(1311-04-23) A Legible Hand
Summary: … More or less. Recovering from his recent frog-related misfortunes, Étienne pays a call upon the woman who did her best to avert them.
RL Date: 23/04/2019
Related: The Adventures of François.
garance etienne 

Garance’s Chambers — The Dome of the Lady

One comes first into an ordinary chamber in the Dome of the Lady, decorated some years ago in impersonal good taste and Mereliot fish motifs, sparsely furnished at present. Several high casement windows recessed into the wall across from the door provide ample light from an inner courtyard; in front of them stands a large desk with a leatherbound chair behind it and two smaller and plainer chairs before it, rendering this more a study than a sitting-room. Against the wall on the far left is a long sofa upholstered in slightly worn dark green velvet; opposite, to the right, double doors lead into an adjoining chamber. Just beyond them a fireplace mirrors and shares a chimney with an identical hearth next door.

The only individual touch lent by the study's occupant to distinguish it from a dozen or a hundred other such chambers is a red and white 'broken' tulip in a pretty blue and white porcelain pot with touches of gilding. It sits usually on one of the broad windowsills, but it has been known to migrate to the desk.

The connected bedchamber has likewise been pared down to the essentials: a tester bed hung about with fish tapestries, a table beside it, a pair of armoires set at either side of an uncluttered washstand. There is no looking-glass. Everywhere they'll be out of range of sparks from the hearth the walls are lined with bookshelves, floor to ceiling, necessitating the presence of a small ladder in one corner. They're packed with hundreds upon hundreds of volumes, in Aragonian and Caerdicci and Tiberian as well as d'Angeline, leatherbound in a rainbow of hues. All the same colour now, to their owner; and all equally useless.

The door of Garance nó Bryony’s upper floor suite in the ducal palace is opened by a young woman with curly dark hair and a ready smile, dressed respectably though at no great expense. “Yes, my lord?” she inquires, and hardly has Étienne stated his name than another feminine voice, coloured with all the graces of Mont Nuit, calls out: “Oh, do show him in.”

Afternoon light spills through high casement windows into a chamber which seems hardly furnished at all, and that more as a study than a sitting-room. The brightest point is a red and white tulip flowering in a pot on the windowsill. Upon a dark green velvet sofa, in shadow, a woman is half-sitting and half-lying with her hands idle in her lap. Her plain and modest gown of buttercup-yellow linen is a little loose about a figure straitened by her recent illness.

She doesn’t get up to greet Étienne but she sits straighter, regarding him from behind a pair of outlandish spectacles, the lenses of which are smoked black and reflect his own image back to him as he comes nearer at her invitation. “Do sit down, my lord… You’re Symon’s friend, no? I’m so pleased to meet you.” She’s smiling; her air is one of genial curiosity.

Étienne has come with a bottle of decent white wine and an assortment of really good cheeses, plus a bag of sugar plums to suck on. He himself is still rather shaky both from the poisoning and the purgatives that followed, but today he kept bread and stew down. He is wearing his fancy green winter weight tunic because of the concern that in his weakened state he might get a chill. Whose concern isn't worth mentioning. He was doing all right until all those stairs, and so he is shaky and sweaty and breathing heavily when he makes his way there.

He does gasp out, "I'm Étienne d'Arguil de Berck. Uh… Symon de Perigeux's friend, yes. I brought provisions…. It's nice to meet you." His bow is not up to his usual standards, but his contents stay where they are meant. He has not figured out the import of the glasses.

A note of concern enters Garance's voice. "Forgive me, but you don't sound well, my lord… Would you care for wine? Calinthe, would you?" This to the clerk, who answers clearly, "Yes, mademoiselle," and crosses to a cabinet well equipped for such purposes. She pours only one glass of a decent and fruity Eisandine red, and brings it across the chamber to succour Étienne's present wheeziness.

Garance meanwhile shifts onto her hip and leans her head against the sofa's high back, facing toward the empty place into which she rather thinks she has heard her visitor lowering himself. Her hair is worn loose in straw-coloured waves, pale against the velvet and even softer to the eye. "Is that better?" she inquires.

Étienne offers Calinthe the basket as he takes the wine with a very polite thank you. About half of which cup he drinks rather quickly, which was a mistake as he starts coughing and just sort of falls gracefully onto the sofa. When he can speak again: "I'm recovering from the frog." He declares a tad over dramatically, "François got loose.”

Before he finishes speaking Garance draws in a sharp breath and her hand lifts to her bosom. The implications are already there in her mind's eye, a tree of possibilities branching out in umpteen directions and then folding into one another again to arrive at Étienne's presence, here, in this moment, breathing hard. "Was it your hand?" she asks at once. "Was the nausea very bad? Calinthe," she directs without turning away from Étienne next to her on the sofa, "will you fetch the book? There may be something else farther on than we read the other day."

Étienne says, "I think I was on the floor about a half an hour when Symon got home. It was a bit of a shock to him. He had the sense to use a practice glove when he recaptured him." He sips the wine this time. "It was… not a thing a man would repeat.”

He holds out his hand, still a little reddish and swollen, "I've hopes of the hand being fully recovered tomorrow." He decides nausea is not a subject for delicate company, "I came to thank you. Symon said something about you warning him about the frog, so at least he knew what had happened and could take precautions and explain to the healer. You really did help us."

Garance is blind, literally, to Étienne's proffered sword-hand and the state it's in; but she sighs, "Oh, no," and lets her own hand fall back into her lap to twine with its mate. "I wish I might have spared you that ordeal, my lord. At least you may guard well against a recurrence, if you decide to retain the creature. I understood it belongs in truth to another friend of Symon's, and he is only keeping it for her for a time…? You might at least," she suggests in conspiratorial vein, lowering her voice and wrinkling the retroussé nose upon which her spectacles rest, "expel your attacker from the house quite soon."

The clerk Calinthe comes back from the adjoining chamber possessed of a slender volume bound in blue leather with silvery engraving upon its spine. Her steps are slowed by the turning over of pages in search of that familiar passage.

Étienne smiles sheepishly, "Now that I am in a condition to be seen, my hope is to expel the guest promptly and return him to his more proper host with appropriate warnings. I just wanted to make sure I knew as much as possible. Symon mentioned you as an expert so I thought… And in any case it is nice to have visitors when one has been ill."

Again Garance's smile blossoms. "It is nice to be visited, my lord," she agrees, "but I must in conscience tell you as I told Symon that I don't know the first thing about frogs—! I just happened to have a book which shed a little light upon François and his kind… a coincidence, only. Calinthe, have you found it yet?" she wonders, having tracked the clerk's footsteps going away and coming back. Another such subtle detail as she's getting better at day by day.

"Yes, mademoiselle. Do you want to hear the beginning again?"

"Oh, yes, let's," says Garance seriously, and quietens to listen. The recitation in Aragonian goes on for several minutes, halting occasionally upon the longest words — which Garance repeats, correcting Calinthe's stresses — and ending when the former Bryony holds up her hand and sighs, "That's only about lumber, my dear. I think we have had all the frogs. There is a plant," and she addresses herself now to Étienne, "which the natives recommended for frog-poisonings, but I must admit I have no idea what its proper Tiberian name is or how one might come by it in Marsilikos. I do wish I had better advice for you," she regrets softly.

<FS3> Étienne rolls Perception: Great Success. (8 3 3 4 5 7 8 7 3 6 4 6)

Étienne blushes, "Oh! I hadn't realised. I mostly am working with what he was yelling before he spotted me….Oh!" It is the fact that Calinthe is reading the book to her mistress that suddenly illuminates the reason for the dark glasses as it were. He blushes to his ears, but beyond that exclamation of surprise gives no further outward sign. "If you spell the Aragonian for me and say the name a few times, I might go asking about the apothecaries or ask sailors for a translation."

Garance obligingly repeats the plant's nickname as rendered into Aragonian by a cranky and unreliable sailor; then she makes a guess at the spelling, and Calinthe with the book in her hand raises no qualms but stands patiently by.

“… In a port this size someone may well know what it is. If François can wash up in Marsilikos, why not dried leaves or flowers from the same land?" the Bryony agrees reasonably. "Or it may be something quite common but given different names by different peoples. If it will aid in your recovery I do hope you find it, my lord. The text speaks of a tisane brewed from the plant, but there is no specific mention of its roots: perhaps you'd wish to leave those out of the brew."

Étienne repeats the name or what he thinks is the name several times in his unfortunate Azzallese accent, but he's brighter than he often appears. He doesn't know Aragonian, but he has studied a language not his own before and so he does a pretty good job at listening and mimicking. "That is my thought." His tone is cheerful, "Trying is better than not trying, I always say. If nothing else, it's good to have a remedy in case of future accident… So how did you meet Symon? His stories can be a little disjointed."

"Oh, I like Symon's stories," Garance protests good-naturedly; "they have more unexpected twists and turns than a night at the opera." She shifts position again and takes hold of a cushion, and settles it in her lap to drape her arms upon. She has an elegance in motion which must remind him of his winter in Elua, and the courtesans he knew there. "There's so little to tell, though. We met one day in a tavern called the Leaping Fish; I was laying out the pattern of a solitaire, and Symon offered me a game of piquet instead." The corner of her mouth lifts. "I'm afraid I didn't tell him my whole name," she confesses; "I didn't like to scare him away when I know so few people in Marsilikos, and one learns so much by playing cards with someone." But then the rosebud's petals tend downward again, her mien merely cool and composed.

Étienne leans forward and confides, "I am quite fond of them too. It's just sometimes hard to get all the facts sorted out." He blushes prettily though she can't see it, "I fear I don't know the whole of your name either. He called you ‘Garance’ and I got the impression you've been ill from him and on the way up something was mentioned about keeping books? You must think me terribly ignorant.”

"I see…" An instinctive but unfortunate turn of phrase; Garance purses her lips and then gives another of her lopsided little smiles, seeing the humour even in that. "Shall we say perhaps not ignorant, but— incompletely informed? Let me fill in the gaps for you, then. I have been ill, it's true," and confirming it she lifts her chin, presenting a more dignified posture, "but for the time being at least I have the honour still to serve Her Grace the duchesse d'Eisande as deputy treasurer. My name is Garance Lesage nó Bryony. How do you do?" She begins to offer her hand, then pulls it away again: "Oh! You may not like…" The hand used for shaking being, no doubt, the hand employed also for frog-wrangling.

Étienne’s eyebrows go up, "I bet you are terribly fun to play cards with! I hope you left him some of his allowance." He leans forward, "I can handle a light tough and I would be honored to kiss your hand at least. I am a stranger and you made me welcome and were kind enough to talk about the François situation with me."

Scarcely has Étienne offered that courteous kiss than Garance extends her hand again into the unknown to receive it. A point of pride, one might well suppose. Her nails are unlacquered but prodigiously long and her palm soft and warm and dry, the pressure of her fingertips just firm enough. They teach the art of a trustworthy handshake, at Bryony House. "You were kind enough to come and see me," she argues, "and to satisfy my curiosity about Symon's favourite friend, when I've nothing but time and so few ways of filling it… What a shame," and her smile is defiantly wry, "we can't play cards, my lord. I should have liked that very much."

Étienne's hand is a little too warm under hers, with a swordsman's calluses. His lips are soft and dry as he brushes them politely across her knuckles, taking no liberties. He winces, realising his mistake, but he has a young sister with different challenges who requires a certain amount of creativity to accommodate. When he withdraws, he asks, "What if there were a way to emboss the faces of the cards with a texture that can't be seen or felt from the back? Something subtle, one for suit and one for value. It might be difficult, but if the stock were thick enough…? I do not know what it would cost but I could… make inquiries and let you know if the craftsmen think it feasible on my next visit. If you thought it worth trying, I mean."

"No— two cards for each," the Bryony breathes, her smile growing as her imagination catches aflame, "pasted together." She hugs the cushion against herself and elucidates the leaps of thought she's taken in the time it took them to lower their hands. "The picture card engraved on thin stock and the backing plain, but thicker to guard against anything showing through from the other side. They would have to be matched very precisely, or they might catch upon each other when they were shuffled — but given some of the elaborate decks I've seen before I don't think it impossible at all. But I hadn't thought of it yet, my lord — I'm so grateful you came," she exclaims, suddenly laughing, "to suggest it. Calinthe," she demands, "do you know of a craftsman in Marsilikos who would be suited to such work? You might run down to Mercury and ask," she suggests, "to save Lord Étienne the trouble. And then when you return we'll write to Elua if need be."

The curly-headed clerk bows rather than curtseying. "Mademoiselle. If there's nothing else?" By which she means, are you sure you'll be all right?

“Yes, of course," insists Garance impatiently; "do go."

Étienne's eyes go wide. "Oh! That's really, really clever, Garance! I'd not have thought of two cards together, but it's much safer that way. Perhaps we really can play my next visit or the one after, though for small stakes, I fear."

Having glimpsed not just a silver but a golden lining within the dark cloud which has settled so perceptibly over her life, Garance gaily asserts: "If you're free to come again I'd be glad to play — though it usually takes an artist some while to draw all the cards. I might have one of my other decks copied," she muses, "to save the time which might otherwise be spent upon original designs. We'll see."

Calinthe meanwhile has tidied something on the desk and glanced about the chambers with a surveying, almost proprietary air. "I'm going out now, mademoiselle," she explains for Garance's benefit, and suits her actions to her words.

"… Really, it's clever of you," Garance maintains, knowing from the orientation of her own body upon the sofa that she's smiling toward where Étienne must be, "to have thought of the engraving. I'm a little excited, I confess. I don't suppose you've any ideas about how one might play kottabos in the dark?"

Étienne says, "Of course I will come by to visit, if you would like me to. I can't talk charming nonsense the way Symon can, but I can talk, or read to you if my conversation grows dull."

He laughs, "I fear I do not, but after enough rounds I suspect we'd be evenly matched, for the only time we played I fell off the couch and had to be half-carried home… still, perhaps something with sound? A bell could perhaps be hung in such a way it was directly behind the target, with a string on a pulley. Pull the string and the bell rings. You'd have to practice aiming for the sound, but it might work? I'm not sure. Dice could be by feel, so that should be all right…”

"Aiming for the sound," repeats Garance, and gives her head a wondering little shake which stirs the waves of blonde hair about her shoulders. "I shall give it some thought," she declares, and the corner of her mouth lifts in a manner which can only betoken mischief to follow. "Dice must be easy, of course, provided an honest and impartial person calls out how they fall — but isn't it more satisfying always to wager upon one's own skill, rather than upon pure luck…?"

Rather than awaiting his views, she tests luck and skill both by leaning forward a few inches and addressing Étienne in a lower and more tentative voice. "It's very kind of you to devote so much thought and care to amusing me, when you hardly know me yet. But if you're willing to talk and to read— do you suppose you might also write out a letter for me? Lately I find myself craving the use of a legible hand," she admits, smiling apologetically, "and Calinthe, of course, is a spy. I invited her and so I've no one to blame but myself, but… you do understand."

Étienne grins, "I'm not particularly skillful, but it is definitely more fun. I'd be happy to try things out with you if you wanted." He blushes as she leans close, "I have a decent fist, though it's not… artistic. I could do it if you liked. I really don't mi—" His voice drops to the softest murmur, "a spy? From whom?" There isn't a hint of doubt in his voice, just curiosity.

Garance can't see what colour he turns, nor is she quite close enough to feel the heat of his cheeks— but she wasn't fifteen years a courtesan of Mont Nuit for nothing. She knows she has him on a line, albeit a loose and speculative one yet. Trying things out together, indeed. "Oh, from a bank," she explains softly, giving a little shrug; "I asked if I might borrow the services of one of their clerks, because I wished the rumour to get about Marsilikos as quickly as possible that I haven't lost my wits as well as my eyes… You understand," she says again, in mild and comfortable flattery. "Will you show me where my desk is?" she suggests, dropping her cushion on the sofa in between them and offering him once more her hand. "I don't always have much luck in finding it myself," she admits.

Étienne says, "I do. I definitely agree that you haven't lost your wits. You'll prove it when you clean me out at cards." He rises and takes the offered hand. He's not much experience with blindness, but he knows that the least required help is the best help, the more subtle the better. He guides her with the lightest of touches to hand and arm, much as one does when dancing.

This night-blooming flower who lives now always in the night, opens her petals as might be expected: having chosen to trust Étienne, at least up to a point, she confides her hand into his and rises smoothly from the sofa and walks by his side with neat and gliding little steps which show no hesitation, only slow grace.

The chamber is a broad and airy one and when they have come most of the way across it Garance extends her hand and, lo, thus guided, she finds the corner of her desk and leans her thigh subtly against it to find her way round to the other side. Her good heavy leather-upholstered armchair is waiting for her: for a moment they stand with hands clasped over the desk, then Garance gives Étienne's hand a warm and appreciative squeeze (it’s his left hand, unmolested by François) and releases him in order to sit.

"Let me see," she murmurs; "the inkwell is on your side, isn't it, and there should be quills in the tray if Calinthe tells me true, and I always keep my blank parchment in… this drawer," she pronounces with a sudden smile, having found the handle and pulled it open successfully. She plucks out one sheet and then another, her fingertips making the count a caress; rather than slide them across the desk to Étienne, for she can't be certain what obstacles remain in their path, she proffers them questioningly in the air for him to accept from her. "You can't know what a favour you're doing for me," she murmurs, shaking her head in wonder. "Are you sure your hand can manage it? We might go very slowly…"

Étienne's legs are longer, but he is practiced at matching his steps to his grandmother's when he walks with her so. He is very graceful himself and uses that grace to make everything look natural though there is no one to see it. He takes the offered sheets, fingers just touching to reassure her he has them. "I really don't mind, and slow is best if I'm to write what you say." He doesn't seem aware that he's being taken advantage of at all. "To whom shall I address this?"

Traditionally, yes, it's only when they stagger tipsily away down the mountain that patrons of Bryony House realise in a dim sort of way what's just happened to them— Garance, hardly at her best, has still brought a hint of that excitement and interest into her chambers for Étienne's benefit. She sits very upright, and pushes her smoked glass spectacles higher upon her retroussé nose before clasping her hands together upon the edge of the desk and leaning forward to speak. Her tone is confidential but clear, each syllable enunciated with the classical perfection given the d'Angeline tongue by the courtesans of Mont Nuit.

"… Well, I think I can manage to write the name on the outside," she ventures. "Are you ready? One — three — seven — nine — two." She waits patiently until she hears the quill cease its scratching, then goes on. "Leave a space, as you might between two words, and then: seven — one — one — two — four. You see? How many columns will fit across a page will depend upon your hand, of course. It doesn't really matter, as long as the numerals are quite clear."

Étienne winces a little as he closes his fingers on the pen, dips it and sets it to paper, "As you wish." He pauses as she starts reciting numbers, then hurries to catch up, trying to hide his pain from her by keeping it inaudible. "It is rather larger than it normally is today, but it is legible. Are you a spy too, or is this accounting?" He seems matter of fact about the spying.

"A spy!" and Garance laughs aloud, diverted by the idea. "Oh, no," she insists at once. And then she tilts her head and breathes out, a smile playing about her lips. "If you really want to know, it's a brief message to my oldest friend in the world— though it does have to do with my own finances, and so I put it into a cipher. I must rely on a bankers' courier to carry it to the capital for me, you see, and it's so easy to open a letter with a hot knife and seal it again without a trace," she sighs. "I don't believe the House of Mercury to be dishonest, but it seems as well to guard against such an impulse by a low-ranking courier, don't you think? Are you ready again?" And she recites another sequence of numbers, slowly but without hesitation, as though she knows them all by heart.

Étienne puts down the pen to rest his hand while she talks. He thinks her answer over for a bit, "All right." He dips the pen, "Keep going." He is patient. He is not afraid to ask for a break when he needs it, but he perseveres.

And though Garance is so solicitous of her scribe's poor poisoned paw her recurring outbursts of feminine sympathy somehow don't quite keep her from relying upon his services until both sheets of parchment are more or less covered in columns of numbers set down in his largeish and increasingly less legible hand. The blank space at the bottom of the second is of course scored through thoroughly to guard against later additions.

The letter has just been folded up and the golden chain round Garance's neck removed to allow the use of a seal ring warmed by her skin, when the clerk (the spy!) Calinthe returns with tidings of an ingenious paper-merchant in the promenade off the Grand Plaza; and Étienne parts from the second Bryony in his life with many thanks, many compliments, and an invitation to be the first to have the pleasure of her next deck of cards.

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