A Meal Worth Remembering?

On any other day, these smells coming from the little dwelling atop a roof might lure urchins closer - the keeper of this place can be coaxed into sharing, sometimes, and word’s been passed around to that effect among the urchin gangs. Not today. Not when three armed and wary men stand outside, pacing over that rooftop space, and a full unkindness of ravens, feathers gleaming in shades from ivory to midnight, perches on top.

Eglantine stands at the door, and waits. They wear a simple grey coat, unassuming, ordinary. Storm-dark eyes glance around restlessly.

It’s a dangerous guest they’ve sent for, here. But one who needs this, and one who may yet hold things of incalculable value.

The price for his entry they included in the invitation: that he must leave all of his weapons at the door.

Eglantine is capable of offering him generosity… but not trust.

(OCC: Is this flowerdyne arc?)

(ooc: no, this is a different thing. :) )

He comes like a midnight sunset, if the Sun-beneath-the-Sea was setting into the fathomless depths forever, if the last flashes of its light were facing death by dark water. Garbed in strange-shore Parabolan attire stained with impossible colours and the night, a wide-brimmed hat obscuring his features with its shade, he glides along the roofs like a heat mirage: silent, serene and all but impossible to focus on.

The surprise is spoiled when one of the white ravens spots him when he’s still forty paces away and raises an alarm.

The intruder freezes for a second, then covers the remaining distance with several quick leaps that evoke the image of a feline predator. Such a display of speed from a figure of this size would usually be unexpected, but Eglantine has witnessed it before: in the Basalt Gallery, when everything changed. He reaches into the pocket - this gesture makes the armed men surrounding him even more tense, and this reaction bring a hint of a smile to his lips - and slowly brings out Eglantine’s letter of invitation.

It is a graceful and deadly thing that has come here, a killer, a name of fear upon so many lips in his time. Yet Eglantine smiles, and it is not with fear that they speak, only courtesy.

&quotPassionario. I wondered if you would accept.&quot

The men watching are still on high alert, hands lingering near weapons. The ravens are… unreadable, and simply regard Passionario with bright eyes, like a silent jury waiting atop the building.

&quotDo but lay your weapons aside, and you are welcome.&quot Eglantine’s voice is soft, pitched to carry no further than those here on the rooftop. &quotFood and drink await you, guest of my home.&quot Their words are very formal, and their manner that of some feudal lord extending hospitality according to ancient traditions.

And if the home seems meagre, what of it? What of it, if it is only a lesser example of the homes Eglantine has found throughout the city? The smells from within are of foods whose quality far outstrip the shabby exterior of this place. And, too, it is but a few swift movements away from access to the Flit, should its owner feel the need to flee.

Caution, always caution, when one hosts a man like this.

The guest nods his assent and kneels to place something at his feet: his signature knives, the ones with blades touched by the Wax-Wind. The last time Eglantine saw these weapons, they were employed to maim and dismember Ezekiel’s host body. Something about the Passionario’s manner suggests that they have seen plenty of use since then.

Still kneeling, he announces: &quotI swear that I will bring no weapon into this house, and that no one who may follow me will bring a weapon with them.&quot The words have a ritual feeling to them, yet something about the way Passionario pronounces ‘no weapon’ and ‘no one’ gives off a feeling that he’s enjoying some private joke - yet at whose expense?

As Passionario rises to his feet, he lifts the hat from his head, revealing his new eyes. They are stormy-dark, like Eglantine’s, but with traces of lilac on the edges. He smiles wryly and answers their unspoken question:

&quotYes, I can see again. And I have to admit,&quot - he looks straight into Eglantine’s eyes, smiling broadly as he speaks - &quotI like what I see here.&quot
edited by Passionario on 8/12/2016

Of course. He has not seen their face before. Heard descriptions, perhaps, but Eglantine’s travel into the Neath began after irrigo took his eyes. But Eglantine has seen him… and what he was capable of, even without his sight. They hold onto that memory like a warning, even as they smile a little and incline their head.

&quotYou are improved by having eyes, yourself,&quot they murmur, a little dryly. The lack had been… unsettling. The presence… well. Passionario is still unsettling, but not in exactly the same way. It’s written in his every fibre, though, in a way that defies description.

They step back a little before looking to their men. &quotWait. Watch. Do not touch his knives.&quot Still quiet, still calm, but with an expectation of obedience.

Then, Eglantine’s attention returns to Passionario, offering him another of their assessing stares, followed by a smile that has melted hearts - and brought firmness to other things - across London. &quotPlease, come in.&quot They lead the way inside, to where the table waits.

Three place settings. One empty of food and drink. One with only bread and water. One with platters laid out in front of it, meat and wine and genuine surface vegetables. A roasted side of goat steams enticingly, carrying the scent of spices into the air. It is to this third place that Eglantine ushers Passionario.

Passionario answers Eglantine’s inviting smile with his own. The fabled smile of a Scarlet Saint which simultaneously promises salvation and tempts with damnation, a vision of lips that shatters hearts, binds minds and unmakes sacred vows.

Yet as he follows them inside, the smile does not rise to his eyes, which dart back and forth, checking everything for threats both covert and overt. Concealed weapons, escape routes, false panels, ambushes and traps, objects that are out of place and ones that fit in too perfectly.

Apparently satisfied with the results of his observation, Passionario approaches the offered place. He does his best to keep a neutral expression at the sight of enticing food, but a slight twitch of the left leg betrays him.

&quotWill your generosity extend to an additional plate for my companion?&quot He gestures to the empty air next to him.

“A place stands empty,” Eglantine answers, with perfect dignity. They pull back the chair sitting before the bare plate, leaving it out, as though for some other to be seated there. They do not ask to be introduced to the companion, for all it might be deemed their right as a host whose guest would bring another guest. Some things are better not known, they feel.

Eglantine takes a seat at the place setting where only bread and water wait. If the array of dishes before Passionario tempt them, they give no sign.

“Please. Eat.” They speak softly, still. “All else can wait. The guest who is hungry must have food. The guest who is thirsty must have drink. And you are both, I think.”

Matthew 25:35. In the Deep Archives, this verse was a false lead. No, worse than that - a trap made out of words and rigged with deadly light. This is different, Passionario reminds himself. The Archives were deep underground, while this is a place close to the sky. Eglantine is many things, yet they are not one of the Arbiters. However, a sliver of doubt remains at the back of his mind.

Taking care not to let his concerns become visible, Passionario carefully slices off two pieces of goat meat and places them on the bare plate. As he does, he looks again at the empty space and smiles. This time, there is nothing artificial or practiced in his smile or gaze - only sincere affection and endless grief. He has the look of a man who has accidentally discovered a painting or lithograph of his family that perished in a war or disaster years ago.

Several embarassing seconds later, Passionario returns his attention to his own food and drink. While he clearly does his best to comply with etiquette, there is a distinct urgency to his movements that, while not entirely undecorous, is still unsettling. He does not feast like a Summerset gourmand, sampling every morsel, nor does he gobble the food down like a Pentecost Ape. No, the manner of his consumption evokes the image of the woods being ravaged by wildfire, of a medieval city falling to spreading plague. An appetite that cannot be placated or reasoned with.

A minute later, the guest appears to recall where he is, and re-establishes eye contact with Eglantine:

&quotThank you, Eglantine. That was masterfully done, and I’m not just talking about the food.&quot He pauses. &quotAre you the one who arranged this, or are you just playing your part?&quot

They have been watching him, and sipping delicately from their glass of water. The hunger lies heavily upon him, they can see, but so do other things – memory, and sorrow, and strength. (Always the strength, Eglantine reminds themself, and they cannot afford to forget just how deadly this man is.)

“This was my own doing,” they say, steadily, holding his gaze. A man like Passionario will read truth or lies even in the face of an accomplished charmer of minds, they suspect. But their eyes are clear of deceit, and there are no twitches of lies in their face. “You are… not the first I have been acquainted with who walked that path.” There, now, they glance aside, and something bitter and dark stirs, receding just as quickly. But though their smile is less bright, still it is honest enough when it returns. “It taught me something, at least, of what might be needed.”

They rise smoothly, a graceful and practiced motion as elegant as rippling silk, and fetch another dish to lay before Passionario - heavily spiced pieces of baked mushroom, with fish scattered through it. With their own hands they pour his next glass of wine, before returning to their seat.

“I could philosophise on how we all play our parts, but that’s not actually relevant just now. Suffice to say, no-one laid this on me, as task, or request, or command. Of my own will alone did I bring you here.” A hint of pride. “And no favour asked of any to arrange it, no debts incurred that any might hold over my head.”

Did Passionario’s eye wink when Eglantine momentarily moved closer to place the new dish, or was it just a play of light and shadow? It is impossible to tell for certain.

&quotRemarkable,&quot he says, keeping his attention focused on the host’s face while his hands make themselves busy with the knife and fork, - &quotI had a feeling that you were much more than just a pretty face and an enchanting voice, yet you have dramatically surpassed my expectations.&quot He lowers his gaze to his plate for a couple of seconds. &quotIt doesn’t happen often. Well played.&quot

He lets that remark sink in while he turns his attention to the dish before him. Like a disorganized mass of rebels being routed and destroyed by the advance of hardened veterans, the mix of mushrooms and fish proves to be no match for the ex-Fist’s appetite.

He takes the glass and sips delicately, mirroring Eglantine’s own pose with uncanny accuracy. &quotYou’ve done your research well and you’ve acted upon it wisely. I appreciate it, just as I appreciate the respect you’ve shown me so far.&quot His eyes narrow, almost imperceptibly. &quotWhich leads to the obvious question: what is it that you want from me?&quot

A twitch of half-amused, half-cautious thoughtfulness, there. Either Eglantine’s looks were specifically mentioned in whatever reports were given to Passionario… or he’s contrived to get close enough to see them before now, since the restoration of his sight. They wouldn’t rule either option out.

Beauty is a tool like any other, and they’ve used it enough that no doubt some have made note of its place among Eglantine’s weapons. And Passionario… well, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he has without some facility for stealthy observation.

These thoughts flit through their mind, but they simply nod and smile graciously, accepting compliment and praise both, and giving their guest time to finish his food. (Somewhere in there is a flicker of ghoulish whimsy, that leads Eglantine to wonder if they could actually make this man explode by continuing to feed him past the capacity of a human stomach.)

“You are a man worth respecting,” they note, evenly. They drink a little more water, before they speak again. “Which is why I will not obfuscate my point, here. You have a wealth of information, still, despite the changes in your circumstance. In matters of knowledge and learning, one looks to the best, does one not?” Eglantine leans forward a little. “What I want from you is that knowledge, that information.” Brass-clawed fingers spread wide in a graceful gesture. “But I do not demand it, and should you refuse me, you will leave here as freely as you arrived. Unhindered. Unburdened by any notion of debt for so meagre a thing as a single meal.” A dismissive gesture at the table. “Call that a gift, if you will.”

They keep their expression courteously neutral. This is no time for winsome smiles and pleading eyes.

A familiar sensation descends on Passionario. For a moment, he feels as though he’s once again a mere information broker, the person he used to be back on the Surface (no, forget the Surface). Before the Palace, before the Masters, before the Republic, before the dark water… before her.

He banishes the feeling with a conscious effort of will. Things have changed. He has changed. It was useless to pretend otherwise. There would be no extensive haggling over every tidbit of information today, no negotiation over its value to gain an edge. A simple rule would have to suffice instead. The knowledge was precious - but not as precious as time.

&quotI will share my information with you. And for every two questions that you ask of me, you will answer one of my own.&quot He leans forward. &quotDo we have a deal, Eglantine?&quot

They look, for a moment, unguardedly startled, followed by relief, which is followed in turn by calculation. And then Eglantine inclines their head. “I thank you. Yes, we have a deal.”

At last, their smile returns, bright and joyous and full of mischief, inviting all who see it to be in on the joke. “What, in your opinion, is the most currently useful of your knowledge? What would you ask, in my place?” The less-direct approach. Something to map unknown territory, and give hints of what ought to be looked for. Far better, they feel, than to fumble around in ignorance, wasting time and questions.

The old spymaster rubs his chin thoughtfully. &quotUsefulness is relative. A revolutionary would want weapons to employ against the Bazaar: passphrases, secret passages, neddy patrol schedules. Likewise, an agent of the Bazaar would want the opposite: dead drops and meeting places of dissident cells and Surface spy networks, identities of their ringleaders and potential turncoats. A zailor would ask for a treasure map; a writer for a description of the Taste. And then there’s the time frame to consider. Someone concerned with survival in London in the upcoming weeks and months would benefit from knowing my newest plots regarding the Great Game and the most likely outcome thereof. On the other hand, somebody considering long-term investments could capitalize on knowing the reason for my falling out of Bazaar’s grace.&quot

He takes a sip from the wine glass. It’s a very small sip, more of a gesture than an actual act of consumption, yet somehow the glass becomes empty. &quotAs for your second question, if I was in your shoes, I’d ask for a way to heal the Correspondence brand marking your friend Eli.&quot As he casually speaks the words, he pays close attention to Eglantine’s face, looking for signs of emotional response. &quotHowever, I would advise against that, since I’ve already revealed the secret to the man himself. It’s up to him now to act up on it.&quot

He carefully places the empty glass on the table. &quotLet’s start with the classics. What is Love?&quot

Interest gleams in Eglantine’s eyes at the broad list of things offered up as options - interest bordering upon some kind of envious hunger. It retreats swiftly, though, into a blink that is a heaping of self-restraint away from being a flinch at the mention of the Taste, only to return, lessened and tempered, afterwards.

It’s a complicated reaction that Passionario evokes when mentioning Eli, passing in swift succession through several emotions conveyed all too clearly by mobile and very expressive lips. Scholarly interest? Anger? Guilt? Hope, and some kind of wary contemplation? The correspondence fascinates them, they still vividly remember helplessly watching that branding, yet they also remember Eli’s trial and speaking out vociferously against him there.

They rise again, bringing more wine, and a plate of cheeses and other little savouries, giving themself a moment to think, and attending to their host duties besides. That had not been the kind of question they’d expected.

When they answer, their voice is slow and thoughtful. &quotLove is… a transforming force, that gives new meaning to a deed, if only that deed is done in the name of love. It’s… willingly offering up the heart of who you are to another, longing for what you’ve offered to be accepted and made more glorious by how it pleases them.&quot A faint downturn of their lips. &quotIt’s the joyful seed of heartbreak and hope, planted even by those who know the fruit may yet be bitter indeed.&quot

Eglantine’s sigh is very quiet, very soft. They weigh up their choices, and then there is a telltale hint of apology in their face and voice as they ask, &quotWhy did you fall from the Bazaar’s favour?&quot Somehow, even to Passionario, they clearly do not relish asking a question so likely to be painful. A pause. &quotWhat are the details and likely results of your newest plots in the Great Game?&quot

Immediate survival, and longterm usefulness. They’ve taken priority over everything else Passionario offered.

Passionario’s pupils widen slightly as he watches Eglantine’s lips react to the mention of Eli, and then again when they speak of love. They narrow back when the questions are asked. He expected Eglantine to go for the biggest prizes from the outset, but hearing the words out loud was very different from pure mental consideration.

&quotI’ve made a mistake on the job. The first one in thirteen years of service, and also the last one. The reasons for it have to do with my method of navigating through the world during my time of eyelessness, which is a question that deserves an answer of its own. Suffice to say, that particular method happened to fail me at a crucial decision point, leaving me as unprepared as a regular blind man. And I chose poorly.&quot

As the guest speaks, his nostrils flare and his hand clench into fists. Muscles ripple beneath the irrigo-stained suit fabric. &quotI was outraged. First at the Masters, for throwing me out like a soiled rag after over a decade of hard toil. Later, at myself… for failing to realize that thirteen years are but an eyeblink to beings such as them.&quot

The fire goes out of him as instaneously as it flared up, leaving only ashes and dejection in its wake. &quotUnderstanding came later, when I’ve assembled other pieces of the puzzle. Once I’ve seen the whole picture, I came to understand how kind the Masters have been and how dire my mistake was. Those years of service were not forgotten; they were likely the reason why I was shown such clemency.&quot

His shoulders slump and his voice drops almost to a whisper. &quotParis. That was the price of my misjudgment. The Masters coveted it, and now the odds are seven to one that it will slip out of their grasp. Because of my error, they will have to find another city to be the Sixth.&quot

Passionario lets Eglantine ponder the implications of his words while he turns his attention to the cheese and prepares the answer to the second question.
edited by Passionario on 8/19/2016

Paris. It’s always Paris. The City of Love - no wonder the Masters want it, with that reputation.

Yet Eglantine’s reaction to that is but a flicker amid an overwhelming tide of other emotion, too strong even for them to remember to hide any of it. There’s a deep and sudden empathy there, as of one who dislikes seeing another in pain, and guilt for being the one to cause it. Passionario’s dejected posture is mirrored unconsciously as Eglantine lowers their gaze a moment.

It’s a little piece of irony, perhaps - Eli’s suffering at Passionario’s hands was what moved Eglantine to set aside their grudge against him for his deeds, and now it is Passionario’s suffering that moves them instead.

He did that, their warier instincts shriek. Remember what he chose to do to Eli. Remember the disappearances in black bags, the people you never found. You cannot afford to be weak with him.

It’s fortunate that Passionario’s attention has turned to the cheese and savouries, because Eglantine’s inner conflict is insufficiently hidden, for the perceptive. It’s written in their face, their posture, in the hand that almost, almost extended as though in an effort to comfort, only to be redirected to the glass of water. Then, though, composure returns, and they project only an air of courteous interest.

&quotThere are two things one needs to remember about the Great Game,&quot - declares Passionario, as though starting a debate at a Society salon, - &quotFirstly, it is not actually a game: it is a neverending war, as hellish and bloody as any other. Everyone loses the Game eventually, and most involved in it die young. Second, there is very little that is great about it. Treachery, lies, theft and murder are as common as breath and water. Even those who play minor roles and mundane tasks are cogs in the machine that produces atrocities, and are thus complicit in them.&quot

&quotSo what are their lives worth, these villains who are living on borrowed time anyway? ‘Nothing’ - that was the answer of Alice the Cheesemonger.&quot He frowns. &quotI think she may have been slightly before your time, but you probably have heard of her. Alice wanted to end the Game in a very direct way: by killing most, if not all, of the spies involved in London operations.&quot

He makes a sweeping motion with his hands. &quotEvidently, since the Game is still going strong and Alice is… no longer with us, her plans have failed. But before we get into reasons for that, let’s first look at the reasons why she embarked on that path in the first place.&quot

&quotThe life of the spy is a stressful one. One has to constantly worry about deception, betrayal and violence - and then there’s the enemy side. It doesn’t get easier over time, either - if anything, the burden of one’s sins only compounds the pressure. The existence in the Neath presents its own unique challenges, from threat of soullessness to unnatural nightmares to monsters that lurk in the darkness. Combine these factors, and there’s small wonder that so many London spies turn to alcohol, honey, laudanum or more exotic methods of getting a few hours’ worth of sleep. And when even those inevitably fail, you get someone like Cheesemonger.&quot

&quotEventually, the Game in the Neath developed its own immune response to this madness. The Order of St. Joshua, whose members are Canons, Midnighters, violet priests of oblivion. Well versed in subtle and cunning arts of irrigo, they perform rites that lift the burden of sin by erasing the memory of it. The confessional seal is upheld by irrigo, for the secrets divulged within the Shrine of St. Joshua are swiftly forgotten by the confessor as well.&quot

Every trace of pain and weakness gone from Passionario’s expression, replaced with confidence and pride:

&quotAs a Midnighter, I was considered to be one of the best in my profession. My eyeless face served as foolproof evidence of my experience and dedication to the craft. Combined with the favor of the Bazaar, it allowed me to enjoy the same privilege as our current Mayor: the ability to pick the cream of the cream as my clients. Head coordinators of Surface networks, top-level quadruple agents, even other Midnighters: all came to my shrine to receive the benediction of forgetfulness. Every night, I learned secrets that could unmake nations. Every morning, I rose with every trace of them lost to me. Infinite power flowed through my hands, yet remained forever out of my grasp…&quot

He smiles broadly, obviously enjoying this part:

&quot…Until our common acquaintance Elias Lowe gave it all back to me.&quot
edited by Passionario on 8/22/2016