(1311-09-16) Ways That Men Hardly Can
Summary: The Illyrian delegation accepts the hospitality of the unofficial Ephesian representative, promising fine cheese in return…
RL Date: 15/09/2019
Related: Great Exhibition: Opening Feast.
safiye alphesiboe 

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 Illyrian horde is the first over the threshold of La Perle Noire after Safiye, sole possessor of the key, unlocks the front door— and yes, it’s a horde, when Alphesiboe and Neaboule come prudently accompanied by their three most imposing compatriots to secure their safety in their stroll through the streets of a Marsilikos just waking up and more the haunt, at this hour, of tradesmen and servants than persons of high standing and repute.

A servant warned La Perle’s proprietress of the Illyrians’ approach across the square — she came forth from her office unruffled and unhurried — now, before anyone can think of knocking, the heavy oaken doors open in unison to reveal her just ahead of them, just inside: dressed similarly today in silks of warmer hues, burgundy and saffron and gold, and several heavy golden bracelets set with stones of many colours. Her long earrings are comprised of pieces of luminous green jade set in golden filigree; her long black hair is worn in a thick braid over her right shoulder, ornamented with a jade flower pin. The key, she has tucked away already somewhere about her immaculate person. She takes a step backward and bows to the young ambassador in the middle of her horde; then, in her fluent and courteous Hellene: “Princess Alphesiboe, you are welcome to La Perle Noire. I have prepared a chamber upstairs for you and your companions, if you care to accompany me there—? Or if you prefer to see the changing skies, there is a courtyard I might offer you instead.”

It is a strange land, in which peasants make cheese and everybody sleeps until mid-day. Alphesiboe is generally awake before the dawn, and has spent the morning already seeing to her flocks and taking them out to graze, returning with the sun and allowing some time to indulge in a d'Angeline bath drawn up by servants at the palace, so as not to launch too early an invasion of Lady Wisdom's establishment. The Grand Square, too, slows them. A splendor which seems otherworldly, the great, perfect expanse of flat, white marble a little surreal. But the doors open ahead of them, and Bo and Nea edge ahead of her companions. "Lady Sophia! I feel very welcome, yes. Any chamber having been prepared by you will no doubt be perfectly suited," she grins, stepping further ahead of Nea to offer her hands to Safiya in greeting.

Safiye’s smooth hands rise to clasp Alphesiboe’s; and she draws her out of the stark white Hellenic splendour of the plaza proper, scrubbed afresh not two hours past, and into her own richly-textured and cinnamon-fragrant realm, these square feet of Terre d’Ange transformed by cloth and gilding and umpteen gleaming glass lanterns, into Ephesium. Somewhere out of sight a skilled hand is strumming a mandolin, calling forth its own serene and melodic welcome to the first customers of the day— though, in the event, these ones are Safiye’s own guests. She steps backwards again as the others follow and looses one of Alphesiboe’s hands, and by the Illyrian princess’s reaction she gauges whether to keep the other or whether it might be more suitable to her taste for them to walk arm and arm through the lounge, past the empty stage in the middle of it, toward doors already standing open to the stairway.

“… I must beg your pardon, Your Highness,” she murmurs as they walk together, “for failing after all to attend your exhibition. There was a matter of business here which could not be settled by anyone but I myself— it occupied so much of the day that I was too late in leaving,” she apologises. “And yet, duty must take precedence over pleasure.”

Alphesiboe is very comfortable holding hands. She does so often enough with Neaboule, and it's not a strange sight in Illyria to see women and girls walk hand in hand or even together in rows. Her long fingers snug in easily against Safiye's and she lets her attention wander over the sensory details of the place— certainly cozier than outside, and closer to an Illyrian aesthetic than d'Angeline is, if certainly with its own unique qualities. And scents. There are certainly enough of those in here. "It was, in general, less well attended than I had anticipated. Perhaps the hour was yet too early for the citizenry of Marsilikos," Bo laughs, teasing them of their apparent lethargy and looking back to Nea when they get to the stairs, gently gesturing her ahead of them so that she can maintain holding hands with Safiye and yet keep a hand at the small of Nea's back. Not that she needs it. Bo is just a gentleman like that.

"And, yes, of course it must. But you must let me make a cheese just for you before I go. Or leave one of the wheels which I set at home, if you care for something better aged."

That being Alphesiboe’s will, Safiye leaves her hand in her guest’s— for it’s hardly uncommon in Ephesium, either, to offer the warmth of affection in such innocent ways to friends of one’s own sex. D’Angelines might draw inferences. Safiye is merely charmed, enough so that she reminds herself not to be charmed, by the Illyrian princess’s familiar ways… “Too early for people’s pleasure perhaps, Your Highness, after Her Grace’s reception at the palace?” she suggests gently, gathering a handful of her flowing skirts as they begin to ascend her red velvet stair. “I think it continued rather later into the morning hours after you and I had both retired.”

Then the interpreter is nudged ahead of them, though she can hardly know where they’re going— and Safiye tilts her head as she regards the princess’s gallantry through half-lowered lashes. She draws perhaps half an inference after all. “It is gracious of you, Your Highness, to offer me one of your cheeses— I would be honoured to accept such a gift from your hands,” she assures the younger woman sincerely. But one of the perfumed waiters is, aptly, waiting: now he opens the chamber door and bows Safiye and her guests inside.

Private Chamber — La Perle Noire

Gilded stars shine in a painted evening sky over this intimate silk-draped chamber of blues and violets and mirrors and cloth-of-gold, where a large and low circular rosewood table nestles amidst the opulent softnesses of carpets, cushions, and divans. The table's top is inlaid with an eight-pointed star in overlapping petals of gilt and mother-of-pearl, and bordered with a band of the same intricacies; six might gather about it in luxury, or ten in familiarity. Above it, high enough to pose no barrier to conversation, hangs a bronze-doré lamp with a rounded, bulb-shaped chimney of stained glass patterned with diamonds and stars in red, blue, purple, and gold. It suffices alone to provide a warm and gentle illumination, though mirrored candle-stands may be brought in at a patron's desire.

Opposite the entrance a modest raised stage occupies the chamber's width. Its size is suited to a pair or a trio of musicians, or a single disciplined dancer; it has its own small door, painted with a trompe l'oeil archway leading into a palace corridor, which performers must bow their heads to pass through.

Behind a carven rosewood screen stands a sideboard for the use of the waiters. To summon them and any of the exotic delights they purvey, one need only tug upon one of several tasseled velvet bell-pulls, conveniently placed.

From the dawn in Marsilikos they enter an Ephesian dusk glimmering with stars, to be saluted by the music of a shepherd’s pipe of that land sweetly played by a dusky-skinned maiden kneeling already upon the chamber’s small stage. The air may even be familiar to Alphesiboe— but familiar as the rhythm of a poem may be when rendered into a foreign tongue. About the rosewood table five places are laid with remarkably rich dishes of painted pottery and glass, the work — did the visitors but know it — of Anatolian master craftsmen serving a royal household. Pale water lilies cut from their moorings not an hour past are afloat now in a large, shallow copper bowl set in the table’s centre. Of course there are no coffee-cups, yet. The scent in the air, beyond a lingering note of tobacco, suggests fresh d’Angeline pastries.

"Did it go as late as that? I suppose I must seem as sluggish to them by night as they seem to me in the morning," Bo considers the situation, as it were, from the other hand. "Consider the cheese a gift of guest-friendship, given for hospitality so graciously given," she expresses, and nce they're to the top of the stairs she lets Nea fall in at her other side, the both of them looking for clues as to next steps— the waiter is a good one, but Bo won't assume until Sophia takes the lead thither, then follow along into the manufactured evening. "How beautiful and comfortable a space. It makes one feel a little dozy. But that is what the coffee is to ward against, isn't it?" she grins, looking over her shoulder to make sure the fellows are still with them. "Doesn't she play very well?" she asks them, to a general chorus of varying assents. "What is that melody? It itches at my tongue, like I want to sing along but have no notion how."

Together Safiye and her waiter frame the doorway, waiting for the Illyrians to enter first and to seek comfort upon those sinfully comfortable divans. A low gesture from the proprietress then bids the waiter follow next; he passes behind the rosewood screen and reappears with a wrought copper pitcher of chilled spring water, which when the guests are seated he begins to pour into the line of flower-painted crystal glasses waiting to receive it. Bowing over the table he moves each glass to its place next to a plate limned with what might be peacock feathers.

Safiye herself follows more leisurely and draws closed the door, isolating their small party in the fragrant dusk. “She will play it again if you wish, Princess Alphesiboe, or what you will. I am sure that Lady Neaboule could instruct her as might be required for your pleasure. And I think indeed the coffee will wake you,” she confides, smiling, “but I must excuse myself from your company in order to brew it for you. If you will pardon me, Your Highness?”

Alphesiboe moves around the table, picking her choice of seats once she's determined the angle from which she'd like to see the room best— the stage in view, but at at oblique angle from her. "Oh, yes, again, from the start, after she finishes. I'll place it, then, for sure," she half-asides to Nea while taking her seat and saving the seat next to her for her companion. The fellows can take the remaining three, and Bo does a swift head-swivel as she marks that all the place settings are taken. "You will join us on your return, won't you, Lady Wisdom?" she wonders.

That, Safiye did not presume— but when she is invited, she clasps her hands together and bows slightly toward Alphesiboe. “If that is your wish, Your Highness. Please pardon me,” she says again, and she takes a step backward before turning to open the door.

In her absence the girl with the flute plays on at Nea’s command; and the waiter left behind produces like magic from behind the rosewood screen all the components of a luxurious d’Angeline breakfast, acquired fresh from the city’s finest bakery or else cooked up by a marvelous restaurant in the same neighbourhood. He lays a sixth place, too, for Safiye. Somehow there’s just room for it next to Neaboule’s. The only thing missing is— coffee, soon heralded by a knock at the door, and Safiye’s return followed by another waiter in similar garb, bearing a tray which holds six wrought-copper cups of her finest and foamiest. “Your Highness, I apologise for the delay,” she murmurs, though she wasn’t long at all, everything having been laid out in anticipation in the small kitchen on this floor. She distributes the cups herself, serving Alphesiboe first, then Neaboule, then their three male companions so suitably arranged at the other side of the table— bestowing each cup she bows gently to its recipient.

The last is her own, and the waiter knows well enough that when she takes it that’s his dismissal. He leaves, bowing more deeply than his employer; and Safiye places that last cup and kneels down upon the edge of a divan, near to it, on the women’s side.

“Your Highness— please,” she says gently, a lift of her hand inviting her most honoured guest to be the first to partake. “I hope my coffee will find favour with you.”

Alphesiboe rests on her elbow and uses her spare hand to reach for a breakfast cake, biting into it and them feeding some to Nea, as well. The men opposite seem no less comfortable just all three of them cuddling up together, sharing tastes of things, talking low among themselves, and thus Wisdom herself discovers them when she returns with this drink they've heard so much about in the last week or so but not yet tried. "Hardly at all," she assures her when apologies are given, waving it off, then waving her closer when she kneels at the edge of the divan. "Come and join us, don't be shy," she grins— and takes up the cup, giving it first a wafted scent, a smile, then a sip. "Oh! It's quite a flavor."

Having first knelt Safiye settles a little further onto the divan, smiling. Her silks pool gorgeously about her, revealing their wealth; her colours glow with the lamplight’s warmth in the cool of her artificial evening.

“Your Highness,” she murmurs, and then 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: it’s a third empty already, which ease her unaccustomed guests may find deceptive. “You need not drink it all, of course,” she assures the women gently, still speaking in Hellene, “if you find the flavour too strong. I don’t like to make weak coffee,” she admits, “I feel it reflects poorly— Your Highness, I have been told before that in Illyria, a woman may be prized for her skill in making cheese. In Ephesium,” she explains simply, “it is coffee. There are many tales, for instance, of marriages called off when the bride-to-be showed she could brew only poor or weak coffee for her intended husband’s parents… I wonder whether you have similar tales, in your land, but of cheese?”

Once Bo has tasted the coffee, Nea, too, is eager to taste of it, and she welcomes the soft silks in against her rather less fluid woven tunic, feeling the pooled material with her bared legs, entranced by it, somewhat, and distracted even as she takes her first sip, which surprises her with its potency and makes her cough, which, in turn, reddens her cheeks. "If the potency of it is a reflection of your virtue, you must be the most virtuous of your people," she pipes up in Hellene even better than Bo's, more fluid and like the Hellenes themselves speak.

"It is mightily strong," Bo agrees, happy to flatter their host's coffee-making skill before taking another sip. "I'm still growing accustomed to it," she has to admit, but she is, at least, giving herself the room to do so. "And we do have similar tales… but they are mostly tales, of the sort told little girls who won't do their chores. Having no touch for milk may be a humiliation, but I don't think it has cancelled a wedding yet. On the other hand, I, who was born outside the Royal line, was adopted by King Kherses as one of his own daughters, and given the rank of Princess, and my skill was no small part of his decision. I know, because he always calls me Ghalatee, or Galatea, in Hellene." Which, Wisdom will know, means Milky.

When Neaboule coughs Safiye places a soothing hand on her back and pats her, and urges her to, “Drink a little water, Lady Neaboule, and it will pass, mm?” To both women she explains, “We serve our coffee usually with water and a small sweet, to contrast with the flavour— this morning I thought the d’Angeline pastries would be sweet enough for any taste. Some of them have chocolate inside,” she confides, looking past the interpreter to smile at the princess. Though it appears the imposing gentlemen over the table have already struck chocolate.

“In our land they are certainly more than tales,” she admits, “but perhaps in Illyria a different view is taken… Coffee, as cheese, may materially alter a woman’s destiny. Certainly my own path would have been a different one,” and she speaks now slightly apologetically, “had my coffee not over the years won the praise of two different Sultans of Ephesium.” Conjuring that exalted title she lowers her eyes and then her head; but when she looks up again she reclaims her cup for another generous draught of coffee. “I dare to say, Your Highness, that I see a parallel here, and that I find it amusing,” she offers gently. “I look forward even more to the privilege of tasting a cheese made by your distinguished hands.”

Nea nods her head with a little quiet 'mm' and switches out the coffee for water, taking a few sips and listening to the cultural exchange from the middle of this cheese and coffee sandwich. As it were? Anyhow. Bo is still making her way through the cup, determined to acclimate her taste buds to it with a series of small, successive sips. "Two of them," Bo is duly impressed. "That sort of distinction must have opened quite some doors for you. Was one of those doors hither to Marsilikos? And, yes, we have both of us proven our worth in ways that men, on the one hand, do not need to, but, on the other hand, hardly can," she laughs at her own little paradox at the expense of the other side of the table.

The princess’s jest has Safiye smiling into her cup, though she leaves it upon the table between them just as it is. She’s halfway by now through her own coffee, the fresh heat of it as much a part of the pleasure for her as the cinnamon-tinged richness of its flavour. “In a sense it did, Your Highness,” she answers; “I came to Terre d’Ange two years past with an official Ephesian embassy to the court of the Courcels. When our delegation departed these shores last spring I asked leave to retire from my service to the House of Osman and remain in this land— I had conceived by then a great fondness for it,” she admits, “despite some of the, ah, extraordinary customs I have come upon… Marsilikos seemed a suitable place. After all, it is by the waters of the same sea you and I have both known in our homelands, Your Highness.”

"For two years," Alphesiboe wonders at the length of time. "I can't imagine spending two months here, much less two years… though I suppose over time a place may come to suit a person's taste… like a new drink, hm?" she lifts the coffee in a cordial salute before taking a further sip. "I've only been here two weeks and I miss home so badly already. The unpleasantness on the palace grounds hardly helped, of course. And the men here are very forward when talking to women. But I was warned of all that before I set sail, of course."

“It was not my choice to come here,” Safiye grants softly, “but after two years, yes, I found I wished to remain… Ah, Your Highness,” she allows herself a low, husky chuckle, “you are young and you are beautiful; I am perhaps not surprised that d’Angeline men have spoken out of turn to you,” and she sighs. “I am neither, of course, so I hear less of such talk. I think men of any land will speak so if they think they can— but d’Angeline men at least mean less harm by it, such are their laws and their customs regarding the treatment of women. That is something I admire in Terre d’Ange, yes. Though there are moments still,” she confides, lowering her eyes and smiling as she has recourse again to her dwindling coffee, “when I do marvel…”

The subject of d’Angeline perversion provides thus its own flavour to this breakfast taken by women of Illyria and Ephesium; and the pastries run out long before the anecdotes!

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