Lakshmi looked up at the knock on her door, but it swung open before she had a chance to say anything.
Esma was there, in mourning white, but the look on her face had nothing to do with her recent loss.
“Guy is free.”
Lakshmi jerked slightly, then nodded.
Lakshmi looked down at her clenched hands. “I suspected, when Captain Garth was not the one who came to the emperor’s room.” The man who had come instead was one Lakshmi hadn’t recognized, and she’d thought she knew every guard that served in the palace.
“You didn’t come to me.”
Lakshmi looked up and met the woman’s dark eyes. “I didn’t want to call attention to myself. Or you.” Although Esma was probably in a less precarious position than Lakshmi. It wasn’t Esma, after all, who had gotten Guy locked up.
“What about Ajuni?” Esma asked.
Lakshmi shook her head. “I don’t know. She’s young. She’s too young to be legally married, even if Guy’s proclivities run to children.”
“She’s no too young for a khonsa marriage.”
“There hasn’t been a khonsa marriage in a hundred years,” Lakshmi said. “Why would he do that, rather than wait until she is older? Or marry someone else entirely.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you think he means to marry you?”
Esma’s eyes widened with surprise, but she shook her head. “I’m too old to give him heirs,” she said. “And if he marries me, he might look like an opportunist. Marrying Ajuni, however, even in a khonsa marriage, will make it look like he is honoring the emperor’s last wishes.”
“His last wishes were to banish Guy from the kingdom,” Lakshmi growled.
“Few of us know that,” Esma said. “Fewer who know are important enough to matter.”
The truth of that hadn’t escaped Lakshmi. Captain Garth was likely dead by now. Possibly all of the palace guards were dead. She wondered what had happened to Roland, and felt a pang in her heart that he may have been hurt. She thought about asking, but stopped herself. Esma didn’t know of the relationship between Lakshmi and Roland, and there was no reason that she should. “What will you do?” Lakshmi asked at last.
Esma shrugged. “It will depend on Guy. If he proclaims himself emperor, he will have the power to send me away. I am from Farath, you know, not Madarede and I have family still living there.”
“I didn’t know.”
“My brother is a duke. I married up, you see, as my uncle was always cunning. He brought me with him when he came to visit the emperor many years ago. I was sixteen, and beautiful. Samarth was dazzled, and he chose me over the kings’ daughters he had been considering for marriage.”
“Do you regret it?”
Esma shrugged again. “I became the emperor’s wife. I’ve live in luxuries that even queens can’t imagine.”
“But you were married to Samarth,” Lakshmi protested. “Did you ever want something else?”
“I married Samarth when I was sixteen,” Esma said. “My uncle had come to the palace prepared with a letter from my father giving permission for me to marry. I haven’t been home since. There was hardly time to think about marrying anyone but Samarth.”
Esma’s voice was light, but there was something in her eyes that caught Lakshmi’s attention. “Really?”
“There was a boy,” Esma admitted. “He was a squire under my father. The younger son of a duke. I believe he would have gotten some land, but no title unless his brother died. He would have been a bad match. And I loved him.” As though she could sense Lakshmi’s surprise, Esma laughed. “Oh, it wasn’t real love, I imagine. The love of a girl, unschooled in life. And I wouldn’t trade Ajuni for anything, even that love, even if it was real.”
Esma seemed sincere, and Lakshmi nodded, though she couldn’t help but wonder if, given the choice, her mother would have chosen life in the palace over her daughter. Lakshmi had never doubted that her mother loved her, but if given the chance to do everything over, Lakshmi wasn’t sure what decision her mother would make.
“You seem sad for me,” Esma said. “Why? What you have—had—with Samarth was hardly a love match. Do you think to leave the palace now, and find a man to settle down with?”
The idea of leaving had occurred to Lakshmi ever since she had discovered the emperor dead, but finding a man to marry had never occurred to her. And it should have, she realized. She had no male relatives to care for her, and no property of her own. With Samarth dead, Esma would inherit something from him, but Lakshmi would have nothing but the gifts Samarth had given her over the years, if those weren’t taken from her when she left.
If she left.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Lakshmi admitted.
“I would decide soon,” Esma advised. “If King Guy becomes emperor...and that seems more and more likely...I’m not sure that this is a place you want to live.”
Lakshmi sighed and nodded. She didn’t know where she would go, but Esma was probably right. She couldn’t stay here.
Lakshmi stirred uneasily, her mind floating somewhere between waking and sleeping, and still plagued by the dreams that had haunted her all night. The emperor, bathed in blood. King Guy, a wide smile on his face. Her mother, crying. But sometimes it wasn’t the emperor, but Roland, who was bleeding, and Guy was laughing, and it was Lakshmi who was crying. She stirred again, and her conscious mind became aware of a sound.
Quiet, so quiet she could hardly hear it. Yet persistent.
The sound of knocking from the balcony.
Her heart jumped in her chest, then settled back down as her mind caught up with her body. Whoever was out there wouldn’t be bothering to knock if they had come to hurt her. She got up and pulled on her robe, belting it around her waist before crossing to the balcony doors and cautiously swinging them open.
It was Roland.
“I need your help.”
Lakshmi nodded, and after a moment’s hesitation motioned him inside. At least inside they couldn’t be overheard by anyone standing outside.
“What do you need?”
“I was in one of the city taverns drinking when I learned of the emperor’s death.”
“News travels fast,” Lakshmi said. It had been less than a day, and she had expected King Guy to lock the palace down tight until everything had been figured out.
“It was one of my guards who found me,” Roland said. “He must have left as soon as the cry got out, because he didn’t know much more than that the emperor was dead. Killed, he said, and that one of the concubines had found him. It was you, wasn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
“That guard didn’t return to the palace, but I found a way in.” He smiled. “There’s always someone to bribe, even with the emperor dead.”
Lakshmi felt a moment of disgust for whoever was willing to compromise security before the emperor was even buried, but it wasn’t her problem anymore. She had been the emperor’s bodyguard, and she had failed, but with him dead her duty was over.
“What have you learned since?”
Roland shook his head. “Not much. The servants are unusually quiet, but I’ve seen King Guy’s guards walking around.” His lips tightened. “I believe he killed the emperor, or had him killed.”
“Yes,” Lakshmi said.
“You’re not surprised?”
She shook her head.
“Lakshmi, I know you’ve been keeping something from me, but you didn’t want me to ask you questions, and I respected that.”
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. “I’m grateful for that.”
“I have to ask now,” Roland said. “I have to know. You weren’t the emperor’s concubine. I need to know what you were to him.”
Lakshmi’s mind raced for a moment. How much to tell him? “Why does it matter?” she asked. “The emperor is dead.”
“It matters because I think you might be able to help me,” Roland said.
“Help you what?”
“Get away from the palace. I was part of King Guy getting locked up. He won’t forget that.”
“You think he’ll kill you?”
“I think he might arrange an accident,” Roland said. “He can’t afford for me to go back to Ugarth and report what has happened. The northern countries don’t have the same political pull as the ones here in the south, but my father is a powerful man. He could rally the north to him, but only if he knows what really happened here.”
“Why do you think I can help you?”
“Because I think whatever secret you’re keeping is important. Why were you pretending to be a concubine? Why did Samarth let you?”
His face was drawn in serious lines, his blue eyes bright with intensity. Caution warned her that it could be dangerous to tell him, but she couldn’t resist the urge to help him. “I wasn’t the emperor’s concubine,” she said. “I was his bodyguard.”