(1311-10-23) We're All Barbarians
Summary: Especially some of us. Behold, the mating dance of Philomène Aiglemort de Chalasse.
RL Date: 10/24/2019 - 10/25/2019
Related: Cheap Date.
athenais philomene 

Jardins d’Eisheth — Marsilikos

Tranquility and beauty of nature is what those coming to the gardens of Eisheth usually seek. There is a playfulness in the arrangement of paths through the greenery, and the way four of them wind to the center, where there is a pond surrounded by a few elm trees, beside an area with wooden benches and tables beneath an arbor, where ivy winds about wooden posts, and a roof of colorfully glazed tiles offers shelter from the sun but also moderate rain.

Bushes are trimmed, and the green is kept short, so that people coming here can enjoy the dramatic view over the coast all the way to the sea, with the harbor and the citadel slightly to the north. Slightly towards the south and close by is the infirmary with the herb garden beside, where a variety of plants used for healing and treating certain illness are grown under the immaculate care of the healers. Towards the east, a path leads towards the temple district, where the dominant structure of the Temple of Eisheth looms, the white marble shimmering almost otherworldly on late afternoons, when it catches the warm, orange light of the setting sun.

There’s a dull quality to the air on a foggy autumn morning like this, when the sun is doing its level best to pierce the murky cloud but instead diffuses its light in an odd amber-grey. Shadows are fleeting and mercurial, and even the sound of the city waking up (or for some dedicated citizens going to bed) is muted and distant. The regular clanging of bells from ships anchored in the harbour, a necessity in this kind of pea-soup weather, could come from ten yards away or ten miles according to the vagaries of the particular blankets of fog that roll out between ship and ear. Familiar routes become less so as unconsciously noted landmarks simply disappear into the depths of the ominous pale mists; the autumn trees, already discarding their leaves into a scatter of red, orange and brown litter upon the hardening ground, loom unexpectedly round corners to the chagrin of more than one careless carriage driver this morning.

Thus it is that in an otherwise deserted garden, the figure of Philomène de Chalasse — clad in a loose, long, pale robe over her usual shirt and breeches, to ward against the chill of the damp air without impeding her ability to move — looks less warlike and more ghostly than usual. More silhouette than anything else, she drifts from one position to another in slow, spectral choreography, a dance that means nothing to the average passerby whilst being instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the rigorous training of her home province, even absent a blade, as the sixteen forms and guards for the Camaeline style of swordsmanship.

Footsteps sound only softly on the grass. They seem to pass by, some distance away — it’s a trick of the ear as well as the eye, that the next time Philomène turns in a particular direction there’s someone sitting on that bench who wasn’t there before, and whom she didn’t hear approach. Someone in breeches and a dark frock coat, topped either by a red woolly hat or hair henna’d to the nth degree, and perchance a rapier belted about their hips, the length of it blurring into the fog as a tendril of grey drifts between the observer and the observed.

The slow transitions continue, wraithlike in the greyness. With all edges blurred and the eyes playing tricks, one might be forgiven for believing there to be a pair of mismatched blades in the Chalasse’s empty hands, so sure are the guards and thrusts. Round to the fourth position again, the one that always causes a little wobble, a tremble with the concentration required of her, and both imaginary blades, one high and one low, are pointed towards the bench in a low lunge, weight squarely on the left leg.

It’s fortunate that the fog obscures so much of her face, as rather than pain showing through, it appears to be fury that’s holding her upright in this wholly uncomfortable position. Teeth show and eyes flash pale in the eerie half-light.

The position is held for three, maybe four seconds, before she eases away to a far more comfortable hanging high guard, letting out an unwilling sigh of relief. The tension that had her practically vibrating ebbs away.

That sudden lunge by a spectral figure out of the fog — the threat of her phantom swords, her snarling teeth — is met with total indifference from the figure on the bench, who sits there with booted feet planted well apart and hands idle upon leather-breeched thighs.

Then she speaks, in the voice of the woman Philomène sat next to in the bar of the Leaping Fish a few days ago, whose high-cheekboned visage gradually resolves itself in response to the spur of memory. “Are you waiting,” she wonders, “for a round of applause—?”

It’s not until Philomène has moved to the next, predictable position that she responds, fixing her eyes on the blurred outline of the other woman in the hope that the vagaries of the fog might reveal her, even if the voice at least has given her an indication of who it is. “I’m fifty three years old,” she points out flatly. “I’ll be long dead and buried before I expect any sort of appreciation from anyone. The quickest way to have all one’s faults forgotten is to die, after all.”

Sweeping round into a broad sideways slash of her imaginary blade, then holding the arm out there to strengthen the muscle memory, she shivers once again. “But by all means, if you want to applaud, do so. Clowns tend to entertain fools as well as intellectuals.”

Curiously, Athénaïs does not applaud either the drill or the wit.

She just sits there — the fog offers a little more of her, though given the universal blackness of her garb it isn’t much — and offers after a moment, in the same half-Eisandine drawl, “Or, when you’re long dead and buried, they’ll speak of your faults the more freely.”

Weight shifting to her back foot, Philomène draws a graceful line with one hand to her belt, sliding home the blade that only she can see and feel, but leaving her fingers there to flex and remain warily ready to draw again, this particular drill one of the rarer attacks taught, an older play that’s largely fallen out of fashion these days.

“I think I can be content with the idea that they are, at least, still talking about me,” she decides with an amused curl of her lip. “Given that the alternative is to be forgotten entirely.”

Perhaps Athénaïs’s eyes do fractionally narrow at that particular gesture. She doesn’t seem to be looking much at Philomène’s chiseled features as she lets out a sigh and a riposte. “You’ve no control,” she points out, “of who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

“But,” Philomène argues, fingers still hovering at the imaginary hilt of her weapon, “I can at least direct the story I would like to see spread. Now, are you here to pray, or just to enjoy the view?” The question is direct, blunt, and followed by a slow, elegant movement to draw and thrust the point of what would be a longsword towards the other woman’s bench and by extension herself.

Athénaïs’s blue-grey eyes are briefly diverted by the trajectory of that illusory longsword— then, they lift to Philomène’s own. Much the same hue. “I got lost,” she explains.

“You got lost,” Philomène echoes, her pose not varying a millimetre. With this particular drill putting no strain on her bad leg, the strength of the rest of her body is clear enough to see. It isn’t easy to stay outstretched for any length of time without a wobble or a tremble, but Philo seems quite sure of herself. “Surely it hasn’t been so long since you were last in Marsilikos? Not long enough to lose the accent, at least.”

Which conversational gambit doesn’t find particular favour with Athénaïs, who gives it some thought and slowly lifts one booted foot to cross it over the opposing knee. Her hands, black-gloved, also shift slightly. “I don’t like the city,” she says at last.

“That,” Philomène allows, finally letting her arm slowly lower into a low guard, “I can fully understand. Cities in general are full of puffed up morons who’ve never done a decent day’s work in their lives. But then perhaps you fit in well here, after all?”

“… Do you want,” Athénaïs drawls slowly, with a warning glint in her gaze as she sits up from her lean against the back of the bench, “to know what my work is?”

“I’m going to assume it’s neither navigation nor conversation,” Philomène responds as she moves into the mirror form of the guard position. “I shall guess something particularly odious, perhaps you’re a tax collector? It’d be a waste of tolerably good looks, though. Courtesan? They seem to sprout up like weeds, when the only talent they truly seem to have is lying on their backs and claiming to be artistic, or a conversationalist, or perfect. I’ll say courtesan.”

At last Athénaïs bares her own teeth. White and gleaming, and presently humourless. To this woman who so baldly asserted that wine is wine, she drawls: "I grow grapes."

Again, the position changes. Philomène rotates through those sixteen recognised drills of the Camaeline style, adding in those two older movements that distinguish her as having learned in the latter part of the last century. “Then that truly is a waste of tolerably good looks,” she decides simply. “I imagine the grapes don’t much care who raises them.”

Every lunge brings the tip of that phantom sword they can both see, into the vicinity of Athénaïs’s throat. However, given that there isn’t a sword, her nerves are more than adequate to the situation. She just sits, hands on her thighs, contemplating Philomène. Taunts regarding her appearance don’t draw her out. But when she’s thought about it for a while she wonders, “Did you have a shit teacher? Or is it just you fucking up on the left leg?”

There’s a swiftness to the next movement that might be alarming if it weren’t entirely expected. Far from moving gracefully from one guard to the next thrust, this is a thrust, parry, riposte in quick succession, weight shifting from one leg to the other and back in a defiant display of the adaptations Philomène has had to make to the recognised drills in deference to her injury. It brings her a step closer to the other woman, the greyness of the fog separating to reveal her more fully. Where every thrust until now would have gone to the throat, this last would have gutted the other woman and continued through with not a single pretence of mercy, finishing with the Chalasse’s downturned fist mere inches from Athénaïs’s belly.

“Shit teachers grow grapes. I had a damn fine master at arms. You’ll tell me how many Skaldi you’ve taken down, I suppose, vintner?”

It isn’t just the temper, or the handful of years taken off Philomène’s face by the fog. It’s the Camaeline training, the bum left leg, the habitual taunt that echoes down through the years to be repeated here and now, in the gardens, in the fog off the middle sea. The figure presently before Athénaïs has a precursor long ago in her past — and she knows it.

“I was a shit teacher,” she agrees. She lowers her right foot to the grass and stands slowly, rising up into Philomène’s belligerently extended personal space— for a fleeting instant they’re nose to nose and eye to eye, neither yielding an inch, till Athénaïs takes a deliberate step to one side and attains open ground. Her rapier is already slipping from its sheath.

She rolls her shoulders a couple of times in that fine black frock-coat with the gorgeous silken lining. Her other hand runs down the front of it, loosing the few buttons she had done up, revealing a dove-grey silk scarf and a suggestion of a waistcoat somewhere within.

And then, with a true steel blade rather than an illusory one, she launches into a display of those same sixteen Camaeline forms, without accommodation or hesitation or flaw — and she’s so preternaturally quick that only someone who already knows where her rapier is going, could follow its path. Her style is (she’s had time to dwell upon it, and to plot) perfectly classical, with those same two quirks that betray her generation as well as Philomène’s.

She’s only a little younger. But her fighting days lasted longer, she never took such an injury — and she never gave birth once, let alone three times. She’s still far too fucking fast.

There’s no thought about what she’s going to do. There’s not a single consideration that the woman showing off beside her is younger and faster, so incredibly fast, and the fact that she has a naked blade out and ready doesn’t even seem to register once in Philomène’s furious lizard brain. How dare this woman make it all look easy? How dare she ape the Camaeline style so deftly? The moment Athénaïs twists to begin the eighth drill, she simply shoves her with all the force she can muster, in the side, to take her off balance and down into the mud.

As the rapier lands on the grass, deliberately discarded — an impediment to what seems suddenly to have become a close-quarters gutter-fight — in the instant between that shove and Athénaïs hitting the ground, the look of triumph in Philo’s eyes is only too fleeting.

Briefer still when the other woman’s fingers find as if from out of the fog a knife, and she grabs with her other hand those billowing pale robes to drag the Chalasse down with her.

It is possible that Philomène misjudged this viticulturalist a little.

The thought widens her eyes as much as the sudden flash of recognition, even as mud splatters up to ruin her wraithly appearance. A word is uttered. It consists of four letters.

Recognition runs two ways, and it went the other way first.

From beneath her — mostly — that’s the way they’ve landed, Athénaïs answering an attack in force with her own shifted weight even when she wasn’t expecting it, preferring a collapse into close-quarters grappling to any attempt at escape — that widening of eyes, that change in the expression upon Philomène’s chiseled features, is visible with the very intake of breath that accompanies the savage upwards assault of her right knee upon the Aiglemort’s left thigh. Her left arm is at that time tangled with the woman above her and her right hand finding that serious-looking knife. It isn’t very long. With a blade like that it doesn’t need to be.

From being upraised, from the very arc of the draw of it, she takes advantage of her knee’s brutal activities to bring her well-honed and chilly steel knife to meet Philomène’s throat.

It doesn’t touch her, of course. But if she moves, it surely will.

And yet she can’t help but move. The knee, targeted and expertly placed to cause the most pain has done its job well, and with the breath knocked out of her by the sudden, blinding, searing agony, the look of triumph and the sudden recognition are both replaced with a draining of expression from the Gueret’s face and a contraction of every muscle in her body.

Her grip falters on the broadcloth of Athénaïs’s coat, her hand flopping back onto the muddy grass, and had she eaten any sort of breakfast beyond her regular liquid pick-me-up, one could be tolerably certain that it too would by now have been spilling out across the grass.

She still technically has the better position, her weight squarely pinning the other woman to the ground, but with almost comical timing she just sags.

The knife relents to a barely non-lethal distance and Athénaïs surges upward, to turn Philomène onto her back in the muddy grass in lieu of herself. She doesn’t fear much resistance from a woman currently in the throes of such absolute and excruciating physical agony.

The same knee parts the Aiglemort’s legs and just rests against her wounded thigh. Not yet inflicting another such strike — but suggesting that it could at any moment, and perhaps enjoying that suggestion, too. Above her Athénaïs’s voice is a stern caress. “Do you yield?” she demands, as the blade of her knife finds Philomène’s throat from another angle. Famous words. Traditional words. The last time she asked this question— well, Philo surely recalls.

“Fucking vintner, my shiny white arse,” Philomène growls out, throat drier than it has any right to be, but at the little twitch from that knife she grates out the necessary phrase. “I yield.” To rhyme with ‘cunt’, presumably. “But put the fucking knife down and leave my leg out of this and we can have a proper go of it,” she offers in its place. “I seem to recall you tried that trick last time, too.”

Athénaïs accepts the one offer and ignores the other. With the forms satisfied she digs her knee instead into the ground beneath them and rises with an irritating litheness, sheathing her knife as she does. “I seem to recall,” she echoes with a faint downward sneer, “you forced a fight on me the last time, too.” She does not offer to help Philomène get up. She merely stands over her, just out of kicking distance, with her muddied coat and empty scabbard and tousled white-golden hair. Her red woolly hat has come off and found a mud-puddle all of its own.

“These days,” Philomène insists, curling her way awkwardly to her feet, “I try to only pick fights I intend to win. Where’d you pick up the knife skills?” She brushes herself down, wincing a little as the ache in her leg becomes more pronounced now the initial sharp pain has subsided. She can’t win. “Not, I think, from grapes.”

Hasn’t won, can’t win. Which may be why Athénaïs, possessed of Azzallese pride and a sensation of the moral high ground — wasn’t her fucking idea to brawl in the mud — rests a hand upon her hip and eyes the resurgent Philomène and observes, “You intended to win.”

“This time I’ve three daughters,” Philomène explains, wincing again as she gambles on stepping forward a little to shake out the worst of the stinging. “And I’d like to see them settled before I let some fancy swordswoman gut me. Next time the knives are banned,” she insists with a little chuckle, bending over a little to regain her breath. “And next time I know who you are. Balmont? Bellefleur? I forget. A northern name. Remind me?”

There’s a slight huff of breath from the fancy swordswoman’s broad mouth into the cool and foggy air, as Philomène alludes to the possibility of a next time. No, thank you. She explains to the top of the other’s bent blonde head: “Athénaïs de Belfours,” a pause, “vintner.”

“Philomène de Chalasse,” offers the other woman, along with a damp and grubby hand. “Pig farmer.”

“I'm surprised you're not dead by now,” is Athénaïs’s next pleasantry, offered a moment before her own hand, clad in a fine black leather glove already muddied during their tussle, “given your habits.”

“Well, perhaps by the grace of the one true God and with dedication to the Companions your prayers may yet be answered soon,” Philomène allows, inclining her head. “But without a little fun in one’s life, one might as well turn up the toes and call it a day anyway, hm?”

She considers for a moment, then peels away the lapel of her robe and the combined collars of jacket and shirt, unbuttoned to the third buttonhole already to give her enough flexibility to perform her morning exercises. A tap of one weathered fingertip, with a nail that’s never seen a manicure in its life, to a faint discoloration just above the collarbone. “One of yours, if I recall correctly. You did a fair number on me back then, but I also never had the damn sense to know when to stop back then.”

Tolerably assured that Philomène isn’t going to try that again — though she has an eye on her, from now on she’ll always have an eye on her — Athénaïs gestures to the imprints of their boots and their bodies in the muddy grass, and steps away to collect her thrown rapier.

Fun,” she mocks. “Your pigs must have taught you that.”

(The fact that she herself rather enjoyed their scrap, in that first hectic second or two when she felt her own exquisitely honed instincts coming into play amid the shock of adrenaline in her veins, cannot be allowed to interfere with the dissemination of so just an insult.)

She shakes out a handkerchief and stoops to pick up her weapon, with that protective barrier between her gloved hand and the presently filthy condition of blade and guard alike. Wiping it down as best she can in a hurry, another kind of drill in which she’s just as practiced, she shoots a sharp, irritated look at the Aiglemort. “What you do is humiliating.”

"To which part exactly are you referring?", Philomène asks, tone deceptively light and almost sweet. "To spend my mornings, usually unobserved, strengthening my body? To give a little nudge to a woman who ought to know better than to show off that she has no souvenirs from the Skaldi, or to fail to bring a knife to unbalance a fair fight?" She shakes her head. "What you do is cowardly, and I think I'd rather be humiliated than craven."

At first Athénaïs just shakes her head and keeps wiping, fastidious about her blade as one could hardly afford to be on a battlefield— but at that implication of cowardice her lips thin.

“What, was I supposed to spare your feelings—?” she demands, glancing up again. “I prefer a fair fight — being forced to beat down a cripple is what's humiliating, today as it was before. But if I have to do it, I get it over with.” And she sheathes her rapier with a quick gesture, made needlessly elegant by her urge to spread round the irritation she herself is feeling.

“Being forced to beat a cripple,” Philomène points out, tugging her lapels straight, “by pulling a knife, I’ll remind you. Perhaps I can see how you’d be humiliated by that, but look,” and she gestures widely around into the slowly clearing fog, already beginning to show faint outlines of the imposing temple architecture in the greyness. “Look at your wide audience here. It’s fine to admit that you were scared enough that you needed to take every advantage, but don’t then try to insist that you like a fair fight. If you liked a fair fight, you’d have given me one.”

“I’ll admit,” Athénaïs says slowly, folding her grubby handkerchief, “that having met you before, perhaps I ought to have realised you’re the kind of moron who’d attack an armed stranger with nothing but her fists.” Wait’ll she catches up on local rumours. “But are you really going to tell me—” Her adopted Eisandine drawl drips with sarcasm. “That if someone came at you like that, and you had a knife to hand, you’d leave it sheathed on the chance that your attacker might not have a knife of her own?” She lets out another sceptical huff.

Straightening her cuffs and brushing the worst of the mud from her robes where she can reach, Philomène first just watches Athénaïs, and then with the continued insults and ripostes simply lets out a low, comfortable laugh, expression lightening into something almost delighted. “Do you honestly think I intended to kill you? Now that really would be a waste of tolerably good looks. Oh no, put your hand on your heart and tell me that a little scrap on a foggy morning isn’t the most you’ve had your blood pumping since you got to this godforsaken city?”

The thinning of the fog has revealed Athénaïs’s red woolly hat on the ground; she stoops to pick it up by the inside of its crown, and shakes it inside out. “You’re not the first sore loser to come after me out of the fog or out of the dark,” she remarks; “I assume people are trying to kill me until I have good reason to think otherwise.” She folds the muddy handkerchief inside the muddy hat and tucks the bundle, clean side out, into a pocket of her coat. She hasn’t even attempted to brush down the latter. That’s someone else’s job. Looking over Philomène’s robed figure in the clearing air she adds, “Just admit you wish you’d had a knife.”

“Why the fuck would I want to kill you?” Philomène demands incredulously. “At least I’m not the sore loser who wouldn’t even go for a beer after the last one. My memory may be fading, but I remember that little snub quite firmly. And,” she notes, rolling her eyes and flicking her robe aside to display, far back on her right hip, a curved and jewelled scabbard which seems more than a little out of place with her otherwise functional appearance, “of course I’ve got a fucking knife. I’ve got a knife, you’ve got a knife, we’ve all got knives. It’s 1311.”

Blue-grey eyes follow the flick of Philomène’s robe and narrow in their incredulity: not at the scabbard’s richness, but its wearer’s apparent reluctance to draw the blade therefrom. “Fucking moron,” is Athénaïs’s snap, and snapped, judgment. “And as I recall you were in no state afterward to go drinking. Didn’t they take you home in a wheelbarrow?”

Philomène lets the robe fall back around her, absently rubbing a hand through her hair. “I think technically it was a cart,” she argues, because of course she’ll find something to argue about, but there’s still that faint smile curving the edges of her lips as she settles her weight back on her good leg and continues to enjoy the show. “Will you accept that beer now? I promise I’ll lead the way, as I know you’ll end up walking in circles otherwise, given your navigational skills.”

The idea that they might go boozing together at dawn and covered in mud, is met by a pointed up-and-down glance from Athénaïs — intended to remind Philomène just what she, too, looks like right now. “I’m going to change,” she drawls, doing up a button on her magnificent but filthy coat as she turns away toward the still half-befogged path out of the gardens.

“Getting you out of your muddy things had crossed my mind, I admit,” Philomène states simply, her own up-and-down glance somewhat more pointed for entirely different reasons. “Rue de Port. The house with the yellow door and the pots of rosemary outside. You can drop by and criticise my wine collection.”

Admittedly, Athénaïs is not averse to appreciation. Looking back at Philomène her lips quirk and she suggests, not for the first time, “Fucking try it.” Then she shoves her gloved hands into her pockets and departs in earnest, her stride long and arrogantly assured.

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