Chapter Sixty-Four: Part 1

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"Are you certain about this?" Papa asked Maddox, eyeing the slowly burgeoning pile of silk with distaste.

Maddox reassured the anxious father, neither face nor tone hinting that he was repeating the same reassurances he'd given a dozen times. "We will not go beyond the bounds of the city, and we will not go high enough for Sally to feel the cold. I have planned our route exactly, and if a rogue wind takes us off course, Sally's merry band of brothers will be following us on horseback and will be at our descent-point ready to guard us while someone fetches a carriage."

Sally decided it was time to take a hand. "Please, Papa. Maddox has been waiting for the perfect day, and this will be our last chance before we leave Calicut."

Papa allowed himself to be persuaded, but marched off to give Sally's guards some extra, and quite unnecessary, instructions.

Sally and Mama were distracted by the arrival of the two ladies who had accepted Sally's invitation to join her in the flight. It was a necessary nuisance. They would meet the requirements of propriety, and she had managed to find two who were at least interested in the flight itself, and not merely at ogling 'that delicious Lord Maddox', as she'd heard him called.

By the time the balloon was filled and straining at its anchor ropes, her two unwanted companions had run out of questions. Maddox had claimed work to do and had left Sally with the task of satisfying their curiosity. He wouldn't escape so easily once they were up in the air. Sally planned to ignore everyone to revel in the sights and sensations of the flight.

It took another half hour of checks and tests before Maddox and his engineer were satisfied, but at last one of the helpers set up the ladder — more of an ornate stair — that they'd borrowed to help the ladies into the balloon.

Then at last they were off!

***

Piero had planned this entire fortnight's incursion into the house of Fratini with merciless precision, from the moment he and Toad had stumbled upon Arturo trying to calm a weeping, wailing Chiara in a back hallway of the Grand Duke's palace. They did not present themselves—they hadn't wished to embarrass the lady—but Piero had hatched a plot.

When he had outlined each point for Arturo and Toad, they had agreed to almost everything he suggested, with a few caveats—one being Toad's right to send a letter to Sally well before any such activities ensued. Toad and Arturo had agreed later, between them, that Piero's cunning and ruthlessness, especially in combination, was a bit frightening.

Once they had engineered the apparent public political split between Arturo and Toad, and the non-existent private split between Toad and Sal, Toad had ingratiated himself with il conte Fratini by way of excess money, feigned stupidity, purposefully lost card games, and affected aristocratic sentiments that, in reality, Toad took as unsustainable nonsense that was best settled peaceably, as did Arturo and Piero and, incidentally, the Duke of Wellbridge. In short, he presented himself as a fool who might easily be parted from his money.

Three days ago, Toad had taken Chiara for a drive in her brother's carriage, under the strict eye of a frowning duenna, and he did naught but talk about his money, his houses and estates, his proximity to royalty on multiple continents, the position he would gain when his father died, and the company stock he would gain when his mother did. He drank watered brandy from a flask and leered at Chiara, asking her impertinent questions about whether and how she planned to keep her husband from straying from his marriage bed, and how he hoped by marrying someone with Mediterranean blood, he could avoid spending his life with a cold English fish, and how she looked sturdy enough to produce an heir and a spare—at least—and he thought she would probably age well. Every time he licked his lips, she shuddered.

No matter what he said, she gave short, noncommittal answers as she stared out the window of the carriage and scooted closer to her chaperone. But when Toad had the opportunity to caress her without the attention of the duenna, he kept himself arm's length away, only touching her respectfully at the hand or elbow to help her in or out of the carriage.

Even after a long luncheon and a long drive in the countryside, the count had offered dinner upon their return, but Toad refused with a waggle of his aristocratic brows, citing a prior engagement with Piero, in the city. At a murmur, he had suggested once dinner was over, the count should meet them at a gambling club in Florence, where Toad had lost 2,500 zecchino to him at cards without blinking an eye, pulling bags of gold coin from a compartment in his carriage to settle the enormous debt on the spot. Toad was lucky he hadn't been robbed leaving the club, with the amount of money he flashed around while he was there.

Since then, Toad had kept his distance, sending no messages, avoiding locales where he had met up with the count when he was courting his attention. Two hours ago, the invitation Piero had predicted within three days had arrived, as by clockwork.

The count had invited Toad to supper tomorrow, after which, Donna Chiara and her two younger sisters would display their talents at the harp and pianoforte and flute. Because their castle was more than three hours away from Toad's estate, he was asked to stay the night.

Toad replied, suggesting an evening four days hence, and the courier returned before day's end to reply in the affirmative.

"You have arranged for the horses, Piero?" Arturo asked for the fifth time.

"Yes, and food and clothing in saddlebags for your trip, and the paperwork from your bankers and solicitor. Abersham, the coin you will need for Fratini is with the gifts Lena gave us for Chiara and her sisters, and the rope is with your suit of clothes. You have confirmed the ships are docked and will leave from Livorno as expected?"

"Yes, Arturo and Chiara to France before dawn, Piero to North Africa a few hours past sunrise, and mine to Greece mid-afternoon tomorrow. We will all be gone before rumour even has a chance to form. Arturo, you will be cutting things most closely. You must make good time, or you will be trapped by the tides. Blakeley sent word the Paris apartment is prepared for your occupancy, and he will remain there to help you get settled."

"I cannot imagine we will need to stay away more than a few months. I have more fighting men at my disposal than Matteo, if it comes to that, and Lena's new husband can be trusted to protect my mother and the girls while I am away. I am yet hopeful Matteo and I can reach a détente between our houses once we are safely wed and out of his reach, for we cannot stay away forever."

"The bride-price can only help," Toad suggested. "I will deliver her to you in the dead of night, Arturo, and provide you a ship and a house he is unlikely to trace. After that, it is in your hands and God's."

"Thank you, my friend."

"Now, I suggest we all get a lot of sleep tonight, for there will be none tomorrow."

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