by K. Olsen
After a chance meeting at a party, Thara and Valerie's romance has flourished through letters despite being parted by war. Now with the fighting ended, the courtesan hopes for a happy reunion.
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?"
"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, but...now 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.