Chapter Sixty Three: Part 2

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A week later, in the same ballroom, Toad and Piero whispered together at the side of the room, eying until he noticed, and once he had, they turned away too quickly to be happenstance. The next time the conte noticed them looking over at him, Toad lifted his glass and gave a nod across the room. Another hour later, Piero asked the conte's sister to dance, leaving Toad to converse with her brother about the futility and impertinence of revolution and the count's many means of putting it down on his land. When Piero escorted her back, il conte made the introduction of the English marquess to his marriageable and well-dowried sister, Donna Fratini.

"It seems impossible that we have not met, my lady," he said as he bowed and kissed the air above her hand.

With only a brief glance at her brother, she said, "Il conte prefers I not spend my time in frivolous entertainments."

"How blessed I am to have chosen a party where you would be in attendance. Will you favour me with a dance, Donna Chiara?" he asked, and though it took a sharp glare from her brother to accomplish, she accepted without much visible reluctance.

He stuck out his elbow for her. "It has been some years since I had a veritable goddess on my arm. English women are nice enough girls, lovely dancers, but not really to my taste at all."

Her nose wrinkled. "I do not like England. It is a drab place, and cold. The landscape, the food, the people, all the same: drab and cold. And their men make ridiculous compliments."

He gave her his warmest smile, that had melted the coldest English women, and she simply sniffed and looked away.

As they danced, Toad kept his eye on Piero speaking to the conte, but he kept a good portion of his attention on Chiara, speaking beneath the music, in a low, grave tone that commanded her full attention at once.

"Donna Chiara, you must treat me with utter contempt as I press my suit with your brother over the next fortnight or so, no matter what I say—and I shall do my very best to make it easy for you to disdain me. If you will bear my playacting, I will assure you your heart's desire."

She seemed to have no trouble carrying out his first request. "How is it you believe you know my heart's desire, my lord?"

He leaned in to whisper in her ear, making it seem almost a caress from her brother's angle, but staying far enough away from her person that she would not feel his breath on her shoulder. "Because Arturo and Piero and I have arranged to help you escape your brother's house, now that you are of age to marry without his consent. I assure you, I am betrothed and my heart fully committed elsewhere; I am here only because Arturo is like my brother."

Her quickly indrawn breath and widened eyes were the only sign she had heard him, but she nodded so quickly he might have missed it.

"I cannot guarantee your good name will remain unscathed, but I promise Arturo will be waiting to redeem you without delay, and with luck, it will be some time before your brother realizes where you've gone. No matter what he might threaten, you must not agree to marry me; nor believe anything I say to him. You must pack a bag with only the minimum you need. And no matter what it may appear, I swear to you, my intention is only to bring you to Arturo and a priest. I am not the man I must make myself seem."

To prove his claim, he reached into his waistcoat pocket and slipped Arturo's signet ring into her hand.

"I understand. When must I be ready?"

"I cannot know that. I expect within the week, but it will depend, largely, on how your brother responds. The only thing I know for certain is it will be at night. Now, you must spurn me before I take you back to him. Tell him you find me distasteful a time or two, and once more on your way home."

***

"Cousin Maddox, allow me to present the gentlemen who protect me," she said, as the quickest way to defuse the situation. She was certain the two men assigned to watch over her tonight would have dealt with Trentham in short order. But Maddox, though he was neither burly nor much taller than average, had an air of competence and a lithe way of moving that hinted he would be a dangerous opponent.

"Lord Maddox is the famous balloonist and scientist," she told her guards.

"The hero of Kabul?" Lieutenant Bracken stepped forward with his hand out, his comrade not far behind, and from the corner of her eye Sally watched Trentham slip down the stairs and fade into the shadows.

Maddox made some modest noises and gently evaded his admirers, holding out his arm for Sally. "Thank you, gentlemen. You are too kind. Perhaps one of you would be good enough to ensure the pond slime who insulted my cousin makes his way home while the other helps me escort the lady safely inside to her father?"

The two guards exchanged alarmed glances on finding that Trentham was missing, but Maddox pointed in the right direction. "That way. Come, Lady Sal, let's go find my cousin the duke. But on the way, I need you to answer a question. Are you the S. Grenford who corrected the calculations I made in my paper Towards a Theory on the Diffusion of Light?"

Sally blushed. She had written to her cousin in her other identity, hoping he would assume, as others did, that she was male, and a humble and anonymous scion of the enormous Grenford family. "It was impertinent of me..." she began.

"No, Sally, please," he interrupted, "never apologise for being right. I cannot tell you how many people praised that paper, but when I got your letter, I knew at least one had read it and understood it. And made it better, furthermore! We serve Truth, you and I. As scientists, I mean."

They were in the ballroom now, and first one person then another wanted to stop Maddox. Sally stayed at his side, accepting introductions, joining in the conversations. Most of those who interrupted their walk around the side of the room wanted merely to thank Maddox for the daring balloon dash that had saved the poor remnants of the rout from Afghanistan, but some had read his astronomical observations or heard about his next expedition.

Covered in the mantle of the esteemed scientist's glory, Sally was, just like that, accepted back into the fold of Calicut English society.


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