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Francis Kirke

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(Totally wasn't thinking about where 10 years would put us!)

Francis took in a deep breath and exited the house to make his short walk to Whitehall. He had not felt this out of place in years. Almost ten years exactly. The last time he had felt this was when he had arrived at court for the first time, for the wedding at Windsor. 

Now he did not feel like he wanted to do this at all. In fact, lots of brandy sounded like a far better idea, but a combination of family members and over-industrious servants had snapped him out of that pattern two days prior. 

He had not been out of the house in weeks. 

The brightness of being outside was almost blinding even from under the brim of his amply-plumed black hat. The crunch of the ground of the short drive was strange beneath his feet. 

When he heard a servant call "Your Grace!" to his uncle, he turned around to wait for Buckingham to join him.

He stared blankly as the servant stared back at him.

Oh right... Thus, the end of his brandy-bender hit jaggedly home again. He was going to have to deal with all the reminders sober now. Constantly being punched in the gut. His uncle was dead. The funeral and ceremony was long over, more than a fortnight ago. 

He still did not feel like the Duke of Buckingham. He had only finally begun to feel like a Lord Kingston and only just barely so. He had only thought he would feel this sort of lack of preparedness once in his life, but this was just like coming to court for the first time all over again.

A piece of parchment was held out to him when he did not answer.


There is a window between you and others that you may look out, but others cannot look in; they cannot see you other than what you show them. Act the part and that is what they will see.

God's Blood It was fortuitous that he had taken up using the fashionable walking stick, because he suddenly actually needed it as more than a walking ornament. The first part he knew was advise that the duke had been given when he was a boy from the only father he had known. The second was Buckingham's own addition. 

I was not born with that window... Or maybe he had been if promises in the Eyes of God were as important as churches made them out to be. Society was oft not as forgiving as God was purported to be, unfortunately. Sometimes all the paperwork and proof in the world was not enough, and while all the "proof" had been presented at the College of Arms, the House of Lords was not currently sitting, so he had yet to be accepted in the final sense. That final sense mattered, in this world, even more than the King in some ways. James, as everyone had predicted, had more popularity problems with his people than the Martyred King. His word was no golden rule.

He might have yelled for being delivered such a message, but he knew the servant had likely been instructed to deliver it; Buckingham was like that and by the end of a decade had known Francis well enough to know how difficult this very moment of returning back to court would be. Francis had never liked the center of attention at court. He pushed the parchment back at the servant and sent him off back into the house. 

Act the part. Well I've already perfected the drunken stupor part, Uncle. Francis had not particularly thought about it before then, but his reaction had been so utterly Villiersesque. Buckingham had done the same thing on quite a number of occasions, so Francis could hardly be faulted. Except by all the female relatives in his life, who probably thought he had been killing himself with his idiocy. 

They had certainly told him he smelled enough over the last week, and he admitted he did feel mentally better to....move about and feel clean. He chewed on his lip for a moment and then redirected himself to walk through the park, needing just a little more time before feeling all the pairs of palace eyes on him. It was a nice day, and there were plenty of folk who had also chosen an early afternoon walk.

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“Your Majesty?”

Sophia, Queen of Spain, looked up sharply when she heard the panic in the governess' voice. She had lowered herself into a curtsy, but it was quite apparent that she was upset. And Sophia was pretty certain she knew why, for the woman's charge was no longer with her. “He slipped away from you?”

The governess kept her eyes lowered. “No, Your Majesty. I just turned my back for a moment and when I looked back, he had shimmied up a tree. And he refuses to come down.”

Sophia sighed. “Again?” She stood up. “Lead me to him.” Eight-year-old Esteban was nothing like the man he had been named after. He was not much like his father either. The mischievous Crown Prince had taken after her instead, sneaky and mischievous, and always getting into trouble, particularly in trees. He just couldn't resist climbing them.

As she followed the governess down the pathway, she thought about everything that had led her up to this day. Shortly after she had turned seventeen, her husband, the Baron of Toledo, had been killed when he had thrown himself in front of Don Juan during a battle Spain was involved in. After the period of mourning was over, Juan promptly married her, and their first son had been born almost exactly nine months later. He was followed by the twins, Felipe and Rosalia, two years later. 

Juan continued to serve as the Prime Minister of Spain and became very popular among the people. When the unfortunate King Carlos II died under mysterious circumstances, Juan was made legitimate and was crowned as the new King. There had been few other options and Juan already had an heir and a spare. Through him, the royal family would live on. A year after he took the throne, Sophia presented him with his third son, Xavier, who was now three years old.

And she had recently found out that she was pregnant again.

Juan's business with King James, whatever it was, would be concluded long before it became too dangerous for her to travel. She suspected that the unpopular English King was hoping to make alliances with other Catholic countries, afraid that he might be overthrown. He had invited Juan to bring his wife and children, and she had met him the day they had arrived. She still found him creepy and when he had asked the ages of the children, she had thrown his old line right back in his face: 'You should never ask questions of royalty.” He had looked at her as if she were daft. That incident had obviously made the same impression on him as it had on her.

“He's up there.” The governess' voice brought her out of her thoughts and she looked up into the tree they had stopped in front of. Sophia could see Esteban's small form through the leaves and the boy waved to her cheerfully. He had perched himself upon a sturdy branch and didn't look as if he intended to leave it anytime soon.

“It's time to come down, Esteban.” She tried to sound stern.

“Do I have to?” 

“No, you don't have to. You can stay up there if you want to and your brothers, sister, and I will have lunch without you.” With four children, the young Queen had learned long ago how to reason with them. Esteban, much like his namesake, loved to eat.

“Okay, I'm coming.” The Prince stood up, holding onto one branch while he balanced upon another. Sophia held her breath, hoping that he would make it down safely, but he seemed frozen in place. “I can't, Mama.” His dark complexion suddenly seemed pale and his eyes were full of fear. “I'm afraid I'll fall. Can you come get me?”

Sophia had never been very good at climbing, and what would everyone meandering through the park think if they saw the Queen of Spain in a tree? Her eyes scanned the area and lit upon the familiar form of her former guardian who seemed to be heading in their direction. “Don't move, Esteban. I'll be right back.”

Hurrying over to Francis, she called: “My lord, can you help me get a boy out of a tree?”

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The last thing the rather morose Lord Kingston Duke of Buckingham wished to do was play with children. However, what was there to be done when your former ward still managed to need you? And now she was royalty. Francis was quite sure dear little Sophia had been bedding Don Juan for all the while. He was unsure if she was a clever little minx or just naively lucky in love. 

Whatever possessed the man to pass up a potential gigantic dowry to marry a German girl who had married his friend first was quite beyond the understanding of Francis. He still had never been in that sort of love. The infatuated sort that made you make silly decisions. 

He didn't notice how she chose to address him, for it was what he was used to anyway. It was good he didn't notice because he might have wondered if there was meaning behind it. He was feeling a bit less than secure. 

Instead, he bowed said back indulgently, "So long as it truly is a boy and not a monkey." He chuckled, remembering her rambunctious monkey. 

And when he looked up in the tree, he rather forgot his pain for the moment.

"Is that a bird up there? Perhaps I should knock it from its perch with my walking stick!" He pretended not to see Esteban clearly. He held a gloved hand up to the brim of his hat and squinted.

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When it became apparent that Juan would become King, Sophia's thoughts had run in much the same direction as Francis' did now. She had feared that one of the conditions set upon his reign would be that he set his wife aside and marry a princess whose dowry would increase Spain's territories and its coffers. If that had been the price of obtaining the position he had been born for, she would have paid it, even if she'd had to leave her children behind.

Yet that had not happened, perhaps because it was unlikely the ruler of another country would be willing to give his daughter to a fifty-four-year old King who already had an heir and was deeply in love with the child's mother. Even in the conservative atmosphere of Spain, where one didn't show affection in public, their devotion to each other had been noticed. One of the most popular poems written in recent years was called 'There's Love In His Eyes For Sophia,' a tribute to Juan's ardor for her.

Or maybe Juan had refused to become King if he had to give her up. Theirs was truly a love match, and nothing would ever change that. Sometimes she fantasized that their fondness for each other would live throughout history as one of the greatest love stories of all time.

Now, however, the first living reminder of that love was stuck in a tree.

“No, not a monkey this time. Aurora passed away last year at the age of twelve and I just haven't been able to bring myself to buy another one.” Juan had offered to acquire one for her, and eventually she would probably take him up on his offer, but it wasn't time for that yet. It felt too much like she would be trying to replace her beloved golden lion tamarin.

Sophia chuckled at Francis' comment and noted how he squinted as he looked up into the tree. He appeared to be good with children, although to her knowledge, he had not yet married. Maybe he had a few little bastards running around somewhere. 

“I”m not a bird!” There was more than a bit of haughtiness in Esteban's high boyish voice. “I'm the future King of Spain!” Esteban was tall for his age and a bit pudgy, with dark brown hair and olive skin. He was dressed today in blue and gold. He spoke English with a very slight Spanish accent. All of Sophia's children had learned Spanish, German, Italian, and English at the same time. 

“Be nice, Esteban,” Sophia chided. “This gentleman is the Duke of Buckingham, and you will probably be dealing with him when you take the throne of Spain. Remember what I told you. First impressions are important.”

If Juan lived to be a ripe old age, their son would most likely become King when he was in his early thirties. She would be the Queen Mother for longer than she would be Queen. But that was just the way of things when you married a man over thirty years your senior. A pang of sorrow pierced her heart at the thought of losing him, and she quickly pushed it to the back of his mind.

The boy sighed. “I'm sorry, Your Grace. I didn't mean to be rude. I wish I really was a bird because then I could fly and wouldn't have to worry about falling.” The panic was back in his voice. “I don't know how to get down.”

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Francis had, in fact, been asked to marry by the only two personages he could not refuse: the late King and the late Duke. So he had married once he was assured that he would not be continuing the Kirke name, but his wife had passed a few years prior as well, just after the King, and had taken a son with her. The new duke had been given four children and only had two left: George and Charles. They were a bit younger than Esteban. He had not remarried.

"The future King of Spain! Surely not. Surely the future King of Spain would not be climbing trees in a public park," he replied, with a chuckle. 

He smiled more as Sophia chided the boy. 

Then he did what men do and entirely ignored what she said. "Never mind that, Your Highness. Princes should never be cautious to assert themselves. They should also never show they are afraid. Now surely you do not want the English boys to see you stuck up in a tree or the Duke of Buckingham to have to come rescue you, or worse, a servant. You should have considered beforehand you would need your bravado to get down, so it is time to find it young sir, the situation warrants it," he encouraged. 

"You are bigger than my boys and they climb all on their own, in the private garden at home. Now, take of your coat and throw it down to me so that you can move properly. One step at a time just like you went up." 

He wasn't going to promise to catch the boy if he fell, because that did the boy no good service at all, but Francis had no intention to let him fall. He just didn't want Esteban to know that. 

"Do not worry, I'll catch him if he falls," he whispered to Sophia.

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Although she had traveled all over the continent with Juan when she wasn't pregnant, Sophia had not been back to England since she was seventeen and had not kept in touch with Francis. Therefore, she had no idea that he had been married or had children. The only reason she knew that he was now the Duke of Buckingham was that many people had been talking about it. She didn't know why he had succeeded his cousin instead of one of his closer relatives, but she was happy for his good fortune.

“All boys climb trees if they're brave,” Esteban retorted. “I'll bet that all the Kings in all the world liked to climb when they were boys. And Dukes too.”

Sophia was about to reprimand him again, but Francis didn't seem to mind his cheeky attitude. She supposed he was accustomed to it, after dealing with her former teenage self on a daily basis. Looking back on those days now, she realized how silly and immature she had been. She was still young and mischievous, but motherhood and becoming a queen had matured her, at least a bit.

She was surprised that he actually encouraged her son's behavior. And it was true that a King should never show fear. It was not too early to learn that lesson. She chuckled as the Duke tried to guilt the young Prince into climbing down on his own. When she was under his guardianship, that tactic had rarely worked on her, but she had been twice Esteban's age.

Her son did look suitably remorseful. Sophia saw his eyes … which were as blue as her own … scan the area to make certain nobody was watching. There were other people in the garden, but she doubt they would approach the Duke of Buckingham when he was conversing with the Queen of Spain. Idly, she wondered if there would be gossip about them being secret lovers. She had long since learned to take malicious rumors with a grain of salt, and often found them humorous. 

So Francis did have children. Perhaps he was married after all. Looking up at Esteban, she saw his face darken. He didn't like to compared negatively with younger children. “I climb trees all the time too in Spain,” he said proudly, “and I have always gotten down all by myself.”

“Then you don't want to let an English tree beat you,” Sophia said, taking a cue from Francis.

Their reasoning seemed to work. A determined gleam could be seen in his eyes and he took off his jacket and tossed it in Francis' direction. Requesting that he remove it had been an excellent suggestion, since it could possibly get caught on a branch. His waistcoat and breeches fit snugly and was not likely to cause that sort of problem. The sleeves of his cream-colored shirt were full, but she didn't see them getting in the way. He might rip his stockings, but they were easily replaced.

Sophia smiled when Francis promised to catch Esteban if he fell. He was tall and strong and could easily handle the boy's weight. It was a bit sad when you realized that you were no longer able to pick up or carry your own children. It wouldn't be long before Esteban passed her in height. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she whispered back.

And then promptly inhaled, holding her breath as her son began his descent. She trusted Francis, but it was still frightening when your child was in a dangerous situation. Esteban was careful, though, pausing to consider the best places to put his feet and hands. Sophia wanted to grab onto Francis' arm for support but that would hinder him if had to catch the boy.

Finally, he reached a low-hanging branch and swung himself gracefully to the ground. After giving Francis a gallant bow, he grinned impishly. “See, Your Grace? I'm as good a climber as any boy in England!”

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It was something of a Villiers curse to know loss and to know it quite well, so Francis was practical about life, death, and danger. Even with his own sons, he did not hold that petrifying fear that was the stuff of mothers. He encouraged his boys to be bold, and he let God sort out the rest.

And in the end, the boy did find his bravado. It only took a little cajoling to stoke it to life. 

He clapped his gloved hands together quietly and obligingly at the graceful dismount. 

"That you are, as good as any I have seen. And now we might meet properly, for I cannot have an introduction to a prince up a tree."

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Sophia had known loss too. She had been pregnant six times. Two had ended in miscarriage and a son had been stillborn. She often feared for the health of the twins, who were rather frail. Rosalia, born first, was the stronger of the two, but both she and Filipe fell ill quite often. The young Queen had considered leaving them in Spain, but the journey seemed to have been good for them. They had been more active since arriving in England and there was more color in their cheeks.

She prayed every night that the child she carried would be born healthy and that she would not die giving birth to her next son or daughter. Childbirth was risky and she'd already survived it four times. There was a point when everyone's luck ran out. This baby, she hoped, would be her last. Five children were enough heirs for any King and in Spain, daughters were able to take the throne if none of their brothers survived.

Luck was on Esteban's side today. Sophia's breath whooshed out of her when his feet finally touched the ground. His chest puffed out at Francis' compliment and he looked very pleased with himself. “Why? Because the prince would be taller than you are if he's in a tree?”

Remembering his manners, he bowed again. “I am Esteban of Spain, Prince of Asturias, Prince of Girona, Duke of Montblanc, Count of Cervera, and Lord of Balaguer.” Sophia smiled proudly. His titles were a mouthful for any adult, and some courtiers stumbled over them when introducing him. Yet her son delivered them smoothly and in only one breath.

She wasn't certain how much Francis' name had changed since he had assumed his cousin's title, so she couldn't very well introduce him to the little prince. Unless his arrogance had grown to equal the former Duke's, he wouldn't mind introducing himself.

Once introductions had been made, she planned to send Esteban back to the palace with his governess so that she and her former guardian could converse alone. Unless Francis preferred to speak more with Esteban. The boy needed practice interacting with foreign nobles, and the Duke of Buckingham was one of the most important gentlemen in England.

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"I am quite certain you know why," Francis replied, and it had nothing to do with height. 

The boy's list of titles was enormous in comparison to his stature. 

Sophia did not provide his, and Francis did not blame her. She likely would not have known his full style even if it had not just changed. 

"Francis Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, et cetera. They used to call my uncle Lord of Useless Thousands. Hyperbole does make it sound far more sensational. More half a dozen than thousands. I shall list them, though, if you wish to hear them," he added, with a smile.

Other than his titles, he had no sort of great office and simply held Buckingham's Lord Lieutenancies and had kept his position as one of the King's Gentlemen of the Bedchamber when James had named his household. 

"Your mother does not know me as such, though," he said. The fact that he was yet dressed predominantly in black might tip the boy off that he was quite freshly in mourning. Even if they had not heard of the duke's death whilst in England, it was large enough news to travel widely.

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Esteban nodded seriously, looking so much like his father in that moment that Sophia's heart swelled in pride for him. He knew how to act properly in social situations. At his age, she had been running around with the children from the village around her estate, lighthearted and carefree. It seemed a bit unfair that her son already had duties and responsibilities resting on his small shoulders, but he had taken well to his role. At home with his siblings, he could relax and just be an eight-year-old boy, but in public, he had to act like a little adult.

“Yes, I would like to hear them, please,” he told Francis politely. “Not many people have more titles than I do unless they're Kings. I think my father has about fifty. I counted them once, but I forgot the exact number.”

Sophia was content with just being called the Queen of Spain, and even after four years, she was not completely accustomed to being addressed as 'Your Majesty.' She wondered if Francis felt a bit uncomfortable with his titles as well. He was just as unpretentious as he had been when she had lived in England. She hoped that he didn't become haughty with time.

Wearing black meant more than just mourning in Spain. Black attire was a sign of importance and status, and Esteban wore it whenever he attended official events. All of Sophia's children did, but she had never embraced that custom. She still wore pastels, though sometimes they were accented with black lace or braid. Her children also wore colorful clothing in informal situations, like this walk in the park.

“When I knew His Grace, only his given name was the same.” Sophia explained. “Remember I told you about how I moved to England after the death of my father and lived under the care of a guardian?

The boy nodded.

“His Grace was that guardian. He took care of me like your father and I take care of you.”

“Really?” Esteban looked up at Francis, his blue eyes as big as saucers. “Was she bad?”

Sophia choked back a peal of laughter, wondering how much the new Duke would tell her son about her.

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"As you wish," Francis replied. A fairly deep breath was needed. "Duke, Marquess, & Earl of Buckingham, Earl of Coventry, Earl of Kingston, Viscount Villiers, Viscount Purbeck, Baron de Ros of Helmsley, Baron Wadden, Baron Stoke, Lord Lieutenant of the West Ridings, & Comptroller of the Navy."

And he had truly actually earned only one of those himself: Comptroller. All the titles & Lord Lieut were his uncle's & grandfather's before him, save for Kingston. The earldom had been given to him when he married, for marrying to the King's wishes, with nary any other sort of dowry. The original Kingston had been more for the memory of his father than Francis the younger himself. 

It still astounded him that he, who started life plain Mister Francis Kirke, esquire, now held 10 separate peerages. TEN! Even the distinct Buckingham titles had been granted separately, not raised. He was not large-as-life enough to fit into ten peerages the way his uncle had. 

The wave of morose covered him for a moment. He sighed.

The conversation between Sophia and her son slowly brought him back. How strange that now they had their own children. It had, somehow, all worked out in the end. She had married higher-than-high, and he had changed the legacy of nothingness that his father would have left behind, that Buckingham would have left behind. It had righted pains of the past and wrongs for Buckingham and the late King. 

And another wave came in. He swallowed. 

Esteban looked up at him with those eyes and he smiled again. "Challenging, perhaps, but not bad. She was not a child when she came to me, but a young lady with all the follies of a young lady. Always in love and the more foolish for it. I had to fight for her honour once, and nearly twice, but there are duties that true gentlemen do not take dismissively but seriously. I was happy to do it, though not always so in the moment." That was politic enough, Francis thought. 

"Why do you ask, Highness? Are you bad and wish to know from which parent you have gained the tendency?" He chuckled.

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“That's not half a dozen titles,” Esteban said when Francis had finished reciting them. “It's a full dozen. Do your sons have titles too?”

Sophia marveled at how much both of them had achieved in the past decade, she by marriage and he by inheritance. If anyone had told her that she would be the Queen of Spain back then, she would have laughed in their face. She had often dreamed of becoming Juan's wife, but there had been many obstacles in the way of him becoming King that she had never even considered that he would eventually overcome them all.

She wondered if Francis would have done the same thing if he had been told he would one day become the Duke of Buckingham. A flash of sadness seemed to cross his face, and she wondered if he was thinking of his cousin, who had chosen him as his heir. Unlike her son, Sophia knew that he was wearing black because he was in mourning. She was aware that the former Duke had passed away recently, but she wasn't certain exactly how long he had been gone.

Francis seemed to cheer up a bit when Esteban asked if she had been bad. Challenging? Yes, she supposed she had been. Sophia felt guilty now about all the trouble that she had caused him, but she had been quite foolish when she was sixteen, as he had pointed out. At least he wasn't bitter about it now.

Esteban put his hands on his hips and glared at his mother. “You said that Papa was the only man you ever loved!”

“He was, and is,” she replied. “But before I knew him, I thought I was in love about a million times. Lord Buckingham was partially responsible for bringing us together. He arranged my my marriage with Lord Toledo.” Because he had sacrificed himself to save his master, the late Baron was considered something of a saint in the Spanish royal family.

“If I had not married him, I would never gotten to know your father so well.” Sophia didn't mention that she had practically begged Francis to let her marry the man her son was named after, or that she had been Juan's mistress since before she was wed. 

Esteban's gaze traveled from his mother to Francis. His eyes were even wider than they had been before. “Then I was born because of you, Your Grace.”

Sophia smiled at her former guardian, wondering what he would say to that.

When Francis asked if he was bad, the young Prince turned to his mother. “Am I?”

The Queen laughed. “I'll say the same thing His Grace said about me.” She reached out to ruffle her son's hair. “You're challenging, but you're not bad. And I hope you never will be, even when you start falling in love with girls.”

The boy stuck out his tongue and made a gagging sound. “I'll never like girls! They have cooties!”

“You'll change your mind when you grow up. Now run along with your governess. Your brothers and sister are probably wondering where you are."

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace,” Esteban said. “I hope I get to meet your sons before we go back to Spain.”

Once he had gone, Sophia grinned at Francis. “If you ever hoped that when I had children, they would be as much trouble as I was, then you have gotten your wish … times four. And they're not even teenagers yet.”

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"All of a duke's sons and daughters are lords and ladies in England, but my eldest now holds my old title Earl of Kingston. I am barely two fortnights the Duke." 

Generally, the convention was for the eldest to be Earl of Coventry, but so far as Francis was concerned that was an unlucky title. His uncle had been Coventry for mere months before his father had been murdered, and his uncle clearly had no surviving children. Francis thought it far more fitting to use Kingston as the new tradition

Francis had not changed so very much. He was merely grieving in the saturated way all Villiers felt deep emotions. That did not mean he could not find any humor in life. He was quite amused when the boy turned all this logic on his mother. He tried to hold back a snicker but a hint of it came out. 

When Esteban said that he was born because of Francis, the new duke laughed and then reined in his chuckles. "I assure you, Highness, I had nothing to do with that part of it." He tittered and then said, "When you are older, you will understand. About the same time you realize ladies are cootie-free. It's the gentlemen that have cooties, really. They should be afraid of us."

No truer statement was likely ever uttered. 

"The pleasure is mine, and I'm sure something might be arranged if your diplomatic duties allow. Mine have yet to return to any of their duties or tutoring." So far as he knew...truly he had been entirely absent mentally since the funeral. Whatever his mother had forced upon them was anyone's guess. He tried to push off his feelings of guilt and selfishness. Part of what had snapped him out of it was his mother telling him that Charles was asking if his papa was dying too (while hitting him on the head with a carafe). He had yet to see them. He had not wanted them to see him sobering up or sick from sobering up and this was truly his first foray back into the real world. 

He had duties to see to before he could feel right about seeing his boys. It would not be a good example otherwise - not that any of the last 3 weeks had been a good example, but...well, he had already had several conversations with his sons about controlling the mercurial Villiers temperament. He would be sure to tell them that he, too, was only a mere mortal. 

Once the boy was gone, he chuckled at Sophia. "It is different trying to parent a youth who is not yours and is barely more than a decade younger. I was not ready at twenty-eight to parent a girl of marrying age, but we are usually unprepared for what life throws at us. I do not know if I ever wished difficult children on you, but in retrospect, I think all children are difficult in their way, so you were bound to gain perspective."

Every decade gave one reflection about life and oneself. Looking back, was he more than a youth himself? He surely felt more burdened now, more adult now. 

"My boys are six and seven, barely more than eleven months apart. I think I have a very good idea what my uncle and father's childhood was like..." He had no idea that she did not know Buckingham was his uncle and not just his cousin. He had been using the Villiers surname for some years now, since he had married.

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Picnicking amongst a gaggle of friends, Nicolette overheard voices, one of which was most fondly familiar. The voices were coming from just beyond a herbaceous boarder - a common Buxus beyond which a far from common couple. 

Snatching up her shoes she motioned to her company not to betray her presence - as she crept closer to the hedging to listen in. 

She’d been aching to see Francis ever since she came to London! But was that Sophia with him? Had she been the reason the Duke had forgone the parties and salons in favour of the relative seclusion of the palace? She would not be surprised at anything that blond bomshell got upto! 

(While Nicolette had always thought one day she and that lady would become friends, but you cannot rush these things between competitive women…)

She listened in, and quite quickly came to the conclusion that their conversation was utterly and absolutely boring. If these two were having an affiar, it was currently in it s death-throws. An understanding that pleased Nicci, and also softened her viewpoint on Sophia. She was not an obsticale to Madame's current objective after all. 

A rustle of leaves, and Madame rose to her full height of 5 foot four and a half inches (a veritable 'jaqueline in box' hedge) her rouged lips broadening into a smile, "Yoo hoo! Darlings? Heavens! What a treat it is to see you!"

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“It is the same in Spain,” Esteban explained. “But the children of Dukes there are called 'most excellent lords and ladies.' You know what I think is funny? Princes are called 'infantes' in Spanish but in English, 'infant' means 'baby.' And I am nota baby.”

Francis had only held his new title for two weeks? That must mean the former Duke had passed away less than a month ago. No wonder Sophia had not heard of it. Their journey had been underway by then. They had traveled by land so that they could stop at Versailles for a meeting with Louis XIV. Juan was trying to improve Spain's relationship with France. They had been received cordially, but her husband had not spoken of his meeting with the French King. 

She hoped they weren't plotting against England, attempting to take advantage of its unpopular sovereign, which might culminate in yet another war. Sophia's opinions on war had not changed and she still believed that all conflicts could be solved by discussion rather than violence. Maybe she would one day win Juan over to that way of thinking and the entire world would follow suit. An impossible dream, perhaps, but she was still young enough to believe in miracles.

The new Duke laughed at her son's comment, as she had thought he would. Her chuckles joined his as he claimed he'd had nothing to do with Esteban's birth. “I don't have cooties!” the young Prince exclaimed, narrowing his eyes at Francis. “You're just jesting with me, Your Grace. Boys don't have them.” Turning his big blue eyes to his mother, he asked: “Do they, Mama?”

“Some of them do when they grow up,” Sophia admitted. “But not those who act like the gentlemen they are. Cooties don't like true gentlemen.” Esteban just stared at her blankly. There were some things he was incapable of understanding at his tender age.

She was glad that Francis was open to the idea of their children meeting. His heir and Esteban might have dealings with each other when they were grown and it would be nice if they became friends. “We'll be in London for several more weeks,” she told him. “My children are being taught about English culture and customs, but that is the extent of their lessons until we return home.” An English tutor instructed them and a French tutor had been hired to teach them about France when they were there.

“I think you did an excellent job, considering how difficult I was,” Sophia assured Francis after Esteban had gone. “I think Sir Cedric was supposed to be more involved in my life than he was. It seems to me now that most of the responsibility rested on you. Maybe he was unable to be impartial considering my rivalry with his daughter.” She winked at him playfully. “I think I turned out well, if I say so myself. I have risen as high as any woman can.

“And you're right. We're never prepared for what we have to face. That rise of mine has had its problems and always will. But I will never regret marrying my beloved Juan and having his children. Even if he had been banished from Spain and become an outcast, I would still have wanted to be with him.” Although if that had been the case, she might not have wanted to bring children into a life of exile.

His uncle? Sophia blinked. She had thought that the former Duke had been his cousin. Perhaps he'd had a brother and Francis was his bastard son? Maybe, like Juan, he had been legitimatized since there had been no other heir. She could have learned things like that if she had been able to keep in touch with her English friends, but as soon as she married Juan, all correspondence had been stopped. Especially now that she was Queen, it might seem suspicious if she kept in touch with people from other countries, and if Spain was attacked, she could be accused of conspiring with the enemy. It was sad, for she sometimes felt isolated. Yet high positions always came with high prices.

She smiled as he spoke of his sons. “Mine aren't that close, unless you count the twins who, thankfully, were born mere minutes apart. I wasn't aware that the late Duke was your uncle, but he must have been proud of all of you. Please accept my condolences on his passing."

Before she could say more, a familiar feminine voice with a French accent called out to them. Sophia turned to see Nicolette emerge from behind a hedge. Had she been eavesdropping on them? If so, she had not heard much but talk of children. “It's lovely to see you again as well,” she said with a warm smile, as unsure how to address the Frenchwoman as she had been about Francis. Perhaps Nicolette, too, had risen in position since Sophia had left England so many years ago.

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He smiled and said, "I am pleased that you are happy." A Spanish baron had not truly been good enough in his mind, but a King was another matter. 

It seemed she had not heard of his true relation with Buckingham.

"Yes, I think that he enjoyed the notion that something would come next and that he had done the building of it if not the birthing of it." He paused. "My mother and his younger brother married a few fortnights before he was killed during the war. In the chaos that ensued nobody knew where he had put the marriage documents and wartime ceremonies were discrete affairs. It has been a difficult journey to acquire proof from a time of destruction and uncertainty, one I was not aware of for some long time."

It was about then that Nicolette popped out from the bushes. He had to chuckle. Her ability to draw a smile had not changed.

"What a sight you are! You make a common Buxus absolutely divine." Little did she know he had forgone all the salons and all the palaces. Indeed, he had been camping in a liquor and occasional opium stupor on a stack of pillows on the floor in a dark parlour.

(OOC - Did Nicci conquer the King and marry Ranelagh? Get a title from the King and live in single bliss? Tee hee, can't wait to see, cuz I dunno what she's called either!)

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Musical laughter bubbled from her lips with the erstwhile friends welcoming smiles: and Nicolette was transported through memory to seasons long-long past. “And you have not aged a day…” She impressed upon the ever youthful-of-heart Sophia. (This even though she had an almost grown child at her side.) “What is your secret, is it milk-thistle? Or some other family remedy perhaps.” 

For her own part, nearly a decade older than Sophia, there were traces of age that none of Nicci’s herbal face masks, lotions and tonics could remove. Yet the lifelines of her told of much joy and laughter, though her life had turned out entirely different to her 1677 plans! 

“La! For a sailor you don’t half flatter a girl.” She crooned happily to Francis compliment, striking a pose, pouting her lips, and eyes flaring appreciation of the almost feminine grace of the man who had been her lover so long ago. 

Oh how far he’d come, and now a Duke too. Nicolette’s solid grounding in gossip, aka matters of courtly importance, had her very well aware of both of her new companions successes in life. While it was not at all surprising that neither of the pair knew quite how to address her today. 

The almost imperceptible pause on both Francis and Sophia’s lips betrayed this fact to Nicolette, and she broke into further laughter in response. “But darlings, I go by Madame Vauquelin these days – I refuse to give another man my naming rights - ever again - it is much simpler this way, yes?!” 

Some jealous types called the Frenchwoman a professional widow, having already survived three husbands, with a scattering of sons of daughters under those various titles. Yet it was not though her numerous strategic marriages that Nicolette’s fortune had truly been made, but rather the continued patronage of the Late Duke of Buckingham. Nicolette had ever remained his creature – and devastated to learn of his sudden death. 

Soberness moved her eyes as she stepped from the hedge proper. “Are you managing, to adjust.” Closing the space between she and Francis, she extended her arms with intent to embrace. Whatever grief she felt, she knew his to be multiplied a hundredfold. 

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“Thank you,” Sophia replied. “You were partially … and indirectly … responsible for that happiness. If you had not allowed me to marry Lord Toledo, I would never have found true love or become the Queen of Spain. I consider the former more important than the latter.” She would probably have married an English lord instead, and while she knew that Francis would have chosen well for her, she might have lost Juan forever. He could have chosen not to come between a husband and wife and ended their affair.

So he had been the legitimate son of the former Duke's brother. When his father had been killed, his mother probably married quickly so that her child would not be a bastard. “I always knew you were destined for great things. It mush have been difficult for your mother to keep the secret of your true paternity, knowing how much you could gain if the truth was revealed.” 

Yet it was possible he could have lost even more, since there had been no proof at the time. As a mother herself, Sophia understood how Lady Kingston must have felt. “She seemed like a very strong woman to me, and now I know why. She must be proud of you too.” The young Queen was quite fond of Francis' mother, who had been kind to her and had allowed her to stay with her during a couple of recesses. She hoped that Lady Kingston had lived to see her son fulfill his destiny.

There were many other things she wished to speak to him about, but Nicolette's cheerful greeting made that impossible. Perhaps they would be able to converse privately another time, unless the Frenchwoman didn't plan on staying with them for very long. She had always liked Nicolette and didn't think of her merry presence as an intrusion. 

Sophia winked at her when she complimented on her youthfulness. She was only in her mid-twenties but knew she looked much younger than she was. Those meeting her for the first time often thought that she was Juan's second wife and that her three eldest children were not hers. Their mouths sometimes dropped to the floor when the truth came out. Even if not for her girlish complexion, she could understand their assumptions. Only Xavier had inherited his mother's fair coloring. The elder three were dark like their father.

Unfortunately, her body had suffered the effects of so many pregnancies, but with a corset to tuck in the flab around her belly, she still looked like she had a fashionable figure. Her bosom was even more impressive after four children, and she was envied all over the continent for that particular asset. To her, they were ponderous and the pain in her back had increased. She occasionally wished she had not been so well-endowed.

“We shouldn't bore His Grace with talk of face creams, but I will share all my secrets later, if you will share yours. You are more beautiful now than you were a decade ago.” 

She couldn't help being jealous of how profusely Francis complimented Nicolette. He had not praised her beauty at all, but then his relationship with her and his relationship with the other woman were quite different. Sophia had wondered long ago if they were lovers, but then she had wondered the same thing about many unrelated couples. At the age of sixteen, her mind had been consumed by thoughts of love and passion. They still were, but now they were focused on only one magnificent man.

Nicolette's response gave her reason to believe that her suspicions were correct. And it appeared that she was a widow who had no intention of remarrying. Sophia would not remarry either once Juan was gone. The Frenchwoman then asked how Francis was, so she had already heard about his uncle's death. The Queen wondered if she knew that the late Duke was really his uncle.

Envy pierced her heart again as Nicolette held out her arms to him. She wished she could have offered Francis such platonic comfort, but the Queen of Spain hugging the Duke of Buckingham could spark a countless variety of nasty rumors. Sometimes her exalted position was more of a curse than a blessing. Sophia stood by silently, letting her two friends have a moment to themselves.

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Francis let out a hollow chuckle, "My lady mother general is, yes, but now with anything I've done in the last few weeks. She did prove her strength again though when she hit me over the head with my plate."

No scar this time, though.

Nicolette's arrival by the bush and pose swirled around lots of emotions for him. They had been involved in quite a number of schemes and intrigues over the years; those directed by his uncle. He felt once again bereft. He had a myriad of responsibilities. At the same time having someone around that was a close friend to both Villiers was uplifting; she knew them both so very well.

He let her put her arms around him and then closed his around her. "Not very well, thus far. This is the first time I've left the house since the state funeral. And it also coincides with my first day sober since too." 

He had never been eager to have his hand at being Duke of Buckingham. He would have gotten another twenty or thirty years out of his uncle if he had the choice. 

"How are you doing?I doubt you will be able to address me without a hitch in your throat too," he whispered. And yet it was important for him to solidify himself, to show himself with his allies and friends, to show the sphere of power that could squish naysayers. It felt all much larger than he felt inside.

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Sophia was right of course, talking of complexions could well wait. So with a nod of complicity to the young Queen she suggested, “Morning tea tomorrow perhaps?” Nicolette rounded a raised-brow look to Francis -- who had just very narrowly escaped. 

Or had he? 

“Unless you wish to join us of course, Your Grace – why it shall take some time to get used to your change of title! Oh but yes, if you did join us then I could demonstrate the application of a honey mask upon your face?” Nicolette’s eyes were dancing at her tease, not thinking that Francis would find it appealing at all! Oh unless she was perhaps to lick it all off later? The new Duke was a man who savoured as many and varied hedonistic pleasures as his forbear had.

Yes Buckingham remained very close to their thoughts, he would be greatly missed. For now there was the comfort of an embrace, Nicolette quite forgetting the due pomp and ceremony owed a Duke, squeezed Francis as tight as he were a brother. 

“It is understandable.” Her voice was soft in reply as she eased hold, an apologetic smile to Sophia was given, it being rude to exclude her in the intimae moment, yet these were extenuating circumstances. “But I think…” she looked back to Francis again, “that your timing for sobriety is already over due, already the vultures circle, we need honour his Grace by protecting all that he built.” 

Again she glanced towards Sophia. This time in wondering how much she dare say in front of her. Or, might Sophia assist she and Francis in this dauntingly huge task! Her retuning tlook to Francis would advise her if he trusted her with such matters - it was his call afterall.

“Moi?” Francis had returned the question upon her, and she gave a thin-lipped smile in reply. “I am keeping myself busy, I am not ready to grieve… and, do they not say that with every door that closes another opens."

Nicolette had not actually said she did not want to marry again, just that she would not take a husbands name as her own. But she not so stupid to decline the many benefits of rank and privilege, if for instance she became a Duchess. In her view Francis was the number one bacthelor in England, even if his estates bordered on bankrupsy. 

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A bright peal of lyrical laughter echoed through the gardens as Sophia imagined Francis' mother whacking him with a plate. She wished she could have seen that. “It seems she hasn't changed a bit. I hope to speak with her before we go back to Spain.” There were always events to attend at court, especially now that foreign royalty was visiting. Maybe Lady Kingston would be present at one of those.

She laughed again when Nicolette suggested that she try out a face mask on the new Duke. That, too, would be something she'd like to see. “Tea tomorrow would be divine,” she agreed. With a playful wink at Francis, she added: “And, of course, your company would be delightful as well, Your Grace.” 

Sophia assumed that since the Frenchwoman had issued the invitation, it would be held at her residence, but if she preferred, they could have tea either in the spacious guest suite the Spanish royals had been given at the palace or at the mansion they had recently bought on the outskirts of town. 

Whether Juan would be able to travel with her or not, the Queen fully intended to spend more time in London from now on. She had missed the place she had once called home more than she had realized, and even more so the people who inhabited it. Nicolette and Francis were only two of the friends she had become reacquainted with during the week she had been in England.

Sophia politely averted her eyes, pretending to admire a nearby rose bush, while her companions shared an embrace. She could hear everything they said, though, and wondered what Nicolette meant about vultures. Did the new Duke already have enemies who were coveting his titles and properties? 

If Nicolette was planning some kind of scheme, she definitely wanted to be a part of it. She owed Francis so much after everything he had done for her in the past, and she would be willing to assist in any way. There were some places a Queen could go and things she could do that her friends might not be able to accomplish as easily. Being a foreign Queen was even better, for she could pretend ignorance of the rules every English person knew, and tread in areas, both physically and intellectually, that would normally be forbidden. 

Feeling a bit left out, she turned back to them just as Nicci was speaking of her positive outlook on life. “That's an excellent way of looking at it. It was the same when Lord Toledo passed away. Another door opened, one that I would never have expected.”

She smiled at Nicolette. “Do you live in England now. Madame? I was recently at Versailles and I didn't see you there.”

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"For us both, I turned and looked for him when the servant called after me not even an hour ago," he confessed, taking a deep breath and not bothering to hide it. 

Nicolette surely knew he felt things deeply - it was a passionate, Villiers curse. They all had it, though they hid it to varying degrees. Francis was not worried about hiding it around Sophia.

"I think I shall let the ladies have their time." He made it sound like a gracious concession, but two women and his face did not sound like a good idea. 

At least not in that way and not those two!

"Yes, yes, I know," he replied, hastily but quietly. He had heard it from his uncle for years, and then more times during the act of dying, and then from his mother, his grandmother, George, Dorset, and finally even a summons from the King that insinuated it by existing. He was well-aware he had responsibilities to his family, the estate, the extended family, and all their allies and dependents. A wide net of influence he had to maintain and mend constantly from here on out. 

And at a time that reminded him far too much of his own childhood. Unrest had been steadily growing. Their King wildly unpopular with the people, and consequently with a good and growing number of the nobility. Never again would there be respect for kings like there had been. He had been born at the start of the end of that whole thing, and now the rest of his life would bear it out. 

He had very large decisions to make. 

"You ladies are, of course, correct. However, being the heir presumptive to a duchy is much like being a prince and not a king; most all of the privileges but none of the danger and responsibility. Just as kings oft say they would rather be princes, so too do I think my past life will have been enviablein that regard." At least the last decade or so of it. 

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"Marvellous then." Not to linger over Francis polite decline, Nicolette beamed of the success of Sophia's acceptance of invite. "I am staying with Barillon," Whom all would know was the French Ambassador. The Ambassador was bound to be very pleased with this latest guest she thought to drop upon his doorstep. 

Nicolette had always been like a cat bringing it's catches home for ... whomever. Years ago it had been cousin Louis who'd been given opportunity to place words and thoughts into those persons ears. This month it was the Marquis de Branges, next week it might be someone else. 

Her hand slid down Francis arm, and catching his hand she gave a squeeze before letting go. "Yet like your mentor, you have many you may call upon to help." Did he feel so very alone? From the tone on the young Queens voice Nicci knew that she too wished every happiness for their grieving friend. 

Tipping her head Nicolette tried catch his eyes, with a smile for him, one that might bolster one fallen low. (Just like the many times he'd given her a little encouragement when she'd needed it.) 

"Ah - Versailles. Was it all that you had imagined it to be?" Nicolette dimly recalled many many years ago, promising to show Sophia around Versailles if she ever visited. 

"Of my own tours, I am recently returned from the Netherlands visiting Mary Stewart. But after an awful kerfuffle involving Lady Elizabeth - Villiers" She looked briefly to Francis, then resumed, "saw us invited to leave! Cousins Lisa and Louis, along with the rest of Lady Mary's staff. It was quite dramatic, it seemed quite a case of throwing baby with the bathwater." 

“Though of course I live in Normandie.” In a roundabout way Nicci finally answered Sophia’s question. Over the years Nicolette had poured hundreds, probably thousands of pounds into the restoration of her Grandfathers property. Her childhood home. 

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“I know how you feel,” Sophia said after Francis remarked on looking for his uncle when he was addressed by his new title. “Don't be surprised if it takes several years to become accustomed to it. Even after four years, I am sometimes startled when I am called 'Your Majesty.' Maybe I will never be comfortable with it. Perhaps it is the way of things when you were not born to be what you become.” Both she and her guardian were in that position, having risen much higher than most nobles of their station.

She was a bit surprised that Nicolette was staying with the French Ambassador and wondered if they were lovers. Perhaps she too, liked older men. Sophia didn't think that Juan would mind if she was seen at the French Embassy, since his visit with Louis XIV had gone well. While he had not spoken to her about their meeting, the Spanish royals had been treated with respect and had not been thrown out of the country. In her opinion, that meant that the two monarchs were on good terms with each other. Still, she would ask him what he thought before she went. The last thing she wanted to do was cause trouble for him.

“So I shall finally get to see the interior of the French Embassy. I've always wondered about the décor, as the building itself is so magnificent.” Her blue eyes turned to Francis. “You will be missed. And I'm sure you know that we will talk about you.” Grinning impishly at Nicolette, she added: “But we will say only nice things, will we not?”

It appeared that Francis had not yet officially assumed his new position, nor did he seem excited about his future duties. Dealing with his tremendous responsibilities would most likely outweigh the privileges he enjoyed now. It had been similar with Juan and having watched her husband undergo the transformation from bastard prince to King of Spain, her heart went out to the new Duke. 

She reached for his other hand and squeezed it gently and briefly. “Yes,” she agreed. “You have many friends you can count on.” Sophia hoped that he knew that she was offering her own assistance, whether he needed something only her husband could provide or just compassionate companionship and a listening ear. She would always be there for him, as he had always been for her. 

“Oh yes!” she exclaimed. “Versailles was absolutely beautiful, and so extravagant. We were made to feel quite at home and I spent a lot of time with Madame de Maintenon. She's a lovely woman and she adored the children.” Sophia had feared that she and the wife of the French King wouldn't get along because the other woman was so pious and she wasn't, but her companionship had been quite pleasant.

Her French friend had not had such a good time in the Netherlands. “That sounds dreadful!” The young Queen wrinkled her nose as she had done so often as a young girl. She assumed that Elizabeth Villiers was the mistress of William, Prince of Orange and Princess Mary had been upset upon discovering their affair.
Villiers women seemed to end up as the mistresses of rulers. If they had the appeal of their kinsmen, Sophia could understand why. She wondered if Francis was acquainted with that particular relative of his. “At least England is more hospitable. Will you be returning to Normandie or will you continue your travels?” 

She smiled at Francis. “A decade ago, you were the one always adventuring abroad, and I envied you for that. Now it is our turn to travel and perhaps it is no coincidence that we have all come together at a time when so much is changing.”

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He squeezed Nicci's hand back, "I have to make my way to the Presence Chamber at some point, and I did send missives to my family and such that I would wish to see them there." Being he had asked them to make a show of numbers for him just like Buckingham would when he needed to illustrate his power. Francis needed their peers to not doubt one bit of what was going on for Lords was truly the last thing which needed to accept him. 

In part, perhaps Francis seemed morose because he was afraid to see which of those he most relied upon would waver or treat him lesser than they had his uncle. 

Then, though Francis could not see so, it might be that none would risk not supporting him. Buckingham had become something of a title that commanded a royal longevity that none other ever had. It had survived as the favourite of not one, not two, but three kings, and a civil war. 

And he actually had heirs, though they were still young enough that he might have need for more. Or a daughter. He might like one. 

He gave Sophia's hand a squeeze too. He had always been a man who appreciated the nurturing and strong side of women equally. 

"With Barillon?" he raised a brow. He hoped in his stupor he had not neglected any missives asking to stay with him, or his uncle...but then again, he trusted that Nicci would just come right on it if she wished. "But you should be staying with me or in one of our houses." When he wasn't in a stupor, he was far more entertaining than the Frenchman. Though like the prior Buckingham, he had always been fond of the French.

He nodded at the talk of his cousin. He had many, this one was the...great-granddaughter of his grandfather's elder half brother Sir Edward. Her father was yet alive, though her mother, who had been the royal princesses' governess had been dead for some long time. "Mercurial, all of us. What can I say." 

It was all such connections that could benefit him in all of this. He had to maintain the font of Villiers power. 

He shrugged, unrepentantly and grinned. "You shall have to tell me the whole story. Though I do confess to never finding the Dutch the most entertaining place to travel away from home anyway. You likely missed very little. None truly rival the Italians or the French in pomp or artistry." He smiled and said to Sophia, "Spain is full of pomp and art, but its finest gentlemen wear black and that I simply cannot abide." He chuckled. 

No insult to the country she had married into, it had many pluses, but not a vibrant atmosphere like the Italians. Francis would look like an albino in all that black, as he did now, and he imagined it was why Sophia did not favor the look either. They were too blond, too blue-eyed, and too creamy-skinned for such darkness. 

He fared far better in France, his birthplace, where his delicacy in figure was desirable and where he spoke the language as his first.

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"Oooo…” Nicolette did not try hide her interest in Francis alternative engagement. But rather looked to Sophia, would she also consider Francis visit to the Presence Chamber a more intriguing event to attend? “But perhaps we can reschedule, Your Highness, for the afternoon? We would be poor friends surely not to support His Grace’s launch. The first time at anything can be a little daunting, but less so with a soft word of encouragement, why our new Lord Buckingham has been the embodiment of that principle for myself upon one most significant time.” The Frenchwoman’s eyes fairly gleamed at her boastful revelation. 

“But yes, you shall adore the interior, why many have called the Ambassadors resident ‘Une petite Versailles’. Though of course never uttered in front of the Sun King himself. Hmm, while perhaps a foreigner might be excused from saying so, but for a Frenchman it would be akin to treason!” The French would be rather antsy over specifics. Yet to confirm their date Nicci suggested, “So perhaps at one?” 

Francis meanwhile was surprised at her choice of house to intrude upon. “Oh but darling, I certainly am not relying upon the overweight and overindulged Barillon for entertainment.” Her reply might answer Sophia’s upspoken question too. “But rather, I am deathly curious to see if I can learn the truth of it… naturally was France truly involved with Monmouth’s little show. I can believe it, though Id rather not. Who would want to be associated with such an utter failure! Anyhow, I am quite certain that he for one will know.”

Sophia seemed to have had a sociable time during her visit to the French Palace. Maintenon’s salons were highly fabled, that Francoise had gained the young Queen as a star guest had no doubt been a triumph to herself also (to the dismay of the rival salons). “The paramount gentlewoman.” Nicolette expressed, impressed at Sophia’s circles. Oh what influence she might have. Yet was Sophia wise to it? As a girl she had behaved so impetuously, blind to the deeper darker intrigues and ramifications. (Nicci still remembered well the night that the buxom blonde had begged Francis to let her marry Toeldo, all while stood in the middle of a court ball!) Had the years wizened Sophia?

But Nicolette was smiling broadly as Sophia gasped her dismay, and Francis requested the full story. She had always enjoyed having everyone’s full focus. “Well…” her eyes danced upon the exaggerated pause, “the most remarkable detail is that upon the finale, stood at Lady Mary’s side at the official farewells, was our Elizabeth Villiers. Freshly installed into her household. I only wish I knew what words she’d said to secure her new placement thus… but then, the remarkable abilities of a Villiers tongue ceased to surprise me years ago.” And Nicci threw in a saucy wink to Francis at that point. 

... moving to one side of Francis, and with a look to her partner in feminine wiles Nicci fastened herself to the gentlmans right arm. "And so what time shall be arrive to the Presence room...?"

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Sophia was just as intrigued as Nicolette about Francis' first foray into the King's presence chamber as the Duke of Buckingham and though she said nothing, her pale eyebrows rose slightly. She nodded to her French friend. “Of course we shall support him. My schedule is fairly flexible so we can have tea at almost any time.” She grinned at Francis as Nicolette explained that he had encouraged her in the past. “As he has done for me many times as well.” 

Her sentiment was most likely a bit more innocent that the pretty brunette's. Her former guardian's encouragement had usually been in the form of advice, sometimes delivered quite firmly, but that was what she had needed when she was in his care. She rather dreaded her own children's teenage years. Maybe they would not be as troublesome as she had been. 

“You will do fine,” she told Francis. “Just be your charming self and everyone will love you.” He was not as arrogant and entitled as his uncle had been, which, in her opinion, would work in his favor. She doubted her presence would hurt him, as England would (hopefully) want to maintain good relations with Spain. Having its queen on his side could increase his power when such matters came up. While no gentleman wished to admit it, women were not without influence over their husbands, particularly when said husbands were so much in love with their wives.

“Having just been to Versailles, I shall let you know whether or not the Embassy resembles it. And one will be fine.” Sophia was, indeed more politically astute, than she had been a decade ago. One of her goals was to become friends with all the queens of the kingdoms that Spain was either already allied with or wanted to be. She had an even greater rapport with Maria de Modena than she'd had with Madame Maintenon, using her fluent Italian and fondness for Italy to forge a bond with the other queen. If she and Juan traveled to the Netherlands, she would attempt to get into Princess Mary's good graces as well.

Ahhh, so Nicolette was not Barillion's lover. Unaware of Nicolette's relationship with the late Buckingham, she didn't understand why Francis seemed insistent that she should stay with him. Maybe she would ask the Frenchwoman about it when they had tea or perhaps the rumors flying around London would answer the question for her. So far, though, she'd heard nothing about Nicolette. 

And she could understand her curiosity about whether the French had been involved in Monmouth's claim to the throne. Spain had stayed out of it, as far as she knew. Juan would not have been so foolish to join the doomed endeavor that had lasted less than a month and ended with the potential usurper's execution. Sophia often wondered what had happened to his wife, her friend Anne Scott. She had not run into her yet. Maybe she was no longer welcome in England.

Francis didn't think highly of the Netherlands, and based on her limited time in that country when she had been wed to Lord Toledo, she agreed with him that it was dull compared to France and Italy. She laughed at his assessment of Spain. It had been a dismal place when she had first visited, but under Juan's expert leadership, it was beginning to thrive again. However, the Spanish were naturally reserved and court life would never be as opulent or sybaritic as it was in France. 

“No offense taken.” Her smile was playful. “I care no more for dark attire than you do. But we ladies can get away with more when it comes to fashion. To be taken seriously among the majority of the nobility, you would unfortunately have to conform and dress in black and I can understand why that displeases you.”

Nicolette apparently enjoyed being the center of attention as much as Sophia did. She listened to her tale with interest and at the mention of Villiers' tongues, she was absolutely positive that her two friends had once been lovers. “I see what you mean about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The lady who offended her was allowed to stay when you and your cousins, who meant her no harm, were asked to leave. Maybe the Prince's infatuation with her will only be temporary and you will be welcomed back with open arms.” 

Returning the dark-haired woman's look with a grin, she impulsively captured Francis' other arm. It would not be seen as scandalous when another lady was doing the same thing. “Yes, pray tell us when you plan to take the presence chamber by storm.”

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"No, no, I wish it were tomorrow, but I am not making much sense I fear. I meant today I must do so. I cannot appear in public and then not answer the King," he explained, with an embarrassed chuckle. "That was where I was heading when I had to rescue a little prince in a tree."

His blond hair was going to turn grey quickly at this point.

"But you may still accompany me if you wish." Let it not be said he did not have friend, and he needed them far and wide. "At the very least I shall turn heads with pretty ladies."

He listened to the ladies show why ladies were known to be such great sources of gossip and information. They eagerly shared their tales with each other and him. He chuckled, winking back at Nicci.

"Ah, but you are missing one significant piece of the puzzle, ladies. Shall I clue you to it?" he grinned, "Lady Elizabeth's mother was the lady who also raised the princesses in the York household. She passed just before I came to court, but the secret lies in the fact that Lady Elizabeth has been in their entire life."

Had nobody ever found it strange that almost every child of English royal blood had been entrusted to one of the Villiers relations? Really one of them should have guessed! Then again, neither was English, so he could give them a pass. 

For a moment, Francis was almost proud of his mastery of such things, for he had been quite the incorrigible ignoramus in such matters when the duke had taken on his tutelage.

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Never one to decline an invite (this one was practically poached!) “Then yes that is what I wish.” Nicolette crooned cheerily.   In a quieter voice she added, “But I shall ha my luggage sent to yours.” For all of her apparent transparency, Nicci would have preferred Sophia not to have overheard that, but there it was.

The foreign affairs, aka gossip was amusing. “You are so well travelled.” She remarked to the Queen with impress, “Why it has me wonder if your love of it stems from a certain mutual acquaintance, a guardian who tended your gentle cares when you were at an influential age?”

Pleased with their responses to her own additions, she was then surprised when Francis was able to provide a grand climax to the tale. 

“Why truly?!” of course it was, he’d never fib of such a thing.  “Then some months later I have finally hear the penny drop!” she laughed brightly as matters made so much more sense.  “Francis, how you are become such an compendium of knowledge.  This too, is further proof of how well you shall do when presented to the King.”  Lord knew he’d boosted her morale on more than one occasion, here Nicolette repaid the favour with pointing the out of truths.

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“I'm sorry,” Sophia apologized when Francis said he had been delayed by coaxing her son out of a tree. “I would not have requested your assistance had I known.” She gently squeezed his arm. “But perhaps it was a good thing, because now you have two ladies to accompany you and lend you moral support. I, too, should like to come along.” She heard Nicolette's comment about her luggage but chose to ignore it. Her friends' personal affairs was none of her business, but she couldn't help wondering if they would wind up in bed together eventually. Perhaps Nicolette would even become the Duchess of Buckingham. That was one wedding she would be sure to attend, even if she had to travel from Madrid to do so.


“Well, I did share my first journey by ship with him,” she remarked, smiling at Francis, “though I think that was a trip both of us would rather forget.” She had been unconscious most of the time, passed out from fear, and she was usually throwing up when she was awake. “Considering how much trouble I was, you probably wished you could send me back.”


Her eyes widened at his revelation about Elizabeth Villiers, but it all made sense now. Having grown up with her, Princess Mary would take her side, even if she was her husband's mistress. Sophia felt sorry for the poor woman. Most royal ladies were forced to look the other way when their husbands took lovers. She was lucky that Juan had remained faithful to her.


“You will certainly impress the King,” Sophia agreed. “I wouldn't be surprised if he keeps you close to him to give him advice.” Francis was, she believed, much more popular than James. He would need men like the new Duke on his side with so many others against him.


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