Chapter Sixty-six: Part 1

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Toad had been in Greece a month and was feeling the pressure of the end of his time here. He would have to speak to Piero about extending the rotations, for three months was not long enough to accomplish anything, especially when travel was required at either end. For the fifth day in a row, he'd been hard at work in his office since before dawn, after leaving near midnight the night before. Franks knocked on his office door. "Your Lordship, you have a messenger waiting at the house."

"The house? Why would anyone come to the house in the middle of the day? Does no one have an occupation but me? Tell someone to bring him here."

"Your Lordship... er..."

Toad sighed and put down his pen. "What is it, Franks? Please just spit it out."

"The messenger is from the king, my lord."

"The king? The King of...?"

"Greece, my lord. The King of Greece. King Otto has sent you a message, and the messenger will put it in no hand but yours."

"Well, that is certainly an odd turn," Toad said, rising from his chair and pulling on his jacket. "I had not even thought I needed to present myself in his court during this visit. The Andreadises are not nobles, and I am not here in any official capacity yet."

"He seems to have heard you are here nonetheless."

"Clearly. I suppose I will come to the house, then. Royals and their retainers do have the most obnoxious ways of disturbing a man's life."

"Thankfully, my lord, I will never know personally."

They arrived at the house to the sight of a coach-and-six with two footmen and four outriders. And the 'messenger' was one of the king's personal secretaries. Toad was asked to present himself at the new palace in Athens immediately. "I can allow you until morning, if you must make arrangements for a week's absence."

A week's absence, of the four he had left before he must leave things in the hands of people he knew only by their connection to or reputation with his cousins?

"Well, then. I suppose we will leave in the morning if a king demands it. However, I must beg your indulgence of every moment of the time you offer. If you will excuse me, I was in the midst of arrangements that must be tied up before I can remove myself for so long. Franks can see you to a room, and I will see you at first light."

The next afternoon, after a full-speed drive across the countryside, and enough time for Franks to provide a bath, shave, and new suit of clothes, Toad was summoned to a private audience with the king.

***

Penchley's previous trip to Albert Island, the second largest island in the group, had been as part of the Haverford entourage. Albert Island acted as the major port for the archipelago, since it had a natural deep harbour in the sunken crater that had once been a volcano. The short crossing between it and Victoria Island was made in smaller vessels, with larger cargoes dragged across on barges.

Last time, they'd travelled on a sunny day, in ornately carved canoes, surrounded by dozens of other small vessels carrying a crowd of happily chattering people all in their best clothes, many of them garlanded in flowers. They'd docked at the largest wharf, and processed into a warehouse hastily cleaned and decorated to make a suitable reception hall. The harbourmaster, Captain Franchett, had led the welcoming committee, the local natives only reluctantly ceded a part in the reception, and the denizens of the settlement's underbelly remained completely hidden.

This visit was very different.

The trip across the channel that separated the two islands was made at night, and in a rowboat. He had hired the boat and its crew for the trip, and chosen a cloudy night, so they were shrouded in darkness as they moved towards the lights of the port, with only the sound of the oars and the waves to break the silence.

This time, Penchley's boat slipped up to a dock on the far side of the harbour from the port, and he was handed over to a ruffian whose scars, tattoos and muscles proclaimed him the enforcer for the man Penchley had come to meet.

The lowlife who met him at the wharf insisted on blindfolding him before leading him along a twisting route until eventually he found himself climbing a set of wooden stairs, warned of the first a fraction too late to prevent him from stumbling and bruising his shin, but prevented from falling by the firm grip his escort had on his arm.

The passage from outside to in was marked by a change in the temperature, the fierce heat of the day giving way to a gentler warmth. The guiding hands pulled him to a stop and someone began fumbling with his blindfold. In moments, he could see the room, built native style of cane and woven palm fronds, but furnished with European furniture. Three sides were open from waist-height to the breeze. He glanced quickly at the view: beach and ocean on one side, jungle opposite, and on the side by which he had entered, open scrubby land between this place and the sprawling shacks that marked the perimeter of the port. A finger of land stuck out into the sea, masking his view of the port itself, but here and there low enough that a tall mast stuck up to mark the position of the harbour.

"Mr Penchley, I believe." The voice, slightly accented, came from behind him. Penchley turned to face the only full wall of the room, this one finished and papered in European style, and fitted with a panelled wooden door that presumably led to the rest of the building.

Behind a large wooden desk sat an Asian man in an opulent oriental robe, a hefty guard either side of the chair, bringing the total number of 'heavies' in the room to four. The one in the shadowy corner was particularly ugly; a misshapen lump of a nose, one eye concealed by a patch and the other side of his face disfigured by a scar that made Penchley wince and look away.

"Are you the one they call 'the duke'?" Penchley asked the man behind the desk.

The Chinaman inclined his head. "You may address me as such. You wish to purchase something that I am selling?" he asked.

Penchley put his hand over the bundle of papers he'd secreted inside his jacket. "I am told that you can supply someone who can copy the handwriting in a letter so well that even the person who wrote it would swear the hand was his own."

The Chinaman allowed a small smile to shape the mouth under his thin moustache. "Most services are available to those who can meet the price," he acknowledged. "What do you wish to have copied, Mr Penchley?"

Penchley pulled the letters from his jacket — those he'd abstracted from the diplomatic mail, and those he'd written to replace them. "I need the originals rewritten," he explained, "with the same handwriting, but using the words written here." He spread them out, each new draft with the letter it would replace. A letter each from the Duchess of Wellbridge, Lady Sutton, Mrs Tarrington, and the young Lord Aldridge. Two letters from that dog Harburn. This would not be cheap, but a man had to invest in his future.

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