by K. Olsen
After giving her lily to the passionate and poetic Thara al-Sajjad in the gardens, Val is fiercely debating her decision to entertain the thought of love.
"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.