Lakshmi lay in bed, unable to sleep. She heard boots in the hall, heard them stop outside of her door. She could almost see Roland there, his hand hesitating inches from the doorknob.
When the person outside the door moved on, Lakshmi wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. She didn’t know if she would have been able to handle the intimacy of being alone with Roland right then, but she didn’t want to be alone, either.
She sat up, grabbing the robe that was hanging on the edge of her bed and shrugging into it. Perhaps she would dress and take a walk in the garden. Clear her head. One of the cooks could warm some milk for her, and…
She realized she was wringing her hands and forced herself to stop. A part of her knew that being nervous was natural, but at the same time it was infuriating. She was not a woman to be reduced to handwringing and vapors. Even here, she refused to show such weakness. Things practiced in private too easily became public. Her mother had taught her that. From the time Lakshmi and her mother had returned to the palace, Lakshmi had never once referred to her mother as anything but “aunt.” It would be too easy to slip otherwise. And now Lakshmi had to learn to control her emotions again. Her fear.
Now more than ever, she needed to be able to think and act rationally. She should be coming up with solutions to her problem, not thinking about whether or not she wanted Roland with her.
What the emperor had asked…
A laugh escaped her, and she could hear the hysterical edge to it.
The emperor. Her father.
What would he do if she told him the truth? Nothing good, she was sure. Perhaps he would change his mind on a woman to give him an heir, but she doubted rotting in a prison cell was much better than sleeping with…
She shuddered. No, perhaps the prison would be better.
Or I can leave, she thought. Just go.
There was no reason for her to stay now. Ajuni was safe from King Guy. Lakshmi herself would be the only one in danger if she remained.
Life after she left the palace might be difficult at first, but Lakshmi’s mother had done it. Lakshmi could, too. Feeling calmer and more sure of herself than she had since the attack, she crossed to her armoire and threw back the doors. She took out the large sack rolled up at the bottom. Hardly the appropriate way to transport silks, but she could hardly carry a trunk by herself. In the sack she put some of her more serviceable silks, her shifts, a pair of sturdy boots, and some of her more subtle jewelry. She didn’t have much in the way of coin, but she had some loose gemstones that she hadn’t taken to a jeweler’s yet, and she put them in a secondary coin purse that she would keep on her.
She had one outfit that was plain linen, finely cut but not a display of palace life, and planned to stop by the laundry the next day. She could steal some livery, and alter it so that it looked more like plain clothes and less like what palace servants wore.
Her mother had not told her much about leaving the palace, but Lakshmi knew her mother had done the same in stealing servants’ garments, and sold her silks and gems as she traveled. She hadn’t spent them wisely, though. As Lakshmi recalled, her mother had liked to live a grand life, and had spent much too freely before realizing that soon there would be nothing left.
Lakshmi did not plan to fall into that same trap.
She grabbed a thin blanket, rolled it up as tightly as she could, and put it in the sack, then tucked the whole thing under the bed, where the servants wouldn’t notice it.
She had a day or two before the emperor would expect her to fulfill her new duties. A day or two to steal and alter livery, to gather food, and to figure out where to go.
Would the emperor look for her? Her mother hadn’t told her whether the emperor had chased her, and no concubines had run away since Lakshmi had returned to the palace. Would he care?
Probably not. He might be angry, maybe even angry enough to issue an arrest warrant if she was found, but he would not go chasing after her, or waste guards on such a task.
Bodyguard or no, concubine or no, she was merely a woman.
Satisfied with the progress she had made, she lowered her hands to the belt on her robe, ready to return to bed.
And froze as she heard a woman’s screams coming from next door.
After only a moment’s hesitation Lakshmi reached for her knife—not the one that had been taken from her earlier that day, but another, older knife, and ran for the door that joined with the emperor’s room. She braced herself for anything, but was still shocked by what she found.
The first person she saw was one of the emperor’s concubines, pale and wide-eyed. She followed the woman’s gaze, and felt the blood drain from her face as she looked at the remains of the emperor.
The bed was soaked in blood. The emperor’s throat had been opened from ear to ear, and the spray had soaked body, mattress, and curtains alike.
The woman shook her head. “I don’t know. I…” She swallowed hard. “I was told he had sent for me. When I got here…” She looked away. “When I got here…I’m going to be sick.”
Lakshmi hurriedly grabbed the chamber pot and thrust it into the woman’s hands. Then moved closer to the body.
At first the cut had seemed vicious, but there was purpose behind it. Whoever had done this—or ordered it done—had not cared whether the emperor suffered. They just wanted him dead.
And Lakshmi had heard nothing. She’d stopped dozens of assassins over the years, but on the night the emperor had needed her protection most, she had been too distracted to notice.
“Guy,” she whispered.
“What?” the concubine asked, looking dazed.
Lakshmi shook her head and reached for the pull cord next to the emperor’s bed. It would summon a maid faster than Lakshmi could go find one herself. She had to know if King Guy was still being guarded. Had to get a message to Captain Garth. Had to…
The emperor was dead.
“Let’s go into the sitting room,” Lakshmi urged the other woman. “We don’t want the maid coming in here.”
The woman nodded and followed meekly. When she was seated in one of the chairs, Lakshmi poured her half a glass of the golden liquor that the emperor kept—had kept—on hand and urged her to drink.
“But I don’t—”
“You’ll feel better,” Lakshmi promised. The woman looked doubtful, then took a small sip. She made a face and coughed slightly, then took another, longer sip. “That’s good,” Lakshmi said.
There was a soft knock on the door before it was gently nudged open. “Your Imperial Majesty, I—” The maid stopped, confusion crossing her face when she saw the two women, with no sign of the emperor anywhere. “Excuse me, the emperor rang?”
“You need to run and get some palace guards. And Captain Garth,” Lakshmi said.
“This is a matter of great urgency concerning the emperor,” Lakshmi said, thinking of the man in the next room. He would never feel urgency again, but there would never be a more urgent time. He was dead, and there was an assassin somewhere in the palace.
King Guy, perhaps, or someone in his employee. Or perhaps an unknown enemy, one completely unaware of the day’s events. Any number of people had reason to kill the emperor.
“Run and get them!” Lakshmi snapped.
The woman ran, leaving Lakshmi alone with the concubine who had come to serve the emperor that night.
Lakshmi wondered if she should question her, but couldn’t summon the energy. It all seemed so unreal. The entire day seemed like a dream, a nightmare. Guy, the emperor’s plans for her, and now the emperor’s death. A murderer in the palace. And her, the emperor’s bodyguard. What was her role now? There was no emperor to guard. No succession to guide the empire. Would this day end with a promise of civil war?
“No,” Lakshmi said. “Not civil war. That’s not…” Then she saw it. If King Guy had arranged this, it was not because he wanted revenge. He could have gone back to Samalt and lived his life much as he had been. But here, where the day’s events had hardly had time to sprout rumors, but where stories of Guy’s impending marriage to Ajuni were well-rooted, he could set himself up as successor. Samarth himself had said he planned to name Guy heir. If Guy made a play for the throne, no one would stop him. He would be free. Free to be the emperor, free to seek revenge on Lakshmi.
Free to marry Ajuni, and continue the emperor’s line.
“I can’t believe he’s dead,” the woman said, drawing Lakshmi’s gaze. “How can he be dead?”
Lakshmi shook her head. She didn’t know how, but if she was right about the who…