(1311-08-20) Paying For It
Summary: Returning to her normal round, after a fashion, Philomène finds Iphigénie taking a rest from her own. The bills for their recent actions do seem to be coming due all round. (Warning: Mature, Valerian themes.)
RL Date: 20/08/2019 - 07/09/2019
Related: The Incident at the Palace plot in general; particularly, The True Pull.
iphigenie philomene 

Garden — Maignard Residence

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

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

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

There’s been a distinct dearth of Monday night notes requesting the use of the Maignard garden the following morning, stamped with the distinctive insignia of a bull. But then there’s been a distinct dearth of the limping figure of the Chalasse vicomtesse out and about at all these past few weeks: not in these gardens, nor those of the temple, nor the rose gardens of the Rose Sauvage.

This Monday night, however, a familiar looking maid did drop in with a scrawled note, including apologies for not having sent word recently, and signed off with a simple P instead of the usual stamp and ‘Gueret’, asking for use of Iphigénie’s garden the following morning for half an hour between half past seven and eight, if it’s not inconvenient. It’s a frankly worrying level of politeness.

And thus it is that the following morning a carriage, unmarked - this is clearly not a Chalasse family vehicle - drops a familiar looking guest in a worn and extra-well stitched brown riding jacket, who limps her way to the entrance and knocks to be admitted.

Half past seven and eight— Philomène is admitted as usual, into a foyer in which only one workman is still stationed upon his scaffolding, working miracles of carpentry.

A pair of subservient but watchful Kusheline eyes follows her out into the garden, where the flowers are blooming and the bees are gently buzzing. The double doors of those empty reception rooms are shut but not locked behind her; she is left to her own devices for as long as she cares to stroll along fresh-raked dark gravel paths, through a parterre garden that has grown only more fragrant in her absence. It’s not as immaculately tended as it might have been— but the scents it yields are exquisite, redolent of the Eisandine summer.

The bees beset her, but no more than she’s used to: a modicum of caution is all that’s required to avoid their stings, and they absorb her talk with perfect willingness.

She might expect furniture to appear beneath the spreading canopy of the elm tree. Today, though, it doesn’t: there’s an open door in the rear façade of the house, to the right of the main doors through which she has been accustomed to pass, and a pale-faced and dark-gowned Kusheline maidservant stationed just outside it who curtseys if she comes closer.

Today’s walk comes in fits and starts. Ambulant for no more than five or six minutes at a time, Philomène finds herself taking all too frequent rests with one hand against the trunk of the elm tree she’s using to measure her progress— and even the bees find themselves starved of conversation today, the vicomtesse’s breath being a scarce enough commodity not to be wasted on words. It’s not even the full half hour that she takes before, a sheen of sweat formed on her brow far more than the warmth of the morning ought to produce, she limps her way heavily towards the main doors to leave. The maid is granted no more than a curt nod and a quiet thanks in passing, presumably to be passed on to her mistress.

As Philomène nods and passes by, the maid’s voice arrests her progress.

“… Milady Maignard asks that you take a cup of tea with her, milady,” is the gist of the woman’s message, “inside, if it please you, milady.” It’s rather more deference than Philomène would have from any servant of hers— but it seems genuinely well-meant, and it’s accompanied by a gesture of the woman’s hand toward that open doorway.

Garden Suite — Maignard Residence

Opening from the garden of the Maignard residence, via a single heavy oaken door opposite the elm tree, this chamber is decorated as a painted garden. Faded by the passage of years, pale flowers and birds of unnatural provenance are depicted against a backdrop of green that runs down to skirting boards of tarnished gilt, carved to echo the floral intricacies of the cornices and the high coffered ceiling which reflects so gently the light from iron candlestands below.

The furnishings are sparse in relation to the room's long rectangular spaciousness: all of antique mahogany, all of a century ago, their age betrayed by style rather than wear. Inside the high mullioned windows of distorted glass, there's a desk to the right and a marble-topped washstand to the left, with a screen just past the latter to create a triangle of privacy in one corner. Adjacent to the desk is a comfortable armchair upholstered in dark red leather; next to the washstand, a smaller white-painted chair makes up in convenience what it lacks in arms. A broad dark marble fireplace is set into the house's innermost wall. Directly opposite it stands an uncurtained four-poster bed made up with hemstitched white linen sheets and bountiful pillows. From each bedpost dangles an iron chain adorned with a soft, padded red leather cuff.

Two large, sturdy, travelworn oak chests stand against the wall between the bed and the desk; the broad windowsill above the desk is home to a collection of books legal, theological, and botanical: no fiction, no poetry, no frivolity. Alone beyond the fireplace is a single mahogany armoire. There are no looking-glasses, no pictures, no objects unnecessary or decorative. Away from the windows and the garden's green the chamber's other, darker half is left bare.

At the end a door opens into a small square salon such as might be found in any noble house, albeit appointed in a more Kusheline taste: all straight lines and angles, dark wood and tarnished gilding, and narrow hinged looking-glasses which fill each corner from floor to ceiling and offer unsettling reflections.

As Philomène steps inside the light shifts from before her to behind her, illuminating in turn a large bed made up with pristine white sheets and occupied at present by her friend.

Iphigénie is resting on her hip, facing towards the doorway, with a few fat goosedown pillows beneath her head and a feather-light, silk-filled quilt draped over her. Everything is soft and white— her bedding, her hair, the thin skin drawn across her high Kusheline features… But there’s a shadowing about her eyes and her lips are a deep wine-red: she’s painted as usual, if not dressed as usual. Whatever garment she has on under her bedclothes, on this August morning rapidly growing warmer, is just a suggestion of white beneath the light, lacy, undyed woollen shawl twined about her shoulders and gathered in her hands.

Her green eyes are watchful. They widen as Philomène’s shadow first crosses her doorway; as the other vicomtesse comes in, she pushes her hand down against the mattress and strives to sit up a little to greet her. The effort seems to cost her something: her face tightens, then relaxes again as she settles. “My lady,” she says gently, higher now against her pillows, “good morning.”

In the broad windowsill behind the desk is a collection of heavy leatherbound tomes upon themes theological and legal and botanical — but no fiction, no poetry, no frivolity — and the desk itself has been cleared and the accustomed tea things laid out upon it, beyond Iphigénie’s reach but quite accessible to anybody sitting in that well-upholstered desk-chair.

Given that her current state is a) too warm and b) exhausted, Philomène makes no bones about limping directly over to sit at the chair by the desk, not even bothering to ask if she might. It’s not until she’s lowered herself down, that taking considerable concentration and even with that she’s not able to entirely hide the wince of pain, before she finally lifts her chin, fixes her gaze on the other woman and responds, “Good morning, my lady.” The words are short, through lack of breath rather than anger though, for once. “Thank you. You’re unwell?” No unnecessary words, but a raised eyebrow, her elbow resting on the chair-arm for the support to keep her upright.

The tea remains forlorn and forgotten for now. Give the woman a moment to settle.

Iphigénie might ask the same of Philomène, given the look of her.

Following her visitor’s progress to the chair — one hand tucked between her powdery-soft cheek and her crisp linen pillow-slip, and her eyes above narrowed with discreet concern — she suggests instead: “I feel weary this morning.” It’s true enough. “A late supper with a friend… I’m resting today,” she explains, “and I hoped you wouldn’t mind sitting with me a little while as I am. Last time you were the one abed — I suppose it’s my turn, isn’t it?” She smiles ruefully.

“I admit that I didn’t realise we were taking it in turns,” Philomène notes with a hint of dry humour, turning quite deliberately in her seat rather than twisting as she begins to set up two cups for tea. Everything is prepared and in place before she risks the weight of the teapot itself, and that’s with two hands. “What may I do for you?”

Ah, then, she’s only lifting the teapot the way Iphigénie always does. “… Oh, vicomtesse, I promise you I’m very well-tended,” her hostess says softly, without making too explicit a reference to her maid Nadège’s facility with invalids; “I hoped you might give me a little company before you go, that’s all. And,” she sighs, “if the tea fails to revive us, perhaps you might look at the hemp leaves drying in my windowsill,” above her washstand rather than her desk, which sill they share with a small black-lacquered dressing-case and a long-stemmed pipe presently empty, “and tell me whether you suppose they’re yet in a fit condition to be enjoyed—?”

Tea is poured carefully into the cups, a little honey added to one and Philomène stirs this as she considers. “If you can crumble them, they’re dry enough,” she points out, “but I’m told there are other ways in which one might prepare them. I’m no herbalist, though, so perhaps what I say ought to be taken with a grain of salt.” The spoon clinks against the cup another couple of times before it’s withdrawn and the cup of tea presented to the invalid (because Iphigenie can accept that word even if Philomène won’t).

“I’ll take advice from the temple before I smoke any at the moment, though,” the Chalasse admits, sounding rather embarrassed to have to take any sort of advice from anyone. “I’m told I should avoid excess strain on my lungs for the time being. You wouldn’t believe the amount of sitting around I’ve been doing. It’s horrific. What do you have, at least, to entertain you while you’re resting?”

The addition of the honey earns Philomène a wry smile from Iphigénie, who then uncurls her hand from below her cheek and shifts again to receive the offered cup with both hands. She lifts her head and takes a little sip, pleasantly scalding her tongue, and then sips again. “I think that may be wise of you,” she suggests, “considering what you have endured… My lady, will you hold this for a moment?” she asks apologetically, and returns the cup to Philomène’s keeping. “It’s a trifle awkward…” Again, she plants her hands amidst her nest of fine white linen and draws herself upward, and breathes out a distracted sigh. Her shawl shifts about her shoulders, revealing fresh and healing lacerations, too red upon her thin white skin.

Sitting up higher she rearranges her shawl absently and then reaches out to accept her cup of tea once more from Philomène’s hands. “Thank you,” she murmurs. Another sip. “Well,” she answers, “this morning I dictated half a dozen letters to my maid, who writes a much fairer hand than my own,” a faint chuckle, “and now I have you to talk to, vicomtesse. When I’ve no more need of a clear head I may see if the hemp will crumble properly for me.”

“Writing letters and talking to me,” Philomène responds, taking up her own tea in both hands to cradle, even given its warmth on an already hot morning. “What a grim existence for you.” The red marks are spotted, noted silently, and not mentioned. After all, it’s not her business to go asking about injuries and she’d rather stick pins in her eyes than have anyone ask her about hers.

“Your gardens are smelling particularly fragrant right now,” she notes. “Will your Nadège perhaps accompany you into a chair outside later? You’ll miss out, otherwise.”

“Perhaps if I feel well enough in the afternoon,” Iphigénie temporises.

She shifts from her hip onto her back and lets out another vague sigh, and drinks more deeply from her cup of delicately honeyed tea. By the time she lowers it, she has come up with another gambit. “And your Caroline? Do you find that she serves you as you would wish?”

“She hasn’t stolen anything from me yet, so she’s already beaten my expectations,” Philomène responds, lips pursing for a moment. But then her expression turns to one of grudging acknowledgement, a shoulder shrugs and she nods. “A little too obliging for me, I’ll admit, but she serves well. I thought she might at least fight back about waking at four to serve me schnapps for breakfast, but no. Perhaps,” she allows, knowing full well that she has, “I’ve taken a little advantage of her youth and willingness, seeing to what extent she’d go. But I haven’t found that limit yet, and I’m a bored old woman with a mischievous streak. You did warn her, didn’t you?”

“… Once again, vicomtesse, I think you are not being fair,” murmurs Iphigénie, knowing that to be a criticism that will rankle. “How much defiance do you truly expect from a commonborn serving-girl of seventeen, when she faces a highborn vicomtesse of fifty who holds her livelihood and reputation in her hands? When she has lost two places already and she relies upon you now to allow her to pay her debts of honour?” It’s rhetorical. The former Valerian goes on. “It is your responsibility to know when you ask too much of those who serve you,” she reminds Philomène, and she sips her tea. “I should think a lady of your birth and your rank would have been raised with an understanding of the obligations as well as the privileges of such rank as you’ve always held. To push, and to tease, and to stretch obedience as far as it will go— that’s really more the pastime of a sadist, isn’t it? … I ought to know,” she suggests gently.

“Very well,” Philomène relents, eyeing her hostess over the rim of her cup of tea. “I’ll return breakfast to a sensible time and stop teasing the poor girl. But if she’s nothing but an automaton, we shall have to find her a new employment as soon as we’re able. If nothing goes missing while she’s with me, I’ll give her good references, which might at least do something for her.”

"You don't know what she is," sighs Iphigénie, "if you have put her into a position in which she spends her every waking moment fearing some unreasonable demand she hasn't yet the standing with you to refuse. I warned her,” she agrees, nodding, “to speak honestly to you, and never to fear the consequences of such honesty, because I knew that was what you’d prefer. But I fear now that you may have spent every day since putting that fear into her,” on which note her gentleness is eclipsed by a note of arrogant Kusheline certitude.

Again she sighs. “My lady, I imagine you do well with the old retainers of your house,” she suggests, “but what experience have you in dealing personally with new servants—?”

“Not one bit,” Philomène agrees, taking a sip from her tea and leaning back against the arm of the chair once more. “If our tenants and farmers can manage to get by on their own wits and their own hard work, why the hell should we be any different? I’d rather hire somebody to help with the fields than with the laundry.”

“Now you place me in a quandary,” and Iphigénie takes another sip of tea by way of punctuation, “for I know better than to offer you help, vicomtesse, even though I see that you are in this small respect perhaps in need of it.” She drinks again, and offers Philomène her empty cup to set down again, and with it a glance eloquent of her amusement.

The cup is accepted, topped up, and a further spoonful of honey added, all this in silence.

It’s not until the tea is offered back to Iphigenie that she raises a brow, either a challenge or a question or both. “If she stays with me, eventually I’ll train her to be like me, and then not a soul will ever hire her. Better to find her somebody who wants a young maid who’ll do as she’s told, and I’ll agree that she’s perfect for the job.”

<FS3> Iphigenie rolls Empathy: Great Success. (8 7 4 1 5 4 3 5 7 8 3)

On the face of it, what an absurd suggestion: but Iphigénie looks steadily into her friend’s eyes without yet drinking from her replenished cup, and she forbears to jest.

She brings the cup slowly to her lips, drinks a little, and lowers it from her pristinely painted mouth to suggest, “I think that is a distant enough prospect, vicomtesse, that it need not concern you unduly in these next months. If you find upon reflection that you are not in a position to take on another servant permanently,” a gentle stress upon that last — which would solve everything, making an old retainer of Caroline too, “it is likely that I will have further positions to offer in this house before the end of the year, one of which I will keep for her, if she does well with—” A gentle smile. “The challenges with which your service presents her.”

“When I’m a little more myself,” Philomène insists, that being a euphemism for y’know, being able to walk more than five paces without needing a sit down and a drink, “I shall take her with me to Eisheth’s gardens and begin instructing her at least a little on soil types and so forth. She won’t leave me without at least some sort of useful education. That much I can do for her.”

That sounds, to Iphigénie’s elderly and experienced ear, as though it will benefit both women equally, as well as she herself who might inherit such educated service. “A kindness I would appreciate,” she says softly, turning it into a gesture toward herself, more palatable thereby. She drinks a little more of her tea and then holds out the cup, her wide green eyes extending the question of whether or not Philomène will oblige her by taking charge of it.

Philomène obliges. Both cups are set down on the desk, both are topped up with a little more tea because why not, while the tea is perfectly brewed and not yet bitter. She also goes into her inside pocket for a familiar looking flask and begins to unscrew the cap without even bothering to look at it. “I doubt she will,” she points out. “When I tried to impart the same knowledge to my daughters they looked at me as though I was mad. Young people have no appetite for the agricultural arts.”

Iphigénie’s hands lower, and she rests fully against her pillows. “Perhaps,” she suggests mildly, “their sense of time is foreshortened yet, and a year’s cycle seems too long to comprehend. You and I understand that it is little enough, all in all, and that our actions in the spring will bear their yield in the autumn… Not for me, please,” she murmurs as a precaution.

“You and I,” Philomène points out, dribbling what is for her a modest amount of a clear liquid from her flask into her tea, “understand that a year is barely long enough at all, and over all too quickly. And every year passes yet faster. Would you believe that I’ve been in this city a full year and then some already? It seems like no more than a year or two that I left the mountains, and yet it must be. I’ve three fully grown daughters, and a young grandson. And somehow in my head I can be no more than twenty five years old, surely?”

Resting, her shawl loose and her hands quite limp now, one vanished under the bedclothes and the other curling up towards her pillow, Iphigénie murmurs, “I suppose I don’t think that way, my lady— the years have brought me certain pains, but not even to be strong again,” a faint smile, “would I give up all that I’ve learnt, and known, and done. There is good and bad in any life; the balance shifts; which part is good and which bad shifts too, but I do believe the balance must always be maintained, if one… if one seeks out that point of equilibrium,” and she sighs again, unaware that a spot of red blood is blossoming upon the whiteness of her shawl.

“There are parts I wouldn’t give up for the world,” Philomène admits, replacing her flask back into its pocket and taking up her tea for a sip. “But then there are a great many more things I’d certainly do differently given the option to try again. That will stain if you don’t get it into cold water,” she adds, producing a handkerchief from her sleeve and presenting it to Iphigenie with a raised eyebrow and a small nod towards the shawl. “Please.”

Which takes Iphigénie by surprise; but then she accepts the handkerchief and her eyes follow Philomène’s, and she tugs at the shawl to bring the stain further into her view. “I thought it had stopped,” she sighs, evincing no particular surprise or distaste; quickly, without ceremony, she sheds the shawl and tugs its other side out from under her, and presses the handkerchief to the bleeding wound she has thus discovered. “Will you ring the bell, please?” she asks.

And there is a small silver handbell, standing on the desk. Philomène may have seen it before, another example of her silversmith-consort’s work, often in reach.

Across Iphigénie’s shoulders the lacerations Philomène glimpsed before stand out brightly upon white skin mottled with a tender redness, the evidence of a whipping not so many hours ago. Her plain white linen shift has narrow straps, one already marked by blood; her arms, left bare, tell tales of their own. Her left arm that she rests upon is marqued with a suggestion of banded flora that can’t quite be seen or interpreted, buried down amongst her pillows; her right arm and shoulder are stronger, unexpectedly muscled and powerful, with what seems to be a passage of text in a foreign tongue curling down around her sinewy bicep, beginning at her shoulder in royal blue ink and melting slowly through violet into a rich, deep red above her elbow.

“But if we had it all to do over again— don’t you think we would make the same earnest and well-meant mistakes?” she suggests gently, as the bell rings out.

Somehow it feels intrusive to stare, and so Philomène takes her time to examine the bell instead after ringing it, deciding at this very moment an ordinate interest in the craftsmanship of the silversmith rather than taking in the tattoos, wounds and scars of the other woman’s shoulders and arms. “Some of the most life-changing mistakes, though,” she counters, “were ever on a knife edge. They could have gone either way. You never stop to consider how a single change might have made a huge difference?”

It doesn’t seem to bother Iphigénie, though, who lies there with her right arm above the bedclothes and regards Philomène with due consideration for her words. “Of course,” she admits, smiling slightly, “sometimes. But when I regard those most significant moments, when a word alone would have changed the outcome— I tend to come to the conclusion,” she sounds almost apologetic, “that what happened was overall for the good, and for my good. Such a goodness is not always painless, or simple, but… necessary, for one to grow.”

On which note the far door opens and her maid Nadège, surely by now a familiar figure to Philomène, comes in: dark-garbed, pale-faced, ignoring the Camaeline in favour of her mistress. They exchange a few words upon domestic subjects; the handkerchief is lifted and the damage beneath it inspected; then Nadège lays upon the bed a similar but more encompassing black shawl taken from the bureau, and the white shawl leaves the room in her hands.

“Perhaps that’s a fundamental difference in our natures,” Philomène suggests, pursing her lips. “You are content where you are, and with the decisions that brought you here. I believe that had I fought a little harder, perhaps I might have been in a better place. I believe there is always a better way and it frustrates me that I don’t always choose it.”

“… Surely,” Iphigénie suggests gently, pressing that handkerchief still to her slowly bleeding shoulder, “had there been any way in which you might have fought harder, you’d have done so. In such a moment it must have been your highest concern, to give all that you had— you were not holding back, then, were you?” she asks of her visitor, with a tender and forgiving note in her voice. “To doubt the outcome is to doubt yourself, and that is what makes it alluring — we doubt ourselves sooner than we doubt anyone or anything else,” she stresses. “Sometimes you may well take the best way, or at least the better way amongst those you are given. To choose the best from several difficult paths is to choose well, not wrongly.”

Philomène shakes her head, taking her cup of tea in both hands now. “But looking back, there were other options I could have taken, if perhaps, I’d been slightly,” and she eyes her friend, “slightly less bloody-minded. Or if I’d stopped to think for a moment before launching myself at whatever the damn problem was. Take the Skaldi creature. I could have called for the guards and that would have been the end of it. But no, here I am, with a fucking hole in my chest and all for the pride of taking down just one more of the little shits.”

“… Then that is your burden,” Iphigénie suggests gently, “that you sought to serve more than was given to you. Admirable, in the angels’ eyes. Perhaps not always practical upon the ground where we must live. I cannot propose to judge you, my lady, knowing so little of your situation.” She removes the handkerchief from her shoulder, eyes it, and presses it there again.

“I think on the whole I should focus more on being practical, then,” Philomène notes drily, pausing to sip from her mostly-tea. “I’m more than aware that I do these things not from any sort of obligation to the angels but for pure self-gratification. At least I’m aware of it after the fact, when I’m not being duly outraged. I’d make an awful politician, you know. Would you like another?” she adds casually, nodding to the handkerchief. “I’d like to think that you stop to think before you act, and that is the underlying cause of your contentment with life. I ought to learn from you. I mean, I doubt I ever will, but I ought to.” A quick, self-deprecating smile.

Beneath which hail of compliments Iphigénie lowers her glittering green eyes.

She lifts the handkerchief, eyes it, touches it once more to her wound, and seeing no alteration in the pattern of blood spots she just holds it clasped in her right hand.

“Forgive me,” she says gently. “I will see that this is laundered for you to collect next time you come; I’ve a very good laundress.” A beat. “My nature, my training, my innermost desire, is to gratify others before my own self,” she admits, unapologetically. “Before I act I try to think of those others, and the consequences to which my own acts might lead— but that is never any more than conjecture, is it? We all do the best we can with what we know at the time. We take what we want, and then,” she exhales softly, “when the bill comes due, we pay for it.”

“And,” Philomène proposes, leaning back in her seat and wincing only a little with the effort, “if the price is worth it, then we’d do it all over again, hm? It is our nature. If there’s the chance to argue and fight and prove myself, I’ll always take it, no matter the consequences. Is it worth it? Well, I’m not sure, if I’m honest. But it isn’t going to stop me.”

“You honour your own most intimate principles,” observes Iphigénie, “without calculating the cost of possessing them. There’s a profligate splendour in your character, vicomtesse, which I concede I find… admirable.” She murmurs this with a quick quirk of her finely-drawn eyebrows, and then reaches for the dark woolly shawl her maid left next to her in case she should repent the removal of the white one to her laundress’s care. “A little more tea, perhaps?” is her next suggestion, as she arrays herself in this less susceptible garment. “It’s early yet.”

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