“I assure you, your majesty, this is only a routine procedure. We must see to your majesty’s fitness of body. After all, the body and spirit are one, and the fitness of one affects the other most drastically.”
Bariti Latevisha Jewaktana, princess and first wife of the exiled General Keranta, had already exhausted her excuses to the court physicians. To avoid them any further could provoke wrath, if not their own then that of he who had sent them. She looked to Nuwan and Hakil, her younger sisters. Their brows were wrinkled in concern, which was for the best; had they shown fear, it would have meant that they understood the true import of this examination. Bariti knew, though, and could not show her fear. She had the illusion of flippancy and immaturity to maintain at all costs, lest the usurper Prince Daruntala know her heart, as well as he would know her secret as soon as the physicians had looked over her.
“I thank you for your concern,” she protested, “but I am as healthy as I have ever been. Are there no more wounded to see to in the palace?”
“But your majesty must take precedence,” replied another woman. Bariti thought she could see a tear in those eyes, worn by lines of age and worry in years of service to the kingdom. “King Daruntala insisted.”
So their hand was just as forced as is mine, she thought. Not that it made her situation any easier to accept. Instead, it only spoke to the depth of Daruntala’s conspiracy. Had he threatened their families? Or had he even needed to voice a threat after seeing to the slaughter of their king and half his household servants? She doubted it mattered what the prince had done, or that anything in her power could convince the old women to lie for her, and her own body would not be able to conceal the truth for long even if they did. Should that happen, all of them—princesses as well as physicians—would be as good as dead.
Bariti cast her eyes around the room. At the thought of what she would be subjected to, the gilded furnishings of her bedroom suddenly felt cold, as if they were made of stone. The heavy curtains drawn over the windows to preserve her dignity, or at least what would remain of it, left the room airless. Or perhaps that was only the breath caught in her chest. Finding her sisters’ gazes, she tried her best to tell them to look away without words. Nuwan got her meaning somehow, and gave Hakil a nudge with her elbow until she followed suit.
The princess disrobed and took her place on the examination chair. The physicians were well-practiced, having tended to princesses and queens since the time of her grandfather. Henija, the one with the worried eyes, had seen to Bariti’s hurts more times than she could count, always with tender hands and heart. And now, knowing that they were all now only tools of her step-brother, even unwilling ones, cut her deeper than any of Henija’s surgical blades ever could.
Daruntala knew this just as well as she did. He had ever been among the cruelest of her many step-siblings, and the shame of seeing the favor he should have received as first son go to his brother-in-law had never left him. Behind her tears at the murder of their father, Bariti held a knowledge of the usurper prince complete enough to see his actions as logical in a way that only he could justify.
The other physician sounded concerned for a moment, then motioned for the third of their number to approach from her place near the door.
“Let the record state that the princess is not intact,” she said, as the third woman scratched a note into a small piece of wood. Henija craned her neck to peer at Bariti over her thighs.
“Is it true that your majesty has had relations with her husband, Ajan Keranta?”
“It is,” Bariti replied. “But to my knowledge, my sisters have not. It would please me if they were spared this indecency.”
The worried look returned to Henija’s face.
“I apologize, your majesty, but the King’s orders were quite explicit.” The King. Bariti had called her step-brother by his stolen title aloud, but she would never call him that in her heart.
“Proceed,” she said, leaning back until only the intricate patterns of the ceiling were visible. Following those lines, in their brilliant colors and whorls that she swore continued eternally without merging, was the only healing she had. With the fact now known that she could be pregnant, it was only a matter of time before they learned that she was. The physicians would only have to wait a number of weeks, either until she missed her blood again or until the signs of the child within her began to show.
She had always liked the name Jayatna, taken from the old story of the hero-prince who snatched the sun from the jaws of a giant serpent, and though she did not know the full extent of her brother-in-law’s plan, she mourned her unborn son already.
Henija’s gentle hand on her shoulder startled Bariti, and when she turned to look at the woman, she saw that the physician’s other hand held the robe she had left on the ground.
“Our work is complete, your majesty,” she said. “You may clothe yourself again.” So Daruntala would not even attempt to put on a pretense of a complete examination, she thought. Only what was strictly necessary for his designs. Bariti took the robe and dressed in silence.
Hatred grew in her heart, steady as boiling water that threatened to spill over the lip of its pot but never did. It was the game she would have to play, and indeed the game she had already played for longer than most in the court could ever suspect. Only Keranta had known her heart and he had been taken from her.
There were nights when she wanted to scream and some when she cried, blaming her tears on the pains of her monthly bleeding. Without him there to receive her secrets and her longing for a world without the need for such things, she felt like a shadow puppet without a puppeteer. What plans she had made for their betterment then could always rely on the support of her husband, whose armies could solve any problem that his natural charm could not. And now… What was she to be but a puppet dancing on the whims of another? And how long was she to dance? Until she was used up and then discarded?
As much as she hated the thought, Bariti knew that her salvation may not come from her husband. She had never even heard of Kalo Malut until the court cartographers had pointed it out to her, an island so small and meaningless in the designs of the kingdom that she had first thought it only an accidental spot of ink near the border of the map. Now it was her husband’s only home, and his last if Daruntala had his way. The usurper had been wise to not kill Keranta in the capital, and he would think himself wiser still to end the threat of his return in some faraway place, from which truth could be dismissed as rumor and rumor could fade into mystery.
And now he thought to end the threat of Keranta’s line. Bariti was sure of it, as she would surely do the same in Daruntala’s position. Perhaps the two of them were not as different as was supposed. This thought had disturbed her greatly in the first days of her step-brother’s rebellion, but the passage of time had softened the blow of what she now regarded as a truth. Had their father risen to such heights without his own streak of viciousness, or had their mothers’ families, for that matter? And viciousness was so relative anyway. What was unnecessary or cruel in the eyes of one was mere practicality in the eyes of those who practiced it, and Bariti was nothing if not practical.
She had always been a planner, as had her husband. It was one of the things she loved about him, and the one that had most assured to her that their union would be to their mutual benefit. Daruntala was much the same, but he was predictable; he always had been, and so Bariti began to see how she could turn his plans to help her.
The first action he would take was to ascertain the threat posed to his reign by Keranta, who alone of the generals and husbands of the royal blood could pose one. With the general out of the way, the next step was happening in this moment. Nuwan now shivered in the physician’s chair, not from the still air but likely from growing fear. Perhaps Bariti had underestimated her middle sister in assuming that she did not know the import of their present situation. If she truly understood, then that would yet prove valuable in the days ahead. If not, then the time would surely come before the end when Nuwan must be taught in the ways of court life before those ways broke her. Hakil would have to come later.
Though they were under threat simply because of who they were, the greater danger came to Bariti as mother of Keranta’s child. The only question that remained was whether Daruntala would attempt to kill her outright—a dangerous proposition, given the delicate alliances that rested on her wellbeing—or only kill her child. Only. It was such a simple word, and one that could not convey the true terror she felt at the possibility.
If her child was killed, then Daruntala’s ambitions for her were not yet accomplished. The thought struck fear into her like she had not felt before. To keep her alive could only mean that he sought to preserve her family’s loyalty, but to do so without bearing an heir through her would be a grave insult.
That was it, then. The usurper prince, her step-brother, meant to use her to father his heir. Or at least he would do so if he did not simply kill her and attempt the same with Nuwan or Hakil. He was rash enough for the latter, but the former… Only the years of maintaining her illusion better than any dancer held character could stay the revulsion she felt at that thought.
The physicians had finished with Nuwan, and now it was Hakil’s turn. Despite her anger, she did not look away. It was nothing she had not seen before, for they often bathed together and dressed each other for court functions, but now it was different. She could not see her sisters as objects, as wombs for the usurper, but she knew that he did, and for that she would kill him unless he killed her first.