"Hello, beautiful. How 'bout you come over here and show me what's under that veil?"
Lakshmi’s head whipped around at the obscene suggestion. There was a group of guards standing there. Three of the guards were looking at the other like he had just gone crazy, but the one who had spoken stood proud, a leering smile on his face.
“Come, give me a kiss, and perhaps tonight I can show you what a real man is like.”
“Shut up!” one of the guards hissed loud enough for Lakshmi to hear him from across the corridor.
“Don’t you know who she is?” another asked, looking horrified.
Lakshmi didn’t know whether to growl or laugh. What the guard was suggesting was despicable, but it was clear he was not aware of who she was. The guard that had remained silent looked like he might have done so because he had swallowed his tongue. His face was turning an interesting shade of red.
“She’s a serving girl,” the new guard said with a lazy shrug. “But she’s a pretty one. I figure I should make this job work for me as much as possible.” He lifted his chin in Lakshmi’s direction. “What do you say? Want to have a little fun tonight? We can—”
His silent friend clamped a hand over his mouth, and another of the guards pushed him back against the wall.
“So sorry,” the third guard said to her, his eyes wide with panic. “Please, he didn’t… that is…”
“See that it does not happen again,” Lakshmi said imperiously before proceeding to walk down the hall. She stopped around the nearest corner and strained to hear what they were saying now that she was gone.
“Why did you do that? The wench probably would have come to my bed tonight!”
“You’re an idiot. That’s one of the emperor’s concubines.”
Lakshmi heard a choking sound and allowed herself a small laugh.
“Not just a concubine; that’s Lakshmi. Everyone knows she’s his favorite.”
“What?” the guard squawked.
“You better hope she doesn’t tell the emperor. He’s likely to have your manhood cut off by one of his guards, if he doesn’t decide to do the deed himself.”
“I didn’t know!” the guard protested. He cursed, the crude words strung together in a way that showed more imagination than the lame suggestions he had made earlier had suggested him capable of. “Shit. If I’m not more careful, I’m going to end up castrated before this king ever makes it here.”
“He’ll be here in a couple hours,” one of his friends assured him. “And for as long as you’re in the palace, I suggest you not try for any of the women here. It’s a dangerous business, going after women the emperor might have his eye on.”
Lakshmi didn’t hear the rest, as what they had already said fully registered. King Guy would be here in a matter of hours.
Lakshmi ran down the back corridors to her room, past servants who were no doubt shocked to see the normally composed and sultry concubine in such a hurried state. She flew into her room, changed into a flowing blue gown with a matching veil, and affixed a gold hairnet before slipping half a dozen bangles on each arm.
A cursory glance in the gilt mirror showed Lakshmi that she looked the part of the favored palace concubine, even if she did not feel it at the moment. With a great deal more decorum than she’d started with, she made her way to the court.
“Is the emperor free?” she asked the guard, looking up at him through demurely lowered eyelashes.
“He is between petitioners, yes,” the guard answered. He had worked long enough as a guard to the emperor’s court to know that it was not usual for Lakshmi to bother the emperor without first being requested. He had also worked at the palace long enough to know that if the concubine wanted to see the emperor, it was likely the emperor wanted to see her as well.
It was occasionally whispered among the guards and palace servants that Lakshmi had more power than any woman should, but those whispers were always kept very quiet. Even the mere suggestion that the emperor might place weight on a woman’s opinion would be insulting. Implying that the emperor would be swayed by a woman’s ideas could get a man imprisoned, or worse.
Those at the palace had learned that lesson the hard way from the emperor’s father, and were careful not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” Lakshmi said, bowing low before the emperor when she entered the court.
“Lakshmi.” He looked unimpressed but not angry by her unexpected entrance.
“I have learned that King Guy Talan is on his way to the palace.” She waited a beat. “Would you like me present when he arrives?”
Emperor Samarth scanned her up and down. Her gown was well cut of the best silk, the gold adornments presenting wealth and a level of sophistication not found in most concubines. She was young and beautiful, a fact which her almost translucent veil did nothing to hide.
Lakshmi was a gem suited for the emperor’s court.
“Yes. Sit here behind the throne. It should not be long now before he is here.”
He turned to the woman currently sitting behind him, another of his concubines, and dismissed her. The woman shot Lakshmi an angry look but did not offer any protest to the emperor.
Lakshmi took her place behind the emperor and felt that she was where she needed to be when King Guy arrived.
As the trumpets heralded the king’s entrance to the palace courtyard, a side door to the emperor’s court opened to allow Roland entrance.
“Emperor Samarth,” the prince addressed almost casually, the slightest of bows accompanying his words, “I trust it is okay, as I am a member of royalty, that I greet King Guy here as well.”
The emperor stiffened in his chair, something Lakshmi did not think Roland could notice from the other side of the room. She could not see the emperor’s face, but she knew him well enough that she could imagine his forced smile.
“Yes. I would have sent a servant to fetch you, but I am sure Guy will only want to pay his respects before refreshing himself after the long journey.”
“Perhaps,” Roland said with an easy smile that Lakshmi noted did not match the intensity of his blue eyes. “Nevertheless, I believe it is good form for me to greet King Guy. He is my father’s contemporary, after all.”
Lakshmi was intrigued by what she heard in Roland’s voice. It seemed to her as if there was disgust there, as if he did not like King Guy. She had already decided that Roland could be dangerous and would bear watching, but the idea that he disliked Guy…
She forced the idea out of her head. She could not afford to think of Ajuni, or personal problems, when the emperor’s well-being was at hand. She must clear her mind of former preconceptions before King Guy made his appearance. It was imperative that she not view his actions through her own biases, or the bias she was picking up from Roland.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” a page said to the emperor, “Your Royal Highness,” he added to Roland, “I am pleased to announce the arrival of His Majesty, King Guy Talan of Samalt.”
King Guy strolled in, and Lakshmi put aside all of her emotions and watched him with the focus and clarity of mind of a trained bodyguard. He was taller than the emperor, though not as tall as Roland, and thin. He had a black mustache rolled into points, and though he smiled and bent his straight back to the emperor there was a certain arrogance about his movements and the cool gleam in his eyes.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he said in a smooth, cultured voice, “thank you for allowing me into your glorious home.”
The emperor smiled. “King Guy, thank you for your quick arrival.”
The two men locked gazes for several moments before King Guy deigned to glance over at Roland. “Prince Roland,” he said with a slight bob of his head.
“King Guy.” Roland’s bow was shallow, and from the expression on King Guy’s face, Lakshmi thought the king was probably entitled to more than that by the youngest son of a northern king.
“How is your father’s health?” King Guy asked, his black eyes razor sharp.
“My father is hale and hearty,” Roland assured the king. “And pleased with Martin’s marriage to the princess of Ogden. When I return there, I will tell him of your interest in his well-being.”
“You do that,” King Guy said in his silky voice, his dangerous eyes not wavering.
“And what should I tell him of your health?” Roland asked. “If he asks, should I report you to be in good stead?” Lakshmi’s lips twitched at how Roland had so subtly implied that he himself cared not at all about the king’s wellbeing.
“I am healthy,” King Guy said, “and pleased that I am to marry the emperor’s daughter.”
Lakshmi thought she saw just a moment of surprise before Roland smoothed it over with an easy smile. “I was unaware the emperor had a daughter of marriageable age,” Roland said. “He must have her secreted away.”
King Guy smiled. “He has promised her to me. When I leave, I will take the girl with me and keep her in my care until she is old enough to wed.”
“After a pleasant visit,” the emperor said. “It is a long trip to make just for the fetching of a girl-child. You will stay, and we will talk.”
“I have planned on staying a month or more,” King Guy told the emperor. He turned his gaze back to Roland. “I suppose you are needed back in Ugarth soon, and are not permitted a longer stay.”
Roland flashed straight white teeth in what might have been a smile. “There are advantages to being the youngest son,” Roland told the king. “I have little responsibility calling me back, and can linger in the emperor’s court and enjoy the heat. Ugarth is cold this time of year.”
Lakshmi knew Roland was lying. Maybe not about the cold—she thought that the mountains must get very cold—but about not wanting to go back there. She had seen him in the garden, seen the yearning for home in him. Whatever reason he had for staying longer, it was not to escape the cold.
“I see.” King Guy looked to the emperor, and his eyes showed his displeasure.
Lakshmi had never seen anyone look at the emperor like that. If anyone ever had before, she doubted the emperor had let them off so easily, but he said not a word to reprimand King Guy. In fact, he smiled, and rested a genial hand on King Guy’s arm as if they were old friends.
“Guy, why don’t you go get some rest? I am sure the journey from Samalt was a long and arduous one. I can have food brought to you if you wish refreshments, but a feast is being planned for tonight. Do not overindulge.” The emperor laughed, and the sound sent shivers down Lakshmi’s back.
The emperor was not a man given to humor and laughter, and that particular laugh…it did not forebode good things.
“A spot of food and a servant to attend my bath would not be amiss,” King Guy said. “You remember the type of servants I like?”
The emperor smiled. “Indeed I do.”
This time, King Guy’s smile reached his eyes.
"Lakshmi, the emperor has requested your presence in his room."
Lakshmi turned away from watching the dog’s reaction to the potatoes she had just fed him to give the servant a harried look. “Now?” she asked.
The servant lifted her nose a bit. “I don’t question the emperor about his requests,” she said coolly.
Lakshmi wondered who this servant was, for she seemed terribly arrogant and did not seem familiar, but she nevertheless had a valid point. When the emperor asked for something, it was to be given. Lakshmi’s presence included.
“Are you supposed to wait for me?” Lakshmi asked.
The servant frowned. “No. I just needed to deliver the message.”
“Then go now,” Lakshmi said, looking around the kitchen for the cook.
The portly woman was standing on the other side of the room, blatantly avoiding watching Lakshmi feed portions of the various delicacies arranged for the welcome feast to mongrel dogs. Lakshmi caught her eye and motioned her over.
“The emperor has requested my presence,” Lakshmi said. “You have to take over here.”
“I will not,” the cook said. “There is nothing wrong with my food! I won’t be a party to this.”
“Did you recognize that girl?” Lakshmi asked, looking toward the now-empty doorway.
“No,” the cook said slowly. “But then, there are hundreds of servants in the palace. My domain is limited to the kitchens. I cannot be expected to recognize everyone!” Her voice grew louder as she went on, and Lakshmi placed a cautioning hand on the woman’s arm.
“I know that your food is safe,” Lakshmi said. “You would never conspire against the emperor. You are one of the few in the palace that I trust.” Lakshmi just wished that the cook was smart enough that the trust could be extended to help. “However, anyone can wander in here on pretense of being a servant. That girl could have been sent here to distract me, and then slip something into one of the dishes.”
The cook blustered, but without her usual heat. “That’s—that’s absurd!”
“Maybe,” Lakshmi allowed, “but we can’t risk the emperor, or the other honored guests, because something seems absurd, or an insult to your talents and loyalty.”
She knew the emperor would be waiting, and checking the food for poison was no excuse for keeping him. “I need you to finish this, and to make sure no one gets near the food that has already been checked.”
It was all she could do. Placing more of her trust than she was comfortable with in the hands of a woman whose only job was to run the kitchens, Lakshmi made her way to the emperor’s rooms.
When he bade her enter, she found him fully dressed, holding a pair of gold earrings that dropped into exquisite green emeralds.
“Oh,” Lakshmi said, unable to keep the exclamation from forming. Although she often saw the trappings of a concubine as a costume rather than a pleasure, the earrings were gorgeous. “Your Imperial Majesty…”
“They are for you,” he confirmed. “You will outfit yourself in your finest, now that both Roland and Guy are here. You and all the concubines will showcase my wealth and power.”
Lakshmi nodded. “Of course.”
“You will be at dinner, as will Esma. Show deference to her as you do to me.”
Lakshmi bowed her head. “I will,” she promised, wondering why he was giving her these instructions. It was hardly the first time they had entertained such important guests. It was not even the first time she and Esma had been at the same table with such guests.
Then she caught the emperor’s smile.
“Not even Guy has women to match mine,” the emperor said, “though he has a vast collection of his own. Your show tonight will not disappoint me, will it?”
Lakshmi had to swallow down the sour taste in her mouth caused by the knowledge that her sexuality would be on display, but she shook her head. “Of course not, Your Imperial Majesty. After tonight, King Guy will know that you are the most virile and desirable of men. He will writhe with envy. I swear it.”
“Good. Now put on these earrings and get back to whatever you were doing. I expect you at the table shortly. You will sit beside Esma.”
Lakshmi nodded and left the room, wondering how she could dote on the emperor, defer to his wife, and still keep an eye on Roland and King Guy all at once without seeming too obvious about any of it.
Years of practice would be put to the test tonight.
Lakshmi delivered Emperor Samarth's dinner with a private smile, then went and took her place beside Esma. She bowed her head to King Guy and Roland, and gave Esma her own nod of respect.
Esma wore even more jewels than Lakshmi, though hers were more subdued. Where Lakshmi’s were the bright, shiny pretties appointed a whore, Esma’s finery was refined, a show of respect for a cherished wife. Together, they were a fine example of exactly what the emperor had at his disposal.
Emperor Samarth, King Guy, and Prince Roland. Lakshmi knew there must have been meals with more distinguished individuals present. She had probably even sat in on some of those meals, but she was riveted by the three at the table now.
Emperor Samarth ruled the table, as he ruled the empire, but it was clear that between him and King Guy there was a special bond. The looks they exchanged—the smiles—excluded all others. Lakshmi was used to seeing that gleam in the emperor’s eyes, but seeing it in the eyes of King Guy made her nervous.
He looked predatory.
Roland made her nervous as well. He watched the emperor and King Guy as closely as she did, and though he spoke and laughed and shared stories with the other two men, it was clear he was an outsider, and that his position was not unknown to him.
Lakshmi may have felt fear and disgust when she looked at the king, but she knew that the prince was just as dangerous, if not more so.
“They vie for power.”
Esma’s whispered words were so unexpected Lakshmi nearly jumped. As it was, she looked over at the older woman quickly. Was she watching them as Lakshmi was? And to what purpose?
“The emperor and King Guy have known each other since childhood,” Esma elaborated, directing an appraising look her husband’s way, as if the two women were sharing private bedroom secrets rather than discussing politics. “The emperor has more power, but King Guy serves to gain much, once…” Esma faltered, but Lakshmi knew what she meant.
King Guy served to gain power once he married Ajuni. He might even be named heir, since Ajuni was the emperor’s only child. At least, the only child anyone but Lakshmi knew of.
“As the youngest son, Prince Roland has little actual power,” Esma added, “but the emperor could change that if he so chose.”
And what of Roland’s interest in King Guy? Lakshmi wanted to ask. Was King Guy also able to offer Roland power he might otherwise never gain? Lakshmi didn’t think so. The prince did not look to be currying favor with the king.
For all that Roland was polite to both men, he seemed to sometimes snub the king. It was small things, questions left half-answered, his focus remaining on the emperor even when it was King Guy speaking. Lakshmi thought it was artful, and wondered if it was a skill learned in court.
Concubines had such a talent, and it now appeared that nobles did as well. She wondered if the peasants knew how to dismiss each other without saying a word. Judging from the loud fights and name-calling she regularly heard from the servants and lower-born, she thought not.
Positions of power and rank must be necessary factors in learning to cut down others with a smile.
“That is interesting, Roland, but I don’t believe trade agreements between Ugarth and Ogden are the most interesting topics for dinner,” King Guy said blandly. “Surely the empire has more interesting news to offer.” He smiled his cold smile. “But perhaps the north has no more intriguing happenings than the trade in wool and iron.”
Roland smiled back. “It is true that the north lacks the…intrigue that the southern kingdoms so often seem to have. The northern countries deal with each other in the way of trade agreements that are profitable both to the individual kingdoms and to the empire in way of taxes.” He flashed his grin at the emperor. “I understand that Samalt has been having difficulties with Cretion, however. They raised the tax on their exports, didn’t they, after one of your visits with King Labo?”
King Guy bared his teeth in what never could have been interpreted as a smile, but Emperor Samarth silenced whatever he was about to say with a hard look. “Guy, I had heard about this, but I assumed you were going to take care of it.”
King Guy sat back in his chair, squaring his shoulders. “It was a misunderstanding,” he said stiffly. “Labo will soon realize he is being a fool and relent on the taxes.”
Roland shrugged and scooped up another bite of the curry soup, savoring it for a moment before swallowing and speaking. “From what I hear, Labo was not pleased that you were chasing after his wife.”
The sound that came from the king’s throat was very nearly a growl. “If you are accusing me of—I was never inappropriate with his wife,” he grated out.
“I believe you,” Roland said easily. “I’ve heard stories about Labo’s wife.” He laughed. “Quite aside from seducing another man’s wife being against the emperor’s law, I don’t believe even Labo is overly fond of said wife, and would probably not be upset if you had set to chasing her.”
King Guy relaxed slightly. “You see, the entire thing was foolish. Labo was obviously upset about something else, and decided to accuse me of the ridiculous. I would never dishonor a man—a king!—by attempting to seduce his wife.”
“Of course not,” the emperor said, pinning King Guy with his dark eyes. “It would be breaking my law to do so.”
“Besides, what I heard from Martin, who corresponds with King Labo quite regularly, was that the king was more upset about you and his daughters than anything.”
King Guy choked on the wine he had just consumed. “I never touched his daughters. Anything those bitches said was a lie.”
“Certainly,” Roland agreed placidly. “I am merely commenting on what I have heard from the southern courts. As you pointed out, the north has little to talk about but trade agreements.”
Lakshmi could hardly believe it. Yes, Roland would need to be watched. Anyone who would so blithely make an enemy of a man like King Guy was far more dangerous than she had suspected.
The emperor was watching both of his guests, and looking displeased with each. Roland was trouble, and someone the emperor had never wanted here in the first place. However, King Guy was not holding up so well under scrutiny. Lakshmi wondered what Roland’s game was, and what the emperor would do if Roland’s insinuations about King Guy and King Labo’s wife were to prove true.
The emperor did not care what happened to Ajuni after she was wed, or to the serving girls he sent to “attend” to King Guy, but he was very particular about the laws governing a man and his wife. To seduce another man’s wife was similar to committing an act of thievery. Worse, even.
“I believe dinner is done,” the emperor said, throwing his napkin down on his plate. He had barely finished half of his food, and as the guest of honor King Guy should have at least had the opportunity to clean his plate, but the emperor had barely said this before pushing himself away from the table and standing.
“Follow me,” he said to the two women, and with the grace of years of service to a demanding man, Lakshmi and Esma rose and followed in silence, sparing not a glance for the two nobles who were still scrambling to their feet.
The emperor’s pace through the palace corridors was unusually brisk. He normally walked slowly, in consideration of his size and age, and because he liked to look at the finery around him. He wasn’t interested in either of those things now. When they got to the door to Lakshmi’s room, he ordered Esma into his own, then followed Lakshmi into hers.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” she began, frightened by what he might do in his current temper. He could not send for one of the other concubines, not without raising his wife’s suspicions, and yet if he didn’t want the company of his wife…
“You will keep an eye on Roland,” he ordered her. “Talk to the guards if you must, but he is not to go anywhere unwatched.”
Lakshmi nodded. She had seen to that as soon as the prince had come to court; the emperor did not need to tell her what to do in regards to his safety.
“And I want Guy protected. I do not trust what Roland may have planned.”
Lakshmi’s eyes widened a bit. She had not counted on the emperor’s foresight being so thorough, or for him to have picked up that the animosity displayed during dinner might go deeper on Roland’s part. “You have asked me to see to King Guy’s safety, and I assure you that I will,” she said.
In truth, she little cared what befell King Guy so long as no harm came to the emperor, but if the emperor ordered, she obeyed.
“I will go to Esma now,” the emperor ground out. “See to having Roland watched.”
Lakshmi wondered briefly how she could increase the watch on Roland without him knowing, then decided that perhaps it was not necessary to keep it a secret. Especially not if she posted guards on King Guy as well. Guards for spying, guards for protecting, and she would be able to keep tabs on both. It was as good an arrangement as possible in such a difficult situation.