Lakshmi strode briskly down the corridors. She needed out of the palace, and decided to go shopping. She really didn't require more fabric for gowns, but there was little else the palace--and the emperor--did not supply for her.
Hopefully a guard would be free to accompany her. She usually arranged for an escort ahead of time, but the urge to leave had sprung on her suddenly.
Lakshmi turned the corner and narrowly avoided running into King Guy. “Your Highness,” she said, bowing to him before she attempted to edge around.
“Lakshmi,” he said, his voice sliding like oil across her skin. He reached out and grabbed her arm with one of his spidery hands. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Lakshmi forced a smile. “I have some shopping to do,” Lakshmi said, casually moving her arm to see if she could break his hold without a struggle. She couldn’t.
“Surely you can wait to shop later,” the king said, his voice low, his black eyes intense.
“I must arrange for a guard,” Lakshmi said. “They may not be able to go later.”
King Guy smiled, but it was not a kind smile. He looked predatory. “Come with me, Lakshmi, and all thoughts of shopping will go out of your mind.”
Lakshmi could feel her eyes grow wider. She had thought the king had given up on trying to seduce her. “Your Highness, I am flattered, but—“
The man’s fingers tightened like a vise, and he didn’t bother to listen any more, but began dragging her down the hall. At first, Lakshmi was too stunned to fight. Then, as he veered toward what Lakshmi knew to be an empty storage room, self-preservation kicked in. She struggled against his bruising hold.
King Guy was stronger than he seemed, and the look he sent her told her he was aware of his superior strength. He yanked her, hard, into the room with him, then closed the door.
It was dark as pitch, and Lakshmi shuddered. The absolute absence of light made her skin crawl, and all the monsters she had imagined in her childhood seemed once again to exist. When King Guy grabbed her breasts roughly, squeezing them painfully, all that escaped from her was a mewling sound.
“Ah, not so insistent on belonging only to the emperor now,” the king said, leaning forward and licking lewdly up the side of her neck. “You’re nothing more than a whore.”
Lakshmi’s heart felt like it would beat out of her chest. She could see nothing, feel nothing but his hands cruelly digging into her breasts and his fetid breath moistening her neck. “Please,” she said, her voice wavering, unable to plead for him to let her escape the darkness.
“I will show you what a man has to offer,” the king said. “And you will come to me in the night.”
His hand moved from her breast to cup the juncture at her thighs, and she summoned enough strength to shift away. “Stop,” she said.
Moving in the dark, where the monsters could be hiding, terrified her. She knew it was only a girl’s fears, but they were clogging her throat, threatening to choke her no matter how she tried to tell herself they were irrational. Even the pawing hands on her were hardly enough to overcome the fears from her childhood.
“You cannot stop me,” he hissed. “You are a woman, a whore, and when we are done—“
Light spilled into the small room, and Lakshmi’s breath shuddered out in relief even as strength seeped back into muscles gone lax with fear. She moved away from the king and out into the corridor—right into Roland.
“What’s going on here?” Roland asked, looking between Guy and Lakshmi with dark, suspicious eyes.
Guy looked angry, but Lakshmi felt only relief. Her hands shook slightly, and she felt sweat beading on her upper lip. Though her mind spun, she was aware enough to see the concern in Roland’s eyes.
“Nothing that concerns you,” King Guy said, his eyes a dark warning.
Roland straightened to his full height. He was taller than the king, broader and more powerfully built. His eyes were cold. “It seems that you lured one of the emperor’s concubines into a room to take advantage of her,” he said, his face impassive.
King Guy smiled thinly. “You cannot take advantage of a concubine,” he said. “They are whores. Go to the emperor, and he will know that his Lakshmi lured me into the room, and used her sex in an attempt to sate her wicked lusts.”
Lakshmi couldn’t look into his evil eyes. His voiced grated along her spine like dust in a desert storm. “That isn’t true,” she objected.
“Then tell the emperor,” King Guy said casually. “See if he takes the word of a whore over a king.”
He walked off, and when Roland would have followed him, Lakshmi put a restraining hand on his arm. “Don’t,” she said.
“I’ll bloody him. I saw you. The emperor—“
“Roland,” Lakshmi said wearily. “The emperor will believe what he wants to believe. King Guy is right.”
Roland swore with a fluency that impressed Lakshmi despite her emotional unrest. “You’re just going to let him get away with that?”
Lakshmi shrugged as though the incident had been minor. “I’m fine.”
“Why didn’t you fight him?”
His cool blue eyes demanded an answer, and Lakshmi admitted to him what she had told no one but her mother. “It was dark. I froze.”
Roland let out a soft chuckle, but he must have seen that she was serious, as the laughter soon died in his throat. “You’re afraid of the dark?”
Lakshmi crossed her arms in front of her defensively. “Only when there’s no light at all,” she said. “As long as there’s a moon, or stars, or a lamp somewhere, I’m fine. The room had no light; I could see nothing.” She shuddered again.
Roland’s surprise was obvious, but he did not question her. Perhaps he did not find it unusual for a woman to be so afraid of the dark, though that thought did little to comfort her.
“All right,” he said. “But I think if you tell the emperor…” She shook her head and he sighed. “Fine.”
Lakshmi was quiet for a long time, warring with herself. Then, hesitantly, she placed a soft hand on his lower arm and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, Roland.” Her eyes were serious, and when she turned away he made no move to follow.
By the time Lakshmi made it to dinner that night, she thought she had put behind her the close call with King Guy and the disturbing feelings she had around Roland. She was dressed in her sensuous sunset silks, her hair falling in soft curls under the golden hair net. Sultry perfumes wafted up from her, a result of the scent she had rubbed into her skin after her bath.
The emperor smiled at her in appreciation. Esma’s eyes passed over her as if bored, but the woman might have sensed something, as her mouth tensed momentarily before relaxing. King Guy pointedly ignored her, while Roland watched her too intently to be appropriate for the emperor’s table.
If Emperor Samarth noticed Roland’s attention, he was not displeased. As long as other men kept their hands—and other parts of their anatomy—to themselves, he was proud that they would be jealous of his concubines. When she had settled herself beside Esma, she was surprised that the woman’s hand came out and squeezed hers once, tightly. Obviously she had not fooled the woman into thinking she was unconcerned.
Lakshmi turned her hand over and squeezed back.
The dinner conversation did not hold Lakshmi’s attention. She could not follow the bland politics, the discussion of taxes between the kingdoms that made up the empire. Even what news the emperor shared with the other men, news he had received just that day from couriers, hardly interested her. She was distracted, disturbed by the day’s events, and whenever her eyes happened to slide over King Guy, she tensed just slightly. After the initial scare—and the helplessness she had felt in the dark room—had passed, she had thought about her sweet, innocent sister.
Lakshmi could defend herself. The dark had paralyzed her, but she was sure that, given time, she would have been able to summon her wits and fight off the king. Ajuni had no such skills. The stronger, more experienced king would easily be able to overpower the small girl, no matter the surroundings.
That knowledge froze her to the bones.
“Don’t glare at him so,” Esma said, her voice little more than a whisper in Lakshmi’s ear.
Lakshmi hadn’t realized she had been staring, and immediately trained her eyes on her plate. She had done little more than push the food around tonight. Hunger was the last thing she was feeling.
“You will tell me what happened later.”
Lakshmi nodded almost imperceptibly. She rarely confided in anyone, and never in the emperor’s wife, but she realized something now. Although her job had always been to protect the emperor, she knew that if she did not do everything she could to protect her sister, she would become bitter and filled with the darkness that had twisted her mother so that eventually she had shriveled and died rather than spending another day as the emperor’s once favored, now discarded, concubine.
Roland was watching her. He was discreet, but his eyes kept coming back to hers. Lakshmi could feel them, and though she kept her own focused on the emperor and her food, and occasionally on Esma, she could see him in her mind’s eye. His intelligent blue eyes would be focused on her, his mind working over whatever mysteries he had.
After dinner, Lakshmi and Esma headed to the part gardens reserved for women. Lakshmi removed her veil, a sign that she would hide nothing from the emperor’s wife, and the other woman did the same. Esma looked older than Lakshmi remembered, though it had not been so long since she had seen the woman without her veil. The lines that fanned out from her eyes were more noticeable, and brackets were beginning to form around her mouth.
Lakshmi had no doubt the changes were due to worry about Ajuni.
She held back nothing as she relayed what had happened with King Guy that afternoon. She even divulged the fear she had so long kept hidden, though she felt heat rise to her face as she did so. Esma did not laugh or make light of Lakshmi’s fear of darkness, however. The woman merely listened as Lakshmi told her everything, up to the moment when Roland had come to her rescue.
After the story was finished, Esma swore softly. It was not a particularly vile curse—Lakshmi had delivered much worse with much less reason—but she was impressed that Esma would know such language at all. She was not a concubine, born to a disgraced woman in the desert. She was the daughter of a king, married to the emperor.
And she was a mother.
“I wish that man's evil would consume him,” Esma said.
Lakshmi doubted if even evil had the stomach for a man like King Guy. She thought it must like sweeter stuff, the stuff evil men fed to it. “I don’t believe we can count on that happening,” Lakshmi said. “Time is too short for evil to grow that hungry.”
“Then we’ll have to do something ourselves.” Esma's eyes portrayed her seriousness.
A young girl arrived at Lakshmi's door with a tray piled with fruits and a bowl of rice and lamb in curry sauce. Lakshmi almost sent the girl away, but thought better of it. If the girl wasn't attending Lakshmi's meal, she would probably be put to use scrubbing floors or doing dishes. Serving a pampered concubine was not a difficult assignment.
Lakshmi daintily ate her meal, stopping every couple bites to wipe her lips with the napkin the young servant proffered. The girl watched Lakshmi eagerly, as though fascinated by the concubine’s every move, and Lakshmi wondered how new to the palace the servant was. She knew her moves well, but the attention being paid was more than someone familiar with the many concubines would have.
Lakshmi was about to ask the girl about it when she heard a knock on the door.
The girl jumped to her feet and scurried to the door, pulling it open. When the girl said nothing to welcome the visitor in, Lakshmi looked up.
It was Roland.
The serving girl looked as surprised as Lakshmi felt, and the concubine knew word of the prince’s visit to her private chambers would spread all over the palace if she did not act quickly. “Did the emperor send you to fetch me?” Lakshmi asked, rising smoothly from her chair as though she had expected Roland.
A corner of his mouth lifted, but Roland gave no other sign that he was not acting on the emperor’s orders. “Yes. Are you ready?”
Lakshmi looked at her half eaten meal and nodded. “Yes. I don’t want to keep the emperor waiting.” Her eyes slid to the serving girl. “Clean up in here.”
Her voice was dismissive, and nothing in her manner suggested that anything out of the norm was happening. Hopefully the girl would pick up on that, and Roland coming to visit her would remain a secret. If not… it didn’t bear thinking on.
Lakshmi followed Roland around twisting corridors as if he truly was leading her to the emperor. She didn’t speak until they had twisted around enough that they were at a side entrance to his rooms. He pulled her inside before she could protest.
Then protest she did.
“What do you think you’re doing, coming to my room like that? If that girl tells someone—”
“How was I supposed to know a slip of a girl would be feeding you lunch?” Roland asked, his blue eyes hot with temper.
“You didn’t need to know!” Lakshmi said. “You shouldn’t have come to my rooms at all. What do you want?”
Roland’s head swooped forward and his mouth claimed Lakshmi’s in a steamy kiss.
At first, Lakshmi was too stunned to respond. When her shock wore off, she opened her mouth to protest, but his tongue darted out and filled her mouth. She couldn’t talk, and soon pleasure overwhelmed her.
She’d never kissed a man, but she had seen too many kisses not to know how to respond. She moved her tongue against his, reveling in the different textures. The rhythm of Roland’s tongue was clearly that of mating, and Lakshmi felt her knees weaken.
The moan that escaped her had nothing to do with her years of pretending to be a concubine. She had experienced the first taste of desire, and wanted more.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I first saw you,” Roland said. He was so close that his lips moved against hers as he spoke, sending delicious tingles up and down her spine.
Lakshmi didn’t know what to say. She played the part of the emperor’s concubine, but she had no experience with something like this.
The memory of the emperor snapped her back to reality, and she wrenched herself away from Roland, staring up at him in shock. “What are you doing?”
“What we are doing,” Roland corrected, “is kissing.”
Lakshmi shook her head, holding him away with an outstretched arm when he tried to move closer. “No, we’re not. We can’t.”
“We can,” Roland said, wrapping his arms around her.
“If the emperor finds out—“
“Shh,” Roland said, placing a soft peck on her lips. “We’re kissing. There’s nothing for him to find out.” His next kiss was slower, more languid, and when he moved back he wore a smug smile on his charming face. His blue eyes were filled with pleasure.
Lakshmi wanted to protest, but his lips were right there, so temptingly close. She raised up on her toes and kissed him gently, somewhat hesitantly. Roland took over, and she made a soft sound of pleasure as her arms moved to wrap around his neck.
He put his hands at the small of her back and pulled her closer, until she was fitted against him. He was tall and strong, all muscle. Lakshmi could hardly believe the difference between him and the other men she had been so close to. He had none of the emperor’s overabundance of flesh, and despite his strength, she felt no uneasiness being in his arms.
The sensations she felt were entirely difference.
“I want to stay here,” Roland said after an interminable time of kissing.
Lakshmi made a noise of assent and returned to his mouth. She couldn’t believe the sensations rushing through her—even for her mother, who had missed the life of a concubine so much she had returned to the palace and faced the emperor’s wrath in an attempt to regain her past life—sex and the associated physical activities had merely been a job.
Lakshmi had never known that a kiss could be so wonderful, and fill her with so many beautiful feelings.
“I want more,” Roland said, moving from her lips to her neck, sending a hot shaft of passion straight to Lakshmi’s core.
Roland pulled away and smiled. “I think you want that, too,” Roland said. “It’s more than a concubine’s tricks with you, isn’t it?”
Lakshmi was too overwhelmed to speak, or even to understand his question.
“You have to go,” Roland said. “There will be other times and places, but not now.”
“Go to the emperor,” Roland said. “If the serving girl mentions we left together…”
“Oh. Yes.” Lakshmi swallowed and tried to gather her scattered thoughts. Finally she gave Roland a wan smile. “Check the hall before I leave your room.”
Roland smiled back, and after he had checked that the corridor was clear, he ushered her out. The hand he placed on her back trailed down to just above the curve of her bottom before he let her loose and closed the door behind her.
Lakshmi took her time finding the emperor. He would be able to sense passion in a concubine, and though he was not aware of her parentage, he knew by now that nothing he did would call up such passion in Lakshmi.