Lakshmi had been in the gardens when she got the summons to go to the emperor's chambers. As she made her way, she passed two of the palace concubines. They pointedly turned their heads away from her and whispered to each other just loud enough for Lakshmi to hear.
“There goes that one.”
“She thinks she's better than us because the emperor keeps her closer.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t want to go through the bother of summoning someone in the middle of the night, and figures she’ll do well enough.” They giggled to each other, and Lakshmi was sure they had purposely spoken loud enough for her to overhear.
She tried not to let the jealous whispering of the concubines bother her. They did not know the truth, and if Lakshmi removed herself from the equation, she thought their jealousy was justified. She had the biggest rooms, and received the most and best gifts. They did not know everything given to her was pretense.
Even if they knew, she did receive those things, and she enjoyed the benefits. If that caused jealousy between her and the other women in the palace, there was little she could do about it.
Lakshmi turned into the emperor's room and found him sitting stiffly in one of the plush chairs. He looked pained, and Lakshmi guessed he must have one of the headaches that plagued him from time to time.
“You allow too much tension to build up,” Lakshmi chided gently, crossing the room to perch beside him on the arm of his chair. “Would you like a massage?”
For the most part Lakshmi wished that the emperor would call on another woman for dressing and undressing, and all of the other menial tasks he assigned her. This, however, she could do, and do better than the others.
“Yes, Thank you, dear.”
“On the bed.” Lakshmi gestured him over.
The emperor stripped off his clothes and lay on the bed. Lakshmi pulled the sheet up to cover him to the waist, then began massaging him with the sandalwood massage oils by the bed. He groaned as she dug her fingers into the knots at the base of his skull, using pressure to loosen the tensed muscles.
“You must have too much stress,” Lakshmi said lightly, her tone inviting him to talk. The emperor was a shrewd man, but he was always inclined to talk when she gave him a massage. Words tended to slip out of him along with the tension.
“It’s that Roland,” he growled. “I want him gone.”
“Can’t you ask him to leave?” Her clever fingers moved from his neck down to his shoulders. “You are the emperor.”
“Sending Roland away would be a negative message to his father,” the emperor said. “From a political standpoint, there is no option but to let him remain.”
Lakshmi filed that information away for later. “But the situation with King Guy seem to be going well,” she said after several minutes of working the knots out of his back in silence.
“Yes. His union with Ajuni will strengthen his bond with me and the empire. Samalt is a powerful kingdom, and when it is tied to the centrality of the empire, both will prosper.”
Lakshmi made a sound of assent. “Then you seem to have arranged an advantageous match for Ajuni.” She was quiet a moment. “She’s much younger than King Guy.”
The emperor shrugged under her skillful hands. “She’ll be able to give him heirs. That is what is important.”
Lakshmi finished the emperor’s massage without another word. She didn’t want to know any more about Roland or King Guy or Ajuni’s impending marriage.
After leaving the emperor's room, she didn't want to return to her own quarters. The gardens held no interest for her, the day seemed particularly hot and breathless, and she decided instead to walk the palace corridors, away from the scalding sun.
The servants’ walkways were narrow, but they were the internal halls of the palace and as such were often cooler than the rest of the building. Lakshmi didn’t mind the less adorned corridors or bare floors. It was almost a relief to see the plain and simple when her life was so often filled with the opulent.
Lakshmi did not recognize all of the servants, and she ignored the men and women hurrying past her carrying food or laundry or cleaning supplies. They were a blur of unimportant faces, rushing to do whatever job was set before them in order to keep the palace running seamlessly.
The quiet and efficient bustle of the servants seemed typical, and Lakshmi had to look twice at a man and a woman who were walking together. The woman carried a bundle of cloth, the man an empty bucket. They looked no different than any of the other servants, but they did not move with the same confidence and focused intensity of the others in this hall. The two of them kept looking around, as though they weren’t sure if they were in the right place.
“Hey!” Lakshmi said. She wasn’t sure if she had planned to offer them help or ask what they were doing—she didn’t have time to think it through.
The man threw away his bucket and lunged at her as the woman pulled out a long, wicked blade that had been concealed by the cloth she was carrying.
Lakshmi cursed as she dodged the man. He was quick, but she was quicker, and he ran past her and fell on the slippery stone floor. His slippers were better suited for carpeted halls.
Lakshmi put her back against the wall and tried to find a way to separate the woman from her knife before the man regained his feet and made another grab for her.
Luckily, the woman was not skilled with her chosen weapon, and she came at Lakshmi straight-on. Lakshmi hit the woman’s arm with a quick, hard chop, and the woman let out a cry of surprise, dropping the knife and clutching her wrist as pain lanced up her arm.
Lakshmi scooped up the knife even as she delivered a roundhouse kick to the man’s face, ruining his nose and sending him flying. Movement out of the corner of her eye revealed another servant, this one familiar, standing down the hall with wide, frightened eyes.
“Go get the guards,” Lakshmi ordered the girl. The man was getting back up, and the woman—apparently recovered from the pain in her arm— was out for blood. The narrow corridor was not the best place for this, and Lakshmi had been taken by surprise.
But one of the real palace servants had seen her. It would be better to hold the assailants off until the guards got there so that it would seem that the guards had taken care of the situation, not Lakshmi. She had nearly decided to do that when the man, blood still gushing from his nose, grabbed the woman and started tugging her away. He was hard to understand with his nose clogged with blood, but Lakshmi could make out enough to know that he was telling the woman that they had failed and needed to escape.
Letting them get away wasn’t an option. Lakshmi needed to find out who their target had been, and who had sent them. They had livery from the palace, which was not easy to come by. It was possible someone from inside the palace had ordered an assassination, and Lakshmi had to know who.
With some regret for the plan that would make these two the guards’ responsibilities, Lakshmi took off after them. She didn’t like hurting people, and she couldn’t be sure they both had the necessary details, so she threw the knife with an accuracy that burrowed it into the man’s hamstring. He fell and screamed in pain.
The woman’s step faltered as she looked back at her companion in surprise. That was all it took for Lakshmi to catch up with her and knock her to the floor.
The guards arrived moments later, with the servant trailing behind. Lakshmi wondered if the servant would be sworn to secrecy or sent to live out the rest of her days in some small desert town. Perhaps she was trustworthy, and would become one of the few who knew about Lakshmi’s real role in the palace. Those decisions were left to the captain of the guards and the emperor, not to Lakshmi. It was her job to protect the emperor, but she had very little say about her own life.
“I think they were pretending to be servants,” Lakshmi said, forcing her voice to waver as though from fear. “I was just walking along and they…attacked me.”
She closed her eyes, as if the memory was too much to bear. When she opened them the guards were looking at her in concern, as though they were afraid she would faint or give in to a fit of tears at any moment. She wished Captain Garth was present so she did not have to put on such a show, but these guards did not—and could not— know she was more than a concubine.
“Were you hurt?” one of the guards asked.
Lakshmi shook her head, biting her plush lower lip. “I don’t think so. It all happened so fast. I don’t remember…Do you think they came after me on purpose?” she asked with all the self-concern and egotism attributed to a favored concubine. “Do you think they wanted to kidnap me?” She swayed as if feeling faint, and one of the guards instinctively moved to grab her arm before a sharp word from the other had him backing up fast, holding his hands in the air as though to prove he had not touched the emperor’s property.
“No, I’m sure you were not their target,” the guard answered. “Run along, and we will deal with them now.”
“Thank you,” She carried on the pretense of being unsteady until she rounded the corner, then she ran to her room and penned a hasty explanatory note to Captain Garth. She rolled it up and sealed it, then tapped it against her lip as she contemplated how to see it delivered in a timely fashion.
She did not want to be seen with any of the guards so soon after the incident. She could deliver it through the cook, but having an intermediary always made her uneasy, even if that intermediary was someone she could trust. In this instance there seemed no other recourse but to wait and give Garth the information herself. Lakshmi thought on it another moment before deciding that the note could not wait.
So Lakshmi straightened her hair and veil, the latter having almost fallen off in the fight, and made her way to the kitchens to deliver a note to the cook for Captain Garth.
Life would be so much easier if such subterfuge could be done away with, Lakshmi thought. So much easier if everyone knew who I truly was. Or if my mother had never decided to return here.
When Roland approached Lakshmi in the corridor, Lakshmi gripped her hastily scrawled note tighter. "Roland," she greeted, pausing only briefly before continuing on her way to the kitchen. She needed to give the cook this message. Captain Garth needed to learn the news as soon as possible.
“Lakshmi,” he said with concern evident in his voice. “Are you okay? I heard that you were attacked.”
Lakshmi looked at him in surprise. News had traveled fast, and she wondered if Roland actually thought the attack had been on Lakshmi personally. She didn’t think so. A noble would know that the target would have to be someone more important than a concubine for anyone to risk sneaking into a building as heavily guarded as the palace. Did he expect her to let some detail slip?
“I’m fine,” Lakshmi said, forcing a waver into her voice as she had with the guards. “It was a fright, though.”
Roland looked a bit amused. “I’m sure,” he said sardonically, as though he did not believe the waver in her voice to be real.
“I really just want to get back to work,” Lakshmi said, trying to go around him.
Roland pressed his hand against the wall, blocking her path. “Work?”
Since Lakshmi was heading away from her room—and the emperor’s—she realized that “work” may not have been the best excuse. “I want some food first,” she said, feeling stupid. She should have come up with a better lie. More than that, she shouldn’t need to justify herself to Roland.
Aside from the fine clothes, being a concubine had little in the way of perks. Typically, being avoided by men like Roland was one of them.
“Ah. Would you like some company? If you are still frightened, you might not want to walk the halls alone.”
Lakshmi bit the inside of her lip, hard, to keep from saying something scathing. “That may not be a good idea. The emperor does not like me spending time with other men.” Her dark brown eyes held his steadily for a moment before they dropped under the pretense of modesty.
Roland smiled. “I’m sure that the emperor would want you kept safe.”
“I will be fine. The guards have taken care of those…people.”
“Perhaps I am hungry. We can walk to the kitchens together.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “You can send a servant to bring you food,” she reminded him.
“So can you.”
Lakshmi was acutely conscious of the note hidden in the palm of her hand. She had to deliver it, but she realized now that Roland had no intention of leaving her alone. “We can walk together,” she finally relented.
She tucked the missive between folds in her gown and hoped that she would be able to slip it to the cook without Roland noticing and asking questions.