(1311-09-22) The Coat's Just A Symbol
Summary: Hugo very kindly shows a foreign agent around the royal naval dockyard and answers her many questions about life in the d’Angeline navy. Bless that lad.
RL Date: 17/09/2019 - 04/10/2019
Related: Great Exhibition: Opening Feast, The Gentlest Quid Pro Quo.
safiye hugo 

Port — Marsilikos

Fortune laid the foundation for the grand port of Marsilikos; look how the arms of the land spread wide to embrace the setting of the sun, welcoming a bay of still waters rendered all the more peaceful by the presence of a small island to the south, on the flanks of which the waves cut themselves into powerless ripples as they move in from the sea. But whatever Fortune gave the d'Angelines their cunning and craft has improved to a hum of efficiency and culture. The natural bay has had its curved shores sharpened into straight edges bolstered with ridges of heavy stones on which the tides have left long mark when the waters are low, algae and barnacles hung onto the rugged stones. Then stone foundations have been piled out into the harbor to hold up wide wooden pillars and the great treated slats of the piers and boardwalks which extend into the bay, now at wider intervals for massive trading vessels, now at shorter intervals for private fishing and pleasure yachts.

The southern arm of the bay is reserved for the great southern fleet of the d’Angeline Royal Navy, which is headquartered here in Marsilikos, and is ever a hub of activity, the giant slips outfitted to haul the massive warships up into the air for repairs, while further inland on the southern peninsula a forest of masts rises into the air where new ships are being built and old ones repaired in full drydock. Between the naval slips and the drydock rises the stately edifice of the southern naval headquarters, glistening with huge latticed windows on the upper floors. Beyond the headquarters rises the massive fortified promontory of the Citadel, with bleached-white parapets and fluttering banners.

Markets and vendors throng the plaza at the innermost fold of the harbor where civilian and military seamen alike might find a bite to eat, supplies for their next mission, a good drink or a little bit of companionship. Far in the bay, that little isle sports a lofty lighthouse to guide the ships in by night.

The day is not the brightest and sunniest, not quite what Hugo was hoping for— but nearer than the clouds upon the horizon there are broad patches of clear blue sky, and the wind is fresh enough to make a day’s sailing a promising prospect. He’s sweet-talked enough of the right people to get his hands on the captain’s gig for the day: a fifteen foot dinghy with a sliding mast and two broad, bleached white sails, and neatly painted gunwales and thwarts in shades of blue and white, rigged for sail by his own hands and the cynosure of his proud eye.

His Ephesian guests arrive in a timely enough manner and dressed perhaps more appropriately than he feared. Damia in her usual tunic and trousers and a sensible light coat of d’Angeline make, and flat boots that lace up; Safiye with skirts shorter than usual over similar trousers, a little too much jewellery for a fifteen-footer and too much embellishment upon her cloak, and slippers with soft leather soles, in which she’s quick to discern and compensate for the movements of the pontoon and then the boat’s deck under her feet. They both wear capacious and colourful scarves wrapped about their heads and pinned in place, to ward off the wind. A sensible precaution, given how many tricks Hugo is soon employing to get their small craft underway at a jolly good clip, out of the harbour and eastward in parallel to the shores of Eisande, retracing in a way the route that was the women’s only previous voyage by sea.

Safiye soon proves that she has a rudimentary spatial sense and she doesn’t get seasick, and what else does one wish of a companion in such cramped quarters? Well— perhaps that husky laugh of hers, ringing out at sometimes inappropriate moments, to be whipped to and fro by the wind, as Hugo settles into his tutelary mode and introduces her to the basic parts of the boat — using a moistened finger on the dark wood of the thwarts to draw a few helpful diagrams — the actual physics behind sailing — how the wind acts on sails and centreboard and rudder — how the shape of the hull affects it… Soon her leather-gloved hands arrive by invitation upon the jibsheets and she’s seeing for herself — shyly, then with a growing confidence — how loosening or tightening them affects the little boat’s course and speed. Whatever knowledge Hugo imparts to her she’s quick to convey to Damia in turn: switching between languages, occasionally putting two and two together and deducing the Ephesian term for a d’Angeline concept or otherwise just speaking a word or so that Hugo has taught her in the midst of a raft of others he doesn’t know. Damia for her part is younger and stronger, but less amenable to these new experiences until Safiye’s encouragement finally takes hold and she lets herself have a bit of fun too. There’s no being standoffish in a boat this size, after all. Hugo’s forever leaning over or around one of the women — and at one time or another the surge of the waters sends each of them tripping and falling into him, or else into each other, to hold hands and laugh.

An hour out and an hour back, then, and on the return voyage Safiye — having been well instructed in the physics of the thing — finds herself steering the boat, and looking up again and again from the water to Hugo himself to make sure she’s getting it right. For a first time it’s not too bad, though when they come near to the more crowded waters of the harbour she’s glad to relinquish the tiller to the appropriate authority and sit back again next to a suitably impressed Damia, and watch the bigger vessels they pass by and ask a newer, better-informed set of questions about their dimensions, and purposes, and ownership.

When the boat’s tied up again at the royal naval dock whence they departed they go for a walk together along the front, from the privileged precincts of the Rousse fleet towards the more public — and so noisier, and smellier, and more crowded — section of Terre d'Ange’s principal harbour. Seeking to recover the land legs she's already lost, Safiye is glad to hold on to Hugo's arm; Damia behind them is in a right mood because of the same problem.

The further from the naval docks they get, the more Hugo's supply of ready anecdotes and information dries up, as though the stories themselves are tied to the docks. That doesn't stop the smile, though, or the chipper way he leads the other two along the waterfront, quite rightly proud of the pair of them for their nascent nautical abilities.

"I'd offer to take you out again tomorrow," he insists, "but I know you've a coffee house to run, and a dozen more important things than messing about in a boat for a few hours. If you do ever want to go out, though, let me know? It's a good excuse to borrow the skipper's gig and she's a great little sailor, eh?"

Everything Hugo has to say seems to delight Safiye; and by now she has lost her reticence of asking questions, and she appeals to him shamelessly for the knowledge he's only too ready to impart. And then when he issues that somehow hopeful-sounding offer — as though he just does want an excuse, any excuse, to do what he loves and does well — she laughs and admits, “Not tomorrow, my lord, I do not think I can be away so often from La Perle. But another day, yes,” she nods decisively, “I would like to go out again. To the west, next time?” she suggests, for today they sailed eastward. “I have never been farther west than Marsilikos…”

"How far do you want to go?" Hugo queries, agreeing with the plan immediately. "We could take a cutter and take her all the way along the coast to Aragonia if you can spare a few days. Load up with supplies, and bring a couple of crew to help sail so we're not watch on stop on…?"

He's taken a lead and run with it; Safiye’s asymmetrical visage registers uncertainty before she smoothes it away with the cautious admission that: “My lord, I would like to see Aragonia, very much. But I am not sure that what you suggest would be wise.”

“Right, right,” Hugo allows, shrugging his shoulders as though clearly this can’t be helped. “I suppose you’ve better things to do and you can’t spend all day enjoying yourself like me. We can’t all be gentlemen of leisure, can we?” He flashes her a quick grin. “Until the Swallow’s fighting fit and ready to sail again, I have literally nothing to do but shoot the stars, drink a lot of coffee, and take a boat out when I get the chance. And,” he adds, sounding somewhat dubious about the whole affair, “apparently help Prince André with leaping across streams on poles. Apparently it’s a great Flatlandish thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Safiye chuckles, “I’ve heard all about His Highness’s Flatlandish sports… His is one of a number of exhibitions I’ve promised to attend in the next days. I am not a diplomat, you see, so I must keep my word,” she confides, once again wryly underrating her rôle. “And I have my own little party to plan — my girls to teach — and La Perle, of course, is open every day… But,” a thought occurs, and she stops where she is and turns to look up at him with her hand still tucked into his arm, “you need hardly forsake the idea of Aragonia, my lord. Somewhere in Marsilikos there must be a girl you could invite to go with you,” she nudges gently.

“I don’t doubt I’d be spoilt for choice if I put the offer out there,” Hugo admits with an easy laugh. “Who wouldn’t want a few days to a foreign land with a crew of handsome sailors to admire? I swear there’s nothing like a naval officer’s coat to draw the eye of any number of girls, no matter what kind of idiot’s wearing it. I think it’s the romance of the idea of the sea much more than the practicalities of it, but that isn’t going to stop me taking advantage. I’m not quite as stupid as I look.”

Safiye takes a moment to digest Hugo’s words and deduce their underlying assumptions. She still sometimes finds herself a step or two behind in casual talk with young men, such hardly having been a feature of her days ere she arrived in Terre d’Ange… “It was a handsome coat,” she agrees, “that you wore to the palace. Is that the one you mean?” She pats his arm, and then turns to resume their walk. “And will you come and take a cup of coffee, my lord?”

“Well, that one was my best coat,” Hugo admits, nodding readily at the option of coffee. It’s not that he’s hooked on the stuff, it’s just that it’s bloody good. He can give it up any time. Honest. “Somewhere there’s an entire industry of tailors who specialise in making naval officers look good, but I do think I could go out in a smock and collar and if people thought that meant I’d visited some of the places we’ve been I’d get the same reaction. They don’t see the miserable parts, only the brave adventurers who tame the seas, visit exotic lands and so forth. We’re held up as icons, no matter the reality of it all, and the coat’s just a symbol of that. You understand?”

They walk together with Safiye just tilting her scarf-swathed head toward Hugo to listen, and giving the occasional encouraging nod. He on one side of her and Damia now on the other see her safely through the crowds and the cart traffic into a quieter, or at least better-behaved, street which leads east toward the Grand Plaza and La Perle Noire. Then at last she gives voice to the thoughts she has been putting in order in the last several minutes.

“I think when one looks at other people— my lord, often it is as if through a window. One is separated from seeing the truth of their lives, by the reflection of one’s own thoughts in between. The real picture is blurred by the imaginary one. You and your sailing, the life on board a ship. The lands you have seen. Even my dancing girls serve as such symbols. My customers look at their colouring and their garments and their graceful limbs and imagine many exotic things, rather than their long hours of practice and the pain in their feet…” A note of amusement enters her voice. “There may be romance in ideas, as you say, but in the truth? I think almost never.”

Hugo can’t help but laugh, squeezing her hand on his arm briefly as they approach the coffee house. “If there’s no romance in truth, if the two are so wholly irreconcilable, then it must be a miserable life indeed. I’d say it’s possible to find it in anything. Even a set of aching feet from long hours of practice and hard work, because it’s an ideal, isn’t it? And without that ideal, the idea that you want to be a damn good dancer, you’re not putting those hours in… look, I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I don’t think you can be so cynical about everything, surely?”

Almost never,” Safiye repeats in a murmur, lifting her eyes over the gleaming white marble façade of her shrine to the black pearls of Ephesium. “… I don’t want to go in the front door in these clothes,” she admits, her paces slowing beside him. Her maquillage has worn away during the afternoon, too, her red lips nibbled in thought to a softer hue, her powder brushed away by a handkerchief and not renewed— she’s altogether less polished than her custom, and she’s remembering it now upon the cusp of their return to her own world. “My lord, would you mind if we go in by the side door instead?” she inquires apologetically.

With his acquiescence she guides him along another side street and then by a footpath, broad enough for two sedan chairs to scrape past one another but hazardous to carriages, into a small stone courtyard adjacent to La Perle and the off-sides of other neighbouring businesses. It’s well-swept and well-kept, as one would expect in this affluent quarter of the city, and its fresh white stucco walls are set with coloured doors belonging to different buildings.

In a patch of sunshine a ginger cat lies stretched out to phenomenal dimensions. He contracts himself by degrees and rises to twine about Hugo’s ankles in case of fish.

The lack of fish might be ameliorated in some part by a friendly and encouraging stroke as Hugo squats down on his haunches to greet the cat while he waits patiently for Safiye to negotiate the side door. A scritch behind the ears results in a satisfying purr and further pressing of face and shoulders to nudge at Hugo and request more of the same, to which the young man offers appropriate sounds in place of any actual human words. Only once he’s certain that Safiye has achieved entrance into her coffee flavoured sanctum does he look up inquiringly. “You’re sure you don’t mind if I stop for a coffee, or would you rather I come in the front like a proper customer ought to do. I don’t want people to think I’m leading you astray.”

It’s Damia who raps smartly at a fresh-painted red door flanked by a pair of potted orange trees. A panel at eye level slides open and shut, her unsmiling face being passport enough to ensure it’s swiftly unbarred and opened by one of the house’s Ephesian guards.

Meanwhile Safiye, having released Hugo to the cat, lingers just this side of her threshold and its two shallow steps up, to watch him in colloquy with her small orange neighbour. She gives him a wondering look and says slowly, “You’re here now, so isn’t it simpler—?”

And she gestures him ahead of her, not into some shabby back passageway but a paneled antechamber which blossoms, via shimmering red silk curtains bound back by ropes of gold, into a divan-circled receiving room easily as lavish in its appointments as the lounge ordinary customers step into via the front door. Though the shift from the afternoon sunlight into sybaritic half-dark, in which the candles would be too few were they not doubled by so many gilded mirrors, surely makes it difficult to pick out all the details I haven’t made up yet. At one end of its rectangle red-carpeted stairs narrow as they rise, and turn a corner out of sight.

Behind him, her, and Damia, the guard punctiliously bars the red door. One of the ubiquitous perfumed young men is already relieving Safiye of her cloak and Damia of her quick-shed coat; both women briskly unknot their headscarves and drape those too over his arms.

“Will you leave your coat, my lord?” Safiye inquires of Hugo.

It’s almost as an afterthought that Hugo does, in fact, slip clear of his coat, holding it out without thinking and just expecting somebody to take it (somebody does), while he admires the myriad of unspecified details not yet made up. “You know, I was expecting to come into some sort of warehouse, or kitchen, or servants’ quarters,” he admits, clearly impressed. “Is this where you take the princes and kings?”

Another of the Ephesian boys approaches from a curtained doorway— in an unguarded moment of amusement Safiye looks from him to Hugo and laughs. “Kings,” she repeats, smiling crookedly and much entertained. “No, my lord, it is only that sometimes it is more convenient to be discreet… The boy will show you upstairs,” she explains, bowing slightly and then lifting her hand in a graceful arc to indicate which boy, “and I will join you soon, with coffee.”

Climbing the stairs with his appointed escort Hugo will hear behind him, indistinctly, after they’ve turned the corner, that note of command which only comes into Safiye’s gentle and velvety voice when she’s issuing orders to her people in her own native tongue.

From the lamplit landing at the top of the stairs opens only one door, marvelously carven from some fragrant dark wood. The boy neither knocks nor turns the handle, but pulls upon a tasseled cord hanging next to it— a moment later it’s opened from the other side by another silent and bowing servitor. Hugo thus will have no need of the divans tucked into alcoves at either side of the landing, for the comfort of those who might tarry awaiting… discretion.

In none of the Trevalion lad’s previous coffeeing expeditions has he infiltrated this quiet and lusciously expensive upper floor of La Perle. He hasn’t much of a chance to look round, though, before the perfumed young men bow and murmur him through another door.

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.

Finding himself at least briefly alone, Hugo does what any young man would under the circumstances. He starts poking at things, giving the lamp a little nudge to set it swinging, and flicks back a curtain here and there. Likely he’s not looking for anything in particular, but where everything is so strange and exotic there’s a fair chance he’s looking for something he can report back and/or claim as a souvenir. He is, after all, a sailor. Only when a clink of crockery outside indicates that he will shortly no longer be alone does he tuck his hands behind his back as though he’d just been standing there motionless all along. The lamp? Swinging? Must be the wind. It’s all a bit awkward. He should probably have at least sat down, but still. Too late now.

No doubt the sideboard behind the screen also comes in for some attention — though its contents are of limited interest to anyone untutored in the beauties of Anatolian pottery and Akkadian glass. The dishes on the silver tray borne by the boy following Safiye into the room, are likewise of the better kind Hugo has been seeing here since the evening he so selflessly volunteered to escort La Perle’s proprietress home from the palace.

She has taken a couple of moments to tidy herself as well as to brew coffee. Her complexion is freshly powdered — her lips have resumed their usual painted hue — taking off her headscarf revealed her hair to be dressed with uncommon simplicity today, swept straight back into a single coiled braid, to which she has now affixed a jeweled pin like a stylised sunflower. “My lord, I hope I haven’t kept you too long?” she inquires at once, putting the natural construction upon the fact that he’s up and about in the presence of so many divans.

The young man offers a short bow and a dazzling, dimpled smile, shaking his head. “Of course not, my lady Safiye Hanim,” he attempts, recalling something or other about the title and risking it. “I was just admiring… well… everything, actually. The diamonds pattern there,” he gestures to the lamp, “I think I’ve seen before in the south, but up close the detail is absolutely fantastic, isn’t it? Can I give you a hand,” he adds, offering her just that appendage in case she needs it in order to sit.

Safiye dips her chin, reflecting Hugo’s smile with a smaller specimen of her own in which indulgence is unavoidably the main note. “The lamp,” she agrees softly, while it sways beside them, “is one of my favourites in the house. I am glad you like it as well, my lord.” And because it’s civil to accept, she rests her cinnamon-fragrant hand lightly and unnecessarily upon his as she settles the rest of herself on a divan at one side of the round rosewood table. Taking back her hand she looks up to him with another quick smile. “Please — sit, my lord,” she urges.

The waiter hovers with his tray. When they’re both settled he’ll rest it at the edge of the table and dispense unto each of them a patterned dish of lemon Ephesian delight, the customary glass of water, and a copper cup of Safiye’s own ambrosial, foaming coffee.

“So is this where you hide away when you don’t want to deal with customers?” Hugo asks, hand already heading for the sweets. Well, it’s been a long day out in the fresh air and he’s a growing lad. “It’s absolutely beautiful, I have to say. If it were mine I wouldn’t let just anyone up here. I think I’m honoured…?” Munch.

The waiter bows, holding the tray at his side; Safiye murmurs something to him in Ephesian and he backs away, pausing inside the door to bow once more before he departs.

Hugo has once more put the light of amusement into her warm brown eyes. “I am flattered you think it so lovely, my lord,” she murmurs, bowing her head over her cup of coffee to inhale its fragrance and gauge its temperature by that suggestion of warmth upon her cheek. “I keep several of these chambers, though, just for my customers. For private parties, or business meetings, or… any occasion upon which quiet talk might be desired. There is a stage, you see, for entertainers,” she gestures toward it, “and though my kitchens only make sweets yet we can arrange a meal from one of the good restaurants nearby, if it is needful.”

“Or just a quiet afternoon where nobody’s bothering you?” Hugo suggests thoughtfully, licking his fingers of sugar before he claims his cup of hot, spicy coffee. “I can see the merit in it. The Marsilikos Trevalions are lovely on the whole,” he insists loyally, “but… well, they do like to talk.” As though he’s not guilty of that particular family trait himself. “I’ve this book I’ve been meaning to read for weeks, but every single time I settle in to read it, somebody interrupts and wants a chat about some little trifle.”

“Well,” says Safiye diplomatically, “I have chambers of my own for a little quiet, but usually when the house is open I am not long upstairs… There is always something to do, and I like to be busy.” She picks up her own copper cup and smiles at Hugo across it — and then the glorious moment arrives. One’s first taste of Ephesian coffee after a strenuous afternoon on the water. Ah, how one’s nerve endings sing praises to its heat, its freshness, its strength—!

Several deep mouthfuls later Safiye pauses to sigh as thankfully as any of her patrons.

Then: “What book is it, my lord?” she wonders.

Hugo gives her a slightly embarrassed smile. “It’s… uh… a political history of the border squabbles between Aragonia and Terre d’Ange in the fourth and fifth centuries. Sorry. Not all that exciting I suppose, but it’s interesting to me. It draws a lot of more recent parallels. Worth a read, I think,” he defends his choice, lifting his coffee and closing his eyes for a moment or two as he savours the taste and the glorious bitter caffeine hit.

“It sounds interesting,” agrees Safiye, her tone encouraging. “I don’t think I could read it, though — I can speak and understand d’Angeline, and Caerdicci, but I don’t read them well. I learned them too late in my life and I have trouble with the letters sometimes,” she confides. “And,” she breathes out an amused sound, “the spelling. I have thought sometimes of finding a d’Angeline secretary — but if someone else does it all for me, I never will learn, will I?”

“I’m impressed enough that you speak three languages so well,” Hugo notes, taking another long, enjoyable sip from his coffee. “Four if you include the Jackspeak you’ve picked up today. And you can read and write your own language? Is that the one that’s all squiggles?”

Safiye sets down her coffee-cup and sighs at Hugo in amused reproof. Her feet seem meanwhile to have slipped out of her soft-soled leather shoes; she tucks them up, sitting cross-legged upon the divan in her loose trousers and flowing calf-length skirts.

“… Jackspeak?” she asks him first. And then, “Squiggles?”

Again there comes that easy, dimpled grin as he reaches for another piece of the Ephesian delight. “Jackspeak. The language of sailors. I told you it’s unique to the breed of men who go to sea. And squiggles… you know, like…” and he waves the square of confectionery in vague shapes in front of him in the air. “All wobbly lines and dots and things.” Explanation complete, he pops it into his mouth to chew, once again licking his fingers to clear the sugary residue from them.

For herself, Safiye takes a single piece of Ephesian delight and — as she chews it — she pushes her own plate across the table till it almost nudges against Hugo’s own. “Lines and dots,” she agrees, accepting what exquisite poetry a foreign youth might dismiss as such. “… My lord,” she murmurs, an apologetic note in her voice, “there are several scripts of the kind I think you might mean. With— the squiggles.” She lifts her own hand. Her fingers dart gracefully in the air.

“I speak, read, and write Ephesian, Akkadian, and Menekhetan, which have… commonalities,” she says, lowering her hand after a moment’s desperate delving for that word, “the script is similar but not wholly the same. I am fluent also in Hellene, which has a different script. I have a few scattered words of Illyrian, and Aragonian; I am better in Caerdicci and in d’Angeline, but I came too late to your script and now I find it easier to speak new words than to learn new letters. My eyes are always looking for what isn’t there,” she admits. “And— your Jackspeak,” she teases. “That is new too. I hope it does not have a script as well?”

Hugo laughs again, doing his best to give a graceful bow from his seated position, fingers touching his chest then extending out in front of him. “I’m rathered flattered to be in the company of somebody so knowledgeable. Me, I can just about manage my own tongue without mangling it too much, although put me in front of a dozen pretty women and I’ll be fairly incoherent I’m sure. And sailors… well, most of the lads aren’t exactly scholars. You don’t need to read and write to reef, hand and steer, after all, do you? And I don’t think we’ve ever written a report with some of the more colourful terms you’ll hear on board ship actually written down for the Admiralty — I think I’d be drummed out of the navy on the spot!”

“But my lord, you are very knowledgeable,” protests Safiye, smiling; “you have been teaching me all day, have you not? Please, will you tell me— ‘drummed out’?” she inquires next.

And from there she keeps him chatting happily about naval life, the glamour versus the reality, and how he wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world, till there’s nothing left in their cups but traces of foam and a second round of Ephesian delight has gone the way of the first.

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