|Subject: Honor on the Field, 15
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Date Posted: Thursday, November 17, 10:13:49am
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field, con't." on Wednesday, November 16, 09:49:08am
For the further entertainment of his guests, Sir Phillip, or rather, Nikita, had caused to be set up in an open section of the lawn such sporting entertainments as were suitable for mixed company, and in the mid-afternoon the party ambled that way.
The groups reconfigured as they strolled across the manor grounds, and Samuelle found himself escorting the Princess Joan, who had gratefully accepted the arm he offered. Leaning in close to him, she said, “I understand now why Nikita Wirth holds a soft spot in the Prince’s heart. She is not only charming, but a superb householder. If my eyes don’t deceive me, she has done an excellent job of contriving the appearance of riches from not much more than a sufficiency.”
Wondering what the formidable Joan the Fair, former Duchess of Kent and current wife to the heir to the English throne, was up to, and what game she was pursuing, Samuelle said merely, “yes.”
“It is such a great pity,” the Princess went on, “that her status will prevent her from making a match worthy of her beauty and her talents.”
“Yes. It is.” Samuelle said, with a brief mental apology to Master Builder Wellman. He had not exaggerated when he spoke to Nikita - he did like him. If he was any judge of character at all, Wellman was a good man, solid and capable. A man who would make good use of an excellent wife, knowing what a prize he had.
“The younger girl - Michelle - is certainly blooming.”
Samuelle looked in the direction Joan was nodding, and noted, for the first time really, that the Princess was right. Michelle, a gawky child the previous September, had blossomed into womanhood, and under the attention of a dozen young knights, was turning out to be a remarkable pretty young woman. Tall and slim like her sister, she had shining light brown hair and laughing brown eyes. “Yes, she is,” he agreed.
“I believe that is the Comte d’Albret, walking with her.”
Samuelle flicked his eyes over Michelle again, then looked carefully at Joan. “Yes, it is, your highness.”
“He has often been in her company, this visit.” Joan frowned slightly, then observed, “I have even suspected him of seeking her out, on one or two occasions.”
Samuelle narrowed his eyes and directed more of his attention toward the couple in question. He wasn’t especially pleased by what he saw. “Barbant is a pig, your highness.”
Joan laughed gently, “Ah, Rouen, such a turn of phrase you have. No wonder the ladies are all in a twitter over you.”
His jaw tightening, he said, with more feeling than gallantry, “it is less than eight months since Simone’s death, your highness. I am not interested in twittering ladies.”
Joan laughed again and patted his arm. “Ah, more’s the pity, no you’re not.” Growing serious and thoughtful again, she went on, “but I have seen that you do have some friendly interest in Nikita Wirth. You might consider sharing your opinion about Barbant with her, lest he make her sister unhappy.”
Joan then turned the subject to hunting, but the seed was planted. By the end of the day, Samuelle was convinced that he needed to at least warn Nikita that her sister was entering dangerous waters by encouraging Barbant’s attentions, for whatever Barbant wanted from Michelle Wirth, it could not be honorable. Barbant, notorious among his peers for declaring that he would shackle himself to no bride for less than a royal connection or a fortune, or preferably both, was more than perceptive enough to know that Sir Phillip had neither.
He found Nikita in the kitchen yard before breakfast, overseeing the slaughter of chickens. Calling her name, he strode over to her side, fully aware of the riveted attention of the servants, but sure that it wouldn’t hurt the kitchen maids to hear his opinion of Barbant either.
Nikita looked completely nonplused to see him in the kitchen yard, not that he could blame her - he hadn’t been in the kitchen yard of even his own keep since he’d grown out of the habit of stealing food between meals. “A word with you?”
“Of course. Is there a problem, my lord? Is something amiss in your room? Are your men in need of something?”
“No, no. None of that. I wanted to ask you, how much influence have you with your sister?”
Wrinkling her brow in worried confusion, Nikita answered, “it depends on the direction of the winds, my lord. Why?”
“If there is anything you can say to encourage her to dissuade Hugh Barbant’s attentions, you ought.”
Nikita frowned. “I don’t like him. I never have.” She sighed, then looked back at Rouen. “And I already tried, last night. Michelle wouldn’t listen to me, and short of telling her that I bar my door when Barbant is here, there is nothing more to be said.”
Rouen leaned into her, suddenly seeming a much larger man than he had before. Practically hissing, he demanded, “Has he forced his attentions on you?”
Too late in regretting her moment of candor, Nikita hastened to reassure him, “Oh no, my lord, he has never grossly insulted me; not like that; it is just an excess of caution on my part to bar my door.” She tried a wry, confiding smile, hoping it would dim the anger she saw in Rouen’s rigid stance. “Count Barbant isn’t a man to easily take no for an answer.”
“Just how, ‘not grossly,’ has he insulted you?”
Drawing herself up to her full height, which put her eyes on a level with his, she said, “It is nothing I can’t handle, my lord, and, in this, my father has been my champion.”
Which if not entirely true, wasn’t entirely false either, she told herself later when she had the time to consider the encounter. Once or twice over the last four years that Barbant had gifted them with his attendance, Phillip had noticed him badgering Nikita and called him off by redirecting his attention to something sporting, which had the effect of making Barbant refrain from public pursuit. Since Nikita was more than able to avoid the private, knowing all the twists and turns of the manor better than almost anyone, the effect had been more or less what she told Rouen.
She was certainly pleased that Rouen’s view of Barbant coincided with her own, and flattered that his concern with Michelle’s well being was a reflection of his concern for hers. On the other hand, the last thing she wanted Rouen to do was make a public fuss about it, especially because she was uncertain of his motives in seeking her out. While Rouen’s outrage was certainly the chivalrous response, there had been in it a note of possessive jealousy that set her back up and made her want to thrust him into his place, which was that of her father’s guest, not her friend or, heaven forbid, her champion.
She did regret more than ever that Michelle had laughed off her concern with a dismissive comment about what might be bad for Nikita, given her status, wasn’t the same for her as the daughter of the house. With Rouen’s open disapproval of Barbant in mind, Nikita decided to seek out her sister one more time.
Finding Michelle on the fringes of the Princess Joan’s morning court, Nikita leaned down and asked Michelle for her assistance in a household matter. Michelle looked up at Nikita in shocked surprise. “What? You want my help?”
“Yes. Just for a moment. ” Nikita smiled reassuringly, she hoped, for both Michelle and the assembled ladies.
Michelle frowned, and Nikita worried that she was about to refuse, when Joan called from across the circle, “go on, child. I’m sure your sister depends on you and we’ve kept you already too long.”
Michelle manufactured a smile. “Of course, your highness.” She rose, curtsied, and followed Nikita from the room. As soon as they were outside, Michelle said, “Is something wrong? You never ask for my help!”
Hearing the faintest note of resentment in her sister’s voice, Nikita blinked. “I didn’t know you had any interest in household matters!”
“Of course I do! If you’re going to leave me here with Papa, I should at least know what will be required of me!”
Nikita smiled, “hush. I’m not leaving in the next few days, and I will make sure you know what you need to do before I leave. I promise.”
“Of course, you goose!” Nikita flung her arm across Michelle’s shoulders and hugged her briefly. “I wouldn’t leave you alone without making sure you know what to do!”
Michelle laughed lightly in relief. “Thank you. So, what do you need my help with?”
Looking into her sister’s eager face, Nikita was consumed by guilt that she had used this ruse to get Michelle’s attention. Frantically racking her brain for some task that was important enough that Michelle wouldn’t resent it, Nikita said, “I need to attend to some problems in the laundry. Do you think you could measure out the day’s spices for Matilda?”
“Of course!” Michelle smiled, and Nikita hoped a bolt of lightening wouldn’t strike her for the lie. “What do I do?”
“Come with me and I’ll show you.”
Once she had finished showing Michelle what to do in the pantry, Nikita said, “I also wanted to apologize for offending you when I spoke to you about Barbant last night. I didn’t mean to – I’m just worried about his intentions, he has a bit of a reputation as a rogue when it comes to the ladies. I don’t want to see you hurt by him.”
“Hugh wouldn’t hurt me, Nikita! Don’t be silly! He’s a Knight and a Champion! He holds the standards of chivalry close to his heart, I know. He has been completely proper and very gallant.”
As Nikita had seen none of these things in Barbant’s behavior towards herself, she could only murmur, “oh. I’m glad to hear that.”
“He is so dashing, isn’t he! So handsome! Forgive me, Nikita, but I even think he is handsomer than Wellman, even than Rouen!”
“He is handsome.”
“And so sophisticated! He has traveled to Rome and Naples and Sicily, Germany and even Venice! He knows King Edward and King Charles!”
Looking into her sister’s starry eyes, Nikita remembered Rouen’s angry willingness to believe that Barbant would sink to assault. Hoping she wasn’t about to undo all the goodwill created by giving Michelle a responsible task, Nikita said, “Just remember, dearest, that such a sophisticated, important French count is unlikely to look for a permanent connection to a minor English baron.”
Hearing Nikita say what two of Joan’s ladies had already said this very morning, Michelle snarled, “just because Rouen didn’t want you doesn’t mean that Barbant won’t want me!”
Eyeing her sister’s defiant glare, Nikita backed off. “You know him better than I. I will trust your judgment and your sense, Michelle. And thank you for seeing to the spices for me. I have been remiss not to involve you more in the household, you are more than capable of assuming your proper responsibilities, and whenever you feel ready to do more, just let me know.”
Michelle was still looking mulish, so Nikita lightly gripped her upper arms and gave her a gentle shake. “You know I raised the subject because I care about you, don’t you?”
“I suppose so.” Michelle shrugged out of Nikita’s hands. “You’ll send Matilda to me?”
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