The bastard was dead.
A thin red line cut him from one ear to the other. Crimson ribbons trickled from the injury. The blood had long since congealed. His eyes were faded and cloudy. Mouth open on a scream silenced before it was ever heard.
Ashlin Nadja Kelswan held the grip of her tiger sword in her hand, but had not taken it from the scabbard. Not in her current company.
Celedon guards swept the area for any DNA signature that would give them a starting place to track the murderer. So far, the only thing they'd found were the imprints of anyone who had been in and out of the cell over the course of years.
The truth: all within the royal house had reason enough to kill the fucker. The list of suspects was as vast as it was illustrious. It only surprised Nadja it had taken someone so long to do the deed.
Murder was often a crime of opportunity. Plenty of residents of the Celedon palace had the time and the resources. The trick was to narrow down the search to the few hundred individuals who had the most pressing reasons.
Given the bastard's crimes against the royal house, it was shocking the tsia hadn't executed the man. He'd brought treason and death to the very walls of the palace and tried to tempt the Celedons to break the ceasefire with the Paladins.
The peace remained intact but tentative at best.
Judging from the extent of the security features in the prison, the murder had been perpetrated by someone with inside knowledge of the systems. There were three different types of scans that swept the cells and corridors every few minutes. The information collected went as far down as the cellular stage on those walking the prison corridors. It was one level of security that might help or hinder her continued employment at the Celedon palace.
One of the guards, the security chief's second-in-command, Trean Bor, glanced up at Nadja with a worried expression.
She raised a brow. "What?"
"The meter lit up with your DNA signature."
Just what she didn't need--suspicion falling on her for the murder of Celedon's public enemy number one.
"As well it should have. I was in here interrogating the prisoner shortly after his incarceration. I'd wonder at your equipment if it didn't show a hit for my signature."
That explanation, however, didn't account for the wound that had nearly severed the man's head from the neck. Not a hard thing to do with a tiger sword in a skilled hand.
"Ashlin Nadja had nothing to do with this." Prince Rohan crossed his arms over his chest in a defensive posture. "She wanted information not death."
The guard blanched at being spoken to so sternly by the heir apparent. Canton Zaire, the tsia's seneschal, had no such fear. "But the entire universe knows how thirsty the Ashlin are for revenge."
She turned cold eyes to Zaire. "Only against those who have wronged us."
"Sounds like an admission of guilt to me." Zaire started to go for his side arm.
Nadja had it out of his hand and on the ground before anyone saw her move. She kicked it away with the toe of her boot. "Sounds like an accusation to me."
She moved the few steps to the stunner, picked it up then stuck it into her belt. There was no way in all the hells she was giving Zaire a chance to use the stunner on her. She really didn't care how disrespectful it appeared. Her main function was as a liaison between Vanden and Celedon, not as a convenient suspect for murder.
Her second, more important mission had been given to her by the tsia himself: protect his son and heir.
She did not intend to let the tsia down.
Zaire held out his hand. "Give me my stunner."
"Not until I'm assured you won't hurt yourself or others with it."
There were snickers among those assembled at the crime scene.
"Cross me and you'll be very sorry." Zaire spun away from the group in a twirl of gold embroidered robes.
Nadja had no fear of the seneschal, though she did wonder at a grown man who acted like a petulant child. His nose had been out of joint since she'd begun her extended stay at the Celedon palace. She wondered if he had a problem with all women of strength and power or if he had a cantankerous personality by nature.
"Is there anything else I'm needed for here?" Nadja directed the question to the security chief, Ky Voran.
"No, Ashlin Nadja, you may go. I suspect you would like to contact your Regent and let him know of this development."
She bowed without another word, neither confirming nor denying the charge. The prince fell into step beside her. He had accompanied her to the palace prisons to inspect the horrifically bloody scene. The tsia had the two joined at the hip for most of the day. Even her suite connected to the prince's on the off-chance he needed protection during the night.
So far the only thing she heard coming from the prince's room was the sound of vigorous sex.
Her hand ground into her sword hilt.
The prince had no shame when it came to his sexual appetites. No wonder Jovita Rees had decided against him as a husband. Who wanted a man who brought a different woman to his bed every night and did the act in tones so loud the entire palace knew when he reached orgasm?
Prince Rohan turned to her as they made their way to the main corridors that connected the prisons to the palace proper. "Do you think whoever is responsible meant to cast suspicion on you?"
"I think it's a distinct possibility." She forced her eyes forward, not allowing herself the pleasure of looking at him.
Even if he screwed every woman he came in contact with like a Jurulean man-whore, Prince Rohan was still the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen. There was just something about him that made her warrior's heart turn to jelly and her thighs ignite.
"Why would they do that?" Genuine confusion filled his voice. "It's not as if you hold any power with the ranks of the Celedon worlds."
"With me out of the way, you are unprotected. That's enough to make the murder worth the risk."
"I can protect myself."
"Not as well as an Ashlin can." It wasn't conceit, but fact.
He stopped walking. Nadja kept going. It was better if she stayed away from him. Walking side by side she had the scent of him in her nose.
The secretly seductive masculine aroma had a way of making her blood heat. If she had to smell his skin much longer she'd be in danger of grabbing him by the ears and licking his entire face. Such behavior was unbecoming of an Ashlin, so she kept her distance and her counsel.
"Nadja, wait." She heard the soft tap of his shoes on the marble flooring as he hurried to catch her. "If they want to take me out all they have to do is kill you first."
Nadja stopped and glared at Prince Rohan in umbrage. "Have you ever tried to kill an Ashlin?"
"Then don't assume it's easily done."
"I would never presume so much." His Celedon eyes changed color to a vivid blue.
That was another thing that annoyed her about the prince: his eyes never stayed the same color for longer than two blinks before they shifted. It was disconcerting to say the least. Most Celedons had a bit more control over the autonomic reflex of iris change than Prince Rohan, but then maybe he didn't care what the colors revealed to those who cared to observe him closely.
Nadja narrowed her own eyes and started away again. "Come, we must get you to your quarters before someone decides to slit your throat."
"But then they'd have to go through you, eh?"
"I said someone."
She let the implication hang on the air while they moved through the corridors.
"You don't like me very much, do you, Ashlin Nadja?"
"Liking or disliking has never once entered into my duties. When I am given an assignment, I fulfill it to the letter regardless of personal beliefs or feelings on the matter. It is the way of the Ashlin." They came to the prince's room. She entered first and checked the quarters. Satisfied it was clear she allowed him to enter.
Instead of heading to the bar or bedroom, he came nearer, invading her space so they stood almost nose to nose. "I will break you, Ashlin Nadja."
"Is that a challenge?"
"What if it is?"
She made a sound at the back of her throat to indicate her skepticism. "Then you hold your life very cheap."
That ever-changing gaze fell to her mouth. Her lips went dry at the intent she read in his eyes. The man had no morals and even less honor when it came to women. She'd be damned before she fell under his spell like the palace whores or courtiers.
"You won't hurt me, Ashlin Nadja. It's against your word and your order to do so."
"Only until this assignment is over, then all obligations are satisfied."
His sensuous mouth curled at the corner. "Satisfied. That's a very intriguing word."
"Only to someone who thinks with his member."
"Member?" He laughed. "Can't you bring yourself to call it by a more erotic name?" He moved closer if that were possible. As it was, even the sharp edge of her tiger sword wouldn't fit between their bodies. "Say cock, Ashlin Nadja."
It took every bit of her training not to react with either flaming embarrassment or blinding anger. The man had no decorum, no couth. It was a wonder any woman ever came to his bed.
By the Warrior's Creed it was only a word. There was no shame in saying it if she treated it with the same weight she would chair or book or sword.
His gaze went molten. "I love the way your Vanden accent caresses the vowel."
"You place too much emphasis on unimportant matters, like an adolescent who has only recently taken his first lover to bed." She tipped her head. "I wonder. Does your father ever despair of you taking over his empire when he passes?"
The question struck a nerve. Anger lit his eyes to an odd sun-drenched orange.
"Get out and don't return until I send for you."
Nadja hid her satisfied smile as she exited the room. Her heart beat hard against her breastbone. Her stomach roiled. She needed a session of deep meditation and reflection to cleanse her mind.
The exchange with the prince had not illustrated her finest moment, but his arrogance irritated her to her very core.
She entered the adjoining room and moved to her mediation mat in the center of the floor. If the Regent himself hadn't approved the request for her to stay on Celedon, Nadja would have been on the first transport home.
Folding her legs under her bottom, she sat in the middle of the mat, resting her hands on her knees. The movement was met with the wet slide of her pussy against her clothing.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. Her body didn't seem to mind how Prince Rohan acted and had readied to receive his offer of satisfaction. The physical self hadn't learned the lessons of the mind. It had only responded to the pull of desire.
Nadja had known lovers. The Ashlin believed deeply in the physical senses, but in regards to respect and honor. Lovers were taken with the understanding that the act fulfilled not just a physical need, but an emotional and spiritual one as well. There were no taboos among the sexes. It was a person's spirit and heart as much as the vessel that contained it that was brought into a relationship.
She doubted the prince even understood so pure a connection.
He seemed only interested in the act as recreation.
Thinking of the handsome Celedon heir and sex only made the problem of her aroused state worse.
Her nipples were hard points behind her uniform shirt. Every movement made the fabric slide across the peaks in a sensual caress.
She blew out a long slow breath to center the body and mind. Concentration fixed on a point across the room, a religious relic brought from the temple that symbolized the eternal balance of mind, body and spirit. The three points on the star also stood for honor, respect and dignity.
Words of the soft chant fell from her lips in whispered tones. Stress and cares of the day washed away as the soothing prayers brought the parts of self into perfect alignment.
Yes, this is what she needed. To reconnect with her soul. To fill her heart with all the traits she found desirable. To build on her own character through constant improvement and reflection.
Relaxation began in the form of heat, spiraling out in electric current beginning in the ookoora or grounding letha. Her toes tingled and feet felt lighter. The movement traveled up along the nerve fibers to connect with the banwoa letha--the core of sexual desire.
A small moan escaped from between her lips. That particular letha always hit her the hardest. Her masters claimed it was due to her powerful need to express her feelings through combat or sexual congress. Both activities released the same amounts of endorphins into the system.
The exercise only increased her need to reach orgasm. She took a deep breath and concentrated harder on the mantra. Ancient words fell from her lips in a fevered prayer. The cascade moved upward to the letha that controlled physical appetite and digestion. It was said that a body and soul in proper alignment was the most efficient tool in using nutrients for energy conversion.
In practice she had moved on to the pelgra--digestive letha, her mind had centered on that of the banwoa.
Meditation failed to slow the pulse of desire that thrummed in her clit. Perhaps moving into a self-gratification ritual might take the edge off her restlessness and clear her mind so she might progress through the upper stages of the letha.
She slid her hand under the waist of her uniform pants and lifted her hips then circled her finger around her clit in a slow dance. Slick, soft skin was delicious to the touch. The scent of female arousal rose on the air like the sweetest of incense. With heart pounding and breath ragged, she moved lower, opening her nether lips. An image of Rohan's handsome face came unbidden to her mind.
By the ancestors! Why did she fight so hard to deny the desire she felt for the handsome prince? If they ever got together stars and planets would collide.
She flicked her finger over her clit a few times, sending small shockwaves of sensation through her pussy. Fulfillment hovered just out of her reach.
Noises from next door distracted, invading her ritual time.
First loud music bled through the wall then the sound of a woman's laughter drifted over.
He didn't even have enough civility to allow her to practice her rites in peace.
The voices went silent.
Nadja strained to hear.
The woman began to moan. Slow at first then rose to a crescendo. His words were harsh and guttural. Nadja thought for sure he spoke to her as if she were some type of trash he'd picked up off the street, but the words were too muffled to hear properly.
Nadja closed her eyes and tried to go back into a deep level of concentration. The stroke of her fingers increased to the tempo of the music bleeding through the wall.
The realization stopped her cold.
The Ashlin were trained to block outside stimuli while mediating. It was a practice drilled into them during the first years at temple. Why then was it so hard to get her mind focused? Engrained behavior learned by many hours studying under Master Shoshan deserted her.
She abandoned the luscious self-gratification ritual and made her way to her assortment of weaponry. Perhaps going through a choreographed battle pattern might help take the edge off.
A primal yell came through the wall. One that announced the pinnacle of male satisfaction and completion.
Prince Rohan knew nothing of taking his time to do the act properly. He was always in a rush. The woman a means to a carnal end. The more disturbing fact was he even wanted sex after the scene in the prison cells.
The last thing Nadja had thought after leaving the sight of a nearly severed head of a murderer was having hot, sweaty sex. In fact, she had only thought of sex when Prince Rohan stood closer than her own skin and made her say cock.
She hefted the salin dagger in her hand. The perfectly weighted blade and handle balanced on the end of her finger. With a flip of her wrist, she sent the blade skyward, catching it on the downward arc.
So the dance began.
She bent her left knee, concentrating her weight on the flat of her foot. The right she stretched out in front of her, sweeping it around as she rotated in a circle. The blade flashed and whirled as she threw it over her head and caught it in a series of moves designed to focus both balance and coordination.
It was also a means to an altered state of consciousness as blade and body became one.
That was if the noise from next door ceased.
Between the cacophony coming from Prince Rohan's room and her own scattered thoughts, meditation and relaxation was not going to happen no matter the format.
Another shout shuddered through the wall.
No. Definitely not the atmosphere to perform a ritual of any kind, especially ones with bladed weapons.
It was time to contact the Vanden Regent Loden and let him know of Bateo Gunner's death.
The link went through while the Regent was looking down at the desk in front of him.
"Nadja! Good to hear from you. What's new on the other side of the universe?"
Loden hadn't stopped smiling since the Celedon sibyls on the colony of Recestia pronounced his best friend and First Advisor, Mallic Telonis would live after a mortal wound inflicted by Bateo Gunner. Closely on the heels of that tragedy came the birth of the Regent's son.
"I have disturbing news. Bateo Gunnar was murdered in his cell. His throat slit by a very thin, delicate blade."
Nadja watched as the smile slowly slid from Loden's face.
"Is there a suspect?"
"Not as yet, but the seneschal openly accused me of the deed. The prince was quick to defend, but I have a feeling it will come back to me. The palace guards are going to look at every piece of evidence they can find." She folded her arms over one another. "My DNA is already in the cell from when I interrogated him after the attack on the First Advisor."
Loden rubbed his forehead. "All right. Have you gone to see him since the interrogation?"
Nadja felt air constrict in her throat. "Several times."
"And these visits were logged into the system and observed?"
"For the most part."
It was often rumored that the Ashlin could move through crowded corridors and never be seen by even one person. There was a reason for that. They had developed the ability to walk among the astral. Unfortunately certain forms of technology developed over the years had managed to analyze the signature left by the Ashlin moving through the ether. As long as the Celedons didn't have that particular piece of diagnostic equipment she was good.
"I don't like the way that sounds, Nadja."
"They have no other physical evidence that I was there besides the visit I have already openly admitted to and the prince confirmed. I will say I feel very uneasy about the accusations made by the seneschal. He has his own agenda separate from finding this third party Bateo Gunnar worked for."
"What makes you suspect that?"
"The fact he tried to get me out of the way by throwing the suspicion on me."
Nadja had a feeling the reason involved the prince, but she wasn't going to make speculations to the Regent. Not while still on Celedon soil. Performing the rest of her assignment was going to be difficult enough while navigating the ins and out of Celedon court life. The intrigues here made the Vanden court look like a group of stage players performing a light-hearted romp.
"Is there any chance you can run your own investigation?"
"Yes. I have made a few reliable connections in the palace. The weapons master will keep me informed. He's on the tsia's council so he has access to the innermost secrets." Though she doubted he'd share them with her. Not unless she traded him for something he valued. "I'll work on him and see what I can get."
Loden nodded once. "Keep me informed."
She promised to do just that and closed the connection.
Noises from the prince's room had started again. Round two, right on schedule.
She shook her head and made her way to the palace com system. The weapons master had invited her to test her skills in the ring at hand-to-hand combat. She'd yet to take him up on the offer.
He'd also asked her if she wanted to learn his own discipline of tors d'lyn, an ancient form of Celedon ritual choreographed combat. Now sounded like a real good time to begin her lessons. The practice would work well with the skills she already possessed.
Weapons Master Dartran Kabi was a typical Celedon in coloring and stature. He was at least fifteen common years Nadja's senior, which she found incredibly sexy for its confidence and self-assurance. There was also something different about Dartran: he had non-Celedon eyes. One of his parents was definitely not of Celedon birth.
Not that it mattered. She was going to pump him for information pertaining to the killing of Bateo Gunner not draw him a detailed map of his genealogical tree.
There was an ear-splitting shout from next door. One rife with of pain and fear. Not even a feigned orgasm would elicit such a reaction.
Nadja grabbed her tiger sword and hurried to Prince Rohan's suite, via the connecting door.
She used the sword hilt to knock on the door in a code she and the prince had developed over the months of her tenure. The last thing she wanted was to walk in on him to see his bare buttocks pumping as he worked one of the palace whores. If there was no answer, she knew it was danger and not sexual acrobats going on in his room. It was hells to try and protect a man who actually had to have a secret system to tell his bodyguard if he was getting killed or laid.
No answer came.
Nadja tapped the code once more, harder this time.
Still no answer.
She keyed in the override sequence to the lock pad.
Oh, hells no.
She slipped the small unlan dagger from her ankle holder and pulled off the faceplate, then cut the wires. The door slid open with a half-hearted hiss. The first thing that hit her was the stink of burnt flesh.
No flames reflected off the walls. The fire alarms had not been tripped. She took another sniff and followed the stench across the room.
The suite was still. The music continued to play to no one's enjoyment.
Hairs on the back of her neck stood as she made her way deeper into the private rooms toward the sleeping chamber. She concentrated her weight on the balls of her feet, making no sound against the marble floors with the soft-soled shoes.
Using the curtains and marble columns for cover, she skirted around the large circular bed. The whore straddled Prince Rohan. He wasn't moving. Neither was the whore.
From this position Nadja couldn't tell if the whore had the prince at knife point, or a stunner to his throat. One set to high and discharged against the carotid artery was instantly fatal.
Nadja eased around to the head of the bed.
On Prince Rohan's chest sat a large mechanized spider. Lasers both forward and behind were glowing red and ready. One false move in either direction and they would be cut to ribbons. Already she saw slash marks over the prince's abdomen and the whore's breasts.
Nadja had to be quick and precise.
Closing her eyes, she centered and called on the Ashlin elders to guide her hand.
Striking low she scooped the spider, sending it flying into the air and then cut across with the tiger sword, dissecting the insidious weapon into four equal parts.
Prince Rohan rolled out of the way, dislodging the whore.
Nadja pointed her sword at the woman. "Get dressed then go see someone about those burns. If the physicians ask you how they happened, they were an accidental injury from a client. Do not tell anyone what you've seen in this room. Should I hear you've spoken of this to anyone--and I will find out--no one will hear anything from you ever again. Are you clear on this?"
The whore nodded, her eyes wide and frightened. She hunted for her clothing on the floor.
Prince Rohan watched Nadja, but said nothing. No thanks for rescuing them or explanation for what had attacked them.
He hadn't covered himself either.
Nadja ignored his nudity and moved to the other side of the bed where the pieces of the spider had fallen. The lights were dim. The lasers no longer operational.
The tiger sword had made clean cuts through the metal thorax. She crouched down to pick up the pieces. They were ingenious in design. It was made to look like a real spider, but with tiny rivets instead of joints.
Nadja put one piece with part of the thorax in the center of her palm and turned it over. The tiny machine was amazing. And deadly.
Glancing up at the ceiling she didn't see any more of the mechanical creatures.
From her periphery she saw the prince moving around. Hopefully he was putting on some pants so she could interrogate him and not be forced to have to concentrate on keeping her attention off his cock.
"Where did it come from?" She broke the silence.
"Up there. Descended down right where you found it." He rubbed the burns across his tight abs. "Should I send for a physician?"
Nadja raised her brow. "No. I'll see to your wounds and you can tell me everything you observed."
"You'll deny me medical care?"
"No. I'm denying you the chance to start rumors circulating around the palace."
He narrowed his eyes. "Our physicians are discrete."
"Consider this a little extra insurance." She picked up the rest of the pieces and found a small glass dish to set them inside.
He pointed. His mouth flapped, then "That's a priceless artifact."
"I need something to transport this to the weapons master. If you don't want me to use this then make yourself useful and find me something else." She stood and waited for him to move. He didn't.
What she wanted was to climb up to the top of the bed and check out the anchor where the curtains were connected. If someone hid the spider up there, perhaps there were more.
There weren't any chairs in this part of the suite. She placed the dish on the bed and went to get the chair from the com station.
Prince Rohan followed behind her. The reek of cheap sex and even worse perfume wafted over to her. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like? I'm going to inspect the curtain anchor. If there are more of those things lying in wait I'd like to know." She brought the chair into the bedroom then stepped up on the seat.
She removed her dagger from the sheath and used the tip to wave back and forth in front of the anchor platform. Nothing.
Not satisfied with that experiment, Nadja waved her hand in front of the same space she had the dagger. A red beam shot out, hitting the far wall at ceiling height and burning a hole through the solid rock.
"Whoa!" Prince Rohan jumped back as if he hadn't expected the reaction.
"I thought as much." She stepped over onto the bed and unscrewed the anchor from the support. The click of metal feet moved over the surface above her hand. "Go into my suite and wait for me there."
"I will not leave you here to face those things."
A warm rush filled Nadja's belly. Low and taut. Right in the seat of the banwoa letha. "I can handle a few laser-loaded spiders."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I have weapons and tactical training. I'm not helpless."
She shushed him. One misstep and the spider might slide off the platform and shoot before she had a chance to deactivate it.
This needed to be done in a controlled manner. The last thing she wanted was to shoot her own eye out with the blasted thing.
What she wanted was to get it intact, but she didn't see a way to disarm it without the programming codes. The only other way was to pierce the heart of the servo. She held the anchor with one hand and carefully drew her sword with the other.
"Stand behind me."
"Ashlin Nadja." The address was made from between clamped teeth.
Nadja spared him a glance. "I won't tell you again."
"Good. I'm tired of hearing it."
Nadja moved close to the wall then tipped up the anchor, trapping the spider against the marble. With the sharp end of the tiger sword, she stabbed through the very center of the body. A small puff of smoke rose as the motor fried. The acrid scent burnt her nose.
She picked it up by the leg. "Nasty little things, but very ingenious."
"I'm more interested in who put them in my room."
Nadja looked over her shoulder at the prince. "Perhaps a jealous lover."
She said it to get a rise out of him. Most of the women he allowed into his bed were paid for their services, but that didn't mean they didn't want to claim the prize of being his only lover. Palace whores were a viable means to spy and plant devices. It was a technique used in numerous operations she was aware and not an angle to be dismissed.
Prince Rohan put his hands on his hips. "You know, Ashlin Nadja, no one said you couldn't enjoy a sexual relationship while here in Celedon. As a matter of fact, I command you to find someone to tip you up on a regular basis. Maybe that will improve your mood."
She dropped the spider in the dish with the first one. "Are you a child?"
"You saw me naked. That wasn't a child's body you were trying your damnedest not to look at."
Direct hit. Evade. Evade.
"I was speaking of your emotional age, not chronological." She turned and started for the connecting door. "Come. Let's get those burns seen to before I call Dartran Kabi to look at this."