(1311-02-28) Nothing Comes Free
Summary: Philomène’s sheer fascination with the Maison Sanglante and its chief inmate, draws her back within its walls on some spurious little pretext or another. Does she get what she wants? And what must she pay for it?
RL Date: 24/02/2019 - 28/02/2019
Related: Creditably Matched.
emmanuelle philomene dorimene_npc 

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 next time Philomène d’Aiglemort de Chalasse calls at the Maison Sanglante, it’s a little quicker and easier to get in. Her name seems to have got onto some kind of list — at least, the Mereliot guardsmen with the yellow fish on their blue tabards, who clash so strikingly with this modestly-sized grey stone edifice fronting upon the Place des Mains, seem to know who she is and conduct her into the frescoed foyer forthwith. There, as before, she’s abandoned, for a few long hip-straining minutes before Lord Baltasar Shahrizai — he of the needlework — appears through the doorway which the other day yielded Emmanuelle herself.

He bows low to this visitor and greets her with formulaic courtesy which has yet a sardonic edge, perhaps a reaction against his slight humiliation the last time she was in this house. And he conducts her then on a long walk, at first through the door by which he came in and along a corridor frescoed by the same hands as the foyer but somewhat better lit. Fantastical Kusheline landscapes, illustrating folk-tales all subtly perverted from their originals and given endings either unhappy or — well — happy only in the eye of a sadistic beholder. Nightmare visions, some of them, copied from the oldest and rarest manuscripts in the possession of this particular Shahrizai line. There’s no hurry. No reason Philomène can’t get a good look.

In his hand is a heavy ring of keys, one of which opens a door towards the end of that lengthy passageway. The chamber beyond proves to be a lock in itself, separating and insulating two sections of the house from anyone who hasn't both keys, and raising the possibility of some servants who might carry only one… It must be a difficult matter to depart from the Maison Sanglante without the permission of one or the other of the house's owners. A single candle sheds light here, tucked inside an elaborate iron cage that casts curious shadows upon walls inlaid with an intricate trompe l'œil representation of a dungeon such as one might find in the depths of Mandrake House, or indeed the Salon de la Rose Sauvage round the corner in the NIght Court. A sight new to the Chalasse lady, perhaps, if not to Emmanuelle's most usual guests. The console table where the candle-cage sits, and some shelving above it, were built to fit in their present places and to appear at first glance part of the illusion. But in front of the intriguing instruments of pleasure and of pain, picked out in rare wood in a dozen hues, those shelves hold a few real objects deposited here to await the convenience of the lady of the house. Letters, mostly, and a small parcel wrapped in black cloth.

Baltasar locks the door to the passage behind them.

Then, ceremoniously, he relieves the lady of her cloak and hangs it up on one of a row of hooks placed for the purpose. The letters and the parcel, he gathers up under one arm; at last he unlocks the inner door and ushers Philomène through it, ahead of him.

Here the floor is tiled similarly in black and white, continuing on from the first passageway, but the walls are painted a plain and muted shade of burgundy above fine oak paneling. They might have stepped out of a nightmare and into a particularly refined gentlemen's club.

It’s another longish limp, but with less for Philo to affect to look at during.

Courtyard — La Maison Sanglante

The labyrinthine dark and frescoed passageways of the Maison Sanglante debouche at length into a small sitting-room wherein each piece of distinctly upright furniture is black-lacquered and elaborately gilded with, at the farthest consent to comfort, a seat of woven cane. One wall of it consists entirely of a trio of double glass doors which open outwards, shadowed by black-lacquered shutters which open inwards, and shielded by draperies in a very deep purple velvet.

Beyond is a rectangular courtyard of centuries-old, weathered stone: surely one of the house's original features. To the left its longer side is formed by a high wall of stone, set into which a niche houses a stone statue of Eisheth. From her open hands water pours down into a half-circle basin where water-lilies grow. Along the opposite side to the right runs a corridor lined with black-lacquered shutters of the same make but half-length, that are often left open. At the courtyard's farther end the same arrangement of floor-to-ceiling windows and shutters gives onto a large bedchamber, into which the corridor also leads.

The courtyard has no permanent features of its own besides the fountain, several old stone planters growing earthy-scented mandrakes, and a solidly-built whipping-post set deep into the mossy flagstones just outside the bedchamber. But furniture may easily be carried out into it by servants.

Ropes run overhead, along which a white oiled-silk awning may be drawn in wet weather, or lanterns of coloured glass on dark evenings.

Double doors open at Baltasar’s touch, into a small sitting-room at that second corridor’s farthest end: similarly silent and similarly dark in its character. The farther wall consists entirely of three pairs of broad glass doors looking out upon a stone courtyard of considerable antiquity, wherein a fountain with a statue of Eisheth might be glimpsed, and a whipping post beyond.

Baltasar stands to the side, closes the doors again behind the lady, then occupies himself with a tinderbox — kindling the fire waiting already laid in the small hearth of dark marble — fussing about with a taper — lighting candles to augment what soft light manages to get into the high-walled courtyard on this winter morning and spill over to glint upon the black lacquer, the gilding, the delicate details of furnishings antique and exotic in equal measure.

None of the chairs look remotely comfortable.

By the time Philomène gets there, she’s had to pause a good three or four times. Of course she’s made out that she’s looking at the frescoes, the furniture or the architecture, but the fact of it is that it’s a damn long walk, and a lot of time and effort spent making it look painless.

Neither does it help that she’s decided today to eschew her usual, well-worn and oft-repaired and embroidered riding gear for something less comfortable to wear, but which shows off her figure to good effect. Clearly it’s not an outfit that sees the light of day very often, smelling musty and faintly of camphor, and about ten years out of date with modern fashions, but one has to imagine at the time it was a particularly elegant, if severe, garment.

Her boots, on the other hand, are the same set as ever, complete with small spurs on the heels. If anyone were to pay attention, they might note that the flat soles on both are not equal in size, with the left built up somewhat, making these rather a specialist set to allow the long injured vicomtesse to walk with at least a little more ease.

She has, at least, not had to worry about carrying with her the small gift which seemed only appropriate on calling on another lady - the bottle of ‘74 (the only one remaining in her house, as it happens) was handed off to Baltasar at the earliest opportunity.

On reaching this inner sitting room, however, the vicomtesse de Gueret makes no attempt to sit to wait, instead folding her hands behind her back and taking the time to examine some of the more exotic furniture. If one can’t appreciate fine craftsmanship, what can one appreciate?

The gift finds its place upon a low table positioned near the centre of the chamber, where the furnishings are arranged conversationally save for a particularly remarkable (closed) secrétaire set against one wall: which, with its own high-backed chair, forms a grouping aside.

Crafted in the main from ebony-veneered oak and the finest Eastern lacquerwork, its surfaces of gleaming black are enlivened by the likenesses of golden peonies and chrysanthemums, pairs of mandarin ducks, tableaux set in the gardens of houses eerily foreign to the d’Angeline eye… On smaller panels framing them floral wreaths in gilded bronze are of an unexampled intricacy, the work of a master every bit as gifted as the one who surely superintended the creation of that trompe l'œil dungeon through which Philomène was lately conducted, albeit differing in his arts. Everything in this chamber is in a similar style, and rich enough — but, ah, this secrétaire…

Baltasar ducks about behind Philo, pulling out one support and then another, and then unlatching the top half. The writing surface comes down, revealing shelves and drawers, a mahogany writing surface, and the dark iron lid of a strongbox buried in the middle. He deposits the letters and the parcel wrapped in black cloth, which he gathered from the shelves in the trompe l'œil lock; he stands to one side, hands clasped behind his back, and clears his throat.

Not quite uncouth enough to run a finger along the craftsmanship, nonetheless Philomène drinks in the smooth lines and elegantly worked bronze of the writing desk, only looking up with a start at that cleared throat, at which point she takes a pace backwards. Learning her lesson, she carefully looks at nothing in particular, examining thin air with exactly the same expression of polite interest on her face. Because you can’t possibly pose about the AIR.

Oh, you could. It’s cool and quiet and still — perfectly insulated from the bustle of the Place des Mains and the city beyond — fractionally tinged by the smoke from the small hearth and, by now, a number of white beeswax candles of the very first quality. Having cleared his throat Baltasar does nothing more to break in upon the silence; standing to attention he hardly seems to breathe, and he himself does not wear cologne. The atmosphere is one of anticipation.

Is Philomène looking that way, or is she not? … She isn’t. And so she has no warning before the central pair of courtyard doors open beneath the ungloved hands of Emmanuelle Shahrizai, who crossed that expanse of clean-swept grey stone dressed just as she is, in perhaps the same square-shouldered, epauletted black velvet coat she was wearing the last time they met, but over a dark violet silk shirt and black breeches fitted exquisitely to her muscular thighs and the auxiliary part in between them. Her thigh-high boots are of softer, muted black leather, each with its bold cuff; besides spiked heels they are fitted each with a golden spur, jingling softly with her steps as she enters the sitting-room. She doesn’t worry about the doors. Baltasar hastens to shut them behind her, whilst she comes further forward and faces Philomène.

“My lady Chalasse,” she drawls. “What may I do for you today? Have you heard a new rumour about me?” She sounds faintly amused; her pristinely-painted red lips are just beginning to curve. She has one hand on her hip, the other loose by her side. In lieu of the intricate braided arrangement Philo saw upon her head before, her hair’s pulled back into a simple blue-black chignon. She’s immaculate, of course, but not particularly formal.

Philomène pauses a deliberate breath before she turns, greeting her hostess with a dip of her head and the slightest hint of a smile at the corner of her lips - the sort that could turn easily into a snarl, but for now is perfectly polite. There’s no touch of makeup on those high cheekbones, just the natural colour that comes from having traipsed through half a city block to get here already this morning, but she’s made the effort to line her grey-blue eyes, giving the effect of focusing the unusually calm gaze.

“My lady Shahrizai,” comes the response, along with the expected, “how do you do. I’m afraid I’ve only heard one rumour, and it seems so incredibly unlikely that I’m not even certain I ought to share. Something about a sudden fondness for Chalasse potatoes?”

The Chalasse is faced with a formidable painted Shahrizai mask which, as ever, gives nothing away. Emmanuelle’s eyes meet her visitor’s, cold and steady and blue. After a moment she lifts her eyebrows as though to say, what is this to do with me? … But that’s rather more courteous than the last fashion in which she begged such a question. “Have you?” she drawls, breaking eye contact as she skirts round the edge of a sofa and seats herself in the chair before that extraordinary secrétaire, which Baltasar is even now pulling backward for her.

Addressing herself to her letters, with her black velvet back and her black silken hair turned to Philomène, she adds consideringly: “Sliced very thin and cooked, of course, in garlic and cream…” She seems to glance at nothing more than the hand on the front and the seal on the back of each missive, tossing them down again in turn. “One might be fond of such potatoes, I suppose, but I suspect it would be a lifelong rather than a sudden taste.”

“Then I can only apologise that I have no more potatoes of that kind in the city,” Philomène decides, turning aside from the woman again rather than stare at her back, and busies herself looking at the decorative architrave which needs no further description at the join of ceiling and wall. “A one off delivery, but I would be grateful for the return of the leftovers, if I might?”

In profile she cuts a sharp figure, chin lifted, the lines of her jacket severe to match and the flare covering any sort of softness about her lower half. It could have been drawn with a ruler, from breeches, to shirt, to lapels, shoulders, the definite line of jaw, short cropped hair, and those exquisite cheekbones to which I will continue to hark back because they’re really quite something else.

Emmanuelle tarries a moment more to unwrap costly black silk from that parcel of hers, which proves to be a small mahogany box carrying upon it an elaborate seal of wax and cloth. Her thumb strokes over the seal; then she stands, turns about, and swings a leg over the seat of her chair to sit down astride it the other way, with her arms crossed upon the back of it. Her mahogany box remains where she left it, gleaming upon sprawling folds of silk.

“The leftovers might be said to have been tossed out the back door,” she explains pleasantly, her painted face inclined slightly towards to face Philomène where she stands, “for the dogs, or whomever might choose to pick them up next. I have nothing to give you, unless you want your sack. Baltasar? Have we the sack?” she inquires, without turning her head.

Her valet bows. “It could no doubt be obtained, my lady.”

Philomène gestures dismissively with one well weathered hand, turning back to face Emmanuelle now the other woman has done the same. It seems only polite. “I’m sure we have more sacks, it’s not necessary, my lady. I trust, however, that the gift reached you in time for your birthday, and that it was a welcome addition to a glorious day.”

Stepping up, she lets a hand not quite rest on the secretaire, hovering an inch or so above the polished and lacquered surface. “A fine piece. Is it from Ch’in?” she can’t help but ask, unable to hide the frank curiosity in her voice.

“Shall we say,” drawls Emmanuelle, whose eyes meet Philo’s the moment her visitor has turned far enough toward her to make it possible, “a tutelary interlude within a perfectly ordinary day…?” Her bold dark brows lift. “But I am sensible of your kindness, my lady Chalasse, and I appreciate the simple fact of receiving a gift which requires me to write no thank-you letter… Given, of course, I’ve no fucking idea where you live,” she says pleasantly.

But by then her visitor has come somewhat nearer and she’s leaning back a little in her chair, with one palm resting beside and slightly behind her, upon that polished mahogany writing surface strewn with this morning’s correspondence. “It was made here in Marsilikos, to my specifications,” she explains, “though I understand that the craftsman who supplied most of the lacquered veneers came originally from an archipelago somewhat to the east of Ch’in. He has done a great deal of work for me and my father in the past ten or twelve years.”

Meanwhile doors are silently opening and closing, and from a menial without Baltasar is receiving a heavy silver tray laden with tea things of — yes — that’s indubitably Ch’in porcelain, of the highest quality, and two-hundred-year-old silver besides. He goes about disposing the pot, the cups and saucers, the jugs and bowls of milk and sugar and honey, the dish for the infuser, the tongs, the heavy silver spoons with handles engraved with the three keys of hell, et cetera, upon that low table in the middle of the room, round and about Philo’s gift.

There’s not going to be any getting away with it. It would appear that nothing in this place is going to be easy, and given that the only seating options appear to be those uncomfortable looking chairs, or the absolutely unthinkable idea of attempting to lower oneself to sit cross legged on the floor like some kind of eastern religious nut, Philomène sets her jaw and limps a pace over to the nearest of those seats.

Curling a hand on the back of the chair for support, she breathes in through her nose, holds her breath and seamlessly puts into place her mask of expressionlessness which is so much a habit now that the act of even thinking about sitting seems to put it in place.

Of course, the seats are just that little bit too low, just that little bit too narrow, and just the wrong shape, so that anyone would find them unwelcoming (although, perhaps, in this house, that might be considered a welcome for certain guests), but the narrowing of Philomène’s pupils to a single pinprick and the tensing of that jaw muscle she has not quite managed to wrest under full control as she lowers herself those last couple of inches, perhaps unnoticed under most circumstances, would seem to imply that simply managing to sit in a single smooth movement without crying out is in itself a feat of endurance.

The cold blue eyes of her hostess follow her across to her chair and down into it, jaw muscle and all. Emmanuelle Shahrizai is nothing if not attentive to the small, the telling, the frankly betraying details. If the spectacle of pain is pleasure to her, she doesn’t reveal it; she only looks on, whilst Philo sits as comfortably as she can and Baltasar lowers himself to his knees next to the table, to extract the leaves from the pot and pour out two cups of pale and exquisitely fragrant black Ch’in tea. More gently brewed and delicious upon the palate than, say, the way it’s often made at the Rousse residence, twice the leaves steeped twice as long.

Holding in one hand her own cup of golden nectar, and in the other her saucer, Emmanuelle voices the necessary question: “How do you take it?” Somehow in her voice, deep and drawling, suggestive of sensual menace, she doesn’t seem to be talking about tea.

Philomène closes her eyes for a moment to ensure she has fully regained her composure before looking over to the other woman. “Plain, thank you,” comes the response, and a slight dip of her head to acknowledge both questions. “I don’t agree with adulterating a good cup of tea with unnecessaries.” She holds out her hands for her cup and saucer, accepting both with a tiny smile. If her gaze happens to drop towards Emmanuelle’s breeches, then that is clearly coincidental.

“Although,” she adds as she lifts the tea closer to her nose in order to inhale and enjoy the fragrance, “I rarely have as fine a tea as this, and even more rarely drink in company. Your health.”

Anyway they’re hardly visible, those miraculously tailored black breeches, with the chair in the way… Though, there’s a gap between the seat and the back of it, through which certain contours might faintly be discerned by an eye that wandered there completely by accident, in between looking, no doubt, at the various panels of the secrétaire behind Emmanuelle.

She for her part holds her saucer steady and lifts her cup to her immaculate red mouth, and drinks deep of the tea which Baltasar would never dare place in her hands at anything but the ideal temperature. Perhaps a little too hot for some — but she delights in it. “I am fond of tea,” she concedes to Philomène, “and this, you understand, is my breakfast.” A pause. “Mont Nuit hours, my dear vicomtesse — one can hardly fuck all night and rise at dawn.”

“I was given to understand that you were retired,” Philomène notes, taking a long sip from her cup and settling back (as far as her seat will allow) to savour it. “But, I suppose, having said that I still rise before dawn, despite not being in l’Agnace and following the farmers’ schedule. Perhaps it is just habit.” Her eyes glitter with a hint of something at that.

“I am somewhat more diurnal than the majority of this country, it would appear. When I walk in the mornings, it’s usually only me and the birds for company, but when I’m ready for bed, the entire city seems to wake up,” she notes wryly. “And, often, decide that the best place to have their noisy parties is in my living room.”

“The habits of a lifetime do linger with one,” agrees Emmanuelle serenely. It isn’t apparent whether her lingering habit is the sex, or merely the schedule.

She takes another mouthful of slightly, beautifully scalding tea and then places her cup and saucer into Baltasar’s waiting hands; he conveys it to the table to be replenished. “… Though I must say I prefer a quieter life than you appear to lead. Between the morning birds and the evening revelry you must hardly have a moment in which to sit and reflect upon— what was it you said?” Her eyebrow rise; she inquires with an ironic air, “General philosophy?”

“I walk, and I ride, and I generally keep my own company at those points, at least,” Philomène is happy to explain, smirk somewhere at her lips. “More than enough time for self reflection, I assure you, although little enough time for debate.”

She takes a sip from her tea, shifting a little in her seat in case that might make it more comfortable (it doesn’t). “I would imagine my life far quieter than yours. The countrified old vicomtesse, unused to the bustling metropolis of the city.” This all said with a definite tongue in cheek, metaphorically if not literally. Literally she’d have trouble drinking her tea, and if there’s one thing she won’t do it’s waste good tea.

“Were it not for the need to broker deals, trade and marriage, I confess that I would not be here.”

“… You walk,” echoes Emmanuelle neutrally, after a moment’s contemplation of the uncomfortable Chalasse in her chair. Her tea returns to her hands; she lifts it to her mouth and drinks without offering that further comment which would surely be superfluous.

Just then there’s a quick, discreet rap at the doors through which Philo came into the room. One of them opens a crack: a soft voice, distinguished by the sort of murmurous and beguiling accents she might recall from her visit to Cereus House on the Longest Night, calls: “Emmadame—? I heard you were up, I’ve brought you a little something for your breakfast…”

At Emmanuelle’s crisp, “Come in,” the door opens the rest of the way, to frame an illustration of just what Laurène Chalasse and her mother are up against in this world.

It would be needless to state that the young lady standing there is a daughter of the house. All one need do is begin with a picture of Emmanuelle Shahrizai, strip away twenty years, and reshape the result in a purely feminine style (and with a more delicate nose, in place of her mother’s handsome patrician beak), and one would have the very Dorimène nó Cereus de Shahrizai who is even now catching sight of Philomène, exclaiming a low and apologetic, “Oh,” and catching a handful of her bell-shaped skirts the better to lower herself into a deep curtsey of surpassing grace. Her other hand floats upward as she sinks down, forming with her wrist a frail, elegant curve. Her simple, long-sleeved, high-necked gown of fine winter-white wool is hardly paler than that Shahrizai complexion which accompanies her sapphire eyes and blue-black hair, pinned up. The rosy hue of her lips owes nothing to artifice; the scent which enters the chamber with her is only that of the fragrant herbs with which her garments are stored, and her Eisandine lavender soap. Her only jewel is a large marquise-cut sapphire on the third finger of her left hand, though she wears also a few small blue early-spring flowers pinned to the slight swell of her bosom. She’s poised and willowy, fresh and clean, her head bowed in filial deference as she curtseys first to the visitor and then to her mother.

Behind her is visible a black-gowned maidservant, holding another silver tray.

“You don’t discommode me, my dear,” drawls Emmanuelle from her backwards seat at the sécretaire. “Come in, and let me make you known to the vicomtesse de Gueret.”

More games. The lack of introduction, or rather the half-way introduction disadvantaging Philomène, is noted with a wry smile. She doesn’t rise, either to the bait or from her seat, and simply offers a small, polite inclination of her head. It’s abundantly clear that this young woman is one of Emmanuelle’s spawn, and that should be enough for now. It’s also abundantly clear exactly why Philo has been keeping the mathematically-minded but otherwise unlikely to compete Laurène Chalasse back in l’Agnace. With the rest of the pigs.

There’s a moment when in the back of her mind Philomène considers leaving a little barb of her own, perhaps a comment about how this beauty is far younger than she had expected or something along similar lines, but then common sense prevails. One does not spend half an hour traipsing through the lion’s den to a room known to be behind at least a pair of locks, only to insult one’s hostess openly.

Thus it is that she looks as though she’s about to speak for a moment, then pauses, then, having realised quite how foolish that would make her look, comes up with something to say anyway. “I would suggest that perhaps it’s time for luncheon rather than breakfast, but you did say you keep late hours.” Well. Sure, it’s not a particularly bright thing to say, but it does stop her looking like a goldfish.

On notice, then, that this is the vicomtesse who came round the other day in such a bate about her daughter’s broken betrothal, the vision in white rises from her curtsey and glides into the sitting-room. The maid bearing the tray confides it to Baltasar, and draws the door shut again in her withdrawal. “My lady Chalasse,” drawls Emmanuelle, with a crisp flourish of the hand which isn’t holding her cup and saucer, “may I present my eldest child, the lady Dorimène nó Cereus de Shahrizai—?” Because just when you think you know what her game is, she changes it.

With all this going on Philomène’s silence is less awkward than it might have been.

Emmanuelle’s daughter curtseys again, this time just to Philomène. “How do you do? … I’m a little shy,” she confesses as she comes nearer; but nonetheless she lifts her clear blue gaze to Philo’s face. “I understand you’ve heard ill of me, my lady vicomtesse. I regret that our first acquaintance must be the fruit of a disappointment to you and your family,” she says sincerely. “Please know that I’d no idea of any of it, until my lady mother told me of your visit.”

Philomène meets that gaze for a long moment, making up her mind, then gives a small nod. “I can only apologise for thinking ill of you,” she decides, taking a sip from her long awaited and impeccably good quality tea. “I was misinformed, and the matter has been dealt with, I hope to your satisfaction as well as mine?”

At this, she gives Emmanuelle a brief flicker of a sidelong glance, to ensure that yes, she is also satisfied, but also to enquire wordlessly whether Dorimène would have anything to do with a certain potato harvest.

The absolute impassivity with which Emmanuelle receives Philomène’s glance, might in another woman’s face suggest that she’s simply not paying attention. Needless to say that isn’t the case. Sitting quietly, sipping her tea, she’s studying the other women minutely.

“You do relieve me,” confesses Dorimène, smiling, “and I accept your apology gladly, my lady.” She chooses for herself a low stool upholstered in black velvet and thread-of-gold and draws it closer to the secrétaire where her mother sits, and perches upon it with her head deliberately lower than those of her elders and her soft white skirts arranged about her like a fall of late snow sighing down to the floor. “I understand my lady mother discussed the matter with the young man,” a couple of years her senior, in truth, but most provincial noblemen seem boyish to a Cereus courtesan, “and persuaded him not to speak my name again in such a connexion…?” She turns to Emmanuelle, sapphire eyes politely inviting her into the conversation again.

“That I did,” confirms Emmanuelle neutrally, her cup clinking once more into her saucer. “Now,” she remarks to her daughter, “what have you brought me, my dear?”

“Well,” Dorimène begins, “I received this morning a gift of fruit… I’ve had my breakfast already,” she explains to Philomène; “I have a baby, just now, so I’m awake at all hours.”

From who knows where Baltasar has produced a third cup, and poured for Dorimène black tea with a single lump of sugar. He is now distributing round the tea-table plates, napkins, and mirror-bright silver cutlery which came in with his mistress’s daughter — along with a Ch’in porcelain dish of large, ovoid, reddish and greenish fruit, of peculiarly foreign aspect.

“How dreadful for you,” Philomène insists at the mention of the baby (or possibly at the thought of being awake all hours), and it seems quite heartfelt, what with maternal instinct being a dirty word in her eyes. Her lips, slightly chapped from her daily outdoor excursions in inclement weather, purse together for a moment. “My first kept me up at nights. By the time I had my second and third I was far wiser and employed a nanny from the moment of birth. I recommend it.”

Careful advice thus dispensed, she leans forward a little in her seat to examine or admire this exotic fruit, hands curled protectively around her teacup. Stormy blue-grey eyes peer at the fruit with unveiled curiosity, and she inhales the warm waft of that distinctive sweet, aromatic fragrance as the porcelain dish is set down, trying to identify this unusual item.

She doesn’t ask. Why display ignorance? No, she’s prepared to wait and to see. And hope that she’s not the only one who doesn’t know, or she’ll have to go delving into agricultural texts later to see if she can find any mention of it. Of course, that’s assuming it’s not a hybrid. But what the bloody hell is it?

“Oh, my girls do have their nurses and their laundresses,” Dorimène admits to Philomène with an easy smile, slightly mistaking her sentiments and her customs alike in the flush of her own maternal interest, “but I’d never have had children just to give them up to other people to care for, after all. I like tending to them; I like watching them grow and change every day. I suppose we both do…” She is not however speaking of the father. It’s Emmanuelle whom she acknowledges with a lowering of her eyes and a nod of her sleek blue-black head.

“As I recall,” Emmanuelle drawls, “your grandmother couldn’t put you down either.”

She rises smoothly from her chair by the secrétaire and leaves her cup and saucer upon it, next to her letters; she steps around her daughter’s low stool, resting a casually affectionate hand upon her shoulder in passing. Her aim is an armchair standing vacant with its back to the courtyard. In his hurry to get there ahead of her and to line it with plump black silken cushions Baltasar is less than usually silent in his service. Why, one can even hear his footfalls.

Emmanuelle settles herself in what has just become the only comfortable chair in the room and sits forward, feet firmly planted in their boots and knees almost touching the table. She reaches toward the copper dish and takes up one of the large and peculiar fruit and passes it thoughtfully from hand to hand, as though her left weighs it and her right checks the calculations.

Dorimène watches. “I’m afraid Jeannie and Hélène and I made rather a mess trying to eat ours,” she confesses to her mother in a low voice; “the stones inside are so large and so strongly attached to the flesh… But we did find them delicious.” Then, to the visitor to whom those names cannot be supposed to mean anything yet, she explains: “Hélène is my elder daughter, who celebrates her third natality today. Lady Jeannette is the daughter of a kinswoman who is living here with us at present. They both took breakfast with me this morning.”

Meanwhile Emmanuelle sets her fruit upon her plate and takes up a sharp knife. She inserts the tip of it into her victim and commences to cut slowly around its circumference, intending perhaps to separate it into two halves. “Baltasar,” she states, “I shall require a large spoon.”

This Philomène watches with professional interest. Not because it's food - bizarrely she holds little interest in the finer things in life, as her regular outfit would attest - but because of the precision and skill shown by the black clad woman. That is a level of neatness to which she might aspire.

“I rather wish that I could convince my own daughter of the benefits of fruit for breakfast,” she notes drily, “and then perhaps we should not have had quite such a memorable introduction, Lady Shahrizai.”

Baltasar obliges with the spoon.

He and his mistress exchange implements without her needing to glance up from her plate, and she slips the bowl of the spoon deftly into the cut she has made and seems to wiggle it to and fro, pushing gradually deeper into the innards of the reddish, greenish mystery-fruit.

She pays no attention to Philomène’s pleasantry, content in her own occupation; Dorimène however looks up from her mother’s hands and asks Philo innocently, “Does the lady Laurène not care for fruit? I should have thought that in Chalasse lands, one might be sure always of having fruits and vegetables fine enough and fresh enough to tempt any palate… though I daresay the responsibility of feeding Elua as well is a heavy one for your house to bear.”

Emmanuelle’s spoon re-emerges, marshaling the vaunted enormous pit with its remaining thin covering of the saffron-coloured flesh of the fruit. This falls safely onto the plate next to the fruit itself. “Not,” she observes with deadpan good humour, turning over one half of the fruit and scoring it with three precise slashes of her knife this way then that, “the strangest object I’ve ever cut a stone out of.” She puts down the knife on the edge of her plate, picks up that first half, and turns it neatly inside out. Small sections of fruit pop up from its thick inverted skin. She leans forward to place this wholly accessible treat upon Philomène’s waiting plate.

By now Dorimène is attentive again: she clasps her hands together and laughs aloud in delight. “Emmadame, that’s marvelous,” she declares. “I shall have to remember the trick of it.”

“Not just Elua, but the whole country runs on l’Agnacite wheat,” Philomène is happy to correct, straightening a little and pausing to sip from the fragrant cup of tea in her hands. “L’Agnace is the breadbasket of Terre D’Ange, remember. But it tends to be wheat and pigs, so the typical breakfast of my middle daughter is pastries, lard and bacon.” No, she does not sound particularly impressed by this. Clearly she is unaware of the wondrous properties of bacon.

She gives a small nod of thanks as she’s given a portion of this odd, yellowish fruit, eyeing it as though it might leap up off the plate and throttle her. No, she doesn’t have trust issues, what would make you think that?

The teacup is set down with a quiet clink of cup against saucer, but she waits at least until there is fruit on Emmanuelle’s plate too before she picks up a surprisingly heavy, bright shining silver fork and waits, poised to try this.

Her hostess issues by means of a crisp gesture permission for her to dig in.

“I’ll take mine later,” she drawls, smiling slightly, “with my other visitor, once he has finished making himself beautiful for me.” A beat. “Another half an hour or so, I should imagine.” She picks up the other part of the fruit she dismembered so adeptly, performs the same turning-out operation, and offers the plate to Dorimène with one eyebrow raised in question.

But Dorimène likewise demurs. “Not for me, thank you, Emmadame… I only brought them for you.” And she asks, as if it were the most natural question in the world from a woman of two-and-twenty in her own home: “May I please have your leave to go?”

“You may go,” Emmanuelle confirms with a nod. “I’ll see you at dinner. Don’t forget to wrap the books for Jeannie, or to send Hélène to show me which dress she’s chosen.” These domestic instructions are issued with a crisp but kindly authority, which seems fully understood.

Her daughter returns her nod as she rises, all seriousness: “Of course, Emmadame.” And having stepped clear of stool and secrétaire and table she turns and smoothes her skirts — perhaps all that fresh and expensive white wool is why she doesn’t fancy a juicy snack? — and curtseys again to her elders. To Philomène she says, “My lady Chalasse, it was a pleasure to meet you at last. I wish you the greatest of good fortune in all your ventures in Marsilikos, and I hope you’ll forgive me for rushing away so soon… We’ve a birthday girl in the house,” and she smiles ruefully, one mother to another, as if to say: one might prefer to linger longer over tea with the grown-ups, what can one do? “Good day, my lady. Good day, Emmadame.”

Baltasar opens the door and holds it for her as she departs; and then he pours more tea for the remaining ladies and whisks away the cup and saucer Dorimène left behind.

“Your daughter does you credit,” Philomène decides, hovering her fork over the juicy cubes of fruit as she mentally prepares herself to risk a piece. The tines sink in with a satisfying smoothness and she glances back up to her hostess. “But once again I find I must apologise. I had no idea I was keeping you from your guests, or your work,” that part is a faint question. Work. Guests. In Emmanuelle’s life do they all just roll into one, rather as they seem to for Leda and Geneviève?

The first tentative mouthful of exotic fruit is lifted to her lips, a tiny sliver from the edge of the impressive display, tasted, and then the fork goes down with considerably more confidence for another piece.

“I confess I have no idea what fruit this is,” she admits, now there are no young ladies to judge her for it, “but my goodness, it is absolutely divine. I shall have to see if Laurène might not be tempted by this at least.”

“Isn’t it?” agrees Emmanuelle blandly. The implication, underscored (as it were) by her typically deft knifework, is that she and this fruit are not strangers to one another but old and intimate friends, on such stabbing and slicing terms as she no doubt enjoys with many another such delectable companion. “I have a little time,” she adds. “Do you think you might come to your point today? I assume you have one, my dear — everyone who comes to see me has something they want, even if they don’t yet know what it is themselves. I am used to it,” she explains with grave kindness. “I don’t mean to hurry you but I am curious, naturally.” And she takes a sip of hot and fragrant tea, her smile flickering above the edge of the cup before it touches her lips.

Philomène enjoys another mouthful of succulent fruit before she responds, her answer measured and considered. The directness of the question deserves an equally frank reply, and again raises the Shahrizai another notch in her esteem.

“I don’t know that I had a specific point to raise, my lady Shahrizai,” she offers, gaze settling simply on the other woman, head held high so that the combined soft light of the many candles emphasises the paleness of her hair and the sharp angles of her cheeks. “I’ve heard many conflicting rumours about you, as a person, and I wanted to see for myself what kind of woman you really are, as much as anyone can tell that from so short an acquaintance. I was intrigued last we met, and you did offer to debate with me.” Well, not exactly, but it’s what she’s walking away from this with anyway. “There are very few women in the city who offer that particular service, or have the wits to do it credit, and it’s a pastime I get little enough time to enjoy.”

There’s a pause, another long moment of consideration, as the firelight flickers and reflects, glowing, in the cropped locks of her hair. “In short, I admit I was seeking the company of an equal.” That, at least, appears to be as much a revelation to Philomène as anyone else.

“Oh, yes,” the Mandrake woman nods; “Emmanuelle Shahrizai bathes in the blood of virgins. But it is not so. The body of the average virgin contains no more than nine or ten pints of blood, perhaps twelve at the most in the case of a tall and broad young man; one would require a baker’s dozen to fill a bath, and this is Terre d’Ange. We simply haven’t the resources.”

This dearth she elucidates deadpan; and then, studying Philomène, she begins slowly to laugh, the sound low and husky and rich. Her silence by contrast is swift, as if she has come sharply to the end of her amusement at the wild talk she causes simply by existing in the world. She regards her visitor in silence as she takes another mouthful of tea, then restores her cup to her saucer and her saucer to the table in front of her. She sits back in her cushioned chair and rests one hand upon the arm of it and the other upon her black-breeched thigh.

“Over the years,” she muses aloud, “I’ve had the pleasure of affording my patrons a great many different services, but debate has not thus far been among their number. On the contrary it is a thing I rarely tolerate.” She smiles faintly, coolly. “People don't come to me seeking an equal, my lady Chalasse — they come to entrust themselves to the hands of a reliable superior… Though from what I hear lately of sawdust,” she drawls, “this may not in any case be an ideal time for you to take on such extravagant new expenses as my time.”

While the other woman speaks, Philomène skewers a final piece of the fruit to chew. The remains, and there's a good half of her portion still on the plate, she sets down and instead takes up her tea. That, at least, she won't let go to waste.

“It would appear, then, that my visit is once again under an incorrect misapprehension,” she notes mildly, pausing to drain her tea all the while watching Emmanuelle over the rim. “Which means that once again I am merely here to eat your fruit and drink your cognac, but we seem to be all out of cognac.”

Tea finished, she neatly sets down the cup and saucer, allowing Baltasar a polite nod of thanks and appreciation - say what you like, it was a good brew - then steels herself to rise. The disguise this time is less bothered, and her eyes narrow considerably and her jaw clenches as she levers herself upright from that really very uncomfortable and inconvenient seat.

“Lady Shahrizai, there are more than enough people in the world who would like to claim superiority and tell me what to do. I can certainly manage without another. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Though Emmanuelle’s head remains level her gaze lifts with Philomène; the Chalasse lady may be certain that no subtlety of her discomfort is lost upon her hostess, but gathered up, considered, filed away safely behind those chilly Shahrizai-blue eyes.

After a moment she points out: “I make no claims, and I have given you no orders. You came to me of your own will and I spoke to you honestly to satisfy your curiosity; now, you are free to make up your own mind about me, as anyone else. How would you prefer to have been dealt with? My dear vicomtesse, I haven’t the least interest in running your life for you. There are ways in which I might be able to foster your capacity for running it yourself; but I am hardly about to foist my advice and attentions upon a woman unasking and unconsenting, and offering moreover no remuneration. No one truly values what comes free of charge,” she drawls; “I imagine you’ve had occasion to notice that yourself.” She pauses; then she rises from her own chair somewhat more smoothly and straightens her velvet coat with a crisp touch.

“For my advice as a chirurgeon, however, I do not charge — I consider it an offering to Eisheth,” she explains seriously. Behind her, in the courtyard, water flows ceaselessly from that angel’s hands into the pool at her feet. “If you haven’t a particular healer you favour in Eisande, I could furnish you with one or two names to choose between and write such letters of introduction as you might require. Nowhere in the world will you find healers more skillful than those here in Marsilikos. Surely you’ll agree that it makes no sense to suffer more than necessary and — unless,” another faint smile, “you’re calling on me — for no one’s pleasure.”

Philomène adjusts her collar and inclines her head, an inkling of mirth hiding behind those blue-grey eyes as the other woman speaks. Finally, she’s been able to put the Shahrizai, however briefly, on the defensive, and it feels good.

“I would have imagined,” she returns amiably, “that you of all people would understand that there is nothing on this green earth that is ever truly free of charge. There is always a piper to be paid, and as long as I’m paying I will, as they say, call the tune. Your kind offer is noted, but I shall refuse on this occasion. I would say I’m at least twenty five(?) years too late for a barber to do any better work than I have had, and I have made my peace with it.”

There’s a faint smile, then, this one more self-deprecating. “Besides, every time I walk or stand or ride, it reminds me of my own strength and resolve. It’s a reminder that I’m alive, and there is nothing that can beat me.”

In her own discreet way Emmanuelle appears to be enjoying herself: she’s still here, after all, and standing behind her chair and leaning her forearms upon its high back she quirks her bold black eyebrows at her visitor’s insistence upon making her own musical selections.

“… You have eaten my fruit, drunk my tea, admired my furniture, witnessed my household arrangements, enjoyed the conversation of a marqued Cereus courtesan who is also my own daughter, and now here you are,” she teases, “rising to the fun of a debate with me — the most fun you’ve had in how many days, I wonder? Let us be honest, my lady Chalasse,” she goes on, “the pleasures of the intellect usually exceed in their intensity those of any quotidian bedchamber. And all this you have had without paying me more than the occasional amusing twinge or grimace. Very little, in all. What tune can you possibly hope to call, here, you and your bitterly cynical view of authority and obligation? … Though I must, it’s true, apologise for misunderstanding your nature. I must be half-asleep still, mm? To miss something like that,” she reflects. “You suffer for your own pleasure. As a fellow enthusiast I do wish you infinite satisfaction of your pains,” she says kindly, inclining her head to Philo, “and for common courtesy’s sake I shall cease urging you to extinguish what is a light in your life.”

“What I offer in exchange for your very fine tea and exotic fruits is a rarer gift,” Philomène argues easily. “I offer you an uncommon and far more valuable glimpse of honesty, something this city lacks more than anything.”

She shifts her weight once more, gaze fixed directly on the other woman, as though challenging her to find enjoyment in the way her entire body compensates for the sudden, sharp lance of pain it causes. “But yes, you do very much misunderstand. I imagine it is your nature, to conflate pleasure with purpose. The two are very distinct. I take no pleasure in seeing muck spread on the fields, but I do recognise and appreciate its purpose. So it is that I take no pleasure in suffering, but I understand and welcome its purpose. Lesser women would have let it rule them. Lesser women would have hidden away from the world, or sunk into a haze of booze and the milk of the poppy. Lesser women would welcome your pity. I, Philomène Aiglemort, am no lesser woman.”

This challenge thus presented, she dips her head once again and turns away towards the door, limping, straight backed, the few paces towards it, there to wait for Baltasar.

As many before her Philomène is reminded then that Baltasar accepts orders only from one woman alive: the one standing by the glass-paned doors, with one hand on the catch, eyeing the wounded vicomtesse with the most minute attention to her gait, theorising the movement of muscles beneath her garb and her skin — and how they must burn. Until he receives a sign from her Baltasar will merely remain, just inside the doors, his arms folded across his black velvet doublet, affecting to ignore Philo in favour of studious attention to his mistress.

"My nature," Emmanuelle drawls meanwhile, “is to define pleasure more broadly than most, and to recognise and discern between its myriad flavours… the sweet, the bitter, all in between. Whatever might tend toward joy, or rapture, or a bone-deep satisfaction. Whether it be a long assignation — or a grandchild’s kiss — or a ripe fruit ready for the eating — or a point scored in debate — or the sight of a coming harvest nurtured and a family’s comfort secured, by the spreading of manure in the right way in the right season,” she suggests puckishly. “Tell me, then, that it is no pleasure to you to be—" She tastes the words her visitor spoke just moments ago, and which for good reason lingered with her: she repeats them, not mocking but savouring, not confronting but challenging. "Reminded of your strength. Reminded of your resolve. Reminded that you are alive, and unbeaten. Is that not the fuel that's fed the fire in you these many years? The pleasurable satisfaction of proving your will to the world — and to your own self, each day? Tell me that, vicomtesse, if it is in keeping with your vaunted honesty. Tell me it is not a pleasure to you to survive and thrive upon what would have broken a lesser person. And tell me — why not? — how much pleasure there would be for you, in a day bereft of purpose…” At which her tone turns scathing, because it’s an effort even to dignify the idea of that separation by addressing it so. The courtyard door opens at her touch. “Next time,” she suggests.

She departs into cold air the way she came, moving in an easy, sauntering, equally straight-backed stride with her black velvet tails aflutter, whilst to Baltasar falls at last the duty of bowing out of the building this slow-moving vicomtesse from l’Agnace.

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