(1310-09-11) To Fill A Void
Summary: Catherine Valais is interrupted at her work in the Maison Sanglante, by the one to whom it is invariably dedicated.
RL Date: 05/03/2019
Related: None.
emmanuelle catherine 

Courtyard — La Maison Sanglante

The labyrinthine dark and frescoed passageways of the Maison Sanglante debouche at length into a small sitting-room wherein each piece of distinctly upright furniture is black-lacquered and elaborately gilded with, at the farthest consent to comfort, a seat of woven cane. One wall of it consists entirely of a trio of double glass doors which open outwards, shadowed by black-lacquered shutters which open inwards, and shielded by floor-length drapes of soft black velvet (in winter) or black tussore silk (in summer) edged in gold-embroidered Shahrizai keys.

Beyond is a rectangular courtyard of centuries-old, weathered stone: surely one of the house's original features. To the left its longer side is formed by a high wall of stone, set into which a niche houses a stone statue of Eisheth. From her open hands water pours down into a half-circle basin where water-lilies grow. Along the opposite side to the right runs a corridor lined with black-lacquered shutters of the same make but half-length, that are often left open. At the courtyard's farther end the same arrangement of floor-to-ceiling windows and shutters gives onto a large bedchamber, into which the corridor also leads.

The courtyard has no permanent features of its own besides the fountain, several old stone planters growing earthy-scented mandrakes, and a solidly-built whipping-post set deep into the mossy flagstones just outside the bedchamber. But furniture may easily be carried out into it by servants.

Ropes run overhead, along which a white oiled-silk awning may be drawn in wet weather, or lanterns of coloured glass on dark evenings.

How slowly has the new Maison Sanglante grown up inside the hollowed-out shell of the buildings which occupied this land before: a honeycomb shaped and filled by a swarm of peculiarly gifted bees lured by the sweetness of Shahrizai and Mereliot coin, from Elua, from the Caerdicci states, from the islands of the Far East and even from Marsilikos itself.

Over a full decade and more — under Edouard Shahrizai’s supervision, and with the occasional intimation, underscored by that lady’s two fleeting inspection tours, that he was acting also in the interests of his daughter Emmanuelle — the work has progressed till there’s hardly a suite of chambers incomplete, the foreign master craftsmen have gone their separate ways, and the local masons and bricklayers and carpenters and marqueters and drapers who achieved or heightened their own mastery in the course of it, have little left to do but apply discreet and costly gilding to this dark lily. Of course they worked in the main upon separate sections — and certain tasks were the province of foreign labourers, imported for privacy’s sake and shipped home again when they’d done their part. There’s hardly anyone whose head contains a full floor-plan of the house, save its master and perhaps its future mistress.

One who knows more than perhaps she ought is Catherine Valais, who since the beginning has imbued the house with her own gifts and her own longings and let it shape her in turn, into the slight, dark, quiet woman she is today, whose gown of deep purple velvet covers elaborate and costly underpinnings. She is a specialist in marquetry and gilding, two skills in high demand within these walls; she has come with a small and perfect looking-glass, the last piece required to turn a certain small sitting-room into a miracle of black and golden aesthetic perfection. There’s a place on the wall, you see, that simply can’t be left unbalanced and empty. It affronts the eye. It kept Catherine up nights, till she realised what belonged there.

The guards admit her, though not her porter. The looking-glass in its wrappings is taken from her hands by a black-gowned servant with whom she shares a complete mutual familiarity of faces, though she’s never heard the woman’s name. Another such creature, silent as Shahrizai servants tend to be, walks ahead with a ring of the iron keys one requires to get anywhere at all in the Maison Sanglante. They conduct Catherine by their own narrow and hidden passageways, rather than via the richly decorated route reserved for the family and their guests: she is here in her capacity as a retainer of this house, not a lady of the Valais.

In the sitting-room her escort dwindles from two maids to one. She has the necessary tools in her satchel and she sets to work, hanging her mirror just so. The only sound here that she doesn’t make herself is the trickle of water from the hands of the Eisheth statue in the courtyard. The doors are all open today, as they sometimes are, to let the chamber breathe.

The scent comes to her first, just as she’s standing back to make sure the looking-glass is straight. A faint waft of something spicy, growing resinous and warm as it teases at her nostrils and then insinuates itself into the back of her brain and rushes headlong down her spine. She knew that cologne well once upon a time, though it has hardly come her way since.

Then a second face appears in the glass, reflected next to her own. The pale and painted mask of Emmanuelle Shahrizai: etched, now, with deeper lines than in years gone by, but unaltered in its essentials. The hooded and kohl-shadowed blue diamond eyes, the smooth powdered cheeks, the wide mouth as red as the blood she so deftly sheds. The bold patrician beak of a nose, which has always lent her a predatory aspect in keeping with her nature.

She meets Catherine’s eyes in the mirror. She is not smiling, but nor does she appear at all wroth at finding a marquetière in her chambers. In that uisghe voice which time has lowered into a rich and smoky new register, she pronounces: “Good afternoon, Catherine.”

The Valais had been in her own pleasant little world these past ten minutes or so as the glass was hung, taking pride and care in getting the height just so, lining it up so the inlaid sections of the frame line up absolutely perfectly with the panels of the walls. Seamless. It’s perfection. Nothing in the world could be better than this.

Until suddenly something in the world is better than this, and it’s that long remembered scent, followed by the face, much more real and closer than it’s been in so many years. She has to remember to breathe before she’s able to respond. Not only is it Emmanuelle Shahrizai, there, in the flesh, but Emmanuelle Shahrizai remembered her name.

Dropping into a too-deep curtsey and lowering her eyes, she replies with an astonished if subdued tone. “Lady Shahrizai.” She considers adding more, but decides that her work can speak for her far better than she and dips away to one side, sweeping her skirts out of the way with both hands, so the lady of the house can admire that perfect addition to the sitting room.

The lady of the house, manifested so suddenly from Elua, or the aether, or a daydream of Catherine’s own, stands before her dressed casually for a late summer afternoon, in a slate blue silk shirt with the sleeves folded up almost to her elbows, and black breeches tucked into thigh-high boots of soft black leather with bold cuffs and high spiked heels. Her figure is as trim as ever, sleek and boyish and lacking in feminine softnesses: a marriage of nature and inclination underlined by the unnatural bulge at the front of those snug-fitting breeches. The open neck of her shirt hints at a complex silver necklace worn inside it, her only article of jewellery: she used to wear more than that, in her youth. Her blue-black hair, swept back into a smooth and lustrous chignon, is threaded now with white she’s too arrogant to dye.

It cannot be said that Catherine’s curtsey seems too deep, to a woman who has so many times seen her on her knees. She observes this obeisance impassively, then steps forward into the space left for her and makes a closer examination of the looking-glass in its simple but ideally symmetrical frame of precious lacquered hardwoods. This occupies her for some moments, during which she doesn’t seem conscious of the woman who made it. At last she drawls: “I wondered why we were still carrying you on our books.” A beat. “Now I see why.”

Catherine chews down on the inside of her lip as she hovers in this lowered position, eyes just about drifting up to take in Emmanuelle’s middle instead of simply admiring her boots, no matter how well fitted they are. And then, finally, as in so many dreams, that approval, that glorious approval. She exhales a wavering breath, waiting for the moment that must surely follow; she’s rehearsed it often enough in her mind at night, or while drifting off into midday reverie. Emmanuelle is back, and all shall be marvellous.

Those sensitive chirurgeon’s fingertips lift to caress the looking-glass’s seamless frame, straying over its perfect proportions and its delicate gilding… “The chamber did need something else on this wall,” Emmanuelle decides, withdrawing her touch from Catherine’s handiwork as so often from Catherine’s own trembling person, “I noticed the gap last night.”

She turns to face her, privately amused by the continuing curtsey. Too amused, in fact, to grant explicit permission for the other woman to rise. “You’ve grown in skill since you began to work for us,” she observes. “Have you made other such pieces for the house, of late?”

If we’re quite honest, it’s beginning to burn, this awkward position. Not that a small thing like that is going to force Catherine to rise before she’s bidden. Her gaze risks lifting a few inches higher, admiring the glimpse of the silver necklace at her neck, but she’s fast enough to respond. “Four, Lady Shahrizai. This is the fourth.” Because that might need clarification. And somehow she can manage numbers like this in an instant. The number of pieces she’s made, the exact measurement of a piece of veneer, an angle, a depth, these are honed to be second nature. It’s only with unimportant things like income and expenditure that she has trouble remembering that the one ought really match the other.

Emmanuelle is no less conscious of the burning sensation which must surely by now be afflicting the thighs and the calves of this charming former patron. She’s curious, now. Just how long is Catherine going to wait for her word? Moment by moment she’s relearning the other woman’s nature, seeing just how little it has been altered by time, how easily she falls back into the habits of twenty years past… “Four pieces in all,” she inquires cordially, thumbs hooked into her pockets, shoulders squared and stance easy, “or frames for four looking-glasses?”

“Four for glasses, Lady Shahrizai,” comes the immediate answer, a little faster than strictly necessary, or perhaps just as fast as is necessary, as she then draws in a steadying breath and shifts her weight subtly to relieve the discomfort of her position. She’s set her course now, and she’d best stick by it.

“I’ve been working on a number of other pieces, my lady?” Catherine offers up hesitantly, while the Shahrizai is interested in her work, in case this moment can be strung out a little longer. “The drop leaf table..?” She doesn’t point, but she tilts her entire body towards a walnut and ebony veneered piece which fits superbly against the wall by the door, in an alcove that could have been (and probably was) made for it.

Emmanuelle’s eyes follow the inclination of Catherine’s body: and then the marquetière enjoys, at least, a fine view of Emmanuelle’s spike-heeled boots and the high, taut curve of her backside as she moves away to examine the table thus indicated.

Her black-lacquered nails rap out a swift tattoo upon the ebony surface with its intricate key patterns in pale golden hardwood. “Pretty,” Emmanuelle pronounces, somewhat offhandedly. She doesn’t put up the dropped leaf, or linger in admiration, she just turns again to face the craftswoman still bent double in the hope of— well, the former Dowayne of Mandrake House does rather suppose she knows what. “Perhaps one day when I’ve the leisure you might show me the other pieces,” she suggests, “that you have made for us.”

A momentary shiver strikes Catherine’s calf, a timely reminder from her body that this is not a recommended position to hold for much longer. The only answer, of course, is to drop her rear leg a little further behind and lower herself an extra couple of inches, if only to put strain on a new muscle or two and share the load.

“Of course, Lady Shahrizai,” she’s only too eager to agree, eyes dropping away from where, yes, they did admire that backside as the former Dowayne turned, but now fix somewhere around the ankle, where the shape of the woman’s boot clad calves can only be a reminder of the agony beginning to make itself more and more fervently known in her own.

There are a great number of pieces by now, of course. She’s been working here some time, and whenever she’s here in this hallowed home she does always seem to put in that little bit of extra diligence, certain that this next piece will be The One. Running through her mind are all the frames and panels and surfaces she’s painstakingly crafted, imagining with perfect clarity how Emmanuelle must surely react to these works of creative endeavour, and mentally deciding of which she’s most proud, which must surely meet with the same approval as her mirror-frame, or more.

The weight of Emmanuelle’s gaze rests upon Catherine’s bent head, adding perhaps something subtle and unseen to the burden the craftswoman has taken onto herself. Because the toes of those leather boots are both pointing directly toward her, which means that either Emmanuelle’s looking straight at her— or she isn’t. Either scenario presents a challenge.

“… Is it your invariable habit, Catherine?” she inquires in a drawl like dark silk. “To display such humility before all those who pay for your skill?” Whereas those who pay for Emmanuelle’s skill — they’re both thinking it — may rely upon ample opportunities for humility.

She could lie, of course. She could, even if they both know it would be untruth. She could insist that this is perfectly normal behaviour for a marquetière. “No, Lady Shahrizai,” comes a quiet, apologetic voice, which Catherine is slightly surprised to find comes from her own throat. Oh. Well, apparently, no, she couldn’t lie. Dark gaze still fixed on the sharp points of the dark leather boots, she awkwardly wills herself to straighten and rise, rather pathetically hoping that this might please the unknowable lady of the house.

Emmanuelle settles back against the drop-leaf table, not quite sitting upon its edge.

As Catherine so belatedly lifts her head and then the rest of herself her employer’s blue diamond gaze meets her far warmer brown eyes and rises with her, as though drawing her up out of her curtsey by the sheer force of its hold. “… But I make you nervous,” she diagnoses drily, “even when your limbs are unbound, and I have no crop in my hand.” Her arms are in fact folded across her flat silk-shirted chest, her slender white fingers with their impeccable and gleaming black manicure arranged to advantage high upon her rolled-up sleeves.

Catherine has never been able to disguise exactly what she's thinking and how she feels, her emotions seeming to bypass brain and plaster unwittingly all over her face. So it is that when those brown eyes meet the sharp crystal stare of the other woman, her pupils are wide and there's a touch of colour high on her cheeks.

It could be interpreted as nervousness, and the way she fidgets with the showy bracelet on one wrist as she folds her hands in front of her would seem to reinforce that, but she takes a long inhalation of breath to try to fix that scent in her memory and there's a small shiver.

Nervous? Maybe. Thrilled? For sure.

Nervousness is of course a taste which recommends itself to a Mandragian palate; it comes in so many flavours, all of them delicious. Why else would the lady of the house toy this long with a mere marquetière—? With a connoisseur’s gaze Emmanuelle notices the subtle shifts in Catherine’s colour and her breath, and the tremour that runs through her upon inhaling; she discerns the subtle notes of lingering astonishment, erotic anticipation, the sheer uncertainty of how to please her, and elects to take another modest draught of such nervousness.

“You look as though you have a question for me, Catherine.”

Nervousness shifts to momentary panic, eyes widening, pulse thumping quicker, and her bracelet is left hanging as her hands pause in shock. A question? She expects a question? But then which question is it that would make her happy? Her hands go to her sides, tugging her frock, already hanging perfectly straight due to impeccable tailoring, even straighter.

“I… if it pleases you, Lady Shahrizai,” she begins, voice small, earnest, and wavering. “If my work pleases you, that is..?” She swallows, gaze lowering. It takes a lot more willpower than this Valais has ever had to hold the gaze of Emmanuelle Shahrizai for more than a few seconds at best. “How can I serve you?”

No bracelet falls without being noted by Emmanuelle’s clear, cool eyes. Not in a chamber so intimate and so quiet, where the two of them are alone but for a black-gowned maid standing in the corner and studiously paying no attention whatsoever to the conversation of her betters. It would appear that Catherine has forgotten her escort; Emmanuelle has not. Her own demeanour suggests she’s relaxed, at home — as she has every right to be, here. She tilts her head slightly as Catherine speaks — not toward her, she can hear her perfectly well — and listens without hurrying to answer, for all this has already escalated too far, too fast, as conversations with former patrons are so predictably wont to do.

“The frame of the looking-glass is very fine, as you know,” she begins, giving Catherine a slight but firm nod of acknowledgment for her labour; “and I hope, certainly, that you will continue to serve me and my father with your work upon our unfinished chambers.”

Do you know, that’ll do. That’ll do just nicely. Those words of praise from the great lady herself, proof that she’s on the right track, and an invitation to keep trying. It prompts a joyous, beaming smile, and Catherine clasps her hands together in front of her once again. It’s very fine. Emmanuelle said so. So perhaps the next piece of work will be the one to turn ‘very fine’ into ‘amazing’ and then maybe, just maybe, she’ll earn her place in the lady’s chamber where she clearly belongs, if only the Mandrake would see it. She does belong there, right? The beaming smile falters for a second into doubt, and for a moment she considers if she ought to just go back to curtseying. It’s the safe option. But then her calves are still burning and that thought goes out of the window, to be replaced with the sudden desire to look into those eyes again, and so her gaze raises, along with her hopes.

One or both are bound to be dashed down again, in any prolonged encounter with a pair of chilly Shahrizai eyes. For a long moment Emmanuelle simply regards Catherine; and then she unfolds her arms, and one hand gestures toward her satchel and the hammer and so forth laid out on top of it. “Have you finished the work you came here to do?” she asks quietly.

It’s like kicking a puppy. Why would you do that? Who would be so heartless? Oh, right. Yes. Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai. There’s a moment of hesitation as Catherine looks over to her mirror, willing there to be just one tiny thing about it out of place or in need of repair, but thanks to her own nature it is, of course, perfect.

And so she finds herself nodding slowly in answer, arms crossing around her body as she unconsciously tries to melt away into a single dimensional dot in the room. But there is always that momentary glimmer of hope. “Unless you had need of something..?”

“But I would not dream of detaining you from your professional affairs,” Emmanuelle informs her smoothly, straightening again from her lean against the drop-leaf table. “I am sure you have much to do; such intricate work must absorb a great deal of your time.”

She stands with a hand on her hip and looks about her, surveying her black and golden sitting-room… and then her eyes come back to Catherine’s face. “The next time you deliver a new piece you must bring it to show me, if I am at home,” she says seriously.

“Oh, I will,” Catherine is eager to promise, no matter that Emmanuelle could be living on the moon for all she knows. But then, if she’s living on the moon, Catherine would probably build a beautifully inlaid wooden rocket ship just so she could be there in case she’s needed. Her little eyes light up and she wrings her hands in front of her, giving the other woman a fervent nod and a hopeful smile. And somewhere in the back of her mind she’s already planning. There’s that panelling by the doors to the courtyard. That could probably stand to have something decorative worked into it, maybe some sort of mythical scene, replacing every character with the distinctive nose and sharp eyes of the Mandrake dowayne. Yes, she has to appreciate that, surely, and as her brain starts working on the details in her mind, so her expression follows each thought. As she ponders a technically challenging way to show the light and shade, so her eyes narrow in thought, and when a solution makes itself clear she inhales and gives the tiniest of nods. Her daydreaming is cut short, however, by the rather distracting form of the subject of many a daydream still remaining there, in front of her, in the flesh, which prompts a nibble of her lip and another subtle breath to fix that spicy scent into her memory along with the plans.

“… Catherine,” the object of her fixation nudges patiently, speaking as one speaks to a child who has so lost her way in thought, “you may gather your things and go.”

On which note the maid emerges from her corner, to wait expectant by the door.

It’s a see-saw of emotions today, isn’t it? No sooner are her hopes lifted than they are immediately dashed again. Dropping her eyes to the floor and doing her best to take up as little space in the world as she possibly can, Catherine awkwardly hurries forward to collect her tools in their splendidly made little container, each with its perfect place built into it, and, head down, allows the maid to chivvy her out of the door.

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