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Dance of the Compass

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If a coin comes down heads, that means that the possibility of its coming down tails has collapsed. Until that moment the two possibilities were equal. But on another world, it does come down tails. And when that happens, the two worlds split apart.

― Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

 

 

 

-l-








There was a disorienting wave of magic, a feeling like fingers digging through Richard’s skull as Orden and Kahlan’s confession did battle within him, and then an earsplitting whine, a swarming knife of fire in his neck that could only be the kiss of an Agiel.

He screamed. He couldn’t help it.

Then the world went white, and Richard’s vision went black, and he dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

 

 

-l-








The first thing that Richard saw when he regained consciousness was Darken Rahl’s face. There could be no mistaking it. Piercing blue eyes, black moustache and little beard, shoulder length hair falling over his cheek…

Richard punched him in the jaw and rolled, surging to his feet with the Sword of Truth in his hands. Feeling unsteady, he flourished the blade to keep Rahl at bay, absently noting that there were three other people present, all of them women. But he had no time to do more than notice their existence and general position in the forest clearing where he found himself. Rahl was the priority. Rahl who was… backing away and holding his hands to his face, looking at Richard with an expression of… hurt?

It was a trick. Rahl was a master of illusion and lies. Well, Richard was the Seeker of Truth and he wouldn’t play this game. Once, he might have hesitated if Rahl was a less than bloodthirsty opponent, but not anymore. Not after the plague. Not after what he did to Jennsen.

Richard let out a war cry and lunged, his sword swinging in a downward arc that would take Rahl’s head from his shoulders.

But he never touched the tyrant. Instead, one of the women leapt into his path, her own blade shining white-blue and coming up to block his stroke with a crash that jarred Richard’s arms, throwing sparks and rattling his very bones. He grit his teeth, shocked at how strong she was, already shifting his weight to parry.

But then the woman spoke to him. Well, shrieked at him.

“What are you doing, Richard?!” she demanded, blue eyes flashing, cheeks turning as red as her hair.

Jennsen. The woman in front of him, wielding a sword like she had been born with it in her hand, was Jennsen.

Her hair was braided and wound into a crown around her head, keeping it out of her way. She wore a lavender tunic that fell to mid-thigh and brown leather breeches, with a matching vest that laced up the front in a crisscrossed pattern. Her tall boots reached her knees and were a deep purple, tooled with patterns of flowers. Her sword belt sat low around her hips. Around her neck was a familiar necklace – a triangular stone etched with a rune.

And then there was her sword.

No matter how impossible, Jennsen was holding the Sword of Truth. And it was reacting to her as if she were the Seeker, glowing blue-white, just as Richard’s sword – also somehow the Sword of Truth – glowed red-orange in his hands. When the Seeker wields the sword, it turns red with righteousness, giving him the strength of all the Seekers that have come before, Zedd’s voice whispered in Richard’s memories. A Seeker who has mastered their anger will see it turn white. That is the power of love and forgiveness.

Looking over Jennsen’s shoulder, Richard saw that Rahl had taken refuge behind the other two women. One was the Mord’Sith who had attacked Richard just before he blacked out. She had her Agiel in her hand, and she stood ready to defend Rahl, which wasn’t very surprising.

What was surprising was that the woman standing next to her appeared identical, save for the fact that she wore her blond hair loose and was wearing a dress of Confessor white.

“I detest physical fighting,” Rahl was pouting, still holding his hands over his jaw. “It’s so uncivilized.”

“Shut up and heal yourself, wizard,” the Confessor said, rolling her eyes.

The Mord’Sith gave the Confessor a sharp look. “You should show proper respect to the Lord Rahl.”

The Confessor laughed.

Richard sheathed his sword. “I think,” he said, “there’s been a misunderstanding.”

Sometimes, he really hated magic.

 

 

 

-l-








They were in another world. They had to be. Something about the combination of Orden, confession, and Agiel had sent them through the veil that separated planes of existence, him and the Mord’Sith both. Here, the Jennsen who wasn’t his Jennsen told him, she was the Seeker of Truth, and he, Richard, was pristinely ungifted. Darken Rahl was Jennsen’s much loved elder brother, and a Wizard of the First Order.

Richard wondered for a horrifying moment if that meant that his Darken Rahl was also Jennsen’s brother, which would likely mean he was Richard’s brother too. But no. No. So much in this world was different, it must just be another deviation from the realm Richard called home. Like the fact that Rahl’s robes were not red, but a shade of blue that matched his eyes exactly, though the cut and ornamentation was as Richard remembered it from the times he had seen – and fought – the man.

Both the Confessor and the Mord’Sith were Cara Mason. They had the same green eyes and sharp cheekbones, the same long golden hair, and the same prickly personality.

They watched each other with matching expressions of disgust, all curling lips and flinty gazes, neither able to believe that in another life she was the very thing she hated. Jennsen regarded them with flushed cheeks and an affectionate smile. She and Rahl shared a look, and Jennsen shrugged and said, “Caras.”

Rahl laughed, and he had dimples and that was just… odd. Somehow, that was the oddest thing that had happened yet. Richard was absolutely positive that his Darken Rahl did not have dimples.

Both Caras huffed, and then returned to glaring at each other, the Mord’Sith’s braid swinging.

“We cannot both be ‘Cara,’” the Confessor said. “It will get confusing all too quickly.”

“Agreed,” the Mord’Sith answered, only her lips moving. The way she held herself completely still was unnerving.

The Confessor was doing it too.

“This is my world,” the Confessor went on. They seemed to be having a silent conversation. Maybe being essentially the same person meant they could hear each other’s thoughts? Now there was a troubling idea…

“I shall be Mason,” The Mord’Sith conceded, with a pucker of her lips. Richard was continually surprised that she hadn’t tried to kill them all yet. Rahl’s presence, even if he wasn’t the right Rahl, might be the only thing holding her back.

“You should tell Darken of how you came to be here,” Jennsen told Richard, recapturing his attention. “If anyone can help you get home, he can.” She beamed at her brother, and Darken smiled – not a small, razor thin grin, but a wide flash of white teeth that made him look so young. Richard had never stopped to think about how young Darken Rahl was, how young he had been when he became a king.

The Mord’Sith – Mason – strode over to Rahl and went down on her knees, putting her right fist over her heart. “I serve Darken Rahl, whatever the world,” she said, bowing her head.

Rahl’s eyes widened, and he looked over at Jennsen, raising an eyebrow. Jennsen raised one back, then winked at him. Rahl nodded, his spine stiffening.

“Arise, Mistress Mason, and thank you. Long has it been since any Mord’Sith served a Rahl.”

Mason’s head snapped up at that. “What?”

 

 

 

-l-








Mason insisted that they be told the recent history of D’Hara and the surrounding territories so that she could ‘better serve her lord.’ Richard thought it was a good idea in general. If Cara was the Seeker’s Confessor, and Darken Rahl was the First Wizard, who knew what else was different? What if he saw someone he knew, someone like Chase or Michael, and treated them as friends when they were anything but?

He shied away from thinking of Zedd and Kahlan, but could not avoid it for long.

Rahl started a fire for them with magic, and they sat in a circle around it, making cushions of saddlebags and blankets. Jennsen took out a hunting bow and began to wax it, and Cara sharpened her daggers. Mason waited for Rahl to seat himself, and then reclined at his right side with the air of a lioness in repose. Richard noticed Jennsen surreptitiously watching the Mord’Sith.

Their eyes met, and Jennsen looked away. “You should start, Darken,” she said. “Your part of the story comes first.”

Rahl nodded, his expression hardening into something that looked more… right… on his face, to Richard anyway. It was a thinning of the lips and a tightening around the eyes, a studied, lethal blankness that brought to mind a striking hawk.

It put Richard at ease, this little piece of familiarity.

“I am the oldest son of Panis Rahl,” Rahl began.

“And the rightful heir to the throne,” Jennsen added. Rahl glared at her, and Richard’s hand was on the hilt of his sword, loosening it in its scabbard before he could stop himself.

“We are not having this argument again, sister dear,” Rahl bit out. “I have told you, when we win this war, you will be the one to lead D’Hara. I have seen what having such power does to wizards and men. Being both a wizard and a man, I am doubly likely to become a worse tyrant than the one we are working so hard to overthrow.”

Mason looked between the siblings, her brow furrowed. “But you are the true Lord Rahl. I can feel the bond.”

“See!” Jennsen pointed at Mason, triumphant. “Cara agrees with me, and we both know she’s the smart one.”

The two Caras looked at each other, both eventually nodding, as if to acknowledge that intelligence was a trait they had in common.

Rahl placed his hand over Mason’s gloved one in a show of gentle gallantry that Richard found deeply disturbing. Mason seemed pleased with the contact though.

“My dear,” Rahl said, “I am Darken Rahl, Wizard of the First Order, and I would be a terrible king.”

“Great and terrible,” Mason murmured, never looking away from this world’s incarnation of her master. Her face spelled out adoration, undying devotion. Maybe even love. It was the same way Denna had stared at Richard. “You would unite all the lands under one banner. Thousands upon thousands would kneel and pledge an oath to you every day. Your enemies would throw themselves on their own swords in fear.”

Rahl squeezed Mason’s hand. “That,” he said lightly, “is precisely what I am afraid of. And that is why, when we have deposed Zorander, Jennsen will become Lady Rahl, and I shall be her advisor.” He favored Mason with a kind smile, his dimples making another appearance. “If you wish to serve her instead, I will understand.”

Zorander?!

Mason looked at Jennsen, and Jennsen unflinchingly met her gaze, pausing in her maintenance of the hunting bow.

Mason faced Rahl again. “It is a Mord’Sith’s duty to love Lord Rahl.”

Rahl nodded, like people swore undying loyalty to him every day, and said, “Now, where was I?”

“You were being long winded, as usual,” Cara smirked, the long white sleeves of her dress dangling down to slither along the ground. She held one of her daggers up, examining the edge. “Perhaps you should get to the point.” She clicked her teeth together with an audible snap after the last word.

“Always so bloodthirsty, Cara,” Rahl purred in her direction. “Bloodthirsty and impatient.”

The Caras looked at each other, and seemed to silently agree again that, yes, this was something else they had in common.

“My lord,” Mason took Rahl’s right hand between both of hers. “You were going to tell us of your history?”

“By the Spirits, don’t call him ‘lord,’” Cara muttered. “His head’s fat enough already.”

“Of course. As I was saying, before my uncouth ruffian of a sister interrupted – ”

Jennsen snorted. “You raised me. If I don’t have manners, it’s your fault.”

As I was saying,” Rahl spoke over Jennsen. “I am the first child of Panis Rahl, and when I was born, my han was so powerful that a wizard called Carracticus, fearing what I would be capable of, attempted to kill me in the cradle with a horrible spell. It gave me a wasting sickness that even the Breath of Life could not repair. But his son was a great friend of my father’s, and also a mage of some small powers, and they enacted a ritual to save me. A ritual of… blood magic. They called on the Keeper. And the Keeper… the Keeper answered.”

Rahl’s gaze had gone inward now, his voice a soft, silky rumble. “In exchange for the power to save my life, my father’s friend, the son of my murderer, sacrificed himself. He died for me.” Rahl shivered and Jennsen passed the hunting bow to Cara, getting up to press herself into her brother’s side. Rahl turned his head to bury his nose in Jennsen’s hair, their arms winding around each other.

“That man’s name was Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander,” Rahl continued, words muffled. “So you see, it’s because of me. Zorander wasn’t always a monster. He was given the Breath of Life after the ritual was complete, but gods don’t like to be cheated and he came back… wrong.”

 

 

 

-l-








When Darken was very young, he thought that Zeddicus was his mother. He didn’t understand that men couldn’t have babies, and he saw Zeddicus and his father kissing a few times. They were always kissing. And once, in Darken’s hearing, Panis said something about how Zeddicus had given Darken life.

Besides, Zeddicus spent a lot of time with Darken, teaching him about magic, and the power of blood, and how to prepare sacrifices for the Keeper. Zeddicus wouldn’t do that if he wasn’t Darken’s mother and didn’t love him.

But then one day, Panis came in while Darken was holding a goat still so that Zeddicus could sacrifice it on the altar, and he got really angry and shouted at them. Zeddicus got mad too, and he said a lot of things that Darken didn’t understand, but there was something about the Keeper and Panis not minding the blood magic when it was used to save his heir, and Darken screamed for Mother and Father to stop fighting, and then they both whirled on him and asked him what he was talking about, his mother was dead, and Darken ran away and hid so that no one would see him cry.

Later, when he was older, Panis warned him away from Zeddicus, told him the story of Zedd’s sacrifice, of how it had changed him. He wasn’t Zedd anymore, but Zorander.

“But you mustn’t let him know that you are not heeding his teachings,” Panis whispered. “He’s too powerful now. And I… I’m wasting away.”

It was true. Panis’ eyes were sunken in, his skin waxy and spread thin over his bones. Neither of them ever said it aloud, but they both knew that it was Zorander’s doing. Rahl magic was the only thing that could hold D’Hara, and Rahl magic was in the blood.

Zorander was a blood mage.

Darken never worked out the exact mechanics of it, because he didn’t want to delve that far into the deep looking for answers. All that mattered was that somehow Zorander had seized the magic in Panis’ blood, siphoning it off for his own, until Zorander was functionally the Lord Rahl.

The day that Darken sensed the transition was complete, Panis Rahl dropped dead, though not before telling Darken that he had fathered another child, one that a prophecy foretold would defeat Zorander and return justice to the three territories.

With his father gone, Darken should have inherited the throne of D’Hara. Instead, Mistress Serena, a Mord’Sith who had long been Zorander’s lover, came and informed Darken that he was to stay in his rooms until Zorander called for him. For his own protection, of course. Darken was only nineteen, and Zorander had declared himself regent until such a time as Darken had finished a course of training at the Palace of the Prophets. Never mind that Darken had completed his apprenticeship at the Wizard’s Keep in Aydindril the year before and, as heir of D’Hara, was never meant to go to the Sisters of the Light.

It was clearly a ploy. Sending Darken to the Old World would keep him out of the way for years, if he ever returned at all.

Darken fled the palace that night with the help of Mord’Sith still loyal to his family, and, with a plea to the Creator to forgive him, used one of the dark spells he’d learned from Zorander to find his prophesized sibling by scrying with his own spilt blood.

He was led to the town of Brennidon, to a little curly haired girl of one summer. She lived in a brothel with her mother, Taralyn, and her grandmother, Shota, who owned the establishment. When he explained who he was and why he was there, Shota and Taralyn told him about the slaughter of Brennidon.

On the orders of Zorander, D’Haran soldiers had descended en masse a year ago and killed every baby boy. Jennsen, the prophecy child, had escaped only because it had never occurred to Zorander that a little girl could be his undoing.

“I have to take her. Hide her. Train her against the day she must take up her destiny,” Darken insisted. At the very least, he wanted to ensure that his sister didn’t grow up to be a whore like her mother and grandmother, though he tactfully didn’t say this part aloud. Prince of D’Hara or no, he had no doubt that Shota would box his ears.

Taralyn made to protest immediately, but Shota drew her away for a whispered conversation, repeatedly gesturing at Taralyn’s stomach. Darken acquainted himself with his sister while the women argued.

She was a lovely child. Doe eyed and sweet, with a slightly upturned nose. She favored the looks of her grandmother, both of them pale with red hair, but her eyes… Her eyes were the same color as Darken’s.

She sat in his lap and stroked the gold braiding on his vest, then put the trailing end of his blue velvet cloak sleeve in her mouth and suckled.

“Jennsen, no!” Taralyn exclaimed when she and Shota returned. “I’m sorry, my lord, she’s cutting teeth.”

“It is quite alright,” Darken assured her.

“You’re to take the child,” Shota said abruptly. “Take her far from here and keep her safe. Keep her away from that, that, beast.”

“Thank you,” Darken said, and did.

He took Jennsen across the Boundary, for he knew that Zorander cleaved to the magic granted him by the Keeper, and would not follow into a land where sorcery held little sway and suspected practitioners were put to death. There, he settled in Hartland, taking the name Drefan and becoming a blacksmith’s apprentice. He told the villagers that Jennsen was his daughter, and that he’d been married scarcely a year when his wife died in childbed.

He built a little house with magic, under the cover of night, and wove spells into the wood that made everyone who looked upon it remember it as having always been there. For Jennsen he created a garden. Princesses liked flowers, did they not? At least, all the ones of Darken’s acquaintance did.

Jennsen believed that he was her father until she was old enough that Darken was certain she could keep a secret. When she was twelve, Darken told her the truth. She didn’t speak to him for a week.

On the eighth day, she was waiting for him when he got home from the forge.

“I think that you must love me a great deal,” she said baldly.

“You should trust that instinct,” Darken told her. “You are the Seeker of Truth.”

“Okay,” Jennsen said, her face white and hands shaking. “Okay.”

Darken gave her the sword.


 

 

 

-l-








“He trained me in secret, out in the woods where no one would see us,” Jennsen picked up the narrative. Darken – Richard couldn’t think of him as ‘Rahl’ just now, not after hearing his story – patted her hand with a fatherly tenderness. “For nine years I was Blacksmith Drefan’s Little Girl when we were in the village. I learned to be a midwife, and I let Michael Cypher court me… But in the woods, I was the Seeker of Truth, and a Princess of D’Hara.” She gave a wry grin. “Sometimes, I halfway convinced myself that it was all just a game that Darken and I played. A made up story to make us feel like heroes. And then the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen literally ran into me, and threatened me when I tried to help her.”

Jennsen beamed at Cara, whose face lit up, and Richard thought, Huh.

Well at least one thing was consistent: the Seeker always loved the Confessor.

 

 

 

-l-








“You’re a Confessor,” Jennsen murmured, holding absolutely still. The woman in white – the beautiful, ethereal woman in white – was holding a dagger to her throat. Putting the white dress together with what Jennsen had witnessed the woman do to the soldiers chasing her, and remembering her lessons, Jennsen could only come to one conclusion. “Are you here for me?”

The Confessor narrowed her eyes, pulling the knife tighter against Jennsen’s skin. “Why would I be here for you?”

Jennsen said, “Because I’m the Seeker of Truth.”

A pause. “The Seeker of Truth is a man.”

Jennsen was becoming embarrassingly aware of the feeling of the other woman’s breasts against her back. “You’d be surprised how often I hear that,” she wheezed. “I’m Jennsen Rahl. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Rahl?”

The Confessor released Jennsen, shoving her away none too gently. “I seek the Wizard Rahl.”

Jennsen rubbed her throat. “He’s my brother. I’ll take you to him. On one condition.”

The Confessor arched one golden brow. “And what is this condition?”

“Tell me your name.”

Jennsen smiled her most winsome smile, the one that made Darken let her have a kitten and Michael forget what he was saying.

Cara was unmoved. Begrudgingly, she said, “Cara Mason.”

“Come then, Cara. My house is this way.”

She tried to take Cara’s hand, but Cara jerked away and hissed, “Don’t touch me!”

“Sorry,” Jennsen apologized, clasping her hands in front of her. All at once, she felt very small, tossed upon a rising tide of panic. A Confessor coming to Hartland meant it was time. Time to take back D’Hara, as Darken was fond of saying. It was time to stop being Blacksmith Drefan’s Little Girl and start being the Seeker and the Princess, and Jennsen was suddenly unsure of her ability to do either.

“I’m not used to it,” Cara said when they were almost to the house, apropos of nothing.

Jennsen blinked. “What?”

“People touching me,” Cara elaborated. “I’m not used to it.”

“Oh,” Jennsen said, her earlier grin returning. 


 

 

 

-l-








“Cara Mason,” Darken said when they’d entered the house. “It’s been a long time since the years I spent in Aydindril. You were still clinging to your mother’s skirts then. You’ve filled out nicely.”

Cara looked Darken up and down. “You grew muscles. Though your personality doesn’t seem to have changed, more’s the pity.”

They smirked at each other, and Jennsen experienced a moment of insane jealousy. Of course Cara would be interested in Jennsen’s handsome, worldly, magical older brother. Of course she would. And Darken wouldn’t even consider that Jennsen might want Cara, because she had never told him that she had a man’s spirit.

That was what the villagers called it. Women who loved other women, and men who loved other men were said to have been born with the opposite gender’s spirit inside them. Jennsen had always accepted that she had a man’s spirit – she was the Seeker of Truth after all. Everyone knew the Seeker was always a man. So she must have a man’s spirit. But Darken always got angry when he heard Jennsen speaking that way. He told her that in D’Hara, and other places in the Midlands, it was acceptable and normal for some women to prefer other women, and some men to prefer other men. Some people even liked both. And having a man’s spirit had nothing to do with being a warrior. The Mord’Sith and Confessors, the two deadliest orders in all the three territories, were comprised entirely of women, after all.

Jennsen was never sure if she believed Darken. So many of his tales were so far outside her realm of experience that it was hard to conceive of a world where they were real. But now that she had seen Cara… well, Jennsen had always enjoyed Michael’s attentions well enough, but something about Cara made her heart beat faster and her blood rush in her ears. She knew it was stupid, knew that Confessors couldn’t enter physical relationships without confessing their partner, but she didn’t care.

It was love at first sight.

“It is time,” Darken was saying to Cara, a tone creeping into his voice that made the hairs on the back of Jennsen’s neck stand on end. There was thunder in his words and lightning in his eyes, a tingle of power that made the air taste like rain. He waved his hands and his simple peasant garb faded away, replaced by a wizard’s robe of blue velvet and brocade. It stretched across his wide shoulders, showing off the muscle working as a blacksmith had put on his arms and chest. This was Darken Rahl, Wizard of the First Order.

“Yes. It is time,” Cara agreed. And she was just as imposing as Darken, with her flowing white dress and equally flowing hair. She was like a goddess, the Creator incarnate.

Cara and Darken looked like real heroes. Figures from legend.

And Jennsen? Jennsen was just a girl who played with her brother in the woods. The daughter of a whore.

But Darken passed her the Sword of Truth, and she strapped it to her hip just the same.

They left Hartland that night, and passed through the Boundary the next day.


 

 

 

-l-








Richard was silent, reeling from all that he had heard.

“Anything to add, Cara?” Jennsen asked when she had finished her tale.

“I was given the duty of protecting the Seeker by Mother Confessor Denna. My sister was killed just outside the Boundary. The rest you know.”

The silence grew, stretching to the point of being uncomfortable.

“We have given you much to consider,” Darken spoke at last. “We should all get some rest. Tomorrow you’ll tell us about your world.”

Richard didn’t argue, just let himself be led around the camp by Jennsen while the Caras argued over who was going to stand watch. Eventually they worked out that neither would trust the other, and they would stand watch together. Mason was only willing to sleep if Darken was the one on guard while she rested.

Richard didn’t care. Darken Rahl had dimples and laugh lines around his eyes, Zedd was a despot, and Richard was afraid to even ask about Kahlan. His thoughts spun in circles, his emotions in free fall, turning round and round like the needle of a compass that had lost true North.

He just wanted to sleep.

 

 

 

-l-








“Let me serve you, my lord,” Mason’s voice interrupted Richard’s dreams.

There was the sound of cloth on cloth and a creak of leather.

“I’m sure you can tell how very interested I am in your, ah, service,” came a deep, sensual growl. “But I would not have you lie with me out of obligation, my dear. I have never bedded a woman who did not desire me, and I’ve no intention of starting.”

“Oh, I desire you. Please, my lord…”

“Darken.”

“Please, Darken. Let me do this for you.”

 

 

 

-l-








Rahl’s look of smug satisfaction in the morning and the twinkle in Mason’s eye made it obvious what they’d been up to the night before. Not surprisingly, this put Cara into a foul mood. Jennsen alternated between glowering at her brother and making soothing noises in Cara’s general direction. Richard sympathized.

He was a little ways into the forest, looking for a place to relieve himself, when he overheard Cara and Jennsen talking.

“She would give you much pleasure, and gladly. You are a Rahl, and she is a loyal Mord’Sith. You could have her, and be happy.”

Jennsen sighed. “Oh, Cara. I know she looks like you, and you share certain personality traits, but she isn’t you. You’re the woman I love.”

“You’re going to know that Richard and I have been intimate when the time comes, and try to forgive me. I do not want to deny you the… same consideration.”

….Cara was going to bed him? She was planning on confessing him?! Richard’s hand strayed to his sword.

“That’s not the same thing at all, Cara. But you’ve made your offer now, and I’ve said no, so please let me kiss you?”

There were soft rustling noises, and then Jennsen’s voice again, sounding farther away this time. “I do have to say one thing for my brother. He has excellent taste in women.”

“You’re wondering what they meant about Richard. Our Richard,” Darken Rahl’s voice came from nowhere. Richard spun to find the wizard standing behind him, having moved just as stealthily as his counterpart could. It triggered a sense of déjà vu so profound that Richard had to fist his hands and bite his tongue to remind himself that he wasn’t fighting for his life at the base of a tower.

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” Richard started.

Rahl gave a predatory leer. “I did.”

“Oh.” Richard hadn’t been expecting that.

Rahl stared off in the direction Jennsen and Cara had gone. “They weren’t talking about you. They have an arrangement with our Richard,” he explained without being asked. “Richard is pristinely ungifted and cannot be confessed. Cara has a duty to produce at least one child to continue her line. Jennsen asked, and Richard agreed to father a child with Cara that Jennsen and Cara can raise as theirs.”

All the air whooshed out of Richard’s lungs, and embarrassingly, he could feel his body stirring with arousal. “Oh,” he said again, dumbly, imagining a world where he had a brother who could help him and Kahlan have a family. Imagining a world where he was pristinely ungifted, and Kahlan could have his child.

When Richard came back to himself, he was alone. Rahl had vanished as silently as he appeared.

 

 

 

-l-








Rahl made a delicious rabbit stew for lunch after blithely informing Richard that none of the ladies could cook – apparently Jennsen put too many beets in everything – and served them all bowlfuls of it with Mason trailing along behind him like a puppy. A vicious guard puppy that growled at everyone except her master, but still a puppy.

She gave Richard a piercing stare when Rahl approached to give Richard his share of the stew, and Richard was suddenly very glad that the Mord’Sith didn’t know what he’d been thinking.

“It’s your turn, Richard,” Jennsen said, putting a piece of journey bread in her stew to soften. “Tell us about your world, and what happened to send you here.”

Richard took a bite of stew to stall for time. He didn’t think they would hold it against him that, save for Jennsen, they were enemies in his world, but… Well, he wouldn’t lie about it. That would lead nowhere good, and Mason’s presence made it all pretty obvious.

“In my world,” Richard said slowly, his eyes on his soup bowl, “I’m the Seeker. Zedd is my teacher and the First Wizard, and my Confessor’s name is Kahlan Amnell.”

“Kahan?!” Cara burst incredulously. “Mistress Kahlan? Your Confessor is the Mord’Sith general who leads the attacks on Aydindril?”

Mason snorted and then laughed, her eyes sparkling and lips twisting in cynical merriment.

“What’s so amusing, Mord’Sith?” Cara snarled at her.

“What do you think?” was Mason’s answer. How did she make every expression seem edged with knives? Even when she was laughing, face bright, there was something about her, something that echoed with dying screams and spattered blood.

Cara’s eyes widened, her face going as white as her dress. “You?”

Mason inclined her head. “Aydindril fell to my forces before the winter snow.”

“And you serve your Darken Rahl?” Rahl interrupted before Cara could respond, coming to stand between the two women. He put a hand on Mason’s shoulder, angling his body toward her, and she stilled, deferring to him. “Ah.” Rahl turned to Richard. “I see now why you attacked me when you first woke. In your world… I’m the monster.”

Richard nodded, lips pressed into a thin white line. “In my world, the prophecy is about us.” He glanced at Mason. “You… I mean, Lord Rahl sent Mason to stop me from putting together the Boxes of Orden. I was going to use them to defeat him. She attacked me with her Agiel at the same moment I put the last box in place. When we woke up, we were here.” He trailed off, shrugging. It was probably too much to hope that the Boxes of Orden had been transported with them. If they had, he’d have seen them by now.

Cara stood, her right hand outstretched in the pose of confession. She advanced on Mason. “If that’s the case, why haven’t you attacked again, Mord’Sith? Biding your time? Waiting for the opportunity to betray us?”

Richard was just about to intervene, but Jennsen beat him to it, stepping up to place a restraining hand on Cara’s arm.

“Please,” Mason scoffed. “Betray you to who? I serve Lord Rahl, as I have said, and here he is!” She gestured at Darken. “We aren’t going to get home again. My Lord Rahl spent decades looking for the Boxes of Orden, and had only recently succeeded in locating all three. So unless you have them simply lying around, we’re here to stay. So why not make a place for myself? I am Mord’Sith, and Mord’Sith know how to survive. My old life is gone.” And here she paused to ogle Darken. “So I will make a new one. A better one. I will be the only Mord’Sith to remain true to the Rahls, and when you sit in the halls of the People’s Palace again, I will be rewarded.”

Ringing silence followed that speech.

Then, softly, Jennsen whispered, “I believe her.”

“Me too,” Richard muttered, just as softly.

“As always,” Darken declared, “we must trust in the Seeker.”

Cara narrowed her eyes, but did not argue. A Confessor could not read a Mord’Sith.

 

 

 

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“If you harm the wizard,” Richard heard Cara whisper to Mason when they were saddling the horses, “or Jennsen in any way, I will kill you.”

The Mord’Sith smiled. “And I you, sister.”

Cara flinched. “I had a sister. She’s dead.”

“As did I. Though in my world, I am the one who died. Mord’Sith do not have family. Only their Sisters of the Agiel.”

“…And yet, you call me sister.”

“Yes.”

 

 

 

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“We discussed your predicament this morning, while you were hunting,” Darken told Richard, trotting his horse to bring it abreast of Richard’s. They only had three horses, so Mason was mounted behind Darken Rahl, her arms around his waist, and Jennsen rode behind Cara.

Richard was alone.

“Oh?” Richard said, still finding it hard to look at Rahl and his Mord’Sith without mistrust.

Rahl nodded. “We are going to see the Witch Woman of Agaden Reach. I have heard of the Boxes of Orden, but only as a myth. If they exist in our world, Salindra will know, and may be able to tell us where they are.”

Salindra? Richard wasn’t familiar with the name, but he already knew Shota didn’t have magic in this world, so he supposed it didn’t matter.

“Thank you,” Richard said. “For taking the time to help us.”

Up ahead, he heard Cara snort.

Rahl cut his eyes in her direction, the corner of his mouth twisting. “There’s one more thing. We’re stopping to pick someone up on the way. Our Richard. When dealing with Salindra, it’s good to have him nearby.”

“Because he’s pristinely ungifted?”

“My lord,” Mason spoke up. “Magic cannot be used against a Mord’Sith. I can take care of this Witch Woman myself.”

“It’s not just that,” Darken hedged, looking distinctly shifty-eyed.

Jennsen laughed, turning in the saddle to look back at them. “What my brother is trying not to say is that he and Salindra were lovers back when they were both apprentice mages at Aydindril, and every time they see each other she tries to talk him into fathering a brood of powerfully magical children who will take over the world.” She laughed again at Richard’s gobsmacked expression. “But if our little brother is there, she’ll want him instead. After all, Richard was taught the art of love by the best. He’s even serviced queens!”

“Jennsen!” Rahl cried out, falsely scandalized. “A princess does not speak of such things!”

“A princess is also supposed to use rhyming dactylic tetrameter when in the presence of men, but I’m not going to do that either,” Jennsen retorted, wrinkling her nose.

“Serviced queens?” Richard choked out.

Jennsen’s eyes went wide. “Oh.”

“Ah,” Darken echoed her. “You have to understand. I didn’t know, when I went to get Jennsen, that Taralyn was already carrying another child of our father’s. A boy. Our Richard was raised in a brothel, hidden amongst the other bastards whenever soldiers came calling, to keep anyone from discovering he was of the Rahl line.”

Chapter Text

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One’s options in this world are as vast as the horizon, which is technically a circle and thus infinitely broad. Yet we must choose each step we take with utmost caution, for the footprints we leave behind are as important as the path we will follow. They’re part of the same journey — our story.

― Lori R. Lopez, Dance Of The Chupacabras

 

 

 

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Richard grew up in a brothel called ‘A Vision of Love.’ His grandmother was the proprietress, having been chosen to inherit after the previous Madam retired. He had lots of aunts who weren’t really his mother’s sisters, and lots of cousins who weren’t really related to him at all. But that was fine, because they were family anyway.

The children all knew from a young age that their mothers were whores. They didn’t all understand exactly what that meant, except that they were to stay out of the way of the men that came into the house, and leave their mothers and aunts alone when they took a man (or sometimes a woman) into one of the upstairs rooms. The children never saw the upstairs rooms. They all slept in one big room on the ground floor that shared a wall with the kitchen, which was nice in winter, because the kitchen stove was against that wall, but was swelteringly hot in summer.

The oldest children looked after the younger ones, and the whores breezed in and out of the big room, sometimes to dole out chores, sometimes to impart lessons, and sometimes just to visit. Richard’s mother always came and told him goodnight, and kissed his forehead. And she told him bedtime stories, stories about how he was secretly the son of a king, and he had a brother who was a powerful wizard, and a sister who looked like his grandmother and was the Seeker of Truth. One day, the stories went, his brother and sister were going to come back for him and take him away from all this, and Richard would live in a castle and learn to ride a horse like a knight and always have shoes that fit.

They were just stories, but they were fun, and Richard loved them.

When Richard was eleven, his Aunt Nicci came and told him to serve drinks in the main room. She seemed nervous, which was odd. Aunt Nicci wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. Richard had even seen her break a chair over a man’s head once, when the man got too rough with one of the other women.

“Aunt Nicci?” Richard asked, his voice cracking. It had just started to change. Grandmother said he was an early bloomer.

“It’ll be alright, lad,” Nicci told him. “It’s just there’s an important guest here tonight, and Merissa has taken ill. You’re the only older one who doesn’t already have a job. Just promise me one thing.”

“What is it, Aunt Nicci?”

“There’s a woman out there in a pink dress. Her name is Annalina Aldurren, and she’s a slave trader. She specializes in training pretty young boys to be whatever their masters want, understand? Boys like you. So you keep out of her way.”

Richard promised, and went to get a serving tray.

But of course, he didn’t keep out of Annalina’s way. Instead, when one of the other children tripped and almost dropped the platter of meat she was holding, Richard dashed in to help her, keeping a hank of roast lamb from splattering all over Annalina’s silk clad lap.

“Quite spry, aren’t you boy?” she said to him, tilting his chin up with one finger and making him open his mouth so she could inspect his teeth.

She offered to buy him, and when Grandmother said no, sent a man to kidnap him from his bed. Richard woke up in a covered wagon, his ankles chained to the wooden sides.


 

 

 

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Richard told himself the story of his wizard brother and princess sister a lot in those early days. They would come for him, and he would live in a castle, and he wouldn’t have to learn all the ways to please people in bed unless he wanted to, and no one would make him dye his hair.

Richard’s teacher was a man named Egremont. He was old and grey now, but once he had been a beautiful man, and the Queen of D’Hara’s favorite concubine. But the queen died during childbirth, and Panis Rahl didn’t have any more use for the men he had kept around for his queen’s pleasure.

“He had us spelled so we couldn’t get her with child,” Egremont explained. “He preferred men himself, and didn’t want to be bothered with her when they weren’t trying to beget an heir. So he let her have us, and after she was gone, well… There were six of us. The three youngest were given to the Mord’Sith, he kept Thaddicus for himself, and Demmin and I were sold to people like Madam Annalina, to train other slaves.”

Egremont was patient and kind and almost like having a father. And that made everything worse somehow, because Richard wanted to hate Egremont.

But Egremont just held him during his rages, soothed him when he cried, and when Richard demanded to know why he had to learn these things, Egremont explained, “Be the best at what you do, my boy. Skilled slaves are valuable, and valuable things are cared for. You make your master love you, and you’ll have a good life. You make your master love you, and maybe one day they’ll set you free.”

So Richard used foul smelling dyes to keep his hair the color of spun gold and laid in the sun until he was a delicious warm brown. He did the exercises Egremont showed him and ran around the training compound every day, until his body was sculpted of corded muscle. He kept his hands soft with lotion, and dabbed scent onto his neck. He learned the arts of massage and pleasure, and Egremont taught him to play the lute, and to sing, and how to speak with the crisp elocution and accent of a high born noble.

Madam Annalina was pleased with his progress, and she started sending him out with older pleasure slaves – “My boys are not whores,” she always said. “They’re concubines and pleasure slaves. Whores are untrained.” – to gain experience. Richard made an empress beg and a king weep out his name. His fame grew with his list of conquests, and soon they were calling him ‘Mikros Xanatos,’ which in High D’Haran meant ‘just a little death.’

He didn’t mind the work. He knew now that this was what his mother and grandmother had done to earn a living, and if he wouldn’t be ashamed of them then he couldn’t be ashamed of himself, no matter how some people harped on about virtue.

He still thought about escaping. He didn’t mind giving people pleasure to earn his keep, but he didn’t like the decisions of ‘who’ and ‘when’ being made for him. But Madam Annalina made all of her more valuable slaves wear heavy silver collars that were spelled to track their movements (If only he’d known then that his wouldn’t work!), and the price of disobedience was a day on the whipping post. Richard didn’t want to risk it.

If he scarred, it would make him less likely to find a good master.


 

 

 

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When Richard had seen seventeen summers, he was purchased by the Margrave of Rothenberg as a companion for his son.

Margrave Malray was an easygoing man with a ready laugh and a taste for extravagance. He wore rich fabrics, drank richer wines, and indulged himself in women to his heart’s content. He insisted on inspecting Richard himself, and Richard was called into the well-appointed room where Madam Annalina conducted business and told to disrobe.

He obeyed, and the Margrave stalked around him in a circle, prodding at Richard’s buttocks and abdominals, asking him to flex. “Well, he’s pretty enough, if you like this sort of thing,” the Margrave said. “And he’s the one they call Mikros Xanatos?”

“Oh yes. Richard was trained by my very best, and it shows. That is why I’m asking such a high price for him.”

The Margrave stroked his chin, and then he slapped Richard on the thigh, like rider would to a horse they were fond of. “I’ll take him. I’m starting to despair of Walter. He flees the room every time a princess so much as speaks a couplet to him. Maybe the problem is I’ve been pushing the wrong gender at him. We’ll see how he takes to the boy.”

Richard was allowed to say goodbye to Egremont, and then he was outfitted with a thin golden collar that was made to look like scrolling vines, and dressed in tight white leather breeches, matching fur-lined boots, and nothing else. The Margrave’s liveried servants bundled Richard into a coach, and they set off for Rothenberg.

“We’ll arrive just in time for my son’s birthday,” the Margrave told Richard, sitting across from him as the coach rattled and rolled. “You’re going to be one of his gifts. He’s a bit timid, so you should be gentle with him.”


 

 

 

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When they reached the Margrave’s kingdom, Richard was given a hot meal, a hotter bath, and more white breeches and boots. The skin of his chest was dusted with gold powder and he was told to go wait in the ballroom. There he found a groomsman with a beautiful white horse, just old enough to ride, standing next to a pile of gifts. Richard approached, and the groomsman snapped identical leads to the horse’s halter and a ring on the back of Richard’s collar.

They were to be given to the prince as a matched set.


 

 

 

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Prince Walter was a bashful sort, just as his father had said. For the first two weeks, he couldn’t look at Richard without blushing. He never gave Richard orders, never even spoke to him, and certainly never utilized Richard’s bedroom skills.

No, instead he took Richard riding and to the library, and sent Richard to escort the Princess Mika, Walter’s step-sister, to balls and garden parties whenever possible, so that Walter himself wouldn’t have to attend.

But Richard lived in a castle and he was learning to ride a horse and he always had shoes that fit, so he didn’t mind. He even forgot about the story of his wizard brother and princess sister. He had his own prince and princess to contend with.

Since Walter didn’t want sex, Richard made himself invaluable in other ways. He fetched and carried books, laid out Walter’s clothes, saddled his horse, and drew his baths. Walter spooked the first time Richard washed his hair for him, but relaxed when Richard massaged his scalp, and began occasionally asking for a repeat performance if he had a headache.

One afternoon, after Richard had spent a few hours quietly helping Princess Mika with her rhyming tetrameter, Walter looked up from his desk and said, “You’re good at that.”

It was the first time Walter had directly addressed Richard to do anything other than ask him to perform a task. Cautiously, Richard replied, “It was part of my training, your highness.”

“I find it most confusing,” Walter huffed with an air of long held grievance. “Even if I am not the one that has to speak it. When I am Margrave, I shall forbid everyone from speaking it to me if they want a sensible answer.”

Richard took a few steps across the room, his boots echoing on the stone of the palace floor. They were in the sitting room that Walter and Mika shared, and like everything else in Rothenberg, it was a study in opulence. Walter’s desk was carved from a single piece of heavy oak, the chaise lounge was upholstered in the finest fabric and so soft that it felt like lazing on a cloud, and the windows were filled with expensive scenes of stained glass.

Prince Walter watched Richard move, his cheeks reddening, and Richard put an extra sway into his step, studying his master.

Walter was a handsome man with an untidy mop of silvery pale hair that fell to his shoulders and a decent physique that was emphasized by white lawn shirts, crisp yellow silk waistcoats, and snug trousers of white linen. As easygoing as his father, if not as brazen, he was always smiling. From what Richard had seen, he was a good man, a good master, and would be a good king.

His eyes were the color of the sky. The color of freedom.

“Would you like to see what other things I learned in my training?” Richard asked, only a little suggestively. It was novel for him, to have to seduce someone. It was even more novel to want to, not because it was expected, but because he… liked Walter.

Walter jerked in his chair, making a squeaking noise. Then he cleared his throat. “Richard I… I don’t expect. That is, I know why my father bought you, he’s been very clear on that, but I – Oh my, you are very close, aren’t you?”

Richard stood right by Walter now, so close that he could feel Walter’s panted breaths on the bare skin of his stomach. He flexed his abdominals. “You could have me now, if you wanted,” Richard said in a low, husky voice. “You could have any princess who graces these halls, and yet you don’t. Why not?”

Walter blinked, and licked his lips, his pupils dilated with lust. “I… what? I’m sorry, Richard, would you mind putting on a shirt? Your chest is very… distracting.”

Richard chuckled. “I don’t have any shirts, your highness.”

Walter gaped, his eyes snapping to Richard’s face. “What? Why? I mean, if you don’t want to wear them, I certainly won’t make you, I don’t like slavery and I’m going to try to abolish it as soon as I can and that’s part of why I won’t…”

He trailed off, his speech derailed by the way Richard was stroking his hair. A quick glance down at the prince’s crotch confirmed that Richard’s suspicions were correct – Walter definitely found him attractive, he just didn’t want to bed someone who had no choice.

That consideration only made Richard want him more. Richard did have a choice, and he chose Walter.

“If I weren’t a slave,” Richard bent to whisper into Walter’s ear, letting the tip of his tongue graze the delicate shell of it. “If I were a prince from a different kingdom, would you have me?”

“I…” Walter swallowed. “I’ve always thought to be happy with just one love. If they were the right person.”

Richard kissed Walter, a slow sensuous slide of lips and tongue that was designed to steal the breath away. Walter moaned, his hips jerking, and Richard smiled against the prince’s mouth, insinuating his thigh between Walter’s legs.

“Am I the right person?” Richard asked.

“Oh yes,” was Walter’s fervent answer. “If you want to be.”

Richard did.


 

 

 

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When Richard first saw his other self, the man was dressed in black leather from head to toe, with a crossbow strapped to his back and two wickedly long knives hanging from his belt. His hair was close cropped, gold at the ends, growing progressively darker the closer it got to his skull. He wore kohl around his eyes, and a thin smile that brought out the family resemblance to Darken Rahl.

Richard felt a sinking sensation in his gut.

“Sister!” The other Richard called, picking Jennsen up and twirling her in a circle. “Brother,” he greeted Darken, clapping the wizard on the shoulder. A raw look of pain flared in his eyes when he took in Darken’s face, but Richard might have imagined it, for he blinked and it was gone.

“And Lady Cara,” Richard’s double finished, bowing to Cara and kissing her hand with a playful courtliness. Cara rolled her eyes and swatted at his shoulder, and the other Richard tossed his head back and laughed.

And then his gaze lit on Richard and Mason, and he said, “Huh,” his lips parting.

“Can’t be an illusion,” he muttered to himself. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see it.” He gave them each a careful up and down, and then turned to Jennsen. “Explain.”

 

 

 

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Darken insisted that everyone go inside the inn where Richard lived and worked before the story was told, because it was a very long story and Darken hated the dust of travel and he wanted a bath and a decent meal and a goblet of wine and they were all ruffians with no appreciation for the finer things in life. Darken despaired of them, he really did.

Cara and Other Richard rolled their eyes, Mason’s lips twitched, and Jennsen smiled fondly at her brother’s antics.

Richard followed behind, openly staring at the man who was supposed to be him, if his life had gone differently.

They sat at a large table in the back, and a tavern wench brought them mugs of beer and a platter of vegetables and baked ham. Thus provisioned, Mason told Other Richard of everything that had happened in short, succinct terms, in the way a soldier would report to a superior.

“Sometimes I hate magic,” Other Richard said when Mason was done. He spoke with a cultured D'Haran accent even more prominent than Darken's, which had presumably softened after years spent in Westland.

“But you’re pristinely ungifted,” Richard blurted.

Other Richard raised an eyebrow. “All the more reason.”

“You can’t both be called ‘Richard,’” Cara complained. “It’s already giving me a headache.”

“Easy enough. You three and Walter are the only ones that call me that anyway. To everyone else, I’m Xanatos,” Other Richard… Xanatos said.

“Death?” Richard translated the High D’Haran, furrowing his brow.

Xanatos looked at him for a long time, an assessing gaze that was made all the more nerve wracking because it came from Richard’s identical twin.

“I know your story,” Xanatos said eventually. “I suppose it’s fair you know mine.”

“I know about the training and the uh, slavery. And how you were sold to the Prince of Rothenberg,” Richard said.

Xanatos fixed Darken with a look that he… quailed under wasn’t quite the right phrase, but the wizard was definitely uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of whatever that look meant. “Do you, now?” Xanatos asked, tone chilling. There was something frightening about it, something so essentially Rahl that it made the blood curdle.

“Richard,” Jennsen said in warning.

Xanatos blinked and the dangerous atmosphere evaporated. He smiled. “I thought we agreed that the new lad is Richard.”

“We may call you Xanatos, but you are not Death.” Jennsen’s blue eyes seemed to glow in the dim light of the inn, her chin set in a stubborn line. “You’re not.

Xanatos let out a cackling laugh that made the hair on the back of Richard’s neck stand up. It was like the howl of a calthrop. “If you say so, sister.”

“Please don’t despair,” Darken leaned forward, laying his hand over his brother’s. “Walter could still be alive.”

“You don’t know that!” Xanatos exclaimed, pulling away so fast that he sent a mug of beer clattering to the floor. The inn went silent, all eyes turned in their direction.

Xanatos took a deep breath, leaning back in his seat until the crowd lost interest and the ambient sound of chatter rose up around them. “Please don’t talk about him,” he asked Darken. “Not you. Spirits know, it’s hard enough just looking at your face.”

“Walter?” Richard asked warily. “The prince?” He didn’t want to set Xanatos off again, but he wanted to understand. Needed to understand how someone who was supposed to be him had become… this.

A stream of air hissed between Xanatos’ teeth, his jaw clenching. He fixed his gaze on a point over Richard’s shoulder. “Yes. Walter was my prince. We had four years together. Four years filled with more love than most people ever get… I learned to fight and started acting as Walter’s bodyguard, because it meant that no one would object to me being always by his side. He bought my old teacher, Egremont, and set him free, as a gift to me. He would have freed me too, but if he’d done that, we would have lost each other. Taking a pleasure slave as a lover is one thing, but a free man of low class is something else altogether.”

Xanatos raised a hand to his throat, and Richard saw a ring of precious metal there that he hadn’t noticed before. The collar was cast in the shape of vines, with semiprecious stones scattered amongst the leaves. Xanatos stroked the jeweled yoke, giving another of those bitter laughs. “I didn’t find out that I was a prince more than worthy of Walter’s partnership until after I’d already lost him.”

“Kahlan isn’t a fool,” Cara said, harsh and matter of fact where the Rahl siblings had been hopeful and understanding. “Walter is more valuable alive than dead. If she ever catches you again, she’ll have a bargaining chip. And with the Margrave’s only heir, Zorander can force Rothenberg into an alliance.”

Kahlan? Again?

Richard bit his tongue on those questions, keeping them firmly behind his lips.

But Mason didn’t.

“Someone explain. I can’t assess threats to Lord Rahl with accuracy without knowing all that there is to know about the state of the war.”

Xanatos leered at Mason. “Practical. How very Cara of you.”

Richard shifted in his seat, not liking the light he was beginning to see himself in.

“You know who Kahlan is, I assume?” Xanatos was saying. “Well, Zorander sent her after me right around the time Jennsen was really stirring up the rebels, getting them to organize. He had this idea that he could use my blood to bring down the Boundary.”

Chapter Text

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It was a pity that there was no radar to guide one across the trackless seas of life. Every man had to find his own way, steered by some secret compass of the soul. And sometimes, late or early, the compass lost its power and spun aimlessly on its bearings.

― Arthur C. Clarke, Glide Path

 

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Kahlan made her way sedately into Lord Zorander’s throne room, her heavy red boots echoing hollowly against the floor. She enjoyed the sound, enjoyed the staccato rhythm, and the way prisoners and soldiers alike stiffened when they heard it, for they knew it meant a Mord’Sith approached.

It took practice, to be able to walk, run, ride, and fight in the tall heels effortlessly. But that was part of the making of a Mord’Sith – getting the coil of the braid, the fit of the armor, and the glide of the step just right. Learning to be the beauty that disguised a viper, the velvet over steel…

Kahlan had all of these things in spades. As a warrior she was lethal, not to mention a brilliant tactician, a master of torture, and the most stunning woman to grace the ranks of the Sisterhood since Mistress Serena was in her youth. At least, according to Lord Zorander, and his opinion was the only one that mattered.

Kahlan knew her history, of course. She knew that the Sisterhood had once served the Rahl family, that the magic of their Agiels was still tied to Rahl blood, which was why they were not to kill any Rahls they captured. But that was before her time. The Rahls were weak, unwilling to lead D’Hara to its true glory. Zorander was strong, and under his rule they would prosper.

Kahlan’s steps were muffled now by the red carpet that led up to the throne dais. There her lord sat. He was young in appearance, with a square jaw, blond hair that curled around his ears, and light blue eyes. But that appearance was deceiving. Lord Zorander had appeared much the same sixteen years ago when Kahlan first saw him, and sixteen years before that. Some said that he was immortal, and thousands of years old. Others held that he kept himself young with magic. Still others said that he was a god in earthly form.

Kahlan stopped five feet from the lowest step of the dais and knelt, putting her right fist over her heart and bowing her head.

Lord Zorander looked up with a quizzical expression, almost as if he had forgotten why he’d summoned her, but Kahlan knew better. Anyone who believed Lord Zorander to be absentminded was a fool.

“Ah, Mistress Kahlan,” Lord Zorander said. There came the sound of insipid giggling. There was a woman in a voluminous gown draped across Lord Zorander’s lap, all bouncing curls and curved pink lips. She was a princess and would be deflowered before the evening was out, no doubt. Kahlan’s lord had a weakness for them, a carnal sweet tooth that demanded to be sated. But it was of no consequence.

Lord Zorander always returned to his Mord’Sith.

Kahlan raised her chin, showing her lord a placid face. “Master Zorander.”

Lord Zorander feigned a sigh. “I’m afraid matters of state detain me, dear one,” he said to his lapful of princess. “Why not go wait for me in my private study? There are some texts there that I would dearly love to show you.” He smiled, a flash of white teeth that made him look boyish, and in Kahlan’s opinion, one of the more dangerous weapons in his arsenal.

“I will go as you ask, Lord Zorander, most high.
Though please, do not tarry away from mine eyes.
Your books are lovely, that much is true,
But I would much rather feast upon you.”


The princess gave what passed for a lascivious smile, then slid off of Lord Zorander’s lap in a whisper of silk and a jaunty flounce of red hair. Kahlan felt her brows rise toward her hairline, but she did not turn her head to track the woman’s progress out of the room. She kept her eyes firmly on Lord Zorander.

Her lord’s smile faded as soon as the throne room doors closed behind the princess.

“Mistress Kahlan,” he said, face blank. “You know that Mistress Serena failed when I sent her against the Seeker.”

“Yes, my lord,” Kahlan answered. Everyone knew of Serena’s failure to break Jennsen Rahl. There was even a rumor that the Seeker had overcome her training enough to turn on her mistress, plunging the Sword of Truth through Serena’s chest, instead of gutting the Confessor as she had been ordered. The Seeker claimed it was love. That the power of her love for the Confessor was stronger than pain.

Kahlan scoffed. No love was stronger than pain. She had seen proof of that.

“I offer you a chance to succeed where Serena did not,” Lord Zorander went on.

“Thank you, my lord,” Kahlan said, as was expected.

Lord Zorander smirked at her. “I have learned of the existence of another Rahl. A pristinely ungifted man by the name of Richard Xanatos.”

Pristinely ungifted? Kahlan had heard tales about them. They were supposed to be immune to magic, and their blood was precious and rare, used in totems and protections. Part of the powers of the Mord’Sith had originated from the pristinely ungifted blood of a Rahl – the ability to turn magic back on its wielder. Every trainee drank a potion from the skull of a pristinely ungifted Rahl upon earning their Agiel.

“Yes, I see you understand his importance,” Lord Zorander went on. “It has been years since a pristinely ungifted one was born, and their blood is most potent when it comes from living veins. I believe, that if we secure Richard’s… cooperation, we may be able to bring down the Boundary.”

Now Kahlan smiled, a tightlipped grin that showed just a hint of teeth and had earned her the nickname ‘Snake.’ “And with the Boundary down, we can invade the Seeker’s village. She won’t be able to resist coming to Hartland’s aid.”

“Excellent, my dear,” Lord Zorander praised her, standing and holding out a hand in invitation. Kahlan rose to her feet and ascended the steps of the throne dais, sliding her gloved hand into Lord Zorander’s. He wore a ring on each finger. “You’ve caught the drift of my thoughts, as always. Jennsen Rahl will return to her village, and you will be waiting for her. But first, we must catch the ungifted one.”

“Yes, my lord,” Kahlan said, pressing kisses to the underside of Master Zorander’s jaw. Even with her boots, he was still taller than her.

“Xanatos is currently the body slave of the Prince of Rothenberg. I offered to buy him, but the boy prince is unnaturally attached. So I sent a spy instead. I’ve just received word that Xanatos and Prince Walter will be traveling to Thryce, to negotiate a marriage for the Princess Mika.”

“They’ll never arrive,” Kahlan vowed.

Then she pushed her lord back into his throne and straddled his lap.


 

-l-






Kahlan caught Xanatos and his prince just outside the borders of Thryce. The prince was subdued easily enough. He had some sword craft, but he was clearly more of a scholar judging by the softness around his middle. One touch of the Agiel and he turned an unpleasant shade of grey and collapsed, screaming.

The Rahl was another story.

He fought like a starved wolf, a whirling dervish of solid muscle that had knives in place of fangs. He stabbed Dennee in the shoulder, leaving his dagger buried to the hilt in her flesh and sweeping her feet. Alana closed in, foolishly tried to use her Agiel, having forgotten all of Kahlan’s warnings that they would not work against the pristinely ungifted one, and got her hand cut off for the trouble. She would bleed out soon enough if the wound wasn’t tended.

Kahlan was impressed. This Richard Xanatos was a formidable fighter, and if the stories of his sexual prowess were true, he would be a most delicious pet. In fact, he was almost a Mord’Sith himself.

She hoped Lord Zorander would allow her to keep him.

Kahlan let the Rahl continue his assault on her quad for a few moments more in order to teach her Sisters a lesson, and then she hauled the Prince Walter up by his hair and tore his shirt open. “Xanatos!” she called, holding her Agiel poised just over the prince’s heart. “Surrender now, or your master dies.”

This was a calculated gamble. Xanatos might not be as attached to the prince as the prince was to him. He could simply laugh and run. But Kahlan thought not. No one fought that hard for a master they weren’t loyal to.

Xanatos dropped his weapons, and Kahlan smiled her Snake smile.

Yes, the pristinely ungifted one had the honor of a Mord’Sith, and was deserving of respect.


 

-l-






Kahlan placed the prince and his Rahl in neighboring cells and made her footsteps deliberately heavy as she walked away, then paused to listen.

“Walter? Walter? Can you hear me? Are you hurt?” the Rahl said after a prolonged silence.

There was a loud groan, then, faintly. “Richard? Where…?”

“Thank the Spirits! Walter, just lie still. Does anything hurt? Are you bleeding?”

“I… I don’t think so. My muscles ache, and by the Keeper, my head… What happened? I remember the Mord’Sith and those torture sticks they carry, but then – ”

“I failed you.”

“Richard, no! If anything, you saved me. A prince isn’t supposed to need a bodyguard. I slowed you down. If I practiced the sword as much as I spend time reading – Richard, your chest!”

“Don’t worry, it’s not very deep. They just flayed the skin off. I’ll be fine. I’m more upset about the blood ruining my shirt. You gave me this shirt.”

“Richard, I give you all of your shirts.”

A pained snicker. “Only to keep my chest hidden for yourself, you jealous cudgy.”

“Richard!”

“It’s fine. It only hurts when I laugh. Or breathe.”

The sounds of someone moving through the dirt, the clink of metal against metal.

“Can you reach through the bars? I just. I need to touch you.”

“Yes. Yes.”

There was silence then. It went on so long that Kahlan nearly walked away to make her report. But then–

“Why did they flay your skin? Did you make them angry?”

“I don’t know. That evil harpy strung me up, cut the skin off and caught my blood in a dish, and then she let me down.”

“Well at least they bandaged you. That means they’re going to keep us alive, doesn’t it? Why bandage someone you’re going to kill.”

“You’re going to get home, Walter. They’ll ransom you and the Margrave will pay. You’ll be fine.”

“I won’t leave without you, Richard. I’m not a warrior and I’m not a brave man, but I am a stubborn one. And I will not leave without you!”

“Oh, yes you will! If you get the opportunity, you’ll get out of here. Promise me.”

“Only if you promise the same thing.”

“Fine.”

So the pristinely ungifted one didn’t know of the power in his blood. Interesting. Did he even know he was a Rahl?

Kahlan would bleed him slowly, taking a little each day. Patience was key with this particular pet. She had to be careful not to kill him, for the Breath of Life would not revive him. So she would tread with care. And then, when she had enough blood for Lord Zorander’s purposes, the real training would begin.


 

-l-






“She tortured me for six days. Or maybe it was nine,” Xanatos said, running a hand through his hair. “I lost track after a while. Things got fuzzy.”

Richard’s hands clenched, a specter of Denna rising in his thoughts. “I know the feeling,” he said.

Surprised, Xanatos looked into his eyes. Then, “I see that you do.”

“We were near Thryce when they were taken,” Cara picked up the story. “The king got worried when the delegation from Rothenberg never showed up, and sent out a search party.”

Jennsen nodded, stealing a piece of ham from Cara’s plate. “They found the body of the Mord’Sith Rich- Xanatos had killed by the road, and called for the Seeker. After we heard, the first thing we did was ride to the nearest temple.”

“Sloppy,” Mason opined, stabbing at her plate with her knife. “She should have taken the time to remove the body. Had it been my mission, you would have never suspected the Mord’Sith were involved.”

Dead silence met that pronouncement. Mason either didn’t notice their disquiet, or didn’t care. She just carried on carving her ham into tiny equally sized pieces.

“My dear,” Darken said at last. “There are times that you terrify me.”

Mason smiled, her entire face lighting up in a way that was almost childlike. “I know,” she purred, leaning over to rub her cheek against Darken’s stubble. “It’s how you like your women, no matter what world.”

Jennsen’s eyes got as wide as saucers. Cara turned tomato red. Richard averted his gaze. And Xanatos? Xanatos clapped his hands. “Oh Creator, I like her. Mason, you and I are going to be fast friends.”

“Mord’Sith do not have friends.”

“Neither do pleasure slaves turned assassin. And yet, here we are.”

“Assassin?”

“Right, I still haven’t explained the name. Well, I earned it as a whore. Mikros Xanatos,” he licked his lips in an absolutely obscene way. “Just a little death. And after meeting Mistress Kahlan and the Merry Band here, I turned assassin for the resistance. There’s only so much you can do with skills like mine, as I’m sure you understand. The name carried over. Only these days, it’s just Death. Nothing little about it.”

 

-l-






When the Seeker and her Confessor invaded the temple, Kahlan was made to flee. She had lost too many Sisters to injury while capturing the pristinely ungifted one, and lost more now to slashes of the Sword of Truth. Jennsen Rahl fought with the strength and skill of all who had wielded the sword - an one woman army, skin glowing blue in the reflected light of her blade. The Confessor dealt death with a single touch to any Mord'Sith unwary enough to get close. And Darken Rahl - Damn him to the Keeper and back! - tipped what might have been a close battle into an impossible one.

Wizards were not supposed to be more than men in extravagant robes, too thin or too fat, useless once you took their powers away. And yet Darken Rahl held a blacksmith's hammer in one hand and a long black whip in the other, wise not to use magic they could turn back on him. The whip cracked the air as it sped past Kahlan, wrapping around Lara’s face.

Darken Rahl yanked, biceps bulging, using the whip to pull Lara within striking range of his hammer, his face grim and his eyes like two gemstones – cold and hard. His features were like Walter’s, and Kahlan hated him all the more for that, for being strong when he looked weak. Even as she turned to run, she vowed the she would one day see the Wizard Rahl collared and kneeling at her feet. She would put sapphires in his Rada Han to match his eyes, and his voice calling her mistress would be the sweetest music. How he would beg and fawn for her favor...

That thought carried her to the holding cells. She didn’t have time to gather both her prisoners. Richard Xanatos was the more valuable, by virtue of being pristinely ungifted and a Rahl – and it would be so amusing, to have both brothers for pets. But he had contracted a fever due to the near constant bloodletting, and he would slow her down.

Kahlan took Walter.

Her lord would be angry with her for losing the pristinely ungifted one, but she would not be going to him empty handed. She had several vials of Richard’s blood, and the Crown Prince of Rothenberg. She would be punished, but not severely.


 

-l-






When Lord Zorander first saw Prince Walter, he laughed. “Well that is a poor disguise,” he said, and waved one hand. Kahlan felt magic flow over her skin, and had to beat down the impulse to turn it back. Using her abilities against her lord meant death.

Walter’s appearance did not change, and Lord Zorander came closer, circling Kahlan and her charge.

“Shorter than the boy,” he said to himself. “And the hair’s all wrong. But otherwise… hmm.”

Lord Zorander faced Kahlan. “You have done well, dear one. Now please take Prince… Walter, was it? Please take him to a suite in the royal wing. Darken Rahl’s old rooms. We’ll keep him there until we have a use for him. I’m sure something will turn up, eventually.”


 

-l-






The first thing Richard saw when he emerged from the delirium of the blood fever was Darken Rahl bending over him and blotting at his face with a cool cloth.

“Thank the Spirits,” he sighed through a dry throat. Grabbing Darken by the front of his robes, he pulled him down into a blistering kiss. “Walter. Walter.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate this form of gratitude,” a D'Haran accented voice that was not Walter’s rumbled in Richard’s ear. “But I am Darken Rahl, Wizard of the First Order.”

“And I’m Jennsen Rahl,” a redheaded woman Richard hadn’t initially noticed piped up.

“She’s the Seeker of Truth,” said a second woman, this one a blonde. “And Princess of D’Hara.”

Richard blinked, a half forgotten memory swimming to the surface of his mind. Darken offered him a drink of water, and Richard took it gratefully. Then he said, “Once upon a time, there was a little prince. No one knew he was a prince except for his mother and grandmother. But he had a dark haired wizard brother and a sister with tresses like blood, and one day they were going to come back for him, and he was going to live in a castle, and ride a horse like a knight, and always have shoes that fit.”

Darken and Jennsen stared down at him in shock.

“What’s your mother’s name?” Darken Rahl demanded.

Richard closed his eyes. “Taralyn. Taralyn Shotasdaughter.”


 

-l-






“My mother was a princess of Rothenberg,” Darken explained, upon seeing Richard’s confusion. “Walter and I are cousins, and the resemblance is… uncanny. He’s no relation to Jennsen or Xanatos, however.”

“I wouldn’t care if he was,” Xanatos declared. “You don’t throw love like that away.”

Mason smiled at Xanatos and offered him her hand. They gripped each other’s forearms in a warrior’s clasp.

“We’d better get some rest if we’re setting out for Agaden Reach tomorrow,” Xanatos said when the oddly ritualistic exchange was done. “You can all bed down with me, but it’ll be a little cramped. I’m not here often. This is just a place to sleep when I’m not out killing for the cause.” He directed this last at Mason, showing her toward the stairs.

Jennsen watched Mason precede Xanatos up the stairs and chewed on her lip.

“I’m not sure if it’s good that he’s taking her under his wing, or if one day they’re going to kill us all,” Cara said.

Darken made the sign of the Creator, pressing two fingers to his heart, then his lips, and then rotating his wrist outward, releasing his blessing into the air. “Let us fervently pray that it is the former rather than the latter.”

“Cheer up, Cara,” Richard put in. “At least they’d probably kill Darken first.”

Cara laughed so hard that she had to wipe tears from her eyes.

“That was mean, Richard,” Jennsen chastised him, but she was smiling.

Darken merely stuck his nose in the air. “Peasants.” With that, he marched up the stairs.

 

-l-






Agaden Reach was nothing like it was in Richard’s world. Shota had kept it wild and mysterious, with a feeling in the air that nothing was as it seemed and Shota herself might appear behind a tree at any moment.

The Witch Woman Salindra had a castle.

“No subtlety,” Darken muttered under his breath.

“I know,” Xanatos agreed.

Darken was wearing a set of deep azure robes with a train that followed him like the tide of the sea. Richard had watched him cast a spell on it to keep it from getting dirty. And Xanatos, ready and willing to fulfill his dual roles of distraction and bribery, had stripped down to just his leather boots and breeches and dusted his chest with something that made it glitter in the light of the sun. His collar gleamed against the flawless skin of his throat, and he’d put a gold cuff on his left ear.

“No subtlety at all,” Richard said.

They weren’t far into Salindra’s realm when Mason stepped in front of Darken, barring his path. “I sense magic. Something is coming.”

There was a gurgling growl that somehow communicated a feeling of mirth, and then a lion came trotting out of the trees.

A lion. Richard had only ever seen one as a drawing in a book.

It was as tall as a horse, and had tawny fur and a long, luxurious mane. There was a scar just above its left eye, neatly bisecting the brow bone.

“Marcellus,” Darken Rahl greeted the giant cat. “Well met. Is Salindra receiving guests?”

The lion gave another chuckling growl, and then it was shifting before Richard’s eyes. There was the sickening crunch of grinding bones, the strange slurping sound of fur vanishing into skin, and then the air was filled with thick turquoise smoke.

When the smoke cleared, a man stood where the lion had been. He was pale and handsome, with sharp cheekbones and hair the same tawny shade as the lion’s fur. There was still a scar dividing his left eyebrow, and his eyes had stayed the lion’s gold, dancing with some inner fire.

He was also completely naked, not a stitch of clothing to hide the toned elegance of his body.

“For you, Wizard Rahl,” the shapeshifter said, “always.” And then Marcellus curled his tongue behind his teeth, making a face that should have been ridiculous, but instead was pure sex. Richard could feel himself flushing, and was spared mortification only because everyone but Xanatos was reacting the same way.

Then Marcellus tilted his head. “Salindra is calling.”

He turned back into a lion and led them to the castle.

 

-l-






The Witch Woman Salindra was waiting for them in a large room that had been enchanted to look like a forest glade, which seemed a little pointless to Richard. Why didn’t she just go outside?

He caught himself wondering what Zedd would think about it.

Salindra lounged on a pile of furs, and leaned back against Marcellus’ flank once he joined her, still in lion form. Her dress was a simple sheathe, cut low in the back, and was the same turquoise color as the smoke of Marcellus’ transformation. Tawny hair spilled around her in waves, and she had sharp cheekbones and pouting lips. Face paint highlighted her eyes and rouged her cheeks, her lips a sensuous berry red. Richard thought maybe she and Marcellus were twins.

And all around them milled a crowd of gorgeous blond men in various states of undress and transformation. One of them, broad chested and tall and currently sporting a tiger’s tail, came to feed Salindra from a bowl of grapes.

“Thank you, Warren,” she said to him, stroking his large hand.

Marcellus the lion made mewling noises into Salindra’s ear and licked her cheek, and she pushed at his muzzle. “Stop it. I know there’s two of them. I Saw them coming, remember?”

“Salindra,” Xanatos said, stepping forward so that he was front and center. “We’ve come to – ”

“Yes, I know why you’re here,” Salindra interrupted. She got to her feet, and Richard could tell from the drape of the fabric that she wasn’t wearing anything under her dress. “And the answer is no. I will not tell you where the Boxes of Orden are.”

Richard’s fists clenched. It took Jennsen and Cara’s hands on his arms to steady him, to keep him from shouting.

“Why not?” Xanatos asked much more calmly than Richard would have. “Without the Power of Orden, Mason and Richard will never get home.”

“Because I have seen the future.” Salindra slinked away from her pile of furs, going to a crystalline basin that sat perched on a stand of knotted wood. The stand looked as if it had grown there, rather than been carved. Salindra held a hand out to her side, and another of her animal men brought her a pitcher of water. He was beautiful from the neck down, but his features were that of a pig.

“He’s being punished,” Jennsen whispered with a tremulous smile at Richard. “She did that to Darken once. Turned him into a whole pig, hooves and all.”

“Not for long,” Darken pouted. “I turned myself back.”

But Richard wasn’t in the mood for jokes.

Salindra touched a fingertip to the water in the basin, swirling it to the left three times. “Every path that sees the Boxes of Orden brought together ends not just in a gateway between worlds, but a tear in the veil that separates the living from the dead.”

Salindra raised her eyes, and Richard felt like she was looking straight into his soul. “Best leave the boxes where they are and learn to live here. Otherwise, you are for the Keeper.”

 

-l-






Richard wasn’t sure what happened after that. His ears buzzed and everything seemed very far away. People were talking, but it took him a long time to understand what they were saying, if he did at all.

He would never see Kahlan again.

He realized he was crying.

“My people,” he heard himself say. His lips felt numb. “My world needs the Seeker.”

“Not the Seeker,” Salindra corrected, staring into her scrying dish again. “A Seeker. There is another who can be Named. He just needs that.”

She pointed, and Richard looked down at the Sword of Truth. It hung from his belt, just as it had since the day he accepted the Name of Seeker.

Once, he hadn’t wanted that sword. But at some point it had become a part of him. He knew every scratch, every curl of filigree. The sound it made when it whistled through the air, and how it felt when it was burning bright, filling him with the strength of all the Seekers before him. He knew what it looked like dripping with blood, and how heavy it could be.

“Is there a way to send it home?” he asked.

He’d thought being the Seeker was about continuing to fight in the face of impossible odds, of never losing hope, of always taking the hard path. He’d thought it was sweat and blood and heartache and love and tears upon tears upon tears.

There were still tears, and a love that threatened to break him in half, but Richard knew now that none of those things were what made a Seeker.

Being the Seeker was letting go of what you wanted, even when what you wanted was the quest.

“If Darken helps me, perhaps,” Salindra said.

Richard drew the Sword of Truth, and held the blade up to the light, admiring it. Saying goodbye. Then he handed it to Salindra. “My First Wizard and Witch Woman moved the sun once. I believe you can do it.”

 

-l-






The ritual was simple. Darken and Salindra made a circle of water and salt,  put Richard’s Sword of Truth in the center of it, lit candles to represent the element of fire, and joined hands. They stared at each other, and it looked like they weren’t doing anything at all. But then a sudden wind whipped around them, storm clouds boiling in the sky, and they were screaming a chant in High D’Haran.

Richard started to take cover, dragging Jennsen with him towards Xanatos, who was untouched by the maelstrom, but it was over as soon as it began. Richard’s ears popped, and the sword was gone. The wind died down, and Darken and Salindra stared at each other for another long moment before releasing each other’s hands.

Then they pitched backwards, both of them falling into a dead faint.

Salindra’s bevy of animal men rushed to tend to her, gathering her up and bearing her off without a word to the rest of them. The one with the tiger tail, Warren, lifted her easily, cradling her against his chest while a fox man and a wolf man fluttered around them, chattering to each other about restorative teas and hot baths. Marcellus the lion brought up the rear.

Darken was just as well cared for. Mason descended on him the instant he hit the ground, checking his breath and his pulse. In an impressive show of strength, she pulled his arms around her shoulders, supported his thighs with her hands, and stood up, carrying him on her back. His head lolled against her neck, her braid caught between their bodies.

“Need any help?” Xanatos asked.

“No,” Mason grunted, stooped forward to keep Darken from falling off. Her face was turning red, but her expression showed no sign of the strain she must be feeling.

“Right. I’ve been here before. I’ll show you where the guest rooms are.”

They got Darken settled easily enough, Xanatos pointing out which passages in the castle were safe and the rest of them splitting up to fetch water, bed linens, and food at his direction. Mason wouldn’t leave Darken’s bedside, and no one tried to force the issue. In the castle of a witch who wanted Darken as a stud horse for an army of magical children, having a Mord’Sith guard him was probably a good idea.

Darken woke up just as Richard was leaving the room.

“I’m glad you’re still here,” Richard heard him whisper to Mason.

“Senseless man,” she replied. “I was never going to leave.”

Darken chuckled. “You should never expect sense from a wizard.”

Richard pulled the bedroom door shut behind him.

 

-l-






“And this one’s for you,” Xanatos said, showing Richard into the last room in the hall. “Don’t leave until I come back to get you. There’s no telling what nasty surprises Salindra has around this place that my presence keeps from working.”

Richard blinked, a new thought occurring to him. “Xanatos, the room we were in before. The one where Salindra was waiting for us. What did it look like to you?”

“A room. Why? Did she turn it into the Gardens of Life or something?”

“Yes. Something like that.”

Xanatos shrugged. “Every gift has a downside. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t eat the persimmons if I were you. She always does something to the persimmons.”

Richard eyed the bowl of fruit on the bedside table. “Good to know. Thanks for the warning.”

With that, Xanatos left Richard to his thoughts.

He didn’t sleep that night.

 

-l-






Xanatos came to get Richard in the morning too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch. “Sorry if you got hungry,” he apologized. “The apprentices don’t cook until Salindra gets up, and she slept late this morning.”

“I don’t remember seeing any apprentices.” They stepped out of the room and went down the left corridor. Richard wasn’t sure how Xanatos remembered his way around the labyrinthine halls of Salindra’s castle. The passageways seemed to be constantly shifting and moving, so that Richard couldn’t develop a sense of the layout. Maybe it looked different to pristinely ungifted eyes?

“Sure you did. They were all there at the ritual yesterday.”

Richard thought. “Oh. You mean the men? I thought they were her… harem.”

Xanatos laughed. “Why can’t they be both? She collects them, pretty men with enough han to train. I’d have been the jewel in her crown, if she didn’t get tired of her spells not working around me. It’s just as well,” he laughed again. “I’d hate to see Darken and the Witch Woman get into a fight over me. Imagine the scratching and hair pulling.”

They turned a corner and Richard joined in the laughter, and his was only a little hysterical.

Then he sobered. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

“I have a plan.” Richard sucked in a deep breath, preparing to take the plunge. He’d been up all night, unable to stop the furious churn of his thoughts. If he could convince Xanatos, the others would fall in line. If he couldn’t... “A plan to rescue Walter.”

Xanatos stopped dead in his tracks. Then he shoved Richard against the wall, hard enough that Richard saw spots when the back of his skull struck the stone. Xanatos put a forearm across his throat, and leaned, cutting off Richard’s breath and staring into his eyes. Richard stared back, not struggling. He hadn’t seen the similarities between himself and Xanatos when they first met, but now it was like looking into a cracked mirror, at a darker refraction of himself. He recognized that rage, the fury of love and home lost.

Xanatos must have seen the same thing, because he swore. “Keeper take it, you’re turning into me.”

He let Richard go, taking two steps back.

“I want one of us to be with the person we love,” Richard croaked. “At least one of us.”

Xanatos frowned. “It’s not just that, and you’re lying to yourself if you think so. I know you. This isn’t just about rescuing Walter. You want Kahlan.”

Richard looked down, feeling as if a pit had opened up beneath his feet. “Yes,” he admitted, barely audible.

“Fine,” Xanatos said, clapping Richard’s shoulder hard enough to make Richard grit his teeth. “So long as you know.”

Richard’s brow furrowed. “You don’t mind?”

“I don’t care so long as I get Walter back. And if our positions were reversed, if Walter was the one who… I’d have to try.”

Richard could breathe again. “Here’s the plan.”

 

-l-






“Jondralyn is just beyond that rise,” Mason said, pointing towards the horizon.

“Are you sure about this?” Jennsen asked, looking Richard up and down. He was dressed in Xanatos’ second best leathers, and he’d cut his hair so that he’d look as exactly like his twin as possible. The only thing missing was the gold collar, but Xanatos was unwilling to take it off and Richard was sick inside at the thought of wearing it, so they left it where it was, hoping that its absence wouldn’t matter.

Darken could have conjured one, but showed a depth of perception that Richard hadn’t thought him capable of and did not offer.

“This will work,” Xanatos said. “It’s a good plan. We sent word to Zorander that we’re willing to trade. The pristinely ungifted one for the Prince of Rothenberg.”

“And he took the bait,” Richard continued. “All the notice boards have posters saying that Richard Xanatos should present himself at the temple of Jondralyn to claim his reward. Only I’ll be the one that goes. They won’t be expecting someone who can wield an Agiel. I can stall long enough to make sure Walter is safe, and then I can fight my way free. And Xanatos and Mason will be waiting. Between her knowledge of the temple’s layout, and Xanatos dispelling all the defensive magic, they’ll be able to come in after me if I don’t make the rendezvous.”

“Or free Walter if the Mord’Sith don’t keep their word to release him,” Cara put in.

If she’d expected to offend Mason, it didn’t work. The Mord’Sith just smiled at her. It wasn’t a friendly expression.

“Be careful, all of you,” Jennsen said, drawing Xanatos into a long hug. She hugged Richard too, reaching up to tweak his earlobe. “And you better come back, Richard Cypher. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just another brother that turned up unexpectedly. I’m plagued with them, you know.”

Richard hugged his sister. Her hair smelled just the same as it always had.

“Goodbye, brother,” Darken said when it was his turn. “I know that in your world – ”

Richard stopped him with a raised hand. “My wizard once told me that we all have dark desires, yearnings for vengeance, and we must remember how those feelings stir our blood... because what marks the line between good and evil is the choice not to act on them. I look at you, and I know that’s true.” He gripped Darken’s shoulder. “Just keep choosing good, and I’ll be proud to call you brother.”

They embraced.

 

-l-






“Kahlan!” Richard called in the closest approximation he could manage of Xanatos' D'Haran accent. He was standing outside the gates of Jondralyn. “I’m here! Send Walter out!”

There was the clanking of a chain, and the portcullis rose one inch at a time, the noise overcome only by the rapid pounding of Richard’s heart in his ears. Finally, the way stood clear, and one panel of the heavy tower doors opened. Walter, recognizable to Richard by his resemblance to Darken Rahl, came stumbling out, barefoot and filthy, his hands tied before him.

He tripped once, but righted himself and made a beeline for Richard, surging up on his tiptoes for a desperate kiss. Richard, having been warned by his counterpart to expect something of this nature, returned the kiss so as not to give away their ruse.

“Please don’t do this, darling,” Walter begged, tears making tracks in the grime that coated his face. “Don’t give yourself up for me. It’s not worth it.”

Richard put his hands on Walter’s shoulders, steadying him. “I’m not. You’ll see. Run into the woods behind me,” he murmured, eyes darting all around them. Where was Kahlan? Was she even there? “Keep going until you meet a red haired woman and a man in blue robes. They’ll explain everything.”

“But – ”

“Just trust me.”

Walter pressed another kiss to Richard’s lips and ran. Richard paid no mind, for that was the instant that Kahlan stepped into view, her red leather armor hugging her every curve.

The sight of her alone was enough to bring Richard to his knees. He knew it wasn’t her, but it was, oh it was, was,was. She had just the same expression on her face as she had when Richard first met her in another life, when he had tried to help her and she drew a dagger on him.

“Xanatos,” she greeted him, and her voice was like music to his ears. He was lost, without direction, and she was a constellation that showed the way to shore.

She was his North Star.

She kicked him in the ribs, then struck his temple, knocking him out cold.

 

-l-






Richard held out for five and a half days, as far as he could tell. Sometimes, if Kahlan hit him hard enough to make him swing on the chains he was hanging from, he could catch glimpses out of the high stained glass window. So he thought five days had passed, maybe more.

Walter would be safe by now. And Richard’s plan hinged on Kahlan trusting him enough to leave her Agiel where he could reach it.

It was time to start earning that trust.

He closed his eyes, thought of his Kahlan, and let the tears come. With an overwhelming wave of relief that threatened to break him in truth, he said, “Mistress… I love you.”

And then he told her everything.

Not just the things they had agreed he would say. No. He told her everything, starting with the fact that he was from another world. He poured out the frothing sea of his mangled emotions, and found Kahlan an avid listener, just as it had always been between them. He talked about Zedd and Zorander, Rahl and Darken, himself and Xanatos, and Kahlan, Kahlan, Kahlan.

He told her about their love, and their adventures. He asked if she remembered the lullaby she had sung to Renn, and when she didn’t, he taught it to her. He talked about the Con Dar and the Rada Han, and he told her about Denna, and Orden, and every dark, evil impulse he’d ever had.

And he confessed that he was weak. If she were the one in a different world, if she were the one who was lost, she would be strong. She would stay true to him. She would keep fighting to get back, no matter what it meant, no matter how much it hurt her.

But Richard was tired of pain.

And being the Seeker was letting go.

So Richard let go, and when Kahlan started wearing white leathers, he didn’t mind. It was nice, comforting, to see her in white again. Especially because she wore it for him.

She had always been the only person with the power to break him.

They made love in every way Richard knew how, and one or two that he didn’t. Kahlan let him worship her, just the way he’d always dreamed, and Richard started to forget.

He forgot which world he was in. Forgot who was the Seeker. He forgot if it was Rahl or Zorander that he was supposed to be fighting. He even forgot that if he didn’t meet Xanatos and Mason at the rendezvous point in a fortnight, they would come looking for him.

There was just Kahlan, and Kahlan was perfect.

 

-l-






“Tell me again the story of a love greater than pain,” Kahlan commanded. Richard had just finished buckling her leathers for her, and was now braiding her hair, she sitting on a low stool and he perched on the edge of her bed.

She was talking about the time he had overcome Denna’s training in order to save her life. It was her favorite story. Richard had lost track of how many times he’d told it to her now.

“Again?” Richard teased. “Surely my mistress has tired of that tale.”

“My own father did not love me enough to fight his conditioning. To hear of someone who was able not only to defy a direct order, but to strike down their mistress is… interesting.”

Richard tied off the end of Kahlan’s braid and kissed the crown of her head. “I love you.”

“I know.”

“Love isn’t something to fear, Kahlan.”

She turned to face him, running the pad of her thumb over his lips. She wasn’t wearing her gloves yet. “Mord’Sith believe emotions must be governed. Sadness, remorse, love, these feelings make you weak. But anger, loyalty, pride… these feelings make you powerful.”

“Then why,” Richard asked with a gentle smile, “is it a Mord’Sith’s duty to love Lord Rahl?”

Kahlan’s eyes filled with tears that she wouldn’t let fall. “Richard Rahl,” she sighed.

“Yes,” Richard said. “Richard Rahl.”

Whatever Kahlan might have done next, Richard was not to know.

It all happened in an instant, so fast it didn’t seem real. The doors of Kahlan’s private chambers exploded inwards, and Mason and Xanatos were there, Mason’s Agiel screaming with the high-pitched whine of torture magic. She seemed to fly across the room, kicking a brass vase at Kahlan’s legs to foul her footing, and pouncing on her.

Kahlan twisted and dodged, flipping to her feet with her own Agiel in hand, meeting Mason in a dance of destruction that moved so fast Richard could barely follow it. They were a whirlwind of red and white, a snake striking at a lion. Their braids swayed with their bodies, black against gold. Mason backhanded Kahlan so hard that Richard could hear the slap of leather on flesh. Kahlan responded with a kick to Mason’s knee that made something crack. Richard was afraid to intervene, afraid doing something, even shouting for them to stop, would get one of them killed.

Xanatos had no such qualms. He drew his crossbow and took aim. “No!” Richard roared, running across the room to yank the weapon from his twin’s hands.

The distraction might have been what Xanatos was aiming for all along. Kahlan’s head whipped around at Richard’s shout, and in an instant Mason had her on the floor, arm twisted painfully behind her back and Agiel digging into her neck. Black torture magic spread across Kahlan’s skin, following the path of her veins. It was the blood.

It was always the blood.

“I am Mord’Sith,” Kahlan said without a hint of pain, proud to the last. “I demand an honorable death!”

“Mason, no! Please, Cara, don’t kill her!”

Xanatos wrapped his arms around Richard’s shoulders, holding him back even as he looked at him with eyes that said he understood.

“Your knife,” Mason said to Xanatos. “Like we discussed.”

Xanatos squeezed Richard’s arms. “Trust us.”

Xanatos had trusted Richard to get Walter free.

Richard stopped struggling, and Xanatos took one of his long knives off his belt and handed it to Mason.

Mason raised the dagger high. “You will live,” she said to Kahlan, yanking Kahlan’s head back by the long braid Richard had spent a candlemark weaving. “And the only honor you shall have will be what you earn in service to the Rahls.”

With a flash of silver metal, Mason cut off Kahlan’s braid. Then she took Kahlan’s Agiel and sheathed it next to her own, before dragging the woman over to Richard.

“Swear to him!” Mason demanded, forcing Kahlan to bow her head with a handful of her shorn hair. “Swear to him, and mean it. Master Rahl, guide us. Master Rahl, teach us.”

“In your light we shine,” Kahlan muddled her way through the unfamiliar oath. As she spoke, Richard felt a tingle at the back of his mind. A thin, spectral thread, wispy and uncertain, connecting his blood to Kahlan’s.

It was always the blood.

The Rahl bond.

Richard filled it with love.

“Oh,” Kahlan said, her eyes seeking his.

Mason let Kahlan’s hair go and went to stand by the door with Xanatos. “That’s what it’s supposed to be like. That’s what it’s like with a true Rahl.”

The Rahl bond between Richard and Kahlan trembled, and Richard stroked it with soothing mental fingers. It’s okay, it’s okay, all is forgiven. You didn’t know. I love you.

“Come on,” Richard said, helping Kahlan to her feet, drawing her towards the door – and the world beyond it. “I want you to meet the Seeker.”

“You’re the Seeker,” Kahlan protested, but fell into step with him just the same.

Richard shrugged. “Not anymore.”