The bedroll by which Aria knelt, twice the usual size, knotted her stomach with anxiety. Silky, smooth white sheets matched the robes she wore; perched beside it, she looked like a prize ready to be unwrapped. Her eyes lingered on the neat tucking of the sheets and the fluffy pillows, until she couldn’t stand to stare at them any longer—the tidiness seemed to mock her.
The longer Aria waited for the winner of the auction to arrive, the more feeling she lost in her legs. Still, the process distracted her from the panic increasing with each passing minute. With her legs prickling and burning against the shiny, hardwood floor, she could at least remember the one constant since her first night in Tower of the Moon—her utter lack of choice.
With a thwick, the paper-screened door across from her slid open. Aria had let her eyes drift to her pale hands, clasped in her lap—but at the sound, she glanced up. Sebastian grimaced at her before closing the door behind him, though a smile followed the pained look; some of the tension seeped from her stomach.
“You don’t have to look so poised,” Sebastian said. He smiled again and crossed his arms, standing just inside the doorway. “I hope me winning the bid makes this less of an act.”
Aria slid one foot forward from her kneeling position to rise. Her pure white robes settled around her feet with an effortless sort of beauty, though beneath the sash tied at her waist, sweat dripped from her ribs. “Oh, Seb. The whole thing feels surreal. I thought for sure it would be Cesare.”
“No, not Cesare,” he said humorously. “He fought hard—much harder than I anticipated. But he gave up when the price got too high. He’s the royal treasurer at heart, after all; I’m merely a rich courtier. I have the funds to waste.”
Aria loosed a weak laugh and gave a passing consideration to Sebastian’s features. Light brown stubble accentuated his strong jawline, and he stood, lean and muscular, nearly a foot taller than her. Deep green eyes indicated some Western Realm ancestry, though she knew from the six months of her debut as a courtesan that he grew up in Tower of the Moon. Golden brown hair and a straight nose rounded out Sebastian’s devastatingly handsome face—at twenty-eight, he had just brushed the edge of his prime.
Sebastian gestured behind her before turning to a low table beside the door holding a decanter full of clear liquid. The room, sparse and elegant, had little to claim besides the bedroll in the middle of the floor and a cove with cushions for seating; two windows, their paper screens slid aside to overlook the gardens, invited in the sounds of birds chirping happily in juniper trees. Their songs weaved together harmoniously, with a serenity Aria found jarring and unwelcome.
She obeyed Sebastian’s silent request to sit as he sniffed the contents of the decanter.
“Vodka, not water,” he said, sauntering over to pour her a drink. “I should have known the mistresses of gathering houses like this would understand the need to numb the senses.”
“Have you never bought a girl’s virginity before?” Aria asked.
“Gods, no,” Sebastian said. “That part of the process feels rather insidious to me. I always prefer my women transitioned into full courtesans.”
“Then why did you bid on me?”
He grinned. “Oh, plenty of reasons. I’m sure we’ll get to it.”
Aria took a sip of her drink, letting the warmth bring feeling back to her legs, and watched him over her glass. “How long do we have?”
“I don’t have any meetings today,” he said. “I wondered whether I might monopolize your time for quite awhile.”
He looked her up and down, once. “I’m not merely interested in your cunt, you know, Aria.”
“I thought that’s what all of this was about.”
“On the surface, maybe. And for plenty of men, it never goes beyond that. The brothels are the playground of the rich, bored—and the men trapped in arranged marriages. It’s certainly mainly about sex. But I’ve been at this a long time. I no longer find sole pleasure in flirting with a girl until I can take her to bed.”
Aria frowned. “I spent six months learning how to act for this. All the dances were thinly veiled attempts to show how I would move in bed. My virginity was protected like a commodity from the day I was sold. The mistress will expect a full report of your abilities when I go back. And you mean to tell me it’s not about that?”
Sebastian laughed. “My interest has always extended beyond sex. But I recognize that it may seem surprising, after all you’ve been through.”
She bit her lip. “So we don’t have to…”
“No, we don’t have to.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “All that money…”
A corner of Sebastian’s mouth twitched up. “I can always make more money. You’ve done something unprecedented, you know—I have a reputation for spinning plates. But you’ve kept my interest the entire six months of your debut, with only the very distant temptation of your untouched cunt to keep me going.” He rolled his eyes. “The truth is, you fascinate me, Aria. Not necessarily because you’ve tried to trick me into being interested in you, as courtesans often attempt—but because it always looks like you’re hiding something.”
Aria swallowed—and when she didn’t reply, Sebastian continued, “We’ve gotten close over the last few months. I’d consider us friends, even. I wondered whether you might tell me what’s different, in your past.”
“You’re not from the Northern Kingdom,” he said. “The other girls clearly have lower breeding than you, judging by the way you speak and your ability to read. Sometimes, you have this look on your face when men are talking to you, like you’re not even there–but you always play the part of a courtesan to perfection. I want to know why you’re here, Aria. I want to know what happened to you.”
Her skin grew hot; she had never spoken of her past to anyone, not even Weston. His named jolted through her like a slap to the face, and she forced aside a lurch of guilt at thought of the man she truly loved; she knew he would lose the bid for her virginity even before she offered him the jade stone to participate. In truth, she had always known that control over her life rested on her transition to a full courtesan. Weston’s salary as a royal guard would allow them a few nights a month in each other’s arms, if little else—and guilt would do little to assuage her helplessness.
“There’s nothing to know about my past,” Aria said.
“Yes, there is,” Sebastian said gently. “If it’s a matter of not trusting me, well—I have hours. Ask me whatever you want.”
“I think you’re trustworthy,” she said. “I just—there’s nothing to tell.”
Sebastian tilted his head with a sympathetic expression. “What good does the secrecy do?”
Aria ground her teeth together once. “It keeps me sane.”
“Plenty of the women in this life struggle with what they’re forced to do,” he said. “Most find comfort in honesty.”
“Seb,” she whispered. “Did you really buy me just to hear about this?”
Tentatively, Sebastian reached forward to grasp her chin, and Aria didn’t shrink away; despite six months of evenings spent in his company, they had never actually touched. To her surprise, her skin prickled at the point of contact, and color rushed to her cheeks; Sebastian raked his eyes over her face, taking in every angle.
Though Aria flushed, she didn’t find his gaze unwelcome. In the Northern Kingdom, her lithe, tall build, onyx hair, icy blue eyes, pale skin, and sharp features set her apart from most of the other courtesans—and her noble bloodline lended her the kind of beauty worth millions of coins over her career as a courtesan. Men often stared at her in the gathering houses, entranced by her exoticism—but somehow, the way Sebastian looked at her felt considerably less objectifying.
His emerald green irises danced with intensity, though his expression remained soft and encouraging; Aria’s lips parted, slightly, when his thumb and forefinger tightened on her chin.
“You’re not a commodity to me,” Sebastian said. “You’re a commodity in this district, but you owe me nothing, no matter how much money I pay your mistress. I won the bid to keep you from Cesare, who has no qualms treating you like property. I bid at all because there’s something about you I can’t shake from my mind. If you want nothing to do with me, please tell me, and I’ll leave you be.”
Without hesitation, Aria shook her head. The part of her heart that remembered her past felt choked off—distant. But if she told him what she’d been through…
“It’s not just about sleeping with you,” Sebastian said. “It’s everything about you. You’re clever, intelligent, and beautiful, but you’re sad, too, and defeated. I want to know what broke your spirit. I want to know why you’re here, and how I can convince you to trust me, so you’ll tell me.”
Aria’s gaze fell to his chest, and she blinked a few times. “Seb…”
“Maybe start with why you don’t trust me.”
She flicked her eyes to his. “It’s—I do, but—” She exhaled sharply. “Because you spend your nights paying women to pay attention to you.”
Sebastian brushed his thumb over her jaw before retracting his hand. “Did you ever consider I might have deeper motives than that?”
He snickered. “Well, I spend a lot of money in these brothels, Aria. But the women I spend the most on find themselves out of the clutches of their mistresses in a year, maybe two.”
“You can’t be looking for a wife.”
“Oh, no. Even I’m not that delusional. But I am looking for honesty. Genuine feeling.”
“And then what?”
“The girls that accept my help, I eventually free,” he said. “I give them enough money to set themselves up comfortably in smaller towns to the east, and I find them employment if I can. You’d spin plates too, if you saw so many to help.”
“Why?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Does kindness truly need that sort of explanation?”
She narrowed her eyes, and he chuckled.
“Oh, please, you’ll think I’m as arrogant as Cesare,” he said. “It’s not just about kindness. It’s that courtesans have spent so many nights trying to give me pleasure, in conversation, dancing, music—I feel I owe them some pleasure of their own. And I don’t mean what I can do in bed. It’s a debt I always feel deserves to be repaid, especially when they never chose to dedicate themselves to my happiness in the first place.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “And you want to do the same for me?”
He smiled in a subdued manner. “Well, that’s what’s so different about you. Yes, I do want to help you like I have others—but I’ve also never found myself drawn to someone quite as thoroughly as I’m drawn to you. Maybe it’s because you’re mysterious and closed off—not that it’s an uncommon strategy with the duller courtesans—but you’re clearly a little deeper than that. I see these flickers of who you really are; you have a cutting wit, and you seem to take pleasure in darker humor. You carry yourself with the kind of pride those who were raised in hovels never quite manage. I want to know what happened to you, yes—but it’s not just curiosity.”
“You can’t help me,” Aria said.
Sebastian leaned past her to close a screen on the window behind her shoulder, muffling the birds in the gardens. With his neck so close, she caught a whiff of something lemony and blinked at the way it seeped through her like the warming calm of that first drink of liquor; Sebastian brushed her shoulder as he settled back into his seat, and she followed his movements with wide eyes, as if she’d never truly considered him before.
Well, of course she’d considered him—Sebastian was incredibly handsome, and immensely sought after by every courtesan in the district. But in all Aria’s years in Tower of the Moon, interacting with men either as a lowly servant to the brothel or as an apprentice courtesan, only once or twice had she encountered a man whose hands she wanted all over her, almost by instinct.
“Are you alright?” Sebastian asked. “You look a little flushed.”
Aria shook her head, though not entirely in answer to his question. Sebastian grasped the hand she rested across her thigh, and her stomach vacated the premises.
“I assure you, I can help you, Aria,” he said. “Whether I can help you in a tangible way, or just as an ear to listen, remains to be seen.”
“Sebastian,” she said. “If I tell you—can you promise me something?”
She glanced at her pale hand, entwined with his tanned one. “No one else can ever know—not from your lips.”
He lifted his free hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, and she closed her eyes; his scent hit her with full force.
“Never,” Sebastian murmured. “It will be our story, and ours alone.”