A summon from the king was not something to be taken lightly. Every self-respecting nobleman knew that. If the master called, you'd better run to him, and you'd better do it fast.
Being in the king's good books was the golden rule that had to be followed at all times. It didn't matter if the king was well liked or not – as long as he held the power, they had to respond. Good service ensured a tranquil and comfortable life. Bad service, on the other hand...
Well, suffice to say that none of the vast possibilities that could result from not obeying the king were pleasant.
The Carlisles would soon find that out.
Still, every monarch was bound to handpick a few favourites from among the ranks, and King Niles had a clear idea who were to be his right-hand men (and woman!). Maxwell Sheffield and Noel Fitzstewart were the first two names that had come to the king's mind, and thus they were summoned first and were the first to arrive at the king's study. Next, came the newly appointed butler – Patrick Smith.
Niles had known the latter since childhood. Patrick was the son of the previous butler, but unlike his father, he was fiercely loyal to Niles. He was more than just a servant – he was a friend, first and foremost. Lastly, was the Duchess of Sheffield, Maxwell Sheffield's wife and the new First Lady to the Queen.
These were the people Niles trusted most to do what he had in mind. They each had the resources and knowledge he needed at their disposal, and they were all such close friends, he knew they wouldn't let him down. All he'd have to do was ask, and they'd set to work.
But first, obviously, they had to be told why they were there.
"Good, you're all here," he began as soon as Fran had come in and closed the door behind her. "There is something of great importance that I have to discuss with all of you."
"What is it, Your Majesty?" Patrick asked, before immediately straightening up and folding his hands behind his back. It was a habit he had when he felt he had stepped out of line. "If you don't mind my asking, of course."
The king held back a frown. Patrick probably felt quite out of place, being summoned among rich nobility. He didn't realise just how close a friend he needed to be, for this to work. But Niles wasn't going to bring that up and embarrass him. Besides, it was a fair question, considering the fact that he'd never usually summon them all together like this.
"I do not mind it at all," he replied, before continuing to his point. "I need all of you here to help me with a matter relating to my wife's kidnapping."
"But...isn't that all over and done with now, Your Majesty?" Maxwell piped up, concern rising in his voice. "We arrested the traitors who did it..."
"We arrested those who orchestrated the kidnapping and took my wife prisoner," Niles explained. "But we did not, however, find the one who told my father that C.C. and I were married. The one who set the whole plan in motion. I suspect that they are still working in this palace, and I need everyone here to work with me to find them."
A quiet gasp in the room was followed by a nasal tone.
"Ya mean there's a traitor in the palace...?!" Fran asked, clearly both horrified and somehow fascinated by the idea at the same time.
Her interest could only be a good thing. Her penchant for finding out gossip and all the latest rumours within a several-mile radius certainly was, in this case. If there was a secret going around, even in hushed whispers, Fran was bound to hear it, sooner rather than later.
And Niles definitely thought that he could make use of it.
"I believe so. My mother and I only ever conversed in French to talk about C.C., and spoke privately, and yet somehow we were still found out. The only possibility I can think of, is that someone was hiding in the back passage to my mother's chambers. There must be a servant here who can speak French, but has never revealed this to anyone," he answered. "I can only imagine that they are still working here. Unless, of course, they left soon after committing their act. In which case, we may have to look a little further. But this is where you all come in. I have tasks for everyone here, relating to finding out information and bringing this person to justice."
"Well, I can't speak for anybody else present, but I'm more than game for that," Noel replied immediately, looking around at the others. He was very much still looking forward to being able to take revenge on the people who had hurt his little sister, clearly. "Just tell me what you need, and I'll more than happily oblige."
That was certainly the sort of reply Niles wanted to hear. And he was more than certain that what he had in mind for Noel would please him no-end. He knew his brother-in-law wouldn't let him down; he never did.
"Good," he said, satisfied with his explanation and prepared to continue. "Does anybody have any questions, or queries, before we move on to discussing your individual tasks?"
He wanted to give them all one last chance to speak up, if they didn't feel comfortable with anything. Not that he was expecting anybody to back out – they had all hated C.C.'s kidnappers as much as he had – but he wanted to know if they had any doubts about their ability to complete their task.
He had complete faith in them, but they needed to be sure as well.
"None here," came Fran's reply to his question. "I'm with yer brother-in-law in this. Tell me what you need done, and I'll do it."
"As will I," Maxwell agreed, taking his wife's hand. "You have our full support in anything you do, Sire, as always."
"And you know that I am always here to serve," Patrick said with a smile. "What would you have us all do, my lord?"
Niles felt himself warmed inside, to be surrounded by friends who would do anything for him. Anything for C.C.. For their family, and what they had built. And now they were all going to stand united, as they flushed out a traitor like hunting hounds flushed out a nervous hare.
And this person had every damn reason to be nervous.
"Let's start handing out responsibilities, and it is only good manners to allow ladies to go first," he turned to Fran, "Lady Sheffield, your task will be to gather information from the ladies of the court. If any of them know anything, or saw anything – if there is gossip of any kind, I want to know about it."
Fran appeared almost delighted by the responsibility. It was certainly entirely her field of expertise – even if it wasn't vital information, she usually picked up gossip of all kinds around the palace!
"You can count on me, Your Majesty," she said, trying to nod and make it as serious as she could, without letting her interest and excitement get in the way. "I will get workin' on it as soon as I can."
Niles nearly smiled in amusement himself, "I know you will. And that brings me on to the next person to receive their orders from me..."
He turned a little to his right – to where Maxwell was sat, next to his wife.
He had had to think about this one very carefully, but he truly knew there was no one better than the duke for this responsibility.
"My friend, you have quite a special and specific task. You are a military man, so I know you are more than capable of what needs to be done here. I am appointing you captain of the palace guard, and your task, in amongst your new duties, is to be my eyes and ears around this palace."
"That should be simple enough," replied the duke. "My men are certainly up to the task, as am I."
"Good. I didn't expect anything else from you, Your Grace," said the king, smiling at his friend.
Then, he turned to Patrick, faithful servant and childhood playmate. "Your task is similar to that of the Duke of Sheffield's, but it concerns one servant of mine in particular."
"And who might that be, sir?" asked the new butler.
"A former lover of mine who has long since held a grudge against myself and Her Majesty – Ruth Charpentier."
Patrick nodded. Of course he knew Ruth – who didn't? She was infamous among the servants for her promiscuity. Still, Patrick had to admit that the way she cunningly used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted was somewhat impressive. She was, in essence, a strategist, and Patrick knew many a military man who simply wouldn't be able to match her scheming abilities. She knew how to play the game, and she'd been doing so for years but, perhaps, her luck had run out.
This was, after all, a new court. The rules were changing – new winners and losers were bound to emerge. It remained to be seen which one the whore would be.
"You are to keep an eye on her at all times," Niles explained. "I already have a young maid tailing her, but I want to know her every move – where she goes, what she does, and, especially, what she says."
Patrick nodded so low, it almost became a small bow.
"It will be done, my lord," he said. "But, if you do not mind my asking, what will she say that could confirm your suspicions? Surely, she will be trying to keep her identity as the traitor a secret..."
Niles was glad that they'd made it to this part of the conversation. It was the crux of his whole investigation, and it was the only thing that firmly linked the matter to Ruth. Without this evidence, there was nothing, and she would – frustratingly – be allowed to walk around freely as though she had done nothing.
Just thinking about it made him regret...everything he'd ever done with her. And not for the first time, either. She had proven herself to be nothing but a nasty, arrogant, vindictive snake, who used other people for her own gain and turned poisonous when they didn't let her.
But he wasn't planning on letting her get away. Hence all the extra measures he was taking.
"You are to listen in on her conversations, and her mutterings to herself," he told his butler. "All my conversations with my mother about C.C. have been in French, in order to keep them private. At least, I thought they were, but I had forgotten the servants' doorway into the room. I want you to find out if Ruth ever speaks the language, understanding it and responding to it accordingly. Her surname is French, after all, which implies that at least some of her family are as well. And she is the only one who has held such a grudge against myself and my wife. Alongside her frequent...habits...with my father, I have to have a reasonable doubt that she could have told him. If she is fluent in French, then we know she is our culprit."
Everyone in the room could tell his suspicions were more than valid. Still, they weren't proof of foul play, but it hinted at it. And that, given the circumstances and how little they had to go on, was more than enough to warrant it being looked into.
"Now," spoke the king, turning to Noel. "Last, but not least, a task for you, dearest brother."
"I am at Your Majesty's command," Noel said, bowing low. "Whatever it is, I shall do it, especially if it helps bring the traitorous snake who sold out my sister to justice."
In spite of himself, Niles smiled. He appreciated Noel's enthusiasm, but what he had planned for him had nothing to do with finding out who'd ratted them out to Joseph. No, the mission he had in mind would be a joint venture; one that, in Niles' not-so-humble opinion, Noel would enjoy a great deal.
"Although I'd normally hold no qualms against hunting down traitors, Lord Marlborough, your task doesn't exactly concern that," said the king, starting to grin. "But do not despair – your task has to do with righting a wrong committed against my lady wife as well."
Noel looked intrigued, even if he was also clearly disappointed that he wouldn't be involved in the larger investigation.
"What is my task to be, my king?" he asked, getting himself prepared for the order he knew was coming. He was determined to do it well, even if it wasn't what he had been expecting. "How much does it differ, from the others given out today?"
Niles chuckled. He could sense his brother-in-law testing the waters – trying to get a feel for how much he was going to like the work he was being given.
Luckily, he knew the man. And this was exactly the type of thing he'd been wanting to do from the very start.
"It differs, dear brother, but not in any way that should leave you worried about potentially missing out," he said with a grin. "You and I are undertaking this task together, as a joint venture. We are going to pay an unexpected visit to yours and my wife's cousin. The very same blackguard who threw her out of her own home, the moment it became known that your late father had succumbed to the plague. I'm sure you'll agree that this will be...an entertaining visit, for the both of us."
Niles felt rather smug when he noticed the corners of Noel's mouth had curled into an evil smirk – the kind of smirk that meant business.
"Is that so?" said the Duke of Marlborough, glee dripping from his every word. "Well, who am I to deny my king's wishes? If that's what you desire, then I'll selflessly join His Majesty in this mission."
"I'm happy to hear so," Niles said, getting to his feet. "Then, I suggest you get ready to go – we'll be leaving after lunch. However, since my wife is still bedridden, I won't be joining you downstairs."
"That's more than understandable, my lord. I shall be ready by then," Noel said.
"Wonderful. We'll reconvene at one o' clock. Until then, you are dismissed," Niles said before turning to the other three people present in the room. "As are you."
Each of his friends gave their bows and curtsies, echoing sentiments of how they wouldn't let him down and that they would have reports in for him soon.
As they left, he watched them go, knowing in his heart that he couldn't have asked for a more reliable group in his life. They would be sure to drag out the culprit into the light, no matter what it took, and C.C. would get the justice she needed.
That was what this visit to her cousin would be about, too. By the end of it all, there would be nothing keeping his wife from living freely, as she deserved; not whores who held grudges, or conniving little bastards of cousins who felt it was their right to kick people out onto the street.
Both would be taken care of, and she would be able to live the proper life of a queen. He would make certain of it.
The morning had been rather dull for Chandler, Duke of Bedford. The day was pleasant enough, but nothing had proved to be entertaining enough to hold his interest. It was lucky then, that he had so many things to choose from. It meant he could flit to the next thing when he found himself bored.
It was the gift and the curse of having so much money, he supposed. One he knew he wouldn't have, if he hadn't kicked his bitch of a cousin to the street after the death of her parents and younger sister.
Why should she get it all, just by herself? What had she done, in the time that she'd been there that meant she'd earned it? No girl ever earned the right to her own home, if there was a capable man available to take it instead. And most, if not all men, were more capable than a woman ever would be. She could've married him and been "capable" at warming his bed, and that would have made him happy enough to keep her around, but she'd refused. So, he did what he did with all disposable things (even if he was disappointed that he wouldn't get to get inside her at least once), and tossed her out.
It was only by luck that she seemed to have become Queen of England, instead. Pure chance that only weeks ago, the king had plucked her, out of his harem of whores! Chandler had flown into a rage when he'd first found out, which had since burned off into a simmer that now plagued him with the question of how or why it had happened in the first place. The decision had probably involved some more-than-scandalous feminine wiles that she could've used on him, in exchange for keeping her home. But she hadn't come crawling back to him since, so that had to be fine by him. She could have as many royal cocks in her as would fit, for all he cared – it saved her being an embarrassment as a wife, he supposed, and it kept him as the respectful family member, when those who mattered came to visit.
He had just settled into a rather good book (it kept thoughts of his whore of a cousin at bay) when a knock on the door interrupted him, immediately setting him up for irritation.
He snapped the book shut and turned around to glare at the servant in the doorway.
"What is it?" he asked, eyeing the man.
"Begging your pardon, my lord," the servant replied, swallowing. "But...His Majesty and one Lord Marlborough are here, and requesting to speak to you at once!"
That His Majesty was at the...?
Surely he hadn't heard correctly – his servant couldn't have said that the King of England was on his doorstep, flanked by this "Lord Marlborough", both of whom were waiting to talk to him? He didn't know who the latter was, but if he had come along with the king, he could only be one of His Majesty's lackeys.
And that could only spell trouble, really.
"What did you say?" the Duke replied to his servant as he slowly got to his feet.
The servant gulped; he knew his master had a...volatile temper. He was nothing like the kindly Duke from before, Lord Stewart, his previous master. He'd been devastated when his late master's wishes had been disregarded; especially when he saw how the current Duke had kicked Lady Babcock to the curb.
She'd only been seventeen years old at the time...his new master's treatment of her had not been right...
"I said that His Majesty and the Lord Marlborough are at your door, my lord," repeated the servant, "They wish to speak with you."
He stiffened, afraid, as the Duke began to march towards him.
"Did they say what they wanted?" the Duke demanded to know. "Hm? Why are they here? What do they want?!"
He was barely inches from the servant's face, and the man was shaking as he replied.
"N-no, my lord! They simply requested that I summon–"
His words were ended with a sharp slap across the face from his master.
"I am summoned by no one, least of all a whining, pathetic servant," the Duke snarled.
Gently rubbing his smarting face, the servant took a step back, "Begging your pardon, my lord. But they requested that I summon you...on their behalf."
On their behalf...well, he'd certainly go, then. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't ignore his monarch. Even if he thought the man had made a huge mistake in making his cousin his favourite scabbard for his sword.
Clenching his fist, he nodded, and began to head for the door.
"Very well. I shall speak to them."
The Duke straightened his fine clothes, still seething but knowing that he had to keep his composure in front of the King. It was just as well that his little slut of a cousin wasn't there – he wasn't entirely convinced that he could keep his composure enough to pretend that he had even the tiniest amount of respect for her.
He didn't, at all.
She might have been queen to others, but he knew she was nothing but a glorified whore who had managed to seduce the right man. He was sure that had been her plan all along, and he'd been thoroughly disappointed when she'd been found after being kidnapped.
She should have died in that house, alongside those two bastards that were probably being masqueraded as legitimate to keep the king from scandal. He wouldn't want to be left in disgrace because he hadn't managed to pull out in time and spill his seed elsewhere, so they'd probably concocted a plan of marriage. Or, at least, his cousin would have, in order to dig her claws in and stay clinging to someone else's power.
Not that he could say such things, to her husband, or to someone who was most likely on the king's side in this argument. As he could only remain calm, he ordered his servant to prepare some tea. Meanwhile, he made his way over to the door, bracing himself for what was to come. He had no idea what they wanted, but it couldn't mean anything good for him.
He knew that for certain, the moment he walked through the door and found the two men that were waiting for him outside.
One, he'd expected. Namely, King Niles. The man who had plucked his cousin out of the filth and the dirt, had probably given her a few "breaking in" rides, and had then decided to make her his queen so that he could have full access to her now much looser nether regions.
The other, he didn't expect at all. His own bastard cousin – his Uncle Stewart's biggest ever mistake, Noel FitzStewart!
But...but the servant had said that there was some "Lord Marlborough" with the king, at the door! No one else was there, apart from the greatest shame his family had (very narrowly beating the slut who had decided to be thrown out, rather than marry him)!
Had...had King Niles made that bastard a lord?! An actual, proper lord, putting him in league with the nobility who were born justly, truly and completely in the sanctity of marriage?! His mother had been nothing but a maid – a quick hole for his father to fill and then laugh over later; what gave him the right to stand next to dukes and earls?! Had King Niles been so bewitched by the spell on his cousin's open tinder box, that he was now willing to let dirt into the palace whenever it wanted to come inside?!
The shock was too much; it rendered him speechless. So speechless, he neither greeted them, nor made an attempt at bowing to his king.
Which was to the advantage of both Niles and Noel, who looked at each other before turning half-grins-half-snarls on the Duke.
"Bedford," the king began. "Have you forgotten your manners, when in the presence of your king?"
The Duke found his voice then, as sputtered and stammered as it was when it first came out.
"N-No, Your Majesty," he replied, bowing low. "Welcome, to my home. How can I be of service?"
He directed it all towards the king, hoping his bastard of a cousin would get the message that he wasn't worthy of his respect. Only true nobility was worthy of any respect at all, and even if the king was a fool blinded by his own lust, he was the highest among them all.
Not that any of that seemed to worry Noel in the slightest. He just smiled more fully at the Duke as he came out of the bow. It didn't reach his eyes.
"Funny you should ask that," he said, even though there didn't appear to be anything funny about the conversation. "Perhaps we should go inside to discuss exactly why we are here?"
Chandler's reaction was practically instinct – instilled from the moment he'd been old enough to know exactly what Noel was.
"I don't take orders from you, bastard," he replied with a hiss of loathing. "My question was addressed to His Majesty, no one else!"
Niles took an authoritative step towards him, a look of anger flashing in his eyes.
"Then you will watch your tongue and obey the suggestion of the man he brings with him, when on a visit such as this!" the king ordered sharply. He then approached the Duke, his voice lower and more dangerous. "Lord Marlborough is here to assist me in a matter I should have been able to address some time ago. I suggest, for your own sake, that you show him the respect his title deserves, or else it could end...poorly for you. Is that clear?"
Immediately, Chandler lost both his nerve and his voice again. He knew that any threat the king made could easily turn from "idle" to "word of law", and that it would happen practically in an instant.
He didn't want to go the way of the Carlisles – everybody in the country had to have heard of them, at this stage! The fate they were going to was worse than any he could ever imagine, and he wanted no part in any of it.
But in his deepest feelings, he couldn't believe that the king was siding with a bastard over him! Of course, the bastard was more closely related to his whore, but still! The king was supposed to uphold the nobility, not drag it through the mud by letting in the lowest of commoners...
Not that he could express such truths, clearly.
Instead, when words returned to him again, he simply nodded.
"Completely, Your Majesty," he said. "It will not happen again."
"It had better not, Bedford," the king said sternly. "Consider this your only warning."
Without waiting (or, really, not caring) for an answer, Niles turned to the door and marched in, gesturing for Noel to follow. Chandler had to bite his tongue – he didn't want his cousin inside his home. He didn't want him darkening his beautiful home, but he also knew he couldn't refuse the king. It was Chandler's duty to receive the monarch, whether he liked it or not. He only hoped that, whatever it was that His Arseholeness wanted, it wouldn't be too bad for him.
With a sigh, Chandler went back into his home, reluctantly stepping into the role of host. When he'd caught up with King Niles, he guided his two "guests" (or rather, his guest and an unwanted pest) to the sitting room, where the servants had already poured cups of tea and laid out a small selection of cakes and pastries for them to enjoy.
"Please, do take a seat," Chandler said, gesturing at the comfortable settees and sofas surrounding the coffee table where the food and drinks had been set out.
Not that his words were more than a simple formality. The king would have taken a seat had he invited him to do so or not. Still, he had to make an effort not to glower at the monarch when he took Chandler's own seat – the good, fluffy armchair clearly destined for the head of the house. His cousin sat on the smaller chair on Niles' right.
Chandler resented having to let his hind touch it, really.
But there was nothing he could do. He could only take the next nearest, available seat. It wasn't anywhere near as good as the two – not one, but two! – seats he'd had to leave for his visitors.
His unexpected visitors, who were now eating his food and drinking his tea...!
He couldn't mention any of this. It was all part of the polite front he was putting on; even if he would have rather spat in the tea and thrown the pastries to the floor so that they would've had to eat them off the stones.
"Now, Your Majesty has business with me," he phrased it as a statement, knowing it was rude to ask unwarranted questions to the king. He was already on thin ice and he didn't need it cracking. "How may I...be of service?"
He only just managed to force the question out of his throat. It almost seemed to cling there for dear life, enraged and fearful at the very idea of finding out what the king wanted him for.
Again, Niles gave a look to Noel that Chandler didn't much like, before he gave his answer.
"Service may be a poor choice of word here."
"But it could end up being ironic," Noel chimed in. "If this conversation takes a certain route..."
Niles started to smirk, "Indeed. We are here, Bedford, because you owe something that you have kept for too long. We are also here to collect the debt, in one way or another."
Chandler just about kept himself from snorting. Not only did the king and his bastard cousin sound ridiculous, but they were also completely wrong. He didn't owe anything to anybody – not for any amount of time. And certainly not anything that they would ever have to come and collect on someone else's behalf!
He owned everything he had, legally and fairly. It wasn't his fault if a few people (and someone in particular) might've had to suffer in some form because he'd taken what was rightfully his. That wasn't his problem.
"Begging your pardon, Sire, but I cannot help wondering if there...might have been some sort of mistake," he replied more tactfully than was deserved to their foolishness. "I owe no debts of any kind. Everything I have is my own, and I never lend money."
Even the thought of those last two words made him nearly give a shudder, but he distracted himself from it by reaching for a cup of tea.
His bastard cousin let out a bark of a laugh. It was as unpleasant as it had always been, but something about it coming after what Chandler had said made it feel worse.
"Do you really believe that, cousin?" Noel asked, amused. "Have you forgotten?"
Chandler just about managed to swallow his gulp of tea before he replied with venom.
"Forgotten who this house really belongs to," Noel replied waspishly, smile all but lost.
"That would be me," Chandler said, glaring. "When your father died, his estate passed on to the next rightful heir in line – myself. It's not my fault if you weren't... fit for the position."
Had the king not been there to protect his cousin, Chandler would have added that Noel's new (undeserved) title was giving him ideas above his station. In Chandler's eyes, he was filth. Would always be filth. No matter how many titles or riches were rained on him, he would always be a bastard. An unwanted blotch on the family tree. He might have the king on his side now, but the law was clear: he couldn't inherit his father's estate due to his being a bastard. They didn't have a leg to stand on, legally speaking, and he certainly wasn't handing over his rightful home to some uppity half-breed.
"I wasn't talking about me, you buffoon," snapped his cousin, slamming down his cup of tea , nearly spilling its contents all over the table. "I meant my sister, your queen. She is the rightful owner of this house and everything within it, and still you kicked her out with only the clothes on her back! You banished her to a cruel, unforgiving world, all on her own, not caring what would become of her – a proper lady, born from a lawful union, might I add!"
If Chandler hadn't been wearing a snarl before, he certainly was after hearing his bastard of a cousin's words. He should've known that was what they were here for! To defend the slut against him, over the house she could've chosen to have, if she had just married him instead of choosing life on the streets! It was no surprise that the king, who was clearly still under the spell of that thing she had between her legs, would obey when she clicked her fingers and made him go.
And, of course, where his king went, so too would her lapdog of a bastard half-brother. Social climbing wherever he went, even if that was to demand another person's house!
The only surprise, he supposed, was that it had taken them this long to come for the house. It might have only been a short while that the First Whore of England had been allowed to wear her mantle, but still; there had been many days up until now where they could've arrived!
He supposed the when didn't matter entirely, though. It wasn't as though he was going to give the place up to a slut who wouldn't even give up her womanhood for the price of having a roof over her head!
Not that he would say such a thing when the king was so close by.
He put his own cup down before he could crush it in a fit of anger.
"Lawful or not, I gave her the chance to stay under my own terms," he argued in return. "She refused said terms; I am not obliged to house, clothe and feed every single wastrel, vagrant or vagabond who comes my way!"
If he'd had time, he might've recognised how poorly chosen his words were. But it was too late for that – Niles had already leapt up out of his seat, enraged by the insults that had just spewed forth from the unworthy Duke's mouth.
He stormed forward, seizing Chandler by the front of his coat and lifting him out of his own chair.
"You will not refer to my wife, your queen, by anything less than the respectful titles and honours she deserves!" he snarled. "She is not a wastrel, a vagrant or a vagabond, and you insult her by even inferring that she is any such thing! Just because she refused to marry you, does not make her any less worthy than she is. She has more value and honour in her little finger than you have in your entire pathetic body, you title-stealing, jumped-up little weasel!"
He let the words pour out of him, his rage not even complete by getting to scream. How dare that...that thieving bastard sully his wife's name by including her among criminals! She had done no wrong in refusing to marry him – she had every right to stay in her own home, without being forced to marry a man she didn't love!
And said man was now in his grasp, just as he'd wanted him to be when C.C. had told him how she'd ended up working as a maid.
"You should know about weasels," snapped the Duke, not caring to disguise his hatred for his cousin anymore – the cat was out of the bag, so what good would pretending do? "The one you married had no qualms about climbing on top to get back on top, didn't she?"
The next thing he knew, he was on his back, and there was a pain in his jaw like he'd been hit with a hammer.
And Niles was seeing more red than he'd ever seen on any battlefield. So much, he barely even felt the ache in his knuckles where they had met Chandler's face.
The words burned in his brain like fire, which then reflected back in his eyes as he stared down at the bastard who had insulted his love as though she were nothing! As though she were some...some whore who'd only used him to get what she wanted!
He knew that wasn't true. And he knew what people – bitter, angry, stupid people – called her. But he couldn't beat all of them for it, all of the time. Even though he had the perfect excuse for it at the present moment, still right in front of him!
"Utter one more untrue word about my wife, and I will kill you myself!" he shouted, towering over the Duke's now-diminished form. "No trial, or conviction – just me, the two hands that God gave me and one witness who is not sympathetic to your case. Is that clearer than my reminder about your manners...?!"
Chandler nodded, eyes wide with alarm and jaw throbbing painfully as Niles began to pace up and down, seething, and not once taking his eyes from the nobleman on the floor.
"Just so you know, after you kicked her out, Lord Marlborough here helped my wife get an honest job at the palace," began Niles. "I was the one who was smitten with her from the very first moment I saw her, and I was the one who eventually begged for her love."
The king stooped down, so that he could yank at the Earl's shirt – their faces were now inches apart.
"I went through hell to get her back, narrowly avoiding the fate my bastard father and his accomplices had decided for her. I raked the entire kingdom to find her... and you call her a whore?!" he screamed, and punched the Duke again. "If she had been anything less than pure, the law states that she wouldn't be able to be the queen, and she is!"
He dropped the collar of the Duke's shirt, sending him back to the floor. Roughly.
"But my wife's purity is not the issue here – I don't have to prove anything to a thief."
"I am no thief!" Chandler barked bravely – or rather, stupidly. "I may have to shut my mouth and bow to a woman who should be rotting six feet under already, but I haven't taken anything from her. The law is clear: a woman can't inherit her father's estate. You have nothing on me!"
"Oh, but we do," Niles hissed, his mouth twisting into an evil grin. "You see, the estate may be yours, but her possessions – jewellery, clothing, books – are not. They are hers in the eyes of the law, and when you refused to let her take any of them with her the moment you kicked her to the curb, you essentially committed theft."
Chandler let out a disparaging noise that sounded very much like "pfft". It was an unwise move on his part – not that he seemed to realise that as he kept talking.
"A mere technicality! A court would never convict me on such a flimsy excuse! They'd see that I owned the property and laugh it out of the room!"
Even Niles knew that he had a dangerously clever glint in his eye at this point. He leaned in towards the other man, an edge in his voice not even hinting at a threat.
"And who do you suppose the courts will believe, hm? The man who technically stole the queen's belongings after throwing her out, or the king himself?"
The other man paused, his mind clearly whirring like clockwork as it tried to come up with some sort of answer. Not that it found any he liked. Chandler felt his stomach fall; he truly had no answer. Nothing other than the king blatantly being the one the courts would side with! Of course he wouldn't stand a chance going up against the king in court! Any judge or jury that saw him being accused of lying and theft by the king himself was of course going to immediately side with the king! It was unfair (especially when he had done no wrong in claiming his birthright!), but it was the truth!
And the monarch knew it.
"You, Your Majesty," he eventually had to let come out between almost-gritted teeth. That was only to prevent himself from shaking too hard and giving away his fear.
Satisfied at any rate, Niles leaned back away from him again, "Indeed. And I'm sure a literate man such as yourself knows what the penalty for theft is, correct?"
Chandler's face fell, along with any hope he'd thought he'd had of winning this argument. The entire room suddenly seemed incredibly cold, even with the roaring fire. And it only got colder as he looked at the two maliciously pleased grins on the faces of his guests.
Were they his guests? He wasn't feeling quite so sure now...
"Death," he muttered as his expected reply, the word sounding louder in his head than it actually came out on his lips. He felt his throat drying up, and he swallowed heavily. "The...the penalty for theft is death..."
The king walked over to look down at where he was still mostly sprawled on the floor, trying to get up but finding it hard to move any more quickly than slowly.
"That's about the only right and true thing you've said the entire time we've been here," Niles said. "But, if you wish to avoid the fate you truly – and I really mean truly – deserve, I will strike a bargain with you. For your own sake, I'd suggest that you take it."
Chandler forced himself into an upright position, sat with his legs out on the floor, looking up at the king. He didn't like the sound of this offer one bit, even if the alternative did seem...even less pleasant. It sounded to him like he would be forced into terms he would not agree with, and the king knew it.
"How do I know that I can trust this offer?" the Duke asked, suspicion permeating his tone. "How do I know you will not go back on it, and have me killed anyway?"
The look in the king's eyes changed; they weren't angry anymore. They weren't happy, either – they were just...there. Cold as stone and as merciless as a prison. They spoke the truth of what he would say next.
"There's only one reason I am not doing exactly as you expect by betraying you, or just having you killed right now," he said. "And that is because I am a better person than you. Now, you can either agree to the terms that I will set out, or you can meet the men I have outside who are ready and waiting to take you to the Tower. It's your choice."
His insides turning into a kind of mush that reminded the Duke of a bowl of porridge that had sat out for too long, he grumbled something incoherently back that sounded enough like agreement to keep the king from dragging him out of the house and tossing him straight to the guards.
"I thought so," Niles nodded, beginning. "To start with, you will be allowed to keep your titles, as well as any other family estates that you own, and your personal fortune. Any money which you have in this house, however, is now forfeit to Her Majesty. You will quietly leave without it, or anything else, apart from one horse of your choosing in the stable. That is the only kindness I will offer you – you will not be allowed to take food, medicine or any money that isn't already on your person. The rest of this estate must go to Her Majesty. Apart from payments for its upkeep, of course, you shall continue to do that yourself. Do you accept these terms, or am I to be forced to preside over a trial that is certain to have an execution involved?"
Chandler shook his head immediately, the mention of the Tower alone having sent him into a jittery, nervous wreck.
He couldn't do that to him, no matter how much of a bastard he was, or the company he kept! He wasn't going to that tower, no matter what that meant – he'd sooner starve on the streets than go in...there, with all the wailing and the crying and all the guards torturing you into a confession...
Perhaps, he thought before declaring anything aloud, losing one home from his several beautiful properties might be worth the price the king was willing to take off his head... even if he still burned with resentment over having to work off his "debt" to the queen somehow.
Through gritted teeth, he answered. "I...accept your terms."
"Good," the king said matter-of-factly. "Then I consider this meeting over. You can show yourself out. One of my men will accompany you to the stables so you can choose your horse and leave. You have fifteen minutes. Should I see you here after this time is up, our agreement will no longer stand and you will be placed under arrest and taken to the Tower."
Chandler didn't need to be told twice. After bowing one last time to the king (out of obligation, nothing else), he bolted out of the room and in the direction of the stables. Niles didn't really care which horse he took – it could be his prized stallion or an old filly, it wouldn't make a difference for all he cared. Had C.C. had her own horse back when her family was still alive, he would have made sure Chandler didn't take it, but that wasn't the case. C.C. wasn't big on riding horses.
"Well, now that's over and done with, shall we inspect the property?"
Noel's sudden question brought Niles out of his thoughts.
Inspecting the home was a good idea, the king thought. Knowing Bedford, he doubted it would be neglected, but it was always good to check. Besides, he wanted to recover some of C.C.'s possessions before returning home – they'd make a nice surprise for his wife.
"That's a sound idea," Niles eventually replied. "But would it be too much to ask if you did most of it on your own? I was planning on recovering a few of C.C.'s things and then riding back home. I did promise C.C. I would have dinner with her and the children."
Noel smiled. He completely understood. He remembered that, after every one of Margaret's deliveries, he'd wished to spend most (if not all) his time with his wife and newborn child. That went double for Niles, considering the circumstances surrounding the twins' birth.
"Not at all, dear brother," said Noel. "Would you like me to show you to her old rooms? They are right in front of the ones that used to be mine."
Niles felt his insides give an odd little jiggle. He didn't know quite how to describe it – it was somewhere between the excitement he always felt at getting to spend time with his wife and the embarrassment he had felt when he'd been on the cusp of courting her and his mother had shamed him in front of her. He could even feel his cheeks starting to warm up, and he knew it had nothing to do with the fireplace...!
He was just thankful Noel couldn't see in the dark of the room – the man would never let him live it down, and...and oh, God, he might even tell C.C.! The mere thought of his wife finding out that he was getting all sorts of flustered over the idea of stepping into her childhood bedroom made him want to curl up like a hedgehog and never come out again!
But how could he refuse? The part of him that was excited to the point of grinning tugged his stomach in the direction of the stairs. He knew he had to go. He wanted to see the way his wife had lived – spent her childhood, and the teenage years she'd had before tragedy had forced her away. He wanted to know, and to get an idea of the things she'd liked to do, the clothes she'd worn, the books she'd read...
He wanted to imagine her there, young and beautiful, enjoying the day as any other young noblewoman with nothing to do might.
Squashing down the feeling of wanting to immediately blurt out yes, he kept himself calm as he replied to his brother-in-law.
"That would be wonderful, thank you."
"Follow me," Noel said, quickly turning on his heels towards the door. "C.C.'s rooms are on the fifth floor – they were a birthday gift from our good father, back when she first turned fifteen. He felt she deserved a room fit for her station. So she was moved from her shared room with D.D. to her own private quarters. It took a few months to have it ready – Margaret and I actually helped decorate. She was pregnant at the time, so it was easier said than done! Still, C.C. absolutely loved them!"
Niles couldn't help smiling – the picture of Noel and Margaret working alongside Stewart and B.B. to surprise a young C.C. was absolutely endearing. It spoke volumes of the kind of family they'd been: close and loving. Not many people had that…
Niles himself hadn't had that, back when his father had been alive. Joseph's love had always been tied to living up to his expectations, and while his mother had always been a kind, loving presence, he had (shamefully) overlooked her love in his endless pursuit of his father's approval. Thankfully, C.C.'s influence on him meant that, now that he had his own children, he was determined to have the kind of family life C.C. had had and that Marie had always wanted: loving and supporting.
Even imagining it made him feel happier as they made their way upstairs. It felt like he was setting things right (well, with a lot of helpful pushing from his beloved), after far too long a time, and that released a weight from his shoulders that he'd only recently realised he was even carrying.
He'd happily move on without it, too. And gathering together some of his wife's things to bring to their home was just a small example of him doing just that.
They eventually got to a pair of locked ornate doors – C.C.'s old room. They had to ask and wait for a servant to fetch the key and unlock the door, but when that was done they were met with a rather depressing sight.
It was true, her rooms had once been beautiful – ornate furniture made of the finest materials, paintings decorating the walls, velvet curtains and hardwood floors…
They gave testament to the luxury his wife had once lived in, but ever since then, Chandler had been using her chambers as a storage room. A storage room for all of her and her parents' old possessions that the former Duke hadn't found useful. Niles looked around at it all, piled up so unceremoniously and covered by a thick layer of dust. This was part of her life that the Duke had tried to hide away, until it was forgotten. Not wanting to trip or break anything, Niles carefully made his way over to a stack of paintings on what used to be C.C.'s favourite chaise longue. They were old family portraits, he realised as he peered down at them in amazement.
Amazement, and a little sadness, too.
Atop the pile of discarded paintings, there was a family portrait – Stewart Babcock stood proudly, looking down at his wife as she sat at a small table, lavishing attention on the little girl in her arms.
The little girl with porcelain cheeks, golden curls and a long, straight nose.
His heart warmed to see the sight; he'd never once gotten to see his beloved interact with her parents in the flesh. But this artist had captured them all as C.C. had described – the warmth in her mother's smile, the pride in her father's eyes, everything down from the colour of their hair to the shape of their faces said that they were a close, loving family...
The warmth in his chest started to turn painful, shooting through the happy feeling like a knife determined to cut it out. But the feeling had a point; it had all gone away again, far too quickly. His beloved had barely gotten to have the family that she should have had with her, her whole life...!
He blinked hard at the image, and felt a hand on his shoulder. Noel had come to take a look at the picture, too – a reminder of what he'd lost, as well.
"I think they would have liked you, very much," he told his brother-in-law quietly. "Even if you didn't have your title, and could have practically any other woman that you wanted. They would've seen the love you have for C.C.. It would have been everything, in their minds."
Niles felt touched by the praise, even if he did also feel unworthy of it. Had they been alive to see him as he had been, he doubted very much that they'd want him to have anything to do with C.C...
All he could do was silently promise to keep living up to their expectations.
He smiled at Noel, patting his arm to acknowledge his comforting gesture.
"Well, she means everything to me; it is only natural that I will do everything for her," he said in return. "I personally think that your family will be proud of you, dear brother. For all you have done and survived, without them. Raised yourself into nobility of your own accord..."
It was Noel's turn to blink hard. Throughout his life, he'd faced endless prejudice due to his origins. He'd learnt to live with it, yes, but for all the times his father, sisters and wife had told him he was just as worthy as the next man, there had been another opportunity for society to kick him down and remind him he was no better than a stray dog in its eyes. And it hurt. It always did. He'd always put on a brave face and carry on, but the feeling of rejection – of being worthless – would linger, like an oil stain that simply refused to be cleaned.
And now… now that didn't matter anymore. He could hold his head up high and be proud of who and what he was. He could give his wife and children the kind of life they deserved. There were limitless opportunities for his little ones now: from careers in politics and the military, to good and prestigious marriages. They were free in a way he'd never been, and he had both God and his brother-in-law to thank for that.
Sometimes, when he thought too hard about it, his new life felt…surreal. Like he was in a pleasant daydream that had popped up in one's head during languorous summer afternoons while dozing under a tree in the garden.
He remembered that, when he'd first told Margaret they were now the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, his wife had almost fainted. The implications were too monumental for them to take them all in at once. Life wouldn't (and it certainly hadn't) been the same. They were someone now. They had been finally welcomed into the world that had shut its doors in their faces time and time again.
And it felt good. It felt like vindication.
"I can only hope so," Noel eventually said.
Both men, feeling too emotional for their masculinity's taste, quickly (and wordlessly) walked away from the paintings they'd been looking at under the guise of inspecting the rest of the room. Had their wives been there, they would have laughed at Noel spending an unusual amount of time scrutinising an old music box, or at Niles perusing C.C.'s old library, all the while discretely wiping at their eyes.
It would've been yet another thing that C.C. would've never let him live down, Niles thought to himself. That and the blushing and odd little feeling in his stomach that he'd had earlier...
The feeling had actually faded away at that point. There was no need to be flustered once he was actually seeing the room – as intimate and private as the space was, the misuse carried out on it by the Duke of Bedford dampened it down. His curiosity, however, had remained the same; alive and kicking, in regards to everything he was seeing.
His beloved had been as much an avid reader in her youth as she was in adulthood, it seemed. The shelves were practically bursting, they were so packed with books, and several of them still lay open on other surfaces – tables and tops of chests of drawers, a desk in the corner that looked as though its occupant hadn't long left.
It was still set out with a piece of parchment – a candle burned out in a holder, an inkwell ready and waiting on the table surface...what had she been about to do, when she'd been called away, or distracted?
He didn't know, but he lapsed into daydreaming about his wife's day-to-day in that room; would she read every day, at the large window at the back of the room? Did she sew or embroider with her mother and sister? Did she spend time outside in the gardens, when the weather permitted it?
He supposed she must have done all those things. But he couldn't help letting the idea of them wash over him now, when he was in the place where it had all happened, just a short while ago.
The place had its own magic to it. He hoped C.C. would feel it, too, when she got to step foot back through the doors.
It would have to wait a little, though – Potts had prescribed her to be on light bed rest for at least two more weeks – but when the time did come, the king would do everything in his power to ensure her coming back home was a happy affair. That would probably entail deep cleaning her room, restoring the family portraits to their original places and getting rid of all of her cousin's belongings, but he was sure it could be done. He was the king, after all, and power had its perks. Namely, having an army of servants waiting to do his bidding.
Still, even if his wife couldn't visit yet, he could try and cheer her up by bringing a few of her things back to the palace. Her own jewellery box and that of her mother were a good start. The former was still lying atop C.C.'s dresser, while the latter had been dumped unceremoniously on the floor, right next to her wardrobe. He could tell what they were because, back when he and C.C. had first married, he'd gifted her a new jewellery box based on her description of her old one. The only noticeable difference between C.C.'s old jewellery box and B.B.'s, were the different gilded monograms on the lids.
Niles couldn't help frowning. It was disgusting, really, just how dismissive Chandler had been of the things C.C. treasured. He had dumped a huge part of her life in there, not caring about what he'd deemed trinkets, all while his wife despaired over their loss.
Had he not kicked the man out already, he would have punched him again.
Huffing, Niles picked up C.C.'s jewellery box and then walked over to where B.B.'s lay. He very gently picked it up, opened it and, when he realised there appeared to not be any jewels missing, he heaved a sigh of relief. C.C. would no longer need to cling on to a simple bracelet to remember her mother by. Not anymore. She'd have everything back.
He closed the lid and prepared to take it with him, checking all around the floor just in case anything small like a ring or a broach or even a single gem had fallen out but not left a noticeable space in the box. He didn't want to miss a single piece; his wife loved them all from what she had told him, but he didn't want to disappoint if there was a particular favourite or sentimental item that really would warm her heart to have back in her possession.
It was only as he looked up without finding anything that something like what he'd been imagining caught his eye; a glint of some kind, reflecting just enough light back to show him where to look. It was coming from behind one of the wardrobe doors, as it hung ajar on its hinge.
That was strange – could there be more family jewels in there that he didn't know about? Maybe this was where C.C. kept her tiaras? She'd told him she'd amassed a rather impressive collection in her youth…
His curiosity piqued, Niles inched the door open with his one free hand (the other was busy balancing the two jewellery boxes) and, much to his disappointment, he only found a number of her old dresses. Some of the colours had faded from not being in the sun for so long, but they'd definitely been hers. Still, among her clothing, Niles spotted the source of the glint.
It was a dress.
A beautiful blue dress with diamonds and sapphires sewn into it. And it looked...strangely familiar. But where on Earth would he have seen one of C.C.'s dresses from her youth before? At that age, he would have only had contact with a lot of people younger than him on the few trips he made out of the palace and at...at balls...
Oh good God, even the word had slapped him in the face and forced him to remember where he'd seen it! It had been at the first ball that had been thrown for him once he'd finished his military training! The ball that had been held so that he could find a wife and that had gone disastrously wrong!
This was the dress of the one woman he'd actually felt a connection with that night. This was Lady Bird's dress!
The realisation had smacked into him with the weight of a cannonball, nearly forcing him to the floor in its weight and sending him reeling. If this dress was here, and that dress was C.C.'s, then that could only mean that she had been Lady Bird, all those years ago! But...but how?! He'd been so sure he would never see Lady Bird again at all! How had it come to pass that they had met once more, and that she was now his wife?!
It almost felt like a dream – like nothing he was seeing or touching was real, even though he was holding the proof of it all right there in his hands! It had to be real, but it seemed so unlikely he didn't understand how it could be. How could fate have been so good to them, that they had found each other again simply by accident?
C.C. was Lady Bird – had been her all along, whether he'd known it or not!
"Oh, my love...!" he gasped, "It was you, all this time...!"
Hearing his own words was making his head spin, so much so he feared he'd collapse at any moment from the sheer magnitude of his discovery. C.C. – his own wife – was Lady Bird! He'd been so taken by her, and her sudden departure had been akin to an underhanded blow to the stomach. He'd searched and searched for the mysterious Lady Bird after that night – issuing proclamation after proclamation for her to come to the palace, so that he could do what he'd wanted to do that very night and propose. But she had never appeared.
He'd been terrible to women before then, but any sense of holding back had left him when Lady Bird hadn't come to him. It was almost as though he'd decided not to have a heart – it had been hollowed out by what he'd believed to be her obvious rejection. He'd become extremely bitter, and had taken out his anger on a string of poor, innocent women who weren't to blame for his misfortune. They had been torn down by him, left broken, rejected and sometimes even mocked, so that he could feel better about himself. About losing – being rejected by – the only woman he'd ever really been taken by. The only one he had ever considered marrying before C.C..
It hadn't been fair, in the then prince's eyes. They'd seemed to spend one beautiful night talking and dancing, before it had all just...disappeared.
At least, that's what he'd thought! But he couldn't possibly have known what had been going on with her family, at the time! That had kept them separate – it had to have done! It was the same time!
He remembered her father coming out to them, clearly in distress and despair, telling her about the buboes they had found on her sister, that she had to come quickly, and then she had taken off into the night with only an apology...
It was no wonder she had never replied to the proclamations! Her entire family had gone; she'd had nothing! Nothing, but the despair of a heartbreak he couldn't even begin to imagine...the last thing she would've wanted to hear would've been a marriage proposal...
If he'd known then what she had been going through – losing her home and her family, and being forced onto the streets – he would've rushed straight to her! He would've tried to explain, to apologise, to see what could've been done for her situation...
He wouldn't have turned so harshly to the awful things that he'd done.
He wouldn't have spent more time than he should have being bitter about it. Granted, the moment he'd fallen for C.C., all the memories and any feelings he'd still had for Lady Bird had been washed away and had replaced by a new kind of love. A more mature kind of love: steadfast and kind. He'd thought he'd found his one true love when he met C.C., but as it turns out he'd only ever loved one woman.
He had to get home, and fast. Of course, he had to take the dress with him, too – there was so much they had to talk about and he couldn't wait a moment longer to get started!
But even if he really and truly wanted to try that, he wouldn't do that with the dress in his arms – he could trip, fall and ruin the reminder she had kept of their first meeting! The carriage would be adequate, he supposed. Even if it would do nothing to burn off the adrenaline coursing through his blood even as he stood there!
"Are you quite alright, dear brother?" he just about heard Noel's voice call from somewhere in the room. "You're shaking like you're coming down with a fever..."
Niles let out a short yelp, "I'm fine!"
Even he would have agreed that that would've been more convincing if he'd actually sounded fine, but it was too late by that point and Noel's footsteps were already heading over.
It was only made worse when his brother-in-law realised what he was looking at.
"Oh, C.C. adored that dress! She wore it when...the night that..." he trailed off, frowning as memories he wished he didn't have flooded his mind. He shook his head, almost like he was trying to free himself of them. "Are you going to bring it to her?"
Niles took the dress from its place, wanting to grab it but also not wanting to handle it too roughly and accidentally damage it. He folded it carefully over his arm, trying his absolute hardest not to jostle it.
"I will be – this, and the jewellery boxes."
"What makes you think she'll be wanting this specific dress more than anything else?" Noel asked. "The jewellery boxes both have far happier memories attached. She's probably missing them more, and you're already taking them."
"I know," Niles muttered in return, really only just about paying attention to what Noel was saying.
As much as Niles respected Noel, he knew the man didn't understand what this dress meant – he wasn't there that night. He didn't understand the significance, or have any inkling of what Niles was thinking about now.
He wouldn't understand the reasons that were now urging Niles to simply bolt from the room. He had to get out of there, right then!
"But there's something I need to talk to C.C. about," he said quickly. "I will leave you to continue the inspection, brother! I must get home!"
Spinning on his heel as his brother-in-law moved, Noel's eyebrows shot up.
"Home? What do you mean "home"?!"
It sounded like he was leaving him there by himself! But why?! What had happened?! He'd been staring at an old dress one minute, and then the next he'd just decided to take off and talk to C.C. about something?! It didn't make any sense!
"I mean what I say, and I say I have to get home!" Niles replied rapidly. "I'm sorry, brother; you'll have to finish by yourself!"
He practically left Noel in the dust behind him, only hearing him cry out as he dashed from the room and hurried down the corridor.
"But wait! What's going on?! Niles, what am I supposed to be doing?!"
Niles ignored him, too caught up in what he knew he had to do. He was sorry to have to leave his brother-in-law to take care of the rest of the house for the moment – it was so large, it would take forever! But Noel would be fine; he'd figure out a system like he always did – showing C.C. what he had found just couldn't wait!
He rushed down the stairs as quickly and as carefully as he could, bringing the dress and the two jewellery boxes to the waiting carriage and ordering the driver to take him home immediately the moment he got up the step and through the door.
He wanted the driver to go as fast as the horses could take him. Going home and reuniting with his Lady Bird just couldn't wait.