The Brat Chapter One

Author: Lynsay Sands

Genres: Romance , Historical

September 1351

Balan shifted in his seat and flexed his shoulders uncomfortably. His blue doublet was too small and restricting, but then, it hadn't been made for his large frame. It was his father's best, the one he'd always worn to court. That had been years ago, however; now its color was faded and it was threadbare in places. Still, it was the best Balan had. He had others that fit better, but none in good enough condition to wear here.

"Look at Malculinus over there, smirking like a fool," Osgoode said with disgust.

"He is smirking at us," Balan replied to his cousin, his mouth tightening. "Or, to be exact, at our garments."

"Then he is a fool." Osgoode snorted. "He looks a peacock in his own outfit. I ask you, would you be caught dead in a scarlet houpeland over a green doublet with purple cuffs? And who would then add a blue baldric edged with gold balls?" He shook his head. "The man has left his taste at home. He looks a complete idiot. Even in our slightly worn clothes we look better than he does in that garish spectacle."

Balan grunted, wishing it were true. Unfortunately, he feared he and Osgoode looked like exactly what they were: poverty-stricken warriors come to King Edward Ill's court in search of a wealthy bride to save Gaynor from a desperately hard winter.

"Well, 'tis true," Osgoode insisted. "The man is pathetic. I have heard he has his doublet padded. As for skill... he has none. Malculinus never practices at quintains or with the lance, nor has he been in battle. At least we have strength and skill at arms to offer. We have stories of our deeds. All he has is his father's gold."

Balan didn't comment; he heard the envy in his cousin's voice and knew Osgoode was feeling just as foolish and uncomfortable as he. Among so many finely dressed nobles, they were the poor cousins at the table.

"At least we have a better seat than he," Osgoode added, cheering.

Balan smiled faintly. His cousin's chest had puffed up. Their seats would indeed be the envy of everyone present, but they'd earned them with blood, sweat and loyalty. Balan and Osgoode had spent the better part of the last several years battling for their king against the French. In fact, they'd both still been away in France after the capture of Calais, when the plague had struck. It had probably saved them from joining all those Englishmen mowed down by the deadly disease. The plague had taken a terrible toll. At least a third - some said almost half - of England's population had fallen victim to the Black Death. They'd died and been buried en masse. Balan had returned to a country underpopulated and in chaos.

"Even Malculinus must envy our placement at the high table," Osgoode continued with a sort of glee. "We are close enough to hear every word the king says. 'Tis a fine reward for our fealty." Balan merely grunted. While this had been meant as a reward, it felt more like a punishment: to be put so on display when their raiment was so poor. As for being close enough to hear the king speak, they were closer than that; they'd hear the man if he should pass wind! They were only two seats away from the monarch, or would be when he arrived.

Balan had barely finished that thought when the doors to the hall crashed open and King Edward III strode in. In his late thirties, the man was tall, strong and a sight to behold. His vestments were rich.

"Robert," Edward barked as he claimed his seat.

"Yes, sire?" A servant moved to his side with alacrity.

"Fetch me Murie."

Much to Balan's surprise, the servant didn't rush off at once to do the King's bidding, but hesitated, an alarmed expression on his face.

"Did you not hear me, Robert?" Edward growled. "Fetch me Murie."

Swallowing heavily, the servant nodded and acquiesced, backing reluctantly away.

Balan and Osgoode exchanged raised eyebrows. Both men had heard tales of the lovely Murie, the King's goddaughter and much feted favorite. It was said she was stunningly beautiful, with bright blue eyes and golden hair and a sweet smile. It was said the king had been charmed by her upon first sight and had doted on the girl since her arrival at court after the death of her parents, Lord and Lady Somerdale. It was also said he'd spoiled her rotten and that the girl was a horrible brat. In fact, her actions had earned her that very nickname at court. Judging by the servant's reaction to the idea of merely fetching the female, it seemed gossip must be true.

"Becker," Edward barked, and an aide stepped quickly to his side.

"Aye, sire?" the man murmured. "Is there something amiss, sire?"

"Aye." Edward announced heavily. "My wife has decided 'tis time for Murie to marry."

"Ah." The servant was well-trained and merely arched one eyebrow, pursed his lips, then breathed, "Oh dear."

"Aye, exactly," Edward muttered. "This news is not going to be well received by the child."

"Nay, well... Nay, I fear it will not," the servant admitted carefully.

The king's expression was glum.

"However, she is well past the age of marriage, sire," Becker pointed out. "Perhaps 'tis indeed time she marry." Edward sighed. "Aye. 'Tis time. There was no way for me to win the argument with my wife and convince her to put off the matter."

"Hmmm," Becker murmured. A moment later he said, "Well, perhaps Murie will take it better than we fear, sire. As I say, she is well past the age when young women usually wed. Surely she has realized it would eventually come to pass that she would be forced to do so. Mayhap she has already resigned herself to it."

"Do not be ridiculous," the king snapped. "We have given her everything she has ever wanted, and never once made her do a thing she did not wish. Why would she imagine that would change?"

"Aye, this is true, my lord," Becker agreed. "And I fear, by all accounts, that Lady Murie does not wish to marry. She has said as much on several occasions."

Edward nodded unhappily. "I am not looking forward to the coming interview."

"No, I would imagine not, sire," Becker said.

"She is a charming child, but can be quite ... difficult at times."

"Indeed, my lord."

King Edward shifted in his seat, then muttered, "Stay close. I may need you."

"As you wish, my lord."

The moment the two men fell silent, Osgoode clutched Balan's arm and whispered excitedly, "Did you hear that?" Balan nodded slowly. "It would seem the king is finally going to force the Brat to marry."

"Aye," Osgoode murmured. "Aye." He was briefly lost in thought, then pointed out, "She is very rich." Balan peered at him with dismay. "You were not thinking that I  - ?"

"She is very rich," Osgoode interrupted. "And we do need a rich bride to bring Castle Gaynor back to its former glory." Unhappily, Gaynor Castle was in desperate need of coin to rescue it from ruin. The Black Plague had, in laying waste to a good portion of England, decimated the Gaynor and its nearby village. Half of the servants and villagers had died in horrifying waves of pustules and fever. Most of the other half had fled, either out of fear or in search of happier circumstances. There was only one solution: Finding their own villages and servants ravaged by the plague, many wealthier lords had given in to desperation and offered high wages to anyone who would work for them. These were the lords who'd replaced the people they'd lost to disease.

Gaynor had once been a wealthy estate. Unfortunately, Balan's father had spent a great deal of gold on installing a new fish pond two years earlier, and that had been followed by a wet season the summer before the plague, which had further eaten up their resources. By the time the Black Death hit, Gaynor was in no position to match the offers made by more fortunate holdings. They now found themselves without the manpower - or even the coin needed to bring in temporary manpower - to reap the harvest. The better part of the crop this year had rotted in the fields, further crippling the castle and its remaining inhabitants. They were in desperate straits.

On top of everything, Balan's father had been among the many who had perished when the plague rolled across the country, and Balan had inherited the man's title, castle, what loyal servants remained and all the attending troubles. Now they where all looking to him to return Gaynor to its former prosperity.

" I," Balan corrected sharply. " I am the one who needs a rich bride, I am the one who has to live with whomever I marry, and you are quite mad if you think I would even momentarily consider marrying the king's spoiled goddaughter."

"Well, I realize it would be a trial," Osgoode conceded. "But we must all make sacrifices in this time of need." Balan scowled. 'You keep saying we, but there is no we. I am the one who would have to marry and live with the wench, not we."

"I would if I could," Osgoode assured him, looking earnest. Balan merely snorted.

"She cannot be as bad as all that," Osgoode said reasonably, trying another approach. 'You could just marry her, bed her and then .. . then spend your days out in the bailey with us men, neatly avoiding her as much as possible."

"And only have to face her recriminations and whining every night?" Balan suggested dryly.

"Exactly." Osgoode nodded, then grinned and suggested, "She cannot whine and recriminate with her mouth full. Just keep her busy at night. That part shouldn't be too bad. By all accounts she is quite lovely."

"Of course she is lovely," Balan said, as if only an idiot would think otherwise. "That is why the king dotes on her. She arrived here, all big blue eyes and golden curls, and wrapped him neatly around her little finger. He denied her nothing. That's why she's an enfant terrible. And that is also why I shall not be marrying her," he announced firmly. A moment later he exclaimed, "Dear God, I cannot believe you would even suggest it! The Brat? Do you really want a woman like that at Gaynor?"

"Nay, but - "

"But nothing," Balan interrupted. "Besides, spoiled as the girl is, she would hardly look favorably on my suit. She would take one look at my clothing and laugh herself silly. And - seeing how he dotes on and spoils her -  the king would hardly be willing to marry her off to someone with an estate in the sad shape Gaynor is in."

Osgoode frowned. Obviously, he hadn't considered that.

"Nay," Balan went on grimly. "He will want the best for his pet  - the wealthiest, handsomest, most powerful lord he can find. Not a poor baron with a vast estate but nary a coin to his name."

"I suppose there is that," Osgoode admitted.

"Aye." Balan nodded, relieved at the concession. But that relief faded with his cousin's next words.

"Now that you mention it, I fear no lord will wish his daughter to be married into such circumstances. We have a tough job ahead of us in finding a bride for you, what with the resources Gaynor requires."

The two men fell into a glum silence as they contemplated the matter, and then both glanced around at the sound of the hall doors opening. The servant, Robert, led a petite blonde into the hall.

Balan sucked in a breath at his first sight of the notorious Brat. He'd never seen her before. He wasn't one for court, attending only those special ceremonies required as a member of the Order of the Garter; but Lady Murie Somerdale was something to behold. The famed golden locks were a halo around the sweetest of faces, framing large eyes the same periwinkle blue as the gown she wore. She had an endearingly tipped nose, soft rosy cheeks and large luscious lips that made a man think of kissing - and other, more carnal pursuits.

Balan let his breath out as he watched her move serenely across the hall, and wondered how serene she would be once she learned that she was to wed. To look at her, it was hard to believe she could be the horror everyone claimed.

"Good day, sire."

Balan almost sighed at the sound of her lovely voice as she greeted the king. It took some effort to force his eyes over to see the king's reaction. When he did, he saw that Edward's first response was to smile widely, but then the monarch scowled and looked away.

"Good day, Murie. I trust you slept well?" Edward asked, avoiding her eyes almost guiltily.

"Of course, sire," she assured him with a bright smile. "How could I not? I have the softest bed in the castle."

"The softest bed for the most delicate lady," he agreed, then cleared his throat and glanced around. He was starting to look a tad beleaguered, though all they had done was exchange greetings.

"Did you wish to speak to me about something, sire?" Murie asked as the king remained silent, his gaze searching the room as if for an escape.

Sighing, King Edward swung his gaze back to peer at her, raised his head and opened his mouth to speak, only to snap it closed again and turn to gesture irritably at the man seated beside him. "Get up, Abernathy. Give her your seat. I would have a word with my goddaughter."

"Yes, sire." The nobleman stood at once, but moving a few steps away paused and looked helplessly around, appearing lost and unsure about where to go. Seeing this, Becker gestured to Robert, who immediately rushed to the man's side. The servant led the noble Abernathy along the table to the only vacancy -  one below the salt - murmuring assurances as he placed him that it was only temporary, that it was only until King Edward finished speaking to his goddaughter.

Balan and Osgoode exchanged another glance, anticipating what was to come.

The king took his time getting to the point. He hemmed and hawed and murmured trivial comments for the longest time, until Lady Murie finally asked, "Is there something troubling you, sire?

You seem distressed this morn."

Edward scowled down at the table, then glanced at Becker for help. The aide immediately stepped to his side.

"Would you like me to do the honors, sire?" he asked humbly. Relief immediately washed over the king's face. "Aye."

"Very good." Becker turned to Murie and announced, "I fear the king asked you to come here, my lady, to inform you that 'tis time you were wedded and starting your own family." Much to Balan's interest, Murie did not at first seem angry. In fact, he would have said she appeared pleasantly surprised by the news, but then her mouth turned down and she scowled.

"Pray do not jest with me, Becker," she said. "The king knows I have no desire to marry and leave court. Why would he wish to force me to do so?" Her eyes narrowed on the hapless aide as she added, "Surely you are not suggesting that he has lost his affection for me, his dearest goddaughter, and wishes to send me far away where I can trouble him no more?"

Edward released something very close to a groan. It appeared that this beginning was not a good sign of what was to come.

"Nay, of course not, my lady," Becker replied quickly, utilizing the diplomacy for which he was famed. 'You are very deeply seated in his majesty's affections, and while it will be a hardship on all of us to see you go, it is your own best interests he is looking to."

To Balan's eye, Lady Murie appeared to be winding up for a good screech when Edward muttered, "Oh, bother!" Murie closed her mouth and turned to him.

"Murie, Phillippa has decided you must wed. She is firm on the matter and will not be moved. And she said I was being very selfish keeping you here at court and denying you the husband and children you were born to have. I am sorry, child. She will not back down once her mind is made up, and 'tis definitely made up now. She is most firm on the matter and will make my life miserable should I fight her on it." The king paused briefly and scowled as he realized everyone near enough to hear was listening to what he said, and he announced loudly, "I am the king and what I say is law, and I say you shall be wed." Murie simply stared at him for the longest time, appearing unsure how to respond; then suddenly she dropped her face into her hands and began to weep. It was no delicate female weeping, either, but loud and copious tears, sobs so noisy and dramatic that one could almost imagine she were acting. But Balan knew better.

He caught the astonished glance Osgoode sent his way, but continued watching the king. For his part, Edward did not appear so much surprised by this display as resigned to it and perhaps somewhat pleased that she found the idea of leaving him unbearable. It seemed apparent he'd watched this scene played out on other occasions over other issues.

The woman carried on for several minutes while the entire hall looked on in horrified fascination.

"Oh, there, there," Edward said finally, patting her on the back.

"I know 'twill be a trial to leave us.... We shall miss you, too. . .. Come child, do not cry so.... You shall make yourself ill." The man tried many comforting words between her earsplitting yowls of sorrow, but the Lady Murie rocked in her seat, face covered, and blubbering like nothing Balan had ever heard. When his words had no effect, Edward moved on to bribery.

"Pray, child, do not carry on so. We shall find you the finest husband in all the land . . . and buy you a whole new trousseau... and have the biggest wedding ever ... and you can even pick your own husband," he added desperately.

Her sobs finally slowed. She raised great, wet wounded eyes to the king, and stuttered, "A-As . . . y-you . . . wish, s-sire." Stumbling to her feet then, the Brat hurried from the hall, hands covering her face to muffle her loud sobs.

King Edward watched as the door slammed behind the girl, then shook his head with a heavy sigh and turned to face the table. He sat for a moment staring at the fare before him, a sumptuous feast all laid out and growing cold: No one dared touch it ere he began to eat. He suddenly stood.

"I have lost my appetite," he announced to no one in particular, and then he turned and walked to the door. "Come, Becker." As the door closed behind the king and his servant, Osgoode asked uncertainly, "Do we get to eat now?"

Balan frowned and glanced around at the other nobles in the hall. They, too, looked uncertain. Were they now allowed to eat the fare provided, or expected to bypass it because the king had?

When the others began to rise from the table, apparently deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, Balan shook his head. The girl's fit hadn't affected his appetite, but he would rather find a meal in one of the many alehouses of London than risk causing the king offense. They had best be off.

"I have been thinking," Osgoode murmured as the two of them made their way out of the keep and toward the stables. "Perhaps you are right. Murie is not the savior we need."

"No," Balan agreed, steering the man away from the stables and toward the gardens. If they were going to discuss this, it was better to do so in privacy. In the stables, there were many ears to listen in, and Balan knew Osgoode well enough that he knew they were going to discuss it. His cousin wasn't the most discreet of men. The man would voice his opinions on the matter whether Balan cared to hear them or not, so it was best to let him talk someplace he wouldn't be overheard.

"I cannot believe the wench!" Osgoode said as they reached the safety of the gardens.

Balan grunted and cast an eye around, to be sure that no one was near enough to overhear. They were in a secluded spot.

"Do not even think of marrying her," his cousin went on, as if he himself hadn't actually been extolling the virtues of such a union just a short time previous. "Not that she would be interested in you. Someone so spoiled would hardly look at you twice. Still, I would rather starve at Gaynor than have that weeping, wailing wench there. Dear God, she carried on so loudly they could probably hear it out here in the gardens. We could never escape the sound at Gaynor, not even in the bailey." Balan would have criticized his cousin for the disrespectful address - Lady Murie might be a brat, but she should not be called a wench - but the man looked so dispirited at the realization that Lady Murie wouldn't do for a wife, he didn't have the heart. Besides, the behavior he'd witnessed in the hall was not that of a lady, so he supposed the term was not too inappropriate.

"Well," Osgoode said, forcing his shoulders straight and his head up. "There are plenty more ladies here at court to consider. Come, let us make a list."

Balan scowled as his stomach growled, reminding him of its emptiness, but he gave in and followed his cousin to a small stone bench. This was an important issue, after all; his stomach would have to wait.

"Let me see," Osgoode began as they both seated themselves.

"There is Lady Lucinda. She's quite pretty and well off." Balan shook his head. "From what I heard, she is as good as wed to Brambury. Their fathers are negotiating the marriage contract."

"Oh." Osgoode frowned. "Well, then, there is Lady Julia. A bit temperamental, they say, but a beauty for all that - and soaking in coin."

"Plague," Balan muttered.

"I did say she was a bit temperamental, but really, Balan, there is no need to call her a plague. She is nowhere near as bad as Lady Murie, and beggars cannot be choosers."

"I was not suggesting she is a plague. She died of the plague," Balan said with exasperation.

"Oh. I had not heard that," Osgoode muttered. "Lady Alice?"

"She married Grantworthy last month."

"Really? I did not hear about that either." Osgoode thought for several minutes, then suggested, "Lady Helen?"

"She too was taken by the plague," Balan snapped. "Perhaps you'd best just stick to the ladies at court. Most of them are here searching for husbands because their betrotheds have died on them."

"Yes, yes," Osgoode agreed, and stopped to think again. Balan waited patiently, his own mind picking through the eligible women.

"There are only three with the coin we need," Osgoode decided finally.

"I would have said two," Balan murmured. "Lady Jane and Lady Brigida. Whom did I miss?"


"Malculinus's sister?" he asked with horror. He shook his head.

"Not even for Gaynor."

"I was afraid you would say that," Osgoode admitted. "That being the case, there are only two - Lady Jane and Lady Brigida."

"Lady Jane is not a very good candidate," Balan said. "I have heard she has a secret lover."

"Hmm." Osgoode nodded. "I heard that, too. I also heard she may be with child."

They glanced at each other and said as one, "Definitely off the list."

"So, 'tis Lady Brigida," Osgoode murmured. His cousin sounded almost apologetic, and Balan knew there was good cause. The woman was frightening. Large and loud, she had the most god-awful chortle he'd ever heard. His future was looking most unpleasant.

"Emilie! I've been looking everywhere for you!" Balan and Osgoode both glanced around. Even with both of them looking, it took a moment to realize the excited cry had come from the other side of the hedge behind their bench.

"Oh, good morn, Murie," a sleepy female voice answered. "I was just sitting, enjoying the day."

'You mean you were dozing off in the shade." A tinkling laugh sounded and Balan tilted his head curiously as he realized it was the Brat. He hadn't recognized her voice at first. It was neither the serene composed sound she'd had upon first entering the hall, nor the husky, sobbing whisper she'd had on the way out. This woman sounded bright and cheerful and carefree. Rather odd, considering her earlier upset at the king's announcement.

"It worked!" Lady Murie's voice came to them full of glee from the other side of the bushes.

"What worked?" the woman named Emilie asked sounding confused.

'Your plan to get the king and queen to allow me to marry!" Murie said. "Oh, do wake up, Emilie, I am ever so excited."

"I am awake," the other woman assured her, sounding a little more alert. "Now, tell me all."

"Well, I have been strutting about the queen's solar all week, telling any of the ladies-in-waiting who would listen that I would never marry, that I was far too content at court to allow myself to be chained down by the shackles of matrimony in some far-off country estate." There was a tsking sound and then she added,

"The queen did not seem to react at all, and I was beginning to think that it was not going to work. But then today, the king sent for me and announced that I am to marry! The queen insists on it!"

"How wonderful!" Emilie cried. "I told you it would succeed."

"Aye, you did." Murie laughed. "And you were right!"

"Of course I was." Emilie sounded very pleased with herself. Her tone was much drier when she added, "But it was an easy outcome to predict. Anything you do not want appears to be what Queen Phillippa wishes for you. It has always been so."

"Aye," Murie's voice dropped, becoming less excited as she added, "sadly, she has always seemed to dislike me, though I do not know why. I try so hard to please her, but nothing I do gains anything but criticism and derision. At least, I did try when I first came here," she corrected herself. "Of late I have simply been avoiding her and her ladies-in-waiting as much as possible."

"It is not you, Murie," Emilie said quietly. "It is jealousy that makes her so unbending when it comes to you. She dislikes that the king makes so much of you, even if he is just as doting on his own children. She resents every crumb of affection he shows you, as if it is stolen from the plates of herself and her royal offspring. And," she added solemnly, "Edward is not the most faithful of husbands. I think she fears his doting shall turn to something else should you remain here much longer. In fact, I am surprised that she did not command your marriage long ago." Murie didn't comment.

"So, whom are you to wed?" Emilie asked after a pause.

"Oh!" Murie laughed. "I forgot to tell you. That's the best part. The king said I could choose my own husband."

"Really?" Emilie sounded amazed.

"Aye," Murie said. "I was a bit surprised by that myself."

'You must really have carried on to get that out of him," her friend said with a soft chuckle.

"Aye. Well, I could hardly hurt his feelings by letting him know I actually desire to leave court."

Emilie just laughed harder. When she could speak again, she said, "If anyone knew how sweet you really are - "

"I would be torn to shreds by the court harpies," came Murie's quiet comment.

"Aye." Emilie sighed.

"I really must thank you for all your help, Emilie," Murie went on solemnly. 'Your advice has helped me survive my time here at court. I think I would have gone mad without it."

"Do not be silly," Emilie murmured. 'You would have done just fine."

"Nay! They would have come after me like wolves. Only your advice has prevented it. Every time one of them seemed to be going on the attack, I just thought of what you said and either burst into great wracking sobs, or acted like an enfant terrible, a shrew. It has worked very well. Everyone just leaves me alone now. Even the queen does, for fear she shall have to listen to endless weeping and screeching."

"Well," Emilie said helplessly. "It was the only thing I could think to suggest. You simply are not cruel and grasping enough for court life, my dear. I saw it at once. Trying to meet the others on their own footing would have been impossible for you. You needed a good defense that could be used as an offense when necessary. Using the king's affection and behaving as if you had let it go to your head - that was the best way."

"Aye," Murie murmured, then gave a laugh. "Actually, it has proven quite fun at times. Although, sometimes even I am appalled by my behavior."

Balan suddenly felt Osgoode grab his arm, but he ignored his cousin and locked his eyes on Murie's happy face. By moving a branch down just the slightest bit, he'd found it possible to see the women on the other side. Both were blonde and lovely. Lady Emilie he recognized, and she was in the final stages of pregnancy. She had married his friend Lord Reynard the summer before. Reynard was clearly lucky in his marriage. Balan knew and liked Emilie.

As he watched, Murie suddenly frowned and glanced at Emilie with concern. "You do not think my reputation as a brat will affect my chances of finding a good and kind husband, do you?"

"Oh no, I am sure 'twill be fine," Emilie said, but Balan couldn't help noticing that she was looking a bit worried herself. She patted Murie's hand where it lay on the bench. Forcing the expression away and managing a smile, she went on, "As beautiful as you are, and being the king's most beloved goddaughter, the men shall be lining up to offer for your hand." Murie blew out her breath. "I hope you are right."

"I know I am." Emilie patted her hand again and stood. "Come. Let us go to your room and consider the available men at court. We can make a list of them, and then find out which we think may suit you best."

Nodding, Murie stood to follow, only to pause as she spotted a pair of birds on a nearby branch. "Oh, look! Two male blackbirds, sitting together. That is supposed to be a good omen." Emilie turned to glance at the birds, then shook her head with amusement. She murmured, "You and your superstitions."

"Well, it is supposed to be a good omen," Murie said, sounding embarrassed. She followed the other woman from their bower.

"Did you hear that?" Osgoode asked with excitement the moment the women were out of sight.

"Did you hear that?"

Balan and Osgoode peered at each other at the repeated question, which hadn't come from either of them.

"Is there an echo?" Osgoode asked, but Balan shushed him as he realized that the words had come from the other side of the bushes. .. and that the speaker was already continuing.

"Oh, this is too rich!" the man went on.

Pulling the branch aside again, Balan and Osgoode put their heads together so both could peer through. Beyond, Malculinus and Lauda Aldous stepped out of the bushes on the far side of the bower where Murie and Emilie had just been.

"Aye," Lauda said with a faint smile. "She is not the terror everyone thinks."

"And everyone is terrified of the girl due to her reputation," Malculinus crowed. "Halstaff has already claimed a sick mother as an excuse to flee court for fear she might consider him a candidate for her hand in marriage. And Harcourt swears he will do everything he can to escape her notice. The men are fleeing court like rats abandoning a sinking ship. There will be no competition at all for her hand."

"The way will be clear for you," Lauda agreed with a grin.

"And just imagine the favor you will curry as the husband of the king's beloved brat."

"Aye." Malculinus almost sighed the word, his eyes faraway as he savored the idea.

"Still," Lauda said suddenly, "we should not count her won already. There are those desperate enough to court even someone they believe so unpleasant."

"Aye." Malculinus frowned. "Gaynor needs the coin. Did you see the clothes he and Osgoode are wearing? I would have been too ashamed to show my face at court dressed thusly." Balan's mouth thinned at the insult.

"But I want her, Lauda," Malculinus went on with determination. "I want Lady Murie and the political connections she brings with her."

"Then we shall have to help her see that she should marry you," Lauda said calmly.

"How?" Malculinus asked abruptly. "Have you a plan? I know you do. I can see it on your face."

A slow smile drew his sister's lips apart, and she nodded. "Aye. We shall use her superstitious nature against her."

"Tell me," Malculinus insisted.

"Not here. Someone could come upon us at any time and overhear," she cautioned. "The maze is a safer place to have this conversation. Come."

Nodding eagerly, brother followed sister out of the bower.

"Come on," Osgoode hissed, standing to follow.

"Where?" Balan asked suspiciously.

"You heard them - they are going to the maze to plot. We have to find a way to listen." When Balan just stared at him, he frowned and added, "Surely you are not going to leave them to trick Lady Murie into marrying that snake? She hardly deserves such a fate. Besides, now that we know she is not the brat everyone believes, you should court her yourself. She could save Gaynor!"

Balan still hesitated, and his cousin repeated, "She does not deserve being tied to that man. I hear he beats his horse, and you know what they say about a man who beats his horse."

" 'He beats his wife twice as hard,'" Balan recited with a frown, not at all liking the idea of Murie marrying someone who would beat her.

"Aye. Surely you know you would be the better husband. You are always gentle with beasts and women. Besides," Osgoode added, "if you do not marry her, it will be Lady Brigida." Balan winced, then stood with a nod. "Very well, we shall make sure Malculinus does not do anything to trick the girl," he agreed. But he added firmly, "That is all."
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