(1310-10-12) Rhythm and Measure
Summary: Alcibiades Rousse returns to Isabelle de Valais' loft salon to get some much needed insight on a unique conundrum he has fallen in, which presents a risk of complicating his family's thorny situation even more.
RL Date: October 12, 2018
Related: This and, afterwards, this.
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.

The next time he calls upon her, he'd find her in a middle of a storm of paper.

Fine-lined sketches done by a skilled hand are strewn around her, a vellum hurricane of color and fabric swatches. Correspondences lie open near her, though with no discernable organization, and flowers from admirers that she routinely ignores - these last ones are being carried out by Guillermo, looking as exasperated as anyone has ever seen him, armed with an array of roses and hydrangeas to be regifted to some of her staff. A stylus spins deftly in her hand, as effective a weapon as any blade in her possession, her expression intent with the diamond focus she delivers upon all things - especially in endeavors worth undertaking.

At the moment, Isabelle de Valais is tasked with the near-impossible task of finalizing Lord Laurent Le Blanc's wardrobe.

Hair pinned up and dressed in her typical business attire - an embroidered silk blouse that drops off both shoulders and with three-quarter sleeves gathered up just underneath her elbows in an array of ribbons inundated by fall colors, a corset and breeches, her lack of a collar replaced by a layered choker of luminous pearls - she is barefoot and crosslegged on the massive wolf pelt in the middle of her floor, its veritable conqueror riding it to some far-flung sartorial battlefield. And never one to be less than impeccably accessorized, even her toes have rings - two on the right and one on the left.

"Ugh," she sighs unto the open air, rolling her head back to look at the ceiling. "How does a lady tell a man that no amount of fine wool, cotton, velvet and leather in this world is an adequate replacement for good hygiene?"

Alcibiades has entered the Loft discreetly, winking at Guillermo as he sees the man struggling with a massive bouquet. The lean sailor is dressed just as Isabelle could wish, in the exemplary blue coat and charcoal breeches that she designed for him. There are shadows beneath his eyes, as though he hasn't been to bed yet. He is carrying a satchel over his shoulder, one that clinks softly as he moves. "A lady does not tell a man that at all," he answers the question she's directed to no one.

He paces further into the room, moving to stand at Isabelle's shoulder familiarly, looking down at her in her exquisite work attire. His habitual smile plays across his lips as he stares rather blatantly at the pearls. "She has someone send an anonymous note separate from the clothing order, written in a hand the Lord does not know?" He's making this up, clearly, playing at espionage for his own amusement. "Or she simply asks him what smells."

The tipping of her head gives her a view, albeit upside-down, of Alcibiades suddenly standing there, lean, broad-shouldered form casting a shadow across her own and the quip pulls a ready smile on her face. "I'll take that under advisement," Isabelle says, righting herself and shifting so she could look him up and down in the finery she has designed for him. "Already taking all of it for an experimental test? How is it faring?" She means the clothes, of course, and while she doesn't miss the signs of insomnia on his features - these, she knows well - she does not address them yet. There's also a glance towards the satchel he has brought with him.

"Well, take off your boots first if you're going to sit with me," she says, pushing paper away and swiftly arranging them into piles, each sheet going on its designated one with all the dexterity of an experienced gambling hall dealer. "This monster and I have had an exciting adventure together and I promised him before I commissioned to have his eyes replaced that I would leave him unsoiled if I can help it." Searching his face, her smile and tone soften. "You look tired, Cib."

"Sorry, you're having his eyes replaced?" Alcibiades blinks, sliding his boots off and settling them down neatly. Everything he does is neat, it seems - the consequence of spending so much time in quarters barely wider than he is tall, no doubt. He settles down beside Isabelle, absently unslinging the satchel as he leans on one elbow. "It's faring wonderfully. I feel as though I could fight a duel in these breeches. Not that I would ruin them like that."

He stifles a yawn. "I am tired. Spent my evening gambling. In fact, Izz…I have come to ask you for advice." His familiarity seems to be growing — he's never shortened her name in retribution before now. "I won rather a lot. The trouble is who I won it from."

"I already did." A hand toys with one of the amberglass orbs that the pelt has for eyes. "It had to be the right color to properly commemorate the occasion."

Talk about his breeches has her inclining her head, inspecting it as he shifts - the tailoring is without fault, but as always, she is constantly on the hunt for improvements. "If you did, there'd be more. You simply have to close the necessary transaction with the appropriate sum." He's not the only one who doesn't work for free.

Alcibiades' confession as to what he had decided to do in the clothes she had designed for him has Isabelle's smile tilting into a full-blown grin, dark brows lifting upwards towards her hairline. "If I knew you less well, I'd be surprised to hear you certainly didn't waste any time. But I'm not." She reaches out towards the satchel, armed with her stylus, using the tip to lift the flap in an attempt to peek at what's inside. "Please don't tell me you won some exorbitant hoard from a dockside gangster, and if you did, please don't tell me you cheated."

"I didn't cheat!" Alcibiades' tone is affronted. "I never cheat. Unless they try to cheat me." The lean features twist in a wry grin. The satchel is, frankly, loaded with ducats. And some very fine jewelry. Rings, mostly. Sapphire, gold. A fortune. Enough, perhaps, to purchase a small ship. Alcibiades watches Isabelle peeking inside with some amusement. "I won it all of a woman. A noble lady, as it happens."

Hesitating just for a moment, he says "Her name was Chimene Rousse." He winces as he says it. "I didn't know that when we went all-in." His eyes darken briefly as he glances at the satchel, then back at Isabelle. "I have to give it all back, don't I?"

"Right. And how many times do those who haunt the gambling rings you do abroad refrain from cheating?" Isabelle wonders, the stylus redirecting to poke the tip at his shoulder. "Never say never, luv. You and I are in professions that fork open more ridiculous possibilities than most."

The size of the pot ought to tell her quickly enough that whoever he won against had been a member of the nobility, but when the name spills from his lips, wide, gold-flecked eyes lift to look at him, lips parted in astonishment. She reaches inside the satchel after that, fishing for one of the rings and lifting it, inspecting the gem with a scrutinizing look. He wouldn't just glimpse her surprise on her sunkissed expression, he would also find unmistakable recognition there.

There is silence for a long moment. It stretches endlessly as she continues to stare at him.

And then, the stunned expression breaks.

Her private salon fills with the sudden sound of low, but unbridled mirth as rich as chocolate, her body leaning back until she's sprawled right onto the pelt, arms banded over her middle as she laughs. And laughs. And laughs. Tears actually spring in the corners of her eyes as she tilts herself away from him, curling up and burying her face into the pelt's luxurious hair. Shoulders shake.

Give her a minute.

…ten minutes.

Alcibiades stares, first in sullen astonishment and then, as the laughter continues, in rueful amusement. He reaches out to brush the woman's back as she laughs and laughs, running a hand up her corseted spine to the back of her neck. "Laugh away," he mutters, and reaches down over her to reclaim the ring from her hand. Dropping it back into the satchel, he continues "She is not a happy woman. She drank most of my flask of brandy."

"We played piquet. She was good, but.." Alcibiades shrugs faintly. Very few crewmembers aboard The Dancer will even play cards with him any longer. He's not just skilled, he's lucky. "I offered her several outs. It was.. it felt almost cruel." Sighing, the man nudges the satchel ruefully. "I could do a lot with that coin. But once she knows who I am.."

"How you even get into such ridiculous situations is beyond me," Isabelle gasps through the gale that has gripped her - her laughter is such that daggers of pain actually carve up her sides as she thinks about this horrifying coincidence. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Is this a talent? I mean, is this something you actually practice to get better in?"

Fortunately, thank Yeshua, it fades off. At the pass of his hand up the sinuous line of her spine and over the midnight curls close to the back of her neck, she maintains her position, lifting up her hand with the ring hooked on a pinky finger for him to take. It's only then that she rolls over to brace her body upwards on both her elbows, cheeks glowing with a faint hint of color from all of her laughing. She is not a blusher, she was never prone to it and takes some pride in being the cause rather than the victim. But physical exertion occasionally does do this to her complexion.

"I know Chimene," she says at last. "Her favorite sister married my cousin, Louis de Valais, a few years ago and subsequently bore him the future Comte de Digne, which was how we met. But that is the least of your problems. She is also, as it happens, Her Future Grace, Chimene Rousse de la Courcel. Once the current duc de Roussillion dies, she and her husband will take his place. I suppose there are times when your much-touted luck fails on occasion. Or maybe not, now that you have managed to find yourself in a direct line with someone who can influence your family's fortunes. As for maybe returning all of your fairly-gotten gains…that is a gamble also."

"I know who she is," exhales Alcibiades grimly. But he's somewhat distracted by that blush, by the proximity of the woman. Despite himself, his expression softens. He doesn't argue with her right away, openly taking her in before returning to the banter. "I don't exactly practice, you know, Isabelle. I just get very, very.. lucky." His tone is dull. "If her husband finds out, he'll never forgive Michel."

Absently reaching to brush his hair back off his forehead, Alcibiades stares at Isabelle, then at the satchel, then back again. "Alright. If you know her, then certainly you can propose a course of action. I have an opportunity here. How do I prevent it from becoming a disaster, do you think?"

He leans closer, grinning for a moment. "Or do I keep the coins, sell her back the jewelry, and purchase my own ship at last?"

At his softening visage, Isabelle pauses, inclining her head and watching his profile with a lidded-eyed look that betrays nothing of what lurks behind her gilded stare. That expressive mouth reclaims the rueful cast he's seen on her before, the line of it quirking upwards in a smile so faint, it is barely visible. She is an exuberant creature most days, leaning hard into the passions of her volatile Aragonian blood, but these subtle changes tend to highlight, and remind another, that despite her coloring she is d'Angeline to the very marrow, and one from Eisheth's province.

She shifts upwards, knees bending so she could wrap her arms loosely around them, chin resting on the tops in thought. "You're my friend, and she's my friend and I know better than to wrangle myself in the middle," she tells him. "I can see it playing out in several ways…like I said, returning what you took from her is a gamble also."

As he leans closer, her hand lifts, index and middle fingers flicking a lock of hair back from his forehead.

"If you confront her about it," she murmurs, her voice growing absent as she sinks deeper into the web of possibilities. "Whether to return all of it to her, or give her the opportunity to win it back from you in a fair game, she might ask you why you are returning it to her or providing such an opportunity, and if you tell her the story, she'll see right through your motives and how she reacts, after that, will be up to the Companions. And as charming as you can be, Cib, you've not the social capital just yet to win on that front. She is a Courcel to the very bone. Human interactions are like transactions in that family most of all, and not unlike a card game."

Her hand lowers, her expression serious and quiet. "You know how it is, don't you?" she wonders. "A city isn't like a ship where harmony is necessary to survive. On land, you need to have those with influence either care about you or find you worth the investment before you can secure the help."

"Yes, but I have to meet with her in any case. She wishes to redeem her jewelry. If I hide from her who I am, and she finds out later.." Alcibiades falls silent briefly, settling himself more comfortably, leaning against Isabelle as though it were the most natural thing in the world to snuggle in atop a wolfskin rug. He listens to her intently, nodding along in places.

"You're right — I'm ill-suited to this place, and I know it. Do I simply offer to play her again, make no mention of who I am?" He winces at the thought, shaking his head and leaning back on one elbow. "That doesn't seem right either, does it? I suppose that I could teach her to play, but she doesn't seem interested in being better." He shakes his head yet again.

He nudges the satchel with his knee, sighing. "I don't think this is much to her. It's a fortune to me, perhaps even to you, but to the future Duchesse of House Rousse? It's nothing. Just an embarrassment."

"Well…" Isabelle tilts her head back to look at the ceiling. "That is also an option, you know. Telling her the truth. That you're willing to relinquish your new fortune over to her because you want to make a good impression, because you're thinking of the rest of your family and you can leave her responses to the Companions themselves. I can't tell you what to do, Cib, only that the situation is a delicate one."

He tells her that he is ill-suited for Marsilikos and there's a faint smile there; it is almost apologetic, but she doesn't disagree with it because it is the truth. People adapt in different ways, and some better than most, but there are others who so perfectly fit their calling that there is a visceral instinct or need to reject other possibilities. Alcibiades might very well fall on the latter category.

His broad-shouldered frame leans against hers and it prompts her to nudge her shoulder against his. "I wouldn't make any assumptions about money," she says at last. "Ducal houses do go bankrupt, and they're not immune to falling from the graces of the Crown because of financial mismanagement. That's what happened to House Perigeux around seventy years ago."

Her hand lifts again, fitting against his cheek to turn his face away from the satchel and back to her, looking at him directly in the eyes. "You're good at improvising," she reminds. "Read the room, take a breath, listen to her and go from there."

"Bloody terrifying," mutters Alcibiades. Whether he means the satchel of coin, or the gold-flecked eyes he's staring into is unclear. He is a sailor and an adventurer, certainly, suited to the dangers of the sea and battle — and perhaps he can learn to adjust to this, as well. "But at least there are compensations," he murmurs after a beat, still watching Isabelle.

"I do enjoy this rug," he says suddenly, changing the subject. "You mentioned that there was a story associated with it. A great adventure that you and this beast had together?" One hand strokes the fur as he turns his head into that touch, stubbled cheek rasping against Isabelle's palm. But he makes no attempt to move closer, now that he's moved so dangerously close already.

"I've been asking around, by the way. I think I may be close to learning something about that ship." His smile is smug. "That's why I was really there last night. All this — this was just.. opportunity."

Bloody terrifying.

Her grin is all cheek after that. "Still the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," Isabelle tells him gamely, unapologetically vain enough to make the assumption, the brat. Her thumb passes once over his cheekbone when he turns his face further into the cup her palm provides, before she lowers it against her knee.

She follows the ever-changing tide of the conversation with the careless grace that eludes her businesslike gait, eyes following his fingers as he pets it. "It's unnaturally large, isn't it?" she wonders. "It almost made a meal out of me." And said so casually that she may very well be talking about the weather. "It was menacing two village children in the outskirts of the city while I was out on my morning ride and while I wish I could say it was my hunting prowess that felled it, it would be a lie. Sir Augustin and I managed to chase it off, but it was his knights that returned to the woods to hunt down the pack so it wouldn't hurt the villagers again. This was sent to me as a gift….and you know me when it comes to gifts with stories attached to them. I'm more likely to keep them."

But at his last words, her head whips back to him, her expression shifting from indolent to intent at the drop of a hat, eyes suddenly lit like embers. "You caught a thread," she says, her heartbeat picking up the pace. "When do you think you'll know more?"

Alcibiades grins crookedly, all triumph now. "Whenever you're willing to ask nicely," he says in teasing answer. And then, more seriously, "I'm not sure. But I'll have something soon. And then we'll go from there." He considers the rug again, head tilting to one side. "You know, I'm almost a bit jealous that you've been having adventures with other men."

"And it's not the sweetest thing that I've ever said to you. It's just the one you like the most." He leans back then, resting on his elbow and smiling smugly. "I'm pretty good at improvisation, aren't I?" His eyes sparkle with sudden mischief. "You should hear me play violin sometime. It's almost entirely improvisation."

"I've had adventures with plenty of other men," Isabelle remarks, with all her characteristic brazenness, her hand reaching out to poke his cheek with the edge of an impeccable manicure, fingernail tipped with wine-red lacquer today. "And plenty of other women. Old, young, d'Angeline, foreigner. I'm insatiable. But never fear…none of them are as adorable as youuuuu~…" The last said in a sing-song and saccharine voice that hardly suits her at all, and sounds incredibly wrong with a woman of her looks and contralto. But should he look up at her, mischief burns over her expression, the devil in her more apparent in this state than any other.

"Besides," she continues after a pause, reaching out so she could toss her stylus on a sketchbook. "I don't trust any of them." Something more resigned and hapless outlines the pliant curve of her mouth. "Just you."

His riposte about the terrifying comment has her breaking out in a laugh again, appreciation writ through the look of her. "Well played," she tells him. "And yes, you are. Though I've actually had no idea you were musically inclined. I never acquired the talent. Save for my design work, I can't be said to be a master at anything, really. What drove you to learn?"

"Good for you. I wish it could be said I've had many adventures." Alcibiades refuses to be baited, though he's grinning as he peers at the woman. He reaches out to touch her cheek with a fingertip of his own, pressing in just under the cheekbone. "Two can poke at that game, luv," he murmurs wryly. His eyes sparkle like sapphires.

When she says she trusts him, Alcibiades stops briefly. His poke turns into a light touch of his fingertips to her cheek, an unspoken acknowledgement of what she's said. He locks eyes with her for a moment, then drops his fingers.

"Oh, I've played since I was a boy. Music and mathematics seem, to me, to go together. My mother, Lucette, insisted I learn an instrument — a civilizing influence, I think she hoped." He grins wickedly. "I chose the violin because, to me, there's nothing civilized about it. I can speak my heart better with music than with words, it sometimes seems to me."

Adventures, he says, and Isabelle's own mischief grows. "We are still talking about actual adventures, correct?" she wonders. "As in safaris, treasure hunts, death-defying horse chases across Akkadian deserts? Because there is the general definition, and the especially d'Angeline definition, in which case I…" And she lifts up a hand dramatically, palm out. "…absolutely refuse to know about it."

Trust is rare, especially for the likes of her, but the admission is as truthful as anything she could call in a conversation with someone with whom she can hide less compared to nearly everyone else in her acquaintance. As his hold shifts, the touch growing more solid and searing her cheek with its imbued warmth, her hand rises to touch the ends of those long, elegant digits against the back of his knuckles. She meets the lock and hold of his blue eyes, and while the smile remains, its character leans more towards melancholy than mirth.

It is a lonely life, but a far cry from an unfulfilling one. Deep down, she would take purpose over indolence any day.

"Well, now I feel cheated," she says, the moment breaking under the wake of their easy banter. "All this time and I never knew. You're committed now in showing me one day, I hope you know. It makes sense though. I know very little about music practically, but academically….it's rhythm and measure mostly, isn't it? That suits you too, with your penchant for numbers."

"Numbers — mathematics — are simple, compared to the world around us. I'm no prodigy, but I don't mind playing for you. Music is.. well, as I said. It's a way to speak without words, and I quite enjoy playing at sea." Alcibiades strokes the rug absently, his deft fingers maneuvering as though they were dancing along the bridge of a violin. "You know more about music than you think," he observes.

Reaching out, laying the hand on Isabelle's arm, he repeats the same pattern of finger movements. And then he hums the scale, in perfect pitch, grinning smugly, as he repeats it a third time. "There. You see? You could play a scale if you wished it."

You know more about music than you think.

"I should hope so," Isabelle remarks wryly. "I like listening to it often enough. But that on its own is an art form in itself, and one that I intend to use when you play."

His fingers curl easily over her arm and while she's taller than the average woman, said adventures keep her slender, and the tap-tap-tapping that follows has her observing the pattern, and closing her eyes to appreciate the humming that accompanies it. He'd find her expression change, her inherent exhilaration for the verbal art of fencing tabled for the time being to observe and absorb. It is a habit now, as instinctive as the way she places herself in a room, cultivated from a young adulthood spent cloistered in salons and private rooms, stylus in hand while she watches and listens.

"Rhythm is easy for me," she says, finally, opening her eyes to look at him. "Aragonian heeled dances require it, but measure…I once heard that a musician who can't read the sheets is no musician at all." She pauses, and cants her head at him, the shifting movement leaving a stray tress to curl jealously against her cheek. "So…was it? A civilizing influence?"

Alcibiades reaches out and idly tucks that curl back off Isabelle's forehead, stroking it into her hair. "No," he says after a few considering moments. "I did learn a thing or two about rhythm and measure, and how to read sheets of music, and the proper way to tune a violin, and good bowing technique.." Alcibiades smiles as he rattles off the list, piece by piece, watching Isabelle equally as intensely as she is observing him. "But I did not become civilized by music."

He presses his lips together for a moment to hide a smirk. "I'm not even certain what people mean when they suggest such a thing. The Hellenes studied music to better know the Gods, did you know that? There's nothing civilized about the Gods, I believe." Alcibiades lets his hand drop down again, reluctantly it seems. "You might say music was a wild influence on me. Much like the sea."

The tender gesture he delivers with that single curl draws a slight shrinking of Isabelle's pupils, cursed with eyes just as expressive as the shape of her mouth and unable to lock onto the inscrutability she favors when caught off-guard - nobody can always be prepared against surprise, after all, and they have enough history to indicate that with Alcibiades Rousse, she shouldn't even try. It leaves her watching him silently where she sits, nursing the dull, twisting ache such a thing always delivers within the cage of her bones, and the echoes of Guillermo Torres' words from when she was a child.

There's nothing civilized about the Gods, I think.

"I wouldn't say that," she tells him at last, ever one with her own opinion; there's a more enigmatic note to her smile once it returns. "I know one who managed to espouse something right. And believe me, Cib. I've seen plenty enough of the world to think the same. Not all that surprising, don't you think?" She lets out a small laugh. "It always takes just one cheeky bugger to make you question everything."

Her eyes drop, to follow the hand that now rests on the pelt. "I doubt that you'd be as you are if you were fully civilized. I think one's potential can be brutally snuffed if not afforded the opportunity to go wild. So as backgrounds and past history goes, in your case…" Her gaze lifts to his. "I wouldn't change a thing."

With that, she lifts up a hand, palm forward, an invitation for him to do the same and let their fingertips touch from pinky to thumb. And should he oblige her, she tilts her head to examine the five-point array he makes against her own. "I never took to more traditional pursuits, when I was growing up," she offers. "Needlepoint, playing the pianoforte, painting china and the like. I didn't even think I liked dancing, until I discovered later in life that I did, it's just that d'Angeline ones were too staid for me. All grace, all form, but not enough fire to satisfy me. Not enough noise. Not enough swings and carries, not enough to give me what I really wanted, which is to feel my heart crash into my bones and burn me up from within. Maybe that's why we get along so well." Humor glitters in her eyes. "Maybe deep down, we're just two savages in the end."

"I think people tend to assume that civilization is good. But I've spent time in places where our idea of civilization is.. alien. As have you. Bodhistan, for instance. When I say the gods aren't civilized.." Alcibiades presses his palm into Isabelle's, smiling at her over their fingertips, absently flexing his fingers. The calluses of his hands rasp audibly against her. "…I mean that they're above civilization. They don't need rules, or they wouldn't be gods."

"I agree with you. I know men and women who question who they are… they spend their days wondering if they're good or bad." Alcibiades smiles ruefully, still looking at Isabelle over their palms. "Ever since I went to sea, morality became much simpler." He shrugs faintly. "I've seen the most savage thing I can imagine, and it wasn't created by any mortal."

Quirking a brow at Isabelle, he continues "I think I can imagine you dancing in Bodhistan, or in some of the friendly little isles in the warmer climes down to the south-east. Strange places. We'd call them savage indeed. They say that the men down there eat their enemies, and indeed, I've seen the heads they collect." A brief thoughtful pause. "They surf the waves on these strange paddle-boards, though. I've never tried myself, but can anyone who takes such joy in that be truly wicked?"

His hand is coarse, set with long fingers and darkened by the sun; knuckles larger than hers or a man who availed himself with less physical pursuits due to the accumulation of additional bone deposits - signs of hard work and pressure. It isn't just his fingers that capture her interest at present, but the length of them and everything else - the faint scars on his wrists blocked out by a marque, peeking out from underneath the cuff of the shirt she had tailored for him. The way she studies someone isn't weighty, there is absolutely nothing intimidating about the face she wears…and neither is it academic, like one would often find on a healer. Whatever she's looking for, it is something else beyond the physical, silently putting together his portrait and rearranging colors, shapes and angles with every new thing she discovers.

"I was told long ago that you can divine plenty about a man just by looking at his hands," she murmurs, absently.

And after a moment, she deigns to reply to the rest: "People are," Isabelle replies at last, looking up from her examination. "I've traveled far and wide enough to know that one of the most immutable truths of our world is that people are the same everywhere. I don't mean the characteristics that make them unique, physical or otherwise. But in terms of dreams, ambitions and aspirations, what drives them…we have more in common with everyone else than we do differences."

He mentions men eating their enemies and taking heads, blinking once. "The ones that shrink them? I've heard, but never seen. Well, savages or not." And here, she gives him an open grin. "I'd be one of the first to try those paddle-boards."

Alcibiades seems to enjoy the hand-to-hand contact, pressing into it gently when the pressure lets up. "You know, I fully believe that you would excel at it. But yes, the ones who shrink heads. It's really quite remarkable. They believe that consuming the vital organs of their enemies imbue them with the strength of that enemy. In a way, it's a compliment." His grin shifts for a moment, becoming rueful. "And yet it's a touch unsettling, all the same, to be handed a bowl with a man's ear in it."

He looks again at the two hands touching, tilting his head faintly, his brows furrowing. "I wonder what it is you think you're learning about me, then."

After a few beats, he changes the subject. "People are people," he agrees after a few moments. "We have a few foreigners about The Dancer, you know. Bodhistani, mostly. Excellent sailors though they do hate the cold." His other hand reaches out, brushes at the back of Isabelle's wrist, head canting momentarily. "But they don't eat beef. Which makes it difficult, three days out of the week. They've adapted. They pretend it's dried goat instead."

I wonder what it is you think you're learning about me, then.

Isabelle doesn't answer that yet; she takes this in, also, how his palm presses forward when her own eases up. "A note for the future, then," she begins, following his shrinking heads anecdote. "If you ever deigned to pay me a compliment, don't consume my vital organs. I need those. Most days, a simple 'You look lovely today, Izzy' is sufficient, I promise." Laughter is imbued upon the line of her mouth, though it doesn't escape it as she looks up, finally, to meet his eyes. "Don't get me wrong, I encourage cultural exchange, but there are limits."

His other set of fingers make a pass over her wrist, and there's a glance down at the additional sensation. "Beef? Why— ah, yes. The cow is sacred," she remarks. "On a ship, given cramped confines and left with no choice but to languish in each other's company and partake on what supplies are available, I suppose such adjustments are inevitable." She gives him a curious look. "Would you say that life aboard The Dancer is the same as you would find aboard any other vessel, or have you and your crew developed certain unique traditions?"

A look towards their hands again. "As for what I think I'm learning about you…" Her smile broadens. "This is a more impressive trick if you were a complete stranger, but I can tell you one thing about yourself that you don't think I know."

"Hmm. Well, I have only served on two ships. That's fairly unusual in itself. The Dancer is as superstitious as any other ship, Izzy. I mean, I am a man of natural philosophy. I only scratch the mainstay or touch wood to please the crew." His voice is so carefully devoid of irony that it is, by perfect nullity, rich with it. He quirks an eyebrow, inviting Isabelle to join him in the joke. "And we certainly maintain the traditions that all sailors have. We have a visitor who comes aboard when we cross the equator, though the less said of that, the better." A superstition in itself, his silence on this matter.

"And we're as diverse as any ship." When Alcibiades is speaking of The Dancer, there is a fondness in his voice that is absent even when he speaks of his brother. They're more than a family — they're a floating village, a community. "It's different than many merchant vessels in some respects, however. Closer to how a military cruiser operates. We beat to quarters every evening, complete with a clean sweep fore and aft, for instance. We sling our hammocks in the rigging every morning. We stand watches throughout the night, rather than anchoring as many merchantmen do. We rig for punishment once a week." Punishment. A euphemism for the cat-o'-nine-tails, that vicious whip in its baize bag. "We rarely use the cat, though. A happy ship is an effective ship, Captain Lesse says. And I agree."

"I was about to bring up the sordid seafaring tidbit about your thoughts on women being the harbingers of ill fortune while aboard a ship, but I think the world has at the very least done away with that. Your Captain Lesse is a picture of the current times, after all."

Examination finished, Isabelle lowers her fingers from his, though the inquisitive look remains. She has been on enough ships to know what 'beat to quarters' means, and it never fails to astound her that for all that he is adamant about speaking of The Dancer as a merchant vessel, they still perform the necessary drills expected in a navy ship. And she is also familiar with the cat, though not in the nautical sense of the word - she has felt its kiss under the expert hands of Emmanuelle Shahrizai no Mandrake.

"Have you ever had to use it?" she wonders, instead. "The cat, I mean. What infractions call for it? And have there been any mutinies on board?" She does not ask whether the whip has served in punishing that, in the end of the day, she knows there is only one way to punish a mutiny.

"Oh, I've had to use it. Well, ordered the punishment. The bosun, by long tradition, swings the cat. But if you order the beating, you had better have the stomach to watch. We rarely go above ten strokes if we can help it." Alcibiades doesn't speak of the ships known as 'hells afloat' where men are routinely given a hundred lashes for failing to polish brass properly, or for being the last man off a yard-arm.

"Thievery is punishable, of course. Drunkenness on duty. Disobedience or deliberate disrespect to an officer." He rattles off the infractions quietly, with no pleasure in his voice. A lashing aboardship, administered at the hands of a powerful seaman, is no light matter. Even ten strokes will take the skin clean off a man's back, crack ribs. More can cripple a man for life — or kill him, slowly.

"We've never had a mutiny on The Dancer," he says after a few moments. His features are less pleasant than before. This, for a moment, is the face that sends men flying into the rigging during a squall — contained, professional, utterly confident in the rightness of what he says. "And if we did, we would string the offenders from the yard-arm."

Her expression is serious and even without the words, Isabelle can guess; imagination is a permanent part of the toolbox she uses in both halves of her life and it usually doesn't take more than the most basic of descriptions for her to fill in the rest with color, however gory the prospect. He could see it on her face, in her eyes, but there's no curling of lip to signify disgust and no wince or any telltale markers to imply horror or any kind. Either the woman is fearless, or she has a strong stomach.

Finally: "If I knew nothing else about your Captain Lesse, that would be enough," she tells him. "That there have never been any mutinies aboard The Dancer. It proves if naught else that holding back the lash pays more dividends than meets the eye."

At his quiet expression, she reaches out, elbow bent, to squeeze his shoulder with her fingers, leaning her head in. "Forgive me," she says, offering the rare apology. "I ask because it's rare for me to be in the company of those who've become masters in their craft, and my undertakings often require me to be at the very least passingly familiar with many things. These efforts have saved my life, on more than one occasion." Her smile returns, however faintly. "I'm not discounting the possibility at all that what I can learn from you may do the same, in the future, even without you there."

"No, it's not you, my dear." Alcibiades seems to realize that he's brought the mood down, reaches up to touch Isabelle's hand in reassurance. He draws in a breath, exhales after a moment, and summons up his quick smile. There is, this time, a touch of sadness to it. "But anyone who has ever seen a sailor strung from the rigging — a friend, a man you've bled with — for some damn fool thing he did while drunk…" He trails off after a few moments. "You have to hang a murderer," he adds, somewhat defiantly. "Drunk or no, it cannot be taken back."

"As for mutinies… they are, I think, rarer than you would believe. A mutineer is a leper. He can never be trusted again, never accepted anywhere upon the seas. And they are known. Marked. Their description is passed among every ship that enters our ports. It is not a life. Simply a.. wait for death." The words, so cold, are delivered in a sad tone of voice. "Sometimes decent men are driven to it, and that is the tragedy of bad leadership. At sea, a captain has such power as you cannot imagine, Isabelle. And some go… odd. The power warps them. I've seen it."

He dampens his lower lip, considering. "It's the solitude, you see. Did you know that it is considered bad manners to address a captain before they speak to you? Unless it is business, of course." Chewing the inside of his cheek for a moment, he continues "Athene has done her best. She has an officer and a midshipman to every meal. And she insists each officer knows the men of his division personally. That, more than anything, means that we must rarely use the lash. But believe me, Isabelle, she does not spare the men."

While Isabelle says nothing, the story about the drunk man strung smacks of personal experience, however hard that Alcibiades attempts to divorce himself from it. With his hand covering her own, her own fingers shift, to slip the ends of her digits through the gaps between his own - a loose interlocking, not secure by any means. But there's no outrage, either - she has lived through the principle outlined by the tale many times, that there are times when one must do what must be done to secure the greater good.

The power warps them.

"Ships are small kingdoms," she replies. "With the captain as its regent, akin to a god in a very small world. It is human, in the end, to be reluctant to relinquish that kind of thrall." His smile is one that she returns. "Don't count me out, Cib. I can imagine plenty."

His words on Captain Lesse are noted - not just the syllables themselves, but the tone and pitch in which he delivers them. Respect, admiration, even affection implicit in his remarks. "I believe you," she tells him in the end, something humored and wry returning to her expression. "She did not spare me, and I was a client."

Emboldened by the slender fingers interlaced with his heavy ones, Alcibiades turns his head briefly to press a kiss onto Isabelle's knuckles. "I know you can," he says after a moment. He may not know everything that Isabelle is, but he has seen her kill — efficiently, and with no second thoughts. "But believe me, my dear, you have not seen a hell afloat. And I hope that you never do."

The words carry such heavy conviction, such utter loathing, that Alcibiades looks as though he could strike out at the phantom he is summoning. But there is nothing to be done. A captain, as Isabelle said, is like a god in their own small world.

He changes the subject. "Tell me, do you still dance?" His eyes twinkle briefly. "Do you prefer to dance alone, or with a partner?"

Goosebumps rise at the brief pass of his warm mouth against impossibly soft skin, ever one to be enslaved by all of her senses in the best of times. She was born an implacably tactile creature, one who allows herself to experience the world unfettered, and there's pleasure to be had even in this impulsive token, hinted at by the subtle lifting of her mouth by the corners. A thumb draws an absent circle over one of his knuckles at his kiss, followed by a line drawn through it.

"It's not in my nature to rule anything out," Isabelle remarks quietly, her eyes on his profile, observing the changes in his expression. "I told you before…the two of us are in professions where possibilities are more open than most. But since I don't intend to start a career as a professional masochist, I hope I never do, either."

The change in subject is welcome, and as usual, she follows it with nary a blink. There's another laugh and one that ignites her face, rendering it downright incandescent. The devil's own mischief returns, a relentless thing, never one to be curbed for long. "I never stopped," she tells him. "Always with a partner. And always with abandon."

Alcibiades grins briefly, with a very masculine smugness, at the reaction his small gesture has raised. In answer to the touch against his knuckle, he presses his thumb against her palm lightly, drawing a slow circle in the soft skin. He smiles at the younger woman, directing his attention back to what it is she's saying.

"No. I don't read you as a masochist," he says pleasantly. "But as you said — all possibilities are worth exploring." He's teasing, but only partially. There is a curiosity in his tone, and in his expression, but he doesn't press the topic. Looking around the room for a moment, he says "I dance a little. But I'm not sure I could keep up with you."

He smiles crookedly. "Perhaps if it were a sea shanty. Dancing the hornpipe is a rare pleasure. It's amazing to watch the men do it." Isabelle has seen that before, aboard The Dancer if not elsewhere, men dancing with their arms folded and their feet kicking wildly.

He tells her that all possibilities are worth exploring, and at his teasing look, her own expression turns comically flat. "Something tells me," she begins. "That asking you what that means precisely is a trap I may have extreme difficulties escaping from."

I'm not sure I could keep up with you.

And that uncovers her grin once more. "Good," Isabelle replies, the line of her jaw tilting with that defiant angle. "If I didn't make even the most experienced of my acquaintances wonder, I'm slipping, and that cannot do. As for your own dancing…" Her brows lift. "There are saboteurs in the Far East who know that the true key to surprising someone is simply a matter of patience and dexterity. And you will never know unless you practice."

Perhaps the earlier line of their conversation lingers; the tread to safer waters is welcome, but the pall remains by the barest thread. She is prone to asking difficult questions - she is sharply aware of this. It is a habit now, too, and she is all the more appreciative that Alcibiades, at least for now, doesn't balk at any of them.

Her hand eases away at last, but only to refit itself against his cheek, her face turning so her mouth can plant upon its opposite. It falls an inch past the corner of his own, soft and humid against a complexion that has spent over a decade being whipped by the wind. It is no fleeting, butterfly touch, nothing so coquettish as would belong to a young girl; it is warm, and real, and carries the weight of everything that she is unwilling and unable to say.

But she's willing, at least, to say something: "Thank you," she tells him. "For humoring me. You never shied away when things became disastrous, Cib. You've no idea how rare that is."

"My dear lady," Alcibiades whispers into the ear that is suddenly so close to his mouth, "Disaster and I are old acquaintances. We have reached a certain understanding — disaster will not wreck me, and I will not run from it." That supreme self-confidence, the certainty that death is a thing which happens to other men, has led to fresh scars before now. Alcibiades' breath is warm on Isabelle's neck as he dips his chin to kiss the hollow of her shoulder. "And I never lay traps. That requires a deviousness that I'm far too unintelligent to possess."

These words are a touch muffled, making his tone hard to read, apart from the humor and hope that are present in equal parts. "As for patience and dexterity.. are we still speaking about dancing?" He lifts his head to glance at the woman's face, his brows arched teasingly. He reaches out to drum his fingers lightly on the woman's knee, assuming she doesn't pull away — with her astuteness, she'd recognize the pattern from earlier. Alcibiades is playing the scales. "Playing the violin develops a certain dexterity, after all."

And then, suddenly serious, he locks eyes with Isabelle from a few inches away. "There are times to shy away, Isabelle — but only to return later, to fight on one's own terms." He smiles slowly. "It feels as though we have the weather gauge this time."

Disaster and I are old acquaintances.

"Grand," she replies, her tone sardonic and humored, but low in deference to their changed proximity. "Some part of me hopes that is precisely how you describe me to others."

His movements following has her looking over his shoulder, his ear a hair's breadth from hers, lashes heavy over her eyes and thoughts drifting past her window; a futile endeavor when his mouth conspires to anchor her to the present, and reduce the entire world to something more cramped and inescapable with him as its center. He wouldn't be able to see it, the self-deprecating quality to her smile as his head dips, his bold patrician's nose nudging past an errant curl to find her shoulder and moving undeterred from her pearl choker to find more of her skin. More goosebumps, unable to help it, her hand shifting past his cheek to tangle into dark chocolate locks bound at his nape.

The words that follow are quiet, her eyes closing briefly. "On that end," she replies of traps and disasters. "I wouldn't sell yourself short."

Her hand drops when he lifts his face to look directly at her, and the teasing expression she finds within has Isabelle tilting her head back, a groan escaping her. "Yes, I'm still speaking about dancing, you…man." Don't worry, she's noticed. The scale played against her knee has her looking down at his fingers briefly, recognizing it. He would know it, too - she hardly forgets anything.

But when his mien adopts a more serious facade, all mirth drains away, leaving her own somber and solemn. While her smile remains, there is an unspoken acknowledgment to the words he says about running. She has a thousand different kinds, all running through the wide gamut of human expression, but the one upon her now is hardly ever seen.

"I know," she says, her hand coming up to tug gently on the point of his chin with her index and thumb. "And you know how I feel about predictions and the best laid plans. If I had a choice between formidable tactical acumen and prodigious situational adaptability, I will choose the latter over the former any day."

With that, she rises, crossing around him so she could move to her desk, and rummage around in it.

Prodigious situational adaptability. Well, Alcibiades is capable of suffering any number of disappointments with good grace, from days spent in the doldrums to beautiful women deciding that the time has come to do some work. It is his own fault, after all. The seaman watches Isabelle move across to the desk with a sudden, genuine, grin. "Well, and now I sense a lee shore on a dark night. You have bad news for me, I think."

As if he doesn't have enough. Alcibiades glances over at the satchel loaded with Rousse jewelry, and his expression becomes briefly guilty. He ought to be dealing with that crisis, not… discussing dancing and music. Standing as well, he reaches down to clasp the hilt of a sword that is not there, then simply folds his hands behind his back.

"Tell me."

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Subterfuge: Great Success. (8 2 5 7 8 5 8)

Two years apart and he still, somehow, manages to read her better than most. Isabelle lifts her eyes from where she stands, holding a spark of muted surprise within them.

Tell me.

Her hands move again, reminded of a scrap of paper that she has burned a few nights ago and the fury and sorrow that followed upon reading it, a tic at the hinge of her jaw at the memory. But what emerges from the depths of her drawers is a velvet pouch with the unmistakable heft of a considerable amount of ducats. Nothing so large as the pot he is carrying (and luckily, he has enough skill with the blade for her not to worry too much about his security in carrying it), but enough to pay someone for something valuable.

This, she passes to him with a light, underhanded toss.

"Nothing so dire." A lie, but made convincing by her smile, and disguised even further by the clink of metal. She can't, not yet…and if Yeshua was merciful, she would find a way to excise Alcibiades' involvement on that front, entirely. "I haven't forgotten," she tells him. "I believe you have a person to pay for much needed information, and if your contact likes you enough to give it for free, you can add that to the rest of the tally."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Perception: Good Success. (8 7 2 5 5 7 2)

Alcibiades catches the coin-purse deftly and ties it to his belt quickly, tucking the coat back into place. His eyes track Isabelle closely, watching her expression, and his own lightens as she smiles. He seems to buy the lie, though there is some lingering unease — more than likely, associated with what he is up to than what she is. "Thank you," he says softly. He had felt the weight of that purse, knew it was a hefty sum. Even accounting for whatever bribes he may need to spread, there ought to be left-overs.

"I feel as though we're moving quickly, and yet…" Alcibiades hesitates for a moment, staring at Isabelle with that same searching expression. "I feel as though we're in a fog bank, Isabelle, and there is a ship lurking somewhere off to starboard. I want to raise more sail."

His searching expression would find the full brunt of the blast doors of Isabelle's own; years becoming whatever she is has given her a mastery of appearing like an open book until it is time to close it. Her eyes on him are steady, but something about the way he looks at her then changes her air - it is a subtle thing, but palpable. She leans against her desk, crossing her arms over her chest.

Finally: "You're already doing much of the digging for me," she tells him. "Let me do my part, Cib." There's another wry smile. "With a little faith, perhaps I can surprise you, for a change."

Alcibiades smiles suddenly, that boyish grin that takes ten years off his life. He saunters over to Isabelle as she folds her arms across her chest and reaches up, resting both hands on her shoulders. "Izzie, my dear friend," he says in a soothing tone, "I always have faith in you." It may be an overblown gesture, but then, so was his leap from a rail onto a slaver two years ago. Overblown but sincere — his trademark.

He smiles again, squeezing Isabelle's shoulders firmly before stepping back. There seems to be some boundary, now that they're speaking business, limiting him from the intimacy that they shared a moment before. Professionalism. He dips one eye in a saucy wink. Professionalism… of a sort. "And you always surprise me. Every time I see you, I am surprised all over again that you deign to be my…friend."

Well, he tried to be professional.

Tried being the operative term.

The squeeze on both her shoulders coaxes that smile to broaden, enough for his blue eyes to catch a hint of her teeth. "With luck," Isabelle begins. And with some careful manipulation on her part, she adds silently. "I'll be able to hold onto that faith."

His wink encourages more of her amusement, and the pause in the end might as well be a chasm, where reason and every sensible decision can sink and be lost forever. She pushes away from the desk, reducing the distance between them until they're toe to toe, slender form taking a lean towards him; close enough for her head to tilt back, for her eyes to lid and their noses to almost touch.

"I think," she murmurs. "That despite my occasional ability to infuriate you, we'll always be able to commiserate over our stupid incapability not to live dangerously."

Closer still, enough to taste her breath, and the smile that follows.

"Now get out of my office."

The laughter is instantaneous, her tease hitting the perfect note between them — the tension stroked like the string of a violin, the vibrations echoing into Alcibiades. He leans forward, daring to make one more move in the dance, brushing his lips against the woman's forehead in a quick acknowledging kiss. But he's still laughing as he steps back and offers a sweeping bow.

The bow is half-mocking, half-genuine, an explosive exaggeration of what a courtier might offer. He has been practicing. This is far better than what he was capable of a year ago. Mimicry, it seems, is one of his little surprises. "As my lady commands," he intones as he straightens. And then he turns on his heel and swaggers out, reclaiming his sword in the foyer and strapping it back into its rightful place.

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