by K. Olsen
After an encounter in the Emerald Crown with Thara that became more heated than expected, Val tried to end the possible romance for fear of scandal, but it did not end well.
Valérie sighed as she watched the bedroom door shut. She was seldom sorry to see the back of Hector Delamarche and today was no exception, given his rather foul mood upon arrival. At his best, he was considerate. At his worst, he left bruises, many of which were to Valérie's arguably inflated sense of pride. For all the immodest nature of a courtesan's profession, a healthy heaping of modesty made for a much less painful career...though the nobility did not take a shine to the modest. Not to say standards were above her place in the world. She had those and there were many people barred from her bed. Still, there were days when she would have appreciated the world behaving as if she deserved the respect she asked for.
She studied the dark coloration that was already forming on her left forearm. The Duc had a brutal grip to match his cruel heart. Colette could cover it, but Valérie minding it for the next day or two would be necessary, lest she bump it into something. It surprised her that it didn't hurt more.
After a minute or two, there came a knock at the door to distract her from her thoughts.
Even if it was just Colette, Valérie supposed that it would be better if she was wearing more than a sheet. "Coming!" she called as she got out of bed and hunted for the white slip she'd been wearing earlier. It would show a fair amount of leg and décolletage, but that was still an improvement, and she didn’t worry about an unfamiliar audience. She found it pooled on the floor and picked it up, sighing again when she realized it had gained a rip. It tempted her to demand compensation for damages to her wardrobe, but pinching pennies over fabric seemed rather crass. If it had been her dress, perhaps, as those were more expensive. Before she could reflect too long, she pulled the slip on and went to the door, opening it. "Yes, my most magnificent of angels?"
Colette was standing with her arms full of a bouquet, one that could not have come from Delamarche. He sent jewelry when he felt as though he wanted to ensure her loyalty, which she preferred to flowers. Plants faded, stones did not. Still, it was a sweet sentiment to come from anyone. "Are you alright?" the maid asked, scrutinizing every inch of Valérie that she could see. Her eyes locked on the courtesan's arm almost immediately. "That rotten piece of—"
"Colette, while I do appreciate the sentiment and the vocabulary you earned courtesy of the city's least understanding magistrate," Valérie said firmly, putting her hands on Colette's shoulders, "I know how to handle myself and I know how to handle the Duc. He was inconsiderate, not hostile."
The ferocity of Colette's glare showed that she found that answer far from satisfactory. "I'm fetching cold," the maid said, pushing the bouquet into her mistress's arms. Without waiting for agreement, she marched off with heated rant spilling from her lips at a volume quiet enough that Valérie couldn't make out the words. For all her sunny disposition and demure nature, Colette had a gift for the more vulgar parts of language that could send a sailor scurrying with a red face and wide eyes. It was clear only when she grew angry, mostly because Valérie and Honoré had gently discouraged the casual smatterings of profanity in everyday speech.
The courtesan looked down at the bouquet. They were lilies, but not of the variety that grew in her garden. The scarlet petals with speckled patterns of yellow announced themselves as desert fire, or so the Talinese called the variety. She was certain the Eth had some other name for them, growing at oases in the depths of the desert. They came to the market sometimes, if rarely given that most of them that made it to Étain came in the form of oil meant for perfume. They were incredibly aromatic in a way other varieties were not. Someone had chosen their gift carefully and gone to considerable expense just for flowers.
Valérie knew exactly who they were from. The fact that her heart did a tiny backflip was evidence enough of that. There was a card addressed in slanting handwriting, the letters hinting that the author had first learned to write using a different script.
Mademoiselle, I hope you accept these as the apology that they are. I have never been known for a calm head, and I abused your good intentions by not accepting your refusal with grace. I hope that when we next meet, it will be as friends. Aurore has insisted I be exposed to as much culture as I can stand and so we will be in attendance of the opera this evening. It would be wonderful to see you there, should you wish it. Yours, Thara al-Sajjad.
Even after she finished reading, Valérie found that she didn't particularly wish to move, holding the fragrant flowers delicately against her chest. The petals and leaves tickled at her bare skin, but she didn't stir. It was hard to remember the last time someone had bothered to apologize like this, if ever, particularly given that Valérie felt that she was the one who should have rendered contrition. It had been three weeks since the Crown, and she'd only seen Thara once in that time, and that had been without the opportunity to speak to her. When King Philippe was present, he dominated the evening and Thara was in Étain to speak with him whenever the monarch desired it. He and his thoughts of war had demanded the desert noble's nigh constant attention.
Valérie wasn't certain how long she'd been standing there when Colette strode back in with a vase half-filled with water for the flowers and a cold compress wrapped up in a towel. The maid set the vase down on the vanity and waited for her mistress to surrender the flowers.
The courtesan unwrapped the bouquet and arranged the flowers in vase, her smile impossible to quash completely. "They're beautiful," Valérie breathed, touching a delicate petal. The scent, sweet with hints of spice, still clung to her where she'd held them. "Rare."
Colette's expression did not improve. She caught Valérie's hand and applied the cold to the fresh bruise on her forearm. "Any more?"
"Nowhere else that will show," Valérie said, wrenching her attention from the beauty of the flowers. "We have an understanding about that."
The maid muttered something unkind under her breath, still fuming. "You should toss him out on his head if he's hurting you," Colette said finally with firm conviction. "Or let Honoré do it."
"That would bring a hell down on our heads that none of us would enjoy. You of all people know what justice is like in Étain, Colette. The Duc is not a man to be crossed."
Her normally sunny-natured maid frowned. "Maybe." She paused for a moment, noting Valérie's lack of her usual brooding after this sort of encounter. "Who were the flowers from?"
"A friend," Valérie said lightly, still holding the card. Knowing that Thara wasn't angry lifted a larger weight than she would have liked to admit.
Colette cocked her head slightly to the side. She didn't have to say it, but Valérie knew her maid was puzzling over that reply.
"Yes?" the courtesan said, turning to face her. Apparently, Colette hadn't felt like snooping enough to investigate, and her illiteracy obscured the note's contents. Valérie received flowers on a fairly regular basis, but they seldom held much allure when people sent them without giving it much thought. Too often, roses in Talin were an afterthought of those in love or in lust, shorthand for affection and consideration without meaning that either were present.
These lilies were entirely the opposite of what Valérie was accustomed to.
"Oh, nothing," Colette said thoughtfully. "Just can't remember the last time you smiled like that at a few flowers."
Valérie was almost embarrassed when she realized that she'd been smiling since Colette had left her alone with the bouquet. Her arm's bruising was, despite the chill of ice, utterly forgotten. In fact, so was all the ill inflicted by Delamarche. "It was just a thoughtful gift. Who brought them?"
"Honoré brought them inside. He was talking all Eth at the door a few minutes, though. Probably some courier."
The smile was back despite her best effort to hide it. Étain was not popular with the Eth, nor vice versa. Whoever had come with this gift was probably in the direct employ of Thara's family, a retainer that had come with her. To send someone so trusted was a mark of great respect. "Where is Honoré?"
"Out here," Honoré called from the hallway, deep voice carrying well.
Valérie grabbed a robe and pulled it on over the slip, more to hide the bruise on her arm than to conceal her state of undress. Honoré hardly cared how she was attired, but any injury to her was one to him. "Colette, I adore you, but I need your help on a matter besides the flowers," she said. "Would you please run a bath and avail yourself of the closet? I intend to go to the opera this evening with Aurore." It was more to keep Colette occupied than because Valérie couldn't do either herself.
Colette sighed. "I will find out eventually, you know."
"Undoubtedly," Valérie agreed without hesitation as she headed for the door. "I shall tell you all the details the moment I have decided how to feel."
Honoré was waiting out in the hall, amused when she stepped out and closed the door. "Happiness suits you," he observed.
"What did the messenger say?" Valérie asked.
"Lady al-Sajjad was in fine spirits, if walking carefully for fear of your displeasure," Honoré said. "I assured her that the only reason you were not accepting them yourself—"
Valérie found her ability to speak return at about that moment. "She came here?" she said through the shock. A high noble running flowers personally to anyone, least of all a courtesan, was beyond the pale. Even if she was not Duchesse yet, Thara was an heir of the blood who had no business gallivanting about as an errand girl.
Honoré grinned when he nodded. "Shall I find you a chair before you faint?"
"There is nothing sensible or ordinary about that woman," Valérie said, feeling an unusual fondness.
"And the way you are smiling indicates that your heart has no objections," Honoré said.
"My heart is an entirely irrational organ with not a whit of self-preservation," Valérie said. The smile refused to die despite her best effort at crushing it. She hesitated for a long moment, then took a deep breath. "This is a gesture that should be returned in kind. I just...I don't know what to do."
"Perhaps a healthy dose of Valérie de Lys charm?" her friend suggested. "I've seen you in action. Few people have such a knack for making another feel valued and comfortable. That is something scarce in Étain for a woman like Thara al-Sajjad."
Valérie sighed. "I doubt that would be wise, if this is to be kept friendly and nothing more." The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to do as Honoré suggested. Surely a future Duchesse deserved every ounce of courtesy and care that she could muster. That was her gift and the reason she was popular: Valérie could create the illusion of love and connection most convincingly, and those were both things that people craved. Her romance was an act, but so convincing that her clientele were almost always caught up in it and forgot for a time that it was a transaction.
It was just that Valérie knew that, at least in the past, turning on that charm invariably led to things much beyond simple friendship. She looked up at Honoré. "I don't trust myself," Valérie admitted.
His expression softened. "Why not?"
Valérie leaned back against the wall, gathering her thoughts. "Because every time I think of her, I remember what happened in the Emerald Crown."
The courtesan shook her head slightly. "No," she said quietly. "I remember that first kiss."
Honoré was still for a moment, contemplating that answer. "It sounds as though Lady al-Sajjad is not the only one who feels strongly on the subject," he said gently. "I think you should apply your charm, but do so slowly. Patience is a virtue."
Valérie smiled wryly. "I have never been accused of being virtuous." She sighed. "I will do my best, but I doubt she is patient as far as this...whatever it is...is concerned."
Her friend chuckled. "I would say that's an accurate assessment. That is why I suggested your charm. Why not make her enjoy the wait?"
The idea was more appealing than Valérie was ready for. Pursuing someone was an unfamiliar endeavor, given that people sought her out all the time, but she found trying now strangely enticing. If nothing else, it would be a game honing her wit and flattery. It seemed like a state of affairs where nothing was lost.
Except Thara's reputation. Valérie cursed her circumstances for something other than the her hateful affliction for the first time in a long, long while. Had she been anything but a courtesan, affairs of the heart would have been far simpler and safer.
It's not love. There is no such thing for you, Valérie told herself. This is just fun until she tires of you.
The thought stung, but she knew that was the pain of truth.
The bite of reality lingered with her long after she left her home in favor of the grand edifice of Étain's opera house, clinging close to her ear when she let Aurore pull her into a hug. It was hard to look anywhere but Thara's smiling face, and she wasn't certain if the sight eased it or made it worse. It didn't help the treacherous fluttering in her chest.
"I'm glad you came," Thara said by way of greeting, again bowing over Valérie's hand. For a moment, the courtesan was perfectly aware of the hand holding hers, with its warmth and warrior's calluses.
Valérie enjoyed the fact that the touch lasted a moment past strict civility, as foolish as it was. There was something reassuring about Thara. "So am I," she said softly, a genuine smile slowly coming to life on her lips. "The flowers were lovely."
"I thought of you," the noblewoman said. It was a simple statement, no fanciful declarations required, and it came with a sincere smile.
Valérie would have replied, but Aurore cleared her throat slightly. She turned to face the comtesse who was wearing an altogether too knowing smile for the courtesan's comfort. She narrowed her eyes at her friend.
Aurore immediately affected innocence. "What?"
"Nothing," Valérie said to smooth over her mannerisms before Thara could assume something. She had conveyed her displeasure to Aurore, even if the comtesse wasn't taking it seriously. "Shall we go? The curtain is due to rise any minute."
"Of course," Thara said, not showing that she'd noticed the interaction. Her attention was, for a moment, elsewhere.
Valérie turned slightly to see what Thara was looking at. The lobby's crowd was substantial as people flooded towards seats and boxes, so there were many suspects. Aurore and Thara were far from the only nobles in attendance. No doubt the desert noble had caught a familiar face, though she'd offered a frown rather than a wave. "Is something the matter?"
Thara looked back at her, and the frown disappeared. "All is well, when one is in such company."
"You're going to have competition, Valérie," Aurore said with a smile as they made their way towards the box. "While Thara is perhaps not such a savant with charm as you, she assuredly may reach your stature through sheer effort."
Valérie laughed. "It will be good to have more pleasant company. Étain has been rather boorish of late. I shall have to direct the compliments elsewhere, lest I be strangled by my own overgrown ego."
"But you preen so prettily," Aurore teased. "A peacock could take lessons."
"A peacock? Now we have promoted me," Valérie said, her smile growing when she heard Thara laugh. "I was expecting pigeon."
"You have better plumage than a pigeon, though I shall refrain from comment regarding intellectual capacity," the comtesse said lightly. "I trust that everyone present can come to their own conclusions on the matter."
"That seems unkind," Thara observed with amusement.
"As one sister tugging another's hair is, I suppose," Aurore said.
"I am always amazed that Pascal can ride in a carriage with us without threatening to turn it around," Valérie said in agreement. "He's such a good sport."
Her spirits felt light at the moment, not an ill feeling in sight. It was exactly the evening she'd needed after her unpleasant rendezvous. Thara and Aurore were sunlight on her leaves, restoring her faith in others, even in only small ways.