There was ever a reason to have a celebration in Étain, and Baron Donadieu's eldest daughter finally consenting to a marriage was cause enough for a properly grand soirée as far as nobles were concerned. Her last experience with such a festivity left Valérie a bundle of nerves beneath her carefully calm exterior, but she knew better than to ever show it. Instead, she stayed close to Aurore's side at the center of a cluster of gossiping young noblewomen, basking in the general admiration her glamour and independence brought.

Valérie knew for a fact that at least a half dozen of the young ladies in the room would have traded places with her in a moment. To be showered in gifts and ardor was almost as alluring as the freedom of being without the controlling hands of a noble family. They were birds of paradise in gilded cages, envying her beyond the windows of their confinement.

One or two also had a different sort of admiration for her, of course. She'd entertained both the bashful Fleur D'Aren, now a Vicomtesse in her own right, and the scandalous Brigitte Rohan, the youngest child of the Marquis Rohan, a grim and foreboding man who had little patience for his daughter's many escapades. Valérie had rather enjoyed their attentions on those occasions, though Fleur fumbled and Brigitte was not what one could call a thoughtful lover.

Aurore tapped Valérie's arm with her fan before flicking it open to conceal her face when she leaned to whisper into her friend's ear. "I do believe someone is paying you a great deal of attention," the Comtesse murmured.

"Oh?" Valérie said innocently, sipping from her glass of wine.

"The way you're being undressed by the mere gaze of our resident thorn knight is rather scandalous," Aurore said with amusement. "I'm beginning to think you should have worn a less daring dress."

Good humor finally pushed the last of Valérie's nerves beneath the surface of her thoughts. "My dear Aurore, I knew exactly what I was doing the moment I chose my outfit," Valérie murmured back.

Queen Adriana had brought her homeland's foreign fashion into the Talinese court, but few noblewomen fully embraced the daring cuts of Leyan aesthetics. They were more accustomed to their corsets and general propriety, though more and more of the younger generation wore plunging necklines and sleeveless gowns in imitation of the foreign-born spouse of their monarch.

Valérie, however, was quite comfortable to embrace Leyan style when it suited her purposes. She'd learned to enjoy the free flow of fabric and bare skin during her days in the heat of southern summer—milder than Thara's desert homeland, but considerably warmer than Étain. Her dress was a piece of art worthy of some cosmic museum of seduction, the final surviving piece of the wardrobe she'd brought north with her. It was a deep, ruby red and showed off ample skin, cut away on one side to reveal the bare skin of her abdomen to compliment a plunging neckline and a slit up either side of her skirt that showed a tantalizing amount of leg.

Thara's jaw had dropped on her arrival and still hadn't entirely recovered even though it had been almost an hour, her dark eyes following Valérie's every movement even as the Dowager Rouergue prattled on at her and Pascal hid his laughter behind his hand on her other side.

"Your devilish instincts are going to get the better of you," Aurore said with amusement.

"As if you never wind up that wonderful husband of yours," Valérie shot back with a grin half-hidden behind her own fan.

"Mmm," Aurore agreed, fluttering her eyelashes in her husband's direction. Even from a distance, it caught his attention. "It is rather delightful when he's frustrated. Particularly when the King has his ear and he can't do anything about it."

Valérie laughed. "It's as though you used to listen to my advice."

"Hush you," Aurore said with a mock frown and a swat of her fan. "I had some flirt game of my own even then."

"Oh, certainly flirting," Valérie acknowledged. "But with a certain poverty of seductive vocabulary."

Aurore gave her a severe look over the top of her fan. "All I was saying is that you ought to be ashamed of yourself for torturing poor, innocent Thara. It's hardly fair."

The courtesan glanced in the direction of the thorn knight in question, who was approaching beside Pascal like a lioness on the prowl. "Are you suggesting that I stop?"

"Not in the slightest," Aurore confided with a conspiratorial wink. "Now I'm off to tease Pascal. I leave you to bait your love on your own." The noblewoman stepped away to greet her husband, pressing a chaste kiss to his cheek. The young women in the area refocused their envy on Aurore, which suited Valérie just fine. She only really wanted one set of eyes on her.

"Lady al-Sajjad," Valérie greeted demurely, hiding her impish grin behind her fan. There was no mistaking the smolder to Thara's expression. The courtesan's years of being the finest succubus in all of Talin were paying dividends now.

"May I steal you away for a private word, Mademoiselle du Lis?" Thara asked, sounding every bit the serious, proper noblewoman her father had groomed her to be. Valérie took no small amount of pleasure in pushing on those boundaries of Thara's self control, though she was very, very careful to not be too obvious in the public eye.

"Of course," Valérie said smoothly, placing one hand atop Thara's outstretched palm to be lifted in greeting. The thorn knight barely stopped short of kissing her hand, at least slightly conscious of their audience.

This little interaction was not going to put any rumors to bed, but Valérie had spent the past month scheming to properly reunite Aloys and Næmr, enough that she'd barely had time for her own romantic life, and Thara was advising the King or pushing Gaspard more often than not on the rare occasion that Valérie had a free moment. Perhaps it was selfish, but she needed an evening where she could be wanted by that burning heart of Thara's.

Thara led the way out to a balcony, where cool spring breezes whispered across Valérie's bare skin, leaving goosebumps in their wake. A trellis heavy with roses blocked the view of a small corner from the main event.

"You look..." Thara started, words trailing off as her searing gaze swept down Valérie's body.

Valérie stepped back, letting her back touch the cool stone wall to invite Thara closer, bringing them both out of view of the party. "The poet at a loss for words?" she teased.

"Can you blame me?" Thara murmured as she stepped in, leaning in to kiss Valérie.

Her lips met the painted silk of the fan. As much as Valérie ached for a kiss, she was enjoying the game too much to give it up yet. "You'll smear my lipstick, Lady al-Sajjad."

Thara's mouth quirked into a small smile as she raised an eyebrow. "Of course," she said, smoothing fingertips down Valérie's covered side. Her other hand gently closed the offending fan, allowing her lips to ghost against Valérie's ear instead. "As the lady wishes."

Your devilish instincts are going to get the better of you.

It took everything in Valérie not to melt when Thara's lips touched the side of her neck, wandering slowly down towards a bare collarbone. Strong hands on her hips pulled her close even as Thara pressed her slightly against the wall. The cool spring night was suddenly hot as a furnace. Everywhere Thara touched her felt like it would combust.

Valérie slipped her free hand into Thara's dark hair, twining her fingers with midnight strands. The breathy sound of approval that Thara made against the soft skin of her throat almost made the courtesan moan. "Thara," she said in a low voice, letting the 'r' sound have the roughness of her love's native language.

Thara lifted her gaze immediately, dark eyes burning like coals.

Before she could speak, Valérie closed the distance between them in a hungry kiss. The noble's lips against her own were everything she could have ever asked for. Thara gasped slightly in surprise, giving the courtesan all the advantage she needed. She linked her arms around Thara's neck and pulled her close, fan hanging from the cord around her wrist as she buried both hands in Thara's hair. Consequences were a thought distant at best. Valérie was dimly aware that they could be interrupted at any moment, but for a second she could almost forget, so wrapped up in the kisses that were beginning to feel so very desperate for more.

Thara only stopped when their lungs were searing for want of air. "What about your lipstick?" she breathed, half stunned.

Valérie laughed, the sound melodic and unabashedly free. "My color looks good on you," she said, touching Thara's lips with her thumb.

Thara kissed her again, every bit as fervent as the last meeting of lips had been. Fingertips brushed down the outside of Valérie's thighs, teasing bare skin exposed by the cut of her Leyan dress.

Valérie couldn't help a soft moan. "Thara," she whispered when they parted again. When her love again raised an eyebrow, she elaborated on her thought. "This party is terribly tedious. I think I might leave early."

"Is that an invitation?" Thara asked with a grin.

Valérie smiled. "Perhaps," she said, slowly releasing her hold on the desert noble. "Or a dare."

Thara's smile widened. "Posing challenges now, Valérie?"

"As if I have done anything else since you've known me," Valérie whispered against the desert noble's lips. She turned her head when Thara tried to close the distance. The sudden touch of teeth on her earlobe almost made her knees go weak. "We're going to be discovered."

"I don't care who knows," Thara said, though she stopped after her nip. "Pascal and Aurore have done more and no one bats an eye."

"She wears his ring," Valérie pointed out gently.

"So if I give you mine..." Thara suggested teasingly.

Valérie's heart did a somersault at that thought. It was an incredibly enticing fantasy, but just that: fantasy. "You may not ravish me wherever you wish," she said, pressing her closed fan lightly against Thara's sternum.

Thara ducked her head slightly, looking almost coyly through her long lashes at the courtesan. "Even if I ask nicely?"

It was impossible not to think decidedly unchaste thoughts at that. "You do say please so prettily," Valérie said. She knew she'd surprised Thara when she saw the blush spread across the noble's swarthy cheeks. The courtesan grinned. "Am I to understand that you like it when I make you use your words, Thara?"

Thara's eyes widened slightly. "I..."

Valérie lowered her voice, silver eyes heavily hooded with desire. "Mmm, I think I might enjoy it too."

"You think?" Thara challenged, regaining her footing in their little game.

The courtesan laughed even as she smoothed out Thara's hair into an orderly fashion again. "Shall we test the theory later tonight?"

"We could leave now," Thara countered hopefully.

Valérie smiled wickedly. "We could." She checked her makeup in the small mirror on her fan's handle. Her lips needed touching up and she was flushed, but she could smooth that out in a moment and be ready to return to propriety again.

"Please?" the desert noble said softly.

"You're going to have to do better than that," Valérie teased.

"You said it was boring," Thara protested.

The courtesan touched her ardent knight's lips with a finger. "That's not what I meant."

Dark eyes studied her with intensity for a long moment. "Please," Thara said again, her voice low and husky, this time with unmistakable deliberate air. "I'll do anything."

Valérie's eyes gleamed. "A sweet and very dangerous offer," she said. "Aren't you afraid of what the succubus might ask?"

"I only see an angel," Thara said, stroking Valérie's cheek. "And I fear nothing from her. Please, Valérie. Let me escort you home."

The sudden romance mixing with seduction was more than Valérie had calculated for. Her heart fluttered almost painfully in her chest. For a moment, she couldn't help losing herself in Thara's adoring eyes. "Since you asked so sweetly," she said with a growing smile.

Thara kissed the courtesan's hand and moved to step back towards the party and its exit. "I love you, Valérie du Lis," she said with a beatific smile.

"I love you too," Valérie said. She didn't say it often, afraid to jinx her own insane luck. She laughed when Thara tugged at her hand. "Let me fix my lipstick."

"But ruining it is so much more fun," Thara said, stepping back into Valérie's hidden space.

"Be good," the courtesan warned, though she couldn't stop smiling. "Otherwise I might find something here more interesting."

"Than me? Never."

Valérie pursed her lips as she looked up into those dark eyes. "Remember what you promised," she reminded her love, amused as she was by the desert noble's eagerness. "Anything."

"Anything," Thara promised again, just as ardently.

"Then be patient," Valérie said as she touched up her lips using the small container of lipstick she kept hidden on her person for such occasions. "Good things come to those who wait."

"As you wish," Thara said, kissing the courtesan's cheek gently, passion cooling slightly into an unmistakably affectionate warmth. She let her eyes rake up and down Valérie's body, though it was clear she was trying to again mind her manners.

"I thought you might like this dress," Valérie said lightly.

"It's my favorite that I've ever seen on you," Thara admitted readily.

"I wore it with only you in mind," Valérie said with a self-satisfied smile. She loved the appreciation she saw in Thara's eyes and the accompanying hunger made something inside her quiver hopefully. Aurore hadn't been wrong: Thara's intentions were plainly visible in the way she stared.

That seemed to embolden Thara. "I look forward to undoing it."

Valérie stepped past Thara into the light, letting her fingertips ghost up Thara's arm. "I look forward to undoing you," she purred against Thara's ear, leaving a furiously blushing thorn knight in her wake as she returned to the hustle and bustle of the party, trying desperately to think cold thoughts.

Thara had more effect on her than the noble would ever know. It was absolutely intoxicating to repay the favor and she knew for a fact that she had.