Excerpt: A Delicate Game

Elio lounged against the high rail separating him from the garden. A small smile curved his lips as he watched the dancers in the ballroom through the patio doors. They turned in time to the music, most of them effortlessly keeping pace with the other dancers. Only a handful were so inexperienced or had drunk too much wine too early in the evening that they couldn’t keep pace with the music.

His eye was on one of the dancers, dressed in blue velvet and wearing a beautifully carved gold mask. Elio would dearly love to see it more closely, but the dancer was currently occupied with tripping over his own feet as Sesto led him through the dance.

Inexperienced, Elio decided. The man didn’t lack for grace—one of the reasons he and Sesto had noted him as he’d descended the far staircase. The gold mask looked real enough, though Elio wouldn’t be able to tell for certain until he got a closer look. A real gold mask would cost a pretty penny, as would the immaculately tailored clothes the man wore. So the masked man was rich enough to warrant an invitation to the ball but inexperienced with one of the most popular dances of the season…

That made the dancer more interesting than his simple-cut, expensive clothes and the gold mask did. Elio liked new things, new people; only Sesto got away with being an old friend, and that simply because they were related. Taking a leisurely sip from his wine glass, Elio ignored the press of people around him and waited for Sesto to bring the dancer to him.

The mask was more gorgeous as it came closer, the dancer easily guided by Sesto. He had the fluid, liquid grace of one who had had a touch too much alcohol. The mask covered the dancer’s forehead and nose, with perhaps half an inch of metal below the man’s eyes. It was intricately carved in loops and whirls and molded to the man’s face as though it had been cast there. Small diamonds winked in the candlelight from within the whirls of metal, flashes of light setting off the bright gold in which they were set.

Elio was so distracted in picking out details in the man’s mask that he nearly forgot they were approaching him. He knew the sight he made, dressed in black, with a stark black mask. His mask was edged with the brightest sapphires; it covered only his eyes. It contrasted well with the spill of his dyed, white-blond hair, and the feathers that edged the mask only accentuated the waves of his hair as they spilled freely over his shoulders.

Sesto was dressed similarly, except in cream instead of black, with a bright white mask edged in rubies. Goose coquille lined his mask, soft and dyed the brightest of white. His hair was dark to Elio’s light, but tied back tightly to keep the dark waves from getting caught in the feather lining of his mask. The mask brought out the color in Sesto’s hazel eyes, as the gold mask of the dancer brought out the color in his honey brown eyes.

“Enjoying yourself, Sesto?” Elio asked, ignoring the dancer for the moment. The man didn’t seem too concerned by Elio’s seeming inattention; usually the men Sesto picked were anxious to get past the introduction and into the bedchambers of the infamous Accorsi twins, be it for work or play.

“Quite,” Sesto said, handsome smile never leaving his face. “How do you fare, in your dark little corner?”

“I would hardly call this patio dark,” Elio said. The patio really was anything but—light spilled from the brightly lit ballroom, framed by the three sets of glass doors between the ballroom and patio. There was a bonfire burning in the garden behind him, throwing yet more light. The patio itself was lit by dozens of candles, burning on wrought-iron stands placed at intervals along the smooth wood surface.

It was more than enough light to take in the dancer Sesto had brought him. The man had dark hair, shorter than fashion currently dictated, as it barely touched his ears. He was well-muscled beneath the fine velvet of his dark blue jacket. Said jacket was heavily embroidered with a subtle pattern in a shade of blue only one or two degrees lighter than the blue of the jacket; beautiful, no doubt expensive work.

His eyes were sharp and clear as he surveyed the mostly-deserted patio and the garden beyond. He wasn’t paying enough attention to Elio and Sesto for Elio’s liking—perhaps this was a poor choice after all. As soon as that thought crossed Elio’s mind, though, the dancer turned and caught him in that intent look, banishing all thoughts of finding another plaything for the evening.

He wasn’t as inebriated as he was taking pains to appear, Elio decided, and something about the smile that turned the man’s lips was familiar. Elio couldn’t place it, and it was unsettling to not be in complete control of the situation. The dancer dipped a slight bow, well aware he’d caught Elio’s attention.

“Shall we dispense with the games, my lord?” the dancer asked, straightening. A quick glance proved that Sesto still found him amusing, so despite the slight wariness the dancer’s actions were inciting, Elio inclined his head, agreeing silently.

“Your name?” Elio asked, holding the man’s gaze without blinking.

“Tore,” the man pronounced in two sing-song syllables. Tor-eh. Tore’s smile twitched back into place, as though the name was some source of private amusement for him. It wasn’t a proper introduction by any means, but Elio didn’t push, liking the mysteriousness of it.

“Tore,” Elio repeated thoughtfully. Like Tore’s smile, the name was familiar, though Elio could not for the life of him place it. He knew no one by that name, nor by any name that could be shortened to the diminutive name. Banishing the thought—he’d inhaled too much smoke from the candles, was likely all—Elio pushed away from the railing and stepped forward, into Tore’s space, until they were a hair’s breadth apart.

Tore was shorter than he and Sesto were, by only an inch or two. The gold mask was beautiful, this close, but examining the mask was the last thing on Elio’s mind, and he didn’t resist the urge to taste Tore’s familiar-but-not smile.

Tore didn’t protest, but then, he wouldn’t be on the patio with them if he didn’t want the kiss and more. Tore tasted sweet, like fruit, but not of wine, confirming Elio’s observation that he’d only been playing at having drunk too much. Elio sunk a hand into Tore’s hair, pulling him closer, pleased as usual at Sesto’s choice in partners for the evening. His brother had immaculate taste—

Elio swallowed a surprised noise when Tore took control of the kiss, kissing him hard enough to make Elio’s lips sore. Elio’s thoughts completely scattered, startled and impressed by Tore’s audacity. That Tore could kiss was part of it, but Elio was used to taking the lead, not following it. It was a pleasant—extremely pleasant—change. Tore broke the kiss, leaving Elio’s head spinning. Elio struggled to catch his breath, to appear composed, but he rather thought he wasn’t carrying it off very well.

Tore’s smile was firmly in place now, more of a smirk than that somewhat familiar twist of his lips. “Shall we take this someplace… quieter, my lords?”