(1310-11-11) Her Craven Heart
Summary: Putting her affairs in order ahead of a dangerous mission to Kusheth, Isabelle calls upon her old mentor with a gift.
RL Date: 11/11/2018 - 11/15/2018
Related: A companion piece to His Bare Wounds. Also refers to The Chirurgeon Is In and Miles To Go Before One Sleeps.
emmanuelle isabelle 

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.

As a visitor both privileged and expected Isabelle Valais arrives at the Maison Sanglante early in the evening to find Baltasar Shahrizai already in the foyer awaiting her. He receives her bowing low and conducts her with swift courtesy through another set of dark corridors, some newly learned during the course of her secret rendezvous yesterday within these walls and others, as seems ever the case, unknown and of faintly ominous aspect.

They emerge at length from a rabbit-warren of passages and narrow stairs and antechambers lacking any window through which one might orient oneself to the outside world, into the middle of what might be mistaken for an unusually well-read ruby.

Between an elaborate ceiling paneled in oak and something fine and dark red summoned from Khebbel-im-Akkad to fit the floor to a nicety, this chamber is lined to shoulder-height with glass-fronted oaken cabinets containing a monarch's ransom in books. Different bindings, different tongues, different ages… Scrolls have their places too behind the protection of beveled glass; and bundles of manuscript pages, tied up with red ribbons. Higher up the walls are covered in silk in pigeon's blood hues, elaborately woven, red upon red.

The furnishings are few and large and upholstered in red velvet. Several chairs, a sofa. A heavy oak desk sparsely appointed with a silver inkwell, quills, and a carved bookstand, anchors the room opposite a still more monumental oak-framed hearth, above which there hangs a double portrait in oils of the late Lady of Marsilikos and her consort Edouard Shahrizai.

Beneath it, in a high-backed chair drawn up close to the fire, sits the daughter of their love grown into a woman in whose physiognomy their traits exquisitely unite.

She is not alone. Sitting astride her lap and cuddled close against her, is a young girl dressed in a snow-white nightgown and a pale blue shawl of fine soft wool. Her shining dark hair is already in two short braids for the night, each tied off with a matching blue ribbon. A very young girl… no more than two and a half years of age, and already at this hour sleeping soundly. When her bed begins to move beneath her with the uncrossing of Emmanuelle's legs she half-wakes. Handed up into Baltasar's arms her piping soprano voices at first a question with overtones of protest: "Emmadame…?" But then she snuggles just as trustingly into her replacement Shahrizai, her head on his shoulder as he bears her away to some other chamber where she may rest uninterrupted by grown-up business. Lady Hélène Lucette Shahrizai knows no life in which she is not protected as a jewel by her relatives in this house.

Emmanuelle sets aside the slim green leather volume she was reading from by the fire's light, and rises. This evening she is attired with uncharacteristic casualness in slate-blue silk shirtsleeves and a pair of comfortable old black leather breeches, with a black cravat at her throat and not a jewel in sight. Her thick blue-black hair is as Isabelle 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 blue 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. She stands for a long moment with her feet solidly planted, her thumbs hooked into the waist of her breeches and her eyes following not Baltasar but the child in his arms, before the weight of her attention comes to rest upon Isabelle.

First of all, a quiet demand. "Show me your hands."

This is her third visit to this specific house in only a matter of days, its dark grandeur unexpectedly providing her which some much needed comfort and familiarity for the days to come. Isabelle Valais is an adaptable creature, able to mold herself to the needs of the moment at will; it has been a talent that is natural, inherent since she was but a girl, and molded and nurtured by not one, but a few mentors. But were she asked to answer honestly, the glaring truth is this: She has always been more comfortable in the shadows than in the light.

And there is plenty of that here, if not just due to umbral marble set with rich color schemes - sometimes purple, and sometimes red, shades that she, too, favors. There's an agreeable smile turned towards Baltasar as he shows her in, following the wake of Emmanuelle's trusted kinsman and servant, through hallways that are becoming increasingly familiar until she is brought to the former Dowayne's presence. She is dressed in that signature style of hers, masculine lines turned to the purpose of accentuating her femininity; a corset that cinches snugly over the taper of her waist and the flare of her hips, riding breeches that tuck into over-the-knee boots with those thin, dangerous heels, a tailored coat with large cuffs, today dyed a dove gray embroidered with intertwining designs of black and royal blue. Her hands are gloved, per her chirurgeon's instructions - anything to protect the process of healing that is occurring under soft kidskin.

Throughout her meeting with the Lady of Eisande just the day before, Isabelle had kept her gloves on, to mask her injuries from the one she serves - her concern had been palpable enough that it wasn't in her to worry the woman further. But there is no hiding it from Emmanuelle, not when she already knows.

She looks different today, she decides, though she keeps her thoughts to herself, watching the woman stand at her full height - not at all too imposing physically, but the sheer force of her presence radiates from her in waves, so palpable it is as if she can bend reality to her will. Sharp eyes, too, catch the little girl cuddled on her former mentor, before she is eventually carried away by Baltasar, making note of her age and her coloring, features that inform her, without any additional confirmation, that she is Emmanuelle's kin.

There's a quiet, twisting stab from somewhere within, at that brief glimpse of rare, effortless maternity, and one that she quashes down with an unforgiving internal boot. "Madame," she greets; her smile is a ready one - it always is. "As promised I've come to see you before venturing off to Kusheth sometime in the near future…I can't guarantee my return to Marsilikos for a few weeks after that, as your sister expects me in the royal capital straight away after my business there is concluded."

Her demand is answered to with unhesitating swiftness, her gloves pulled off and moving towards the mistress of the house. Her hands are well on the mend, once placed upon palms much whiter than her own.

"… Then perhaps," suggests Emmanuelle, drawing Isabelle along with her nearer to the fire and the candelabra next to her chair, and moving the young woman's hands further into the light, "we shall meet in the capital, if you are to wait upon my sister there." Satisfied with what she sees in Isabelle's hands she looks up into her eyes, her own dangerously incisive. "Kusheth in this season," she muses aloud, "will be harsh beyond even its usual nature."

Isabelle follows, letting herself be led by the hands until the glow of the room fully encompasses them. The welts have receded at the very least, and the strips that have been torn off the upper layers of her epidermis are patched with the paler pink of new skin. There's a faint grimace once Isabelle actually takes a very good look at the state of them, taking the blow straight into the unforgiving straits of her incorrigible vanity - but it couldn't be helped. Sacrifices have been necessary, and there is little true remorse in her.

…well, there is some. Just a little.

That blue diamond gaze lifted to pierce into the warmer tones of her own, the line of her mouth takes on a more rueful cast. "I hope that in my case, its severity could be somewhat mitigated. My endeavors there require more delicacy than what had happened with myself and Captain Rousse in the waters off the coast of Kriti." After a moment of watching the elegantly austere features before her, she continues: "I hope to be able to make it to Elua intact to be able to meet with you and your esteemed sister. Her Grace is always a benevolent creature to express her concerns for my safety under the terms of hope, but I can't help but treat it as a demand and something to which I must adhere."

"Your instinct there is correct." Still retaining Isabelle's hands in her own Emmanuelle brushes the pad of her thumb delicately over the line of a well-healed welt, as though even in retrospect there's something to savour in the suffering it represents to her educated eye. "My sister may clothe her beauty in fine gowns and her demands in fine courtesies, but she and I are not wholly unalike," she observes distantly, and then releases her. "Take off your coat."

This latest demand issued — in her own style, and not Armandine's! — the younger of those two formidable sisters lowers herself again into her red-upholstered chair and takes up from the table at her elbow a half-empty glass of something coloured a deeper red.

"I suppose there are characteristics that tend to be shared between close relations," Isabelle allows.

Thus released, the younger lady unbuttons her coat, which she slips off her shoulders, to fold carefully and then leave it resting on the nearest, convenient flat surface. Underneath is a silk blouse, the cut of it favoring her modest and elegant style, the neckline banding tight over the shoulders and leaving the tops of them bared to the air, her lack of a collar compensated for by a cage wrought of ribbons that match those that have gathered her sleeves to just above her elbows. From within the pockets of her coat, however, she withdraws a long, flat black box, adorned with nothing else but a single length of ribbon dyed a rich violet.

To where Emmanuelle has situated herself, she presents the gift with both hands.

"I hadn't known until my last visit and the debut before that you were acquainted with Jehan-Pascal," she remarks. "I had wondered more than once whether I ought to consult with you about his affliction, but my concern that I may possibly be betraying his confidence stayed me." By the way she speaks, it is evident that she is not speaking of the Baphinol family ‘curse'.

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

Rather than accepting that elegant tribute Emmanuelle indicates by a slight gesture of her hand that Isabelle is welcome to offer it in the customary fashion, on her knees. (And with the fire's heat so close to her back, she will perhaps be grateful to have removed her coat…)

"Jehan-Pascal de Baphinol?" she inquires after a moment, as though there could be more than one Jehan-Pascal, as though they came in sets. The pause for thought betrays, unavoidably, that there was a thought. "I imagine that much before the evening you mention there was nothing for you to have known," she goes on, shrugging unconcernedly; "the young man and I have only lately become acquainted. I take it you refer to the dueling tendencies toward melancholy and mania, that often manifest in those of Baphinol blood—? Of that I do know something," she concedes. She cocks her head, that acute blue gaze intent upon Isabelle's face. "I understand that he is a close friend of yours, and has been for some while now?"

She sinks on her knees, as graceful as it could ever be, as if wearing a gown instead of breeches and lowering as if she were in the presence of His Majesty, himself. The box remains balanced in both hands upon the doing.

Isabelle's eyes tilt upwards in the shift in their positions, head tipped back slightly. "Precisely that," she replies. "I confess that I wasn't comfortable leaving Marsilikos for my overseas errand when his state of mind has been in flux since the summer tournament. After the archery competition, he simply…sank. I spent a few days in the suite adjacent to his in Les Tanières to ensure that…" Her jaw works, in an attempt to find the words. "…the black dog didn't consume him."

She falls quiet after a moment; the woman's inquiry is a sound one. "He is, a patron and acquaintance at first, but it has been months now since he has become one of the closest I have in the city." There's a hint of a smile. "A rare enough designation. You know very well that I do not have the tendency." To gravitate too close to others, though it does happen.

In her red velvet chair Emmanuelle sits wholly at her ease, upheld by cushions for a change instead of her own ramrod dignity, one foot planted close by and her other leather-breeched leg stretching out lazlly to complete the triangle of hearth and chair in which she now has Isabelle's kneeling figure penned in. One's legs need not be so very long for that: one need only apprehend when and how to deploy them… She sips, and returns her cut-crystal glass to its place next to her closed book, the spine of which is angled away from Isabelle's eyes. She takes hold of the offered gift in both hands, as formally as Isabelle presents it to her.

"I believe on the evening when we met, he was rising once more," she murmurs. "The cycles of it do tend to turn with the seasons, and more rapidly when spurred by any uncommon event, anything that stirs up strong feeling… Once in a while, Isabelle, I wonder whether you learned too much from me and too well. I am pleased to know that you do retain the instinct and the capacity for friendship, however seldom you may choose to exercise them." And, with a wry smile, she addresses herself to the untying of that ribbon in her favourite colour.

The gift retrieved, her hands drop to rest upon both her knees, her posture reminiscent of certain Eastern disciplines where it is customary to attend a powerful warlord just so, the curvature of her backside supported by her heels, her shoulders on an easy line. Isabelle's eyes remain on the former Dowayne's face, however, her alabaster pallor soaking up the richer colors of the nearby hearth, angles all the more pronounced by dancing shadows.

"I wonder myself, Madame, if there is such a thing as learning too much and too well, from someone," she replies after a thoughtful and quiet pause.

Her mind turning to her friend, she continues: "I saw him at luncheon the other day and he seems to have risen as well. It was relieving, as I'd worried for him while I was away. Not that anything could keep me from the charge your sister has given me, but Jehan-Pascal means enough to me that my apprehensions couldn't be tabled in full, as they usually can be. When mired in the work, it's disconcertingly easy…usually. Not this time. I wondered if there is much I can do, whenever the melancholy sets in, other than what I have already demonstrated. Even in the doing, it felt…" She furrows her brows. "…inadequate. But I've not the training you have in the care for others."

The ribbon unfurled, what finds the woman's striking stare is a set of five rings, from thumb to pinky and sized to fit. Wrought of white gold and of simple, masculine design, each is set with a single polished, dark violet amethyst. Underwhelming for a present, perhaps, until she plucks one up to examine more closely and turn close attention to the band where, upon the portion that rests flat underneath each finger, is a row of small, but sharp, spikes - the lengths of which are adjustable to a certain degree, by a twist on the gem setting - able to tease, cut, or pierce the skin of another whenever she sets that hand upon him or her, depending on the woman's mood.

A dangerous gift, and tricky, to be wielded by anyone with less training or dexterity. In Emmanuelle's masterful hand, however…?

With that manicure she knows so well how to wield Emmanuelle unties the bow and unpicks the knot; the ribbon, fetching as it is, she folds and places to one side upon the cover of her closed book. The purple and the green show to advantage together in the light of the heavy silver candelabra rising above them. Emmanuelle does know how to compose a tableau.

"You would like me," she translates aptly, "to keep a sharp eye," but has she any other kind, "upon this young man who has the distinction of being one of your very few friends, when you are absent from the city upon my sister's business." A beat. "As well as your Captain Rousse, and his wounds within and without." Another beat. "Isabelle, I quite understand why you've no use for a husband — what you require," she pronounces, crisp and acerbic, "is a wife."

On which note she opens the box and gazes, unreadably at first, at that quintet of rings. It is well-known to initiates of her company, or it ought to be, that she never bedizens her fine chirurgeon's hands with jewels. Still, she is in a mood to bestow enough courtesy upon Isabelle — Isabelle, this young lioness roused to the protection of Jehan-Pascal de Baphinol — that she plucks one ring from amongst its fellows, and makes all at once the discovery of the spikes. She intuits that they must, for safety's sake, be retractable. That thought leads her to the amethyst set into the ring's other side. In seconds she has the measure of her new toy, her new tool, all the possibilities inherent in this ingenious addition to her wardrobe for assignations.

It seems Isabelle Valais, too, tailors to fit.

After the manner of any woman admiring a new jewel, however casually masculine her posture and her attire, Emmanuelle extends her hand to arm's length and lets the firelight play upon her hand: the amethyst on one side, the spikes half-extended on the other. Then her gaze flicks abruptly to meet Isabelle's, and with two fingertips she lifts the young woman's chin as she studies her. The spikes are, in that moment, very near to Isabelle's face.

"I wonder what you truly come seeking," she drawls, "with such a fine patron gift."

What you require is a wife.

She would laugh, if she wasn't situated so close. "I never thought of it that way before," she manages. And that is honest.

She has been under the care and tutelage of this formidable woman, on and off, from the time that she was sixteen years of age. A woman now grown, and more than well acquainted with this world's darknesses, Isabelle Valais knows better than to hide from the piercing scrutiny of Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai.

There's no trace of fear - the shadows that keep her sleepless have grown beyond the things that could physically harm her and in this house, she knows that there is no real danger, well familiar as she is that the former Dowayne of Mont Nuit's Mandrakes was the queen of her side of the mountain for many reasons, not the least of these because she is more nuanced, and complicated, than any Thorn alive. She does not break anyone - to assume she does is to misunderstand her on a basic degree. The points don't quite graze her skin; her eyes remain on those brilliant diamond blues.

What does she come seeking, with such a gift?

"Nothing," she says finally, quietly.

After a beat, she clarifies:

"Words generally fail me in the subjects you've interpreted so eloquently for me just moments before," she continues. "Emotions are something I struggle to express - in my case, passion is a blessing, when I can harness and control it." Most evident in the work she performs in both halves of her life. "And when I try to explore them, verbally, at least, it feels insufficient also…as if I'm not equipped for it. I'm more comprehensible, I think, in doing rather than saying. In gestures, in gifts, rather than letters. I doubt that I could ever adequately communicate to Jehan-Pascal the extent of my worries, and I can't…even begin to start dissecting the strings that bind me to Cib. Or my appreciation towards you, also, for everything that you have taught me, everything that you have molded me to endure. I survive, I succeed, out there, in no small part because of you."

She hesitates - her struggle is visible, if not just because Isabelle is not prone to hesitating, either, but even that doesn't last.

"I have come closer to the strains of my own mortality in the last few weeks than I have in years," she says softly. "I suppose I would like to make these gestures, and continue to demonstrate what I have become under your guidance, while I still can."

"Though in retrospect…" Her old humor returns, hinted upon her mouth. "…maybe that isn't seeking nothing."


Which disclaimer Emmanuelle answers by offering such a dubious crooked-mouthed expression, such a well of silence into which Isabelle might however haltingly pour those sentiments over which she so often labours in vain, that perhaps it's no wonder the shape of them reveals itself word by word, beneath her patient gaze.

"I accept your gifts," she enunciates, in one of those firm, reassuring tones of voice known to curl the toes of those patrons most enamoured of her steady and inexorable nature. She speaks not only of the rings in that box she holds resting upon her thigh, but the rare and heartfelt confidences which add an extra lustre to the amethysts, an extra gleam to the gold. Her soft fingertips and curved nails offer a gentle caress beneath Isabelle's chin and along the line of her jaw, as one might stroke a well-behaved kitten drawn similarly to the warmth of the hearth and the scent of a favoured human protector. Then she turns her hand palm-down and holds it between them and orders softly, "Put the rest on for me, and adjust them as you prefer."

Whilst Isabelle occupies herself thus, Emmanuelle muses aloud.

"Such gifts as I've lately received from you and your Rousse customarily betoken a desire to endure their use; but he, he doesn't know what he wants," she judges drily, "and you, I do detect, have forsaken oysters for snails… The strings, of course, I saw — a web woven back and forth between you by every look, every word, every justification you offered of his sentiments and his actions and every flame of jealousy in his eyes when I touched you. What was that correction he offered me—?" She pauses, the tip of her tongue just visible tasting her lower lip and the memory both. "He does not seek to own you," she repeats, "for you own him."

At that the Mandrake must laugh and she does, the music of it low and husky and not a little bit cynical. And then she tilts her head of unexpectedly short blue-dark hair and inquires of Isabelle: "Does he truly believe there's a practical difference in it, either way?"

Her Rousse.

The last few weeks have left her adrift in a strange galaxy where nothing is certain and where air is scarce, the appellation Emmanuelle chooses to use only heaps onto the pile of her own apprehensions. There are so many alien angles in which she has to get accustomed, and can't help but wonder whether she is capable. Still, whatever doubts there are do not make it through Isabelle's expression as she carefully takes that white hand, those dexterous chirurgeon's fingers, and reaches for a second ring. The pinky first, this she slips through with a deft, graceful touch. The spikes are left retracted, for now.

"As far as desires go, his wants are relatively straightforward," Isabelle replies. "But he is a man not prone to introspection, and it may very well be that he does know, but is too ineloquent and somewhat inelegant by nature to convey them with any clarity, especially when caught in the intent to be courteous and polite. That is true from my perspective, at least."

She picks up another ring, for the fourth digit, and slips it on Emmanuelle with the same great care as she has demonstrated with the first. "I believe that he does truly believe there's a practical difference," she tells her. "But again, I think this is the case because he isn't the sort to self-reflect, and tends to answer inquiries out of instinct. It guarantees his honesty in such matters, but the answers themselves may not be fully formed because of it."

The index next. She inspects the gem, and shifts her attention, but only so she could buff its surface with the soft silk of her sleeve, before placing it upon the former Dowayne's finger. "I think it's more accurate to say that he belongs with me, not to me, and I with him. And I suppose it must be true because…" And here, the curve of her mouth turns wry. "I've already tried to get away from him and everything he means to me once before. To spare him from my own inadequacies when it comes to such matters, and in no small part due to the fact that I wanted to save myself from…" She can't even describe it, how messy it feels. "…it. All of it."

The last ring, for the thumb. This, she eases onto her digit as well.

"But I do love him, Madame," she says at last, pitched so lowly it might as well be a confession offered to Kushiel, himself. "I just don't know what to do about it half the time."

Emmanuelle chose her left hand to wear her new rings, and placed the first of them herself upon her middle finger — now, she adds the shut and empty box to the collection of evocative objects on the table beside her chair, and with that self-same beringed hand begins to enact the ritual of the loosening of Isabelle's shining dark hair. Pins rain down upon the carpet before the library's great fireplace of dark stone and seasoned oak. Braids are tugged ungently loose. The harsh sensuality of her touch, every pull and every caress, as familiar as the scent of her clean skin beneath her cologne and that ever-present whiff of well-seasoned leather.

"Love as thou wilt," she observes as she works. "A simple precept; and yet what complications we d'Angelines are heir to, even when our own will is clear to us… My love," she offers in arid amusement, "is likewise the kind of blessing I don't always choose to inflict upon the innocent. But sometimes one cannot save those who do not desire their own salvation." She pauses. "It seems to me that before your Rousse began to tie his strings and to make you responsible for his heart, you were already taking that responsibility onto yourself, by choosing for him a future in which you felt he would suffer less harm… as well as you yourself less mess."

Love as thou wilt. She finds no shortage of irony there, the concept that she has dedicated her life to - to protect and defend their way of life in Terre d'Ange - is one that she is reluctant to engage in herself. If anything, Cassilines are more honest than she is on that front.

There is once again no protest, accustomed to this treatment and one that is signature to them, when pins fall in a glittering array, cascading and discarded like forgotten stars over Emmanuelle's luxurious carpet. One by one, every careful coil and tress is unfurled by those demanding fingers, white against dark, until each lustrous wave hangs free, spilling over her shoulders and back in inky torrents. She never leaves her hair down - there is a purpose there also - and she has never asked why she does this every time they see each other, but these small rituals are familiar, and even missed. Firelight catches hints of stray gold, also, hidden now and then underneath the midnight mass.

That is an insight that she has never considered before, what the former Dowayne proposes, though she is more surprised that she is offering something rare of hers in turn. She has never spoken of love in relation to herself, though Isabelle has never doubted that she is capable of it. One would only have to watch her for those few seconds with her grandchild to know this. She would easily find her astonishment in those gold-flecked eyes - though easy, in this case, is relative and highly dependent on the other…and Emmanuelle knows her very well. What is clear for her to see is not so visible to others.

"I would be the last person to deny that it was purely out of selfishness that I chose to run," she offers. Admission of her failings, and keeping an accurate accounting of them, is yet another thing that she faces directly. "A thing I do, when I feel like I am in actual danger."

She pauses, but after a heartbeat: "I'd like to say I've grown more courageous on that front. But I have not. Though considering the state of things, it may be as you say that it might've been too late from the start."

That widening of Isabelle's eyes is something so discreet — yet to one concentrating such profound and unwavering attention upon her, it's akin to the flourish of a spangled flag.

"I have surprised you," observes Emmanuelle, who by means of a small and predatory smile acknowledges her enjoyment of the effect. The art of it — the words chosen with care to provoke just the reaction she wished — and then the reaction itself, completing the circle.

"I do," she drawls, "know something about love, my dear. From what you have shown me so far, you and your Rousse both, I should counsel…" But then she doesn't. Her beringed fingers, twined through the dark locks of Isabelle's hair, twist gently as she speaks — then less so. "How long can you stay, this evening?" she inquires frankly of the young woman kneeling at her feet. "I hardly know whether to offer you a light supper, a beating, or an escort to the door."

Like silk ribbons, Isabelle's hair twists easily, slips between alabaster digits when grasped loosely, and glistens when coiled tighter within one's grasp. The predatory smile is one that causes her heart to drum against her bones - instinctive, for she has not survived so long in a dangerous profession without some well-honed attitudes towards self-preservation. And actual surprise from the woman kneeling before the former Dowayne, as she knows, is also something rare.

"I know you're not incapable of it, Madame," she replies. "To be as empathic as you are is to be intimately aware of the broad spectrum of human emotion, and such awareness, I think, comes only from experience. Being controlled is an entirely different state of existence from being cold or unfeeling. My surprise comes from the fact that….I've never heard of you speak of it before, in relation to yourself." And they have known one another for years.

When asked of her schedule, there's a blink. "I've a few hours yet," she replies. "My staff can do without me for that long. It'd certainly be something if the business can't stand on its own for an evening without my presence."

Rarity exchanged, then, for rarity.

The older woman's hand tightens in the younger's hair, twisting those inky tendrils about her fingers past pleasure and to the very point of pain. No more by chance than any other sensation it might amuse her to offer to a beautiful creature encountered in her library. The cast of her features grows again more hawkish in the firelight playing upon the considering curve of her mouth, that nose slightly too large for her face, her hooded Shahrizai eyes.

"Then I shall keep you with me a while," she decides, after which it's too late for Isabelle to plead another engagement, no matter what she might glimpse in those chilly eyes as they study her own, "and we shall discuss… emotion, and its expression."

That exquisite fist grips her tight and holds her fast, roots tugging tight from her scalp, but never actually dislodging these midnight follicles from where they're attached. It is a nuance that most people miss when under Emmanuelle's cruel spell, but the years have made her all the more perceptive to these details often lost when meeting the sharp blue irises that hover above her darker own. That unbelievable control is present even in this, and there is appreciation there at the effortless demonstration of something that Isabelle knows she will never master. Not on this level. There are parts of her that are simply make her incapable, which leaves her all the more curious about, and even in awe of, the people who are.

Her eyes are hooded, her head tilted backwards, forced to meet that stare with her own. It bares the hollow of her throat from under her separated collar - submission of a kind, when it exposes something so viscerally vulnerable and bared to the light of the fireplace, how that satin niche concaves at every breath, hinting at the delicate, pulsing line where that life-giving vein threads down to her heart.

"I know it's a failing," she tells Emmanuelle. "That I find it difficult, or that I do so poorly at it. Truthfully, I never thought I'd be in such a position. Not just with Cib…with Jehan-Pascal also, who I can't help but marvel at sometimes given his talent for poetry." The very process in which emotions are transformed into words, an ability that she has admitted to be so lacking. "It's simply easier for me to show whatever affection I'm capable of in other ways, or if I can't, easier for me to drown them in something else. It's avoidance, I know…and it's cowardly, to continuously run from myself this way."

She falls silent, but only for a heartbeat, before: "You mentioned that you know something of love. May I inquire as to what you meant?"

The predator at rest in her velvet throne luxuriates in these confessions, voiced (she rather imagines) for the first time, in all the rawness of an unfamiliar register… So much more than the hollow of a golden throat is bare, thus, to her discerning eye, to her more than metaphorical claws. Failings. Naïvetés. Evasions. Moments of cowardice. Sins of omission.

She nods and nods again, slowly, encouraging the young woman in her grasp to unburden herself; she evinces neither tenderness not surprise, at any of it. She simply gathers these unflattering truths into herself, to repose safely in the company of countless others.

"Perhaps, Isabelle," she murmurs distantly, "you have not had the leisure to dwell upon those older legends of Kushiel which antedate the Eluine Cycle. It is a commonplace amongst the Night Court and its patrons that chastisement is an act of love, and that the sinners in Kushiel's care came so to love him that they refused the opportunity to repent and be released from their suffering. What we speak of less often, is what the Yeshuites considered to be the Punisher's own sin: loving his sinners too much, loving them with a fervour which answered and surpassed their own and exceeded all comprehension but that of Blessed Elua himself."

She smiles wryly down at the kneeling Isabelle. "You seemed at first to consider the word ‘love' unlikely upon my lips, whereas the truth is that I have never received a patron whom I was not prepared to love, for the length of an assignation. Those who accept the greatest pain for love of me, pain far beyond the merely pleasurable, are the patrons I've loved most of all. The truth of that legend, I have known proven many times… Though not," she states with incisive mildness, "with you. You have never shown me that you possess the gift of giving yourself in love."

It's true, she has not. Perhaps it's not surprising to learn that back in her youth, Isabelle had proven herself to be a poor student, not inclined to apply herself academically unless it was a subject that truly interested her, or one that she deems a necessity to learn - the curse, as it happens, of any prodigy in a specific discipline. She is familiar with the tenets of the d'Angeline religion, but certainly not other works that require a deeper level of understanding and introspection, though now that she is reminded, she recalls something similar in other readings. But she is not a servant of Naamah - a former Dowayne would, of course, be more knowledgeable than her of the subject.

"Not wholly unlikely," Isabelle replies after a pause. "Just unlikely to be spoken around me. It wasn't something I expected…we normally converse about other things." Certainly nothing so personal before, however, and she is still wrestling with how she feels about it, whether it is impulse that spurs her or the desire to be understood in the event that the worst happens…perhaps both.

You have never shown me that you possess the gift of giving yourself in love.

"I thought perhaps," she continues. "That it might be because I originally hadn't sought you out to give love, or to be loved through the act of submitting myself, but to learn how to endure punishment in a way that I may retain some clarity of thought, in the event…the worst aspects of my other life catch up with me." Everyone breaks, with enough pain - the aim had been to educate herself as to where that point is and to keep a mind enough to act once an opening is presented. "That and I was always an inherently selfish creature…not that the desire to give isn't there, but…truthfully I don't know where it comes from. The fear of doing so."

"That was not a criticism of you, Isabelle," corrects Emmanuelle from above, with another warning pull upon the hair twined about her hand; "not precisely," she allows. "It was a statement of how matters stand between us," she goes on, her tone gentler than her touch but no less calculated or considered. "You enjoy rough usage, but you are no true algolagniac; I can make you submit yourself to me, but you are no true submissive. Thus my distaste at hearing you speak of yourself as a favourite of mine that evening in your office," she reminds the younger woman in a fastidious low drawl which conjures up her coldness on that occasion. "You are constitutionally unsuited to such a title, however much your competitive nature may smart to hear me acknowledge aloud that you fall short in any measure of excellence."

Her lash having landed so precisely upon Isabelle's vanity, she goes on in the same calmly devastating vein. "As you say, you came to me seeking not love but knowledge — and that you found, for I am accustomed to serving different needs in my patrons. The other was present, during our time together, though with your focus so intently inward upon yourself — Isabelle's thirst for experience, Isabelle's needs, Isabelle's ambitions — you could not see it. That is why there is so much you don't know of me," she explains quietly, "much, indeed, that you will never know. Of course you're hardly alone."

The warning pull has Isabelle's head tilting further at the woman's whims, though she manages to meet her eyes still. Lips part and her collar breaks open all the more to make room for the angle her throat makes against it. But her stare is alert and intelligent - her attention has not once diverted from Emmanuelle almost since the moment she has entered this room, but the shift of her vantage point has her gaze brushing upwards, towards the portrait of the late Lady of Eisande and her Shahrizai consort hanging past Emmanuelle's head, and situated slightly above them.

The healer and the punisher. Eisandine and Kusheline. Signature traits present in their offspring that has her presently caged by her fingers.

"My nature makes true submission difficult," the young lady remarks quietly. "And the longer I engage myself with my undertakings, I've found that I should not and cannot be, some of the reasons I've already imparted to you the night in my office. And I am as you say competitive, and your assessments as to why I could never excel in such regard - your regard - does cut deeply…because it is true, and accurate, and it comes from you, specifically. But unlike all the other punishments you have taught me to endure, that particular one is pre-existing…I have long since learned to endure that," taught by someone else entirely, and that she does not say, "and keep moving, Madame."

Rarity for rarity, honesty for honesty.

"I'm charged to uncover secrets," Isabelle continues softly. "But you are a part of my life that is sacrosanct from those demands - you always have been. If you have invariably concluded that your mysteries are beyond my ken, I will have to content myself with that."

Emmanuelle's gaze wanders away to a book-filled cabinet, or perhaps to the Ch'in vase centered upon the top of it. A slender and shapely celadon piece, centuries old.

"Really, Isabelle," she remarks in an arid voice, likewise suggestive of her detachment from a conversation growing tedious. "You seek and you hunt at my sister's command — if you took it upon yourself to make a secret investigation into any member of her immediate family, you would soon find that the questions were being asked of you. Don't make a virtue out of the most basic discretions required of you in your position: you're not going to get a pat on the head from me for parading a piece of self-restraint and loyalty so much in your own interests."

In speaking she untangles her hand from Isabelle's loosened tresses; a couple of long dark hairs come away, caught upon her new golden rings and the amethysts set therein. She picks them loose and begins twining them into a small and infinitely delicate coil.

"As for your Rousse," she remarks, "if he belongs with you and you with him, you've tasks ahead I wager you'll find as unpleasant as any ordeal you might endure in my company. You'll have a deal of time on the road or the wave in your travels to and from Kusheth. You've a new sense, which you've shown to me tonight, of your mortality. Consider your journey a lacuna in which to interrogate your own desires, to learn from yourself what you wish the next chapter of your life to contain, if you should live. If you wish for a future with him — a family life, however unconventional," allows this woman who has scorned marriage, borne three bastards, and now in middle age gathered four generations of her kin beneath the same sprawling roof, "come back knowing your heart and ready to bare it to him. You won't get what you want — particularly not from a man so disinclined to introspection — unless you bring yourself to ask for it. One very rarely," she drawls, leaning forward to cast those lost hairs into the fire, "stumbles into bliss."

There's confusion there at those first set of remarks, plainly evident in her eyes, and she silently backtracks to try and determine what about her reply about secrets had drawn that reaction. That certainly wasn't her intent, and certainly not what she means - she has been nothing but truthful, but perhaps sensing the woman's own stepping back from that line of thought, she closes her eyes as those white fingers unwind from her hair, and lets go of the desire to clarify.

And yet it is not as curious to her as what had come before, when Emmanuelle's face turns to look at something else, before she said what she did, her face as inscrutable as her own whenever it is time to shut the door.

Though when she starts speaking again, Isabelle listens instead, her eyes opening once more to regard the woman on her chair. And she'd find on a mien so confident the visible threads of uncertainty - the idea of a life inexorably intertwined with someone, a family life, of baring her heart for whatever other javelins there are. It may be difficult to discern under the flickering hearth, but her face drains of color at the prospect, for the first time faced with what might be a necessary battle against internal demons that she has yet to name and give definite shape, in order to just determine what she wants there and perhaps take it.

Her own stare drifts away from the former Dowayne. On her lap, her fingers fist tightly against her thighs. It is ridiculous to be so fearful of something like this - most women would be overjoyed…wouldn't they? But she is, and not for the first time, she wonders whether there had been something in her past, stemming from the home, that has left some very important pieces of her broken off…

"I suppose it'd be like scaling a mountain for me," she replies, her voice somewhat dry and very obviously self-deprecating. "To determine just what that is first, as far as he's concerned. Though I imagine expressing it with any clarity would be equally as hard for someone stunted from such overtures…and it isn't as if I've not already demonstrated plenty of my inadequacies in that regard this evening."

Emmanuelle doesn't quite look back at Isabelle. Half an eye is enough for this practiced observer of human discomfort to retain an awareness of Isabelle's colour, her red-lacquered nails digging into her palms, the invisible hand — in some sense Emmanuelle's own — tightening upon the younger woman's heart… Her own heart is, perhaps, beating fractionally faster in the wake of such a reaction from the beautiful creature still kneeling at her feet.

She sits up, avails herself of a sip of the pomegranate juice in her glass, and having put the glass down again takes gentle hold of Isabelle's upper arms. The middle ring on her left hand, the one she put on herself, has its spikes half-extended: they press delicately into her flesh, just hard enough to pierce her skin. In the same moment she claims Isabelle's gaze with her own, bestowing a harsh scrutiny that seems to leave no corner of her unexamined.

"… I haven't," and her smile returns, twisted now by a mocking amusement, "the answers to all your questions and your dilemmas — and had I a complete and annotated set of such answers I should not give it to you," she states crisply. "I can hear your confessions; I can aid you in the purging of your sins; I can pray for you. I can even, in some instances, point the way. But you will only find the authenticity to build a life upon, by looking within yourself. Or," she drawls, "is Isabelle Valais going to turn back from climbing her mountain simply because to scale such unfamiliar terrain may prove too much for her craven heart?"

It is a fear that leaves her expression dreamy despite its ashen pallor, a far cry from her usual robust Aragonian complexion - as if Emmanuelle had taken one of her scalpels and buried it with exacting precision in the point where her aorta meets her heart - the beating engine that fuels the towering construct within herself that enables her to unflinchingly face the world's most dangerous machinations. And in the end revealed useless, as it seems, against the battlefields housed within them. It is that expression most soldiers, or even some chirurgeons, have seen on others when a fatal wound has been struck, and the brain has yet to catch up on what the body has endured.

It is only when she's grasped by those lovely, precise fingers, upon her upper arms, that Isabelle's gold-flecked stare focuses sharply on the woman once more; the effect of those spikes are subtle, but profound. Especially for a tactile creature such as his, when she would be able to hear her former patron suck in a soft breath, pupils dilating at the sensation - the edge of imagined danger suddenly opening the floodgates and pouring shots of adrenaline into her bloodstream and instantly rejuvenated from her state of stunned torpor. After all, isn't she so fond of saying that this woman, specifically, is so learned in the ways of killing someone, and bringing her back to life just moments later?

But there is the challenge, thrown right at her face - a gauntlet cast by those blue diamond eyes.

Her craven heart.

She has acknowledged that herself, more aware of the truth that Alcibiades himself has dismissed, but hearing it from Emmanuelle makes it cut deeper somehow, another severed vein left to hemorrhage into the bloody garden of her own insufficiencies. Knuckles whiten against her lap, bone-points pushing up from underneath her skin and making their color known. Dark eyes grow molten, their golden shards suddenly lit; the heart of the hurricane within made manifest. She cuts her, yes, but with these words and gestures, she also transforms her into a pyre.

Isabelle, when have I ever sought to weaken you? she had asked her, once.

"Never," she says, lowly, fiercely. "I choose to move forward, Madame. Always."

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