Chapter Forty-Three: Part 2

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For a few minutes, Toad stacked cold meat and cheese on bread and let the buzzing of taproom conversation in the background carry him into inattention. He might never write three more difficult sentences in his life, so he started with the pictures in the margin. Nonsense and opposite, and three notches to note it applied to the whole paragraph.

Because I cannot claim to know my immediate—indeed, long-term—plans, I must release you from any promise you have made me. For how shall I be a good husband when the ladies of Europe beckon? (My father always told me I could do worse than to marry an Italian princess.)

His hand shook as soon as he drew the interrogatory mark, leaving his last sentence noticeably shaky. If Sally were to take any statement in the entire letter wrongly, he prayed to god, it wouldn't be that one. He hoped she had received the note with the calling cards, so she would know Piero's sisters thought of him as brotherly, not as a marriage prospect. At least she would have knowledge of his immediate and long-term plans for the shipping line, as soon as Bey found her at Sutton's wedding.

"My brother is intolerable, Aber—Harburn."

"Come, eat, Piero. There is plenty." Piero took a seat across the table from Toad, sparing but a glance for the letter that, he would be the first to say, was none of his business. "What has Arturo done now?"

"He has made a deal with Firthley to invest, since neither you nor I would agree. He told Firthley he would invest in Delphinus, or he would split his investment in Seventh Sea and Kopet Dag. And Firthley fell for it."

Toad couldn't help a slight smirk. "You knew Arturo was never going to let you make money without him. He has peasants to feed, and now, so do you, Lord Landowner, and it is your bounden duty to help the family feed them. Especially if you will be chasing off to sea and asking Arturo to watch over things while you are gone."

"Just so. You look a little like him in the noble jaw when you speak of peasants, and when you start preaching."

"Excellent. One wishes to model oneself after good men, after all."

"Oh, do not say that in his hearing, I pray." Piero spread pate on a slice of bread and added a layer of soft cheese. "I feel I must warn you, my friend. You have not been back to Italia since Maddalena was invited to Court. She will add your heart to her list to be conquered."

Toad snorted. "Lena and I have an understanding."

Piero's head reared back. "You have a what?"

With a sly smirk, Toad asked, "You recall I taught her to fence with Arturo's permission, do you not?"

"Yes? And?"

"I taught her to gut a man with three different blades, and in exchange, she will never agree to marry me, no matter what Arturo suggests or what sort of stregheria your mother tries. Your sister is like a sister to me, upon both my honour and hers."

"Well... I suppose that is...." Piero cleared his throat and busied himself making himself a sandwich. "I say, did I happen to mention...? I meant to tell you, but with all the commotion..."

"Yes?"

"I met your sister in Paris, Lady Almyra." Color rose in Piero's cheeks, and he spent more time slicing soft cheese than was required. "Briefly, of course... in passing, really... when Firthley summoned me to the hotel. Not even truly a formal introduction... she rather... er... barged in to seek out a book while I was waiting."

"You were alone with my sister in Paris?" Toad asked, one brow raised.

"No! Not... Only for moments before Firthley... the door was open the whole time, Aber—Harburn."

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