The next morning, Lakshmi got dressed with more care than usual. Pulling on the billowy silks of her blouse and pantaloons was usually like pulling on a costume. Lakshmi had been dressing to look the part of a concubine for years, but today was the first day that she was really conscious of what the saffron outfit would look like to a man.
Dressing took longer, and with each corner Lakshmi turned on the way to court she wondered if she would run into Roland. When she finally did see him, seated beside the emperor, her heart skipped a beat and her skin felt hot. It was ridiculous, and she was for once glad for the veil. Even if being with someone other than the emperor had been allowed, an experienced concubine would never react so obviously to a man.
Lakshmi had never been with a man, but that could not be known or even suspected. Were word to get out, the facade she had spent a lifetime building would crumble. And any protection she had received from being the emperor’s concubine would be gone. A female bodyguard would not be allowed, and she could not become a concubine in reality.
Not to a man who was her father.
Lakshmi had been so flighty all day that the emperor had told her to leave and calm down before she tried to attend him again. She had too much energy to sit in her room, and decided to spend some time walking in the gardens. Even if they did not calm her the way they normally did, there was more room to pace outside than there was in her rooms.
She was doing just that, pacing, when she stumbled upon Roland.
“Roland,” she said, her voice coming out as little more than a gasp. She hadn’t realized that she had been hoping to find him here until her heart gave a happy leap in her chest at the sight of him.
He looked up from the elaborate water feature where small, colorful fish swam in lazy circles and smiled at her. The smile started in his eyes, and spread slowly until his beautiful mouth curved in welcome. “Lakshmi. I was hoping I would see you again today.”
Lakshmi felt herself grow warm, and prayed it did not show. She had to find her composure, or he would surely suspect that there was something strange going on. A lifetime of subtle—and not so subtle—hinting at her sexuality should have made Lakshmi immune to Roland’s gentle words, but it didn’t. It seemed that she grew more sensitive to him every time their eyes met.
“I didn’t expect to see you in the gardens,” Lakshmi said, not commenting on her hopes.
“I wanted to look at some water that wasn’t for bathing,” Roland said, looking back at the fish swimming in the pool.
Lakshmi looked, too, and thought that the bright fish, all shades of yellow and orange and gold, had a good life. The water was clean, and safe from predators. She had never seen the pretty, almost delicate-looking fish in the wild, but she knew the real world was more dangerous than any fountain could be. “The fish are pretty,” she said.
Roland smiled. “There are streams where I am from where fish as long as your arm spawn. They aren’t all as pretty as this, but they are flashy in their own way. And good for eating.”
His voice sounded wistful.
“You sound like you miss it. You’ve been here longer than I thought you would be. Are you homesick?”
Roland looked at her with unreadable blue eyes. “Some things I miss,” Roland said. “Cool air, clear streams. Green grass. But there are compensations for staying.” His eyes were trained on her veil, as though he could see her mouth through it, and she licked her lips reflexively.
“I miss…wet,” he said, his eyes heating.
“Roland, I…” she didn’t know what to say.
“Come, sit with me,” Roland said, holding out his hand. “Let me hold you, taste you, by the water in this green island.”
Lakshmi couldn’t help herself: she went to him.
His hand was warm and strong, the calluses rough against her smooth palms. His mouth was hot and smooth when it met hers under the veil, as it had been the other day, and excitement raced through her, causing her heart to race and trip.
“I can feel your pulse jump,” he mumbled against her lips. She was conscious then of the hand that had been stroking along her neck and clavicle, caressing her until goosebumps raised along her arms. “Are you so eager for my kiss? My touch?”
“Yes,” Lakshmi said, too aroused to be embarrassed or cautious with her words. “Roland, kiss me.”
She gave herself over to him, until nothing seemed real but his lips, his hands, the warmth radiating from his body. It wasn’t until he quickly set her aside, jumped from the bench, and told her to fix her veil that she remembered that they were not alone. There were other people, and they were exposed in the garden.
Lakshmi got everything straightened out just in time for one of the gardeners to come around the corner. The man was old, and didn’t seem to find anything strange about the two of them standing around the garden. He waved at them casually and went by with his wheelbarrow, intent on doing whatever it was the gardeners did to maintain the lush gardens in such an inhospitable clime.
When the gardener was out of hearing, Roland swore softly. There was no mistaking the serious feeling behind the words, though. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. Not here.”
Lakshmi was shaken, both by the kiss and almost being caught. It had been foolish to lose herself like that in such an exposed area. “You heard him coming,” Lakshmi said, not sure if she was pleased or disappointed that he’d been aware enough to do so. To Lakshmi, nothing had existed except the kiss.
Roland smiled ruefully. “I was trying my best to think of something other than peeling off your clothes and sinking into you until there was nothing between us, not even air.”
Lakshmi’s face flushed, and the sensations in the pit of her stomach grew to an almost painful height.
“You look like you want it as badly as I do,” Roland said, his voice taut with lust.
Lakshmi didn’t know what to say. She wanted him so badly that her fingernails ached, but it could not be, and saying yes would be like issuing an invitation. She stayed silent.
“Go back to your rooms, Lakshmi, or my good intentions will dry up like spilled water on this hot stone.”
Lakshmi wanted to stay. She wanted to kiss Roland again, to feel his strength and his heat against her body, but she knew that if she stayed, she would receive more than a kiss. With a last long, aching look at Roland, she turned away and headed back to her quarters.
She would sew, and pour these new, unfamiliar feelings into something useful. Lakshmi had gone without things she wanted long enough to know that this time could be no different. As much as she might want Roland, he was something she could never have. Should never have.
Lakshmi turned in surprise when the door between her room and the emperor’s opened. The emperor rarely used that door, and even more rarely without knocking. Only when he was in a temper did he so imperiously demonstrate his superiority.
And he looked to be in a temper now.
Lakshmi nervously wet her lips, worried about what he might say. After the close call in the gardens, Lakshmi and Roland had been more discreet, but she was having a hard time staying away from him.
And he was making no effort to stay away from her.
“Can I get you something?” Lakshmi asked, ready to go into the other room for the assorted drinks the emperor liked, or to ring for a servant to bring him something else.
“I need you to accompany Prince Roland into the city,” the emperor asked.
Lakshmi was stunned. Of all the possible scenarios that had raced through her head, she had never imagined the emperor telling her to spend more time with the prince. “What?”
“Roland is planning a trip to the city. To the market, of all places.”
“And you want me to go with him?” Lakshmi asked.
“He’s too cunning to risk having him followed,” the emperor said regretfully. “I told him that you wanted to go to the market yourself. You get restless in the palace,” he told her. “Since I am busy, I asked him if you could accompany him.”
She nodded mutely, wondering that her head did not explode. “What did he say?” she finally asked.
“He said he would be happy to escort you to the market.”
“And why am I going with him?”
“Because I don’t trust him! He’s been here far too long already.”
“King Guy is still here,” Lakshmi said, then wished she had held her tongue. Guy was here because of Ajuni. When the king left, Ajuni would go with him. As far as Lakshmi was concerned, King Guy could take up permanent residence in the palace. She would put up with his lewd comments and his creeping eyes, as long as it meant Ajuni was safe where she belonged.
“King Guy was invited,” the emperor said. “We have business together. Roland is an interloper who has overstayed his welcome. If he is staying longer, it is because he is planning something.”
Lakshmi had been under the same impression until the other day in the garden. She still was, but before then she thought whatever he was planning was sinister, probably an act against the emperor himself. Now, Lakshmi thought what he was planning was her seduction. It could not be allowed, but as often as she reminded herself of that simple fact, she could not think his plan sinister. It was wonderful.
“I will watch him and see if he meets with anyone,” Lakshmi said, “but I don’t think he is planning anything.”
“Why not?” the emperor asked, eyeing his bodyguard shrewdly.
Lakshmi did not know how to answer. She could not tell the emperor of what was happening between her and the prince, for to do so would endanger both of them. She could also not tell him that Roland seemed to be a peaceful man who missed his home, because that would bring them back to the question of why he was staying. Instead, Lakshmi shrugged. “It’s just a feeling,” she said.
The emperor scoffed. “I do not want my bodyguard to have ‘feelings.’ Limit yourself to facts, because those can be of some use.”
“Of course.” Lakshmi struggled not to show her resentment. She had not always felt this way about the emperor, the man who was her father and did not know it. Only since Roland had she realized how valued a woman could feel, and how under-valued she was by the man she was sworn to protect.
“Roland will be waiting for you by the guard house. You can take a guard with, if you’d like.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “No. He might meet with someone in front of a woman that he wouldn’t in front of a guard.”
Her reasoning was half-logical. The other half said that if they were alone, without the presence of a guard, there might be more chances to kiss. Or even to talk. They did not get nearly enough time to talk and share their feelings and experiences. There was too much of Lakshmi’s life that she could not share, but she was fascinated by everything Roland told her, from stories of his home to his family to his travels.
It was all marvelous and exciting to a woman who had spent her younger years in the desert, and the rest of her life in the palace.
The emperor grunted. “You’re right. Just the two of you. But be careful, I need my bodyguard if he really is planning something.”
“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty,” Lakshmi said. “I will be very careful.”
“Then get going. You don’t want to keep the prince waiting.”
When Lakshmi met with Roland by the guard station, he asked if she wanted another guard to accompany them. She shook her head, and knew he could see her smile beneath the gauzy veil. He had seen more of her face than any man but the emperor had since she had turned twelve, but somehow wearing her thinnest veil felt delightfully enticing to her. He didn’t seem to mind.
“The emperor told me you wanted to go to the market,” Roland said.
“Uh, yes,” Lakshmi replied, wondering if she was supposed to buy something while she was out. There were always things for her to purchase, but she was not in the shopping frame of mind.
“I was going to go out and see if they have any imported food from Ugarth. The emperor doesn’t favor northern food, so the larders in the palace are sorely lacking.”
Lakshmi laughed softly, and decided on a bit of honesty. “I don’t really want to buy anything. It’s just nice to get out of the palace once in awhile. See people who aren’t nobles or servants.” She blushed. “Not that your being a noble is a problem,” she said.
Roland laughed too, at what could have been an insult.
“No problem,” he said easily. “We’ll go to the market, see what I can find, and then walk around the city for awhile. For Samalt, it doesn’t feel that hot today.”
“You’re just getting used to the heat,” Lakshmi said. It was as hot today as it was any day in the capital. She eyed Roland speculatively, and noticed something different. “You had someone make you a new shirt,” she said.
“Yes. One of the serving women suggested I might be cooler if I wore this fabric. She was right.”
Lakshmi was suddenly, viciously jealous of whatever woman it was that had sewn Roland a new shirt. She had probably gotten to take his measurements, too. She’d been able to touch his body, feel his strength, adjust smooth, loose fabric over the muscles in his shoulders…
“That is a fierce face you are wearing,” Roland said, pulling her out of her thoughts. “What were you thinking?”
“That I would have liked to be the woman to sew you that shirt,” she answered before she could think better of it.
Roland looked at her, his blue eyes growing dark. “I would have liked that, too,” he said. “Now come, let’s go to the market before I do something that isn’t appropriate for the street.”
Lakshmi discovered that unlike shopping with the guards, shopping with Roland was fun. He joked with the shopkeepers, haggled with the woman selling some strange northern fruit that had been dried until it looked like a brown piece of leather, and generally seemed to enjoy himself and the experience.
She’d never met a man like him.
When he offered her a bit of the fruit he called “apple,” she took it and hesitantly bit off a tiny piece. Although it was chewy, the flavor was appealing, and she took a bigger bite. “This is good.”
Roland had seen the doubt in her eyes, but he didn’t make fun of her. Instead he sighed and ate another piece of dried apple himself. “They are better fresh. They have a thin skin, and are crisp when you bite into them. These aren’t bad, though.”
Lakshmi chewed on hers meditatively, wondering what else she did not know about Ugarth and the northern places. The emperor did not care overly much about the northern reaches of his empire, and for the most part Lakshmi was ignorant of northern customs, including the different food. “What other foods do you eat there?”
“Potatoes. Carrots. Peppers, but not the spicy ones that you favor here. Berries.”
“Do you have those here, then?”
Lakshmi shook her head. “They were imported, once. The emperor let me have one.” It had been red and sweet, she remembered. And she’d badly wanted another.
“Tell me more about where you come from,” Lakshmi said. “I feel that you know much more about my life than I know about yours.”
“Oh, I feel that there are secrets in your life as well as mine,” Roland said, his eyes unreadable, “but you are too beautiful to be argued with, so I will tell you tales of my homeland that will convince you that it is far superior to the arid Samalt.”