(1312-04-20) Ham
Summary: One bad decision leads to another — and another — and, oh, wait, as Athénaïs and Philomène drink together, they just keep on coming, don’t they?
RL Date: 21/04/2020 - 22/04/2020
Related: Follows on from Grumpy Old Women.
athenais philomene 

Dubious Places — Marsilikos


Philomène leads the way, no doubt a practiced path when more intoxicated than this, along the back streets and alleys, towards the Rue de Port and her modest home there. Narrowly avoiding a puddle of something unpleasant from the last person returning from a good night out, and finally coming up on the higher class houses in this end of town, only then does she slow and glance back to make sure Athénaïs is still following.

“And I’m not about to waste good firewood on you, so you’d better either keep your coat on, or drink enough to keep warm.” Or, the unspoken suggestion only implied with a long look up and down and a briefly raised eyebrow, whatever other form of exercise she feels appropriate.

Yes, as the even rhythm of her booted footsteps has suggested all along, Athénaïs is a mere half-step behind Philomène— though a few paces distant where their path permits, the habit of both women being to allow room enough about themselves for the drawing of a sword. She’s keeping up easily without for a moment appearing to hurry. One might suppose her to be out for a leisurely evening stroll, except that her eyes are alert to every sound, every sudden movement, every flash of unexpected colour in the darkening evening.

She slows her long-legged stride in tandem with Philomène’s more laborious gait, and meets her eyes when she looks back. “The consummate hostess,” she drawls, unflinching beneath that suggestive gaze. “Have the great ladies of Marsilikos heard about you yet—?”

“If by heard,” Philomène notes drily, stepping up between the two fragrant pots of rosemary that guard her door, “you mean have they been warned, then they, and you, can bite me.”

She raps twice on the door with her knuckles, then simply steps inside without waiting for her maid to answer. Well, it’s her house. The knocking in itself was a courtesy to give Caroline a chance to look busy. “Wipe your feet, come in, and stop making the street look untidy,” she decides, limping in and turning impatiently to hold the door for her guest.

Though she’s not much given to following instructions — and she also succeeded in avoiding, with Azzallese grace, that puddle — Athénaïs gives her boots a cursory scuffing against the mat inside the door and follows Philomène inside, still cradling the bottle of wine.

She barely looks around the inside of the house, just enough to verify she’s not being lured into an ambush, not enough to give a single fuck about the interior décor. “Where do we sit?” is her only question. No, wait, there’s another. “And where’s that ham you promised me? I’d rather sink my teeth into a fat young pig,” she explains generously to her hostess, “than you.”

Though, to be fair, wouldn’t anybody.

“Sit where the fuck you like,” comes the gracious hostess’s suggestion as she leans an arm up against the wall and calls back over her shoulder for her maid. “Stick a pole up your arse and call yourself a lampshade for all I care. Ham,” she adds to the surprised looking Caroline. “Please.”

That order placed and out of the way, Philomène tramps her way over to the most worn and comfortable looking of the chairs available, the one with a not-very-well-hidden bottle that’s a good deal more empty than it was this morning stashed down to one side of the arm, and settles into it. Once seated, she begins to peel out of her comfortable old riding jacket and flings it to rest casually on the small table there, before going to roll up her shirtsleeves. Her eyes don’t leave Athénaïs all the while.

“Wrong kind of pole,” Athénaïs points out as she follows, again, a hair behind Philomène.

She marks out an armless chair for herself and with tender care sets down the bottle of wine in reach of it. “This is shit wine too,” she explains absently, “or I wouldn’t have bounced it about over half the fucking city.” She sweeps back her exquisitely-cut coat-tails and perches with Azzallese ease upon the edge of said chair, and then palms her knife again to get the bottle open. The cork pops softly. She executes the same knife-tossing trick and tucks it away and settles back in her chair, leaving the wine to catch its breath. Her legs stretch out, apparently endlessly. Her sword rests still at her side, in its serviceable plain scabbard.

“Shit wine, shit company, shit host,” Philomène rattles off, considering Athénaïs shrewdly for a moment or two, eyes narrowing. “Good thing I’m so fucking handsome to make up for it, and,” she adds, moving with forced casualness to unbuckle her swordbelt and then toss that down, too, on top of her jacket, “of course it’s a good thing I’ve got the finest bit of meat you’ll have in this city.”

That succinct accounting elicits only a sniff from Athénaïs. She watches Philomène divesting herself of her sword and then, with nigh palpable reluctance but attentive at least this far to the usual duties of a guest, sets about unbuckling her own equally well-worn sword-belt.

“Still waiting to see it,” she drawls, setting her weapon too in arm’s reach, in case the offer of ham was but a ploy. You never do know, do you, with Camaelines. “Or has your girl got lost back there in the vast extended reaches of your town residence?”

Philomène props her booted right foot up on the table, then grabs at her breeches with one hand to haul her injured leg up to cross over it at the ankles.

“Well, there’s also the ham,” she allows with a smirk, adding a quiet, “Thank you,” as Caroline appears with two plates precariously and inexpertly balanced on one arm, a couple of glasses hanging by the stem between her fingers, and a larger platter with what does in fact appear to be cold sliced ham on it. No bread. Nothing else. Just ham. And yet despite these failings in the maid, Philomène is perhaps the most polite to her than anyone else Athénaïs has seen. Who even knows. Pod person.

“There,” she points out to her guest as the meat is set down and the glasses upended onto the table. “Try some of that and tell me it wasn’t worth dropping by. The evening not entirely wasted after all.”

“I’d give the wine longer to breathe,” is Athénaïs’s argument, because she too does like to have something to argue about; but she bends her principles far enough to sit forward again with her boots well-planted, produce the same wickedly sharp dagger of which Philomène has before now had cause to complain, and claim with its aid a single delicate slice of ham.

She sets down her knife across her plate, folds the slice of ham in half, and takes a cautious bite of it. Her expression doesn’t change. She swallows, and she nods.

“This will do with it,” she opines, and with her non-ham-hand she gathers up the bottle and gracefully pours full measures for them both. Philomène’s glass is pushed across the table to her without further comment. The wine therein is white, sweet, very fruity— and considerably younger and bolder than the red they were drinking earlier. Well, she did say.

Philomène has to lean rather awkwardly to reach the ham, but she’s set herself up in this ‘comfortable’ position now and she’ll be damned if she’ll show that it might perhaps have been a bad idea. As it is, she has to sort of rock forward to reach, grab a slice, and drag it back to her plate. This is apparently all for show, however, as she settles the plate on the arm of her chair and forgets all about it in favour of a) drinking the wine, and b) squinting at the sword now laid out for inspection.

“Azzallese?” she asks, giving the weapon an appraising nod. “Bit delicate for my tastes, but I suppose it suits you well.”

Athénaïs regards this performance with due dubiety; but having seen that the glass is within Philomène’s reach she offers no further efforts to make the other woman’s life easier. She just eats the rest of her own first slice of ham, taking a sip of wine before each bite, and then sends her knife flicking out to spear about half a dozen slices and collar them for herself.

She shakes her head. “The blade is Aragonian,” she pronounces. “Place called Toledo.” She pauses. “I had it off a man, who had it off a man whose family had it… a while,” she concludes. “Eat your ham,” she nags then, “or you won’t taste the wine properly.”

“And when did you become my mother?” Philomène demands to know scathingly, nonetheless taking a moment to tear away a sliver of the ham from her plate and lift it to dangle and finally drop into her mouth. This she follows with a sip from her wine, giving Athénaïs a withering look as she does so. Look or no look, it doesn’t stop her licking her lips and going back for another.

Folding up another slice of ham for herself Athénaïs chides, without any great rancour, “You said ham, I found you a wine to drink with ham. I didn’t buy it for you to waste it.” But, once Philomène has tacitly conceded the point and started eating the bloody ham, she pivots to another subject. “So what about yours?” she asks, nodding to the other sword.

“Inherited it from an old friend,” Philomène responds after a moment. “Standard issue. Nothing exciting. Still, it’s kept me alive for the most part.” She pauses, taking a moment to think, then leans forward to nudge the weapon, hilt first, towards her guest. “Heavy bastard, but good to crack a few skulls from the back of a horse. I’ve a lighter blade I sometimes use in my left. That one I had made for me when I was seven.” She shrugs, leaning back again. “Working blades, rather than ones for show.”

As she chews her ham Athénaïs’s eyes narrow at Philomène. She swallows. She takes a sip of that white wine as bold and insouciant as she is herself. “You’re taller now,” is her deadpan remark. Then, “I keep the pretty ones put away. People used to give me swords all the time, back in the day.” She shrugs. “This one doesn’t look like much with the new hilt I had put on it— I sold the original one,” which fact alone must give an idea of its value. “But if you think it’s not a working blade, you’re fucking dreaming. The King of Terre d’Ange carries Toledo steel. So does your cousin the duc d’Aiglemort. It does the job,” she insists. “You name the job.”

“They always used to give me swords, too,” Philomène notes with a half smile, gesturing to various points across her chest and abdomen. “Here, here, here… always point first, though. Bit rude.”

Athénaïs cracks a smile. “That’s where you learnt your manners,” she observes, and leans in over the edge of the table again to top up both their glasses of wine. Some more ham makes its way back to her plate. She seems to have found an appetite, somewhere.

She sits back again with her glass in one hand and her plate balanced casually upon one thigh, and applies herself to pleasures gustatory rather than conversational.

“I used to make the effort,” Philomène admits candidly, drinking more wine than she eats ham, but she is at least slowly getting through her single slice. “And then I spent about as much time and patience as I had trying to please everyone and I decided it’s not worth it. If you’re a woman over thirty you’re ignored, patronised or dismissed. I figured I’d rather be feared than dismissed, and anyone worth their salt gets it when you’re just damn well honest with them. And if they don’t, well, that’s their problem.”

She gives a solid nod, wincing very slightly as she adjusts her position, pulling both feet to the floor so she can sit forward. “If all they want is manners, they can find some other simpering idiot. I’m too old and too tired to put up with it any more. I may be blunt, but I’m honest.”

“Don’t feel obliged on my account,” drawls Athénaïs; “have I run screaming yet?” She inhales sharply, and sips again from her glass of wine. “I live in the country. I don’t talk to people much,” she admits, “unless they work for me, or I’ve known them for years. I wouldn’t have had your job,” a grudging nod to the dowager vicomtesse, “for the key to the Bryony strong-room.”

“My job these days is to lounge around, living off a widow’s stipend,” Philomène notes drily. “I’ve become one of those people. I’ve got a damn maid to help me dress in the mornings.” Not that Philomène actually allows that to happen, but that’s beside the point. “I’ve no duties and no responsibilities. It’s fucking awful.”

“I’ve got a maid,” offers Athénaïs, “but I don’t bring her with me to the city. What would be the point?” She shrugs. “The house servants here light my fire and empty my piss-pot,” and that seems to be the extent of the service she requires. “What do you do all day?” she inquires baldly of her hostess, whilst spearing another few slices of ham to feed her gaping maw.

Philomène smirks as she rolls up the last of her piece of ham and pops it into her mouth to chew. “I walk. I ride. I pick fights, and I wander off into the dodgy parts of town to eye up the dancing girls and dare anyone to try it on. Anything just to be alive, you know? And,” she adds pointedly, “I invite women back to my home to eat my ham, so I can ogle them while they do. I’ve got to get my kicks somewhere, even with grumpy old bastards like you.”

Athénaïs huffs out a sound which is, for her, the precursor to laughter. “I know you do,” she drawls. And — it may well just be an artefact of their progress through the third bottle of wine — but she says it with a wry smile, for once seeming to appreciate the compliment.

She pauses for as long as it takes her to eat, in two greedy bites, another whole folded-up slice of that unfairly fragrant and delicious Chalasse ham. Then, a little more wine to please her palate and to wet her throat for further talk. “I work among the vines,” she offers, making another attempt to meet her hostess halfway. “I ride, I swim. I like to play jeu de paume. Couldn’t sit still in a house in the middle of a city for long,” she admits. “Maybe I never could.”

“I don’t tend to swim a great deal,” Philomène admits, “but I’d be happy to spend almost every hour of every day on horseback. Out of the damn city. Away from people.” She pauses, suddenly taking a breath and frowning. “But on the other hand I can just be thankful for what I’ve got and quit being a maudlin old cow. For fuck’s sake, you’re supposed to be taking the piss. I thought you at least would be prepared to call a spade a spade, and tell me I’m a miserable cunt when I’m a miserable cunt.”

“You are a miserable cunt,” Athénaïs concurs in a lazy, Eisande-inflected drawl, “but decent meat is the only fitting end to a long and shitty day. What do you feed them,” she inquires, nodding to the plate of ham so much depleted by her efforts, “acorns—?”

“Corn, grass, and as many apples as they can find from the orchards,” Philomène admits, allowing herself a self satisfied smile at the quality of her pigs. “It’s the apples that do it, I think. Keeps the meat sweet and tasty, with plenty of fat for flavour. And,” she adds, nodding solemnly, “a lot of careful breeding over the years to get the best pigs for what we do. When I first moved to Gueret, we grew nothing but wheat. Terrible fucking idea, not just because it fucked up the soil year on year, but because it only took one bad harvest or a disease and that was the whole lot for one year. So we started with some fruit, some livestock, root vegetables… flax… a few different things. And Gueret’s back on its feet and back on the map. We’ve done all right for ourselves, hm?”

Obedient to Philomène’s desire for the michèl to be extracted, Athénaïs drawls: “You get crossed off maps for growing too much wheat?” But that’s a joke; and she huffs again as her tanned and callused fingertips make a neat and biteable parcel of her next slice of ham. “I wouldn’t know,” she admits, “I’ve just been arse-deep in grapes all these years.” And once more she sinks her teeth into Chalasse ham and savours the taste and the texture and the chewing of it, with no false modesty and no scruples about out-eating her hostess.

Even Yves Valliers could out-eat Philomène.

Wait. Wrong comparison.

Never mind. Still, it’s a rare thing to see her eat anything at all. Perhaps she really does survive on a diet of pure rage, seasoned only by the tears of her enemies.

“How come the grapes get all the fun?” Philomène queries with a quiet laugh, leaning back in her seat again. “Honestly, what does a girl have to do these days to get that close to a fine arse?”

“Ahh… yeah,” is Athénaïs’s next exhalation, in that long and soft Eisandine drawl which sometimes creeps into her voice to obscure her Elua-trained vowels and the harsh edges of her intent. She sits back likewise, and across the table and the remnants of the ham she meets Philomène’s eyes. She sips her wine. “Might be a bit late for that,” she offers quietly.

Philomène eyes the woman speculatively for a moment or two, using the cover of her wine to account for her silence. Eventually she decides on her course of action, for once in her life choosing to think before she speaks. It’s a miracle. “Ah well, of course,” she jokes, letting a small smile cross her face. “Too late to be a girl these days. I’m over my mid twenties, which apparently makes me old.” Yep. Don’t question it. Best way.

The line of Athénaïs’s mouth softens; perhaps she appreciates the out.

But then she does, finally, after all this time and all this dodged flirtation, give Philomène an up-and-down look such as she’s often received from her before: the kind of look which suggests the due consideration of a worthy prospect. There’s a pause. And then she shrugs and glances away to her glass as she sips from it. “I don’t fuck around anymore,” she admits.

Her other hand half-lifts and then subsides upon her leather-breeched thigh, her fingertips resting at the edge of her plate of ham. “I try not to,” she amends.

To that Philomène just leans her head back and laughs tiredly towards the ceiling. “And, no doubt, you get the same bullshit I do for it. They don’t understand that ‘love as thou wilt’ can sometimes mean not rushing into bed with everything that catches your eye, hm?” She looks back over to the other woman, giving her a nod. “Makes sense to me. Eat your ham. Love that as thou wilt.”

“The same bullshit you get—?” drawls Athénaïs, her tone growing bolder as she takes advantage of this fine opportunity to turn things back onto Philomène. “You came on so strong last year,” she opines, “I wondered how many times I’d have to knock you down. Or maybe throw cold water over you,” is her latest idea, “or throw you in it.”

“I’d probably drown,” Philomène points out frankly. “Like I said, I’m no great swimmer. And last year… many things were going on last year. On the whole, I suspect my attempt to make an interest known was… less than effective. I suspect I was rather an idiot on many counts. Chasing younger women. Generally waving the equivalent of signs around saying ‘hello, look at me’. I think,” she adds more delicately, pushing forward her wine glass for a refill, “I’ve been feeling altogether far too old, and far too… mortal. I mean, the sentiment still stands. You’re still a fine figure of a woman. But… sure, eat your ham, drink your wine. Maybe come pick a fight every now and then for old times’ sake, if you’re happy to piss about with vines all day instead of dealing with people.”

By a gesture of one clever and tanned and hard-working hand Athénaïs accepts Philomène’s concessions; and then there’s a brief silence whilst she, very much, eats ham.

When her plate is clean she sits forward again and divides the last of the bottle between their two almost-empty glasses. Her instinctive sense of the weight of it ensures that they come out almost exactly even. She seems to be still in thought. Another mouthful. She tastes it; she swallows slowly. “Vines,” she allows, a wry smile blooming suddenly across her pensive face, “at least can be trained. Maybe you can be too. You’ve made it easier, now.” A nod, and she raises her glass to Philomène across the table before bringing it to her lips.

Philomène snorts lightly. “Lies and slander,” she accuses, nonetheless lifting her glass in return. “I’m an Aiglemort. Not once have we ever been able to be trained out of doing exactly what we damn well want.”

She leans forward, briefly tapping her sword and scabbard on the table where it rests. “This was from the first woman I ever loved. And now you’re going to think aww, and she died, and isn’t it romantic and… well, it isn’t and she didn’t. It just didn’t work. And I was absolutely fucking floored, and so I figured I wouldn’t give out that kind of… I don’t know. Weakness. Whatever it is. Not again. And so there you have it. Shitty story, whatever.” She shrugs, lifting her wine again in an ironic toast. “Then last year Louis-Claude was unwell, to all intents and purposes he was dead by April, only still breathing, and then I got my dumbass self stabbed by some young savage bitch and I was fair convinced I was dead too. So there you go. Fuck.”

Athénaïs meanwhile is finishing off the ham. Well, she was invited.

After a while she sets her empty plate next to the other empty plates, to form a trio, and fishes out a handkerchief to wipe her fingers on— after licking them, thoroughly. Yes, fine, Philomène, isn’t this the very reason why you lure women back to your house with promises of ham.

Folding the handkerchief again with hands which still retain most of their practical ingenuity, she drawls, “If I ever hear a shitty old story of anyone’s that I think is actually romantic, I’ll let you know.” Having put wine-soaked reminiscences in their place, she pauses.

“I haven’t yet,” she adds, “least of all tonight.”

Another, weightier pause.

“The most romantic thing I know,” she says softly, and her gaze is focused now on the middle distance rather than the woman opposite her, “is two people agreeing to weave their lives together, like vines, and just fucking doing it, all in, nothing withheld, till the end.”

“Well, the whole thing’s just fucking absurd, isn’t it,” Philomène decides crossly, taking another serious gulp from her wine, knocking back a good two thirds of it before she lowers the glass again. “And the more I think on it, the more I just want a glass or two of good whisky and a good old fashioned punch up down the docks with some random fellow who’s up for a fight.”

“Get the blood flowing,” agrees Athénaïs, without hesitation. “Focus on what… makes sense,” and her Eisandine drawl takes on a lyrical bitterness, “and forget what never will.”

“Open invite, then,” Philomène offers with a shrug, swirling the last of the wine in her glass before knocking it back. “If you’re getting grief off your other half and you just want to go out and punch some fuckers, give me a shout.”

From the other side of the table Athénaïs regards her with genuine incomprehension. “Off my what—?” she asks, her tanned brow slightly furrowed and her eyes inquiring. There’s nothing combative in her face or in her posture, at first, as she reaches out to understand.

“Your consort,” Philomène explains with a hint of impatience, no doubt brought about by the horror of having an empty glass. She reaches down beside her chair to pull up the schnapps she’s left there for future use, grips the cork between her teeth and pulls it clear so she can top up her glass. “Sidonie Bretel de Valais.” This of course comes out with a lisp. Because cork.

<FS3> Athénaïs rolls Intimidation: Great Success. (5 1 5 8 4 7 2 5 8 7 5)

On which note Athénaïs’s lips twist— no, her whole face twists, as if that last swallow of her wine were unexpectedly foul. She slams down her glass and swallows hard and looks away.

“… Sidonie,” she pronounces with conscious crispness, addressing the armoire— but then she looks back to Philomène, and meets the other woman’s eyes with a flinty and unflinching blue-grey gaze, “has been dead and buried these fourteen years. There aren’t enough sailors in Marsilikos,” she states, “to work off the grief she gives me. But thank you,” this last sardonic and bitter, “for the suggestion. It’s not as though I’ve fought and fucked my way through a city before, trying to forget.” Is it possible she is not being wholly truthful here?

“Shit,” is all Philomène has to say to that. And it’s partly annoyance at herself for not having done enough homework to avoid the awkward conversation in the first place, partly irritation that Athénaïs is apparently taking this opportunity to turn whatever anger she has on her, and partly just a general ‘shit’ for the situation as a whole.

Not one to talk about things when she can better bottle them up and throw some punches later to get ‘em out of her system — or drink ‘em into a stupor — or smoke until none of it matters any more, she leans in and pours a generous measure of her own private supply of schnapps for the woman. The sacrifice is real.

The offer is graciously accepted, Athénaïs lifting the glass before — who can wonder at it — she drinks it down as if she were in her middle twenties again, with nothing to fear.

She slams down the glass empty, and swallows, and breathes out. “She was so fucking funny,” she remarks to nobody at all, “and intuitive, and compassionate, and she had the best pair of tits I’ve ever seen.” Rather than essay a gesture, as some might do, she just smiles wistfully. “And then she traded her life to give her husband a brat,” she goes on, her lips curling with a subtle distaste. “I had my hands round his throat, once,” she comments, “but she loved him.”

If there’s any more booze on offer, she’s ready by now to take it. Perhaps that’s the reason why her eyes flick back to Philomène, albeit set in a face which has become a stone wall.

She hardly needs to ask. If one can’t get well and truly rat-arsed in Philomène d’Aiglemort de Chalasse’s little house with the pots of rosemary at the door and the mismatched odds and ends of auctioned furniture inside, where can one get well and truly rat-arsed?

The glass is already being refilled by the time Athénaïs looks up. It saves Philomène having to meet her eye for one thing. The silence stretches out while the little cogs turn in Philo’s head, until a certain realisation hits her. “There’s a spare room,” she offers. “If you want it. Whatever. Might as well have a body in it as not.”

Hardly has Philomène ceased her benevolent pouring, before Athénaïs begins to drink— and yes, she knocks back this glassful too with brutal intent, and then hardly knowing it she settles deeper into her chair, feeling the flush and the ease and the casual invincibility hard liquor brings. “I’ll go home,” she says plainly, referring of course to the Valais house in Marsilikos, because where else could she possibly mean—? “Shit. I’m drunk,” she observes.

“You’re drinking with me, of course you’re fucking drunk,” Philomène reasons sensibly, pouring out another, or as close as she can manage before the bottle runs dry. “Well, it’s there if you need it. Or want it. I’ll tell Caroline to just let you in. Up the stairs, second on the right. I go to bed early so if you show up late at night, keep the noise down.”

There’s a pause, as Athénaïs slowly inhales.

And then she laughs. The sound has an edge. “At home,” it’s a different home, “I get up when the sun comes up and go to bed when it fucking goes down… I’m going home,” she suggests now, her voice steeling with determination. Elua knows which one she means now. She pulls in one foot and stretches out the other leg, and reaches down for her discarded sword-belt.

“You might as well,” Philomène agrees, eyeing her for a moment. “I mean, you’ve polished off all my ham, and that’s the last of the schnapps.” Because we don’t count the emergency schnapps, or the emergency emergency schnapps. Philo believes in being prepared for these things. “You want a horse? Carriage? Whatever? Or should I just trail after you in ten minutes or so and check you didn’t leave too many bodies along the way?”

It’s the fault of the coat, okay?

Philomène insisted that Athénaïs keep her coat on; and so now, naturally, the coat is an impediment to the re-fastening of her sword-belt, and she has to pull the tails of the one thing out of the ambit of the other more than once before her hands — suddenly less adept than she expects them to be, they’re just fucking disobedient — succeed in arranging everythng in its usual place about her slender hips, and fastening the buckle there.

“I’ll walk it off,” she drawls, “but sure, you follow along,” she eyes Philomène sardonically, “if you could do with a long walk and some easy pickings.”

“I like a long walk,” Philomène insists with a derisive snort, bracing herself to rise, pausing, then pulling a face somewhere towards the fireplace as she puts the strain on her leg and moves to stand. Her own sword belt is slung, then her jacket flung casually over one shoulder. She looks Athénaïs up and down, not in the more predatory way she might have done previously, but more to make sure she’s vaguely presentable and not immediately going to make a tit of herself. “Gets the blood flowing. Either finish your drink or I will. You’re not taking my glass with you.”

Put it that way and Athénaïs catches up the glass and knocks it back and flings it down again, her fingers about the stem to keep it from toppling and snapping, her Azzallese grace all that more carefree for what she’s already imbibed. She glances about herself, sees nothing she’s failed to pick up — nothing she even recognises, right now — and essays a courtly bow in Philomène’s direction. “Lead on,” she drawls. “Your fucking front door.”

“It’s like having a fucking toddler again,” Philomène grumbles, limping her way over to the door, flinging it open and gesturing to it with an exaggerated wave of her right hand. “Your fucking arseholeness.”

Athénaïs is, as usual, just behind her. Redolent of citrus and of cypress.

“Such a compliment,” she drawls, inclining her head toward Philomène with exaggerated inebriated courtesy just before she steps across the threshold and out into the rue du Port. Her gait is, too, more of a dance than usual, something liquid and light, as she looks about herself in the darkness and fixes in her mind’s eye certain points of colour and of light.

She sets off— the direction is correct, and her stride is leisurely enough that Philomène could catch up, were that her intent. She’s got all the time in the world to enjoy how the city quietens finally at dusk, and the, er, varying qualities of its air. The schnappes is telling her so.

Philo isn’t exactly catching up as such, so much as hanging back to keep an eye out, in case Athénaïs trips into a gutter somewhere, or accidentally stabs somebody on her way home. And, of course, she might as well admire the view from behind. Be rude not to.

It’s kind of downward, which helps — and, too, Athénaïs has been walking this city for longer than Philomène has — and she’s a scion of Azza, and so although she takes one or two turnings that could have gone either way, just because they both wend more or less and that’s the way she thinks she went before, and through better and brighter-lit streets than her shadow prefers — there’s not a single wrong turning afore the Place des Mains, which opens in turn into the broad avenue which hosts the in-town palaces of the noble houses of Eisande.

There’s also some swagger, of course, Athénaïs’s elegant dark coat tails wavering in the night breeze and her hands occasionally finding her hips as she breathes in this air — better than one can get in daylight! — and thinks her own thoughts, and clears her own fucking head.

When she comes to the outer wall of House Valais’s city residence, she bangs her fist on the wall somewhat to the side of the smaller door set into that façade, knowing it’s the best way to rouse the concierge. As she waits she rocks back on her heels, thumbs hooked into her sword-belt, still not acknowledging Philomène’s presence just behind her.

And then — the concierge is awake at this hour, with the young people of the house going in and out — she passes through the portal opened for her, and turns on her heel and looks back at Philomène. “Are you coming or not?” she demands, irritated by the other’s laggardly ways.

“Well, maybe if you walked in a fucking straight line,” Philomène retorts, giving the concierge a polite nod as she follows on in through the door, along with a murmur of thanks. Really, anyone who works for a living she’s polite to. It’s just the people she considers who don’t who get the sharp edge of her tongue. “It’s like trying to keep up with a sailor.”

Which attempted witticism goes right over Athénaïs’s head as she strides bold and a little too light-footed across the courtyard— anyway, it’s lost in the evening air.

She smacks open the front door of the house.


Valais Residence — Noble District

From a sweeping courtyard approach, a pair of tall, many-paned glass doors open into the vestibule of the Valais townhouse. Intended to be a vast, cool and imposing chamber, its white marble floor is inset with smaller squares of black, and its high stone walls have been hung with paintings depicting notable ancestors of the Valais family. Wherever space could be found there's an elaborate gilded console table with a long mirror hung above, and small armless chairs with curving mahogany backs and seats upholstered in crimson brocade loiter in pairs or trios against the wall to accommodate callers left to wait.

To the left an open, curving staircase of white marble beneath crimson velvet wends its way up several floors, via broad landings illuminated by windows which look out into the courtyard. The ceiling glitters with gilded cornices, and double doors opposite the entrance lead into the salon, whilst another identical set to the right affords admittance to the dining-room.


At this hour the lighting is soft, courtesy of the candles in sconces strategically placed. Athénaïs spares not a single glance for the paintings, the tapestries, or the footmen coming forward to be of service, but turns resolutely toward the stairs and begins to stomp
her way up.

Three flights.

Steadily, but without pause.

It’s fortunate that Athénaïs is facing up the stairs as she therefore doesn’t get the full force of the glare Philomène casts her way. But of course, it’s Philo and it’s not as though she’d ever back down from a challenge, no matter how ludicrous, and so she grits her teeth, sets her jaw, and grips the banister as though it’s Athénaïs’s throat right now. It takes time and a considerable amount of effort to climb the stairs, as evidenced by the sheen of sweat on the woman’s brow as she does her best but fails to keep up. Stairs. The natural enemy of the Philomène. And of daleks.

By Athénaïs’s own standards she’s keeping up no particular speed; but at some point Philomène finds herself alone on a long and silent landing, high up in the house, with a rectangle of darkness sputtering into light as her hostess kindles a fire within.


Oriel Chamber — Valais Townhouse

Tucked away up several flights of stairs, out of the way of visitors and interlopers, this square and spartan chamber commands from its rounded oriel window a vista of Marsilikos's most elegant rooftops and the sunset sky.

The wall on the right as one enters is anchored by a hearth but otherwise covered in watercolours of the l'Agnacite and Eisandine countryside, in different sizes and frames. They all come from the hand of the same loving artist.

Opposite the fireplace stands a sturdy uncanopied double bed constructed of pale golden hardwood and made up with plain white linen sheets. At one side of it, nearer the window, is a washstand equipped with the usual accoutrements and a small rectangular looking-glass above. On the other side, against the corridor wall, is a square table surrounded by three chairs. These additional furnishings are simple in style, but hewn from the same wood and made to match; likewise the pair of pale golden bureaux flanking the oriel window. The seat built into the window is fitted with a thick cushion covered in worn blue-grey linen, concealing cupboards with hinged lids. There's a scattering of coloured pillows upon it.

Hooks on the back of the door hold several coats and cloaks; next to it is a weapons rack, home to an assortment of swords, knives, and bows.


Inside Athénaïs sits straddling a chair backwards, moving a taper with steady determination from one candle to the next, watching the flame as it falters and takes strength.

She has considerably more time to light her candles than she might have initially assumed. Not only does it take the Chalasse a long time to make it up to the top of the stairs, but when she finally reaches the landing, she continues to grip the bannister and breathe heavily until she is happy that she doesn’t look completely worn out and bedraggled by such a simple task. Only then does she ease her way into the room, chin held defiantly high as she eyes the functional decor.

“Try not to set light to yourself,” she helpfully suggests, limping her way over to the window and deciding this is probably the least problematic spot to sit.

Athénaïs laughs out the taper and drops it in its usual ceramic dish, and stands up with the candelabra in her other hand. She walks with those light, sweeping, half-dancing steps in Philomène’s direction, then lodges the candelabra on the corner of one of the bureaux which flank the oriel window seat, and abruptly turns and takes herself away.

The door slams shut behind her, leaving her guest alone.

She goes only as far as the garderobe across the way — ah, the refined comforts of the Eisandine nobility! — where she relieves herself so magnificently that the sound is probably audible even to Philomène, where she sits regarding the star-pocked night sky.

Despite any temptation to go probing into drawers or cupboards, or to see what treasures Athénaïs keeps in or around her dresser, Philomène is content to sit and wait, drawing her good leg up beneath her quite comfortably. Well, to be fair, she’s barely recovered from the stairs yet, so sitting is an excellent plan. What she does do, though, is admire the view in the hazy moonlight, with the glowing windows far below of the fires, lamps and candles lighting many but by no means all of the city’s houses. It’s a warm night, after all, and why waste firewood. Philo would approve of this frugality.

But which bureau is Athénaïs’s—? They both have small framed looking-glasses on top, and a few other bits scattered about, from dainty crystal jars to dropped leather ties.

Philomène has a moment more to enjoy the scattered night lights of the city and her own deductions before Athénaïs returns, shutting the door behind herself scarcely more softly this time than the last. “It’s over there,” she remarks, jerking a thumb over her shoulder, in case Philomène should — after her demonstration — still require enlightenment.

Then she shrugs out of her coat and hangs it up behind the door, on top of some other garment which apparently just lives there, and braces her hand against the outside of one particular bureau as she leans down to scoop out a mostly-full bottle of uisghe.

She’s just sat down. She can wait. Until the call of the bladder becomes more pressing than the scream of her thigh to leave it the hell alone, anyway.

“Nice place,” Philomène comments idly, running her thumb along the seam of one pane of glass where it butts up to the frame. “Couldn’t you get any higher up? I’m pretty sure one more flight of stairs and you could touch the moon.”

Bottle in hand, Athénaïs looks to the washstand — squints at it — retrieves one plain wooden cup, anyway, that being all she’s got to hand, and then turns back to the windowseat and sees that she’s lost her usual comfy place in it. Fuck. “Either take that off or get out,” she grouses at her guest, slamming down the cup negligently next to the candelabra and commencing to pour a wee dram. Well, a medium-sized one. It’s not that she’s inhospitable.

“Take what off, precisely,” Philomène can’t help but needle, but a quick glance down at herself and she reasons that her shirt, breeches and boots can probably stay. She shifts position to set both feet down, unfastening her sword belt and slinging it, for now, over her shoulder. “Drinks before stripteases, thank you very much,” she adds, claiming the cup as soon as it’s full.

Athénaïs’s huff of unamused amusement must, if nothing else does, point Philomène to the sheer glorious obviousness of her sword— once it’s off she passes the cup across and unbelts her own blade, with surer hands than when she last buckled it in place. It has a regular place on the weapons-rack to the right of her chamber’s door. She shelves it there, that being second nature, and comes back to curl up across from her guest in the oriel window, which is spacious enough that their variously folded legs only just touch one another. She has the bottle of uisghe with her. She swigs, rests it in the triangle of her legs with her hand still upon its neck, and sighs as she settles back against her well-stuffed, colourful cushions. (Or are they hers?)

“You didn’t think I’d fucking get here,” she drawls, just to provoke. She must know that overall Philomène had the harder time attaining to her eyrie— did she intend that to be the way? Dragging her all the way up here, knowing after their long walk that she’d come along?

The Chalasse takes a thirsty gulp from her uisghe, eyeballing her hostess over the rim of the cup. “I thought you’d end up in a gutter,” she admits with a shrug. “If I’d have spotted a Bryony I’d have laid money on it, so I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t.” She pauses, then can’t help but ask, “You actually live here, or did you pick the furthest god damn room in the highest attic to see if I’d make it?”

Athénaïs regards her guest levelly. She lifts the bottle still more than half full of uisghe, takes a sip, and lowers it again into her lap. “Ask yourself,” she suggests, “how many people come all the way up to bother me here about something that isn’t worth my time.”

“Point taken,” Philomène allows, leaning her head back against the wall and exhaling heavily upwards. “And at least the view’s good. Outside, that is. Not that the view inside is awful,” she teases, drawing her right leg back up again to get comfortable, which involves a certain amount of Tetris-like efforts to avoid tangling with Athénaïs’s leg, her cushion, or her (their?) bottle of booze. “I’ll be fucked if I’m dragging myself all this way again in a hurry, though.”

Again Athénaïs swigs from that convenient bottle, amending as best she can the healthful effects of their long walk through the night-dark city. “It was your choice,” she says shortly. She swigs again, and exhales. “Fuck, I’m not— middle twenties,” she grouses again.

“You’re old,” Philomène helpfully supplies with a small laugh, never mind that her hair is plastered to the back of her neck with sweat from the effort of making her way through the city and up to here. “Yves Valliers says so, and we know that he knows everything, so it must be true.”

The exercise and the air have, on the contrary, done Athénaïs good— but she’s hellbent upon undoing it again, via that bottle she’s holding so close. A little more, surely, and she’ll go calm and comfy and blank enough that she can fall asleep despite all their talk.

“Yves Valliers says we’re both old,” she points out, “and as soon as he’s knocked up a nice girl,” she snorts quietly, “he can go where he wants and suit himself.”

“Well, Yves Valliers can fucking bite me,” Philomène decides, knocking back a good swig from her cup to see her through, then setting it down between the two of them. With a groan, she slides the sword belt from her shoulder, setting it against the wall, and drags herself, wincing, upright. “Still Valliers isn’t a bad match for my Laurene,” she insists, limping rather more than usual — the steps have taken their toll — over towards the door, then out and through it.

We do not need to specify the sounds which reverberate shortly thereafter.

Suffice it to say on her return she is duly relieved. Honestly, it’s hard to know right now why anyone wouldn’t immediately leap into bed with her.

“Yeah, sure he is,” drawls Athénaïs, with the single and childless and sort of drunk woman’s easy dismissal of a widowed mother’s many urgent and legitimate concerns.

By the time Philomène returns from her errand of mercy (that is, mercy upon her own long-suffering bladder) her hostess has flopped down fully-dressed on one side of the bed, facing toward the door. “Sleep here or fuck off,” she murmurs drowsily, “but bolt the door.” How that’s supposed to happen if Philo fucks off… well, who knows.

“Fuck’s sake,” Philomène mutters to herself, nonetheless turning to slide the bolt home.

That done, she eyes Athénaïs for a moment or two, considering, then finally lets out a long exhalation of breath, goes to park herself on the end of the bed and, rather than settling in to sleep, takes a moment to at least pull the woman’s boots off for her. Were their situations reversed, it would be the courtesy she’d expect.

Boots discarded to the floor, Philomène rather awkwardly folds what she can of the blankets over the prone woman, heads back to the window seat where she can rearrange the cushions about herself, and settles her jacket backwards over her for warmth. One might imagine this is not the worst position in which she’s ever slept, but she’s not as young as she was (thank you Yves Valliers for pointing it out) and she’s definitely going to regret that stubborn streak by morning.

As these things go, it’s not so bad to pass out in your own bed with your sword-belt hung up and your coat off (and your boots, thanks, Philo), and after a much-needed visit to the privy. Athénaïs is vaguely conscious of her visitor’s efforts to make a bed of her broad and well-cushioned, though not so much curtained, window seat. She leaves her to it and punches her pillow once more, in some final access of somnolent irritation. And she’s out.

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