Lakshmi awoke suddenly, instantly aware that it was still the middle of the night. She lay silently on the soft, down-filled mattress, trying to ascertain what had woken her. The door between her chamber and the emperor's was still closed, and the bolt on the door that led to the corridor was in place.
Yet something was amiss.
She waited another moment; then heard a sound that had her sitting up straight in her bed. The sound had come from the roof, and she knew it was not one of the cats that worked to keep the palace free of mice. Whatever had made such a noise was much larger in size, and much less stealthy.
Lakshmi reached over and pulled her white dressing robe off of a nearby hook. She slipped it on, making sure to tie the belt tightly so that the silk robe wouldn’t slip open. If there was trouble on the roof, she didn’t have the time to get fully dressed.
After grabbing the knife off her bedside table, Lakshmi headed out to the balcony. She kept to the shadows, glad that the waxing moon was still only a thin crescent in the sky. Her white robe was too revealing as it was.
She heard the noise again, louder now that she was outside. A glance up showed the silhouettes of three men creeping along the roofline. They were passing over her bedroom now and were heading in the direction of the emperor’s balcony.
No one would be foolish enough to try to rob the palace, and Lakshmi knew with grim certainty that the men she was looking at were assassins, not thieves. Assassination attempts were too common of late, something that made Lakshmi’s position all the more important. She tucked the knife into the belt of her robe and stood on tiptoe to reach the edge of the roof. With supreme effort she pulled herself up, struggling to be quiet as she clambered onto the roof.
Her feet, bare of even her satin slippers, were silent against the tiles as she crept towards the men. They sensed her before she was upon them, and the one in the rear lunged at her. Lakshmi dodged, kicking out instinctively, and the man fell over the edge of the roof. He missed the balconies and landed on the street four stories below.
Lakshmi would report him to the guards so that he could be removed before any of the peasants saw him. At the least he would have to be stripped of any identifying markers. It was important that people not know just how contentious the emperor’s grip could be, or how many people of influence and means wished to see him dead.
But reporting the intruders could wait. The other two men had all of Lakshmi’s attention for the moment, and they were more wary after their friend’s demise.
She pulled her knife out of her belt and headed toward them.
Her steps were calm and steady, her movements precise. The knife was only for insurance: her hands and feet were all she needed.
When the men were subdued, one unconscious and the other temporarily incapable of moving after a well-placed chop to the neck, she cut apart one of their shirts to tie them up. Perched on a roof as they were, they would be stupid to try and wriggle free of the bonds.
Lakshmi inspected them one last time before slipping down onto her balcony and into her room. She hurriedly changed into a simple dress and donned a veil before heading into the corridor. There were guards outside of the emperor’s door, but none she knew and trusted with the information she had, so she ignored them and continued walking.
She made her way down to the guards’ quarters by way of back staircases, and when she came to the door of the captain’s room she knocked.
“What?” a sleep-roughened male voice demanded from within.
“It’s Lakshmi,” she said just loud enough that the man could hear. She couldn’t risk anyone else finding her down in the guard’s quarters. As bad as any of the men learning the truth would be, seeing one of the emperor’s concubines sneaking into a soldier’s room would be worse.
The door opened and the man ushered her inside. He had donned a pair of britches and a course shirt that he had failed to button all the way. Course black stubble studded his face, and a sleep line creased one cheek.
Despite his disheveled appearance, his dark brown eyes were alert.
“Three men tried to sneak into the emperor’s rooms,” Lakshmi reported. “One of them fell off of the roof. The other two are trussed up on the roof in the space between my balcony and the emperor’s.”
The captain nodded. “I will see to them,” he said.
Lakshmi stood aside as the captain checked that the hallway was clear; then she slipped out of the room and back upstairs to her chambers. Once again she evaded the notice of the emperor’s guards.
Securely back in her room, Lakshmi bolted the door that led to the corridor, then crossed to the door that connected her room to the emperor’s. She eased it open slowly, carefully, so as to make not to make a sound. It led into his inner sitting chamber, and she crossed the marble floor that was covered in lush carpets even more ornate than the ones in her own room.
Lakshmi opened the door to his bedchamber with great care. The drapes were drawn in this room, but Lakshmi could just make out two figures in the emperor’s bed.
His wife or one of his other concubines, Lakshmi thought, and was reassured that the emperor was, for tonight, safe. She crept back out, shutting each door quietly behind her, and returned to her own bed.
It had been awhile since anyone had gotten as close to the emperor as those three men had tonight. Lakshmi was grateful she was a light sleeper, and the emperor saw fit to grant her the room adjacent to his own, despite the talk keeping a concubine so close sometimes garnered.
But Lakshmi was more than a pampered concubine. The emperor had decided some years earlier that he would rather be conspicuous than dead, and as his bodyguard, Lakshmi worked to keep it that way.