(1311-02-22) Creditably Matched
Summary: A confrontation between two mothers of daughters. (Warning: Some rude words. But you’d already gathered that, hadn’t you.)
RL Date: 19/02/2019 - 22/02/2019
Related: None
emmanuelle philomene 

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.

There are delays, of course, interspersed between Philomène’s ringing of the bell outside those gilded gates, the questions put to her by guardsmen in Mereliot colours, her admittance via that bitterly fragrant courtyard and the steps leading to the high ironbound door beyond it, and then her greeting at length — by then she has for some while been standing alone in this chamber celebrating the Punisher whom House Shahrizai claims as its founding ancestor — by sombre servants dressed all in black. She is left unattended there for some while, with no company but guttering candles and fragrant smoke and remarkably obscene frescoes, until at great length a door subtly concealed amongst the artwork opens wide and a dark figure, slight but puissant, stands framed therein with one hand on the door jamb and the other on her hip.

The language of her body is bold, insouciant: why not, in her own house? In her face is a lineage one must needs be an habituée of Marsilikos to discern in full: the hooded, kohl-shadowed eyelids of the late Lorianne Mereliot, the piercing blue gaze of her Shahrizai consort, a handsome patrician beak of a nose, a broad mouth flawlessly painted red. Intricate blue-black hair threaded with white forms an arrangement so complex it betokens the work of multiple pairs of hands over many hours. A profligate use of labour, cf. the tall man dressed in black velvet who comes in through another door and moves about quietly behind Philo, snuffing candles and replenishing them from the basket he carries, loose dark braids of his own falling about his shoulders. Whatever his duties here he looks to be another Shahrizai.

Ignoring him, the lady of the house regards Philomène impassively. Her eyes are incisive blue diamonds, twinned, sharp as scalpels and just as ready to dissect unwary callers, even or especially those who say something interesting. “I was not aware,” she drawls, in a low uisghe voice, “that my kin and I had any new relation with the sovereign house of l’Agnace.”

By contrast, the visitor has neither spent time on her hair, nor, it would appear, ever intends to. The blonde locks, occasionally punctuated with a stray white hair, just there to remind us all of the relentless passage of time, are cropped to a very practical, short length. And practical is really the word to describe every part of Philomène’s clothing. It was never going to be described as fashionable, not for at least the last fifteen years, but it is both functional, well-made, and a rather drab shade of brown or beige in every garment. When Philomene turns to look her hostess over, instead of silently and impassively observing the frescoes, the occasional hint of embroidery can be seen on a sleeve, at a seam, or around the buttonholes. This might appear to be unusually decadent for what is otherwise very utilitarian wear, unless one has a sharp enough eye to spot that the delicate threads of branches and leaves follow the lines of the stresses of everyday wear and are nothing but very elegant repair jobs.

That turn is itself carefully choreographed to put no pressure at all on the Chalasse’s left side, allowing her to meet Emmanuelle’s gaze squarely without wincing or tensing up. She pauses a moment, letting the silence drag out for just long enough to, under most circumstances, put the other person on edge, before she speaks in a mild tone. “Lady Shahrizai, how do you do.” Producing a leather roll from under her arm, she begins to unfasten the thonging that holds it together and keeps the contents safe from the weather. “I believe this belongs to you.”

There is of course no chance that Emmanuelle Shahrizai will be the first to blink.

She’s dressed in her usual high, spike-heeled black leather boots, buckled onto her by gloved hands which have left not a mark upon their mirror-bright sheen — fitted black breeches which suggest muscular thighs as well as an article of amatory equipment not granted her by Nature — a slate-blue silk shirt beneath a dark grey waistcoat with narrow silvery stripes, the gap made by its several unfastened buttons filled in with a black silk neckcloth. The latter is fastened by a pin in the shape of the three golden keys of Hell, twined together in a delicate triumph of some Elua jeweler's art: her only such adornment. Her hand at her hip has swept back a long black velvet coat, exquisitely cut, with epauletted shoulders and gleaming jet buttons. She’s all of a piece, handsomely so if one happens to like butch women who meet one’s gaze as though coldly unimpressed, who meet one challenge for challenge — but patiently so.

She utters no word and gives no sign, but when Philomène produces documents from that protective leather encasement only a moment passes before her candle knave comes forward, basket on arm, to relieve the Chalasse of the pages and pass them on to her.

“Now, obviously I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting the name on your behalf, but should I adjust the location, too?” Philo queries, holding the document out at arm’s length so she can read it, but most definitely not yet handing it over. “I can’t imagine you’d want the ceremony in Chalasse lands, no, of course, what was I thinking… let’s change that. Monsieur,” she addresses the unlikely knave beside her with the basket. “Do you have a pen and ink?”

Again she looks back up to Emmanuelle, granting her a serene smile. “I’m so sorry, of course I should have considered this earlier. Here, shall I put? Or do you have some sort of family lands where you and your lovely daughter would be quite at home?”

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Intimidation+4: Great Success. (7 8 5 4 3 4 8 3 8 3 2 5 2 6 3 7 1 5 2 4)

Confronted with such barbed sweetness Emmanuelle ignores the document proffered for her consideration: she truly seems unaware of its presence, just there, clasped in the paw of this peculiar intruder upon her family’s peace. Her cold blue eyes remain steady upon the other woman’s face, without falter or flinch, hardly even seeming to blink. She remains just where she is, motionless in the doorway, though an inclination of her dark head seems to bring her presence ineffably and fragrantly forward into the foyer of her house.

“My dear,” comes the sardonic drawl, “vicomtesse de Gueret,” and in her deep voice, which upon closer acquaintance suggests Elua and Eisande as well as the aforementioned liquor, there is a note of fastidious and world-weary disdain, “you are talking pure shit to me.” And this, suddenly, is crisp and businesslike. The tone of a woman who does not suffer foolishness. “You have until I count to five before I scrape you off my boot. One,” she begins. “Two.”

That change in tone is enough to make Philo take an unwitting pace backwards, without even the forethought to disguise the limp or the wince that follows. But there’s something in that moment of pain that helps to steel her, and the mask of politeness drops away to be replaced with a flash of genuine rage in her eyes, and at least a half pace (not a full pace, no, because there’s something about the unsettling quality of the Shahrizai in her own domain that makes that feel like a really bad idea) forward again.

The document is gripped in one hand, fingers tightening around it to crumple the parchment, before she thrusts it towards the basket carrying fellow beside her.

“Your poisonous little fucking crotch fruit,” she spits out, briefly meeting the other woman’s eyes before thinking better of it, looking down again, then in a moment of anger with herself more than anything, straightening up and looking back up, “has made this entire fucking contract here null and void. Is she marrying the idle waste of breath, or is this just some kind of revenge or something? Who the fuck does she think she is?”

Looking up that second time she finds an Emmanuelle on the verge of laughter — at least, to those who know the former Dowayne, such would be the message of her narrowed gaze and the slight lift of her bold dark brows — to which, after another moment spent listening and imbibing the other woman’s fury, she gives vent. It’s a brief, low, husky sound, echoing off the pillars and the marble floor and the frescoes for which she may or may not have posed. (But probably she did, no? They look just like her, except where they don’t.)

“Whatever this is,” she chuckles — and then upon drawing in a breath, she sobers again; “I would prefer that, in my house, you refer to the persons concerned by their proper names or titles, my lady.” Ouch. “Baltasar,” and this is a drawl to the candle knave, who has found himself holding out to her several crumpled and closely-written pages which she disdains to take, “the vicomtesse de Gueret appears to be in need of a stiff drink.”

The man bows, deeply. “My lady,” he murmurs, to Emmanuelle; he backs away toward a second door which has been hiding unnoticed amid this chamber’s curious artworks, and opens it upon a small candlelit sitting-room in which leather-upholstered sofas frame a low table laid, as if in anticipation, with out of season fruit, plates, napkins, very good brandy.

Will Philo succumb to such blandishments? Or remain fueled purely by her anger? Emmanuelle has not yet reached the magical number, five: but this is her rule, which she may break.

One hand comes across her body for a moment, and in that split second, her body leaning upward and forward, pure, focused fury in her eyes, there’s an echo of the soldier she must have been those years ago, if one were to strip away the lines at the corner of her eyes, those few white hairs creeping onto her head, and the injury which means her left leg remains now a good inch shorter than her right.

But it’s for a moment only, the hand faltering then falling away as it finds no reassuring sword hilt to grasp, and the Philomène underneath years of acquired walls of calm and control finds no immediately enemy to slaughter. The first of those shielding walls begins to build back up; she takes a breath, her hand going firmly to her side, there to grip the folds of her skirt between thumb and forefinger.

“Correction,” she grates out, takes another breath and lowers shoulders she hadn’t realised were tense and raised. She begins again, tone more measured. “Correction, your poisonous future vicomtesse de (name),” another infinitesimal pause, not quite enough to be insolent, but enough that it might be considered by those watching carefully at least an etiquette faux pas, “my lady.”

The knuckles on the hand gripping her skirts pale.

“And no. Thank you. I do not need a drink.”

That soldierly shift in Philomène’s stance produces no answer from Emmanuelle, who holds her ground with — it’s possible that the Chalasse either doesn’t remember this, or doesn’t in the moment connect it with the woman before her, a denizen of Marsilikos rather than Elua — balls of brass, remarked Geneviève nó Orchis, possibly literally.

“I do,” she says easily, and pulls the door to the passageway shut behind her.

Turning her back to Philomène with perfect insouciance in that dark velvet coat the full-cut tails of which flow about her boots, she strides unhurriedly a couple of yards across the foyer and turns left into the small sitting-room adjacent to it. She doesn’t look to see whether Philo is coming with her: the candle knave is certainly quick to follow on her heels, crumpled parchment still in hand. He deposits his basket in a corner and stands to attention behind his mistress where she sits upon one of the studded black leather sofas, her booted feet planted wide apart in a naturally masculine stance; solicitously, he pours for her a glass of cognac, but once she’s sitting down at her ease what she gestures for is the neglected document.

Turning it over, scanning, digesting familiar legal terms and the accustomed format of a marriage contract, she states — just loudly enough to be heard from without, giving all these marvelously echoing reflective surfaces: “And the lady Laurène is your daughter, I gather? If what I read is correct it would appear you chosen for her a creditable match. What you have not yet explicated, my dear lady vicomtesse, is why you seek so urgently to discuss it with me. I cannot possibly be concerned in the matter, being related neither to the bride nor the groom. It would be the height of audacity for me to concern myself with these arrangements.”

She speaks seriously, as though audacity weren’t her stock in trade.

Philomène does not immediately follow. She has pride enough not to allow herself to trip after the woman like an adoring puppy, and besides, with her out of the room for a few moments it gives Philomène the time to steady herself, squeeze her hands into fists once or twice as a sort of pre-anger, ready for round two, straighten her skirts and finally limp into the smaller room.

“The lady Laurène is my daughter,” she agrees, dipping her head slightly in acknowledgement. “And the lady Dorimène is yours. Now, as it would appear that the only impediment to this ‘creditable match’ is the claim that Lord (name) is sadly unable to marry my Laurène, due to the unfortunate intervention and infatuation with your aforementioned daughter, I would say you have a very definite and specific concern in the matter. What, if I can speak plainly, are your intentions?”

She folds her arms, the better to keep herself from fidgeting with folds of cloth, and the better to protect herself from letting down her guard again.

Emmanuelle meanwhile has set down the increasingly shabby-looking contract upon the low table between the two leather sofas, and possessed herself unconcernedly of a peach. Clasped between the black-lacquered fingertips of her left hand is a small, sharp knife; its blade caresses round and round the fruit, the blushing skin of it coming away in a single long piece in response to a touch slow, expert, and tender. Not a whit more pressure than is needful. Not a scrap of the peach's soft, juicy flesh left clinging to that lengthening peel as it curls down and down onto the plate Baltasar sets before her on the table. A display of conspicuous patience and control.

She keeps one eye on Philo, who has scarcely yet come in. The blade in her hand flashes as she gestures her visitor to the opposing sofa. “My elder daughter, the lady Dorimène,” she pronounces — yes, she has several children, though the fact is not generally known outside her own Kusheline or Eisandine or Night Court circles; “is a grown woman of two-and-twenty, a mother herself, and a marqued courtesan of Cereus House, accustomed since her infancy to the companionship of the highest in the land. I assure you she makes her own arrangements, as is only fit for one of her experience, perspicacity, and wisdom. I have never heard the name of this vicomte of yours and your daughter’s over my dinner-table, or in my salon; had it arisen in such a connexion I should have counseled her, as I always do, as I would any woman of my acquaintance, against marriage.”

A pause. The knife circles the peach.

“If you have any other dispute with my daughter I suggest you address her yourself,” she glances then more fully at Philomène, and bares her teeth in a hard, feral white smile framed by painted red lips. “You must understand that your discourtesy toward her, hardly endears you to me.”

The seat on the sofa remains empty, a small shake of her head given. It’s not, in this case, just being obtuse, but a guarded acknowledgement that Philomène is very much in the lion’s den here and to put herself at further disadvantage so she wouldn’t be able to leave in a hurry would be suicidal. She does, however, rest a hand on the back of the sofa suggested, giving at least half way towards the suggestion that she ought to sit there. It’s the best she’ll offer.

“On the other hand, I would stop at nothing to make sure my daughter has all the support she needs to forge the very best alliances on behalf of my family,” Philomène counters, watching the skilled knife work with a modicum of approval. Knives. Yes. “And would not leave her to fend for herself in such things. An effective marriage is a weapon to wield. I would merely counsel against any sort of foolish emotional attachment.”

She takes a moment to look the other woman over plainly, head to toe, taking in the dark velvet, the precise embellishments, the glint of silver and the strong features to match. “It would appear I have been mistaken,” she admits simply, dipping her head. “I was given to believe that this was your doing.”

Whilst Philomène is speaking Emmanuelle calmly and without looking down switches hands: the knife now in her right, the peach in her left, the peel uncurling still smoothly.

"… You would stop at nothing. I see," she drawls, with another sardonic lift of her eyebrows, which is not yet without humour. Philo goes on, explicating her maternal philosophy; the whole and complete peach-peel comes loose with one last flick of the fléchette. Emmanuelle licks a droplet of juice from a blade hardly besmirched by its work, so gentle was she, so light her touch. "I have sought simply to provide my daughters with the skill and the backing they require to forge their own way in a milieu suitable to their birth, and to live beholden to no one — not even myself." She pauses. "If a woman can’t make intelligent decisions about her life and her bed by the time she's two-and-twenty, what fucking use is she to anyone?"

Then they get to the real point of this interlude. "My doing," and Emmanuelle breathes out a huff of laughter, which after a pause segues into genuine chuckling "My lady Chalasse — someone has played a joke on you. You understand," she explains, mild and tutelary in her mirth, "every time in my life when a man has proposed marriage or consortship to me, I've beaten the shit out of him till he begged my pardon, covered in blood and tears, for uttering so asinine a suggestion." Another pause. Then, with an edged curiosity: "Who was it?"

She sinks her teeth deep into the flesh of that naked peach in her grasp; she regards Philomène levelly as she takes a bite, and then another, and touches her napkin to her chin.

“I’ve seen women of more than twice that age who consistently make utterly foolish decisions regarding their life and especially their bed,” Philomène counters drily, the very first hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She eyes the fruit in the shallow beaten copper bowl on the table, leaning down to claim, unbidden, a small apricot. It’s a careful choice. She can’t match the other woman’s knifework, so she shouldn’t try. Biting into something juicy… well, maybe not. Not in somebody else’s house. The apricot is the perfect solution, and Philo holds it in two hands, gripping the fruit without looking to it, then twisting and tearing it in two, strands of yellowish flesh remaining attached to the stone on one half.

She takes a bite of the half in her left hand, chewing it slowly before swallowing. “Oh, I shall deal with the misinformation,” she assures the other woman. “Although I confess I’m very tempted to take your fine example when it comes to Lord (name). I’m not certain I know exactly when to stop to allow them to beg my pardon, but I’m sure you have more experience than I. Blood and tears, however, I can certainly achieve.”

Ah, yes. The plethora of mature women who ought to know better, still making foolish decisions vis a vis the bedchamber. Emmanuelle grants Philomène that one with a wry lift of her brows as she bites again into her peach, napkin at the ready. It’s a familiar ritual. The ripe out-of-season fruit so gently denuded of its natural protection, laid bare to her depredations. When her neat and clever teeth have gnawed it down to the pit, which she deposits on her plate next to the peel — her small, blissfully sharp knife lies just next to it — she commences to address her visitor whilst licking the residue of juice from her fingertips: perfectly manicured, the nails shaped almost to points and lacquered a shining black, yet presently somewhat sticky.

“A little before they lose their breath and pass out,” she recommends forthrightly; “listen to the labour of the lungs, and watch for the eyes rolling back.” She pauses. “I see you prefer a sword — I could easily lend you a bullwhip, a crop, a quirt, a scourge, as you like. I don’t particularly appreciate hearing my name taken in vain,” she drawls, “nor my daughter’s either.”

“My training and experience is in the quick kill,” Philomène agrees, taking another bite from her apricot half. “And the sword is far more efficient for purpose. You are the one who would rather keep them alive, and so your choice of instrument naturally differs. I shall bow to your judgement.”

She considers for some time, absently licking remnants of apricot from her fingertips. “One does wonder, however, how do you get them to stay still for long enough? Perhaps you’ll excuse my curiosity. I can’t see a particularly dignified chase through the streets, demanding they come back immediately so you can beat them some more.”

“Are you going to sit down?” inquires Emmanuelle directly, without assuaging her visitor’s curiosity. “I don’t object to it; and, as a chirurgeon and a Mandrake both, I must tell you I find it very distracting to imagine the strain you’re putting on your hip joint. If you desire to converse with me for much longer it would be a kindness,” her tone is dry but not unfriendly, “to put me out of your misery. I must confess,” and she licks her last fingertip and has recourse again to her napkin, “I have too fine a sense for pain simply to ignore it as I understand you must try to do. Of course,” and she drops her napkin on her plate and sits back, regarding Philomène with her habitual coolness, “if you wish to keep on giving me such pleasure — do.”

“I will have that drink,” Philomène responds, giving Baltasar a small, polite nod before turning her attention to the task of moving round and lowering herself into the sofa without letting this perspicacious woman see how exasperatingly correct she is. The mask is now once again fully in place, not a flicker of expression allowed to show. She deliberately ensures that not even her jaw clenches to give her away as she eases into the surprisingly comfortable cushions.

This of course has the effect of drawing attention to herself more than it might usually. Nobody has quite that blank expression on their face for more than a split second. Trying too hard is a habit she had thought she’d trained herself out of, but it would appear not.

The half apricot in her right hand gains a few neat dents, one from thumb and one from forefinger, under perhaps a little more pressure than strictly necessary.

“I’m gratified to know I can at least cause some pleasure,” Philomène states drily, that smile once again beginning to reappear once her face is allowed to break from its inhuman impassiveness.

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Empathy: Good Success. (8 4 5 3 1 6 8 5 6 2 4 4 6 3 5)

It’s a battle of blandness. Philomène’s studied wounded-warrior impassivity vs. Emmanuelle’s implacable Shahrizai cool. Let’s not go into squalid details of who wins: let it simply be known that Emmanuelle sees and deduces the most, for she has the most to see.

Baltasar is meanwhile pouring cognac into a second pristine crystal snifter. He places it in the vicinity of Philomène’s right hand, diagonally opposite his mistress’s untouched glass.

“… Not at all why you came,” drawls Emmanuelle, sitting back comfortably on her own sofa with a booted ankle crossed upon her other knee and her hands resting on her thighs. Under such circumstances the unnatural object in her breeches is, well, unnaturally prominent. “Might one ask, my lady Chalasse, what you hoped to achieve by your visit today?” Her curiosity has an authentic air; in her own eyes she hasn’t come quite to the end of the incident.

“I think it has been achieved,” Philomène decides, meeting the other woman’s eyes as she leans forward to take up her glass. Her breeches get nothing more than a passing glance. One cannot live in a house with two Orchis guests and be at all surprised by anything these days.

“Now, of course, I am merely taking advantage of your hospitality, your fruit, and your brandy.”

Well, it’s true, if somewhat direct and to the point.

“… Merely seeking, then,” and Emmanuelle opposite seems to be continuing her own thought, in measured tones, even as she harks back to Philomène’s own earlier remarks, “a personal demonstration of how an outspoken irritant to one’s family might be lured deeper into one’s house, caught unawares upon a sofa, hog-tied with a surprisingly modest length of rope, and taught the error of their ways in my downstairs dungeon—?” She raises her eyebrows in question. “Or would you prefer to finish your cognac and take your leave?”

(Of course the downstairs dungeon is quite separate from the upstairs dungeon.)

(Or presumably the spare dungeon on the 1st floor, between the guest bathroom and the second linen cupboard.)

The Chalasse lifts her glass in response to the query. Well, apparently the cognac, then. “I can’t imagine for a single moment that your downstairs dungeon isn’t in every way as delightful as the rest of your home, but I shall leave you to your business.” She pauses to drain a significant amount of the brandy in a few long gulps, then sets the glass down on the table again and asks more seriously, “But this fellow insults your family as much as mine. When I’m finished with him, should I deposit him here for you? It should be no trouble.”

Across the table the former Dowayne of Mandrake House is half-reclining against her excellent studded leather upholstery, the folds of her black velvet coat falling negligently about her. (It’s lined with midnight blue silk, if anyone’s paying attention.) She tilts her head, considering this generous offer from a woman who came here a fire-breathing enemy.

“It is my birthday,” she muses, “in a few days’ time.” She smiles just slightly: it is not at all a warm expression. “… Of course,” and her eyes lock again upon Philomène’s, “if ever you should decide to address the rage that complicates your relationships with those you love, or your passionate need to control the uncontrollable, or the true nature of your strength, I hope you yourself will call upon me again. I rarely accept new patrons,” she confides, “but in your case, my lady Chalasse, I would consider making an exception to my rule.”

The slight twitch in the muscle at the corner of her jaw is the only indication that perhaps this kind offer and painfully astute analysis might possibly be taken as a breach of personal space and dignity. “I would gladly discuss general philosophy with you,” Philomène decides, laying perhaps a little more emphasis on the ‘general’, “and you are most welcome to call on me.” Then there is a more genuine smile, or at least the beginnings of one. A recognition of the skill of the other woman. “I am pleased that we might walk away today as… respectful acquaintances. I had imagined when I walked in here today that by sunrise tomorrow at least one of us would be bleeding out with a blade in her guts.”

“Baltasar,” murmurs Emmanuelle, without lifting a finger from where her hands rest loose and easily upon her thighs, or her gaze from Philomène’s face; “my needlework.”

That is the name of her dark-braided attendant who has waited silently all this while in a corner of this small sitting-room paneled with pastoral views of Kusheth, with a basket at his feet half-full of fresh beeswax candles. Standing where he is he commences to shuck off his black velvet doublet, as though to present it for inspection as an example of… what?

To Philomène, Emmanuelle continues. “You underestimate me, my lady Chalasse. My knives are for pleasure and for healing, only; I prefer to settle confrontations via other and more suitable means I have at my disposal. Fruit, for instance, and brandy. Were I to find you at sunrise bleeding out with a blade in your guts — I’d save your life,” she explains mildly, as she takes up her fléchette from next to her peach-plate and at last restores her left foot to the floor and rises again with smooth grace from her sofa, “even if I should hold you in the greatest contempt, and postpone by only a handful of years your sojourn in my ancestor’s Hell.”

Knife in hand she gestures 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 shirt as well as his doublet 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 old soldier from the Camaeline front knows 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.

“… After all,” the mistress of the house concludes, “I’ve done it before. Good day, my lady Chalasse,” she states formally. “I wish you and your daughter good hunting.”

Black velvet coat-tails swirl; she saunters out through the foyer.

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