by K. Olsen
After carrying a romance out as much as possible by letters while Thara was away at war, Valerie anxiously looks forward to their reunion and her promise to herself that she will tell Thara everything
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 offers...how 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.