(1310-10-09) Two Years Later
Summary: Isabelle de Valais and her old friend and contact, Alcibiades Rousse, reunite and talk new business, while ignoring some unfinished ones.
RL Date: October 9, 2018
Related: Takes place directly before this memoir.
isabelle alcibiades 

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.

Word has it that Isabelle de Valais returned to the land of her birth around two months ago, and has not wasted any time upending the status quo of Marsilikos' commercial heart. Like a stone thrown in a placid lake, she causes ripples upon the moment of impact, sending them far and wide until they vanish into the ether. But that has always been her way, has it not? She has always been a tempest.

But her visitor would find her now in a rare moment of contemplative silence; the harvest moon casts a blue-white hue through her open windows, splashing its muted colors on her large desk and illuminating the specks of dust that swirl above it like forgotten stars. She stands not in front of them, but to the side and closer to the drapery, her profile outlined by light, but the rest ensconsced in shadow - enough to set fire to the golden motes in her predominantly dark eyes.

Her hair is pinned up, of course - it is terribly rare for anyone to see her hair down, and clad in a creation pulled out of her own mind and given life by way of fine fabric and intricate embroidery. She prefers red, but today she opts for shades of purple reminiscent of lavender and dark amethysts, of silk and chiffon so fine it is only the way they are layered and stitched that gives her the modesty her signature style requires. Straps bind it to her body, satin ribbons criss-crossing the back, the bodice tailored to accentuate the narrow of her waist and the flare of her hips before loosening its hold to pool in the floor like streaks of vibrant ink, a hint of silver shimmer in the fabric. The lack of sleeves has been compensated for by textile so sheer that swirls of embroidery look directly painted on her skin, and the lack of collar made up for by an intricate choker wrought from white gold, made from interlocking geometric designs that occasionally hold smooth golden orbs made of amber, tears of it left to brush against her collarbones.

There is no unnecessary exposure of skin, no bared cleavage or even a hint of leg - she has always preferred the kind of elegance that was downright impregnable over molten, sensual allure. He may be accustomed to seeing her look like an adventurer, with her tall boots and coats and breeches, but in Marsilikos, where she must keep up appearances, she looks every inch the niece of the Comte de Digne and the personal stylist of several of the most influential personages in Terre d'Ange.

Slender arms are crossed, shoulder against the frame and lashes lowered to watch the foot traffic passing by her window. The smell of wood and varnish mingles with a hint of spice inside her private salon, a touch of fire on pine logs. Her building is recently renovated, old foundations replaced by whitewashed stone and beautiful blue-veined marble, but the interior of her more private space is less cold and reminds one of the grandeur of old libraries in private estates - the downstairs is all for show, but the upstairs is for secrets.

It is Guillermo that shows him in, Alcibiades would find him familiar. He was present in the raid two years ago, Isabelle's silent and ever-present shadow, dressed in his crisp black-and-whites. He bows silently towards the lady, who turns to acknowledge his presence with an inquiring tilt of her head…and recognition settles in when she sees who it is that has come to call.

"So which forgotten corner of the world has thrown you out this time?" she wonders, a grin quirking up her expressive mouth.

"Well, Miss, I was in Aragonia most recently. But as you know, with my father's death, I've been intending to return home." Alcibiades answers the question after only a moment. He's too busy drinking the woman in, the astonishing beauty of her garments — which only accent her own beauty. The seaman seems half-distracted by the spectacle of her, which is no doubt a part of the effect she wishes to have. Guillermo, that long-established comrade-in-arms, has already received a quiet and heartfelt greeting. Alcibiades never forgets a friend, and he remembers crewmen saying that Guillermo was a holy terror on the deck of that slaver.

The First Mate of The Dancer has dressed to the nines for this meeting. He's wearing an emerald brocade jacket with silver threading. Beneath this is a china-white waistcoat, its silver buttons each emblazoned with a sailing ship. And beneath that is a magnificently-white laced shirt. Indeed, he abounds with lace, at his neck and at his sleeves. And his breeches? Well, Isabelle would recognize the bottle-green breeches that fit so well. After all, she designed them.

With all of this grandeur, it might be startling to find that his cutlass is a dull, serviceable weapon. Its hilt is sweat-stained leather, its guard heavy brass.

"I haven't seen you in some time, Isabelle," he says softly. "I thought I might ensure that you are well."

"I hope my cousins gave you a warm welcome while you were undoubtedly sunning in their shores and keeping out of trouble," Isabelle tells him, waving him inside and giving a glance at Guillermo, who gives the man a cordial nod before he leaves. A man of a few words, but the exchange, however minute, is taken in with the same eagle-eyed sharpness she digests all things. Giving him a scrutinizing look, up and down over the finery he wears, her smile broadens into that familiar sunflare's grin, unashamed approval implicit within it. "Look at you, ready to conquer the world. Before you go on and leave me behind as you do that, however, perhaps you'll sit down and have a drink?"

The door closes, and that is when she moves. She's no absurdly airy creature, no sylph from legend - whatever delicate grace that so easily comes with d'Angeline blood appears to have sideskipped her entirely and she moves with the brisk, businesslike strides of a woman who always has someplace to be. She reaches the small bar close to her desk, picking up a bottle of brandy and two glasses.

There appears to be an uncommonly large wolf pelt in the middle of the room, black mottled with gray and white - so large that it was almost monstrous. Its eyes have been replaced by amberglass, frozen as it glowers at Alcibiades from where it lies.

His quiet words have her pausing, briefly, her back to him - a handy way to obscure her expression, but this experience is new, too. She is not accustomed to being missed.

"I am," she confirms, turning around and moving towards wherever he has situated himself, easing into the cushion next to him and setting the bottle and glasses on the low table in front of them. "Well. You can imagine how I took it, at the necessity of being marooned here indefinitely, but I've made of it as much as I can. Welcome to my burgeoning sartorial empire. I hope you enjoy your stay."

She pours them two fingers' worth of brandy in each glass, glancing over at him. "And you? Where have you been in the last two years?"

"Where have I been?" Alcibiades muses aloud, taking the brandy. His arm absently slips over the back of the couch, not quite touching Isabelle, but about as subtly as any teenaged boy in a movie theater. Despite that, his tone is businesslike as he swirls his brandy in his glass. "Well, there was a brief sojourn among the Akkadians while we careened Dancer. There was seaweed as long as your Guillermo is tall." He has a wry affection in his voice when he speaks of the near-mute bodyguard.

"And then — well, to be frank, there were some pirates. The bastards had a cannonade — have you ever seen a cannonade? Like a long gun, but none of the charms. Inaccurate, ugly, but capable of throwing a damn heavy ball." As he speaks his nautical language, Alcibiades seems to forget that Isabelle may not understand everything he's saying. "It'd be a great help if Athene would listen to me and invest in a pair of long nine chasers, but.. I know, it's expensive."

He considers for a moment, gazing aside at Isabelle. "And then of course I delivered a certain cargo of silks here to Marsilikos." He's evidently reining himself in from technical jargon. "And then a voyage down to the high southern latitudes, to the far side of the world. We collected a shipment of…" a brief, considering, pause. "Are you familiar with the gold mines in the far south? Of course you are. We weren't there for gold, of course, but oddities. Do you know what they've found? The bones of a gigantic creature, encased in a giant tar pit."

Bodyguard, valet…and more. Isabelle is just as tight-lipped about Guillermo as the man himself is, but the affection present in the man's voice is noted and her largely imperious air is softened subtly by it. She says nothing about her own level of affection for the man who treats her like a father would a daughter, and barely even really makes it overt, but the signs are there, are they not? With the way she keeps him close and the way she listens to his counsel whenever he gives it.

She follows his stories with open interest; her face lends easily to expression and brows lift upwards at the talk about the cannonade. "If seafaring mechanisms are becoming that complicated, it's in her best interests to remain competitive," she tells him. "I may not know much about the sea, but I know business. It won't be long until those who insure the transport and cargo of goods will insist on determining their rates based on the ability of the vessel to keep them secure."

She leans back against the couch and the loose drape of his arm behind it, recognition flaring in her half-gilded stare at the mention of the gold mines, though when he mentions a large creature trapped in a tar pit, she blinks. "What…like a dragon?" she wonders. "Or a mammoth? That's incredible. I wonder if Professor Ligaria was part of the project to find it…" She has mentioned him before, Valerius Ligaria, professor emeritus at the University of Tiberium and an occasional traveling companion of Isabelle's, and one of their world's foremost naturalists.

"I couldn't say, to be honest, but I wouldn't be surprised. We were confined to the ship during our visit, you see — some unrest among the native miners." Alcibiades drops these remarks casually, but he is well aware that she is listening intently to his stories. He takes a sip of his brandy, gazing absently across the room at the wolf pelt. Its eyes seem to be staring back at him.

"I agree with you about the insurers. Far be it from me to speak a word against Captain Lesse — Athene, that is — but we disagree on this issue. With long nines, we could've turned into her and eaten the wind right out of her, playing long bowls while she shot up the sea between us. Boarded her only when we chose, you see, after raking her stem to stern."

There is an eagerness in Alcibiades' voice. The tactics of seafaring warfare are not, perhaps, commonly of interest to merchants. But Alcibiades has had a taste of warfare and found himself rather gifted. "Instead, we were forced to close with them before they dismasted us and left us helpless. We boarded into their strength. If it had been any other crew…" He leaves the rest unsaid. Isabelle has seen The Dancer in action, after all.

"That's interesting," Isabelle murmurs, a contemplative swirl of her brandy delivered as she listens. "Local superstition, you think? There are cultures who believe digging up the dead - any dead - means to curse the living. And with a great creature involved…" She watches him sidelong. "Still, I trust that you were able to transport the oddity safely. May I inquire as to where it was going, or is it confidential?"

The last time she had spoken with Captain Athene Lesse, she hadn't been all too pleased, but as she had told Alcibiades the night of the operation, she doesn't have the heart to take it back. Instead, she not only listens, but observes and absorbs - his enthusiasm for naval tactics leaves a clear stamp on his features and for a moment, he looks younger than his thirty-odd years.

"I hope that the losses if suffered weren't considerable," she says at last. "I know how much you care for your people."

She lifts her glass in a toast, and once he raises his, she clinks her own against it. "Welcome home, Cib. And it can't be at a better time….you've reminded me of how knowledgeable you are when it comes to all things nautical." She pauses, but it is brief, before she continues. "I'm in the middle of one of my undertakings, but I've not the expertise."

Her gold-flecked eyes meet his blue ones, her voice lowering. "It involves a missing ship."

"Oh, it was delivered here to Marsilikos, to some society or other. Natural philosophers. Quite an odd lot, really." Alcibiades' tone is almost bored as he answers the question. "In truth, this was Captain Lesse's contract, not my own. Quite safe, you see. She's been…interested in safety lately." Perhaps ever since she found herself sinking a slaver.

At the mention of losses, Alcibiades' face clouds. "Four dead," he says softly. In fact, as far as butcher's bills go, this is remarkably light — whatever he may say about Athene Lesse, the woman knows how to fight when she must. And Alcibiades, leading the vanguard onto whatever enemy deck he's pointed at, can be quite a force of nature himself.

When she toasts him, he instinctively turns to answer the toast with one of his own. And then remains in that posture, arm still loosely draped over the back of the seat, his attention fixed on Isabelle. His features are intent, almost hungry. And when she mentions the missing ship, both his narrow brows arch in interest. "I'd hoped you might have work for me. And this…tell me more."

Four dead.

Her expression is neutral; there is something about her that instinctively grasps at her ability to remain inscrutable when something difficult is on the table. But the timbre of her voice betrays the lie. "I'm sorry, Cib," she says, contralto pitched low.

She doesn't comment about Captain Lesse's deference for safety, and down to the nuts and bolts of it, she can hardly blame the woman. Word has it that she treats her crew like family, and it is always difficult to lose even one.

He turns towards her and what she sees in his expression draws that rare dagger of hesitation. Not because she is reluctant to involve him, or put him in a direct line of potential danger. Rather because she knows how it feels to be so unerringly drawn to it, to not be able to live without it, to obsessively pit oneself against insurmountable odds just to see if survival is possible…and all the costs associated with such an addiction.

"Her name was the Etoille du Soir," Isabelle begins at last, her body turning, knees angled towards his. She doesn't ask if she can trust his discretion - he had already promised it to her and hasn't broken it. "From what I could tell of her planned voyage at the time, she was bound for Ephesium with a necessary stop at Menekhet. She vanished in December 1309. Word has it that she was attacked by pirates and there were a few pieces of wreckage found along the coast, though which coast, I'm not sure - either Menekhet or Ephesium. I can verify it soon, either case. But the word is vague, Cib. I want to know what really happened to that ship."

"It's a convenient ruse when you wish for a ship to disappear, making it seem that it's wrecked. A good storm, a few pieces of rubbish cast overboard, and you have a wreck." Alcibiades considers for a few moments. "I need more information. Under what colors was the ship sailing? Did it make Menekhet at all? Do you know?" The questions are pointed, each one deliberately cast. If Alcibiades is aware of the woman's hesitation, he doesn't seem to show it. Indeed, he seems more eager.

Taking a long sip of his brandy, he continues. "Jaime and I both have connections among the seamen here in Marsilikos. Most of us make the run to Ephesium every few years. And a ship always has friends — mates who knew crewmen, that sort of thing. This can be found out."

"What's the make of the ship? Armaments?" These two questions are far less sharp, far more musing. "If we find it — well, what's to become of it?" He looks over at Isabelle. "Does it even have an owner any longer?"

"I'm afraid I do not know for certain, but it's possible that she was carrying the colors of House Morhban," Isabelle tells him, unblinking when she identifies the involvement of the sovereign ducal house of Kusheth. "And I'm unclear as to whether the vessel reached Menekhet at all. If I had more information, I would be on my way to resolving this current conundrum already, but since I'm bereft of the expertise and the contacts on that front, I have to turn to you." She pauses, but a wry smile curls on her mouth. "Not that you seem all too inconvenienced."

If we find it — well, what's to become of it?

Lips take a contemplative pull of her brandy. "I'm not particularly interested in the ship itself, but rather its actual fate. Like you said, pirate attacks are a convenient ruse. Word has it that Lord Richard de Morhban died in that voyage - his signet was somehow found and sent to his family as proof of his death." He would find the name familiar - Lord Richard was the ducal heir of House Morhban before this ill-fated journey and the seat passed down to another branch of the family.

"Cib, there's something else. I have reason to believe a man named Jean-Louis was arranging to intercept the vessel, somehow. It's a common enough name, but with the timeline and the mark identified, I was hoping you'd be able to inquire further. I'm an outsider to the community…but you're not."

"I see." Alcibiades grows more grave. Now he suddenly looks his age, and more. Nautical warfare is one thing — and he's an excellent warrior — but politics are a far deeper morass, one in which he might easily drown. "I'll ask around, Isabelle, but I can't promise anything. If whoever took the ship wants it hidden, they'll keep their crew tightly tied-down. They won't let gossip escape."

Then again, sailors always find a way to gossip, and Alcibiades knows it. He watches Isabelle for a long few moments, then nods. "I'll find the ship. But if its captain and crew are dead, Isabelle, that's considered salvage by long-standing nautical tradition. And that salvage will belong to me." He's negotiating now, hardly daring to believe that he might well end up in possession of such a valuable prize.

"As for this Jean-Louis — you're right, it is a common name. But I can ask around there too. Jaime may have better luck than me. Some of his former comrades now have more.. profitable careers." He smiles wickedly for a moment. "You're not bothered about expenses? We'll keep receipts." This last is a jest, and his grin widens, clearly expecting Isabelle to answer it.

His press about the salvage belonging to him causes nary a blink from the woman. By all rights, everyone else has considered the ship lost and its crew and passengers dead. "If its captain and crew are dead and the carcass in the hands of brigands or at the mercy of the deep or some foreign dockyard, then it's yours. You can take what is valuable, but I'll have to ask you that whatever documents and any sources of information that remain on board to be relinquished to me. And if you somehow find the location of the ship and it remains intact…"

And here, Isabelle meets his eyes directly.

"I want you to take me with you. Same if you locate the Jean-Louis I'm looking for." She takes another sip of her brandy. "That part of the endeavor might need a delicate touch, however, so if you'd rather not be involved with what that entails, you can just tell me where he is and I'll handle of it."

Her words are soft, but exceedingly dangerous and she says this with all the cool and quiet certainty of a consummate professional. She doesn't bother to hide from The Dancer's First Mate. Unlike almost everyone else in Marsilikos, he has seen firsthand a bit of the creature that lurks underneath her skin.

He asks about expenses and she smirks. "You'll get your ducats, Cib. In installments, if necessary. But yes, please keep receipts."

Alcibiades considers as he takes another sip of his brandy. "Handling your lost lamb Jean-Louis, that don't bother me." He doesn't seem to notice he's slipped into the lower-deck speech that is so at odds with his posh manner and dress. "He's all yours. I'll come along and help, do whatever needs doing, but that ain't my specialty." His sea-blue eyes look up suddenly, locking with Isabelle's, as dangerous and as focused as her own.

"But if you come with me after the Belle-Soille or whatever she used t'be called.." His voice trails off for a moment. "At sea, as you know, Cap'n Lesse don't brook interference in her work. If I even get her t'agree to this, you'll work for her same as me when you're aboard ship." He smiles, as though to soften the words. "Sometimes we're forced to do things out there, don't seem t'make sense to landlu.. to passengers. Once had to explain to a very angry man that we couldn't just sail in a straight line."

"You don't have to," Isabelle assures him, draining her glass of brandy. "Come with me, I mean, regarding Jean-Louis…if he does exist." She examines her glass, lashes lowering over her eyes. "Puzzles underneath puzzles. There's enough potential danger in this undertaking that I'd be loath to get anyone hurt more than I have to." Finally looking up towards him, she grins. "I'll make certain that you'll be compensated for what you're owed, even if the worst happens."

There is an easy acceptance of the terrible outcomes of the job that emanates from her, speaking of experiences that she has never divulged, but with her glass put away, she leans back on her seat and exhales a breath. He can practically sense her putting a checkmark next to an item in an incredibly long to-do list. Some of her own people say that she doesn't sleep…and they might be right.

To the woman's credit, there's no groaning when Alcibiades regales her with his own reality about life on board and she waves a hand. "I'm already in hot water with the woman, so if this enables me to make things easier between us, then I'll happily oblige her. It wouldn't be the first time I've had to actually work. I meant what I told you before. Much…and everything. So long as whatever information that might remain returns with me, I'll do what she asks."

After a breath, she turns her head to look over at him, taking in his clothes once more and the trousers he wears - what she designed for him. Her mouth lifts at the corners. "Any woman would be flattered to know however implicitly that you thought of her when you put on your breeches in the morning," she jests, reaching out with a hand to pinch index and thumb on the cuff of his sleeve, leaning in to examine the weave and the dye. "Green brings out the best shades of your hair, but I think I'd like to try blue on you."

Her eyes lift, sweeping over his features, and there's a gentling of her smile. "Everything about the sea suits you, Cib," she opines quietly. "Even its color."

"I'll come with you," Alcibiades says again. And while there's no compromise in his voice, he too sounds gentler now that the negotiations are complete. This is a friend, offering his flesh and his sword, not an employee seeking work. "And the worst won't happen. It never does, not to us." He flashes his smile again, angular features lightening in that endearingly boyish grin.

"Which poet was it who first called the sea wine-dark?" As Isabelle leans in, Alcibiades takes the opportunity to idly bring his fingertips to the nape of her neck, brushing once against the skin and withdrawing. "We all think of the sea as blue, but I've only seen truly blue waters in a few places. Shallow places with great palm trees and coconuts." His smile is mischievous as he continues. "And great jungle places in the far east. And, of course, the Hellenic coast." The far traveler leans in briefly, nostrils flaring as he inhales. "I'd wear blue, though. If you said it was the right thing."

"Well, now that you've jinxed us, perhaps things'll become even more exciting, now," Isabelle drawls, though there's no real heat - there never is when she jabs him with the pointed end of her wit and demonstrates her ever-present willingness to sling crap with the best of them. But the quip enables her to reclaim the humor she has tabled throughout their negotiations, eyeing the boyish grin and flashing him a wry one in turn.

Eyes lid at his touch, goosebumps rising over sunkissed skin when battle-roughened fingertips make that brief pass. Even if she knew nothing else about the way he fights, that alone would tell her plenty - going for a glaring weak point first.

"I've been," she tells him. "I've spent most of my life outside of Terre d'Ange. If nothing else, this…" She gestures vaguely to the rest of her study. "Is a homecoming of sorts for me as well. And while I've my share of harrowing experiences, this counts in many ways. It's a novel thing, I think, to be a stranger in the land of your birth."

His shadow eclipses her face when he leans in; she smells nothing like his foremost, watery mistress, but what is glaringly apparent is the distinct lack of perfume and left only with whatever she put in her bath, the ghostly notes of cinnamon.

"For you? It is," she tells him, her own hand lifting to touch light fingertips against his cheek, though she keeps her palm away from the sturdy line of his jaw. Mirth suffuses her expression. "I think you can rely on my expertise in the matter, this time around."

Her head cants sideways. "Since I'm not one to waste a lovely evening indoors, why don't you join me for dinner? I'm sure we'll be all the rage in the Kraken's Den in our present finery."

"I don't believe in luck of that sort," Alcibiades says easily in answer to his jinx. He's grinning as well. The smile turns briefly crooked as Isabelle touches his cheek, and the sailor leans into that touch, just for a moment. "I'd wear blue," he repeats. "I trust you." And he does, remarkably, despite everything he knows he does not know.

"It's odd, returning to a place where I was so unhappy," he adds in agreement, thinking about homecomings. "Michel is so desperately happy to see me, and my mother. They think that now that they have a true seafaring Rousse in Marsilikos, we can surely just mend all. I feel.. A bit dashed, to be honest, to not have solved their problems yet. But yes.. we're both strangers here."

"I'd love to accompany you to the Kraken's Den. It shall do wonders for our reputations to be seen together," he teases. As though Alcibiades Rousse has ever given a fig for his own reputation. "But don't you worry that I'm wearing the wrong color? Won't it reflect on you, as the leading Couturiste?" He's definitely teasing her now, and enjoying it. "Or shall we simply risk it?"

His lean into her own fingers coaxes them to open until his cheek fits into the palm of her hand, radiating warmth, and for a moment or two, he'd find the rare mote of surprise pass over her gold-flecked eyes, followed by a twisting, bittersweet ache somewhere within her ribcage. The sensation is unfamiliar, alien in a way she can't comprehend, but it does transform the character of her mischievous smile to a more rueful one.

Remembered words, Guillermo's words, ring hollow somewhere in the depths of her skull.

"I've not forgotten my promise to try," Isabelle tells him, good humor muted somewhat, eyes drawn inward as lips purse in thought. "This is a good start, I think, if we're able to discover the Etoille du Soir's actual fate."

His teasing earns him a scoff, waving a hand. "Please. Now that we're back in civilization, you'll have plenty of opportunities to discover that this miss is utterly impervious to scandal." She angles a look at him, her grin returning. "That and if anyone asks, I'll simply let them know that I've taken up the unique challenge of taking in an absolutely hopeless project transforming a seafaring lord into a respectable one. I, for one, am willing to accept the risk, the question is are you?"

Her expression is almost feline as she continues: "Besides, it's been a long time since I've gambled against you. I'm looking forward to seeing who triumphs this time around."

"Even if I lose, I think that I win." Alcibiades lowers one lid in an easy wink to the woman, his gaze following the transformation of her smile. He tosses back his brandy in a single fiery gulp, hissing and smiling as he swallows the almost-full glass. "But I wonder whether you'll choose dice or cards — and what the stakes shall be."

Rising to his feet and offering his hand, palm-up, he continues. "I shall never be a respectable lord, I fear — but I may be a respected one, if I show up with you on my arm. Men shall envy, women shall wonder, and my reputation shall rise like a balloon."

"And let me just ask you one question, Isabelle. Have you ever, in the years we have been friends, known me to refuse a risk?" His laughter is sudden and genuine, eyes crinkling as he looks down at her. "I'll find the Etoille du Soir, my dear miss. And I'll rename her the Myrmidon."

Dice or cards? "Who knows?" Isabelle banters lightly, shoulders lifting in an easy shrug and a winsome smile that does nothing but make the devil in her more apparent. "Your head will spin if I had to recount all the times I've had to improvise and make decisions on the spot."

His hand offered, her own slips easily into his, rising as her mischief growing all the more. "As for never being respectable, well. You know that. I know that. The rest of the world can wonder whether it's actually possible." At that, there's a slight tilting of her head back as she laughs. "I only pretend I know everything, Cib. In the right hands, perception is the most malleable of materials."

Have you ever…known me to refuse a risk?

There's a lift of a dark, elegant brow, the defiant tilt to her jaw returning. "Even if you declared the contrary," she begins, her smile broadening - brilliant and capable of blinding the unwary. "The fact that you keep circling back to my company only confirms it." There's a glance to the door.

"Guillermo, my cloak."

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