Cara was quick to scoff at the prophecy.
When the old man hobbled up to them sixty leagues from Aydindril, draped in ratty, lurid robes and smelling of rotten mead, she rolled her eyes and kicked her mare on. Afternoon sunlight washed over his wrinkled face the way the bottle must have last night, and the last thing Cara needed was a drunken villager with delusions of grandeur slowing them down. Richard was slow enough all on his own -- a fact twelve injured farm animals and a village full of blind children could attest to.
But Kahlan and Zedd stopped to listen, and Cara found herself dismounting and doubling back with a huff. The man pointed a grimy, spindly finger at Kahlan, and Cara only just restrained herself from relieving him of the appendage. She had promised the Lord Rahl she would try to be more civil, after all. At least until they reached Aydindril, and she became the Mother Confessor’s protector while Richard and Zedd continued on to D’Hara. She’d have no patience for civility then, not while Kahlan’s life was in her hands.
The wizard’s eyes widened while the old man spoke. Some nonsense about white turning to grey and the rows falling down. It was the fanciful drivel of a madman, that much was clear. Cara split her attention between glaring at this latest delay, and picking dirt from a crease of leather at her shoulder.
It was only by chance that she glanced up to see the look of horror pass between Kahlan and Zedd, right before the Mother Confessor’s face became an impenetrable mask.
Just as Kahlan could see through Cara, despite the fact that she was Mord-Sith, Cara prided herself on her ability to read Kahlan even when she wore the blank stare of a Confessor.
Today she could see nothing behind those blue eyes.
A shiver of alarm crept down Cara’s arms, tingling in the tips of her gloved fingers. What had the old man said again? She hadn’t really been listening, and now she tried to reconstruct his exact words, the part of his rambling speech that could have unsettled Kahlan and Zedd so completely. But she scolded herself, even as she racked her brain. It was a prophecy, after all. And one told by an insane farmer. Surely it was of no importance.
“Well, what is it, Wizard?” she said with a snort, after the supposed prophet had shuffled away, mumbling. She folded her arms across her chest to cover the uncertain way her voice rose and fell. “What disaster must we avert now?”
Zedd looked gravely from Cara to Richard, whose brow was creased with puzzlement.
“Kahlan is sick,” he said.
But none of her furious words stopped Kahlan from slumping pale and breathless in her saddle as they came to a stop for the night. The sun had begun to set, painting the grassy hills in brilliant violet and saffron, yet Cara’s eyes were glued to Kahlan, and the life seeping out of her.
Zedd booked two rooms and told the innkeeper, a portly woman with a lazy eye and a raspy cough, to call for a healer immediately. He made no mention of meals, and turned toward the stairs without so much as a sniff in the direction of the kitchen. Cara gritted her teeth and gripped one of her Agiels as they ascended the rickety steps.
The wizard used the longer of the two iron keys to open the door to the first room, the one Richard was meant to share with Kahlan as he fed her sips of water and mopped her feverish brow. But as he guided her over the threshold, Kahlan’s hand shot out to catch the doorjamb.
It was the fastest she had moved in days, and a spark of hope lit in Cara’s chest before Kahlan’s arm fell limply to her side, and extinguished it.
“Cara,” she said. The sounds were thick and slow, but unmistakable.
Richard’s eyebrows drew together in confusion as he readjusted his grip around her waist.
“Cara’s right here behind us, Kahlan,” he said soothingly, the way he spoke to the blind children in that village. “We’re going to go into this room and rest now. We’re at an inn.”
Kahlan’s head, propped on Richard’s shoulder, lolled to the side. She pinned Cara with a stare hazy with fatigue.
“Cara,” she said again.
The Mord-Sith’s heart slammed traitorously against her ribs, even as she evaded Kahlan’s beseeching eyes. Kahlan was asking for her, instead of Richard. How many times had she crouched alone by the campfire, weakened by travel and feelings, and imagined this? How many times had she dug her fingertips into her Agiel to banish this exact fantasy?
She did the same thing now, as Richard shrugged in resigned confusion and shifted to allow Cara to step through the door first. She used the pain to punish herself for finding any sort of pleasure in this nightmare. To remind herself that Kahlan only asked for her because she didn’t want Richard to see her in this state. But no matter how hard she grasped the leather rod, it didn’t seem to be enough.
She let go only when Kahlan’s feeble weight was shifted into her arms. Richard placed a chaste kiss on the Confessor’s passive, bluish lips, and promised to return in the morning when the healer arrived. He tried to catch Cara’s eye as he and Zedd backed out into the hallway, perhaps to tell her to take good care of his love. But Cara’s gaze was slanted down, locked on the face that had turned to nuzzle in her shoulder. The order was unnecessary, anyhow.
She knelt at the side of the basin, oblivious to the cooling puddle that saturated the leather at her knees. She stroked a square of cloth slowly across Kahlan’s collarbone, over her shoulder, and down the length of one arm. A thick swallow caught in her throat each time she accidentally peered through the cloudy water at the Confessor’s thinning body.
There was no need to seek refuge in her Agiel anymore -- this inert form beneath her had never been part of the fantasy. She had imagined Kahlan’s body, yes, but not like this. In her weakest moments, when she had envisioned the delicious agony of gazing upon the Mother Confessor’s flesh, the woman in question had been vibrant and full of life.
After the frantic and clandestine kiss that Kahlan had pressed to her lips, in a grove not far from the Pillars of Creation, after the looks they began to share across the fire, the fantasies had taken on a life of their own. But always the Confessor was willing, eager -- laughing, even, as Cara caressed her skin.
Now, the candles arranged around the small, sparsely-furnished room painted a ghostly glow over what little color remained in her cheeks.
Cara continued to wash her, methodically running the soapy cloth over every inch she could reach. She tried to keep her eyes unfocused on the far side of the dented metal tub, if only to stop the shudders that ran through her each time she glanced at Kahlan’s closed eyes.
By the time she reached Kahlan’s feet, softened by the water, the Confessor’s eyes began to flutter. Cara thought she was imagining it, at first. That she couldn’t possibly be awake. But then Kahlan’s lips parted in a weak smile.
“Hi,” she said.
Cara abandoned her work near Kahlan’s feet and shifted back to the other end of the bathtub, her knees sloshing in the water on the floor. The Confessor’s name, desperate and strangled, nearly escaped her lips. But she bit her tongue.
“Hello,” she said instead, one hand hovering in the bath.
While Cara was busy staring at the sides of the tub, it seemed that the warm water had been working to coax hints of blood back into Kahlan’s face. Her lips were no longer blue, and though her forehead was still ashen, the cold sweat had vanished. Cara laid her hand across the skin there, though she already knew she would not find a fever.
She let out a shaky breath, and with it her shoulders fell several inches as they released some of their knotted tension. This was the first sign of improvement in days. Perhaps between the bathtub and the healer’s rudimentary attentions, Kahlan would make it to Aydindril. She would survive long enough for Zedd to scour the Wizard’s Keep for the root of the prophecy. For a real cure.
With her palm curved around Kahlan’s forehead, luxuriating in the healthy warmth there, Cara examined the outside of the bathtub where its bottom met the worn floor. It wasn’t nailed down. Surely with Zedd’s magical assistance, she and Richard could carry Kahlan in it the rest of the way. Or perhaps they could hitch a sledge to the horses...
“Cara,” Kahlan said. There was a smile in her voice, and Cara glanced up to find the other woman watching her, amusement sparkling in her tired eyes, as if she knew exactly what sort of thoughts had overtaken the Mord-Sith. But her gaze turned somber before Cara could return her smile. “Cara, if I don’t make it--”
“Stop,” Cara said, pulling her hand from Kahlan’s skin. She had an argument prepared for a moment like this one. A terse and well-reasoned speech to give to the Confessor, should she ever show signs of giving up. But the practiced words failed her. Her fingernails screeched against the metal rim of the tub and her knuckles turned white. “Stop.”
Kahlan opened her mouth to speak, but she seemed torn as she stared up into Cara’s face. After a moment, she licked her dry lips and reached out to tangle her trembling, waterlogged fingers in Cara’s.
“All right,” she murmured.
She pulled Cara’s left hand away from the metal and brought it to her lips. With her eyes still on the Mord-Sith, she pressed a slow kiss to the tops of the knuckles. And though Cara knew that Kahlan’s lips were chilled, that they couldn’t possibly carry any of the Confessor’s remaining warmth, the kiss blazed white hot against her skin.
Kahlan seemed to have spent all her strength on that kiss, for her eyes slid closed as her fingers loosened around Cara’s and dropped into the water. Cara stared at her own knuckles for a long moment, unsure of how to breathe. Surely this was only a friend’s attempt at goodbye. If Cara had allowed Kahlan to speak, she would have said to take care of Richard, to make sure he was happy and safe. That was all.
She forced her eyes away from her hand, and instead used it to brush the wet hair back from Kahlan’s face.
The hushed patter of rain on dirt began to drift in from the window over the tub, first in the distance, and then very close. Cara watched as a droplet landed on the sill and and beaded there for a moment, before sinking into the wood. With the storm came a chill, and Cara stood to shut the glass.
“Bed,” Kahlan said, her head drooping toward Cara at the window.
Cara looked uncertainly at the well-appointed bed, its quilts glowing warm green and blue in the flickering candlelight. It seemed harmless enough, but it was the bath that had put life back in Kahlan, for however short a time. She was tempted to send for the inn maid, to order the young woman to replace the cooling water with warm over and over again throughout the night. She would do it herself if she had to.
But when she turned back to Kahlan, ready to argue, the Confessor was watching her with one eye cracked open, a knowing look on her face.
“No,” she said. “Bed.” The corner of her mouth quirked up, and Cara sighed.
She pulled Kahlan, dripping, from the tub, cradling the Confessor against her chest. She was pitifully easy to lift, and Cara longed to use her Agiel to replace her miserable feelings with physical pain. Instead, she crossed the room and slid Kahlan between the blankets. Lightning flashed outside as she pulled the quilts up around her chin.
The rain clattered in heavy sheets on the thatched roof above, and Kahlan shivered against the pillow. She looked pleadingly to Cara, but the Mord-Sith was shimmying off her soaked leathers and crawling beneath the blankets before Kahlan put her request into words. It didn’t matter that this was not the way Cara had pictured it when she had imagined pressing her naked flesh to Kahlan’s. Or that Mord-Sith did not cuddle, not ever.
She was careful to keep her breasts angled away from the demure Mother Confessor. To warm the other woman using her only her arms and legs. But Kahlan turned onto her side and pressed her back firmly into Cara’s front, creating an unbroken line of touch between their bodies. She moved one of her hands, already chilled, to rest on the Mord-Sith’s bare thigh. Cara ground her teeth together and fisted the sheets with her free hand, the one that wasn’t tucked under Kahlan’s neck and curled around her shoulders.
Her heart roared louder than the waves of thunder that crested outside. She knew Kahlan loved Richard and not her. She knew it the way she knew her Agiels would always hum, the way she knew D’Hara was her home. But with the Mother Confessor curled in her arms it was too easy to imagine the world was different.
With a shallow, hitching sigh, Kahlan’s quivering muscles relaxed in her embrace. Her breath slowed to a steady flutter, and Cara prayed to the spirits that she would find some relief in sleep. She wanted nothing more than to drift off behind the Confessor, and wake together to find this had all been a dream.
But Cara didn’t close her eyes. For she knew when she opened them, Kahlan would be gone.