(1310-10-09) Birds Of A Feather
Summary: After an evening of business negotiations followed by entertaining diversions in the company of an old friend and occasional partner, Isabelle de Valais returns to her salon to an urgent message.
RL Date: 10/10/2018
Related: Takes place directly after this log.

October 10, 1310 — Courtly Couture

She didn't know what surprised her more profoundly, the lizard or the small bird that killed it.

Everything around her was green, the heat beating down on their heads and faces and rendering the humidity almost impossible to bear. Perspiration left a glistening sheen on her sun-kissed skin as the rush of river water reached her ears, punctuating the muted sounds of wildlife that seemed to come from everywhere, and made their surroundings, somehow, seem all the more wild and alien. They had been tracking a different sort of prey through the brush in an effort to catch it alive, at the behest of the silver-haired Tiberian that put the hunt together, but the sudden movement and how it passed so close to her face nearly made her scream.

And then, it came.

It was no bigger than a robin, and swooped down from the nearby treetops with twice the speed of one, its negligible talons outstretched and its tiny wings spread - white and bluish-gray, streaked with black on the wingtips. Its small feet reached the lizard in its mid-leap and beat its wings, driving it into the protrusions of a thorny bush to impale it. Isabelle stared as the bird proceeded to mount the dying lizard, and hooked its beak into its skull.

"Impressive," she murmured to her companions. "For so small a thing."

"A shrike," Valerius Ligaria replied, his voice just as low, after just a single glance. One of Tiberium's most noted naturalists, he was in the process of compiling yet another book, this time about the flora and fauna of Jebe-Barkal. It was the pursuit of live specimens that brought them here today, though they weren't exactly looking for birds.

"Female, by the look of it. Small, but crafty," he continues. "It's carnivorous, but lacks the reach, speed and power of the likes of hawks, falcons and eagles. Hence, it imitates other more vulnerable birds and waits for the right opportunity, then uses its environment to impale its prey."

Gold-flecked eyes brimming with fascination and no small measure of curiosity, Isabelle turned her scrutiny back upon the small speck of white and gray in the bushes. "I never knew such a thing exists," she remarked quietly. "How interesting."

Valerius watched her profile for a silent moment, with keen, gray eyes so pale they were almost transparent. With a deeply lined face, coarse complexion and a shock of white hair, he looked more like a farmer's kindly grandfather than a seasoned adventurer, and yet here he was, straight-backed and sure-footed despite his years, carrying his own pack and his old gladius strapped to his side - a relic from his days as a young legionnaire. He lifted his brows in an inquiring fashion.

"If you'd like," he began. "We can capture her for you, if you desire to keep one."

Isabelle whipped her head towards him immediately at the suggestion, brows drawn down. "What?" she wondered, expression genuinely aghast, and more than just slightly appalled by the idea. "And let her spend what remains of her life being fed by the hand, getting fat until she forgets everything that makes her extraordinary? No, thank you, professor. You are as always indulgent of my whims, but I think not."

She turned back to watch the thorny bush as the small bird dug the point of its beak into the lizard to seek out its heart. The following words she uttered after that were low and hushed, in an attempt not to scare it away:

"She is magnificent free."

The two of them returned to their vigil in silence. So engrossed was the lady in watching the shrike's movements that she failed to notice the faintest hint of a smile on the professor's features at her reply.

~ * ~

Alcibiades Rousse was, as usual, diverting company. He shared her love for gambling and the thrill of discovery, of different places and far off lands, but as enjoyable as reacquainting herself with her friend and occasional business partner had been, the very late hours always called her back to the gleaming, white temple to high fashion that she had built in the heart of Marsilikos' commercial district. Pools of violet silk trailed behind her as she made her way up the steps to her loft salon, as silent as a wraith. Hands moved to dispense with her cloak, unpinning it from her shoulder.

Guillermo was already waiting for her in the dimly lit confines of her office, the fireplace alive with heat, stray embers spraying upwards at every pop from the bundle of pine logs housed within. She took a deep, appreciative breath. She loved the smell of wood smoke, it reminded her of safaris with the professor when she was a younger woman.

Her valet took her cloak when she handed it to him, and in exchange, he handed her a small message tube, its wax seal intact. As Isabelle drifted closer to the hearth to read it, he folded it up neatly and tucked it under his arm. They weren't staying long.

"Do you trust him?" he asked in Aragonian. He hardly spoke to anyone - most of his words were for her ears only.

Isabelle broke the seal and dipped her pinky finger inside the tube, withdrawing a small roll of parchment. "He hasn't given me any reason to doubt his discretion," she said, absently, responding in her mother's native tongue, looking up to regard the tall shadow he made by the door.

"Do you remember what I told you when you were a child?"

"I remember." Her eyes lifted, briefly, from the piece of correspondence she had yet to read. Underneath flame and shadow, her mouth took on a rueful cast. "Your sound counsel is always appreciated."

"But will you heed it?"

"Don't I always?"

She unfurled the paper, eyes dropping down to read the words scrawled within. She took note of the black wax seal at the end of the strip, where the sigil of a sparrow was impressed, identifying the sender.

Ice rushed through her veins when she read the two words inscribed upon the message strip:

She knows.

Time seemed to slow. It felt like a fist to the stomach. She closed her eyes, but she knew it was too early to mourn the heartbreak that would inevitably follow. Once it was time, however…

She crumpled up the message and threw it into the fire. Pivoting away from its red-and-gold glow, she moved to her desk, clipped but quiet strides carrying her to its bevy of drawers. Behind her, sensing the change in her mood, Guillermo pushed away from the wall, moving towards her.

Isabelle tore off a strip of vellum from a stack of blank pages waiting for her, taking her stylus and scrawling a quick note, making use of her left hand. The method gave her a different penmanship than the letters and business documents she inscribed or signed with her right, something she hadn't known she could do were it not for the man presently standing with her. Reaching for her personal seal, she removed the top ring and twisted the handle, the insignia embossed within shifting at every click - a clever piece of metalwork that she had commissioned anonymously in one of her travels abroad.

She replaced the metal ring to secure its shape, and dripped wax at the end of the note, leaving the new impression of another bird entirely against crimson. She rolled it up and slipped it in the same message tube, applying more wax.

"Send this off immediately." Digging deep, she clung to her displeasure in an effort to drown out the first jagged stirrings of sorrow threatening to cleave her chest. Her jaw felt tight on the hinges and the following, quiet words felt stilted:

"We have a problem."

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