With a giggle, Emery accepted a drink from a tall man with the dark skin of the Western Realm. Aria hung back, so used to shadowing Emery as an apprentice courtesan—but of course she’d made the transition nearly two months ago, after losing her virginity for an exorbitant sum to the Northern Kingdom’s treasurer, Cesare. Aria often felt as if she needed to gain her bearings in the gathering houses, considering a life of objectification by more powerful men had been thrust upon her unexpectedly—and Emery never seemed to mind escorting her around the district as she had before Aria could claim any independence. Even with her tentative transition into her career, though, Cesare set off a meteoric rise of Aria’s fortunes; following his favorable experience with her maidenhead, and with her sharp, exotic beauty—for the Northern Kingdom, anyway—the mistress found her opening to charge three times the usual amount for an hour of Aria’s time. Taking her to bed cost more than all but the richest of courtiers could afford.
Emery caught the attention of the Western Realm delegation first—her soft beauty outshining most of the courtesans around her—but a few of them noticed Aria and jostled each other to approach. Their leader, a visitor to King Sireno, remained cross legged at the cards table, his hand draped around a glass of wine.
“A drink, radiance?” a man asked Aria, the quickest to approach. He had a heavy accent; the Western Realm alternated between their mother tongue and the common tongue.
Aria smirked. “Only if you don’t call me ‘radiance’ again.”
The man grinned. “I’m Sinan.”
“You look remarkably like a woman of the Whispering Plains.”
“Is that a realm in the west?”
He handed her a glass of wine from the mistress of the gathering house, who passed with a plate of drinks. On the other side of the gardens, Sebastian slipped into the party with two of his friends; he met Aria’s eyes, and they both blushed, glancing away swiftly.
“Yes, it’s on the western coast,” Sinan said. “They have coloring just like you.”
“I’m from the east, as it were.”
“From here?” he asked, waving his hand vaguely.
“Maybe,” Aria said, the corners of her mouth upturning. “Do you always find the geographic origin of your women so fascinating?”
He laughed. “I don’t. But I’m very intimidated by your beauty, Aria, and I’m struggling to find else to speak of.”
“You’ve lucked out, then, since that’s part of my charm,” she said. “You don’t have to think at all. I can do all the work.”
“What a relief,” he said. “I do too much thinking as it is.”
She raked her eyes over his tunic, noting the copper chain at his waist instead of a belt, the fashionable and impractical drape of the fabric, as well as the absence of weapons—even a knife. “You’re not a guard, as far as I can tell. What do you do?”
“My prince requires his food to be tasted before he eats it.”
“Ah,” she said slowly. “So you’re the bravest man here, one might say.”
He perked up. “Well, it’s folly to say I’m as brave as a man on the battlefield.”
“But you could die at any moment, with no chance to fight back. That seems quite impressive to me.”
Sinan had the typical light green eyes of the Western Realm, standing out against his dark skin like jewels. A beard mostly distracted from his weak jaw, and his nose thoroughly dominated his face; he greased back his hair, too, throwing the recession of his hairline into prominence. Aria suspected him to be a man unused to and starved for flattery.
“You’re quite kind,” Sinan said. “My friends behind me are just waiting for me to bore you before they jump in, you know.”
She glanced past him to the men watching her intensely, then giggled at nothing. “Oh, I can keep them from doing that easily enough.”
“Do you want to?” he asked hungrily.
She lifted her shoulder, her eyelids fluttering coyly. “Do you want me to?”
Emery stumbled over, already tipsy from their previous gathering, and rammed into Aria before snorting a laugh and falling to the ground. Aria couldn’t help laughing, too; she crouched beside her, plucking the drink from her hands.
“I’m supposed to come tell you I’m going to be occupied for the night,” Emery slurred.
Aria glanced at the man with his eye on her; he spoke with his prince, the strikingly handsome man at the cards table.
“You’re alright?” Aria asked quietly.
“He’ll be gentle. I can tell,” she said. “I heard the Western Realm men can be rough.” She lowered her voice further. “I’m not as drunk as I’m acting. He just likes them pliable.”
Aria helped her back to her feet; Emery pinched her cheek before cackling and teetering back to her suitor. When Aria returned her attention to Sinan, she found him engaged in conversation with Sebastian.
Heat leaped to her cheeks to find him so close. Tall, lean, and handsome, Sebastian grinned amiably at Sinan, listening to a terribly boring story about pasta. He ran a hand over his short beard when he laughed, a beard Aria could remember the feeling of between her thighs. He met her gaze with the briefest of glances, passing her the shadow of a wink; his brilliant green irises betrayed some Western Realm ancestry, though he inherited his light skin and golden brown hair from the north.
“I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your time here,” Sebastian told Sinan. “Would you mind terribly if I spoke to Aria for a moment? I promise you, it’s so mundane she’ll be dying to get back to you.”
Sinan waved his hand congenially, and Sebastian took Aria’s arm to lead her from the gardens. They ducked into a dark hallway, their bare feet sinking into the floor mats, and slipped inside the first empty room.
Sebastian slid the paper screened door closed. When he turned to her, a second of hesitant stillness passed between them. Then, they collided; Aria leapt into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist, and Sebastian lowered them to the ground as gracefully as he could while kissing her passionately.
His hands found the folds of her robe, and soon, his warm, expert fingers grazed her bare skin. Aria clawed at his back, pulling him as close as possible.
“We can’t, or they’ll know,” Sebastian breathed in her ear, coming up for air. “That man thinks he’s claimed you already.”
“I’m supposed to make them all think that.”
“You’re mine,” Sebastian said, his fingers finding the apex of her thighs.
Aria gasped at his urgent, frantic pressure; he pushed the heel of his hand into her pelvis and bit her ear when she moaned.
“Oh, Seb,” she whined. “Yes.”
“Finish for me,” he whispered. “I want you to soak my hand and then walk back to that party like nothing happened.”
Aria groaned in lieu of reply. Sebastian growled against her neck, picking up his pace, and brought her to climax as he had so many times before; his free hand found her mouth before she screamed, and he laughed lightly when she arched her back.
“Lovely girl,” Sebastian murmured. “If he has the balls to take you tonight, it better be me you think of.”
“It always is,” she said, catching her breath.
Sebastian helped her to her feet, straightening her robes for her with a smile playing at his lips.
“I’m going to break your mistress someday soon,” he said. “Then you’ll be my mistress, truly, and we won’t have to play these games anymore.”
“Is her price that high?”
“It’s extortion, Aria. Only a king would pay it. She knows what she’s doing.”
Aria stood on her toes to kiss him softly. Sebastian smoothed her hair before breaking all contact; they returned to the hallway, their breath back to normal.
Light shone through the archway to the gardens, illuminating the Western Realm’s prince; he waved away a few of his attendants and had turned halfway back towards the party when he spotted Aria and Sebastian.
“Ah,” he said. “There you are. I sent Sinan back to the palace. He implored me to tell you he would meet you again soon.”
“Oh,” Aria said, with less disappointment than she should have feigned, by all rights.
She and Sebastian stopped in front of the prince, looking innocent.
“He was punching above his weight anyway,” the prince said, eyeing Aria. “I didn’t get a good look at you before. What’s your name?”
He glanced at Sebastian somewhat dismissively. “Pretty name.”
He beamed. “With a mouth on her, too. Sinan was absolutely out of his element.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in what you have to offer?”
His grin, disarmingly handsome, grew wider. The prince had black hair that swept left from his brow, as well as the smooth, dark skin common to his people; his mouth tilted arrogantly at any given time, and his green eyes had a sharpness behind them, a cunning that lingered beneath the playful expression he assumed to hold Aria’s gaze. She could tell he was used to getting what he wanted, whether as a consequence of his looks or his position, and found she liked him much less for it. He glanced at Sebastian again, his expression acutely conveying how superfluous he found him.
Taking the hint, Sebastian passed the prince an abbreviated bow and strode back into the party, as if he hadn’t just brought Aria to orgasm a few meters away. The prince watched him go, then looked back to Aria as if he expected her to say something. When she didn’t, he smiled.
“I think you’ll be interested,” he said. “I’m Liam, prince of Iotorath. It’s lovely to meet you, Aria.”