(1311-06-28) Enlightening Afternoon
Summary: Raphael accepts an invitation to take tea with Iphigénie and her bees, and in between extending metaphors they learn quite a bit about one another…
RL Date: 28/06/2019 - 03/07/2019
Related: On the Familiarity of Bees.
iphigenie raphael 

Garden — Maignard Residence

The residence kept by House Maignard in Marsilikos is the smallest of the half-dozen imposing structures which comprise the Avenue de Kusheth; behind its grey stone wall it is all of a piece, straight lines and sharp gables and high mullioned windows, a fine example of an architectural style never popular in Eisande even before it fell out of fashion a century ago or more.

Iphigénie's maidservant, familiar perhaps to Raphael in a distant sort of way from that afternoon in the bookshop, meets him at the door and conducts him through three large square chambers in succession, past dark wood, tarnished gilt, scenes from the lives of Blessed Elua and his Companions, and a great deal of scaffolding occupied even now by assiduous workmen. A hammer and a chisel provide uneven accompaniment to his echoing steps. There's no furniture to be seen but a couple of velvet-upholstered chairs clustered self-consciously in the foyer, and little light in the central chamber but the lamps the men are working by; the third brightens perceptibly and its thick glass windows seem as green as Raziel's.

The maid opens a heavy oaken door and ushers him through it, from a chamber celebrating the foundation of an earthly paradise in Terre d'Ange into a corner of that Eden girded by another high plain wall of grey stone, lined with trellises up which roses are being trained in the strictest Kusheline style to climb. The parterre garden is orderly and angular in some sections, with its dark gravel paths neatly swept; other quadrants remain overgrown and chaotic as if some gardener has been colouring outside the lines. Flowers are everywhere, some new-planted in neat beds and others growing up haphazardly from the grass surrounding a mature elm tree. Beneath its arching branches stands a table laid for three with simple blue and white Chi'in porcelain, a basket of pastries kept snug inside a folded linen cloth, and the other accoutrements of afternoon tea. Next to it stands a sofa upholstered in smoke-blue velvet and just big enough for two, and a matching chair, all from the same suite as the orphaned chairs in the foyer.

An unusual number of bees are in evidence, buzzing about, partaking of their floral feast. They must have come from the neatly-stacked wooden hives in the far corner; and Raphael's hostess is coming that way as well, walking slowly but smoothly toward him without the aid of her stick. The skirts of her dark red gown sway with each step. She appears to be carrying a plate.

Raphael has accrued some experience in being led through the well-appointed rooms of wealthy women in this city. He does not lag, but does take note of the artwork, and abstains from being overly nosy about what are works in progress. Loosed in the garden, he takes a few steps in various directions to see it from multiple vantage points. But he does cease his wandering when he senses his hostess approaching, and turns to face her. "Good afternoon," he greets. "How good of you to receive me in such a charmingly sharp space."

The plate holds a piece of honeycomb, oozing its riches; and as she comes nearer Iphigénie fastidiously licks some half-imaginary trace of dark honey from the tip of one of her thieving fingers. In her own home her hands are bare of gloves, revealing on her left ring finger a narrow silver ring patterned rather like the braiding of a whip; her hair is loose, breeze-ruffled, a white cloud softening her face. The sunshine glints brightly upon her favourite bracelet. Eyes green as her garden have already reacquainted themselves thoroughly with Raphael's person before the two of them are close enough to speak at a civilised volume.

"Monsieur, good afternoon," she says pleasantly. "The Kusheline taste agrees with you, then?" A nod to the house behind him. "I must confess I'm not surprised…" Her painted lips curve into a fleeting, wry smile; then she goes on. "Though I hope you will consent to lift your eyes beyond this lingering disorder of mine — a house neglected so many years is not put to rights all at once."

It does not take long for pale eyes to land on the points of interest; everything that is changed in his hostess since their last encounter. His gaze checks in with hers, then wanders to the more chaotic parts of the garden. "In fact," he says, "Total order risks dullness. Some measure of disorder is provocative. A ship on a smooth sea risks being becalmed." He smiles, bringing his eyes back to her face. "When the house and garden have been mastered entirely, I will have to return to see what the effect may be then."

The breeze plays impudently with Iphigénie's loose hair as she stands quite easily, unsupported, looking into Raphael's eyes across the border where gravel meets grass. She nods as he speaks, appreciating his wisdom or the prospect of his return— perhaps both, the one insinuating another taste of the other. "And that," she agrees softly, "is why I do not intend to pluck up the stray flowers from the lawn. Nature's arrangement of them has a charm beyond anything my gardeners could achieve. Shall we sit?" she suggests, gesturing with the plate toward the tea-table that awaits them, and beginning to move in that direction if Raphael seems agreeable. "I don't think a house is ever mastered entirely," she adds, "beyond time's vicissitudes or the hope of improvement… Certainly not a garden. But such continuing projects do lend an interest to one's days."

"Certainly," Raphael agrees, drawing out a chair for his hostess to see her seated before himself. "But surely your days cannot want so much for interest," he contradicts lightly, though in a tone of question, "When you have so many interests. From bees to books to botany."

Iphigénie nudges the plate of honeycomb onto the edge of the table, slightly disarranging the pattern of the dishes already present, and accepts Raphael's courtesy with a murmur of thanks and a glance upward at him through her eyelashes as she lowers herself straight-backed and strictly-corseted into her blue velvet armchair. "Ah, yes. A married woman has ten occupations for each hour of the day," she observes, her gaze turning the other way to follow Raphael to the sofa as she unfolds a linen napkin in her lap and smoothes it and her skirts both. "But a dowager must cultivate her own amusements…" She reaches for the teapot; she finds his eyes again and lifts her tone and her eyebrows in question. "How do you take your tea? With honey? I think it sweeter for being stolen so."

"Not typically, though on this occasion, I think I must," Raphael replies as he helps himself to his own seat now that his hostess is settled. "Naturally, I am curious whether it will taste of roses, as you have so many here. If so, I wonder can one tell the flavor of the red from the white." His gaze meets hers as she grasps the teapot, stable and confident enough not to spoil the innuendo by drawing excessive attention to it. "And do the bees of Marsilikos mingle their tastes more than those of Elua?"

The elm tree's leaves waver in another mild gust of wind; dappled light falls upon the tea-table and brightens Iphigénie's white hair. “Yes, I’m fond of the presence and the fragrance of roses — even occasionally the taste,” she murmurs as she pours tea into two cups, her right hand carrying the teapot’s weight and the fingertips of her left delicately securing its lid against incident. The third cup she leaves empty. “I’m rather enjoying my study of your Eisandine varieties, and the curious hybrids I’ve picked even in our own garden here… My new botanical book from Raziel’s,” she explains, turning upon Raphael a demure and guileless smile contradicted by the glint in her eyes, “has been an invaluable resource.”

A pause. “I never kept bees in Elua, I was never there long enough,” and now she addresses herself to her purloined honeycomb, separating with a silver spoon just sweetness enough for one cup, and stirring it in. “But from long experience I think I may posit that whether a bloom be red or white or a blushing pink, the difference is in the individual fragrance and the hue by which each variety seeks to attract the attentions of the bee. The flavour, whether it be refined by human hand or transmuted by the work of a bee colony, is in its finest essence—” She shrugs her narrow, sloping shoulders and presents Raphael with his tea, cup and saucer held in both her hands. She smiles faintly. “Distinguished but nigh indistinguishable.”

Raphael takes the proffered cup and saucer with a sure and steady hand. "You put it as a true expert," he says approvingly. "You must have devoured a great deal of your book by now." He does not immediately drink, perhaps abstaining until his hostess may serve herself as well. Or perhaps he is letting it cool. "If it is as you say, then I hope Marsilikos may furnish your bees always with enough blooms of individual interest to sustain their delight."

The silver spoon rests briefly upon a linen cloth; but then Iphigénie reclaims it and secures honey enough to sweeten the second cup of tea already poured, which she stirs slowly now, with only her own pleasure to hasten or deny… or his too? She considers him, stirring as she listens and then as she speaks. "I am reading the book slowly, a few pages more each morning before I come out into the garden. I never like to hurry my pleasures," she confides, tilting her head towards him as the spoon clinks languidly against the inner surface of her cup.

Raphael nods once. "That is of course one strategy," he agrees, and at this point he does lift his cup to taste the honeyed tea. And he sets it down again, gaze moving back to his hostess's face. "But then again, the city offers so very many." Only now does he come round to mentioning what he has sampled: "How well this honey suits the tea."

Iphigénie meets his eyes as she usually does, her own deeply green and unflinching; and the spoon clinks just once more against the cup before she lays it down, and lifts her tea to drink. A deep mouthful and then another, savouring its strength and its smoothness, its notes of peach and apricot and rose alloyed but not extinguished by the dark sweetness of her honey. She lowers the cup into the saucer whence it came, the rim of it stained now by the paint from her dark red lips, and she's already smiling at him with a rueful air. "How many?" she asks. "And among them, how many surpass the satisfaction of a good cup of tea?"

"You spoke of the individual allure of each bloom, but we must also consider the individual palate of each taster," Raphael answers. "Perhaps there is the person to whom nothing would compare with the best cup of tea. Others would find no cup of tea the match of the flowers of his favorite garden. So I'm afraid you will have to tell me."

Halfway through her cup of tea Iphigénie sets it down and reaches out to flick back the corners of the linen cloth which has maintained so far the heat of their pastries. She selects a croissant and then a knife with which to cut it in half lengthwise as she muses aloud. "I will have to tell you what? My taste? Which I prefer? The flowers, or the tea, or…?" She allows that thought to trail away for just the length of a breath, as she spreads open the croissant upon the empty plate in front of her. "But that may alter from one day to the next," she suggests, shifting the plate of honeycomb nearer and employing her knife to smear the one across the other, the dark honey and a few of the waxy cells of the comb melting alike against warm pastry. "The mood of one day is not always the mood of the next. A hundred small things might affect it— quite as they might the flavour of a honeycomb." And taking up between her fingers one half of the sundered croissant, she offers it to Raphael with raised eyebrows: will it amuse him?

"How many in Marsilikos are the equal of the tea," Raphael responds evenly. "That is the question you seemed to be putting to me." He nods at the offer of the croissant half. "Thank you," he says. "How good you are to share so much with me."

And so Iphigénie deposits that honeyed half-croissant upon Raphael's plate. "Am I?" she asks lightly, though the accompanying lift of her brows is studied more than natural. "But who could be the equal of a good cup of tea?" she inquires next. Her hands curl again about her cup and she lifts it to her lips to take another deep draught, which almost empties it— but still she retains it, for it's too apt a prop to relinquish as she looks straight into Raphael's eyes and wonders aloud. "So strong and so smooth, richly seasoned, yet always sharply flavourful rather than cloyingly sweet… A fine and brisk awakening from one's slumber; a bracing repast in the middle of the day; and yet a treat which might postpone one's slumber, but never for too long," she drawls. Gently, she sets down her cup in her saucer. "Have you some native Eisandine elixir in mind, monsieur—?"

"Heavens," Raphael says quite calmly, sipping his tea again. "You speak your devotion to tea so passionately." He sets down the cup to embrace the opportunity to sample the croissant and honeycomb. "It is a fine brew. Still, I think we serve up nothing inferior at the Salon de la Rose Sauvage. But then, I am partially responsible for the stock we keep." His gaze returns to hers.

Iphigénie has meanwhile taken up her own half of that honey-slathered croissant; and she sinks her good white teeth into it and breaks off a good big piece to chew as she returns Raphael's regard. She swallows, and she touches her napkin to her lips to erase a few fragments of pastry. "Yes, monsieur," she agrees, resettling her napkin and reaching with both hands for the pot to replenish their cups. His first. "I understand you left the Rose Sauvage for quite a time and then you returned…" Her head turns as she pours; she tosses back the soft white locks that momentarily occluded her view of him. "Did you miss her service?" she inquires softly.

Raphael had not anticipated this line of conversation at this moment, so he is not prepared to conceal the shift it brings in him. The stone that skipped nimbly on the water's surface dives down as he appears to give the question solemn consideration. Perhaps not the strategic mood in the moment, but it is nevertheless what transpires. Eye contact is broken. "A delicate question," he admits. "I think in truth I was so…enamored of my wife that I could not have considered myself deprived of anything. Yet since my return I find more devotion and grace in my service than ever before. A pale gaze comes back to Iphigénie now. "And how do you feel about it?"

Perhaps he hears Iphigénie exhale as she sets down the teapot.

In any case her eyes are waiting, wide and green and all too knowing, when he looks up. "You were married," she says gently. She knows it only now: and yet that fact falls into place with what else she knows of the man, just by looking at him as closely and tenderly as she has done. "When one leaves such sacred service the only consolation is an absorbing love — when one returns… Monsieur, I hope you will tell me how it is when one returns," she admits; "if not today, then another day. I should like very much to hear," she breathes, "how it is."

"Has your love, then, been absorbing?" Raphael asks, softly, though he betrays little emotion in the asking. A safer approach, perhaps, for them both. In case it has. Or in case it has not. "And are you yourself considering return?" He ignores tea and pastry alike, now, gaze on his hostess for a long moment before it skims away again. It must. "To return… has been to have my fall broken," he says. "I thought I might fall all the way through the earth and come out in a land so foreign I could never map it. But now I know where I am, and where my debts are owed. There is sacred work to be done and I find myself now perhaps more suited than ever to it. For that I am grateful."

Iphigénie's eyes close. She draws into herself his words, the buzzing of the bees, the heat and the fragrance of the afternoon, the implications of such a landing— and she seeks her right path… Tea abandoned, she looks at Raphael as he is looking away from her and she offers him both her hands across the corner of the tea-table. "Give me your hands," she suggests softly, her own white palms open and ready to be clasped.

Raphael does not immediately submit to this request. He looks at Iphigénie first, and his gaze is iced over. He takes his time to determine whether he wishes to accede. After a very still silence, he reaches across to settle his own warm and heavy hands onto hers.

Iphigénie waits, patient and steady, undaunted by the chill wind that breezes across the table to her ahead of the warmth of Raphael's palms. Then he allows it, and her long pale fingers curl into his. Abruptly, as she looks into his eyes, her hands tighten. The right grips with unexpected ferocity and crushes his fingers together to the point of pain— the left is very much weaker. "You see?" she inquires of him, as the pressure on both sides slackens and her hands become quiescent in his. "My left hand is of little use. I did not leave by my own choice; I left because I was not permitted to remain. I don't usually speak of that," she admits frankly, "but when you ask me if I consider return… Monsieur, that door was closed for me very young; but I shall tell you without shame that some part of me still covets what it is that you have."

Raphael does not wince although she grips hard enough to hurt. He also does not conceal his calculation as this new information is revealed. "Initially you were left-handed," he concludes. "That is very grave. When I asked you that question, I did not know the weight of it." That is something like apology. Very like, for a Thorn. "I understand your longing." He looks aside, as though he can think of another question to ask, but decides against it, instead bringing his eyes back to his hostess's face.

His deduction is confirmed by Iphigénie's slow nod. She’s lured home no dullard. She leaves her hands idle in his, stretched out toward him far enough from the sleeves of her gown to show lingering traces of rope-burn upon her thin wrists, among silver chains; her green eyes are alike steady, waiting for his to return, and when they do she urges him softly to: “Say it.”

Raphael does not feign innocence. "While I realize that what you miss is probably the direct encounter with the grace of Naamah, I momentarily wondered if your consort could not bring you close to what you once enjoyed," he admits. "That was my thought, but I thought better of voicing it."

Iphigénie receives this intimate inquiry without a blush or a flinch, only a small interested 'mm' behind painted lips which purse slightly in consideration. She answers a moment later, with the same dearth of pretense. "Close, perhaps. It is a different relation, fruitful of different pleasures more suited to this era of my life. I am not the woman I was, I could not live now as I did then. But you know well the perversity of my canon, monsieur— perhaps too you know that ache of memory which by its very power reminds one that to lose something so precious," she suggests softly, "one must first have known and possessed it."

Raphael moves his left hand to grasp her right wrist between middle finger and thumb, a firm but not at all painful grasp, and one that might be broken if desired. Holding just at the ends of the wrist bones, he drops his eyes to regard the visible rope burn there, then lifts them again. "None of us can truly live now as we did then."

Were his grip a little different Raphael might feel a jump in Iphigénie's pulse as he executes his neat capture of her wrist — but her fingers relinquish his so easily, and without a single twitch of protest, that she doesn't seem to notice what he's doing until his eyes lower away from her own to inspect that mild but unmistakable mark of hemp upon her flesh. Whereupon her gaze follows the same swooping path half an instant after his, down and then up again, the corners of her mouth rising with it into a wry smile. "We've learnt too much since."

"I have learnt to my surprise that there are many consolations in knowledge and experience," Raphael replies as their eye contact is restored, and he holds it while he takes his right hand away from her left and reaches for his tea without looking. He knows where it is. "Do you find it so?"

Iphigénie's left hand accepts release with the same equanimity as her right wrist endures its captivity; it sinks down onto the table next to her plate, the two wraps of her chain bracelet clinking softly against one another. Her eyes are however rather more persistent in holding his. "I do," she agrees, nodding. "For one thing— I don't agree with the truism that practice makes perfection," she states drily, "but experience does tend toward a rich knowledge of the pot-holes along one's frequent paths, as well as the alternative routes one might take, and so one arrives with an ease which might surprise one's younger self."

Raphael passes his thumb over the mark he has looked at, feeling whether it has a texture, and then releases the wrist, returning his left hand to his lap. "I find myself in far greater demand now than ever in my youth," Raphael observes. "Though of course it would not be so in certain other canons."

To a discerning fingertip that has just made acquaintance with the smoothness of Iphigénie's hands there is, yes, a slight roughness about her wrist— but it will heal soon, as these things do when properly tended. She inhales as his thumb essays its exploration — but that could be a coincidence. "Some hold that the perfection of a Camellia vanishes with the first bloom of youth," she muses, looking away from her visitor at last to pour a little more hot tea into cups beginning to cool. Raphael's first. "Alyssums can't help but find their pretenses difficult to sustain over many years." Then her own. "Valerians of course are notorious for wearing out young, or simply for collecting far too much scarring…" She quirks her eyebrows at him as she exchanges pot for cup, to take a deep but alas no longer scalding draught of her tea. "But a Mandrake with the right temperament I can well imagine enjoying an indefinite success in his service." Beside the basket of pastries the third cup still stands empty.

"Though not, of course, eternal," Raphael acknowledges with a wry smile, allowing his hostess to refresh his tea, and returning to her a nod of thanks. As the third cup goes on sitting there empty, he acknowledges it by turning over an empty palm. "I thought perhaps we might have a third for tea."

Iphigénie's green glance follows the line of Raphael's arm toward the cup and then back again to his face. She shrugs elegantly. "And so we might have done," she allows, and her voice has a note of amusement in it as she explains. "Though he is in most respects a considerate companion, and never otherwise in doubt of his desires or his intentions, my consort is constitutionally unable to make up his mind and let me know in advance whether or not he'll be in for afternoon tea. I gave up asking years ago — I simply lay a place and hope."

That answer seems to entertain Raphael, who smiles and gives a single nod. "As long as it is not some ominously empty cup," he says. "I feel it would be an ill portent in a novel. But in real life it is perfectly comprehensible."

"Oh, no," and Iphigénie shakes her head at the cup and then lifts a hand to smooth back her soft loose waves of white hair; "it signifies nothing but that he has found something more interesting to do, which I confess I'm looking forward to hearing about later…" Her lowering hand clasps her chin for a moment, and she favours the beehives in the corner of the garden with a crooked smile before looking again to Raphael. "Really, if we took tea together every day, what would we have left to discuss over supper?" she asks reasonably.

"Familiarity and all that," Raphael agrees, nodding once. "Now you will have tea to discuss. And the flavor of the honey, if it is the sort of thing to change from day to day." He does not directly mention his own presence, but this is surely implied. "I must thank you," he says, "For the tea and the opportunity to ask about your bees and botany. It really has been a most enlightening afternoon."

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