Chapter Sixty: Part 3

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With a withering glance at Toad, Piero came forward and bowed over Almyra's hand. "You are a brute to soil my lady's ears with such talk before she is to dance with the queen's husband. And while I do not expect the young lady will remember me, we have met before."

"In Paris. In my aunt and uncle's hotel suite."

Piero smiled in a way that made the hairs on the back of Toad's neck prickle. It was entirely too like the smile Piero used to flirt with Court ladies. "Indeed. And how is Rags? Is he quite healed of his injuries?"

"You remember Rags! Yes, he had a tough time of it, I'm afraid, with all the travelling after his surgery. But he still walks, just a bit lopsided. And he's found a home in the village, with a little boy who has a similar injury. They are quite sweet to behold."

"Excuse me, would someone please tell me what Rags is?"

"He was a very lucky pup, found injured in a Parisian alley by an angel of mercy, who makes a study of veterinary medicine."

Almyra flushed in a way that was entirely foreign to Toad's experience with his sister, and he tugged at his jacket cuffs.

"I think that overstating things," Almyra said demurely, "but I admit, most people would not have tried to save a street dog. And some might not try to save the little boy who is his best friend now, either, and wouldn't it just be sad to be one of those people?" Almyra's nose pushed a bit higher in the air.

Piero now grinned in the same way he did at any of his younger sisters' sentimental silliness, and Toad breathed a bit deeper. "I truly did not mean to overhear you, but am I to understand you are beset of nerves at dancing with a prince, my lady?"

Almyra's face blanched again. Toad had been right that she was using Piero as a delaying tactic. He still knew his sister that well, anyway.

"Shall I share with you what my parents told me about dancing with royalty before my first ball, and what I told my sister, Lena?"

Piero bowed and offered Almyra his hand as though to dance, even with no music playing. She looked over at Toad, who didn't stop it, but didn't endorse it, either. She took Piero's hand, and he placed his hand at her waist.

"You are trying to steal a waltz with my sister, d'Alvieri?"

"I am stealing nothing; the duchess has arranged a waltz with the prince. I overheard it. I am only allowing her to find her feet. My lady?" He pulled her into a slow waltz, humming a vague tune in three-quarter time until they were settled into a rhythm. "When one dances with royalty, my mother would tell you, you must never remove your gloves, and it is wise to stay back a half-step further than one might with anyone else. When one's royal dance partner is married, a full step."

The Dukes of Wellbridge and Haverford had taught him the same thing, with the caveat that one should never appear ungraceful when partnering a royal, so as not to make them seem so, nor give the impression you find the royal person unattractive.

"My father would tell you," Piero continued, "that they are flesh and blood, just like you and me; they like to dance and do not like to be ridiculed and are made happy and sad by circumstance. It is never a kindness to treat a fellow human being like an object, and so dance with a prince as you would dance with a man, for the enjoyment of it between two people. Only a half-step removed."

Almyra was staring up into Piero's eyes with a bit more interest than Toad was willing to countenance. He cleared his throat. "One also does not keep royalty waiting when they have come for the express purpose of opening a ball five minutes ago."

Piero stepped back and bowed again to Almyra. "Abersham is correct, and I am remiss in distracting you from your duty." Holding on to her hand, however, Piero took up the dance card on a ribbon around her wrist and wrote his name in for the second waltz.

Toad pointedly pulled his sister's hand to his elbow while she looked over her shoulder at his friend. "Thank you, Lord Piero, for your wise counsel, but we must now repair to the ballroom."


Toad and Piero and Etcetera were in their shirtsleeves and stocking feet in the family wing of the embassy. Almyra's ball had gone on until four in the morning, after which, the three of them decided it would be a good idea to continue drinking elsewhere and have a deep discussion of how much liberty to allow the lascivious muck snipes who would start calling on Almyra tomorrow. If her dance card was any indication, there would be plenty of work for all three of them keeping the rakes away.

"And you, Piero... you danced with her twice. That was not well done of you," Toad complained.

"One of her dance partners did not turn up. I could hardly leave her standing on the edges of the dance floor when my feet were working perfectly well."

"You probably had the sod murdered."

"To secure a dance with a lady? That hardly seems necessary, when I could just buy him off, or threaten to separate him from his cazzo."

When Piero joked about such things, Toad could never tell if he were telling the truth, so, as always, he decided he just didn't want to know, and jabbed his finger at his friend. "Do not dare seduce my sister, d'Alvieri. I will kill you where you stand before I let you toy with Almyra. And I will toss you out of Delphinus without compunction. Leave. Almyra. Alone."

Piero held up his hands. "I have no ill intent, Abersham. She is a kind young lady, as interesting to speak to as her brother, and therefore, worthy of my time. You can be sure I am not trying to seduce her. Have I not proved myself past the phase of seducing innocents for sport?"

That was true. "See that you remember it, d'Alvieri. You have never in your life won at swords with me, and if my sister's honour is at stake, you can be sure this will not be the first time."

"You've made your point," Piero snapped, turning away to pour a brandy.

"Have I? Excellent. Now then, I will expect both of you to schedule yourselves to accompany me to Almyra's at-home days, to keep an eye out for lecherous fools who are not as morally sound as you."

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