(1310-08-22) What Lies Beneath
Summary: A riding accident nearly kills Olivia d'Albert no Rose Sauvage when her fear of water manifests in the most terrifying of ways. Matthieu de Rocaille, her childhood friend, starts to suspect there is more to it than mere hydrophobia.
RL Date: August 22, 2018
Related: None
matthieu olivia 

Le Cascade

Taking a smaller path that splits from the main one, following it through the trees and down a small slope, and a person would find themselves in a large glade at the foot of a waterfall. Entering the glade is like stepping into another world; for no views of the city, or the sea that can be heard in the distance, are possible from here due to the trees that surround it. It's here that the river which has wound its way through the Eisandine fields, tumbles over a fifty foot cliff and into a pool at its base before continuing on its way. Over the centuries the rocks surrounding the pool have worn smooth, and the natural hollows and formations of which they comprise allow for sitting or bathing in the sparkling clear waters, or for stretching alongside the pool in the warmth of the Eisandine summers. Trees around the edge of the glade offer respite for those that prefer to seek shade when the sun is high, and one large flat rock that overhangs the pool is a popular spot from which to dive.

At some point in history, someone carved a small grotto into one of the rocks behind where the water cascades, and lovers will often place a devotion to Naamah here, asking her for blessings.


For a summer day, it is cool, but there has been an accounting of the time to ensure that it is - the humidity has been unbearable for the last few days and the coolest times are either during the break of dawn or the onset of twilight. Today, Matthieu de Rocaille has picked the latter in order to give the two of them the time to take care of the press of business first before doing anything else. It has been more in consideration of Olivia's schedule than his, which these days is more nebulous in comparison. Hence, as the sun creeps lower over a tableau awash in rich colors, the carriage and retinue of guards that the Rocaille heir has sent for his childhood friend arrives at a clearing, tall grass swaying in the evening breeze and dotted with flowers.

He is already there, with Gabriel de Montreve, his boyhood companion and Cassiline protector, along with the Rocailles' master of horse, Rene. It seems that after Olivia had sent him a letter requesting for his assistance with riding lessons, the man has tried to deliver the best he's able while away from his more considerable resources in Siovale.

He's dressed in one of his high-collar shirts and a riding jacket and matching breeches, his hair in its typical windswept tousle; he was never one to excessively fuss over his appearance, and while it is convention, he is scarfless. Matthieu never liked it, and slave cuffs and collars have only soured him with anything with a knot around his neck. He's brushing his fingers through the black mane of his chestnut thoroughbred, a proud creature whose coat gleams a glorious reddish-brown in the dying throes of the sinking sun. Gabriel's own horse is of a similar stock, albeit white dappled with silver. There is another horse - a gray palfrey with gentle eyes. It is presently attempting to bury its muzzle into Matthieu's hair.

By the time Olivia exits the carriage, she'd hear the Cassiline's easy laughter drift into the wind. "I think she likes you," he says, grinning broadly. "A contender for the future Duchesse de Siovale, perhaps?"

Matthieu attempts to push the insistent muzzle away from him, which only makes the palfrey even more assertive with its attentions on him, a tongue snaking out to lick his cheek. "I'm half-considering it," he mutters, vestiges of the rare joke present in his eyes and on the line of his mouth. "I could do worse than a woman who wholeheartedly and unconditionally gives her affection."

—-

The words and laughter drift over Olivia as she's assisted down from the carriage by the liveried footman, and it's a fortunate thing indeed, at least for her, that she has the trappings of her canon behind which to hide. "Thank you." There's the faintest note of mortification to be found in her voice when she reclaims her hand from her aide, and she avails herself of a moment's respite in which to ensure that no hint of the furious blush that now taints her complexion might be seen.

In the interim between Matthieu's easy acceptance of assisting her in her wish to learn to ride and now, she's acquired for herself the attire in which to do so. While it looks to be a traditional riding habit, its made for the warmer summer months of Terre d'Ange. The jacket is a pale ivory in shade, and is lined in a thin grey silk. Theres no collar to the riding habit, and instead wide and varied bands of cream colored lace have been carefully stitched in, edging the line of the front of the jacket, the hem and the edge of the three-quarter length sleeves. A soft cotton blouse with a banded collar and ruffle peek above the collar of the jacket. The skirt is panelled, overlaid at the waist and the underskirt layers, and done in the same pale ivory as the bodice, with the underskirt and a pair of pants fitted to be worn underneath. The panelling is done so that Olivia can sit astride and still retain the look of a skirt, or sit side saddle as preference dictates. A small hat holds in place the veils that conceal her hair and face, these caught about her neck and pinned upon one shoulder so that they'll not billow and flutter and alarm her mount.

Fighting the blush that lingers, she picks her way across the grass, and there's no lack of composure to be found within her when she curtsies to the future duc and his Cassiline. Her friends. "Hello Matthieu. Gabriel." A hand lifts, and with fingers uncurled she encourages the palfrey to abandon Matthieu's hair in favour of nuzzling her palm instead.

—-

"Livvy!" As aways, Gabriel greets her with nothing but enthusiasm and affection when she shows herself, and dips a curtsey towards both. "Ah, really, there's no need for that. I mean, it's just us…and the guards…and Rene…" The family's master of horse lifts his head at the sound of his name - a brawny man that is both shorter than Matt and Gabe, but certainly heavier than either of them. He looks about in his mid-fifties. He, too, is not without his courtesies, however, as expected from anyone in Matthieu's staff; the man bows from the waist at the sight of the lady.

"Anyway, you look wonderful! Is that all new? Just for this?" The dark-haired man leans over the courtesan to give her a once over, taking in the blush radiating from her translucent veils, grinning - indicative that he's not about to help with her heightened color. "Is it for me? It's for me, yes?" He claps a hand over his heart, and feigns a swoon. "You really know how to make a man feel special!"

Matthieu's silver-and-sapphire eyes fall on Olivia, taking note of the novel ensemble she has chosen for today, both stylish and practical. As expected, despite riding astride if she chose to today, she would still look very much an Alyssum throughout. He already knew, but to see a hypothesis spool out into reality is still another thing entirely. "He's right, you know. You needn't curtsey with just us."

Gabriel clears his throat emphatically. A befuddled look creases Matthieu's expression. The Cassiline makes subtle gestures with his hand.

It takes a few moments for the man to get his meaning, confusion giving way to exasperation. "She's already embarrassed enough," he tells his friend in his usual brusque, straightforward way. "And she'd look radiant even in a potato sack."

The expression that puts on the Cassiline's sharp-featured face is priceless, followed with a palm slapping against his forehead. There's a look of both consternation and apology directed towards Olivia: I'm sorry for my friend, who is absolutely hopeless in these areas. Even the palfrey looks sympathetic when it stops attempting to chew Matthieu's hair and nuzzles into the courtesan's waiting hand.

Rene clears his throat, and pats a large palm on the mare's neck. "This is Sylphie, my lady," he tells her. "My lord de Rocaille says you'll be taking her today."

"Palfreys are good for beginners," Matthieu supplies, stepping up next to Olivia and resting a hand on her saddle. "Rene tells me this one takes direction well, and she's gentle." His eyes find hers. "Are you ready?"

—-

"Just for you, Gabe. And yes. The habit is new." Olivia responds with a laugh. "And look. It has these…" Her eyes flit down as gathers one half of the riding habit's skirts with one hand, and she draws them aside to reveal the close-fitting pants beneath. Her voice drops as a confidence is shared in a whisper. "I don't think I've ever possessed a pair of pants, and I'll confess, they feel the oddest thing in all of Terre d'Ange to be wearing." Her fingers release her skirts, and they swish neatly back into place, and a mischievousness flirts with her eyes when they cut back and settle on Gabriel. "A potato sack? Truly?"

But Matthieu's right, Olivia does look radiant today, and though it'd be doubtful that she'd actually manage to be quite that in a potato sack, then she certainly in the silks that flatter her form and figure. Her hand dips into a pocket within the seams of her skirt, and she fishes a handful of oats that she's purloined from goodness knows where, and smiles as the palfrey lips them from her palm. "Sylphie. That's a pretty name." Her head dips as Matthieu addresses her, and she presses her forehead to the broadness of Sylphie's as he moves to her side and places a hand on her saddle. It's suddenly becoming all too real. "You'll be gentle with me, hmm?" Fingers splay against the mare's cheek, curling for a moment into the warmth of her jaw, before she takes a step back with a nod Matthieu's way. "I am. But be kind. I'm no longer five, and won't bounce like I did before." It's another memory, and one that would bring back the image of a laughing golden-headed girl that wears a crown of flowers in her hair as she's hoisted onto the back of a pony by three brothers-in-arms.

"Will you help me up?"

—-

Truly?

This time, it's Gabriel's turn to sigh. But at the mischievous glint in his friend's eyes, he can't help but return it. "Truly," he replies, and confirms his best friend's words.

As Sylphie happily munches on the oats that Olivia offers her with one hand, Matthieu's brows furrow, momentarily, wondering just how she managed to procure some, but she has the same penchant of being prepared for an occurrence as he is, and in the end, he isn't all that surprised either. And thus with his usual, quiet scrutiny, he watches her lavish the gray mare with her gentle affection, before offering him yet again a glimpse of a past memory. It is odd, in a way, how reacquainting themselves with one another has managed to give new fresh, colored life into the past, but as he told her before, the mind tends to house such treasures into the very back, and it often takes the right trigger for them to resurface.

He's still ruminating over the brief mental glimpse of the three of them hefting her on a pony when she requests what she does, a finger thoughtfully tapping the silver end of his walking stick. "I will, but first, the basics," he says, already taking the reins of being the responsible instructor. A hand lifts towards her in offerance and should she take it, he'll guide her towards the front of the horse. "Always approach her by head," he says, and leads her into stepping with him - almost like the prelude to a dance. "Never the back, it's dangerous. No matter how gentle or well trained the animal, you never know what will happen, or what could trigger her instincts to kick out in defense - and being on the receiving end of it isn't just painful, it can be deadly. Second of all, horses aren't just intelligent, they tend to be sensitive to the rider's mood. If you're agitated, she's agitated. If you're afraid, she'll not just be afraid, but also defensive. She might toss you off, or run away." He stops, head bending towards hers. "We'll be right here with you, so if anything happens, try and take a breath and brace into your stirrups."

Just the fundamentals, before he leads her around to the other side of the horse, from the front. "Alright, Liv, up you go." And he will then assist her to slip her boot through the first stirrup, and grip her hand tightly when it is time to support her on her rise up, so she can swing her leg over on the other side of the horse.

—-

Olivia dusts her fingers of the remaining oats before taking Matthieu's hand. She wears no gloves, and her skin retains a gentle warmth where her fingers curl into his. "She's very big." A hint of nervousness shows in her voice as she focuses upon the instructions that she's given whilst she's led around Sylphie's head. Not that Olivia is small, for standing at five foot four she's of average height for a d'Angeline. But with the fragile air of a dandelion seed that's easily crushed, she does appear a little diminished in stature as she presses one booted foot into the stirrup and braces her hand in his for the boost that's to follow. He'll find her as light as she looks, her hop on the foot that still planted on the ground being timed to perfection with the assistance he gives. Her skirts flounce as her leg swings over Sylphie's rump, and there's a rustle of silk against silk before falling neatly into place, securing her legs from view.

"It's so very high up here…" That nervousness still shows in Olivia's voice as her fingers ignore the reins and curl into silken lengths of Sylphie's mane, and she adopts that slightly hunched posture into which a novice on horseback so easily falls. As if afraid that the horse might move. And she does. Her weight shifts as she rests one hoof, causing her to dip an inch or two on that side, and the saddle creaks beneath Olivia as she draws a sharp breath. "Don't let go of her, Matthieu. Not yet…" Her eyes dip to search reassurance from him, and where her fingers are wound through the lengths of the mane, her knuckles show white as she steels herself. She might be a little afraid, but she's also determined.

—-

There's no straining when he helps her up; buffeted by wiry, athletic strength, to him, she is just as light as the silks she chooses to wear most days. His gestures are easy, keeping his position by her and the palfrey's side until she's mounted on the horse and settles in. While her nervousness is palpable, Matthieu's expression doesn't change, but there's a softening in his usually calm and stoic air when he hears that apprehensive hint on her relatively quiet voice.

Don't let go of her, Matthieu. Not yet…

His storm-laden gaze lifts up to meet hers from where it's angled from her higher position. "I'll be right here," he tells her, gentleness that he rarely has any cause to express showing through. "Let me adjust your posture." He'll wait for her permission, before a hand lifts, to slide over the silks and the outline of her leg. His touch is light, as always he is reluctant to apply more pressure than he has to, slipping down from where her knee bends out of necessity, over the top of her boot. Brows draw together in concentration until fingertips reach her ankle. "Lower your heel just slightly," he instructs quietly, baritone low and making an effort, for once, to be consciously reassuring. "Not too tightly, but the pressure needs to go here." He taps his finger on where he means.

Long strides take him around the front of the horse to her other side, to repeat the same, before he reaches up towards her. "She won't go anywhere, Liv," he remarks. "I promise. Now, slowly straighten up." Strong digits apply the barest hint of pressure into the small of her back, to try and coax her to sit a little more upright. "Square your shoulders, like you're about to dance with someone taller than yourself." He pauses, and the barest hint of a smile teases from the corners of his mouth. "Or pretend that you're about to put your foot down with me." He doesn't discourage her hold from the horse's mane just yet.

Only when she's righted will he shift his hold, from the small of her back to the fists she makes into the horse's hair. "Take the reins," he murmurs, and shows her how to hold them; easy, but secure. "Don't be hesitant to take charge. Every time you pull…" He demonstrates, just a light tug, enough to let her feel how the bit pushes up into the horse's mouth in the doing, causing the palfrey to toss her head just a bit. "…it'll stop her. She's well behaved, so you don't have to draw too often, or too hard. Just be your usual and gentle self. Alright?"

—-

So many instructions. Olivia is a reactive pupil however, allowing herself to be guided beneath the pressure of Matthieu's touch until he's corrected the faults in her posture. It's down to, at least in part, her training as a courtesan; her muscles adjusting to find that centre of balance that he seeks from her, her shoulders pulled back and down in line with her hips, her chin up and her hands soft where threaded with the reins. Like she's dancing. "I feel like I might fall off." Soft words filter against her veils, her breath light as if she's hardly daring to breathe. She chances a glance in Gabriel's direction, a mote of worry showing in her eyes when they catch with his before sliding away and back to the top of Matthieu's head. It's a novelty, to be sure, to be looking for a change down upon someone, and as his hand patiently adjusts her foot in the stirrup once more, a wash of colour rises once more in her cheeks. There's something so utterly familiar about that paler than pale hair, about the touch of his hand about her ankle, and her eyes blink hard as she draws a breath that catches in her throat.

Can he sense it?

There's an unbidden rush of emotion; it knots her stomach and constricts her heart, her fingers reflexively tightening upon the reins. Sylphie's ears flick back in response as she senses the shift in mood of her rider, and she sidesteps into Matthieu, tail flicking so it swishes in the air. "Woah, Sylphie. Be nice for me." The horse's movement has loosened her tongue, and though hard fought for, her words remain quiet and gentle on the ear.

—-

Gabriel flashes her an encouraging wave from where is, situated by his own horse and Matthieu's, locking eyes with Olivia from a distance. "You're doing great, Livvy!" he says, nevermind that she has yet to go by herself. Baby steps, however. This is, after all, just her first lesson and he is as always indulgent when it comes to his encouragements. "Don't let Matt bully you into thinking otherwise!"

Matthieu shoots the Cassiline a look over his shoulder. "I'm not doing anything of the sort," he tells him matter-of-factly, guiding Olivia's fingers to the reins with the lightest touch he can afford her. Perhaps this is how he manages to sense it; he observes that brief tightening first, before looking up to lock gazes with her, in time for him to see…

…what is he seeing? Pain? Distress? He doesn't know, and he's prevented from contemplating it too hard when the palfrey suddenly lists into him. Instead of resisting it, he follows along with it, walking stick and his tall, broad-shouldered form letting the horse push him sideways into the grass, taking several steps back to compensate, some of his own training with the spear being brought to bear. "Easy," he murmurs soothingly to the horse, a hand reaching up to pat its neck.

Looking back up to Olivia, he turns so his shoulder is aligned with the horse's cheek, moving up to curl his fingers along the lower end of Sylphie's bridle. "The fundamental principles of dressage is to be one with the horse," he says. "You exercise control, yes, but the trick is to get the horse to accept it as part of its natural state. Before I let you do this on your own, I'd like for you to get a feel for how she moves, and adjust with how her muscles collect in certain points whenever she steps. I'll keep a hand on her, and lead you around. Are you ready?"

He'll wait for her sayso, before he continues on, taking a careful step forward and leading the horse. The palfrey moves, hooves plodding into grass and earth as they take a straight line away from where Rene and Gabriel are. And it is only when they've achieved some distance that he turns his head, a single silver-and-blue eye trained towards her as they walk, the other obscured by a lock of platinum-blond hair that the breeze has blown into its pair.

"Is there something troubling you?" Always so straightforward when he's asking questions, and his tone of voice makes it clear that he is not inquiring about how she thinks the ride is going, but something else.

—-

Sylphie walks forward, and for a second, Olivia's almost left behind. She jerks in the saddle as every muscles tightens, her centre thrown off balance before she remembers to breathe, relax, and focus upon her lesson. Hands that were lifting are brought back down, and with a concentration of effort she loosens her fingers upon the reins. Gabriel and his encouragement are blanked out, as the rest of the world fades at the edges, and everything is reduced to the horse on which she sits — and the man that leads her. Sylphie's gait is an easy one to relax into, with her pace more of an amble than a walk, with iron-shod hooves digging divots where she treads. "I don't think that I'll be doing anything as fancy as dressage for a very long time, if ever." she says, forcing levity into her tone. "Though I may throw caution to the wind and enter the horse race at the tournament." She finding her tongue again now that they're finally starting to move, and in so many ways it's easier to talk to Matthieu's back, than when he's looking directly at her. Which is why, when he halts and turns, and asks her that question, it catches her quite off-guard.

It might be the directness of it, or it might simply be the fact of him himself with his silvered eyes and lack of artifice. She's snared. Caught by the look that he gives her and the realisation that childhood crushes don't simply go away. "Nothing is wrong…" Her voice is wary and guarded, and even with so very few words she feels the blush as it collects in her cheeks. She pulls her eyes from his, her face turning a little so that what breeze there is in the glade by the waterfall, can steal some of the heat from her face. "I just realised how much I missed you. How glad I am that you're returned." It's not a lie, it's anything but, and she slips one hand from the reins to press her fingers to Sylphie's neck. "Are you and Gabe going to ride as well whilst we're here?"

—-

"If you decide to be tremendously reckless and enter the horse race, do let me know so Gabe and I can watch," Matthieu deadpans, sounding so serious she wouldn't be faulted if she thought he actually was. "I've never actually seen anyone attempt to be one with her horse by gripping its neck and flanks so tightly, and I've never heard you scream your head off before. It'd be a novel experience." However, his amusement can be sensed, especially by someone so perceptive and more familiar with the nuances of his personality like Olivia is. As Sylphie moves with her easy pace, hooves hitting the dirt, he follows, one hand on the bridle and the other gripping his walking stick, though he moves as if the injury isn't there. Then again, that is his way, also, never one to draw attention to how he hurts if he can help it. Sharp, keen eyes shift forward as they make a circle around the pasture.

It's her tone of voice and the way she looks away that has him easing the burden of his stare off her, to let her blush in peace without the sense that he's voyeuring the way color blossoms over her pallor like roses in winter, electing to focus on the verdant landscape around them as it draws from the rich colors of the ebbing sunset blanketing the horizon in a field of golds and reds, with its deeper blues and violets. He says nothing for a long time, letting that heartfelt statement hang in the air between them.

Most courtiers, or even Gabriel, would say something charming. Those more practiced with the art of making women's heads turn with silvered tongues brought to the fore would perhaps say something like how the very depths of the abyss wouldn't be able to keep him away, if it meant seeing her face. His long, thoughtful silence may even be considered cold and dismissive.

But he does speak, in the end. Four simple words, spoken so quietly it is only the way the wind carries it to her that enables her to hear them:

"I missed you, also."

He is a man who hardly ever reveals the stuff of his soul, and whenever he does, it is brief, but always stripped of anything that makes it other than the most genuine truth, like raw, untarnished gold. And just like gold, the sentence bears its weight in everything else that he can't bring himself to express; the methods he has undertaken to hold onto his sanity and determination to come home, how deep he has dug into his life to remember what is waiting for him if he can only manage to survive just another day, the promises he has made to himself if he was ever successful - the faces he longed to see and what he would do, if he ever saw them again.

"My return was hard won, but it wasn't without its blessings." He pauses in his steps, his face finally turning to look up at her veiled face from a lower vantage point. "So if…there is anything I can do to enhance your happiness, or if you ever need protection, I swear that I'll do everything in my power to ensure it."

—-

Even with the veils behind which she takes shelter, there's a poignancy to be found in Olivia's face when she looks down upon Matthieu. It's in her eyes, in the creasing of her forehead where her brows knit in a frown, and within the phrasing of her words when she speaks. "Try not to take too much upon yourself Matthieu. So many will either need or demand your attention now that you're back with us. Though you try to conceal it, I do see your pain." Her eyes for once remain held fast by his. In the bubble of intimacy within which they're now caught, they're as intense as she herself is, and there's a clarity to their depths that makes a person want to look away… or never look away again. They're the blending of a thousand shades of blue; bright and vivid. Alive. "I'm glad that you missed me," she continues on to quietly say. "Even if you didn't, and your telling me so is just another example of your kindness. But me? I missed you because there was so very little else for me to think of when I lay in the dormitory of House Alyssum each night. There aren't a lot of memories that are made before you turn six, but along with my family, both you and Gabe I held tightly in my heart."

Such an admission, and so openly spoken. It's enough to cause her pause and to force her to reflect upon the things that she's said, along with the things that she's not, and for a moment there's nothing but the creak of the saddle and soft fall of Sylphie's hooves on the grass. A renewed softness is found in her voice when she starts to speak again. "I remember everything about the day when I heard that you'd gone missing, Matthieu, and everything about the day when word reached me that you'd been found. You're asking me what you can do to enhance my happiness, but the truth of the matter is, that the answer is nothing. There really isn't anything that you can do, for you already achieved all that you could with that when I saw you again. When I knew for certain that you were safe. Don't be unsafe again, okay?"

It's fortunate in so many ways that they've walked far enough to put them out of earshot of Gabriel, for there'd be far too many things in Olivia's quiet deliverance upon which he could tease her, so she chooses to lighten the mood between them instead by referring them back to the matter of the races. "How much better would it look were I clinging to my horse and screaming whilst carrying your favor?"

—-

She keeps speaking, and that is when Matthieu continues to lead her around by the horse; it gives him an opportunity not just to survey his surroundings, but to sink inward and give her words due thought. He is not one prone to speak on impulse, or out of turn - Siovalese to the very marrow, and a calculating creature in his own right if not just because he must be, to weather the storms that gather in the horizon of his future. It gives Olivia a view of his back again, once he's had his fill of examining the multiple shades of blue present in her eyes and how every shade speaks of her genuine concern for him. It is a novel experience for him to even have this, someone from his past who knew him as a lonely child removed from his only living parent, with no full siblings to call his own, and the man into which he has transformed. Olivia, their Olivia, with her angel's grace and eyes like the Eastern Sea, a marble masterpiece given softness and life.

"What is pain but a gauge that determines how equipped you truly are to live a life worth living?"

He lets that hang in the air for a moment, lapsing into silence; when he speaks again, it is quiet, but straightforward yet again: "I'm not always kind," he tells her, and that, too, holds the weight of everything that he can't say - the things he could horrify her with because he can't afford to be soft. "And I missed you because you were there at the very beginning, and I hoped that you would be there in the end, with Gabe and your brother." Fingers absently twine into Sylphie's bridle.

He doesn't dare ask what that day was like for her and the fact that her voice hints at some kind of shock and pain is enough for him to realize for himself that perhaps he doesn't want to know, and he is ill-equipped to tell her that one of the last things he ever wanted was to cause her pain. He doesn't tell her, either, that he remembers the day of their reunion with crystal clarity, if not just because he knew she would cry, and she in fact almost did.

Don't be unsafe again, okay?

"I can't promise you that." Because that, too, is true and while he would be one of the first to shelter her from hardship, he cannot lie to her. He angles a look over his shoulder at her, eyes falling back to the face hinted at by her veils. "But I can promise you that I will try." Hints of amusement are visible on the line of his mouth, however slight the smile. "I didn't claw my way back from the grave just to have something else toss me in it."

Her quip has him steering the palfrey back towards the group. "I wouldn't know unless I saw it," he tells her easily enough. "Perhaps one of the scarves I hate wearing. Doubtless that you'll wear it better than I ever could." After a moment, he shoots her an inquiring look from the ground. "Are you ready to try working the horse by yourself? You and she seems to have found your combined rhythm."

—-

"Perhaps you are not always kind." Olivia muses. "But you were always kind to me." She's fallen quite naturally and easily into the cadence of Sylphie's sedate walk, and the earlier tension that had gripped her muscles is now eased by the pace that's been set. When and how the conversation had turned in the direction that it has is of far less importance than what had been said, but it's perhaps a burden that's been lifted from Olivia's shoulders that she's been able to express herself so openly for once. It's with not a little relief that she finds that Matthieu accepts what's she's told him without pressing her further, and the return to the reason for them being at the waterfall in each other's company is welcomed.

"You think that I'm ready?" There's a hint of nervousness about the edges of Olivia's question, but it's tempered by excitement too, her hands already gathering up the reins so that she can feel that contact of the bit within Sylphie's mouth. She looks down at Matthieu, the veils about her head having loosened where the breeze has teased and tugged at them. Tendrils of wheat-blonde hair flutter about the edges of her face, and there's a smile in her eyes at the confidence he's apparently found in her ability. "I'll take her to that tree and back." A large beech that spreads its branches low across the ground is indicated with a lift of her chin.

She waits for Matthieu to release his hold upon Sylphie's bridle, then gently presses her heels to her sides, drawing a sharp breath when she starts to move under her own power. Plod. Plod. Plod.

—-

If nothing else, this entire occurrence is relatively new to him because it is Olivia who is unburdening herself. In the last few years, she has become a mystery to him as he can't expect her to be utterly the same as how she was back then - no longer six, as he astutely observed in the last few times they've seen one another. But some of her old foundations remain; she is still kind, still gentle, still shy and reluctant to express herself because distance, too, has become her armor, though in ways that are different from his. It takes a certain amount of courage to express how one feels, perhaps all the moreso in her case because to hear it from her is rare. And it is the rarity that keeps Matthieu from prying any further - not out of the lack of a desire to appear greedy, but out of the recognition that this must be difficult for her.

But you were always kind to me.

"I try to be," he tells her, looking her in the eyes and holding her there, as if he could reach out to frame her face with his hands to guarantee that she keep doing so and glimpse the truth within them. "I'm far from perfect, or whole, so I may not always be, but I hope that you know that if I was ever harsh, it is never out of malice, or disrespect. You know I would do anything to protect you."

Even from myself.

She asks if she is ready, and he inclines his head. "That much, I think so," he tells her, putting faith in not just her ability but the horse's own gentleness. And with that, he releases the bridle.

He watches her as she guides the horse towards the tree she has indicated, before turning to gesture for Gabe. The Cassiline is never far, astride on his own horse, one hand on the chestnut thoroughbred Matthieu has chosen to ride today. "Well, let's hope she doesn't panic and flail now that your hand isn't on the bridle." There's a curious look lanced his way. "What did the two of you talk about?"

Matthieu slips his walking stick through the leather loop behind his saddle, before bracing a foot on a stirrup and swinging upwards to settle upon the back of his horse. "She's happy that we're back," is what he chooses to condense all of Olivia's heartfelt sentiments into, before clicking his tongue against his teeth to usher his stallion forward, coaxing it into a quick canter to follow the wake of the gray palfrey.

The dark-haired Cassiline squints at him, before he follows. "With her looking at you that way?"

"She was very sincere about it."

Closer to the beech, Olivia would hear it - nightbirds nesting in the boughs of its branches, dripping with leaves that are already changing color and starting to fall. The rush of water cuts through the idyllic landscape of Le Cascade, where the endless fountain pours from the cliffs above and descends into clear pools below.

—-

Olivia cuts a lonely figure as she rides alone towards the beech, the purity of colour in the silks that she wears proving a sharp foil to the autumnal colours in which the glade is painted. That her conversation with Matthieu plays on her mind is perhaps why Sylphie feels no nervous tension within her rider, for she forgets to think about the mechanics of riding, and her hands on the reins remain light.

So many thoughts on which to think. She loosens the veils about her head a little as the tree draws near, the freshness of the breeze against her cheeks a welcome respite from the sultry heat that lingers. She might not have heard the birds in the trees were it not for that, and her face lifts as her eyes search to canopy beneath which she now rides.

It happens so quickly. An explosion of feathers in front of Sylphie's nose as one of the birds flies up from the ground. Even the steadiest of horses would take objection to a shock such as that, and this Sylphie's no different. She shies to the left, muscles bunched like corded steel beneath Olivia, a snort of alarm as she snatches her reins from her rider's hands to carry them out from beneath the tree and into the shallows of the water and beyond. Unbalanced. Unseated. Olivia's thrown forwards onto Sylphie's neck, where she clings in slow motion for perhaps all of two seconds before plopping into the water.

—-

"It's getting dark," Gabriel observes, as he canters his horse next to Matthieu's on the way towards the beech tree. "Maybe once she's gotten accustomed to just walking the horse, we should turn around."

"Agreed," Matthieu says, lifting his eyes towards where the courtesan and Sylphie are. "Olivia, once you've— "

His instructions are cut off by the sound of a neigh. The ducal heir's eyes widen, barely hearing the shout from his dark-haired Cassiline as Time seems to slow. Every detail causes its own ripple; how the bird is reduced to a puff of feathers, blinding the horse, the way sleek muscles bunch upwards when Sylphie rears up on her hind legs, and the bundle of silks drifting in the air before she's suddenly gone, leaving nothing but traces of silk caught on the lower hanging boughs of the tree.

"Livvy!" Gabriel cries. He's only a half-second behind Matthieu when both race through the brush and the thicket of trees waiting for them. Adventures and peril have left both to develop better skills on a horse than most, and as they tear through the leaves they continue on until they find sight of Sylphie again, shaking her head and tossing it, still, surrounded by water and with her rider nowhere in sight.

Both men are off their horses in an instant. But before the Cassiline can wade into the water, a strong and insistent hand grabs his shoulder. He whips around to stare at Matthieu in the eye.

"Matt, she's— !"

"Go back to Rene and tell him to fetch a chirurgeon." The Rocaille is already thinking three steps ahead as he tears his jacket off him. "You're armored, Gabe, you'll sink like a stone!"

The Cassiline's lips press together, but he doesn't hesitate. He nods as mounts his horse. "Three minutes," he tells him, and with that, he forces his horse into a streaking gallop.

Matthieu moves quickly for the water, and feels something tear; a bolt of white-hot pain shoots up from ankle to calf and he grits his teeth, nearly stumbling facefirst into the lake and the falls beyond at his haste to get to the edge. But he doesn't stop, using his momentum to lurch forward and dive into the ripples. With the sun's light dwindling and the shadows only growing, he doesn't have much time to find her, and so he submerges deeper, his heart in his throat and pins and needles of fear throttling his nerves.

He remembers something. It's in the very edges of his memory. Something about water and Olivia, the very root of it driving the cold grasp of apprehension to squeeze around his spine and threaten to rip it out of his body. But he can't quite hang onto what it could be and it is the uncertainty and the horror of knowing there is something important that he is missing that only makes his search all the more frantic. All he knows is that he has to find her. Has to before all the lights go out.

—-

Time suspends itself. Olivia scream is cut off by the water that closes over her head. Sylphie's hooves churn the bottom of the pool near where she's fallen, and silks tangle and drift about the flail of her limbs. A coldness grips about that has nothing to do with present, and everything to do with past. Blackness. A face. Eyes staring back at her. She opens her mouth to scream and water rushes in.

Panic.

Hellas. A man. Peaches. Juice on fingers. Flesh on flesh. Whispers. Lies. Betrayal. Panic. Panic. Panic.

White heat cracks her chest as her face breaks the surface, and her veils are plastered to her face making drawing breath impossible. Saturated. Soaked. Her silks become a prison of weight that start to pull her back down, red blossoming on one temple where Sylphie's hoof had briefly glanced.

—-

He doesn't waste his breath calling for her.

The moment her face breaks the surface, Matthieu is looking for the sound - she does so somewhere behind him, so when he spins around, the weight of her clothes are already dragging her back down into the ice-cold depths, the dying light glinting off the silver threads winking off her veil before it descends yet again into the endless blue. But that is enough; he has always been comfortable with both thought and action, and lean, wiry athleticism lets him cut through the water like glass. Broad, powerful strokes take him to where he has seen her last, before he dives in again.

He can barely see the details and shapes of what is underneath, water being how it is. He remembers the times he almost drowned in the deadly, storm-wracked voyage from the Eastern Sea to the Akkadian ports, but these are images that he banishes in favor of the one that matters. And as a slender shadow catches his water-blinded eyes, he reaches out, to ensnare her under her arms and kicks out his legs to propel them both to the surface. The act causes another javelin of pain to strike at his leg - he knows he's made his injury worse, but it is a minor trifle compared to the permanence of a death.

His head emerges almost violently with a deep, low inhale, pulling her with him and keeping her head up above the water. He doesn't have the time to examine her. Experience has taught him never to underestimate the power of the elements - wind and water may be the gentlest of these, but that is the most deceptive thing of all.

She may be bogged down by water, but he lifts her like she weighs nothing, drawing her to the banks of the lake where he lays her down to inspect her breathing and the worrisome streak of red he finds by her temple. "Liv," he breathes, platinum-blond locks darkened into silver, plastered and dripping over his head as he tears the veil off her hair and face to aid in the intake for air. Callused, battle-worn fingers cup her face on both sides, tilting it gently to inspect the visible wound - but that will have to wait, if she doesn't take a breath.

—-

His arms ensnare her. Wrap her about. Pin her. Hold her.

There's no weight to her arms when she tries to push him away. To escape.

The sun burns brightly. His earring flashes. The twist of his mouth. She's going to die. Here. Now.

There's the solidity of the ground beneath her, fingers pulling aside her veils so that she can draw breath. And she does. Deep, soul-wracking gulps of air that are interspersed with chokes and sobs. Her face cupped and held, her eyes find his, but they're blown and darkened by the shock, unfocused on the present and still lost in the past.

"Liv."

Matthieu's voice eases its way through the threads of her thoughts. Familiar. Persistent. Urgent. Another gulp. Another sob. The blackness of the past that wraps it tendrils so tightly about her starts to fall away, and tears come freely to her eyes. "I'm sorry." She squeezes her eyes closed, a hand brought shakily to her head to touch to the gash that bleeds. Shock has left her pale, her skin near translucent, and made to appear moreso by the darkness of her now wet hair.

—-

He knows trauma when he sees it. How could he not? He sees it every day, when he looks at the mirror. But he has never thought that he would see it on her face, of all people. And as he looks down in those striations of blue in wide, frightened irises, he sees no recognition, not at first. He doesn't know what's inside her head, that ability is beyond him, but all he can act upon is what he sees and what he sees is terror. Enough to drive her to tears. Enough to nearly kill her.

Matthieu stares at her, as if suspended by a wire, and it's only when she starts sobbing and apologizing that he moves. She is no longer six, and he is no longer eleven. Gone are the years when he would awkwardly panic in an attempt to keep her from crying. His thumb gently wipes away the blood trickling from her temple before he draws her up, cradling her against his chest and on top of his lap. Broad shoulders hunch as arms twine around her, paltry barricades against whatever nightmares she is entertaining in her head, but he doesn't know what else to do but give her something to hold on to.

His thumb presses against the gash, in an effort to stem the bleeding, the rest of that hand cupping the side of her face. His own lowers into the damp, wet gold of her hair, words leaving him in soothing whispers. "I've got you," he tells her, syllables lost in the tangled mass of her hair. "It's not your fault, I shouldn't have let go of you so early. I shouldn't have let go."

Frustration stitches through every hard, handsome line of him, silver-chased blue eyes darkened by worry and no small measure of self-castigation. He drags the both of them to the roots of a nearby tree, where his jacket remains, curling into her and leaving her to cling to him, and drain away her sobs against the solid wall he makes. The warmth of his hand leaves her face, and while he keeps his nose and mouth pressed into her scalp, his eyes are fixed on the water.

"We'll need to at least take the jacket off, Liv. The shirt as well, if you'll let me, but I can't have you catching a chill on top of it if I can help it. Alright?"

—-

Olivia pulls herself into Matthieu when he drags her into his lap, her cheek pressing hard to his chest. "It's not your fault." Her voice trembles with the words, and she flinches when his thumb presses to the wound on her head. It's only a flesh wound however, and though the blood matts her hair where it leaks, there'll be no scars to tell their tales. Her veils hang useless, and it'll be Matthieu's first sight of a face that the intervening years have denied to him. Time has moved on. Her once cherubic softness has been replaced by an angelic beauty of the grown-up kind, with features that are both exquisite and delicate in nature. Fragile. Her mouth is wide and tip-tilted at the corners, as smiles and laughter are a thought away, though they're robbed of those now.

She shivers again, the bone-deep chill of the water reaching deep within her, and arms that had wound tightly about him in response to his own, pull back as she rights herself where she sits in his lap. "Yes. Must get them off." Her fingers are as numbed by the cold as her brain, her words thick and hard found as she lifts her hands to do battle with her buttons. Wet silks and disrobement. The two never mix. The lower of her lips gripped between her teeth, she struggles with the topmost of them, the brass disc fighting any and all attempts to slip it from its keeper.

—-

It's not your fault.

Matthieu says nothing - he can be harsh to everyone, but he is always harshest with himself, and as she whispers that she doesn't blame him, he shakes his head. "Let's get these off," he tells her, and proceeds to help.

He caught a glimpse of her face once before, at the gardens in the Rocaille mansion, but with the veil gone, it only impresses upon him that his words about them no longer being children is all the moreso true now. Even then, however, he tries not to look upon her too hard - for her peace of mind, if nothing else, and if not just because he's in the middle of helping her disrobe. Eyes determinedly focus on the waterfall past her head, deft, sun-bronzed fingers help her slip off her jacket, taking on the lion's share of the effort because he can feel her trembling against him from the cold, as the chill seeps into her skin and the sun nearly completely disappeared over the horizon.

Her shirt, next, finding the laces. Every gesture is light, efficient and systematic, dismissing buttons from their service when he finds them and peels wet silk off soft skin. Any other man would be lightening the mood now, quip about how he ought to take this as a mark of pride that no matter how long it's been, he can still disrobe a woman competently without having to look at what he's doing. But there is nothing but silence, to keep her comfortable and assured, and still swimming in the shock and fear the entire incident has left rattling in their bones. He tries not to touch her for too long, tries not to do anything that would be construed as a liberty, but brushes now and then by his long piano-player's fingers and the roughness of calluses left there by battle and study can't help but find her skin now and then when he attempts to blindly push drops of water off her gentle frame.

"Here," he murmurs, reaching for his jacket, drawing it securely around her shoulders. It's simply too big on her - he's almost a foot taller, and more than twice the weight, but it is warm and clean, carrying with it olfactory notes of grass, earth and clean soap. He pulls it around her, hand finding the outside of her arm to rub up and down, in an attempt to push more heat into her shivering body. Once the jacket is on, however, that's when he'll look her in the eye, the storm-laden depths of his irises dropping down to her mouth, in an attempt to gauge its color, or how it trembles.

He hasn't seen her face in years. Not as completely like this. But the sight of it renders him silent.

As usual, he doesn't divulge his thoughts, his neutral expression gentled only slightly by concern and how it tightens the corners of his stare. His hand moves again, to try and find hers, feeling cold, numb fingers. "Do you hurt anywhere else?" he asks, quietly, in his efforts to be soothing, and if she lets him, he'll turn her palm over, cradling her knuckles with his fingertips in a loose cup before drawing it to his face. Eyes lid partially as he turns his mouth into it and breathes into her palm, continuing his efforts to chase the cold away.

—-

It's bliss, the warmth of Matthieu's jacket upon her shoulders, and just the weight of it helps to supress the shivers and the chattering of her teeth that's now set in. Fingers curl about the edges as she draws them together, losing herself within its warmth. It was easy for her to push to one side the effect of his fingers as he'd undressed her, but as she pushes aside the terrors of the last few minutes, those fleeting moments of unforced intimacy start to make themselves known. It feels as if she's on fire from within, the moon living in the lining of her skin. He's not intruded upon her privacy, kept his eyes averted from her face until that inevitable moment when it's no longer possible. When he's forced to look at her with the question he asks.

"I don't hurt anywhere else." The exhale of his breath warms the palm of her hand, and the tip of her nose flares as she takes one of her own. Scents. His and hers. Wet silks. Damp grass. Leaves turning. The decay of summer that's been too long and too hot. Her fingers curl where held by his, and the tips of them brush across his jaw with a feather's caress before falling away as she closes her eyes on a soft inhale. "Gabe. Where's Gabriel?"

—-

I don't hurt anywhere else.

"Good," Matthieu affirms, lashes nearly drawing to his cheeks when warm, soothing fingers find the line of his jaw, color at least returning to her and the way his efforts to warm her brings the rosy sheen of her mouth back to life. Releasing her fingers once they fall away, that hand moves to thumb away drops of water collected just underneath her lower lip, barely felt - for a man who doesn't trust himself to be gentle, he can be when he wants to be.

It proves to be a mistake when her eyes close and his thumb finds the tender space just past the corner of her mouth, her face, fragile beauty and the way she responds to him so subtly sparking heat somewhere within his belly and tightening muscles and nerves inside of himself in response. Blue eyes chased with those argent filaments hungrily slip up and over the way moonlight glints like diamonds over the water beads left on skin all the more luminous under its throes, and all comes uncontrolled in a breathless rush, of such intensity that for a second or two, his breath shortens. Want and its unforgiving razor's edge cleaves into the back of his skull, reminding him as to how long he's been without and for a wild, mad moment, he's suddenly seized with the urge to tilt her head back, and fill her mouth with the predations of his possessive, ruthless tongue.

He forces himself to lean his head back and take a deep breath. He knows what this is, the internal landscape of him suddenly at war between momentary passions and the very real concern that if he started, he wouldn't stop, and he's not about to attack her vulnerabilities that way. It would be untoward. It would be wrong, and she's been hurt enough today.

"I can hear him, he'll be with us soon, I had him tell Rene to fetch a chirurgeon." Shifting, he slips a hand behind her knees, wrapping one arm around her before hefting her up. "We ought to move so he can see us a little more clearly."

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