by K. Olsen
Despite claiming to have no interest in love, Valerie has promised her affection and fidelity to Thara despite her courtesan ways, though they are now separated by a war.
Valérie looked up from her ledger. "You're up late," she observed as Honoré stepped in. She was grateful for the distraction. Her work wasn't odious, but deciphering her own messy handwriting by the light of a flickering oil lamp was a strain.
"As are you. Midnight was a few hours ago," Honoré pointed out. He spotted the ledger and frowned slightly. "A strange hour for accounts."
"I had a restless mind," Valérie said.
Honoré took a seat across the kitchen table from her, noting that she had every scrap of financial information available to her displayed. "I haven't seen you so concerned with money in years. Not that you're anything less than prudent."
The courtesan sighed, collecting her thoughts. "I think I am going to refrain from seeing clients, or at least seeing them in the same way," Valérie said after a long pause.
Honoré's eyebrows rose. "For how long?" he asked, obviously trying not to sound as startled as he was.
"I possess funds enough to last a year, if we are more frugal, without dipping into other valuables. Longer if I sell possessions." Valérie drummed her fingers on the table. "I am sorry. I know that this imposes a hardship on you and Colette."
"Can I ask why?" Honoré asked. "You made it quite clear after this last bout of illness that you had no intention of doing anything but returning to normal life."
This was the part that Valérie found difficult. "I expect," she began slowly, "that Thara al-Sajjad is a woman who expects fidelity. Given that she and I are now...involved…" She took a deep breath. "I do not wish to hurt her, Honoré."
Honoré was quiet for a long moment, studying her intently. He was smiling, at least. "Every time I think I know the sum total of you, you surprise me," he said. "She is more fortunate than she knows."
"I doubt that is true," Valérie admitted. "Anyway, I fully intend to suspend my normal libertine ways until she tires of me." When she spotted Honoré's protest coming, she held up her hand. "Thara is an heir of the blood. You know full well what that means for a thing like me."
"You can be happy, Valérie," Honoré said gently. "I think Thara will surprise you."
"In this, it is not safe to hope." Valérie sighed. She knew it was foolish to believe that Honoré was right, but some part of her wanted to so desperately. Still, how could she ask that of Thara? The noble had obligations, status, and power all flowing through every drop of crimson in her veins. Thara was not the only child, but she was the eldest. That carried a great many responsibilities.
In some ways, Valérie felt like she was being ripped in half between her sense of decorum and rightness—laughable things for a creature like her, but present all the same—and her heart's desires, but she would endure it. If nothing else, the courtesan considered herself a woman of her word. She was far from perfect, but when it mattered most, she did everything in her power to keep her promises.
Honoré reached out across the table, giving her hand a squeeze. "Get some sleep, Valérie. You need your rest."
She closed the ledger reluctantly, feeling exhaustion creep in. She knew she could settle her mind now that she'd told someone what she was doing and why. There were still social engagements that she would attend with one person or another, but she was not going to stray beyond the boundaries of a friend. She had to hope that would be enough. She had faith enough in her charms to know she could evade social suicide if she played things carefully.
Hector Delamarche wasn't going to appreciate it, but she had survived his annoyance during the last flare-up of the curse. She wasn't certain if he would find the dalliance insulting or amusing if he found out, but she hoped things would stay secret for a while. Letters were hardly something to raise remark, particularly if they were being passed along with Aurore's by trusted couriers. Pascal wouldn't make a great show of handing it off.
Valérie carefully put away her accounts and all the associated records before ponderously making her way to bed, thoughts ebbing and flowing like a changing tide. Honoré was kind enough to leave her untroubled by further questions, at least for the moment. He wished her goodnight in murmured tones and padded back down the hall to his room, ever the quiet sentinel when something seemed amiss.
Instead of going to bed, she sat down at her vanity, where the waiting sheets of paper, a nib pen, and a bottle of ink sat beside candlelights. The truth was that she didn't even know what to write. No letter from Thara had yet arrived, but that wasn't too surprising. They were still on the march and that probably curtailed the thorn knight's time to write.
Valérie was no stranger to the written word. She kept up correspondence with a number of people by post, some letters more honest or more scandalous by nature than others. Where she would place those to Thara among the constellation of her compositions, she didn't know. Still, she had promised to write and write she would. Maybe it would help her fend off this unexpected feeling of loss.
She undid the stopper on the bottle of ink, setting it aside in a small wooden dish for the purpose. Next came the pen, dipped into dark blue ink. Here in the privacy of her empty bedroom, she could hear herself think. It wasn't always a pleasant experience. While optimism on the front of this new fascination was far from the courtesan's thoughts, she still found a certain comfort in the idea of Thara thinking of her, even a long way away. She had been many things for many people, but maybe this time, she could be herself. It was a foolish and secret notion, but difficult to dislodge even given how terrifying the prospect was.
One step at a time, she counseled herself as she studied the blank page. Nothing ruins a dance more certainly than someone rushing before they've learned the steps.
For all her alleged charm, Valérie felt woefully unprepared for this letter. Interacting with Thara was easier to manage in person, where Valérie could hide behind her mask the moment she saw a hint of displeasure. Written words were far more permanent and easily studied than her preferred variety.
She composed sentence after sentence, most dying the death of crumpled paper and blotching ink. Creeping daylight did nothing to disturb her from her struggle, barely noticeable to the courtesan. She didn't stir until the door to her room opened and Colette bustled in.
"Aren't you a fine sight," her maid said with amusement.
Valérie looked down at her ink-stained fingers and then tried to smooth her tousled hair. Fussing with her hair in frustration had done it no favors. She needed to wash up and sleep, but her thoughts were still buzzing around in her head like agitated bees. "I suppose I have looked better."
"What's the occasion?" Colette asked, pouring water into a basin for her to try and scrub the ink from her hands. The maid hesitated for a moment and then looked over at her mistress. "Is the fever back?"
"I'm fine," Valérie promised as she folded her finished letter and tucked it in the envelope. "I merely found myself agonizing over a triviality."
If she was hoping that would discourage Colette, she was wholly mistaken. The maid's keen sense for gossip, normally so valuable to Valérie, was focused intently on her without need for words to announce it. Colette tilted her head slightly to the right. "That doesn't sound like you."
"I suppose that's true," Valérie conceded as she moved over to wash her hands. Scrubbing seemed to do almost nothing to remove the stains from the ink. She frowned slightly and then sighed. "Correspondence of import is not something I am accustomed to."
Colette smiled. "For sending to a certain noble?"
Valérie narrowed her tired eyes at the maid. "Ferreting out information from Honoré is unbecoming of you."
There was no hint of guilt or shame on Colette's grinning face. "Is it my fault that he gets chatty after a few glasses of brandy?"
The courtesan sighed. "I suppose it's tolerable. I meant to tell you anyway, when things were…clearer." She hesitated for a moment before saying, "I hope you have no objection."
"I think it's grand," Colette said brightly. "She's a bit…womanly…for me, but she seems perfect for you."
Valérie weighed that answer. "And why do you say she's perfect for me?"
"Three reasons," Colette said. "First, she says what she means and that's something you always appreciate. Second, you've always gone a little weak for good poetry. Third, I don't think I've ever seen you smile like you did at those lilies."
"She has good taste in flowers."
"She has thoughtful taste in flowers," her maid corrected.
Valérie smiled faintly despite her tired brain's worried state. "True enough."
Colette's gaze flicked towards the envelope. "So, did you write her anything pretty?"
"I'm hardly a poet," the courtesan said with a slight shrug. "I just told her that Étain was rather boring without her."
The maid clucked her tongue. "You'd best have done better than that."
Valérie heaved a sigh. "I tried."
Colette reached out a hand. "Let's have a look," she said. "I know what I'd want to hear if I were Lady al-Sajjad."
The courtesan reluctantly surrendered the letter. "I suppose a healthy criticism wouldn't do me any harm."
Colette smiled triumphantly as she removed the letter from its protective envelope and unfolded it, leaning against the vanity as she read.
I hope this letter finds you well. It has been too long since I last saw you, though you left merely a week ago. I apologize for not writing sooner, but I needed time to reflect. I spent yesterday in the Emerald Crown, as we spent many afternoons, but it seems terribly quiet without your voice. Perhaps that is too soon to say—I apologize.
Aurore has been in abominable spirits with Pascale gone, and I fear she will not be alone in her misery ere long. I managed to coerce her into attending the opera two days ago, but both of us were keenly aware of absence. Étain's charms seem somehow diminished. I look forward eagerly to when the day we next meet and the world is again right.
I hope Aloys has been kind to you. He is a dear friend of mine and a noble soul. There are few like him in the world and a more staunch ally one cannot find. I hope too that you have learned to avoid his father, as I prefer to whenever possible. I doubt he would treat you with the respect that you most surely deserve. You are platinum, confronted with his tarnished copper. Let the blowhard blow hard and please guard yourself as well as you are able. The thought of you never returning makes me sick in a way I cannot claim to have ever been in the past.
I hope that you will think of me with affection. I thought I would tell you that I know that your people hold fire sacred, so I am making a point to keep my hearth burning. May its smoke carry prayers of good fortune to you wherever you are.
How are you faring? I know how tiring and tumultuous campaign can be, though my knowledge is secondhand. Do you know when you are expected to return? Whatever the answer, I will be here waiting.
Colette smiled as she looked up from the letter. "It's sweet. Aren't you going to sign it?"
Valérie bit her lower lip a moment before answering, "No. It could prompt a scandal. I had a thought of what to do instead, so she knows it was me."
"And what's that?"
"A dot of my perfume on the paper," Valérie said. "She's been around me enough to know it's me, at least if she was paying attention."
Colette's good spirits persisted. "And you say you're not a romantic."
"I'm not," Valérie said defensively. She was more comfortable with raw passion, with attraction and seduction. Still, if she stopped and reflected, she knew that she liked the way Thara made her feel, even knowing that it was incredibly precarious and unwise. Valérie was not a woman accustomed to being caught off-guard by her own emotions. Apparently that was to be a regular occurrence.
"Whatever you say," Colette said with amusement. She paused a moment and then asked, "What'll you do about…well, y'know."
Valérie sighed. "I will not be seeing people the way I have seen them. I will still be a fine confidante, even without a more carnal expectation. Hopefully that will be enough."
Colette nodded thoughtfully. "I'm happy for you," she said honestly. "It's giving up a lot, but it'll be worth it."
"I hope so," Valérie said, producing her hairbrush from the vanity's lower drawer. She set about putting herself in order. "Has anyone come calling?"
"Well, the Comtesse sent a message asking if you'd meet her for dinner and Baron Donadieu's man dropped off an invitation to lunch," the maid reported.
"I wouldn't mind seeing either," Valérie said. "The Baron is always good company and I need to hand off the letter to Aurore." She stifled a yawn. "That gives me an hour or two to sleep." The Baron's habits were no stranger to her, and she knew he favored his meals later. It would be plenty of time to restore herself somewhat to rest.
Colette was giving her a concerned look. "He won't mind?"
Valérie smiled slightly. "I am useful to him for many things beyond passion. His daughter still needs a husband and I still have enough experience with Étain's noblemen to tell him who to spurn if marital bliss is the goal. Talin's finest certainly have some rotten apples."
The answer seemed to satisfy Colette. "Well, sleep as much as you can," the maid said. "I'll have café ready when you wake up."
The courtesan nodded. "Be well, Colette. I'll see you in a while." She was definitely tired, but she was also beginning to relax. She opened her bottle of perfume and dotted a droplet on her thumb before pressing it onto the bottom of the page far enough from the ink that it wouldn't run. Hopefully she was right and Thara would remember the smell. She didn't wear it strongly, but it was enough that the thorn knight could potentially recall it, not that the letter itself was devoid of clues. While Aurore had many friends, Valérie was of the closest variety.
Was it romantic? Perhaps, she conceded reluctantly as she laid down, eager to sink into the blissful arms of dreams.
Sleep came surprisingly easily now that she'd finished the letter, even as cold stirred in her body. She wrapped the blankets more tightly as she dreamed as if to ward off the curse. Her sleeping mind pulled her back to sunlit days in the Emerald Crown and one of her favorite sounds: Thara's laughter.
After so long being imprisoned by ice, at least in dreams, now unfettered from the sharp scrutiny of her waking mind, her heart knew fully what it was to hope.
Before long, she stirred out of her reverie at the sound of tolling bells. Étain's cathedral announced the end of its first service with the pealing of smaller, musical chimes and the great resonant song of the main bell colloquially called the Grandfather. Valérie rubbed at her eyes, blinking blearily to see steam rising from the tub through the doorway to her bathroom. Colette in action, as thoughtful as always.
She was clean and dry by the time Colette arrived with café and milk on a tray. She didn't have a great deal of time to be ready, but the Baron had always been understanding in the past. Being fashionably late was something she was accustomed to only at gatherings where she was unaccompanied.
Honoré stepped in with a knock a few moments after she'd finished dressing. "I do not mean to rush you, Valérie, but the Duc Delamarche is downstairs."
That was not what she'd been expecting to hear. "I am already engaged," she said. Hopefully, he would understand. "The Baron's carriage will likely be here in a few minutes. What on earth is he doing here?"
"He did not feel the need to explain himself to me," Honoré said. "I thought it would be better if you spoke with him than if I did."
Valérie almost winced. "Throwing me to the wolf? I see how you are," she murmured as she headed for the stairs.
"I do so with love," Honoré said. He caught her shoulder, expression serious. "I know it will be easier to give him what he wants, but—"
"I meant what I said last night," Valérie said firmly. "Until I am no longer wanted, I will be faithful, whether or not that is difficult." She led the way down the stairs.
The Duc was waiting in her sitting room, rising to his feet with that wolfish smile when he saw her. Even Honoré's presence didn't trouble him.
"Your Grace, this is a surprise," Valérie said with a smile as she offered him a hand in greeting, which he accepted and kissed. "I trust Honoré and Colette have offered you my hospitality."
"You are ever the gracious hostess," he said. "I know that I have come unannounced, but I am departing for the northern border tomorrow morning."
"I take it the natives are restless?" Valérie said lightly, secretly feeling all manner of relief.
"Just so," the noble said. "I was hoping you would give me to remember you by."
"I am afraid that my services are already spoken for today," Valérie said. "I have Baron Donadieu in less than an hour and Comtesse Estienne to attend to."
He chuckled. "But for me, you would surely make an exception."
"You must know by now how seriously I take my commitments, Your Grace," the courtesan said lightly. "Just as I would not interrupt a meeting with you in favor of a prince, I beg that you not entreat me to sever my obligations to my other clients."
The Duc was quiet a moment, studying her. "I do appreciate your professionalism, Valérie," he said. "It does you credit. A lesser courtesan would bend to the immediate demand."
"I only bend upon request," Valérie said, unable to stop herself from making the comment. It wasn't helping her case. "Travel safely, Your Grace, and give my warmest affections to your harridan of a wife. It should annoy her to no end."
He grinned before pressing another kiss to her hand. Then he pulled her in close, almost tugging her off balance. "When I return, I expect a proper welcome," he said. "A professional welcome."
"I will take that into consideration," Valérie said lightly, carefully not resisting the kiss that followed. The Duc's lips were slightly rough and definitely forceful.
"See that you do," he said when he released her.
It was a problem for Future Valérie, or so she reminded herself as she watched him depart. Hopefully, she would survive that long.