“That went beautifully,” Titus said, his blue eyes twinkling as they stepped down from the Deizian chariot that had magically carried them through the streets without the aid of horses or wheels. “The people seemed very pleased with my future bride.”
“So you think,” she replied. He may have only seen the smiling faces of the Elymanians and the Alpirions and heard nothing but shouts of joy, but her trained eyes saw more than that. The scoffs of the blond Deizian women from their perches high above the crowds. The sneers that twisted the mouths of their husbands and fathers. The constant reminder that she wasn’t one of them, that she was a usurper. The fresh tattoo of the Legion itched along her right wrist under her bracelet, reminding her of the vow she had made to protect the emperor in exchange for being pardoned of her past crimes. “Thankfully, no one made an attempt on your life today.”
“And why should they? After all, I am marrying the Rabbit.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her in a way that made her forget about everything but him.
The scent of sandalwood filled her nose, and desire hummed through her veins. She threaded her fingers through his golden hair and kissed him back, opening her mouth to him and savoring the sensation of his tongue teasing hers. Only a week had passed since she’d almost lost Titus to the man who’d originally hired her to kill him, since she’d almost died in his arms after rescuing him, since she’d confessed how much she loved him. But since then, she’d learned never to waste a precious second in his company. Fate had a fickle side and could take it all away in a blink of an eye.
A man cleared his throat behind them. “Save it for the bedroom, Your Imperial Majesty,” Marcus teased.
As the emperor’s best friend, he was the only person who dared say such a thing and not live in fear of losing his head. His blue eyes proclaimed his Deizian blood, but his dark brown hair and beard were more typical of his Elymanian ancestry.
Titus broke away, the heat in his eyes letting her know he’d gladly pick up where he left off as soon as they were alone. Her sex tightened in anticipation, for when Titus made love to her, she was always left sated and exhausted.
“Leave him alone, Marcus,” Titus’s mother, Empress Horatia, scolded. Not a single strand of her golden hair had fallen out of place during the procession, yet she still patted it into place around her tiara. “He’s just proclaimed his formal engagement to Azurha and has been on his best behavior all day. Let him enjoy one simple kiss.”
“That was not a simple kiss. That was an ‘I can’t wait to get you out of your clothes and bury—”
“We get the idea, Marcus.” Titus released her and straightened his toga before leaning over to whisper low enough so only she could hear, “He’s right, though.”
She ran her tongue over her lips, still tasting him there. “Then maybe we should have a very short dinner.”
“Agreed.” He winked and turned back to address at least a hundred guests who’d followed them into the palace. “We thank you all for coming to celebrate my engagement to Azurha. Please join us in the banquet hall as we continue the festivities.”
Dozens of Deizian blue eyes locked in on her, picking her apart with their icy glares. Azurha had been born an Alpirion slave, had killed her master to gain her freedom, and had earned a reputation for covering her hands in the blood of those she’d been hired to kill. She threatened the Deizians’ power, both from her rise to the throne and from the dirty secrets she could expose if she revealed the details of her past jobs. They loathed her. They feared her. But would they ever accept her as their empress?
Horatia gave her a gentle smile and lifted her chin, reminding Azurha to do the same. It didn’t matter what the Deizian nobles thought. It only mattered that Titus loved her, that he had chosen her to be his wife.
And if they dared to threaten them, she wouldn’t hesitate to utilize the skills that had made her legend long before she met Titus.
Titus squeezed her hand before placing it in the crook of his arm and leading the procession into the palace’s throne room. They took their seats on the raised dais at one end of the room and accepted the tight-lipped congratulations from the line of Deizians who followed. Azurha nodded to each of them, her smile as cool as the dagger strapped to her thigh under her stola. From the earliest days of her life, she’d been instructed to keep her eyes downcast, both because she was a slave and because her unusually colored teal eyes brought her unwanted attention. But now she was staring members of the ruling race dead in the eye, challenging them with the reversal in power.
Once they’d received the last guest in line, a series of three short claps came from the steward in the opposite corner. A wave of slaves entered the room with cushions for their guests to recline on during the meal. Then a second wave of slaves appeared from the kitchen, carrying trays of food and pitchers of chilled wine, all perfectly orchestrated under the direction of Varro.
Once the meal started and Titus had fallen into conversation with Marcus, Horatia crossed the dais and sat beside Azurha. “You did very well today, my dear. I almost passed out during my engagement ceremony.”
“I find that difficult to believe, Your Majesty. You are the epitome of calm grace.”
“I’ve had years to master my emotions. Deizian women are brought up to never reveal what their hearts feel. It is considered a sign of weakness.”
Azurha scanned the room for the one Deizian woman who’d made the mistake of showing too much emotion. “I haven’t seen Claudia since she left the harem.”
“And you probably won’t,” Horatia replied, her eyes sorrowful as she accepted a glass from one of the slaves. “Hostilius sent her back to Tivola and hasn’t mentioned her name since then. I worry about the poor child.”
Azurha almost choked on her wine. The poor child the empress referred to was nothing more than a spoiled, spiteful brat who had tried to steal Titus from her, and more than once insulted Azurha by treating her like a slave. “I have a hard time feeling any pity for Claudia.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the abbreviated version of what passed between you two from Varro. But you only see things from your eyes, from your experiences. I’ve known Claudia since she was a child, and I can assure you she is caught in her father’s ambitious web. She’s been forced to marry three men she’s cared nothing for to please him, and now that she’s failed him, I worry she’ll suffer the same fate as those who displease him.”
The empress didn’t need to continue. All of the empire knew the governor of Lucrilla didn’t keep many enemies for long. Most of them either disappeared or were found dead at the bottom of a cliff. He’d even hired Azurha to dispose of a rival at one point. “Surely he wouldn’t kill his own daughter.”
“You know as well as I do what Hostilius is capable of doing.” Horatia took a sip of her wine. “I just pray to the gods that his temper will cool before he returns home, and I’m thankful you and Titus agreed to a quick wedding so the nobles will be forced to stay in Emona a bit longer.”
“Ah, yes, the wedding.” Her heart stuttered, and her stomach flopped. She’d rather face the challenge of killing a hundred men in the space of a night than the pomp of the next three weeks. “If I had a choice, we would’ve been married the day I accepted his proposal.”
The empress chuckled. “I’m sure Titus would agree with you there, but alas, that is not the way things are done in the imperial family.”
“I have so much to learn.” She closed her eyes, her crown heavier on her head than before. “I want to be a good wife, a good empress, but I fear my past will always haunt me.”
“We cannot control our pasts, only our futures.”
Wise words from a woman whose black palla proclaimed she was still mourning the loss of her husband. Azurha glanced at Titus, remembering the conversation she’d had with him the night before over the sudden loss of his father, Emperor Gaius Decius Flavus. Perhaps she might not be able to change the past, but she might be able to offer some answers. “May I have a word in private with you, Empress Horatia?”
A line appeared between the older woman’s brows, but she nodded and followed Azurha into the empty courtyard reserved exclusively for the imperial family. The gurgling fountains cooled the air around them and added a layer of discretion to their conversation.
Azurha dipped her fingers into the water, picking her words carefully. “I wanted to talk to you about my wedding gift to Titus.”
“Are you asking for suggestions?” Horatia’s eyes brightened. “I know he’s received so many gifts for his coronation last week, but I’m sure we can think of something unique and meaningful.”
“I’ve already thought of something.” She drew in a deep breath and prayed her choice would not open wounds that were still healing. “I want to solve the mystery of Emperor Decius’s death.”
Just as she’d expected, color drained from the empress’s face. She sank onto the edge of the fountain, staring past Azurha. Her bottom lip trembled. “That’s very kind of you, my dear, but—”
“It has nothing to do with kindness, Your Majesty. It has to do with justice, with the peace that will come with answers.” Azurha dared to reach out and cover the empress’s hand with her own, a gesture most Deizian women would never think of doing without permission, but she felt a kinship with Horatia over their shared love for Titus. “Everything I’ve heard so far indicates he died before his time, and I was hoping, with my background…”
She didn’t need to continue. Once again, her past as the Rabbit had entered the picture. She knew dozens of ways to kill a man, including first-hand knowledge of poisons and the assassins that preferred to use particular ones. If she could identify a poison, she might be able to find out who killed the former emperor and why.
Horatia’s eyes focused on Azurha’s face. “Are you suggesting someone murdered him?”
She hesitated for a second before nodding.
A sob choked the empress’s throat. She covered her mouth and stood, her back to Azurha. Her shoulders silently shook with grief. But in less than a moment, she regained her composure and turned back to Azurha. Unshed tears glittered in the corners of her eyes. “I had suspected as much, but hearing it from someone else, I…” Her voice cracked.
“I apologize if this news has caused you distress.”
“No need to apologize, Azurha,” Horatia replied with a wave of her hand. “Forgive me for losing control like this.”
“Why do you think I asked you to step into the courtyard first?” She offered a sympathetic smile to the empress. “When you feel ready, I’d like to ask you what you observed in the days leading up to his death.”
“I’m ready now.” She swiped the back of her hand over her cheeks and adjusted her palla over her shoulders. “Gaius was in excellent health up until the last two weeks of his life. The illness struck him suddenly, robbing him of his strength. At first, he brushed it off as fatigue from the stress of his imperial duties. But as it worsened, he had trouble walking, standing, even drawing a breath.”
She paused, rubbing the band of gold on her finger. “We sought the help of every healer in the empire, but none of them were able to cure him.”
Azurha nodded, pulling important bits of information from the description the empress had given her. The first was that it was a poison she was not familiar with. In her career as an assassin, she only got paid when her targets were found dead. The poisons she’d always relied on tended to kill within seconds to hours.
The second important bit was that this poison could withstand Deizian magic. She was alive today because Titus had used his magic to remove the poison that pumped through her veins after her fight with Cassius. How was it he and every other skilled healer couldn’t do the same for the emperor?
She chewed her bottom lip as she searched for answers, but none of them came readily. “I appreciate your information, Your Majesty. It has helped me get started on the path to answers.”
“And do you have some available already?” Horatia asked, her breath catching.
Azurha shook her head. “But I have an idea on where to look.”
Starting with a former Captain of the Legion.
Azurha caught Varro later that evening as he entered their chambers and pulled him aside. “May I ask you a few questions?”
The steward raised one brow, shifting the lines carved into his forehead from his years as a soldier. An Elymanian, he’d risen to the position of Captain of the Legion, the head of the emperor’s bodyguards, because of his keen eye and brave loyalty. A battle wound that snaked around his leg and left him with a permanent limp had ended his military career, but he’d settled into the position of the palace steward to continue serving the emperor. “Yes, Lady Azurha?”
“I was wondering if you could share with me what you observed during the last two weeks of Emperor Decius’s life.”
Now both brows shot up. He cleared his throat and gave a similar story as the empress’s. Rapidly worsening weakness. Wasting of the muscles. Death when he no longer had the strength to breathe. And when Varro finished, he asked, “Is there anything else you wish to know?”
“Yes—did you notice anything out of the ordinary in the days preceding the emperor’s illness? Any new foods? Guests? Anyone else with a similar illness?”
Varro shook his head, his mouth forming a thin line. “Only a few people had access to the emperor, and they all went through me or Captain Galerius. All the emperor’s meals are tested for poison before they leave the kitchen by one of the slaves, and I have no knowledge of anyone ever contracting the same illness.”
No wonder Pontus had made sure she entered the palace as a courtesan. He’d been familiar with the levels of protection already in place around the emperor. And yet, she’d managed to slip through with concealed tools of death.
Varro continued to regard her with a mixture of puzzlement in his brown eyes, so she said, “I have reason to believe Emperor Decius was poisoned, and I want to know the how and why.”
He nodded. “As do I.”
Some of the tension eased from her shoulders. “Do you have any other information that might be helpful?”
“No, but I might know someone who can assist you. My son, Modius, has developed a rather, um, interesting obsession with medicine. Perhaps he has stumbled upon something in his studies that might shed some light on this mystery.”
She vaguely remembered meeting his son at the palace in Madrena and wondered how far Modius’s “interesting” obsession went. “Please send for him, and please, not a word of this to the emperor. I do not want to revive any unpleasant memories unless I’m ready to give him answers.”
“Understood, Lady Azurha.” The steward bowed and exited the chambers.
Azurha crossed the room, shedding the layers of jewels and clothes on her way to the baths. There, she found Titus soaking in the caldarium, his golden hair slicked back against his scalp, highlighting his perfectly carved features and deep blue eyes.
“Coming to join me?” he asked, his gaze traveling up and down her naked body.
She removed the last pin holding her hair back, letting it fall in a dark cascade to her hips. “If you don’t mind,” she murmured, her voice low and gravelly with desire.
She slid into the warm water, her sex already tightening in anticipation. After suffering years of abuse by her former master, she never dreamed she would ever crave a man’s touch. And yet, from the moment she met Titus, she knew he was different. Her body responded to his kisses and caresses the same way her heart jumped from his murmured words when they made love. She’d found a man who loved her, and whom she loved with every fiber of her being.
He pulled her to him, the coarse hair on his chest brushing against her sensitive nipples and sending shivers of delight through her. “Ah, yes, I vaguely remember a promise to finish what I started before dinner.”
His mouth covered her own, his arm tightening around her until they were pressed together from head to toe. The hard planes of his body contrasted with her soft curves, steadying her, teasing her, heating her blood. She threaded her fingers through his hair, deepening the kiss. Traces of sweet wine lingered on his lips. Her hips rolled in time with the flicks of his tongue, and her leg hooked around his thigh, opening herself up to the part of him that could soothe the raging need inside her.
Titus wasted no time accepting her invitation. He slid into her with one powerful thrust that made her cry out in delight. He moved inside her, slowly at first, each successive pump becoming stronger and faster. Their bodies moved as one, their kisses hungry. Her heart raced. Her breath hitched as her muscles coiled tighter and tighter, each thrust pushing her closer and closer to the edge. She dug her nails into his shoulders and held on for dear life, shouting his name as she came. His own roar of satisfaction quickly followed, and he slumped against her, completely spent.
Azurha ran her fingers over his shoulders, finding all the knots that still lingered from the stress of the day. “You feel like you could use a massage.”
“How about you just joining me in bed?”
“We can do that, too, but first, let me tend to this.” She unwrapped her legs from him and climbed out of the pool. “Where does Varro keep your oils?”
A look of defeat crossed his too-perfect face, followed by resignation. “There should be a drawer on the end of the table.”
She found it and pulled a bottle out. “The sooner I work those knots out of your shoulders, the sooner we can go to bed.”
He climbed out, his cock already half-erect as he approached her. “Do you have any idea how uncomfortable I’ll be lying on my stomach while you stand there naked, rubbing oil all over my body?”
“Should I put my dress back on?”
“No.” He pulled her against him, his hands resting on her hips. He placed a playful peck on her cheek. “I like you this way. If I had my way, you’d wear nothing as long as you were in my chambers.”
“I think poor Varro would have some issue with that.” She pulled away. “Now on the table.”
Titus laughed as he lay down. “You do realize you’re the only person who could get away with ordering the emperor around?”
She leaned over, her lips inches from his ear. “And I like having that power over you.”
It was such a far cry from her life as a slave. Then, she’d been powerless. Now, she was two weeks away from becoming the second-most-powerful person in the empire. But she no longer cared about having power, about having control of her life. She’d gladly give up the title of empress so long as she had Titus.
He winced as she poured the cold oil on his skin, the muscles between his shoulder blades drawing closer together. A minute later, he started to relax from the steady stroke of her hands along his back and shoulders. A sigh escaped his lips. “You were right, Azurha. I needed a good massage.”
“Of course I was right.” She pressed her thumbs into the more stubborn knots, wiggling them back and forth in a tight circular motion until the muscles surrendered. “When was the last time you had a massage?”
“It was before my coronation.”
“I need to speak to Varro about that. You need to take better care of yourself, Emperor.”
He rolled over, grabbing her hand and pulling her onto the table with him. “I know how you can take care of me.”
The hard ridge of his erection told her exactly where this conversation was going, but she decided to tease him. “How?”
“You can start by letting me return the favor.” He poured a stream of oil along her side, coating her until her body was as slick as his. Then he pulled her on top of him so her legs straddled his waist and her hands pressed against his chest. “Where shall I massage you first? Your thighs? Your back? Your breasts?”
He touched each part of her body as he listed them, mimicking the same steady strokes she’d used on his shoulders. Then a mischievous glint appeared in his eyes, and his finger trailed to the place between her thighs. “Or should I massage you here?”
Her breath caught when he pressed against the sensitive nub inside, releasing with a moan. Her hips tilted forward to give him better access, to allow his fingers to delve into her sex while his thumb continued to massage her clit. The orgasm ambushed her before she could catch it, and his name spilled from her lips as she cried out in release.
She fell forward, melting against him while her body still trembled with the aftershocks.
Titus ran his fingers up and down her spine, saying nothing in the moments that followed.
A chill of unease washed over her, and she lifted her head. His gaze was distant, his mind someplace other than the present. “What’s wrong?”
He focused back on her and gave her a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“I know you.”
His smile softened, but it was genuine this time. “Where did you find this oil?”
“It was in the drawer. Why?”
“It was the one my father favored for as long as I can remember.” Melancholy cracked his voice, and her heart ached for him. Barely two moons had passed since his father’s death, and yet the wounds were still fresh. “I never thought a scent could evoke such memories, but…”
“Should we crawl back into the bath and wash it away?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s rather fitting, I think. I’m the emperor now, and like my father, I’ve been blessed to have the woman I love more than anything to rule by my side.”
A dozen replies sat on the tip of her tongue. She could’ve told him she loved him. She could’ve told him she wasn’t worthy of him. She could’ve told him she would give anything to wipe away his grief. But in every instance, words failed her.
Instead, she leaned forward and kissed him until desire replaced all other emotions.
Modius stepped off the airship and found his father waiting for him at the end of the gangplank. His shoulders tensed, followed by his hamstrings, slowing his steps. Three years had passed since he’d been caught dissecting the corpses of fallen gladiators and shocked the city of Emona. Three years had passed since he was sent to Madrena. Three years had passed since he’d last seen his father.
He stopped a few feet away from Varro, studying the man who was an older version of himself. His father’s face revealed nothing. No joy at seeing him again. No traces of disappointment that he hadn’t followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Legion. Nothing other than the perfunctory acknowledgement Varro gave everyone who stayed here. “Welcome to the imperial palace, Modius.”
“Thank you, Father.” The last word came out sharp and bitter, much like his relationship with the man who bore that title. “I understand I am here at the empress’s request?”
“Soon-to-be empress, and yes, Lady Azurha asked for your assistance. Come this way.”
He followed his father into the palace, noting how Varro’s limp had grown more pronounced over the years. Modius’s earliest memories of his father had been of the warrior, the soldier who’d risen to become the Captain of the Legion. Then, when Modius was barely old enough to wield a sword, his father had been struck down in battle. The injury had destroyed his father’s military career, but it had awakened a new passion in Modius, a fascination with the human body and its workings. Even now, he foolishly clung to the hope that if he learned enough, he could restore the function in his father’s leg.
Unfortunately, his dreams had been swept away with the public outcry when he was discovered with half a dozen bodies in various stages of dissection.
His prior encounter with Lady Azurha had been brief. She’d been sent to the imperial palace in Madrena in secret, but she had stayed less than a week. The emperor had come a few days later, and they rarely left their quarters. “Care to share why she sent for me?”
“That is for her to discuss, not me.” Which, of course, meant that his father knew exactly why he’d been summoned, but refused to say.
“I find it odd that you hardly say anything to me over the last three years, and yet in the last month, you’ve written to me twice concerning her.”
Varro’s steps hitched, his bad leg dragging to a stop before he glanced over his shoulder. “Lady Azurha has done much to earn my respect.”
“So I’ve noticed. Too bad I haven’t.”
His father’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “I’ve never indicated that.”
“No, not with words, but you’ve made it very clear with your actions that you’re not pleased with my interests.” He braced for a few harsh words from his father, the usual lecture on how he should’ve focused more on his military career than his studies, but it never came.
“You are your own person.” Varro resumed a brisk pace that exaggerated his limp even more. “Come along. I don’t wish to keep Lady Azurha waiting.”
Modius trailed behind, replaying the longest conversation he’d had with his father since he’d left for Madrena. It carried the same distant, vague vibe as his last conversation. His father admitted nothing, revealed nothing, which was probably one of the reasons the former emperor had trusted him.
Varro led him through the empty throne room and past the slowly rotating globe that depicted the barrier around the empire. As a child, Modius had witnessed the morning ritual of the emperor reinforcing the barrier that protected them from alien Barbarians. Today, it seemed brighter than he remembered, pulsating with a different energy that calmed any fears he had about the barrier falling.
His father pressed his palm against a bronze keypad. The click of locks echoed through the room. He opened the door to reveal a small antechamber. “Wait here,” he ordered before he passed through another set of locked doors leading to a corridor.
Modius dropped his bag by a chair and poured a glass of wine. After years of isolation in Madrena, it was strange being back in the bustling city of Emona again. In Madrena, there would be some days where he’d hardly speak to anyone, save for a few orders to the slaves who maintained the palace. Now, he would have to remember all his courtly manners in front of the future empress. He stretched his back, and hoped he could bow low enough without it catching after the long flight from the coast.
The locks clicked again and his father returned, holding the door open for Lady Azurha. She was even more striking than Modius remembered. She had the inky-black curls and coppery skin typical of the Alpirion slaves, but he’d never seen eyes that color on a member of her race. Diamonds sparkled from the combs in her hair, from the earrings dangling from her ears, and from the necklace around her throat. The last time he’d seen her, she’d just been elevated to consort. Now, she was every inch an empress.
His father bowed as she passed, signaling Modius should do the same. “Lady Azurha, this is my son, Modius.”
His gut twisted as his father introduced him. Varro almost seemed proud to call him his son. Too bad that wasn’t the truth.
Lady Azurha nodded. “Yes, we’ve met before.”
Varro gave a sharp nod and surveyed the room, checking the decanter on the table to make sure it was full. “Will you need anything else?”
“No, thank you,” she replied.
“Very good. I’ll make sure Modius’s room is ready for him.” Varro bent down and picked up the heavy pack containing his clothes and medical supplies.
Modius started toward his father, his mouth open to tell him not to bother with it, but a sharp glare from Varro stopped him. Despite his injury, Varro had never asked for assistance, never sought special treatment. Instead, he stubbornly insisted on trying to do all the things he had done before his leg had been weakened. This was just another example. Modius winced as his father took the first few steps carrying the weight of the pack, adjusting it so it balanced out on his good leg. He left the room with the sound of his sandaled foot dragging across the tiled floor.
“Stubborn old man,” Modius muttered under his breath as the door closed behind his father.
“But you have to admire his determination,” Azurha replied, sitting in one of the chairs by a small table that was laden with food. “Please, have a seat. You must be hungry after your journey.”
He took the opposite chair and picked a few grapes off the stems. “I was quite surprised when you summoned me, Lady Azurha.”
Her dark brows pinched together. “Did your father not tell you why?”
“No.” He popped a grape in his mouth before he said too much.
She laughed, relaxing into her chair. “I’ve shared your frustration with him before. He guards a great many secrets, which makes him so invaluable to the emperor.”
She poured a glass of wine and continued, “I brought you here because your father thinks you may be able to help with a certain problem.”
“My father suggested I help you?” This was a change. Usually his father liked to pretend he didn’t exist.
“Yes. He said you were quite knowledgeable in the field of medicine.”
Modius peered out the window to make sure there was no danger of lightning striking, for surely, hearing that his father had praised his “interests” in front of the future empress had to count as a similarly rare occurrence. “Was that all he said?”
She nodded. “And the matter I am asking you to investigate needs to be kept under complete secrecy, as it involves the former emperor. Do you agree to that?”
“Yes, Lady Azurha.” Now his interest was piqued. Something secret involving the imperial family that required his knowledge of the human body? It was worth the three years of exile in Madrena to have a chance at this.
“I have reason to believe Emperor Decius was poisoned, but it was not by any poison I’m familiar with.”
Unease slithered up his spine. “And what would a lady like you know of poisons?”
Her grin highlighted the cold, worldly glow in her eyes. She was a woman who’d seen death and had taken delight in it. “Did you not hear who I am?”
“No, my lady. We rarely hear anything in Madrena.”
She rested her chin in her hand and stared at him as though she were trying to decide if he was telling the truth. “Perhaps it doesn’t matter, then. All that matters is that I find out who killed Emperor Decius and why. It will be my wedding gift to Emperor Sergius.”
From the merciless tone in her voice, he suspected that the culprit’s head in a box would be the actual gift. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “And how might I assist you with this?”
“Have you heard of a long-acting poison that wastes a man’s muscles, slowly killing him over the span of a fortnight?”
He leaned back, letting the gravity of her question sink in first before plowing through his knowledge of poisons. All of them killed within a matter of hours, not days. And yet, somewhere in the deepest recess of his mind, he knew he’d stumbled across something that sounded like this before. “I can’t recall of any, but I will gladly research this matter in the Imperial Library.”
“The library is vast. Do you know where to begin?”
“Yes,” he replied, his confidence returning. The Imperial Library rivaled the palace in sheer size, its rooms lined with rows of shelves containing neat stacks of scrolls. One room was entirely devoted to medicine. He’d lost count on how many days he’d hidden inside it, poring over the knowledge it held. “I’ve spent a great many hours there over the years, and I know which section to start in.”
“Do you think you might be able to identify the poison before the wedding?”
“I will try my best.”
She set her glass down. “If you need any assistance, don’t hesitate to ask. I may not be an empress yet, but I have the power to accommodate most of your requests.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He stood and bowed, recognizing her dismissal. “I’ll settle into my room and begin my search in earnest in the morning.”
The locks clicked again, and he headed toward the door, fully expecting to see his father on the other side with an impatient expression. However, the person who rushed through the door was small and dark, with a stack of brightly colored gowns nearly concealing her face. She collided with him, her bundle falling from her hands like flower petals knocked loose by a storm. Modius reached out to steady her before she followed. “Careful.”
“I’m so sorry, I—” Her words choked off as she met his gaze.
Her speechlessness was contagious because, for the life of him, Modius couldn’t form a coherent word, either. She was an Alpirion, a palace slave perhaps, but there was something about her that drew him to her like a wave to the shore. Perhaps it was her full lips, ripe and rosy like fresh berries. Perhaps it was her eyes, large and dark, and framed by the thickest lashes he’d ever seen on a woman. Perhaps it was the exotic scent of saffron and honey that rose from her warm, sun-bronzed skin. Perhaps it was the lush curves she rubbed against him, reminding him how long it had been since he enjoyed the company of a woman. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t in any hurry to let her go, and based on the way her hips swayed against him, she wasn’t in any hurry to leave.
She licked her lips before lifting the corners in an inviting smile.
The blood rushed from his head to his groin. A small voice in the back of his mind shouted for him to let go before he lost all control and embarrassed himself in front of the future empress, but his hand refused to move from the small of the woman’s back. Instead, it drew her closer to him.
Her eyes widened, followed by her smile.
A bolt of lust shot through him. By the gods, if he wasn’t careful…
A man cleared his voice behind the woman. “Izana, Lady Azurha needs to get ready for dinner.”
At the sound of his father’s voice, Modius backed away so quickly, Izana wobbled on her feet. A flush rose into her cheeks, and she dropped to her knees to retrieve the scattered dresses.
Modius knelt beside her, helping her gather the pile of gossamer silks. “I’m terribly sorry for almost knocking you down.”
She shook her head, loosening several curls with her vigor, her eyes downcast. “No, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I need to learn to watch where I’m going.”
She took the gown he offered, her hand grazing his. Another bolt of desire coursed through him. A groan rose in his chest. He fought to contain it, jerking his hand away before she reduced him to some sex-crazed lunatic. He stood, adding a couple of steps between them. Perhaps he needed a trip to a local lupanar to satisfy this newly awakened infirmity before it distracted him from his duty.
Izana rose to her feet, watching him through her lashes as she passed on her way to the inner halls. Lady Azurha followed, a trace of a grin forming on her mouth as though she’d enjoyed watching him embarrass himself over a slave.
His father cleared his throat again.
Modius snapped his head around, his hands reflexively clasping in front of his groin as though he were some overly eager youth.
His father raised a brow but said nothing about the exchange between him and Izana. Instead, he beckoned for Modius to follow him. “This way. I’ve prepared a room for you in the guest wing of the palace.”
Modius cast one more glance over his shoulder to the door Izana had disappeared behind and hoped the next time he saw her, he’d have the opportunity to explore their seemingly mutual attraction.
Izana draped the palla over Azurha’s head and shoulders, arranging the folds of the pale blue silk before fastening it with a comb. Her cheeks still burned from her collision with the strange man an hour ago. Usually, she’d notice an attractive man and forget about him a few minutes later. Not this man. The feeling of his hard body awakened all kinds of delicious sensations in her. And based on the evidence of his arousal, he was affected the same way.
She hesitated bringing it up in front of her mistress. For all she knew, the man could be an old acquaintance, another assassin, perhaps even a former lover. But finally, her curiosity got the better of her. “Who was that man I ran into this evening?”
Azurha met her gaze in the mirror. “His name is Modius. He’s Varro’s son.”
The mild tingle of desire morphed into the sting of embarrassment. An Alpirion curse slipped from her lips before she could stop it. Of course she’d made a fool of herself in front of the steward’s son. She could almost hear the reprimand that awaited her once she finished dressing her mistress for dinner.
But she saw no censure in her mistress’s expression. Instead, Azurha seemed more intent on watching her reaction. “Why do you ask?”
Because I want to crawl into his bed and do all kinds of naughty things to him. She didn’t need to glance at her reflection to know her cheeks were fully red. That still didn’t keep her mind from imagining what it would be like to lie under him as he slid into her. “Um, just curious, that’s all,” she lied.
Azurha turned around on her stool and studied Izana with pursed lips. “Why do I have the sneaking suspicion there’s more than just curiosity involved?”
She lowered her eyes and wiped her palms on the coarse linen of her chiton. Did she dare confess her reaction to Modius? “I’d just never seen him before, that’s all.”
“Did his behavior make you uncomfortable?” Azurha’s question had a steely edge to it as though she were ready to mark Modius as her next target.
“Oh, no,” she said, the words tumbling out as quickly as her tongue would allow. “Not at all.”
“Then what effect did he have on you?”
Izana bit her bottom lip, weighing her options. How much did Azurha know about her former mistress, about her past before she was sold to the palace? “I found him very… likable.”
“Likable?” Azurha repeated, the tone of her voice making it very clear she’d noticed what had passed between Izana and Modius.
Izana sighed. Time to be honest and pray it worked in her favor. “Very well, I admit I’m attracted to him.”
Azurha nodded, giving her permission to continue.
“I mean, he’s handsome.” The image of his face appeared in her mind. She slowly took account of his pleasing features, from his strong jaw to his straight nose to the flecks of green and gold in his warm brown eyes.
“And well proportioned,” she continued. Very well proportioned, she added, remembering the sensation of him pressing against her.
“And more importantly, he was polite and respectful,” she finished, hoping that would appease her mistress.
“And is that why you found him attractive?” Azurha asked.
She nodded. “I’ve found that most men who treat a woman with respect outside the bedroom will treat her with respect inside the bedroom.”
The smile faded from Azurha’s face, and a splinter of fear lodged in Izana’s chest. Had she said too much? Overstepped her bounds? Become too casual with her mistress?
“Izana, please understand that I will never force you into a man’s bed, and if anyone here in the palace tries to do so, let me know immediately. Such behavior will not be tolerated.”
“Yes, my lady, but—” She paused, wondering if this bordered on saying too much again.
“But what?” Azurha’s expression darkened, leaving Izana no other choice but to confess.
Her heart quickened as she said, “But I wouldn’t mind joining him in his bed.”
Her mistress inhaled sharply and held her breath for several wild beats of Izana’s heart before exhaling slowly. “You don’t find it demeaning to be forced to sleep with a man?”
“Who said anything about forcing me to sleep with him?” She turned and pretended to peruse Azurha’s jewels, even though she knew exactly what necklace she’d pair with her mistress’s ensemble. “I said I wouldn’t mind joining him, and I meant that. He seems like he’d be a satisfying lover.”
“You can enjoy being with a man after what your former owner forced you to do?”
Izana’s gut twisted, her hand reflexively covering the scar on her neck. Even though she’d asked to be branded with the imperial family’s mark when she’d arrived at the palace two years ago, she still saw traces of the wolf’s outline under the burn. “Because despite the fact I was a lupa, I still retained some control over my clients. Those whose company I enjoyed, I encouraged, and they would pay generously to have me for the night.”
Azurha’s brows drew together as though this was a foreign concept to her. And maybe it was. After all, she doubted her mistress had many lovers during her years as the Rabbit. Not many men—save the emperor—would feel comfortable sleeping with a woman who could kill them in a matter of seconds.
“And those men whose company you didn’t enjoy?”
“Then I just closed my eyes and prayed they’d come quickly.” Izana decided it was time to change the subject and held up the necklace she’d picked out earlier that evening. “I think this would go nicely with your gown tonight, my lady.”
Azurha nodded and turned back to the mirror. “Modius is here on official business. I’ve given him a task to complete before the wedding.”
Izana nodded as she fastened the necklace around her mistress’s neck, trying to appear disinterested even though her tongue itched to ask more questions.
“If I needed you to deliver a message to him, would you be willing to do so?”
Her breath hitched. She’d jump at any opportunity to see Modius again. But she forced her voice to stay calm as she replied, “Yes, my lady.”
“Thank you, Izana.” Azurha went to her desk and scribbled a note on a piece of paper before sealing it. “Modius is staying in one of the guest rooms. Please deliver this to him tonight and wait for his response.”
She took the letter, her hands only trembling with a fraction of what her insides were doing. Desire and anticipation raced through her veins. She’d be in his room, hopefully alone with him. And hopefully, she’d find out if he truly was the lover she imagined him to be. “Is the matter urgent?”
Azurha shook her head, one corner of her mouth rising into a conspiratorial grin. “Just make sure he gets it before he falls asleep.”
Perfect! It would give her enough time to wash away the sweat and grime of the day, to change into a clean chiton and perhaps even outline her eyes with kohl before seeing him again.
“Yes, my lady, and thank you.” She dropped into a quick curtsy before racing back to the slave quarters to prepare for her next meeting with Modius. If all went according to plan, she would be humming with contentment in a matter of hours.