(1310-08-31) A Great and Complicated Lie
Summary: Isabelle de Valais returns from her clandestine errand in Cabries to meet with Armandine de Mereliot, Duchesse d'Eisande, and her very important house guest.
RL Date: August 31, 2018
Related: No Introductions
isabelle armandine charlene 

Solar - Dome of the Lady

Spacious enough to provide a meeting place of more familiar atmosphere to the residents of the Ducal Palace, the solar is of rectangular shape and generously lit during the day through a number of arched windows in the south wall. The opposite side is governed by a huge stone hearth, a fire crackling there during colder weather conditions. Above the hearth hangs a shield with the coat of arms of House Mereliot, flanked by a pair of exquisitely woven tapestries depicting naval scenes of ships on the sea, one in calm and tranquil weather conditions, the other one in a storm with heavy rain.

All furniture is made of oak, be it the long table in the middle of the room, or the number of high backed chairs arranged about it, flat cushions of blue brocade adding to the comfort of seating. The ceiling is a sophisticated rib vault, constructed of wood, the ribs painted in yellow. Depictions of a variety of sea animals have been added onto the light blue ceiling as well by an unknown artist. Several kinds of mediterranean fish adorn the spaces in between ribs, such as combers, groupers and flounders but also starfish and octopusses.

A door leads out onto a rooftop garden, and an archway opens into the upper hallway.


True to her efficient and professional ways, Isabelle has sent a message well in advance of her return to Marsilikos, though it isn't a message, but an item - her very own signale. Established before in her prior assignments, she sends a white blossom if she is successful, and a red blossom to mark failure. A few hours ago, her unmarked courier delivered a white rose. At the very least, it guarantees that nobody in the palace would ever question it - a great and accomplished beauty like Armandine de Mereliot has scores of admirers, after all.

After a quick trip back to her base of operations in the Market Promenade, Isabelle de Valais presents herself to the ducal guard, dressed, as always, in her signature style that often makes her look sharp, but feminine; a silk blouse tucked in high-waisted riding breeches that mold closely to the shape of her legs, worn underneath over-the-knee boots with heels thin enough to puncture through a body. The impeccably tailored coat is dyed a rich scarlet and fringed with lace, inundated with intricate black and gold mandalas of her own design, composed from D'angeline motifs, upon the large cuffs and the edges of the structured lapels. Her hair is spooled in a coiled arrangement that drapes over one shoulder, and leaves curls to frame her face.

She carries a leather portfolio, which she freely gives over the guards to inspect, full of her designs. She carries no weapons - by now, she knows the protocol. Thanks to the Lady Ortolette's most recent patronage of her fashion salon, she can name certain members of House Mereliot as purchasers of her art, even if her purpose is a touch more clandestine than that.

It isn't long until she's ushered into the Solar; even her mannerisms change in accordance with what she wears. Had she been wearing a gown, she would be affording the duchesse a deep curtsey. But considering her fashionable adventurer's attire, she opts for a deep bow instead, as smooth as any courtier's, and doesn't rise unless she is bid to.

"Your Grace," she murmurs. "I have returned from Cabries."

—-

The subtle announcement of her mission's outcome ahead of her visit has the benefit that she will be expected at the Palace. One of the Duchesse's ladies intercepts the Valais woman upon entering the Dome of the Lady, and discreetly leads her towards the stairway that leads to the upper floor. Isabelle will be shown into the solar, which has been cleared of everyone else but two. Yes, two. Beside the seat Armandine occupies sits another lady, dark of hair, a woman in her mid-forties, but beautiful in that d'Angeline way. She wears a courtly dress of fine fashion - none of Isabelle's couture. The dark-haired lady will remain silent for now. And it will be Armandine, who addresses Isabelle.

"So I see," the Duchesse intones with a smile. She gestures for Isabelle to take a seat. "Perhaps you would like to enlighten us, as to what you found there."

—-

She waits until the lady-in-waiting curtseys before leaving the three women with their privacy. The absence of even Cassilines is noted, and while removed from her own country for many years, Isabelle recognizes it as what it is; a very rare honor, bestowed upon so very few.

Which probably explains why the designer's deference towards the stately lady is so unforgiving, and why her goodwill, respect and even her rare affection is bestowed upon certain members of House Mereliot - young Ortolette, in particular. She moves, then, taking note of the dark-haired D'angeline woman accompanying the duchesse as she eases into the offered seat. Within her coat and its hidden pocket, she withdraws a folded sheet of paper and presents it to both ladies.

"Out of an abundance of caution, I had an expert ensure that the paper bears no trace of poison - it wasn't likely, considering who I met in Cabries, but I had to make certain. The informant is a gentleman related to your friend, Your Grace. A man with dark hair and blue eyes, with a scar on his upper lip. Kusheline." To the other lady, she dips her head. "He bids me to tell you that he is alright, and he intends to return to Kusheth as soon as the parchment exchanged from his hand into mine. But he also mentioned pursuit….complications on the road."

—-

Armandine nods. "Thank you for taking so much care," she says towards Isabelle, before she glances towards the woman that sits with her. "I believe, it is in order that I offer introductions. At last. This is a good friend of mine, Lady Isabelle. I trust her as much as she trusts me. This is Charlène Morhban de Fhirze, Dowager Marquise, and daughter to the late Duc of Kusheth. Charlène, meet Isabelle de Valais, whose loyalty and talents have served me well in the past and still do."

Charlene looks towards the letter, Isabelle holds out to them, and with a quick glance towards Armandine, she takes it into her hands. "I wish our meeting would have happened under other circumstances," she remarks to Isabelle, with the faintest ghost of a smile. "Her Grace has been so kind as to offer me shelter, for which I am very grateful." Hesitating to unfold the parchment just yet, the dark haired lady looks towards Isabelle, and the Valais will note the sigh of relief that leaves Charlene's lips. "So he is safe. I had worried, for him."

—-

Surprise is evident in her dark-and-gold stare when introductions are made, Isabelle regarding the Kusheline grande dame with open curiosity. "Well met, my lady," she says. "You're very far from home, indeed. Her Grace is as always very generous in her regard and I am forever her devoted servant - while I'm no stranger to such assignments, you will have to forgive me if I seem somewhat ignorant of your circumstances. I've just returned to Terre D'Ange, most of my life has been spent in other countries. You can say the last few weeks have been my attempts at catching up."

She shifts in her seat, one leg curling over the other by the knee, linked fingers resting against the top of her elevated thigh once the letter has been retrieved. "He is safe, at least from when I saw him last. He didn't appear injured and even approached his present situation, to which there is no small degree of peril, with good humor. I've only spoken to him for a few minutes, but considering the methods he used in Cabries to hide himself, I've come to believe he is no stranger to these kinds of situations."

—-

"Esekiel is great at getting himself into trouble," Charlène replies. "And yet this time, he did it on my behalf. I'm glad to hear he is unscathed." At which she begins to unfold the parchment and begins to read what appears to be a letter of sorts.

Armandine meanwhile folds her hands in her lap, and her demeanor turns a bit thoughtful. "Charlène has been here for half a year, Lady Isabelle. In hiding, if you will. We came up with a childish little ploy, but we have finally decided to end it. Charlène was acting a part. She stayed at my Court under a false identity. And Elua be praised, we had no notable visitors from Hellas, or she would have been found out much sooner!" At which faint amusement curls her lips, and she gives Charlène a sideways glance. "Magalie Iskareios, Hellene ambassador who speaks Hellene well, but not well enough to fool a native speaker of the tongue. Her d'Angeline was too perfect, for which I had to chide her now and then. Did I not, Charlène?"

The Dowager Marquise de Fhirze looks up, looking less amused. Her hand lifts the letter, to offer it over to Armandine. "This letter… please read it. It looks like the evidence we have been lacking. The letter that was stolen from me on the road, when I was headed here. It is odd though… reading it again now…" She looks a bit thoughtful.

—-

Esekiel is great at getting himself into trouble.

The designer recalls his smiles and appraising glances, and the way Mademoiselle Yvette blushed upon the mention of him. "Yes," Isabelle murmurs, the smile more evident in her eyes than on her lips. "He seems the sort."

Disengaging the link her fingers make on her thigh, she leans back against the seat, both arms draped on the rests attached to her chair. Keen eyes follow every tic and nuance of Charlene's features - not just how she moves and the way she looks, but the quiet exchanges she makes with her dear friend and the designer's liege. Once the duchesse starts speaking, however, her attention gravitates back to her unerringly, listening with a thoughtful expression. "In my experience, childish ploys in the way we consider it have a disturbing tendency to become unduly dangerous in a hurry," she says. "But I am glad to hear that part of your overall scheme has yielded good fruit, if not just the fact that it kept you safe, my lady dowager." She makes a note of the name, in case she has to interact with her outside of closed doors.

Evidence, Charlene says, the letter passing over. Isabelle falls silent at that, lips pursing. "Did anyone know that you were carrying such a thing?" she asks the Kusheline lady. "Or that you were traveling? Were you traveling to Marsilikos at the time?"

—-

"My mother was of House Charlot," Charlène explains towards Isabelle, "hence the relation to my dear distant cousin Esekiel. He has insisted to help me. So many times. Yes. He is the sort." A faint smile accompanies her words, that are laced with the contained manner of showing fondness. "Would that I never had come across that letter. I would be safer now. But I believe my cousin Quintien wouldn't dare to go after me, by now, not with me now staying officially at the Eisandine Court." She lowers her gaze for a moment, lips pursing. "I had lost it, as I said. Esekiel insisted to recover it, once I was safely settled here. He returned to Kusheth. And it seems, he succeeded."

"Hmmm," Armandine makes, in reading the letter. "This looks like exactly what we would need to prove your point, Charlène." And without further ado, she hands the letter over to Isabelle. "You haven't read it? You are familiar with the situation in Kusheth, I am sure? Charlene's eldest brother died from an illness. And then Richard, the next in line, went missing. And was declared dead. It is the reason why Quintien de Morhban now holds the position of Grand Duc of Kusheth."

The letter is scandalously short, considering the effort it took to retrieve it and bring it all the way to Marsilikos:

Jean-Louis,

I hereby ask you to proceed according to the plan we spoke of, last time we met. The time has come for my dear cousin Richard to proceed to Terre d'Ange Beyond.

Find enclosed a generous purse that should suffice in making adequate arrangements. I hear there are plenty of pirates currently roaming the coast of Menekhet.

Another vessel burned and sunk should not appear suspicious.

Quintien de Morhban
Marquis of Lusande.

—-

The explanation that Charlene provides is enough for Isabelle, at the very least, to put some color in the growing picture of the conflict before her - enough to realize that whatever is in the letter she has delivered is dangerous enough to spur the dowager's cousin to execute plans against his own kin. If nothing else, her flight to the Eisandine court is a sound one and were she in Charlene's shoes, she may have very well have done the same thing. Eisande's position in the D'angeline halls of power is a formidable one and for many reasons other than the two big ones: Marsilikos is only second to Elua in terms of importance, and the home port of the entire Royal Fleet. To anger Armandine de Mereliot will be to turn the eyes of the ruling house of Courcel unfavorably to those who dared as well.

Which presents a whole new set of different dangers entirely. The ducal agent is already ruminating on these when her attention is called upon once more by Armandine.

You haven't read it?

"Your Grace trusts me for many reasons," the Valais lady tells her with a faint smile. "I didn't dare read the contents - Lord Esekiel was very certain that he was being pursued and feared that I would be as well once the letter changed hands. Once shadows were on my tail, my contigency plan if necessary was for a trusted asset of mine to finish delivering the letter for me if routing the culprits have been necessary, and were I captured, I didn't want to chance breaking during an interrogation, because everyone does, eventually." Her eyes lift to meet Armandine's. "I also wasn't certain whether these confidences are the sort that you will want to share with me."

She takes the letter in hand. "I'm familiar with the situation in Kusheth, at least in passing. I remember Lord Richard's disappearance, though from what I understand, the means and methods were quite….vague." And with that, she opens parchment and reads it carefully. It is a quick read, not more than just a few seconds - especially for one such as Isabelle, schooled as she had been to assess, catalogue and remember or dismiss information almost from the moment she comes across it.

"It's definitely incriminating," she muses, looking up at the two ladies. "But I worry about the time period in which this piece of parchment went missing. Were this presented to the Royals, the Duc could easily claim that his handwriting and seal were forged, especially if it comes to light that the document vanished for a period of time." She squints at the parchment. "If we can successfully identify this Jean-Louis, however…"

—-

The Duchesse receives Isabelle's clarification with a nod and a faint smile. "Well spoken. Needless to say I am certain that some of the details discussed here today will not leave this Solar." Her smile deepens. "I trust you, or I wouldn't have sent you on that errand, Lady Isabelle."

"Richard's ship went missing in December," Charlène explains, and a shadow falls over her features. "It was the reason I returned home, to Kusheth, back then." Brown eyes come to linger on the Valais, as Charlene considers her. "Your reply makes sense, and I am aware that any proof if presented to His Royal Highness would be carefully scrutinized for it being genuine." Her gaze flicks down. "It is as you say… Seeing this letter again, now, I have the feeling that the other I found and lost was not quite the same. Back then, I didn't have any doubts it was my cousin's handwriting. But now… the lettering looks a bit different. It is a fact that makes me wonder… and worry. What is it that we have here?" She looks up and reaches for the letter she reclaims from Isabelle's hands. "Jean-Louis isn't such a rare name. But maybe it could be a lead. For now, I have decided to stay here. Her Grace has assured me that it would be for the best. To show presence without bringing risk to my family, as I would, if I returned to Namarre."

—-

"I am heartened to hear it, Your Grace," Isabelle tells her with a bow of her head. "Your trust is my most important possession." From any other noble, it might sound courtly, expected from any practiced player in the Great Game. But the young woman's sincerity is underscored by something else - passion, the kind of fervor expected from one who gives her devotion so rarely, but once earned, gives it so completely. The designer is a world traveler, an afficionado of different cultures and customs, but she is a patriot to the very marrow, and one who has risked life, limb and sanity for her duchesse and the Crown she serves.

With the Dowager's attention on her, the ducal agent falls quiet, fingertip tapping absently on the armrest of her chair, eyes turned inward in thought. "December," she begins. "A little over half a year ago, then. Would you remember the vessel's name, my lady dowager?" She hands the parchment gently back to her. "In my experience, the trick to any great, but complicated lie rests on two things - brevity and some kernel of truth to make it credible. I trust that if the letter is indeed a forgery, whoever composed this knows these two rules rather well. If nothing else, we can be assured that some of the contents in this letter is truthful, we simply have to determine which ones. And I believe the easiest way to do this is to trace Lord Richard's journey the day he went missing. The correspondence mentions a boat sinking, and pirates off the coast of Menekhet. To your knowledge, was he taking a trip to the country at the time?"

—-

Charlène inclines her head to Isabelle's words, her gaze going thoughtful as she tries to remember. "His ship was called Etoille du Soir, I think. He was actually headed for Ephesium, if I recall correctly, to visit the Royal House there. On his way, he wanted to pay the Pharaoh of Menekhet a visit. Politics." A faint smile there. "I heard he was lingering for a few days longer there, before he sailed onwards. But that is all I know. Some reports reached us of the ship having been attacked by pirates. There was some wreckage found along the coast, that showed signs of a fire. His signet ring was found and sent to Pointe de l'Oeste. So that is the proof upon which Richard de Morhban was declared dead."

—-

"Then we know that the composer of the document is at the very least familiar with his presumed fate. Were those details widespread, or known only to insiders in the Duc de Kusheth's court?" Isabelle's finger stops moving, before she uncrosses her legs. "Either way, we at least have a trail in which to check - if this Jean-Louis does exist, and did arrange for the Etoille du Soir to be attacked, someone in port might still remember him." Her teeth worry on her bottom lip faintly.

After a few moments of careful rumination, she looks back up at the two other ladies present. "Say that the Duc was implicated and wrested out of his position, tried for treason, even, for orchestrating the murder of a ducal heir. Who stands to gain the most from that outcome?"

—-

The Duchesse leans back in her seat, elbow on the armrest and the chin resting on the back of her hand, as she listens thoughtfully. "It has been known, at least that Lord Richard had gone missing. Being a Ducal son, especially one who had attained the position of heir, his fate has been of course part of courtly gossip." A sigh there. "As much as I would like to stay out of these Kusheline matters… I have promised Charlène she will be safe here. I will by no means pursue any official investigation in this matter."

Charlène Morhban de Fhirze, meanwhile, considers a moment before she gives her reply. "Who would benefit? One could say, that if Quintien would be relieved of his title, it would be up to the Crown to decide the succession. After all, Quintien's branch of the family most probably would not be allowed to retain the title of the family. It may be suggested that I return to House Morhban and become Duchesse." Wry amusement twists her lips. "Or that my sister, married to a Prince of the Blood would offer one of her sons for this positions." A light shrug of her shoulders occurs before she adds, "But in general, one could argue this overall affair could provoke the ire of His Royal Highness, and maybe jeopardize the close connection he has had to House Morhban in the past. Who would benefit from House Morhban falling from grace?" It is a rethorical question, really as becomes clear from the look she gives both Armandine and Isabelle.

—-

There is a pregnant pause from the dark-haired Valais woman from her seat at the wake of the duchesse's declaration, and one that doesn't last. Isabelle leans forward at that, fingers curling loosely over her right armrest. "I understand, Your Grace. Launching an official investigation would draw criticism. Kushelines have always been jealous of their own culture and affairs, there will be many who will say that if you did so, you will be overreaching." There's a glance over at Charlene. "However, you promised the lady dowager amnesty and as it's clear that she is a target of hostile elements from her own province, javelins might still be pointed at your direction. Perhaps not so brazenly as an assassination, but other methods that are just as hurtful and permanent. I would at the very least recommend keeping an eye on the matter, if not just to ensure that you know what you need to in order to protect yourself and your guest. If you would allow me, I'd like to continue my work in this regard." There's an inquiring tilt of her head towards Armandine, as well as a faint smile. "Unless you have accounted for that already, Your Grace."

Charlene next, and after her outline of the current situation, the young lady pauses. It is a rhetorical question, really, but with an answer so obvious, there is a legitimate concern that it is too obvious. "House Shahrizai," she supplies readily.

Still, it's a little too early to make conclusions on that end. "I hope you find safety and succor here, my lady dowager. Your Grace, I should beg my leave before I overstay my welcome. To the rest of the city, I'm simply an artist plying my trade in these halls, after all. But before I leave, I'd like to know what else you would have me do now that I've returned."

—-

The Morhban by birth inclines her head to Isabelle's reply to a question that probably didn't require such. "They would have more than one possible motive," she remarks vaguely, before she falls silent, content to leave the final word to the Duchesse of Eisande.

"Charlène will stay here, an official guest now, and I daresay she will be seen at the upcoming festivities of the tournament.", Armandine sums up her view of the matter. "As for the leads you mentioned. I would not ask of you to abandon all your other duties. You are too much a presence that would be missed here. If you come by any more information, by chance, I would however like to hear about it."

—-

"Of course, Your Grace. Thy will be done."

With that, Isabelle rises from her seat and bows from the waist towards the two ladies. "By your leave, Duchesse. If you have any need of me further, please do not hesitate to let me know, as always."

If there is nothing else, the woman will retrieve her portfolio, and exit the Solar.

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