(1311-09-13) The Gentlest Quid Pro Quo
Summary: Towards the end of the feast celebrating the opening of the Great Exhibition in Marsilikos, scant acquaintance ends in coffee.
RL Date: 15/09/2019
Related: Previously, Maybe A Little Ruin; takes place after the tail end of, Great Exhibition: Opening Feast.
safiye hugo 

Great Hall — Ducal Palace

High and light colored are the walls of the Great Hall, woods of golden tones used in the wainscoting that reaches till mid-level, with elaborate ornaments of fish chasing each other carved into them. A great hearth governs one end of the hall, with a large shield looming above, showing the coat of arms of House Mereliot. With six tall windows on one side framed by long dark blue curtains of heavy brocade, the wall opposite has a line of a couple of shields of Eisandine Houses, placed at regular intervals, and the pair of impressive double doors, through which courtiers usually will enter. The floor is of polished cream colored marble, enhanced with white inlay work depicting the ever repeating pattern of Mereliot fish. Lighting is provided through the lamps at the walls and three large chandeliers suspended from the arched ceiling, polished glass beads glittering where they catch and magnify the light of candles.

And when talk has been succeeded by music; when many of the elder dignitaries present have retired, leaving their juniors to pursue less official diplomacy; when the banqueting tables have been plundered of viands; when there’s dancing on the terrace and drinking round the great hearth left cold in summer’s lingering warmth; when the work of being an understood but unaccredited Ephesian representative with goodwill to cultivate, or a rising young naval officer who intends to rise considerably farther, is more or less done— Safiye Hanim turns away from an exchange of goodnights and finds herself again face to face with Hugo de Trevalion.

Her eyebrows lift and she gives for once a smile as unstudied as his. (She’s emptied several goblets of wine, so perhaps it’s no wonder.) In subtle ways she’s less immaculate than earlier in the evening, her figured silks showing a few creases and a strand of loose black hair tucked behind her ear and tickling her neck below her earring’s gleaming graduated golden flower-medallions. “My lord Trevalion, how goes it with you?” she asks easily.

It’s the time of the evening by which jackets have long since been abandoned, neckcloths unfastened, and many interesting combinations of beverages are being created via the judicious collection of half-finished glasses from around the place. Groups of young men, mostly — who else? — are daring each other to drink. One of the tables has been completely cleared of food, drinks and crockery, and another group of young men are clambering up and over it and under it, displaying great feats of athleticism for little purpose but showing off.

Therefore it’s somewhat of a relief to Hugo to find an excuse not to be badgered into whatever game the boys come up with next, and his smile for the older woman is genuine. With a touch for her elbow to encourage her away from the latest cheer to go up, and over towards the relative quiet of the area by the large windows opening onto the terrace, he gives an amiable nod. “It’s been an eye-opening night, Madame, don’t you think? Is it always like this?”

Safiye lets Hugo have her arm and falls into step with him— her shadow, the taller and younger woman garbed in darker shades of her own turquoise and blue and gold, brings up the rear as impassively as she has done all else this evening. “Here in Marsilikos, I don’t know,” she murmurs; “but I have seen many festivities in the City of Elua end so. I might have left sooner,” she concedes with a husky low chuckle, “but I was caught up in a discussion of— well,” and she breathes out, “I was trying not to discuss the repatriation of certain prisoners of war.” She lifts her eyebrows at him as if to say, who could possibly relish such talk? “… After all,” she adds, a touch belatedly, “I am not by any means an ambassador, and what can I do?”

“Are you not?” Hugo asks guilelessly, brows lifting in surprise. “I’d thought you were. Is there a different ambassador for your people here, then?” As they reach the edge of the hall, where another glass has been abandoned, he picks it up almost automatically, glances at it, then decides he’s not that drunk, and puts it back. “But then I suppose coffee is a far better way to spend your days than arguing with a bunch of stuffy diplomats over which prisoner is equivalent worth to which of ours.”

As they step out into the night air Safiye once again laughs softly. “My lord, there is at present no accredited Ephesian ambassador to Terre d’Ange— and of course no woman would ever be considered eligible for so august an office,” which seems to amuse rather than to offend her. “But I came to your land two years past with the embassy of that time, and when the embassy left I asked leave to remain, and so in the absence of anyone else…”

“So in the absence of anyone else, the talk of prisoners falls on you,” Hugo supplies, leaning his head back for a moment as they step out into the night. He takes a moment to think, then eyes her sidelong. “Which explains why you were so chatty with my cousin. I was going to introduce you, you know. Rather glad I didn’t now, I’d have looked like a tit.”

Meeting his eyes similarly sideways Safiye laughs again and shakes her head— that strand of hair comes loose and she tucks it away with impatient fingers. “No, no, my lord,” she assures him, “that was not so grave a matter — of course it was not. I would have been grateful for your kindness in that matter,” she dips her chin toward him, “but that Her Grace and I have met several times before and we have friends in common. We spoke only of those friends, no more, and then she kindly introduced me to a kinswoman of hers who was born in a part of the world not so far from my own… the lady Farah,” she explains, “by birth a Shamabarsin.”

“I met so many people tonight,” Hugo admits, “that I don’t think I could recall a single person’s name if you challenged me. I’ll just have to nod, and smile, and say how pleased I am to see them again if I see any face I vaguely recognise, and if I haven’t met them, then they get to spend all night wondering if they forgot.” He laughs, giving an easy shrug. “I can see why my father has a secretary for these events now, following him around. If I’d had any sense I’d have brought the coxswain in, but… well… that might have raised a few more eyebrows than your lady here following you does.”

“Ah, that will be amusing for you — for them, too,” Safiye chuckles. “My lord, I hope you will tell me how your strategy succeeds…” She glances back over her shoulder then, to the young woman still patiently following her. “Please, will you explain to me that word you used,” she says then, her eyes returning to Hugo as they reach the edge of the terrace, above the night-dark gardens below and the intermittent lights of the city at their feet. “Coxswain,” she attempts, slurring it slightly, that being an item of nautical vocabulary not yet her own.

Hugo rests his hands on the railings as they look out, his gaze rather more for the stars above than the city below, only occasionally glancing back to his companion as he speaks. “Coxswain? Ah… well, do you want the full story or the short one? The short version, he’s the fellow on board ship responsible for the captain’s boat, and so by extension tends to look after the captain, too.” He shrugs again, beginning to absently roll down his sleeves now he’s out of the oppressive heat of the ducal ballroom. “The longer version is all to do with the sorts of boats and the old term for husband — not that sort of husband — and things. A cog was a boat, and a swain is a husband, like… well… boatswain, too. Similar etymology. Um. Where was I?”

Next to him Safiye rests one hand upon the same railing and listens, her ear a touch less acute so late in the evening and so far down into her cups. “… I don’t know,” she admits, laughing again and shaking her head as she lowers her eyes into the garden’s shadows; “when I hear a new word I always ask, if I can, but I don’t always understand. If it is about boats, that explains it. I used to live in a suite of rooms overlooking the Bosphorus,” she admits, her gaze lifting toward the harbour and the sea, both sporadically illuminated by the lights of ships in port, “but I had not been in a boat on the water until we journeyed to Marsilikos.”

“I should apologise in advance, then,” Hugo notes, turning to look over towards the harbour in kind. “We’ve got rather a lot of words that are unique to ships and sailors. It’s a whole different language out there. Just assume if I say something you haven’t heard before that it’s something awfully important and technical and nautical.” He takes a long breath, half smiling. “I don’t know how you can possibly live by the sea, even for a week or two, and not want to go out on it. How can you see the Bosphorus every day and never take a boat?”

That linguistic disclaimer meets with another low laugh from Safiye. She assures him, “Very well, my lord, I will assume as you say to assume, though I hope you will try to explain to me what you wish… I am always curious to learn something new.” And then, eyeing that smile which emerges as though unbidden when he speaks of the sea, she sighs gently. “My lord, it is not always a matter of— volition,” another of her newest words, produced with an evanescent tinge of pride. “I lived for most of my life in the zenana of the imperial palace, from which one may not simply go out, and take a boat, and go on the water,” she points out, smiling crookedly.

Hugo turns, lifting himself up easily to sit rather precariously on the edge of the railing, facing back inwards towards the light spilling in from the ballroom and the occasional cheer still raised up from the interior and the drunken antics therein. “Well, I can see why you’d stay in Marsilikos, then,” he decides, this clearly being the most important reason he can see. “Where you can take a boat out any time you want. And,” he adds after a moment’s thought, “where you can be trusted with political discussion about whatever.”

Next to him Safiye rests her hip against the railing. The slight breeze coming inland off the water ruffles her elaborate Ephesian silks, the pleats of her skirts and the tassels of her sash. “Your land is very different,” she murmurs, “and though I find much in it that is strange, there is much else to admire. If you traveled to Ephesium you must know, perhaps, that the coffee-houses of Constantinopolis are for men only… Coffee is something I have always known well; but the first coffee-house I have ever set my foot in,” she chuckles richly, “is here, and my own.”

Hugo exhales, rolling his eyes. “Ohh, what wouldn’t I give for a good cup of coffee right now. And yours is by far the finest I’ve ever had. I’m not just saying that, either, it’s good. If you could teach the coxswain to make it like that, you’d have the whole wardroom eating out of your hand, you know.”

“But only women make such coffee,” is Safiye’s unhesitating rejoinder, “not—” Her face tilts toward his where he sits above her on the railing; again she quotes his own word in that questioning tone: “Wardroom?” she suggests. “Another word from the sea, my lord?”

“Where the officers gather and work and socialise when we’re not on duty,” Hugo supplies amiably. “And why on earth can’t a man make coffee? Is there a magic ingredient only found in women involved, and if there is please do not tell me or I’ll never enjoy a coffee again.”

Safiye listens with interest, though then she rephrases it with the idiosyncrasy of a non-native speaker who’s had a few: “A room upon the sea, then,” she deduces, “for officers. My lord, thank you. Wardroom,” she repeats. But then she laughs again. “I do not know why not, but it is so. Men do not usually make good coffee — in Ephesium…” This being a longer tale than she intended to tell, she takes a breath and curls her hand again about the railing. “In Ephesium a woman is judged upon her coffee as much as her beauty, almost. A bride-to-be might find that her betrothal was ended, if she made poor coffee for her future husband’s parents. It is an art for women. In my kitchens at La Perle Noire the coffee is brewed by women, always.”

“Ah, so with your beauty, you should never need to make a pot of coffee in your life,” Hugo offers politely, although he does follow it up with a wide smile and a little rock back and forth on the railing, apparently completely unconcerned what might happen if he lost his balance and fell backwards. “At sea I don’t know you could even really call it coffee,” he admits. “We’ll grind a few beans that haven’t gone too mouldy, and add burnt biscuit to give it some colour, and then top that up with water. It’s not a patch on the real thing.”

That takes a moment to — as it were — percolate through; then Safiye laughs and looks out into the night before turning again to regard Hugo in his casual attitude. “Please, do not tease me, my lord,” she pleads gently, and then she falls silent as she listens to his tale of coffee at sea, which she mostly understands. Her countenance grows more serious. “… But I made quite good coffee at sea,” she admits, “for Their Highnesses, as we journeyed here from Constantinopolis. The cook did not at first like to see me in the— galley,” she pronounces carefully, “and the small fire in the box was not what I knew, but after a few tries it was not so hard. If your men do not make you good coffee, my lord, perhaps—” And she indulges herself in the obvious tease, her smile curving. “Perhaps it is because they are men?”

“Or perhaps,” Hugo counters, pointing a finger towards her, “they’re all just so pretty that they don’t need to learn.” He grins broadly at his own joke, letting his legs swing. “But the ship you took, with princes and ambassadors and servants and all was hardly a warship, was it? Take the Swallow, my ship, she’s a fast sailor, beautiful lines on her, and when we put to sea there’s not an inch of freeboard for spares, powder, shot and supplies. We can’t fill the entire hold with coffee just because we fancy it. And,” he adds, with another little jab of his finger towards her, clearly quite proud of his ship, “with the speeds we make, the water comes in. Supplies get wet. It’s the nature of the life. I promise you my lads make the best coffee possible under the circumstances.”

Listening as intently as before Safiye murmurs, “Freeboard,” though perhaps softly enough that her word is lost beneath Hugo’s. Really, she’s just trying to follow him.

“… It was,” she murmurs, “the ship that brought us to Terre d’Ange, no, it was not small. There were forty-two cannon,” she explains matter-of-factly, “or so they told me. But my tools for brewing coffee, they were in quite a small box, my lord,” and she releases the railing to sketch with both hands in the air the general dimensions of it, her gestures vague but not unbecomingly so; “a little of this, a little of that, a cezve, a few cups… Nothing got wet from the sea,” she adds, her gaze flicking up to meet his, “that is, in that handful of days.”

“Only a few days,” Hugo points out. “She’d hardly have been near fully loaded for that. You should have seen the Illustrious when we shipped out for the New World. She’s a forty-two and we were practically sleeping on top of each other in the gunroom mess — I was a midshipman then, so I wasn’t in the wardroom yet,” he explains casually, adding more words to her rapidly expanding naval vocabulary.

“You were a…” Safiye repeats, somewhat hypnotised by the vocabulary. She sighs and looks aside and shakes her head. “My lord, I speak six tongues,” she admits, “but it is late in the evening and I fear my understanding is failing me. I hope you will forgive me for my confusions. Truly,” she confides again, “it is the only time I was on a ship, and I rarely left the quarters set aside for the women.” She looks back toward the palace’s lighted windows. “… My lord, you’re quite right, a cup of coffee would be welcome at such an hour.”

Pushing himself off the railings to land lightly on his feet, Hugo dusts himself off and raises a brow at her. “If you’ll give me a moment to go and fetch my jacket, I’ll gladly walk you to the Perle, if you like?” he offers. “Not that I think there should be too many thugs about this time of night, but I’d feel like a bit of a pig if I let you wander back alone.”

Which offer requires of Safiye a complicated calculus; at the end of which (the wine helps her to work it out) she simply decides that this is Terre d’Ange, and there is no harm in it.

“… My lord, I have Damia’s company already,” she murmurs, referring to her shadow stationed some paces away, where she may or may not have overheard their talk; “but I think you would like a cup of coffee,” again she dips her chin, but whilst holding his gaze with her own, “and since I fully intend to brew coffee for myself, I could make two cups as easily as one.”

“You saw through my cunning ploy, then,” Hugo allows with a broad smile, briefly touching his forehead to acknowledge Damia behind them. “Just let me see if I can fight my way through… whatever they’re doing now… to my jacket. I won’t be a moment, I promise. I’m dying for a cup of your coffee.” With which he disappears off for a few minutes, finally to return, triumphant, with his dark blue jacket casually slung over one shoulder.

Almost in step with him but from the other direction Damia returns, having been sent on her own mission to retrieve the cloak of dark red velvet her mistress arrived with in case of a late-night chill. But Safiye waves it away, and her attendant settles in behind her again as she comes from the terrace to join Hugo just where the darkness meets the light. “… They are quite loud,” she murmurs, being herself quite soft as she flicks a glance toward the revels within. “I hope they are as happy as they are loud, or else isn’t it rather a waste, my lord—?”

“They seem happy enough, although I don’t think I’d want to be their heads come morning,” Hugo points out as he offers his arm. “I know I’ve had a lovely time this evening. And you, Madame Hanim? I mean, it’s hard to tell. I didn’t see you partaking in some of the games with them, so who knows.”

As they pass out of the Great Hall and through portions of the palace precincts quieter at this hour — open doors give way before them along the red carpet leading into the courtyard, the rue de Palais, the temperate Eisandine night beyond — Safiye listens to this and sighs again, and then gives a soft velvety laugh that echoes off marble. “… My lord, I am sorry,” she apologises, “but I think you misunderstand my name. I don’t mind, truly, but if you are going to keep saying it at these kinds of parties, you might embarrass yourself before someone else.”

The poor boy immediately looks contrite, touching his forehead. “Have I got it wrong again? I’m so sorry, it’s the sheer number of names unfamiliar to me and my tongue. I assure you no offence is meant. How should it be pronounced?”

“Ah,” and seeing that gesture out of the corner of her eye Safiye laughs again, a testament to how much wine she has had to drink— hardly her intention, but what else was there with which to wet her throat during such endless talk? “But although you have visited Ephesium, my lord — although you have begun to know our ways there,” and then as they cross the courtyard she breaks off and smiles at the guards, bowing her head to each of them in turn.

She doesn’t resume her explanation until they’re descending the hill.

“My lord, in Ephesium we do not use second names as you have in Terre d’Ange, only titles— and those are confusing to a foreigner, I know,” she explains gently, “because there are so many, and sometimes the… the usage, is unusual, because to each rule there are exceptions honoured by time. A long while ago— centuries past, before our grandparents' grandparents walked under the stars, 'Hanim' was the title of a queen-consort. Now, though we still say for an example 'Sultan Bayezid Han' — the form for men," she lectures softly, picking out the most recent instance, a few weeks old only, the name and title of the new ruler so linked with her own, "'Hanim' is the honorific accorded to the daughters of imperial princesses and to the wives of certain particular noblemen and leaders in war… Or, indeed, their widows," and she bows her own head in graceful acceptance of that fate of her own. “It is not a name,” she repeats simply as she straightens, with one eye still upon her lamplit path downhill.

Hugo takes his time to mull this over as they continue down the hill, unmolested by late night thugs (all of whom went to bed hours ago, presumably, like sensible little thugs).

“So,” he eventually asks, the words drawn out with considerable thought. “I’ve two questions, then, if I might? The more straightforward one is how I ought to address you, and my apologies for getting it wrong, and then how to address your young lady here,” with a nod towards the maid still following doggedly. “The other question is one more of curiosity, though. I just want to know how you can tell what family anyone is when you’re introduced, if it’s all titles and no names?”

“Well, my lord, in Terre d’Ange I have usually been called ‘Lady Sophia’,” Safiye answers easily; “it is a translation, but it is close enough. The words mean just the same.”

And then before she can address the rest of Hugo’s queries there’s a scuffle behind them; and should they, only naturally, turn around in unison above their linked arms, they’ll see a poor unfortunate who chanced to come out of the street they just crossed too close to them for Damia’s liking. Despite his being larger than she, she’s pinned him against the wall of a magnificent official building of white stone and she’s briskly checking him for weapons. Whatever the customary reticence of Ephesian women— it is not on display here.

“… You will perhaps,” Safiye ventures after a moment, below the man’s vociferous protests, “not find yourself obliged to address my good Damia.” A moment passes. Her attendant, not a maid as such things are usually reckoned, releases her quarry with a shove back into the street whence he came, given hard enough that he falls, swearing, upon the cobbles.

There’s a moment or two of silence before Hugo suggests under his breath, “You know, maybe the coxswain wouldn’t have stood out quite so much after all.”

Safiye calls out a few husky Ephesian words to Damia. Then their downward progress resumes toward the brighter lights of the Place des Mains. “There was, as you know, an ambassador murdered not long ago,” she murmurs to Hugo; “I am not an ambassador but even so I do not like to walk alone in the streets— and I did not know I might meet you, my lord.”

“I think I’m rather pleased I’m on your side,” Hugo points out wryly. “Remind me never to cross your woman. She’s terrifying.”

(Possibly Damia preens quietly to herself.)

The nascent feminist in Safiye, gently nurtured by those goblets of wine, suggests: “My lord, would none of your men do the same if they feared you might be in danger? For some it is their task; and if you like my coffee I hope you would not wish it unprotected.”

Hugo extends his free arm around him, gesturing to the distinct lack of any men with him. “My men are spending their pay and pissing it up against a wall somewhere, most likely. We’re sailors, not soldiers. They’ll stand and fight to the last man at sea, for sure, but if any man of them is sober ashore I’d be shocked.”

Now that is a phrase which Safiye, but two years in Terre d’Ange and moving for the most part in exalted circles, has not happened to hear and inquire about: and so as they descend into the Place des Mains, lit well even at this hour and crossed by Eisheth’s shadow, she looks to Hugo and inquires, “Spending their… But what is there about money and a wall, my lord? I don’t think I understand that,” she confides, the pressure of her hand upon his arm subtly guiding him — lest he has forgotten — to turn toward the Grand Plaza not so far away.

“I’m sorry,” Hugo immediately realises his language may perhaps have been unsuitable and winces internally. “I just mean that our lads… well, they get paid at the end of a deployment, the longer the deployment, the more they get paid. And when a sailor suddenly has a lot of coins in his pocket, it tends to be spent on the things you can’t get at sea. Drink and women.”

“… Oh,” says Safiye a moment later because, bless her, despite her innate cynicism about human nature, these things still sometimes come as a surprise to her after a life lived in a sphere of women rather than men. “Yes, my lord, I understand now,” she offers diplomatically, letting him off the hook as far as can be from what she vaguely senses is difficult; and she asks him another few questions about the nautical terminology to which he has thus far treated her until they come upon the Grand Plaza and the shuttered windows of La Perle Noire.

At her front door she uncurls her hand from his arm and turns away; and then she turns back to the door holding a heavy iron key which grants admittance to the lounge, lit at this hour by a single fitfully burning lamp in one corner. Two large and swarthy Ephesian men are sprawled asleep on pallets just inside the doorway. They stir at the turn of the key and rise belatedly at Safiye’s entrance and in answer to her firm commands in the language they share.

Farther across the lounge there’s other movement — another light is kindled as the proprietress, her bodyguard, and her guest step inside — behind them Safiye locks the door, turning away again conscientiously to put the key wherever it was before. Wherever that is.

So now Hugo is trapped. In a room. With an affable Ephesian woman, two Ephesian men who look like they could snap his neck, and an Ephesian not-a-maid who most definitely could. The lengths he’ll go to for a cup of coffee.

“I suppose I can’t help at all…?” he offers cautiously, shaking out his jacket and sliding his arms into the sleeves. Well, perhaps they’re less likely to set on him if he looks more official.

Well, but it’s good coffee.

The lounge is eerie at this hour, the tables empty and the silken drapes mere shadows only beginning to glow in the light of those two paltry lamps. Safiye reaches for Hugo’s arm again, then withdraws her hand as she sees him donning the jacket he’s been carrying, then assures him, “Of course not, my lord; you need only sit for a moment whilst I brew our coffee.”

And her hand closes gently just where it rested before, though now over an additional layering of ceremonial armouring; and she leads him across her empty premises and through a long passage of shadow and into half-light again, where she indicates to him a table at the rear of the room near the doors leading to more intimate precincts. The guards so casually woken, remain near the front door. The intimidating Damia pursues. Though, mirabile dictu, once Hugo is established at that table — in opening hours, one of the less coveted, but at present the most convenient — she follows Safiye into the bowels of this quiet lamplit house.

Hugo may hear one or two phrases discordant to his ear simply because that’s Safiye’s gentle voice when she’s barking orders to subordinates— and then a visibly sleepy serving-boy comes forth, and moves and attends the lamp, setting it at the far end of the table beside his, Hugo’s, place upon the indicated divan. The guards remain in the distance, by the front door, any sound they make or word they utter well-muffled by the carpets and divans and cushions and draperies in between, which in La Perle Noire make private conversation so easy to obtain.

A few minutes pass and then unseen hands open again the door through which Safiye disappeared, and she — that loose strand of hair pinned out of the way again — comes to him with a bright, shining, polished silver tray bearing La Perle’s coffee service for two: a pair of wrought-copper cups better than he has seen before, two glasses of spring water (these tonight not plain, but painted with climbing flowers from a base of green), an elaborate pottery dish holding pieces of lemon-flavoured Ephesian delight in a quantity roughly twice that he has ever been offered alone. The gambit succeeds: he is not to be murdered, only caffeinated.

She brings this extraordinary antique tray to where Hugo sits, and as he has seen her do before she lowers herself to her knees as she lowers the tray to the table… Only this time, her eyes close, as if in silent prayer that she’s going to make it there unscathed.

It’s all a little bit awkward. He’s invited himself here when he clearly wasn’t needed, under the flimsy pretence of protecting Safiye in the streets but it’s well understood between them that he’s just after a fix of her coffee. But he’s not exactly a regular patron of the otherwise closed coffee house right now, and then, good grief, is she praying? It would be very impolite to intrude on that, but on the other hand… well… foreigners.

The answer occurs to Hugo that he should probably just sit on his hands and be the polite guest, and so he does just that, admiring the painted glasses and the shining metal with more enthusiasm than any sane man ought, but just to find something to do with himself.

It’s a very long silence, but he somehow manages not to fill it with inane queries. For now.

But Safiye’s eyes do open soon enough, just when she feels the firm comfort of her own elaborate carpets under her knees. The tray lands upon the table. The limited light heightens the striking asymmetry of her face, whilst being kind to the traces left by time.

“My lord, I found what Ephesian Delight I could in my kitchens,” she admits, dispensing cups of foaming coffee and glasses of crisp cold water at his side of the table and then her own, “but I fear it may be past its freshest… I hope you will forgive such makeshift arrangements,” and, as candid as she was with him during their walk through the city, she seems a little more formal now. The plate of lemon-flavoured Ephesian Delight, which she sets down halfway between them, is likewise more intricate than he has seen before: the stylised patterns of blue and turquoise and green and gold upon it suggest peacock feathers.

“It’s hardly makeshift,” Hugo insists with a half smile, briefly gesturing with one hand towards the plate, the sweets, the shining silverware and the entire service. “And I did sort of invite myself, very rudely, to join you. All that talk of your coffee, you understand. But you’ll tell me if I’m intruding, won’t you? Or perhaps I can return the favour and take you to enjoy my job some afternoon. Take a boat out down the coast, show you some of the sights?”

Safiye’s two hands curl about her copper cup, though knowing well enough when she brewed this coffee she doesn’t yet lift it to drink. “It is very well, my lord,” she admits; “I always drink coffee before I sleep, and it is amusing to have company… A boat?” she asks then, sitting up straighter and regarding him with a degree of lamplit curiosity. About them the lounge is silent.

Hugo is not as wise when it comes to the intricacies of coffee drinking, and he lifts his to his lips the moment he has it in his hands, at least for a tiny, slurping sip.

“A boat,” he agrees, lowering the coffee to his lap again and nodding. “We can sail along the coast, stop for a drink, then sail back. Sounds like a pleasant day out, all in all. Why not.”

The idea piques Safiye’s interest; but even at this hour her deepest-rooted instincts are in play, and she demurs. “My lord, a… a… boat,” she murmurs, and then the wrought-copper cup in her hands rises to her lips and she drinks rather more deeply than might a neophyte, particularly so late at night. The tip of her tongue quickly licks the foam from her painted lips before she lowers the cup again. “I did not intend to put you under any obligation, my lord,” she assures him quickly; “but that it is easy to make coffee for two as it would be for one, and in Terre d’Ange, these things do not seem to be— That is,” and she laughs, “I do not mean to suggest that you count for little, my lord, but that people here may meet without obligation.”

“It’s as easy to sail with two as it is with three,” Hugo counters, but holds his hand up in surrender. “But fine, I’m hardly forcing you to join me. I just thought that you might like to experience the sea. I don’t think anyone would think particularly badly of you for it.” He shrugs, reaching for a piece of the confectionary to nibble as he waits for his coffee to cool.

On which note Safiye, after two years studying the manners and the mores of this absurd land, likewise surrenders. “… My lord,” she states in a firmer voice, placing down her cup of coffee more definitely than she intends, “I would be honoured to see this sea,” a slight curve of her painted lips, at that pun, “with you. I enjoyed it the last time,” she admits, and then she laughs, “when I was not ‘below-decks’,” a term employed with care, “making coffee.”

“Excellent!” Hugo approves, smiling easily so his dimples show. “And instead of making the coffee, I’ll show you how to handle a fore-and-aft rigged dinghy so with a bit of practice you’d be able to sail out yourself if you wanted. Without somebody keeping you cooped up where you can barely even see the water. You could sail all the way along to Caerdicca Unitas if you wanted, take a little holiday there, or along the south coast. I can’t imagine being stuck in one place for too long, it must be so stifling.”

Across from him Safiye finally relents far enough to shift her position, sitting with her legs curled sideways rather than just kneeling. Her hands lower, to rearrange her skirts for the sake of modesty and elegance both. “A— ah,” she breathes, uncertainly, and then having already committed herself she just smiles. “I’m sure you are correct, my lord,” she offers. Then: in that tone she always adopts when placing an earnest inquiry: “Cooped?”

“You know, like a chicken,” Hugo explains himself, brow furrowing as it tends to do and as she has no doubt noticed when he’s trying to be helpful. “Stuck in a small space. Not really allowed out. Cooped. In a coop.” There’s a pause as he considers. “Unless it’s something to do with barrels? I don’t actually know. It’s a phrase, anyway. Being cooped up means you’re stuck in a small space and can’t go anywhere else. Basically it’s hell.”

“Stuck in… in a small space,” Safiye repeats, “and can’t…” It seems to percolate through to her as, thus far distanced from her goblets of wine and provided with her own exquisite coffee, she drinks deeply again of the latter. She lowers her cup but keeps it in her hands. “I think… my lord, I think you mean… forgive me,” she smiles gently, “but I wonder what it is you know, what it is you have been told, of… The imperial zenana,” she explains, with that same inexorable kindness, “is a city of five thousand women and eunuchs. I know for a surety there are many people in Terre d’Ange who live in a world less… populous, than that.”

“… Yes?” Hugo agrees, puzzled. “But it’s also a little larger than a single ship, even a forty-two. What I mean to say is that when space is limited, anything that’s your own is very welcome. And if you get to decide where to go and what to do, it’s better yet. Am I making sense?”

“… My lord,” says Safiye gently, lowering her wrought-copper cup after another deep draught which has nearly drained it, despite the heat and the strength of her coffee, “I decided to stay here — and what I have here is my own. Am I,” she teases, “making sense?”

“And the only thing keeping you here is you,” Hugo approves, leaning back a little as he takes a further sip from his coffee. That stops him speaking for a moment or two as he just enjoys the flavour, the rich bitterness with the sweet, and the hit of caffeine that is surely welcome. “But I don’t think I’d like to stay in Marsilikos forever. To be honest, I’ve been here only a few months and I’m itching to get away again already.”

At the other side of the table Safiye, in her present indulgent mood, the coffee having encountered the wine and renewed it through the magic of good fellowship, inquires quite innocently: “But is there something detaining you here, my lord?”

Hugo looks at her as though she’s quite mad. “Well, of course there is. I can’t sail again until my ship’s refitted, and in the meantime I’m supposed to be doing all the appropriate lordly things to prove I’m a fitting Trevalion and so forth. Make a few friends in high places, plant a few suggestions in their ears, and then go out and prove I’m a valuable naval officer they want to give a ship of his own.”

Safiye’s painted eyebrows lift. “There is a difficulty with your ship, my lord—?” At least she doesn’t say ‘boat’, though that may be pure chance. “Oh, then you are meant to, to…” Whereupon she falls back upon a good old standby that has served her well these umpteen years. “Forgive me, my lord,” she murmurs, lowering her eyes, “I fear these matters of your navy are beyond mere womanly knowledge… but I wish you well, in all your many pursuits.”

Hugo eyes her over his polished copper coffee cup. “I’m meant to…?” he queries. “And I somehow doubt you’d be chatting happily with the highest ranking lords and ladies in the province with your ‘mere womanly knowledge’. Go on, spill what you were going to say, I won’t be offended.”

“My lord, I am not certain what you mean,” Safiye confesses, bowing her head over the copper cup held in both her hands. “But I would hope, of course, I would hope that those admirals and commodores of your Royal Navy who come here to drink the coffee they like so much—” He must have glimpsed a familiar face or two, if not in such precincts a familiar uniform.

On that note Safiye looks up to meet his eyes, her own warm and brown and very gentle. “That they would overhear respectful words spoken of you, my lord.”

To which Hugo can only laugh quietly, inclining his head. “Well, it certainly isn’t going to hurt matters if they do,” he agrees with a smile. “Provided they’re genuine, at least. And so I’m on my best behaviour. Showing up to the balls, the exhibitions, the dances and so forth. The coffee here, though, is my own indulgence. I don’t think any of our admirals will think to themselves ‘who’s that promising lad over there with a cup of coffee?’ when they’re looking to outfit a new ship.”

“Talk sometimes does travel, my lord,” Safiye equivocates gently, “and as you have extended to me already a hand of friendship, I should be pleased if I could in some small way aid you in return… And, ah,” she sighs, and drinks almost the last of her coffee, “in such a house of relaxation and repose, who knows where such admirals’ eyes may not linger?”

Hugo holds her eye for a moment longer, giving a very slight nod of thanks before he lifts his coffee to his lips and tips back the last of it with a pleasant little sigh. If he wasn’t awake before, he certainly will be now.

That gentlest quid pro quo having been established, Safiye drains her own cup likewise. She nudges the plate of Ephesian delight towards him. “Another taste, my lord?” she suggests gently. “To ameliorate,” she smiles faintly, boasting of that word, “the bitterness of my coffee… Very well, my lord,” and she rises with him and by her own hands unlocks the heavy oaken door which releases him into the Grand Plaza and, eventually, tomorrow: sleep.

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