Keeping track of Roland and Guy was much more difficult than Lakshmi had anticipated.
King Guy did not move around the palace as much as Roland. When he was not in his appointed rooms, he was usually with the emperor, often in court. There were times when he would tread near the women’s quarters, and Lakshmi now knew that several serving girls had entertained him in the past week. Lakshmi had conspired with the captain of the guard, and it had been easy enough for him to find people to follow King Guy without attracting notice.
King Guy was not the sort to notice servants, or those who appeared to be servants, unless he had a mind to get them into bed. Nearly all of the people Lakshmi and the captain had set to spy on Guy were men, and the rest were older women. None of them had been questioned by Guy or any of his private guards.
Watching Roland was another matter. He moved about entirely too much for Lakshmi’s peace of mind. Though he spent some time in court, he was not there as often as King Guy. He stayed away from the women’s quarters, and no one had seen any girls slipping into his chambers. He met with the guards that had accompanied him to the palace sometimes, but more disconcerting were the long periods of time that Lakshmi could not account for.
There were not enough servants to set on him. In the early days she had recruited spies, but unlike Guy, Roland was much too aware of the people around him for the spies to be useful.
Roland would often choose to walk in the gardens, or bathe, and thus escape the eyes Lakshmi had placed on him. Although it was possible to stand outside the bathing rooms without notice and wait for a man to finish, there were too many exits to the gardens to be covered all at once.
Lakshmi decided it was time to get involved personally.
Dressed in her sunset gown, she took the shortest route to the gardens. The note had just arrived saying that Prince Roland had gone to the gardens, and she could only hope to find him there still.
Luck was with her, as the young prince was sitting by the fountain, watching the water stream into the pool below, apparently lost in thought.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Lakshmi asked. It would be more suspicious were she to try to keep her presence secret than to address him directly.
“It’s beautiful,” Roland said, smiling up at her.
“You’re used to more water. It probably doesn’t seem as marvelous to you.”
The yearning Lakshmi suddenly felt to see other places was alarming and unexpected. She had to forcibly push it aside so as not to become distracted. She was here to keep an eye on Roland, and possibly learn what he was up to, not to think about impossible dreams.
“If I imagine it through your eyes, it is beautiful.” His rough northern accent rippled through her, and she had to look away or be caught in those vivid blue eyes.
“Have I embarrassed you?” he asked, his voice amused.
Embarrassing a concubine would be impossible, but Lakshmi was not a true concubine. Even if she was, she doubted the emperor would ever have said anything so sweet, nor seemed so sincere. “No,” Lakshmi lied smoothly, glancing up at him coyly. “You have not embarrassed me.”
“Good.” He patted the seat beside him. “Sit with me. I could use some company.”
Lakshmi stared. “That would be inappropriate,” she finally said, wondering how Roland could be so bold.
“More inappropriate than the two of us alone out here in the garden?” he asked, eyes crinkling at the corners, gleaming with mischief.
“Yes,” Lakshmi said. “This part of the garden is for the enjoyment of all. The emperor would not deny you access to it. However, it would be unwise for the two of us to share a bench.”
“Ah, yes. The emperor would not like us to be alone. Is he a jealous man?” Roland asked. He stood, and suddenly he was so close Lakshmi had trouble drawing breath.
“The emperor has no reason to be jealous,” she said faintly. There was more she wanted to say, but she couldn’t quite form the words in her head.
Roland raised one hand and ran the tip of his index finger down her neck, along her collarbone. “No, I suppose he doesn’t,” the prince said before turning and leaving Lakshmi, shaken, in the garden.
It was quite awhile before she remembered herself enough to realize that Roland was once again roaming the palace unescorted.
It took Lakshmi too long to locate him again. He was leaving court with the emperor and King Guy, and Lakshmi dropped a low curtsy to the three of them before casting a sultry smile the emperor’s way. She ignored King Guy, and especially Roland.
“Lakshmi, my pet,” the emperor said warmly, beckoning her over and pulling her up tight against him, his arm wrapped around her waist and gripping like a vice. “Why don’t you get me some wine and await me in your chambers?”
He smiled lasciviously, and Lakshmi forced herself to smile back, and lean into him more fully.
“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty.” Her eyes said that such formalities as titles would soon be forgotten. “I have missed you these long days,” she said with a pout, just loud enough to be overheard.
The emperor chuckled, looking at the two bemused noblemen as if to say that such female troubles and whims were more than worth the talents Lakshmi had to offer. “You may attend me in court tomorrow, my pet,” the emperor said, leaning down to whisper in her ear. “What do you want?”
Lakshmi turned and whispered, “My room,” before disengaging herself with another enchanting smile and heading upstairs. She hoped that the guards followed Roland. She hoped that she could come up with something good to tell the emperor. She had planned to tell him about Roland’s behavior in the garden. It was likely he would make Roland leave if he discovered that, and at the time that seemed the best way to deal with the problem Roland presented.
But then she had seen Roland standing there next to the emperor, and all thoughts of describing what had happened in the garden evaporated like water on hot stones. Now Lakshmi had only a handful of minutes in which to come up with a plausible reason for interrupting the emperor, and she had nothing. She stared at herself in the gilt mirror hanging in her room, at a loss for what to say.
“What do you want?” the emperor asked, causing Lakshmi to jump in surprise.
She hadn’t heard him come in.
“We’re having problems keeping track of Roland and King Guy,” Lakshmi said, glad that the first thing that had come to mind was also the truth.
The emperor’s doughy hands balled into fists by his sides. “Why are you keeping track of Guy?”
Lakshmi remembered too late the emperor had wanted King Guy protected, not spied upon. “To protect him,” Lakshmi said. “If someone watches him, they will also be present if anything should happen.”
It was a loose excuse at best, but the emperor was trained in court matters, not espionage or the business of being a guard. He nodded curtly. “And Roland?”
“I haven’t caught him anywhere he isn’t supposed to be,” Lakshmi said. “He meets with the guards who brought him here, but that could be nothing.” King Guy had met with others as well, and his behavior, though not threatening to the emperor, was much more repugnant.
The emperor frowned. “I don’t like that Roland is meeting with people,” he said. “I wish he would leave.”
Lakshmi pretended she had not heard the last. The emperor liked those around him to believe that he was omnipotent. Admitting that something was out of his control, and having it repeated by another, would not be welcome.
She briefly considered telling him about the garden encounter. She thought that she should. Telling him would eliminate both of their problems, and leave only King Guy to deal with.
Lakshmi couldn’t do it.
“I will try to keep a closer eye on Roland,” she promised the emperor. She hesitated. “Is there anything in particular I should be watching for?” It was always tricky, asking the emperor about topics that could involve court life. Sometimes he viewed her as a capable bodyguard with a brain in her head. Too often he viewed her as a mere woman, perhaps an inferior one at that, for she did not behave as a woman was expected to.
“No,” the emperor said. “Just report what you see to the guards and to me. We will decide if something is amiss.”
Lakshmi balled her hands into fists, using the painful stinging from her nails to remind her not to retaliate. How satisfying it would be to tell the emperor that it was she who put together clues about dangers that could otherwise lead to his assassination. She had single-handedly taken on groups of men come to kill him, and she had dealt with them and their weapons quickly and quietly so that none but she and a few trusted guards were ever aware that a problem existed. And despite all of that, the emperor still viewed her as disposable.
Like all women, she was to be used until her usefulness ran out. And even when still useful, Lakshmi knew she was viewed as being easily replaced.
“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty,” Lakshmi said stiffly. “I will report anything I see.”
“Good.” He reached out and cupped her chin. “You’re a good girl, Lakshmi.” He left the room with a quick admonishment over his shoulder that she not be late for court tomorrow. They had a long day planned.
# Lakshmi glided down the corridors on her way to court, wondering if there was a specific reason the emperor wanted her presence today. With King Guy and Roland in court with him so often, she had rarely been requested. It was fine with her, because it was easy to station a guard in court, and it left Lakshmi time to pursue other avenues of inquiry and meet with the trusted guards and the ranks of spies.
She wished she could question the emperor about what was supposed to transpire that day. He had not told her if she had a specific purpose today, or if he only wanted her there to wait on him and look appealing. If she was a man, she might be able to ask Emperor Samarth what he was planning, but as a woman and a supposed concubine she had no such power.
Her mind was so filled with thoughts that she didn’t see King Guy until she was almost upon him.
“King Guy!” she said in surprise, then corrected herself with a low curtsy.
“Ah, Lakshmi.” His smooth voice slid along her name in a way that made Lakshmi shudder. “On your way to court?” he asked.
“Yes.” Lakshmi offered him a smile, but she thought it probably showed her nerves. She had not planned to be alone with King Guy, and had in fact been avoiding it since his arrival. “I should get going. The emperor will not be pleased with me if I am late.”
“I am sure the emperor is always pleased with you,” he said, stepping closer.
Though Roland had stood just as close and stolen Lakshmi’s breath, King Guy offered a different threat. His words were not playful and alluring, they were calculating, and the look in his black eyes ordered her to obey. Lakshmi could barely keep herself from backing away, and a smile was beyond her.
“I hope so,” she said softly, “but he detests tardiness. I really must be going.” She turned to leave, and King Guy grabbed her arm, pulling her up against him so that her body was flush against his.
“Don’t be in such a rush. The emperor has only just finished breakfast, and has gone up to his room to change into proper clothes for court.” The hand not holding her arm stroked down her back to the dip of her waist and lower.
“King Guy,” Lakshmi said with a voice growing strong with anger. “If the emperor were to find out, he would be furious.”
“But how would he find out?” King Guy asked, the threat implicit in his tone. “It would be our secret.”
Lakshmi yanked herself away from him, putting several feet between them. “I do not keep secrets from the emperor,” she said coolly. “If you continue with this inappropriate behavior, I will so inform him.”
The king’s black eyes went hot with anger. “You bitch. If you told him such a thing, I would deny it. He will choose to believe me over a mere whore. Tell him, and you will be cast from the palace in disgrace.” He smiled wickedly. “The emperor would not be able to protect you then.”
Lakshmi had been afraid at first, but the fear had been caused as much by surprise as anything. Now her fear had been replaced by anger, and she had to remind herself that she could not take action against him. The memory of subduing the men on the rooftop came to her, but that was not a suitable way to deal with someone of Guy’s standing.
And she knew it was possible that, even were she to tell the emperor about today, he would choose not to listen. He wanted to align himself with King Guy, and he wasn’t above using her as a stepping stone. “I will not tell the emperor,” Lakshmi agreed. “I will pretend for now that this has never happened. I will enter the court first,” she said primly, then turned and did just that.
She took a deep breath before entering the court, smoothing her face so that none of her upset or anger showed, then glided in. As King Guy had said, the emperor was not yet present. Roland was, however, and from the look he sent her way, Lakshmi thought he sensed that something was wrong.
His look sharpened when King Guy followed just seconds behind her.
It had been Roland, Lakshmi remembered, who had recounted the stories about King Guy going after King Labo’s wife and daughters. Roland might become suspicious and think that something had happened between her and King Guy. She did not want to tell the emperor, and she hoped that Roland would keep quiet about his suspicions.
Lakshmi bowed her head to Roland, and to King Guy as well, as though she had just seen him for the first time today. She stood behind the emperor’s chair, awaiting him, and he came down a quarter of an hour later, looking displeased.
“Some fool woman is coming here crying for the Emperor’s Justice,” he said, taking a heavy seat in his chair.
The Emperor’s Justice was not a popular choice for criminals. Only the truly desperate would, after receiving their original sentence, try for a new one by having the emperor listen to their case. It was doubly unusual for a woman to ask for such a thing.
Knowing the emperor as she did, Lakshmi went to the back wall and poured a goblet of spiced wine. She carried it to him on a gold filigree tray, and presented it with a bow.
Emperor Samarth accepted it absently, as if it had appeared of its own accord. He did not acknowledge Lakshmi at all.
Lakshmi could feel King Guy’s penetrating gaze, and Roland’s speculative one. She kept her eyes focused on the tray and the goblet the emperor placed back on it. It would be best if she could avoid the notice of both the royal visitors.
The intention Lakshmi had of fading into the background melted away when the woman who had demanded the Emperor’s Justice came in. She was wearing chains, and heavily guarded, and Lakshmi could not imagine what a slight woman could have done to warrant such a thing. The woman looked haggard, but Lakshmi suspected she had been attractive once, before whatever misfortune had befallen her to bring her here.
“Arura has been convicted of adultery and being a party to murdering her oldest son, the heir of her husband.”
Lakshmi’s brows winged up, and she studied the woman more closely. The woman was slight, but that did not mean she was weak. She was a woman, but that did not mean she wasn’t dangerous. But her eyes…There had been no flash in them—no life at all—when her sentence had been revealed. It was hard to believe that this woman had murdered her own son.
From her position on the cushion behind the throne, she could not read the emperor’s expression. If it was anything like King Guy’s, all that the supposed adulterer and murderess’s request for the Emperor’s Justice would accomplish would be to move up the woman’s execution date.
Lakshmi studied Roland’s face, but she was unable to read it. He was watching the woman with that careful, intent look that seemed to look past the surface into the soul. She wished she knew what he was thinking.
“Arura,” the emperor said in his round voice. “You have come here seeking the Emperor’s Justice, yet you have already been convicting of heinous acts. What do you hope to accomplish?”
Lakshmi’s heart sank. She was sure that the emperor had already decided the woman’s fate. Adultery was unforgivable in the emperor’s eyes. And murdering a man’s heir…that was punishable by death under any circumstance.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” the woman said in a voice weak with fear. “When I was first tried, my husband spoke against me at my trials. The man who…the man who I was accused of committing adultery with was convicted along with me. He is the one who killed my son, but I was never allowed to tell my story.” She seemed tired, and Lakshmi’s heart bled for her. There was no malice in this woman, and Lakshmi was sure she’d had no part in her child’s demise, whatever else might have taken place.
“You say this man killed your son, but you were convicted of being a party to that.”
“Never!” the woman cried. “If I had even suspected…” her voice faltered. “Your Imperial Majesty, I did not commit adultery. The man forced himself upon me.”
King Guy sneered, but Roland leaned forward in his seat just slightly, his eyes trained on the woman.
“There is no evidence of that,” the emperor said mildly. “If it was not brought up at your past trial, I can only assume that you have contrived this so as to make yourself more sympathetic.”
“I was not allowed to speak at my trial,” the woman said, “and the man who murdered my son would not admit to what he had done, even when he was being put to death. No one would listen to me. My husband…” Her voice broke and she looked down at her chained hands, not bothering to continue.
The emperor drummed his doughy fingers on the arm of his chair and made a quiet “hmm” sound as if considering. He asked the woman a few details, then sent her and her guards back outside so he could make his decision.
“It seems plain enough,” King Guy said. “She was unfaithful to her husband, and allowed her lover to kill her son.”
“Yes,” the emperor agreed. “That seems to be the whole of it.”
Lakshmi closed her eyes, wishing she had not been called to court today. She did not want to bear witness to such a miscarriage of justice.
“Wait,” Roland interjected in an urgent voice. Lakshmi opened her eyes again to see him looking hard at the emperor and King Guy. “You just accept that she was willingly unfaithful. Is there any evidence to prove this?”
King Guy shrugged. “Women have weak wills. It is natural to assume that she was unfaithful. If she was forced, wouldn’t she have told her husband?”
“If her husband had not believed her, she would have been punished,” Roland pointed out. “She might have thought the safer bet was to keep it a secret.”
The emperor waved his hand. “That does not explain away the murder of her son.”
Roland leaned forward even further, closing the gap between him and the emperor. “You cannot believe the woman willfully allowed this man to kill her son. What possible reason could she have for allowing such an atrocity?”
King Guy bared his teeth in a mocking smile. “Women lack intelligence and logic,” he said. “It is clear to me that she had some unrealistic expectation of what would happen after the man killed her son, and therefore allowed it.”
“Let’s have her in here again, and question her on why her son was killed, and why she didn’t endeavor to stop it.”
“She will lie,” the king said simply.
Roland’s lips twitched. “Do you believe that this illogical, unintelligent woman is smart enough—clever enough—to deceive us?” he asked. “Is she more clever than you, King Guy? So clever that she could fool the emperor?”
“Of course not,” King Guy said, his face growing red with anger.
Roland sat back in his chair. “Then no harm will be done by asking her a few more questions. If she is unable to provide a satisfactory answer, it will be clear she is lying and deserving of execution. If she tells a truth, then she is innocent. Yes?”
King Guy looked about to argue, but the emperor held up a hand to silence him. “That seems agreeable. We are more clever than a mere woman, and will see through any lies.”
“But Your Imperial Majesty—” King Guy said.
“This is the Emperor’s Justice,” Emperor Samarth snapped. “I will deliver it when all the facts have been analyzed.
They called the woman back in, and Lakshmi waited to hear the woman’s explanation for her son’s death.
“The man who had forced me previously came to our farm again,” the woman explained. “He was most persistent, but I did not want him to disrupt my children. I have—had—three children. My oldest boy, and two young girls. I agreed to speak with the man outside, in the stable.
“I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t want my children to overhear us. The things he was saying…” She shook her head and continued. “He grabbed me, and forced me again. I didn’t know my son had followed me out. Not until he shouted for the man to stop.”
“Your son followed you to where you were meeting this man?” the emperor asked.
“I did not wish to meet with the man,” Arura said. “I had hoped to never see him again. But yes, my son followed us outside, and saw what was happening. He said he would run to town and fetch his father.
“That is when the man killed my precious son. He did not want to be found out, you see, and he used the knife he carried at his belt to...”
“And your part in this?”
Arura looked down at her chained hands. “I was not able to prevent it in time. I ran over to my boy, but it was too late. My husband arrived only moments later, and saw the man and I, and the blood on our hands.”
Her eyes looked haunted, and Lakshmi knew the woman spoke the truth. Such pain and horror could not be faked. Lakshmi prayed to whatever gods were listening that the emperor believed it as well.
“No one would listen to me. No one would believe what I had to say. That’s why I came to you, for the Emperor’s Justice.”
Emperor Samarth looked to King Guy, who shook his head. He did not believe the woman’s tale. The emperor looked to Roland as well, and Roland shook his head, then leaned in and whispered something Lakshmi could not hear. King Guy’s face grew angry, but the emperor nodded.
“Arura,” he said. “I have reached a decision. Based on what facts I was given, and what information you have provided me, I find you innocent both of adultery and on being a party to the murder of your son and the heir of your husband. You are to be released from your bonds and escorted home. A letter will be sent with you to inform your husband of my rulings.”
The woman sagged with relief, and only the guard standing nearest her prevented her from collapsing onto the floor.
Lakshmi couldn’t believe it.
“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” the woman said when she finally came to her senses. “Thank you!”
When Lakshmi and the others finally left the court, she dropped to the back of the procession to stand next to Roland.
“How did you convince the emperor she was innocent?” Lakshmi asked quietly, keeping her eyes forward so that no one would notice her talking to the prince.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered.
“You whispered to him, just before he made the verdict.”
“I told him a true murderess would never seek the Emperor’s Justice, for the emperor is far too wise to see anything but the truth.”
Lakshmi raised a hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter, and from the corner of her eye she caught sight of Roland’s smug grin.
Yes, he was dangerous. He knew just how to play the emperor.