The Ice Princess
Now the Ice Princess lived in a land far to the north where the snow and ice never melted and the winds were so cold a man's nose might very well freeze and fall off if exposed to the air for too long. Her castle was carved from drifts of snow, the huge empty halls hung with icicles and despair. The princess herself sat on a glittering throne of solid ice in the middle of a frozen lake. Her gown was of lacy frost, her crown of sharp icicles, and the icy pale oval of her face was perfect in its frozen beauty. . . .
--from The Ice Princess
He was a fool.
Isaac Wargate knew it even before his fingers left the bag of guineas. Only a fool tried to save a whore. He'd told more than one besotted sailor the same thing in innumerable ports of call, and yet he still couldn't regret placing his money on the table.
He'd felt Aphrodite tremble when this wicked game had been called.
Thus it was with much less regret than a sane man should feel that he watched Hyde snatch up six month's wages.
"Well done, sir!" crowed Jimmy Hyde. "Who else? Who else wishes to win this lovely prize?"
"Count me in," said an elderly lord. He threw a silk purse on the table.
"I as well," said a skeletal gentleman with a twisted lip. His skin looked diseased.
Suddenly there was a rush to the table, very like the churning of sharks when chum is thrown in the water. Isaac glanced at Aphrodite. If she was disturbed at being the possible prize of an old man or syphilitic she didn't show it. But then her golden mask covered her face, hiding everything but her pale green cat eyes. The mask was skillfully made, the eyeholes oval and framed by delicate gold eyelashes, the lips fashioned into a frozen golden smile. Two years he'd been coming to the Grotto to retrieve his men and he'd never once seen her without her mask.
Though sometimes in his dreams he thought he saw her face.
"This way, gentlemen," Hyde called as he led them into one of the salons.
Aphrodite strolled by his side, head erect, her movements graceful and unhurried. She appeared as composed as always, but she shot him an unreadable glance from her green cat eyes as she passed.
Isaac straightened. He hadn't imagined the way she'd sagged against him when Hyde had appeared. Dammit. She might be a whore, but she didn't want this.
He jerked his chin at Lieutenant Cranston, who'd been standing quietly by the side of the hall all this time.
Cranston came to his side. "Sir?"
"Have Smith finish rounding up the men," Isaac ordered, "and see that they make it safely back to the Challenger or whatever lodgings they've found."
"Aye, sir," Cranston replied quietly. He was a man in his third decade, the oldest and most reliable of Isaac's junior officers, and thus the man Isaac often chose to accompany him on these retrieval trips.
Cranston cleared his throat.
Isaac cocked an eyebrow at him impatiently. The other loo players had already entered the salon. "Yes?"
"Will you be wantin' me to return to, ah, help you, sir?" Cranston murmured.
"No, I think I can handle a game of chance myself, lieutenant," Isaac replied drily. "And Cranston?"
"I'd appreciate it if the other officers didn't hear of this matter."
"Very good, sir," Cranston replied with a small twitch of his lips.
Isaac eyed his lieutenant a moment before grunting and entering the salon. Wonderful. Even Cranston thought him a fool.
The salon was like all the other rooms at Aphrodite's Grotto—vulgarly opulent. Marble pillars held up the high ceiling—only on closer inspection did one notice that the pillars were wood painted to mimic marble. The ceiling itself was gilded and lewdly painted with a scene of a woman being ravished by a bull. The woman seemed to be enjoying the act more than the bull.
Seven men were seated about a round card table leaving one chair empty. Hyde was shuffling a deck of cards showily. To his right was Lord Howling, his face red and bejoweled beneath his white wig. The rake sat to Hyde's left. Beyond him was a country squire, his waistcoat straining over a potbelly, his stockings splotched with mud. A young aristocrat, scarcely old enough to shave, nervously tapped his fingertips on the table whilst striving to look bored. An elegant gentleman marred by a ticking eye was beside him, and the skeletal man with the skin disease was the last of the players.
Hyde looked up as Isaac approached, his eyes glittering with malice. "We await you, Captain. Please have a seat and we'll begin. Aphrodite, show the captain his chair."
She'd been sitting behind Hyde, as still as a statue, but she rose at his words and obediently went to hold out the empty chair.
Isaac tamped down rage. How dare this little manikin use Aphrodite as a servant? He kept his face bland as he sat in the offered chair, but as he lowered himself he heard her whisper, "Don't let Hyde deal."
Then she was gliding away to take her place behind Jimmy Hyde again.
"The rules of this little game are as follows, gentlemen," Hyde said gaily. "To simplify matters I'll serve as dealer throughout the game. You'll play as normal otherwise, staking your own money. The winner takes not only the pot but our lovely Aphrodite as well. Agreed?"
Heads nodded around the table. Isaac kept his face impassive, but he felt cold sweat slide down his spine. Most of his money had been in his pay purse. He might've given it all away only to lose on the first round of this game.
"Good," Hyde said. "Let us begin."
Isaac placed his hands on the table, careful not to let his eyes wander to Aphrodite. "I don’t want you to deal."
"Don’t you trust me?" Hyde asked with a grin.
Isaac smiled easily. "No."
Jimmy Hyde's grin froze. "Now, captain--"
Isaac turned to Lord Howling and raised his eyebrows, "Do you, my lord?"
Lord Howling stirred, his brows knit as if the possibility of Hyde's cheating had just occurred to him. "I do not."
Hyde's grin went rigid, but he wasn't about to let his money-making scheme fall flat. "Is there someone you'd suggest, my lord?"
Lord Howling frowned. He might be the highest ranked man at the table, but he wasn't known for his quick wits.
Isaac cleared his throat. "Perhaps Aphrodite herself will do the honor, sir?"
Hyde's quick eyes narrowed, but Lord Howling was already nodding. "Yes, let our Aphrodite deal the cards."
Hyde was forced to accede. He rose with a sour smile on his face, and held the chair for Aphrodite with exaggerated politeness. She sat--as serene as always, her golden mask concealing whatever expression she might be wearing while her bodice revealed her beautiful white titties all the way to her rouged nipples. Isaac averted his eyes, feeling a black tide of anger surging in his breast. He'd noticed it first the last time he'd visited the Grotto--a stupid urge to beat in the face of any man staring at her nudity--and the minute he'd walked in those faux golden doors tonight he'd known it was worse.
Only an idiot was possessive of a harlot, a woman who deliberately flaunted her naked body before any man. A woman who could be bought for a handful of coins.
Perhaps he was too long widowed. Poor Alice had died four winters ago now. He was in the prime of his life and he had needs like any other man. But he was loath to buy a woman's favors--even if most of his men had no such problem. He should never have come here tonight--had in fact vowed he wouldn't enter the Grotto again after his disturbing reaction to the madam on his last visit.
Yet here he was, vow or no vow, and moreover he was gambling for Aphrodite herself tonight. His blood heated at the thought even as he watched her nimble fingers shuffled the cards into a bridge.
Swiftly she dealt three cards to each man.
Isaac picked up his hand wondering if she'd merely wanted to replace Hyde at the table or if she had a plan in mind. His cards certainly didn't indicate any mechanism--it was a poor hand at best. He glanced at the madam under his brows. But then perhaps she had no wish to help him win.
He pushed it from his mind as the game commenced. All survived the first and second hands, but in the third round both the youngster and the man with a tick didn't pick up tricks and, after being forced to loo to the pot, dropped from the game. Half an hour later the country squire stomped from the room, muttering about London card sharps.
Isaac sat back and watched as Aphrodite shuffled the cards. She'd called for wine to be served to the players, but he'd declined. The fact was that he might be able to continue one or two more rounds, but after that he'd have to drop from the game as well. He'd only hung on so far by his wits and luck--if his hands were indeed luck.
Aphrodite dealt the cards and Isaac looked at his hand with a sinking heart. This would be his last round--he had no more money to loo the pot--but he'd play it as well as possible. The round began and the skeletal man grinned as Isaac passed on the first trick. Aphrodite dealt two more cards to each man and Isaac picked them up without much hope. Then he had to struggle to maintain his face. He had the Pam--the Jack of clubs--and four hearts. A flush.
He glanced at Aphrodite, but her eyes were downcast. Had she slipped him the Pam? Impossible to know.
Meanwhile Lord Howling drained his glass of wine and pushed his remaining pile of coins into the pot in the middle of the table. "Night's getting late. End this, shall we?"
The skeletal man raised an eyebrow, but followed suit. He turned to Isaac, his twisted lip raised in a sneer. "I'm afraid you'll have to bow out, Captain."
"Not yet," Isaac said quietly and laid his hand down.
For a moment there was stunned silence and then Hyde began to clap. "Oh, well done, sir, well done!"
The man with the twisted lip stood abruptly, his chair falling backward. "She slipped him the Pam!"
Isaac rose slowly, his hand on his sword, his heart beating hard.
Then Lord Howling snorted. "Don't be a fool, Whistler. The captain won fairly. Let him enjoy the spoils of victory. Come, I'll stand you a bottle of wine."
Whistler went reluctantly, urged on by Howling, and Isaac didn't let go his sword until they had left the room.
"I congratulate you, sir," Hyde began. "If you want to begin your, ah, victory celebration, I can assure you--"
"Not now," Isaac interrupted the foul little man. "Have you a bag for my winnings?"
"Naturally." Jimmy Hyde smirked. "We wouldn't want guineas falling out of your pocket as you walk the East End. I'll fetch a purse for you."
He left and Isaac frowned after him, wondering if Hyde planned to have him waylaid and robbed on the way home.
"You can take Billy with you," Aphrodite murmured.
He turned back to her. She stood beside him, as lovely and wanton as always. "What?"
"Billy." She indicated a bully boy idling by the door to the salon. "He can be trusted to guard your back on the way to your ship."
"Ah. Thank you." He eyed her, wondering what was going on behind that golden mask.
She glanced down. "It is I who should thank you."
He cocked his head. "Why?"
"You know why," she said low. He'd never heard her sound so serious before. Gone was the whore who'd drawled ribald comments to him just hours before. "You gambled your own money and saved me. Thank you."
Isaac sighed. "I'm sorry to shatter your illusions of me as a bollocks-less white knight."
Her head reared back and her green eyes narrowed behind her mask. "What do you mean?"
He smiled and took her hand, bending over her white knuckles as he murmured, "Only that I fully intend to enjoy my prize."