(1866-08-12) Watching the Watcher
Watching the Watcher
Summary: A Holy Inquisitor's covert business on behalf of God, goodness, and mother's cherry pie, is briefly interrupted by a courtesan who takes it into her head to inquisit him.
Date: 12th August, 1866
Related: None
Marguerite  Ignacious  

The Lobbed Scimitar
12th August, 1866

In the late afternoon of this balmy Aout day the corps of hardened daytime drinkers in The Lobbed Scimitar finds its ranks expanded and enlivened by merchants, tradesmen, and shoppers whose day is done — and perhaps early enough to warrant a measure of jubilation in the raising of a pint-pot.

Such cover would have been of benefit rather earlier in the day to one patron in particular, whose place against a wall, at a table which conceals a growing puddle of liquor paid for by good church silver yet not poured down a good church throat, he is obliged to retain just so long as that barfly — that one there, in the apple-green doublet bordered with an excessive quantity of embroidery (who does he think he is, anyway?) — retains his. Ah, he'll learn the folly of such folly of denying the Inquisition — he'll learn…

The door to the street flaps on its hinges, hardly shutting before another hand pushes, party after party admitting themselves and scattering either to tables or to join the growing crowd round the bar. Difficult, even, to be certain at a glance who has come with whom, when one is acting so cunningly the part of an elegant lush, who might by his garb be more at home in the Noble Circle and yet whose sole desire this day is a quiet place to sozzle himself into a stupor. Yet Ignacious Maxillian Roxburg sorts it out in time. He always does.

Suddenly half the tap room is occupied by red silk.

The fabric in question — a most suspicious fabric, with irreverence somehow stitched into its very seams — sways so softly about the slender, upright figure of the woman who has just come in, that it seems still to be floating on the air an instant after she exhales a breath. The gown covers her well enough, to her wrists and her collarbones — the only suggestion of the layers lying beneath is at her shoulders, where golden ribbons tie red sleeves to a red bodice over crushed folds of the palest, thinnest white and gold silk gauze — but where is the true modesty in a healthy feminine figure so unmistakably outlined by that red silk settling, once more, against it—? It is not all red, of course, there are panels of gold, touches of embroidery, of expense. Hair scarcely less red is swept up and coiled in an arrangement which was the work of two servants for no less than an hour, underneath a gauzy golden veil secured in place with pearl-topped pins. Crossing the threshold she sweeps the veil away from her face, from her pearl earrings and a row of pearls tight about her pale, swanlike throat, each gem round and white-golden and glowing against her fair skin. Her other hand is tucked into the hand of a small girl walking, or rather limping, close by her side, who looks up at her at every other step with a gaze which marks them, as clearly as the likenesses in their colouring and attire, as a mother and her daughter.

In the next several minutes it becomes apparent to Ignacious first, that the little girl's shoe has a broken strap, and she has been brought into a public watering place not to be inducted directly into sin but to sit on a bar stool immediately vacated for her and drink a glass of goat's milk whilst her mother and the pretty, fresh-faced serving girl in their train enter into an earnest colloquy with the barmaid regarding whether there is a cobbler's shop nearby or, failing that, whether the shoe might be mended somehow to allow the child to walk more easily to the destination they have in mind — and second, that the mother is acquainted with the foolish lordling in the apple-green doublet. It is he who brings a knife from his belt-pouch with which to address the tiny shoe when it is offered to him, and then a piece of string; it is he who pushes coin across the bar to pay for the child's milk, and the maid's ale, and the woman's wine; it is he whose operations encompass begging a hairpin of the maid and bending it to his will, to make the repair all the more secure.

While he works the woman in red evinces interest, appreciation, admiration — a host of charming, complimentary expressions discernible in her face, and in the word or two of her speech brought to Ignacious's ears through the amiable noise of the Scimitar's patrons. Sitting on the apple-green lordling's own stool, her feet tucked up neatly on the crossbar beneath the hem of her gown, she bends her head over the shoe when it's finished, the better to examine it, displaying a profile fit to adorn coin. And then, somehow, the shoe is on the child's foot and she has disentangled her small party from its association.

The tables are filling fast — her gaze takes in the tap room quadrant by quadrant, and crosses Ignacious's own. Leading her daughter and attended by her maid, pausing once to accept a compliment to her person with a gracious word and the faintest air of surprise (why, have I such a bottom as you describe? her eyes seem to ask), she approaches the long table one end of which the Holy Inquisitor has all day guarded as his own bastion. She sits opposite him, a place or two along: her maid sets down two glasses. The child has her own glass of milk, held in one hand, kept close as though it were a great responsibility. Well, where else were they to sit? That party at the other long table, upon which the woman's gaze lingered, is growing raucous.

Her eyes lift to Ignacious. "… You don't object?" she inquires easily, confidentially. "Your corner, sir, with you to defend it, seemed far and away the safest place to sit my daughter whilst she finishes her milk. And you and I have met, have we not? You've grown out your moustache — but I recall those eyes." And thus began a chit-chat positively interminable.

The man in the apple-green doublet is staring.

The Inquisitor is not alone - a pair of men, smaller than he but fighters both, somewhat too pretty in the face to be the kind of nameless men-at-arms they pretend, are off to one side of Ignacious, quietly seated in the larger man's shadow and content to let him do the investigation of the room.

Ignacious, for his part, is dressed as he would be for court, if the court were small and his house silently degraded into providing hand-me-down clothes for a third son not intended to be born. A clean-cut matting of sable hued hair sits atop his head - a wig, though noticeable only by the closest of inspections - while sharp, scrutinizing eyes wash over the scene, and are called now to stop on the lady whose part has taken up temporary residence before him.

"Have we?" the Inquisitor asks, slowly, calmly, his toned edged with a humorless judgement that pronounced a verdict ("No, we have not.") even as his words ask. "I dare say I am in little position to see you elsewhere. Sit if you like, Madam. You will find no quarrel here."

His denial brings the ghost of a smile to his self-appointed interlocutress's composed features; her hand nestles in her daughter's soft red-gold hair, and she regards his disguise, for she has begun to suspect it is one, with greater attention. Her eyes linger about his hairline and then, as she leans just perceptibly forwards, delve into his eyes, under the excuse of ascertaining whether the recollection she claimed is a false one. (Of course she knows full well it is.) "How swift you are to speak of quarrels, sir, with one you know so little — I might almost suspect you remember still better than I," she teases, simply out of curiosity. Will he be goaded into claiming acquaintance with her? Or disclaiming it yet more definitely? "I wonder, where was it? In what house? Perhaps at a late hour of the evening, when one's impressions are wont to be so pleasantly blurred…" She nods to the cups on the table and favours him with a look of gentle understanding. She can smell it, that puddle on the table, and she has no reason to think it isn't him.

A strong jawline grinds sideways an inch, almost imperceptibly. Eyes focus and unfocus, taking in the space around her without being so obvious as to divert attention. Is he still here? Yes. Moreover, he is watching.

"I am afraid the good madam has confused me with another. I do not /get/ so far into my cups that I cannot recall a woman, and if I had, I doubt the good madam would find me to her taste."

The lady's eyebrows and her hand lift; she brings her goblet of wine to her lips, and swallows a brief, delaying draught, whilst regarding Ignatius with amusement over the rim. "Then you set," she declares, "an example of temperance, of moderation, from which I would have all the lords and burghers of Rovilon take their precepts: for it is mortifying to one's pride, you know, to be the only one of two who recalls, the next day, those glances, those whispers… Very well, good sir; we have not met, until this very hour. And very well met to you, and you'll let me beg your pardon, I hope, for the other fellow with those eyes," she tilts her head, continuing the motion with a shift of her gaze suggestive of an eye-roll, "plainly isn't here. There, Sidonie," and this last to her daughter, whom she has had half an eye on all the while, "don't drink too quickly, on so warm a day, mmm?"

From the maid sitting with her back to her mistress's, listening, a folded fan is passed into her free hand: she unfurls it with a negligent flick, and plies it slowly to and fro, giving the child more than herself the benefit of the soft breeze. It is made of the thinnest possible panels of fragrant wood, bleached, painted on the one side with a lattice of climbing roses and on the other with some pictorial scene it is permitted to Ignacious only to glimpse.

The Inquisitor's eyes hold the woman's a moment longer, and the he simply concurs with a short, brusque, "Indeed," before returning to his cups - wherein he finds himself distracted by the woman's daughter, for half a moment.

Another moment passes in silence - the gentlemen to his side exchange a few remarks, but Ignacious's attention is focused is still focused squarely on the woman, almost as if, if he lets her go, it will be too obvious that he is meaning to look just beyond her, at a green-apple doublet. "That one is yours, then," he notes of the girl, before inquiring, "Where is the girl's father?"

Which gaucherie his new acquaintance answers with a look of gentle reproach — even if it were his business, even had he any right to wonder, what a question to ask in front of the child! Indeed, the girl Sidonie has turned to face Ignacious across the table and cocked her own round head in confusion, an ingenuous little copy of her mother. She slips the base of her cup onto the table, showing her milk to be three-quarters drunk despite maternal strictures against haste. The answer to his question comes however from the taller, more grown-up redhead, whose obligation is always to comport herself pleasantly.

"No doubt he is attending to his affairs," and is that the slightest emphasis placed upon the pronoun…? "As we to ours, in good time. I have been engaged this evening to read aloud a story about a bunny-rabbit named Jacobus," she confides, lowering her chin and looking steadily across, with an air of mock gravity, "exciting fare for a young audience, and most suitable — do you know it? … But I'll warrant, sir, you have no children of your own."

It is not until the disapproval fades from his features that one could hardly have noticed his countenance carrying that weight at all, but it becomes radically more obvious the moment he allows the woman the benefit of the doubt (surely someone else's doubt for Ignacious allows no room for his own).

It replaced, momentarily, with indignance. "I do not look fatherly enough, perhaps, madam? Or do you assume my lord father would not deign allow me to layabout a tavern if I had heir-making to attend to?"

"Say rather it was your choice of words, sir, the manner in which your glance fell… You struck me as one unaccustomed to considering the needs or the moods of children." And the woman's shoulders shift in an elegant shrug, and she snaps shut her fan and rests it upon the table next to the goblet her lips have barely touched. "Even the best little girls," which praise is very much for her daughter's ears, to soothe over the confusion of the past moments as that maternal hand is now soothing her hair, "become too thirsty on hot days, or suffer from broken shoes which won't stay on their feet, or misunderstand the words bandied casually above their heads — but perhaps I do you an injustice," she offers, "and you are an exemplary uncle; or you have yourself so fine a wife she spares you any such burdens…? But no; I think," she concludes, a trifle dreamily, having sparing recourse once more to her wine, "you and I both look into foreign lands, when we gaze across this table."

For the most part, Ignacious - or rather, his yet unnamed persona - readily accepts the woman's explanation, prepared to allow her due consideration for her words - until her very last, which all but brings a snort to the Inquisitor's nostrils.

"And what of me such as myself is foreign to you, precisely?"

His companion lifts just one shoulder and smiles luminously. "I don't know," she grants; "if I knew so well, it would hardly be so foreign. Yet it is there, all the same; you don't fit here as easily as you would have it. Perhaps that's why I chose this table above one other. Curiosity for a man who appeared to my eyes familiar, and yet so subtly strange."

An almost snarky comment is prepared in return, but before the priest can reach for his quiver, he finds himself aborting the notion with an ease that is markedly unusual in this climate. Perhaps the alcohol is starting to affect him after all. "…the madam is too kind. Or perhaps not kind enough. 'Strange' is not precisely the term a young man wishes to hear." But there follows a shrug. "But I suppose I am not longer a young man."

Ah, how often Marguerite Lavecq hears that one during the course of her professional life. How many truly wealthy men are her juniors…? She has a personal catalogue of eight instinctive responses, disagreeing, or agreeing and respecting, or simply dismissing, as she senses her company would most appreciate. Today's is the hint of a frown as she regards him with a gaze unvarying, a genuine mild surprise, another sign of curiosity. "Are you not? … Well, should you like to choose another word? 'Mysterious', perhaps, or 'enigmatic', or—" And her next suggestion, the highest on the sliding scale, is a word taken from the High Imperial tongue, which carries several subtle shades of meaning nested inside one another, and is in no sense pejorative.

(Thinkest thou?) comes the High Imperial response, coming perhaps too easily to the lips of a middle aged, barely-noble third son, before that same head is shaking. "The madam is perhaps too proficient. She has no need of my ear, yet she takes it regardless. Shall I consider myself sport, then?"

Now, perhaps, the foreigners are bartering in a trade tongue; Marguerite lowers her gaze to where her daughter is sipping the last of that cup of milk, and lifts it to Ignacious's face with a confession. "A diversion, perhaps… I was told you had sat here long," she explains, "and in a tavern I know well—! How heavily a man's troubles must sit on his mind, to keep him so long in his cups, beneath a roof where he is not known to drink by custom… The diversion," she sighs, with beguiling sympathy, snapping her fan open again and vouchsafing him another flash of the pastoral scene executed upon the reverse by the hand of a gifted artist, "was perhaps not entirely selfish."

A moment's confusion crosses the Inquisitor's features like a shadow, replaces soon with caution, and the the beginnings of panic - and only then do his eyes snap to one side, the worse to realize his quarry has slipped his notice, before a flash of apple-green can be seen hurriedly walking past the window just beyond the front door.

An accusatorial glare finds its way back to the woman. "I hope I was worth your time, then," he all but growls, springing to his feet, and causing the two others beside him to follow suit. The three make their way for the door, while a minstrel in the corner subtly approaches the barkeep to pay for their drinks on the sly, to avoid one pursuit as another begins.

Several astonished glances follow this rather splashy exit, and one woman's soft laughter; and a fellow at another table calls out, "What was that all about, Marguerite?" To him, to the barmaid whose curiosity has brought her so quickly to gather the child's empty cup and ask with her eyes the same question, the courtesan replies with a lazy veil-wafting shake of her head. "I haven't the least idea, yet."

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