(1311-02-26) The Oysters of Yesteryear
Summary: Desarae Mereliot accepts another dinner invitation, this one from late mother’s sister, Emmanuelle Shahrizai.
RL Date: 19/02/2019 - 03/01/2019
Related: Refers to the jewellery given in The Passage of an Heirloom and worn in Elua: Midwinter Ball. More or less set up by Outlandish Affairs.
emmanuelle desarae 

The Golden Harbor — Noble District

Situated close to the Opera and upon the famous wine cellars below, the Golden Harbour Restaurant offers the same refinement it expects in turn from its clientele. The name has influenced the choice of interior, where walls have been painted in sea green with golden ornaments, and one wall features the outline of this city's harbor in gilded painting that will catch the warm light of candles and oil lamps. Candelabras made of brass show the likenesses of mermaids and seasnakes. Tables and seating are of dark mahogany, cushions and upholstery done in dark green velvet, heavy drapes of similar color set into the ceiling that can be drawn to allow a certain privacy when such is wished for. Staff is attentive and discreet, and up to the standards of high nobility in their quality of service. They are clad in the unique livery of the place, sea green gowns, chemises and trousers, always tidy and well kept.

Meals served here are mostly local seafood dishes prepared from sophisticated recipes with inspired seasoning. Finest wines are available, both red and white, a supply never ceasing as they have the wine cellars below, to acquire even the most exquisite and costly vintages if requested. High windows offer a view over the city, especially where it slopes down to the harbor, with masts and sails of ships moored there visible in the distance.

The answer to Desarae’s cautious letter comes the next day, by Dorimène’s hand — she appears not to mind playing courier and lingering about the ducal court thereafter — written in purple ink so dark it appears black, in the bold hand of Emmanuelle nó Mandrake de Shahrizai, of which there are so few examples in circulation. A couple of lines only, occupying a whole page with an invitation to dinner at the Golden Harbour in a few days’ time. She ignores whatever remarks may have been addressed to her by her niece in writing, whatever questions asked: the implication is that she would rather have their talk in person, than on the page. That square of heavy white parchment, folded, is tied up with a narrow ribbon of violet silk and protected by her sacrosanct seal, pressed into shimmering golden wax.

And so here they are; and the rarely-seen proprietor of this storied gathering place of the nobility of Marsilikos, is waiting just inside the door to greet Desarae Mereliot, to take her cloak with his own hands and carry it draped over his arm, to confide that the Lady Shahrizai is waiting above, and to escort her and her shadowing Cassiline up to the private chamber bespoken by her aunt.

Outside the door of it and in an attitude of alertness waits Lord Baltasar Shahrizai, a pillar of black velvet and black silk with his hair done in that mass of long blue-black braids often favoured by men of his house. He bows low to Desarae and opens the door.

Green and gold, as below, their dining-room this evening is spacious enough for a much larger party than they two, but only softly lit: the windows reflect the flickering from gilded candelabra on this side but also the lights of ships in the harbour from the other. A slender dark figure, gazing out to sea with hands in pockets, turns at the opening of the door.

Up here, in no company but her niece’s, Emmanuelle is attired with a casualness which Desarae has not seen before. In lieu of snug breeches tucked into the highest of boots, a pair of comfy black leather pants worn over boots in what must be a simpler style, with block-heels instead of spikes: and a beautifully-cut black frock coat over a lavender-coloured shirt of the finest silk. She has several buttons undone, the gap filled by a black silk neckcloth elegantly knotted and fixed in place by an amethyst pin in the shape of two fishes. Mereliot fishes. Her maquillage forms an impeccable Mandragian masque, accentuating the boldness of her profile; her blue-black hair, threaded with white, is swept back into a plain chignon.

Of course it’s Nicolas Guillard who comes in first; and Emmanuelle eyes him.

Her gaze then travels to her niece and fastens upon her, those twin blue diamonds quietly intent. “Desarae,” she pronounces; “good evening, my dear.” She pauses. “Do you prefer to sit inside or on the balcony over the water? I don’t know your taste in these matters.”

There’s a heavy dark leather coat hanging on a hook on the wall, and the proprietor has carried up Desarae’s cloak: the balcony doors are shut at present, but a quartet of iron braziers stands ready, two to either side. Provision has clearly been made for either choice.

The transformation of Desarae from the mercurial and arrogant novice of Rose Sauvage, continues apace. Like a butterfly emerging from the familiarity and comfort of its chrysalid form, the layers of her previous life are slowly being peeled away, allowing the young woman that she'll someday become to slowly emerge. Unlike the miracle of butterflies however, Desarae's own transformation isn't wrought without a great deal of effort — for it's taken the studious application of not only herself to the matter, but also the skills of the finest tutors and courtiers her aunt could employ.

Proud of carriage, but with that otherworldly look of feyness that she's unlikely ever to lose, she follows Nicolas into private dining room engaged by Emmanuelle for the evening. Her gown of choice is one of a casual and relaxed construction; being a simple, sleeveless dress of empire-waisted design that falls in easy folds to the floor from beneath a black ribbon bandeau tied beneath her bust. It's lifted from the ordinary to the sublime by the designer's chosen material; a deep mulberry velvet with floral swirls painstakingly scraped into the fabric to expose the black silk with which it's lined. Her hair is worn in what's becoming a somewhat trademark look for her or late; straight and loose to the small of her back, and only held back at the edges of her face with twin combs of polished ebony that are intricately chased with silver inlays.

"Emmadame." She dips a curtsey. "How beautiful it all looks, and how good it is to see you again." Her arms extend, palms held uppermost as she closes the distance between them, green eyes bright with anticipation and expectation as she makes her preference known. "I would love to eat on the balcony if you're happy to brave the February air. Our city is unrivalled in beauty, but never more so than when viewed by night."

Emmanuelle’s customary red leather gloves are tucked already into a pocket of the coat she took off when she came in. Her elegant and well-kept white hands, with their pristine black-lacquered nails, lift to meet Desarae’s. Her grip is firm but not unkind, a fitting match for the gaze which accompanies her touch: for them it’s new, it’s unaccustomed; but with all the skill of the courtesan she is, she endeavours to convey reassurance and welcome.

“I would prefer the same,” she says simply, and she releases Desarae’s hands and her eyes. Baltasar is somehow already there with her coat, holding it that she might the more easily shrug into it. Whilst being wrapped up again in her own cosy cloak, by deferential hands, Desarae may glimpse its lining of muted violet silk, its secret pockets. Girded thus, Emmanuelle casts open the doors to the balcony, and the menials who followed Desarae and her escort up the stairs do their part in shifting the table (smallish, square, barely adequate for four but luxurious for two, laid with fine linen and polished silver) out onto the balcony, and then in arranging those four sturdy braziers around it to create a sphere of relative warmth. The wind isn’t so bad, here, sheltered by the Golden Harbour’s own height, amd another building to the left.

Emmanuelle, her coat settled about her, steps out onto the balcony as soon as the servants relinquish it. Her exacting nature requires that she shift, here and there, a dish or an utensil disarranged during the passage. Perfect symmetry ensues, one place setting mirroring the other in flawless elegance. Then, in the act of caressing a perfectly blooming pale pink rose into its proper place amongst an arrangement of its more colourful fellows, in a low bowl which brightens the table without obscuring the view from one side to the other, she looks up and into the dining-room thus vacated. The servants have made themselves scarce; but in the present moment there are two men present, her own shadow and her niece’s.

“… //Really/,” she drawls, her blue diamond eyes resting upon Nicolas. “Even Armandine doesn't keep her Cassiline in the room with me," she points out to Desarae, whom of course in such a situation she addresses first of all. Then, to Nicolas, with an air of regal condescension: "I assure you, Baltasar is a good dog. He bites only at my command, or to savage those who approach me and mine without leave. And I bite,” she bares her teeth at the Cassiline, in a sudden and feral smile, “only when I am well paid so to do. Baltasar will serve us; no one else, of lesser pedigree, will enter this chamber whilst my niece and I break bread together. You will wait outside one door and the other will never be out of his sight as he carries our repast up the servants' stair to us. Will such an arrangement not satisfy your scruples?"

Desarae remains where she stands, and waits whilst one of the servants recovers her cloak and settles it over the slender span of her shoulders. It's a triumph of a floor-length creation; crafted from perfectly matched pelts of the rarest black minks, the whole of which screams 'Eluan high couture' to those who enjoy taking note of such things. A recent acquisition whilst in the capital city to attend the Longest Night celebrations, it is, at the very least, up to the task of keeping the young heiress cosy whilst she takes her dinner on the balcony with her aunt. She smiles as with ringless fingers she lifts the oversized hood to her head. "Emmadame, you are the second person whom I have dined with this week, though the first occasion was nothing like this. It was, in fact, a most curious thing." A half-smile plays the curve of her lips as she follows Emmanuelle through the doors and onto the balcony, though at her aunt's next words to Nicolas, a flicker of worry shows in eyes that turn in her Cassiline's direction.

"My Lady?" Irritation shows briefly upon Nicolas' face at Emmanuelle's instructions. "You will understand my concerns when it comes to the safety of my ward and your niece." There's so very much that he leaves unspoken with those quietly spoken words, for the reminder that it's been scarcely any time since the last attempt upon the young heiress' life, needs no pointing out, and eyes of violet clash with the sapphire of Emmanuelle's own.

"Nicolas. I will be fine with Emmadame to look after me.” Desarae is quick to speak. “One look from her would cause anyone to throw themselves off this balcony rather than face up to her wrath. Besides," and her voice softens in tone, "We are so very high above the street that a person would need to grow wings and learn to fly in order to reach us.”

It'd be a falsehood to say that Nicolas accepts his ward's decision with any grace or elegance, but he does retreat from the room as requested.

Emmanuelle’s frigid and unblinking Shahrizai eyes stare down the young Cassiline until, at Desarae’s word echoing her own, he withdraws to the corridor to guard his charge’s life — and, incidentally, her privacy — with his life. Then her gaze shifts to Desarae.

“How long have you had that one?” she drawls. “Four months? Five? Baltasar is a kinsman who has served me with perfect faith these fifteen years. I get so fucking tired of their assumptions,” another flit of her eyes toward the closed door, “about who can and cannot be trusted, the decrees they assume they have the right to issue to complete strangers, and their constant and inevitable eavesdropping besides. I don’t question their dedication to Cassiel, I assure you, or the quality of their intentions, only their sense of what is fitting — I had a patron once who wanted to keep her Cassiline in the room during our assignations.” Tch. “I wouldn’t allow that either.” Then, much less grimly: “Come; sit with me,” and though she hasn’t so much as glanced at her subservient lord, even whilst complimenting the assiduity of his service, she finds her chair drawn out for her just so, and then Desarae’s across the table a moment later.

It really is a tolerably secure perch — and elegant too, with that profusion of pale pink roses, the finest crystal, Emmanuelle’s own blue and white Ch’in porcelain plates brought over earlier in the day from the Maison Sanglante. Baltasar is all at once pouring wine likewise decanted ahead of time into crystal, an abstemious half a glass for each of the ladies. The napkins he disposes across their laps are Emmanuelle’s too, dark linen rather than the Harbour’s green or white, each embroidered at one corner with three entwined golden keys.

“… I have ordered already for the both of us; I hope you will pardon me for not consulting your taste. I know so few sixteen-year-olds who can order a dinner with confidence. My daughter Justine is almost your age and I wouldn’t let her do it either,” Emmanuelle drawls, and quirks her bold dark brows. “You are a Mereliot; and so I assume you do eat fish.”

The deep mulberry of Desarae's skirts pools like ink around her feet when she sits, and her brows draw into a thoughtful line above her eyes. "Nicolas," she humanizes her banished Cassiline, "has been with me a full six months, and already I trust him implicitly." There's much that's left unspoken, and the matter of him being present for their dinner is apparently not the hill on which she’ll chooses to die tonight, and though pique shows in her eyes, she appears to be content to leave the matter there. Slim fingers smooth across the edge of the napkin, and she allows herself a smile across the table at her aunt.

"I like fish as well as the next person, Emmadame," she notes with a return of her humour. "We're so terribly fortunate here in the south to be able to eat it the day that it's caught that it’d be criminal not to, and even the fanciest restaurants that I dined at in Elua were unable to rival the humblest of our restaurants for freshness." Her eyes lift to Baltasar as wine fills her glass, and her thanks are quietly given before her attention returns to her aunt. "Is Justine also here in Marsilikos?"

A slow shake of Emmanuelle’s dark head. “Justine will debut as a Mandrake, later in the year,” she explains quietly; “I believe she will prove a credit to the house.” The inference being, her mother would hardly have relinquished its Dowayneship if she’d suffered any lingering doubt of the girl’s prospects. “I have with me in Marsilikos only Dorimène, my eldest, whom you know; her two small daughters, Léonie and Hélène; my cousin Laure and her daughter Jeannette, who is just eight years old; and, sometimes, my father.” She pauses. “Lately he spends much of his time at the house by the sea where he and my mother used to slip away together… I go to him there one or two nights each week,” another reason why her presence in Marsilikos has been intermittent, uncertain, perhaps unconducive to the decorous courtship of nieces.

Baltasar — not mentioned in her list of Shahrizai denizens of the Maison Sanglante — has gone away and come again, with a heavy silver dish for which he makes room amongst the plethora of roses, candles, glasses and plates. It contains shards of ice, two dozen oysters gleaming exquisitely each upon its half-shell, and two small silver bowls of a clear reddish sauce which when addressed will prove to taste of shallots, vinegar, cracked pepper and cloves.

“… And these,” Emmanuelle goes on, with hardly a pause in her narrative, so carefully has she paced it, “come from a cove very near that house, where we used to go swimming, your mother and I, and sometimes the others. Rarely Armandine.” She smiles, faintly. “The Harbour has an arrangement with certain divers who work that part of the coast; I like to come here for the oysters because one can taste in their flesh the very waters of that place.”

"Oh. I see." Desarae looks down to fingers that trace the embroidered three keys on her napkin, and it would appear that in the turmoil of the year just ended, she had forgotten that Justine had been given to the Night Court in the manner that she herself had once upon a time. Her chin lifts and clear green eyes fix upon her aunt where she sits across the table from her. "You must be very proud that she's to debut this year. Will you travel to Elua to lend your support?"

Baltasar brings the dish of oysters, and after smiling her thanks to him, Desarae leans forward and dips the tip of her index finger into the sauce. A glint of mischief can be seen in her eyes, then she dots it quickly onto her tongue before anyone can object. An ‘mmm’ of satisfaction is expressed. "Mama used to tell me about those lazy days spent swimming with you, and I vaguely recall her and papa taking us all there for a picnic one summer. I must have been terribly young, however, because I don't remember much about it, save that Javier cut his foot on a rock and squealed like a stuck pig.” She wipes her finger clean on her napkin. “I would very much like to meet your granddaughters, Emmadame. Perhaps when the weather is nicer again, we could all take a trip to the cove?"

“When the date is chosen, I’ll decide,” is all Emmanuelle says of her daughter’s debut.

Then without any particular ceremony she commences lifting shells to her lips and sucking those gleaming, salt-fresh oysters down her throat; each empty shell she places face-down upon the plate in front of her, stacking them up till she’s had her full dozen. She eschews the sauce. For her the taste of the sea and of the past, is the most savoury of all.

She nods and nods again, listening to Desarae with courteous attention, then offering her own thoughts — in between eating oysters and sipping excellent wine. Let that be assumed.

“There were never enough such days at the cove. I wish now I had set aside more time for family when I was living in Marsilikos in those years — but I supposed that I should be here forever,” and her eyebrows punctuate the ironic drawl of her voice, “and that there was no hurry… To postpone joy,” she drawls, “is a grievous error in the young.” Then, an oyster or so later: “Of course I’d be delighted to arrange a visit to the house and the cove, for all of us. I know and I appreciate the reasons why you have in the main been leading a circumscribed life — I was delighted to know you were out and about in Elua, though in the event we hardly met one another; and I am proud of you for accepting such invitations as mine,” she grants wryly, “and for dispensing even briefly with the attendance of your Cassiline. Some of your canon may delight in it; but you cannot and must not live all your life in fear or in sorrow. There comes a point beyond which one is mortgaging one’s future for the sake of one’s past. It’s good,” she says simply, “to take these steps, to stretch one’s legs more and more as time goes on.”

After a moment she asks, “What was your other dinner engagement?”

"Now that was a was a curious thing," Desarae informs Emmanuelle whilst aiding her in the decimation of the dish of oysters. "It was with an unlanded lord of House Ferraut, a person whom I met whilst browsing in the market that sets its stalls up daily in the square near the port. He was newly arrived on one of the ships, and so I offered him advice on where to find lodgings, and a day or two later he called upon me at the palace to enquire whether I might be free for dinner one evening. I was intrigued enough by him to accept. And I was right to be intrigued, because," and here she pauses, breaking the cadence she’d found in the lifting of the shells to her mouth, "… he somehow arranged for the dinner to take place in the solar of the palace." Her head tilts fractionally to one side, and her eyes are bright when they search her aunt's face to gauge her thoughts on the choice of venue.

A splash of piquant sauce is spooned onto the next oyster that's held lightly in her fingers, and the mollusc's unfortunate fate is sealed with a lift and a tilt of its shell.

"But yes," she continues once the oyster's been swallowed, "… I did enjoy Elua, Emmadame. Even though we didn't keep company with one another, it provided the perfect opportunity to show myself in public once again." Her voice brightens. "I wore the black pearls to the Midwinter Ball, and though undoubtedly the masks aided me in my anonymity, I cannot begin to tell you how refreshing it was to not have to endure the awkwardness of conversation that has become commonplace for me here in Marsilikos. As you say, I cannot live my life in the past, but must begin to look to the future, and what my role in that will be."

In front of Emmanuelle twelve empty half-shells are by now arranged in three stacks of four, forming a tidy triangle upon her plate. Having listened in thoughtful silence, her painted features impassive, she remarks in a mild drawl: “It never fails, does it? When one supposes one may finally have heard the last, the final, the ultimate inexplicable and bloody peculiar act a man may commit in his pursuit of a woman… They offer us a new entertainment.”

Of the pearls she simply says, “I am glad to know you’ve had some pleasure from your mother’s gift, my dear. I think that choker was one of the loveliest pieces ever to pass through my hands. You understand, family jewels are always a trust: they come to us to be passed on.”

And that is the end of the oysters; after which the other courses follow and gather weight in an orderly progression, each accompanied by wine selected with a connoisseur’s care to augment its pleasures, and then by an anecdote of Mereliot family history in which Emmanuelle reveals something of Desarae's mother and just a soupçon of her own self, for seasoning.

The consommé — a spécialité de la maison at this season, unobtainable once the chefs downstairs decide it can no longer be prepared to their standards — which Monique disdained all the year round because she thought it had too much fennel in it. Emmanuelle always liked it, though. What does Desarae think? Will she pronounce upon the fennel and settle their old argument? The sole, brought to the table still whole to have its mouth-wateringly soft and flaky white flesh flawlessly filleted by Emmanuelle's own hands: that is the sole from a dinner party held here on the occasion of Monique's sixteenth natality, before her laughing siblings whisked her away to the Night Court to conclude the evening in the traditional manner. The duck: it was Emmanuelle's favourite dish at the Harbour when she was pregnant with Dorimène, and Monique loyally ordered the same whenever they ate together and let Emmanuelle, who was always hungry, finish hers for her. It isn't on the menu anymore: it's a special favour from the head chef, who remembers the receipt for it from his days as a lowly kitchen-hand.

And so on and so forth, small portions but exquisite, comprising a guided culinary tour of the years in which the sisters were still close to one another, before the Morhban marriage of one and the other's return to Mont Nuit. Those things, of course, remain unspoken. They would not conduce to the cordial and familial atmosphere Emmanuelle is working earnestly, though with the unfailingly light touch of the veteran courtesan she is, to foster.

No assassins come crawling up over the balcony or rappelling down from the roof. The worst hazard the ladies face together is chilly fingertips, eventually ameliorated by the summoning of servants to carry their table and all its accoutrements inside again.

Then the cheeses, and even those are exclusively from Mereliot lands: in the main, from a farm between Marsilikos and the seaside house aforementioned, which was the site of many a family picnic in days gone by. There's a story about the farmwife's son making helpless eyes at Monique, in a bid to tempt her into pleasures even more rustic, which Emmanuelle tells in such a tender and amused drawl that her old fondness for her sister is plain to hear therein.

At the end of the evening Emmanuelle restores her niece's cloak to her shoulders and escorts her downstairs and puts her into her waiting carriage with avuncular care — not to mention sincere thanks for her company, and for her willingness to come out on such a cold night.

The next man who thinks to take Desarae Mereliot to dinner, in her own home or elsewhere, will have yet another bar to get over. But that's as it ought to be, with a young marquise.

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