On this day, Silk Street was filled with the typical crowds of people. Lakshmi saw one of the palace seamstresses who often worked on clothing for the other concubines looking over various bolts of cloth. Lakshmi came up beside her and began examining the array of silks. Some she lingered over; others she dismissed quickly. The proprietor of the shop saw her, and as he knew her and was eager to keep her custom, he bowed and offered to bring her more selections, touting the value of his goods in a melodious voice and assuring her someone would help her shortly.
Lakshmi waited off to the side, knowing she would be taken care of soon enough. Though she loved her time away from the palace, it always made her anxious. But she hid her anxiety, never breaking her calm demeanor or demonstrating any desire to rush. Since it would seem strange to ask for such opportunities to leave the palace and then cut them short, Lakshmi made every pretense of being slightly bored. Her face behind the diaphanous veil was smooth; her bottom lip slightly protruding as she looked around the room.
Soon enough the proprietor’s wife came out of the back room and spotted Lakshmi. “Goodness, Lady Lakshmi, I didn’t know you were here!” the woman exclaimed, hurrying up to Lakshmi and curtsying so that her bottom nearly touched the ground. “How can I be of assistance? I hope you didn’t have to wait long. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“I’m fine,” Lakshmi said with a smile for the good woman. “Perhaps we can go into the back room and look at some silk?”
The woman nodded and escorted Lakshmi to the back. There was a large selection of silk, the bolts as fine as any out on the floor, and many of them better. “Here you are, Lady. Are you sure I can’t bring you anything?”
The woman looked hurt by the thought that she could not be of more assistance, and Lakshmi consented to ask for some chilled melo juice if the woman had any.
While the woman went to fetch the juice, Lakshmi toured the room. Silks of all colors were displayed here, in private, for the most discerning customers. She ran her fingers over various bolts, feeling the weight and texture of each. Finally she came to a bolt resplendent in purples and reds and oranges all mixed together to create a sunset of colors. The silk was light, almost translucent, and Lakshmi immediately thought of a design for a gown.
By the time the woman had come back with Lakshmi’s drink, Lakshmi had made her decision.
She sipped quietly as the woman measured, cut, and wrapped the silk, chatting all the while about the quality and how fetching it would look with Lakshmi’s glossy hair and golden skin. “You’ll be striking,” the woman promised. “Such a spectacular choice.”
“Thank you.” Lakshmi carried the fabric to the front room and handed it to Creb. The woman told her husband the details of the purchase, and Creb and the proprietor handled the monetary transaction.
Business done, Creb escorted Lakshmi back to the palace in silence, sensing her pensive mood. Lakshmi usually had a few words for the guards despite the distance she must maintain as one of the emperor’s concubines, but today she could not summon the energy to talk to Creb.
Instead she enjoyed the heat, the smell of humanity that so many of those in the palace turned their noses up at and tried to block with their perfumes and smelling salts. The sun was glaringly bright, so different from the filtered light that came in through the gauzy drapes in the palace.
Lakshmi remembered living outside the palace, in the heat and the smell and the bright sunlight. She wouldn’t say that she would trade her life now for that one. She had been a child then, and her memories were a child’s memories, but she wished there were more opportunities for her to slip away from the palace and experience the streets of the city as a normal woman would.
Just once she would like to go out unguarded, unfettered by convention and responsibility. But that was not to be. Her path had been decided years ago.