(1311-02-20) An End of Games
Summary: A once and future Thorn calls upon his Mandrake neighbour, bringing a toy — though not of the variety one might normally associate with their canon! (Warning: Some Mandragian bits.)
RL Date: 24/02/2019 - 25/02/2019
Related: Ducks For Sale.
emmanuelle raphael 

La Maison Sanglante — Place des Mains

Directly abutting the walled compounds of Marsilikos's Night Court, and running in fact for some distance behind the Salon de la Rose Sauvage, is a house which boasts a far more modest frontage upon the Place des Mains d'Eisheth. Its name derives from a violent incident in its past; previous owners tried to redub it in the public mind, but the present ones embrace the term. By their design its three-storey façade of grey stone is shielded at street level by a high and forbidding wall of darker stone, into which is set a pair of intricately-wrought iron gates taller than any man who may ring the bell at their side. Kept locked, their curlicues of black iron are enlivened by a pattern of gilded keys.

Between the outer wall and the house stands a small stone courtyard lined at either side with wormwood trees, which impart a bitter and aromatic fragrance to the air within it. From it half a dozen stone steps rise to heavy doors of dark and ancient oak, studded with black iron and hung upon baroque hinges of the same; these open into a large, square, windowless chamber, occupying the full width of the building and yet higher than it is wide. At each side of the doors is a console table of dark purple marble veined with black, bolted to the wall above a pair of elaborate gilded legs and beneath a matching and equally baroque gilded mirror. There are no other furnishings. Sparse lighting is provided by candles in iron sconces bolted to pillars of the same purple marble, which pass into shadow on their way to support the vaulted ceiling overhead.

The light is, however, sufficient to permit examination of the frescoes which cover walls and ceiling alike from a height of perhaps four feet off the gleaming black and purple marble floor. An artist of great skill and anatomical knowledge has limned a series of scenes of Kushiel chastising sinners. Those who come to him for succour are shown enduring remarkably detailed torments before being transfigured by the raptures of his love… or, possibly, hers. In some panels Kushiel is a man and in some a woman, in others an unmistakable hermaphrodite: in all these incarnations the Punisher is depicted with the lean figure, the austere profile, and the hooded blue eyes of a lady who resides beneath this roof.

On the back wall this unconventional masterpiece is interrupted by the outlines of two single doors, and the elaborate black iron handles attached to each. The door on the left leads to an intimate receiving-room wherein a pair of studded black leather sofas frame a low, well-polished mahogany table. In here the walls are covered in frescoes of the Kusheline countryside, from the same brush.

The missive is brief and courteous, requesting a private meeting with Lady Emmanuelle Shahrizai at some hour convenient to her. It’s signed, Raphael nó Rose Sauvage.

A day later he receives an answer, delivered by hand to the Rose Sauvage from the Maison Sanglante next door. In a couple of lines written in the third person it is vouchsafed to him that the Lady Shahrizai will grant him his interview in four days’ time, at a certain hour of the afternoon, at her own residence. The parchment is very fine and pale and the ink a glossy blue-black; the seal pressed into dark violet wax is a variation upon the Dowayne’s Seal of Mandrake House, incorporating a key suggestive of House Shahrizai. It’s unlikely he’s ever seen Emmanuelle’s writing — but this meticulous masculine hand isn’t it.

Cometh the hour and cometh the man, all the way from next door.

All Raphael must do is to ring the bell and to give his name.

Then he is admitted immediately via the gilt-touched iron gates of this modest grey stone structure fronting upon the Place des Mains. It is guarded by Mereliot men, who clash with Emmanuelle Shahrizai’s sombre dwelling as they did with her black jewel-box of a carriage; one of them escorts him through a plain stone courtyard bitterly redolent of wormwood and up the front steps to where the heavy ironbound front door is opened by… well, the pet. The Shahrizai kinsman whose vocation seems to be the barring and unbarring of portals.

The guard discharges him into the pet’s keeping and the pet bows him in, exquisitely but with an undercurrent of sardonic disapproval, such as can be manifested only by a bloodyminded submissive who is under orders yet sincerely wishes he were not. The door swings shut slowly under his hand, sealing them both into this windowless chamber dedicated to the glorification of Lord Kushiel as manifested in the person of his scion, Emmanuelle Shahrizai. The air is redolent of beeswax and smoke and myrrh; the candles afford sufficient illumination.

“The Lady Shahrizai,” her kinsman explains, in resolute and final tones, “is expecting you; she will join you directly.” Another impeccable low bow; and then he withdraws via a discreet door — there are two of them on the inner wall, concealed amidst the Kushiel frescoes, their locations betrayed only by black iron door-handles — and leaves Raphael quite alone.

Long minutes pass — Raphael was punctual, his hostess is not — and then that same door opens, noiselessly, and her uisghe voice comes unexpectedly from behind him.

“I didn’t pose,” explains Emmanuelle, that being the question she has most often seen in people’s eyes, when they’ve spent much time in her foyer. Standing framed in the doorway she’s dressed rather as she was when she hauled him off to the Temple of Naamah in Elua: in the height of masculine courtly style, with those wickedly Mandragian boots, today’s pair highly polished and obviously buckled in place by gloved hands which left no mark upon their mirror-bright surfaces. In her own house her head and her hands are bare. Her blue-black tresses, threaded with white, are pinned up in a complex braided style which suggests the work of many hands over many hours; and she has the same flawless manicure of twenty years past: her nails shaped almost to points and lacquered a gleaming black. She never wears rings. Indeed, her only jewel is the Shahrizai pin nestled in the folds of her neckcloth.

“I am late,” she states next. Not precisely an apology. “I was attending upon a kinswoman of mine who is with child. If Baltasar didn’t seat you…” And she kicks the door shut behind her with a precisely-aimed but insouciant foot and takes a few steps and opens the other just along from it, into a small sitting-room decorated with pastoral views of Kusheth. “I can only assume he took offense to the way you spoke to him. Would you care to see him punished for his lapse?”

This hospitality is offered as easily and as kindly as the shallow copper bowl of flawlessly ripe fruit out of season, the fresh pastries, the fine liquor — red, white, and elderly cognac — arranged with a variety of glasses upon a low table between two sofas of studded black leather.

Raphael appears on time even if his host does not, and he is carrying with him a small trunk, black leather studded at the edges and clad with metal at the corners.

He is a man of quite different bearing than when they last met: controlled, awake to the power of his own body. His head is no longer bowed, and he is even combing his hair differently: straight back from the forehead and held in place with a light oil. His clothes, too, have changed, from light to dark, and from disheveled to ordered. They are not, however, expensive: perhaps he has not chosen a final style for himself. Or perhaps while re-training he prefers not to wear anything precious that might be stained.

At least by appearances, he ignores Pet altogether, making it unclear whether he even recognizes the fellow. He is more interested in the frescoes. He sets down his case against one wall and then moves to investigate these scenes one by one, hands folded behind his back, spine pointing straight from earth to sky. He takes his time to appreciate each.

He hears the voice behind him, but takes his time in turning. “They are lovely,” he answers, finishing his inspection of the last before turning to face her. His face hangs differently, either through the restoration of regular meals or through the recession of grief, or something else. “And so, of course, is the Lady Shahrizai.” He makes a partial bow, back straight.

Then as his host moves he crosses the foyer, picks up his case, and follows her. The case does not appear to be particularly heavy, but neither does it seem to be empty. The contents could be anything. Tools of the trade? He sets it down again inside the room and then helps himself to a seat upon the other sofa—no sitting-standing power games to try to regain his own. His posture in this seat, too, is completely different from the way he sat in the picked-over toy shop: open, assured, and comfortable without sacrificing posture. On his way, he selects a nectarine for himself and holds it in one palm. Only now does he turn to the offer made by his host.

“Yes, I would.” No playing of the role required; the answer is genuine. And yet delivered in the tones of well-mannered guest to gracious host. “How kindly you receive me.” He does not rush to other matters yet.

Emmanuelle precedes her guest into that cosy little Kusheline sitting-room and settles upon her favourite of the two sofas, from which she can eye most of the foyer via the door left open and watch the genuine article — Raphael nó Rose Sauvage, his own self! — come in after her. Her posture is upright but relaxed, booted feet planted wide and hands resting on her thighs. No power games from her either, only a natural ease upon her own ground.

“Of course,” she drawls, “Baltasar has been with me a long while… My needlework,” she orders simply, without so much as a glance at her pet. Meanwhile she chooses an orange from the bowl before her, and produces a fléchette knife with which she commences to peel it in the finest Mandragian style. Twenty years ago Raphael could have matched the feat; but now…? Behind him, the pet is shedding at her command his doublet of black velvet, as if to offer it across for an examination of the stitching… Only then he pulls off his shirt as well.

“You’re familiar with the conundrum,” Emmanuelle goes on. “How, in fact, to inflict a real and palpable punishment upon a natural algolagniac…” Knife in hand — still peeling her orange — she gestures with it to the corner of the chamber, deliberately reflecting light from a candelabra at her side onto Baltasar’s naked torso and his wrought silver belt-buckle, as he comes forward obediently with his upper garments held bunched together in his hands.

He’s a tall man, muscular, in his middle thirties: pale like all the Shahrizai, with eyes to match Emmanuelle’s save that they are at present downcast in modesty. Across his abdomen and curving up higher is what any man of the world must know ought to have been a mortal wound, but which was sewn shut so immaculately that there’s hardly a crease in his flesh and his long scar seems like a child’s drawing with a paintbrush dipped in pink.

“The most profound erotic experience of his life was when I sewed up his wound. But, I assure you,” and suddenly Emmanuelle shows her teeth to the visitor opposite her, whose tastes so surely accord with her own, “he abhors being required to bare himself as an exhibit.”

Raphael does actually smile in echo of his host. It is an old smile, sharp but nevertheless genuine. In fact, it may be its genuine nature that makes it pierce all the more.

Then, in understanding of the situation she has laid out for him, his eyes go to Baltasar and remain there. “What a grievous wound it must have been,” he says. “And what a clean scar. A delicate masterpiece. I wish I could’ve heard the sounds he made as you worked.” He settles his weight back more into the supple leather backing of the sofa, biting into the nectarine without changing the focus of his vision. It is a hard look, a judging look, but an interested look all the same. A connoisseur audience of one.

“Mmm,” muses Emmanuelle, tasting the memory: knife in one hand, orange in the other, slowly separating flesh from peel. “He was fairly quiet. The loss of blood left him weak and struggling simply to draw breath. What I saw in his face was, however, unmistakable.”

By now there’s an angry heat in Baltasar’s pale cheeks as he stands at the end of Raphael’s sofa, holding his own garments in white-knuckled hands, his head bowed and his blue-black braids falling in lustrous ropes about his well-built shoulders. The chamber is too cool for the comfort of anyone less than fully clothed — and perhaps that’s why Emmanuelle, having said her piece, curls her fléchette once more round the circumference of her orange, adding materially to the length of her peel, before stating at a similar temperature, “You may go. I shall expect to see my mending done and my boots aglow, the next time I step into my dressing-room.” She does not, however, give any indication as to the hour at which the blessed event will occur.

Baltasar withdraws, displaying in the process a back marked by a multitude of welts old and new, arranged in a crosshatched pattern, not only indicative of precise Mandragian skill but inordinately pleasing to a Mandragian eye. Or four of them, currently following him.

He draws the door shut in his wake. Emmanuelle’s gaze returns idly to Raphael.

“Well, you don’t look like shit,” she observes.

“No,” Raphael confirms. He has appreciated the show with a keen eye for its meaningfulness to the individuals involved despite the lack of flashy sport. The gradual bloom of a painful flush can be more spectacular than a half-hour session of noisy whipping. “I would not dishonor my house.” He has also appreciated the out-of-season nectarine, and now leans forward to deposit the pit on an empty plate with a soft clink. He picks up a napkin to meticulously clean his hand. “You reminded me of something very important when I saw you in Elua,” he says meanwhile. “That Naamah has given me everything I ever had in my life. Admittedly, I have fallen behind in my devotions. But I still have time. As you already understand, I have returned to the Salon de la Rose Sauvage.”

He glances up to meet eyes with Emmanuelle. “But I’ve outgrown my youthful persona, as you can imagine. I’ve come here to ask your advice, since in a different way I think you have navigated similar waters. And since I would prefer not to emphasize any weakness in a salon to which I intend to return with strength. Naturally I have been refreshing my training with the Dowayne. But there are other points for which a keen outside eye could be useful. Questions of style, for example.” He sets the napkin on the table and sits back again. “It’s not your responsibility,” he acknowledges. “But if you are interested in giving advice in the interest of service to Naamah, I’m interested in hearing it.”

The curling orange peel falls away whole and entire from that wickedly sharp fléchette knife held in Emmanuelle’s expert hand, taking the pith along with it; so far not a droplet of juice mars her blade, so tenderly she’s addressed it. In fact it’s a blood orange, which oozes then red and sweet upon her plate as she cuts it into segments. Flick, flick. Casually she licks the resulting juice from her knife and sets it down across the plate’s edge. She takes a napkin from the table — they are of fine-woven black linen, precisely folded, each embroidered at one corner with a trio of entwined Shahrizai keys in thread-of-gold — and drapes it across her right thigh, in reserve, before picking up and popping into her mouth a whole segment of her orange.

It’s delicious: or so Raphael might rightly deduce from that little lift of her boldly-drawn black eyebrows, the only sign she gives of a thoroughly pleasant sensual experience. She rests her hand upon her napkin, chews, swallows, at length — having thought — speaks.

“I’ll drink to Naamah’s unending gifts to us,” she offers with a slight, wry smile; “that is, I would, had I not an assignation later in the day. You may recall I don’t imbibe on days when I’m working — my cousin Annabelle’s custom and a wise one, I have long felt,” but this is by the bye. “My dear Raphael,” she goes on more seriously, and in her mouth that name is slow and dignified, with not a vowel skimped, “I was delighted to hear it said that you’d found your way back to her, and now I see it is true. I trust that time will bear out the wisdom of your choice.”

Then, on a different tack, and without granting or denying or even really acknowledging what he has just asked of her: “What’s in your box? Ought I to call for my guards?”

“I don’t think they would be very amused if you did,” Raphael answers, flowing along with the path of conversation rather than pressing his request. He stands up and crosses the room to the box, lowering to one knee as he opens the latch. “A gift, if you are interested. I left you empty-handed before.”

He opens the box and draws out a beautiful wooden doll, undoubtedly the late Sylvie’s work. Though the material is only wood, the details are carved and painted with an expert hand and the greatest care. Dark hair is affixed in nearly as many strands as one might find on the head of a real girl. The delicacy of expression, a hint of mirth in lips just barely curved, a clarity of eye, is arresting. Raphael holds it so the feet lightly sit upon his raised knee. “It is of no use to you now, of course, but I thought you might keep it for your granddaughter in a few years. If you want it. If you don’t, you should tell me directly. It is one of three I kept, her best work.” He looks to Emmanuelle to read her expression, though he knows that is not necessarily an easy feat. “You had kind words for her; you remembered her name,” he says quite softly.

The painted mask of Emmanuelle’s face remains unchanging, impassive, as Raphael produces his gift to her — but the rest of her blood orange lies forgotten, unlike Sylvie nó Lis d’Or.

When he grows silent she sits forward on the edge of the sofa and rests her elbows on her thighs, her fingers threaded together in the gap in between. From this marginally improved vantage she studies the doll resting upon her visitor’s bended knee: in its own way a carven offering to Naamah and a celebration of gifts nurtured in her service, an object of beauty shaped lovingly from the roughest materials to delight another’s heart and banish loneliness therefrom. With the appearance of such a toy, the time for games somehow comes to an end.

“Of course I remember,” she says mildly, more to the doll than the man. At any rate that’s where her eyes linger, upon a visage painted as immaculately as her own. “I thought it better not to return to your premises myself, but when I had two little Mandrakes of my own at home I often sent servants shopping there for new toys. Different, of course, as they grew. Everything of my daughter Dorimène’s,” and she looks up to meet Raphael’s eyes — wondering, perhaps, whether he remembers her eldest child’s entrance into the world, “was left behind when she entered fosterage at Cereus House. At present I’ve three small Shahrizai girls under my roof, two of them Dorimène’s own. The elder will celebrate her third natality next week, and if you’re certain you’re prepared to part with a piece of Sylvie’s legacy to you I should like very much to place this treasure in her keeping,” her lips curve into a smile both whimsical and calculating, “to look after until her younger sister is of an age to appreciate it too. I think we might trust her; she’s her mother’s daughter and already striving to be a Cereus in miniature. Her curtsey isn’t bad at all, for three — she has a knack already for tying knots, too,” she drawls, with a quick roll of her eyes, “but that is in our blood. Perhaps you’ll meet her and have her thanks as well, when next you visit—? You may have mine now,” she says frankly, and nods to him.

“In the meantime I can give you an introduction to a suitable tailor. I think your wardrobe must be addressed first of all. My own usual man is in Elua, but the next best is undoubtedly the lady Isabelle de Valais — she was a patron of mine for some years, she will understand your requirements better than anyone else in Marsilikos. What you need immediately can be put on tick, I’ll guarantee it for you. We can’t have you displaying signs of financial difficulties. You are not working to make ends meet,” she instructs with one finger scrupulously raised — and then licks a lingering stickiness from that fingertip and each of her others in turn as she goes on, “you are simply answering Naamah’s call, and it must be understood that the favours of so senior and respected a Thorn, one of the very first that our city called its own, are to be regarded as a rare privilege by those patrons fortunate enough to partake of them.”

She wipes both hands thoroughly on her napkin, rubs her fingertips together to test them for orangey residue, then makes a beckoning gesture — not to Raphael, but the doll.

The talk directly touching on Sylvie stings Raphael’s eyes a bit, but it is clear that he appreciates Emmanuelle’s open response to this offer. He says very little in reply, but nods his confirmation that he is indeed certain of a desire to place the object with the young Shahrizai kinswomen.

At the gesture he stands — his joints seem untroubled by middle aged complaints — and he comes to place the doll in a sitting position on the table before Emmanuelle. He sweeps a hand under the doll’s skirt when seating her, a practiced gesture of a fastidious shopkeeper, which keeps the skirts from rumpling. The doll’s jointed wooden body is stiff enough to hold her in the sitting position when so posed. “Whatever happens to it in play, I am not necessarily concerned about,” he says. “As long as it is not cast aside.”

That much said, he returns to his former seat and nods once at Emmanuelle’s offer. “Isabelle de Valais,” he says, nodding. “I won’t leave you with a debt. I appreciate that you seem to understand my position perfectly.”

“Beautiful things are put into the world to be used and enjoyed,” Emmanuelle echoes, a position with which no Mandrake could help but agree. “And the experience of raising my own children has taught me that Sylvie’s work has an odd enchantment — my granddaughter has already a few pieces of hers, handed down from her aunt and uncle, but most of what they had from your shop was loved to death in their games before they began their novitiate…”

She has been speaking half to the doll. Enchantment indeed. But she looks up again into Raphael’s eyes, still affecting not to notice the slight welling of his tears — though of course she’s well aware of suffering in her presence. “I’m certain that you won’t,” she informs him in an amused drawl, “because you know if you do I’ll take it out of your hide one way or another.”

She drops her napkin on the table and stands. “I’m sorry I haven’t more time today,” she says forthrightly, “but if you come back on, say, the twenty-fifth, I’ll have returned from a trip out of the city and we may have a longer discussion. In the meanwhile you’ll want to visit the lady Isabelle. If you can wait five or ten minutes I’ll write your introduction to her.”

Raphael laughs, finding no insult in the collegial threat. “I do not doubt it,” he agrees. But he has appreciated what Emmanuelle has said about her children and grandchild and their love of Sylvie’s work, even though he says nothing about it. He watches Emmanuelle as she gets up. “I would not infringe on your appointment,” he replies. “But I have plenty of time to wait for your introduction. I’ll see her without delay.” He is quiet for the space of a breath and then breaches the topic: “So you are ‘working’ after all.” She did say so herself. But there’s something of a question in the statement.

Emmanuelle nods crisply; “Good,” she says. “I think simplicity is the note for you to take — fine cloth, fine cut, but nothing embellished. You are after all concerned with service, rather than material gain. You might allow yourself the occasional embroidered or textured lining for a coat, a touch of richesse concealed from the casual eye… You understand?”

And then she laughs. “Yes, I’m working,” she agrees, looking away to the door as her lips twist with cool amusement. “If you really want to know, ask me next time, mm?” And on that note she nods to him once more and withdraws from the chamber, empty-handed.

“I expect I will,” is Raphael’s reply. About asking next time. The rest he thinks over momentarily — though he does not spend so long thinking about it as to add pressure to his host’s schedule. He nods upon consideration. “I’ll suggest that to the lady Isabelle and see what she can turn out for me.” Since she does not appear to need him to follow, he stays where he is, seated comfortably, to consider the future.

In about ten minutes’ time her pet returns, correctly clothed once more.

He brings a sealed letter addressed to Isabelle de Valais, and another sheet of parchment simply folded in half and left open, which offers Raphael a rendezvous at a certain hour on the 25th and advises that he bring his knives, or borrow a set if he hasn’t his own. The handwriting this time is Emmanuelle’s own and the phrasing too, a scant double handful of words inscribed boldly in violet ink so dark that at first glance it appears black.

Also in his hands is an inlaid mahogany box of a size to receive the doll. Perhaps the care with which he disposes her therein, smoothing her hair and her skirts just so, will redeem him somewhat in Raphael’s eyes? Then he shows the visitor out of the house, bowing low.

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