Attentive

Title: Attentive
Time Period: April 30, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Good company helps the time go by, and drinking contests don't hurt.

Some time over the years since Leah Rowntree's death, grieving gave way to the inevitable, and the Dovetail - most respected of Dornie's disreputable establishments - began to receive regular visits from her widower. Ever business-like, Duncan soon became steady trade, though for no single purveyor of the oldest profession - or so it had been. Who can say how many visits makes a habit, how many more a tradition, how many after that a simple expectation, but nothing mortal is unchanging, and in the not so recent past the pattern has changed, trimmed down to a single thread.

So while still not a rare sight at the Dovetail - however briefly in the passage from door, up stairs, to the attic room - it is irregular to see Duncan lingering in the main room of the brothel. Rarer still to see him without company, and no evident destination. He nurses a cup of some spirit, its level too low to be easily discerned by passing glance, sitting with the aspect of (mostly) patient waiting. His foot has yet to tap, at least.

There's just a hint of a whistling that precedes Mariah appearing in the downstairs rooms, her feet aiming for the kitchens and the coffee that tends to brew there. But they halt in the main room, when she notices who's lingering about. She even takes a step back, so she can lean in the doorway she just passed through. It's a move that shows off the curve of her waist, but done more by habit than intent by this point.

"Why, Duncan. Color me surprised to see you." Not unpleasantly, as she wears a friendly smile, for all that it seems a little amused. "She didn't kick you out, did she?" There's a glance back to the stairs, if it wasn't obvious who she mean, and the tone of her voice gives away that she wouldn't be surprised if that were the case, but she's sort of indulgent about her fellow Dove's quirks. As it were.

That's how it is with the Doves - they always know how best to display their plumage. It's by force of simple psychic gravity that his attention - once it has been grabbed - follows the line of that well-formed waist. But he's man enough to keep his attention within safer bounds after the initial, instinctual appraisal. Eye to eye, then, since he's not keen to risk either of their pairs to a fit of jealousy.

Mariah's informal address is also a mark of just how thoroughly these woman rule their own roost. Duncan is appreciative, though his appreciation contains a modicum of his own indulgence. Still, his laugh sounds honest and free enough, however low in his chest, however brief. It appears they both know Luna Owens and her temperament. "No, lass," he says, favoring the girlish diminutive as is his wont, "something closer to the reverse, truth be told.

"What is the color of surprise?" Duncan inquires, if foolishly, appearing happy for the distraction, "I'd not want to put up the wrong coat of paint."

And true to the spirit or informality, the diminutive is not only accepted, but seems to draw her further into the room as well. She doesn't join him in sitting just yet, but leans against the chair across from him, letting her arm drape across the chair back. "Is that so?" It's as close as she comes to prying into his reply, but it does leave itself easy to skip over, as well.

It's his question that has her echoing his laugh, though. "Something flattering, I hope. If it turns out to be some horrid, burn orange thing, I may cry." She watches him a moment longer, and while her gaze does stay in the general vicinity of his face, its his cup that gets a nod, "Are you needing a top off?"

Duncan shifts in his seat, which he'd taken askance in expectation of leaving it in due time, assuming a somewhat more settled posture. It's only polite, now that he has an interlocutor.

"Nae doubt it'd be flattering. I'm not keen on harming your trade," he trusts that not every Dove has Luna's sensitivity about the naming and nature of her profession - orphans of brigandry have less riding on their dignity, "I'm even less keen to make a lass cry."

His hand motions towards the open mouth of the vessel. "If wine finds my cup," Duncan says, "my cup will find my lips." As if fate alone tips amphorae.

"Least 'til Madame Hare deigns to see me."

"Both very reassuring statements," Mariah says dryly, but as predicted, without bother at her occupation mentioned blatantly. Perhaps she doesn't worry much about dignity. Or doesn't see whoring as a blot against it.

She slides away from the chair, fingers trailing along the upholstery, and steps over to retrieve the bottle. There's a glance at the label, but her opinion on the liquid within is limited to a crooked smile as she comes over to lean against his chair to refill his cup. Someone else might take his words another way, but moderation is not one of the tenets this business was built on. "Is that who you're waiting for? I assume she already knows you're about?"

"What kind or kith of answer is that?" Duncan asks Mariah's back as she makes her way to the wine, "the statements reassure, but the man speaking does not? Am I not known for honesty? For honor?" A smile in his voice, daring her to contradict.

He's quick to down the dredges of his cup, leaving it open for a new vintage. As the dark red swirls up to the rim of the cup, his eyes cut over to Mariah.

"I'm sure she does," Duncan remarks of Edme, wine in hand and wry in word, "otherwise it would take all the impertinence out of making me wait."

The cup begins its foretold journey, but Duncan stops it midway, suddenly considering. He puts a question to Mariah, and it is difficult to tell how serious he is in the asking. "To take this drink without promising payment for the service- would I be robbing you? But if I were to pay you, would this suddenly be business?"

"I think you'll find, around here at least, you're known for your prowess," Mariah says, the sly tilt to her smile echoed in her words, "Aye?" There's time for a flash of a wider smile before she steps away again, to set the bottle back in its place.

But she turns back with a more curious expression, and eyebrow lifting as she tries to puzzle out how serious he is. "I am neither brewer nor barmaid," she points out as she comes back over, this time lowering herself into her chair with a hint of gracefulness. "And I believe a full glass is merely a sign of a good hostess." Of which she has appointed herself, apparently.

"I see it's your turn to speak reassurance," Duncan says, smile slanted in turn, "though unnecessary, I think. If confidence were lacking, reputation would also suffer." And confidence isn't something Duncan wants for. Humility, on the other hand…

"Ah, then I'm a guest," Duncan reasons, "as long as I'm clear on where I stand." So he drinks, in a long draught, before setting the cup upon the arm of the chair - a precarious perch - and leaning forward a little, elbows on knees, fingers knit together and blue eyes appraising over his hands' bridge. Grace, he sees. Or is it the appearance of grace? There must be some essential difference.

"And what is your reputation?" he asks, "other than that of a good hostess."

"I suppose that's true enough for persons of any profession," Mariah says with a soft laugh as her hands fluff her skirts a little. "A guest, at least while you wait," she adds as she watches him shift. Being appraised is a bit of an occupational hazard, and she leans back in her chair, her hands moving to the arm rests and leaving the line between reality and illusion lies a bit of a blur.

"My reputation?" Her head cants there, while she silently muses over just what her reputation might include. Of course, it depend on who you ask, really. "Attentive," is what she eventually settles on, her smile broadening, but with more mirth than pride.

"Attentive," Duncan echoes. A suggestive word. Well chosen.

"I've never had the pleasure of you company," is euphemism - this is a first proper meeting, but it still doesn't qualify as the 'company' to which he refers, "but I'm sure you've nae starved for lack of my custom."

She might have starved, though, for lack of family to protect and support her. Duncan knows Mariah only in passing, but her story - a sad one - is one repeated oft enough amongst her clients in the militia. Duncan's own gaze is attentive. Examining the resilience of her expression, whether the warmth in her eyes matches the curve of her lips.

"You smile. You laugh. But that is part of your craft. Are you happy here?"

His voice dips down into the properly conspiratorial.

"You can be honest, I shall nae tell Edme."

"No, indeed. I've managed," Mariah says with a brief laugh on her words as she shifts just enough to cross one leg over the other. "I dare say I've done well for myself." That is a point she does take pride in, but it's perhaps understandable, when things could have easily gone a different way.

His question causes a flutter in her countenance, just a flick, easy to miss if not for the fact that he's playing attention. But it corrects in the space of a blink, and she spreads her hands in an elaborate shrug. "They say that man is never sure when he's happy," she says, dancing around a specific answer, "I get on well enough."

Being honest is something of a challenge, when your life and livelihood are built around being anything but.

"That's said of man," Duncan agrees, though only in part, "yet I always thought woman had a wisdom for these things." Feelings. Emotions. Affections. The province of ladykind.

"Well enough is well enough for some," he says, leaning back and taking his cup in hand once more, "yet those who say it like you do- I wonder if they are really speaking for themselves. What's deemed 'enough' for 'man' at large often seems too meager to the solitary soul speaking."

"Forget happiness, then," - as easy as that! - "are you satisfied? Is 'enough' truly enough?"

Mariah can't help a laugh at the idea of what wisdom women are supposed to hold, but it's conspiratorial at best. But, perhaps, conspiratorial with herself, which is far from helpful.

"I should have poured myself a drink as well," she notes, "In vino veritas and all that. I have to say, this isn't what most of the militia asks me, when it comes to my profession." That's no surprise, of course. She falls quiet, though, looking over at him as her fingers drum against the arm rest.

"I have been. From time to time. It's a good place and there's a lot of freedom." Apparently, she doesn't think that's standard in many professions. "However, I'm still a merchant's daughter at heart, and somewhere along there I gained the notion that there's really no such thing as enough." That may well be an honest answer, but she breaks into a smile a moment later, "And it's a good thing, too. I think we'd be out of our jobs here, if there were."

"Is that such a surprise?" Duncan asks, "a leader who is just the same as his men would be no leader at all. And-" he gestures towards the rows of bottles that Mariah just lately left, "if you want a drink- please, by all means join me. Say it's part of the job. Say you are practicing the art of conversation. Say you are occupying an important guest."

He leans forward, and offers her his glass. "Or just say I've had my fill, and we ought not to waste, lest later we want."

"Perhaps at the Dovetail," Duncan says, in reply to Mariah's conjecture, "which has elegance beyond simple need. But it's so rare to find a town that lacks lower pliers of that trade. I'd wager a settlement without such a place would feel the lack acutely, less even than 'enough' if 'enough' exists. Why- otherwise nature's need would demand we all find love! And that is a very tall order."

"I'll have to take your word for that one. I'm afraid the art of leadership isn't one in my repertoire." Mariah's gaze flicks to the glass offered, and she only pauses a moment before reaching out to take it. "I suppose they're all true. Especially if you want some wit about you for Edme," she says with a crooked smile.

When she drinks it's properly done, and slowly enough to really appreciate the taste of the wine. It also gives her plenty of time to listen as he speaks, and to watch. "I suppose we can't all find love. But we can have it for a night," she replies with a sweeping gesture for the house around them. "But I have to agree. Some may not approve of what we do, but I don't think life without us would be the better of the options."

"I hope my custom," Duncan says, "has brought this place some repute." It is hard to tell if he intends this with irony. The flatness of his tone suggests so, but the words themselves don't sound insincere. In a moment, his expression even takes on a pensive aspect.

"Come to think of it, I may not be coming here again for some time," half-ponderous, and soon tinged with a gentle regret, "this first meeting of ours may be the last."

He slowly gets to his feet, almost as if to leave. But he's not headed anywhere. Duncan is merely crossing over to the wine bottle Mariah so moderately left behind. He bears the bottle back, refills the glass, then sets the wine beside the cup, keeping it close at hand.

"A shame."

Retaking his seat.

"Your conversation is uncommon fine."

If only he knew.

"You must bring repute with you wherever you go," Mariah says, replying honestly, but not without her tone turning more playful. When he gets thoughtful, she sits back again, as if giving him physical room to think.

"I must say, it'll be a shame to lose you. You'll be breaking several hearts around here," although, it seems, she'll live, even if some of the other girls will wallow in their disappointment. "I suppose someone of my station and yours have little reason to meet otherwise," she says with more sincerity on her own part, "However, I hope you won't blame me if I endeavor to conjure a reason. Your conversation isn't so bad, either."

Lips curl into a crooked smile, noticeable even as she lifts the glass to hide it behind. After another drink, though, she offers the newly filled glass back out to him.

Duncan takes the cup and takes a drink. He does not savor the wine. He simply swallows it. There are clear limits to his refinement - pitfalls into utility, pragmatism, force. Though he's just drinking wine right now, so worry not.

"Well- I do like to keep up with Madame Hare-" he leans back in his chair, peering in the direction of Edme's sanctum, dramatizing the delay, "though you see what's come of my making my intentions too obvious." He leans forward, sliding the glass over to Mariah before lifting his hand in a stage-whisper's shield, "I should play hard to get- eh? Might have better luck."

Foolishness again. It seems impossible that Duncan's drunk on so little wine, unless that first glass was something fiercesome strong.

"Still, reason enough for me to pass a letter from time to time. It wouldn't be beneath you to take missives would you? I would play messenger, of course." He'd never subject a Dove to the indignity of trekking through the streets of Dornie.

"Always worth a try. We do love a good intrigue here, you know. Straightforwardness has it's place, of course, but our art lies in stepping around the point, aye?" Mariah takes the glass and a drink of it in one motion, but just after, a single finger uncurls from around it to point in his direction, "Or. She knows what you're about and she's making sure you're really intent on it before letting you in." That's probably a joke.

Probably.

"I believe it wouldn't be beneath me, no. It isn't unheard of, you know, us taking notes for one another. Especially Edme. She is, as you see, a busy woman." When she smiles this time, it's more even, less suggestion and more toward the idea of being straightforward, "And in this case, I'd consider it my pleasure."

That finger catches his attention, the way it emerges from that single fluid motion. What does she mean by it? If evasion is an art, is Mariah being artful?

"A misguided protectiveness," Duncan infers, nodding - he takes Mariah's joke for a serious possibility, "one of the most forgivable of foolishnesses and, so, also one of the most frustrating."

When he says this last, it's charitable. This spirit of generosity carries over into action, too. He refills the glass. The bottle's level is dipping lower.

"Passing a letter seems reasonable enough pretext to share a few words, in the passing," he says, with an openness that invites her assent, "and of course, if you or any of the others have letters for Luna, I can take them in exchange."

"She is protective of us. Part of her generous nature." Mariah's smile comes more genuine there; that generosity saved her life, for one. "I hope you won't hold the frustration against her," she says, but she doesn't seem worried he will.

She watches as the glass is refilled again, and a soft laugh flows along with the wine. "You're going to have me too drunk to get back to my rooms here in a moment," she accuses playfully, but it must not bother her too much, since she takes another drink. But it's held out his way after, a silent insisting that he have some, too.

But her smile doesn't reappear, in fact his words settle her into something more bittersweet. "So she's really leaving, then? I had… sort of hoped it was one of her passing fancies, that."

"I have the utmost respect for Madame Hare," Duncan assures her, "a respect I extend to all you lovely ladies of the 'Tail." Speaking of one in particular…

"She'll be safer for it- that I pledge." By all appearances, he's moved by Mariah's concern. "The sole reason is her protection." Note, that does not necessarily disclose the motive.

He lifts the glass, takes his drink, sets the cup back between them.

"Then stop drinking," Duncan suggests with a smile, verging on insolent.

"Safer," Mariah repeats, seeming to mull over the concept for a long moment. "I hope so. Worth losing her for, I suppose, but I'll still— miss her," she says as mildly as she can manage, but just after, she picks up the glass for a rather long drink before the glass is set down again.

It's good timing for his comment, and she looks over at him, a smile just curving the corner of her lips. "That sounds like decent advice. If cheeky as hell, Duncan," she says with a laugh that comes easier, warmer.

"Write her," he urges - and in the urging, Duncan is more expressive than is usual for him. Like Mariah said, in vino. "I'm sure it would bring her joy to know she's thought of. I'll be sure she receives them."

Laughter now. Contagious. "And on my honor, I won't be so cheeky as to peek at any of them.

"You talk of cheek, using my given name!" Duncan retorts, though he's warming as well - cheekiness seems to earn approbation all 'round. He takes the cup, but find, they're less in vino than out of it. He takes the bottle in hand once more, inclining it over the mouth of the glass-

-and holds before any more than a drop trickles out.

Brows slightly lifted, the decision deferred. Maybe it's good advice, but will she take it?

"Oh, I will. Someone will have to keep her in the loop for the gossip around here," Mariah says, apparently responding alright to urging. "And thank you. I would never have doubted she'd get them, though," a touch of reassurance again. But when she goes on, it's in playfulness again, "I'll be sure to write something salacious with your name attached, just to test that honor of yours.

"And for the record, I'm allowed to be cheeky. It would be downright neglectful of me not to take any opportunity." She laughs again when he pours out the last of the wine, and her hand runs over one rosy cheek before she looks over at him. Advice is all good and well, but she seems to be taking the presence of that glass as something of a challenge. And on that logic, she reaches out for it again, and in contrast to her more sober version of wine drinking, she she empties just less than half of it before she has to stop, passing it back his way.

"You're a terrible influence, you know that."

"You think I influenced you?" Duncan says, one brow quirked, oh-so-curious, "'t was meant as an honest choice." But the curiosity is semblance for a game - he's actually being deliberately obtuse. At least he drinks, head tipping with the glass to empty it entirely. Still- he's a whole lot bigger than her. It's to Mariah's credit that she's holding her own so well.

"Is it so? What law, pray tell, gives you license to cheek?" This is definitely a challenge. The replacement of the glass on middle ground reinforces Mariah's suspicion. Honest choice indeed. "which virtue calls you to be as cheeky as possible?"

"I do, indeed, for an honest choice in the company of a handsome gentleman is never so. Honest. That is." Mariah pauses a moment, replaying what she's just said out loud in her head before there's a nod. It makes sense enough.

Her eyebrows lift at the new challenge laid out, and she stands up from her chair — unsteadily — to answer as cheekily as she can manage. And really, she can manage rather a lot. "No virtue at all. Actually."

The empty glass doesn't go unnoticed, as her careful steps take her back over to the liquor. Although, it takes her a bit longer to choose one this time.

"With due respect, a whore's flattery is always a doubtful thing," Duncan says, straightforward and dead ahead - though he must turn his head to keep her in his view, "-her virtue, however, is not. No one has any doubts about it."

Was that a barb? There was something else there, beneath the crude wit.

"Something they share with every real soldier." So this is commiseration, not accusation.

"Fair enough," Mariah says with a wry chuckle, "but I find flattery's easy. Everyone has something worth a compliment or two. When they don't, I then find it better not to say anything at all." She doesn't turn to look at him until his comment on a whore's virtue. Her hand lingers on a bottle, something white and probably not too heavily alcoholic.

But if she suspected a barb, that changes with the addition and her expression softens as she looks him over again. Her hand leaves the wine, and instead, when she comes back over, she carries a bottle of something heavier and two stouter glasses. "I believe that calls for something with a bit more kick than wine, aye?" She's pretty generous with the amber liquid in the glass she hands him, and while she's more conservative in her own, it's no small amount, either.

And when she sits, it's to perch on the table that had been separating them moments before. "To getting your hands dirty," she lifts the glass a bit with that, and while there's commiseration, it's not without a thread of pride, either.

"Flattery is much too easy," Duncan agrees, "especially when it's honest. And I must take care with honest flattery. But I've complimented you already, I believe, on your conversation - and you answered. So I'll answer, thus: you will be the foremost of the Dovetail's beauties." He draws the offered glass to himself, rough hands finding the bottom of the vessel. "There. Flattery without dishonor."

The toast is made. He meets it, smiling a touch savagely, pride for pride.

"Profit without shame."

"If we keep on exchanging one for the other, we'll run the length of our compliments in one evening. And I've had far too much to drink to need to be creative with them." Mariah smiles, though, at the clink of glasses and pauses long enough to drink. Even though scotch makes her pull a face as it burns its way down her throat.

"Ah yes," she says as she lets her glass rest against a leg, "Now I remember why I drink this so seldomly." The laugh that follows is self-depreciating. Someone who's far too used to drinking with company of a heartier disposition. Still, it doesn't stop her from lifting the glass again to finish off what's left.

Duncan drinks, the only visible reaction a slight drawing of his cheeks as the liquors sears its way down his throat. The glass is dropped on the table with a distinct 'thunk'. He folds his hands together, elbows on the edge, chin finding the foremost knuckles. Perusal - what has his ad hoc drinking contest done?

Well, removed the need for creativity apparently. Leading Duncan to ask:

"What does an uncreative compliment sound like?"

As to her drinking - and drunkeness. "Aye," he agrees, properly jovial, "and now you know that you don't drink often enough."

There's less direct confrontation, and more easy (if teasing) fellow feeling when he asks:

"Found your limit?"

"It sounds trite and clumsy. If you're lucky, charmingly clumsy," Mariah may not be the picture of grace just now, but sitting down helps whatever clumsiness she may display after so much to drink.

And it has been, for her, so much, which is probably why his theory on her habits gets an incredulous, breathy laugh. "Is that it? Drinking more is the answer to hard liquors and, and, and," she says her hand circling the air as if she might pull a word with it, "soft palates?"

She laughs, uninhibited, but not unpleasant for it. "I might have, but admitting so feels like… losing." And that, apparently, is a hard pill to swallow.

"That has the sound of proverb," Duncan notes, noting also the little gesture, that reaching. Odd. "Are you quoting scripture?" He knows the pious whore as a fixture of tellings, but he's never known one in person.

Duncan extends a flat hand, open palm upwards. "Would you accept a draw, then? No loss of honor, for either side." He can feel the warm thrum of the alcohol himself, so he's naturally concerned about the slight thing before him. Don't want to drive her to sickness - that would be poor payment for such involving company.

"What makes the matter between the trite and the charming?" he follows up, offering a tacit withdrawal from the oppression of that bottle

"Is it? I'm entirely unsure," Mariah says, her laugh carrying on a bit longer until it trails off with a sigh. "As far as I know, I'm not. But, if it isn't scripture, perhaps it should be."

She looks down to that palm, and even drunk can recognize a gracious exit when she sees one. Her hand slides into his, warm. And soft enough to give away how little manual labor she gets up to around the house. "A draw it is then. Perhaps we can try again, after I've had a chance to practice."

The question, or rather, the option to withdraw gets a gentler smile from her. "It's all in the delivery. I don't think I have the adorableness to pull it off myself. Definitely not the innocence," she adds with a chuckle.

His soldier's mitts are quite the opposite. The delicacy of his grip has the feeling of restraint, as if he's concerned he'd do her harm on accident. The shake marks the impromptu contest's amicable end. Duncan gives a chuckle, one that draws on a bit, even after he pushes it, rumbling, lower into his chest. "If you remember that offer after you've slept this off, I'll take you up on it," he says.

It actually takes him a moment even to recall his question. Where do these thoughts go? But it returns, rising out of the spirit mists. Compliments, given in drunkenness. What else? "Not innocent?" Duncan says, "yet you called me a bad influence. How fallen must I be, then?"

"I happen to have an impeccable memory," Mariah says, but it's likely pretense. At least under these circumstances. Her hand lingers in his, just for a moment longer. Something about a soldier's hands. But she draws back again with a shorter, wry chuckle.

But, it's a draw back only to stand up and step closer, where she proves how easily familiarity comes to her. Or how much alcohol she's had, because she presses a kiss to his cheek. "I was bluffing then, about the bad influence. Although, I do seem to drink a fair amount more around you, so it might not have been far off," she says as she straightens up again. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I simply must withdraw. I feel an embarrassing lack of motor control coming on." Must have been that last drink. "But I look forward to our next conversation."

When she turns, she manages to navigate the room well enough, but she pauses at the doorway to look back his way. "Good luck." It's just a good thing the stairs are out of view, though, there's far too much laughter on her way up for an incident-free climb.