Walking back from the gathering house with her arms crossed, Aria watched her feet, brow furrowed. Liam had coaxed the entire story from her—Alistair’s murder of their parents, her sale to the courtesan district in Tower of the Moon, the way she’d given up completely on going home. Every time she balked at telling him, something about the way his eyes lacked guile convinced her to continue—though by light of day, her gut told her not to trust him. She shook her head at the cobblestone street, wondering if he would keep his promise.
She started and glanced up; Sebastian lurked in an alleyway between gathering houses, his cloak wet from the morning dew.
“Seb,” she said, shocked. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” he said, lifting a hand to draw her into the alley.
She looked up and down the street—deserted—before she joined him. An overhang shaded them from the bright morning sun.
“Prince Liam’s laid such a claim to your company, I didn’t know if I would ever get you alone,” Sebastian said. “Your mistress won’t even negotiate with me while he’s here.”
“I’m sorry,” Aria said. “He knew right away there was something between us. He made me a deal for my freedom if I’d give him all my attention.”
“He said he’d free you?”
“Well, it was sort of like a bet. But I won.”
“I think last night was when we came to the agreement.” She grimaced. “I don’t know, Seb, I’ve never trusted anyone here—it still seems too good to be true.”
“It might be,” he conceded. “But I certainly wouldn’t want to jeopardize it if it’s not.”
“Tell me why you were waiting for me,” she murmured. “I have to get back, but tell me—”
“Because…” Sebastian looked pained, running a hand across his face. “Gods, Aria, I thought about you sleeping with him and I couldn’t stand it. But I suppose I’m too late.”
Aria grasped her braid; her elaborate updo had fallen out in the night. “Seb—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said quickly. “I don’t own you. Part of me just hoped that this game would end someday.”
“You never bought me,” she said. “All you had to do was pay what she asked, and you wouldn’t.”
“I realize that my attempts to avoid being extorted by your mistress now seem like I was being cheap.”
“How much?” she asked.
“Two thirds of my yearly income, Aria. I’d buy you only to hide you away until I could recover from the loss.”
She frowned. “I love you, Seb. I wouldn’t have cared.”
He grasped her face, his expression wounded. “Oh, Aria—”
“I can’t now,” she whispered. “He said he was going to the castle and he’d free me today. I think he was going to talk to the king.”
“The circumstances that brought me to this place.”
Sebastian furrowed his brow. “You’ve never even told me.”
“I couldn’t, Seb, there was no point—”
The clock tower near the palace chimed with the opening of the city gates. Along the street, early risers and young courtesans destined for lessons began to emerge from their brothels. Aria slid from Sebastian’s grasp just as two girls rushed past, clutching their hems to keep their robes clean of street grime.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Aria, if he frees you—am I ever going to see you again?”
She stared at him for a long moment. “I don’t know, Seb.”
He raked his gaze over her, the pain in his expression nearly unbearable to witness. Tears sprang to Aria’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and darted from the alleyway.
Running the rest of the distance to the brothel, Aria swallowed back her emotions until she’d tumbled through the front door. A few young girls argued over lunches for their lessons, though they completely ignored her as she swept past. She mounted the dark wooden stairs to her room and had almost made it to the paper-screened door when a girl stepped in front of it.
“Late night,” Yuki said, one eyebrow arched menacingly.
Aria stumbled to a stop. “Get out of my way.”
“That prince was up for grabs for anyone until he saw you,” Yuki said. “Some of my friends aren’t taking kindly to it.”
Yuki hadn’t been born in Tower of the Moon—she had the coloring of Stormfall, with light, wavy blonde hair, a dainty, freckled nose, and gray eyes. She’d been sold to the brothels as a baby, before her parents even named her, leaving the mistress to pick one for her in the tradition of the district. Aria remembered feeling terribly for Yuki upon hearing this origin story, and perhaps that was why Yuki was so sour—but Aria’s sympathy had never gotten her far with this girl.
“It’s too late for them,” Aria said. “Please move.”
“He fucked you last night, didn’t he?”
Aria glowered. “It’s none of your business.”
“You look fucked,” she spat.
“I need to get into my room,” Aria said, her teeth clenched.
Yuki reached forward to grab Aria’s belt, tied hastily at the front of her robes instead of the back, and yanked it violently, tearing her robes open. Aria crossed her arms to cover herself back up.
“Still dripping his cum?” Yuki asked nastily. “I wonder what he’ll think of you when you’re not so pretty anymore.”
Commotion drifted up the stairs from the entrance hall, but Yuki didn’t move. Aria’s heart beat furiously in her chest; she pulled her robes shut, her expression deadly.
“Get out of my way,” she said, barely audible. “I’m not going to ask you again.”
Yuki reached forward to place a hand on Aria’s shoulder, intending to shove her down the stairs—but before Aria could duck away, a familiar voice met her ears.
“I’m here to speak to your mistress,” Liam said. “I have some important business for her. Could you find Aria for me, as well?”
Yuki froze, and Aria grabbed the wrist aimed for her shoulder; she twisted violently, and Yuki yelped.
“Go fuck yourself,” Aria said, and threw her back through the paper-screened door to her room.
Yuki crashed through it with a scream. Aria hastily pulled her robes closed and tied the knot back up at the front; footsteps halted at the bottom of the stairs.
“Aria,” Liam said indulgently. “What’s this I see? Are you picking fights?”
She turned to find him wearing a winning smile and couldn’t help returning it. Behind her, Yuki snarled, shoving herself to her feet.
“Your attention has been a curse, Prince Liam,” Aria said.
Liam winked. “Not for long, I should hope.”
“What’s all this?”
The mistress descended from the upper floors of the brothel with a frown. She clocked the confrontation between Aria and Yuki, as well as the future king of Iotorath standing in her reception room, before bowing formally to Liam.
“Prince Liam, it’s such an honor to meet you in person! I had no idea you were coming, or I would have arranged for the house to look much better!”
“No matter,” Liam said. “It was unplanned. I wanted to speak to you about a matter very important to my heart as of the last few days.”
The mistress glanced at Aria critically, ignoring Yuki completely, who loudly extricated herself from the wreckage of Aria’s door and stormed off.
“I’m happy to discuss anything your heart desires, Prince Liam,” the mistress said.
“I wonder if we might give Aria some time to bathe and change,” Liam said. “I’d like her to sit in on our discussion, but I’m afraid I kept her quite late this morning.”
The mistress didn’t seem inclined to grant this request, but Liam flashed her another one of his handsome smiles.
“Oh, certainly,” the mistress relented. She lowered her voice to a growl, turning to Aria. “Hurry up.”
Aria about-faced for the bathroom, just a few doors along the dark wood of the hallway lit intermittently by skylights. She found Emery watching her from beside the bathroom door with wide eyes, and the two of them scrambled inside; Emery helped Aria out of her robes hastily, then prepared a bath while they strained to hear Liam and the mistress below.
“What is this regarding, prince?” the mistress asked.
“I think dearest Aria has outgrown her usefulness in this district. I’d like to discuss freeing her.”
Emery’s eyes grew as wide as saucers; she assisted Aria into the bath, then forced her head beneath the water so she could wash her hair while Aria scrubbed her skin. In a few minutes, Aria had leapt from the tub and dried swiftly; Emery toweled her hair.
“I’m surprised Aria made such an impression on you,” the mistress said. “But I’m pleased. She was always given a tutor.”
“She’s quite intelligent,” Liam said. “One might even say she has the intellectualism of royalty.”
Aria slid into clean black robes, and Emery tied the belt before smacking her on the ass to rush her back downstairs. The two of them exchanged a silent flurry of excitement and gestures before Aria composed herself and descended the steps. Yuki glared at her from the other end of the hallway.
“Ah, Aria,” Liam said, standing when she entered the reception room. The south wall had windows overlooking the gardens; plants bloomed in earnest in the early heat of summer. “You look beautiful even with wet hair.”
She grinned, more at the incredulous look on the mistress’s face than his compliment. He stepped forward to kiss her gently on the cheek, then guided her into kneeling beside him. Aria touched the base of her twisted hair self consciously; Liam winked at her again.
“Aria is a very desired commodity,” the mistress said, glancing back and forth between them. “I would be loath to let her go…”
“Understood,” Liam said. Aria noticed several pairs of eyes peeking around the corner from the stairwell. “Fortunately, I don’t think you’ll find my offer refusable.”
“You have a price?”
“I don’t need a price. You see, I know what Aria is.”
The mistress remained impassive, save for the way she swallowed. “Oh?”
“Yes. And I know you know what she is, too.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Liam laughed lightly. “Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not planning on turning you in. But I think you’ll find the money Aria has already earned for you to be enough compensation for keeping her safe all this time. Or, well—relatively safe.”
“I don’t follow,” the mistress said, though she clearly did.
“Don’t make me say it, mistress,” Liam said. “For then the many girls eavesdropping on this conversation will know what kind of person you are.”
Her jaw locked. “And what kind of person is that?”
“I think you already know,” Liam said dangerously. “Now, I have only one thing to say to you—I’m taking Aria with me to the castle, and she’s never coming back. Do you have any objection?”
A muscle worked in the mistress’s jaw, but she didn’t speak.
“Lovely,” Liam said. He turned to Aria, his eyes dancing. “Darling, would you accompany me on the walk? You can grab anything you deem essential beforehand.”
“Just one thing,” Aria said quietly.
“Even better,” Liam said, offering his hand. They both rose to their feet gracefully. “Mistress, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
She didn’t speak, merely stared angrily out the windows into the garden. The eavesdroppers throughout the house scattered as Liam led Aria up the stairs to her room; by the time they reached the landing, most of the paper-screened doors had whispered shut. Emery waited beside the smashed door to Aria’s room, her eyes wide with shock and inquiry.
“Liam?” Aria asked.
He smiled at her cheekily.
“Can you do me a favor? It might require some transfer of funds.”
Liam made a noise of assent. “Yes, I suspect so. A royal princess by birth likely needs a lady’s maid for our journey to Arramas, don’t you think?”
Emery looked back and forth between them, confused. Aria grinned.
“Hey, Em—I have a new job prospect for you.”