Tally of Virtuous Deeds

Title: Tally of Virtuous Deeds
Time Period: May 1, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Duncan seeks his sister-in-law's assistance.

Aislinn recommends that all her patients develop a good hygiene regimen that's specific to their lifestyle and its unique demands — and she would be a hypocrite if she didn't heed her own advice. An old clawfoot tub made of polished porcelain and brass feet with a handsome patina is where she and Edmund take their baths, either separately or together, in a small room separated from their sleeping quarters by a heavy wooden door that slides open and shut to conserve space. Her husband isn't with her tonight, and although she might wish he was, his absence means that she had more room to stretch out during her soak.

In the castle, with its high ceilings and ancient stone walls, it does not take the bathwater very long to turn cold, and Aislinn has since moved on to trim her nails, treat her skin with a beeswax cream sold at the market by Dornie's local apiarist, and comb the tangles out of her hair, which she now braids in front of the mirror with her thin, nimble fingers.

With Ariel already put to bed in his own room and her familiar curled at the boy's hip, the only thing she has left to do is finish the plait, hang a kettle of water over the hearth, and wait for her husband to return so they can enjoy a small pot of chamomile tea before blowing out the candles for the evening.

States of exception are often grounds for extension of methods and powers - this is no less true now than Before. The sudden spate of kidnapping and supernatural assault has provided all the justification required to keep close tabs on the movements of the Rowntree family, and who better to perform this crucial task - who better to keep them safe - than a member of that family? Such is Duncan's onus, and as he is not a man to do a thing poorly or half way, it is unlikely that Duncan is unaware of his older brother's whereabouts.

So when Duncan comes upon Aislinn alone, he must be counting on that solitude. He must know, and so there must be purpose in catching her thus. What purpose that may be is not at first stated. Rather, he appears with a phantom's suddenness in the frame of the door - and within the frame of the mirror - without herald. One suspects he measured his tread so as not to announce his approach.

From his lean at the threshold, Duncan's view is favored with a fine profile, both in flesh and in reflection. It would hardly be possible to view Aislinn without some admiration. But admiration does not always uplift or honor. The gaze of men is not the gaze of grace.

"I'm not sure Edmund ever thanked me properly for so fine a gift."

The man in the mirror is not the man Aislinn was expecting; she would have known if he'd knocked, but with no warning except for except for the cool feeling that spreads over exposed skin when a dark cloud passes across the sun, Duncan's gift to his brother is left to yank her robe shut and tie the sash at her waist into a hasty knot. As a garment, it serves it purpose well enough by closing off her breasts and the pale thatch of straw-blonde hair between her thighs to the eyes, though it does little to conceal her shape beneath the fabric.

It is not the sort of clothing a woman wears around someone she isn't intimate with, whether that someone is her lover or herself. Confident that the sash is secure, she rises out of a combination of politeness and the desire to put them on as even footing as possible. Her plait, abandoned, hangs as loose, damp curls starting to unravel between her shoulder blades.

"If that is your wish," she says, "then I will tell him you are displeased."

What is it that resentment does to desire? What kinship does the oily smolder of rancor have with the heat of lust, that one should end up mistaken as the other? Maybe womenfolk don't know this feeling. Maybe it's an unresolved hunter's tendency - the more defiant the prey, the sweeter its meat starts to seem.

"You mistake me. I feel no displeasure."

Now that she's facing him, though, Duncan keeps his eyes above the level of her shoulders, selflessly relinquishing one of the ambush's advantages. It's a rather measly gift to her modesty, especially in the wake of this intrusion, but one must be thankful for small considerations, mustn't one?

So he can see her eyes, her face. And in them, he sees pride. Defiance. Why?

Why else?

Duncan dips his head. It's almost contrition. "Forgive me-" for what, with so many things to choose from? "I've made a bad start." To say the least.

"You made a request of me- regarding Luna Owens. You're of the same mind now, I trust, as then?"

Aislinn is even less comfortable with Duncan looking into her eyes than she with him viewing her body while she stands in such a vulnerable position. She does not mean to be prideful, at least, and lowers her own gaze when her magic informs him of his feelings on the matter. Her arms cross in front of her chest, regardless of where his attention lies, and curl fingers above her elbows — it's the sort of body language that communicates weakness as much as it does the chill in the spring air.

She moves across the room, toward the fire, and hangs the iron kettle above it on the hook attached to the hearth's wooden mantle, keeping her limbs drawn close to her body. It's warmer there and discourages gooseflesh from taking hold. Also: she imagines Edmund might like her to offer his younger brother something to drink.

"I am."

That lowering of Aislinn's eyes produces a peculiar effect. In the swirl of Duncan's intentions, as murky with ambivalence as every human heart, a distinct twinge of disappointment can be discerned. Is that all? it seems to say, that's not what I wanted. But no clear alternative arises - no certainty as to what he would want, what would satisfy.

Then she folds her arms, that body language clear to him as emotions may be to her - and purposefully clear. Communication. But it makes Duncan's lips twitch, corners tugging down. A faint shadow of shame flickers across the steady light of his attention. He doesn't want this either.

"Don't wilt so. I know it's mere semblance. We have bones enough to pick between us, true, but I've never known you for weakness."

All throughout her journey to the fireside, he's maintained his post at the door. Little more than a boot tip has transgressed into Aislinn's actual sanctum.

"I'm bringing her here, to the castle," he says, "so as to better protect her." Aislinn would know just what a threat Luna faces, too. "When I've dealt with the fiend, though-" when the threat is gone, in other words, "I'll need you to make certain that she's permitted to stay."

At the hearth, Aislinn removes a box from the mantle and pries open the clasp with the edge of her thumbnail. The selection of loose leaf teas inside appear almost identical at a glance, but she knows them by touch, by smell and by taste, and with no need for labels to differentiate one compartment from its neighbor. Judging by the subtle variations in texture and colour alone, she uses a spoon to measure the appropriate amount into an empty serving pot.

She has adequate time, then, to consider her response. "Eilean Donan is my home," she says, "but it is also the home of your children, two of whom are old enough to understand what goes on between a man and a woman. If they have any objection to the arrangement, it overpowers my permitting anything— unless we are discussing what Eamonn and your parents might think about you taking a mistress under the family's roof?"

On the subject of picked bones, she offers nothing, perhaps wisely — perhaps not. Her gift does not allow her to infer everything.

"Aye, that's just what we're discussing," Duncan confirms, "though not just- more."

Now he moves into the room. In the dim light his features are foggy, but as he moves closer to the flames, the lines of his face resolve. So too his feelings. He seems sincere. This is a matter that matters.

"A rash earned at a brothel doesn't disappear when you leave the place," Duncan says, ever the wordsmith, "nor does a reputation. Time and trial can fade whorespaint, but 'til then…"

He stops before he really bears down on her. A shadow, thrown at his feet, marks another intangible boundary. From here he makes his appeal.

"If it's my request, I'm just a man thinking with his prick. If it's yours, it's a fine show of generosity. It'd be a grace to her, and a kindness to me, and will surely count towards your own tally of virtuous deeds."

Aislinn closes the box, saying nothing at first. In the kettle, the water has already begun to boil; using the sleeve of her robe as a buffer between the kettle's handle and her skin, she takes it off the fire and sets it down on the same table as the pot atop a stone coaster. When she does speak, the volume of her voice is soft, though not so quiet that Duncan has to strain to hear it. "It's a common mistake," she says, "to pour the water while it's still boiling. If you wait for it to cool for a minute or two first, the infusion releases subtler flavours that a hotter brew burns out.

"A pinch of patience makes all the difference in the world." This undoubtedly has something to do with Duncan's request, but she isn't spelling it out for him, and in this way she and Edmund could not be more unalike. She steers her attention from the cooling kettle back to him.

"I will speak with Lean and Marcas on your behalf," she agrees, "on the condition that you seek Eammon's advice on what you intend to do once you've finished chipping off all that— paint. You are brothers.

"So be brothers."

There is no one who loves a good illustrative metaphor more than Duncan: his near-daily addresses offer ample evidence to this effect. Yet this only really shows that he enjoys dispensing them: as helpful vehicle for pragmatic wisdom, more thoroughly understood than simple statement might be. So perhaps it is only half surprising that he seems to find Aislinn's own blend of practical opinion, steeped in this rhetorical brew, a touch sour. It's one thing to dish it out. It's another to take it.

"Aye, true enough," he allows, as regards patience and difference, "one way or the other."

He's better pleased when she speaks plainly. Duncan nods, less grudging than simple gruff.

"It'd take much to make me something else." But this means yes, he will. Just in not so few words.

By the time Duncan and Aislinn arrive at their agreement, the water is cool enough for her to pour into the pot while still retaining enough heat to release thick tendrils of steam as she does.

His response must make her feel at least a little contrite, because she sets aside a porcelain a cup while the tea is brewing and says, "Take some with you — it's chamomile. Good for your joints. I give it to Eamonn to soothe his back after a long day's ride."

This is probably not the extent of what she does for him to ease sore muscles and reduce the inflammation, but it's what she feels is correct to offer Duncan. He has Luna to knead his limbs and back.

"Is there anything else?"

"No."

This answers applies to both offer and question.

But there is something there, some sticking point, a hesitation after the fact. Duncan heel gives the slightest of rocks as he eases back, then forward - an unsettled indecision. And it's probably not about the tea.

"Thank you."

That snag in him loosens the moment he speaks, but there is no telling if those words were what held him. In unsteady moment denies certainty.

It's just as well. The tea will take several more minutes to finish steeping, and Aislinn isn't sure what she'd say to Duncan to fill the silence, or if the silence should even be filled by anything except for the wind and the rain beating mutely at the windows.

There is nothing else. Only: "Good night, Donagh. Codladh sámh."