Lakshmi’s stomach clenched painfully as she stood waiting for the emperor. She wore her green silk pantaloons and the mismatched yellow blouse one of the palace servants had fetched for her. Nerves butted up against shame until there was room for little else. She never should have gone to King Guy’s room. Never should have let herself be alone with him. Never--
She couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. The memory of King Guy’s hands on her body, tearing her shirt, groping her, made her sick. Her head pounded, and she wondered how much longer she could bear to wait for the emperor to arrive. Reliving the events that had just unfolded would be hard enough, but telling all of it to the emperor and hoping he believed her, with Guy right there listening.
Lakshmi wanted to run.
“It’s okay,” Roland said in a whisper hardly loud enough for Lakshmi to hear.
“What if he doesn’t believe me?” Lakshmi asked, her words no louder than his. The emperor had not yet arrived, but King Guy was there. He stood between two of the emperor’s guards, and Lakshmi wondered how Roland had managed that.
It hadn’t taken long for a serving woman to bring Lakshmi a new blouse, or for Lakshmi to make her way down to the throne room, but long enough. Somehow, Roland had managed to convince two of the emperor’s men to stand guard on a king, and a guest at that, without the emperor’s orders. But King Guy stood there as calmly as if the guards did not exist. There was no sign that he was worried about the outcome of this meeting.
She wondered where the king’s guards were. If the king was to be punished, Lakshmi wanted to see them dealt with in kind.
Lakshmi looked over at Roland, wanting to ask, and found him watching her in return. She was used to reading people, but she couldn’t read the expression in Roland’s shockingly blue eyes. They were intent on her face, as though he could see the bruise she knew was forming beneath her veil, and she shifted uncomfortably, looking away. She did not want him seeing her looking like this, wounded and scared. And he had seen her before, when…
She firmed her lips to keep from crying.
“He’ll believe you,” Roland assured her. “Even if he did not believe the bruise on your face, he won’t call me a liar.”
Lakshmi nodded and hoped he was right. When everything had happened, there had been only fear and disbelief. But she saw more now. She had thought King Guy was a monster, but she was sure now. The man Ajuni was to marry was a man who had carefully arranged an attempted rape. He would have succeeded, had Roland not gotten there in time.
Lakshmi would die before allowing Ajuni to leave with such a man.
“What is the meaning of this?” Emperor Samarth demanded before he was fully in the room, his mouth already twisted with ire. “I was pulled out of my bath and told to come to the court. Told!” The emperor scoured the assembled people until he spotted King Guy. “Guy, what is all of this about?”
It was clear that the emperor had not been told the nature of the incident, or who was at fault. But then, Lakshmi was not sure who or what Roland might have told.
“Nothing to concern you,” Guy began. “This is all a gross misunderstanding.”
“Stop your lying tongue or I will slice it out,” Roland said harshly, surprising both the emperor and King Guy with his venom. The look on the face was one Lakshmi had only seen once before, in Guy’s room.
“You may be a prince,” Emperor Samarth told Roland, his face turning red, “but you address a king, and speak in front of your emperor. There will be order in my court. Whatever crude manners you northerners have, there will be order here.”
“I have no manners when it comes to dealing with rapists,” Roland said icily, holding the emperor’s gaze.
For a moment the emperor’s face went completely blank, shock stealing all expression. “What?”
“I was on my way to the gardens,” Roland began, “when I heard a woman screaming. I ran down the corridor and found the source of the screams coming from King Guy’s rooms. I entered and found two of his guards restraining Lakshmi while he stripped her.”
“Lies!” King Guy cried. “Don’t listen to him, Samarth, he is lying. It must be part of some northern plot.”
“Quiet.” The emperor looked from Roland to Guy and back to Roland. Finally, he turned to look at Lakshmi.
She was pale despite her golden skin, and her long black hair was disheveled, the golden web that had been holding it in place a tangled mess. Her veil was not large enough to completely hide the angry bruise forming on her face, and the slightest tremor occasionally ran through her, as though she was shivering.
Her gaze was fixed on the floor. She’d fought armed assassins without flinching, but she could not bear to look at any of the men around her.
The emperor looked away from Lakshmi and redirected his attention on Roland. “What happened after you got there?”
“When I entered I knocked down the guards until Lakshmi was freed. Then I got King Guy to surrender his knife and step back. Lakshmi wrapped herself in a blanket and called for guards and a new blouse.”
The emperor nodded. “I would like to see this knife.”
Lakshmi watched Roland present her knife, hilt first, to the emperor. She could barely breathe.
The knife had been a gift from the emperor to her two years before. The hilt was plain, but for the top which was ornately carved like a rose. The blade was also ornate, a flowering vine such as was found in the garden. She hoped the emperor recognized it. Hope he realized that it was hers and what that had to mean.
Hoped he cared enough about the truth to do something.
The emperor nodded and set the knife aside, giving no sign of recognition.
“I would like to hear your account, Guy,” the emperor said. His tone revealed nothing, but his face was tight.
King Guy straightened to his full height, then folded his hands and rested them on his protruding belly. “What this prince tells you is a lie,” Guy said simply. “His words are heinous, and it is no doubt jealousy that drives him.”
“Was Lakshmi in your room?” the emperor asked.
Guy hesitated only a moment before nodding. “Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” he said.
A muscle jumped in the emperor’s jaw. “Why?”
“I believe she meant to seduce me,” King Guy said.
“That’s not true!” Lakshmi cried, unable to hold her silence. “He sent for me. Ask the servants!”
“Not now.” The emperor gestured at her dismissively. “I will hear your side later.” He turned his attention back to Guy. “How did Lakshmi’s blouse come to be ruined?”
“It must have torn when she threw herself at me, and I tried to hold her back,” Guy said, smiling at the emperor as though they shared a joke between them. “Silk is easily torn.”
The emperor grunted. “And how came two of your guards to be in your room?”
“They are my guards.” King Guy said. From the look on his face, Lakshmi thought he might be genuinely affronted by the question. “They were there to make sure my person was secure. Where else should they be? I hardly brought them here to drink ale and gossip.”
“And do you have an explanation as to why Prince Roland came to your room tonight? Does he often visit you?”
King Guy shrugged one shoulder and gestured absently with his right hand. “I don’t know why the prince felt the need to come to my room,” he said. “There was certainly no screaming. Perhaps he means to curry favor.”
“This hardly seems way to do that,” Roland said dryly.
The emperor shot him a dark look, but King Guy responded quickly. “Perhaps you believe that, finding me in what appeared to be a compromising situation, you can take advantage. Much can be gained by a younger son who gains the emperor’s favor.”
“You believe that I am accusing you of rape to gain favor with the emperor?” Roland asked, his eyes wide. Lakshmi hadn’t realized the truth in the stories that northerners did not play the same games as were played in the southern courts.
The emperor cut in. “Enough talking. Who put the bruise on Lakshmi’s cheek?”
Again Guy hesitated. His story painted Lakshmi as the aggressor, but it would not be believable that she hit herself, or that she fell and caused the bruise. The placement was wrong for the latter. “I hit her,” Guy finally admitted.
“To fend her off. She was most insistent in coming on to me. I would never take one of your women, Your Imperial Majesty, but I could not keep her off me without hurting her.”
“Even with two guards there?” the emperor asked. He didn’t bother waiting for an answer, but turned instead to Lakshmi. “My darling, tell me what happened.”
Since becoming the emperor’s bodyguard, she had given many incident reports. She relayed the events that had happened in King Guy’s room in the same way, as if it had happened to someone else. Lakshmi couldn’t have told him any other way. Could not have born the telling if she thought about it happening to her. If she remembered the feel of Guy’s hands on her, his lips, or the sharp, humiliating smack of his hand on her face, she wouldn’t be able to keep her composure enough to give a report. Still, she could not keep her voice from wavering, and by the end her voice had become little more than a whisper. The emperor waited, and with each word his eyes got darker, harder. When Guy tried to interrupt, the emperor yelled at him to be silent.
“He would have raped me, had Prince Roland not arrived in time,” she said at last. “I couldn’t get away.”
“Your Majesty, this is outrageous! I—”
“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” the emperor snapped, anger causing his voice to shake. His fists were clenched tightly at his sides, and a vein throbbed in his forehead.
But Lakshmi knew that anger did not tell the whole story. The emperor was conflicted. The emperor wanted to unite his daughter and King Guy; wanted to enmesh Guy further into the empire and perhaps name him as heir one day. And there was a friendly history between the two men.
But whatever political machinations and friendly feelings the emperor might hold toward the king, he abhorred the thought of a man sleeping with another man’s woman, be she wife or concubine. Women were little more than property, and sleeping with another man’s woman was the worst sort of theft in the emperor’s eyes.
Lakshmi had never relied quite so much on the emperor’s sense of morality.
“Your Imperial Majesty.” Esma’s soft voice surprised them all. She looked perfectly put together, but Lakshmi had been around Esma and the emperor’s other women too long not to pick up the small signs that said the emperor had been with his wife before duty pulled him away.
“Esma, this doesn’t concern you,” the emperor spat, his anger spilling over onto his wife.
“I think it does,” Esma contradicted.
The emperor rose from his throne angrily, and though Esma flinched slightly, she held her ground.
“What then?” the emperor demanded, raising his fisted hands. Lakshmi knew that it would not be the first time the emperor used his fists on his wife.
“I must confess that King Guy has been making advances toward me since he arrived at the palace,” Esma said, keeping her head raised proudly. “I did not tell you because I did not want his behavior to interfere with the wedding.” Lakshmi knew that Esma would have done anything to have the wedding called off, but the emperor was not as astute when it came to his wife’s feelings. He would think it natural for Esma to want to protect Ajuni’s future marriage.
Esma’s tales were not as violent as Lakshmi’s. There had been an incident in the corridor much like the one that had taken place between Guy and Lakshmi in the storage room, without Esma being paralyzed by fear of the dark. There had also been lewd comments and gestures made on a regular basis until Esma had begun having a servant girl escort her everywhere. Then King Guy had reduced his lascivious behaviors to looks. At the end of his wife’s recital, the emperor sat back on his throne and released a long sigh. Lakshmi thought that she should go to the man. As his concubine, it was her place to go to him in times of stress, offering to rub his shoulders and soothe him. She couldn’t force her feet to move. After what had happened with Guy, she didn’t know the next time she would be able to offer such a gesture without shuddering.
Esma gave Lakshmi a sideways look and crossed to the emperor herself. She approached him warily, and whatever offer she made was rebuked without any attempt at gentleness or gratitude. Esma bowed and left the dais.
The emperor stared over the assembled people, his eyes shuttered. She wished that Emperor Samarth liked Roland better, so that he might be more inclined to take the young prince’s words as truth, but there was nothing to be done about that. Nothing to do but wait.
It was a long time before the emperor said anything, and when he finally did it was with seeming regret. “I have heard reports from everyone involved in the incident,” the emperor said, for to him the guards were incidental. Servants and guards could be paid to say what their masters wanted said. “King Guy, I find you guilty of the attempted rape of one of the emperor’s concubines.”
“No! I didn’t—”
“Silence!” The emperor thundered, even louder than the protest of the king. “The punishment for such a crime can be quite severe. I could have you locked up. If you were a common man, I would consider hanging you.”
King Guy stood silent, waiting.
“I have known you a long time, Guy,” the emperor said, sounding tired. “I never suspected such treachery. However, you are a good king. You will return to Samalt. You will rule your country in the way you have since becoming king, without sign of what happened here. There will be no more rumors of ill-behavior between you and other men’s women. There will be no marriage between you and my daughter.”
“No,” the emperor cut in. “You will abide by my ruling, or you will take up residence in the palace dungeons.”
King Guy bowed his head. “Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
“You will leave tomorrow morning. Guards—my guards—will be placed on your room, and any men you brought with you will leave the palace tonight. There should be room enough in the city inns to house them for the night.”
Guy wisely did not voice his displeasure. The emperor dismissed them all, and Lakshmi was grateful that she was not asked to hold back. She wanted to take a bath, to scrub the feel of Guy off her skin, and then to sleep until the memory faded.
Roland called after her when they were alone in the corridor, but Lakshmi did not stop or turn around. She needed the baths, and she needed to be alone.