Tangled Web

a Deizian Empire novel, and 2013 HOLT Medallion Award of Merit recipient by Crista McHugh

The deadliest assassin in the empire just got too close to her target…

Azurha, a beautiful former slave turned deadliest assassin in the empire, has just been offered the ultimate challenge—seduce, then murder the new emperor. But Titus is not the tyrant his forefathers were, and his radical ideas might be the glimmer of hope the empire needs.

Titus Sergius Flavus has yet to master the powerful magic of his ancestors—magic he must wield if he’s to protect his people—but his father’s death has left him no choice. Rule the Deizian Empire and attempt to right his ancestors’ wrongs, or watch her fall to his greedy kin.

More than just Titus’s ideas hold Azurha captive. Night after night, he awakens desires she thought lost and uncovers the magic of her hidden lineage. As her deadline approaches, Azurha is forced to make an impossible decision—complete her job and kill the man she loves, or fail and forfeit both their lives.

 

Information:

Title: Tangled Web (The Deizian Empire, #1)
Author: Crista McHugh
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Romance
Length: 336 pages
Release Date: October 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-032-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-031-2
 

 
 
 

Praise for Tangled Web:

2013 HOLT Medallion Award of Merit: Extra Spicy/Erotic Romance

“★★★★ Much more than an ordinary sci-fi novel…this spellbinding tale will be welcomed with open arms by readers, who will then thank the gods there is a sequel.”
– RT Book Reviews

“The chemistry between Azurha and Titus burns up the pages and kept me reading into the night. This is the single hottest book I’ve read all year!”
New York Times Bestselling Author Katee Robert

 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Crista McHugh

 

1

You’ll never find a knot you can’t unravel.

The old soothsayer’s words mocked Azurha more loudly than usual tonight. She strained against the hemp ropes that bound her wrists and ankles to the thick wooden posts, sending new trickles of blood down her copper brown arms.

For three days, she’d been forced to stand in the center of the room like this, a plaything for her master and his friends. For three days, she’d endured whatever sick fetishes they wanted to satisfy.

For three days, she fought hard to keep her spirit from breaking.

She whispered a string of curses, taking care to speak softly so she wouldn’t wake her master and his friends. The first birdsongs of dawn filtered from the courtyard, and the purple light of a distant supernova gave way to the brighter yellow sun. She cringed. How much longer would the wine dull their senses and leave them adrift in their drunken slumber? Would they let her go today?

Footsteps shuffled outside. Ramina peeked into the room and shook her head at the mess strewn across the floor. Azurha could almost imagine her fellow slave clucking her tongue if she had one, but their master had cut it out years ago.

Azurha beckoned her over by jerking her head. Her throat rivaled the blue sand deserts to the south, making speech impossible. Her cracked lips formed the word, “water,” and the other slave nodded. She tiptoed past the sleeping men and lifted a glass to Azurha’s mouth.

The woman’s small act of kindness nearly freed the sob lodged in Azurha’s chest. Most of the other slaves regarded her with suspicion. Some even accused her of being cursed. She almost agreed with them. With her bright teal eyes, she stood out from the other Alpirions, which was why she had captured the unwanted attention of her master.

“Thank you, Ramina,” she whispered once she’d soothed the dryness in her mouth.

The older woman stared at the hemp ropes and shook her head. The sadness in her eyes told Azurha she wasn’t the first slave to be bound like this. Ramina turned to one of the men. A snarl curled her lip. She nudged him with her foot.

“No, don’t wake him, please,” Azurha begged. When he didn’t stir, Ramina drew her foot back to deliver a stronger blow. Content that he was sleeping like the dead, she gave Azurha a sly grin and pulled a small pouch from her pocket. She poured some of the dark green powder into the wine jar, shaking with silent laughter the entire time.

The old woman had drugged them. No wonder they were sleeping like the dead now. Azurha prayed to the gods it was a poison to finish them off.

The other slave held her finger to her lips, urging Azurha not to tell anyone. As if she would. Their master’s death would be a blessing on them all. He had no heirs. When he died, they would gain their freedom, unless he’d already arranged to bequeath them to the next territorial magistrate.

Ramina bent down and picked up a broken piece of crockery. She flipped it over and examined it before she approached Azurha with the same wicked smile on her face.

Azurha’s heart jumped into her throat, blocking all air from entering her lungs. By the gods, Ramina wasn’t going to kill her, too?

Instead of aiming for her flesh, Ramina sliced the sharp edges across one of the ropes binding Azurha’s wrists. Some of the tension eased against her skin, and after a few more swipes, the hemp gave way. She was free.

The older woman smiled and pressed the clay fragment into Azurha’s palm. Hope warmed the chill from her soul, and she silently thanked Ramina for giving her this opportunity. She’d have her freedom in more than one way today.

The sound of voices echoed across the villa. Her pulse raced. The other slaves were waking up, and she only had a short time to cut through the rest of the ropes before they discovered her. She’d borne enough humiliation during the last three days without having their disapproving glares on her.

Ramina ducked into the courtyard, leaving Azurha alone. The voices faded back into the kitchen area while she sawed through the next rope. Her raw skin stung when the air hit the wounds on her wrists, but the prospect of freedom dulled it. She made quick work of the ropes around her ankles, her breath coming fast and quick, as if she was already running away.

A snort nearby paralyzed her with fear. She huddled in the corner, waiting for whoever it was to roll over and go back to sleep. Instead of listening to her prayers, the gods mocked her. Her master opened his groggy eyes and, despite his drugged state, focused his gaze on her.

Sweat prickled at the base of her neck, and her stomach lurched. What kind of punishment will he have in store for me now? How could anything be worse than what I’ve already endured? As soon as she asked the question, she knew the answer. Death would be kinder than his punishments.

Her vision turned red, and fire raced through her limbs. She sprung from the corner, the ropes around her ankles whipping her shins as she pounced on him. The piece of crockery had lost its sharp edge after sawing though the hemp, but she still drew blood when she raked it across his throat. The second slice pierced his windpipe. The deep gurgling noise blocked his cries for help. A cough splattered her face and arms with blood, but she continued to push the fragment deeper into his neck until she hit bone.

For a brief second, a twinge of horror raced up her spine. But one glance at the torn flesh over her wrists revived her memories of all that had happened at his hands. He would pay for raping her over and over again, for torturing Ramina and the other slaves. Men like him didn’t deserve to live.

Her hands shook as she watched the life drain from his eyes. What was done was done. There was no turning back. And although she’d just won freedom for her fellow slaves, she’d practically signed her own death warrant.

The clay fragment slipped from her fingers. Time became her enemy now. How many seconds did she have to escape before one of the other slaves discovered his body?

Azurha grabbed a sheet to cover her torn tunic and ran across the courtyard, not pausing at the fountain to wash the blood from her hands. Never in her wildest nightmares had she expected this. She tightened the thin fabric around her chest and scrambled over the wall. Hopefully, she’d be miles away by the time they found his body. Away from here and a free woman.

The cobblestones cut into her bare feet, but the streets were mostly empty at this time of morning, the skies free of any Deizian airships. No one to see her blood-splattered body and face. No one to care that her master had bound her and forced himself on her. No one to watch her flee from the villa.

Tears stung her eyes as she replayed the last few days in her mind. She ducked into an alley and hid in the shadows while she let them fall. The law called for the swift punishment of murderers, but as a slave, she didn’t have the right to a trial. She would be like a beast, hunted by anyone who recognized her. No chance to tell her side of the story, to describe the hell she had been subjected to.

A hand clamped down on her shoulder. “What do we have here?” a deep voice asked. “A runaway slave?”

Azurha’s heart skipped a beat. A thick cowl covered his face, and his grip tightened when she tried to free herself. “Please be kind,” she whispered.

He moved closer to her. “I mean you no harm. You’ve just saved me the trouble of killing your master.”

Her mouth went dry. She was as sure as dead once the authorities caught her. But was this stranger any safer? “What do you mean?”

His laughter mocked her. “Come with me, little rabbit, and I will make you more than you are.”

 

 

2

7 years later

You’ll never find a knot you can’t unravel.

The soothsayer’s words from years ago sent a shiver down Azurha’s spine. The last time she’d heard them was the day she’d slit her master’s throat. It did not bode well for this job.

She’d barely been more than a child when an old crone had approached the home of her master, promising to tell him of his future. Her master had shoved her out into the street, claiming he made his own future and didn’t need to listen to old woman’s rants. Feeling pity for her, Azurha snuck outside to offer her drink of water, never knowing how much the soothsayer’s words would come to haunt her.

That felt like a lifetime ago. Since then, she learned pity could be a liability in her occupation.

She strolled along the market and pretended to read the inscription on one of the columns that celebrated the Deizian victory over the Alpirions at the Battle of Silbus. The ore deposits there had magnified the emperor’s magic, collapsing the ground from underneath the Alpirion army. It was the same battle that had turned her parents into slaves. She didn’t need to be reminded of that.

Her mind focused on the conversations around her. Her contact had told her he would find her by using a distinct phrase that would not seem too out of place in a market. She edged closer to the fishmongers.

To her left, a middle aged Elymanian woman crept alongside her and murmured, “Fresh fish tastes better after the Spring Equinox.”

“Yes, but pork is always pleasant when it’s freshly killed,” she replied.

The woman looked up at her, her hands shaking, and nodded. The scent of sweat that clung to her skin revealed her to be a member of the lower classes dressed in a gentlewoman’s clothes. An old ruse, but one Azurha readily saw through. She followed the woman through the crowded market and up the hill where the wealthier merchants and government figures lived. Elaborate mansions replaced the simple homes below, becoming more ostentatious the higher they climbed. Some of the chill eased from her body. At least she would be guaranteed a nice sum of money for this job.

The woman glanced over her shoulder and entered the gate before disappearing into the shadows behind an extravagant Deizian chariot adorned with elaborate gold filigree. Apparently, the lord of the house wasn’t satisfied with the fact it required neither wheels nor horses to fly over the streets. He needed to proclaim both his possession of magic and his station in the gaudiest way possible.

Azurha’s gut clenched as the soothsayer’s words echoed in her mind. She straightened her tunic and brushed her hands over the two daggers concealed beneath the fabric. Her keen eyes surveyed the wealth of her prospective employer. Marble statues of the gods lined the walls of the garden. A glance further down the colonnade showed another courtyard with a gurgling fountain. Two courtyards was a symbol of wealth in this town, and the masts of the airship that rose over the roof signaled this was the home of a powerful Deizian. She needed to watch her manners. Any perceived insult could end in unnecessary bloodshed.

The woman opened the door to a room on the other side of the courtyard, and the color drained from her face. She waited for Azurha to enter. The tremor in her hands intensified.

When the doors closed behind her, Azurha checked the room for any possible traps. Not seeing any, she then searched for escape routes and alternative weapons. It was one of the first lessons Cassius taught her when he took her under his wing—an assassin was always prepared. He’d been a strict teacher, but what she learned from him had proved invaluable. And he’d given her freedom by teaching her the business, an occupation where she could support herself without selling her body.

Voices echoed from the courtyard, and the door inched open. Azurha crouched behind an urn. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt of a dagger, ready to draw it if needed.

“I hope your trust is well placed,” a man’s voice said. His accent was a mixture of Elymanian and Deizian. Her prospective employer.

“I trained her myself, Pontus. She is as deadly as she is beautiful.”

Azurha almost dropped her dagger. The last time she’d heard that voice was two years ago, as he boarded an airship that had been attacked by the Barbarians. A cosmic storm had weakened the barrier long enough for them to slip through the shield that protected the empire. They’d left no survivors, and her heart had ached for months when she leaned of his demise.

She stepped out from behind the urn. “Cassius?”

The familiar face grinned at her, although time had added more wrinkles and the sun had bronzed it far more than she’d remembered from their life of hiding in the shadows. He stretched out his arms to welcome her. “Little Rabbit.”

She crossed the room, her emotions warring with each step. Part of her was overjoyed at seeing her mentor after all these years, the man who’d been her rock during those early dark days when she battled the demons of her past, but her heart reminded her of the months she’d spent grieving him.

When she got close enough to touch him, she slapped his face. “I thought you were dead, you asshole.” Then she wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug.

Cassius returned the hug. “I guess I deserved that.”

“Are you sure she’s stable enough for my needs?” Pontus asked. He ran his finger along the purple border of his fine linen tunic as if to flash his wealth before his two plainly dressed guests.

“I wouldn’t have recommended her if she wasn’t,” Cassius replied.

She broke away from her resurrected mentor to assess her potential employer. Spurius Pontus Gurges, the provincial governor. Perhaps forty summers with a wiry frame and gaunt face, he was a man with blood connections to the emperor and ambitions to match. Her eyes narrowed. She had no problems killing when paid well for it, but if the whispers were correct, Pontus wanted more than just a troublesome rival removed.

He scrutinized her in a similar manner. “You are right, Cassius—she is beautiful enough for my plan. I’ve never seen eyes that color, especially in a woman with such a dark complexion. But what of her skills?”

“She spent nearly seven years under my tutelage. She can kill a man in at least three dozen ways and slip out before she’s caught. I’m sure you’ve heard of her reputation. I’m not the only one who calls her Rabbit.”

Pontus turned his pale blue gaze to her. His brown hair betrayed the Elymanian taint in his bloodlines, but only the Deizians had eyes like that. “You’re the Rabbit?”

The corner of her mouth quirked up into a half smile as she nodded. “Three dozen is being modest.”

“I find your reputation to be largely exaggerated.” He turned his back to her.

The whisper of her blade filled the second of the silence before she pressed it against his throat. “You have doubts about my abilities?”

He tensed. His Adam’s apple bobbed against the blade, shaving the top layer of skin away. “I could have you arrested and executed for this.”

“You’d be dead before you cried out for help.”

Cassius crossed his arms and grinned. “You don’t want to anger Azurha, Pontus. She may prove to be a useful ally.”

“Fine, she has proven she is quick and silent. No need to continue this demonstration.”

Her mentor nodded, and she concealed the knife back under her tunic. “Just so we understand each other, Governor.”

She turned to her former mentor. “Although I wonder why you asked for me, I’m even more curious how you cheated death, Cassius.”

“What was the third rule I taught you?”

She closed her eyes and recalled her lessons during her first weeks with him. “Never believe someone is dead until you hear their heart stop beating.”

“And you were gullible enough to believe I was killed by Barbarians.”

“There wasn’t a body for me to examine.” A fist formed in her stomach. She’d been fooled by her mentor. “Why didn’t you contact me to let me know you survived?”

“As much as I’d love to continue this warm reunion,” Pontus interrupted, “I have more important matters to discuss. Shall we talk business?” He poured a glass of wine and sank into one of the cushioned chairs.

She declined the glass of wine Cassius offered her and sat in a chair across from the men. “Why did you summon me here?”

“I have a job for you. It will not be simple. I’d originally wanted Cassius for it, but now he tells me he’s retired from the assassination business.”

Cassius shrugged, holding his palms up long enough for her to notice the violet tinge to them. His tunic was well made, but simple, making him appear to be a typical middle-aged Elymanian plantation owner. “Sometimes a man finds happiness in the simple things in life. Like growing grapes.”

“Pathetic,” Pontus sneered.

“If your hands were smeared with as much blood as mine, you’d grab happiness however you could find it.”

Azurha glanced down at her own hands. She’d lost count of how many people she’d killed over the years. Despite his warning to harden her heart if she wanted to make a career of this, she still felt moments of remorse for the countless faces that stared up at her in death when she was finished with them.

Cassius caught her reaction and gave her a sad smile. He’d once told her he regretted turning her into what she was, but she’d laughed at him then. Being a killer was an improvement over what she had been subjected to as a slave.

She erased any emotion from her face. “What do you have in mind for me, Pontus?”

He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of wine. “First, I need to know what we discuss never leaves this room.”

“We survive on discretion,” Cassius replied.

“True. To reveal what we are would be suicide.” She wound one of her dark curls around her finger while the other hand rested over the hilt of her knife. “Who do you want dead?”

“I’ll get to that. Second, I need to know that you bear no loyalty to the empire.”

She laughed. “As I’m sure Cassius has told you, I was born an Alpirion slave. I have no love for the empire. As far as I’m concerned, you Deizians can return to the sun you came from and burn.”

“I told you she would be perfect, Pontus. Why would you doubt me after all these years?”

Her blood chilled. There was more to this meeting than she had first thought. How far did her mentor and the governor go back? “Are we going to talk in riddles, or are you going to tell me what you’re planning?”

Pontus raised a brow at her impertinence. “The latest news from Emona is that Emperor Decius will not live to see the next full moon.”

“If he’s already on his deathbed, why do you want me to hasten him to the afterlife?”

“I’m content to let nature take its course with him. The person I wish for you to kill is his son, Sergius.”

She bit her bottom lip. “Murdering a member of the Imperial family, especially the heir to the throne, is no simple task. No weapons are allowed inside the emperor’s chambers. That is, if you can find a way to gain entrance at all.”

Cassius steepled his fingers under his chin. “You’re a clever girl, Azurha. I’ve taught you plenty of ways to kill someone without a conventional weapon. And as for gaining access to the palace, Governor Pontus has an idea for that.”

“Oh?” This should prove interesting.

“According to tradition, when a new emperor takes the throne, the provincial governors send gifts of tribute in honor of his coronation. Usually, things like gold, fine linen, or rare spices. But nobles have also been known to make contributions to the new emperor’s harem.”

Azurha shot up to her feet. After the hell her master had put her through, why would Cassius even consider her for this? “Absolutely not. I refuse to be a sex slave for the emperor.”

She was almost to the door when Cassius caught her and pressed a blade just under her ribs. “Sit down and hear us through, Rabbit.”

Funny how quickly he could turn on her when it came to business. Every muscle in her body tightened while she weighed her options—kill them or agree to the plan. From what little she’d heard, this plan sounded like madness. She should kill them now before they coerced her into participating in it.

You’ll never find a knot you can’t unravel.

“Yes, please let me finish. My contribution to his harem is only a ruse to allow you close access to Sergius. From there, you can decide how far you wish to allow the games to proceed, so long as he ends up dead.”

“And then?”

“You will have earned the gratitude of the next emperor.”

The air rushed out of her lungs. Just as she had suspected—this was far more than just an assassination. This was a political coup that would place Pontus on the throne as a surviving member of the Imperial Family. “You already know I bear no love for the empire. Why should I trade one tyrant for another?”

His laughter sounded too musical to be sane. “Because if you don’t kill him, one of the other ruling families will hire someone else to do it. Sergius spent far too much of his youth studying philosophy instead of warcraft. His ideas for what he wishes to accomplish during his reign are interesting at best. Most of us consider them far too radical and fear the empire will crumble if he imposes them.”

“And how is this a bad thing? If the empire falls, my people will be free once again.”

“No, amidst the chaos caused by his plans, the lowest among us will be the first to suffer. That includes the slaves. Sergius is weak. From what I’ve seen, his magic is not even strong enough to maintain the barrier against the Barbarians.”

Azurha let his words sink in. The emperor’s primary duty was to maintain the magical shield that encased the empire and kept outsiders like the Barbarians from attacking. If Sergius was really as weak as Pontus suggested, perhaps it would be a blessing for everyone if she killed him.

Cassius released her arm and stepped back. “Listen to what he proposes, and you will see Pontus has the stability of the empire at heart.”

“If you can help me, Azurha, I will make sure you are properly rewarded. You’ll want for nothing the rest of your life.”

The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Her mind screamed at her to walk away. “And how long would my life be once I’ve served your purpose?”

“I give you my word that if you succeed, you’ll live to see your grandchildren playing around your ankles.”

The prospect of living a life of leisure overcame her hesitations. This could be her last job, the one that made her rich enough to buy a life of obscurity. “You’ll bear witness to this, Cassius?”

“On my life and honor.”

She snickered. “There’s no honor in you, but I know you jealously guard your life.”

“Then are you agreed to it?” Pontus leaned forward, greed dancing in his cool blue eyes.

She settled back into her chair. “Almost, Governor Gurges. Explain your plan to me.”

“As I mentioned before, I offer you as a gift to the harem. As one of his concubines, you will have greater access to the palace in Emona than most members of the Imperial Family. When Sergius summons you to his chambers, you do what you do best.”

She exhaled slowly. She wouldn’t have to become the emperor’s whore. It was all a cover. “And you think the emperor will find me suitable to summon to his bed?”

“My dear, I’d summon you to my bed if I didn’t know how deadly you were.” Pontus stared at her as if he was picturing her naked. His cold smile made her skin crawl. “Of course, you’ll need appropriate attire for an Imperial concubine, which I will supply, as well as some instruction on how to please the emperor.”

“Which you will supply, too, I assume?” She ground her teeth together.

“In theory only, naturally, unless you would like hands-on instruction.”

“I’d prefer not.” She turned to her mentor and searched his face. “Why did you choose me? Surely you know other female assassins.”

“Because you’re the one person that could carry it out, Rabbit.”

Could she pretend to be the emperor’s whore? Flashbacks of the pain and humiliation she suffered at the hand of her former master filled her mind, of her bleeding wrists bound above her head while he and his friends look their liberties with her. She belonged to no man now and never would.

Anger warmed her blood, and she swallowed the lump of doubt caught in her throat. She could easily kill the next man that tried to take advantage of her. Let them offer her to the emperor. His blood would stain his sheets before the sun rose.

“When do I leave for Emona?”

 

3

Titus Sergius Flavus had grown tired of their prattle over an hour ago, and yet they still pestered him like flies around a horse. Apparently, the Legion’s duty to act as his personal bodyguards did not extend to protecting him from his advisors.

“Your Imperial Majesty, you haven’t decided what to do with the soldiers on the northern frontier,” one of them nagged. “The barriers have weakened since your father’s death, and the Barbarians’ airships are gathering at the borders. If the barriers fall, how will they defend us?”

He leaned against the door to the small chamber off to the side of the throne room, then took a deep breath. In the two weeks since his father had died and left him emperor, he hadn’t gotten a moment’s peace. Not even a few hours to himself to grieve. Someone needed to run the empire that covered most of the planet, to sit in the throne that had been a symbol of power for the last three centuries. “Fine, send them two loads of ore so their smiths can create the extra weapons they are requesting.”

“Ore?”

“Yes, ore. They have smiths travelling with them, and the barbarians don’t have the means to use the ore against us if they capture it.”

The older man’s confusion melted as he understood the emperor’s reasoning. “Excellent idea, Your Imperial Majesty.”

Titus closed his eyes and counted to ten. He needed to appoint new advisors, men who would help him carry out his plans for the empire without question rather than requiring him to explain everything like four-year children. “If that settles all the matters you deem important, I wish to remain undisturbed for the rest of the day.”

He slammed the door shut behind him before they could reply.

Laughter sounded behind him, and his body tensed when he realized he wasn’t alone. Who had managed to sneak past the Legion?

“They’ll hound you until you go mad if you let them, coz.”

His jaw tightened as he turned around. “How nice to see you again, Pontus. Please be brief with your pleasantries.”

“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty.” Pontus bowed low in an almost mocking manner.

“We’re not in the main throne room. There’s no need for this pomp and ceremony, especially among family. I take it you’ve already paid your respects to my mother?”

“Yes, my poor cousin was quite beside herself in grief.”

As I might be, if given the opportunity. His father had been the picture of perfect health until the last new moon. A mysterious illness had consumed him and left him a hollow shell of a man within a matter of days. Titus had spent hours at his father’s side, channeling his magic into his father’s body in hopes it would heal him. But there were some things magic could not heal, and not even the combined efforts of the strongest healers had been able to restore him in the end. Death took him before they could prepare for it, leaving a stunned empire in its wake. “I appreciate your concern.”

“I will not burden you with political matters at this time, Sergius. I come bearing gifts from the Provence of Anicium in honor of your coronation.”

“You can leave them with my steward, Varro, with my thanks.” He kept walking straight for the door to his private quarters until a flicker of blue caught his eye.

A woman clothed in sheer indigo silk stood in the shadows. The way the material clung to her curves left little to the imagination, but his gaze didn’t linger there. A thin veil concealed most of her face, allowing only her teal eyes to shine through. Was it possible for someone to have eyes that color?

“I thought I would personally present this gift to you.”

“What do you mean?” Surely she wasn’t a gift for him. He licked his lips, and his cock stiffened. He hadn’t touched a woman since Lucia died, yet somehow, the mere sight of this woman managed to awaken desires that had lain dormant for the last two years. The change alarmed him enough to where he took a step back.

“I thought she would be a nice addition to your harem.”

“I don’t have a harem.”

Pontus laughed. “Every emperor has had one, even your father.”

She flinched when Pontus ran his finger along her arm, and her eyes widened. Titus could almost imagine her grimacing behind the veil. Anger burned through his veins that she’d been forced into a situation she obviously abhorred. “Maybe I should be the one to change things.”

“Nonsense, coz. Just remove her veil, and I believe you will enjoy your Imperial privileges.”

“I don’t want anything you’ve sampled.” The thought of Pontus offering his used goods disgusted him almost as much as trading a woman like a cow.

“No, I haven’t touched her, although I’ve been tempted. I concealed her beauty under the veil, as is the custom for all the emperor’s concubines, so that no one will lay eyes on her but you.”

Too bad the fabric barely covered her naked body. Her dark nipples formed tight buds underneath the silk, and he longed to run his thumbs over them. He shook his head and stared at floor. He should not have those kinds of thoughts about a woman. Not when there were so many other things at stake. “That was very kind of you, but if you don’t mind, I’m very busy at the moment, and I’d appreciate it if you would schedule an appointment to discuss the status of things in Anicium later.”

“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.” Pontus bowed again, and the door thudded closed as he left.

It wasn’t until Titus heard the shuffle of footsteps behind him that he realized Pontus had left the woman.

Azurha waited in the shadows when Pontus left. If she wanted to complete her mission, she had the perfect opportunity to do so. She had already bypassed the Legion, gaining access to his personal quarters. The emperor’s back faced her. It would be so simple to wrap the silk veil around his throat and end his life with a quick snap. And yet, her feet remained fixed to the floor, her body frozen like the marble statues of the gods that adorned the city’s temples.

So why was she hesitating?

She remembered the snarl on his face when Pontus had presented her, as if it was an insult to give him a woman to fulfill his sexual pleasures. When he’d said he should be the one to abolish the Imperial tradition of having a harem, her pulse had raced. Maybe for all the Deizians’ concerns, the emperor’s studies in philosophy would make him a better ruler. A man of true nobility.

She almost laughed at herself for thinking such things. What did a cold-blooded killer like her know about nobility? She would willingly sully her hands with anyone’s blood for the right price. But as she studied him, she wondered if he would live up to his ideals. By the gods, she shouldn’t admire him like that, especially since she’d been hired to kill him.

He was more handsome than she had imagined he would be, with his golden hair and tanned skin. If the gods could produce a mortal child, this was what he would look like. Only his slightly crooked nose gave away his humanity. A flaw in an otherwise perfect face. She licked her lips and crept towards him, wanting to study him closer before she drained the life from his body.

The scuffing of her silk slippers alerted him, and he whirled around. His blue eyes locked with hers. The softness of his gaze made her wish the circumstances were different.

She lowered her gaze and saw the bulge of his erection forming under his toga. Her skin crawled. Despite all his noble words, he couldn’t hide his desire from her. He was a man, no different from her master and his friends.

The silence, normally her friend when she worked, now rattled her nerves. She dropped into a curtsey. “Your Imperial Majesty.”

He approached her like she was an exotic creature, and he wasn’t sure if she would bite him. Perhaps Pontus underestimated him. He seemed to have the common sense to see that some gifts could really be traps.

His fingers lifted her chin. “Forgive me, but I didn’t catch your name.”

“Azurha.”

“Azurha.”

Her knees wobbled from the way he said her name, setting her on edge even more. A lover’s caress couldn’t have been as tender. Most men spat her Alpirion name out as if it disgusted them.

“I apologize if Governor Pontus forced you to join my harem.”

“I thought you didn’t have a harem?”

“I don’t.” He increased the pressure under her chin until she rose from her curtsey. “So I’m at a loss as to what to do with you.”

The conflicting feelings that seized control of her both surprised and terrified her. She dug her nails into her palm, using the pain to pull her thoughts back to the present situation. In the past, she’d endured some sloppy kisses in order to distract her targets, but she always ended their lives before things went beyond that. This would not be the exception.

She just needed to play the part long enough to get him alone. “You could remove my veil.”

“I could.” His fingers continued to cup her chin instead.

“I cannot remove it without your permission.”

His thumb traced the curve of her lips through the sheer material. “Maybe you should leave it on, or I’ll be tempted to…” His voice trailed off as his body leaned against hers. The scent of sandalwood rose from his warm skin.

“Yes?” The word slipped out of her mouth before she could stop it. She silently cursed herself for letting lust muddle her brain.

His brow puckered as if he was thinking the same thing, and he released her chin, taking a step away from her. “I’ll have Varro show you to a room until I figure out what to do with you.”

All the blood rushed out of her head, leaving her dizzy. “As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”

He winced when she used his title. He seemed to dislike hearing it as much as she hated saying it.

He rang a bell, and an Elymanian servant appeared from one of the corridors off the main room. The unspoiled white linen of his tunic marked his high rank in the household, but the leathery texture of his tanned skin spoke of years of hard service before he obtained his current position. “Please show Azurha to appropriate quarters.”

Varro coolly surveyed her attire, his brown eyes missing little, and bowed. “I will take her to the harem, Your Imperial Majesty.”

She followed Varro with a smile on her face. Pontus had given her two weeks to complete her task, but she doubted she’d need that long.