(1310-12-20) Sporting Luncheon
Summary: Étienne calls upon Chimène bearing gifts, including an apology.
RL Date: 14/01/2019 - 17/01/2019
Related: Swan Dive, Talking Piffle.
chimene etienne 

Rousse Residence — City of Elua

Since its ceremonial reopening for the winter season the Rousse family's residence in the City of Elua, a walled-off palace on the best side of one of the noble district's most fashionable squares, has been masquerading as a hothouse. Fresh arrangements of out-of-season blooms arrive daily for the lady Chimène, from cousins and friends and aspiring lovers; and even from faithful patrons of Eglantine House who still in their cups speak of what it was to see her dance… Her maids triage these offerings, of course, and disperse them about the house in the chambers she's most accustomed to occupy. There are also in residence lady cousins who receive from time to time floral tributes of their own. Altogether it's a heady atmosphere, made more so by the ladies' own perfumes as they rustle in and out of the house in a rainbow of extravagant gowns, bent upon parties and pleasures.

This afternoon — fading gently into this evening — it’s dark outside, but nobody has noticed save for the servants detailed to draw shut umpteen sets of velvet drapes and light an extra regiment of candles — well, they have a far greater present preoccupation, these dozen or so idle perfumed aristocrats gathered with the lady of the house in the suite of reception rooms which extend in the old style all the way along the first floor of the palace to the ducal suite itself. Étienne d’Arguil, having been escorted up the winding marble stair from the first floor by a lackey in powdered wig and pristine Rousse livery, is shown through several vast chambers empty but for the candlelight glowing upon ormolu-adorned furnishings of walnut and mahogany, before the flashes of colour and echoes of laughter he can hear ahead of him take their final form, in an even more expansive space hung with seafaring tapestries, the floor of which is chiefly taken up with a sort of maze laid out with candlesticks and other found objects and velvet ribbons strung close to the ground.

Five lobsters are making their uncertain and painstakingly slow way around this course, each with a narrow silk ribbon of a different colour tied in a bow round its midsection.

The lobster in the pale pink ribbon has just wandered out of bounds for no particular reason, giving rise to a great altercation amongst sporting enthusiasts — luckily, a beautiful young man from Bryony House, with a little black notebook in his hand, is present to adjudicate!

Chimène Rousse de la Courcel is gazing raptly at a lobster decked out in her particular shade of blue, her hands clasped at her bosom and a whisper of “Oh, come on, you beauty—!” lingering upon her lips, when the lackey who has forestalled Étienne upon the threshold of one chamber and the next makes so bold as to attract her attention with a subtle, apologetic cough.

“… Oh, what is it?” she exclaims, vexed to be drawn away from her amusement. A distinct pout is visible upon those classically lovely features moulded from ivory; she turns the rest of the way, to look from the lackey to Étienne, without recognition lending any colour to her visage. Her smooth dark head is however tilted toward that powdered wig, and she nods and nods again, slowly, in token of the responsibility she accepts because she can hardly shirk it.

And then she smoothes her skirts with miraculously white hands and steps past the lackey en route to greet her unexpected guest. Who is, alas, no antic crustacean. “… Lord d’Arguil,” she breathes, offering him one pristine pale paw, whilst behind her the first lobster rounds the bend and the shouts of intoxicated delight from her other visitors reach a new pitch.

Étienne is wearing a very fashionable short-cut tunic of forest green with black brocade leaf and vine inspired embroidery. His good quality green and black parti-coloured hose and pointy toed boots dyed green perfectly match. His glossy black hair hangs loose in thick curls. Over his arm hangs a green and black beribboned basket containing a fresh wheel of camembert cheese, out of season red and black grapes, assorted nuts, some very cute bite-sized marzipan animals in festive colours, violet pastilles, and a very good bottle of wine chosen with excellent taste to match the other provisions.

The heir to Berck gives her his deepest and most graceful bow, managing the basket expertly, even as he reaches to brush his lips lightly over her knuckles. His hand is rough with a swordsman’s calluses, but his lips are soft and dry and the light touch of them is respectful. Everything is perfectly correct for their difference in station. “My Lady, I have come to tender my sincerest apologies for my unforgivable blunders. May I offer you this small token of my regard?”

The lady's good manners make her temporarily deaf to the excitement at her back. Her fingers barely curl into the young lord's; two of them, he can hardly help discerning as he bends to bestow his courteous kiss, are adorned with significant gemstones from the Rousse treasure-trove. (On her left hand it's three.)

Then she withdraws her silky touch in favour of a silky murmur of: "Oh, you're very kind, my lord, to think of it. But you need not have worried so — Lord Symon has paid his shot with me, you know."

Nonetheless both large white hands extend to curl, glittering, about the handle of the proffered basket. Her wide and clear hazel eyes lower for the most fleeting inspection of its contents — bottle, foodstuffs, yes, yes, the usual ephemeral treats for a woman who can hardly be presumed to lack anything more solid and tangible and lasting — before she passes it, without turning from Étienne, to the footman. He bows to her and withdraws carrying it.

"Thank you so much," Chimène says graciously, lowering her chin and offering Étienne a demure smile. Even in her bare feet she would be taller than him; in soft leather shoes with modest heels, dyed to match her simple gown in that mazarine-blue she and her lobster both favour, she overtops him distinctly, a swan whose wingspan would be formidable were her jeweled hands not clasped now demurely before her waist.

"… Tell me, how are you enjoying Elua?"

Étienne blushes a little and looks down, "But I had not."

He looks up at her from under long dark lashes, "He's very hard to stay angry at isn't he? I fear I can never be as charming, but I am certainly as contrite. My ignorance and rudeness were both appalling, I know. I truly am sorry." And then she is asking him about Elua and he straightens, smiling up at her, all dimples and bright eyes and fresh faced boyish delight at the wonder of it all, "Oh, my lady! There is nothing like it anywhere and we've been having adventures and just… looking at things and trying new foods and he taught me to play kottabos and… I have never seen a lobster race before, nor anything quite as wonderful as your house!"

There's a fresh outburst as the contestants inch their way around the course, kept in it less by any sense of their awesome responsibility and the great sums riding upon their progress, than by a native instinct to escape the shouting, the squealing, the jumping and the dashing, outside its bounds; still Chimène keeps her back resolutely to all the fun, because being a well-known young hostess can sometimes be no fun whatsoever. But the boy's adolescent earnestness renders her fractionally better-disposed toward the interruption — at least till he compliments the wrong thing, and halts the series of tiny nods by which she has been encouraging him to voice his thoughts.

"Well, it's hardly my house, you know," she points out, with an affectation of modesty, "yet; though it's beautiful of its kind, of course, and I do enjoy visiting it. I think the boiseries in the green drawing-room are a particularly fine example of Monsieur Lefèvre's art," she confides, nodding past his shoulder at a chamber through which he was conducted too rapidly to have made a proper survey even had the lighting permitted it, "though I know most would consider Her Majesty's chambers to have the advantage."

Then one of her lady visitors shrieks: "Oh, don't, don't—" The passionate instruction, addressed to her own particular mascot, wilts Chimène's resolve.

"… Perhaps you would care to stay to luncheon?" she suggests to Étienne, though by now it's dusk. "We're having lobster," she adds needlessly.

Étienne bows deeply, "I shall try to get a better look on the way out." He blushes again, aware of his faux pas and that he is keeping her from her game, "I am sorry to have interrupted you. I do hope your lobster wins." He eyes her through those lashes again, "Only if you are sure. I wouldn't want to impose."

"Oh, certainly," says Chimène vaguely; she has already a dozen for luncheon and it will be no trouble to lose him in their midst if she feels that absolutely she must. "If none of my lady visitors invite you to share their lobsters, there's duck confit for the leftover gentlemen, I believe… Do join us." Her hands separate; one of them describes a languid and exquisite curve in the air, a gesture of invitation shaped into a fleeting work of art. She seems to feel that making it, in association with a small and ladylike smile, gives her license to turn away and rustle silkily to where she can get a better view of the progress of the lobster in the mazarine-blue ribbon. The other gentlemen, leftover or not, move aside for her. Should Étienne follow in her wake he'll be the subject of two or three casual but beautifully-phrased introductions to the persons standing nearest them, all of rank higher than his own.

Étienne flashes her another of those boyish, bedimpled smiles, "I did rather want to see the race." He does indeed follow in her wake, and smiles and bows to the illustrious racing fans. He attempts to peer between shoulders, on tip-toes if he must because everything about this is fascinating and likely never to be experienced again.

Though Étienne has only come in for the second half of the race the denouement is slow in coming, since none of the lobsters really shows the competitive spirit for which one might have hoped under the circumstances. Some of them climb confusedly over one another, or just pause for thought. The one in pale pink, restored to the course from the point at which it departed, wanders off back the way it came and its lady patroness bursts into tears — at least till two of the gentlemen present draw her off to a suitable sofa and take turns kissing her into better spirits… Chimène meanwhile is in perpetual graceful motion and flirting with all the spectators who remain, casting airy little remarks this way and that, bridging over every gap in the talk and sewing the threads of it effortlessly together: even Étienne receives a conspiratorial smile or two while she's hanging on this fellow's arm or twining her own arm round that lady's waist, eyeing her lobster and her posterity.

At last, at last, a claw reaches across the red velvet ribbon laid down upon the parquet as a finishing line. The lobster in grass-green wins; the lobster in mazarine-blue has the delicacy and tact to place second, doing honour to its lady without usurping the laurels from her guests.

An outburst of picturesque profanity from the gentleman half of an obvious couple, losers whose entrant seems to have been wrapped in baby blue, earns an airy soprano laugh from Chimène but also a wag of one long white finger as she instructs them: "Now, now, do let's be civil, darlings."

More liveried lackeys come forward to dismantle the racecourse and to carry off the contestants kitchenward, still in their ribbons; Chimène's aristocratic coterie meanwhile betakes itself into that green drawing-room she mentioned, more luxuriously furnished than the chamber where the race was held, and lit meanwhile by the efforts of one particular lackey with a taper.

She flings herself recklessly down upon a chaise-longue nearish the fire a kneeling lackey is even now stoking higher in the magnificent pale marble hearth. There she sprawls apparently endlessly, a long bare white arm draping over the end of it into space, and her full skirts covering most of the rest. Her guests dispose themselves as they like, in pairs or trios, nearer or farther, attending or not as they await their luncheon. The pale pink lady and her swains have yet to rejoin the group: lobster, what lobster—?

"… Well, my lord d'Arguil?" Chimène calls vaguely, ethereally, regarding the young man through lowered sooty lashes as he seeks a place of his own. "And what are your plans for the Longest Night?"

Étienne seems charmed by her from his gentle smile, and impressed by how good she is at this, much as he is by Symon's cleverness with people. He cheers goodnaturedly for the hostess’s lobster, even as he himself is looking forward to the expected confit, him having no illusions as to his importance. He is already figuring out how to describe all this to Symon.

He does indeed appreciate the drawing-room. His taste may not be educated, but he does know good interior decor when he sees it. He trails along after her vaguely on the grounds that he really knows no one except the swan who rather battered him: rather like a duckling accidentally imprinted upon too magnificent a bird… He starts a little at being addressed but comes closer, all smiles, "Well, Symon and I are going to the Cereus House fête, since he won his wager at Bryony and I, well…" He blushes prettily enough in his way, "I was showing Symon how dancing and sword practice are basically the same sort of thing and he liked the way I danced it, so I worked out a whole contredanse and performed it at Eglantine and they seemed to like it too, so we can both go. He's a good dancer, and I'm hoping we can dance it together sometime, though not at the fête, obviously." He looks at her a little wide-eyed, "I've no idea what it will be like, but it's a rare chance. I suppose you'll be here instead though?"

After she summons Étienne forth Chimène's hazel gaze flickers briefly away, to take in the arrangements entered into by the rest of her guests and to see whether she might be needed: but no, her lackeys are serving wine here and cognac there, filling everybody's hands with the appropriate tulip- or bell-shaped crystal glasses; there are no visible lost lambs, but Étienne himself; she may repose where she is. Sprightly as she can be in motion she has also the knack of resting in absolute idle stillness.

Mmm," she offers, making a moue at the d'Arguil boy; "the two of you are most fortunate to have been chosen. You know only royalty enters by right, at the midwinter masque. And you know it's an orgy," she teases, "don't you—?"

Étienne warms the cognac in his hands, both worried and anticipating. He decides hovering might strain her neck, and so settles with characteristic grace near her skirt edge on the floor, his spot chosen to be within a comfortable eyeline, but not obtrusive. He too has a habit of stillness, from training since a young age, and he really was kissed by the angels when it comes to his way of moving, even if his looks and form are of an ordinary d’Angeline handsomeness rather than the sort of unearthly beauty of the Courcell.

He looks up at her startled, "On their night off?" And then he blushes to his ears, "Symon didn't tell me." He takes a careful sip and murmurs, "Sweet and smooth and like fire in the belly." He tries to gather himself, "I know I'm fortunate. I wasn't sure if my sword dance even counted as a talent, since it was just something I do for my own amusement, but I did want to… do something for Longest Night?"

"… Well, for the adepts," Chimène explains easily, "it is the one night when they may give themselves for pure pleasure, instead of for the house's profit." She moves at last, to take up her own glass of wine and bring it to her lips for a good long thirsty swill whilst Étienne exhibits yet another facet of his youth and his inexperience. She blinks twice at him. "Do what?" she asks.

Étienne waves a non-bulb-filled hand a little helplessly, "See something beautiful, My Lady. I may never have another chance to visit Elua, so I want to see everything I can and remember the unique beauty of this jewel of a place when I am old and cold and far from it. We celebrate Longest Night at home, of course, but how can it be anything like the way it is done here. Everything is so… There is nothing like this city, My Lady." His cheeks warm again and he looks down, "I know I sound foolish and countrified, My Lady. I am sorry."

It's so natural a sentiment that Chimène smiles. "Well, of course," she agrees, "the City of Elua is without peer anywhere in the world, and its Night Court en fête is yet more glorious." She sets down her glass, which is somehow almost empty: she makes no sign, offers no glance, but one of those Rousse lackeys is by her side in the twinkling of an eye to refill it. "Naturally you should wish to see it. You must try to keep an eye on Lord Symon for me, though," she teases, with a whimsical tilt of her head; "I shan't see either of you tomorrow, for I always go to the ball at the palace."

Étienne nods earnestly, "Oh I will, My Lady. He looks after me and I look after him. If things get… too confusing, we can always go, but I did want to see the Winter Queen meet the sun and it was so lucky for us both to get tokens. I'm so proud of how clever he was to win it, and I got us a purse to share, so it really worked out. I was so worried when his dancing didn't win, and he such a fine dancer." He takes another careful sip, studying her, "They can't possibly have found a Winter Queen as… divine looking as you."

It's only the usual flattery, of her and Symon both given their respective positions in the world; "Oh, he's all right," Chimène agrees casually, "for an amateur." She bares her teeth in a less kindly smile. "But we are all amateurs now, aren't we? When I was an adept of Eglantine House the pieces I danced were regarded as highlights of the Midwinter Masque; but that was such a long time ago. Won't you have a drop more cognac?" she suggests, even as a lackey with a decanter is bending solicitously over Étienne's glass.

Étienne holds up his bulb even though this time he is being careful, and there is plenty. He smiles a little sadly, "I'm an amateur too, and I was… worried how a real dancer might feel about my own fumblings." From that open and incredibly easily-read expression it is not false modesty on his part and he seems to really think Symon did something really clever, at least by Symon standards and that she, well, is peerless. But of course everyone likely thinks that of her. He is fervent and deadly serious as he says, "I truly wish I could have seen you dance. The only Eglantine dancer I've had the honor to see was a novice. She was very good, but I've seen how you move your arms! It's like they are made of water. You have more grace in one finger than I've seen in anyone else and you are… With your height and proportions… I can imagine the lines…" And then he's blushing to his ears and hiding his face in his cognac, because it dawns on him she must think this is clumsy seduction and not the unbridled excitement of a dance enthusiast.

Chimène glances up to the heavens (yes, truly: the heavens as depicted upon the ceiling of the green drawing-room by a master artist, and populated by figures from the Hellenic pantheon) and then her hazel eyes come to focus again upon Étienne's face. "Well, I was all right," she admits, the same tellingly noncommittal phrase she applied to Symon's imagined terpsichorean perambulations. "… A long time ago," she reiterates, "before I found such happiness as a wife and mother." Her tone has a crystalline edge to it. "I wish you an amusing evening," she says simply, "at Cereus House."

Étienne winces, "I am sorry. I am always saying the wrong thing." He looks up at her chastened as a puppy, "I try, but I never do get it right. I should probably go as I have taken too much of your time already."

"Oh," says Chimène vaguely, delicately, abstractedly, taking another deep mouthful of her dark red Bordeaux wine and then setting down the glass, "do stay; you're here now," she points out, as though that's all it takes. "How did you come to know Lord Symon so well?" she inquires. "Since he came to Marsilikos, or do you know Siovale?"

Étienne looks a little unsure, but has another sip. "Oh, my grandmère knew Lady Oriane when they were young, and I went to pay my respects and Symon was there and we just liked each other. He's my first real friend since I came south. He's just…" He waves a hand to express the difficulty of describing Symon adequately. "We entertain each other, I guess."

Chimène gives Étienne a fleeting smile.A less studied expression than she has shown before: an indication of genuine warmth from this impeccable ice princess. "Of course," she agrees, "one does like Symon, one does find him entertaining… And the company of friends is such a comfort," she offers, "during this busy season when one is surrounded otherwise by people one hardly knows… Or have you family in the city, my lord—?" The city must be the City of Elua. None other merits such a title.

Étienne mirrors that look of genuine warmth for Symon. "One does."

At the question he cocks his head, "I'm not sure. I suspect at least one of my Baphinol cousins might be around, though I've not seen him. Perhaps some distant kin of my grandmère. Mostly I've just been walking around the city looking at things when Symon is engaged with his extended acquaintance."

"… Of course," Chimène agrees again, "Symon has many friends and acquaintances here in the city." She smiles softly. "Perhaps you shall have too after this season. Wouldn't you care for a little more cognac?"

That lackey is already pouring into Étienne's glass a soupçon more of what everybody presumes he must like. Chimène's gaze lifts from him to a couple just beyond, endeavouring to get her attention via a waved lacy handkerchief and a cry of, "Oh, you'll never imagine—!" It's them she answers, in her airiest and most inconclusive tone: "Perhaps I just might…?"

Étienne chuckles softly, "I'm not used to it. It is amazing and delicious, but I would not want to disgrace myself. I have not Symon's head for drink." He grins, "Symon deserves to have all the friends in the world." More seriously he says, "I know I am not of a rank to make a fit companion for him, but I am fond of him for himself and want the best for him in life. He will need the advice of cleverer friends soon I think. I just wanted you to know that I won't stand in the way of… Oh!" He subsides into silence, blushing as they are interrupted.

"… Well, yes," says Chimène, the ever-agreeable, returning her eyes to the d'Arguil scion on the floor beside her chaise-longue, "of course you desire the best for your lover." It seems she either didn't hear or paid no heed to his denial, that night at the Glycine. She blinks wide hazel eyes at him. "Oh, for what do you think he shall require so much advice—?"

Étienne says with a gentle firmness, "Friend. Friend before anything else." And then he happily drops the subject and attempts to talk less, smile more.

In due course tables are set up in the next chamber, where the racecourse was: silver plates and delicate porcelain are laid out; fresh beeswax candles and the latest unseasonal flowers fill the interstices, along with sea shells and sea grasses artistically arranged in tribute to the lobsters who form the centerpiece of this laughing, joking, scarcely formal luncheon.

For each lady present there is a lobster, served with punctilious grace (and with the coloured ribbon on a knot on the edge of the plate, just so that nobody can suspect any foul play) by the powdered and liveried lackeys of House Rousse. When they arrive there’s something of a rearrangement in their honour, as the ladies make their choice of companions for the second half of the meal. Chimène shares with the Bryony courtesan who was keeping the book and whose fate it is to disappoint as many of her guests as he gratifies. It’s unasked, unquestioned. It’s merely the order of things. For both of them this is work as well as play: of course Chimène would never claim first prize in her own house, of course the Bryony is too professional to take advantage of his position. But since Chimène’s lobster has handily come in second they two devour it together, jesting with one another and trading smooth social compliments as they crack open each claw in search of the delicious meat hidden inside. She reserves one ear for this too-handsome young man even as her gaze, seemingly indifferent to his looks, flits hither and yon to be sure that everybody about her table remains in good spirits — she has such a knack for throwing out new conversational balls for her guests to bat back and forth that there’s never a moment’s awkwardness, and no one is ever left shyly silent for long. Even Étienne is prevailed upon to tell a tale or two of his recent adventures in Marsilikos, in between addressing himself to his duck confit and trying to keep track of which of the crystal glasses set at his place are being refilled over his shoulder and how many times.

The hour grows late before the future duchesse de Roussillion rises from the table and leads her guests back into the green drawing-room, for another round of that fine cognac from the Rousse cellars and the good-humoured settling of bets. And it’s later yet when some sixth sense these people seem to share in common commands them to a unified exodus, with a great kissing of cheeks and hands and not a few painted lips, and the exchange of murmurous reassurances that of course they’ll all meet again soon, very soon, tomorrow—? Yes, tomorrow — if not tonight…

Étienne is among them but not quite of them: still, in bidding him farewell Chimène offers him her hand for another brief, gentle clasp, and expresses a demure hope that perhaps Symon will bring him to visit her on another day…? Then already she’s moving on, measuring out a moment of warmth to each of her visitors before dispatching them well-fed and well-lubricated out into the lantern-lit darkness of her courtyard and the lightly falling snow.

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