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The expected visit after (a cont.) | Dec 30 am- Xmas 1677

Francis Kirke

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Once Lord Melville had left, Francis could not help but wonder if he could perhaps get Buckingham's more candid thoughts. Nephews did merit more than mere strangers, after all, and Francis also had thoughts that he would not share with Melville present.


He felt one measure pleased with himself for bringing Melville and Buckingham together and one measure sheepish for not having won the painting to begin with. That was a familiar dichotomy of feelings for him since coming to court.


The duke had made the excuse of mountain of mail, which Francis took as either bald truth since the duke did have a mountain of mail or a figurative truth in that Buckingham was still searching for any hint of a letter from Hobbes. Regardless, he expected to find the duke in his study or perhaps getting more fully dressed.


Once the younger blond did find him, he said, "Now that was most unexpected. As I said before, Lord Melville is a most interesting man. Now his family is married into one of our own." He raised a blond brow, wondering if Buckingham or Rupert acted upon his earlier information or if it was pure happenstance.

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Francis came upon his uncle, who was stacking his correspondence into piles, based on importance. It was a habit of his. He never quite got to responding to letters in the last stack. It was not unusual for him to conveniently forget that he had received the missive from those in the last stack.


"Yes, quite unexpected but pleasing enough. I think Melville is a good man. His instincts are good," the Duke flattered. "The present was unexpected but he was well-schooled in the ways of things."


"Yes, that marriage was a product of Melville according himself well. His new brother-in-law thinks he is going places., or so he tells me." Whether Buckingham had a hand in anything to do with the nuptials, or not, he admitted nothing.


"I think the man will make an excellent addition to our society do you not think?" He was already certain of his nephew's answer. It was more an opportunity to see if Francis thought that an invitation should wait. The Free Masons preferred to grow one person at a time. It allowed for more quality control and consensus. There would be an opportunity for members to blackball the Scot if they wished, but those invited by the leadership of the group were less likely to suffer such a fate.

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"Indeed, quite the princely gesture," Francis commented. "Melville is a gentlemanly sort and clearly knows the flattery of court." Flattery in that case was not a critique, more an acknowledgment that Melville played within the hierarchy of things. Many newcomers and especially Scots seemed more apt to try to barge their way in.


"According himself well, I see," Francis replied, with a nod. "I agree that he is likely to do well, go places, as it were. With the right help." Which reminded him, "I need to finish brokering his deal for a Letter of Marque for a new company he wishes to form from the Duke of Cumberland."


All that had needed to be settled was the sum of coin needed for such a thing, which was an amount to Cumberland's advantage for the doing of the favor. Then he intended to find out who was the silent partner in the arrangement before finalizing it with Melville. A prince could not do favors without knowing who, in entirety, they were for after all. It was nothing that he had not already told the duke months ago.


"I have never vouched for someone before and cannot claim a long association, but I believe Melville would be a good addition, yes, or I would never have mentioned it to your grace before. Do you know anything of who he associates with? I do not."

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"Yes, I think we should be helpful to him," the Duke replied absentmindedly as he reopened a letter in his hand after forgetting which pile was its destination. "If he is grateful he will be useful."


The mention of a Letter of Marque caused Buckingham to stop and look up. If he had been informed about it before he did not recall. That was a rather extraordinary thing to arrange before a war. It reminded him that Duncan had married into a trading family, like so many young aristocrats. Income from real estate had always been the mainstay of the nobility but the profits generated from trade had changed the equation in the last generation or so.


"I do not know much about his associations," he began as he returned his attention to his correspondence, looking through letters in relatively quick succession. "He married a merchant girl. He is a soldier, an officer in Langdon's so-called regiment. Seems he wants to be a privateer and an adventurer too. Another Henry Morgan in the making perhaps?" he offered in jest as he looked up briefly at Francis. "He has a mind as a weapon too, so he may be a good Mason. What more can you provide?"

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Francis laughed heartily as Buckingham suggested another Henry Morgan.


"Perhaps, sounds about right!" Though Melville had healthy doses of honor, it would seem.


"Yes, he wishes to be involved in both trading endeavors and naval sorts of affairs as well. There are not as many with experience fighting on both land and at sea," Francis commented. He took a sip of the coffee he had brought with him and added, "I am not sure if he intends to go privateering himself or to simply have the ship for the potential profits and glory, but it is surely not for the faint of heart."


War of any kind was not for the faint of heart, but fighting in tight spaces and getting up close to your victims with nothing but the ocean or fire at your back was different.


"His interests align with many of the things we find interest in, and he is no stupid man. He is going to keep looking for the answers to the things he seeks knowledge about. He also seems to have some coin. He might be the sort that could run for a seat in the Lower House. He has property in Chelsea, and could probably buy something small in nearly any area. That is about all I know of him that can be of use."

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"Yes, A worthy man I should think, for an invitation to join with us, and our shadowy group as well." The latter was a reference to the Free Masons.


"Why don't you draw up a cryptic letter and invite him to our new year soiree? The man loves riddles. I suggest you give him one," Buckingham chuckled. He paused to see if his nephew was up to the challenge. Riddles were tricky things.


"While we are on the topic, I should think that we need some extra pageantry for the changing of leadership don't you think?" The Duke was not a humble man. "If we leave it to others, it shall be a simple transfer of the rod and light applause We cannot have that." His look spoke volumes that he fully expected Francis to agree ... and offer to do something about it.

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Up popped a blond brow.


Write a cryptic riddle?


He grinned some and gave a curt nod. "Oh, I can do that, Your Grace. It shan't be to your level of wordsmithing, but I shall do my best." He saluted with his coffee cup and then took another sip.


"The new Worshipful Master wants to be masterfully worshipped?" he teased with a rather unrepentant grin. Licking his lips, he said, "Sounds like a matter for your junior or senior warden, Sir. Or someone with the proper ability to handle such matters."


He mimicked the duke's expression right back at him. The blond cub was learning his technique from the master after all. He had always been a rather quick student of anything worthwhile to learn.


"Though I think I shall do far better than just someone for you, Sir. I naturally worship you better than anyone else." He tried to hide his chuckle behind his coffee cup, but his cheeks pressed up crinkling his eyes some.

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"Splendid." It meant the Duke would not need to pen something himself for the Scot.


As Francis mirrored the older Villier's look, the Duke sniffed as if offended. He was not. "I am thinking of a new office for you in the new year ... I like the sound of Worshipful Herald. You shall be charged with announcing sufficient honorifics when the Worshipful Master enters the room, and something less ... elongated ... for other Worshipful positions." He offered a cheeky grin.


When Francis jested his own worship of his uncle, Buckingham simply tutted "and rightly so. Everyone needs someone to properly venerate." He feigned seriousness.

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The deep laugh almost did not suit Francis' typical tenor voice or bright laughter. It was a laugh with a scoff somehow imbued.


Worshipful Herald, indeed.


"And the venerable need someone to properly promote when their own veneration reaches the vaulted ceilings of life," Francis countered, grinning. "Herald," he snorted.


Thankfully he was fairly sure Buckingham was joking, because their equivalent of a Herald was stuck standing outside the inner doors during the meetings. While it might suit Francis just fine to screen brothers, chase away riffraff, and wield a sword, he was fairly sure that would not suit the either the duke's sense of grandeur or his typical modus operandi. No, he would want Francis to witness that, and he would also likely want other eyes in the room too.


"And whilst we are talking of my composing cryptics, what did you truly think of the painting? It is the first I have seen it up close as well."

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Buckingham could not help but laugh aloud as Francis huffed. "Grand Herald then?" he played along as his nephew fished for a promotion.


"The painting yes." The Duke adopted a quiet tone as the subject changed. "It was not Bosch that left the messages," the older man began. "Someone is using the otherworldliness of the Dutch painter to send a message. You can tell that the messages were added later." He continued to turn letters in his hand as he spoke as if it were mere gossip they were discussing.


"There is a legend of Templar gold connected to a Scottish castle. That could explain the symbols." He paused as he perused another missive. "Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew. The painting all but screams it. But, if you are hiding the Templar treasure, why would you put obvious Templar symbols above the resting place? St. Clair would be the wealthiest man alive if the gold rested there. No. The man is not even a Mason." He waved his hand dismissively as the other hand placed a letter into the fire.


"The Templars with the treasure would not stay in France, but would they come to England or Scotland? It is quite possible. Or Ireland even," he added. "There is a better chance that it was moved to Malta, based on the secret books I have read. But, I know that there is reportedly a book, written by a former Grandmaster who records a great stonework in England that was done to hide something best hidden from the eyes of man. Once I am Grandmaster, I hope to have access to scrolls that might shed some light on the topic. The question is whether this painting is a message of sorts. Find that stonework and we find ... perhaps the Grail itself." He arched an eyebrow to see if he piqued Kingston's interest. "Or, more likely, it is an empty tomb."


"The question is why a witch would have a painting with a message that leads to a great secret. Perhaps our Scottish friend can learn more about this witch and how she came by this painting. Perhaps Melville is correct that it leads to a resting place in London. That would be more convenient than traveling to Scotland surely." He tutted as another letter was committed to the fire.


"Perhaps I should name you Grand Herald and Keeper of Secrets. That way I could share with you what I learn." He paused to see if the younger man was intrigued. "The pity is that I have so many other irons in the fire these days. Once the holidays are done, perhaps I will be left with the leisure needed."


** Post edited to correct historical error.

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"Yes, indeed, I had thought of that, but then if one wished to hide something of great value, one could not live with its value exposed. I believe Melville said that the chapel's Sinclair owner died*. His own estate is neighboring it," Francis said. He and Melville had earlier mentioned the Scottish chapel.


"Places in Scotland have been safe havens for awhile due to the earliest conflicts with Papists."


Something like the entire country had been excommunicated. Francis thought such ideas comical, so had paid little attention.


"Insomuch as my grandfather always said it was a good place to flee if need be, more likely safe for a Brother in distress there than other places. Perhaps that is why it is rumoured to have such varied symbology." It would be welcome to those of differing beliefs but united.


Francis had never been to Scotland. He had never even been as far as York. "I'm not sure if I'd hide anything there, though," he added.


"Old scrolls could be useful," the younger blond said. "And Malta would be a place to hide something of value. Not just anyone could go there." It was not an easy destination.


As to his uncle's raised eyebrow about the Grail, he said, "I'm assuming the alchemical Grail and not the drinking vessel of Christ at the Last Supper." He was clearly interested.


"Perhaps you should," Francis agreed with a grin. "Seneschal of Secrets sounds better, though," he teased.


"Speaking of all your irons in the fire, if you wish me to play secretary whilst yours is away, I shall. I am happy to help you with any duty that I can do," he affirmed. "Besides, I am sure there are a stack of holiday cards there which require a stock response, and why suffer to write all that?"

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"There are an infinite number of places where one could hide something in Scotland," Buckingham agreed. "Such as culture and intelligence," he added in a derogatory fashion. He could not help but seize on his own words to make a witty cut. "Treasure too I suppose." George laughed at his own wit.


"The Knights of Malta still are there," the Duke noted aloud. There is a connection there Francis. Templars fled there. I know it for a fact. The Vatican Library would be far more interesting than our own in this regard," he added with a sigh. "I shall go to Malta one day soon."


"Back to the painting," Buckingham shifted, "I am thinking it is nothing more than a repetition of legends. Yet, there may be something there ... something beneath the obvious ... and the less obvious. I am thinking that it is but a clue, as opposed to a map; but, Melville intrigued me with his string."


"As to which Holy Grail it is, we shall see, but far more likely it is the Philosopher's Stone or some ancient artifact." His correspondence was forgotten for a moment. The enormity of a lost treasure was hard to ignore.


As for the offer of secretarial services, Buckingham gave it thought. "He'll be back in five days. I suppose I can survive until then." Though related by blood, Francis would need to learn much of the Duke's correspondence protocols. To an older man like the Duke, sometimes it was best to do it oneself rather than train another. Holiday greetings were a different matter. Holiday cards were still not in wide use and Buckingham was inclined to send very short handwritten notes. "Perhaps you can help with New Years Notes," he mumbled. He owed a few hundred.


"Very well, Seneschal of Secrets ... if you relieve me of the note writing." He smiled at the thought.

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"The Vatican library?" He took in a breath. He doubted even a duke could walk into the Vatican library.


"No Italians I know have those sort of abilities that I'm aware. I do not think the Grimanis even have a cardinal in the family anymore, but I never kept up on Italian politics. You know far more influential Italians than I do and far more about who might have that sort of access."


It was hardly that easy, but that was a somewhat required step to the possibility.


If the vatican library was not enough of a difficult, the duke wished to go to Malta? Francis blond brows likely betrayed his thoughts about that.


"You wish to go to Malta?" Francis asked. "The area is rife with pirates. And some of those pirates are the Maltese." Which was to say, the order they were speaking of was not precisely as peaceful as any vows took centuries earlier. "They seize Barbary corsairs and prevent the trade of Turkish goods by the 'Heathens.'"


With his trade with Italy and the Turks, he was well aware of what went on along that coast. It all sounded very Romantic but there had been a reason he had not taken Heather on that leg of the journey and had left her in Italy.


"Yes, he was rather intriguing," Francis agreed of Melville. "I somehow doubt if they are locations that they are all in London. It would seem too small and simplistic for so much work, but that is just a notion." He shrugged.


"Speaking of both mysteries and correspondence, did you even find anything related to Master Hobbes?"

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There was no expectation of walking into the Vatican Library. Even if the Duke were Catholic it would be quite the feat. No, he was lamenting the fact that the Mason library in England was not as interesting as some might think. The Duke had a much more complete library certainly but the Masons kept a few interesting oddities that one could never find outside of a temple.


"Yes," he laughed as Francis expressed surprise at his choices for gaining lore. "Malta is still easier to reach than the Vatican Library. Malta receives supplies from Naples. I might just invite myself along on a supply ship." He waggled his eyebrows mostly to show that he was not completely serious. There were too many plots that kept him in England. He was not so free as his nephew to chase dreams in the Med. "The fortress would be a rare treat," the Duke announced with a sigh. He had little doubt that most of the Templars had gone there.


The topic returned to Hobbes, which caused the Duke to frown. "No. The King has yet to receive one? Devonshire would be the other. Hobbs was always fond of him. Strange. I had been promised ... a letter." He began to rummage through his mail again as if one more search might reveal the errant missive. "Perhaps he is still alive, or perhaps he died before penning a letter." It sounded more like Buckingham was attempting to create justifications in his own mind.

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If Francis was a different man, the thought of Buckingham going to Malta might have been a welcome one, but whatever he might gain from the duke's death, Francis did not want it. He preferred an uncle to riches or power or titles and would happily serve the duke to a ripe old age.


Noting Buckingham's expression, Francis could tell he was not wholly serious, so he felt liberated in not being wholly serious in return.


"Well, not without me, Your Grace. If dangerous folly is the order of the hour, then I am bound to it as well." He laughed, "Although you shall have to explain it to my lady mother and His Majesty, for I am sure you remember the King gave his word he would not allow me to leave dry land."


And somehow he very much doubted Buckingham could stomach the idea of getting a second Francis killed for being honour-bound to follow him. The duke had confessed it one of the greatest regrets of his life, if not the greatest.


As to Hobbes, Francis said, "No, I have not heard any updates. His Majesty wished to know if you found out more." The younger blond shrugged, "Perhaps it is not a letter in the traditional sense, or perhaps you should ask Lord Devonshire too, Sir?

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"Very well, then we both shall go," the Duke declared with feigned sincerity. He paused to give Francis opportunity to object before adding "it shall have to wait; however, until we can free us of all the obligations being heaped upon me by present circumstance." That would take years, of course, unless he fell far from favor with the King.


There was some satisfaction in hearing that Charles was asking if he had received a letter. His nephew had suggested that the correspondence might not come in a traditional fashion. George's brow furrowed as he thought upon various alternatives. A pamphlet? Advertisement in a publication? An oral message delivered by a messenger? "It is possible," he mumbled. "At my end shall be a new beginning for my favorite pupils. Those were his words. I did not take him seriously at the time. Sadly, I did not take him seriously overly much. Learning was rarely top of mind at the time." He offered a hasty wry smile. With older age came wisdom, and regret. "Perhaps I was not his favorite pupil; but then, why would he tell me? I know he told Charles too." His doubt was suddenly replaced with determination. "No, I shall hear from him soon enough if he had reached the end of his journey. I just need to be patient." That was not one of the Duke's strengths.

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Francis was not cowardly enough to object. He had always thought he would die on an expedition as it was, so hurling himself into a new or dangerous one was no large thing. Perhaps a solid lack of wanting to be cowed, for any reason, drove a good deal of family gusto.


"Just tell me when I shall recall my ships, and I shall do so, Your Grace," he declared, with a crinkle of his blue eyes. "If we go, we go in style worthy of a prince and with an armada of our own." He tried to hold in a chuckle which made his lips spasm before he said, "At least a mini-armada, I only have three ships. You shall have to have a bunch of ensigns made with your arms. And we shall have to bribe the Neopolitans, of which we are lucky that I get my brandy and citrus from them. It is good we shall have some time!"


Indeed, it would all take a very long time. His uncle was too focused on his power and position at court to leave the arena. If the past was any indicator there would never be a mundane interlude where they could be gone for 6 months on no particular business but their own.


As to Hobbes, Francis said, "It appears so. Unless you can think of who may have been, erroneously, a more favoured pupil." He gave an appropriately somber drop of his voice at 'erroneously'. He had no idea who Hobbes had taught other than the duke, his father, and His Majesty. Two had not gotten one and the third was long dead; if Buckingham did not wish to snoop about Devonshire's business, there was not much to be done.

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"How many cannon does your armada have?" Buckingham asked jovially. "Will it scare away the pirates?" His nephew had no warships. "I suppose we could bribe them as well."


Back to Hobbes, the Duke continued his puzzlement. "Erroneously indeed. I was the smartest one in the bunch. It is merely that I did not applied myself with the rigor necessary. Charles was a bad influence on me you see. He was the one that planned daring escapes from our academic servitude. It was not I," George professed. That was not exactly true.


"I suppose I have no choice but to wait and see if there is further news of Hobbes. The old man might outlive us all."

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"It scared away enough when I was privateering and, being that I am alive, seems to have done well-enough," Francis joked. "Any merchant not ready for pirates is an idiot and any privateer not ready to poke some holes in some ships should rethink his chances of prizes. THis would hardly be my first go-around."


HIs ships were not warships and they were not even the size of ship one would need to have a 1st Rate stack of guns where there were multiple layers of canon atop one another. He had some canon but nothing like the main ships of a line.


He needed cargo space. His ships were a compromise of size, speed, and hold space. Lighter was faster and less likely to have to worry about other ships at all. Outrunning was a popular naval tactic among any sea-farer.


"Bribery is a prerogative of the Duke of Buckingham," Francis teased. The duke was not known for being frugal.


As to Hobbes, Francis said, "Then I shall wait for news as well."

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"I should take comfort from sailing with you then. Between cannon, speed and bribery we should be safe enough I expect." It was all academic anyway, as the Duke had no intention on going any time soon.


As for Hobbes, Buckingham was beginning to think that the man was still alive and his source misinformed. "I have never been too good at waiting," he jested.


Pushing one stack of correspondence further away for the moment, the older man asked "besides Templars and old tutors, what else is on your mind?"

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Snickering about something that was likely to not ever happen was a nice break in the rush of Christmastide. He was still not used to the patterns of court life. It was all so mundane in many ways.


As to waiting, Francis shrugged, that was certainly not the temperament known to any Villiers. Patience might be a virtue, but it was not one of theirs. He had an analogous affliction in that he wished to feel useful on top of having questionable patience.


The duke's question, with no segue, had Francis blink.


"Are you expecting something deep?" Francis asked with a short titter. He was far from empty-headed. There were any number of life struggles he contemplated regularly, especially in his particular situation, but he was surprised to be asked such a thing on the backdrop of what they had just been talking about. "I do hate to disappoint," he added. "So I shall say Christmastide is always quite odd for me, but I feel it now moreso."

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Indeed, imaginary trips to Malta were just the sort of diversion the Duke needed. It help set the foundation for a switch in topics.


"Christmastide odd?" Buckingham looked up from his pile of correspondence again. "How so?" Holidays were a pleasant time for diversion, though those with responsibilities might find hidden stresses. In the case of Francis, George surmised that his nephew was coming to grips with the duties of a King's gentleman. As such, he was less surprised than he might have been if similar worries were voiced by another.


"Why do you fear you will disappoint?"

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His thought appeared to be deep enough to be worthy of pushing correspondence aside, and Francis wondered if that had not been the Duke's objective all along. Not answering his correspondence with a perfectly logical reason as to why he did not.


A quiet chuckle escaped him at the misinterpretation of his words.


"No, no, I meant I do not wish to disappoint by not having some deep thought on my mind." He shook his head in amusement. "Though I wager anyone with both a King and Duke to please most directly has some concern over disappointing them."


He was (mostly) over that kind of sentiment. They had been staying together for some months, and he had been in his position for the same as well. There was some security in familiarity.


"As to Christmastide...well, I cannot say that I have had very many. I have certainly not had any at court." He pursed his lips a bit and said, "You would never have known that I was not another of my grandfather's sons, but that does not mean that it is not a time where one feels keenly odd. Perhaps I've not outgrown the feeling. I have never truly enjoyed Christmas." The years of his boyhood where he had not understood enough to have those feelings had been wasted during exile.


Sufficiently deep enough that he felt the need to joke, in a fashion most typical of their family, "And then, of course, there are all the gifts! One must impress all sorts of people who happen to be the sorts of people who have rooms of former gifts!"

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"Oh." The Duke's expression changed from one of concern to something more jovial. "Are you incapable of deep thought then?" he jested, trying to recover from his wrong assumption.


"Christmas is not so merry when you are not a child," he acknowledged aloud. "Yes, the season of giving ... ." His voice lost his amusement at that moment and drifted along, trying to recall if he had forgotten anyone important. Next time he would npt allow his secretary to take leave for the holidays. "Fortunately, you are easy enough. A stocking cap to cover those Villier locks might just be the thing." Now he was amused again.


"As for me, a simple ship sinking with Danby on it might just make my holiday extra bright," he offered with dark humor. Men as powerful and wealthy as Buckingham could acquire anything they wished, at least materially. It was the intangible things that suited them best.

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Francis went right along with it. "Your Grace cannot be surprised. After all, I have been just a sailor for my nearly thirty years. I require notice to offer deep thoughts."


It was, of course, something of a gross hyperbole. The sea had always been more about adventure and escape than it being the only thing he could do with his life. He had the same number of years at Cambridge as the duke, but he did not have the same rigorous education in childhood that Buckingham got in the royal household.


"Exile did not bring merry Christmases during my childhood either," Francis said, with a shrug. "By the time we received actual gifts and feasting after returning home, I was old enough to feel guilty about it. My teenaged vanity did not do overly well with the idea of being an object of charity."


"To match the mittens that the duchess is giving me?" he asked, with a sweet and dramatic flutter of his eyelashes. The duke had joked of his sister's gift already. "I am heartened you are both so worried about keeping me warm in this unseasonably cold winter."


A burst of laughter escaped him before he reined it in and replied saucily, "If I had a ship here...alas. I do not think I can sink a ship with my yacht." Then he thought further and said, "Have you found something about Danby, Sir? Is he to be on a ship or are you having the ports watched?"


He was fairly sure not just the king was watching ports for the escapee, but that the duke and any number of others probably were as well. It made his mind jump to the fact that his other Uncle George was governor of a port and was likely watching as well.


Francis did not know the duke had known where Danby was all along.


"I am sure a well-placed whisper to the French could have the desired impact if he is..."


Danby was no friend of the French or Papists. He had no idea that such a thing had been discussed with Basildon only a few days earlier. He only knew the French hated Danby and without the King's protection, nothing would save the man from such things.

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"Those that sail the deep have difficulty conjuring deep thoughts?" the Duke offered playfully. "How ironic." He let the amusement linger, knowing that Francis was but playfully exercising his own humility.


"Your mother should be worried about you," Buckingham played along. "Look at you ... hardly enough meat on your bones. You could catch a death of cold," he warned playfully. "I think mittens and a stocking hat could be the armament you need to combat the cold. Cook can keep you in hot drink, and then you shall need to find suitable company to keep you in a warm embrace." By that he meant feminine company.


As for Danby, the older man noted "a rat always leaves a trail of excrement." He went on to predict "I foresee a nautical New Year for our fallen foe." Francis offered possible mishaps. "It would be lovely for a French vessel to intercept him, but I would not risk the possibility that he would become a hero thereby. There are worse fates for him," he added cryptically.

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"Better to own an ironic life than a tragic one. I should, in part, thank you for that," Francis replied, with a sly smile.


His life was fairly literary in its own strange way. He was a tale from their civil war personified and evidencing several techniques beyond irony in the telling of it.


"Perhaps it is just that in comparison to the robustness of your health that my litheness seems unsuitable."


Of course, he was alluding to his uncle's belly which was more generous than Francis' despite the fact that Buckingham was yet fairly athletic himself for his age, as evidenced by the fact that the Duke had added sending him to flat of his back with a sword that season. It seemed the younger blond was fairly good at looking up to Buckingham, because he often found himself on the flat of his back in competition, and (now) not just with horse riding.


"It is not part of taking me on that warm embraces are also covered?" he replied with a silly pout. "You know how difficult a time I have with keeping myself in warm company. Perhaps we shall need a generous fur to keep my family jewels warm in the absence too. It should match the mittens and cap." He successfully held in his laugh but his cheeks pressed up and made merry crinkles by his eyes.


If there was one court skill he did not lack, it was in gaining the attention of ladies. Either for himself or someone else.


As to Danby, Francis replied, "Perhaps one day I'll have skill enough to give you such a gift." He chuckled, "But now I shall feel substandard in my gifting either way."


He could not help but feel that as more truth than jest. It was true of attempting to gift something to the King too, not just his uncle. He did not have the anonymity of being completely inconsequential and unknown; he presumed there was a bit more expectation on gifts from one's own household, whether he was seen as nephew, gentleman, or only son of a slain foster-brother. There was much pressure there with the King and Buckingham on his gift list. Figs and murano glass no longer did the trick.


Which prompted the question, "What are you giving His Majesty?"

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"A bit of girth is a good thing in a man," Buckingham commented as his hands went to his belly. "I have not caught a chill in years. Yes, the robustness of my health, thank you."


The topic of Danby warranted no further words, nor of his nephew's conjured plight in finding feminine company. He rolled his eyes at the theatrics. "Perhaps it is the very same ladies that drain your vitality and make you less robust. Perhaps that is your prescription ... to avoid feminine warmth." He suspected that would be unlikely.


Buckingham paused to consider what gift he might like. While inclined to tell Francis to fret not ... that nothing was plenty, as a good soul might, he thought better of it, wondering what the young man might imagine he wanted.


"Ah, the King. I found something suitable this summer. It is a small flower trapped in a piece of amber. It is really amazing how a solid can be inside another solid. Nicolas Steno* would be pleased with it. Your master is a man of science and art and this is both in one. Not only that, but it is a reminder of our youth together, preserved in memory but unattainable any more."


*Steno was a Danish man of science that had studied the topic.

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Francis could have made a joke about Gwen being in the country at the time being Buckingham's reason for expanding girth by his own logic, but as much as the perfection of his mistress not 'sucking him dry of vitality' tempted his wit, his uncle's feelings tempered the demands of Francis desire for repartee. He knew his uncle must miss Gwen very much when she was away. His uncle was not a dispassionate fellow.


Something that was proved by Buckingham's admission of his gift for the King.


The younger blond blinked once and then again, taking a breath through his nose as he contemplated the nuances of that gift. Mentions of their childhood now also hit Francis right in the heart. Like a memory he did not own, it called up images and feelings of a father he had never known. Francis knew his father was part of that childhood.


And by extension Francis was himself, he knew, because Buckingham had said it before. For both he and the King, Francis was a reminder of a happier youth.


"That is very beautiful. Very apropos in a way my words surely cannot admire. That you found an object which embodies all of that more profoundly than even your words could is rather incomparable." He nodded his respect to that gift.


He heaved a sigh, "Now I truly feel a poor gifter. I can simply add my 'brothers' to the list of my sense of inadequacy. Apparently gifting lessons should have been added to the dancing, the bowing, the cravating, and appointments with the tailor." He chuckled at himself.


Unable to fully shake the gift from his mind, he said, slyly showing a bit of growing awareness of his uncle's tactics, "You surround the King with things that not only remind him of better, simpler times, but of you and your place in his life. Science, Art, pursuits you share. A beautiful thing preserved of the past, but also transformed into rock, enduring and immutable. Also, inseparable. Truly masterful, Your Grace, I'm awed."

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It was a satisfied smile that the Duke displayed to the flattery of Francis. Of course it is a grand idea! Buckingham was not shy about having his cleverness on display, in all its forms. "Yes, I thought it quite perfect. You described it with the eloquence that I did not. Well put. I can only hope that you can remember those words when your master asks your opinion." There was a satisfied chuckle as well.


"Now tell me what you were planning to give the King," he urged. The younger man professed inadequacy in this regard, so it was time to put the man to the test.

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