|Subject: Honor on the Field, 19
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Date Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 08:15:42pm
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field, con't." on Wednesday, November 16, 09:49:08am
After reading the brief missive several times, just to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood it, Samuelle called for his secretary. “Is the messenger who carried this still here?”
“Yes, my lord. He is waiting to carry your answer back to Marlborough.”
“Send him up here.”
“Now, my lord?”
While he waited, Samuelle struggled to make sense of Nikita’s unexpected letter. He could well understand that an angry and trapped Nikita would be looking for any exit from her father’s prison. He also already he knew he wanted to take her up on her offer. Their encounters last autumn in Marlborough had done nothing to diminish his appreciation for her character or her person, and the thought that she might now be interested in joining him had undeniable appeal.
But the strangeness of the timing, months after her father had dashed her plan to marry into solid respectability, and less than half a year from a time when she might reasonably expect to see him again in person, combined with the memory of her obvious affection for her lost suitor, kept him from enthusiastically dashing off a letter accepting her proposal on the spot.
A few moments later a medium sized barrel-chested man with dark hair cropped close to his balding head and intense, dark eyes appeared. “My lord Rouen?”
“People call me Mick, my lord.”
“Mick.” Samuelle nodded. “What is happening in Marlborough, Mick?”
“It’s not for me to say, m’lord.” The man shrugged in an eloquent show of disinterest, but the nervous energy bundled in his folded arms and bouncing feet suggested something else altogether.
“So you know what this letter contains?”
“I can’t read my lord.”
Samuelle narrowed his eyes. That was a non-answer if he’d ever heard one, and there was something in the man’s knowing eyes that invited, even demanded further probing. “But you have a good idea of its contents, nonetheless, don’t you, Mick.”
Mick smiled a satisfied smile. “Mayhap I do.”
“I want to know what happened that Nikita should write this letter.”
“Miss Michelle got herself with child, m’lord.”
Samuelle blinked. “Pardon me?”
“Sir Phillip and Miss Michelle, they got invited to some fancy castle in London for the winter holidays, stayed there, the two of them almost two months. Sometime after they got back, Miss Michelle, she realized she was carrying and told her papa, who sent to London for the man and demanded he marry her. This French Count, anybody could see, he was furious when he showed up.”
Samuelle interrupted. “French count?”
“Barbant of Albret.”
The hairs rising on the back of his neck, Samuelle said, “go on.”
“Well, he said he’d only do right by Miss Michelle for a heap o’money, more than his nibs had at the ready, or had ever planned for dower – seeing as how Miss Michelle will inherit the lot, when he’s gone. Sir Phillip, he approached the moneylenders, but he’s already in hock to them to his eyeballs and they’d only give him a little more.” Mick paused and looked down at his folded arms with a frown.
Glancing over at him, Samuelle realized the man was angry about what ever he was about say.
“So, this here Barbant, he says to his nibs, auction Miss Nikita to the highest bidder. Went on to say he had someone in mind who’d pay dearly for such a rare concubine.”
“Some knight from Luxembourg, Volker.”
Samuelle tapped his lips thoughtfully as he digested this information. Helmut Volker represented everything about the tourney circuit that Samuelle detested – he was a rich dilettante wasting his father’s money on horses and gambling, on wine and women. He did not even compete; he just followed the tourney as though it was a traveling performance designed for his own amusement. Volker surrounded himself with a crowd of dissolute hangers on and gave shelter and support to some of the most disreputable elements of the circuit; those who survived by taking advantage of others desire to bet on the outcome of the games. They also weren’t above fixing matches, ‘tipping’ lances with spear points, using razor sharp rather than dull blades, laming horses and doping the competition. The thought of what Volker might do with such a woman as Nikita roused all his chivalrous and possessive instincts to a fever pitch.
He had not known that Barbant, who whatever else he was wanted his wins utterly untainted by scandal or rumor and was not generally interested in the sort of luxurious dissipation that Volker favored, was tied to Volker at all. His mind spinning with possibilities, he wondered just what debts and obligations bound these two men together such that Volker would put up cash for Barbant’s marriage. Samuelle looked back at Mick and asked, “what happened then?”
“This Volker, he showed up the next week. Made a big show of being all courtly, but anybody could see he was looking over Miss Nikita like you’d look over a horse, and he liked what he saw. Made an offer on her that same day.”
“Sir Phillip, he hadn’t told the girls what he was thinking, and when Volker offered, they both started screaming fit to bring the roof in, but when Michelle realized Barbant would leave her without it, she begged Nikita to accept, for her sake. Nikita, she begged Sir Phillip to allow her to write to you. That’s why I’m here.”
As Samuelle absorbed the last of Mick’s story, he felt the pieces fall into place. He realized that it had never been Volker who was going to pay for Barbant’s marriage, it had been him all along. Volker was merely the goad, the insurance that he, Samuelle, would obey his instincts to rescue Nikita from a fate no woman deserved.
Samuelle was quite prepared to believe that Phillip would use Edward and Joan’s patronage to force Barbant’s hand, and that Edward would be willing to use some of his influence over Barbant to get him to do right by Michelle Wirth. That both the threat and the cash were a form of payback for Samuelle’s own part in the escapes of Louis and the others from English custody last autumn, he could also understand. In fact, narrowing his eyes at Mick, Samuelle asked, “do you know how much Volker offered?”
When Mick named a sum that was exactly triple the total of the three prize purses he had won at the London Championships the previous autumn, Samuelle knew for certain he was seeing Edward’s handiwork. He had suspected for some time now that it was Edward who had encouraged Phillip to try to place Nikita in Samuelle’s household. Whether as a prize, or a goad, or a spy, he wasn’t sure which – but that could be dealt with when the time came. It was Barbant’s role that had him the most puzzled, however. Bringing Barbant, Volker and Michelle into the game would change the dynamics completely.
Samuelle had no trouble seeing the Barbant would derive a certain malicious satisfaction from the whole, of course. Trapped in a pit of his own making, Barbant had nonetheless found a way to settle some scores with Samuelle and Nikita while at the same time creating a tie that might prove useful in the future. For the public embarrassment over the shooting episode at Marlborough, for Samuelle’s victories in the tourney last season, for Nikita’s obvious dislike, for Edward’s slow withdrawal of favor over the last several years as Samuelle’s own stock had risen with the heir to the British throne, for all this and more, Barbant would be happy to see him pay.
That a trip to England just now, no matter how quick, would irritate Samuelle's own Prince and damage Samuelle's standing with his royal cousins would only add to what little pleasure Barbant would derive from being forced into a marriage he would never have chosen on his own.
It was what the future might hold that was more intriguing. Barbant was no fool, and despite Albret having long been a part of English Aquitaine, he and his father before him had long given quiet signs that they would welcome the day they were free of English control. A tie to Rouen in the north might prove useful in a number of ways down the road.
The idea of spurning Barbant and leaving Nikita and Michelle Wirth to whatever fate might befall them occurred to him, only to be instantly dismissed.
There was always the possibility that Volker might really be willing to pay, that Phillip would be desperate enough to take it, and that Nikita, whom he already felt was his, would not only pass into the hands of a man he regarded with contempt, but one who would use her ill. He would not; he could not stand by and let Volker destroy a woman he admired, not if he could prevent it by the simple outlay of money and an inconvenient trip. And a tie between Rouen and Albret could work in a number of different ways.
After a bit, Mick cleared his throat. “What word can I take back to Marlborough, my Lord?” He grimaced a bit in apology, then went on, “his nibs want’s an answer soon, or says he’ll have to go through with the deal with Volker.”
“You won’t need to take an answer back, Mick. I’ll be going with you.”
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