"The Fall"

Chapter 1
Of the Lily

By K. Olsen

In Talin, romance carried the sweet smell of roses. Perhaps that was one reason she had never cared for it. Valérie de Lys far preferred the graceful white flower she carried as part of her name, even wearing a lily in her hair at such occasions when colored roses might have been more fitting. It was yet another way to set herself apart.

She sat in her garden, surrounded by verdant green and quiet despite her home's location within the city of Étain, Talin's bustling capital. Carefully contained as a central courtyard, the heart of solitude and sunlight was shielded on all sides from street noise by the house itself. Its character came from the blooming delicate flowers, including her adored lilies, but also from its centerpiece: a great, gnarled apple tree long ago planted by some devoted servant of nature and warded from all harm over generations of past owners.

Valérie lounged in its branches like a forest nymph, nestled back against the rough bark of the trunk for comfort as she basked in the sun. She never did so long, as she might have lost her pale complexion and looked common, or at least it would mark her more among Talin's elite. She loved it, though, the warmth and relaxation restoring the damage to her soul acquired upon every interaction with society.

She could have passed for a noble if she wanted to. She had fair skin and corn-silk hair, her eyes light as silver. Her hands bore no calluses despite her arboreal inclinations and her nails remained immaculately tended. Colette didn't quite scold her whenever she came inside after burying her fingers in the garden's soft earth, but whenever the maid witnessed it, she would always sigh in that good-humored way of hers.

There was just something about nature that Valérie adored after a childhood and adolescence spent entirely in cities, where green growth was not always an option.

Her eyes opened when she heard a door creak and Honoré's heavy tread approach. He still tramped like the grizzled sergeant he had been. His umber skin and unmistakable accent of the enemy made him almost unemployable, despite his Talinese birthright. He had spent too long in Ethilir and served in their armies. What merchant or noble would ever hire him, even as a coachman?

Fortunately for him, Valérie was neither, and she had never been more grateful for that than when she gave him a place to stay. He was no servant to her, though he knew more about horses than almost anyone. He was her protector, yes, but also her dearest friend.

"You seem comfortable," he observed from the ground, looking up at her and rubbing at his short, curly beard. For being so dark-skinned, his eyes were surprising in color. They looked like amber in the sun, but perhaps that was a trick of the light.

"Always," Valérie said lightly even as she descended from her comfortable perch, landing lightly on the ground. She'd become adept at climbing in a light dress and the exercise kept her nicely toned. She always felt just a little smaller than usual next to the tower that was Honoré. "Has Colette returned?"

"Not yet. The Duc's man came by," the sturdy former soldier said. The scar at the corner of his mouth puckered when he frowned. He held out a jewelry box to her, large enough to indicate it contained either multiple pieces or a sizable one. "For this evening, and any occasions following should he demand it, as you were so accommodating last night."

"You speak with such distaste," Valérie said lightly, maintaining easy good humor as she accepted the box.

"He's a brute," Honoré said bluntly. Even as his fortunes changed, he kept the mentality of a battleaxe. It was endearing, at least to a woman so used to navigating people more inclined to subtlety. "Even when he pried his fingers from your arm."

"A brute that a woman such as myself cannot survive spurning, I think," Valérie said. She opened the box with care, lips quirking into more of a smile. The pendant inside was a beautifully made golden phoenix with a ruby held delicately in its claws, accompanying matching teardrop earrings. "One can say what one likes of Hector Delamarche, but his taste is impeccable. Colette will swoon with jealousy. As will his wife, I expect."

"Perhaps not as much as she pretends," her stalwart defender said. "You grant her a reprieve."

"If only you could remind her of that before this evening," Valérie murmured. "Perhaps then she might find it in her heart not to sharpen her tongue and apply her customarily ophidian venom."

He didn't crack a smile, following her out of the garden and inside the house, passing beneath the boughs of the other, more ornamental trees. Everything was in bloom, sweet scents clinging to every breeze. "You intend to go, then?"

"Of course. How could I ever abandon my dear Aurore to the ravenous wolves she calls guests?" Valérie said, brushing a few scraps of bark from her dress on the way to her bedroom.

"You could barely get out of bed last week. I don't think it's wise. Colette was terrified we would have to send for a priest."

The soft note of concern in his voice was enough to prompt Valérie to turn to him. "I am sorry to worry you, my friend," she said gently, grey eyes for a moment somber. "I am well, I promise." She hated to lie to him, but what else could she do? There was only one way out of an elven curse. No physician could ever touch it. Really, she was only grateful for its generosity. Even as her body died around her, her beauty remained, leaving her a livelihood. Then again, perhaps that was part of the spider's web too.

She kept her suffering shuttered from the world even when that entailed making a good many apologies. The air of mystery it lent her was at least useful in creating an extra allure. Her absences frustrated the Duc, but he and others always returned.

Someday, she would not be able to conceal it from anyone, but for the moment, she was comfortable downplaying it despite Honoré's concern. She never wanted him to feel helpless in the face of her suffering. This evil was hers and hers alone.

Honoré sighed, but said nothing of continued disapproval. He growled like a hound, but he was just as loyal a friend. "Colette should be back from visiting her sister within the hour. Does that leave you enough time to prepare?"

"Enough to be fashionably late without excessively neglecting Aurore," Valérie said, picking up her brush. She was an expert at being well-put-together, whatever her thoughts and feelings. It was a skill honed over many years. She had been a courtesan for a little over eight years now, not counting the time in her younger days when she trained under the auspices of the finest bordello in the neighboring High Kingdom of Leus, before its destruction. She was Talinese by blood, so she had happily returned to her homeland, enriched with skills of entertaining and keeping secrets that made her popular with more than a few nobles.

"I thought Her Ladyship enjoyed such things. She hosts parties enough," Honoré commented.

"She enjoyed them more before she married a comte and added the expectation to mind her manners," Valérie said. It was a brief walk to her bedchamber. She allowed Honoré to politely open the door for her, though she never expected it of him. "She is wonderful enough to ensure my invitation, and I repay her by sitting at her side during dinner and providing some scathing commentary. Should someone overhear, she need only affect the air of a scandalized noblewoman. She loves it."

Her faithful defender chuckled a little, finally broken out of his worry by her good humor. "I suppose the two of you are the odd ones out."

"Well, she can act like a proper lady so effortlessly. It must be all that time she spent on the stage. Opera is fine practice for politics. It has all the beats: intrigue, romance, nobility, honor, betrayal, and the occasional murder."

Honoré produced an unsealed, but addressed envelope from inside his jacket. "She sent this along for you."

Valérie took it swiftly, flicking the contents out of the envelope. As she read, a genuine smile formed. It was a softer expression than she ever made at parties. "She's so sweet."

"What is it?"

"An invitation to a season's worth of opera," Valérie said. "Along with tonight's invitation." She flipped to the last page and her smile went from gentle to impish. "Oh, she should most certainly not have."

He raised an eyebrow.

The courtesan held up a sizable list of handwritten names for her defender to read. "The full guest list, at least those of note. Now I may compose my commentary in advance, secure in the knowledge of who I might avoid and who I might charm." She smiled at him. "I should be fine to prepare, Honoré. I will send Colette to tell you when it is time to depart. You need not fret a moment."

He bowed his head. "Of course. I will be with the horses."

Valérie walked over to her vanity, an oaken table with drawers and a silver mirror, all worn from years but cared for religiously. She took a seat and looked again at the invitation for the party, written personally in Aurore's spidery handwriting.

My very favorite accomplice: I am sorry that we have not spoken in so long. Court is abominable and has made me terribly neglectful. I know that you have been unwell, but it would delight me to see you at this evening's soirée. You are ever the jewel of the evening and I have nearly died of boredom in your absence. Should you decline the invitation, I will have to force my company upon you tomorrow at three o'clock with café and chocolat. In fact, you should prepare for it regardless of your attendance. I have some tidbits of gossip that you will find particularly titillating. Much love, Aurore.

Her smile at those words vanished when a chill swept through her body. Like a midwinter gale, the curse within her woke, devouring jaws sinking icy fangs into her heart. She trembled with the cold of the grave, complexion drained of color. The world around her seemed to darken to her eyes, her senses slowly growing dull to everything but the agony of frostbite through every inch of her being. Every attack took her to the abyss, drowning her with cold pain, until she could scarcely remember a time of light. She slumped forward, touching her freezing forehead to the vanity's sun-warmed surface even though she felt nothing.

Not for the first time as she lay in the cold grips of oblivion, trembling and almost weeping, she cursed herself and the creature that had inflicted such a fate upon her. Every year, it grew stronger and she grew weaker, as if it was feeding from her life-force. If elves were truly anything like the Leyan stories, perhaps it was.

There were times, such beautiful times, when she felt happy and well. Sometimes they spanned only days, sometimes months. The curse always returned, however, like the flourishing of a poisoned vine despite the cutting and burning of a diligent gardener. It was a cruel price to pay for an act of mercy.

It ebbed, light and warmth again slowly reaching into her damaged soul. Valérie stayed down another few minutes, reorienting herself to life. When she looked up at the mirror, she saw again no sign of the gnawing evil inside of her. A pale, trembling wreck stained with tears, but there was no genuine evidence of the cancerous magic.

What could be done?

She picked up the small towel from beside the basin that rested on one side of her vanity and set about returning herself to her mask. She washed away the last feelings of cold, returning a rose of color to her face by rubbing. She didn't look over when she heard the door open, clearing her throat and sipping tea from the cup by the windowsill to ease the rest.

Aurore was not the only actress in the world.

Once she felt normal enough, she turned to face Colette. Her maid was already tidying up despite just having arrived. "How is Léa?"

"Just fine, Mademoiselle," Colette said brightly. The curvy young woman was of a sunnier disposition than even Valérie, though her manners were less than refined. Schooling was not part of Colette's past on any level, but she had an artist's hand and eye for matters of appearance. "Honoré said you'll be going to the Comtesse's party. It'll be grand, I expect."

Valérie smiled slightly at the tone in Colette's voice. "Perhaps next time I may send you in my place."

"It's a lovely thought, but them nobles wouldn't much like it. Not all of us have sparkling wit," she said. Her tone was thoughtful when she scrutinized Valérie's appearance, a sign that she was already thinking about attire for the party. "Simple or complicated, Mademoiselle?"

"I defer to your legendary expertise, as always," Valérie said as she picked up her hairbrush, surrendering it to Colette the moment the maid approached and held out her hand. "Your fashion knowledge is far superior to my own, my most stylish of angels."

Colette made the little throat-clearing sound that told Valérie that the flattery was well received and set about brushing her mistress's hair. Once Colette undid every trace of potential tangle, the arranging could begin. "Simpler would be best. Looks every bit as good as complicated, but less risk of trouble. Thoughts on jewelry?"

Valérie tapped the box from the Duc that she'd set down on the vanity. "Something new arrived while you were away, courtesy of His Grace."

"Did he apologize?" Colette asked, setting the brush aside long enough to open it.

"I sincerely doubt His Grace knows the meaning of the word," Valérie said as flippantly as she could. While she was more aware of her place in the world than Honoré accepted, she didn't particularly appreciate being manhandled. At least he held no monopoly on her time, provided she was available whenever he demanded her attention. "Still, it is a gesture."

Colette peered into the box, letting out a little coo of delight despite her dislike for the man in question. "Ooooh! It''s lovely. You can even see the little feathers on the bird. I can think of a dress or two that'd be just perfect." She kept gazing down at it, eyes wide. "Must have been a pretty penny, else I'd have one."

"To the Duc, money is no object." That was true of most nobles in her homeland. Talin's lords were wealthy given their tax revenue, unofficial ownership of the merchant guilds, and internal unity. They were far less fractured than their Genevais and Yssan neighbors and not recovering still from an apocalyptic war like the Eth. Talin had learned governance well from centuries of occupation by the east's greatest empire and broken free from Ethilir with a unified revolt. There were wars with those all around them, but not within Talin’s borders. Trade was more profitable, truly.

Colette nodded as she pondered that truth of nobles for a moment. "Honoré said you know who else'll be there?"

"I have the list. I would honestly be shocked if there was a member of the nobility absent. Not at all how I imagine Aurore would have liked to spend her birthday," Valérie said with a smile. "I expect she agreed to this giant production to make her husband happy."

Her maid sighed wistfully. "I'd like to have a man like the Comte around."

"If he was anything but such a saint, Aurore would have never married," Valérie said by way of agreement. "Mind, I have it on good authority that he has some truly sinful moods. Aurore might have said nothing on the subject, but her grin and occasional difficulty sitting do tell. I knew her love of misbehaving would pay dividends one day, even if I had to advise her on proper care for rope burns."

Colette's face flooded with red. "Mademoiselle!" she squawked.

"What?" the courtesan said as innocently as she could muster, hiding her grin behind her hand. Poor Colette was nowhere near as blasé as Aurore when confronted with a teasing Valérie.

Her maid had no response, working on calming her own embarrassment. "I'll not look at them the same way now," she muttered.

"My way is far more amusing," Valérie said. It was easy to smile at thoughts of Aurore's happiness. For a melancholic soprano from a barely noble family drowning in debts, the Comte's intervention was nothing short of miraculous. Once, Valérie had worried of Aurore's adoration for the man, but that was before the courtesan had met him.

In Valérie's experience, people told the truth the most without words. When she met Pascal Estienne, she knew exactly what he held in his heart for Aurore without him needing to expend a single breath. His smile, dawning across his face like a sunrise at the sight of Valérie's friend, his eyes lighting up when he heard Aurore call his name, those were things that no amount of deception could feign. The Comte worshiped the ground that Aurore walked on and had well before they married.

To him, there was no other woman, and for that, Valérie would forever be in his debt.

It had all created a stir worthy of legend and even prompted duels when Pascal heard someone say a word about his wife that he didn't care for. Those days were well over now, after the last war. While the Comte was not technically a high noble, he was Talin's most honored general and in at least a military sense, the right hand of the King. After wresting three important border provinces from Yssa and what remained of Leus, even the vilest of slanderers fell silent in fear of his displeasure.

"We'd best find you a man like him," Colette said lightly.

Valérie decided that in that moment, no matter how much she enjoyed scandalizing Colette, she should probably leave off the tormenting while she was at the mercy of a hairbrush. "I appreciate the sentiment, Colette, but love is not for me."

"You've a heart like the rest of us, Mademoiselle."

"Freedom is all I wish," Valérie said lightly. "Let us speak no more of silly things."

Colette hummed in reluctant agreement before beginning the transfiguration. The maid could turn anyone into a court beauty if given an hour or two, or so Valérie said often. Today was no exception. As soon as she finished dressing for the occasion in a gown of light gray, Colette set to proper work. Soon, Valérie's hair was in a complicated bun, held in place by silver pins and a cedar comb carved with flowers. Next came cosmetics, applied with several brushes and pencils.

At the end, Valérie felt like an entirely different person, as if there had never been a trace of ailment.

"There we are," Colette said, showing Valérie her work in a hand-mirror. "You look lovely."

The return of full healthy color and the banishment of the shadows around her eyes came as a welcome relief. With Colette's intervention, she could still pass for a vibrant soul. She would be judged with only the best remarks. "You are a handmaiden of the Shining One if ever there was one," Valérie said, returning the mirror. "Will it smear? I expect the Duc will expect some attention, given his gift."

Colette pursed her lips before saying, "Only a bit. He ought to go carefully."

"Perhaps he will. Whatever the case may be, I am forever grateful to have an advocate like you, my dear Colette," Valérie said fondly even as she opened a drawer on the vanity and pulled out a vial of perfume, applying with her customarily delicate touch. She wasn't fond of the excessive use of scents, which was probably why she did her best to avoid the Dowager Rouergue. "I got you something today, since I have been such trouble."

"You're never trouble," Colette said in protest even as she watched Valérie return her bottle and produce another one. Her eyes went wide when her mistress held it out to her.

"Do with this whatever you wish. I impart it with affection," Valérie said.

Colette gaped for a moment, but recovered quickly and beamed as she accepted it. "You never! I'll get on all kinds of airs, a lady's maid with perfume."

"In purest form, my dear, you are anything but a lady's maid. A maid without equal on this earth, to be certain, but not for a lady."

"Maybe, but it's lovely," Colette said softly. She glanced out the window, checking the time by the position of the sun. "Thanks. I'll not forget this. Still, we'd best get you to the party, Mademoiselle. The Comtesse will want to see you."

"I can barely believe how long it's been," Valérie admitted. It had almost been a year since her last grand soirée and equally long since she'd seen Aurore. She flashed her maid a smile when she saw Colette hesitate in putting things away. "I am well, I promise. Besides, Aurore is not likely to permit my exertion. Even the Duc will bend to her will in such things, to indulge the lady of the house on her birthday. For manners' sake."

"Promise you'll be careful?" Colette said before worrying at her lower lip with her teeth.

"For you, my dear Colette, I will be the very soul of caution."

Author Notes For warning, this project has a variety of loves, not all of which are heterosexual. That usually needs a disclaimer.

Chapter 2
Of the Introduction

By K. Olsen

"You are a wonderful sight, Valérie," Aurore said fondly, pulling her friend into a tight hug. It was brief with all the arrivals and greetings going on, but very much from the heart. "I thought I was going to go mad."

"Have you seen the guest list? Insanity is guaranteed," the courtesan said impishly. "I see your husband is still turning the head of everything female within a square mile."

Aurore laughed. "And the occasional man," she murmured. She studied her friend for a moment. "I appreciate that you keep your ogling to a minimum, as good for my ego as it is to know I'm the only one who can have him."

"To not look would be to lie. To look and compliment you on your taste in men and angel-written fortune, that is the mark of a good friend," Valérie said. She turned to study the subject of their conversation for a moment.

Pascal Estienne was a tall man of athletic build, strong and muscular without excessive bulging of biceps or the like. He moved with a dancer's grace and a smile that could charm angels, his piercing blue eyes dazzlingly warm. His most endearing feature was, in Valérie's estimation, his sincere concern for others. His voice was a close second, naturally occupying a deep, low space that was undeniably appealing to his listeners, when he cared to speak. He wasn't a man of many words by nature, though his position in life somewhat forced him out of his quietly laconic inclinations. He was taking over greeting the arrivals, giving his wife and Valérie a chance to talk.

"I'm just glad you're not jealous," Aurore said with a smile.

"Oh, I am. Insanely, always. He gets to have my Aurore all to himself," Valérie teased.

"He does things to me that you can't," Aurore said with a flutter of eyelashes.

"I am utterly aghast at your lack of appreciation for my creativity," Valérie said, poking her friend in the side with her closed fan.

"Oh, please. It'd be like kissing your sister."

The courtesan smiled. "Most definitely, but the flirting keeps me in practice."

Aurore laughed. "Gods preserve us from a Valérie de Lys at her most coquettish," she said. "Also, I have someone to introduce you to."

"A chaperone?" Valérie asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Tempting, but no. To a friend of mine who's still finding her feet in Étain. I was hoping you could take over the duty of assisting while I'm crushed by the barbarian hordes," Aurore said as she towed the courtesan out onto the terrace. "Are you familiar with the Dark Blood?"

The Comtesse's garden was larger and more maze-like than Valérie's, broken up into various sections by hedgerows that separated different varieties of flowers, fountains, and statuary. It was undoubtedly Valérie's favorite place in the estate, shady and cool in the summer and beautiful in the winter. It carried many fond memories, evenings since Aurore's marriage when they took over various hiding places and talked all night, usually when Pascal was absent on some affair of state. Valérie wore her ability to cheer a lonely Aurore as a badge of honor.

"Who is not? The noble desert princes who broke with the Eth and fought alongside our own ancestors to end the largest empire the East has ever known...a fine tale. I'm surprised one is in attendance. Isn't battle more their affinity? Though I have heard they're excellent at opening champagne bottles with swords."

"You're not wrong," Aurore said. "She's here on behalf of her father, Duc Zayd al-Sajjad, now that we're at peace for the moment. Just promise me you'll be careful where you turn those bedroom eyes of yours, yes? They seem to make just about anyone wish to be caught or flattered, and I do not know how either impulse would be received."

"I can behave," Valérie said lightly.

"But are you willing?"

"A more troublesome question," the courtesan said impishly. Then she laid a hand on her friend's arm. "You can trust me, Aurore. I will take care in whatever course of action arises."

That seemed to reassure the comtesse. "Thank you," she said gently. "I knew you would understand. Come on." She turned down the path that led to the roses. The first turn, they caught sight of their quarry seated on one bench. "Thara, there you are."

There was no mistaking the Dark Blood. The skin of Aurore's friend was almond brown, her hair either black or so very dark brown that it might as well have been. Her eyes were coal-dark, their intensity barely offset with a self-conscious smile. Her clothing was noble quality, emerald green dress embroidered with golden thread in intricate patterns. She wore a darker green sash, but that was more than an accessory: green was the color among the Dark Blood worn by the Thorn Knights, the order of warriors who commanded the armies mustered by the descendants of those desert princes. She rose to her feet, moving to meet Valérie and Aurore with the grace of someone used to life in armor.

"Valérie, this is Thara al-Sajjad," Aurore said with warmth. "And Thara, this is a very dear friend of mine, Valérie de Lys."

"I have heard the name before, but to actually make your acquaintance is a pleasure," Thara said, holding her hand out as she spoke, displaying a few scars on her palm.

Valérie laid her hand on Thara's, smiling when the noblewoman bowed politely over her hand and then released it. That was more customary for a man, but with the martial training that went into both men and women of the desert bloodlines, Thara probably felt more comfortable with the gesture than with filing the role of a fragile little court bird. "Your manners are impeccable, my lady. I hope you won't find this evening with all of your fellow nobles anything less than riveting."

Aurore only refrained from snorting at that by virtue of a lifetime's worth of training to be ladylike. Whatever she was going to say died on her lips when she heard a servant round the corner behind them and immediately say, "Your Ladyship, the Comte was looking for you."

"Is something the matter?" the comtesse asked with a frown.

"The Duc Delamarche just arrived...with his wife."

Aurore winced. "Say no more." She gave Valérie's hand a soft squeeze before letting go. "I'm sorry to abandon you, my friends."

"Think nothing of it," Valérie reassured her. "I trust you didn't use the silverware with pointed knife tips?"

"I did, but I put the Duc and the Duchesse across the table from each other rather than by side-by-side. Perhaps that will prove something of an impediment."

Thara raised an eyebrow, her amused expression only growing when Valérie said, "It means that if she stabs him with a steak knife, we'll all see it. Dinner and a show."

"She'd better not do it at the table," Aurore said fiercely. "It's a white tablecloth."

"Your second mistake, I'm afraid," Valérie said as she hugged her friend. "Your first being that they were both on the guest list. Take care, and we will see you later."

Aurore flashed the pair of them a smile and then hurried off, no doubt inclined to head things off at the pass. Whatever could be said of the Duc and Duchesse's marriage, idyllic was never the word. The promise of a spectacular display tempted Valérie to follow to the entrance to the gardens and gawk, but she knew that her presence could inflame things more. The Duchesse was not fond of her husband's public indiscretions with a courtesan, even one of Valérie's caliber. Whatever the relief from Hector Delamarche's carnal appetites, it was still an affront to the woman's sensibilities. Not that she loved him any more than Valérie did—it was, as most slights between or around nobles was, a perceived lack of respect.

Hopefully Thara was more like Aurore than the Duchesse Delamarche.

"It sounds like the evening might be interesting," Thara said thoughtfully, still smiling a little.

"Certainly, though I expect they will resort to being incredibly petty rather than violent, which is still amusing," Valérie said, taking the opportunity of the quiet to study her new acquaintance. Judging by how the dress fit Thara, she was much stronger and more muscular than her current clothes probably gave the impression of. She was lean and long-limbed, and seemed to be more comfortable with a bodice as opposed to a corset. Thara no doubt found the damned things supremely constricting. Valérie had neglected a corset also, though for a very different reason. "Are you the thorn knight that your attire suggests, my lady?"

"I am," Thara said. There was a brief flash of self-consciousness in her expression and she rubbed at one shoulder, where just the tip of scarring showed above her sleeve. It was an action that seemed automatic, and Valérie doubted that even the noblewoman knew that she'd done it. It seemed Thara was not of the opinion that she could pass, or at least pass without some denigrating remarks. The motion spoke volumes for an observer as attentive and skilled as the courtesan.

"I find that almost difficult to believe," Valérie said with a smile. Setting people at ease was one place she excelled, and any friend of Aurore's deserved the best of treatment. "Beauty and grace seem to come easily to you."

It was hard to know if Thara blushed given her darker skin, but her eyes widened for a moment. "You are a surprising woman, Mademoiselle de Lys. Most would find me a poor imitation of a court lady."

"Yes, I suppose it's all that substance you have to you. Most nobles here are paper dolls," the courtesan said lightly. "Shall we take a walk? I am very much eager to hear about you. Aurore has excellent taste in friends, myself excluded."

"Are you so terrible?" the thorn knight asked, finding a comfortable pace at Valérie's side. Her stride was naturally longer and faster, but she slowed since neither of them had anywhere to be.

Valérie grinned. "That depends on who one asks, does it not?" She didn't know if Thara knew what she was, but she would not ruin the moment by spelling that out. Besides, she was aware enough to know that it could reflect unfavorably on Aurore if things played out poorly. "Are you here in Étain alone? It's easy to get lost in without a proper entourage."

"Some of my people manage even with one of those," Thara said as they meandered. "I have a few family retainers with me. The Comte insisted that I stay here at the estate rather than the Royal Palace, so I would not fall prey to those who take advantage of my people. There are many false friends in Étain, as I understand it. My father warned me to be careful."

"What was his concern?" Valérie asked.

Thara was quiet for a moment, the hint of a frown forming. "My family is first among those of the Dark Blood. We are powerful, we are useful, but there are elements in the Court who resent us for being who we are. Some people would draw a line thirty miles north of the first grain of sand and call that the border. They forget that we are Talinese just as they are."

"And that you bled for it," the courtesan observed. She felt a twinge of sympathy, well aware what it was to feel like an outsider while being considered so very useful. "The nobility is quick to find people less than equal. I would have expected them to mind their manners more, if for fear of an army, if nothing else."

The thorn knight shrugged. "My father says they are almost never open about it. They set us up to make fools of ourselves and then laugh behind their hands when we fall into the trap. But...the Comte and Comtesse have been so wonderful to me. Aurore's husband fought alongside my father in the last war."

"Did you meet Pascal then?" It surprised Valérie to see a smile on Thara's face without the usual love-struck look that young ladies typically wore. Then again, she knew full well how varied tastes could be.

Thara shook her head. "I met him the day before yesterday. I was on a different front than Father during the war. While he was dealing with the Genevais, I was fighting undead."

A shiver of dread ran through Valérie's body at even the thought of those horrible creatures. How many times had those wretched things almost killed her as she fled the remnants of the High Kingdom? She still had nightmares. "You are very brave," she said after only a split second of hesitation, looking over to see those dark eyes fixed on her with concern.

"You are kind to say so. I am sorry if I've upset you. They are monstrous things, and I know that few have the stomach for them. That's the reason we took the brunt of the assault rather than the regular army."

Valérie smiled softly. "Well, whatever the nobles say, you have more than earned our gratitude. I am immensely pleased to know that Aurore and Pascal are here to be friends to you. Myself as well, it would appear. Now, I have a curiosity, if you will indulge me."

"Should I be concerned?" Thara asked, relaxing when she saw the courtesan's spirits recover.

"Probably," Valérie said with amusement. "I gather you've witnessed Pascal's rather impressive effect on the ladies?"

"I have," Thara said. "It's amazing he doesn't trip over all the women at his feet."

Valérie grinned. "Particularly given the fact that he's eternally looking to Aurore with every step. Honestly, sometimes I must tell Aurore what I want to say to him, just so he'll hear the words."

Thara laughed. "Does she know that's what's going on?"

"She realized it the first few weeks of their marriage, after they returned from their honeymoon and I started doing it more often. Once she figured it out, I promise you that one could hear her eyes rolling for days."

"Your friendship is wonderful," the noblewoman said. She paused for a moment. "But why did you ask me?" She tensed. "Does Aurore think—"

"Never," Valérie assured her. "There is not a woman on the face of this earth that Aurore is afraid could steal her husband. Many have tried, all of them have failed. No, I asked to satisfy my curiosity. You seemed very nonchalant when I asked you when you'd met Pascal. I expected a more...enraptured tone."

Thara shrugged, pausing in front of the most venerable of the roses in the garden. Much like the gnarled apple tree at the center of Valérie's garden, this rose was the first of the flowers planted here. It was a white bloom edged in deep red. "I suppose he is just not the one for me. What of you?"

"I adore Pascal for how he adores Aurore, and so I consider him a dear friend. I know that they have found something so intensely special in each other, and I wish them well in love. It is not for me."

Thara was quiet for a moment, dark eyes fixed on Valérie. "You have a heart, don't you?"

"Perhaps," Valérie said almost flippantly. "I prefer to be free. Love would tie me down."

"I hope you change your mind and listen to your heart," Thara said. She looked away from Valérie, touching one leaf of the ancient rose. "Love is the most beautiful thing in the world. It would suit you."

Now it was clear why Pascal's charm hadn't pierced Thara's heart: she had other inclinations. "It would ruin me, I think," the courtesan said. "Still, I'm flattered that you think so well of me. I did not expect such regard from one of an intensely practical people."

Thara turned to face her again, proud features soft at the moment. "Why is it so strange? Valérie de Lys has many admirers, if Aurore is to be believed, and for good reason."

Valérie wanted to laugh away the interest, but she also didn't want to harm Thara's confidence. Besides, there was something about the thorn knight that caught in her heart. It would suit you. What admirer had ever wanted her love? Her body seemed more desirable to them, emotions more a danger of complication. She was fun, engaging, charming, beautiful, and very skilled. That was enough for them. "Shall we agree to disagree on the subject of romance?"

"Perhaps," Thara said, dark eyes studying Valérie intently. "But should you permit it, I would like the opportunity to change your mind."

"How bold! We've only just met," Valérie said with a smile. Thara hardly fit the image of her usual admirer, which made it difficult to know how to handle her. Fortunately, Valérie had always been swift in thought for such things.

Thara's hand drifted to the scarring on her shoulder again. "Perhaps," she said quietly. "But that does not change my wish. You may ever refuse me, should it be what your heart desires."

Valérie appreciated that the thorn knight was considerate enough to provide an escape route. It made fleeing far less tempting, though she was highly resistant to being caught in love. She needed only to let Thara down gently without prompting retribution from Aurore. "And if I do? What will you do then?"

"Perhaps I will do as a rose does when the sun vanishes: close my petals and pray for light's return," Thara said, brushing her hair back behind her ears. Where every other court beauty wore some complicated hairstyle, the thorn knight had left hers long and loose.

Colette, ever the fashion-conscious, had told Valérie once that it was customary for them to do so. They only braided their hair for war, to keep it out of the way when they were in armor. Loose hair was a sign that they felt no threat.

"I assure you that to be caught is not in me," Valérie said. She hated to admit it, but she didn't really want to dispose of the young woman. Not because she wanted any part in this love business, but because she could see something delicate in Thara's eyes that in no way deserved to be crushed. "And even if, by some divine intervention, you held me for a moment, you would find me a poor catch."

Thara's lips quirked into a smile. "Shall we agree to disagree?"

The courtesan smiled back despite herself. "I see we have a stubborn one."

"That has never been in question," the thorn knight said. She turned her head, catching the sound of an approach. "May we speak of this again?"

"Of romance? How terribly tedious," Valérie said lightly.

Thara turned back to face her. "Please," she said with sincerity easily visible in her dark eyes.

The courtesan sighed, but the smile lingered. "I suppose I must endure it until you run out of breath or become wiser," Valérie said. The approaching man was unmistakable: Hector Delamarche.

The full, genuine smile that bloomed across Thara's face surprised Valérie. It was an expression she almost never saw here in Étain's noble circles. "When?"

Valérie removed the lily from her hair and tossed it to Thara, who caught it with ease. "The moment that withers and not a second before it," she said. She would never admit it, but something about the way the thorn knight turned the stem of the lily between her fingers and smiled was rather endearing.

Thara gave her a bow and then retreated, brushing past the Duc with a polite nod.

Hector Delamarche was a big man, over six feet tall and broad in the shoulders, with an ego substantial enough to crush a bear. His leathery features were not attractive enough to distract from an ugly temperament, but he could mind his manners. He was still well muscled, although he was now over forty, enough to dominate every opponent he had ever dueled, and tough enough that jokes were made about him chewing nails until he could spit out screws.

Valérie found him more pleasant than many others found him. Despite his manhandling and temper, he had a definite magnetism and could be considerate in bed. She'd never infuriated him enough to feel in danger and planned to keep it that way.

"A pleasure, Valérie," he said, offering her the same greeting gesture that Thara had. "I am pleased that I could rescue you from such company."

"Your Grace, what a wonderful sight you are. I had not realized your disdain for the Dark Blood," she said mildly.

"They have their place in the world, as do we all. It is not in Étain," the Duc said bluntly. He offered Valérie his arm. "Shall we attend to the party?"

"Certainly," she said as she placed her arm through his. Even as she did so, her thoughts lingered on her conversation with Thara. The thorn knight was a puzzle that would require time and effort to solve. "Our absence has already likely been remarked upon."

"And after dinner..." he said in a low, rumbling tone.

Valérie understood well the proper response to that insinuation. "After dinner, Your Grace, I imagine I will be most accommodating."

The Duc did not bother with words to respond, his answer a wolfish grin and a gleam in his eyes.

Chapter 3
Of the Thought

By K. Olsen

"I had no idea that was what would come of it," Aurore said, though her tone was no apology. "You should at least consider it, Valérie. I would love to see you happy."

"I am happy," Valérie said, dragging her gaze away from the stage after a few moments. She adored opera and their box was placed for a perfect view, courtesy of the Comte's status. In the day since Aurore's birthday party the night before, her conflicted thoughts dominated all others. She knew from experience that the lily would have completely wilted by morning, which would undoubtedly mean a visit.

She just didn't know how to feel about it. Every passing hour brought new doubts to light.

Aurore sighed and leaned back in her seat. "I know you, Valérie," she said gently. "You haven't known contentment for a moment."

Valérie arched an eyebrow in perfect skepticism. "And I suppose a little love would rectify that?" It was her turn to sigh. "Let us suppose, and this is a stretch large enough to span a canyon, that I decide that I might feel a stirring of affection. What am I to do then? Look at my livelihood, Aurore. Shall I reject my clientele and starve? I doubt it would thrill anyone seeking love with a woman in my vocation and I doubt a woman in my vocation would appreciate an utter lack of reputation and income."

"Valérie..." Aurore began.

The courtesan found it irritating, which undoubtedly meant she was unsettled. In her experience, anger was often insecurity. Valérie took a deep breath before cutting in. "Aurore, I know. You think it would be worth it, that I would find a way, that I can simply leave this life of mine behind. I am not so convinced."

"Thara is a wonderful woman, Valérie," Aurore said. "Hot-headed and tempestuous, but she doesn't have a deceptive bone in her body. If she's as interested in you as it sounds, it means that she values your heart sincerely. How many people can you say that of?"

"I imagine she will reconsider when she learns that I am the nobility's glorified wh—"

Aurore glared fiercely, putting a hand on her friend's arm. "Don't," she said sharply. "I hate it when you use that word."

"Because it's common or because it's true?" Valérie said pointedly. "Even if I do not say it, others do and will continue to do so even if I am involved with our resident thorn knight. Gods above, Aurore. She has a reputation to think of, and even if she has magically forgotten it in her infatuated daze, I have not. You entrusted to me the responsibility of protecting her from what scandal I can. This insanity is precisely what you wished her to avoid, no?"

"If we do not scream it to the entire world..."

"I imagine the Duc Delamarche would be so accommodating and meek if I refused him for any reason," the courtesan said with a sarcastic bite to her words. "People would find out, with his help or without it, Aurore. They always find out. While this is to her credit, I can't imagine Thara is at all an indirect woman, and even if she were, this city brings all secrets to light."

Aurore leaned back in her seat again, looking up at the ceiling rather than the stage, where a young man was singing a rather impressive aria. Silence descended on the box for a time, the comtesse considering a reply and Valérie stewing as she watched the performance. It was hard for the courtesan to focus on it, her mind running a thousand miles a minute.

"You should give it a chance," Aurore said finally. "If I am wrong, you may do as you will."

"It could ruin my life, Aurore," Valérie murmured, releasing her anger with a sigh. There was no point in bickering with her friend, not when she knew that Aurore just wanted the best for her. They could disagree on whether this fit that category, but the honest and benevolent intent was always there. It was something Valérie was grateful for, no matter how uncertain or irritating her life seemed.

Her friend smiled a little, trying to be comforting. "It could also save it."

If the courtesan was being honest with herself, that was probably the most frightening thing. What if she fell in love? What if she found her other half the way Aurore had with Pascal? What if that was to be the case and Thara dropped her the instant circumstance revealed her nature? The thought was not an appealing one, but it was adhesive. She knew she should make some grand pact with herself, a refusal that she could batter at Thara's affections with until the onslaught forced the thorn knight to retreat.


You have a heart, don't you?

For Valérie, the answer to Thara's question was an unfortunate yes and the maddening thing made her loathe to do any harm at all to the desert noble.

The rest of the opera passed quietly, Aurore well aware that it was not wise to push more while the courtesan lost herself to the tempest raging inside. Together they left in slowly thawing silence, Valérie's mood gradually improving as they walked down the steps.

At least for a moment. A breeze picked up, warm even though the sun had set. Valérie knew that she was not well the moment the first shiver started. Cold uncoiled in her muscles, bringing with it the agony of frostbite. She stopped, letting out a sharp, pained exhale. It shocked her that she couldn't see her breath.

"Are you alright?" Aurore asked, turning to her friend. Her eyes went wide when she saw how pale Valérie was. She caught the courtesan's arm.

"Just faint," Valérie blurted, struggling to pretend that she was anything approaching alright. The crushing bite of midwinter shredded her flesh and dug fangs deep into her bones, freezing the marrow until all she wanted to do was scream. No one else felt the curse's cold, but it raged inside of her like a dragon of frost. It took her every shred of composure and will not to collapse sobbing. At least she could still pretend for a little while longer.

Aurore helped her to the waiting carriage. "I can send along my physician once you're home," the comtesse said, her brow creased with worry.

It was better not to refuse her friend, and so Valérie nodded stiffly. The symptoms would hopefully recede before the doctor arrived, and his clean bill of health would reassure Aurore that all was well. Valérie closed her eyes once they were in the privacy of the carriage as it hastened her home.

"Is there anything I can do?" Aurore asked.

Valérie shook her head. All she could think to say as another shiver swept through her body was, "Just cold." She barely felt the warmth of Aurore's hand when it came to rest on her forehead.

"You're burning up," the noblewoman said. "I shouldn't have pulled you out two nights in a row. Honoré was right, you're still recovering. I'm so sorry, Valérie."

She'd never told Aurore what was wrong and had no intention of ever doing so. Better for everyone just to assume she was delicate of constitution with the occasional fainting spell. Physicians could never find more than a fever and weakness. She had no consumptive's cough, nor really any other outward sign. Without visible symptoms, how could there be a disease?

"It's fine," Valérie whispered. "I will be well soon."

By the time they reached her home, the tormenting magic seemed to recede, again falling dormant. She hated it because every attack seemed to exist not only to cause pain, but to remind her that she was still under its sway, never able to escape either the pain or the fear of when the next surge would strike. As she did every time after an episode witnessed by another person, she focused on her breathing to bring it under control and then straightened up despite the exhaustion and lingering pain clinging to her body like a poison vine. Mercifully, her eyes were dry.

"I'll fetch Honoré," Aurore said. When she saw the protest forming on Valérie's lips, the comtesse gave her most gimlet glare. "I am not about to allow a fevered friend to leap from a carriage and carry on doing any things that might worsen her condition. You need rest and medicine, Valérie. If you argue with me, I will ensure that they confine you to bed for a week."

Valérie sighed. She knew that Honoré and Colette would honor that order if Aurore gave it. "I hate to worry him," she said instead of arguing. "I hate to worry you."

"We worry because we care, Valérie," the comtesse said gently as the carriage door opened. "Promise me you will get some rest and feel better?" She looked over to see Honoré holding the door. "Perfect, the man of the hour."

"I will," Valérie promised, lowering her gaze to avoid Honoré's instantly concerned eyes. He had an uncanny sense for when she was unwell.

"Did something happen, Your Ladyship?" the dark-skinned man asked.

Aurore almost smiled despite the situation. She had endless respect for Honoré and had told him so on many, many occasions. She looked to the courtesan, who was still incredibly pale against the blue fabric of the carriage's seats. "Valérie may require your help getting to bed. She seemed to feel faint and has a fever. I'll send Dr. Segal along the moment I'm back to the estate."

"Thank you," Honoré said sincerely. "Colette and I will make certain she gets some rest. I'm certain she will be on the mend soon with the help of the good doctor."

"You are a saint among men," Aurore said as she helped Valérie into his arms. "Have a good evening, Honoré."

"You as well, Your Ladyship," he said as he scooped his friend up. He gave the noblewoman a nod, then turned and carried Valérie into the house. "You are the reason I found a gray hair in my beard this morning."

"Only one?" Valérie said, resting her head against his shoulder. Honoré felt solid and warm, something real and comforting after the abyss. "I'm losing my touch."

"You must be feeling better, if you're willing to give me lip," Honoré said as he carried her to bed. He sighed. "You need rest, Valérie. I'm certain that if you made use of the country estate, the fresh air and sunlight would do you a world of good."

"While I adore Baron Donadieu for his generosity, I would insist upon paying him fairly for use of one of his homes. Fairness is terribly expensive," the courtesan said, though she barely had the energy to rebut the suggestion. "Particularly if I am not entertaining visitors."

"Speaking of visitors, a young lady called when you were away," her friend said as he trudged up the stairs. "I politely informed her that you were with the Comtesse and suggested that she return in the morning."

"I don't suppose she looked love struck and swarthy."

Honoré chuckled. "Should I be concerned for Lady al-Sajjad?"

"Decidedly so," Valérie said, sighing in relief once Honoré set her down on her bed. The mattress felt wonderful on her aching bones. "What should I do about her, Honoré?"

He sat down on the edge of her bed, raising an eyebrow. "You ask the man who has no such interest in anyone ever?" It was a well-known fact, at least to Valérie and Colette, that the gods cut him from a different cloth. Physical desire was utterly foreign to his nature and while he could certainly appreciate beauty, he did so in his head, not the messiness of a heart. That was a place he reserved for his friends. Honoré was very much loving, but not in a lover's sense.

"You are an amazing friend, wonderfully caring and thoughtful as no other can be," Valérie said softly. "Besides, you are a far, far wiser soul than I."

"Tell me what you think of her," he said, studying her intently.

"How can I even say? I barely know her," the courtesan said. Even as she spoke, her mind took her back to Aurore's gardens. The emotions the thought stirred up were delicate, like new green buds in spring.

"Is she beautiful?"

Valérie scowled at him, though she felt no ill will and knew he could tell that. "You spoke with her. Last I checked, you have eyes."

"I was more interested in what you thought." Honoré removed her shoes as he spoke, trying to make her more comfortable.

"It's well known that Valérie de Lys can find beauty in anyone," she said dismissively.

He shook his head slightly. "You are in no position to dodge the question, Valérie. A tortoise could pin you."

"Questions are usually easier to evade than tortoises," Valérie said. She sighed. "She is lovely, Honoré. She has a sense of humor, is terribly considerate, and worst of all, she's far more stubborn than she looks."

"You sound almost pained. Surely you could say the same of many ladies of the court."

"I cannot, not when her sincerity is so terrifying," she admitted. There were things she would confide in Honoré that she would never tell Aurore, though the converse was also true. "I don't know. I want to shove her away with both hands before she can do anything to my heart, but I don't want to hurt her either. She is alone in the storming sea of Étain and many people here do not have the best interests of her or her people at heart. I know how it feels to be an outsider."

Honoré's expression softened. He understood, as victim to that feeling as Valérie was. Neither of them would ever belong, which was why they had found each other. "I will be right here, whatever you decide," he said gently. "As will Colette."

She closed her eyes to avoid his concern. "I do not deserve you."

Honoré sighed. "Do you remember what you said to that beggar on the riverfront as the snow fell?" he asked, his tone firm. "The only Eth-blooded detritus stupid enough to make it across the desert just to die in the northern winter?"

"That was years ago, Honoré."

"You sat down beside him where he lay starving to death and asked him what his name was," Honoré said with that same deliberate air. "And when he told you, then you asked him what he was. When he told you he was a beggar, what did you say to him?"

"That he was a man, not a beggar, and that he was coming with me. And like a fool, he did," Valérie said, finally meeting his amber eyes with her own gaze. The memory was still clear in her mind. The image of sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, ribs and bones pronounced, frost clinging to dark hair haunted her sometimes. It made her resolve to never allow such a thing to happen again. "I am forever grateful for your supreme lack of sense, though I am surprised you didn't return to Ethilir."

Honoré smiled, but with softness and hints of sorrow to his expression. "How could I leave you? You saw a person in me at my worst," he said. "Just as I saw one in you at yours."

Valérie knew the exact moment in her life he was referring to, when she had been a true piece of wreckage every bit as tormented as Honoré during his stay in his personal hell on Étain's streets. "What a pair we make," she murmured, finding his hand with her own so she could give it a squeeze. "So what should I do?"

"It's your choice to make, Valérie," he said gently. She knew he wanted the best for her, just as Aurore did and undoubtedly Colette as well. It was almost enough to make her surrender to the idea, but her experiences pushed back on it. "That said, there is only one antidote I know of to fear, and that's the one thing you dread the most."

Valérie sighed. "She will reconsider or lose interest. Until that happens, I can at least be polite. Friendly, even." That was something she knew well. Thara was not the first to fall into infatuation with the courtesan, nor would she be the first to sober up to reality.

"Glad to hear it," Honoré said with a small smile that pulled at the scar on his face. She found the expression endlessly comforting. "You've been through enough, Valérie. You deserve a chance to find something more."

Valérie sighed and closed her eyes. "We will see," she murmured, not even a kernel of hope yet formed. She knew better. It wasn't bitterness as much as a protective shell that kept her body and heart separated. It was better that way, easier and most definitely safer.

I will be free, Valérie resolved as she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 4
Of the Walk

By K. Olsen

Sunlight always seemed to restore Valérie and the day after taking that turn for the worse was no exception. She sat under the dappled shade of the apple tree, watching the fluttering butterflies who seemed so fond of her island of serenity. Their amber wings, edged in dark, were regal enough to warrant the name Monarch. Not for the first time, she regretted her lack of poetic skills. She could charm, but writing verses of description of nature's beauty was hardly her strength.

She heard the side door open to admit someone who walked with a tread much lighter than Honoré's and she knew for a fact that Colette would be at the market another hour enjoying the weekend. That narrowed the field considerably. Was it strange that despite all her doubts and insecurities, she smiled? Valérie considered trying to quash it, but decided brooding might be impolite.

"Good morning," she said, turning to face the intruder.

"May I join you?" Thara asked, only a pace or two into the garden.

"Of course, should you find my little grove agreeable." Valérie's tone was both light and thoughtful as she studied her guest. Thara had dispensed with the courtier's wardrobe, and the change suited her nigh perfectly. She wore a white silk shirt under a grey doublet unbuttoned at the moment and dark pants with an emerald sash. Her clothes fit her well, no longer an outfit that concealed her athletic nature.

"It is beautiful," Thara said as she looked around. "I do not think I will ever become accustomed to green growth. It is wondrous, but foreign."

"The desert has its own charms, I'm sure," Valérie said with a smile. The way Thara was smiling at the lush foliage gave her an idea.

"It does," the thorn knight said. "Perhaps one day you will see them."

"Perhaps." Valérie rose to her feet, dusting off stray blades of grass. "Speaking of exploration, have you gawked at the many sights of Étain?"

"Sadly not," Thara said, her expression curious. "Are you suggesting we see it?"

"If you find the suggestion agreeable. I expect Aurore's hands are tied in one fashion or another, so I imagine she's not available to be a proper hostess. It's a travesty, really," Valérie said. She hadn't been on a proper walk in some time, as it was ill-advised given the curse's random attacks. Still, she found that she wanted to. "We won't be seeing the entire city, it's much too large for that, but my humble abode is at the verge of the Artisan's Way. At the opposite end of these delightfully crooked streets is the Emerald Crown, the largest garden in a city of man ever constructed, or so they say."

Thara's eyes lit up. "Truly?"

Valérie found the thorn-knight's enthusiasm both amusing and strangely charming. "I'm amazed you haven't seen it yet. It's at the far end of the Noble Quarter from the Estienne Estate, though I suppose the fortifications might detract from the view. It's a shame we can't design our cities with purely aesthetics and harmony in mind."

"They say that it is so on some large archipelagos near the Imperium," Thara said. She offered her arm to Valérie as they walked. "Houses that are works of art, cities with gardens for streets, not a hint of a fortress in sight."

Valérie hesitated a moment, but then accepted Thara's arm. In a few moments, they passed through the house and then out into the street. It was early enough in the morning that they weren't likely to be jostled, not that people would have stepped in too close with someone native to the deserts. Thara's people had a definite reputation as warriors, even their women. There was a reason the undead had not made it to Étain despite demonic help. As they strolled, Valérie relaxed and kept her hold somewhat loose on the thorn knight's arm. They were walking close enough that they were always in contact and it felt surprisingly comfortable for strangers.

All around them, life flowed through the city like blood through a great beating heart, individual pieces in flux while the whole worked in concert. The Artisan's Way was a stretch of crooked streets decorated with workshops displaying wares: glassblowers, potters, weavers, smiths, carpenters, and more. Only the tanners were elsewhere, due largely to their smell. Breathtaking murals spanning subject material from great historical events to floral and fractal patterns to portraits decorated the district’s walls. The small food carts that catered to the workers in the Way put out aromas spicy and savory, sweet and sour. The trade that had enriched Talin had brought with it the best of many worlds.

"This is amazing," Thara said. Her smile had become more of a grin with each block. It had to hurt the muscles in her face.

"Is this not the Étain they promised you?" Valérie said lightly. They passed under an arch that gleamed in the sunlight, copper prayers to Mode etched in its surface. Talin's artisans never failed to praise the Song of Dawn when there was work to do. They often said that everything came out just a little better and easier when the name of the god of beauty was invoked.

"We always hear on the front that it's a lovely city, if snobbish and self-important."

The courtesan laughed. She felt much more comfortable holding Thara's arm now, easy good humor breaking through her reticence. "That description is correct. However, it is not everything. Most of the people are generally good, as is probably true of people everywhere."

"You surprise me," Thara said when she looked over thoughtfully. "Optimism about the common people is not often found in the nobility."

"I suppose it's my more common breeding showing," Valérie said, waving to one carpenter she knew from repairs to her home. It was older, which meant it required more care. "I am not a noble, though I almost exclusively keep their company. A woman like myself is valuable even if not for marriage and children."

Thara was quiet for a moment before saying, "I hadn't realized."

A twinge of nerves manifested in the pit of Valérie's stomach. "I hope I have not caused offense by the seeming."

"Not at all," the thorn knight said, giving Valérie a sincere smile. "I merely lacked awareness of your own bravery."

That same, pleased smile crept across Valérie's expression. The thorn knight had her charms. "Flattering, but they're hardly an undead horde."

"Undead are simpler," Thara said. "You know where they stand at all times and the threat can be dealt with straightforwardly: the blow of a weapon. I find the company of Talin's elite far more harrowing and complicated. It is one reason I'm so grateful for you."

"I shall endeavor to illuminate safe paths," the courtesan said.

Thara smiled and pulled her a little closer without thinking. "You do have a glow. When I spoke to your man—"

"There I must disabuse you of a notion," Valérie said, interrupting gently. "Honoré is not my servant. He is a dear friend who is kind enough to look after myself and Colette."

"But you pay him, surely," Thara said, mentally readjusting.

"My money is his if he requires it," Valérie explained. "And I make certain he takes enough of it to be comfortable at all times. It is my way of being a patron of the arts." When she saw Thara's brow furrow questioningly, she smiled. "Along with knowing a great deal of horses, he's a marvelous painter, probably one of the best in Étain. Perhaps if he is amenable, I can show you some of what he's done. Unfortunately, that Eth blood closes many doors."

"You keep fascinating company," Thara said. "A soldier turned Colette Eth as well?"

"No, she is very much Talinese. Hiding that is utterly impossible, given I think she could get a sunburn on an overcast day. She's very sweet and entirely too fashion-conscious for her class. She would have made an exquisitely dressed noblewoman," Valérie said. It was oddly enjoyable to explain her unorthodox little family to Thara. The thorn knight was just such a good listener, attentive to every word.

The noblewoman smiled. "How you speak of them does them and you great credit."

"You think so highly of me because you were not privy to my dinner conversation with Aurore the other night. Aspersions were cast, scathing condescension uttered, sarcasm delivered with finely honed timing—a veritable assault on genteel decorum, all in the name of the great god Humor. It's a terrible but highly enjoyable tradition of mine."

"That explains Aurore's uncontrollable giggling. I had not figured her for a woman who enjoys such events," Thara said amused. "I feel somewhat neglected for being left out."

Valérie directed the thorn knight around a corner. One more, and they would enter the Emerald Crown. "Well, next time I shall impress upon the good Comtesse the importance of corrupting the sensibilities of our resident thorn knight. Would that be more agreeable?"

"I look forward to it already."

The courtesan stopped just before they could round the next corner, pulling Thara to a stop. "Do you trust me?" she asked, tone light so that Thara would know the request would not be serious.

The answer she received was less flippant, at least in tone. "I do," Thara said with that same sincerity.

"You know me so little," Valérie said, surprised.

"Am I wrong?" the thorn knight said, tilting her head slightly to the side, dark eyes intense enough that Valérie felt almost exposed.

Still, it was not the first time someone had scrutinized her. Valérie was not one to squirm. Instead, she settled back on her initial course of action. She stepped behind Thara and covered the thorn knight's eyes with her hands. "Take ten steps forward, then turn fully to your left."

Thara laughed even as she obeyed. "Is this a game?"

Valérie followed her easily. She'd always been an excellent dancer, so this was simple. It put her in closer contact with Thara than she'd been comfortable with at the start of their jaunt, but now she felt at ease enough to do this. Perhaps it was her own impish nature getting the better of her. "Hardly, but it makes the surprise better," Valérie said. In her most imperious tone, which was barely imposing, she ordered, "Walk forward. I will tell you when to stop."

"I take it that will please the lady?"

The courtesan smiled. "As soon as I locate a lady, perhaps we can determine that. In the meantime, your resident Valérie will find it gratifying."

"You are a lady," Thara said firmly, but she walked as she spoke. "It is a status conferred also upon those of genteel nature who do not have a title. I would say that you are included in that statement."

"Agree to disagree, my dear thorn knight." When she felt Thara hesitate, no doubt marshaling a counter-argument, Valérie felt it was time to cheat just a little. She leaned in slightly closer to Thara's back and pitched her voice a half-step down before murmuring near her ear, "Please?"

Thara's cheeks warmed under Valérie's hands. "As you wish," the thorn knight said almost too quickly.

The courtesan barely stopped herself from giggling, impressive considering she couldn't hide behind her hand. It really hadn't been fair of her to use that lower, rather more inviting tone on Thara, but she knew it would work. It worked on most people in a general sense and doubly so on her admirers. Still, she was using her powers for good now. Her goal was to make the Emerald Crown the best impression it could be, even if they were getting strange looks from passersby.

"How far?" Thara asked.

"Trust me," Valérie coaxed. "You move very well without sight. Most would trip over their own feet."

"A warrior who trains well does not train only in daylight." Thara seemed bemused as Valérie urged her on, but also content to let the courtesan play whatever game she was playing. It was endearing. Hopefully, it would be worth the wait.

Valérie let her hands fall away the moment they passed through the gate to the Emerald Crown. She smiled when she saw that Thara had closed her eyes. "Here we are. You may gaze as you please once more."

Thara opened her eyes and made a small sound of something approaching disbelief, her eyes going wide and lips parting. Awe seemed to wash over her as she gazed for the first time at the Emerald Crown.

To call it a park was to do it a great disservice. Carefully walled from the rest of the city, the Crown was a forest of ancient growths carefully tended to by the legion of gardeners in service to the goddess of life herself. The towering redwoods visible from much of the city seemed even greater when one stood at their roots. There were many trees interspersed here, surrounding crystalline growths of quartz and other minerals left behind by the magics of the Revealing sculpted into likenesses of Talin's heroes. 

Reflecting pools of various sizes marked every hundred feet, giving the impression of miniature skies on the ground, surrounded by fragrant fallen needles. Birdsong filled the area, the air perfumed by hundreds of different flowering plants. It felt utterly serene, though it was far from unoccupied. Everywhere, there were people enjoying the scenery.

Valérie was well familiar with its glories, so she amused herself by watching Thara's expression. For a woman who had never seen such a forest, given Talin's south and west were flat plains or rolling hills with forests well cut by the surrounding villages, this was no doubt a shock to the system. Spellbound, the thorn knight took in the sight motionless and silent for a long, long moment.

"It is beautiful," she breathed finally.

"I rather think so," Valérie agreed. "Far more than that musty palace or the noble district."

Thara turned to face her, something soft in her expression. "Almost as much as you."

Something happened to Valérie which had not happened in a very long time, something she had assumed was no longer a part of her character: she blushed. It was mortifying, it really was. She knew how to take a compliment, so there was no reason to. "When I heard of the deadliness of the Thorn Knights, they neglected to mention the lethality of their charm. Forget swinging a blade: we should weaponise your flattery."

"Is it flattery?" Thara countered. "To me, it is a statement of fact."

Valérie realized her hand was lingering on Thara's arm, but didn't move to correct it lest that dampen the spark in the thorn knight's eyes. "I do believe you to be quite dangerous, Lady al-Sajjad."

"Never to you."

"Again, I feel we must agree to disagree," Valérie said. She turned away from Thara, facing deeper into the Crown. "Come, you have yet to see the most beautiful part of this district."

"Valérie..." Thara started.

The courtesan looked back at the desert noblewoman. "Indulge me in this, and I will gather the will to entertain madness as we walk."

The thorn knight nodded as they walked forward. She smiled when she felt Valérie take her arm again. "So where is this place we're going?"

Valérie was altogether too pleased with herself for enchanting Thara with rare nature. She guided the noblewoman to their destination without answering the question, ambling so Thara could take on all the surrounding beauty. "I hope you find this as charming as I did."

The growth opened before them, revealing a large pond. Delicate water lilies, white edged in purple, broke up the polished glass surface of crystalline water. A weathered wooden bridge formed an arch as it spanned across the pond. Dappled fish swam beneath the surface, every once in a while sending ripples across the placid waters. Edged in sections of sand, carefully raked into flowing patterns and beyond that with thick green ferns, the pond was serenity itself. Quartz statues stood half hidden in foliage, these carved in the images of protective spirits. A small bell-tower rose on the far end of the pond, decorated itself by climbing honeysuckle. Butterflies flitted around them, playing in the sunshine. Above them, finches warbled and chirped happily.

Almost dazed in her silence as she took in the sight, Thara’s grin was again so wide that Valérie imagined it hurt. "This is...incredible," she whispered finally.

"Your new favorite place, I take it?" Valérie asked.

"Very much so," Thara said almost breathlessly. She turned to face Valérie fully and took a half step forward, putting them close together. "Knowledge of this place is a greater gift than I could have ever hoped for. I know I will spend a great deal of time here."

The courtesan decided that her best course of action would be to minimize it. "Anyone could have shown you here. I just reached you first."

"I doubt they would take my arboreal fascination into consideration," Thara said. "You did."

Valérie hesitated, a strange warmth spreading through her body along with a tingle of anticipation. Her heart was fluttering with frankly embarrassing enthusiasm as she looked directly into dark eyes. "I try to be considerate."

Thara smiled. "You are." Her fingertips almost touched Valérie's cheek, but Thara held back. After a second of hesitation, she spoke. "May I?"

The hammering in Valérie's chest was apparently there to stay, even though she knew the correct answer was to refuse whatever Thara had in mind. What came out of Valérie's mouth instead gave no thought to practicality. "Yes."

Thara smiled, fingertips ghosting across Valérie's cheek. She moved in until she was almost flush against the courtesan. Her body seemed to radiate warmth, though perhaps that was wishful thinking on Valérie's part, a foolish hope of banishing the curse.

What do you want, Valérie? she asked herself. The answer in that moment was easy and frightening.


When Thara hesitated for a moment, Valérie leaned forward slightly, brushing her lips against the thorn knight's in one smooth movement. Without thinking, she framed that sienna face in her far paler hands, anchoring herself in the kiss's sensation. Strong hands caught hold of her hips, pulling her in tight against Thara's body.

For something so dangerous, it felt so incredibly right.

Valérie drew back when she lost her breath completely. Thara's eyes seemed somehow darker than before, and she kept her hold on Valérie. She hesitated a moment, weighing words before discarding them. Instead, she kissed Valérie back lighter than she truly wanted to. One kiss turned into more, barely kept tame.

Their moment lasted what felt like an instant, but Valérie was certain it was more time than they were expecting. Valérie rested her head on Thara's shoulder, trying to slow the beat of her restless heart. The hands stroking up and down her back were immensely comforting, despite the doubt eating away at her psyche.

This was not wise, and she was a fool for allowing it.

"You are amazing," Thara murmured.

Valérie pulled back, grey eyes sorrowful. "We should not have," she whispered. "You have a reputation to consider."

"I want this," Thara said firmly. "I want you. This means more to me than what people think."

"I promised Aurore that I would guard you from scandals. I'm sorry," Valérie said. It tore at her heart. "This cannot happen again."

She saw a flash of frustration in Thara's eyes. "You kissed me. Must you tempt me with what I cannot have?"

"I'm sorry," the courtesan whispered. A wretched feeling crept up out of her stomach in the face of Thara's hurt.

Thara pulled in a deep breath. "I shall have to change your mind, Mademoiselle."

The formality was jarring, but Valérie knew why it was present. Thara was guarding her heart from more rejection. No doubt Valérie's words had cut her.

"I'm sorry," Valérie said again, trying to ignore the twisting knot in the pit of her stomach.

Thara didn't answer her with more than a wounded glance, retreating from the Emerald Crown. It left Valérie bereft by the pond, resting her fingertips against her lips. It was hard to even describe the way those kisses felt. They were soft and warm like sunlight, conferring safety and blessed relief from her conflicted thoughts. In that moment, she knew exactly what she wanted.

And then, in true Valérie de Lys fashion, she'd ruined her happiness before it could even bloom. She sat on the weathered wooden bench that was closest to her, burying her face in her hands.

She should be content, surely. This was what she had intended for, what she'd wished for: an end to Thara's fascination with her. And yet, she felt terrible. She only hoped that Thara had heard the regret in her voice, that she wouldn't be so furious, that she would understand the motivation was to protect her and not some malice.

Stinging silence bathed her walk home.

Chapter 5
Of the Reply

By K. Olsen

Valérie sighed as she watched the bedroom door shut. She was seldom sorry to see the back of Hector Delamarche and today was no exception, given his rather foul mood upon arrival. At his best, he was considerate. At his worst, he left bruises, many of which were to Valérie's arguably inflated sense of pride. For all the immodest nature of a courtesan's profession, a healthy heaping of modesty made for a much less painful career...though the nobility did not take a shine to the modest. Not to say standards were above her place in the world. She had those and there were many people barred from her bed. Still, there were days when she would have appreciated the world behaving as if she deserved the respect she asked for.

She studied the dark coloration that was already forming on her left forearm. The Duc had a brutal grip to match his cruel heart. Colette could cover it, but Valérie minding it for the next day or two would be necessary, lest she bump it into something. It surprised her that it didn't hurt more.

After a minute or two, there came a knock at the door to distract her from her thoughts.

Even if it was just Colette, Valérie supposed that it would be better if she was wearing more than a sheet. "Coming!" she called as she got out of bed and hunted for the white slip she'd been wearing earlier. It would show a fair amount of leg and décolletage, but that was still an improvement, and she didn’t worry about an unfamiliar audience. She found it pooled on the floor and picked it up, sighing again when she realized it had gained a rip. It tempted her to demand compensation for damages to her wardrobe, but pinching pennies over fabric seemed rather crass. If it had been her dress, perhaps, as those were more expensive. Before she could reflect too long, she pulled the slip on and went to the door, opening it. "Yes, my most magnificent of angels?"

Colette was standing with her arms full of a bouquet, one that could not have come from Delamarche. He sent jewelry when he felt as though he wanted to ensure her loyalty, which she preferred to flowers. Plants faded, stones did not. Still, it was a sweet sentiment to come from anyone. "Are you alright?" the maid asked, scrutinizing every inch of Valérie that she could see. Her eyes locked on the courtesan's arm almost immediately. "That rotten piece of—"

"Colette, while I do appreciate the sentiment and the vocabulary you earned courtesy of the city's least understanding magistrate," Valérie said firmly, putting her hands on Colette's shoulders, "I know how to handle myself and I know how to handle the Duc. He was inconsiderate, not hostile."

The ferocity of Colette's glare showed that she found that answer far from satisfactory. "I'm fetching cold," the maid said, pushing the bouquet into her mistress's arms. Without waiting for agreement, she marched off with heated rant spilling from her lips at a volume quiet enough that Valérie couldn't make out the words. For all her sunny disposition and demure nature, Colette had a gift for the more vulgar parts of language that could send a sailor scurrying with a red face and wide eyes. It was clear only when she grew angry, mostly because Valérie and Honoré had gently discouraged the casual smatterings of profanity in everyday speech.

The courtesan looked down at the bouquet. They were lilies, but not of the variety that grew in her garden. The scarlet petals with speckled patterns of yellow announced themselves as desert fire, or so the Talinese called the variety. She was certain the Eth had some other name for them, growing at oases in the depths of the desert. They came to the market sometimes, if rarely given that most of them that made it to Étain came in the form of oil meant for perfume. They were incredibly aromatic in a way other varieties were not. Someone had chosen their gift carefully and gone to considerable expense just for flowers.

Valérie knew exactly who they were from. The fact that her heart did a tiny backflip was evidence enough of that. There was a card addressed in slanting handwriting, the letters hinting that the author had first learned to write using a different script.

Mademoiselle, I hope you accept these as the apology that they are. I have never been known for a calm head, and I abused your good intentions by not accepting your refusal with grace. I hope that when we next meet, it will be as friends. Aurore has insisted I be exposed to as much culture as I can stand and so we will be in attendance of the opera this evening. It would be wonderful to see you there, should you wish it. Yours, Thara al-Sajjad.

Even after she finished reading, Valérie found that she didn't particularly wish to move, holding the fragrant flowers delicately against her chest. The petals and leaves tickled at her bare skin, but she didn't stir. It was hard to remember the last time someone had bothered to apologize like this, if ever, particularly given that Valérie felt that she was the one who should have rendered contrition. It had been three weeks since the Crown, and she'd only seen Thara once in that time, and that had been without the opportunity to speak to her. When King Philippe was present, he dominated the evening and Thara was in Étain to speak with him whenever the monarch desired it. He and his thoughts of war had demanded the desert noble's nigh constant attention.

Valérie wasn't certain how long she'd been standing there when Colette strode back in with a vase half-filled with water for the flowers and a cold compress wrapped up in a towel. The maid set the vase down on the vanity and waited for her mistress to surrender the flowers.

The courtesan unwrapped the bouquet and arranged the flowers in vase, her smile impossible to quash completely. "They're beautiful," Valérie breathed, touching a delicate petal. The scent, sweet with hints of spice, still clung to her where she'd held them. "Rare."

Colette's expression did not improve. She caught Valérie's hand and applied the cold to the fresh bruise on her forearm. "Any more?"

"Nowhere else that will show," Valérie said, wrenching her attention from the beauty of the flowers. "We have an understanding about that."

The maid muttered something unkind under her breath, still fuming. "You should toss him out on his head if he's hurting you," Colette said finally with firm conviction. "Or let Honoré do it."

"That would bring a hell down on our heads that none of us would enjoy. You of all people know what justice is like in Étain, Colette. The Duc is not a man to be crossed."

Her normally sunny-natured maid frowned. "Maybe." She paused for a moment, noting Valérie's lack of her usual brooding after this sort of encounter. "Who were the flowers from?"

"A friend," Valérie said lightly, still holding the card. Knowing that Thara wasn't angry lifted a larger weight than she would have liked to admit.

Colette cocked her head slightly to the side. She didn't have to say it, but Valérie knew her maid was puzzling over that reply.

"Yes?" the courtesan said, turning to face her. Apparently, Colette hadn't felt like snooping enough to investigate, and her illiteracy obscured the note's contents. Valérie received flowers on a fairly regular basis, but they seldom held much allure when people sent them without giving it much thought. Too often, roses in Talin were an afterthought of those in love or in lust, shorthand for affection and consideration without meaning that either were present.

These lilies were entirely the opposite of what Valérie was accustomed to.

"Oh, nothing," Colette said thoughtfully. "Just can't remember the last time you smiled like that at a few flowers."

Valérie was almost embarrassed when she realized that she'd been smiling since Colette had left her alone with the bouquet. Her arm's bruising was, despite the chill of ice, utterly forgotten. In fact, so was all the ill inflicted by Delamarche. "It was just a thoughtful gift. Who brought them?"

"Honoré brought them inside. He was talking all Eth at the door a few minutes, though. Probably some courier."

The smile was back despite her best effort to hide it. Étain was not popular with the Eth, nor vice versa. Whoever had come with this gift was probably in the direct employ of Thara's family, a retainer that had come with her. To send someone so trusted was a mark of great respect. "Where is Honoré?"

"Out here," Honoré called from the hallway, deep voice carrying well.

Valérie grabbed a robe and pulled it on over the slip, more to hide the bruise on her arm than to conceal her state of undress. Honoré hardly cared how she was attired, but any injury to her was one to him. "Colette, I adore you, but I need your help on a matter besides the flowers," she said. "Would you please run a bath and avail yourself of the closet? I intend to go to the opera this evening with Aurore." It was more to keep Colette occupied than because Valérie couldn't do either herself.

Colette sighed. "I will find out eventually, you know."

"Undoubtedly," Valérie agreed without hesitation as she headed for the door. "I shall tell you all the details the moment I have decided how to feel."

Honoré was waiting out in the hall, amused when she stepped out and closed the door. "Happiness suits you," he observed.

"What did the messenger say?" Valérie asked.

"Lady al-Sajjad was in fine spirits, if walking carefully for fear of your displeasure," Honoré said. "I assured her that the only reason you were not accepting them yourself—"

Valérie found her ability to speak return at about that moment. "She came here?" she said through the shock. A high noble running flowers personally to anyone, least of all a courtesan, was beyond the pale. Even if she was not Duchesse yet, Thara was an heir of the blood who had no business gallivanting about as an errand girl.

Honoré grinned when he nodded. "Shall I find you a chair before you faint?"

"There is nothing sensible or ordinary about that woman," Valérie said, feeling an unusual fondness.

"And the way you are smiling indicates that your heart has no objections," Honoré said.

"My heart is an entirely irrational organ with not a whit of self-preservation," Valérie said. The smile refused to die despite her best effort at crushing it. She hesitated for a long moment, then took a deep breath. "This is a gesture that should be returned in kind. I just...I don't know what to do."

"Perhaps a healthy dose of Valérie de Lys charm?" her friend suggested. "I've seen you in action. Few people have such a knack for making another feel valued and comfortable. That is something scarce in Étain for a woman like Thara al-Sajjad."

Valérie sighed. "I doubt that would be wise, if this is to be kept friendly and nothing more." The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to do as Honoré suggested. Surely a future Duchesse deserved every ounce of courtesy and care that she could muster. That was her gift and the reason she was popular: Valérie could create the illusion of love and connection most convincingly, and those were both things that people craved. Her romance was an act, but so convincing that her clientele were almost always caught up in it and forgot for a time that it was a transaction.

It was just that Valérie knew that, at least in the past, turning on that charm invariably led to things much beyond simple friendship. She looked up at Honoré. "I don't trust myself," Valérie admitted.

His expression softened. "Why not?"

Valérie leaned back against the wall, gathering her thoughts. "Because every time I think of her, I remember what happened in the Emerald Crown."

"The conflict?"

The courtesan shook her head slightly. "No," she said quietly. "I remember that first kiss."

Honoré was still for a moment, contemplating that answer. "It sounds as though Lady al-Sajjad is not the only one who feels strongly on the subject," he said gently. "I think you should apply your charm, but do so slowly. Patience is a virtue."

Valérie smiled wryly. "I have never been accused of being virtuous." She sighed. "I will do my best, but I doubt she is patient as far as this...whatever it concerned."

Her friend chuckled. "I would say that's an accurate assessment. That is why I suggested your charm. Why not make her enjoy the wait?"

The idea was more appealing than Valérie was ready for. Pursuing someone was an unfamiliar endeavor, given that people sought her out all the time, but she found trying now strangely enticing. If nothing else, it would be a game honing her wit and flattery. It seemed like a state of affairs where nothing was lost.

Except Thara's reputation. Valérie cursed her circumstances for something other than the her hateful affliction for the first time in a long, long while. Had she been anything but a courtesan, affairs of the heart would have been far simpler and safer.

It's not love. There is no such thing for you, Valérie told herself. This is just fun until she tires of you.

The thought stung, but she knew that was the pain of truth.

The bite of reality lingered with her long after she left her home in favor of the grand edifice of Étain's opera house, clinging close to her ear when she let Aurore pull her into a hug. It was hard to look anywhere but Thara's smiling face, and she wasn't certain if the sight eased it or made it worse. It didn't help the treacherous fluttering in her chest.

"I'm glad you came," Thara said by way of greeting, again bowing over Valérie's hand. For a moment, the courtesan was perfectly aware of the hand holding hers, with its warmth and warrior's calluses.

Valérie enjoyed the fact that the touch lasted a moment past strict civility, as foolish as it was. There was something reassuring about Thara. "So am I," she said softly, a genuine smile slowly coming to life on her lips. "The flowers were lovely."

"I thought of you," the noblewoman said. It was a simple statement, no fanciful declarations required, and it came with a sincere smile.

Valérie would have replied, but Aurore cleared her throat slightly. She turned to face the comtesse who was wearing an altogether too knowing smile for the courtesan's comfort. She narrowed her eyes at her friend.

Aurore immediately affected innocence. "What?"

"Nothing," Valérie said to smooth over her mannerisms before Thara could assume something. She had conveyed her displeasure to Aurore, even if the comtesse wasn't taking it seriously. "Shall we go? The curtain is due to rise any minute."

"Of course," Thara said, not showing that she'd noticed the interaction. Her attention was, for a moment, elsewhere.

Valérie turned slightly to see what Thara was looking at. The lobby's crowd was substantial as people flooded towards seats and boxes, so there were many suspects. Aurore and Thara were far from the only nobles in attendance. No doubt the desert noble had caught a familiar face, though she'd offered a frown rather than a wave. "Is something the matter?"

Thara looked back at her, and the frown disappeared. "All is well, when one is in such company."

"You're going to have competition, Valérie," Aurore said with a smile as they made their way towards the box. "While Thara is perhaps not such a savant with charm as you, she assuredly may reach your stature through sheer effort."

Valérie laughed. "It will be good to have more pleasant company. Étain has been rather boorish of late. I shall have to direct the compliments elsewhere, lest I be strangled by my own overgrown ego."

"But you preen so prettily," Aurore teased. "A peacock could take lessons."

"A peacock? Now we have promoted me," Valérie said, her smile growing when she heard Thara laugh. "I was expecting pigeon."

"You have better plumage than a pigeon, though I shall refrain from comment regarding intellectual capacity," the comtesse said lightly. "I trust that everyone present can come to their own conclusions on the matter."

"That seems unkind," Thara observed with amusement.

"As one sister tugging another's hair is, I suppose," Aurore said.

"I am always amazed that Pascal can ride in a carriage with us without threatening to turn it around," Valérie said in agreement. "He's such a good sport."

Her spirits felt light at the moment, not an ill feeling in sight. It was exactly the evening she'd needed after her unpleasant rendezvous. Thara and Aurore were sunlight on her leaves, restoring her faith in others, even in only small ways.

Chapter 6
Of the Story

By K. Olsen

Valérie smiled as she approached the corner of the courtyard where Thara diligently worked on her armor, adjusting the fittings on a new pair of gauntlets. The rest of her armor sat beside her, ready for cleaning and oiling. This was the set of plate she wore on northern campaigns, unsuitable for the desert. Thara frowned as she worked, too engrossed in her task to note the approach. "I'm surprised Pascal hasn't offered you the use of a squire," Valérie said lightly.

Thara jumped. Her eyes seemed to light up when she smiled, meeting Valérie's amused gaze. "He offered," she said, setting aside the gauntlet she'd been working on. "I declined. I usually tend to my own armor and weapons. I find it helps me clear my thoughts."

"Were they particularly troublesome today?" Valérie didn't avoid Thara's gaze, but she didn't hold it for very long either. Every time she felt the urge to close the distance rear its head, she looked elsewhere. Mercifully, she found something to turn her attention to. As a creature of fashion and attention to detail, Thara's necklace struck her as interesting. It was a simple disk of black glass, polished smooth, on a plain leather cord.

"Not particularly," Thara said. She motioned to the shady bench beside her. "You are welcome to a seat, Valérie, if my company does not offend." Since that day in the Emerald Crown, Thara had taken a great deal of care to give Valérie her space.

"You are never offensive," Valérie said, taking a seat. "Might I inquire as to the nature of your necklace? It seems an unusual piece. Particularly since you don't seem the type for jewelry."

Thara laughed. "I wear what has meaning to me. Most of the baubles and ornamentations that even my people wear hold little of that." She took off the pendant and held it out to Valérie.

Valérie gently lifted it, studying the dark material. "It looks like obsidian, with little flecks of gold." The more she looked at the flecks, the more they seemed to almost flicker and glow like embers.

"It is a rare glass," Thara said with a smile. "Well, of a sort. It was made by djinn."

"Djinn?" Valérie said curiously. "I hadn't thought of them as jewelers, though I suppose anything is possible if you can grant a wish."

"You have heard the northern stories," Thara said with amusement.

"The stories are different at the source, as per usual, I take it?" Valérie said. There was something so warm to the tone of Thara's voice that it made her want to listen forever. She fluttered her eyelashes at Thara as she handed back the pendant. "Would you be charming enough to tell me about these djinn of yours, o gracious and graceful lady?"

"I would be glad to," Thara said with a flattered smile, shifting to face Valérie more. There wasn't much space between them, but the courtesan hoped a potential story would counteract the fluttering at the center of her chest. "The stories of them I have heard in the north bear little resemblance to reality. Djinn are not floating men with lower bodies of mist and grant wishes. Their true nature is far more mysterious and potent."

"What are they?" Valérie asked, tilting her head slightly as she studied Thara.

"They are spirits, beings of fire and light that dwell in the most ancient of places," Thara said. "When a man dies, he leaves a ghost. When an inferno dies, so is a djinni born."

"A fire with no wood?"

Thara smiled. "My homeland was not always a desert, myths say. Once upon a time, it was a vast forest of cedars without equal, rivers clear and blue as the sky weaving between the thick trunks. It was a garden, as Paradise is a garden. That was in the days where the gods ruled and magic was everywhere. Then the Deceiver and his demons rose to usurp the gods, his arrogance destroying himself and the gods alike. When Heaven fell, the titanic battle of magic and sorcery set the ancient forest aflame. It burned until all but the greatest of rivers boiled into vapor. The Revealing ended more than a thousand years ago and as far as even written memory knows, 'Aradi Alnahr has always been desert."

"Is that why you love trees so?" Valérie asked. It was oddly comfortable just to sit at Thara's side, even as she avoided the gaze of those dark eyes for the most part.

"If Paradise is truly a garden, the Emerald Crown is surely its reflection," Thara said softly. She cleared her throat. "But you wished to know about the necklace and the djinn. Sometimes, when djinn cross each other's path, they battle and melt the sand beneath them with the heat of their flames. It leaves glass like this behind, touched with the magic of elemental fire. Finding such patches before the sands swallow them brings good luck, and we sometimes wear pieces to ward off evil."

Valérie smiled. "That sounds fascinating."

"I have only seen a djinni once. An Eth fire-speaker came to my father's camp when we were near the border, and he brought with him a djinni, trapped in a soul-jar. Ethilir does not have mages as the High Kingdom once did. Not one among them can cast a spell, but they have found a way to trap djinn and bind the spirits to their will. They are dangerous foes, at least until the djinni breaks free and avenges itself on its foolish captor. That is a sight that to strike awe and dread into any who witness it."

Valérie struggled with the urge to close the distance between them. She rather liked the idea of being wrapped in Thara's arms as she listened, a desire she tried to crush as ruthlessly as possible. She sighed and settled back against the bench, closing her eyes. "I think I might enjoy seeing a djinni, even from a distance," she said thoughtfully. "Better fire than ice."

Thara's voice was quiet, but hopeful, when she said, "Perhaps someday, should you visit my homeland, I can show you a free one out in the desert. They are less dangerous when they are unfettered."

"A charitable offer, but sadly this lily would likely wilt in the southern sun," Valérie said as she opened her eyes. Thara was watching her with perfect attention. "You are not the woman I expected."

"Oh?" Thara said curiously. "What did you expect?"

"I don't know," Valérie admitted after a second of hesitation. "In Étain, it feels often as though all that is best and brightest is here, even to the point of becoming boring. You are proof that the sublime exists beyond our gleaming city on a hill, better so for having avoided the insincere and grasping nature of the Court."

"That is quite the compliment," Thara said, smiling widely even as she blushed enough to be visible, though it was barely a change in her complexion. Valérie saw it only because studying Thara had become her favorite pastime. "Sublime suits you more than me."

"Agree to disagree," Valérie said. "I'm afraid the Court has made me quite rotten."

"I do not believe that is true," Thara said. She hesitated a moment, but then swept a lock of Valérie's hair out of the courtesan's face, fingertips a delicate touch that almost made Valérie shiver. The noble stayed a moment, saying nothing, that charge in the air like lightning about to strike.

There was barely any distance between them. It would be so terribly easy to kiss Thara and ruin everything. She wanted to more than she wanted to breathe. Valérie had never considered herself a creature of will, but she somehow tore her gaze from Thara's and turned to face the rest of the courtyard.

"I apologize," Thara said, voice soft. "That was overly familiar."

Valérie's heart kept fluttering even as she pulled her rationality together. They were on dangerous ground. "I take no offense," she said carefully, gaze averted from Thara. If she wasn't looking into those dark eyes, the foolishness faded to more manageable levels.

"But you will not even look at me," Thara said. She sighed, the sound a mix of guilt and sorrow. Then the desert noble rose to her feet. "I am sorry, Valérie. I did not intend to—"

Valérie caught Thara's hand with her own, pulling her gently back to focus on the courtesan. "It's fine," she breathed. She hated the sound of Thara's hurt, necessary as it was. "I just…I think I am not the woman for you. It would be wrong of me to tell you otherwise."

"I know what is in my heart," Thara said quietly.

"As do I," Valérie said, trying to ignore the way the offending piece of herself twisted painfully in her chest. She rose to her feet, standing by Thara and releasing the desert noble's hand. "It is not a wish I can grant. Have a good evening, my lady."

"Please stay. I won't—"

Valérie hesitated. Life had attuned her to many subtleties after eight years in Talin's upper echelons, most of all that its nobles—doubly true of her clientele—resorted to imploring her rather than insisting only with the greatest of reluctance or desperation. Thara was likely no different, except that she was always quick to request instead of compel when Valérie was involved.

It reminded Valérie that Thara considered her an equal, which was not the case. It also reminded Valérie that she still hadn't told the noble the whole and unvarnished truth about who she was. Not that she needed to. Her nature was hardly a secret, and Thara would no doubt quickly learn the truth. Perhaps Aurore had already illuminated the noble and she was more clement in her view than Valérie expected. If that was true…

It wasn't safe to hope. "My apologies." She pulled in a deep breath and then began her walk away.

"I know that you have a heart, Valérie," Thara said. "Please. This hurts."

For all her many faults, cruel was not an adjective usually applied to Valérie. She had been a tenderhearted girl, and adulthood had only hardened her shell. The center was still soft and feeling. Doing what she was doing to Thara was torture to that softer side as much as to the noble. The only thing that stopped her from just giving in was that fear—of feeling, of flying, of falling. What would happen if she gave her heart to someone?

The icy grip of the curse and a lifetime of training meant nothing good could come of it. She perhaps deserved the happiness of the moment, the fleeting joys without thought of a future, but what Thara wanted was a future…an unattainable one.

"Valérie," Thara pleaded, much closer. "Please. I'm sorry. We can just sit and talk. Nothing more. I should not have erred so."

Valérie turned. "It would be better for me to go. Colette will expect my return in less than an hour. Thank you for the story, though. It is something I will keep with me for a very long time."

Thara held out her hand, dark eyes sorrowful. "As you wish."

The courtesan hesitated for a moment laying her palm atop Thara's. "It's not what I wish." The words slipped out before she could stop them. The accursed things were developing a habit of that.

Hope flared in Thara's expression, but guarded as much as genuine. She was becoming accustomed to heartache.

So was Valérie.

"Then stay," Thara pressed gently. "I promise that I will conduct myself with chivalry."

"Perhaps that is my concern," Valérie said, forcing the smile back. She was excellent at pretending the world was light and amusing, whatever her circumstance. "The honorable knight breaking out poetry and song just for a woman nobler than I, that is a perilous proposition."

Thara seemed to relax slightly, as if the return of banter eased her worries. "If it would please you, I could attempt to be as boorish as humanly possible."

"Impossible for the noble Thara al-Sajjad," Valérie said dismissively, the smile more genuine now. "I shall depart and look forward to seeing you again soon."

"Very well," Thara said. "I wish you the best of evenings."

"And the same I wish for you," Valérie said. She turned and retreated, well aware that she had narrowly avoided the catastrophe surrounding Thara's affection for her. If things were different, perhaps…no, it didn't matter. The world was as it was, with no thought given to the idle fancies of some insignificant courtesan.

Her trip homeward was a quiet one, filled with rumination. Eventually, she reached her front door only to have it open. Colette beamed at her, attired in her absolute best, the delicate aroma of perfume clinging to her.

"You look positively radiant, my angel," Valérie said with a smile. "I don't suppose that young gardener had the nerve to finally ask you to a dance."

Colette shook her head. "Gauvain Marchand did."

"Here, my paragon of fashion, you must elaborate," Valérie said, shooing her maid into the house where they could talk. "I cannot say I know the gentleman in question."

"He's the son of a wine merchant from Dalle. Very prosperous. He gets all the ladies, but he says he's looking to settle down," Colette said brightly. "He's handsome and very charming."

"More charming than the humble Matthieu Durand, I take it," Valérie said. She felt pity for the poor gardener. He was so taken with Colette that he could barely get a word out half the time, and that silence left Colette oblivious to him.

"Very much so," Colette said. She sighed dreamily. "It's not every day a man of means treats a young lady so well."

The doorbell chimed and Colette all but sprang up, followed by a half-amused Valérie. The maid opened the door and stepped back to allow the gentleman access.

Gauvain Marchand was a tall, muscular man with dark hair carefully trimmed and styled to be dashing, clean-shaven to show off his strong, dimpled chin. His cornflower blue eyes matched his doublet, a dark blue cravat around his neck. His family were as prosperous as they sounded, because he practically exuded wealth. His sculpted face smiled at the sight of the ladies before him. He focused on Colette. "What a vision you are, Mademoiselle," he said, voice a smooth baritone. "Without compare."

Colette's blush was legendary, only growing stronger when Gauvain bowed over her hand, placing a kiss on her knuckles.

Something in his roving gaze struck Valérie. A deep unease bloomed in the pit of her stomach. She couldn't articulate it, but she did not like the man who was laying his charm on Colette. As the Imperial proverb went, not everyone speaks golden words without expecting to spend the favor they buy.

Colette, as much of a romantic as she was, had only been caught up in a fling or two. She was younger than Valérie and inexperienced, with a temperament suited to accommodating the will of others. Colette was perhaps too thoughtful, too obliging. That was easy to prey on.

"And this must be the lady of the house," Gauvain said, turning to face Valérie. His smile wasn't a leer, but it appeared to harbor thoughts she didn't particularly care for. "This is a rare pleasure, Mademoiselle de Lys. I apologize for the intrusion; I am certain you have many things to attend to."

Valérie decided that she was going to have to handle this carefully. "Charmed, Monsieur." She turned to look at Colette. "I have an engagement this evening. I will need you to return before sunset."

There was a flash of irritation on Gauvain's face for a split second. Definitely not a good sign. It told Valérie that the charm was concealing something else, and she doubted it was pleasant.

Colette looked deeply unhappy. "Mademoiselle—"

"If you will excuse us and make yourself comfortable, Monsieur Marchand," Valérie said before motioning for her maid to follow her down the hall into the kitchen. Once they were safely alone, she turned to face Colette. "Now we can speak."

"I never get anything like this!" Colette blurted out. "Must your engagement come first? You've lords and ladies lining up every evening of the year, should you like it."

Valérie sighed. Now she had to figure out how to explain her rationale to Colette without losing the maid's trust. She studied the deeply unhappy maid. "Please trust me when I say rushing this affair with Marchand is perilous. I just want you to be happy and safe."

Colette pursed her lips before speaking. "I know what I'm doing," she said sharply. "He's been a perfect gentleman. I don't know what you're worried about."

"People are not always what they seem," Valérie cautioned as gently as she could. She could almost see Colette mentally digging in her heels.

"I don't need your say-so," Colette said stubbornly. She left the kitchen, headed towards Marchand.

Valérie knew she could threaten Colette, but she refused to in her own thoughts. Whatever their roles, she adored the young woman like the little sister she had never had. "Colette!"

The maid turned, ready to let loose with some barb.

"Have a good evening," Valérie said more softly, eyes sincere.

It surprised Colette after their brief conversation. She hesitated for a second before answering, "Thanks."

Valérie watched the pair leave with a frown. A knock at the back door into the garden drew her attention. She moved over and opened the door to admit the gardener.

Matthieu Durand tended most of the greenery of the nicer estates, Valérie's home included. His face, burned bronze by the sun, looked eternally hopeful. He was almost as tall as Honoré, but wiry rather than bulky. He took off his cap, but didn't step in. "Dirt on the boots, Mademoiselle," he said sheepishly. His hopes seemed to rise. "Is Colette in?"

"She just departed, I'm afraid," Valérie said, offering him a small, apologetic smile. "Would you indulge me in something? I was going to make a cup of tea, but I find a lack of good company spoils the afternoon."

"If…if you'd like," Matthieu said in his customary rough mumble. It wasn't the first time she had invited him in, but he seemed nervous every time. He moved as if he was trying to take up half as much space as he actually occupied and was careful not to touch anything. Dirt followed him in, but only a little. He'd stomped his boots repeatedly so he would look less grubby.

Soon, there were two cups of tea. Valérie sat across the table from him, studying him as she made light conversation. His clothes were patched and mended with stitches that were neat but wide. Black crescents of dirt lingered under every nail even after washing up and his short hair direly needed a comb. He was a man of honest character and a hard worker, but not so charming or handsome as Marchand.

"Can I ask a favor of you, Matthieu?" Valérie said as the conversation wound down.

"Of course," he said earnestly, if in his low mumble.

Valérie weighed her words carefully before speaking. Finally, she said, "Please look after Colette for me, when you are here. I worry about her, and I know that you care deeply for her."

Matthieu seemed to understand how serious Valérie was. "I'll do my best, Mademoiselle," he said, his voice less of a mumble. He met her eyes for the first time since he'd stepped in.

He had striking eyes, their hazel irises giving them the appearance of sunflowers. Valérie smiled at him. "I expect you also might wish to tell her how you feel someday."

"I don't figure she'd like that," Matthieu said, lowering his gaze again. "Nor Monsieur Marchand."

Valérie smiled at him. "The most beautiful flowers, I hear, take the most cultivation. If what poets say is true and love is the most beautiful thing in the world…"

Matthieu looked back up at her and nodded. "I'll try," he said again before finishing the last dregs of his tea. "Thanks for the tea, Mademoiselle."

"The pleasure is all mine," Valérie assured him. Now she had to hope she was wrong about Marchand and prepare, just in case. She wanted to keep her maid safe and happy.

Things were never as simple as she hoped.

Chapter 7
Of the Promises

By K. Olsen

Valérie deftly plucked a blade of grass from her hair and flicked it at the young nobleman as he buttoned his shirt, earning a laugh from him. "You should be careful what you start," she said. "Now I'm obligated to show you mine." She always found it easy to be in good humor around Aloys Chalon, the second son of that illustrious family. Lying beside him on a picnic blanket was a fine way to spend an afternoon in the quiet part of the Crown, hidden from the hustle and bustle of the city.

"Tell me what you think first," he said, a rare grin splitting his narrow face. Aloys was a lanky, willowy young man who had never acquired bulk despite his father's demand that he serve as a warrior like his brother. He was just gentle by nature, ill-inclined for combat, and sensitive. It was what Valérie adored most about him and what his father most hated.

"It is a beautiful tattoo. Your mother will be aghast and your brother envious," Valérie said with a smile. "The dwarven runes are exotic, a fine tribute to the stalwart engineer who protected your mother during the Great War. Tattoos can be so inviting, with that air of danger. It's almost a shame you're not one for young ladies. I feel I could recommend at least a half dozen."

"You would be the only lady for me, should I be so inclined," Aloys said, studying her. His eyes were always so grave, at least until Valérie took it upon herself to brighten his day. "I wonder sometimes if Father will ever find out."

"What, that I had to teach you how to kiss before you could find yourself a strapping man?" Valérie said lightly. "That we worked so fiercely on your confidence and discovering what you wanted?"

"You know what he thinks," the young man said, laying back down beside her. He reached over, plucking another blade of grass from her hair. Their play fight had ended in the grass, much to Colette's future horror. Now they were back on the blanket, but the damage was done.

Valérie laughed. "A useful delusion. I am happy to be your smokescreen as you go looking for your one and only. He won't be alive forever, and his precious eldest is an idiot whose only smart move was being a doting older brother. Gaspard will support and protect you no matter who you love, and he'll need you to keep the family fortune from falling down a well."

"I hope you're right," Aloys murmured, worry creeping into his voice.

The courtesan put a hand on his shoulder. "Trust me," she said gently. "I know Gaspard almost as well as I know you. Even if he's only half the man we know, you will never have to fear his wrath. And if, by some impossibility, I am wrong, you are welcome to stay with me."

He smiled, ducking his head slightly. "You're a wonderful woman."

"Shh. I can't have people finding out," Valérie said impishly. "Besides, what's one more scandal? I have had my part in so many."

Aloys studied her for a moment. "Well, let me see yours."

Valérie turned her head and pulled her hair back out of the way. Just beneath and slightly behind her left ear was a small, black outline of a stylized rose with a twisted sigil at its center. Along the outside curve of the shell of her ear were several other small sigils. She usually hid them with her hair, covered them cosmetically, or allowed them to pass unnoticed because of their size. "I didn't even have to strip for mine," she teased.

"You got them in Leus, didn't you?" Aloys said, fascinated. He reached out, running his fingertips over the markings. "What do they say? Are they magical?"

"I did, and yes, they are magical," Valérie said, enjoying the touch. Even if her relationship with Aloys was purely platonic, it was still nice. "Of a rather disappointingly mundane nature, I'm afraid. They deal with the more health-related parts of my profession. Namely, they ward from disease and prevent pregnancy. Potent effects in such tiny little markings. The best bordellos in the High Kingdom all marked their staff so, but placed the tattoos on parts of the body where they might be taken as artistic and not intrusive."

The young nobleman seemed impressed by that. "Even with the mages dead, it works?"

"Magic can exist beyond the death of its wielder. The undead menace is proof enough of that," Valérie said. "They say the Kindly One roams the earth no more, yet there is no shortage of ghouls and wights prowling the borders. And demons, I suppose, but they will forever be a problem."

"Speaking of magic..." Aloys said, sitting up. He paused and then said, "But first, champagne."

"Is this a conversation I should be concerned about, given the choice of alcohol as fortification?" the courtesan asked wryly, sitting up as well and watching as Aloys deftly pulled the bottle out of the picnic basket, followed by two glasses carefully packed to avoid damage. "You've been rather mysterious today."

"Am I the mysterious one?" he said, uncorking the bottle with a satisfying pop. "You, my dear Valérie, are far worthier of that appellation, and I say that not only because you are a veritable sphinx of the heart, ever bestowing cryptic puzzles for your adoring public. You keep secrets as the ocean does, which I am grateful for, but remember that I am your friend as much as you are mine." He poured her a glass and held it out to her with a smile. "You can tell me things, you know."

She laughed. "What crime am I confessing to, o torturer?"

"Thara al-Sajjad."

"Oh." Valérie paused for a moment before saying, "I may need more champagne than this bottle contains."

Aloys laughed as he filled his own glass. "I shall leave the rest of it for you, then."

"Really, there's not much to tell," the courtesan said. "She's been in the city almost three months now, and nothing untoward has happened between us." She hadn't told him about the kisses in the Crown, but she also didn't consider the momentary lapse in her better judgment worth counting as anything. It hadn't happened since, which was what mattered.

If only barely. Valérie was finding it increasingly difficult to hold Thara's gaze in quiet moments alone without doing something foolish again. Unfortunately, attempting to excuse herself always felt excruciating.

"I've seen the way you look at her," Aloys observed carefully. "I've seen such a gaze before."

"Oh?" She set aside her glass.

"You look at her the way Comte Estienne looks at his wife," the young nobleman said.

Valérie felt a chill through her body, but she couldn't tell if it was the curse waking up or just terror at the idea. Fortunately, another problem confronted her immediately, the sight of an older man advancing up the narrow path with a man in armor on his heels. "Aloys, your father is coming," she warned him right before she kissed him.

For a moment, she didn't have to think about what Aloys had just said. The pretending, the easy familiarity of their friendship masquerading as romance, and calming Aloys all took precedence over her fear. One of her hands was resting against the side of his neck, the other running through his hair. The position let her feel his pulse, which had spiked with anxiety. He hated his encounters with the domineering presence that had terrorized him for so much of his life.

Aloys calmed at the touch. He let his lips travel from hers to down her neck at a lazy pace, as if he was oblivious to the oncoming presence.

"Ah, there you are," Lazare Chalon boomed, prompting Aloys to jump back slightly from Valérie. The senior Chalon grinned. "I see you're enjoying the finer parts of life in Étain, boy."

Valérie almost sighed audibly, but instead she smiled up at the Comte Chalon. "How unexpected to see you, Your Lordship," she said, smoothing out the front of Aloys's shirt to settle him down again. She knew her friend well enough to see his anger. "Shall I excuse myself and allow you gentlemen to speak?"

"No need," he said. There was something leering to his grin, but Valérie barely paid attention to lechery at this point. It very much came with the territory. He reluctantly tore his gaze away from her to look at his son. "We've got good news, boy. The war with Genev is officially on. You and I will be on the road to Astarac by the end of the week. So enjoy your bedding for this evening, but after that, I expect you ready to depart."

"You could have sent a messenger," Aloys said tersely.

"I could have," Lazare agreed. "I wanted to see if my boy was being a proper man."

Valérie smoothed Aloys's shirt again, brushing fingertips over the part of his chest both sore and sensitive from his new tattoo to remind him of the dwarvish words now inked into his flesh. Love, not fear, is forged in the fires of my heart. "He is most impressive, Your Lordship," she said, flashing Aloys a quick smile. It and the touch seemed to ground him again, at least for a moment.

"I appreciate that he found his manhood through your services, Mademoiselle de Lys. I wish only that you would reconsider your unfortunate stance," Lazare said. "Surely a man of my experience would be more to your liking."

Valérie saw her friend frown and knew an ugly row was coming if she didn't defuse things. Aloys wasn't jealous, but he was protective. "I apologize, Your Lordship, but I must maintain my policy of one contract per family. If I made an exception, even for one as charming as you, others would take notice, and then what odiousness might I be dragged into?"

"Leave her alone, Father," Aloys said firmly.

Lazare chuckled. "Or you'll do what, boy? I could crush you without breaking a sweat."

Valérie lost her patience. "If you have arrived to threaten my client, Your Lordship, I must impress upon you the potential consequences. Other nobles would find such incivility most useful. I can say quite safely that it would not endear you to Estienne, Donadieu, or Delamarche at the very least."

"Idle chatter from a woman with pride above her station is hardly social suicide," Lazare said, narrowing his eyes.

"Perhaps," Valérie allowed, a rare hard gleam in her eyes. "But it doesn't hurt to be polite, just in case you are mistaken."

Lazare laughed. "As pleases you, wench." He looked to the man in armor. "Let us be off, Jean."

Together, Valérie and Aloys watched the unwelcome pair saunter off. Once they were out of sight, which happened quickly, Aloys spat out, "Bastard!"

"I think his parentage is more pedigreed than that, though the attitude and mannerisms are certainly there," Valérie said dryly. She sighed and set about smoothing Aloys's hair. "I'm sorry there's a war on, darling man. I know you hate them."

"They make me sick," Aloys admitted quietly. He was silent for a long moment before looking straight into her eyes. "We need to find Thara. If there's a war, I'm certain at least some of the thorn knights will be in it."

Valérie's stomach knotted tightly with worry. "She should be by the large pond. She said something of wishing to be there writing or reading."

"Poetry is her vice," Aloys acknowledged. He stood up and brushed off some grass. "I'll walk you there and then come back to clean up the picnic. You two may want that moment alone."

"You're a good man," Valérie said, slipping her arms around his waist. "Can I ask a favor of you?"

"Anything for you, Valérie," her friend said. "You've done so much for me."

"If she does go, please keep an eye on her if you can," the courtesan asked. "I don't want to see her hurt."

Aloys leaned his forehead against hers. "I promise you this: I will be her shadow on every battlefield. I won't abandon her, and I will protect her back so she need never fear a wicked blade. I may not be as powerful a warrior as she is, but my shield-arm is more skilled than most."

Valérie felt some of the fear ease. She kissed his cheek. "You're a better friend than I could have ever asked for. Be safe. I don't want to lose either of you."

"I will do my best," he said gently. "Come on."

Their walk through the Crown was quiet, Valérie lost in worried contemplation despite the comfort offered by Aloys's arm through hers. They weren't far from Thara's hiding place and soon caught sight of the desert noble through the trees. The thorn-knight sat with her back against an oak tree, facing the pond, with a book in her lap.

"You should tell her how you feel, Valérie," Aloys said softly.


He shook his head. "The other parts. War is uncertain. You may not have another chance."

Valérie felt an unfamiliar tightness in her throat. Aloys was right, even if the thought of saying anything made her sick with nerves. Almost as much as the idea of Thara riding into battle and not returning did. "I could ruin everything," she whispered.

"Perhaps," Aloys said. "But would you be able to live with yourself if you never told her and lost her?" He hugged Valérie tightly. "Be brave, like you taught me to be."

Those words reached Valérie's heart, twisting it until she knew she would die if she didn't say anything, as surely as her curse would kill her. "I will," she promised softly. "If I don't see you before you leave, go with the favor of the gods."

Aloys let go of her almost reluctantly, giving her hand a last squeeze to reassure her before turning and heading back to their picnic site. Valérie watched him go with worried eyes. This wasn't the first war that Aloys had been pulled into, but she knew full well how dangerous they were. Her friend might never return. It made her chest ache.

Still, there was another matter to focus on. What the hell was she going to say?

Be brave, she told herself, trying not to let the quiver in her hands spread to her whole body. It was embarrassing, given how calm and collected she'd been for the bulk of her life. Her interactions with Thara had all been pleasant and composed despite what her heart kept doing to her. This would be an exception.

Valérie took a deep breath and then approached Thara's tucked away spot. The thorn-knight focused on the surface of the pond, a small frown on her lips. Apparently the book in her lap held no power over her.

Even while the desert noble was in contemplation of something unpleasant, Valérie still felt her heart pick up as appreciation of Thara's beauty hit her like a stone from a trebuchet. Still, if it had been purely a matter of physical attraction, Valérie supposed that she might have better resisted. Instead, three months of constant consideration, good humor, and soft words had somehow buried Thara into her heart.

"May I sit?" Valérie asked, smiling despite the circumstances when Thara jumped at the sound of an unexpected voice.

Thara immediately turned to face her, frown utterly forgotten. There was always something so wonderfully soft when she smiled. It never failed to warm the courtesan. "Valérie, of course. You are always welcome in my company."

Valérie nodded, taking a seat. She was quiet for a long moment, trying to catalogue her emotions so she could express them. It was an incredibly difficult task, but Aloys's words haunted her thoughts. You may not have another chance. Finally, she said, "I understand there is to be a war with Genev."

The desert noble sighed. "There is," she acknowledged. "I will have the pleasure of attending to it."

"You enjoy the battles, then?" Valérie said, mostly to buy herself more time.

"War is...satisfying. Years of training applied gracefully to the ultimate test of strength," Thara said. Her expression softened again. "I do not wish to leave Étain, but I have no choice. Duty is duty."

"Promise me you will return," Valérie said quietly.

"There is no certainty in war. I will do my best," the thorn-knight said.

Valérie turned her face away from Thara, blinking back unfamiliar tears. Suddenly, the thought of losing the desert noble was more painful and frightening than anything else in her world. She managed to keep the tears in, but only barely.

"What's wrong?" Thara asked. For all their association, Valérie had always been unflappable, more focused on charming and amusing than feeling anything deeply. At least, that was the impression that she gave.

"I don't want to lose you," Valérie said quietly, still averting her gaze.

Thara studied her for a long moment. "It will be alright, whatever happens."

Valérie turned to face Thara again. "You don't understand," she whispered. "And that's my fault." She didn't give it another word of explanation. Instead, she bridged the gap between them with a kiss, hands catching hold of Thara's doublet to hold her close. Arms slipped around her almost immediately, pulling her practically into Thara's lap. The rest of the world seemed to blink out of existence.

The kiss left them both breathless. When Valérie drew back, she saw hope and caution in equal parts in Thara's eyes. She was probably expecting the rejection to come any minute now. "What about—?"

"I don't care," Valérie said fiercely. "Let them say whatever they want. If you don't care, I don't care."

Thara smiled the widest that Valérie had ever seen her, to the point where it was hard to keep their lips together when the desert noble closed the distance again. "I never expected this," she admitted when the kiss broke, lingering almost against Valérie's lips. "I thought..."

"Promise me you'll come back," Valérie said. It came out as something between a pleading request and a demand. "I can't lose you."

"I'll come back," Thara promised gently, stroking Valérie's hair. "I have you to return to."

The words were a warm reassurance, something to push back the fear. Valérie curled into the thorn-knight, resting her head in the crook where Thara's neck met her shoulder. For a moment, there was just closeness.

A bumblebee droned lazily beside them; settling on a dandelion. Robins warbled in the tree nearby, enjoying the drenching heat of the sunlight. A faint breeze rustled the leaves above them and the fish in the pond now and then sent ripples drifting across the surface. Valérie was conscious even of the blades of grass around them, but most of all of the summer warmth that was Thara.

"Will you write to me?" Thara asked softly. "Pascal is in command, and his couriers already carry Aurore's letters. I'll be with him."

"I will write to you until you're sick of hearing from me," Valérie promised.

"Impossible," Thara murmured as she wrapped her arms around the courtesan. She hesitated a moment before asking, "Valérie, what does this mean for us?"

Valérie lifted her head, gazing directly into those dark eyes. She could barely believe in the moment that she'd ever been afraid of what Thara's presence meant for her. "I don't know," the courtesan admitted. "All I know for certain is that it means there is an 'us'. Is that enough?"

Thara leaned in. "Always," she said before sealing that promise with a kiss.

Chapter 8
Of the Practicality

By K. Olsen

Valérie looked up from her ledger. "You're up late," she observed as Honoré stepped in. She was grateful for the distraction. Her work wasn't odious, but deciphering her own messy handwriting by the light of a flickering oil lamp was a strain.

"As are you. Midnight was a few hours ago," Honoré pointed out. He spotted the ledger and frowned slightly. "A strange hour for accounts."

"I had a restless mind," Valérie said.

Honoré took a seat across the kitchen table from her, noting that she had every scrap of financial information available to her displayed. "I haven't seen you so concerned with money in years. Not that you're anything less than prudent."

The courtesan sighed, collecting her thoughts. "I think I am going to refrain from seeing clients, or at least seeing them in the same way," Valérie said after a long pause.

Honoré's eyebrows rose. "For how long?" he asked, obviously trying not to sound as startled as he was.

"I possess funds enough to last a year, if we are more frugal, without dipping into other valuables. Longer if I sell possessions." Valérie drummed her fingers on the table. "I am sorry. I know that this imposes a hardship on you and Colette."

"Can I ask why?" Honoré asked. "You made it quite clear after this last bout of illness that you had no intention of doing anything but returning to normal life."

This was the part that Valérie found difficult. "I expect," she began slowly, "that Thara al-Sajjad is a woman who expects fidelity. Given that she and I are now...involved…" She took a deep breath. "I do not wish to hurt her, Honoré."

Honoré was quiet for a long moment, studying her intently. He was smiling, at least. "Every time I think I know the sum total of you, you surprise me," he said. "She is more fortunate than she knows."

"I doubt that is true," Valérie admitted. "Anyway, I fully intend to suspend my normal libertine ways until she tires of me." When she spotted Honoré's protest coming, she held up her hand. "Thara is an heir of the blood. You know full well what that means for a thing like me."

"You can be happy, Valérie," Honoré said gently. "I think Thara will surprise you."

"In this, it is not safe to hope." Valérie sighed. She knew it was foolish to believe that Honoré was right, but some part of her wanted to so desperately. Still, how could she ask that of Thara? The noble had obligations, status, and power all flowing through every drop of crimson in her veins. Thara was not the only child, but she was the eldest. That carried a great many responsibilities.

In some ways, Valérie felt like she was being ripped in half between her sense of decorum and rightness—laughable things for a creature like her, but present all the same—and her heart's desires, but she would endure it. If nothing else, the courtesan considered herself a woman of her word. She was far from perfect, but when it mattered most, she did everything in her power to keep her promises.

Honoré reached out across the table, giving her hand a squeeze. "Get some sleep, Valérie. You need your rest."

She closed the ledger reluctantly, feeling exhaustion creep in. She knew she could settle her mind now that she'd told someone what she was doing and why. There were still social engagements that she would attend with one person or another, but she was not going to stray beyond the boundaries of a friend. She had to hope that would be enough. She had faith enough in her charms to know she could evade social suicide if she played things carefully.

Hector Delamarche wasn't going to appreciate it, but she had survived his annoyance during the last flare-up of the curse. She wasn't certain if he would find the dalliance insulting or amusing if he found out, but she hoped things would stay secret for a while. Letters were hardly something to raise remark, particularly if they were being passed along with Aurore's by trusted couriers. Pascal wouldn't make a great show of handing it off.

Valérie carefully put away her accounts and all the associated records before ponderously making her way to bed, thoughts ebbing and flowing like a changing tide. Honoré was kind enough to leave her untroubled by further questions, at least for the moment. He wished her goodnight in murmured tones and padded back down the hall to his room, ever the quiet sentinel when something seemed amiss.

Instead of going to bed, she sat down at her vanity, where the waiting sheets of paper, a nib pen, and a bottle of ink sat beside candlelights. The truth was that she didn't even know what to write. No letter from Thara had yet arrived, but that wasn't too surprising. They were still on the march and that probably curtailed the thorn knight's time to write.

Valérie was no stranger to the written word. She kept up correspondence with a number of people by post, some letters more honest or more scandalous by nature than others. Where she would place those to Thara among the constellation of her compositions, she didn't know. Still, she had promised to write and write she would. Maybe it would help her fend off this unexpected feeling of loss.

She undid the stopper on the bottle of ink, setting it aside in a small wooden dish for the purpose. Next came the pen, dipped into dark blue ink. Here in the privacy of her empty bedroom, she could hear herself think. It wasn't always a pleasant experience. While optimism on the front of this new fascination was far from the courtesan's thoughts, she still found a certain comfort in the idea of Thara thinking of her, even a long way away. She had been many things for many people, but maybe this time, she could be herself. It was a foolish and secret notion, but difficult to dislodge even given how terrifying the prospect was.

One step at a time, she counseled herself as she studied the blank page. Nothing ruins a dance more certainly than someone rushing before they've learned the steps.

For all her alleged charm, Valérie felt woefully unprepared for this letter. Interacting with Thara was easier to manage in person, where Valérie could hide behind her mask the moment she saw a hint of displeasure. Written words were far more permanent and easily studied than her preferred variety.

She composed sentence after sentence, most dying the death of crumpled paper and blotching ink. Creeping daylight did nothing to disturb her from her struggle, barely noticeable to the courtesan. She didn't stir until the door to her room opened and Colette bustled in.

"Aren't you a fine sight," her maid said with amusement.

Valérie looked down at her ink-stained fingers and then tried to smooth her tousled hair. Fussing with her hair in frustration had done it no favors. She needed to wash up and sleep, but her thoughts were still buzzing around in her head like agitated bees. "I suppose I have looked better."

"What's the occasion?" Colette asked, pouring water into a basin for her to try and scrub the ink from her hands. The maid hesitated for a moment and then looked over at her mistress. "Is the fever back?"

"I'm fine," Valérie promised as she folded her finished letter and tucked it in the envelope. "I merely found myself agonizing over a triviality."

If she was hoping that would discourage Colette, she was wholly mistaken. The maid's keen sense for gossip, normally so valuable to Valérie, was focused intently on her without need for words to announce it. Colette tilted her head slightly to the right. "That doesn't sound like you."

"I suppose that's true," Valérie conceded as she moved over to wash her hands. Scrubbing seemed to do almost nothing to remove the stains from the ink. She frowned slightly and then sighed. "Correspondence of import is not something I am accustomed to."

Colette smiled. "For sending to a certain noble?"

Valérie narrowed her tired eyes at the maid. "Ferreting out information from Honoré is unbecoming of you."

There was no hint of guilt or shame on Colette's grinning face. "Is it my fault that he gets chatty after a few glasses of brandy?"

The courtesan sighed. "I suppose it's tolerable. I meant to tell you anyway, when things were…clearer." She hesitated for a moment before saying, "I hope you have no objection."

"I think it's grand," Colette said brightly. "She's a bit…womanly…for me, but she seems perfect for you."

Valérie weighed that answer. "And why do you say she's perfect for me?"

"Three reasons," Colette said. "First, she says what she means and that's something you always appreciate. Second, you've always gone a little weak for good poetry. Third, I don't think I've ever seen you smile like you did at those lilies."

"She has good taste in flowers."

"She has thoughtful taste in flowers," her maid corrected.

Valérie smiled faintly despite her tired brain's worried state. "True enough."

Colette's gaze flicked towards the envelope. "So, did you write her anything pretty?"

"I'm hardly a poet," the courtesan said with a slight shrug. "I just told her that Étain was rather boring without her."

The maid clucked her tongue. "You'd best have done better than that."

Valérie heaved a sigh. "I tried."

Colette reached out a hand. "Let's have a look," she said. "I know what I'd want to hear if I were Lady al-Sajjad."

The courtesan reluctantly surrendered the letter. "I suppose a healthy criticism wouldn't do me any harm."

Colette smiled triumphantly as she removed the letter from its protective envelope and unfolded it, leaning against the vanity as she read.


I hope this letter finds you well. It has been too long since I last saw you, though you left merely a week ago. I apologize for not writing sooner, but I needed time to reflect. I spent yesterday in the Emerald Crown, as we spent many afternoons, but it seems terribly quiet without your voice. Perhaps that is too soon to say—I apologize.

Aurore has been in abominable spirits with Pascale gone, and I fear she will not be alone in her misery ere long. I managed to coerce her into attending the opera two days ago, but both of us were keenly aware of absence. Étain's charms seem somehow diminished. I look forward eagerly to when the day we next meet and the world is again right.

I hope Aloys has been kind to you. He is a dear friend of mine and a noble soul. There are few like him in the world and a more staunch ally one cannot find. I hope too that you have learned to avoid his father, as I prefer to whenever possible. I doubt he would treat you with the respect that you most surely deserve. You are platinum, confronted with his tarnished copper. Let the blowhard blow hard and please guard yourself as well as you are able. The thought of you never returning makes me sick in a way I cannot claim to have ever been in the past.

I hope that you will think of me with affection. I thought I would tell you that I know that your people hold fire sacred, so I am making a point to keep my hearth burning. May its smoke carry prayers of good fortune to you wherever you are.

How are you faring? I know how tiring and tumultuous campaign can be, though my knowledge is secondhand. Do you know when you are expected to return? Whatever the answer, I will be here waiting.


Colette smiled as she looked up from the letter. "It's sweet. Aren't you going to sign it?"

Valérie bit her lower lip a moment before answering, "No. It could prompt a scandal. I had a thought of what to do instead, so she knows it was me."

"And what's that?"

"A dot of my perfume on the paper," Valérie said. "She's been around me enough to know it's me, at least if she was paying attention."

Colette's good spirits persisted. "And you say you're not a romantic."

"I'm not," Valérie said defensively. She was more comfortable with raw passion, with attraction and seduction. Still, if she stopped and reflected, she knew that she liked the way Thara made her feel, even knowing that it was incredibly precarious and unwise. Valérie was not a woman accustomed to being caught off-guard by her own emotions. Apparently that was to be a regular occurrence.

"Whatever you say," Colette said with amusement. She paused a moment and then asked, "What'll you do about…well, y'know."

Valérie sighed. "I will not be seeing people the way I have seen them. I will still be a fine confidante, even without a more carnal expectation. Hopefully that will be enough."

Colette nodded thoughtfully. "I'm happy for you," she said honestly. "It's giving up a lot, but it'll be worth it."

"I hope so," Valérie said, producing her hairbrush from the vanity's lower drawer. She set about putting herself in order. "Has anyone come calling?"

"Well, the Comtesse sent a message asking if you'd meet her for dinner and Baron Donadieu's man dropped off an invitation to lunch," the maid reported.

"I wouldn't mind seeing either," Valérie said. "The Baron is always good company and I need to hand off the letter to Aurore." She stifled a yawn. "That gives me an hour or two to sleep." The Baron's habits were no stranger to her, and she knew he favored his meals later. It would be plenty of time to restore herself somewhat to rest.

Colette was giving her a concerned look. "He won't mind?"

Valérie smiled slightly. "I am useful to him for many things beyond passion. His daughter still needs a husband and I still have enough experience with Étain's noblemen to tell him who to spurn if marital bliss is the goal. Talin's finest certainly have some rotten apples."

The answer seemed to satisfy Colette. "Well, sleep as much as you can," the maid said. "I'll have café ready when you wake up."

The courtesan nodded. "Be well, Colette. I'll see you in a while." She was definitely tired, but she was also beginning to relax. She opened her bottle of perfume and dotted a droplet on her thumb before pressing it onto the bottom of the page far enough from the ink that it wouldn't run. Hopefully she was right and Thara would remember the smell. She didn't wear it strongly, but it was enough that the thorn knight could potentially recall it, not that the letter itself was devoid of clues. While Aurore had many friends, Valérie was of the closest variety.

Was it romantic? Perhaps, she conceded reluctantly as she laid down, eager to sink into the blissful arms of dreams.

Sleep came surprisingly easily now that she'd finished the letter, even as cold stirred in her body. She wrapped the blankets more tightly as she dreamed as if to ward off the curse. Her sleeping mind pulled her back to sunlit days in the Emerald Crown and one of her favorite sounds: Thara's laughter.

After so long being imprisoned by ice, at least in dreams, now unfettered from the sharp scrutiny of her waking mind, her heart knew fully what it was to hope.

Before long, she stirred out of her reverie at the sound of tolling bells. Étain's cathedral announced the end of its first service with the pealing of smaller, musical chimes and the great resonant song of the main bell colloquially called the Grandfather. Valérie rubbed at her eyes, blinking blearily to see steam rising from the tub through the doorway to her bathroom. Colette in action, as thoughtful as always.

She was clean and dry by the time Colette arrived with café and milk on a tray. She didn't have a great deal of time to be ready, but the Baron had always been understanding in the past. Being fashionably late was something she was accustomed to only at gatherings where she was unaccompanied.

Honoré stepped in with a knock a few moments after she'd finished dressing. "I do not mean to rush you, Valérie, but the Duc Delamarche is downstairs."

That was not what she'd been expecting to hear. "I am already engaged," she said. Hopefully, he would understand. "The Baron's carriage will likely be here in a few minutes. What on earth is he doing here?"

"He did not feel the need to explain himself to me," Honoré said. "I thought it would be better if you spoke with him than if I did."

Valérie almost winced. "Throwing me to the wolf? I see how you are," she murmured as she headed for the stairs.

"I do so with love," Honoré said. He caught her shoulder, expression serious. "I know it will be easier to give him what he wants, but—"

"I meant what I said last night," Valérie said firmly. "Until I am no longer wanted, I will be faithful, whether or not that is difficult." She led the way down the stairs.

The Duc was waiting in her sitting room, rising to his feet with that wolfish smile when he saw her. Even Honoré's presence didn't trouble him.

"Your Grace, this is a surprise," Valérie said with a smile as she offered him a hand in greeting, which he accepted and kissed. "I trust Honoré and Colette have offered you my hospitality."

"You are ever the gracious hostess," he said. "I know that I have come unannounced, but I am departing for the northern border tomorrow morning."

"I take it the natives are restless?" Valérie said lightly, secretly feeling all manner of relief.

"Just so," the noble said. "I was hoping you would give me to remember you by."

"I am afraid that my services are already spoken for today," Valérie said. "I have Baron Donadieu in less than an hour and Comtesse Estienne to attend to."

He chuckled. "But for me, you would surely make an exception."

"You must know by now how seriously I take my commitments, Your Grace," the courtesan said lightly. "Just as I would not interrupt a meeting with you in favor of a prince, I beg that you not entreat me to sever my obligations to my other clients."

The Duc was quiet a moment, studying her. "I do appreciate your professionalism, Valérie," he said. "It does you credit. A lesser courtesan would bend to the immediate demand."

"I only bend upon request," Valérie said, unable to stop herself from making the comment. It wasn't helping her case. "Travel safely, Your Grace, and give my warmest affections to your harridan of a wife. It should annoy her to no end."

He grinned before pressing another kiss to her hand. Then he pulled her in close, almost tugging her off balance. "When I return, I expect a proper welcome," he said. "A professional welcome."

"I will take that into consideration," Valérie said lightly, carefully not resisting the kiss that followed. The Duc's lips were slightly rough and definitely forceful.

"See that you do," he said when he released her.

It was a problem for Future Valérie, or so she reminded herself as she watched him depart. Hopefully, she would survive that long.

Chapter 9
Of the Letters

By K. Olsen

"Must I?" Valérie said, pursing her lips while she looked at Honoré to hide her self-consciousness.

"This is entirely voluntary, but I would like the practice. Besides, Valérie, you are even more beautiful than normal when you smile so," Honoré said pleasantly. They were sitting out on the grass in the garden, sheltered from the wide world. "I promise that it won't be for public viewing."

Valérie sighed and leaned back against the apple tree. "Very well," she murmured, watching him produce his sketchbook. Pencils sat beside him. Honoré's hands could make them dance furiously as he shaded and lined out whatever beauty had caught his attention. It was something Valérie admired, his work ever more careful and precise than any other artist she had ever met. Étain was full of those who would be artists, most of them habitual drinkers and braggarts who threw paint at a canvas without Honoré's patience or discipline. Her friend was a rare soul.

She undid the bundle of envelopes sitting beside her and pulled out the most recent letter, the one she hadn't yet opened. Many of the others were so worn now that the edges were curled and the paper's creases had lost their sharp definition, folded and unfolded enough that Valérie worried they would fall apart in a few more months. She was always careful around the words themselves, as any touch of moisture might blot the ink. Even when her eyes betrayed her, she kept the tears away from delicate sentences.

She loved the letters more than she'd thought she could ever care for simple paper and ink. There was something about receiving Thara's letters that felt entirely different from her prior correspondence. Even just touching them, weathered and worn, some accompanied by the dust of the roads and others bearing a small wildflower or two, was a lifeline of connection that made every minute of painful waiting worthwhile.

Maybe that sentiment was why Honoré had asked this of her. Maybe Thara's words really did have a spell of their own, transforming her into someone far more hopeful and happy than she had any right to be. She broke the wax seal carefully, brushing away a falling leaf. Autumn had come and while Matthieu kept the ground beneath the tree carefully raked clear, they came down in their own time. She smiled at the crackle of paper as she unfolded the letter. Thara's writing, slanted and spidery, was immediately visible.

Dear V,

It seems everything reminds me of you. The shades of autumn, the brilliant arrays of red and gold, are like nothing I have ever seen before and their beauty echoes your own transfiguration with many moods. The crackling of the fire beside me as I write imparts its heat, but that is woefully insignificant when I compare it to the warmth you bring with you wherever you go. The battles no longer capture my attention as they once did, replaced by enchanting memory and breathless hope. I look up at the stars in the hope that soon Aeson's Crook will guide me east, back to Étain, back to you.

My time with you is made solely of the fondest memories of the beautiful world that is Talin's finest city. When I think of Étain now, I see it so differently than what I believed it to be when first I rode through the city gates. Its memory curls about me like a well-worn surcoat, a home away from my people's land. I find that I often cannot even feel homesick for the desert sands, not when that too is far from you.

The drums of war that once thrilled me can stir me little when compared to your voice. The one thing that terrifies me on campaign is the idea of failing to remember it. I should have held you closer before I left, the way I hold your letters now. When I close my eyes, the smell of your perfume is almost enough to convince me that you are near.

I wish I could tell you when we are approaching great battles, to find comfort in the red haze of War from the green buds holding lily white words. Pascal has wisely warned me against it, as letters may be intercepted. We are on contested soil now, so any spy or scout might try to take this. I hate the thought, as I want this to reach you more than anything. I worry that you might think that I have forgotten you now that I am so far away.

You might have teased me a thousand times for whatever chivalrous notions come into my head, but I want you to know that I will always be faithful, even if I am a world away. My thoughts seldom stray from you and my heart never does. I know that waiting for me to return is anything but fair, but your letters have given me a great deal of hope that you think of me in the same way.

I will not put a name to what I feel. I don't think I could if I tried. I find my words utterly insufficient to the task whenever I even conceive of it. You call me a poet sometimes, but my pen cannot claim to hold eloquence. It takes me days to fumble out what I write in these letters, that spell-binding hope rendering me all but mute in awe.

One day, we will be together again. I pray that it will be soon. I wish the war was over. I wish I was in Étain. I wish I could hold you forever, warmed by your embrace. Your farewell made me both deliriously happy and terribly sorrowful, a contradiction I will be freed from only when I return.

Please be well and safe, and I will strive to do the same. I promise that I will return as swiftly as I am able.


Thara al-Sajjad.

The garden was silent except for the scratching of Honore's pencils across his sketchpad. Valérie smoothed the sheets of paper at the edges, careful not to disturb the ink. She had no words, just a smile and hints of the threat of tears. The happiness and connection had a habit of fading, leaving an ache behind. She always felt it at the center of her chest, at that soft and secret place she considered a heart.

She read over the letter what felt like a thousand times before returning to the rest of the letters, reading them one after the other after the other. They were beautiful things. She would only trade them away for one thing, and that was Thara herself.

Honoré cleared his throat, jarring Valérie out of her reverie. She all but jumped out of her skin, earning a chuckle from the Eth man. "Steady," he said. "I was just trying to let you know that I'm finished."

Valérie nodded and then glanced upward. The sky was turning from brilliant azure to a dull grey, clouds swept in from the ocean to the south. She collected up her letters immediately. "Just in time," she said softly. "It looks to be considering rain."

Honoré stood up and offered her his hand. "Do you want to see it?" he asked. He sounded pleased with himself, which was always a good sign.

Valérie gave him a long-suffering sigh that hardly disguised a smile. "I suppose."

He held it up out of her reach, which wasn't difficult with their respective heights. "Take a tone like that, my friend, and I will paint it on the ceiling of the basilica," he said with a wide grin just before they stepped inside.

He had to lower his arm to go through the door, so Valérie grabbed the corner then. He let go immediately to avoid tearing his work and she caught it easily. "You have been outfoxed," she said with a wink.

"Outfoxed, perhaps, but never outclassed."

"And he's modest," Valérie said as if an actress giving an aside to an audience. Honoré was one of her favorite people and had a way of being that put everyone in a better mood.

Honoré grinned. "The very figure of it. My humility could dwarf the size of any man's pride."

Valérie studied him a moment. "It seems a tad unkind, using dwarves that way."

He chuckled. "That's probably why they dislike the surface so."

"Here I thought it was just that the sky made them uncomfortable. Now I know we must blame our sensitive artists. Their egos, anyway," Valérie said lightly. They'd stepped into the kitchen, so she set her bundle of letters down on the table and then opened up the pad.

What she saw stopped her a moment and then she looked up at Honoré. "Is that what I really look like?"

He chuckled. "Well, I did leave off the horns and fangs."

She slapped his arm but couldn't even find it in her to frown as she studied the picture.

Honoré's drawing was so lifelike that it could have come off the paper, an artist's rendition that only mirrors and the living person could replicate. Her pencil self sat back against the base of a tree, treated with that beautiful level of detail. Her eyes were hooded and half-closed as she looked down at the letter in her hands, one sheet in her hands and another held against her heart with the bundle at her side. She was drawn from the side, from the position where Honoré sat, but her face was still easily visible, her hair forming a curtain on the opposite side.

Her smile was something that she'd never seen before. Her usual flippant self was nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by something soft and secret. It was the expression of a world that existed within, some hidden garden or untapped spring.

You look at her the way Comte Estienne looks at his wife, Aloys said once. She'd brushed it off. It would have been easy to brush it off still had she not been granted such a crystalline window to what she really did look like, even when all she was gazing at was a simple letter.

"Is that really what I look like?" she asked again, voice soft.

Honoré rested his heavy hand on her shoulder, a comforting weight. "Yes," he said gently.

She pulled in a deep breath and then turned to face him. "I...Honoré, I've never..." The words trailed off and she found herself fighting for their return. She pulled in another breath and then exhaled.

He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "It's alright, Valérie. Nothing needs to be said."

She looked down at the image again and realized there was Eth writing at the bottom. "That's not your signature," Valérie said. "What does it say?"

Honoré smiled at her. "Just an old Eth proverb. Something seeing you reminded me of."

"Oh?" she said, tilting her head slightly as she looked up at him.

"We are never far from what we love," he translated. He gave her shoulder another squeeze. "If that is too bold, I apologize."

Valérie smiled, even if it was self-consciously. "I...I think I'm in love," she admitted. "I've never felt this way about anyone before." She carefully closed the sketchpad and sat down at the table. The admission was overwhelming enough that she felt an ache of tears in her eyes. With determination, she willed them away.

Honoré smiled and then turned, adding water to the kettle before placing it on the stove. It would take a while to start the fire and then let it get up to temperature, making tea something that couldn't be rushed. "I'm happy for you, Valérie," he said gently. "Nothing is more beautiful and powerful than love, whatever form it might take."

She hesitated for a moment and then said, "I'm afraid of it," she said. When Honoré's look became questioning, she steeled herself as much as she could. "I barely have a heart, but what I do have.... What if it is broken? What will I have left?"

"If she is the woman who composed those letters, I think breaking your heart is the last thing in the world that she'd do to you," Honoré assured her.

Valérie nodded, trying to relax. It was harder than Honoré probably expected. Everyone seemed to operate under the assumption that Thara's affections were forever, but Valérie was certain that in time, it would not be this way.

How could someone love a woman who only knew lust?

Her grip on love was tenuous at best. It was an emotion she could parody, but she knew it only in terms of desire and attraction. Her softer feelings she saved for her few friends, but even they were kept at something of a distance. There was no one she told her darkest secrets to, particularly the curse. Honoré was her best friend in the world, but she sheltered even him from that particular reality. Some things were better left alone.

Honoré bustled about, humming a tune as he did so. She recognized it easily, as he had introduced her to a good many Eth ballads. It had a good rhythm to it and a distinctive melody. She smiled despite herself when she recalled the lyrics. Soldiers had a much more colorful repertoire of songs than the average citizen. The nobles who fought held themselves above bawdiness, but at least some of them still appreciated it. Honoré was only prone to actually sing it when wine had him in its grip, but he never stammered over a word and it was catchy enough that it was a part of Valérie's memory now. Besides, for all her fine manners, such things never put her off. A courtesan's sensibilities were never delicate, if they were any good. Valérie considered herself able to contend with the best. Étain certainly awarded her with attention worthy of that status.

Now she was trading it away for Thara's affections. That was a terrifying prospect. She would always have the reputation to fall back on, of course, when Thara put her aside. She still couldn't conceive of that eventuality as an "if". That was of course assuming that the curse left her alive for that long. At any moment, she was certain that ice would consume her from the inside out. Part of her was tortured by the thought of dying before she saw Thara again, before she could actually say the words 'I love you' to the noble in person. It didn't feel right to scribble them out in pen and send them as an autopsy of an emotion, dead but dissected.

Valérie wanted more.

The sound of the front door opening and then closing stirred Valérie from her thoughts, followed by fast footsteps. "Colette," she murmured.

Honoré poked his head out into the hall. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" he said jovially. His smile vanished and he stepped into the hall. "Come here."

Valérie got up, leaving the table. "Is something wrong?" she asked. She followed him into the hall just in time to see Honoré pull her maid into a protective hug. It was easy to see the maid's distress, her eyes red and face wet with tears.

Honoré made soothing sounds and held Colette close, his big hand rubbing the young woman's back even as the sobs came more fiercely.

Valérie stepped in, pulling her handkerchief out of her sleeve and handing it to her maid. "We're here for you, angel," she said gently. "Come have a cup of tea."

"That we are," Honoré agreed, deep voice soft. He met the courtesan's eyes with a definite worry. This wasn't like Colette at all—their resident sunshine was never in tears...until now.

Valérie had a feeling she knew the source of the problem, but she hoped she was wrong. If she wasn't, it was going to be very hard to stop Honoré from killing someone and even harder to stop herself.

Together, they walked Colette into the kitchen, gently sitting her down in Valérie's empty seat. The courtesan set the kettle on the stove and took a seat across from Colette so that Honoré could sit beside her and wrap one arm around maid's trembling shoulders. No one could comfort like Honoré, though Valérie had every intention of giving it her all.

"I'm fine," Colette heaved out.

Valérie put a hand over one of Colette's across the table. The kitchen one wasn't huge and scarred from years and years of use. It had been in the house as long as the apple tree, or so the last owner before Valérie had said. "You don't have to tell us anything, angel," she said with care. "But if you wish to tell us, we are here to listen."

"Matthieu," she said, voice shaking.

"The gardener?" Honoré asked gently.

Colette nodded. "He was arrested," she said tearfully. She looked down at her hands, avoiding Valérie's eyes. Still, shame and pain were two emotions easily identifiable. "Because of me. Because I was so stupid."

Honoré studied her expression for a long moment before asking. "Did he hurt you?"

Colette's head snapped up. "No," she blurted out without thinking. "He...he protected me."

Valérie looked over at Honoré. "Take my signet and the money I keep in the bureau. You are to secure the young man's release." It was a lot of money, but she didn't imagine his bail was going to be light, not to mention potential bribes.

Honoré nodded. "I still have drinks now and then with Naël Martin, one of the bailiffs. He's not a bad man," he said before standing back up. "I'll be back with Matthieu as soon as possible."

"You are a saint, Honoré," Colette said, fresh tears welling.

Valérie waited until Honoré left to request more information. "Are you injured? You don't have to tell me what happened, but it would put my mind at ease."

The shame returned to Colette's bearing. "It was Gauvain Marchand." Fresh tears welled up. "He...he never cared for me. I thought we were in love, but all he wanted was my body."

Valérie understood what had happened. She'd seen it play out many times. "And once he had it, he lost all interest and affection," she said softly. There was a terrible ache in her chest when Colette nodded tearfully. "I'm so sorry, angel."

"I should have listened to you," the maid said through her tears.

Valérie was not one to say 'I told you so'. "It's alright," she said. "Why was Matthieu arrested?"

"He was trimming a hedge nearby when I spoke to Gauvain. My pleading angered Gauvain and he raised his hand to hit me. Matthieu hit him with a tackle and started beating him on the ground. There was blood and shouting. He hurt Gauvain badly and then two guardsmen pulled him away."

Valérie nodded. "We'll get him released. He defended you, which puts him in a high regard."

Colette nodded. She looked exhausted from the force of her emotions. "I'm sorry," she said in that soft, delicate voice.

"Never apologize for this," Valérie said before rising to her feet. "You should rest. I'll wake you when Honoré returns with our avatar of protective vengeance."

It took some hours before Honoré returned with the gardener. Matthieu looked thoroughly beaten, his left eye so bruised and swollen that he could barely open it. He looked even more sheepish than usual.

"Have a seat, Matthieu," Valérie said. "I'll find you a cold compress for that eye."

"You don't have to do that, Mademoiselle," he said as he sat down. "You and Monsieur Honoré already got me out of the clink. They'd have put me in prison for a hundred years. Marchand's family already bribed the magistrate."

Honoré shrugged. "If you know exactly who to bribe and give them enough, you can get more leeway. I knew better than they did." He put a hand on Matthieu's shoulder. "We owe you a great deal."

"I'd do it a thousand times more for Colette. Anything for her," the young man said sincerely, oblivious to the maid's presence in the doorway behind him. "Is she safe? Is she alright?"

Valérie smiled faintly and gestured for him to look behind him. "You should ask her that, o gallant gardener."

He almost fell out of his chair at that, trying to stand up far too quickly. When he saw her, he straightened up and tried unsuccessfully to brush the dirt and dried blood from his shirt. "I—"

Colette didn't quite run to him, but she moved swiftly, wrapping her arms around him and hiding her face in his shoulder as more tears came.

Matthieu held her close, stroking her hair with one rough hand. He was still careful around her, probably partially because of his wounds, but all that was visible on his face was care.

In that moment, Valérie felt room for hope.

Chapter 10
Of the Return

By K. Olsen

Valérie tipped her head back, looking up at the sky turned purple and blue by the growing sunset. Étain was never abysmally cold in the winter, so she could stand to be out amidst it. A thin layer of snow decorated Aurore's garden and the hanging icicles caught the light of the lamps. Soon stars would appear in the sky. They were not something Valérie had paid much attention to, but Thara loved stargazing and could describe the constellations in beautiful detail, interwoven with the myths of her people.

The last letter from Thara had been almost a month ago, and it made Valérie sick with worry.

Aurore leaned her head on Valérie's shoulder. "War is a thing of season," the comtesse said. "They'll be home soon."

"I know," Valérie said, voice almost strained as she forced a tone of confidence. "I just wish it would be sooner."

"Me too," Aurore said softly.

The crunch of snow underfoot announced intruders. Valérie turned her head and a smile flashed to life. She poked Aurore in the side when she saw her friend’s husband, followed by Aloys. "Wish granted."

Aurore practically leaped up from the bench and spun. "Pascal!" She ran to her husband, throwing her arms around him although he was still in armor. He dropped his helm to hold her with both arms, chuckling as he held her close, if gingerly so to avoid crushing her with his armor.

There was no sign of Thara, but Valérie smiled at Aloys despite the nerves. She lost the expression immediately when she realized that Aloys's sword arm was in a sling. "What happened?" she asked her friend, approaching and pulling him into a careful hug.

Aloys looped his other arm around Valérie's waist, guiding her away from Aurore and Pascal so they could have their reunion privately. "A Genevais footman happened. You should have seen the mace that did it," he said wryly. "I might have lost the arm without Pascal's personal surgeon. That's not important, though." He turned to face her. "Thara is well. A few broken ribs and cuts over the course of a few months is nothing to a thorn knight. She's tougher than she looks."

The almost painful knot in Valérie's stomach eased, but not completely. "Where is she?"

"At the palace. She has not been released from duty by the King, not yet. I expect she will be in time for the planned victory celebrations." Aloys pulled an envelope out of his sling and presented it with a flourish. "Your invitation, m'lady. She'll be eager to see you—last I saw her, she was practically scaling the walls with impatience."

Valérie smiled wider than she had in months, hugging him again. "You are a saint, Aloys."

"I'm glad you think so," he said pleasantly, eyes bright. He cleared his throat. "There was one other thing, Valérie."

She drew back to study his expression. It was growing more and more self-conscious with every passing moment. Her friend looked downright bashful, and Valérie grinned. That was a look she recognized, though not on Aloys. Without the dread, impish good nature returned to her easily. "I don't suppose this other thing is an other who?" she said innocently.

Aloys took a deep breath. "Promise me you won't be an imp about it?" he said, an edge of nerves to the words.

Valérie touched his cheek with one hand, expression softening. "I'm here for you, Aloys. Teasing to a minimum, at least for now. Who's the lucky lad?"

"Næmr Avárrson."

"That is most definitely not a Talinese name," Valérie said, resuming her walk beside him through the garden. There were no servants nearby to eavesdrop, as Aurore and Pascal preferred their privacy on days of his return. Anyone watching from a door or window would just see Valérie with her arm linked through Aloys's, a common enough sight. "Nor Genevais. How did you meet this dashing mystery man?"

"His homeland is far, far north," Aloys said. He looked around for eavesdroppers before murmuring, "This is a difficult to believe tale, but I promise you it is true. We met in battle when my arm was broken. The press of combat pushed away Thara and I fell. I remember the Genevais footman standing over me with his mace raised to strike the blow. The next thing I knew, I was in the air, looking up at the wings of a giant eagle, the size of a farmhouse. One of the great raptors of Ash Kordh. Its talons weren't hurting me, just holding me. I was certain I was imagining things."

Valérie studied Aloys. The smile was still there, so this was definitely related to his adored. "That sounds terribly exciting."

"It set me down beside the healers and just...looked at me. Like it was peering into my soul with these big, beautiful dark eyes. I remember that through all the pain. The eagle flew off after a moment, leaving me with a feather. The battle ended and Thara chased the Genevais off with the others. Around midnight, after I was through having my arm set, a handsome man stepped into my tent. He looked very foreign: skin pale as a sheet and hair like silver threads, stylized blue suns painted on his cheeks in woad. What stopped me were his eyes. They were dark from corner to corner, like the bird's."

"And that was Næmr's bird?"

Aloys smiled. "In a sense. He introduced himself and asked how I was feeling. When he saw that I was still holding the feather, he said, I am glad a piece of me has found such a noble home. I didn't believe then that he could possibly have been the eagle, but I know now."

"A shapeshifter?" Valérie said, a bit surprised despite herself.

"There is magic in the world, Valérie," Aloys reminded her.

Something cold stirred in Valérie's body. "I know," she said almost somberly. She refocused on the conversation at hand almost immediately. "So how has he been treating you?"

Aloys's cheeks reddened in a way that the chill in the air couldn’t explain. "With beautiful song and enough warmth to keep away cold as bitter as the ice-storms on the Sea of Glass. I never thought I would find anyone who felt so much passion for me, I have."

Valérie beamed. "That's wonderful." She smoothed out the front of his shirt. "Do I get to meet him?"

"I hoped that you would want to see him," Aloys said. "I thought perhaps tonight, if you were not otherwise engaged."

"A fine idea. I'm sure Pascal and Aurore have a great deal of passion of their own to enjoy, and I would prefer not to intrude as an audience," Valérie said lightly. "Lead on."

"I brought him with us," Aloys said as he led the way out of the garden and towards the street. "He's with the horses."

"You didn't invite him in?" Valérie said. "Shame on you."

"He wanted to stay out there," the young nobleman said in his defense. "He wasn't certain how he would be received despite my trust in you. Giants take care in the world and usually hide. He's walking around in the human-sized version of his true form, so he draws attention."

Valérie had heard a few stories from the Great War, including one about the towering forms of giants hurling themselves into masses of demons to protect their allies. They were supposedly fierce warriors and while she'd never heard of them shifting shapes, anything was possible in the far north with its wild magics. Not that she wanted to encounter magic ever again.

Out in the street, under the light of the lamps, she caught her first sight of Næmr Avárrson. He was taller than Aloys and broad-shouldered, but he moved gracefully when he turned to face them. His pale skin and dark eyes were definitely not human, but his chiseled features and ready smile were inarguably handsome. His silver hair was cut to his chin and he had braided a single lock at his temple with a blue ribbon. He bowed when they approached, his eyes lingering on Aloys for a moment before he turned his attention to Valérie. 

"Good evening, lady," Næmr said. His voice was softer than she expected, carrying a northern accent paired with a sincere smile. "I am Næmr Avárrson."

Valérie smiled and offered him her hand. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Valérie de Lys. Aloys speaks very highly of you."

The giant accepted her hand and bowed over it. "As I can say of you, fair lady. Aloys says there are few in the world of men who are so understanding." His dark eyes were a bit unsettling, but looked at her with warmth. "I give you my deepest gratitude, Mademoiselle de Lys, for all that you have done for Aloys."

"Just Valérie, please," the courtesan said. "And I would gladly do it all again. Aloys is a good man."

Næmr nodded. "That he is," he said fondly. "And an excellent kisser, which I understand is your influence."

"I'm right here," Aloys said in a rush, cheeks flooding with blush.

Valérie grinned. "Oh, we know," she said. "You're adorable when you're flustered."

"It is known," Næmr teased gently.

Aloys sighed despondently. "Valérie, can't you save your teasing for Thara?"

A gleam appeared in Næmr's eyes. "So you are the secret lover Lady al-Sajjad kept sighing for."

Valérie laughed. "Not her lover, Næmr. We're not so well acquainted, at least physically. I'm surprised Aloys didn't tell you."

"It wasn't my secret to tell," Aloys explained.

"Lady al-Sajjad was also tight-lipped, but one only smiles at a letter so when it is from a loved one," Næmr said pleasantly.

"I am afraid that love for someone like me is a luxury that a woman of Thara's stature cannot afford," Valérie said. Thara hadn't made a declaration in her letters, but she often wrote of longing to be back in Étain, in the Emerald Crown or the opera box at Valérie's side. "I think perhaps swiftly fading infatuation is a wiser choice."

"Thara isn't the wisest," Aloys said wryly.

"Someone like you?" Næmr asked for clarification.

Valérie hoped she wasn't about to lose his respect. "I am a courtesan, Næmr. A woman who makes a living as a lover in the purely physical sense."

"Ah," Næmr said. He offered her a smile to reassure her. "I am not offended. My people consider those who practice the gentle arts children of Mode. The Song of Dawn holds a special regard for those who open their arms to others."

"I'm a bit too mercenary to win divine favor, I think," Valérie admitted. "That is why Thara should shun me as hard as she can. I am a scandal waiting to happen."

"If she knows and doesn't care..." Aloys let the words trail off as he realized what Valérie's anxious expression meant. "You didn't tell her?"

"I said nothing of it in our letters. I didn't think I needed to. It's hardly a secret. I can't turn over a rock in Étain without finding someone who's heard of my reputation."

"I spoke nothing of it," Aloys said, worried. "Nor did Pascal. With no one else knowing who sent the letters, there was no reason for anyone to comment on you. Valérie, tell me you haven't—"

"No," Valérie said quickly. "While I have met with old clients, it has been strictly platonic." She took a deep breath. "I'll tell her tomorrow."

"I hope so," Aloys said. "Thara's not a woman you want to blindside. She's a good soul, but she has a temper."

Valérie sighed. "I think that is a revelation that counts as blindsiding." Thara spurning her over it was an almost constant worry. Valérie was not about to apologize for her way of life, but she knew it counted as certain pollution of the soul as far as proper, upstanding people were concerned.

Aloys put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm here for you, whatever happens."

"As am I," Næmr promised with a smile. "I do not think the revelation will change Thara's heart or mind, Valérie. Perhaps she will be a touch hurt that you didn't tell her, but such is not the kind of thing that belongs in a letter."

"But what if she hates me?" Valérie asked without thinking, the words springing from her lips without permission from her brain.

"Then she would not be deserving of your love," Næmr said gently.

Valérie smiled slightly. "I see why Aloys is so taken with you," she said as she studied Næmr. "He holds good hearts in special regard, and loving ones even above that."

"I do," Aloys agreed. He caught Næmr's hand in his own and gave it a squeeze before reluctantly letting go.

A thought occurred to Valérie. "I think you gentlemen should stay as my guests tonight," she said. "There is plenty of space, a bath, and very private accommodations. You can be together without needing to hide."

"That is very generous of you, Valérie," Aloys said, cheeks reddening slightly.

"Indeed," Næmr said with a grin. "I promise you I will be gentle with him, unless he should wish otherwise." Almost innocently, he said, "After all, we would not wish him a cold bath or an empty bed."

The blush started at Aloys's ears and spread rapidly across his entire face. "I...yes."

"Then let's be off," Valérie said with a grin that matched Næmr's. "Lest Aloys spontaneously combust."

Aloys nodded, both eagerly and anxiously.

Næmr glanced around. They were in a shadowed part of the street that was largely out of view. He stepped up behind Aloys and wrapped his arms around the nobleman to whisper something in his ear. Aloys relaxed almost immediately.

Even without being able to hear what the words were, Valérie understood them: a reassurance, a promise that Aloys was safe and loved. It meant more to Valérie than she could ever tell Næmr. There just weren't sufficient words. She knew full well that Aloys had consigned himself to being alone forever.

This was a love affair that she hoped would never end.

They took horses back rather than a carriage. Valérie enjoyed riding when she had the opportunity, as she was fond of horses. Honoré always accused her of spoiling them, and her counter argument was that perhaps spoiling was good for them. It wasn't a long ride to reach her home.

Honoré was waiting for them at the gate, which meant he had seen them from the house as they passed beneath the street lamps. "Good evening," he said pleasantly.

Valérie dropped down from behind Aloys. "Honoré, can I put upon you to help me with the horses? These gentlemen will be staying the night in the guest room."

"We can see to them," Aloys said. "I'd feel bad leaving you to the task."

"Nonsense," Valérie said firmly. "Go clean up and rest. You both deserve a chance to relax."

"I would not argue with the fair lady," Næmr advised Aloys as he dismounted. "I imagine she can be fierce should she need to be."

Aloys nodded, swinging down from the saddle. He leaned into Næmr when the giant put an arm around him, eyes closing in contentment for a moment. "Thank you, Valérie," he said sincerely.

"Goodnight," she said with a smile. She watched them go inside with a light heart.

"I see," Honoré said with a chuckle. "Love suits Aloys. His choice of love is strange-looking, but they seem happy enough."

"Næmr is a good man, I think," Valérie said. "I hope they stay together."

The dark-skinned man nodded. "Any word on Lady al-Sajjad?"

"She is well and attending to the King's will. Aloys said she should be present at the victory celebration," the courtesan said. She hesitated a moment before saying, "I need to tell her what I am." She tensed, nerves knotting her stomach.

Honoré wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. "It will be alright," he whispered.

Valérie sighed. She wanted to believe it, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she was unworthy. Only time would tell if she was wrong, but she could barely dare to hope.

Chapter 11
Of the Revenge

By K. Olsen

Valérie was no stranger to the great expanse and vaulted towers that were the Royal Palace in Étain. It was, at its core, a great fortress of grey stone, but it was in no way, shape, or form an ugly slab. The decorative carvings that swirled around each arrow slit, the giant stone hawks perched on each rampart, the windows that existed covered in intricately stained glass: these were the first outward sign of the great influence of Art on the psyche of Étain and Talin as a whole. Their wealth and prosperity had softened their military nature, but the punishment bestowed at the hands of their famed pikemen, particularly against cavalry, often surprised those who considered them wheeling and dealing merchants.

The palace's interior was a gallery of the finest pieces ever created, or so they said: sculptures of peerless design blending seamlessly with great frescoes, mosaics, and paintings. More often than not, it was not silent either. The acoustics of some halls, including the grand ballroom, were incredible. King Philippe took immense satisfaction knowing that he could endow his patronage on the greatest musical minds of the age, even stealing them away from Ethilir. The great power to the south had lost much of its influence, of course, after the apocalyptic levels of destruction brought by the great Imperium across the sea. They had rebuilt most of the country, but some losses were so great that even the act of a goddess could not undo them.

All of that splendor could not stir the admiration of Étain's most famous courtesan as she tried to look for only one beautiful thing amidst the famed glory of the Talinese court in full splendor, something that not even the jeweled crown and all its power could equal in value.

Valérie's throat was so tight that she felt like she was being strangled. She still hadn't seen Thara, and she'd stepped into the royal palace's grand ballroom an eternity ago, or so it seemed. She jumped at the sound of her name and turned to see Aloys there with a glass of champagne for her. Her heart sank when she saw no sign of Thara accompanying him. All she wanted in the world was to see the desert noble, to pull her out onto a balcony where they were not in view, to kiss her and never let her go. She resolved to tell Thara everything, including about her profession. It was still a terrifying prospect, but she hoped that it would be forgiven if said in the right way.

Every moment without seeing her fanned the flames of Valérie's excited anxiety, or perhaps anxious excitement. Had something happened? Was something wr—

"I spotted her," Aloys said, but he wasn't smiling. "The Duchesse Delamarche just pulled her out to that balcony." He gestured and then handed over the glass. "I tried to intercept them, but her wolfhound was very adamant that I not."

Valérie's eyes locked on the dark-haired brute. Baron Thomas Dubois seemed to be leisurely enjoying his drink at the entrance to that balcony. She knew from experience that getting around him could be an almost impossible endeavor. An infernal dread grew in the pit of her stomach. When she started moving, Aloys joined her. "What was the Duchesse saying?"

"She was being perfectly friendly. Complimentary, even." Her friend was as tense as she was, his eyes locked too on Dubois. There was no lost love between them, though Aloys had always stopped one step short of a duel for his mother's sake.

The dread intensified. Valérie had interacted many, many times with the woman in question and understood on an implicit level that Apolline Delamarche was never to be trusted, but particularly not when she was smiling. The only thing that brought the harridan joy was crushing someone else...particularly someone she hated. Valérie doubted the woman could even feel love, but she hated ardently and perhaps no one more than Valérie de Lys.

Their incivility began with the woman sneering in disdain at the newly arrived courtesan, the petty digs at Valérie's appearance and general character. Then, when the Duc took an interest in her, Valérie truly received the Duchesse's ire. By that point, it had arguably been too late for the Duchesse to remove the thorn in her side. Valérie had already made many connections and kept her genuine friendships so few that they were practically nonexistent, leaving the noblewoman starved for targets. Valérie needled back, but mostly lacked the cruelty and enthusiasm to do more than survive.

If the Duchesse had somehow learned something about Thara's connection to her, something horrible was about to happen.

Baron Dubois stepped into Valérie's path right in the archway to the balcony. "We do not require your presence, Mademoiselle de Lys," he said pleasantly. "Shall I put upon your companion to find a suitable distraction for you? Or I can suggest some sycophants of suitably tremulous willpower, though I am uncertain if you are in a mood for fouling the virtue of a gentleman or of a lady."

Valérie bit back her retort, instead saying, "I must speak with Lady al-Sajjad."

"You are welcome to wait," Dubois said, eyes daring Aloys to do something.

With his sword-arm in a sling, there was little threat to be made by Aloys, and Næmr was still in conference with Gaspard Chalon. They were unfortunately without superior force, which meant moving Dubois would be exponentially harder. Many had tried and failed in similar straits.

Valérie pulled in a deep breath, ready to argue her case, but froze when she overheard the conversation on the balcony as it changed away from discussion of Étain itself and pleasant, subtle flattery by the Duchesse. She always knew just how to wind a person around her finger, and the more honorable her victim, the greater her hook. It sounded like this was not the first time they had spoken, which meant the grip was even stronger.

"You should be more careful in who you associate with, darling," the Duchesse said. "The Comtesse Estienne is pleasant enough, but she keeps abominable company. She seems particularly attached to that courtesan of hers, though I can hardly even call her Aurore's given the number of men she's associated with in the court."

"Courtesan?" Thara said. "I do not know the meaning of the word, nor who you refer to."

"Ah," the noblewoman said, tone both grave and sympathetic. She chose her next words carefully, calculated for maximum damage. "I speak of Valérie de Lys. She to say this and not be crass...herself to a number of individuals in exchange for material wealth. She's spent the better part of the past few months practically attached to Baron Donadieu and a few others. She accepts lovers of a reduced stature and attractiveness when my husband is no longer present to make use of her."

The abyss opened inside Valérie, swallowing both her heart and her hopes. She moved to get around Dubois, to say anything in her own defense, but he prevented her with a firm hold of her shoulders as she sought to pass him.

"You lie," Thara said, voice as scorching as a summer day in the desert.

"I assure you, it is the truth. You may speak to anyone in Étain to confirm it. I'm surprised you are unaware, given how friendly you seemed. Did she not tell you?" The Duchesse turned her head, spotting Valérie in the doorway. "Ah, here is the lily in question. You may have your unfortunate confirmation from her. Perhaps it will save you from future scandal."

Thara frowned as if she had thunderclouds over her head, dark eyes fixed on Valérie as the courtesan approached without interference from Dubois. "Is it true?" she asked.

Valérie felt positively wretched. "It was true," she said, barely able to meet Thara's eyes, "but that was before—"

"All those visits to Donadieu were merely social calls, then?" the Duchesse said sweetly, ever the expert in twisting the knife. If she hadn't known before, if she'd been guessing, this was perfect confirmation. "I would say that you should be ashamed of yourself for that lie, but I doubt you have the capacity to feel shame."

"That is enough," Aloys said firmly, his good hand on Valérie's shoulder.

"Ah, the young lover leaps to her defense," the older noblewoman said. "You should consider your family's reputation more carefully, young man." With the devastation wreaked, the Duchesse sauntered off, linking her arm through Baron Dubois's.

Thara was silent, her gaze fixed on the pair in front of her.

"That is not how it is," Valérie said, trying to ignore the quiver that had started in her hands.

"When my father warned me of Étain's dangers, of the people who would strive to deceive me, I did not think it a premonition of you," Thara whispered.

Valérie lost her breath as if someone had punched her. After a split second of recovering, she said, "I have been nothing but faithful to you."

"Why should I believe that when you lacked even the consideration to tell me anything of this?" Thara asked, the heat returning to her voice. Betrayal seemed to stir her flaming temper to new, destructive life.

Valérie's eyes flooded with tears. "I didn't because I knew this would happen," she said. "Because I knew you wouldn't believe me, trust me."

"Mademoiselle," Thara said curtly before stepping past Valérie. Their shoulders didn't touch, the distance between them seemingly miles across.

Valérie turned, catching Thara by the wrist. "Please," she pleaded. "Please believe me. I am not the woman I once was, because of you."

"Perhaps that is true," the desert noble said. She pulled her wrist out of Valérie's grasp. "But you have already lied to me by omission. If there is a truth, I will find it elsewhere."

"You will regret this," Aloys said firmly, glaring at Thara. "Valérie is not some trinket to be discarded on a whim."

Thara glared back. "I am not interested in your opinion, Chalon."

Aloys took a step towards Thara. "Then leave," he said. "Go speak to Donadieu and find out how wrong you are."

Thara strode off, almost bumping into Næmr on her way.

Valérie covered her eyes with one hand, willing away the tears. They stopped a moment after ignoring her. Aloys's hand on her back wasn't particularly comforting. How could she have ever been so stupid? This was more than adequate punishment for violating the rules she had placed upon herself.

Never allow your heart into this business of ours, Madame Rozalie at the brothel in the High Kingdom had advised. It makes for brief careers and unhappy lives.

"What's wrong?" Næmr asked, brow furrowing at the sight before him.

"The Duchesse Delamarche told Thara before Valérie could," Aloys said. "While all but screaming that infidelity occurred in her absence. Thara lost her gods-damned temper."

"She will recover it quickly and regret her conduct," Næmr said. He touched Valérie's shoulder. "She is almost infinitely more understanding when given time. She has been groomed to value her pride and her honor above all things."

"She should hold Valérie better than those," Aloys said fiercely.

Næmr's expression was gentle. "She does. She will regret her outburst."

"She seemed quite certain," Valérie said thickly. She closed her eyes again and slowly pulled together her resolve. "I am going home."

"Are you certain?" Aloys asked, tone as soft as the brush of a feather. "I know you aren't one to let the Duchesse win."

"She can have her victory this evening, may she choke on her own laughter," Valérie murmured. Her chest ached harder than she'd ever imagined possible. "I'm sorry. Tonight was supposed to be happy, and now I'm poor company."

"We can see you home," Næmr said gently.

"No," Valérie said firmly. "I appreciate your consideration, both of you, but I wish to be alone. Please do not tell Aurore of what transpired. She can be impulsively protective and I would not have her friendship with Lady al-Sajjad damaged. It could put the hopes and fortunes of the Dark Blood at a significant disadvantage in Étain."

Aloys sighed and pulled her against his side in a one-armed hug. "If we don't tell Aurore, who's going to terrify sense into Thara?"

"Perhaps it is better not to," Valérie said, trying to ignore the heartache. It was an unfamiliar, bitter pain. She had some hope that it would fade, but she had learned over the course of her correspondence with Thara that she was far more emotional than she wished to be. Her heart still clung so fiercely to the freshly shattered fragments of her dreams. Even when expected, the return of reality was a cruel awakening. "I should have told her."

Aloys put a hand on her shoulder. "You were afraid.”

Valérie smiled bitterly. "At least I will not be afraid now," she said. "Only alone."

"Val—" Aloys started, stopped when she pressed a fingertip to his lips.

When he halted, Valérie moved her hand away. She looked from Aloys to Næmr. "Have a good evening," she said softly. "It is a beautiful night with excellent wine and sweet music, and you have your own affections. Please do not let this spoil it. It would hurt my heart if I knew you lost this opportunity because of me."

Næmr caught her hand and bowed over it. "You have our gratitude, most rare of lilies," the giant said, "and our love. Rest well and trust that all things heal in their own time."

"I will," Valérie promised, giving his hand a squeeze before kissing Aloys on the cheek. She studied the nobleman for a moment before touching his chin. "Good night, darling man. I look forward to the next time we meet."

With that, Valérie returned to the ballroom. She saw no sign of the Duchesse or Dubois, but that was to be expected now that they had finished their wicked work. Thara was nowhere in sight, but neither was Donadieu, so it was entirely possible that the desert noble had pulled him aside. The thought made her heart ache. She understood why Thara had reacted so, and had expected it on a level, but to see her hopes dashed to pieces by betrayed anger was so much worse than she'd imagined. Maybe it was because she knew Thara had to be hurting too.

The sight of Aurore and Pascal on the dance-floor, waltzing lost in each other as if they were the only people on earth, hit her like a slap. In that moment, she found herself so jealous that the knotting of her stomach made her sick. She wanted that more than she wanted to breathe, not the empty life she had again been consigned to. She took a moment to compose herself and then made her way outside. She almost reached the last door when a hand caught her arm in a familiar grip.

"Leaving so soon, Mademoiselle de Lys?" Hector Delamarche said. "Without so much as a greeting?"

Valérie supposed it had been too much to hope that the troubles on the northern border might keep him well occupied. Of course, winter was usually quieter and far harsher there, preventing the northern hordes from encroaching upon Talin's attentions. "Your Grace, I did not realize you were in attendance," Valérie said as she turned to face him, offering him her most genuine false smile that almost faded at the sight of that all-too-familiar grin. "You have my apologies for my early departure."

They were out of direct view of the ballroom, in the adjoining main hall, but Valérie knew full well that Thara could step out any moment to gather entirely the wrong impression. That was something she wished desperately to avoid, even if it didn't matter now. Even knowing Thara likely wanted nothing to do with her, Valérie desperately hoped that she wasn't hated, that when everything cooled Thara might treat her only with the indifference of strangers, that it would not be scorched earth and ashes.

"For the incomparable Valérie de Lys to depart alone would be a crime," the Duc said, expression hungry. "And as I recall, my dear, you owe me some entertainment."

Valérie had no idea what to do. She actively hated the notion of indulging him now, but she had no wish to alienate him. She needed her clientele if she was going to survive for any appreciable length of time. Perhaps it was time to bury her scruples and heart, for all the lack of good they'd done her. You were never a woman of principles, she told herself. Only practicalities.

She was about to prove Thara's worst thoughts about her correct. The shame covered her like a shroud, though she kept her smile and her bearings. "Would you prefer tonight or tomorrow, Your Grace? Tomorrow—"

"I have already waited an intolerable amount of time, my dear," he said. There was always something hard in his eyes when this mood took him. It was the side of him that many knew, but without an intimate understanding of how unpleasant he could really be. "You would do well to remember that I am not your servant; you are mine."

Something in Valérie wanted to bite back, but she knew provoking him was not a way to have a good time. She wasn't in the habit of angering a client in the high reaches of Talin's elite, and doubly so not Delamarche. "I apologize, Your Grace," she said demurely, dipping her head. "Shall we go?"

It was as far from what she'd wanted and envisioned as the depths of the sea were from the surface of the moon.

Chapter 12
Of the Hiding

By K. Olsen

The bruising from Delamarche faded, but Valérie did not recover herself then. The hurt wormed its way deeper and deeper into her heart, sinking its roots into every hope. Honoré and Colette both knew something was wrong, but neither could get a word about it from her. Valérie knew how to talk around things, though eventually she would grow weary of that. She just had no desire to slander Thara for an action justified by her position and her nature.

Valérie sat in the kitchen at the table with her hands curled around a cup of slowly cooling tea, watching Colette slicing up vegetables with dextrous ease. The rhythm of the knife against the cutting board was comforting in its familiarity and Colette's company was a slight balm on her lonely soul.

"I'd have thought Lady al-Sajjad would have stopped by," Colette ventured gingerly.

"She serves at the pleasure of the King," Valérie said, trying to sound as composed as she could. Mention of Thara still brutally reminded her of the reality of being left on that balcony. "I imagine she's quite preoccupied with the end of the war."

Colette added the celery to the pot and then turned to face her. There was a hint of steel to her gaze, a sign she was contemplating forcing past Valérie's walls. "With all the letters she wrote you—"

That comment stabbed into Valérie's heart. She still had the letters, still read them over and over, trying to convince herself that they had ever been real. It felt now like she'd imagined everything, which somehow made her feel worse, deluded, insane. "The nobility take their duty and honor very seriously," Valérie said quietly. "There is little room in that for a creature such as I."

"Did she say that?" Colette demanded more forcefully.

"No. She didn't have to." It wasn't a lie, given that duty and honor were not what came leaping from Thara's lips. Valérie shook her head and then stood up. "I am under no illusions about my place in the world, Colette. I do not wish to discuss the subject."

"What happened to love?" Colette asked.

"It seems that I am incapable of it," Valérie said, ignoring the sting in her eyes. "I will be in the study should you need me. If anyone comes to the door, please inform them I am not entertaining visitors today."

"What if she comes?" Colette asked, giving voice to one of Valérie's fears.

The courtesan flinched. "If she comes to call, I am not home," she said quietly as she avoided Colette's gaze, "but I doubt that is a danger."

Her maid's tone was gentler when she pressed by saying, "What happened?"

"That is something between Lady al-Sajjad and I," Valérie said in her muted tone.

"Can't you tell me anything?" Colette frowned deeply. "You've done so much for me and you never let me help you. You never let anyone. Even Honoré is always at arm's length."

That cracked Valérie's composure, but not completely. "I know," she said, a tremor in those two words.

Without saying more, she retreated from the kitchen towards the study. Valérie was no scholar, but she took some comfort in the books she had collected or were left by the house's prior owners, whether poems, stories, or histories. It was the scent most of all that soothed her, the vanilla hints of aged pages. Honoré often sketched and painted in the study rather than his room, so the smell of paint and charcoals blended with the aroma of knowledge. She closed the door to her fortress of solitude and sat by the fireplace in Honoré's favorite chair, a piece of furniture marvelously broken in by his frequent presence.

She didn't feel in the mood to read anything, though her thoughts lingered a moment on the letters locked in the bureau. She both wanted desperately to rid herself of them and desperately to hold them forever. She stayed her hand from casting them into the fire, knowing she would regret destroying them. Instead of turning to them, she pulled her knees up to her chest and sat curled in the leather armchair. The fire burned warm enough to slow the growing approach of chill.

A rapping at the window pulled her out of her melancholy for a moment.

Valérie turned to look. A large falcon tapped again at the window with its wickedly hooked beak, perched on the sill. It cocked its head at her and made a soft screech, then tapped again near the latch. There was no sign of a hood or harness, which meant this bird was very much wild. She rose to her feet and approached cautiously. Birds like this were intelligent and dangerous, so she didn't want to startle it.

It tapped again on the window right beside the latch, which Valérie took to mean it wanted in. Despite her better judgment, she opened the latch and stepped back.

The bird hopped inside and settled on the floor, looking up at Valérie with dark eyes. It wavered slightly, a distortion in the air, and then it shifted gracefully into a tall, familiar form. Næmr stood before her, his smile soft and apologetic. "Greetings, lovely lily," he said gently.

Valérie jumped despite the weariness that had all but crushed her ability to be startled. Magic like that was a novel experience. She'd honestly forgotten that Aloys told her Næmr was a shapeshifter. Now, confronted with a reminder like this, it was impossible to doubt. "Greetings," she said, relaxing slightly. "I must say, I was not expecting that."

He chuckled. "Few of the little folk do."

Valérie nodded, trying to find a smile. "What can I do for you? I imagine I'll be poor company."

"Aloys and I thought we should check on you, since you have turned away every invitation or expression of concern," Næmr said, dark eyes sympathetic. "I offered to come. Aloys can be headstrong when he feels someone wronged a friend, though I have kept him from Lady al-Sajjad so far."

"A small mercy that I thank you for," Valérie said. She appreciated the gesture of Næmr's visit. Though he was a very new acquaintance, she found his company at least calming. "You might as well have a seat and be comfortable. I don't know what to say."

"I am not here to pressure you into speaking of anything," Næmr said. "I am here to offer our support and to listen if you decide you are ready to speak." He stepped over to the chair opposite from Honoré's beside the fire. "Is there anything I can do?"

Valérie hesitated for a long moment, taking her seat back in Honoré's chair. Again, she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, as if trying to take up less space in the world. "How is she?" Valérie asked finally.

"Distraught," Næmr said with honesty shining in his dark eyes. It wasn't the answer she'd been expecting.

Valérie closed her eyes. "Why?" she asked, not daring to hope.

"She grieves the wound she dealt you. It seems I was correct when I said that she would regret her actions," Næmr said, settling back into the chair. "Doubly so after Honoré's gift. I imagine she is gathering her courage to come here."

Valérie felt a pang of fear when she heard that Honoré had stepped in. "What did he give her?" she asked, dread seeping into her veins.

"Do not fear him breaking confidences. He said nothing of how you have been, which twisted the knife of worry. He only gave her a pencil sketch, a likeness of you, though the gesture had significance. It was as if lightning struck her when she first looked at it. I think it was the final blow breaking her completely out of despair and into action." Næmr studied her a moment before saying more softly. "If you do not wish to be won back, you may have to face her and tell her."

Valérie sighed, a sound edged with tears. A few drops welled in her eyes and she immediately brushed them away before they could even fall. "I don't know what I want," she said. "I…I want to be with her, but this hurts so badly."

Næmr's expression was gentle. "Whatever you decide, you have us."

The courtesan heard a commotion from the direction of the front door and tensed despite wanting to project calm. She wasn't ready for another visit from the Duc, not when everything in her heart was so broken and raw. Her last encounter with him, after the party, had been particularly unpleasant. Unfortunately, whatever was going on, Honoré was not present to save her from it. He had gone out to acquire more pigments for paints.

Næmr rose to his feet in one smooth motion and strode over to the door. He opened it and stepped out, pausing as an obstacle between Valérie and the intruder. "Can I be of assistance?" he said pleasantly.

"I need to speak to Valérie," Thara's voice said from the hallway.

"Mademoiselle de Lys has expressed disinterest in visitors, Lady al-Sajjad," Næmr said with that same tone. "Might I inquire as to your business? Perhaps I can pass along a message."

"Næmr, please," Thara said so softly Valérie could barely hear it.

The giant leaned into Thara'e space and said something that Valérie couldn't hear. Then he stepped aside, moving to go past Thara out into the hall where Colette was probably fuming. "I will leave you two be."

Valérie wanted to beg him to stay, to not leave her alone if things were to be harsh and biting. Næmr was the closest thing to protection she had without Honoré, not that either of them could guard her heart the way they could guard her body. Her mouth was dry now, fear coursing through her.

Then, it stilled. How could it become worse? Surely this was the extent of heartache, not that she was an expert in matters of the heart by any stretch of the imagination.

You have a heart, don't you?

Valérie took a deep breath, trying to work through the pain and—suddenly—anger. She hadn't wanted to be in love. These maddening feelings, the dreams, the delusions of love…they were Thara's doing, not hers. This was far crueler than what she'd once done to Thara in the gardens.

You kissed me. Must you tempt me with what I cannot have?

Thara stepped in, looking windblown, tired, and sorrowful. It was a far cry from the woman on the balcony, almost enough to stem the tide of Valérie's sudden desire to lash out.


"Was your inquisition satisfactory, Lady al-Sajjad?" Valérie said bitterly. "I presume that is why you are here. I trust you found Baron Donadieu more truthful than I."

"I never spoke with him," Thara said quietly.

Valérie didn't know if that was true or not, but whatever the case, she didn't find it comforting. She could feel something building in her chest, some expression of the torment since the balcony. "Why?" she demanded.

"Because—" Thara tried to say.

"Because you weren't satisfied with humiliating me in front of that hag and her sycophant, you had to do it without actually looking for whatever truth you could scrape from Donadieu's heel?" Valérie spat.

Thara shook her head, expression tortured. However much Valérie's friendly neutrality hurt, this was worse. "No, Valérie, please listen—"

"Like you listened to me?" Valérie said, rallying her next salvo.

"I didn't talk to Donadieu because I went back to look for you, to apologize, to do anything to make things right," Thara said swiftly. "You were gone."

Something in Valérie shattered. If she'd left just a minute or two later, would she have left with Thara rather than the Duc? Would there have been a joyful reunion rather than this hellish existence? She realized then that she could taste salt, tears starting to fall.

"I…I l-love you," Valérie said, trying to stem the flow. "Why is that not enough? Why am I—" she cut herself off. She knew why she wasn't enough. There were a thousand reasons stacked upon her and she was painfully aware of all of them. If Thara turned around and left, a thought that was pure torture, it would just be reality returning.

Fingertips touched her cheeks, brushing away the worst of her tears. Thara's forehead touched hers. "You are everything I could ever hope to have, Valérie," the noble whispered. "This is my fault, not yours."

Valérie pulled Thara into a tight embrace, frightened on some level below thought that this would disappear. "You are the only person I want," she said softly. "Please don't…" She stopped herself again. She couldn't ask what she wanted to. Please don't leave me.

Of all the things the heart of Valérie de Lys could stand, that was not among them.

Thara's lips touched her temple. "I'm here," she said gently. "I'm so, so sorry. Never again." The thorn knight took a deep breath and then exhaled, sound edged with tears too. "I thought I'd lost you forever."

Valérie hid her face against Thara's shoulder, letting the tears soak into the cloth of the doublet. The warmth of summer surrounded her in Thara's arms, the smell of cedar and cinnamon soothing the hurt. The gentle touch of Thara's fingers stroking her hair helped the sobs subside, grief ebbing away like a tide. It still hurt. It still meant she would walk on eggshells, but maybe Thara really wanted her.

It was so hard to trust that thought.

"I'm sorry, Valérie," Thara said softly when the faintly trembling courtesan drew back. "I love you too. I don't want to hurt you ever again." She paused, taking a deep breath. "For us to be us, I'll do anything. I don't care if I have to—"

Valérie cut off that thought with a kiss, lips soft against Thara's. The touch was another balm to the wound. Her heart still ached in her chest, but Thara was here, with her, solid and real instead of some figment of her imagination. When they parted, she gave voice to an overwhelming, still frightening thought, "I am yours." She shook her head when Thara looked like she wanted to say something. "This is different from everything that came before it. When I said that I changed because of you, I meant it. You owe me nothing and I would ask nothing of you except…except what I cannot ask."

Thara smiled faintly, though her dark eyes were still worried and self-conscious. "You don't have to ask. You have my heart, Valérie. I love you, I will protect you, and I will stay with you. Never again."

Valérie tried to fight down the tears that came despite, or perhaps because of, the now closed wounds. She nodded and then pressed her face against Thara's shoulder again, pulling in a deep breath.

"I wish I could undo it," Thara said, pain and guilt edging those words.

"You are," Valérie said softly. She finally let her hands move, running up and down Thara's back. That wave of raw feelings hit her again, and with it came a familiar demon, rising like the leviathan out of the deep, gliding just beneath the surface.


The curse seemed to unfold in her body only slightly, the chill of the grave eating into her overwhelming relief. It ached in her bones, but nowhere near as powerfully as it could. This seemed just enough to remind her of its presence, the frightful specter reaching its hand through her essence with midwinter claws.

Thara noticed the way she stopped, her breath caught. "Valérie, what's wrong?"

As soon as the question hung a moment in the air, unanswered, the curse seemed to evaporate.

It would be back. It always came back.

"I just…" Valérie didn't know how to feel. She shifted back again, to meet those dark eyes with her own. I never thought you would come back. She took a deep breath again and then let it go.

Thara studied her for a long moment and then brushed some of the courtesan's hair back behind her ear. "I will never hurt you again, Valérie. I will never leave you."

"Please do not make such promises," Valérie whispered, even though she wanted to hear them more than anything. "They are not for a woman like me."

Thara hesitated a moment, weighing her response. "Agree to disagree," she said finally, a small smile forming.

Valérie smiled too. "Let me wipe the tears away properly," she said, motioning to the handkerchief sitting by the bureau. It had taken many tears of sorrow pouring over those letters, now it would know those of relief.

When she looked back at Thara, it surprised her to see the thorn knight trying to stem the flow of tears. The overwhelming, blessed relief had finally hit with full force. Valérie pressed the handkerchief into the desert noble's hands. "So there is a woman behind the thorns," she teased gently.

"Women are more than tears," Thara defended.

"Which is why they should never apologize for having them," Valérie said. She let her fingertips trail across Thara's soft, dark hair. "I should speak to Colette. Getting past her is an impressive feat. Normally she's more difficult to cow than even Honoré."

"I almost didn't. She's a force of nature," Thara said with a small smile. "I hope Næmr hasn't earned too much of her ire."

"I think he's more likely to have received her confusion than irritation, given that she didn't see him come in the front and the back door is still locked. I haven't told her that he can alter his form as he pleases," Valérie said as she moved towards the door. When she opened it, she heard voices: Næmr and Matthieu trying to soothe Colette. "It's alright, angel."

Colette's scowl was withering. "Alright? I'll—"

The gardener touched his beloved's shoulders. "Mademoiselle de Lys knows her own mind," he reminded Colette gently. "Let's all calm down."

"You sound like Honoré," Colette muttered darkly, relaxing enough that combat seemed less immediately likely.

"I don't sound like Honoré," Matthieu said with his sheepish good nature. "You listen to Honoré."

Valérie laughed, a sound that relaxed everyone. When Thara was absent, there had been no such sign. "You are a treasure, Matthieu," the courtesan said with a bright smile. "As are you, angel. Everything is alright."

And, in that moment, everything was.

Chapter 13
Of the Mending

By K. Olsen

Valérie opened her eyes, trying to push her thoughts through the cold and pain. It was hard to know if she was getting worse, if the curse was truly feeding upon her hidden fears, but she seemed to wake up more often in the grips of midwinter. It probably stemmed from her dreams. No matter how Thara reassured her in her waking hours, her nights took her back to that balcony. She forced herself to sit up, wiping tears away. It wouldn’t do for someone to see her this way. If there was one thing she hated most of all, it was worrying those she cared for.

She wanted to believe Thara’s contrition, but love was easily mingled with anxiety. Every time Valérie kissed the desert noble, a knot formed in her stomach as if she expected a slap across the face the moment she pulled back. Honoré insisted in his gentle way that such things took time to heal. He was probably right, as he usually was, but that didn’t change her trepidation. Perpetually waiting for the sword hanging above her head to plunge down and strike her was not a pleasant experience.

A knock on the door stirred her from those thoughts, from the last grips of the memory of abandonment. “Come in,” she called.

Honoré opened the door, but paused before stepping in with a heavy tread. “Are you decent?”

“Never have I been accused of being so,” Valérie said even as she got out of bed and pulled on a robe. She appreciated the consideration even though she felt comfortable with him seeing her undressed. “Come in.”

He chuckled and stepped in. “I have something to show you,” he said, lifting the large wrapped rectangle he had under one arm.

Valérie smiled as she took a seat back on the edge of her bed. The tide of pain and fear slowly ebbed along with the frost. She would forever be grateful for her friend. He could not cure what ailed her, but sometimes he could draw her heart from it and offer a blessed respite. “A painting?” she guessed.

“My best,” he said proudly, unwrapping the canvas to display.

The courtesan’s breath caught as she studied it. In perfect detail, as if able to simply step off the canvas, was a six-winged angel, dressed only in wraps of white cloth. Ash fell from the edges of each wing. Her eyes were half-closed as if in rapture, chin raised as she turned her face towards the glow of light above. Magical symbols of Eth design swirled across her skin in bands of golden script. One hand held the sword of justice, in the other a delicate, clear vase containing the glowing waters of life. At her feet were the charred remains of a fire that she rose from like a phoenix. “That is beauty beyond compare, Honoré.”

He grinned. “I am glad you approve. It was some months of work, learning how to draw and then paint each different component. The glass was most challenging.”

“Your toil has created something divine,” she said with a smile. “Shall we find a place of reverence on a wall?”

A flicker of nerves crossed his face. “I had another plan for it, actually,” he said, trying his best to keep his voice steady. “I want the abbot of Étain’s Grand Monastery to see it. He is the most devout man in Talin and perhaps the greatest appreciator of art.”

Valérie reached out, covering his hand with her own where he held the painting, offering him a smile. “When he sees it, he will beg you on his knees to restore the paintings of the Cathedral.”

“I doubt that,” Honoré muttered. “If he knew who painted it, I doubt it would incline him to even see it. You know as well as I how popular Eth are in Talin.”

“When he sees that painting, he will know the soul of the one who painted it. That will matter more than the color of your skin and that enchanting accent,” Valérie said confidently. “Maximilian Brodeur is a more understanding man than many give him credit for. After all, he did not cast holy water upon me to burn or construct a pyre when we were introduced.” They didn’t move at all in the same circles, but the courtesan carried a great deal of respect for the man. He had been courteous where others of such a faithful bent forgot their manners in favor of unpleasant whispers.

“That is why I would rather approach him than any other member of the clergy.” Her friend hesitated for a long moment, the scar on his face puckering as he tightened and relaxed his jaw over and over. “Do you think it is possible?”

“I do, but that is immaterial. You need to believe so,” Valérie said gently. “Trust in your hard work and your gift, Honoré. I know your bravery is stronger than mere battle requires.”

Her friend carefully set the painting aside, moving to sit beside the courtesan. “Thank you, Valérie,” he murmured, pulling her into a hug against his broad chest. “What would we do without each other, hmm?”

“You would be fine,” Valérie said with a smile that hid the ache of the curse. “Though perhaps bored.”

Honoré shook his head slightly. “If I must recognize my talent, you must recognize yours, Valérie. You have a sensitive soul and a good heart.”

“Artists are excellent at perceiving the fantastical and ephemeral, even where it does not exist,” Valérie said with a sigh. “People do not come to the incomparable Valérie de Lys for her soul and certainly not her heart.”

Her friend shook his head slightly. “You have people who care about you for precisely those reasons, you know. This is up to and including Lady al-Sajjad.”

Valérie wanted to agree whether or not she felt it. It would be easier to just smile and laugh, to keep her own insecurity beneath lock and key, deep enough that not even he would know it. “I sincerely doubt that.”

“Of us or of her?” Honoré said gently, his tone patient rather than annoyed. She would forever be indebted to her friend for his patience, but sometimes she wished he would let her wriggle out of conversations by being more argumentative. Conflict was an excuse for her to evade the topic entirely, to change the subject, while that maddening tone of understanding all but forced words from her.

Fortunately, Colette’s knock on the door saved her. “Come in, angel. Honoré and I are just talking,” Valérie called.

“Lady al-Sajjad is downstairs,” the maid reported as she opened the door. Her voice still held a more frigid note when she spoke of Thara, but it was thawing slowly. “She said she knows that it’s early, but she wanted to invite you to go riding.”

“Tell her I’ll clean up and dress as quickly as I can,” the courtesan said. She paused for a second before saying, “I have a task to ask of you when that is completed, angel. Should Honoré give his blessing, would you please prepare for dinner with a guest of august status? I suspect he may have something of a retinue, given the circumstances.”

Colette gave her a quizzical look. “Who?” she asked. There had been no mention of a guest the night before, and normally Valérie warned her maid before anything substantial.

“If he will accept, Abbot Maximilian Brodeur,” Valérie said with calm reassurance, managing to not laugh when Colette looked at her like she’d sprouted a second head. “I might also put upon Matthieu for tonight as well. We will need a courier who can be trusted with delicate things.” As much as she was enjoying her maid’s expression, she knew she would need to speak more clearly. “A collection of sketches might be appropriate, again provided Honoré consents.”

“Is this a good idea?” Honoré asked dubiously.

“Well, it’s an idea,” Valérie said airily. “If it goes poorly, he will have a target far more worthy of vitriolic castigation than you to blame for the infamy of proceedings.”

Honoré shook his head despairingly, but he laughed as he did so, his deep chuckling a measure of relief and gratitude along with his good humor. “Thank you for taking the edge of the sword for me.”

“If things go well, no sword will be swung,” Valérie said as she rose to her feet. “Now I had best clean up. The highborn are not famous for their patience.”

“She’ll wait for you,” Honoré said firmly.

Colette muttered something under her breath that sounded like, “She’d better.” More properly, she said, “I’ll tell her and then draw a bath.” The maid scurried off without waiting for an answer, well aware that Valérie almost never refused a chance to bathe.

“So what do you intend to tell the abbot?” Honoré asked.

Valérie offered him a smile. “That I know the greatest of artists and that I invite him to meet that blessed soul.”

“You don’t have to do this, Valérie.”

“You should have a life beyond me, my friend,” she insisted. “Art has been your unceasing passion, your truest of loves. You deserve every laurel in the world bound together in one wreath and set upon your brow. If there is anything in my power that I can do to aid, I will do it, but this is yours.”

Honoré rose to his feet beside her and touched her cheek with one rough hand. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I will speak to him after dinner, after he sees my best, if he agrees.”

Valérie covered his hand with her own and squeezed. They were not in love, but she cared beyond measure about her friend. It had been the two of them against the world almost as long as she’d lived in Étain. “If he sees your sketches, my friend, he will beat the swiftest spirits of wind to our door. I have the utmost faith that you can do this, that you will find the words. Relax and let your muses speak through you. All that matters is the art.”

“You give excellent advice,” he said with a smile. “Now if only you would take some.”

The courtesan laughed. “That would be far too sensible for a creature like myself.”

“She loves you, Valérie,” Honoré promised.

Valérie sighed. “We will see. No matter how I would have it be otherwise, it cannot be. The highborn may have all the power in the world, but that is a blade of obligation that cuts both ways.”

“Give her a chance,” Honoré said. “Love is a power that may vanquish all obstacles.”

Valérie dropped her gaze and bit back the midwinter crawling up her throat. “I should not keep her waiting longer than I must.”

Honoré sighed and pulled her into an almost crushing hug. “I cannot command you to be happy,” he said softly. “But please, for my sake and your own, be open to it.”

“I will muster all the meager courage I possess,” she promised before stepping away and hurrying to the bathroom.

She washed and dressed as quickly as she could. The nerves played like butterflies the size of dragons in her stomach, wings gliding and flapping in a way that left her almost unable to breathe. She tried to banish them with a thought as she brushed her hair, but the accursed things paid her no heed.

Most of all, Valérie hated the idea of Thara seeing her this way. She wanted to be flippant and charming again, not skittish and mute. At least she was a masterful actress, as the desert noble seemed none the wiser. If there was one thing the courtesan had mastered, it was the fine art of being composed despite the reality of her situation.

Not that her time with Thara felt like reality.

She headed down the stairs, ignoring the nervous tremor in her hands. Thara was probably out in the garden. She seemed to have a special fondness for the area, still enchanted by verdant life, though most of what was verdant had vanished under the snow.

Étain was warmer than the capitals Yssa or Genev, but even it could hardly be considered warm when winter’s chill bit. She had to wear a wrap against the cold during the winter, a choice both pragmatic and fashionable. Queen Adriana was as vulnerable to winter as Valérie, and it was ever tasteful to echo the choices of the powerful. Part of it was the monarch’s heritage. From her birth until her twenty-first year, Adriana of House Vrana, scion of the ruling line of the High Kingdom, had lived in the warm south. Her marriage to King Phillipe had been a political one, albeit one that devalued sharply when the kingdom of her birth was utterly annihilated by undead and dark magic.

Valérie sighed slightly. Her garden looked barren in winter. It had suited her mood before, when Thara was away, and then again after everything that had happened at the party. Now, when she wished to feel happy, it seemed more an omen of gloom than anything else. The flowers slept and the trees were bare, the only colors refracted by ice. Thara sat on the wooden bench, swept free of snow every morning by Matthieu. The gardener was a dear man who would probably earnestly try to do right by her for the rest of his days, warranted or not.

She took a moment to look at Thara while the noble tipped her head back in study of the overcast sky. It really wasn’t fair, the way every moment she saw the desert noble, Thara became more beautiful. It wasn’t a sudden flash of superficial beauty, like the application of cosmetics or perfume. It was something softer, a word that she could never find, another brush of gentle warmth across Valérie’s frostbitten heart.

The courtesan must have made a sound or lingered long enough to catch the edge of Thara’s glance, because the desert noble forgot about the overcast morning and turned her eyes towards Valérie. The smile that bloomed across her face made Valérie’s breath catch in her chest. No one smiled at her that way. Her friends smiled at her, but not like that.

Thara rose to her feet and approached, footfalls crunching slightly on the snow.  Matthieu had shoveled much of it off the path, but enough remained to make her tread audible. “I’m sorry to trouble you this early, Valérie,” she said softly, stopping in front of the courtesan. “I wasn’t certain if you would want to ride with me, but I wanted to make the offer.”

“I avoid the affairs of state whenever possible. I know how lords like their riding and hunting,” Valérie said lightly. “I would bore your company or excite them altogether too much, most likely.”

“You are my company, and no other,” Thara explained. “Perhaps it is entirely too selfish, but I wished to spend time with you and you alone.”

The butterflies in the courtesan’s stomach were doing loops, from what she could tell. “A noblewoman should have guards when she is no longer beneath the King’s protection, and even perhaps then. All manner of wickedness can do its work.”

“I am certain that is something Lady al-Sajjad will take under advisement,” the desert noble said with good humor in her dark eyes, extending her hand palm up. “All this simple Thara will do is anything she can to earn a smile from the beautiful lady before her. You are familiar with the expression, I think.”

Valérie let her fingertips rest against Thara’s palm, almost marveling at the pleasant heat of the desert noble’s touch. She was as warm and gentle as a spring sun. “I suppose I have had it described to me once or twice,” she said, her urge to be serious quickly slipping away. “Shall I repeat the recommendation to the lady in question once I have found her?”

Thara laughed. “You are the only lady I care for, Valérie,” she said with a smile, lifting the courtesan’s hand to her lips.

Her heart skipped a beat at the kiss to her knuckles, something entirely ridiculous for a woman of the world like herself. “You and I seem to have fundamentally different definitions of what a lady is,” Valérie noted, her point undercut by her own faint smile. “Either your eyesight is poor and needs checking, or I am concerned about the number of blows to the head you received while on campaign. Or perhaps it is a failure in translation? I know Talinese is not your first language.”

The desert noble stepped in, slipping her arm around Valérie’s waist and pulling her close while her other hand touched Valérie’s chin, keeping the courtesan from turning her eyes away. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I love you more than I have ever loved anything,” Thara promised. “That is clearer to me than the light of the sun and truer than north. No faulty eyesight could cloud that, nor a blow to the head render it forgotten, and it does not require interpretation.”

It was hard to look into those dark eyes and see unshakable certainty there. Thara was not a deceptive person, for good and ill, and when she said things like this, she meant them.

“Please don’t say such things,” Valérie whispered.

“I will say them until the grave has stolen my breath and then whisper them when all I am is a specter of who I once was,” Thara said firmly.

It was not the first time someone had fallen in love with Valérie, but it was the first time she felt her heart stirred in return. Against her judgment, Valérie moved closer until her body was flush against Thara’s and her lips met the noble’s. Poetic declarations of emotion had never been her strong suit, or a suit at all, so she knew she could never reply to Thara with the eloquence deserved.

Thara made no move to break away. One hand made circles at the small of Valérie’s back while the other stroked along the courtesan’s jawline with a featherlight touch. Her kisses were gentle, if blazing with ardor that burned through every hint of winter.

Valérie drew back, less because she wanted to end the kiss and more because she needed to breathe. “We should go riding,” she said softly.

“Or we could stay here,” Thara said with a smile as she brushed some hair out of Valérie’s face. “I have no wish to take my hands from you.”

The courtesan smiled faintly, disguising her worry with a carefree shrug. “Am I a lady or not?”

Thara caught her hand and raised it, pressing her lips to Valérie’s palm. “Forgive me,” she said. “You deserve every iota of romance in the universe. It is just that sometimes it is difficult to think of anything but your touch.”

Valérie felt a glimmer of pride at that. At least she hadn’t lost that edge during the months spent waiting for Thara’s return. “Am I so enchanting?”

“More so than any spell or song I have ever heard of,” Thara said.

Valérie smiled. “I think you are mistaken,” she breathed. “There is only one of us that can enrapture with the merest incantation, leaving the world around spellbound. Most assuredly, that power is yours, Thara al-Sajjad.”

The desert noble smiled. “Agree to disagree,” she said. “Though I am honored that you see such good in me. I am unworthy of your regard.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” Valérie said.

“As you wish.” Thara kept her arms around Valérie, allowing the courtesan room to rest her head against one of the noble’s shoulders. “Where would you like to ride, Valérie?”

Valérie inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell of cinnamon and cedar. She would not admit it, but her poor sleep had rendered her plenty tired. “To the crooked oak,” she murmured. “There is a waterfall a mile from Étain, pouring water that splits around a noble tree that they say survived the lightning strike of a demon. A reminder that nature can outlast even sorcery. Provided that you will return me before five o’clock.”

“Why five?” Thara asked.

“I have dinner with a gentleman of a quality one does not find often in Étain’s courts,” Valérie said. She ran her fingers down Thara’s cheek, adroit enough at reading people that she knew her love was holding in a frown. “I assure you he is not interested in me, nor I in him, the way you might think. This dinner is for Honoré’s benefit, not my own.”

“Might I ask the name of the gentleman in question?” Thara said, trying to sound less serious than she felt.

“Abbot Maximilian Brodeur,” Valérie said.

Thara relaxed slightly, frown fading.

The courtesan pursed her lips. “Thara, I love you and only you. I know it is difficult to believe the word of a woman such as myself, but I need you to trust me,” Valérie said as she pulled back so she could look directly into the desert noble’s eyes. “Whatever happens, I am yours as I promised I was, and nothing will change that.”

Thara sighed softly, her expression moving from relief to apology. “It is not you I mistrust,” she murmured. “There are many wolves in Étain who would take you from me, no matter what you wished.”

“I have my ways of escape,” Valérie promised. “No one but you will hold me.”

“And I only as long as you permit it,” Thara said. She curled a lock of Valérie’s hair around her finger, smiling. “So, the clergy?”

“For Honoré alone would I endure such a hardship,” Valérie said. She gave in to her urge to grin. “His innocent artist’s heart has painted a work without equal, and a courtesan’s pocketbook is not enough to grant him the patronage he deserves.”

“Not for me?” Thara teased.

“I would think,” the courtesan said with something between innocence and clear flirtation, “that you would prefer me far from the virtue and chastity preached by priests.”

Thara’s eyes widened for a split second. She marshaled her response swiftly, however. “Are you saying I cannot mind my manners around you?”

“Oh, I am certain that you can. It is only that you won’t,” Valérie said flippantly. “You may take your hands from me if you wish to prove me wrong.”

Thara shook her head. “The lady is always right,” she said before capturing Valérie’s lips in a kiss that was anything but chaste. When it ended, she continued, “I wish to never take them from you as long as I live.”

Valérie’s heart fluttered, as it always did, at the mention of a real future with Thara. “We should ride,” she reminded the desert noble to ignore her own less than chaste hopes. “And soon.”

“I suppose,” Thara said reluctantly. “If we tarry, I will not be responsible for my actions.”

“Promises, promises,” Valérie teased.

Chapter 14
Of the Dream

By K. Olsen

Maximilian Brodeur was not what everyone expected when they thought of clergy. Not only did he eschew the trappings of material wealth so often found to surround Talin's priests in favor of a traditional habit of homespun brown cloth, he looked and moved like the former soldier that he was. Dozens of scars criss-crossed his face, making his rugged features even more uneven. He moved through the world ponderously, but sometimes hints of his old fire could be seen in the set of his jaw when confronted with the injustices of the world beyond his abbey. 

The abbot’s injuries in battle had been severe: a broken back that left his stance crooked, one shoulder higher than the other, and the blow of a mace that had shattered his jaw. A lump on his chin was visible even now that it had healed, a piece of metal lodged in the bone as a reminder of the dangers and pains of war.

"Mademoiselle," he greeted at the door as Valérie let him in, voice as somber as ever. "Thank you for this invitation."

"It's my pleasure," Valérie said lightly. "I am grateful for this indulgence. Particularly given the risk to your reputation."

Maximilian shrugged slightly, offering her a smile contorted into a twisted near-grimace by his scars. "Your message was most intriguing. Besides, as far as the public is aware, I would wager most see me as a pious influence seeking to sway you from your current lifestyle."

"It might surprise you how easily such a conversation may go," Valérie said. She knew she had piqued his curiosity, so she continued, "But I think we are here to speak of art."

"Indeed," the abbot said with an inclination of his head. "Those sketches you sent along were exquisite. Might I inquire how you came to possess them?"

"I consider their creator a dear friend," Valérie said as she motioned for him to follow her to the dining room. "I must betray my poorly hidden ulterior motive here: I have asked you here so I might advocate on his behalf."

"To what end?" the abbot asked in his thoughtful, measured tone.

"An ambition better discussed after you have seen his more involved work," Valérie said lightly. "Sketches are beautiful, but not reflective of an artist's full skill, wouldn't you agree?"

Maximilian studied her a moment before responding, "Might I take that as an admission that you possess more of the artist's work?" He sounded intrigued and amused. "I suppose you would not have invited me here without it. You would be quite the card player."

"I prefer dice," Valérie said with a smile.

"To leave things in the hands of chance alone?" Maximilian said. That seemed to surprise him. "I would think a woman so adroit at reading the intentions of others would prefer a game where a person is pitted against another."

Valérie shrugged and smiled. "I would think a monk would appreciate me so allowing the gods into my life. A fine way for them to punish me for my sinful lifestyle."

The stern abbot actually chuckled at that. "A sparkling wit. I hope we are not gambling for your artist's works."

"Have no fear," Valérie said. "I've sworn off that nonsense. Not that I was much of one to gamble to begin with. I've had far more luck than I should have ever been allowed. I've none to spare on frivolous things like dice."

Maximilian took a seat at the table as she did and studied her across the settings. "You have done well for yourself in Étain, though your methods are...unconventional."

"That was practically flattery," Valérie said with a grin. "I can think of many who wear the cloth who would not be so genteel, even in my home."

The abbot shrugged. "There are many who cling to trappings and appearances, whose own false piety depends on the denigration of others. If they truly spent their time in prayer and contemplation of their soul, they would not have time to spin rumors and point fingers. If they were in my monastery, they would spend many years scrubbing the floors and learning the value of silence."

"Perhaps I could visit someday. Silence sounds delightful after a few court functions," Valérie said.

"Gods can speak with claps of thunder," Maximilian said. "But I find their love and peace best heard conveyed when the air is quiet, the surroundings simple. If you pray, Mademoiselle, I would recommend you find such surroundings."

"I can understand," Valérie said. "I make most of my prayers in the late hours of the night." It wasn't a lie. Though she wasn't particularly pious, she'd found reason to pray to the gods with Thara in her life. It could hardly erase who she was, but she wanted to be better. 

The abbot seemed to take that comment in thoughtfully, his eyes half-closing as he considered. Then he nodded. "You are not what many people say of you."

"I can ardently assure you I am infinitely worse," Valérie said with a small smile. "There is no finer succubus in all of Étain. My wealth and reputation are evidence of that."

"Perhaps," Maximilian said. She heard a note of something in his voice, not smugness, but a sign that he knew or thought he knew something to the contrary.

It concerned her.

"I don't think you believe me," Valérie said thoughtfully, trying not to feel alarmed.

The abbot steepled his fingers. "I hear things about the wide world from time to time, Mademoiselle de Lys," he said simply, “and I am well acquainted to the kinds of troubled souls who are buffeted now and again by the winds of fate into your hands. Your reputations have preceded you...both of them. As your court functions are proof of one reputation, this dinner is proof of another."

"Oh?" Valérie said.

He smiled faintly. "Some whisper, while others shout your faults to the heavens, that Valérie de Lys is ever a champion for love, even or perhaps especially when it is not her own. What is art but love?"

Valérie leaned back in her seat, narrowing her eyes slightly. "You are quite the card shark, Abbot."

He chuckled. "I will admit a fondness for them."

The side door opened and Honoré tramped in, looking steady for a man who had spent the day pacing rapidly through the house like a half-spooked barn-cat. "I apologize for my tardiness," the Eth man mumbled, watching the abbot carefully.

Maximilian rose and offered the former soldier his hand. "Well met," he said courteously. His tone was not noticeably colder, nor was his approach stiff. If he felt dislike for the Eth man based upon his race, he gave no outward sign.

"Allow me to offer you gentlemen an introduction," Valérie said lightly. "Abbot Maximilian Brodeur, this is Honoré Ironsi, a very dear friend of mine."

Even though Honoré was head and shoulders above the abbot, he seemed almost in awe of the holy man. "It is an honor," Honoré said sincerely, shaking Maximilian's hand. "I have heard many things, all of them good."

"I suspect that you are less well-travelled in the circles of Étain's powerful than our charming hostess," the abbot said with a small grin. "I have been told I have the implacable piety of the gods' finest terrier."

"I am certain that is so spoken only by the gods' worst rats," Valérie said with her normal impish good humor. "And I would know them, given how generously they donate to my livelihood."

Honoré winced slightly at that, but Maximilian chuckled. "My condolences on their company," the abbot said, taking a seat once Valérie sat down.

"Colette said she would have food out in a moment," Honoré said. The maid didn't eat with guests when she could avoid it, mostly because her inner gossip enjoyed eavesdropping and conferring with whatever staff came with Valérie's guests. The abbot had brought no one with him, but Valérie knew that Matthieu was helping around in the kitchen and it would distract Colette plenty chatting with him. Not to mention introducing him to excellent wine, rather than the swill he probably drank without Valérie's purse strings financing.

Valérie had no objection. She'd already picked out the bottle of champagne she intended to give them for their first anniversary. It was months away, but she knew that glow in their expressions when they looked at each other. They wore it every bit as well as Aurore and Pascal. Barring an act of Heaven, she could practically hear wedding bells.

"Are you an appreciator of the arts as well, Monsieur Ironsi?" the abbot said curiously.

"Very much so," Honoré said with a nod. He smiled wryly. "Though my skin is advertising enough of that, I think."

"The Eth are talented artists as well as warriors," the abbot acknowledged, “but I do not make it a habit to assume that what is outside is a reflection of what is inside."

"You are a rare man in Étain, at least above the common people," Honoré said, a relief seeping into his expression.

"A fact not to the credit of those who rule," Maximilian said wryly. "The contents of a man's heart should be what we judge, but in a place of mirrors like Étain's court, most stop with the reflection."

"True enough," Honoré said. He glanced over towards Valérie, searching for some kind of cue.

She flashed him a smile. "Before we dwell too long on the shortfalls of human nature, my good philosophers, perhaps we should refocus on art?"

"Forgive me, Mademoiselle, my mind wanders," the abbot said before turning back to Honoré. "I have it upon good authority that Mademoiselle de Lys's particular weakness is for poetry, but might I inquire as to yours, sir?"

Valérie's eyes widened slightly, heart lurching. Her affection for verses was not well known, particularly after her failure to swoon for altogether too many besotted poets. The number of them that were any good she could number on one hand.

There was only one she could think of who was both excellent with words and capable of making her feel like swooning. If the Abbot, so removed from Étain knew about Thara, they had a large and Court-shaped problem to deal with now. The Duchesse Delamarche and her thug hadn't made their knowledge of any feelings involving Thara public, probably because they'd lost interest with Valérie not yet returned to the public eye, but it coming out could still be utterly ruinous for Thara.

There was only one way to find out.

"Might I inquire to the source of your certitude on my affinity?" Valérie asked, feeling horribly unbalanced. "Unless it was rendered in the sacrosanct confessional, I suppose."

The abbot smiled. "A young man of your acquaintance seeking advice on his own poet."

That narrowed the field enough for Valérie to pinpoint the culprit. "He should consider himself fortunate if I don't box his ears," she mumbled into her wineglass, thanking Colette mentally for filling glasses prior to dinner.

"Who?" Honoré asked.

Valérie gave him a long-suffering sigh, but inwardly she hoped that the Abbot had given excellent advice to Aloys. He was the only young man who knew about Thara's maddening effect on her and had his own poet to worry about. She hadn't seen him or Næmr for a few weeks, as both men had agreed to go boar hunting with Gaspard and a few of his friends out in the woods to the north. Valérie would have worried more, but the Comte Estienne was also in attendance and there was no way Pascal would let harm fall on either of Valérie's friends.

Colette opened the door to the kitchen at that moment, allowing the smell of mouthwatering food to wash in. She wasn't the finest cook in all of Étain, as she preferred cosmetics and fashion, but she was a damn fine one after years of dealing with noble guests. Valérie had always meant to hire more staff, but Colette insisted she could manage. It wasn't every night that Valérie entertained, and on the nights where it was just the three of them, Valérie was never in the mood for complicated.

It was perhaps her own common roots, but Valérie still keenly appreciated peasant food, and it wasn't something she always had the choice to eat. She made the most of it whenever she had the chance.

Knowing that this first impression could make or break Honoré's hopes, Colette had apparently poured her heart and soul into the meal. The food was simple enough not to be seen as some gluttonous indulgence to a man of the cloth, a venison stew with various vegetables accompanied by fresh, steaming loaves of bread, but everything had an extra touch of care and flavor. Paired with one of the nicest bottles of wine Valérie owned, it was unassuming and spectacular at the same time.

Valérie caught Colette's wrist as she passed once Honoré and the abbot lost themselves in the debate of Étain's various artists. "You are heaven sent, angel," the courtesan whispered. "Thank you for all of this on such short notice. No one else could have made such a miraculous dinner."

Colette smiled, glancing over at the two men. "Think it will help?" she asked quietly.

"There is no doubt in my mind," Valérie said. She smiled slightly. "I hope you have enough portions for yourself and your future husband."

"I made plen—what?" Colette's comment ended in a squawk that drew the attention of both Honoré and Maximilian.

Valérie was the picture of innocence, steadfastly ignoring Colette's panicked glare and flaming red cheeks. She smiled up at Colette. "Is something the matter, angel?"

Colette retreated, sputtering less than genteel language under her breath and fanning her cheeks to return them to normal by the time she made it to the kitchen. Valérie hid her smile behind one hand, knowing that the effort was entirely in vain.

Teasing the maid was still one of Valérie's favorite activities.

Honoré chuckled, familiar with the visible elements of the courtesan's good-natured prodding.

For the rest of dinner, Valérie was content to let the conversation flow as it willed. Honoré and their guest were getting along famously, if the grins and chuckles were any indication. It wasn't until plates were cleared away and they had retreated to the study that Valérie made her move.

"Honoré," Valérie said lightly, drawing her friend's attention. "Would you be so kind as to fetch the painting?"

The Eth man's eyes widened, the chief sign of his anxiety returning. "I can do so," he said with a nod, striding off to get it without waiting for dismissal. Valérie knew he would take the time to calm himself as much as he could and marshal his words together.

Maximilian turned to face the courtesan. "This painting is your artist's?" he said, though it was not really a question.

"Indeed," Valérie said. "The finest of his work I have seen so far."

"You still have not told me your ambition for your artist," Maximilian observed. "What heights you hope he will reach."

"My ambition is for him to chase his dream," Valérie said. "All artists deserve that chance."

"So few can pursue such dreams. An unusually noble course of action for you to push so for his success," the abbot said. "Mercenary is a word associated often with Étain's courtesans, particularly those who have built careers like your own. I hope that does not offend."

"I consider it flattering, to have professionalism so strongly part of my image," Valérie said. She fell quiet for a minute or two, then smiled at the sound of the door opening again. She meant her expression to encourage Honoré. His nerves were difficult to notice, just a certain stiffness in his posture and the set of his jaw, but Valérie could read him like a book.

"Well, let's see this painting," the abbot said pleasantly.

Honoré stepped close and unwrapped the canvas, revealing the form of his angel. It stopped the abbot in his tracks. Maximilian's expression was reverent as he studied every detail. The room was perfectly silent for a long moment as he took in the sight before him.

Honoré waited apprehensively for his answer. Valérie was much more confident in their guest's love of beauty.

"It is heavenly," Abbot Maximilian said finally. "I see the inspiration of the gods flowing perfectly into the art. Your artist is a man without equal, Mademoiselle de Lys."

"Agreed. I would wager he could assist in the Cathedral's restoration," Valerie said. "He has gone as far as skill can take him. He needs opportunity."

"And he will have it," the abbot said.

Valérie smiled and turned to Honoré, who looked stunned and worried in equal measure. She understood: he knew too well there was a danger that his Eth blood would close that door even before it technically opened. "Perhaps you should meet the artist now."

The abbot's eyes still fixed on the canvas. "That would be wonderful."

"I am the man who sketched and painted what you have seen," Honoré said with all the confidence he could muster. He stood as tall and firm as he could.

Maximilian looked up sharply, tilting his head slightly to the side as he looked at Honoré. His gaze measured the artist before him, taking in the Eth man's appearance. He looked like a warrior, not a painter. "I will ask you what I would ask any artist in this situation, Monsieur," the abbot said thoughtfully. "If you would indulge me, that is."

"Of course," Honoré said.

The abbot gestured towards Valérie's writing desk and the papers scattered across it. "Show me."

Honoré nodded. He didn't seem insulted, as it was still much more generous a reaction than he'd been expecting. There was no mocking laughter or scorn driving him from the abbot's presence. Just that same quiet consideration. He gently set the painting aside on the couch and fetched his pencils from the shelf, stealing paper and then a book to use as a writing surface. He gestured to his favorite armchair. "Please, sit," Honoré said, calming as he settled into his most comfortable world of being. "I prefer to draw people than still-life scenes, though I make an exception for landscapes. It is in living things that beauty shines clearest."

Valérie smiled. Honoré's art, realistic as it could be, also smoothed the rough edges of his subjects with a loving hand. That genuine adoration was the core of his art as much as talent and skill. For a man some had called dispassionate for not indulging in romantic liaisons, Honoré had more ardor burning in his heart than any self-professed romantic. He knew humans at their worst, but when he drew them, they seemed at their best. It was a quality Valérie saw in no other artist in Étain.

Talin was a kingdom that did not deserve a man as good as Honoré. That he remained was a gracious act of mercy, and Valérie hoped that someday people would understand how fortunate they were.

She still remembered the starving beggar, scarred by war, lying on the street that winter day. It was the day that Honoré had saved her life, even if he insisted it was the other way around. It was also the day that she'd promised herself she would do anything he asked of her, just as he had earnestly promised the same. She would never have a dearer friend.

The courtesan sat back, watching over Honoré's shoulder as the abbot's face came to life on paper, the firelight captured perfectly as it danced across Maximilian's thoughtful expression. By the time Honoré finished, the image was so breathtakingly detailed that it might have been a mirror image except for its monochromatic nature.

Honoré scrutinized it for a long moment, then looked up and smiled. "Do you recognize this man?" he said, handing it over.

The abbot turned the piece of paper to see and raised his eyebrows. "That is most impressive," he said. He nodded slightly, weighing his words before speaking again. "I would like you to visit the abbey, Monsieur. I do not know if you are aware, but we are almost finished constructing a new chapel. The walls and the ceilings are bare, however. If you are willing, I would most appreciate your angelic work there." He offered a genuine smile. "My patronage is small compared to that of others, but the envy of Étain's archbishop will secure you a purse without equal when he sees a work of your quality adorning our humble church."

Honoré almost gaped. "Are you—"

"I imagine he is quite certain, my friend," Valérie said, beaming. "Maximilian Brodeur is not a man who speaks his mind with an uncertain heart."

"Our gracious hostess is correct," the abbot said with a chuckle. He rose to his feet and held out a hand to Honoré for the Eth man to shake. "May I keep this sketch?"

Honoré was grinning like a fool as it sank in. "It and the painting are yours," he said earnestly, shaking the abbot's hand. "You will not regret this."

"Of that, I am most certain," the abbot said. "We greatly appreciate your generosity to my monastery. When you have come and seen the amount of work necessary, we will arrange for an endowment befitting the workload."

Valérie caught Honoré's gaze and winked once they had bid their farewell to the abbot. "You look like the moon fell upon your head, my friend," she teased.

"A star certainly did," Honoré said. He swept Valérie up in his arms and spun, letting out a whoop. "We did it!"

"You did it," Valérie said gently, poking him in the chest. "Your art did it. Now, let's find Colette. This, my friend, calls for champagne."

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