Excerpt: Crown Jewel

Lazzaro walked along the Royal Pavilion, mind awhirl with information and ideas, but no clear way to bring everything together; an entire year and he had nothing to show for it! But he knew better than anyone that hunting a killer was aggravating work.

Killers, thieves, robbers—he had unintentionally made a career of tracking down brigands of all sorts, ever since leaving the mountain. Being some manner of unofficial investigator of all things criminal was better than immersing himself in politics or the other dry amusements of his peers.

Nodding absently to the people he passed, greeting others but never slowing his steps, Lazzaro steadily made his way up the colorful mosaic of the Pavilion to the Starfire Palace. Climbing the steps, he murmured politely to the royal guards as he passed them. Inside, he stopped a passing steward. “Where is Prince Benito?”

“I believe he is in the garden with her Highness and several friends, your grace.”

“Thank you,” Lazzaro replied, and strode on.

In the garden—a cacophony of carefully tended plants and flowers that overlooked the ocean surrounding their country on nearly all sides—he quickly located Benito on the dais several steps above the rest. Courtiers encircled Benito and his fiancée, a pile of pretty nobles frittering away their day in trying to curry favor. The women, especially, behaved ridiculously in their currying efforts.

In their defense, Lazzaro supposed, it was hard to gauge the Princess Anastasia. In a garden of modest, pastel lilies, she was a vibrant rose. More demon than princess, some liked to whisper, due to the bright red hair spilling artlessly down her back in a riot of curls, the freckles across her nose, and skin turned gold by the sun. She spoke loudly, laughed loudly, and lashed out loudly. If she were not a princess, and betrothed to the much adored crown prince, she would not be tolerated. She was also deeply in love with Benito and he with her, and so people begrudgingly gave their future Queen a chance—and Lazzaro did not doubt that they would nearly all come to love her. Lazzaro had loved her from the moment she had provoked his perpetually—deceptively—quiet best friend into a shouting match in the middle of a state dinner; anyone who could rouse Benito from his smug calm was good for him.

Benito smiled warmly when he saw Lazzaro, immediately breaking off conversation with the Earl at his elbow. “Beautiful day, Lazo. What brings you to my garden?”

“Beautiful day, Highness. Questions.”

“I thought so,” Benito said congenially. He turned away briefly and took Anastasia’s hand, kissing the back of it and murmuring that he would return shortly in her own language. Turning back to Lazzaro, he slung an arm across his shoulders and led him down from the rose level, the lily level, and off to the tulips on one of the lowest levels of the garden. A look and motion dismissed the small handful of people there, leaving them in privacy. “What is troubling you, brother? The murderer still eludes you?”

Lazzaro nodded. “Yes. I feel he is close enough to slit my throat, yet he slips through my fingers like mist. I have descriptions, and yet no one can truly say what he looks like. People should have seen him, and yet have not. I am searching for a ghost, Benito!” He sighed and raked his fingers through his own long hair, annoyed that some of the curls had slipped from the ribbons in which he had put them. “Or perhaps people are correct and I am seeking only a figment.”

Benito snorted. “The day you are wrong and everyone else is right is the day everyone stops bickering and we climb the stairs to the heavens to live forever in harmony. You say there is a killer; I believe you. After all, this is you we are talking about, Lazo. Ever since you arrived, you have been catching criminals. It makes me wonder what they taught you up in those mountains.” He pursed his lips in thought.

Too often, people mistook the prince for an innocent or an idiot when first they met him. Benito was, above all else, pretty—damned pretty, almost to the point of effeminacy, as pale and delicate as he could be without tipping over into sickly. Pale hair, pale skin, pale blue eyes with a slender build that would never boast great muscle—and short. Benito was half a head shorter than his buxom fiancée, and quiet where she was loud, smooth where she was bold, and although the custom was to walk about expressionless, he often walked about smiling for no reason at all. Taken together, people took him for childish, foolish.

Invariably, they learned the hard way that he was more than capable of someday wearing the crown. Benito was smart and clever, and his preferred methodology was to patiently wait until he had his prey exactly where and how he wanted—then strike. The only thing as dangerous as Benito’s mind was his talent with sword and main gauche. That Lazzaro had never been for a moment fooled by his appearance had been one of the main reasons they became such fast friends, despite all of the reasons they should have not.

“We know he is wealthy, well-connected,” Benito continued. “I think you are correct, in that we see him nearly every day and simply never realize it. That must stroke his ego like nothing else, and I think that ego is the key. A man that arrogant, with that much success on which to build his arrogance, likes nothing more than to continue stroking it. A man like that, stroking his ego is all of the one with stroking his cock.”

Lazzaro snorted in amusement. “No doubt. But what has that to do with the price of tea?”

Benito rolled his eyes. “I have corrupted you quite nicely since you arrived in the city years ago, Lazo, but sometimes your pious childhood shows through and sends me into fits of despair. Do you not ever venture to the Jewel District?”

In reply, Lazzaro only mimicked the way Benito had rolled his eyes. Once not so very long ago, the royal city had been divided up into quarters and districts, and the people within those places strictly regulated. That had also been back in the days when one did not leave his house without wearing a mask—dangerous days, those. The city was glad to be rid of them.

Settled between the ocean and the Commerce Quarter, the Companion District of the Entertainment Quarter butted right up against the Gem District, and so had come to be known as the Jewel District. Most of the quarters and districts were long dissolved, but the Jewel District remained largely intact—and, some said, remained its own entity in exchange for secret arrangements with the crown. Benito had once admitted that was not true, but it suited both the crown and the Companion district if everyone believed it to be.

“Why would I go to the Jewel District?” Lazzaro asked.

“To spend pleasant hours with something pretty without having to exhaust and bankrupt yourself courting it first, like the rest of us,” Benito drawled. “Normal people go to the Jewel District, Lazo. Don’t you at least want people to think you are mostly normal? If you keep acting extraordinary, they will arrange a nice, rousing witch roast. You are quite vexing already, brother; indulge humanity by acting human and visit the Jewel District.”

Lazzaro rolled his eyes again. “If I want sex, I have much easier ways of getting it. I see no need to pay for something I can obtain for free.”

Benito tsked softly and shook his head. “Lazo, most people avoid the Jewel District because they are prudes, not because they are cheap bastards.”

“Only a fool lets gold flow like water,” Lazzaro said defensively.

“I prefer my gold let the wine flow,” Benito replied.

Lazzaro shook his head. “What was the point of all this?”

Benito laughed. “Indeed. I was trying to say only this: the murderer is an arrogant man and that will be his downfall. A man with an ego like that wants it stroked, often, and you can be certain getting his ego stroked includes getting his cock stroked. Beyond that, the Jewel District is prime ground for harvesting information. If he is the type of man we suppose him to be, Lazo, then he will frequent the Jewel District. More than that, he will not settle for paste jewels or even good jewels: your best chance to learn anything about him is to go straight to the Crown Jewel.”

Frowning, Lazzaro said, “That sounds expensive.”

“Oh, delightfully and dreadfully so, I promise,” Benito said with another laugh. “Even a Crown Prince leaves the arms of the Crown Jewel with a light purse. Come along to my rooms; I will write you a letter of reference.”

“For a jewel?” Lazzaro asked.

“Honestly, Lazo. You are twenty-seven-years old and you know nothing of jewels? You are a disgrace and I should be ashamed of myself for never addressing this grievous oversight. You will go tonight.”

“Benito—”

“Do not argue with me or I will send Carlo to ensure you go.”

Lazzaro shuddered. “Fine, you bastard. But I will have my revenge.”

“Come along, then,” Benito said, unperturbed by the threat. “I will write that reference.”

“I still cannot believe I need a letter of reference for a jewel. Why in the name of the gods do I need a reference before I am allowed to pay for sex? I can buy—”

Cutting him off with a laugh, Benito said, “Do not start in with your tirades, Lazo, or we will be here all day.” He winked. “Trust me, when you meet the Jewel of Jewels, you will see why he requires a reference. Rumor has it that he has been given a hundred sovereigns in one night by a single client.” Bursting into laughter at the horrified look on Lazzaro’s face, Benito dragged him off deeper into the palace.

*~*~*

Lazzaro stifled a sigh as he walked along the cobblestone streets of the Jewel District. The place was a maze, but that was obviously sound business practice. He bypassed the cheap houses, marked by either candles in base, colored glass holders or tawdry paper lanterns. As those faded off, they were replaced by houses a bit more lush, the glass expensive and the paper lanterns nonexistent. In the dark, the colorful lights lent a fantastical feel—another sound business practice, no doubt. It also distracted from the fact that even on the best of days, the city never smelled wonderful, no matter what district a man walked. It probably also let many visitors forget that they were doing what they should not be, since the entire quarter was a warren of questionable delights—some legal, some not.

Lazzaro continued past the tasteful, the tasteless, the colorful, the dreary, the subtle, and the flashy, before finally reaching a building tucked neatly into a corner, well off the beaten path of all the rest and overlooking the harbor. Compared to all of the other houses—with only expensive, naked beeswax candles in the windows to mark it as belonging to the Jewel District—the ‘House of Peace’ looked almost respectable. The scent of roses teased him as he walked up the white stone path to the door and knocked lightly.

A silent servant opened the door, took his cloak, nodded him toward the appropriate door, and faded off so silently he might have been a shadow. The parlor Lazzaro entered contained only three figures—two of them were courtesans, one of which was engaged with the third man—a young noble who clearly did not yet know how to spend his money wisely.

Dismissing the pair, Lazzaro focused his attention on the remaining courtesan. Benito had said he probably would not see the man he sought, but would have to give the letter to the proprietor and return another night. However, the man on the small sofa in the corner—half in shadow, half in candlelight—certainly seemed to match Benito’s description of the notorious Crown Jewel.

The hair was the first thing Lazzaro noticed—it was exactly as Benito had described it: a long, wavy spill of white gold. Beautiful. He moved closer and the man looked up, an automatic smile of invitation curling his glistening, oil-wet lips. Discreetly tucking away the book he had been reading, he crooked his ring-bedecked fingers, drawing Lazzaro in. “Beautiful evening, handsome stranger.”

“Beautiful evening, jewel,” Lazzaro murmured. “I thought finding you would prove more of a challenge. You are the one they call Celeste, are you not?”

“I am, indeed. You have found me on a night I happen to be free. You are a clever stranger, or a lucky one.” Celeste tossed his hair as he spoke, mouth twisting in a teasing, taunting half-smile. He knew how to play the game, Lazzaro privately conceded. But Celeste would not work in the House of Peace, and be so profitable that he could afford a night off, if he did not.

“Well-informed,” Lazzaro corrected, “although there is also some luck involved.”

“Then you are intelligent as well as clever,” Celeste replied. He shifted slightly, carefully draped robes moving sinuously along his fair skin. “Would you care to sit?”

Lazzaro laughed. “I am not here for your charms, lovely though they are.”

Celeste tilted his head back and to one side, the image of curiosity. “Whatever you desire, it will cost, and I do not accept complete strangers off the street.”

Sincerely doubting someone like Celeste did not recognize him, but knowing that games must follow rules, Lazzaro reached into his jacket and extracted the letter Benito had written. He handed it over and waited patiently as Celeste broke the wax seal and read.

After a moment, Celeste looked up, pleased and amused. “So I was correct.” Reclining back in the sofa, he lazily held the letter out over a candle, watching it for a moment before setting it on a tray to finish burning. “Shall we speak somewhere more private, handsome stranger?”

Tempted to ask what that would cost him, but knowing manners would get him further, Lazzaro only nodded and replied, “As you like.”

Celeste stood up and brushed past him—then paused, turning his head up to meet Lazzaro’s eyes. His eyes, Lazzaro could not help but note, were the most beautiful shade of brown. He had expected something more exotic—blue, green, amber; but the soft, rich brown was all the more beautiful for its simplicity. Already he comprehended part of why this man was called the Crown Jewel. “Misers are almost as much fun to break as prudes.”

Lazzaro laughed and bent his own head, so they were only the barest breath apart. “You are welcome to try, jewel, but I was raised by monks. My discipline is extraordinary.”

“So are my charms,” Celeste replied, and brushed the barest whisper of a kiss across Lazzaro’s mouth. Then he was gone, leading the way from the parlor and leaving a trail of rich cologne—cinnamon and rose, hints of clove and amber.

Lazzaro licked his lips, which tingled and burned the faintest bit. Cinnamon, he realized as he licked the traces of lip oil away. The bastard’s lip oil contained cinnamon. Shaking his head, amused and impressed and more turned on than he was stupid enough to admit, Lazzaro followed Celeste from the parlor and up the stairs to a room immediately off them.