Chapter Sixty-Eight: Part 3

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By midday, he was at his own dining table, with Piero at his elbow and Blakeley refusing to sit, bringing himself current with the state of things, and preparing to act as steward on land for the next six months, as well as the Managing Agent.

"The adornment of the villa is complete, Your Lordship, and your tenants' holdings have been repaired and improved."

Piero rolled his eyes. "They are not tenants; they are peasants."

"That attitude is what has brought Italy to the brink, and why England will avoid it. Have you arranged the school, Blakeley? Lady Sarah will have my head if there is no school in a village for which I am responsible."

"I have, my lord, but I'm afraid the tenants are... wary of improvements."

"How can they be, when Arturo has been their lord? Is he not the most indulgent lord in Italia? I am sure I have heard it said."

"They do not trust you yet, Abersham," Piero explained, "and are wary of Grecian travellers bearing gifts. You will be here six months; you can add befriending our peasants to your list of things to do, though I suggest you remain watchful for pitchforks. I will vouch for you before I leave, at least with those who have known me from birth."

"Which is to say, all of them over the age of two."

"Precisely so."

"My lords, I do not wish to cut the discussion short, but as we have not hired a majordomo for this house yet, I am forced to take on double duty."

"Yes, Blakeley. Do whatever you must; you need not concern yourself with offending me. And increase the wage, if it will help you find a man."

"My thanks, Your Lordship." He bowed his way out.

"I will leave in two days' time, no matter what," Piero warned as Toad chose an apple from the bowl Blakeley had left on the tea table. "I am already a sennight behind schedule. This is Sevilla oranges, not bolts of silk. The timing is imperative, and they will baulk if they believe us unreliable, cousins or no. I sent a note ahead when I arrived here, telling them my plans. If you were not here tomorrow, I would have left anyway."

"Tell me how you fared in Africa."

"Ah, Africa was excessively lucrative for us all, Abersham, which I shall explain in detail over ledgers and brandy. But more to the point, my friend, I have news from England."

"England? How can you have news from England?"

"I made a stop in on my route home."

Toad stared at him from under knotted brows. "You returned to Italy from North Africa by way of London? The London in England? The city where my parents spend half the year?"

"The very one."

"Were you magically blown that far off course in a storm?"

"No... I... I heard from a reliable source there were several vulnerable Seventh Sea cargoes expected in close proximity. Only a few extra weeks, and I was able to check on the warehouses Firthley bought and said he outfitted—which he hadn't in the fashion we require, by the by, so I did—and I bought four shiploads of goods destined for your mother's storerooms, which sold for twice what I paid for them."

"Did you pay a call at Dalrymple House? You didn't tell my mother you were in town poaching her business, did you?"

Piero scoffed. "Of course I did not tell her. And yes, I did visit your family, as I wished to bring you as much news as I could about your Sally."

"I see." Toad raised one of his brows. "Did you visit my sister while you were there?"

Piero flushed. "Lady Almyra was there; it is her home. She sends you her love. And I have letters from them all."

"And are you able to bring me news of Sally?"

Piero rose to pour Toad a brandy, and the longer he waited to speak, the narrower Toad's eyes became. Finally, Toad snapped, "What is it? Has she married?"

Handing him the brandy, Piero said, slowly, "No. No, she has not married. And from rumour, she is not yet betrothed."

Toad jumped up, the brandy glass rocking as he hastily left it on the table. "Not yet betrothed? Betrothed?"

"Not yet, Abersham. Not yet. She has been spending time with a Lord Maddox, another cousin, I am told?"

Toad rubbed a hand across his face. "I hadn't even thought of Maddox; he's been away so long. She would never have come across him in England."

"No, she would not. They met during her travels. They have been seen looking at the stars with a telescope. And working together on calculations of some sort, with instruments."

Toad's face blanched and mouth fell open. "No. Oh, no. I have dreaded this."

"Dreaded what? You just said you had not considered him."

"It didn't have to be him. My only real competitors for her affections will be men who accept—or worse yet, understand—her intellect, which is more intelligent than mine by half. That's why her cousins are so dangerous; none would try to clip her wings.  But in my favor, none of them can understand mathematics or astronomy much better than I. Except Lord Bloody Maddox. She sent me a whole letter once raving about some paper he wrote for the Astronomical Society. He has three university degrees earned in three different languages—and his Cambridge first is more distinguished than my honors from business school, I assure you. He'd have taken a professorship at the University of France if he hadn't found a backer for a balloon expedition from Paris to Bombay, and he hasn't been home since."

"Ballooning? How novel," Piero said, and Toad just growled at him.

"He invented some balloon basket thingamajig that made him a bloody mint before he was even out of school. Lord Maddox is smarter than anyone I've ever known—except Sal. This is a bloody disaster."

Piero blessedly did not try to convince Toad it wasn't really that bad. "I am sorry to bring you such unwelcome news."

For a moment, Toad contemplated commissioning a Delphinus ship to take him to Sally, but then thought about the cost of taking a ship out of rotation, and the cost of what Toad would look like, set down right next to Lord Maddox for Sally to choose between, and groaned.

"I know Maddox, Piero, and not just from childhood; we met again at Cambridge when he was teaching there." Toad winced. "He arranged the assistantship with the don whose desk I was removed from with two chambermaids, directly before I was removed from school." His grimace drawing even tighter, he added, "He's never had his say on it, either."

Piero managed not to snort, but only by spare degrees, his choking laughter cut off at the sight of Toad's narrowed eyes.

"He used to be a scrawny little thing, not aword to say to anyone unless it was about a book, which never would havediscouraged Sally, but at least showed me in a more positive light. But notanymore. After all his acclaim for his bloody balloon, he speaks to anyone hechooses on any topic, and when he does, they listen, no matter who they are. Heis, quite literally, the only man on earth I have ever counted a serious threatfor Lady Sarah's hand, and I cannot tell you how happy I was when he leftEngland to travel."    

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