(1310-12-25) The More They Stay The Same
Summary: Leda Lavecq is late.
RL Date: 23/01/2019 - 02/02/2019
Related: The More Things Change.
leda philomene 

La Plume de Paon — City of Elua

The fabulous and famous La Plume de Paon! One simply cannot come to Elua without longing to step through the grandeur of its portals. The front entrance is flanked by large sculptures of alabaster peacocks; their eyes inset with cabochon stones of lapis lazuli, and their head and tail plumes gilded with gold and containing receptacles within which fresh flowers or other ornamentation might be arranged on a whim. Its floors are of indulgent white-veined marble that's inlaid with gold, and trompe l'oeil paintings framed by arches and pillars depict sweeping lawns upon which more of the famed royal birds can be seen. A large water feature is the focal point to the centre of the room, and features a fountain which is crowned by a maiden with peacocks at her feet, a high-necked gilded jug spilling water from her hands. It's about the fountain that the cherrywood furnishings of the restaurant radiate, with the upholstery of its furnishings worked in shades of lapis, turquoise and gold, and with exquisite marquetry detailing upon each chair and table in bands of pale pear and dark ebony woods.

Multiple stained-glass rondels are arrayed like the tail-feathers of the bird for which it's named across the south-facing front of the building; these allowing for a kaleidescope of blues and greens to bathe the interior during the hours of daylight. At night the many glittering chandeliers of the finest crystal which hang from the ceiling illuminate the windows from within, making the restaurant a striking sight for anyone viewing from the square upon which it stands.

Leda Lavecq is late. Four or five days late, depending how one counts.

As if to compensate she transpires upon the doorstep of the Rousse house in Elua, in a hired carriage, at something closely approximating the luncheon hour at which Philomène probably in all honesty knew better than to expect her on… well, whatever day they said, or didn’t say. Any legal scholar (and Leda slept with several, when she was trying to come to a fuller understanding of the terms under which she occupies the very smart townhouse left her by the marquis de Montchapetre) could tell you that a true and binding contract only exists when the terms are understood in the same way by all parties concerned; and no such meeting of the minds can be had with Leda towards the end of a night’s assorted debauchery.

But Philomène knows this. And she does come, doesn’t she? For luncheon. She even waits patiently in the carriage without scandalising the household while the coachman (her usual coachman, a strapping young fellow who looks after her marvelously on these jaunts round town, and vice versa when he’s had a late night on the job) confers with the concierge and they send a deputation of lackeys in search of the vicomtesse… well, offhand Leda doesn’t know her title, or her married name, but she gives a tolerable description and then makes faces at the concierge through an open carriage window, and he knows at once whom she must mean. In fact, they have quite a nice chat, and Leda is soon much more ‘up’ on the vicomtesse de Gueret and her affairs and the circumstances under which she came to be seeing Elua with the Rousses and what times she normally goes in or out… Concierges always know.

She’s almost sad when Philomène emerges into the courtyard; but a favoured old toy isn’t such a bad substitute for a new one, and she’s soon as thoroughly involved as the coachman and the concierge in establishing Philo in the carriage, cosily next to her.

In lieu of red satin — always a favoured fabric of Leda’s — she’s dressed with unaccustomed sobriety in ivory silk, beneath a baby blue cloak trimmed with white fur. (Still just as many bows, though, and her pearl earrings are even danglier than the other day’s rubies.) In her lap is an enormous white fur muff, from which one hand emerges bare rather than gloved, red nails flashing bright against all those demure hues as she seizes Philomène’s own hand.

“I know we did say yesterday,” she confesses, squeezing apologetically, “but the funniest thing, happened, darling, and before I knew where I was it was suppertime, and I supposed you must have intentions already for supper, or why would you have said luncheon?” A note of triumph as she scores this, to her, extremely salient point. “Are you quite comfortable there, darling? It isn’t far — at least, it would be too far to walk — but it isn’t far in a carriage. From my house I walk all the time, it’s so bracing to have a breath of air after a good meal… I always eat there when I’m between cooks, you know. La Plume de Paon, I mean.”

Philomène has done her level best, dressing in the finest clothes she has with her. Sadly those finest clothes are rather worn and faded, indicative of her household perhaps far more than she might like to have hoped. They were of good quality once, sturdy and practical, and it’s that which means they’ve lasted this long, but the fashion is a good fifteen years out of date, more so when one is in Elua.

She doesn’t bother with gloves for several reasons, but the most pertinent of those today being that the moment she sits beside Leda, she knows she’ll have her hands claimed and pawed, and examined, and critiqued (if silently) and it just seems barely worth the effort to resist.
“Quite comfortable,” the countrified vicomtesse replies when it seems an appropriate moment to interject in the stream of babble, nonetheless amused. “I do like to walk when I can, you understand, but I shan’t turn down a little comfort this afternoon. What do you recommend?”

And that’s it, she’s had her moment: the babble, thus prompted, resumes, Leda briefing her visitor upon the dishes on offer at La Plume de Paon — perennial classics and seasonal offerings alike — thoroughly, from memory, with copious hand gestures and at least eleven incoherent sounds of approval, one of which requires that she clutch at her throat.

Meanwhile the hired carriage brings them all the way to the hostelry thus explicated, where the lackey appointed to attend to such things hands them down directly in between the two gigantic alabaster peacocks statues whose tails even at this season and in a light snowfall are comprised of long-stemmed flowers as well as greenery and branches of berries.

“Hello, Lu-lu; hello, Plon-plon!” declares Leda gaily, waving at each peacock in turn. Their lapis lazuli eyes regard her impassively; it’s anyone’s guess how Philomène regards her, given that those were the ineffable, Leda-bestowed nicknames of two cousins of hers, both of whom met their deaths in skirmishes against the Skaldi not long after the two of them corporately lost her favours in a wager against a very well-to-do lady merchant of Bryony extraction. Really, they ought to have known better. C'est la guerre.

"… But really," Leda goes on as they enter the restaurant, "I'm only going to have my usual breakfast, darling, it's much the nicest thing in this season!"

Of course it's the hour of her breakfast. Only some rusticated old vicomtesse like Philomène could have got as far as luncheon so early in the day.

"Lu-lu," Philomène drawls as she's led in past the spectacular peacocks. "And Plon-plon." She shakes her head, giving a long suffering sigh, which in itself is impressive given that she's only caught up with Leda again a few days since, but there are some things that really don't ever change. "Well, I suppose I can see some resemblance, but… well, a little respect for the departed, no?" She is about to request a seat, but the maitre d' is already there and finding a suitable spot for the pair of them, no doubt Leda's influence, not Philomène's. "I'll have what you're having, then," she decides, clearly out of her depth, as tables and wine and glasses and flowers and so on are already appearing.

“Oh, they wouldn’t mind, they thought it was madly funny what I called them— and, you know, the way they used to strut about for me,” giggles Leda, who remembers her departed not with respect but with eternal and inimitable affection and a wiggle in her step as, having doffed her cloak and tossed her muff into the hands of lackeys, she precedes Philomène to their table.

She flops down on a richly upholstered banquette and wiggles a few inches to the side till she’s behind the table for four at which, knowing Leda to be Leda, the staff have elected to establish them. She may only have one friend with her right now, but they do tend to multiply.

And it would appear she was actually listening to what Philomène had to say, because she’s ordering: “My breakfast, but twice, and a bottle of something awfully wonderfully red, and do let’s have that cheeseboard again — you know, the one from the other day, when I was here with that young man with the eyes — you know,” she seems unassailably confident of this, “and I’m sure my friend would like it, you know, because she’s got farms now.” She beams, looking from waiter to friend and back again, including them both in her happy certainty.

The waiter beetles off.

“… Competition, you know, it brings out the worst or the best in Camaeline men,” she goes on, chattily, to Philomène, knowing she at least grew up with the kind, though it would appear she has been miserably deprived of the spectacle of their antics in the decades since.

“I’d say the best,” Philomène decides as she takes her seat and, perhaps to the shock, surprise and/or disgust of Leda, goes to pour herself a glass of water from the small carafe on the table. “It certainly brings out the best in the women.” She gestures towards Leda’s glass, raising a brow in question as though she honestly expects the woman to drink water. Perhaps she’s forgotten. “Without that spirit of competition, I’d be back at home. With my farms. And a dull, agrarian life. I’m not sure I could live like that at all. I’d say you should come and visit, but you’d absolutely abhor it. No, a little competition and a little drive has me in Marsilikos most of this year now, proving our goods if not my own prowess any more.”

It must be Leda’s insatiable taste for novelty that has her making a ‘yes’ sort of gesture with one sprightly pale hand, when water is offered her; “Well,” she says, ever the optimist, “I often like a change, you know, I think it shakes one up so nicely, doesn’t it? … But didn’t you— that is, if you weren’t… If… Where was it you said you’d been all this time, darling?” She blinks helplessly at Philomène over the table from her. “I know I went to Camlach all sorts of times, months and months every year, but I never did see you… When was it you married?”

It must be the taste of water making her grimace like that. She hastily puts it down.

Philomène sips at her water, watching Leda across from her with that constant, faint smile. “Oh, not long after… well, this,” she replies, deftly gesturing downwards for a half a moment. “I didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter, if we’re honest, but it’s all turned out… well, not as bad as I’d always assumed. Gueret. Louis-Claude. Even the sheep. They do have their charm, eventually, but it’s no Camlach. I’m not sure which I miss more, the mountains, the skirmishes, the mead or the people.” She considers, thumb absently running along the rim of her water glass. “Must be… twenty-five years or so, now. My goodness, has it really been so long? How is it even possible?”

Leda’s eyes widen, meltingly green. “Oh, yes—” Yes, that she remembers. “That is…” And whilst Philomène continues she arranges her pivot. “Well, I don’t know; I try not to think that way, you know. I always feel the only day one can really live is the day one has got at the moment, and not any of the others one may have had… The past sometimes makes a very nice prologue, but the present is what one can still hold in one’s hand and unfurl into the future!”

The wine arrives; two glasses are gracefully poured by Leda’s waiter of the day, whom she greets sideways and by name. Refreshed via a hasty gulp, she adds: “Oh, but sometimes things do come back to one. Do you remember—” She wiggles a bit upon her banquette, ivory silk rustling as she sits up straighter and leans nearer. “You were so sweet to me,” she sighs, “taking me out riding all those times, when I couldn’t have managed by myself!”

Of course she knows the waiter’s name. She might forget trifles like gambling debts or where she left that darling brooch she’s sure she brought out with her, or the dates of her children’s birthdays, but when it comes to people, she has a mind like a steel trap. Moreover when it comes to people who bring her alcohol? Well, she’d forget her own name before forgetting that of the waiter.

“I do remember,” Philomène agrees as she reaches for her wine and takes a sip of that to counteract the sobering effect of the water, gaze very briefly lifting to meet Leda’s. “Did you ever learn to ride, or are you still relying on the good will of friends?” There’s a half smile. “I still ride every day, so if you’re ever in need of a friend to take you out..?”

Well,” giggles Leda, gazing back unabashedly, for she knows what she is and has always been more pleased about it than not, “I never did have a knack for riding horses, did I—?” Both hands curve about her crystal glass as she lifts it again to her lips, snickering girlishly into it, drinking deep. She’s still looking at Philomène, curious, perhaps still thinking. Inasmuch as she ever thinks for this long about anything. “But isn’t it rather chilly, darling, at this time of year? Whatever do you do to keep warm out there on horseback?”

The difference between the pair is made quite clear by Philo’s answer.

Where Leda has taken a perfectly innocent query about horseriding and made it into filthy innuendo, when Philomène is given the most obvious opportunity to flirt and respond in kind, her answer turns to the ultimately practical. “Well, plenty of wool clothing,” she admits, brows lifting as though she’s perhaps uncertain whyever Leda would be interested. “Gloves. Oiled cloaks, that sort of thing, to keep the rain off. And riding hardly lets you stay cold for very long, with the horse panting and sweating between your thighs.” No. Apparently even that image doesn’t prompt a thought to the lascivious. “If you’re concerned, I’m sure we might borrow a cloak for you if you wanted to join me.”

This, this right here, is why they never became more intimate.

It wasn’t that Leda didn’t offer — it was that Philomène never accepted.

Perhaps she didn’t notice? But how much more obvious could Leda have been? How many frank and friendly four-letter anatomical terms would it have taken, if all those cosy horse-rides with Leda riding pillion and her hands simply everywhere, didn’t do the trick—?

“… Darling,” she sighs, “there’s only one like you, isn’t there?” Another sigh, and then her lips part upon a further remark: but on that note the waiters descend, to unfurl pale blue linen napkins across their laps and whisk away the plates with which their places were set and bestow others containing delicate sugared crêpes, stuffed full of clotted cream and cherries soaked in joie and various spices and perhaps other treats less immediately apparent. Leda’s breakfast! Not just her face but her whole being lights up and, with a grin for Philomène, she digs in.

“Thank goodness,” Philomène agrees, although whether to the statement that she’s unique or to the breakfast is not made clear. Having said that, the way her eyes widen at this ‘breakfast’ makes it quite clear that it’s not the bowl of cereal or the jam on toast she might have been expecting. She claims a lighter than air concoction, dripping with honey and fruits, turning it this way and that on her fork before she risks a little nibble, smile slowly appearing. “I had forgotten,” she admits, reaching for her wine to help wash down the incredible sweetness of it all, “just how much you always did grab the finest things in life with both hands.”

She finishes the tiny, fluffy pastry, poking her fork over towards a cherry and eyeing her companion. “Leda..? Would it seem insensitive if I were to ask you..?”

“… Oh, of course, darling, what are old friends for—? You can ask me whatever you like,” says Leda easily, “you know I don’t mind.” But what she would mind, would be to be distracted utterly from her crêpe; and so she takes up knife and fork and applies herself to it with a vigour which suggests she hasn’t seen solid food in days. Possibly true?

But whatever Philomène had intended to ask is put off, either through lack of bravery or the sheer distraction of the booze-soaked cherry. Probably the cherry, if we’re honest, as a lack of courage is hardly her defining feature. No, rather than asking a question, she settles for a series of approving murmurs, licking her lips and immediately going to seek another.

“My goodness, these are simply amazing. I should see if we can get them in Marsilikos.” Another of the fruits is speared and waved around as she queries, “I’d meant to ask, are you living here now? Or in Camlach? Or somewhere else entirely?” Then there is a slight hesitation. “With a new Lu-lu and Plon-plon?”

“Well, here they’ve got a particular mixture of spices,” Leda explains happily, “that gives the flavour a certain soupçon one can’t find anywhere else — darling, I’ve looked.”

She draws in a breath and sighs meaningfully as she brings another bite of cherry-stuffed crêpe to her own cherry-red lips. There’s a certain fluttering of sooty eyelashes as she savours it; but as she chews her mien turns, for a wonder, more thoughtful. “Oh, I live here now,” she explains, “just round the corner from here, really. There hasn’t been anyone— very special,” on which note she shifts again upon her velvet banquette and sits up just as straight as she can, “for me, since poor Babal passed… You know, darling, Hannibal de Montchapetre,” she sighs, naming the late head of that house. “He gave me my house here, and a little income to help me to keep it up, and so I’ve been here chiefly for the last few years, except I did go to Hellas for a while and to Menekhet — at least, I think so.” She takes a generous mouthful of wine and another and shrugs her thin shoulders: well, who can be sure of such things?

Philomène gives her a little nod as she mentions not just a house but a small income, shoulders noticeably relaxing. Well, pleasant as it is to see her again, there's always that worry that in her exuberance she might accidentally end up a guest, drink all the wine, spend all the petty cash (“Oh, I knew you wouldn't mind, and it was such a darling necklace”) and leave the well meaning distinctly less well off. These are the practicalities of Philomène's life, after all.

That worry assuaged, she reaches for another cherry with a smile growing as she watches the other woman speak, years falling away. “Only you could travel so far and so widely, and speak about it so blasé. I'm of a mind to look into a venture to Chi'in, if the preparations are reasonable. Have you been there too?”

Leda’s eyes light up. “Ch’in!” she exclaims. “Why, somebody was telling me just the other day that when ladies from Ch’in sing it sounds just as though somebody’s giving a cat a bath. When you go, you must write and tell me if it’s true — I’ve never been, darling,” she confesses, and if Philomène happens not to blink at the crucial moment she’ll see a few clouds gathering upon Leda’s typically sunny visage. But then they clear. Of course they clear. “And such lovely porcelain you’ll be able to pick up, quite cheap — I do like Ch’in porcelain — darling, do you think I could come with you?” she inquires out of the blue, an instant before forking a particularly generous mouthful of crêpe and cream and cherries into her greedy red mouth.

“I confess I hadn't thought to go myself,” Philomène admits, the baggy sleeve of her jacket threatening to catch the top of a pile of cream as she reaches for a cherry. “I’m a truly awful sailor and the very concept of spending months at sea is enough to make me pale. No, I was just planning and investing from Marsilikos, and sending young Lord Rousse for the hard work of actually going.”

Another cherry goes into her mouth, then she dabs at her lip quite delicately with a napkin. “The porcelain, though, should travel well. That and silk, in exchange for our wines, spirits and woollen textile… oh for goodness sake, you don't care for the details, of course.” She shakes her head, short blonde hair catching in the light of the fire, which also manages to unflatteringly highlight every crease and wrinkle in her face. “The journey would be awfully dull, I mean. But please,” again she extends a hand to her old friend, “do be there to see the treasures we bring back, hm?”

The injustice of this so affects Leda that her eyes just get bigger and bigger while she’s chewing. She swallows; she gasps; she sends a couple of gulps of wine down her throat in pursuit of that too-ambitious portion of her crêpe. “Dull—!” she exclaims. “But just fancy, how many curious new places one would have to go through to get to Ch’in! Companions only know what one might see or who one might meet, on a journey like that! The food would be so interesting, wouldn’t it? And isn’t there a route that goes over land, darling? The loveliest lady was telling me all about it, I remember now, at a party at Bryony House some years ago — oh, I do remember,” she claims, proudly though somewhat mendaciously, “now that I think of it. If you went that way you shouldn’t have to get seasick at all. But Lord Athanasius is proposing to go by sea?” she inquires. “I suppose a Rousse would, wouldn’t he? But won’t that be rather a long while for him to be away from the navy, in any case?”

“Goodness, no, not THE Lord Rousse, the YOUNG Lord Rousse,” Philomène explains with a half smile. “The new Draguignan chap. He's keen to gallivant around the world, where I have duties I must attend in the meantime.”

She shakes her head, wiping her mouth with a napkin and setting it down, showing a restraint that must be completely foreign to Leda when it comes to enjoying good food, or indeed good anything.

“I have a household to manage, a final daughter to marry off, trades to arrange, and the name of the Chalasse family to maintain,” she mentions more wistfully. “No doubt you are free to travel as you will, but I, sadly, am not.”

<FS3> Leda rolls Politics: Good Success. (6 5 8 5 6 8 3 1)

“Oh, no, darling,” Leda burbles on confidently, marshaling cherries with a deft silver fork, “Lord Athanasius is the young Lord Rousse, it’s his papa Oreste Rousse who’s the duc de Roussillion,” and she gives vent to a high-pitched giggle, “so you see why I thought you must mean— anyway, yours must be one of the others,” she decides. “There are so many cadet branches in some houses, it’s a wonder they can keep themselves straight, don’t you think? And then just when you think you know who’s who and what’s what, they change about! … Oh, do you mean the brother, the half-brother isn’t he, of that girl who’s just cast away her entire inheritance to run off to Bhodistan for love?” Not the strictest interpretation of the abdication of Jelene Rousse; Leda has added her own gloss, which appears to charm her.

“It’s a bit of luck for him, isn’t it, darling,” she observes then, with a quirk of her eyebrows. “Is he your lover, then?” The concierge was uncertain. “But you say he’s going to go to Ch’in? Darling, who among them is going to stay at home in Eisande and make the wine?”

… On which note Leda’s eyebrows rise again and remain aloft whilst she chews, in token of the urgency of her final question — and possibly her third-to-last, too.

It's fortunate that Philomène has finished eating, or at least one of those questions would have caused her to choke. As it is, it causes a coughing fit brought on by laughter, a hand waving the other woman off as the other gropes for a glass and something to drink. “My lover..? Oh good grief, no, he's barely out of nursery, the poor lamb!” She wipes her eye, smudging the bare hint of makeup there, and taking up her glass rather gratefully. “Besides, he's hardly my type, is he? A husband is quite enough of that nonsense.”

She pauses for a welcome drink, still amused, finally adding, “And as you say, there are hundreds of branches of them to make the wine. My particular eager young Rousse, though, has rather become smitten with his own Bhodistani, so I'm hoping the travelling won't be delayed on that account, or we shall have to find a new adventurer.” She pauses, eyeing Leda. “If he's a fellow to your taste, I'll let you know, in case you want to tag along.”

She may wave as much as she wants: Leda, who can't hear laughter anywhere in earshot without joining in, jumps up from her seat giggling and pulling a lacy little handkerchief from her pocket. “Much obliged, darling, if you're sure you've no use for him — you know, an enthusiastic young friend can be such a boon on these long winter nights,” she confesses, speaking smugly and from extremely recent experience; “and I know you don't like going out to parties as much as I do, so what other kind of nonsense is there to pass the time?” Laughing, she takes hold of Philomène’s cheek in one soft manicured hand and with the hanky in the other dabs at her eye to correct the worst of the smudge; then as she steps back her own gaze falls upon the remaining portion of the other woman’s crêpe. A calculating glint in those green eyes. “Are you going to finish that, darling?”

“I don't like parties because it's all dancing and small talk and pretense,” Philomène defends, pressing her plate over towards the other woman. “I'd rather pass my time outside, in the mountains or the woods, walking or riding or just relaxing, and not having to put on a show for the sake of polite company or otherwise. Being everything they expect is /tiring/, Leda, too tiring. It isn't like it used to be. Besides, I'm only there as the subject of mockery, as well you know,” she points out, perhaps unkindly, and certainly more sharply than she'd intended.

Leda’s ivory satin frills and furbelows sigh noisily as she sits down again upon her banquette and, clutching in one hand Philomène’s surrendered plate, commences to fork its contents onto her own. Her hanky has fallen by the wayside, between a wine glass and a low bowl of roses. The leftover crêpe flops from one plate to the other just as the shaft hits home — Philomène d’Aiglemort always was a fair hand with a bow — and she looks up, wide-eyed, somehow presenting for a poignant instant the aspect of an injured party.

“And I'm only there to make them laugh, darling,” she points out, being neither titled nor landed nor highborn on the more advantageous side of the sheets; “but I never let anybody else stop me from having a good time.” A beat. “Besides,” she says forthrightly as she shoves Philomène’s emptied plate onto the vacant table next to theirs and busies herself again with her cutlery, “You oughtn’t to think what people expect — you ought just to be who you are. That was always more than enough.”

Philomène closes her eyes for a few short moments, her thumb absently running along the rim of her glass. Eyes opening again, she fixes them on Leda, voice quiet. “How is it, after all this time, you haven't changed?” she queries. “When everything, everything else in the world has become more complicated and serious, and difficult to navigate? How have you done it?”

What a question! Leda greets it with that ingenuous double-blink of sooty eyelashes which would look absurd on any other woman of her years, but which is so much a part of her character and its expression that it, too, seems an inevitable part of her permanent jeunesse.

“Well, darling, I don’t know,” she confesses. She reaches for the bottle. “Why don’t you have another drop of this?” she suggests kindly to Philomène, filling her old friend’s glass higher than any waiter would; then she upends the bottle over her own glass, finds the results unsatisfactory, lifts it again with the neck pointing towards herself, squints at the interior, shrugs, and sets it down absentmindedly, on the corner of her handkerchief.

“I shan’t do it again, you know,” she adds, somewhat penitent.

Philomène nods gratefully as the wine is poured, lowering her lips to the overfull glass rather than risk attempting to lift it and spill it. She slurps out a good half inch before she's satisfied enough to straighten and lift the glass instead by its stem. Only then does she reach over, momentarily resting her fingertips on Leda's wrist. “You ought to be, and you are who you are. If it's funny, you should continue,” she decides. “You like to make them laugh, after all. It would be selfish of me to deny you when it is your nature. Like the scorpion and the frog, hm?”

She shakes her head. “No, that's a poor example, because the poor frog dies. You do understand, though, don't you?” She pressed on Leda's wrist more urgently, before withdrawing her hand to her lap. “I would never want to deprive you of being yourself. If you lost the ability to laugh at everything, then… Well, who knows who you'd be, but it certainly wouldn't be that red haired beauty who used to laugh and smile and hang on for dear life when we used to ride out over the hills, you remember?”

Leda listens in all earnestness now, her long white throat elongating and her chin lifting as she inclines forward over the table to catch each soft-spoken word… She’s transparent as always; there’s relief in her green eyes, shimmering, on the verge of turning to tears.

“Nobody ever died of a little ridicule, darling,” she agrees, “not a frog or anybody, and anyway you know those people laughing weren’t half so strong or so clever as you are, so what do they really matter to someone like you—?” Her hand turns, seeking to clasp at Philomène’s own: but her old friend’s hand restrains and then evades, a case in point. Leda’s bereft fingers with their long red-lacquered nails waver and then fasten upon the stem of her own glass, which she lifts quickly in a toast to Philomène which isn’t even the least bit ironic.

She drinks deeply, because she has after all just been exhorted to be herself; she puts it down and leans her wrist elegantly upon the edge of the table and sighs. “Well, of course I remember, darling,” she admits, her smile turning already to mischief despite her brimming eyes, “you did go awfully fast, you know. I just wasn’t sure if you remembered. You were always so lovely to me, I can’t think why. Lots of the ladies in Camlach just hated the sight of me, d’you remember that? And,” she giggles, “Companions, they weren’t afraid to say so—!”

This particular Camaeline woman tilts her glass slightly towards the courtesan, noting wryly, “They hated the idea of you, my dear Leda. All ribbons and bows, and turning the eye of their men, who should, naturally, have been wholly absorbed in their lives, not at all off enjoying themselves.” She takes a long gulp of her wine, then sets her glass down. “Léon and Louis and Luc and so forth should have been admiring their skill in the saddle, not the way your hair blew in the wind, clearly.”

She reaches over to the vacant table beside them, glancing around for a moment to check nobody is watching, then reclaims her plate to wipe at the traces of icing sugar decorating the edges with one finger and briefly pop it into her mouth. The finger and the icing sugar. Not the whole plate, although no doubt that would have been a party trick even outshining Leda for the attention of Camaeline gentlemen.

“The difference is that I never could give two shits for what the boys thought of me, and so you were never stealing them away, hm?”

The business with the sugar has Leda, who is watching, grinning ear to ear as she wolfs down the rest of her crêpe and makes a start on Philomène’s leftovers besides: but then she must object, she simply must. “I never stole anybody in my life!” she declares indignantly. “But I can’t help it if people like me, can I? It’s Naamah’s touch; what can I do? And if I like them, too, why should I hide it? Especially— darling, especially anybody who might go out and die tomorrow,” she goes on with a theatrical widening of her eyes, between bites of cherry-stuffed crêpe and gulps of wine: hollow legs, definitely. “Why, darling, didn’t you like a proper send-off too? You must have done,” she giggles, though given the frequency with which Philomène personally witnessed one or more puissant warriors bumbling out of Leda’s chamber in the pre-dawn hours missing bits of armour and struggling to recollect how to operate their legs, the extent of her contributions to military readiness remains open to debate.

“As I recall,” Philomène notes drily, still smearing sugar from the plate, “your send-offs left my soldiers in a worse state than they started, and if I'd had the forethought at the time I ought to have put a stop to them altogether, if only for the sake of the fighting fitness of our forces.”

Another swig of wine, and she leans back in her seat. “And my evenings before battle tended to be spent honing my equipment, rather than honing somebody else's.”

Leda pouts feelingly across the table at this witness to her youthful extravagances. (Her middle-aged extravagances have of course been entirely different.)

“Well, you could easily have done that in the afternoon,” she giggles, resettling herself with a self-righteous wiggle of her pert behind against the banquette; “Lu-lu and Plon-plon always used to… to put their things in order,” she has a very vague idea of what this involved, “before I woke up,” and there’s the reason why, “so that if they did die next day…” And thus, that green gaze that had almost dried itself veers away again, mistily. The evidence of the peacocks notwithstanding, she’s not an unfeeling creature. “Well, I only hope that since I wasn’t there anymore, they had heavenly last nights with somebody else,” she sighs, catching up her glass and meeting Philomène’s eyes again, only reluctantly, over the rim of it. It’s soon empty.

“… Anyway some people are just naturally responsible,” she observes, casting a dismal glance down into that empty vessel. Then, casting about for something else to say, for some change of the subject: “What was it you were going to ask me, darling? Only you didn’t, because you liked the cherries so much,” her selective memory supplies helpfully.

“You could hardly have described me as responsible in those days,” Philomène argues, glancing about and getting the attention of the waiter with a faintly raised finger, a gesture to the empty wine bottle, and a nod. “I seem to recall on a number of occasions being pulled up quite specifically for being irresponsible. If eighteen year old me could see me now, the dour old countrified vicomtesse with a mind for business and scowling and not much else, she'd be shocked.”

She lifts her wine again, finishing all but an inch or two, which she offers over with a mute, raised brow. “Me? Ask you? Oh, nothing important, I'm sure,” she demurs. “Only what plans do you have now? Until I can find you an excitable young fellow to drag you to Chi'in?”

“Oh, you know I delight in unimportant things,” giggles Leda, accepting the glass with a brush of fingertips against fingertips where stem swells into bowl; she lifts it in another salute, meant to connote friendly appreciation of Philomène’s sacrifice — so Camaeline — and she has almost drained it by the time the waiter trots back to their table with a fresh bottle.

“Well, I don’t know, really,” she says whilst obliged to stop drinking long enough to let the man pour. “I live here most of the time, of course,” she confirms vaguely, “though when the weather grows warmer I certainly hope to get away into the country for a little while… Oh, but you said you live in Marsilikos presently? For how long? Have you taken a house there?” she asks, enchanted. “I haven’t been in years but I do recollect the heavenly fish. You must have such good fish for dinner every night, in Marsilikos,” she says a little wistfully. “Darling, are you sure you aren’t going to eat anything else now? There’s such a lot…”

Indeed, Leda has done for the crêpes — but pastries abound.

“Just lodgings at the moment,” Philomène apologises, waiting her turn for more wine, which she claims now from Leda's glass, having given hers up for the cause. “I still don't know precisely how long I'm able to stay, or how long I'll need to, so I was rather loathe to take a house. Although it looks as though I shall be planning various ventures from Marsilikos, so perhaps the first thing I shall do on my return will be arrange one,” she muses, thumb resting on the rim of her glass for a second.

“And, my goodness, you'd fall all over yourself for the bream, I swear,” she enthuses at the mention of the fish. “They just throw on some olive oil, a handful of salt, and grill it over hot coals until the skin is so beautifully crispy you could cry.” A little laugh, then. “If nothing else, my trip south has been so very worth it, just for that.”

She knocks back another swig of her wine, every glass and every half hour in this company turning her from the reserved woman she's emulated so well to something more and more like the proud, somewhat more coarse woman she used to be.

“Tomorrow,” she decides. “Tomorrow I'll take you out riding again. For old times’ sake. Unless you have a prior engagement with some smitten young chap?”

Philomène’s loving paean to the bream has Leda leaning forward again, her eyes rising to the Plume’s magnificent frescoed ceiling and a moan upon her lips which has no place in a public restaurant. Then her gaze snaps down to meet Philomène’s: “Darling, I die for it,” she confesses happily; “you are lucky… Oh, darling, shall we? Are you sure it won’t be too cold?” she wants to know, suddenly anxious. “You know it did snow again only yesterday.”

“We'll just ride harder and faster,” Philomène assures her with absolutely certainty, a smile finding its way to her lips. “There's nothing quite like a hard gallop on a crisp, winter's day,” she decides, clearly choosing to ignore, forget or overlook Leda's usual and far preferred method to stay warm. “Tomorrow morning, then.”

It should go without saying that when tomorrow morning does finally arrive, it comes with cold air, a bright eyed Philomène, a frisky mare to ride and… naturally, no Leda.

Really, she should have known better than to try to make such plans.

For all her helpless giggling and apparent joy at the notion when it’s presented to her, the idea of an early-morning ride in the snow goes into one of Leda’s pale shell-like ears and straight out the other without registering anywhere in between: and poor Philomène leaves Elua in the Rousse convoy a few days later without having heard again from her mercurial old friend, with whom it’s always ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Plus c’est la même chose.

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