58 months later
“Spring was in the air the day Mistress Cara of the Mord’Sith swaggered into court dragging the Seeker, chained and bruised and limping. (The Seeker, not Mistress Cara.) The sound of chirping birds was loud in the silence, coming through the upper arrow slits uncovered by stained glass. Several court-people had handkerchiefs pressed to their noses, on account of all the pollen.
Ahem. As Mistress Cara and her captive approached the thrones, the gorgeous and perspicacious and well-read—and humble—Mistress Garen remarked to the Mord’Sith beside her, “Better late than never,” in a hushed voice that did honor to Mistress Cara’s magnificent and impossible return—after five years!—from the grave, or at any rate the exploded bits of magic gone wrong. Not that there were any bits. Which, when you think about it—“
“And then what happened?”
“You fainted, of course. Hilarious. Just plunk-crack! The crack was your head hitting the foot of the queen’s throne.”
“Well, she fainted too. Queen Kahlan, I mean. Sort of. Lord Rahl did something to her. She jumped out of her throne—and you know how she just sort of waddles now, no sudden movements since she’s pregnant again—and Lord Rahl grabbed her face, both hands, and hissed something. A spell, I guess. Then she fainted, but not really, more of a slump into his arms, and he got Captain Meiffert to come and carry her to her rooms.”
Kahlan lay unseeing on the bed. Her maid, Alice, fussed over her, an endless torrent of words that met and broke upon the walls of Kahlan’s composure. Years of training had left their mark: Kahlan’s thoughts screamed pain Pain PAIN, but not even a wince contorted her Confessor face.
The only sound she heard was the click of the lock outside her door, and even it seemed unimportant compared to her own name, echoing in her ears in time to the pulses of agony spiking into her skull. Her name—in Richard’s voice.
“Lord Rahl took the Sword of Truth down from the wall behind his throne. I caught a lungful of dust—I don’t think any of the servants have dared clean that sword since Lord Rahl defeated the Seeker at West Granthia and brought it back. Well, he stalked down the steps to circle the Seeker. He stopped facing him and lifted the sword and set it against the Seeker’s neck. I saw a bead of blood drip onto the Seeker’s collar chain.
‘Richard. I should kill you,’ said Lord Rahl. ‘But I want you to see how little the Midlands need you now. How little she needs you.’
Dramatic, right? I could feel my pulse beating against my neckguard, and the entire court was silent—except the Seeker. He just kept moaning, ‘Kahlan, Kahlan, Kahlan,’ over and over. Do you think Mistress Cara hit him too hard in the head or something?”
“You aren’t supposed to be here, Seeker,” said Shota. She sat cross-legged on the floor in the cell across from Richard’s. There were circles under her eyes, and her hair was bedraggled and greying. She looked older—a lot older—which Richard found almost more disturbing than the sense-memory of Rahl nearly cutting his throat with his own Sword.
Shota kept herself young with magic. She looked older because there was a Rada’Han around her neck, so she couldn’t use her spells. But also, she looked older because time had passed. Maybe lots of time.
“Shota. What happened? Where’s Zedd?” Richard demanded.
“The First Wizard…the great Zeddicus—is dead,” Shota said baldly. Her voice was steady, but her eyes looked wet, reflecting the meager torchlight. “After you disappeared, Rahl's Mord'Sith captured me. Kahlan believed you in the Underworld until I showed her otherwise. But you…you were lost to time. You should not have returned for—“ She paused, pulled out a handful of carved bone dice from a pocket of her worn gown, and tossed them in front of her. Then she peered nearsightedly at them, and cursed. “Spirits take it! Six fingers of the moon, seven sisters passing through the house of the lamb, and five hundred and twelve revolutions!”
“What does that mean?” Richard asked.
“What it means, Seeker,” Shota said slowly, her every word carefully and painfully enunciated, “is that you and that Mord'Sith were not sent fifty-eight years into the future. You were sent fifty-eight months.”
“After Lord Rahl sent the Seeker to the dungeons, he dismissed all the court-people. Probably so they wouldn’t see him ‘welcoming home Mistress Cara,’ if you know what I—“
“How did she…seem? Did she…?”
“Check on you? No, I did. Saw you were still breathing, gave her the high sign. Lord Rahl wanted her report. Turns out she doesn’t remember anything past jabbing the Seeker with her agiel that night in West Granthia. Until they just—zip!—popped back into existence. She said she could only find two of the Boxes of Orden, though. Can you believe it, after all those fruitless missions looking for the damn things?
So she did what anyone would do: lugged the Seeker’s unconscious body to the nearest village, got a set of chains and a couple of horses from the blacksmith, and rode for the Palace. Apparently the blacksmith’s daughter gave her some lemonade, which she seemed incredibly surprised by.”
“Perhaps it was a Resistance village, five years ago.”
“The Queen’s Orphans and the Places of Healing aren’t doing the dread dignity of the Mord’Sith any favors, that’s true enough.”
“Lord Rahl didn’t order her back to find the third Box, did he? Or…why isn’t she here, in the temple?”
“Oh, he took her somewhere. Probably somewhere with a bed, if you know what I—“
“Yes, thank you, I got it.”
The room reminded Cara of Lord Rahl’s bedchamber, only miniaturized. The bed was normal-sized, but still much smaller than Darken’s, a five hundred-year-old heirloom that could fit twelve people, if they were willing to snuggle.
A child sat at a low table, in a chair perfectly sized for him, drawing on a huge sheaf of parchment with a stick of charcoal. For one wild moment, Cara’s heart leapt into her throat.
Then the child turned, abandoning his art and tripping over his chair in his haste to reach Darken, and Cara saw that he was too young, too soft, too…freckled, to be hers. Toddler-light hair already going murky at the roots framed a baby’s face, nose small and indeterminate, cheeks round and freckled, eyes deep Rahl blue.
Darken swept the boy into his arms, but set him down again almost at once, and ordered, “Make your bow to Mistress Cara, Nicholas. Cara, this is my son.”
Nicholas did bow, an elegant courtesy that seemed surreal to Cara. Standing, he was barely at the level of her knees. He gazed up at her seriously.
“Mistress,” he asked, “do you kill monsters?”
“Nicholas,” Darken interrupted. His voice was harsh in the odd silence between Cara and the diminutive prince. “I have something to show you.” And then, to Cara’s shock, he pulled out the two Boxes of Orden she’d wrested from the Seeker and set them on the floor in front of the boy.
“What are these?” Nicholas asked, touching one. Cara saw him rub charcoal on the priceless magical artifact, and breathed deeply to rein in her rising blood pressure.
“They are the Boxes of Orden,” Darken explained. “They fit together, see? And when General Egremont brings me the third, all will be well. Perhaps you’ll even get to meet your uncle.”
“That’s a really easy jigsaw puzzle,” Nicholas said of the two Boxes, aligned expectantly on the carpet, waiting for their third.
Cara actually had to bite back a giggle at this. First hope, then rage, now hysteria—what was wrong with her?
“I didn’t know I had an uncle,” Nicholas added. “Do I have an aunt, too?”
In fact, at that very moment, Nicholas’s aunt was picking something up off the ground. It sparkled, but not any more in Jennsen’s hands than out of them. A simple jeweled oblong, the thing didn’t feel special. But Jennsen recognized it. From another life.
She tucked it under her arm to take back to her Mistress.
It was very late when Cara took the familiar steps down to the temple. The jelgeth solution used to wash away the bloodstains had etched itself into the stone, wearing the steps gradually to form little indented pools in the stone. Cara stepped in or over them as she had always done.
Her feet took her to the room she remembered, but she paused when she saw a bar of light under the door. This would be easier in darkness, she thought. Secret, as they had always been.
Still, Cara was brave, and she knew it, which left her without options. She opened the door.
A total stranger rose from her elbows on the bed, clad in a diaphanous shift but with her black braid still in place. “Mistress?” she asked.
“Where…” Cara said huskily, then cleared her throat. “Where is Dahlia?”
“Upstairs, second door on the left,” the unknown Mord’Sith said. She watched curiously as Cara backed out of the room.
Cara climbed the stairs again to the upper floor. Here were the rooms for high-ranking Mistresses, often those merely visiting the Palace before returning to the far-flung temples they commanded. There was little difference, except in size. And prestige—Cara told herself she was proud of how high Dahlia had risen. But there was the same despised uncertainty sapping at her muscles as when she had stared into Nicholas Rahl’s small face. What place had she here, now?
“Cara,” someone breathed, soft and pleased. The second door on the left was open. Dahlia stood in the threshold.
At least this felt the same. Cara stepped forward into her Dahlia’s arms.
Later, when the moonlight fell on a child’s scribble pinned to the wall of Dahlia’s room, Cara turned her face into the pillow and breathed the pointless tears away.
Elsewhere, a young thief slipped into the tent where another pair of women slept. A gleam briefly caught his eye, but it was only moonlight on white leather. He crept closer to the women. As expected, their real valuables lay between them, half-shielded by their hair. A coin purse, an ornate dagger with a flowery emblem on its hilt, and a box covered in pry-off-able, saleable jewels.
The thief took it all. His green eyes gleamed like a cat’s in the darkness.
“Where is it?” Denna hissed. The dawn light was not kind to her—Jennsen could see the fine wrinkles at her eyes and marring her lips. Unbrushed, her hair was like a pale briar patch. She turned aside their bedding, unearthing a tube of lip cream but little else.
“Maybe—“ Jennsen suggested. That was as far as she got before Denna whirled on her.
“No,” said her Mistress, grabbing Jennsen’s chin. Her nails dug into Jennsen’s cheeks and scraped at her neck. “No maybes. All three Boxes of Orden disappeared with the Seeker. We found one; that means he has the others. Find Richard, and bring me the Boxes. I’ll chase down our midnight…guest.” She sneered. “Fool, to steal from a Mord’Sith. I shall enjoy teaching him better.”
“You don't think that Darken Rahl—“ Jennsen began, words garbled around Denna’s clawlike fingernails.
“What, would he take my coin purse and leave me breathing?” Denna jeered. “I think not.” She released her grip, turning to don her leathers. “Now go!”
General Egremont surveyed the field of daffodils where, five years ago, the Seeker and Mistress Cara had vanished in an explosion of magic. The flowers had already grown over the blast radius. Nothing remained to show the momentous events that had occurred here, except a few crushed blooms where Egremont deduced Mistress Cara and the Seeker had grappled. Fabled prowess or not, the Seeker had been weaponless, and Mistress Cara’s victory swift. There were faint signs of where she’d dragged his insensate body from the flower patch of combat.
But nothing else, Egremont was sure of that. His men had searched stem by stem. No third Box of Orden lay hidden here.
“Lord Rahl,” Egremont sighed, eyeing the daffodil-ed expanse of defeat, “will not be pleased.”
And in the shade of a giant elm tree, the green-eyed thief examined his spoils. The dagger attracted him: the markings on it were the same as decorated the one he carried, his only prized personal possession. It was left over from his earliest childhood before he ran away. The woman who had looked after him then, Nana Nathair, had told him it had belonged to his father.
The thief slid the second dagger from its sheath. A bit of parchment fell out as he did, and he picked it up, smoothed it across his knee, and read,
To my beloved sister.
May this weapon be as true to you as you are to me.