(1311-11-26) Awaiting Eternal Grace
Summary: Meanwhile, brekkers: which, at the Maignard residence, can be the occasion for chewing over all sorts of matters. Life, death, passion, justice, mortal sin, beekeeping…
RL Date: 11/20/2019 - 11/26/2019
Related: Previous scenes with these characters.
iphigenie philomene 

Garden Suite — Maignard Residence

Opening from the garden of the Maignard residence, via a single heavy oaken door opposite the elm tree, this chamber is decorated as a painted garden. Faded by the passage of years, pale flowers and birds of unnatural provenance are depicted against a backdrop of green that runs down to skirting boards of tarnished gilt, carved to echo the floral intricacies of the cornices and the high coffered ceiling which reflects so gently the light from iron candlestands below.

The furnishings are sparse in relation to the room's long rectangular spaciousness: all of antique mahogany, all of a century ago, their age betrayed by style rather than wear. Inside the high mullioned windows of distorted glass, there's a desk to the right and a marble-topped washstand to the left, with a screen just past the latter to create a triangle of privacy in one corner. Adjacent to the desk is a comfortable armchair upholstered in dark red leather; next to the washstand, a smaller white-painted chair makes up in convenience what it lacks in arms. A broad dark marble fireplace is set into the house's innermost wall. Directly opposite it stands an uncurtained four-poster bed made up with hemstitched white linen sheets and bountiful pillows. From each bedpost dangles an iron chain adorned with a soft, padded red leather cuff.

Two large, sturdy, travelworn oak chests stand against the wall between the bed and the desk; the broad windowsill above the desk is home to a collection of books legal, theological, and botanical: no fiction, no poetry, no frivolity. Alone beyond the fireplace is a single mahogany armoire. There are no looking-glasses, no pictures, no objects unnecessary or decorative. Away from the windows and the garden's green the chamber's other, darker half is left bare.

At the end a door opens into a small square salon such as might be found in any noble house, albeit appointed in a more Kusheline taste: all straight lines and angles, dark wood and tarnished gilding, and narrow hinged looking-glasses which fill each corner from floor to ceiling and offer unsettling reflections.

The lady of the house is no longer making any use of the garden, at all; and so Philomène’s Tuesday morning laps are undertaken in perfect solitude, as week by week the roses wither, the elm sheds its leaves, the hemp is bedded down, and frost overtakes the flower lawn.

She sees only the servant who shows her in and out, at the agreed hour, through an enfilade of reception-rooms populated by now with the antique furniture that spent months away being repaired and reupholstered. Oak, walnut, lavish dark velvets and satins, all of it arranged in absolute symmetry, as though somewhere there’s a maid with a straight ruler whose sole duty it is to make sure each fauteuil and tabouret and console table is up to its mark.

At some point, yes, not having set eyes on Iphigénie, she begins to worry.

Eventually politesse gives way to blunt curiosity, and she inquires. Lady Maignard is indisposed — or so the lackeys inform her some minutes later, after investigations of their own.

The next week, though, a similar set of inquiries results in an invitation to take tea.

The garden chamber has altered somewhat since Philomène saw it last. The half of it that Iphigénie doesn’t really use has been cut off by heavy green velvet drapes that hang down from the ceiling to pool luxuriously upon the parquet. One must pass through a cool and empty and half-lit space, then infiltrate the overlapping drapes, in order to get into the portion of it kept cosy (read: sweltering) for her comfort. The high mullioned windows are curtained in the same green velvet; the bedframe previously standing bare has gained dark red drapes of its own; before the fire in the dark marble hearth two high-backed green velvet armchairs frame a breakfast-table such as Philomène has seen before in the garden here, laid with good blue and white china, a teapot over a flickering flame, silver, crystal, pastries, hothouse fruit, and bacon.

The farther chair is already occupied by Iphigénie herself. She’s an indistinct shape in layers of dark cloth and a black woolly shawl over the top; her face is immaculately painted in her usual style, her halo of fluffy white hair smaller after a recent trim. She has a cup of tea directly in front of her and, having heard footsteps approaching behind the green drapes, she’s in the midst of pouring another one for her visitor. “My lady Chalasse, good morning.”

The change in temperature is enough to have Philomène already rolling up the sleeves of her jacket as soon as she steps through the curtains like some kind of cheap magician. This gives her something of the air of a particularly officious acolyte at the infirmary— which, combined with the keen examination Iphigénie receives in her first sharp glance, must be all too familiar.

But then, apparently satisfied that her hostess is not, after all, dead, dying or otherwise permanently maimed, the imperious look softens to a slight smile. “My lady Maignard, how are you? I had feared the worst when I hadn’t seen you in the gardens at all these past weeks. And I’ve missed our conversations. Ah, thank you,” she adds with heartfelt gratitude as the tea is poured.

Iphigénie sits forward in her chair to deposit the second cup and saucer across the table from herself, in Philomène’s easy reach as she sits down in the other chair.

Her gaze flicks up to meet the younger woman’s and she smiles faintly. “No, I’m not dead yet,” she confides, with a gravity belied by the amusement in her vivid and intelligent green eyes. “My health varies with the weather,” she explains, lifting her own cup of tea to her lips and taking a sip, “and it has been such a wet autumn that I’ve found it more prudent to keep indoors… I admire your fortitude, vicomtesse, in braving the garden no matter what. I do go out sometimes,” she adds, “on fine days, in the afternoons. To keep an eye on the bees.”

“It’ll be an icy winter,” Philomène warns, brows drawing together. We don’t ask how she knows. She just knows. “So I’m not certain if it’s fortitude or foolishness, but either way.” She shrugs, taking up her tea to balance the saucer in one hand and curl her weathered fingers around the delicate porcelain with the other.

“You might consider asking Monsieur Levebvre if he might look after the bees this winter on your behalf?” she suggests, running her tongue over her teeth. “You won’t want to be out in the worst of it, and I’m sure he’s a hardy individual. Or I could stop in, if you’ll tell me what needs to be done?”

Iphigénie tilts her head. “I think I’ll manage,” she proposes; “they are quiescent in cold weather, you see, and so it is a small enough task, requiring the beekeeper’s attention far less than in the summer or the spring. They huddle together in one part of the hive — and then on days that are warm enough for them they move to a different place to eat the honey there.” She shrugs. “I do feel a certain sympathy, though my provisions come from the outside. Of course if they run short of honey before the spring one can return it to them, or they can eat your good l’Agnacite beet sugar dissolved in warm water. Just,” she smiles, and drinks her tea, “if they must.”

On which note: “Will you take a grapefruit, vicomtesse? I was offered a basket of them lately and I’m not sure I can get through them all myself, before they spoil.”

Bitter and sour, of course Philomène will accept, which she does with an unlikely smile and a nod. “You’re very kind, thank you.” There a hint of surprise there amongst the appreciation, as apparently somebody has paid attention to her lack of appetite for pastries or fried food. “I can see to provisioning you further, if you like? We’ve been working on a new sausage, I’ll spare you the details as I’m sure that’s enough to put anyone off their breakfast, but I think it could be popular here in the south. And, of course, a little patronage goes a long way when it comes to finding a market for a new product in a long established sector.” Not wholly altruistic, then.

“It’s a finer ground sausage,” she goes on, despite having just said that she wouldn’t go into detail, “with a few local spices, as recommended by Monsieur Raphael, you know him, don’t you? I forget? One of the Thorns? Used to be a butcher.”

In one moment Iphigénie is calmly sipping her tea and nodding along with this intelligence about an interesting new sausage she might like to have for her breakfast — in the next, there’s a sudden flush of heat suffusing her cheeks, as if without moving an inch she has contrived to splash rouge wantonly across her translucent complexion.

Her cup settles unsteadily into its saucer, which she then deposits on the table. The only reason she doesn’t spill anything is that she’s drunk most of what was in it already.

“… Yes,” she admits slowly; “yes, I am acquainted with Monsieur Raphael.” A beat. “Local spices, you say? Particular to Marsilikos?” She’s trying, whilst still bright red.

“Mmm, I don’t know the details, but then I only raise the pigs and ship the meat,” Philomène admits curiously, eyeing Iphigénie but simply storing that reaction away in her mind for now. “I rely on local talent and Monsieur Raphael’s exquisite taste to hammer out the minutiae with the local butchers. Are you not a little warm?” she suggests, taking pity. “Should I open a window and let in some fresh air?”

“… Yes,” allows Iphigénie in a murmur, speaking more to the hearth than to Philomène, as if the flames therein were suddenly of powerful interest to her. “Monsieur Raphael does have particular tastes. But I am not too warm,” she maintains, looking up. “Vicomtesse, if it doesn’t discomfort you, might I trouble you to put on another log—? The basket is just beside you, you see.” And well-provisioned with good dry firewood. “I should not find it amiss if you wished to take off your jacket,” she adds; “I know that what suits me is not always conducive to the ease of others. Please, my lady — as you will.” She remains distinctly pinkish.

Inclining her head in thanks, first Philomène twists a little awkwardly to gather and set another log on the hearth without straining her injured leg, the movement clearly practiced but still no less odd to watch despite that. She even takes the time to give it a little nudge with the helpfully placed poker, because who can resist, when allowed access to add to a fire, the urge to poke it and prod it and otherwise stir it to life, until the flames flicker cosily around the wood and set the shadows dancing.

Only once that’s done, and she’s dusted off her hands, does she settle back and begin casually unbuttoning her jacket, unfastening the cravat at her neck while she’s at it. “The fresh air, though,” she insists, despite respecting the older woman’s wishes and leaving the window firmly closed, “is good for the constitution.” As every good Camaeline mother insists on telling their offspring, while shoving them out into the cold to play.

She considers for a moment, taking a long sip from her tea. “Perhaps on some of the milder days you might like to ride with me? We could find a suitable pony with a sweet temperament to bear you, and it’d be good to get out without too much strain on your health, no?”

Having diverted Philomène's gaze away from herself for a moment or two Iphigénie finally begins to recover her calm, and the pallor which is its outward token. (That Raphael — he does have a profound effect upon ladies of discernment.) She occupies herself in gathering her visitor’s cup nearer again and pouring more tea for the both of them, holding the pot cautiously in both hands for fear of another such catastrophic pottery-smashing spill as she had a few weeks past. “… Ah,” and she sets the pot back on its stand with a sigh; “it's kind of you to think of it, but I fear it has been several years since I was able to ride comfortably. It is a question of my joints, vicomtesse,” she explains with a note of apology in her voice, rendering unto Philo the cup which is Philo’s. “I am fond of fresh air, too, in its season — but cool weather is not kind to me. I had rather be confined to my chamber than confined to my bed,” she says matter-of-factly, whilst stirring a modicum of fragrant dark honey into her own replenished teacup.

Philomène’s brows draw together. The horror. Not being able to ride?? “I genuinely can’t think of anything worse,” she sympathises, nodding thanks for her tea and setting it down so she can make a start on slicing into the offered grapefruit. And if that slicing is a little more forceful than it needs to be, well, it just underlines her point. “Although,” she adds with a very slight smile, “there can be advantages to being in one’s bed, provided one is not too unwell to enjoy it.”

Iphigénie’s eye follows the line of the knife’s blade, pressing so determinedly through the grapefruit’s rind and bringing its bitter pink juices seeping forth. “… Oh, indeed,” she murmurs. “I mind not riding far less, provided I feel well enough to be ridden.”

Her silver spoon clinks into her saucer. She looks up at her visitor. “Healthful exercise comes in so many forms, after all,” in her candid opinion, delivered with a wry little smile.

“I think on the whole,” Philomène deliberates, deftly slicing the grapefruit into wedges, and then surgically removing every part but the glistening, fleshy fruit, “I’d rather ride a horse than a husband. But I do quite understand that not everyone holds that same opinion.” She flicks the other woman a small smile as she sets down the knife and takes up a spoon.

“Without intending to press you, and please do feel free to tell me exactly where I can stick my line of questioning, what do the healers say of your joints? Is it merely that nothing can be done but ameliorate the effects and pray, or is the warmer climate here improving matters? Should I expect to see you hibernate like a tortoise now until the summer, when we might resume our breakfasts in the garden? I have, I confess, been concerned for you.”

“… Yes,” Iphigénie murmurs, cradling her warm cup of tea in both hands as she studies Philomène’s knife work. She’s wearing a fey little smile. “For you, the sense of being free,” she diagnoses, as it happens quite correctly; “and for me, the sense of being bound.”

And then she’s charmed, and her mirth blossoms. “It’s true, I’m becoming very like a tortoise,” she chuckles, “and I’m making this chamber into my shell.” It doesn’t do to be seen taking these things too seriously, after all. “There’s no true cure for a complaint like mine — but the Eisandine climate really has done wonderful things for me,” she confides, “and as long as I keep warm, and don’t exert myself needlessly, and keep my marvelous Coquelicot masseur coming regularly to attack me with his brutal hands,” which has not the ring of a criticism, mind you, “I expect to pass a much more pleasant winter here than I might at home in Kusheth. I would always be grateful for your prayers, though, vicomtesse,” and on that note, yes, she’s a little more solemn, “and for your company at breakfast, if you can bear the heat in here.”

"I'm not a great one for prayers," Philomène admits dubiously, finally going to entirely remove her jacket now instead of just leaving it hanging, unbuttoned, "but breakfast seems a far more practical option I can do, after walking."

"Can I at least provide you some entertainment while you're trapped, perhaps for you less 'trapped' and more… secure? I digress, would you like anything brought in?" she asks as the jacket is laid aside and she regains her spoon to fuss with the grapefruit. "I recall when I was unable to get out," one of several times, no doubt, when she was injured, pregnant, or otherwise pushed her body past its limits, "I took up embroidery, if only to be able to create images of the outside I couldn't get out to see. I could certainly lend you a hoop or needles?"

“Yes, secure,” echoes Iphigénie, amused but approving of Philomène’s attempt to meet her where she lives. It’s a more complex set of sensations— but that’ll do.

She sips her tea, then finds herself shaking her head. “Ah,” she states. “Vicomtesse, I thought you knew.“ She sets down her cup in her saucer and, as she explains her situation, absently rubs her left hand with her right, pressing her thumb into her palm. “I was left-handed till I was three-and-twenty. Then there was an accident.” She takes no responsibility, not exactly — but nor does she apportion any blame. “Over time I learnt to do most things with my right hand, and even to hold a quill after a fashion, but embroidery or any of those kinds of handiwork are well beyond what either of my hands can manage. I’m afraid the only use I have for a needle is if it’s in someone else’s grasp,” she drawls, with a little quirk of her eyebrows.

"I'm so, so sorry, I had no idea," Philomène responds with a little wince, inwardly berating herself for not having noticed, and then for having the tactlessness to bring it up. "Books, perhaps?" comes the next offer, as she hurriedly tries to gloss over what is, particularly for her, a huge and thoughtless faux pas. "I've a few histories that might amuse you?"

Because this conversation is obviously going to keep going until she assigns Philomène some more congenial task than praying for her good health, Iphigénie accedes. It’s one of the duties of the chronically ill, to tend to other people’s feelings about their illnesses.

“That would be most welcome. I won’t offer you any of my theological texts in return,” she teases, “but I’ve two volumes on Eisandine flora, with quite beautiful coloured plates, which might amuse you if there’s ever a day you find too inclement, vicomtesse.”

In fairness there are two options for the chronically ill. Either pander to people's feelings, Exhibit A, or deny everything and lash out at anyone who dares even suggest there's anything wrong at all, Exhibit B.

"I'd be interested to see those," Exhibit B admits, brows lifting, "Although I tend not to spend a great deal of time indoors if I can help it, I can take sketches while I'm out, and then compare. That would be very kind of you."

She pauses, thinks, smiles to herself for a split second, then turns her gaze and straightens her expression back to Iphigénie. "Are you at least getting some of the news from outside? Your Nadège regaling you with the chatter from the markets and streets?"

The tranquil and tea-sipping Exhibit A narrows curious green eyes at the smiling Exhibit B, but forbears to inquire. Then her right hand takes charge of her cup to lower it again, and she presses a finger of her weaker left hand to her lips. “Shh, vicomtesse,” she warns. “My Nadège,” she supplies with dry good humour of her own, “would be most offended by the idea that a lady’s maid of her skill and experience might be required to do the marketing. But we do go out together occasionally on little errands of mine, if the weather is fair and I feel well enough,” she confides, “and whatever else I really want I can send a lackey out to find for me, they’re very good boys. And I have other visitors, of course… But now I wonder, were you thinking of some piece of gossip that might amuse me in particular, my lady?” she teases.

"I was rather hoping that you might have picked up on more news that I hadn’t heard,” Philomène tells her as she finishes off the first half of the grapefruit and settles back with her tea to enjoy. “I’m not sure I’ve anything interesting to tell. There are a few d’Aiglemorts in the city, but not any I’m close to, so I’ve not really spoken with them. I caught up one of my Chalasse cousins the other day though and we have at least a tentative arrangement in place for… well… for when Eleanor inherits the title, and I should be in her way at Gueret.” She purses her lips, frowning a touch, before taking up her tea for a long sip. “It seems kinder not to be there, at least while she establishes herself as the mistress of the estates, if only so that our tenants learn to go to her instead of me.”

Realising that she’s probably now droning on about things which couldn’t possibly interest or entertain her hostess, Philomène trails off, running her thumb along the rim of her teacup. “Closer to home, one of your lot had her debut recently. One of the White Roses. Not my type, but I wish her every success. At least she’ll have had a good introduction to the whole thing, which is as much as anyone could ask, isn’t it?”

Iphigénie expresses by a rueful shake of her head, her doubt that she could have heard more amusing gossip than a woman as active and out-and-about as Philomène de Chalasse. She picks up her own knife and fork, somewhat belatedly, and begins to slice a neglected piece of bacon into smaller, more readily chewable portions. When you know it, of course, it’s easy to see that her left hand lacks strength and her right hand struggles for dexterity.

She’s chewing the first bacon fragment when her visitor abruptly segues between subjects, and so she waits out the change, nodding as she listens. “Yes, little Alienor, whose favourite fruit is the lemon, of all things,” she murmurs at last, when Philomène falls silent after her rhetorical question. “She is not really one of my lot,” she clarifies absently. “But yes, she’s already enjoying considerable success, or so I gather from coming across her at the marquist’s shop only three days after her debut,” she pronounces, as if this were as juicy a tidbit as that grapefruit. “I regretted I couldn’t attend — but I must say she seems to be thriving…”

Then she lays down the knife and fork with a soft sound of silver upon porcelain.

“I moved away, too,” she confides, looking straight across the table into Philomène’s eyes, “when my husband died. Monsieur Lefebvre and I went to Pointe d’Oeste, to a little house my family has there… I think you are wise to plan such a clean break for yourself. It can be hard to be a visitor in what was once one’s own house — but we must let them grow into their own, mustn’t we. The young vicomtes and vicomtesses as well as the young courtesans.”

Curving both hands around her teacup, Philomène meets that gaze frankly. “It’s certainly not as altruistic as all that,” she impresses upon her hostess. “I’m not entirely certain I would want to be there, not for a while, anyway. And without the comfort of a consort, I’ll take the company of a cousin rather than shut myself away alone here to go mad.”

She takes a sip from the teacup, pursing her lips and trying hard not to draw too much attention to the fact when a stray leaf that somehow escaped the strainer makes it into her mouth. Well, she’s likely had worse, so she just swallows after a moment. “And then the obligatory period of mourning, where it’ll be nothing but bland platitudes from people I barely know, but who feel the urge to come and see the widow, like some sort of hideous exhibition. And only once that particular purgatory has been suffered can life go on.”

Iphigénie utters a reflective ‘mmm’ as she eats another piece of her bacon.

She washes it down with a drop more tea, and then offers: “My favourite platitude of widowhood, I think, is that the end of one chapter is always the beginning of another. It happens to have the virtue of being true,” for which she sounds mildly apologetic. “We don’t just wither away and die without a husband, or a consort — you least of all, I feel, vicomtesse… Shall I tell you a secret?” she asks the younger woman suddenly, puckishly.

“I’m not really built for withering,” Philomène agrees drily, taking up her spoon to begin on the other half of the grapefruit. “But one ought to at least make some sort of withering effort, if briefly, for appearances’ sake, no?” She flicks a half smile, raising a brow as though to invite Iphigénie to challenge her.

“Go on, though? What secret?”

Which Iphigénie does not, for it isn’t in her nature to offer challenge save on the rarest and most unusual occasions. Which breakfast isn’t. “Well, thinking of that period of mourning for one’s husband… I didn’t do it,” she admits, “or perform it, anyway, as you suggest a widow must. Of course I was—” A tight little nod confesses it. “Altered,” she says quietly, “by the rather sudden demise of one of my dearest friends — who was just my own age, too, we were born only three months apart,” which fact of course made his death bite into her all the more keenly.

“I didn’t want to be made an exhibit of, either, and to spend all my time tending other people’s feelings rather than my own. So I let it be known that my health was considerably affected by my bereavement, and that I could receive no visitors save my own closest family.” She shrugs. “I hid myself away from all those prying eyes, working at— well, that doesn’t matter now, save that it was a solace. Seclusion might not suit such an active temperament as yours, but if you do want to make an effort at withering — you might consider it,” she suggests. “I did get a lot done. And by the time I conceded that my health was recovering everyone else had moved on, at least three other persons of note had died in Kusheth, and I rarely had to discuss it save in passing. Perhaps… perhaps somewhere in l’Agnace you might find a horse farm to shut yourself up on—?” she suggests, raising an eyebrow at Philomène in turn. “With your cousin you enjoy, or some other sensible companion you might find meanwhile.”

The suggestion of the horse farm raises a smile, which broadens just a touch, almost imperceptibly, on the idea of inviting a sensible companion, too. “Where I could be suitably distraught, but above all unbothered by random wellwishers. I can see the attraction, and I’m sure riding out daily would improve my widowed melancholy. And,” she adds with a smirk, “the horsemanship of my companion.” Her own horsemanship, it goes without saying, is already superb and clearly cannot be improved.

“… Yes,” agrees Iphigénie demurely, affecting to give the matter further thought in light of Philomène’s own musings — she is on the whole a very truthful person, but mourning is something one must do in one’s own way, and such a retreat seems bound to reduce the murder rate in l’Agnace, “sunshine and exercise are known to ameliorate melancholy moods even in the most freshly bereaved, who are otherwise so prostrate with grief that they cannot be expected to go out into polite society at all, for any reason.” She pauses. “Do you know, I think I’ve never heard a horse say, ‘I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now,’” which phrase she delivers in the deadpan drawl it deserves, “or, ‘Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.’ More tea, vicomtesse?” She reaches for the pot.

“But I’ve no intention of waiting until summer,” Philomène points out, then hurriedly busies herself with the grapefruit. “Not that we have any say over these things, but from what news I hear from Gueret, anyway. Thank you, yes,” she adds as a response to the offer of tea. “So it might be less sunshine, but certainly exercise. But then since when has a dark cloud ever stopped me?”

Pouring tea Iphigénie looks up from the stream of it into Philomène’s cup, her fine brows drawing fractionally nearer to one another. “You expect it may happen quite soon, then?”

Then the cup is full, and she restores the pot to its place above the candle’s flickering flame and offers her visitor tea along with the sympathy. “Vicomtesse, I hope the uncertainty is not weighing too heavily upon you and your daughters,” she says gently.

“I think, on the whole, it will be a relief for us all,” Philomène responds after a moment, still chasing some of the pink, juicy grapefruit flesh onto her spoon, which gives her an excuse for not immediately answering. She glances over, meeting the other woman’s eye for a split second with what looks like defiance, before she returns her attention to her unexpected but most welcome breakfast. “And it’ll be a kindness for Louis-Claude to be free again, don’t you think?”

This time when she looks up, it’s with an expression of uncertainty, requesting reassurance.

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Perception: Great Success. (5 7 1 8 5 6 1 4 8 4 5 7 1 8)
<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Religion: Good Success. (6 1 3 7 5 2 6 2 4 2 1 2 7 4 6)
Iphigénie spends 1 luck points on May as well.
<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Religion: Amazing Success. (1 5 8 7 8 6 4 7 7 8 1 5 5 6 5)

The rare spectacle of an Aiglemort exhibiting less than a brash and bullish confidence — seeking, even, someone else’s opinion with which to bolster her own — naturally narrows Iphigénie’s incisive green eyes as she regards the woman sitting at the other side of her breakfast-table, and it brings certain other ingrained tendencies to the fore, too.

“When the appointed moment comes for his journey to the true Terre d’Ange beyond our own,” she says softly, “yes, for him it will be the greatest release, from his earthbound body into a state of grace that we who have not known it cannot truly picture or understand. I think ‘kindness’ rather underrates it, vicomtesse, to judge by the words of our Blessed Elua on such subjects… Shall I refresh your memory?” she suggests, stirring honey into her teacup.

And she quotes, from memory, several passages from the Eluine Cycle and other holy scriptures of the same vintage. Her wording departs in places from the standard text, if Philomène even knows the standard text — but she seems perfectly sure of what she says, even in the longest quotations, which flow from her practiced tongue in between sips of tea. Unless she’s interrupted she’ll even drag the apocrypha into it, translating on the fly and with an apology for the occasional awkward or uncertain wording, the visions vouchsafed to certain ancient sages of the true Terre d’Ange that awaits all good d’Angelines, where one walks among angels in a paradise of which the earthly Terre d’Ange is only a paltry reflection.

For her part, Philomène seems as familiar with the apocrypha as she is with the standard texts, nodding along to the quotations. This, of course, is because she has only a vague passing knowledge of any of it, whatever the priests of Camlach attempted to impart to the young children when they could be tempted to show up to the temple instead of being outdoors. One would not be wrong in thinking that Philomène was very much more an outdoors child than a keen student of religion.

“You do make it sound tempting enough that we all ought to just cut our wrists and wait for eternal grace,” she notes, lips pursing. “Where there would be no illnesses to concern us, and all our legs and hands and feet would all work as intended.”

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Religion: Amazing Success. (4 5 7 4 4 3 4 7 6 8 7 7 5 8 6)

It’s all right. Iphigénie has plainly studied enough for two, or for ten.

“Ah, yes,” she murmurs, sitting back with her cup of tea cradled in both her hands and her head resting against the high back of her green velvet chair. “We are weak creatures, in the main; moments do come to us in which taking the swift way out of one’s troubles, with a knife or a noose or too high a fall, can seem more attractive than persevering through them. But a life, vicomtesse,” she assures Philomène earnestly, “always has purpose — there is purpose in every moment. The nature of it may not be apparent, I’ll certainly stipulate to that,” she agrees, nodding, “but if one were for a moment granted divine omniscience, or even angelic knowledge, then that is among the many thousands of questions about this world and one’s life in it for which one would have answers at last… How the pieces of our lives fit together,” she suggests, putting down her tea and knitting her fingers together one way and then another, “what part we play in the greater design and how it would be impoverished without our presence.”

She supplies a few pertinent scriptural quotations here as well. “… Of course,” and she lowers her hands again into her lap, “absent such broad and certain knowledge, it would be an act of extraordinary hubris to arrogate to oneself that divine power of life and death, to stand before God and say: I, weak and fragile and earthly creature that I am, I cannot bear the purpose You ordained for me, and I believe that I know better than You what ought to be the span of my days, and what the consequences will be of my death.” She shrugs; she raises her eyebrows at Philomène. “We cannot know. What is left to us, instead, is to have faith.”

“I assure you, I’ve no intention of throwing myself from a height or suffering a brief but fatal accident with a knife,” Philomène insists, lips twitching up at the corners. “But you can ascribe that far more to a stubborn refusal to let the bastards win than to any great onset of faith. I think that the one God and I have an unspoken agreement. I don’t bother him and He doesn’t bother me. If I left everything to blind faith, I would have been sickened long before now.”

She sets down her spoon, claiming a napkin with which to clean off her fingertips and then the corners of her mouth. “I’m of the far more radical belief that if something is to be done, then it’s on us to do it. And perhaps that in itself is ordained, so I’ll lose no sleep over it.”

Iphigénie sounds amused. “Yes,” she agrees, “that is one of the two choices, vicomtesse. Lose no sleep over questions of divine inspiration, or lose a great deal… Will you have a little more tea?” she suggests, sitting up again in her chair to replenish her own cup at least, whether or not Philomène will be tempted. “I don’t know that I would in conscience call your belief a radical one,” she muses. “To those of us who share Lord Kushiel’s blood, for instance,” she mentions casually as she pours out tea, “he sometimes sends true visions of other people’s souls, which I have good cause to believe he absolutely intends us to act upon as best we can.”

Philomène holds out her cup and raises a brow. “If that’s the case, it would certainly explain why so many people have tried to kill me in my life. Who knew that he was so eager to send so many visions.” She shakes her head, holding the cup still to allow Iphigénie to pour. Yes, she could offer, but if Philo were struggling and somebody offered to help her..? Exactly. The failure to help is perhaps more courtesy than taking the pot to pour would ever be, at least from the Chalasse.

“Given a distinct lack of visions, from Kushiel or otherwise, I rely on my own wits. Perhaps,” she notes drily, “that is why so many people have tried to kill me. And if the path is unclear, I’d like to believe that I do at least consider the possibilities before acting.” There’s a pause, and a smirk. “Mostly.”

The pot having already been lightened of some of its contents, Iphigénie manages once again to pour without incident. She hands Philomène her cup and then undertakes the necessary business with the honey-pot to sweeten her own. She smiles faintly across the table.

“That isn’t quite the action such a vision would suggest, vicomtesse,” she murmurs: “at least not usually, and not to the kind of person I hope would receive it. Unless you’ve committed a great many mortal sins of which I am unaware,” she clarifies, deadpan, flattering Philomène by leaving open a possibility she’ll enjoy, just as Philomène offered her the courtesy of not being officious about the tea. “Many people seem to see Lord Kushiel’s way as purely one of cruelty and retribution — but it is a path of justice, my lady,” she says firmly, “justice over all; and the rash act, the unthinking reaction, the personal vendetta, are antithetical to justice. I’ve met another murderer since I’ve been in Marsilikos,” she adds, as if murderers come along all the time, like sedan chairs, if only one stands and waits for them, “and I’m still mulling what to do for the best… There's no proof at all I could take to a magistrate — nothing but my name, and my record of being correct." She shrugs. “But I certainly don’t intend a murder of my own.”

“Are you suggesting,” Philomène asks, her thumb absently tapping the rim of her cup as she lifts it closer to her lips, “that it is more just to plot and plan and consider the possibilities to kill before drawing the knife, than it is to be startled and react by instinct?”

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Law: Great Success. (7 3 5 6 7 4 4 8 8 6)

This odd query raises Iphigénie’s eyebrows. “Why would you suppose I meant that?” she asks the younger woman, in genuine confusion. “Any code of jurisprudence in the civilised world recognises a difference in kind between an accidental slaying, or a soldier’s actions on the battlefield, and a planned and premeditated murder…” She absent-mindedly quotes a statute or two from the d’Angeline criminal code, which she has likewise ready upon her tongue.

“In the eyes of God, too, it is the difference between a sin and a mortal sin,” she adds. “No, I was speaking— vicomtesse, you seemed to be making a jest about judicial murder, and I chose to treat with it seriously because I didn’t find it very funny,” she says frankly. “Receiving a vision of someone else’s sin, is not a justification for murder.” On which note she fixes Philomène with a clear green Kusheline stare, more commanding than usual. But then, just for the sake of continuing their rather stimulating thought experiment, she explains: “One does not— act alone, in such matters, arrogating to oneself the divine power I spoke of before. That too would be a mortal sin, vicomtesse. Such a vision is given to the person who is in the best position to act upon it, I firmly believe — but it is a commandment not to be vengeful, but to be just. It is not a license to slay the sinner and be shriven, but a duty to behave fairly.”

“The Skaldi spy,” Philomène responds, taking her time to frame her words. “I fully intended to kill her, and given the same circumstances a second time I’d do just the same. Although,” she adds, pursing her lips, “I’d use a low guard and not underestimate the creature’s speed this time. It wouldn’t be the first Skaldi I’ve killed, but for this one I’m no longer a soldier. Does that make me a murderer? Off to Kushiel for me when I’m dead, then?”

Iphigénie is patient while Philomène chooses her words, her green gaze never wavering from the other’s face. “Yes,” she answers steadily, without hesitation, “had you killed her as you describe you would have spent time in my ancestor’s hells for it, to endure the purification of your soul until you were judged fit to enter into the true Terre d’Ange. Not knowing what was in your mind and your heart in those moments I wouldn’t presume to suggest how long,” she concedes delicately. But then she smiles. “We are none of us without sin, vicomtesse; who knows what friends we might not meet among the flames, one day—?”

“Apparently every comrade I ever fought with, if what you say is true,” Philomène insists flatly. “Everyone who ever bloodied a blade. Well, I’ll be in good company, at least.” She sets down her tea, flexing her fingers before touching a hand to her chin to crack her neck. “Well, I suppose even after death we’ll be doing the tough jobs so you westerners don’t have to.”

“You will find many westerners and southerners to keep company with too, I assure you,” offers Iphigénie drily. “Or you might repent in this life to ease your path into the next.” She picks up her own teacup, and wets her throat again after so much talk. “I think,” she remarks then, “I’m glad I am not responsible for the care of your soul, vicomtesse. That must indeed be a… tough job,” and she sounds quietly sympathetic, “but it is yours to do, and no one else’s.”

“I am confident that every time I’ve drawn blood, it’s been to the benefit of Terre d’Ange,” Philomène insists, setting her jaw and figuratively at least digging in her heels. “A good shepherd kills the wolves who threaten the flock. When I’ve killed, it’s been my duty to do so. To keep those we love safe.”

“And the Skaldi?” asks Iphigénie softly. “In the streets of Marsilikos, in a province which was at peace, there was no course you could have taken short of what you describe as an attempt at murder? It was certainly no judicial action under the law, and no battlefield skirmish either… It was a rash act; it was a personal vendetta; it was a retribution. I am not a sheep, vicomtesse,” she points out, “and you are not a shepherd, and duty is not a monolith. It would be easier to fulfill,” a wistful smile, “if it were always so straightforward. I have sympathy for your actions — I would not have cared to meet a Skaldi in the street either,” she admits with a fastidious pursing of her lips, “but for your immortal soul’s sake, perhaps I am glad you did not succeed.”

“I suspect that if you were stood in the square when she drew her sword you might instead be thanking me instead of condemning me,” Philomène scowls, eschewing her newly topped up tea in favour of searching inside her open jacket for her flask. “Personal vendetta… I’d never met the creature before in my life. It was a threat. I’m not sure you quite understand the importance of that. If it had been allowed to continue, then it would have been more than just my worthless soul at stake.”

She unscrews the lid of the flask, lifting it directly to her lips for a swig before replacing the cap and clenching it in her hand rather than either putting it away or offering it over. “I did what I will always do. Stand in the way of the threat, and take it down before it can injure our people. And if that means my soul’s at risk, then I guess I’d better be buried with marshmallows because I know where I’m going and I can live with that.”

“You do like to be condemned, my lady,” observes Iphigénie. Her eye follows the progress of the battered copper flask — though she doesn’t remark upon it, let alone ask for a nip. “It gets your blood flowing in the morning,” she suggests with a faint smile, “and re-awakens you to your battle against the world… Still, it wasn’t quite my intent,” she disclaims gently.

She takes a deep breath. “If you ask me what I believe to be so, of course I will tell you — because as a former servant of Naamah particularly,” a faint smile, “I believe in the principle of knowing consent. If you are willing to court punishment in the next world for actions you believe to be right in this one, that is between you and God, vicomtesse. As your friend I can only speak the truth as I understand it, when you ask me for it. If you’d rather I just flirt with you,” she quirks her eyebrows, “then ask me for that, instead. It might make for a more lighthearted breakfast.”

She pauses. “Your soul is not worthless, vicomtesse. On the contrary. It is unusually large and bold and tenacious and precious to Camael for such qualities — and precious too to the God who crafted it so, and placed it inside you before He sent you out into the world.”

“You have your faith, and it brings you comfort and conviction,” Philomène decides, switching the flask to the other hand and then back again. “I can’t fault you that, even if mine was lost too many years ago to count. But I suspect that if you’re looking for a lighthearted breakfast then religion ought to be off the table entirely.” She pauses, passing the flask once again to her opposite hand, before unscrewing the lid again if only to give her fingers something to do. “However, neither is flirting my strong point, and I hope you’ll take no offence when I point out that you’re clearly not my type.”

That only entertains Iphigénie, yes. “I didn’t for a moment suppose I was,” she murmurs, her painted smile deepening into a smirk as she raises just one eyebrow now at Philomène, “but I like to flirt — perhaps even as much as you like to fight, vicomtesse. Saying I would flirt with you if you liked, though— I’m afraid that was only flirting,” she explains with a low chuckle, all of this intended of course to lighten their talk before her visitor can run out of schnapps.

It’s going to be a close run thing, as Philomène does seem to be trying to win that particular race. Another gulp of liquor goes down her throat and the flask doesn’t yet go away.

“I think,” she decides at length, “that you can’t possibly enjoy flirting as much as I enjoy a good scrap. With a fight you know what you’re getting. And there’s a clear winner. Flirting, as far as my experience goes, is all about risking everything for what might be nothing, and that’s just poor judgement.”

“… Oh, I can’t, can I,” teases Iphigénie, with a smug secretive little smile quickly hidden by the teacup she lifts to her lips. When she’s taken a sip she lowers the cup to reveal a more composed expression of amusement, and also that: “Vicomtesse, I rather like not knowing what I’m getting — and one doesn’t risk everything. No,” she instructs, “one judges in each moment how much the other has risked, and how much one might wish to risk in turn. It’s more like dancing than fighting, I think,” she muses, not that she has great experience of the latter, “but sometimes one leads and sometimes one follows. It’s a game that sometimes has two clear winners — or that one might win by losing. Or else one has spent an amusing half an hour practicing for the next time, and practice is useful in any art, don’t you find?”

“Sounds more like cards to me,” Philomène mentions, tone dry. “And I’m fairly awful at cards, too. My habit is to wait for the perfect hand, then throw everything I have at it. The problem, of course, being that the perfect hand rarely exists, and even when I think I have it, I’ve often misjudged and somebody pulls an ace.”

The cap is silently screwed back onto the flask, the dented copper reflecting the flickering firelight before it’s tucked away once more.

“Or worse. I put in everything I have, and find I’ve been played all along. I do hate playing cards.”

<FS3> Iphigénie rolls Perception: Good Success. (5 7 8 1 2 6 1 2 4 3 1 6 3 5)

There’s a certain note in Philomène’s voice — or perhaps a certain grimness in the restoration of the flask’s lid? — that focuses Iphigénie’s gaze upon her anew. She takes a moment to sip her tea and consider it and then asks softly: “Is that why you don’t favour the company of courtesans, my lady? Because you think you would necessarily be played? … Ah,” she sighs straight away, “I shouldn’t ask such a thing, should I. You have my apologies.”

“You don’t sit down with a card sharp and expect to walk away with anything in your purse,” Philomène shrugs, apparently not actually taking offence at the question. It’s a miracle. “And I’m not the sort who can play for a pittance at a time. So it is.” Again she shrugs, apparently remembering that she has tea, and lifts it to her lips to hide her expression. Or as much of it as she can, anyway, sipping for a long time while her brows give away everything she’s thinking.

Iphigénie hardly needs the full perspective upon Philomène’s chiseled jaw in order to follow the gamut of her friend’s feelings as it runs its usual course through anger and bitter irony into resignation— but her apology, sincerely given, seems to have been sincerely accepted, and so rather than provide occasion for giving another one she offers a grapefruit instead, and sundry other tidbits from her table, till the heat of her chamber at last drives Philomène away.

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