by K. Olsen
Thara is away at war, but the love affair with Valerie continues via letters. In the meantime, Colette's budding attraction to the merchant's son has taken a turn, unfortunately close to Valerie's war
"Must I?" Valérie said, pursing her lips while she looked at Honoré to hide her self-consciousness.
"This is entirely voluntary, but I would like the practice. Besides, Valérie, you are even more beautiful than normal when you smile so," Honoré said pleasantly. They were sitting out on the grass in the garden, sheltered from the wide world. "I promise that it won't be for public viewing."
Valérie sighed and leaned back against the apple tree. "Very well," she murmured, watching him produce his sketchbook. Pencils sat beside him. Honoré's hands could make them dance furiously as he shaded and lined out whatever beauty had caught his attention. It was something Valérie admired, his work ever more careful and precise than any other artist she had ever met. Étain was full of those who would be artists, most of them habitual drinkers and braggarts who threw paint at a canvas without Honoré's patience or discipline. Her friend was a rare soul.
She undid the bundle of envelopes sitting beside her and pulled out the most recent letter, the one she hadn't yet opened. Many of the others were so worn now that the edges were curled and the paper's creases had lost their sharp definition, folded and unfolded enough that Valérie worried they would fall apart in a few more months. She was always careful around the words themselves, as any touch of moisture might blot the ink. Even when her eyes betrayed her, she kept the tears away from delicate sentences.
She loved the letters more than she'd thought she could ever care for simple paper and ink. There was something about receiving Thara's letters that felt entirely different from her prior correspondence. Even just touching them, weathered and worn, some accompanied by the dust of the roads and others bearing a small wildflower or two, was a lifeline of connection that made every minute of painful waiting worthwhile.
Maybe that sentiment was why Honoré had asked this of her. Maybe Thara's words really did have a spell of their own, transforming her into someone far more hopeful and happy than she had any right to be. She broke the wax seal carefully, brushing away a falling leaf. Autumn had come and while Matthieu kept the ground beneath the tree carefully raked clear, they came down in their own time. She smiled at the crackle of paper as she unfolded the letter. Thara's writing, slanted and spidery, was immediately visible.
It seems everything reminds me of you. The shades of autumn, the brilliant arrays of red and gold, are like nothing I have ever seen before and their beauty echoes your own transfiguration with many moods. The crackling of the fire beside me as I write imparts its heat, but that is woefully insignificant when I compare it to the warmth you bring with you wherever you go. The battles no longer capture my attention as they once did, replaced by enchanting memory and breathless hope. I look up at the stars in the hope that soon Aeson's Crook will guide me east, back to Étain, back to you.
My time with you is made solely of the fondest memories of the beautiful world that is Talin's finest city. When I think of Étain now, I see it so differently than what I believed it to be when first I rode through the city gates. Its memory curls about me like a well-worn surcoat, a home away from my people's land. I find that I often cannot even feel homesick for the desert sands, not when that too is far from you.
The drums of war that once thrilled me can stir me little when compared to your voice. The one thing that terrifies me on campaign is the idea of failing to remember it. I should have held you closer before I left, the way I hold your letters now. When I close my eyes, the smell of your perfume is almost enough to convince me that you are near.
I wish I could tell you when we are approaching great battles, to find comfort in the red haze of War from the green buds holding lily white words. Pascal has wisely warned me against it, as letters may be intercepted. We are on contested soil now, so any spy or scout might try to take this. I hate the thought, as I want this to reach you more than anything. I worry that you might think that I have forgotten you now that I am so far away.
You might have teased me a thousand times for whatever chivalrous notions come into my head, but I want you to know that I will always be faithful, even if I am a world away. My thoughts seldom stray from you and my heart never does. I know that waiting for me to return is anything but fair, but your letters have given me a great deal of hope that you think of me in the same way.
I will not put a name to what I feel. I don't think I could if I tried. I find my words utterly insufficient to the task whenever I even conceive of it. You call me a poet sometimes, but my pen cannot claim to hold eloquence. It takes me days to fumble out what I write in these letters, that spell-binding hope rendering me all but mute in awe.
One day, we will be together again. I pray that it will be soon. I wish the war was over. I wish I was in Étain. I wish I could hold you forever, warmed by your embrace. Your farewell made me both deliriously happy and terribly sorrowful, a contradiction I will be freed from only when I return.
Please be well and safe, and I will strive to do the same. I promise that I will return as swiftly as I am able.
The garden was silent except for the scratching of Honore's pencils across his sketchpad. Valérie smoothed the sheets of paper at the edges, careful not to disturb the ink. She had no words, just a smile and hints of the threat of tears. The happiness and connection had a habit of fading, leaving an ache behind. She always felt it at the center of her chest, at that soft and secret place she considered a heart.
She read over the letter what felt like a thousand times before returning to the rest of the letters, reading them one after the other after the other. They were beautiful things. She would only trade them away for one thing, and that was Thara herself.
Honoré cleared his throat, jarring Valérie out of her reverie. She all but jumped out of her skin, earning a chuckle from the Eth man. "Steady," he said. "I was just trying to let you know that I'm finished."
Valérie nodded and then glanced upward. The sky was turning from brilliant azure to a dull grey, clouds swept in from the ocean to the south. She collected up her letters immediately. "Just in time," she said softly. "It looks to be considering rain."
Honoré stood up and offered her his hand. "Do you want to see it?" he asked. He sounded pleased with himself, which was always a good sign.
Valérie gave him a long-suffering sigh that hardly disguised a smile. "I suppose."
He held it up out of her reach, which wasn't difficult with their respective heights. "Take a tone like that, my friend, and I will paint it on the ceiling of the basilica," he said with a wide grin just before they stepped inside.
He had to lower his arm to go through the door, so Valérie grabbed the corner then. He let go immediately to avoid tearing his work and she caught it easily. "You have been outfoxed," she said with a wink.
"Outfoxed, perhaps, but never outclassed."
"And he's modest," Valérie said as if an actress giving an aside to an audience. Honoré was one of her favorite people and had a way of being that put everyone in a better mood.
Honoré grinned. "The very figure of it. My humility could dwarf the size of any man's pride."
Valérie studied him a moment. "It seems a tad unkind, using dwarves that way."
He chuckled. "That's probably why they dislike the surface so."
"Here I thought it was just that the sky made them uncomfortable. Now I know we must blame our sensitive artists. Their egos, anyway," Valérie said lightly. They'd stepped into the kitchen, so she set her bundle of letters down on the table and then opened up the pad.
What she saw stopped her a moment and then she looked up at Honoré. "Is that what I really look like?"
He chuckled. "Well, I did leave off the horns and fangs."
She slapped his arm but couldn't even find it in her to frown as she studied the picture.
Honoré's drawing was so lifelike that it could have come off the paper, an artist's rendition that only mirrors and the living person could replicate. Her pencil self sat back against the base of a tree, treated with that beautiful level of detail. Her eyes were hooded and half-closed as she looked down at the letter in her hands, one sheet in her hands and another held against her heart with the bundle at her side. She was drawn from the side, from the position where Honoré sat, but her face was still easily visible, her hair forming a curtain on the opposite side.
Her smile was something that she'd never seen before. Her usual flippant self was nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by something soft and secret. It was the expression of a world that existed within, some hidden garden or untapped spring.
You look at her the way Comte Estienne looks at his wife, Aloys said once. She'd brushed it off. It would have been easy to brush it off still had she not been granted such a crystalline window to what she really did look like, even when all she was gazing at was a simple letter.
"Is that really what I look like?" she asked again, voice soft.
Honoré rested his heavy hand on her shoulder, a comforting weight. "Yes," he said gently.
She pulled in a deep breath and then turned to face him. "I...Honoré, I've never..." The words trailed off and she found herself fighting for their return. She pulled in another breath and then exhaled.
He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "It's alright, Valérie. Nothing needs to be said."
She looked down at the image again and realized there was Eth writing at the bottom. "That's not your signature," Valérie said. "What does it say?"
Honoré smiled at her. "Just an old Eth proverb. Something seeing you reminded me of."
"Oh?" she said, tilting her head slightly as she looked up at him.
"We are never far from what we love," he translated. He gave her shoulder another squeeze. "If that is too bold, I apologize."
Valérie smiled, even if it was self-consciously. "I...I think I'm in love," she admitted. "I've never felt this way about anyone before." She carefully closed the sketchpad and sat down at the table. The admission was overwhelming enough that she felt an ache of tears in her eyes. With determination, she willed them away.
Honoré smiled and then turned, adding water to the kettle before placing it on the stove. It would take a while to start the fire and then let it get up to temperature, making tea something that couldn't be rushed. "I'm happy for you, Valérie," he said gently. "Nothing is more beautiful and powerful than love, whatever form it might take."
She hesitated for a moment and then said, "I'm afraid of it," she said. When Honoré's look became questioning, she steeled herself as much as she could. "I barely have a heart, but what I do have.... What if it is broken? What will I have left?"
"If she is the woman who composed those letters, I think breaking your heart is the last thing in the world that she'd do to you," Honoré assured her.
Valérie nodded, trying to relax. It was harder than Honoré probably expected. Everyone seemed to operate under the assumption that Thara's affections were forever, but Valérie was certain that in time, it would not be this way.
How could someone love a woman who only knew lust?
Her grip on love was tenuous at best. It was an emotion she could parody, but she knew it only in terms of desire and attraction. Her softer feelings she saved for her few friends, but even they were kept at something of a distance. There was no one she told her darkest secrets to, particularly the curse. Honoré was her best friend in the world, but she sheltered even him from that particular reality. Some things were better left alone.
Honoré bustled about, humming a tune as he did so. She recognized it easily, as he had introduced her to a good many Eth ballads. It had a good rhythm to it and a distinctive melody. She smiled despite herself when she recalled the lyrics. Soldiers had a much more colorful repertoire of songs than the average citizen. The nobles who fought held themselves above bawdiness, but at least some of them still appreciated it. Honoré was only prone to actually sing it when wine had him in its grip, but he never stammered over a word and it was catchy enough that it was a part of Valérie's memory now. Besides, for all her fine manners, such things never put her off. A courtesan's sensibilities were never delicate, if they were any good. Valérie considered herself able to contend with the best. Étain certainly awarded her with attention worthy of that status.
Now she was trading it away for Thara's affections. That was a terrifying prospect. She would always have the reputation to fall back on, of course, when Thara put her aside. She still couldn't conceive of that eventuality as an "if". That was of course assuming that the curse left her alive for that long. At any moment, she was certain that ice would consume her from the inside out. Part of her was tortured by the thought of dying before she saw Thara again, before she could actually say the words 'I love you' to the noble in person. It didn't feel right to scribble them out in pen and send them as an autopsy of an emotion, dead but dissected.
Valérie wanted more.
The sound of the front door opening and then closing stirred Valérie from her thoughts, followed by fast footsteps. "Colette," she murmured.
Honoré poked his head out into the hall. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" he said jovially. His smile vanished and he stepped into the hall. "Come here."
Valérie got up, leaving the table. "Is something wrong?" she asked. She followed him into the hall just in time to see Honoré pull her maid into a protective hug. It was easy to see the maid's distress, her eyes red and face wet with tears.
Honoré made soothing sounds and held Colette close, his big hand rubbing the young woman's back even as the sobs came more fiercely.
Valérie stepped in, pulling her handkerchief out of her sleeve and handing it to her maid. "We're here for you, angel," she said gently. "Come have a cup of tea."
"That we are," Honoré agreed, deep voice soft. He met the courtesan's eyes with a definite worry. This wasn't like Colette at all—their resident sunshine was never in tears...until now.
Valérie had a feeling she knew the source of the problem, but she hoped she was wrong. If she wasn't, it was going to be very hard to stop Honoré from killing someone and even harder to stop herself.
Together, they walked Colette into the kitchen, gently sitting her down in Valérie's empty seat. The courtesan set the kettle on the stove and took a seat across from Colette so that Honoré could sit beside her and wrap one arm around maid's trembling shoulders. No one could comfort like Honoré, though Valérie had every intention of giving it her all.
"I'm fine," Colette heaved out.
Valérie put a hand over one of Colette's across the table. The kitchen one wasn't huge and scarred from years and years of use. It had been in the house as long as the apple tree, or so the last owner before Valérie had said. "You don't have to tell us anything, angel," she said with care. "But if you wish to tell us, we are here to listen."
"Matthieu," she said, voice shaking.
"The gardener?" Honoré asked gently.
Colette nodded. "He was arrested," she said tearfully. She looked down at her hands, avoiding Valérie's eyes. Still, shame and pain were two emotions easily identifiable. "Because of me. Because I was so stupid."
Honoré studied her expression for a long moment before asking. "Did he hurt you?"
Colette's head snapped up. "No," she blurted out without thinking. "He...he protected me."
Valérie looked over at Honoré. "Take my signet and the money I keep in the bureau. You are to secure the young man's release." It was a lot of money, but she didn't imagine his bail was going to be light, not to mention potential bribes.
Honoré nodded. "I still have drinks now and then with Naël Martin, one of the bailiffs. He's not a bad man," he said before standing back up. "I'll be back with Matthieu as soon as possible."
"You are a saint, Honoré," Colette said, fresh tears welling.
Valérie waited until Honoré left to request more information. "Are you injured? You don't have to tell me what happened, but it would put my mind at ease."
The shame returned to Colette's bearing. "It was Gauvain Marchand." Fresh tears welled up. "He...he never cared for me. I thought we were in love, but all he wanted was my body."
Valérie understood what had happened. She'd seen it play out many times. "And once he had it, he lost all interest and affection," she said softly. There was a terrible ache in her chest when Colette nodded tearfully. "I'm so sorry, angel."
"I should have listened to you," the maid said through her tears.
Valérie was not one to say 'I told you so'. "It's alright," she said. "Why was Matthieu arrested?"
"He was trimming a hedge nearby when I spoke to Gauvain. My pleading angered Gauvain and he raised his hand to hit me. Matthieu hit him with a tackle and started beating him on the ground. There was blood and shouting. He hurt Gauvain badly and then two guardsmen pulled him away."
Valérie nodded. "We'll get him released. He defended you, which puts him in a high regard."
Colette nodded. She looked exhausted from the force of her emotions. "I'm sorry," she said in that soft, delicate voice.
"Never apologize for this," Valérie said before rising to her feet. "You should rest. I'll wake you when Honoré returns with our avatar of protective vengeance."
It took some hours before Honoré returned with the gardener. Matthieu looked thoroughly beaten, his left eye so bruised and swollen that he could barely open it. He looked even more sheepish than usual.
"Have a seat, Matthieu," Valérie said. "I'll find you a cold compress for that eye."
"You don't have to do that, Mademoiselle," he said as he sat down. "You and Monsieur Honoré already got me out of the clink. They'd have put me in prison for a hundred years. Marchand's family already bribed the magistrate."
Honoré shrugged. "If you know exactly who to bribe and give them enough, you can get more leeway. I knew better than they did." He put a hand on Matthieu's shoulder. "We owe you a great deal."
"I'd do it a thousand times more for Colette. Anything for her," the young man said sincerely, oblivious to the maid's presence in the doorway behind him. "Is she safe? Is she alright?"
Valérie smiled faintly and gestured for him to look behind him. "You should ask her that, o gallant gardener."
He almost fell out of his chair at that, trying to stand up far too quickly. When he saw her, he straightened up and tried unsuccessfully to brush the dirt and dried blood from his shirt. "I—"
Colette didn't quite run to him, but she moved swiftly, wrapping her arms around him and hiding her face in his shoulder as more tears came.
Matthieu held her close, stroking her hair with one rough hand. He was still careful around her, probably partially because of his wounds, but all that was visible on his face was care.
In that moment, Valérie felt room for hope.