Rachel galloped across the field toward the orchard, long auburn hair streaming out behind her like a D'Haran flag.
An arrow buzzed between her horse's ears.
Rachel twisted in the saddle. The arrow missed her by an inch.
Her horse reared, spooked by the arrow and less than compliant at the best of times. Rachel wished she could ride as well as her mother, who sat sidesaddle with perfect grace, but even astride Rachel had trouble controlling her mount.
She had never had riding lessons as a girl. First she had been too young, and by the time she was old enough she had been a slave in Tamarang. After that—well, peasants had no horses.
Martha had sold the pink sapphire of Tremontana for less than half its value, and what gold there was had to go to necessities for the family. Besides, conspicuous wealth meant people taking an interest. Dangerous people, perhaps. Better to remain unnoticed.
Rachel, fighting to control her horse and scanning the small trees at the edge of the orchard for her attacker, wondered when she had lost her invisibility.
Someone stepped from the trees and yanked Rachel out of the saddle by gripping her ankle. She toppled to the ground and rolled away to avoid the plunging hooves.
Rachel caught only a brief glimpse of her attacker before she was dragged to her feet. A muffled figure in a purple, hooded cloak—a woman, she thought despite the frightening strength of those calloused hands.
"Give me your jewels," hissed the woman, her breath sour in Rachel's nostrils.
Rachel stamped her heeled riding boots on the rags wrapping the woman's feet. She twisted free as her attacker recoiled in pain and saw that the horse had bolted.
One of the tiny rubies braided into her long hair fell into Rachel's bodice, right between her breasts.
"Just like the queen wears!" Rachel's mother, Lady Ilithyia Middenbury, had raved about those jewels.
It was strange to think of Kahlan as a queen—it felt utterly fantastical and incredibly right at the same time.
The cloaked woman dropped her gaze to Rachel's chest, where the ruby had fallen, and then up to her face. "Rachel?" she gasped, her voice going up in a high squeak of shock.
"How do you know my name?" Rachel asked warily. She took two quick steps back, wishing her grandfather's lessons in self-defense didn't have to wait until his next leave from attending upon Lord Rahl.
Rachel had never known General Egremont before last autumn, when Lord and Lady Rahl had found her and reunited her with the mother she thought she'd lost forever. Ilithyia had stopped speaking to her father the famous general when Rachel was just a baby.
In fact, Rachel realized as her attacker pulled back her purple hood to reveal a face that brought back memories long since buried, she had seen General Egremont once before.
At a birthday party.
Violet was no longer the immaculate and haughty princess of Tamarang. Her hair was cut brutally short, and there was a jagged scar running from just under her left eye to just above her chin.
But her eyes were the same. Pale. Full of confidence.
Instantly Rachel felt like that awkward nine-year-old again, totally at the mercy of her arrogant mistress.
Her throat felt dry. She swallowed.
"I'm not afraid of you," she announced. Not anymore.
Violet laughed. She seemed to have abandoned her plan to snatch the jewels from Rachel's hair and the gold from her purse, had she carried one.
Emboldened, Rachel studied her childhood enemy. Violet had always loved jewels; it must make her wild with fury to see the girl her mother had given her as a slave decked out in the finery of a lady.
"What happened to you?" Rachel asked cautiously. She made no move to run back to the Middenbury castle (a manor house which did not deserve such a fancy title), and later she wondered why she had hesitated to flee.
"After you stole my mother's greatest treasure?" Violet replied bitterly. She stepped closer to Rachel, her cloak whispering against the grass. "What do you think? Darken Rahl sent me to the mines of Athanasia. He probably believes I'm dead."
Rachel barely restrained herself from saying that the lord of D'Hara and conqueror of the Midlands probably didn't think about Violet at all.
Violet spat into the grass at Rachel's booted feet. "I hate Rahl," she said, quite casually. "I've sworn to destroy him. But it's you I don't understand. You were my only friend, Rachel. How could you betray me like that?"
Rachel stared. Her friend? Violet must be remembering a different past; one Rachel had taken no part in.
Martha was Rachel's friend. Closer than that, really: she and her sons were as much Rachel's family as the father and brother and grandmother she'd lost, and the mother and grandfather she had miraculously regained.
Ruben Rybnik had been Rachel's friend. The great wizard had perished years ago, along with the Seeker—such a kind and brave man. Rachel had loved Richard at once, even though she'd only known him for an afternoon.
She still had the trouble doll Ruben had given her, and secretly she hoped that one day he would speak to her again through its painted wooden lips.
Kahlan was Rachel's friend. Mother Confessor and queen of the D'Haran Empire, she still had time for a girl she'd met in the midst of war and who, no matter that she'd been born a lady, would always feel like the most common and unremarkable of peasants.
Kahlan's children, too, were a delight—inquisitive Nicholas, whose first question had been "Do you like animals?" as he proudly proffered a kitten for Rachel's inspection; shy Dara, who listened enthralled to an edited story of Rachel's life; and the dear baby, so happy and sweet.
Darken Rahl was not Rachel's friend, and never would be. But he had given her back her mother, and for that she would always be grateful.
Violet had never helped Rachel, and surely had never cared for her. The thought was absurd.
And yet, in spite of herself, Rachel's heart was touched. She had hated Violet with all the vehemence of her own losses and her suffering at the young princess's hands. But now she saw the lonely child still lurking behind that scarred, once beautiful face.
Rachel brushed hesitant fingers over the purple cloak Violet had wrapped around her like a shield. "Do you need help?" she asked, not sure why she said it. Obviously Violet needed help—she had been a spoiled princess who enjoyed seeing people's heads chopped off, and now she was a thief who planned to succeed where even the Seeker of Truth had failed and destroy Darken Rahl.
Violet's face hardened. "Not from you," she snapped, gripping Rachel's forearms and drawing her in close. Their noses almost touched. Rachel could see Violet's freckles beside her scar.
Violet reached into Rachel's bodice.
Rachel yelped as rough fingers brushed her breast, her eyes widening in terrified shock.
But Violet simply pulled out the ruby that had fallen from Rachel's hair and held it up to the sunlight. "I'll take this," she said. "Now go!"
If she had looked back, she might have seen Violet pull her hood back up and stride away in search of the bolted horse, patting her pockets for the cheap boiled sugar candy sold in the market of every city in the empire to use as bait.
"Where have you been, child? How in the Creator's name did you get so filthy?" exclaimed Martha, brushing ineffectually at the mud on Rachel's split riding skirt.
"I was out riding," Rachel explained. "The horse threw me."
Martha tsked disapprovingly, and looked sharply at her adopted daughter as Rachel stripped the remaining rubies from her hair.
Ilithyia Middenbury glanced up from a letter covered with the queen of D'Hara's neat, no-nonsense script.
Rachel knew that Kahlan kept in touch with Ilithyia; the two women had become close last fall while searching for the daughter Ilithyia had feared was dead. The letters were usually full of details about the royal children and the renovation of the Middenbury castle, with occasional court gossip of the kind Kahlan despised but nonetheless found useful.
"I don't want you riding out by yourself anymore, Rachel," Ilithyia said, in her soft, well-modulated lady's voice. "Lady Rahl writes that a thief has taken to haunting the city. She has a nasty reputation. Calls herself Violet Hood."
Rachel didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
This time, the D'Haran queen's warning had come too late.