by K. Olsen
After a chance encounter in the gardens of Aurore's birthday party and a talk with her friends about the risks, Val has her first meeting with Thara.
Sunlight always seemed to restore Valérie and the day after taking that turn for the worse was no exception. She sat under the dappled shade of the apple tree, watching the fluttering butterflies who seemed so fond of her island of serenity. Their amber wings, edged in dark, were regal enough to warrant the name Monarch. Not for the first time, she regretted her lack of poetic skills. She could charm, but writing verses of description of nature's beauty was hardly her strength.
She heard the side door open to admit someone who walked with a tread much lighter than Honoré's and she knew for a fact that Colette would be at the market another hour enjoying the weekend. That narrowed the field considerably. Was it strange that despite all her doubts and insecurities, she smiled? Valérie considered trying to quash it, but decided brooding might be impolite.
"Good morning," she said, turning to face the intruder.
"May I join you?" Thara asked, only a pace or two into the garden.
"Of course, should you find my little grove agreeable." Valérie's tone was both light and thoughtful as she studied her guest. Thara had dispensed with the courtier's wardrobe, and the change suited her nigh perfectly. She wore a white silk shirt under a grey doublet unbuttoned at the moment and dark pants with an emerald sash. Her clothes fit her well, no longer an outfit that concealed her athletic nature.
"It is beautiful," Thara said as she looked around. "I do not think I will ever become accustomed to green growth. It is wondrous, but foreign."
"The desert has its own charms, I'm sure," Valérie said with a smile. The way Thara was smiling at the lush foliage gave her an idea.
"It does," the thorn knight said. "Perhaps one day you will see them."
"Perhaps." Valérie rose to her feet, dusting off stray blades of grass. "Speaking of exploration, have you gawked at the many sights of Étain?"
"Sadly not," Thara said, her expression curious. "Are you suggesting we see it?"
"If you find the suggestion agreeable. I expect Aurore's hands are tied in one fashion or another, so I imagine she's not available to be a proper hostess. It's a travesty, really," Valérie said. She hadn't been on a proper walk in some time, as it was ill-advised given the curse's random attacks. Still, she found that she wanted to. "We won't be seeing the entire city, it's much too large for that, but my humble abode is at the verge of the Artisan's Way. At the opposite end of these delightfully crooked streets is the Emerald Crown, the largest garden in a city of man ever constructed, or so they say."
Thara's eyes lit up. "Truly?"
Valérie found the thorn-knight's enthusiasm both amusing and strangely charming. "I'm amazed you haven't seen it yet. It's at the far end of the Noble Quarter from the Estienne Estate, though I suppose the fortifications might detract from the view. It's a shame we can't design our cities with purely aesthetics and harmony in mind."
"They say that it is so on some large archipelagos near the Imperium," Thara said. She offered her arm to Valérie as they walked. "Houses that are works of art, cities with gardens for streets, not a hint of a fortress in sight."
Valérie hesitated a moment, but then accepted Thara's arm. In a few moments, they passed through the house and then out into the street. It was early enough in the morning that they weren't likely to be jostled, not that people would have stepped in too close with someone native to the deserts. Thara's people had a definite reputation as warriors, even their women. There was a reason the undead had not made it to Étain despite demonic help. As they strolled, Valérie relaxed and kept her hold somewhat loose on the thorn knight's arm. They were walking close enough that they were always in contact and it felt surprisingly comfortable for strangers.
All around them, life flowed through the city like blood through a great beating heart, individual pieces in flux while the whole worked in concert. The Artisan's Way was a stretch of crooked streets decorated with workshops displaying wares: glassblowers, potters, weavers, smiths, carpenters, and more. Only the tanners were elsewhere, due largely to their smell. Breathtaking murals spanning subject material from great historical events to floral and fractal patterns to portraits decorated the district’s walls. The small food carts that catered to the workers in the Way put out aromas spicy and savory, sweet and sour. The trade that had enriched Talin had brought with it the best of many worlds.
"This is amazing," Thara said. Her smile had become more of a grin with each block. It had to hurt the muscles in her face.
"Is this not the Étain they promised you?" Valérie said lightly. They passed under an arch that gleamed in the sunlight, copper prayers to Mode etched in its surface. Talin's artisans never failed to praise the Song of Dawn when there was work to do. They often said that everything came out just a little better and easier when the name of the god of beauty was invoked.
"We always hear on the front that it's a lovely city, if snobbish and self-important."
The courtesan laughed. She felt much more comfortable holding Thara's arm now, easy good humor breaking through her reticence. "That description is correct. However, it is not everything. Most of the people are generally good, as is probably true of people everywhere."
"You surprise me," Thara said when she looked over thoughtfully. "Optimism about the common people is not often found in the nobility."
"I suppose it's my more common breeding showing," Valérie said, waving to one carpenter she knew from repairs to her home. It was older, which meant it required more care. "I am not a noble, though I almost exclusively keep their company. A woman like myself is valuable even if not for marriage and children."
Thara was quiet for a moment before saying, "I hadn't realized."
A twinge of nerves manifested in the pit of Valérie's stomach. "I hope I have not caused offense by the seeming."
"Not at all," the thorn knight said, giving Valérie a sincere smile. "I merely lacked awareness of your own bravery."
That same, pleased smile crept across Valérie's expression. The thorn knight had her charms. "Flattering, but they're hardly an undead horde."
"Undead are simpler," Thara said. "You know where they stand at all times and the threat can be dealt with straightforwardly: the blow of a weapon. I find the company of Talin's elite far more harrowing and complicated. It is one reason I'm so grateful for you."
"I shall endeavor to illuminate safe paths," the courtesan said.
Thara smiled and pulled her a little closer without thinking. "You do have a glow. When I spoke to your man—"
"There I must disabuse you of a notion," Valérie said, interrupting gently. "Honoré is not my servant. He is a dear friend who is kind enough to look after myself and Colette."
"But you pay him, surely," Thara said, mentally readjusting.
"My money is his if he requires it," Valérie explained. "And I make certain he takes enough of it to be comfortable at all times. It is my way of being a patron of the arts." When she saw Thara's brow furrow questioningly, she smiled. "Along with knowing a great deal of horses, he's a marvelous painter, probably one of the best in Étain. Perhaps if he is amenable, I can show you some of what he's done. Unfortunately, that Eth blood closes many doors."
"You keep fascinating company," Thara said. "A soldier turned painter...is Colette Eth as well?"
"No, she is very much Talinese. Hiding that is utterly impossible, given I think she could get a sunburn on an overcast day. She's very sweet and entirely too fashion-conscious for her class. She would have made an exquisitely dressed noblewoman," Valérie said. It was oddly enjoyable to explain her unorthodox little family to Thara. The thorn knight was just such a good listener, attentive to every word.
The noblewoman smiled. "How you speak of them does them and you great credit."
"You think so highly of me because you were not privy to my dinner conversation with Aurore the other night. Aspersions were cast, scathing condescension uttered, sarcasm delivered with finely honed timing—a veritable assault on genteel decorum, all in the name of the great god Humor. It's a terrible but highly enjoyable tradition of mine."
"That explains Aurore's uncontrollable giggling. I had not figured her for a woman who enjoys such events," Thara said amused. "I feel somewhat neglected for being left out."
Valérie directed the thorn knight around a corner. One more, and they would enter the Emerald Crown. "Well, next time I shall impress upon the good Comtesse the importance of corrupting the sensibilities of our resident thorn knight. Would that be more agreeable?"
"I look forward to it already."
The courtesan stopped just before they could round the next corner, pulling Thara to a stop. "Do you trust me?" she asked, tone light so that Thara would know the request would not be serious.
The answer she received was less flippant, at least in tone. "I do," Thara said with that same sincerity.
"You know me so little," Valérie said, surprised.
"Am I wrong?" the thorn knight said, tilting her head slightly to the side, dark eyes intense enough that Valérie felt almost exposed.
Still, it was not the first time someone had scrutinized her. Valérie was not one to squirm. Instead, she settled back on her initial course of action. She stepped behind Thara and covered the thorn knight's eyes with her hands. "Take ten steps forward, then turn fully to your left."
Thara laughed even as she obeyed. "Is this a game?"
Valérie followed her easily. She'd always been an excellent dancer, so this was simple. It put her in closer contact with Thara than she'd been comfortable with at the start of their jaunt, but now she felt at ease enough to do this. Perhaps it was her own impish nature getting the better of her. "Hardly, but it makes the surprise better," Valérie said. In her most imperious tone, which was barely imposing, she ordered, "Walk forward. I will tell you when to stop."
"I take it that will please the lady?"
The courtesan smiled. "As soon as I locate a lady, perhaps we can determine that. In the meantime, your resident Valérie will find it gratifying."
"You are a lady," Thara said firmly, but she walked as she spoke. "It is a status conferred also upon those of genteel nature who do not have a title. I would say that you are included in that statement."
"Agree to disagree, my dear thorn knight." When she felt Thara hesitate, no doubt marshaling a counter-argument, Valérie felt it was time to cheat just a little. She leaned in slightly closer to Thara's back and pitched her voice a half-step down before murmuring near her ear, "Please?"
Thara's cheeks warmed under Valérie's hands. "As you wish," the thorn knight said almost too quickly.
The courtesan barely stopped herself from giggling, impressive considering she couldn't hide behind her hand. It really hadn't been fair of her to use that lower, rather more inviting tone on Thara, but she knew it would work. It worked on most people in a general sense and doubly so on her admirers. Still, she was using her powers for good now. Her goal was to make the Emerald Crown the best impression it could be, even if they were getting strange looks from passersby.
"How far?" Thara asked.
"Trust me," Valérie coaxed. "You move very well without sight. Most would trip over their own feet."
"A warrior who trains well does not train only in daylight." Thara seemed bemused as Valérie urged her on, but also content to let the courtesan play whatever game she was playing. It was endearing. Hopefully, it would be worth the wait.
Valérie let her hands fall away the moment they passed through the gate to the Emerald Crown. She smiled when she saw that Thara had closed her eyes. "Here we are. You may gaze as you please once more."
Thara opened her eyes and made a small sound of something approaching disbelief, her eyes going wide and lips parting. Awe seemed to wash over her as she gazed for the first time at the Emerald Crown.
To call it a park was to do it a great disservice. Carefully walled from the rest of the city, the Crown was a forest of ancient growths carefully tended to by the legion of gardeners in service to the goddess of life herself. The towering redwoods visible from much of the city seemed even greater when one stood at their roots. There were many trees interspersed here, surrounding crystalline growths of quartz and other minerals left behind by the magics of the Revealing sculpted into likenesses of Talin's heroes.
Reflecting pools of various sizes marked every hundred feet, giving the impression of miniature skies on the ground, surrounded by fragrant fallen needles. Birdsong filled the area, the air perfumed by hundreds of different flowering plants. It felt utterly serene, though it was far from unoccupied. Everywhere, there were people enjoying the scenery.
Valérie was well familiar with its glories, so she amused herself by watching Thara's expression. For a woman who had never seen such a forest, given Talin's south and west were flat plains or rolling hills with forests well cut by the surrounding villages, this was no doubt a shock to the system. Spellbound, the thorn knight took in the sight motionless and silent for a long, long moment.
"It is beautiful," she breathed finally.
"I rather think so," Valérie agreed. "Far more than that musty palace or the noble district."
Thara turned to face her, something soft in her expression. "Almost as much as you."
Something happened to Valérie which had not happened in a very long time, something she had assumed was no longer a part of her character: she blushed. It was mortifying, it really was. She knew how to take a compliment, so there was no reason to. "When I heard of the deadliness of the Thorn Knights, they neglected to mention the lethality of their charm. Forget swinging a blade: we should weaponise your flattery."
"Is it flattery?" Thara countered. "To me, it is a statement of fact."
Valérie realized her hand was lingering on Thara's arm, but didn't move to correct it lest that dampen the spark in the thorn knight's eyes. "I do believe you to be quite dangerous, Lady al-Sajjad."
"Never to you."
"Again, I feel we must agree to disagree," Valérie said. She turned away from Thara, facing deeper into the Crown. "Come, you have yet to see the most beautiful part of this district."
"Valérie..." Thara started.
The courtesan looked back at the desert noblewoman. "Indulge me in this, and I will gather the will to entertain madness as we walk."
The thorn knight nodded as they walked forward. She smiled when she felt Valérie take her arm again. "So where is this place we're going?"
Valérie was altogether too pleased with herself for enchanting Thara with rare nature. She guided the noblewoman to their destination without answering the question, ambling so Thara could take on all the surrounding beauty. "I hope you find this as charming as I did."
The growth opened before them, revealing a large pond. Delicate water lilies, white edged in purple, broke up the polished glass surface of crystalline water. A weathered wooden bridge formed an arch as it spanned across the pond. Dappled fish swam beneath the surface, every once in a while sending ripples across the placid waters. Edged in sections of sand, carefully raked into flowing patterns and beyond that with thick green ferns, the pond was serenity itself. Quartz statues stood half hidden in foliage, these carved in the images of protective spirits. A small bell-tower rose on the far end of the pond, decorated itself by climbing honeysuckle. Butterflies flitted around them, playing in the sunshine. Above them, finches warbled and chirped happily.
Almost dazed in her silence as she took in the sight, Thara’s grin was again so wide that Valérie imagined it hurt. "This is...incredible," she whispered finally.
"Your new favorite place, I take it?" Valérie asked.
"Very much so," Thara said almost breathlessly. She turned to face Valérie fully and took a half step forward, putting them close together. "Knowledge of this place is a greater gift than I could have ever hoped for. I know I will spend a great deal of time here."
The courtesan decided that her best course of action would be to minimize it. "Anyone could have shown you here. I just reached you first."
"I doubt they would take my arboreal fascination into consideration," Thara said. "You did."
Valérie hesitated, a strange warmth spreading through her body along with a tingle of anticipation. Her heart was fluttering with frankly embarrassing enthusiasm as she looked directly into dark eyes. "I try to be considerate."
Thara smiled. "You are." Her fingertips almost touched Valérie's cheek, but Thara held back. After a second of hesitation, she spoke. "May I?"
The hammering in Valérie's chest was apparently there to stay, even though she knew the correct answer was to refuse whatever Thara had in mind. What came out of Valérie's mouth instead gave no thought to practicality. "Yes."
Thara smiled, fingertips ghosting across Valérie's cheek. She moved in until she was almost flush against the courtesan. Her body seemed to radiate warmth, though perhaps that was wishful thinking on Valérie's part, a foolish hope of banishing the curse.
What do you want, Valérie? she asked herself. The answer in that moment was easy and frightening.
When Thara hesitated for a moment, Valérie leaned forward slightly, brushing her lips against the thorn knight's in one smooth movement. Without thinking, she framed that sienna face in her far paler hands, anchoring herself in the kiss's sensation. Strong hands caught hold of her hips, pulling her in tight against Thara's body.
For something so dangerous, it felt so incredibly right.
Valérie drew back when she lost her breath completely. Thara's eyes seemed somehow darker than before, and she kept her hold on Valérie. She hesitated a moment, weighing words before discarding them. Instead, she kissed Valérie back lighter than she truly wanted to. One kiss turned into more, barely kept tame.
Their moment lasted what felt like an instant, but Valérie was certain it was more time than they were expecting. Valérie rested her head on Thara's shoulder, trying to slow the beat of her restless heart. The hands stroking up and down her back were immensely comforting, despite the doubt eating away at her psyche.
This was not wise, and she was a fool for allowing it.
"You are amazing," Thara murmured.
Valérie pulled back, grey eyes sorrowful. "We should not have," she whispered. "You have a reputation to consider."
"I want this," Thara said firmly. "I want you. This means more to me than what people think."
"I promised Aurore that I would guard you from scandals. I'm sorry," Valérie said. It tore at her heart. "This cannot happen again."
She saw a flash of frustration in Thara's eyes. "You kissed me. Must you tempt me with what I cannot have?"
"I'm sorry," the courtesan whispered. A wretched feeling crept up out of her stomach in the face of Thara's hurt.
Thara pulled in a deep breath. "I shall have to change your mind, Mademoiselle."
The formality was jarring, but Valérie knew why it was present. Thara was guarding her heart from more rejection. No doubt Valérie's words had cut her.
"I'm sorry," Valérie said again, trying to ignore the twisting knot in the pit of her stomach.
Thara didn't answer her with more than a wounded glance, retreating from the Emerald Crown. It left Valérie bereft by the pond, resting her fingertips against her lips. It was hard to even describe the way those kisses felt. They were soft and warm like sunlight, conferring safety and blessed relief from her conflicted thoughts. In that moment, she knew exactly what she wanted.
And then, in true Valérie de Lys fashion, she'd ruined her happiness before it could even bloom. She sat on the weathered wooden bench that was closest to her, burying her face in her hands.
She should be content, surely. This was what she had intended for, what she'd wished for: an end to Thara's fascination with her. And yet, she felt terrible. She only hoped that Thara had heard the regret in her voice, that she wouldn't be so furious, that she would understand the motivation was to protect her and not some malice.
Stinging silence bathed her walk home.