It was never a good thing for Kahlan to wake up in a place she didn’t recognize. Her eyes snapped open as she wrenched herself up from a curled position, as if she’d willingly laid herself to sleep on this floor. The surrounding room was of sandy stone, an open court with a dais at the far end and doors along each wall. Sun shone in from high windows, and it was silent. Kahlan reached for her knives and didn’t find them.
Heart pummeling her chest, she rose to her feet, hands clenched just in case. She looked down at her palms, as if expecting to see something there—and finding it missing. She frowned. But then, it wasn’t difficult to catch even the soft pad of boots approaching. Kahlan wheeled around, leather skirt slapping at her thighs, only to see the familiar blonde head of Cara.
“Cara!” Kahlan took three long strides towards her, a question on her lips. It didn’t vocalize, though, when she saw the distance on Cara’s face and sensed a screen over her green eyes.
“You’re awake,” the Mord’Sith said, the heel of her right hand solid on the agiel at her side, though Kahlan couldn’t hear the humming.
Kahlan’s eyes narrowed. “Cara, where are we?”
“Safe,” Cara answered, and breathed out. “Do you remember...?”
Kahlan paused, hand clenching and unclenching for a reason she couldn’t grasp onto. “No. No—Cara, what happened?”
Cara’s eyes met Kahlan’s and held them, cloudy with something that Kahlan couldn’t read. “It’s best if you don’t ask about that. This place, it’s to keep you safe until you are cured.”
“Cured of what?” Kahlan asked, hand loosening in her shaken surprise.
The Mord’Sith stepped forward, glancing down for a moment then putting out her hand to Kahlan’s forearm. “You’ll be fine, Kahlan,” she said slowly, eyes rising and looking clear for the first time since Kahlan had seen her. “It’s just a curse.”
“Yes,” Cara said. “We should have known sooner, but...”
Kahlan didn’t know what to say, like the world was watching, expecting her to have a response. “How long?” she finally managed, still stunned.
“How—how?” Kahlan looked closer at her friend, so calm at this.
Cara gave her a piercing look. “It draws danger to you, Kahlan. The amulet, the Margrave, the Maternity Spell, Duke Ander’s ‘party’, and that’s not even addressing the daily dangers that I swear would have had you killed long ago if I didn’t pay attention. It’s not just bad luck, Zedd could sense something in you, once you—after he had a reason to look.”
Kahlan paused, her gaze more direct at Cara’s. “What reason?”
Cara’s lips pursed, nostrils flaring in a moment of frustration. “You don’t need to know. Just—no magic can work in this place, Integrity’s Hall. Our powers are suppressed, and anything lingering will fade away with the weeks.” She glanced once around the wide room.
“Weeks?” Kahlan exclaimed. “How long have I been here?”
Cara waved her hand. “Barely a full day.”
Kahlan breathed in quickly and turned for a second, then whipped her head back. “Richard and Zedd are on their own.”
Cara nodded, warily.
“Cara, you know how much danger they will be in,” Kahlan protested, stepping forward. “Richard—”
The other woman’s eyes rolled. “It is not Richard’s death that is prophesied to bring about the Keeper’s victory,” she said, with a pointed tip of her head towards Kahlan and sharp eyes.
Kahlan felt her jaw tighten. “Cara,” she started, warningly.
“Kahlan,” Cara answered in the same tone, not breaking eye contact.
But all Kahlan did was exhale, hitched with frustration. All words stormed about her mind, and full understanding was still escaping her. She looked down at her hands, and a connection clicked into place. The power was gone—like in the Margrave’s dungeon.
“Once you are cleansed of the curse, we will be free to leave,” Cara finished, as easily as if she was tying her last bootlace.
“The magic will not let us past the doors.”
Kahlan didn’t feel comfortable, let alone safe. Again, she scanned the room, as if it would tell her something. It was silent still, not a bird’s chirp nor the murmur of distant voices to be heard. Just her and Cara and their easy breathing, while out there in the world Richard was all but alone. She turned to Cara again, feeling her eyes burn. “How could you do this to me, with no thought of my will?”
Cara didn’t flinch or budge. “As I said, you don’t need to know,” she said, voice tight with a guardedness that was not unfamiliar to the Mord’Sith’s tone.
Frustration rose in Kahlan’s throat, only to turn into a lump of helplessness as she remembered the important phrase. She was cursed. For all her aid to Richard, it had been her distresses that delayed their quest. If even one of those times could have been avoided... Bitterness was all she could taste.
Cara didn’t say anything. Emotion clouding her thoughts, Kahlan paced away through the doors, through Integrity’s Hall, and didn’t look back.
The magic Hall attempted to be a comforting place, despite the vacancy of all but where the two women were. Kahlan found bedchambers, undusty and unrumpled, as if magical themselves. A fire glowed in the kitchen, Cara’s handiwork, but the stores of food were part of the Hall itself. When the kettle whistled, Kahlan poured herself tea and tried to sit.
It didn’t work. After no more than five minutes she was on her feet again, still clinging to the cup of hot tea, the fragrant steam tingling at her nose. Too much quiet, too much peace, and she didn’t know what to do without her magic. She didn’t know what to do when she wasn’t protecting Richard and the Midlands both. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she paced, breathing steadily, wishing that this could be the soothing cleansing it was designed to be.
“You haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Cara didn’t announce her presence ahead of time.
Kahlan looked at her where she stood at the door and didn’t bother hiding her frustration from the one who’d been the accomplice in its creation. “I can feed myself.”
Cara’s weight shifted slightly, with an unemotional rise of her eyebrow.
“I can also make my own decisions about my danger,” Kahlan added without thought.
“You were in no position to be making anything,” Cara said under her breath, walking over to the counter and sliding a breadknife out of a holder. She held the round brown loaf like a rabbit brought from the hunt, unconcerned with it as anything but an object she desired.
Kahlan eyed her and thought about demanding more. But it was Cara—Kahlan could sense, even without her powers, that this was not a good time. The lack of memory rankled anyway.
She paced the kitchen as the sun went down outside the windows.
“It will take more than just hours, Kahlan,” Cara observed as she left the kitchen, agiels still at her waist despite their ineffectiveness.
Kahlan didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I know. You told me.”
If Cara shrugged her shoulders at that, Kahlan didn’t see. But time passed, and when only the firelight flickered in the kitchen of this magic-less Hall, she turned to see bread and cheese sliced on a platter. Not forgotten, laid out.
Kahlan bit the inside of her lip, but took some of Cara’s offering before going to bed in one of the prepared chambers. She was angry, not an idiot. Yet that night, all she could dream of was violent deaths as the Sword of Truth and wizard’s fire were not powers enough. Waking sweat-soaked in tangled sheets, mouth dry, again she found her hands empty of power.
She stared at the warm colors of the ceiling as the sun rose, noting the natural rough patterns and wishing she could feel this curse, feel the Integrity’s Hall’s process in destroying it, or even just understand for certain that it was there. She didn’t want to see Cara.
“You haven’t eaten breakfast.” Again, Cara failed to ask permission to enter Kahlan’s quiet space. She stood at the doorframe, already in her leathers and with the same distant calm of yesterday.
Kahlan gazed at her from across the room. “I’ll eat when I’m hungry, Cara.”
“That’s not likely to help this along any faster,” Cara said with a sigh.
Kahlan’s eyes narrowed. “You know this?”
Cara stared back. “No. This place was Zedd’s suggestion, I’m just making the logical assumption. It’s better than pointless worry and resentment.”
Feeling a jolt of life, Kahlan sat straight upright. “It is not pointless to want to feel betrayed that your friends believe they know what is better for you than you do.”
“When you are under a curse, yes, we do,” Cara answered bluntly.
“And if Richard dies while we are here?”
“You will be alive,” Cara said, softer than she needed to be. “We will survive. Win, as prophecy says.” She met Kahlan’s eyes, and then twisted her mouth before saying, “This will be over faster if you relax and keep at full strength.”
As Cara walked out of the bedchamber, Kahlan felt a tingling urge to call after her, address the petty point that Cara didn’t know that. But the word ‘pointless’ had lodged in her mind, and grudgingly, she knew it wasn’t just pretense. Sighing, she lay back on the pillowed bed and closed her eyes.
If Cara was surprised when Kahlan joined her in the kitchen, not even pausing at the sight of the Mord’Sith in softer garments while her leather was laid out over a chair, she didn’t reveal it. Silently, Kahlan prepared a meal for herself, bread and cider instead of tea. Dressed in the soft robes provided by Integrity’s Hall instead of her traveling dress, it didn’t feel wasteful.
“Your leathers weren’t by your bed,” Cara said after a minute, glancing up at Kahlan.
“No, I put them in the chest,” Kahlan answered without snap. Curiously, she continued, “Were you planning on cleaning them?”
Cara looked incredulous. “I may have brought you here, but I am not your slave.”
A twinge of a smile crossed Kahlan’s lips, and she felt ease again. “Nor are you my foil,” she said.
Cara turned her head slowly towards Kahlan, then grunted.
The Confessor took a moment to watch Cara, separate from the world as she tended to her own tasks. If she’d learned nothing else, it was that this behavior was preventative, not preferred. And solitude was not what Kahlan needed either. She trusted Richard—she trusted Cara, and she was ready to accept that whatever had happened was necessity. For now.
“If we’re going to be here for more than a week, you’ll need to have something other to do than clean,” Kahlan spoke up, sitting across from her companion.
Cara’s head jerked up. “This is maintenance,” she pointed out. “I don’t fantasize about domestic tasks when I’m bored.”
Despite everything, Kahlan smiled. “Well, if this plan of yours was so correct, I assume it was complete as well. What entertainment did you provide?”
Cara stood up and put a hand on her hip, looking down on Kahlan where she sat at ease. “I would prefer it if you just said you’re not mad anymore, and left it at that.”
“I didn’t say that,” Kahlan answered, feeling a ripple of emotion. “I’m not sure I appreciate the way that you and Richard handle me.”
The kitchen atmosphere stayed unmoved by speech a few moments longer, silent besides the logs crackling in the fireplace and the slick slide of oiled cloth on leather.
“What do you appreciate about Richard?”
Kahlan paused, off guard. “What?”
Cara turned, and as if the words weren’t loaded enough before, Kahlan immediately sensed something waiting at the back of the Mord’Sith’s eyes when she repeated, “Why do you love him?”
Kahlan stared back for a minute as it took time for the feelings to rise from her heart, not as instantly as she would have thought. “Because he is—good. And kind, and I feel freely at peace with him. He feels like a simple home.”
Cara returned to her leather without a glance or word at Kahlan, the silence hanging unsteadily.
“Why?” Kahlan asked.
“Nothing,” Cara murmured, and returned with some force to the oil and her leather. The pungent scent filled the air after a while. “There,” she said at last, shaking her hands free.
Feeling only the need not to be idle, Kahlan sat forward on her knees. “And now?”
Cara looked at her suspiciously. “I had no minstrelsy planned. I will be in the court—sparring.”
“For this whole time?” Kahlan asked.
“What else would I need?” asked Cara, and spun on her heel to depart, the soft fabric of her tunic and trousers swaying on her trim figure.
It had not been a rhetorical question. This was no pleasant side trip, and Kahlan sat for a moment, lost in her inability to comprehend it all.
Then she rose to join Cara and exchange blows silently until night fell, whereupon they ate and departed for their separate chambers again. Kahlan had nightmares again, this time Cara in them—but in the morning, Kahlan could not remember how or why.
Kahlan hated the way her hands felt hollow here, no strength in them, despite the grip she placed on her daggers. She swung at Cara, the air sliced so keenly that it seemed to sing before the clash of Cara’s dead agiels blocked the blow. Cara wore her leathers again, but Kahlan kept to a simple tunic, not sure if she could stand being in her Confessor’s garb with no power to back it.
Cara’s breaths came quick as she fought Kahlan, as for the fifth day in a row they did little more than practice war in the sunlit court of the Hall. It was all Kahlan could see when she closed her eyes, the war that she had been forced from, the war that still waited once this magical cleansing was finished.
Focus didn’t come easily to Kahlan, frustration tucked behind her heart but not forgotten. In each blow, she felt the incompletion of this. Of why she was here, of what Cara wouldn’t say, of what Kahlan wouldn’t ask.
But every time she spun, every time her eyes met Cara’s for the sake of strategy, it was all that Kahlan could think of. Cara wasn’t happy. Kahlan wasn’t either, but it was momentary. Once this curse was driven from her body, she would leave; the tension would dissipate and this would all be done with. Power and choice would be hers again, left behind for a reason that was (hopefully) worth it. Kahlan had the patience for that, just barely.
Cara—brooded. She had been doing so since the tomb, but she had been at Kahlan’s side regardless, silent but present. It had been almost amusing, her denial. Now she hid behind her agiels, matching Kahlan in sparring matches that didn’t have emotion. Kahlan hadn’t realized how much Cara spoke through their fights until now that, suddenly, she didn’t. Distracted, Kahlan almost bit her tongue as she tried to read Cara. Something, anything, should be leaping out.
“Tired?” Cara asked, the word filling the Hall that was far, far too silent.
“Worried,” Kahlan answered without stopping the round.
“Richard will be fine,” Cara grated out as she kept her eyes on Kahlan’s daggers.
“I don’t mean Richard,” Kahlan answered, trying to meet Cara’s eyes as they kept at it, quick steps around each other as each strike met another. Stepping in, she wrapped her arm around Cara’s hand, knowing she need not fear the pain of the agiel. Pressed against Cara, she made a move without thinking. “Cara, I’m not angry at you.”
Cara’s breathing came quick as she stood, choosing not to fight away. “Good.”
“I’m also your friend,” Kahlan answered, not knowing why there was confusion in her heart at that word. “What’s wrong?”
With an inward step, Cara loosened Kahlan’s grip and slipped from it, spinning on her heels. “Don’t think that I like this place,” she said under her breath, restarting the fight.
Kahlan opened her mouth to speak, but words failed her as Cara’s eyes were suddenly alight with emotion. She was caught off guard as Cara swung with her agiel, and her guard was weak, the agiel glancing off her shoulder with a bruising force.
Cara’s eyes drew close, the emotion behind walls once again.
But Kahlan had seen. The connection was there again, intangible as it was strong, and Kahlan knew it would pull them until they crashed. It gave her mind pause as she still didn’t know why, and for all that they’d been through, she now frowned as she could not place Cara as anything to her. For the moment, tongue held as they finished the match, all Kahlan knew was that ‘friend’ couldn’t account for this magnetism that tugged on them both. Maybe that was why Cara brooded.
Cara knelt before the fire, the sheen of her leather marking each curve of her body, tight and strong with training. She held out her hands, ungloved, to the fire to warm them. Kahlan stood at the entrance to the otherwise-dark kitchen and took a deep breath before coming in.
The warmth of it struck her as she knelt until her tunic’s hem pooled on the floor. She’d let a day go by with all its unspoken thoughts, and though she’d not had nightmares of Richard’s death, that frustration had merely been replaced. Kahlan looked into Cara’s eyes, reflecting the fire, and took a deep breath before she spoke. “Cara, I do need to know how you discovered I was cursed.”
Cara’s full lips pressed into a thin dash of red.
“I don’t need to be protected from myself,” Kahlan continued, feeling her heart quiver yet again. “If you respect me—”
“I do,” Cara interrupted, voice barely more than a breath. “It is not for you that I held back, I am not that selfless.”
Kahlan’s eyes fell to the floor, but the surprise wasn’t enough to hold her for more than a second. “Tell me, Cara,” she said, meeting the woman’s eyes.
Cara sat forward on her heels until she was kneeling, hands falling to her lap. The muscles in her neck seemed to tighten as she didn’t turn to Kahlan. “We barely passed the village. None of us should have been affected; it took us a day to figure out what had happened in the first place, and even longer to find out why—why you.”
Kahlan tried to keep her breathing steady as she listened to Cara, half closing her eyes and feeling the warmth of the fire—no other warmth to be felt.
“You started rejecting Richard, little by little. You argued, and you declared that you didn’t love him, that you never had. It wasn’t like with the amulet; there was almost disgust in your eyes.”
Kahlan sucked in a breath, feeling almost hurt by her own self.
“You didn’t stop talking,” Cara continued quietly, “even when Richard didn’t know what to do and fell back to walk with Zedd. There was nothing between you and Richard, you kept saying to me. He wasn’t the one you wanted. It was—”
Cara didn’t finish but somehow the quickly-repressed words seem to float clearly in the space between them. It was not Kahlan. And yet that revelation hurt almost as much as the tale, and Kahlan didn’t understand why.
“But when you started saying that Richard needed to be confessed...” Cara’s head tipped as she continued, voice a little lower. “And that if a Seeker was needed at all, it should be one under your control, so that there would be no more thoughtless decisions made...we had to act before you did. When you were subdued, Zedd sought long and hard until he found the evidence of the curse, and since he couldn’t sense where it had come from, he thought this place would be the safest for a cure.”
“Wait,” Kahlan said, hand reaching for Cara’s arm as the earlier words still ran in her brain. She had to remind herself to breathe, more so as Cara’s head turned to gaze upon where Kahlan’s fingers rested in the crook of her elbow. In this simple revelation, Kahlan felt how little choice there had been for anyone, and that was forgotten—leaving only confusion in what was supposed to be clear. “This magic made me deny Richard?”
Cara still didn’t meet her eyes, but nodded slowly. “I did not think it would bother you,” she said after a moment. “But—”
Kahlan glanced up when Cara didn’t finish. “You were worried for Richard and I?” It didn’t feel right.
“No,” Cara answered swiftly, hard under her breath. Her eyes finally rose to meet Kahlan’s, more fire in them than the hearth offered. “I wanted your words to be true. I wanted it not to be some powerful magic, I wanted you to have changed. It is treacherous, I know, but I hoped silence would keep me from harming you.”
Kahlan closed her eyes and swallowed, as there was no surprise leaping in her heart now. The quandary of calling Cara ‘friend’, of how it didn’t seem to fit—the answer was plain. It didn’t. Cara was more. And in the dark, hand on her arm, only inches away, Kahlan knew what the connection she felt was. It stirred her heart and her blood, and it was almost terrifying.
“Cara,” she whispered, as if the name carried all necessary meaning.
Cara shifted, attempting to move her arm away, frustrated with herself for revealing such a clear emotion as jealousy. But Kahlan gripped tightly, refusing her exit. While her heart still fluttered, she had to give it voice, before she let confusion drive her away and back to thoughts—thoughts had not helped all these months on this quest, and Kahlan knew without her power that this was no different.
“I don’t think ill of you for caring for me,” she said barely above a whisper, looking at Cara’s face even as the other woman did not look back. “I—it’s not as simple as you think.”
“Love is always simple,” Cara snapped unexpectedly, turning to Kahlan with the itch of irritation almost visible on her face. “You love Richard. He loves you. There is only one word for it because it is that simple.”
“Cara, it’s not,” Kahlan pushed back, curling her hand around Cara’s arm. “If it was, then why are my feelings stronger for you?”
Cara froze. “You speak nonsense,” she murmured.
Kahlan shook her head, swallowing to let words fall more freely from her mouth. “Richard is simple, yes. And I love him Cara, I love the way that being with him is like a home, with affection and joy that I can’t ever remember having. But you’re not so simple. You don’t make me at peace, Cara—peace is only one side of life. I crave the rest of it.” Breathing in shakily, Kahlan realized where the end of the road was, but the Confessor that was her even without her powers knew that she had to speak all the truth. “I want the way you shake me.”
“That is my purpose,” Cara muttered. “To destroy peace.”
“No,” Kahlan said, and reaching up she put her hand to Cara’s face, turning it forcibly towards her and reveling in the touch of her cheek. “You shake the bonds around a power I don’t always remember I have. Passion. I need it, Cara. I want it. I want—”
She didn’t finish, leaning in to kiss with a burst of everything that words couldn’t explain, even when they didn’t overthink them. And Cara kissed back, and Kahlan’s tongue explored her lips, the fullness that trembled as Kahlan wrapped her arm around the other woman’s waist.
Usually at this moment, magic would burn warningly in Kahlan’s loins, simmering just beneath her skin. Usually she would feel the spike of danger and know that she could only push so far without thought and care. It was a part of herself that she didn’t miss in this moment.
Cara had held back from possessing her and letting instincts push her to cling to what she needed, and so Kahlan did it for her, pushing Cara back against the floor and claiming her body as her own. Cara’s hands were rough on Kahlan, but Kahlan’s were faster, stripping the leather before Cara had done the same to Kahlan’s loose clothing. Kahlan was strong in the dark, passion in her blood, tasting on the smaller woman’s skin just as much as in her presence the power that Cara invoked. She could feel Cara’s pulse beneath those soft breasts and wanted it to be her own.
Before the fireplace, Kahlan took Cara as hers, fingers slippery with Cara’s pleasure as the Mord’Sith writhed in her arms with thigh pressed between Kahlan’s legs, and as they didn’t need to fear Kahlan’s bare hands still on Cara’s heated skin. The power of magic had no presence, leaving feelings and emotions to bloom on their own, released in an explosion that both of them seemed to absorb into themselves. They cried out into the dark because of this love, not simple, but not needing to be.
And Cara hooked her leg around Kahlan’s hips, eyes wet, lips needy, matching the loving greed. Kahlan lost herself in the heady arousal of being taken before her lips longed to taste Cara again, and she slipped between her legs. She could almost forget that magic had ever existed when all tension died in the new life of bliss.
Cara fell asleep on the floor, comfortably bare, looking as if the word ‘brood’ had never crossed her mind let alone her face. The fire died. Kahlan still wanted to touch her, stroke her curves, feel the relaxation as if it arose from herself. She wanted to sleep with her face in Cara’s hair, the scent keeping her strong as she slept.
But all journeys had to start with a single step. This one had started long ago, but it still needed to progress one step at a time. Kahlan settled for a lack of confusion as she bent to kiss Cara’s forehead, and then rose. She thought of Richard before she slept, with love, but she knew now just how much it wasn’t the same.
When she woke late in the morning, Cara was curled at her back, clothed again but asleep. Kahlan smiled to herself and didn’t comment.
Cara didn’t speak when they rose and prepared breakfast, and bathed and clothed themselves. Unspoken words didn’t hang in the air as they sparred—but they did it and nothing more. Yet when Cara’s hand brushed Kahlan’s as they put the weapons aside for mealtime again, Kahlan realized that it didn’t cross her mind that Cara had not confessed her love in words. She smiled at the Mord’Sith when she slipped into Kahlan’s room again that night, realizing that words in this case would be superfluous. And when Cara cocked her head in confusion, Kahlan just pulled her close on the bed and didn’t tell her.
They would have a few more days of free passion before the magic faded, leaving Kahlan free of everything but her own power. The doors of Integrity’s Hall would open, she and Cara would walk free, and the agiels would start to hum once more at the same moment that Kahlan’s hands would feel powerful again. They would need to be careful again.
Oh, but passion was never meant to be simple.