In addition to some pretty crappy writing overall (hello, first draft!), I realized after writing the prologue and the first scene that Roland learned about the Emperor's death from a palace guard looking for him, not one of his own guards. I'll have to fix this in a later version. No editing (or time to edit) during NaNo. Anyway, enjoy!
Roland leaned back in the sturdy tavern chair, taking a deep swig of ale. He lowered the mug and wiped the foam from the strong beverage on his shirt. “What happened next?” he asked the merchant he was drinking with.
“Well, being a man of meager means and suddenly finding myself unusually flush, I did what most red-blooded men would do.”
“Which would be?”
“I made my way to the nearest brothel and bought my fill of brown-eyed beauties.”
Roland laughed and took another sip of ale. He doubted the merchant’s tale, but liked the way he’d told it well enough. He’d been thinking of leaving the city soon, now that Guy was jailed and his own business nearly finished, and thought that joining up with a merchant train would make for pleasant company on the road.
Not as pleasant as the company back at the palace, though. Those rare moments when he could be alone with Lakshmi were sweet enough to make him want to linger in the sultry southern capitol.
“But you’re a fancy prince, aren’t ye? You’ve surely enjoyed the attention of women since you were too young to appreciate them.”
Roland smiled. “The women in the north are different than those in the south,” he told the merchant. “As you’ll see if—”
Roland’s words were cut off suddenly by the appearance of one of his personal guards. “My prince, I must speak with you.”
Roland considered for the moment putting him off, but his light blue eyes were serious, and his lips tightly pursed.
“Of course. A minute,” he said to the merchant and rose from his chair. He followed the guard across the room until they were far enough from the other patrons to not be overheard.
“The emperor is dead,” Roland’s guard said when they were clear.
“Yes. I caught word just as I was leaving the palace.”
“When was this?”
“I came straight here,” the guard said. “I don’t know when he was killed, but I doubt they would have been able to keep the news of his death quiet long, at least not in the palace.”
“Did you have any trouble leaving?”
The guard shook his head. “No. The other guards should show up here as soon as they hear,” he said. “The plan was, if anything goes sideways, we meet up here, and things have gone sideways all right.”
“I haven’t seen anyone else,” Roland said.
“What should we do?” the guard asked.
“Wait for them. And make plans to leave the city.”
“If they’re not allowed out of the palace, we might not be allowed out of the city.”
“Let me worry about such arrangements,” Roland said. His father had always taught him to appear strong in front of those in his command, and even though he had no idea what his next step should be, he didn’t have to let his guards know the truth.
Lakshmi wasn’t surprised by Roland’s shock. As far as she knew, until just a moment ago she had been the only one living that knew of her true parentage.
“My mother had been his concubine, once. She left to bear his child, never telling him.”
“And you came here once you were grown?”
Lakshmi shook her head. “My mother returned with me when I was five. She pretended to be my aunt, and never told a soul. Neither have I.”
“He didn’t know. I was trained to be his bodyguard. My mother was no longer the beautiful young concubine that he’d favored before I was born, but he listened to her still just enough to believe her when she espoused the value of installing a false concubine as a bodyguard. She spent the rest of her short life as a washerwoman, a servant instead of a pampered concubine, and I was gifted with this life.”
“Was it a gift?” Roland asked.
“It was my life,” Lakshmi said. “I do not know whether it was gift or curse. It doesn’t matter, now. Samarth is gone.”
“I’m sorry,” Roland said.
Lakshmi could tell from his tone that he was apologizing for more than the death of a man she had been sworn to protect. He was apologizing for the death of her father.
“That doesn’t matter, either,” she said. “What matters is getting you away from here.”
“Only one of my guards ever came to the inn where we stayed. The rest must be detained here.”
Lakshmi nodded. “King Guy won’t want word of the conflict he had with the emperor getting out. The servants here are used to keeping secrets, but he cannot trust your guards. Or you.”
“I figured as much.”
“He’ll be searching the city for you.”
“We’ve switched inns. A cheap one, dirty. Not one fit for a prince.”
“Good, though the cheapest may draw attention. It’s best to get you out of the city as soon as possible.”
“What about my men?”
Lakshmi lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“You have to be able to do something,” Roland said. “If you truly were the emperor’s bodyguard, you didn’t do that alone. Some of the guards surely knew.”
“One,” Lakshmi confirmed. Captain Garth. The captain of the guard. Or former. She didn’t know where he was now. “But that one can no longer help us,” she said. “I have not seen him since before the emperor was killed. Whichever guards still serve here serve King Guy, and will be no help to me. Or you.”
“There must be someone—”
“I can get you out, or try to help your guards,” Lakshmi said. “If I do the first, I might succeed. If I do the second, we’ll likely get caught, and neither of us will ever leave the palace alive.”
Just saying it sent shivers down her spine. Not death, she’d faced death before, but life outside of the palace. The idea of leaving scared her more than any assassin’s blade.
“Those men trusted me,” Roland argued, his face turning red with anger. “I can’t leave them here.”
“You don’t have a choice. We don’t even know if they’re alive.”
In the hours since a strange man dressed in the palace guard’s uniform had come at her summon’s for Captain Garth, she had become more and more certain that he was dead. It wouldn’t surprise her if the same was true of Roland’s men. With Roland and all of his men dead, there would be no one left to tell what had happened to the emperor, or to Roland’s party. King Guy could claim that they all left the city hale and hearty before the emperor’s death, and must have gotten attacked on the road back to Ugarth.
If she was Guy, she would have killed all of her enemies in the palace by now.
“I have to find out. I won’t leave without them.”
“Then I can’t help you,” Lakshmi said. “And you should go. I have my own affairs to tend to.”
“What affairs?” Roland asked.
“Everyone believed me to be the emperor’s favored concubine,” Lakshmi said. “It is not a position that I wish to maintain under Guy.” Until she said it aloud, she hadn’t really thought about what Guy might do with her. Esma had hinted at it, saying the palace might not be a place that Lakshmi wanted to stay, and Lakshmi had begun entertaining the idea of leaving, but now that she really thought about the alternative, she couldn’t imagine staying.
She’d decided to leave before the emperor’s death. It was leave or bed him, and the prospect of bedding her father had been more horrifying than the fear of life outside of the palace. Now she realized that it was only shock and fear that had kept her from realizing that bedding King Guy would be just as horrific.
“You’re leaving the palace?” Roland asked.
“Yes.” And the city, she thought. The emperor may have let her go, but she knew on some instinctive level that King Guy would not. She had captured his eye from the beginning, and she had been the one to get him locked up.
He’d have plans for her.
“Then we should work together. First, we should determine if my guards are still alive, and then—”
“Forget your guards,” Lakshmi said coldly.
“I won’t. My honor demands—”
“I don’t care about your bloody honor,” Lakshmi said. “There’s no time or place for honor in this. No time or place for a northern nobleman to play like some fool from hero in a story book.”
“That’s not fair,” Roland argued.
“Life’s not fair,” Lakshmi said. “From the time I was five, I couldn’t acknowledge that my mother was my mother, not even in private for fear one of us might slip in public. People have been thinking that I’ve slept my way into a gilded life from the time I reached womanhood. My father pawed at me, hinted at what he wanted, propositioned me the night before he died. I’ve killed men and women and handed the bodies over to the palace guard to maintain my cover, never revealing that I was the one who should be honored for saving the emperor’s life, instead of disdained for pleasuring him.
“Life isn’t fair.”
Roland was silent after the tirade. There was nothing he could say to rebut her words.
“I am staying at The Dancing Horses. I’ll be there until I learn more about my men, and find a way to free them if that’s what needs doing. If you change your mind, you can find me there.”
Lakshmi felt tears welling in her eyes, but she fought them back. She wouldn’t allow the last memory he had of her face to be one wet with tears. “Goodbye, Roland. And good luck.”
“And to you,” he said. He paused another moment, leaning forward slightly as though for a kiss, then stepped back, toward the balcony. “Be safe.”
Lakshmi waited until he had disappeared beyond the balcony, until she heard his boots crunching on the ground below, fading into silence, before heading to the window and closing it again. She slid the lock firmly shut, then drew the curtains over the window. And leaning her head against it, she wondered what she was going to do. Scene 2:
Lakshmi had hardly drifted back to sleep when she was again awakened by the sound of knocking. This time, it was coming from her door. She’d thrown the bolt when she closed it last, and she took the time to slip on her shift and wrap her robe around her before going to answer the door.
“It took you long enough.”
Though Lakshmi had seen her only a few hours ago, the woman looked older now. Dark shadows under her eyes stood out on a face gone pale from stress and fatigue. “What’s wrong?”
“Guy was just in my room.” The woman’s delicate shudder told Lakshmi that it had not been a pleasant experience. “He just told me that he is planning a khans marriage between him and Ajuni. He’ll be marrying her in two week’s time, the shortest time acceptable to mourn her father before marrying.”
“Have you told Ajuni?” Lakshmi asked. Esma had mentioned the khonsa marriage before, but Lakshmi hadn’t thought they needed to worry about it. It had been decades, maybe centuries, since anyone as young as Ajuni had been forced to marry. She’d thought Ajuni safe until she reached womanhood.
Esma shook her head. “I don’t know how. She’s distraught over her father’s death. Cried herself to sleep, and I’d just gone into my room when Guy showed up.”
“What did he say?”
Esma shuddered again. “He wanted to assure me that despite the emperor’s untimely death, Ajuni would be well cared for. He was sure I would want to hear that before I leave to join my brother in Farath.”
“So he means to let you go, then?”
“He has no choice. The emperor is dead, and I’m sure that prince and his guards are, too. Anyone else of importance dying, even the wife of the emperor, will only draw more attention.” Her voice wavered. “I thought I’d be able to leave, if I had to,” she said. “When we spoke of Ajuni marrying him, I thought…”
Lakshmi reached out and gripped the woman’s hand.
“I don’t know if I can leave her, Lakshmi,” Esma admitted. “I don’t know what to do. How can I leave my baby to a man like that?”
Lakshmi shook her head. “We’ll figure something out,” she assured the woman, though she felt anything but sure.
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 2
Stealing garments simpler than the palace livery was surprisingly easy. Though Lakshmi felt that people were watching her every move, in reality the servants seemed to pay no more attention to her than they ever had, and while the guards she saw around the palace were unfamiliar, none of them approached her.
It was easy for her to go into one of the wash rooms and pull some clothes off of one of the drying lines. The servants weren’t always dressed in livery, they had plain clothes for when they left the palace on unofficial business, and luckily some of that clothing had been included in the latest wash.
There was no way for Lakshmi to try on the garments now, even if they weren’t wet, but she would be able to alter them in her room. She bundled them in the blanket she’d brought for the purpose and walked calmly back to her room. There were not convenient drying racks here, but she fashioned lines between her tall bedposts, and after hanging the clothing there, she pulled the curtains around the bed to hide her thievery.
It wouldn’t be long until one of the servants found her clothes missing, but there’d be no reason for anyone to suspect Lakshmi played a roll. There would be no reason to think she would trade her luxurious silk gowns for ones of rough-spun wool.
Next was food, and she knew that this would be harder. The kitchens were used to her asking for fruits and vegetables, perhaps some fresh bread, not the hard cheese and salted meats that would keep on the trail. She may have to chance buying such items in the city, which would delay her leaving and increase her chances of getting caught. But there was no choice in the matter: she would need food once she left.
And she was leaving. She’d been lucky enough to avoid King Guy’s attentions last night, and she hoped that luck would hold one more night. Her hand drifted down to the knife at her belt. She had it if she needed it, and she wouldn’t hesitate to draw it this time, but she would have to flee immediately after. Though she was essentially running for her life
either way, she preferred a calmer start to the ordeal.Being immediately hunted by the palace guards was not in her plan, and she knew that is what would happen if she had to kill King Guy to get away.
How long before it was Emperor Guy? she thought. How long before all the kings in the kingdom made their trek to Madarede to bend the knee to the new emperor? She wondered if Roland had thought of the fact that his father would soon be traveling to the capitol. Perhaps he could stay and hide until then, and return safely with his father.
But it could be long months before the king of Ugarth came to pay homage to the new emperor. Too long for Roland to hope to hide, especially when the penalty for being caught would be death. His guards were dead. Lakshmi hadn’t heard the particulars, but she’d heard whispers from servants. Roland’s guards, and at least most of Samarth’s. Those that weren’t killed would be held until loyalty was established. The newer ones, or the greedier ones, would probably switch loyalties to Guy. The rest were dead, or would be if Guy decided they would not be sufficiently loyal to him.
Lakshmi yearned for Captain Garth’s assistance now, but he was doubtless the first to hang. There would be no help from him, or Creb, who hadn’t known her secrets but had trusted Garth implicitly. She was on her own.
“Here is the food you requested,” the old maid said, setting out a tray of bread and cheese and cured meat in front of Lakshmi. “Are you feeling well?”
Lakshmi nodded her head slowly. “It has been an upsetting few days,” Lakshmi said cautiously. She’d known the maid, Nagara, since the day she came to the palace, but even she did not fully have Lakshmi’s trust. “I don’t feel ready for a big meal.”
“Yes, it’s been hard,” the maid said, seeming relieved to be able to say so. “I remember the day that the old emperor died, Emperor Samarth’s father. The mourning bells rang day and night for a week. Near to drove the city mad. And now I’m near jumping out of my skin waiting for them to start.”
“I think King Guy is just trying to investigate what happened before announcing the emperor’s death to the whole city.”
The maid snorted. “Foolish. It will leak soon, if it hasn’t already. Besides, everyone knows it’s the prince that did it. The emperor’s found dead, and that Roland is missing.”
“Perhaps King Guy wants to find Roland before announcing the emperor’s death, then,” Lakshmi said. “Maybe he wants to have the assassin in hand when everyone learns that Samarth has died.”
The maid dipped her graying head. “Right. I don’t know the ways of kings.” She smiled knowingly. “That would be your expertise.”
“King Guy and I are not well acquainted,” Lakshmi said primly.
“I’m sure that will change,” she said. “I believe that King Guy will want everything that the emperor had.” Her face went slack, then tight, as she realized she may have said too much. Lakshmi reached out with a comforting hand.
“It will take us all some time to get used to the new order of things here,” Lakshmi said. “But it does no good to fight it.”
“Yes, Lakshmi. You’re right. I’ll take your words to heart.”
“You’ve worked here a long time,” Lakshmi said. “For more than one emperor. I’m sure you can handle working for another.”
“Can you. No, don’t answer,” the woman said. “It’s better that I never asked. I’ll return later for your tray.”
When Nagara had gone, closing the door behind her, Lakshmi breathed a sigh of relief. She would never trust Nagara with her plan, but if the old woman had thought her odd behavior due to anything but the turmoil of the last couple of days, Lakshmi doubted she would say anything. Maids didn’t last as long as Nagara had if they made a habit of questioning their betters. And though concubines were looked down upon in many respects, Lakshmi had always enjoyed a higher status than the palace maids.
“You need to help me.”
The desperation in Esma’s voice had Lakshmi looking around their surroundings intensely. The garden was beautiful, but not necessarily the most private of places. “We shouldn’t be talking here,” she said.
“In all the years you serviced my husband, how many times did we go to each other’s chambers?” Esma asked. “A dozen? Not more than two. I can’t keep going to your rooms, or summoning you to mine.”
“We could be mourning Samarth together,” Lakshmi said.
Esma laughed, and the sound bordered on hysterical. “Mourning him? Perhaps some here are fool enough to think that, but no one is fool enough to think that and to think we would mourn him together. There was never any pretense for love between you and I. I would hardly want to share my memories of Samarth with you.”
“I’m sorry,” Lakshmi said. And she was. Samarth had not been a loving man, but perhaps Esma did have some fond memories of the man who had given her a daughter, and a life that even queens could only dream of. “What can I help you with?”
“What do you mean?”
“I need you to help her leave the city. I need you to get her somewhere safe.”
“I can’t,” Lakshmi said, stunned by the request.
“Please. There is no love between the two of us, but I know you love my daughter. Perhaps it’s because she was Samarth’s daughter; it doesn’t matter why now. You love her, and you need to help her.”
“I can’t,” Lakshmi repeated. “I can’t take her. Where would I take her?” Lakshmi hadn’t known where to go herself. Running from the palace was one thing, running with the emperor’s daughter, the girl King Guy wanted enough to perform the first khonsa marriage in a century to get, was another.
“I don’t know,” Esma said. “I don’t know where you would take her, or how. But I need you to. She needs to be safe, Lakshmi. We can’t let her marry a man like Guy. It would kill her.”
“I know he’s dangerous,” Lakshmi said.
Esma waved her hand dismissively. “Not the physical danger. That is a fear every mother feels at the prospect of her daughter marrying. It’s the other death, the one she will suffer bit-by-bit, every day. Everything that is bright and beautiful in her will be killed by that man.” Esma closed her eyes, her lips pursed. “I know that death, Lakshmi. And Samarth was
not like King Guy.”
“How far is Farath?” Lakshmi asked. “Perhaps I can get her to your brother.”
Esma shook her head vigorously. “You can’t bring her to Farath. It is the first place that Guy will look for her.”
Esma’s dark eyes were clouded, and Lakshmi leaned forward. “There’s something else.”
“I don’t know what my brother would do if you showed up with her,” she admitted.
“I haven’t seen him in years. We were close as children, but it’s been so long…you would go to him, a stranger, and ask him to keep something important and valuable from his new emperor. Perhaps if I was with you—”
“You have to be with us,” Lakshmi said.
Esma shook her head again. “If I go, it will make it that much harder for the two of you to disappear. I must remain here. I will wail that my daughter has been stolen, that my husband’s whore stole her in a fit of madness,” she paused, “and hopefully, someday, King Guy would trust me enough to let me return to Farath.”
“And then what?”
“When Ajuni is grown. A young woman, not the girl who will disappear in a night or two, with no one to know what she looks like, you can help her find me in Farath.”
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 3 (a day late)
The story is getting a little weird and the speed of writing is leading to no conflict or suspense. This is exactly why no one wants to see how the sausage gets made before eating it--so if you still want to enjoy the King's Son, you might want to wait for the final version. If you're curious to how this hot NaNo mess turns out, feel free to tune in again tonight when Day 4's work is posted.
Lakshmi’s hands shook as she opened the parcel one of Esma’s handmaidens had given her. A small gown of plain cloth meant for Ajuni. A small sum of money that Lakshmi could only goes the origin of. Some travel fare.
Obviously, Esma had at least one person in the palace that she could trust to help them.
They were leaving tonight. After the palace had gone to bed, Lakshmi would make her way to Esma’s room, which was adjoined to Ajuni’s. The girl would have a chance to say goodbye to her mother, possibly for the last time, and then they would leave. They’d make for the north gate out of the city when it reopened at dawn, and from there continue west.
Lakshmi would try to find work as a washerwoman, presenting Ajuni as her younger sister. It was comically that now, finally, Lakshmi would be able to live her bond with Ajuni. It was terrible that their lives would come to this.
Her own clothes were ready as well, but she wouldn’t don them until they were well away from the palace. The silks
could be sold later, as could the fine jewelry she was bringing with her. They should be able to sell enough of her items to get by for a time, until they could find a place to settle. Some small village that knew nothing of the late emperor and would not be looking for his missing daughter.
She packed everything back up and sat down on her favorite chair, opening a book and staring blankly at the pages. The words were a blur, holding no meaning to her, and she hardly noticed the setting sun until the light grew too dim for even the pretext of reading.
With a mild curse she realized she’d forgotten to light candles, as she took a tall, tapered one out into the hall to light it with one of the lantern flames there.
“Is everything all right?” a passing servant asked.
Lakshmi forced a smile. “I fell asleep and forgot to tend my fire and candles.”
“Would you like some help?” the girl asked.
“No, thank you. I’m fine.”
“Very well. Ah, I don’t know if anyone has told you yet, but the king has mentioned he might summon you tonight.”
“Oh?” Lakshmi asked, trying to sound casual.
“He’s been occupied with Selena until now,” the girl said. “But it appears he’s turning his attention to you.”
Lakshmi drew up a mental image of Selena, and couldn’t fault the king’s choice. She was beautiful, but more importantly, she was biddable. There would be no fighting the lush beauty, and Lakshmi assumed the only thing that had kept her safe until now was that the king did not want a fight. Apparently, he was settled in enough now to want her.
“Tonight may not be good,” Lakshmi said. “I feel that my tiredness may be the early signs of illness.”
The girl shook her head, looking doubtful. “If someone comes to take you to him, I suppose you could tell them that. But I expect he’ll be emperor soon.” The implication was clear, that concubines did not dictate to emperor’s when they could be used, no matter how they felt.
“Of course.” Lakshmi did her best to summon another smile. “I just wanted our first night together to be special.”
“Perhaps he will put it off another night,” the girl said. “But I must go now.” She held out the stack of linens she was carrying. “I’m to make the empresses bed.”
“I don’t think she’s the empress anymore,” Lakshmi said.
“Perhaps not,” the girl said. “Perhaps there are no emperors or empresses now. But that won’t always be the case.”
“Do you want King Guy to be emperor?” Lakshmi asked.
“Emperor Samarth seemed like a good emperor, but he’s gone. There needs to be an emperor. Someone needs to run ___.”
“You’re right, of course,” Lakshmi said. “King Guy should be a strong ruler.”
The sound of bells ringing interrupted their conversation. The pealing of the bells was loud, and seemed all the more so because of what they meant. King Guy was announcing the emperor’s death to the city.
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 4
The king’s voice curled around Lakshmi like the web of a poisonous spider, trapping her. “Yes, King Guy?” she asked, spinning around to face him.
“I’d like you in my chamber tonight. In my bed.” Lakshmi hoped that her grimace could pass for a smile under her flimsy veil.
“I would like nothing more,” she said, “but I am still mourning Emperor Samantha. It would be unseemly to—”
“You are not a wife,” King Guy said. “There is nothing about you that is seemly. You will be in my chambers tonight. Come under your own power, or I will have my guards drag you there. Either way, I will have you in my bed, finally.”
“I will be there,” Lakshmi promised, her stomach roiling at the thought. If she left before her time with King Guy, he would come looking for her. Thee would be no grace period between when she and Ajuni left and when the guards began looking for them.
She needed to speak with Esma.
She walked past her own bedroom and made her way to the opulent room where Esma still stayed. She knocked and there was a quick answer, giving her a sense of relief.
“What are you doing here?” Esma snapped. “You were the one commenting that we should not be seen together.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “Guy summoned me to his room tonight,” she said.
Esma’s face twisted with distaste, but then she shrugged. “It will give you less time to prepare,” she said, “but you meant to leave in the early hours of the morning anyway.”
“I can’t sleep with him,” Lakshmi blurted out.
“What do you mean?”
Esma laughed bitterly. “Were you so loyal to my husband that you can’t imagine another man’s bed?” she asked. “I’m surprised. What ever did you mean to do once Samantha was done with you?”
“I—” She’d never thought of it.
“I wouldn’t want to bed the king, either,” Esma said. “But there were many times I had no interest in my husband, but still did my duty. Consider this yours.” Her eyes softened slightly. “Are you worried that he will injure you too severely to travel?” she asked.
Lakshmi shook her head, and to her utter humiliation felt tears well in her eyes. “I can’t sleep with him, Esma. I won’t.” The small woman’s expression turned so quickly from concern to rage that Lakshmi could hardly process it. “You will do what it takes to make it through this night. You slept your way to gilt and servants and the finest foods and clothes in the land for years; if you don’t agree to this, I’ll keep you from ever leaving yourself.”
“Did you think the life you lived would have no consequence? That you would always be rewarded for sleeping with a married man?”
“I never slept with him,” Lakshmi told her in a rush.
“Liar. You were his concubine.”
“No. I never slept with him.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I was his bodyguard. He could keep me close when he couldn’t have his own guards around without drawing attention to himself.”
“Why would you do that?” Esma asked. “Why not sleep with him?”
“Because…” Lakshmi bit her lip, remembering the dire warnings drilled into her by her mother for years, for fear she would one day slip and reveal her truth.
But it didn’t matter now. Her reality now was as dangerous as any truth. “I couldn’t sleep with Emperor Samarth,” she said. “I had to keep from that.” “Why?”
“Because…Samarth was my father.”
Esma shook her head in denial. “That isn’t possible. Samarth had no children but Ajuni. He allowed none of his concubines to continue their pregnancies.”
“My mother fled the palace when she discovered she was pregnant with me,” Lakshmi said.
“Your mother?” Esma frowned slightly. “You returned here with your aunt. She’d formerly been…” her voice trailed off. “She wasn’t your aunt, then,” she said.
“No. She was my mother.”
“Did Samarth know?” Esma asked. Her face had softened again, curiosity replacing rage.
“No, my mother never told him. And neither did I. We thought it might be too dangerous.”
“I expect he would have had you both killed. Her for disobeying him, and both of you for lying.” She smiled almost fondly. “He was not a forgiving man, but he took your mother back.”
“He maid her a servant, no longer a treasured concubine.”
“She’d been gone five years,” Esma said. “He’d married, and your mother had aged. But he took her in, gave her a job and a place to live. Gave you a job, one that a beautiful woman could only hope for. One that I can’t believe he allowed to go…untainted.”
Lakshmi thought about telling Esma what Samarth had last said to her, that he wanted her to bear him a son, but the words died in her mouth. There was no reason to ruin whatever fond memories Esma might have of her late husband.
And maybe Esma was right, and Samarth was better than Lakshmi had thought.
A man neither good nor evil.
“I think my mother was able to convince him I would do better as a bodyguard than a concubine. I was half-trained before she ever brought it up to him.”
“Who trained you?”
Lakshmi’s smile was bittersweet. “Captain Garth.”
Esma nodded. “You must have been close. I’m sorry.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry that I said you must sleep with Guy. I
didn’t know. Are you a virgin?”
Lakshmi didn’t see the point in lying. “No.”
Esma looked surprised. “Did Samarth know?”
Lakshmi shook her head. “Of course not.”
“You were smart not to tell him. His reaction would have been violent, I expect. But Lakshmi, you’re not a virgin. Not a child. King Guy would not know you were anything but a concubine when you went to him tonight.”
“I just told you I can’t.”
“You just told me you won’t. You weren’t my husband’s concubine. It doesn’t matter, all it means is he was choosing other women over the both of us. You weren’t his concubine—you were his daughter. And that means you’re Ajuni’s sister.” She took a deep breath. “It makes sense, now. Your feelings towards her. You always showed an interest toward her that I found was strange. Even as a young girl. You never seemed to look at the other babies in the palace from time to time, just Ajuni. But you always knew that she was your sister, didn’t you?”
“And it’s why you’ll do what it takes to save her now,” Esma said.
Lakshmi’s heart ached, but she nodded. “I’ll do what it takes.”
“I have some tincture,” Esma said. “A drop in some tea makes it easier to sleep. Two drops should make King Guy drowsy enough to leave you alone tonight, provided you can get him to drink it.”
“What?” Lakshmi asked.
“I don’t sleep easily,” Esma said. “It doesn’t have much of a taste, but you must make sure that you don’t give him too much. Even two drops might be too much. His guards could get suspicious if they find him passed out.”
“I’ll be careful,” Lakshmi promised. Esma rose and went into her bedroom. She returned in a few moments with a dark vial, and handed it out to Lakshmi.
“Two drops. No more, Lakshmi.”
“No more,” she repeated. “Thank you.”
“Do what’s smart,” she cautioned. “Not what’s easy.”
Lakshmi was ready when a servant came to escort her to the king’s chamber. The clothes she’d prepared for her and Ajuni, as well as the food she’d managed to get ahold of, was concealed at the bottom of her armoire under the extra set of blankets. The vial of sleeping draught Esma had given her was concealed in one of the pockets of her voluminous robes.
When the servant led her in a different direction than the one that would take her to the emperor’s corridors, Lakshmi let out a sigh of relief that she didn’t even know she was holding. She wouldn’t have to see Guy in the room she’d last seen the dead emperor in.
Perhaps the blood splatter was making things difficult.
When the servant finally brought her to King Guy’s door and knocked, Lakshmi found herself again holding her breath. She forced it out just as Guy’s voice rang out, yelling at the servant to come in.
Like most rooms in the palace, his was full of gilt and finery. It smelled of too much incense and perfume, and Lakshmi vaguely recognized a strange pipe that she had seen other visitors bring to the palace, but which she’d never known the emperor to use himself.
When she got a look at the king’s eyes, she saw that he’d been making use of the pipe before she came in. His pupils were pinpricks, his face flushed. “You came. A pity, I would have enjoyed sending my guards to drag you here.”
Lakshmi looked around the room, but saw no signs of Guy’s guards. They were alone save the servant, who stood off to the side, pretending to hear nothing.
“I’m glad to serve you, King Guy, however you’d like me.”
He laughed, raspy and mean. “You’re a clever whore, aren’t you? Clever enough that rumor has it the emperor favored you above all others. Clever enough to get me thrown into jail here.” His eyes hardened. “But not clever enough to stay out of my room. To keep me away from you. Take off your veil.”
It was everything Lakshmi could do to keep her hands from shaking when she lifted them to unclip her veil. Only two men had seen her naked face since she was a child: the emperor, and Roland. And now Guy was looking at her, examining her with malevolent lust, and she felt as naked as though she wore no clothes at all.
“Tell me again, when I can see your face, how eager you are to serve me.”
“I was the emperor’s concubine,” Lakshmi said, using all of her years of practice convincing everyone she met, from the strangest of servants to the intimacy of her relationship with Samarth, to believe the words she was about to say. “He took good care of me, always. But he’s gone, and by all accounts you will be the emperor soon.”
“So not just a clever whore, but a grabbing one,” King Guy said. “Did that fat old fool Samarth find that charming? Did you manipulate him with your big brown eyes and that space between your thighs that you promised only for him?” He was winding himself up, moving toward her with every word, so that he was nearly screaming at her by the end, spittle flying from his lips to land on her face.
“I don’t know,” she whispered, dropping her gaze, not knowing how to keep up her act.
“Look at me!” Guy grabbed her face, gripping her chin hard enough to leave bruises, and pressed his hot mouth to hers, ravaging it.
Every instinct screamed at Lakshmi to pull away, to run, to hit and kick at Guy until she was free of him, but she subdued them all and stood still. After an eternity, Guy pulled away.
“Is that all that you gave to Samarth? Perhaps he was a bigger fool than I thought.”
Lakshmi was an inexperienced kisser, but she understood Guy’s meaning. “Perhaps I’m a little nervous,” she said. “Sometimes, the emperor and I would have a drink before…”
“I’m not courting you,” Guy growled. “I don’t need to get you a drink.”
Lakshmi reached out and placed a hand lightly on the front of each of Guy’s shoulders, rubbing gently. “Wouldn’t you like a drink?” she asked. “It will be worth it.”
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 5
I did no writing yesterday (sorry not sorry).
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 6
Scene 8 Continued:
“I’m not thirsty,” he said, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her closer, pressing himself against her.
His hot, fetid breath filled her nostrils just before his mouth reclaimed hers. When she didn’t respond immediately, he bit her bottom lip hard.
“I expected more from you, Lakshmi. Give me what you gave to Samarth.”
“Of course,” she said. “Would you like a backrub before we begin?”
She saw the hesitation in his eyes, and lowered her voice to what she hoped was a seductive tone. “I promise you’ll enjoy it.”
To her relief, he smiled. “A massage fit for a king,” he said.
“A massage fit for an emperor,” she corrected. He chuckled. “There you are, climbing for a spot in my bed. Make it worth it, and you might get it.”
She took his hand and led him back into the bedroom. She saw a familiar bottle next to the king’s bed, and wondered if he had requested it or if the maids had brought it because they thought she might want it.
She uncorked the bottle and was met with the familiar scent of the massage oil she had spread on the emperor’s back countless time. “Undress and lie on your stomach on the bed,” she said past the lump in her throat.
He did so, making a show of presenting his naked body to her, and she did her best to seem appreciative, though in truth she hardly noticed him. Her mind was on Samarth as she spread the oil on her hands, rubbing them together before climbing onto the bed herself and straddling him to begin her massage.
“Shouldn’t you take off your clothes, too?” he asked.
“I don’t want to get distracted,” she said. Guy didn’t laugh, but he didn’t force her to disrobe, either, and she settled back into the massage. The moves were so familiar to her, the scent of the oil so thick in the air, that she was transported back in time. It wasn’t Guy she was massaging, but Samarth. Her father. Not on one of the days he wanted more from her than she would ever give, but after a hard day when he was plagued by a headache and needed her skilled hands to relieve the tension from his neck.
Lakshmi felt pressure building behind her eyes and was shocked when her eyes filled with tears. She hadn’t known she had such feelings for her father, hadn’t mourned his death, but here, now, performing a task she had previously only performed for him, sadness crashed over her in waves. She would never see him again, never talk to him or work to sway his decisions. She would never comfort him, never soothe away his pains.
Never tell him she was his daughter. Lakshmi’s hands were on the small of King Guy’s back by the time she returned to herself, and in a moment of realization she knew what she had to do. Slowly, purposefully, she massaged her way back up.
“What’s not what I hoped you would do,” Guy mumbled.
“Soon,” she promised. She began massaging his neck, and with a silent prayer pressed her fingers to the point Captain Garth had taught her about years ago.
She counted off time slowly in her head, and when she’d counted to half the time Garth had taught her about, she whispered Guy’s name. Receiving no answer, she snatched her hands back from his neck. “King Guy?” she asked again.
There was still no response, and she put her fingers to his neck once more, but rather than applying pressure, she felt for his pulse.
After several agonizing seconds, she was relieved to feel a pulse. She climbed off of him and rolled him over. He made no noise, and Lakshmi’s mind raced as she tried to remember everything Captain Garth had taught her. She couldn’t remember how long Guy would stay unconscious. Garth had warned that she shouldn’t use that technique unless she had to, because there was no guarantee the person would ever wake up. She wanted Guy dead—hadn’t realized she wanted it until she realized he’d not only killed the emperor, but her father—but if she’d killed him now they would hunt for her.
But he was breathing, his heart still beating, and she had to assume he would eventually wake.
With shaking hands, she reached into her pocket for the vial of sleeping elixir Esma had given her.
She uncapped the vial and forced the king’s mouth open. With great care, she moved the vial to his mouth and slowly watched a drop fall into his mouth. He was already sleeping, he might not need two, but Lakshmi had already taken such a risk that she saw no need for caution now. She allowed a second drop to fall into his mouth before pulling it back and replacing the cap.
With the vial back in her pocket, Lakshmi went about doing what she had done so many times before: she mussed her hair, her clothes, and bit her lips so that they’d look swollen from kisses. She fixed her veil back into place and headed for the door.
She opened it slowly, and was relieved that she was met with no guards. Had they been there and wanted to check on the king, there was no way she would be able to get away.
Not wanting to risk running out of luck, she hurriedly made her way back to the women’s wing. She went straight to her room and grabbed the supplies she’d hidden at the bottom of her closet. Taking it, she went back into the deserted hall and hurried to Esma’s room. She knocked twice and let herself in.
“Lakshmi!” Esma exclaimed, her hands rising to clutch at the pearl necklace around her neck. “You scared me.”
“Is Ajuni ready?”
Esma shook her head. “I was just going to tell her.”
“You haven’t told her yet?” Lakshmi asked, amazed.
“She’s just a child. Children aren’t good at keeping secrets.” The look Lakshmi gave her must have been strong enough to have her backpedaling. “Perhaps you were, but not all children are capable of that. Ajuni has never had to keep a secret.”
“We have to tell her, now,” Lakshmi said. “It’s time for us to leave.”
“So soon?” Esma asked. “I thought you were leaving towards the morning?”
“I had to give Guy that elixir,” Lakshmi said. “If someone goes looking for him, they’ll realize something is wrong. The sooner we leave, the safer we’ll be.”
“Come with me,” Esma said, leading Lakshmi to the door that adjoined Esma’s suite to Ajuni’s. “I’m going to tell her everything."
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 7
“Mama. Lakshmi? What’s going on?” Ajuni’s dark brown eyes were filled with curiosity. She’d always been bright, something that had given Lakshmi pride, and she knew that would make this both easier and much more difficult.
“Baby,” Esma said. “I need to tell you something.”
Her voice broke, and she reached out and grabbed Lakshmi’s hand for strength. Lakshmi was surprised, but she squeezed the older woman’s hand. “It’s okay,” Lakshmi whispered. “Just tell her.”
“Tell me what?”
“Let’s sit down,” Esma said, sitting on Ajuni’s bed and patting the place beside her.
“Mama, what’s going on?” she asked again, more insistent.
“You’re leaving, baby,” Esma said, her eyes welling with tears.
“Leaving?” Ajuni asked. “Why? Where are we going?”
“Not we,” Esma said. “You’ll be leaving with Lakshmi. I have to stay here.”
“What? No,” Ajuni said. “No. I’m not leaving you.”
“You have to,” Esma said.
“No,” Ajuni said, her voice rising. “No. You have to come. I don’t want to be alone.”
“Lakshmi is going with you,” Esma reminded her. “You won’t be alone. She’ll take good care of you.”
“I don’t want her,” Ajuni said, flinging herself at her mother and wrapping her arms tightly around her familiar body. “I want you.”
Lakshmi’s heart ached, not out of jealousy, but out of empathy for the pain she knew Ajuni must be feeling.
“I know you don’t want to leave with me,” Lakshmi said, keeping her voice even and measured in contrast to the tears and shaky breaths Esma was ruled by. “But you’re not safe here.”
“But you said everything was safe,” Ajuni accused, pulling away from her mother. “You promised no one was going to hurt me.” Her voice was near hysterical. “I don’t want to be dead like Papa.”
Lakshmi made soothing noises and laid a calming hand on Ajuni’s back. “No one is going to kill you,” she promised the girl.
Ajuni flinched away. “Don’t lie. All you do is lie.” She began crying, and Esma hugged her tight against her side, holding her there despite her struggles.
“I’m not lying,” Lakshmi said. “No one will kill you, but you’re not safe here.”
“Why?” Ajuni’s voice was muffled against her mother’s breast.
“Because King Guy wants to marry you,” Lakshmi said.
“He’s a bad man,” Esma added, whispering the words against her daughter’s soft hair.
“I thought Papa wanted me to marry him,” Ajuni said, seeming not to believe her mother.
“He did,” Esma said. “But then he found out he was bad, and he decided he didn’t want you to marry King Guy anymore.”
Ajuni looked unsure, and turned to Lakshmi to confirm.
Lakshmi nodded. “He had Guy arrested,” she added. “That’s how bad he thought he was.”
“If Papa didn’t want me to marry him, why do I have to?”
“Because with your father dead, King Guy will be emperor,” Lakshmi said. “That means he can do what he wants.”
Ajuni shook her head, her eyes once more full of tears. “That’s not fair. Papa’s dead. He can’t just…he can’t just…” Her voice dissolved in gasping sobs, and Esma clung to her helplessly.
“Where are her things?” Lakshmi asked.
Esma gestured with her head to the chest at the foot of Ajuni’s bed.
Lakshmi opened it and was surprised by what she found. Beautiful jewelry and cloth near filled the chest. She looked over at Esma curiously.
“For her trousseau,” she explained. “Under the cloths.”
Lakshmi lifted out the top items and found under them a plain satchel. Inside were garments that Lakshmi didn’t immediately recognize, then did with a start. The pack was filled with boy’s clothing.
“She’ll be more easily concealed that way,” Esma said.
Esma nodded. Ajuni seemed calmer now, and Esma pulled back from her daughter, lifting her chin so that their eyes met. “Listen to me, Ajuni,” Esma said.
“Do you know how much I love you?” she asked.
“Past the ends of the world?” the girl asked.
“Past the ends of the world,” Esma confirmed. “Past the moon and the farthest stars. Past even the dark night sky to whatever is beyond it. That’s how much I love you.”
“I love you too, Mama,” Ajuni said.
“Good. Then you know I’d never do anything bad for you,” she said. “You know I’d never send you away unless I had to.”
Ajuni’s lips trembled again. “I don’t want to go away.”
“I know. But Lakshmi will take good care of you. Because she loves you too.”
“Why?” Ajuni asked, this time directing her question to Lakshmi.
Lakshmi looked at Esma for permission and received a small nod. “I love you because you’re smart and funny and kind,” Lakshmi said. “And because you’re my sister.”
Ajuni just stared at Lakshmi clearly not understanding. After a few moments she looked to her mother, than back to Lakshmi.
Esma chuckled. “No, baby. I’m not her mother.”
“I know,” Ajuni said. “You’re too young.” She frowned. “I didn’t know Papa had another daughter.” The look she sent Lakshmi was hot with jealousy. “He never told me.”
“He didn’t know,” Lakshmi said. “My mother never told him.”
“If he didn’t know--” Her mouth twisted in distaste. “I know what you did with him,” she said.
“No,” Lakshmi said. “I never did that. I only pretended. I was his bodyguard. It was my job to protect him.”
“Then why is he dead?” Ajuni asked.
Her words cut deep. “Because I failed,” she said. “Because I didn’t think he was in danger, and I was wrong. But I won’t be wrong again.”
“With me,” Ajuni said.
“Yes. I’ll take care of you.”
“Where will we go?” Ajuni asked.
Lakshmi nearly smiled. Bright, and more mature than her mother would have given her credit for. She was a child, but a smart one. It would be hard to travel with her and keep her safe, but not impossible. “I don’t know yet,” Lakshmi said. “First we have to leave the city.”
NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 8
After tearful hugs that Lakshmi worried wouldn’t end, she and Ajuni—who had decided to go by Mehmon—made their way to the balcony in Esma’s room.
It would be too dangerous to go into the hallways dressed as they were, so they had to escape to the outside.
“She can’t climb that,” Esma said, looking down at the sheer walls and the ground two stories below them.
Lakshmi looked to Ajuni, who shook her head. “It’s too far.”
“Okay,” Lakshmi said, as it was no more than she had expected. “It’s okay.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a rope. “I’m going to put this around your waist, and then we’re going to climb down together. Your mom will hold you from up here.”
“What?” Esma asked.
“Don’t worry,” Lakshmi soothed them both. She fashioned a quick harness for Ajuni, then handed the end of the rope to Esma. “Hold on to this tight,” she warned the woman.
Esma nodded and smartly wrapped it around her body.
“Okay Ajuni,” Lakshmi said. “I’m going to lower you over the side first, then I’ll be right there.”
The girl was trembling, but she nodded and trusted Lakshmi. As soon as the girl was over the balcony, clinging to the posts on the other side as Lakshmi had instructed, she slipped over herself.
“Let the rope out slowly,” she reminded Esma.
Lakshmi wasn’t restrained by the rope, she didn’t think Esma had the strength to support her weight, but she placed herself between Ajuni and the ground anyways. Slowly, with soft instructions for the girl, they climbed down to the ground. There were some places where the handholds, small as they were, were spaced too far apart for the young girl and she had to rely on her mother’s strength to safely lower her, but eventually then were on the ground.
“Let go the rope, Esma,” Lakshmi called, hoping her voice did not carry too far.
The rope went slack, swiftly falling to the ground, and Lakshmi heard what she thought was a muffled sob. “It’s time to go, Mehmon,” she said with a gentle look to Ajuni, who was still trembling with tears brimming in her brown eyes.
Ajuni nodded and straightened herself up, moving to stand next to Lakshmi. It was clear from her face that she was trying to be brave, but her hand went to Lakshmi’s, and Lakshmi took it and held tight.
There were more guards on the street than Lakshmi had counted on. She wore plain clothes and a thick, modest veil, so it was not illegal for her to be on the streets at this time, but she didn’t like the attention she was attracting. On instinct, she moved toward the north gate, watching for landmarks she had only heard about.
Inns, taverns, shops. Street crossings, statues, empty tables that she assumed were filled with wares during the day.
She made lefts and rights, doubled back, tried to avoid notice as much as possible.
And eventually, as much by chance as anything else, she came to The Dancing Horses.
She walked into the dark common room, wincing at the squeal of the door on old hinges. It wasn’t in good repair, old and dusty with lamps that needed their wicks trimmed to tame the wild smoke billowing from them, but whoever was on watch was attentive, because they weren’t long alone in the room.
“What ya’ want?” a grizzled man with a cudgel stuck into his belt demanded.
“A room for myself and my brother,” Lakshmi said.
“It’s the middle o’ the night,” the man said. “Why ya’ gettin’ a room now? Where were ya’?”
Lakshmi lifted her chin. “It doesn’t matter. We’d like a room.”
The man didn’t look pleased with her answer, but he quoted her a price for the room that Lakshmi could only assume was much higher than the room should go for.
She haggled accordingly.
“Listen, girl,” he said. “You pay that rate, or you sleep on the street.”
“So you can pocket half the money without telling your employer?” she asked.
“My employer don’t care. When it comes to girls like you, he’d as soon have you out as in.”
Lakshmi wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by “girls like you,” but she knew when she wasn’t about to win an argument.
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