English to go to war with France. There were other perks that would please her husband.


She was happy to hear that the Duke had enjoyed her performance as well. Sophia believed that he was her best chance of getting an opera house built in London. “I am sorry that they have so many responsibilities that they cannot enjoy the season as much as the rest of us. But that is one of the burdens of power, I suppose.” Eventually she hoped to speak to Buckingham about her dream. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself soon.


Her eyes sparkled with amusement when Francis spoke of His Majesty and His Grace sparring. “That must have been something to see.” What lady wouldn't enjoy watching two handsome gentlemen fencing with each other? She might be married but she certainly wasn't dead.


“Do you have more time to yourself now that His Majesty and His Grace are occupied with other matters?”

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"You know that I am no aficionado of such things," Francis replied, as to whether the King would thank Toledo. After all, Sophia had been to sing the part from before she was married. Plus, the new baron was not court creature enough to know what might be typical in such situations.


"My royal master surely does not ask my thoughts on matters," he added. Rather, he half-lied. He was not supposed to discuss much of anything of the King's private person, really. The King did sometimes ask his thoughts. Francis was simply not the sort to take the license to offer them unsolicited.


"Everyone is a servant of something, my lady. I assure you, both are still enjoying the season. And, yes, both are very skilled with a rapier."


He chuckled as she asked if he had more free time. "No, unfortunately. No more or less than usual, for I do still attend no matter what is happening. I have the same responsibilities, perhaps a bit more." There were more actual receptions of people, for which any monarch had to make a good show of having noble attendants. There was also more need for more gentlemen around the King for the sheer numbers of people attending court over Christmas. Going anywhere required the gentlemanly sport of crowd and well-wisher management. "Perhaps for those more seasoned in their positions, it is no large feat, but for me, it is something like that. I have to prove myself. More to myself than anyone else, perhaps, but it is a service that can be much on display to many important people. His Grace's favor merits me being worthy of the Villiers blood, which I feel is much to live up to."

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Sophia had not expected him to know the King's plans. She had simply been expressing her own wishes. Secretly, she hoped that His Majesty would give her an extravagant gift for her performance, like so many of her admirers had done in Venice. Maybe he would grant Esteban an audience. That should please her politically-minded husband.


“Maybe eventually he will. Your journey had just begun. I would not be surprised if you become one of his favorites, those whose opinions he values most. You have so much potential and you know how to handle difficult situations with finesse.” In her eyes, he had proved that statement by bailing her out of trouble time and again. The King was probably easier to handle than she had been.


“Have you ever fenced with either one of them yourself?” Sailors and swashbuckling went hand in hand in the world according to Sophia, most likely because of the books she read. She had never seen Francis spar, but she assumed that he was an expert. It was a good thing that he had not had to fight a duel in defense of her honor. When he had explained that obligation to her, he had spoken so confidently that he must have been certain he would win.


He didn't seem nearly as confident about his ability to serve the King, but everything was still new to him. His life had changed more profoundly than hers had. He had gone from being a sailor to being the King's attendant, while all she had done was get married. “More responsibilities must mean that His Majesty likes you,” she said, smiling brightly. Sophia looked up to him much as a younger sister looked up to an older brother, and she was proud of all he had accomplished.


“I'm sure you are already proving yourself quite well. In a short time, you have obtained a position that most gentlemen would kill for. And His Grace would not give you his favor unless he thinks you are worthy of it. I doubt he takes all of his relatives under his wing. He must see a promising future ahead of you. You need to believe in yourself, my lord.” Just like I believe in you.


Sophia could not resist teasing him a bit. “And you probably have ladies falling at your feet all the time.”

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Francis let out an amused huff at her encouragements. She was cute and sweet, though definitely rather naive still.


"I do not know about all of that. I simply hope to do well by my family with the advantages my blood affords me. It is as much to do with His Grace as it is to do with me." He could not say it had as much to do with his father as well, but he knew that it was that too.


"I have had the honor of crossing blades with both and can only be pleased to have kept pace as a worthy opponent, for both bested me quite soundly in the end." It was not the truth, but one did not say a word about beating the King at anything, and Francis tended to remember the humility he had been taught. It served him well. If he was ever a great man like Buckingham, perhaps he would be more prone to vanity.


"It is not more responsibility in that sense. It is simply more because there is more going on, not because I am chosen in particular," he clarified. "There are only so many of us and when there is a need for more attendants at any one time, it means more frequent attendance for all of us."


He was pretty enough to be a good ornament when the King was receiving people which was much of the purpose.


"It is not a matter of believing in myself. Truly, I think you read too many novels."

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Sophia thought that Francis was being too modest, but she had been in England long enough to learn that the English didn't like to sing their own praises. Unless they were powerful enough to be arrogant, as his illustrious cousin was. She hoped that Lord Kingston's easy-going demeanor and his affability would not be sacrificed for pompousness and vanity. If he held himself above everyone else, he would most likely no longer associate with her, believing that a foreign Ambassador's wife was beneath his notice. And if he did that, she would not hesitate to kick him in the shins.


“You are lucky to have a family who cares about you.” She sighed softly. He was the closest to family she had now, and they were not truly related. If Esteban treated her cruelly, she would have no one to turn to, although she hoped that she would be able to call on him for protection if she needed it. She didn't think that her husband would mistreat her while she was involved with Juan, but if her royal lover tired of her, she would be completely at Esteban's mercy. His attitude toward her would certainly change, either for better or for worse.


Yet she hoped that day never came and she and Juan would be together forever.


Sophia would have liked to see Francis fence with His Majesty and His Grace. “I am sure they appreciated an opponent who could keep them on their toes. You will probably have more opportunities to clash swords with them.” She couldn't say that she hoped he would win, for that would imply that she wished the King or Lord Buckingham to lose. Idly, she wondered if Francis had let them defeat him.


“It must be exciting for you to attend him with so much happening this season.” Her lyrical voice held a note of wistfulness. If she had married an Englishman, she could have served the Queen. At times like this, becoming a lady-in-waiting seemed wonderful. At other times, she thought that she would not like being at Her Majesty's beck and call all the time and always on her best behavior. It was likely fortunate that her life had turned out as it had.


The petite blonde laughed when he deduced that she read a lot of novels. “Perhaps I do, but you know what my father always told me? If you don't believe in yourself then no one else will.”


Remembering her discussion with Lord Chichester, Lady Habersham, and her husband in another presence chamber, she tilted her head to the side. “Have you heard anything about the New Year celebrations? I have heard absolutely nothing about it myself and I wonder if something exciting is being planned.”

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Francis smiled at her softly, "I spent much time apart from my family. Nor did I have a very big family for much of my life. Do not forget that I did not know any of my cousins when I came to court, not even His Grace." When they had come to court neither of them had known anyone. His brother-like uncle, Sir George, had been at Portsmouth on duties as governor during the King's wedding. Buckingham, then, had not been as involved with him then.


The young baron had needed to make his own relationships with his cousins after coming to court. Aside from Buckingham, he was closest with MiddlesexDorset and the Herberts, mostly from serving in the household with the captain and Lady Susan.


"But I am most grateful for my family, yes." He was very fond of his mother and grandmother. He would have to set aside time to see them in between all of his duties and engagements.


"You have me insomuch as I am able," he added. Of course, she was now an extension of her husband so that limited his intervention, but in a crisis she could run to him. He had already joined with Toledo to deal with the Italians in her honor, and he would likely do so again no matter how much he disliked the Spanish.


"Crossing swords as sparring fodder is one of the better of my duties, I will admit." That was at least one thing he knew he did well enough to be a credit to his blood and family! The gift with blades ran in their family.


"I'm not sure if exciting is the word, but I am happy to be of service. Even if much of it is simply looking pretty and peer-like." He grinned.


As to her comment, he laughed, "Who is to say that I do not?" One did not need to flaunt one's sense of self after all. That was an activity for dukes and princes, not recently ennobled, former baronets.


"I do not know what has been firmly settled, no. I would expect there would be fireworks or something else festive, but not the sort that we experienced at Brighton." Where they had flown over everyone's head like some bizarre attack.

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“But you were able to get to know them.” Her voice was tinted with sadness and a bit of envy. “And they have helped you to succeed here at court. I have no relatives at all, except for my lord husband. His family was very welcoming, but they are in Madrid.” Sophia didn't think he wanted to hear about her complicated relationship with Esteban, and so she did not tell him that they rarely spoke and were completely opposite in personality. She was vivacious; he was reserved. She liked to have fun; he didn't know the meaning of the word.


The petite Baroness smiled gratefully when Francis said that she had him. “Thank you. You should hate me after all the trouble I caused you, yet still you are willing to look after me. My father was wise when he chose you as my guardian.” She wondered if he would still be willing to protect her if the truth came out about Venice, or if he would shun her like everyone else would. He knew her secret, but she didn't expect him to defend her if her illicit singing career was exposed. If he did, then she would be pleasantly surprised.


Sophia would never snub him if he was out of favor. She had been friendly with Lord Chichester when everyone else had avoided him, and the two of them had started out as enemies. Lord Kingston had always been good to her, even when she had been absolutely horrid to him.


She reached up and playfully tweaked one of his blonde curls. “You cannot help looking pretty with that lovely hair and those beautiful blue eyes. And that earring adds to your appeal.” Realizing she had admitted he was attractive, Sophia blushed. “Other gentleman must envy you for your looks as well as your position.”


As for believing in himself: “If you do, you hide it well, but that is better than being haughty.” Unless one had earned one's arrogance or been born into it, like his cousin. Lord Buckingham wore his arrogance flawlessly and it was part of his allure. Not that she fancied him, but many ladies did.


“There were fireworks at Brighton?” she asked in surprise. There had been fireworks inside the carriage when she had joyfully given her most precious gift to Juan, but she had been too distracted by her royal lover's attentions to notice anything that happened outside. They had also been a fair distance away from the festivities. “Nobody told me about them.


“But I will make certain I do not miss them again. I hope there will be another ball. This morning I went shopping with Mistress Vauquelin. She hinted at something she has planned for the New Year celebration, but it did not make much sense to me. How can you hop but not on your feet?”

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"You have my family," he reminded her, "and have been able to get to know them. Do not forget that Sir George risked himself very much for you because of the bonds of honor between our families."


She, like many young people, did not fully appreciate her situation and those who played parts in it. Her marriage to a Catholic made that difficult but not non-existent.


"And I could never hate you." He thought her young and oft troublesome, but there were few people that Francis hated. He hated Charles Kirke, even dead. He hated those who had basely murdered his true father, who had not even been of age. To a far lesser extent he hated FitzJames for not understanding either how his actions devalued Sophia or that a gentleman's word in such a way was his worth. He had hoped and trusted the man better than his birth and had been proved stupid for being trusting with something that was his to protect with his own honor, something he clearly took far more seriously.


He chuckled warmly as she tweaked his curl and complimented his eyes and earring, "Do you like the earring? It is far finer than any I wore at sea, but I find I rather like it though it does not seem in fashion these days." Perhaps that might change, but he cared very little about such things. He liked it, and it at least showed some value worthy of his blood, so that was all that mattered.


"My grandfather would never have let me turn into a haughty man, so we might all thank him for the many whippings I received to keep me in check." He let out a laugh that probably drew some eyes before he quieted himself to some decorum.


"There were," he replied, not putting two and two together that it meant she had been where she shouldn't have been.


"Did you? Are you friends?" he asked. "Hop but not on one's feet?" He pursed his lips, thinking about it. Nothing but lewd things came to mind, and even Mistress Envy knew better than to think hopping on a man's lap a fair thing for public!

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Sophia did not feel like a part of his family even though she absolutely adored his mother and grandmother. They had been angry when they found out she was accepting gifts from a stranger while living under their roof, but his mother had still allowed her to stay with her while her wedding was being arranged. They had gotten along quite well and she had even helped the young German improve her English grammar and didn't complain about her incessant singing.


As for Sir George, she assumed that Francis was referring to the capture of one of the Italians who had tried to fool her into giving them money. She had almost forgotten about that incident. “It was kind of him to help you bring down that awful man. I do not think I ever thanked him for it, but I will the next time I see him. I would also love to visit your mother and grandmother again. I have missed them.”


Her smile brightened when he assured her that he could never hate her. On the two occasions he had spanked her, she had thought that he did, but she now knew that she had needed the discipline. “I promise I will give you no reason to hate me in the future either.” Sophia pulled herself up to her full unimpressive height, her chin tilted proudly upwards. “I have grown up since my marriage and I take my responsibilities as an Ambassador's wife seriously. There is nothing I want more than to be an asset to my lord husband.”


At that moment, at least, her declaration was true.


She had already told him how much she liked his earring. “It might be the fashion soon. I think that you will start a trend and other gentlemen will wear earrings before long, maybe even the King and your cousin, the Duke.”


Sophia knew that most boys were whipped when they misbehaved and didn't think it odd that Francis had been among them. Maybe his past had inspired him to spank her instead of just verbally reprimanding her. The petite blonde liked his laugh and she grinned mischievously. “If you ever act haughty, I am sure your mother and grandmother will put you in your place. And I will give you an earful. I hope you will do the same for me if I become arrogant.”


She said nothing more about the fireworks. It was possible that she had missed them because she had been with Don Juan, either that night in the carriage or that last drunken evening when he had been poisoned. Not even Francis could know of their love for each other and their secret affair.


“Yes, Mademoiselle Vauquelin and I are friends. We met last spring and we have spent a fair amount of time together since then. Do you know her as well?”


As for the hopping: "It is a mystery, ja? I guess we will find out what she means at the celebration."

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Francis smiled when she said she would thank Sir George when she next saw him. Chuckling, he advised, "Instead of thanking him, thank him again. Then, if you truly were remiss for so long, he will either that it was so." He gave her a wink. It was not as much court strategy as it was a brother knowing his elder brother, though it worked for both.


"I am certain they should love to see you, but you will have to catch them both at the same place which is easy enough although my lady mother now resides in Kingston." His mother and grandmother had spent almost all of their lives living together, so it was a hard companionship to break even if his mother relished in finally having her own household to run and some semblance of a life anew.


"I cannot pretend to know what it is to be a lady, but I imagine that of the utmost importance to your own happiness. A cross husband can be no good thing for a wife." He knew firsthand that it was so, and they were lucky his mother had a father that was more powerful than Charles Kirke (which could have been accomplished by simply being sober). He had oft thought of what might have happened if Kirke had ever had total control of either of them; Francis had concluded he would be long dead, perhaps his mother too.


"Ha! I am sure His Grace would like that or be amused at the least. He is so in favour of fashion much of the time." Other times he could not give one fig... but Francis was not one to speak in any way that could be construed of as ill of his uncle. That would be very rude and ungrateful.


His lips buzzed as he tried to hold in a guffaw. He did not wish to continue drawing attention by bursting out into laughter.


"To be sure she and my grandmother would cure me of it," Francis replied. "As would the Duke. He is one that does not enjoy a reflection of his own ego. He enjoys his penultimate rank and the respect that goes along with it, for as merry as he can be."


His mother or grandmother would slap him silly, but he was not the Duke of Buckingham, so there was little to worry about in Francis changing very much.


"Yes, we are friends as well," Francis revealed, not offering anything deeper for want of privacy. "I am quite intrigued to see what she might do as Lady of Misrule."

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Sophia frowned. “But I never told him that I was grateful for what he did. Why should I say that I thank him again?” Her eyes widened when he winked at her. “Oh! He may not remember than I did not say thank you at all and he will feel more appreciated.”


Her frown disappeared but her gaze remained serious. “I do not think I ever thanked you for helping my lord husband kill those two dreadful Italians.” Now she grinned. “Consider yourself thanked. Now I do not have to worry about them trying to kidnap me anymore.” She was unaware that one of them might still be among the living.


She had not seen his mother and grandmother since she had married and wondered if they knew that her husband was now the Ambassador of Spain. If they were living away from court, the news might not have reached them. Sophia doubted that Francis talked about her much. “Is Kingston very far? Maybe you can take me there, if my lord husband permits it. Or do they come to court occasionally? Will you tell them I wish to see them again?”


The petite blonde sighed sadly. “He was angry about the opera. It seems like the only time he speaks to me is to reprimand me about something I did wrong. He sees my weaknesses but not my strengths. Sometimes I think that I will never please him.” The words spilled out of their own accord, but she didn't regret telling him of her marital problems. Maybe he would have some advice for her.


He did like talking about his flamboyant cousin. “I do not think you will ever be a threat to him, either in fashion or in arrogance. He is in a class by himself. Nor do I think you will ever become haughty, no matter how far you rise or how well-respected you are. Your amiability is one of your charms.”


So Nicolette and Francis were friends. Sophia wondered how close they were. Did they fancy each other or was their relationship purely platonic? “Yes, she will be fantastic, much better than I would have been. I gave her a few ideas and she did not like them,” She pouted prettily, and then her lips turned up in a smile.


“Back to Lord Buckingham, do you think he would agree to meet with me? There is something I should like to discuss with him that I think will pique his interest.”

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"No, not at all. Only ten or twelve miles outside of London," Francis revealed. "Both are at court oft enough, my lady mother more than my grandmother. My lady mother was at the ball on Saturday. I saw her around some of her cousins." It would not be very difficult to see them, he thought.


As to matters with her husband, Francis did not truly have any advice. He was not a husband nor did he know Toledo very well at all.


"I am sorry such is the case. Some gentlemen are only interested in wives for having heirs and many do not see much of their wives at all." The spheres for men and women were still much separate, especially for married women, so Francis did not truly know what to say. "He seems to let you have some freedom so perhaps be happy of that for such is not the case with many."


Some were only allowed at court events where they arrived on their husband's arm and were expected to do little but gossip with other women. Much of the time wives paid calls to their friends houses and were not at the palace much. Francis thought she should count herself lucky.


"Every lady has her whims. She likely meant nothing by it other than wishing a chance to enthrall the court with her own ideas."


As to Buckingham, Francis said, "He has been much consumed by official matters lately and tends to have a singular focus when such things warrant, to the exclusion of many of his other passions. I have barely seen him myself." Which was to say now was likely not the best time to speak of much of anything to the duke that had nothing to do with his current consumption. "What matter is it that you wish to see him? Timing is everything with His Grace, and knowing him, now is likely not the best time for anything which does not concern Danby." Wasting Buckingham's time when he was focused on other things was not something the duke's ego fancied, but catch him at the proper time and one could get a myriad of more favourable responses.

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“I would like to see their new home. I will write to your lady mother and ask if she and your grandmother would like to spend some time with me. Maybe she will offer to receive me at Kingston. I did not see her at the ball or I would have spoken to her then.” She smiled wryly, “I am so petite that it is difficult to see anyone who is not standing directly next to me. Sometimes I feel like standing on a chair so that I can have a better view.” Esteban, she knew, would never approve of an impulse like that.


Sophia opened her mouth to tell him that her husband wasn't even interested in heirs, but she stopped herself just in time. That was not a subject to discuss with another gentlemen, even one who was like a brother to her. “That is the way it is with us. We rarely see each other. He was so attentive before we were wed, but now that he has me, he seems to take me for granted.


“I think he appreciates my social skills, though. He got to speak with the Queen because of me and afterward, he was very considerate.” She hoped he would still be in an indulgent mood when she spoke to him later today. There were quite a few matters she needed to discuss with him.


Her smile brightened. “Yes, he does give me more freedom than I expected, but he does not allow me to go anywhere by myself. I must take my bodyguard with me whenever I leave the house. He says it is for my own protection, but ...” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I think his real purpose is to keep an eye on me.”


Sophia stepped back. “You are right. I should count my blessings. I know that some ladies are not so fortunate. He is kind, but distant.”


She chuckled at Francis' view of Nicolette's motives. “Or perhaps my ideas were truly dreadful. I look forward to what she will come up with and I hope I will be allowed to participate in the activities she devises. If they are too libertine, I will just have to watch.” She did not seem sad about that, just resigned.


It wasn't surprising that the Duke had important matters on his mind. All she really knew about Danby was that he had been accused of treason and been sent away from court. “Have I already told you that I am trying to inspire interest in having an opera house in London? Everyone I have spoken to about it has told me that I should discuss it with Lord Buckingham. With the success of the recent opera, I thought now would be a good time to bring it up. When he is not so busy, will you mention it to him?”


She grinned mysteriously. “Or maybe he would be more interested if you just told him I wish for an audience. He might wonder what I wish to talk to him about. I would also like to sing for him at some point. I have always wanted to sing for him like I sang for the King.”

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"It is my lady mother's new home. My grandmother has her own and my mother used to stay with her, but now they each have their own space." He smiled and added, "But they visit each other often."


After being so close for so long, neither was probably used to a quieter house.


Francis shrugged as she said that she did not get to go many places by herself. So far as he was concerned, having ladies around you or other servants was simply a mark of rank. He was surprised Toledo didn't have two women of gentle birth trailing his wife everywhere as both companions and eyes. It was part of that noblesse oblige to have unwed ladies of good birth attached to your family as attendants to your wife at court; it both helped to find them good matches that would spread your influence but also kept your wife from straying.


"Fine ladies are rarely alone unless they are in their own house or with their husbands," he said, not understanding why this seemed so foreign to her. "I would not allow my wife to gallivant about alone ever either. It would be beneath her status." Not that he intended on getting a wife, but if he did, she would probably know Buckingham's level of projecting position and nobility. "If I ever did, I am sure there would be a gaggle of cousins looking for husbands following her all about court."


He kept to himself his thoughts of how FitzJames might have behaved and how limited she might have been with him as a husband. A bastard would not get her into any proper court circles or open any doors either. A noble-born Spaniard at least gave her serious status somewhere, even if that was simply in Spain.


Francis chuckled and shook his head just a little bit. "I rather think much of the point of Misrule is for many things to be libertine; at least if one is to please the King. It is one time where the traditions at court are turned." It was a good excuse to behave differently.


"You should, definitely, as nobody could execute such a thing better, but after Christmastide. He is fickle about what does not hold his interest at the time, and your response might not be as favourable as if you picked the proper time to speak to him. Now is not it. He couldn't give a fig about that sort of thing right now. He has more consuming matters which occupy his mind. Plus, one would not build in winter anyway, nor is it the best time to sail if one needed things in Italy."


Women were not very good planners or strategizers.


"And you know his vanity. If you wish his aid, do not talk of it to others, for you would not like him to think he was not the first choice." That would ensure Buckingham would not just never agree but that he might also work against it. His uncle was a bear when insulted.


"Have you spoken to your husband about singing for other men?" To him that was an intimate sort of thing. It was not necessarily the sort of thing fine ladies would do. Francis still had a hard time coming to terms with her opera performance. He would not wish his wife performing for anyone unless it was showing off within his own house for his own guests.

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