Chapter Nineteen: Part 1

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Toad poked his head around the door, wishing he were anywhere else, hoping not to be seen by anyone who might call him over to talk. Piero was already halfway across the room on his mission: distracting the comtesse so Toad could release the cats without being seen.

Piero made a path through the assembly with a touch to his left, a compliment to his right, a laughing remark over his shoulder. Toad breached the doors, Bey behind him on one side, Zajac on the other, the better to mask the wriggling burlap sack. The half-dozen cats were starting to move again in the bag, after he had dosed them with laudanum to bring them to the comtesse's hotel particulier. Soon enough, they would start yowling if he didn't release them.

Bey was sulking. "Ninon would not even talk to me, Abersham. Just made cow's eyes at you, and did everything you asked. It isn't fair. It's not my fault my allowance was cut."

"It is not my fault I am a marquess, and the whole of Paris mistakenly believes I share in my parents' enormous fortune."

"My grandfather will reinstate my Kopet Dag stipend eventually. And I wouldn't have let her starve."

The bag started wriggling more forcefully, and Toad hissed, "It's not important right now, Bey. We must release these animals before they start screeching. Do you see Piero and the comtesse?"

"Over there," Zajac said, pointing. He was standing on the tips of his toes to see over the crowds of fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen who thronged the three rooms the comtesse used to entertain in the same fashion as Toad's mother had, long before he was born, while she was still a baroness. The stories at Court about Lady Holsworthy and her salons had earned Toad his first invitation from the comtesse. "In the next room, near the piano."

Piero approached their hostess, who was sipping coffee and arguing something, most likely politics and literature, with a court poet.

"Make haste, Piero," Toad whispered, scratching an itch on his cheek, pulling away his fingers smeared with blood. "Hell. This wound keeps opening. Damned cats. I'm going to ruin my new coat, and I haven't enough money to replace it. Give me your handkerchief, Bey."

"I haven't enough money to replace my handkerchief," Bey objected. "Ask Zajac."

"You and your eternal penury are a damned plague, Bey. Zajac, give me your handkerchief."

Zajac obligingly pulled it from his pocket. "I am sorry, Abersham. It is not very clean."

Toad let out a long-suffering sigh and took it, holding it against his cheek, over the scratch he'd received from the largest of the cats in the bag.

"Ah!" Piero exclaimed loudly enough to catch the attention of the room, falling to one knee. "How can you have grown more lovely since my last visit, madame la comtesse? I am captivated."

As she always did when Piero appeared, the comtesse smiled broadly and made much of him. They could tell from across the room, by the way she smiled and touched his arm and cheek, traced one finger across the back of his hand, twisted her finger in one of his black curls before tucking it back behind his ear.

For the last three salons, she had flirted madly with both of them, but eventually spurned Piero, trying to catch Toad's eye. So far, she had not succeeded, as Toad did his very best to pretend he didn't see the offer of sex rising off her like a heat mirage.

While the comtesse was engaged with teasing Piero and stringing him along another day, Toad loosened the cord and opened the mouth of the bag, letting out the six cats, none too pleased to be transported from their alleyway behind a brothel to the crowded drawing room of the comtesse's Parisian mansion.

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