Rain drizzled from the cold gray sky, wetting the short, springy grass of the courtyard garden, pattering against the roof of the gathering house. Nearby, water trickled from one delicate, flower-shaped bowl to the next along a rain chain stretching from the black tiles of the roof to the ground. Paper-screened windows on the perimeter of the courtyard had been shut and locked seasons ago, though birds and squirrels had poked through some corners to investigate the abandoned spaces on the other side. Behind Sebastian, the pocket door he’d slid open to step into the interior garden had caught along its track, unlikely to close again without the sort of brute force that would break the thing.
Fragile, ethereal—and typical. The courtesan district had always dangled by a gossamer thread.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Sebastian drew his gaze away from the garden, a crease lingering between his brows. His wife Natalia stood beside him, biting her lip, pink staining her ivory cheeks.
“What is it, darling?” His voice sounded distant, even to him, as if someone else had asked the question. Rain and soft grass caught his words and dampened them long before they could cross the garden.
“It’s silly,” Natalia said, not meeting his eyes.
Inexorably, his attention was drawn back to the garden where he’d spent many a pleasant night in his youth. Moss had overtaken the stepping stones, and the drooping trees could use a good trim, but the courtyard hadn’t decayed at the rate of the rest of the gathering house. The silence was more noticeable than anything else—a constant reminder everywhere Sebastian turned that the end had come, and only memories remained. Tower of the Moon moved forward while the courtesan district withered away.
“I enjoy silly things,” Sebastian said. “I thought you knew that about me.”
Natalia breathed a laugh, still reluctant to look up. “It’s about Aria. And … all this.”
“Mmm,” he said, slipping his hands into his pockets. That morning he had eschewed expensive court fashions in favor of a more practical shirt, pants, and jacket, with tall boots that prevented the cold rain from penetrating his socks. It was the sort of thing commoners wore when their work required them to get dirty; in the Ice Realm, it was the sort of thing a high noble wore when flaunting how little he cared for audacious modern trends. A casualty of age: youthful Sebastian had never questioned the tides of fashion.
“I won’t look very good,” Natalia said.
Sebastian grinned. “Look where we are, dearest. I would welcome dragging you down to my level.”
She returned his smile in a manner both shy and enticing: a specialty of hers. “My friends and I used to mock Aria behind her back.”
Rain became a mist on its journey to ceasing. Sebastian stepped out from beneath the eave, turning his face to the sky.
“Only natural, I suppose,” he said when Natalia hesitated to continue.
“Just for the first couple seasons,” she said. “But … even after we’d married, and I knew the truth.”
“I’m sure I know which of your friends enjoyed it the most, and it wasn’t you.”
“Perhaps not,” Natalia said. “But I still laughed at her.”
“Everyone did for a while. Especially the nobles who played both sides in the war. Her past was an easy target.”
A pause, and then, “Did it hurt her terribly?”
“Ah, no,” he said, still watching the sky. “This place shaped her into who she is. She wasn’t ashamed of it.”
“We were jealous of her,” Natalia said quietly. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I know my friends.”
The rain stopped, and sunlight began to peek between the clouds. Sebastian dropped his gaze and met his wife’s big, round silver eyes. “That ire should have been turned on me.”
“I know that’s what you would have preferred,” she said. “But you were kind to me, from the start. It felt wrong.”
“She—” Natalia paused again. “Yes, I suppose she was.”
Sebastian meandered toward an overgrown tree, catching a fuchsia blossom in his palm. He brought it to his nose and inhaled the fragrant scent intermingled with the crisp damp of rain. Aria had worn a scent like that when she’d danced for willing patrons in the gathering houses. What a lovely dancer she’d been, too: fluid and precise. Never dainty, but steely and sharp. Some of the beauty of it still lingered in her swordplay.
“I hated that you wanted her,” Natalia said, so softly he almost missed it.
Letting go of a breath, Sebastian released the flower and turned back to his wife. “And so it was easier to mock her as a whore. Don’t worry—I understand.”
“She wasn’t, though, was she?” Natalia tipped her head. “Were any of them really whores to you?”
One corner of his mouth quirked. “No.”
Rain was soon replaced by a gentle breeze, which tousled Natalia’s long onyx tresses. Their hushed voices mingled with threads of wind, caressing the slumbering garden.
“This place wasn’t like going to a brothel,” Sebastian said. “The women were works of art, displayed like sculptures. It was about enjoying yourself and the beauty around you more than sex. The option was always there at the end of the night, of course, but it was expensive, and there were rules. Contracts.”
“But none of them ever had a choice,” Natalia said.
“No,” Sebastian said. “Not even the illusion of choice, which can be just as terrible. Aria and I were pushed together from the start because of the rumor of what I could pay at auction if I was tempted enough. She never decided what I was to her. Someone else did that for us.”
His wife tucked her loose hair behind her ears, her mouth twisted. Sebastian liked to think Natalia had married him because of who he was—because he’d been exceedingly charming in their first meeting, and because he’d made her feel desired. But it was hard to forget that her father never would have allowed her to reject him. Aria’s reign was too new, and succession laws had still favored a prince of the Spine over a princess. Natalia couldn’t have inherited the position on her own.
Two women, both thrown at Sebastian’s feet because they were out of options. He’d been in those particular positions of power his entire life, able to capitalize on luck that was practically thrown in his face, while women like Natalia and Aria were imprisoned by constraints no one would dare put on him. By Aria’s count, it had not always been thus in the Ice Realm or even the North as a whole; Stormfall boasted libraries full of crumbling historical records in which women were not the playthings of men. The winds were shifting that way again, if the abandoned district around him was any indication, and he welcomed the change. But he wondered, too: whatever he gave now, whatever he did—would it ever be enough? He had taken so much to get here, things he hadn’t understood it was wrong to take until he already had them in his grasp.
“I’m—” Sebastian swallowed, although he was unable to displace the lump in his throat. “I’m not a good person, my darling. Honorable men never thought to set foot in this place.”
Natalia frowned; she even did that prettily.
“I went here reluctantly, the first time, but I went under my own power every time after that,” Sebastian said. “I rarely took any of the courtesans to bed, but the ones I did had no choice in the matter, as you say. I tried to buy our queen’s virginity at auction and I would have had her as a mistress without her freedom ever crossing my mind. There’s no redemption for the man who haunted this place. Only the forgiveness of a woman who should have reviled me.”
Her brow was furrowed. “Why did you do it?”
For a long time, he didn’t reply, knowing as he did the inadequacy in every answer. The whole sorry history began with a boisterous dare from the crown prince, but when it had been within Sebastian’s power to end it, he’d hesitated. There was no harm in playing a part, he’d told himself: for what was the courtesan district if not performing arts? The women laughed and flirted and entertained him with stories, dancing, gambling, and drinking games, and all of it made him feel better, just as the crown prince said it would. Anything to distract from the reality of his life, the crushing desperation of grieving for a sibling alone. And none of it meant anything, in the end. It was a part on the stage. An unreality. A pretty painting hanging over a gaping hole in the wall.
“You and I both know there’s no answer for that,” Sebastian said, his gaze returning to the colorful tree before him, swaying in the breeze. “If you hadn’t agreed to marry me, I may never have been forced to become a better man.”
“You were one of the first to know about Aria,” Natalia said. “You can’t have viewed it the same way after, no matter what happened with us. It isn’t like you to ignore something like that.”
Isn’t it? he wanted to ask. He had ignored the implications of what he was doing for years. Not purposefully, certainly, but that hardly assuaged the guilt now. Natalia was compassionate, and she cared about him, so she tried to excuse it. He wasn’t so generous.
“I’m glad the highprince shut this place down,” Sebastian said. “I think a lot about what Aria used to say: that what happened to her was no worse than anyone else. Her blood didn’t preclude her from suffering the same as any commoner, and it shouldn’t have been what made this city reconsider the courtesan district as a whole. I know she’s happy it did, of course, but she isn’t wrong. It was just as bad that this happened to any of them as it was that it happened to her.”
Natalia sidled closer; the guilt in his voice was an old friend of hers. “Aria matched us for a reason, and I don’t think her generosity was misplaced. You didn’t stand in the way of fixing this. You tried to be better, and that’s enough.”
Sebastian plucked a flower from the tree, tenderly, thinking to place it in her gleaming dark hair on their way back to the palace. The blossom rested in his palm, clear water beading like little crystals all over the surface. Delicate, just like everything in the courtesan district: a breakable thing once again at his mercy.
“You didn’t know,” Natalia continued, watching him. “The courtesan district was part of this city for centuries. An extension of the royal court. Socially accepted entertainment. You didn’t know it was wrong.”
“I should have seen it,” Sebastian said, gazing at the flower. “I hate that I didn’t see it.”
He saw her shake her head out of the corner of his eye. “You do now.”
With a sigh, Sebastian crouched to lay the flower gently on the ground at the base of the tree that had borne it. He remained there for a moment, brushing moisture from the petals.
What had happened here—not just to Aria, but to thousands of women—could not happen again. The highprince of Aeglivar had ensured that. But it was Sebastian’s brand of complacency, his thoughtless participation, his wealth that had aided the district’s survival for so long. He wasn’t sure whether he could forgive himself for it. His entire life was built atop those sins: it wasn’t even as easy as forgiveness.
He stood to his full height once more, leaving the blossom cradled in a bed of soft grass. It belonged here, in a place of peace and silence; he would not bear it away for his own pleasure. He’d done too much of that already.
As if she could read his thoughts, Natalia repeated herself. “You tried to be better, and that’s enough.”
Sebastian glanced at her. “I suppose it’ll have to be.”