(1310-10-11) A Storm in the High Southerns
Summary: Emmanuelle receives a visit from an importunate sailor.
RL Date: 09/10/2018 - 11/10/2018
Related: An Akkadian Trinket.
emmanuelle alcibiades 

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.

Uncovering the name of the only Shahrizai lady in Marsilikos over the age of thirty, the only one of her kind so deeply embedded within the aristocracy of Eisande, and the only one who strides about the city in spurred boots, is — it transpires — easier for Alcibiades Rousse than getting into her house.

The Maison Sanglante of local legend, a house where seven people bled to death in the entrance hall and down the front steps (as any number of blokes in taverns have been delighted to relate, with poetic embellishment), is a surprisingly modest structure in the Place des Mains d'Eisheth. Ringing the bell anchored deep within its protective front wall produces at first silence, and then a lackey in Mereliot colours whose dimensions and posture scream 'guard'. He conducts a brief interrogation of Alcibiades through the bars of the gate, past the gilded keys worked into the pattern; he takes the man's name and his business inside, and returns several long minutes later possessed of a large iron key.

The courtyard is full of the bitter scent of wormwood; the entrance hall is full of silence. Rather than following him in the guard shuts the massive oaken doors at his back and retreats, presumably, through the smaller side entrance down a few steps and below the main one, whence he came to begin with. Alcibiades is left entirely alone, with nothing to do but appreciate the artwork.

Alcibiades has dressed for the occasion. He is wearing a black brocade coat that hangs down to his knees, its silver buckles and buttons all polished splendidly. The coat itself has been recently-brushed, or else recently-purchased — it is spotless. His waistcoast is periwinkle blue, nearly matching his eyes, and the lace shirt beneath it is a snowy white. His breeches are of a fine cotton, buckled at the knee, and his boots have been polished — probably within the hour, to judge by their gleam.

He considers the artwork with one hand clasped behind his back. The other rests habitually on his cutlass — the only plain, workmanlike, piece of his attire. Its guard is of heavy brass, its hilt sweat-stained. The man waits with every appearance of composure, but for one thing. Periodically, his left foot taps the marble. It moves at an odd rhythm - one, one-two, one. He seems not to notice this breach of discipline.

A door more or less concealed within the frescoes, opens behind him; the woman he last met in a black-on-black jewel box of a carriage stands framed within the arched doorway, no better lit now than she was then, dressed in a smoke-blue silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black buckskin breeches well-fitted to her narrow figure, and soft leather boots which are in all likelihood the same pair. She's carrying a toddler on her hip, a little girl dressed in sky blue (she'd make a pretty picture with Alcibiades in his new threads) with a white bow in her raven-dark curls. The one looks at him with the easy and undisguised curiosity of a child accustomed to a life of safety and love; the other lifts a bold dark eyebrow at him and purrs, "I wondered when you'd show up." Emmanuelle Shahrizai nó Mandrake sounds amused, but not a wit surprised, by this Rousse.

Alcibiades risks the grown woman's displeasure by fixing all his attention on the child. His knees bend slightly to bring himself down to her level, his teeth flash in a genuine, friendly, smile. "Hello, Miss. You have a lovely bow." Alcibiades' tone is perfectly pitched for a child, treating the toddler as an equal. There's no condescension, only a hint of wistfulness that he quickly tries to hide as he looks back up at Emmanuelle. "I did not suppose, madame, that I could take you off-balance." His own tone is amused, rather self-deprecating. "And I suppose that's for the best. I've come to ask for your help on a personal matter."

The small girl — she's two, perhaps? — looks across at Alcibiades and declares with mild disdain: "I'm the Lady Hélène Lucette Shahrizai, and all my things are lovely." Now, where could she possibly have learned — or inherited — such charming ways with strangers? Far from chiding her for her lack of manners Emmanuelle bestows upon Alcibiades a feral smile above the girl's head.

Then she says, rather drily, "My help." A moment passes, whilst she looks over the renovations her visitor has made in his appearance and his attitude both. She herself wears a coiled bullwhip fastened to her belt at her other hip, a large black pearl at each earlobe, and some complex necklace made not of silver but of steel, intermittently visible at the open neck of her shirt. Even in those boots she's not as tall as he might have supposed, that night in the carriage; but somehow she contrives nonetheless to take up a great deal of space in the world. She stalks into the entrance hall (her spurs sounding softly) and opens another door, a couple of feet across from the one by which she came in, similarly hidden amongst frescoes that… surely aren't appropriate for a child…? But the little lady has seen it all before, doesn't understand most of it, likes pictures of her grandmère, and — to judge by her expression — doesn't like Alcibiades.

"You may leave your sword on the table by the door," Emmanuelle informs her visitor, "and wait in here. I shall return this one to her nurse, and then perhaps we can consider what earthly interest your personal matters are to me."

With a quirk of her eyebrows she retreats, Hélène Lucette in tow.

Alcibiades doesn't immediately move to obey Emmanuelle's instruction to unbelt his sword. He's far too busy choking. The man turns discreetly away from the hall which she has retreated down, doubled over. His face is contorted in some alarming grimace — until one realizes that he is swallowing laughter. After a few seconds, the fit subsides enough for him to wipe his eyes and heave in a deep breath. "Oh, Jaime would love this woman."

He unstraps his sword and sets it on the table by the door. Clasping his hands behind his back, the man begins to pace. His eyes roam along the various murals, and — at a certain point — a slow flush begins to creep up his neck. Perhaps before, he was too preoccupied to notice. "Helene Lucette. Mother would adore that child."

Unnoticed by Alcibiades a liveried servant infiltrates the sitting-room Emmanuelle opened to him, and lays the low mahogany table therein with a low copper bowl of unseasonal fruit, plates, knives, black linen napkins, and a decanter of cognac left open to breathe and two bell-shaped glasses to pour it into. Having performed these services he vanishes again via a small concealed door.

The frescoes amply repay the time the Rousse lordling devotes to their inspection; their model returns at length, prowling up behind him, heralded by the echo of stiletto heels on black marble and that resinous fragrance of hers. Having caught him staring she purrs: "… Have you then an interest in Kushiel and his ways?"

"I will be honest, madame… absolutely not." Alcibiades' tone is mild rather than judgemental. If anything, he seems amused at the timbre of her voice. "I have not come to you as a customer." For the first time, the seaman seems to realize that this must be what it looks like. He turns to look at Emmanuelle full-on, his sea blue eyes earnest. "Though I have come to put myself in your debt."

Those ice-blue Shahrizai eyes, locked with his, narrow as Emmanuelle takes a slow step nearer and then another, pinning him between her presence and her portraiture. She’s smiling, as though he has said something novel. “Perhaps your informants failed to mention that I have retired from the Service of Naamah,” she drawls, “and that if I hadn’t done, my time would still have been beyond your purse.” The attentions of a Dowayne are rarely bestowed, and don’t come cheaply to any man. Perhaps to one woman: that’s another story. “In any case,” she gives him a brisk looking-up-and-down, her gaze sharp enough to strip the clothes from his back and the skin from his bones, “I would not have taken you as a patron. Whether I desire you as a debtor is another matter. You haven't," she points out, "said anything interesting yet." She turns from him and saunters into the adjacent sitting-room where fruit and brandy await; she doesn't look to see if he follows.

Alcibiades draws himself up after following the former dowayne, clasping his hands tightly behind his back. “My father, it will not surprise you to learn, had debts. Those debts are now my brother’s and my mother’s. And mine, I suppose.” A small shrug at this last, as though it is a mere afterthought. “I have several options before me, if I wish to assist my family. I can give them what little wealth I’ve amassed. It may save them from the poorhouse now, but the money will only stave off the debt.”

He absently eyes the brandy. “Or I can borrow money of my own. To anyone who would lend to a man with little reputation and no collateral.” His lips quirk in a wry grin. “I’m certain their rates would be fair and their representatives gentle.” Winking, the sailor continues. “Finally, I can reconcile my family with House Rousse. That does seem to be the best route, doesn’t it? So how does one go about ending a banishment that started thirty years ago?”

“One needs friends, Madame.”

By the time Alcibiades joins her in this, the least of her receiving-rooms, Emmanuelle has already established herself on one of the studded black leather sofas that frame the low table where refreshments await her pleasure. She sits straight-backed with her booted feet planted well apart, and leans forward to claim for herself the roundest and most perfect hothouse peach.

"You've a pair on you all right," she drawls in a tone of some dubiety, flicking a glance up at him as she draws a plate closer to the edge of the table and claims a small silver knife with which to address her peach. "I have friends enough in this city. Why would I desire to add a penniless, disowned sailor to their number?" She looks up at him with as much insouciance as if she were towering over him, instead of the reverse; she's still apparently waiting to hear something interesting.

"Penniless? No, madame. Some men would call me wealthy. But my father was not precisely thrifty." Alcibiades smiles. The expression is sardonic rather than amused. He remains standing, absently pacing to look into a flickering candle-flame. "It's a fair question. In truth, I've little enough to offer you, madame, except this - I'm useful." The words are mild in tone, delivered without ego.

“You, madame, are a woman who does not need friends. I recognize that. I don't know what it is you do need, but I am gambling that I could help you get it." He turns to face Emmanuelle, lips quirked in his habitual half-smile. "Or am I simply too boring to be a friend to you?"

"I consider a man penniless when his obligations exceed his ability to meet them," is Emmanuelle's arid reproof for her visitor as she takes her chosen knife to her chosen fruit, "as you have just taken care to explain that yours do. And so I imagine you intend to ask me to bring about some rapprochement between you and your illustrious relations…? To persuade them that they might like to take on a share in your father's debts? You don't ask much, do you? A word of advice, my child," she drawls, sounding wearied already by his importunities. "When begging favours and seeking patronage it is as well to employ the correct forms of address, and a deal less impertinence. It doesn't endear you."

Meanwhile the blushing skin of the peach curls away in a single long piece from that blade which caresses all the way round it and then around again, its touch slow, expert, and tender. Not a whit more pressure than is needful. Not a scrap of the peach's soft, juicy flesh left clinging to that lengthening peel.

"Ah, yes. Of course." The words are soft acid, the flush creeping up the back of Alcibiades' neck a genuine display of temper. He turns away for a moment, staring back at that candle which had so fixated him a moment before. A single deep breath is drawn in, held, and then released. When he speaks again, his tone is more level.

"My Lady, it seems that I owe you an apology for wasting your time." He turns back to Emmanuelle, his features still flushed, but there is a hint of humor evident in his expression. "I had supposed, from your own bearing, that you admired daring and courage in others." He quirks a brow briefly, his lips twitching. "As you're aware, I am less than familiar with the proper manners of a courtier. I am a seaman and a traveler. I came, naively, in the hopes of making an ally and even more naively, I was blunt about what I needed."

"Have you ever seen the seas in the high southern latitudes, mada — my lady?"

The perfect peach-peel unfurls slowly onto the plate waiting to receive it. Emmanuelle seems more absorbed in her imminent snack than in anything Alcibiades has to say… And yet she's alert to every modulation of his tone; she could select the shade of his neck from amongst a rack of different pink-dyed silks.

"Why do those who preen themselves upon being blunt always suppose that quality to be a virtue anywhere, on any occasion?" she muses, approaching his remarks from an angle. "And that it may be invoked to justify and to excuse all, as though it were some sort of talisman? For every quality there is a time and a place, my lord Rousse who is not a Rousse." She called him that in the carriage, too. "I should have thought even seamen and travelers," she reproves him mildly as she puts down her knife, "were possessed of more than one mode of speech. Tell me, what other charming little assumptions have you made about me?" And she leaves him ample silence to fill, whilst that naked peach of hers is reduced by means of small, neat, sensually greedy bites to nothing but a clean dark stone.

"For one who claims that bluntness is no virtue, my lady, you wield it often enough. In the time we've known each other, you've insulted me at least five times, whereas I've done my best to be as polite as I know how. My insults were from ignorance. I assume you to be far from ignorant." Alcibiades' tone is flat, no longer amused in the slightest. No longer angry, either. Dead of emotion and, it seems, dead of hope. "I've swallowed each. I assume that you enjoy being rude, and that very few people have contradicted you, and I admit that I have no right to do so."

"I am not contradicting you now. You are correct that I have more than one mode of speech. What we call lower-deck, and what we call upper-deck." He continues on in this monotone. "You had the option to help a family rise, to gain strength from the strength of a new ally. Moreover, and here I admit that I sound like a child, we would have been friends. I would have enjoyed that. You are an interesting person." He shrugs faintly, watching Emmanuelle and her peach-stone, before offering an entirely unironic bow. It is not courtly, but it is sincere. Straightening, the sailor clicks his heels together. "Please forgive my impertinence. May I be excused?"

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Intimidation+Presence+4: Amazing Success. (7 6 2 3 5 7 6 3 3 1 7 6 8 1 5 8 2 4 8 7)

Several seconds of tense silence tick past — tense for Emmanuelle's visitor, at any rate — whilst she herself finishes licking the peach juice from her fine and sensitive white fingertips. She wipes her hands on a crisp black linen napkin and drops it negligently on top of her peach-plate. Then she breathes out and rises smoothly and inexorably to her full, stiletto-heeled height. Her eyes hold his, cold and blue and unflinching, from the moment he straightens from his bow, through her slow and deliberate elevation until they're standing face to face across the low mahogany table of fruit and its remains, and longer yet. Blue diamonds etching the legend of her superiority on the inside of his skull.

"Sit," she pronounces, "down." It's an order: conveyed with a quiet and absolute authority that would have any veteran ship's captain taking notes and wondering how it was achieved. For all she may toy with those she meets and tease them, this woman is more accustomed to command, and to see herself obeyed.

For a few moments, it seems as though Alcibiades will storm out instead. He looks, in the face of this bald command, humiliated. Whatever he had hoped to accomplish — the man never got so far as a proposal — has evidently been abandoned in the face of continual reproof and now he stands, uncertain.

But her bearing and her tone override his frustrations. Like a sullen child, Alcibiades sinks onto one of these studded-leather couches and absently adjusts his coat. "At least you've finally offered me a seat, my lady," he offers. But the joke is weak, barely above a mutter. The seaman, a not-unaccomplished leader himself, drops his gaze down to his knees and offers nothing further.

Within the line of sight of Alcibiades's now-lowered eyes Emmanuelle's stance shifts and one slender but muscular thigh leans nearer to him as she picks up the decanter and pours out a generous measure of fine cognac. Crystal sounds against crystal as she replaces the stopper — then against wood as she pushes the bell-shaped snifter across the mahogany table to a place immediately in front of her visitor, not herself. It would appear she's generous in victory.

"For a man who comes seeking to befriend me — you don't like me very much, do you?" she drawls over his head, in that low-pitched voice rippling with sardonic amusement. "Alcibiades Rousse, you don't know what I am."

At this, Alcibiades begins to laugh. It's a genuine, helpless, laugh, lacking all irony. He grabs the offered cognac and takes a long sip from that bell-shaped snifter. "I was just," he says as his chuckles subside, "thinking the same thing about you, My Lady."

He takes a swig of cognac. "I know nothing about you apart from one thing, My Lady, and that's why I came. And the one thing I know is that I enjoyed meeting you the other evening. Despite the way you needled me, My Lady." He speaks without rancor, and - indeed - his mercurial temperament has given rise to a candid friendliness.

"But you don't know me as well as you think you do, either, My Lady. I'll ask again — have you ever seen the seas of the high southern latitudes?"

"Don't I?" Emmanuelle drawls as she sits down again and crosses one booted ankle slowly over the opposite knee. She speaks to him matter-of-factly now, enumerating her points one by one in a crisp voice which is not altogether unkind.

"You're a sailor, a good one, a man accustomed to reading the waters and the weather and determining when their power can be harnessed to your purposes and when you've no choice but to batten your hatches and ride out a storm. Despite those powers of calculation you've a reckless nature which you prefer not to tame altogether, because it has often served you well in your profession — there's no risk you won't take and no danger you won't face when you believe the reward justifies it, or when your duty calls you. But," she lifts one finger to underline this point, "you don't permit anyone else to delineate the parameters of your duty: you have been accustomed since you were very young to choosing it for yourself. You don't shrink from violence against enemy or foe," she draws there a distinction, "but you would, I think, go out of your way to avoid bringing accidental harm to anyone you consider innocent. Indeed, you'd take that harm upon yourself instead, thinking yourself a more suitable bearer of it. You don't court pain but neither do you fear it. You'd like to be a father one day; I assume that's another reason you desire to regularise your family's social and financial position in Marsilikos. You're angry now, but not really at me: the problem is your situation. You wish I would listen to you. You wish I liked your little jokes — I don't, by the way. You have an anecdote you're desperate to tell, because you believe it will bring us into a better accord with one another. I'll listen," she concedes, "provided you show me you can be brief."

All things considered, Alcibiades bears up well. His body is looser now than it was, as though the fatal strike has already been delivered — the worst is past now, or at least, he's in the heart of it. Her inference about his ability to bear pain seems to be accurate, at least. When he smiles, it touches his eyes. "You left one thing out of your account, my lady, and yes, my little anecdote is intended to illustrate it."

"In brief, there is no more dangerous thing than a storm in the high southerns. Walls of water taller than your masts, so tall that they steal the wind from your sails. And if you slow down, if you let the water overtake you, if you fail to make it to the next crest — you're dead in an instant." There's a light in his features that was not present a moment ago, a sort of love showing through. "That's true sailoring, my lady. And I may not know anything about you, but I do know you're capable of scuppering a person with a few words. And that is what I like about you, though it seems I've been scuppered rather quickly."

Alcibiades is very carefully not addressing her observation about fatherhood. Perhaps it strikes close to home, or at least to a question he's asked himself as his hair begins to gray.

And when a broken man is at last lying at her feet — or, as the case may be, sitting slightly slumped on her sofa — the former Dowayne of Mandrake House applies with a light hand the very balm he’s seeking. “I have an appointment,” she explains simply as she rises to her feet again. “Finish your cognac. You may call on me again next week, if upon reflection you still seek my acquaintance.”

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