Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for mature content.
I had finally gotten my hands on the purchasing logs for the past week. Considering how recent the attack was, I doubted it was much earlier than that. Of course, those logs would happen to be the biggest we’d had in months, because the kitchen was planning for the official announcement of my choice of husband in four days. Not like half the palace didn’t know from gossip already.
Hopefully I would be able to make some progress into this beast before—
Walking back into my room cut that plan right off.
Nitika sighed upon seeing my face. “I dismissed the servants for exactly that reason.”
“I thought I had an outfit…” I muttered, ignoring the pile of fabric on the central table of my room and going straight for the ‘desk’ portion of my workbench.
She stood in my path towards the ‘poison’ end of my workbench, with the required sample of almonds. “A summer one, and now we are nearly winter because you took so long to evaluate possibilities, and everyone is looking towards you for fashion ideas with Ranya and Vyoma gone.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Can’t they look towards one of Father’s dozen other wives?”
“They will, but you are still an important member of Court we’ll all be taking our cues from.” She put her hand on her chin, mock sizing me up with a twinkle in her eye. “I think the next trend will be dagger belts, knowing you.”
I laughed. “Exposed daggers lose the element of surprise. Mesh sleeves.”
She knew amusement would disarm me, and poked me towards the fabric. “Once you’ve planned this out to properly subvert all of Father’s expectations you can get back to work.”
“Alright, alright…” I broke away from her grip and went to my closet, where I kept my packet of plans. “They are not getting a new design with three days to do it. Court gossip for the next week will be how I wore the same thing again.”
She shook her head. “Jalil told me how long you spent with seamstresses to create all of those…”
I rolled my eyes and flipped through. “He would. He was thoroughly exasperated with the Court attention we were getting with Ranya, meanwhile the two of us were busy creating a wardrobe fit for a crown princess and her accompanying servant. All he had to be was… an accountant.”
She giggled. “A very handsome accountant.”
“Who got a beautiful wife once he had the clothes to match,” I replied in kind. “He should be thanking me for forcing him down to all of those appointments. I thought weapons talk would intrigue him. And it worked!”
I had to admit, Jalil had struck absolute gold with this match. One of the particularly inquisitive minds of the Empire had taken a liking to our gardens and science facilities I had just begun to use, them newly renovated when my father had been on the throne. He knew his herbologist daughter would love them. An Imperial match two ways, Ranya leaving for the Tijals and Nitika coming to be with us, just strengthened power.
Thank the gods she knew how to detect her own poisons. I didn’t have the skill to protect her at the time.
I shuddered to think just what I had missed when I was twelve. And where I would be without her skill.
“At least I have the most for winter…” I muttered, trying not to glare at the pages upon pages of gala-worthy outfits. Diplomats arriving in summer and leaving in spring had their advantages. “And the more Palahira-influenced they are, the more practical they are.”
She shook her head. “I still don’t know how the women here manage to be beautiful and warm in winter. You wear mesh sleeves!”
I was about to reply when I felt the buzzing excitement of children. I glanced at Nitika, her with a very specific type of yearning and me with long suffering resignation as the often-heard cry of “Aunt Cat’s door is open!” rang through the cavernous halls.
The sign I was normally unoccupied.
I closed my filebook of patterns and got up. Nitika just raised an eyebrow at me. “You were most certainly upset when I interrupted your work.”
I shrugged. “You know what’s at stake. All they know is I’m either busy, or I’m not. I’d rather they not know anything more than. Not while they’re still children.”
Not even guard children knew what they were training for, when they began. Unless a parent died, unless they were forced into it, they didn’t learn until they graduated four years later. I tried to make sure as few people learned prematurely as possible.
The break would do me some good, regardless.
They all ended up piled in my room, clamoring on every surface available to see the fabrics and patterns. Suggestions of which ones to use for what just made me laugh, seriousness of it all lost for a few moments.
Nitika would make a wonderful mother, for how attentive she was to the younger ones, and the ones who needed a little more time to understand all of the input around them. Jalil was hardly a sensor, but maybe their children would inherit some genes from our father. It ran in the Palahira bloodline almost as much as our claim to the land.
Eventually their nurses and mothers all came and found them. Lessons, naps, or some combination of the two demanded their attention. A few whined “can’t Cat be my teacher?”s just had me promising to teach them the basics of Imperial Standard tomorrow.
I shut my door and exhaled as the bubbling energy vanished, leaving me exhausted now that I didn’t have to be energetic around under ten year olds. “I hope Suraj gets a second wife quickly…”
Nitika laughed. “Not looking forward to your eventual household?”
I shook my head vigorously. “Me. Pregnant. Unable to go help people. Do you think that would actually work?”
She sobered. “I suppose not…”
“Hopefully things settle in a few years,” I muttered, going back to my patterns. “Well, according to the youngest and most important people in the house, this is what I should wear.”
She looked more at me than at the image in my hand. “Any child of yours would have you wrapped around their finger.”
I managed a smile, as small and hollow as I felt. “I don’t want any of them to experience war.”
Her face was unreadable to me. “Jalil keeps… refusing to say, what made you like this…”
I tipped my head back, fingers lacing behind my head. “It’s not his story to tell. It’s not like it… matters, really. I learned how to avoid it ever happening again.”
Guarding my heart. It was second nature by now. I’d avoided showing I was ever in love again, and now I was about to make the largest declaration of love a woman was supposed to make. It meant tolerating dozens of comments I was behaving improperly— again— by being too cold of all things. Don’t show love, then show it on command.
I wished they’d make up their minds.
“Do you want me to take it to the seamstress?” Nitika asked, pulling my attention back to the present.
I looked back at the design, pressing my lips together as all the adults’ voices in my head started playing. This was a very simple design, a simple salwar kameez with a scarf pinned and draped to hide the dagger hilt protruding out of the loose pants. It wasn’t even a proper anarkali suit, favoured by the Empire for its floor length frock. This was the outfit kids had seen me in the most, and I had it in five shades of golden-orange with ten embroidery patterns.
Father would hate it. Wearing something so simple for something so grand.
I pulled out a sari design Isra had shown me, for her dancers who had no aspirations to work in the Mahalas. Beautiful yet deadly, with full freedom of movement and more please than necessary to hide as many knives as I wished. She had taken the design from some nuns in an eastern women’s temple, when they had allowed her to see.
“Bring her this.”