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.