(1311-02-08) Consolation Prize
Summary: Philomène (finally, at length) gets Leda out into the healthy fresh air. (Warning: Suggestive equestrianism.)
RL Date: 06/02/2019 - 07/02/2019
Related: Carpetbombed! and Fiscally Responsible Valkyrie and Table For One. They've been busy girls.
leda philomene 

A Small House in Marsilikos

Philomène is a creature of habit. She has particular routines for her daily life that she’s well and truly settled into now, and change is a difficult thing. The chief reason she took her own house and moved out of the Chalasse residence was to see these routines unfold themselves, uninterrupted, in a majestic but completely boring procession. And yet, with three new house guests (as well as the indescribably efficient Brigitte, who is not a guest but some sort of domestic goddess), she’s yet to manage a day uninterrupted by some drama or another.

This morning, for instance, at least she woke up alone (points to Philomène), but while she sat, eating her breakfast (one cup of tea, black, one orange, divided into neat segments), she was required to negotiate the exit of three midgets in various states of disarray, two courtesans she’s never met, and a donkey. Who even knows how they got the donkey in and upstairs without her knowledge, but its departure constitutes a valuable lesson in never underestimating the inventiveness of a pair of Orchis women (points to Leda and Geneviève).

Indeed, her perturbation at this interruption to her morning results in rather a lot more tea being drunk, the fire being violently stoked, and a token angry protest shhed away by her giggling younger houseguest and the latter’s gentleman-friend, whose name Philomène hasn’t even bothered to learn. Those paying attention at home might spot that every shred of orange peel has been pulled apart into tiny pieces, most unlike her, and popped into the empty teapot to be disposed of at a later moment.

After being rebuffed so neatly by Brigitte the previous morning, Philomène made plans with Leda to ride today as a sort of consolation prize, agreeing that she would leave later in the day instead of at the usual crack of dawn, ‘to let the day warm’. Later in the day to Philomène is clearly a time differing from Leda’s later in the day, as eleven, twelve, one o’clock roll round, all the while with Philomène stewing at her small table, absently and distractedly trying to look at figures for trading goods that she’s looked at a hundred times already, togged out ready to ride, but with her companion still enjoying a long, extended beauty sleep.

Sleep well-earned, did Philomène but know it; and when at last Leda does come flouncing down the stairs, Philomène soon does know it, for while there are one or two, yes, two, categories of tidbits this veteran Orchis habitually keeps to herself, for purely religious reasons, her own personal triumphs and kindnesses to friends fall under neither.

She is decked out this afternoon in teal-green velvet, always her best colour, with fewer bows on it than usual: more an elegant caricature of a riding habit than the real thing, but at least it shows she’s made the effort. (Or someone has. Probably Brigitte.) As she bounces across the salon the pointy toes of her black leather boots peek out from beneath full skirts weighted at the hem and swaying with her lightfooted steps; she has got a matching little felt hat with an enormous bright red feather in it, set upon darker red hair she has taken the time to curl meticulously, and a pair of bright red calfskin gauntlets with pearl buttons and lavishly embroidered golden cuffs.

Leda à la chasse: the prey is guaranteed to be hearts, not harts.

“Here you are, darling!” she carols, tossing down a leather coinpurse upon her friend and hostess’s neglected papers. It clinks importantly. “I found you some money,” she declares, with all the pride of a young kitten dragging in her first kill, “for your carpets and so on.”

Philomène’s hand closes immediately and automatically around the purse. One shouldn’t hang around where money is concerned, as you never know when the next will come in. She does, however, look up with some surprise, both brows lifted at the courtesan. “Should I thank the donkey or the midgets for this?” she can’t help but ask, lips curving up into an amused smile, even as she levers the purse open to begin counting.

Loftily, from the adjoining salon, Geneviève intones: “Both!”

… That way lies madness. “Thank you,” Philomène says, formally, to her benefactress so brimming with cheer. “Thank you, Leda, that’s very kind of you.”

Well. Kind. Sort of. Necessary. Much more on the necessary side, but let’s not split hairs over the cost of one tiny, expensive, ruined carpet.

Her fingers pause in the counting, however, as she considers Leda’s attire. “I don’t suppose you own anything suitable for riding, then. You could borrow from my wardrobe, if you like, I would image we’re a similar size?” As though Leda would be seen dead in twenty year old fashions, and in such dull colours, really it’s enough to give the woman a case of the vapours. “And you’ll want to pin your hair back, or it’ll be all over the place when we’re riding.” There’s another pause, and a scrutiny that wouldn’t be amiss on a Camaeline parade ground. “And do please borrow a set of sturdy boots?”

A similar size? The joke’s so good that Leda bubbles over with laughter; “Oh, darling,” she giggles, “your skirts would trail all over the ground, on me,” which might even improve them, she doesn’t say, because she’s giggling again. She’s also gathering up handfuls of richly dyed velvet, preparatory to a shameless exhibition of her feet and her legs.

“But these are my traveling boots, darling, you see?” she explains, essaying a dance step or two in order to display them to advantage. Good leather, laced up to the knee, nary a heel in sight: they’re not that bad at all, for a woman usually to be found in dyed silk slippers. Above them, she’s wearing — she takes good care that Philomène should see — a pair of fawn-coloured buckskin breeches, tucked into the cuffs of her boots, not at all poorly-fitted above. “I won these off a lovely girl in a card game yesterday,” she goes on; “when I saw them I thought they’d be just the thing for riding, don’t you think? Darling?” She turns about, swift and velvety, in search of approval and yet — as always — blithely confident that she’ll receive it.

“… Oh, but you’re quite right about my hair, I wasn’t thinking. I feel so pretty today I simply had to curl it, though. Shall I just— oh, I know, I’ll have Brigitte put it in braids like hers, shall I?” she declares brightly. “They do look so sweet. Brigitte? Brigitte!” And, calling aloud the name of her invaluable aide-de-camp, Leda rushes into the kitchen.

Oh, well, Philomène most definitely does see the breeches. She’s doing her very best to disapprove, but they are so very well fitted, so instead she takes up the cup of tea she’s managed to leave to go cold, thumb automatically going to the rim of it as she nods noncommittally and clears her throat. Ah, lovely. Cold tea. She’s going to drink it nonetheless, because spitting it out would draw even more attention.

Only once Leda has slipped away into the kitchen does the vicomtesse relax, shoulders dropping almost imperceptibly, and she makes a rather more serious attempt to count the money in the pouch. Well, she probably has time. Leda doing her hair could be days.

In fact hardly a moment elapses before Leda comes charging back through the kitchen door she’s left wide open both times and across the salon again, making a beeline for the foyer and the stairs. “Shan’t be long, darling,” she promises Philomène, casting back over her shoulder the dazzlingly bright smile of a Scion of Naamah reassuring a dear friend.

Leda’s light booted footsteps are ascending the stairs as the kitchen door shuts at last, so softly it can only be Brigitte’s hand upon it. Yes, the shield maiden is emerging from her fastness, in a different plain blue dress and, presumably, a different starched white apron. She must have quite a number, to appear always so fresh and clean and lovely…

Rather than following at once in her mistress’s footsteps, she pauses before Philomène’s table and clears her throat. She is carrying something. “I’m sorry to disturb you when you’re working, milady,” she says respectfully, and essays a quick bob, “but I found this in the kitchen and I wondered if you’d left it by mistake and you might be looking for it.” And she sets down on the table, next to the not inconsiderable proceeds of Leda and Geneviève’s party last night, a cloth-wrapped bundle containing a knife in a sturdy leather sheath.

It’s a moment before Philomène speaks - it’s important to maintain a professional appearance in front of the staff even if, and in fact especially when they have a nasty habit of taking the breath away. When she does, it’s as the bundle is nudged over with the back of one hand, towards the domestic goddess. “Ah, no… I was out earlier and… I spotted it. I didn’t recall seeing you with a blade like it, so… well, of course, if it’s unsuitable, I shall take it back.”

Really. She’s 52 years old and still flustered by the sight of a pretty girl. Although in this case it is a woman who exemplifies all that is good and great about her home province, showing off exactly what she’s been missing all these years. “Please. Do take it, as a sign of… as a thank you for your excellent work,” she finishes lamely, gripping her teacup with both hands if only to give them something to do.

“You’re very kind, milady,” is Brigitte’s evergreen riposte, trotted out again for this occasion and found still suitable, “but I couldn’t take a costly present like that just for doing my duties I’m paid for. It wouldn’t be right.” She pauses. “And I’ve got a knife already, milady, only I don’t wear it round the house. My pa and I made it together — I always used to help out in the forge back home,” she explains, with only a hint of the awkwardness currently emanating from the vicomtesse in waves, “so, you see, milady, I wouldn’t feel right with anything different.”

A pause. “If you’ll excuse me, milady, I should help Madame Lavecq…?”

Because of course she used to help out in the forge back home, be still Philomène’s beating heart. She manages not to squeak, but just gives the woman a small, polite nod, and claims the knife back over to her mutely. It can probably go back to the stall. Probably. Or remain in Philomène’s possession as a permanent reminder of her absolute failure to capture the heart of this young, strapping, Camaeline woman, who even forges knives.

“Do carry on,” Philomène almost whispers, letting her thumb run along the rim of the cup of cold tea and, once Brigitte is safely away, exhaling and resting her forehead down on the table.

Once more those powerful but no doubt, no doubt extremely shapely farmgirl legs bob a curtsey; and Brigitte takes her requisite two steps backward before leaving the room the right way round and climbing the stairs to demonstrate her skill as coiffeuse, on top of being an excellent maid and cook, maker of tea and striker of bargains, and apparently smith. Is there anything the woman can’t do? She even knows how to manage Leda… how to get that flighty female downstairs again in double-quick time, wearing a crown of red braids beneath that ridiculous feathered hat and a smaller pair of ruby earrings, these ones not dangly at all.

“What do you think, darling?” Leda enthuses to Philomène, petting her hair demonstratively with a bare hand. Yes, by now she’s had time enough to lose her calfskin gauntlets.

Oh — here comes Brigitte, bringing up the rear, carrying the gauntlets and a leather purse strung on a matching belt, simple in style but prettily stitched in a traditional Camaeline pattern. Catching up with her mistress she slips her arms round that lissom velvet waist and wordlessly buckles belt and purse in place: a loan from her own wardrobe, Leda not possessing anything suitable. She has helpfully bored a new hole in the belt to adjust the size for her.

Philomène pulls herself to her feet, using the table to steady herself with one hand laid flat upon it, and looks Leda over with at least a little more approval now, although that’s tinged with a hint of envy when Brigitte’s arms slip around her if only for that one moment.

“You look divine,” she replies simply to the query, groping for the knife still left on the table so she can unbuckle her own belt and slide it on. Perhaps she might be lucky enough to get that same level of help from the wonderful Brigitte, after all. “And much more suitable for a ride. Have you learned anything at all since we last went riding?” she can’t help but needle, faint smile playing at her lips. “Shall we risk you on a horse of your own, or would that be beyond you?”

Shame, shame, Philomène. Does Brigitte recognise the gambit for what it is? Probably. She’s a smart girl. But that native intelligence of hers is also why she keeps herself studiously busy helping Leda on with her gauntlets and fastening those little pearl buttons for her, and slipping an extra clean folded handkerchief inside the cuff of the left one; and unless Philomène’s going to fool about ineffectually all day in front of her idol there’s simply no chance of her wistful little plot coming to fruition. She’ll have to improve her timing, in future.

Leda meanwhile is giggling at the very thought. “Oh, I’ve learned lots of things,” she assures Philomène with a dastardly glint in her green eyes, “only not about horses. I shouldn’t feel at all safe on one of my own, you know, darling — mightn’t I just ride with you, as we used to?” she wheedles, with a beguiling flutter of her sooty lashes, as though she’s not just signing on to the most sensible plan, but begging her friend for a special and coveted privilege.

No, there’s only so much fooling about Philomène can manage. In fact, it’s precisely 0.87 seconds worth of fooling about before she just buckles her own damn belt and straightens, pragmatically resigned to the fact that she’s not going to get her way today. (Or any other day. —Ed.)

With a half smile and both hands offered to Leda, she gives a nod of acquiescence. “Just like the old days, then. You’ll like my new mare, she’s got a bit of fire in her, and you always did like it when we got a full gallop on, hm?”

And so, because otherwise this scene will never leave the fucking house, the pair leave (sadly) the statuesque country beauty behind and find the stables where Philomène has been keeping her horse. She might have no money to speak of, and limited lines of credit, but there’s not a chance that she’d give up having a horse. She might as well cut off her own right arm.

There’s the long forgotten rigmarole of getting Leda up onto horseback — she’s quite right that she’s still no kind of horsewoman — and settled behind Philomène in the saddle. As with everything involving Leda Lavecq, this takes far more time and effort than anything Philomène could think up for herself, along with giggles, a teal-green velvet arm with roaming gauntleted hand that does seem to keep needing to be repositioned, and more than a few long-suffering sighs from the Chalasse woman, but finally with a nudge of her heels, the mare is walking out along the wide streets of Marsilikos and towards the relative freedom of the countryside.

The difficulty, from Leda’s point of view, is that no matter how innocently Philomène speaks of horses and riding and quality leather tack and the pleasures of a good hard gallop, her own pale and shell-like ears convert her friend’s words into, at minimum, double entendres. (She also counts at least two triples, in moments of — ahem — peak frustration.) So of course she keeps getting distracted and falling into gales of laughter, to the despair of Philo herself and a whole squadron of stablehands who’ve gathered round in the slow part of the afternoon to enjoy the show and perhaps to blush upon catching the roving eye of the lady in velvet.

At least once she’s up she stays up, her gifted thigh muscles earning their keep yet again by snuggling round Philomène as securely as those lithe teal-green arms higher up… Though after a while, as they join a stream of traffic approaching the city gates, one gauntleted paw vanishes from Philomène’s person and commences to furkle about somewhere inside Leda’s too-large, borrowed cloak. Cue sounds of effort, and a tightening of the other three limbs. A minute later the missing arm curls about her again, offering a fancifully-carved silver flask with its stopper dangling free on a chain. The neck of it and the stopper both are smudged with red.

Ah, Leda. Always so keen to share the good time she’s having.

The thing is that they’ve barely even gone beyond a walk, and already Leda is clinging to Philomène as though letting go might be fatal. It takes little effort at all to claim the flask in one hand, while she hangs on to the reins with the other, and have a good swig. She even wipes her mouth with the back of one hand (she remains ungauntleted, which must be easier) and places the flask back into Leda’s hand as they approach the gates.

As a regular sight, Philomène is waved through without incident, and as soon as she has sight of open fields in front of her, she’s off the road and urging the horse into an easy canter, the mare’s stride stretching wider and wider, head thrown back (both the horse’s and Philomène’s) and letting out a shout of sheer pleasure. (That one’s Philomène).

Correction: Leda is clinging to Philomène as though Leda likes to cuddle up to handsome retired soldiers with fabulous bone structure, and who would deny her this innocent pleasure—?

By the time she’s availed herself once more of her flask and tucked it away whence it came, their pace seems all at once to be quickening and Leda’s breath with it. She’s pressed so tightly against Philo’s back that even in the midst of indulging in her favourite pastime the Camaeline woman must feel the courtesan’s happy laughter following swift on the heels of her own glad cry. And as she urges the mare into stretching her legs in earnest, Leda’s hold shifts and one arm moves higher, her hand curling up round her friend’s shoulder from the front whilst she rests her head upon that same strong shoulder from behind. They’re somehow moving together, as one, with the rise and fall of the saddle; perhaps Leda’s learnt a thing or two after all.

Capable as she is, and as they’re not really going all that fast yet, Philomène is confident enough to lift one hand up to her shoulder, fingertips touching the cheek resting there as some kind of reassurance. It’s a wonder really, she considers, as they ride on, past hedges and a small copse of trees, and a rather pretty little farm cottage that can only remind Philomène of her l’Agnacite home, a wonder how Leda fits so snugly against her, as though they were back in the mountains, twenty five years ago, and nothing has changed.

Legs press a touch harder and the mare breaks into a full gallop now, hooves thundering on the frozen turf and shaking the pair as they rise and fall with the movement and it becomes apparent that perhaps it isn’t just walking that Philomène’s old injury impairs, and yet there’s no wince of pain, just the joy on her face of soaring through the countryside at breakneck speed. Oh, and I suppose there’s the fact that she has a beautiful woman clinging to her back like a limpet. That helps.

“Jumps?” the rider queries, almost shouting over her shoulder into the other woman’s ear, to make up for the rushing of air past them as they move at speed. “Feeling brave enough to trust me?”

The hood of Leda’s borrowed cloak has slipped down long since and her red feather (beneficiary of a few thoughtful extra stitches from Brigitte’s needle) is bobbing frantically, a plaything of the wintry breeze. She’s back in Camlach herself, just at present, some of the best years of her life, yes they were — but then, with her it’s axiomatic that whatever year she’s living is the best yet and next year’s bound to be better still, and all it takes is that gentle touch to draw her back. Her velvety, powdered cheek nuzzles its appreciation against Philo’s fingertips; the younger woman can’t see it, but she’s smiling broadly at the fondness it implies.

Then Philo cries out that absurd question, and though she only half-hears it Leda’s laughing again all at once, breathless with speed and delight and now of course anticipation. Again she squirms, sitting up straighter against Philo’s back and limpeting all the harder, pressing her red lips directly against her friend’s ear to exclaim: “Of course I trust you!”

The hand drops from Leda’s cheek. Skilled as she might be as a horsewoman, even Philomène isn’t insane enough to try jumping one handed. Both hands take the reins now, with the exception of a brief moment when a hand snakes back to make sure Leda is seated as tightly against her as she can be (she is, naturally), and then they’re going hell for leather at an impossibly tall piece of hedgerow, beyond which can be seen further muddy fields, breaking up into the beginning of hillsides and worrying drops, but Philomène Aiglemort de Chalasse doesn’t hesitate for an instant before spurring the horse up, up and over, landing hard but still at full stretch to tear up the countryside.

Every day, she said. Every day she comes out here to ride. It’s no wonder that by now she knows the hedges and fences, the streams, woods and meadows like the back of her hand, guiding the horse unerringly along the summit of thrillingly steep ledges, leaping gaps and once over a stile, and never once slowing for an instant.

This, you see, is how she takes out her frustration with the world. And horses are so much less temperamental than people to deal with when one has that itch to scratch.

As the mare’s hooves leave the ground Leda is drawing in a breath; at the very apex of that jump she lets out a blood-curdling, nerve-tingling scream the like of which Philomène often used to hear echoing back to them from the sheer faces of certain Camaeline alps, when she urged her steed du jour to similar extremes of swiftness and height. In length, in tonality, and above all in volume, it is not unlike the screams which used to split the night air in certain Camaeline castles once upon a time; and which, indeed, set the rafters of Philo’s small house a-tremble only last night, not long after she’d nodded off in her own chamber next door.

Leda’s no horsewoman, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean she’s not enjoying herself.

In all likelihood the next time Philomène changes her clothes she’ll find ten little bruises, five on her shoulder and five at her waist, mute reminders of this moment.

On and on they ride, leaving the port of Marsilikos behind them, along with any cares or worries about money or carpets or midgets or that damn donkey, steep sides of canyons echoing to their combined whoops and screams, until eventually, and with some reluctance, Philomène slows the horse as they approach the locally famous waterfalls here. It’s a good spot for sightseeing, definitely in use for trysts, but right now it’s also a wholly suitable place for a worn out, white flecked horse to get a well-earned drink, and the pair of riders to have a rest from the exhilaration of riding full-tilt at whatever the countryside has to throw at them.

As soon as the mare stoops her head to begin drinking, Philomène’s arm goes back again to briefly squeeze Leda to her, head turning back over her shoulder to give a look of absolute, unsullied joy. The lines that age has crept onto her face are all but gone in the cool air, and the exertion has brought back some colour to the cheeks and that exquisite bone structure. Above all, for the first time since Leda has seen her in Elua, she looks happy.

Periodically Leda’s paws move about her friend’s upright figure into positions which seem in the moment more comfortable or more secure, not that Philo could possibly feel much either way beneath so many layers of drab and sensible fabric. Each jump prompts a resumption of her magnificent death-grip and another joyous caroling scream, and in the aftermath, breathless laughter into the strong brown shoulder placed so conveniently to receive her head. Nothing ever frightens Leda Lavecq; nothing ever did. She was once captured and held by a Skaldi chieftain for six weeks, and came back over the border with a smile on her face. The Camaeline ladies would’ve liked her better, or granted her at least a grudging and lukewarm respect, if like Philomène they’d had the wit to see what’s underneath her powder and her ribbons.

And then they’re quiet together, listening to the rush of the falls and the horse’s happy slurping, and Philomène turns to her alight with exercise and so beautifully free of her cares.

Their eyes meet and Leda’s widen. “… Well, just look at you, darling,” she breathes out; and without another thought she sits up higher and leans close and touches her reddened lips to Philomène’s unpainted mouth in a soft kiss that’s been a long time coming.

And with the adrenaline still rushing through her veins, it seems the most natural thing in the world to share in the joy, the kiss returned with a gentle intensity that even Philomène wasn’t expecting. That hand comes up once more, not to Leda’s cheek this time, but her chin, weathered fingers in such contrast to the pretty and manicured ones beneath the courtesan’s gloves just gently manoeuvring the other woman to maintain that contact a moment longer before she breaks away with an awkward little chuckle. “Well,” she manages after a second, busying herself with the important business of stroking the mare’s mane and soothing an already perfectly soothed horse.

It’s only Leda’s nature to melt into such a kiss: and beautifully so, her face tilting into Philomène’s grasp, her lashes lowering over eyes that never quite close but gaze tenderly into her friend’s, a hand that somehow finds a thigh, and the lips of Naamah herself. Perhaps it’s that tiny teasing hint of tongue that sends this old soldier into a graceless retreat…? People don’t usually back out of Leda’s kisses, at least not while they’ve got breath left in their bodies; but far from being offended she just giggles breathlessly, and squeezes that warm thigh under her hand. Not Philo’s bad leg. Her good leg. It’s not that Leda plans these things consciously, it’s that she does notice how people move; and from there her instincts take over.

“… It’s wonderful to see you enjoying yourself again,” she confesses sincerely.

That smile surfaces once again, unbidden but not entirely unexpected or unwanted, and Philomène leans her head back, partly to look up at the sky and partly because with a red haired beauty sitting right behind you with her head on your shoulder, why the hell wouldn’t you? It’s a relaxed, comfortable silence she maintains, one hand just settling over the top of Leda’s, and the other finding its way back up from one dun coloured mane to a carefully plaited and henna coloured one, fingertips tracing the twists and turns so expertly laid in by the redoubtable Brigitte.

The faithful courtesan requires no more soothing than the faithful steed; but she’s altogether more responsive to it, letting out a murmur of contentment that’s her equivalent of a whicker and squeezing her friend’s thigh again when Philomène’s hand arrives upon her own. “I hadn’t seen you in such a long time,” she muses, “till this very minute.” Or, well, it was a few minutes ago now, but let’s not judge Leda’s timekeeping when she’s doing her best. “You must have wanted to run away from L’Agnace so many times… darling, I’m so glad you did.” And her head turns; and she finds the inside of Philo’s wrist, stretching up out of her sleeve the better to touch her crown of pretty red braids, and she leaves another kiss there, upon her pulse.

“Oh, Leda,” Philomène laughs her off, but certainly does nothing to shrug her off. “I’m an Aiglemort.” Well, she was, and what were we just saying about not splitting hairs? “We don’t run.”

The mare beneath them, content with water for now, begins to amble along the bank, away from the waterfall’s noise and towards what must be the tastiest patch of grass (presumably it’s the tastiest, else why not just eat the patch that was right there?), but Philomène is very much content to rely on leg strength alone to hold her upright, thigh muscles tensing naturally under Leda’s hand. Of course, her hands are otherwise occupied, so it’s probably a good thing that the horse hasn’t spooked or they’d both be in a pickle.

“I was really… quite unhappy, for a time,” she admits quietly. “No, not unhappy. I was angry. Incensed, even. But even in L’Agnace, I’ve always had my horses. And how can anyone truly be unhappy when you can fly through the fields, forgetting everything except the feeling of that moment? You do understand, don’t you?”

“You ran from me all the time,” protests Leda mildly; but she doesn’t argue the point any further, she just grins at Philomène as though delighted to have caught her out.

The confessions of a bride bartered away from her rightful homeland, she listens to with the sympathy of a courtesan whose heart is still wrung at least a little by every unhappy marriage her patrons can’t seem to help telling her about, at length. “… I do understand how you must have felt, darling,” she confesses, those enormous green eyes fixed upon Philomène’s, oblivious to the horse beneath them and the patch of grass ahead and all those considerations less warm and less urgent to her than matters of the human heart. “There are parts of oneself that one has simply got to keep hold of, no matter what else. And as long as one’s got them one’s sure to be all right in the end, don’t you think? And if one isn’t all right — why, then,” she laughs easily, and turns her hand up to hold Philo’s, “it’s not yet the end.”

“The farms grow on you, though,” Philomène feels the urge to defend her new homeland, squeezing the hand as it’s turned to hers. “The l’Agnacites share at least one trait with Camlach. They’re honest.” She shrugs slightly, one shoulder more than the other so as not to dislodge the redhead who’s taken up post there. “It’s not like the cities, where everything’s for show. The farmers are just like us, really, only their enemy isn’t the Skaldi but the blight, or wireworm, or drought, so you can’t just ride at it with a sword or an axe and take it out.”

She half smiles, deciding on a whim to turn her head and leave a quick kiss to Leda’s cheek. “And the countryside is glorious to ride, of course. You can ride for miles and miles without stopping. I imagine if I’d ended up in Azzalle or worse that I’d never have been happy again.”

She leans away just enough to look at the other woman. “One of these days we really do need to teach you how to ride properly, you know.”

“You can’t just ride at it with a sword…” Leda repeats, and up bubbles another giggle — but a fond one. “Why, darling, no wonder you were so angry!” She wraps her own and Philo’s arm both around the latter’s waist, still holding her hand in her own softly calfskin-gloved paw, while the horse still has its head and they each concentrate wholly upon the other. “Oh, darling, I shouldn’t tease,” she sighs, “not when you’ve lived through so many changes in your life… Oh, but why?” she asks, at that last. “I like this so much better, you know.”

“I don’t think I could stand it,” Philomène admits quite frankly, content to nudge the horse on to a slow walk, vaguely back in the direction they came from. They’ve come a fair distance, so they’ll have to ride harder to be back by any sort of reasonable time, but for now a walk will do, so they can converse and cuddle in equal measure. “Being on the back of a horse, with somebody else riding for me? It doesn’t matter how much I like and trust that other person, I’d want to ride my line, not theirs. I really don’t like other people to make those sorts of decisions or do those sorts of things for me,” she adds, pulling a face. “I don’t like to be dependent. I suppose it’s different for you..?”

“Well, I’ve generally found,” says Leda, a touch apologetic at finding herself in fundamental disagreement with her friend, “that the more I trust, the more my trust is rewarded. But, still, it’s…” She purses her lips and nuzzles into Philomène’s shoulder and lets out a sigh against that sturdy fabric and the warm strong woman beneath it. Then the right comparison suddenly pops into her head and she lifts it again. “You trust your horse, don’t you?” she demands. “Well, darling, it’s like that. I understand my patrons just as you understand your horses. I don’t mean to suggest,” she giggles, “that they’re dumb animals, because they aren’t at all,” green eyes flash, “at least not most of them, but… darling, I do understand,” she explains, passionately, in her own way pleading to be understood in turn.

“I’d definitely argue that horses are far from dumb animals,” Philomène agrees with an easy smile, adjusting the arm around her so she can withdraw her own and take up the reins again without having to untangle the other hand’s fingertips from the elegant crown of plaits in which they’ve found themselves. “But I only go riding once a day, and I’m a one horse girl,” she adds. “I don’t take a dozen horses back to my very kind hostess’s house and have them throw up on the carpets.” The tone remains fond, rather than accusing.

Oh, dear, it’s so easy to underestimate the feelings of these horsey people for their mounts. On the other hand… well, yes, that just makes the metaphor all the more precise, doesn’t it? And Leda seems to recall a small, a very small, and yet an undoubtedly salient fact, repeated so often within her earshot and in so many variations, by these horsey types, that she’s sure it must be right. When it hits her she starts, her lips parting and her head almost pulling free of Philomène’s hand. Not quite, though. Brigitte does the entangling kind of braids all right.

“But horses,” Leda reminds her friend authoritatively, “can’t throw up!”

It’s quite true. What goes in one end must come out the other, noisily, via a digestive tract so poorly designed that it is the sorrow and despair of many a devoted horsewoman.

Leda meanwhile seems to feel she has demolished Philomène’s argument utterly.

“Yet another reason that horses are far better than people,” Philomène argues, laughing at her old friend. “Time to head home for some lunch?” she suggests, nudging the horse a little faster. “Holding on tight? There’s a wonderful route back along the valley floor, if you’ve got the nerve for it?”

Because when has Leda not had the nerve for it?

To release Leda’s hand is to experience, sooner or later, another friendly caress of one’s thigh, as she laughs at one’s fairly minor but apparently — to her — entrancing jest. Everything makes an Orchis laugh. Whether this is irritating or frankly flattering, depends.

Then in answer to those needless, absurd questions Philomène puts to her Leda laughs all the harder, and treats them both first of all to another round from her flask (it’s excellent cognac, nothing from her hostess’s cellar) and then to a more thorough twining of their bodies. How many limbs has she got, by the way? That’s surely more than the standard quartet. And how is it that they all contrive to suggest impertinence, all at once? She has indeed been learning lots since last they rode out together, though it’s not the kind of knowledge one could find in a book, even in the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. It’s purely physical, purely instinctive, something of Leda’s own given freely and wantonly to the woman in her arms. Her breath is warm on Philo’s cheek and liquor-fragrant besides as she exclaims: “Let’s go!”

Philomène can be confident that Leda won’t fall off, at least, and confident too that she isn’t going to freeze with the extra layer of Orchis on top of her dependable old brown riding jacket. Thus buoyed, along with the endorphins released by the unexpected but most welcome kisses, she kicks in her heels and the dun mare leaps from almost a standing start to top speed, whickering with excitement and nostrils flaring. The horse, that is. Not Philomène.

If you thought the ride out was exhilarating, the ride back is pure showmanship, taking the more dangerous route, and tackling it faster and faster. She even crouches down on the horse to get that little more speed, cackling a joyous laugh as she goes, even if it’s lost on the rushing wind as they gallop on. Hooves skid on loose gravel, scattering it down the bank to the river beside them, and the jumps are absolutely hair-raising, timed to perfection to narrowly avoid an ignominious death. Really, Leda should have a care not to distract her pilot entirely, or it could all end in tears. Or blood, gore, and other bodily fluids less common in Leda’s life.

But does Leda care? Does she? Why, no. They might be swooping down through a pass manned by the raving Skaldi hordes and she’d only keep squealing aloud her joy in the movement, the speed, the rhythm and the risk of it all. Several further sets of tiny bruises blossom beneath Philo’s riding habit, each five-pointed like the petals of a flower. How long has it been, one wonders, since the last time the vicomtesse de Gueret had a beautiful woman clutching at her like this, screaming, incoherent in her pleasure—?

Too late for the horse’s comfort, too soon altogether for Leda’s satisfaction, because when has she ever known when enough is enough, the city heaves into view again, and the roiling dark waves of the southern sea beyond the sprawl of its harbour. The end of the fun casts Leda into an unaccustomed quiet, and she leans her head on Philomène’s shoulder as though proposing to take an afternoon snooze there. Her hat has, for a miracle, stayed on: bless Brigitte and the half a dozen extra pins she insisted on sticking into it when she was stitching the red feather more firmly into place. It’s a bit bedraggled now, and tickling Philo’s face.

As they slow and trot back in through the city gates, Philomène is able at last to brush that feather from her face, fingers brushing Leda’s cheek as she lowers her hand again to the reins. “Should I set you down at the house, Leda?” she asks, expression turning back to something closer to that carefully schooled neutral look that encapsulates the Philomène Aiglemort de Chalasse to be found in Marsilikos. “Unless you wanted to help brush down and muck out?” It seems unlikely. “She’s had a good run today, and she’ll need a bit of care.”

“… I’m sure she must do,” agrees Leda innocently, looking deep into Philomène’s eyes as they turn to meet her own, and then rising slightly in the saddle to touch her lips to her cheek for a long, tender moment. Obviously that must have something to do with the tired mare. Right?

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