(1310-11-12) Politesse
Summary: Returning from Kriti with a gift for her, Alcibiades Rousse calls with exquisite courtesy upon his cousin Chimène.
RL Date: 16/11/2018
Related: A Separate Issue.
chimene alcibiades 

Boudoir — Ducal Suite — Rousse Residence

This small lozenge-shaped chamber boasts as many facets as a cut gemstone, each exquisitely paneled in ivory and gilt boiseries with repeating motifs of dolphins, peacocks, and swans. Four of its smaller facets appear to be taken up chiefly with glass panels, lined on the outside with ruched powder-blue silk: they are all secretly doors, two for the use of servants, the others leading respectively into the main salon and the bedchamber of the lady who owns this boudoir. Another facet is consecrated to a modest fireplace of gilded porphyry with a gilt-framed looking-glass above, and another to a porphyry-topped console table beneath a matching looking-glass. These are placed in mirrored positions to the left and the right of the chamber's outside wall and its alcove containing a double window overlooking the gardens. The latter may be shuttered and screened by a curtain of powder-blue silk embroidered with gold, to create a more perfect cosiness.

On the chamber's other longest side, directly opposite the window alcove and between two of the doors, is a luxurious sofa covered likewise in powder-blue silk and set into a mirrored recess. Its frame of gold-tasseled powder-blue draperies transforms it into a petite stage for the theatre of a lady's life.

A quartet of fauteuils upholstered either in ivory and gold, or the inevitable powder-blue, stand here and there upon the crosshatched parquet floor. Light from the small crystal and gilt chandelier overhead is supplemented by mirrored candle-stands. Occasional tables may be presumed within reach when needful.

His return from Kriti is the occasion for Alcibiades Rousse to call again upon Chimène Rousse de la Courcel, wife to the next head of the house in which he’s tirelessly striving to regain his own place and his brother’s. He has got a present for her; besides, it’s polite.

The servants keep him downstairs till his heels are well and truly cooled and his feet verging upon cold. Is he somehow less than hitherto welcome? Have the rumours of his exploits upon the Middle Sea triggered some consequence beyond any possible prediction? All becomes clearer, or at least more definitely murky, when he is at length escorted upstairs and into the presence not only of the lady he has come to see, but someone else besides.

The future duchesse de Roussilion is gowned in some delicate and flouncy white fabric that could survive only in the enclosed environment of a lady’s own chambers: cut to display her beautiful collarbones and not quite fall from squarish shoulders scarcely less white than itself. Her hair is loose, hanging down her back to her waist in shining brown waves. She is just exchanging farewells with her previous visitor. Their hands separate an instant before the lackey opens the door to Alcibiades, affording him not a glimpse so much as an intuition that they must lately have been joined. The other woman’s back he’d know at a glance in any storm, through darkness and chaos and the driving rain, though to see her in Chimène’s elegant grey and white salon may give him a moment’s pause: Athene Lesse, the redoubtable captain of The Dancer. She’s bowing now to Chimène who, affecting not to notice the newcomer just yet, is saying, “And of course you must call again when next you’re on shore.”

“I shall, milady.” Captain Lesse is not given to unnecessary speech, nor to excessive hand-holding of juniors in deep waters: she withdraws with a silent but evocative lift of her eyebrows at Alcibiades as she passes him (he is properly waiting to one side) on her way out through those imposing double doors held by paired lackeys in Rousse colours.

Chimène’s hazel eyes follow the veteran captain for a second or two before alighting agilely upon the new-minted specimen. “Captain Rousse,” she declares, smiling. She offers him a hand innocent, today, of any jewel: has she been gambling with her rings again, or is she at this late hour in the afternoon only just dressing? “How good it is to see you safe and sound after all your adventures,” she goes on, with a wide-eyed feminine cordiality too innocent to be believed. “… Come and sit in my boudoir, won’t you? It’s freezing in here.” This with a pointed look at a servant who has only just risen from her knees after lighting a fire in the great hearth behind where Chimène herself stands. The salon has plainly not been in use.

For the first step or two Alcibiades’s hostess leads him by the hand — letting go, she expects he’ll follow as she opens one door and then another, into her cosy powder-blue sanctum where the fire was lit some time ago. Her long white feet are bare and squeak softly with each step she takes upon the parquet floor. Her toenails are lacquered an immaculate and fiery red.

Alcibiades seems thunderstruck as he allows himself to be guided by the hand, his other hand balancing a long, narrow package — presumably the gift that he promised he would not bring, and that he has brought in spite of that. As he follows Chimene into the other room, his head turns back, tracking the space his erstwhile captain had so recently been occupying. It might be that it is safer not to ask — indeed, given the circumstances, Chimene will doubtless tell him what she wants him to know. If she wants him to know anything at all.

Clearing his throat, he says — with only a modicum of the awkwardness and, indeed, anxiety that might be coursing through him — “Thank you for receiving me, My Lady. I fear that my exploits have been somewhat overstated. The true architect of our victory — indeed, our survival — just left.” The sea captain is being gracious toward his friend and former employer, but he is also giving credit where due — Athene Lesse is a fearsome woman in any circumstance, and she certainly spilled her share of the pirates’ blood.

His eyes drop down to the bare feet of the woman before him, tracking those toe-nails with a curious expression. Has she simply forgotten slippers? Or is this some subtle message that he, a barbarian among courtiers, is too crass to understand? Regardless, in the warmth of this inner sanctum, he begins to sweat. He is wearing several layers of wool, after all — finely designed, certainly, but not meant to keep a man cool in a woman’s boudoir.

Stooping, Alcibiades sets his package down upright. “I know that you said you didn’t want anything, My Lady, but I beg you will accept this small gift. I had a few days in Kriti after the battle, while we saw to the initial repairs of The Dancer, poor beautiful barque.” And then, perhaps remembering just how much Chimene despises talk of the sea, he hurries on. “I was able to frequent the marketplaces and I saw a thing that immediately drew you to mind. I could not leave it.”

Another of Chimène’s servants shuts the door behind Alcibiades, cutting off the warm air’s escape and his own besides, and no doubt exacerbating the discomforts of his situation; Chimène, wraith-thin and bare-shouldered in her own home, arranges herself in her customary alcove with all the grace of an Akkadian kitten settling down to rest and be admired.

She pulls up her feet and her red pedicure disappears beneath frothy white skirts. “A woman of remarkable powers,” she agrees of Athene Lesse, the ivory oval of her face tilted up to favour Alcibiades with a smile as feline as those paws neatly folded over one another in her lap; “and I did suppose, from how little she spoke of the battle, that her role in it must have been pivotal.” … Because of course the Rousse heir’s lady has had infinite opportunity to compare talkative but ineffectual old salts, with the women and men who bestride the waves with true tenacity.

Notwithstanding her earlier lack of interest in the prospect of gifts from Hellas, she doesn’t seem surprised to be receiving one — or tell him he shouldn’t have — or insist that she mustn’t accept such a thing. Of course he’s giving her a present. Everybody gives her presents.

“Well,” she asks lightly, “what did you bring me?”

Alcibiades smiles as he watches Chimene curl herself into her seat — there is something touching in the way she draws in on herself, absurdly amiable to the square-shouldered (and square-minded) seaman. There is no question that the pseudo-Rousse does admire her. After all, he has a pulse. And there is no doubt that her comments — and her cat-ate-the-canary smile — about Athene have piqued his curiosity, and perhaps his eager imagination.

He does not give in to the temptation that anyone — or perhaps merely any man — would feel when Chimene comments on Athene’s role. Perhaps due to a late-blooming social wisdom, or perhaps remembering the stinging disinterest Chimene has displayed in the past, he recognizes that her brief commentary was not in fact a plea for further explication. Particularly as the burden in his arms has captured her attention.

Approaching Chimene’s seat like a knight-errant presenting the prize of his wanderings, Alcibiades kneels briefly. This is not a heraldic gesture but a necessary one. He cannot undo the twine holding the slender bundle together unless he sets it down on the ground for a moment. There is the rustle of wrapping paper.

“I did ask, My Lady, if you played kottabos. I have brought you a kottabos stand.” And what a stand. As Alcibiades rises, holding the bronze stand for inspection, it becomes obvious that he has spared no expense. The stand has been shaped like entwined dancers, in the Greek fashion, flowing around one another in an impossible spiral. The work is masterful.

Alcibiades holds the kottabos stand out for display, smiles, and crouches to set it before Chimene’s couch. “It is a small gesture, and a selfish one. I hope that we may have occasion to play together at some future point.”

The future duchesse and current reigning beauty smiles so steadily it must be a deliberate act, as she awaits the revelation of her gift with the silent dignity of an Hellenic statue.

And then as the elaborate kottabos stand heaves into view there comes an involuntary and perhaps to Alcibiades not un-gratifying multi-syllabic murmur of, “Oh.”

An unjeweled hand lifts from Chimène’s lap and reaches out at the end of a long, floating white arm, to trace with its fingertips the line of exquisitely-wrought bronze pleats that comprise one dancer’s robe. “I too danced in such a gown as this,” she remembers, her smile gone but her lips just barely parted as she gives herself, briefly, to recollection…

Recovering, she looks up at Alcibiades as composed as before. “I like it very well, my lord. Thank you. I hope we shall play together,” she agrees, “now that you’ve returned to us. Or does your new mission take you away again at once? There must be one or two pirates on the middle sea,” she says vaguely, “whom you and the good Captain Lesse have not yet vanquished.” Of course she already knows of his letters of marque; can there really be a piece of nautical news that isn’t bandied about over the dinner-table in this house, no matter how much she may yawn to hear it? “Or do you go to Elua for the winter season?” she wonders.

And then the talk, effortlessly gracious on one side if a trifle stilted on the other — there are so many secrets in this toasty little chamber, not at any cost to be betrayed — turns toward the winter season: friends, plans, games… So very light; not at all committal.

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