She had a name.
It was not the name given by her father at her birth as tradition demanded. Sometimes it felt as though that first name and the life it lived belonged to someone else.
That girl stopped existing a long time ago.
There had been other names since. Sometimes Shala had trouble remembering them all. Soon it would be time for Shala to disappear too. It was time she had a new life. This life was beginning to get difficult, if not dangerous. Too many were beginning to suspect.
The women, the jealous ones, had always suspected something. They’d hoped to find some way of being Shala down.
It was always… or nearly always, the other women.
The men were too easily fooled. The men wanted her to fool them. But the women wanted to see her fall. Shala was too much of a threat, too much of an unknown, and now she was too powerful.
The Emperor’s favourite was always a dangerous position. Too many others desired the position. Shala was at the top of a pile that teetered and trembled with the Emperor’s changing moods and whims.
She had to keep the favour of the Emperor, at least for a little while until she could find a way out.
Usually, when she had one of those other names lost in the mists of the past, she had her escape planned from the beginning. Occasionally it needed refinement as circumstances changed. But Shala always located the exits to every room as soon as she entered it.
This time had been different.
She’d worked her way up the ladder of influence in this empire. She was nearing the top when the captain of the Emperor’s bodyguard became entranced with her. Shala beguiled him with the dance she’d learnt in a far country where the deserts blew sand into everything, and where the king she’d seduced had preferred boys until Shala danced for him. She’d danced like a boy, wore the robes of a boy and the king had taken her as a boy.
But he’d cried like a boy as he’d looked down at the dagger in his stomach, then up at Shala who was not called Shala then.
She’d smiled, watching him die.
Soon the Emperor would have to die too. He had far too many enemies.
He wanted to marry Shala and make her his Empress.
The Emperor would die, but Shala knew she did not have the power to take over his empire. She had the men, of course. Many powerful, influential men would follow her every wish and command. But she did not have the women on her side. The women carried poison meant for Shala, or pondered where to strike her with a concealed blade.
The men thought they ran the world, but Shala – and all her other names and lives – knew that it was not true. She’d seduced, and then killed far too many powerful men to believe that. She knew the real power lay with the women who plotted and schemed behind veils and curtains. Most of all, Shala knew that was why she’d have to run when the old Emperor died if she wanted to live to take another name in another faraway land.