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When the Fat Lady's About to Sing- Xmas 1677

Guest John Bramston

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Maldon and the Toledos


Sophia gazed after the Queen as she left, hoping that the pyramid would be placed in a prominent area of her chambers and that whenever she looked at it, she would think of her.


Ever since she had arrived in England, she had been trying to cultivate Her Majesty's friendship, and the gift was yet another step in that direction. It sometimes seemed to her that for every one step forward, she took several steps back. Marrying the Catholic Ambassador of Spain had not been conducive to that goal, but maybe the Queen could look beyond her new status and see in her a kindred spirit.


John's voice brought her out of her thoughts and her eyes widened in surprise when he said he had something for her. “Another gift?” She grinned playfully. “You are spoiling me, my lord. I will start to expect something from you every day.” The young blonde didn't think her husband would mind if she teased her friend a bit. He would know that there was no romantic attraction between them.


“Of course, we have time. We do not have to leave right away.” She looked over at Esteban for approval and hoped he would not protest.


John let out a puff of a laugh as she said she’d come by expecting gifts every day. “Have you ever d-d-domesticated a cat?” John asked, grinning.


John led her over to Anna standing in a doorway. She had one more package he’d left with her. He took it with a small thanks and held it out to Sophia. It was another nutcracker with a similar array, this one in the shape of a Spanish grandee. It too was from the Palatinate. “It’s f-f-from the capital of your home. I hope you like it” John said.


After a moment John sighed. He sunk just a little. “I leaned on you tonight, and l-l-last night too really. I counted on you to not forget me when everyone else d-d-did. I know it was t-t-troublesome, very troublesome. I w-w-wanted you to know its appreciated.”


John paused, “Not to apologize. I know you do it gladly. You’re a good friend. I j-j-just don’t want to be a bad one. I d-d-don’t want you to help me thanklessly.” If he was rambling a bit, he was less than sober. But he stopped himself before going further.


He leaned in for a kiss. A brief, chaste thing. As fond as he was of Sophia he wasn’t attracted to her. “Thank you.” The doorway was decorated with mistletoe.


John’s eyes cast down. Tonight had been a bad night. He’d told Sophia of how balls made him feel excluded, ignored, different. She’d assured him ladies would take an interest anyway and that he would have many chances. But his pessimism had been accurate. None had approached him except Caroline. And Ormonde had barely spoken to him. And the Queen forgot him outright. He’d almost ended up excluded from his own idea. That irreparably marred the victory emotionally.


He artificially drew himself up and forced a smile.

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“Meow,” she replied before bursting into a peal of melodic laughter. Sophia loved cats and didn't mind being compared to one, as long as no one accused her of coughing up hairballs or shedding on their clothes.


After telling Esteban that she would be right back, she followed John to the door where Anna still stood, holding a box she had not noticed before. She had been so focused on presenting the pyramid to the Queen and introducing John and his sister to her that she had paid attention to little else. Her eyes shone with happiness when he handed it to her and she opened it eagerly.


“Ohhh!” she breathed. “Danke! It is beautiful and I think my lord husband will like it as well.” Sophia had an assortment of nutcrackers including some from her childhood that she had brought back with her a few months ago, but this one was special … because one of her dearest friends had given it to her.


Sophia had never seen one in the shape of a Spanish grandee, although she supposed that one could find almost anything in the capital. As a child, her father had taken her there many times and she remembered how exciting those trips had been. “I have not been there since I was eleven. It has probably changed so much that I would no longer recognize it. I had hoped to take my husband there, but we were summoned to Spain after only three days. I am glad now that I bought the pyramid when I went into the village near my estate.”


Lifting her gaze back to John, she thought that he looked a bit depressed and she shook her head vehemently as he revealed that he believed he had been a burden to her. And then he kissed her chastely, and she frowned as he thanked her and then looked down, as if he were ashamed. “You did not lean on me and you have never been a bother.” She smiled fondly. “You could not be troublesome if you tried.”


When he looked up, she kissed him back, lightly and sweetly. “You have done a lot for me already. You are teaching me how to grow plants and how to understand politics and you have been very patient with my endless questions. Soon I will start teaching you to sing. We are helping each other. That is what friends do.”


Sophia knew how balls and other events made him feel and she sought to reassure him. “The Queen seemed quite pleased with the nutcracker you gave her. She also seemed interested in your sister. Maybe when she needs more ladies, Lady Catherine will be chosen to serve her.”

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John’s laughter joined her own. He’d be sure to give her some milk and cream when she came over.


“I hope he d-d-does.” John was still planning to give him a puppy when they met. He had amusing images of the lone collie standing guard against Sophia’s menagerie. “And I’m g-g-glad you do.” There was weight there, and a genuine happiness at having pleased her.


John had found a German carver to make the nutcrackers to his specifications. The carver had had no idea what an English King or a Spanish grandee looked like so John had had to find suitable models. He had vivid memories of the man slowly turning over a sovereign and John trying to think of where he could get a better portrait. All being translated by a bilingual gardener he’d befriended.


Sophia revealed she hadn’t been to Heidelberg for some time, “You were last there j-j-just before the latest war started then. Yes, it has. I have sketches, if you w-w-want to see. I’ll show them to you at our next lesson.” The sketches had been taken for Henrietta, who’d spoken of an interest in foreign places. But John had made a copy for himself.


John smiled thankfully to her sweet kiss. It soothed the fear that she found him physically repulsive. And he appreciated her words, even if he had his doubts. He inhaled as if preparing to speak but thought better of it. She was right. John was too ready to think of himself as a burden. Another bit of poison poured into him by his upbringing.


John looked down again, deeply sad at that memory. But after a moment he pulled up. His mood had recovered, at least somewhat. He reached out and hugged Sophia perhaps made bold by alcohol. He squeezed her very tightly, then let her go and smiled lightly.


“Maybe.” John said. John was still pessimistic on the chances he’d be remembered. Experience had taught him such things, experience would need to unteach him. He smiled at his friend, “She was… very eager to m-m-meet you. Maybe you’ll be friends sooner than you think.”


Any complications of her being a foreign ambassador were best left aside. It was a pity she had become one in a way. John was still fairly certain she could have been in a lady in waiting herself, though now that path was closed to her.

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Her eyes widened when Lord Maldon mentioned that the war had started soon after she had last visited the capital. Had her father taken her to Venice hoping that she would stay so that she would remain safe? Sophia had never considered that possibility before. If that had been his intent, it had woefully backfired on him because of the scandal she had caused there. She would regret disappointing him for the rest of her days, even though she believed he would be proud of her now.


The war had not touched Katzenberg or the village nearby. Her father would not have known that five years ago, and having been in the military himself, he would have understood firsthand the damage that battles could inflict upon the general population of an area. It was not just the soldiers who suffered and died, and women were particularly vulnerable to being raped.


“I would love to see the sketches!” she exclaimed. “I can hardly wait for our next lesson! Maybe looking at them will tell me what to expect if we have time to visit the Palatinate on our next trip to Madrid.”


Her kiss seemed to relieve his fears that she thought him troublesome. Sophia had never found him repulsive and often squeezed his hand for reassurance in the past. She was about to reach for it again, for he looked so sad, but then he suddenly pulled her into a hug and held her tightly for a brief moment. She wrapped her arms about his waist and returned the gesture, happy that he was smiling when he let her go.


Sophia hoped Esteban didn't rethink his opinion of John now and forbid her to see him just because he had kissed and embraced her. It was Christmas, and affection was often shown between friends.


“Perhaps we both impressed her tonight. I hope I can get to know your sister better as well. If she needs assistance with her German, I am still willing to help her with it, just as I am helping you.”

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Perhaps John’s next lesson on politics would be on the war. That seemed immediately relevant to her. It was also the same war that he’d talked about so it was obviously of interest to her.


John smiled at her enthusiasm. He was happy to give her what he could of her home. He imagined she felt the separation especially keenly during the holidays. “I’d be g-g-glad to answer what questions I can.” He did not mention that much of what he had to report was bad. No reason to ruin her night.


As for his sister, “I hope so too. I w-w-will do what I can.” John said. It still seemed like a good friendship for both of them. And she would know even more of Germany than John did. John had asked Catherine to be at their last meeting. She hadn’t come and John hadn’t made an issue of it.


He had some trouble being strict and he knew he was a bit embarrassing as a brother. But hopefully she would appreciate that he’d spent his time introducing her to princesses and queens.


“I d-d-don’t want to keep you too long.” John said, with a smile, “Goodnight, and thank you, Sophia.”

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Sophia missed Venice much more than she missed Germany, but she did have fond memories of spending Christmas with her father there as a child. He had traveled much of the year on business but always made certain he was home during the holidays, bringing many wonderful gifts along with him for both herself and her stepmother. He had even visited Venice at Christmas during the five years she had lived there, and she had always looked forward to seeing him again.


She had hoped they would have one last Christmas together, but he had passed away last October. The petite singer remembered little of her first Christmas in England because she had missed him so. She couldn't even remember if it had snowed. Most of her time had been spent in her room, crying for what could never be.


If anyone had told her how much her life would have changed from one Christmas to the next, she probably would have laughed at them. Who would have believed that a scared little foreigner who could barely speak English would have become a celebrated singer and the wife of an Ambassador?


“You know how curious I am and how many questions I ask,” she laughed. “If I annoy you, just tell me and I promise I will stop.”


Sophia nodded at his hope that she and his sister would become friends. If Catherine became a lady-in-waiting, she would have another connection who was close to the Queen. Since that path was now lost to her, she would help Catherine as much as she could, more because she knew John wanted his sister to achieve the position than for her own potential benefits,


“Bring her to the banquet with you, if she and I don't run into each other before Thursday.” The young Baroness would be so busy making certain that all her guests were happy and that the dinner and entertainment went according to plan, she would not have a lot of time to talk, but they could agree to meet each other at a later time.


“Yes, I should be going. My lord husband will not want to wait for me forever.” She hugged the nutcracker to her chest. “Thank you too, my friend, and I will see you soon.” Sophia flashed him a dazzling smile and then began to weave her way back to where she had last seen Esteban.



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John let out a bemused puff. Even when Sophia annoyed or frustrated him there was an underlying affection that buoyed it. “You are g-g-going to hear me sing.” His tone implied that was a great sacrifice indeed.


John knew Sophia had her own interests in helping his sister. He didn’t mind. John was glad to let Sophia benefit too. She had shared her dream of being a lady-in-waiting and, while it was now quite impossible, perhaps helping his sisters fulfill that dream in part would give her some of what she wanted. It would help her at court, certainly. He nodded when she asked him to try and get her to the banquet.


John smiled as she thanked him. He wondered if she’d noticed that he’d called her by her name, a gesture of closeness. John waved briefly as she receded into the distance. Now then, where’s Caroline… He went to get his coat.


Finis, and thank you for the lovely aside!

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