(1310-11-03) The Chirurgeon Is In
Summary: Isabelle de Valais and Alcibiades Rousse meet before the house of Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai, not by chance. Wounds are tended, and wounds inflicted. (Warning: Some mature themes, and a wee bit of blood.)
RL Date: 03/11/2018 - 05/11/2018
Related: Black Sails, Rose Sauvage Debut.
emmanuelle isabelle alcibiades 

La Maison Sanglante — Place des Mains

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

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

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

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

Overcast late autumn weather does nothing to render the Maison Sanglante a more prepossessing abode: its courtyard of dark stone is a natural gathering-place for shadows, even in the early afternoon, and the scent of wormwood is a perennial caution against permitting one's spirits to rise too high.

This is Isabelle de Valais's first visit to the house in which she knows by now her erstwhile mentor has long had a secret share; it's Alcibiades Rousse's third time passing beyond that heavy ironbound oaken door, though on the second occasion he had no more joy of his errand than might be vouchsafed by parchment and pen. The Mereliot guards assigned here to watch over the late duchesse's consort and the present duchesse's sister are at least more accommodating now that he's a recognised return visitor, or is it Isabelle's presence that inspires an extra crispness in their manner? Within the frescoed foyer a colourless maid in a black gown confides that the lady of the house is not at home: she is, however, expected momentarily. Will milady — Isabelle, that is — wish to wait?

Of course she will.

The Mereliot guards at attendance get a smile and a faint wiggle of her fingers as she passes, carrying her black portfolio and with her companion at her side. Though they do not arrive together; messages have been passed between them to meet in front of the house, and thus appearing, for all intents and purposes, to have run into one another by accident in front of the residence of a mutual acquaintance. They've already been seen together in a debut, in what could be a gesture of gratitude from a young lady to a man who has, publicly, saved her life. But it was Isabelle's way, in the end, to obfuscate the nature and depth of her personal ties unless it benefitted her, somehow, to reveal them.

Isabelle finds herself seated at the area designated for her to wait, stripping off her gloves and rolling her thumbs over the healing welts over them. It has been a few weeks since the last time she had burned them upon ropes, but she has a need for her mentor to examine them regardless and ensure that they don't scar. Dressed in her favored 'business attire - an embroidered waistcoat, fitted black breeches, boots that go over the knee, and a tailored coat with tails that extend down to her ankles, weighed down by crystal embellishments and fringed with lace. Never one to be less than impeccably accessorized, a lady's top hat rests on her head, pulled closer towards her forehead and carrying the curled plumage of a black swan, though this has been doffed off, and left hooked on the armrest of her chair.

Restless as ever, it doesn't take long for her to ease out of her seat, declining the fruit and wine in favor of taking slow and meandering steps around the room, to admire the beautiful frescoes depicted in the room - stages in which Kushiel delivers just punishment. Eyes hood, stopping at a specific one, hands clasped behind her back as she looks at it in silence, marveling at the colors used, the anatomical knowledge demonstrated…but she looks beyond also. She is still chafing from what she has heard of what happened in Castle Chavaise; a conceit, as she had been in another assignment and had been out of the country. There was no way for her to prevent it, but for a woman who has devoted everything she has to give for the House she clandestinely serves, she can't help but consider it a professional failure - the worst of its kind, as far as she's concerned.

She doesn't often pray, but at the sight of Kushiel so magnificently depicted, she closes her eyes and offers one up - to plead for his assistance to bring her close to those responsible, and guide her hand so she may crush them.

Alcibiades has dressed for the occasion, or — as is often the case — has been dressed for this occasion. He's wearing a blue jacket that stops just short of being a nautical uniform, plain and unadorned. It is a masterwork of tailoring, however, its long lines accentuating his physique. The rest of his clothing is similarly simple.

He is carrying a narrow box, wrapped in blue parcel paper and string, tucked under one arm. Upon hearing that Emmanuelle is not available, he turns toward Isabelle with a crooked smile. "I'm a bit nervous," he confides. "The last time she saw me, I don't think that I made the best impression."

Shifting the package, he watches Isabelle observe the artwork. After a few moments, he walks up beside the woman, gazing up at Kushiel. He speaks lowly, gently. "Magnificent, aren't they?" He touches Isabelle's elbow lightly, then drops his hand. "The paintings." His gaze is on Isabelle rather than the artwork, keenly attentive. There is a faint furrow of concern on his brow.

Eyes open again, though they remain hooded, hearing his bootsteps take up the path behind her, already intimately familiar with how they fall on the ground - she knows it is him just by his gait. Isabelle doesn't turn to him immediately at the touch on her elbow, however, still admiring the artwork. She can feel his burning blue gaze fix upon her cheek; a caress by itself.

Finally, she looks over at him, a small smile tugging up the corners of her mouth. "The work of a master," she tells him. "Either one who has spent years studying the human form, or a former chirurgeon who has done the same. It feels as if Kushiel himself can step out of them." After a moment, meeting his eyes, she lowers her voice and confides, huskily: "Some part of me hopes he does."

As Isabelle speaks the dread oaken portal opens again, this time with a crash.

Through it without breaking her stride Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai arrives in her dark marble hall, swathed in a black cloak and with a three-cornered hat exquisitely angled upon her dark head. (Another dark figure, in truth another Shahrizai, follows at her heels and shuts the door at her back: he is burdened with a black leather bag that Isabelle, at least, will recognise as containing a chirurgeon's trinkets and tools.) She carries in one hand a cane, the head of which is a Mereliot fish wrought in silver: this she hefts in the air and tosses immediately to the colourless maid, who steps lively to catch it. She lifts her now empty hand to her hat to give it the same treatment: in the same moment her favourite accessory of all, that ice-blue Shahrizai gaze inherited from the side of her family that prefers fear to fish, sweeps over her unusually populous foyer and comes to rest upon Isabelle and Alcibiades. In a twinkling of that pale and sardonic eye, the removal of her hat becomes a chivalrous gesture accompanied by a bow of such fine and swaggering style, its angle judged to such a nicety, that no rakish young blade at the royal court in Elua could do it better.

The hat has served its improvised purpose; straightening, Emmanuelle casts it away to her servant after all and prowls nearer to her unlikely pair of visitors. The spurs at her heels jingle and echo softly in this chamber of unyielding surfaces, in which all the mere functionaries have grown uncannily quiet at her advent. Her eyes narrow; they sharpen. She looks at the one. She looks at the other. At length, holding Isabelle's gaze, she pronounces in a low and magnificently arid voice: "I see that my cup runneth over. Isabelle, you've brought me your vaunted rescuer. My lord Rousse, you've brought me your young lady in distress." That sarcasm might in some ears pass for her usual manner: she enjoys, however, a cast-iron certainty that the tales of them presently buzzing about the streets and salons of Marsilikos must be no more than a fig-leaf for the truth.

She shrugs off her cloak into Baltasar Shahrizai's waiting hands: it proves to be lined with midnight blue velvet, a fittingly rich backdrop for a wealth of tiny seed pearls embroidered in the likeness of the night sky's constellations.

"I think," she pronounces, "you ought to follow me." And she turns.

"He won't jump out of the painting. He'll send you."

Alcibiades squeezes Isabelle's elbow briefly, before Emmanuelle makes her rather dramatic entrance. He grins as he watches that cane go flying, watches the bow, watches the hat disappear into the servant's hand. There is so much happening, and the sea captain seems content to just — enjoy it. So much so that he almost misses Emmanuelle addressing him.

His own bow, when he remembers to deliver it, is somewhat less flashy than Emmanuelle's. But she would notice, being a keen observer, that Alcibiades has been practicing. He may not be on her level yet, but the man has been honing what courtly skills he possesses.

Straightening, he says, deadpan, "I don't believe that Isabelle de Valais could ever be considered a distressed damsel, My Lady." He moves to follow Emmanuelle on her invitation, absently shifting the parcel to his left hand.

He'll send you.

"Or arrive in the guise of a different body," Isabelle tells him softly, resting her hand over the one upon her elbow, squeezing his fingers gently, before turning so she could regard her once-mentor stride into the room, a force of nature in her own right. Arms move to lock behind her back as she, too, affords the lady of the manse a bow from the waist, and had she her own hat in hand, she would be mirroring the gesture. Her mannerisms tend to change, Cib would find, depending on what she wears — she had dispensed nothing but curtseys the other night while she was in her gown.

She meets those Kusheline eyes across the way, the other woman's sharp, blue diamond gaze arresting her own. "I did, Madame," she replies. "I hoped to secure your expertise, and after such harrowing trials at sea, I longed to see a face I trust."

And with that, she falls a step alongside Alcibiades Rousse, and follows Emmanuelle to where she leads.

Emmanuelle leads her ducklings down a long corridor, the frescoes in which nobody needs to hear about again, and through the candlelit trompe l'oeil dungeon in which a master craftsman of La Serenissima took his turn to labour year in and year out for her pleasure. Even at her habitual unhurried pace there's hardly time to take in the Maison Sanglante's intricacies: one is left simply with a series of impressions of great wealth, great patience, and fine dark taste. Interestingly Baltasar Shahrizai, the lordly cousin and collared valet of whom Isabelle has heard tell in the past, who brings up the rear laden with bag and cloak, possesses a set of keys to match his mistress's own. While she forges ahead with Isabelle and Alcibiades he lags behind to see each door she unlocks, locked again.

Another corridor sprawls out before them: the floor tiled in black and white a la the first passageway, but the walls painted a plain and muted shade of burgundy above fine oak paneling. They might have stepped out of a nightmare and into a particularly refined gentlemen's club, befitting Emmanuelle's dark breeches and cravat, her high-buttoned coat of slate blue silk. Their destination is a small sitting-room at its farthest end, similarly dark and similarly silent. The farther wall consists entirely of three pairs of glass doors looking out upon a stone courtyard of considerable antiquity, wherein a fountain with a statue of Eisheth might be glimpsed, and a whipping post beyond. Baltasar drapes Emmanuelle's cloak over the back of her usual chair and sets down her bag beside it, then fusses with candles to augment what soft afternoon light manages to get into the high-walled courtyard and spill over hence to glint upon the black lacquer, the gilding, the delicate details of furnishings antique and exotic in equal measure.

None of the chairs look comfortable except Emmanuelle's, which has several cushions tucked into it covered in black tussore silk. She establishes herself there and sits with feet wide-planted and begins to strip off her gloves. The right one first. Her bare hand, very white, gestures Alcibiades to sit: then she offers it to Isabelle to be kissed, a sign of favour she doesn't by any means invariably grant.

The Kushiel chamber undoubtedly suits this woman whose visage adorns its every wall; but so too does this hushed and secret place, buried deep within a city block hardly anybody on the outside could imagine to be such a size.

She hasn't spoken again. She leaves it to them, to fill the silence.

Alcibiades follows down the corridor, glancing at the frescoes and then — rather deliberately — not looking back at them. He seems to prefer keeping his attention on the flesh-and-blood women beside and ahead of him. As they arrive in the sitting room, the tall Rousse takes a few moments to absorb the suddenly-luscious setting. He looks out at the garden appreciatively for a few moments before moving toward one of the chairs.

"Thank you," he remarks mildly as he sits, watching the interaction between Emmanuelle and Isabelle with some evident curiosity. And then he leans forward, tapping both index fingers on the small blue-wrapped parcel. "I'm afraid that I wasn't able to find anything truly unique on this voyage, My Lady. But I did think of you." He glances aside at Isabelle and smiles suddenly. "We had a few hours in Phaistos. I hope you won't think me presumptuous, but I brought you a small gift."

This ritual of locking and unlocking doors captures Isabelle's interest, ever one to pay extremely close attention to how one gets in and out of a certain place. It isn't anything out of pure curiosity, but also one out of habit - such details have saved her life more than once, and it is so heavily ingrained and drilled into the marrow of her bones that, to her, it is as instinctive as taking a breath. Their hostess may be shorter than her, but her presence is undeniable - it simply pulls at someone to follow, and like bamboo to the wind, she willingly bends to where the gale pushes her.

The sitting room, too, is taken in with the silent appreciation of an incorrigible aesthete - this, she has always had, and has somehow used it to turn it into an empire. Her dark, gold-shot eyes are unerringly drawn to those pristine glass panes and the garden outside, espying the statue and the whipping post, the latter of which drawing many memories and with Emmanuelle a distinct and powerful presence within them.

With that alabaster-white hand offered to her, she moves, and without shame or hesitation, she gets down on her knees and takes it, the flat of her removed leather glove cushioning Emmanuelle's skin from her ruined own, criss-crossed with the beginnings of marks that stand a real risk of becoming permanent if not seen to properly, and presses upon those knuckles a deferential kiss. She releases it gently, folds the glove back into the inner pockets of her coat. But she lets Alcibiades speak first, to present his gift.

Candle by candle the chamber grows cosier, new-kindled lights reflecting in the glass panes of mirrors and doors, and setting lacquerwork aglow.

Emmanuelle receives Isabelle's kiss with grave decorum and returns for it a slight nod of her head; when Alcibiades makes as though to offer a tribute of his own she, stripping off her other glove and dropping them both into the grasp of the hovering Baltasar, raises a sardonic dark brow at him and then addresses not the sea captain but the damsel: "Your friend never stops trying, does he?"

She extends her hand again to Isabelle: this time palm up, demanding Isabelle's own hand for her examination by the light of a many-branched candelabra that has just arrived on the table at her elbow. "A trait I've noted in him before," she muses over her erstwhile patron's damaged paw, holding it nearer the light, supported by her own smooth warm hand as her other adjusts Isabelle's cuff to let her peek underneath at the condition of her wrist, "that willingness to fling himself headfirst into any situation from which he judges he may gain an advantage, or to take any risk at the bidding of his own sense of duty… I imagine that part of his nature played no small rôle in your recent adventures. We will find you a jar of that salve of mine," she pronounces, delicately releasing Isabelle's hand back into the wild, "which you may recall is so efficacious for rope-burns. I must thank you," and out of nowhere she turns upon Alcibiades Rousse the full force of her magnetic blue gaze, allied with her most charming red smile, "for my present brought back safe from Kriti. She is as you know very much to my taste — and she suits this house, this city, rather better than the floor of the ocean." Meanwhile her white fingertips dig in amongst Isabelle's dark braids, and the first hairpin falls silently to the Akkadian carpet underfoot.

…From which he judges he may gain an advantage…

Alcibiades tenses for a moment, then just settles back in his seat and places the parcel in his lap. There is a faint tension on the man's features as he watches Isabelle and Emmanuelle interact, a buried hint of…something. And then he seems to dismiss whatever he's struggling with and summons up his customary smile.

"I rather think she suits whatever environ she finds herself in. Admittedly, though, the ocean floor is a dark place, my lady." More seriously, he adds — looking at Isabelle rather than Emmanuelle — "But I am frequently grateful that she was a strong swimmer." He looks up at Baltasar, watching the man work, perhaps deliberately diverting his attention from the de-pinning occurring before him. He studies the manservant for those few beats before looking away, back down to Isabelle kneeling before Emmanuelle.

Your friend never stops trying, does he?

"He does not, Madame," Isabelle murmurs, a small smile tugging on the corners of her mouth. "I have known Captain Rousse for quite some time, his persistence has always been part and parcel of him."

Situated close to the woman still and kneeling by her chair, the demanding hand is replied to in earnest, her own sunkissed hands lifting - elegant fingers, delicate bones, skin impossibly soft due to the demands of a young lady's insurmountable vanity…and one that serves her credibility as an expert in style, that particular part of her has been more of a disadvantage than anything when it comes to hard work and toil. Emmanuelle would find that both hands are damaged - not just in assisting the day-to-day operations on a ship, but also the naval battles that followed afterwards, when she was tossed violently into the drink and it was only her grip that saved her.

Her wrists, thankfully, have not lost their dexterity; she has not broken or sprained anything in spite of the violence she has endured. Released, her palms settle on her thighs. "Thank you, Madame, for the salve. Gloves will have to do in the meantime, to hide the state of them from the public." Mindful of Baltasar's presence, naturally. "I am as always grateful for your expertise."

She doesn't seem to mind her mentor's fussing of her hair, and with that hairpin falling on the floor, a dark midnight curl falls to frame her cheek, her half-gilded stare finding Alcibiades as he sets the box down. Meeting his eyes and holding them, she tells Emmanuelle, softly:

"He risked much to ensure that his captain and I survived. We were dead in the water after the first clash, and defenseless." After a pause, she offers,"It is not the first time that he has kept me safe."

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Good Success. (8 1 4 3 6 8 6 3 3 2 1 5 4 3)

Emmanuelle's strong, clever fingers rid Isabelle swiftly of her hairpins and commence combing out her braids, her touch familiar, possessive, ungentle.

Thus is kindled a spark of shameful jealousy in Baltasar's secretive Shahrizai heart, to say nothing of any effect upon Alcibiades Rousse; likewise but even more powerfully compelled to silence on the subject, the valet moves about with his head bowed, sumptuously attired and yet the picture of deference. From the grandest of the lacquered cabinets arranged about the walls he fetches a decanter of an earthy red Eisandine wine, and three glasses. He pours; he arranges; he's discretion itself, a presence so easy for his mistress and her guests to ignore in fact even as each of their words is selected to exclude him.

"The captain's services to me over the years," the former Dowayne murmurs, eyeing Alcibiades as she frees his lover's dark tresses to suit her own lordly liking, "have been on a smaller scale, granted, but not without value. I imagine he has told you of those little errands? Yes," she decides before either can answer, "he has." With her other hand she points; Baltasar moves a second candelabra to the table indicated, where it mirrors the first and enfolds her and Isabelle both in a circle of warm light. At another quick gesture the valet withdraws and shuts those heavy doors, sealing off Emmanuelle's sitting-room in impenetrable privacy. "Perhaps," she drawls, "this day, this moment, was fated to come? … You may speak now," she assures them both in that tone of absolute and reassuring certainty which has curled the toes of so many patrons; "as freely as you will."

Alcibiades stares back at Isabelle, the tension ebbing out of his features as he watches Emmanuelle's work. Isabelle's hair descends — Alcibiades swallows, the relaxation growing more evident as he reaches for his glass of wine. Baltasar — his work, his exit — is watched with frank curiosity and, not least, a hint of admiration. The man is a master of the subfusc, something Alcibiades could never claim in a thousand years.

When Emmanuelle brings up the small tasks he's performed for her, though, Alcibiades hesitates a bit. He clears his throat, still looking at Isabelle, and seems… sheepish. "Actually," he begins, a touch awkwardly, "My Lady, in the interests of discretion, I hadn't told Isabelle everything about our dealings. Just that we had done business in the past."

At the word that they may discuss things freely, Alcibiades looks up at Emmanuelle and smiles faintly. "Isabelle was with me the night I obtained that item, two years ago. In fact… it would be fair to say I was in her service, that night. But that is, largely, her story." He looks to Isabelle and continues. "I…took a torture device off the slaver ship. A unique item. Lady Emmanuelle is a collector, of course, and I sold it to her. Among other objects." He heaves a short breath. There. Disclosure complete.

When Isabelle's hair is at last liberated into its naked and shining glory — at any rate, when it trades the captivity of braids for that of firmly entwined fingers — Emmanuelle, that noted collector, settles more comfortably into her cushioned chair. The shift in her posture sets a button agleam here, a chain there; stretches buckskin breeches taut over her thighs; confirms earlier suggestions that there's something inside her breeches which Nature, by some oversight, did not put there. She sits now with one leg stretched out at an angle and Isabelle's cheek nestled against the warmth of her other thigh; her other arm hanging languidly over the arm of her chair; her hand within reach of her glass of wine, but not yet touching it; one booted foot almost tucked under Alcibiades's chair: it's remarkable how much space this slight-built woman manages to take up in the world. She speaks over the couturière's head now, literally, holding her there as she plays with luxurious handfuls of dark hair… Either the softness of it, or Isabelle's willingness to offer it, or Alcibiades's own oddly bashful admission of his sound business practices has her smiling again, ferally.

"Isabelle has seen my collection," she points out, "the greater part of which I left on display at Mandrake House… I was unaware that she had had a hand in increasing it." A tug of Isabelle's hair, not to chide but to reward. "Your discretion is commendable, captain. I imagine," and she tilts her head, studying Alcibiades as though she may well once again be reading his mind, "that your reluctance to risk its further employment explains why you held it so long in secret, just as your family's financial difficulties explain why, at last, you elected to sell it, albeit in such a personal transaction." A beat. "The last time you and I met you were no captain, nor were you sailing on the Myrmidon. Am I to understand that you've succeeded in reversing your fortunes—?"

Alcibiades continues to watch Isabelle and Emmanuelle, frequently making eye contact with the young woman kneeling, with rapt attention. There is a hint of protectiveness in the way he — certainly subconsciously — leans forward when Emmanuelle tugs on Isabelle's hair. Alcibiades reaches forward further, taking his wine-glass and absently turning it in his hands. He considers the incredible woman across from him, her dominance of the space around them, and cants his head faintly.

"I'm pleased that you approve of my discretion," he says finally, speaking without any irony whatsoever. Indeed, he seems rather pleased that Emmanuelle approves of anything about him. Sipping his wine, he seems to gather his thoughts before continuing. "When we fought the pirates…" He glances aside at Isabelle again, before continuing, "I sunk one of their ships. I captured the other. A condition of my employment was that, should the ship be taken, I would be given command of her." He smiles briefly, wryly, in Emmanuelle's direction. "Given that I've also invested all my personal wealth into outfitting her and hiring a crew, I suppose you could say that I am attempting to reverse my family's fortunes."

The last hairpin falls and her midnight waves spill free; it has a tendency to cloud her face and frame those eyes with those luminescent golden shards, rendering them all the more so. Her physical traits are more overtly Aragonian than d'Angeline and these are aspects of her that she has exploited especially in ventures that take her to territories hostile to her country - Vralia, Skaldia. But when one looks closely, that is when they would see it - her features are delicate, however rendered deceptively more robust by her coloring. The possessive way Emmannuelle threads those ivory tines into her hair renders the look of her languid, lashes hooded, but she keeps her stare fixed on the man across from her, with his sea-blue eyes.

"I believe," Isabelle says at last. "That each profession represented in this room turns on discretion in some manner or another." Her face tilts to regard Emmanuelle's higher vantage point. "The incident the Captain speaks of from two years ago was a particularly difficult endeavor - he helped me rescue a relative who had been taken from my custody in Aragonia. Before then, my father contracted his former ship for our travels when I was young several times." Her more formative years, still being groomed to become the creature she now is. "He and the Comte de Digne have always trusted Athene Lesse."

After a moment, she turns her head further, her cheek grazing on that buckskin-clad thigh, meeting those striking, blue diamond eyes hovering above her. "The present undertakings we are embroiled in are urgent, Madame, and serious," she murmurs quietly. "I've yet to speak to your esteemed sister about it, but I intend to as soon as she's able to grant me an audience. Captain Rousse, despite the end of our arrangement, now that he has The Myrmidon, has pledged his continued assistance. May I implore you to see to his own injuries as well? There's a wound on his side, among others. Please, Madame. There is healing, and there is healing properly."

The distinction between reversal and attempted reversal is a nice one, and Emmanuelle enjoys it; she allows Alcibiades a slow, judicious nod before her appraisal of him is interrupted by a shift of that midnight-dark head against her thigh. She looks down then and twines her fingers anew. And, the better to converse intimately, she pulls Isabelle's head back to an angle awkward but not unbearably so, presenting incidentally to Alcibiades across from her Isabelle's elongated throat and pure d'Angeline profile as her own cool blue gaze locks with the far warmer, upraised dark eyes of the 'couturière'.

For several seconds the younger woman's plea hangs in the balance between gaze and gaze, profile and profile, the one so beauteous and the other belonging to so elegant and austere a Scion of Kushiel. Then, unfailingly, justice is granted.

"If speed is of the essence I could easily send word to my sister," Emmanuelle offers mildly, "by more direct means than I suspect you possess. And if your Captain Rousse is to become another family retainer," she adds, her tone growing dry once more — it'll be altogether to his benefit if he does, "it would certainly not be beyond my purview to hand him over to Armandine intact, now would it? … But have you asked him?" she inquires of Isabelle. "Whether," and she looks amused up at the sailor, "he cares to place himself in my hands?" Her attention may have wandered; her grip still holds Isabelle ensnared.

Alcibiades watches the interplay between the two — blue and gold, warm and austere — and he cannot help shifting his weight, and shifting where the parcel sits, as though he is made suddenly uncomfortable. It is Isabelle's new posture that really holds his attention. He stares at the pair of them, raising his glass to his lips and taking a sip, before giving his head a tiny, sharp, shake.

"My Lady," he says after a few moments, "if you agree to look at my wounds, I place myself entirely in your hands." He looks from Isabelle to Emmanuelle, then back to the Aragonian features framed on Emmanuelle's thigh. "Over the years, I have learned that trusting Isabelle is not only safe, but intelligent."

Wry grin touching his features, he adds "If you consent, My Lady, I would value the assistance."

If there is pain, Isabelle bears it and the way she does makes it appear effortless; Emmanuelle has taught her not to just withstand it, but to do so with grace and grit and with her head tilted in that awkward angle, her eyes find hers, turned up to follow the steep incline that invisible line makes. The gesture, the tilt of her head, forces that collar to open and leave a sunkissed line exposed and vulnerable from the pristine white folds. Lashes are hooded still, the tug forcing lips to part just slightly, every line of her capitulating to the woman's subtle and confident dominance. She responds to it not just with easy readiness, but in a way so artful that it is undeniably alluring…perhaps she always has, that this is inherent in her nature also.

"I would be very grateful for it," she replies. "It would be more secure, also, if it comes from you. The last time I spoke to Her Grace, a guest of hers was in attendance…it is important that for this one, I meet with the duchesse alone, and I can't indicate so in a message without arousing suspicion from those who read her correspondences."

Her dark eyes slide to the corners, when Emmanuelle turns her eye towards her other guest. "He is accustomed to my tendency to make suggestions without consulting him," she tells the woman, her faint smile returning as she regards Alcibiades from her tilted angle. "He always makes up his own mind, in the end, but I like to believe he finds most of them sound and beneficial."

"Nobody but my sister breaks my seal," agrees Emmanuelle simply. "We will see to it. Though first," and she slowly draws up her outstretched leg, and releases Isabelle's hair from its present bondage, "your wounded sailor, who has chanced to speak my other favourite word. Perhaps whichever of you is the least damaged," she wonders, casting a sardonic look from one to the other as she rises, "would carry my bag—?" She herself takes up the candelabra from the table at her side.

Another procession of the ducklings. This time, out of her sitting-room, and via a dog-leg in the corridor to a greater length of it that skirts the courtyard. Every second pair of black-lacquered shutters to the left is open, allowing a better view of Eisheth and her half-circle lily pond; every door to the right is resolutely shut. Elaborate double doors at the farthest end give onto the chamber opposite the sitting-room, at the farther end of that rectangular courtyard; Emmanuelle opens them both, her hand aided by a quick kick of a booted foot.

The palatial bedchamber beyond is made to stifle sound: the walls padded with cork and then covered in quilted dark purple satin, and the floor layered with thick and priceless Akkadian carpets. The copper-gilded ceiling above serves as a distorted mirror of whatever may occur below. The bed is enormous, perhaps monstrous, beneath its lavish coverings of jewel-coloured silks and satins and velvets: its four posts are not carved from dark wood but wrought of solid iron, of a piece with shackles and chains and an interesting pulley system above, against all of which the strongest man might struggle in vain. The latter is not Mandrake House's standard issue but a modified version of Emmanuelle's own invention; likewise the cross hewn from heavy dark wood, attached to a wheel presently chocked but quite capable of spinning. Across one wall is a display of every possible aid to love or incitement to pain, immaculately dusted. Some would be familiar to anyone who has frequented the Night Court: some bewildering to anyone unaccustomed to the practices of Mandrakes and Valerians. One might wonder why any single person requires quite so many whips, straps, canes, tawses, and flails, arranged by size and by colour: but each has its own particular use.

Beyond this joyous array — beyond a locked, glass-fronted cabinet which contains certain Akkadian trinkets, perhaps visible and perhaps not in the low light spilling in through pairs of glass doors mirroring those in the sitting-room they lately vacated — beyond also an intricately carven screen of dark purple heartwood, an arched doorway leads into a smaller chamber in the centre of which is a low and padded table of the kind one might see in a marquist's shop, or in certain Coquelicot patron rooms. Familiar territory, then, to both Emmanuelle's present visitors. Shelves above and behind the table hold an extraordinary variety of vials, flasks, jars, and boxes: all the equipage, in fact, of an Eisandine chirurgeon conversant with the very latest theories in medicine.

"You may put it there," directs Emmanuelle, indicating with the lift of her hand the correct place for her bag. She herself sets down her candelabra conveniently and takes one candle from it to light others, long white beeswax tapers waiting in readiness for such an occasion as this. I mean. These occasions do tend to come up pretty regularly, which is why the infirmary is adjacent to the bedchamber… "I'm sure Isabelle will be so good as to assist you," she suggests to Alcibiades with a smile he'd be right to read as slightly mocking, "if you have any difficulty in undressing yourself with your present injuries."

Alcibiades takes the bag; perhaps he is the worst-injured of the pair, but even the wound in his side is relatively mild. And after all, he is male, which means that common sense will not limit him in carrying heavy things. As they enter the bedchamber, his steps slow and then stop. He's staring at that wall of toys, and at the glass display case, with the bewildered air of a newcomer to the more sophisticated arts of love. But there is avid curiosity, too.

At Emmanuelle's guidance, he crouches down, careful not to bend to the side, and lays the bag down. Her mocking smile is answered with one in kind, an acknowledgement if not an incitement of her sly commentary. "If she wouldn't mind," he says as he shrugs out of his coat and folds it with surprising care, "I could use help with my shirt." He certainly does not. But perhaps the sailor does require a bit of reassurance in the face of this opulent temple to pleasure.

"Is it a requirement of Mandrake House that you become expert in the use of the whip?" Alcibiades lifts his arms up over his head, moving toward Isabelle's side. His tone is curious, entirely lacking in any snide undertones. "The lad the other night was quite an expert as well."

Thus released, Isabelle rises and to her credit - and it speaks, perhaps, of her own acquired ability to withstand Emmanuelle's exquisite punishments - she doesn't wobble, or even seem stiff being on her knees this entire time. With midnight waves returned in their artful spill down her back and curling on her shoulders, she pockets the pins that have been dislodged onto the carpet, having gathered them up idly during their discussion and leaving it pristine. Nary a trace of her presence remains behind…and that is habit also. As Alcibiades swiftly takes the bag, she affords him a surreptitious wink.

Every nook and cranny of the painstakingly designed and decorated house is taken in with an appreciative sweep of her dark-and-gold stare until they finally enter the bedchamber and the accoutrements that reflect the Mandrake/Valerian culture capture her eye immediately. She remembers many of them, the flails, the whips, the shackles, and their reminders inflict phantom tortures on her skin. She had only recently told Alcibiades her own history with Lady Emmannuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai, a scalpel among Thorns, but not the details, nor the real reasons why, though he would be intimately, and horrifyingly, familiar with the incident that drove her into Emmanuelle's capable hands in the first place. She can't help but be drawn to the display, though she touches nothing, and the collection — pieces of which are familiar also.

But she continues on, through the dark purple screens and into the archway where the infirmary rests. This, too, is familiar, but then she tends to patronise the Coquelicots a great deal.

Despite her wholehearted immersion in the sheer opulence of Emmanuelle's abode, she is paying attention, and once Alcibiades has removed his coat - one that she designed for him - she takes a few steps in his direction, fingers gliding over the breadth of his chest in a detailed effort to hunt for his buttons, one booted foot stepping in between his. The height of her heels leave her almost at eye-level with him, but not quite, dismissing button after button from service. But she needn't actually look; she holds his gaze the entire time, head tilted back faintly to do so.

"Not just the whip," she murmurs in response, parting fabric by slipping the flat of her palms underneath, passing over his intricate mosaic of marques, smoothing over the definition of his pectorals and his shoulders to draw fabric down with deliberate - and intimate - care. "Ropes, flails, paddles…wire, even flechettes and small blades. Typically when a patron wants to try, and needs additional reassurance, there are demonstrations performed to judge the skill of the courtesan. Madame is an expert in all of these arts…and on a level where a patron can elect to carry reminders of her permanently on their skins, or without — she can erase hurts as seamlessly as she inflicts them. If I remember correctly, there are more than a few who have chosen the privilege to be permanently marked by her. Last night's novice is particularly adept with the whip…I trust that he'll grow even further into the skill with time and practice."

She turns her head to look at Emmannuelle. "I don't know if you are familiar with Piers nó Rose Sauvage, his debut was last night. His winning bid was particularly lavish, though he did offend Jehan-Pascal while getting there."

The candles are not the only provision made in advance; a fire in the dark marble hearth requires only to be lit, and this Emmanuelle duly attends to, for to be naked and freezing in her presence is an expensive treat for a select few. Satisfied with the lighting and the growing warmth of her infirmary she leans against a cabinet with her hands on her hips, watching Alcibiades's disrobing with assessing intent but keeping for now out of the way of it. The small chamber still somehow seems full of her, full of her scent and her Shahrizai eyes.

She lets Isabelle sing her praises and one corner of her mouth lifts in half a smile. "I do prefer my flechettes," she confides mildly, "when I am leaving a permanent souvenir…" But then Isabelle conjures the names of Piers nó Rose Sauvage and Jehan-Pascal de Baphinol, in the very same sentence, and her red mouth forms into a sterner line. "The young man's debut took place last night, I understand?" she inquires in a voice which leeches the fire's warmth straight out of the air. It's not really a question. This is: "Was there some incident?"

Alcibiades locks eyes with Isabelle, tipping his head forward for a moment to rest against her forehead, just for a moment. The sailor keeps his arms out, the better to assist in his shirt's removal, smiling like a stroked cat as Isabelle removes the fabric. But soon enough, the shirt is removed, and the Rousse is left standing, displaying his tattooed torso. A dozen or so small or large pieces cover his stomach and chest, and more mark his arms, ending only a few inches before the wrists. But there is still enough room for more artwork, fortunately for him. The bandaged wound has managed to avoid ruining any of his inked memories.

Listening to Isabelle's extensive list of Emmanuelle's skills, Alcibiades glances back in the direction of that tool-hung wall in the other room. He grins faintly, considering Isabelle curiously. There is a moment where he seems about to ask a question, but swallows it as the topic turns toward the debut of the night before.

He peels the bandage off with a grimace, wincing as it takes a few scabs and clots of blood with it. It is a long, shallow gash, running up his ribs and biting into his serratus. From the clean line of it, it appears to have been a rather sharp blade — probably a knife. The skin around the wound is puffy, irritated — not infected, not yet, but angry. When Alcibiades speaks, after the cool air of the room has soothed the skin a touch, his voice is composed. "There was a … well, as a newcomer to debuts, I am uncertain if it was an incident. The young man used his bullwhip to chastise Jehan-Pascal. He didn't hit him, but I suppose he didn't like the way he sat."

Alcibiades tone is casual, but there is something beneath it — his eyes narrow briefly. If Emmanuelle's tone is cold, Alcibiades' is far too unemotional, an obvious fraud. "I can't say I cared for the young man," he remarks. "But as I said, it was my first debut, and I am an… unsophisticated man. Perhaps I missed some nuance."

In a glacial tone Emmanuelle utters: "Isabelle, my coat."

She turns her back to her patient and her dragooned assistant alike, boots solidly planted on the tiled floor and — as soon as she's unfastened it — arms pointed downward and slightly behind herself to ease the removal of that well-fitted garment. Then, rolling up her black silken shirtsleeves, she steps up to the washstand at the far end of the patient's table and commences a brisk scrubbing of her hands and wrists with the soap and water she finds there.

"… Far be it from me," she continues, "to instruct my neighbours in how to raise their children — you understand, it is not my business. But if that little shit were one of mine," she breathes out a huff of chilly and disdainful laughter, "and you do make me wish he were one of mine, I should hope to prevent him from hurting himself in this manner, from sinking his career before he has yet got it afloat. It is essential for any courtesan to be a reader of faces: for example, to ascertain at a single glance that one such as Jehan-Pascal de Baphinol requires the very lightest touch. If a novice gauges patrons no better than that he ought not to be let loose among them as an adept to offend the heir to the comte d'Avignon." She shakes droplets of water from her hands and picks up a folded towel from a pile of such, to dry herself. "In," she adds punctiliously, "my opinion." She's still showing them only her back, which but for the mass of intricately-braided hair at the back of her head, and perhaps the heels on her boots, might be the back of a lithe young man. The masculine styles Isabelle incorporates into her wardrobe are all cleverly adapted to enhance her own radiant femininity; Emmanuelle, animated by no such ideals, truly does dress like a man, the subtleties of her tailoring evening out rather than heightening what shape there might be to her lean torso. To Isabelle's eye her waistcoat probably looks a bit out of date, though.

The tip of Alcibiades' face finds the warm, smooth expanse of Isabelle's forehead as she divests him of his shirt, though in spite of the relatively formal way she has addressed him in front of the former Dowayne, he seems to hold some sway over her mannerisms in turn. An adaptable creature, she molds herself unerringly to the needs of the moment…but there is no artifice here when her lashes drop to her cheeks at the feel of his weight. And in these brief seconds, there is no smile, her shadowed mien gentle, but inscrutable, forever an open book until it's time not to be. With his shirt removed, slipped off his arms, a moving hand rests the flat of her digits against his chest and within the darkness of her shuttered stare, feels it rise and fall against them.

And then she's gone, her warmth and solid form stepping away, flashing him a look and a humored smile that's equal parts rueful and wry, and she turns her attention back towards Emmannuelle, reaching out so she could help the woman with her coat. She does this with care and can't help but admire, being an unrepentant slave to her art, the cut of it and the sleek and uniform dye job administered to the fabric. Fingers draw it from her shoulders after she steps behind the shorter woman, and only after she has carefully unlatched the buttons. The waistcoat too, draws her eye, but while out of date, the style is one that adopts a classic silhouette and bold lines - and any couturière appreciates well-made vintage pieces.

She carefully hangs up the coat while the lady gets to work, adopting a lean on the nearby wall and crossing her arms over her chest, remaining close enough to assist if necessary, and only when called upon to do so. Otherwise, she stays out of the way, and quietly, intently, observes Emmannuelle while she works. In this room, she is not the only woman who has mastered two professions and she is always up for learning something new.

She says nothing about the scandalous amount of Jehan-Pascal's bid - she had been sworn to confidence, and so she keeps the word she has promised to her friend. Instead: "If that is your assessment, Madame…" Her tone is deferential as it ought to be, she has not been trained as a courtesan of the Night Court, much less rise through the ranks to be the Dowayne of Mont Nuit's Mandrakes, though she has tasted its fruits often enough, and can't begin to opine on the nuances of their training and instruction with any degree of convincing authority. "…then I hope it is simply inexperience. It was a subtle misstep, and one that I believe passed most of the attendees' notice." She does listen to the rest of it, and attentively at that, because it is a rare day in which she doesn't proactively try to learn from masters of their profession. It is the same with Augustin in the finer arts of the sword and soldiering, the same with Alcibiades in nautical tactics and traditions, and now that she has found herself once more in the presence of a mentor to whom she credits a great deal of her growth and resilience in her other life, she takes the opportunity to do so again.

Uncertain what these two social butterflies may already know of her growing sympathy with the heir to House Baphinol Emmanuelle has been hiding her face — more than that she has been hiding her eyes, which could Piers nó Rose Sauvage but see them might well inspire him to a change of career and an emigration to somewhere, anywhere, beyond the reach of her rod and her flail. She is a reasonable creature in the main; she is not one to act without thought, or to fail in consideration of other people's points of view, even if ultimately she often jettisons them as nonsense. She is cruel but not vindictive. But for a brash young Thorn to ask her advice on governing his nature and then to show it so very ungoverned, by an act of disrespect toward her own new lover… All the while she stands at the washbasin Emmanuelle Shahrizai is breathing in a careful rhythm beneath her vintage waistcoat, measuring out her words one by one to ease the pressure upon her senses of those left unspoken in the here and the now.

Thus her hands are quite dry when she turns to Alcibiades, with just a fragrant trailing fraction of her blistering fury still evinced by the tightness of her eyes and the tone of acerbic reproof in which she addresses him. "Your next lesson: you never remove your bandages unless authorised to do so by a healer. I let it go on this time because you had it halfway off before I could have stopped you — had I indeed liked to touch you with unclean hands." She sniffs. Another reason to leave healers' business to healers, who know what they're doing.

"I," she explains, "I would have soaked it off and left you your scabs. You require your scabs, Captain Rousse: they protect your healing flesh as its shell protects the most delicate parts of the tortoise. Refrain from such initiative, in my house," she instructs him. "Refrain also from your little jokes. Do as you are told to do, and no more. Now," this more gently. "Lie down."

She brings with her from the washstand a smaller basin and a softer cloth. When her patient has established himself on the table she commences, with just such an ineffably light touch as she recommended for use upon Jehan-Pascal, to clean his wound and to study it meanwhile. That map of Alcibiades's world, inked and carved into his flesh by marquists and enemies both, fails to divert her gaze from the wound she is painstakingly uncovering from beneath its own secretions. But then, flesh is just flesh. Her chirurgeon's eye is taking inventory of the muscles and the organs so close beneath it and calculating the narrowness of his escape. The occupation is soothing to her — the inevitable tremours of pain radiating outward through his prone and vulnerable body, no matter how cautious her touch, are doubly so.

"A glancing stroke, I take it? You were fortunate it did not touch you like," a quick flourish of fingertips in the air above him, "so… Yes," though now she is speaking again chiefly to Isabelle, "inexperience is what I also should diagnose. Those whip tricks — I assume he must have put out a candle or taken the head off a flower or some such? — yes, yes. There is a time," and she proves that that drawl of hers can slow down to a still more glacial pace, whilst simultaneously bearing an additional freight of withering scorn, "when we are all too enamoured of our new tricks and too eager to show them off. It's shit for the sightseers, though," she explains with a sudden crispness, "as young Piers also will discover as he continues to grow into his new rôle. There is a time and a place, of course — but one must read a patron's physiognomy to discover it… One of the many reasons why the debut of a young Mandrake, or a Thorn, often comes some while after the sixteenth natality and rarely unnecessarily. Our canon is — once more," her lips twist into a dry smile which Alcibiades can see and Isabelle certainly knows her well enough to hear, "I can give you only my opinion, which some would dispute," some poor, unenlightened souls, she heavily infers, "and it is that our canon is the most exacting of all the Thirteen Houses. The consequences of our… subtle missteps… often extend rather beyond spoiling the mood," that emphasis provided by her languid and perfected drawl, "or getting the fingering wrong in a violin concerto," that's for the Eglantines, "or being seen with a hair out of place." The Camellias. "But you, Isabelle, you know my theories of responsibility. Let us take a nautical metaphor for the occasion, shall we? If an inexperienced boy lately taken onto a crew mistakes one knot for another — or fastens a hatch improperly, shall we say — how much is it is his own fault, and how much the fault of the boatswain or the mate who taught him too hurriedly? … It avails us nothing to blame the boy. In charity to Piers," she suggests, "let us say no more of his mistake, and let the passage of time erase it from memory."

From the tension Isabelle must have felt in her shoulders when helping her out of her coat — to this prudent appraisal, this gentle closing of the subject. What makes a Mandrake is control, over the self first of all. It may waver. It must never quite be permitted to break.

"I apologize, My Lady." Alcibiades' response, when Emmanuelle reprimands him on the removal of his bandage — and then explains the reasoning behind her reprimand — is not only appropriate in word, but apparently genuinely humble. This is not a man new to wounds, to gauge by the other marks on his body, but he might well be a man new to expert treatment of same. Skilled chirurgeons rarely plow the ocean's waves.

He moves as directed, stretching out on the table, doing his best to refrain from trying to anticipate Emmanuelle's intentions. It would be evident to her — a few twitches as though he wants to reposition himself, each one captured before the sea captain makes an uninvited shift of weight or arm. Alcibiades remains quite still during the initial examination, though the skilled touch of Emmanuelle certainly notices how the muscles around the wound tense at every touch, and both she and Isabelle may detect the flex in his jaw. His breathing is deep, steady — not the rhythmic breath of sleep, but the conscious efforts of a man to keep from seeming in pain.

In a conscious effort to match his actions to her commands, he speaks only when Emmanuelle asks him a direct question — and even that seems reluctant, as though he is afraid that the question was a rhetorical one. Though Emmanuelle's blows have, thus far, always been verbal, it may be that the Rousse would better endure a flechette than a barbed insult from this dangerously perceptive woman. "It was a glancing blow, My Lady. I hardly felt it at the time." He seems about to say more, but visibly restrains himself, turning his head in an effort to catch Isabelle's eye as this examination continues.

Listening to Emmanuelle explain her philosophy of Mandrake canon, Alcibiades again refrains from comment, at least at first. Alcibiades was not intending a jest when he said that he is an unsophisticated man, with the straightforward sensibilities and limited means of a sailor. He is not qualified to judge Emmanuelle's theory, but that doesn't stop him from giving a considering blink, as though filing it away. Her nautical analogy does, finally, draw a response from him — perhaps he feels that this, too, is an invitation to contribute to the conversation. "You touch it with a needle, My Lady. I hadn't considered it from that point of view."

<FS3> Isabelle rolls Perception: Good Success. (2 7 8 1 4 3 8 3)

That is something she didn't know before, as Isabelle maintains her leaning position on the wall, watching Emmanuelle attend to the man's injuries whilst opining on what had happened to her friend and patron. Her posture is an easy lean, almost languid, her expression thoughtful and somewhat absent - but this is deceptive, ever one to pay attention, especially, to what is being said. It is generally known that a debut occurs, normally, at the age of sixteen, but she hadn't known that Mandrakes or Thorns typically elect to debut later - and now that Emmanuelle has highlighted the fact, it certainly makes a lot of sense. There is an incline of her head, at the emphasis on subtle missteps, and her commentary there is also sound - one only has to look at her collection of whips, blades, chains and the like to determine reason in her words. A Mandrake, or Thorn, has a particularly dangerous toolbox after all.

Ultimately, however, that is not what captures her interest. What does is the subtle shifts in Emmanuelle's cool and carefully controlled temperament - the coils of steel-cable tension wound over her shoulders, and the way she leeches off warmth from the room in those first few remarks. She knows anger when she sees it. She knows fury when she finds it. Given her knowledge of the woman - better than most - she now waits to see whether it would crack outward like a whip, though there is some regret there upon seeing it as just moments before, her former mentor was in an excellent mood.

It doesn't, not surprising for a woman who has made a stellar climb in a demanding profession, and in a discipline where the lack of it may prove disastrous not just to herself, but someone else. Still, it is one that she notes and retains in the vast library of information housed within the back of her skull, and she can't help but wonder, in her short time away, just how close Emmanuelle and Jehan-Pascal actually are.

She is certainly not asking the woman, however. Especially not while she's treating The Myrmidon's captain.

She meets Alcibiades' look from the table, her fingers touching lightly on her lips in an attempt to hide a smile, but he'd find good natured amusement in her face - and at his expense, though there is a commiserating quality to it as well. She, too, has been chastised many times on Emmanuelle's chirurgeon's bench when necessity had driven her there.

The decisive move to leave the current thread of conversation behind is one that she follows seamlessly. She is no courtesan, but both her careers have clued her in, early on, of the necessity of being able to read a room accurately - fields that deal with people and service generally require the skill, and while watching Emmanuelle treat her other guest, she poses a different line entirely, but not all that removed from what is presently relevant: "While I'm in your company, Madame, I'd hoped to also gather your thoughts on another curious case," she begins. "I've not the background and I have only my suspicions, but I thought that I would confirm. If a body - say male, healthy…not just fit, but strong, formidable….not unlike Captain Rousse, actually - suddenly succumbs to a bloody cough and weakness, would your diagnosis lend towards a natural cause? I've heard that wasting sickness can afflict someone quickly, but I'm not particularly learned in its nuances, nor its average gestation period. The subject died in a matter of days."

Having cleaned that long gash in Alcibiades's side once with cool soapy water, and used up two of those large soft cloths in ascertaining its dimensions and its present state, Emmanuelle leans forward across him to claim a neatly-labeled blue glass bottle from a lower shelf. Uncorked, the liquid within adds an astringent scent to the air. She folds another cloth into a neat swab, anoints it, and cleanses his wound a second time. Though she's faultlessly gentle the sting of it is something tremendous. His inevitable reaction — that is, his inevitably suppressed reaction, because he's a man — stirs the chirurgeon to another quiet huff of amusement.

"You might as well relax and submit yourself, Captain Rousse," she advises drily. "You can't hide your pain from me — I have a nose for it, and I think no less of anyone for feeling what is only natural. Or is it Isabelle who mustn't see you in a moment of weakness?" A tease, rather mild in its delivery, but also a barb lodged expertly in the man's side, where he's already bleeding upon a folded towel tucked half beneath him. "I see no infection," she goes on in a more civilised vein, "though any seven-year-old girl hemming handkerchiefs could produce a finer seam. A pity I needn't open the wound again — from my hand you'd have a far finer scar," she informs him, as though the prospect is indeed something to be regretted. Who wouldn't want to join the ranks of the few, the elect: the permanent possessors of her handiwork?

In disinfecting his wound, salving it with some pungent ointment which in its first few moments upon his skin inflicts an even more pronounced discomfort, sitting him up and dressing it with clean bandages she winds round and round his torso, Emmanuelle uses her right hand and her left interchangeably: as Isabelle has cause already to know, she's ambidextrous in the truest sense. Right and left alike are also perfectly professional, warm and silken and precise, reinforcing the reassurance Alcibiades has already had from her eyes that she is interested in him more as a walking wound and as a task, as another piece perhaps of the ever-shifting, ever-giving puzzle that is Isabelle de Valais, than as a half-naked man in her chamber. She speaks meanwhile to Isabelle, and glances once or twice aside to where she stands.

"And your curious case was the only one thus afflicted? … I should be surprised, my dear," she confides sideways to her former patron, "I should say, astonished, were such a demise not the result of poison. I don't suppose you brought him back too, as another present?" she wonders jovially. "If I had him here to open up, I could answer you with greater certainty."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Success. (1 6 7 2 5 4)

Alcibiades is a tough man. Or, perhaps, Alcibiades likes to think of himself as a tough man. He endures the initial cleansing of his wound without overt noise or expression of discomfort — though of course everyone present would be aware that he is in some pain. It is obvious to those who know the signs well. And when the astringent touches him and he gasps aloud — drawing a huff of amusement from Emmanuelle — his tanned features darken a bit, in embarrassment.

"It is not —" Alcibiades hesitates as the discomfort reaches its peak, riding it out with a failed attempt at stoicism, "That I am attempting to impress anyone, My Lady." He breathes, exhales, draws in another breath. He's thus braced when the second ointment is applied and manages, with some obvious effort, to bite back a genuine whimper of pain. "Nor do I intend to…disrespect…your nose for such things."

Again, he looks to Isabelle, locking eyes with her for a long moment before attempting to continue further. "When I was a young man, I was taught that to display weakness is to invite further pain." His manner is perfectly frank, though the flush on his cheeks remains. "It is a foolish throwback to my youth that I find difficult to overcome. I apologize for any offense."

Emmanuelle's regret at the state of his wound — sewn together with gut for thread on a heaving sea — brings a wry look to his face. He tries to glance down at the stitching job, perhaps to see how mangled it really was, but can't quite make it out around the woman's work. If it had ever occurred to him that she might find his physical aspect appealing, the businesslike way in which she disposes of the task would certainly reassure him. He is safe from those whips and chains, at least for now.

Finally, when Isabelle and Emmanuelle begin speaking of other matters — poisonings and whatnot — Alcibiades can sit up and be bandaged, and he does so obediently, still keeping his attention mostly upon the lovely woman across the room, who looks so amused at his discomfort. This is an area where he is not qualified to speak — his own suspicions might match Emmanuelle's, but his come from his ‘gut', an area of his anatomy that the former Dowayne has expressed no interest in discussing.

He does, however, offer Isabelle a quizzical look and a question. "You find me formidable?"

And your curious case was the only one thus afflicted?

"Indeed, Madame," Isabelle murmurs and this time, it feels as if she has stepped out of the room entirely, though she is still present in body. "The only one, from what I have been told anyway. There was no mention of anyone else near him catching the illness, not even the chirurgeon who saw to him." Her head turns to regard the room's beautiful purple panels in silence, eyes fixed somewhere past them. Her impeccable manicure - blood red today - clips into her coat-sleeves as she mulls over Emmanuelle's words; suspicions, yes, but now confirmed by an expert who dismisses the possibility of a sudden onset of wasting sickness entirely in favor of something more insidious. And in the presence of two individuals who know her better than most - a herculean feat in its own right, for even those who share her blood hardly know her true mind and heart, a creature who by instinct adapts to the moment at the expense of her honest identity - they would know immediately just by looking at her that her matrix of intended inquiries has just shifted to account for the former Dowayne's word.

Though the offerance of an autopsy has those gold-flecked eyes finding those startling blue ones. Her former mentor will also know by the way her face changes that she has given serious consideration to the very thing, perhaps even when the new body was first mentioned to her; to sneak off somewhere in the dead of night with a small, able-bodied group, to secretly dig up the corpse and ship it back to Marsilikos, and straight to where the only woman whose opinion she trusts on such matters resides. "If only I could," she says instead, her tone resigned and regretful of the impossibility of it. "But I'm afraid considering the subject, it would be more trouble than it's worth. I'm reassured, however, by your opinion in the matter that I'm not being needlessly paranoid. Not to say that a healthy degree of such isn't a necessity, it does keep me safe, but I would forego it in a heartbeat for answers."

But they know that, too, Emmanuelle and Alcibiades; Isabelle is generally fearless.

Her attention refocuses on her two companions, falling on the look that the man gives her from the bench, blinking once - as if she had been unaware that he was watching her the entire time. But there's that mirthsome quirk on the corners of her mouth as she slowly pushes away from the wall, and one that tempers at the remembrance of the sordid bits of his history that she has always known, and now offered to Emmanuelle, whose eyes she also meets with a tilt of her head in the other direction. This isn't the first time she has wondered whether there is simply something about Alcibiades Rousse that invites abuse.

You find me formidable?

It jolts her out of her darker musings in such a jarring way that for a moment, Isabelle does nothing but stare at him. And then, her contemplative visage cracks, her low, rich laughter spilling unfettered into the room. It lights up her face, and leaves her eyes burning like coals.

"Only physically," she tells him, lashes hooding her stare, her smile turning unapologetically feline. "And especially when you're furious."

"I apologize for any offense."

The words Emmanuelle recognises as true, the sentiment earnest; the flush in the wounded man's cheeks serves as another token of his veracity, for how could he succeed in deceiving her when he's engaged in wrestling with so many instincts, so many contrary impulses—? By a grave nod she signals her acceptance of his apology, and between one twining of his bandage and the next she touches his cheek, just once, with the clean fingertips of her left hand, a curiously maternal reward for the confidence he is learning to repose in her.

She listens with one ear to Isabelle as she rips the end of the bandage and ties it off neatly; and at that outburst of laughter she looks round and lifts one bold dark eyebrow. Perhaps questioning the necessity of it but not evincing true reproof. (Her true reproofs, Isabelle can surely be relied upon to recognise on sight.) "I suspect this happened some weeks ago, or perhaps longer?" she inquires, of the curious case. "The more time that elapses, the less there remains to be certain of; you are probably correct that it isn't worth the trouble," she judges.

She leaves the table where Alcibiades is lying, for the washstand: she tips the basin of water she left behind earlier into the slop bucket beneath, and gives her hands a second thorough scrubbing to remove all trace of the sailor's blood. This time, in better humour, she looks back over her shoulder once or twice to invite him into her conversation. "An attraction of Mandrake House, for some, is that it is a place wherein it is possible to explore one's weaknesses in the certainty of safety. The better they are known the better they are overcome — is it not so, Isabelle—?" she nudges, without descending into the indiscreetly specific. "A debut…" She exhales a considering small ‘mmm'. "It is a glimpse, an aspect, a show of what that particular new adept might offer to patrons at his or her present state of training and experience. It is far from encompassing the whole of what the house may offer. Isabelle," and this time her voice doesn't question, but summons, "come here and give me your hands."

She empties the washbasin again and refills it, and yields her place at the washstand to Isabelle. Then she comes to stand close behind the younger woman, slipping her arms around her and looking over her shoulder — albeit not from any superior height… Suddenly it's an embrace, within which Emmanuelle's hands are taking delicate charge of Isabelle's, and introducing them to cool water and that astringent herbal soap. She fits neatly against the younger, taller woman's back, a familiar shape and a familiar warmth, the phallus imperfectly concealed within her breeches every bit as recognisable: not obtrusive, not demanding, but simply and undeniably present. Ah, the memories this posture must conjure up for Isabelle, even as Emmanuelle's tender and dexterous hands wash and dry each of hers in turn, black-lacquered nails and red gleaming together under water iridescent with soap bubbles.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Failure. (4 6 6 3 6 6)

At the sound of Isabelle's laughter, at the way her features light up and are momentarily lifted from the brutal concerns which now surround all three of these people, Alcibiades smiles. It's a faintly triumphant smile, as though he has accomplished some Herculean feat of his own — and, knowing the young woman's dedication to the work before them, distracting her for a moment may indeed be as difficult as slaying a many-headed Hydra.

And at the touch to his cheek, vaguely reminiscent of his own mother's gentle assurances, there is a melting of some hidden tension in the tall man. He draws on his shirt, somewhat reluctantly, buttoning it up as he watches Emmanuelle and Isabelle at the basin. Rolling his jaw side-to-side, Alcibiades looks pointedly down at the shirt he's striving and failing to button. He's done it up wrong, the poor lamb, in more than one place. A brief grunt of frustration, and he's unbuttoned it and begun again.

He tries to answer Emmanuelle in the same manner she addresses him — recognizing the invitation for what it is, an attempt not to leave him on the outside of this strange threeway encounter. "I would consider House Mandrake's services, were it not for two facts, My Lady." His voice is so carefully modulated as to be laughable. He is shifting his weight awkwardly as he speaks, crossing his legs to hide what might be an uncomfortable burden in his own breeches. Clearing his throat, the seaman continues doggedly, still struggling with his buttons.

"In… In the first place, My Lady, you have retired. And in the second, you made it very clear that there was not a circumstance in which I would ever have been your patron. I cannot imagine trusting anyone else not to make the scars worse." It takes considerable force of will for these words to come out with any sort of level tone at all, and when he finally succeeds in buttoning his shirt, the flustered seaman looks in the direction of the two women and their entwined forms.

There is both frank frustration — born of lust, and indeed of jealousy — in the expression and frank admiration. "I have never met someone who so quickly knew where to place the spurs."

But all of this is a distraction from the quite serious business at hand. A man is dead — an important man is dead. Alcibiades recalls himself to his duty, looking down at his hands as he rather stiffly folds them atop his knee. "My Lady, Isabelle," he ventures, addressing himself to both of the beautiful figures without looking at them, "This is not my area of expertise, and I apologize if my question oversteps. But if it was poison, would it be possible from the symptoms to guess at what sort? And would that help us determine where this threat originates?"

"Longer, Madame," Isabelle replies, returning Alcibiades' smile before turning her attention back to Emmanuelle. "I'm afraid a little over half a year ago. At the time this poisoning took place, I was still abroad." She purses her lips in thought. "I was bidden to return two months or so after what happened in Béziers." This wouldn't be the first time when she wondered whether her recall had been exacted because of the incident and if it was, it makes the most recent happenings in Chavaise all the more galling to her. Some part of her hopes it is a coincidence.

Because if it is not, she does not know if she can bear the alternative.

For one so confident in her skills, in the fields in which she places not just her professional identity, but her self-worth - the curse of a young lady who grew up under the shadow of a parent who never wanted to understand her past the value she could bring to the House's ambitions - doubt is a cunning serpent. It worms like something slick and oiled up her spine, and pours venom into her veins. But none of it manages to pry the blast doors of her manner apart: she's as elusive as any hunted creature whenever she wants to be, and when summoned by her most exacting tutor, she does as she's bid without hesitation. She steps towards the basin, and offers her hands. Her mind catches up on the current leg of conversation, though at the reminder of the true purpose in which she had been placed under the former Dowayne's care, her eyes lift to meet Alcibiades' own across the room. She had not given him, or anyone, the details - not the means, nor the methods, nor even the motive. But with Emmanuelle's words, he could at least gather some hints.

"It was an eye-opening experience," she says, her eyes finding the water. "I was sixteen, untried…untouched." And there is a strange emphasis there, a darker memory slipping across the bowl's reflective surface. "But I was determined to learn, and Mandrakes are uniquely equipped to test one's limits." Her smile returns, as if that shift in mood hadn't occurred and indeed, it only lasts for seconds. "Typical of me, I think. My first endeavor into uncharted waters, and I throw myself towards the most challenging discipline without a thought." An exaggeration, that. Emmanuelle knows she knew precisely what she was doing, precisely the reasons. Why else would she decide to take on a creature that doesn't quite fit her tastes?

There's something about the way Emmanuelle treats her now that is almost soothing. As alabaster fingers stroke over the warmer hues over her own, her eyes lid, the shape of the woman behind her fitting seamlessly against every slender, lissom curve of her - despite the height difference, Emmanuelle makes it effortless. She leans, lets the warmth of her fill the her silken spaces, the curving dip at the small of her back and the hidden archway that fits the former Dowayne's hidden phallus so well. Memories, yes, but with a new element when those lowered bedroom eyes find the captain's as he watches them, brimming with promises.

But later.

His question about the poison has her tilting her head back in thought, though the dexterous application of Emmanuelle's hands against her own while she dries them has her lowering her stare to observe the juxtaposition of colors they make against, and now above, water. "Madame can probably identify a number of poisons with more specificity than I that can provoke such responses," Isabelle replies. "But I suspect that she would need to know more details in order to truly differentiate a likely culprit from the rest." And after that, she smirks faintly, her earlier malaise gone, replaced by that familiar provocative determination. "I intend to get that information for her perusal in my next series of endeavors."

Still twined fondly and protectively about the length of Isabelle's body Emmanuelle dries the younger woman's hands with a clean towel, her own drying likewise amongst the gentle contact of cloth and skin. She turns her head to catch Alcibiades's eyes with her own: in that moment he must see, as if he hadn't already put two and two together, that every sensation he has felt in her presence and every button he's fumbled on his shirt, has been at her will.

"Captain Rousse," she suggests then, resting her cheek for an instant against Isabelle's shoulder and holding her snugly round her slender waist, "if you would be so good as to pass me the jar you'll find third from the left on the second shelf behind you — the other left," she specifies drily. "Take care — turn your whole body, not just your torso. Yes, that one."

So too she turns her whole body, and Isabelle's with her. They're now both facing the third party to their conversation, one woman looking over the other's shoulder and unfurling a hand palm-up to clasp the offered jar. She sets down jar and lid side by side on the padded table, scoops up a sizeable quantity of the salve inside with two black-taloned fingertips, and reclaims Isabelle's left hand in order to apply it. Considerately, she tugs the sometimes-couturière's beautiful coat-sleeve upward a fraction first. And then Isabelle finds herself in receipt of a massage by turns tender and severe, as Emmanuelle strokes that sharp-scented ointment into her palm and each finger in turn, exploring the musculature of her hand and the bones beneath and checking that all still moves as it ought. It stings just a little — Emmanuelle's medicaments always sting, when they don't burn, or revolt the tongue. But the scent and the sting are familiar too, as much so as the contours of her body and the inexorable demands of her touch. The pressure here, the bend of a finger there… Never excessive or unnecessary; but Isabelle must long since have come to understand the discreet pleasure her mentor derives from the infliction of such ordinary, such unavoidable, such legitimate daily discomforts. A display of self-control; but also a part of the mechanism by which that self is controlled.

"If you, Isabelle," she muses, massaging, "were to obtain written statements from those most intimately concerned with the case — the man's chirurgeon, his servants, anyone residing beneath the same roof or spending any length of time there during the days of his illness — giving as much detail as they can recall of the symptoms, their timing, the daily routine of the place, what he ate and drank and where it was prepared — your wit will no doubt provide you with the correct questions to ask of each… I should certainly be willing to review those statements and conduct a little research of my own, simply out of curiosity." She bares her teeth at Alcibiades over Isabelle's shoulder, even as she bends back a delicately tanned finger. "Though I imagine this, too, somehow concerns my dear sister—? Of course it does. I'll add it to her tally," she says drily, though of course there's no such document.

Her other thoughts have been drifting likewise in the same directions as Isabelle's, quite as though one mind present had a profound effect upon the formation of another.

"Isabelle de Valais at sixteen," she sighs reminiscently, her smile only partially revealed to Alcibiades over the shoulder in between. But perhaps by now he too is learning to hear it. "I don't usually take on virgins," she confides, for Isabelle has by now spilled that particular cup of tea, "or anyone who is so unnatural a submissive, but you came to me well-recommended. Did I ever tell you that? I wonder. An appeal was made in your name — and not," she drawls, "by my sister…" These amount to sweet nothings purred into the ear most intimately concerned with them; her gaze flicks up now, from the hand she can see clasped between her own two hands, to Alcibiades Rousse. If she can find his eyes she'll take hold of them as surely and as confidently as she's holding Isabelle in her arms. This confidence is for him.

"I should like you to know," she informs him seriously, "that my rejection of you on that occasion was in no way personal, Captain Rousse. You may well imagine that I dislike you. I neither like you nor dislike you — until today I have thought very little about you," she explains with absolute and cordial sincerity. "In truth my retirement is not the absolute matter with which I confronted you, and I am no more entirely opposed to male patrons than I am," she grins suddenly, pressing her thumb harder into Isabelle's pliant palm, "opposed to those whom I might find in a virginal state. The circumstances, the specifics are the key. I adhere to very few absolute rules, and those are my own. But, you understand, men in particular are given to— shall we say, curious notions about Mandrake courtesans of the female persuasion. I find it better to take a firm line before, rather than after, I am irremediably offended. And, then, you were only beginning to learn," she reminds him with a wry smile, "how to speak to me."

Alcibiades moves as though under a spell. Perhaps willingly, perhaps unwillingly, but in either case the lean seaman does obey Emmanuelle. He rises — carefully, carefully — and turns in the direction he's bid. Incorrectly the first time, of course, but then Alcibiades is used to thinking of port and starboard, and it is always the ship that determines the direction. Not a woman whose absolute presence controls the entirety of this room. He should have made that adjustment, but after all, he's new at this.

Taking the jar, he turns again, and this time meets Isabelle's gaze. If there had been a spell cast by the former Dowayne, it is now rivalled by the gold-touched eyes that lock onto his with such promise. Alcibiades paces forward, not looking away from the young woman, offers out the jar — and does not leave. He stays put, perhaps invading the space that Emmanuelle projects — or perhaps he believes he is accepting an invitation to participate, not by touching but by… sharing that very space. By being a part of this intimacy that she has, at least temporarily, summoned him into.

Lingering close enough that Isabelle might feel his breath, yet without touching either of the pair, Rousse listens to Emmanuelle without looking up from Isabelle — until the topic becomes somewhat more personal, certainly more pointed. He remembers Isabelle at sixteen, remembers the incident that now seems to be irrevocably linked to Emmanuelle's entry into her life. There is a flare of anger that he doesn't try to hide, but such a skilled reader of humanity would know that the anger is not for her, nor for anyone within arm's reach. Or perhaps, judging by that rage, cutlass-reach.

And as the topic shifts, Alcibiades takes a moment to compose himself. This requires calm. He does not, for instance, immediately deny that he had offered himself to be rejected — the captain is learning that Emmanuelle is far more easily handled by acceptance than defensiveness. "In truth, My Lady, I would not have returned had I believed that you disliked me. I am not so rude, and not so stupid." His smile grows a bit wry. "But the rest, as you say, is wholly justified." Of course it is. "And I am learning that very little of what you do is arbitrary, My Lady. If it requires that I think to understand your point, so much the better. I am aware that I have weaknesses in that regard." He is not being glib. Alcibiades has thought about this, reached conclusions. Emmanuelle may not often think of him, but it seems he has often thought of their last meeting.

Small soliloquy delivered, he looks back to Isabelle and her hands, wrapped in Emmanuelle's own. A flicker of guilt passes across his features.

Emmanuelle moves her as she wills, and Isabelle doesn't resist - some would say there might be a lamb under the tempest after all, but the former Dowayne's words would suggest rather plainly that the woman has paid her dues in rendering the woman she's intertwined with so malleable to her every whim. Because she would be right - the formidable Shahrizai does not typically take virgins, or even tend to look at someone who she knows by sight to be a defiant creature determined to go and have her way. But that had been part of it too - not just to learn how to withstand and think through pain, or even derive some pleasure in it, but other things that are just as important: control, discipline, the ability to adapt to the demands of someone who has all the power in the room. For one who often finds herself in foreign courts the latter, especially, is an extremely valuable lesson.

"I'll make sure to collect those details however I can," she says at last, her voice absent; perhaps it's the reminder of unfinished business, or the skilled way her hands are being treated, balm that will eventually rid her of the traces of these new punishments on her skin. Pupils shrink at the occasional pain, but save for the way she inhales through these small, but necessary discomforts, she doesn't even so much as wince. But her eyes remain on Alcibiades when he delivers the jar as he is instructed, his shadow crossing over her own, his face and the breadth of his shoulders dominating her vision while Emmanuelle touches her like so. It would make a lesser woman's knees fill with water, and collapse at the tension, the almost sensual pressure of it all, but she doesn't waver.

Shades of that particularly formative year drift over Isabelle's senses, several images cascading into her skull; memories in sepia, like faded paintings left to languish in the forgotten corners of marble galleries. The flash of anger from Alcibiades draws her out of her dreamy state, while Emmanuelle's murmur pulls her further out of herself and back into the world of the living. There's a blink and she tilts her head, in an attempt to regard the Kusheline profile hovering over her shoulder, but is unable to catch her fully - just the white curve of her cheek, and strands of hair so dark, it hints at blue.

"….I tend to say I won some manner of divine lottery," Isabelle tells Emmanuelle. "You've not told me I was…" Her brows furrow, curiosity flaring in those half-gilded, fathomless depths. "Who…?" Who, indeed, if it wasn't Armandine? It couldn't have been her father, or uncle, she remembers the day they were sent the contract and the surprise on their faces.

Her heart beats faster at the thought of another mystery, and even more, when it touches on the personal spheres of her life. Emmanuelle can practically taste it in the air, she exudes it so palpably. Her pulse quickens within the former Dowayne's grip.

But she doesn't fail to see the way Alcibiades looks at her hands, and given that both are presently occupied, and with him hovering so close, she tilts her head back and to the side, to let her mouth adopt a humid graze on the corner of his. "Don't." She knows and the single word is indicative that she doesn't tolerate it, for she is never one to let herself regret the choices she makes.

At length Emmanuelle has recourse again to the jar of salve standing open on the padded table at their side, and diverts her attentions from Isabelle's left hand to her right. "Is that what you say?" she inquires, just below her plaything's ear: she sounds darkly amused by that tone and that quickening pulse and, yes, that fascinated savour so apparent to her own heightened Mandragian senses. "Do you maintain a cool reticence, I wonder, or do you as so often I have heard you wax lyrical?" And then: "… It was no one you have ever met."

The finality in her voice must surely close that subject too, at least in the moment — at least with Alcibiades presenting a lure of his own, in the form of that maddening masculine tendency to try to take responsibility for every feminine creature present, even those who are most firmly independent, or who might willingly be yielding control of their supple bodies to former Mandrake Dowaynes also among those present. She apprehends the young man's guilt; the young woman's rejection of it; the fondness and the warning both contained within that slight kiss in which Isabelle indulges herself, and for which she is reprimanded, so silently and so discreetly, by the testing of the musculature of another of her slender fingers. "I see you would indeed," Emmanuelle drawls to Alcibiades, past Isabelle's leaning head, "benefit from more time spent in thought." And she too grazes, her neat white teeth raking delicately across the back of Isabelle's neck, where her whim of earlier left the couturière's collar loosened. She's an expert at this, too, of course: her lips, unmarred, leave behind only a faint smudge of red, to be discovered later when Isabelle is undressing, or perhaps by someone else undressing her.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Success. (5 3 5 1 2 7)

At the reprimand, and at the kiss that follows it, Alcibiades seems to draw strength. His anger subsides, the practically physical heat of it fading back beneath the surface. And the guilt that touches his features when he looks down at her hands disappears, but with a far more evident struggle. After all, there is precisely one person to blame for putting her to work on The Dancer.

Emmanuelle's comment, barbed as it is with that nip — that mark of precedence, of possession — draws a stronger reaction from him. He flushes darker teak, chin rising. And it is obvious that the next words which are going to come out of his mouth will be so incredibly stupid that there is no taking them back, no repairing the damage. He barely manages, in the end, not to say them. But Emmanuelle would read that flash of mingled anger and humiliation, and would see that his struggle to remain docile is very nearly untenable.

He breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth, several times before answering. "No doubt, My Lady, you are correct on that point." And beneath the anger, beneath the humiliation, is the knowledge that he is simply less intelligent than the other two people in this room. Is, in point of fact, less than. And at least willing to acknowledge it.

The smile with which Emmanuelle favours him then, as she looks into his eyes past the body of this woman who is their intermediary, is oddly tender despite its hard red line.

"Captain Rousse," she murmurs, "we neither of us own Isabelle. The difference between us is that I know it, and I remember it." And she releases her willing captive from that long and comforting embrace and steps back away from her, already wiping salve from her hands with another from her inexhaustible supply of clean white towels. "… Though if I didn't take a bite out of her every so often," she adds, "she might begin to suppose I don't like her anymore."

This new puzzle that Emmanuelle presents, for the time being, takes up most of her attention, and while the former Dowayne wouldn't see it, Alcibiades would find it plain on her expression. Isabelle's curiosity is oftentimes a perpetually hungry thing and what makes her an able operative when it is not in her nature to stop until it is sufficiently slaked. But her interest finds its fuse cut short when she is chastised by her former mentor. The captain would find her eyes widen when those perfect teeth latch into the back of her neck… telling, for a woman who is not surprised very often.

"It depends on my mood," she finally replies, that easy smile returning as she glances over at Emmanuelle. "I tend to be flamboyant as you know…but when I do speak of your expertise, I am always truthful and sincere."

Released from the cage her mentor presents, she falls further into Alcibiades' shadow, a hand resting lightly on his chest, her head tilting back to meet his eyes. "I never make it easy for anyone to stake claims for even a bit of me, Madame," she tells Emmanuelle. "Captain Rousse knows that very well, even without me stating the fact. He doesn't hold such pretentions, I promise you. If he did, he and I wouldn't be as we are now."

Emmanuelle's comment — as gently as she makes it — touches home. There is a new flux of emotions across Alcibiades' features, though perhaps not the ones that might be expected. Instead of anger, there is hurt — and something akin to fear. His mouth drops open a touch and, while he gapes, Isabelle steps forward to lay her hand on his chest.

The expression, as he looks down at Isabelle, listens to her, is like a snared animal being freed. He has no chance of hiding it. Whatever had been triggered in him by the Dowayne's words is, moment by moment, soothed. When he finally smiles, it is still a shaky one. He reaches a hand to touch Isabelle's shoulder gently, offering a grateful squeeze before finally looking to Emmanuelle.

More firmly now, and indeed with a hint of his usual poise, he says, "My Lady, you must forgive me, but for the first time in our acquaintance, you have utterly misunderstood me. I never believed that I owned Isabelle." There is a moment of silence. "She owns me." His chin lifts defiantly, and the look he offers from Isabelle to Emmanuelle says that he's not entirely sure where the first blow may come from.

She owns me.

Isabelle is on the brink of saying something else as she regards her former mentor by the side of the basin and her towels. But all of that, whatever other pressing matters she may deign to say, withers on the vine at those three words from the blue-clad captain standing near her. With her face averted, it would be difficult to gauge her expression.

Slowly, slowly, her face turns, and tilts up, regarding Alcibiades with a pair of astonished, gold-flecked eyes.

Judging by her surprise, it's plain on her sunkissed features that is news to her also.

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Great Success. (6 5 8 5 6 3 8 4 7 5 7 8 6 6)

Only by a waft of warm and resinous cologne, gradually lessening, and a like diminution of that pressure of personality even as another pressure rises seamlessly to take its place, might those two in such a moment be conscious of Emmanuelle's passage out of the room.

She returns some minutes later twisting and twining between the fingers of her left hand two neat folded squares of parchment, each sealed with violet wax impressed with her personal variation upon the Dowayne's Seal of Mandrake House. The stylised blossoms; but also, the likeness of a key. Isabelle may have seen it once or twice before, no more. Alcibiades not at all.

Two tokens, thus, that she wasn't eavesdropping.

She'll hear one part of the conversation later, she trusts, from Isabelle — though having indulged her passion to provoke, having teased, and tested, and tasted each of those droplets of the life-blood of Alcibiades Rousse drawn forth by her needles, she could probably have sat down at her desk and produced a tolerably accurate script of it if she hadn't chosen instead to write this pair of letters, brief and bold in her usual style, one in the interests of each of her guests. Perhaps she hears a word or two anyway whilst prowling nearer through her cork-lined, her carpet-strewn bedchamber, which does no less its duty in muffling her booted footfalls.

In one moment the lovers are alone still with the jars and bottles and instruments, the discarded towels and the crackling fire in the hearth. In the next she is simply and wholly present: framed in the infirmary's arched doorway with her purple heartwood screen at her back.

Her stance is that of a predator in her own lair, powerful but easily so. She has taken a moment in her absence to roll down her sleeves and button her cuffs correctly; she is, according to her custom, immaculate and cool, as though the afternoon's games have left no mark upon her within or without. White parchment flashes between white fingers, a bright movement which serves perhaps to alert two preoccupied people to her presence. For although her gaze roams acutely about the small chamber, noting every change in its objects and occupants since she left, once more she refrains from speech. This silence too is for her visitors to fill.

It is the movement that draws his attention. Alcibiades turns sharply at the flash of white on white, catching it first in the corner of his eye. Before he's even finished turning, he's sidestepping to put himself between Isabelle and — and their host. It was all in a flash, an instinct carried from the battles of two days before, and he has the grace to look embarrassed as he halts himself. Not least because Emmanuelle has just finished re-bandaging that wound.

Into the silence, his features still somewhat warm from the emotion of minutes before — and whatever has passed between he and Isabelle in that Infirmary — Alcibiades is either the first to crack, or the first to brave the waiting Dowayne's displeasure.

"I have not thanked you properly, My Lady, for tending to my injury. I am at your service." As though that were ever really in question. In his own environment, the sea captain might be a Colossus — but Emmanuelle, by land, can dispense with him with just a few words. More carefully now, perhaps eager not to earn further displeasure, Alcibiades essays a bow toward the elegant figure in her perfectly-tailored suit of clothing. He really is paying attention, and even manages to ape some of her graceful flourish at the wrist.

Truthfully, from between the time when Emmanuelle left the room to the time she has returned, Isabelle hasn't really said much. Save from the affectionate and heartfelt touches from Alcibiades, which she always accepts, her face carries, still, that somewhat stunned and incredulous look, once again at a loss as to what to do with what she has just been given. And she is unable to do what she normally does, also, when confronted by these sorts of devastating and emotional revelations - she tends to veer hard into them, ever tempestuous especially when she finds herself unable to find sure footing in uncharted terrain…but she can't exactly do that in her former mentor's home, no matter how much transient privacy she is afforded. Even now she is attempting to run, because it is instinct - learned behavior; she might not be doing so physically but her heart is still attempting to stage a bloody jailbreak through her ribs and…

…part of her hates it, really. She hates not knowing what to do, almost always so confident in her ability to adapt to any situation, think on her feet and solve a problem. The fact that he manages to corner her when she least expects it, in these arenas in the overall puzzle of her that are, let's be frank, woefully stunted, is especially galling.

It is telling, however, that her fingers are still entwined with his when she returns.

But she is thankfully given leave not to think about it too hard just yet, certain as she is that there'll be a bottle of brandy in her future, alcoholic lubrication to assist her in swallowing every instinct that leans towards self-preservation, and brave perilous new waters. It's certainly something to see her move when Alcibiades takes up a defensive posture; she doesn't even think about it, taking a step or two into his shadow and making herself as invisible as possible…not to avail herself with the protection he provides, but to use him as a roadblock for what is coming so she could strike with efficient and ruthless precision without hinting at what is about to occur. Needless, of course, in the end…but it is illustrative of the fact that there are aspects of the woman that simply cannot be severed from her no matter how emotionally compromised she is.

She relaxes visibly. Fingers loosened from their mutual grip, she also sweeps a bow from the waist.

"I am grateful as always for your assistance, Madame," she tells her. "I'll call upon you again very soon."

Neither the obvious masculine threat nor the covert feminine one inspires Emmanuelle to flinch or to retreat: she holds her ground, studying the pair of them and waiting for them to sort out their reactions and discover where they've left their manners. That they manage it so swiftly is a credit to them both, which she adds to their respective ledgers.

"I trust you shall, Isabelle," she agrees, with the slightest deepening of her smile, "and you, Captain Rousse," she adds as she looks to him in turn, "are most welcome."

She glances down at the letters in her left hand and selects the correct one with her right, and presents it to him. She eschews flourish for nonchalance, this time. "You will find that this is addressed to a colleague of mine in the infirmary attached to the Temple of Eisheth — a man experienced in the care of battle wounds, who will dress yours for you each morning now that you know better than to tear off your own bandages," she explains drily. "A donation to the temple's charities is expected of those patients who can afford to make such, to provide for the care of those who cannot. The sum need not be exorbitant. I will see you here in three days' time," and she names the day and the hour at which she intends to receive him, "to judge the progress of your wound and whether any further steps must be taken to speed its healing."

The inference of course is that she will supervise his case, as a favour to Isabelle, but she doesn't care to have him traipsing in and out of her house every day in the week.

"And this," a quick flick of the second letter, to display to Isabelle its seal before she folds her arms over her chest with the missive tucked safely away in her grasp, "I have written to my sister. I shall wait some hours before dispatching it; but you may be sure she will have it before her eyes late this evening, or perhaps first thing in the morning. I have conveyed the urgency of your need to speak with her and suggested that she might care to grant you an audience here, in my house. She has not yet seen my new grandchild," and Emmanuelle bares her fine teeth again, all but crowing over her increasing posterity, "and what could be a more natural errand—? I have private doors and private chambers enough for the purpose," she understates. "You may take with you that jar of the salve," she nods to where it's still standing open on the table, "to be applied as often as you wish, but no fewer than three times each day. At night, put on as much of it as you can inside a pair of gloves two sizes too big for your hands, to let it soak in whilst you sleep. Be sure you do call upon me," a quirk of her eyebrows, "before you run out."

Alcibiades accepts the letter, raising both brows as he looks down at it. This is, obviously, far greater consideration than the quasi-Rousse had expected. "I… will make certain my donations are appropriate, My Lady. They would know I came at your invitation. I will not disgrace myself or my benefactress." He doesn't apologize or even acknowledge, just as Emmanuelle didn't, that momentary surge of defensiveness on both his and Isabelle's part. Instead, he picks up his coat and slides the letter into an inside pocket, safely next to his skin, and buttons that pocket closed. Not very long ago, Alcibiades had his handkerchief stolen and sold back to him at a usurious rate — he does not intend to repeat that mistake with this letter.

"I will return in a few days, of course, My Lady."

But that is his role concluded in this discussion, and he steps back. Emmanuelle would note the way he is, without looking, aware of Isabelle and where she stands. It is no mistake that he ends up just behind her shoulder, dismissing himself from any purpose here except — what? Bodyguard? Lover?

Regardless, that is where he ends up. And for the moment, where he stays.

The slight deepening of Emmanuelle's smile imbues a touch of warmth on Isabelle's own, and with instructions dispensed to her company, she takes several strides away from him to the jar that the former Dowayne indicates. She retrieves it carefully and tucks it within the pockets of her coat after checking that it is tightly sealed. There is a glance towards the two other individuals in the room, the way they interact with one another, as always following the gradual evolution of a relationship between people, whenever she is privy to witness it. But at the realization that she has, at least, taken a few steps forward on some matters of import, some of her earlier malaise eases away entirely; the guilt remains, though it feels less like a dagger strike now.

That aura grows all the more palpable when she is shown the letter addressed to Armandine, bearing Emmanuelle's personal seal. Determination, and relief, situates once more on her delicate features.

"I might call upon you sooner should I retrieve more of the details we have spoken about, Madame, if you are amenable," Isabelle replies. "But I will follow your instructions to the letter." After a moment, her expression softens - gratitude, as well as that rare mote of affection that she bestows upon so very few. "Thank you for everything." For then, always, and now.

With that, and with another sweeping bow, she will wait until she and her companion are escorted out by Baltasar, with his ring of many keys.

Emmanuelle accepts these courtesies with a grave nod.

Then she unfolds her arms and gestures for her guests to begin their progress back through the house toward the bustling Place des Mains, so far away from this secluded chamber. When Isabelle would step past her, as she seems to be inviting, the devil in her brings her hand to the small of the younger woman's back to guide her passage through the bedchamber. As the two women walk ahead of Alcibiades her hand slips down to Isabelle's hip, holding her comfortably close — with each step he must be wondering whether it will move lower again.

The doors to the corridor were left just ajar when Emmanuelle returned, for silence's sake. At the farther end, where the corridor turns to circle the courtyard, Lord Baltasar Shahrizai is waiting to show out his mistress's vict— visitors. They will find Isabelle's hat and any outer garments they may have removed in the foyer waiting neatly on hooks in the trompe l'oeil dungeon, and the Shahrizai valet's capable hands ready to assist them in preparing for their return to the world from this house of secrets, provocations, and blood.

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