Author’s note: In the virtual worlds of historical fiction, authors create whole societies of characters, interacting with real historical events and even real people. But each virtual world sits alone, never touching the worlds of other authors. Until now.
The year is 1801 in Fickleton Wells, Somerset.
The Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Duke of Haverford, is 21, just down from Oxford. Lord Nicholas Northope, second son of the Duke of Wellbridge has been, at 27, racketing about England unchecked a fair few years without much purpose. And the trajectories of both young lives are about to change.
“The Duke of Wellbridge”
“I don’t fancy hanging so much, myself.” Lord Nicholas Northope observes, rubbing his fingertips along his throat, the iron chains at his wrist clanking as he considered the length of his neck. “I always thought if Prinny ordered it, I’d be drawn and quartered or boiled in oil. I seem to bring out his bloodlust.”
Nick looks out the window. They have been imprisoned in an old Norman tower at the home of the local baron. Fortunately. With the entire town of Fickleton Wells on the rampage, the local gaol would not have been safe. Even from this place of relative safety, he can see angry townspeople keeping watch from beyond the gate.
The two young noblemen are sitting, cramped and freezing, in torn, grimy clothes, awaiting the Prince of Wales’ pleasure after rather an uproar in one of his royal townships. Wrist and ankle shackles clank at each gesture, chains long enough to allow considered movement, but short enough to impede them if they run.
Back to the wall on the cold stone floor, Lord Aldridge, the Merry Marquis, tosses out, casually, “I don’t qualify for silk myself, you know. I’m just using my father’s second title. Hemp for me, same as you,” Nick thinks Aldridge is taking rather a ghoulish interest in the possible mechanics of his death. “Though I did rather fancy Madame La Guillotine if I were ever put to death. There is something so divinely aristocratic about it.”
“It seems one can only play so many pranks on a monarch,” Nick opines, “before one’s neck is stretched.”
“It wasn’t our fault. Those women…” Aldridge shudders. “I can’t have swived more than three or four, surely? We only had them to ourselves for one evening, after all.”
“I can’t possibly have swived all of them. Though perhaps half… There were… how many? Fifteen? Surely not.”
“I don’t remember much after the dancing. They danced beautifully, didn’t they? The rector’s daughters?”
Both men fell into rather a trance for a few minutes, remembering the plump thighs and comely smiles of the rector’s twelve lovely, lonely daughters.
“Nick, we didn’t do anything… dishonorable… Did we? They won’t really hang us? And the prince—he wouldn’t… Hell, Nick, I played with his little brothers and sisters from the time I could toddle.”
Nick shrugged, “And I might have married Sophia. You will do best not to remind him you might have touched his younger sisters with the same hands you used to defile the rector’s daughters. In fact, Aldridge, speaking as a man six years older and wiser, you will not want to mention the princesses—or defiling—at all.”
He can’t keep his chained hands away from his neck.
“My head feels very fuzzy,” Aldridge complains. “Nick, how many hands am I holding up? And what is that elephant doing in the corner?”
“Prinny won’t be fooled by false deliria. I’ve tried it once already and he caught me out by calling a physician.”
Aldridge subsides, grumbling. “Is it not worth trying? And how very like you to steal a man’s alibi before he even has the chance to use it.”
Perhaps Aldridge has a point. “The gin did have rather a sharp taste, to be sure, though. Did you not think?”
Aldridge straightens, clearly prepared to synchronize their stories. “Yes, of course. Assuredly. Quite sharp indeed.”
Nick laughs and shakes his finger. “Do not lie to your sovereign, Aldridge, and if you must, never so poorly as that. The mayor, the rector, and the squire have truth on their side. There can be no doubt of our guilt. I did visit the squire’s wife, and you did enjoy the mayor’s younger sister, no matter what we might or might not remember about the rector’s daughters. We both knew the town was on the prince’s estate—is that not why we were there? To avoid our fathers’ holdings? No, my friend, we’ve been well and truly served up for His Royal Highness’s supper.”
Aldridge utters an expletive, and sinks his head in his hands.
A sound outside the tower room brings them both to their feet. A key turns in the lock.
The Duke of Haverford brushes past the burly guard who opens the door. “Out!” he barks.
Lord Nicholas Northope is no stranger to the ducal disposition and backs into a corner first thing, a tactical error he started making in childhood and has never outgrown. Aldridge, the son of this particular angry duke, stays at rigid attention, which does not avert the ducal fire.
“You miserable, self-indulgent, beef-witted nodcocks! What on earth possessed you? What were you thinking? Don’t answer that. You were not thinking!” Nick and Aldridge shrink, inch by inch, to the size of ten-year-olds. “Northope, I blame you for this mess. Show the boy the town, I said. Give him a good time. Keep him out of trouble. What the hell do you mean by it, eh?”
If Aldridge thinks Nick will step forward to do the honorable thing and admit his part, he has lost his bloody mind.
“Aldridge,” the duke barks as his heir begins to edge to one side. “Stand, boy. I’ll get to you.” The last is uttered in a low steady monotone.
Nick sinks ever-deeper into the corner he should have abandoned when he had the chance.
“Listen to me, and listen well, you buffle-brained nincompoops. You have been banned from Fickleton Wells! Banned! The sons of two of the greatest men in the Commonwealth banned from an English town. How on earth did this happen?”
Nick clears his throat and still manages to squeak, “Patent medicine, Sir, I swear it!” He shoulders his way out of the corner, determined to give his lies confidence. “In the… in the gin… we were… we were poisoned! The brandy, too, I’ll wager. Lucky to be alive… Surely cannot be held responsible for…”
“Rubbish, Northope. Rubbish! I’ll tell you how it happened. You let a pack of women lead you by your willies. Yes, you did. Your father and I have talked to them. And paid them off, the bitches. Because…” he walks right up and taps Nick’s chest as he makes his point. “You. Let. Them. Fool. You.”
Nick’s hand runs around his neck again.
“Your Grace,” Aldridge has suddenly realized that they wouldn’t be banned if they were to be hanged. This has given him an altogether overly optimistic sense of confidence. “They say they are pregnant, Your Grace.” Haverford’s head swivels dangerously in Aldridge’s direction. “It can’t be us, Your Grace. It’s only been a week since we arrived, and surely, virile as we are, we cannot each have impregnated a dozen women in a week? Surely, not even Your Grace could—”
Nick suddenly realizes the benefit of being six years wiser.
Haverford turns all his attention on his son and heir, and Aldridge’s confidence shrinks to a needle point.
“They claim you have been visiting them for months,” Haverford explains, his suddenly gentle tones a sure sign that Aldridge is about to be very, very sorry. And then even sorrier than that.
While Aldridge tries to duck out of sight, Nick moves to a position well away from any more corners. He is a grown man, for heaven’s sake. And there are plenty of places to stand.
“I haven’t finished with you, Northope.”
“Months?” Nick responds, shaking his head, straightening his cuffs. “You’ve been coming here months, Aldridge?”
“Not I, Your Grace. It’s a lie.” Aldridge squeaks.
“I, on the other hand,” Nick offers, “just came to Fickleton Wells for a prize fight. At least that is why your son told me he was bringing me here. If he had another purpose… well… I cannot speak to that…”
Haverford casts his eyes to heaven. “No honor among thieves or scoundrels. Did the Duke of Wellbridge’s wife play him false with the village idiot? Aldridge, if your mother weren’t a saint I would swear you couldn’t be mine.”
Aldridge is casting Nick a look of deep betrayal. “Nick, how could you?”
Nick relents. There is no need to leave all the blame on Aldridge. “Admittedly, Your Grace, we had a bit more gin than two gentlemen should… But I would swear Aldridge and I were both unknown to them. And the gin had quite a sharp taste, rather like… patent medicine. I can’t help but think they are lying.”
“Of course they are lying.” Haverford throws up his hands in despair. “And of course they set out to trap you. And of course they drugged you. And of course you would drink anything put in front of you! Do you think I’m as big a fool as the two of you? But they have the whole town believing them, and the prince half believes them, too.”
“The prince,” Nick gulps. “What is Wales going to do to us?”
Haverford ignores him to continue his version of a fatherly sermon. “I have told you before, Aldridge. And you should listen, too, Northope. Never, ever, indulge yourself with the lower gentry or the middle sort. Servants, yes. Farmers’ wives and such. But never with people who can embarrass me… you. Keep a mistress. Keep ten; your allowance is large enough. Just don’t let your mother know, and stay away from the middle sort. One of our own, if you must, and if she has done her duty by her Lord. But never the middle sort. You have embarrassed me. You have embarrassed Wellbridge. And you have embarrassed the Prince of Wales.”
“On the topic of, er… Wellbridge… Sir?” Nick’s tentative voice demonstrated not an ounce of the Eton/Oxford poise he was so fond of displaying. “Did my, er… father… say what he would do? And Wales? What has he decided?”
“If it were up to me, and if Aldridge weren’t—God help the Haverford name—my heir, you’d both hang. But Prinny is inclined to be generous. I have no idea why.” He fixes Aldridge with another glare. “Your mother may have spoken to him.”
That brought up a very good point.
“Sir, Your Grace,” Nick asks, “might it be possible to bring this up with the Duchess of Wellbridge, not the duke?”
“There will be no discussion of anything with you, Northope. The king discussed it with Prinny, who discussed it with me and Wellbridge; we discussed it with your mothers, and the petty provincials in Fickleton Wells discussed it the length and breadth of England! You are asked not to find yourselves in the royal presence until such time as you are requested. You are further banned, until the general sense of noble fury is abated, from all of Prinny’s estates, his father’s, your father’s, and mine.
“Which. Will. Not. Be. Difficult.” Haverford’s finger drives the point home, “as you are both leaving England. Northope, your father has booked passage and suggests your long-delayed Grand Tour commence immediately on conclusion of this interview. Aldridge will be going to my estate in Outer Strathclyde, to study the wool trade. It is time he took a hand in estate business.”
“But Your Grace, isn’t Outer Strathclyde… didn’t you complain that you can’t seem to keep anyone there under the age of sixty?”
“Outer Strathclyde,” Nick snickers.
Aldridge looks hunted. “Outer Strathclyde,” he whimpers.
“Live to a ripe old age, they do in those parts. Something to do with the fine crisp air. Of course, all the young people have long since gone. But you could learn a lot there, Aldridge.”
“But Your Grace. You said you would never go there because you couldn’t get a woman to…” Aldridge’s voice trails off. Nick thinks he would have been better not to have opened his mouth.
Haverford, though, just smirks. “Precisely. And so the estate is neglected. But now I have no need to go. My ungrateful son—who could clearly do with fewer women—will represent me instead. And you, Northope…”
Nick knows exactly where he will be going, and if he can go without the ducal blessing, so much the better.
“Hanover, I presume?” he shrugs.
Nick has been recently considering a visit to his old friend, Adolphus, the viceroy, and Prinny will have no objection to Nick causing trouble in his brother’s viceregal Court. Northope second sons have a tradition of travel; it is how the French and Italian titles were acquired, and Nick will be more than delighted to continue the custom. Unexpected, given his brother’s infirmity, but not at all unwelcome. He does hope his father allows him a valet and enough money to eat well.
“Aldridge, you will not disappoint me,” Haverford’s mere tone of voice is a threat to both men… er, boys, who thus comply with the two burly servants come to escort the young lords to their respective transports.
“This is so unfair,” Aldridge hisses to Nick as they are separated. “You are being given the freedom of the globe, while I am being sent into celibate exile in a community of geriatric woollen weavers.”
Nick cannot help but grin. Aldridge is bearing the real punishment for their prank, and Nick is being rewarded with a merry jaunt across the Continent and no way for his father to object to it.
“I’ll remember this day, Northope,” Aldridge calls, as his keepers escort him away. “And I vow my exile will be a short one.”
Nick vows his might last forever.