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Penny nó Eglantine sees him for the first time at the Midwinter Masque the year that the Dahlia adepts come dressed as chess pieces. She’s surprised that she hasn’t noticed him before, considering that he’s head and shoulders taller than most of the others; little wonder that he’s dressed as the black king, his skin pale in the few places where it flashes out from beneath the dark cloth that covers him.

“Strange choice of costume, isn’t it?” Rajesh nó Jasmine bumps a friendly shoulder against hers. “You can hardly see anything.”

“Yet,” Penny says, turning to look at her friend. “What the – what are you wearing?”

Rajesh does a little twirl, his knee-length red skirt flaring out. The coins at his throat jingle-jangle. The open vest that he’s wearing bares most of his beautiful brown chest. “We’re Tsingani, sweetheart.”

Penny covers her mouth, trying not to giggle or gasp. “Oh, my. How do they feel about it?”

“I did have to talk to one or two of them for authenticity’s sake, and they think it’s funny, so far as I could tell. Besides, it’s not as if your House hasn’t done it in the past, although folk tales is a much more fitting theme.”

“Well.” Penny doesn’t know what else to say. “It makes your legs look lovely.”

Rajesh closes the gap between them and kisses her thoroughly; Penny clings to him and lets her mouth and body melt against his for a long moment. Oh, Jasmine House has him well-trained. “Thank you.”

“Look for me later, if you like,” Penny says impulsively.

“You know, I would, except that I’ve got my eye on someone else.”

“Oh? Who?”

“That would be telling. He is an Eglantine, though.”

“Not Wil!” Penny looks over to where Wil, roguish and charming as the Beast, is holding court amongst a gathering of adepts; a short distance away his Beauty is twirling to a fast-paced courante, fast enough to lift her floor-length dress right up to her knees, garnering just as much attention.

“No, not Wil, actually. Quieter.” Rajesh blows her a kiss. “Enjoy your night. Go and talk to that Dahlia. See if he’s as unbending as he seems.” And he makes his way off through the crowd. Though Penny follows him with her eyes, she doesn’t see who his target is, and as she makes her way across the floor toward the fascinating Dahlia adept – who has not moved from where he’s leaning against a marble pillar to one side – she runs through the names of the male Eglantines. Quieter than Wil doesn’t narrow it down much, to be honest; Wil is easily the most outspoken of them all, brash and honest and like to become Dowayne someday.

Rajesh’s potential conquest gets pushed to the back of her mind, then, because there’s only a short distance left between her and the Dahlia chess king. Penny snags two glasses of joie from a tray and kisses the fosterling carrying it on the forehead; the young girl blushes prettily and murmurs, “Joy, my lady.”

“Hello there,” Penny says, stepping up to her challenge for the night. “Joie?”

Up close he’s not quite as shrouded as she thought; the fabric covering him is multi-layered but they’re all nearly sheer layers and, when he turns to face her, they pull against the line of his thigh and of his chest in a most appealing way. His half-mask is simply a silvery veil that falls straight down from the front of his black crown; his lips are full and pink and his tongue darts over them almost nervously as he looks down at her.

“Eglantine?” he asks. “You’re Eulalie, aren’t you? The devil’s daughter.”

Penny smiles with delight. “I didn’t think anyone remembered that old story.”

“I didn’t think Eulalie dressed quite so much like her father, as it were.” He reaches out and traces the neckline of her skintight wine-red top with one finger. She knows her cleavage looks perfect; the black, lace-trimmed corset ensures that. “I thought she was more innocent.”

“Innocent? She actively worked against her father the whole time. I mean, he was all about eating people. That’s evil, sure, but Eulalie got her own way with trickery and guile.”

“I don’t see much guile here.” His fingertip hooks into the front of her top. “In fact, your costume leaves virtually nothing to the imagination.”

Anger starts to burn inside her. “Well, Dahlia, I guess people are right when they say your House is haughty and unyielding.”

He takes one of the glasses from her hand without taking his gaze from her face. “You’d be surprised what we don’t yield about.”

“Oh?”

He tips the rim of the glass against hers, tilts his head back, and downs the drink in one long swallow, his throat working. “By way of an example, I’ve been watching you for the last half an hour, and I’d really rather not have to look anywhere else for the rest of the night.” He puts one hand on her shoulder. “Perhaps I misspoke. Your costume doesn’t conceal much, but it does leave me curious as to what you look like underneath.”

Penny fumbles her  glass, catches the liquid in her mouth, and manages to get the glass onto a convenient ledge before her arms go up around his neck and his slide around her waist.

He kisses like a Dahlia, too, like he’s royalty doing her a gracious favor by allowing her access to his mouth. His lips slide against hers, closed until she teases them apart with her tongue. And even then he’s cool, reserved, despite the fact that his hands are, yes, unyielding on her waist.

“Haughty,” she says against his mouth, which tastes of the slow burn of the liqueur.

“Trained and tested,” he agrees, and kisses her again.

There are dozens of other people here tonight who she could be kissing much more passionately and playfully, but this is a challenge. She’s going to break through his stupid layers, of clothing and otherwise, if it takes her the rest of the night.

“I’m Penny, by the way.”

“Sheldon.”

House names are hardly a necessity at this stage.

She pulls him into a handy alcove, noting with a smile that Rajesh has found his own target – Wil’s Beauty, as it happens. She’d thought one of the female adepts was playing Beauty but, with his wig knocked askew, she recognizes her fellow Eglantine Stuart, the curve of his waist and hips no doubt caused by a corset drawn a little tighter than her own. Seems like even her own House can surprise her sometimes.

“What are you looking at?”

“Just thinking about how the Longest Night makes for some surprising matchups.”

He purses his lips a little. “Like you and I?”

“Or my friends over there.” She nods across the room.

“I see.”

And then he goes back to unbending and unyielding, pulling her against him and reclaiming her mouth, soft and sure like he doesn’t doubt that they will be together for the rest of the night, and she would almost be annoyed except for the fact that he’s right.

Sheldon starts to loosen up when she gets him down on the long plush divan that’s pushed into the back of the alcove, pushes him down and straddles his lap. To be exact, he nuzzles against the side of her throat, mouth hot against her skin, and it’s quite a bit less regal than before.

She pulls the fine veil out of the way of his face and is momentarily stunned by how very blue his eyes are. Her own black domino has long since fallen off. His crown tumbles to the floor. Underneath it his hair is rumpled and her fingers slide into it, pulling his mouth back to hers. His hands settle at the middle of her back and she can feel his fingers deftly picking the laces open.

“You really think this costume leaves nothing to the imagination?”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.” Sheldon smiles at her, and it’s a smile that says that perhaps royalty does know how to unbend, after all. He wriggles his fingers and she feels the corset slip loose. Then it’s just a matter of pulling the busk at the front open, which he does five seconds later.

“What about you?” She pulls the black fabric taut against his shoulder; his skin just about shimmers through it. “I can see right through this.”

“With work.”

Penny wriggles on his lap. “So... how many moves to mate?”

“That’s dreadful. Don’t they teach you that puns aren’t art?” He drops her corset on the floor and his hands cover her breasts and Penny forgets all about trying to see through his clothes and just arches into his touch.

“So does this outfit you’re wearing... does it open? Or do I just touch you through it?” She suits the action to the word, slipping her hand into his lap. “Seems impractical to me.”

“If you – oh – just move your hand a little – oh, Penny—”

Aha, there’s the opening. He’s hot and hard under her seeking fingers. Normally they’d be working their way slowly up to this but the thing is she wants him right now, because even though she’s lifted the veil and got her hand right on him there’s still a hint of a mask underneath, and that simply won’t do.

She tugs at her skirt, pulling it up and pushing it down behind herself out of the way.

“Penny, Penny, don’t rush—” Sheldon dips one long finger between her thighs, finds her wet and ready. “Oh—”

“Don’t worry, I’m not rushing,” Penny says sweetly, and pushes down onto him.

His reaction is a bitten-off gasp, and his fingers dig into her hips.

“Do you really think that royalty’s all about haughtiness and keeping a stiff upper lip?” she asks, moving astride him, her arms draped loosely around his neck for balance, not that she needs it the way he’s clinging to her.

“Dignity,” Sheldon says breathlessly.

“I see.” She grinds down against him and his eyes close and he’s starting to come apart and it’s the best thing that she’s ever seen.

Voices approach their little alcove and Sheldon goes tense. Penny looks back over her shoulder; to her amusement, it’s Rajesh with Beauty on one arm and the Beast on the other.

“Sorry, boys, this seat’s taken.”

Rajesh just winks at her and leads his twin armloads of pretty on down the hallway.

“He’s going to have his hands full,” Sheldon remarks, relaxing a little.

“He’s a Jasmine, he can handle it.” Penny returns her attention to him, applying her mouth to the side of his neck and sucking lightly. “Do Dahlias dare to return to their House with marks of passion, or aren’t you allowed to damage your pretty skin?”

“That would be Camellia of whom you’re thinking.”

“So it’s all right if I do this?” She pulls aside his draperies and bites at his clavicle. Sheldon shivers under her. “Yes?”

“Penny, please—”

“Mmmm?”

“You stopped moving.”

“Oh. So I did.” She cocks her head to one side, observing his pink cheeks, the way that his pupils have dilated. “I guess I—”

He cuts her off by slipping his hand back between her legs, the pad of one finger unerringly finding its target, and he coaxes her back into a steady rhythm by the simple expedient of withholding contact if she doesn’t do what he wants.

“So royalty gets its own way?”

“Not without offering reward,” Sheldon says, and then his mouth is on hers again and this time there is nothing cool or calm or soft about the kiss at all. His finger works relentlessly on her and Penny feels her climax coming like a wave – no, like a series of crashing waves, when it does come, beating on the shore, leaving her feeling tumbled and thoroughly wrung out.

“Are you sure you’re in the right House?”

He just gives her an inscrutable look.

Penny rests her forehead against his and picks up the rhythm from where he so rudely interrupted her. His hands settle on her thighs.

He falls apart slowly but surely. First she notices his breathing quicken, and a hand on his chest, pawing out bare skin under the myriad layers, finds his heart beating fast. And then there’s the way that his hands creep from her thighs to her lower back, pulling her ever tighter against him.

“Oh, Sheldon,” she breathes, and he makes a minute sound of need. His fingertips creep under her clothes to where the base of her marque is limned against the base of her spine. She wonders how his own marque looks, how far it’s grown, how dark it must be against his pale, pale skin.

“Penny. Penny, please.”

Her mouth finds his again and his tongue moves against hers, quick and greedy, and when she pulls back again his mouth stays open, his breath coming in gasps now.

Penny—”

The unyielding yields at last, with that cry of her name, and with his fingertips printing marks like early pink blooms against the pale green leaves that spread over her lower back. He’s clinging to her, rocking against her, into and into her. She sees that his eyes are blown dark with desire before his mouth finds hers again, lips and tongue desperate, as if he’s trying to get right inside her skin.

Back in the Great Hall the horologist calls the hour, the return of the sun, and both of them say, “Joy,” at the same moment and in the same breathless laughing voice.

Penny dismounts as gracefully as she can under the circumstances. Sheldon shakes his costume back into place. If it mattered at all, nobody would know what they’d been up to – not that it matters, of course.

“So a Dahlia can unbend after all,” she says diffidently.

He takes her hand and kisses it. She accepts the courtly gesture for what it must mean to him. “And an Eglantine can take pleasure in something – or someone – serious.”

“Why were you standing alone?” Penny asks. “Truly, you did look as if you’d rather be anywhere else.”

“I’m more of a scholar than anything else.”

“Then you’ve learned some practical lessons very well.”

Sheldon nudges her thighs apart with his knuckles, presses his thumb in against her, and watches with, yes, scholarly interest as he makes her come apart again.

“Will I see you again after tonight?” Penny asks when she can breathe once more.

“I wouldn’t be averse to the idea.” He’s already starting to look distant and regal again, but Penny knows she can shake that mask free, and having done it once before she’s determined to do it again.

“Well... you did say that you wanted to see how I looked without the costume. You haven’t exactly done that yet.”

He dips his head in acknowledgment. “True. One ought not go back on a royal request.”

She groans. His lips tilt up at the corners.

They part ways outside Cereus House despite the fact that they’re both going down the hill; Sheldon is borne off in the early morning light by a gaggle of similarly attired chess pieces, and Penny watches them out of sight. She can’t stop smiling. In fact, she’s moved to do a series of standing front flips all the way back to Eglantine’s gateway, despite the uneven ground.

Joy and joie and joy. She does hope she’ll see him again.