The knock on her door late that night did not surprise Lakshmi. She knew without asking that it was Captain Garth, and she slipped into the hall to meet him. If a man other than the emperor were seen sneaking into her room, it could cost them both their lives.
“Captain,” she said with a small dip of her head.
“I wanted to tell you that I have taken care of the guards who dealt with the intruders. They don’t suspect you of doing anything unusual.” The corner of his lips twitched up in a smile. “I reminded them that women could be vicious when provoked.”
Lakshmi smiled back, but her smile faded quickly. “The servant?”
The captain’s face grew more serious. “She has decided that time spent on a farm in southern Aratal would suit her better than palace life.”
Lakshmi was sorry for that, but she knew the captain must have found it necessary. He would not have chosen such extreme measures had there been another choice.
“Okay.” She would accept it. “What do you know of the man and woman who came here?” she asked.
“Too little. We will continue questioning them. If we learn anything, I will let you know.”
Lakshmi had hoped the prisoner’s would yield more information, but she was glad that the captain was willing to keep her informed. That had not always been the case, but lately, perhaps because Lakshmi had been the one to apprehend the villains in the last two attacks, Captain Garth was willing to trust her more. Threats were getting by the guards, and she needed to know why and how. And so did he.
She wanted to ask if Captain Garth trusted his men, but she didn’t. Even with the captain, her position was precarious. And he was a smart man. He would come to the possibility that some of the guards may be suspect without her help.
“You should go,” Lakshmi told him when she realized no more would be forthcoming.
Captain Garth wished her good night and left. Lakshmi turned to go back into her room and noticed Roland standing down the corridor, hands crossed over his chest, watching her.
Lakshmi froze. She didn't know what Roland was doing here so late, but he had seen her talking with Garth. When he strode to her, she thought briefly about fleeing into her room, but knew that would cast even more suspicion on her behavior.
“Do you often meet with the captain of the guard so late at night?” Roland asked her.
He was crowding her again, standing much to close, and Lakshmi found it suddenly hard to breathe.
“No,” she said faintly.
“No,” she repeated more firmly. “He came here because…” her mind raced as she tried to come up with a plausible reason for the captain to meet with her. “He wanted to know if those people who attacked me said anything.”
“Did they?” his eyes told her that he did not believe her lie.
“No. They didn’t say anything.” That, at least, was true.
“And the captain decided to ask you this tonight, not tomorrow? It’s rather late for him to be visiting with a concubine.”
Lakshmi stiffened. “Perhaps he was questioning them now.”
“Perhaps. But you should get to bed now. It’s late.”
Lakshmi did as he said, but she couldn’t help but wonder why he always seemed to be there, and what he knew.
Lakshmi was too unsettled from the last couple of days to read or work on any of her gowns. Even the garden could not calm her. Only one option remained, the one she resisted whenever she could.
She had to visit Ajuni.
Lakshmi so rarely visited her sister that it took her several moments to work up the courage to knock on the young girl’s door. When Ajuni pulled the door open, it was with a bounce, and though she seemed surprised, her smile didn’t dim. “Lakshmi. Do you need something?”
“I was bored,” Lakshmi lied. “May I come in?”
“Sure.” Ajuni backed up and skipped across her room. “Did you hear Mama and I are going to pick out veils for me?”
“That’s great,” Lakshmi lied. She wanted to ask Ajuni if she had met Guy yet, but she didn’t. If the girl didn’t know, it wasn’t her place. “I remember when I was first able to wear a veil.”
Lakshmi had not been as young and carefree as Ajuni. She had known what the veil had meant. Her mother had been a concubine, after all. Veils meant more than adulthood to Lakshmi; they had presented the possibility of a life like her mother’s.
Veils could be cages, and Lakshmi sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be better for little girls not to grow up. Men gained freedom as they grew, but there was no freedom in growing up for girls, not when growing up meant putting on a veil. But Ajuni would not know that, would not discover that for months or even years after first donning the veil. Lakshmi wouldn’t take that time of happiness away from her for anything.
“You must be excited to shop for your first veil.”
“I am.” Ajuni frowned briefly. “Do you think Papa wants me to get married?”
Lakshmi didn’t let her surprise show. The girl was more perceptive than Lakshmi had realized. Obviously, despite Esma’s attempts to shelter her, Ajuni had developed some aptitude for court life.
“Eventually, I’m sure,” Lakshmi said, her throat gone dry. “You’re too young yet.”
“Yes.” Ajuni sighed dramatically. “So why aren’t you doing something else?” Ajuni was studying Lakshmi as if she was a curiosity, like the tiger brought in from the jungles last year to celebrate the emperor’s name day.
Lakshmi was suddenly conscious of the fact that, although she saw Ajuni as her baby sister whom she had loved since the moment she had first seen her—first realized their connection—Ajuni saw her as her father’s concubine. The girl was too young, too innocent, and too accustomed to the way things worked in the palace to be uncomfortable with the role Lakshmi played, but there was still an awkwardness between them that would prevent friendship in any form.
“I like talking to you,” Lakshmi said. “I’m tired of reading, or walking in the gardens.”
“You like talking to me?”
“Sure,” Lakshmi said, seeing a vulnerability in the young girl she hadn’t seen before. “You’re smart, what with growing up in the palace, and you’re funny. I like you.”
Ajuni laughed. “Okay. Are you sure it’s not because I’m the emperor’s daughter?”
Lakshmi rolled her eyes. “Yes. Because your mother and the emperor would love knowing I spend time with you.”
“I don’t want you getting in trouble,” Ajuni said.
“I can take care of myself,” Lakshmi assured her. It was Ajuni she was worried about.
“I want you to stay away from my daughter.”
The venom in Esma’s voice was completely unexpected. Lakshmi had never seen the small woman so furious, but she was practically quivering with rage. “What?”
“Ajuni told me you went to see her today. I don’t want you doing that again.”
Lakshmi and Esma had occasionally had a complicated relationship. There had been times in the past that Lakshmi had felt Esma was jealous of her and the favor the emperor had for her. Other times, she thought that Esma disdained her. Never before had she come down so hard on Lakshmi for meeting with Ajuni.
“I did not realize that would be a problem,” Lakshmi said. Though Esma had never encouraged it, she had never tried to forbid it, either.
“My daughter does not need to spend her afternoons entertaining a whore.” Esma’s voice trembled, and Lakshmi had a moment of insight into why Esma had such a problem.
“The emperor did not ask me to speak with your daughter,” Lakshmi said slowly, hoping Esma believed her. “I did not talk to her about anything…questionable. She doesn’t know about her engagement to King Guy, and I did not mention it.”
Esma shook her head. “She was talking about her veil, and marriage, and you were there. I assumed…”
“Esma,” Lakshmi said, daring to put a hand on the woman’s arm. “Your daughter is incredibly sweet and innocent. She is excited about getting to wear the veil. I would never take that joy from her.”
The emperor’s wife closed her eyes as if in pain. “I should apologize,” she said softly.
“No,” Lakshmi said. “You were trying to protect your daughter. All mother’s should react so.”
“But you didn’t do anything.”
Lakshmi found it amusing that Esma was now arguing Lakshmi’s side. If Ajuni had not been so important to Lakshmi, she would have been offended by Esma’s reaction. However, Lakshmi could imagine too well how she would feel if the emperor sent one of the other concubines, one of the real concubines, to talk Ajuni about what her future duties would be.
It made Lakshmi’s stomach turn.
“And I would never do anything to hurt Ajuni, but you couldn’t know that.”
“This thing…I’ve been trying to watch King Guy, but Samarth does not require my presence often when the king and Prince Roland are around.” She frowned, and her dark eyes, which had cooled as she worked to apologize, heated again. “King Guy is not the right man for my daughter. He needs someone more experienced. And my Ajuni…No girl of noble blood, least of all the emperor’s daughter, gets to marry for love. I know that. But neither should she have to marry a pig of a man like King Guy.”
Lakshmi had been in King Guy’s presence more often than Esma, and had realized that although King Guy’s black nature was more obvious, it was not so very different from the emperor’s own. But perhaps Esma knew that. She was of noble blood. She knew what it was like to be married to a man she had not chosen. “No, she shouldn’t,” Lakshmi agreed.
“I wish there was something I could do. Samarth has forbidden me to discuss it with him. And I need to tell Ajuni.” She looked at Lakshmi pleadingly. “How do I tell my baby that she is going to marry that awful man?”
Lakshmi shook her head. The only happy resolution she could see would be if King Guy were to die before Ajuni was old enough to wed. She would still have had to live with him for a time, though, and Lakshmi thought that was probably bad enough. “I don’t know. She is more astute than I gave her credit for, though. I don’t think she will be that surprised.”
Lakshmi's earlier conversation with Esma kept intruding on her thoughts. She was attending the emperor's bath that night, a duty which she had come to enjoy less and less over the years, as he too-often made suggestions of late that she join him. The thought never failed to turn her stomach.
Tonight she hardly noticed his suggestions. It wasn’t until he said something particularly inventive that she came up with a new subject to turn him to. “I thought of something regarding your daughter today,” she said as she massaged scented soaps into his thinning hair.
The emperor grunted, but Lakshmi continued on.
“I know that you have promised her to the king—a good match to be sure—but I wondered if you had ever thought of someone like Prince Roland as her future husband.” The thought made Lakshmi uncomfortable, but she pushed her personal feelings aside. Roland, despite the suspicion she felt for him, would be a much better mate for her sister.
“Roland?” the emperor asked. The quiet tone of his voice was a warning in itself, but she ignored it.
“The king is a great man,” Lakshmi said, though her stomach twisted sickly over the lie. “I am sure that he would make a fine union.”
“He will,” the emperor said.
“My only concern is Ajuni’s ability to have children by him,” she said. “She is the one who will have to carry on your line, but the king is not a young man.”
“I’m sure he’ll have no problem getting the job done,” the emperor ground out. Lakshmi remembered then that he was of an age with the king. She closed her eyes and cursed herself for indirectly questioning the emperor’s manhood.
“No,” Lakshmi said quietly. She lifted a ladle of warm water and tipped it over his head to wash away the fragrant soaps. “It is only an idea. And your bond with the king of Samalt is strong. I thought perhaps strengthening the bond with a different kingdom might be useful.”
“You needn’t think of it at all,” the emperor growled. “It is not women’s business.”
“Of course not,” Lakshmi said, her voice subdued, her heart racing.