(1310-12-25) The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained
Summary: Two Shahrizai ladies, until now just cordial cousinly acquaintances, find a deepening connexion in the aftermath of an assignation gone wrong. (Warning: Mature, Mandragian themes.)
RL Date: 31/12/2018 - 04/01/2019
Related: None.
emmanuelle laure 

Shahrizai Quarters — Valerian House

High and heavy double oaken doors, studded with black iron and hung upon baroque hinges of the same, separate the suite of dungeons reserved for the pleasures of House Shahrizai, from the section of Valerian House’s luxurious patron quarters dedicated exclusively to their repose. They open at Laure Shahrizai’s touch, with an ease that might be surprising to one less conversant with the arrangements here; as she steps into the salon, the first sound she hears is that of a firm hand meeting a firm derrière, with a resounding smack.

It’s a kindness, really. The adept will have something to boast of to her friends later on, when she has carried downstairs, and seen into the hands of a page charged with its delivery elsewhere upon the Mont, that letter emblazoned with a personal seal in which Mandrake flowers twine about a trio of keys. A smack from Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai is no ordinary affair: it marks one among the house’s elect. The said adept, barely clad in a diaphanous sea-green gown that covers her unfinished marque but — in this chamber kept at a comfortable temperature for well-dressed patrons rather than scantily-attired courtesans — shows a great deal of gooseflesh and more than a hint of cold-stiffened nipples, scampers lightfootedly past Laure and out the other door with her dark brown curls bouncing about her shoulders and eager urgency in her eyes… Presumably she wants to finish her errand and then check her backside to see if there’s an actual hand-print she might show off.

The former Dowayne of Mandrake House is established at a writing-desk set beneath one of the windows overlooking the house’s severe formal gardens. Beside her chair the unmistakable figure of Baltasar Shahrizai kneels upon plush black carpet patterned with golden keys: one of the many small touches, calculated to flatter its occupants, which reveal at a second glance that this chamber is something quite other than the reading-room of a private club. The objets d’art, for instance, exist on quite another plane: some are themselves ancient Shahrizai treasures, on permanent loan to their home-away-from-home, such as a particularly fine vase of Hellenic manufacture upon the luscious curve of which a party of villagers is seen in preparation for a festival the details of which don’t bear too close an examination by the unwary.

Baltasar is cleaning black wax from his mistress’s seal. Emmanuelle is tearing into quarters the two sheets of paper which rested beneath the one she actually wrote upon; she passes these fragments to her valet, and with a bow of his head he rises to confide them to the fire at the far end of the salon. She herself keeps turning, and stretches out from beneath the desk a languid leg clad in snug-fitting buckskin and a highly-polished, spike-heeled black leather boot.

“Lady Laure, you’re ashen,” she observes, and makes to rise.

Is it not in the nature of Valerian House that even the doors may yield at the whisper of her touch? Such are the thoughts of Laure Shahrizai, a woman lost deep inside her own head. The strike of flesh against firm, supple flesh elicits a barely perceptible wince lost to all in attendance but herself, setting off a fresh wave of mental reproach. The Shahrizai seated at the desk is given only a cursory glance; enough to recognize the other woman as a scion of her house and not much besides.

So charmingly eager to serve, the adept draws an indulgent eye as Laure strides crisply past to fling herself upon a tasteful fauteuil en cabriolet near the cheminée where Baltasar is consigning scraps to flame. A decanter of wine awaiting her pleasure on the table to the left of the armchair indicates it is something of a preferred seat of hers and she wastes no time availing herself of the courtesy.

There's no wonder Emmanuelle finds her appearance remarkable; the version of Laure presented is one few have borne witness to and none outside the sanctity of her home. Even if her complexion did not betoken aught amiss, the condition of the ever-fastidious lady's attire would; it seems that her heeled, brocade shoes are the sole item of her wardrobe to have withstood the assignation unscathed. Her stays have been loosened and a burgundy dressing gown appears to have been hastily-donned over them, silk chiffon clearly pulled over the lady's head without regard for maintaining the integrity of carefully coiffed hair and rumpled from the rough treatment. Under the thin fabric of the gown, the impress of the slumping ribbons struggling to maintain the tension of her black wool stockings is clearly visible. The only amount of care displayed is in the drape of the dainty silver chain around her neck, strung with a signet ring bearing the Saumur heraldic coat of arms so it may rest upon her breast.

Laure manifests a wan smile and courteous inclination of head when spoken to. "Lady Emmanuelle — well met, cousin." A pause in which she regards her disheveled garment. "I do suppose I am in a right state, aren't I?" she remarks tonelessly, pinching the bridge of her nose.

By contrast Emmanuelle is immaculate.

Bareheaded, in a long black leather coat with full-cut tails which sweep about her as she strides noiselessly toward her cousin over that Shahrizai carpet, she has left a pair of dark red gloves on the desk by the window, of a leather so fine that it retains even now the shape of her deft and graceful hands. Her coat is worn open to show a dark grey waistcoat with a very narrow pinstripe in the same red, and black breeches which clothe her lean and muscular thighs with a fidelity betrayed only by the telltale bulge in between. Rather a signature of hers, Laure may recall. Nestled into the folds of her black silk neckcloth is a pin in the shape of three golden keys, twined together in a delicate triumph of some Elua jeweler's art: by contrast the buckles on her boots and her coat, and the maille bracelet just showing at her wrist as she bends to touch Laure’s forehead with the back of one hand, are made of polished steel.

“Come now, cousin,” she drawls; “on Mont Nuit we have both seen far greater disarray.” But there’s no edge to her tongue, as there might have been in other company, and as her hand lifts away and she straightens she adds in a sympathetic undertone: “A new adept, I gather? The young ones don’t always understand what care a patron might require, afterward; or they suppose Shahrizai to be a race apart,” her lips curve into an ironic smile: they two know the truth of it, as well as the untruth, “and thus immune to deflations of the spirit.”

She shares a silent but speaking glance with Baltasar. He possesses himself of the decanter, refreshes Laure’s glass, and then having replaced the stopper he carries it away with him deeper into House Shahrizai’s suite of hushed and luxurious apartments.

To distract her, perhaps, from the arrangements already being made on her behalf — to deflect questions, to remain gently ascendant — Emmanuelle inquires, “Are you in any pain, Lady Laure? Bruises? Strained muscles?” she suggests, cocking her head.

The clamminess of Laure's skin would not escape the observation of the chirurgeon's touch; the woman drops her own hand despondently to her lap, making a half-hearted attempt to uncrease the silken skirts draping her naturally shapely form. Straight-backed, Laure sharply nods her assent, adding in a clipped tone, "Though it is I who have taken my leave of her; considering, I thought it best." She had ensured the girl was first remanded into the custody of the attendants responsible for worn-out adepts in need of aftercare but there's no need to clarify that for Emmanuelle.

Baltasar's service is balm of itself; bereft of an adept, Laure had poured for herself, an act of self-castigation in an environment where one is typically so well attended. Somehow, his deft touch, the reversal of approach angle when her left-handedness is taken note of, makes the wine taste that much richer. Her dark Shahrizai eyes follow him for a moment before returning to Emmanuelle. Unpainted lips leave no impress on the pristine surface of the goblet and partakes of another heartening sip before placing it aside with a clink.

Anxious fingers seek to toy with her signet, conspicuous — along with the rest of her characteristic profusion of rings — in its absence from her hand. At the other woman's urging, she takes stock of her body, thumb running in overly firm circles on the tender skin of her hand and down the muscles of her forearm. "Not aside from aforementioned deflations of spirit and the typical pains of existence," she concludes with a dry laugh.

"Though it is I who have taken my leave of her; considering, I thought it best."

The tale which hangs upon those words, Emmanuelle assumes must number among the many she has heard before, has been hearing all her life on Mont Nuit; still, her boldly-drawn dark eyebrows lift, both in acknowledgment that something of substance has been uttered, and in invitation to her cousin to unburden herself further should she so desire.

Laure’s summation of her health, she receives with a grave nod. “Nothing time won’t easily mend. Good.” Her blue diamond eyes lift past the younger woman’s chair, to another set of double doors, left ajar with Baltasar’s passage; and then lower in association with a wry smile. “The children will rise soon, I think,” she confides, “recovered from their orgies of yesternight — I am given to understand they were at play well past dawn, but of course they enjoy the resilience of youth. Let us find you somewhere more private to rest, cousin,” and perhaps this is one of Laure’s first experiences of Emmanuelle’s suggestions, which however courteously phrased, however softly spoken in that low drawling uisghe voice of hers, have the ring of orders.

She takes that fidgety hand of Laure’s into her own keeping, and with a firm pressure of her fingertips (and an uncharacteristic restraint in the deployment of her black-lacquered nails) she draws her up onto her feet. Chivalry prompts her moreover to place Laure’s hand upon her own crooked and leather-sleeved arm, lending support as well as direction as she assumes quiet charge of her overwrought cousin, even as in another chamber not far away Valerian House’s practiced staff is tending to the other party in so extreme an assignation.

Laure's gaze is considering, but whatever the torrid affair, the story doesn't seem to be immediately forthcoming from the younger Shahrizai. The severity of her features is made more so by the affectation of a grimace at the mention of the more youthful members of the family and not looking to be set upon by a gaggle of boasting teens — especially in her current ensemble — she is complicit in her own relocation. At the soft command, there's nothing reflected on her face beyond the relief of having responsibility lifted from her. "Let's," she replies faintly, nothing of her resonant voice in attendance.

The woman wrests herself from the fauteuil at the unspoken mandate of Emmanuelle's touch, heels digging into the lush carpeting as she comes to her feet and the resultant unsteadiness forcing her to take uncharacteristic advantage of the proffered arm. with them, she's but two inches scant of the prior Dowayne's height.

For Laure now as for so many others before her Emmanuelle is a steadying influence, her own feet planted with uncanny solidity despite the stiletto heels of her boots, her hand lifting to cover Laure’s with its own warmth as she leads her away through Baltasar-opened doors and down a broad gallery decorated with Shahrizai family portraits, harsh Kusheline landscapes and seascapes, occasional tables and small fauteuils and out of season flowers.

They pass a number of closed doors, each signifying by the state of its polished silver plaque the presence of an occupant desirous of remaining undisturbed. Towards the end of the gallery the golden keys woven through the carpet are glinting in a spill of soft candlelight from another door left ajar, which the flat of Emmanuelle’s hand pushes the rest of the way open.

Here, then, is Laure’s missing decanter, placed with two crystal glasses on the table next to a curtained featherbed already turned down for her to slip into. The curtains are drawn shut, and candles lit at the bedside and the washstand to replace whatever fitful light the wintry afternoon might have afforded. The fire in the hearth is gaining moment by moment in health and in warmth. The tiny door to the servants’ passageway is just opening upon Baltasar Shahrizai, bearing another decanter and a can of hot water, and ducking his lofty head to get through. Ah, what a curious liminal position he occupies in the houses of Mont Nuit: a Shahrizai lord, and yet one ready to perform at his mistress’s bidding the most menial of tasks, to shield her person and her privacy from any intrusion by menials of a lower station than his own. His presence is surely a discomfort and an inconvenience to the real servants, but what can be done—? Anyone but Emmanuelle who presumes to give him orders, or to interfere with his prompt performance of her will, must suddenly face the full arrogance of a Kusheline aristocrat…

Emmanuelle’s booted foot kicks shut the door to the gallery, and before they can go any further she instructs firmly: “Shoes off.” Such as Laure’s may simply be stepped out of; and that will make her progress further into the chamber both easier and more comfortable.

Laure's steps become steadier as she's escorted via courtly manner past the double doors and down the familiar hall. Entering the well-appointed quarters, the reappearance of the decanter is a blessed relief, the woman having need of the meager fortification provided. Were her faculties more intact, there would be more thought spared for the rapidly assembled niceties; as it is, it is Baltasar is given an openly curious look when he enters. His position is something of legend among Shahrizai gentry, there being a number of wild tales circulating regarding how such an arrangement came to be. Even Laure, with her penchant for Knowing, has been able to get to the bottom of it over the intervening years.

Both women are known for their incredible discretion when it comes to private matters.

Thin brows twitch at the explicit command but the younger woman promptly obeys, abandoning the silk brocade heels that added several inches to her stature to stand stocking-footed upon the sumptuous flooring.

Emmanuelle pilots Laure across a generous expanse of carpet — the Shahrizai, having poured such rivers of gold into the coffers of Valerian House year in and year out since the very date of its founding, are not stinted for space — toward the waiting bed; and then taking hold of both her shoulders she sits her down, firmly but gently, upon the edge of it.

The invaluable Baltasar meanwhile has drawn shut his own small door (it vanishes at once into the paneling, with hardly a crack to show its position) and deposited the can of hot water upon the corner of the washstand. He comes closer, silent in motion, bowing to his cousins both, and places the new decanter beside the old: such an alluring pair of twins, ruby-red in cut crystal… With the grace of a servant trained upon Mont Nuit — for in many respects that’s just what he is — he pours wine from each decanter in turn, for each lady in turn.

Which consideration of her own assumed wishes (what else, really, does Baltasar consider in his every waking moment?) is not lost upon Emmanuelle, as she extends a hand toward her valet and tersely demands, “Comb.” From a capacious pocket, he provides. It’s one of Emmanuelle’s own, sporting mandrake flowers delicately carved in purple heartwood. And then he resumes moving about the chamber, pouring the steaming hot water from the can into the pitcher, laying out towels and a fresh cake of soap, tending to all the little details.

Emmanuelle rests a knee on the edge of the bed next to Laure and, with a touch peremptory and efficient but not unkind, sets about dismantling the younger woman’s half-ruined coiffure and combing the tangles from that blue-black hair so like her own. The tug of her fingers when they encounter a snarl — her unnecessary caresses, when the going is easier — the blunt teeth of the comb stroking over Laure’s scalp, are calculated to provide ample sensual distraction, and to anchor her distressed cousin in the softly-lit and soothing present.

“How far along are you?” she inquires, after a little while. “Three months, four—?”

The woman is led gracefully, letting her protestations fall to the wayside and settling on the edge of the bed heavily. It's in the Shahrizai nature to be connoisseurs of exemplary service and the lady Laure is no exception; the flow of Baltasar's exacting movements is soothing in the restful lighting, as is the way he's seen to anticipate every need of his mistress. She breathes softly in appreciation when the comb is produced at Emmanuelle's whim.

When the knee sinks into the soft bed beside her, Laure tenses instinctively, both from proximity and the threat of intimacy when such was so recently withdrawn by her little Valerian. In the close quarters, there's a trace of warm, heady parfum yet clinging to her despite the events of the day. As the comb comes into contact with her hair, a shock runs through her shoulders, addled brain not having connected the pieces before then. It only takes a few moments of these attentions adroitly applied for the younger woman to ease into the touch, eyes heavily lined with smudged kohl closing in trust, unable to resist lowly humming at the pleasure of it.

"Four," Laure responds unthinkingly, lulled into such a sense of safety and security it doesn't even occur to her to question how Emmanuelle might know such a thing. "After Jeannette, my physician's all in a tizzy about it. Watered wine, can you even imagine? It's ghastly." She sighs heavily as she drops her head to the side to allow Emmanuelle easier access to the particularly gnarled section being worked out.

By now Baltasar has slipped out of the chamber upon another errand; Emmanuelle notices, but it’s doubtful whether Laure is in a state to register so discreet a departure.

“You may know I’ve three of my own,” the erstwhile Mandrake mentions: not common knowledge, save in certain rarefied Night Court circles, or among the more attentive of her own kin. She imagines Laure does know. Laure often seems to know things which, strictly speaking, she shouldn’t. She’s still competently combing, still threading her deft fingers through Laure’s hair, and once in a while twisting tendrils in between in order to hold her head steady as she attacks a more difficult knot. “My habit was to abstain entirely — not a great sacrifice, given that each time I kept working through my sixth month, and it has always been a discipline of mine never to imbibe on the day of an assignation… I like,” she adds, “pomegranate juice, or green Ch’in tea. Certain herbal teas are of course soothing to the stomach. Wine is not.”

Then Emmanuelle shifts on the edge of the bed, gathering Laure a little nearer to herself. Another application of the comb, and another. It runs through the younger woman’s blue-black tresses far more smoothly now, in long firm strokes that scarcely snag at the ends. “Your healers are concerned?” she asks then, with a deliberate gentle nonchalance.

Laure murmurs an assent to the uncommon knowledge; it is, indeed, the sort of thing she's in the habit of knowing. She allows her hair to be manipulated, attentive to the angles required for the optimal ease of the hair brusher. It's been years since she's permitted herself to be cosseted such; even her favorite maid has been denied the opportunity, the woman typically preferring to not allow herself be put in such a vulnerable position. And yet, be it sheer need for accepting touch, the strong bonds of kinship, Emmanuelle's masterful manipulation, or a combination of all, here she is. "Saumur's primary export is wine; I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't enjoy the fermented fruits of our labour," Laure retorts without heat, having regained her voice — a rich, full contralto practiced into a neutral diction.

Again, to her own surprise, the younger Shahrizai yields to her cousin's firm touch, shifting closer. Her eyes open at the question, smiling faintly at the other woman's attempt not to cause alarm, "Justifiably. They wanted me to end the pregnancy as soon as we knew; it would have be the wise course. Jeannette's birth was… difficult. It is absolutely selfish of me to risk myself thus, but with the number of precautions Tristian and I were taking, I have foolishly convinced myself there must be a divine hand in it."

Her own sapphire eyes search Emmanuelle's for a moment before closing again, breathing deepening to the pace of the rhythmic hair-stroking. In a moment, words continue to spill out, filled with contempt for her own behavior, "And of course this is when this happens. I'm surprised the Second hasn't come to speak to me yet. It wasn't the girl's fault, of course; it was my own lapse of judgement. If I hadn't been so caught up…" Laure breaks off abruptly with a hollow laugh.

“What is yours,” murmurs Emmanuelle mildly, “you do not wish to relinquish.”

And now she’s combing purely for the sake of combing, and for the revelations she might thus coax out of Laure’s shining dark hair. She has perhaps her own ways of discovering the unlikely, through moments of disarming charm, and the warm, resinous, enveloping scent of her cologne, and the laying on of her skillful hands. “What did happen today, my dear, to bring you to such a pass? … Of course I will not insist that you confide in me if you prefer not to; but, understand,” she murmurs above her cousin’s head, her voice low and hypnotically gentle, “after spending thirty years of my life in the Night Court, there is nothing I have not heard before.”

Laure is just barely remaining upright at this point, so cloyed by forgotten sensation. It's a more personal touch that Emmanuelle applies to entice her prey, the contrast between expectation and reality used to full effect. The flow of the younger woman's breathing falters momentarily when the question is posed. A full minute stretches before another word is said, filled by the merry crackling of the fireplace stoked to vibrant life by the absent Baltasar; when Laure breaks the silence, her response is crisp, matter-of-fact, "She did not use her signale." Almost the entirety of the tale is summed in those words, for one skilled enough to deconstruct the nuance. Just as firmly, she enunciates, "I'm too skilled a hand for my judgement to fail me so completely."

Emmanuelle allows another moment of silence; meanwhile she begins separating that night-dark hair into several neat and even sections, by angling her comb just so.

"Your pride will not care to hear what I have to tell you, Laure," she murmurs above her, “but hear it you must. Your kind and mine, we are apt to take all upon our own shoulders — to assume we can, we must, it is our duty and our privilege, even when facts and good sense would contradict the assumption of such burdens.” She pauses; she lays down her comb on the bed behind Laure and claims a section of her hair and begins, expertly, to braid it.

“There were two women in that room. One, a professional trained from earliest childhood; the other, an educated amateuse. Neither your hand nor your judgment,” she informs the younger woman, “are so skilled as to exist beyond the possibility of failure. I could not in honour speak so even of my own. That is why the signale is enshrined in such contracts as ours: it is for the protection of both the parties to an assignation. Knowing what I know of courtesans of the Valerian canon, and the training they receive in this house, I assure you they are taught to be always a little more in control, a little more managing than managed, than you as a patron might be led to suppose by their surrender. It is the nature of the game. You are the patron here, Laure. It is for you to be served, to see your desires blossom into life — and one of those desires is to be utterly in command — and so that is what you see. But it is not the whole of it.”

And Emmanuelle places that first braid gently over her cousin’s shoulder, the end of it as yet unbound, and selects another portion of her hair to receive the same tender attentions.

“It is expected, in any of the Thirteen Houses, that a patron should lose herself in receiving Naamah’s gifts so abundantly. It would be rather a waste if she didn’t, don’t you think?” she suggests gently. “… In that room, I, with all my expertise, would have been culpable for what happened. But you were not, my dear. You had every reason to trust she would speak her signale, as she had every reason to trust you would honour the hearing of it. Too great a mutual abandon has these consequences unfortunate for you both in your differing ways; but you do a disservice to your adept and to her determination to love as she willed, when you seek to arrogate to yourself an extravagance that ought at least to be shared between you. She may have given herself to you as a plaything, but she is a thinking creature nonetheless.”

Emmanuelle's deft fingers sunk into her midnight hair, carefully plaiting, provide Laure with enough forbearance to let the prior Dowayne finish the disquisition despite her quietude being shattered further with each passing word. There's a respectful silence rendered at the end to be sure the woman is finished before Laure dare speak.

"Do not think me ignorant of les règles du jeu, cousin," she begins with faultless elocution, a sharp edge to her quiet words, "nor that I lack respect for the courageous, intelligent souls of Valerian who offer themselves wholly in an act of benediction. The illusion of power can be deceiving, making it easy to fall prey to the trap of self-recrimination. I am not so wildly ignorant to think myself infallible, pain me as it may to admit it; if nothing else, parenthood has disabused me of that fallacy thrice over.

"I recognize and appreciate the depth of your experience and that it differs from my own, but I am not a child to entrust the keeping of the sacred trust of consent to my partner alone, highly-trained servant of Naamah or no." Her eyes flicker open to observe the sensitive skin of her palms, impressing her nails into the flesh with enough force to leave crescent-shaped divots when she unballs her fists. Sufficiently grounded between the influx of pain and Emmanuelle's ministrations, she carries on, "As you said, it is a joint responsibility, something I've well learned after nigh upon two decades of paying homage in my way."

The missing piece Emmanuelle was unable to extrapolate is now provided with a skilled orator's vehemence, her eyes meeting the Mandrake's with full gravitas, "I saw it. I saw the look in her eyes, and I did not ask. I knew full well, and I did not ask. I said to myself, ‘It’s her responsibility‘ and I did. Not. Ask." The last of her composure broken by the admission, Laure’s words are interrupted by a choked sob. Her proud bearing slips from her grasp and her shoulder slump from the weight upon them. "Had it been a simple case of me not recognizing it, or us both being carried away so deeply due to inexperience that we weren't aware of how far we'd delved, it would be a different matter entirely. But, for this," she spits the word, disdain palpable, "I cannot plead ignorance of my actions nor absolve myself of guilt. It is something I must offer to the gods and pray, in their mercy, they see fit to forgive me."

And that, absent the flutter of Kushiel’s wings past her mind’s eye, which from time to time and yet never reliably offers her an arcane insight into the fault-lines of another human soul, Emmanuelle could never have dreamed nor intuited: not when there were other reasons, plentiful and sound, for her cousin's disarray and her malaise, and not when Laure has, indeed, played these games by their most sacred rules since she was a girl of sixteen.

Still, the only outward sign of the shock that briefly speeds the elder woman’s heart and stills her tongue is a hesitation of her fingers near the end of that third braid, a lapse as telling in its way as Laure's own. “… You must own," she remarks aridly, as she finds her place again and resumes weaving strand over strand, "that my pretty speech would have sufficed for any ordinary mishap in an assignation; I have given it often enough before, with variations according to circumstance. But you have sinned today, cousin, against Naamah’s grace and against our Lord Kushiel too; and that weight, it is beyond my power to lift away from you.”

What she can do, however, she does: with the third braid complete but the fourth still only loose strands of rippling dark hair, she gathers the distraught Laure into her arms and holds her hard against her own lean and unyielding body where she kneels still at the edge of the bed. Her hand amongst Laure’s braids presses the younger woman’s pallid cheek against the fine striped silk of her waistcoat, so mannish in its cut, giving even now no hint of whatever female form might lie beneath. "You're overwrought; you must rest now," she informs her with a grave and severe gentleness which brooks no argument and no refusal. "Before I leave I will speak with the Dowayne on your behalf,” her colleague and friend, of course, of many years’ standing, “and tonight I will come for you and accompany you to the Temple of Kushiel. In all likelihood our Lord's justice may be moderated until such a time as you no longer carry a child in your womb — but it would not behoove a Shahrizai to be behindhand in offering her submission… Expiation will come, Laure. Your penance will give you the comfort I cannot.”

The door opens; Baltasar admits himself, bearing various items of feminine garb and a long cylindrical case of black leather, highly polished, secured with heavy straps.

<FS3> Laure rolls Composure+1: Failure. (1 4 2 2 2 5 4 5 5 5 4 3)

Laure's heart drops when her cousin's fingers still, impossible to miss when so much of her sensory system is engaged to the touch. She laughs, nigh hysteric, at both the appropriateness of the previous speech and the woman's inability to absolve her, drawing her hands down her face as if she could wipe the surfeit of feeling away. It's too much to hold in, compounded by stress and gravidity and the stern bronze visage that lies in wait every time she dares close her eyes.

When she is gathered into Emmanuelle's arms, it's with a low, keening cry. The embrace is permission and promise that the pieces of herself will be held together for her and she leans heavily into the solid presence of the older Shahrizai's breast. Words are beyond her — Laure, who has always a riposte at the ready. All she can manage is a decisive nod, dragging her sensitive cheek against the pinstripes.

Blessèd, stalwart Baltasar arriving with her belongings sets off a fresh wave of complex emotions, among them the lack of worthiness for such kindness to be imparted. It's Emmanuelle's doing, of course; would she still have done the same and saved Laure the embarrassment of having to collect her things had the truth of the matter been known? Somehow, with the woman's sternly leveled compassion, Laure is inclined to believe so.

Scion of Kushiel, in deed.

With Laure’s nod, and an echo of it from the woman kneeling above her, the compact is sealed: with Baltasar’s entrance, some part of the spell is broken. Emmanuelle’s mercies turn pragmatic again. From an inner pocket of her leather coat she produces and shakes out a large clean white linen handkerchief with which to dab at her cousin’s smudged eyes before the kohl can migrate any further across her face; she folds it in half and holds it up to Laure’s nose and directs that she “Blow”, tending her as one might a child upset past tending herself.

Then, a smooth and silent exchange with Baltasar — the ruined handkerchief, for a handful of white silk ribbons he’s found who knows where — and she ties neat, pretty, exquisitely symmetrical bows about the ends of Laure’s first three braids. “This will be easier for you when you wake,” she mentions in passing, giving Laure the last ribbon to hold for her: all along, she’s been thinking practically as well as tenderly. She reaches behind herself for that glass of sacrilegiously watered wine and puts it into her cousin’s other hand, before gathering with caressing touches the stray tresses from which she’ll compose a fourth and final braid.

“I will see that any retainers who accompanied you to the house are notified of your plans and that any necessary messages are carried,” she murmurs, her fingers quick again in Laure’s hair. “Are you alone in the city at present, or have you kin who will miss you tonight?”

With an effort of will Laure pulls herself from Emmanuelle's vest, lifting her chin just so that her cousin might more effectively dab at her smeared cosmetics. While the mortification of being directed about like an overwrought child doesn't escape her, neither does she seem overly concerned with it at the moment, as the alternative would be an untenable solitude.

She accepts the ribbon and holds it lightly between her fingers, within Emmanuelle's reach. The watered wine remains the least of Laure's sacrilege this day and is taken gratefully; a slight tremor on the surface of it betrays the lingering unsteadiness of a woman knocked so far from the balance which till now carried her serenely through her life. "Easier to bear, perhaps, but the weight shall remain the same."

A barely perceptible headshake, so as not to dislodge the fingers laced in her hair, "My husband and children are in residence, but I'll not be expected till the morrow."

"… I meant, your hair," drawls Emmanuelle after a pause, aridly amused.

The rest she accepts with another nod and forbears to pursue.

She reclaims the final ribbon and ties it precisely in its proper place — takes charge of the half-empty wine glass, and restores it to safety beside the bed — and stands up from the edge of the bed and draws Laure too back onto her feet. Then she sets about undressing her. The crumpled dressing-gown of burgundy silk chiffon, the stays beneath which, unboned at the front and laced only at the sides to allow of the growth of a child, would tell the whole tale of Laure’s condition even had she not already gathered it from the subtler signs… The more intimate garments worn against her skin, her shift and her stockings, fall likewise to Emmanuelle’s deft and professional touch and are draped across the back of a chair. Laure may be sure that Baltasar, busily putting her clothes in order and brushing negligible quantities of dust from her silk brocade shoes on the other side of the chamber, isn’t looking; Emmanuelle hardly seems aware of her nudity either as she pilots her to the washstand with soft-skinned hands upon her bare shoulders. She pours hot water into the basin, draws Laure’s attention to the soap, places a cloth in her hand… Laure need not think for herself, only do as she’s told.

“The weight of a greater difficulty is no excuse to neglect the lesser ones: one does what one can do, even when it is little enough,” Emmanuelle muses, inspecting bloodstains on pale linen, and keeping a clinical eye upon Laure’s progress. “Whatever patron gift you had in mind for your adept, for instance, you must increase. Coin is not recompense in itself, but it is what recompense you can offer,” she points out, stressing the point just in case Laure didn’t grasp it the first time round. “I would suggest a sum large enough to cause you some inconvenience or privation of your own: your conscience will dictate it more precisely than I.”

Laure's much too tired to rise to the quip. The most spirit she's able to muster comes when the wine glass is withdrawn from her slightly reluctant fingers; otherwise, she's being drawn to her feet and stripped without a twinge of complaint. She turns when she must, angles her legs and lifts her feet to ease the untying of her stockings, lifts her arms when the shift is drawn from her with impersonal touch; the gooseflesh underneath owes naught to the temperature of the room, warmed to pleasantness by the fire set before the women had arrived, but to sheer emotion.

The washcloth and the soap are promptly put to purpose, eddies of red tinging the water when she dunks the cloth to cleanse it. The force with which she scrubs leaves her skin raw wherever it had come into contact with the adept's, not a whit of tenderness allowed from her own hand, until sheer exhaustion leads her to admit defeat and the dripping woman gives Emmanuelle a pitiful look begging further direction.

Whilst Laure is gainfully, even brutally, occupied with soap and water Emmanuelle strolls across for a quiet exchange with Baltasar, who departs on another of her errands, this one — for a wonder — voiced in an undertone rather than brilliantly intuited without need of a word.

Her concern for her cousin draws her swiftly back, however, and she’s on the point of intervening to insist upon a more moderate cleansing of the younger woman’s exhausted body, when those sapphire eyes lift imploringly to her own… It’s second nature; she takes up a clean fluffy towel and dries her helpless cousin’s still-damp skin, gentle where Laure herself was rough. She murmurs one or two low instructions — turn, lift your arm, turn again, come with me — and soon has her tucked into bed, between fresh linen sheets pleasantly cool against her warm skin, with her braids and their trailing silk ribbons draped just so across her pillows.

Baltasar returns; this time he has brought Emmanuelle a small vial, which she uncorks, sniffs, and tips upside down against her thumb to gain a taste of its contents, quickly licked from her skin. Still covering most of the opening with her thumb she allows a measured quantity of the liquid within to fall into Laure’s glass. She replaces the cork in the bottle and pockets it, and takes up the glass and swirls its amended contents. “This will aid you in gaining a few hours’ rest,” she explains, sitting down on the edge of the bed; “I assure you it will not harm your child.” She holds the glass to Laure’s lips and sees that she drinks it down to the dregs.

Well before her cousins leave her — Baltasar carrying away stained lingerie to be washed and dried in haste, Emmanuelle bearing deeper concerns of her own — Laure Shahrizai is drawn down from the waking world into a fragile, temporary oblivion.

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