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J.R. McGinnity


The Emperor’s Daughter


Copyright © 2013 by J.R. McGinnity and Green Dale Publishing

jrmcginnity.com

Published by Green Dale Publishing

Printed in the United States of America

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be

reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express

written permission of the author or publisher except for the use of brief

quotations in a book review.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and events are a

product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to any person,

living or dead, is coincidental.

Table of contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter SeventeenChapter One


Lakshmi brushed her long black hair until it shone under the light of the lamp hanging in her room. She studied her reflection in the mirror she had been given the year before. It was one of the finest in the palace, with no bubbles to mar the surface. The mirror was exquisite for its size, and reflected her even complexion back at her.
As a palace concubine, the gifts she was given were as much a mark of her value to the emperor as the time she spent with him. And she spent more time with him than most.

Satisfied with her hair, she went to her wardrobe and selected the day’s clothes. Lakshmi selected dusky red pantaloons and a billowy, nearly see-through blouse of the same color over startling black. A black net with gold settings went over her hair, and a thin veil hid lips painted the same color as her clothes. Set as it was just above her nose, it revealed rich brown eyes accented with bold black lines from the kohl she had smudged there.

She was going to leave the palace, and it wouldn’t do to go unprepared. Lakshmi had learned at a young age that it was important to always present herself as she wanted to be perceived. Growing up in court had taught her how to do that, and it was second nature now, nearly instinctual.

Lakshmi gave herself one last look-over in the treasured mirror before leaving her room. There were guards stationed just a door down from hers—they waited outside of the emperor’s door—and she gave them a nod and a coy smile that they just might see under her diaphanous veil, but surely could see reflected in her liquid brown eyes.

The guards stood straighter, puffing out their chests, and Lakshmi almost laughed. They were young and new to guarding the emperor’s private quarters. Dealing with the concubines so closely was still a novel concept.

She dismissed the guards as unimportant as she made her way down the corridor, hardly noticing the ornate runner that covered the marble floor. The emperor made sure that his palace lacked for nothing, as his father and grandfather had before him. Its splendor was without contest in all the kingdoms.

Lakshmi had vague memories of living in a small house in a rural part of the empire with her mother and several others. It had had none of the grandeur of the palace, yet she remembered being happy there. But her mother had not been happy. Her mother had missed court life, had missed being waited on, and had opted to come out of hiding and return to her life here in hopes that she could regain her position and once again enjoy the riches she had known as a young woman.

Lakshmi wondered if her mother would have made a different choice had she known how it would ultimately turn out. Somehow, she didn’t think so.

It had been some time since Lakshmi had thought of her mother, but now was not the time for such reflection. She was going to the market to select new fabric for a special gown the emperor wanted her to have. Needlework was one of Lakshmi’s skills, and she insisted on selecting fabric herself rather than have maids select it for her.

Those at the palace supposed she preferred to choose her own cloth because she refused to work with anything  she considered inferior, but in reality she was looking for an excuse to escape the palace, even if it meant entering the hot, dusty world of the surrounding city.

“Are you ready, Lakshmi?” a large guard at the side door asked. He was a good foot taller than Lakshmi, and almost as wide as the door he guarded. Lakshmi knew the scimitars he wore at his waist had gotten good use in the years before he began working in the palace, and had not been idly sheathed since.

“Yes.” Lakshmi liked Creb, but she gave him no more than a quick glance. It wouldn’t do for the emperor’s favored concubine to pay attention to mere guards.

“The market?” Creb was often assigned to accompany the concubines, especially Lakshmi, when they chose to leave the palace, and she knew it was something he found slightly amusing after years as a soldier in the Army of the Sun.

“Silk Street,” Lakshmi confirmed. She wished she could wander the market alone and unnoticed. There were areas that were not meant for the pampered and wealthy, and Lakshmi wanted to visit them. But they were not places for a palace concubine, and Creb would never allow her to stray.

On this day, Silk Street was filled with the typical crowds of people. Lakshmi saw one of the palace seamstresses who often worked on clothing for the other concubines looking over various bolts of cloth. Lakshmi came up beside her and began examining the array of silks. Some she lingered over; others she dismissed quickly. The proprietor of the shop saw her, and as he knew her and was eager to keep her custom, he bowed and offered to bring her more selections, touting the value of his goods in a melodious voice and assuring her someone would help her shortly.

Lakshmi waited off to the side, knowing she would be taken care of soon enough. Though she loved her time away from the palace, it always made her anxious. But she hid her anxiety, never breaking her calm demeanor or demonstrating any desire to rush. Since it would seem strange to ask for such opportunities to leave the palace and then cut them short, Lakshmi made every pretense of being slightly bored. Her face behind the diaphanous veil was smooth; her bottom lip slightly protruding as she looked around the room.

Soon enough the proprietor’s wife came out of the back room and spotted Lakshmi. “Goodness, Lady Lakshmi, I didn’t know you were here!” the woman exclaimed, hurrying up to Lakshmi and curtsying so that her bottom nearly touched the ground. “How can I be of assistance? I hope you didn’t have to wait long. Is there anything I can get for you?”

“I’m fine,” Lakshmi said with a smile for the good woman. “Perhaps we can go into the back room and look at some silk?”

The woman nodded and escorted Lakshmi to the back. There was a large selection of silk, the bolts as fine as any out on the floor, and many of them better. “Here you are, Lady. Are you sure I can’t bring you anything?”

The woman looked hurt by the thought that she could not be of more assistance, and Lakshmi consented to ask for some chilled melo juice if the woman had any.

While the woman went to fetch the juice, Lakshmi toured the room. Silks of all colors were displayed here, in private, for the most discerning customers. She ran her fingers over various bolts, feeling the weight and texture of each. Finally she came to a bolt resplendent in purples and reds and oranges all mixed together to create a sunset of colors. The silk was light, almost translucent, and Lakshmi immediately thought of a design for a gown. 

By the time the woman had come back with Lakshmi’s drink, Lakshmi had made her decision.

She sipped quietly as the woman measured, cut, and wrapped the silk, chatting all the while about the quality and how fetching it would look with Lakshmi’s glossy hair and golden skin. “You’ll be striking,” the woman promised. “Such a spectacular choice.”

“Thank you.” Lakshmi carried the fabric to the front room and handed it to Creb. The woman told her husband the details of the purchase, and Creb and the proprietor handled the monetary transaction. 

Business done, Creb escorted Lakshmi back to the palace in silence, sensing her pensive mood. Lakshmi usually had a few words for the guards despite the distance she must maintain as one of the emperor’s concubines, but today she could not summon the energy to talk to Creb. 

Instead she enjoyed the heat, the smell of humanity that so many of those in the palace turned their noses up at and tried to block with their perfumes and smelling salts. The sun was glaringly bright, so different from the filtered light that came in through the gauzy drapes in the palace. 

Lakshmi remembered living outside the palace, in the heat and the smell and the bright sunlight. She wouldn’t say that she would trade her life now for that one. She had been a child then, and her memories were a child’s memories, but she wished there were more opportunities for her to slip away from the palace and experience the streets of the city as a normal woman would.

Just once she would like to go out unguarded, unfettered by convention and responsibility. But that was not to be. Her path had been decided years ago.


Chapter Two


Lakshmi awoke suddenly, instantly aware that it was still the middle of the night. She lay silently on the soft, down-filled mattress, trying to ascertain what had woken her. The door between her chamber and the emperor's was still closed, and the bolt on the door that led to the corridor was in place.

Yet something was amiss.

She waited another moment; then heard a sound that had her sitting up straight in her bed. The sound had come from the roof, and she knew it was not one of the cats that worked to keep the palace free of mice. Whatever had made such a noise was much larger in size, and much less stealthy.

Lakshmi reached over and pulled her white dressing robe off of a nearby hook. She slipped it on, making sure to tie the belt tightly so that the silk robe wouldn’t slip open. If there was trouble on the roof, she didn’t have the time to get fully dressed. 

After grabbing the knife off her bedside table, Lakshmi headed out to the balcony. She kept to the shadows, glad that the waxing moon was still only a thin crescent in the sky. Her white robe was too revealing as it was.

She heard the noise again, louder now that she was outside. A glance up showed the silhouettes of three men creeping along the roofline. They were passing over her bedroom now and were heading in the direction of the emperor’s balcony.

No one would be foolish enough to try to rob the palace, and Lakshmi knew with grim certainty that the men she was looking at were assassins, not thieves. Assassination attempts were too common of late, something that made Lakshmi’s position all the more important. She tucked the knife into the belt of her robe and stood on tiptoe to reach the edge of the roof. With supreme effort she pulled herself up, struggling to be quiet as she clambered onto the roof. 

Her feet, bare of even her satin slippers, were silent against the tiles as she crept towards the men. They sensed her before she was upon them, and the one in the rear lunged at her. Lakshmi dodged, kicking out instinctively, and the man fell over the edge of the roof. He missed the balconies and landed on the street four stories below.

Lakshmi would report him to the guards so that he could be removed before any of the peasants saw him. At the least he would have to be stripped of any identifying markers. It was important that people not know just how contentious the emperor’s grip could be, or how many people of influence and means wished to see him dead.

But reporting the intruders could wait. The other two men had all of Lakshmi’s attention for the moment, and they were more wary after their friend’s demise. 

She pulled her knife out of her belt and headed toward them. 

Her steps were calm and steady, her movements precise. The knife was only for insurance: her hands and feet were all she needed.

When the men were subdued, one unconscious and the other temporarily incapable of moving after a well-placed chop to the neck, she cut apart one of their shirts to tie them up. Perched on a roof as they were, they would be stupid to try and wriggle free of the bonds.

Lakshmi inspected them one last time before slipping down onto her balcony and into her room. She hurriedly changed into a simple dress and donned a veil before heading into the corridor. There were guards outside of the emperor’s door, but none she knew and trusted with the information she had, so she ignored them and continued walking. 

She made her way down to the guards’ quarters by way of back staircases, and when she came to the door of the captain’s room she knocked.

“What?” a sleep-roughened male voice demanded from within.

“It’s Lakshmi,” she said just loud enough that the man could hear. She couldn’t risk anyone else finding her down in the guard’s quarters. As bad as any of the men learning the truth would be, seeing one of the emperor’s concubines sneaking into a soldier’s room would be worse.

The door opened and the man ushered her inside. He had donned a pair of britches and a course shirt that he had failed to button all the way. Course black stubble studded his face, and a sleep line creased one cheek.

Despite his disheveled appearance, his dark brown eyes were alert.

“What’s wrong?”

“Three men tried to sneak into the emperor’s rooms,” Lakshmi reported. “One of them fell off of the roof. The other two are trussed up on the roof in the space between my balcony and the emperor’s.”

The captain nodded. “I will see to them,” he said.

“Very well.”

Lakshmi stood aside as the captain checked that the hallway was clear; then she slipped out of the room and back upstairs to her chambers. Once again she evaded the notice of the emperor’s guards.

Securely back in her room, Lakshmi bolted the door that led to the corridor, then crossed to the door that connected her room to the emperor’s. She eased it open slowly, carefully, so as to make not to make a sound. It led into his inner sitting chamber, and she crossed the marble floor that was covered in lush carpets even more ornate than the ones in her own room.

Lakshmi opened the door to his bedchamber with great care. The drapes were drawn in this room, but Lakshmi could just make out two figures in the emperor’s bed.

His wife or one of his other concubines, Lakshmi thought, and was reassured that the emperor was, for tonight, safe. She crept back out, shutting each door quietly behind her, and returned to her own bed.

It had been awhile since anyone had gotten as close to the emperor as those three men had tonight. Lakshmi was grateful she was a light sleeper, and the emperor saw fit to grant her the room adjacent to his own, despite the talk keeping a concubine so close sometimes garnered.

But Lakshmi was more than a pampered concubine. The emperor had decided some years earlier that he would rather be conspicuous than dead, and as his bodyguard, Lakshmi worked to keep it that way.

Attending the emperor in court was something Lakshmi had come to view as a form of entertainment, if not a form she would readily choose. Although she was not called to do it every day, it was a frequent enough occurrence that she had learned quite a bit about courtly functions and the law. Over the years it had revealed some interesting information about the emperor as well.

Today, two supplicants had been granted an audience with the emperor. From her position on the pillow beside and behind the emperor’s throne, she watched them approach, noting any movements that might be suspicious or threatening.

But there was nothing threatening about these two; they looked more broken than anything.

The man walked in front, his clothes fraying and shabby, the colors fading. His wife was behind him, her veil in place, her own clothes nearly as poor as her husband’s. Lakshmi felt pity stir in her breast for the woman. Clothes, the luxury of them that being a palace concubine afforded her, were something she cherished as she cherished fine wine. The woman’s clothing was thicker, courser, and—Lakshmi was sure—hotter than the silks Lakshmi herself wore.

“Glorious Emperor, I have a request,” the man said after making a deep bow. His voice wavered, and he avoided looking at the emperor. His eyes landed briefly on Lakshmi before skittering away, as though even those outside the palace knew better than to gaze too long upon the emperor’s women.

The emperor gestured with one bejeweled hand. “Go ahead.”

“Your Imperial Majesty, times are hard,” the man said. “I work as a laborer to support my family, but food and clothing is costly.”

Lakshmi couldn’t see the emperor’s face, but the curt nod of his head was not a good sign. The peasant was not fawning, and though his plight was sorry, it was not uncommon.

“I came here today in the hopes that I could receive some aid from the palace,” the man said, staring down at the hands gripped together at his waist. Lakshmi imagined that it was hard for a man to admit that he could not take care of his family. It would be a severe blow to the pride.

“You believe that you are deserving of such aid? More deserving than others that face the same difficulties?”

The man shook his head. “No, Your Imperial Majesty. I do not believe that I am more deserving than others. I come before you humbly, asking only for what is necessary to support my family. We have five children.”

Lakshmi sensed that the emperor was about to deny the request, and she made a soft sound, little more than the sigh, that could not be heard beyond the emperor’s throne.

The emperor heard it, though, and motioned her forward.

She brought with her his goblet of heady wine and offered it to him. Her fingers slid against his when he accepted the goblet, and she offered him a smile, small and secretive, reserved just for him. “Emperor, I believe that you should consider this man’s request,” she said softly. It probably appeared to those watching that they were sharing the soft words that often passed between the emperor and his favored concubines.

No one would guess that a mere woman would take interest in court matters, especially not a woman such as Lakshmi, a woman kept for the value she had in bed.

“Why?” he asked. “Times are hard for everyone. These peasants are no different than all of the others.”

Lakshmi bowed her head. “Yes, but these people came to you requesting help. They are a way for you to show your beneficent nature. Tales of your generosity will doubtless spread beyond the palace walls.”

The emperor’s brows furrowed in a frown that he would not let touch his lips. “And then everyone will try to get handouts from the palace.”

“Not all supplicants are allowed to see you,” Lakshmi pointed out. “The guards and clerks keep most of them away without the people ever knowing the reason why.”

“Very well.” The emperor nodded. “I will give them some money.”

A sound of objection escaped Lakshmi’s throat, drawing a hard look from the emperor. Since it was too late to simply agree, Lakshmi risked his anger and explained. “I believe it would be better were we to provide them with some food from the kitchens, and perhaps some of the cloth bought for the servants’ livery. It will save their pride, and ensure they do not spend their money on the wrong things.”

Although they looked the trustworthy sort, Lakshmi knew well the capacity for lying that most people had. For all she knew this couple had no children. Peasants rarely had the gumption to lie to the emperor in such a way, but it was not unheard of. This way, it should be apparent whether they were getting food and cloth to feed and clothe five children rather than hoping for money to be spent on gaming and drinking

“Fine,” the emperor said crossly, motioning her back to her cushion with an impatient flick of his wrist.

Lakshmi retreated and sat down with the graceful motions of long practice. The emperor came across as kind and giving as he granted the request for aid. He could be avuncular in manner when he so wished, something that never ceased to amaze Lakshmi, who had seen him in his black rages and knew he would not have given charity to these people without her prompting.

A servant came in to show the couple to the kitchen stores, and the emperor rounded on Lakshmi.

“How dare you interfere with my decisions!” he growled, loud enough that even if the guards could not pick up the exact words, they would understand the tone.

Lakshmi ducked her head meekly. “I apologize, Your Imperial Majesty. I should not have interfered. It was not my place.”

“You may be a bodyguard, and not the concubine everyone supposes you to be,” the emperor said more quietly, “but don’t you forget that you are only a woman. Court matters are not for the likes of you.”

“I will remember,” Lakshmi said, looking up at him from beneath her thick fringe of black lashes. “Pity welled up in me when I saw them. I could not help myself.”

The emperor snorted and settled back into his throne. “More wine,” he said, his temper apparently abated. Lakshmi brought it to him, following it with a piece of bread and two slices of the rich goat cheese the emperor favored.

Sated, the emperor ordered the guards to show in the next party wanting his attention, and Lakshmi forced herself to sit quietly and watch what happened. The emperor sometimes allowed her to play a role in his rulings, but other times he would grow angry. Lakshmi had been struck more than once for stepping outside the bounds the emperor perceived as being hers. 

The excuse of being overcome with pity had worked for today and allowed her to escape the back of his hand. The emperor easily believed that women were weak and ruled by emotions rather than logic and brains, but Lakshmi doubted she could get by with no more than angry words twice in one day. She may not be a concubine in truth, but that did not mean she was granted more leeway than the women who shared the emperor’s bed. 

Often, it seemed that she was given less.

Her mind drifted over the rest of the court proceedings. Many of them were boring, bringing news from bankers or some of the distant kingdoms that made up the empire. She studied everyone who came in, but no one made any moves that could be construed as threatening, and she let them go about their way.

Sometimes, the emperor would say or decide something she disagreed with, but she made no attempt to dissuade him. She was there only to provide him with food and drink, and perhaps a brief distraction between petitioners. Nothing else.

The afternoon stretched on, and when Lakshmi was finally released it was with relief that she returned to her rooms. She changed out of the green gown she had donned that morning and into a simple yellow outfit of comfortably worn pantaloons and a loose wrap. 

She didn’t bother with her veil, as she would be staying in the women’s quarters for the rest of the evening. Having dinner in her room was not something she often did, but tonight it was something she desired. She rang for a servant, and a smiling girl of about sixteen appeared, ready to serve. Lakshmi knew she must be new to the palace, and judged her not pretty enough for the emperor to lure to bed.

It was for the best. The emperor had more than enough concubines to entertain him as it was.

“I would like some supper brought to me in my rooms,” Lakshmi told the girl.

“What would you like?” the girl asked.

Lakshmi couldn’t place the accent, but the slightly more prominent bridge of the nose suggested somewhere to the north. Lakshmi knew that the courts in the northern kingdoms were not the same as the ones in the south, and wondered if the girl really understood Lakshmi’s position—or assumed position—as the emperor’s concubine.

“Tell the cook the meal is for Lakshmi,” she said. “She knows what I prefer.”

“Right away,” the girl said, exiting Lakshmi’s room with that same bright smile on her face.

Lakshmi could only shake her head. Such enthusiasm in another could be grating after a long day filled with tedious affairs.

The night ahead would be a welcome change. The emperor had no plans tonight, and Lakshmi intended to stay in her chambers reading. It was one of her loves, and something she too rarely allowed herself to indulge in.


~~~


A commotion outside her room broke into Lakshmi's reading. It sounded like two women arguing, and likely presented no threat to the emperor, but pretending not to hear the fight was not an option that sat comfortably with her.

With some irritation Lakshmi marked her place in the book with a blue ribbon and set it aside, climbed out of her comfortable chair and, after donning a veil in case there was a man out there she hadn’t heard, headed into the corridor to see what the problem was.

When she drew back the heavy bolt and swung open the wooden door, she found that the argument between the two women in the wide corridor had progressed from verbal abuse to physical fighting. Since neither was trained in the martial arts, their fighting was consisting at the moment of hair-pulling and ineffectual punches and slaps. It would have been funny, but Lakshmi knew that eventually one of them would get mad enough to cause some real damage. A woman did not need to be trained to leave deep scratches on another’s face or claw at her eyes.

“That’s enough!” Lakshmi shouted. The women didn’t so much as glance up.

The younger of the two had a hank of the older woman’s graying black hair, and she gave it a vicious twist, causing the other woman to screech and swipe out with her long fingernails. Red blood blossomed on the other’s neck.

Lakshmi looked around and saw one of those damn guards leaning back on the emperor’s door, making no move to help with the situation. “Is he in there?” she asked.

The guard shook his head. 

“Then come help me.” Lakshmi wasn’t about to wade into the fight alone. Short of revealing her fighting skills, there was nothing she could do to end the fight herself. She was slighter in stature than either of the women, and could not stop the fight using the same tactics they were using.

The guard seemed a bit affronted to be ordered about by a concubine, but he conceded. He grabbed the younger of the women and Lakshmi grabbed the older one around the waist to keep her from following the other and continuing the fight.

She felt the bunch and flex of the woman’s muscles as she tried to escape. The clothing she wore was made of roughly spun fabric that probably itched horribly, and it made Lakshmi conscious of the silk caressing her own skin.

Separated from her opponent, the older woman turned on Lakshmi. “Let go of me, you whore!” she spat.

Lakshmi released her, taking a step back. She didn’t recognize the woman, though she wore the livery of a servant. The woman was in her middle years, with wrinkles lining her face and deep grooves that formed brackets around her mouth. The marks of bitterness told Lakshmi that life had not been kind to her, and had made her unkind in turn. 

“This is not the place to have an argument,” Lakshmi said. “Had the emperor been in his rooms, he would have been displeased at the disturbance.”

The woman made a rude sound. Lakshmi thought the woman might have spat again were it not her job to clean the marble floors and the plush rugs that covered them. “Don’t tell me about proper behavior,” the servant said. “You’re a whore for the emperor, getting fine clothes for the time you spend on your back.”

Lakshmi slapped her across the face hard enough to cause the woman’s head to whip around.

It had been instinctual, not carefully planned as she sometimes felt her every move was, and she tensed. But all she saw in the woman’s eyes was venom, and there was no suspicion in the faces of the guard or the younger woman.

“I am going to tell you to leave,” Lakshmi said, struggling for calm. It was not the first time she had heard such comments, but rarely had they been delivered with such hate. “If you go quietly, I will not report this incident.”

“Bitch,” the woman rasped. “Just wait until your beauty fades and the emperor finds a younger woman to replace you in his bed. See how long you remain his favorite then. You will be no better than me, cleaning up after women who think they are better than you because a man dresses them in silks.” Her grin was mean, revealing a gap where a tooth was missing. “Worse than me, because you earn your living on your back and have no skill beyond spreading your legs.”

Lakshmi was shaken, but she hid it well. “I want you out of my sight,” she said coolly. “Get out of this corridor, or I will see that you are out of this palace by morning.”

It was clear the servant was unsure just how much power Lakshmi might possess, and with one last venomous look she left. The other woman had left some time before, but the guard was still there, watching.

“I will return to my room, if you do not need me,” she said, looking away from the guard in an attempt at modesty. Although there was a hierarchy amongst the concubines, and as the “favorite” it would be unsurprising that she would have a temper, she had always tried to seem mild around others.

The more people knew about her true nature, the more they might speculate about her actual role in the palace.

“Would you like me to report the incident to the emperor?” the guard asked. Lakshmi did not know what to make of the compassion she saw in his eyes. It was not the look she had learned to expect from men.

“No. Do not concern him with so small a matter. We are mere women.” She turned and went back into her room, but her book no longer held any appeal.

She elected to go to bed, and tried her best to forget the incident in the corridor and the servant’s stinging words. After slipping under the thin cotton covers, Lakshmi stared up at the black ceiling. It was a long time before her mind quieted enough to allow her sleep.


Chapter Three


Lakshmi sat cross-legged on the floor, working on the hem of her new gown. The sunset silk was gorgeous, and the way it fell over the mannequin, draping softly over the curves, was part of the reason Lakshmi was working so hard to complete it. Lakshmi was sure that once the gown was finished it would be an outfit to outshine all others.  

Lakshmi minutely adjusted one of the pins, and was just standing up to get a different view of the gown when there was a knock on the door. “What is it?” she asked irritably. This was the first time she had been free in the last two days, and she planned to spend it sewing. 

“I’ve a letter from the cook,” a woman’s voice called out. 

Lakshmi opened the door and thought she recognized the older woman. She was a scullery maid who had been employed at the palace after the death of her husband and eldest son. Now she was apparently a messenger as well.

“The cook?” Lakshmi asked with all appearance of being bored, though her pulse had sped up at the news. 

The cook was one of the few in the palace that knew Lakshmi was not a true concubine. If something was wrong with the emperor, the cook would be in a position to inform Lakshmi of it covertly. Gossip moved quickly in the kitchens, and no one watched the cook’s correspondence, especially not in a crisis. 

“Yes. I don’t know what it is.”

Lakshmi held out her hand and the rolled and sealed message was handed over. Lakshmi wanted to send the woman away, but she broke the seal and read it in front of  her, as though she might wish to send a reply.

The messenger might have been sent by the cook, but it was the captain of the guard who had written the letter. His handwriting was as firm and no-nonsense as the man himself. 

Lakshmi.

News has just come to light that a prince, Prince Roland, is due to arrive at the palace in the next few days. 

This is the first I or the other guards have heard of it. What say you?

I know nothing of this prince, but the emperor must be under closer guard than ever.

Captain Garth.

“One moment while I prepare a message of my own,” Lakshmi said, keeping her tone light and easy as she crossed to her writing desk. She pulled out a fine quill and a bottle of ink. Her answer, written at the bottom of the original message, was succinct. It stated that she knew nothing about the impending arrival of any royalty but would investigate the matter immediately. Then she rolled the message back up, sealed it with wax, and gave it back to the maid. 

“Deliver this to the cook straight away,” Lakshmi said.

“Of course.” If the woman thought anything strange was going on, she knew better than to ask. Perhaps, Lakshmi thought, a hard life and the death of loved ones burned the curiosity out of you.

Something else was burning inside Lakshmi, however. Anger that the emperor had not informed her of this Prince Roland’s arrival ate at her gut. She was his personal bodyguard, charged with defending him to the last. If he failed to inform her of a possible threat, how could she protect him?

There had been an increasing number of assassination attempts on the emperor’s life in recent years, and although Lakshmi and the guards had been unable to gather any proof, everyone was sure that the assassins had been sent by rulers of the empire’s various kingdoms in hopes that with the emperor’s death, one of them would become the successor.

For all she and the captain knew, Prince Roland could have been staging these assassination attempts. He could be coming to the palace to see his plan through personally!

Lakshmi walked into her bedroom and grabbed a veil, not bothering to check how it matched with her clothes. She affixed it to her head scarf and left her rooms in search of the emperor. It was an effort not to run, and she could not quite manage the lazy, swaying walk she usually employed, but she had more important things to worry about than looking the part of an alluring concubine.

When she finally found the emperor in one of his gaming rooms, her temper could no longer be contained.

“Why didn’t you tell me a prince was coming here?” she demanded angrily, remembering at the last moment to keep her voice low enough that it would not be heard by the guards standing in the hall.

The emperor lifted his head and pierced her with his hawk-like glare. His black eyes grew even darker with anger, and his hooked nose made him resemble a bird of prey. “Who do you think you are, to come in and speak to me that way?”

“Your Impe—“

“Silence! You come in here and speak to me, your emperor, as if it is you in control. That is unacceptable.”

“I apologize,” Lakshmi said, lowering her eyes. She wished she could go back and start again. It had been a long time since she had let her temper get in the way of her duty.

“You think that because you are not a true concubine you have power. You are nothing more than I allow you to be, Lakshmi. If you are not careful, even the power you have now will be eliminated. You will be forced out of the palace and onto the street.” He smiled, the expression somehow making his face look crueler. “Or you could become a true concubine,” he said. “I would allow you in my bed.”

Lakshmi barely suppressed a shudder. It was not just the look in his eyes, but the thought. She had knowledge he knew nothing of, and it made the thought of lying with the emperor repulsive. 

“I apologize most sincerely,” Lakshmi said again. “I will not speak out of turn. I am only concerned about your safety, and my concern overruled my common sense. Please, allow me to make amends.”

The emperor seemed to consider her words for a moment, and though he didn’t look wholly appeased, he must have decided to let it rest for the time being. “I realize that you take you position as a bodyguard seriously,” he told Lakshmi. “Had I known of the prince’s imminent arrival before this morning, I would have informed you sooner.”

Lakshmi thought about pointing out the fact that the emperor had not informed her at all, and that it was Captain Garth who had done so, but she knew now. The manner in which she had come to know was no longer relevant. “I didn’t realize that the news was so recent,” Lakshmi said.

Temper sparked once more in the emperor’s eyes, but this time it was not directed at Lakshmi. “Prince Roland did not see fit to inform me that he was coming,” the emperor spat. “He did not send a messenger ahead of his party until two days ago, and the messenger has only just arrived.”

Lakshmi kept quiet while her mind raced. Protocol demanded that all nobles who planned to visit the palace send a rider weeks in advance. Due to the size of the empire, it was not reasonable that the nobles wait for a response before beginning their journeys, but it was considered courteous to inform the palace of the expected guest in time for arrangements to be made.

For a prince not to have done so was troubling. Lakshmi wondered what he was planning.

“I am unfamiliar with this Prince Roland,” Lakshmi said. “Is he not from one of the southern kingdoms?”

In Lakshmi’s time at the palace serving as the emperor’s bodyguard, she had seen many of the nobles of the neighboring kingdoms in court. Those she hadn’t seen, she had at least heard about. Prince Roland, however, was unknown to her.

“No. He is from Ugarth, far to the north.” The emperor rested his hands over his protruding stomach. “Roland is the youngest son of King Henry Gray.”

Lakshmi shook her head. “I do not recall hearing of the Grays,” she said. She walked around behind the emperor and put her hands on his back, kneading his shoulders gently.

“They rule a small kingdom,” the emperor said, waving his hand in a dismissive fashion. “Henry Gray is a good king, or was in my father’s time. He was king already when I was a boy, with a son of his own.”

Lakshmi nodded, though the emperor could not see her, and moved her hands to work on the knots just beneath his shoulder blades.

“Henry had six sons, I believe, though two are dead.” She thought she detected some envy in his voice and concentrated more fully on the massage. The emperor sighed softly as her gentle ministrations relieved the tension in his neck. The training that had taught her the pressure points that could paralyze a person had also taught her how to cause relaxation. Lakshmi used that knowledge now, in hopes that the emperor would reveal more of what he knew if he was relaxed and not brooding about his own lack of sons.

“Why would the youngest son be coming here?” Lakshmi asked.

The emperor shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps he wishes to season himself at my court. Or perhaps he hopes I will arrange a marriage for him. One of his older brothers recently married a princess from Ogden. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes,” Lakshmi lied. She knew Ogden to be another northern kingdom, although she did not know if it bordered Ugarth or not. “Was the match advantageous?” she asked.

“Of course. I arranged it.” Lakshmi could hear the satisfaction in the emperor’s voice. “Ugarth and Ogden have sometimes been at odds with each other. This marriage will help to prevent the infighting.”

“Will this prince now become king of Ogden?” Lakshmi asked. 

“No. The princess has an older brother, and her father is still alive. I married her to the second son, and he stands to gain a land and a title in Ogden once his father-in-law dies and the brother takes the throne. He would not have risen so high had he stayed in Ugarth.”

“You are a wise ruler,” Lakshmi told him, giving him the praise he craved. “You’ve made your subjects happy, and solved a problem between two kingdoms without bloodshed.”

“Yes, I have. Now we must see what Roland Gray wants. Perhaps I will marry him to someone from the southern kingdoms,” he mused. “No one too powerful, mind, but I wouldn’t mind keeping a closer watch on some of those northerners.”

“Of course,” Lakshmi agreed. She continued her massage for a few more minutes, then broke contact.

“I regret I must see to some arrangements before the prince’s arrival,” she told the emperor. 

“Yes. I will want you in court with me until the prince arrives. Meet me there tomorrow morning.”

“Of course.” Lakshmi bowed and left, making a mental list of all the precautions that needed to be taken before the prince’s arrival.


Chapter Four


After a late breakfast, Lakshmi decided to spend some time in the gardens. Outside the palace, such necessities as water were at a premium, but for the emperor’s pleasure a verdant garden was kept inside the palace walls. Walking in the garden was one of Lakshmi’s favorite activities.

Unlike the hot, dusty streets of the city, the garden was filled with luscious vegetation. The smells here were not those of the sweating, desperate people that could be found in the streets, but the sweet scent of nectar and the smell of real soil, not the sand that so often covered the ground in this part of the empire.

Lakshmi strolled down the winding stone paths, stopping to smell a flower with a pink, trumpet-like blossom that came up to her waist.

“Ah,” she sighed, enjoying the fragrance. She wished that this smell could be bottled into a perfume. It smelled sweeter than even the finest perfume available to the emperor and his women. 

“Lakshmi.”

Lakshmi started and turned around to find one of the guards standing there.

“Is something wrong?” she asked. The man did not look happy, and her immediate thought was that there had been an attempt on the emperor’s life. An attempt that she had not been there to stop.

If he had been killed while she spent time walking among the flowers…

“The emperor has requested that you go attend to his wife.”

Lakshmi blinked. “What?”

“Emperor Samarth has requested that you attend to his wife,” the guard repeated stiffly.

Lakshmi could understand his manner now. It was insulting to send a guard to deliver messages to a mere concubine, even if she was a favorite of the emperor’s. “Is she in her quarters?” Lakshmi asked.

“Yes.”

“Very well. You can assure the emperor that I am seeing to his wife, if he asks.”

The guard said nothing, just turned and walked off. 


~~~


Lakshmi arrived at the door to Esma’s quarters and knocked. A soft voice called for her to enter, and Lakshmi let herself in. The emperor’s wife sat on a settee near the balcony. Close enough to enjoy the fresh air but out of the harsh southern sun.  

“The emperor sent me,” Lakshmi said.

“Yes.” Esma motioned toward a table with a large paper fan on it. “The heat is stifling today.”

Lakshmi was surprised, but she didn’t show it as she picked up the fan and began wafting air over Esma. The fan riffled the woman’s hair slightly, and she turned her face toward it and sighed.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Lakshmi asked after several moments of silence in which she fanned Esma. It was not the first time she had been asked to serve Esma, but that was usually in the presence of the emperor. 

“No,” Esma said, “this is all I require of you.”

Lakshmi nodded and continued fanning. She studied Esma surreptitiously. The woman was not that much older than Lakshmi herself. Her black hair had an almost blue sheen to it, and her face was marred only by the thinnest of lines fanning out from her eyes. 

It was a face made for smiles and laughter, despite the cool looks she sent Lakshmi’s way.

“You were in court with my husband the other day,” Esma said suddenly, surprising Lakshmi so that she forgot to fan for a moment.

“Yes.” Lakshmi remembered herself and resumed the calm motions, though her heart was beating somewhat erratically. She did not fear what Esma might do, but she had been caught off guard by the question.

Esma rarely questioned any of the concubines about their activities. Though the concubines might fight amongst themselves, the emperor’s wife was above that. Even if Esma should fall out of favor, she would never be cast aside as a concubine might.

“Do you find it strange, that he should request your presence and not mine?” Esma asked.

Lakshmi knew that one of the reasons she had been there was because she was a bodyguard, but other concubines were known to attend the emperor in court as well. “You are His Imperial Majesty’s wife,” Lakshmi said. “You need not spend hours a day providing the emperor with food and drink, and listening to the boring details of court.”

Esma shook her pretty head. “Do you think it bothers me, that he requests your presence and not mine?”

Lakshmi bit the inside of her plush lower lip. “I do not know, Lady Esma.”

“Do you know what I was doing while you were plying my husband with wine and listening to the problems of those outside the palace?”

“No.”

“I was in the gardens with my daughter.” 

Lakshmi closed her eyes quickly. Ajuni was a beautiful girl, and she felt a tug of envy that Esma had been able to spend uninterrupted hours with Ajuni while Lakshmi herself was with the emperor. She knew it was irrational—Esma was Ajuni’s mother—but Lakshmi could not help being jealous of the time they spent together. 

Lakshmi only wished that she could spend that much time with Ajuni.

The secret that Lakshmi kept burned in her gut, and she wanted suddenly to purge it, to beg that she be allowed time with the girl.

But it was not to be.

“Mama!” a bright voice called out as the door swung open.

“Ajuni.” The smile was apparent in Esma’s voice, and her eyes crinkled in the smile that had caused those premature lines. “Come here.”

Ajuni hurried over and sat close to her mother on the settee, leaning into the woman’s side. “Hello, Lakshmi,” the girl said.

Lakshmi could see Esma’s faint disapproval at her daughter’s familiarity with one of the concubines, but Lakshmi couldn’t help but smile back. “Hello, Ajuni. How are you today?”

“Good!” she said brightly. “Guess what?” This question was directed at her mother.

“What, my darling?” Esma asked, any disapproval melting away as she faced her bright, energetic child.

“Papa said I can start wearing a veil.”

Esma’s smile—what little Lakshmi could see of it under the veil—froze. Lakshmi might not have noticed had she not tensed herself at the news.

Wearing a veil was not bad. Lakshmi knew that some women did not like them, but the filmy material the palace could afford made them no more than a mild annoyance at worst, and Lakshmi herself had grown to like the frivolity. But Ajuni was too young to wear a veil. Veils were for women of marriageable age, not for young girls who were innocent and did not need to protect their modesty.

“Did he?” Esma asked with forced levity.

“Yes. Aren’t you happy, Mama? It means I’m grown up.”

“Of course I’m happy,” Esma said, giving her daughter a squeeze. Her eyes flicked up to Lakshmi’s, and there was worry in them.

“When can I get a veil?” 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Esma said. Her voice was over bright, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

Ajuni pouted. “But I want one.”

“You’ll get one,” Lakshmi assured her, her heart speaking before her head. Esma shot her an angry look, and Lakshmi hurried to correct herself. “I’m sure your mother just wants to make sure that the first veil you wear is special.” 

“Really?” Ajuni asked, looking pleased by the thought. She turned to her mother. “Can I go out shopping with you?”

Esma rarely left the palace herself anymore, but she could not deny her child anything.  Lakshmi sensed the dread growing inside Esma, for it was growing in her as well, but the emperor’s wife nodded and pulled her daughter into her arms. “Of course you can,” Esma said, kissing her daughter’s hair. “I’ll arrange it soon.”

“Okay.” Ajuni wriggled free. “I have to get back to my lessons. I just had to tell you the news.”

“Thank you,” Esma said, holding her smile in place until her daughter had left and shut the door behind her.

“Leave me,” Esma told Lakshmi, turning her head away.

“I’m sorry for speaking out of turn,” Lakshmi said, reaching an arm out to Esma.. She wanted to offer the woman some comfort, but there was more than their stations between them now. Lakshmi could not express her own fears without confiding her secret, and that she had sworn never to do.

Esma glanced at Lakshmi briefly. “It doesn’t matter. Go.”

Lakshmi nodded, gave a quick curtsy, and left. Her heart was heavy, but she knew not to press.

~~~


Lakshmi sat on her usual cushion behind the emperor’s chair. She was dressed in her blue silk pantaloons with a green blouse. Her veil was blue, as was the netting covering her hair. It had been two days since word had come that Prince Roland would be arriving, and the emperor wanted her to look her best.  

It was well known that the finery accorded to wives and concubines was a mark of a man’s wealth, and the emperor would allow none to give a better show than he.

Esma was in attendance as well. The chair she sat in was smaller than the emperor’s, but still on the dais beside him. It was rarely brought out, for the emperor’s wife rarely chose to sit beside her husband.

The stage was carefully set, and when the horns were blown announcing Prince Roland’s arrival, Lakshmi could imagine the emperor’s smile. “Show him in,” the emperor announced.

Minutes later the large doors to the court were opened and a tall figure appeared, silhouetted by the brighter light from the entrance hall.

When the doors closed behind him, Lakshmi took her first good look at Prince Roland.

She didn’t know if she was more surprised by his coloring or his age. She had heard that people from the north were lighter, but she had never actually seen someone with blond hair before. She wondered if, closer up, she would see that he had light eyes as well.

And he was much younger than she had expected. With his father being even older than the emperor, she had expected a man in his middle years. Prince Roland probably was no more than a handful of years older than Lakshmi herself. Certainly no older than Esma, who had been very young when she wed the emperor.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Prince Roland said, bowing low before the emperor. “I am honored to be welcomed into your palace.”

The emperor bowed his head. “Prince Roland, I welcome you. It is good to have someone visit from the northern kingdoms after so much time.”

Lakshmi could all but taste the displeasure coming from the emperor, but if Prince Roland was aware of it he gave no sign. His eyes traveled briefly to Esma, then to Lakshmi. 

Lakshmi felt as if the tail end of a whip had just lashed her. His eyes did not stay on her any longer than was decent, but it felt as if he had been staring at her for hours. She could not remember ever feeling so exposed.

She realized conversation was going on around her, but she was no longer aware of what was being discussed. Finally Prince Roland was being led away by one of the servants, and Lakshmi felt herself relax.

“He’s insolent,” the emperor said, staring at the spot where Prince Roland had been standing not long ago. The frown lines between his eyebrows were fierce.

“He seemed polite,” Esma said gently, placing a cautious hand on her husband’s arm.

He allowed it, though his face did not relax.

“It was pretense. He should have sent notice that he was coming weeks ago. Months. And he has something planned.”

Lakshmi tensed. What had she missed in her distraction? Had there been some subtext she had not picked up on?

“He is young,” Esma said. “Perhaps he is merely impetuous, and desires to stand out from his brothers by coming so suddenly to meet you.”

Lakshmi was surprised to hear Esma talk like this. The emperor’s wife so rarely showed interest in court that Lakshmi had not realized how knowledgeable she was about the subject.

“I do not like him,” the emperor growled.

Esma’s lips thinned just slightly before she schooled her face. “You know best,” she said lightly.

“I don’t want you alone with him,” the emperor ordered his wife. There was a sudden edge of anger in his tone.

Esma looked offended. “Of course not,” she said. “It would be inappropriate for me to be alone with him.”

The emperor gave a grunt of agreement, then stood. “Esma, you may go now,” he said. “Lakshmi, I would like to speak with you.”

What Esma thought of that she did not say. The woman meekly left her husband and his concubine, heading toward the exit that would take her to the women’s quarters. Lakshmi stayed where she was.

“You will keep a close eye on Roland,” the emperor told Lakshmi once his wife was out of hearing.

“As you wish,” Lakshmi said, though she had already planned to do just that.

“You will report to me tonight, after dinner.”

Lakshmi nodded, wondering what she would have to report in such a short time. It wouldn’t do to go out of her way to see Prince Roland again. Even if he did not realize it after today’s display, he would soon know that she was the emperor’s favored concubine. The only reason she would have for hanging around the prince would be if she was foolhardy enough to be disloyal, or if she was spying.

Regardless, Lakshmi decided she would keep an eye out. It was always best to be prepared.


~~~


The stress of Prince Roland's visit was wearing on Lakshmi. She had heard gossip from the women on staff about his looks and his easy smile, but nothing she or anyone else had seen seemed suspicious. Still, she was on edge.

A brief visit to the garden was more than she could afford, but without it Lakshmi felt she would go insane. She just wanted a couple of minutes by the fountain, listening to the water tinkle down in the stream that had so fascinated her when she had first come to the palace. Running water had been such a rarity in the desert where she had spent her early years with her mother that a decorative fountain that had no purpose but to be looked at had been a source of wonder.

Now, though she was no longer struck with childlike wonder at the sight, Lakshmi found it to be one of the only relaxing areas in the palace.

Lakshmi didn’t hear the crying until she was almost to the fountain. For just a moment she thought about turning back. She did not have time to deal with a hysterical woman, and her own stress was too high to handle anyone else’s. But there was a chance that whatever was wrong was more far-reaching than one woman’s troubles, and Lakshmi couldn’t leave without finding out.

She turned the final corner, and there she found Esma sitting beside the fountain, her head in her hands, weeping.

“Esma?” Lakshmi asked hesitantly.

“Oh.” Esma looked up, trying to wipe away the tears that were still falling. “Lakshmi.” Her face twisted angrily. “Leave me.”

“I—”

“You may warm my husband’s bed more than the others, but you have no authority here. Leave.”

Lakshmi knew she should, knew that disobeying Esma could make her life very difficult, but she couldn’t leave without knowing what was wrong. She waited.

“He’s going to marry Ajuni to King Guy Talan.” Esma’s voice was little more than a whisper, but it registered in Lakshmi like a shout.

“What?”

Esma looked up, and her eyes were bleak. “I knew, when she told me he wanted her to start wearing a veil, that this was coming. I didn’t want to believe it.”


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