(1311-07-24) Joint Venture
Summary: Iphigénie accepts Philomène’s invitation to supper, though in the event it’s more a joint venture in getting stoned and confiding too much. (Warning: Mature themes.)
RL Date: 24/07/2019 - 28/07/2019
Related: Not Just Useful, But Ornamental, It’s the Bees, One Firm Invitation.
iphigenie philomene 

Maison aux Herbes — Rue du Port

The greatest disadvantage to buying (or at least leasing) a house in the busy part of the Rue de Port, and paying not a whole lot for it under the circumstances, is that the house known colloquially as the Maison aux Herbes has only the two pots of fragrant rosemary and thyme outside the front door by way of greenery. Every inch of the plot of land is taken up with the house itself, leaving no space for a garden.

Of course, under normal circumstances this would hardly be an issue - if one wants to spend time in a garden there are a number of publicly accessible ones and a good few mostly private ones it’s possible to spend time in with the right contacts, the right incentives and the right company - but this particular evening is so incredibly hot and close that anyone in their right mind is sitting outside in the shade of a favoured tree with a genever and quinine in hand.

Philomène is either not in her right mind, or she has for some reason invited a guest over this evening and the weather has conspired against her, and so rather than enjoying a refreshing alcoholic beverage under spreading foliage, she’s trapped indoors, directing a hurriedly hired temporary maid to her kitchens. Naturally a neat and tidy person, she is of course appalled by the squalor of her home (there’s probably a single picture frame slightly wonky which she’s blown completely out of proportion) and has spent a good part of the hotter part of the day with cleaning products so that her always austere house now resembles something more like a monastery or a hospital, the faint whiff of carbolic soap ever prevalent.

By the time her guest arrives, she has at least had the good sense to change into something resembling evening wear - in today’s case it’s a very rarely seen loose and flowing dress just to try to stave off the worst of the heat, embroidered with impossibly neat and tiny stalks of wheat. As if the dress wasn’t shock enough for this perennially breeches-and-riding-jacket clad woman, she’s even given up her iconic tall riding boots and instead donned a pair of rough hide slippers. Well, you can’t have everything and there’s a limit to just how far she’ll go with impractical footwear.

A jug of something chilled (the condensation on the dull metal gives it away), a pair of tall glasses and a pair of shorter, stubbier ones are set on the table, along with a bowl of various seasonal fruits and, in a well-worn wooden box with the inlaid lid left open, a selection of what might be cigars but it seems more likely they’re something medicinal.

Iphigénie's carriage sets her down in the rue du Port at the hour agreed, in a linen gown which pays deference to the Eisandine summer weather by flowing loosely over the rather more rigid curves of her corseted figure beneath it. Plain but for its deft pleats, unembroidered and unembellished, it's the same dark and verdant green as a pine forest seen by moonlight. Her green eyes are turned greener by the contrast; they glitter with interest as she looks about herself and takes her bearings and scents the rosemary in the air. Her hair is more dressed than usual, arranged in elegant and sculptural white waves; being so high up keeps it from tangling in the long, bright, chiming silver earrings that frame her face and reflect light gently upon her fine powdered skin. She looks well enough but she makes, in approaching the front door of the Maison aux Herbes, some slight but genuine use of her walking stick.

The lackey in Maignard livery who aids her in descending, steps forward ahead of her and raps smartly upon the door before falling back at her side. He's expecting to pass that bottle he's carrying to the servant who answers; also the black woolly shawl draped across his arm in case of milady feeling a chill later in the evening. But it's going to be Philomène, isn't it? Of course it is. She's only got the one maid on deck, and the girl's sure to be behindhand. Temporary staff always are, because they haven't got to look you in the eye tomorrow.

To spare her servant his oncoming embarrassment, Iphigénie is quick to greet her hostess — and by an unambiguous title. “Vicomtesse, good evening…” She bows her head gracefully. “I worried I had dressed too informally,” she confides as she looks up to meet Philomène’s eyes again, her own gaze rueful and kind. “But I see the sunshine gave us both the same idea.”

“It’s really far too warm to insist on formality, my lady,” Philomène breezes, opening the door a little wider and standing back to allow the woman in with plenty of space for stick and all. “If I didn’t think it would shock your man, I’d have suggested nightgowns were far more suitable than anything else for this weather.”

Once she’s happy that Iphigénie isn’t going to immediately trip into the house and ruin the carpet (which would hardly be the first time anyone’s done that in the last six months), the servant is blatantly ignored and she moves to turn one of the seats by the currently cool hearth so that the older woman doesn’t have quite as far to move before she can sit, and mutely implying at the same time that sitting is expected.

“We’ve fruit juice if you’d like something cold, or I can offer schnapps, mead, wine or brandy?” she offers, rattling off the menu like an overworked tavern wench. Because of course she knows exactly what she has to drink in the house, even if the mysteries of food in the kitchen are completely alien to her.

Iphigénie steps inside — yes, without tripping; she too is wearing sensible shoes, of well-worn but well-polished black leather — and pauses a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the house’s comparative dimness and her nose to its fresh and powerful odour of soap. Clean and sparse, restful to the eyes. Rather what she prefers in a dwelling, herself.

In the absence of a corresponding Chalasse servant to accept her offering of Maignard wine, she turns and catches her lackey’s eye with a quick wave of her white-gloved hand— that table, there, will do for it, she suggests with another gesture, and his detour toward it allows her to reach the chair indicated by Philomène just as he catches up with her again. “On the back of the chair, please,” she directs, nodding to her shawl. And as he drapes it there, like a set of voluminous black woolly wings waiting to shelter her against a cold presently unimaginable, she turns in a waft of green linen and her own honey and blood-orange fragrance and slowly sits down. She exhales quiet relief. “That will be all. Whenever Monsieur Lefebvre dismisses the carriage will be soon enough for you to collect me,” she instructs her servant.

Thus, with a murmured, “Milady,” and a dubious backward glance, he withdraws.

Iphigénie looks up to Philomène and smiles. “Yes, let’s not appal anyone— one of the masons working in my house came into my chamber by mistake a few weeks ago when I was dressing,” she confides, “and I’m afraid the poor young man was very upset,” she says, shaking her head sympathetically. “Something cold please, if you will. It isn’t the season for the wine I’ve brought you — I hope it is something you might enjoy at a cooler time of the year.” By which she means that she doesn’t expect to be served it herself, tonight. It’s a present.

“I can’t imagine that ‘upset’ was the word,” Philomène insists, remaining standing at least for now so she can pour the drinks easily. The entire setup really cries out for a servant, but the feeble, inadequate, unlovely, non-pig-toting Brigitte substitute remains stubbornly in the kitchen, doing who knows what. One has to wonder why she’s even been employed for the evening.

As the tall glass of juice is slid over, so the Chalasse catches Iphigénie’s eye and grants a slight smile. “I would suspect that you rather made the fellow’s day. I’m having a touch of schnapps in mine, would you like some?” she adds casually as she pours herself a glass, leaving a significant amount of space in the top for liquor. “I do very much look forward to trying your wine later, though. Thank you. Very thoughtful of you.”

Philomène’s implied compliments bring a low chuckle to Iphigénie’s painted lips; and she shakes her head again as she accepts her glass of juice and takes a sweet, refreshing draught of it. “Not for me, thank you,” she answers, declining the schnapps; “this is delicious as it is, my lady. I hope you don’t find the wine too quotidian a gift, but I knew you wouldn’t care for my honey… No,” she goes on, and puts down her glass and begins to unbutton her white silk gloves, “his face really was a picture, until he fled. I think perhaps he hadn’t seen so much ink before on anyone who wasn’t a sailor,” she conjectures, very drily, laying out her left glove upon the table next to her glass. Her silver chain bracelet, freed, glints at her wrist.

The fact that the bottle of schnapps that Philomène claims is sitting, half finished, beside the hearth and what can only possibly be her customary chair by the way she then settles into it, implies a regularity of use far more than the dull metal jug of juice or even the glasses, which, although brought out have not been dusted entirely clean or polished. The maid is no Brigitte.

The tall glass of juice is topped up almost to the lip, and Philomène waits patiently as she replaces the bottle’s lid and then the bottle itself to its snug home beside the firedogs for the liquid to swirl and combine. “On the contrary,” she insists. “Wine will certainly always find a welcome home here.” There’s a flicker of an interested glance when the ink is mentioned, but it’s quickly disguised by a purse of her lips and a lifting of her glass in mute toast.

“I can only apologise that I don’t have beautiful gardens in which to welcome you,” she notes after a decent sized sip from her somewhat alcoholic drink. “My home here is rather more functional than beautiful. It is a place from which I can work and sleep, rather than a home intended for entertaining.” She shrugs, as though this is only to be expected and Iphigénie can like it or lump it. “Should you visit Gueret, however, I’d be pleased to show you gardens that are both functional and aesthetic.” If by gardens she means agricultural plots, anyway.

Perhaps she’s made someone else’s day now, with her anecdote…? Well, anyway, it was intended to break the ice between them in these new surroundings.

Iphigénie places her right glove atop her left and reclaims her virginal fruit juice, to mirror her hostess’s toast. “It is a peculiarity of our caste that though we live in beautiful surroundings, we have very little that is our own— only what we hold in trust for our children,” she observes. “But this is yours, isn’t it?” And she glances about Philomène’s sitting-room and, for a wonder, smiles. It appears she can see some charm. “I think for that reason alone it must be pleasing to you. I must thank you again for your kindness in inviting me into a private place.”

“Mine and the bank’s,” Philomène corrects with a rueful quirk of her lips, then shrugs again. “There seemed little point in trying to buy the place outright when I had little idea, and still have little idea, how long I’ll be staying in Marsilikos. It’s a very pleasant and welcome sanctuary, however, from the extravagance of the majority of this city. Eisandine tastes run rather richer than my own.”

She takes another sip from her drink then settles back comfortably in her seat, resting one hand up on the back of the chair the better to encourage some sort of air flow through her light clothing. “Three sons, you said…?” comes the casual query, as though she really is just going through the motions of enquiring after suitable matches. Maybe she is. Maybe she’s given up. It wouldn’t be inconceivable.

“And there seemed little need for me to take rooms of my own,” agrees Iphigénie with implicit understanding — they’ve both been thrifty in their Eisandine sojourns, after their own styles, “when my niece’s house was standing empty and so much in need of care.”

Then it comes, as it was always bound to when two or more highborn matriarchs make one another’s acquaintance: the game of matching, swapping, arranging, cross-breeding… “Yes, and seven grandchildren so far from the two who are married. The other I think will not wed — he is content in Naamah’s service, and there is no need.” A note of pride in Iphigénie’s voice suggests that this son, not the fertile fathers of the next generation of Maignards, is her favourite. “… And you have daughters, I think?” No, she knows. Hence, lacking at present in cards to play with — well, having one or two in reserve amongst her tribe of nephews and cousins in Kusheth, one or two that would all too thoroughly trump l’Agnace’s poorest vicomté — she contrives to lay out her own position without quite seeming to understand the import of the question, and thus without quite seeming to turn down her hostess’s approach.

“Three,” Philomène supplies, fully aware that Iphigénie must no doubt be aware of this fact already. These are the recognised motions of the game, the rules by which it is played, the minimum level of interaction expected on the subject. “But as yet only two grandchildren.” She taps her fingers on the side of her glass, smirking a little. “I’m not yet certain how I feel about those. I don’t think I’m quite ready to be that old yet.”

She casually leans forward to nudge the open box of what might be cigars but probably are not towards her guest, while finally the inadequate casual maid appears from the kitchen with a few dismal looking pastries. Philomène flicks her hand vaguely towards the table, indicating that she doesn’t bloody know either, just put the damn things down or something.

Skating lightly over the subject of age and its infirmities, which for her have been cruel, Iphigénie murmurs: “Yes, it’s a shock when one is first confronted by the truth of it — but I feel at least that I left a number of years behind me when I traveled south…” She shrugs, and then her gaze follows Philomène’s hand to the box. She lifts an inquisitive eyebrow at her. “Is that—?”

But before she finishes framing her question the maid comes in to deliver the pastries. Pas devant. She inquires instead: “They are your eldest daughter’s children, I gather?”

Philomène doesn’t immediately respond, cutting off the natural retort that no, they are not her eldest daughter’s children, they are finely rolled joints, but after a moment gives a small nod. “My Eleanor, yes. Her baronnie will of course go to the younger, as the elder will, in turn, have the vicomté.” There. The plain facts of the score. The titles on offer. “But not yet,” she adds, claiming a cigar for herself even if Iphigénie doesn’t intend to take one. “She can finish churning out children first before I’ll hand over the land.” Clearly it’s her land. Nothing to do with the husband whose title she carries.

The maid, clearly not being paid enough to show any level of caring, simply dumps the platter of pastries on the table, one or two skidding almost from the plate as it’s deposited. That task done, off she stalks again, probably to raid Philomène’s cellar.

That offer of finding Iphigénie a gardener is looking less and less appealing by the moment.

But, possessed of good manners if not a qualified outdoor staff, the Kusheline lady affects to pay no more attention to the surly domestic than Philomène does herself. Her eyes do briefly, out of interest, follow the most mobile of the pastries — but then they continue to her glass, and she picks it up to drink even if she isn’t particularly thirsty. It’s fresh and cool, anyway.

Now that they’re alone again, she eyes the cigar between Philomène’s obviously practiced fingers — this too as much a ritual as her recourse to that handily-stored bottle of schnapps — and murmurs, “The Rose Sauvage did make me a gift of however many leaves I might require, until I receive the cutting. I’m in your debt for introducing me to your hemp, my lady.”

“I shall see what can be done to arrange a cutting sooner rather than later,” Philomène promises now, picking at the loose leaves at the end of her cigar to even them out. “If I’m not called upon to return in the next couple of weeks, I shall ask my daughter to arrange it. As I believe at present I am certainly in your debt for allowing me access to your gardens, and,” she adds, finding a flint from somewhere beside her chair (yes, this also stashed for easy access) and striking it. This naturally causes her to pause while she puffs and puffs, until she’s confident the joint is lit and will remain so. “And,” she continues, exhaling upwards, “I do not like to be indebted. Light?”

Iphigénie lifts a hand in a prevaricating gesture. There are only so many times she can in conscience refuse her hostess’s generosity, but: “My late experience suggests I might not be a particularly courteous dinner guest, if I…” Again her eyebrow rises. “My consort,” she admits, and her lips twist into a mischievous smile, “likes to entertain me at the breakfast-table with remarks I made the night before whilst smoking hemp, which only he and not I can recall.”

Philomène laughs, waving the lit end around vaguely. “My dear Lady Maignard, when you consider that my last guests here separately vomited, shat all over the carpet and drank my cellar dry, I’m certain you couldn’t possibly rate for discourtesy.” Ah yes. The donkey. It will never be forgotten. “But by all means, if you’d rather refrain, feel free. Personally I’m going to have a smoke, and a drink, and enjoy the evening. And,” she promises solemnly, “I shan’t tell your consort any damning words you might utter.”

More ascetic, in her own fashion, even than the woman who chose this spare little house and wears rawhide slippers in it, Iphigénie still hesitates— the recital of what Philomène has had to bear with since taking up residence certainly provides her with an excuse to pause for thought. But her reluctance to squander medicaments is soon outmatched by her desire to meet her hostess in something, at least, and it isn’t the hemp that would give her a bad head tomorrow… “It seems wasteful,” she admits, “when my pain is not severe tonight— but, my lady, if you’re sure you can spare it…?” And she selects a cigar from the box — the one that looks, from that angle, possibly smaller than the rest — and allows Philomène to help her to a light.

Never a smoker till these last weeks, and accustomed to the small, long-stemmed pipe she has at home, Iphigénie coughs a couple of times at her first meeting with this new style of hemp: but she takes a deep breath and presses a hand to her corseted bosom and recovers herself, and her second cautious inhalation is more successful than her first. “What a pity for him,” she adds by the bye. Then, narrowing her eyes at Philomène: “He’s curious already about you.”

Philomène settles back once more, glass in one hand and spliff in the other, although she tucks the smoke between her lips for long enough to allow her to adjust her unfamiliar skirts and coax a little of the rare draught about her ankles to cool. With another long puff to keep it alight, the end glowing a cosy red - the only real touch of colour about her - she gives her guest an easy, amused smile. "I'm nothing to be curious about," she mentions matter-of-factly. "Anyone in town can tell you I'm a cranky old woman with a dodgy leg, who's here to trade with wheat, pigs, and a pair of l’Agnacite daughters. You, on the other hand, are a far greater mystery." She raises both brows, making that simple statement into more of a challenge. But of course she does. This is Philomène d'Aiglemort de Chalasse.

Whereas Philomène’s eyebrows are allowed to grow wild, Iphigénie’s are plucked and drawn in elegant narrow arches: still, the expression reflected now from one woman to the other is precise, unmistakable. “I?” murmurs the Kusheline lady, in a more modest challenge of her own, as she tips ash into the saucer laid out to receive it and rests her hemp cigar against the lip of it. “I am as I’ve told you before an old woman in failing health, past being useful to her people at home,” she shakes out her napkin crisply and drapes it across her lap, “put out to pasture in the southern warmth. If you can make a mystery of that, my lady—” and she begins to chuckle.

It’s a slow mellow whisper of a sound, as honeyed as anything that might come from her hives. It gathers strength then from the hemp smoke, and from some thought that crosses her mind whilst she pauses to laugh and her hand pauses likewise above the plate of pastries. She flicks an amused glance up at Philomène, then lowers her eyes again to the plate and catches her lower lip between her teeth in an effort to discipline her mirth. There: that’s the smallest pastry. She carries it away to her plate and sighs as she deposits it, “I can only admire your gift for phantasy. Cranky, really—?” And she seems now to be appealing to Philomène’s sense of justice. “I shouldn’t know you from such a précis, my lady — you’ve been unfailingly pleasant to me,” she argues, regarding her hostess out of wide, bright, amiable green eyes.

“You,” Philomène points out, flicking ash into the stubbier of the two glasses close to her rather than lean over to share the saucer, “have yet to be a fucking idiot in front of me. Should I rule it out entirely, though? I find everyone has their moment of idiocy. I know I do.”

She takes a drink from her mostly-schnapps, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the combination of bitter alcohol, sweet juice, and the fragrant smoke from the leaves. “As for the gift of phantasy, I suspect that’s overexaggerating a mischievous mind combined with a natural curiosity. And,” she adds with a wry smile, “the effects of living alone in the city. Without my daughters here to pull me down to earth, I’ve allowed my mind to drift to all sorts of conclusions. I imagine your consort provides you the same sort of grounding, does he?”

Should she rule it out entirely—? Iphigénie bestows a speaking look upon the hemp cigar in the saucer next to her gloves, and then meets Philomène’s eyes and shakes her head a little. “No, no,” she drawls softly, without quite interrupting the train of her hostess’s talk. She’s taking apart her chosen pastry with fingertips rather than fork, the crispiness of its outsides and the softness of its insides presenting a marvelous contrast to her touch just at the moment.

“… Yes,” she agrees, when appealed to for comment; and her red-painted smile broadens with easy affection for the fellow in question. “He reminds me there is no shame in being a creature of the earth, of flesh and bone and desire — he tells me when I’m being an idiot, too,” she returns Philomène’s term to her, in her own more ladylike vocabulary, “and guides me back to that median between our natures where we live well together. My lady, I’m sorry you haven’t the same at present,” and her voice grows fleetingly grave before the hemp reasserts itself: “I hope you won’t stray too far,” she teases, “before you see your girls again.”

Philomène doesn’t even glance at the pastries. Well, it never seemed likely, did it? They’re clearly a concession to the sweeter tooth of her guest, or the sweet tooth that has been guessed at, at least, given the Maignard’s bees and her taste for honey in her tea. Instead, she swirls the liquid in her glass, thumb absently running around the rim and even tapping once or twice. “Given that I’m expecting to see them in the next two months, I can’t imagine I’ll be completely lost,” she notes, lips pursing a little before she breaks out a sunny smile. Philomène and sunny smiles do not mix. She probably shouldn’t attempt it in future.

No, far better that she leans back in her seat, takes a long draw from the joint in her hand, and blows the smoke upwards in delicately formed, well practiced rings. Her legs stretch out towards the hearth, in the absence of a lit fire actually the coolest part of the room with a slight breeze from the chimney. “Besides, I do at least have Raphael to tell me when I’m being completely obtuse, and I’ve always a Tuesday morning walk and breakfast to look forward to.”

Now, that piques Iphigénie’s interest perhaps even more than the fragments of pastry she has finally got round to ferrying, sticky-fingered, from plate to mouth— see, Philomène, this is how one actually disposes of an offered sweet. She smiles as she chews and then straight upon swallowing she purrs: “Oh, does he—? I wonder if I can imagine that, lacking your gifts… When we spoke of the hemp he did mention to me that you were acquainted,” she adds; “Monsieur Raphael, that is.” Reminded of that plant’s many beneficial properties, she wipes her fingertips vaguely upon her napkin and has recourse again to her neglected cigar.

“Hm,” Philomène exhales, vaguely jabbing her cigar towards the other woman. It’s not intended to be threatening, but then there’s very little this d’Aiglemort does that isn’t really threatening on some sort of subliminal level. “Don’t let him fool you. He’s a damn sight more cunning than the charm would have you believe.” She pauses, allowing herself a half smile. “He’s a good man to know, though. There aren’t very many people here who’ll stand up and tell me when I need to wind my neck in, and it’s a really very refreshing change to be able to hold a conversation with a courtesan without them trying to turn it into a contract.”

Of course from Iphigénie’s seasoned point of view the odd threatening conversational flourish is merely a normal ploy in the game of flirtation. She smiles faintly, not at all put off by her hostess’s sudden vehemence, and breathes out smoke as she listens. She pronounces: “I should hope he is cunning — consider some of the people he must outwit, after all.” She quirks her eyebrows at Philomène. “Have you been pursued much by courtesans?” she asks, with hardly a pause. “I imagine so, with a respectable title and that face— I was saying to my consort just yesterday that if I met a man with that face,” she gestures more discreetly with her own cigar, toward that magnificent jawline in particular, “I might forget all about him. But of course if you spend so much time at the Rose Sauvage,” she concludes, “the adepts there will conclude you’ve an interest in roses as well as in hemp. It’s a natural thought.”

“There’s a very good reason I visit so early in the morning,” Philomène points out, nose wrinkling for a moment as she’s complimented. “I like to walk, and I like to tend the plants, and enjoy the good weather when it’s fine and brave the poor weather when it’s not. What I don’t enjoy are young men and women, no older than my own damn daughters, throwing themselves at me, kneeling, bowing, all that debasement for no good bloody reason. I’m not interested, can they please just bugger off and show a bit of bloody self-respect. And,” she adds, the hemp adding to her usual willingness to go off on one, “they can show me some bloody respect, too! Just because they get off on being some sort of subservient doesn’t mean I’m interested in playing along for them.”

Throughout this tirade Iphigénie’s green gaze remains fixed upon Philomène’s face, narrowing once or twice but only to widen again in fresh astonishment— her pastry lies forgotten, the ash grows too long upon the tip of her cigar and falls unnoticed, even her napkin begins to slip from her lap as her ramrod-straight corseted figure edges forward in her chair as if drawn inexorably toward the source of these injustices, these presumptions.

Several seconds pass in a silence unbroken save by the low rumble of a wagon passing in the street. Then Iphigénie bites off a peal of laughter. “You’re unaccountable,” she exclaims, looking the younger woman over with more than a dash of the Kusheline hauteur she takes care usually to moderate. The mild-mannered dinner guest is transformed into the steely far-northern dowager, speaking quietly but with her sheer cliffs and her cold green waves underpinning and uplifting each word. “I can’t credit that that is how you truly feel about such games— why then frequent the house where they are played? Why go there once, let alone make yourself an habituée? Walking,” she protests, in a tone which implies it’s no longer passing muster as an excuse, “as if there is nowhere else one might walk in a great city surrounded by a lovely and temperate countryside. And why befriend me, why invite me into your house? If not for some pleasure in speaking to me so? Why, vicomtesse?” the hemp demands.

As Iphigénie leans forward, so too does Philomène, unconsciously mirroring the other woman’s posture and returning that green gaze with a lively flash of blue, her expression and her body language all switching into something more combative and more argumentative. Philomène goes from lazy to alive.

“Why do I go there? I was invited for a start, to walk in the gardens, not to have those people throw themselves at me. Why there? My dear vicomtesse,” those three words pronounced distinctly, as though each word stands alone as an individual sentence, “that is the only garden in this entire city where I can walk without engendering pity. I’d have thought you of all people might recognise the appeal of that.”

She reaches over, eyes never leaving Iphigénie’s, and claims a pastry. Not because she’s particularly hungry, although the hemp is admittedly having some small effect on her appetite, but to deprive her guest of one. “We’ve already spoken on the matter. I have no interest in love on anyone’s terms but my own. I’m not there for the company of courtesans, I’m there because it’s quiet. I wouldn’t invite you here for supper, and then spend the entire evening sitting in your lap. Why the bloody hell should they invite me to walk then expect me to go to bed with them?”

“Indeed not,” comes Iphigénie’s unhesitating riposte; “it would appear rather that you invited me here for supper to insult the service it was my pride to offer in Naamah’s name and my sorrow to relinquish — to dismiss and degrade the life and the passions of one who cannot get up and walk out of your house as she might wish, who came here expecting your hospitality only to be trapped under fire — all the while insisting that you’ve no taste for such games. I suggest you examine your premises, vicomtesse. I find they are wearing thin.”

“You’re a courtesan,” Philomène states flatly, pointing the pastry at the other woman and letting the crumbs fall to the table. She rolls her eyes. “Of course. I should have bloody guessed. Because apparently the only people who want to share my company are courtesans.” She breaks off a piece of the pastry, a tiny morsel, and pops it into her mouth, taking her time to chew. “Is it some sort of challenge, is that it? Because I say I’m not interested, so you’ve decided to play me along?”

She snorts, setting down her joint so she can take up her drink instead and take a long swig. Presumably to wash down the pastry. “If you’re here for games, there’s the door. I’ll fetch you a damn carriage and drive it myself so I can be sure you make it home without some evil woman trapping you under fire.”

She leans in a little closer, eyeing Iphigénie. “I invited you here because I have enjoyed our talks, and I thought I could share some of my hospitality in return. And I never once misled you, which is clearly more than you can say. Didn’t I tell you that honesty and fairness matter to me more than anything? How much money do you have riding on this challenge, then? What exactly do you have to do to win? What are you going to go back and tell them all now?”

Someone is beginning to see courtesans lurking in ambush behind every tree, like Louis XIV and Jansenists. Oh, dear. But it isn’t Iphigénie, who from Philomène’s first j’accuse seems to grow very still, to listen more attentively, and at last to find unexpected humour in their situation. Finding also her hemp cigar still in her hand, she draws deeply upon it, twice, mutely shaking her head at the other woman as she breathes out sweet smoke— and, slowly, answers.

"Frankly, I find most of what you’ve just said to me thoroughly confusing. Perhaps it’s this?” She holds up what’s left of her cigar. “I am not accustomed to it… But, my lady, when first you addressed me by my title I assumed you must know who I am— and so who I was, many years ago. It is no secret. If I forbore to state the obvious,” she deduces, “how is that the same as misleading you a-purpose?” She licks some lingering pastry-residue from a fingertip and turns slowly on the edge of the chair to sit side on to Philomène, her shoulders twisted as far as they’ll go when most of her torso is encased in rigid corsetry. Her green linen dress is cut to show her collarbones; behind, there’s a pink petal or two visible at her nape, more when she reaches for the small of her back and tugs the cloth lower. “If you don’t know them, and I think you don’t— those are Valerian flowers,” she explains quietly, eyeing the other woman.

Then she releases her gown to its previous altitude and begins to turn again the other way, losing her napkin as she does. “Perhaps you’ll understand, my lady, that when I am alone in someone’s house and she begins to speak demeaningly of my kind, and angrily too— I begin to think she is making a game of me, and not one to which I have given my consent. It always puts my back up when someone makes that kind of assumption about how they may treat me. I’d no idea,” she admits, open-handed and trailing cigar smoke as she faces Philomène across the low table between them, “you didn’t know what you were doing.”

Philomène takes another nibble of her pastry, more because she has to either eat it or put it down now and putting it down would ruin the effect. She narrows her eyes over the table at the other woman, although they do widen somewhat when the tattoo on her back is revealed.

She lets a few moments of silence grow between them, tapping the ash from the end of her cigar into her makeshift ashtray. “I apologise,” she allows finally. “I apologise for any offence caused. You are my guest, and I would like to venture at least potentially also a friend. But,” she adds because she can’t leave well enough alone, pointing her glowing cigar end at the Maignard, “I stand by what I say. I wouldn’t have pegged you as a Valerian because you don’t act like those young, so eager-to-please men and women who insist on pawing at me when I go to walk. You’ve enough… enough gumption about you to know that it’s not appropriate and it’s not warranted. You’ve never decided to kneel before me, and I appreciate that.”

“… Ah,” sighs Iphigénie regretfully, batting her eyelashes — to be fair, the hemp does it for her, “but you see I have a great deal of trouble now with my knees.” Then another drag on her cigar, and she glances about for the saucer to put it down in. Happily, the saucer has not moved.

“But,” and she exhales smoke and shakes her head at Philomène, her mien growing marginally more serious again, “I am not an adept with my marque to make, and this is not the Night Court. A house such as the Rose Sauvage has its own manners, which are not those any of its courtesans would necessarily follow outside its walls, when simply— dining with a friend,” she suggests mischievously. “I don’t know what you assume about my canon, but I have an odd sensation that it is incomplete. And perhaps that you prefer it that way.”

“I genuinely couldn’t give two shits which canon any courtesan claims,” Philomène admits, sounding genuinely exhausted. “Is it so much to ask that, when invited to go and walk, I should be allowed and expected to just… walk?”

In a last-ditch attempt to make real sense out of all of this, Iphigénie stubs out her hemp cigar and sits back to consider Philomène and the dilemma she poses. “… I don’t understand,” she admits. “Who invited you to the house in the first place? Was it Monsieur Raphael? Are you a friend of his from Elua? And what has been happening that so unsettles you?”

Philomène for her part takes another steady drag from her ever shortening joint, finally submitting to set down the pastry she didn’t really want in the first place on the plate closest to her. She eases back in her seat, closing her eyes for a moment and rubbing at the bridge of her nose. “No, no… I don’t know Raphael from anywhere else. We met while I was walking up by the temple, I think. Yes, he invited me to come and walk in the gardens at the Rose Sauvage, early in the morning, before anyone was awake really. Because,” and she opens her eyes and fixes her gaze on Iphigénie, “I don’t like people to interrupt me when I walk. Offer me help. Look at me like I’m some sort of fucking ‘inspiration’.”

By now Iphigénie is wishing she’d stopped smoking a little sooner— but it’s only a vague, dreamy kind of wish, closely allied to a renewed interest in the pastry bits on her plate.

“… If it is being interrupted that you so dislike,” she murmurs, slowly, between popping bits of the dismembered dainty between her lips, “and if you’ve not succeeded in discouraging it on your own, then it would be the easiest thing in the world for a Second of the house to give the order that you are not to be approached, and not to be spoken to unless you speak first. If that isn’t done, the adepts will naturally assume that anyone who comes calling so often is a potential patron who will take one of them sooner or later — I’d have thought the same, when I was sixteen,” she admits with an elegant shrug of her sloping shoulders. “Your motives are a little beyond the understanding of a child of that age, raised in the Night Court, rarely meeting anyone who isn’t a part of the house or a patron of it. I can well think they don’t know what to make of your arrangement. So they assume it is something they do know, that there are plenty of people who dance round their desires for a long while before accepting their truth.”

Philomène slowly begins to laugh. For some reason it’s funny. Everything is just… quite funny when you think about it. Nothing to do with the weed. “I suppose it’s a little unusual,” she allows, letting that wry half smile show again. “To go to a place where the people offer company, and to expect to be left alone. The thing is that I really don’t mean to be rude. They’re just… So. Irritating.”

The sound’s irresistible; Iphigénie laughs too, and that has nothing to do with the weed either. Obviously not. She takes another pastry from the plate, this time whichever’s nearest.

“Don’t be rude,” she chuckles, breaking up the pastry with too-careless hands that soon have cream oozing all over them; “don’t be irritated, don’t be high-handed or obviously bored, or too hot or too cold. According to the customs of the house, my lady, all that qualifies as flirtation — I wonder now if you’ve been encouraging, by mistake, the very games you don’t wish to play… Only hold your temper and be politely disinterested,” she advises, “and you’ll soon find the Red Roses stop rising with the dawn to lay themselves dewy-petaled upon your path. It does happen, often enough that it’s taught,” she says, with a seriousness somewhat undermined by her urgent need to lick the pastry’s creamy filling from one finger and then another, “that those who deny such tastes too vehemently, do so because they’re afire within. Just as—”

She inclines nearer, in part to contain the cream situation threatening to escape her control — at least now she’s only dripping onto the plate, in between licking her fingers — in part because this is a little bit of a professional secret. It’s not that l’Agnacite hemp is unusually forthcoming, though. It can only be her own tactical decision to explain these things to Philomène.

“It is not uncommon for patrons to seek a Valerian because they don’t like to admit they’d rather have a Mandrake,” she confides, lifting an amused eyebrow. “Many of my canon learn a certain amount from the other, in order to accommodate such moments and such needs. We are used to wondering: is this person or that who visits us dissembling her true desires—?”

“Some sort of sign, do you think?” Philomène suggests, eyeing the table thoughtfully as though either it might be very tasty or, more likely, she might like to prop her feet up on it. She refrains. For now. Tempting as it is. Instead she reclaims her drink with one hand, stubs out her cigar in Iphigénie’s saucer, and while she’s leaning that way, takes the jug to top up her own drink and give it a little waggle (more of a waggle than was initially intended, it must be said) to inquire whether Iphigénie would like some more. “A sign reading ‘no thank you’? Something like ‘I’m sure you’re lovely, but I’m only here to walk’?”

Again the jug gets a waggle. Some juice spills. It’ll be cleaned later, but almost certainly by Philomène not the maid. “… And surely if you want a Mandrake, you’d just ask for a Mandrake?” she adds, as this latest information filters in. “How hard is it to just demand what you want?”

Juice! Why, Iphigénie hadn’t thought of juice in several minutes— but now it strikes her as a marvelous idea, and she takes a deep swallow from her glass and puts it down nearer to Philomène and the jug, in acceptance of her offer. Of course now it’s also got creamy fingerprints on it, but one can’t win it all. “My lady, thank you,” she says cordially.

She has a look about her for her napkin, can’t find it, sighs, and eats another piece of her leaky pastry and shakes her head as she chews. “… But it’s the last taboo, isn’t it? Any d’Angeline will say, love as thou wilt — and yet often enough one meets with incredulity that anyone could desire to be loved so, that love so harsh could deserve the name. It’s an unspoken corollary — love as thou wilt, provided I can understand why you do. And it’s different,” she teases, “the way people look— the way you yourself might look, at a confident young Thorn striding through the garden of a morning, or at a Red Rose bowing her head and sinking to her knees. I can’t tell you how many men have supposed I might be bowled over by a crushing handshake or a word of command, as if I were an animal trained to answer cues. It’s such assumptions that can make people unjustly ashamed, and unwilling to accept desires for which they can well imagine themselves dismissed and derided. Why, there are some who…” She waves her hand vaguely, as if hoping to pull the right words out of the smoke-swirling air of Philomène’s sitting-room. “Who think so little of submissives, that they’re surprised to hear we can decide for ourselves when and when not to kneel,” she reminds her hostess, a tad pointedly.

“Your point is noted,” Philomène allows, topping up the juice and then silently sliding her own as yet untouched napkin across the table towards her guest. “Although I assure you that I’d have as little truck with a Thorn trying to intrude on my walk. It’s just that, certainly as yet, no Thorn has greeted me with a whip because they simply expect that’s what I’m there for, but the Red Roses constantly assume I want their obedience.”

She reaches back to fumble for her bottle of schnapps to top up her glass, raising a brow at Iphigénie to see if perhaps this time she’s changed her mind on the matter. “Perhaps I’ve merely been unfortunate in the courtesans who tend to be awake in the mornings. Perhaps I have unwittingly given off the signal that they’re welcome to bow their heads and kneel before me. These things do usually end up my fault somewhere along the way…” She gives a quick grin. “I tend to assume that people know more than they do, but then I imagine that’s familiar for you?”

Napkin! Iphigénie is charmed, and she lifts this considerate offering to her lips in case of cream — yes, there was a bit on her lower lip — and then gives Philomène a radiant red smile. They’re in accord again after a few dicey moments, the hemp is soothing her joints and gentling her muscles, she’s got a napkin… All is well, and all manner of things shall be well. She hasn’t noticed that they haven’t — not to put too fine a point upon it — had any supper yet.

“What’s familiar?” she asks, and pops another bit of pastry into her mouth.

Philomène waves a hand vaguely, coming dangerously close to spilling her drink so she’s quick to bring it to her lips and reduce the level to something safer before she responds. “Assuming people know… you know. I was referring to you. Me. The whole… courtesan thing. I genuinely didn’t know,” she adds earnestly, in case this might have been under consideration.

A foot is finally propped up on the edge of the table. Fuck it. She points her toes and allows the slipper to fall while she’s at it. Far too hot for footwear, clearly.

Iphigénie swallows the pastry and promises with absolute conviction: “I believe you.” Her gaze lowers to Philomène’s bare foot, then lifts to meet her eyes. “You do understand it’s the riding boots,” she drawls. “And your magnificent chin and the way you carry it,” she lifts her own to an approximation of Philo’s usual angle, halfway to open warfare, and echoes the line of it with an airy and graceful sweep of her long white fingers, “and of course the bluntness of your speech… The secateurs also lend a certain air.” She lowers her hand to rest on the napkin, and quirks her eyebrows conspiratorially at her hostess. “I’m slow this evening,” she confesses, “for you’ve been so generous with your hemp and I feel as though I’m drawing my thoughts one by one out of a fog, but if you want my considered opinion now that I have considered it—” But she doesn’t wait to hear a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Thanks, hemp. “I wonder whether the legend among the Red Rose adepts is that you would, if it weren’t for your leg,” she says simply, “and that your attitude toward them is inspired by a certain bitterness of regret.” She tilts her head. “I’ve inspired similar assumptions, though in my case they were not without a grain of truth.”

“Lady Maignard, I walk a mile daily, at least,” Philomène points out, taking a moment to physically shift her other leg up so it too can rest on the edge of the table, even if that foot does then lie at an odd angle. “Not only do I make a point of it, I do so very often under their own eyes. If this,” and she gives a hateful gesture towards her leg, flicking at it as though that might perhaps banish it to some forgotten hell somewhere, “doesn’t stop me walking, do they honestly think it would stop me taking whichever girl I so wanted to bed with me? Are you in fact suggesting that they’re flinging themselves at me through pity?”

Iphigénie narrows her eyes at Philomène. “Certainly I think there are pursuits more strenuous than walking,” she murmurs, “and that use quite different muscles… and certainly I think it’s pleasant to flirt, whether or not one intends anything by it. If I were a Red Rose adept and you came strolling through my garden every morning— yes, my lady,” and there’s a sensual warmth to her chuckle as she takes up her glass of juice, “I’d have enjoyed your notice, even if I thought it would have no more passionate sequel. That isn’t pity,” she pronounces, and drinks deeply and sets down her glass, “it’s only a nature you don’t understand.”

“I find it discomfiting,” the hemp insists, via the mouthpiece of Philomène. “And perhaps even more so now you tell me that I’ve unwittingly been flirting with all manner of people.” She pulls a face and takes a long slurp from her cool drink. “If I’ve no intentions towards somebody, I don’t want them to think otherwise. Likewise, if somebody has their eye on me, I’d like to think that it is at least in some part meant, and not just an idle way to pass the time. You don’t draw your sword and sound the charge, only then to pull up at the last minute, turn around in the face of the enemy and go home for a nice cup of tea. I’d feel horribly cheated.”

“Mmm, I think you have been flirting,” Iphigénie teases, enjoying the discovery of one of her own besetting sins — or so certain cruel and unfair gentlemen would have it — in her evening’s companion. “I’ve told you already how you might stop— I do appreciate your wish at least to be in control of what frissons you might be stirring up in tender young hearts…” And other anatomical areas. “Still, you’re a little too strict for me, my lady,” and this too is a tease. “I think a pleasant moment between two people always has meaning, and a value of its own whether or not it leads directly to a grand passion… My consort and I exchanged our vows,” and her green gaze drifts ceilingward, because for some reason she has to think about this, count, and count again, before she looks down after a long pause to Philomène, “eleven years after the first night we spent together — twelve years after we met, he tells me, though I don’t recall it,” she admits vaguely. “It was a long while before our idle flirting turned to any real intention— we had both of us to be ready, for that. But,” and she laughs softly, leaning her head back, “it did pass the time charmingly, when I was in Elua. I wouldn’t dismiss our games as worthless, or a cheat, even if they hadn’t later on brought me just such love as I wished.”

“I think,” Philomène decides after a moment to practically drain her glass, “that you’ve been particularly lucky on that count. I met my husband a grand total of eighteen days before we were wed. Not that I’m not now rather fond of him, but it’s… well… it’s convenient. I don’t think even the most romantic poet in the land could dress it up as a great love story.”

“I won’t say I’m not fortunate,” and Iphigénie gives rather a dreamy sigh as she wiggles backward into her chair and settles there, shadowed by her shawl, as comfortable as one can be when encased in quite such a number of steel bones. “But marriage is different, of course…” She steeples her hands in her lap and muses, “My late husband was a second cousin of mine and an occasional patron, too — we knew we suited in those respects, at least,” she chuckles. “And he liked to stay at home and I liked to travel, so we were well able to divide up the duties of his vicomté. There was a time — about seven or eight months,” she manages to recall whilst gazing into the middle distance, whence Philomène’s occasional maid vanished never to show her face again, “when we thought we were in love with each other… It passed, thanks be to Blessed Elua,” and she clasps her hands together and gives way now to real laughter.

Philomène’s occasional maid is no doubt even now scoffing down the pie that had been bought for tonight’s supper and helping herself quite generously to Philomène’s wine cellar. Suffice it to say that this particular maid is unlikely to be hired again.

The vicomtesse can’t help but join in at least briefly with the laughter. See above re everything being really rather more amusing than usual thanks to the still lingering haze of fragrant smoke and a significant part of her bottle of schnapps. “Well, perhaps there’s still hope,” she allows, swirling the juice in her glass and holding it up to the light to watch it eddy and combine. “Perhaps after… well, when I return. Given an appropriate period, anyway, I should try flirting with anyone who catches my eye. See if I even have the knack for it any more. Although if, as you say, it’s a matter of wearing my boots and lifting my chin, I may yet be in luck.”

“Whether that does the trick,” Iphigénie chuckles, “I think would depend upon how queer a fish you’re hoping to hook, vicomtesse… I wonder,” and her green eyes dance as she regards Philomène and taps her fingertips idly together in her lap. Still sticky. Oh, well. She has a napkin. Anyway she doesn’t mind too much; she doesn’t mind anything too much. “I can’t match your daughters,” she admits; “what I wasn’t saying, before, is that my kin almost never marry outside Kusheth. It isn’t our way. But I wonder whether I could match you, with someone or another you’d find amusing… Quite a different proposition,” she pronounces, “or it might be if I could be sure of what you liked.” She tilts her head. “An appropriate period for…?”

There is at least a slight hesitation. The smoke hasn’t completely removed all inhibitions, but it’s removed enough. “Louis-Claude is unwell,” Philomène states quietly, lifting her chin to precisely the angle already noted, albeit unconsciously. “I should imagine that a little respect ought to be shown, after the inevitable.” And there goes the rest of her drink, so her feet slide down from the table in order that she can reach for more juice to top it up.

“Besides, I think it’s rather more important to find suitable partners for my girls. I’ve brought my blood to the title already. There’s no good reason for me to marry again,” she points out pragmatically. “At least not tactically. I could find a fifth child of a fifth child and be quite content. Probably I’d look to Camlach. The one thing I really like is an equal. Somebody who’ll fight back. Somebody who’ll make it a challenge worth facing.”

Which revelation does distract Iphigénie and by degrees quell her spirits, as she concentrates upon reasoning her way through the whole business as well as the hemp will allow. “And now you have told me something I did not know,” she says slowly. “Your uncertainty, regarding— your travel home to l’Agnace… You don’t know how long your husband may live.”

She lowers her eyelids, nods, and lifts them again with a compassion growing clearer-eyed the longer her distance from the half-smoked cigar in the saucer before her. “My lady, I wasn’t speaking of marriage — and I wouldn’t, now. What do you need?”

“Right now? Well, I thought I’d probably finish this bottle and possibly have another one of those,” Philomène replies frankly, gesturing to the box of cigars still open on the table. “Or at least half of one, otherwise I’m fairly likely to fall asleep and that’s not a great trait in a hostess. Please have another pastry, they’ll only go in the bin if you don’t eat them.” Because dodging the question is an art form at which she’s well practiced.

Iphigénie requires no particular persuading. “I’m of an age to fall asleep constantly,” she admits, helping herself to another pastry from the plate — not the kind she’s already established is formidably creamy inside; “after smoking hemp, after making love, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon for no more reason than that my pain eases in the heat…” She rips it apart slowly, by degrees revealing chocolate between its layers of dough, and also her reluctance to let Philomène off the hook. “It’s only natural that at such a juncture in your life you need more from your friends than ordinarily you would. Sympathy? No,” she deduces. “Distractions? Perhaps. Do you feel a need to talk about it? And if so, as a monologue or a dialogue? Sometimes it’s enough simply to talk,” she suggests gently, “in which case— I offer my bees.” Her eyes glint at that. Yes, she’s noticed through her windows Philomène’s little morning chats.

“I’m sure even your bees would be bored with it before long,” Philomène demurs, making up her mind and rising to her feet with a wince of pain undisguised by her usual concentration. Likely she forgot it was going to hurt until she went to rise, by which time it was too late. With a scowl on her face, irritation at either the injury, herself, the lack of some sort of magical way to move her chair without having to physically lift it, or at the general tone of the conversation, she sets both hands on the back of her chair and drags it over a little closer to Iphigénie’s. Close enough that she won’t need her makeshift ashtray, and close enough that the joint can be passed between them if necessary. Sharing is caring.

With a grunt of effort, she creaks back down into her newly positioned chair and reaches to the cigar box for another, retrieving her flint and steel to fumble and eventually strike sparks enough to get the damn thing lit. The second one is always more difficult, requiring more manual dexterity than Philomène can usually manage after smoking one.

“It is what it is,” she decides, drawing deep on this second joint before offering it over, a brow lifted. “Nothing we can do but wait. And make sure everything’s in place for a smooth transition. I suspect it’ll be difficult for Laurène - my middle daughter, that is. She’s always been a favourite of his.”

Nature’s way of keeping Philomène’s consumption within bounds, one assumes.

Iphigénie watches all these manoeuvres with tranquil interest, neither leaning toward her hostess nor leaning away as she takes such real and literal pains to reduce the distance between them— from her there’s never any ‘oh, you mustn’t’, or ‘oh, let me help’, only an easy acceptance that Philomène knows what she’s doing and has decided it’s worth what she may suffer. Instinct lifts her hand toward that proffered joint— good sense, a moment later, lowers her hand back into her lap. She tucks the fingertips of her right hand through one wrap of the silver chain bracelet about her left wrist, as if to shackle herself safely against temptation.

“It is no more than we raise them for,” she offers softly, after another moment’s thought. “We must hope and trust that we’ve prepared them well for a future without us.”

Philomène eyes her guest sidelong, drawing a long breath from the hemp and breathing it out somewhere above Iphigénie’s cloud of white hair. “Well, either it’ll be all right or it won’t. You know, fights are so much easier to deal with.” She flicks the woman an amiable smile, this one most definitely aided by the fresh cigar. “Maybe that’s what I really need right now. A proper, no holds barred, biting, scratching and kicking fight. But for some reason they’re awfully uncommon in Marsilikos, have you noticed that? You can’t just go into a tavern and spill somebody’s pint. They’re more likely to go find a lawyer than they are to just settle it simply then and there…” She pauses, suddenly looking to her guest with alarm. “Not that I’m implying you shouldn’t turn to the law for your issues, whatever they might be. Fuck. You know what I mean,” she trails off crossly, offering the joint over again, having clearly forgotten that it’s already been turned down once.

“Ah, then you’re not alarmed by the greater brutality of the law courts,” murmurs Iphigénie wryly, twisting her fingertips further inside her bracelet and turning her wrist so that the padlock upon it glints in the candlelight. “… Camlach, then?” she suggests, holding her left wrist firmly now with her right hand. The loose sleeves of her green linen gown, gathered with ties, have ridden up far enough by now to show glimpses of healing rope burns upon white skin seemingly as thin as vellum. She lifts an eyebrow. “A fight to your taste — then, a lover to your taste?”

“It’ll have to wait,” Philomène decides. “Both will have to wait.” She reaches over to claim a piece of her long forgotten pastry, breaking it off and toying with it between her fingers before popping it between her lips. “I suspect it might be frowned upon to show up to the funeral with a black eye and scratches. And I’m not as fast as I used to be, so both are very real possibilities.”

She licks her fingers with a delicacy that seems rather out of place for the conversation. “And Camlach is too far to travel at the moment. At least right now I’m only a few weeks from home. Faster if I keep changing horses.”

Philomène has inadvertently entertained Iphigénie, who chuckles to herself and twines hand and wrist in her lap, her fingers retreating a little in order to play with those tempting silver links. She murmurs: “At least my lovers can be relied upon to leave my face alone… I’m presentable on formal occasions.” Though she has perhaps in recent minutes elucidated somewhat the alarm and the upset suffered by the young workman who walked in on her. “But what can we do for you in the meantime, my lady? If you think of it, I hope you’ll tell me. Or— you might tell me when I haven’t had any of your hemp, and so might recollect it later on,” she chuckles.

“Short of causing permanent damage, a fight’s a fight,” Philomène notes, her own voice tinged with amusement. “If you’re avoiding the face, then you’re not fighting, you’re just playing. That might be your thing, but it isn’t mine. And I for sure want even odds on a winner, whereas, and do correct me if I’m wrong, you don’t intend to punch the shit out of your lover in return, do you?”

She takes another drag from the joint, the end glowing in the dimming light as the sun begins to dip outside. “In the meantime? I don’t know, I honestly don’t. Keep a list. Arrogant arseholes who don’t know when to back down. You don’t need to put my name on it, I just assume I’m already at the top of those sorts of lists.”

“And how slighted you’d feel if you weren’t,” Iphigénie teases, having rather got the measure of her hostess’s pride tonight, even through such clouds of sweetly befuddling smoke. But will she remember it tomorrow? That is the question. One of the questions. There may be several. A specimen of which drifts lazily through her thoughts till she answers it for herself. “Oh! You mean—” And she gives way again to laughter, and impulsively reaches for Philomène’s joint. She hardly knows she has done till it’s between her lips and she’s breathing in renewed bliss. “No,” she exhales, draping her wrist across the arm of the chair by way of offering it back. “I haven’t had that particular trouble since I grew so many wrinkles,” she drawls, tilting her head to regard the other woman sideways, “and began to walk with a stick.”

“Wrinkles are just battle scars from the war against age,” Philomène announces with the sort of lofty clarity that tends to ensue after considerable amounts of weed or booze or both. “Wear them proudly. The stick I don’t envy you, though,” she notes, snaffling the joint back with two fingers and lifting it to her lips. She takes a brief puff, then leans forward to try to reach a candle that’s just about out of reach. She narrows her eyes at it and swipes again, just about getting a fingertip to it to hook it closer. “They see you with a stick and they seem to think your brain doesn’t work, not your legs. I mean personally I very rarely think using my legs, but apparently it must be a common misconception.” She takes a long draw on the joint, then leans in to use the glowing end to touch to the part-burned candle with its already blackened wick until it gutters into life and adds its own small glow to the dwindling light.

“I think more of how I feel than of how I look,” says Iphigénie honestly; “I wear the clothes my consort orders made for me and paint my face as he tells me I ought, because he’s the one who has to look at me the most and so it matters more to him than it ever would to me.” She shrugs. “Since I came to Eisande I don’t always need my stick — I don’t use it at home, but when I go out I’d rather have it with me needlessly, than find that I do need it and it’s nowhere to be found. And— it’s another piece to show,” she says cryptically, and turns to where she propped it before against the farther arm of her chair, to take it up and display its elaborately-worked silver head for Philomène’s attention. “You see, my consort is by trade a silversmith,” she explains; “whatever I wear or I carry was wrought by his hands.”

“Whereas I’ll wear what suits me, and paint my face if I feel the urge,” Philomène notes with a half smile, taking another drag before offering the cigar back over. “And if any bugger tried to tell me that I ought to wear something else, I’d tell them exactly where they can go and what they can do with themselves while they’re there, anatomically unfeasible as it might be.”

She gestures for the stick to come a little closer, leaning back to peer down the length of her nose at the detail. “He’s not only useful in the gardens, then,” she announces, apparently well satisfied with the work. “I did note your earrings on your arrival and admired them. Do please pass on my compliments.”

A moment passes whilst Iphigénie considers anatomical unfeasibilities— to judge by her expression and the mischievous light in her eyes, rejecting some but approving others…

“Monsieur Lefebvre thinks of my appearance so that I needn’t,” she explains, shrugging, setting down her stick again but whacking it on the table-leg in the process and nearly dropping it before she can get it propped up safely where it was before. “He makes up for my domestic shortcomings, too— he hires our servants, orders our meals, directs what ought to be cleaned and when. He’s so particular about linen,” she sighs, admiringly. “And I look after the accounts, the lawsuits, the horses, the bees, and the immortal souls,” she chuckles. “Really, we none of us can do everything in a household. And he sees so beautifully to all that I’d forget.”

“Clearly I ought to get myself a M. Lefebvre of my own,” Philomène decides, not entirely seriously, but then it’s not entirely an awful idea and she adds, “Does he have a sister?”

“Ah,” teases Iphigénie, her eyebrows rising, “be careful what you wish for, my lady. Before he returned to his family’s trade my Monsieur was for some years a courtesan of Mandrake House,” she explains, “and that is how we came to know one another. You might find a sister of his a little arduous to keep about the house,” and she can hardly utter that without laughing, and reaching again for the joint that seems to be in principle as much at her disposal as at Philomène’s. “But I take your point,” she maintains, inhaling deeply.

“I just need a decent bloody maid,” Philomène admits, as though that hadn’t become patently obvious in the course of the evening. “We used to have one, or rather one of my houseguests used to have one, but sadly she left with the houseguests. Terribly selfish of them, I think. She was a rare thing, though. Camaeline.” This last added as though it explains everything. And perhaps it does, Philomène’s tastes having been made quite clear.

Oh, look. A joint in one’s hand. Iphigénie gazes down at it as though mildly confused to find it there, then does the done thing before absently passing it back to Philomène. “Mmm, I see,” she murmurs, “a good maid, or a good wife who doesn’t mind playing the maid,” she teases.

Oh look indeed. The magical joint that keeps mysteriously swapping from one woman’s hand to the other. Philomène leans back and closes her eyes for a second, inhaling deeply before breathing out a series of neat smoke rings. “I’ll take the maid. I suspect a good maid is harder to find, although I’ll admit I haven’t looked very hard just yet. And I’d expect a maid to do as she’s asked. A wife? I’d expect her to argue the toss, otherwise what’s the damn point?”

Studying Philomène with intent green eyes, Iphigénie seems to be paying all due consideration to these fine points concerning the real and appreciable difference between a wife and a domestic. Her eyes narrow gradually in thought; at last she inquires, very seriously, as one getting to the gist of a tricky matter… “How do you make the rings?”

The Chalasse laughs quietly, stretching her legs out in front of her and rolling her shoulders beneath their neatly embroidered dress. “The rings? You just sort of…” and she pokes out her tongue, gives it a wiggle for emphasis, then rolls it and does her best to demonstrate, smoke free, by pulling an odd, open-mouthed face at Iphigénie. Either she’s explaining smoke rings, or she’s a goldfish having a stroke.

Another long toke on the cigar, which she takes her time to hold in her mouth, then turns again towards her guest to slowly demonstrate, this time in live action, puffing neat rings of pungent smoke into Iphigénie’s face. The joint is naturally then held out for the other woman to try it.

Because being even more stoned than one already happens to be, and coughing from having inhaled too much secondhand smoke all at once, will assuredly aid one in the practice and the perfection of a new manual skill. Absolutely. Good thinking, Philomène. Right on.

Whatever paint the capable and particular Monsieur Lefebvre has decreed suitable for his consort’s mouth, is at least holding up well to the rigours of the evening. Once she’s coughed enough and caught her breath again, her left hand pressed to her corseted bosom and her chain bracelet bright against her dark linen, Iphigénie accepts the returning joint and cautiously essays her first attempt, looking down from beneath lowered eyelashes to see what happens. Well— it’s not an unqualified success, but after a failure or two her dark red lips find the right shape and she breathes out a few credible if dwindling smoke rings.

Then: a mild accusation, lacking in heat. “You like to argue, and to fight.”

“And ride,” Philomène adds, holding up a finger. “The trinity. Arguments, fighting, and riding horses.” She sounds rather amused, but it’s probably just from watching Iphigénie’s smoke ring attempts. “The three things guaranteed to raise the blood. There’s nothing quite like those three things to make you feel alive.” She reaches for her drink, glancing sidelong to her guest. “And before you add sex to that list, combine it. Sex is fine, sure, but sex after a long ride, an argument, and a proper, kicking, scratching, punching fight, when you’ve got no choice but to either murder them or… well, that’s what life’s worth living for, isn’t it?”

Iphigénie hardly seems to be listening to the woman beside her, absorbed as she is in exhaling another series of smoke rings and marveling at them as they drift from her lips and melt away amongst their predecessors. “One learns something every day,” she murmurs, sounding pleased; a little more smoke escapes her painted mouth along with that observation.

“… Is it?” she asks belatedly of Philomène, offering her the joint again. “I do like to ride,” she muses, staring off across the chamber as if hoping still to spot a hazy circle or two in the air. “I did,” she corrects herself, for by nature she’s scrupulously just. And that must also be why she amends a second clarification. “Not as much as I like to be ridden,” she drawls, apparently now addressing the candle on the table rather than her hostess.

Philomène takes a sip from her drink, absently grasping the front of her dress to waft it vaguely in an attempt to attain some sort of air flow. “I’d say you’re welcome to come riding with me, but I don’t want it misconstrued,” she notes, eyeing her guest sidelong. “I mean the sort with the horses. And not…” she quickly adds, letting go of her frock so she can brandish one finger, “…in the sort of way I don’t even want to contemplate.” She pauses, something in her mind warning her that perhaps she’ll get another mouthful of abuse for not allowing whatever sorts of crazy love she might, and adds, “I had Orchis houseguests. They did have a habit of bringing home all kinds of odd things.”

Yes, everything is quite funny this evening. They must be two inordinately witty individuals, and their repartee the most scintillating to be found outside the Lis d’Or.

Or so the candle might conclude from the easy flow of Iphigénie’s honeyed laughter as she looks back to Philomène and affects to give her a once-over with amused green eyes. “Orchises,” she drawls then; “I wonder what tale hangs upon that…?”

When Marius Lefebvre nó Mandrake calls later in the evening to collect his consort from her supper with her new friend — and, when nobody answers his knock, admits himself in search of her as he considers he has every right to do — he steps into a chamber lit by a single guttering candle-stub, and so foggy with hemp smoke that he wrinkles his aquiline nose in distaste and orders the lackey following him to leave the front door open to encourage its exit.

The cloud of soft white hair resting against a shawl-draped chairback is immediately, intimately knowable to his eyes. “She’s in here,” he drawls over his shoulder to the lackey, and perhaps hearing his clipped and sardonic Mont Nuit accent so close at hand will even wake the elderly women dozing side by side in their chairs with pastry crumbs all down their fronts…?

Yes: Iphigénie is stirring. “Monsieur,” she murmurs tenderly, without opening her eyes.

Given that it rarely takes much to wake Philomène, it’s perhaps a marvel of the evening that this intrusion into her home only prompts one eye to crack open for a moment. But then he doesn’t appear to be a burglar, and Iphigénie either knows him or is happy to be kidnapped by him, so what is it to her? “M’sieur,” she mumbles, less tenderly and more like she’s got a potato in her mouth. It’s the hemp. But that’s as much as she can be bothered with, and so her eye closes once more and she’s content to sleep in her pastry-crumbed chair and trust that perhaps her new friend hasn’t had too awful an evening.

Where there’s Iphigénie there’s a cane. Marius takes charge of that first and tosses it casually to the lackey, and then he wraps his drowsy consort’s black woolly shawl about her shoulders and ties the corners of it before her. “Vicomtesse,” he drawls in answer to Philomène’s greeting, and spares a glance for that magnificent chiseled jawline he’s heard so much about, which is yet more striking when lit from below by the candle’s final indifferent efforts.

Nothing else he can see appears to be Iphigénie’s — no stray handkerchiefs, fans, or religious texts in Habiru — but she’s his, and he gathers her gaunt and unresisting frame up into his arms and bears her away to the carriage, leaving Philomène to sleep it off with her front door shut again but not barred and one bare foot propped up on her table.

Already he’s composing a list of pointed questions to put to his consort at the breakfast-table — and so it may fairly be said, now, that a good evening has been had by all.

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