After a late breakfast, Lakshmi decided to spend some time in the gardens. Outside the palace, such necessities as water were at a premium, but for the emperor’s pleasure a verdant garden was kept inside the palace walls. Walking in the garden was one of Lakshmi’s favorite activities.
Unlike the hot, dusty streets of the city, the garden was filled with luscious vegetation. The smells here were not those of the sweating, desperate people that could be found in the streets, but the sweet scent of nectar and the smell of real soil, not the sand that so often covered the ground in this part of the empire.
Lakshmi strolled down the winding stone paths, stopping to smell a flower with a pink, trumpet-like blossom that came up to her waist.
“Ah,” she sighed, enjoying the fragrance. She wished that this smell could be bottled into a perfume. It smelled sweeter than even the finest perfume available to the emperor and his women.
Lakshmi started and turned around to find one of the guards standing there.
“Is something wrong?” she asked. The man did not look happy, and her immediate thought was that there had been an attempt on the emperor’s life. An attempt that she had not been there to stop.
If he had been killed while she spent time walking among the flowers…
“The emperor has requested that you go attend to his wife.”
Lakshmi blinked. “What?”
“Emperor Samarth has requested that you attend to his wife,” the guard repeated stiffly.
Lakshmi could understand his manner now. It was insulting to send a guard to deliver messages to a mere concubine, even if she was a favorite of the emperor’s. “Is she in her quarters?” Lakshmi asked.
“Very well. You can assure the emperor that I am seeing to his wife, if he asks.”
The guard said nothing, just turned and walked off.
Lakshmi arrived at the door to Esma’s quarters and knocked. A soft voice called for her to enter, and Lakshmi let herself in. The emperor’s wife sat on a settee near the balcony. Close enough to enjoy the fresh air but out of the harsh southern sun.
“The emperor sent me,” Lakshmi said.
“Yes.” Esma motioned toward a table with a large paper fan on it. “The heat is stifling today.”
Lakshmi was surprised, but she didn’t show it as she picked up the fan and began wafting air over Esma. The fan riffled the woman’s hair slightly, and she turned her face toward it and sighed.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Lakshmi asked after several moments of silence in which she fanned Esma. It was not the first time she had been asked to serve Esma, but that was usually in the presence of the emperor.
“No,” Esma said, “this is all I require of you.”
Lakshmi nodded and continued fanning. She studied Esma surreptitiously. The woman was not that much older than Lakshmi herself. Her black hair had an almost blue sheen to it, and her face was marred only by the thinnest of lines fanning out from her eyes.
It was a face made for smiles and laughter, despite the cool looks she sent Lakshmi’s way.
“You were in court with my husband the other day,” Esma said suddenly, surprising Lakshmi so that she forgot to fan for a moment.
“Yes.” Lakshmi remembered herself and resumed the calm motions, though her heart was beating somewhat erratically. She did not fear what Esma might do, but she had been caught off guard by the question.
Esma rarely questioned any of the concubines about their activities. Though the concubines might fight amongst themselves, the emperor’s wife was above that. Even if Esma should fall out of favor, she would never be cast aside as a concubine might.
“Do you find it strange, that he should request your presence and not mine?” Esma asked.
Lakshmi knew that one of the reasons she had been there was because she was a bodyguard, but other concubines were known to attend the emperor in court as well. “You are His Imperial Majesty’s wife,” Lakshmi said. “You need not spend hours a day providing the emperor with food and drink, and listening to the boring details of court.”
Esma shook her pretty head. “Do you think it bothers me, that he requests your presence and not mine?”
Lakshmi bit the inside of her plush lower lip. “I do not know, Lady Esma.”
“Do you know what I was doing while you were plying my husband with wine and listening to the problems of those outside the palace?”
“I was in the gardens with my daughter.”
Lakshmi closed her eyes quickly. Ajuni was a beautiful girl, and she felt a tug of envy that Esma had been able to spend uninterrupted hours with Ajuni while Lakshmi herself was with the emperor. She knew it was irrational—Esma was Ajuni’s mother—but Lakshmi could not help being jealous of the time they spent together.
Lakshmi only wished that she could spend that much time with Ajuni.
The secret that Lakshmi kept burned in her gut, and she wanted suddenly to purge it, to beg that she be allowed time with the girl.
But it was not to be.
“Mama!” a bright voice called out as the door swung open.
“Ajuni.” The smile was apparent in Esma’s voice, and her eyes crinkled in the smile that had caused those premature lines. “Come here.”
Ajuni hurried over and sat close to her mother on the settee, leaning into the woman’s side. “Hello, Lakshmi,” the girl said.
Lakshmi could see Esma’s faint disapproval at her daughter’s familiarity with one of the concubines, but Lakshmi couldn’t help but smile back. “Hello, Ajuni. How are you today?”
“Good!” she said brightly. “Guess what?” This question was directed at her mother.
“What, my darling?” Esma asked, any disapproval melting away as she faced her bright, energetic child.
“Papa said I can start wearing a veil.”
Esma’s smile—what little Lakshmi could see of it under the veil—froze. Lakshmi might not have noticed had she not tensed herself at the news.
Wearing a veil was not bad. Lakshmi knew that some women did not like them, but the filmy material the palace could afford made them no more than a mild annoyance at worst, and Lakshmi herself had grown to like the frivolity. But Ajuni was too young to wear a veil. Veils were for women of marriageable age, not for young girls who were innocent and did not need to protect their modesty.
“Did he?” Esma asked with forced levity.
“Yes. Aren’t you happy, Mama? It means I’m grown up.”
“Of course I’m happy,” Esma said, giving her daughter a squeeze. Her eyes flicked up to Lakshmi’s, and there was worry in them.
“When can I get a veil?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Esma said. Her voice was over bright, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
Ajuni pouted. “But I want one.”
“You’ll get one,” Lakshmi assured her, her heart speaking before her head. Esma shot her an angry look, and Lakshmi hurried to correct herself. “I’m sure your mother just wants to make sure that the first veil you wear is special.”
“Really?” Ajuni asked, looking pleased by the thought. She turned to her mother. “Can I go out shopping with you?”
Esma rarely left the palace herself anymore, but she could not deny her child anything. Lakshmi sensed the dread growing inside Esma, for it was growing in her as well, but the emperor’s wife nodded and pulled her daughter into her arms. “Of course you can,” Esma said, kissing her daughter’s hair. “I’ll arrange it soon.”
“Okay.” Ajuni wriggled free. “I have to get back to my lessons. I just had to tell you the news.”
“Thank you,” Esma said, holding her smile in place until her daughter had left and shut the door behind her.
“Leave me,” Esma told Lakshmi, turning her head away.
“I’m sorry for speaking out of turn,” Lakshmi said, reaching an arm out to Esma.. She wanted to offer the woman some comfort, but there was more than their stations between them now. Lakshmi could not express her own fears without confiding her secret, and that she had sworn never to do.
Esma glanced at Lakshmi briefly. “It doesn’t matter. Go.”
Lakshmi nodded, gave a quick curtsy, and left. Her heart was heavy, but she knew not to press.
Lakshmi sat on her usual cushion behind the emperor’s chair. She was dressed in her blue silk pantaloons with a green blouse. Her veil was blue, as was the netting covering her hair. It had been two days since word had come that Prince Roland would be arriving, and the emperor wanted her to look her best.
It was well known that the finery accorded to wives and concubines was a mark of a man’s wealth, and the emperor would allow none to give a better show than he.
Esma was in attendance as well. The chair she sat in was smaller than the emperor’s, but still on the dais beside him. It was rarely brought out, for the emperor’s wife rarely chose to sit beside her husband.
The stage was carefully set, and when the horns were blown announcing Prince Roland’s arrival, Lakshmi could imagine the emperor’s smile. “Show him in,” the emperor announced.
Minutes later the large doors to the court were opened and a tall figure appeared, silhouetted by the brighter light from the entrance hall.
When the doors closed behind him, Lakshmi took her first good look at Prince Roland.
She didn’t know if she was more surprised by his coloring or his age. She had heard that people from the north were lighter, but she had never actually seen someone with blond hair before. She wondered if, closer up, she would see that he had light eyes as well.
And he was much younger than she had expected. With his father being even older than the emperor, she had expected a man in his middle years. Prince Roland probably was no more than a handful of years older than Lakshmi herself. Certainly no older than Esma, who had been very young when she wed the emperor.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” Prince Roland said, bowing low before the emperor. “I am honored to be welcomed into your palace.”
The emperor bowed his head. “Prince Roland, I welcome you. It is good to have someone visit from the northern kingdoms after so much time.”
Lakshmi could all but taste the displeasure coming from the emperor, but if Prince Roland was aware of it he gave no sign. His eyes traveled briefly to Esma, then to Lakshmi.
Lakshmi felt as if the tail end of a whip had just lashed her. His eyes did not stay on her any longer than was decent, but it felt as if he had been staring at her for hours. She could not remember ever feeling so exposed.
She realized conversation was going on around her, but she was no longer aware of what was being discussed. Finally Prince Roland was being led away by one of the servants, and Lakshmi felt herself relax.
“He’s insolent,” the emperor said, staring at the spot where Prince Roland had been standing not long ago. The frown lines between his eyebrows were fierce.
“He seemed polite,” Esma said gently, placing a cautious hand on her husband’s arm.
He allowed it, though his face did not relax.
“It was pretense. He should have sent notice that he was coming weeks ago. Months. And he has something planned.”
Lakshmi tensed. What had she missed in her distraction? Had there been some subtext she had not picked up on?
“He is young,” Esma said. “Perhaps he is merely impetuous, and desires to stand out from his brothers by coming so suddenly to meet you.”
Lakshmi was surprised to hear Esma talk like this. The emperor’s wife so rarely showed interest in court that Lakshmi had not realized how knowledgeable she was about the subject.
“I do not like him,” the emperor growled.
Esma’s lips thinned just slightly before she schooled her face. “You know best,” she said lightly.
“I don’t want you alone with him,” the emperor ordered his wife. There was a sudden edge of anger in his tone.
Esma looked offended. “Of course not,” she said. “It would be inappropriate for me to be alone with him.”
The emperor gave a grunt of agreement, then stood. “Esma, you may go now,” he said. “Lakshmi, I would like to speak with you.”
What Esma thought of that she did not say. The woman meekly left her husband and his concubine, heading toward the exit that would take her to the women’s quarters. Lakshmi stayed where she was.
“You will keep a close eye on Roland,” the emperor told Lakshmi once his wife was out of hearing.
“As you wish,” Lakshmi said, though she had already planned to do just that.
“You will report to me tonight, after dinner.”
Lakshmi nodded, wondering what she would have to report in such a short time. It wouldn’t do to go out of her way to see Prince Roland again. Even if he did not realize it after today’s display, he would soon know that she was the emperor’s favored concubine. The only reason she would have for hanging around the prince would be if she was foolhardy enough to be disloyal, or if she was spying.
Regardless, Lakshmi decided she would keep an eye out. It was always best to be prepared.
The stress of Prince Roland's visit was wearing on Lakshmi. She had heard gossip from the women on staff about his looks and his easy smile, but nothing she or anyone else had seen seemed suspicious. Still, she was on edge.
A brief visit to the garden was more than she could afford, but without it Lakshmi felt she would go insane. She just wanted a couple of minutes by the fountain, listening to the water tinkle down in the stream that had so fascinated her when she had first come to the palace. Running water had been such a rarity in the desert where she had spent her early years with her mother that a decorative fountain that had no purpose but to be looked at had been a source of wonder.
Now, though she was no longer struck with childlike wonder at the sight, Lakshmi found it to be one of the only relaxing areas in the palace.
Lakshmi didn’t hear the crying until she was almost to the fountain. For just a moment she thought about turning back. She did not have time to deal with a hysterical woman, and her own stress was too high to handle anyone else’s. But there was a chance that whatever was wrong was more far-reaching than one woman’s troubles, and Lakshmi couldn’t leave without finding out.
She turned the final corner, and there she found Esma sitting beside the fountain, her head in her hands, weeping.
“Esma?” Lakshmi asked hesitantly.
“Oh.” Esma looked up, trying to wipe away the tears that were still falling. “Lakshmi.” Her face twisted angrily. “Leave me.”
“You may warm my husband’s bed more than the others, but you have no authority here. Leave.”
Lakshmi knew she should, knew that disobeying Esma could make her life very difficult, but she couldn’t leave without knowing what was wrong. She waited.
“He’s going to marry Ajuni to King Guy Talan.” Esma’s voice was little more than a whisper, but it registered in Lakshmi like a shout.
Esma looked up, and her eyes were bleak. “I knew, when she told me he wanted her to start wearing a veil, that this was coming. I didn’t want to believe it.”
Lakshmi didn’t know what to say. Her thoughts were racing, and she couldn’t make sense of any of them. “Surely not for a few years,” Lakshmi finally said. “She’s only ten. Only a little girl.”
Esma shook her head, looking back down at her clenched hands. “He sent a messenger to Guy the day after Roland arrived.”
“To tell him about the marriage?” Lakshmi asked, confused.
“To request his presence in court.” A tear escaped one of Esma’s grief-stricken eyes. “When Guy leaves, Samarth plans to send Ajuni with him.”
“I’m sorry,” Lakshmi said. There was nothing else she could say. Worse, there was nothing she could do.
Esma nodded. “Please, I would like to be alone now.”
Lakshmi’s mind was so filled with thoughts of her sister’s impending marriage that she did not see Prince Roland until she all but ran into him.
“Whoa,” he said, grabbing her by the shoulders to keep them from colliding. He let go as soon as she was steady on her feet, but they were standing much too close to each other.
“Excuse me,” Lakshmi said, turning her face aside as she checked to make sure her veil was in place.
“There is no need for excuses,” he said, his voice filled with amusement. “Where were you rushing off to?”
“No-nowhere,” Lakshmi stuttered, taking a quick step back. “Just back to my rooms,” she lied, her words coming much too quickly. She didn’t understand why her heart beat so fast, or why her words seemed to escape her.
“I see,” he smiled. “Perhaps I could walk you there.”
“That won’t be possible,” Lakshmi said, trying to step around him. “Please, I really must go.” Her voice wavered, and she cursed.
His brows wrinkled in concern, and in that moment of hesitation she ran, not caring that it wasn’t at all dignified or a mark of the position she worked so hard to maintain the pretense of.
When she got to her suite of rooms and bolted the door behind her, she burst into tears. She sank down against the door, too tired and sick to do more.
Lakshmi had heard stories of King Guy. He was the emperor’s age, and by all reports a man given to violence when displeased.
She hadn’t confided what she knew to Esma. Maybe Esma already knew.
All Lakshmi could think about was Ajuni, sweet, innocent Ajuni, going to live with someone like Guy. Even though they would not marry for a couple more years, even Emperor Samarth would not allow that, Ajuni would be under the king’s rule.
Lakshmi couldn’t bear to think of how the king’s cruelty would destroy her sister’s brightness. She crossed the room and cleared the top of her armoire with the vicious swipe of a hand. Bottles and jars of cream and perfume crashed to the ground, many of them breaking and spilling their precious contents onto the rug. Her cry was a scream of rage and pain, and she sunk to the floor next to the spilled perfume, immediately enveloped in the sickly sweet cloud.
Her sister was being married off to a tyrant. The sister she loved and watched over from afar would soon be sent away, perhaps never to visit the palace again.