Chapter Forty-Three: Part 1

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Toad had never found it difficult to concentrate, even in raucous circumstances; in part because his mother had taught him, from the cradle, a singular sort of focus that allowed him to best anyone in London but the duchess with blades; anyone but his mother or Sally with a pistol. He could count cards and palm dice and play the drunken fool like a riverboat gambler, with perfect calculation, which his mother and his Uncle John had learned at their father's knee and taught Toad from the age of twelve (with the admonition that such tactics were only to be used to defend against a card sharp).

Hawley and his crew had refined Toad's game play during two shipboard rotations, and increased his ability to shut out endless noise aboard ship. He kept track of ledgers in drafty, echoing warehouses, bought and sold full cargos on a noisy dock, and had made his bows in enough gossipy, infuriating European Courts to call himself a courtier. And while he was loath to confess it, he had a certain sort of focus that, when concentrated on a willing woman, would invariably yield at least one night of passion. Toad was no stranger to donning proverbial blinders, shutting out noise and drama, and accomplishing his task.

Even in the public room of a dockside Marseilles coaching inn at midday, where he was writing to Sally, so he could send the letter back to London when Blakeley left his service. At this moment, his parents and hers were either attending his graduation ceremony in Paris or sailing back to England. He could not care less which.

Tomorrow morning, Arturo, Piero, and Toad would board a Kopet Dag ship bound for Italy. By this time tomorrow, they would climb aboard the d'Alvieri coach-and-four Arturo had quartered at a livery when he crossed to France. They would travel most of the day to the castello to see Piero's family, and then the next day, or as soon as Piero's mother agreed to let them out of her sight, another hour to Piero's land.

But he hadn't left himself enough time to think through what he needed to say to Sally. Or how to say it, since it would have to run the gauntlet of Haverfords and Wellbridges to even make it to her. If Blakeley hadn't decided to change allegiance, he probably wouldn't even try to send it.

It had been some time since either of them had used their old code, but it was the last effort he could think to make to bypass the dukes. And while he didn't entirely trust Blakeley yet, the alternative was entrusting the most important letter of his life to people he didn't even know.

"That is assuming," he thought as he swilled the last of the ale in the tankard, "I manage to stop dithering and write the letter."

He tapped his pen on a blank sheet of paper, loosening his hand and reminding himself of the specific placement of stars, hearts, flowers, spirals, and squares, notches. Truth, Opposite, Wish, Nonsense, Secret. He drew in seemingly random scribbling along the right-hand side of the page, and set out his penknife to count sentences in paragraphs and assign meaning with pictographs dropped in as he wrote.

Dear Sally,

You cannot imagine how beautiful the tiny Towns are here in Italy. I truly could spend the rest of my days doing nothing but travel from small township to small township drinking wine and eating gluttonously, with never another thought of London.

There. The tiny spiral in the margin called out nonsense, and while it didn't take three mentions of TOWNS to make the point the rest of the letter was in code, it couldn't hurt.

It is with these new experiences in mind that I must apologize for my delay in returning to England. I know I had told you I planned to return in March.

He inked a square in the margin, then ran the nib of the pen over it again to lend weight to the symbol for Truth.

But now that I am here, after all these years of working myself to death, I am having great fun with Piero and his beautiful sisters.

Nonsense.

He added a leaf to the flower and heart he drew at the edge of the paper, pointing at the next sentence for emphasis.

Given the duke and duchess's pronouncements, I will not be crossing the Channel anytime soon.

Opposite, secret.

"Milord," a tentative voice whispered from the doorway. "Lord Harburn, the other milords said to bring you a tray. They will be back before dusk, they say."

He held up his hand. "One moment."

If nothing else, I must comply with my father's dictates, for how else can I work my way back into Their Graces' good graces?

"Nonsense," he muttered, then drew a tiny spiral among the scribbled semblance of foliage on the side of the page. He looked up at the young lady bringing food in to him. "Thank you. luncheon is welcome." She set down the tray on the table to his right. "I should like a bath in room four before supper tonight, if you will so order?"

"Yessir, Milord." The girl twisted a lock of her hair around her forefinger. "Is Your Lordship certain you need no other... services...? Only a bath?"

"Only a bath," he said firmly. "Perhaps you can send a footman with hot water."

"I will see to a bath for you, Lord Abersham—er—Harburn," Blakeley said from over her shoulder. He couldn't blame the man for a slip Toad kept making himself. It had been a lifetime of answering to his father's courtesy title, Abersham, instead of his own barony, Harburn.

"It should be my pleasure to leave you in the morning looking as smart as ever you have. You may go, young lady, and tell the kitchen hot water will be needed in two hours. His Lordship does not require nor welcome your illicit company."

"Thank you, Blakeley," Toad mumbled once the girl had slipped out.

"My lord, I am pleased to be chasing young women away before they lay claim to your bed. I finished repacking your trunks for il conte's man to take to the ship, so I came to be certain your meal had been arranged. I see it has. Is there anything else you require, Sir, before I remove for a few hours to manage my own travel arrangements?"

Blakeley moved the plates of cold meat and cheese from the tray to arm's reach from his elbow, and pushed the tankard of cider a bit closer. Toad looked at it, then the empty pot of ale on the table and the complexities of the letter he was trying to write. With one look at Toad's face, Blakeley removed the empty tankard and the full one and poured Toad a cup of tea.

"I will need some time yet to finish the letters I need you to take to London. Tell Hawley I said to give you a cabin, if the duke hasn't ordered it already."

With the subtlest of smiles, Blakeley stated simply, "The duke is not privy to my travel plans, Lord Harburn, and I will not be traveling by Seventh Sea."

"You are a scheming baggage, Blakeley, and for that, I shall hire you the largest stateroom on any steamship in port, as long as it doesn't belong to my mother."

"Very good, Sir. I will not scrimp, and will returnin time to pour your bath water."    

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