"Of course you are." The underworld lords, the Sa'kagé, ran all of the significant crime in the city under the watchful eye of their ruling Nine, who were in turn watched by a Shinga, whose power would make kings jealous. One of those Nine ran all of the prostitution in Cenaria. That man, the Master of Pleasures, wouldn't let a beautiful woman like Gwinvere Kirena operate independently. So maybe that was it. Maybe she wanted out.
"I wasn't finished." She stood, walked over to check the lock on the door. He noticed that the gold chains actually disappeared into a cut in her dress, apparently wrapping beneath her body to emerge at her bare back, which it covered in an artful golden lattice of bondage. Her beauty made his breath catch and his mind slow, and he needed his mind with this one. "I'm one of the Nine," she said. "The Mistress of Pleasures."
It was not a secret to be casually shared. "Young to be-"
"I have a plan, and I need you for it."
He thought about it. Gaelan Starfire was supposed to be forty-five years old now, and he looked at least a decade younger. Gaelan was famous, but he had few real friends, and many enemies. Maybe it was time to move on, let that name die. There were worse things than to ally yourself with a beautiful, intelligent woman.
"What's your plan?" he asked.
She turned. "There'll be time for that. First, we need to take care of something." She extended her hand. He took what was in it.
It was the golden key she'd been wearing on her choker.
He cocked an eyebrow, trying to ignore the shock running to his loins. Having the body of a young man meant having the reactions of a young man, too. "Why?" he asked.
"Because if we don't fuck tonight, you might fall in love with me. But if we do, you'll probably still desire me-in fact, I'll consider it a professional failure if you don't; this is my work, after all-but you'll never trust me. You'll know that I'll do the same with any other man who catches my fancy. It'll make things simpler."
~ An honest whore. A rare woman in a dozen ways. She's poisoning the well and telling you, Acaelus. Is that really what you want? ~
"And you?" he asked her. Are you in no danger of loving me?
She came close, slowly, gently, into his arms. The scent of fine perfume and the insidious softness of silk and skin. Cold gold chains on his skin and a warm breath in his ear. "I intend to enjoy my work tonight."
In their little farmhouse, Gaelan held his wife's bare ass, balanced on the edge of a table he'd made himself. She held his shoulder and the back of his head, her pupils wide, hips trembling against him with the aftershocks of their lovemaking.
She dug her fingernails into his shoulder painfully, playfully. "You know Ali could be home any minute." But her eyes were shining, and she didn't uncross her ankles from behind his butt, didn't push him away.
"There's worse things than a girl finding out her father still finds her mother irresistible."
She grinned, and squeezed him with her thighs.
"Your smile is a century of solace," he told her, trying to lock her face in his memory. She was beautiful, hair atumble, face flushed with sex and joy. Content and content with him. It was a treasure. She would grow old, die, and he would remain, young, immortal, following the directives of a long-dead king. A long-dead friend.
"Flattery already got you everything you're going to get," she said.
He laughed and pinched her ass.
She swatted his hand, eyes aglow.
"Why is all our happiness doomed?" he asked her.
She looked into his eyes, loving, gentle. "You are a cipher, my lord."
"No, I was Samon Cipher six lives ago," he said, winking, trying to salvage the moment
"Mother!" a girl's voice called out, right outside the door to their little cottage.
Gaelan pulled back, hiked his trousers up, yanked his belt tight, and slapped at his hair, trying to flatten it. Seraene hopped off the table, smoothing her skirts, grabbing a rag so she could pretend to be cleaning.
The door opened and Alinaea stepped in, carrying a basket of fresh-picked herbs in one hand and the day's eggs in the other. If she'd been much older, he and Seraene would have been totally caught. The smell in the cottage wasn't exactly subtle, and neither was the sex flush visible on Seraene's chest, or the stubble-burn from his whiskers in the bit of cleavage her dress showed. But Alinaea was eight years old. Innocent. She was the light of Gaelan's eyes.
"Da," she said, serious, cocking her head to one side. "I've decided. I'm old enough now for a little brother."
Gaelan looked over at Seraene. She was beaming. She put her hand on her belly.
"This? This is how you tell me?!" he demanded.
By all the gods that were and all the gods that had never been, how he missed Seraene's laugh.
The pleasures rolled over Gaelan-and passed, leaving him cold. Gwinvere was astride him, clad only in those delicate golden chains. She stopped once he finished, not having climaxed herself. This was business for her, after all, not pleasure. But she didn't get off him.
She stared at him, her hair tussled, figure magnificent, letting him bask in her radiance, letting him store up the image of a woman of her supernal beauty, making love with him. She leaned over him, and something like pity flashed through her eyes.
"You are a god clad in flesh, Gaelan Starfire, and you're more fragile than you know. Be ware."
She lay on his chest and tucked her head into his shoulder, but just for a moment. The room was cool, and he was warm; maybe she was just appreciating that physical warmth and nothing more. She got up almost immediately. She began dressing, and he knew with a cynical twinge that she must have practiced dressing like this in a looking glass, because every move was graceful. She wasn't just a whore; she was an artist, and this last impression he would carry of her was as important to her as the first.
"I want to fuck again," he said. "Now." This time he wouldn't think of Seraene. Gwinvere was a wonder. He should appreciate her. He should please her.
"So do I, but I've three other men to bed before dawn, a fourth if he's kind."
"Was I your first-" He cut off. Ridiculous question. He couldn't believe he'd asked it. He didn't know where it had come from.
"Yes, Gaelan, I was a virgin until just now," she said flatly.
"I meant of the night," he said in a rush, flustered. "Never you mind. Stupid question."
She looked at him, hesitated. "You're magnificent. Distracted, but magnificent. Let's fuck tomorrow, after I finish dinner with the ambassador. Then you can tell me if you accept my business proposal."
Proposal? She hadn't even asked for anything yet.
A few minutes later, Gaelan pushed through a fog of riotweed, through which he saw the vague outlines of the debauched. Silent servants, costumed uniformly as black horses with blinkered eyes, tended to those who'd overindulged, carrying off those who were ill, tucking pillows under the heads of the unconscious, and covering nude bodies with blankets. The earl's wife, now wearing nothing but her swan mask and one silk stocking, ran toward Gaelan squealing, pursued by two lascivious lords whose masks had fallen off.