April 26, 2011
ISBN-10: 006201966X
ISBN-13: 9780062019660

First edition
May 2007
ISBN-10: 0843955015
ISBN-13: 978-0843955019
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All the knights had heard tales of Lady Murie, King Edward III’s goddaughter and much feted favorite. It was said she was stunningly beautiful, with bright blue eyes, golden hair and a sweet smile. It was also said that the king had doted on the girl and spoiled her rotten. Despite his need, when Sir Balan saw her howling and sobbing, Murie was the last person he wanted to wed.


But all that glitters is not gold, and sometimes diamonds look very, very rough. There was more to Murie than met the eye, and Balan soon learned that he’d be lucky indeed to deserve such a bride. Yet he was not the only one to discern the truth, and the other hopeful hubby was not quite as honorable. A plot was afoot. Soon would come a reckoning, a time to show who was chivalrous, who was a cad…and who had won the love of a heart unspoiled.

This is a reissue of the book that was first released in 2007 under my old publisher Dorchester.

I did not choose this title. The story got this title because when I was explaining the story to my editor at Dorchester, the words “the brat” kept popping up. I believe I said something like “She’s a brat, or seems to be a brat and is called the brat at court and because of this, when it’s announced that she is to marry and gets to choose her husband, all the men flee court in fear she’ll look their way ….” So, it got the title The Brat.

Chapter One

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 fading and it was threadbare in places, but it was still the best he had. He had others that fit better, but none in good enough condition to wear to court.

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

"He is smirking at us," Balan pointed out, his mouth tightening. "Or, to be exact, at our vestments."

“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 Baldrick edged with gold balls as well?" 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 his garish outfit. "

Balan grunted, wishing that were true. Unfortunately, he feared he and Osgoode looked like exactly what they were; poverty-stricken warriors in search of a wealthy bride to save Gaynor 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 the lance, or even battle. At least we have strength and skill to offer. All he has is his father’s gold.”

Balan didn’t comment, he’d 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. He felt like the pour cousin at the table.

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

Balan smiled faintly at the way his cousin's chest now puffed up. Their seats would 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 against the French for their king. In fact, they'd both still been away in France after the capture of Calais when the plague had struck in England. It had probably saved them from joining all those struck down by the deadly disease here at home.

The plague had taken a terrible toll. At least a third -- and some said almost half -- of England's population had fallen victim to the Black Death. They'd died and been buried in masses. Balan had found himself returning to a country undermanned and in chaos.

"Even Malculinus must envy our placement at the high table," Osgoode said with a sort of glee. "We are close enough we will hear every word the king says. 'Tis a fine reward for our fealty."

Balan merely grunted, for, while it was meant as a reward, it felt more like a punishment to be put so on display when their raiment were so poor. As for being close enough to hear the king speak, they were closer than that, they’d hear the man pass wind if he did. They were only two seats away from the King himself, or would be when he arrived.

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

“Robert,” Edward barked as he claimed his seat.

“Yes, sire.” The 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 his bidding, but hesitated, an alarmed expression on his face.

“Did you not hear me, Robert?” Edward growled and then repeated, “Fetch me, Murie.”

Swallowing heavily, the servant nodded and backed reluctantly away to do his bidding.

Balan and Osgoode exchanged raised eyebrows. Both men had heard tales of the lovely Murie, the King’s god-daughter 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 on first sight, and had doted on the girl since her arrival at court as a child on the death of her parents, Lord and Lady Somerdale. It was also said he’d spoiled her rotten and the girl was a horrible brat. In fact, it had earned her the nickname “the Brat” at court. Judging by the servant’s reaction to the very idea of merely fetching the female to his king, it seemed court gossip must be true.

“Becker,” Edward barked now and his aide stepped quickly to his side.

“Aye, sire,” the man murmured and then asked, “Is there something amiss, sire?”

“Aye,” Edward growled before announcing heavily, "My wife has decided ‘tis time for Murie to marry.”

“Ah.” The servant was well-trained and merely arched one eyebrow slightly, pursed his lips, and 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,” he admitted carefully.

The king’s expression was glum.

“However, she is well past the age of marriage, sire,” the servant went on to point out. “Perhaps ‘tis time she marry.”

“Aye,” Edward muttered, “which is why there was no way for me to win the argument with my wife and convince her to put off the matter.”

“Hmmm,” Becker murmured, and then said, “Well, perhaps Murie shall take it better than we fear, sire. As I say, she is well past the age when young women usually marry. 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 made her do a thing she did not wish to. Why would she imagine that would change now?”

“Aye, this is true, my lord,” Becker said sadly. “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 commented sympathetically.

“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 at 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. He was briefly lost in thought, and then pointed out, “She is very rich.”

Balan peered at him with dismay. “You were not thinking that I…?”

"Well, 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 an infusion of coin to rescue it from ruin. The black plague had laid waste a good portion of England, including Gaynor castle and its attending village. Half the servants and villagers had died in a horrifying wave of pustules and fever. Most of the other half had fled, either out of fear or in search of happier circumstances. Finding their own villages and servants ravaged by the plague, many wealthier lords had given into desperation and offered higher wages to anyone who would work for them in a bid to replace those people they’d lost to the disease. And, it had worked, drawing those remaining healthy to such estates.

Unfortunately, while Gaynor had always been a healthy estate, Balan’s father had spent a great deal of coin on installing a new fish pond two years earlier. That had been followed by a wet season the summer before the plague, further eating up their resources. By the time the plague hit, Gaynor was in no position to match the offers made by the more fortunate holdings and they had found themselves without the manpower or even the coins 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 people. They were now in desperate straits.

On top of that, Balan's father had been among the many who perished when the plague rolled across the country and he'd found himself inheriting the man’s title, castle, what loyal servants remained, and all the attending troubles. He was the one they were all looking to, to return Gaynor to its former prosperous glory.

“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 God-daughter.”

“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 his disbelief.

“She can not 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, and then grinned and suggested, “She cannot whine and recriminate with her mouth full. Just keep her busy of a night. That part of it should not be too bad. By all accounts she is said to be quite lovely.”

“Of course she is lovely,” Balan said as if only an idiot would think otherwise. “That is why the king has always doted on her. She arrived here all big blue eyes and golden curls and wrapped him neatly around her little finger so that he would deny her nothing. And that’s why she’s an enfant terrible. And that is why I shall not be marrying her,” he announced firmly, and then exclaimed, "Dear God, I cannot believe you would even suggest it. They call her "The Brat." Do you really want a woman like that at Gaynor?"

"Nay, but --"

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

Osgoode frowned at this problem with his grand plan. 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 her. Not a poor Baron with a vast estate, but not a coin to his name.”

“I suppose there is that,” Osgoode admitted with regret.

“Aye.” Balan nodded, relieved at this concession. But that relief soon faded with his cousin’s next words.

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

They fell into a glum silence as they contemplated the matter, and then both glanced around at the sound of the hall doors opening once more.

The servant, Robert was leading a petite blonde into the hall.

Balan sucked in a breath at his first sight of the famed “Brat.” He'd never seen her before. Balan wasn’t one for court, attending only for the special ceremonies being a member of the Order of the Garter required, 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 slowly as he watched her move serenely across the hall, and wondered how serene she would be once she learned that she was to marry. To look at her, it was hard to believe she could be the horror everyone claimed she was.

"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 away to see the King’s reaction. When he did, he saw that Edward’s first response was to smile widely, but then he scowled and dropped his eyes uncomfortably.

“Good day, Murie. I trust you slept well?" Edward muttered, 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 said, 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 when he remained silent, his gaze searching the room as if for an escape.

Sighing, the King swung his gaze back, raised his head to peer at her, 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 noblemen stood at once and moved a few steps away only to pause and look helplessly around, appearing lost and unsure where to go. Seeing this, Becker gestured to Robert and the servant immediately rushed to the man's side. He led him along the table to a vacancy below the salt, murmuring assurances as he went that it was only temporary 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 it. 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 and then glanced toward Becker for help. The aide immediately stepped to his side.

“Would you like me to do the honors, sire?” Becker asked humbly.

Relief immediately washed over Edward’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 surprise by this news, but then her mouth turned down and she scowled.

“Prey, do not jest with me, Becker,” she said with a snap to her voice. “The King knows I have no desire to marry and leave court. Why would he wish to force me to do otherwise?” Her eyes narrowed on the hapless aid 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 this beginning was not a good sign of what was to come.

“Nay, of course not, my lady,” Becker murmured quickly, utilizing the diplomacy he was famed for. “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.”

Lady Murie appeared to be winding up for a good screeching session in response to this when Edward muttered, “Oh, bother!”

When Murie closed her mouth and turned to him, he said, “Murie, Phillippa has decided you must be wed. She is firm on the matter and would 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 do I fight her on it." He paused briefly and then scowled as he glanced around and realized everyone near enough to hear him was listening to what he said and 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, and then suddenly she dropped her face into her hands and began to weep. It was no delicate female weeping, but loud copious tears, sobbing so noisy and dramatic, one would almost imagine she were acting did they not know better.

Balan caught the scandalized glance Osgoode sent his way, but was busy watching the king. For his part, the man did not appear so much surprised by this display as resigned to it and even almost somewhat pleased that she found the idea of leaving him so unbearable. It seemed obvious he’d seen this scene play out on other occasions over other issues.

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

“Oh, there, there,” Edward said finally, patting her 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 such comforting words between each of her earsplitting yowls of pain as she rocked in her seat, face covered and blubbering like nothing Balan had ever heard before. When this had no effect, Edward moved on to bribery.

“Prey, child, do not carry on so. We will find you the finest husband in all the land… and buy you a whole new wardrobe as a trousseau… and have the biggest wedding ever…and you can pick your own husband,” he added desperately.

Her sobs finally slowed and she raised great, wet wounded eyes to the king, to stutter, “A-As…y-you…wish, s-sire.”

Stumbling to her feet then, “the Brat” hurried from the hall, hands still over her face and loud sobs coming muffled from behind them.

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

“I have lost my appetite,” he announced to no one in particular, and then turned to stride toward the door. “Come Becker.”

“Do we get to eat now?” Osgoode asked uncertainly as the door closed behind the two men.

Balan frowned and glanced around at the other nobles in the hall. They, too, were all looking uncertain as to whether they were allowed to eat the fair provided or expected to bypass it because the king had. When others began to rise from the table, apparently deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, Balan shook his head and stood as well.

The girl’s fit hadn’t affected his appetite, but he would rather find a meal in one of the many alehouses here in London than risk causing the king offense.

“I have been thinking,” Osgoode murmured as they made their way out of the castle. “Perhaps you are right. Murie is definitely 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 the privacy of the bowers than in the stables where there were many ears to listen in, and Balan knew Osgoode well enough that he knew they were going to discuss this. The man would voice his opinions on the matter whether Balan cared to hear them or not. It was best to let him talk himself out before going to the stables to retrieve their mounts where there would be many to overhear him. His cousin wasn’t the most discreet of men.

“I cannot believe the wench,” Osgoode muttered as they reached the safety of the gardens.

Balan grunted and cast an eye around to be sure no one was near enough to overhear.

“Do not even think of marrying that woman,” Osgoode added as if he himself hadn’t actually been the one extolling the virtues of such a union while Balan had protested it.

“Not that she would be interested in you,” Osgoode added. “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, even in the bailey.”

Balan would have criticized him for the disrespectful term wench, but the man looked so downhearted at the realization that Lady Murie wouldn't do for a wife that he didn't have the heart to. Besides, the behavior he'd witnessed in the hall was not that of a lady so he supposed the term wench would do.

“Well,” Osgoode said suddenly, 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 then gave in and followed his cousin to the small stone bench he was approaching. This was an important issue after all. His stomach would have to wait.

“Well, let me see,” Osgoode began once they were both seated. “There is Lady Lucinda. She’s quite pretty and well off.”

Balan shook his head. “From what I have heard, she is as good as wed to Brambury. Their fathers are negotiating the marital contract.”

“Oh.” He 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 can not 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, and then suggested, “Lady Alice?”

“She married Grantworthy last month.”

“Really? I did not hear about that either,” Osgoode said and had to think for several minutes before suggesting, “Lady Helen?”

“She too was taken by the plague,” Balan said impatiently. “Perhaps you’d best just stick to the ladies at court at the moment. Most of them are searching for husbands because their betrothed has died on them.”

“Yes, yes,” Osgoode agreed, and stopped to think again.

Balan waited patiently, his own mind picking up and discarding the eligible women at court at the moment.

“There are only three with the coin we need,” Osgoode said finally.

“I would have said two,” Balan murmured. “Lady Jane and Lady Brigida, who did I miss?”


“Malculinus’s Sister?" he asked with horror and then shook his head. "Not even for Gaynor."

"I was afraid you would balk at that,” he admitted. "That being the case, there are only two; Lady Jane and Lady Brigida.”

“Lady Jane is not a very likely candidate,” Balan murmured. “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 almost apologetically and Balan felt he had reason to apologize. The woman was almost frightening. Large, loud, and 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 at that exclamation. Even with the two of them it took a moment to realize the excited cry had come from the other side of the bushes behind the bench they sat on.

“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.” Murie laughed and Balan tilted his head curiously as he realized it was “The Brat.”

He hadn’t recognized the voice at first. It was neither the serene composed sound she’d had on 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 upset at the king’s announcement that she must marry.

“It worked!” Lady Murie’s voice came to them full of glee from the other side of the bushes.

“What worked?” Lady Emilie asked sounding confused.

“Your plan to get the king and queen to allow me to marry!” She exclaimed. “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 admitted, “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!” Lady Emilie cried. “I told you it would work.”

“Aye, you did.” Murie laughed. “And you were right!”

“Of course, I was.” Lady Emilie sounded pleased with herself. Her tones were much drier when she added, “But it was an easy outcome to predict. Anything you do not want appears to be something 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,” Lady 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 though 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 or 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 only surprised that she did not demand your being married off long ago.”

Murie didn’t comment.

“So, who are you to marry?” Emilie asked after a pause.

“Oh!” She laughed. “I forgot to tell you. That’s the best part. He said I could choose my husband myself.”

“Really?” Lady Emilie sounded amazed.

“Aye,” Murie said and then admitted, “I was a bit surprised by that concession myself.”

“You must have really carried on to have got 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,” she pointed out.

Emilie just laughed harder at her claim. 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,” Murie finished quietly.

“Aye,” Emilie sighed the word.

“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 modestly. “You would have done just fine.”

“Nay. They would have come after me like wolves. Only your advice 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 shrew. It has worked very well. They all just leave me alone now. Even the queen does for fear she shall have to listen to endless weeping or screeching.”

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

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

Balan felt Osgoode grab his arm, but ignored him his eyes locked 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 blond and lovely, but Emilie was in the final stages of pregnancy, carrying Lord Reynard’s child. The two had married the summer before, Balan knew. Reynard was a friend and lucky in his marriage. Balan knew and liked Emilie.

As he watched, Murie suddenly frowned and glanced to Emilie with concern. “You do not think my reputation as "The 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 she was looking a bit worried herself as she patted Murie’s hand where it lay on the bench they sat on. Forcing that expression away and managing a smile, she assured her, “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. She then stood. “Come. Let us go to your room and consider the available men at court at the moment. 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 branch nearby. "Oh look, two male blackbirds sitting together. That is supposed to be a good omen."

Emilie turned to glance toward the birds and then shook her head with amusement as she murmured, "You and your superstitions."

"Well, it is supposed to be a good omen," Murie said, sounding embarrassed as she followed the other woman from the small 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 that second question.

“Is there an echo?” Osgoode asked, but Balan shushed him as he realized that the second question had been louder and had come from the other side of the bushes… and the speaker was already continuing.

“Oh, this is too rich!” the speaker crowed.

Pulling the branch aside again, Balan and Osgoode put their heads together so both could peer through the small hole in the leaves. As they did, Malculinus and Lauda Aldous stepped out of the bushes on the far side of the bower where Murie and Emilie had been moments earlier.

“Aye,” Lauda agreed with a faint smile. “She is not the terror everyone thinks she is.”

“Nay, but everyone is terrified of the girl due to her reputation,” Malculinus went on. “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 far away 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 think 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 words.

“But I want her, Lauda,” Malculinus went on with determination. “I want her 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?” he asked abruptly. “Have you a plan. I know you do. I can see it on your face.”

A slow smile drew her lips apart and she nodded. “Aye. We shall use her superstitious nature against her”

“Tell me,” he insisted.

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

Nodding eagerly, Malculinus followed his 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 said, "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 her to be, you should court her yourself. She could save Gaynor.”

When Balan hesitated, he 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 might beat her.

“Aye. Surely you know you would be the better husband for her? You are always gentle with beasts and women. Besides,” Osgoode added. “If you do not marry her, it will be Lady Brigida for you.”

Balan winced at the option, and then stood with a nod. “Very well, we shall just make sure he does not do anything to trick the girl,” he agreed and then added firmly, “But that is all.”

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