(1311-08-02) Luckily For Us
Summary: Conversation between the Lady of Marsilikos and the sister nearest her in age, grows unexpectedly heated when they move into matters all too personal.
RL Date: 26/08/2019 - 03/09/2019
Related: The Incident at the Palace plot in general.
emmanuelle armandine 

Ducal Wing — Ducal Palace

Maybe the rugs are just a touch thicker in the ducal wing, maybe the blue damask on the walls is just that tiny more elaborate. Generously lighted during the day through a row of windows framed by heavy curtains, there are lamps at the walls at times of dusk and night, leading the way to the private quarters of the ducal family. The entrance is guarded, of course, and only members of this inner family circle will be admitted, or individuals with a special letter of permission. The ducal suite is at the end of the hallway, a generous flight of rooms, the luxury of their interior a legend worthy of many hushed whispers of awe, a tale that grows grander and more sophisticated the longer it has been passed on from servant to servant. Chambers of the duc and the three daughters can be accessed through elaborately painted doors, each showing a variation of two golden fish chasing each other.


Not many in Marsilikos, in Eisande, in Terre d’Ange, enjoy in principle almost unrestricted access to Armandine Mereliot — but then, not many receive (by such discreet hands!) so frequent or such lengthy specimens of the bold penmanship of Emmanuelle Shahrizai.

They don’t often meet face to face but when then they do, it goes something like this.

An unmarked black jewel-box of a carriage draws up to a side entrance of the Dome of the Lady, where a trusted guard told off for such duties is waiting to unbar the door and to bar it again. The carriage moves on, to return after a set time— never very long. The visitor is admitted through another locked door at the top of that side stair and then left to her own devices, for she knows her way well enough through these rooms where she played as a child. Nobody challenges her as she stalks right into the duchesse’s private study, perfunctorily announced by a secretary, within a minute or two of whatever hour was agreed for her arrival. But not many people ever even know she’s there, which is rather the point of the procedure.

“I’ll be brief,” is her idea of a sisterly greeting, as she comes straight to the desk and bends to plant a quick, firm kiss upon Armandine’s cheek without interrupting her writing.

The red paint upon her mouth is, much like her patrons, trained to stay where it is put: she leaves no mark upon her half-sister’s fine features as she circles the desk again and sits down, and puts her boots on some piece of furniture which was neither designed nor laboured over for untold hours in a previous century to have spike-heeled Mandragian boots inflicted upon it thus. But Emmanuelle always does put her aching feet up, it’s one of the hazards of entertaining her at all. Apart from those inevitable boots she’s dressed casually, in a loose shirt of lavender linen with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and the tails untucked in front to reveal a hem embroidered with dainty golden keys. Her hair is dressed in a sleek blue-black chignon. A silver Eisheth pendant gleams at the hollow of her throat, and there aren’t many of that exact design— it’s the one Armandine herself draped about the neck of Jehan-Pascal de Baphinol to celebrate his triumph in Eisheth’s honour during the Days of the Companions. There’s been a rumour going round that Emmanuelle is friendly with him, and that he comes and goes from the Maison Sanglante frequently and at any hour. Here, thus, incontrovertible proof.

“I’ve come,” she explains, “in consideration of the contretemps that took place outside your stables a couple of days past, and the sheer quantity of shit about to land there,” graciously, she indicates the duchesse’s desk, “because of it.” A pause. “I’ve been treating the woman who was injured. I thought you ought to have a little more truth to leaven the rumours.”

Armandine de Mereliot is used to informal visits as these. And she would be the last one objecting to the presence that suddenly enters and claims the space, the duchesse seeks out when dealing with letters and other matters of daily paperwork.

“Fine.”, is the brief counter to the brief greeting, and Armandine turns her head just so to return the sisterly kiss with one of her own, likewise placed albeit with more gentleness to her half-sibling’s cheek. The Lady of Marsilikos is clad in a gown of blue and gold color, honey-blonde hair arranged in a fine do involving the intricate use of hair needles glinting where they catch the light.

Grey-blue eyes follow Emmanuelle as she retreats to her usual spot, a comfortable high-backed armchair with a beautifully decorated side table in front of it. And noting the familiar manner in which said side-table is turned into a footstool, the duchesse’s lips curve in a warm smile. A smile that dims just a little, when Emmanuelle states the reason for her visit, into a cast of concern.

“I’ve heard something about a sword fight. Is this the incident you are referring to?”, Armandine asks, putting aside her paperwork for a moment.

It makes a damn good footstool, that table, and it’s got old spur-marks to prove it…

Emmanuelle adjusts a brocade cushion behind her lower back and crosses her ankles, and settles back in something approaching ideal comfort. Her hands rest loosely upon her thighs. “A sword fight,” she echoes. She considers this nomenclature for a moment. “… No,” she pronounces, with a slight shake of her head as Armandine looks up from her papers and their eyes meet, “I wouldn’t call it that. I’ll tell you how I came to hear of it,” she decides.

"Whilst visiting the infirmary on another matter I saw a group of guards in your livery carry someone into the main hall on a board — a woman who was bleeding so heavily that every one of their boots left red prints. They were sweating like pigs, too,” a broad, humourless red grin, “wondering how much hell was about to come down on them. I recognised the woman as a former patient of mine. Knowing the vagaries of her body as I do, of course I offered to help," she says simply. "I managed to inflate her punctured lung and suture the wound before all her blood had bubbled out of her. That night she stopped breathing four times." A beat. "I have every confidence, now, that if she heeds her healers she will survive— but were we not in Eisheth’s own land, or had your men acted less promptly in transferring the evidence of their negligence to the infirmary, you'd be dealing with the murder of a vicomtesse, who happens to be a cousin of the duc de Camlach, on the very doorstep of the duchesse d'Eisande.

"You may not have met the vicomtesse de Gueret. She is a woman of three-and-fifty, whose battle wounds sustained long ago on the border have left her with a noticeable limp. I understand from your guards— I had them stay put," she explains in an aside, "so that I could get the story out of them once I'd stitched her up. She might have had other, less obvious wounds…” Let us forgive Mereliot guards for taking orders from their duchesse’s alarming half-sister. Some of them had probably been on Maison Sanglante duty before, and that can scar a man for life. “I understand," Emmanuelle resumes scrupulously, "that her assailant was a Skaldi woman, young and strong and well-armed, who had already been ordered off the palace grounds once that morning after shouting at and harassing Desarae. This Skaldi woman is said to be a servant or a bodyguard, they weren't certain,” a note of disdain, “in service to one of your distinguished foreign guests. All this, as I say, on your doorstep, mere weeks before the commencement of your Great Exhibition, and as foreigners continue to flood into the city.

“I don't know whether this was an old vendetta brought south from the border or if that's how any Skaldi greets any Aiglemort." An elegant shrug. "But I've a presentiment you'll hear much more about it in the days to come. There will be people, yes, who will tell you it was a sword fight," she makes a rude gesture at the empty air, "a fair enough duel gone wrong. I wish you to understand from the beginning,” and she folds her arms across her chest and regards her sister with that cool, steady, blue diamond gaze in which Shahrizai colour takes on Mereliot shape, “how nearly it was a slaughter." She pauses. "I've no doubt in my mind that the vicomtesse somehow provoked or escalated the conflict— it is her nature, it is her delight. But," and she holds up a discerning finger, the light glinting upon her flawless black-lacquered nail, "it is possible to choose not to fight with her. I make that choice constantly. I find it superior to, say, drawing steel against lame elderly women," she drawls, “and aiming to kill.”

That side table groans beneath the all too familiar weight of boots, as if in fear of more harsh caresses of spurs.

Negligence.” Armandine repeats the word thoughtfully, after granting her half-sister the time she needs for her explanation. “I don’t believe, it was… let me see…” She begins to search the pile of papers for one in particular, eyes alighting as she finds the one she had looked for. “Ah. Here. The report of the captain of the palace guard. He writes in his account that the… incident happened on the Rue de Palace, outside the gates. The guards on duty were in no position to leave their posts. Monsieur Lefevre stresses here in his report, that the guards only were able to leave their posts as soon as relief arrived. Which had been sent for as soon as things started to escalate. As such, they were able to assist in the aftermath, in having the culprit handed over to the City Guard and the wounded lady — the vicomtesse de Gueret — brought to the infirmary.” She is speaking as she skims the document, digesting the information as she passes it on.

Putting the report back into the table, the duchesse looks towards Emmanuelle, thoughtfully. “I do know the Vicomtesse de Gueret. I find her to be charming and of a refreshing Camaeline disposition. I’ve met her on a few occasions. I am sorry to hear of her fate.” She leans back in her chair, keeping eye contact over the pile of papers. “The other woman involved in the incident has been taken to the dungeons, so I am sure we should be safe, for now. While the City Guard has been tasked to investigate…”

Even so, the news makes her demeanor dim a little. “You are right. The timing couldn’t have been less favorable. We have guests in our city, and so the matter might attract even more attention than usual. I have no doubt that our visitors will eventually be convinced of our justice in handling this incident. We will need to know how it came about, if there was intention of taking Lady Philomène’s life. Eisheth be praised that you were close at hand to prevent a far graver outcome…”

—-

The same attentive ear she just received, Emmanuelle affords in turn to her sister.

Then she remarks, with bracing unsympathy: “That's a nice piece of arse-covering after the fact, isn't it? Tell me, if your men on gate duty can't move a few yards in either direction to prevent your guest’s retainer from putting her sword through the chest of a visiting noblewoman, what would they stir themselves for? I was standing a few yards away in the infirmary and I'm no priest, but when I see a pressing need for the aid I'm trained to give I don't hesitate. Though if it hadn't been me to tend her it would have been someone else,” she points out without a moment’s hesitation, and echoes her sister’s thanks. “Eisheth be praised.”

There’s good Eisandine red and white to be had within these hushed walls, and cognac, uisghe, whatever intoxication the duchesse’s confidential visitors might prefer, arranged within a gorgeously lacquered cabinet— but Emmanuelle, lowering her boots and getting up, much to the footstool’s relief, helps herself only to a glass of water and a few fragments of ice.

She pours water too for her sister, neither of them being much given to drinking early in the day, and deposits it on the desk in front of Armandine to quench the thirst she can theorise must follow sooner or later upon so much dry paperwork. Then she shifts some small object from the desk’s outer edge and replaces it with herself, half-sitting and half-leaning. “The vicomtesse will speak the truth exactly as she believes it,” she adds quietly, “but she is likely to convince herself of a truth of her own making. Whatever she has to say will require sifting and weighing. If you’d like my opinion, as someone who knows her well, I trust you won’t hesitate.”

“Mereliot guards are tasked with safety within the walls of the palace,” Armandine stresses gently. “And as far as I can see from the report, it did not happen immediately nor was it in close proximity to the gates. Call it arse-covering, if you like…”, her lips curve in a fine smile, “I call it a conflict of duty and what would be the natural urge for any d’Angeline — to help and intervene. They were not to abandon the palace gates, they are on strict orders there. But…” A soft sigh leaves the duchesse’s lips instead of her finishing the sentence immediately. Grey-blue eyes look towards Emmanuelle, so obstinate sprawling with booted legs in ongoing torture of the side table, and Armandine continues: “Does it really matter? It wasn’t the guards that committed the bloodshed in question, and at least they did not fail in keeping mayhem and slaughter outside the palace grounds.”

Fingers play absently with the quill in her hand, noble instinct and upbringing managing the feat to leave her hands without stain, but it seems that Armandine de Mereliot is affected by the matter all in all. There is the grave look she gives Emmanuelle, lighting up only marginally once Emmanuelle elects to grant the table a break from its torment. “Blades were drawn on both sides, and it is easy to place preliminary judgement before knowing all the facts. Help yourself.” The latter she adds in encouragement, not really needed for Emmanuelle, but more a formal gesture of granting her the right to fetch herself a drink.

“I'm relieved that the Vicomtesse de Gueret did not die, and I shall pray to Eisheth that she will recover fully. I am certain that we will hear her account, and I am curious for what she has to say. As with truths… you and I know that there are many and the trick is to determine the one that comes closest to what actually happened.” Meanwhile, Emmanuelle has progressed as far as the desk, and Armandine lifts her gaze, leaning back in her chair to regard her half-sister that now has elected to half-sit, half-lean against the desk. “It is what justice is about, Emmanuelle. And I shall be happy to hear your opinion and take it into consideration.”

“… Justice,” Emmanuelle murmurs, meditative now as she quirks a painted half-smile at her sister across the parchment-strewn desk that joins them. “If the matter reaches so high as your own hands, I know you’ll dispense it fairly— that is your nature.” A beat. “If it were me — I can only deal in facts, I had facts laid out on a board before me and near to death. Almost a murder — I’d give it almost an execution,” she suggests. “The distinction drawn, both times. Banishment from Eisandine shores under pain of death should she return. The removal of your problem, without any show of cruelty before your multiplicity of visitors. They’d do the same or more in their own lands, with so violent and chaotic a stranger… It’s unlikely that Skaldi woman would come back under such terms and, if she did, she’d know what she was getting.”

She pauses and shifts her weight again, obliging Armandine’s desk to take more of it. “I won’t tell you your business,” she declares, “only offer you what I can give you, regarding the consequences as I see them.” A beat. "One other little matter I’ve been meaning to mention. Well," she drawls, cracking a satisfied crooked smirk at her sister, "getting bigger. I'm pregnant," she says bluntly, one hand curving about her belly in that gesture so common to women in her state, however masculine the language of their bodies might otherwise be.

“Who knows?”, the Duchesse de Mereliot counters with a light shrug of a shoulder. Hands folding then before her on the table as she leans forward and rests her elbows upon the dark reassuring stability the furniture provides. “Perhaps, an ordinary judge will do… But I already have a feeling, with the political implications and foreigners of note and standing lingering in the city, it may be required that I shall preside over the case. Much depends on how the two people involved — the vicomtesse and the stranger — act in the aftermath of this incident. The best and least problematic would be to have them agree it was some sort of misunderstanding, apologies exchanged, et cetera.” She turns her hand in the air. “I wish to know what exactly led to the escalation.” A pensive glance is shot towards the windows, and Armandine lets out another sigh.

“I appreciate your thoughts,” the Lady of Marsilikos states after a moment. “This will, I fear, be a responsibility no one can relieve for me. This burden is for me to carry, it has been for a decade.” And with a warm smile lighting her features, Armandine directs her gaze towards Emmanuelle, just in the moment her half-sister drops the news.

“I had wondered when you’d tell me,” Armandine remarks even as her smile intensifies for apparent reasons. “They say, pregnancy does change the aura of a woman, it adds… a certain sparkle to her eyes and carriage. You look well, Emmanuelle; happy and more grounded than I have seen you in the past years. As much as I can see how this pregnancy adds to your happiness… I shall pray to Eisheth that she will watch over you and the little one growing in your belly.” There is a brief ominous pause, before the Duchesse of Eisande adds a question. “What of the father-to-be? He must be delighted?”

“… Well, fuck you,” says Emmanuelle drily, leaning over the desk to catch her sister’s golden head and give her another kiss, harder this time. “Eisheth has her eye already upon me, I feel,” she admits, straightening again, “or it wouldn’t have come about in the first place. When did you know?” she inquires, squinting harder at the Scion of Eisheth she’s facing. “You might have told me,” she grouses gently, “if I hadn’t been certain yet. I think it’s—” She lifts a hand and wiggles it from side to side. “Four months. Given the efforts I required of the young man concerned, it’s hard to pin down a precise date,” she confides, her lips quirking.

“Of course he’s happy,” she shrugs, standing up from her sister’s desk and pushing her shirt up to hook her thumbs in her waistband as she turns back again. “He’s proposed twice, as they all do,” she drawls, “and he proved himself one of those men so sensitive that he puked more than I did.” She quirks her bold dark brows. “Now he’s having more cravings. At any moment,” she explains drily, “I expect him to take to his bed with swollen ankles and an aching back.” Though there’s an unmistakable amusement in her face as well as her voice, discussing him.

“It was a thought, an idea, a suspicion,” Armandine counters brightly back, not resisting the pull as she rises and her arms wrap about her half-sister in sisterly embrace. “I couldn’t be sure, but… Now that you confirm this, I can only say that I am not that surprised. I cannot name the day, the hour, the minute the thought struck me first. Perhaps… a month or two ago.”

Her affection for the half-sister is apparent in the look Armandine gives her, in the squeeze she administers to Emmanuelle’s hand when her arms let go of her, and the faintly conspiratorial glint in grey-blue eyes. “His efforts were graced with success, then. But did his second proposal achieve more than the first? It is rare that the same suitor would consider a second attempt. Fearing perhaps to lose face from a second rejection?” Curiosity tinges her look, her tone, but Armandine does not press Emmanuelle to reveal the name of the man. At least not yet.

After that brief but fully felt embrace, and the last hard grip of their hands, Emmanuelle sits down again on the side of her sister’s desk, this time pushing some papers aside so that she might settle herself more comfortably. “I knew two months ago or more,” she says simply, “perhaps before you had your idea of it— but my little bastard only started kicking me yesterday, so you understand why I waited till now to speak of my condition.” A pause. “The father asked one and a half times, perhaps,” she admits, regarding Armandine seriously; “he didn’t dare be too explicit after what I told him the first time round, but his eyes are always yearning… But, you understand, it would be unsuitable,” she says seriously. “I am, at my age, hardly about to change my name, leave my home which I’ve spent ten years building, and give up my life’s savings and the majority of my free time and my bodily strength, merely to become—” One hand wrapped round her belly, she sniffs at this prospect. “There have been many comtesses d’Avignon,” she drawls. “There is only one Emmanuelle Shahrizai.”

Which arrogant declaration is leavened by the quirk of a dark eyebrow.

"It is a magical moment when you can feel them move for the first time, is it not?", Armandine muses, considering her own memories of pregnancies had. "And it is a safe time to announce it, at least towards those in a certain circle of confidence. One and a half times, hmm?", she wonders, shooting Emmanuelle an amused glance. And then, a low murmur, "I see," to her half-sister's elegant way of answering the unspoken question with that confident statement of hers. It may not be entirely a surprise, as the duchesse probably has her informants, to keep track of secrets within her own family. Still. Armandine refrains again from addressing the man by name. "A father, even as young as this one will be, may have considerations as to acknowledging this child, and whatever consequences his parentage may have on the little one…? Have you already decided on these questions, which family name he or she will bear, and whether you plan to cement your union through a consortship?", is put forth carefully. "There is time still, but… I am certain that you will have all these things sorted out before your child is born?"

“You touch,” drawls Emmanuelle, arising from the desk, “upon matters that are not wholly your concern— though I grant, such a link between Mereliot and Baphinol could well be your business, and so I intended when this time came to tell you myself rather than let you find out via rumour,” she says matter-of-factly, slouching against the far wall with her thumbs still hooked into the waistband of her breeches. If one knows her lean figure well, if one studies it, it’s there: a softening about the waist, the bosom, beneath her loose shirt.

Her blue diamond gaze flicks up to Armandine’s face. “I hope you’ll give me credit for keeping my romantic life off your desk,” she suggests, one hand lifting to gesture to it, “these many years. But I don’t intend to deny him or to ignore him, and so in that sense it will be your business.” She doesn’t look entirely happy. But, when does she ever?

"These matters may not be wholly my concern," Armandine counters. "I am speaking as a sister. And of course, I am also speaking as a duchesse who advises to have things settled in advance so that there may be no misunderstandings occurring sometime in the future. As wonderful as it is to see new life enter our world, we prefer to have provide the most favorable and secure environment for our offspring. Besides, there is Avignon, and its heir has already proven himself most worthy of taking over the title of Comte one day. I think highly of him, and so I cannot disapprove of your choice to take your relationship to another level." She smiles, and it is a warm sisterly smile. "You have never disappointed me, in keeping your personal love life behind closed doors. It is your discipline, I admire greatly, that has made you one of my favored advisors, Emmanuelle. Just tell me… what is your own wish and intention, in regards to him? I wouldn't wish to stand between you and your happiness. And you know of the importance of politics and alliances. I think I agree with what you said earlier. You may be too old to qualify as wife to an heir… but to be a companion at his side, strengthening him? Why not?"

“… The most,” Emmanuelle drawls, the corners of her mouth lifting in an odd kind of smile, “favourable and secure environment. Can you think for a moment that that is not my first concern?” One hand moves to her belly as she straightens from her lean against the wall, and comes nearer to her sister’s desk. “Armandine,” she states gently. She plants her palms upon the edge of that wondrously-wrought desk whereupon the duchesse d’Eisande is used to arranging her correspondence. “Can you think for a moment that any possible permutation has escaped my thoughts?” she asks seriously, looking down into her sister’s eyes.

“Perhaps you forget how matters fell out between us all. I, the secondborn legitimate child of a sovereign duchesse, was the last in line for favour — you became duchesse d’Eisande, Octavien became comte de Florac, Monique became marquise de Chavaise, Melusine became comtesse de Vaucluse — Séraphine, whatever she suffered, was made a princess. You in particular were by our mother’s side every day, long after I’d been banished from this house and this city to grow up in the Night Court instead. I, secondborn, but the child of consortship, was last in line for every earthly favour, and I am the only one of you known by a title I forged with my own hands. Understand, much as I love you, much as I love you all” she stresses. “There was a time when I felt a bitterness fit to blight my life,” she says frankly. She hasn’t let go, yet, of her half-sister’s eyes. “Now, I am very happy; I could not be better suited to the life I live. The choices our mother and my father made for me turned out to be exquisitely correct. But I don’t feel I can choose so for my own child. To make her or him the legitimate firstborn child of a comte, but the last in his line? How bitter would that be, to grow up with?” she asks honestly. “Would you have cared for it, Armandine? The firstborn but the last? But that is only the case if I entertain a legal tie with Jehan-Pascal. If I avoid it, if I keep our understanding as it is now and raise our child as mine only, we’ll be farther removed from such dilemmas. I am not thinking of my own future, but of—” She pats her slightly-curved belly. There’s no more to be said.

"I know it must be," Armandine replies to her half-sister, "your first concern." There is warmth and understanding lingering in that voice. "And I know you are very mindful when it comes to matters that concern you and those closest to you." The duchesse's gaze is lifted, holding the gaze of Shahrizai blue eyes. "And I would be surprised if it were otherwise."

There is of course the soft exhale of air leaving her mouth, the faint flutter of eyelids, as Emmanuelle continues. But Armandine's smile remains on her features, even as it shifts into a more and more pensive quality. "You were a child of love, Emmanuelle, whereas we others were the consequence of a political arrangement. It is as you say. You became what you are through your own achievements. And now look at you… There are times when I envy you for the place in life that allows you more privacy than I could ever dream of. I am a public person. What you see as a blessing that was denied to you, perhaps, when you were younger, can be a burden at times." Her lips twitch into a more pronounced smile. "I love you. We are kin. And yes, I do understand the choice you seem to favor. It is what I meant initially, when I said that such considerations must happen in time, before the child is born. And I assure you, I will love your child as much, regardless of whether they are to be in line of a title or not. I will be their loving aunt, either way. It is uncertainty brought about through such constellations as you describe, that can bring misery and discord, and furthermore, instability, which I cannot condone. I see you have a clear path in mind, and it is a decision I can and will fully support." A nod then, as she lowers her gaze to regard the curve of a belly Emmanuelle pats. A hand reaches out to touch the hand of the half-sister, in gentle assurance.

Emmanuelle’s hand takes confident hold of her sister’s. “I understand the burden,” she says gently, “and I bless Elua that I don’t carry it,” she squeezes Armandine’s fingers, and then her touch gentles again, “and that the other burden I took on was of my own making, and I was free to lay it down when I had the need. I am,” and she looks straight into the other woman’s eyes, “in many ways, the lucky one of our mother’s brood. Don’t think I don’t know it — I treasure it, I treasure what I have,” she promises. “I’ve no regrets and no resentments, barring her company — of course not,” she declares frankly, “though you’ll understand why I’d have wished to have had more time at her side… But in this world we live in,” she breathes out a sigh, lets go, stands up to stretch her legs, “such matters do count,” she pronounces crisply.

“You know all my children are lovechildren. I kept the fathers secret in the past—” She glances back at Armandine. “You know the shit I used to say,” she drawls, and then quotes herself as she strolls about: “‘Remarkable, isn’t it. Fuck enough men and sooner or later one of them turns out to be good for something.’” She breathes in and rolls her eyes, mocking her past self with an amused expression which takes in Armandine as well, and how young they were then.

“Jehan-Pascal is living with me,” she says bluntly, coming to a halt facing her sister at her desk, “and it’s no secret he’s the only man in my bed.” A opposed to men in her dungeon, quite a different category. “My relation with him is such that it’s going to come out, whether I will it or not. The situation is more complex because it’s less covert. At present I’ve no intention of making him any offer — but if that should change,” she promises quietly, “you will know of it, Armandine. You know I’d rather aid you in carrying what you must, than add to the weight of it…. My situation is not ideal, from your perspective any more than my own, but—” She bares her teeth in a wry but fierce Mandragian grin. “Here we are,” she suggests. “On which note, I’ve Dorimène’s permission to give you her father’s name, if you wish to know it.”

Her eldest daughter— the Cereus blossom, born to her when she was so young herself, that gradual swelling of her body that she said nothing of even to her closest family until the late Lady of Marsilikos broached the subject and was determinedly rebuffed.

“Your children, my two lovely nieces and my nephew… I have delighted in seeing them thrive and grow into the personalities they are now. A mother’s love and the absence of political requirements and duties piled upon their shoulders must have a part in it, no doubt. It can be fascinating to watch them move and hear them speak and see echoes of your personality in their bearing.”, Armandine de Mereliot tells Emmanuelle with a smile. “As for Jehan-Pascal.. Hmm. I suppose his father should not object to him moving in with you, for as long as he continues the promising path he has chosen for himself, to make Avignon prosper.” Even so, the warmth inspired by familial bonds dims a little. “Beware though of Hercule Baphinol, Emmanuelle. The Comte d’Avignon has still a say in matters that pertain to his son and heir. It may occur at some point, that Jehan-Pascal will be asked to marry, and you might find yourself in a situation where you must share.”

Words, that had to be said, and Armandine appears relieved as they continue on another topic. “Dorimène?”, she smiles. “Her permission implies that she wishes me to know. Yes, I can’t deny I am curious. Not that I would use this against the gentleman in question but… you know. It has never appeared wise to decline information offered.” A mischievous glint is there in Armandine’s look she gives her sibling. “Even if there is of course the risk in it for you, of me being tempted into teasing you about him afterwards.”

But Armandine’s relief will be short-lived, as Emmanuelle well knows.

Those words of caution seem to roll off the Mandrake’s back; she takes another prowl about the study, listening, once or twice meeting Armandine’s eyes and giving a shake of her head that can’t help but be dismissive, even when it’s directed to the duchesse d’Eisande.

“My dear sister, for all your care you’re missing the point,” she drawls; “perhaps all the points. Which is my doing,” she concedes, “for keeping that side of my life scrupulously apart even from you.” She resumes her seat upon the outside of Armandine’s desk and takes a mouthful of water from the nearest goblet, to claim a few seconds in which she might further compose herself to tell her tale. “To begin with, this gives you nothing you can use against a man who’s been shut up so long in a stone sarcophagus,” she explains, making an arid jest of the disclosure to keep it from turning maudlin instead. “He was a patron of mine before I made him my first lover as well,” she goes on more slowly. “He died before Dorimène was born and with little settled between us. Had he lived I imagine we’d have spoken openly in time, but he never in so many words gave me his permission to reveal our relation— and so I could not.” She shrugs, conscientious servant of Naamah that she is still and has always been.

“But the world has turned since then,” she pursues, “and that old secret belongs properly in Dorimène’s keeping more than mine. She does wish you to know,” she admits quietly. “Her father’s family has become aware of her privately this last year — she is considering seeking their public recognition as well, given that whatever her name she is an Eisandine lady and she has decided to settle permanently in Eisande. Naturally your blessing would go a long way toward smoothing her path there if she elects to tread it.” She lifts her hand palm-up in a respectful gesture toward the woman, the title, the doting aunt. “Her daughters are half-Delaunay; she herself has Mereliot blood, Baphinol, and Rousse from her father’s mother. He was Mathias de Baphinol, the late comte d’Avignon,” she states matter-of-factly. “Don’t strain yourself working it out— we’ve already noted she’ll be my new baby’s great-aunt as well as its sister.” Another fierce red grin, this one with rather more humour in it. Well, you’ve got to laugh at these permutations that turn up occasionally in the family trees of any people whose highest commandment is to love— even if most of them never approach such a complexity.

“As for the rest of House Baphinol’s involvement in my affairs — you’re not saying anything that didn’t cross my mind many months ago, Armandine. I’m not going to let Jehan-Pascal dodge his responsibilities forever,” she drawls, quirking her eyebrows at the naturally concerned duchesse who is also a naturally concerned sister. “He must of course marry. I refused to become comtesse d’Avignon three and twenty years ago and I’m not going to do it now,” she reiterates, “but you may look to see him wed in the spring, to a girl who suits us both.”

The information shared requires an adequate span of silence, and a refill of a goblet of wine. Armandine’s gaze is lowered as she watches the red liquid spill into the drinking vessel, filling it in slow progression. “Firstly. I do not often use information as means of power against mine enemies. And the more I hear the less I think it will be something for me to benefit from. Congratulations, Emmanuelle, for creating a veritable mess.” She sighs, then gives her sister a look. “I wonder why you elected to tell Dorimène, after having protected her and us others from the truth for so long. Luckily for us, Mathias has died long ago, and his heir is ruling over Avignon. I am not certain in what way such a disclosure would help in your current situation, other than making the Comte quite opposed to Jehan-Pascal’s liaison with you. It is… much more extravagant a tale than those wicked and complicated commedical plays of Hellene tradition. It would be hilarious and truly entertaining, because… this sounds all so very impossible.” A chuckle escapes her, but it has as restrained a hysterical ring to it as Armandine would allow herself to — a rare sound it is still.

She lifts her gaze to meet the Shahrizai eyes of her half-sibling, and this time Armandine intends to hold it, the smile that plays across her features, astonished, incredulous. “You must be truly in love, Emmanuelle, because a truly sane person wouldn’t create such a mess and present it to me at a point where it will very likely pose a problem to your situation in general. But, well, Eisheth help me, I have to at least thank you for sharing this truth with me, finally. Look…” She raises her goblet, index finger pointing towards Emmanuelle, “one of the pillars of Eisande’s prosperity is stability. I want the comtés, vicomtés and baronies to thrive, to work together and to add to our standing within Terre d’Ange. The least thing I want is seeing a Comte d’Avignon in severe discord with the young promising man who is to inherit his title one day — and with House Mereliot for being somewhat involved in creating the mess. In the interest of all that, we must convince Dorimène that it is not wise to disclose her relation to the late comte. Not at this point in time. I will gladly speak with her myself. And if I am again just repeating your own thoughts on the matter, all the better.”

The goblet is lowered and held before her, the red wine of little interest to Armandine at the moment. “I believe you,” she assures Emmanuelle with another soft sigh. “As a sister. I am very concerned on how such news would be taken, not in regards to myself but to you. As a duchesse, I see the very likely possibility of people targeting you and putting your claim very much in question. As flawless and gorgeous as Dorimène is, I am not sure if she will be able to endure the aftermath of such revelations…”

In the silence between them Emmanuelle sits stoically on the edge of the desk; then, in receipt of that Look from her sister, she lets out an impatient huff of breath and rises again to resume her pacing, the language of her body growing more squared-off and masculine as she sends her ill temper down through the soles of her boots and into Armandine's expensive carpets. The power of her stride is palpable. A panther pacing up and down in a cage— about to burst free of it, perhaps, by the sheer kinetic energy that mounts in her as Armandine speaks.

"… In my life I have fallen three times into love,” she declares at last, though in her voice these words have a cool and regal intensity. The former Dowayne of Mandrake House has, in her assertion of this rare and sacred sentiment, the arrogance of her own absolute right — born of her discussed heritage as well as her long service to Naamah. But whatever the strength of her feelings she never raises her voice. Rising to the surface, her inner heat becomes a chill. “Two of those three men, many years apart, were of the same family. What of it? Because of my respect for Mathias’s wishes and his political position I’ve kept our relation secret for three and twenty years, while the truth grew colder all the time, while every single one of you," she gives Armandine a brisk up-and-down glance in her capacity as substitute for the entire immediate ducal family of those days, "looked askance at me for not sharing it and pressured me in a thousand ways to speak what I knew I must not, while his kin mourned him and interred him never knowing he had a last late child unborn in my womb. Dorimène too has kept silent for the seven, almost eight years that she herself has known of it. I told her before her debut — I'll give Justine her father's name too, soon." The necessity of this seems so blindingly obvious to her that she goes on at once, without lecturing Armandine further upon the realities of a courtesan's life, and one's natural disinclination to accept assignation with one's closest relations unknowing. “But Dorimène desires to know her kin and to take her place. One might call it a blind spot in the sight of an otherwise canny Cereus politician— or one might simply blame the way I raised her, as a young woman who places love and blood and family above mere convenience,” that lady’s mother drawls. “I have counseled her against speaking and I will continue so to do, because the timing does me no favours, because it is an unnecessary complication for all of us concerned, and because there is no reason she cannot come to know her Baphinol relations more intimately just as she is — and you may with my blessing take your turn at convincing her — but I will not directly forbid her to act according to her conscience. I,” another huff, “spent too much time forming her conscience, to do that now.

“What you keep calling 'a mess', Armandine," and Emmanuelle’s voice freezes dangerously, "and likening to an Hellenic farce, is my family." A significant pause. "And what you call 'a claim', was my first love. Whatever you may presently be thinking, I didn't let this happen to fling Eisande into the shit—" she stresses, and she leans both palms flat upon her sister's paper-cluttered desk and regards her unblinking. "It came about," she states in tones low and unconsciously authoritative, "because we are not only Eisandine, we are d'Angeline."

She straightens; she backs off both physically and in the sheer intensity of her Kusheline presence. “If the truth of my daughter’s blood moves beyond the small circle now holding it— Eisande will be titillated for a quarter of an hour by my passion for men who wear dresses,” she drawls, “but Eisande will recover. If a man must in his maturity gain a new sister, who better than a marqued Cereus courtesan who is niece to the Lady of Marsilikos? Hercule de Baphinol is a man capable of seeing the advantage in the gifts Dorimène might bring him,” she adds aridly, “her intimacy with three courts, the respect in which she is held in the capital— and then, he owes me already more favours than he has yet come to understand.”

Another few bold strides take her to her usual armchair; she sinks into it with her feet broadly planted and her hands clasped together in the gap between her thighs. She looks up at her sister behind her desk. “Luckily for us, he died,” she mimics, darkly scornful. “Elua’s balls, Armandine, I’d beat all seven of Kushiel’s hells out of anyone else who said that to me.”

As Emmanuelle has decided to pace the room, it is clear she is fuming beneath that chilly façade of her countenance. But similar things can be said about the Duchesse de Mereliot who now finally moves to her feet in a brisk motion that sends the chair noisily against the wall behind her.

Luckily for us, in the regard that your daughter wouldn’t have been a true contender for the line of succession, so yes, in this you have my thanks and that of our family for keeping the secret to yourself for so long. The complication, Emmanuelle, is not your daughter, or that she was conceived as a child of love, from a man you loved. Do not mistake my meaning.”, Armandine counters with a stern tone. “Dorimène is a treasure, and I hold her in great esteem. I understand her urge to have this secret revealed, as it will broaden the relations she can call family. She would be such an asset to House Baphinol with her numerous connections, if that is her wish. Were it not for the complication of you allowing Jehan-Pascal to move in with you. You yourself have admitted to me, that the truth about the paternity of the life growing in your womb will not remain a secret for long. You also stressed your intention to keep such a burden off your child’s shoulders. Is it not… a sign of weakness to nurture rumors in regards to Jehan-Pascal, confirming them even by having him live at Maison la Sanglante?” Her lips twist into a mirthless smile.

“Comte Hercule Baphinol might be pleased to find a lost half-sister in Dorimène, but the fact that his son is consorting and having a child with Dorimène’s mother would become quite the distraction from such a felicitous reunion. It will be quite hard for him to swallow. Who knows whether this may jeopardize Jehan-Pascal’s position as heir? If this is a risk you and him are willing to take, so be it.” The reference to the old Baphinol curse has Armandine shake her head in faintly fuming amusement, she crosses her arms before her, with the goblet of wine now settled safely on the desk.

“Forgive me, Emmanuelle, but as we speak I am already dreading the day you reveal the identity of Justine’s father, as it will have me wondering if this may be another secret of yours with the potential to blow up on us all.”, Armandine adds, with similar chill in her voice, even if her aura is significantly different. Eisheth’s blood has her eyes glow with more empathy than she would like, as they linger on Emmanuelle, with undeniable concern.

This does not change a thing about Armandine’s position and stance, though, apart from a faintly apologetic flicker in her grey-blue eyes as she lowers them just for a moment. When she continues, her gaze lingers on Emmanuelle, and her voice is a touch softer, but determination no less apparent. “It is true, Elua teaches us to love as we will. And there is no way I will condemn any of your children to a fate of insignificance. But… You must see that Dorimène’s intentions are thwarted by your own doing. That the comte may be prone to utter doubts as to the veracity of your claim. Because a claim it would become, and confirming that claim will be nigh impossible, as the late comte is no longer around to state the truth of it.”

Again, Armandine’s lips curve faintly. “Luckily for you, you are my sister and I would have anyone else daring to speak to me in such a tone thrown into the dungeons.” Her shoulders lift in a light shrug. Emotions had run high, not entirely hidden by the chill in their speech, but at least Armandine’s voice has softened by now into a warmer quality when she continues: “You are my blood, Emmanuelle. And I see, you and I are of the same opinion here, that Dorimène’s truth may have to wait to be revealed… If your truth about Jehan-Pascal and yourself is to become more easily accepted by his family.”

Some of that first crackling cold fire ebbs away, though Emmanuelle in facing her sister remains resolute. She hears her out and takes several slow breaths before she answers. Determined to remain the coolest one, if possible. "I think, Armandine, that your perspective has been corrupted by the position you were born to and the choices you’ve had to make in your life. But I appreciate the justice with which you manage to speak of my daughter, even amidst this present dispute between us— I wish you to know that,” she states, calmly and conscientiously.

“The true weakness," she goes on softly, "would have been to deny the man I love, the father of my desired child, simply because I was worried what the fuck other people would think about us. He and I have but a short time together before he must marry— I am not afraid to indulge that love, to take such joy as I may have of him while he is free, though the reputation I’ve spent quarter of a century building may suffer because of it." She pauses. "Yes, Armandine,” she reminds her sister drily, “I have a reputation and a position of my own. And despite that I have chosen love over fear, as any true child of Elua ought.” Another pause. “And you're mad if you think his position as heir is insecure because of me,” she offers. “He is already carrying out more business of the comté than I think you know— there is no substitute for him, none at all, whatever fit of vengeance I might — I disbelieve it — provoke. His father is comte in name only, now, and has moreover granted him in a solemn promise the right to choose his own bride, no matter who she might be." A pregnant, as it were, pause. "I refused him, and what more could I have done to secure his interests? But more, too, I have done, and it is more than I can in conscience reveal even to you. Avignon has not suffered from me and it will not. Where I love I do not harm, and I think that is the principle you don’t quite comprehend in me.”

She pauses. "You keep saying 'a claim'. Armandine, I assure you there would be no claim. There would be," she breathes out, slowly, holding her sister's eyes, "an absolute certainty. And this I could have set afire at any moment in the last three and twenty years, had I willed it. But I do not will it. I speak to you of these intimate matters as a courtesy and a confidence, because you are my sister, and because I know my daughter is turning over in her mind the ramifications. And in return you give me shit I've been through from every angle already, most of which I'm trying to pretend I haven't heard from a woman who ought to know me better,” she says frankly. “Are you going to degrade us both by demanding the proof I hold, that Mathias loved me?”

“My perspective,” Armandine counters, as she holds Emmanuelle’s gaze, fingers tapping on her crossed arm with a certain emotional tension, “is a necessity, but you already know that as much as I know that you earned your position and reputation. I had to earn mine as well. It is not easy to maintain a more encompassing view of things… It is what leads me to address my opinion to you as I have done, openly and frankly. As I have to do, given the delicacy of the matter.” Her tone remains calm as well, a matter-of-factness finally getting the upper hand. “I meant what I said when I told you that I love your children, all of them. They are all remarkable in their own right. It is not my intention to hamper them in attaining their dreams and wishes.”

The smile may not be as intense as previous ones, but it is there, a shadow of warmth lingering in the duchesse’s features. “Don’t try to deny what you are admitting already — you are in love, and that much in love that I… for once, Emmanuelle, I have the feeling that I need to ask you to reign yourself in, before you get carried off by your own wild horses. Truth be told, this is about the Comte d’Avignon as well as the Comté, and its inhabitants. The repute of Avignon and House Baphinol. It may be good style for a Mandrake not to give a shit about reputation… but it behooves someone well, who may intend to become a strong supporter for a young promising politician and heir. The question may not be so much, ‘Will his father deny him his whim?’ than ‘How will this affect House Baphinol and Eisande’? Questions that admittedly fall more into my responsibility. Imagine the rumors, of the young Baphinol being played like a puppet on a string, by such a dominant personality as yours. Lies they would be, these false rumors, of course! But it is a weakness that could be exploited easily by enemies of House Baphinol and Mereliot, and I would do a poor service to my people if I would not point this out to you.”

There is a pause, a deep inhale and a soft sigh following, before Armandine continues. “Again, I fear you are getting me wrong. I do not need any proof, to know that you are speaking the truth. I believe you, when you tell me the late Comte fathered Dorimène. That you loved him and he loved you back in turn. Your word is proof enough to me. But… I can imagine other parties would like to see evidence. And such evidence, I suppose, will be hard to come by.”

—-

<FS3> Emmanuelle rolls Presence+Composure: Great Success. (4 5 3 5 4 7 4 1 8 5 8 8 4 3 2 6)

The receipt of blow after blow from her sister’s well-meant misunderstandings and underestimations is driving Emmanuelle to the edge of reason and beyond — perhaps why in her present chilly intensity of feeling she seems, to one who knows her so well, to need reining in — but so many years as a Mandrake have sharpened her senses and her will until, at some point, self-discipline becomes an instinctive reaction and she cools herself in truth.

Well. Eventually. It wouldn’t be wise to alienate the duchesse d’Eisande; but the sister in her, yes, she receives a little more of Emmanuelle’s wearily acerbic tongue.

"Armandine, can you hear yourself?" she drawls quietly. "Ten minutes ago you were envying me my place as the child of love between a powerful woman of land and title and a dark, dangerous, dominant Kusheline aristocrat— our mother had her Shahrizai tending her from the shadows and Eisande survived that, you may recall, whatever rumours their passion may once have engendered. And you praised too how well I had brought up my own children, how thoroughly I had protected them from secrets, and politics, and impossible demands. Can you suppose I will do less for this one? I was a long while ambivalent about so public a liaison — which, as you know, I’ve never before indulged in — but having considered it rather longer than you've had time to do, I believe I see a way through. I understand," and she breathes out, again consciously gentling herself, "that I am hearing in the main your first reactions, and I am endeavouring not to take your occasional callousness too much to heart. You haven't had time," she emphasises, "to weigh what I've told you. I didn't expect this to be a simple discussion. But you understand too that I cannot take you seriously when, by your new logic, I ought to let the fear of rumour and imputation confine me to the least of men, whilst my nature inclines me toward the best. Yes, I have influence over Jehan-Pascal, as all lovers influence one another. But that influence is,” she takes a deep breath and favours Armandine with the cool and implacable blue fire in her eyes— even as merely in speaking so she makes a concession she wouldn’t to anyone else, “I swear to you before Elua and all his angels, integral to his work for Avignon, of which it pleases me to hear you speak so highly. I have promised him my continuing care and support, and I will not deny his need of me. And that," she stresses quietly, "is a service to Eisande the nature and the extent of which I cannot prove now, but which I am confident you will discern in the years to come. This is happening, Armandine," she reminds her seriously, curling a protective arm around her belly. "I came here to show you my trust; I would like to see a little more of yours in return. I hope you will accept, at least, that you have not yet a complete understanding of these intimate matters, and that I who know what you do not am devoting endless thought to all that might harm the man I love or the lands to which he is bound by a passion even greater than he feels for me. The only reason I would leave him,” she says bluntly, “is if I believed I was doing him more harm than good.”

She takes and lets go of another breath. "As for Dorimène's position, I'll gladly send her to you to discuss it. Perhaps your pessimism will bear more heavily upon her than my patience. And she, at any rate, is capable at present of getting to the end of a conversation," and Emmanuelle levers herself up out of her armchair, a hand still on her belly, "without having to piss."

But upon reaching the door she came in by she turns back and takes a step toward her sister instead. She hooks her thumbs into the waistband of her breeches, crumpling her shirt in the process, and explains quietly: "Dorimène knows that I retain in my possession every contract her father and I ever signed, copies of which exist even now under seal in the archives of the Rose Sauvage, and several hundred letters written to me in his hand, ranging from apologies for being late to luncheon because he was detained on the business of his comté, to extensive and lyrical appreciations of my pregnancy and his increasing reverence for my body." She quirks her boldly-drawn dark eyebrows at her sister. "That's what I call a certainty. I'm a courtesan, Armandine. We're good at paperwork too,” she drawls. “I’ve no desire to tell the world so much of my business, but if it comes to a question of supporting my daughter’s word, I’ll have to— she knows that,” she repeats, absolutely and unflinchingly the mother bear ready to defend her offspring, “and I tell you as well so you’ll know what we’re up against with her.”

They have, whatever else is in dispute, that interest in common. Even if Emmanuelle’s fierce parental loyalty has led her to enter into rather more debate than was wise.

“I’ve meant every word I said, and as you may very well know, the truth comes in many layers. It is because I care, about you, about your children, as your relative, but also I have to care about Eisande, I owe it to that in particular, that I need to address what you may perceive as uncomfortable truths.”, Armandine de Mereliot responds with a weary flicker of a smile. “Now that you mention it, yes, I do remember the tales of stir and scandal, of our mother electing to choose her consort, and how gracefully she managed to maneuver herself through it all.” A faint smile curls her lips. “It is not that I am afraid of scandal, or that I have any doubts about you being true about your intentions with Jehan-Pascal. It is not that I disbelieve you, nor that I would need any proof to consider your revelations to be true. I, the sister, need to point you to potential perils, and I, the duchesse am bound to do the same.” And with another weary smile and gentle shake of her head, Armandine regards Emmanuelle for a long moment. “Even if that means provoking the ire of a former Mandrake Dowayne.” Her eyes twinkle a little at that. “And of a woman who is obviously deeply affected by her current state.” She lifts her chin.

“Go if you must. And forgive me if I am not pleased with your news. I am not turning a blind eye on the fact that there are detractors out there, enemies of Eisande and House Mereliot. I have been brought up to anticipate trouble, and I see a great potential for others to exploit this development in a manner that could harm us both, and Avignon as well.” She waves her hand dismissively at the mention of letters, another slight shake of her head there. “It may be reassuring for Dorimène to know there is such proof. I for my part do not require it. And I do hope for her with all my heart that such evidence won’t ever require to be presented.”

She follows Emmanuelle to the door, holding it open for her, even as — her sister, the duchesse de Mereliot — adds quietly, “Give Dorimène my regards. And tell her that her aunt will gladly hear her out on her concerns of the past and her plans for the future.” A beat. “And don’t mistake my caution with pessimism, my dear sister. I of all will be the happiest Mereliot in all of Eisande, should my concerns eventually prove to be unfounded…”

Leaving it at that last conciliatory note, Armandine lingers for a moment in casual lean against the door frame, as her gaze follows her departing sister with a look of warmth and concern.

Emmanuelle breathes in hard. “… Of course I must,” she drawls, flicking a glance downward and then up to her sister’s face. “It is my deepest wish,” she states gently, looking into her sister’s eyes, “that you should be beautifully, magnificently wrong. But we shall see, no?” And after they share a last — well, how is it avoidable — pregnant glance, the all too powerful lovechild saunters away through the outer chambers, leaving the legitimate heiress behind.

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