Lakshmi demanded more hot water be brought until the bath was almost scalding, and climbed in despite the protests and admonishments of her maids. The heat from the water was almost painful, but when she was finally submerged up to the neck in the steaming liquid, the shivers that had coursed through her since being held in Guy’s room finally stopped.
And then they started again, shivers turning to wracking sobs until she was hugging her knees and rocking. One of the women rushed forward, trying to save the towel that was wrapped around Lakshmi’s hair from the water.
“Get out!” Lakshmi screamed, yanking the towel off of her head and throwing it at the woman. “All of you, get out!”
They left, and Lakshmi buried her face in her hands, crying as she had not cried since her mother’s death. She remembered everything that had happened, every horrible moment that seemed to stretch a hundred years. She had never felt helpless, the way she had when those two guards were holding her. Had never truly felt in danger of anything.
And had never imagined that she could feel so much fear and live through it.
As her tears ran through, she reminded herself that she was safe. Roland had saved her, and Guy was under guard. He would leave the city tomorrow, never to return.
She was safe.
She splashed water over her face to rinse away the tears, and called for the maids to return. They washed her long black hair, then worked to dry it even as she soaked her body. One of the woman insisted on covering Lakshmi’s face with a thick, gooey mixture that she insisted would help the bruises heal faster. Although Lakshmi didn’t like the look of the mix, the smell was not unpleasant, and anything that could keep the bruising from getting worse was welcome. She tilted her head back and allowed her face to be covered.
Long after the bath had started to cool and the women had begun to remark that it wasn’t healthy to sit in cold water, Lakshmi decided it was time to return to her rooms. She stood up and was immediately wrapped in a luxuriously soft towel. Another woman hurried forward with a robe, and the exchange of towel for robe was almost seamless.
The woman who had applied the facial mask wiped it off now, and smiled at the results. “I think, if we keep doing this, in a couple of days no one will know that anything happened,” she said.
The other women shifted uncomfortably, but Lakshmi just nodded. There was no point in pretending everything was okay. They might not know the details, but they knew enough. And servants always had a way of knowing more than anyone told them.
“Then we will do this every day,” Lakshmi agreed, forcing herself to smile, although it was painful.
“Now that you’re finished with your bath,” one of the women said, “I have a message for you.”
Lakshmi’s smile vanished as she listened. “What?”
“The emperor asked to see you after your bath,” the woman repeated. “He said I wasn’t to interrupt your bath to tell you, but that once you were told—”
“I was to go straight to him,” Lakshmi finished. “I heard you.” She just hadn’t believed. She’d thought this once that he might leave her alone.
“Then you’ll go?” The woman sounded pathetically hopeful.
“Of course.” It wasn’t Lakshmi’s place to question the will of the emperor.
After dressing in dark maroon silks, thicker and less clingy than those she typically wore, with a thicker veil as well, Lakshmi went to the emperor’s private rooms. She did not kneel as she might have at other times, but she curtsied and kept her eyes down. “You wished to see me?”
“Yes. I find today’s events very distressing.”
Lakshmi bit down on the inside of her cheek hard enough to taste blood. “I can imagine,” she finally said, barely able to get the words out past the rage building inside of her. A glance up at Emperor Samarth told her that, distressed as he might be, it never occurred to him to worry about how she was feeling.
“I had counted on Guy uniting our two families. Word has already been spreading about the marriage.”
“I know,” Lakshmi said, suddenly worried that Samarth might change his mind about Guy. “But surely word of what the king attempted is starting to spread as well.”
The emperor waved his hands as though it was of no consequence. “In time it will spread, yes,” he agreed, “but I’m not worried about rumor. I’m worried about strengthening the position I hold here, while I still hold it.”
“You are the emperor,” Lakshmi said, not understanding.
“I am an emperor with no heir. I had thought to name King Guy my heir once he married Ajuni, but…well, that is in the past, now.”
“So you mean to arrange another marriage?” Lakshmi asked, wondering what that could possibly have to do with her.
“No, Lakshmi. I mean to have another child.” Her look of utter confusion must have amused him, since he laughed and kept laughing as comprehension dawned and horror replaced her confusion.
“You can’t mean…”
“Esma produced a daughter, and has not quickened again in all these years. But you are young, and strong. You could give me a son, and one I would name heir.”
Lakshmi felt bile rise in her throat. “I am not a concubine, I am your bodyguard, I—”
“And I am your emperor,” Samarth reminded her. “Never fear, this is not a change I mean to make tonight. I want your pretty face healed, first,” he said, touching the bruise on her face with his pudgy hands. “But I thought I would let you know that soon, you will be my concubine in truth. And before long, you shall be the mother of the next emperor.”
Lakshmi nodded, her mind racing. “If I may take my leave now?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“Yes, yes. Go. I will check in on you in a couple of days.” He grinned. “The proximity of your room will truly be convenient, now.”
She nodded and left, barely making it to the chamber pot in her own room before she emptied her stomach.