(1308-10-08) Provocateurs
Summary: Autumn 1308. The Dancer boards and takes a slavers' ship in a daring midnight raid several hundred nautical miles off the coast of Aragonia at the behest of a regular client, the Lady Isabelle de Valais. Alcibiades Rousse leads the charge, assisting her in paying the blood price for something she is determined to get back at all costs, but in the doing realizes that the imperious couturiere that he has known for years may be more than meets the eye. WARNING: BLOOD AND VIOLENCE
RL Date: October 8, 2018
Related: None
isabelle alcibiades 

The Open Seas

There is nothing but open water here for miles.


AUTUMN, 1308
THE OPEN SEAS, SEVERAL HUNDRED NAUTICAL MILES OFF THE COAST OF ARAGONIA

The moment the ambush commences, battle erupts at a furious pace.

The winds favors the Dancer today and had it been blowing in a different direction, it may not have been able to catch up to its quarry, a ship with black sails whose name trips the tongue. Jaime had told him that it meant something like Good Fortune in the native dialects of Jebe-Barkal, observed with a wry tone and the grim lift upon the corners of a hard mouth. Good fortune, indeed, when a chase above the water is afoot.

The Dancer has managed to pull up alongside the slavers' ship, prow-to-prow and racing along blue waters rendered endless by the cover of night. The skies are overcast, the light of the moon enshrouded by black clouds - another reason why the other ship had not glimpsed its approach until it was too late. The Dancer's crew had doused the lanterns to propagate the fiction that there was nothing and no one there. Soon, it was inevitable that there will be no escaping their pursuers - the crew of the other ship has seen this sort of action plenty, and now was the time to fight or die amidst damp and brine.

The boarding planks slam into place, bridging both ships and the cascade of bodies pour from one vessel to another. Smoke rises when lanterns are tipped over, smashing into pieces on the deck. One manages to catch the edge of tarp covering much coveted cargo.

The world dwindles down in a cacophony of clashing metal and the spurt of crimson from malleable human bodies that find swords all too easily. Marine engagements such as this one are chaotic things and nothing so flowery or romantic as the mendacants tell it; it is bloody and filthy, shouted epithets freely mingling with the horrified screams of the dying. There are many of these slavers, who ply their trade in the world's most forgotten corners, though most of them are hardly formally trained men - their prowess with blades and bows have been cultivated by the hammer of a dangerous profession.

Alcibiades would identify the captain of the brigands, easily. He is the only one with a coat, however dirtied and ruined by the day's toil, his hat long since skewered off his head by an arcing sword-swing that has taken it clean off his head and sent it flying. He is also larger than the rest.

Much larger, his shadow dwarfs the front of the ship's bow.

And there's an entire sea of fighting men before someone can get to him.

The crew of The Dancer are merchantmen, but they are a special breed of merchant-sailors — men and women who know very well that, if the circumstances were reversed, it would be the slaver ambushing them in the dark night. Men who chose to throw their lots in with a captain like Athene Lesse. The battle might have been lopsided in other circumstances, but these were men who had fought off pirates in the vast corners of the world. They know their business, and they come across the slavers' decks like good'uns, boarding her at stem and stern.

Alcibiades Rousse is first mate among this crew of hardened adventurers, and he owes it to them to lead from the fore. He's roaring like a lion, a guttural shout that owes nothing to any language of men. A slaver appears before him in the press, and Alcibiades smashes at him with the hilt of his cutlass, kicks out at his knee, drives past him. His eyes are on the Captain. He wants him. But there are so many obstacles in his path. Perhaps — yes.

Alcibiades suddenly cuts sideways through the melee, making for a stay. His strategy seems both obvious and insane — he's intending to scale the rigging, fly over the fight and cut the head off this snake.

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Ranged: Good Success. (3 5 2 1 1 8 6 3 7)

It is insane, if not just because he has absolutely no idea where he will end up. But he does it anyway.

An arrow flies, however, to assist him in his progress from deck to rigging, a blade narrowly missing a deadly cleave that would have given him a deep slice from the back of the knee and down the calf, the slaver going down with hands going around his throat, choking through the shaft that has speared through his artery. It comes from either nowhere or everywhere; smoke has started to rise from the tarp that has caught on fire, gradually spreading over the deck, though not enough to be a danger to the ship itself, though it can't be said for the bodies that fight along it. A few of Alcibiades' crew members manage to kick a slaver or two in the growing conflagration, their cries erupting from their mouths before they elect to save themselves by throwing their bodies into the drink - and really, if one looks down from the rails, they would already find a few there, bobbing helplessly in the water.

He would be successful in that, at least. His boot finds rope and he's able to fly, but battles hardly go as one visualizes. He'd catch a glimpse of silver in his flight, the disarmed scimitar of a slaver sent flying by Jaime, a deadly whirling projectile that slices at the rope from which he swings. It drops Alcibiades in the middle of the roaring throng, a few feet away from his quarry, but he has other problems now when three of the enemy crew lunge for him one after another.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Good Success. (4 4 2 5 8 7 5 3)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Good Success. (4 8 4 6 1 2 1 5 7)

Skylarking has always been a passion of Alcibiades, swinging and sliding across the rigging. It's usually a sport taken up by the youngsters aboard any ship, but even in his thirties, Alcibiades can be seen many evenings flying like a monkey as he leaps from spar to spar. So it's at least the right line that he seizes, and his rush through the air might have worked perfectly were it not for Jaime's skill at arms.

As it is, the first mate of The Dancer goes somersaulting through the air. He tightens into a ball, rolling forward as the three men come charging in his direction. Coming up into a crouch, Alcibiades slashes wildly with his cutlass to buy time. Splinters fly as a scimitar digs into the deck where he was a moment before. But his cutlass finds a mark — the inner thigh of one of the three men.

Alcibiades rips it three, blood spraying, and wheels to face the next. He cuts up fast and hard, splitting the man's face open from the chin upward. Some instinct makes him swerve, and the third man's blade catches his coat, ripping it but not finding flesh. Alcibiades takes his hand off at the wrist, then — while the slaver gapes at his spurting limb — drives his cutlass into his chest.

He places a boot on the man's chest, yanks his blade free, and roars a challenge. Alcibiades is covered in blood now, the flames from the tarp casting him in a horrific, orange light. His shadow stretches across the deck as he advances on the Captain. From somewhere in the press, Jaime can be heard answering the roar. "ON! ON, you whoreson buggers!" And the sailors of The Dancer advance with a fresh roar, trying to cut their way through the slavers.

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Dodge: Great Success. (3 5 7 7 8 4 7 1)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Blades: Good Success. (7 7 6 6 2 2)

From the upper decks of The Dancer is a tall, slim figure swathed in black. There is no cloak, nothing for the sea breeze to flutter and from this distance, its gender would be indiscernable; a black, fitted long-sleeved shirt dones the silhouette, snug breeches and boots that pull all the way up past the knee and over the lower thighs, with heels thin enough to punch holes through a body. There is a scarf obscuring hair and framing a largely-hidden face, dark eyes with gold flecks gleaming like a cat's in the shadows.

Slim fingers encased in a bowman's gauntlet lowers, clutching a black bow - well-loved, and well-used. An even taller shadow flanks her from behind, also dressed in black, but with white accents - but unlike the first, he is clearly male, with distinguished Aragonian features and salt-and-pepper hair.

Those eyes track the flow of battle, before the largely anonymous form of Isabelle de Valais turns her head. "Help them, Guillermo," she murmurs.

There is open hesitation on the man's features, but this is brief; the stoic man affords the lady a bow instead before slinking back into the darkness, to do what he is bid. She is never without him, this largely silent man who looks after her with all the staunch devotion a father might have for a daughter, but their relationship has always been one of the Valais' family's more hidden secrets.

One of the slavers in the drink manages to pull himself up from underneath the prow, leaping over the rail and bearing down on her, as if sensing the man's departure. The curve of his blade glints wickedly in the light.

She doesn't appear to hold much apprehension when she takes a sidestep, dropping her bow immediately on the deck, and as the man rises, she's already moving, a step and another causing her to twist right into the man's blind side. A hidden dagger emerges from between deft fingers, plunging it into the back of his neck. With a gurgle, the slaver goes down in a heap.

Reaching out, she hefts up the black bow again in search of another target.

In the chaos above the deck, it is impossible to determine who is winning.

The Dancer's first mate, however, will not have much of a chance to appreciate the finer points of a skirmish. As fountains of blood erupt around him as one by one his attackers go down at the swipe of his sword, he'd be able to catch an opening left behind him - a clear path towards the slavers' captain, who has already eviscerated one of his crew and is going for more. He manages to seize another one of his men by the hair and his throat would have been slit were it not for the timely twist and punch Alcibiades' crewman delivers, forcing the big man to let him go. He falls backwards, and with hands and feet, he attempts to scramble away.

He got lucky the first time, but there may not be a repeat.

The Captain finds his sword and stalks the slimmer man as he attempts to get away from him, lips peeled back in a snarl, muscles bunched with adrenaline and bloodlust. He has already killed a few tonight and chances are, he will not stop until everyone from the other boat is dead.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Good Success. (1 1 1 8 3 5 7 7)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Success. (3 2 6 2 5 7 2 5 3)

Alcibiades sees the body of a friend on the deck, a man he's sailed with for ten years. The grief and rage that grip him might have caused him to turn on the nearest slaver, but for this — another friend is in trouble, being pursued by a massive brute. All around them, the skirmish rages. There is simply no time for revenge. This is the occasion for heroism.

Alcibiades has a flair for heroism. He knows how to present himself, instinctively; he doesn't need to think about it, merely to let himself be…himself. As the enemy captain stalks forward, Alcibiades swaggers out of the flame-lit skirmish to meet him, casually bestriding his crewman's legs as the man crawls backward.

He raises his cutlass in a formal salute, adopting a fencer's stance — and before ever waiting for a response, turns that stance into a slashing lunge that attempts to get inside the giant's reach and cripple his sword-arm. It would have been a brilliantly dishonorable blow — had it worked. But Alcibiades only manages to nick the man's wrist. And now there is going to be a true fight.

The Captain's progress is halted when the first mate of The Dancer rises to meet him; the crewman crawling away throws Alcibiades a grateful look before he moves away further - not to retreat, made out of sterner stuff than most who operate merchant vessels, but to find another weapon and continue the fight.

The big man halts, dark eyes finding the salute aimed for his direction - but experience has always been an unforgiving teacher and he already knows what is coming before it even begins. For someone so large, towering Alcibiades' own not-insignificant height, he can move like the wind if he wants - a few drops fall from the cat-scratch delivered on his wrist, his shoulder leaning back and twisting away.

"You're cocky," says the man, his common laced with a thick accent. "For a man who's about to die."

And with that, he swings his sword.

It is akin to parrying a heavy metal mast with just how much strength is behind the blow, force and physics thrumming down the length of it and threatening to leave Alcibiades' grip completely. It might very well take the man off his feet. Sparks fly from the crush of metal against metal as the Captain advances and presses his advantage, the large, curved blade reaching in an attempt to cleave whatever he can find that manages to slip out of his opponent's defense - an arm, a shoulder, a few fingers.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Good Success. (7 2 5 7 4 6 6 3)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Good Success. (2 7 4 6 7 8 2 6 6)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 6: Great Success. (7 8 7 3 1 7)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 9: Good Success. (2 3 3 2 7 2 3 8 7)

Once, when Alcibiades was fifteen, he borrowed money from his mother to hire a weaponsmaster. Perfectly respectable thing for a young noble to do. But instead of hiring a fencing instructor, Alcibiades hired a recently-discharged marine that he'd befriended in a seaside tavern. That marine didn't teach him to duel, he taught him to kill — to crush insteps, to smash windpipes, to take advantage of every mistake and every opportunity. That marine — Jaime Daur — is busily working his trade in the slaughterhouse that has become the slaver's ship.

And meanwhile, Alcibiades has his own business to deal with. He grits his teeth, but the man is stronger than he looks — he doesn't lose his cutlass to that first sweeping blow. Twisting, he tries to slice the captain's monstrous thigh open, but the bigger man dodges backward. It buys Alcibiades time, however — the next blow would have disemboweled him, else. Alcibiades manages to meet the captain's sword at an angle, deflecting it without bearing the full brunt this time. He grins at the bigger man, eyes flashing with genuine delight. This is thrilling!

"I am," he agrees, "Very cocky."

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 6: Success. (4 6 6 6 7 1)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 9: Success. (1 4 3 2 4 7 5 4 6)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Failure. (2 6 4 4 2 1 2 5)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Good Success. (3 3 4 7 1 4 8 5 5)

"And about to die," the Captain replies, a grin splitting his lips.

With a roar, he skids forward, his mountainous frame shifting from impregnable wall to unstoppable force, but there is a reason why some of the best duelists in Terre d'Ange prefer speed to strength. The angle of the Captain's sword tilts, to bounce reflecting light off its blood-soaked surface to sear, briefly, on Alcibiades' eyes. A dirty trick in a fight already full of them, he manages to find an opening in the first mate's defenses - his sword kisses the meat of his shoulder and slices down, leaving crimson drops at his wake.

But the injury is not as grievous as he intends.

Cold steel biting into flesh is not a feeling that any man grows accustomed to - the fiery tearing, the sensation of muscle ripping. But Alcibiades saw the blow coming, managed to roll his shoulder away from it just enough to keep the strike from disabling him entirely. It's a flesh wound — one that is quickly turning his jacket red with blood, but not one that will kill him. And that means that there is an opportunity here.

Instead of retreating from the huge man, as the captain might inspect, Alcibiades steps inside his guard and delivers a hammer-blow with the hilt of his cutlass to the man's jaw. A lesser figure might be felled by it, but this behemoth merely stumbles a step back — allowing the first mate of The Dancer to follow through by sweeping his cutlass down the man's chest, cutting through cloth and muscle. Fatal? Perhaps not. But the scales are more than balanced.

"Not," he grits, "Just yet."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Success. (7 1 3 4 5 1 5 2)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Good Success. (5 6 3 3 7 7 6 4 4)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 6: Good Success. (7 7 8 2 6 5)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 9: Good Success. (4 4 8 1 4 8 2 1 6)

He staggers back at the blow against his jaw, and even more when the cutlass brands him with another scar to add upon the mesh already on his chest. Blood blossoms like flowers from the front of his shirt. Shoulders rise and fall from the intake of staggered breaths.

Not just yet, Alcibiades says, and had he the room for it, the Captain would be laughing, to add another terrible sound upon the gruesome battle that has erupted across the ship. It is difficult to say whether the tide has turned for either side in this case, both crews equally matched - surprising enough, for a merchant vessel, that they are able to hold their own against some of the worst that the seas have to offer. But in the end, that ought to be expected - the oceans are unforgiving mistresses and filled to the brim with predators.

Some bigger than most, as The Dancer's first mate is presently experiencing.

"Let's see how long you last, then," the big man replies. "What kind of challenge your lot presents - pretty man from the land of whores."

And with that last taunt, he moves.

The painful rending of the muscles on his front doesn't seem to impede him, fueled by adrenaline and the drive to kill; to fight or die, the brutal calculus that most fighting men have been forced to make peace with early in their lives. He sidesteps, to parry the next strike coming for him - and he succeeds, twisting his body and levering one shoulder like a battering ram, slamming into Alcibiades in an effort to knock him off balance. His blade whirls from right hand to left, and with a slanting slash, he delivers a mimic of the same blow given to him just minutes before, cutting apart the front of the Rousse lord's shirt and the muscles and sinew beneath it.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Dodge: Failure. (5 6 4 2 1 1 2 1)

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Blades: Great Success. (3 7 5 7 1 7 8 4 8)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls 6: Failure. (6 1 6 1 3 6)

That bastard of a captain doesn't merely cut sinew and flesh. Sinew and flesh can be regrown. When the shirt is torn, Alcibiades' torso is revealed to be a web of tattoos — a dozen at least, almost completely covering his flesh in places. And the slaver has marred three of them. Blood runs down, soaking Alcibiades' best wool breeches — always dress well for battle, so that you make a beautiful corpse — and causing the Rousse lord to stumble sideways into the rail of the ship.

He grips the rail with his free hand, gritting his teeth. No. Alcibiades Rousse does not die this way, an embarrassed corpse at the hands of a giant. That would be far too.. common. This thought brings the smile back to his face. If this is his end.. well, he will not die cringing.

He pushes back off the rail. There is one chance, and there is no defense if he fails. It's time for a roll of the dice. Well, he's always been lucky. In a surprisingly fluid motion, martialling all his strength, Alcibiades clambers atop the rail and spins. As the slaver captain advances, Alcibiades leaps toward the other man, his cutlass driven out before him. This move exists in absolutely no fencing text, and perhaps that's why it works. As his cutlass drives into the other man's windpipe, Alcibiades' feet slam into his chest and bear him down onto the deck.

Their blood mingles, the ultimate bond between two men. Alcibiades draws his cutlass out and looks down at his dying opponent. "This kind of challenge," he says softly, almost sadly. And drives his cutlass into the giant's eye.

It is over in the blink of an…well, eye.

It's never a good idea to insult a person regarding the land of their birth and even moreso to call a man pretty when he is anything but. And so what happens next is something very few have ever seen in their lives. In a feat that would astonish most acrobats, the Rousse lord manages to whirl over the rail and leap - the crush of one body to another is enough that even the big man staggers a step, the cutlass burying right into his throat and leaves whatever insults he has left a bloody gurgle in the back of a leaking throat. He stumbles over another corpse and sprawls backwards, choking.

And with the point of his sword through the eye, The Dancer's first mate ends the fight decisively - not just between himself and the slavers' captain, but the entire skirmish aboard the vessel that carries the name of Good Fortune.

Unfortunately, the blessings of the moniker appear to apply elsewhere.

….

..

.

It takes several more hours to finish the night's operation. As The Dancer makes its easy drift towards friendlier waters, the slavers' ship has been sunk, what remains of its crew manacled and imprisoned in whatever functions as the vessel's brig. The few captives on board, two children, three women and a man, have been given over to be seen to by the crew. And the person they have come for, someone important to the lady who had brought this trouble to Alcibiades and his capable crew in the first place, has already been examined by the on-board chirurgeon, presently asleep and recovering from the toils he has endured.

Isabelle is below decks, her scarf removed but kept in the same black garb she had worn while she was picking off a path for herself from the decks of The Dancer before slipping through the skirmish like a shadow, to reach the dank underbellies of the slavers' ship to take stock of its human cargo. Whoever had not been up above decks fighting with the rest, she dispatched with the cold efficiency of a woman who has no qualms emerging from the darkness to wield a blade, and kill as swiftly and silently when she needs to.

There is blood in her hands; symbolic, really, for everything she has done for her duchesse and her country. Elegant fingers, lightly kissed by the sun, dive into a bowl of cold, clean water, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her dark hair is bound by pins - braided, then coiled within itself.

He has known her for a few years, an oftentimes passenger to parts unknown - a couturiere of growing international repute - where she regularly haunts foreign courts. Friendly, quick with her wit and an able conversationalist, those last few voyages have been filled with her colorful talk and unbridled independence. They say that she is wealthy in her own right, despite being the niece of the Comte de Digne, not beholden whatsoever to her family's fortune to maintain her lifestyle - a professed lover of different cultures, and a not-untalented polyglot.

Or so she says.

She claims to be d'Angeline and if one looks very closely, he would see it, the fine, delicate stamp of the blood of angels of her features, however disguised by the warmer hues that run dominant in the Royal House of Aragon; dark hair, dark eyes, irises chipped with gold and with a slightly more sun-kissed complexion than typical of the trueblooded scions of the Companions - a far cry, perhaps, from what could be found within the Rousse family tree.

Alcibiades spent time under the chirurgeon's needle as well, sewing back together his stomach and his shoulder. And he endured several hours of men congratulating him on the luckiest kill they've ever seen. And he endured a scolding from Jaime for putting himself in such a damn stupid position that he needed to do something suicidal just to survive.

But now, finally, he's come to see this woman who has, tonight, caused the death of several of the men who followed him into battle. Athene Lesse is not pleased. Coin is one thing — a lot of coin, truth be told — but she has reminded him in no uncertain terms that The Dancer is not a privateer.

"You owe me a new pair of britches," he remarks, addressing the woman in black without any rancor. He does seem depressed, however, despite the weak jest. He's speaking in lower-deck, which means that tonight he doesn't want to be a Rousse. "I'd take it outta that big bugger, but I already cost the poor bloke 'is left eye." Alcibiades had taken something from belowdecks on the slaver's ship, something he's refused to discuss. He's seemed haunted ever since. Now he approaches Isabelle, holding two glasses of brandy.

"Captain Lesse wants me t'tell you.. She's done. No more o'.. whatever this is." He presses his lips together for a moment before continuing. "I'll talk 'er round eventually."

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Psychology: Good Success. (8 6 2 7 6 1)

You owe me a new pair of britches.

Isabelle straightens up from her lean over the bowl, turning sideways to regard the man once he has breached the silence and solitude of this small space to address her. The lack of rancor is noted, but it is more than she deserves - had she been more forceful, this would not have happened in the first place. Perhaps what Guillermo says is true in the end; sentiment is the downfall of any woman mired in her profession.

Her real profession.

"That's easily handled," she tells him, keeping her voice light. "You know what I do to make my fortune, after all. I've spent many a night watching your eyes glaze over as I pondered colors and fabrics." Dark-and-gold eyes alight on the two glasses of brandy he had brought, and her expression softens considerably. He remembers.

The haunted look in his eyes doesn't escape her notice either, a woman who hardly misses anything.

She reaches over to take one of the tumblers, leaning against a barrel and cradling it in her hand. Having spent most of the battle on The Dancer and then below decks, she had seen what he had, though what may be telling is that there is nary a trace of whatever trauma that delivers on her features. Why is that when she is all but twenty-one years of age? Too young, certainly, to have developed those internal calluses.

"It was a rescue," she tells him. "And while I understand that no amount of coin can ever compensate the loss of good men, it had to be done. I'll speak with her later, once we're out of dark waters."

Watching his face for a moment, her smile lifts, however faintly at the corners of her mouth. "I've known you here and there for a while," she begins. "But you still somehow manage to surprise me. I had thought that the years doing what you do would have hardened you against humanity's filthiest atrocities." She takes a quiet sip of her brandy. "Between you and me, I'm relieved you're not."

"Doing what I do.." Alcibiades's tone is soft, thoughtful. He raises his brandy in a brief toast and takes a long sip. "I wonder — d'you think this is normal for us? Huntin' a ship, takin' her? You've seen me kill before tonight, so mebbe y'think that's all I do. But the truth is, madam, I'm a merchant. My men sail wi' me and wi' my Captain because we make them coin. We fight when we have to.." He swirls the brandy, looking down into it, and does not say the truth — that he loved that fight, loved the man he fought for giving him such a thrill. And perhaps that is what is driving this depression, this guilt.

"My father died a few months ago. Got a letter last time I was in port. The Dancer is sailin' to Marsilikos next, an' I'm to be takin' a leave of absense there. To help my family get settled." He clears his throat softly, winces, and looks over at Isabelle for a moment.

"I'm not a fool, madam." Suddenly, his voice has all the educated timbre of a Rousse after all. "I have known for some time that you are not merely a designer of beautiful clothing. I shall not ask, at this juncture, what it is that you actually are."

"But I wonder if I may ask this instead, for the blood I spilled on your behalf. Will you help me, in Marsilikos?"

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Perception: Good Success. (4 5 7 8 2 3 5 2)

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Politics: Good Success. (8 3 8 6 3 5 1)

Her faint smile hikes up a touch higher, brows lifting faintly as she regards him. "I'm younger than you," she points out. "I didn't think I looked so spent through the trip that I'd be called madame instead of miss."

Do you think this is normal for us?

It's a small detraction, an effort to keep things from sinking from the burdens they carry, but it is half-heartedly done and they return to the fringes of the purpose that has brought them here today. She shakes her head once. "If this was normal for you, I'd be less willing to trust you," Isabelle replies, lifting her glass on an answering toast before taking her first pull of the brandy, closing her eyes as the warmth of it blossoms over her chest before it hits her stomach. Tension that has marked her since their voyage bleeds out of her in increments. "But I don't need to tell you of the occasional necessity for good men to do unsavory things."

She falls quiet after that, her eyes away from him as they fix to the far wall. "You'll have to forgive me for not having the heart to take it all back. I would risk much…and more. Everything." Lashes lower to kiss the tops of her cheeks, her smile taking on a more rueful cast. "It might seem callous to you, too callous for a woman, maybe, and one so young as I, but it's true."

Her attention finally returns to Alcibiades, her head tilting, the gesture implicit with inquiry. But with the preface regarding family matters and the bold move to ask for a repayment for the blood price:

"I already paid the crew of The Dancer a small fortune for this endeavor," she reminds him. "For its skill and its discretion, though I sense that the undertaking that you propose is a more delicate and personal nature. With your father recently deceased, I assume that this has something to do with the fortunes and reputation of your own family now that the soul that has driven it to ruin is gone?"

There are no condolences offered for the news. The woman has heard enough of his past history to determine that his father had been terrible to him…perhaps Alcibiades had forgiven him, she doesn't know, but she has never been so forgiving of those who would harm or abuse any of the small circle that has earned pieces of her hard-to-win trust. That this midnight seafaring raid had occurred in the first place is testament enough to the fact.

She hasn't said yes, but she has not said no, either, indicative at the very least of a certain willingness to hear his proposal.

"Callous? No. You're not callous, miss. I am familiar with the sort of person who kills without regret. No, you're not callous. You are driven." Alcibiades delivers his verdict softly, watching Isabelle over the rim of his glass. Every now and then, a ghost of pain will flick across his features as he shifts his weight to match the movements of the ship. The strike that had come within inches of disemboweling him must be agony, but he masters it with every shallow breath.

"You did pay us. You paid us well. And there are some aboardship who will rejoice that the shares are larger now." The Rousse noble purses his lips for a moment, considering that, before continuing. "But I am renegotiating. Oh, you and your charge are safe enough. We would never renege on a deal. No. I am offering a new deal entirely."

Jaime would kill him for this. But this is family. One does what one must for one's family.

"Help me reconcile Michel and my mother with House Rousse. They've done no wrong. They do not deserve the scorn in which our father was held. Michel is barely keeping the creditors at bay, he tells me. My small fortunes are not enough to win him clear of my father's follies, and I'm told I have a nephew on the way." Alcibiades plunges in, reckless now, baring the secrets of a family that dangles over the precipice of disaster. "And my mother? She never deserved to be anchored to my father. She's a kind woman. Help me settle them. Michel can be useful to the Rousses. He's a smart man." A pause.

"Help me. And I will help you."

Miss, he addresses her, and Isabelle can't help but flash him a grin that is all cheek as he humors her.

Brief, however, like the sudden flaring of a particularly brilliant firework before it fades to the ether. Quick hands absently swirl the brandy around her tumbler, Isabelle watching his quietly determined expression. Her own face betrays nothing, neither softness nor sympathy, putting to question his earlier assumptions that she is in no way callous. He would be right, her nights are sleepless because she is not, but she doesn't make it obvious either and she can't help but wonder from what place is he able to make these accurate assessments of her character when he knows nothing about what she truly is or who she answers to.

But like he said, he is no fool and from what she can surmise based on her own deep and personal study of people and the things that drive them, there are a few reasons for that, and one simple, but important one.

She is rarely one to suffer the company of fools, also, much less take one to her more interesting endeavors.

His proposal is met in silence and she shifts, finally, her shoulder against the wall, one long leg bent slightly at the knee. An arm folds behind her back, snifter held aloft. "And you?" she wonders. "What do you get out of it, personally?"

After a moment, she continues: "You rarely go home. You'd rather be out in the wild, wonderful world plying your trade. You're attached to your brother and mother, but in the years I've known you, you've never put much stock behind your family name, and I assume they're doing well in spite of their detachment from the main family line, otherwise you wouldn't be as you are today - you'd have been preoccupied, I wouldn't have been witness to the look on your face when you tangled with the slavers' captain. You're content to be you, reckless, adventurous, independent and extravagant, in your own way. You're…"

…like me, she finishes silently, unable and unwilling to give voice to the words.

"…so why return to House Rousse?"

Alcibiades finishes his brandy in a single swallow. He breathes out slowly as the liquor burns its way down, then tilts his head up toward the planks of the deck above, uncomfortably low, forcing the tall seaman to stoop to avoid them. He squints absently, as though he can see through the deck to the sailors above. Men are, even now, plying their trade — knotting sliced rigging, scrubbing the decks, tending to the smooth management of the ship.

"What do I get out of it?" His echoed question is musing, as though he hasn't actually considered this question. Perhaps he hasn't — at times, Alcibiades is as whimsical as a cat, seizing onto some instinct and following it without ever understanding why. His killing of that giant slaver is a perfect example — no sane man would have chosen to attack in that way, but Alcibiades didn't choose. He simply followed his instincts.

"It frees me again, I think," he says after awhile. "Michel wrote me asking me for my help. The first time he's ever asked, you see. Of course, one doesn't abandon one's brother. So I must see it through. And yet — the quicker my family is safely disposed of, and my nephew's life guaranteed, the sooner I am free."

The words seem to surprise him. They sound — well, callous. Selfish. And yet he's willing to consign himself to a life in the shadows, blood-drenched, working for a woman whose purpose he does not know. There is conflict here. He lowers his head, looking directly at Isabelle, his long-planed features lightening in a crooked smile.

"And if that doesn't satisfy you, my dear lady, you may consider the appeal of Alcibiades Rousse as captain of his own ship."

The fact that he sounds like he hasn't even thought about how it would benefit him has Isabelle inclining her head in a manner that would remind him of a particularly curious or inquisitive bird. It is a small thing, insignificant in the overall picture, but enough to recalibrate her mental profile of him. The way she holds his gaze is an inscrutable thing, thoughts buttressed behind vaults as unforgiving as some of the most important treasure troves in the world. Whoever she is, whatever she is, she has mastered the art of being a seemingly open book….until it's time to decide that she is not.

It frees me again, I think.

Something flickers past her eyes at those words, though it may be a trick of the lamplight, and further assessments on the matter are impeded by the way she turns her body and leans against the wall again, tilting her head back until it rests against wood. She releases a long, drawn out exhale.

"Ahhh," she sighs, a sound brimming with rue. "What a pain."

They are words quietly delivered, though whether it is directed to him or to herself, it is difficult to say.

After a few more heartbeats, she rolls her head sideways, catching a glimpse of him from the corner of her eyes. "I'll do what I can," she tells him. "There may be a way, and really, it's the only way from my end, but I'll have to build the proper foundations for it. It might take a while, however, so I hope you understand that such a change will not occur overnight. It will take time, Cib. If you're looking for a more immediate way, I'm afraid I won't be able to supply that, but if patience is a virtue that you've held in the last few years…we could do this effectively, and in the right manner."

"May I show you something?" Without waiting, Alcibiades unlaces his shirt, tugging it down over his chest. Rather a bold move, but the man isn't stripping down in an attempt to impress Isabelle with his physique — a physique, let's face it, that's rather bruised and battered at the moment. He touches one of the many tattoos covering his chest, this one just below his collarbone. It's an albatross, sailing directly away from a ship that stands with empty sails. The albatross is huge, and the ship is tiny, the scale all out-of-balance. The tattoo is a masterwork of detail when it comes to the bird, and barely line-art when it touches the ship.

"I got this one after the first time I was caught in the doldrums. Do you know the doldrums, Isabelle?" It's the first time he's ever explained a tattoo, in the years they've known each other. It's the first time he's ever addressed her by her first name. "The wind dies. For days. Weeks, sometimes. It's a band of dead air, near the equator. Sometimes far further north than one expects."

He's looking at Isabelle as he speaks, locking eyes with her, trying to impart something. "It's funny. When your ship is still, drifting in the sea, you feel it more. Even men like me get seasick sometimes, in the doldrums. The waves grow to such a height that sometimes they capsize ships. We have no way to maneuver through them, you see." He smiles suddenly.

"That first time? We ran out of water. We collected dew from the sails and rigging. One night, it rained. And all we could do was wait for the tide to carry us into the wind again." Alcibiades laces up his shirt, concealing the various styles of artwork which cover his torso.

"I know how to be patient. Now. Shall we discuss your price?"

It wouldn't be the first time she has addressed him by the shortened form of his name. For one thing, she takes both pride and folly in her inherent nature to be a provocateur. For another thing, his title, however removed from it, was never a significant part of their past conversations. More importantly, however, his full name, Alcibiades, a painfully Hellene name if she ever heard it, was quite a mouthful to say in every encounter and her minutes are precious things she constantly runs out of.

May I show you something?

"You do realize that the words often prelude situations in which another person screams 'it's a trap!' and runs away, don't you?" Isabelle observes wryly, her expressive mouth curling upwards - a hint of a grin, muted by the quiet of their conversation. But considering she makes no move to do the very thing, she is at the very least willing to listen, her attention turning to him once more and her eyes taken off the ceiling. She takes another shot of her brandy.

The imperious facade falls away quickly, however, once he starts stripping off his shirt, dark eyes widening to the point where he could see his own reflection within her irises. "What, now?" she utters, perplexed. "At least let me finish my dr— "

The tattoo bared to the light, her words die away, and dark brows knit faintly. Uncaring of the concept of personal bubbles, a trait, perhaps, instilled on her by another exacting influence, she takes several steps forward until they're toe-to-toe, her stare dropping from his face and towards his chest where the proud lines and swirls of the stylized albatross remain indelibly printed on his skin; slightly marred, now, from his earlier bout with the slavers' captain, but hopefully that, too, can be fixed and mended.

She says nothing for a long moment. It is as if she is distracted, but to assume anything about the woman accompanying him can be a dangerous thing.

…and she could be, because that contemplative expression becomes blatantly appreciative. Eyes slowly lift to regard his and she winks.

With that, the woman takes a step back against the wall and rolls her head, spare hand lifting to rub her fingertips at the side of it to work out a knot.

"I read a poem, once," she tells him. "About a sailor who made the egregious mistake of shooting down an albatross with a bow and arrow and thus, cursing their voyage and leaving their vessel stranded in the….doldrums, you say? No wind, no movement, as you described." Something more humored slips over the line of her mouth. "Is this your way of heading any potential mutinies off the pass?"

She lifts a hand. "Regardless, as to the price? No. Not just yet. I can't guarantee my ability to deliver, so I propose we do what we've always done - if there's an undertaking to be had, I'll pay you for the labor, supplies and your discretion." Her gaze searches his, holds it…and suddenly, she is gravely serious. "But none of this will matter if you aren't willing to trust me as I am willing to trust you."

In that moment of appreciation, Isabelle would sense a similar interest — perhaps heightened by the man's brush with death, by the slaughter he'd just so willingly participated in. But there is something else there, hidden behind that teasing smile with which he acknowledges her appreciation. An iron control, a boundary that the sailor will not cross — not yet, at any rate. Perhaps he is not so impulsive in his personal life as he is in battle.

"I read the same poem. But I love albatrosses. In the high southerns, they follow behind our ship in the storms. Seas like you've never seen, Isabelle, and the albatross skims along them. Never lands. All I wanted to be, those days in the doldrums, was an albatross. All I wanted to do was to fly free." His voice is musing, distant. "I was seventeen when I got that tattoo. I owe myself another for tonight."

And then he focuses again, his own features echoing her own - growing serious, even grim. This is a side of him she has rarely seen, his usual insouciance scraped bare to reveal the burden of leadership. "Trusting you with my own life is simple enough. But I have responsibilities to these men. They trust me to advocate for them."

"We're merchants. I said so before. If nights like this are to become the norm, Isabelle, then I need to make a change. I cannot ask merchant seamen to act like sea-wolves. For that, I'd need privateers. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Perhaps one that will cover the scarring that'll undoubtedly follow," Isabelle replies, almost absently - her thoughts are elsewhere, but her attention is in the present, a woman who can unerringly divide herself to the necessities of today while looking several steps into tomorrow. Deep within the most secret parts of her own history, she remembers her bleeding hands and Guillermo's solemn face, all but thirteen, shaken but exhilarated at what was to follow. A lesser woman of her background would have died two years in, once her training had finished, but she has been fortunate to have been instilled the advantages of patience and foresight the moment her father and the Comte de Digne decided to use her.

Patience was a particularly hard lesson; most days her Aragonian blood runs hot and impetuous.

All I wanted to do was to fly free.

That, she knows all too well, but she says very little of her own thoughts in the matter. Instead, she addresses the current need: "If there's a requirement for more seafaring derring-dos, you'll have them," she tells him simply. "But at the moment, what I need the most is someone who knows how to navigate the same waters I must on occasion. Your captain says no more of this. Unfortunately, in spite of your own misgivings or mine, there will be, if you decide to further connect yourself with the things I do outside of the design table."

She turns to fully face him again, her expression determined, eyes burning like coals in the dimly lighted space, transformed, by their circumstances, into something more - something unknowable and driven by an elusive thing that is infinitely bigger, grander than the fashionable vessel that encases her labyrinthine heart…and all with the certain, persistent sense that she knows it.

She would risk much, she said. She would risk everything.

Everything for this grand, big, unknowable, elusive thing.

"I was never faint hearted," she tells him. "My mother would tell you that I was born bold and implacable from the womb. Bold and implacable enough to find a way to cast off my own shackles, no matter how ridiculous that may sound considering someone of my background. My undertakings will test you - not just your abilities, but everything that you know about yourself. Everything you think you can handle. Are you ready for that, Cib? I need someone who can fly with me, no matter how terrifying the wind."

Things have grown intense between the pair. Though Isabelle had stepped away, it feels to Alcibiades in this moment as though she's still toe-to-toe with him, still looking up at him. As though he's seeing the face behind the wink. He's eight years her elder, and certainly there's no naivete left in him. He studies her, sea-blue eyes narrowed faintly. Absently, he reaches up to brush the gray at his temple, a hint of self-consciousness in the gesture.

His voice loses its polished aplomb in a sudden shift, growing both huskier and more…natural. "My da was a drunken fool, sweetheart. If he'd been a real Rousse, I'd be a navy man now. Mebbe a frigate captain. Or I'd be dead." Grinning suddenly in that boyish, disarming manner that seems to be an undying part of his personality, he says "Workin' for you's been the closest I ever came to being who I ought to be."

Tension strings like a taut wire between them, dangerously electrified and liable to shock and stop the hearts of the unwary. There's no narrowing of her eyes in turn, but a languid lid of long lashes that makes her look like a sleek, drowsy jungle cat, defiance stitched through every fiber of her with the way she angles her jaw as she looks at him.

If she notices that hint of self-consciousness, Isabelle doesn't address that, either. But chances are that she has. In any other day, she would be subjecting him to one of her brilliant, flashfire grins, and giving him all the shite that deserves.

Not today, however. She is nursing her own wounds, burdened by her own guilt and reminded of the inevitable fate of someone important to her, presently sleeping in one of the bunks, if she hadn't acted and pulled Alcibiades' people into it. Over the years, she has learned to hide it well.

She isn't callous, he observed, but driven.

Workin' for you's been the closest I ever came to being who I ought to be.

His boyish smile dislodges a part of her present facade, and when she smiles back, the quality of it is strangely melancholy, filled with everything she does not, and cannot, say.

"I thought that, once," she tells him, handing him the empty tumbler. "But if this launches into the heights it ought, you'll be working with me."

She pauses, and when she speaks up again, she takes on a different tact: "The marque…" she begins. "I've seen others, but not quite so detailed. I ply my trade through design and I have a discerning eye." More than, if that shot made from the bow of The Dancer was any indication. "I normally don't see that kind of quality outside of those contracted by the Night Court. Who was the master that worked on you?"

"In Marsilikos, I see a woman named Claudia Lanthenay. She's one of the finest marquists in the world, I believe." Alcibiades seems amused at this change of topic, as though he suspects Isabelle of attempting to release some of the energy that's floating between the pair. He sets the two tumblers aside, atop a table mounted into the cabin's wall. "I pay for the best. Every tattoo is a memory." His voice is formal again, the noble Rousse emerging apparently against his will.

"I don't really understand what you're up to, luv." The affectionate term is as unexpected as the first time he called her 'Isabelle', a total absense of his usual politeness. "But I think I'm a good judge of character. And Jaime is a better one, and he likes you." A brief, crooked grin. "I've trusted his judgement for fifteen years now."

"Will you have more to drink?"

Every tattoo is a memory.

"…you couldn't just keep a journal like a normal person?" Isabelle wonders out loud, though it's without the sting of an actual criticism, easy banter from a woman who has cultivated a quick wit, and with enough of a shameless disposition to fire it at will. But he'd catch the grin that follows, as brilliant as a star's cradle and banishing, at least for the time being, that shroud of melancholy that dulls her considerable lustre. "I'll remember Madame Lanthenay, then."

She takes a step forward, arms folded behind her back, leaning towards him. "But if every significant memory is inked on your skin, I wonder which ones are associated with all the troubles I tossed you in?" she wonders, all honey and innocence - though there is no fooling anyone. Her expressions to that end are such that any court in the world would convict her on the spot if she tried. "Am I going to find a banana for the time we had to uncage a dozen monkeys in that Akkadian bazaar?" Unfettered mirth glitters in her dark-and-gold eyes.

And Jaime is a better one, and he likes you.

There's no offense at the affectionate term, and there's a lift of her brows when he mentions his mentor and friend. "Oh, boy," she says, finally laughing, straightening up. "He does, does he? For his sake, I'd best try to knock him out of it."

The offer of a drink has her canting her head slightly. "Depends," she says, slipping a hand in the pocket of her breeches. "Are we going to have to fight over who gets to finish the bottle?"

"I dunno if you really want to know which ones are yours," Alcibiades says with a slow smile, leaning forward so that he's gazing almost directly down at her so-innocent features. Perhaps there's a loosening in his control after all. "The monkey thing — that was fun, that was. Fella who owned the booth sounded like a monkey too, squealing like that." Whatever it might have been for remains a mystery, and he never seemed interested in inquiring.

Emboldened, perhaps, by the woman's laughter, Alcibiades says, "As terrifyin' as you are, I wouldn't suggest tryin' to knock anything outta Jaime." His gaze drifts down to her pocketed hand, then over to the door to the cabin. Presumably, outside this small room there is more brandy. "I don't think I'd fight you in my condition, luv. Wouldn't hardly be fair. You wouldn't see the best of me."

I dunno if you really want to know which ones are yours.

"Why, is the banana on an arsecheek?" She can read the room, and the loosening of his demeanor only encourages her more incorrigible self, looking up as he leans down and subjecting him to the full intensity of that nuclear fusion smile. "Because if it is, I want to see it."

He calls her terrifying and she folds her hands over her heart, and adopting the best impression within her to call upon the way most ladies at the d'Angeline courts do the same, she flutters her lashes at him. It is incongruous and terrible and doesn't fit her face - and she knows it. "That has to be the sweetest thing you've ever said to me, my lord. Keep this up and I'll lose all of my teeth."

Her usual expression falling back into place, and thank Elua for it, there's a glance at the door he directs his eyes upon.

"I wouldn't say that," Isabelle replies, finally. "I did see that flying leap you made off the rail to skewer a man thrice your size by the throat. If that wasn't your best, you're more formidable than I initially thought." Brazen in the way she always takes the initiative, several strides shift her towards the cabin door.

Alcibiades blushes. He actually blushes. It's so far out of character for the man that he turns his head away as though to hide the red. "You saw that? Wasn't nothin' but luck, really." He clears his throat after a moment, then grins at the young woman. "I dunno why you keep assumin' I got a banana down my pants," he adds. "I didn't get a tattoo for the monkeys. But I did get one for the time y'had me row you ashore off that swamp in the dead of night and I spent the whole time 'til dawn rowin' back and forth in that inlet."

He reaches down, touching something just above his own hip. "I'm glad y'find me so charmin', luv. But I don't know how I feel 'bout being called 'my lord'. Be careful. I might come to like hearin' you say it a bit too much." His grin matches her own, heat for heat.

He trails after her toward the cabin, his swagger somewhat diminished by the bandages swathing his shoulder and guts. But once the woman has made the decision, he's hardly willing to back away from a challenge.

"You're blushing."

Said as she breezes past him with her own long-legged and confident stride towards the door, not that Alcibiades would find too much cause for embarrassment. Isabelle makes a habit out of drawing heightened color out of almost everyone she meets. The displaced Rousse lord was well overdue the treatment.

His quip about the banana does draw another laugh from her, returning his grin. "Listen," she says, index finger lifting to point towards him. "You should be so lucky. Have you actually measured a regular banana? Because I have - don't ask me why, it's a long story - and I've a theory that if men had more bananas down their breeches, women would be happier creatures and peace across the world wouldn't be such a far off dream after that."

She angles her head, a dark curl framing her cheek at the gesture, the look upon her wry and humored when he delivers his own riposte and noting the placement of his hand on his hip, telling her well enough just where that memory has found his skin. "Careful?" she wonders, toeing the door open. "Me? Please."

And with that, she ventures inside, ostensibly to look for that brandy.

Privacy aboardship is non-existent. Alcibiades knows that, even if Isabelle doesn't, and so he isn't particularly surprised when he hears a snigger from abovedecks as the young woman saunters off. He tilts his head up. "Jaime," the man drawls in his best aristocratic tone, "If you've drunk that bottle, I shall slice off your lips." The sniggering turns to abrupt laughter.

Alcibiades eyes that open door, smiling ruefully for a moment. Perhaps he'd intended this when he sought her out, or perhaps not. Sometimes the sailor doesn't know his own mind — often, in truth. He ducks into the door and kicks it shut, leaving the rest of The Dancer to tend to its own amusements until dawn.

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