(1310-10-23) Origin Stories
Summary: After gunnery practice, Isabelle and Alcibiades discuss plans, strategy, next steps, and pick through an array of theories that somehow end with Isabelle's accounting as to how she found her start in her duchesse's service.
RL Date: October 23, 2018
Related: Everything in this page.
isabelle alcibiades 

Open Waters

The endless sea, bound for Phaistos, Kriti.

The Dancer cuts through the wine-dark sea, far from the entanglements of land. Her sails span like great seaborne wings, as wide as the albatrosses that Alcibiades so loves. Far to the west, the sun hangs orange over the landless horizon, sinking slowly and leaving behind it a brilliant portrait — orange, purple, all manner of shades of blue. A harvest moon peeks out from the darkening sky, stars beginning to emerge as well.

Aboard the ship itself, the day has been a relaxing one — perfect sailing, wind just abaft the beam, pushing the ship forward as though a God had placed his finger on her stern and shoved it along. Relaxation, however, is coming to a halt. It is time to beat to quarters. A ritual aboard The Dancer, by command of Athene Lesse, the ship is preparing for its daily battle.

Alcibiades is settled in alongside the wheel, speaking quietly with Athene Lesse as she prowls her quarterdeck. After consulting with his captain for a few moments, the rangy seaman saunters forward to where a drummer waits next to the massive steering-wheel. "Beat to quarters, Jerome." The ratta-tat-tat of the drum is instantaneous, the order anticipated. At the sound, sailors instantly begin running to battle-stations — some up in the rigging, some down among the cannons. The bosun and his mate patrol, making certain all the men are where they belong, but it is unneccessary. This is a seasoned crew, well-drilled.

"Barrels over the stern," Alcibiades orders another seaman, who drops two empty barrels of boiled beef off the ship. The First Mate of The Dancer turns to Captain Athene Lesse and salutes. "The ship is stripped and prepared for action, Cap'n."

Athene paces back and forth, gazing along the length of the ship for a few moments as if considering. Far to the stern now, the two barrels bob up and down.

She rightly stays as far away from the preparations as possible.

Not too far that she can't observe, following the procedures and orders with keen eyes and a sharp ear, but certainly far enough that she wouldn't be in the way. Alcibiades' tall, lean form is marked - always the first to attract her attention (which she finds particularly galling, but she is unable to help it) followed by Captain Lesse and the rest of her officers and then, the crew. Perched on top of the awning leading to the belowdecks, she's sitting cross-legged; for a woman who spent the last evening sleepless, restlessly pacing along the deck and causing more than a few shifts of watch to wonder just what the hell she has been doing, she looks alert despite the lack of rest.

Isabelle de Valais is dressed in her warm outerwear - with night approaching so quickly, the seasonal winds are chilly, whipping her cheeks with enough gale and temperature that color can't help but show, now and then, despite her sunkissed exterior. While her gear is serviceable, they are no less fashionable, and easily the most well-dressed adventurer anyone aboard The Dancer has ever seen in her fitted breeches, laced-up thigh-high boots and the coat she designed herself, of soft leather and trimmed with warm wolf fur, particularly generous around the cuffs and collar. She would have to switch to even more practical wear once they finally caught up with The Ariadne, but for now she's able to give herself this small bit of indulgence. Half her face burrows into the fluff her collar makes around it.

It's cold.

But curiosity has always propelled her to endure more than her fair share of discomfort and her forays in the wide, wild world have not always been comfortable. She's able to endure it better than most and even with frost tickling the air, she's able to move, speak and act as if it doesn't bother her. For now, she simply observes, stray midnight tresses whipping around her face.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Seafaring: Good Success. (2 1 4 3 8 8 2 2 7 5 2)

Alcibiades is perfectly aware that he, and by extension his crew, is under a certain amount of observation. In fact, the entire crew seems aware that Isabelle is watching. There is an unspoken desire to impress their beautiful passenger, whom the lower-deck regards as something of a lucky charm. After all, two years before, she brought them a prize with enough wealth for every man to kick up mayhem ashore. And no sailor is immune to the beauty of a woman such as Isabelle, particularly one so favored by their beloved first officer.

Down on the gundeck, men are stripping to their waist and tying cloths around their foreheads to keep the sweat off. It won't be cold for long, not down there. Alcibiades gives them a few moments to prepare, idly pacing to stand alongside Isabelle. He smiles down at her. "These might be useful." Discreetly, the tall seaman offers two small cotton-balls.

And then, he raises his voice to the men at the wheel. "Fall off the wind. Give me the targets broad on our lee." He raises his voice still further. For the first time in two years, Isabelle hears the roar of a seaman in battle. His shout echoes across the water, pitched to carry over gunfire or the screaming winds of a hurricane. "Run out your guns! Starboard guns, fire as they bear!" The gun crews heave against their massive charges, running them out against the swell.

Softer, to Isabelle, Alcibiades says "Watch.. this."

She has been nothing but her typical, friendly and incorrible self in the last few days, the cheer of her company unchanged from the last time the crew of The Dancer had seen her, and returned in spades - not just out of gratitude, but relief that they didn't hold the loss of their men two years ago against her. It is irrational, in a way, they were all aware of the risks when they signed on for the venture, but human emotions aren't particularly known for being reasonable or logical in the best of times. The heart is a funny thing, especially for one such as herself, when it goes one way despite every clamor from the parts of a body that try to compel it to go in another.

When people start to move, that is when she also does. Watching the gunnery crew go belowdecks, she slips off her perch, boots thumping on the boards. As those brisk, long-legged strides take her across the deck, it is as if Alcibiades reads her mind when he intercepts her course. Her hand lifts, tilts, for him to deposit the cotton balls upon it.

"Aha, these look familiar," Isabelle tells him with a wry smile, putting each on one ear before falling a step to stand next to him. His orders barked, she folds her arms behind her back, gloved fingers linking behind her.

Dark eyes flecked with gold track the action; she knows virtually nothing about the finer points of seafaring, but she is well-practiced in following how an environment changes at the presence of a catalyst - Alcibiades, in this case. She tilts her head towards him, lips parted in a faint murmur. "Are the barrels targets or is heaving them overboard for a different purpose entirely?"

"We don't waste anything at sea. Barrels become targets. Ruined canvas sails become hammocks. Grease from breakfast — slush, we call it — is being used on the cannon's carriages to grease their wheels." Alcibiades smiles faintly, then nods. The ship's course is rapidly changing, charting a smooth parabola in the chill waters. The First Mate is observing these changes without even seeming to register that he is doing so. Above them, men swarm through the rigging like monkeys, trimming the sails to perfectly match this new wind-direction.

And then, as the barrels come into sight of the first cannon, the firing begins. The roar is almost simultaneous with the firing of the second cannon, and then the third. The sound is immense, if that were a large enough word to describe it. The entire ship seems to shudder with each blast. And the cannons explode backward with their powerful recoil, hundreds of pounds shooting back against the ropes that restrain them.

It turns out that each gunner is something of an acrobat, arching his body over the recoiling cannon, barely keeping his feet clear. And as soon as the cannon has recoiled, they are swarming into the process of reloading. It's a well-oiled series of machines — a swab to clean the barrel, a powderbag, a ball, a rammer to jam it all down, and then the men are running the cannon back out. It takes time, but not so much time as one would think.

And beside Isabelle, Alcibiades is timing them, counting the grains of sand in the hourglass. Athene Lesse watches silently, grimly, from her place by the wheel. She has no need to give orders. She's given the only order that matters.

Off in the distance, one can see the water churning violently as cannonballs smash in and around the two floating barrels. One barrel goes flying up in the air from a direct hit and crashes back down, mostly shattered.

"Slow," Alcibiades mutters as the second volley of gunfire begins. Almost two minutes have elapsed from the first guncrew firing their first shot to when they begin their second.

"Makes sense, considering the days it normally takes to get from one port to another," Isabelle murmurs. She keeps her voice pitched low, expanding her education the longer she observes. It seems that their talk a week prior hadn't just been lip service - the young lady is serious about learning what she could from him. Not that she has any designs to be a sailor, but her travels often take her above the water and what she could procure for herself on this latest voyage may very well save her life, one day. Her eyes slip upwards to watch distant bodies clamber up the ropes.

When the practice starts in earnest, she braces herself. The noise is deafening, the scent of gunpowder and cordite stinging her nose even from her present distance, ears ringing despite the cotton. She is not accustomed to this and there is a faint grimace on her features when the cannons launch one devastating ball after another into the barrels and the depths. It has been a long time since she has had to worry about being attacked by sea - the daily practice has been helpful in slowly gaining her bearings around the noise and recoil once more, but she can hardly be said to be a veteran. There's a glance at her companion's strong, handsome profile as he observes his crew, and finds nary a trace of her discomfiture upon him, marking the wide gulf of experience between them.

Her attention shifts to the hourglass, marking the time as well. "Two minutes is slow?" she wonders, a question that has never occurred to her to ask before. "How fast does your gunnery crew have to be in order to claim an edge?"

Alcibiades inhales slowly, clearly relishing the smell of battle — there is a light in his eye. He doesn't respond right away to Isabelle's question. "House your guns!" The men run the cannon up a final time, this time lashing them into place with thick cordage. It is vital that such a heavy weapon not just… roll around loose. It is through just such chaos that men die and ships sink.

"Let's see if the portside guns do any better," he mutters. And then, to the men at the wheel, "Let's spare the rigging and the men, eh? Fall off the wind and bring us about gently." Louder still, he adds "Port guns — run out your guns!" It's really quite unfair that the now-winded crew of the starboard guns must turn and watch their fresher comrades take a stab at the gun practice. "Fire as they bear!" And the ship begins turning, faster and faster, her bow sweeping toward the targets.

Work completed, Alcibiades finally looks back to Isabelle. "In a man of war, three volleys in five minutes is considered elite." The seaman grins crookedly, seeming to recognize something ridiculous. "We aren't a man of war, it's quite true. Not even a privateer. But I am convinced that expert gunnery wins battles. We can expect our pirates to shoot mostly at the rigging, for instance. They'll want to save the slaughter for boarding."

She patiently waits - there is practice going on after all, and when the other set is called to action, the ducal agent turns to regard the guns on the portside of the vessel, watching smoke waft from every cannonball expended into the water. She hardly noticed the ship changing positions to circle around the target, with how smooth and effortless The Dancer made its maneuvers - like a shark circling wounded prey. Her expression remains intent, but there is something else there as well - understated approval. Now that she is paying close attention, she is suitably impressed.

Not bad, in the end, for a ship that makes a living as a merchant barge.

"The rigging to…cripple the ship?" Isabelle casts her eyes back on the ropes leading up to the topsails. That makes sense as well. "To render it unable to run and leave it as undamaged a prize as possible. Snapped ropes and the like are easier things to repair than damage to the hull or anywhere else." There's a sidelong glance back to his face and the look within it. Like any good student, she makes her own conclusions and waits for confirmation. She does not wait for the master to spell things out for her.

Though it may surprise him to know that as a child, she was a terrible student - not due to the incapability of absorbing different concepts, but the lack of focus and motivation, the curse often afflicted upon prodigies and their tendency to apply themselves only when they find something interesting or necessary. And this occurred rarely in the presence of tutors; only certain academic subjects interested her and while she was good at mathematics, enough, at least, to be able to keep track of accounts and expenditures, she does not have the man's well-established knack for it.

"Exactly so, Izz. You destroy the masts and spars, shred the rigging… we fire what's called chain-shot to really wreak havoc." Alcibiades' current knowledge of naval battle is — well, to be frank — largely academic. And yet in his encounters on the open sea, the First Mate of The Dancer has proven himself perfectly capable, and more than capable. He speaks with authority.

"I wish we could practice more often," he says softly, a touch of wistfulness in his voice. "But two rounds apiece is all the powder we can afford to expend." His eyes follow the working of the ship with sudden, keen, attention, and his voice roars out — coarse and ugly suddenly, with genuine anger. "OI!" His hand raises, pointing to a line flapping loose near one of the rails. "What is this, eh? Kusheline pendants flappin' about like we're a bloody bawdy show!" The offense seems minor, but a sailor leaps to cleat off the line neatly and only when it's done does Alcibiades relax.

More quietly, he says "Gods forgive me for a moralizing hypocrite. But if we allow them one inch, the next thing you know, we shall all be knee-deep in filth." A brief pause. "Sweepers! Sweepers, there! I see a pile of tow just sitting about under number three portside. Let's have a taut ship, lads, not a Bartholemew Fair!" And a man actually runs with a small broom to sweep away the shakings left by hemp lines grinding against the wood.

"When we go against The Ariadne, what we'll try to do is cross her bow or her stern. Rake her down the length with grapeshot and tear her crew to shreds."

But when given enough motivation, she is a ridiculously fast learner. His confirmation earns him a satisfied smile, mostly hidden by the fur collar dominating the lower half of her face, but he would see it in her half-gilded eyes.

"I was about to ask about powder expenditures," Isabelle tells him quietly. "I understand the need for practice every day, but the stores aren't infinite and we've still a long way until we can resupply in Kriti. And you were the one who told me that anything can happen in open sea….I take that to also mean just cause to use armaments, even if it isn't The Ariadne." Her quiet exhalation coalesces into wisps of mist from between her parted lips. "When I was on my way back to Marsilikos two, almost three months ago, I heard that piracy was escalating again over the Eastern Sea and into the Mediterranean. With everyone else in our side of the world getting along and with the economy booming because of it, I anticipate that the problem will only get worse."

She falls silent when Alcibiades barks his orders, subtle bemusement on her features watching men hop up and follow orders quickly - puppets dancing on strings, falling seamlessly into one task or another.

"Let's hope it's that easy," she says, finally, of his initial strategy regarding The Ariadne. A pause, and she lifts her head to meet his eyes, mischief glittering within her own. "But not too easy."

She waits for her companion to check the time on the portside guns, before continuing: "If we can take The Ariadne's captain alive, I would consider it more than we can hope for," she confesses, though she doesn't say any more than that during practice. The rest will have to wait until it is over, and they can move off away from the crew to talk.

The crashing routine of the volleys is repeated, and when it is over, the barrels are utterly destroyed. With night falling, there is no sign even of their wreckage remaining. Alcibiades sniffs softly as he calculates the times in his head. "A little better," he acknowledges grudgingly. In truth, the practice is superb for a merchant, and he can't help the pleased glint in his eyes.

"A little powder is necessary. The risk doesn't come close to the reward. Many crews, if they practice at all, practice in dumb-show. It doesn't come close to preparing the men to fire fast, accurately, when it matters." Alcibiades purses his lips thoughtfully, gazing at the men scrambling around ahead of them.

"If I take The Ariadne, I'd given some thought to trying to purchase my letters of marque. It'd be expensive, but…" He glances to where Athene Lesse rules her deck with the silent, iron-hard will that makes her so respected. "I think we'd all be happier. Athene's even offered to make me a loan in return for profits." He smiles suddenly. "She's a smart lady."

"As for The Ariadne…" He considers for a moment. "It won't be easy. And her captain may well end up dead. No plan ever survives contact, and a quarterdeck is a damned unhealthy place when the lead starts flying."

"I know," Isabelle murmurs - she has seen what The Dancer did to the slaver two years ago, and the bodies strewn upon its top deck when finished. Alcibiades had tangled with the captain, himself, remembering the way he flew off the rails to end him. "The attempt ought to be made, however. If not, I think even pirates keep logs - but I would rather have a live body upon which to levy my attempts at interrogation. Not that I would be so quick to trust a pirate, but we can at the very least cross-reference whatever confessions he deigns to give us, if any, with what is in the ship's logs to determine veracity."

It is difficult to say whether she has thought about it all this time, because she imparts her own thoughts and opinions as naturally as breathing, able to think and act upon them at the same time. But as she had told Jaime Daur just yesterday - she started early. How early, however, is a question for the ages.

His grunt of satisfaction about the improved time earns him a hand on his arm, giving him an encouraging squeeze through his sleeve, before she moves to start heading belowdecks and to where his cabin would be. As they walk, she slips her hands in her pockets, ducking to get to the cramped passageway that leads below. "When we get to resupplying, I'll have to leave the docks and The Dancer for an errand. Hopefully it'll be quick and lacking in complications. There's an annual festival in Phaistos once we get there, so it'll be more crowded than usual." This time, it is her that seems excited, and while her voice is calm and level, her aura thrums with restless energy, apprehension and anticipation in equal measure.

"We'll probably grant shore leave to at least half the crew anyhow," agrees Alcibiades. Between decks, the tall seaman walks in an odd stoop to avoid bumping his head on the low ceiling. He doesn't seem conscious of the fact at all; if anything, the big man seems graceful in his odd, constrained, gait. As though this were the natural way for him to move, and his landward swagger a mere act.

"We need The Ariadne to hear about this cargo of emeralds we're carrying for a rich nobleman, see. We need her to know we're worth harassing." Alcibiades smiles slowly, glancing aside at Isabelle. He lowers his voice as he continues. "But why do you need to get ashore? If I know anything, love, it's that you're not purchasing silk." Not with that gleam of action about her.

His ruse about the emeralds has her own smile lifting from the corners - why contract Alcibiades at all if she doesn't trust him to know how precisely to lure pirates? Isabelle seems content to trust him on all seafaring matters, though they tend to communicate freely in between tasks. She flashes him a quick wink in acknowledgement as she ducks underneath low hanging beams. She finds a quiet corner, somehow, but with most of the crew busy with tasks, the mess preparing supper and the gunnery crews putting things back in order, it is easier to find one in this hour of the day than almost any time, other than the evening's watch.

She strips off her gloves once they reach warmer confines, relief palpable on her expression. Her fingers are still wrapped, keeping her skin protected and slathered with balm. But they hurt, still, though it wouldn't be present on her features, tucking them away before rubbing her thumbs over her knuckles.

If I know anything, love, it's that you're not purchasing silk.

"I am, indeed, purchasing silk at that time," Isabelle tells him, leaning against the wall and smiling up at him in that easy, languid way that would remind anyone of a sunning jungle cat, a midnight curl hugging the curve of one cheek when she looks up at his taller form. "In a store, next to a very specific cafe where I also intend to have a quick evening repast and catch up with an old friend who also happens to hold some important correspondences for me once in a while."

Alcibiades sidles closer, leaning against the wall alongside Isabelle. He reaches out to take one of her wrapped hands and raise it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the bandages there. "No more hauling rope," he says mildly. "Not until these heal. I need your hands deft and quick, not ugly and horny like mine." And indeed, his own feels roughly akin to a stone.

His attention grows a touch more focused as he listens, nodding along. "Right." He's tracking, certainly, by the way his eyes gleam. "You'll take Jaime with you, or myself, of course. We can eat at some other table." In normal circumstances, she'd certainly take her constant shadow Guillermo, but Alcibiades really has no right to make such demands. This is not a seafaring matter, after all.

"If you're purchasing silk in truth, have it brought publicly to the docks. If you could arrange for a spectacle around it, that'd be even better." He smiles slyly. There is something akin to a wolf about Alcibiades when he begins to plot seafaring trickery — an amiable wolf, but a predator nonetheless.

"They'll have informants. Pirates always do. The wealthier we sound — oh, and of course, troubled with a lack of reliable crew, or some such…"

He's able to take her hand easily, and while goosebumps don't manifest given the covered state of them, his kiss is warm enough to stamp his breath through the fibers and her lashes lower partially over her eyes. Taller than the average woman, adventure and movement keep her slender - enough to fit fully into his shadow at his lean, leaving slivers of lamplight to illuminate the outer curve of her face and set fire to the gold in her eyes, where he could plainly see, however subtly, how she reacts to his closeness. The way you two look at one another, Jaime's voice reminds, rattling in the back of her skull.

Her thumb draws a circle over the knuckle just below his own, drawing a line through it. "Mm," Isabelle murmurs. "No more hauling rope." Truthfully? She's thankful for it.

She would take Guillermo, under the usual circumstances - but her erstwhile shadow has been left behind in Marsilikos to take care of other matters of business there. But if there is any fear in her part, or concern, leaving behind a man that has been so close to her since childhood while on such a dangerous undertaking, she doesn't show it.

"If you're going to be working with me, you ought to know who some of my own contacts are," she tells him. "Kostas owns the cafe…and he's a particularly talented chef. I assisted him with some trouble a few years ago, and he's been grateful ever since. I think you'll like him." His predatory smile earns him a quiet laugh, left low by his proximity. "As for the silk…I'll see what I can do." Misinformation is just as part of her game as the gathering of actual information is.

After a pause, watching their linked fingers for a heartbeat, her eyes lift again to regard his own. "I've been thinking about the letter," she continues softly. "The original document that was lost and the one I managed to retrieve. The one addressed to Jean-Louis. Maybe there's a simpler solution regarding the reason why a forgery exists."

Simple reasons — Alcibiades purses his lips, looking down at Isabelle dubiously. "Thus far, you've been certain this was a plot with some rather deep hooks, Isabelle." The seaman strokes his finger back and forth along Isabelle's palm, then raises her hand back to his lips and kisses it. He focuses on that palm for a few moments, his eyes darkening as he considers it — and whatever thoughts are racing through his mind.

"Tell me what it is you think might have happened." Alcibiades is not a spy, but he has a quick mind — logical, orderly, and neat, the mind of a mathematician. He scratches his thumb along her palm, squinting faintly down at it. "I'm looking forward to this Kostas's meal — sea fare is rather plain stuff, as I'm certain you've noticed." A wry grin crosses his lips. This understatement is so laughable that even a less honest man would blush to say it.

"The lady who obtained the document in the first place was certain about two things in the original document before she lost it on the way to Marsilikos," Isabelle tells him quietly, though he would find her eyes slip over past his shoulder to make sure nobody is drifting past before continuing. "That it was in Quintien de Morhban's writing, and that it was signed more innocuously - with a 'Q', rather than a full name. We talked about the possibility that House Shahrizai might've been scheming to frame him, but there's the possibility that the plot might actually exist within the family itself."

Her head rolls back, the look in her eyes far away. "Picture a trusted agent, carrying this original document all the way to Jean-Louis," she begins. "With a fat coinpurse to pay him with. Somewhere along the way, while he manages to keep the purse, he loses this particularly damning letter carrying the contents of Jean-Louis' orders. Unable to locate it again and retrieve it, he's forced to forge another one, relaying the contents of the order but not exactly the way it was written originally. The original somehow finds its way to the lady's possession, where, upon receiving it, she tries to run to and hide in Marsilikos, but it gets stolen along the way once whoever is responsible realized that she had it. It would explain why the contents of the letter do not match up to the lady's recollection when I showed the forgery to her, and would explain why her relative believed that the document he managed to obtain was genuine….because functionally, it was. It may very well be that Jean-Louis never received the original, just the forgery."

Her eyes narrow faintly at that. "It fills some of the holes in the story that I've been pondering about," she concludes. "But that does prove something equally damning in that Quintien de Morhban was responsible for murder in his own house, and as a sitting duc…if House Shahrizai was responsible and it can be proven thusly, it can feasibly be handled within the province, but with a sitting duc responsible? The Crown will most definitely have to decide what to do with him."

Alcibiades stays silent for awhile, looking down at Isabelle's palm as though he can read his future in it. And what a future it might be — full of hazards, and equally full of wild rewards, if the Crown becomes involved in this operation. When he speaks, his voice is careful. "From the beginning, you proposed that this was an outside job. Shahrizai or perhaps someone else. I always wondered if you were ignoring the most obvious answer."

Alcibiades raises his gaze, and his other hand. He touches Isabelle's chin, guiding her eyes toward his. When he speaks, his voice is a mere whisper. "The woman who carried the letter to your Duchesse — have you considered that she and Quintien may be in this together? She is, after all, the one who says it is a forgery." His voice is reluctant, as though merely saying these things is dangerous. And it is.

"I am sorry to be the one to suggest it. I know that she is trusted. But we are in dark waters here, and the charts do not show the depths."

"Concluding that the sitting duc was indeed responsible is the simplest answer," Isabelle allows. "But I wouldn't be an effective agent if I didn't follow where the evidence actually led. All I knew about the letter at the beginning was that it might be a forgery, with Quintien de Morhban's name on it. I didn't have confirmation about the lady's suspicions about the letter and the additional details that actually proved it was one until I saw her and Her Grace to confirm a few things about her eldest brother. No, darling…" Her smile is faint. "I'd be a poor one, indeed, if I wasn't thorough."

The warmth of his hand against her chin pulls those dark eyes back on him again when he coaxes her to. "I considered that," she tells him softly, her spare hand lifting to touch his cheek with the tips of her fingers. "But she was the first person to acknowledge that she would benefit the most if he fell, because if His Grace had ever fallen out of favor, the possibility of her being the sovereign duchesse of Kusheth would open up, and it wouldn't parse due to the timeline. She was married off to House Fhirze, so when both her brothers died, it passed to the next person carrying the Morhban name. If that was the aim all along, surely she would anticipate that His Grace wouldn't relinquish power to her so easily if they were working together. And if she was responsible for killing both her elder brothers for it, why not just kill His Grace also instead of insisting on all these complications?"

She pauses. "We currently have nothing to support that she is actually involved in the conspiracy, only that she brought it to Her Grace's attention in the first place. That….and Her Grace trusts her. She looked me in the eye and said so. She wouldn't have revealed my status to the lady if she didn't. Whether involved or not, if our duchesse is invested in her welfare, I must pursue it and hold her away from suspicion until further evidence proves otherwise. Though if I'm wrong in that regard…" And here, she can't help but laugh. "Then I will most certainly be in trouble once I start making inquiries in Kusheth."

After a moment, sharpness returns to her stare and she looks back up at Alcibiades. "…but there might be another woman involved," she breathes, suddenly remembering something.

"This woman knows your identity?" Alcibiades' voice is suddenly sharp, low and soft, the sound of a dagger cutting through silk. "Izz, did she also know that we were sailing?" Abruptly, Alcibiades is shoving off the bulkhead upon which he leans, pacing in the tiny confines of his cabin. Suddenly, the predator seems as though he is sensing a hunter's snare somewhere beneath his feet. He considers. It would take a week for even a fast ship to reach Kriti, but might carrier pigeons perform the same service? Might he be sailing his ship directly into the jaws of a trap? Sailing Isabelle into a trap? The thoughts are clearly evident on his face. He needn't say them aloud, merely looks at Isabelle for awhile.

And then the storm of self-doubt passes. The die is cast — he cannot back out now, regardless of the outcome. Alcibiades' features compose themselves once again into the confident mien of a sea-wolf, his lips quirking up in a sudden smile. "Tell me more about this other woman," he invites Isabelle.

His eyes sparkle with a volatile excitement, and it's clear that his mind is racing free and wild, soaring on winged sails. He is here and he is in the ocean around Kriti, plotting a thousand new scenarios.

This woman knows your identity?

Isabelle's hands lower when he pushes off the bulkhead and starts pacing, and if there is any fear on her features, she doesn't show it - it's feasible that she doesn't even feel it. "The lady has known who I am for months," she says, taking a step forward, her fingers reaching to ensnare his. "And nothing has happened to me yet. Perhaps she's been waiting for an opportune moment if she isn't above suspicion, but while she knows who I am, she doesn't know who you are, or which ship I'm on." She has kept his name outside of her dealings, so far, with the duchesse and her visitor. "And if The Ariadne manages to act as if it has anticipated being accosted by a d'Angeline ship, then we will at least have something to present on that end, but until then, I will not question Her Grace's judgment."

Her hand grips his tighter at the words, her eyes locked on his, expression hard and determined, jaw set in that defiant and stubborn angle.

"And if Her Grace," she continues quietly. "Has decided to risk my body and life to ferret out the truth about her visitor and friend, even as bait, then she has every right, and I will assume that risk, with or without you, and defy the worst expectations over my fate. If not over the water, then in Kusheth. She trusts me for a reason, in no small part because I suspect that she knows I understand what the course entails. I am not afraid, Cib."

Silence, heavy and weighted, falls between them after that.

But he smiles, in the end, finds the thrill of the challenge on his features, and her expression softens. After searching his face, she speaks, every syllable soft and deliberate.

"Lord Venetien's widow."

A new player in an increasingly convoluted picture.

Alcibiades begins to laugh. Low chuckles at first, building to a sudden, violently noisy crescendo. He grabs Isabelle by both shoulders and presses a kiss against her forehead, stroking it in with a fingertip. "It wouldn't matter if there was a war-fleet out there waiting," he agrees with manic cheer, at least keeping his voice pitched low. But he can't hide the rich, ironic, amusement in his manner.

"As for The Ariadne, you may not question Her Grace, my love, but it does me no harm to post an extra watch every night and to consider that I may be sailing to a fight that's not quite as much an ambush as I'd thought. Plans are useless, of course.. but planning is invaluable." Still deeply amused, he presses his lips to Isabelle's hand with a smacking kiss. "I should have been doing it regardless."

The fondness with which he stares at Isabelle in the moments after the kiss is almost palpable. "You're not afraid," he agrees. "I wish you were. I wish you were far more afraid. You're so brave it terrifies me for you and makes me hold you in awe, both at once." This from a man who has never, in the presence of his foes or a squall, shown a moment's hesitation. This from a man whose action in an emergency is instantaneous, effective, often deadly. But this sort of intrigue is new to him, and the amusement is as much a symptom of that as the tension was a few moments before.

"His widow, eh?" Alcibiades considers this, some of his amusement and sudden fierce joy fading away. "Of course. Now that is an obvious thing that I failed to see."

"It— " There's a bit of a sudden squawk, the sound downright comical when considering how Isabelle looked so serious, anger wasn't all too far from her horizon. Dragged forward, shoulders clutched, she blinks when his mouth finds her forehead. For a few minutes, silence from her continues as she stares at him while he laughs.

"…what is this, a defense mechanism?" she utters, flummoxed, jabbing at him with the pointed end of her wit as her hand is lifted for that kiss. "Am I about to hear you say 'Ha ha ha, we're all going to die' before you set this entire ship on fire to spare the pirates the trouble?"

But plans for an extra watch is sound, and despite herself, she sighs, her smile returning and taking on a more rueful cast - and one that fades when he stares at her with such open affection that she can't help but look away to fix at a distant point somewhere off the hard curve of his right shoulder. That twisting ache, sparks of electricity thrumming down her spine, and the subtle rise of her heartbeat's pace within her chest - all exhilarating, distressing signs that what she finds in his eyes is real, and all of her senses are in agreement that she is, presently, in terrible danger.

"….that is one risk you assumed wholeheartedly," she says finally, eyes returning to his. "Besides…I'm not the one regularly calling for the reckless bombardment of giant metallic balls of death, or pretending he's a bird with no line to save him during a fall." Her hand squeezes the one captured within her own, her amusement growing. "If we intend to compete as to who's more mad, we'll never get anything done."

With the talk, however, turning to the widow, she slowly leans back against the wall. "The lady mentioned something interesting to me before I left the ducal palace," she tells him. "His widow, the Lady Christelle no Dahlia de Morhban…a former courtesan. I believe I mentioned Lord Venetien died suddenly with symptoms that look like a sudden onset of wasting sickness, and three weeks after that, Lord Richard, next in line to the seat, vanishes at sea. Lady Christelle did not bear Lord Venetien any children, but despite this…she was given an estate in Baronnie de Morlaix."

"Right. Well, that's a clear profit. Clear of a husband she mightn't have cared for too much and settled on a nice estate. All for the deaths of two men." Alcibiades' tone is mild, concealing the sickening jadedness of the conversation. He smiles again, openly amused at the idea of running mad among the crew screaming that they were all doomed. "Iron balls and skylarking are just regular dangers, but I do see your point."

He paces idly back and forth as Isabelle leans against the wall, squinting down at the tightset boards of the deck. "There's little we can do yet. But once we go to Kusheth, and begin rattling cages, I imagine there's going to be blood." A brief, wicked, smile and a glance toward his well-used cutlass. Alcibiades may be no heroic swordsman, but he's not yet been killed, either.

"We need the ship's logs and the personal correspondence of the captain," Alcibiades muses softly. "Both'll be in his cabin. First place my crew'll go looking for loot, but we do have hard rules about the division of our plunder. Laws and customs of the sea forbid any man from concealing profit. We'll get you the proof to narrow this down."

"I need to ask you something," Alcibiades says after a beat. "Just for myself. There's no reason to answer, but I do need to ask." He stops pacing, turns and stares Isabelle in the face. "Why…does the Duchesse deserve the fidelity that you give her?" There's no question in his voice that she does deserve it. Alcibiades is curious, not dubious.

"No. Absolutely not. No blood, if we can help it," Isabelle tells him about Kusheth, and while she could entertain his mad flights of fancy about setting his own ship on fire. "Kusheth is a more delicate operation. I've already placed the bones for my activities there…" And probably why she left Guillermo behind. "…but we must attempt to leave it as we found it, Cib. As it stands, I'm considering the Lady Christelle as a very last resort. If she's involved, I don't want to alert her with my presence at all, and if she isn't involved, but knows something, she will undoubtedly be watched. Like I said, chasing pirates off Kriti is fine and good, but Eisande can't be seen poking its nose into Kusheline matters, even if a daughter of House Morhban was the one seeking assistance and amnesty." Watching his face, she can't help but smile. "I defer to your considerable expertise over sea, Cib….but once we reach land, you're going to have to take your cues from me."

And learn from them, she adds, silently recognizing the fact that they will not always going to be working on these endeavors together.

"I did recall stipulating during our negotiations that any sources of information will have to be relinquished to me," she reminds him. "That means documents…and bodies, if we can secure the important ones alive. But I trust you and your men."

It is his last question, however, that stays her from further contemplations on the assignment. After a moment, she pushes off the wall, moving to unbutton her coat to hang it on a hook. Something to do, perhaps. Something to keep her hands busy, and her eyes and expression away from him.

"Before I was placed in Her Grace's service, I functioned as an agent for other individuals," she says, her voice absent - it never fails to change, whenever she attempts to divorce herself emotionally from something she finds personally difficult. "Endeavors meant for personal gain and enrichment. It was how I got my start. The work was risky even then, but I thrived in it. I was later offered up to curry favor with Her Grace. I was still young, then. No more than sixteen, but by then I already had a few years, doing what I do."

Her fingers curl upon the coat once it finds the hook.

"I couldn't blame her for being skeptical…I was at the age when most novices would debut in the Night Court. And while I sat there, my father and my uncle, the Comte de Digne, were telling her that they've been using my prodigious talents as a designer to place me in private rooms since I was thirteen. I think she might've even been somewhat appalled…Her Grace has always been a gracious soul, and kind. So very kind. Finally, she looked me in the eye and…"

She falls quiet at that, fingers fiddling with the pockets of her coat.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Perception: Good Success. (7 5 8 5 6 7 4)

Alcibiades doesn't acknowledge the commands regarding Kusheth, not aloud. He squints at her for a moment, seems about to speak, then shrugs and bows his head faintly in acquiescence. Perhaps he has thoughts, but he's not about to disagree. At sea, she has obeyed him — on land, certainly, he must obey in kind.

His interest is piqued by the tale before him. He clasps his hands tightly behind his back as Isabelle speaks, watching her face with the intent focus of a hawk. When she speaks of her father and uncle throwing her to the Duchesse as a sop, his nostrils flare and a vein begins to pulse at his temple. His hand comes from behind his back to grip at a sword that is not at his hip. Alcibiades rolls his jaw one way, and then the other, before speaking.

In a voice laden with tension, as though it were a line tasked with stopping a cannon's recoil, he says, "And what did she do then?"

"She asked me if I was willing to help her protect Eisande, and that it was my choice in the end."

Isabelle takes a breath and turns her body so she could look at him, features composed to the point of serenity, the better to mask the tumult within - as if she had stepped outside of her body, and let someone else speak in her place.

"It was no demand," she says. "And she did not mention her own name in the context of what I do. She didn't ask me to protect her, or her family, or her interests. She didn't demand that I swear myself to House Mereliot. She instead pointed to the land of my birth and asked me to help protect it, defend it. And then I just…" Her jaw clenches at the hinge, her eyes moving away from him, her voice growing soft.

Perhaps to mask her uneasiness, or her embarrassment, or both. All of it. She doesn't know.

"You've been around the world as I have," she continues. "You've seen how terrible it can get. There are countries and cultures where women aren't allowed to read, where men and women get stoned for wearing clothes meant for the other gender, where women are prohibited, mutilated, from experiencing pleasure in the way men do. Where courtesans and prostitutes are maligned because they choose to make a living from their bodies, and where spouses are executed if they ever attempted to find comfort outside of loveless marriages. And in the midst of these, there's Terre d'Ange, where our highest ideal is the freedom to love as we will. Our politics, our religion, our daily lives espouse it. I'm not saying it is paradise on earth, but I believe that while we have our problems, it is the closest thing to such a place in where we can breathe, and touch, and live in, and experience the divine in a manner nowhere else can boast. If you consider how many violent conflicts arise for power, or land, or glory…when she asked me, in light of all these things I've heard and seen while living most of my life outside of my own country, I thought to myself that fighting for love - our way of life - makes more sense than all the rest. Than any other reason."

Her hand lifts, to curl over her inner elbow on her opposite arm. "I think Her Grace knew I needed something more, looking in my eyes the way she did. That with a life so far removed from Terre d'Ange, I would appreciate, better than most, where I had come from. And not just that I needed something more, she also knew, somehow, that I was capable. Or if she didn't know it at the time, could at least trust that I was…and was willing to take a chance on someone so young. In those few minutes, Her Grace understood me more than my own father ever did after a lifetime of having me as his daughter. She sensed, in a way most mothers do…like my own mother had, that I believed."

Her stare lifts to look at Alcibiades' sea-blue irises from across the distance between them.

"And I do, Cib," she says quietly. "Jaime would probably laugh, if he heard all of this, but I do believe."

"Jaime? Laugh? Isabelle, Jaime knelt before the Duchesse and she touched him on the head when he left the Marines. Thanked him in writing for his service. He's kept that letter on him ever since." Alcibiades stares at Isabelle for a few beats, mouth hanging open in brief astonishment at the idea that his mentor might not understand belief. Either Jaime is lying, Alcibiades is lying, or the older man is far more complicated than he tried to pretend the other day. "He practically kisses the ground she walks on."

He stares at Isabelle and there is, for a moment, a terribly lonely sadness in his eyes. It is as though he realizes for the first time that his life has been lacking a fundamental element. An officer without a ship, without a navy, without a Duchesse to follow. Then he smiles and reaches out, touching Isabelle's cheek with his fingertips. "I'm happy that she has you. And that you have her." Odd, to speak of one's ruler in such a personal way.

"I believe… I believe that there's wickedness everywhere," he says finally, smile somewhat diminished. "Even in Eisande." He clears his throat. "And I do believe I can help rid the world of some of it. Working with you, I mean."

"Ugh. Who knows with that tough old sod, he's already tried to foist you off onto me," Isabelle grumbles, turning to humor and overtly so, if not just to cut through whatever embarrassment or uneasiness she might be feeling, answering a question so personal….and deigning to reply in the first place. He had given her an out, and it is astonishing enough to her that she had elected to answer it, instead.

But the two of them lead particularly dangerous lives, and in the moments in between, perhaps she can, and is willing, to share a few things, in hopes that should the worst happen, she won't be misunderstood.

Eyes half-close when his hand finds her cheek and there's a subtle lean, turning into the palm that grazes her skin, the dew-clung corner of her mouth pressing into the heel of it.

"Well, if there wasn't, I'd be out of a cause," she murmurs, looking up to meet his eyes. "And I'd be lying if I said I'm not the occasional cause for wickedness, myself. But we'll do what we've always done, Cib - the best we can, with what we've got."

When she leans into his hand, Alcibiades feels the same twist inside that she has known at the same gesture. His palm presses back into the sharp lines of her cheekbone, and he grins suddenly. Perhaps, to such a man, the pain and the sudden fear of loss is a sign of the purity of his feelings. It's not as though Alcibiades has much experience at falling in love.

"Foist me off onto you? I'm not a bloody package." Alcibiades sounds mock-affronted and deeply amused, stepping a bit closer. "Jaime's been desperate to foist me onto whatever willing shoulder he can find for years." He grins crookedly, clucking his tongue.

"I think he's been pissed at me ever since he decided to come back out to sea." Again — it appears Jaime is a man of many faces, though Alcibiades seems to be joking here at least. "As for being out of work…" He narrows his eyes briefly. "Let's worry about getting through this one, eh? Then we can worry that we've made the world too pure." A snort of laughter.

"As if."

"Well, you ought to tell him that he's stuck with you forever," Isabelle tells him. "And leave us innocent bystanders alone."

Though to pair the word with everything that she is would be comical at best, and as he steps closer, fingers drag lightly over the front of his shirt and coat. Leaning back against the wall, her index and middle digits in both hands hook into his belt loops, tugging him closer. Like gravity, no matter how determined the distance. It seems that no matter how frenetically they pace, they return to this same position again. It ought to worry her, really.


Lips press softly against the corner of his mouth.

"If the world is depending on the likes of us to purify it, I think it's got its tickets on the wrong pair of horses," she whispers against his skin, her eyes closing. "But maybe it's like me - always willing to bet on the long shot."

"You? Innocent?" But she's pressed up against him suddenly, and Alcibiades is not a man to ignore the realities of his situation. As Isabelle kisses him, he leans down, picking the woman up and pivoting to slam her against the narrow planks that divide their cabin from the sea. He grins at the impact, squeezing with bruising force.

"I got a long shot for ya," he mutters, suddenly lower-deck — for Alcibiades, always the language of lust.

His lips trace down her cheek, down the lean musculature of her neck, down to her shirt's collar. "Ten t'one odds," he says, "That we make it to the hammock this time."

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