(1310-09-12) She Who Shears the Black Sheep
Summary: In the dead of night, in the middle of tournament season, Isabelle receives a visitor with whom she has a particularly interesting history: Emmanuelle Shahrizai nó Mandrake, the former Dowayne of Mont Nuit's Mandrake House.
RL Date: September 13-14, 2018
Related: None
isabelle emmanuelle 

Loft Salon - Courtly Couture

While the downstairs looks like a gleaming white gallery in which fabric functions as paint, the upstairs of Courtly Couture is dominated by Isabelle's personal office and salon, and it has been designed to look like a lavish sitting room and study. Hardwood floors of a rich, dark color have been installed throughout and decorated with fine rugs, and set with a stone fireplace that pumps heat through the entire building for the comfort of the owner and her staff in Eisande's colder months. The actual sitting area is tastefully furnished with plush furniture and mirrors and towards the windows overlooking Market Promenade and Marsilikos' cityscape is a large mahogany desk, arranged with parchment, writing tools and a few books.

There are shelves everywhere and books in various subjects could be found within them, mostly about art and color theory, but others such as treatises on other countries and cultures find a comfortable home with the rest. The large windows are framed with layered drapery, from translucent to full block-out curtains depending on the owner's mood. A large, comfortable chair is placed behind the desk as well as a small bar on the far side, set with various bottles of wine and liquor, and gleaming with crystal decanters. Framed maps and group portraits and sketches fill the walls of the space - things that do not just chart Isabelle's travels, but also the people who have become longtime patrons. Some of these faces are familiar, for those who have traveled themselves - most of her patrons overseas make up the nobility and aristocratic elite of other countries.


Courtly Couture's revamped look and interior has been in business for just a few months and upon arrival, one can clearly glimpse just how fast business is booming during the day. Isabelle's very professional staff, donned in crisp, black-and-white livery to match the decor, are all milling about assisting other customers by the time Ailene and her party arrive, and at the very back, a hive of activity can be glimpsed here and there, shuffling through the corridors; bolts of silk, chiffon, organza and damask, leather, fine wool, cashmere and others are being carried by delivery men who never linger in the main floor, simply vanishing behind like harried spirits. The din of chatter is muted, but carries the flavor of hundreds of conversations at once. The business that once started life as a humble seamstress' shop has blossomed into a gleaming temple devoted to high fashion, rendered all the more bright at the acquisition of several important local patrons, the most important of these being House Mereliot.

In the heart of the hubbub, always, is Isabelle de Valais, the extremely fashionable but exceedingly particular general of this army of designers, tailors and couturieres, dressed in her typical manner whenever she is engaged in business - black breeches that fit snugly, tucked into boots that go over the knee and with tall heels so thin, they're like weapons, and a white silk blouse pulled off both shoulders to show off her elegant lines and flawless, lightly sun-kissed skin, puffy on the upper arms and bound just above the elbow by colorful ribbons, leaving the ends crimped and ruffled and showcase the impossibly detailed lace that line the edges. This, in turn, is tucked into a corset dyed a deep violet embroidered with silver, emphasizing a narrow waist and the flare of her hips. The lack of a collar is compensated for by a black cage set with geometric links and inlaid with perfectly spherical pearls that taper to a point just between the sensitive dip of her collarbones, holding a larger amethyst within its white gold setting.

An elegant hand has a leather portfolio opened, engaged in quiet congress with Colette, the building's day-to-day manager. "Lord Laurent Le Blanc asks for the impossible," she tells her, angling her dark-haired head and smiling. "And all the more reason why we should endeavor to deliver." She claps the book shut and hands it to the tailor. "We'll confer with staff once the day is done, see to it that they know to stay behind once the doors are locked."

"Yes, my lady."

"Bueno. Guillermo?" The tall, distinguished Aragonian man, and the woman's right-hand for many years, seems to melt out of the environs of the room; not unlike a well practiced chameleon who blends so well into his surroundings that he only shows his colors once called. He affords Isabelle a bow from the waist.

"I'd like to see my ledgers after that evening meeting."

That evening meeting lasts for an hour, and by the time her team is sent home, it has grown dark - the days are getting shorter now that the beginnings of Autumn have touched upon the country of angels. No one but Guillermo attends her now, ensuring that the lower levels of the salon are locked type. Her private office, gleaming with its various personal artifacts, its numerous books and maps, the unnaturally large wolf pelt on the floor - a gift from Augustin de Trevalion - is imbued with the low light of a single lamp close to her desk, never upon it, and with her back to the door, she flips over a few pages of those ledgers that she had asked Guillermo to pull out and prepare for her. Her long, slim shadow casts over the floor.

Outside the yawning windows behind her desk, Marsilikos' nightlife is in full swing, reflective of tournament season - fireworks pop in an array of color from the port, and the foot traffic outside is considerable. Numerous private fetes, and several public ones from local establishments, are in full swing still despite the late hour. But here she is, working. She has not gotten to where she is by being idle.

Discreet and forewarned feet encased in tall, heeled boots not unlike Isabelle's own (they almost certainly come from the same exclusive shoemaker in the City of Elua), make their way unhurriedly from rug to rug… Even the poor wolf has a taste of the fantasy, of being walked all over by Emmanuelle Shahrizai nó Mandrake, alas too late to enjoy it.

Her sleek shadow merges with Isabelle's own as she approaches from behind her, a dark figure infiltrating the couturière's circle of light, steps and breath trained to such a softness that here, in Isabelle's own most private place, where she's gainfully employed on an ordinary evening, where she has no especial reason to be on her guard, where Guillermo is watching over her like the elegant father bear he is, it can only be the scent that warns her she is no longer alone. That impossible scent, conjured up perhaps out of memory, the spice of it so sharp upon the palate and then the leathery, musky notes that linger, resinous and warm…

A hand falls on the back of Isabelle's chair. "I like that corset," Emmanuelle confides in a low, considering purr. She never raises her voice. She never needs to.

The wolf pelt is a massive thing, black mottled with gray and white, and with fur so thick it is downright luxurious, eyes replaced by large orbs of amberglass from Angoulême. It stares frozen at the elegant feet of Emmanuelle Shahrizai nó Mandrake as she crosses the threshold of Isabelle's private office like a moving shadow, slipping silently along hardwood floors that somehow do not creak at her approach.

It is the scent that tells her first that she isn't alone, and were it not for the fact that Isabelle trusts Guillermo Torres implicitly, she would be more apprehensive than she is. Her stylus stops in mid-scribble, resting as it is on her right hand when the slender silhouette of the former courtesan splashes over her own. She is not a woman who misses much, changes in the very air of her vicinity are often what she notes first when someone decides to invade, but this visitor is as surprising as it is unexpected. Still, despite knowing all of these things, she feels her heartbeat ratchet up a pace or two faster.

She has read somewhere that scent is the most effective way to trigger memory, and with Emmanuelle looming behind her, still unseen, she can experience the truth of it as her torrid history unfolds in her mind's eye in a quick cascade of images: White-hot flashes of pain and the fall of the jagged shards of youthful, crumbling resolve, the whole of her falling to pieces at the repetition of the caress and the lash until tears blurred her vision and her senses swam; the struggle to keep her consciousness a thing in which she has staked her hopes, her very life….because one day, it just might. It is a novel thing for the couturière to encounter people from her past, especially ones that have some connection to her other life. The woman hovering over her, as subtly domineering as she remembers, is one of them.

She tosses her stylus on her open ledger, leaning back against her seat, a stray tress brushing into the curl of Emmanuelle's fingers on the wooden frame. Dark eyes shot with gold lift in an angle towards the woman, her smile an easy, languid thing.

"Madame," she murmurs - the only woman in the world she calls that. It is fitting. Her face tilts, the silken curve of her cheek fitting subtly against the former Dowayne's knuckles, gaze lidding faintly. "I am broken, but not dead."

Her customary greeting, every time she saw her after a long voyage. Code of a kind, this time delivered to ascertain whether the shadow is real, and not a product of her tortured conscience.

This Emmanuelle is wholly real and soon makes herself tangible. Her white hand, skilled alike in hurting and in healing, the instrument of a thousand tortures and the bringer of sweet reprieves, uncurls from the chair and transfers its attentions to Isabelle's cheek. Perfectly manicured fingernails, their oval shape rather pointed, graze over the younger woman's skin where they could so easily cut into it instead. Then she offers her hand to be kissed. A favour she has by no means granted every time they've met. It's one of the few outward signs she gives of her approval, when the patron's stamina or the patient's improvement is pleasing to her.

"You look well," Emmanuelle pronounces, and withdraws her touch. She steps away, hands on slim hips, and lets herself be seen casting her measuring gaze about Isabelle's office. Forming opinions, to be sure. The décor is rather a long way from that of the sombre, secluded, unnaturally quiet chambers in which they have previously met one another.

How can anyone ever describe the relief this brings, for someone who has spent most of her life away from the beating heart of the cause she represents? To return to those who have shaped her into the creature that she has become? Isabelle's lashes kiss her cheeks as they lower further, the edges of that perfect manicure grazing her skin. They do not open when she tilts her head, as if able to sense where the elegant limbs are without so much as seeing them at all, lips finding her knuckles in the briefest touch. She eases away soon after, her gaze finding her again.

You look well.

"I am well." Endless legs cross by the knee, her hand gesturing to her surroundings. "What do you think of the trappings of my new life? It certainly capitalizes on certain innate talents I was born with." There's a curious incline of her head towards the other woman. "Word has it that you have retired."

Mirrors intermittently reflect Emmanuelle's dark figure as she prowls about, their all too veracious surfaces revealing her to be a smaller and more delicate woman than is generally apparent to eyes studying her directly. She doesn't look back at Isabelle as they speak, her cold blue gaze busily occupied with exploring instead the inside of her mind, made manifest in this chamber. She runs a fingertip across a row of books, gauging the quality of the binding as well as scanning the titles; she picks up a bottle of wine to read its label before returning it neatly to its place (the oldest and rarest, naturally: she has a sense for these things); she subjects to an even closer scrutiny the framed maps and portraits and souvenirs of Isabelle's life that decorate her walls, no doubt making a hundred connections between what she sees in this bright room and what she has heard in far darker ones. Who else could?

"You heard correctly," she offers at last, stepping back to gauge and then forward to effect a minute adjustment to the angle of a map of southern Aragonia. Perhaps a maid disarranged it whilst dusting, or a client brushed against it in too voluminous a gown. "I am taking up residence in Marsilikos for a time. Before I arrive here officially… I am paying certain calls."

Her life as splashed on the walls, shelves and floors of her private office seemingly reveals an open book. It speaks of a woman who is not only proud of her accomplishments and independence, but one who has nothing to hide. In the end, however, they are all mostly negligible bits of a more complicated matrix.

Isabelle finally rises from her seat, striding over to the small bar closest to her desk, pouring herself a snifter of brandy. "What is your poison today, Madame?" she wonders, turning as she watches the slight, but graceful form move over her personal space. One would expect Emmanuelle to flit around with a much more airy grace, but her stature makes her position and predilections all the more subtle and deceptive - she stalks like a jungle cat twice her size, hunting for small but revealing bits. It is only when her attention turns back to her that she idly swirls the bottle in her hand, lifting her brows in an inquiring fashion.

I am paying certain calls.

"Then I am honored to be counted among that number," she says, taking a sip from her glass, savoring its smoothness and burn in equal measure. "Where do you intend to reside in Marsilikos? My initial assumption would be that you would be welcome at the Dome, with your illustrious sister."

As Emmanuelle continues her pursuit of tasty morsels of hidden truth — a diet she has lived on these many years, and looks well on indeed — she treats Isabelle's belongings with a casual familiarity no one else would dare, not just smelling the flowers but rearranging them, examining the fabrics of her different curtains and adjusting their drape, taking down a book from a shelf and perusing it with a distant and clinical curiosity. "I am not thirsty," she answers absently, reading. "Sit, if you will. You know why I'm here, Isabelle. You have a decision to make."

I am not thirsty.

Isabelle returns the bottle on the bar, before moving back towards her desk, but not to sit on the chair. She hikes up a leg against the corner of the large, mahogany affair that dominates most of the east side of the room, her other leg extended to the floor, half-perching upon it. She was never one to sit for long and now that she has something else with which to whet her curiosity, she angles herself in such a way so she could watch the woman roam around her room and avail herself to its sights, scents and textures. She doesn't seem to mind - anyone else would take offense, and perhaps were Emmanuelle someone else, she wouldn't have allowed it. But her smile remains, an arm crossing over her chest so she could prop her other elbow against the angle it makes, the snifter poised over her lips, but not taking another pull of it as of yet.

You have a decision to make.

Anyone else would be confused, but the designer immediately comprehends what the words entail. "I would have thought said decision was apparent, if you intend to remain," she remarks finally. "I don't trust easily, and I would rather place my faith on known and proven elements than new and unfamiliar ones." Her teeth clip delicately against the crystalline edge of her snifter. "I've even made it easy for us to interact outside of the Chamber."

The book shuts with a muted thump and Emmanuelle returns it to its place, lining it up with its fellows in exact parallel with the edge of the shelf. She turns slowly on her heel and comes nearer, standing just a little closer to Isabelle than anyone else would. She knows every little trick to put someone off balance — but, on her, they're not tricks.

She wraps her hand around Isabelle's and guides the bell-shaped glass away from the couturière and towards herself, inhaling deeply without drinking, looking deep into Isabelle's all the while as the aroma of that fine cognac teases at her senses. She always gives back more silence than one might know what to do with, letting interlocutors have every opportunity to reveal themselves, to talk a little too much, to give away what they might wish they haven't.

She takes a slight step back and settles herself in Isabelle's vacated chair, and slowly raises one leg and then the other to prop her booted feet on the desk with ankles crossed, amongst but not quite disturbing Isabelle's work. She always has an uncanny shine on her boots. No chains and no spurs today, however, hence that silent feline prowl up the stairs.

"Ah," she drawls, looking up with as much confidence as any other might look down, "but do we meet as strangers? Old acquaintances who frequent the same shoemaker? Did we meet at Cereus House on the Longest Night and dance together till dawn?" she inquires drily. "You know it is your choice; in this," but only, ever this, "I shall follow your lead."

There is no move to get away from her when she steps in so close to her personal bubble - it would disconcert anyone, but Isabelle remains on her easy perch on the corner of her desk, her expression unchanged, lashes lowering as that trademarked scent blankets her senses. It is a subtle thing, the way she enjoys it, but she has always been a tactile creature, and like any bon vivant worth the term, she is always willing to indulge her senses, no matter how mild or dangerous the act is. There is no resistance either when those pale fingers curl over her own, their contrasts apparent in coloring - Isabelle's looks always favored the shades of the royal house of Aragonia and that, by itself, has enabled her to safely travel through territories hostile to d'Angelines like Skaldia and Vralia, but Emmanuelle is a Shahrizai to the marrow, with skin so pale it is almost translucent, and blue eyes that can cut like diamonds. Fire and ice, summer and winter, or so poets would say - but that is deceptive too.

There's an angled look to her desk, when Emmanuelle perches her feet upon it, but only to make sure that her bootheels aren't actually on her ledgers.

"I wouldn't mind the public knowing that I was a favorite of yours, and yours mine," Isabelle decides after careful rumination. "It would help my growing reputation as a purveyor of style, and provide a handy explanation as to why I no longer patronise the House of Thorns in Marsilikos, because I would only subject myself to the fine but ruthless hand of the former Dowayne of Mont Nuit's Mandrakes." Her smile returns, mischief upon the line of it, the devil flitting across the darker depths of that fathomless stare. "It may seem contradictory given no such favor was hinted at in the last occasions where we appeared together in the same function, but I think that could be explained away by Mandrake tendencies, and it'd be more convenient to have that explanation than not in the event someone witnesses me paying you a visit in strange hours, and vice-versa. Hours that are not covered by my reputation as a designer whose private consultations are in demand."

The former Dowayne's lips curve into a broad, mocking smile as she listens to this, sitting there at her ease in Isabelle's own chair with one arm draped negligently over its arm and the other hand resting in her lap. The lamplight sets her bracelet softly glinting. Real chainmaille, formed with silver links, each one meticulously polished by some servant's hand. Real black pearls, enormous ones, brought up from the deeps by the divers of Hellas. And, at the centre, an onyx plaque engraved with mandrake flowers. A reminder of the marque she rarely displays.

"… Oh, yes," she purrs at length, "nothing but the best for the wild and willful black sheep of House Valais. Tell me, are you so certain you're a favourite of mine? Are you so certain I shall call upon you, or receive you, at hours when decent people are sound asleep? I am a courtesan no more," she points out, cool as ever. "I follow not Naamah's will but my own."

Her mocking smile culls not a reaction from Isabelle, whose easy own remains in place as she takes a quiet sip from her brandy.

"Why, Madame, and here I thought that's precisely the sort of reputation you cultivate?" Brows lift higher to her hairline in an inquiring fashion. "She with such edges that they can shear even the blackest of sheep to submission, and turn them into wool? What does a poor father do with a daughter he can't control?"

Fingers gesture to one side. "Either way, the past is malleable, I've lived most of my life as an expatriate and it pushes the limits of belief as to what people remember or do not remember about me - but I can't say the same about yourself, considering you've been plenty visible in the last few decades around these parts, and I'm not above improvising. I've done it before, the trick is to be consistent with what follows. What does concern me is the present, and the future, and there are elements I have to deal with that pay no heed to my hours, or yours. Unless of course you choose not to avail yourself, and if that's the case, then I have absolutely no idea why you've come to see me."

There's a glance at the ledgers and sketches on her desk. "…unless it's a new wardrobe, of course."

"… You do need shearing," observes Emmanuelle distantly. The hand at the end of her extended arm turns, her bracelet shifting and gleaming about her narrow wrist, and with one slender finger she points to a place on the carpet within easy reach for her.

When Isabelle has knelt in response to that familiar signal Emmanuelle's fingers tangle in her hair, gently one moment and ungently the next, unbraiding and removing ornaments, re-arranging Isabelle just the way she re-arranged Isabelle's study. To her taste.

"You know I came because I would never acknowledge any past patron of mine in the presence of others, unless by arrangement; and here, more than in Elua, your circle is likely to overlap with mine. The question required an answer: have we a past to be spoken of, or a past to be forgotten? But you know also," she lowers her voice still further, into a disapproving and — to one who knows her — an ominous whisper, "there is a wide difference between acknowledging a past and crafting a future. I don't like it when you presume, Isabelle. If you wish to be a favourite of mine, or to remain so, or to be known so, we must cure you of that tendency."

You do need shearing.

Isabelle laughs; it is nothing derisive, the sound low and rich - the audible equivalent of smoke-filled rooms and dark chocolate. "Well," she remarks gamely, draining the rest of her brandy and settling it carefully on the desk. "I don't know about you, but I personally find it tiresome to be perpetually naked and if that was my preferred state of being, I would be establishing something other than a sartorial empire."

The familiar gesture has those dark eyes shot with gold following the curve of that directive finger, though she doesn't leap to the task right away. There's a subtle, quiet tracking of that huntress' gaze to the broad windows looking out in the city, and its now-shuttered drapery - whatever that entails, she finds some assurance in its present state, or somewhere beyond it. So she rises, her tall form crossing the scant distance between herself and the former Dowayne, lowering herself in such a smooth, controlled, and gradual curtsey that it extends all the way to the floor without any visible trouble on the designer's part, and settles there completely on her knees once they touch the ground.

Lashes lid, a feminine, feline quality to the depths within when those Shahrizai fingers thread through her midnight locks - gently, then urgently, pulled forward until her head is tilted back to meet those blue-diamond irises; pins tipped with crystals scatter on the rugs like discarded stars, left glittering against thread and varnish. Lips part, almost unconsciously, throat bared submissively…for a moment, she is sixteen again, experiencing for the first time the pins-and-needles sensation an expert hand can deliver through the roots of her hair.

…there is a wide difference between acknowledging a past and crafting a future…

"But they are inevitably connected, are they not?" Isabelle murmurs. "The past and the future."

Her remarks about her presumption has that same, easy smile returning again, before it fades, a disappearance so subtle even the sharpest scrutiny will have difficulty tracking the wake of it. "My tendency to be a provocateur predates even you, Madame," she replies. "And out there, it's served me well, you and I know well enough that sometimes, trees need a good shaking for much needed fruit to fall. It is something that I must keep. Though…" That usual mischief appears again. "…I suppose that if there's anyone who could get me to stay it for your purposes, it would be you."

If this were a secluded and deniable patron room in the bowels of Mandrake House Isabelle would pay dearly for each half a second she delays her submission. But Emmanuelle is retired, now, and living a life of leisure. She exhibits a certain tolerance, in light of the fact the girl didn't come seeking her tonight. Each of them is out of her usual balance. Her hand simply stays busy in Isabelle's hair as she listens to these excuses. The links of her maille bracelet make soft sounds against one another scarcely audibly as she tosses hairpins left and right, each with its own delicate ping. "Only divine will is inevitable," she chides in that quiet, faraway manner of hers, which serves to create a barrier even though she's drawn Isabelle so near she can surely smell the Mandrake's skin beneath her complex, spicy cologne, her leather and her silk.

And then she gets a good thick handful of those silky dark tresses and twists them tight about her fingers, pulling Isabelle's head closer till her cheek rests against the warmth of a buckskin-covered thigh. She's looking down, now, into the girl's eyes. The angle from which they have most often seen one another, for all the difference in their stature runs the other way.

"If you can't stay it for your own purposes, then what are you?" she asks her former patron. "If your pride and your love of yourself won't permit you to modify your behaviour even when you seek certain considerations, then what are you?" she repeats. "If there is only one Isabelle de Valais, worn in every season, worn even when she offends, then what are you?"

And the change of venue is undoubtedly the reason why Isabelle deems herself free to act more like herself: they are at her place, not a patron room, Emmanuelle is retired and this is no assignation, but a visit. The fact that the younger woman remembers, pays her deference and submits are hints enough of the currently undescribed depths of her gratitude - whatever it is that Emmanuelle has done for her - that she is not otherwise obligated to pay outside of the retired courtesan's domain. Gratitude, and respect.

But as far as the work is concerned, she is a staunch protector over what she needs out there, and these days, nobody knows what she does better than her.

Those white fingers tangle and twist at those silken tresses and their midnight lustre, pulled and drawn until the side of her face fits against Emmanuelle's thigh, half-lid eyes angled upwards towards those unyielding, incandescent blue points above her. The way she's positioned, the look of her is almost dreamy, blissful in a way that should run incongruously with the position she has been arranged into. But it isn't, not really, not by a mile and one could even say it is less the woman's fingers in her hair and more the weight of their unorthodox and occasionally lurid history that keeps her pinned where she is. Her head tilts slightly, the curve of her face dragged up against that supple limb; the gesture is almost affectionate.

"I was addressing the permanence implicit in curing me of it, Madame," the designer replies, her voice low at the change in their proximity. "Which would rid me of the option of exercising it entirely. And permanent it would be, given your expertise in certain purifications."

The chill in Emmanuelle's voice lifts just enough for ears attuned to her to discern it, the frost that might lay waste to a garden full of flowers melting instead into a nourishing dew.

"Ah," she murmurs, "is that—?" She lets out a deeper breath, which in anyone else might be the precursor of laughter — but her words when they come are serious and considered. "Isabelle, when have I ever sought to weaken you?" She underlines the sentiment by tugging at her handful of lustrous dark hair, drawing Isabelle's head to a less natural angle.

"Where you shouldn't presume, I hope I have given you reason enough to trust. If you come to me broken," she states plainly, "I will mend you, for I don't like to see good work go to waste. To anyone who inquires, you will be a former patron remembered fondly enough. If you're a favourite of mine…" Her eyelids lower infinitesimally, and then in lifting her head she breaks the link between their gazes. "You'll know it." And she releases the couturière's beautiful hair; and unfolds her booted ankles from her desk and her lean, subtly powerful figure from her chair.

Her humor is reflected by the way Isabelle tilts her cheek against the former Dowayne's thigh, her smile pressed against the woman's leg. "Never to weaken and only to strengthen," she replies easily. "But it wouldn't be me, either, if I didn't acknowledge your thoroughness and take it seriously. You ground that out of me when I was sixteen."

Once released, she rolls her head back, waves like midnight silk cascading down her back - it's rare enough that anyone ever sees it loose, always in some kind of coiffure outside of closed doors. Rising from her position by the woman's seated form, she runs the edges of her impeccable manicure along her scalp, each caress and stroke mapping out the tingles delivered there by the root. "Well enough," the designer replies, taking her spent snifter and moving back to the bar to pour herself another glass - she has always been a hard drinker; these days, she can handle any spirit. "In the end, what is important is just that." Lashes lower over her eyes as she draws her attention over her liquor. "It is difficult to trust in my line of life."

The silence stretches for a heartbeat or two, before she turns around and rests the small of her back against the surface of her bar, one dexterous wrist swirling her brandy.

"So with that established," she continues, meeting the woman's blue eyes across the way. "What else can I do for you today, Madame?"

"You ground that out of me when I was sixteen."

Emmanuelle acknowledges the justice of the remark with a subtle shift in her expression, a casting of her gaze over Isabelle as she rises from that comfortable chair warmed for her unwittingly by her hostess. She lingers with a hand on the chair's back, watching the Isabelle of twenty-three cross her office with that unconsciously confident stride, pour out the fine brandy paid for by her own relentless professional efforts, and drink it as boldly as she has the right. The picture is a satisfying one. These seven years have been spent well, in the main. This Isabelle of twenty-three, this Isabelle of tonight, has contrived after all to please her most exacting tutor… by blossoming so richly from the Isabelle of sixteen.

And so with past and present arranged to her liking, with more matters decided than she spoke of aloud, Emmanuelle says simply: "You might show me to your door. I have a carriage waiting."

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