(1310-12-02) The Soul of the Place
Summary: Étienne calls on Claude at her shop and receives a little gift to take away.
RL Date: 30/11/2018 - 02/12/2018
Related: Breaking the Ice.
claude etienne 

Marquist Shop — Grand Plaza

The patinated bronze plaque over the front door of the marquist's shop in the Grand Plaza, has since the 1230s simply stated: LANTHENAY.

The narrow building which houses the shop dates back even further than the plaque, and was designed in keeping with the elegance of its surroundings. The first floor boasts a faceted bay window, set like a jewel into the white marble façade and curtained in ever-changing hues, in between tall pairs of windows protected by fanciful wrought-iron balustrades. The second floor is more modest, while the attic set back behind a low parapet gives from below the impression of a wall of glass gleaming ferociously in the southern sunshine.

Most visitors are concerned only with the shop proper. Shutters painted a deep teal-green are often folded back from its windows at odd hours; behind square panes of fine clear glass, paler teal-green silk curtains are embroidered with so many delicate flowers they might serve passersby as a guide to the flora of Eisande. A stout brass-studded front door to the right of the windows gives onto a square salon furnished in a style which wouldn't disgrace a prosperous merchant or a lady of the middling nobility, though such persons might not festoon their parlours so liberally with swagged velvet in jewel-box hues, or scatter patterned cushions across patterned upholstery with such an unerring confidence. At the back of the salon a small bright purple door opens into a passageway hung with a varying collection of the present marquist's own drawings and paintings (seascapes, flower studies, scenes of life in Marsilikos) and leading past several doors kept shut. Its terminus is a second, humbler foyer, home to a squat iron stove left cold most of the year; a cabinet containing an exhaustive collection of sea-shells and bits of coloured beach glass; a couple of stray chairs; and the entrances to a pair of small chambers which divide between them the width of the building. Most of the time these stand with their doors chocked open and heavy velvet drapes waiting to be let down to guard the privacy of clients disrobing therein: one emerald green curtain, one cerulean blue.


The salon at the front of Claudia Lanthenay’s shop is empty but for its fine appointments, its merrily crackling fire, and half a dozen different and colourful vases of seasonal greenery: the bell tinkles seemingly for naught, as Étienne d’Arguil opens the door to be hit in the face by a gust of warm air. But someone has heard him, and a distant echo of feminine laughter from the passageway beyond a half-open purple door soon yields to a call of, “Be with you in a moment,” in a voice he must recognise even as it is now, free of exhaustion and stress.

Claude is as good as her word. Soon her hand is on the purple door; she pushes it further ajar, looks round it, and then opens it all the way and comes forward smiling. In the balmy atmosphere of her own premises she’s wearing fewer layers, most of them today green and yellow-gold; she has a light silk shawl tied about her waist, spangled with coloured beads. Beneath her dark-green bodice there’s a good but plain white linen chemise with the sleeves rolled up to bare the extraordinary tattoos that climb her arms. A fichu striped in moss-green and ochre and white is loose enough to be doing a poor job of concealing her décolletage, where it’s easy enough to espy further colourful evidence of her commitment to her profession.

“Oh, it’s you, my lord,” she observes, sounding a little surprised to see him, but not at all displeased. She wasn’t sure — how could she be sure? — that having gone so far in his talk, he wouldn’t regret it in the next morning’s sobriety. Her lively brown eyes are already searching his face, less for his intentions than to check on the progress of his bruise.

Étienne is in his best tunic, hair pomaded to stay in its ribbon. He arrives carrying a… Is that a smallish wheel of soft cheese? He scrapes his boots carefully before entering, and brushes off his tunic. He is in his house colours of black and gold, and seems to be have taken great care generally with his toilette. He bows and presents his gift. While he has seen sailors’ tattoos, he has never seen any remotely as fine as Claudia's and he can’t help but stare appreciatively. His bruise has nearly healed, “You were kind enough to say I might call and so here I am.” He is searching her face now, at first unsure of his welcome, but now somewhat reassured.

It’s quite usual for people to take a little while to look Claude in the face. She is patient during those few seconds he’s agog at her adornments; she’s making a survey of her own, after all.

“I did and you are,” she confirms, “and I’m glad to see your face looking so much better, my lord.” She pauses, and laughs at herself. “That is, I won’t say you looked bad before, my lord, but you know what I mean. Healed,” she says, “or nearly. Is that for me? You’re very kind,” she tells him, not for the first time, accepting the cheese into ink-blotched hands she hasn’t washed yet since leaving the side of her latest client. She identifies it correctly: “It’s just about time I had my lunch,” she admits, though the hour is well past the middle of the afternoon. “… Were you just passing, my lord, or—” She looks at him consideringly, nibbling her lower lip. Was that enough my-lords in one speech? And how far does he stand by his midnight confidences?

He chuckles with her, all easygoing smiles. “I am healed, yes. Thank you again for the ice. This is camembert from our own cows. I thought you might like some. Étienne. Please. I had hoped to stop in, but if you are wanting your lunch, I’d not want to keep you from that.” He does not mention that she, too, seems improved from the other night, though he is pleased to see it.

Claude ventures, “Oh, I thought—” But what she thought is interrupted by someone else coming down the passageway, a statuesque brunette with that uncanny beauty which marks an adept of the Night Court. Claude turns toward the sound of footsteps and beams fondly at the girl, who curtseys to her with the grace of a highborn lady, a dancer, or perhaps both.

“Thank you, Madame Lanthenay.” Behind her there appears an unmistakable guard, well-muscled and well-armed, with the emblem of the Salon de la Lis d’Or embroidered upon the breast of his tunic. He has eyes only for Étienne, the armed stranger.

“Always a pleasure,” the marquist says firmly. “Just you let me know the next time you’re in funds, eh? Won’t be too long, I shouldn’t think,” the latter remark an unmistakable compliment, which the other answers with a smile so radiant it encompasses Étienne as well for a single spectacular, glowing moment. Claude looks her over as if with motherly approval and hastens to add, “Do up your coat, or you’ll freeze the moment you step out.”

“But it looks so much better open,” the lovely young adept answers, smile turning to smirk as she takes her leave, the bell on Claude’s door tinkling a valedictory for her and her guard.

Claude turns to Étienne, stained hands resting easy on her hips. “What was I saying, my lord? … Étienne,” she tests, tentatively. “That was my last job of work till tonight,” she explains, “and I’d a picture or two I wanted to show you, of La Serenissima, but I haven’t got them out yet.” She wasn’t sure till now that there was any point. “If you don’t mind eating with me again…”

Étienne nods politely to the adept and steps out of the way. The radiant smile, though not meant for him, is returned with one of his own, all dimples and good wishes and not a hint of the lecherous.

Once the Lily has left with her guard, he is all sunshine for Claude, “Much better, yes? And I would love to eat with you and look at your pictures if they turn up.” He seems to have had no second thoughts at all and his interest in her gives every indication of being genuine. “They are beautiful, the few courtesans I have seen here, but… it is a little like sculpture, or the sunset on your beautiful pink stone in La Serenissima.”

Claude’s face registers mild surprise. “Well… yes,” she says first of all. “That’s so. Though I wouldn’t have thought to hear a young lord say it,” she admits with a soft chuckle.

“Most of my work is for the Night Court,” she explains then, in case he hasn’t put together the pieces and gathered the source of her evident wealth, “and these days there’s ink of mine on the back of pretty near every courtesan in Marsilikos. It gets hard to tell them apart,” she says honestly, “though she,” she nods to the door through which the adept lately passed, “is a witty one and doesn’t take herself too seriously, so she’s always a treat to work on. She’s been coming to me for about a year and a half now — she won’t be much longer.”

With this sage judgment she takes her hands off her hips and beckons Étienne with her through the purple door, and into a long and ill-lit passageway cluttered with canvases both hung upon the walls and propped against them. Scenes of Marsilikos and the surrounding coast, as far as an eye new to these environs might judge as he’s whisked along past several closed doors.

Étienne sees her surprise and guesses at its cause. “I think… perhaps there is so much focus on…” He waves his hands, rather at a loss. He settles on: “Effect. When they are young, they are making themselves into art. I met one who was retired who was different. More real than most of us I think and fascinating to talk to, if frightening. These others, I think I would mostly want to look at. What does one say to a fountain or a wave? I would not know where to begin.” And he is clearly thinking about talking and not the more obvious interest a young lord might have in a woman who looked like that. He looks in the direction the adept went. “I think I would like witty, in your position, and I know I like people who don’t take themselves seriously the best, so I am glad you have someone to practice your art on who is entertaining in herself…. Oh! Do you have copies of any of your designs? I’ve never actually seen a marque.”

He slows when he sees the canvases, and squints at them trying to catch glimpses as they go by. “Did you do these?”

Never… actually… Claude’s eyebrows lift, though out of Étienne’s sight, as she pushes open the door to what proves to be a crowded and practical workroom, such as many an artisan in Marsilikos must pass the time in. The sights include infinite bottles, jars, and flasks; a fireplace at one end of the room and a stove at the other; and a large, solid, ancient table that wouldn’t disgrace a farmhouse, with tea things at one end and, opposite, a lavish scattering of gold coins next to an open leatherbound ledger. “I did,” she confesses as if to a sin, “but I’m not much of a painter, all in all…” Realising belatedly what she’s left out she whisks the coins off the table into her hand, and thence her bodice; with her back to Étienne she carries on speaking.

“Never? Haven’t you? … Well, there are thirteen marques in Elua,” she explains, seizing upon the professional question prior to the implied personal admission, “not counting the independent courtesans who choose their own — and I learned a few of those when I went up there to help out,” which sojourn in the capital she leaves vague, “but in Marsilikos there are only seven. Five,” she emphasizes, “when I took over the shop, but there’s the Glycine and the Coeur de Lavande since, and I helped design those. Don’t look bad at all, I don’t think,” she admits with a note of pride in her voice as, shutting the ledger, she turns back to Étienne. “The Rose Sauvage, now, they have three different, though that was before my time. You’ve really not…” She colours, as much as if she’d been dancing. “I’m sorry, my lord, it just comes as a bit of a surprise. The Night Court of Marsilikos, well, it’s the glory of the south,” she explains.

Étienne is far more interested in the bottles, jars and flasks than in coins and accounts. “I’d be interested to see your paintings. It looked like you had landscapes and the like from the glimpse I had, and I would like to see your designs too. Are they as lovely as your arms?”

He blushes then, realising how this must sound. By way of apology he says, “I’ve been advised to talk less and smile more. I am not so good at it yet.”

He is not embarrassed by that which made her blush. “Symon and I have talked a bit about going to see the dancing and maybe doing a bit of gambling, but there have been more interesting things to see and do first. He went to a party sort of event at… was it Glycine? I think it might have been, but it wasn’t really to his taste, though he liked the gambling. So odds are we’ll go and try our luck some night at that.”

“Oh!” And Claude, shaking her head, can’t help but laugh. “It’s all right,” she admits, regarding his flushed face, “I know people usually want to look.” And, deliberately, she takes a step nearer and holds out her arms to let him inspect the intricate patterns that begin at her wrists and disappear beneath the rolled-up sleeves of her chemise. She looks up into his eyes, neither shy nor bold but tolerably comfortable with him after his fine and courteous performance the other night. “There’s nothing wrong with your talk, m— Étienne,” she pronounces carefully. “Except your friend might not like you to talk about him as much as you do, to people like me.”

Étienne keeps his hands carefully clasped behind his back so as not to threaten her with even the appearance of intent to touch as he leans close to properly study her tattoos. He really does seem to like following the patterns, “These are very… soothing.” He straightens and flashes her an encouraging smile at the use of his name, though he blushes and looks down again at her gentle admonishment. “Sometimes I wish I were clever, but I suspect it’s really much more work.” He is thinking of his cousin, though he has sense not to mention him.

“… Soothing?” chuckles Claude, who can’t help but give him a funny crooked-mouthed look as she draws back again. Then she smacks a firm and decisive hand down upon the table next to her and takes a few steps toward the staircase that coils upward in the corner of the room. “Fanchon!” she calls. “Fanchon!” She’s answered by footsteps clattering across the floorboards overhead and down the stairs, and the appearance (feet first, then skirts, then the whole) of a well-scrubbed young maidservant who, sighting Étienne, bobs a curtsey.

Claude meanwhile is counting out coins from her purse. “Will you go out for a roast chicken,” she says, though by its nature it’s more an order than a request, “and a bottle of something, and—” She hesitates, and emits a meditative sigh. “Look in at Madame Clélie’s, and see if she has any fresh grapes. Green, or red if not. And whatever else looks good,” she says, placing another silver piece on the table for Fanchon to pick up, “and something for yourself.” Silver again, this being a comfortably profligate household. “And run, won’t you?” she says.

“Yes, madame,” says Fanchon happily, taking up the coins and tucking them away and smoothing her clean apron as she goes out via the door Claude left ajar.

Étienne gives Fanchon a benign, easygoing smile, as he unpins his cloak. “Oh! Grapes would go well with the cheese, I imagine.” He carefully folds his cloak and sets it out of the way. “I like it here. It seems like a very cosy sort of home and workshop.” After a pause, he inquires, “What shall we do while we wait?”

As Fanchon goes out in search of provisions Claude intercepts Étienne’s cloak and shows it the way to the back of a chair. “… Thank you,” she says, giving him another quick smile. “Well, we could look out those pictures. Upstairs somewhere,” she confides with a quick upwards flick of her fine dark eyes. “I don’t know off the top of my head, but it might come to me while we look. It’s not much of a reception to give you, though, my lor— d Étienne,” she pronounces carefully, having lost her way and reverted to caution halfway through.

Her young friend studies her, making sure she really means it, “If you will trust me so far, I would happily keep you company while you look.” A self-conscious smile, “I really would love to see them and hear the stories that go with them.” He is well aware that he is a young lord, with all that implies as far as danger even to so uncommon a commoner.

Claude looks steadily back at him. “… Was it your Grandmère,” she wonders quietly, gently, “who brought you up to understand so well how these things are?”

Étienne looks at her with real surprise, “Is it a thing needing teaching? To imagine how things might be for another and to try to…act well with that in mind?” But then he really thinks about it properly and looks sad about his conclusions, “I suppose it is, and that far too many learn it badly.” He straightens, “I am not clever, but I do pay attention to people, if that makes sense.”

“… Runs in your family,” Claude observes again, sombre rather than smiling. But then she beckons him with her, as she mounts the spiralling wrought-iron staircase in the corner of the workroom, down which Fanchon lately came. She tucks in her fichu as she goes, neatly concealing flesh and ink alike before he has occasion to see the front of her again.

The chamber above is a long rectangle covering salon and workroom alike, with the oriel window at the front end and a door to another chamber at the back. The larger pieces of furniture are all of the first quality and would disgrace no noble household; the occasional pieces, the little chairs and tables and stools, the draperies and the fancies, are all in Claude’s own polychromatic style, unmistakably so, whether their cost was great or little. Her eye makes order of chaos; there isn’t a corner where she hasn’t worked her particular magic. One wall has umpteen sketches pinned upon it, haphazardly so, parchment layered over parchment even as her skirts are layered over her coloured petticoats. A study of a building here; a nude there; a flowering plant half-covering the nude, taking precedence by its rarity.

Remembering her comments the night they met he smiles self consciously, “But Claude is also clever.” Meaning his sister. He is rather wondering if this is the sort of woman his sister will grow into if one allows for the obvious differences like type of needles and a ‘de’ in front of one name and not the other. Instead he says as he follows her up, “I think our Claude would like you.” He takes a slow look around the whole room, “Oh! I imagine the light in here is of a fine quality even in winter while it lasts!”

“Oh,” says Claude, once again disclaiming an assumption made by her callow friend, “not in here, no.” She presses open another door, which yields upon a narrow, unlit wooden staircase.

Her flat-soled leather shoes climb the stairs with a swift slapping confidence, past a wide landing round which several doors are gathered — those left open shed a little light — and then up another flight, into what in any other house would be the servants’ quarters. The temperature drops as they climb, from something tropical into coolness and then true cold.

At the last she leads Étienne up into a blaze of light.

The late afternoon sun comes hard and bright through the wall of large and expensive glass panes which fronts upon the grand plaza outside. Extraordinary light, in plenitude.

In here? Two easels with canvases upon them — a low table cluttered with paints and brushes against the wall near the windows — clusters of cushions — a stool here, a stool there — in the long rectangular chamber’s darker depths, dozens of stacked canvases.

Her callow friend is very hard to deflate in such a buoyant mood, though he is soon wondering if he surrendered his cloak a scooch to soon. Then they arrive. “Oh. Oh my!”

He spins slowly, watching the way the light hits various surfaces. Then he is bouncing over on those soft, well-dyed boots to peer at the half-done canvases, not all all less enthusiastic at the odd way things often look in the earlier stages. “This is all marvelous. You must love having somewhere like this to work!”

Claude meanwhile is pulling other, unframed canvases off the piles, or out from in between their fellows, and making faces at each layer of her history she unearths. “Don’t look at those,” she insists, with a suddenly pleading note in her voice, when Étienne strays too near her easels: “I don’t know what I’m doing till I’ve done it.” One is a seascape, another a study of a nude man from behind — the picture she’s waving at him, suddenly, is an incomplete but evocative view of one of those pink-walled palaces she enticed him with. Well, pink and gold — and blue at the windows — and there’s a gondola passing before it, under an arching bridge…

https://images.curiator.com/images/t_x/art/u6drr13z037bpohnf2du/john-singer-sargent-ponte-san-giuseppe-di-castello-venice-1903.jpg

Étienne dutifully steps away from the easels, though they’re interesting too, the way watching people cooking or smithing is interesting. He is the sort of person who likes knowing the process of how things are made even if he isn’t personally ever going to make that particular thing — but this is her inner sanctum, and manners are manners. “Who really does know what they are doing until they’ve done it?” He tucks his hands behind his back again, this time not so much as to make her feel safe about her person, but as a silent promise not to touch anything potentially wet and thus easily damaged. “Or at least I usually don’t, but it’s nearly always interesting to find out.”

He comes peaceably over to her and looks really impressed, “Oh! It’s captured the… the soul of the place, even if it’s not all the way polished up! I love this! Oh, and the light on the stone!” He subsides into silence and takes a few steps back to try it at a distance and then close up to see the brush work. “It’s very different in a good way, I think.”

Claude can’t decide whether to be delighted or deprecating, when her noble visitor announces himself so approving of what she isn’t wholly certain of herself, now that she’s giving it a good look again — albeit upside-down.

She bends slightly to prop it up against a stack of larger pieces and then stands back next to Étienne. “I did this last summer,” she recalls, nodding to the canvas in her hands: it isn’t very large, twenty inches by sixteen. “I was trying to recapture my early manner,” which artistic pomposity she deflates by means of a wrinkled nose, “though it’s as hard now to paint like I did then as it is to dance like I did then, or think like. We change with the times and there’s not much going back, is there. I stopped trying after a while," though now she sounds thoughtful, her doe-like brown eyes narrowed at her aborted study of the light of La Serenissima, revealed now to the light of Marsilikos.

The visitor himself is decided in his views and a face that honest could hardly be hiding serious flattery. He really does seem to mean it. Unlacing his hands he points, very careful not to touch. "Look here, at the way the shorter rougher brushstrokes capture the roughness of the paving stones just there, and up here, the way the smoother strokes capture the way the light gently caresses the smoother stone of the pillars." He catches her eyes then, the blue of the sea near La Serenissima meeting her doe-eyed brown, "It's not a finished painting, but you are capturing something a more finished work might not. Perhaps… instead of trying to make exactly what was, you could paint it as who you are now with the skills you have now looking back. The mood would be different, but it might be really beautiful."

Putting her hands on her hips Claude huffs out a breath. She still looks dubious — though, at the same time, more sure of herself than the night they met at the Leaping Fish. She stands differently in her own house.

"I was faster with my brushes, then, too," she admits, "I think that's what I can't do now. I think about it too much, and then I go back and fiddle with it too much." Deciding, in a trice, to stop fiddling with this one at least, she says, "If you like it, take it. Might brighten up your room at the inn, eh?"

Étienne cocks his head, thinking it over, "Do you want to be faster again? To be more of the moment? I've a thought, though I don't know enough of art to tell if it's a good one." His eyes go wide, "You'd give me this?" He blushes, though for the kindness of the gift or in anticipation of what he says next, "I was… thinking of taking some rooms."

Claude makes a face, which on her looks rather more cheerful than grotesque, and melts swiftly back into her usual lively prettiness. "You told me that, didn't you? I remember now," she says, that familiar note of apology absent for a wonder from her voice. "Then it might brighten up some other room, when you find a place you like. I've too many," she admits, with a gesture at her stockpile; "I've always got too many. You'd be welcome to it, if you really do like it. I'm not sure how much it really looks like La Serenissima, though," she adds in the spirit of honesty; "it's only how I remember it." She pauses. "What was your thought, then?"

Étienne gives her a boyish grin in response to that face she made. He is cheerful himself, and he likes not just the painting, but her, and most of all to be helpful for those he likes.

"It looks like La Serenissima of my imaginings, so that's all right either way. Someday it will hang on the wall of a chamber of a house on a cliff with a wild November storm raging outside, and remind me of warm places and good friends, yes? And so it is valuable for that even if the likeness is not exact."

He blushes again, looking down. "What if you had to paint very fast? What if… you did a series of quick practice drawings where you only had a few minutes to capture— the spirit of what you are working on. Its essence in a few quick strokes.” He looks up, concerned his idea will reveal him as a fool, "Like the shape of a vase caught in a few quick lines, or the sense of a horse in motion caught in several wavy lines…. They wouldn't be paintings really, just quick drawings to throw away after, but sort of like my stretches before sword practice, designed to loosen one up."

When he looks up he finds Claude smiling the kind of conspiratorial smile that lights her eyes as well as curving her lips, that shows the lovely girl she was once upon a time and the fine-looking woman she's d'Angeline enough that she'll probably always be. "What you say is just how I draw," she reveals softly, "most of the time — but how I paint, that's different. Painting takes longer just because of what it is. To get the colours just right, and build up the depth here and the shadow there," her ink-blotched fingers flit through the air, again putting her view of La Serenissima into service as an example, "and every stroke of the brush just how you want it… Painting takes longer," she says again, "and maybe that's why I like it. I like quick sketches too, though. I suppose," she inhales, and favours him with a little shake of her head, "I like what I'm doing."

She takes another step back, and then returns to the chaos of canvases she's spreading all over her atelier. The top layer seems to be floral studies, uncannily lifelike, the blooms of late summer giving away to the blossoms of spring. "I know I still have a few of the old ones," she remarks to Étienne without turning round, "though I don't know when I last saw them, except one or two…"

Étienne thinks she is beautiful, of course. He thought the same watching her dance, though he hasn't thought about it one way or another much since, what with pustules and punches and courtesy. He is thinking it again now, and she surprises another of those boyish smiles from him, entirely unconscious on his part. "Why not try painting like to draw a little. Just use one color of paint and…not a canvas. Maybe something simple you can wash or throw away after. Sketches in paint, just as a warm up before you paint for real, to open your style up…. but it's probably a very silly idea." He smiles a self-mocking smile, "I did warn you I'm not the clever one in my family, and I like what you do. I will hang the picture proudly once I'm settled."

He peers at the flowers, "Are these for marques or for fun?"

By now Claude has advanced so far through stacked canvases that she has run straight up against a pile that simply can't be got at till the others are moved. Sighing her pique she turns back, catching her skirts on the corners of canvases and unhooking them again with a familiar casual impatience.

"Oh, they're for fun," she answers; "marques are a bit more… the idea of the thing, rather than the thing itself. I like flowers, though," she explains simply. "Lucky I do, I daresay, in my line of work. I don't know about painting like drawing," she admits, beginning again to hide the faces of her flowers from the southern sun's overwhelming light, "I don't know how it would feel. I might try it one day, though, eh?" This, like Étienne's compliments, is no mere politeness: she does like a good experiment. "I'm sorry I couldn't find more to show you. I think it'd take more time than we have before lunch — a week, say," she chuckles.

Étienne is all cheekiness and dimples, "Ah! But then I shall have to come back and visit again…. May I help you with those? Or is it best done a particular way?"

That wasn't a thing Claude was fishing for — but she's amenable. "Oh," she says an instant later, flashing him a quick smile before looking back to what she's doing, "if you like… It's all right, I can manage." And soon she has everything back more or less where it was when they came in, and she's carrying her incomplete study of that palace on the Grand Canal down the stairs again. "Might be better that you don't take this today, if you're coming back. I'll see about framing it. I don't frame them all," she admits with another chuckle, "there'd be no sense in it. But a frame makes it sturdier for hanging, and for carrying about to and fro."

Étienne helps carefully as much as she lets him, while being very careful with the canvases and trying to stay out of her way. "Oh yes! I would like it framed and I'll happily come back next week if I am welcome. Sturdy is best. I want it to last." He follows along amiably as he talks, careful of his footing on the dark stairs.

As before Claude moves confidently on these stairs she's been running up and down every day since she learned to walk. "You're being very flattering today," she observes to the stairs ahead of her. "Are you only just starting your own art collection, then, my lord? Étienne," she corrects herself, holding the painting one-handed against her hip as she pushes open the door they left ajar behind them and leads the way into her long, colourful sitting-room, where the maid Fanchon is unloading a capacious tray onto a table drawn up next to the oriel window. It has been cleared of books and papers, stacked now in neighbouring chairs.

Étienne's stomach is growling audibly as he trails after her. "I suppose I am, but more through accident and your generosity than intention. I just like beautiful things, new places, exciting new foods and interesting people… and this is a beautiful thing depicting a new place painted by an interesting person. It’s my first painting, yes."

“… Very flattering,” Claude pronounces again, more firmly this time, “though I surely hope it won’t be your last, since you’ve a real liking. There’s many buy paintings just for something to put on their walls and tell the neighbours about. I suppose it’s a living for the artists, at least, but there’s not a one wouldn’t rather be paid by someone with a liking.” And she establishes his picture propped against to the wall beside the door, where he won’t forget to take it with him.

The exciting new foods that might complete Étienne’s delight are, hélas, in short supply, but Claude traces the scent of roast chicken to a shopping-basket in another chair and joins Fanchon in laying out a lunch comprised of more familiar fare from the best of the occasional and permanent vendors of viands within a block or two of the Grand Plaza. A fresh crusty baguette more than big enough to feed two, and fresh-churned butter with it; Étienne’s own offering of northern camembert on a little plate; grapes red and white, from the city’s ample hothouses; cured sausage from Caerdicca Unitas, which Fanchon knows her mistress not only enjoys but is willing to pay over the odds for… Wait, is that new and exciting? It may be to a lad from Azzalle — though not to Claude, who steals a slice and pops it folded into her mouth in between unpacking the rest of that basket’s fragrant and fortuitous contents. “Whatever else looks good,” she said earlier: now she explores Fanchon’s found treats like a little girl showered with natality gifts, exclaiming softly to herself over the roundness of the grapes, the plentiful garlic to be found in the salami, the earthy scent of the red wine in the bottle she uncorks.

Étienne says, "And I'd much rather a painting that matters. This one is a whole story in itself. I will think of both La Serenissima and you when I look at it." He surveys her bounty with some interest, "I think this will all go very well together…. Oooo! What's that cured meat sort of thing? I don't think I've seen those before! Are they a local specialty?"

Somehow Claude already has her mouth full again, meals under her roof being casual affairs at best: only for company are the books swept from the table. She swallows. “No, the sausage is Caerdicci,” she explains; “that is, it’s from the Caerdicci butcher here in Marsilikos, who’s a second cousin of my mother’s brother’s wife. The grapes, those are grown nearby — the south is full of vineyards… I always have my bread from the same baker,” and she goes on, mapping this part of the city for him in tastes and scents and colours, for to her each shop is identifiable chiefly by the hues of shutters and tiled floors, and each market-stall by its signage and its proprietor’s customary dress. “… And I must wash my hands,” she concludes, brandishing her inky paws. “But don’t wait for me,” she insists, “you look so hungry listening to me go on.”

Étienne tries the Caerdicci sausage with some interest, "This is really good. I've not tasted anything like it!" He listens to her talk with some interest. It is always useful to know where good food is. His table manners are good, but he tries everything and eats with the enthusiasm of a several hours late for lunch young man offered a spread of good wholesome food.

Claude leaves him to it and bustles away through the door at the far end of the room, which leads to her bedchamber. Her two best and biggest paintings of La Serenissima — a view of its great piazza, and another showing a humbler but more beloved square — look down upon her, and she rather consideringly up at them, as she subjects her hands to a thorough scrubbing that leaves them as clean as they'll ever be before she returns to the table and her guest. No, she really can't get those down by herself, they're too heavy. But next week… ah, next week.

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