(1310-11-10) In Spirit and Truth
Summary: The Lady of Marsilikos and her Shahrizai half-sister discuss family matters, in the privacy of the Maison Sanglante.
RL Date: 11/11/2018 - 20/11/2018
Related: Follows on from Miles To Go Before One Sleeps.
emmanuelle armandine 

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.

… And when those secret councils draw to a close within the recesses of the Maison Sanglante — when just favours have been granted and true hopes expressed, the business of the duchy of Eisande and its foreign policy conducted in unexampled comfort and security — Armandine Mereliot is escorted into another, more tenanted portion of the house, to inspect her newest great-niece: the Lady Léonie Emmanuelle Shahrizai, four weeks old today.

Dorimène Shahrizai nó Cereus has only lately been allowed out of bed by her midwife, who happens also to be the proud grandparent standing sentinel next to the chaise-longue where mother and child together receive their visitor. The resemblance between their three generations is acute: the pallor, the blue veins beneath their skin and the cooler blue of their eyes, the dark hair present already even upon the baby’s overlarge head. Dorimène is if anything slighter and more finely-boned than her mother, by her nature as ideal an exemplar of the canon of Cereus House as Emmanuelle has created herself an exemplar of Mandrake. She is two-and-twenty, and looks hardly old enough or strong enough to have carried such a healthy child.

There are duchesses for whom Emmanuelle would dress up, but her sister isn’t one. In her own house, amongst her closest kin, she’s dressed casually in smoke-blue silk shirtsleeves, a black silk cravat, and a comfortable old pair of black leather breeches. Her thick blue-black hair is as Armandine has never seen it, brushed straight back from her face and into a tail no more than three inches long and bound with a leather thong — thus revealing the mendacity of those complex braided hairpieces she affects. On her feet are a pair of black velvet slippers with curled-up toes, which do nothing to disguise her modest height of five feet and five inches. Only her face is as usual: her wide and flawlessly-drawn red mouth, the shadowing of kohl that heightens the hue of her eyes. Yet without the trappings of wealth, authority, her severe Mandragian style, she has still the posture and the coolness of command, and that aura of concentrated personality which marks her as a force to be reckoned with.

Lord Victor Delaunay is present and virtually trips over his own feet in his eagerness to make himself agreeable to his consort’s elder relatives, to attend their wishes and serve them refreshments with his own hands. All is said that ought to be said — the child’s beauty duly declared, and a fine future prophesied for her here in Marsilikos, her family’s home by blood and adoption both — Dorimène is reserved and quietly gracious, while Emmanuelle is on her best behaviour, charming to all as only a veteran courtesan can be when she exerts herself. Still, when the baby is sleeping again and Emmanuelle has extricated Armandine from the young parents and guided her away into another, more private chamber — leaving the Cassiline outside after he’s inspected it according to his duty — she states positively the end of the thought that has preoccupied her all the way here: “I don’t care for that young man.”

But when has she ever voiced approval of a suitor or a spouse to any woman of her family? Never, that’s when, because never have her kinswomen’s qualities been matched.

The place chosen for what private talk Armandine can afford, is Emmanuelle’s dressing-room: a rectangular chamber lined on one side with shuttered windows overlooking her private courtyard, above a long purple-cushioned seat, and on the other side with an array of built-in floor-to-ceiling cabinets behind doors inlaid in intricate intarsia. Each door features a scene of courtly or NIght Courtly dalliance, not all Mandragian in nature: a sharp eye that lingered upon them might note that, amidst all those various combinations, there isn’t a single instance of a man and a woman alone together in the ordinary garments of their genders.

Servants’ hands have kept the fire stoked in Emmanuelle’s absence, and arranged near it a table, a chair, fine wine, and a favoured childhood snack brought fresh from the marketplace.

The former Dowayne of Mandrake House seats the present sovereign duchesse of Eisande on that long purple bench, where if she glances out the windows at her back she’ll see a statue of Eisheth set in an arched niche, spilling water from her hands into a lily-pond at her feet.

The Duchesse of Eisande has chosen a comparatively modest attire for today’s visit. Of course, the dark blue fabric of the dress is of exquisite quality, but then again, such would be expected. Details are more subtle, embroideries of similar hue, only visible to those that would stand or sit with her. It seems, Armandine has left her title in the chamber where she had conferred with Isabelle de Valais and Alcibiades Rousse. Of course, she was eager to see her new grandniece, to take that adorable Léonie Shahrizai up and hold her on her arm for a moment whilst sharing praises of the healthy complexion and the weight of the little one. Congratulations had been offered to both Dorimène and the father, Victor de Baphinol, and yet, when Emmanuelle finally elected to ‘abduct’ her half-sister to another chamber, Armandine did hardly object.

A moment she takes to inspect the room and admire the intarsia work of the cabinets, a gentle handwave in her Cassiline’s direction dismissing him, which leaves her alone with Emmanuelle in the chamber once the door closes behind him. “He looked a tad nervous,” Armandine comments on the young father, “but I suspect that was due to your presence, Emmanuelle.” An observation that seems to cause her some faint amusement. Grey-blue eyes lift to regard her kin that is so different to her both in looks and general aura. And yet, the ties of blood are undeniable. “I have been meaning to speak with you… I blame it on my exceedingly busy schedule that I haven’t managed to visit you before.” A warm smile curves her lips. “Thank you, for being so considerate, to offer your chambers for that meeting with Lady Isabelle de Valais and her friend.”

“… Ah, yes,” chuckles Emmanuelle, “the redoubtable Alcibiades Rousse, who under Isabelle’s guidance — or so I assume — has been for some short while now inveigling himself into my life. How did he strike you?” she inquires forthrightly, as she pours good red Eisandine wine into one glass only of the pair and presents it to her sister. For herself she only flips the sole chair around and sits down astride it with her arms folded across its laddered back.

“I have been patching him up here and there,” she confides, “as an offering to Eisheth and to you, given the intentions they both expressed. I can’t speak to his sentiments where you’re concerned, but I do believe he serves Isabelle with a glad heart, as far as she permits. And if she serves you truly — that rather ties up the loose ends, doesn’t it?” She cants her head of unexpectedly shortened hair to one side, and adds, “I hope you like the house, given how much of it has been funded by the pension you’re still paying my father. You know that anything we can do here to aid you in the monumental task you’ve inherited, will be done,” she says seriously. “You know I haven’t altered in my sentiments, nor shall I.” And that steady, sincere, unwavering tone in her voice — that tone which curls up the toes of certain patrons of Mandrake House who collapse into her care — can only reassure her nearest kin.

Then she falls silent, a bottomless dark well awaiting Armandine’s confidences.

The mention of Alcibiades brings a smile to Armandine’s face, a somewhat amused curving of lips that goes along with a warm glimmer in her grey-green eyes. “He is…” She looks towards Emmanuelle, the half-sister that is her opposite in so many things — yet still a sister, “absolutely endearing…” The smile turns into a grin and she chuckles. “So dutiful, and that loyalty. He seems to be quite… glad. Yes that is a good way to put it. But I suppose, his happiness was also caused by another fact, that I helped him a little by granting him the right to hunt pirates with his new ship, the Myrmidon.

Then, there is a pause, and an ominous look towards Emmanuelle, as if Armandine considered indeed how much to share with her.

And as if in some old ritual of reassurance, Armandine reaches for Emmanuelle’s hand, lacing her fingers with hers, as her gaze never leaves the eyes of her Shahrizai half-sister. “House Mereliot,” the duchesse says in a low murmur, as if conjuring the name of their origin would remind the former Mandrake of blood ties and loyalties, Emmanuelle already had assured her of.

And then, with a soft sigh, Armandine begins to spill some of the matter. “I believe there is some trouble brewing in Kusheth…”

House Mereliot.

Long ago, before any expectant patron ever quivered beneath the lash of Emmanuelle nó Mandrake in Elua or Emmanuelle nó Rose Sauvage in Marsilikos — before even Emmanuelle Shahrizai was a personage to be remarked upon, admired, avoided or feared — there lived in the Dome of the Lady a little girl called Emmanuelle Mereliot, who despite the fights she got into with stable boys twice her size, the bones she broke (other people’s), the windows shattered with her fists (sometimes, yes, her own), and that prodigiously knowing and scathing tongue in her head, loved her mother absolutely and her sisters too.

In the present day that same Emmanuelle reaches out an instant after Armandine, and takes both her sister’s hands into her own and twines their fingers together. "In Spirit and Truth," she answers softly. The ancient motto of the house in which she was raised — the house resting in her sister's hands, held for now in the firm and unwavering pressure of her own. Her gaze is every bit as steady. She never falters, never blinks, never retreats. The skinny little tomboy has long since become a creature elegant, self-disciplined, cool: but she retains the same intensity, that quality of being too vast in herself to fit comfortably within any chamber’s confines.

"… I cannot say I am surprised," she murmurs, shrugging one silk-shirted shoulder. "People tell me things, sometimes even deliberately. Isabelle for instance consulted me several days ago regarding suspicions that a certain death was unnatural. I agreed to review what evidence she can still collect for me at this late date, and to do a little research of my own into the causes of such symptoms — I assumed that must ultimately be for you," she drawls, “though I am ignorant yet of how it is that this trouble in Kusheth should so deeply concern Eisande.”

Then, in defiance of her own deep instinct to follow the scent of an enigma, to delve and to pry and to make other people’s secrets her own, she simply inquires: "What else do you need?"

Empathy, a sense of things that are beyond of what meets the eye is a trait attributed to those that have Eisheth’s blood flowing in their veins. In Armandine’s case, her gaze seems to grow in intensity, that smile deepening a little as she regards her half-sister. Of course, she remembers days of old, where her own place and disposition was so different from Emmanuelle’s even back then. Born and raised to become the next Lady of Marsilikos, blessing and curse, as she grew up under the constant vigil of Cassilines, to receive long lessons from renowned tutors in matters of province and state. Little time had been there to enjoy the leisure of children’s games, and yet she had savored these rare moments, and learned that bonds of blood might even breach differences that would look so difficult to overcome at first glance.

A brow is raised, and Armandine’s smile shifts into a curious expression somewhere between faint amusement and light concern, when Emmanuelle mentions Isabelle. “I can imagine whose death it is she wishes to consult with you on, as you are right in your assumptions, about that at least. The matter…”, and here Armandine pauses to clear her throat, which immediately makes her tone shift a little from sisterly to a more businesslike quality. “The matter affects Eisande inasmuch, as a dear friend of mine has come to me, in search of sanctuary. She has reason to believe that…” Again there is a pause as Armandine bites her lip, and in seeking eye contact with Emmanuelle continues, “that the current Duc of Kusheth might wish her ill, for reasons we are currently investigating.” No prodding is needed, when the duchesse elects to share at least some of the enigma, or at least, to enhance it a little by throwing out some tidbits of information.

Among this generation of Mereliots Eisheth’s empathy conduces not only to the making of a wise and sensitive duchesse, a true mother to the people of Eisande, but to the refining of a courtesan into one of Naamah’s most true-sighted and compassionate servants. And Emmanuelle is that — was? Is still? Does any d’Angeline truly close her ears to Naamah’s call? — for all her canon may be regarded by uninitiates as severe to the point of pitilessness. Alone with Armandine, devoting at last this time to the conversation which duties, formalised pleasures, the exigencies of houseguests and retainers and relations on both sides of their family tree, have kept them from in the weeks since her own return to Marsilikos, the city of their long-ago shared youth and, perhaps, if the Companions favour it, their shared middle years — alone, with the sister she has for so long loved and admired chiefly from afar — Emmanuelle’s eyes are limpid blue diamonds and her hands soft but strong, her head inclined toward this duchesse so familiar but yet so unknown, her attention absolute and her courtesan’s charm not precisely set aside but harnessed in the expression of sincere interest, affection, and concern.

“I have heard your visitor spoken of in the palace, but in truth I know little of her other than that she’s yours — Morhbans came to me in Elua,” she elucidates, “less frequently than any of my other Kusheline connexions… Is she an old friend, then,” and she interjects a teasing note such as might be heard between any pair of sisters, “or do you mean what I usually mean when I refer to ‘an old friend’?” … Because that, of course, would alter the matter.

“An old friend,” Armandine confirms with the flicker of a smile. “It is Charlène Morhban de Fhirze, daughter of the late Duc of Kusheth.” She straightens a little on the purple bench Emmanuelle had seated her upon, and her grey-blue eyes hold the gaze of the half-sister even if they crinkle slightly at the corners, from a smile both kind and faintly apologetic. “We met during the festivities held in honor of the marriage of Desarae’s mother and Armand…” At which the warm expression is doomed to fade into a more thoughtful cast. “And I believe, we have been good friends after that. Charlène is very much a curiosity, in that she has spent more time outside of Kusheth than within. She was married off to the Fhirze heir when she was still very young — a good match that strengthened the bonds between Kusheth and Namarre.”

Which might answer at least part of the question. There is a pause though, as Armandine considers Emmanuelle, and a few upper teeth dig lightly into a bottom lip. “I am aware that Edouard did not approve of Monique marrying a Morhban back then, as would be natural for a man of Shahrizai blood. But he was just a consort.” Again, her lips curve faintly. “And our mother was as so often, firm in her decisions and hardly to be swayed, as you certainly will remember. I, for my part, have maintained good relations with House Morhban. So far.”

Just a consort. But that blunt speech, that relegation of a man oathbound in love before Elua’s altar to insignificance in matters of the Mereliot dynasty, doesn’t seem to offend his daughter — who recalls very well the times when Auguste Trevalion de Mereliot was likewise just a husband. Emmanuelle, who has never taken either, has nothing but admiration for that stubborn independence of thought and deed maintained by the late duchesse even enmeshed in intimate relations with both. And she is the last woman alive who’d challenge another woman’s right to make the dispositions she believes wisest for her children’s future.

“… Though now,” she diagnoses with her usual precise touch, “your soundest reason for guarding the tranquility between Eisande and Kusheth and leaving the Morhbans to find their own damnation, lies interred in a crypt at Chavaise.”

She pauses to adjust the angle of her scalpel. “The bonds,” she muses, “between Kusheth and Namarre seem in no imminent danger of breaking. A Morhban woman in House Fhirze, a Shahrizai duchesse for House L’Envers… and now the deposed L’Envers heir,” she confides in case Armandine hasn’t heard this one, “contemplating matrimony with a courtesan of Shahrizai lineage. I pointed out to him what a pointless and bloody foolish exercise that would be,” she adds offhandedly, tapping black-lacquered fingernails on the edge of the table, “at least if he wishes ever to regain his place — but in speaking so I could not but reflect upon the similar tendency carried in our own blood.” She lifts one wry corner of her mouth. “Our mother. Monique. Desarae. And I, the other side of the coin.”

But in speaking their niece’s name amusement has already faded. With one hand still clasped warmly in her sister’s Emmanuelle tastes her wine; and then, meeting Armandine’s eyes once more with a new solemnity in her own, she suggests: “Tell me about Desarae.”

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