(1310-11-27) Breaking the Ice
Summary: An unlikely friendship is forged over shards of ice.
RL Date: 27/11/2018 - 28/11/2018
Related: None.
claude etienne 

Leaping Fish Inn — Market Promenade

The Main Room of the Leaping Fish is tidy and well-kept - and warmed by a fire in the hearth to one side on colder days and evenings. An old tapestry depicting a pair of two leaping fish is adorning the opposite wall - a reference to both the ruling House of Mereliot and the name of the inn. The common room has five tables of sturdy oak with chairs and benches, between which two serving maids move to take orders or bring food and beverages. The air is filled with tasty smells of freshly cooked meals, and murmurs of conversation - and occasionally even melodies rippling through the room, when a lute player is around to provide entertainment. The fare is of good quality that even would not disappoint noble tastes.

There are stairs leading upstairs towards a number of comfortable and well kept rooms the inn has to offer.

When looking out of the windows, you see: It is a fall day. The weather is warm and clear.

Certain up-and-coming chandlers of Marsilikos have had a fine day for wedding the eldest son of one to the only daughter of the other; Blessed Elua smiling on the match, obviously, not to mention those proud and prosperous papas sitting together still in the common-room of the Leaping Fish amidst the remnants of the wedding-party, and plotting a future in which their children do better than they've done themselves and with love in the bargain. Their joint hospitality was rich, the inn's kitchen and its cellar opened for the pleasure of their guests — shopkeepers and tradespeople, the tidier and more presentable of their seafaring clientele, a few minor local dignitaries to add distinction to the nuptials and sign their names at the very top of the witnesses' list — most of whom have, by now, staggered away to sleep it off singly or in small, select groups. D'Angelines do love a wedding; it puts them naturally in mind of certain amusements… But, with the tables pushed against the walls, and the usual lutenist joined by a young man with a viola and another with a drum, a few couples are still gamely setting the boards a-creaking beneath their best shoes. Some are not, strictly speaking, wedding guests, the Fish's current inmates having received a bibulous welcome into their visitors' midst on the grounds that more will make merrier. And so it has done.

Claudia Lanthenay began among the dignitaries but has long since descended to the status of unashamed merrymaker, careful of too much wine only because her real pleasure is in the dancing. She has hardly sat out all evening, being well-provided with partners old and new, acquaintances from amongst the city's merchant community and a few bold strangers who liked her style: even the groom stood up with her for two songs before, understandably, whisking his new wife away good and early to the chamber reserved for them upstairs. She's dressed like a flame, in shades of orange with here and there a ribbon or a bow of violet or blue, and the hem of her overskirt pinned up on the left to show the lilac of her petticoat beneath. In the inn's warmth she took off her jacket hours ago and it hangs over the back of a chair like a discarded autumn leaf; she's bareheaded, too, with wisps of dark brown hair escaping hour by hour from what started out a neat cap of braids. She's not the youngest woman still present, but the prettiest of those still inclined to dance: no doubt that's why her most persistent partner, a man in his late thirties and a sailor by the look of him, keeps coaxing her into remaining in his arms for just one more dance, and then just one more after that. Good-naturedly, she accedes, and accedes again. She's quick on her feet; so's he.

The night watchman has called midnight in the street outside before Claude at last begins seriously to extricate herself. It's late; she's tired. She would like to go home. The trouble is that her new friend seems to think that wherever she goes, so will he. Each time she turns to depart he catches again at her hand, pursuing her across the common-room with increasingly determined entreaties which she meets with gentle lies rather than hard truths. She ends up sitting him down next to her abandoned jacket, and insisting that she'll take one more glass of wine with him once she's paid a visit to the privy. There must be a back way out, and a woman to tell her where to find it; she can come for her jacket tomorrow.

She's hardly out of the room than he's getting up to follow her.

Étienne is returning from one of his explorations of this endlessly fascinating city, and so is dressed down in dark blue and green garments of good quality, but sturdy rather than fancy, and good thick-soled boots for tromping about in streets of whatever level of dirtiness. As a result, the young noble does not stand out particularly on his arrival, unless he opens his mouth — and even then, he might be involved in some shipping concern, or a mate off some ship.

The music and dancing have him smiling and tapping his toe. Soon enough, ale is in hand and he's watching the dancing, head bobbing cheerfully along. His black curls have escapes their bit of leather for the most part and so he has pulled it out and tucked it in a pouch. Bright eyes watch everything and there is a fundamental joyousness about him, though he knows none of the wedding party.

The resplendent and exuberant older woman whose skirts flicker like flames as she dances has caught his attention. His eyes often return to her and her quick feet. He himself rather likes dancing, and he’s thinking of attempting to beg her next dance, when it becomes clear she is tired and from her body language, that she would like to go home. He shrugs: his fault for tarrying so late to watch lights on the water of the bay.

Then he spots the annoying man rising to follow her, and oh so casually finishes his drink. The musicians start the first few bars of "Bouffons," a fast-paced perennial dancing favorite; Étienne makes his way towards the privy in the boorish man's wake.

Meanwhile in a passageway which leads to the kitchens, not the privies — that was Claude's mistake: her too-persistent suitor not only knows the layout of the establishment, but he's not quite drunk enough to confuse it — the exact state of affairs between them has become clear to the hunter as well as his quarry, as clear as it must be to Étienne from a single glance at the man towering over her and haranguing her. She has a wall at her back and his hand wrapped round her left wrist; in the low light of meagre torches, her own flames seem to have gone out.

The sailor's plaints are of a banal and unworthy variety. He feels he has been led on, spitefully, and encouraged to waste his time on a frigid bitch when he could have spent it better elsewhere, on a woman who knows how to appreciate Elua's blessings as manifested in his own person. There's always one, isn't there, to twist the highest-minded ideals for his own gratification—?

Étienne crosses the space quickly, though not as quietly as he'd like with the heavy boots and is about to lay a heavy sword-callused hand on the swine's shoulder…

That heavy tread coming up behind him inspires the sailor to look back over his shoulder and then half-turn toward Étienne, even as by instinct he tightens his hold on Claude's wrist to keep her where she is till he's dealt with the interruption— Hélas, he shifts his stance and moves his foot back just as the self-appointed rescue party is coming forward, and when Claude's other hand rises up in the form of a fist it connects with entirely the wrong face. The young man with the moustache whom she heard but didn't see takes the brunt of her sudden bid for freedom; her knee, meanwhile, connects only with the sailor's thigh rather than his groin. Oh, couldn't he have held still just a moment longer?

The meaty sound of fist to face does not match up quite with the steady beat of the tabor. Étienne makes a soft, plaintive sound, not quite covered by the lively gittern and flageolet music from the main room. He look at her with wide-eyed hurt, but keeps his grip on the pustule’s shoulder. He squares up his shoulders despite the rising bruise, and tries his best to look taller and more commanding than he is. His accent is northern and he mimics the much higher noble tones of the Trevalions he recently met, "Unhand her, you pestilent boil! You sack of sour wine!"

<FS3> Claude rolls Empathy: Great Success. (3 3 3 6 7 8 6 8 1 6 8)

If Claude had had time to pull that punch she still wouldn't have done: how could she have known for certain that this man wasn't the other's friend? But looking between them now, her face no longer flushed from dancing but blanched by the shock of her situation, the apprehension of how circumstances might turn against her next, and the pain blossoming in her fist, she makes a snap decision which turns out to be the right one. "Just go," she pleads, her wide brown eyes turned upon the sailor's face. Gaston, that's the name he gave her. She doesn't use it: that would be too intimate a touch. "We had a bit of fun dancing together, that's all," she improvises earnestly; "I wouldn't like him to hurt you."

Whether or not that implies some older acquaintance with this newcomer speaking in the accents of a foreign lord, it's up to the sailor to decide for himself.

And while he may have fancied tangling with Claude tonight, tangling with the sword-bearing nobility isn't on any commoner's list of desired pursuits. Sobering up by the moment, the man lets go of her with ill grace and shoves her away toward Étienne. In departure of course he gives vent to a remark upon his previous theme, that she's just not worth it; thus, he feels he has had the last word.

Étienne does his very best to look the arrogant Lord. In this he is copying the bearing of a certain lord from Kusheth who casually insulted his friend the previous week. The effect might be slightly spoiled by him steadying the woman thrust at him, with the lightest and most respectful of touches to her arm, his hand withdrawn in an instant. His eyes are fixed the whole time on the plague boil, until he is out of sight and of earshot.

At that point he heaves a sigh of relief and eyes her, rubbing his cheek. His accent is still very northern and still noble, but it's dropped quite a few rungs on the class ladder. "That hurt! And lucky for us both he walked away instead of swinging what with your aim, and me being far better with blade then fist." He gives her a dimpled, sheepish smile, raising up his hands in a gesture either intended to show he's unarmed or as surrender to her superior prowess. Taking several steps back to show she can leave whenever she likes in whichever direction, "I mean you no harm."

First Claude stumbles; then she starts at that touch on her arm, withdrawing as swiftly as does Étienne even though it means putting her hand out to the wall to draw upon its steadiness instead of his. "I… I hardly know how to… my lord… I'm so very sorry, my lord," she entreats, her doe's eyes suddenly welling with tears as she sees him rub his cheek. It's been a long evening; she has for all her care had perhaps a cup of wine too many; her fist is stinging probably near as much as his jaw, and she clasps it protectively in her other hand as she explains, "It was a mistake; I didn't know, I couldn't have known you were so close — I couldn't see past — I hope you'll forgive me, my lord. Please." Her light soprano is purely Eisandine, not of the highest class but not far off it either — through her present uncertain incoherence she still sounds an educated woman.

Étienne studies her with real distress, "It's all right… I don't know your name. I'm Étienne, by the way. If I couldn't survive a bruise, I wouldn't have made it to be old enough to chew solid food." He starts to reach to comfort her, but remembers she's had enough handling by men for one night, so instead, unpins his cloak and offers it without touching her, "Here. You've likely been warmed from all that fine dancing you were doing, but it's chill in this hall, and you've left your coat behind. Like as not you could use a bit of something to eat. I doubt they are serving warm food, but I might be able talk them into some cold chicken or bread and cheese or the like. I bet you'd feel better after a good quiet sit and some wholesome food in the belly."

He has an open face, all real sympathy and solicitude for her comfort, and not a hint of lust about him. "It is my fault, really. I should have cut in at the break between dances, only I didn't realise how boorish the wine-sack was being. If I had realised, I would have saved you all this distress." He tries to get a better look at her face, "I promise, I am not angry. You just surprised me. I give you my word as an Arguil, I mean you no harm."

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

It dawns upon Claude as she gets her breath back that this one isn't any bother and doesn't propose to become one later on, either. She has not in fact fallen out of the frying-pan and into a very highborn sort of fire (and at her time of life, too). Still, she shakes her head at the offered cloak. "I… I thought to collect my coat in the morning," she explains inconsequentially. Then, feeling compelled to defend herself against the straits he found her in, she insists: "Please, my lord, you mustn't blame yourself. It was only a misunderstanding, made so much worse by my poor aim — it all just caught me by surprise. I ought to have taken my leave earlier in the evening; I ought to—" She turns to look to the door at the end of the passage and then has the same thought Étienne's already had, that the pustule may yet be lurking without. She looks back to the floor at Étienne's feet and puts a distracted hand to her head, finding stray brown wisps and tucking them away behind her ear. "I truly do apologise for the trouble I've given you," she says, to fill that silence during which they're both weighing up their choices.

Étienne keeps holding out the cloak in case she changes her mind, "It's no trouble really, and you truly did look like you were having fun until that waste of hair ruined it for you. Why not take stock and… give yourself time to think." And give the plague boil time to wander off and go to sleep, perhaps, though he does not say it.

"I think you may be wise, my lord," and Claude's eyes meet his, warm and intelligent and rather less liquid now that her late suitor is fading away into an anecdote: a status to which she does hope to confine him. "I like to dance," she says honestly, "but once in a very long while someone thinks dancing means more than it does. A misunderstanding," she repeats. "I think I'll just… I'll step back into the common-room for a while, my lord, as you say." And she bobs a curtsey and makes as though to step neatly past Étienne and his cloak.

Étienne looks relieved that she is about to be sensible about not rushing out into the night alone where a pustule may lie in wait. "I like to dance as well. It is a shame some make mistakes of that kind." He withdraws the cloak, "Might I at least treat you to a share of whatever I can coax out of the kitchen for myself, as I am frankly ravenous and it's the same trouble for them to feed one as to feed two." He tries to catch her eye again, "I do give my word I'll make no mistakes of that kind."

Their eyes meet for an instant as Claude steps past; her own are apologetic, and dart away again from the changing colour of his jaw. With one hand on the door she turns back to him and looks determinedly up at her work. "But you must have something cold for your bruise, my lord, first of all," she insists gently. "Perhaps the ice they use to cool the white wines…? They may have some left from the party. I'll pay what they ask for it, of course." In another month ice will be free to Marsilikos every morning: for now, it remains a luxury commodity.

Étienne studies her, "That is very expensive. I've salve upstairs from home." He looks sheepish again, "I live here for the moment, though a friend is looking for rooms elsewhere for me."

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

“The ice will keep you from needing so much salve," Claude informs him, sounding a bit more authoritative now that she's speaking on a simple matter of fact, rather than apologising, excusing, or pleading. His sheepish look, too, has its effect upon the balance of power in their encounter. "… There must be someone still in the kitchen, with so much washing-up to do," she says practically, agreeing with Étienne's own implicit assumption, "why don't I go and see?" And pay, she means, as she lets go of the door and re-traces her steps past him the other way.

<FS3> Opposed Roll — Étienne=Perception Vs Claude=Composure
Étienne: Great Success (7 8 8 4 4 5 8 4 1 1 2 3) Claude: Great Success (8 7 3 6 5 7 5 4 7 5)
Net Result: DRAW

Étienne looks really torn about this his allowance not being large, finally he settles for, "Let me pay for the food?" He is young enough to be her son and used to being managed by authoritative women back home, but there is on the other side Courtesy, and this is not a social situation he has been trained for. He trails after her, careful to give her lots of space and stay out of her blind spot, making his boots noisier on the floors than they need to be so she will know he's not creeping up on her.

Yes, there's Courtesy; and though Claude isn't aware of any hard and fast rule of etiquette for occasions upon which one has accidentally punched a nobleman, seeing that he has his jaw iced and — by now he's spoken several times in his real accent, and she's had a good look at his clothes — some food in his stomach, seems like the very least one can do, when common sense dictates one remain in any case upon the premises a while longer. The compromise he suggests, arouses in her a firm intention not to make it. She raps twice on the kitchen door and enters with Étienne trailing behind; soon she's involved in a practical-minded feminine colloquy, and presenting Étienne with a bundle of ice-shards wrapped in linen and another apology as she relinquishes the chilly compress into his hands.

The ice is expensive, yes; the tray of party leftovers plus half a chicken gets lost under the general heading of Wedding Expenditure; Claude's purse is still clinking when she tucks it away again in a pocket under her purely decorative, ribbon-edged apron. When the serving maid would carry the tray out to the common-room for them, Claude insists: "Oh, there's no need — I mustn't take you from your work." The maid counters that it's time she checked on the tail end of the party in any case, to see what else they might want. They trade another couple of rounds of this, with Étienne standing by icing his jaw; Claude is the first to back down, as so often in her life, and their duo becomes a trio for the return along the corridor to the common-room. Nothing unexceptional in it. Let spectators assume as the maid does, that Étienne got himself punched by a squiffy seaman.

Étienne gives way under the onslaught of feminine competence. It's very like home really, only with different accents. He did produce his own purse from the vicinity of his cod to talk of paying, but not being able to get a word in edgewise and seeing that nothing will stop the cavalry charge that is his unnamed benefactress, he tucks it away and keeps icing his bruise and lets the force of personality in front of him sweep him in her wake.

It's not that Claude has a forceful personality — she hasn't, really. But it's natural enough for any young man to stand by politely whilst two women are discussing how best to feed him, and more natural still for this young man, who has been trained since birth to hush when the grown women are talking.

The musicians are packing up, and one or two snoozing drunks are waiting to be carted out with the rest of the party detritus: the sticky mugs, the bedraggled garlands, the lost ribbons and the single solitary glove that inevitably turns up under a table. Claude's coat is where she left it, untouched. When she reappears an uncle of the bride's well into his cups greets her as "Madame Claude!" in a voice pitched too loud for the emptying chamber. He has an important tale to tell of how a cheeky slip of a girl tried to make off with the said coat, but he, Georges, had heard her say clearly — very clearly indeed — that she was coming back, so he protected that handsome coat, by Elua, and he wouldn't let anybody lay a hand upon it. Not for a queen's ransom or a beauty of the Night Court, would he let anybody steal away with the fine Madame Claude's own finery.

By the time the hero of the hour has enumerated his essential points roughly twice apiece and is gearing up for his third recitation, Claude's patience is running thin and her eyes look tired. Luckily a crony of his sets up a victorious cry of his own and waves a miraculously full bottle at him, and they bumble away together to find a corner wherein to toast the happy couple all over again, from the beginning, for as long as they retain the power of speech.

Claude sinks into her coat-draped chair. She looks at Étienne across the table, where the maid unloaded their tray before taking it on a tour of the common-room in search of empties. "My lord, I forgot to thank you," she realises suddenly. "For… Well, for appearing when you did. It wasn't coincidence, was it?"

Étienne steps forward alarmed as another tipsy man approaches Claude, but relaxes when the accoster proves benign. He keeps his silence except for the occasional approving sound at the protection of the coat in question. This Georges seems to be right thinking as to the personal property of others, if rather long-winded.

He drapes his cloak over the back of a chair at the same table, not close enough to worry her about what his hands might do. He shows her his dimples, "It was not accident, no." He reaches for some chicken. His tone suggests he did only what any reasonable person would do, "I misliked the way he seemed to… crowd you, and I saw the set of your shoulders. I saw him rise to follow and while I could not be sure trouble would follow, I thought it best to make sure it would not." He sighs, "I am sorry such a wine-witted slug importuned you. It is not right, a woman be treated so."

He appears not to be lying about his hunger and sets to in a way apt to make short work of the leg, though he is a clean enough eater and has produced his own napkin like a respectable person. “It’s funny, I’ve a sister named Claude. She’s fourteen and very clever with her needle.”

“It was very kind of you,” Claude affirms, looking down at her own portion of chicken and the miscellaneous morsels accompanying it. Now that she’s run out of things to do with herself — music to dance to, suitors to evade, highborn blue-eyed youths to soothe with ice and restore with viands — she wants more than ever just to have the night be over with so that she may go home. The food is good enough of its kind, but she picks at it only to pass the minutes.

Then, his chicken leg vanquished, Étienne pipes up again with a thought about another Claude far away, and the Claude right here looks up at him with a real smile. There: that’s what the drunken sailor saw during the dancing tonight, and what he was determined to see a lot more of if he could. A clever woman with a distinct style of her own, alight with interest.

“Really? It’s not a common name for girls,” she observes; “I’m called Claudia, properly speaking. Where is she now? Your sister,” she clarifies, after a sip of watered wine.

The blue-eyed youth is distractedly eating more of the leftovers, still mulling the subject of how to transport her home safely without alarming her as to his intentions. The smile wins his attention back and he answers it with a bedimpled smile of his own, utterly guileless and happy to talk of sisters he misses, “Back home in Berck. That’s up on the Azzallese coast… Sort of northeast? No one’s ever heard of it here. You’ve no interest in our brandy though sometimes our cheese, leather, and cloth make it here. It’s right near the sea, our place, on a cliff overlooking, though the town has a good harbor and gentle beaches.” It’s clear from his tone that he’s homesick, even though he’d never admit it. “Our Claude loves dancing too, you know, and is the best of us at it. She’s my middle sister, you know. Her hair is much lighter than mine and she has our mother's temperament and looks. Mother was a Baphinol…. Claude is very merry and… “ He pauses to find the best word, “She notices people. She’s always there with a kind word to cheer someone up, be it the pot girl or the lad who cleans the kennels. I do miss her, all of them really.” He hastens to add, “I love it here though. This city is a grand adventure! So many new things to see and try! So many people to meet!”

”No one’s ever heard of it here.”

To which Claude can only admit with a shrug and an apologetic murmur, that she hasn't either.

She listens, though, and as this exuberant young man rattles on in between bites she finds it easier and easier to relax and enter into his tale. For all his birth, he's just a good-hearted youth with a hearty appetite for food and life alike, who isn't afraid to step in when he sees someone who only might be in trouble. “Noticing must,” she ventures as she prepares for herself a token bite of bread and cheese, “run in your family, my lord.” She lifts it toward her mouth, in clean fingers stained red about the cuticles, then pauses long enough to add, “I'm glad you're enjoying Marsilikos, though your home sounds… very lovely.” In the light of a lamp shoved onto the edge of their table by the same servant, passing again, her face takes on a thoughtful cast.

Étienne doesn’t seem at all bothered that she, like everyone he’s met here not originally from the north, hasn’t heard of his home. It is beautiful to him, but he is fully aware of its smallness compared to the grandeur of Marsilikos. “Oh yes, my Grandmère is very clever in that way too. Sharp as a pin at her age and twice as clever. Still does the accounts in her own hand, she does.” His tone expresses affection, respect, and pride. Odds are this Grandmère of his had a firm hand when it came to his upbringing. “It’s truly lovely. There’s something about dawn’s first light on the water and the slow blending of delicate colours. If I sit quiet by the river mouth at the right season, sometimes I catch cranes just waking up and can watch them stretch and stalk about in the shallows among the reeds. We’ve good trees for climbing, my youngest sister Antoinette loves those as much as I did at that age. And good grazing land for cattle, and plenty of good hawking for Agnès. She and I used to go riding, though lately they’ve been keeping her in in hopes of improving her complexion.” He sighs sadly, “They’ll be marrying her off soon, most like, and could be we’ll be near strangers next we meet.” He is entirely unselfconscious with this new Claude he just met, his expression clear to read as water.


Since Étienne has in such fine time cleared his plate of all but a few chicken-bones Claude, retaining in one hand the bread and cheese which is really all she has touched, transfers her full plate to his side of the table and draws his remnants back toward herself. The cranes prompt a return of that bright smile: a hint of rapture to belie the lingering tiredness about her eyes.

Then, nodding, she’s inevitably more somber as she reflects that, “Growing up is always more of a change for girls than for boys, isn't it? Your sisters must miss you too, I think,” she says honestly. “Are they… That is, will you be away long from your home, my lord? And your cranes…” Her lips begin to curve again, quite unbeknownst to her.

Étienne flashes her one of his sunny smiles as she switches food, “Are you sure you don’t want the rest, Mistress Claude?” He must have caught something of her thought from her expression, “I do like cranes.” More seriously, “Yes it does, I fear. They are… pushed to be grown so fast and then they are gone away from home to who knows where and may hardly ever visit if they are sent far.” He shrugs, “I am not sure. Really, I have always wanted to travel, and this is travel, and even if it is only to one place, this city is full of people from far away. I’ve met two ambassadors, one of them a princess. She was sitting over there.” He points to a table recently replaced by the folk of the inn after the festivities. “I have talked to sailors in food shops and taverns and down by the docks. This city is a wonder it would take years to really properly explore, and the people are always changing.”

He looks at his hands, the next thought deeply distressing to him, “One day, my father will… need me to come home and, and prepare myself more seriously, and then there won’t be…. chances like this.” From his tone the thought of his father’s eventual mortality horrifies him, and not just for the limits it places, but out of a deep love for the man himself. His lips become firm and he says determinedly, “I will not waste a moment of my time here.”

Claude answers that smile with a shake of her head, her mouth busy chewing the last of her bread and cheese. She takes a little more of— well, it's more water than wine, and attempts to find a respectful yet comforting riposte to Étienne’s confessions. Unexpectedly, she finds herself speaking a sort of confession of her own. “My mother was sent all the way from La Serenissima to wed my father… When I was of age they sent me east in turn, to live a little while with our kin there — as a widow,” she says seriously, “she returned to the home of her youth. You never know, my lord. You may welcome nieces and nephews to foster — and it may someday mean a great deal to your sisters to know they still have a home under your roof in times of need or of sorrow.”

Hearing too late what she has said she flushes suddenly, and reverts to the apologetic. “My lord, I'm sorry; I don't know what I'm saying. I fear our hosts have regaled us with too much wine, tonight.”

The lad is nibbling slowly now and watching her with a seriousness some of his earlier chatter might belie. There is real sympathy for her and her mother’s travels and the implied losses.

His eyes widen when she reverts to apologies. His tone is gentle, “Please, don’t be distressed or fall back into formality. I…” He is so terribly young and earnest, “I should very much like to be friends with you, and… titles sit ill between friends talking quietly over food after a long… and complicated day.” He glances in the direction of the door, “I admit to some concern about your safety on the streets so late and have been wracking my brains for a way to… make sure no one else troubles you.” He looks really worried, “Will you trust me? As a friend, I mean. I know we have just met and I… am not so foolish as to fail to understand the danger I represent, but I’ve a sharp sword, and I fear most of our hosts are to bed and I’m not sure who best else to ask.” He looks really worried, “I will take no for an answer and if you’ve friends you’d rather I fetched for you I will do it. I just… like talking to you. You are the second person I’ve met here I feel really comfortable talking to like I would the folk at home.”

If Claude feels any discomfort at being so addressed, it stems from the sheer burbling sincerity of the man, as he seeks any and all means of reassuring her as to his intentions. As if such a pretty lad, heir to a title, might look on her so! Or suspect her of fearing such from him! It’s absurd, disquieting, and flattering all at the same time… But he means well, so very well, and after stalling a wee bit by sipping her watered wine she ventures: “My lord, you’re very kind to worry so, but there’s no need. I did come with a friend — but she,” she presses her lips together for a moment’s thought and then smiles and shrugs, “she found a friend, if you see what I mean. And truly, I’ve not got far to go, and I don’t think he meant me any real harm or that he’d still be lurking about now just to make himself unpleasant again. He didn’t seem bad at all,” she admits, “till quite late on… It’s not far,” she repeats, “but…” She hesitates, torn between the allure of the neatly-made bed awaiting her nearby, and that of a personable young man sensitive alike to the modesty of cranes and to her own feelings tonight. “I shouldn’t like you to be worrying, my lord,” and it has the flavour of another admission, another act of fondness beyond the sharing of food and the icing of that swollen jaw. “… How’s your face feeling?” she asks then, tentatively. “I don’t like to think what colours you’ll be tomorrow.”

Étienne rushes to reassure her, “Oh! It’s much better really, and really I’ve had much worse in the practice yard. Truly, you just startled me is is all.” He is carefully hiding the cheek under the ice again as he talks in case it looks worse that it feels. “And I would feel very much better you are home safe than I would otherwise. It would be a favour to me to keep me from worrying.”

“I was only trying to scare him away,” apologises Claude, stating the obvious, though she surely put the full force of her slight body into the attempt. “He just wouldn’t listen, and then he…” The knuckles of her right hand look reddened and somewhat the worse for wear as she clasps it about her left wrist, remembering his hand there. “I’m so very sorry,” she says again, shoulders sagging as she looks into Étienne’s eyes with an earnestness to meet and match ihs own, “for hurting you. I hope you’ll believe, I don’t usually do— anything like that.”

Étienne is firm in his opinion, “That incontinent lecher had no business laying hands on folk without leave, and whatever that swag-bellied miscreant thought he was doing, he ought to have had more sense and better manners.” He shakes his head, “That blow was meant for him and certes, he well deserved it, Mistress Claude.” He gives her an encouraging smile, “Would you like a turn with the ice?”

Claude’s gaze follows the line of Étienne’s down to her hand, and she tucks it swiftly out of sight beneath the edge of the table before looking up to meet his smile with a rueful one of her own. “I'll tend it when I get home,” she murmurs, “though what I'll do tomorrow I don't know. Perhaps it won't be so bad. I surely hope yours won't be.”

She starts to rise and then sits again, struck back into her chair by the force of her own solicitude. “But have you had enough to eat? I wouldn't like to take you away before you've had your fill…”

“I… don’t know your profession, but won’t you need both hands for it? Surly we can share this ice. I’ve had it plenty. If I look a little battered it’s to be expected in a lad, but your hand is important.” He laughs, “I’m fine! I’ve had plenty of that too, and I did have a pasty at a more reasonable hour. Come, let me get you home, yes? The hour is late, and I know my bed beckons.” Étienne rises and swirls his cloak around his shoulders with unconscious Azzallese grace, pinning it there with a simple brooch hinting at the silhouette of a crane in the abstract. He leaves the ice between them on the table so she might take it without being touched. He has been careful not to touch her except for that briefest moment when she was pushed by the plague boil and he was surprised into it.

Would that face lie? Not convincingly, Claude decides from the vantage point of her many years — not even in its present mottled state.

When he gets up so does she, more slowly, reaching for her coat. Its burnt orange wool is lined, Étienne may notice, with silk in the very hue of his own too-blue eyes. An expensive garment, well-fitting when she's shrugged it on over her long-sleeved blouse and her ribboned bodice and the colourful layering of her skirts and her apron. It's only made to be worn open, its full tails lending more petals to her flowering skirts without obscuring the rest of her attire.

“Isn't it melted by now?” she wonders as she reaches tentatively for the linen-wrapped ice, wet to the touch and leaking on the table next to their scattering of plates and cups. “Well,” and she looks at Étienne and ventures, “if you don't want to walk with it, perhaps I'll…” She picks it up, gives it a little shake to reduce its general dampness, and drapes it speculatively across her knuckles. Her other hand holds it in place. “I like your cloak-pin,” she adds inconsequentially to Étienne.

They're almost the only two left, the rest of the wedding party having been carried away insensate; and that yawning servant looks as though she'll be glad to see their backs.

It had been her clothes Étienne noticed even before the dancing or her looks, “Oh! That really suits you! It all fits together perfectly.” That hint of sheepishness, “There is not a lot, but some left still. Be a shame to waste.” A little bow, as he might have given if they had been dance partners, a tinge of self mockery twitching his lips. He steps aside as if she were a grand lady, but really to give her plenty of room without fear of brushing him or his cloak. “Thank you, Mistress Claude.” As they pass, he does drop an extra coin of his own on the table before the servant with an apologetic smile, a little something in recompense for lost sleep.

“Oh — thank you,” Claude says, a little awkwardly, in answer to the compliment: she looks down at herself and smooths her skirts with a damp hand.

She already tipped tolerably well above the ruinous cost of the ice; but she adds a smile of her own and a murmured apology for tarrying so long, as she finds her way self-consciously out of the inn and into the market promenade accompanied by a young lord who makes plain his good manners by not taking her arm. Yes, she's noticed. She's beginning to think he’s left caution behind to border on the absurd — but it's endearing, in a way, how deftly he manages to open the door for her without ever coming too close, how he hovers awaiting her choice of direction.

So far past midnight there's hardly a lit window remaining or a burning lamp over a door even in this prosperous mercantile quarter of the city. But Claude’s pace is brisk and her tread assured as she turns south along the roofed marble colonnade in the direction of the Grand Plaza, down steps and betwixt shadows long familiar to her.

Étienne was raised by women strongly of the opinion that kindness is what’s wanted, not what is strictly conventional. This is clearly a case wherein politeness is not exactly the usual courtesies. He is an adaptable young man. Though his own legs are tired from long rambles, he keeps his steps brisk and eyes alert for trouble, even as he has reason to hope trouble is sleeping it off by now.

Claude deliberately doesn't look about her for pustules: she is accompanied and therefore safe, and she wouldn't like to meet his eye, anyway, not after a scene like that. She just holds her melting parcel of ice between the palm of one hand and the back of the other, and tries to make conversation. For some reason it's a little harder to do out here in the dark.

But then, crossing an intersection, they pass briefly through that portion of the moonlight which has succeeded in infiltrating the haze of smoke raised by the city’s winter fires.

“Who was the other one? Who— that is, if I may ask you, my lord. The other one,” she explains, ungracefully, “you met here and… liked talking to.”

A flash of that bright smile of his, “Étienne. Please. Oh, Symon de Perigeux. He’s very sweet and kind, only I think people are not kind to him. We think alike, about things like it being better to be polite than not even if one doesn’t have to.” A little pensive, “I think his family is very different than mine from the few times he’s mentioned them.”

As what’s left of the ice numbs Claude’s hands, so does her warmth melt it.

She holds the little parcel of it out in front of her, away from her clothes, and leaves behind her a trail of drips on the broad marble slabs underfoot. A hazard for any other pedestrian who might follow her. But with the inn barring its doors for the night and the shops shuttered tight the promenade is deserted save for the two of them, and silent save for their footsteps and their talk.

“I think every family is different in its ways, at least a little,” she temporises, reluctant to dig into gossip about a man with a ‘de’ in his name in the company of another possessed of the same particle. Especially when she knows herself to be worn out and nowhere near her quickest. Feeling something more is called for she adds, “I’m glad you’ve found so agreeable a friend.”

Down another set of five steps they run out of promenade and turn into the expansive (and expensive) plaza at its southern end. Claude veers left with a murmur of: “It’s this way.”

Grand Plaza

No humble, cobbled, crowded town square, this: the grand plaza of Marsilikos gleams, a true centerpiece of a wealthy, international port city. The marble tiles of the square itself are fitted smoothly together, alternating white and greyish-blue with obsidian equal-armed crosses inset at the intersections. Four raised planters, ten meters square, offer cool travertine seating around swaths of raised ground, grassy and tended in all seasons with foliage best beautiful and suiting to the weather, positioned in each of the corner quadrants of the square, and, in the center, a concrete-laid pool is lined with marble, into which four ichthyocentaurs are pouring cool, clean water from carved vases of striking white marble. On a pedestal half-hidden by the winding tails of the ichthyocentaurs is an ancient obelisk, one solid piece of red granite, imported with great expense from Menekhet, mounting twenty one meters into the sky and casting a winding shadow around the corners of the plaza as the day progresses.

On the western edge of the square a grand marble stairwell overlooks the port and the harbor below; to the north, two strips of marble extend far between the stoate pillars of the marketplace, embracing a well-cultivated spina of greenery.

Étienne though tired realises he has been indiscreet. ‘Talk less, smile more.’ Right. And so he says, “I hope I may have found another such a one tonight, though I know it is soon to tell.” He glances at her out of the corner of his eye before going back to watching for threats as if she were a great lady and he her Cassiline, even if he does have a ‘de’ in his name and she not.

“It is very grand here, isn’t it? We’ve nothing built so lovely back home.” He is trying to work out her profession. Perhaps she has a team of seamstresses under her all sewing furiously away at Longest Night finery for the most exclusive of clients? Or a maker of amazing confections for the richest of the rich, to be splurging on ice for someone else’s bruises. He has asked her before, but did not want to press when she deflected. To his way of thinking there has been far to much of pressing for one night. “So much marble! Is La Serenissima as lovely, or is it lovelier?” Water on marble is someone else’s look out.


With Claude leading they cut diagonally across the plaza between planters on one side and the fountain on the other, the latter gushing just loudly enough to compel her, for practical reasons, to silence again after she has said only, matter-of-factly: “Oh, it’s much lovelier than this.”

She gives up on the ice and hurries aside from her path to empty the last ineffectual fragments of it into the fountain, and to wring out the length of clean but frayed linen it was wrapped in. She folds the latter into smaller and smaller squares as she returns to Étienne’s side and they pass out of range of the fountain, continuing through the empty and half-lit square.

“In La Serenissima there are more piazzas than you can ever know or guess,” she says quietly, scrubbing each of her damp hands in turn against her skirts, “and they’re all beautiful. Anywhere else the big streets lead you right to them, but there, they hide away in the back streets and in between the canals, so one minute you’re taking what should be a shortcut to a place you think you know, and the next you’re in a square with an ancient palace on every side and a stone mosaic under your feet so fine you could spend an hour just looking down and tracing it with your feet — and it’s quiet, too, no matter how much noise was in your ears the minute before. My family who’d lived there for generations didn’t know some of the gardens I found, just walking. Some, I found once, but when I tried to go back I could never find them again.”

Her steps slow to a stroll as they walk, now, along the plaza’s edge. “Sometimes you think you’re a long way from the Grand Canal — but then you take a turn and there you are, with gilded gondolas and pleasure-barges thronging the water as far as the eye can see, full of all the nobles in their finery, blue and green and crimson and silver and gold, and their musicians sending songs drifting toward you across the water… Most of the palaces along there are built of the pink stone they have in those parts,” she adds, “and with the sunset on them they look more like cliffs rising from the depths than houses for people to live in. They seem more a work of Nature than of men’s hands, though seeing them of course you bless the men who did make them. I got lost a lot in La Serenissima,” she admits ruefully, “chasing the pink and gold light of the dusk, or the green light off the water, or the blue ceilings of the chapels.”

Étienne listens to her with a real fascination not entirely consistent with security. He was not asking from politeness, but is clearly picturing it as she talks and longing to see the hidden piazzas, the mosaics, the palaces, the painted gondolas, the secret gardens, the light on stone. He is almost straining to hear the music from those distant pleasure barges. He sighs, “Oh Claude, I do wish I could go! It sounds like perfection. However could you bear to be parted from her?” From his expression and tone it really is as if they are discussing some beautiful woman with whom he’s already half in love and who might be Claude’s lover already, too soon sundered.

They come to a halt in front of the marble façade of an establishment just a few doors down from Raziel’s bookshop, which Étienne knows well. The shutters on its ground floor are painted a deep teal-green, easily visible in the glow of the oriel window above, which is well-lit behind leaded glass and curtains of a dozen different hues. The patinated bronze plaque over the door gives no hint of what might be sold here, stating only in grand capitals: LANTHENAY.

“… Well,” answers Claude, whose large brown eyes have been watching him closely and kindly through these last few steps taken side by side — more kindly, indeed, for each sigh she hears echoing off travertine marble, “I had to come home and finish learning, and take over the business.” Her tone is easy enough as she turns away to her front door and (out of Étienne’s sight) fishes in her bodice for her key. (Safer there than in one’s pocket, during a night of dancing.) But she doesn’t say she didn’t wish to linger in the streets of her exotic love.

Perhaps the lives and predicaments of a commonborn Eisandine and an Azzallese lordling are not necessarily so dissimilar.

He blushes very faintly as they pass the bookshop, though it might not be noticeable in the shadows where they walk. Then the warm light of the oriel window draws him back to the here and now. His eyes go wide seeing the obvious expense of the establishment. Suspecting is one thing, seeing is another. He is surprised into an exclamation, “Oh!” And then he blushes again, more visibly here. He bows then, “I think you must be terribly skilled at whatever it is you do, and La Serenissima’s loss is Marsilikos’s gain.”

To Claude this is just her childhood home. She finds her key and draws it out; skin-warmed iron on a bit of green ribbon. “Didn’t I say?” she chuckles, with an apologetic glance back at Étienne as she fits it into the lock. “I must have been so scattered… I’m the marquist here,” she explains, as though there weren’t plenty of lesser establishments down nearer the docks run by persons who would call themselves marquists. That’s just it, though. They’re lesser establishments. They’d call themselves marquists. There’s nothing boastful in Claude’s tone — she isn’t trying to punch her new friend in the face a second time — she’s only stating a truth as elemental to her existence as having brown hair and brown eyes, or liking to dance.

The door opens with a jingle from a brass bell attached high on the back of it. “But La Serenissima doesn’t need marquists,” she adds as she steps up into her shop, and turns with her hand on the doorjamb to bid Étienne farewell. “There, my lord,” she pronounces gently, “you see how safe I am. It wasn’t far,” she says again, “but thank you. For wanting to be sure.”

Étienne’s lps form a tiny “Oh.” Then he nods, “A great artist then.” This makes complete sense, and of course she is the best of them. The marquist. He bows for her, with grace that suggests a good dancing master in his past, “Thank you for doing me the favor of allowing me to escort you.” He stays bowed, waiting for the click of her lock. “I hope I might call on you at some time in the future under less trying circumstances, though I understand entirely if you wish to forget all that passed this night.”

“Oh, no,” and Claude’s apologetic smile pays another visit to Étienne, “you’re very kind, but most of my work’s just the same thing over and over again. There’s not much art in it, if I’m truthful.” Then the lordling bows and lodges his very civil request. “If you want to, my lord,” she agrees quietly. There follows an awkward moment during which he’s waiting to hear her lock, and she’s waiting for him to rise from his courteous semi-prostration.

“… Goodnight, my lord,” she says at last, by way of breaking the stalemate. The door half closes, and she puts her head round it to add: “Daytime next time, though, eh?”

Then she shuts the door, and locks it, and drives the bolt home.

As he straightens, Étienne laughs softly. At himself, mostly. Then he makes his way home, already hoping for dreams of canals and light on pink stone in hidden piazzas.

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