Lakshmi bent down and slipped the small, ragged brown dog a bite of succulent lamb. The dog gobbled it up, as it had gobbled up the chicken, the potatoes, and even some of the corn. It looked up at Lakshmi expectantly.
The cook was looking at Lakshmi, too, her wooden spoon held in an angry grip. “I hardly think this is necessary,” the woman said. “It’s insulting, thinking the food was poisoned.” Her voice dropped a bit on the last, but her anger got through.
Lakshmi couldn’t worry about the cook’s feelings. Despite the fact that she liked and respected the woman, her main concern was for the emperor’s life. “As long as Prince Roland is here, it is necessary.”
“You’re giving these mutts good food,” the cook objected. “Picking apart the emperor’s meals like this, before he even gets them, is a crime. A crime!”
Lakshmi smiled without humor and sent the cook a grim look. “Poisoning the emperor is a crime. This is a mere inconvenience.”
Since it had been several minutes and the small dog looked to be suffering no ill effects, Lakshmi judged the food safe to eat. “Arrange the food on the plate as you will,” Lakshmi said. “Then I will bring it out.”
“A concubine can serve her master,” Lakshmi said. The woman grumbled under her breath as she did her job, then handed the platter over.
“Here. Take it.”
“Thank you.” Lakshmi regretted hurting the woman’s feelings, but she had no other choice. “You must know it isn’t you I distrust.”
“You don’t trust me to keep my kitchens in line,” the cook said. “It amounts to the same thing.”
Since Lakshmi had no idea what it was like to run something like the palace kitchens, she couldn’t be sure of that. Insult or no, she would see that the king’s food was safe to eat before every meal. She would not forgive herself if something so easily preventable led to the emperor’s demise.
“Ah, Lakshmi, you’ve brought my food.”
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.” Lakshmi set the food before him as other servants brought out plates for the rest of the people at the dinner table. Prince Roland sat to the emperor’s right, looking splendid in a deep purple shirt and black pants. Esma sat on the emperor’s left, demure behind her yellow veil.
Other important people were seated at the table, visiting the palace at this time not only for the emperor but to meet with the visiting royalty. It wasn’t only Prince Roland Lakshmi didn’t trust, though he was the most obvious threat.
“Please, eat,” Emperor Samarth said, digging into his own food with gusto. He didn’t mention that a select portion of lamb was missing. Lakshmi wasn’t sure if he hadn’t noticed, or if it was because he did not want to let on that his food was being checked for poisons, though he was aware of the precautions being taken.
It didn’t matter, so long as he was safe.
Lakshmi was not allowed to eat at the table with so many important people and their wives, so she retreated to a darkened alcove. The cook must have forgiven her, for food was waiting there, and Lakshmi ate it while she watched the table. It was doubtful anyone would make a move during dinner, but she watched the men with weapons, and anyone who moved toward the emperor’s wine glass.
It was easy enough to slip someone poison without them noticing.
The meal passed without incident, and Lakshmi slipped out the back way as the guests were leaving out the front.
Only Roland noticed her presence throughout the meal.
"Ah, Lakshmi my dear, there you are. Help me with my robes."
Lakshmi crossed to the emperor. She grabbed his shirt from the wardrobe and held it out to him, pulling it around his rotund stomach and working at the small buttons down the front. When she turned back to the wardrobe for his overcoat, she felt his hand slide down the small of her back and rest on her bottom, giving it an intimate squeeze.
She closed her eyes briefly, then turned around with a forced smile on her face. “Here you are, Your Imperial Majesty.” She held the coat out to him.
The emperor grinned and pulled Lakshmi up against him. “Perhaps tonight you can help me undress,” he suggested, rubbing his hands over her.
It took everything Lakshmi had not to pull away in disgust. “I’m afraid that is unwise,” she told him, sickness pooling in her stomach.
“How can it be unwise for a concubine to sleep with her master?” the emperor asked. She could smell wine on his breath, and wondered how much he and his important guests had had to drink.
Lakshmi looked down at the ground, away from her father and his greedy eyes. He doesn’t know, Lakshmi reminded herself. That knowledge did little to alleviate the sick feeling. “I’ve said before that I cannot protect you if we are otherwise…occupied.”
Emperor Samarth laughed. “I have other guards,” he said, moving so that he was whispering in her ear, his breath hot and moist.
Lakshmi pulled away as much as his grip would allow. “I’m sorry. I am your bodyguard, not…”
The emperor let her loose, disgusted. “Go. I will find another girl to entertain me tonight.”
Lakshmi nodded, letting out a quiet breath of relief. “Of course, Your Imperial Majesty.”
She turned to leave, but he stopped her when she got to the door. “One thing,” he said. “I was not able to tell you about Prince Roland in advance.” His voice had a sour note when he said the young prince’s name. “However, I will tell you now that I expect King Guy Talan’s arrival in a couple of weeks.”
“King Guy?” Lakshmi asked, hoping she sounded more casual than she felt. Everything in her had gone on alert.
“Yes. He is coming to fetch Ajuni. Their marriage contract will be most beneficial to the empire.” Try to avoid dialogue tags unless they are really necessary. Much of the time they are, but not often in a one-on-one dialogue.
“He is—Ajuni is quite young, isn’t she?”
The emperor shrugged. “They will not marry for a few years, but I don’t like her in the palace when other young men come in and out. She will marry Guy. As Esma seems unlikely to give me any male heirs, I will make Guy my heir when he and Ajuni marry.”
And she did. The emperor was not thinking at all about the happiness of his daughter’s marriage. It was only a way for the empire to continue beyond his reign. Ajuni was only a means to an end.
“I don’t want anything to happen to Guy while he is here, Lakshmi.”
“My duty is to protect you. If King Guy offers no threat, he will remain safe.”
She left before the little she had had for lunch came back up.
Lakshmi was due in the kitchens to see that the food preparation was safe, but she couldn’t go down now. She was sweating from more than the heat, and her hands were trembling. She made her way to the gardens, and sank down onto the nearest bench. Then she bent over so that her head was between her knees, trying to breathe and not be sick.
“Mama,” Lakshmi said. “What should I do?”
It had been a long time since she had spoken to her mother. She always felt faintly silly, speaking to a woman who had been dead nearly ten years, but she had no one else to talk to. There was no one—inside the palace or out—that Lakshmi could confide in about personal matters. No one alive, to Lakshmi’s knowledge, knew about her parentage, or that Ajuni was her sister.
“Ajuni is just a little girl,” Lakshmi said. “She’s too young to leave, to marry. And King Guy…she can’t marry him.”
Lakshmi had been young when her mother died, little older than Ajuni was now, but she had been old enough to see some of the complex emotions her mother had felt toward Esma and the emperor’s daughter. Sometimes, Lakshmi’s mother had seemed jealous of Esma; sometimes, she had even seemed jealous of Ajuni.
Lakshmi knew that she was the reason her mother had been forced to leave the palace for so long; the reason she had lost favor with the emperor. She wasn’t sure what her mother’s thoughts would be on wanting to protect her half-sister, but she liked to think her mother would want to protect an innocent girl, whoever’s daughter she was.
“You left because of me,” Lakshmi said. “Because the emperor would not let you have me.”
Some men allowed their concubines to carry their illegitimate children, but Emperor Samarth had been careful to make sure there could never be a contest to his throne from within. Perhaps things would have been different had he known Esma would bear only one child, but he had only just married his young bride when Lakshmi had been conceived.
Lakshmi’s mother had been the sole concubine to disobey the emperor’s wishes. Rather than trying to end the pregnancy, she had kept it hidden, and finally run away. Eight years later, she had returned to the palace with her “niece” in tow, but she had never again been the emperor’s favorite.
Lakshmi’s mother had spent the rest of her days pining for a life and status she could never regain.
“You wanted the life you had before. The pleasure, the comfort.” Lakshmi closed her eyes. “Emperor Samarth can be mean. He is harsh in his rulings, and selfish, but never cruel. I fear that King Guy would be a cruel husband for an innocent girl.”
There were no answers for Lakshmi’s questions, no comforting touch for a daughter’s worries, and no time left to spend.
Lakshmi had a dinner to see prepared.
Lakshmi closed the door to the seamstress’ room behind her. She had run out of yellow thread for embroidery, and with Prince Roland in the palace and King Guy on the way, she wasn’t comfortable leaving the premises altogether. Though the seamstress was not overly fond of Lakshmi’s habit of sewing her own clothes, she was a nice enough woman, and willing to share with the concubines.
Her heart bumped against her chest when she turned and saw Prince Roland standing there, watching her.
He was tall, and fair as the sun. Lakshmi forgot herself for a moment, then gave a quick curtsy. “Prince Roland. I did not see you there. May I help you?”
Her words tumbled out, and she wondered what had happened to her composure. The sultry looks and calm façade she had worn for years all seemed stripped away whenever she ran into the prince.
“Yes, actually, you can.”
Lakshmi had expected a quick no, and didn’t know quite what to do with his answer. “How can I serve?” she asked, finally managing a bit of calm.
“I have heard that the palace has well-kept gardens, and I would like to see one of them,” he said.
“Oh.” She hadn’t expected Prince Roland to be the type to stroll in the gardens, but even the emperor was known to do so from time to time. “I can have one of the servants show you to them,” she offered.
“I would like you to show me,” Prince Roland said with a half-smile. “You should be free, as the emperor is in court and you are not.”
Lakshmi wanted to frown, but forced a smile of her own. “Yes. Of course. Follow me.”
“Are your rooms in this area of the palace?” He could have moved up to walk beside her, but when Lakshmi looked back to check on him she saw that his eyes were fixed on the sway of her hips. He seemed to have no interest in looking away any time soon.
“No. My rooms connect to the emperor’s.” She wanted to let him know, if he did not already, that she was especially favored by the emperor. The status of a concubine could be uncertain, but fear of the emperor usually worked to keep men in line.
“I see. What brings you to this area of the palace?” Although it was not quite the servants’ quarters, they were walking through areas where the rugs were thinner, the tapestries less ornate, and the rooms considerably smaller.
Lakshmi had wondered the same about Roland, and decided a closer watch needed to be kept on him. “I needed a bit of thread,” she told him, wishing she could tell him to mind his own business. “The garden is right through these doors.” She opened them and stepped into the fragrant green of the garden.
Usually, the gardens made her calm. Today, here with Roland, they only made her more edgy.
“It is a lovely spot,” Roland said, strolling amongst the flowers, stopping occasionally to feel a leaf or smell a blossom. “Especially given that this exists in the middle of the desert. It must take a lot to maintain.”
Lakshmi shrugged. “I suppose.” She knew little about the work that went into keeping the gardens so fine. “During the rainy season, we collect water in basins.” That much she knew. Bath water was also recycled into the gardens, but she did not wish to mention bathing in Roland’s company.
Roland smiled. “That makes sense. Where I come from, there is no need to collect rainwater. It rains year round.”
Roland laughed at the surprise on her face. “When it doesn’t snow.”
“Snow? That is when the water freezes?”
“I have read of it. Prince Roland, is Ugarth very different from Aratal?” The palace was located in the kingdom of Aratal, and Lakshmi had never been outside its desert regions.
“Ugarth is far to the north, near the mountains,” Roland said. “The water falls in the mountains and runs off in streams through Ugarth. There are forests and valleys and animals such as the desert has never seen.”
“Call me Roland, when we are private.” He stepped closer to her, close enough to touch.
She could smell him over the scent of the flowers. He smelled clean and masculine. Calling him Roland would be inappropriate, an intimacy not to be allowed. But the lure was there, all the stronger for being unexpected, and she succumbed. “Roland, have you seen much of the empire?”
“I have traveled extensively in the north. I have the wanderlust, you see. I love the mountains and the woods. My brothers and father would rather stay in court, but I love the outdoors and traveling new places.”
Lakshmi nodded, her mind trying to wrap around the reality of “mountains” and “woods.” She had heard about them, read about them, but she could imagine them no more than she could imagine frozen water falling from the sky.
“I have traveled in other parts of the empire as well. I do not like dry places like Aratal. I miss the green when I am here. I like good soil beneath my feet, not sand and rocks.”
Lakshmi looked around the garden, trying to see it through his eyes. It was the only place around where the ground had something more than sand and rocks to offer. Plants such as these could not grow in sand. “Where else have you been?”
“I have been south of Aratal, to the ocean.”
“Really?” Lakshmi had heard of the ocean. It was like the springs or small lakes in the oases that dotted the desert, but so big that it was said people could not see land on the other side, and full of salt so that people could not drink it. Boats called ships were said to sail across the water to foreign ports. Lakshmi had seen boats on the river running through Madarede, but she could not image them going any long distance.
“You haven’t been there?” Roland asked. “It is less than a week south of here.”
“I don’t leave the city.” Not since her mother had brought her to Madarede when she was eight.
“You should sometime, at least to see the ocean. I think you would like it, and there is more green there. A bit more like this garden than the desert.”
Lakshmi would like to see a place that was like this garden, but she knew it was unlikely to happen. Not as long as the emperor was alive, at least. And then…when the emperor was gone, Lakshmi did not know what she would do. “Maybe someday.”
“I wish to look around the garden some more,” Roland said. “Why don’t you walk with me?”
Lakshmi wanted to. She was drawn to his voice, the accent that made it at times difficult to understand him. His size, taller and broader than most of the men she knew, was alluring as well. And those eyes—she’d never seen such blue eyes before—were captivating.
The draw she felt was why she had to leave. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Lakshmi,” he reached out and grabbed her arm, and she felt as if she had been scalded.
“I’m sorry, Roland, I can’t.” She wrenched her arm free and turned and ran. She needed to put space between herself and the too-appealing northerner.
Back in her rooms, she sank into one of the comfortable chairs, letting it surround her as she tried to make sense of her emotions and all the reasons they were not possible.
For one, she was the emperor’s concubine, in name if not in truth. Even being alone with Roland, she could no longer think of him as Prince, was risky. The punishments for a disloyal concubine were severe.
And if the risk to herself was not enough, the fact remained that she did not trust Roland. Why was he wandering the palace unescorted? She would have to speak to Captain Garth, and see if perhaps he could arrange for Roland to be surreptitiously watched. If he had some secret plot, it needed to be found out before he could act against the emperor.
If that was the plan.
Maybe he was just a stupid young noble who had grown restless in the palace.