(1310-09-18) Reddened Oak
Summary: Catherine Valais leaves an offering; it is not received quite as she might have hoped. Did hope. Still hopes. (Content Warning: Small amount of blood.)
RL Date: 07/03/2019 - 09/03/2019
Related: To Fill A Void.
emmanuelle catherine 

La Maison Sanglante — Place des Mains

Directly abutting the walled compounds of Marsilikos's Night Court, and running in fact for some distance behind the Salon de la Rose Sauvage, is a house which boasts a far more modest frontage upon the Place des Mains d'Eisheth. Its name derives from a violent incident in its past; previous owners tried to redub it in the public mind, but the present ones embrace the term. By their design its three-storey façade of grey stone is shielded at street level by a high and forbidding wall of darker stone, into which is set a pair of intricately-wrought iron gates taller than any man who may ring the bell at their side. Kept locked, their curlicues of black iron are enlivened by a pattern of gilded keys.

Between the outer wall and the house stands a small stone courtyard lined at either side with wormwood trees, which impart a bitter and aromatic fragrance to the air within it. From it half a dozen stone steps rise to heavy doors of dark and ancient oak, studded with black iron and hung upon baroque hinges of the same; these open into a large, square, windowless chamber, occupying the full width of the building and yet higher than it is wide. At each side of the doors is a console table of dark purple marble veined with black, bolted to the wall above a pair of elaborate gilded legs and beneath a matching and equally baroque gilded mirror. There are no other furnishings. Sparse lighting is provided by candles in iron sconces bolted to pillars of the same purple marble, which pass into shadow on their way to support the vaulted ceiling overhead.

The light is, however, sufficient to permit examination of the frescoes which cover walls and ceiling alike from a height of perhaps four feet off the gleaming black and purple marble floor. An artist of great skill and anatomical knowledge has limned a series of scenes of Kushiel chastising sinners. Those who come to him for succour are shown enduring remarkably detailed torments before being transfigured by the raptures of his love… or, possibly, hers. In some panels Kushiel is a man and in some a woman, in others an unmistakable hermaphrodite: in all these incarnations the Punisher is depicted with the lean figure, the austere profile, and the hooded blue eyes of a lady who resides beneath this roof.

On the back wall this unconventional masterpiece is interrupted by the outlines of two single doors, and the elaborate black iron handles attached to each. The door on the left leads to an intimate receiving-room wherein a pair of studded black leather sofas frame a low, well-polished mahogany table. In here the walls are covered in frescoes of the Kusheline countryside, from the same brush.

After that stunning revelation that her idol is once again in town, in the very house in which she’s working and, crucially, that she even remembers her name, it would come as little surprise to anyone who knows Catherine that the next days of her life are a non-stop flurry of activity. Minor things like eating, sleeping, and bathing are left by the wayside as she pours every ounce of effort she’s capable of, every fragment of her creativity and her dexterity and her very soul, into cutting, setting and polishing a delicate, fiddly little music box.

Perhaps it’s the delirium brought on by more than forty eight hours awake, surviving on nothing but coffee and dreams, but the piece is exquisite yet disturbing. The inlaid top uses every bit of craftsmanship Catherine has ever learned, every trick to show perspective, light and shadow, and depicts a horrifyingly realistic hellscape, complete with tiny dancing demons — and by turning the box a little in the light, reflections seem to flicker like flame.

It’s undoubtedly fine work, but one has to wonder exactly what’s going on in that brain to create it.

What makes it all the worse for the poor woman is that when, finally, exhausted, shaking and red-eyed from the fatigue she has brought upon herself, she goes to present this masterwork to Emmanuelle, she’s turned away on the flimsy and unthinkable grounds that the lady of the house is not at home and no, they’ve no idea when she might return. The offering, because can it really be described as anything else, is therefore left in the lock outside Emmanuelle’s chambers like some sort of religious token to the shrine of the Shahrizai, propped open to display the equally exquisite and worryingly lifelike internals; with her soul crushed once again, Catherine is forced to return home for a long, much needed period of rest and recovery.

It is therefore another day or two before Catherine can again be found in her favourite place of work, tools set down beside her as she lovingly shaves off bare fractions of millimetres of red oak veneer, judging some by eye and some with a tiny set of calipers, to continue piecing together a far larger piece of panelling in an otherwise unfinished chamber.

As is often the case in this house of secrets Catherine is locked into the chamber where she works; at an appointed hour, the servant assigned as her chaperone will appear again to release her, and to show her out of the house for the day. When a key turns in the lock, no doubt she supposes at first that she’s lost track of time, as so often happens when she’s deeply engrossed in what must surely, beyond doubt, prove to be her next and her definitive masterwork.

But then that unmistakable scent insinuates itself, an instant ahead of the rhythmic tap of spike heels echoing off the unrelieved hardness of walls, ceiling, floor… A precise, quick kick serves to shut the door behind Emmanuelle Shahrizai, who stands just inside the chamber with her thumbs hooked into the pockets of her snug-fitting black leather breeches, and her long, full-cut, square-shouldered black velvet coat falling elegantly about her. Beneath it, a dark waistcoat with the faintest of lavender stripes; and a black silk neckcloth secured by a golden pin in the likeness of the three Shahrizai keys, which has been a favourite of hers so long that Catherine must surely remember it from their youth… She was hardly without it, in those days.

“… Catherine,” she says gently, as with what is to her a casual glance — to her admirer, a devastating examination — her blue diamond eyes rake over the other woman, catching her in the act of craftsmanship. “I trust I do not interrupt you at a critical moment.”

The moment that scent invades Catherine’s senses is the exact same moment she hears her name spoken in that soft drawl. The tiny, sharp knife in her hand slips into her thumb, drawing a dark red bead of blood, but it’s as though she doesn’t even notice it, her little face lighting up and her entire posture moving from serious, studious craftsman to eager pet.

With the veneer of oak still in her hand, she squeezes it, unwittingly smearing a darker red stain onto the wood - it ruins it, of course, and she’ll have to cut another when she notices - and does her best to present herself to best light. A slight turn to the left, a tilt of her head, a little dip by way of a curtsey when she’s clearly unable to offer a full one with both hands full today.

“Not at all, Lady Shahrizai,” she lies happily, and to be fair, in her list of priorities there is nothing more critical than being interrupted by Emmanuelle. “I left you a sample..?” she adds hesitantly, eyes wide with hope and concern in equal measure. “A box..? You said to bring it to you, but…”

The blood, perhaps, is a detail beyond Emmanuelle’s present ken; but the white tightness of Catherine’s knuckles as she clutches the piece of oak held in her hand, that she certainly discerns in the moment before the other woman lifts her head. “I said,” she reminds her mildly, “that you should show it to me if I were at home. I was not at home.” And she pauses.

“I did receive,” she allows, taking another few paces into the chamber and looking about her with her thumbs still insouciantly hooked and her cool blue gaze taking in all and returning nothing in exchange, “your music box. A curious piece. I wonder,” and this she drawls, “what was in your mind as you made it—?” And her gaze, traveling gradually in that direction anyway, takes hold once more of Catherine’s face as she expresses her very restrained curiosity.

Catherine takes a moment to collect her thoughts at the question, the insistent stinging in her thumb serving to stop her daydreaming off completely for more than that short moment, thankfully. She doesn’t quite lift her gaze to meet the cool blue stare, but she’s more than aware of it, and that spot of colour touches her cheeks.

“I… thought that you might like it,” she offers hesitantly, brows furrowing as she seeks to answer the question more fully. “I’m not certain what was in my mind, exactly. I didn’t really think about it. It just… the work forms itself. Sometimes when I see a piece of wood, it… It calls out to be what it wants to be?” She offers a small shrug, crossing her arms in front of herself, and looks at the ground by Emmanuelle’s feet. “The design just sort of came to me,” she adds, nose wrinkling for a moment as she can’t quite put into words that trancelike state of being that accompanies her best and most disturbing work. “If you don’t like it, I can do better, though..?”

“Sometimes,” agrees Emmanuelle quietly, “an artistic instinct does demand to be followed… The box is charming in its intricacy,” and she punctuates this pronouncement with a neat inclination of her head, just so far and no farther, acknowledging the quality of the workmanship without unbending into any undignified enthusiasm for its esoteric subject material. “Did you intend it to be displayed in some specific chamber? In an empty place which has not yet come to my attention? You left it in my lock; I was not certain… Catherine,” she observes then, coolly, nodding to the well of blood from the other woman’s thumb, “you’re bleeding.”

Catherine shifts the piece of veneer in her hand, bringing her thumb up to her mouth to suck away the smear of blood, glancing up to Emmanuelle with an apologetic look. Clean enough for now, she tucks her thumb into her fist, gives it a little shake and lowers it again.

“I hadn’t considered a place for it,” she admits, sounding more disappointed in herself than anything else. “It just… it had to be made, so I made it. Perhaps, if you like it, you might keep it in your chambers. I could fit a little set of shelves in the alcove on the right,” she considers, fingers shifting around her thumb and the veneer still held there. “For… whatever particulars you might need, if you intend to stay..?”

“… Hold out your hand,” orders Emmanuelle; and her own hand reaches into an inner pocket of her velvet coat and produces an immaculately-folded white linen handkerchief.

Catherine’s mouth opens, eyes widening. This is clearly the defining moment of her life. Finally Emmanuelle has noticed her, appreciates her work, and this is her reward. Her feet move her closer without any sort of input from brain, fully on autopilot or directed by the sheer will of the Shahrizai, it’s not clear which. Likewise, up come both hands, wrists together and palm upwards, offering up to this wonderful vision her injury, the piece of red oak, her tiny, sharp scalpel, and her entire heart and soul. Breathing is optional. She chooses against it.

So close, closer than they’ve stood to one another in the better part of twenty years, Emmanuelle’s cologne surrounds Catherine too in its resinous warmth — if, that is, she can draw breath enough to savour it. Perhaps not yet. Her soft fingertips, each with its immaculate black-lacquered nail, pluck the stained fragment of veneer from Catherine’s palm and then relieve her likewise of that tiny blade which wasn’t too delicate to savage her thumb. These she sets down on the makeshift trestle-table laden with the other tools of the Valais woman’s craft, or do we mean her vocation—? She turns back to her with the whiteness of her plain white linen handkerchief stretched between both hands, its corners flicking this way and that as she folds it swiftly and expertly into a different and more desirable configuration.

Then she takes charge of Catherine’s hand — just one hand, not the pair of them so plaintively offered up — and binds not her wrists, but only that single bleeding thumb.

Her touch is gentle, more so than the uninitiated would expect of the leading Mandrake lady in all the land — but it is only a cousin to the gentleness Catherine must remember from their youth, being precise and professional and bereft of indulgent caresses.

“I take it,” she offers in a wry murmur as she ministers to her wounded employee, “you don’t listen to servants’ gossip. That is well, Catherine; it would be beneath you. You may not know, then, that I retired some weeks ago from my position at Mandrake House,” she explains, keeping the other woman’s face carefully within her peripheral vision as she ties her handkerchief’s ears in a neat little knot, “and that my intention is to live here in Marsilikos. There,” she pronounces, stepping back. She has in fact made a tiny white bow upon Catherine’s thumb. “Wash it with liquor tonight,” she advises, “and if the flesh turns red rather than pink, or if you see any streaks upon your skin, be certain to see a healer sooner rather than later.”

The first delicate touch inspires a sharp intake of breath, that scent, so close, dizzying Catherine into some kind of paralysis so that even when the wound has been so deftly bound, both hands are still offered up to Emmanuelle. There’s a symmetry there with at least one of the images on the panel she’s been working on, if one were paying close attention, only in this real life picture there’s a faint quiver and far from being closed, her warm brown eyes are fixed on the vision of Mandragian wonder in front of her.

“You retired..?” she echoes, that being the first and most important part of the speech that sinks in, followed by, “You’ll live here in Marsilikos again?” Yes, Catherine. Well done. She did just say that. Your insight is not anything special.

“Then you’ll want more work done?” she suggests hopefully, right hand drifting over her left to caress the handkerchief, that having to make do in place of the courage to touch the woman herself. “I can clear every other commission.” She can, and she’d immediately run out of money, no matter how frugally the Valais lawyer tries to eke out what she earns here, but it’s not as though she’s thinking about tiny things like being able to pay for things. Does she ever?

A patient nod from Emmanuelle, as her own words are parroted back to her.

And then she strolls around the trestle table, coming nearer to the panel in progress, her thumbs hooked again as she surveys it. “No, no. The rate at which these last chambers are progressing is for the time being satisfactory,” she allows, her tone somewhat distant, her gaze focused wholly now upon the craft rather than the craftswoman; “we have no immediate need of them, and we have not yet settled the question of furnishings… And, naturally, I would not have you neglect your other obligations, Catherine; you must under no circumstances do so,” she says seriously, and she half-turns to pin the marquetière in place with a stern blue diamond gaze.

“Of course not, Lady Shahrizai,” comes the instantaneous response, as though Catherine had never even considered doing anything but continue conscientiously with every piece of work already on her slate, and as though ditching it all to work on, for example, a tiny hellish music box would be the absolute last thing on her mind.

Still she absently strokes that handkerchief bandage, bringing both hands up to her chin as though this left thumb were something precious - a beloved pet, or a new sparkling jewel that outshines any other.

“This,” and Emmanuelle taps a completed section of the panel with one sharply curved black fingernail, “is well done.” She stands back, regarding Catherine. “I shall detain you from it no longer — though if you find it difficult to work with a bandaged thumb, perhaps it would be better for you to take the rest of the day to yourself,” she suggests. “There is after all no hurry.”

No hurry? No hurry?! But how can there be no hurry when the panel remains so woefully incomplete? There’s clear conflict in Catherine’s expression and she squeezes her fingers. On the one hand, yes, it will be more difficult, but she’s not about to let that stop her from attempting perfection. On the other hand, the day to herself would give her the chance to just go and lie down to try to get her blood pressure back down from this meeting today. But the panel isn’t finished and it’s awfully hard to leave anything in such a state of disarray. And yet she has been gifted this handkerchief that even still smells of her idol, and frankly she can think of quite a lot of things she’d like to daydream about with that focus in the privacy of her own bedroom.

All this and more crosses her face, every thought as readable as though she’d spoken it aloud, as she hovers in hesitant indecision. A glance to the panel on the wall. Then to her hand. To her tools. Then to Emmanuelle. Back to her hand, with a long intake of breath and a shiver.

Decision made. Then unmade. A new decision made. Decisions are hard, and that’s a bad one. No. Maybe..? She finally looks back to Emmanuelle, imploring. Maybe she can make the decisions for her? Life is always so much better when somebody will just tell her what they want her to do.

Ah, yes, a confused submissive yearning to hear and obey a stern word of command. This is Emmanuelle’s breakfast, luncheon, afternoon tea, and light refreshing supper after the theatre; and yet, manipulated thus into taking too great a share of responsibility for where Catherine goes and what Catherine does, whether Catherine can keep working or ought Catherine to be cosseted, her appetite becomes a vulnerability she seeks to discipline.

“If you are uncertain whether you can give of your best,” she states very softly, knowing it to be so, “you had better go. I will send someone to escort you out.” But, already, as she farewells Catherine with a crisp nod of her head and locks the door of the chamber behind herself, she’s resolving to stay out of her marquetière’s sight, for both their sakes.

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