(1310-12-19) Counting Ten
Summary: Étienne thinks he knows what it is he wants from Emmanuelle.
RL Date: 01/01/2019 - 02/01/2019
Related: Talk Less, Smile More.
emmanuelle etienne 

A Completely Made-Up Place

For a young man who grew up in the back of beyond in Azzalle and who finds himself now in the City of Elua, virtually on the eve of the Longest Night, every corner turned affords some new sight tantalising to the senses or enriching to the imagination, or both. Even when his boon companion Symon de Perigeux is too busy or too weary to get out and about with him, Étienne d'Arguil can't stand to waste a moment of his charmed winter in the capital: thus it is that he's once again exploring the noble quarter of the city, admiring the architecture, bowing to the few well-dressed strollers, keeping an eye out for— well, for whatever he might happen upon. Such as, in the event, an equipage oddly familiar, for he has passed it a number of times in the streets of Marsilikos: an unmarked black carriage, light and well-sprung and of the finest make, drawn by four matched black geldings and attended, here as there, by armed guardsmen in Mereliot colours…

Curiosity may already have drawn him closer — or perhaps that's just the direction his steps were tending in anyway? — when a small door opens in a high wall.

The man who emerges therefrom, tall and proud in his carriage, clad in a greatcoat of black wool and a tricorne hat set upon a head of long, lustrous blue-black braids, is at first glance Kusheline — and at second glance indubitably Lord Baltasar Shahrizai, whose mistress once assigned to him the task of escorting a squiffy and chatty Étienne d'Arguil from a harbourside cookshop to his chamber at the Leaping Fish, via an alleyway wherein Nature's call was amply answered. His sapphire eyes meet Étienne's and hold them, hard, for the length of a breath before he addresses himself to the window of the black carriage, presently ajar.

Étienne blushes to his ears at the sight of Lord Baltasar Shahrizai, who was witness to his thoroughly disgracing himself back in Marsilikos, but he lifts his chin and looks right back. "Lord Baltasar," he greets in his politest tone, and then angles himself to try to get a peek in the window in case a certain someone to whom he would like to speak is inside.

From the Shahrizai lord he receives a sardonic bow; "My lord."

The interior of the carriage is all shadow — but a low, dark, drawling uisghe-voice the Azzallese lordling has cause to recall from similar embarrassments inquires from within, "Is that Étienne d'Arguil I hear at my window—?"

And now a sidelong glance eloquent in its disapproval of so impertinent a stare. Baltasar inclines his own sanctioned head toward the opening, and the dark satin curtain just visible, just touched by the breeze. "Yes, my lady."

Étienne bows hurriedly, with typical embarrassed sincerity. When he straightens, he does so with determination, "It is, My Lady." He agrees, and stubbornly adds, "I… have thought long on our last conversation and have thought of… an answer. To what it is I wanted of you."

A pause. "… Have you," drawls Emmanuelle Shahrizai darkly.

But she recalls her words, her rash offer tendered to this wild northern sprig of the Baphinol tree; and inside the carriage she composes herself for his intrusion upon what she had supposed would be a longer period of solitary tranquility. "Get in," she directs, "and you may ride with me as far as my next appointment."

On which note she draws shut the window and secures the catch firmly in place.

Her words are of course more for the benefit of Baltasar, who is already reaching for the door when it bursts open seemingly of its own accord. He stands then half-bowed, with a hand ready to assist Étienne in climbing inside.

Overhead a tiny glass lantern, home to a single candle, illuminates this black-on-black jewel-box of a conveyance in which the seats front and back are upholstered in black velvet and the walls in gleaming night-dark satin, studded with onyx. But before even sight, the overwhelming impression is of Emmanuelle's scent, familiar from previous meetings, but pent up now within this small space: sharply spicy at first breath and then leathery and mossy, hinting of musk… She herself sits sprawled across the back seat, entirely still, entirely at her ease, doing nothing but permeate the air with her personality and her cologne.

Her breeches and her voluminous leather coat are likewise black, their details difficult to make out among the shadows but for the odd glint of burnished gold: a golden chain here and a button there, a golden spur at the heel of a soft leather boot propped now against the wall of the carriage after kicking open the door of it to admit her visitor. Her face, though, is in the light. Beneath the forward point of a tricorne hat rather like Baltasar's but more delicate, with a touch of gilding upon its upturned brim, her heavy-lidded eyes are waiting for Étienne: an advance guard for the sheer force of her presence, they pierce like twin spear-points. Baltasar meanwhile has shut the door and the line of retreat.

Étienne bows deep, "Thank you, milady. I very much appreciate your patience."

He flashes her one of his most grateful smiles, and mounts her carriage with characteristic grace, taking the offered hand politely, but with little weight. He looks about him, "Oh! This is lovely and exactly right!" Meaning the carriage. "Comfortable and everything well made, but elegant instead of showy the way most people do theirs… Sorry." He realises he is wasting her time with his babble and takes a deep breath to focus himself.

He meets her eyes, despite the sheer intimidation of her presence and says with a quiet firmness, "I think I need to be more like you." He tries again, "Not… I'm not asking to learn Mandrake arts or… or anything like that." He tries again, "I mean if I am to travel in these circles I need to be… what I'm not, but what I could be. I need to be more like you and I don't know how." He closes his eyes, braced for her contempt.

Baltasar reclaims his seat upon the box and the carriage rolls smoothly into motion, at a pace which inevitably varies according to the press of traffic in a city thronged with winter visitors. Inside, Emmanuelle maintains her patient silence through these boyish Baphinol babblings: a habit of hers, giving her interlocutors rope enough to hang themselves, and then either disentangling them from their nooses or administering one of her quick booted kicks, according to her pleasure… Once Étienne has shut his eyes and squared his body upon the seat opposite hers, the better to withstand the worst, she's quiet even a little longer, contemplating the chore ahead: disentangling such uncertain and unformed desires.

In addressing him she adopts a tolerant and tutelary tone.

"You wish to be more like me." A beat. "But without studying the arts of a Mandrake — and without, one presumes, transforming yourself into a woman, or bearing children, or labouring years in Eisheth's infirmary. I must tell you, Lord Étienne, I am at a loss to understand in what remotely significantly aspect you seek to imitate me. Perhaps you ought to have thought longer, before coming to me."

Étienne is far too deep in to give up at this point. It's drown or swim to the other side.

He says quietly, "You are strong and clever and… better at surviving, like a shark in a school of mackerel." He opens his eyes and looks at her, "I am too soft and… not nearly clever enough, and I don't want to be eaten."

"… Child," sighs Emmanuelle at the end of another ominous pause, "I am twice your age and I have lived my years in another world. I imagine," and by the light of the single candle in that lantern which sways with each turn of the carriage's wheels, she rakes the young man with another cool blue glance, top to toe, "that mine was in most respects a harsher school. But why concern yourself? You will return, in time, to your home in Azzalle; you know its people, you know its ways, you are fitted for the life there, and no doubt you will thrive upon it. A great part of wisdom and of happiness consists in arranging a life which suits one's own nature."

Étienne shakes his head, "But I want to be better than I am, and I… don't really fit anywhere. It's like I always have one foot somewhere else wherever I happen to be planted. I can't be all one thing. It… itches and aches." He studies her, "I look at you and it's like you are an oak and I'm an acorn, and I… can't quite figure out how to get from here to there. I do know that it's not a good idea to stay an acorn."

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Great Success. (6 7 8 4 1 6 3 6 1 2 5 1 7 1 7)

"You do talk a lot of shit," observes the erstwhile Dowayne of Mandrake House, in a newly bracing tone and with a more pronounced curl to her immaculately painted red mouth as she utters the expletive. "No one alive is all one thing, or ought to be — though I will stipulate," and she holds up a graceful hand encased in a glove of fine, thin, dark red leather, "without granting that you know me as well as you seem to think you might," she states with a suitably quelling air, "that I unite a more pronounced set of dichotomies than most. But it is absurd, child, for you to seek to pattern yourself after any other person, and to call that 'being better': you won't settle into your skin by replacing it with another."

Étienne looks at her steadily, "Ah! Yes! I don't know you at all really, but that… the uniting of dichotomies, is what I am trying to do, I think. I'm not quite as foolish as I know I look. I know we aren't the same, but I am trying to start a similar journey and I do need to be more able to survive and move in the world. You are far more yourself than I can ever hope to be, but I do want… to…" He waves his hands hopelessly, "I was wrong to have bothered you. Your advice was good before; I'll keep working on that."

"You still," Emmanuelle diagnoses, in a tone of considerable weariness, "don't know what you want. Except to be handed a set of answers to questions you can't yet express. Child—" She breathes in and holds it — is she counting ten? — and then with an almost pitying shake of her head she explains: "For your cousin's sake, I am favourably inclined toward you; but I cannot simply quote to you a few precepts, or give you a book to read, and call that a substitute for lived experience. How old are you?" she asks with her usual bluntness.

Étienne sighs, "That's fair. I know full well you don't have answers for me and they likely wouldn't mean anything yet if you did. I've not reason to expect my interest in you to be reciprocated…. Twenty-one."

The tilt of the carriage suggests that it has begun to climb some gentle incline, more conducive to Emmanuelle's comfort nestled into the cushioned back seat than to Étienne's as he must — in every sense — maintain his balance across from her.

Her boldly-drawn eyebrows lift; "I thought you younger," she drawls, “perhaps eighteen, or nineteen. Tell me, how have you passed your one-and-twenty years in this world, Étienne d'Arguil? Besides discovering for yourself company so unsuitable your family felt their only course was to send you away? What are your accomplishments?"

Étienne’s regret is real, “Nothing much of value. I have come to realise that for myself of late. I want to do better, but am too honest with myself to be sure I will. I have been careless and lazy of thought.”

They are of course climbing Mont Nuit: and this equipage which till a handful of months ago had the very seal of Mandrake House blazoned upon its doors, passes through that house's gates unchallenged. The familiar change in the shape of the cobbles beneath the carriage wheels warns Emmanuelle, at least, that her present purgatorial interview is reaching its close.

One, two, three… Ten. "… You know your faults so well," she drawls then, "that I hardly need give you my opinion. I fail to see the purpose of this conversation, child; you would do better to take your fears and your confessions to a priest."

Étienne nods, “Yes, I will. I have wasted your time. I am sorry. I will not trouble you again.”

At the curving terminus of a driveway otherwise ramrod-straight Emmanuelle’s dark carriage halts outside a veritable palace of dark stone, set amidst formal gardens of a strictness which permits no twig to grow at an unauthorised angle, no leaf to unfurl beyond its proper place. In this season, beneath an overcast sky, the bare branches and the dark greenery and the paths and statues of weathered grey stone must seem doubly forbidding.

She herself sits up straight at last, and claims from the leather strap which holds it safe against the carriage wall a polished ebony cane tipped with a Mereliot fish finely-wrought in silver. Baltasar is already on the ground, opening the door for her and bowing low. Suddenly chill air infiltrates the black jewel-box, leavening the scent of Emmanuelle’s formidable cologne: though within these grounds there’s not a sound to be heard but the whicker of a horse, the soft jingle of harness, a word exchanged between the guardsmen in their fish-featuring tabards.

“They’ll drop you off in the street,” she informs Étienne, within Baltasar’s hearing to ensure the instruction is properly relayed. “Apply yourself to something, Lord Étienne: what it is matters less than that you commit yourself to it. Get yourself laid more often, you look as though you could do with it,” she opines crisply: a professional opinion. “And, indeed, don’t presume to approach me again unless you have something of interest to say to me.”

On that note she alights; and the last he sees of her is the tails of her dark leather coat swirling in her wake as she strides confidently and without a backward glance up a flight of monumental stone steps toward the great iron-banded doors of Mandrake House.

Then that view too is cut off, by Baltasar shutting the carriage door.

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