The paper screened door to Aria’s small room slammed open.
“Get ready,” the mistress said gruffly, storming inside.
Aria dropped the magazine she’d been reading, a pretty bound parchment book full of the latest fashion trends across the eastern courts. “What?”
“That prince asked for you specifically,” the mistress said. “Prince Liam of the Western Realm. Iotorath, whatever. You’re working tonight.”
“Oh,” Aria said. “I wasn’t aware I’d made much of an impression.”
“Apparently you have,” she said. “Now get up! I have a set of robes waiting in my rooms, and I want to get you in them before any of the other girls notice where they came from. They all complain I favor you as is.”
Aria stood, brushing off her plain cotton robe, and followed the mistress mutely to the next floor of the brothel. In the mistress’s sprawling room, on a clothes rod mounted in front of one of the windows, silky sanguine robes swayed in a breeze; intricate bunches of golden thread portrayed a city full of elaborate and fantastical buildings, more beautiful than even Tower of the Moon.
“These are the most expensive robes in this district,” the mistress said. “Just look at the craftsmanship! They’re fit for a king. Which, of course, the prince will eventually be. If you can tempt him to bed, make sure you’re not just some common whore. Entice him— keep him for longer than a night.”
“They say all his liaisons are short lived,” Aria said. “I’m not sure what you expect me to achieve.”
“I expect you to make sure I don’t regret the price I paid for your beauty.”
Aria frowned, though she disrobed obediently when the mistress waved her hand. The robes slid over her skin more luxuriously than any before, even the ones she wore to solicit bids for her virginity. Dark red brought out the onyx in her hair, and she twisted her tresses into an elaborate bun with a pure gold clip. The mistress tied the sash around her waist so tightly, she coughed.
“You have a tiny waist,” the mistress said. “Let him see it.”
“Should I take my breasts out while I’m at it?”
“You could bend over so he gets a peek.”
Aria scowled at her, but the mistress paid no attention.
“Take Emery with you,” she said. “You’ll look unpopular if you go alone. He’s waiting at Keiko’s.”
Aria found Emery checking her hair in a mirror on the first floor of the brothel. She wore silver robes swirled with blue, the pattern mimicking a stream. Her shiny teal hair clip couldn’t quite contain the blonde curls framing her face.
“Gods, I look terrible,” Emery said when she spotted Aria behind her in the mirror. “My hair is the worst today. Where are you going?” She raked her eyes over the red robes. “And who are you fucking tonight?”
Aria laughed. “The prince of the Western Realm seems to have taken an interest. Do you want to go to Keiko’s with me to entertain him?”
“I’d be a fool to say no,” she said, abandoning the effort to tame her hair. “I can probably get one of his guards to keep me company. The one from the other night was horrible, though.”
“In what way?”
They moved for the brothel’s foyer, their sandals clacking when they transferred from soft mats to dark, shiny wood. A tinkling waterfall, contained in stone against the wall opposite the door and kept functional by a mage’s enchantment, framed a little altar atop which a bundle of lavender rested. Across from the altar, a paper screened door did little to muffle the burgeoning nighttime noise. Aria and Emery grabbed their cloaks.
“He was too rough,” Emery said. “He wanted me a little drunk so I’d be pliable to taking it in the ass. I thought, what’s the harm? He’s paying for it. But he was way too rough, even when he said he wouldn’t be.”
Aria grimaced. “I’m sorry.”
“I think it’s a western thing,” Emery said. She slid aside the door, and they emerged onto a cobblestone street bustling with other courtesans. Light snow coated the ground. “The ass. They all seem fascinated with it.”
“Gods, I hope their prince isn’t like that,” Aria said. “I don’t think I’d like my first time with it to be painful.”
“The mistress would probably tell him he had to pay you a dowry, considering what she charges for them to take you to bed.”
Aria made a face at her. “You’re quite negative tonight, aren’t you?”
Emery shoved her playfully. “Cut me some slack. My ass hurts.”
Aria slipped her shoes off in the entryway at Keiko’s, wiggling her toes within her socks to warm them. Another line of outdoor slippers framed both sides of the doorway leading to the gardens; Aria selected a red pair to match her robes, while Emery ignored her color choices entirely.
The prince, Liam, met Aria’s eyes as soon as she entered the gardens. His handsomeness struck her once more; bright green eyes, like deep pools of emerald, brought out sharpness in his face, and a closely trimmed beard shadowed his strong jaw. His dark skin looked silky to the touch, as well as his hair, swept back from the left of his brow.
Snow drifted down from a slow moving storm, dusting the trees and grass with large flakes. Liam stood from a group of men gathered around a cards table beneath a parasol that kept them dry. His breath fogged into the air; he wore a rich, white fur cloak with a high collar. Aria broke eye contact to smile at the mistress of the gathering house, who passed to take her own cloak, of smooth black fur; the robes beneath were supplemented by a thick, warm underrobe.
“Aria,” Liam said, taking her hand to kiss it as she curtsied. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
She glanced behind him. “No Sinan?”
“He very graciously stepped aside when he realized he was out of his element.”
“I didn’t think he was,” she said. “He was so unused to flattery himself, but not terrible at giving it. These houses are designed for men like him.”
Liam smirked. “That’s true, I suppose.”
Behind them, Emery squealed, and Aria glanced back; Sebastian and Prince Salvatore sauntered into the party with a close client of Emery’s between them. Aria thought Emery might even have loved the man—though admitting it would be asking to lose him.
“What is he to you?” Liam asked.
Aria met his gaze again. “I’m sorry?”
“That courtier. Sebastian. What is he to you?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The way you look at him would indicate otherwise.”
“I wasn’t aware I looked at him any differently.”
“Then no one around you is very observant. When I found you in that hallway, there was obviously something between you.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “Why did you ask me to come tonight, then?”
He tipped his head. “Are they related? I asked you here because you’re beautiful. More so than any other woman I’ve seen in this city. By nature of your profession, I assume you’ve been with other men. But is he one of them? Do you have feelings for him?”
“Why does that matter to you, if you know I’ve been with other men?”
Liam laughed. “I’m here for nearly a month. I’d like to know my ventures won’t be useless.”
“Ventures,” she said. “You act like you’re going to court me.”
“No, but I may want to take you to bed each evening. I’d like to be the only one with the right, while I’m here.”
“Right?” she asked. “I may be a commodity, in this district, but you have no rights to anything, whether you pay or not.”
He grinned. “Fiery, too. I like that.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Sebastian is a good friend.”
“Glad to hear it. He hasn’t been inside you, then?”
“If he had been, I already know he’d do a better job than you.”
Liam beamed. “I could prove you wrong, easily.”
“By privilege, not by right.”
He lifted a hand. “Conceded.”
“There’s nothing else to say about Sebastian. I didn’t think a man such as yourself would have much jealousy to speak of, though.”
“Jealousy?” he asked. “That’s presumptuous.”
“Why else would you ask?”
“I just don’t like to share. It’s not a matter of jealousy.”
“The two sound connected to me.”
“You’re incredibly forward for someone depending on my coins tonight.”
“I don’t depend on your coins. If you release me, five more will step up to take your place.”
Liam chuckled. “So your beauty has made you arrogant.”
“As your upbringing has made you, I expect.”
He cocked his head. “Who says I’m arrogant?”
“You can’t share, so perhaps I should have said selfish. You can be both.”
He grinned. “Where did your mistress track you down? Girls like you are so often beaten down in places like this.”
“Who says I’m not beaten down? I could still talk back, regardless. Some men like it.”
“I might be one of them,” he said. “Tell me though, Aria, where do you get the coloring of the Whispering Plains?”
“I don’t know, as I’m from the east.”
“It’s none of your business, really, and it’s hardly conducive to getting me into bed.”
“Oh, I can do that in a few seconds. I’m not worried.”
“Let’s pretend I could say no, though. Would those few seconds still work?”
“Certainly. I have a lot of experience.”
“And yet you worry about a man at this party having been inside me. I sense double standards.”
Liam looked her up and down, smirking. Something about the expression made Aria want to slap him in the face.
“You’re going to be a lot of fun, aren’t you?” Liam asked.
“It depends on what kind of fun you speak of.”
“Well, your hostility only makes me more determined to get you to like me. If I could, I think it would be quite an achievement.”
“An impossibility, some might say.”
He glanced over her shoulder, likely at Sebastian. “Make me a deal, then. Tonight, we’ll part as acquaintances. I’ll pay the fee for taking you to bed even though I won’t do so. And then, for the rest of my time here, you’ll entertain me exclusively. No ducking into rooms with Sebastian. I’ll get your full attention. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“What wouldn’t be?”
“The game. If I manage to get you to like me—and you’re not distracted by anyone else—I’ll pay your mistress enough money to free you.”
Aria’s heart skipped a beat. “What?”
Liam smiled, strikingly handsome—and yet Aria distrusted everything about it.
“Yes,” he said. “Seem fair?”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because if I get you to like me, and if, at the end, I like you—you could come back to Arramas with me. Be my mistress. You seem to have the mind for it.”
“I could easily fake liking you just for the freedom.”
“Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’m rather observant, and I’d likely be able to tell. Even so, I don’t think I’d mind freeing you even if you didn’t come back with me. You’re much too intelligent for this sort of thing.”
“I think everyone has a good reason not to be here. The entire existence of places like this is a bit problematic in itself.”
Aria shook her head. “This has to be the oddest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Even ending up here?”
Liam grinned. “I just like to play games, Aria. This one seems particularly interesting to me.”
“I could like you, but you might not like me. Or I could hate you, while you liked me.”
“If you like me, I’ll free you. If you hate me and I like you, I’ll free you. If we hate each other, I’ll leave you behind without a second thought.”
Aria laughed. “Sounds fair, I suppose.”
Liam passed her a little bow. “Then let the games begin, dearest Aria.”