by K. Olsen
After the introduction of the passionate, poetic noble to her life, Val has committed to guarding Thara from scandal, though she's finding restraint harder and harder to muster.
Valérie smiled as she approached the corner of the courtyard where Thara diligently worked on her armor, adjusting the fittings on a new pair of gauntlets. The rest of her armor sat beside her, ready for cleaning and oiling. This was the set of plate she wore on northern campaigns, unsuitable for the desert. Thara frowned as she worked, too engrossed in her task to note the approach. "I'm surprised Pascal hasn't offered you the use of a squire," Valérie said lightly.
Thara jumped. Her eyes seemed to light up when she smiled, meeting Valérie's amused gaze. "He offered," she said, setting aside the gauntlet she'd been working on. "I declined. I usually tend to my own armor and weapons. I find it helps me clear my thoughts."
"Were they particularly troublesome today?" Valérie didn't avoid Thara's gaze, but she didn't hold it for very long either. Every time she felt the urge to close the distance rear its head, she looked elsewhere. Mercifully, she found something to turn her attention to. As a creature of fashion and attention to detail, Thara's necklace struck her as interesting. It was a simple disk of black glass, polished smooth, on a plain leather cord.
"Not particularly," Thara said. She motioned to the shady bench beside her. "You are welcome to a seat, Valérie, if my company does not offend." Since that day in the Emerald Crown, Thara had taken a great deal of care to give Valérie her space.
"You are never offensive," Valérie said, taking a seat. "Might I inquire as to the nature of your necklace? It seems an unusual piece. Particularly since you don't seem the type for jewelry."
Thara laughed. "I wear what has meaning to me. Most of the baubles and ornamentations that even my people wear hold little of that." She took off the pendant and held it out to Valérie.
Valérie gently lifted it, studying the dark material. "It looks like obsidian, with little flecks of gold." The more she looked at the flecks, the more they seemed to almost flicker and glow like embers.
"It is a rare glass," Thara said with a smile. "Well, of a sort. It was made by djinn."
"Djinn?" Valérie said curiously. "I hadn't thought of them as jewelers, though I suppose anything is possible if you can grant a wish."
"You have heard the northern stories," Thara said with amusement.
"The stories are different at the source, as per usual, I take it?" Valérie said. There was something so warm to the tone of Thara's voice that it made her want to listen forever. She fluttered her eyelashes at Thara as she handed back the pendant. "Would you be charming enough to tell me about these djinn of yours, o gracious and graceful lady?"
"I would be glad to," Thara said with a flattered smile, shifting to face Valérie more. There wasn't much space between them, but the courtesan hoped a potential story would counteract the fluttering at the center of her chest. "The stories of them I have heard in the north bear little resemblance to reality. Djinn are not floating men with lower bodies of mist and grant wishes. Their true nature is far more mysterious and potent."
"What are they?" Valérie asked, tilting her head slightly as she studied Thara.
"They are spirits, beings of fire and light that dwell in the most ancient of places," Thara said. "When a man dies, he leaves a ghost. When an inferno dies, so is a djinni born."
"A fire with no wood?"
Thara smiled. "My homeland was not always a desert, myths say. Once upon a time, it was a vast forest of cedars without equal, rivers clear and blue as the sky weaving between the thick trunks. It was a garden, as Paradise is a garden. That was in the days where the gods ruled and magic was everywhere. Then the Deceiver and his demons rose to usurp the gods, his arrogance destroying himself and the gods alike. When Heaven fell, the titanic battle of magic and sorcery set the ancient forest aflame. It burned until all but the greatest of rivers boiled into vapor. The Revealing ended more than a thousand years ago and as far as even written memory knows, 'Aradi Alnahr has always been desert."
"Is that why you love trees so?" Valérie asked. It was oddly comfortable just to sit at Thara's side, even as she avoided the gaze of those dark eyes for the most part.
"If Paradise is truly a garden, the Emerald Crown is surely its reflection," Thara said softly. She cleared her throat. "But you wished to know about the necklace and the djinn. Sometimes, when djinn cross each other's path, they battle and melt the sand beneath them with the heat of their flames. It leaves glass like this behind, touched with the magic of elemental fire. Finding such patches before the sands swallow them brings good luck, and we sometimes wear pieces to ward off evil."
Valérie smiled. "That sounds fascinating."
"I have only seen a djinni once. An Eth fire-speaker came to my father's camp when we were near the border, and he brought with him a djinni, trapped in a soul-jar. Ethilir does not have mages as the High Kingdom once did. Not one among them can cast a spell, but they have found a way to trap djinn and bind the spirits to their will. They are dangerous foes, at least until the djinni breaks free and avenges itself on its foolish captor. That is a sight that to strike awe and dread into any who witness it."
Valérie struggled with the urge to close the distance between them. She rather liked the idea of being wrapped in Thara's arms as she listened, a desire she tried to crush as ruthlessly as possible. She sighed and settled back against the bench, closing her eyes. "I think I might enjoy seeing a djinni, even from a distance," she said thoughtfully. "Better fire than ice."
Thara's voice was quiet, but hopeful, when she said, "Perhaps someday, should you visit my homeland, I can show you a free one out in the desert. They are less dangerous when they are unfettered."
"A charitable offer, but sadly this lily would likely wilt in the southern sun," Valérie said as she opened her eyes. Thara was watching her with perfect attention. "You are not the woman I expected."
"Oh?" Thara said curiously. "What did you expect?"
"I don't know," Valérie admitted after a second of hesitation. "In Étain, it feels often as though all that is best and brightest is here, even to the point of becoming boring. You are proof that the sublime exists beyond our gleaming city on a hill, better so for having avoided the insincere and grasping nature of the Court."
"That is quite the compliment," Thara said, smiling widely even as she blushed enough to be visible, though it was barely a change in her complexion. Valérie saw it only because studying Thara had become her favorite pastime. "Sublime suits you more than me."
"Agree to disagree," Valérie said. "I'm afraid the Court has made me quite rotten."
"I do not believe that is true," Thara said. She hesitated a moment, but then swept a lock of Valérie's hair out of the courtesan's face, fingertips a delicate touch that almost made Valérie shiver. The noble stayed a moment, saying nothing, that charge in the air like lightning about to strike.
There was barely any distance between them. It would be so terribly easy to kiss Thara and ruin everything. She wanted to more than she wanted to breathe. Valérie had never considered herself a creature of will, but she somehow tore her gaze from Thara's and turned to face the rest of the courtyard.
"I apologize," Thara said, voice soft. "That was overly familiar."
Valérie's heart kept fluttering even as she pulled her rationality together. They were on dangerous ground. "I take no offense," she said carefully, gaze averted from Thara. If she wasn't looking into those dark eyes, the foolishness faded to more manageable levels.
"But you will not even look at me," Thara said. She sighed, the sound a mix of guilt and sorrow. Then the desert noble rose to her feet. "I am sorry, Valérie. I did not intend to—"
Valérie caught Thara's hand with her own, pulling her gently back to focus on the courtesan. "It's fine," she breathed. She hated the sound of Thara's hurt, necessary as it was. "I just…I think I am not the woman for you. It would be wrong of me to tell you otherwise."
"I know what is in my heart," Thara said quietly.
"As do I," Valérie said, trying to ignore the way the offending piece of herself twisted painfully in her chest. She rose to her feet, standing by Thara and releasing the desert noble's hand. "It is not a wish I can grant. Have a good evening, my lady."
"Please stay. I won't—"
Valérie hesitated. Life had attuned her to many subtleties after eight years in Talin's upper echelons, most of all that its nobles—doubly true of her clientele—resorted to imploring her rather than insisting only with the greatest of reluctance or desperation. Thara was likely no different, except that she was always quick to request instead of compel when Valérie was involved.
It reminded Valérie that Thara considered her an equal, which was not the case. It also reminded Valérie that she still hadn't told the noble the whole and unvarnished truth about who she was. Not that she needed to. Her nature was hardly a secret, and Thara would no doubt quickly learn the truth. Perhaps Aurore had already illuminated the noble and she was more clement in her view than Valérie expected. If that was true…
It wasn't safe to hope. "My apologies." She pulled in a deep breath and then began her walk away.
"I know that you have a heart, Valérie," Thara said. "Please. This hurts."
For all her many faults, cruel was not an adjective usually applied to Valérie. She had been a tenderhearted girl, and adulthood had only hardened her shell. The center was still soft and feeling. Doing what she was doing to Thara was torture to that softer side as much as to the noble. The only thing that stopped her from just giving in was that fear—of feeling, of flying, of falling. What would happen if she gave her heart to someone?
The icy grip of the curse and a lifetime of training meant nothing good could come of it. She perhaps deserved the happiness of the moment, the fleeting joys without thought of a future, but what Thara wanted was a future…an unattainable one.
"Valérie," Thara pleaded, much closer. "Please. I'm sorry. We can just sit and talk. Nothing more. I should not have erred so."
Valérie turned. "It would be better for me to go. Colette will expect my return in less than an hour. Thank you for the story, though. It is something I will keep with me for a very long time."
Thara held out her hand, dark eyes sorrowful. "As you wish."
The courtesan hesitated for a moment laying her palm atop Thara's. "It's not what I wish." The words slipped out before she could stop them. The accursed things were developing a habit of that.
Hope flared in Thara's expression, but guarded as much as genuine. She was becoming accustomed to heartache.
So was Valérie.
"Then stay," Thara pressed gently. "I promise that I will conduct myself with chivalry."
"Perhaps that is my concern," Valérie said, forcing the smile back. She was excellent at pretending the world was light and amusing, whatever her circumstance. "The honorable knight breaking out poetry and song just for a woman nobler than I, that is a perilous proposition."
Thara seemed to relax slightly, as if the return of banter eased her worries. "If it would please you, I could attempt to be as boorish as humanly possible."
"Impossible for the noble Thara al-Sajjad," Valérie said dismissively, the smile more genuine now. "I shall depart and look forward to seeing you again soon."
"Very well," Thara said. "I wish you the best of evenings."
"And the same I wish for you," Valérie said. She turned and retreated, well aware that she had narrowly avoided the catastrophe surrounding Thara's affection for her. If things were different, perhaps…no, it didn't matter. The world was as it was, with no thought given to the idle fancies of some insignificant courtesan.
Her trip homeward was a quiet one, filled with rumination. Eventually, she reached her front door only to have it open. Colette beamed at her, attired in her absolute best, the delicate aroma of perfume clinging to her.
"You look positively radiant, my angel," Valérie said with a smile. "I don't suppose that young gardener had the nerve to finally ask you to a dance."
Colette shook her head. "Gauvain Marchand did."
"Here, my paragon of fashion, you must elaborate," Valérie said, shooing her maid into the house where they could talk. "I cannot say I know the gentleman in question."
"He's the son of a wine merchant from Dalle. Very prosperous. He gets all the ladies, but he says he's looking to settle down," Colette said brightly. "He's handsome and very charming."
"More charming than the humble Matthieu Durand, I take it," Valérie said. She felt pity for the poor gardener. He was so taken with Colette that he could barely get a word out half the time, and that silence left Colette oblivious to him.
"Very much so," Colette said. She sighed dreamily. "It's not every day a man of means treats a young lady so well."
The doorbell chimed and Colette all but sprang up, followed by a half-amused Valérie. The maid opened the door and stepped back to allow the gentleman access.
Gauvain Marchand was a tall, muscular man with dark hair carefully trimmed and styled to be dashing, clean-shaven to show off his strong, dimpled chin. His cornflower blue eyes matched his doublet, a dark blue cravat around his neck. His family were as prosperous as they sounded, because he practically exuded wealth. His sculpted face smiled at the sight of the ladies before him. He focused on Colette. "What a vision you are, Mademoiselle," he said, voice a smooth baritone. "Without compare."
Colette's blush was legendary, only growing stronger when Gauvain bowed over her hand, placing a kiss on her knuckles.
Something in his roving gaze struck Valérie. A deep unease bloomed in the pit of her stomach. She couldn't articulate it, but she did not like the man who was laying his charm on Colette. As the Imperial proverb went, not everyone speaks golden words without expecting to spend the favor they buy.
Colette, as much of a romantic as she was, had only been caught up in a fling or two. She was younger than Valérie and inexperienced, with a temperament suited to accommodating the will of others. Colette was perhaps too thoughtful, too obliging. That was easy to prey on.
"And this must be the lady of the house," Gauvain said, turning to face Valérie. His smile wasn't a leer, but it appeared to harbor thoughts she didn't particularly care for. "This is a rare pleasure, Mademoiselle de Lys. I apologize for the intrusion; I am certain you have many things to attend to."
Valérie decided that she was going to have to handle this carefully. "Charmed, Monsieur." She turned to look at Colette. "I have an engagement this evening. I will need you to return before sunset."
There was a flash of irritation on Gauvain's face for a split second. Definitely not a good sign. It told Valérie that the charm was concealing something else, and she doubted it was pleasant.
Colette looked deeply unhappy. "Mademoiselle—"
"If you will excuse us and make yourself comfortable, Monsieur Marchand," Valérie said before motioning for her maid to follow her down the hall into the kitchen. Once they were safely alone, she turned to face Colette. "Now we can speak."
"I never get anything like this!" Colette blurted out. "Must your engagement come first? You've lords and ladies lining up every evening of the year, should you like it."
Valérie sighed. Now she had to figure out how to explain her rationale to Colette without losing the maid's trust. She studied the deeply unhappy maid. "Please trust me when I say rushing this affair with Marchand is perilous. I just want you to be happy and safe."
Colette pursed her lips before speaking. "I know what I'm doing," she said sharply. "He's been a perfect gentleman. I don't know what you're worried about."
"People are not always what they seem," Valérie cautioned as gently as she could. She could almost see Colette mentally digging in her heels.
"I don't need your say-so," Colette said stubbornly. She left the kitchen, headed towards Marchand.
Valérie knew she could threaten Colette, but she refused to in her own thoughts. Whatever their roles, she adored the young woman like the little sister she had never had. "Colette!"
The maid turned, ready to let loose with some barb.
"Have a good evening," Valérie said more softly, eyes sincere.
It surprised Colette after their brief conversation. She hesitated for a second before answering, "Thanks."
Valérie watched the pair leave with a frown. A knock at the back door into the garden drew her attention. She moved over and opened the door to admit the gardener.
Matthieu Durand tended most of the greenery of the nicer estates, Valérie's home included. His face, burned bronze by the sun, looked eternally hopeful. He was almost as tall as Honoré, but wiry rather than bulky. He took off his cap, but didn't step in. "Dirt on the boots, Mademoiselle," he said sheepishly. His hopes seemed to rise. "Is Colette in?"
"She just departed, I'm afraid," Valérie said, offering him a small, apologetic smile. "Would you indulge me in something? I was going to make a cup of tea, but I find a lack of good company spoils the afternoon."
"If…if you'd like," Matthieu said in his customary rough mumble. It wasn't the first time she had invited him in, but he seemed nervous every time. He moved as if he was trying to take up half as much space as he actually occupied and was careful not to touch anything. Dirt followed him in, but only a little. He'd stomped his boots repeatedly so he would look less grubby.
Soon, there were two cups of tea. Valérie sat across the table from him, studying him as she made light conversation. His clothes were patched and mended with stitches that were neat but wide. Black crescents of dirt lingered under every nail even after washing up and his short hair direly needed a comb. He was a man of honest character and a hard worker, but not so charming or handsome as Marchand.
"Can I ask a favor of you, Matthieu?" Valérie said as the conversation wound down.
"Of course," he said earnestly, if in his low mumble.
Valérie weighed her words carefully before speaking. Finally, she said, "Please look after Colette for me, when you are here. I worry about her, and I know that you care deeply for her."
Matthieu seemed to understand how serious Valérie was. "I'll do my best, Mademoiselle," he said, his voice less of a mumble. He met her eyes for the first time since he'd stepped in.
He had striking eyes, their hazel irises giving them the appearance of sunflowers. Valérie smiled at him. "I expect you also might wish to tell her how you feel someday."
"I don't figure she'd like that," Matthieu said, lowering his gaze again. "Nor Monsieur Marchand."
Valérie smiled at him. "The most beautiful flowers, I hear, take the most cultivation. If what poets say is true and love is the most beautiful thing in the world…"
Matthieu looked back up at her and nodded. "I'll try," he said again before finishing the last dregs of his tea. "Thanks for the tea, Mademoiselle."
"The pleasure is all mine," Valérie assured him. Now she had to hope she was wrong about Marchand and prepare, just in case. She wanted to keep her maid safe and happy.
Things were never as simple as she hoped.