Chapter Sixty-Four: Part 2

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The ground rushed silently away, the people below shrinking in size until Sally could no longer see their awed expressions. The parade grounds from which they had ascended no longer seemed enormous as the city came into view all around — Government House in its gardens, blocks of buildings divided by wide avenues and mean alleys, all dwindling in size as the balloon rose. Smoke from a million fires gathered in clouds, through which she caught glimpses of the warehouses along the river and the river itself, snaking through the city with ships like bathtub toys floating at anchor. Here and there, courtyards and gardens marked the homes of the wealthy or exotic temples, with their domes reaching high above the surrounding roofs.

The roar of the city, such a constant background noise that Sally barely noticed it, diminished to a low hum, and all around the country-side, with its fields and its jungles, came into view.

Sally was barely aware of Maddox and his assistant exchanging terse comments as they brought the ascent to a halt, or of her two female companions gushing to one another and to Maddox about everything they saw.

Leaning as far over the side of the balloon as she dared, she drank in everything she could see — from the vault of the heavens obscured directly above by the great expanse of the balloon, to the patchwork below. If only Toad could be here to share it with her! He would love it.

All too soon, Maddox gave the command to turn off the flame and release some of the air from the balloon, and they began to drop, suddenly shifting sideways when a wind blew up out of nowhere.

"Damn!" Maddox said, then, "my apologies, ladies. There is nothing to be alarmed about, but we won't land where I planned."

***

It was a crisp, dry dusk when Toad's carriage pulled up at il conte Fratini's castello. It had been a rough ride over rutted roads, but it would be weeks before the tides were again timed so well. It was pure luck—or fate—that Fratini had fallen into Piero's trap so quickly. As soon as Toad arrived, he was assigned a suite, and his valet a room with their servants, then provided a hot bath by Franks in his temporary dressing room.

Beginning as he was escorted to the drawing room before dinner by a footman, Toad gave gifts to everyone he encountered: a gold piece for the butler and silver for the footmen and ribbons for the maids, a large package of best marzipan to send back to the cook and chocolates for the kitchen skivvies. He'd brought bolts of rich Cantonese silk and Flanders lace for the Fratini ladies and a book for Fratini that they had discussed briefly over cards, during a moment when Toad had forgotten to act like a brainless fop.

"Chalmers makes sense, for an American. Plain Truth, indeed. We never should have allowed the rebels to thwart the king as they did. I am surprised you haven't read this. It made d'Alvieri burn when I gave it to him. The radical d'Alvieri, I mean, not his more sound-minded brother."

Fratini promised to read it before they next met, allowed he might have misjudged Piero and looked forward to speaking to him further, then escorted Toad into the drawing room to make introductions to the younger Fratini girls. They were all as frosty as their sister, which was to say, as rude as they could be without incurring any more reprimand from their brother than a frown. They seemed as good at skirting that line as Almyra and Sally were, but the dukes were more indulgent than the count.

All through dinner, Toad repeated the same basic braggadocio as he had yammered at Chiara in the carriage: his net worth, all the things he owned, or would own once he was the duke, his aversion to ugly Englishwomen and preference for hot-blooded Mediterranean girls, and what very pretty girls the last count and his wife had made between them. "Bodes well for your ladies and their future husbands, Fratini, does it not? One would hate to have a funny-looking heir."

After dinner, he spent the entirety of the informal concert leering at Chiara at the harp and muttering inappropriate compliments to her brother about the lucky instrument to be cradled by her curves, pouring glass after glass of brandy into a potted plant, making sure to spill some on his clothes and steadily increasing the slur in his words.

When the ladies finished and retired, Toad poured another brandy and asked to speak candidly with Fratini.

"Of course."

"I think it plain I wish to marry your sister, but I have little time. I will be called home any day, and once that happens, I do not know when I will be able to return to Italy, even as I maintain my estate here. I wonder if you would be averse to a... different sort of transaction."

"She has said she will not marry you, Abersham. She is adamant. I have influence, but she does not need my consent."

"But you would like to keep her from marrying Arturo d'Alvieri."

A deep growl was the only response to that.

"As would I. That heathen has no idea how to appreciate such a noble form. I can offer you, say... a thousand shares of Seventh Sea stock and a thousand of Delphinus, should you be willing to use your influence with your sister. That pays out good dividends quarterly, or I have brought a cash settlement with me, but I will only pay it once."

"She will not, Abersham. She will not do it, no matter how much you offer me. Those were her words."

"I have an answer for that, but it will not be to your liking."

"What is that?"

"I am here for the night. Were you to let me into her room and catch us there, then turn her out, her only choices will be ruin or marriage to a wealthy future duke who spends more than half his time at sea."

"Or the convent where she was raised."

"Without a tribute to buy her way in? It should be an easy argument to win, especially for the daring hero who rescues her from cruel fate."

"You are right. I do not like it. You slaver over her like a dog, and I have heard of your excesses in Paris. I cannot leave Chiara alone with you. You will defile her in an instant."

"I am a gentleman, you know. I can be counted upon to keep my word. I swear to you, I shall restrain myself to only the motions of seduction. If you give me fifteen minutes, during which I shall endeavour to secure her agreement, she will not be so reluctant, I assure you."

Fratini sat back, sipping his grappa and said nothing for long moments.

As though he were intimidated, Toad said, "Were I not in such a hurry to be back to England, I would never suggest such a thing, and I would never treat my wife so callously. She will be a bloody duchess, for God's sake. One doesn't treat a duchess with contempt."

Fratini looked him up and down and sat forward. "Nor does one treat a count's sister so."

Toad held up his hand. "I swear, I will be entirely circumspect. All we need is the appearance of the thing to convince her."

Pouring two more glasses of brandy, Fratini agreed, "If we can come to agreement on the marriage settlements, I will give you ten minutes. I should like to discuss your offer of stock. I will need more."

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