A light breeze carried with it the mingled scents of a thousand flowers, brought from all corners of the kingdom and beyond to surround the princess with loveliness, yet none of it could draw Bariti’s thoughts away from Daruntala anymore. Ever since being brought to court from Keranta’s manor two days south of the capital, even a million blossoms would not be enough to wash away the stench of what had occurred here in the night the usurper prince had claimed the throne. Who had been butchered where she sat? Where had her father been cut down by men he once trusted? All was cleansed of their blood long before she arrived nearly a month ago, but the images were as vivid in her mind as if she had seen them in person.
The morning sun was cresting the high walls of the citadel and still, her second sister was nowhere to be seen. Nuwan had always taken too long to get dressed. Bariti only hoped that she did not treat their breakfast this morning as some sort of audience, despite her status as second wife. Doing so would only add to the discomfort of what would surely be a discomforting talk, if Bariti could only find the words to say and a way to say them. After all the princes and diplomats, it was her younger sister who made a princess of Jewaktana the most nervous.
She found her mouth dry, and her cup the same on the gilded table before her. With a wave of her hand, a servant who had been waiting in the shadows of the porch approached with a pitcher of water mixed with letaya leaves and ginger. The woman poured in silence and retreated just as quickly as she had come. Her lips puckered at the taste of the bitter water, and Bariti hoped that her little Jayatna would live long enough for it to take effect.
A flash of yellow caught her eye as Nuwan entered the garden in a rush of silks. Always hurrying, Bariti thought.
“My apologies, sister,” Nuwan said, taking the seat opposite her.
“None are needed on such a fine morning.” She took another sip of water, this one more for herself than the child growing inside her. “Breakfast will be along shortly.”
The breeze calmed, giving way to the sound of Nuwan catching her breath, and Bariti thought more on her younger sister as her heart dreaded what it must do. But how to begin? Continue in talk of nothings until the time and place for talk of more passed her by again, as it had the previous night? Wasted opportunities become a wasted life, her father had said, and she wondered how many more could pass her by before the time to act had passed as well.
To Bariti’s surprise, her sister was first to break the silence again.
“You never have company this early in the gardens; even the servants are always sent away. So why did you call for me?”
“Can sisters not enjoy each other’s company?”
“Of course,” she replied, and lapsed back into silence. Only the rustling of leaves and distant bird calls could be heard but hardly, drowned out in the princess’ ears by the beating of her heart.
A pair of servants approached from the porch, bearing trays of something steaming in the cool morning air; a pair of silent bows later and they were gone. They left two bowls of porridge, topped with greens and boiled eggs. Even if the soup had not been so hot, Bariti found that was no longer hungry upon looking at it. She could not tell if it was more nausea or her nervousness, but she would have to maintain her illusion of normalcy somehow, one mouthful at a time.
For her part, Nuwan ate as heartily as ever and had soon devoured half her bowl. Such a sight would have been shocking to any but Bariti. What princess and wife to a general could be seen dining at court with soup smeared across her chin?
“Why do you wait, sister?” Nuwan asked with a mouth still full of food. “Especially now that you eat for both you.”
Then this was it; the moment when the mask fell away. Bariti could keep it on no longer, not from her. One deep breath and she began.
“Daruntala knows that I am with child. Only the days ahead will show if he intends to kill me or my child. Perhaps both.”
“Is there nothing we can do?”
“If he means to keep me alive, then this knowledge is still secret. All I can say for certain now is that Hakil must not know, at least not yet. If I survive what is coming, then I shall tell her myself. But if I do not…”
“I understand, sister.”
“I did not wish you to learn what I have, in the way that I have learned it. I had hoped that you could stay innocent in all this, but the future will not allow it. We will do what must be done.”
“And what is that?”
“Daruntala must be stopped.”
“Yes. Not just for our own sakes, but for that of the kingdom. I have given it much thought in the past weeks and given time, we may be able to assemble enough nobles loyal to our cause that we can accomplish our goals. But I will need your help.”
Bariti noticed that she was sweating, and she felt detached from everything around her, as if everything she had said was only a shadow play she watched once. There was peace in truth, but this truth had been the hardest.
Anger grew on Nuwan’s pretty face, beginning at the slim line of her mouth and wrinkling her brows at the last.
The silence that came after continued until the porridge before them had already grown cold. Finally, Bariti spoke again.
“Say what you must, sister.”
“I thought I knew you well, that there was no secret you kept from me. But I see the truth now.”
“Sister, know that I never wanted to hurt you. To let you be hurt. By anyone.”
“I feel like I should hate you for keeping this from me, but I cannot. I still know you, just not the hardship you have gone through. Keeping up this mask of yours for so long… It must have been torture. But how else could you have managed what you did? I suspected it was your idea that we marry Keranta.”
“Everything I did was for us, sister. Please understan-”
“How necessary was I to your plan?” Nuwan interrupted. “Or Hakil? Did you think that she could have no further use than to secure the general’s loyalty? Was there no other family that could not be tied to us by our youngest sister? How high was first wife Bariti to climb before she would be contented? And now, to think only of our standing and power when our husband—yes, our husband—might be dead on some forsaken island?”
“Do you not see, Nuwan? There is more here than only our family. Our step-brother must be stopped.”
“Of course I see it. You are not the only one who notices, but you act your part well. Aloof but perceptive; feigning carelessness but inwardly vicious. I suspected for a time, wondering what had changed in you when we were children. At first, I thought it only the beginnings of womanhood but now I know better. Now I know you think yourself a puppeteer if only to avoid being the puppet.”
It was true—all of it was true, and Bariti had known it after a fashion—but hearing it now, from the lips of one she trusted over even her noble husband, hurt her deeper than any slight at court. But had she truly trusted her sister if all she ever showed her was the self-interested girl, contented to laze in comfort while her inward self used anyone it could toward the end of her own preservation and power?
She had certainly trusted Nuwan and Hakil to continue as they had without too many questions or improper observations, but had she given her younger sisters the chance to live their own lives? Had the world they knew given them the same?
“I did not know, sister. Please… Do not hate me for what I did. For what I yet must do.”
“I cannot. Not yet. Not while Daruntala sits on our father’s throne. But when all this is done, we will need to speak again.” Pushing away her chair, second wife Nuwan Latevisha Jewaktana Surankaje turned away from Bariti, a storm cloud driven on fiercer winds than the princess could imagine.
“I welcome it, sister,” Bariti called to her as she reached the shade of the porch.
As Nuwan disappeared into the palace, Bariti forced the mask back into place once more; the time for tears would have to come later as well.