Chapter Twenty-Seven: Part 1

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Three days after Christmas, Toad and Piero walked into the castle to yelling that filled the entire house with Italian, words so fast Toad could not quite understand them all, fluent as he was. He was reminded of nothing so much as the end of his affaire with the comtessesomehow, this tiny woman who had given birth to Arturo and Piero, and their five younger sisters could make herself heard from the ramparts to the dungeons. All the way to Florence, nearly twenty miles away, most likely.

If Toad's ear were working as quickly as their screaming, which was not assured, Arturo was refusing to marry someone, for reasons that were unclear.

"You cannot remain unmarried your whole life because you have lost one girl."

"I have not lost her, Mama. I will convince her brother. Matteo and I were once friends; he will have to relent eventually. I cannot marry anyone but Chiara. She has my heart, Mama."

"Che sciocchezze! Your heart. You are the Conte d'Alvieri. Youdo not have the luxury of a heart. Would you have Piero inherit should sometragedy befall you? He would lose all but the title in a card game before ahalf-year passed."    

"If Piero must inherit, so be it. Do not keep bringing women here! I will not stand for it. It is my home, Mama, and if you do not wish to sleep in a guesthouse, you will do as I say!"

Toad purposely looked away from his friend, whose smirk had fallen into a frown. Piero had been studying nearly as hard as Toad for months, and had taken to the shipyard duties with grit and resolve, in part to prove to his family he was not indolente. If he had fun on his half-day, who could fault him? He was not married or promised.

Thankfully, one of Piero's younger sisters came down the stairs, dressed in a thick woolen nightrail, and slipped her hand into her brother's. She looked like the youngest, but Toad couldn't keep all of Piero's sisters straight.

The three youngest were each a year apart, about the same size, and they all had long, black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. The two eldest were equally comparable in appearance, but at least were different heights. All five of them, though, from age fifteen to age seven, shared the same crush on Toad. Arturo and Piero had not stopped teasing him about it for a moment. Even their mother had entered the fray, suggesting more than once that the eldest would be ready to marry in only a year or two, sooner if a perfect match were to appear on their doorstep.

"Piero, will Arturo really make Mama sleep in a guesthouse?"

Piero lifted her to his hip, though she was too big by now. "No, piccola, Mama will not live anywhere but here. Arturo is just being stubborn. Where is Cugina Luciana?"

"Sleeping. Everyone is sleeping. Or was, until Arturo began bellowing about not getting married."

"As you should be asleep, my girl. Everything will be back to normal when you wake up in the morning, and I will tell Cook to make ciambelli for your breakfast. Now, you are too old to be running about the house in your nightgown, especially when we have gentlemen guests. You would not want to be compromised and have to marry Lord Abersham, would you?"

 She giggled and hid her face in her brother's neck. "Nooo," she answered slowly, glancing over at Toad before she hid her face again.

"I will take you back to your bedchamber and tell you a story, little one, but you must stay there. Do we have a bargain?"

"Yes, Piero." She laid her head on her brother's shoulder and closed her eyes, and Piero gestured with his head he would return soon. Toad could guess from seeing Almyra at that age, she would probably be asleep before Piero reached the family wing. Toad was turning to ascend the stairs himself, to go to his bedchamber and dismiss his temporary valet for the night, when Arturo stormed into the hall.

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