The ambassador from Constantinople had brought his own entertainment and no one begrudged him showing them off. Two slave girls rose gracefully from their kneeling position at the clap of his hands. The other guests, in their suits and flamboyant gowns, spread to the edges of the gondolier.
Dankyo settled his back against the padded timber. The farthest slave with the short brunette hair reminded him of Kirsten. He sniffed and snagged a glass of champagne off the tray of a passing waiter. Sadness wasn’t him. Neither of them had suited the other. After a few weeks of Kirsten’s craziness he’d wanted to throw someone off a cliff and that simply wasn’t done.
From only two yards away, while sipping the tangy riesling, he watched the second slave undulate to the wavering music of the sitar. A black braid of hair hung to her waist -- swaying and whipping in circles to the music…even her full breasts moved. The gold mesh and fine silk of her costume revealed enough of her figure to make him sharpen his gaze. Someone else’s, a slave…but desirable. Her long neck begged a man to set his teeth there.
Ever since Claire had showed him the way, this new appreciation of women distracted him way too much. Dankyo swallowed more wine. Damn life for setting him these challenges. He could do without them.
Light boomed, sprinkled and blazed across the night sky.
The sitar faltered, small screams and shouts broke forth from the guests as they turned to see what happened far below. Something burned bright as day, and whistled skyward in rainbow colors.
Fireworks. Dankyo’s well-trained brain didn’t fail him. Early fireworks set off down amongst the ironclad battleships…a distraction. Why? The thoughts barely took seconds.
A tiny squeak made him look at the ambassador, who was staggering backward, hand at his chest. A small knife had sprouted there. Blood spread across his white shirt.
Assassination. No one near the man. The direction of the blade, the glimpse of the raven-haired slave’s eyes, told him where to run. He flung aside the glass and took off from his toes, felt his good leather shoes bend as he reached for the woman’s arm.
Their eyes met. With a fleeting yet wide smile and a miniscule shake of her head, she spun on her heel, and sprinted for the far edge of the gondolier.
Did she mock him? His fingers closed on air and he tore after her, barely two steps behind. Disbelieving, he saw her dive for the edge, flip into a somersault and vanish. His shoes skidded. He grabbed at a rope to stop himself.
Something dropped with a crack and creak from the belly of the gondolier airship -- a black thing, spinning. Then, in the flickering light of explosions and with moonlight painting splashes of silver, he saw wings snap out from the falling object -- it slipped sideways then soared into the night, smooth as an owl on a predatory errand.
“What in all the heavens,” he whispered. Admiration stung his voice. My god, the woman had stored a collapsible craft on the underside, and used it to escape.
Minutes later, he had the first slave kneeling head down before him. It seemed he was the only guest with any sense of organization. The ambassador was dead and they were descending to the ground, but there was time for interrogation.
“This one must be questioned,” he said to the ex-ambassador’s flustered assistant.
“Are you sure, sir?” The young blond fellow tilted his head. “I doubt Riane is involved. She has danced for the ambassador many times.”
“Ah.” Dankyo made sure to keep his expression stern as the slave girl peeked at him. Mostly bluff but she needn’t know. The answers would come faster. He rolled up his sleeves. “We must be sure of her innocence. We have time before we reach the ground. There’s a flogger and some ropes in my bag. Bring them to me.”
Though his eyebrows raised, the man scampered away.
Dankyo eyed the dark sky and wondered where the pretty killer was headed. “After I question you, Riane, there is another I must find. But first, remove your clothes.”
The widening of her eyes and the way her fingers bunched in the fine silk spoke of nervousness. She folded her arms across her waist and her breasts pushed forward -- her nipples peaking and showing through the small holes of the gold mesh.
“Here, sir!” The blond assistant slapped the flogger’s handle onto Dankyo’s palm. “And this.” He showed a coil of rope.
“Quickly, my dear. I’m sure you don’t want to irritate me.” Dankyo smiled down at the woman and swished the strands of the flogger on his thigh, feeling them wrap around and stick to the cloth of his trousers. And now to test his theory of interrogation that a woman would confess in the aftermath of extreme pleasure. “When you’re naked, you may choose whether to be tied in a standing position with your hands above your head, or kneeling over one of the divans.”
She squeaked and trembled like a cornered mouse. After a long, steadying breath she gathered the diaphanous silk then pulled it over her head. Like a wave in clear water, the material shimmied down her arms and puddled next to her feet. The cobweb-fine gold of her tunic glinted and clung to her body, revealing the tempting curves of her breasts and stomach.
“Good,” he murmured. “The rest also.”
Something told him, morning would not spell the end of this matter.