(1310-11-06) His Bare Wounds
Summary: Alcibiades returns to the Maison Sanglante on doctor’s orders. (Warning: Mature, Mandragian themes.)
RL Date: 09/11/2018 - 10/11/2018
Related: A companion piece to Her Craven Heart. Also refers to The Chirurgeon Is In.
emmanuelle alcibiades 

La Maison Sanglante — Place des Mains

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

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

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

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

When the intrepid Captain Rousse of the Myrmidon presents himself again at the Maison Sanglante he finds Baltasar Shahrizai lying in wait in the foyer: at least, standing at wait, in the precise centre of that pillared and frescoed chamber, splendidly-attired in fine black wool and silk and his customary neat black leather collar. His hands are clasped at his back.

For an instant, after a lesser lackey opens the heavy iron-bound door to admit Alcibiades, his eyes meet the sailor’s and reveal a full measure of the arrogance of his blood — then, head bowed and aspect serene and accommodating, he murmurs that of course Captain Rousse is expected, that the lady has given orders: “If you will follow me, my lord…?”

With perfect courtesy he conducts the visitor along that corridor of Kusheline dreams and nightmares, through the trompe l’oeil lock, and into the exotic little black-and-golden sitting-room he has seen before. Its shutters are open to admit the dusk, but those in the bedchamber opposite and the corridor which links the two are shut tight, lending the courtyard a pair of forbidding black walls which yet gleam softly in the light of a dozen or so coloured lanterns strung from one end of it to the other on ropes high overhead.

A pro-forma inquiry into how Baltasar might serve the visitor: and then he leaves Alcibiades alone in this chamber, where today the furnishings are augmented by a copper can of hot water; a pitcher and washbasin of fine Ch’in porcelain, much like the basin in which three days past he watched Emmanuelle wash the hands of Isabelle de Valais; white towels folded and stacked so neatly that their arrangement suggests Baltasar was using a ruler; Emmanuelle’s capacious black leather chirurgeon’s bag, returned from the infirmary for the occasion; and, placed artistically in the middle of a low table otherwise left empty, a large marble phallus.

The latter is company, at least, until Emmanuelle arrives.

When she comes in after a lapse of three or four minutes she’s dressed as Alcibiades has never seen her, in flowing black silk robes in lieu of breeches, and soft black velvet slippers with curled-up toes which must make her more comfortable as well as rather shorter than she is in her customary boots. Her face is painted differently too: the red of her lips darker, the kohl about her eyes more liberally applied, lines and shadows manipulated to heighten her hawkish likeness to the Kushiel of her frescoes, especially in the candlelight. Her blue-black hair is pulled back into a high and severe tail, composed of half a dozen long braids each woven through with black leather and tipped with a polished steel barb. The Punisher and the scourge, in one.

“And how do you fare, Captain Rousse?” she inquires of him in a cordial drawl, looking him over whilst Baltasar’s unseen hands close the doors at her back just as he opened them for her.

Alcibiades follows Baltasar without attempting to engage the man in conversation. That momentary flash of arrogance was a revelation to the sea captain — one that raises more questions in his wake, though he does not ask them. He answers the pro forma question with a polite request for brandy and leaves it at that, waiting for Emmanuelle with his own hands clasped behind his back.

He gazes speculatively at the phallus as he waits. Cold company, indeed. One cannot help but wonder how well the marble would absorb heat, but Alcibiades does not seem inclined to find out. The sea captain is, as usual when he visits Emmanuelle, dressed immaculately in subdued shades of blue and black. His shirt is a simple, crisp, white linen. As always, the sea captain foregoes lace and braid.

Emmanuelle’s appearance has him turning toward her, breaking eye contact with that phallus for the first time since entering the room. He takes in her appearance in silence, though his brows do flicker upward as he notes the barbs in her braids. This is a completely different woman than he has met before — one cannot help but wonder whether the cordiality, too, hints at a new development in their relationship. And whether that development bodes ill, or well, for the Rousse.

“I’m doing very well, My Lady. I have obeyed your instructions to the letter. The chirurgeons say the wound is healing neatly.” His answer is somewhat belated — a few seconds passed before Alcibiades remembers to speak. “Thank you for taking the time to attend to me personally.” There is a hint of question in his voice — does her appearance imply that he has interrupted some other affair? He does not venture to ask.

The brandy no doubt appeared very discreetly at Alcibiades's elbow whilst he was contemplating the pride of Phaistos: only one glass, for Baltasar knows his mistress's habits far more intimately than is enviable.

Thus also the length of braided black leather coiled on the table next to her favourite chair: too long and slender to be a belt, but without the handle of a whip. Emmanuelle's hand finds it without her eyes leaving Alcibiades.

"I am pleased to hear it," she drawls, though whether she means his healing or his obedience is open to interpretation. The unnamable length of leather uncoils in her grasp; she runs it through her hands, finding the right and familiar places to hold it, revealing a small steel buckle at one end. "If you are indeed making such fine progress we shall have no need of my infirmary this afternoon — which is as well, given that the bedchamber is occupied," she confides drily, whilst wrapping the braided leather cord thus-and-so about her shoulders and crossing it over her back. The voluminous sleeves of her robes are thus bound up and out of her way, revealing lean white arms lightly corded with muscle. "Have you graduated to undressing yourself, or shall I help you?" the former Dowayne offers, lifting one boldly-drawn dark eyebrow with this unavoidably salacious offer.

"I… believe that I can manage, My Lady." Alcibiades watches Emmanuelle's progresss with the intricate leather cord. His attention is keen, knowing — if there is one thing that this man can be counted upon to understand, it is knotting and lashing. Lashing items into place, that is.

The sea officer unbuttons his coat, shrugs out of it, and folds it very carefully. It is unavoidable that he must lay it on the table near the phallus. "I see that you opened my present, My Lady," he ventures as he begins to unbutton his shirt. The wound is neatly bandaged, as promised, revealed as he shrugs out of the pristine white item and folds it with an obsessive neatness. Laying the shirt aside, he takes the brandy and sips it, then sets the snifter down carefully.

Her indication that the bedroom is thus occupied appears to be something of a relief. At least she hasn't dressed like this on his behalf.

He's a head taller than Emmanuelle in her flat shoes, broader in every dimension, accustomed to hard physical labour and battles for his very life, a decade younger and a man besides — and yet hers is the presence that inspires hesitation, sartorial analysis, the cautious selection of the most courteous words, and a display of clothes-folding that would do Baltasar proud. As slight a figure as she is today, pouring out water and scrubbing her hands at that washstand improvised out of an ormolu cabinet, clad in those silken robes with (one is forced to conclude) probably little underneath, she yet fills this chamber as neatly as any other, her companion occupying space and drawing air purely on her sufferance.

The conversation, too, is under her firm hand. She lets it hang fire till she finishes with her soap and water and turns back to Alcibiades.

"I did indeed," she purrs, inclining her head slightly toward him as she dries her hands on the first towel taken from Baltasar's neat pile of them. "A magnificent piece, and of the first quality. You have my thanks, Captain Rousse, for thinking of me during your sojourn in Kriti — although," and she straightens from her slight lean against the cabinet and prowls closer, the table and the phallus remaining as yet between them, "when a man presents me with such a gift, I do wonder where he imagines," her considering blue gaze roams down over the sailor's bare torso, and then up again to his eyes, "I might like to put it."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Good Success. (3 6 2 8 3 8)

"Why, My Lady, I imagine that you would like to put it in your display case." Alcibiades' tone is perfectly naive, almost too naive. It seems unlikely, given past results, that he would be foolish enough to try to be witty here. But unlikelier things have happened, particularly around this man.

His eyes drop down to the phallus, and he does blush. It's most evident in the way his chest reddens a touch as blood rushes to the skin, warming him and giving away the discomfort that he managed so deftly to conceal a moment before.

"I've never been curious about them," he muses. "Though…" And here he cuts himself off, abruptly and completely. His chin tucks in slightly, in the same way a boxer sets himself before a match. He knows better than to leave any thought dangling in this house, but there it is.

His gaze flickers from the phallus to the somewhat scantily-clad woman before him, and he settles himself down as she comes nearer. He could pick Emmanuelle up and toss her, he reflects… So why is it that he feels so uncertain around her, so nervous of where the next strike will come from.

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Amazing Success. (7 3 2 1 6 2 8 7 2 8 1 8 7 5)

The flush creeping over the man's exposed flesh, colouring in between the lines of his many and exotic marques, expands at the same rate as the curve of Emmanuelle's dark red lips as she regards him. "Though…" she repeats, draping another clean towel for convenience across the back of an armless chair and pointing to its seat of woven cane, to indicate where her patient ought to dispose himself. It's close to her own accustomed chair. Very close. When she sits down too, bringing with her a smaller basin of warm water, her knee rests lightly against his thigh.

"Though… perhaps you are curious," she suggests, as she begins to unwrap his clean white bandages, "whether it might not come out of my display case if, one evening, I should receive a visit from our friend Isabelle—?"

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

Alcibiades inwardly curses himself for that flush, which must be as obvious to Emmanuelle as a blazing sign hanging over his head. And of course, being frustrated with the red skin only makes it worse. He sits down awkwardly on the chair, lifting his arm to make it easier for Emmanuelle to access his bandage.

Whether it is her question, the thoughts it arouses, or her warm knee pressing into his thigh, there is a certain reaction that, to Alcibiades' credit, is rather hard for a discerning eye to miss. Involuntarily, his adam's apple bobs up and down.

"If it did come out, My Lady," he answers uneasily, "It would be no business of mine unless I were invited to participate." He clears his throat. His skin is warm, as though he were running a fever — or exquisitely uncomfortable. "But, yes. I do worry — wonder, that is." With surprising frankness, he adds "And am livid at myself for it, My Lady. I have no right."

The touch of Emmanuelle's hands, at least, is more professional and more tender than the lashings she's apt to deliver via her devastating tongue. (Though… it could be argued that her style of conversation is eminently 'professional' in another sphere.) She unwraps the sailor's wound with as much delicacy as if she were unswaddling a newborn babe, and leans in close to him with one barbed braid hanging over her shoulder to peek underneath the edge of the long pad of folded linen set directly against his skin before lifting it away with an ease which betokens excellent healing indeed. The pressure of her knee is a gentle constant; as he breathes in her cologne it mellows moment by moment, revealing the freshness of bergamot beneath the leather and the musk. Some never get that far.

"I can always smell a secret," she confides, as she soaks a soft square cloth in that basin of warm soapy water, wrings it out, and begins to clean his wound with the same careful touch of three days ago. His skin is so heated, the water may well feel cool. "And I can usually tell how to get at it. What I don't always know," this she explains very drily indeed, "is the full shape it will show when I bring it into the light… Kushiel's gifts come and go from me; I can't simply kindle the power like a flame. The last time we met I saw the shape of certain of your secrets. I saw that you were, in your heart, tying strings to Isabelle. What I didn't see at once, till I'd needled it out of you, was the deeper layer. Your own judgment of your sentiments. You're right that it isn't your business. Still, it is not so unusual, not so unnatural for you to feel what you feel. Feelings may be and frequently are unruly — we can, however, make the effort to control our actions," says this lifelong Mandrake seriously, "and I appreciate your attempt to do so."

Alcibiades seems genuinely surprised to hear assurances coming from this woman, of all people. It may be the first time that has ever occurred in his presence. He looks over at Emmanuelle for a few moments, his composure slowly returning, skin fading back to something more like its usual shade. "Thank you, My Lady. While I do not make the attempt for your sake, your appreciation is…" He squints for a moment, "Appreciated. Blast. Forgive me, My Lady, I'm more eloquent at sea."

Or, perhaps, when he's allowed to make his little quips. But Emmanuelle does not permit masks to be worn in her presence, and Alcibiades relies on his humor to hide the nervousness he often feels in landborne endeavours. He keeps his arms lifted to accept the bandaging; there is no grimace of pain, no quiver at all. Her touch is delicate.

He cannot help inhaling, noting the scent, the pressure of the knee. But Alcibiades knows better than to assume there is any invitation in this intimacy and his involuntary reaction — which she has been kind enough not to ridicule just yet — seems as much a source of embarrassment to him as his jealousy.

But can it really come as such a surprise to Alcibiades, that Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai hasn't yet run out of the means to surprise—?

"While I do not make the attempt for your sake …"

"Oh, indeed," she murmurs, just sardonically enough to suggest the correction of a lapse in courtesy on his part; "but you understand that it is a sporting spectacle. A man's rational mind versus," and her altogether too knowing blue gaze flicks down at the incriminating bulge in his breeches, then up to meet his, "his most primal instincts. I shall be interested to observe the phases of your battle, Captain Rousse. This looks well," she adds, with a nod and a gesture of the folded cloth in her hand toward the long untidy seam in his side. She drops the cloth in the bowl of water stained faintly pink with his blood, and turns to her bag to unpack a bottle and a jar familiar from their last meeting. He's about to be stung in the side, if not the heart.

"… I don't usually allow the presence of a third person during an assignation," she goes on, addressing something her patient said a couple of minutes past and was probably hoping she'd forgotten, "unless of course, as sometimes happened during my years on Mont Nuit, a patron well-versed in the sharper pleasures desired to see what I might make of a favoured Valerian. Couples in love, however," and she favours him with a feral grin in between dabbing at his wound with that dreadful astringent his healer at Eisheth's infirmary happens to have a bottle of, too, "make troublesome companions. My arrangements invariably go awry when the lover considers I am too severe with the beloved one, and seeks to interfere. And you would, wouldn’t you?” she teases. “In the very moment you heard Isabelle scream for me.”

Alcibiades notes that sardonic tone. It implies that he has erred somewhere, and she might be amused to see him visibly attempting to think, rewinding what he has said. But there is far more dangerous material being discussed, and he considers Emmanuelle’s words gravely. He is also braced, the muscles in his torso tightening, in preparation of the purely physical sting that may accompany the rhetorical one.

“I do understand that it makes a good spectacle, My Lady. As a gambling man, I would be interested to know which side you favor.” He delivers this response graciously enough, but there is a faintly troubled air about him as he continues. “In most things, I rely upon good sense and sea-wisdom. I realize that I have given you no reason to think so, but when I escape the purely personal and turn toward my profession, the primal half of myself only surfaces at the last extremity — the rare occasions where crisis removes the time for thought.” He seems to be building to something, not merely musing aloud. “I am deeply troubled by my inability to reason my way through a feeling that… that I shall eventually prove myself to be the man I fear I am, and not the one I wish to be. I do not want to let her down.”

As the stinging astringent hits his side, gentle though Emmanuelle’s touch is, he hisses softly and closes his eyes for a moment. The goal is to attain some measure of control over the sting, though Emmanuelle has scolded him for this before. It also buys him a moment to think.

“My Lady, it is true that when I see Isabelle in danger, considerations of restraint tend to flee. I do not know if I am equal to the task of seeing her in pleasurable pain. As ever, your ruling seems to be wise.”

He glances down at the wound in his side, then up to Emmanuelle. “I have a question, My Lady, if I may be so bold. Every conversation we have, I leave having much to wrestle with. Is this, too, a talent taught by House Mandrake? Or is it your own particular brilliance?”

“You understand she would face no true danger, in my house,” by which Emmanuelle means, historically, Mandrake House under her dominion as well as her present Maison Sanglante, “but in matters concerning Isabelle you have always to overrule your gut, no?”

In a rare deviation from her purpose her fingertips brush over the tense muscles of his abdomen, indicating the seat of too many unruly passions.

“In this instance I think your fear of the man you may become, is less a prophecy to be fulfilled than a preliminary proof against it. Fear may be a tool, as pain may be a guide. You apprehend your possible danger: most men,” she informs him sardonically whilst anointing his wound with that salve which burns in its first moments upon his flesh, “are not capable of such subtleties in their relations with the women in their lives… Shall I tell you a secret, Captain Rousse?” she suggests with a provocative widening of her Shahrizai eyes. And to confide it she leans in nearer still, surrounding him with the fragrance of her cologne and her own clean skin, touching his ear with her breath as she speaks each word. “We are, all of us, capable of the most incredible change. We can grow into ourselves whilst remaining true to our deepest souls. We can honour who we have been and yet choose who we shall next become.”

The straightening of her back separates them again to a distance perhaps more easily survivable for him. “If you love her enough,” she suggests, “your fear will spur you and not defeat you, and you’ll rise to the challenge of growing into the man who can love and accept not only the woman she is but all the women she may yet become. Is that,” and she produces from her black bag quantities of snowy white bandages, “the variety of brilliance to which you refer? Or shall I make a suggestive remark about how hard I’ve got your heart beating?”

Emmanuelle’s touch — suddenly beyond the professional boundaries that she has, thus far, limited herself to — causes Alcibiades to jump. It’s not a leap, but a definite twitch, and one that she would detect instantly. He masters himself, with a bit of squirming to reconfigure his burdensome involuntary compliment.

“I do understand — and I do frequently have to override my… gut, yes.” As is so clearly evidenced.

And then his words are cut off, before he can deliver the obligatory My Lady, at the application of that terrible salve. He doesn’t do anything so undignified as yowl like a scalded cat, but he doesn’t see the pain coming and there is a surprised squeak from the man. Certain that he has just given pleasure without intending to, that squeak is followed by a blush. Not his finest moment of composure, by any means.

When Emmanuelle leans in to whisper in his ear, when she widens her eyes in that deliberate manner, he swallows hard. Alcibiades lays both hands down on the edge of that backless chair and grips hard, knuckles going white as he fixes his stare into the middle distance. Slowly, the scent withdraws. Slowly, his hands relax.

But it does not stop him, this discomfort, from listening to Emmanuelle’s every word. He considers for a few moments, and she can feel him tense again. This time, it is not from anything the Shahrizai has done — Alcibiades is wrestling with himself, wondering how many weapons he ought to hand this woman. Yet she has been kind to him today.

“My father beat me, as they say, early and often. I was a… difficult child, My Lady.” The confession comes with some difficulty. “I’ve always tried to be more like my friend Jaime than like my father.” Emmanuelle would, of course, know of Jaime and his rather formidable reputation. “And… if I could be more than either of them, for her, I would.”

He takes a breath. “I meant, in truth, your insights into me, My Lady. You could — have done — comment on my heartbeat. But I believe, begging My Lady’s pardon, that you know that effect is far less impactful, in the end, than the other. Speaking with you reminds me of wrestling with Jaime. It always hurts, in the moment, but I never fail to learn.”

Scarcely has he delivered himself of these confessions, more painful in their way than any salve in Emmanuelle’s collection, than the scent of her returns to his nostrils as she leans near again to wind fresh bandages round and round his well-marqued torso. Her knee, of course, has never left him. She’s using her physical presence quite calculatedly, under cover of the simple necessity of sitting close enough to tend the wound in his side: that one brush of her fingertips has been her only extravagance, the rest being the care she has promised to give him.

"I never beat my children: how could I have done?" she inquires: softly, reasonably, above all rhetorically. "Nor did I suffer it to be done for me by others, for I consider such treatment the sign not of a difficult child but of a difficult parent. I am a sadist down to the marrow in my bones — you know that, or you wouldn’t try so hard to hide your pain from me, or blush so when you cannot help but reveal it. You wonder, don’t you,” she teases, “how it makes me feel—? When I see you gasp, or flinch, or when you can’t suppress the sound of it? … But, my dear Captain Rousse,” she says more gently, “if I can so restrain myself, as I do every day of my life, denying myself pleasures when I have a hundred and one implements to hand by which I might secure them… There truly is no excuse and no exculpation for a man like your father.”

Alcibiades hoists his arms politely, the only assistance he can offer in the bandaging-process. “I do wonder,” he admits quietly. There is a core of iron to his next words, however — not at all a threat to Emmanuelle, but a reminder to himself. “However, My Lady, your pleasure or displeasure in… that regard… is not my business, not having been invited to inquire.” He does not say the rest — that it would feel disloyal to Isabelle, that it would be terrifically frightening, that he is certain he would be rebuffed. All three are as obvious as the sun.

“My father,” he says slowly, consideringly, “Was a weak man. When I learned that — I don’t recall how old I was — I became determined to be a strong man.” He hesitates for a moment before continuing. “When he died, I was sad for him. Not that he is dead. No, were it not an unforgivable sin, I would have killed him when I left. No. My Lady, I was sad that he never knew what it meant to be truly brave.” He shakes his head faintly. “That man could not face a disagreement over how to prepare toast without retreating into a bottle and his fists.”

He turns his head, staring at Emmanuelle for a moment before he finishes. “Courage is not merely found in mortal danger. My father taught me that, My Lady.”

“Courage is not merely found in danger,” his chirurgeon repeats as she tears the end of his bandage and fastens it with neat knots only unpickable by her own clever fingers — the healer at the infirmary used a knife to undo her work, “but on the umpteen occasions when one may, for instance, risk face the better to be understood, admit ignorance the better to learn, acknowledge a failure the better to proceed toward success.” That’s a compliment, if he’s keeping track.

She sits back to admire her handiwork, her hands clasped in her black silken lap.

“Power, I find, is most honoured and most gratified by restraint. I could do anything with you,” she points out with frank certainty as her eyes pierce his, inexorable and blue, “and the very reason that that is so is that I have in me the power also to refrain… The power your father had over you was a real and a sacred one — its misuse was his sin, not yours. He had not the right to leave the marks he did upon your soul. What he did to you is an ocean away, you understand, from my profession. I often say,” she reflects, steepling her fingers, “that while the young ones may speak of breaking this patron or that, as though such feats took more than a strong arm and time enough to wield it… my interest is in making.”

Alcibiades flinches subtly at the idea that he was not at fault in his youth. Emmanuelle is subtle enough to know that what really stings is that he was not, in those years, in control of what happened to him. That sense of powerlessness is one that he cannot relish, yet he returns here time and again, for his doses of chirurgeonry and wisdom. And every time, he is powerless. Her compliment, if it registers, would at least tell him that she understands that.

Slowly, once Emmanuelle sits back, he lowers his hands to his side. And considers. It’s so obvious when Alcibiades is thinking this hard; a furrow forms in his brow, his jaw flexes. He is not comfortable in this realm of discussion. At sea, feelings are beside the point. You either strike down the topgallantmasts or you die.

“It is… possible, My Lady, that you could do with me as you pleased.” Alcibiades is striving for politeness, realizing that he is offering a challenge and a rude reply at the same moment, and so he really racks his brain for something more graceful. “As… as much power as you hold, My Lady, I must say that I am…” And then he stops, because the meaning of Emmanuelle’s words finally registers.

“Forgive me. I… reacted out of ego, first. It’s a failing I frequently fall into. I have wondered before now whether our conversations should be considered a professional matter. Whether I owe you, in some sense, for what you do for me.”

He pauses for a moment before continuing. “I refuse to believe, My Lady, that it is only the young you outshine.”

”I… reacted out of ego, first.”

“It is well that you recognise the source of your reaction,” murmurs Emmanuelle, with a gentle warmth intended to reward. “I accept your apology, Captain Rousse.” And as she rises from her chair and deprives him of the warm pressure of her knee, she bestows a slight smile upon him from above. It's gone as soon as she turns away. Her compliment to him, he may be slow in following; his to her, she comprehends though it fails to move her.

“What I told you that day was true,” she opines from the washstand, whilst pouring lukewarm water with which to cleanse her hands. “The price of an evening in my company on professional terms is beyond your purse, particularly given the demands of your new captaincy. I neither expect, nor require, nor desire what you and I have both known all along to be… impractical. I say this not in cruelty—” She gives him a wry glance over her shoulder and confesses, “Perhaps a little in cruelty, yes — but more than that in the service of the understanding between us. My attention to your health,” and she refrains from committing herself to his present wound alone, “is an offering of mine to Eisheth, perhaps also to my good sister. It is no debt of yours.”

A brief silence, punctuated by the sloshing of soap and water in that precious porcelain basin.

“… But if you’ve a slate you feel the urge to balance,” she concedes, “I do as you intuited enjoy receiving gifts. For themselves, and for what they reveal of the one who gives them.”

And she turns round to face him again, her silk-robed hip leaning against her repurposed ormolu cabinet and another clean towel in her hands. Her coolly intelligent ice-blue eyes are suddenly upon him in the full force of their intensity, raking over his seated figure as though to strip away not only his remaining garments but the skin from his muscles and the muscles from his bones. “What was in your mind,” she inquires of him in a low purr, “when you selected such a… substantial present for me? It was not for yourself,” she states definitely — he has convinced her of that, at least. “You had not then seen me touch Isabelle. And yet, you must have had some thought, some instinct… Perhaps,” she insinuates, “you don’t yet know it yourself.”

Alcibiades watches Emmanuelle as she moves toward the basin and begins to wash her hands, his head tilting. He listens closely. If Emmanuelle is keeping a tally, she'd be interested to note that he takes no offense when she comments both on his financial state and his viability as a client. Indeed, he seems a touch relieved that the intense woman now washing her hands agrees with him.

“I think you are correct. That idea would be impractical. We are — in that sense, My Lady — as incompatible as you believe." Alcibiades smiles, a touch lopsidedly, accepting the cruelty and the clarity with equal composure.

Her question catches him off-guard; blinking, he looks thoughtful for a few moments before answering. "It is… possible… that I had some inkling, not entirely fully-formed, that you would appreciate the gift. I wanted to give you something, and, well… My intuition ran dry apart from that."

He nods toward the phallus. "There may be more to it. When you say so, I accept the possibility, My Lady."

"Then again," and having brought Alcibiades to contemplate his own hidden motives, having sown a seed that may yet flower for her eye's delight, Emmanuelle strikes from another angle; "there may be no more to it than appears at a glance. You wanted to give me something — and that," she too nods to the phallus on the table between them, "was the finest and closest substitute you could find."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Success. (5 8 5 6 1 4)

Emmanuelle has no doubt seen men turn red before now. Alcibiades, in fact, has already turned red once today. But he seemed to be doing so well, nodding along with her words, until the trap springs. He goes from his usual tan, hale, self to the coloration of a brick. "Ah…" Coughing awkwardly, he swallows before continuing. "It would be… Ah, My Lady… That… is, well. Somewhat out-of-scale." He does not specify whether it is too small or, as is more likely given its size, far too big.

If Emmanuelle desired to add an extra wing to the Maison Sanglante she could in all likelihood build it out of the men she's bricked in her life, and have room for a ballroom, a jeu de paume court, and a suite of Ephesian baths.

In conversation she's rougher with men than with women, a disparity more than corrected in the bedchamber by the particular severities to which the feminine form inspires her — though to Alcibiades, it must seem as though he's the one perpetually getting the worst of her deftness and ingenuity.

She nods along with his awkward attempts at speech and then, at the psychological moment, sends a fleet blue glance down into his lap and straight up again to his eyes. "I supposed as much," she informs him lightly. "… You may dress, if you wish," she adds, mingling kindness with its very opposite; she herself is now unbuckling the leather strap that holds back the sleeves of her robes.

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Composure: Good Success. (3 8 3 3 7 7)

The blow, when it lands, causes Alcibiades to freeze in mingled horror and admiration. It is, to the uncultured Rousse, much like watching Jaime Daur plant his sword on the tip of some schmuck's adam's apple - precise, lethal. Belatedly, he picks up his shirt and — entirely uncharacteristically — just shakes it out rather than unfolding it, slinging it on and buttoning it up.

"I want to tell you, My Lady — and this is not a joke — but it is precisely those comments that I admire so much." He nods toward Emmanuelle, a defeated sparring partner offering a gesture of respect.

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Good Success. (5 3 3 3 6 6 6 1 3 8 7 6 7 4)

The former Dowayne shakes out the sleeves of those robes that formed so much a part of her wardrobe at Mandrake House, and that have their uses even here. "Even when you're not joking, you feel compelled to make a joke of it," she observes drily, returning to her chair as her deft white fingers transform that length of braided leather back into a coil. "Have I not taught you yet," she chides, sitting down close beside Alcibiades and setting that neat coil where she found it earlier, "that hiding yourself from me is a fruitless endeavour?"

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Perception: Success. (8 6 4 5 4 1 3)

"You're right," Alcibiades agrees. He folds his hands in front of him, exhaling out through his nose. "For what it's worth, My Lady, I am trying. I associate with men whose sensibilities are more… coarse. I have to lead those men, live among them." He offers his explanation slowly, feeling his way through each word. "The mask that you so dislike is — years ago, it became most of what I was allowed to be." He glances sidelong at Emmanuelle. "Isabelle sees more of me, because we are lovers. You see more of me because you force me, My Lady, to remember that there is more. But I do sometimes retreat without realizing it."

"I find that one of the greatest tests of a man's strength," suggests Emmanuelle softly, "is whether he can allow himself to seem weak, to be weak, in the surety that he will survive this too as he has survived all else. A brittle strength breaks sooner than it yields," and he may be sure this Mandrake knows whereof she speaks. "But a supple strength absorbs pain, anguish, defeat, all the force of your southern hurricanes — and renews itself again and again."

"Did you know that ships breathe, My Lady? The planks shrink and expand. It is… I am trying to put your words into an image. I often think in images." Alcibiades squints down at his knees, considering for a few moments. "Iron shatters," he says after a few beats, nodding. "Steel flexes." He dampens his lower lip for a moment, gazing sidelong at Emmanuelle. "Brittle. My father was brittle, I think. He couldn't absorb blows."

"A man of iron, as it were," states Emmanuelle, coolly dismissive. Her knee just nudges Alcibiades's thigh, where before it rested. "Whereas every blow you take from me is a tempering of the steel in you; I know you understand that much." She considers him as he sits there in his shirtsleeves, with the effort of his recent thoughts writ plainly upon his tanned brow. "You are not, I think," she judges in that steady and even voice she employs for the making of promises, "prepared yet to make your peace with those memories. When you are, we'll speak of it."

<FS3> Alcibiades rolls Perception: Good Success. (5 3 7 6 2 8 6)

"There is so much, My Lady, that I would not know how to begin." Alcibiades squints faintly, realizing something. "But it's not my role to know, is it?" The revelation seems to take a weight off the captain's shoulder in itself — this man whose purpose is always to make decisions, and never to apologize for them. "I think that — is it normal to not want to release them? I feel…" He clears his throat, absently flexing his fists. "The idea is frightening, My Lady. Perhaps that is what you mean when you say I'm not yet ready?"

"When the time comes you'll still feel frightened," Emmanuelle prophesies, "of me, and of the letting go — but you will decide to confront those particular fears… Is not fear always a precondition of bravery?" she reminds him.

At that, a scratch upon the door.

Without looking away from Alcibiades Emmanuelle calls out in a voice impatient enough to strip the hide off the importunate scratcher: "What is it?"

The door shifts upon its latch, opening no more than an inch. Through this meagre aperture Baltasar clears his throat apologetically and offers, "My lady, you wished to be informed when your visitor awoke." No names. No pronouns.

"So I did." Emmanuelle curls a hand round the arm of her chair and leans her head to the side just far enough to catch her manservant's eye through the crack in the door. "You may tell my visitor," she says drily, "that I intend to leave on time this evening, whether or not she has finished dressing." A lift of her chin dismisses Baltasar; the door shuts; her seated posture subtly re-aligns itself toward Alcibiades, the weight of her gaze returning to his face.

"Have I kept you overlong, My Lady?" Alcibiades makes as though to rise, then seems to remember that Emmanuelle does not like assumptions. He stays seated in the end, hands resting on his knees. "It is true what you say, about courage, My Lady." He seems contemplative. "I don't often feel fear in the midst of a fast-moving crisis. But I do feel it afterward. I've often wondered about that."

It's very obvious that he is, most particularly, not wondering about the woman in the other room. Emmanuelle can see him setting up internal barriers to curiosity — he starts to glance toward the door, then stops himself, staring instead back at Emmanuelle. "When you say that it is time, then… I shall be equal to the task."

It's like not thinking about pink elephants, isn't it? And their mutual hostess is no more than usually inclined to give him an easy time of it.

"It is you who must tell me of the time — when it comes, if it comes — I suspect you'll find," and within her elaborate predatory mask of maquillage Emmanuelle lowers her eyelids as she regards him, "that there is no mistaking it. Your fear, now, that is compounded in part of instinct but also very much of thought — one feels fear most acutely when one has the leisure to dwell upon it in all its glorious ramifications, which is why a good Mandrake will often leave her patron, or her visitor," a ghost of a smile touches her lips, "time in which to breathe and to reflect upon what is to come… It still works," she confides mildly to her latest guinea pig, "even if I speak of it beforehand.

"I should say, in that connexion, I don't believe in the use of threats," she goes on, crossing one leg over the other and sitting back more comfortably in the chamber's only cushioned chair. "I don't threaten people, I simply state what is going to happen. With a certain kind of submissive of course that can pose a conundrum. If, for instance, I pledge to string up this one," she nods toward the darkened courtyard and the bedchamber at its farther end, "in my cellar for the night, or choke her till she swoons, or bleed her into a languishing weakness, she'll drag her feet on purpose and discommode my plans for this evening far more than you have done, Captain Rousse, by passing the time for me meanwhile. The prospect, however, of being bundled into the carriage before she's fixed her hair to her satisfaction, is I assure you authentically dreadful," and she indulges in a grin so broad and so red that any linguist present would be inclined to coin the term 'schadenfreude' on the spot to describe her current mood.

The explanation — the glimpse behind the curtain of Emmanuelle's craft — has Alcibiades leaning forward in interest. As a master in his own field, he recognizes the unique touches that she brings to her own — and the revelatory nature has him further intrigued, as no doubt she expects. "I see," he says slowly. "It relies heavily on your insight into each of us… each person, I mean, My Lady."

"I do see what you mean about thought," he continues after a pause. "Anticipation. That is the only time I'm truly afraid at sea, as well — when I can see a thing happening so slowly that I'm able to think through it's ramifications." Gazing sidelong at Emmanuelle, he adds "May I ask, My Lady, whether you do intend to force her out of the house early? Forgive me if that oversteps — It is just… now I'm curious."

Curious whether she would follow through on all her threats.

Ah, but Emmanuelle is in earnest when she speaks of her aversion to mere threats. "Not early," she corrects, her tone chiding Alcibiades not for his tentative curiosity but for his disbelief in her methods and her resolution. "On time, according to an hourglass she is free to consult. … Though of course the time she spends watching that sand fall with its deceptive slowness into the lower chamber of the glass," and her pale, black-taloned fingertips lift from her lap to perform a dance of falling sand, "is time in which she isn't powdering and perfuming and preening herself." A beat. "I do," she reminds her companion of the moment with a touch of sardonic amusement in her voice, "tailor to fit."

Alcibiades grins suddenly, his head canting to one side for a moment. "Forgive me, My Lady. Not early. But incredibly effective, and incredibly subtle." The Rousse sea captain picks up his coat, laying it across his knees. Apparently, Emmanuelle is not in a hurry to leave and so Alcibiades doesn't make the presumption of throwing on his coat. He gazes at the wash-basin for a moment before continuing. "Is it a knack, or can it be taught, My Lady? The skill of reading a person so accurately."

Emmanuelle answers his grin with an acknowledging lift of her eyebrows: yes, isn't it? "And whether she wins or she loses her race against time, she'll spend every moment between now and the appointed hour torn between pleasing me with her punctuality and pleasing me with her beauty, fearing my pleasure and my displeasure alike, dreading with each beat of her heart her possible humiliation before our friends… I have my hand upon her; and yet here I sit at my ease, with plenty of time remaining in which to finish donning my regalia for the evening," she explains drily, in case those little refinements of her scheme have yet to suggest themselves to Alcibiades. "When you ask if it can be taught, you mean can it be taught to you. That I don't know. I cannot say that every Mandrake, every Thorn learns it well — as you yourself," she drawls, "have observed."

"Right, the boy." Alcibiades speaks casually, as though he's just remembered — and then he remembers where he is. "Forgive me, My Lady, I didn't mean to seem… careless of the boy." He clears his throat, looking a touch discomfited. Focusing instead on the scheme that Emmanuelle explains to him, Alcibiades nods along slowly. These nuances are not his forte, but he seems to understand the principle — if it's explained this clearly. "Yes. I was curious. It… leading men can sometimes be surprisingly nuanced."

"I am not in the least surprised," Emmanuelle fires back easily. "I imagine the balancing of so many personalities confined together on a ship for a period of days, or weeks, all grating at least some of the time upon one another's nerves, to be a task requiring a deft and delicate touch. And having raised yourself to a captaincy you are quite naturally concerned to keep it."

"Strong…discipline helps. And yes, My Lady, I realize how… little I know about discipline in this setting." Alcibiades smiles, a touch self-deprecatingly, hearing the irony in his own statement as he says it. "But at sea, we rely heavily on custom and routine. Every man knows his place and keeps to it. And thus, even hundreds of men learn to live in a wet, smelly, moldy, magnificent, contraption. But sometimes there are difficult officers — men I cannot merely order back into their place."

"Your task, then, with such difficult men, is to show them why they desire to follow your wishes — or sometimes," again Emmanuelle narrows her eyes as she regards this particular visitor of hers, "give them to understand that your wishes are the products of their own minds, and they the ones appealing to you." A soft 'mm' sound in her throat. "What interesting little diversions for you."

Alcibiades makes a 'hmmmm' noise deep in his throat, tilting his head faintly. "They are proud men," he says slowly. "That is what makes them so valuable. It would be easier if they thought it was their idea." Hesitating, he adds "But in the heat of the moment, I also need swift and unquestioning obedience. Do the two collide — if I teach them to expect one form of command, My Lady, do I inure them to the other?"

"That will depend upon the men in question — I have found," Emmanuelle confides drily, "that those accustomed to gentle handling are sometimes so stunned by a sharp command, that they obey without thought. But then, I have never had occasion to observe the behaviour of men in battle, or to command them. I imagine the pressures and the distractions create in the moment a different kind of calculus. There is a book on the subject by a Tiberian author, well worth reading…" She names a memoir by an ancient general of that peninsula, who for the benefit of his military apprentices set down his thoughts on the psychology of command.

"I see your point. The truth is that there's no way to know how a man will behave in battle until we actually…face battle. I can expect my new men to be good seamen — they'll come with references, of course, from men and women I know." Alcibiades is musing, revealing the anxiety he cannot quite conceal as he prepares for his first true command. He accepts the name with a thoughtful noise, glancing at Emmanuelle in some surprise. "Thank you, My Lady. Most of my reading has been limited to nautical warfare."

"No plan survives contact with the enemy," agrees Emmanuelle drily, proving herself acquainted with at least one military treatise.

Then she rises from her chair and for a moment rests her hand upon Alcibiades's shirtsleeved shoulder as she steps silkily past him to the pair of doors giving onto the corridor, which are too heavy and too well-fitted in their places for a woman to call through who has such a rooted dislike of raising her voice. She opens one door and addresses Baltasar, who has been waiting some yards away where the corridor turns round the courtyard, alert to summons from sitting-room or bedchamber alike. She names the book: "Find it for Captain Rousse to borrow," she directs, "and then go and thread your needle. I shall come up shortly. You may," she observes to Alcibiades as she shuts the door again with a gentle pressure of her hand, "return it to me when next you come to bare your wounds."

"I shall do that, My Lady. Thank you." Alcibiades puts his coat on finally, sensing that the conversation is drawing to a close. As he carefully buttons it up, he continues "I don't believe in plans, exactly." It's an interesting statement, and he follows it up with, "I believe in planning. In practicing the idea of planning. It creates adaptability. But plans — as you say, no plan can anticipate wind, or sea, or enemy." Just for a moment, speaking of this particular subject, Alcibiades is incredibly confident — a sea officer in full.

"Forgive me, My Lady. You simply reminded me of a topic I find… fascinating."

Standing together the disparity in their heights is once more apparent, Emmanuelle slight and proud and straight-backed in her robes, with barbed braids hanging forward over her shoulders as though to warn that no matter how close she might come — and she's very close, at present, commanding the sailor's personal space and turning it into her own — she may be looked at, but not touched.

"Something else," she agrees, "you and I have in common."

The implication that she thinks they have anything in common seems to startle Alcibiades. He draws in a breath as she once again invades his personal space — though she's never really left it. Alcibiades looks down at the woman thoughtfully. "I hadn't expected you to be a scholar of military leadership, My Lady, but it… seems there are parallels I hadn't considered."

The hem of Emmanuelle's robes brushes the sailor's ankles as she sits down again, and tucks a cushion into a more fortuitous position at her back. "… It surprises you," she drawls, breaking out one of her heavier grades of sarcasm, "after the conversation we've just had, that one profession might have something to teach the practitioners of another?" She tsks softly at him. "My dear Captain, I draw from every source of use to me. You know you will do well to follow suit."

Alcibiades seems at a bit of a loss for what to do once Emmanuelle sits back down. She has, once again, succeeded in changing the power dynamic. The tall Rousse looks down at the Dowayne, considering for a moment. "You are absolutely correct, My Lady. I do recognize a mistress in her field." He offers a slight bow of acknowledgement. Glancing at his chair, he continues "May I sit, My Lady?"

He may gather from the cordial tone in which Emmanuelle grants permission, that he has spoken as correctly as any fellow might have done under the circumstances. "You may, if there is anything else you wish to ask me this evening." Though even in her magnanimity she keeps him on the spot, and demands as ever that he make himself interesting to her.

Alcibiades considers for a moment, clearly wondering if he does have another topic to keep Emmanuelle interested. The furrow in his brow will become, at this point, permanent.

"I… will be entirely honest, My Lady. I am drawing an utter blank. I could bore you with inanity, but I would rather not. Only — one thing does occur to me." Suddenly, Alcibiades' features grow more animated as a single thought does strike that empty head of his. "Would you care to have dinner aboard my ship one evening? With Isabelle and myself? And… perhaps Isabelle's friend Jehan-Pascal?"

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Composure: Great Success. (7 6 7 7 1 3 3 7 7 6 6 5 4 1)

Meanwhile Alcibiades still hasn't sat down — he daren't, perhaps, until the end of his present period of probation, during which Emmanuelle looks idly up at him with her fingers steepled in her lap and each black-lacquered talon shining.

"… Yes," she agrees at last, her mask of Shahrizai serenity giving him no hint of how alluring she might or might not find the proposed treat, "provided the evening is a convenient one." And the question of sitting or standing becomes a moot one, for Emmanuelle rises again and with a companionable hand upon the sailor's back guides him out of the chamber amidst a conversation of dates and times, arrangements, wounds and dinners and ships. The promised book is waiting where Emmanuelle casually assumes she'll find it, on a shelf in the trompe l'oeil lock, made up into a parcel to be carried safely. She is acerbic, yes, but not unkind as she sees Alcibiades Rousse off her premises and into the night.

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