by K. Olsen
After a long absence from the court, Val makes her return to the function that is Aurore's birthday party.
"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.