trekwriter151: (TnT)
[personal profile] trekwriter151
Malcolm encounters the handmaiden Estrella for the first time. He's shocked at his own reaction.

Archer, Malcolm and Carlo see Signor Kosso. Kosso has his own nefarious plans.

The Hundred Years War lasted from 1337-1453. It was actually a series of wars between the House of Valois and the House of Plantaganet. The Plantaganets ruled England and claimed the throne of France. Eventually, they were victorious.

Malcolm was used to being awake at odd hours aboard Enterprize and being on land hardly changed that. His mind analyzed the information he'd gathered about Signor Kosso and the Council of Ten. He had quietly asked the palazzo servants, and they spared no detail. Kosso was the son of a Milanese merchant; he studied architecture at the University of Bologna. Unfortunately, his parents never refused him anything. When he wanted a bigger role in the family business, his father agreed.

Malcolm scowled. Captain Archer had managed Kosso's fleet for nearly a year. A trained architect in charge of a merchant fleet? How had Archer tolerated it, without dumping Kosso into the sea?

The soft mattress played havoc with Malcolm's back. He wasn't used to such opulence; his father Stuart was a sea captain. Stuart's uncle had been a strategist and a munitions man in England's Hundred Years' War. Until Malcolm had joined Archer's crew, he hadn't known anyone in the nobility.

With a frustrated growl, he got out of bed. He thought maybe a few hours in the palazzo library should calm him enough to get to sleep. To his surprise, the library doors weren't locked. So, there must be someone else haunting these halls late at night, he thought with a smirk. He slipped inside without a sound. It was dark, except for the flickering light of a candle at the far side of the room.

He took a few steps towards the cone of light. Suddenly, he felt the cold touch of a knife at his throat and he froze. The scent of jasmine enveloped him and made his head swim. Perfume? Floral perfume?

Who would wear---?

“Who are you?” The voice was lightly accented, but it spoke English, and it was female.

“A purveyor of the written word, just like you,” he answered, just as quietly.

The tone became humorous as she said, “You are English, and since Captain Archer is with Lady Eriana, there is only one other man who fits the description.”

“You are quite informed. My name is Malcolm Reed. I'm Captain Archer's first lieutenant.”

“On board the Enterprize. Not many men have honorable intentions. I overheard you asking for information among the servants. Do you have ill will towards Captain Archer or Lady Eriana?”

Malcolm tried not to flinch as she pressed the knife harder against his throat. A part of him approved of the mystery woman's caution. Another part of him was annoyed as hell, but that annoyance was quickly turning into something else that he refused to acknowledge.

“I assure you that my intentions are honorable, my Lady. I would give my life for Captain Archer, or his wife.”

There was a long pause, then she said, “I believe you.” With a flick of her wrist, she withdrew the knife. He whirled around to see her. She was a tiny woman, even shorter than he was, with pale skin, dark hair and dark eyes. The shadows from the candle played across her delicate features.

Malcolm tried not to gape, but he was failing miserably. “You should be with the other women...what if someone discovers you missing from your bed?”

Her mouth twitched at his words; too late, he realized the words set off all sorts of improper thoughts in his own head. Bloody hell, this slip of a women has managed to catch me unaware. She's pushing me even more off balance, damn her!

“The guards know I only go here, and Lady Eriana gave me her tacit approval. I know your women aren't supposed to have minds of their own, Mister Reed, but as you can see, I'm not your traditional woman.”

“I can see that.” He smirked again and added, “That wasn't meant as a slight against your intelligence. I was just...startled.”
“I can see that.” Her dark eyes crinkled in humor. “I am Estrella, handmaiden to Lady Eriana. I am in charge of her household whenever she is traveling.”

“It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you, Lady Estrella.” He bent and kissed her outstretched hand. “So, you are well-read. Honestly, it's a pleasant surprise. As you've astutely pointed out, there aren't many women who are so.”

She nodded. “I was reading when I heard you come in. Considering the times we live in, one can't be too cautious here.”

“You heard me? I barely made a sound.” He felt a flash of annoyance, this time at himself. Was he so out of practice that Estrella had detected him?

“My ears are sensitive, Mister Reed. It's both a blessing and a curse.” She chuckled and glanced at their joined hands. “You can let go of my hand now.”

He flushed crimson and released her hand. “Ah...sorry. Forgive me.” How could she reduce him to a blundering idiot? Malcolm saw the wicked humor in her eyes and realized she was teasing him. Estrella was an enigma, albeit a beautiful one, and...

Almighty are still an officer in His Majesty's Navy! Act like one, damn it! He took a deep breath to clear his thoughts. “I didn't mean to interrupt your reading, Lady Estrella.”

“That is quite all right. I found a copy of the works of the philosopher Suracus.”

“Suracus? I've heard of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero...but not him.”

She chuckled. “I'm not surprised. He also learned at the feet of Socrates, but unlike Plato and the others, he left Greece and traveled to distant lands, spreading his teachings far and wide. Come, I'll show you the book.”

The next few hours were spent in pleasant discussion over the words of this new philosopher. Malcolm wasn't sure that Suracus's belief of non-violence was attainable in this world. It was so different from what he'd heard and believed. According to Estrella, a similar doctrine flourished in her far-away homeland in the East.

“Being a pacifist does not always translate to being passive, Mister Reed. I try to avoid discord whenever I can, but I'm pragmatic enough to know it isn't always possible. If my family or my closest friends are threatened, be sure that I will defend them to the best of my ability.”

Malcolm nodded, remembering her knife at his throat. “I don't doubt that a bit.”

She smiled and he was struck by that smile. Open, yet enigmatic at the same time. Friendly, yet guarded. Beneath the outward confidence was a fragile flower. Malcolm felt a surge of protectiveness towards her, one that shocked him to the core.

His father Stuart's words came back to him: It strikes you like lightning, son. I was the same way with your mother. One day, you will understand. Malcolm had scoffed; what woman would desire a man like him, who devoted his life to the sea? Any relationship had been fleeting, at best.

Of course, it hadn't been the first time he dismissed the wisdom of his father's way of thinking.

“I must be a strange aberration to your way of thinking.”

He blinked and answered, “You are different, yes, but I'd hardly call you an aberration, my Lady.”

Estrella was about to reply, but she turned her head towards the window. They saw the light of false dawn on the horizon. “Oh, I can't believe how fast the time goes! I should return before Lady Eriana and the other women wake. They will need me.”

He nodded, not daring to say aloud what his heart felt: I have never known anyone like you, and now that I have, I need you as well.

“Yes, you must.” He paused. “I have enjoyed our conversation, Lady Estrella. Thank you.”

“And thank you.” Estrella tucked the book under her arm and picked up the candle. “If you are sleepless at night, know that you are welcome here.”

“Thank you.” Malcolm inclined his head as she glided out the doors. He was tempted to shadow her, to make sure she reached her destination safely, but he knew Estrella could take care of herself. And he was exhausted, though pleasantly so.

He stiffened as he thoughts betrayed him again. With a sigh, he turned and headed back to his own room.

Carlo returned to the Palazzo Pisani Moretta as the dawn stained the sky. He wondered why Captain Archer asked for his services again. He quickly found out: Archer told him that he knew the city, plus he was one of the surveyors for Signor Kosso's new palazzo.

“You also notice things that might not be obvious,” Archer remarked, “which is a useful skill.”

“Uh---” Carlo wasn't sure what to say about that. The other Englishman, Malcolm Reed, raised his eyebrows at that assessment. Carlo had the feeling that Reed missed nothing; perhaps Archer felt better with another person at his back. Not that Carlo didn't blame him...

Traveo transported them to the Ca'Rezzonico. The affable young gondolier was in high spirits this morning and chatted with Archer at high speed. Carlo was content just to listen, for he had skipped his morning beverage to join Archer and Reed. The lieutenant was also silent; judging from the look on Reed's face, he wondered if Reed also had a sleepless night.

“Signor Kosso arrived from Milan last night,” Traveo said. “Apparently, he wasted no time returning to Venice. My sister's best friend's cousin is a maid in his household. She claims that Kosso was not in the best of moods, at least until one of the condottieri visited him. Kosso spent hours in his study with the visitor in discussion.”

“Any idea as to what the subject of the conversation was?” Archer asked.

“Lina thinks it was business-oriented. Kosso has his connections in Milan, especially among the bankers.”

Traveo winced. “There is one in particular that dislikes Kosso.”

“Which one?”

“A man named Umbrico Sovale.”

Carlo nodded to himself. The movement caused Archer to look at him. “The Sovale family is one of the wealthiest in Milan. I've seen him a few times, from a distance, but I've never talked to him.”

Traveo inclined his head in agreement and added, “Signor Sovale is a shrewd judge of character. If he dislikes Kosso that much, there must be a reason.”

Archer frowned, the green eyes flashing in anger. “Sovale and I are in agreement. Kosso is seven kinds of fool. He is used to getting what he wants...and the one time he tried to cause trouble in my household, I made him regret it. The next time I saw him, he acted as if nothing was wrong.”

Malcolm asked, “What did he do, sir?”

“I'd rather not say it here, Malcolm.”

Carlo and Malcolm glanced at each other. They'd been doing that a lot this morning, as if their thoughts ran along similar lines. For all Carlo knew, they probably did, despite their differing personalities. Malcolm didn't say much, but when he did, Carlo made sure to listen.

They arrived at the Ca'Rezzonico in good time, thanks to Traveo's superb piloting through the canals. Archer paid Traveo extra to wait for the return trip. He announced himself to the guards,and the head guard sent word to Signor Kosso, whose answer came promptly.

“He will see you and your men in his study. Please, this way,” said the head guard.

Carlo kept his eyes open and his mouth shut as they went through the marble halls. Kosso filled the walls with priceless paintings and treasures from far-away lands. The Pisani Moretta was lavish, but this building was lavish to the point of being obnoxious.

The guard knocked on the study doors, open them, and waved the men through. Carlo finally got his first look at Signor Kosso. The man's features were bland, ordinary, and not very memorable. Yet the richness of his clothing tried to make up for it. Rich emerald doublet, white hose, and a dark green velvet cap. Kosso's eyes sparkled at the sight of his old friend.

“John! I'd heard you and Eriana were back in Venice!” Kosso stepped forward and offered a hand. Archer shook it once, then dropped it as if it carried the plague. “I see you've brought friends.”

“Yes. This is Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, my second-in-command.” Malcolm nodded in greeting, then Archer continued, “The other is Signor Carlo Tocceri.”

Kosso's smile widened as he turned to look at Carlo. “Ah, you're the new engineer that was surveying the site of my new palazzo. I remember our dear friend Francesco mentioning your name. From the University of Bologna?”

Carlo didn't like how the sarcasm dripped from Kosso's tone. It was obvious he dismissed Francesco Foscari as a harmless old dodger. “Yes, I was recruited for your project just as I completed my studies.”

“I also studied at the University. We have that in common, Signor Tocceri.” He regarded Carlo with a long look. “You must be talented to be chosen at your age. I'm sure Francesco has faith in your abilities, for he wouldn't have bothered otherwise.”

“Signor Foscari has his own reasons. I don't ask questions.”

Kosso smiled. “A man wise beyond his years.”

Carlo suppressed a snort; Kosso looked even younger than he did. The man was twenty-five, perhaps a year older. Kosso pointed at a long, unrolled sheet of parchment on his desk. “As I'm sure Francesco has told you, I am an architect by trade, so we two have something in common. That is the proposed design for the new palazzo. I would be grateful if you looked at it.”

Carlo bristled at the order that was disguised as a polite request. He merely nodded and went around to the desk. It afforded him a clear view of all corners of the room. To his surprise, Kosso pulled the chair out for him and gestured for him to sit down. He did so, then examined the proposed plans. Kosso's attention to detail was extraordinary; Carlo found himself nodding in approval at several innovations in the design.

Again, Carlo asked himself, He is a natural designer. How did he get involved in the merchant trade? Perhaps his life would be less complicated if he stayed with what complements his talents.

“I'm flattered that you would pay me a visit, my friend John. I know we haven't been as close in recent times as we had in the past. I know you prefer to get right to business, so we'll dispense with social niceties.”

Carlo watched the interaction beneath lowered lids. Captain Archer's mouth twitched in grim humor, but he didn't comment on the breach of social etiquette. Normally, Kosso would offer his guests some sort of hospitality, but it was obvious he wanted this meeting to be finished as quickly as possible.

“Very well, Signor Kosso. We were talking about the Doge; he has a request to make of you and your Master Builder.”

“Oh?” Kosso spared a glance at Carlo, who pretended to be engrossed in the parchment. “That's odd, even for Francesco, to ask you to bring this kind of request.”

Archer chuckled. “Not as unusual like a architect who is somewhat familiar with the markets of the East.”

It was Kosso's turn to smirk. “Point taken, John. Now, what does Francesco wish of me?”

Carlo listened as Jon outlined the problem. Kosso frowned at the words, but he appeared to take them seriously. He glanced over his shoulder at Carlo and asked, “Signor Tocceri, you're looking over my plans. What says you? Can you honestly justify delaying this project as long as Francesco asks?”

He narrowed his eyes at the elegant drawings on the parchment and made his own mental calculations. “It's possible, but not for an extended period of time. A month, at the most. Otherwise, the builders may have problems with the spring rains and if the canal might ruin the construction.”

Kosso appeared thoughtful at Carlo's recommendation. He inclined his head and fell silent for many minutes, then the smirk reappeared. “Very well. Francesco shall have his month. One loss is another's gain. This only means I shall focus my attention on a more personal matter.”

“Personal?” Archer asked.

“Yes. My father wishes me to be married. According to him and my mother, I am long past the age where I should have my own household. In fact, they had four children already, when they were my age now.” Kosso didn't quite roll his eyes, but he added, “They allow me my idiosyncrasies, but are unmoved on this issue.”

“So you have decided to marry? In a month?”

“I know most betrothals last longer, but I cannot afford to wait. My father and I paid our respects to the great Houses in Milan, and we thought we had found a suitable candidate for marriage. Unfortunately, there has been a...complication.”

Carlo glanced up at Kosso's tone. He didn't appreciate the dangerous timbre of it; Kosso wasn't used to being denied anything, and obviously, this was an exception. He pitied the woman that had caught Kosso's eye.
“A complication?” Carlo asked, before he could stop himself.

Kosso looked over at him. “Pray that you don't encounter this sort of problem, Signor Tocceri. I petitioned her guardian for her hand in marriage, only to discover she had been accepted as a handmaiden into another household! Her guardian claimed no further control over her affairs, and that I must petition her new guardian.”

The man was smart to send the girl away before Kosso made good on his proposal, Carlo thought. That was good foresight. I don't envy her new guardian, though.

Archer's expression betrayed nothing, though his eyes narrowed at the implication. “That is the discretion of her family, Kosso.”

He snorted and made a dismissive gesture. “Umbrico Sovale gives up a chance to strengthen his own family standing? That's not the man I know. I'm surprised he gave up his niece so easily.”

“So you're thinking about petitioning her new guardian for her hand?”

“Since Signor Sovale refuses to have anything to do with the whole matter, I'm afraid so. I should have the formal request written in the next few days. If it is approved—and I see no reason why it shouldn't—then the wedding can be arranged before construction on the new palazzo begins.”

Carlo was appalled at the calm demeanor, as if Kosso was discussing the sale of ordinary goods. Of course, that was a common attitude. He, Carlo, hoped for a love match, and he thought again about the handmaiden with the beautiful eyes. She was one of Lady Eriana's ladies; perhaps he could ask about her.

Slight movement out of the corner of his eyes distracted him from the building plans. Carlo looked at Malcolm, who hadn't said a word since they'd arrived. Not that it surprised Carlo; the Englishman probably understood very little of the conversation, since he didn't speak any of the dialects. But Malcolm stood with his arms crossed over his chest, the sea-blue eyes glittering dangerously in the sunlight from the window. It reminded Carlo of a hunter sensing trouble.

And Malcolm would have been completely correct.

Archer gave Kosso a humorless smile and said, “You have a superb sense of timing, then.”

“Don't I? One thing my father always impressed upon me is carpe diem, seizing the moment when it arrives.” Kosso's tone became ironic when he mentioned his father. “In that, he is quite correct.”

“Well...personal business aside, I should let Francesco know the good news, that you've acceded to his request for a delay,” Archer said. “I have the feeling we'll meet again, Signor Kosso, very soon.”

“As do I, Captain Archer. Please send my regards to your lovely wife, the Lady Eriana. You are lucky, John, to find a pearl among women such as she.” Kosso turned to address Carlo. “And we will meet again soon, Signor Tocceri. I could use your wisdom and experience in this building project.”

Carlo inclined his head in a wordless answer. Kosso summoned his guards to escort Archer and his men out to the canal, and back into Traveo's gondola. Traveo sensed something was wrong; his smile vanished at their approach, and he pushed the boat into traffic without a word.

“I assume the conversation didn't go as well as you hoped,” Malcolm said mildly.

“Not exactly.” Archer summed up the conversation for his and Traveo's benefit. Malcolm's expression became grave, while Traveo's face twisted in anger.

“He is a snake,” Traveo muttered under his breath. “The poor woman.”

Archer sighed heavily and reminded him, “Remember...we were lucky to find love-matches, Traveo. Eriana and me, you and Elisabetta. Not everyone is so lucky.”

Carlo caught the look in Malcolm's eyes and wondered if he had also found someone. He resolved to ask Malcolm later, but now, he had to ask. “This woman's new guardian? Obviously, you, Kosso and Sovale know who it is--”

Archer sighed again and looked at him. “Yes, I do.” And the dread in Carlo's stomach exploded as he added, “Kosso was referring to me.”
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