(1311-07-04) Stepping Toward
Summary: Iphigénie and Raphael take another step or two in their dance; also, they step on a novice, poor boy. (Warning: Mature, Mandragian themes.)
RL Date: 04/07/2019 - 06/07/2019
Related: On the Familiarity of Bees, Enlightening Afternoon.
iphigenie raphael 

Gardens — La Rose Sauvage

The gardens of La Rose Sauvage offer a different ambience and atmosphere than that of the more oppressive and richly ornate salon. Tall casement windows spill out onto a paved area which gives way to neatly arranged flowerbeds, where a predominance of roses pay homage to the canons encompassed by this salon. The paths are of a dark granite grey which have softened over the years by the encroachment of mosses and lichens, with smaller paths winding off through the beds. It's here along these secluded paths that arboreal areas and private nooks might be found, and where privacy is granted to those that seek it through flowering hedges and curtained awnings.

A fountain plays at the centre of the garden, the copper figures of two nude women, long since mellowed to a soft verdigris, spill water from shells into a pool at its base. The main pathway through the garden leads to a terracotta tiled courtyard that sits towards the farthest end, the walls here flanked by creeping ivy which cloak the walls in scarlet and orange during the autumn months. An oiled silk awning hangs over the courtyard to give shelter from both sun and rain, and oil lamps light the area when evening falls.

Perhaps it’s the goblet of milk being so ceremoniously borne outdoors by a Red Rose novice, that alerts Raphael to Iphigénie’s presence on the premises.

If he should follow its path, then or later, he’ll find her — and also the armchair that’s missing from the pattern in the salon, placed now in full sunshine near the fountain in the middle of the garden, where occupying it she might contemplate the idea of coolness even whilst baking herself in the warmth of the advancing afternoon. She sits bolt upright as always, rigorously corseted beneath a gown of plain matte black cloth. White silk gloves and a black silk parasol protect her translucent Kusheline complexion from the consequences of her very stately basking. The shadow thrown upon her face, and her face only, sharpens its angles and its planes, lending her an aspect more forbidding than usual. As she gazes into the softly plashing waters of the fountain she appears to be reflecting upon something grave: her chin high, her mouth a flat dark red line, her eyelids half-lowered over her firm, fixed green stare.

The sound keeps her from hearing the approach of footsteps. Only when the novice’s own shadow falls between her and the edge of the fountain, does she come to life and turn slightly in her armchair and favour the boy with a kindly smile. “You may set it down here,” she pronounces, gesturing toward the small table at her elbow, also purloined.

“Ah, good,” Raphael says as he steps out from the dark of the doorway, where he would’ve been hard to discern by the novice, whose eyes are no doubt dazzled by the sun - or their visitor - by now. He is gratified to provoke the smallest of starts. “The burden of moving furniture so often falls on my novices, but it is such good work for sculpting Red Rose bodies, too. I hope this one has had more than the milk to carry.” He looks on the novice briefly without truly addressing him before his eyes shift to their guest. “How good of you to call on us again,” he says. “I must thank you for the thoughtful gift.”

Against the heat - or perhaps because he has only just risen after a particularly late night - he wears an undyed linen shirt, quite open at the chest.

<FS3> Iphigenie rolls Presence+Composure: Great Success. (4 7 1 6 7 6 6 8 6 6 3 3 2 4 7 3)

When that familiar voice emanates from a point just beyond her peripheral vision Iphigénie, unlike the novice, doesn’t start — but only because she’s been practicing equanimity for a lifetime. She tilts her parasol and then her head, to watch the Thorn come nearer.

“Monsieur Raphael, good morning,” she says pleasantly. Then she is glad to confirm that, “He has been very obliging to me,” though she doesn’t find it necessary either to let her gaze linger upon the boy who, having deposited her milk and bowed low to her, is standing to attention with his hands clasped behind his back and trying not to wiggle from one foot to the other as he awaits further instructions either from the Known Hazard that is the Thorn Second, or the Unknown as represented by this elderly lady patron who’s had him running about as though her name and antecedents were something quite other than ‘Valerian’.

No, her attention is all for Raphael in his casual attire; likewise, the note of approval in her mellow Kusheline voice as she allows her eyes the brief pleasure of wandering down over his form before flicking up again to meet his. “You’re most welcome, of course. I do hope you’ll enjoy my mead,” she adds, “though it is not your usual taste… We do age it, which I find adds to the complexity of the flavour. And, of course, my bees in Kusheth drink the nectar of flowers which grow so close to the sea that there is always a touch of salt in the sweet.”

“It would be a dreadful thing for a courtesan of this salon to be too set in his tastes,” Raphael opines, a firm smile etching his features. “In fact I look forward to tasting it, especially as you describe it.” He gestures to her goblet of milk. “It is only because I know your preferences that I do not offer to share it with you on the spot.” Though their guest is seated, he makes standing look as comfortable. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?” he wonders. “Have you finished with the boy, or shall we have him do tricks?” The smile glints along a mineral edge.

<FS3> Iphigenie rolls Religion: Great Success. (4 7 7 1 7 6 7 2 2 2 5 3 2 7)

Iphigénie’s smile deepens at the sight of Raphael’s. She passes the handle of her parasol from her right hand to her left and takes up her goblet; beaded with condensation it dampens the fingertips of her silk gloves as she sips from it and then according to her usual cautious habit runs the tip of her tongue across her upper lip behind its shield. Lowering it she spares the novice a glance, then looks to Raphael with an arch of one elegant eyebrow.

“Does he know any interesting tricks?” she asks frankly. “He seems a little young. But perhaps he has been trained to fetch and carry—? You see, I do drink mead,” she confides, and recites from memory a scriptural passage from the Eluine Cycle which turns milk and honey into a metaphor for all the blessings and pleasures of the earth. The rise and fall of her own honeyed voice turns those lines of sacred prose into something very like poetry.

Interesting tricks I cannot promise,” Raphael replies, turning an amused and faintly scornful gaze on their captive novice. Who must be sweating by now. Raphael pulls a key off his belt. “Go and get one of the Thorn boys and send him for the mead on the table in my chamber to the left of the door,” Raphael instructs, tossing the key at the novice who must scramble out of his pose to catch it lest it invoke punishment by ringing off a paving stone. “If anything else is moved an inch, you’ll both have stripes by morning. You may be the one to return and serve it. Go.” At that instruction the boy high-tails it into the parlor on this mission.

Raphael turns back to the guest. “You convinced me it is positively our duty to share a cup of it. I have long been blessed to find my duties and my pleasures frequently intersect.”

It’s not that Iphigénie hasn’t any feeling for the novice in his plight — it’s just that the feeling she has is one of benevolent and sympathetic delight. A little torment from an attractive superior is exactly what’s required to give a baby Valerian a fresh zest for life, after all.

“… And both of them theologically sound,” she agrees, another smile tugging at her lips. “That poor boy,” she adds reflectively, watching him go for just a moment before she looks up again into Raphael’s eyes. Even in shadow her own eyes seem to gleam. “If only he were allowed to go into your chamber himself, think how many of your things he’d move.”

Raphael swipes thumb and forefingers along either side of his jaw which he at least took the care to shave this morning even if he neglected the lacing of his shirt, “The Red Roses require a great deal of creativity to punish once they start to court the lash, of course,” he returns. “But then we can’t have him spending his time snooping through my things when we’ve mead to drink, can we.” He doesn’t sound as if he truly anticipates any trouble with the novices completing the task as instructed. “We didn’t offer any guidance as to vessels.” And this was not necessarily an oversight. “If what he brings doesn’t please you, you must…instruct him.”

“We didn’t.” Iphigénie cocks her head, studying Raphael. “How curious,” she muses, “that I feel myself growing moment by moment more difficult to please…” For this is an old familiar game she has taken a part in for the amusement of many a Mandrake before now.

From her parasol’s shadow she smiles at him a secretive, Valerian smile, behind which she is perhaps recollecting who knows what chastisements in her youth. “I’m familiar with the conundrum, of course. You do it beautifully, though, with a light, sure touch I can only commend. A few strikes of a flogger are over at once,” she remarks with a certain cynicism, “and may be naught but a thrill, but feeling that his fate has been placed by you in the hands of others will last him all day. When he’s finished not knowing whether he might be punished for another novice’s foot-dragging slowing him too, or for disappointing a fastidious patron with the choice of drinking vessels you’ve obliged him to make without guidance, he can carry on not knowing whether he’ll be punished for that other novice’s unknown transgression behind a locked door.

“Naturally a wise elder would not levy such punishments upon him arbitrarily— but to know without question the right glass, to serve patrons swiftly and well, to follow simple commands to the letter and respect the personal property of others within the house, these are matters so fundamental that he’ll know whatever he may receive, he’ll deserve…” There, she cuts off her low, almost dreamy musing. “I appreciate justice, monsieur,” she confides, no longer looking through Raphael but straight up into his eyes; “it is another of the Kusheline passions.”

“How far you see beyond the surface,” Raphael replies warmly. “I am glad the water is clear enough that you may do so. Of course, you have every reason to understand. Still, I suspect even some servants of Naamah do not come to a particularly deep appreciation of the strategies of our education.” Now that their third is gone for the time being, he adjusts the line of his shoulders to face Iphigénie more directly. “You are, I take it, quite devout,” he observes. “I am faithful but I doubt I have the command of scripture you have. Unless you just memorize the lines about honey.” His tone suggests that he does not really believe that she is so casual. “I am very glad that you come to visit us. I think it must be an excellent influence on the novices and adepts alike.”

The temperature of Raphael’s tone as he addresses her in their renewed privacy, is quietly pleasing to Iphigénie. Or perhaps she’s just smiling at her improved angle upon his unlaced shirt, the arrival of which within her field of view has sustained in her a mood altogether sweeter than whatever reverie she was sharing earlier with the fountain.

“No,” she answers in a low voice, “not just about honey. I’m sure the children’s religious education is well attended-to in your house,” and she inclines her head toward him in a precise nod, deferential but not overly so, “though it is kind of you to credit me with such an influence… I think in your canon or in mine,” she suggests gently, “we understand more deeply than some of the other night-blooming flowers, the beauties of a life of loving service. It was the Companions who taught us first: because of the love they had for our Blessed Elua, they served him gladly and with joy. A lesson we are fortunate to learn as young as we do; a foundation we are fortunate to build, at an age so often devoted to selfish pleasures.”

“I believe,” Raphael says, words measured, “That a true devotion to Naamah is essential in our canons. Because what we do cannot be mistaken for the niceties or the polite play of nobles, we must be especially certain of what we are doing, and why we do it.” He folds his hands behind his back and looks up to the lush foliage of one of the trees shading them. “These days, I am asked more frequently than I ever imagined I would be about what we do here, about whether it is good and right, about its religious underpinnings. And I feel tremendously grateful for my certainty of the path.” He drops his eyes back to the visitor. “I hope we do indeed give our young ones the education they need to see beyond the service of self to the service of something much higher.”

Iphigénie nods her understanding, slowly, as Raphael speaks. “Abstract thinking is not a reliable match for youthful passions — an ideal is harder to grasp than a lover’s hand,” she muses. “But in these years when they are learning who they are and what the world may be for them, young people absorb more than they realise just by listening and watching. The theory underpinning Monsieur Raphael’s actions may not always be apparent, but they know what he does and what he does not do — and a practical model is invaluable until the theory follows it; in fact, it teaches the theory, one example at a time, in a manner more intuitive and appealing than a tutor’s lecture… Ah, monsieur, I don’t mean to tell you your business,” and she lowers her eyes from his and smiles absently at the fountain. “I’m strangely garrulous amongst all these roses; perhaps the fragrance of so many in bloom at once is going to my head. But I am pleased to know,” and she meets his gaze again and gives him rather a formal nod, “that faith lends you strength and comfort in your service here, as it strengthens and comforts me as well.”

“I certainly do not take it amiss,” Raphael replies, and it is just about this time that their Red Rose returns, bearing a tray that he balances well despite the relatively heavy weight of a full bottle of mead together with the two cups he has chosen. One with a history in the canon of Valerian or Mandrake can see in his every molecule the desire to look up to judge whether he has chosen right, but that is wrestled down and the boy keeps his gaze lowered to the tray as he kneels to offer it up.

The mead is in a pale stone flagon, sealed with dark red wax through which has been passed the piece of string securing the small parchment tag which names the date and the place of its bottling on Kusheth’s northern shores. The cups, alas, are long-stemmed wine glasses of polished Serenissiman crystal without so much as a thumbprint upon them: suitable for the service of an esteemed patron of the salon, on almost any occasion.

Iphigénie shares a long look with Raphael as the boy kneels before her. The mischief he has seen often enough in her eyes during their short acquaintance is present for him, but smoothly and faultlessly replaced with stone-cold Kusheline arrogance as she looks down. The shadow of her parasol bobs about as she lowers it from its resting-place against her shoulder. Then the calm of the garden is cut by its sudden sharp snapping-shut, and cut again by the strike of its iron tip against granite next to her feet and just within the novice’s view.

“Child,” she pronounces, with the air of one who finds it a tedious obligation to deal with his error, and to be so patient too, “I gather you are some while yet away from your debut, and for the sake of this house’s patrons and their digestion I am glad of it. Look at me,” she demands, and when he raises uncertain eyes up along the shaft of her parasol to her face he finds a mien of unutterable weariness, brows drawn together by disdain, and wide green eyes that catch him like a fish on a hook. “In weather as hot as this even the darkest mead must be somewhat cooled in order to be palatable,” she chides. “Take that away at once. Bring it back on ice,” she states crisply, “and a pair of such chilled silver goblets as I know you walked past in order to get here.” A beat later, before he has time to rise, she commands again: “Go.”

And, aflame with shame, but without quite dropping his unsatisfactory tray, he obeys.

His preceptress looks up to Raphael. “Was that what you had in mind?” she inquires courteously.

As the boy makes his effort, Raphael’s expression is quite neutral, almost even pleasant as he looks from the tray to their guest, who receives the greater share of his gaze. Nor does he show any particular displeasure or sympathy at the rebuke. It is simply what comes to pass, as naturally as water sliding downstream. When the boy departs again, Raphael inclines his head to the visitor. “Highly educational,” he pronounces the performance. “I suspect your voice will echo back to him in his dreams. Both good and bad.” He smiles sharply.

“Then he’ll have learnt the lesson,” says Iphigénie simply.

“I hope, however,” she adds, as she opens her parasol again and returns it to its own duty of shielding the admittedly very little skin her attire exposes to the sunshine, “delaying the mead won’t delay any real business of yours, monsieur… I’m engaged to see your house chirurgeon later in the afternoon,” the answer to his question, withheld at the time only to be casually given now, “but I came early, to spend an hour enjoying the gardens,” she confides. As her eyes adjust to the renewed shade she blinks twice, to improve her focus upon him.

“No,” Raphael confirms. “In fact I am a difficult man to detain when I wish to be elsewhere.” A small smile testifies to a note of humor in that. “As it happens, I am fond of the gardens by both morning and night, and your company makes them still more enjoyable. I hope you find them as pleasant as you’d hoped? There is not quite so much excitement here now as by moonlight, of course…”

“A Mandrake’s courtesies are never empty, but replete,” Iphigénie murmurs, once more quietly inferring Raphael’s suitability to her taste in companions. “You must have noticed I enjoy the heat,” she says frankly, “to the point of discomfort or past it— I had far rather burn than freeze. And these southern afternoons are so pleasing that I hardly,” she quirks her eyebrows at him, “regret what moonlit excitement I may forego by living as I do in the daylight.”

Raphael nods, again taking note of her attire. “And there again you and I are at opposite poles,” he replies, though not disapprovingly. “My blood has always run hot.” Which may explain the undone shirt. “Yet I still have a fondness for the city, even by summer.”

And now the novice returns, this time afraid to look up, willing his hands to be steady and his gait even as he brings forth the tray again, this time with the chilled goblets the visitor so directly requested.

Whereupon Iphigénie completes the boy’s beguilement by turning upon him a warm and intense smile which is its own reward even before her lips part upon a few well-turned words of praise for his swift return. She directs him with a graceful, palm-up gesture to place the goblets just so next to her milk; she advises him upon how best to break the wax seal; she watches him pour the first libation and utters a crisp and timely ‘when’ to let him know a suitable level to match with the second. Then her charm offensive moves on to Raphael: “Why don’t I try it first, monsieur, to be certain it is fit for you—? Though the fragrance of it does promise well.”

The boy is surely on the highest alert to follow the instructions he receives to the letter. Raphael watches the novice’s hands operated by the former Valerian’s will and words. “How kind of you,” Raphael returns by way of assent. “Though I am certain it will be as refreshing as I imagine. There is something fine in tying your garden to ours in this way, is there not?”

Iphigénie gives instructions as well as any Mandrake, in simple and straightforward words, anticipating a pitfall or two and correcting against them in advance: and then she has a goblet of mead in her gloved hand and she’s inhaling the scent of it before allowing its honeyed flavour to touch her lips. Then she tastes it, and her eyelashes half-lower. Another taste.

Her gaze rises up over Raphael and she voices soft agreement with his idea: “Very fine.” Then, looking to the boy: “You may give Monsieur Raphael his goblet, and leave us.”

The mead is a dark amber; its sojourn in the stone flagon and then its travels upon a bed of ice have left it cooler than the air about them, though by no means cold. The taste is certainly honeyed and sweet, but leavened by that touch of salt she promised him. It savours of wildflowers more than cultivated varieties, and of a summer beside the sea.

Raphael reaches out his hand to accept the cold silver goblet. He tilts the goblet to get the nose of it, then further to taste, letting the mead roll slowly over his tongue before he swallows it down. “Just as you described,” he judges it. “I’ve never had mead exactly like it.” Not that he makes a particular habit of drinking mead. “The salt counterbalances what is sometimes heavy in mead. How good of you to share it with me today. A little sea breeze is the very thing for a sweltering day.”

“But to bind our gardens together so,” a phrase which a perceptive Mandragian eye can well see amuses Iphigénie, “was your idea, monsieur. I merely acquiesced to a proposal I was sure would please us both.” She raises her goblet to him and then drinks another, deeper mouthful. “… The goodness is yours, in always receiving me so well,” she goes on, and exchanges her goblets in order to chase down the honey with a taste of cool fresh milk.

“Well, now that I have established a pattern, it would not do to break it,” Raphael replies, the note of humor again slipping to the fore, as this reply serves for both modest remark and acknowledgement of the irony in such modesty. He drinks from the cup again. “I do not need to tell you that Mandrakes are fond of patterns, perhaps as much as we are fond of breaking.”

“Oh, indeed. I have rather a pretty pattern just here,” and the erstwhile Valerian puts down her milk to trace with one silk-gloved fingertip a generous square shape high upon her right thigh, “and another— well, that one I can’t reach,” she confides, with a little ironic modesty of her own, given the intimate nature of her disclosure; “but I’ve seen it in the glass.”

A single nod marks Raphael’s confirmation that his guest understands him clearly. “I could scarcely fail to receive a patron of our salon such as yourself as kindly as she deserves and still count myself a courtesan of the best sort. We are lucky to have your interest. And as it happens,” he addresses last of all, “I enjoy talking with you. I am not acquainted with many who know our ways from a respectable time back, and…among those I know, our time is not necessarily best spent in conversation…” He drops his eyes to drink, then lifts them again to find Iphigénie’s. “But then again,” he contradicts himself, taking his time to prolong the suspense of the remark’s change in course, “I have not had the opportunity of knowing whether there are even better ways to spend an afternoon with you.”

Of course he counts himself a courtesan of the best sort. There’s never been one trained in the Mandragian canon who didn’t… Iphigénie is disposed already to smile into her mead as she sips it; and though his courtesies must be supposed to have acquired their quality of smoothness through being uttered before to patrons the salon aims to keep sweet, they sound sincere enough for all that to bolster the quiet warmth of the alcohol settling into her blood.

When he looks up he may catch her letting out a breath deeper than usual for being held the length of his reflections. Yes, that one still works on her, even now. The spark of curiosity, kindled only to be starved, and then released to light her eyes with amused appreciation of the technique as well as the sentiment. “Ah, monsieur. Your friends can’t do two things at once—?” she teases. “Of course, that does take some while to learn — I’m afraid conversation was never something I was known for,” she affects to regret, “in Naamah’s service.”

The Thorn’s gaze does remain on her face to take in the details of her reaction, and the way expression matches to tone of voice as she crafts this reply. “To be fair, I don’t always allow talking,” he replies with a note of humor. “Now, when you say you were not known for conversation, you tempt me to ask what it is you were known for. Do you mind talking of it?” He smiles when he asks rather than going grave, then takes the opportunity to taste the mead again, looking at her over the goblet.

The fairness of his qualification, Iphigénie assents to with a nod and a flicker of a smirk, his good humour finding an echo in her own as they regard one another across the rims of silver goblets slowly warmed by the sun and by their touch. Yes, that too she can well imagine and appreciate. And then, how obligingly he has taken up the lure she laid in offering at his feet—! Her eyes, fixed green and glittering upon his, confess easily what he already knows, that that’s just what it was — there are no secrets just now in the mingling of their gazes — even as she affects mild surprise to follow upon her mild regret. The next step in the game.

“No… no, I don’t mind,” she decides, wryly. She takes another sip of her mead and sets it down, and then breathes out: “Well.” The next pause is hers, to tease him for a moment with her own ruminations. “I was known for being half-Shahrizai,” she begins, “and popular with those distant kinsmen of my mother’s who visited the house at that time — for a certain deftness with the languisement — for the endurance I had then in the more unusual expressions of the art of the rope.” Her right hand curls about her damaged left, where the latter has been patiently supporting her black silk parasol. “More than that— willingness,” she pronounces simply.

“Willingness,” Raphael repeats, turning this word over since she offers it as the prime calling card of her young days. “To be known for such a thing among Valerians must mean that you were daring indeed. As for the rope, endurance there calls for a great deal of physical and mental fortitude.” He apparently considers the languisement self-explanatory, for he does not comment there. “It is my suspicion that you have not cast aside daring or fortitude as you have matured,” he hazards.

Her next taste of mead seems not to intoxicate but to sober Iphigénie — though perhaps this, too, is a mood imparted to her by Raphael’s words, or the changing nature of his study of her as she supplies certain shading. “In my seven years I never refused a patron, nor any act that did not materially endanger me,” she clarifies softly. “But that is why I say I could not live now as I lived then. In private life one’s vantage point and one’s attitudes do alter, and one becomes more particular about the use of one’s gifts. No,” and this decision has the air of being genuine, made in the moment, “you extend me too much credit altogether, monsieur. I thank Naamah for the fortitude she taught me, and which I’ve often had need to call upon — but this,” her right hand pats her left, to remind him of its weakness, “was enough to turn me timid for a long time. There are certain acts to which I never returned and never will, now.”

“I think,” Raphael says in a tone that is a little more weighty, though he retains a certain gentle pleasantness that keeps him from sounding excessively solemn, “that you have every right to be selective, and to pursue what gives you the greatest joy. Even I, still in service - or rather, as you have heard, in service again - have changed in what I do and do not permit. We are each of us changed by the path we walk and what befalls us along the way,” he admits. “Perhaps it has been too easy for me to pretend I am the only one for whom it is so.” A brief smile. “But one piece of wisdom age has perhaps given to me is that no one person need do everything. It is enough for each of us to do what we do well, and to live well in our own way, the way that suits us.” He looks up toward the patches of sky that can be seen through the leaves. “Of course,” he allows, “Another piece is that I often see very little of the matter before me, and sometimes not clearly at all. I hope I haven’t made you sorry for agreeing to talk of it, in the end.” His gaze goes back to hers again.

“At twenty I believed I could do everything,” is Iphigénie’s own wry admission, “and at sixty I’d learnt to be grateful that I could still do something.” She indulges in a deeper draught of mead and then this time when she puts down her goblet, it’s with an air of finality: the dregs remain, but she is — these days — a woman who knows when she’s had enough of a good thing.

Her eyes aren’t shy to meet Raphael’s even after so much frankness between them, but for a moment or two she just sits and mulls him over. “When one’s path narrows,” she suggests at last, “when one’s boundaries and horizons are drawn inward — whether it is by divine will or one’s own — I find, too, that it allows a greater focus upon what remains. I try to think of it not as limiting but as refining the spirit. Youth is a time for breadth, let’s say, and maturity a time for delving deep, to see what may lie within oneself, unsuspected. No, I’m not sorry to talk of it — but I admit I wonder, now, what it is you no longer permit.” She lifts an interrogatory eyebrow. “For me, it was hanging upside down,” she drawls, almost as an aside.

Raphael nods once at her admission. “I imagined that you may have stepped away from what would remind you of your accident,” he says frankly. “For me…” Is he pausing to refine his words, or does he hesitate in deciding how much to reveal? “In fact, my ways in service have changed a great deal. For one thing, I am seen in a very different role, now. There are different things expected of me and wanted of me. As for my own preferences…” Another pause to drink. “I am still mourning. It changes things.” In that confession, as vague as it may be, there is no particularly artful choice of tone or clever wording.

“Yes. We both have memories to step away from, in seeking pleasure— I think so does anyone of your years,” Iphigénie points out with a note of tenderness in her low and honeyed voice, “or mine. We’re agreed that we cannot live as we used to live,” she reiterates, “but to step away may also be to step toward, no? Even I have pleasant afternoons still ahead of me,” she opines, smiling crookedly up at Raphael in lieu of openly soliciting his participation in them. “On which note,” and she sighs and lowers her parasol, “I think the time of my little appointment is fast approaching — though I must say, monsieur, I vastly prefer you to a chirurgeon.”

Raphael tilts his head slightly to one side. “Faint praise,” he chides, but that is meant playfully, following the upward trajectory of tone she has initiated. “I hope the treatment is useful, if it cannot be pleasant.” In parting, he offers a final game: “Let us leave our goblets behind and see if our novice remembers to clear them away in time, or if that will be another matter of discussion between us.” He inclines his head. “Until the next afternoon,” he bids.

Indeed, she didn’t want to leave him upon such a sombre note — it’s much more pleasant to resume their play before parting, and Iphigénie’s eyes glint very green in the sunshine as she hooks her parasol’s handle about the arm of the chair and reclaims her walking stick from where it has been carefully propped all this while. She stands without asking any aid of her companion, but her hands are obviously white-knuckled beneath her gloves as she grips stick and chair for dear life— and her knees contribute two loud pops as they straighten.

“But, monsieur, you misunderstand — I am visiting your chirurgeon for reasons not of illness but of growing wellness,” she drawls, and quirks her eyebrows at Raphael again. “I am making the same advance arrangement I had at Mandrake House a few years ago, in the event that I should wish to avail myself of the services of a Thorn. The Eisandine contract law is a little different but it will hold just as well. A thorough examination by the house’s own chirurgeon, after which he and my consort together will draw up a detailed account of the state of my health and the limits of what they think my body can reasonably endure at the present time. In signing it I will indemnify the house against any harm done to me within those agreed limits — but I will sign it upon my consort’s word,” she explains; “I will not read it myself… I’m leaving my parasol, too. Shall we see if he brings it to me before I go, or if I must collect it another day?”

“Oh, indeed,” Raphael replies, checking his momentum toward departure. That, to judge by the Thorn’s expression, is a horse of a different color. “Then I am gratified to hear of your good health.” A formal expression, perhaps, but narrowed eyes accompanied by a smile suggest that he is not indifferent to this news. “I hope that the chirurgeon will clear you for all your favorite pastimes, that we may serve you to your greatest pleasure, here.” He turns his thumbs out to show her both palms in a gesture of welcome, to the consideration of his canon if not to the Rose Sauvage itself. “Yes,” he agrees to her plan. “Let us see whether he will return it to you on his knees today, or on his belly on a future occasion.” From a Thorn’s mouth, the image sounds rather cheerful. “Either way, I look forward to our next meeting.”

Now, after the vaguest gesture of a bow that somehow involves no actual lowering of his person, he turns to make his way back to the darker wing of the house.

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