Courtesan’s Price

“Good Evening,” Celeste murmured, curving his dark-painted lips in a practice smile.

As he had expected, ‘Guido’ shifted impatiently, radiating annoyance as he beckoned Celeste closer. “You came.”

Celeste laughed, a rich, smug chuckle meant to further annoy a man who loathed being anywhere the likes of Celeste. “You gave me enough sovereigns to ensure I would, and you know it. Are you finally going to tell me who I’ve been hired to distract?” He lightly touched his mask, white and gold trimmed in a rainbow of costly jewels. His costume was just as lavish; no one would know his identity but it was habit to advertise his profession. At a masque, when everyone was eager to be something else, business could be very, very good.

It was almost a pity he had plans. “Him,” Guido said tersely.

Like most men of his ilk, Guido was more than happy to make any and all use of men like Celeste, but looked down on them. Celeste, like the others in his profession, learned well how to make the most of idiots like Guido. Ignoring Guido and his foul mood, he focused on his target.

A handsome man, his hair color altered with dark, glittering powder, tumbled down in an elegant spill from the dark blue ribbon that held them back. His clothes, his mask, were more of the dark blue, trimmed with silver and sparkling diamonds. His skin was pale, lips paler still, untouched by creams or powders. “Handsome, even hidden. Clearly elite. Did I charge enough sovereigns for this distraction?”

“You’ll get the same again tomorrow morning if you do your job tonight,” Guido said. “So get already, and make certain he’s too eager spreading your legs to care about anything else.”

Celeste laughed, tossed his long, gold, untouched hair. “My greatest skill. Ta, darling. Happy hunting.” He left, ignoring Guido’s threats and admonitions to be careful. Like he needed to be told how to do his job.

He was not the most powerful and infamous courtesan in the city just because he had a fine face and finer body. Smoothing his lavish jacket, he made his way slowly down the stairs, nodding and smiling at people as went, teasing and playing and taunting. A good courtesan did not rush a job; anyone with half a brain knew that the anticipation was the best part.

Eventually he reached the table where the dark-haired beauty was chatting idly with some others. Celeste picked up a glass of wine, a delicate, fruity blush of which he was especially fond. He picked up a bit of marzipan shaped like a cat and bit into it, chasing the sweet with the tart wine.

A few minutes later, a heavy hand rested against his lower back, warm lips brushed against his ear. “You wore my gift.”

“Only a fool refuses jewels,” Celeste replied, tilting his head back and to the side, allowing his neck to be brushed with those fine, warm lips. “Good evening, handsome stranger.”

“Good evening, jewel,” the man murmured. “You are even more tempting than usual, and you know how tempting I find you. I would like to think you are eager to please, but I suspect ulterior motives.”

Celeste laughed, and sipped his wine, then set the half-full glass on the table, allowed his quarry to pull him onto the dance floor. He indulged in a couple of dances, playing his role to the hilt, then let himself be dragged outside to the balcony, pushed up against the wall in a dark corner, and kissed until he was dizzy from lack of breath.

“Why the finery, jewel?”

“Because your fine little friend Guido paid me one thousand sovereigns to come here and seduce you tonight, keep you too distracted to notice their little game upstairs.”

Laughter met his words. “Did he really? How amusing. But I guess that means our secret is safe, if my worst enemy felt comfortable hiring my lover to seduce me while he attempted to murder my best friend.”

Celeste laughed, “And where is Benji tonight, Lazzaro?”

“Halfway to my seaside cottage, by now, unless that demon woman of his persuaded him for more stops to rest than I advised,” Lazzaro replied, and bent to nibble at Celest’s lips. “Cinnamon, I love and hate when you taint your lip oils with cinnamon.”

Chuckling, Celeste dragged him close for a real kiss. “Your pleasure is my pleasure, handsome stranger.”

“Your pleasure is my thirty thousand sovereigns a year,” Lazzaro said dryly.

Celeste nipped his jaw, “I used to make that and half again, before you. If you’re going to have the temerity to make me love you, I expect you to make up for my lost profits.”

Lazzaro chuckled, kissed him again as he slipped knowing fingers into the fabric of Celeste’s clothes to tease his skin. “I will certainly do my best to make it up to you in, say, about two hours? I must go catch an assassin first.”

“Go, then,” Celeste said. “I’ll be waiting in your room.”

“Mmm, delightful,” Lazzaro said, and with a last kiss, slid away to deal with Guido.

Pushing away from the wall, Celeste went to get a glass of wine and amuse himself with some harmless flirting before he slipped away to Lazzaro’s chambers.