by K. Olsen
As things with Thara slowly heal for Valerie, she and Honore have come to a plan to help him chase his dream of artistry: speaking to the abbot of the kingdom's most famous monastery.
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."