"The Comte and Comtesse are not receiving guests at the moment," the young man who had answered the door said firmly, though he seemed somewhat uncertain of who Valérie was. She didn't recognize him, which meant Marcel must have finally retired and a new servant was hired.
His posture indicated that he wasn't likely to budge, which annoyed Valérie immensely. "Allow me to assist," she said firmly. "You see, the Comte and Comtesse Estienne are of a status where one does not simply barricade the door at an early hour because the person who has come calling did not arrive with forty-seven servants announcing their lineage for the past thousand years simply to assist you in identifying them as a person of import. The correct protocol would be to say, 'Ah, Mademoiselle du Lis, do come in, the Comte and Comtesse would delight to see you, but they are currently asleep' or, more likely, enjoying each other's company, since I know for a fact that Aurore has been terribly stressed lately and her husband has a particular way of relieving such tension in her."
His wide eyes told her that her verbal blade had found purchase. He looked like he was going to say something, but stopped when she held up her hand.
"I say this with mercy and affection: find Laurent and tell him that Valérie du Lis is here to speak to the Comte and Comtesse, convey my promise that I will bear all responsibility for the outcome, and cease your attempts to halt me in my advance. This is a serious matter and you will find me a far better friend than foe."
Valérie narrowed her eyes. She was normally far more patient, but the thought of an incredibly hungover and acutely hurt Næmr at home was like sandpaper on her peace of mind. "Now."
He complied, allowing her entrance before darting off to find Laurent. Valérie made a beeline for the stairs. The absence of servants on the second floor confirmed her supposition. They tended to make themselves scarce when certain moods hit. Valérie was well aware of the dynamic between Aurore and Pascal, as she'd offered her advice many times at the beginning.
Aurore had needed the assistance. Pascal had been perhaps too much a gentleman, ever careful and tentative around his future wife, and Valérie's friend never knew how to say what she wanted. A courtesan's experience and vocabulary were quite helpful.
And now? One was not likely to find another marriage as happy as theirs, even searching the whole of Talin. Valérie was not one for discussion of soulmates, but in Aurore and Pascal, she saw an argument for the concept.
Valérie stopped outside of the bedroom, prone to sisterly snooping. It was ajar, allowing her a sliver of sight. She smiled slightly at what she saw, despite everything weighing on her mind.
A shirtless Pascal sat on the edge of the bed with Aurore in his lap. Her friend was mostly undressed, but still somewhat covered in a slip torn at the neckline. It did nothing to cover fresh red marks and bite marks that broke the skin, but Aurore was no more distressed than usual—just clearly spent and shaking a little from the aftermath. She curled close to Pascal with her arms around his neck, eyes closed as he stroked her hair with one hand, his other arm wrapped around her. "Was that everything you wanted, princess?" he asked, barely audible from the door.
"It was exactly what I needed," Aurore said softly.
"Good," he said before kissing her forehead and giving her a slight squeeze. "You are perfect, princess. I love you. I will always love you. Let me get something for those bites and bruises."
Aurore shook her head. "Another minute," she said.
Pascal smiled and stilled his shift to get up, holding his wife close. "The rest of my life and after, if you wish it," he said gently.
"I love you," Aurore said with a small, utterly content smile.
Valérie stepped back. It was good to know that Pascal still took the same care with Aurore that he always had. However rough he could be, he was a man who would never do anything his wife didn't want and had never once neglected tending to Aurore after everything. It was almost hard for Valérie to fathom, but perhaps that was because her experience with men like Pascal was rare. After all, a happy and devoted husband was not the type to make use of a woman like her.
It did make her think of Thara. Was the desert noble as devoted and ardent? Part of Valérie desperately hoped so, but there was a greater part that wished the contrary. Anything to protect Thara from the consequences of her actions.
Valérie took a seat in the living room that adjoined the bedroom, prepared to wait as long as it took for the pair to emerge. Her thoughts strayed back to Næmr and Aloys. Gaspard was fortunate that she was a woman and ill-suited to thrash him. Perhaps it would have brought him into conflict with his mother, but he could have treated it as a non-issue.
Aloys and Næmr deserved better.
It was a lengthy wait, but Valérie devoted the time to deep, involved thought. She did stop long enough to rise and knock softly in her pattern on the bedroom door after around a half hour, so she wouldn't startle them when they emerged.
"Valérie, this is quite the early hour to be paying people visits," Aurore said as she stepped into the room, fingers interlaced with Pascal's. She looked the perfectly put together Comtesse again, though she hadn't bothered to take the time with cosmetics yet to cover the bite on her neck, the only one visible when dressed. Valérie seeing it was never a concern. Pascal was his usual dashing self, though his mood was still decidedly tender if Valérie had to guess based on the way he slipped an arm around Aurore and gently held her close.
"My apologies. I wouldn't have troubled you on this lovely weekend morning if it wasn't important," Valérie said. She sighed slightly. "I'm afraid I need your assistance in a matter of the heart."
"Thara is being stubborn?" Pascal said with a small smile, taking a seat across from the courtesan.
"No," Valérie said, feeling and then summarily crushing an urge to blush. The memory of Thara's touch lingered vividly and was doing all kinds of things to her every time her thoughts even neared it. "This particular love affair isn't mine. It's Aloys."
"He found someone?" Aurore said, a hint of surprise in her tone as she let Pascal gently pull her down next to him. She knew from Valérie how difficult that would be in Talin, particularly for a young man of his position and situation.
Pascal chuckled knowingly and kissed his wife's cheek. "I assume you remember Monsieur Ávarsson?" he said.
"Well, that does explain the eyes Aloys was making at him," Aurore said. Her smile was there for a moment at full radiance before dimming slightly. "But you wouldn't be here just to share wonderful news like that, Valérie. Something's gone wrong, hasn't it?"
Valérie nodded. "Aloys had a conversation with his brother about his budding romance. Gaspard is likely at least somewhat sympathetic, but their mother is decidedly less so, and she managed to overhear. Næmr was in something of a state last night after being disinvited from the Chalon estate."
Pascal and Aurore both frowned. "I hope that was not Aloys's decision," the Comte muttered.
"Aloys is a sweet man," Aurore assured her husband. "I can't imagine him doing anything like that."
"The pressure a family can exert is immense," Pascal reminded his wife gently. "You know that better than most."
Aurore sighed. "I know," she said. "But I did not succumb, nor do I foresee Aloys giving in."
Valérie combed her fingers through her hair. "I have not been given the opportunity to speak with Aloys, but I'm inclined to agree with Aurore. Besides, what Næmr said made it sound like Aloys is unaware of what transpired. Regardless, as long as his mother disapproves and acts upon that disapproval, she can do a great deal to cause an inhuman level of unhappiness."
Pascal nodded, piercing eyes understanding. "I know the Comtesse Chalon. She loves her children dearly, but she is of a kind that cannot well tolerate when they break from what she believes to find their own way. Her husband exacerbates that tendency. There is only one manner of man he will accept as a son, and that is the most aggressive, forceful manner of man. Particularly with women. I do not think he would accept Aloys's love with anything even vaguely approaching grace."
"Fortunately, she isn't likely to tell his father," Aurore said. She wasn't as familiar with the dynamic as Valérie after the courtesan's years of being a confidante, but understood that much from mere external observation. The Comtesse pursed her lips disapprovingly. "I had thought better of her."
"People are imperfect," Valérie said. It was not an exoneration, just acknowledgement. "It might be that given time and the right push, she will reconsider her stance, though such things are never for certain."
Pascal considered the situation for a long moment. He was not a man inclined towards rash action and preferred to deliberate on what course of action was best. "What can we do to help?" he asked, surprising Valérie. She expected Pascal's support, but not so rapidly given. It had only been a minute, maybe two, of thought.
Aurore smiled and leaned into him, giving Valérie a nod. "Aloys and Næmr deserve happiness," she said, not a trace of hesitation in her voice.
Valérie felt a definite gratitude and a swell of hope. "The way that I see it, and would frame the situation to the Comtesse if she would listen to a solitary word I said, is that to continue in the vein she has chosen will cost her Aloys, one way or another. This is not an inconvenience that she can try to push past: it is who he is, with Næmr or not, and burying that truth will kill him."
Pascal nodded and looked to his wife. "It will take some time, but we may be able to impress that truth upon her. Gaspard would be a significant ally."
"Thara has promised she will work on him," Valérie said. "I think her forceful nature will serve well there. If his father's incessant browbeating has done anything, it has prepared him to pay attention when someone removes the option of ignoring them."
"Which leaves the lovebirds to you," Aurore said thoughtfully.
"If I can get access to Aloys," Valérie said, well aware that it was not a given. She had no doubt that Aloys's mother would find plenty of the fault with a courtesan's debauchery, real or imagined. "If he stays at that estate and it is not open to me conventionally, this may become...unpleasant. Particularly since I cannot take the most surefire way of ignoring the Comtesse's countermeasures. Not that I would want to."
"The Comte," Aurore said, not even really a guess.
"That would be the easiest access," Valérie said, grimacing. "That said, I think I'd rather bathe in sewage."
"A similar experience, I would wager," Pascal said dryly. It was no secret that the two men had a particularly virulent dislike, given the comments the older man had made about Aurore prior to their marriage. Pascal had very nearly killed him, and only relented because his own towering rage had spooked Aurore.
Aurore ran a hand down Pascal's chest, meant to soothe. She knew full well that the bad blood was still very much there. "I'm glad you're not actually considering that, Valérie."
"I have Thara," Valérie said softly. "I would have no other." She rose to her feet, ignoring the smiles that comment had prompted. It was rare for her to make such utterances to any audience and it still frightened her on a level. Saying it made all of her feelings that much more real and powerful. "Thank you for agreeing to help. I think we're the best chance Aloys has of finding happiness, if we play our cards well."
"You don't have to run off, Valérie," Pascal said with warmth. "We haven't seen you since the gala and it's something of a relief to see you doing well."
"I promise I will be around more," Valérie said. "Unfortunately, I have Næmr to tend to. He is probably even more miserable hungover than he was drunk."
"Poor man," Aurore said softly. "I cannot imagine how alone he must feel in Étain, even on the best of days. To be forced to endure this..."
"Valérie, would you do us a favor?" Pascal said, giving his wife a slight squeeze. When the courtesan nodded, he said, "Please tell Næmr that should he ever need anything, we will do our best to oblige. He is always welcome here. Always."
Valérie gave the pair before her a smile despite her weighty thoughts. "You are rare, beautiful souls," she said warmly. "I will tell Næmr. He needs friends. Have a good day."
"You as well, Valérie," Aurore said, smiling when her husband brushed his lips over the bite mark on her neck in a kiss.
By the time Valérie made it home, Næmr was awake. Colette met the courtesan at the front door, the sound of retching audible in the background. "How is he?" Valérie asked, noting the maid's worried eyes.
"Miserable," Colette reported. "Hasn't kept anything down, not even water. We moved him to the kitchen, since it's easy to mop. He hasn't said much."
The courtesan sighed. "I'm sure his stomach will ease by the afternoon," she said as she followed Colette towards the kitchen. "It's everything else that concerns me." She patted Colette's arm as comfortingly as she could. "Hopefully he will be willing to talk."
Næmr was sprawled near the door to the garden, sweating and shaking. He was resting his head on the cool stone of the floor and remained there, motionless, as Valérie approached. After a long moment, he opened his dark eyes. They were rimmed with red, a hint of tears. "I am sorry," he said weakly.
Valérie knelt down at his side, brushing sweat-drenched hair out of his face. "There is nothing to apologize for," she said calmly. "You may always come to me, whatever your condition."
"You are too kind," Næmr murmured.
"Aloys is not lost to you," Valérie said, taking her hand away. "Even if you are officially barred from his presence, that presents no true obstacle to a shapeshifter."
"I do not wish for him to have to choose me or his family. Whatever we have, he loves his family intensely and that should not be disturbed."
Valérir sighed. She knew part of Næmr's concern was that he would lose and lose badly if that choice played out. "I have never known Aloys to be unabashedly happy, save for when he is with you. You allow him to be himself completely and meet it with love. He is not going to discard you.."
"Forgive me if I do not believe you," Næmr said.
"Belief is not required," Valérie said. "You have myself, Thara,, the Comte and Comtesse Estienne all on your side. I have no doubt we can find additional allies."
Næmr let his head rest against the cool floor and closed his eyes. "All I want is to be with him," the giant said quietly. "I did not know of the cruelties of humans."
Valérie put a hand on his back, rubbing a soothing circle. "As one well acquainted with the uglier parts of humanity, I promise you that they can be endured and overcome. Did Aurore ever tell you what it was like for her before she married Pascal?"
Næmr shook his head.
"Aurore came from a family drowning in debt and shamed by the collapse of their wealth and influence. When she was young, she fell in love with opera. She is quite the singer and a fine actress. To her, it was an escape from the misery surrounding her family like a funeral shroud. This was terribly scandalous, as acting is not an appropriate profession for a noblewoman. For a long time, I was her only friend in high society."
"Pascal did say she has the voice of an angel," Næmr said quietly.
"Indeed. The combination of that profession and her association with myself and common folk led to a constant stream of rumors. She was seen as vulgar, common, and promiscuous—none of which were true. No man in Court would ever touch her with a ten foot pole, not when her association with male actors renowned for their uncouth appetites was public knowledge. And then, one day, she was about to leave the opera house after a performance and she stumbled into a man carrying a wreath of roses just for her. He told her how her voice rendered him spellbound and introduced himself: Comte Pascal Estienne."
Næmr sighed. "And then they were married," he said, a hint of envy in his tone.
"The scandal was legendary," Valérie said. "As you well know, Pascal has a singular effect on women and had a line of noblewomen seeking to marry him long enough to wrap around the expanse of the palace. Every single one took Aurore's presence as a personal response. Every piece of vile slander one could think of was directed at her. The men of the Court were no less wicked—for example, Lazare Chalon calling her a whore and describing in detail all the things he would do to her if given the chance. Pascal almost ripped him apart with bare hands. I cannot count the number of times I saw her break down into tears behind closed doors. But for Pascal, there was no other woman. His adoration grew with each passing day and he punished Aurore's critics viciously, whether by fighting duels defending her honor or banishing noblewomen from his presence altogether. They married under that cloud, but Aurore applied her significant charm and Pascal his ruthless protective instincts."
"I wish I had what they have," Næmr admitted, opening his eyes to look at Valérie. "I wish that Aloys would fight for me, but that is not for me to ask. He must think of his best interests."
"Trust me," the courtesan said gently. "I know Aloys. Once he knows what is going on, he will be your staunchest defender. He would do anything for a friend and you are more than that. In the meantime, the guest room is yours. Take the time to heal as much as you can. Though, that said, I cannot recommend such consumption of alcohol again, given your misery."
Næmr chuckled a little at his own misery before groaning, no doubt due to his churning stomach and aching head. "It was foolish."
"We can all be foolish now and again. Hearts are not rational," Valérie said, standing up. "I'll fetch you some water and have Colette make a broth for when you can stomach something."
The giant looked up with his shining black eyes. "You are more friend than I could have ever expected to find. I will treasure that friendship whatever happens here in Étain, rarest of lilies."