(1311-07-16) It's the Bees
Summary: Once the tea begins to flow, Philomène’s inaugural stroll in Iphigénie’s garden turns into a debate on organised religion…
RL Date: 13/07/2019 - 16/07/2019
Related: Not Just Useful, But Ornamental.
iphigenie philomene 

Garden — Maignard Residence

The garden is girded by a high wall of plain grey stone, lined with trellises which climbing roses and honeysuckle are being trained in the strictest Kusheline style to ascend. It is chiefly laid out as a parterre in which beds of colourful flowers are separated by low, angular, meticulous box hedges and raked pathways of dark gravel, about a bronze fountain celebrating a Maignard ancestor.

The spreading canopy of a mature elm tree provides shade over a small lawn and its own more haphazard growth of bluebells, crocus, borage, and nasturtiums, arisen during years of neglect, kept because of their great interest to the plethora of bees whose buzzing sets the air aquiver as they partake of their floral feast. Their home is a neat stack of wooden hives in the far corner beyond the elm, amongst bushes of lavender and fennel, rosemary and sage.

Spaced along the house's rear façade three sets of heavy dark doors lead into chambers well-lit by mullioned windows of thick, distorted glass.

When Philomène comes to walk in House Maignard’s garden in the morning cool, the concierge is waiting to open the courtyard door to her — the workmen are just settling in upon their scaffolding — and the hat she left behind at teatime a few days past, has been placed upon a chair just inside the front door, where she can’t leave again without passing it.

The garden is a few days further toward becoming as neat and angular as the grey stone house with its empty chambers. It is occupied only by bees, tasting flowers in a desultory manner.

It's a welcome change of scenery from the temple gardens with their wide, unsettling view over the sea, or from the necessary avoidance of early comers walking there, meeting for secretive morning trysts or stumbling home from a night out. The idea of being able to push herself through her self-imposed regimen of a mile a day and to remain blissfully alone for that time so she has no need to disguise the discomfort of it all has been keeping her cheerful these past few days, or given that this is still Philomene d'Aiglemort de Chalasse at least slightly less cranky than usual. There's always the Rose Sauvage, of course, but even there it's rare to be truly alone and there's something about her imposing figure and curt manner that seems to attract Red Rose novices to try to serve her… which of course tends to raise her ire further.

No, she's been looking forward to this morning and she's here on the dot of the hour. This being less a formal visit and more for her own benefit, the striking, heavily embroidered and rather stunning outfit (even if the fashion is rather dated) is eschewn in favour of riding jacket, breeches, and her ubiquitous tall riding boots with the practical, gleaming spurs. Perhaps it's because she hasn't dressed beyond the required amount for decency and in order not to be mistaken for a tramp that she doesn't immediately grasp that the hat is hers. It's so rare she bothers with one, after all. No, the first thought in her head is more 'hey, I've got a hat something like that somewhere', and it's only when something in her brain keeps flagging up that hats do not usually belong on chairs that she comes to the realisation that it might be hers.

She takes it up, examining the inside to see if it looks familiar, decides that she must have left it, and crams it incongruously onto her head as she proceeds through to the gardens themselves. A quick eye of the layout and she chooses her starting point and path, beginning a steady, limping walk around the laid out sections, counting under her breath every pace as she begins to measure this unfamiliar route.

The city is by now wide awake and teeming — but between these walls of mossy old stone, shared only by the gardens of other great houses and the roses trained to climb them, such privacy and quietude reign as must suit Philomène’s taste to a nicety. No one emerges from the house to interrupt her. No curtains twitch in the hands of witnesses to her struggle. Her only companions are Iphigénie’s ever-present, softly-buzzing honeybees, requiring of her the occasional courteous detour from one side of the path to the other as, blithely uninterested in sour d’Aiglemort ladies, they proceed from bloom to bloom plundering sweetness.

It’s on the third lap of the garden by which she’s no longer counting, as she’s not only worked out the distance but also calculated from that just how many laps she ought to do to make her mile, minus the distance from her home in the Rue de Port to here and back. This feat of mental mathematics no longer taxing her, she can enjoy the pleasant scents of the flowers, both deliberate and the happily accidental ones the bees are enjoying. One hand even goes out to brush through the fragrant leaves of one bush as she passes, considering to herself whether she’d be overstepping the mark to give these a little trim while she’s here.
Happy, or as happy as she ever is, that she’s unobserved, she actually asks the bees on the next time round the garden. Well, first it’s nothing but a polite good morning, a somewhat self-conscious greeting, but when she’s not immediately ridiculed and given the otherwise silence, she continues. “It wouldn’t be rude of me, would it? To offer? Take the top off that one there, cut it back a bit before the autumn and the first cold snap. It’ll come back in better shape next year.”

One small fellow-gardener in a yellow and black striped coat, rises from betwixt the petals of a flower growing upon the bush in question and utters a reassuring hum.

By the time her allotted hour is up, and she’s measured out the precise number of paces required for her self-imposed mile, the bees have heard all about her plans for the garden. This has snowballed into plans for crop rotation, shipping, potential cross-breeding to produce an earlier harvested grain to beat the competition, and a dozen other agricultural topics bound to bore anyone whose entertainment doesn’t otherwise consist of buzzing about, dancing, and producing honey. Maybe for the bees at least it’s a nice change of pace. Certainly for Philomene it’s a wonderful chance to air her thoughts without being corrected or advised, and she’s even got a smile on her face by the time she’s found a spot to lean against a tree and rest.

From under the elm tree she can see garden and house alike and, moments later, a heavy oaken door swinging open somewhat to the right of the entrance to the suite of empty, scaffolded receiving-rooms. Framed against the darkness within stands a tall, thin figure dressed in a dark red gown and crowned with unmistakable fluffy white hair. With one hand still upon the door, Iphigénie lifts the other in a gesture of greeting to her visitor.

Not immediately willing to move, having found a pleasant, shady spot and frankly needing a moment or two to cool down and compose herself before she finishes her walk with the trek home, it’s with some reluctance that on spying her hostess she begins to push herself upright off the elm’s comfortable trunk and gives a small nod and a lift of her hand in return.

However, in the name of politeness, and given that she has only ‘booked’ the garden this morning for a fixed time and that time is up, she does then begin to straighten her clothing, rebuttoning her jacket into some semblance of respectability, and straightening the hat which has shielded her from the sun’s early rays. Yes, yes, she’s going to leave. Not to worry, Iffy.

The present lady of the house releases her doorhandle and strays nearer across the thick, grassy flower lawn, moving a little stiffly, but without the aid of her walking stick. Her feet are in thin black slippers; her loose pleated gown of burgundy linen seems almost to float about a body too gaunt even absent the strictures of her usual corsetry. “Good morning. I see you found your hat,” she observes, with a smile reserved but not unkindly. “I thought I ought to warn you, vicomtesse, that the servants will be bringing my breakfast outside soon,” she explains. “Will you take a cup of tea with me, or have you a busy morning ahead—?”

“I shouldn’t like to intrude,” Philomene insists, blithely ignoring that she’s just spent an hour wandering around the woman’s private garden, “but if you could stand the company a cup of tea would be exactly the thing.” She gives a small smile in return, a rare, almost self-conscious thing rather than the carefully cultivated mask of polite disinterest. “It’s a fine morning,” she explains herself, “and I’ve worked up a fair thirst, I admit. Your gardens are conducive to a dry throat. Not the fault of the gardens themselves, but I have found myself talking to your bees.”

Iphigénie’s smile deepens and she gives a slow nod of understanding. “Good,” she says softly. “I’m glad you found what you needed here.” She glances away over the parterre and then, as her eyes come back to Philomène’s face, she observes, “It’s tranquil, isn’t it—? I was surprised when I arrived, to find a sanctuary like this in the midst of so great a city…”

The double doors open and a pair of lackeys appear, at either end of the usual sofa. Which at least has the effect of providing a place for the ladies to take their respective scant weights off their respective unreliable limbs: Iphigénie directs the sofa’s placement, unnecessarily, and then without hesitation lowers herself onto it. Her knees voice their gratitude by popping.

Philomene doesn’t immediately sit. Not when it’s been ingrained into her for so long by her own pride that she cannot possibly show weakness in front of any other human being.

Instead, in an attempt not to look entirely weird, she folds her hands behind her back and begins slowly pacing. “It’s quiet,” she agrees, brow furrowing as she considers her words, “without that deathly silence you get outside the temples. I think the bees certainly help inspire conversation, even if their part of it is merely…. Zzzzz.” She flicks a quick grin at that. Yes, definitely in a good mood. Either it’s the bees or she got laid last night.

… It’s the bees.

The lackeys disappear back into the house; from the sofa where she sits with her hands clasped in her lap Iphigénie observes that: “A ‘zzzzz’ is whatever one needs it to be, no?” Her head doesn’t turn, but her alert and intelligent green-eyed gaze tracks Philomène back and forth over the lawn. “I enjoy temple gardens, in the main,” she mentions, “but sometimes one does desire to offer one’s confidences to a buzzing bee, rather than a speaking priest.”

It’s the bees.

“I’ve little time for priests,” Philomene confides, pausing as she turns, weight solidly over her right leg. “I’ve no problem with part of what they preach, and with the idea of faith as a whole, and the principles espoused by it, but… well, so many of them are prone to embellish the One God’s word with their own unfathomable preconceptions and ideas, and pass it off as religion.” She quirks her lips to one side, shaking her head. “That certainly makes me sound a lot more rebellious and anti-establishment than I intend. I just find them… in general, you understand, not as a cut and dry case… pompous, arrogant and self-absorbed. And frankly if I need somebody to be pompous, arrogant and self-absorbed I can just look in a mirror.”

Iphigénie’s maid Nadège appears then, through the door she herself left open, carrying a voluminous triangular shawl of light but cosy black wool. She comes to the back of the sofa and wraps it round Iphigénie’s shoulders without so much as asking if she wants it: Iphigénie accepts this solicitude wordlessly, but with a wry smile for Philomène as she adjusts the drape of the garment about herself. It’s hardly a chill morning — but it’s early yet.

“… I think,” she temporises, after a moment’s thought as well-covered as her narrow torso by that timely shawl, “that unlike those of our fortunate birth, there are many who haven’t the leisure to delve at length into the scriptures, or to pass hours in considering the larger questions of divinity, justice, and truth. But they are no less deserving of guidance in how to live morally and well — in fact it could be argued,” she says seriously, “that their need is all the more urgent for the fact they depend upon others for its fulfillment. One must surely tend to the neediest, before oneself. Sometimes members of the clergy seek to simplify certain matters, to distill them down into principles which are easily understood, to give straightforward precepts rather than long and abstruse lessons. An illiterate labourer who works twelve hours a day in the fields, needs God’s love and Anael’s blessing more than he needs a reading assignment,” she points out, with a somewhat regretful smile. “But I agree that sometimes this can be taken too far, despite the best of intentions. And each order seems to have its own little hobbyhorses its priests take out riding at intervals, which can make them appear to be in disagreement with one another no matter how much they concur about the fundamentals.”

While she speaks the lackeys return carrying her table, a solid rosewood article with intricately carven legs and a folded tablecloth sitting on top of it. Hard on their heels Nadège returns carrying a heavy breakfast tray: one of the lackeys relieves her of it, whilst the other unfurls the white linen cloth and adjusts it to a perfect evenness. Nadège unburdens the lackey piece by piece, laying out china and silver and pastries and a hard-boiled egg — and an extra cup and saucer, already bespoken, just in case Philomène did decide to linger.

“I think you make my point more eloquently than I ever could,” Philomene nods as she moves carefully out of the way of this unloading of tea things, eggs, pastries and shawls, conscious that this breakfast routine appears to be well practiced and it is she who is the one upsetting a well oiled system by being there. “Surely the point of priests shouldn’t be to press their own agenda, but to translate the word of God into terms that even the least educated among us can easily understand? To dictate their own opinion and to dress it up as though it is the religion is an abuse of power that seems sadly endemic in our clergy.”

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Religion: Amazing Success. (5 4 6 4 7 7 4 8 8 3 3 5 8 7)

Iphigénie unfolds her napkin across her red linen lap and takes up the teapot in her usual careful, two-handed grip. “As there are different sides to a prism,” she suggests, pouring out one cup of tea and then another, “so there are different perspectives upon the same truths… Each order views the scriptures through the facet of its own tutelary angel,” she points out as she presents Philomène with her preferred plain black tea and reaches for the honey to sweeten her own; “I think it would be hard to say that one is categorically right and another is categorically wrong, as long as they all in their own ways continue to teach messages of love and of conscience that are consistent with the scriptures when they are taken as a whole.” Stirring honey into her tea, she purses her painted lips very slightly and allows, “Of course, there are several unfortunate mistranslations in the present authorised edition of the Eluine Cycle…”

And, because she’s on a hobbyhorse of her own now, she keeps stirring longer than is needful whilst quoting the same passage in the authorised D’Angeline version — then the Old D’Angeline which preceded it — then the Habiru text it came from — which she parses for Philomène’s benefit, thus proving that that one misconstrued word changes the emphasis entirely.

The empty breakfast-tray is carried away; chairs begin to appear.

It’s an oddly fascinating discussion and, as she’s presented with both tea and debate, Philomene takes a moment to ease herself down into the other end of the sofa from where she can listen, add a few questions and comments of her own, and settle back to enjoy the morning’s company. For all her insistence on an impartial view, her own queries are all very much skewed in the Camaeline tradition, taking the words of the scriptures as guidance to protect the poor sheep of the interior provinces from the evil of foreigners but, perhaps due to the good influence of the bees on her mood, she’s quite prepared to accede to Iphigénie’s encyclopaedic knowledge on certain, less ingrained parts of the dogma.

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Religion: Good Success. (5 3 2 5 7 1 5 2 1 3 2 7 5 1)
<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Persuasion: Good Success. (5 2 1 4 1 8 6 5 4 4 6 8)

Soon everything is set out as usual under the elm tree — the servants have withdrawn — and Iphigénie is scything off the top of her hard-boiled egg with a silver spoon.

In between speaking in a gentle and reasoned way, her views backed up at every turn by scriptural quotations that roll easily off her tongue in three languages, she eats her egg and then a croissant anointed with bitter marmalade, and then half a grapefruit. The other half comes in a separate dish, which Nadège sets down before Philomène without a word from her or from Iphigénie: just in case she might like it, since she seems to be staying a while.

The Camaeline perspective is one she recognises and expects and plays to in subtle ways: by weaving through her discourse certain assumptions about d’Angeline traditions and their worthiness to be protected, but leaving such elemental principles unvoiced. They may simply be taken as understood, between two right-thinking women who love their country. Eventually, musing upon the contributions of the different angelic orders to the society which sustains them, whilst poking idly at grapefruit remnants with a different spoon, Iphigénie concludes: “… I have never known a priest of Shemhazai who didn't delight in tutoring clever children, no matter how humble their antecedents. Priests of Kushiel often possess a great deal of legal knowledge — in the remoter parts of Kusheth they sometimes act as magistrates as well as punishers, upholding the law of the land without fear or favour, as an unmasked and naturally partial local judge might not before his neighbours. And then, I can only commend the unflinching bravery of Camael's priesthood in their endless battle along the eastern border. Some clergy serve better and more sincerely than others — such is the flawed nature of the human race,” she sighs, laying down her spoon and smiling wistfully at Philomène. “But in each case it is still a life of service.”

“Perhaps I’m unkind in my very generalised view of priests,” Philomene allows grudgingly, enjoying her tea but leaving the grapefruit to its own devices. “One or two have rather ruined the entire vocation for me, and it is far easier to hide away as a self-righteous priest than it is as a self-righteous pig farmer, for example. Pigs will take any old food and eat it. People ought to be more discerning about their spiritual guidance, but… well… there is not necessarily the base level of education to allow it, and there are easy pickings there for the less scrupulous types. You’re right, of course. It is the flawed nature of the human being in itself which is the underlying problem. It’s just easier for a priest to try to disguise their flaws as religion.”

The grapefruit may languish uncut and untasted before Philomène; but Iphigénie keeps her teacup topped up, at least, drinking sparingly from her own in order to continue serving her guest generously even absent Nadège and relief supplies of hot water.

“I am loath to slight your farmers, I hope you understand that,” the Kusheline lady ventures to the l’Agnacite, “but I think perhaps a life in religious orders offers a broader scope for mis-steps, not to mention a greater difficulty in quantifying failure or success, than a life on a pig farm. Pigs fatten or they don’t — their meat is delicious or it isn’t. There is a direct link between the cause and the effect, perceptible over the course of a single year. One has no such simple and obvious means of judging the health of a community of souls. One may enjoy a considerable certitude in choosing good meat to buy and to eat, and good meat is good meat for anyone. But good advice is often a long time in the proving, and what is good advice for one might be disastrous for another. I think it is difficult for a layperson to judge a priest — one necessarily brings one’s own flawed and all too human prejudices to the task… Though it is some comfort, perhaps, to know that a more perfect divine judgment will someday follow one’s own.” She smiles slightly, coolly, in contemplating absolute and inexorable justice. “More tea?”

“There’s a lot to be said for the relatively simple and quantifiable task of raising pigs,” Philomene allows, tone half way amused and half way wistful. “What you’re being too polite to say, of course, is that it’s my own damn fault for expecting perfection in everyone and everything and being disgruntled until I can find a way to attain it. When sometimes it simply is not attainable, hm?” She waves off the offer of more tea, shaking her head. “Thank you, but no. I honestly hadn’t intended to stay and interrupt your breakfast beyond a quick cup of tea to stop me spitting feathers. But then I’ve never been able to resist intelligent debate, for which I must thank you profoundly. You’ll forgive me for intruding on you far longer than anticipated?”

“Of course,” agrees Iphigénie steadily, “if you will forgive me for eating before you as I did. My hunger somewhat exceeded my courtesy, this morning,” though it could hardly be said that she ate a hearty meal, let alone that her table manners faltered even in the warmth (not the heat, never that, but a genial warmth!) of debate. “I was pleased for the company — and I do hope you exaggerate your case, my lady. I should not like to think of you doomed to a purgatorial disgruntlement until the very moment when you pass into the true Terre d’Ange.” She draws her napkin from her lap and touches it to her lips, and gives Philomène a wry smile as she sets it down folded next to her plate. “We are all such imperfect creatures.”

“Perhaps so,” Philomene agrees after a moment, setting her teacup down in its saucer and placing both on the table in front of the pair. “But perhaps it’s not an altogether bad thing to constantly expect and strive for more?” She takes a deep breath, sets her jaw in the way that only she can - an indication that she’s either about to dig her heels in about some argument or other or, more often, that she’s about to cause herself considerable discomfort and doesn’t intend for one moment to allow it to show on her face - and eases to her feet.

Once upright, she takes a moment, face impassive, to mentally check that she’s capable of walking further - it has been a while since she finished her trek around the garden and the muscles do tend to seize - before, content that she’s not going to make a complete fool of herself, she allows her expression to relax. “Perhaps next week I might bring you a little Gueret bacon to add variety to your breakfast?”

“Not altogether a bad thing,” Iphigénie echoes — but according to her frequent habit she moderates Philomène’s adamant ideas into a gentler, more yielding form. “Provided that sometimes one may rest and be content.” Then, looking up from her tea table into her visitor’s eyes: “That would be a kindness. Thank you. Until next Tuesday, vicomtesse.”

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