Lakshmi sat cross-legged on the floor, working on the hem of her new gown. The sunset silk was gorgeous, and the way it fell over the mannequin, draping softly over the curves, was part of the reason Lakshmi was working so hard to complete it. Lakshmi was sure that once the gown was finished it would be an outfit to outshine all others.
Lakshmi minutely adjusted one of the pins, and was just standing up to get a different view of the gown when there was a knock on the door. “What is it?” she asked irritably. This was the first time she had been free in the last two days, and she planned to spend it sewing.
“I’ve a letter from the cook,” a woman’s voice called out.
Lakshmi opened the door and thought she recognized the older woman. She was a scullery maid who had been employed at the palace after the death of her husband and eldest son. Now she was apparently a messenger as well.
“The cook?” Lakshmi asked with all appearance of being bored, though her pulse had sped up at the news.
The cook was one of the few in the palace that knew Lakshmi was not a true concubine. If something was wrong with the emperor, the cook would be in a position to inform Lakshmi of it covertly. Gossip moved quickly in the kitchens, and no one watched the cook’s correspondence, especially not in a crisis.
“Yes. I don’t know what it is.”
Lakshmi held out her hand and the rolled and sealed message was handed over. Lakshmi wanted to send the woman away, but she broke the seal and read it in front of her, as though she might wish to send a reply .
The messenger might have been sent by the cook, but it was the captain of the guard who had written the letter. His handwriting was as firm and no-nonsense as the man himself.
News has just come to light that a prince, Prince Roland, is due to arrive at the palace in the next few days.
This is the first I or the other guards have heard of it. What say you?
I know nothing of this prince, but the emperor must be under closer guard than ever.
“One moment while I prepare a message of my own,” Lakshmi said, keeping her tone light and easy as she crossed to her writing desk. She pulled out a fine quill and a bottle of ink. Her answer, written at the bottom of the original message, was succinct. It stated that she knew nothing about the impending arrival of any royalty but would investigate the matter immediately. Then she rolled the message back up, sealed it with wax, and gave it back to the maid.
“Deliver this to the cook straight away,” Lakshmi said.
“Of course.” If the woman thought anything strange was going on, she knew better than to ask. Perhaps, Lakshmi thought, a hard life and the death of loved ones burned the curiosity out of you.
Something else was burning inside Lakshmi, however. Anger that the emperor had not informed her of this Prince Roland’s arrival ate at her gut. She was his personal bodyguard, charged with defending him to the last. If he failed to inform her of a possible threat, how could she protect him?
There had been an increasing number of assassination attempts on the emperor’s life in recent years, and although Lakshmi and the guards had been unable to gather any proof, everyone was sure that the assassins had been sent by rulers of the empire’s various kingdoms in hopes that with the emperor’s death, one of them would become the successor.
For all she and the captain knew, Prince Roland could have been staging these assassination attempts. He could be coming to the palace to see his plan through personally!
Lakshmi walked into her bedroom and grabbed a veil, not bothering to check how it matched with her clothes. She affixed it to her head scarf and left her rooms in search of the emperor. It was an effort not to run, and she could not quite manage the lazy, swaying walk she usually employed, but she had more important things to worry about than looking the part of an alluring concubine.
When she finally found the emperor in one of his gaming rooms, her temper could no longer be contained.
“Why didn’t you tell me a prince was coming here?” she demanded angrily, remembering at the last moment to keep her voice low enough that it would not be heard by the guards standing in the hall.
The emperor lifted his head and pierced her with his hawk-like glare. His black eyes grew even darker with anger, and his hooked nose made him resemble a bird of prey. “Who do you think you are, to come in and speak to me that way?”
“Silence! You come in here and speak to me, your emperor, as if it is you in control. That is unacceptable.”
“I apologize,” Lakshmi said, lowering her eyes. She wished she could go back and start again. It had been a long time since she had let her temper get in the way of her duty.
“You think that because you are not a true concubine you have power. You are nothing more than I allow you to be, Lakshmi. If you are not careful, even the power you have now will be eliminated. You will be forced out of the palace and onto the street.” He smiled, the expression somehow making his face look crueler. “Or you could become a true concubine,” he said. “I would allow you in my bed.”
Lakshmi barely suppressed a shudder. It was not just the look in his eyes, but the thought. She had knowledge he knew nothing of, and it made the thought of lying with the emperor repulsive.
“I apologize most sincerely,” Lakshmi said again. “I will not speak out of turn. I am only concerned about your safety, and my concern overruled my common sense. Please, allow me to make amends.”
The emperor seemed to consider her words for a moment, and though he didn’t look wholly appeased, he must have decided to let it rest for the time being. “I realize that you take you position as a bodyguard seriously,” he told Lakshmi. “Had I known of the prince’s imminent arrival before this morning, I would have informed you sooner.”
Lakshmi thought about pointing out the fact that the emperor had not informed her at all, and that it was Captain Garth who had done so, but she knew now. The manner in which she had come to know was no longer relevant. “I didn’t realize that the news was so recent,” Lakshmi said.
Temper sparked once more in the emperor’s eyes, but this time it was not directed at Lakshmi. “Prince Roland did not see fit to inform me that he was coming,” the emperor spat. “He did not send a messenger ahead of his party until two days ago, and the messenger has only just arrived.”
Lakshmi kept quiet while her mind raced. Protocol demanded that all nobles who planned to visit the palace send a rider weeks in advance. Due to the size of the empire, it was not reasonable that the nobles wait for a response before beginning their journeys, but it was considered courteous to inform the palace of the expected guest in time for arrangements to be made.
For a prince not to have done so was troubling. Lakshmi wondered what he was planning.
“I am unfamiliar with this Prince Roland,” Lakshmi said. “Is he not from one of the southern kingdoms?”
In Lakshmi’s time at the palace serving as the emperor’s bodyguard, she had seen many of the nobles of the neighboring kingdoms in court. Those she hadn’t seen, she had at least heard about. Prince Roland, however, was unknown to her.
“No. He is from Ugarth, far to the north.” The emperor rested his hands over his protruding stomach. “Roland is the youngest son of King Henry Gray.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “I do not recall hearing of the Grays,” she said. She walked around behind the emperor and put her hands on his back, kneading his shoulders gently.
“They rule a small kingdom,” the emperor said, waving his hand in a dismissive fashion. “Henry Gray is a good king, or was in my father’s time. He was king already when I was a boy, with a son of his own.”
Lakshmi nodded, though the emperor could not see her, and moved her hands to work on the knots just beneath his shoulder blades.
“Henry had six sons, I believe, though two are dead.” She thought she detected some envy in his voice and concentrated more fully on the massage. The emperor sighed softly as her gentle ministrations relieved the tension in his neck. The training that had taught her the pressure points that could paralyze a person had also taught her how to cause relaxation. Lakshmi used that knowledge now, in hopes that the emperor would reveal more of what he knew if he was relaxed and not brooding about his own lack of sons.
“Why would the youngest son be coming here?” Lakshmi asked.
The emperor shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps he wishes to season himself at my court. Or perhaps he hopes I will arrange a marriage for him. One of his older brothers recently married a princess from Ogden. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes,” Lakshmi lied. She knew Ogden to be another northern kingdom, although she did not know if it bordered Ugarth or not. “Was the match advantageous?” she asked.
“Of course. I arranged it.” Lakshmi could hear the satisfaction in the emperor’s voice. “Ugarth and Ogden have sometimes been at odds with each other. This marriage will help to prevent the infighting.”
“Will this prince now become king of Ogden?” Lakshmi asked.
“No. The princess has an older brother, and her father is still alive. I married her to the second son, and he stands to gain a land and a title in Ogden once his father-in-law dies and the brother takes the throne. He would not have risen so high had he stayed in Ugarth.”
“You are a wise ruler,” Lakshmi told him, giving him the praise he craved. “You’ve made your subjects happy, and solved a problem between two kingdoms without bloodshed.”
“Yes, I have. Now we must see what Roland Gray wants. Perhaps I will marry him to someone from the southern kingdoms,” he mused. “No one too powerful, mind, but I wouldn’t mind keeping a closer watch on some of those northerners.”
“Of course,” Lakshmi agreed. She continued her massage for a few more minutes, then broke contact.
“I regret I must see to some arrangements before the prince’s arrival,” she told the emperor.
“Yes. I will want you in court with me until the prince arrives. Meet me there tomorrow morning.”
“Of course.” Lakshmi bowed and left, making a mental list of all the precautions that needed to be taken before the prince’s arrival.