The air was getting colder and the days shorter when Phèdre nó Delaunay received an invitation to visit Nicola de l'Envers y Aragon.
All things considered, it was worded in a startlingly informal manner: just a simple invitation, seemingly with no strings attached, no matter from how many angles Phèdre examined it. She ran it by Joscelin, who looked at it, looked at her, then told her in so many words that she could make up her own mind if she wanted to go or not, but he was going to stay here with Imriel. At last, chewing her lip and looking over the short letter for the umpteenth time, she made up her mind. That was why she was riding in a carriage on its way to the estate where Nicola was spending her winter. Alone.
It wasn't that she didn't want to go - oh no, not at all. Seeing Nicola de l'Envers was always... an experience, to say the least, and not at all in a bad way. But it was odd, being away from Joscelin for what she realized might be the longest time since they had returned to Terre d'Ange. Phèdre wasn't certain what bothered her more - being away from Joscelin, or the fact that she hadn't been in so long.
When she had informed Nicola that Joscelin had declined to come, the lady had hastened to send her own escort to assure Phèdre's safety - after all, Phèdre had gained a surfeit of enemies in her years of service to the crown. However, the journey had been long, quiet, and - overall - boring. The coachman offered little conversation; she soon grew weary of trying to encourage it and gave up her attempts.
Nicola de l'Envers. Going back over her memories, Phèdre tried to recall the important things that she should know for this meeting. Oddly, the things that kept coming to mind, other than the simplest of details, were the unimportant ones - violet eyes and a bright smile. She tied, Phèdre remembered, a very skillful knot. Even that thought made her shudder a little bit, remembering. And she was the one person Phèdre had presented the Lover's Token to, years ago. She'd asked for her signale, too. A clever woman. And a dangerous one?
No, Phèdre thought before she could truly consider it, no, she is not dangerous - and then was startled at herself for thinking that so easily.
"Comtesse?" The coachman, his voice muffled. Phèdre leaned forward.
"We're drawing near, if you'd like to gather anything..."
"Thank you," she said, politely, and leaned back again, feeling an odd little jump in her stomach. It had been a long time since she'd seen Nicola de l'Envers y Aragon, and she found herself excited for it.
Not long afterwards, the carriage pulled to a halt. Phèdre stood and straightened her dress before drawing aside the curtains. The estate looked much like Montréve, with a thin coating of snow on the ground, and there on the doorstep - her heart leapt and she smiled, briefly, before schooling her face to stillness as the door opened and she stepped gracefully down, her eyes only for the slender woman standing waiting at the door.
Walking toward her, Phèdre kept her steps deliberately even and slow despite her excitement, determined to let the other woman set the tone for the meeting she had called. Nonetheless, it seemed an eternity before she stood before her. After a moment when their eyes met - deep brown flecked with a mote of red and clear violet - Nicola dropped her eyes and curtseyed. "Comtesse de Montréve. Welcome."
Phèdre blinked, jarred for a moment, but recovered herself quickly. "Phèdre, always, to you," she said softly, "You called me here as a friend. So let us be that."
Nicola straightened and smiled. "Come inside, then, and talk with me. It has been too long."
"You are different from when I saw you last," Nicola said, thoughtfully, and seemingly offhand. Phèdre felt herself tense slightly and sipped at her hot drink to cover it.
"Mmmhm." She paused, looking distant for a moment, then set down her drink on a coaster and looked directly at Phèdre. "You never talk about your journeys last year. Where you went, what you saw..."
Phèdre found a laugh somewhere, though her hands tightened around the cup. "Perhaps there is little to tell."
"I think not," Nicola said, more quietly, "I think you are avoiding it for another reason."
"What reason would that be?" Phèdre asked, her own voice quiet, feeling a twinge.
"I think something happened that changed you, and you...fear, almost, to speak of it." Phèdre realized that she was almost clutching the cup and set it down, quickly, folding her hands on each other.
"You have ever been a clever woman," she said quietly, but couldn't keep the slight edge of wariness out of her voice.
"Phèdre," Nicola sounded...pained, almost. "I do not ask you as...some sort of method to an end, or seeking gossip. I ask you in the same way I asked you here, as...a friend, as I have been sometimes before."
Phèdre took a long breath and glanced down at her hands and found them clenched around each other, almost white. She forced herself to loosen her grip. "Then be one, please, and do not ask me to say again what I have already done once." She managed to keep her voice even. Ill thoughts, ill words, ill deeds.
Nicola hesitated, and Phèdre shook her head, firmly. "No. I will not."
Nicola stood, suddenly, setting down her drink, and crossed the room, her face almost unreadable even to Phèdre. "Is there anyone you would talk to?"
Phèdre met her eyes briefly and then looked away. "If I would not tell you, I would not speak to anyone." Nicola nodded, and Phèdre thought she saw satisfaction in her violet eyes. "Your worry is...kind, but unnecessary."
Nicola raised her eyebrows, mouth quirking in a little smile. "No? I think the fact that you will not say is evidence enough that my worries are not unfounded in the least."
Phèdre almost smiled. She stood as well, murmuring, "Not unfounded, no. But I have taken no lasting damage from anything. You know I am made to endure, to bear pain, and I will. As I must."
The smile grew, just slightly. "And as you desire?"
Something in her voice sent a shiver down Phèdre's spine - her voice, and her eyes. She took a deep breath to keep her voice steady. "Perhaps, yes. That, as well." She paused, then lifted her eyes, red-flecked gaze steady, to meet the violet eyes of Nicola de l'Envers y Aragon. "I am an anguisette, my lady."
"Yes," the other woman said quietly, "I have not forgotten."
Phèdre found her eyebrows arching slightly - a very little. "And no doubt you still tie a skillful knot." She was surprised at the note of playfulness in her own voice, under the calm, and even more startled by the answering sharpening edge in the watching eyes, slightly predatory.
"I would like to think so." The voice, nearly a purr, sent another shiver down Phèdre's spine and a touch of heat into her veins. She took a step nearer, almost involuntarily. "If you're curious...?"
Phèdre looked up at the slightly taller woman, face upturned and lips parted. "Curious...?"
Nicola's mouth hovered over hers, her breath warm. One hand rested lightly on her shoulder, caressed over her collarbone, drew a line with a fingernail down the back of her neck. "I could arrange something." Phèdre heard herself whimper, her body moving toward Nicola's and her own desire surprising her. The fingernail on her neck that held her captive suddenly became four pricks as Nicola's mouth fastened fiercely to hers and her other hand moved from a gentle caress of Phèdre's hip, fingers pressing into soft flesh. She cried out briefly, hips moving forward, then surrendered to the domination of the fierce kiss as Nicola took her lower lip gently between her teeth and bit, lightly -
But it did not last.
Nicola drew back, just slightly, her nails trailing the skin of Phèdre's face as Phèdre tried to catch her breath. "If," she breathed, quietly, just above Phèdre's mouth, "I were to ask for an assignation, do you think you would accept?"
Phèdre's knees shook, a little, and she swallowed hard before she could answer. "Yes," she said, her voice sounding breathless in her own ears. "Yes, I would."