Sally's practice sessions with her father had become one of the highlights of travel on board the Sirius as it steamed toward Alexandria. Three times a week, they fenced in a space cleared for the purpose, heedless of the cluster of onlookers: off-duty sailors, any of the Haverford secretaries who could slip out to observe, officers and men from the military escort, Sally's rival bodyguards—the Haverford contingent on one side and the Wellbridge contingent on the other, each ignoring the existence of the other with lofty disdain.
Papa had been trained by the best in the world, had practiced diligently since he was a young boy, and had close to forty years' edge in skill with the foils. Sally had trained regularly under the Duchess of Wellbridge, alongside Toad and Almyra, since she was seven, and had youth and a flame of anger that never quite went away. Haverford usually won on points, but she made him work for it, and on the days he was otherwise engaged, when she practiced with one bodyguard or another, she was the victor more often than not.
Her skill with the pistol was returning, too, and one of the Wellbridge men proved to be nearly as effective a knife fighter as the fabled Captain Hawley. Sally was taking lessons, but still had much to learn.
"I see the betting is picking up," Papa commented as their bout ended with another win for him, and several groups formed for money to change hands. "They are gaining confidence in your ability to beat me."
"I don't usually, Papa," she acknowledged.
"You missed an opportunity today, my dear. Here, let me show you." And he repeated the moves that could have seen him disarmed, had she seen and taken the chance. "Or perhaps not," he acknowledged, cheerfully. "There is a counter, especially when one's opponent wears a skirt rather than trousers."
She practiced in a divided skirt, modelled on those her eighteenth century ancestors had worn for riding — suitably modest, but easy to move in. Still, it was flowing and could be cumbersome.
"Show me, Papa." Then, conscious that his secretaries awaited him with yet more work. "If you have time, that is."
He cast a glance at the ducal secretaries in their own group, and Penchley standing a little apart, his face diplomatically bland. Mr Penchley did not bet on their matches. Mr Penchley, Sally rather thought, disapproved of a woman being a good fighter.
"I will take you through the attack, defence, and counter attack one time, Sally, and we'll start with the same routine next time. Tuesday, is it?"
"We will be in Alexandria, will we not? Or on the way to Cairo?"
"We will find somewhere to practice," he said. "Now, Sally, come at me as I showed you."
Alexandria was hot and smelly. Their party was conveyed through narrow streets by guides who wore strange clothes and spoke a strange tongue and communicated mostly with their hands. The pathways were shaded against the sun by matting thrown from roof to roof, torn and hanging loose in spots where the sun still beamed through.
When they emerged into the broader streets and open square of the European part of the town, Sally understood the appeal of the dark and miserably close native quarters, since they now had no escape from the intense heat until they reached Reys, the hotel where rooms for their party had been reserved for the night.
Papa had gone on to make a courtesy call to the British Resident and to check the arrangements for the morning, but Sally and her mother were keen to reach the relative cool of their accommodations.
Long trains of camels wound slowly past the hotel, so that they needed to cross between the lumbering animals, the captain in charge of their escort frowning as he tried to marshal as many of the party into a single group as he could.
Her ears were assailed by shouts from the camel-drivers and calls of a myriad of beggars and street peddlers. And the cacophony of sound was matched by the visual kaleidoscope: the chiseled shapes of the hard-packed, sun-drenched ground, the rich and gaudy colours of the wealthy menfolk contrasting with the dull robes that covered all but the eyes of their veiled women, the half-naked—often fully bare—children of the poor who ran in and out of the crowds.
Mama was drooping with the heat, and Sally was pleased to see her settled in her apartment, well shaded and with a cooling breeze. Mama's maid, Haddow, found the makings for the ginger and peppermint tea that soothed Mama's aches. "With a little willow bark today, I think," Haddow confided to Sally. "Her Grace does not complain, but..."
Sally nodded. Mama had always suffered with her women's courses, which came erratically and crippled her with pain at their height. But recently, her health had taken a turn for the worse. The doctors Papa consulted had said time would resolve the problem. Haddow said the doctors meant that Mama's courses would eventually stop, but meanwhile they lasted for weeks at a time.
"I shall go and find someone to prepare it," she told Haddow. "Mama needs you here, and I shall take my bodyguards, so you need not be concerned about me."
They waited outside the door of the apartment: Lieutenant Bracken from the military escort, Wellbridge's man, Thompson, and Haverford's guard, Moxley. "I need to see the manager of this inn and find out where I can prepare a tisane for my mother," she told them. "Down to the foyer, first, gentlemen."
The manager was very helpful, conducting her to the kitchen himself and remaining as translator to the Egyptian servants, who found her the cooking utensils she needed and gathered to provide an excited and unintelligible commentary on the English milady who had strayed within their purviews.
Before long, she had her tisane in a beautiful copper teapot, with a long thin neck atop a round body, the curve of the tall spout echoed on the other side in the graceful handle. The manager insisted on providing a tray and a maid to carry the pot.
They made their way back to their floor, Bracken leading the way with Sally, the maid behind, and Thompson and Moxley bringing up the rear.
As they crossed the large open room at the top of the stairs, on their way to the wing set aside for the Haverfords, someone began to whistle the tune of 'Never Kiss a Toad.' Sally refused to look, keeping her head high and her eyes on the archway that led past a pair of armed soldiers into the Haverford's home for the night.
But the whistler refused to be ignored, moving into her line of sight and raising the volume of his whistle. He was a European, dressed in loose trousers and coat with a carelessly knotted tie, his dusty blond hair hanging overly long around his thin face. He stopped to say in French to his companion, "Do you suppose she's accommodating all three of them?"
"She has six in her personal guard, I've heard," the other, a smaller, darker man, replied. His French lacked the English undertones of the whistler.
Moxley and Bracken clenched their fists, and Thompson was frowning. "We can't let them get away with that," Moxley whispered to Bracken.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...