In Talin, romance carried the sweet smell of roses. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she had never cared for it. Valérie du Lis far preferred the graceful white flower she carried as part of her name, even wearing a lily in her hair at such occasions when colored roses might have been more fitting. It was yet another way to set herself apart.
She sat in her garden, surrounded by verdant green and quiet despite her home's location within the city of Étain, Talin's bustling capital. The heart of solitude and sunlight was carefully contained as a central courtyard, shielded on all sides from street noise by the house itself. Its character came from the blooming delicate flowers, including her adored lilies, but also from its centerpiece: a great, gnarled apple tree long ago planted by some devoted servant of nature and warded from all harm over generations of past owners.
Valérie lounged in its branches like a forest nymph, nestled back against the rough bark of the trunk for comfort as she basked in the sun. She never did so long, as she might have lost her pale complexion and started to look common, or at least it would mark her more among Talin's elite. She loved it, though, the warmth and relaxation restoring the damage to her soul acquired upon every interaction with society.
She could certainly have passed for a noble if she wanted to. She had fair skin and cornsilk hair, her eyes light as silver. Her hands bore no calluses despite her arboreal inclinations and her nails were always tended to. Colette didn't quite scold her whenever she came inside after burying her fingers in the garden's soft earth, but whenever the maid witnessed it, she would always sigh in that long-suffering way of hers.
There was just something about nature that Valérie adored after a childhood and adolescence spent entirely in cities, where green growth was not always an option.
Her eyes opened when she heard a door creak open and Honoré's heavy tread approach. He still tramped like the grizzled sergeant he had been. His umber skin and unmistakable accent of the enemy made him almost completely unemployable, despite his Talinese birthright. He had spent too long in Ethilir and served in their armies. What merchant or noble would ever hire him, even as a coachman?
Fortunately for him, Valérie was neither, and she had never been more grateful for that than when she gave him a place to stay. He was no servant to her, though he knew more about horses than almost anyone. He was, if nothing else, her protector.
"You seem comfortable," he observed from the ground, looking up at her and rubbing at his short, curly beard. For being so dark-skinned, his eyes were surprising in color. They looked like amber in the sun, but perhaps that was a trick of the light.
"Always," Valérie said lightly even as she descended from her comfortable perch, landing lightly on the ground. She'd become quite adept at climbing in a light dress and the exercise kept her nicely toned. She always felt just a little smaller than usual next to Honoré. He was built like a tower. "Has Colette returned?"
"Not yet. The Duc's man came by," the sturdy former soldier said. The scar at the corner of his mouth puckered when he frowned. He held out a jewelry box to her, large enough to indicate it contained either multiple pieces or a sizable one. "For this evening, and any occasions following should he demand it, as you were so accommodating last night."
"You speak with such distaste," Valérie said lightly, maintaining easy good humor as she accepted the box.
"He's a brute," Honoré said bluntly. Even as his fortunes changed, he retained the mentality of a battleaxe. It was endearing, at least to a woman so used to navigating people more inclined to subtlety. "Even when he managed to pry his fingers from your arm."
"A brute that a woman such as myself cannot survive spurning, I think," Valérie said. She opened the box with care, lips quirking into more of a smile. The pendant inside was a beautifully made golden phoenix with a ruby held delicately in its claws, accompanying matching teardrop earrings. "One can say what one likes of Hector Delamarche, but his taste is impeccable. Colette will swoon with jealousy. As will his wife, I expect."
"Perhaps not as much as she pretends," her stalwart defender said. "You do grant her a reprieve."
"If only you could remind her of that before this evening," Valérie murmured. "Perhaps then she might be less inclined to sharpen her tongue so and apply her customarily ophidian venom."
Her stern protector didn't crack a smile, following her out of the garden and inside the house, passing beneath the boughs of the other, more ornamental trees. Everything was in bloom right now, sweet scents clinging to every breeze. "You intend to go, then?"
"Of course. How could I ever abandon my dear Aurore to the ravenous wolves she calls guests?" Valérie said, brushing a few scraps of bark from her dress on the way to her bedroom.
"You could barely get out of bed last week. I don't think it's wise. Colette was terrified we would have to send for a priest."
The soft note of concern in his voice was enough to prompt Valérie to turn to him. "I am sorry to worry you, my friend," she said gently, grey eyes for a moment somber. "I am well, I promise." She hated to lie to him, but what else could she do? There was only one way out of an elven curse. No physician would ever be able to touch it. Really, she was only grateful for its generosity. Even as her body died around her, her beauty remained, leaving her a livelihood. Then again, perhaps that was part of the spider's web too.
She kept her suffering shuttered from the world even when that entailed making a good many apologies. The air of mystery it lent her was at least useful. Her absences frustrated the Duc, of course, but he and others always returned.
Someday, she would not be able to conceal it from anyone, but for the moment, she was comfortable downplaying it despite Honoré's concern. She never wanted him to feel helpless in the face of her suffering. This evil was hers and hers alone.
Honoré sighed, but said nothing of continued disapproval. He growled like a hound, but he was just as loyal a friend. "Colette should be back from visiting her sister within the hour. Does that leave you enough time to prepare?"
"Enough to be fashionably late without excessively neglecting Aurore," Valérie said, picking up her brush. She was an expert at being well-put-together, whatever her thoughts and feelings. It was a skill honed over many years. She had been a courtesan for a little more than eight years now, not counting the time in her younger days when she trained under the auspices of the finest bordello in the neighboring High Kingdom of Leus, before its destruction. She was Talinese by blood, so she had happily returned to her homeland, enriched with skills of entertaining and keeping secrets that made her popular with more than a few nobles.
"I thought Her Ladyship enjoyed such things. She certainly hosts parties enough," Honoré commented.
"She enjoyed them more before she was married to a comte and expected to mind her manners," Valérie said. It was a very short walk to her bedchamber. She allowed Honoré to politely open the door for her, though she never expected it of him. "She is wonderful enough to ensure my invitation and I repay her by sitting at her side during dinner and providing some truly scathing commentary. Should someone overhear, she need only affect the air of a scandalized noblewoman. She loves it."
Her faithful defender chuckled a little, finally broken out of his worry by her good humor. "I suppose the two of you are the odd ones out."
"Well, she can act a proper lady so effortlessly. It must be all that time she spent on the stage. Opera is fine practice for politics. It has all the beats: intrigue, romance, nobility, honor, betrayal, and the occasional murder."
Honoré produced an unsealed, but addressed envelope from inside his jacket. "She sent this along for you."
Valérie took it swiftly, flicking the contents out of the envelope. As she began to read, a genuine smile formed. It was a softer expression than she ever made at parties. "She's so sweet."
"What is it?"
"An invitation to a season's worth of opera," Valérie said. "Along with tonight's invitation, of course." She flipped to the last page and her smile went from gentle to impish. "Oh, she should most certainly not have."
He raised an eyebrow.
The courtesan held up a sizable list of handwritten names for her defender to read. "The full guest list, at least those of note. Now I may compose my commentary in advance, secure in the knowledge of who I might avoid and who I might charm." She smiled at him. "I should be fine to prepare, Honoré. I will send Colette to tell you when it is time to depart. You need not fret a moment."
He bowed his head. "Of course. I will be with the horses."
Valérie walked over to her vanity, an oaken table with drawers and a silver mirror, all worn from years but cared for religiously. She took a seat and looked again at the invitation for the party, written personally in Aurore's spidery handwriting.
My very favorite accomplice: I am sorry that we have not spoken in so long. Court is abominable and has made me terribly neglectful. I know that you have been unwell, but I would be delighted to see you at this evening's soirée. You are ever the jewel of the evening and I have very nearly died of boredom in your absence. Should you decline the invitation, I will most certainly have to force my company upon you tomorrow at three o'clock with café and chocolat. In fact, you should most assuredly prepare for it regardless of your attendance. I have some tidbits of gossip that you will find particularly titillating. Much love, Aurore.
Her smile at those words was utterly extinguished when a chill swept through her body. Like a midwinter gale, the curse within her woke, devouring jaws sinking icy fangs into her heart. She trembled with the cold of the grave, complexion drained of color. The world around her seemed to darken to her eyes, her senses slowly growing dull to everything but the agony of frostbite through every inch of her being. Every attack took her to the abyss, drowning her with cold pain, until she could scarcely remember a time of light. She slumped forward, touching her freezing forehead to the vanity's sun-warmed surface even though she felt nothing.
Not for the first time as she lay in the cold grips of oblivion, trembling and almost weeping, she cursed herself and the creature that had inflicted such a fate upon her. Every year, it grew stronger and she grew weaker, as if it was feeding from her life-force. If elves were truly anything like the Leyan stories, perhaps it was.
There were times, such beautiful times, when she felt happy and well. Sometimes they spanned only days, sometimes months. The curse always returned, however, like the flourishing of a poisoned vine despite the cutting and burning of a diligent gardener. It was a cruel price to pay for an act of mercy.
It ebbed, light and warmth again slowly reaching into her damaged soul. Valérie stayed down another few minutes, reorienting herself to life. When she looked up at the mirror, she saw again no sign of the gnawing evil inside of her. A pale, trembling wreck stained with tears, certainly, but there was no true evidence of the cancerous magic.
What could be done?
She picked up the small towel from beside the basin that rested on one side of her vanity and set about returning herself to her mask. She washed away the last feelings of cold, returning a rose of color to her face by rubbing. She didn't look over when she heard the door open, clearing her throat and sipping tea from the cup by the windowsill to ease the rest.
Aurore was not the only actress in the world.
Once she felt normal enough, she turned to face Colette. Her maid was already tidying up despite just having arrived. "How is Léa?"
"Just fine, Mademoiselle," Colette said brightly. The curvy young woman was of a sunnier disposition than even Valérie, though her manners were somewhat less than refined. Schooling was not part of Colette's past on any level, but she had an artist's hand and eye when it came to matters of appearance. "Honoré said you'll be going to the Comtesse's party. It'll be quite grand, I expect."
Valérie smiled slightly at the tone in Colette's voice. "Perhaps next time I may send you in my place."
"It's a lovely thought, but them nobles wouldn't much like it. Not all of us have sparkling wit," she said. Her tone was thoughtful when she scrutinized Valérie's appearance, a sign that she was already thinking about appropriate attire for the party. "Simple or complicated, Mademoiselle?"
"I defer to your legendary expertise, as always," Valérie said as she picked up her hairbrush, surrendering it to Colette the moment the maid approached and held out her hand. "Your fashion knowledge is far superior to my own, my most stylish of angels."
Colette made the little throat-clearing sound that told Valérie that she was flattered and set about brushing her mistress's hair. Once every trace of potential tangle was gone, the arranging could begin. "Simpler would be best. Looks every bit as good as complicated, but less risk of trouble. Thoughts on jewelry?"
Valérie tapped the box from the Duc that she'd set down on the vanity. "Something new arrived while you were away, courtesy of His Grace."
"Did he apologize?" Colette asked, setting the brush aside long enough to open it.
"I sincerely doubt His Grace knows the meaning of the word," Valérie said as flippantly as she could. While she was more aware of her place in the world than Honoré accepted, she didn't particularly appreciate being manhandled. At least he held no monopoly on her time, provided she was available whenever he demanded her attention. "Still, it is certainly a gesture."
Colette peered into the box, letting out a little coo of delight despite her dislike for the man in question. "Ooooh! It's...it's lovely. You can even see the little feathers on the bird. I can think of a dress or two that'd be just perfect." She kept gazing down at it, eyes wide. "Must have been a pretty penny, else I'd have one."
"To the Duc, money is no object." Granted that was true of most nobles in her homeland. Talin's lords were wealthy given their tax revenue, unofficial ownership of the merchant guilds, and internal unity. They was far less fractured than their Genevais and Yssan neighbors, and not recovering still from an apocalyptic war like the Eth. Talin had learned governance well from centuries of occupation by the east's greatest empire and broken free from Ethilir with a surprisingly unified revolt. There were wars with those all around them, but not within Talin's borders. Trade was more profitable, truly.
Colette nodded as she pondered that truth of nobles for a moment. "Honoré said you know who else'll be there?"
"I have the list. I would honestly be shocked if there was a member of the nobility absent. Not at all how I imagine Aurore would have liked to spend her birthday," Valérie said with a smile. "I expect she agreed to this giant production to make her husband happy."
Her maid sighed wistfully. "I'd like to have a man like the Comte around."
"If he was anything but such a saint, Aurore would have never married," Valérie said by way of agreement. "Mind, I have it on good authority that he has some truly sinful moods. Aurore might have said nothing on the subject, but her grin and occasional difficulty sitting do tell. I knew her love of misbehaving would pay dividends one day, even if I did have to advise her on proper care for rope burns."
Colette's face flooded with red. "Mademoiselle!" she squawked.
"What?" the courtesan said as innocently as she could muster, hiding her grin behind her hand. Poor Colette was nowhere near as blasé as Aurore when confronted with a teasing Valérie.
Her maid had no response, working on calming her own embarrassment. "I'll not look at them the same way now," she muttered.
"My way is far more amusing," Valérie said. It was easy to smile at thoughts of Aurore's happiness. For a melancholic soprano from a barely noble family drowning in debts, the Comte's intervention was nothing short of miraculous. Once, Valérie had worried of Aurore's adoration for the man, but that was before the courtesan had met him.
In Valérie's experience, people told the truth the most without words. When she had been introduced to Pascal Estienne, she knew exactly what he held in his heart for Aurore without him needing to expend a single breath. His smile, dawning across his face like a sunrise at the sight of Valérie's friend, his eyes lighting up when he heard Aurore call his name, those were things that no amount of deception could feign. The Comte worshiped the ground that Aurore walked on and had well before they were married.
To him, there was no other woman, and for that, Valérie would forever be in his debt.
Of course, it had all created a stir and even prompted a few duels when Pascal heard someone say a word about his wife that he didn't care for. Those days were well over now, after the last war. While the Comte was not technically a high noble, he was currently Talin's most honored general and in at least a military sense, the right hand of the King. After wresting three important border provinces from Yssa and what was left of Leus, even the vilest of slanderers fell silent in fear of his displeasure.
"We'd best find you a man like him," Colette said lightly.
Valérie decided that in that moment, no matter how much she enjoyed scandalizing Colette, she should probably leave off the tormenting while she was at the mercy of a hairbrush. "I appreciate the sentiment, Colette, but love is not for me."
"You've a heart like the rest of us, Mademoiselle."
"Freedom is all I wish," Valérie said lightly. "Let us speak no more of silly things."
Colette hummed in reluctant agreement before beginning the transfiguration. The maid could turn anyone into a court beauty if given an hour or two, or so Valérie said often. Today was no exception. As soon as she was dressed for the occasion in a dress of light gray, Colette set to proper work. Soon, Valérie's hair was in a complicated bun, held in place by silver pins and a cedar comb carved with flowers. Next came cosmetics, applied with a number of different brushes and pencils.
At the end, Valérie felt like an entirely different person, as if there had never been a trace of ailment.
"There we are," Colette said, showing Valérie her work in a hand-mirror. "You look lovely."
The return of full healthy color and the banishment of the shadows around her eyes came as a welcome relief. With Colette's intervention, she could still pass for a vibrant soul. She would be judged with only the best remarks. "You are a handmaiden of Mode if ever there was one," Valérie said, returning the mirror. "Will it smear? I expect the Duc will expect some attention, given his gift."
Colette pursed her lips before saying, "Only a bit. He ought to go carefully."
"Perhaps he will. Whatever the case may be, I am forever grateful to have an advocate like you, my dear Colette," Valérie said fondly even as she opened a drawer on the vanity and pulled out a vial of perfume, applying with her customarily delicate touch. She wasn't fond of the excessive use of scents, which was probably why she did her best to avoid the Dowager Rouergue. "I did get you something today, since I have been such trouble."
"You're never trouble," Colette said in protest even as she watched Valérie return her bottle and produce another one. Her eyes went wide when her mistress held it out to her.
"Do with this whatever you wish. I impart it with affection," Valérie said.
Colette gaped for a moment, but recovered quickly and beamed as she accepted it. "You never! I'll get on all kinds of airs, a lady's maid with perfume."
"In purest form, my dear, you are anything but a lady's maid. A maid without equal on this earth, to be certain, but not for a lady."
"Maybe, but it's lovely," Colette said softly. She glanced out the window, checking the time by the position of the sun. "Thank you. I'll not forget this. Still, we'd best get you to the party, Mademoiselle. The Comtesse will want to see you."
"I can barely believe how long it's been," Valérie admitted. It had almost been a year since her last grand soirée and equally long since she'd seen Aurore. She flashed her maid a smile when she saw Colette hesitate in putting things away. "I am quite well, I promise. Besides, Aurore is not likely to permit my exertion. Even the Duc will bend to her will in such things, to indulge the lady of the house on her birthday. For manners' sake."
"Promise you'll be careful?" Colette said before worrying at her lower lip with her teeth.
"For you, my dear Colette, I will be the very soul of caution."