(1311-09-15) Here Everything Is Gentler
Summary: Étienne d’Arguil comes to La Perle Noire in search of good coffee and good company, and perhaps just a wee bit of Cultural Exchange…
RL Date: 14/09/2019 - 15/09/2019
Related: Great Exhibition: Opening Feast.
safiye etienne 

La Perle Noire — Grand Plaza

The face this establishment shows to the Grand Plaza is a window display of coffee beans in a fantastic blown-glass vase, against figured silk which changes with the seasons; and a pair of heavy oaken doors guarded by a swarthy, bearded, well-muscled man in Ephesian costume, who bows patrons out of Terre d'Ange and into a foreign land redolent of fine coffee and cinnamon and tobacco, lit by countless candles suspended each in a gleaming glass lantern from a ceiling that billows with ruby-red silk and cloth of gold. Layered carpets of many colours, intricately woven and warmed in winter by a hypocaust, soften the music of pipes and drums and mandolins that filters through this sanctuary of civilised pleasures. Here a friendship might be forged or renewed, a deal struck, or a day simply whiled away in Eastern opulence and ease, amidst the red and the gold and the smoke.

In the middle of the main lounge is a raised circular stage upon which an horologist's glass marks the lapse of two hours between performances by Ephesian dancing girls, or minstrels singing joyously in the tongue of that land, or even a local d'Angeline bard telling tall tales. Low tables of dark wood radiate therefrom, surrounded by lounging cushions and richly-upholstered divans; the outermost are set in alcoves which may for privacy's sake be screened by shimmering silken curtains. If one desires amusement, one may summon at any hour alluring dancers whose brass finger-cymbals chime to accent the undulations of their hips. If one wishes to smoke, one may command a water pipe. But the true business of the house is the coffee. Perfumed young men in loose trousers and embroidered tunics move to and fro like angels dispensing this liquid mercy: strong, fragrant, frothing kahve, brewed cup by cup from the fine-ground black pearls of Ephesium, served in elaborate copper vessels beside tall glasses of pure spring water and plates of esoteric and delectable foreign sweetmeats.

Several sets of doors at the rear of the lounge lead away to the kitchens; to a stairway ascending toward smaller chambers which may be reserved for private parties; and outside into a courtyard, open in fair weather.

The nature of the urges that good Ephesian coffee inspires in those who partake of it, ensures that at any and every hour between dawn and dusk La Perle Noire is the haunt of addicts who've only just gotten up: one crew succeeding another, frequently before the previous lot have torn themselves away. Amongst them Safiye Hanim moves like a benevolent goddess, warned by her staff of any highborn or particularly distinguished patrons who may come in, or of such regulars as can be relied upon to rack up a substantial bill every time they cross the threshold… Clad today in extraordinary silks of red and saffron and gold, she sits for a few minutes with a party of Caerdicci merchants who've plainly settled in for the duration; ascertains the wishes of a Siovalese scholar; brings coffee brewed with her own hands to a local Eisandine comte who can't get enough.

And, such is her mercy, that when she espies Étienne d'Arguil settled where his purse dictates upon one of her lesser divans, she spares a moment in which to approach his table — bare, yet — and clasp her hands together before the elaborate necklace of semi-precious stones which fills the low 'V' of her bodice, and to inquire: "My lord, I hope you are taken care of well—?"

Étienne looks around, openly fascinated as any pilgrim in a holy place in a far land. Everything about the furnishings is magic to him and the delicious scent of coffee, spice, and tobacco has him grinning his delight. "Everything here is wonderful! Is this really what your homeland is like?" He is trying to imagine how anyone could bear to leave it if so. "And how are you this fine afternoon." He is trying not to stare at that fascinating asymmetry, but it's a struggle.

"I am well, my lord," Safiye answers courteously, "and I hope you are also. Perhaps," she allows, glancing this way and that, each tilt of her head slow and gracious, "this is not the truest vision of Ephesium— the building is in the style of this city, adopted from Hellas, and it was not practical for me to alter everything," she admits with a smile, "but as far as I can guess, I have made an Ephesian house in Marsilikos. Have you ordered your coffee—? I will see that it comes to you soon," she promises, in her rôle as proprietress.

Étienne says, "What would you suggest I order? For my first time, I mean. Everything smells and looks wonderful, but I am not sure of the custom or what is best." He gives her a quizzical look, "As far as you can guess, Lady Safiye?""

Ah, then Safiye has come upon this neophyte earlier than intended. She considers his questions. "Unless you like to smoke," she muses, "perhaps just the usual coffee and a sweet. Today my cook has made Ephesian delight flavoured with orange-blossom; I think you might find it delicious, my lord," she suggests gently. "For guessing… well, different lands have as you know different customs. In Ephesium coffee-houses are for men only. In Terre d'Ange all is arranged differently. The first coffee-house I have visited, thus," and she lifts a hand laden today with different rings — chalcedony and citrine, "is my own."

Étienne says, "I've never smoked either. I fear I'm a bit of a barbarian… Oh! The orange blossom delight sounds delicious." He blinks, trying to imagine a world where women and men do not mingle freely, "I didn't realise." He searches for a polite way to ask, but gives up as the silence starts to stretch, "Would you… drink coffee with me and tell me… I would very much like to hear what it was like for you living there. From your point of view and not such stories as sailors might tell or male diplomats."

Yes, there are several magical words in that speech— d'Angeline men tend to have a command of those, even if the uses to which they put them don't always garner Safiye's approval. Still. Beneath sounds of low talk muffled by carpets and cushions and drapes she murmurs, "My lord, I fear I would bore you with such banal talk. Shall I perhaps send one of my girls to dance for you? Or—?" Because she did, in fact, witness how he glanced after Symon de Perigeux.

Étienne looks up at her with those big, beautiful angel kissed eyes and that perpetual innocence that he can't seem to polish away, "Please, I'd much rather listen to you, and not just because of the rare beauty of your voice. I really would like to know. I'm… interested in things. Not… I mean, I like to watch really skilled dancers, but I'm not interested in…. If you are too busy or I am too banal and callow to interest you as a conversationalist, I understand and won't be offended, but I really would like to… hear about your life and your home."

For once Étienne's absurdly youthful air works in his favour— he's immediately put down as harmless, harmless and queer. Safiye smiles gently. "Why don't I see to your coffee, my lord," she suggests, and she bows her head to Étienne where he's semi-recumbent upon the divan, and takes a step back before gliding away whence she came— through a door at the rear of the lounge, after pausing a time or two more to bestow deferential greetings upon her regular clientele.

Étienne looks so terribly hopeful, "I would like that very much, Lady Safiye, and would be most honored." He is careful not to be caught openly admiring that graceful glide. He is young, but not

Some minutes later — there are even more demands upon Safiye's time, once she passes behind the scenes of her Black Pearl — one of the perfumed young men who serve as waiters here comes to kneel before Étienne's table bearing a tray crowded with a pair of wrought-copper cups of foaming, cinnamon-fragrant black coffee, another pair of tall glasses of spring water, and a plate of that promised orange-blossom Ephesian Delight intended for two and thus twice the size of some of the others he has glimpsed upon tables elsewhere in the lounge. The perfumed young man arranges these offerings just so, the plate in the middle.

Safiye is not too long in coming thereafter. She catches up a fold of dark red silk as she lowers herself gracefully to her knees across the table from Étienne upon his divan, and then smoothes her garments about her as she settles there. "My lord, please forgive my delay. If this is your first taste of Ephesian coffee, I hope you shall enjoy it very much," she says to him, full of sincerity.

Étienne watches the young man from under lowered lashes, "This smells amazing, thank you." He admires the arrangement as he would art and is loath to disturb any of it. He has not yet noticed the size difference in the service and Safiye's reappearance visibly startles him, since he wasn't really expecting to be quite this honored. He gives her a delighted and entirely unschooled smile, pretty as a flower turning towards the sun. "It is my first taste of it… It smells so wonderful and rich and spicy."

"I hope you will be cautious, my lord," suggests Safiye, "not to burn your tongue. It is quite hot," she warns him gravely, lowering her chin as she watches him breathe in the fragrance of her own celestial brew; "I took it off the fire only a few moments ago… You see the foam is fresh," she adds, indicating it with a slight, palm-up gesture, another part of his initiation into the ways of Ephesian coffee. "Perhaps now?" And she gathers up in both hands the elaborate copper cup nearest to her, and brings it cautiously to her lips to drink.

Étienne holds it under his nose and breathes in, eyes closed, intent on savouring every aspect of the new experience, then sips carefully, holding it in both hands. His expression is one of startlement at the taste, though not distress, "It's not like tea at all, a little like chocolate, but more… I haven't words." He opens those ridiculous eyes and stares at her, amazed, "This is fascinating!"

Across the table Safiye takes one tentative sip and then, reassured of the temperature she intuited so well, she drinks deeply and casually of that fragrant and foaming restorative brewed by her own hands. (The foam, of course, she quickly licks from her lips before she lowers her cup.) When she puts it down her cup is a third empty already, which ease Étienne may find deceptive. "My lord, I am glad it pleases you," she says gently. "Try the taste of the sweet now." And she gestures toward the plate of small powdered orange-blossom cubes; and she waits for him to claim his own and then partakes of one herself.

Étienne licks the foam from his mustache and then tries a sweet, eyes going wide again, "The contrast! And it's like spring in my mouth." It is much sweeter than he's used to, but the bitterness of the coffee makes a good counterbalance. He blinks those ridiculous lashes at her, "You drink and eat like this every day?" He is trying to imagine something so intense and decadent all at once being an ordinary thing and isn't managing it.

"Like… spring," Safiye repeats, considering. She takes another draught from her cup to cover a necessary moment of thought. Then she explains simply, "It is the Ephesian custom to drink coffee every day— this is my fourth cup today, my lord; I am used to making it for myself and for my favoured customers."

Étienne sips the coffee again, "If the women are not in the coffee houses, where do they drink?"

"At home of course, my lord," Safiye supplies. "To make coffee is one of the chief accomplishments of any woman of Ephesium. For instance, there are many tales of marriages that were called off when the bride-to-be brewed poor coffee for her intended husband's family," she suggests, lightly enough. "I have young men here who serve but in my kitchens, the coffee is always made by women."

Étienne is thinking of Symon and his rather extreme lack of even basic domestic skills, "It seems rather hard on a woman whose interests lie elsewhere to lose a man she has chosen over the quality of her coffee… Though your servers are handsome, clearly the skill that makes this is the true treasure though." He sips again, still getting used to it, but fascinated, "There is… a lot of nuance, the way wine has nuance."

"It would be rare indeed," says Safiye mildly, "for a woman of Ephesium to be permitted to choose her husband. So perhaps," and her warm brown eyes twinkle with amusement as they meet Étienne's across the rims of those two copper cups, "she might spoil the coffee on purpose." She drinks deeply again from her own cup; a neophyte would not be wise to emulate her. "The beans we have at La Perle are especially good, I think," she offers by way of explanation; "that is the name, you understand, my lord. Coffee beans are sometimes called black pearls."

Étienne's eyes go wide, "They don't let women choose?"

Then he chuckles softly, "Good for her, burning her coffee on purpose to get rid of unwanted suitors." He may be young for his age, but he has the sense to sip carefully. "Ah! That's very clever. They look so pretty in the window display."

"Ephesian parents usually choose for their daughters— or other superiors," Safiye offers, and she smiles wryly across at him; "and I know that d'Angeline parents can be quite particular too, about matching their children suitably." She takes another piece of the orange-blossom Ephesian Delight and washes it down with a marvelous, healthful draught of her own fine coffee. "… I am glad our coffee agrees with you, my lord," she murmurs; "I hope you will come to enjoy it again."

Étienne blushes, "Parents often do have opinions. I think this is an advantage of not being from an important house like Symon's. My parents and grandparents were love matches. I mean, they picked someone suitable, but there is a certain amount of freedom within the understood bounds. We are hoping… Symon and I to find matches of our own, though Symon will need a great deal of advice about… politics and things, given his position." He nibbles on a piece of ephesian delight, "It's harder than it looks though…." He looks at her, startled from his reverie, "It does agree with me, though I think its richness will take getting used to."

"Your friend… Lord Symon," says Safiye gently. "Did I not meet him also the other day at the palace? Yes, I did." Diplomat that she is, whatever her official status, she says nothing of these marital woes but counsels instead, "Drink slowly, if you find it too rich, my lord. You need not drink it all those who visit La Perle for the first time often do not," she confides.

Étienne nods, "I think slow is best with new things." He studies her over the brim of his coffee, "So what sorts of things do Ephesian women do for entertainment besides drinking coffee?"

Safiye takes another mouthful of her coffee, which she seems well set to finish before it can cool unduly; she ventures then, in a neutral undertone, "I think that would rather depend upon the nature of any particular woman."

Étienne sips, still watching her with those extraordinary eyes, "What did you like to do, then. You seem a very particular woman in the best sense."

"My lord, my hours here or in Ephesium have always been chiefly occupied with duties," Safiye answers, smiling as though to live so were a pleasure and a privilege both. "And so I am never at a loss for occupation."

Étienne says, "I have been… trying to make my own. Occupations I mean. I've been trying to put my time to sensible use. I've been learning Tiberian and working on learning more about sailing, navigation, and astronomy, and keeping regular times for blade practice and just generally being less… silly. Only I don’t think it's working. I'll never be really clever like my cousin. I know that."

There is a pause. Then Safiye, who so often in between brewing coffee consults her collection of volumes and tables detailing d’Angeline noble genealogy to mark the rank and style of those to whom she is about to serve it, essays a gentle pursuit of Étienne’s opinion of this unknown lord: “Then, my lord, I take it you have a cousin you admire very much—?”

Étienne nods enthusiastically between sips, "Lord Jehan-Pascal Aumande de Baphinol. He won a prize for his epic philosophical poem recently. I was learning to read it while I was laid up a while ago. It's very complicated and interesting. I think I will have to read it many times to scratch the surface, but it's a good way to improve with the language… Of course you've likely learned lots of languages. You certainly speak ours beautifully, and I could listen to you talk forever."

“Ah, lord—” And Safiye does a good impression of studying the name thus mentioned, and committing it to her memory, where it did not (obviously) exist before. “I speak a few tongues, my lord,” she admits then; “it is useful when one travels to a new land.”

Étienne sighs, "I always wanted to travel, but I suspect this is as far as I shall get from home. Where else have you been, besides here and your homeland?”

“I had not left Ephesium,” answers Safiye gently, “until it was my fate to come here to Terre d’Ange, two years past.” She lifts her cup again, drains it, and sets it down. She smiles at the boy across from her. “There are extraordinary fates, my lord.”

<FS3> Opposed Roll — Etienne=Perception Vs Safiye=Composure
< Etienne: Good Success (8 2 8 1 6 6 4 5 3 5 3 1) Safiye: Success (7 5 5 4 5 5 3 4 1 5 3 5 2)
< Net Result: Etienne wins - Marginal Victory

Étienne leans closer, those big blue eyes all fascinated interest, "If it is not rude, might I ask you to tell the story of your coming here? I like… hearing about people's lives and I suspect yours is particularly interesting."

“Oh, but there is no story in that,” Safiye assures him; “I came here two years past in a very large embassy to the court of the Courcels in the City of Elua. The embassy returned last spring, but I asked leave to retire from my service and to remain in your land… And so, you see, here I am,” she dictates softly, and drains her elaborate copper cup.

Étienne thinks that over as he nibbles another sweet, "But surely there must be a story before that then? I can easily imagine why a woman of your intelligence and taste might want to stay here to introduce Terre d'Ange to several of the wonderful things about your country. I just… all right I'm a rude northerner full of impertinent curiosity, but I would very much like to… understand you better."

“Well, there is little use to anyone in such old tales,” Safiye assures him mendaciously. After all he is only another lordling, come to have coffee— his compliments, his promises, his declarations, carry little weight anywhere in Marsillikos. “I am pleased now to live in Terre d’Ange, and to have of my own making a coffee-house… My lord, you are from,” henceforth another display of her linguistic acumen, “the north of Terre d’Ange?”

Étienne nods, "The North Coast near the eastern border. Azzalle. I'm from a land of sea and stone, good cheeses and crisp apples, where winter is a serious thing, not like it is so far south. Here everything is gentler except the midsummer heat."

Safiye gives a wry smile. “As you speak of that land, my lord, I wonder why you either would wish to leave it.” She plants her palm upon the table to give herself a boost; and she rises then with as little effort as she can give away onto her slippered feet.

“My lord, I hope you will enjoy the rest of your coffee,” she murmurs; “and, please, be sure that you are always welcome here at La Perle Noire.”

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