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Tiny Apocalypse

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Cara’s hands slipped limply out of Kahlan’s. She took a step back, looking infinitely confused, like Kahlan was speaking a foreign language and she was trying to work out the meaning of the words in her head. She blinked.

“What?”

“I think I’m pregnant,” Kahlan repeated quietly. It was easier to get out the second time. Her hands were shaking—she wanted Cara to step forward again and ground her, but Cara was frozen in place.

“With a baby?”

Kahlan licked her lips. She nodded. “With a baby.”

Cara’s mouth parted slightly. She blinked and her face went blank, like a door had slammed shut behind her eyes. Faster than a finger snap, Cara had closed herself off, become emotionally vacant. “Congratulations,” she said without feeling. Kahlan had expected her to scoff, to be confused, maybe to be angry, but not this—this was worse than angry.

“Cara—”

“Have you told Richard?”

“No, I—”

“You probably should have told Richard before you told me,” Cara said blankly. She shrugged, as if it were a simple common courtesy and Kahlan had asked her opinion on how to proceed.

“If I am pregnant, it’s not his,” Kahlan said. It was the one thing she was simultaneously certain of and scared to death of.

For a moment, Cara looked surprised. Then her mouth curled up in a cruel sneer and Kahlan took a step back. There was going to be anger after all. “Well, well, Confessor. I’m impressed.” She flashed her teeth in a suggestive smile that held none of the genuine feeling Kahlan had become accustomed to over the past few months. She  felt a spark of anger at Cara’s insinuation.

“Please,” she said crossly, “the only person I’ve been with is you.”

Cara blew a short breath out through her nose; a sarcastic sound that made Kahlan glare. Cara crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head back, like she and the sky were sharing a joke.

“I’m serious!” Kahlan said. She was well and truly angry now; it was one thing for Cara to throw sarcasm around to protect herself, it was another thing to do it to intentionally hurt Kahlan’s feelings. “Cara, if I’m pregnant, then I think it’s yours.”

The look on Cara’s face told Kahlan just how crazy she sounded. She knew it was impossible—she’d been telling herself just how impossible it was for the past few days. Two missed cycles didn’t automatically mean she was pregnant. But there was a feeling in her gut that said she was. Something just felt…not off, exactly, but different. Not different in a bad way, either. Pregnancy, after adding up all the evidence, was the next logically illogical step.

Cara gave a short, barking laugh. “What?!?

“It’s the only thing I can think of,” Kahlan said. She clenched her hands into fists, forcing them to stop shaking. “I haven’t…not with anyone else—”

“That you can think of,” Cara said, “or that you care to admit.”

Kahlan stared at her for a long moment, fighting the anger trying to creep into her answer. She’d known it would be hard, telling Cara, but she’d hoped for a little more understanding and a little less sarcasm. “I’m being serious.”

“No, I know,” Cara said, but she snorted as she said it.

“You don’t believe me.”

“That you’re pregnant?” Cara shrugged. “It’s possible. You do have all the parts for it. That it could be my child?” Cara shook her head. “Not a chance.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Kahlan pressed.

“Except for the fact that I don’t have all the right parts.”

Kahlan pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. Yes, it sounded ridiculous and impossible. She wasn’t an idiot. She knew how babies were made and she knew that normally—normally—two women couldn’t have a child. But when had their lives ever been normal? Weird and impossible things happened every other day. Why did this have to be different? They could have touched something, eaten something, walked on something—

“I know that it sounds crazy. But you’re the only one—”

“You’ve fucked lately?” The word was sharp on Cara’s tongue, and she spat it out like a blade. She laughed harshly. “I’m honored.”

“Cara!” Kahlan cried, aghast. It was frightening, the speed with which Cara could tap into her mean streak. She stared at Cara, not really knowing what else to say, but when Cara looked at the ground she knew Cara regretted saying it. “I really don’t need this from you right now,” Kahlan said, her voice low. “I’m tired, I feel sick to my stomach—”

 “And all of that is my fault,” Cara said dully.

“I think so, yes.”

Cara had started shaking her head before Kahlan finished speaking. “Be rational, Kahlan. It’s not even possible.”

“I know it’s not!” Kahlan stomped her foot, frustrated with Cara’s unflappable denial. “I know! I’ve been telling myself that all week, but I still…that’s all I can think of!”

Cara studied her, her eyes going from Kahlan’s face to her stomach and back again. “You’re sure you’re pregnant?”

“No, but I—”

Cara made a noise in the back of her throat and held her arms out in a then-what-are-we-even-talking-about motion.

“Just listen,” Kahlan snapped. “For two seconds, just listen to me.”

Cara crossed her arms. The joint of her jaw stood out as she clenched her teeth.

“I’ve missed two cycles, almost three,” Kahlan started, ticking things off on her fingers as she went, “I’ve been sick, sometimes in the morning right after I wake up, sometimes later. I can’t stand the smell of bacon or fried fish or ale. I feel tired all the time, and, as you put it so eloquently last night, my breasts are bigger.”

Uncertainty flickered in Cara’s eyes. “You’ve been sick?”

Kahlan drew her shoulders up. “Sometimes.”

“You should’ve said something,” Cara said accusingly. Her tone was still hard, her body language reserved. She was angry and sarcastic and that usually only happened when she was scared. Well, good for her. Kahlan was scared too.

“I am saying something now!”

“Said something to Zedd,” Cara clarified.

“Why would I go to Zedd?” Kahlan demanded. “Then I’d have to tell him what I’m telling you, and that would start a whole mess—” She stopped dead, staring. It had all suddenly clicked into place. This wasn’t about a possible baby—not really. Cara wasn't scared of being a mother because Cara honestly didn't think it was possible. She was pulling away, putting up a wall, because in her mind if Kahlan was pregnant, then it was somebody else’s. Richard’s, most likely, and it didn’t matter what Kahlan said to the contrary. She could see it from Cara’s perspective now, like someone had dropped Cara-spectacles over her eyes. If Kahlan expected her to be able to entertain the possibility that a child could be hers then Cara would take that as a sign that Kahlan thought she was gullible. Or stupid. Or both. And there wasn’t anything Kahlan could say to convince her otherwise. In Cara’s mind it was Richard’s baby, which meant there was no room for her anymore. She needed to step aside and make way for a family to be established. Cara had suddenly found herself removed from the picture, which meant all ties needed to be severed, and quickly. Kahlan took a deep breath. “I know you won’t believe me, and I know you won’t ask him to make sure, but I have not slept with Richard.” Kahlan paused, letting that sink in. Cara’s lips were tight as she glared pointedly over Kahlan’s head. “Not once, Cara.”

Cara shook her head, and Kahlan could see the barely contained hurt simmering in her eyes. She was right; Cara didn’t believe her.

“I can’t go to Zedd,” Kahlan continued. “He’ll assume the same thing you are, and Richard will know it’s not his, and then all of this will blow up in our faces. So I made an appointment with a midwife for tomorrow afternoon. She’ll be able to tell me for sure if I’m pregnant.” She hesitated. “I don’t…I don’t really want to go alone.”

She waited, willing Cara to look at her. Cara kept her eyes defiantly on everything but Kahlan.

“Fine,” Kahlan snapped. “I can do it myself.” She turned on her heel and stalked away, half hoping Cara would call after her, half hoping she would just let Kahlan be angry.

Cara did not make a sound. 


 

Richard was waiting for her when she opened the door to the inn. He was leaning against a wall, and when he saw her enter he leapt towards her with the exuberance of a puppy.

“You’re back!”

Kahlan bit back a sarcastic retort and forced a smile. Stalking back to the inn had not cooled her temper one bit, and she was in serious danger of taking it out on Richard. “I’m back.

“Usually you’re out all day exploring,” Richard said.

“I’m tired.”

Richard nodded slowly. Kahlan was aware of his brown eyes searching her face, and she was immediately on guard.

“Do you mind if we talk?” he asked.

She shrugged, then shook her head no, careful to make sure her face didn’t betray her frustration. First Cara, now Richard. She didn’t have the patience for two emotionally draining conversations in one day, and Richard definitely had an air of seriousness about him that he didn’t normally carry.

“Upstairs?”

“Sure.”

Kahlan led the way. She was on the seventh step, the upper landing looming, when she remembered where she’d left the key to her room.

On Cara’s nightstand.

Right next to the Rada’Han.

She felt the prickle of nervous sweat as she continued to climb. Please go to his room, she pleaded. Please go to his room…

Richard pulled his key from his pocket when they reached the top step, and Kahlan felt relief lift from her shoulders like a physical weight. He held the door open for her, and she entered and stood awkwardly at the foot of the bed.

The bolt turned in the lock with a dull clunk. Richard turned and sat on the bed. After a moment’s hesitation, Kahlan did the same. She was uneasy, which was ridiculous, she scolded herself, because it was Richard and if nothing else, she and Richard were friends. But she had no control over this conversation he wanted to have—had no idea what he wanted to talk about, even—and being unprepared made her nervous. She picked at the bedspread, waiting for him to start. She knew she was fidgeting and that fidgeting made her look guilty, but she couldn’t seem to sit still.

“So,” Richard began slowly, “Darken Rahl.”

Kahlan stopped. Rahl? He wanted privacy to talk about Rahl? “What about him?”

“He’s in charge of D’Hara now.”

Kahlan was silent, not sure where Richard was heading.

“How do you feel about that?”

Kahlan thought for a moment. How did she feel about a man who’d killed thousands and wanted to wage war on the Midlands being back in power? How did she feel about a man who had tried to kill them countless times being back in a position to do so? She met Richard’s gaze squarely. “I couldn’t be more displeased.”

Richard sighed and ran a hand through his hair—he needed a trim, Kahlan noted absently. “I was afraid of that,” he mumbled.

“What did you think I was going to say?”

“Exactly what you said.” Richard sat forward, balancing his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor. “But I was kind of hoping you’d be okay with it.”

“Why?”

“Because if you were okay with it, then we could have gone to Aydindril. Now it looks like we’re headed back to D’Hara.”

Kahlan did not move. To nod, to say anything, that would pin her to Richard’s plans, and tomorrow might force her to break her word. She was sworn to help the Seeker in his quest, but if she was pregnant…well, she wasn’t going to follow him back to D’Hara and put them all in even more danger. The one thing Rahl had been fixated on, the one thing he knew would give him ultimate control, was the power of a Confessor. And if she walked into D’Hara pregnant then she would practically be offering him a Confessor that he could mold and control from infancy.

She would not take that risk.

Richard had obviously expected Kahlan to agree. He looked up. “What is it?”

“Aydindril,” she said quietly. “Someone needs to let the Mother Confessor know that Rahl is back. Preferably before he raises an army and attacks.”

Richard blinked. He saw what she meant—she knew he could, she could see it in his eyes, yet he shook his head. “Okay, then. I guess we’re going to Aydindril.”

“Richard…” Kahlan sighed heavily. “You shouldn’t waste any time. You should go to D’Hara.”

“I can’t go without you.”

Kahlan offered him a weak smile. “Divide and conquer,” she quipped. “You’ll have Zedd and Cara—”

“Kahlan. You can’t go alone.”

“It needs to be done.”

“Then we’ll do it together.”

Kahlan folded her hands in her lap and examined her thumbnails. She said nothing. She did not want to leave. She wanted to stay with Richard and help him get rid of Rahl once and for all, but if the midwife looked at her tomorrow and said ‘Congratulations’, well…

Better to get Richard used to the idea now.

“None of this needs to be decided now,” Richard said.

“No. But you know I’m right.”

It was Richard’s turn to be silent and stare at his hands.

“I’m not saying we have to say goodbye forever,” Kahlan said. She bumped his shoulder fondly. “We just…we have different responsibilities right now.”

Richard nodded glumly. “So if I came to Aydindril after…”

“I’d be happy to see you.” It was the wrong thing to say. Kahlan knew it as soon as it had left her mouth. But it was too late, Richard was already turning her choice of words over in his head and there was no way she could make it sound better.

“Happy,” Richard repeated quietly.

Kahlan cringed inwardly. “Of course.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

Richard turned his head towards Kahlan and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Where were you last night?”

Kahlan felt her stomach drop unpleasantly. Instinct flattened her face, keeping her emotions from betraying her guilt. “Last night when?” she asked. She was amazed at her own ability to sound calm.

“When you said you were going to bed and then you didn’t go to your room.”

You mean when I snuck down the hall and climbed into Cara’s bed to wait for her? That when? “I’m not sure. Maybe I was in the washroom.”

“And the night before?”

Kahlan’s stomach twisted. Over the past week she’d become intimately familiar with the feeling of nausea, and it plagued her now. “Richard—”

“If you’re avoiding me I’d rather you just tell me,” Richard said quietly. His shoulders were hunched, like he was already prepared to hear the worst.

Kahlan shook her head. She hadn’t been avoiding Richard—not actively, anyway. But now that she thought about it—

“I get up in the morning and you’ve left the inn already,” Richard continued. “You’re gone all day shopping and exploring and then you come back and you eat dinner and you go to bed and I feel like…I feel like I don’t see you anymore.”

“It’s…an adjustment,” Kahlan said. It sounded like a lame excuse even to her own ears. “We’ve just gone from being with each other every day to…” she trailed off. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking…” she squeezed his forearm gently to emphasize her words. “I’m sorry.”

“I understand.” Richard sat up and covered her hand with his own. He gave her a small smile. “We went from saving the world to having nothing to do in the blink of an eye. We’re all entitled to a little downtime.”

Kahlan nodded, but inside a flame of rebellion had suddenly reared up and flared its neck like a cobra. Why was Richard supposed to be her next priority? What gave him the right to demand her time and then complain that she wasn’t paying him enough attention? If she’d wanted to spend time with him she would have made an effort to do so. Yes, it had been sloppy of her to spend so much time with Cara, but the fact remained that Cara was who she’d wanted to spend her days with. And for Richard to whine about it…well, she had a hard time not telling him ‘It’s your own fault’. It was a thought born out of pettiness and irritation—it wasn’t at all Richard’s fault that he’d fallen to the wayside. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. Kahlan had simply come to realize some things about herself and what she actually wanted. Richard fit the mold of what she should want, but he was a storybook hero: not as appealing in real life as he was between the pages.

“There’s this festival tomorrow,” Richard was saying, snapping Kahlan out of her brooding. “The Dew Festival. The innkeeper was telling me about it. There’s a special type of fern that grows around here and it starts to…well, bloom, I guess, after the solstice. The top is green and the underside is silver, and every year a bunch of the villagers go out and try to find the first one and bring back a frond to the town square wins.”

“Wins what?”

Richard grinned. “Nothing. Just wins. I was wondering if you’d like to do it with me.”

“I…I can’t,” Kahlan said haltingly, and Richard’s face fell.

“Why not?”

“Because…” I’m going to see a midwife. Kahlan thought fast. “Cara…has this…thing. And she asked me to go with her.”

Richard’s brow furrowed. “What thing? Where are you going?”

“To see…a healer.”

Richard looked even more confused. “Why doesn’t she just ask Zedd?”

“It’s, ah…it’s a lady healer. For lady…stuff,” Kahlan finished lamely.

Richard drew back, obviously uncomfortable with the subject now that he’d connected the dots. “Oh,” he said. “Okay. Uh…” he rubbed the back of his head and ducked his head, but not before Kahlan saw his cheeks begin to redden. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, no,” Richard said quickly. “I understand. You…go and…

Kahlan patted his arm, saving him from having to try to finish his sentence. “Maybe the next day we can think of something to do together,” she offered, feeling bad for turning him down and lying and even worse for already thinking she wasn’t looking forward to whatever he might think up. You’re friends, she reminded herself sternly. But Richard thought they were more, and that made spending time with him grating. Briefly she considered telling him the truth, but the thought was gone before it gained any real momentum in her mind. She couldn’t just spring it on him.  That wasn’t at all fair.

“I’d like that,” Richard said, and Kahlan wished for her own peace of mind that he didn't sound so earnest.


 

Cara slammed into Kahlan’s room an hour later. The door bounced off of the wall and flew back at her, and Cara caught it smoothly with the flat of her hand. Her lips were thin and white with rage, her nostrils flared.

Kahlan shot upright in bed and immediately lost her page in the book she’d been reading. “Bags, Cara, what are you—”

“Lady healer?!?” Cara seethed through clenched teeth, “I have a lady healer to see tomorrow?!?”

“No,” Kahlan said slowly, thumbing the hard edge of her book, “I do.”

Cara fired a finger at Kahlan. “I told you no—”

“No, actually, you didn’t. What you actually said was nothing.”

“—and now you’re trying to corner me into going with you—”

“Cara.”

“—after I made it perfectly clear—”

“Cara, stop!” Kahlan shouted. Her temper, normally lenient and enduring, had already reached the end of its fuse.

Cara stopped. Her shoulders were heaving with barely controlled rage and her index finger was still pointing rigidly at Kahlan’s face, but she stopped.

“I needed a good excuse about why I couldn’t spend the afternoon with Richard tomorrow and I couldn’t exactly tell him that the lady healer was actually for me, so please. Shut up and go along with it.” Kahlan lay back and opened her book, expecting to hear the door slam as Cara exited.

Cara didn’t move. “I’m not going.”

“Who said you had to?”

“You did, when you told Richard you and I were going to a healer together!”

Kahlan lifted her book and stared. “I’m confused. Are you going with me or not?”

“Not.”

Kahlan dropped the book back onto her chest.

“You got me into this mess,” Cara continued, her voice warm with anger, “now what do I tell Richard when he asks me where you are and why I’m not with you?”

“Whatever you want.”

Cara snorted. “For somebody who’s so worried about keeping her secret, you sure aren’t worried about getting caught.”

“You can leave now.”

Cara didn’t move. “I told you—”

Kahlan threw the book across the room. It hit the far wall with a hollow thunk and left a blue skid on the white paint. “I know what you told me!” she snapped. She sat up, facing Cara head on. “I know! Okay? I know you don’t want any part of this and I know you don’t care or that you won’t care or whatever’s going on in your head. I heard you loud and clear, and I have enough to worry about without you barging into my room to remind me of just how alone I am right now, because believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about it all fucking day, Cara!”

Cara glared, her eyes tiny slits, but she didn’t say anything, and after a moment Kahlan felt the anger evaporate from her body. Suddenly she was exhausted. Her head fell forward and her shoulders slumped. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“You could have told Richard,” Cara began, and Kahlan interrupted her with a heavy sigh.

“If I’m pregnant then it’s not his,” she said tiredly. She shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe I’m not pregnant at all. Maybe there’s something else wrong.” Maybe she was fooling herself, saying it was a baby. Maybe Cara was right and it was impossible and she was just living in denial.

“Something wrong like what?” Cara asked. The anger was gone from her voice, replaced by tentative concern that should have made Kahlan mad, to see how fast Cara could flip between the two, but all she felt was sad. She shrugged again.

“I don’t know. Something.”

“Like you could be sick?”

“I don’t feel sick.”

“But you could be.”

It was possible. Kahlan nodded slowly. She could feel Cara’s eyes on the top of her head, staring.

“You’re scared,” Cara said quietly, and it wasn’t a question.

Kahlan didn’t move. It was as good as an answer.

She heard Cara’s feet scuff closer, then she stopped and moved back. She heard the door creak as it moved. Then:

“I’ll go with you.”

She didn’t say it like she’d changed her mind and wanted to go. She said it like she’d been involved in hostile negotiations and had been forced to cede something vital.

But she’d said it.

Cara closed the door without saying another word, and Kahlan cried.

Chapter Text

The midwife was a plump, pudgy woman with a brown face and wiry grey hair barely contained by a sun-bleached kerchief. She was delighted to see Kahlan, overjoyed to meet Cara, and all around pleased as Punch that Kahlan might be expecting.

She said the word like it was a candy on her tongue, like there was nothing better in the world than to be expecting. “Perfectly natural to be nervous,” she’d told Kahlan when neither Kahlan nor Cara had joined in with their own squinty faced smiling, and Cara was tempted to ask if it was natural to feel revulsion, just to see if it would stop the midwife’s happy fluttering. She said nothing, though, mainly because she hadn’t said a single word since leaving Kahlan’s room the night before. Not at dinner, not a breakfast, and not on the walk to the midwife’s house. She wasn’t sure whom she was punishing with her silence but she thought it was Kahlan and that was good enough.

The midwife ushered Kahlan toward a cot loaded with pillows and insisted she sit. Cara pressed herself against the wall, as far away from Kahlan as she could possibly get, and fixed her eyes on the ceiling. Being present did not mean she had to be involved. She was an escort. She was doing what Richard had asked her to do. She was making sure Kahlan was safe and that was as far as her obligations extended.

It’s not Richard’s.

Her stomach rolled unpleasantly. It was Richard’s. It had to be, and every time Cara reminded herself of that she felt like she’d been kicked. It was her own fault for tearing down walls.

“So you’ve missed a few cycles, have you?” The midwife dropped a pinch of something into a mortar and began cheerfully grinding it with a wooden pestle.

“Two.” Kahlan fidgeted. “Actually, it’s probably closer to three now.”

“Been feeling nauseous?”

“Yes.”

“Gotten sick?”

“A bit.”

Cara shifted uncomfortably. She’d heard the symptoms already, but she didn’t appreciate the reminder that Kahlan hadn’t been feeling well and that she had failed to notice. She, who prided herself on noticing everything, had been completely unaware.

“And obviously you’ve been up to no good.” The midwife winked. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have even thought ‘baby’.

Kahlan hesitated. Her eyes flicked to Cara and Cara looked back at the ceiling.

“I…yes.”

“Who could blame you, pretty young thing like you?” The midwife chuckled and set the mortar on a small wooden table at the head of Kahlan’s cot. The table was littered with bottles and jars and cups, and the midwife rummaged through the mess before lifting a small glass cup from the middle of the table. “Here we are.” She handed the cup to Kahlan. “Hope you’ve got a full bladder.”

Cara watched as Kahlan examined the cup. “Am I supposed to…?” Kahlan blushed. “You know. Go? In this thing?”

“You are indeed.” The midwife beamed. “Fastest way to see if you’re pregnant. Pee in the cup and drop in some semola pulp.” She pointed. “Lavatory’s just there.”

Kahlan stood and slowly closed the lavatory door behind her.

“What about you?” The midwife picked up her mortar again and began happily grinding away, her smile now aimed at Cara. “Want to pee in a cup? Make sure you’re not pregnant?”

Cara stared at her. The woman’s smile didn’t falter.

“No.”

“You sure? You never know.” The midwife winked.

Cara blew a sharp breath out of her nose in irritation. She propped one heel against the wall and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m sure.”

“No fella for you, huh?”

Cara clenched her teeth.

Kahlan needed to hurry up.

“No fella is just as well these days—look at me, my husbands been gone for six years now and I’m doing just fine on my own. Course, some nights it gets lonely, but at the end of the day I’ve only got one mouth to feed and one person to make happy and that’s me. And if I ever get too lonely I guess there’s always good old Roderick. I tell you, he’s a persistent one. Feels like he’s been after me since we were in school together. Course, he left off when I married my Jimmy—he’s good like that, he knew not to push, but when Jimmy died he was right there, saying he’d never stopped lovin’ me. Well, I couldn’t quite believe that. Almost forty years, and this man’s been carrying a torch for me all that time? But you know, love is funny like that. Sometimes—done already?”

Cara turned. Kahlan’s face was bright red as she closed the lavatory door behind her. She held the small glass out to the midwife awkwardly. “Yes. Here.”

The midwife tapped her pestle on the rim of and knocked a small white clump into the glass. She set it on the table and gestured for Kahlan to sit again.

“What does that do?” Kahlan asked.

“If you’re pregnant it’ll turn blue in a few minutes. Lie down, dear, I’m going to press your stomach.”

Kahlan obediently swung her legs onto the cot and slowly leaned back. She was practically vibrating with tension and Cara had to fight the urge to move closer.

She’s a big girl. And you’re mad at her.

She watched the midwife roll her sleeves to her elbows and drag a small stool to the edge of the cot. Kahlan was biting her bottom lip. The index finger of her left hand rubbed at the cuticle of her thumb.

“Are you ready?” the midwife asked kindly. Kahlan nodded jerkily.

Kahlan’s stomach was flat. Impossibly flat for someone who was convinced she was pregnant. Cara watched as the midwife moved her hands across Kahlan’s stomach with confident expertise. She framed Kahlan’s abdomen with both hands and pressed, then traced Kahlan’s stomach from diaphragm to belly button with her right hand. She pressed above Kahlan’s left hip with three fingers—“Does that hurt?” Kahlan shook her head. The midwife pressed the same spot on the right side. “How about there?” Again Kahlan shook her head.

“No cramping?”

“Not for awhile now, no.”

The midwife’s hands stilled. “You’ve been drinking enough water?”

Kahlan didn’t answer. She stared up at the woman, her face blank. “I’m pregnant, aren’t I?” she asked quietly. There was a placid acceptance to her tone, as if she’d already realized it was true.

The midwife smiled fondly. She patted Kahlan’s arm. “I’ll check the semola, but after twenty years I like to think I know what an expanded uterus feels like.”

Kahlan placed her hands on her stomach and spread her fingers slowly. She was staring at the ceiling, looking up but looking in, and the midwife raised the glass. Cara could see the blue tint and suddenly her blood felt too hot for her veins. 

“You are indeed pregnant,” the midwife said. She showed Kahlan the glass. “Congratulations,” she beamed. Kahlan blinked.

“It’s blue.”

“Baby for you,” the midwife rhymed in a singsong voice. She set the glass back on the table and turned to face Cara. “Well? Have anything to say to your friend here, Grumpy?”

Cara started. The midwife was watching her expectantly. Unconsciously, Cara glanced at Kahlan. Kahlan was staring back, her blue eyes dark. She turned her head before Cara could look away, pointedly breaking eye contact. Cara shook her head numbly.

The midwife looked slightly affronted at Cara’s refusal. She turned and helped Kahlan to sit up.  “You’re a little over three months along, I’d say.”

Kahlan nodded slowly. “And everything…” she hesitated, twisting a fold of her dress in her hands. “Everything’s good? Nothing’s…?”

“Well, mother’s healthy. I’d assume baby is too.” The midwife smiled and squeezed Kahlan’s thigh. “You’d have to ask a wizard if you want to know for sure, but I think you’re both perfectly fine.”

Kahlan exhaled heavily. She smiled at the midwife weakly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Should I be doing anything special? Or…not doing anything?”

“Nothing that’s not common sense, I should think. You know your limits better than I do.”

“Should I eat…?”

“Fruits, vegetables—”

“Should she be walking miles everyday?” The question was out, sharp and accusatory, before Cara even realized she was thinking it.

The midwife glanced at Kahlan uncertainly, as if checking to see if it was a question Kahlan wanted answered, but Kahlan was staring back at Cara, her face hard. “I don’t see why not. Though, in a few months, walking won’t really be your favorite—“

“What about stress?”

Kahlan’s eyes narrowed. You don’t care, the look said. You don’t care so why are you asking? “Cara—“

“Do you not want to know?” Cara snapped.

“I’m not stressed,” Kahlan said.

“You might be. Later.”

“I’d avoid stress,” the midwife interjected quickly, “but that’s usually not the nature of stress, now, is it?” she laughed nervously and Kahlan graced her with a small, obligatory smile. She stood and handed the midwife a small coin purse.

“Thank you for your services.”

“My pleasure,” the midwife said. She clasped Kahlan’s hand in both of hers. “If you find yourself in the area in six months and you need a midwife—”

“Yes, thank you, you’re top of the list,” Cara interrupted sharply. She turned and slammed the front door open, not bothering to wait for Kahlan before heading off in the direction of town. She felt Kahlan fall into step behind her after a moment, and despite herself Cara slowed, subtly inviting Kahlan to walk next to her. She felt angry and trapped and the last thing she wanted was to be around Kahlan because she made her feel even more angry and trapped, yet she found herself craving Kahlan’s presence like a drug. It would be better for her if she could cut ties completely, to shut herself off, and Cara couldn’t do it.

Kahlan didn’t take the silent invitation. “That was rude,” she said icily.

“What else did you expect from me?” Cara demanded.

Push. Push and push because if you make her angry enough she might leave and that’s good and if she doesn’t then it proves…

Cara didn’t want to think about what it proved.

“Nothing,” Kahlan said. There was a cool detachedness to the word. It reminded Cara of the way Kahlan used to talk to her, when she was just a Mord-Sith and Kahlan was just a Confessor.

Cara faltered.

“I want to go to a wizard,” Kahlan continued. Evenly. Informatively.

“Of course you do.”

Behind her, Kahlan snorted. “So sorry I want to know who the father of my child is,” she said sarcastically.

Father. Just another subtle reminder that Cara had been stupid to think it was only her—that it could ever only be her—

“You don’t have to come with me,” Kahlan continued, and Cara stopped to face her.

“I’m not letting a Confessor walk into a random wizard’s home and admit to him she’s pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is.”

“You’re so noble, Cara,” Kahlan said. Her sneer cut into Cara’s chest like a blade. The words were insignificant. No, what hurt was the sheer effort Kahlan was putting into appearing cool and unaffected. Now that Cara was looking at her face to face she could see the fear and pain running rampant over Kahlan’s features. She had the sudden urge to apologize, to say something to make it better, but she hesitated and Kahlan moved away. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“You don’t even know were to find a wizard,” Cara reminded her, and Kahlan’s determination seemed to evaporate. Her shoulders slumped and she leaned forward and wrapped her hands around her stomach. She bent her knees and crouched just above the ground.

“I’m pregnant,” she mumbled. She dropped her head forward, letting her hair fall across her face. “Spirits…what am I going to do?”

Cara watched her, confusion sweeping away her anger. “I thought you’d be happy about this.”

Kahlan turned, staring up through her hair at Cara incredulously. “Happy?!?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

Kahlan lifted her head, her blue eyes wide with disbelief. “Are you serious?!?”

“I thought you wanted to be a mother,” Cara said defensively.

“Yes, when I was married and settled! Then I might enjoy being a mother! Now it’s…it’s…” Kahlan trailed off. She closed her eyes and dropped her head again. She brought a hand to her face. Her shoulders were trembling. “I’m not ready to have a child, Cara.”

Cara shifted, uncomfortable and unprepared for her sudden role of comforter.  “Yes, well…you don’t have to be ready right this minute.”

“Six months,” Kahlan said hollowly. “That’s all the time I have.” She dragged her hand through her hair, pulling it away from her face. She looked ragged, exhausted, and Cara felt something pull in the pit of her stomach.

“When will you tell the others?”

“I don’t know.”

Are you going to tell them?”

Kahlan shrugged. She was staring at the ground, the bruises under her eyes even more pronounced in the shadow of her hair. “Maybe. When I find out whose it is.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Cara said, suddenly angry again. “You slept with Richard. Fine, I don’t care. But pretending it was me just so you don’t hurt my feelings?” She snorted derisively.

“I didn’t sleep with Richard,” Kahlan said tiredly. She reached out and traced the dirt between pebbles embedded in the road with her finger. “I tried. When we stayed in Tanimura, I tried. I couldn’t do it. I saw you with that man at the bar and I just…” She shook her head and Cara felt her blood heating. “I wanted to sleep with him,” Kahlan continued, “and then we started—didn’t even start, actually,” she said, laughing hollowly. “I wasn’t even undressed yet. I told him the Rada’Han hurt me and he stopped. Right away, he stopped.” Kahlan laughed again—tried to, at least, but it broke abruptly into a sob. “I’m horrible,” she said brokenly.

“You’re not horrible.”

“I am,” Kahlan insisted. She was crying. Cara could see wet spots appearing on the dry dirt beneath her as her tears fell from her eyes. “He’s a good man and I’ve been lying to him.” She sniffed and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. “He deserves better. He deserves better than me.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“I should. But I won’t.” She looked up at Cara. Her eyes were bloodshot and red. “Do you know why?”

Cara shook her head slowly.

“Because I’m a coward, that’s why. Because I’m terrified of seeing the look on his face.” Kahlan sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “And don’t stand there and act like you’re not scared, either.”

Cara stiffened. “Of Richard? Of course not.”

Kahlan snorted. Her sadness had morphed suddenly into anger. “Please. You might act like you don’t care what anyone thinks of you, but you do. You care about what Richard thinks.”

“I don’t—”

“He gave you a chance,” Kahlan continued. She straightened so that she and Cara were eye to eye. “He believed you could change before anybody else, and you don’t want to let him down. You act like you’re just doing it because he’s the Lord Rahl, but I know: you’re scared of disappointing him.”

Cara clenched her teeth. “You can’t read a Mord-Sith.”

“Where are your leathers, Cara?” Kahlan taunted, “Where are your agiels?” She flicked her gaze over Cara with savage annoyance. “You’re not a Mord-Sith anymore. You’ve just been pretending you are. And I can read you like a book.”

“You can’t,” Cara seethed, but there was a prickle of unease that ran up the back of her neck.

“Oh yes I can,” Kahlan taunted. “I know that the whole reason you refuse to believe you might have had some part in getting me pregnant is because you’re scared.”

“Scared?” Cara scoffed. “I’m not scared.”

“No, you’re right,” Kahlan agreed. “Scared’s not the right word. You’re terrified.”

“Really.” Cara’s anger was simmering, ready to burst.

“Really.”

“Of what?” Cara demanded.

Kahlan shrugged. “Of everything.”

Cara seethed. “I’m trying to help you—”

“No, you’re not. You’re trying to get away from me as fast as you can, and the best way to do that is to make me mad enough to push you away.” Kahlan took a deep breath. She closed her eyes for a moment, and Cara had the sudden urge to clap her hands over her ears to keep from hearing what Kahlan had to say next. “I’m going to find a wizard,” she said. “You might not want to know but I do. So.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and it wasn’t a simple gesture anymore. It was protective, it was a reminder that it was real, there was a child growing inside of Kahlan, and Cara couldn’t look at her any longer. “You think it’s not yours,” Kahlan said quietly, “and I think it is. And I’m sorry if that…if that feels like too much. I understand if it does.” Cara saw Kahlan reach for her. There had to be something wrong with her, that she craved the contact as much as she did. Kahlan dropped her hand without touching Cara. “I don’t expect anything from you.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Cara demanded.

Kahlan shrugged tiredly. “Exactly what it sounds like. Please, I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“It makes me sound incompetent.”

“That’s not what I meant. I just meant…I don’t want you to be scared that I’m suddenly going to expect things from you. Marriage or being around to raise it, that sort of thing. I’m capable. I can do it on my own.”

It was meant to reassure, but it still left Cara feeling…she wasn’t sure, exactly. Offended? But that didn’t make sense. She wanted to be abdicated of responsibility. Kahlan had given her permission to do exactly that, and yet something within her resisted. Maybe it was because it sounded a bit like a challenge, like Cara couldn’t do it, even if she wanted to, that annoyed her. 

Kahlan turned and slowly started toward town again. “I’m tired. I need to sleep.”

“It’s midday.”

“And I’m tired,” Kahlan said crossly.

“What about the wizard?”

“Now you’re interested?”

“Interested in proving you wrong? Yes.”

Kahlan snorted. She flipped her hand at Cara dismissively. “Then you find one.”

Chapter Text

A wizard wasn’t nearly as hard to find as Cara had thought.

She asked the innkeeper if he knew of any wizards living in the area or in the surrounding towns. The question was barely out of her mouth before he pointed toward the bar.

“Not my wizard,” Cara clarified.

“Nope.” The innkeeper leaned against the counter. He rolled a toothpick to the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Bartleby Ba’el Bosinder, Wizard of the Third Order. Comes every year for the festival. Gets drunk, sets a bunch of sparkling lights off, usually gets naked in the town square, threatens to turn people into rabbits when they tell him to go to bed.”

“Wonderful.”

“Eh.” The innkeeper sucked his teeth noisily. “Maybe he’ll behave himself. He knows he’s not the only wizard in town this time.”

“He’s at the bar?”

“Bought himself a keg.”

Bartleby Ba’el Bosinder looked like a younger version of Zedd. Same long robe, same shaggy long hair, (though his was still brown,) same penchant for sloppy drinking while entertaining the locals with ridiculous stories. Cara swept her hand across the bar, flicking a puddle of ale against Bartleby’s back and drawing his attention away from the farmer sitting on his right. Bartleby turned, his cheeks puffed with a mouthful of drink. His eyes brightened when he saw Cara, and he dragged his hand across the foam mustache gathered on his upper lip.

“You’re a wizard?” Cara asked.

Bartleby swallowed noisily and muffled a burp behind closed lips. He held out his foamy hand. “Bartleby Ba’el Bo—”

“Yes, I’ve heard, thank you,” Cara interrupted, pointedly ignoring the hand.

Unruffled, Bartleby clapped her on the shoulder. “How can I help you, young lady?” He smiled jovially. His pupils were small and his breath was saturated with alcohol.

Cara lifted his hand from her shoulder delicately with two fingers and placed it on the bar. “If someone had an issue of parentage...” she began slowly.

Bartleby frowned. “I don’t quite follow.”

“Is there a spell that will tell someone who the father of their child is?”

Bartleby blinked. He looked at her stomach and frowned, then leaned away as if Cara had suddenly burst into flames.

“I’m not asking for me,” she said crossly.

“They never are,” Bartleby said condescendingly. He took another sip of ale.

Cara stared at him until he began squirming uncomfortably on his stool.

 “Yes. Right.” Bartleby cleared his throat. “There is a spell for that. It’s a bit like a scrying spell, fairly simple—”

“So you know how to do it.”

Bartleby straightened and puffed his chest. “Of course I know how to do it,” he said haughtily.

“So if I brought the person with this particular problem to meet you, you could do the spell?”

The haughtiness evaporated. “Well, I…” Bartleby hesitated. His eyes flicked toward the barrels of ale stacked behind the bar. “I don’t exactly come to the festival to work, you see, and there is a wizard of the First Order around somewhere you could—”

“So you don’t know how to do it.”

“I most certainly do!” Bartleby protested.

“So what’s the problem?”

“Simply that I’d rather attend the festival than—”

“I thought it was an easy spell.”

“It is—”

“So it’s a simple spell that will take you all night?” Cara was not going to let him say no. She couldn’t imagine finding another wizard anytime soon. It was a situation that would most certainly push Kahlan toward Zedd, and Cara was not going to let that happen.

Bartleby was frowning, obviously struggling to express himself despite the ale clouding his brain. “No—”

“I still don’t see what the problem is.”

“It’s not a matter of ability, it’s…” Bartleby rubbed his face, his exasperation obvious. He sighed. “Yes. Alright. Fine.” He dropped his hand, slapping the edge of the bar. “I’ll do it.”

“Good.” Cara slid off of her stool. “I’ll be back”

“Wait, wait, wait—” Bartleby snagged her arm before Cara could move away. “You’ll need to bring some things with you.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for starters, the pregnant party.”

“Done.”

“And a lock of hair from each…” Bartleby hesitated. “Well, for lack of a better word, from each of the suspects.”

Cara pulled her arm from Bartleby’s grip. “Fine.”

“And you owe me a drink.”

Cara snorted. “Don’t push your luck.” 


 

Kahlan didn’t open the door when Cara knocked. She tried twisting the knob, testing her luck. Locked. Cara knocked again. “Kahlan,” she muttered into the crack of the door,  “I found a wizard.”

She heard rustling on the other side of the door before it swung open. Kahlan was barefoot, wearing only her slip, her legs elegantly long and tan against the slip’s whiteness. The blankets on the bed were thrown back and Kahlan’s hair was tousled on the right side, the way it only ever was when she’d just woken up.

Kahlan squinted at Cara suspiciously. “Already?”

“He’s in town for the festival,” Cara said, forcing herself to keep her eyes on Kahlan’s face and not steal any lower. “He said it’s a simple spell. He needs you and a lock of hair from any potential fathers.”

Kahlan stepped back, letting Cara into the room. “Are you going to cut me a piece of hair quietly, or is that going to be a fight, too?” She closed the door behind Cara and lifted her dress from a hook on the back of the door. She stepped into it briskly, like she’d been summoned to battle and was donning her armor.

Cara sat on the edge of the bed and pulled a knife from the cuff of her boot. Without a word she pinched a small tuft of hair between her thumb and forefinger and pressed the blade against it. It sliced easily and Cara held the blonde lock out to Kahlan, trying her hardest to appear indifferent. Kahlan took it slowly, and Cara knew she was being careful to not brush their fingers together. Why would she want to? This was not something to unite them. This was a permanent severance, and any unnecessary contact could only serve to make the inevitable all the more painful.

“It’s Richard you should be worried about,” Cara said. She dropped her hand into her lap and rolled her fingers, removing the few strands of hair that had stuck to her skin. “I don’t think you can talk him into a hair cut.”

“No, probably not,” Kahlan said slowly. She tilted her hand, catching the sunlight filtering into the room on the severed tips of Cara’s hair.

“Kahlan?”

Kahlan lifted her eyebrows, indicating she was listening and had heard, though she was still obviously distracted by the hair she held between her fingers. “I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“About if I want to try it with just your hair first or not.”

Cara balked. “No. If you try, I’m not telling you where the wizard is. You either get Richard’s hair or we’re not doing this at all.”

“Fine. Wait one minute.” Kahlan slipped out of the room, leaving Cara alone with her thoughts, a position she had grown to dislike even more than usual in the past few days. She needed to know once and for all. She needed Kahlan to admit that it wasn’t hers—needed to see the die land on Richard. Then she could finally start erecting walls again. She’d need to do it quickly—when did pregnant women start showing? Four months? Five? Probably soon. The faster she could cut herself off emotionally the better. Then the physical reminder that Kahlan belonged to someone else in some integral, impregnable way wouldn’t be able to touch her.

Kahlan knocked and pushed the door open, both fists clenched. “I have it. Are you ready?”

Cara stood. “How?”

“He shaved this morning. I scraped his washbasin.” She opened her hand. A collection of dark, disorderly hairs littered her palm. “If it’s not good enough, then…” Kahlan shrugged. “Someone’s going to have to go find him and get creative.”

“A hair is a hair,” Cara said. Bartleby hadn’t specified a length. A fleck of a chin hair couldn’t be that different from a long hair pulled from Richard’s head.

“Yes, but maybe we’ll need more than this.” Kahlan stopped short. “Maybe you should go in his room and wipe the basin too, just in case—”

“No.” Cara prodded Kahlan in the back, pushing her towards the head of the stairs. “No way in hell.”

“It’s just hair, Cara,” Kahlan said, pushing back against her hand teasingly, “are you afraid of hair?” and for a moment they were back in the forest, walking next to each other, teasing and poking on their way to defeat the Keeper and everything was easy. Then Cara blinked and reality came crashing down. She dropped her hand and they descended the stairs in silence.

“Hopefully he’s still in the bar and not running around naked,” Cara said. Kahlan glanced at her questioningly. Cara shrugged. “Apparently he likes to party.”

“Great.” Kahlan stopped short at the entrance to the bar. “Please tell me that’s not him.”

Cara winced. Bartleby was lying on the floor, his arms spread eagle, his mouth open as ale poured from a barrel onto his face. Several of the bars patrons were similarly wet faced as they watched, shouting encouragement and pounding their fists on any available surface they could find that made substantial noise. She strode forward by way of answer and jammed her thumb into the cork hole, cutting off the flow of ale. Bartleby sat up a moment later, spluttering and wiping his face with his too-long sleeves.

“Cheater!” he roared, “Just ‘cause I was close—” he spotted Cara and snapped his mouth shut.

“Bartleby,” she said. She lifted an eyebrow. “Having fun?”

“Well, you know…all work and no play…”

“Who has the cork?” Cara asked, directing the question to the room in general. After a moment’s hesitation a bald man stepped forward and held out a knife, the tip of which was embedded in the barrel’s cork. Cara jammed it home knife and all, then grabbed Bartleby by the collar of his robe and hauled him to his feet. “Real quick, Bartleby, and then we’ll leave you to your drinking,” she promised. She steered him toward the darkest corner of the bar and pushed him solidly into one of the few upturned chairs. She lifted a small round table from the floor and put it in front of Bartleby, who immediately leaned against it for support.

Kahlan was watching Bartleby warily as Cara collected two more chairs. “You’re sure about this?”

“He says he can do it.”

“You the pregnant party?” Bartleby demanded.

Kahlan sat slowly. “Yes.”

Bartleby swept his hands broadly. “Never fear, my dear. It’s a simple spell, a very simple spell; take me no time at all. Easy as pie!”

Cara sat next to Kahlan. She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Easy enough you can do it if you’re drunk?”

Bartleby closed his eyes. “I could do it drunk and in my sleep,” he slurred.

“That’s not necessary,” Kahlan said.

Bartleby kept his eyes closed.

“You’ve proven your point,” Cara growled. “Quit making me want to hit you.”

Bartleby pried his eyes open with obvious difficultly. He slapped his hands on the table. “Drop ‘em.”

“Drop what?” Kahlan asked.

“The hairs,” Bartleby said condescendingly, as if it should have been completely obvious.

Kahlan set Cara’s blonde hair on the table, then ran her index finger over her left palm carefully, trying to make a small pile of Richard’s hair. Not that it mattered; the second they left her palm his hairs were invisible, too dark and too small to be picked up amidst the grain of the wooden table.

“You can’t tell—” Kahlan began. Bartleby interrupted her with a wet raspberry.

“Doesn’t matter, it’s there.” He crooked his fingers at Kahlan.

“What?”

“Come closer.”

Kahlan hesitated. She glanced at Cara.

“For what?” Cara asked.

“I gotta touch the belly,” Bartleby said. Again, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Kahlan scraped her chair closer. Bartleby dropped his hand onto her stomach. He gave a low whistle.

“Woo. You are pregnant!

“Yes, we know,” Cara said crossly. “Not what we’re here for.”

Bartleby squinted at her. Cara drummed her fingers against her arm. Bartleby reached inside the neck of his robe and fishing until he produced a bronze, pointed amulet on the end of a long chain with a drunken flourish. “Ta-da!”

Kahlan leaned back in her chair and made eye contact with Cara. “I’d really feel better about this if he were sober.”

“No!” Bartleby protested, shaking his head emphatically. “I can do this. I promise.”

Hesitantly, Kahlan leaned forward again.

“Ready?” Bartleby asked.

“Ready.”

He spread his long fingers, covering almost the entirety of Kahlan’s stomach with his right hand. In his left he held the amulet aloft, circling it gently above the hair sitting innocuously on the table.

“It’ll take a few seconds,” Bartleby said. His words slurred slightly but he was studying the amulet with serious intent. “It’ll land on whichever hair belongs to the person who completes the connection between mother and child.” No sooner had he finished speaking than the amulet snapped down, hitting the table with a solid thunk. “The blonde one!” Bartleby crowed. He brought his hands up victoriously obviously expecting Kahlan and Cara to join in his jubilation. Cara could feel Kahlan’s eyes on her, waiting, and Cara stood so quickly she knocked her chair over. He was drunk. He’d messed it up. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t possible.

“Cara?” Kahlan said quietly. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. She spun on her heel and kicked her chair out of the way. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Air. She needed air. She heard Kahlan apologizing to Bartleby as she stalked away, heard Bartleby petition Kahlan for a drink, couldn’t quite make out Kahlan’s response as she shoved open the doors to the inn’s main room.

The sky had gone orange as the sun approached early evening. Cara burst onto the inn’s porch and fell against the rail, gasping desperately. She gripped the wood so tightly it pinched her palms.

“Cara?” Kahlan said. Cara heard her step onto the porch behind her carefully, like she was approaching a wild animal. Maybe she was.

Cara felt Kahlan’s hands skirt over her shoulders hesitantly. Cara shrugged her off and pushed away from the railing, moving away from the entrance toward the far right edge of the porch.

“Please don’t walk away from me.” Kahlan grabbed her arm. Cara jerked it away. Her head felt tight. She grabbed the rail again and dropped her chin, breathing raggedly through her nose.

“Cara, talk to me,” Kahlan pleaded.

Cara shook her head and said the only complete thought she’d been able to form: “It’s not possible.”

“He said—”

“No, I don’t care what he said!” Cara spun and Kahlan shrank away. She could feel her anger bubbling over, knew it was written all over her face, but she was eons beyond controlling it. “I can’t—I cannot…”

Spirits, she couldn’t even say it.

Kahlan’s head was down as she studied her neatly folded hands. “Well, you are,” she said quietly.

“It’s a mistake.”

“Wizards don’t make mistakes.” Kahlan said it with the same quiet calmness, indifferent to Cara’s fury. It made Cara’s vision go dark. She punched the closest support beam for the roof, scraping her knuckles and drawing Kahlan’s attention.

It hurt. It felt good. It focused her.

“Well, that one did!” Cara snapped.

“Should we ask Zedd, then?” Kahlan demanded, the first hint of anger tingeing her words.

Cara pushed away from the rail and jammed a finger at Kahlan’s face. “I swear, Kahlan, if you tell them—“

Kahlan shoved Cara’s hand away crossly. “I’m not telling anyone.”

“This is…” Cara shook her head, trying to gather her thoughts. She was starting sentences without knowing where they were going, talking just to talk because she couldn’t do anything else to quash her anger. “This is wrong. It’s all…we never should have done this.”

“Done what, exactly?”

Cara spread her arms. “Any of it!”

Kahlan stared at her, her mouth parted slightly, two lines etched vertically between her eyebrows. Silence stretched between them, then Kahlan jerked, like she was physically shaking herself, and turned away. “Fine.” She waved a hand back at Cara dismissively. “You’re free.”

What?

Kahlan looked over her shoulder, her face pinched with frustration and anger. “I have far too much respect for myself, Cara, than to try to force someone to care for me.”

“I didn’t ask for this!” Cara shouted.

Kahlan was in her face, standing chest to chest, faster than Cara could blink. “And you think I did?!?” Kahlan challenged, “You think I sat up at night and prayed to the Creator for some magic baby right now, right this minute?!? I don’t want a child anymore than you do, Cara! Maybe less! I’m the one that’s pregnant—” Kahlan jabbed a finger into the center of Cara’s chest, pushing her back a half step. “Not you! I’m the one who has to worry about how much I eat, how far I walk, how hard I fight—”

“Then don’t have it!!!” Cara screamed.

The anger evaporated out of Kahlan in a flash. She blinked and fell back, her blue eyes clouded with hurt. “What?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Cara knew it—knew she should apologize and yet couldn’t bring herself to do so. She barreled on. “Think about it, Kahlan. Someone obviously wants you to have a child. What happens when you do? What sort of evil is going to come crawling out of the woodwork to collect it?” Cara gestured between them. “This is not supposed to happen! Someone is setting us up, and there’s no scenario where that is a good thing!”

“You don’t know that,” Kahlan said, her voice hushed.

“Fine. Let’s say nothing comes to claim it. In six months it’ll be born, and then what? Do you honestly expect me to be a parent figure for it? Me?

Kahlan opened her mouth to answer. Cara didn’t give her the chance.

“I may have had some role to play in causing this whole mess, but if you think I resemble anything close to a parent—”

“Do you think you wouldn’t be a good parent?” Kahlan interrupted, “Is that what this is all about?”

“No, I know that I wouldn’t be, and this is not what this is about! This is about someone using me and you and what we did to achieve whatever sick plans they have!”

Kahlan stared at her, obviously struggling with what she wanted to say next. Finally, she shrugged. “Well. I guess there’s only one way to flush this mystery evil person out,” she said sarcastically.

“You’re going to have it?”

“Yes, Cara, I’m going to have it.” Kahlan snapped. She pointed towards the inn. “Because that wizard told me that this child is ours. Ours,” she repeated emphatically, “Not some evil hybrid someone planted in my womb. However it happened, we made this. Me and you. Even if somebody was acting through us, that doesn’t change the fact that we are its parents.”

Cara shook her head and crossed her arms. “I do not support this decision.”

“I don’t expect you to. But you will respect that it is my decision to make.” Kahlan said with finality. She turned away, making her way back toward the inn’s entrance.

“Fine,” Cara called after her caustically. “And if it’s a boy?”

Kahlan stopped, one hand on the inn’s door handle, her head turned resolutely away from Cara. “Then you don’t want a child anyway.”

 

Chapter Text

Kahlan made it a point to be out of the inn and somewhere—anywhere—with Richard before Cara noticed she was gone. She tried to convince herself that it wasn’t a petty punishment for the way Cara had reacted, but she knew that was how Cara would see it and the thought was extremely satisfying. Richard was more than happy to show her around the Dew Festival, and Zedd was more than happy to tag along with a pint of ale that seemed to be constantly full. He’d collected a number of colorful flower necklaces from some of the local girls—a tradition that Kahlan didn’t understand but Zedd was enthusiastic about, especially since each necklace was bestowed with a kiss on the cheek. 

“This is my kind of festival,” Zedd declared. He held his pint high and turned in a slow circle, saluting the town.

It was certainly more elaborate than Kahlan had first given it credit for. She’d noticed the increase in activity in the town, but she hadn’t expected the festival to completely take over. Everyone was in the streets, dancing, singing, tossing lights that sparked and fizzled into the air. There was a band playing somewhere, and more than a few people were wearing masks and strumming lyres as they moved through the streets. The excitement was infectious, a buzz that made Kahlan’s skin tingle.

“You’re sure we shouldn’t go back for Cara?” Richard asked, leaning close to be heard over the singing and cheering of the festivalgoers.

Kahlan shook her head. Why did everything always have to come back to Cara? “She’s fine. She’ll find us if she wants to.” She grabbed Richard’s hand. “Come on. I want to dance.”

Richard followed Kahlan happily to the town square, where an area for dancing had been roped off and illuminated by several gas lanterns suspended from posts. There were no steps to follow, just a mass of people moving in pairs clockwise around the circle, and Richard and Kahlan slipped in easily. There were no specific songs, no breaks in the music, just a seamless shift between melodies that required Kahlan to focus on her feet and the dancers around her and not, for once, on the way her day had gone.

“She found us,” Richard shouted over the music. He nodded over Kahlan’s shoulder, and Kahlan twisted to follow his gaze. Another dancer blocked her view.

“Cara?”

Richard leaned close. “She’s talking to Zedd.”

Kahlan craned her neck as they spun around again, trying to catch a glimpse of Zedd and Cara in the crowd standing around the dance floor. She saw Zedd first and almost missed Cara. Her hair was pulled back away from her face and it was such a contrast from how Kahlan was used to seeing her that she almost didn’t recognize her. Cara was leaning close to Zedd, speaking into his ear, one hand on his shoulder, and Kahlan had a brief glimpse of Zedd’s forehead furrowed in concentration before she whirled and lost sight of them. When they came around again Zedd and Cara were nowhere to be seen.

“That can’t be good,” Richard laughed, unconcerned.

“No,” Kahlan agreed. She tried to fall into the easy rhythm of dancing again and found it impossible. Trying to ignore Cara had backfired. She should have known better; Cara was much better at being passive aggressive, and Kahlan hated being made to feel like she was on the outside of anything. She let Richard spin her around the dance floor a few more times, but when the band switched the tempo again Kahlan shook her head and tugged him toward the edge. She wasn’t in the mood for dancing anymore.

“Are you hungry?” Richard asked.

Kahlan shook her head. “Thirsty.” She didn’t trust the cooked meats she’d seen being sold on sticks.

Richard left and returned with two pints of ale. Kahlan thanked him and remembered when the liquor touched her tongue that ale wasn’t really an option anymore. She choked and spat and Richard shot her a worried glance.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Kahlan forced out. She wiped her lips and coughed.

“Is it skunky?” Richard reached for the pint. Kahlan pulled away.

“No, it’s fine.” She faked a sip to prove her point. Richard seemed satisfied. He draped an arm over Kahlan’s shoulders as they wandered aimless;y back through the town. It should have been relaxing. It was anything but. She found herself looking for Cara and Zedd in every group of people, straining to see above the crowds of people to catch a glimpse of Zedd’s grey hair.

There was a group of boisterous men gathered in front of a pub, and Kahlan was about to steer Richard away from them when Richard pointed.

“There’s Zedd.”

He was in the center of a group of men, one hand raised high in the air and shouting at the top of his lungs. One of the flowers from his necklaces had found its way behind his left ear.

“What in the name of the Creator is he doing,” Richard laughed. He slipped a hand into Kahlan’s and pulled her behind him. “Zedd!” he shouted.

Zedd looked up. His face didn’t exactly fall, but he certainly didn’t look happy to see them. He pushed past some of the men and spread his arms. “Richard!”

“Zedd, what are you doing?”

“Nothing!” Zedd said with cheerful evasiveness. He placed one hand on Kahlan’s shoulder and one on Richard’s and began subtly yet persistently pushing them away. Richard dug his heels in.

“No, seriously, what’s going on?”

Kahlan leaned to the right, looking past Zedd's arm. “Is that Cara?” she demanded. She twisted out from under Zedd’s hand and shoved her way past a few rowdy men. She’d caught a glimpse of Cara from the shoulders down, her hair tied back and her hands up before her view had been blocked, and Kahlan had the unpleasant feeling that whatever was going on on the other side of the wall of spectators was not going to be ggod.

“It’s not what it looks like!” Zedd called after her desperately.

What it looked like was a bare-knuckle boxing match, and she had a hard time believing Zedd would be able to convince her otherwise.

Cara was shirtless, wearing only a pair of loose, dark brown trousers and a breast band. There was blood running from a cut above her right eyebrow, mixing with a smear of blood that had been wiped from her nose across her cheek. Her feet were bare and her hands were wrapped in white linen, the knuckles of which were stained red and pink. Cara’s arms and legs gleamed with sweat, and the shadows cast by the gas lamps emphasized her lean muscles. Her opponent was a mountain of a man, his face dominated by a massive black beard. He too was shirtless, his torso littered with fist-sized red marks. He was breathing hard, circling with difficulty, and eyeing Cara with glittering black eyes.

“Zedd,” Kahlan said, horrified, “what exactly does she think she’s doing?”

“She’s—”

The bearded man lunged, cutting Zedd off, and Kahlan inhaled sharply as his massive fist shot toward Cara’s jaw. Cara ducked easily and stepped in close, bringing her fist in sharply against his solar plexus. Kahlan heard the man’s breath rush from his lungs and Cara stepped quickly to the side, away from his staggering bulk.

Zedd brought his fingers to his mouth and whistled sharply. He clapped his hands together encouragingly and shouted, “She’s making money, that’s what she’s doing!” He whistled again.

“You bet on her?” Richard demanded.

“You want me to bet on him?!?" Zedd exclaimed, pointing at the man trying to force air back into his lungs.

Richard raised his eyebrows.

"I mean yes. I bet on Cara,” Zedd said quickly, "I bet our money, she wins, we make a substantial profit.”

“When you say our money…” Richard said slowly.

“After three fights she’s tripled our total purse." Zedd smiled and batted his eyes sweetly. "Would you like to cash in now?”

Richard shook his head quickly. “No, no. Carry on.”

“Are you serious?!?” Kahlan demanded. “You’re going to let them keep doing this?!? Look at her! She’s bleeding!”

“Most of that is strategic,” Zedd said. “If she lets them land a few punches they think they can beat her and the odds against her go up.” He rubbed his fingers against his thumbs greedily.

“That man could kill her with one punch!

“Good, Kahlan,” Zedd muttered. “Keep them on his side. If I can get a few more bets—”

“I’m not kidding!” Kahlan shouted. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Cara’s head turn in her direction. She looked just in time to see the man land a glancing blow across Cara’s chin. Her head snapped around and she staggered and Zedd made a desperate hissing noise. The men around them cheered raucously. Kahlan felt her chest constrict. Unconsciously she pressed a hand to her chest. Cara stumbled and regained her balance. She stepped out of the bearded man’s arm range and shook her head once, then brought her hands up to her chin again. She smiled at him wolfishly. Her teeth and lips were stained with blood.

Kahlan sucked in a deep breath, trying to force her heart to beat normally again. “Whose idea was this?”

“It’s part of the festival,” Zedd said. “They don’t usually let girls in, but Cara managed to make someone mad enough—”

“Of course she did,” Kahlan muttered darkly.

Richard squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. “We can leave if you’d like,” he said.

That was the problem. Kahlan didn’t know what she’d like. She wanted Cara to stop but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t want to see Cara hurt, but she knew if she walked away she wouldn’t be able to think about anything else.

“How long is she going to do this?” Kahlan demanded.

“It’s bracketed,” Zedd said. “She’s won four already. Once she knocks this fellow out she’ll get to sit and watch the next two matches. If she wins two more fights she wins the whole thing.”

“And what do you get for winning?”

“100 silver.”

Kahlan stared at him. “That’s nothing.”

“The money is in the betting,” Zedd explained. 

The whole thing was sounding more and more stupid. Kahlan opened her mouth to say so, but in the span of a few seconds both Richard and Zedd were engrossed in the fight. Zedd leaned forward excitedly with each exchange of blows, and when Cara finally knocked the man out with a leaping right hook that caught him with a crack across the upper jaw, Richard threw his arms up in the air and shouted nonsensically.

“Collect!” Zedd shouted. He shoved a water skin in Kahlan’s hands. “That’s for Cara! I’m collecting!”

The crowd clapped politely when Cara’s hand was raised in the air in victory, and only a few of the men looked pleased to see she’d won. The man she’d beaten crawled from the makeshift ring with the help of some of his friends. Cara sauntered toward Kahlan and Richard, grinning cockily.

“Nicely done, Cara,” Richard congratulated her.

“Thank you.” Cara touched two fingers to her bleeding eyebrow, looked at her fingers, sniffed, and wiped the blood on her pants casually. She gestured toward the water skin. “Is that for me?”

Kahlan handed it over stiffly, her jaw clenched with barely controlled anger. Cara took a long drink. Water spilled out the corners of her mouth and trickled down her chest. Kahlan forced herself to look away. She was furious with Cara—now for more than one reason—and yet, slowly but surely, standing in front of a half naked, sweaty Cara was making her blood run hot in a way that had nothing to do with anger. The visual stimulation of Cara’s hard stomach, the pronounced ridges of her hip bones, the engorged veins in her forearms…it was all bringing back tactile memories that Kahlan was having a hard time suppressing. Cara wiped her mouth and shoved the water skin back into Kahlan’s hands. Kahlan fumbled with it awkwardly.

“Zedd said you have two more fights?” Richard asked. Cara nodded. She turned so that she was facing Richard, boxing Kahlan out of their conversation, and Kahlan had the urge to smack Cara across the back of her head. Cara had no reason to be mad. Kahlan had every right, and Cara…well, as far as she was concerned Cara could apologize for her role in the conception.

“Just as long as you don’t lose,” Richard laughed, but he rubbed the back of his head nervously.

“I won’t,” Cara said confidently. “These are all—”

A sharp whistle from above interrupted her. “Hey! Blondie!”

The three of them looked up. Four young women were leaning over the pub’s balcony, their ample breasts straining against their corsets. One of the women wiggled her fingers in Cara’s direction. “How about you come up here and let us take a look at that eye?”

“We’ll take real good care of you,” another chimed in suggestively.

“Yeah, and maybe you can return the favor?”

Cara must have made some sort of hand gesture, because a moment later the women shrieked with glee and began pounding their hands against the railing.

“Oh, you boys better pack it in, because that one can go all night long.” One of the women flopped dramatically against the rail and her compatriots began mock fanning her. They continued to whistle and catcall as the next pair of boxers entered the ring, and a possessive flare of jealousy made Kahlan see red for a moment. She glared at the boxers, then at Cara’s profile, daring her to turn her head and grin like nothing was wrong. Cara stared stoically straight ahead.

Kahlan leaned forward, looking toward Richard. “Can we leave?”

Richard turned his head without taking his eyes off of the fight. “You don’t want to watch?”

“No, I don’t. This is stupid.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Cara’s jaw clench.

Richard finally looked at her, obviously confused. “But Cara’s going to fight again.”

“I know that. I still don’t want to stay.”

Richard blinked. “Okay, well—”

“Why does Richard have to do what you tell him to do?” Cara snapped viciously, her eyes still straight ahead, “Why can’t he stay and watch?”

“He can do whatever he wants,” Kahlan shot back.

“Then why are you acting like he has to leave just because you want him to?”

There was too much anger between them for a dispute over a boxing match. Kahlan could feel it and she was sure Richard could feel it as well, but it felt too good to be arguing with Cara—even if it was over something stupid—to stop. The anger had been coming in waves throughout the day. She wanted to scream at Cara, and now the cork had been pulled.

“I asked if he wanted to leave. I’m not forcing him to do anything.”

“You sure?” Cara said, “It sounded a lot like an order.”

“Well, you would know,” Kahlan said sarcastically.

“Maybe you should ask him what he wants to do once in awhile.”

“I ask him all the time, and just because you don’t notice, you priggish—”

“Okay!” Richard leaped in front of them, holding his hands up. “Not that I think you two care, but more people are watching you right now than the fight, so…”

Kahlan looked around. They had drawn a great deal of attention. She felt the back of her neck grow hot and looked at the ground.

“We’ll leave,” Richard continued. “Cara—” he nodded. “Good luck. Feel free to break somebody else’s leg.” He placed his hands on Kahlan’s shoulders and turned her around, steering her away from the ring. They walked silently in the direction of the inn until Richard cleared his throat awkwardly. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked nervously.

Kahlan had to fight to keep from snapping at him. “About what?”

“About that.” Richard gestured. “With Cara.”

“She’s being stupid,” Kahlan gritted.

“She’s a Mord-Sith,” Richard said, as if that excused everything. “She can handle a few local men who think they can fight.”

“It’s not about that.” At least, it wasn’t entirely about that. “She knew we wouldn’t approve. And Zedd knew it, too. That’s why he tried to keep us away.”

“Maybe she didn’t want us to worry.”

Kahlan snorted. Cara didn’t care if people worried about her. It was fine for her to worry—or at least pretend to be uninterested and detached while secretly worrying, but Creator forbid she be confronted with the fact that someone else care for her well-being. “I seriously doubt that had anything to do with it. No, she knew we wouldn’t let her gamble with our money and that’s the only reason.” That and she probably wanted to hit and be hit, Kahlan thought. She immediately regretted telling Cara she wasn’t a Mord-Sith anymore. Creator, if this is her trying to prove she can still feed off of pain…

Richard shrugged. “Regardless of why she did it, I got the feeling you two aren’t on the best of terms.”

“Not right now we’re not, no,” Kahlan admitted. “And probably not for the foreseeable future, either.”

“What happened?”

“We had a fight.”

“About?”

“I’d rather not say.”

Richard looked mildly hurt, but the truth would hurt him even more. Kahlan stared back stonily. He sighed. “One step forward, two steps back,” he muttered.

In a flash, Kahlan felt her anger at Cara redirect toward Richard. He made it sound like she was part of the problem, and she wasn’t. It was all Cara. Cara was the one who ducked responsibility. Cara was the one who could shut herself off in the blink of an eye. Kahlan had opened herself up and tried to be there, tried to understand, and Cara had turned her back on her. This wasn’t a Kahlan and Cara problem, this was just a Cara problem. Well, the hell with Cara. The hell with all of them. If Richard wanted to coddle his precious pet Mord-Sith, he could go right ahead.

“You can leave,” Kahlan said. She pushed past him. Stunned, Richard didn’t try to stop her.

“What?” he asked dumbly.

“I said you can leave. Go back and watch Cara, because I do not want you near me right now.”

“Kahlan, what—”

“’One step forward, two steps back’,” Kahlan said mockingly. “What the hell is that even supposed to mean? You have no idea what’s going on.”

“If you’d tell me—”

“No,” Kahlan interrupted firmly. She pointed down the street, back toward the pub. “Ask her. She can tell you what the problem is. You can tell her I said so: it’s all hers. I'm done.” Richard stared at her, his brown eyes wide and pleading. No doubt he felt like everything was falling apart.

Good.

Then they matched.

Kahlan turned on her heel. “And,” she called over her shoulder, “I'm ready to go home.”

Chapter Text

Cara woke late the next morning, her muscles heavy and loose. The raging pressure in her chest was gone, burned off in her effort during the boxing tournament. She’d fallen into what she was familiar with, thrown herself into the blood and violence of a fight. The pain of being punched and the total body exhaustion had left no room for anything else, effectively severing her from the emotions that had thrown her for a loop earlier. It was exactly what Cara had hoped would happen, and now she was emotionally numb—detatched—and reveling in the clean feeling in her chest every time she inhaled.

She wasn’t stupid—she knew it wouldn’t last. She had a feeling the moment she saw Kahlan the panic would start creeping in again, and Cara didn’t know how long she’d be able to hold it back before it exploded again. And maybe more problematic than that, she had no way of knowing who would be in her way when her chaos tic took hold.

Cara lay in bed for a moment, her arms spread eagle, staring up at the ceiling. It was quiet, she was alone, and as long as she stayed here reality couldn’t catch up with her.

A sharp rap at the door pulled Cara out of bed.

“I’m supposed to find out if you’re still alive,” Zedd said when she opened the door. “You’re missing breakfast.”

“I’ll be down in a bit.”

“How are you feeling?” Zedd squinted at her, studying her face. “Are you sure you don’t want me to just…” He reached out and Cara leaned away from him. She’d told him last night she didn’t want to be healed. Zedd didn’t understand and Cara didn’t expect him to, but her bruised eyebrow and split lip weren’t life threatening, and Cara wasn’t giving them up. Not after she’d worked so hard to get them.

Zedd sighed heavily bit he didn’t push the subject. “Word of advice?” he said, tapping his long fingers on the doorframe, “Don’t talk to Kahlan. She’s not in the best mood.”

Cara refrained from snarkily asking when Kahlan was ever in a good mood. It felt unfair, especially since Kahlan’s attitude had an awful lot to do with Cara. The look Kahlan had given her last night between matches had been uncharacteristically cold, and Cara knew that she was a long way from being forgiven. Marching steadily in the opposite direction, actually.

She dressed and joined the others in the inn’s dining area. Richard thumped his fist on the table when he saw her, smiling happily around a mouthful of food. He’d returned to the tournament alone the night before looking obviously upset, but the fight and collecting bets had quickly distracted him. He was delighted with the amount of money Cara had won, which was fine with Cara, because she could care less. Making money had been a convenient excuse to hit and be hit, but it certainly hadn’t been the main objective.

Kahlan spared Cara the briefest of glares before turning her attention back to her breakfast, the small scar above her lip more pronounced than usual. Cara sat next to Zedd, putting as much distance between herself and Kahlan as possible.

“We were discussing what to do next,” Richard said. He passed Cara a basket of rolls. “Have any suggestions for sneaking into D’Hara?”

It wasn’t exactly a problem she’d ever had to deal with. Cara ripped a roll in half and pulled a jar of honey towards her. “Be sneaky.”

“Wherever would we be without you,” Zedd grumbled good-naturedly. Cara shrugged.

“Dead, probably.”

Richard opened his mouth but was interrupted by the scrape of Kahlan’s chair. She stood and stalked out of the dining area without sparing any of them a second glance. Richard stared after her unhappily, then turned back to Cara.

“I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” he began slowly, “and I’m not going to tell you to hurry up and figure it out, but…” he trailed off and raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Cara preoccupied herself with spreading honey on her biscuit, trying to appear casual. “Why do you think it has to do with me?”

“Because Kahlan said so.”

Cara froze. “When?” she asked, trying to sound disinterested. She didn’t tell him, the logical side of her brain argued. If she’d told him he’d have tried to stab you already.

“Last night,” Richard said. “She told me that if I wanted to know what was going on, you were going to have to tell me.”

So that was how it was going to be. Cara smiled thinly. Kahlan talked big about her not being a Mord-Sith anymore, about Cara being free to make her own choices and get over the Lord Rahl business, but when push came to shove she was willing to try and use Cara’s bond with Richard to get Cara to fall into line and do what she wanted.

“I don’t want to know,” Richard continued.

“I do,” Zedd said enthusiastically.

“But,” Richard continued, shooting Zedd a look, “I also don’t want to ride all the way to Hansard with you two arguing the whole way. So.” He leaned back, teetering on his chair. “I’d appreciate it if you two solved your differences.”

“What’s in Hansard?” Cara asked.

“Nothing. That’s just the easiest spot to separate.”

Cara stared at Richard. His forehead slowly furrowed.

“What?” he asked. “It’s a major city between D’Hara and Aydindril. There are well-established roads going east and west. Where else would you have us split up?”

Cara leaned forward, her forearms pressing into the edge of the table. “Who’s going to Aydindril?” she demanded.

“Kahlan,” Richard said. He looked as confused as Cara felt. “Did you not know that?”

Cara didn’t answer, and Richard took her silence as an affirmation.

“I thought you knew,” he said. “I honestly thought that was why you two weren’t speaking.”

“I didn’t know,” Cara said. She sat back. Her hands dropped into her lap. Kahlan was leaving. Kahlan was going to Aydindril. Kahlan’s going to Aydindril with my—

Stop.

Cara took a deep breath and held it. Next to her, Zedd was chewing carefully, his long body unnaturally still. “Is she going alone?” she forced herself to ask.

Richard nodded. “She says the Mother Confessor needs to be warned—”

“What’s wrong with a messenger pigeon?” Cara demanded. She jabbed a finger at Zedd. “Or him?”

“I told her,” Richard began, holding his hands up defensively, “I told her we could figure something out, but she said it should be her—”

“Of course she did,” Cara snapped. “She’s got an answer for everything, doesn’t she? Always has a good reason and when you try to tell otherwise—” Cara clamped her mouth shut quickly. Richard was staring at her. She slouched in her chair. “Never mind,” she grumbled.

“I don’t want to separate, either,” Richard said slowly. “It’s about a two week ride to Hansard. Maybe we can convince her to stay and send a messenger between now and then.”

We. Somehow Cara didn’t think anything she had to contribute would incite Kahlan to stay with them. She didn’t even understand her own visceral reaction to the news that Kahlan was planning on leaving. It was brilliant, really: Kahlan would be gone and Richard never needed to know she was pregnant. She would have the child in Aydindril, surrounded by her family, and everything would work out.

The thought was not as reassuring as it should have been.


 A good portion of her earnings was spent on horses.

Cara didn’t mind, a fact she’d had to reassure Richard of more than once. “What would I do with it all?” she’d asked him finally, waiting for him to offer an idea, and when none had been forthcoming she’d rolled her eyes and told him to buy the stupid horses and stop bothering her about it.

It was strange to leave Turing. She’d allowed herself to get comfortable, to leave things strewn across the floor of her room, and even though she’d known Turing wasn’t permanent, it was surreal to pack her bag again. She was glad to be moving on, though; glad to have something to do again even if it meant that when night fell she’d be sleeping on the ground again.

Kahlan was still in a foul mood after their first day of travelling, and even though Cara told herself that Kahlan was entitled to being angry it was still irritating to be ignored. They were adults. Asking if Kahlan needed her water skin filled shouldn’t get Cara pinched lips and silence. A simple yes or no would suffice, and Cara said so. Her outburst was met with a blank stare and Cara had lashed out just as soon as she was out of eyesight, slamming a hefty branch against a tree trunk that vibrated painfully in her hands until it snapped in half, spinning dangerously through the trees. After the third day of sleeping poorly on hard ground Cara was at her breaking point. Kahlan’s silence made Cara feel helplessly angry, raging to hit something—anything—and bloodying her knuckles on a tree trunk only made her more frustrated. She wanted to inflict pain, to take her frustration out on something that could actually feel, and she knew that was more than a little psychotic, but it was all she could think of to relieve the heat churning through her veins. In some remote, faintly logical part of her brain, Cara recognized it as her own tactics being turned against her. Kahlan was trying to make her mad enough to not want to be around.

Except she couldn’t stop looking at Kahlan, willing her to look back, hanging on her every word, waiting with bated breath to hear her name on Kahlan’s lips.

She hated it.

She wanted to be detached and unaffected and she didn’t. She wanted to be alone and she didn’t. She wanted Kahlan to hate her and she didn’t. She wanted the child to be Richard’s and she didn’t.

She hated indecision, and the fact that the indecision was stemming from her own self was enough to make Cara want to pull her hair out. She’d said her piece. She’d told Kahlan she didn’t want any part of…it. But she had nothing better to do all day than play the what if game with herself, and it was becoming more and more obvious that if the baby were not an issue, she wouldn’t hesitate to resume a sexual relationship with Kahlan that would last as long as Kahlan would have her.

The thought was terrifying.

She closed her eyes and imagined Kahlan pregnant, Kahlan with a belly, Kahlan carrying an infant in her arms, and the thought lost some of its power. Because she would not—could not—be a parent. The baby was an issue, and that, strangely enough, gave Cara some of her control back. Because Kahlan wanted someone who wanted the baby, and that was definitely not Cara.

She glanced at Richard. It should have been his. Every quality Cara had scoffed at, everything she saw as a flaw in Richard would make him a good father. She remembered enough of her own father to recognize the similarities. Richard was quick with praise, enthusiastic, easy with physical displays of affection…

Everything that Cara was not.

When they stopped for the night she watched furtively as Kahlan headed off into the forest. She waited until Zedd and Richard were preoccupied before slipping after her. Kahlan was pregnant. She couldn't change that  change that, but she could at least try to accept it with some dignity.

She found Kahlan easily enough despite the fading light. Cara seized her by the arm, pulling her up short. Kahlan gasped and spun, one arm cocked, and the surprise in her eyes was more emotion than Cara had seen directed at her in what seemed like forever. In an instant it was gone, shuttered away behind a mask of blankness, and Kahlan dropped her arm.

“I decided you should tell Richard that it’s his,” Cara said quickly.

Kahlan’s eyes flickered. She squinted, working her jaw, obviously trying to decide if she wanted to break her silence. “You decided, did you?” she asked finally, sarcastically.

Cara nodded. She released Kahlan’s arm.

“Why?”

Cara shrugged helplessly, searching for the right words. “He deserves it.”

“He deserves it?” Kahlan repeated sharply. “What in the name of the Creator is that supposed to mean?”

“What it sounds like,” Cara said defensively.

Kahlan stared. “Maybe you should walk me through it, then.”

“Just that…” Cara struggled. What was so clear in her head was nearly impossible to say out loud. Her brain could not reconcile with her mouth actually voicing her thoughts. “He’d be a good father.”

“I know he would be,” Kahlan said, squinting suspiciously. “That doesn’t mean—”

“It’s what he wants.” Cara fidgeted. She looked at the tree behind Kahlan. “With you.”

“I know what he wants,” Kahlan said. She sighed, and Cara could practically hear her thinking We’ve been through this

I know, Cara wanted to say, I know we’ve been through this. But this is how I am.

“That doesn’t mean it’s what I want,” Kahlan said with finality. “He’s—” She stopped. She shook her head. “I’m the first person he’s ever fallen for. What he wants isn’t necessarily…what he needs,” she finished quietly, suddenly obviously uncomfortable. She shifted from foot to foot, refusing to look past Cara’s midsection as she spoke. Which was just fine with Cara.

“But he’s what the baby needs,” Cara said. She felt a flash of pride at being able to say baby without her voice quavering, and Kahlan finally lifted her eyes to Cara’s face, her gaze sharp.

“Why? Why is he what the baby needs?” Kahlan asked, anger beginning to tinge her words. “Why do you get to decide—you don’t even want—”

“Because,” Cara interrupted quickly, heading off another argument. She didn’t want to fight. She was too tired to fight, and this wasn’t something they should even fight about. This is something Kahlan should be able to see

“Because why?

Cara turned, offering Kahlan a view of her profile, and glared at the trees. She couldn’t look at Kahlan. She rolled the words around in her head, trying to come up with some way of phrasing what she was feeling without it sounding weak and self-pitying. “Because he can say things a child needs to hear,” she said finally, and it wasn’t right, it wasn’t exactly what she meant, but Kahlan seemed to understand. She placed her hand on Cara’s arm carefully, hesitantly, and Cara fought the urge to pull away.

“Things you can’t?”

It would be the pinnacle of weakness to say yes, to admit that she recognized that her training as a Mord-Sith had left a gaping hole that she didn’t know how to fill. Cara said nothing.

“It’s not as important as you think,” Kahlan began, and Cara snorted. This she had experience with. She knew—knew intimately—just how important certain things were for a child to hear. And Kahlan was right. She couldn’t say them.

“I needed my father to say—to say three words to me. And when he didn’t…” Cara spread her arms, proving her own point. “It’s important, Kahlan.” She’d known that her father…she’d known. Deep down, she’d known. But that knowledge didn’t hold a torch to actually hearing it.

“Okay,” Kahlan said. She moved close, trying to get Cara to look at her. “It’s important.”

“So let Richard say it.”

Kahlan swore. She brought her hands to her hair and tipped her head back.

“You can make your own decisions,” Cara said. “I just wanted you to know that I’d understand—that I can see…where it would be a good thing, if he were…you know…”

“It’s not Richard.” Kahlan said crossly. “It’s never going to be Richard, Cara, and the sooner you realize that—”

“I’m just saying,” Cara said, anger slowly unfurling in the pit of her stomach. She was trying to be reasonable, trying to extend an olive branch and maybe explain her own behavior in the process, trying to make the air between them slightly less poisonous, and Kahlan was purposefully dragging her feet.

Fine,” Kahlan gritted. “You just said, and I heard you. You wracked your brain and came up with Richard—surprise, surprise—and now you think I should be thanking you for your open-mindedness.” She snorted. “Thank you, but no thank you, Cara.”

Cara’s nostril’s flared. “I’m trying—”

Kahlan grabbed her, cutting her off, and wrapped a hand around the back of Cara’s head. She brought their mouths together for a bruising, uncoordinated kiss. Cara’s front teeth hit the inside of her top lip, and by the time her brain caught up Kahlan’s tongue was in her mouth, slick and foreign and hot. Cara inhaled, breathing Kahlan in, and pushed her tongue back against Kahlan’s and Kahlan moaned. Her hand was tight in Cara’s hair, pulling at the roots with desperate aggression, pulling Cara closer, and in a flash Cara was painfully turned on. It was so easy to fall into the mindless movement of hands and mouths. Kahlan’s body was familiar and she knew what spots would make Kahlan whimper, knew what touches would make Kahlan breathe out sharply, and in that moment nothing else mattered except hearing Kahlan make those noises.

Cara brought a hand up and Kahlan wrenched their mouths apart. She turned her head away, her hand still in Cara’s hair, breathing hard. Cara’s nose pressed into the hair above Kahlan’s ear.

“I’m sorry,” Kahlan said shakily. “I can’t.”

Cara didn’t move. Her body was screaming at her to keep going, to ignore the words because words confused things and Kahlan very obviously could.

Kahlan dropped her hand from Cara’s hair and took a step back. Cold air pressed in against Cara’s chest.

“I’m sorry,” Kahlan repeated. She was looking at the ground again. “I’ve been…frustrated. Lately.” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

It wasn’t any different than what they’d done before, Cara wanted to say, except that it was, because she couldn’t cross that line and expect to walk away again unscathed. She smoothed her hands down her front, straightening her shirt, and said nothing.

“We should get back,” Kahlan said. I sounded like another apology, but the tension between them was different. Less angry. More fragile. Cara didn’t know what it meant. Maybe that Kahlan saw that Cara' s anger wasn't because Kahlan was pregnant, but because somehow she’d been put in a position that she couldn’t fulfill, that made her look incompetent and served as a constant reminder of just how messed up she really was.

Cara turned to lead the way back to camp. Kahlan pulled her up short. She reached up tentatively and pushed Cara’s hair away from her forehead. She skirted her fingers across the bruised skin of Cara’s eyebrow. Her touch, gentle and purposeful, burned more than any kiss. “I want this to stop,” Kahlan said quietly. Firmly. Cara nodded. Something lower than her stomach, but not much, fluttered like wings.

Something else to add to her list of things she couldn’t say out loud.

Chapter Text

It was a strange thing, to be absolutely certain that she was pregnant and still have the thought surprise her. She would be riding, laughing with Zedd, and then it would hit her: I’m pregnant.

She wondered if Cara thought about it as much as she did. Having children was always something to be done eventually, and it was certainly not something she’d ever thought might be unplanned. As a Confessor, having children was expected of her, and everything—from choosing a partner to the attempted night of conception would have been carefully regulated. (A full moon was supposed to increase the odds of girls; an outdated way of thinking but no one could afford to scoff at superstition.) It was all so far removed from her assumptions about how or when that Kahlan almost couldn’t believe it most days.

Until her dress stopped fitting.

The laces allowed for some room for growth, but it was definitely tight around her waist. Kahlan studied her stomach. Normally flat, it had slowly and without her noticing rounded slightly. Nothing drastic, but it was physical proof of her pregnancy where only a week before there had been none.

She pressed a hand against her stomach, just below her belly button. It was hard; not the flabby softness of fat, and Kahlan had the sudden urge to tell someone. It was the first time she’d felt anything other than apprehensive about her pregnancy, and it was just her luck that the only person who knew was someone who wouldn’t want to hear it.

Kahlan sighed and finished loosely lacing her corset.

Cara was poking the morning fire with the charred tip of a stick. She glanced up when Kahlan ducked out of her small pup tent and lifted the corner of her mouth in greeting before turning her attention back to the fire.

Kahlan turned, taking in the damp ground and the heavy fog hanging between the trees. “Did it rain last night?”

Cara nodded. “A bit.”

“I never even heard it.”

Cara didn’t answer. Kahlan sat next to her and wrapped her hands in the skirt of her dress. She watched Cara prod the coals.

“I fed the horses,” Cara said.

“Thank you.”

Cara pulled the stick from the fire and pressed the glowing tip into the wet ground with a hiss.

“My dress is getting tight,” Kahlan said quietly.

Cara paused.

“I’m not throwing it in your face,” Kahlan said quickly. “I just…wanted to tell someone, and you’re the only one who knows.”

Cara began twisting the stick into the ground. “It’s fine.” She hesitated. “You’re not getting sick anymore, are you?”

“No.”

“Good.”

They fell into a comfortable silence until Kahlan realized: “I’m going to have to buy one of those ridiculous maternity dresses.” She dropped her head into her hands at the thought.

“What’s a maternity dress?”

Kahlan peeked at Cara from between her fingers. “Are you serious?”

Cara looked at her. She shrugged.

“It’s this giant flowy thing—” Kahlan held her arms out for emphasis. “—That pregnant women wear. It makes them look like a cow.”

“A cow?” Cara raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“I’m not kidding, Cara. They look like massive sacks covered in flowers with a hole for the head.” Kahlan moved her hands to her stomach. “I won’t even look pregnant. I’ll just look like a solid lump.”

She saw Cara’s eyes flick to her stomach and away quickly. Her jaw tightened.

“Cara.” Kahlan sighed. “Please. I’m not trying to push myself on you. I just don’t want to feel completely alone in this. Okay?”

Cara nodded jerkily, though her eyes were still fixed stubbornly forward.

“In a week I’ll be gone and I won’t be around to bother you anymore.” It was supposed to be a joke. All the same, it made Kahlan’s stomach twist unpleasantly.

She watched as Cara’s forehead furrowed. She didn’t answer, but she certainly didn’t look happy.

“What?”

Cara shook her head.

“No, come on. What is it?”

“Nothing. You can do what you want.”

Kahlan let out a dry snort. “Well, that certainly sounded like something.”

“It’s nothing you haven’t heard already. Richard and Zedd have both said they don’t think it’s safe for you to go alone. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I agree.”

“Are you volunteering to come with me?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.”

Cara’s indecision was enough to drive Kahlan crazy. She didn’t want Richard to know about the baby but she didn’t think Kahlan should leave, even though not leaving meant telling Richard. Kahlan sighed and adjusted her skirt. She knew Cara was intimidated by her pregnancy and probably more than a little scared—of the baby, of Kahlan’s expectations for her, of Richard finding out—and part of her was convinced that if she waited long enough Cara would come around. Another part was just as convinced that it was never going to happen, no matter how much Kahlan wished it would. Cara couldn’t see herself as someone capable of raising a child and there wasn’t much Kahlan could say to convince her otherwise. Cara had been shaped by pain and blood—two things that didn’t exactly lend themselves to parenting, and she knew that Cara was certain any child she had a hand in rearing would turn out just like her.

And Kahlan was fine with that.

She didn’t want a mini-Mord-Sith running around, punching things and being belligerent, but that wasn’t what she saw when she looked at Cara. In the beginning, yes. In the beginning she hadn’t been able to look past Cara’s sarcasm and apparent lust for violence to see the funny, thoughtful, and incredibly loyal woman she saw now. She wasn’t even sure that Richard had fully understood the potential Cara had held when he’d taken her in, but she’d positively blossomed during her months traveling with them.

And Cara couldn’t see it.

Maybe it was like her growing stomach. Maybe Cara was too close to see the changes, but Kahlan saw them. She knew Cara would make a good parent, but she also knew that a little over a week wasn’t nearly enough time to convince Cara of that. They’d reach Hansard and Cara would go to D’Hara and she would go to Aydindril. Maybe never see each other again.

“Are you sure you’re not going to be sick?” Cara asked.

Kahlan blinked and sat up. She’d leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her stomach without realizing it, lost in her thoughts. She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

Cara eyed her warily.

“Honestly.”

Cara opened her mouth and Richard popped his head from his tent, his hair disheveled and his eyes puffy with sleep. He swore when he stepped out and threw his boots to the ground, then sat and peeled his socks from his feet. The bottoms were soaked through. He moved to hang them over the fire.

“No, no, no,” Kahlan said. “Don’t you dare.” She pointed. “Hang them on a branch.”

“They won’t dry on a branch.”

“Richard. I cannot sit here and have those things dropping stink all over my breakfast.”

Richard rolled his eyes. “After?”

“Maybe,” Kahlan said.

Richard slapped his wet socks across a branch of a nearbyl sapling. “What’s for breakfast?”

Cara’s knuckles touched Kahlan’s hand and it took her a moment to realize that Cara was attempting to pass her the stick she’d been using as a poker. Not offering her hand to hold. Flustered, Kahlan took the stick.

Cara stood. “Eggs. We have enough for two each.” She moved to the packs of food and returned with the bundle of eggs and their cast iron fry pan.

Richard sighed and rubbed the back of his head. Kahlan could sympathize; it was a cruel transition, to go from an abundance of food to rationing again. Cara seemed to have adjusted well, but Kahlan’s stomach had been growling nearly as often as Zedd’s. She’d started to wonder if she was eating enough, but asking for more than her fair share would raise eyebrows.

Cara set the pan on the flat rock they’d found for cooking and pushed rock and pan into the the coals. Kahlan piled the coals closer and before the edges of the eggs started to turn white the sound of cooking drew Zedd from his tent.

“Sunny side up, please, Cara,” Zedd said.

Cara shot him a venomous glare and stabbed one of the eggs with her finger, sending yellow yolk sizzling across the pan.

Zedd sniffed. “That one’s yours.”

Cara methodically poked her finger through the rest of the eggs.

It wasn’t until she started in on her breakfast that Kahlan noticed she had too many yolks of her own. She glanced at Cara, who was busy ripping a flimsy egg white between her fingers.

“I don’t like the yellow bits,” Cara mumbled.

It was a lie and they both knew it. Kahlan touched her knee to Cara’s and let her have it.


 

Richard came to her two days outside of Hansard to ask her to stay with them. Kahlan was surprised that it had taken him so long to bring it up.

Firmly but politely, she told him no. Nothing he could say could convince her otherwise. She didn’t want to leave—she wasn’t sick of their company, she simply had no other options. The fact that she was a Confessor and could feed Richard and Zedd a conceivable lie made it easier, but the thought of separating still made her sad. They were close as family—closer, maybe, because they’d had to rely on each other for survival in a way she’d never had to with her mother or sister.

She’d reassured Richard that she’d be perfectly safe, that they all had nothing to worry about.

And then the D’Haran soldiers showed up.

They weren’t anything impressive; just three ragged looking men wearing the D’Haran colors and muddy, ripped cloaks, but they were the first visual evidence of Darken Rahl’s return to power. Kahlan held her breath as they rode past, not sure if these particular soldiers would recognize them. The soldiers watched with belligerent hostility, but not one of them made any indication that they cared about the small group passing on the road.

“Well. Rahl certainly moves quickly,” Zedd muttered once they were out of earshot.

“He has to be quick,” Cara said. “He lost a lot of power when he died.”

“And now we have soldiers roaming the roads.” Richard turned his head in Kahlan’s direction. Kahlan pretended she hadn’t seen. She was no stranger to riding alone through hostile territories. It was what she’d had to do to find Richard and Zedd in the first place.

“They’ve probably been called back to D’Hara,” Cara said. “They’re not scouting or following orders, they’re just going back to join up again.”

“So we have some time before they get organized.” Richard glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting the soldiers to have begun following them to Hansard.

Cara shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe they’re just late.”

“Either way, the roads just got a whole lot more dangerous,” Richard said.

“Which makes it even more important for me to get to Aydindril quickly,” Kahlan said. She was tired of the “it’s dangerous” argument. It was making her want to leave anyway, just to prove Richard wrong. If he’d tried another tactic—maybe make her feel more like an indispensable part of the team and less like someone he needed to take care of…well, she still wouldn’t stay, but she wouldn’t feel so much like she was proving a point by leaving.

Richard couldn’t make her stay.

But Cara could.

Kahlan didn’t want to think about what that meant. Probably that she had, without noticing, gotten in way over her head. And if that were true, then maybe a little time apart was just what Kahlan needed. 


 

Hansard was darker than Turing, the residents more reserved and suspicious of newcomers. Kahlan couldn’t help but think that this was what a life under Darken Rahl’s rule created: paranoia and mistrust. The innkeeper looked like he’d rather eat his arm than hand the keys over to the pair of rooms they rented, a stark contrast to the warm welcome they’d received in Turing.

“So sorry we’re forcing you to make money,” Cara grumbled, loud enough for the innkeeper to hear. Kahlan nudged her. “I refuse to be polite to him,” Cara said.

“Well, if there was any doubt before, I’d say they’ve made up, Richard,” Zedd said as they climbed the stairs to find their rooms.

Kahlan wasn’t sure “made up” was the right term for it. She and Cara had come to a silent agreement, but Kahlan’s idea of “making up” was vastly different from Zedd’s. Heat shot up her back as the mental image of a naked Cara flashed through her mind. It had been happening more and more, thinking about sex with Cara, and Kahlan wasn’t sure if it was because she’d gone from having sex fairly regularly to none at all or if it had to do with being pregnant. Either way she couldn’t go for more than a few hours at a time without the first stirrings of arousal creeping up on her—sometimes for absolutely no reason at all. It hadn’t become unbearable yet, but last night watching Cara shed her shirt had kept Kahlan awake for at least an hour. She didn’t know how she’d stand sleeping in the same room with Cara again.

“Girls and boys?” Richard offered. He held a key out to Cara. She hesitated before taking it from him.

Really, the safe thing to do would be to spend the night with Richard, but the thought lit a spark of rebellion in Kahlan. It might be safer, but it wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to be near Cara, if only to avoid the slew of begging to stay she knew waited for her if she roomed with Richard.

Cara flipped the key in her hand and looked at Kahlan, as if expecting her to say just that; that she’d rather room with Richard. Kahlan stared back levelly.

“See you in the morning, yeah?” Richard said as he unlocked the room across the hall.

Kahlan nodded.

Richard pulled the door shut behind Zedd, leaving Kahlan and Cara standing alone in the hallway.

“Are you going to open the door?” Kahlan asked.

Slowly, Cara fit the key into the lock. She stepped back and allowed Kahlan to enter first, then dropped her bag on the floor just inside the door and Kahlan knew Cara was making a silent commitment to sleep on the floor.

They undressed in silence. Kahlan stripped down to her slip and Cara sat on the floor, removing her boots and nothing else.

Cara and modesty just didn’t seem right.

Kahlan pulled the sheets back and climbed into bed. She could hear Cara adjusting her pack, pulling anything out that made using it as a pillow difficult and setting it on the wood floor. Kahlan lay back and watched her for a moment.

“You’re not sleeping on the floor.”

Cara paused, her back still to Kahlan. She set a hunting knife on the floor.

“I’m not kidding, Cara. You’re not sleeping down there.”

Cara pushed her bag away. She turned and wrapped her arms around her shins and regarded Kahlan seriously, her features shadowed in the fading light. “The bed’s not very big. You’ll be more comfortable if you have it to yourself.”

That was probably true, but size had nothing to do with it. She wasn’t sure if she could stand having Cara pressed up against her all night, but Kahlan was certain she couldn’t stand the thought of leaving and knowing her last nights with Cara were spent with Cara on the floor and her in a bed. Maybe they’d never go back to the way things were, and if that were the case then these last next few nights would serve as a bookend to their relationship. Cara sleeping on the floor was too cold and impersonal for what they’d shared.

“You’re not sleeping on the floor,” Kahlan repeated. She slid down and pulled the blankets up to her neck, her eyes still on Cara.

Cara didn’t move.

“Get up here,” Kahlan said firmly.

Slowly, as if her legs were moving against her wishes, Cara rolled to her feet. She walked to the edge of the bed and stood stiffly, staring down at the space Kahlan had left for her. Kahlan flipped the corner of the blanket down and shifted onto her back.

The bed creaked as Cara lifted a knee and pressed it into the mattress. She lifted the blanket and slipped underneath. Her pants were warm against Kahlan’s bare legs, and almost without realizing she was doing so Kahlan shifted closer.

Cara stiffened.

Kahlan didn’t move away.

She was cold, she rationalized, and Cara was always warm. And Cara had gone well over a week with Kahlan tucked up against her closer than they were lying now.

Cara’s breathing was soft and shallow. Kahlan listened to her for a few minutes before rolling onto her side to face Cara and pressing herself into her pillow.

“Will you miss me?” Kahlan whispered. It was a question that had been plaguing her ever since she’d decided to return to Aydindril. She’d like to think that Cara would miss her, but maybe she was relieved to see Kahlan go—relieved to be released from the daily reminder that, like it or not, in some capacity she was going to be a parent. 

Cara didn’t answer and Kahlan lifted her head slightly. Cara’s eyes were open. Her pupils glinted, reflecting the moonlight beginning to filter through the window. She nodded slowly.

Kahlan’s stomach swooped. She dropped her head to the pillow again and shifted closer, molding herself against Cara’s side. It was all so messed up. Everything had happened all at once and neither of them had had a chance to breathe, and now it was ending. A wave of sadness washed over her and she buried her face in Cara’s neck, biting her lip to keep from crying.

“Kahlan.” Cara shifted, trying to create space between them again, but Kahlan wrapped an arm around Cara's chest and clung to her.

“Please don’t,” Kahlan whispered, and Cara stilled.

Kahlan took a deep breath, breathing in the scent of fresh air and lye clinging to Cara’s skin. In two days she might never get the chance to smell that again.

She tightened her arm around Cara’s chest.

In two days she might never touch Cara again.

Kahlan pressed her lips to Cara’s jaw, needing to commit the feel of Cara’s soft skin against her lips to memory. She felt Cara’s breath hitch.

“Kahlan,” Cara said again, her voice raspy and low in the dark.

“I’ll stop,” Kahlan whispered. She could. She would. If Cara told her to… “If you tell me to, I’ll stop.”

Cara didn’t answer. Kahlan kissed her jaw again and Cara shuddered.

They were messed up. They were the last people who should be together. But when Cara turned her head and tentatively kissed Kahlan back, it was the closest thing to perfect Kahlan had ever felt.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to buy some new clothes,” Kahlan said, and from the look on Richard’s face Cara would have sworn Kahlan had said she wanted to throw their money into a lake.

“Why do you want new clothes?” he asked.

“Because,” Kahlan said slowly, “I’m getting very tired of lacing and unlacing this dress every morning and every night.”

Richard frowned and unconsciously reached for the pocket he carried the money purse in. “What about your Confessor’s dress?”

“That has laces, too,” Cara said. She saw Kahlan and Richard’s heads turning in her direction and she quickly pretended to be interested in a stall vendor shaking out a rug.

“It’s not an unreasonable request,” Kahlan said, and Richard sighed. He pulled the purse from his pocket and held it out to Kahlan.

“I don’t need the whole thing,” she said, shaking a few silver coins into her palm. She handed the purse back to Richard. “I’ll be right back,” she said, already turning to find a clothing stall.

“You don’t want us to come with you?” Richard called after her. Kahlan didn’t answer. “Guess that’s a no,” Richard muttered under his breath. “What about you, Cara? Got any impulse buys you’d like to indulge?”

Cara stared at him until he looked away.

“Sorry,” Richard said. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I know, I know: we have enough money, I don’t need to be so cheap.”

Cara didn’t answer. It had suddenly dawned on her that she was alone with Richard, and she couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. Months ago he’d been her closest ally—the only person who listened when she had something to say, the only person who tried to make her feel like she was a valuable member of the team. She’d betrayed him, and badly, and avoiding him had saved her conscience, but avoidance was a luxury that had all but run out. Once Kahlan was gone there would be no buffer between herself and Richard. And maybe, even worse, no constant reminder of why she’d gone behind his back.

“So,” Richard said. He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Any luck last night?”

“Luck?” Cara repeated, confused.

Richard indicated the direction Kahlan had gone with a tilt of his head. “Did you talk to her at all about staying?”

“No.”

Richard sighed, his frustration obvious.

“It’s her decision, Richard.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. What if something happens to her? What if she gets attacked on the road?” He kicked a loose stone and frowned at the thought. “It’s much safer for her to stay with us and send a pigeon instead.”

“You can’t be sure a pigeon would make it,” Cara said.

“A messenger, then. Someone to carry a letter to the Mother Confessor.”

“It’s a very important message to trust just anyone with.”

Richard turned, squaring his shoulders to Cara. “So you agree with her. You think she should go off on her own—” he snapped his mouth shut and tilted his head back, glaring at the sky. “Nobody sees,” he said sharply. “You all just blindly trust that everything will work out.”

“Wonder who we learned that from,” Cara muttered.

“Do you think I’m worrying for no reason?” Richard demanded.

Cara shrugged. “Not for no reason. Maybe a little louder than necessary, though.”

Richard turned his gaze back to the market, staring without really seeing, his forehead creased. “I don’t know what to do,” he said eventually, his voice quiet. “I’m losing her, Cara. And I don’t know how to stop it.”

Cara didn’t answer. He was losing Kahlan. Had been losing her for a while. But so was Cara, and she didn’t have the benefit of a gradual drift to ease the transition. She had no sympathy to offer.

Richard pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “I’m having second thoughts about going to D’Hara.”

“Because of Kahlan?”

“I don’t know,” Richard admitted. He dropped his hand, slapping his leg as he did so. His face was uncharacteristically red. “I keep telling myself that it’s not because of her, that it’s a good plan, to raise an army—”

“No, it’s not,” Cara said. “An army is a horrible plan.”

“Why?”

Cara stared at him. Did he not see the stupidity inherent in trying to gather an army to fight a man who knew better than anyone how to wage a war?

“First,” she said, holding up a finger, “you have no power. You can’t declare a war, and you can’t possibly expect to convince anyone who has that power to listen to you. Second.” Another finger. “Darken Rahl is thrives on war. He has no problem enlisting soldiers, and we both know that’s a line you’ll never cross. And third, you don’t have any idea how to lead. You don’t know how to plan for a battle and you don’t know how to strategize for an army.”

Richard’s mouth had turned down as he listened. She was right, and she knew that Richard knew it, but that wouldn’t stop the burn of criticism. “So you want me to be an assassin,” he said bitterly.

Cara shrugged. He could call it whatever he wanted to call it. They were going to remove Darken Rahl from the throne. If Richard had already drawn the conclusion that doing so would require Darken Rahl’s death, then so much the better. Maybe they wouldn’t have to tiptoe around his morals when the time came.

“I’m the Seeker of Truth,” Richard said. “I can’t just—”

“You’re also a Rahl,” Cara said. Whatever that legacy entailed, Richard would have to face it sooner or later. This running around in the woods, skirting responsibility…something would have to give.

“So I can’t lead an army, but I’m supposed to lead an empire.”

“You could always let Rahl do it.”

Richard turned, looking for Kahlan with the added benefit of offering Cara the back of his head. He didn’t answer. Cara didn’t care. If she had to be the person to tell Richard things he didn’t want to hear, then so be it. 

“She’s back,” Richard said, moving away from Cara.

Cara turned, still slightly irritated with Richard, and for a moment forgot to breathe.

Kahlan’s new shirt was a khaki color, open at the throat and baggy. She’d rolled the large sleeves to her elbows and accented the shirt with a wide, dark brown leather belt cinched around her stomach. Instead of tucking the hem of her shirt into her olive green pants, Kahlan had let it hang loose. The skirt of hanging shirt combined with Kahlan’s knee-high leather boots was oddly feminizing. Without her dress billowing around her legs Kahlan seemed to take up less space, but at the same time her new clothes didn’t soften any of her movements. Her walk was purposeful, her shoulders back, demanding attention.

Cara looked away, but it felt wrong, like she was closing her eyes against one of the wonders of the world and she’d never get the chance to see it again. Look at her, she said to herself. Look at her. She looked back.

There was a coppery tint to Kahlan’s hair, as if the sun had burned the edges. She smiled when she saw Cara watching her and it was like a wire had tightened around Cara’s chest.

“See?” Kahlan said, “That didn’t take long, did it?”

“No,” Richard admitted. “You look nice.”

“Thank you.” Kahlan draped her old dress over her shoulder and brushed her hair away from her face. “Ready?”

Richard must have nodded—maybe even said the word “yes”—but if he did, Cara didn’t hear him. He started to walk away and Kahlan was still looking at her, still smiling a little.

“Are you coming?” Kahlan asked.

Cara blinked. She took an unsteady step forward. Her toe caught on the ground and she stopped, trying to find her balance again.

Kahlan was watching her.

Maybe you could reach out and touch her right now, she thought. Balance yourself. And maybe you’re afraid to touch her, another part of her thought. Afraid that if you touch her you’ll fall.

Kahlan held her hand out and Cara reached out, brushing Kahlan’s fingers. It was like touching molten lead, and Cara was glad to burn.


Dinner was a subdued affair, the following morning’s separation hanging over all of their heads like a storm cloud. The barmaid had kept their drinks filled, and Cara had found herself drinking just to keep busy. Even Zedd, who normally had no problem enjoying himself over a pint of ale, was quietly cleaning the meat from his chicken bones.

“We’re a sorry bunch,” Richard said, trying to inject some levity into the silence.

Zedd grunted his agreement, but no one else stepped in to continue the conversation. Kahlan leaned back in her chair, already finished with her dinner. She’d been openly watching Cara, not smiling, not winking, not knocking her feet against Cara’s, just watching, and Cara was finding it oddly enjoyable. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of Kahlan all afternoon and Kahlan had noticed. Now it felt like she was returning the favor.

After a moment, Richard sighed and pushed his chair back. “Think I’m going to head back. Anyone else? Zedd?”

Zedd nodded and sucked his fingers. He stood and drained the last of his ale, burping quietly when he set the tankard down. Richard tossed a few coins onto the table.

“Cara? Kahlan?”

Kahlan shook her head. “I’ll wait for Cara,” she said.

Richard caught Cara’s eye and lifted his eyebrows pointedly. Cara resisted the urge to roll her eyes. He couldn’t be any more obvious if he tried.

Talk to her, Richard mouthed over Kahlan’s head.

Nope. She was wrong. He could be more obvious.

“See you at the inn,” Richard said. Kahlan lifted her hand and waved goodbye. She watched Richard and Zedd until they reached the door and then fixed her eyes back on Cara.

Cara stabbed a piece of steak and met Kahlan’s gaze. Kahlan blinked slowly, as if to prove it wasn’t a staring competition, and then dropped her chin into the palm of her hand to watch Cara finish her dinner.

“Does this make you uncomfortable?” Kahlan asked.

“What?”

“Me watching you?”

“Does it look like it makes me uncomfortable?”

Kahlan grinned. “No.”

It started with a prickle across the back of her neck, a sensation completely at odds with the way Kahlan’s smile made her stomach clench. A moment later the bar fell oddly and immediately silent. No talking, no forks being scraped across plates, no pints thudding against the wooden tables. Cara tensed and Kahlan looked over Cara’s shoulder. Her lips pressed together in a thin line and her blue eyes went cold.

Cara turned. The three D’Haran soldiers they’d passed on the road were standing just inside the tavern door, scanning the room contemptuously. One of the men caught Cara’s eye and smirked. He began pulling his gloves off as he strode forward, his eyes locked with Cara’s as he passed their table. He looked away only when he reached the bar and slapped his gloves against the edge of the counter.

Cara pressed her fingers into the table and leaned forward. “Probably a good idea for us to leave now,” she muttered.

Kahlan nodded and pushed her chair back, scraping the legs against the floor. The soldier that had held Cara’s gaze turned at the sound and leaned back against the bar.

“Ah, don’t tell me you’re leavin’!” he called out, drawing the attention of his companions. He nudged one and nodded in Kahlan and Cara’s direction. “These nice ladies are leavin’, Charlie. A’fore we even get a chance to introduce ourselves.”

Charlie grunted.

The soldier pushed away from the bar and advanced on their table, his greasy round face shining in the lamplight. “We’re real nice,” he said. He picked up the chair Richard had vacated and turned it around. He sat on it backwards, resting his arms on the backrest. He moved his glittering eyes over each of them in turn, holding Cara’s gaze when their eyes met again. He smiled, revealing cracked and yellowed teeth. “Where you ladies from?”

“D’Hara,” Cara said.

“You don’t look like D’Harans.”

“If you mean we don’t look like you then I think that’s a compliment.”

The soldier’s face darkened. Behind him, Charlie chuckled.

“She’s talking about you too, dumbass.”

“I know you,” the third soldier said. He’d been quiet, watching the exchange between Cara and his friends. Now he was staring at Cara, and there was no uncertainty in his voice. Out of the corner of her eye Cara saw Kahlan stiffen.

The first soldier twisted to face his friend. “From where?” he asked, interested but obviously skeptical.

“From the road.”

“With the horses,” Charlie said.

The third soldier nodded and the first turned back to face Kahlan and Cara slowly, his head tilted as he thought back. “That’s right,” he said. He reached out and put his index finger on one of the gold coins Richard had left and dragged it to the edge of the table. “We did see you lovely ladies riding some very lovely horses. Didn’t we?” He leaned forward, rocking the chair onto two legs and moving into Kahlan’s personal space.

“Yes,” Cara said. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, feigning boredom.

“Where were you lovely ladies headed on those horses?”

“D’Hara.”

“What a coincidence. So are we. Except…” he winced. “We don’t have horses.”

“We’d like some, though,” Charlie interjected.

“We would.”

“I’m sure somebody in town has some you can buy,” Cara said.

“Why buy ‘em when you can get ‘em for free?”

Cara snorted, equal parts irritated and amused. If they'd known she was a Mord-Sith not one of them would have looked her in the eye, let alone tried to speak to her. “You’re not getting our horses.”

The soldier raised an eyebrow at her and then turned to Kahlan. “What about you, Pretty?”

Kahlan’s jaw tightened. She kept her eyes on the table.

“You a good D’Haran girl? Gonna donate your horse to a good cause?” He reached out, angling his hand toward Kahlan’s face.

“Don’t,” Cara said sharply. Kahlan flinched.

The soldier bared his teeth. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t touch her.”

More teeth. Cara felt ice trickling through her veins. If he touched Kahlan he wasn’t getting away with it. She’d break every one of his fingers.

One dirty finger curled around a strand of Kahlan’s hair.

Cara threw the rest of her ale into the soldier’s face. He jerked and spluttered. Cara stood, kicking her chair away with a sharp backwards strike of her heel. The soldier wiped his face as he struggled to stand, his legs tangled with his chair. Kahlan slipped behind Cara.

“You bitch,” the soldier seethed. He shoved his chair away and advanced on them, his face a deep, angry red. His friends followed suit and Cara could hear the tavern’s patrons quickly abandoning the tables behind her.

“What’d you do that for? Huh?” the soldier flicked his wrist, sending drops of ale from his hand to the floor. “Why you gotta start problems? Huh?”

Cara threw her tankard at him. He lifted an arm, barely knocking it away before it smashed him in the face. Cara’s fist was right behind the tankard, though, and he wasn’t nearly quick enough to knock that away. She punched him in the jaw and kneed him in the crotch, sending him sprawling into Charlie.

Charlie stumbled under his friend's weight. He took a clumsy swing at Cara. She grabbed him by the wrist and twisted, fully intending to break his hand until Kahlan shouted her name. Cara turned. The third soldier had lifted a chair over his head. Kahlan clapped her hands together and swung, catching him in the ribs just as he sent the chair flying in Cara’s direction. She ducked and released Charlie and the chair clattered harmlessly to the ground.

She stood in time to see the soldier slap Kahlan across the face. The sound hit her in the chest like a physical blow. Kahlan’s head snapped to the side. Cara punched Charlie in the face and leapt over the table. She wrapped an arm around Kahlan’s soldier’s neck as he lifted his hand again. He grunted and grabbed at Cara's arm, and when Cara jerked him backward he let loose one last desperate kick before he lost his balance entirely. The toe of his boot caught Kahlan squarely in the stomach. She let out a cry and fell to her knees.

A low-pitched roar filled Cara’s ears. She spun and slammed the man face-first into the table. She grabbed a fork and jammed the tines into the sensitive curl of his ear. He struggled and Cara forced her body weight against his upper back.

Vin dem rechstor kadaga,” she spat, the High D’Haran sharp and deadly on her tongue. The soldier stopped struggling. He placed his hands on the table, palms flat. He was trembling.

“Don’t,” he said weakly.

“You didn’t listen when I said that,” Cara said. Her skull felt too small. Her temples were throbbing and the edges of her vision were red. If the slap had awakened the beast within her, the kick had set it free, and it demanded blood.

“Please—”

Cara slammed his head to the table again, silencing him.

“Cara,” Kahlan said from the floor. Her voice was tinged with fear, breathy and weak.

Cara glanced over her shoulder. Kahlan was still kneeling on the floor, one hand against her stomach, the other pressed to the ground for balance. Her head was down, and Cara could see her shoulders rising and falling rapidly. Fear trickled into Cara's stomach, toxic and cold.

“Leave,” Cara snapped, and whipped the soldier toward the door. Charlie and the first soldier stumbled after him, tripping over upturned chairs as they went.

“Cara,” Kahlan said again. She tried to stand and couldn’t quite make it. She tipped to the side. Cara caught her and Kahlan wrapped a hand around Cara’s arm in a death grip. Her face was pale, her blue eyes dark with fear. She was shaking. “He kicked me,” she said. “I can’t—”

Kahlan tried to stand again and immediately cried out. She curled forward, both hands going to her stomach, and fell against Cara’s chest. “It hurts,” Kahlan gasped. Her breath was coming in short, rapid pants. Cara wrapped both arms around Kahlan, holding her still.

“Wait,” she said. She could hear the fear creeping into her voice. “Just hold on. Breathe, Kahlan.”

Kahlan pressed her forehead to Cara’s chest and took a breath through her nose. She held it and then exhaled shakily through her mouth.

“Again,” Cara said. “Do it again, Kahlan.”

Breath by breath, Kahlan slowly relaxed in Cara’s arms. When she finally lifted her head her cheeks were stained with tears.

“Can you stand?”

Kahlan nodded jerkily. Cara helped her to her feet. Kahlan was still bent forward slightly, and when she tried to straighten she inhaled sharply and tilted forward again. “I can’t,” she said. A mixture of pain and fear crossed Kahlan’s features. “It hurts—”

“Lean on me,” Cara said. She wrapped an arm around Kahlan’s back and under her arms, holding her upright. “If it hurts I'm carrying you.”

Kahlan leaned into Cara and took a step. She wobbled and Cara tightened her grip.

“Fine,” Kahlan breathed, “I’m fine. I can do it.”

They staggered back toward the inn and Cara tried to control her heart rate. She’d broken out into a cold sweat, Kahlan’s fear feeding her own. Her head was fuzzy, panic clouding her thoughts. Kahlan was hurt. In the entirety of their time together Cara had never thought of it as a possibility. Never thought about how she’d react. Never thought about the feeling of helplessness that would come with it.

“Midwife,” Kahlan said. “We should find a midwife.”

Cara didn’t answer. She opened the inn’s door and reached down, wrapping one arm under Kahlan’s legs. “Hold on,” she instructed. Kahlan draped an arm around Cara’s shoulders obediently and Cara lifted her from the floor.

Kahlan pressed her face into Cara’s neck as Cara passed the front counter and began climbing the stairs. She had yet to stop shaking. Cara reached the top of the stairs and lowered Kahlan carefully to the floor. She opened their bedroom door and guided Kahlan to the bed.

“Lie down,” she said. “I’m getting Zedd.”

Kahlan grabbed her hand. “Cara—”

“He can help.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I know,” Cara interrupted. She knew that Kahlan wasn’t asking her to get Zedd, that she’d be happy with a second-rate healer. Cara wouldn’t. She was terrified and she knew Kahlan was doing her best to put on a brave face and pretend she wasn’t scared, but it was more than just being kicked in the stomach and they both knew it. And Zedd was the only person Cara trusted with that. “I’m getting Zedd.”

She crossed the hall, ignoring the anxiety clamoring to be heard in the back of her mind. They’ll know, it said, they’ll know and you won’t be able to hide anymore.

The image of Kahlan kneeling on the ground, her face twisted with pain and terror, her hands wrapped around her stomach, flashed through Cara’s mind’s eye. She lifted her fist and pounded it against Richard and Zedd’s door.

Richard opened the door and smiled. “Cara—”

“Kahlan’s hurt,” Cara said, directing the statement over Richard’s shoulder to Zedd, who was reclining on the bed. Richard’s smile evaporated. He pushed past Cara and Zedd scrambled to his feet.

“What happened?” Zedd demanded as he strode into the hall.

“Someone kicked her in the stomach. Zedd, she’s—”

Zedd pushed Kahlan’s door open and pregnant died on Cara’s lips. She couldn’t say it, and he’d know for himself in a moment.

Richard was kneeling next to the bed, one of Kahlan’s hands clasped between both of his.

“Richard, give me room,” Zedd said. He sat on the edge of the bed and Richard stood, moving several steps away.

Cara hovered just inside the door, torn between needing to be close, needing to see and hear for herself that Kahlan was fine and the apprehension flooding through her body that demanded she be far away by the time Zedd placed his hands on Kahlan’s stomach.

“I can’t stand up straight,” Kahlan said. “Every time I try it hurts. Like a cramp, but worse.”

“Let me see.” Zedd touched his fingertips to the center of Kahlan’s ribs, his face slack with concentration. He flattened his palm and moved it down Kahlan’s stomach, toward her belly button. He frowned and glanced up and Cara saw it—the exact moment when Zedd knew. Saw him blink, saw his mouth part with surprise, saw his hand lift from Kahlan’s stomach almost reverently.

“Kahlan,” he murmured hoarsely.

“I know,” Kahlan whispered. She closed her eyes and dropped her head against the pillows. “I know, Zedd.”

“What?” Richard demanded. He moved closer. “What is it?”

“Is it okay?” Kahlan asked. Zedd blinked and shook himself and pressed his hands back to Kahlan’s stomach.

“Is she okay?” Richard asked.

Zedd made a shushing noise and Richard sank back again. After a moment of silence, Zedd lifted his head. He smiled and met Kahlan’s eye and nodded and Cara felt like an enormous weight had lifted from her shoulders. She sagged against the wall, her legs shaking. Kahlan met her gaze for the briefest of moments and Cara saw her own relief reflected tenfold in Kahlan’s eyes.

“She’s okay,” Zedd said. He was smiling broadly now, a smile of delight rather than reassurance. He looked up at Richard. “Better than okay, I’d say. She’s pregnant.”

Richard froze and Cara felt the breath rush from her lungs.

Kahlan’s smile faded. She sat up. “Richard,” she said carefully.

“You’re pregnant?” Richard asked, his voice hushed.

Kahlan nodded slowly. She gripped the edge of the bed and Cara saw her knuckles turn white.

“You’re pregnant,” Richard said, and this time there was a hint of delighted awe to his words. He dove forward and took Kahlan’s face in his hands, kissing her soundly on the mouth. Kahlan brought her hands up and pushed him away, leaning back to break the kiss.

“Richard,” Kahlan said more firmly. She dropped her hands to her lap and ducked her head. “It’s not yours,” she said quietly.

Cara saw the confusion cross Richard’s face. Zedd stepped back quickly.

“It’s—what?”

“It’s not yours,” Kahlan repeated.

Richard blinked and pulled his eyebrows together, as if he couldn’t quite believe what Kahlan was saying. “If it’s not mine,” he said, “then whose is it?” From the tone of his voice Cara could tell that he thought Kahlan was mistaken, that he was the only available option as the father. That of course it was his, because who else could possibly deserve it?

Cara felt a dangerous clench of possessiveness in her gut, washing away everything else—the anxiety, the fear at being discovered. Kahlan was pregnant and it had been her hair that the pendant had landed on. Not Richard’s.

Mine, Cara thought, and for the first time the thought didn't make her throat close.

“Kahlan?” Richard prompted.

Kahlan shook her head. Still giving Cara an out. I won’t force you, she’d said, and Cara hadn’t really believed her until this moment.

“Kahlan,” Richard tried again.

Cara pushed away from the wall. “It’s mine.”

Chapter Text

Richard laughed; a burst of uncomfortable air and then silence.

Kahlan’s blue eyes had gone to Cara the moment she stepped away from the wall. Her expression following Cara’s announcement was unreadable—she was waiting for the other shoe to fall, maybe, for Cara to smile and say “just kidding” and join in Richard’s laughter.

There was a moment there, finite and brief, where Cara could take it back. Say “no, it’s not mine, I just wanted to see what you would do.” Cara let it pass.

Richard was watching Kahlan, waiting for her to put his mind at ease.

Kahlan shook her head. “Richard…you and I…we haven’t…” she held her hands up, as if trying to catch the right words as they flit past. “We haven’t done anything,” Kahlan said.

Richard jerked forward in protest. He opened his mouth, then closed it again slowly. He turned to face Cara, his soft brown eyes regarding her with suspicion for the first time since they’d met. She could see the dots connecting as he stared at her, could see it in the way the frown lines deepened between his eyebrows. We haven't done anything, but she and I have. “Cara—you and Cara…”

“We slept together,” Kahlan said. She dropped her head into her hands miserably.

Cara stared back at Richard unflinchingly. She was the villain. She could see it in his eyes. The one who had seduced Kahlan, who had wormed her way into their group and stolen the woman he loved. She was used to being the villain. And if he thought Kahlan was a victim, then so be it.

She knew the blow was coming before Richard ever cocked his arm—saw the ugly curl of his upper lip and knew he was going to hit her. She rolled with the blow, letting it glance off of her chin. Richard pulled his fist back to his ear, daring her to fight back.

“Richard!” Kahlan cried, and at the sound of her voice Richard’s eyes flashed. He hit Cara again. She bounced against the wall and back, her hands still limp at her sides. She wouldn’t fight back. He could hit her until his arm was exhausted. He deserved his anger and she deserved her punishment.

He hit her again, square in the face, and Cara felt her nose break with a hollow crunch. Warm blood rushed down her face and across her lips.

Richard pulled back again and stopped, anger and horror warring for dominance across his face. Through the tears of pain blurring her vision Cara could make out Kahlan and Zedd standing next to the bed, watching, one of Zedd’s arms holding Kahlan back.

Richard blinked. “Cara,” he said, and for a moment Cara thought he would apologize. Then his face went hard and he shoved her against the wall. He didn’t raise his fist again, and when Cara didn’t react to the blood dripping from her chin he shoved her to the side and stalked from the room. He slammed his bedroom door and Cara brought a hand to her face, trying to catch the blood before it dripped on her shirt.

“Let me see,” Zedd said curtly. Cara dropped her hand and he pinched the bridge of her nose gently. She felt a pop followed by a strange sucking sensation and the pain evaporated. She took an experimental breath through her nose. The air gurgled wetly past the blood still clinging to her nostrils, but she could breathe again.

“Sit,” Zedd said. He pushed her toward the bed and left the room.

Cara sat.

Kahlan hovered nervously, wringing her hands. “Are you okay?”

Cara nodded. She sniffed and wiped the blood from her chin with the back of her hand. “You?”

“Yes.”

Zedd returned and closed the door behind him. He tossed a small hand towel to Cara and pointed at the space next to her on the bed. “Sit,” he said to Kahlan.

Kahlan sat.

Cara wiped her upper lip, then carefully folded the towel over to a new, clean square, and wiped again.

“Explain,” Zedd said. His forehead was pinched and his lips were pursed when he wasn’t speaking. Not as furious as Richard, but still angry.

“Which part?” Kahlan asked quietly.

“How would be a good place to start.”

“We don’t know. We just know…” Kahlan glanced at Cara. “We found a wizard, and he said it was Cara’s.”

“You found a wizard,” Zedd repeated. He raised an eyebrow skeptically.

Kahlan nodded.

“I hope you won’t be offended if I ask to check for myself?”

Kahlan shook her head and looked at Cara. Cara folded her towel and placed it in her lap. She shrugged.

Zedd shook his sleeves to his elbows and stepped forward. He placed one hand on Kahlan’s stomach and the other on Cara’s arm.

For a moment there was nothing, and Cara thought that maybe Bartleby had gotten it wrong, that it wasn’t hers. Then the hairs on her arms began to stand on end and a strange buzzing coursed over her skin, and where she had felt horror and anger a week ago at being named a parent now she felt an odd satisfaction at being validated despite Zedd’s disbelief.

Zedd withdrew and rubbed a hand across his face. “Well,” he sighed, “he was right. And you don’t know…?”

“No,” Kahlan said.

“But you have been…” Zedd made an indistinct gesture with both of his hands.

Kahlan nodded and said, “Yes.”

Zedd rubbed his temples.

“Is there anything that could do this?” Kahlan cast Cara a cautious glance. “Cara has a theory that it might not have been us, that someone—or something—has an agenda.”

“Certainly, there are things that can do this. But nothing you could just accidentally—” Zedd froze, realization slowly dawning on his features. “Did you—” he stopped. “Were you—” he stopped again. “The Strompel extract that broke in my bag. Did either of you…” he trailed off, looking uncomfortable. “Is there any chance you might have…”

“We broke it,” Cara said.

“That…that’s probably it, then.”

It made no sense. It defied everything Cara had ever been taught about making babies.

“How does it work?” Kahlan asked, voicing the question for both of them.

Zedd’s face colored. He cleared his throat. “If certain…bodily fluids…are…” he coughed. “Are exchanged…then it acts…” he gestured toward Kahlan, his blush deepening. “Well, you can see the evidence for yourself.”

“So it’s my fault,” Cara said.

“I told you not to put it—”

“Ah!” Zedd waved his hands, cutting Kahlan off. “Please. It’s not a visual I need.”

“Why would you even have that in your bag?” Cara demanded.

“For Kahlan and Richard. In case they ever wanted children but couldn’t—and then we found the Rada’Han and I didn’t think they’d need it anymore, but…” Zedd lifted his hands, then let them fall to his sides in a gesture of helplessness.

“What’s done is done,” Kahlan said.

“She’s…She’s okay, though, right?” Cara asked. “The cramping—”

“Had nothing to do with the baby,” Zedd reassured them. “Which is perfectly healthy, by the way.” He flinched. “I’m sorry. I’m still trying to process…” He glanced between them, as if he was scanning his memories of them, trying to pin down the when and the how. “The two of you. I just…”

“If it makes you feel any better, we don’t really know how it happened either.”

Zedd smiled thinly. “I don’t know if that’s reassuring or not.” He gestured toward Cara, still speaking to Kahlan. “So this is what made you rethink marrying Richard?”

Kahlan was quiet for a moment. “Among other things,” she said.

“I thought it had to do with your duties as a Confessor. I never would have thought that Cara—”

“Zedd,” Kahlan said sharply, and Zedd stopped. He glanced at Cara, then back at Kahlan.

“I think I should check on Richard,” he said finally. Kahlan dismissed him with a slight lift of her chin. He left and Kahlan rose to close the door behind him. She stood with her hand on the door for a moment, her head down, before she turned back to face Cara.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said quietly.

Cara shrugged.

“You know I’m going to ask why, don’t you?”

Cara met her gaze levelly. “Are you mad that I did?”

Kahlan bit her lip. She crossed her arms over her chest and drummed the fingers of one hand against her upper arm. “No,” she said. “I’m confused. But I’m not mad.”

That made two of them, then. In the moment it had seemed like a good idea, but looking back it was a decision born out of pride and not much common sense. It had been clear that Richard thought the child was his. Somehow, someway, in the few seconds between Zedd’s announcement and Cara’s confession, he’d allowed himself to entertain the idea that he was going to be the father of Kahlan’s child. And that had not set well with Cara. Not at all.

“Richard thought it was his,” Cara said. “It wasn’t.”

“I could have told him that. You didn’t need to say it was yours.”

“You are mad.”

Kahlan blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m not mad, Cara. I just want you to understand why I might be confused. You said you couldn’t be a parent. You said that I should tell Richard it was his baby. And then you decided to throw all of that out the window. So now what?” Kahlan held her hands up. “On the one hand I have you telling me you can’t have any part of this, and on the other I have you actively taking responsibility.”

Cara dropped her eyes, glaring at the bloodstained towel in her lap.

“I need to know, Cara.”

“Know what?”

“Which hand you’re going to fall into.”

Cara shrugged.

Kahlan stalked forward. She grabbed one of Cara’s hands and held it to her stomach. Cara balked and tried to pull away, panic rising in her gut. She could feel the small bump of Kahlan’s stomach. Kahlan held her tight with both hands.

“Kahlan, don’t—”

“We can’t live with your flip-flopping,” Kahlan said. She tightened her grip around Cara’s wrist, pressing against the nerve behind the joint of her thumb. “We. Me and the baby. We’re a we now, Cara. It’s not me and you. It’s me and the baby. You can’t half-ass this. You can’t be in and out whenever you want to be. It’s all in or nothing, Cara.” Kahlan fell silent. Cara could feel Kahlan’s eyes on her, watching. Cara’s eyes were fixed to her hand. The khaki shirt was soft. She could feel Kahlan’s body heat leaking out, warming her palm. Slowly, Cara relaxed her hand, easing her fingers from their curled position and splaying them across Kahlan’s stomach. Kahlan’s grip on her wrist relaxed. Cara kept her hand in place.

“It’s really in there,” Kahlan whispered.

Cara lifted her chin in a jerky nod.

Kahlan lifted one hand and pushed it through Cara’s hair gently. “Tell me what you want, Cara.”

“I want…” she wanted a million things. She wanted to not be scared. She wanted to be good enough, to not be broken. She wanted to be a normal person who would be happy to have a baby. She wanted to be able to say everything she wanted out loud without being afraid someone would see her as weak for doing so. “I don’t want you to leave.”

Kahlan tucked a stand of hair behind Cara’s ear. “Is that all?”

Cara shook her head.

Kahlan waited.

“I want…you to be patient. With me. This is...” Scary. Overwhelming. Maybe too much. Cara clenched her teeth together. “This is new.”

Kahlan laughed. “New for me, too,” she said dryly.

The baby, yes. The baby was new. But that wasn’t what Cara had been talking about. Not exactly, anyway. She looked away.

Kahlan touched her chin. “I’ll stay,” she said, and Cara’s insides twisted. “And I’ll promise to be patient if you’ll do something for me.”

“What?”

“If you’ll—” Kahlan’s face twisted. “It sounds dirty. But if you’ll touch me. And I don’t mean like that,” Kahlan said quickly when Cara leaned back. “Although, yes…that’s…that’d be fine. I mean like this.” She ran her thumb over Cara’s knuckles. “I want you to touch my stomach. And my hand. And my knee. And I want you to play with my hair when you’re lying in bed thinking.” Kahlan curled her fingers around Cara’s jaw, holding her in place and piercing her with her gaze. “I want you to stop treating me like a leper.”

Cara nodded. She’d hated the self-imposed moratorium on touching Kahlan as well, but it had seemed like the safest route to take at the time: no touching meant no temptation meant an easy separation. Not quite accurate, as it turned out.

“Thank you,” Kahlan whispered. She ran her fingertips along Cara’s jawline. Then her mouth twisted up in a wry smile. “I’ll stay as long as Richard doesn’t ban us both, at least.”

Chapter Text

Banning would require talking, and it was very clear the next morning that any communication they might want to have with Richard would have to go through Zedd and only Zedd. Richard had gone deaf where Kahlan and Cara were concerned. He didn’t react when Kahlan saddled her horse and instead of heading north, toward Aydindril, she fell into line as they traveled east to D’Hara.

It surprised her, how indifferent she was to Richard’s reaction. She hadn’t expected the feeling of tranquility that had come with telling Richard and Zedd about Cara and the baby. It was like a parasite had been gnawing at her insides and she’d gotten so used to the churning feeling that she hadn’t really noticed it. And now that it was gone all she felt was relief. So Richard was upset. He had every right to be so. But Kahlan was happy and she wasn’t going to cater to his hurt feelings. He would either learn to accept it or he would not, and if he couldn’t—or wouldn’t, well…

She was okay with losing a friend.

She was not okay with losing Cara.

Kahlan studied Cara’s back as she swayed gently in front of her atop her horse. Cara had taken up the position behind Zedd. Normally she rode in front, her eyes constantly roving the trees for any sign of a potential threat, but Richard had silently claimed that spot. It was impossible to not liken the move to a dog peeing on a tree to reestablish its territory. For her part, Cara had not pushed. She’d allowed Zedd to position himself as a sort of human wall between the two halves of the party. Kahlan did not envy his predicament. He was the odd man out, his relationship with all of them hanging tenuously by a thread and there was nothing he could do to change it. If she regretted anything it was placing that kind of pressure on Zedd, the pressure to stay neutral in the face of so much deceit and anger.

They would reach a boiling point at some point, that much was clear. They couldn’t live together in such close proximity without another blow up. Whether it would come to blows or not again remained to be seen, but Kahlan had told Cara that under no uncertain terms was she to allow Richard to hit her again.

“He’s angry,” Cara had said that morning. She’d been sitting cross-legged in bed, the sheet pulled tight across her knees, watching Kahlan get dressed.

“He’s allowed to be angry. He’s not allowed to hit you.”

“If he needs to do that to get his frustration out, then—”

“Cara.” Kahlan had had to fight the urge to throw a boot at her. “Do. Not. Let him hit you.” She’d cinched her belt loosely before swiping her hair out of eyes and making her final point. “Would you let him hit me?”

Cara had narrowed her eyes. “Of course not.”

“Why not? Isn’t he mad at me, too?”

“He can’t be mad at you.”

“Because he thinks it’s your fault.”

“Yes.”

“Because he thinks you stole me from him.”

Cara had hesitated then, the left corner of her mouth curled up, as if she’d had an answer ready and then realized it wasn’t a question.

“You definitely didn’t steal me,” Kahlan had said. She’d crossed the room then and knelt on the bed and kissed Cara quickly before telling her to get dressed so they could eat breakfast together.

She hadn’t lied. Cara hadn’t stolen her. Or maybe she had and it had happened so slowly Kahlan hadn’t noticed it. She was certain she’d done her fair share of making decisions where Cara was concerned, though. Or maybe she hadn’t. Because most days it didn’t feel like a choice. It felt…inevitable. Like she could have turned her back if she’d wanted to, ignored what was happening, but that wouldn’t have stopped it happening. Maybe that was the choice, then. Standing still and letting it happen. Like standing outside while a storm rolled in, knowing that it was going to rain and there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it. She could stay still and accept it and get drenched, or she could go inside and hide from the wet. Either way it still rained.

Kahlan’s mare chuffed and shook her head, rattling the bit in its mouth. It was the youngest of the four horses, and she could tell it was none too pleased at being reined in. Every once in a while the mare pushed her sleek neck out, testing Kahlan’s control. She wanted to run, and if she couldn’t do that then she at least wanted the freedom to nuzzle up against the other horses.

“Sorry,” Kahlan said. She patted the mare’s strong shoulder and ran a hand through her mane. “We’re cramping your style, aren’t we?”

She glanced up. Cara was looking over her shoulder, watching Kahlan’s interaction with her horse quizzically. Kahlan beckoned her back with one finger. Cara pulled her horse up and Kahlan’s mare’s ears pricked forward.

“What is it?” Cara asked.

Kahlan shook her head as she pulled even with Cara. Her horse immediately leaned into Cara’s sand-colored gelding and nipped at its bit. “Nothing. Somebody was just lonely back here.”

“You? Or the horse?”

“Can’t it be both?” Kahlan caught a flash of a small smile gracing Cara’s profile. “Do you know where we are?”

“I’d be able to point to the general area on a map, yes. But I’ve never been here before.”

They were several hours outside of Hansard and the wild was beginning to creep in. The southern forests were different. More hospitable. They were filled with cedar trees and gurgling brooks and patches of open canopy that let the sun reach much of the forest floor. D’Haran forests were dark and wet and overgrown. For an inexperienced traveler, ten steps from the path might spell death simply because he wasn’t able to find his way back again through the vines and monstrous trees that seemed to be sagging under the weight of the thick moss covering their branches. It was a wall of green on all sides, almost pretty in its dark danger.

“I feel like I’m being watched,” Kahlan admitted. If they were, the horses did not seem overly concerned, and she had more faith in them sensing something stalking the group than she did herself.

“It’s because you can’t see anything past a few feet into the forest,” Cara said.

“I thought you were going to say, ‘because you are’.”

“Well…” Cara grinned mischievously. “That too.”

Kahlan smacked Cara’s thigh. “Don’t do that to me.”

Cara’s grin broadened. “It’s fine. Most everything out here is more scared of us than we are of it.”

“But not everything.”

Cara shrugged. “Banelings are worse than anything we might find out here.”

Kahlan wasn’t so sure about that. For one, there were gars in the D’Haran wilds. And calthrops. And just about every other terrifying creature that existed in stories to give little girls nightmares about being eaten alive.

“You don’t look convinced.”

“Because I’m not.”

“You tell me if you have any blood flies bite you and I’ll protect you from the big nasty gar that comes after them,” Cara teased.

“You think it’s funny,” Kahlan said, “but I’m hiding behind you if one shows up.”

Cara ducked her head and leaned over, bringing her mouth close to Kahlan’s ear, and whispered “I’m hiding behind Zedd.”


Kahlan didn’t want to constantly throw the fact that she had started a relationship with Cara in Richard’s face. But she also wasn’t about to sent up an extra tent if they didn’t actually need it, and now that everyone knew about her and Cara there wasn’t much sense in pretending anymore. It was a process of acclimation, she’d rationalized to Cara: the more he sees us together, the faster he’ll adjust.

Really it was just an excuse to fall asleep pressed up next to Cara. And really, what other excuse did she need?

She woke with her head resting low on Cara’s back, just below the sharp edge of her shoulder blades, one arm slung over Cara’s waist. She was hot. The humid morning heat was just beginning to permeate their small tent, but Kahlan stayed where she was, listening to the quiet sound of Cara’s lungs inhaling and exhaling beneath her.

It was almost hard to believe that a few months ago, Cara would have rather put out an eye than let Kahlan touch her. More and more Kahlan was beginning to understand that it was all a front—that Cara’s training had left her with the difficult juxtaposition of simultaneously craving human contact and believing that that desire made her weak. She’d gotten much better at accepting physical affection, and they were working on Cara initiating it, but it made Kahlan sad to see just how hard it was for Cara to convince herself that reaching out and touching someone out of caring was okay. In that sense they were almost exact opposites: Cara had no problem having sex with someone but had a difficult time with the emotional side of things. Kahlan was well versed in emotion and affection but had, until recently, withdrawn from all sexually charged encounters.

Kahlan smiled wryly to herself. They were quite a pair.

Kahlan turned her head and pressed her face into Cara’s back, breathing in the smell of sleep and Cara’s corded shirt. Cara stirred. She wrapped her arms under her pillow, bunching it close to her face, and lay still.

“Are you awake?” Kahlan whispered.

“Mm.”

“It’s hot.”

“Mm-hm.”

Kahlan nestled her head against Cara’s back again. Her left hand slipped under the hem of Cara’s shirt. She began trailing her fingers absently across Cara’s hip.

“What are you thinking about?” Cara asked after a moment. Her voice was deeper than normal, rough with sleep.

“Nothing.” Kahlan stilled her hand. “I don’t want to get up.”

Cara pushed herself up on one arm and started to roll onto her back. Kahlan lifted her head, waiting until Cara was settled again, and then dropped her chin onto Cara’s stomach. Cara crossed her arms under her head, watching Kahlan. “Did you sleep well?” she asked.

Kahlan nodded and Cara wrinkled her nose.

“What?”

“Don’t do that.”

Kahlan frowned. “Do what?”

“With your chin.”

“This?” Kahlan wiggled her head back and forth, digging her chin into Cara’s abdomen.

Cara’s legs jerked. She rose up and pushed one hand against Kahlan’s forehead. “Yes. That.”

“Why not?” Kahlan lifted her chin and lifted an eyebrow. “Does it tickle?”

“No—”

Kahlan dropped her chin again, cutting Cara off. Cara gave a short cry that was equal parts laughter and surprised indignation. She squirmed, trying to wiggle away from Kahlan’s chin, and Kahlan wrapped her arms around Cara’s middle to hold herself in place. Cara’s flailing arms and legs knocked against the sides of the tent, shaking the frame.

“Stop,” Cara gasped, trying to not smile and failing miserably. She tried to work her fingers, weak with laughter, under Kahlan’s jaw to force her chin up.

Something heavy thumped against the outside of the tent. Kahlan froze and Cara snapped to attention. She pushed herself into a sitting position, listening hard.

“I think they’re up,” Kahlan whispered. Cara nodded stiffly. Kahlan rolled to her knees and brushed her fingers through her hair, trying to work out any matting on the sides from using Cara as a pillow. She passed Cara her boots and Cara crawled past her, out of the tent.

It was a little thing, and Kahlan wasn’t sure why Cara had done it. Maybe just to give herself more room to get dressed. But it felt like Cara left the tent first to break the ice—to absorb the glares Richard was no doubt directing at her and to give Kahlan a friendly face to focus on when she stepped out of the tent herself.

Zedd was tending the fire with an almost laughable level of focus. Kahlan had seen him incinerate banelings with little more than a flick of his wrist, but he was acting like getting the logs he’d collected to catch fire was taking all of his concentration. Richard was fiddling with his sharpening stone, the Sword of Truth lying across his lap, his forehead pinched in what was beginning to be an almost constant expression of barely controlled rage.

Kahlan strode forward purposefully and sat next to Cara, immediately across from Richard. She refused to let him be angry at Cara and Cara alone. If he was going to be upset, it would be at both of them. She would not let him remove the blame from her and put it all at Cara’s feet.

In theory, it was a good plan. But she’d underestimated just how stubborn Richard could be.

As they made their way deeper into the D’Haran wilderness and closer to the shadowy mountains that marked the boundary between the Midlands and D’Hara, it became more and more obvious that Richard was not going to simply let Kahlan go. He still refused to speak to both Kahlan and Cara, but there were little things that made Richard’s intention to win Kahlan back very clear. Like filling Kahlan’s water skin when he filled his own and leaving Cara’s behind. Brushing Kahlan’s horse down. Making sure Kahlan got an extra scoop of rice at dinner. He was groveling, trying to prove that he was a better, more attentive choice for Kahlan’s affections than Cara.

The fact that he refused to take the hint was mind-numbingly aggravating.

“What am I supposed to do?” Kahlan asked Cara crossly. Cara was rolling her blanket into a tight ball to stuff into her saddlebag. Kahlan’s own bags were already packed—courtesy, once again, of Richard.

Cara lifted one shoulder. She wasn’t particularly bothered by Richard’s attempts to usurp her position, which, in Kahlan’s opinion, spoke to a massive emotional maturation on Cara’s part. “You could tell him to stop.”

“I can’t tell him to stop being nice.”

Cara paused and glanced up at Kahlan. “He’s not being nice to be nice,” she pointed out. “He’s doing it—”

“I know, I know.” Kahlan ground her teeth in frustration. It was supposed to be easier now that they weren’t lying anymore.

“Just tell him, when he tries to do something for you, that you can do it yourself.” Cara placed her blanket in the bottom of her saddlebag and sat back on her heels. “That’s what I did.”

Kahlan squinted and shot Cara a puzzled glance. “When?”

Cara swept a hand casually and said “Not Richard. Just a few men at the People’s Palace.” She flashed her teeth in a feral grin. “You’re not the only one who’s been called ‘mistress’.”

“How nice for you.”

A real smile creased the corners of Cara’s eyes. “Don’t be jealous.”

“I’m not.” Kahlan could hear the dry sulkiness in her voice. She shook her head.

“I don’t think you’d particularly like the sort of things that I did to them to get them to call me that,” Cara continued, casually tossing her things into the bag.

“You shouldn’t make assumptions, Cara.”

“And you shouldn’t tease.”

Since leaving Hansard, Kahlan’s libido had evaporated. Maybe it was a side-effect of being pregnant, but most likely it was a result of living in such close quarters with Richard and Zedd again and knowing that if she and Cara snuck off together, they wouldn’t have to be caught in the act for Richard and Zedd to draw their own conclusions about what they’d been up to. It wasn’t a situation Kahlan had ever had to deal with before. Being a Confessor meant never having to deal with those knowing looks. Just thinking about it was enough to extinguish even the hottest flame of desire.

Kahlan flushed and worked the toe of one boot into the ground. “I’m sorry.”

Cara shrugged and stood. “It’s fine.” Kahlan had explained the best she could about where her head was at, and Cara hadn’t pushed. Which only made Kahlan feel guiltier. “There’s this thing that some Mord-Sith do. I’ve never done it on purpose, but those who did it seemed to like it, so…” Cara shrugged again.

“What, exactly, are we talking about?”

“Not having sex.”

Cara said it so easily. Kahlan felt her face go hot. She cleared her throat. “What about it?”

“Some people do it on purpose. Thirty days, I think, was how long most of them went for. No touching yourself and no having sex with someone else. Not until the last day.”

“So basically what we’re doing now,” Kahlan said.

“Yes, but you wouldn’t be allowed to touch me, even if you wanted to,” Cara said. She winked.

Kahlan drew her eyebrows together, thinking it over, imagining her reaction to having Cara close but off-limits. “At the end,” she began slowly, “when you’re allowed to touch again…”

Cara fanned her fingers and made an exploding noise.

“You’re making fun of me.”

Cara shook her head. “You asked.”

Kahlan dropped her head back, staring at the trees above. “This is not even remotely close to what I wanted to talk to you about. You realize that, right?”

“So are we doing it or not?”

Kahlan glanced at Cara out of the corner of her eye. “You think you can last thirty days?”

Cara grinned. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Oh yes. Who’s going to be better at this: the girl who lived in a perpetual orgy for most of her life, or the girl who was told from age eight that if she so much as kissed someone in the same room as a bed she’d confess them.” Kahlan snorted. “By all means, let’s place bets.”

Cara lifted an eyebrow. “In or out?”

Kahlan couldn’t imagine getting over her Richard-Zedd paranoia anytime soon. May as well make it interesting.

“In.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kahlan rubbed a greasy cloth around the inside of their cast iron skillet, wiping away the fat that had cooked off of the rabbit Cara had killed and tried very hard to ignore the fact that Cara was watching her.

It had only been ten days and already Kahlan’s resolve to keep her hands to herself was waning. She’d only lasted past the day eight crisis—when she’d decided that “no touching allowed” was a stupid rule and that rules were made for breaking—by telling herself that giving in would be losing, and Cara expected her to lose, so keep your hands front and center.

Cara was doing her very best to push Kahlan’s buttons. She’d started standing close behind Kahlan whenever they stopped, her body heat pressing up against Kahlan’s, making the sides of Kahlan’s neck tingle with every beat of her heart. Cara would exhale and lift the hairs on Kahlan’s neck—would fix Kahlan with smoldering looks that lasted far longer than was decent and made the back of Kahlan’s neck hot.

Like this one.

“Stop it,” Kahlan said, without lifting her gaze from the skillet in her hands.

“Stop what?” Cara asked.

“Cheating.”

Cara laughed quietly through her nose. “How is this cheating?”

Kahlan refused to look up—refused to face the cocked eyebrow and self-satisfied grin she knew would be waiting for her across the smoking coals of their evening fire. A part of her wanted to ask Cara if it was really as easy for her to sit on her hands as she made it seem, or if her intense staring was a projection of just how badly she wanted to call it quits early. But she knew Cara, and Cara would never admit defeat. Or weakness.

“I have a question for you,” Kahlan said. She twisted the cloth around the edge of the skillet one last time before resting it across her knees.

Cara was leaning forward, her hands entwined, elbows pressing into her thighs. She spread her thumbs without pulling her hands apart, an invitation for Kahlan to continue.

“What do you think about Rachel?”

Cara frowned. “Rachel who?”

“She’s not a person. Just the name, Rachel.”

Cara still looked lost.

“For the baby.”

Maybe it was horrible of her—and she was fairly certain it was—but Kahlan couldn’t help but get a certain amount of delight from the panicked expression that still crossed Cara’s face if she brought up the baby without first warning Cara that it was coming. If Cara was anything like Kahlan, then most days she forgot there was even a baby to worry about. It was easy to do; Kahlan’s loose shirt hid her slowly growing stomach, and besides that, nothing much had changed. And yes; Kahlan was indescribably thrilled with the effort Cara was putting in to not shutting down when confronted with her impending parenthood. But it never failed to snap Cara out of her leering, and if that was the only weapon Kahlan had against the temptation that was Cara, well…she was going to take it.

Cara blanched. After a moment fighting to stop her eye from twitching, Cara shook her head. “No.”

“Why not?” Kahlan pressed, enjoying the sudden shift in power.

“Because I don’t like it,” Cara said. She blinked and leaned back, her face splitting into a delighted grin, as if it had just occurred to her that she was allowed to say so.

Kahlan threw the greasy towel in Cara’s direction and Cara swatted it out of the air. It hadn’t been a serious proposal—she’d only thought of it a moment before she said it aloud—but Cara didn’t need to know that.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I knew a Mord-Sith named Rachel.”

“Ah.” Kahlan paused. “That should probably be a rule. We don’t name her after a Mord-Sith.”

“What if it’s a—”

“Shush.” Kahlan held a hand up. If it was a boy then they wouldn’t need a name, and she’d really rather not think about that. She didn’t know how Confessors before had done it; carried a child for nine months only to find out that it was a boy and then be expected to make that sacrifice. Kahlan couldn’t comprehend it. When she was younger it was just something that happened. Confessors who had sons knew what was expected of them. Now, being pregnant herself, she couldn’t imagine the sort of mental and emotional strength that would take.

She wasn’t sure she had it in her.

Better to ignore that fact that having a boy was even possible and hope the Creator (and the baby,) would take the hint.

Cara looked away, her tongue pressed into her cheek. Kahlan knew it was in her nature to expect the worst, but in this case there was no upside to doing so. They’d argued again about having Zedd check the baby’s sex, which Kahlan had flatly refused—again—to do. Her point remained the same: what would it change? She would still have to give birth. Cara didn’t like to deal with uncertainties, and as much as Kahlan appreciated that, it was still her burden to bear as a Confessor.

“So,” Kahlan said, “let’s hear it. Your list of Mord-Sith names.”

Cara fiddled with the ragged edges of the cleaning cloth, her forehead slightly pinched. “It’s a little early to be talking about names, don’t you think?”

Kahlan felt her stomach drop with disappointment. “Maybe,” she agreed, trying to keep her voice light and unconcerned.

Cara glanced up and it was Kahlan’s turn to feign interest in her lap. She felt the hot prick of tears suddenly assault her eyelids. Kahlan blinked rapidly, not sure where the urge to cry had come from. Hormones, a logical sounding voice in her head supplied, and a moment later the desire to burst into tears evaporated. She dragged a finger across her eyelids, removing all trace of her tears, and Cara said “Alice. That’s one. And Erika. Berdine.” She paused and waited until Kahlan lifted her head and then offered Kahlan a sharp smile. “Denna.”

Kahlan laughed and something bit her neck. She yelped and slapped the side of her neck. Cara was on her feet already, her smile gone. Kahlan pulled her hand away slowly. She knew it was an insect—she could feel the small, fuzzy body trapped between her fingers, and yes—there it was. A black fly, a little larger than normal, it’s legs crumpled in death, gossamer wings crushed.

When she spoke, Cara’s voice was grimly devoid of humor.

“You just killed a Blood Fly. Didn’t you?”


 “I am so stupid.”

Zedd patted Kahlan’s thigh in an attempt to be comforting. “No one expects you to catch every bug that takes a nip at you for an examination before you kill it.”

“Not every bug is a homing beacon for man-eating monsters though, are they?” Kahlan pointed out miserably.

“There’s actually some speculation that Gars are originally humans that Alric Rahl modified and set loose, which is actually quite interesting if you think about it, because they’d be the first man-made species—man-made in the truest sense, as opposed to specialized breeding of dogs and—”

“And they’d like nothing more than to kill us all and spread our blood over their stomachs,” Cara said. She was collecting rope from around the camp and delivering it to Richard, who was devising a sort of rope-web above their tents to prevent any gars from swooping down on top of them. Or from carrying someone off. Kahlan’s neck was prickling, though, and if Gars were actually as intelligent as Zedd seemed to think, then it didn’t seem too far fetched to assume they might be watching in the shadows right now, examining Richard’s web and finding a way through it.

“Yes, well, they’re not exactly picky,” Zedd said.

Kahlan took a deep breath and set her shoulders. She was already scared, despite the fact that Cara had been adamant that there was a good chance that nothing would come of her killing the Blood Fly.

“They’re native to D’Hara,” she’d said. “It might not have even belonged to a gar.”

Actions spoke louder than words, though, and it seemed Cara was fairly certain something was going to come of the dead Blood Fly. She’d handed Kahlan her hunting bow and a quiver of arrows and when Kahlan had insisted she could fight with her daggers, Cara had explained, with a certainty that spoke to years of dealing with Gars, that a ranged attack was better. And she’d joined forces with Richard, which, Kahlan smiled ruefully to herself, might be the single good thing to come of the whole Gar ordeal. Richard and Cara still hadn’t spoken to each other—at least not that Kahlan had heard—but they had been working together for the better part of the past hour to Gar-proof the area.

“If we’re dealing with the short-tailed variety,” Zedd said, launching into his Gar lecture again, but Kahlan waved him off before he could pick up any steam. It was all well and good for Zedd. He could shoot fire from his hands, and Creator knew most wild animals weren’t fond of fire. But Kahlan had no such luxury, and the more he told her about the Gars’ hunting methods, how they ate, what they looked like, the more Kahlan felt like a little girl again, just waiting for her worst nightmare to come creeping out of the woods.

Cara slipped her arm through a freshly wrapped cord of rope and stood. “If there are any spells that might ward off a hungry beast, Wizard, you might—” She froze mid-sentence, her face going hard with concentration.

Fear flashed through Kahlan’s insides like a shock of static. “What?” She twisted, following Cara’s gaze toward the woods, simultaneously curious and terrified of what she might find waiting. Only trees stared back at her. “What is it?”

“Sh,” Cara snapped. She seemed to be listening intently, her eyes roaming the bows of the trees.

Kahlan held her breath and curled her fingers into the rough fabric of her pants. For a moment she could only hear the quiet crackle of the fire, and then another noise registered. A deep, repetitive clicking sound, like water dripping rapidly from a partially open tap.

Cara dropped her rope.

“Cara?” Kahlan stood, her heart hammering. “What is that?”

Cara didn’t answer. “Richard,” she said. The word snapped from her mouth. “They’re here.”

Richard swung down from a tree he’d been tying rope to, his boots hitting the ground with a heavy thud. The clicking stopped. It was all the confirmation Kahlan needed that yes, something was out there and yes, it was definitely watching them.

Kahlan pulled Cara’s hunting bow across her lap and she and Zedd stood together. The feel of the worn wood against her palm was immediately comforting, though the comfort lasted only as long as it took for the mental image of a Gar charging her to flicker across her consciousness.

 Richard unsheathed the Sword of Truth slowly. The sound of the blade slipping across the cloth interior of his scabbard seemed overly loud in the dead silence that had descended over the camp.

Kahlan held her breath, listening, her right hand cocked to reach for the quiver at her back.

For the longest time, nothing.

“Maybe they left?” Richard whispered.

Cara didn’t answer.

Something moved in the corner of Kahlan’s eye, high and to the right. She spun, nocking an arrow and pulling the bow back to full draw. Leaves waved back at her gently. For a moment Kahlan was sure her imagination had gotten the better of her, that it had been nothing more than a branch bending in the wind and entering her field of vision.

“Kahlan?” Richard murmured. Kahlan kept her eyes fixed on the branches above, a cold certainty pushing back her doubt. She exhaled shakily, moist breath washing over the three fingers holding the waxy bowstring taut.

When another dark shape flickered across her peripheral vision, Kahlan didn’t hesitate. She turned and fired, aiming on instinct rather than actual visual evidence, and was rewarded almost immediately with a guttural scream of pain. She felt Richard rush to her side, heard him whisper a curse, but Kahlan was fixated on the monster lurking above them.

A Gar was crouched on a thick branch, its body almost completely obscured by shadows and thick green leaves. Its face was long, and covered in short brown hair. A mouth filled with long, sharp teeth the color of parchment dominated the lower half of its face. Its eyes were a flat, predatory black. Kahlan’s arrow jutted from the corded muscle of its left shoulder, just above the line of pink-red flesh that covered the gar      ’s chest and abdomen. It was a thousand times more horrifying in person than it was in Kahlan’s imagination. She reached for a second arrow, her hand shaking with adrenaline. The gar was panting, watching her, its mouth parted slightly. Thick saliva coated its black bottom lip.

“Zedd?” Richard said.

Kahlan heard the start of what sounded like “No” from Cara. A fireball interrupted her. The gar dodged it easily, leaping to another branch with the dexterity of a squirrel despite its massive bulk.

Cara shouted. Kahlan turned and immediately saw their mistake. The three of them had been distracted by the gar hovering overhead, leaving their backs open to attack. And the gars had seized the opportunity. Cara had recognized the tactic and shouted a warning, and Kahlan was just fast enough to catch the gars burst from the trees. There were four of them—not including the gar Kahlan had shot—and they moved faster than anything Kahlan had ever seen in her life. They charged on all fours as one, letting loose a crescendo of roars that rattled Kahlan’s ribs. She fired another arrow and the gar she’d been aiming for shuddered to the side so fast Kahlan wasn’t entirely sure her eye had even caught the movement.

Zedd let loose a stream of fire and the gars broke formation. They fanned out, snarling and spitting, the hair on their backs standing on end. They reminded Kahlan of wolves prowling, waiting for an opening, waiting to strike. Zedd lobbed a fireball and the gar he’d been aiming for scuttled to the side, dodging it easily.

“The other one!” Cara snapped. “Where’s the other one?!?”

Kahlan whirled. Nothing was happening but it was all happening too fast—she couldn’t think, not the way she needed to. She’d never been stalked before, hunted, she didn’t know how to think like prey—

Richard cried out and Kahlan turned in time to see a flash of brown fur and teeth before the gar hit Richard, knocking him back into Kahlan and sending them both sprawling. The sudden smell of rotting flesh hit Kahlan’s nostrils. She gagged even as she rolled, trying to get as far away from the gar as she possibly could. She heard the fwoosh of Zedd’s fire followed immediately by another high-pitched, animalistic shriek of pain.

“Kill it!” Zedd roared. “Kill it, kill it, kill it!”

Richard was on his knees. He scrambled forward desperately, one hand on the ground and the other wrapped around his sword, and drove the blade into the thrashing gar’s side. It screamed again and Richard twisted. The gar kicked one massive foot, catching Richard in the thigh. He fell to his stomach and rolled away, dragging his sword free as he did so.

Kahlan’s arrows had skittered free of the quiver when she’d fallen. Too fast. Everything was too fast. She grabbed the closest arrow, her hands shaking, and fired directly into the gar’s mouth. She saw the arrowhead erupt from the back of the gar’s neck, near the base of its skull. It went limp immediately. Its black eyes stayed open, staring, and Richard grabbed Kahlan roughly and positioned himself between her and the remaining gars.

They didn’t seem particularly bothered by the death of one of their own. Their heads had lowered a fraction, like they were re-assessing the threat these four meals actually posed. Kahlan’s heel rolled over a pair of arrows at her feet. She seized one and fired again at the gar furthest from the right. The moment she loosed the arrow a second gar charged, barreling down on them, and Cara—positioned closest to the edge of camp—was directly in its path.

Kahlan fired another arrow wildly, trying to slow the gar, trying to redirect it. She saw Zedd raise his arm and the moment he did a second gar charged, this time angling at them from the side, directly at Zedd, forcing him to change targets.

The gar bearing down on Cara leapt and Cara dove to the ground, rolling under the gar’s sweeping claws. The gar landed and wheeled, trying to reverse directions, and was immediately met with a blast of fire directly to the face, stopping it in its tracks. Richard charged forward and drove his sword into the monster’s abdomen, slicing it open from bellybutton to chest. It fell to the side and the gar that had initially charged Zedd took its place, roaring and thrashing. It flared its wings and lashed out, aiming for Zedd’s head, and Kahlan had a quick glimpse of another gar charging Cara before the Gar’s wings erupted in fire.

Which was maybe not Zedd’s greatest plan.

The gar was obviously in pain but far from being dead, and when it flapped it’s burning wings Kahlan and Richard were forced back, away from Zedd. A piece of burning wing flew free and landed on Zedd’s robe, putting him in the awkward position of trying to put himself out with one hand and holding the gar off with the other. The gar swept one massive arm and caught Zedd around the waist, lifting him off his feet and sending him crashing into one of the tents. It collapsed around him and the gar loped forward, snarling viciously. Richard charged, reaching the gar as it tore into the crushed folds of the tent, and swung his sword ax-like into the gar’s back.

Cara was still standing, and the sense of relief that sent through Kahlan’s body made her knees weak. She scrambled, searching for more arrows as Richard hacked and slashed at the weakened gar still trying to shred its way to Zedd. She couldn’t seem to stay focused for more than a split second before she was looking up, praying to the Creator that Cara was still on her feet, still dodging the gars—

They charged together. Cara managed to avoid one, but the move left her defenseless against the second gar’s slashing claws. She brought her agiel and knife up crossways to deflect but too late—the gar hit Cara and sent her sprawling.

Kahlan dropped the bow and ripped her daggers from her boots, ready to charge, ready to jump on a gar’s back if need be—if it bought Cara time—

Richard grabbed her by the arm, jerking her back, and Kahlan twisted, trying to rip herself free. Cara was on her feet already, but Kahlan could see a bright slash of blood staining her upper body.

“Let me go—let me go!

“You can’t—” Richard started, and Kahlan changed directions, throwing her full weight against Richard and catching him off guard. He released her arm and Kahlan leapt over what was left of their smoldering fire. She threw a dagger and it embedded itself with a satisfying thunk in the shoulder of one of the remaining gars. It did nothing to slow it, but it did distract it from Cara for a moment, long enough for Zedd to finally work himself free from the mass of canvas and rope holding his captive. He scrambled free on his hands and knees and launched a series of short, bright flashes of fire. Not one of them hit their mark, but when they exploded the gars seemed confused—stunned, almost, and Cara seized the opening. She darted forward, and when the gar swung at her—an uncoordinated, almost drunken swipe of its arm—Cara ducked and jumped up, stabbing the gar in the soft underside of its throat in a move that looked flawless and instinctive. The gar fell almost immediately, a spray of blood mapping its descent to the ground.

The remaining gar seemed to understand it no longer stood a chance. It turned, spreading its wings, and Zedd ignited them, leaving the gar shrieking and grounded. Cara approached carefully from behind and Richard launched himself forward, the Sword of Truth held high. The gar, backed into a corner, lashed out, raking its claws across Richard’s arm as he brought the sword down. Richard cried out as he fell. Cara darted forward and dispatched the final gar with another smooth strike to the throat.

She stood over Richard for a moment, her back to Kahlan and Zedd. Kahlan’s heart was hammering in her ears far too loud to hear what might have passed between them. She saw Cara reach down and lift the Sword of Truth and offer it to Richard hilt first, and when Richard ignored her Cara stabbed the tip of the blade into the ground. She moved to the fallen gar’s head and Kahlan saw her reach for something before Richard sprang to his feet and knocked Cara’s hand out of the way. When he turned Kahlan saw what had caused the silent clash. Her dagger was in Richard’s hand and he was glaring at Cara, daring her to take it.

Next to Kahlan, Zedd sighed heavily.

Kahlan closed her fist tightly around the dagger still in her hand. “Did I ruin everything, Zedd?”

“Of course not.”

Kahlan felt her lips twist up in a wry smile. “You could at least say it like you mean it.”

“They’ll figure it out,” Zedd said, though he sounded far from confident.

Cara turned away from Richard. Her hair hung in her face, hiding her expression, but Kahlan could tell by the stiff set of her shoulders that she was most likely glaring. Her shirt was torn from shoulder to collarbone, and blood had stained halfway down her bicep.

“Cara?”

“I’m fine,” Cara said curtly. She moved past Kahlan into the wrecked remains of their camp, leaning slightly to avoid Kahlan’s attempt to touch her arm. She kicked at their scattered firewood.

“Cara,” Kahlan tried again, and Richard tapped her on the shoulder.

“Here.” He held out her dagger. Kahlan stared at the black handle for a moment and then lifted her eyes to Richard’s face. A tentative smile was pulling at his lips—no teeth yet, but his eyes were crinkled at the corners. Kahlan took her dagger, trying to make the action as brusque as possible.

“Thank you,” she said stiffly.

Richard’s smile faded slightly. “You’re welcome.” Then, seriously: “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Thanks to you,” Kahlan said, layering as much sarcasm as she could into the compliment. Inside, a storm was raging. How dare he pull her back and try to keep her from helping Cara? How dare he put himself between Kahlan and danger just because he’d decided it was his duty to protect her? She’d been trained in combat since childhood. A few months ago he’d been nothing but an ax-wielding woodsman.

Richard’s brow furrowed—she he could recognize sarcasm when he heard it, after all. “Zedd, Cara’s hurt. You can heal her first.”

Kahlan glanced down—there was a patch of claw marks on Richard’s forearm, just above his elbow, bleeding sluggishly.

“Oh I can, can I?” Zedd said. He sounded immensely offended. Richard turned to face him.

“Yes. You can.” Richard tried to project authority, but Kahlan could hear the confusion in his voice.

Zedd drew himself to his full height. His grey-white hair was askew and there was a large scorch mark on his robe just above his knees. “Thank you for your permission,” he said, sarcasm dripping from every word. He accented the statement with the slightest of bows.

“What?” Richard demanded. “What was that for?”

“I didn’t realize I needed your say-so to heal someone. Luckily you’re here to set me straight.”

Kahlan could practically hear the Lord Rahl itching Zedd’s lips.

“What is your problem?

“I don’t have a problem. You three—” He stabbed a finger at Richard and Kahlan and in Cara’s direction in turn. “—have a problem. And I—I am the old man who’s unlucky enough to be stuck in your…your little threesome!”

Richard’s face had taken on an odd shade of red. “I thought you were on my side!” he shouted.

Your side!” Zedd let out a barking laugh. “I don’t have a side! I don’t give a rat’s ass who you sleep with or who Kahlan sleeps with or who Cara sleeps with—I do not care! And you—” He stabbed a finger at Richard again. “—do not get to dictate to me who and what and when I heal just because your feelings are hurt!”

“I’m not!

“You are!” Shadows of anger had appeared under Zedd’s eyes, and his shout echoed through the forest with magical amplification. “I am tired of this! Grow up! Act your ages!” He turned before Richard could reply, snapping his robes. “I’m burning these monsters, and for the love of the Creator, if one of you so much as speaks to me, I’m throwing you on the pyre as well!”

Richard stared after him, waves of anger emanating from his body. He spun and shoved past Kahlan and grabbed his pack from the ground before stalking away, into the woods.

Kahlan picked her way to where Cara was sitting against a tree. She watched impassively as Kahlan approached.

“I’m fine,” Cara repeated when Kahlan touched her shoulder.

“You’re not fine.” Kahlan pulled at Cara’s collar, trying to maneuver the shirt so that she could see the wound. Cara pulled away. “Cara, I thought we were past this—”

“Kahlan, please. Go help Richard.”

“Don’t push me—”

“I’m not pushing you away,” Cara interrupted. “I know you have this whole ‘he’ll get used to it’ theory going, but he’s not going to get used to it. And I’m always going to be the bad guy. So please. Just talk to him.”

“About what? Zedd already gave him a tongue-lashing. Do you really want to turn this day into Ridicule Richard?”

“No, I don’t. You don’t have to yell at him. Just…” Cara shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Tell him you’re not the bad guy?”

Cara fixed Kahlan with a flat, serious stare. “I’m not the bad guy,” she said, “and maybe it doesn’t bother you, but I’m getting very tired of being treated like the enemy.”

“Maybe if you talk to him…” Kahlan started, but even as she said it, she knew it was useless. Richard could care less about Cara’s explanations. If he was going to listen, he needed to hear it from Kahlan.

She sighed. “Fine. I’ll go talk to him. And you—”

“Toss me my water skin and I’ll clean it, I promise.”

Kahlan shook her head. “Not what I was going to say.” She leaned in close and kissed Cara gently. “I’m glad you’re alright.”


 

Richard was sitting on a rotting, mossy log, his sleeve rolled to his elbow. He glanced up when a stick cracked under Kahlan’s boot, then went back to squirting water over his wounded arm, his brow furrowed.

“I don’t need help,” he said crossly as Kahlan neared.

Kahlan stopped. “So you are mad at me,” she said. At times it had been hard to tell. He wouldn’t speak to her, but he also went out of his way to be helpful.

Richard looked up. Deep vertical lines marred his forehead. “Should I not be?”

Kahlan took a deep breath and sighed. “No, you should,” she admitted. She had hurt him. “I just wasn’t sure if you were only mad at Cara or if you were upset with both of us.”

At the mention of Cara, Richard visibly stiffened. He looked away, and after a moment the tension left his shoulders. “Is she okay?” he asked quietly.

“She’ll be fine.”

“Is Zedd…did he…”

“Still withholding healing.” Kahlan sat next to Richard.

“He should heal her. It’ll scar otherwise.”

“Maybe,” Kahlan said, but she knew Richard was right. The thought of Cara’s smooth, tanned shoulder and her upper chest blemished with long, horizontal scar tissue made Kahlan’s stomach turn. Cara already had so many scars. Kahlan knew her general attitude toward them was indifference, but that didn’t mean she liked the visual reminder of Cara being hurt. She distracted herself by taking the water skin from Richard and pouring water over his wound.

Richard watched her in silence for a moment. “What is it, Kahlan?” he asked suddenly. “What does she have that I…” he stopped and shook his head, and when he spoke again his voice was thick with tears. “I tried. I tried so hard. And I love you.” He made eye contact. His brown eyes were wet. Richard reached across with his left arm and rested his hand on Kahlan’s. “So much.”

Kahlan dropped her hands into her lap, pulling away from Richard. She sighed and began fiddling with the cap. “I know it doesn’t make sense, Richard, but this…none of this was planned. It was…” she shook her head and smiled wistfully. “Not what it is not, when we started.” She glanced up, making eye contact, making sure he understood that what she said next was the absolute truth. “And it seemed stupid to say something when it didn’t mean anything. And then it got more complicated and I knew I needed to say something, but I couldn’t give you more to deal with on top of the Keeper and the Rift and then with Darken Rahl, and then…” she winced. “Then it just came out.” She moved a hand to his leg and squeezed slightly. “And I am so, so sorry.”

“You should have told me,” Richard said. His head sagged forward, dejected. “In the very beginning. You should have told me.”

“That’s easy to say now,” Kahlan said. But she knew the end result would have been anything but. Richard would have been just as upset, and she never would have built an emotional connection with Cara. And Cara would have left. They would have been done before they ever got started.

“You never even gave me a chance.”

“Richard, I thought I was going to marry you for over a year. I definitely gave you chance.”

“Not to fight for you.”

“Listen to me,” Kahlan said, “because I need you to understand something.” She waited until Richard turned his head slightly in her direction. His eyes were still on the ground, but the slight movement gave Kahlan the permission she needed to continue. “I was falling out of love with you before you ever brought Cara along.” Richard flinched. Kahlan carried on. “And I know that’s hard to hear, because Creator knows it was hard for me to even admit. But I was not going to marry you. With or without Cara,” she said firmly, “I was not going to marry you.”

“Why not?” Richard asked, his voice barely a whisper. And then, “What’s wrong with me?”

“Spirits…” Kahlan wrapped her arms around his shoulders and Richard sagged into her. “Nothing, Richard. Nothing. You’re a good man—the best man, maybe, that I have ever met. And I will always be here for you, for as long as you’ll let me. There’s nothing wrong with me and there’s nothing wrong with you.” Kahlan pulled away and Richard pinched the bridge of his nose, subtly wiping away tears. “We just…we need different things. Maybe right now you don’t see it, but I promise you, someday you’re going to meet someone who fills all the spots inside of you that you…that you didn’t even realize were empty.”

“And that person for you.” Richard cast her a sidelong glance. His eyes were bloodshot, rimmed in red. “That’s Cara?”

“I don’t know.” Kahlan hesitated. “Maybe.”

“Does she love you?”

“I don’t know,” Kahlan repeated, but she felt an irrepressible smile tugging at her lips. “Maybe.”

Richard nodded. He let out a ragged breath and ran a hand through his hair. When he spoke again his voice was firmer, less wounded. “I can’t make any promises.” He fixed Kahlan with a stern stare. “I’m still angry.” He let out another deep breath. “But I’ll try.”

Kahlan wrapped her arms around Richard again and held him tight for a moment. “Thank you.”


 

Does she love you?

The question echoed in Kahlan’s head—had been echoing—for the better part of the day.

And now it was keeping her up.

She glanced at Cara. The campfire shone through the wall of their tent, illuminating Cara’s profile. Her nose and the gentle slope of her full lips were ringed in a yellow-orange tinge, and the faintest dusting of faint light caught the edge of her white-blonde eyelashes.

Does she love you?

Kahlan adjusted her hold on her pillow and burrowed deeper, watching the steady rise and fall of Cara’s chest, watching the way her eyelids flickered in sleep.

Kahlan opened her mouth, the words no more than a faint breath working its way around lips and tongue and teeth. Just to see. Just to see what it felt like to make the shape of the words with her mouth.

“I love you.”

Chapter Text

           

A light misting of rain was filtering through the trees when Cara crawled from the tent the next morning. They’d been moving steadily upwards, into the cooler air, and with the lowered temperatures would come regular rainfall. Cara was certainly not complaining. Once they left the west side of the mountain the rain would be nonexistent, replaced by the dry summer air of the Azrith Plains. Of all the things she missed about D’Hara, the plains were not one of them. They were enormous, taking up the majority of D’Hara’s land mass. And they were, for the most part, completely uninhabitable. Which meant the cities were overcrowded and hot.

Cara stopped. Come to think of it, she didn’t really miss D’Hara all that much.

The fire they’d left to burn down the night before was smoldering. Most of the ashes had turned light grey under the drizzling rain. Cara toed the top layer of ash, exposing several coals that flared bright orange when the air hit them. She dragged her toe through the wet grass, wiping away the ash, and turned toward the woods to find whatever dry wood she could.

She’d just snapped a thin branch over her knee when her neck began to prickle: an unconscious warning that she was no longer alone. Cara turned, expecting Kahlan to be picking her way through the roots and slippery moss—or at the very least, Zedd.

She was wholly unprepared to find Richard watching her.

His forehead was pinched slightly, as if he was considering turning around and walking away, but he managed a thin, toothless smile when Cara met his gaze.

“Morning,” he said.

Cara lifted her chin in acknowledgement.

Richard took a step forward. “Need help?”

Cara didn’t answer. She’d been collecting the wood for their morning fires by her self for the better part of their journey. She definitely didn’t need help and Richard was well aware of that fact.

Richard smoothed a hand through his hair, trying to flatten a tuft that had managed to stand on end while he was sleeping. “So,” he said, looking at the ground, “here’s the thing, Cara. I talked to Kahlan yesterday.” He glanced up and waited, as if offering Cara the opportunity to interject. When she remained silent, Richard sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. “I just…I wanted to say…” He stopped, obviously struggling. Cara watched Richard’s Adam’s apple bob twice before he spoke again. “I just want to let you know that I don’t…blame you.”

Richard didn’t sound particularly sincere. In fact, it sounded an awful lot like someone was holding a knife to his back, forcing him to say things he didn’t mean.

“I understand that Kahlan made a decision,” Richard went on, his voice stronger, more assured. “And I accept that.” He took a deep breath and dropped his arms, meeting Cara’s gaze levelly. “I forgive you, Cara.”

I forgive you.

Cara slowly clenched her left hand around the half of stick still in her grip. There was a small knot in the bark, and it pressed into her palm, tempering the sudden and unexpected flare of anger that accompanied Richard’s words. He forgave her. It was a simple, innocent, mature set of words. There was no reason for her to be upset—nothing in terms of logic, at least, and yet she was: suddenly and wholly furious.

Richard was watching her. “Cara?”

“Yes.”

“Yes…what?”

“Yes. Fine.” Cara waved a hand, dismissing Richard before she said something she regretted. “Good.”

Richard didn’t move. He watched Cara warily. He reminded her of a deer startled from its grazing, watching for some flash of danger.

Cara tried to rein in her anger, tried to remind herself that a few short weeks ago she was certain Richard would never forgive her. Evidently she wasn’t interested in being forgiven at all. Her blood was hot, thundering through the arteries framing her throat. She squeezed the snapped sticks between her fists and poked the jagged edges into her thighs, creating a painful pinch that was sorely ineffective at numbing her anger

“Okay, well…” Richard took a half step backward. “I’ll leave you to it.” He turned, hesitated for a moment, and said “Good talk.” His voice was thick with sarcasm. He began walking back in the direction of their camp and Cara threw her broken sticks to the ground. They landed on moss with an unsatisfying thump. Cara kicked them.

He forgave me.

She ripped a thin dead branch from the trunk of the nearest tree and snapped it over her knee.

I never asked…

Cara turned and threw both halves after her kicked kindling, giving her frustration a physical outlet.

She turned and brought up both hands in an obscene gesture, aiming it in the direction Richard had gone. “She came to me,” she snarled, raising her voice slightly. Not loud enough that Richard would have ever heard her, but still loud enough to offer some satisfaction.

She wondered what it would do to Richard, if she told him—actually told him—how the thing with Kahlan had started. If she told him about Kahlan coming after her while she was washing up. About the sly comments she’d made under his nose. About making herself available and Kahlan taking her up on the offer.

Cara kicked at a rotting log. It split, showering the ground with beetles and bits of soft wood. Whatever story he’d come up with in his head, whatever tricks he thought she’d played on Kahlan to get her into bed, it was wrong. All wrong. It was a twisted, tangled mess of one-uppmanship and lust and honest appreciation and Cara herself could barely trace the path their relationship had taken.

And he’d forgiven her.

A stick cracked and Cara turned, ready to silence Richard with a withering glare, but it was Kahlan who was making her way toward her.

“Cara?” Kahlan ducked, avoiding a low hanging branch. “I saw Richard, and I thought…” She stopped, taking in Cara’s expression. “Are you okay?”

A flash of possessiveness scorched through Cara. Her mind blanked, giving way to emotion and animalistic instinct. She strode forward and seized Kahlan by the face. Kahlan inhaled with surprise and Cara brought their mouths together for a bruising kiss.

She pulled Kahlan away roughly with a hand on the back of her neck to break the kiss. Kahlan’s lips were parted slightly. She brought a hand up, touching the bridge of her upper lip as if to check for blood. Her eyes flicked to her fingertips—clean—and then to Cara. She seemed confused, and Cara didn’t give her an opportunity to ask. She kissed Kahlan again, mashing their lips together so hard she could feel the hard press of Kahlan’s teeth.

Cara bared her teeth. She bit down on Kahlan’s bottom lip, not quite realizing just how sharply she’d done so until Kahlan made a noise in the back of her throat and pulled away. Cara let her go.

“What…” Kahlan was breathing hard. She shook her head and tried again. “What has gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” Cara growled. She moved forward again. When she reached out for Kahlan, Kahlan shoved her arm away.

“Don’t give me that. Something’s going on.”

“I want to fuck,” Cara said, knowing the words would shock Kahlan. She hadn’t quite realized just how much she meant them, though, until they were out of her mouth. She did want to fuck.

Kahlan blinked.  

Cara pounced.

She pushed Kahlan against the closest tree, using her upper body to hedge Kahlan in. She leaned forward and bit down on the exposed skin of Kahlan’s chest, just below the hollow of her throat. She felt Kahlan’s chest rise beneath her as she inhaled sharply. Cara applied firm pressure—not enough to inflict pain, but definitely enough to leave a mark. She loosened her grip and swirled her tongue over the small indentations her teeth had left behind. When she finally lifted her head the small red oval she’d left behind on Kahlan’s chest glistened.

Kahlan was watching her, her palms flat against the tree at her back. Her forehead was pinched slightly, as if she’d just been presented with a complex numbers problem. “Cara—”

Cara slid her leg forward, smoothly knocking the side of her foot against Kahlan’s instep and forcing her to widen her stance in order to stay balanced. She dipped her head again and fixed her teeth to the thick muscle connecting Kahlan’s neck and right shoulder. At the same time she hooked her fingers under the curve of Kahlan’s ass, pulling their lower bodies together. The move forced Kahlan to pitch her hips forward. She sat on the leg Cara had insinuated between her own, her back still pressed into the tree trunk.

“Cara,” Kahlan tried again, though there was a definite quaver to her voice, and Cara could tell: she was seconds away from giving in. Cara kissed her to help the process along, aggressively slipping her tongue past lips and teeth and swallowing the little noises Kahlan made.

It wasn’t angry. Cara had had angry sex before. That was about taking control and asserting dominance and somewhere along the way crashing into a pit of pleasure. But this…this was sex to prove a point, and the point was this: you belong to me.

It was a reassertion of everything Cara felt but had never actually spelled out—had never even tried to fully work out in her brain. Until now it had been enough to feel it, to hold it tight and keep it to herself. But Richard’s talk had thrown all of that out of whack, and suddenly feeling it wasn’t enough. Kahlan needed to understand. And Cara had never been particularly good at expressing herself with words. She buried her face in the curve of Kahlan’s neck and brought her hands up between them, skirting her palms over Kahlan’s breasts. Kahlan made a noise and fluttered her fingers over Cara’s shoulders. When Cara latched her mouth to the skin just below Kahlan’s ear, Kahlan’s hands moved to Cara’s hair and twisted. It was a wholly welcome pinch of pain. Cara made a low noise of approval and pulled Kahlan closer.

Kahlan rocked her hips, riding Cara’s thigh. Slowly at first, the motion tentative and shy, then faster with increasing abandon. With every forward stroke Cara felt the definitive bump of Kahlan’s stomach brush her own. Over the past week it had become very obvious that Kahlan was pregnant and hadn’t simply put on a bit of weight. The visual reminder did not unnerve Cara nearly as much as she’d thought it would. She slid her hands up Kahlan’s sides and moved her mouth hungrily across Kahlan’s throat and along her jawline. There was no concrete destination, just an overwhelming desire to keep her lips connected to Kahlan.

Cara lifted her head, aiming for Kahlan’s lips again, but Kahlan made a choking noise in the back of her throat and twisted her head away. She fell back against the tree and released her hold on Cara’s hair. She reached up, arching her back as she dug her fingernails into the tree’s bark. Kahlan’s feverish, half-lidded gaze fixed on Cara a moment before the black began to swirl through her irises. Then her head fell back and the hollow punch of Confessor’s magic being released hit Cara in the gut. The hairs on her arms stood on end but she kept her grip on Kahlan’s waist, holding her upright as she rode out the last tremors of her orgasm on Cara’s thigh.

Kahlan sagged slightly, the strength leaving her limbs as her blood settled. She exhaled heavily and straightened. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright, and she looked very much like she was a few minutes’ recovery from demanding a repeat.

A small bruise was forming on Kahlan’s neck, and Cara knew its twin was forming above Kahlan’s collarbone. She brushed her thumb over the mark and said “Sorry.”

Kahlan ducked her head and kissed Cara gently, quickly. “Don’t be.”

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No. It was…nice.”

Cara raised an eyebrow and a fresh tinge of pink crept across Kahlan’s cheeks. “Nice?”

“Don’t laugh at me,” Kahlan said, but she was smiling herself as she said it. “Yes. It was nice.” She paused. “I know this will probably kill the mood, but…am I right in thinking that this was brought on by you being out here with Richard?”

For a brief moment Cara considered lying. “He said he forgave me,” she said finally, and Kahlan’s eyebrows quirked in confusion.

“Is that…a bad thing?” Kahlan asked warily.

Cara shook her head. “No.” She paused. “I don’t know.” Pause. “I didn’t ask to be forgiven.”

Kahlan remained silent.

Cara set her shoulders. “If I asked for forgiveness, then that would mean that I regretted it. And I don’t.” She worked her jaw back and forth, avoiding Kahlan’s eyes. “So that’s it.”

Kahlan leaned forward, draping her arms over Cara’s shoulders again. She kissed Cara once, briefly. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry if that destroys the talk you had with him yesterday—”

“It doesn’t,” Kahlan said. She placed another quick kiss on Cara’s lips.

“And I’m sorry we didn’t make it to thirty days.”

Kahlan kissed her again. “I don’t care. I’m obviously not very upset about it.” She nipped at Cara’s chin and Cara leaned back, taking in Kahlan’s blown pupils.  Kahlan grinned at her. “What?”

Cara’s own lips curled up in response. A heavy throb was starting between her legs, fueled by Kahlan’s kisses. “Nothing.” She reached down and wrapped her hands under Kahlan’s thighs, lifting her high enough that she could wrap her legs around Cara’s waist.

“I missed you,” Kahlan said quietly, and the confession both surprised and embarrassed Cara.

“How could you miss me?” Cara asked, deliberately misunderstanding Kahlan’s sentiment. “You see me all day, every day.”

Kahlan ran a hand through Cara’s hair, smoothing it back and tucking it behind her left ear. “You know what I mean.”

Cara did know. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to reply, though. “I missed you too” felt sappy and didn’t sound at all like something she’d say, but she couldn’t deny the feeling of relief that had accompanied touching Kahlan again. There was probably some deeper meaning behind it, some sort of psychological thing that happened when a person cared for someone else, but it was enough for Cara just to feel settled again.

Kahlan shifted in her arms. “You should put me down.”

“You’re not heavy.”

Kahlan snorted. “Yes I am.” She draped her arms over Cara’s neck and dropped her forehead to Cara’s. “But that’s not why I want you to put me down,” she whispered. She tilted her head and this time the kiss wasn’t quick. It was slow and languid. Kahlan’s tongue was soft as it brushed against Cara’s, her lips warm and searching. She made a humming noise and pulled away. “I mean, if you just want to make out in the woods until somebody comes looking for us, that’s fine with me, but I was thinking: if we’re going to fall short of thirty days anyway…”

Cara lowered Kahlan to the ground, her hands already reaching for the laces crisscrossing Kahlan’s shirt. “You have the best ideas.” 


 

“You know where we are, right?” Richard asked, and Cara rolled her eyes. She had a general idea of where they were, as she’d explained ten times already, but did she know exactly where they were? No. Not in the slightest. They were at the edge of a quick running stream that cut through the middle of the path, and it was obvious that Richard was not convinced that they were on an actual path made for humans.

They’d left the main mountain trail on Cara’s suggestion. If they really wanted to sneak into D’Hara, then they couldn’t exactly walk through the front door. And the mountains were littered with secondary paths that made sneaking much easier. Cara had only ever used them when hunting down deserters and criminals, but it had happened often enough that she had a fairly good mental map of where they were and where they still needed to go. It would take another day or two to crest the ridge, and after that it was a sharp descent through the mountain range’s rain shadow. It would be searingly hot; the summer solstice was well over a month behind them and the air would be completely devoid of moisture.

“Cara? You know where we are, right?”

“Yes,” Cara snipped. She slid from her horse and unclipped the canteens strapped to her saddlebags. She’d been steadily filling their canteens and water skins with each stream they came upon. Zedd didn’t understand it. “We were fine the first time we came through. We don’t need all of this extra water, Cara,” he’d said after she’d forced them to stop for the fourth time in two days. Cara ignored him. They’d come through in November, and even though it didn’t snow in D’Hara, the air had still cooled enough that it didn’t suck the water from their bodies. It was summer now, and in Cara’s experience it was far better to be overstocked when it came to water.

Zedd made an irritated noise in the back of his throat when he saw Cara approaching the stream with canteens in her hands. “Again?”

“You can go on,” Cara said. In all honesty, she’d welcome a few minutes alone. “I’ll fill these and catch up in a moment.”

Kahlan looked like she was about to argue but Cara shot her a quick warning glance. Between Zedd’s general grumpiness and Richard’s obsession over directions, Cara’s one last nerve was wearing thin. She needed some quiet time, even if it only lasted as long as filling a few gallons worth of water.

“Don’t take too long,” Kahlan said. She maintained eye contact with Cara until Richard and Zedd had cleared the stream and then nudged her horse after them, leaving Cara alone next to the gurgling stream. She knelt and uncorked one canteen. The stream was just deep enough to submerge the bottle past its narrow mouth, and it bubbled and spat as water rushed in and displaced air.

Cara’s canteen was half full when her horse took two steps forwards. Cara reached out and snagged the reins before it could slosh across the stream after the others.

“No, come on.” She wrapped the reins around her right wrist. “Behave.”

The horse sidestepped, its large head swinging around to stare behind. Instinctively, Cara turned to look as well.

She managed to turn a fraction of an inch—maybe less—before the tip of something cold and sharp pricked the side of her throat. Cara froze. The tip angled slightly, forcing Cara to lift her head. She looked up and over her shoulder, meeting her attacker’s gaze.

“Hello, Dahlia.”

Chapter Text

“Miss me?” Dahlia asked.

Cara pulled her neck away from the tip of the sword and ignored the question. The corner of Dahlia’s mouth was turned up in a self-satisfied smirk, obviously pleased with herself for catching Cara off guard. Cara touched a finger to her neck. “You scratched me.”

Dahlia’s smirk reached her eyes. She jammed the tip of her sword into the ground and leaned against it, one forearm balanced on the pommel, and said, “That’s it? That’s all I get?”

Cara checked her fingers for blood. They were clean, but she could feel a raised edge on her skin where Dahlia had pressed just shy of breaking the skin. She rubbed her fingers together and turned her gaze to Dahlia, who was positively leering. She knew she’d surprised Cara, and Cara would be damned if she admitted it. No Mord-Sith liked to be caught off guard, and in the event it happened, they weren’t about to give up a position of power by admitting they’d been taken unawares.  “What are you wearing?”

Dahlia straightened and spread her arms. She offered no explanation, but Cara could trace her wardrobe on her own. She’d cut the sleeves off of the dark brown tunic they’d worn causally around the people’s palace, leaving a ragged edge that dipped well past the start of her ribs and showed her breast band underneath. The tooled red leather belt that had housed Dahlia’s agiels was stripped bare of all filigree. Instead of reaching her diaphragm it cinched cleanly around her waist, the excess belts cut away.

The pants were the same red leather, but they either weren’t Dahlia’s to begin with or she’d lost considerable weight. They hung from her hips and pooled at the top of her soft brown boots, no longer skintight. They’d been torn in several places, too; long rows of white, clunky looking stitches bisected Dahlia’s thighs and knees. She was wearing vambraces on her forearms as well, something they’d never done as Mord-Sith, and when Cara looked closer she recognized the swirling pattern etched into the red leather. Dahlia had taken apart her neck armor and tied two sections together. It was a clever repurposing, and Cara had no doubt that the vambraces were far more useful than the restrictive neck armor had been.

Cara shook her head and stood. It was a horrible mismatch of Mord-Sith clothing, but it worked for the wild and it worked for Dahlia, especially with her honey blonde hair wisping erratically from her loose braid. It was, for Cara, another example of Dahlia’s adaptability. However Dahlia had come to be in the mountains, it was obvious she’d been there for some time, and with a change in living conditions had come a functional change in attire.

“Is this how it’s going to be, then?” Dahlia asked, a hint of amusement in her voice. “You pretending like you’re not surprised to see me, just so you can take the piss out of me?”

Cara didn’t answer.

Dahlia grinned. Dahlia knew Cara the Mord-Sith wouldn’t deem that question worth answering, and she was obviously delighted that Cara stayed true to form. She winked and said, “That’s fine, I can do it myself.” Dahlia pivoted slightly and turned her attention to Cara’s horse. “Hello, Cara, did you miss me?”

Dahlia turned again, taking up Cara’s half of the conversation. “Yes I did, actually. I’m so glad you’re not dead.”

Another pivot and Dahlia was herself again. “You as well.”

Pivot. “What are you doing here?”

Pivot. “We’ve been living here, actually.”

Cara broke in. “Who’s—”

“Ah!” Dahlia shouted. She held up a finger. “Ah-ah-ah. You didn’t want to play before, you don’t get to just jump in now.”

“Fine,” Cara growled. She pried Dahlia’s sword from the ground, flicking dirt against Dahlia’s legs. “Are you finished?”

Dahlia held her hand out and Cara passed her the sword. “You can ask your question now.”

Cara grit her teeth. Dahlia’s outgoing irreverence was a new development, and Cara wasn’t sure she liked it. It wasn’t sarcasm—not quite. It was more like Dahlia was having a bit of fun at Cara’s expense, and that had never happened before. “Who’s we?

“Me.” Dahlia began ticking names off on her fingers. “Berdine. Raina.” She paused and gave Cara a suggestive look. “Rikka. Vale. Triana.”

Cara scoffed at the mention of Triana. Dahlia glared at her. It was the first indication she’d given that she wasn’t entitrely happy to see Cara.

“You’re not exactly very high on people’s likability list yourself,” Dahlia said, her voice flinty.

Cara lifted an eyebrow but didn’t argue. Dahlia could have that one. “Fine. What are you doing out here?”

“Living.”

“I gathered.” Cara rolled her eyes. At least Dahlia’s petulance was consistent. “Any particular reason why you’re here and not at the People’s Palace.”

“Lots of reasons, actually.” Dahlia sheathed her sword. “But I think we should discuss they with the rest of your travelling band of heroes. You know how I hate having to repeat myself.”

Cara hesitated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” Dahlia demanded.

Yes, Cara, why not?  Cara shook her head, unable to articulate the sudden but visceral uneasiness she felt at introducing Dahlia to Kahlan and the others.

“It’s the Confessor, isn’t it?” Dahlia said.

Cara froze.

“Look, Cara, I appreciate your concern, but I think I can handle myself. If she hasn’t confessed you yet, I’m probably safe.”

“Oh.” Cara forced the word out past clenched teeth. “Yes. You’re right. Probably.”

Dahlia shot her a questioning glance. Cara turned away quickly, hiding her face. For a moment she’d panicked, certain that Dahlia had managed to put two-and-two together while she’d been following them, and Cara was desperate to avoid that conversation and the questions it would bring. Dahlia was…well, Cara wasn’t sure what she was anymore. For a time they’d been close as sisters, taken from the same village and broken together. Then they’d been training partners, bunk mates…almost every major memory Cara had Dahlia had been a part of. She was vulnerable by default around Dahlia. With Kahlan, Cara had made a conscious effort to let her in. With Dahlia there wasn’t even an option to keep her out. She was in, and that could only complicate things.

Cara rubbed a hand over her face. Self-preservation was telling her to keep Kahlan and Dahlia as far apart as possible, but there was no logical reason for doing so. Dahlia obviously had something to tell them, and twenty-plus years of experience told Cara that if Dahlia had something to say, it was in their best interest to listen. Still, Cara hesitated.

“If I would have known this was going to be like pulling teeth, I would have just dropped out of a tree in front of you all,” Dahlia muttered. She turned and took a long half-step, half-jump over the stream. “Come on. Before they get too far ahead of us.” 


 

It didn’t take them long to catch up with Richard and Kahlan and Zedd. Zedd, bringing up the rear, sensed their approach before the others. He turned in his saddle, spotted Dahlia, and was on the verge of collapsing his face into a frown when sudden realization seemed to strike.

“Dahlia!” he cried. An enormous smile washed over his features.

Dahlia grabbed Cara’s sleeve and hissed, “How does he know who I am?”

Cara shrugged. Zedd recognizing Dahlia had surprised her, too, but as far as she was concerned, Dahlia deserved it after the sword incident. “I should think having a wizard happy to see you would be a relief.”

“It would be if I’d met him before.”

“My advice?” Cara lowered her voice as they neared the others. “Don’t ask him for an explanation. It won’t make any sense.”

Zedd dismounted swept his robes to the side with a flamboyant wave of his arm. He held out his hand and Dahlia clasped it cautionsly.

“Good to see you,” Zedd said. He grinned and released Dahlia’s hand. “I know you don’t know who I am. I apologize for my enthusiastic greeting. But you were very helpful when we met once before.”

 “Well…” Dahlia seemed unsure of how best to respond. “Good.”

“Who is this?” Richard and Kahlan had joined them, wearing matching pleasant smiles of greeting. They were so quick to trust sometimes, Cara thought to herself. If Dahlia were still wearing her leathers they’d have drawn their weapons already.

“This is Dahlia,” Zedd said. “Really, she’s Cara’s friend, so…” he gestured to Cara, inviting her to take over the introductions.

“Friend?” Richard repeated incredulously.

“If that’s what you want to call it.” Dahlia tilted her head toward Cara and lifted an eyebrow suggestively.

Cara stared at her pointedly. Dahlia rolled her eyes and abandoned her attempt at subtext. Kahlan was watching them when Cara turned to answer Richard’s question, the faintest hint of a line bisecting her forehead.

“Dahlia’s a Mord-Sith,” Cara said.

“A wild Mord-Sith, as you can see,” Dahlia said, spreading her arms and showing off her clothing. “I’m actually here to act as a plenipotentiary,” she continued, adopting an extravagant High D’Haran accent in her pronunciation of the word. It was clearly a term she’d learned from the bookish Berdine. “An ambassador,” she translated.

“An ambassador for what?” Kahlan asked. It was the first she’d spoken since Dahlia and Cara had caught up, and it was clear from the tone of her voice that she was suspicious.

“For telling you exactly what’s going on in D’Hara right now. Beause he—” Dahlia pointed at Richard. “Is not getting in without every single D’Haran knowing he’s there.”

Richard and Zedd exchanged glances.

“The bond,” Richard guessed.

Dahlia nodded. “Probably. But like I said, I’m the ambassador. It’s Berdine you’ll want to talk to.”

Richard turned to Cara. “It’s your call.”

My call?” Cara repeated.

“You know these people. Women. What do you think?”

“I think…” Cara paused. Berdine was one of the smartest people she knew. Which, as a Mord-Sith, wasn’t the greatest of compliments. But Cara had always found it well worth her while to listen when Berdine had something to say, and she couldn’t imagine that this would be any different. “I think we’d be stupid if we didn’t go,” Cara admitted grudgingly.

“Wonderful. We agree,” Dahlia said. “Now, if you’ll all follow me…” She slipped past Richard and Zedd and took position at the front of their small group. “It’s a short walk.”


If Cara thought seeing Dahlia again was strange, coming face to face with the other five of her Mord-Sith sisters was absolutely unnerving.

With the exception of Berdine and Dahlia, Cara had fought against them all when she’d sided with Ricahrd over the Boxes of Orden. Triana had led the group that attacked Cara for her betrayal, and Cara distinctly remembered Vale and Rikka throwing a punch or two themselves. They shared a past, but it was apparent from the angry glares she received that that was all they had in common anymore.

An awkward silence descended following Dahlia’s introductions. Cara took the time to examine the Mord-Siths’ living conditions. They’d followed the example of the outlaws they’d once hunted, creating several round shelters out of sticks and tarps that were built for efficiency rather than comfort. There was no permanency. If they needed to move they had only to fold their tarps and tie on their boots. Cara could scarcely believe that they’d lived in their little huts for a week, let alone months. It was certainly a far cry from the comforts of the People’s Palace.

Berdine finally stepped forward. “Lord Rahl.” She bowed slightly. The other Mord-Sith followed suit.

Richard made a desperate choking noise and waved his hands. “Please don’t,” he said. He smiled, as if trying to reassure the Mord-Sith that they hadn’t done anything wrong, and Cara rolled her eyes. He still didn’t understand. They’d all learned, from a very early age, that not bowing, that not referring to a Rahl as “Lord,” was grounds for a whipping. The reverence wasn’t something they could just shut off.

“Of course, my Lord,” Berdine said easily. She inclined her head in acknowledgement and gestured to the logs lying on the ground around the central fire pit. “If you’d like to sit, we have some information you might find helpful.”

Cara sat first. It was a conscious attempt to establish authority. She was out of her element, in someone else’s territory, and she was achingly uncomfortable. A part of her was clamoring for action, demanding that she do something to regain the respect of her fellow Mord-Sith. Travelling with Richard had removed her from the politics of the sisterhood, but now that she was faced with their blank stares a deep, almost instinctual part of her psyche was clamoring for their acceptance.

Kahlan, Richard, and Zedd filled in the log Cara had chosen, and the Mord-Sith slowly filtered to seats of their own. Berdine took position directly across from Richard. When Raina sat next to her, close enough that their thighs touched, Dahlia’s suggestive look suddenly made perfect sense. Berdine and Raina had always been outsiders within the sisterhood. Berdine was bookish and full-figured, an intellectual amidst warriors. And Raina, with her dark complexion and eyes, had always stood out amongst the majority blonde-haired, blue-eyed Mord-Sith. They’d both been easy targets for bullying, and their shared outcast status had forced them together more often than not. Evidently they’d embraced that togetherness.

Rikka sat next to Dahlia to Cara’s left and leaned back, crossing her long legs at the ankle. Triana and Vale sat opposite them. Vale looked completely unconcerned with the proceedings, but Triana was obviously seething. She’d gotten no better at hiding her emotions.

“I’m not sure how much Dahlia has told you,” Berdine began.

“Basically nothing,” Dahlia said.

Berdine lifted her chin. It was such a reversal of the power dynamic in the People’s Palace that it made Cara’s head spin. Berdine had never exhibited any desire to be in control, but it was obvious that the Mord-Sith had found themselves in a position that Berdine was well suited to take charge of. Maybe that was why Triana was angry—Berdine was no longer easily kept under thumb. And after today, Richard Rahl would accept her authority over the others.

“From the beginning, then,” Berdine said. She leaned forward and pressed her fingertips together, addressing Richard specifically. “After you defeated Darken Rahl, there was quite a large faction within the Mord-Sith who believed he wasn’t completely dead. They were mostly women who weren’t present when the Boxes of Orden were put together. Those that were…” Berdine glanced at the Mord-Sith seated around her. “Well, you’re looking at most of them.”

Cara stiffened.

“What happened?” Richard demanded.

“Unpleasantness,” Rikka said. Her deep voice was dark with memory, and she kept her angry gaze focused on the tips of her boots.

“The Mord-Sith who were present tried to explain what had happened to the others,” Berdine continued. “No one believed them. It’s one of the weaknesses inherent to Mord-Sith training. If you’re raised to believe that someone other than yourself gives your life meaning, it’s a frightening prospect, removing that person from your life.”

“They didn’t adjust well,” Raina translated. Berdine touched her knee and Cara caught her quick, side-eyed glance in Triana’s direction.

“No one believed Darken Rahl was dead. Or, at least, no one wanted to believe he was dead. You had a group of Mord-Sith who claimed to have seen his demise with their own eyes but who weren’t able to account for the fact that we all still felt the bond. Rahl couldn’t be dead, they decided. He was alive, and the Mord-Sith who’d accompanied him to battle Richard Cypher must have betrayed him.”

“It was me, wasn’t it?” Richard said. “The bond transferred to me.”

Berdine nodded. “I believe so, yes. Especially when the bond suddenly disappeared a few days later. I assume you passed the Boundary?”

“We did.”

“And that severed the connection,” Zedd said thoughtfully.

“Exactly.” Berdine took a deep breath. “Logically, it made sense. Especially when we heard what Cara had to say about Richard being Panis Rahl’s second son. But Mord-Sith…”

“Aren’t logical,” Cara offered.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Dahlia said with mock cheerfulness. “Berdine’s pretty logical. And you, Cara—look at you. You figured it all out all on your own.”

Cara didn’t answer. She had no allies here. Triana and Vale had started glaring again. Rikka was still staring at her boots. And Berdine and Raina hid it well, but she was sure they were just as angry as the others at her desertion.

Kahlan moved her leg briefly touched her knee to Cara’s. “Can we focus, please?”

“Absolutely, Confessor,” Dahlia said, her voice still artificially light, “Berdine? You were saying?”

Berdine shrugged. “Not much to say. Anyone who’d fought Richard for the Boxes of Orden was under suspicion of treason. They were captured, questioned, tortured, killed…we six fought and ran, and now we’re here.”

“But you weren’t there,” Cara said to Berdine. She glanced to Dahlia. “And neither were you. So why…?”

“You’re as guilty as the company you keep,” Dahlia quipped. “You and me, Berdine and Raina…” she shrugged, and Cara didn’t need any further explanation. She hunched her shoulders and leaned forward.

“The empire imploded,” Berdine said. “The Mord-Sith were fighting amongst themselves, the man who had ruled with an iron fist for forty years was dead, and there were at least six generals with their own squadrons who were certain they could take the throne for their own. The person in power changed almost on a weekly basis—”

“’Cept for that one little pissant who lasted a month,” Vale interjected.

“Except for the one little pissant,” Berdine agreed. She hesitated. “And…whoever’s there now. He seems…he seems pretty…pretty solidly established.”

“Darken Rahl,” Zedd said darkly.

The Mord-Sith shared a look of disbelief.

“We’d heard rumors that he’d returned,” Berdine said slowly. “It’s true then?”

“He betrayed the Keeper,” Richard said. “It’s him. He’s back.”

“He’s back?” Triana repeated.

Berdine glanced at Dahlia. “But that…that doesn’t…”

“We thought it was an imposter,” Dahlia said. “Some wizard of the Second Order with a masking spell. We said if it’s really him, then we’ll feel the bond again when we cross the Boundary. So Rikka and I crossed over and…” she made a pff sound. “Nothing.”

Rikka nodded her agreement.

“He did die...” Berdine mused.

“Maybe once it’s lost it’s not something that can be regained,” Zedd offered. “He certainly cut a few corners when it came to his resurrection.”

“Regardless of why Rahl doesn’t have it,” Raina broke in, “he—” she pointed at Richard, “—does have it.”

“Right.” Berdine was focused again. “I’m assuming you’re returning to remove Rahl from power again?”

Richard hesitated. Slowly, he nodded.

“Every D’Haran will know exactly where you are the second you cross the Boundary,” Berdine said. “Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Exert enough power and you can convince the D’Harans to kill Darken Rahl for you.”

“Never,” Richard said. “No. It’s not an option. I could never force—” He stopped. A wise decision, in Cara’s opinion. If he’d finished that sentence he would have lost what little respect the Mord-Sith had for him.

“None of this explains why you’re all still in the forest,” Kahlan said. “Rahl has been back for over a month. You didn’t need to stay here. Imposter or not, I can’t imagine he would have turned any of you away.”

“No. He probably wouldn’t have,” Rikka agreed.

“But we don’t want to go back,” Dahlia said. “Not for him, not for you,” she said vehemently, turning her attention to Richard, “not for anyone.

“Which brings us to the subject of today’s discussion,” Berdine said. She took a deep breath. Raina squeezed her hand. “We’ll help you get into D’Hara, into the People’s Palace…we’ll even put you on the throne if you’d like. As long as you promise us something in return.”

“Which is?” Richard prompted.

Berdine glanced around the circle one last time. “We want you to break the bond.” She clenched her jaw and met Richard’s gaze with fire in her eyes. “We want to destroy the Mord-Sith.”

Chapter Text

They convened near the horses.

“What do we think?” Richard asked. He was looking at Cara when he said it. Cara was looking into the eyes of her horse, pretending the question hadn’t been asked. She either had no opinion—which Kahlan seriously doubted—or she didn’t want to take responsibility for this decision, which was decidedly more Cara-like.

“Well, first things first,” Kahlan said. Richard’s horse dropped its head over her shoulder and bumped her chin with its soft nose, demanding her attention. Kahlan wrapped an arm around its neck. “Zedd, is it even possible to remove the bond?” If not, their discussion needn’t be very long.

Zedd said nothing for a moment. He puffed his grizzled cheeks out, thinking. “Yes and no,” he said finally. “Can I remove the bond from every single person in D’Hara? No. Can I remove the magical imprint on Richard so that the bond is no longer directed at him—so that it falls dormant in the D’Harans? Yes.”

“Then I want to do it,” Richard said immediately.

Zedd held up a finger. “I can do it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be wise.”

“Why not?”

“You’re…” Zedd trailed off, searching for the right word. “A beacon, I suppose. A beacon that draws on the bond every D’Haran is equipped with. Removing you as the beacon doesn’t remove a D’Haran’s capability to experience a bond.” He emphasized the point by holding his hands up firmly, as if trapping an invisible box between his palms. “That capability can be manipulated—and manipulated easily—by any adept Wizard of the Second Order and above.”

“So…you’re saying someone could come into D’Hara and turn the bond toward themselves?”

“Correct.”

Richard kicked at the ground. “What are the chances of that happening, though? I mean, there aren’t that many wizards in the world. They couldn’t just—”

“Darken Rahl,” Kahlan blurted. Zedd and Richard swung to face her. Cara was still pretending they didn’t exist. “He’s a wizard. If we remove the bond from you, he could just slide it back to himself.” The idea had come to her on a wave of cold trickling through her stomach.

Richard’s gaze flicked past Kahlan to the Mord-Sith still collected around the central fire pit. “Is that what they want, though?” he asked, his voice pitched low.

“Maybe,” Zedd said.

Richard tugged at his beard. “Cara?”

“What?”

“What’s your opinion on your friends’ plan? Do you think they’re looking for Rahl to take over again?”

Cara lifted one shoulder. “Once a Mord-Sith, always a Mord-Sith,” she said dispassionately.

For some reason, Cara’s response stirred an ember of anger in Kahlan’s stomach. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.

Cara turned her head toward Kahlan, her eyes still on her horse. She blinked and her focus snapped to Kahlan. “It means, that bond or no bond, we’ve still been broken. We’ve still been trained. You don’t stop being a Mord-Sith just because someone’s not telling you what to do.” She gestured toward Dahlia and the others. “We all went past the boundary loads of times. And you know what? We always came back.”

“So you’re saying they’re lying,” Richard said, a hint of satisfaction to his voice. “They want more out of this bond breaking business besides not having to answer to a Rahl.”

“I’m saying,” Cara snapped, “that if they wanted to be free, they could have left the forest and gone to the Midlands. Or somewhere. Anywhere. The bond doesn’t work past the boundary. They could have left.”

“It’s a good point,” Zedd said slowly.

“Okay, so…can we do this on a case by case basis?” Richard asked. “Shut off their…whatever it is that makes them feel the bond? If it’s just the six of them, maybe we don’t have to open the door for Rahl to take over again.”

Cara crossed her arms over her chest and said, “They’re Mord-Sith.” It was obvious from her tone she expected Richard to understand why that was an issue. It was obvious from Richard’s furrowed brow that he didn’t.

 “Subtractive magic,” Kahlan supplied quietly. Whether or not Zedd had a spell that would work didn’t matter. It would have no effect on the Mord-Sith.

Realization dawned for Richard. He swore and kicked the ground again.

“They’ve very cleverly backed us into a corner,” Cara said. She sounded almost proud.

“So you do think they have ulterior motives,” Richard said. He seemed eager for a quick answer, something that was black and white. Whatever the Mord-Siths’ reasons for wanting to break the bond, Kahlan was sure they were anything but black and white, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that Richard didn’t know how to handle that uncertainty. He was willing to help but the question as to whether or not it was a genuine cry for help remained. He couldn’t make that leap. Not without some proof that it was the right thing to do. And evidently he thought Cara could provide him with that proof.

Cara bristled. “Why are you so desperate for me to say ‘no, don’t trust them, they’re filthy liars that will stab you in the back?’” she demanded.

“You know these women! You know if we can trust them or not!”

“No, I don’t. And what’s wrong with you that you can’t take a leap of faith? You did it with me. All your faith in humanity finally used up?”

“You were different,” Richard protested, “I spent time with you before I made my decision.”

Cara was silent for so long Kahlan thought she’d conceded the point. When she finally spoke again her voice was low and flinty, a sure sign that she’d been struggling to reign in her temper. “You’re the Lord Rahl. Not me. They’re not coming to me for help.”

“I’m not—”

“You are,” Cara snapped. She turned and took one angry stride before she seemed to remember she was no longer in a situation that allowed for storming off. The Mord-Sith looked up, saw Cara, and pointedly returned to their discussion. Dahlia was the last to turn away, her permanent smirk dimpling her cheek. She looked at Cara with a familiarity that ate at Kahlan, and Kahlan was having a hard time holding her tongue. She didn’t even fully understand her jealousy; it was natural for Cara and Dahlia to have a history. But the fact that someone had a relationship with Cara—a relationship that Kahlan couldn’t hope to compete with—set her teeth on edge. If this was anything close to what Cara had gone through when Kahlan was still juggling Cara and Richard…

She didn’t know how Cara ever stood it.

Cara veered toward Richard’s horse. The saddlebags were still tied down, and Cara began ripping at the knots furiously.

“What are you doing?” Richard demanded.

Cara didn’t answer. She ripped the rolled up tent from the top of Richard’s bags and flung it at his head. Richard flinched and caught it awkwardly before it smashed him in the face.

­“You want to spend time with them?” Cara said. She flicked her fingers dismissively. “Fine. Spend time with them. We don’t need to be somewhere anyway.”

Richard’s face went red. “I never said—”

“I think,” Zedd said, stepping between them quickly, “that Cara has a good idea.” He shot her an irritated look. “Though she could have been a little more diplomatic about presenting it.”

Cara rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest.

Kahlan took a deep breath. It did them no good to present themselves as a divided front. “I agree.”

Richard glared, first at Zedd, then at Kahlan. “So what you’re saying is that we’re going to trust them. Right? That’s essentially what’s going on. We’re trusting them to not slit our throats in the middle of the night.”

“You trusted me,” Cara said again.

Richard barked out a vicious laugh. “Yeah.” His upper lip curled. “And look where that’s gotten me.”

Cara’s cheeks hollowed and her mouth went tight. She took a step forward and Kahlan stepped in front of her. She put her hands on Cara’s shoulders, holding her back.

“Stop it,” Kahlan said. She kept her voice low, though she was sure they’d already attracted the Mord-Siths’ attention. “Both of you. Stop.”

“Time to let cooler heads prevail,” Zedd said. “This is what we’re going to do: we’re going to put up our tents and spend a day or two with these women. This is a big decision and it’s not unreasonable to want time to think over all the possible ramifications of silencing the bond. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Richard said grudgingly.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Zedd said brightly. “Kahlan?”

There wasn’t really anything to consider. Even if they decided not to remove the bond, the Mord-Sith would have valuable information about D’Hara and the People’s Palace. Of course they were staying. But it scared her, how quickly Cara had lost her temper. It reminded Kahlan of the Cara they’d found months ago, beaten and bloody, her blonde hair chopped unevenly above her shoulders. She couldn’t shake the feeling that even a day with the Mord-Sith would set Cara’s progress back indefinitely.

And then there was the issue with Dahlia…

Kahlan mentally shook herself. That was a feeling, and this was a decision that needed to be based on logic. She curled her fingers around Cara’s shoulders. “We stay.”


 

The Mord-Sith had dispersed following Zedd’s announcement that they were staying. Dahlia, Raina, Vale, and Triana had filtered into the woods to hunt or collect firewood, but Berdine had busied herself at camp with some elaborate water filtering system. Rikka knelt nearby, stretching rabbit skins over a frame. Life had returned to normal for the Mord-Sith, and the tents erected on the fringe of their camp was only a minor inconvenience. And if Kahlan hadn’t spent the last year with Cara, then maybe she’d believe them. But she’d seen the whole “pretend it doesn’t bother and you stay in control” enough times with Cara to not be fooled. The Mord-Sith were on edge, even if they didn’t look it.

Cara…Cara definitely looked it.

Really, Kahlan was thankful for tent stakes. Because without tent stakes to pound on, Creator only knew how Cara would decide to take out her frustration.

“I think it’s in,” Kahlan said. Maybe not the smartest thing to say given Cara’s clenched jaw and rigid shoulders, but the constant tink-tink-tink was beginning to grate on her nerves.

Cara stopped immediately and flipped the mallet to the ground. She stood and stalked to the saddlebags piled near the front of the tent.

“Cara.”

Cara picked up the bags ducked into the tent. Kahlan closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair. She wanted to be sensitive to Cara’s anger, but she wasn’t sure exactly where it was coming from. They were staying, which was what Cara had implied she’d wanted, and yet she was still simmering with rage.

Kahlan pushed herself to her feet and followed Cara into the tent. She paused just inside the doorway and watched as Cara snapped her bedroll open.

“Cara,” Kahlan said quietly.

Cara shoved the bedroll to the edge of the tent.

“I think it’s probably a good idea for you to not ignore me.”

“Can we not do this?” Cara snapped.

Kahlan watched her for a moment. “Can I ask what you think we’re doing?”

“I was not being too harsh and he is not doing his best,” Cara said. She flung an empty pack against the tent wall.

“Can you stop, please?” Kahlan let a touch of irritation creep into her voice. “Because that’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

Cara reached for another bag. Kahlan snatched it out from under her hand.

“Cara. Stop.

Cara spun on her knees. “What?” Her face was red and her breathing was shallow. “What do you want from me?”

“Once a Mord-Sith, always a Mord-Sith?”

“What about it?”

“Do you really believe that?”

Cara snorted. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

She knew it was the wrong thing to say. Kahlan could see it on her face. Cara’s eyes flickered and her jaw lost its tension. Still, she’d said it, and Kahlan was over being Cara’s punching bag. She pointed to the tent opening and said, “Get out.”

“Kahlan—”

“No, Cara.” Kahlan balled the bag in her hands. It was her turn to be angry. “I’m tired of this. Don’t take your issues out on me. When you decide what you’re here for, then you can come back.” She turned, dismissing Cara from the tent. She felt Cara touch her arm.

“Kahlan.”

Kahlan pulled away. “Don’t.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“Then don’t say it.”

Cara was silent. Kahlan heard her exhale slowly. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

Cara apologizing—for anything—was still enough of a novelty to temper Kahlan’s anger. Not completely, but enough. She turned. Cara was staring at the ground, her lips pressed in a thin line. “Just explain it to me,” Kahlan said. “I want to know.” She hesitated. “I need to understand what I’m up against.”

Cara’s smiled wryly. She glanced up. “Going to unbreak me, Kahlan?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Don’t say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m stupid for even wanting to try.”

“If you keep trying to change something that can’t ever change, isn’t it a stupid waste of energy?”

“If you want me to stop…” Kahlan reached out and tucked a loose strand of hair behind Cara’s ear. She let her fingers trail across Cara’s jaw, and Cara’s angry gaze softened. “I’ll stop.”

Cara pressed her cheek into Kahlan’s fingers and brought her hand up, trapping Kahlan’s hand against her cheek. It was a gesture that was becoming increasingly common, for Cara to prolong physical contact, and every time it happened the insides of Kahlan’s elbows tingled.

“Why are you so angry?” Kahlan whispered.

Cara shook her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I keep telling myself that I’m angry at Richard, but I’m not.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“He doesn’t want to be a Rahl. He’s never wanted to be. I can’t be mad at him for being consistent.”

“Are you mad at the Mord-Sith?”

Cara laughed hollowly. “For what? Surviving?”

Kahlan grinned and draped both arms over Cara’s shoulders. “I didn’t say it would make sense.”

The corner of Cara’s mouth twisted up. “Nicci called me Richard’s dog once.”

Kahlan twisted her fingers in the fine hairs at the base of Cara’s neck.

“Maybe I am,” Cara said. Her eyes were unfocused, looking in. “Maybe I can’t function unless I have someone telling me what to do.”

“I don’t know,” Kahlan teased. “You seem to take initiative often enough.”

Cara’s focus slipped back to Kahlan’s face. “Kahlan Amnell. Was that a sexual innuendo?”

“How dare you. I could have you Confessed for even suggesting such a thing.”

Cara grinned and ducked her head, burying her face in Kahlan’s neck. She opened her mouth and nibbled. It tickled. Kahlan shrieked and swatted Cara’s shoulder.

“Don’t tickle me! I have to pee. Oh, here: I have a direction for you. Go ask someone where the latrine is.”

Cara nipped her earlobe. “You ask.”

“Ha. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re all terrified of me.”

“It takes awhile to get over the Confessor fear.”

“Glad you managed it?”

By way of answer, Cara leaned forward pressed her lips to Kahlan’s. They didn’t kiss much outside of sex—a byproduct of sneaking around—but when they did Kahlan always found herself pleasantly overwhelmed by the intensity of Cara’s enthusiasm.

Cara pulled away, just far enough to murmur, “You should stay with Richard tonight.”

Kahlan pried her eyes open. Leave it to Cara to think a kissing session would be the best time to bring up a controversial subject. “Are you serious?”

Cara winced, a sure sign that she knew whatever she said next would only make everything worse. She placed a hand on Kahlan’s stomach. “And you should probably try to hide this a little better.”

Kahlan stepped away and glared. Cara held her hands up defensively.

“I’m not embarrassed,” she said, correctly guessing the source of Kahlan’s ire. “I’m just saying: it’s probably better that the Mord-Sith don’t know.”

“Why not?” Kahlan demanded.

“Just…because.”

Kahlan shrugged dismissively. “Fine.”

“You’re not convinced.”

“No, I’m not.”

“I don’t mean that it’s better they not know it’s mine,” Cara clarified. “It’s just better they not know you’re pregnant at all.”

“You’re on a very slippery slope right now, Cara Mason.”

Cara sighed. “You’re a Confessor, Kahlan. And they’re Mord-Sith. And if they’re not being completely honest with us…”

“I get it.”

“I’m trying to protect you,” Cara said.

“I think the best way to protect me would be to let me sleep in the tent with you. Because if I spend my nights with you, then there’s no way I’m pregnant.”

Cara’s forehead furrowed slightly, and Kahlan couldn’t resist one last dig.

“Are you protecting me, or are you protecting Dahlia?”

Cara flinched.

Kahlan smiled sadly. “I’m not blind, Cara.”

“There’s not—” Cara shook her head. “I don’t—”

“But there was something. Right?”

Cara pinched her lips together. She didn’t deny it, which was as good as an admission in Kahlan’s book.

“Now that…” Kahlan took a deep breath. “That, I think we need to talk about.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Cara said. “We were Mord-Sith. It was only natural…”

Kahlan watched Cara struggle. She was finding it difficult herself to decide how she felt about this. She’d always known Cara had slept with other people. And while it was sometimes hard, separating her ingrained views on celibacy with Cara’s liberal attitude toward sex, she’d never felt threatened. Not by men and not by other women.

Dahlia, though…Dahlia was something different.

There was a familiarity between Cara and Dahlia that smacked of intimacy. The way they stood next to each other without any hint of competitiveness; she’d never seen Cara interact with another Mord-Sith without layering some essence of a challenge into her words and actions. It was like she knew where she stood with Dahlia. Like they were both so comfortable with their roles that there was no point in pretending.

“Dahlia is…”

“Different?” Kahlan supplied. “Special?” Jealousy reared its ugly head at the thought.

“It’s…hard to explain,” Cara said. She grimaced, knowing full well the response wouldn’t satisfy Kahlan.

“Try,” Kahlan insisted. “I need you to try.”

“We…” If Cara Mason was physically capable of cowering, she was doing it now. Head tucked, shoulders drawn to her ears, she avoided Kahlan’s gaze. “We were broken together. Cell mates. And before that, we lived in the same village.” Cara shrugged helplessly. “She’s just…always been there.”

“You slept with her.”

Cara nodded.

Kahlan fought back a jealous pout. It was juvenile to be upset about something that had happened long before she ever met Cara. She was, however, slightly afraid of what Dahlia’s presence meant for them now. It had taken so long to break down Cara’s walls, to build a solid foundation of trust and respect between them. What if Cara decided being with Kahlan was too hard? What if she decided that Dahlia, a fellow Mord-Sith, was the safer, easier bet? Dahlia could relate to Cara in a way that Kahlan never could. And the two of them had a natural chemistry that obviously hadn’t faded after a year apart.

And Dahlia was pretty.

Beautiful, Kahlan corrected herself grudgingly. Dahlia was definitely beautiful. In a wispy, flippant, self-sufficient kind of way. And she was going to keep on being beautiful for the foreseeable future, and they were going to keep on being around her for at least a day. They needed to work together, and they were all better off with Kahlan’s jealousy being shelved for the time being.

“Do you trust her?” Kahlan demanded. She didn’t mean for it to sound so much like an accusation.

“Yes,” Cara said immediately.

“With your life?”

“Yes.”

Kahlan studied Cara for a moment. Cara met her gaze levelly. Kahlan asked, “Do you trust her with mine?”

Cara nodded.

Kahlan sighed and leaned back. “Well, I’ll say one thing for you Mord-Sith. You do know how to breed loyalty.”

Cara ignored Kahlan’s attempt to break the tension. “Do you trust me, Kahlan?”

“Of course I do,” Kahlan said quickly. Maybe too quickly, because Cara’s forehead furrowed. She didn’t look convinced. Kahlan kissed her, trying her best to seal her words with physical contact. She did trust Cara.

She just wasn’t sure if she trusted Dahlia with Cara.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

At some point during her pregnancy, Kahlan had started to snore.

In all likelihood it was a result of weight gain combined with fact that she could no longer comfortably sleep on her stomach. It was quiet, barely more than a slight rasp in the back of Kahlan’s throat, but it was definitely a snore. More than once Cara had been tempted to bring it up. Just a throwaway “at least I don’t snore,” just to see Kahlan turn red and try to deny it. But bringing it up meant that it wasn’t a secret anymore, and Cara rather liked knowing something about Kahlan that no one—not even Kahlan herself—knew.

The price of keeping that secret, however, was that she couldn’t roll over and nudge Kahlan and say, “you’re snoring again,” to buy herself another hour of sleep in the morning. Today, though, she didn’t want that extra hour. Today she’d used the snoring as a wake up call to slip out of the tent unobserved. Kahlan could poke and tease all she wanted about Cara being embarrassed, but the truth was that secrets were a hot commodity. The less the Mord-Sith knew about the inner workings of Richard’s group, the better.

Cara sat up carefully. Kahlan’s hand was wrapped in her hair. It took the better part of a minute before she set Kahlan’s hand back on the pillow. Kahlan took a deep breath, eyes still closed, and burrowed deeper into the blankets.

The grass was brittle with frost when Cara crawled out of the tent. Once upon a time she’d liked the idea of seeing snow, but if it meant cold like this then Cara was pretty sure she could do without.

She hopped awkwardly, trying to step into her boots without getting her feet wet. She nearly rolled her ankle when the edge of her boot gave way. Cara swore quietly and grabbed the fabric of the tent for balance. Another good reason to get up before anyone else: no one saw her morning clumsiness.

The fire pit was still smoking and Cara kicked at the ash halfheartedly, trying to find a few embers that flared orange when the air hit them. Creator knew she didn’t feel like ticking away at a flint. She’d never liked starting fires. If it weren’t so spirit’s damned cold she’d have left the job for Zedd.

 She found an ember and covered it in birch shavings and blew on the little pile until her vision went grey and her heart started thundering. The kindling smoked and blew in her face and caught fire and Cara nearly put it out when she piled logs on before the flame was ready.  She sat alone for a good arn, building up the fire and keeping one eye on the huts. And then, somewhere between wondering if the Mord-Sith were ever going to get up and if the day was ever going to get any warmer, Cara fell asleep. At least, she hoped she’d fallen asleep. Because if Richard had honestly managed to sneak up on her while he was dragging his feet and being sulky, then Cara was getting more than a little soft.

Richard flopped down next to her on the ground. He didn’t seem to notice Cara start, too wrapped up in his crossness to pay her much attention. “So?” he said, like he’d asked a question already and Cara had been ignoring it.

Cara blinked and fought the urge to rub her eyes. Richard either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that she’d been sleeping. “So, what?”

Richard gestured toward the huts. “You’re all hung up on me getting to know them. So let’s hear it.”

Cara ran her tongue over her bottom lip, wishing she could ignore the request completely. It wasn’t just the subject matter, it was the fact that he wanted her to act as tour guide. Like he could actually care less, but as long as it looked like he was putting in the effort, then that was good enough. It wasn’t fair to the Mord-Sith at all, to have their case reviewed with a cursory glance. They deserved more, and Cara wasn’t necessarily the best person to give them that. Dahlia was a leader here, for Creator’s sake. If she was in a position of authority then Cara’s information was severely outdated.

“You don’t have to try hard if you don’t want to, but I’d appreciate it if you at least try a little,” Cara said.

Richard drew himself up, full of self-righteous indignation. “Listen,” he said, “I didn’t ask for this.”

Cara bit back the sarcastic retort burning at the back of her throat. Of course he hadn’t asked for this. None of them ever asked for anything life handed them, but here they were. She turned away from Richard and focused on the coals seething red and orange in the fire. “What do you want to know?” she asked.

“The one with all her leathers still?”

Cara nodded. When Richard didn’t continue with a question, Cara said, “Triana?”

“Okay. Richard held up a finger. “The tall one?”

“Rikka.”

“The blonde one is Dahlia—”

“Are you really playing the name game right now?” Cara demanded.

“I’m just making sure I know who’s who,” Richard said. “I can’t exactly walk up to one of them and say, ‘hey, you’.”

“Hey. You.” A dead rabbit dropped to the ground in front of Richard’s feet. Dahlia stepped around them, a bow and a quiver of arrows strapped to her chest. “Make yourself useful.”

Richard stared. The rabbit’s neck was bloody, a clean hole through its throat. It stared up at Richard with glassy black eyes, and Cara wanted to grab him by shoulders and scream that it was a test, that Dahlia just wanted to see if he would do what she asked and that the best thing he could do would be to tell her to clean the rabbit herself.

But Richard being Richard simply squared his shoulders and picked the rabbit up and asked Dahlia for her knife. With a smirk Dahlia pulled it from her belt and flipped it in her hand, catching it by the blade. She held it out to Richard.

“Thank you,” Richard said. He lifted the rabbit by the hind legs and stood. There was a thin rope stretched between two trees that Rikka had used the night before to skin several rabbits, and Richard awkwardly made use of it himself. He looked out of practice as he attempted to juggle Dahlia’s knife and the limp rabbit, nearly dropping both times before he finally managed to loop the rope around the rabbit’s hind legs.

“Is he going to need your help with this, Mommy?”

Cara turned so fast she nearly toppled over. “What did you just call me?”

Dahlia grinned. “Aren’t you his mommy?”

Cara clenched her teeth together. A spike of adrenaline had set her heart thundering. She wasn’t sure what her face had just given away. The word—especially the fact that the word had come from Dahlia’s mouth, and come so casually—had caught her entirely off guard. Even if Dahlia had only been joking, Cara couldn’t be sure that that was the case any longer. Dahlia always knew when she’d hit a sore spot. And even if she wasn’t exactly sure where that spot was, she would poke and prod until she found it again.

“Don’t call me that,” Cara said, trying to layer as much anger into her voice as possible.

Dahlia winked and smiled cryptically, ratcheting Cara’s paranoia to new heights. She slipped her quiver and bow over her head and sat down, facing Cara. “Enjoy your nap?”

“Shut up.”

“You were so cute, sitting there, sleeping—”

“Dahlia.”

Dahlia’s smile widened—an honest smile, not the predatory, calculating smile Cara was used to seeing. “I missed you, Cara.”

Cara threw her hands up. She shook her head and Dahlia laughed.

“I know. You don’t know what to do with that, do you?”

“You’re not funny.”

“Let’s see. Oi! Richard!”

Richard was nudging a small wooden bucket with his toe, trying to line it up with the blood slowly dripping from the beheaded rabbit’s neck. He glanced up when Dahlia called his name.

“Am I funny?”

Richard hesitated. “Uh…yes?”

“There. See? If the Lord Rahl says I’m funny—”

Cara stood, cutting Dahlia off. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to storm to, but it was enough to stop Dahlia’s needling.

Dahlia laughed. “No, come on Cara, sit down. We can talk. Right, Richard?” Dahlia called.

“Right, what?”

“We can talk.”

“Oh.” Richard paused, the rabbit’s fur pulled halfway down the carcass. The meat underneath was pink and clean. “Sure. We can talk.”

“Hear that, Cara? The Lord Rahl said—”

Stop.” Cara glared.

Dahlia met her gaze with casual indifference. She brushed a bit of nonexistent dirt from her knee and turned toward Richard. “So what’s the deal, Seeker? Made a decision? Are you going to help us or are you going to set us adrift in the world, aimlessly searching for a purpose?”

“A little overdramatic, don’t you think?” Richard pulled his hand from the rabbit’s open stomach and shook it. Droplets of blood spattered the ground.

“Eh.” Dahlia stretched her legs out and leaned back on her elbows. “Probably. If you don’t want to help, that’s fine. We can find another wizard.”

Richard wiped his hand on his pant leg and sat down between Cara and Dahlia. After a moment Cara sat as well. “Maybe I don’t want you to find another wizard,” Richard said. “Maybe I want you to keep the bond.”

Dahlia shrugged. “If you want to be that guy, be my guest.”

“I do want to help,” Richard insisted. “It’s just…you have to understand. It’s hard for me to just agree when I feel like I don’t know the whole story.”

Dahlia was quiet. She was looking at her feet, tapping the toes of her boots together. “What do you want to know?”

Richard glanced at Cara and Cara wished he’d stop doing that—stop looking to her for advice or confirmation. She didn’t need the Mord-Sith thinking that she was in any way in charge of their fates. Somehow she didn’t think they’d be too pleased.

“Okay, well…for starters…why did you all stay here? You’re outside of the bond’s influence. You could have gone anywhere.”

“Yes, but we want to go home. And home—” Dahlia pointed over her shoulder. “Is that way.”

All of you want to stay in D’Hara?” Richard pressed. His tone was one of polite disbelief, as if he couldn’t understand why anyone would ever decide to live in D’Hara.

“Sure,” Dahlia said icily.

Cara had the sudden urge to jump in and put Dahlia in her place. She twisted her hands together. Nicci had said months ago that Cara was Richard’s dog, and Cara was pretty sure that Dahlia had come to the same conclusion. She’d rather not add more fuel to that fire.

Richard leaned forward, trying to earnest his way past Dahlia’s attitude. “It’s okay if there’s another reason. If you left somebody behind, or—”

Dahlia laughed. “Sorry. Berdine and Raina are the only romantic bits to this story. Rikka had a dog she was pretty attached to. But Cora killed him and Rikka already burned her eye out with an agiel. So.” Dahlia smiled pleasantly.

“Then I guess I don’t understand why you’d want to go back and help those people who tried to kill you.”

Dahlia’s face went hard. “I’m not trying to help anybody but myself,” she said harshly. She sat up and bared her teeth in a feral grin. “I know we present as a united front. But we’re not that noble. I’m not that noble. And if you think that walking away and saying ‘sorry, can’t help,’ is going to be the end of it…” Dahlia laughed harshly. “I’m not going to live with the bond again. I’m not going to—” Dahlia stopped abruptly and pressed her lips together. She shook her head.

“You were five seconds away from convincing me,” Richard said quietly. “If I were you, I’d finish that thought.”

Dahlia tipped her head back, staring at the sky. Cara watched her clench and unclench her jaw. “Do you remember, Cara, when Mistress Nathair broke my arm?”

A shiver crept up Cara’s spine. She remembered vividly. Dahlia had stood up to Nathair when she’d come to take a bleeding Cara for another day of training. Nathair had dropped her elbow into Dahlia’s forearm and broke it in half. Cara had heard it snap a split second before Dahlia began screaming.

“They gave me that potion so that I couldn’t feel it. And my arm didn’t hurt anymore, but it made everything else foggy, too. I wasn’t scared of the training, I wasn’t hungry…”

Cara nodded.

“That’s what the bond is like. You think you’re in control, but you’re not. There’s something else, something…something in there,” Dahlia emphasized, pressing a finger to her forehead, “that mutes everything else you might feel. And the worst part is, you don’t even realize it’s there until it’s gone. And it leaves you feeling empty. Like you need it back to be happy.” Dahlia blew out a loud breath. “I don’t know. Berdine can explain it better than I can. Something about withdrawal, dependency, whatever. I don’t want it back. I don’t want the possibility of it ever coming back.” She fixed Richard with a steely stare. “Do you understand?”

Richard was quiet for so long that Cara thought he might not answer. “Is that how everyone feels?”

“I don’t care.”

“I’m just asking—”

“Am I not enough by myself?” Dahlia demanded. “What do you need, do you need an even dozen D’Harans to step up and say yes, that’s a horrible way to live?”

“It’s a horrible way to live,” Cara said quietly.

She’d missed it, when they left D’Hara to take on the Keeper and seal the rift, missed the sensation of the bond being ripped away. There’d been too much happening all at once. Darken Rahl was gone, the Mord-Sith had exiled her, and Cara wasn’t equipped with the emotional capacity to deal with her life crashing down around her ears. She’d filled the empty feeling with anger until the anger had gotten too exhausting. And then Kahlan had happened, and that…was more than a little distracting. She’d never felt things as sharply as she did with Kahlan. And maybe that was because it was Kahlan. Or maybe it was because there was no bond interfering with her emotions, demanding she put a Rahl at the top of her priorities.

“You’re on board with this, then?” Richard asked.

Cara shrugged. “Aren’t you?”

Richard rubbed his hands over his thighs. He took a deep breath. “Feels weird, deciding without Zedd and Kahlan here.”

“I don’t need an answer,” Dahlia said. She stood abruptly. “Like I said. You can help or not, but I’m not going back.” She walked away without waiting for a response. Richard and Cara watched her go.

“Why do I get the feeling that that was a thinly veiled threat to assassinate me?” Richard asked. He laughed nervously.

Cara said nothing. If Richard was looking for reassurance she had none to give. Knowing Dahlia, it probably was an assassination threat. 


 

Richard announced over breakfast that they were going to try—try, he emphasized—to remove the bond. His decision was met with little more than satisfied nods from Dahlia and the others. She could tell that Richard was more than a little disappointed that they weren’t at least smiling, but smiles would have made Cara nervous. She liked her Mord-Sith impassive.

“I’m not entirely sure how to go about it,” Zedd admitted.

“I’ve done a bit of reading,” Berdine said, and Raina’s smile said more than a bit. “I might be able to help. It’s not a quick spell, though.”

“No,” Zedd sighed, “I don’t suppose it would be.”

“We’ll need some things from an apothecary, but Dahlia and Rikka can take care of that."

Dahlia nodded and swallowed a mouthful of rabbit. “We can. We're very sneaky, but it’ll take a day or two.”

Zedd steepled his fingers. "I'm sure that will be fine."

“It’ll take less if we can borrow somebody’s horses,” Dahlia said.

“Yes. Fine.” Richard swept his hand. “Whatever you need.”

Zedd, Richard, Dahlia, and Berdine launched into a discussion of timelines and checkpoints. What needed to be done when and who needed to do what. Not once did Cara hear her name, nor did she hear Kahlan's.

“Suddenly I feel very useless,” Kahlan muttered under her breath.

Cara leaned into her, bumping shoulders gently. The way she saw it, no one would need them around for a few days. And Kahlan being a Confessor? It was more than likely that the Mord-Sith didn't want her around. Which meant time away from absolutely everyone.

In Cara’s book, being useless had its advantages.

Chapter Text

Kahlan held a strand of hair up, twirling it between her fingers. Thunder rolled in the distance, gently threatening. “I don’t like being a boogeyman,” she said.

Cara didn’t answer. Kahlan was about to poke her, just to see if she was awake, when Cara turned her head and squinted. “I like you being a boogeyman.”

Kahlan snorted. “I know you do. You like being a pariah.”

Cara closed her eyes. The message was clear. It’s too early for this and I’m not participating.

Kahlan sighed and dropped her hands to her sides with a thump. “I’m sorry. I’m just irritable.”

“Maybe it’s hormones,” Cara offered.

A flash of unchecked anger scorched through Kahlan. “I know what it is,” she snapped.

 “O-o-o-kay,” Cara drew out. She clumsily pushed herself to her knees and then turned in a circle and crawled forward, toward the tent opening, shedding her blankets as she went.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting up,” Cara said shortly. The tent flap dropped shut behind her and Kahlan’s anger evaporated, replaced immediately by gnawing guilt. It wasn’t Cara’s fault that she’d been in a horrible mood for the past few days—wasn’t anybody’s fault—but Cara had been bearing the brunt of it, and Kahlan could tell that it was starting to be a problem.

She just couldn’t seem to stop.

Everything irritated her. The way Richard rubbed his feet back and forth when he was sitting next to the fire, digging little trenches in the ground. The way Raina cracked the bones of her chicken leg or rabbit leg or whatever when she was done eating. The way Zedd was constantly clearing his throat in the morning. The way the Mord-Sith jumped every time Kahlan lifted a finger. It was all equally annoying, but Kahlan had managed to keep her anger in check.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday…she’d made a mistake.

Cara had grabbed her by the sleeve and tugged her into the woods and Kahlan didn’t need to be a mind reader to know what Cara had in mind. Cara had flopped onto her back, grinning up at Kahlan, and Kahlan said, “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Cara said. Teasing.

“Like you’re about to get laid.”

Cara had sat up and wrapped her arms around Kahlan’s calves and said, “Am I not?”

The “No, you are not,” slipped out before Kahlan even realized she was thinking it. Normally Cara’s self-assurance was an attractive quality, but that afternoon, for the first time in a long time, Kahlan’s sole objection was to wipe the smile from Cara’s face. It irked her, to think that Cara was so sure Kahlan would fall on top of her in the grass, and it had given her a sort of morbid joy to dash Cara’s hopes. Even now, thinking about it, she was horrified at the smug satisfaction she felt imagining Cara’s expression slip into a frown.

Kahlan brought her hands to her face and pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes. She was playing with fire. It was most assuredly hormones but that didn’t mean she liked hearing it—didn’t like being reminded that she wasn’t in control of her actions. Her attitude toward Cara hadn’t gotten any better as the day had worn on, and if this morning was any indication, then Cara was in for more of the same. She wanted to apologize. She just couldn’t bring herself to do it. What was she supposed to say—“I’m sorry, but I can’t stop it so I’m going to be shit to you because I’m comfortable enough to be shit?”

She hoped to the Creator that Cara understood that on some level, but she wasn’t holding her breath. Cara didn’t exactly have experience with pregnant women—“hormones” was a term she’d only just learned from Zedd the day before. (Kahlan had heard him mutter it to Cara when Kahlan had told him that if he didn’t stop drumming his fingers on his water skin she’d break his hand.) Kahlan knew Cara didn’t know how to handle the emotional pendulum—so far her strategy was to get away as soon as Kahlan started grinding her teeth, which only served to cut Kahlan’s fuse shorter. The Mord-Sith were treating her like a boogeyman, but to a lesser and agonizingly different extent, so was Cara.

Not that Kahlan could blame her.

Cara hadn’t come out and said as much, but Kahlan knew she’d had plans for their downtime, and Kahlan was petulantly throwing those plans back in her face. And still Kahlan couldn’t suppress the sick glee it gave her to make Cara—and not just Cara, but everyone else in her immediate vicinity—just as miserable as she was. 


 

Zedd was tending to something in a pot when Kahlan finally decided to get up. He lifted one eyebrow when he spotted her, then nodded to a half loaf of bread and a skillet with a bit of browned meat in it.

“Late start,” Zedd observed mildly.

Kahlan didn’t answer. She’d stayed in the tent, waiting until she heard people head off to their respective duties for the day because the thought of sitting next to Richard, trying to eat while he dragged his fingers through the underside of his bristly beard, had been absolutely nauseating. Somehow she didn’t think Zedd would understand.

“Any particular reason why Cara looks like a kicked puppy this morning?” Zedd asked. His tone was casual but Kahlan could sense his caution.

Kahlan tore into the bread with her teeth. She could feel a scowl forming, creeping across the forehead like a minor headache. “No.”

Zedd sucked his teeth but didn’t push.

“Where is everyone?”

“Around. Something about checking traps and collecting drinking water before the storm hit.”

Kahlan glanced up, studying the grey clouds dominating the sky. The thunder had been steadily creeping closer, heralding a heavy late summer downpour. “It takes six people to set a trap?”

“Richard, Raina, and Berdine are gathering Graff root for me.”

Kahlan snorted. “You’re telling me Cara actually agreed to spend time with Triana?”

Zedd stirred his bubbling mixture, his wrist moving in elegant, sweeping circles. “No,” he said carefully, “Cara is walking the horses.”

“By herself?”

“She didn’t seem too keen on sitting around.”

“You mean she didn’t want to wait for me.”

Zedd shook his head. He had yet to look up from his stirring. “I’m not going to assume to know why Cara does anything she does.”

It was a diplomatic answer to a rhetorical question. Kahlan dropped her head into her hands.

“Can I ask…” The log Kahlan was sitting on shifted slightly as Zedd sat next to her. “Is this all supposed to be some elaborate diversion?”

Kahlan peeked at him. “What do you mean?”

Zedd began adjusting his robes, shaking grass and bits of dead leaves from the hem. “If this is some plan to make sure the Mord-Sith are in the dark about your relationship—”

“It’s not.”

“You’ve had a fight.”

Kahlan shook her head. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms under her legs and turned her head toward Zedd, resting her cheek on her knees. “No diversion. No fighting. Just me. Being horrible. For no reason.”

Zedd sighed. He reached out and wrapped an arm around Kahlan’s shoulders, pulling her close. She buried her face in his side and inhaled deeply, trying to fight back the sudden urge to burst into tears.

“I know it’s frustrating,” Zedd said gently. “This isn’t an ideal situation for any expectant mother, let alone someone pregnant with her first. But I promise you that this is completely normal. I’m surprised it didn’t start sooner, actually.”

Kahlan lifted her head. “You’ve been waiting for me to turn into a harpy?”

Zedd chuckled. “My wife cried every time I swatted a fly. When she was pregnant with Richard’s mother, she threw a skillet at my head for chewing too loudly. So yes, I’ve been waiting for the turn.”

“Cara hasn’t done anything wrong. She doesn’t deserve me snapping at her.”

“She knows that.”

Kahlan took a deep breath, chest shuddering. “Does she?”

“She understands that she hasn’t done anything wrong, yes. I’m not sure she understands what you’re going through right now, but that’s an easy conversation to have. I think the better question is, do you realize that this is natural? That this isn’t something you should be trying to control?”

Kahlan shook her head and wiped her eyes with her sleeve, the fabric harsh against her skin.  “I can’t control it.”

“It doesn’t mean that you’re not trying to anyway,” Zedd pointed out.

“I can’t go around shouting at everyone.”

“Why not? It might relax you.”

“Because we’re trying to get the Mord-Sith to trust us. And if I’m shouting at them all day…” Kahlan let the insinuation hang. Surely Zedd had noticed the wary looks the Mord-Sith exchanged whenever she picked up anything with a sharp edge.

“A good point, but I’m not so sure their opinion toward you is going to change, with or without the shouting.”

Kahlan felt a small smile begin to tug at her lips. “You have a point.”

“Of course I do,” Zedd said. He sniffed, as if his having a point should never be in question, and squeezed Kahlan tightly once more before releasing her. “Now, can I ask something without offending you?”

“You may as well try.”

“Can you read?”

Kahlan leaned back. “Of course I can read.”

“That’s what I thought, but after everyone that isn’t Berdine gave me blank stares I thought it best to not make assumptions.” Zedd wiped his hands together and stood. “In that case, I have a job for you.”

“Zedd, I know I’m pregnant, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit around all day doing the light work.”

“Well, you lazed through the heavy work assignments,” Zedd said. There was a leather satchel on the ground, dark with age, and Zedd bent to retrieve it. “So I’m afraid you’re stuck with research.”

“I thought that was Berdine’s job.”

“It still is.” Zedd deposited the bag in Kahlan’s lap. “This is research of a different sort.”

“Care to explain?”

“I’ve started to be not so sure about the mental and physical effects removing the bond will have on the Mord-Sith. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much.” Zedd shrugged and took up his stirring spoon again. “The benefits of having a faceless enemy, I suppose. But since Cara’s included in this bond breaking business…”

“She’s without the bond now and she’s fine.”

“Her agiel still works,” Zedd said quietly. The message was clear: Cara might not be drawn to Richard, but on some level, the bond was still having an effect.

Kahlan smoothed her hands over the satchel. “What are you thinking, Zedd?”

“I’m afraid that their breaking is going to have unforeseen consequences. Physical, mental…it’s all well and good to want the bond gone. Certainly I can understand the desire, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this isn’t going to be as simple as we’d like it to be. I also don’t think the Mord-Sith will respond well to that concern should I voice it.”

No, Kahlan couldn’t see them reacting with anything other than suspicion. She lifted the satchel. “And this is?”

“Books. A wizard’s greatest weapon against another wizard is his knowledge, and wizards have managed to collect a bit of information about the Rahl family over the past few generations. I brought them in case there was something to be found to use against Darken Rahl.”

“And you want me to what?” Kahlan pulled a book out. It was small, bound in blue leather and well worn. She ran her thumb across the edge, rifling through the pages. “Read these and see if there’s any mention of the Mord-Sith?”

Zedd cleared his throat. “No, there’s…there’s definitely mention. Very…detailed mention. Kahlan.”

Kahlan glanced up. Zedd was staring at her, his expression dark.

“I have to caution you: I’ve never gone through the books with a focus on Mord-Sith before, but it was impossible to skip over every mention. There are some very through explanations of the breaking process. It’s not…it’s not the most pleasant of things to read, even if you don’t know someone who was subjected to it. Your relationship with Cara will make it doubly difficult. I assume she hasn’t talked about her breaking?”

Kahlan shook her head.

“I don’t envy you this,” Zedd said. He sighed and shook his head. “I owed you the warning, though.”

A sick feeling was starting in Kahlan’s stomach. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the gory details of Cara’s breaking. She’d survived and she’d changed. Was it really necessary that Kahlan know just how far she’d come? “Why me, Zedd? ”

“I could give it to Berdine, but that would require absolute trust. And since we’ve all agreed that we might be walking into one of Rahl’s traps, I think it best to not hand generations of information over to a potential enemy. And if my reason for giving it to you is to keep it away from Berdine, then I can’t very well be reading it in front of her myself. In the interest of appearing trustworthy, I don’t think I should be hiding in my tent. But you…”

“They’d prefer I stay in my tent.”

Zedd nodded. “I need a list, Kahlan. Of everything and anything that could possibly change once we remove the bond. The agiels, the magic…if they lose their subtractive magic, that’s something we need to know before we go into battle against Darken Rahl or the Sisters of the Dark. I don’t want Cara to step in front of a spell and not be able to stop it.”

A prickling feeling started up the back of Kahlan’s neck at the thought. “Nothing can ever be simple, can it?”

Zedd smiled sympathetically. “I’m afraid not.”

Kahlan slipped the book back into the satchel. “I’m scared to read them,” she admitted.

“A wiser response than I had the first time I picked them up.”

“She’s going to hate me,” Kahlan said quietly.

“Maybe. Maybe she’ll be relieved that she doesn’t have to say any of it out loud.”

Kahlan laughed, though there was no humor in it. “I’m sure the plan was to never bring it up in the first place.”

Zedd offered Kahlan a small, sad smile. “You’re probably right.”

Kahlan fiddled with the satchel’s clasp, locking it and unlocking it, trying to wrap her head around the information literally sitting in her lap. She’d seen Cara’s scars—both physical and mental—and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what had caused those scars. Especially if it meant she couldn’t look at Cara the same way anymore, because she was sure Cara would notice, and when Cara found out why she’d never forgive Kahlan.

“You can say no,” Zedd said. “I understand—”

“No.” Kahlan shook her head. If they broke the bond and it hurt Cara, and she’d had a chance to prevent it, then Kahlan would never forgive herself. “No. I’ll do it.” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to want to kill Rahl after this, aren’t I? I’m not going to be able to settle for the diplomatic resolution.”

“It’s very likely.”

Kahlan curled her hands into fists, digging her fingernails into the soft leather of Zedd’s bag. “Good.”


Somewhere between Alric Rahl’s creating the Bond to fight the Dream Walkers and Panis Rahl’s manipulation of it to build the ranks of his army, Triana and Vale returned to camp. Vale was carrying a dead partridge over her shoulder, its feet tied together with a thin, blood stained piece of rope. Kahlan closed the book on her thumb, trying to make the motion look natural and casual. There was no doubt in her mind that at least one of the Mord-Sith was watching her. The last thing she wanted to do was draw unnecessary attention to her reading material.

“Confessor.” Vale nodded as they approached, though she was careful to keep a considerable distance between them. Triana did not acknowledge Kahlan’s presence at all, moving behind Zedd to inspect his bubbling pot without moving into his line of sight.

“Are you cooking something?” Vale asked.

“Not exactly,” Zedd said distractedly. “I’m trying to release the essence of Finica root. I don’t think the fire’s hot enough.”

“We have a pair of bellows,” Vale offered.

“Maybe you should ask what the Finica is for,” Triana broke in harshly, “before you start offering up our tools.”

Vale looked startled. An awkward silence descended as the two Mord-Sith waged a silent war, broken only when Triana made an irritated noise and kicked a small pot lying on the ground.

“Do what you will,” she snapped. She stormed past Vale, purposefully knocking against the smaller woman’s shoulder and pushing her off balance.

“I will,” Vale called after her, though she sounded more surprised at the outburst than aggressively determined.

Anger constricted Kahlan’s chest, quick and irrepressible. I don’t like being a boogeyman. “We’re trying to help you,” she called after Triana. “You asked us for help.”

Triana spun on her heel. Her face was red, her lips curled in a snarl. “I did not,” she spat, jabbing a finger in Kahlan’s direction, “aska sarding Confessor—”

“Shut up, Triana,” Vale broke in quickly.

Triana cast Vale a venomous look and strode forward menacingly, her shoulders drawn to her ears. She locked eyes with Kahlan. “If you think—”

Vale leapt to intercept her. She fisted her hand in Triana’s shirt and jerked her to a stop, then reached up and grabbed Triana by the back of the neck. Vale bent her head close to Triana’s. “Shut. Up.”

Triana’s nostrils flared. She maintained eye contact with Kahlan a moment longer, then ripped herself from Vale’s grip, turning her back on all of them.

Vale ran a hand through her black hair and adjusted the partridge lying against her shoulder before glancing back at Zedd. Her face was drawn, and Kahlan thought that she suddenly looked very young. “Do you want the bellows?”

Zedd hesitated. Kahlan saw his eyes flick toward Triana and her stormy retreat. “If you don’t mind.”

Vale didn’t answer. She turned on her heel, the dead partridge swinging behind her like a cape.

Zedd leaned close. “Now might be a good time to make yourself scarce,” he whispered.

Kahlan stood and gathered the books. Triana was throwing things petulantly, making as much noise as she possibly could, and a small part of Kahlan was loath to walk away. It felt like giving in, like she was conceding defeat to Triana’s temper when she wanted nothing more than to let her own temper run rampant. A tic was pulsing in her forehead as she dropped Zedd’s books on her skins. She wanted to throw something, but the only things in the tent to be thrown were pillows and clothes and blankets. Nothing that would crash and make a noise and hopefully even break. She kicked a pillow, sending it thumping against the taut canvas of the tent wall. She remembered when Cara got restless when they went too long without a fight, and right now she could understand the sentiment. She felt like she was going stir crazy, like something was about to snap.

Rain began tapping gently against the roof of the tent, followed closely by a clap of thunder. She heard Vale shout something, heard Richard answer—he was back, then—and the rain started in earnest. It crashed down like a waterfall, thunderous in its own right. Kahlan sat and crossed her legs and let the sound wash through her. She heard Richard and Zedd race past, their feet slapping in the mud that had already gathered outside the tents.

A part of her expected Cara to duck inside a moment later—surely she would have headed back with the horses as soon as she knew the storm was approaching—and when it didn’t happen Kahlan began picking at her cuticles nervously. She pulled one of Zedd’s books onto her lap, read a page, and then reread it when she realized she hadn’t retained any of the information.

She’s back and she’s hiding in Dahlia’s hut, Kahlan told herself. If Cara wasn’t back then Richard wouldn’t have gone to his tent. He would have pulled on his hero pants and gone after her. She bent her head and leaned forward, digging her fingertips into her temples, forcing herself to focus on the page. Outside, the rain drummed on.

Kahlan managed five pages before Cara stumbled into the tent. Kahlan jumped.

“Sorry,” Cara panted. She dragged a hand down her face, wiping away the water, and sniffed.

Kahlan set the book aside. “You’re soaked.”

Cara pulled dripping hair away from her face. “Very observant, Kahlan.” She dragged the heel of one boot against the ground, trying to pry her foot loose. Her clothes were stuck to her, sagging with the weight of the water caught in the fabric. Cara stumbled when her ankle caught in the boot, nearly toppling back into the storm.

“You’re flinging water everywhere,” Kahlan noted.

“I’m freezing,” Cara said. Her lips were indeed a pale shade of blue. “I need to get this stuff off.” She bent forward at the waist and attempted to pull her shirt over her head. The hem came away smoothly enough, but the arms were another story altogether.

“Just hold still.” Kahlan pushed herself to her feet. “Let me help you.”

Cara froze obediently, her arms held out in front of her, face hidden by her shirt.

Kahlan grabbed the sleeves of Cara’s shirt. “Pull,” she instructed.

Cara took a few steps back and the shirt peeled away from her body. Kahlan tossed it to the floor with a wet slap.

“Thank you,” Cara said. She was already working on the tie to her pants, and Kahlan could see her hands shaking. Droplets of water were gathering on the tips of Cara’s hair, dripping onto her shoulders and back.

“I thought you were in one of the huts,” Kahlan said.

Cara shook her head. She worked the waist of her pants over her hips and sat on her bedroll, using her hands and feet to free her legs. “I only just got back. Zedd’s horse isn’t fond of thunder.”

“You shouldn’t have gone alone,” Kahlan said quietly.

“If I hadn’t then we’d both be wet,” Cara said offhandedly. She pulled her elbows in, working her breast band up and over her head.

“Well, then…I’m sorry you felt like you needed to go alone.”

Cara shrugged. “It’s fine, Kahlan.”

Kahlan bit her lip and sat on her bedroll, her back to Cara. It wasn’t fine. She never cried, and now, in the span of less than a few hours she was fighting back the urge to burst into tears again. She heard Cara moving blankets, heard Cara’s teeth chattering together.

“What’s this?”

Kahlan turned to look. Cara was holding one of Zedd’s books, her hand smoothing over the cover. She’d wrapped a wool blanket over her shoulders, hiding her nakedness. She glanced up and caught Kahlan’s eye and then her expression hardened.

“Don’t tell me,” Cara said. “I don’t want to know.”

“It’s just—”

“Don’t lie to me either, Kahlan. I can tell by the look on your face that I’m not going to like the answer. So I don’t want to know.” She held the book out and Kahlan took it carefully.

“They’re Zedd’s,” she said by way of explanation.

Cara shrugged and looked away. “It’s fine.”

“Are you mad?”

“I don’t have anything to be mad about.”

“Still.”

Cara didn’t answer. The sound of the rain pressed in around them, boring against Kahlan’s ears.

“Cara…” Kahlan traced an intricate pattern across her left knee. “About yesterday.”

“It’s fine.”

Kahlan twisted to face her, anger sparking again. “Stop saying things are fine. They’re not fine.

“What do you want me to say?” Cara asked, so quietly Kahlan could barely hear her over the rain. “Do you want me to get angry with you? Right now? While we’re stuck in here together?”

“I want you to admit that you’re upset with me.”

Cara’s bewilderment obvious. “What for?”

“I don’t know!” Kahlan snapped. “Just…” She felt tears welling in her eyes and she slapped her hands against her thighs, frustrated with her own body’s response to her request. “I just want you to, okay? I want to know that when I’m horrible to you that it bothers you.”

Cara shook her head, her forehead furrowed. She smiled wanly. “You can’t tell?”

“I just want you to say it.”

Cara stared. “Alright. I hate it when you’re horrible to me,” she said slowly, as if testing the waters. “I feel like there’s a little worm in my stomach, gnawing away all day. It makes me feel sick.”

Kahlan curled in on herself, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

“It makes me feel…” Cara paused, and Kahlan could tell from her silence that she was beginning to struggle with expressing herself. “Like…you’re pulling away. And a part of me thinks…you should. Like that’s the only thing that makes sense, because I don’t…” she stopped again.

“You don’t, what?”

“I don’t think I deserve you.”

Kahlan closed her eyes and dropped her head onto her knees. Hot tears leaked free, coursing down her cheeks. Lightening cracked and painted her eyelids purple. She was pushing for a fight with Cara because she knew that Cara would never turn and run. And Cara was letting her do it because somewhere, deep down, Cara was still convinced that this was a temporary thing. Something that would end just as soon as Kahlan came to her senses. She reached back blindly, feeling across the blanket for Cara’s cold hand. Her fingers brushed Cara’s and Cara squeezed once, tightly. Kahlan brought a hand to her forehead. She didn’t know how to answer. Didn’t know how to say, “Of course you deserve me, Cara,” in any way that Cara would believe. “Why wouldn’t you deserve me?” she asked instead.

“You’re a Confessor, Kahlan,” Cara said. As if that explained everything.

“Not like that stopped you,” Kahlan replied. Cara laughed. She laced their fingers together and pulled so that Kahlan was either forced to face her or fall onto her back.

“I don’t think anything could have stopped me,” she said. She smiled softly and reached up, brushing the tear tracks from Kahlan’s face. “It’s okay,” she murmured.

“I shouldn’t snap at you.”

“Well, as Zedd was so happy to remind me, it is partly my fault that you’re emotional. Which, according to him, means I deserve it.”

“Still…”

Cara leaned forward and dropped her forehead against Kahlan’s. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she murmured. She tilted her head and kissed Kahlan once, quickly.

“I shouldn’t—”

Cara kissed her again, cutting her off, and despite herself Kahlan felt a smile begin to form.

“You can’t—”

Another kiss. Cara pushed against Kahlan gently, guiding her down onto the bedroll as she continued her assault of brief kisses. Kahlan reached up and wrapped her arms around Cara’s neck, pulling her down on top of her. Heat started up Kahlan’s neck. “Where is it?” she murmured around Cara’s lips.

Cara nipped at Kahlan’s bottom lip. “Where’s what?”

“You—” Kahlan stopped, eyelids fluttering, when Cara moved her mouth to the front of Kahlan’s throat. She swallowed. “You know what.”

“It’s still in the bag I packed yesterday.”

“And where…” Kahlan took shuddering breath. “Where’s that?”

“Outside. Under the tarp with the saddles.”

Kahlan groaned in disappointment.

Cara lifted an eyebrow and grinned. “You don’t want to try it the old-fashioned way?”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.”

Cara shifted slightly, sliding her thigh between Kahlan’s legs. Kahlan stiffened and bit back a moan.

“Can you afford not to be?” Cara asked, teasing, and Kahlan slid her hands around to Cara’s face. She moved her fingers over Cara’s face gently, tracing her cheekbones and the sharp curve of her jaw, and Cara’s smile slowly faded. Her eyes took on a focused intensity, as if staring back at Kahlan was the sole purpose for her existence.

“Yes,” Kahlan said. She offered Cara a small smile, feeling the truth in the pit of her stomach like a warm rock, rooting her in place. “I can.”


A warm line of soft kisses that started between her shoulder blades and ended on her cheek tugged Kahlan momentarily from sleep. She pried her eyes open and Cara kissed her temple.

“Good morning,” Cara murmured. “Go back to sleep.”

Kahlan mumbled good morning and obliged, slipping easily back into a dreamless sleep.

When she woke again she was on her side, blanket drawn to her neck, her naked back bared to the cool morning air filtering through the tent. Kahlan stretched languidly, enjoying the loose feeling in her muscles. She felt better than she had in weeks, a combination of emotional and physical decompression, and she lay in bed for a while longer, enjoying the foreign feeling of complete relaxation.

Raina and Triana were the only people in camp when Kahlan finally decided to start her day. Triana was sharpening a stick with her hunting knife. Raina was on the roof of her hut, apparently repairing a leak that had made itself known during the storm. She nodded at Kahlan when Kahlan caught her eye. Kahlan approached her, keeping a wary eye on Triana, who had yet to acknowledge Kahlan’s presence.

“Morning,” Raina said. Of all the Mord-Sith, she was Kahlan’s favorite, and Kahlan wasn’t even sure why. She had sleepy eyes and an unflappable demeanor that seemed to perfectly temper Berdine’s often manic activity.

Kahlan repeated the greeting. “Is everyone out looking for roots again?”

“Roots and flowers.” Raina adjusted her grip on her hammer. “Cara’s just there.” Raina nodded and Kahlan turned. Cara was making her way toward the camp, her arms laden with chopped wood. “Triana’s supposed to be stacking it somewhere for it to dry. Which she’s not doing. See if you can scare her into working” Raina set a nail against the roof and began pounding, effectively ending the conversation before Kahlan could ask her about the ethics of frightening people into labor.

Wood clattered as Cara tossed her load onto the ground next to Triana. Triana ignored it, doggedly hacking away at her thin stick.

“Look who decided to get up,” Triana said as Kahlan approached. “Her majesty, the Confessor.”

Don’t talk to her like that,” Cara snarled. Triana’s lips twisted in a poor imitation of a smile, and Kahlan had the distinct impression that she’d indirectly made Cara lose some silent battle.

“I didn’t realize sleeping was one of the jobs we could’ve volunteered for,” Triana continued.

“I didn’t know stick-sharpening was essential to survival,” Kahlan said breezily. “You learn something new every day.”

Triana’s mouth tightened. She flipped the stick and drove the pointed end into the ground and didn’t answer.

Cara was watching Triana, her feet spread, hands clenched into fists. Kahlan sat carefully and asked “Do we have any dried fruit left,” effectively distracting Cara from her silent rage.

“I’ll get it,” she said.

“How nice,” Triana said as soon as Cara was out of ear shot, “not even confessed and she still does whatever you want.” She snorted spitefully. “I wouldn’t be too proud of myself, if I were you. Small minds are always easier to bend.”

Kahlan didn’t answer. Triana wanted her to engage, wanted to get Kahlan riled up, but she was a day too late. Kahlan’s temper had mellowed to barely a simmer, and she could see Triana’s comments for what they were: a desperate attempt to take control by pushing everyone around her out of control.

Cara returned with the dried fruit and a water skin. Kahlan thanked her and Cara nodded, brushing her fingers against Kahlan’s as she handed the food over.

“I’m going to get more wood,” she said. She glanced at Triana and clenched her jaw but turned and headed back out of camp without saying anything about Triana keeping her mouth shut if she knew what was good for her, which Kahlan thought was nothing short of miraculous.

She watched as Cara faded into the woods, nibbling on a dried date. Raina pounded intermittently, filling the antagonistic silence that stretched between Kahlan and Triana. It was obvious that Triana had no interest in making friends, but Kahlan was surprised that the Mord-Sith had allowed her open hostility to continue. It wasn’t terribly diplomatic, she thought. They ran the risk of Triana alienating the only people with the ability to help them break the bond.

Unless this was how she always was, Confessor or no. In which case the Mord-Sith had probably built up an immunity to Triana’s outbursts.

Kahlan took a long drink of water, the cold washing down her throat and chilling her stomach. And then something jumped, and jumped again, like she’d swallowed a fish on a line and it was wriggling, trying to get free, and then abruptly stopped. Kahlan frowned and placed a hand on her stomach. “What—” she whispered to herself, and then froze as realization dawned.

The baby.

The baby moved.

She shot to her feet, scattering the dried fruit. Triana made a disdainful noise and Kahlan ignored her. Exhilaration raced through her, warming her veins like wine. Her heart was hammering in her chest, and she nearly tripped and fell on her face in her hurry to chase after Cara. She kept one hand pressed to her stomach as she moved quickly into the woods as if feeling it with her hand could make it more real.

“Cara?” she called. Her breath was coming in short, excitable pants.  “Cara!” She jogged a few more steps, scanning the woods for Cara’s blonde head. She was near the area where the Mord-Sith had been collecting most of their wood. Cara should be close. “Cara Mason!

“Kahlan?” Cara appeared from behind a tree to Kahlan’s left. She had two logs stuffed under each arm and she dropped them both before jogging to Kahlan, obviously worried. “Are you okay?”

Kahlan didn’t answer—wasn’t sure she could even form a coherent answer even if she wanted to. She could feel her smile stretching her cheeks, could feel her heat tripping in her throat. She seized Cara by the wrists and pressed Cara’s hands to her stomach.

Cara jumped. “What—”

“It moved,” Kahlan said simply. She watched Cara’s face flicker as she processed the words—paired them with where her hands were and—

Cara’s head shot up. Her eyes were wide, her expression unreadable. Her mouth opened and closed once, twice, before she managed to force out, “It did?”

Kahlan nodded. She laughed.

Cara’s head dropped again, her eyes focused on Kahlan’s stomach. She moved her hands, tracing the gentle, barely-there protuberance. Kahlan brought her hand up and tucked a strand of hair behind Cara’s ear, the desire to touch her nearly overwhelming, and a sharp sting sliced through Kahlan’s neck and raced down her spine. She jerked and slapped a hand to the back of her neck.

“What?” Cara dropped her hands. “What is it?”

Kahlan didn’t answer. A warm, sick feeling was trickling through her veins, working its way up her face. She could feel something under her fingers, something firm and oddly fuzzy. Kahlan pulled. It hurt; like a bee sting with barbs.

“Kahlan?”

Her hands were sweaty. And there was bile starting in the back of her throat.

“Creator, Kahlan, just—”

Kahlan brought her hand away from her neck and Cara stopped.

A dart lay in her palm, small and sharp and adorned with precise black fletching. Kahlan stared at it dumbly. A hot flash blistered through her body. She was shaking. “Cara?”

She saw Cara’s hands reach for her and then Cara made a quiet noise, like the air had been punched from her lungs and then strangled in her throat. Her hands fell away abruptly.

Kahlan pulled her eyes away from the dart. Her head was heavy, and she lifted it with effort.

There was an arrow embedded deep in the center of Cara’s chest. 

Kahlan froze. For a moment, a flash of terrified adrenaline diluted the drug working its way through her system, bringing everything into horrible, exquisite detail.

The small precise circle of red ringing the arrow’s shaft and spreading slowly outward.

The raspy sound of Cara’s breath leaving her throat.

A sloppy bubble of blood frothed and burbled over Cara’s bottom lip and Cara’s eyes shuttered and went dark, faster than a finger snap, and she fell away.

She folded on the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, her head canted back at an awkward angle, staring up at the sky with unseeing eyes, and Kahlan felt an enormous hand reach inside of her—into her deepest, most essential parts—and rip.

She’s gone, Kahlan thought, over and over again, the thought tripping through her brain like a corrupt mantra. She’s gone, she’s gone

She couldn’t move. She could feel the drug working its way through the last of her muscles, paralyzing her and focusing her world to a pinpoint of agony. She wanted to combust, wanted to burn the world away, wanted nothing more than to give in to the black crowding her vision—

A leash tightened somewhere on the edge of Kahlan’s awareness, reigning in the violent storm rushing through her body. The magic railed against it, trying to find a crack to exploit, pushing and pushing and pushing Kahlan into oblivion.

Chapter Text

There was no gradual pull to consciousness. There was nothing, and then there was the sudden sensation that she needed to throw up—that she was throwing up, right now, this very moment, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Kahlan wrenched her eyes open, gagging. She was on her back, staring up at the open sky. Her stomach heaved. She twisted, trying to roll herself onto her knees but her arms wrenched and Kahlan dropped awkwardly onto the ground, the right side of her face pressed into dirt. She vomited and immediately drove her heels into the ground, trying to push herself away from the yellow, rancid mess she’d left on the ground. She rolled onto her knees. A line of spit and bile trailed from her lips. It broke and slapped against her chin.

Her arms were tied behind her back, the end of the rope looped around a thick tree. Kahlan struggled backward, trying to relieve the pressure on her shoulders. The ground pitched and whirled as Kahlan lifted her head. She vomited again. And again. And again, until the vile bright yellow had faded to something that looked like faintly yellow water.

Kahlan dropped back against the tree. She was sweating and shaking uncontrollably, her arms crushed uncomfortably behind her. Bark bit into the skin of her forearms, but she was too weak to do anything more than roll her shoulders to try to find a more comfortable position. She closed her eyes and the needle-thin knife of memory drove into her abdomen.

A gaping mouth of despair opened, threatening to swallow Kahlan whole. You can’t, she told herself desperately. You can’t fall apart. Not yet.

But they were just words, designed to make herself feel brave, and Kahlan could feel herself disintegrating already. Never in her life had she felt such complete emotional pain. A toxic adrenaline coursed through her veins, pumping out from the tight ball of sick that had lodged in her stomach.

Cara’s dead, she thought, and heat shot up her neck. She felt like she was going to be sick again. The image of Cara falling backward played across her eyelids and Kahlan clenched her eyelids tight and tried to will the image away.

“Good morning.”

The words were said with bitter insincerity and just a touch of glee. Kahlan didn’t need to look up to recognize Triana’s voice. Anger surged through her, momentarily muting the emotional havoc Cara’s loss was wrecking on her. She lifted her head and twisted and found Triana sitting a fair distance away, legs crossed as she ate what looked like the last bit of a squirrel off of a stick.

“You,” Kahlan rasped. Her throat felt raw and sticky. She swallowed hard and felt the tight circle of a Rada’Han move with her throat.

Triana clacked her teeth against the stick. She met Kahlan’s gaze levelly. “Me.”

“You killed Cara.”

Triana’s mouth curled slightly. “One of us was always going to kill the other,” she said casually, “so I did it first.”

“They’ll bring her back,” Kahlan said. She wanted to crush the pride in Triana’s smile. Wanted to see her eyes flicker with uncertainty, wanted to see her shift uncomfortably. But most of all Kahlan wanted to convince herself that it was possible. Cara wasn’t gone for good, only for the moment. “Raina, Berdine…they’ll bring her back. Richard will make them.”

Triana’s smile faded. She narrowed her eyes. “You think I don’t know how the Breath of Life works?”

“Cara will—”

“I slit her throat,” Triana interrupted. She flashed her teeth. “Pretty hard to breathe life past a gaping throat wound, I think.”

As quickly as it had been born, Kahlan’s hope withered and died. Triana laughed viciously.

“Have I ruined your day already, Confessor?”

Kahlan tilted her head back and blinked rapidly, trying to keep her tears from falling. She heard Triana’s squirrel-stick cut through the air and clatter against the ground, then heard the creak of Triana’s leather pants as she pushed herself to her feet. She paused and cracked her neck and then began walking purposefully forward, ignoring Kahlan completely. Kahlan watched her, without turning her head, until Triana was obscured by the trunk of Kahlan’s tree. Somewhere behind the tree a horse snorted and Triana clicked her tongue.

There were so many things that Kahlan wanted to ask—why, specifically, followed very closely by where are you taking me—but they were obligatory questions. Things that her brain was telling her would be the logical response to being abducted. Things that Kahlan was having a hard time caring about. She closed her eyes. The black pit was back and she was too exhausted to fight it. She could hear belts and buckles clinking together and the soft stamp of horses shifting their weight.

The clinking stopped. A shadow fell over Kahlan’s face. She opened her eyes. Triana was standing over her, a small black drawstring bag open in one hand.

“What is that?”

Triana didn’t answer. She reached into the bag and pulled something out that she kept pinched between her fingers. She pulled the bag’s string taut and tossed it to the ground. “Open.”

Kahlan clamped her mouth shut.

Triana moved quickly. Kahlan tried to scramble away—or at least angle her lower body to better kick at Triana—but Triana fell on her and drove a knee into Kahlan’s side. She pressed her left arm against Kahlan’s head, pushing Kahlan’s forehead into the rough bark of the tree. She angled her hand so that she could reach Kahlan’s nose and pinched hard.

Kahlan kicked and rolled her shoulders, trying to dislodge Triana and catch a breath, but she was weak and Triana had no trouble riding out her frantic resistance. She felt her eyebrow scrape against the tree. Her ears roared. Small black spots started at the edges of her eyes. She could feel her lungs pulling, screaming for air. She remembered hearing once that her brain would never let her suffocate herself. Eventually it would force her to open her mouth, but if she could just get away from Triana, even for a second—

Kahlan’s lips parted and Triana slammed her hand against her mouth. She forced her fingers between Kahlan’s lips. Kahlan felt something small and dry rub against her gums, something that felt like herbs but turned warm and dissolved almost as soon as Kahlan swept her tongue across her teeth.

Triana stood and wiped her hand on her pants. Kahlan spat, but she could feel whatever Triana had given her already working its way through her system. Her lips were buzzing, like there was too much blood pumping through them. Her face felt hot. Her arms and legs were loose attachments, held on by little wooden pegs like a puppet’s. She lifted her chin from her the tree trunk with difficulty.

Triana was untying the rope. “Get up,” she said, and it was the most wonderful idea in the entire world. There was nothing Kahlan wanted to do more.

Kahlan rolled onto her knees. Triana wrapped the end of the rope around her arm, watching as Kahlan staggered to her feet. She swayed and Triana pushed against her shoulder with two fingers.

“Walk,” she said.

An even better idea than standing.

The world blurred as Kahlan moved. She could not focus further than the next step—could not force her eyes to focus, let alone her mind. There were half thoughts racing through her brain, but drowning everything out was Triana’s voice in her head telling her to walk, to stop, to give me your leg, to put your hands here and don’t move.

Triana began looping the rope around Kahlan’s wrists and the saddle horn. She made a knot and jerked on the end of the rope, cinching it so tightly it bit into Kahlan’s skin.

“S’too tight,” Kahlan slurred stupidly.

Triana ignored her. She tugged on the rope again and stepped away, apparently satisfied. Kahlan turned, trying to fight through the haze of the drug and watch whatever Triana did next, but the forest pitched and whirled around her, kick starting a flood of bile to the back of her throat. Kahlan slammed her eyes shut and took a deep shuddering breath. She was far too hot.

“It’ll be much better for you,” Triana said, “if you stop fighting it.”

Kahlan cracked an eye open. Triana was sitting on the second horse, slightly in front of Kahlan’s, tying a second rope to her own saddle horn. She caught Kahlan watching her and smiled wickedly. “Or don’t. Watching you lie in your own spit up has its own special charm.”

Kahlan fought it. She bit down on the inside of her cheek as Triana kneed the horses into a walk and focused on the pain. For a moment her head cleared, and there was Cara, smiling, dying—

Kahlan stopped biting her cheek and let the world blur. 


 

Something was moving in her mouth, far off and faint, like the phantom sensation of something touching her in a dream. Worms, her brain decided, and the sensation sharpened.

Maybe maggots.

She felt her head move, and then there was a sharp feeling of something very wrong scraping against her insides. A ball of pins exploded in her chest and Cara crashed back into consciousness.

Breathe, her brain screamed, and Cara felt her back rise from the ground as she tried to inhale.

“Hold her—hold her!

There was something wrong—something hard and foreign that she could feel stabbing against the inside of her breastbone. She couldn’t breathe, and someone was squeezing her throat—

Cara tried to reach up to punch the pressure away and couldn’t move her arms.

“Hold on Cara, hold on…”

Cara’s ears roared. Black started to fall like a curtain across her eyes and someone far off screamed “Zedd!” and then the pressure was gone and air trickled back into Cara’s lungs.

The world sharpened. She tried to take a breath but the air wouldn’t stay—something was holding her throat open, letting what little air she managed to inhale slip back out.

“Don’t panic.” Berdine appeared, pink and indistinct above Cara. She reached down and Cara felt the thing in her chest move. “I need you to cough, Cara.”

Cara’s throat muscles jerked, trying to swallow past something thick and unyielding.

Cough, Cara.”

Cara closed her eyes and exhaled, hard, and Berdine jerked her arm up. Something that felt like sandpaper ripped up and out of Cara’s throat. She jerked, coughed couldn’t stop coughing. Someone rolled her onto her side. Cara dug her fingers into the ground, trying to force herself to take a lungful of air and hold it for more than a second.

“Here.” A water skin was shoved in Cara’s face. She fumbled with it, her hands clumsy and uncooperative. She spilled water down her face and chest as poured the water into her mouth, and when she swallowed the cold water offered only a moment’s reprieve from the raw fire raging in her throat. The coughing subsided, though, and Cara fell onto her back. She was breathing hard and there were parts of her body that she couldn’t quite feel—her feet, mostly, and the very tips of her fingers. Her chest she could definitely feel. It ached like she’d been slammed with a battering ram.

Zedd was standing over her, his grey hair shadowing his face.

“What happened?” Cara asked. Her voice was a low croak. The pain in her throat flared.

“You died,” Zedd said shortly. He looked furious, and Cara wasn’t so sure his anger wasn’t directed at her. She pushed herself up onto her elbows.

“Careful,” Berdine said from behind. “Take your time.”

“I’m fine,” Cara rasped. She reached a hand up to Zedd. After a moment’s hesitation he pulled her to her feet. “Tell me—” she swayed, her vision turning grey and spotty. She dug her fingers into Zedd’s shoulder and tried to force her way through the flash of weakness. “Tell me…what happened…”

Berdine moved quickly, catching Cara by the arm before she fell on her face. Together, she and Zedd lowered Cara back to the ground.

“It’s just blood loss,” Berdine explained. “You’ll be back to normal in a day or two.” She bent and picked up a long, thick hunting arrow—the kind used to hunt shadrin and gars—and dropped it into Cara’s lap. “Raina found you.”

There was a line of dried blood several inches up the arrow’s shaft. Cara’s right hand went to her chest, where the battering ram sensation was strongest. She felt a ragged hole beneath her fingers. She looked down. Her entire shirt was stained with blood—not just the area around the arrow hole. She’d assumed the wet she’d felt sticking her shirt to her body was the result of spilling her water, and that was obviously not true.

“It’s too much blood.” Cara plucked at the hem of her shirt. “What else? Was I stabbed?”

“Your throat,” Raina said. “She slit it.”

Cara stared. Berdine smiled shyly. She held up a thin, long stemmed smoking pipe. “I told you all it would work.”

“You put that down my throat.”

“I had to get the Breath of Life past the hole somehow.”

“And you needed to be alive for me to fix the hole,” Zedd said.

“I’m not complaining,” Cara said. She touched the hollow of her throat. “It just explains a lot.” She stopped and stared at Berdine. “She.”

“What?”

“You said she slit it. Who?”

Berdine’s jaw tightened. She looked away and Cara knew. It wasn’t someone who had stumbled on their camp and gotten in a lucky shot.

“Triana.”

Berdine lifted her chin in acknowledgement.

“Where is she?” Cara demanded.

“We don’t know.”

Cara pushed off of the ground and stumbled to her feet. “I’ll find her.”

“She took the horses.”

“I don’t care.”

“Cara.” Zedd laid a hand on Cara’s shoulder. She shrugged him off. He grabbed her with both hands and held her still. “Cara, stop. Do you remember—”

“I don’t remember anything,” Cara snarled. She tried to twist away again and Zedd shook her.

“I need you to think, Cara. Where was Kahlan?”

Cara froze. A cold fist wrapped around her heart, freezing her blood in her veins. He’s not asking to create a timeline.

“Cara.” Zedd squeezed her shoulder gently. “Think.”

“Raina saw her run into the woods after you,” Berdine supplied. “Do you remember—did she find you?”

Cara closed her eyes and pressed a hand against her forehead. The morning filtered back in scraps of dim memory. She remembered eating breakfast and listening to Berdine tell Raina that if she didn’t fix the leak in their roof she was going to roll Raina under it while she was sleeping so that she didn’t have to hear it drip. Remembered wondering if that was something she and Kahlan could ever do—live together and stay put and not feel like they were missing out on some great adventure. And she remembered not wanting to help look for roots because Kahlan wasn’t awake yet and she wanted to be around when Kahlan got up, just because it felt important to say good morning after the night before. She’d started collecting wood and Kahlan ran after her—

“She was here.” Cara pulled away from Zedd. She took a step and wobbled. Zedd grabbed her arm and Cara shook him off. “We can’t just stand here,” she said. She could hear the panic creeping into her voice, and that was almost scarier than Kahlan being gone, because Cara did not panic. “We need to find them—”

“We can’t.” Berdine said. “She took the horses. She killed you, she knocked Raina out—she has a huge head start, Cara, and you’re not exactly in any shape to be—”

“I’m fine.

“You’re not fine,” Berdine said, emphasizing the word with a shove to Cara’s shoulder. She stumbled sideways, struggling to find her balance, and only stayed on her feet by aiming her fall at Zedd’s chest. He caught her and held her up.

“You were dead five minutes ago,” Berdine said sternly. “You’ve lost so much blood that if I pricked your finger with a needle, you’d pass out. And Raina’s no better off. Even if we left right now, we’d never catch them.”

“Zedd.” Cara wrapped her hand in Zedd’s robes. “You go. Take Richard—”

“Richard can’t cross the Boundary.”

Cara gnashed her teeth and shoved off of Zedd in Berdine’s direction, trying to startle her into submission. She needed Berdine to shut up, needed her to stop being so logical and reasonable, because Cara could not just sit and let Triana take Kahlan

Berdine didn’t flinch. She watched Cara swaying back and forth weakly for a moment, her hands clasped behind her back. “She won’t hurt her,” she said quietly.

“You don’t know that.”

“She’s trying to get back to Darken Rahl. I was afraid…” Berdine trailed off and looked away, letting her eyes go unfocused. “When you told us that Darken Rahl was alive, I thought there was a possibility Triana would…” she stopped and shook her head. “I don’t want to do this twice,” she said. She suddenly looked much older. “Raina’s back at camp and she needs to be looked at. Someone needs to find Richard. And Vale…we need to find Vale and find out if she knew. If Triana was going to get anyone to help her, it would have been Vale.”

“You lied to us,” Zedd said. His voice was deep and dangerous, and Cara thought it was lucky for Berdine he couldn’t curse her and make it stick.

Berdine rubbed a hand across her eyes and shook her head. “I didn’t lie,” she said, then smiled bitterly and dropped her hand. “I’m just not a very good Mord-Sith. That’s all.” She shook her head again and turned back toward camp, leaving Zedd and Cara to follow if and when they felt like it.

“Are you really alright?” Zedd asked.

Cara ignored the question. “I’m not staying here. I’m going after them.”

“Berdine wasn’t too far off with the needle bit, Cara,” Zedd said.

Cara bared her teeth. It didn’t matter how much blood she’d lost or how long she’d been dead or how far away Triana was. She was alive, and as long as that was true, then she wouldn’t—couldn’t—abandon Kahlan. Cara ripped a hand through her hair. “She’s pregnant, Zedd,” she said. Her hoarse voice cracked on the word. “We can’t just…just let him…”

“I know,” Zedd said. “And we won’t, Cara.” He turned, forcing Cara to meet his steely-blue gaze. “We’ll get them back. I promise.”

Promise. Zedd could promise her the world, but Cara could guarantee him of two very simple things. One: she was going to get Kahlan back, with or without anyone else’s help.

And two: Triana was a dead woman.

Chapter Text

Cara, not one for patience on her best of days, was well and truly fed up with her body after only a few minutes of thinking far too hard about putting one foot in front of the other. Her ankles felt loose, as if her feet were connected to her legs by a wooden peg like a puppet’s. She’d never felt so unsteady on her feet in her life. To move she had to snap her lower leg out like a whip, let her heel drive into the ground on the descent, rock her weight forward from heel to toe, and then repeat the process with the other leg. On top of that was the too tight feeling in her hands. She closed and opened her fists as she shambled toward camp, testing the itchy pull of skin across her bones. There was a point that Mord-Sith couldn’t use the Breath of Life—the muscles in the heart and chest stiffened and refused to let Life be pushed back in. Cara was beginning to think her tightness had very little to do with blood loss and an awful lot to do with being dead for a fair amount of time.

The dizziness, though…that was most definitely blood loss.

She stopped next to a sturdy looking tree and wrapped one arm around the trunk, squeezing tight with the crook of her elbow. Her hand drooped, listless and weak, fingers curled like a claw.

“Are you all right?” Zedd asked from behind.

Cara ignored him. He’d been hovering like a nervous hummingbird, waiting for her to pitch forward onto her face instead of looking for Richard and Vale like she’d told him to do. She took a deep breath, waiting for her heart to stop pounding in her ears and return to her chest.

“We’ll find her,” Zedd said after a moment of silence. Cara pushed away from the tree and started forward again, cutting off his platitudes. She felt the ground roll under her feet and powered through determinedly. She would not stand and listen to Zedd’s weak reassurances. She wasn’t Richard, and if she was, she had no doubt that Zedd would have fully endorsed a full-scale rescue mission immediately. It was Kahlan, yes, and Zedd liked Kahlan well enough, but it was Kahlan and Cara, not Kahlan and Richard. Kahlan’s abduction no longer interfered with the Seeker’s ability to focus, and therefore it wasn’t a priority. Which wasn’t fair to Zedd at all, Cara knew, but she was angry and not in the mood for fairness. Angry with Zedd for not immediately agreeing to track Triana down. Angry with Richard for agreeing to help the Mord-Sith in the first place. And, most of all, angry with herself for turning her back on Triana. She didn’t know when not trusting Triana had become an abstract idea, something she’d done once upon a time and but no longer endorsed. She’d turned a blind eye to Triana’s attitude, confident that Triana would continue to toe the line, and Triana had made her pay for it.

There was a fallen tree blocking the path, and after several failed attempts to swing a leg over Cara was forced to wrap both hands under her right thigh and lift her leg up and over. The wood was wet and rotten, covered in moss, and she soaked her pants sliding over. She paused on the other side and bent at the waist, breathing hard.

“I hear Richard,” Zedd said. He was standing on the log, his head tilted slightly. He reminded Cara of a dog listening for a squirrel.

“Then go find him.”

Zedd hopped to the ground. “I think he’s at the camp.” He offered a hand to Cara. “We’ll be faster if you let me—”

Cara straightened and pushed Zedd’s hand away. She’d made it this far without his help, and she’d be damned if she stumbled into camp leaning on Zedd like an infant learning to walk.

Zedd muttered something under his breath that Cara didn’t catch. She could draw her own conclusions.

The path to the camp was twisty and nonsensical—a deer trail that the Mord-Sith had repurposed without redirecting into straight lines. It looped around in almost a full circle, opening to the front of the fire pit only after it had curved to the side of the fire and behind the Mord-Sith huts. Cara could make out Richard’s broad shoulders as they approached through the thinning trees and undergrowth. He was sitting at the fire, next to Raina, who was holding a towel to her head, and if he was back then it stood to reason that Vale would be back as well.

Cara veered to the side, abandoning the lazy flow of the path in favor of a more direct approach. She pushed past a few pliable saplings, focusing on the slick leaves under her feet to avoid falling. She heard Zedd step off the path after her. She stepped out of the trees and Zedd cursed. Leaves shook—she imagined his cloak was snagged on a branch and his answer was to wrestle himself free.

Richard did not turn around. His head was down, like he was looking at something in his hands, but Cara was more interested in the woman with long black hair crouched next to the rain barrel—hair that could only belong to Vale.

Cara picked up her wobbly pace.

Cara!” Zedd snapped.

Richard looked up. He glanced over his shoulder, spotted Cara, and was in the process of turning to face the fire again before he jerked and whipped his head back to face her.

“Cara,” Richard said, aghast. He half started to his feet as she approached, eyes wide and focused on Cara’s shirt. Raina turned to look. Her mouth fell open.

Cara ignored both of them as she shuffled past. Vale had stood and turned around at the sound of Richard’s voice. She was taking a drink from a canteen, and Cara saw her eyebrows draw together when she saw the state of Cara’s clothes. She lowered the canteen. “What the hell happened to you?”

Cara didn’t answer. Her jaw was clenched tight—so tight she could feel the pressure behind her eyes. She watched Vale’s expression flicker as she approached—confusion followed quickly by paranoid uncertainty as she scanned Cara’s face. Cara wished she could run, throw herself at Vale, tackle her to the ground and smash her face into the dirt—

She shoved into Vale, leading with her shoulder, trying to use what little momentum she had to slam Vale back against the hut. Vale braced herself and took a step back. The canteen fell between them, spilling across the dirt.

“What—” Vale brought her hands up and tried to shove Cara away. “—the hell?

Cara twisted her hands in Vale’s shirt. They felt stiff—easy to close, hard to open. Vale pushed against Cara’s face and chest. Cara, a few hours of life away from finding her equilibrium again, stumbled and fell to the side, dragging Vale with her.

Vale sidestepped awkwardly, trying to keep her legs from tangling with Cara’s as Cara fell, but Cara refused to let go of Vale’s shirt. Vale followed her to the ground, and Cara immediately wrapped an arm around Vale’s neck to keep her pinned.

“Cara—get off of me!”

Black spots were exploding across Cara’s vision. She was breathing hard. Her grip was good for a few seconds, at most, and then her limbs would go slack, but she would not let go, she would not—

Someone grabbed her beneath the arms and dragged her up and out, pulling her away from Vale and lifting her back to her feet.

“What is wrong with you?” Richard shouted in her ear. He wrapped one arm around her chest, the other around her waist, and Cara sagged forward. Richard’s grip tightened. No doubt he thought Cara was testing his hold so she might launch herself at Vale again. In reality, he was holding her upright.

“For Creator’s sake, Cara!” Zedd stepped between Cara and Vale, who was nursing a murderous glare as she climbed to her feet. “You can’t—”

“Where’s Kahlan?” Cara shouted. She felt Richard’s arms loosen slightly in surprise.

Vale’s expression flickered—unreadable, but still remarkable in that there was a reaction at all. For a moment she tried to wrangle her face into a blank slate, but she was out of practice and she knew it. Her shoulders slumped. “Triana took her, didn’t she?”

“You tell me,” Cara panted. Zedd held his hands up, keeping Cara at bay. Not that he needed to worry. After her trek through the woods, Cara had a general idea of how long it should take for her heart to settle, and it wasn’t happening. She could feel numbness creeping up her legs, and she took a deep breath, trying to will strength back into her limbs. She could feel herself teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, and she wasn’t sure what made her angrier: the fact that she would do it in Richard’s arms, or that it would happen where everyone could see.

Nothing she could do about it now, in any case. Her vision had just tunneled, which meant her knees were right behind, and Cara did not want to end up on her face. 

“Richard,” she said, “don’t drop me.”

At least, that was what she meant to say. What she actually managed to get out was “Richard, don—” before the ‘t’ turned into an embarrassingly thick tongued gurgle. Her legs folded, and for the second time that day she dropped to the ground on her back. 


 

Her body must have woken up again well before her brain.

It was the only thing Cara could come up with that explained why she was sitting up with a mouthful of water, watching Berdine talk.

Cara blinked. She didn’t even remember Berdine coming back to camp. She moved her eyes over the rest of the circle slowly. Raina was next to Berdine. There was a line of fresh stitches holding together the gash on her forehead. Then Zedd, arms crossed, head tilted back as he listened. Vale was on Zedd’s left, head bowed, hands clasped together in front of her. She was not tied up, which seemed to be a major oversight in Cara’s opinion. She swallowed her water and she said so.

Berdine stopped.

Next to Cara, Richard leaned forward, placing his face in front of hers. “You’ve said, Cara. Let it go.”

So she’d been talking before she was awake-awake, too. “Well, then?” Cara twisted away from Richard and gestured toward Vale. She was pleased to find that the motion felt completely natural again, albeit a bit weak. “Why isn’t it done?”

Vale stared at Cara, her dark eyes black in the shadow of her hair. “If you would listen for once, Cara—”

Raina tapped Vale’s knee, gently cutting her off. Vale maintained eye contact with Cara for a moment longer, then shook her head with the air of someone dealing with a frustrating toddler.

“I’m listening, Berdine,” Zedd said. He shot Cara a reproving look. “Even if no one else is.”

“Right. Well…” Berdine took a deep breath. “Triana started accusing us....”

Cara, having missed what seemed to be at least the first half of the story, could nonetheless fill in much of what was missing based on her prior experiences with Triana. Never one to walk away from the possibility of power, Triana had set her sights on the void left by Denna. And she’d probably done a fair job of scratching and groveling her way to the position. But when Darken Rahl had disappeared, Triana’s position had become uncertain. She’d wrestled some semblance of control by loudly—and consistently—telling the others that Darken Rahl was not dead, that he was coming back, and that those who stayed faithful would certainly be rewarded.

As far as pitches went, it wasn’t a bad one. Where Triana went wrong, though, according to Berdine, was when she started to put timelines on Rahl’s return. He’d be back in a week, a month, another month. And when the deadlines rolled past, the Mord-Sith started to whisper. Was it beyond Triana to give them all false hope, just so she could be in control? No. Definitely not. It was entirely possible that Triana was trying to sidestep her way into a leadership role.

Triana, always vigilant when her own neck was on the line, had quickly attached herself to Dahlia’s group of escaping Mord-Sith.

“She wanted to go back,” Vale broke in. “We weren’t even outside the city yet and she was telling me that it was a mistake, that we had to go back. ‘What if he comes back tomorrow?’ That was her argument. If he comes back tomorrow, then everything would go back to normal and no one would be trying to kill us anymore. But if we abandoned D’Hara, then Darken Rahl would destroy us. I told her to go back, then, if she was so sure he was coming back, and she wouldn’t. Wouldn’t go alone.”

Of course not. Triana would never do anything alone. Convincing someone to go along with her schemes meant that she had backup, a shield, a scapegoat.

Or, in Kahlan’s case, a peace offering.

“You have to understand,” Berdine said. “We thought we’d finally gotten through to her. It was almost a year, and she’d stopped accusing us of kidnapping her, or looking for excuses to use if Darken Rahl came looking for us. We thought, maybe, when you four showed up and said Rahl was back, but nothing. She didn’t start pitching ideas to hand you over, and we thought…we thought she’d given up on going back. I promise you.” She looked at Zedd, then moved her eyes to Cara and Richard. “We didn’t know she would take Kahlan.”

“She said to me, after that first night,” Vale said, “that it was strange: we spent so many years trying to catch a Confessor for Rahl, and now that we’re not we have one sleeping ten feet away.”

“And you didn’t think,” Cara said slowly, “that that wasn’t a hint?”

“Would you?” Vale shot back. “Answer me honestly, Cara. It’s Triana. She’d never try to take a Confessor herself. She likes being alive too much.”

Richard and Zedd seemed convinced. Cara was not. It was a nice story, but there were an infinite number of possible accomplices. Dahlia and Rikka, for one. They could have taken the first two horses with the sole intention of keeping them away from the rest of the group to give Triana a free ride to D’Hara, where they’d meet up before handing Kahlan over.

Or maybe Darken Rahl had planted these Mord-Sith in the mountains, knowing exactly who Cara was most likely to grudgingly trust. They’d walked into the trap and now Kahlan was bait, leading them all down the mountain into D’Hara—into the center of Darken Rahl’s spider web.

But then again, they didn’t need to be baited. They were always going to go to D’Hara, Kahlan or no.

Cara tipped her head back, trying and failing to focus on one possible scenario at a time. The sky was purpling above the trees, falling to dusk, and Cara’s ribs tightened around her lungs for a moment. If she left now, she wouldn’t find Kahlan before the next morning. The thought of Kahlan caught, tied, probably scared and trying to hide it—

“She’s safe,” Berdine said. “No matter what happen to Triana when they get to D’Hara, Darken Rahl needs Kahlan.”

“She’s not safe,” Cara growled. There were a million things that could go wrong during the journey, and Triana would not put her life on the line to save a Confessor. And, if they did make it, it was essentially a guarantee that Darken Rahl would discover Kahlan’s pregnancy. She wouldn’t be bait for Richard, then. She’d be a commodity that needed to be hidden away and guarded at all times until she gave birth. Boy or girl, the baby would grow up to be a weapon, shaped from birth by Rahl.

The irony was not lost on Cara.

“He won’t hurt her,” Berdine insisted.

“That’s all he does.”

“Honestly,” Raina said, coming to Berdine’s rescue just as Berdine opened her mouth again, “I’m surprised Triana had the balls to do it in the first place.” She snorted. “I give her a day before she makes a mistake and gets herself confessed.”

Slowly, slowly, Zedd lifted his head. “Where is it?” he asked Cara. His voice cracked.

Cara didn’t answer. A sick feeling had started in her stomach. Tied up was one thing, but tied up and powerless was a whole different problem. Kahlan would be entirely at Triana’s mercy, unable to protect herself. And then, once they made it to the People’s Palace, she’d have no way to fend off Darken Rahl.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid—what was she thinking, keeping something like a Rada’Han around? And for what? A bit of fun. Cara had once accused Richard of thinking with his nether regions. Apparently she was no better.

“Cara,” Zedd prompted.

Berdine glanced between them. “Where’s what?”

Cara swallowed. If nothing else, it might give them all the motivation they needed to take up Triana’s trail. “Kahlan had a Rada’Han.”

Berdine’s mouth fell open, but it was Raina who spoke. "Oh," she said, looking between Cara, Richard, and Zedd, “Oh, you stupid sods.”

Chapter Text

When Kahlan was nine years old, she broke her right leg halfway between her knee and ankle.

Repairs were being made to the massive wall that protected and elevated the South side of the Confessor’s Palace. Great flat wagons piled with sand pulled by oxen and draft horses had been carted inside the palace walls be used to make. To young Kahlan, who had never experienced sand in such quantities, the mounds of pale yellow dunes were better than any nursery playroom.

She and Dennee spent hours playing on the sand, imagining that they were explorers desperate for water, clawing their way up burning, sifting sand only to be greeted by the mirage of Aydindril sprawling out below. They would bury themselves to the neck and then see who could crawl out the fastest, then spend the next hour trying to rub the grit off of their skin and shake it out of their dresses.

Their mother was not particularly pleased with the sand that would collect in their hair, but she had no real objections to playing in the sand, and if the workers moving slowly along the wall were irritated with the mess of sand thrown across the cobblestones Kahlan never knew it. They were two young Confessors. They were entitled to their play.

The actual incident that led to the broken leg was innocent enough. Kahlan and Dennee had been jumping from the top of the sand piles and landing feet first into the thick sides for days, trying to see who could jump the farthest. They’d created a small hole where they’d consistently landed. The sand there was darker and slightly damp after being unexposed to the sun. It stood out like a target, and Kahlan, ambitiously intent on clearing the spot, had taken a running leap from the top of the sand pile. Rather than landing straight up with her feet together, Kahlan landed on her left leg falling forward. Her right leg made impact with the sand, sank, and when she toppled to the side her leg did not follow. It stayed firmly stuck in the sand, and Kahlan felt an odd pop, like a bubble exploding under her skin, and then there was an intense wave of pain that left her sobbing.

Dennee had tried to help her up. They were both scared—their mother had specifically said, “don’t get hurt”—and Kahlan had done just that.

When it became obvious that Kahlan could not move, let alone stand, Dennee had run into the palace to find their mother.

Meara Amnell was not the most affectionate woman—the Confessor training tended to stamp out any tendency for casual touches long before motherhood. That day was one of the few times in her life that Kahlan could remember her mother being completely uninhibited in her contact with Kahlan. She lifted her from the sand and carried her back into the palace, being careful of Kahlan’s awkwardly dangling leg. She held Kahlan’s head against her neck and shushed her comfortingly, promising her that she would make it better, that she knew it hurt, that it would all be okay. Kahlan had clung to her mother and let her tears fall unchecked.

She was placed on her mother’s bed. Servants were sent for: one was to go to the Wizard’s Keep and bring back a wizard to heal the leg. The other was sent to find a numbing potion.

The potion was thin and tasted like ashes. It had slipped over Kahlan’s teeth and tongue like oil and left behind a foul tasting film that water would not wash away. The pain in her leg faded almost instantly, and with it came an odd feeling of focus without a center. In a far off part of her brain she’d hated the feeling of disconnect. Later, when she’d tried to articulate the experience to Dennee, she said—childishly, and perhaps craving the attention—that it felt like she’d been Confessed. She’d been aware but unable to take control of even the most basic functions. At nine she hadn’t quite understood what it meant to Confess someone, only that whoever it was had to do whatever they were told. There was no philosophical discussion about the loss of self, and even if there had been, Kahlan couldn’t say for sure she would have appreciated the difference.

Triana’s drug had the same off putting effect of loss of focus. With it, however, came a placid complacence that Kahlan couldn’t fight—didn’t want to fight. It was easy to do what she was told. It required no extra brainpower, which was good, because logic was limited—it was easier to sit and feel the way her spine rolled with the motion of her horse.

She knew when the drug was wearing off, because the world sharpened and the horrible, gaping emptiness in her stomach tried to swallow her whole again. And then Triana would pull the horses up and force a pinch of the bitter leaves onto Kahlan’s tongue again, and the blood would rush to Kahlan’s face and she would be drifting again.

They stopped just before dusk. Triana ordered Kahlan down from the horse and Kahlan stumbled, blinking stupidly in the fading light, waiting to be told what to do next. Triana dragged her to a bush and tied the end of the rope around a low hanging branch and told Kahlan to relieve herself before turning away to tend to the horses.

Some time between Triana starting a fire and handing Kahlan a dry roll smeared with squirrel fat, the drug began to loosen its hold. Triana had never allowed it to wear out completely, and now Kahlan found herself nibbling at her dinner distractedly, one eye on the pouch tied to Triana’s waist. Maybe Triana had gotten distracted. Forgotten how long it had been since she’d last dosed Kahlan.

Well, Kahlan wasn’t about to remind her.

Except…

Except being drugged had some advantages. Advantages that were becoming more obvious as Kahlan came back to herself.

She didn’t think about how helpless she was, for instance. Or how badly her thighs hurt from riding the horse. Or about Cara, lying dead on the ground.

Kahlan squeezed her eyes shut and curled in on herself, pressing up against the tree Triana had tethered her to. She wrapped her hands together and dug the fingernails of her right hand into the back of her left, trying to drive the image of Cara out of her mind’s eye.

In the past few weeks, she’d started to allow herself thoughts about the future. They would stop Darken Rahl and then maybe…maybe Cara would have wanted to go…somewhere. Not back to Aydindril. Cara would never want to live in the Confessor’s Palace. And Kahlan didn’t want to live in D’Hara. But they would have figured it out, and they would have gone, and Kahlan would have the baby and Cara would realize she wasn’t completely hopeless at being a parent, and now she was gone and she would never get the chance.

Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to wrap her hands around Triana’s neck and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze because she’d killed Cara like it was nothing, like no one would care, like Cara deserved it.

Triana wiped her hands on her pants and stood. It was dark now, and the small fire threw the contorted shadows of trees against the thick forest undergrowth. She pulled a grey blanket from one of her saddlebags and tucked it under one arm before approaching Kahlan, who was curled against the tree at the very edge of the fire’s warm reach. She dropped the blanket on Kahlan’s lap.

“Bedtime.” Triana reached up and untied the rope from the branch overhead. She began winding it around the tree, stopping only to nudge Kahlan with the toe of her boot. “Move. Or I’ll wrap this around your chest and you can sleep sitting up.”

Kahlan glared up at her. Triana stared back impassively.

“What, nothing special this time to get me to follow orders?”

Triana flashed her teeth. “Why waste a good thing?”

“If you think I’m doing anything you tell me to—”

Triana’s hand shot forward, viper fast, and seized Kahlan by the hair. She yanked, hard, pitching Kahlan forward. Kahlan managed to catch herself awkwardly with her bound hands before she hit the ground face first. Triana stepped over her casually. When she reached the backside of the tree, she pulled the rope taut, dragging Kahlan forward by her hands until she was near the tree again. The rope jumped and shook, and Kahlan could imagine Triana looping the end and knotting it tight against the trunk.

The blanket had fallen to the side during the scuffle, and when Triana reappeared she dropped it, still folded, over Kahlan’s knees. There was enough slack in the rope for her hands to reach the ground if she chose to lie down, but not nearly enough to reach for the blanket to spread it over her body. The fire wasn’t big enough to give off much heat, and she wasn’t near enough for it to make a difference anyway. She would be cold.

Unbidden, a conversation she’d had once with Cara flitted through Kahlan’s memory. They were still in Turing, and Kahlan hadn’t known she was pregnant yet. Not for certain. But she’d been sick earlier in the day, and that night she’d been uncomfortably hot, even after she’d kicked the blankets away, and it was all Cara’s fault for throwing off body heat. “Like a Creator damned furnace,” Kahlan had grumbled, and Cara had rolled over and pulled Kahlan to her, trying to get as close as possible while Kahlan tried to push her away.

“You like it,” Cara had purred, locking one leg around Kahlan’s, and Kahlan had pinched her bare thigh and told Cara she was delusional.

“You’re too hot,” Kahlan had complained, knowing full well how Cara would take that, and Cara had lifted one eyebrow and smiled suggestively and said she hadn’t realized how difficult she was to be around for Kahlan.

“I’m going to kill you,” Kahlan told Triana flatly. She would. She’d find a way.

Triana paused. “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t at least try,” she said. “We’re going to be together for awhile. Might as well make it interesting.”

“I’m not joking.”

“I’m aware.”

“I don’t need to Confess you,” Kahlan continued. It was cathartic, saying it out loud. “I don’t. I’m going to kill you with my bare hands.”

“Well.” Triana clucked her tongue and lifted her eyebrows patronizingly. “Good luck with that.” She turned and moved back toward the fire. She pulled a bedroll from her saddlebag and began unrolling it next to the fire, unconcerned with the hatred rolling off of Kahlan in waves. She lay down, pillowing her head on her arms, and Kahlan began working at the rope.


 

In the creeping grey of daylight Kahlan finally saw the damage she’d done to her wrists and hands. She’d felt the painful burn of the rope chafing away at her skin after only a few minutes of twisting her hands back and forth within the rope. She’d soldiered on, grief and anger eclipsing the physical pain for a short time until the wet feeling of blood between her fingers and running down to her elbow made her stop. And then, angered by her predicament and inability to get free, Kahlan had twisted until she could press the rope against the trunk of the tree. She’d rubbed furiously, trying to wear the rope thin, and had only succeeded in scraping her knuckles raw.

Her wrists were bloody, the rope stained red where it touched her skin. The constant rubbing had ripped and burned the tender skin on the inside of her wrists, leaving it angry red and inflamed. Kahlan turned her right hand experimentally and felt the painful pinch of dried blood pulling away from a scab. She winced and held her breath against the burn. A small, brilliant red trickle of blood wormed its way free and followed the river of blood that had dried in a long, winding path to the crook of Kahlan’s elbow.

The knuckles were better. The skin over her left index finger’s knuckle had peeled away and was hanging by a thread, but the rest of the knuckles were scabbed and looked relatively minor. No worse than a few scrapes.

Kahlan dropped her head to her shoulder and tried to wipe away the crusty feeling of dried tears from her cheek. In the middle of the night, frustrated with her inability to get free, she’d finally succumbed to the overwhelming wave of emotion that had been threatening to crash over her. She’d folded in on herself and sobbed, unchecked, until the tears would no longer fall. Numb, she’d rolled onto her side and stared at the fire’s dying embers and tried not to think. Cold had creeped through her skin and settled in Kahlan’s bones. If she’d slept, it hadn’t been refreshing.

Grey light faded to pink, then orange, and Triana finally stirred. She spared Kahlan the briefest of glances, and Kahlan tried to draw herself up and not look as pitiful as she felt.

Triana chose not to rebuild the fire. She began repacking her saddlebags almost immediately. Kahlan wondered if she knew how much information she was giving away by doing so, or if she did and didn’t care.

They had only stopped once yesterday. Paired with this morning’s early start, Kahlan could only assume that Triana thought they were being followed. And if she was moving quickly, trying to race down the mountains without covering her tracks, it meant she had a plan in place, somewhere she was trying to reach before Richard and Zedd or anyone else caught up with them. Kahlan could only assume they were headed to the People’s Palace—why else would Triana risk taking on a Confessor if it wasn’t to present her to Darken Rahl?

Kahlan gritted her teeth and studied her damaged wrists again. She wouldn’t be working herself free any time soon, but maybe if she found a way to slow Triana down she could buy Richard and Zedd enough time to catch up. Creator knew what would happen if Triana managed to hand her over to Darken Rahl.

Her stomach pulsed—a muscle spasm, Kahlan thought, but a moment later it happened again, this time accompanied by a slight rolling sensation low down in her stomach.

The baby, she realized. It was moving again.

Kahlan took a deep breath, and it was like her chest filled with something other than air, something light and warm. She drew her knees up, shielding her stomach from Triana, as if the baby’s moving was visible and necessitated hiding.

It was as if something in her brain had clicked, diverting her attention from the crushing weight of losing Cara. Someone else was completely dependent on her. Someone else needed her to find a way out of this mess.

After, Kahlan told herself. She set her shoulders purposefully. You can fall apart after.

Triana was saddling the horses. She kneed one, forcing the air out of its lungs, and cinched the saddle strap tight.

“No breakfast?” Kahlan called out.

Triana didn’t answer.

“If I show up too weak to hold my head up, Darken Rahl’s not going to be happy with you.”

Triana glanced up and frowned darkly.

“He’s probably not going to be happy about this, either,” Kahlan said. She lifted her hands off of her lap, showcasing the bloody ropes.

“That’s your own fault,” Triana said evenly, but she didn’t look as indifferent as her tone implied.

I didn’t tie my hands together,” Kahlan said. “You can’t leave the rope against the cuts. If you don’t put bandages on my wrists I’ll probably get an infection. And there aren’t any apothecaries out here. By the time we get to D’Hara, I’ll be dead.”

Triana glared.

Kahlan held her hands up again. “Untie me and I’ll do it myself,” she said.

“You’ll be fine.”

“Maybe. But even if I don’t get an infection, if you leave the rope it’ll grow into my skin.”

Triana gnashed her teeth and swore. She finished saddling the horse before ripping open her saddlebag again, finally producing a water skin and a black shirt. She turned the shirt over in her hands, searching for the seam before ripping a long piece of fabric free. She pulled a thin knife from her boot and sliced the makeshift bandage in half.

“Here.” Triana dropped the water skin and strips of cloth in Kahlan’s lap.

“You expect me to do this tied up?”

“No.” Triana held up the small pouch full of the drug she’d been force-feeding Kahlan. “I’m not touching you. You want your wrists bandaged, you’re going to do it yourself.”

Kahlan shrugged. Triana obviously expected her to refuse, but what was the point? If yesterday were any indication, she’d force it down Kahlan’s throat sooner or later. And no matter how much Kahlan hated the way the drug made her feel, bandaging wrists was not part of Triana’s plan. Kahlan had to believe that any amount of time she forced Triana to waste, no matter how short, would help someone catch up.

“Fine.”

Triana’s eyes narrowed. She opened the pouch, reached in, and then—as if suspecting Kahlan of setting a trap—slowly withdrew her hand. “Open your mouth,” she said.

Kahlan gritted her teeth. She’d entertained the idea of taking the opportunity to bite Triana. Opening her mouth like a baby bird and waiting for the sickly sweet flakes to be shaken onto her tongue instead was almost too demeaning.

She stuck her tongue out.

The drug worked quickly, and Kahlan tracked its progress dispassionately. Numbness, heat flash, and then the loose feeling in her arms and legs. Triana stepped away and the rope fell slack in Kahlan’s lap. There was a black line in the braiding. The edges were frayed.

Triana reappeared and untied Kahlan’s hands. She was not gentle. Through her haze, Kahlan felt the rope rip away her fresh scabs.

“There.” Triana draped the rope over her shoulder. “Fix yourself up. And don’t move from this spot.”

Kahlan reached for the water skin. Her hands felt too big, and there was a dark, almost black line in the center of her ravaged wrists.

Fix yourself up.

Kahlan poured water over her left wrist. It mixed with the lazy leak of blood and turned pink before trickling down her arm and into her lap. She waited until the water stopped dripping before she turned her arm over to soak the outside of her wrist as well.

And by all means, take your time about it.

Chapter Text

Richard agreed that Kahlan needed to be found as quickly as possible.

How best to go about doing that was another matter entirely.

Berdine, Raina, and Vale, after a short conference, had offered to lead Richard, Cara, and Zedd down the mountain. After all, Berdine had pointed out, they knew the trails, where to find fresh water, and which path Triana had mostly taken.

Richard jumped at the offer, and this…this was the difference between herself and Richard that Cara could never reconcile. Cara was a product of her upbringing. Life in the People’s Palace had made her very certain of one thing: nobody did anything for anyone unless is served his or her own self-interests. She was a perpetual cynic, always looking for the angle. Trusting someone else felt too much like forfeiting control, and so Cara did not do it. Not if she could help it.

Richard, on the other hand, seemed to think that people were entitled to his trust until they did something to lose it. It left him vulnerable to betrayal—it had happened several times in the short time Cara had known him, and she was quite sure that Richard was setting himself up for yet another betrayal.

“It makes sense, though,” Richard argued, when Cara said she thought letting the Mord-Sith come with them was a mistake. “Triana took Kahlan. They feel guilty. Of course they want to help.”

Normal people would feel guilty, yes. Normal people would jump at the chance to redeem themselves. But these were Mord-Sith, and Cara, being a Mord-Sith herself, knew for certain that guilt did not factor into it.

“Then what do they want, Cara?” Richard asked. He was irritated with her disagreement and didn’t try to hide it.

“They want you to break the bond,” Cara said.

“I already told them I would.” Richard stuffed a pair of socks into his bag. “They don’t need to help find Kahlan for me to break it.”

“Yes,” Cara said, fighting to keep her impatience out of her voice, “But they want to be sure it happens. If they stay here and you leave, they can’t be sure you’ll keep your word.”

“Look.” Richard paused and looked up, meeting Cara’s gaze. “I know you’re worried. I am too. But we need all the help we can get.” He glanced away, surveying his assortment of belongings for any other small items to stuff in the bottom of his pack. “I think you’re overthinking things.”

Cara bit back an angry retort. “I don’t trust them, Richard.”

Richard looked up again, incredulity written across his face. “Berdine saved your life yesterday!”

Cara stared. “So?”

“She could have let you die.”

“So, what, one good deed and I have to trust her completely?” Cara shook her head. She was not about to make the mistake of taking a Mord-Sith at face value. “She only saved me to make sure you’d break the bond.”

“That’s not fair,” Richard said. “You don’t know that.”

Cara snorted. If there was one thing she knew for certain, it was how a Mord-Sith thought. And the core of their existence, more often than not, boiled down to one essential question: How does it benefit me? Short term, long term…Mord-Sith did not act against their own self-interests.

Richard’s eyes slipped over Cara’s shoulder. He lifted his chin in greeting, and Cara turned to find Zedd approaching, his own pack stuffed to bursting over his shoulder.

“Almost ready?” Zedd asked.

“I’m trying to convince Cara—” Richard started.

“I don’t need to be convinced,” Cara snapped. “You need to listen.”

Richard sat back on his heels and glared up at her. “Why are you still fighting me on this?” he demanded.

“Why isn’t it enough that I don’t trust them?” Cara shot back, though she knew the answer already. She had a singular priority, and that was rescuing Kahlan. Richard’s priorities were not as clear cut—not anymore, at least. They’d been muddied by responsibility and promises and heritage, and Cara could understand the difficult position he was in. Before yesterday she’d been working toward helping him solve the problems of the world. But Triana taking Kahlan had created a clean separation. Everything that had been so important before was inconsequential now, existing in shades of grey against the black and white desperation to find and rescue Kahlan.

Yes, Richard was in a difficult position. But at the same time, Cara could net help but feel as though he was willfully ignoring her concerns. And she, more than anyone else, had the right to have those concerns catered to. Cara couldn’t count all of the times she’d been asked to do things she didn’t agree with, all in the name of keeping Kahlan safe. And now, when Kahlan’s safety was Cara’s responsibility, Richard was not willing to return the favor of at least grudging acknowledgment of that fact.

“What do you suggest we do, then, Cara?” Richard spread his hands, as if inviting Cara’s input, though his irritated expression said he expected nothing constructive from her. “We can’t split up—”

“It’s not we, Richard!”

The words exploded from Cara on a wave of unchecked frustration. He couldn’t see it, wouldn’t see it…

Cara was breathing hard. Her skin was a vise, squeezing and squeezing against the pressure pushing from the inside out. She was staring down the barrel of something she had not wanted to look at, had not wanted to acknowledge…

“It’s not we anymore,” Cara said. Her voice was quieter, more subdued. “It’s me and her, and you’re…”

Cara didn’t finish the thought. She didn’t need to. Richard was staring up at her, a combination of hurt and understanding written across his face.

“It’s not we anymore,” Cara repeated, and this time the words flushed through her with cool clarity. She felt like someone had reached inside her and scrubbed her clean, and despite her anxiety over Kahlan there was a new feeling of centeredness sitting high in her chest.

Zedd’s heavy hand came to rest on Cara’s shoulder. He squeezed gently.

“I have a responsibility to the people Rahl has hurt,” Richard said finally.

“I know you do,” Cara said.

“If you can’t…” Richard stopped. He looked away and Cara saw his Adam’s apple bob with the force of his swallow. “If you think we’re going to keep you from Kahlan, then…” Richard shook his head and met Cara’s eyes again. “You’ve done everything I asked you to. I can’t ask you to stay.”

Relief washed through Cara. She reached down and Richard grabbed her hand. Cara pulled him to his feet.

They stood in silence. Cara wasn’t sure what to say—goodbye? Thank you? Both seemed to hold an air of finality that she didn’t like.

Richard squeezed Cara’s bicep. “I—”

Whatever he was going to say was cut off by a sharp wolf whistle.

Cara turned. Dahlia and Rikka were swaying lazily in the saddles of their horses as they approached camp. Dahlia tilted her head toward the open space where the tents had been pitched.

“Where do you lot think you’re going?”


“Seven miles,” Dahlia snarled. She threw a leather pouch full of ingredients from her bag at Berdine’s chest. It was the fourth such pouch she’d thrown, and the fourth that Berdine had struggled to keep hold of.

“You have seven miles before the Boundary to find them, and you knew it. Don’t give me that ‘we couldn’t let Richard cross’ shit.”

“Dahlia,” Berdine protested.

Dahlia threw another pouch at her. It smacked lightly against Berdine’s nose.

“How many of those do you have left?” Berdine asked, irritation evident in her voice.

A lot.”

“Dahlia,” Rikka said. “This isn’t solving anything.”

“It shouldn’t need to be solved,” Dahlia snapped back. “They had plenty of time to solve it all on their own. It should be solved already.”

Cara could not have agreed more.

Dahlia’s return had illuminated just how crippled the Mord-Sith were without a decisive leader. She’d also exposed just how many opportunities to act had been missed in the first few hours of Triana’s betrayal.

Because she had taken the horses, Triana had limited herself to one path for at least the first hour of her trek, and it was a path that intersected several times with trails that were faster and made for foot traffic. Cara and Raina might have been unable to take part in the chase, but Berdine, Vale, and Richard were more than capable of running down the mountain. And even if they hadn’t caught up with Triana in the first hour, the ground was wet and the horses would have left a trail to follow.

Berdine’s only argument for her inaction was Richard’s tie to the bond. Had he crossed the Boundary the bond would have sparked to life like a beacon, drawing every D’Haran’s eye—the exact scenario they’d been trying to avoid in the first place.

“So you just give Darken Rahl a Confessor?” Dahlia demanded.

Berdine gestured weakly toward the Mord-Sith’s half packed bags. “We were going after them…”

“But not because you wanted to. Right?”

Berdine glared but did not try to deny it.

“Right.” Dahlia dumped the last of the ingredients she’d bought onto the ground and quickly began stuffing her own things back into the well-worn leather satchel. “This is what we’re going to do. “You three—” she pointed at Berdine, Raina, and Rikka. “Stay here with these three.” She jerked her thumb toward Richard, Cara, and Zedd. “Vale and I will go after Triana and the Confessor while you break the bond. You break the bond and Rikka leads you all to D’Hara.” Dahlia cinched her satchel shut. “Good? Everybody happy?” she asked sarcastically. “Everybody getting what they want?”

“I’m going with you,” Cara said.

Dahlia shot her a dismissive look. “We only have two horses.”

“So Vale can stay.”

“But then it’s four on three,” Dahlia said mockingly. “Aren’t you worried about your numbers? Aren’t you worried we’ll stab you all in your sleep?”

“For someone so worried about wasting time, you’re sure doing a lot of it yourself,” Cara growled.

Dahlia squinted at Cara for a moment. “Fine,” she said. She turned on her heel and started toward the horses. “Let’s go.”

Zedd grabbed Cara’s arm as she passed. “Don’t forget: When I break the bond you might be vulnerable to magical attacks again.”

“So duck.”

Zedd smiled grimly. He nodded and released Cara. “Be safe.”

“And you.”

Rikka held both horses in place for Cara and Dahlia as they swung into their saddles. She passed the reins up. “Do you want me to bring everybody to D’Hara?” she asked Dahlia. “Or…?”

“You can’t force them to help,” Dahlia said. “But you have my permission to make them all feel unbelievably guilty if they don’t want to.”

A slow smile spread across Rikka’s face.

Dahlia rolled her eyes. “Don’t look so upset about it.” She pulled back on her reins and turned her horse. “Well, Cara,” said as she nudged the horse forward, “let’s go indulge that hero complex.”


Dahlia kept a brisk pace for much of the afternoon. She steered the horses down the mountain efficiently, obviously familiar with the terrain. After a day of sitting on her hands and feeling helpless, Cara appreciated the speed at which they were traveling, though Dahlia was quick to temper her expectations.

“We’re probably not going to catch them before the plains,” she told Cara. “We might be better off just heading for the People’s Palace instead of combing the forest for their trail.”

“I don’t want them to make it into D’Hara.”

“Neither do I,” Dahlia said. “But think about it. We know where they’re going; if we get there first, we can at least keep Triana from getting to Rahl.”

It was a sensible plan, one that cut out a good deal of variables, but Cara didn’t relish the idea of voluntarily leaving Kahlan in Triana’s hands any longer than necessary. Not quite ready to commit, Cara changed the subject.

“Did you know Triana would do something like this?”

Dahlia glanced at Cara, her eyes flinty. “I can’t be everywhere at once.”

“That’s a yes.”

Dahlia made a derisive noise in the back of her throat. “Sure, Cara. If it makes you feel better to blame me, go right ahead.” She ducked under a low hanging branch. “But I seem to remember somebody telling me a few years ago that that bitch would kill us all for the chance to lick Rahl’s boots—was that you or the woman that used to clean your fingernails?”

“So if you knew you couldn’t trust her, why would you bring her along?”

“Rahl was dead and I needed somebody to clean my boots.”

Cara pulled even with Dahlia and shot her a withering glare. “Is everything a joke to you?”

“Why?” Dahlia asked with an air of innocence, “Was it funny?”

Cara turned her glare toward the path in front of them and didn’t answer.

“Did you ever think about me?” Dahlia asked a moment later. There was no humor coloring her tone, just a hint of hopefulness that Dahlia was obviously trying to hide behind an exaggerated focus on the loops of her reins.

Cara was unprepared for the question. “What?”

“When you were running around with the Seeker,” Dahlia said, “did you ever stop and think about the rest of us? What life would be like without Rahl?”

“Triana and her little posse made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t welcome,” Cara said. Her mouth twisted into a dry smile, remembering the sharp, overwhelming pain of multiple agiels being pressed into her spine. “So no. I can’t say I wasted much thought on it. And that’s not what you said.”

“Excuse me?”

“You didn’t ask me if I thought about the Mord-Sith,” Cara said, “you asked if I’d thought about you.”

Dahlia’s smile was too big but still somehow didn’t reach her eyes. “Silly question. You were too busy fawning over the Confessor, I’d imagine.”

Cara felt the defensiveness creeping. She pushed it back, knowing full well that what she said next wouldn’t matter nearly as much as how she said it. “What are you talking about?”

Dahlia shrugged, again affecting an air of innocence. “Nothing.”

“No, not nothing.”

“You’re just awful quick to jump into launching a rescue party, that’s all. Just seemed a bit out of character, seeing as how you couldn’t be bothered to check to make sure any of us were still alive.”

“You mean you.”

The reins in Dahlia’s hands creaked as she clenched her hands into fists. “Yes, Cara.” The words were sharp, the name said with disgust. The anger that Cara had sensed lurking under the mask of detached humor was creeping free. “I mean me. Did you care about what happened to any of us?” Dahlia’s eyes scanned Cara’s, as if searching for some sign of a feeling of guilt. She turned away. “Don’t answer that. I’d really rather not watch you try to come up with a good lie.”

Cara answered anyway. “No. I didn’t think about you.” She’d been beaten by a small group of Mord-Sith willing to follow Triana. Dahlia hadn’t been in their number, but apparently that hadn’t prevented Cara from lumping all of her sisters into the same group. Guilty by association. If they hadn’t stopped it, they must have condoned it, and in response Cara had exorcised the relationships she had with every Mord-Sith from her thoughts. It was wrong, especially since a good portion of their number, Dahlia included, weren’t anywhere near the People’s Palace when the battle over the Boxes of Orden had taken place.

“Why, Cara. Is that honesty?” The humor was back, but this time Dahlia did not bother hiding her bitterness. “I think the Seeker’s been a good influence on you.”

Cara struggled to find an answer. All signs pointed to yes, she had changed, and for the better, but she wasn’t sure she could attribute all, (or even most,) of that to Richard. In any case, Dahlia did not wait to hear what Cara had to say. She kneed her horse into a trot, quickly leaving Cara behind.

It felt an awful lot like the beginning of payback.


After months of wanting silence and never getting it, Cara was beginning to resent Dahlia for creating an atmosphere in which silence felt like a punishment. Dahlia killed and skinned a rabbit, leaving Cara to escort the horses to a narrow creek that had cut a deep path into the ground. Cara was a little unsettled by the role reversal. Though she tried not to show it, Cara couldn’t help but feel that she was overcompensating and that Dahlia could see right through her.

Getting ready for bed was even stranger. It was the second day in a row would be sleeping without Kahlan. Sleep had come unnaturally easy the night before, thanks in no small part to her body’s reaction to dying and being brought to life. Tonight, however, found Cara reenergized and anxious. She found herself focusing on the snaps of branches in the woods and the rustling of leaves, straining to hear even the lightest hint of human activity. Logically she knew it was a fruitless endeavor, but the dark removed all traces of distance, and Cara couldn’t stop herself from imagining that Kahlan was waiting just beyond the line of trees illuminated by their low fire.

“What is this?” Dahlia said. She threw an armful of broken and rotting logs onto the ground and wiped her bare arms, brushing away flakes of spongy wood.

It was the first time she’d spoken to Cara since their earlier argument, and Cara waited what she felt was an appropriate amount of time before saying, “What is what?”

Dahlia flicked her index finger up and down, indicating that she was referring to the fact that Cara was standing up, still dressed, instead of rolling out the bedroll at her feet. “What are you doing? Keeping watch?”

“No.”

“Good.”

Dahlia was on her in a flash. She clamped her hands around Cara’s face like a vice as she crashed their lips together. Cara felt her front teeth cut into the inside of her upper lip. She made an angry noise deep in her throat and brought both hands up to shove against the bottom curve of Dahlia’s ribs.

The push did not dissuade Dahlia. She dug her fingers into Cara’s hair and tightened her stomach muscles against Cara’s hands.

Cara shoved again and wrenched her head to the side, tearing her mouth away from Dahlia’s insistent pressure.

Dahlia let her go, though Cara felt a few strands of hair break away in Dahlia’s hands as she stumbled away. She could feel her lip throbbing with the first hint of a fat lip.

Cara whirled on Dahlia, anger clouding her vision. Her right hand was clenched and cocked.

Dahlia smiled, obviously pleased with herself. “That’s what I thought.”

Cara’s anger swelled at the knowledge that she had reacted exactly how Dahlia had expected her to. “What is wrong with you?”

Dahlia lifted an eyebrow. Her amused smile never wavered. “Not fawning over the Confessor, my ass.”

Cara shoved her. Dahlia rolled her shoulders to absorb the impact and took a lazy step back.

“And here I thought you were going to deny it.”

Another shove. Dahlia’s smile grew larger.

“Hey. It’s okay, Cara. It just explains a lot, that’s all.”

Shove.

“I mean, how is anyone supposed to compete with that? No wonder you didn’t spare any of us second thought.”

“Shut. Up.” Cara punctuated each word with its own firm shove.

Wit the last shove, Dahlia, too preoccupied with needling Cara to pay attention to her surroundings, caught her heel on Cara’s bedroll and fell heavily onto her back. She lay still for a moment before she brought her hands to her stomach and crossed her legs at the ankles, unconcerned with her new position on the ground.

“It just explains a lot,” Dahlia said, directing the comment to the stars peeking through the trees above. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Cara stepped over Dahlia and grabbed her by the collar. She jerked Dahlia’s head and shoulders from the ground and forced Dahlia to look her in the eye.

You listen to me,” Cara seethed through gritted teeth.

“Listening.”

Cara shook Dahlia once. “I’m not playing games. I swear to the Creator, if you screw around, if you get Kahlan hurt—”

Dahlia’s eyebrows began to rise.

Cara shook her again. “If Kahlan gets so much as a scratch because you think it’s funny to push my buttons, because you’re trying to get back at me for leaving you behind, whatever your reason is…I will end you.” Cara tightened her grip and hoisted Dahlia closer, giving her a good long look into Cara’s eyes so that she might judge for herself just how deadly serious Cara was. “Do you understand me?”

“Yup.”

Cara pushed Dahlia back to the ground and straightened. “And if you ever try to kiss me again, I’ll cut your tongue out.”

Dahlia widened her eyes in mock fear. Cara stepped away from her. She turned away from Dahlia. Dahlia had become an expert at twisting words, and Cara would not engage her anymore. She strode purposefully away, to the opposite side of the fire, physically ending their conversation.

Or so she thought.

“Monogamy, huh?” Dahlia observed from her position on the ground. “Have fun with that, Cara.”

Chapter Text

Their descent was gradual, marked by the subtle change in temperature and vegetation as Triana marched them toward the People’s Palace. Eastern winds blew the hot air of the plains up the mountain, like a giant breathing directly into the face of anyone who dared step foot in his domain.

Kahlan pressed her tongue against the inside of her mouth, trying to break the dry seal her moistureless mouth had created without cracking her lips. She was closing in on her second day without any substantial amount of water, and her resolve to not beg Triana for a drink was wavering.

Triana had grown complacent using the drug to keep Kahlan in check, assuming it had rendered Kahlan entirely docile. It had taken Triana three days to realize that Kahlan was asking to stop more than was actually necessary and, once her requests were granted, that Kahlan was moving slowly on purpose. Once Triana caught on, her response had been both ruthless and effective. The easiest solution to the issue of Kahlan’s dawdling, Triana had decided, was to make dismounting the horse unnecessary. Which was not particularly feasible, but Triana seemed determined to see just how far she could push things before she went too far. Kahlan was fairly certain that Triana was building a baseline for Kahlan’s behavior. When she says she needs a break, how much longer can I push her? If she says she needs water, that she needs to eat, that she needs to pee, what does it look like when she really needs those things?

For the past two days, Triana had cut off Kahlan’s access to drinking water, and the physical discomfort that generated was beginning to wear away at Kahlan’s resolve. Triana was beating her down mentally, emotionally, and physically. Kahlan had understood, in a detached, textbook sort of way, that Mord-Sith were good at that sort of thing. It was what had made them such effective tools during Darken Rahl’s reign. She’d heard the stories of Rahl’s captured enemies he’d turned over to his Mord-Sith for questioning—stories of torture and shattered psyches and broken bodies. It was a part of her education as a Confessor, a way to ensure that, should Kahlan ever meet one of Rahl’s monsters in battle, she would not hesitate to reach for confession. Had she the opportunity, Kahlan certainly would not have hesitated to confess Triana.

Triana, however, was not about to give Kahlan that opportunity. With nothing else to do, Kahlan had fallen into strategizing escapes that were thwarted before they ever became serious options. Triana was always three steps ahead of Kahlan, throwing up roadblocks before it occurred to Kahlan to look for the opening. The way Triana positioned herself when she let Kahlan dismount, which trees she tethered the horses to—even which hand she held her reins in. It was an intimate look into how Triana’s mind worked, and Kahlan had to wonder if Triana was naturally inclined toward hyper-vigilance, or if it was a habit Rahl had forced on her.

The earth began to slope upward slightly, and they climbed a short, rolling hill that deposited them onto one of the mountain’s grassy roots. The forest they’d left behind dipped and rose to the north and south like a green wave.

Before them stretched the Azrith Plains, immense and gold and reaching far, far into the distance, until it touched the horizon and evaporated into lines of shimmering heat.

Squat shrubs dotted their descent to the flat plains, the last bit of dark green before they stepped into the sea of yellow green grass. A year ago the grass swaying over the plains had been bright green and tipped with dark brown ridges of seeds. Now the grass was short and yellowed and sharp with dryness. The horses nibbled at the tips, testing for any hint of freshness in the stalks and spitting disinterestedly when they found none.

The sun was punishing. The plains offered no running water and no shade and Triana did not seem keen on searching out either one. She struck out at a severe northeast angle and did not waver, like a homing pigeon returning to the coop.

Their second day on the plain marked the beginning of Kahlan’s sobriety, because it was on this day that Triana decided to not force her drug down Kahlan's throat. The effect it took on Kahlan's body was not pretty; it had taken little more than a week for Kahlan to develop a dangerous dependency, and breaking the habit, disgusting as the habit was in the first place, was threatening to tear Kahlan apart.

“I need a drink,” Kahlan said. Her heart was racing. A thin layer of sweat had erupted over every inch of her skin.

“No.”

Kahlan made a frustrated noise, halfway between a whimper and a growl, and pulled against the ropes holding her prisoner in the saddle.

“I’m doing you a favor,” Triana said. “The less you have in your stomach the better.”

Everything felt oppressive—the heat, the hard saddle pressing against her sore thighs, the constant looking behind for an ally riding to her rescue and finding none, the perpetual reminder that, should someone appear in the distance, it would not be Cara.

A sour taste started in the back of Kahlan’s throat. She swallowed twice, trying to push it back, and then, when it only creeped further into her mouth, Kahlan leaned forward as far as she could in the saddle and vomited.

Triana turned as Kahlan began spitting, trying to clear the foul taste from her mouth.

“Finished?” Triana asked unkindly.

Kahlan spat in Triana’s direction as she straightened. “Bag yourself.” She was shaking. Her palms were clammy where they touched the pads of her curled fingers.

Triana faced forward again, unconcerned with Kahlan’s acerbic response. She seemed uncharacteristically upbeat, and Kahlan suspected this to be an indication of the unpleasantness still in store for her.

She was not wrong. By the time Triana finally decided to stop for the night, Kahlan had been sick no less than four times. There was nothing left in her stomach, and her strength had evaporated in the relentless heat of the plains. She sat hunched and swaying in the saddle. And to top it all off, the baby had decided that today, of all days, was the perfect time to sporadically practice somersaults, which kept Kahlan’s stomach in a constant state of turmoil. She’d had several silent conversations with the spinning baby, all centered on variations of you’re not helping.

Kahlan tried to roll herself out of the saddle. Past experience had taught her that, unless she took matters into her own hands, Triana would leave her atop the horse for as long as possible.

Kahlan’s knees buckled as soon as her feet touched the ground, and Kahlan fell into her horse as the rope wrapped around her wrists and saddle horn pulled taut. Her vision greyed with the sudden change in position. When it cleared she could see Triana approaching, wooden stake in hand to fasten Kahlan to the ground for the night.

“I’m going to kill you,” Kahlan said. Her voice came out far shakier than she would have liked.

“I’ve heard,” Triana said. She pulled Kahlan forward roughly. “Come up with something original, why don’t you?”


 

The hallucinations started as night fell. Faces floated toward Kahlan in the dark, pale and bloated, like dead fish rising to the surface of a dark pool. Kahlan tried to make sense of the faces, tried to attach names—were they people she’d met? Passed on the road? Confessed? Some seemed familiar, from a distance, but as they approached they became a collection of mismatched features that rotted away as they neared, making room for the next face to start its approach.

Kahlan closed her eyes and the faces followed, daring her to sleep. The baby twisted in her stomach—now that movement was almost a daily thing, Kahlan had found it to be consistently active at night. She wondered if the drug had reached the child, if it was somehow experiencing its own withdrawal induced hallucinations, and if it was, what a horrible way that would be to mark the beginning of an existence.

The temperature dropped in the night, cooling Kahlan’s sweat on her skin. She was sick the next day—not so much from her body craving the drug, but from chill and lack of sleep. Triana allowed her an almost unprecedented amount of water. It was almost noon before Kahlan discovered why.

A brown speck appeared on the horizon. A brown speck that lengthened and stretched into the sky, higher and higher, as they moved across the plains. It was the People’s Palace, rising up from the great fist of rock pushing out of the flat earth that marked the end of the plains’ northern stretch. They were close—close enough to pass the gates before dusk—and Kahlan knew that the change in her treatment stemmed from Triana’s unwillingness to appear before Darken Rahl with damaged goods.

Rescue, if a rescue had ever been mounted, would not be arriving in time. Kahlan was fairly certain that Rahl would not kill her. But where someone like Zedd might have been a valuable bargaining chip, Kahlan knew she was more useful to Rahl as a weapon. She would be used as bait and then tucked away, and even if she managed to hide her pregnancy at the start, it wouldn’t stay hidden for long. And then…a lifetime of churning out Rahl heirs with the power to take control of anything and anyone they set their sights on.

Triana stopped when the spires of the People’s Palace began to come into focus. From her saddle bag she pulled a set of carefully folded blood red leathers. Kahlan watched Triana’s back as she dressed, her movements reverential. She saw Triana smooth her hands down her stomach, as if savoring the feeling of wearing the uniform again.

“You think Rahl is going to forgive you leaving?” Kahlan said as Triana swung herself back into her saddle. She knew Triana was imagining her triumphant return to Rahl’s court, and if the only weapon Kahlan had was poking holes in that fantasy, then so be it.

Triana ignored her.

“So you brought him a Confessor. If you think he won’t see through that, you’re delusional.”

“I’m bringing him a Confessor,” Triana agreed. “What comes next is for Lord Rahl to decide.”

“Like a dog delivering a stick to its master,” Kahlan said. Triana kneed the horses forward again. “Don’t be surprised when he uses it on you.”

It was a threat cloaked as a warning, and Kahlan watched it land. It was perhaps the only hole she’d managed to poke, but from the set of Triana’s shoulders it was just big enough for doubt to creep in.


 

Kahlan briefly entertained the romantic notion of being rescued by the D’Harans filling the winding streets leading to the People’s Palace. They ducked their heads as Triana approached, but she’d caught quite a few of them looking at her with sympathy. She could understand why they let her pass. It was a tall order, to expect someone to come to the rescue of a perfect stranger, and an even taller order to mount that rescue against a Mord-Sith.

The People’s Palace loomed above them, menacing and dark as they made their way deeper into the city. Triana dismounted to lead the horses on foot, and a moment later a coalition of soldiers, led by a single stout Mord-Sith, materialized at the end of the street. Triana did not seem surprised, and Kahlan remembered what Cara had said about living in the People’s Palace: There are spies everywhere.

“Triana.” The Mord-Sith stopped and lifted her chin in greeting. The soldiers continued to move forward until they’d fanned themselves into a half circle around the horses. Every one of them had his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Constance.” Triana’s shoulders were back. Standing in the shadow of the People’s Palace had fostered her confidence.

“What’s this?” Constance asked, indicating Kahlan with a flick of her wrist.

“Kahlan Amnell. The Confessor who has been aiding the Seeker.”

The delivery had its desired effect. More than a few of the soldiers took a step back, and it was with some satisfaction that Kahlan saw fear flicker across Constance’s face.

“I’m bringing her to Lord Rahl.”

Constance’s fear melted into a patronizing smile. “No, Triana. That’s what I’m doing.”

The soldiers moved forward. One jerked the reins from Triana’s hand. Another grabbed her right arm and pulled her to the side, where she was quickly flanked in a prisoner escort formation. Kahlan experienced a brief moment of satisfaction at seeing Triana lose her position as captor, but the emotion was short lived. Triana bore the manhandling with the confident silence of a martyr.

The gates to the People’s Palace swung open as they approached. A soldier carrying a pike stepped out of the shadow of the gatekeeper’s hut to watch them pass. Constance held up a gloved fist and the escorts stamped to a halt.

“You.” Constance pointed to one of the soldiers who was not surrounding Triana. “Get the Confessor down. You.” The man holding the reins. “Take care of the horses. Let’s not keep his lordship waiting.”

The soldier tasked with Kahlan’s dismount had hesitated when Constance first singled him out, but the threat of keeping Rahl in suspense spurred him into action. He untied the rope from the saddle horn and then wrapped thick arms around Kahlan’s middle and pulled her from the saddle. He offered Kahlan’s lead to Constance, and it was Constance’s turn to hesitate. Her eyes lit on the circlet around Kahlan’s neck.

“Is that a Rada’Han?”

Kahlan leaned forward. “Why don’t you find out?”

“It is,” Triana said.

Constance took the rope.

High above the palace doors someone had painted, in bold, black letters: “THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE D’HARA.” It was a symbol of the budding revolution that had sprung up upon Darken Rahl’s death—a revolution that had no doubt been ruthlessly quashed when Rahl returned to the throne. Kahlan felt a sick twisting in the pit of her stomach as she passed beneath and entered the main hall. Anyone with plans to mount a second revolution would be all too easy for Rahl to keep in check with a Confessor to manipulate.

Another set of doors stood before her. Three sets of doors, now, that opened and sucked her deeper into the belly of the beast. Kahlan could feel the hopelessness of the situation closing in. Thoughts of escape were fading, replaced with stark reality.

The doors cracked open with a heavy clunk. They creaked on their massive iron hinges, swinging in to reveal a long room lined with soldiers and Mord-Sith alike. At the end sat Darken Rahl.

He was seated on his throne, dressed in a dark blue robe embellished with gold filigree. His feet were bare, and his arms were draped casually over the edges of his armrest, but his casual indifference faltered when he spotted Kahlan. Rahl leaned forward and raised his right hand toward his face and began rubbing his thumb against the edge of his index and pointer finger, as if rolling an imaginary coin.

He said nothing as Triana and Kahlan were escorted up the aisle, but his dark eyes glittered when he caught sight of the Rada’Han around Kahlan’s neck.

Constance stopped in front of the steps of Rahl’s throne. She jerked Kahlan’s hands down. Kahlan stumbled forward, trying to stay on her feet. Constance maintained pressure, forcing Kahlan to bend at the waist. “On your knees,” Constance hissed.

Triana had not needed to be told. She was already kneeling, a look of divine rapture on her face. Her eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears as she stared up at Rahl. “My lord,” she whispered. He voice quivered with barely checked emotion.

Constance backhanded Triana, her knuckles making contact with a sharp crack against Triana’s cheek. Triana’s head snapped to the side. “Be quiet.”

“Constance,” Rahl said, but there was no reprimand in his tone, like a parent that could not be bothered to do anymore than go through the motions of discipline.

Constance leered down at Triana with a savage smile. She was short, compact, and obviously strong—like a wild sow handcuffed by muscles. Her dark eyes were flat and distant, and Kahlan had no doubt that Constance would have enjoyed causing pain even if she’d never been taken by the Mord-Sith.

“Well. This is a surprise,” Rahl said. He sat back in his throne—a snake winding its way back into a coil. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“The Confessor is my gift to you, Lord Rahl,” Triana said quickly, before Constance had a chance to concoct her own story. “I captured her—”

Triana was cut off by the press of Constance’s agiel against the side of her neck. Triana tipped forward and scarcely caught herself with her hands before she landed face first on the hard mosaic floor. Black veins churned under her skin and then faded, leaving behind angry red lines. Triana clasped her hands together and tucked her chin, falling prostrate before the throne. She waited, quivering, for whatever Rahl decided to do next.

He stood. “Let her tell her little story, Constance.”

Constance ducked her head and stepped back.

“I captured the Confessor for you, my Lord,” Triana said. She lifted her head slightly to look Rahl in the eyes. “I killed the traitor, Cara Mason, for you.”

Someone near the back of the room spat at the mention of Cara. Kahlan sat up a little straighter, willing steel into her spine.

“And Richard Cypher?”

The question was asked casually, but Kahlan could see how sharply invested Rahl was in the answer. If Richard was dead there would be no one alive to challenge his claim to the throne.

“Alive.”

“And unconfessed,” Kahlan said.

Rahl glanced at her. She stared back, pouring as much hate into her glare as possible. A slow, reptilian smile spread across Rahl’s face.

“How fortunate for the Seeker.” Rahl descended the first step of his throne. His bare feet tapped quietly against the marble “I daresay if he had been confessed, you wouldn’t be in the situation you currently find yourself in.”

Kahlan didn’t answer, but they both knew: he wasn’t wrong.

“Ah well. Good things come to those who wait. And I…” Rahl took another step down. “Have been waiting a very, very long time for a Confessor to join my ranks. Triana.” He turned his attention to the groveling Mord-Sith and touched his heart. “You have my deepest gratitude.”

Tears of relief fell from Triana’s eyes.

Darken Rahl held her gaze for a moment and then, as if suddenly bored, broke eye contact and snapped his fingers. Two D’Haran soldiers leapt forward to seize Triana by the arms. They hauled her to her feet and had nearly managed to lock her arms behind her back before Triana realized what was happening.

“No! No! My lord, please!

“Dogs that bite, Triana,” Rahl said, poised and regal before Triana’s outburst. He dismissed her with a lazy drift of his fingers and then turned to the captain of the guard standing against the closest wall. “Take the Confessor to the Dignitaries' suit—”

Triana’s desperate cries intensified. She threw herself from side to side, trying to shake herself free of the soldiers.

“Please, Lord Rahl! I only want to serve you, I never wanted—”

A soldier prodded Kahlan to her feet. She could no longer hear what was being said between Rahl and the captain over Triana's screams.

The bond!” Triana screamed.

Rahl stiffened. He lifted one hand and the room stilled.

Kahlan felt her heart plummet. She didn’t know enough about the bond to understand why Richard breaking it would be a vital piece of information for Rahl, but the fact that he was interested was damning enough.

Rahl turned to face Triana again. “Go on.”

“They’re trying to destroy the bond,” Triana said. She was gasping for breath.

“Why?”

Triana dropped to her knees. One of the soldiers released her arm, the other held tight, twisting Triana’s left arm up awkwardly. “I’ll tell you everything I know,” she said. “Just, please: let me stay.”

“Fool me once, Triana.”

“I know what you’ve been told about the Mord-Sith that abandoned you,” Triana said, her voice stronger now that she sensed an opening. “But I’m not one of them. I swear—”

“You’re not one of them,” Rahl interrupted. “And yet, when I returned to D’Hara, you were nowhere to be found.”

“Not by choice.” Triana shook her head vigorously. “Never by choice. I tried to find the Sisters of the Dark, to find some way to revive you, but no one—“ Triana glanced at Constance, who had gone stiff and threatening. “No one would listen to me. They were content to sit and play at ruling themselves,” she added venomously, implicating the Mord-Sith in the room at large. Kahlan heard several sets of leather creaking uncertainly.

“Is this true?” Rahl asked Constance.

Constance’s face morphed into a false smile. “She came back without you. We had no reason to trust her—”

Rahl had heard enough. He moved forward, one hand outstretched, reaching for Triana.

“Triana. My faithful servant.”

Triana sobbed. The soldier holding her arm released her and Triana latched onto Rahl’s hand. She pressed his knuckles to her forehead. Darken Rahl placed his free hand atop her head.

“We have much to discuss,” Rahl murmured. He drew Triana to her feet and clasped the back of her neck. “See to the Confessor, Captain. I imagine she’d enjoy a hot bath, a meal…” Rahl was already turning away, leading Triana down the aisle and out of the throne room before the captain clicked his heels obediently.

Two men flanked Kahlan as the captain led her up flight after flight of stairs and finally down a maze of a hall. Blank spaces littered the walls where portraits and tapestries had once hung, evidence of either minor raiding or Rahl’s decision to purge all reminders of his first life from the palace.

Four women dressed in striped maid smocks stepped out of an open door at the end of the hall. They were carrying wooden buckets, and they stopped when they saw the soldiers approaching and pressed themselves against the wall, eyes on the floor. The soldier’s ignored them and nudged Kahlan into the room.

“All yours, Madame Binain,” the captain said.

A tall woman with silver hair pulled into a severe bun acknowledged the captain with the slightest purse of her lips. She turned and glared at the maids skittering through the room. “Well? What are you all supposed to be doing?”

Kahlan had a split second to take it all in—the enormous bed, the chandelier, the gold etched into the walls—before the palace maids grabbed her and propelled her past the bed and into a smaller, darker room that seemed to have been built specifically to house the copper tub sitting in the center of the floor. There was a small fire beneath the tub, heating both the room and the water filled to just a few inches below the edge of the tub.

It was like stepping into a beehive. Everyone was moving, flitting by to pour something into the water or stoke the fire or arrange a stack of towels. A short girl with a round, red face began picking at the first knot in the rope around Kahlan’s wrists. Another maid was on her knees, unlacing Kahlan’s boots with an urgency that Kahlan found almost absurd. She must smell terrible, if these women were so keen to get her into the water.

The maid untying Kahlan’s wrists began unwinding the rope. Kahlan winced as the fine hairs of hemp that had dried in her scabs pulled free. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, biting her lip to distract from the pain of scabs pulling free. The maid was more concerned with speed than care, and by the time the rope finally fell free Kahlan could feel the cool touch of air hitting the spots of blood leaking free from her damaged skin. She looked down. Her wrists, fully exposed for the first time in little over a week, looked like a large dog had been gnawing on them. Kahlan dropped her arms to her sides slowly. Her muscles had grown accustomed to limited movement, and her shoulders and elbows twinged painfully as Kahlan broke the slight contraction.

Finished with the rope, the maid grabbed the hem of Kahlan’s shirt, and Kahlan felt her heart rate spike. She fumbled frantically, trying to push the girl’s hands away. The moment she took off her shirt, everyone would know she was pregnant. Her growing stomach, hidden by her loose shirt and bound hands, would be on full display. And though the chances of her keeping the baby hidden for much longer were incredibly slim, Kahlan desperately needed a day—an hour, even—to mentally prepare herself for the fallout.

The maid looked up, confusion clearly written on her face.

“Please don’t,” Kahlan whispered.

The maid glanced over her shoulder. Madame Binain was surveying the maids’ progress, and when she noticed the younger maid hesitating she snapped into action.

“You have a problem?” Binain’s D’Haran accent was thick and added an extra layer of accusation to her tone.

The maid hesitated. She looked back at Kahlan.

“I can undress myself,” Kahlan said.

Binain smiled nastily. “We do it or you sit in your own filth.”

“I don’t need six people to wash me.”

“The quicker the better. I’m not going to sacrifice one of my girls for the day so that you can have your toes scrubbed.” Binain snapped her fingers and made a short upward motion with both hands, silently ordering Kahlan to lift her arms.

Kahlan didn’t move. Binain surveyed Kahlan in silence for a moment, her nose flared with irritation. “Guards can wash just as well as a maid.”

It was an empty threat, Kahlan was sure of it. Again she stood her ground, and after a moment of intense staring Binain snapped her fingers, drawing the attention of the well-trained maids milling about the room.

“Out. All of you.” Binain pointed at the maid who had tried and failed to remove Kahlan’s shirt. “Merrin, stay.”

The maid hands ducked her head and folded her hands obediently. Binain closed the door after the last maid. She turned and crossed her arms over her chest. “There. Now: strip.”

Slowly, slowly, Kahlan uncurled her fingers from the bottom of her shirt. She pulled at her right sleeve, trying to work the fabric over her raw wrists. Merrin, perhaps out of a desire to help, or perhaps feeling that she would be berated if she did not, reached out and lifted Kahlan’s shirt to her ribcage.

Kahlan let out a quiet gasp and twisted, trying to pull herself free—trying to cling to the last romantic notion of keeping her back to Merrin and Binain when she pulled the shirt over her head and stepped into the tub. Merrin released her. Kahlan felt her shirt bunch and stop on the top curve of her stomach, and with it the crushing press of lost hope.

The hard swell of her stomach, though still small enough to be hidden behind a loose shirt, was nonetheless too big to be mistaken for anything other than pregnancy. Kahlan saw realization dawn for Merrin, saw the way she hesitated before turning to Binain—a last, cruel hint at the refuge she’d lost, because she was sure, with that hesitation, that Merrin could have been convinced to keep the secret.

Kahlan had no such secret keeping delusions about Madame Binain. Deep ruts had started between her eyes. She looked ready to snap again when Merrin abandoned the shirt and stepped to the side, but understanding smoothed her face quickly. “Bathe her,” she said to Merrin. “I’ll be right back.”

This time, when Merrin reached for her shirt, Kahlan lifted her arms to help. She felt numb. The dominos had been pushed, and they were clack-clack-clacking toward destruction.

“I’m sorry,” Merrin said quietly. She held Kahlan’s elbow as Kahlan stepped into he bathtub.

Kahlan bit back an ironic laugh. It was ridiculous; Merrin, apologizing? After so many people had hurt her and taken things from her, and it was little baby-faced Merrin that thought she owed Kahlan an apology?

The water was hot, just short of scalding. It hurt, and Kahlan was more than happy to let the pain blot out the overwhelming feeling of emptiness that had carved out a home under her skin.

Merrin poured a small amount of amber liquid into the bath that smelled of attar of rose and black vanilla. It spread in a dull, oily rainbow across the surface of the water. She produced a washcloth and dipped it into the water and then squeezed it out over Kahlan’s shoulders.

“I can do that,” Kahlan said.

Merrin paused, as if waiting for Kahlan to make good on her claim. When Kahlan didn’t move, Merrin dipped the cloth again.

“I’m Kahlan.”

Merrin smoothed the cloth over Kahlan’s hair.

“I’m a Confessor.”

A quick duck of the head. Merrin knew this already.

“I can kill you with my bare hands.”

Merrin paused.

“Right now. I don’t need to confess you. I can just reach up and snap your neck. I could. There’s no one here but us. I could…”

The last bit of Kahlan’s threat was drowned out by the slosh of water as she brought her hands to her face. She was exhausted. Too exhausted to even cry, though she wanted to—for herself, for the baby, for the people of the Midlands who had no idea what was coming, for the future with Cara that had been so quickly extinguished.

Merrin continued to wash Kahlan’s limbs. Maybe she’d called Kahlan’s bluff about killing her. More than likely she’d just grown accustomed to working through death threats.

Kahlan dropped her hands slowly, dragging wet trails down her face. She dropped her head back against the edge of the tub, where the lip naturally tilted her face toward the ceiling. She closed her eyes. Merrin began rubbing soap into Kahlan’s hair. Kahlan forced her eyes open again. It was too similar, the sensation of Merrin washing her hair, to the time Cara had volunteered to do the same one night in Turing. Kahlan stared at the ceiling, tracing the golden pattern stippled into the stone and reminding herself every once in a while to unclench her teeth.

“Finished,” Merrin said softly. She stood and held open a white towel for Kahlan to wrap herself in.

Kahlan pulled herself to her feet slowly. She felt human again after washing the dirt and stink from her skin, but the warm water had also worked to relax her muscles. Now every ache and pain that had been hiding behind stiff joints had flared to life. She splashed a good deal of water onto the floor as she struggled to lift her feet high enough to climb over the edge of the bathtub.

“Careful you don’t slip,” Merrin said. She draped the towel over Kahlan’s back and Kahlan pulled both edges tight around her breasts. Where once the towel might have hung loose past her thighs, now it clung tight to her protruding stomach.

“There are some clothes for you in the other room. I can get them, or—”

Whatever Kahlan’s second option was was lost when the washroom door banged open and Darken Rahl burst into the room, robes flapping. Next to her, Kahlan heard Merrin gasp before she dropped to her knees.

Instinctively, Kahlan slid one hand across her stomach, as if that one gesture would be enough to protect her child. Rahl’s strode forward, his eyes fixed to Kahlan’s midsection. Kahlan took a step back. Her thighs hit the edge of the tub.

Rahl reached out a hand. “May I?”

It was an insincere play at etiquette, as his hand had already landed on Kahlan’s stomach before the question was asked.

Kahlan drove the heel of her palm into his forearm, trying to push him away, but she could see, when Rahl’s hand fell, that it was less to do with her show of strength and more because he’d already had his curiosity sated.

“Triana does bring the best gifts,” he said. He was practically preening as he puffed his chest. “I would have been happy enough with only a Confessor. I believe congratulations are in order.”

Kahlan’s upper lip curled with irrepressible hate. She stepped away and drew up her shoulders. Her skin burned where Rahl had placed his hand. “I don’t care what I have to do,” she said, pouring as much fierce sincerity into her words as she could, “you are never. Never. Getting your bloody hands on this child.”

Rahl’s smile faded, replaced by a dark harshness. His arm snapped out, fast as a snake’s strike. He seized Kahlan by the back of the neck and squeezed, pulling their faces together. He smiled at Kahlan, baring his teeth like a hyena before the kill.

“Oh, Kahlan. I’d sincerely like to see you try and stop me.”

Chapter Text

The city of D’Hara loomed before them, roofs lost in the hazy purple of morning fog. It was then, and only then, that Cara abandoned all hope of finding Kahlan before Triana reached the People’s Palace.

Dahlia, not one to let an opportunity to say, “I told you so,” pass unacknowledged, gestured toward the open ground left to cover and said, “I told you so. Your lady fair is already enjoying the hospitality of our illustrious Lord Rahl."

Cara let the lady fair shot slide. Some days Dahlia seemed uncannily perceptive with her verbal barbs, others she seemed to be stretching for insults that landed far short. At any rate, lady fair was better than mistress and not as antagonistic as wife, both of which had been Dahlia’s terms of choice for Kahlan the past few days.

“If it makes you feel better, though, I doubt he’ll have moved her yet,” Dahlia continued.

This was the thing about Dahlia, above all other things, that drove Cara mad. She hinted, she played coy, she was purposefully vague, and she was entirely too happy being in charge of the flow of information. The D’Hara they were riding in to was clearly not the D’Hara Cara had left a year and a half ago, but how it had changed, Dahlia was not inclined to say. Cara was on a need to know basis, and Dahlia did not let her know until she was bored with listening to Cara strike out on plans based on laughably incorrect assumptions.

Cara tried to be patient. If it meant she would get Kahlan back then she could put up with Dahlia’s little game. “He had us move that astronomer around for months, and he was nowhere near as important as Kahlan.”

“He’d probably like to send her out leapfrogging,” Dahlia conceded. She grinned. “But the people he sends out tend to not come back.”

“Loyalty getting a little hard to come by in D’Hara?” Cara asked. She tried to temper the spike of hope at the thought of Kahlan still being within reach.

“Something like that.”

They entered the city a little after midmorning. The lower city was still as dilapidated and rank as Cara remembered, with street after street crammed full with huts and lean-tos built out of whatever the occupants had managed to scavenge. The residents watching from the shadows kept to themselves. They’d learned to keep their distance from any woman sporting a braid.

It was only when they crossed the river that separated Low D’Hara from High D’Hara that Cara noticed anything different about the city she’d left behind. High D’Hara, home to the wealthy population of D’Harans—scholars and merchants and the like—was in shambles. Every third house was gutted, its windows smashed into the street, its roof ripped into, its walls reduced to crumbling blocks. Shops were burnt, their roof supports black and open to the sky like the ribs of a dead man.

Looters, Cara thought at first. People who had taken advantage of the chaos created by Rahl’s death to hit D’Hara’s defenseless wealthy. But as they moved deeper into the city, she wasn’t so sure. It looked too strategic to be looters. Who picked a house in the middle of a street to rob but left the rest unscathed? And why were so many shops burnt? There were far too many for the fires to have been accidental. And where was everyone? If the poor of Low D’Hara had ransacked the houses of High D’Hara and chased the residents out, weren’t they better off squatting under an actual roof instead of a tarp?

She said as much to Dahlia.

“Low D’Harans didn’t do this.”

“Then who did?”

“Think about it.”

Cara moved to the next probable suspect. “Rahl.”

“Wrong.”

“Then explain it,” Cara snapped.

Dahlia smiled, mischief in her eyes. “The ruined bits belonged to Rahl’s supporters.”

“You’re joking.”

“Cara.” Dahlia clucked her tongue. “Would I joke about something so bloody wonderful?”

Cara pulled her horse up and counted—really counted—the number of destroyed buildings along the street. Ten on the left, four on the right, and in between a whole host of untouched homes and shops. If Dahlia was telling the truth, then Rahl’s supporters were far outnumbered by dissenters.

“Not everyone is as happy as Triana that Rahl is back,” Dahlia said. “In fact, I’d say most people aren’t too happy about it. They’re exercising—what’s that saying? Exercising their revolutionary right to overthrow him?” She turned her horse and started down the empty street again. “Starting fires, beating up soldiers in the name of freedom…it’s all very romantic.”

“And they leave you alone? You’re a Mord-Sith.”

“Well, they did. But thank you for blabbing it to everyone.”

Cara gestured to the mostly empty street. The streets, once packed to bursting with women draped in their finery and carriages pulled by thoroughbreds, were now populated by only a handful of men. They gave Cara and Dahlia a wide berth, stepping down side streets in a way that Cara knew was intended to look casual and not at all like they had something to hide.

“No one’s here.

“Someone’s always watching, Cara. I suggest you keep an eye on the roofs.”

Cara turned her gaze skyward, scanning for a flash of movement as she followed Dahlia through the streets.

“Rikka and I usually stay at the Red Room Inn,” Dahlia called back.

“Never heard of it.”

"A woman took over one of the bigger houses that was set to get smashed up and started renting rooms out. No stable, though. We usually leave the horses up ahead, at the tavern. It has a livery.” Dahlia pointed to a tavern at the end of the street. The silhouette of a horse’s head on the sign hanging above the door indicated stables around back. “We usually walk the rest of the way.”

“Why don’t we just stay here?”

Dahlia glanced at Cara. Cara had a feeling she wouldn’t have answered the question even if they hadn’t been interrupted by a mean looking man with greasy grey hair who stepped out of the tavern. He squinted up at them suspiciously.

“What d’you want?”

“Do you have room for our horses?” Dahlia asked, ignoring the man’s brusque tone.

“Thirty silver pieces a day."

“It was fifteen last week,” Dahlia said.

“And now it's thirty. You don’t pay, you don’t get ‘em back.” He pointed to a narrow dirt path that wound around the side of the building. “I got a stable boy back there. He’ll put you up.”

The stable boy was lying in a pile of straw, chewing on a piece of grass when Dahlia and Cara rode up. He jumped to his feet, craning his neck frantically for any sign of the tavern’s owner. He relaxed only slightly when he realized Cara and Dahlia were alone.

“Morning,” Dahlia said as she dismounted.

“Welcome back, miss.” The boy pressed nervous hands to his thighs and attempted a bow. “Will you be boarding with us or just stopping for a short excursion?”

Cara, in the middle of dismounting herself, snorted at the boy’s feathery script. Excursion. Yes, we’re here to see the rest of the burnt buildings.

“Boarding,” Dahlia

“How many nights?”

“Not sure yet.” Dahlia flipped her reins over her horse’s head. “Is that a problem?"

"No problem." The boy took the reins from Dahlia and Cara and led the horses to a pair of empty stalls. There was one other horse in the stable, and its ears pricked forward eagerly at the new arrivals.

Dahlia and Cara were unstrapping their saddlebags when the stable boy snapped to attention and shouted, “Long live Lord Rahl!”

Slowly, slowly, Cara straightened. Next to her, Dahlia did the same.

Two D’Haran soldiers were approaching the stables, their wrists slung lazily across the pommels of their swords. One of them acknowledged the stable boy with a lift of his index finger.

Cara watched as Dahlia slipped her hand into one of her saddlebags, feeling her way through clothes and packages of food for a weapon. Cara had a knife in her boot and an agiel on the top of her pack. She slowly worked the strap free.

One of the soldiers asked, “Where are you two headed?” while the other struck a serious pose behind him.

Dahlia gestured vaguely. “Here.”

“Why?”

“We’re going to market.”

The other soldier piped up: “You’re a day early.”

“Guess we’re going to have to rent a room after all,” Cara said, trying to do her part in contributing to the lie.

Dahlia was staring at the soldier that had offered the information about the market. “Since when is market not every day?”

“Since Lord Rahl said so.”

“Why'd he do that?”

Cara didn’t miss the inquisitive inflection in Dahlia’s voice. She didn’t like it—nor did she like the fact that an avarin, judging by the black sleeves of his uniform, had just stepped out of the back of the tavern and was looking in their direction as he puffed on a short pipe. If these idiots were going to let them pass without a problem, then by all means, let them do it. They didn’t need to start a conversation and draw more attention. She sucked on her teeth, trying to draw Dahlia’s attention.

Dahlia glanced at her. Yeah, yeah, her expression said, save the Confessor. I got it. “I guess you’re right,” she said aloud. “We’ll need a room.” She stepped around the back of her horse. Cara saw her slip her agiel behind her back, into the waistband of her pants. Cara followed suit. “Thank you for all your help. We can go around you fellows, that’s fine—oh, no, really, we don’t need an escort—”

The avarin had taken a few steps in their direction. He tipped the coals from the end of his pipe and said, “Dahlia Hern.”

Dahlia stopped. Cara sidled up next to her, turning her body slightly so that the round of her left shoulder touched Dahlia’s shoulder blade. Right arm free to pull a weapon, one quick pivot to back to back.

Dahlia studied the avarin for a moment, as if she couldn’t quite connect the face with a name. “Avarin Adelson. They finally let you out and about, I see. Done skulking around in the shadows?

The avarin ignored her. He studied Cara with one serious grey eye—the other was milky with blindness and remained stationary in its socket. “Who’s your friend?”

“Cara Mason.” Dahlia flapped her hand. “Before your time.”

“I’ve heard of her.” The avarin made a show of pocketing his pipe. “Come to lay your treasure at Rahl’s feet like the other one?”

The two soldiers stiffened at the veiled reference to Triana. They moved their hands to their swords. They still had no idea who they were dealing with, but the subject matter was apparently enough to put them on edge.

“No, no.” Dahlia shook her head. “I’m afraid not interested in rejoining the ranks.”

“Then you’re back to conjure up more sedition.” Adelson’s tone had shifted from conversational to combative.

“Not familiar with the word, I’m afraid,” Dahlia said casually, “but I assure you that any sort of conjuring is quite out of my skill set.”

“You know what I mean. Dahlia Hern, you’re under arrest—”

Cara drew her agiel from her pants. A chorus of metallic hisses filled the air as the soldiers and the avarin drew their swords.

“For treason and attempting to lead a coop—”

“It’s coo.” Dahlia made a disgusted noise and shook her head. She drew her own agiel and said, “You don’t pronounce the ‘p’.”

Dahlia launched herself at Abelson and drove her agiel at his head. Cara saw Abelson start to bring his sword up to deflect the blow before she pivoted and immediately jumped back, narrowly avoiding a wicked upstroke from one of the soldiers.

The second soldier swung for her head and Cara dove and rolled, pulling her knife free from her boot as she rose to her knees. She flipped the knife from handle to point in her hand and let it go all in one smooth motion. It landed solidly in the chest of the soldier that had swung at her, and he folded like a puppet that’d had its strings cut.

Dahlia was spinning, kicking at Abelson’s stomach and slamming her agiel against his sword with every turn as she forced him back toward the tavern. Cara brought her agiel up and delivered her own blow to the flat of the now charging soldier’s sword, knocking it to the side. His momentum drove the tip into the ground, and Cara kicked him in the chin as the weight of the sword pulled him down. He made a quiet whimpering noise as his head snapped back and he crumpled to the ground.

Cara heard the skitter of metal across dirt and turned. Dahlia had managed to kick Abelson’s sword away. She struck forward, fast as a snake, lifting her arm high and canting the tip of her agiel down, toward his heart, to apply the most possible pressure. Abelson dropped to his knees and pitched his head back. (Comical, Cara thought, when she looked back and played the moment over in her mind’s eye, the way he draped himself so elegantly for death.) But he did not die. Or scream. Or flail. Or indicate, in any way, that Dahlia’s agiel was having any more effect on him than any other blunt object might’ve had.

Abelson recovered first. Before Cara could shout a warning he had drawn a short push knife from his belt and struck at Dahlia. The dirk sank into her abdomen so fast and so far that Cara heard the soft sound of Abelson’s fist connecting with Dahlia’s stomach.

Dahlia grunted. She curled forward and clutched at her abdomen. Abelson scrambled after her, tripping to his feet as he slashed at her. Dahlia pivoted, offering him her shoulder instead of her throat, and Abelson took it, cutting a long arc across Dahlia’s deltoid a second before Cara slammed into him and drove him to the ground.

Abelson landed on his back, his knife hand outstretched and dangerous. Cara punched him in the face as he bent his elbow, trying to find an angle to stab her in the back. She latched onto his elbow and forced it to the ground. She turned her head to keep Abelson from scratching at her eyes.

“Dahlia,” Cara panted but Dahlia seemed stuck—caught between staring at the blood covering one hand and the dead agiel in the other. The door to the tavern opened. Another soldier stepped out. He blinked and then darted back inside—not for long, Cara was sure.

“Dahlia!”

Dahlia started. She stared stupidly for a moment before her eyes lit on the stubby push knife still between the avarin’s fingers. She launched herself forward and kicked so hard her plant foot came off of the ground and Cara heard the avarin’s wrist break where Dahlia’s boot had connected. He screamed and writhed beneath her. Cara tipped her chin up and then drove her head forward, smashing her forehead against the point between Abelson’s eyebrows. She felt bone crunch. Abelson went still.

Cara scrambled to her feet and grabbed the avarin’s sword. She seized Dahlia by the collar and dragged her in a half circle, putting herself between Dahlia and the tavern’s open door. Dahlia let herself be manhandled for a moment before she pulled away from Cara’s grip.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Not fine, exactly, but maybe good enough as two more soldiers burst from the tavern, weapons drawn. Cara could hear Dahlia inhaling aggressively through her nose. It was a sound intimately threaded into some of Cara’s worst memories of being broken, and it unlocked something infantile and small inside of her that she’d thought was still locked in the dungeons below the People’s Palace.

One of the soldiers charged. The other seemed surprised—Cara would have bet anything that he would have much rather run away—but he recovered and rushed after his companion. The first soldier—black bearded and wild eyed—dropped his sword low, screamed, and swung his arm in a wide arc, as if he was attacking with a mace and chain instead of a broad sword. Cara gripped her own sword in both hands and caught the soldier’s blow a hair’s breadth from the crown of her head. He screamed in her face and pushed, trying to break her hold. Cara kicked him solidly between the legs. His angry scream morphed into high-pitched whimper. He folded over, sword forgotten.

The second soldier was close now—close enough that Cara could throw her sword the short distance into his chest, but before she had a chance to draw her arm back Dahlia blew past her. She planted her left foot and rolled herself over the crying soldier’s back and swung her right heel into the charging soldier’s jaw with a muffled thwack. He dropped immediately to the ground, mouth opening with shock even as he lost unconsciousness. He hadn’t seen Dahlia coming until her foot was almost in his face.

Cara grinned. She drove her knee into the whimpering soldier’s nose, sending him backward in a graceless arc as blood spewed from his face and thought, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed her. There was certainly something to be said for fighting with someone who wasn't hindered by any moral hangups about fighting with honor.

“It almost isn’t fair,” Dahlia said mildly. She was surveying the crumpled bodies they’d left strewn about the yard.

Cara lifted one shoulder. These men were obviously not the well-trained D’Haran soldiers of old. Defeating them wasn’t any real accomplishment. Then again…

“If they go around picking fights then they get what they deserve.”

The soldier Cara had kneed rolled back and forth on the ground, more worried about holding his privates than he was about the blood pouring from his nose and mouth. Dahlia put the toe of her boot on the man’s head. “I suggest you shut up,” she said.

The man shut up.

Dahlia’s hand was still pressed to her stomach. Blood stained most of her shirt.

“How’s your side?”

“I’ve had worse.” Dahlia’s face was dotted with sweat. She held up her agiel. “I’m guessing this means Richard broke the bond,” she said.

“I think that’s a safe assumption.”

“I didn’t even realize it wasn’t working, I was so used to just ignoring the pain.” Dahlia rolled it between her fingers, leaving behind smears of blood. The agiel glittered in the sunlight. “What do I do with it? Leave it?”

Cara’s own agiel was lying in the dirt and she had no intention of picking it up again. Without magic it was useless; a dead symbol of a life that Cara no longer wanted to live. “You may as well.”

Dahlia stared down at the agiel in her hand for a long time, her face a war of emotions. She blinked. “For a moment I was feeling sentimental about it,” she said. She hefted it and threw it onto the roof of the tavern with a quiet grunt. The moment was over, it seemed. She pointed at Abelson. “Has he got any coin in his pockets?”

Cara pulled a mostly empty sack of money from Abelson’s pocket. “A bit.”

“Well. That makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”

Cara didn’t answer. When she looked up again Dahlia’s eyes were closed. She’d gotten paler.

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

Dahlia opened her eyes. She curled her hand away from the wound slightly, still blocking Cara from seeing anything significant. She looked at the wound for less time than it would have taken Cara to snap her fingers before she clamped her hand down again. “I just need to cinch it with something. I’m bleeding all into my pant legs.”

“Stay here, I’ll look.”

The stable boy screamed when Cara reentered the stable. He was sitting next to the entryway, hands over his head, back against the wall. Cara dragged him to his feet.

“Don’t kill me!” He was crying. Snot stained his upper lip. “Please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not going to kill you. I need bandages.”

“I promise, I won’t tell anybody you were here!”

Cara shook him roughly. “Bandages!”

The stable boy choked on a bubble of spit. He pointed toward a tall cabinet on the opposite wall. Cara dropped him and he folded into the fetal position.

There were rows and rows of amber vials of all different sizes packed into the cabinet, as well as wicked looking metal tools. And there, at the very top, rolls of satin leg wraps all in a line. Cara pulled down two.

Dahlia insisted on wrapping her stomach herself. Cara, irritated at Dahlia’s unwillingness to accept help but recognizing that she herself was guilty of the same crime, stood in quiet fury as Dahlia tied her bandage taut.

“Now what?” Cara demanded. Dahlia’s wrap job was sloppy and not at all dissimilar to the sailor who stuffs a rag into a leak in his boat’s hull. It was a short-term solution, designed to increase the chances of making it to port for a real repair. “You need a doctor.”

Dahlia waved Cara off. “I know a healer.”

They set out on foot, Dahlia leading the way. Cara watched and waited for her to stumble and resigned herself to apologize to Kahlan for every time she’d been difficult to care for.

The streets were barren. Cara caught a glimpse of faces peering out from behind curtained windows, but they disappeared faster than a blink. Cara wondered why aloud.

“I’m sure they’ve all heard about our little skirmish already,” Dahlia said. “Pretty soon another group of guards are going to march down from the palace and start banging on doors. Easier to lock a door to avoid questioning than it is to outrun them on the streets.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Didn’t you listen to Abelson?”

“The coup business?” Cara snorted in disbelief. Dahlia grinned at her.

“Leading a coup, are you?” Cara asked, finally remembering what Adelson had said that had so struck her before the fighting had started.

“I’m nothing if not anarchy masquerading as apathy.”

“You don’t look like an anarchist. You look like you’re about to fall over.”

Dahlia clucked her tongue. “Cara, please. You’re distracting me from trying not to fall over.”

So. Fighting together had restored a semblance of camaraderie between them. Cara wondered how long it would last.


 The Red Room Inn was indeed a normal looking aristocratic house. Someone had even kept up the elaborate landscaping along the stone path that led to the front door.

Dahlia propped herself up against one of the pillars that supported the roof above the inn’s long porch. Her breathing was shallow and her face had paled to a dull, sweaty grey. 

“Should I knock?” Cara asked.

“We shouldn’t have to.” Dahlia closed her eyes and sagged, rolling dangerously on the column’s smooth round surface until she was pointing back toward the street. “She knows we’re here, the stupid—”

The door swung open and Shota—hair swirling in nonexistent wind, dress billowing behind like a cape, stepped out onto the porch. “I would seriously think about the next words out of your mouth, Dahlia.”

Cara stepped back so fast she nearly caught her heel on the ground and fell flat on her back. She drew her knife and held it in front of her, as if she had any hope at all of holding Shota off.

“Nice to see you again too, Cara,” Shota said drily.

Dahlia was watching Cara with confusion. “What?” she said. “What is it?”

“Do you know who this is?” Cara demanded.

“It’s Shota.”

“Do you know who this is?!?”

Dahlia seemed taken aback by Cara’s vehemence. She stared at her for a moment, and then her face tightened and she said, “No.”

Shota tsked and took a step forward. “Dahlia,” she said, rolling her eyes as if to say you children, you’re all so gullible, “you’ve been working with me for months—”

“Yeah, well…” Dahlia pushed herself upright with effort and stepped behind Cara. “I’ve known her longer.”

“You’ve been working with her?!?” Cara screeched. TRAP, her mind screamed, TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAAAAAP!

“Please.” Shota shook her head. “Let’s all just sit down and talk.” She swirled her hands in the air in front of her. “The two of you together are upsetting probabilities like a pair of toddlers who have gotten ahold of the cat.”

Cara brandished the knife with a little more authority. “I don’t know what you’re doing here—”

Shota snapped her fingers in exasperation. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to explain!”

“But if you think I’m sitting down to listen to anything you have to say, you’re sorely mistaken.”

Cara turned, expecting a magical blast in the back. Dahlia wobbled and reached for Cara, unable to keep herself upright unassisted any longer. Cara pulled Dahlia’s arm over her shoulder.

“You don’t want to hear anything I have to say?” Shota called.

Cara ignored her. One foot in front of the other. Find a healer, get Dahlia patched up—

“Not even about Kahlan?”

Cara froze.

“Ah, see,” Shota said, obviously pleased with herself, “there’s the weak point.”

Cara turned to face her again. Shota had settled back against the door. She was picking at the nail on her ring finger, a prim, self-satisfied smile on her lips.

Where is she.”

Shota held one hand up to better examine her nails. “In the People’s Palace. In bed. Exactly where she’s been for the past few days.” She lifted an eyebrow and met Cara’s glare head on. “Proof positive of the pitfalls of deep feeling, if I may be so bold.”

“You may not,” Dahlia said. She dropped her head onto Cara’s shoulder. Cara jostled her, trying to motivate Dahlia into a more upright position. “Sorry,” Dahlia slurred. A moment later she was tipping away from Cara. Cara caught her elbow and stopped Dahlia’s downward progress a moment before her head hit the ground.

Cara swore. She straddled Dahlia’s body awkwardly, trying to lower her to the stone walkway without stepping on her skewed limbs.

“She seems to have lost an awful lot of blood,” Shota said mildy.

It was true. A large spot of blood had spread across the leg wraps Cara had scavenged from the stable, and Dahlia’s pants were soaked through almost down to the knee. The dark brown color hid the red but not the wet.

“If your agiels don’t work anymore, what makes you think the Breath of Life will?” Shota asked.

The idea had only been half formed in Cara’s mind before Shota spoke. Cara gritted her teeth.

“You’re right, you probably don’t need me to save Kahlan,” Shota continued, “but I do know, you certainly need Dahlia.”

“Get out of my head,” Cara snapped.

Shota appeared at Dahlia’s feet, accompanied by the quiet pop of air displaced and the smell of wet dirt. “I’m not in your head. I’m just watching the possibilities play out in the future as they occur to you.” She pushed up Dahlia’s left pant leg as she spoke and wrapped her slim, smooth hand around Dahlia’s ankle. She held up her free hand, forestalling Cara’s protest. “I’m healing her. And if it makes you feel better: Yes. You would have gotten around to asking me to do it.” Shota smirked. “Eventually.”

When Zedd healed, his hands produced a white light that varied in intensity depending on the severity of the hurt he was addressing. There was no white light from Shota, nor any outward sign at all that things were being fixed.

“A witch is not a wizard,” Shota said, infringing on Cara's thoughts again, “and a sorceress is not a witch.”

Cara watched as color drifted back into Dahlia’s face. The carotid arteries along her neck twitched weakly underneath her skin and then thundered back with gusto. Dahlia opened her eyes. She lifted her eyebrows at Cara, as if to ask why their faces were so close together. She seemed immediately alert, without any of the lag Cara had experienced when Zedd healed her.

“You all right?” Cara asked.

“Perfect,” Dahlia said. She seemed surprised to find that to be the case. She dug her elbows into the ground and levered her head and chest from the ground. “Just an amateur clairvoyant, huh?” she said to Shota.

“There are benefits to working with me,” Shota said. She wiped her hands together primly and stood. “You would both do well to remember that.”

Cara ignored the threat. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you,” Shota said, simply and without gusto, as if she expected Cara to believe that anything she did would be that straightforward.

“Why?”

Now Shota smiled, a slow ripple of teeth, and Cara knew that she wouldn’t like what Shota said next.

“What’s the point of overthrowing Darken Rahl if you don’t have the heir on hand to prop up?”


Cara could understand the people of D’Hara wanting to remove Darken Rahl from power. She could understand the Midlands mounting some sort of assault to weaken Rahl’s tenuous grip on the land. She could understand the Mord-Sith not wanting to be forced to fight and kill under his command anymore. She could understand Richard’s commitment to preventing Rahl from hurting any more people than he already had.

But she could not, for the life of her, understand why Shota gave a rat’s ass about who sat on D’Hara’s throne.

“She’s on our side, Cara,” Dahlia said. She was trying to play peacekeeper, but the position required far more finesse than Dahlia was accustomed to practicing.

“Shota is only on Shota’s side,” Cara said.

Shota shot Cara a baleful look. “And here I thought you’d left Zeddicus behind.”

Dahlia sat on the edge of the porch and dropped her chin into the palm of one hand. She stared out at the empty street and abandoned peacekeeping for neutrality.

“Why do you care if it’s Richard or Rahl on the throne?” Cara snipped. “Why not just sit on your mountain for another century and wait for everyone to die?” She lifted both hands, palms up. “Problem solved.”

“You have a childish view of the future if you think sitting on your hands and waiting for your problems to die solves anything. The ripple effect of Rahl—”

“I don’t care about Rahl!”

“Let me finish!” Shota snapped. Her voice rose at the end, grating in her throat like a bird of prey’s call. It made Cara’s teeth ache. Shota’s eyes flared a brilliant, inhuman red while the skin around them darkened to almost black. She suddenly seemed to take up more space as she pushed herself into Cara’s face. “You humans cannot see past the end of your noses when it comes to cause and effect, and I refuse to live in the world of chaos you’re all so hell bent on creating.

“Rahl cannot be left in power. He will kill thousands and enslave millions, and I care because in less than three decades, he will come for me. And when he comes for me he will take from me the means of my immortality, and he will rule…indefinitely, I imagine.” Shota took a deep breath and tilted her head back. Her eyes and skin lost their demonic tint. “I cannot see past my own death. But believe me when I say that stopping him depends on all of us working together." 

“You’re a liar."

“Telling you things you don’t want to hear doesn’t make me a liar.”

"Cara," Dahlia broke in quietly. "We can stop him. We've been working—"

"I don't can't about Rahl," Cara repeated. "You people want to change the world, fine. Get Richard to help you. I'm here for Kahlan."

Shota leaned back and studied Cara academically, as if trying to sort her way through a puzzle. “I told you what Kahlan was doing right now,” she said. “Would you like to know what she’s going to be doing tomorrow?” She reached into the folds of her dress without waiting for an answer. When she revealed her hand again it was clenched in a fist. Something that looked like red sand trickled from the edges of her curled fingers.

“What is that?”

“Seeing salts,” Shota said. She lifted her fist to her chin and uncurled her fingers. She pursed her lips.

“Don’t—”

Shota blew. The seeing salts burst into the air like a swarm of red ants. Cara brought a hand up to ward them up, but too late. She felt the salts skittering across her cheeks and brushing across her eyelashes. One slipped loose and touched her eye, warm and prickling. Cara tried to rub it away, but doing so only seemed to spread the prickling sensation. She swore and lifted her head, blinking rapidly. She could still see Shota out of her right eye, colorful and solid, but her left eye, the eye the salt had touched, was fading to shades of grey full of indistinct shapes. More salt touched her eyes—she could feel each individual piece touch her eye and dissolve, like yeast falling into warm water. It was like looking through two kaleidoscopes—one black and white, the other colorful—that someone had smashed together. Cara swung her fists blindly, aiming for the space she’d last seen Shota, and only managed to upset her own sense of balance. She fell to her knees, ears ringing.

The grey pushed out the last bit of color from Cara’s vision. It flickered, like dust caught in a beam of sunlight, and then it began swirling into several vague, humanlike shapes. Faces slowly began to take shape, millions and millions of individual particles working together to create a coherent picture.

There was a man kneeling on the ground in front of her. Foggy figures—Mord-Sith, or soldiers, Cara wasn’t sure which—rippled next to him.

“Confess him,” Cara head, the voice pushing against her ears like a wave, “and I won’t have you killed the moment your child is born.”

She turned. Darken Rahl was there, etched in swirling black and next to him, proud and shimmering in white, was Kahlan.

Cara scrambled to her feet. She tottered, feeling dizzy and nauseous, and forced herself forward. She reached for Kahlan and the scene flipped on its axis. Watch, Cara heard inside her head.

“I won’t,” Kahlan said.

The man kneeling slumped forward. He seemed smaller.

“Confess him.”

“I won’t.”

Again the man changed. He was being held up by the figures next to him.

“Confess him,” Rahl said again.

“I won’t.”

This time the man lifted his head. “Please,” he said to Kahlan.

Kahlan stepped forward.

“Don’t,” Cara tried to say, but nothing came out.

Kahlan put her hand on the man’s throat and the scene exploded in a flurry of white and black and grey particles. They raced to reassemble. Now there were two people kneeling, a man and a woman, as well as Kahlan and Rahl.

“Confess them. It will save them from the pain waiting for them in the dungeons.”

Kahlan closed her eyes. She stepped forward and placed her hands on the prisoners’ necks. The darkness behind them shifted, as if someone had pulled back a curtain, and suddenly there were people kneeling as far as Cara could see. They surrounded Kahlan in every direction, waiting. Kahlan turned slowly to face Cara. Her eyes were distant, her face gaunt, and she was crying freely.

A pain worse than the stab of a knife sliced through Cara’s chest. She reached for Kahlan again and Kahlan’s throat opened. It happened cleanly, like a pulled seam across her pale skin. She collapsed. Her arms and limbs disintegrated, leaving behind her crumpled Confessor’s gown.

“Confess them,” Rahl said. The gown stirred. A small hand reached out of the folds and pulled at the cloth. It slithered back, revealing a solemn looking infant with large eyes and a faint line of thin hair. It looked at Cara, and then its pale eyes began to swirl with black.

“No…”

Cara felt a tug behind her navel. Her legs were jerked out from under her, and she slammed to the ground chest first. She lifted her head. Shota was looking down at her. Reality and color had returned in the blink of an eye.

Cara pushed herself to her knees, fighting back nausea. She heard Dahlia dry heaving next to her.

“Bags, Cara,” she gagged. The whites of her eyes had turned pink. Her eyelids were rimmed in red. “I didn’t know she could do that.”

Cara ignored her. Dahlia had enjoyed keeping her little secrets for the past few weeks, and Cara was not going to let her off the hook until she was sure every last one had blown up in Dahlia’s face. She rubbed her own eyes. They felt gritty and dry.

“That man was Arthur McTAvish,” Shota said quietly. “He was a tailor. He wasn’t happy when Rahl reappeared. He started to complain. And then he started to get angry. And as he got angrier, he got louder. And as he got louder, more people started to listen to him. And the more people listened, the more they started to believe that they did not have to live under a tyrant. They did not have to bow down to evil. They could stand up and hold out for something better…perhaps the Seeker? They’d heard rumors that the Seeker had a claim to the D’Haran throne. That he was a good man who listened to people, who cared, who didn’t want to crush everyone and everything under the heel of his boot. Arthur McTavish convinced them to do everything in his power to weaken Darken Rahl’s hold on the city. Maybe, if the Seeker came back, weakening Darken Rahl would help Richard defeat him. And if the Seeker never came back, well, at least they wouldn't live their whole lives bowing down to a murderer.

“He did well enough to keep away from the soldiers,” Shota continued. “At least until yesterday, when someone gave him up and he was arrested. And tomorrow he will be dragged into the throne room through one door and Kahlan will be dragged into the throne room through another and Darken Rahl will tell her to confess him.

“Rahl will tell her that she can live in the palace and raise the child and be a mother to it, just as long as she confesses Arthur McTAvish. She won’t do it. Not right away. But they’ll do the same thing, day after day. Arthur McTavish will be tortured for the names of his conspirators—and he will give them, we all know that he will—and Kahlan will watch him wither away and break until the day she convinces herself it will be a mercy to confess him and command him to die in peace. And even though it will be done out of heartache and empathy, that is not a door she will be able to close. She will start confessing the men and women Rahl brings before her sooner and sooner, because confessing them saves them from the pain waiting for them in the dungeons. And then Rahl will round the people up and present them to her, one after another. ‘If you don’t confess them I will have their throats slit.’ And she’ll do it.” Shota fixed her eyes on Cara’s. “She’ll do it,” she repeated. “You know she will. She’s too good to let them die. She’s too broken to fight back. And she has too much to lose even if she wanted to.”

Cara dropped herself onto the porch’s bottom step and pressed her fingertips against her forehead.

“That was her kid?” Dahlia asked after a lengthy stretch of silence. “Kahlan’s pregnant?”

Cara nodded. Her head felt loose, like it had disconnected from her body.

“Bags.” Dahlia dropped herself onto the porch next to Cara. “Do Svenson and Gillicutti know Rahl has McTavish?”

“I sent a messenger,” Shota said. She seemed deflated after her speech, more human. “Gilicutti is tucked away somewhere. Svenson…I don’t know.”

“Where was I?” Cara whispered. She was in D’Hara, wasn’t she? And yet in Shota’s vision, Kahlan had been with Rahl until the baby was born. Which meant that Cara had failed, (would fail?) to rescue Kahlan.

“There are a great many moving parts in this,” Shota said, skirting an absolute answer to Cara’s question. “You want to avoid the mess of politics, but I’m sorry, Cara. You can’t. Not if you want to carry the day. Rahl knows he's teetering on the edge of ruin. He's going to move quickly, and we can't let him cut the legs out from under our campaign before we have a chance to strike.” She paused. "We need Richard. We need Richard to pull everyone together. He's the catalyst to this revolution."

Cara lifted head. “I won’t convince Richard to rule D’Hara for you.”

Shota shook her head. “I wouldn’t ask you to. You have to understand: despite appearances, I’m an old woman. I remember the Dark Age of the Confessors. I know how long it took for the world to heal, and believe me: the future Rahl is building is infinitely worse. What I want from you, Cara, is patience. Don't sabotage everything we've worked for. If Richard won’t take his rightful place—don’t make that face, Cara, you’ve said it’s his duty yourself—there are other options for building a government. But you can't tell me that he won't be entirely in favor of storming the palace to rescue Kahlan, and I guarantee you, should he want it, he'll have a small army at his disposal."

The grainy image of Kahlan’s wan face flickered in Cara’s mind’s eye. “I can’t leave her there.”

“She’s safe and she’s healthy and she’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future.”

“She confesses your man. I should think you’d want her rescued as fast as possible, to keep that from happening.”

“It’s certainly in everyone’s best interest to relieve Rahl of access to the Confessor. But it’s not possible to make that happen today, or tomorrow, or anywhere near as quickly as you would like it to.” Shota’s face hardened. “Please understand, Cara. There are plans in motion that have taken years to put in order. I would like your cooperation, but by no means do I need it. Should you decide to make yourself a hindrance…” Shota lifted an eyebrow, letting Cara fill in the threat for herself.

Cara snorted. “So, what? I’m supposed to sit around? Wait for you to give us permission to storm the palace?”

“Of course not.” Shota glanced at Dahlia and lifted her chin, as if to say, you can take it from here.

Dahlia clapped Cara on the shoulder. There was a wicked grin on her face. “How are you at starting fires?”

Chapter Text

If there was a good reason to get up in the morning, Kahlan hadn’t found it yet. Merrin tried to be motivating. “At least stretch your legs, Miss,” but Kahlan ignored Merrin's coaxing until she eventually gave up and found something to dust or fold or straighten.

It exhausted Kahlan, watching Merrin touch the same trinkets day after day, moving them a few inches this way and then back again. She was tired all the time now, actually. It didn’t matter how long or how often she slept, the deep-seated exhaustion never left. She attributed most of this to the baby, but a part suspected it had more to do with giving up. She was caught, the metaphorical cat was out of the bag, Cara was gone, and it was over. As much as it disgusted her to admit it, the only course of action she had was to sit, and sleep, and eat, and wait, and maybe, hopefully, be rescued.

And so she sat, and slept, and ate, and waited, and hoped that someone, somewhere, was taking steps to save her and thanked the Creator that Rahl was leaving her alone.

Until, one day, he didn’t.

It was late afternoon when the guard came. He stepped into Kahlan's room and saw her still lying in bed and said, “Get dressed." He didn't try to hide the derision in his tone.

Kahlan looked at him. She looked at the platter of food on her dresser. The carrots had started to turn veiny white as they dried.

The guard snapped his fingers at Merrin. “Get her dressed.”

Merrin tripped over her own feet in her hurry to reach the wardrobe. Rahl had had it stuffed with clothes that Kahlan had no intention of letting touch her skin. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling.

The comforter depressed with a heavy fwup. Merrin had tossed a heavy dress atop the bed.

Kahlan did not lift her head. “I’m not wearing that.”

“You are,” the guard said.

“Are you going to dress me, then?”

“I’m going to make your life difficult if you don’t cooperate. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Kahlan wanted to laugh. Make her life difficult? It couldn’t possibly get any more difficult. She settled for a sardonic smile instead. “No. You’re not.” She closed her eyes. She heard Merrin make a quiet noise of protest, but Kahlan did not move. She was tired.

The door closed a moment later, and Kahlan cracked an eye open. The guard was gone. Merrin was still standing in front of the open wardrobe, worrying her hands.

“You shouldn’t test him.”

“I’m not his to order around.”

Merrin winced. “Still.”

“What can he do to me that he hasn’t already, Merrin?”

Merrin dropped her head. She didn’t have an answer for that.

Rahl did.

Kahlan was asleep when said answer arrived. She did not hear the door open, or the quiet footsteps of as five soldiers moved single file into her room. But she did feel the cold fingers wrap around her right wrist and the sudden, vicious wrench that straightened her arm and pulled her into consciousness.

A piece of rope was wrapped around Kahlan’s hand and pulled tight and then she was awake—fully awake, no longer struggling to shrug off the last claws of sleep—and she began to fight. Instinctively, she twisted and rolled onto her stomach in an attempt to pull her tied hand free of the guard’s grip. He was trying to tug her arm straight, straining to work the end of the rope around the bedpost. Kahlan slapped at his arm and then went to work on his hand, fumbling for the pressure point between his thumb and index finger.

“Get off of me!”

Another guard who had hurried around the bed now lunged across and grabbed Kahlan’s free left hand and began levering her onto her back again. Kahlan resisted, took careful aim, and then relaxed so suddenly that the guard pulled her clenched fist back into his own nose. He cursed. Kahlan dealt him a weak uppercut that did little more than clack his teeth together, but he let her hand go and for the moment that was all she cared about.

She scratched at the man holding the rope again, but she was winded already and struggling for breath. She’d gotten used to her growing stomach pushing against her bladder but now, lying on her stomach, it was pushing against her lungs and making it impossible to draw a full breath.

Cool air hit her legs as the comforter was ripped away and two more guards joined the struggle, trying to latch onto Kahlan’s legs. She kicked frantically. Her right arm was jerked again, and Kahlan was pulled onto her side just far enough to allow the guard to wrap the rope around the bedpost. Wrap and knot, wrap and knot. The back of her hand brushed the headboard. She pulled. The rope creaked but the knots held true, and a guard flattened himself across her thighs.

Kahlan dug her heels into the mattress and tried to arch her hips, tried to throw him off, but cruel hands wrapped around her left ankle and jerked it straight. Pressure on her right knee now, holding her immobile. She couldn’t see past the bulk of the man lying across her hips, but she could feel more rope being looped around her right ankle. She strained and snarled, feeling wild and out of control as hot tears of frustration squeezed past her clenched eyelids.

“Stop it,” Kahlan panted. Desperate, she lifted her head and found Merrin. The chambermaid was being crowded against the wall by the last free soldier. Merrin's eyes were wide, full of fear and helplessness. Then her gaze shifted up and to the left, and the fear became terror.

Kahlan twisted her head, looking for the source of this terror, and Rahl glided into the room. A portly bald man carrying a bulky leather bag followed.

Kahlan’s left wrist was tied—her last free limb—and one of the guards said, “She’s secure, my Lord.”

Rahl settled against the bedroom wall and crossed his arms over his chest. He met and held Kahlan's gaze, his eyes flat and black and so much like a predator's. He extended a hand toward the bed and said to the bald man, “If you would, Doctor.”

The doctor approached the bed, his eyes fixed on Kahlan’s stomach. He dropped his bag on the bed and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows and said, “You sure she’s thirty weeks?”

“Just over, actually,” Rahl said.

The doctor grunted. “Looks a bit small.”

“I didn’t ask for a consultation.” 

The doctor reached a pudgy hand out. Kahlan tensed and spat, “Don’t touch me,” but when she tried to move herself away from his hand she only managed to bunch the sheets beneath her.

The doctor ignored her. He pulled up the hem of Kahlan’s loose sleep shirt, revealing a pair of knee length braise and her distended stomach. He touched her stomach, just below her diaphragm. His hand was cold. Kahlan jerked. “Get your hands off of me.”

The doctor slid his hand a few inches lower. He pressed. “Found the head.” He pointed the middle and index fingers of his left hand, marking his place, and reached for his bag, and Kahlan knew.

“Rahl.” She lifted her head from the pillows, trying to meet Rahl’s gaze—to reason, to plead, whatever it took—but Rahl’s eyes had moved away from her face and were now fixed dispassionately on the doctor’s movements.

The doctor lifted a roll of leather from the bag. Kahlan dropped her head back again. Her heart was hammering in her throat. Fast. Panicked. She lifted her head, dropped it, tried to swallow, tried to breathe. She could hear metal clinking. She tried again.

“Please. Don’t do this.”

“It’s going to be messy,” the doctor said. “Do you have towels? You could have the girl put down towels—”

Rahl waved a hand, dismissing the idea.

The doctor shrugged. He held up a long rectangle of wood. It was yellowed with use around the middle, and Kahlan could see the divots of teeth from previous patients that had bitten into the wood. “If one of you gentlemen would be so kind?”

A guard stepped forward, but Rahl said, “That won’t be necessary,” and the guard stepped back again.

“You’re sure? It’s going to get loud.”

“I’m sure.”

The block was tossed back into the bag. The doctor held up a small, sharp scalpel, and inspected the tip.

“Rahl. Please.

Still Rahl would not look at her. Kahlan struggled against her restraints, trying to find some give in the ropes. There was none. She could feel the strain in her temples, hot and pulsing. They were not cutting this child from her, they were not—

The knife angled toward Kahlan’s sternum.

“Nopleasedon’t—Rahl!

The headboard rattled against the wall.

“RAHL!”

She could only see her own stomach now, round and tight—taught, like deer skin pulled across a frame, it would split at the first gentle pry of a knife—

Metal touched her skin—

Kahlan screamed.

There was a prick of pain, and then blood, a sudden rush surrounding the tip of the knife, welling, beading, and then streaking down her pale stomach in a thin rivulet—

“Stop.”

The doctor lifted his hand immediately.

Rahl took a lazy step forward. His eyes followed the line of blood tracing the edge of Kahlan’s ribs.

“You’re excused.”

The doctor bowed and began packing his knives away. He left the room quickly and without comment.

“Have I made my point?” Rahl asked. His voice was barely louder than a whisper and yet Kahlan, struggling against hyperventilation, heard him clearly. She jerked her head in a quick, shaky nod.

Rahl took another step forward. “I like to think of myself as a generous man, Kahlan." Another step. "But if you push me too far…” He reached out and touched his index finger to the clean line of blood marring Kahlan's stomach, staining the tip of his finger. He shrugged, as if what he was about to say next was simply a fact of life, and began rubbing his thumb and index finger together, working Kahlan's blood into his skin like a rouge “Every day that you’re here, you become less valuable.” He leaned forward, so close his face blocked out the rest of the room. His eyes were dark and pitiless, his upper lip curled with hate. “I would keep that in mind from now on.”

Kahlan rolled her head to the side. The only air in the room now was Rahl’s hot secondhand breath washing over her face. She felt lightheaded.

Rahl did not seem to need a response. He straightened and cast her one last, lingering look of loathing before walking out of the room. The soldiers followed.

Kahlan waited. She watched the ceiling. She felt sick. “Merrin.” Kahlan swallowed. She was shaking badly and her voice felt weak. “Untie me, please?”

Merrin flew at the door. She threw her slight body against it and slammed it shut and then practically fell on top of Kahlan in her hurry to shed the knots.  When the last knot was finally loosened enough for Kahlan to pull her ankle free, Kahlan stumbled into the washroom. She felt dizzy and uncoordinated. She fell to her knees and vomited into the pail Merrin used to fill the bath.

She pressed her back against the wall and drew her knees up and held her hands against the small cut on her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” she said when Merrin appeared in the doorway, clutching at the frame for support. And then again, but it wasn’t Merrin she was apologizing to anymore. She began to rock back and forth, and now the tears came. “I’m so sorry.”


Something was burning in the city below. A wide stretch of orange light flickered in the night, tucked somewhere between the lines of black squares and rectangles of dark houses. Kahlan watched the orange light fade and flare, fade and flare. From time to time her focus shifted, so that she was looking at her reflection against the dark window, haunted and haggard and blurry around the edges.

Merrin was banking the fire. It was a pre-bed ritual that Kahlan wanted no part of, because sleep would almost certainly bring a fresh new hell of nightmares. She just wanted to stay here and watch the fire, so far away it was almost hypnotic, and imagine it moving from house to house, crawling toward the People's Palace like a reaching hand. And then it would stop outside the gate and rise up, straight up, until it was higher than the highest tower, and then, like a wave cresting down it would spill over and everything Rahl had built would burn.


 

Lighting fires was simple enough. Fill a bottle with kerosene, stuff a rag into the fuel, light the rag, toss the bottle through a window, step back, wait for the sound like someone blowing air very quickly through tight lips, and then watch the thing burn.

Children flocked to the light of the fire like giant moths, screaming and dancing and throwing rocks through any window that hadn’t been shattered from the heat already. The roof caved quickly, leaving the charred rafters open to the night sky.

“It looks like a skeleton,” Cara said.

“Now she’s a poet,” Dahlia said. She looked at the bare-footed boy sitting nearby as she said it, and he grinned up at her, his white teeth shining through the dirt covering his face, like they were in on the joke together.

“Five silvers and I’ll light the other houses on fire for you,” the boy offered, indicating the two full bottles of kerosene sitting on the ground between Cara and Dahlia.

“Do I look stupid?” Dahlia asked. “You think I don’t know about the fish bombs you idiots have been making?” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Get out of here.”

The boy took off, laughing and shouting as he rejoined the other children.

“Bunch of greasy pyromaniacs, the lot of them,” Dahlia muttered.

What is a fish bomb.”

“The idea is, you pack saltpeter in the bottles with the kerosene, then stick a flare on the end and light it. Then you toss the bottle into a river, or a lake, whatever. Bomb goes off, blasts water sky high, and then all the fish that the bomb killed float to the surface.”

“Where did they find a lake full of fish?”

“They didn’t. But good luck finding any fountains around that haven’t been blow to smithereens.” Dahlia bent and retrieved the bottles. “You ready?”

Cara was watching the children. “Where are their parents?”

“Who do you think taught them how to build the bombs?” Dahlia nudged Cara with her elbow. “Come on. We’re gonna be late.”


 

A burly bear of a man met Cara and Dahlia just inside the door of Shota’s inn.

“Dahlia,” he said. He held out an enormous arm covered in black hair. “Heard you were back.”

“Milo.” Dahlia clapped his arm in greeting.

Milo nodded in Cara's direction. “Who’s this?”

“This is Cara Mason.”

Cara held up her index finger in greeting.

“The Seeker’s Mord-Sith?”

The wording grated, but Cara decided to let it go. “Yes.”

Milo smiled. He looked like he was about to say something else and then decided against it. He held his hand out instead, and the ensuing handshake nearly dislocated Cara’s elbow.

“Is everybody here?” Dahlia asked.

“Everybody but—”

“McTavish. I heard.” Dahlia started down the hall. Cara followed, trying to surreptitiously shake feeling back into her hand.

There were six people sitting at the long, formal table in Shota’s dining room. Two women and a man on the left, three men on the right. Shota stood at the table’s head in front of the lone captain’s chair, and she nodded to Cara and Dahlia and Milo when they entered. Dahlia took a seat next to a small man, who, thanks to the white tuft of hair growing from the very tip and underside of his chin, strongly resembled a goat. Cara sat in the open seat next to Dahlia.

“Now that we’re all here,” Shota said, “ladies and gentlemen…” she held extended a hand in Cara’s direction with a grand, sweeping gesture. “This. Is Cara Mason.”

Several people straightened in their chairs. One man near the head of the table actually leaned forward to get a better look. Cara repeated the greeting she’d given to Milo and raised her index finger.

“The Seeker is nearing the city as we speak—”

The goat man interrupted Shota and said, “So he is going to do something about all of this.” He directed the statement at Cara.

Cara glanced at Dahlia. Dahlia held a hand up to the side of her face, blocking her profile from the goat man’s view, and raised her eyebrows at Cara meaningfully.

“Well…” Cara could practically hear Shota thinking yesyesyesyes at her. “Yes. I know he’s not expecting this much support, but yes, he was planning on doing something about Rahl. Um.” Cara found a dent in the table and began nervously tracing it with her fingers, unsettled by the sheer number of eyes fixed on her. “What were you all planning to do?”

“Kill Darken Rahl,” one of the women across the table answered, while at the same time the goat man asked, “How long before he gets here, do you reckon?”

“If I may?” Shota tried to take control of the conversation, but the curious D’Harans paid her no mind.

“Is he really a Rahl?”

“He’d better be bringing the wizard.”

“We’re done for if he’s not.”

Shota’s nostrils flared. “If. I. May.” She leaned forward and braced herself against the table. “We’ll get to Richard Cypher. But right now, my concerns are a bit more immediate.” She moved her eyes over each person at the table, waiting until she had everyone’s full attention before she continued. “Darken Rahl has managed to get his hands on a Confessor.”

The silence that followed was oppressive. Milo leaned forward and buried his face in his enormous hands. The goat man slumped in his seat.

“So it’s true,” someone whispered.

“Yes.”

“Some of the servants have been making noise, but I never thought…”

“Well, now that we know it’s not some elaborate deception, we need to know where she’s being kept.” Shota’s tone was brisk and businesslike, doing her best to pull her conspirators out of their sudden self-inflicted defeat.

“I’ll see what I can do,” one of the women volunteered, but there was no grit in her voice.

“Oh, come on,” Dahlia said. She slapped her hands against the table. “She’s the Confessor that’s been traveling with Richard. She's like an inside contact.”

The goat man blinked. “An inside contact.”

“Yeah.”

“What good is an inside contact that we can’t get in contact with?”

“Negativity will get you nowhere, Gregory.” Dahlia leaned forward and tapped her hand, fingers spread, on the table. “Look, all I’m saying is that this isn’t as bad as it sounds. She’s on our side.”

“For now,” someone muttered under his breath.

Cara’s mouth went dry.

“Who’s gonna break her?” Dahlia demanded. “Agiels don’t work. Take it from someone who knows, a Mord-Sith trying to break somebody without her agiels is like a eunuch trying to fuck for the first time without his peck—”

Shota made an odd jerky movement with her head and shouted, “Thank you! Dahlia.”

A quiet ripple of laughter went through the room. Shota waited until everyone had settled again before she continued. “Crude as her example is, Dahlia is right. Richard breaking the bond has given us some time, but it’s also left very little room for error. So, if you will…” she gestured to the man sitting on her left. “Davros? Where do we stand with weapons?”


 

Later, after everyone had left, Cara lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling of the room Shota had made up for her. A tick had started in her right eyebrow. Every so often Cara pressed her thumb against the muscle, trying to still the twitching muscle. She was running the plan Shota and her recruits had outlined for her over and over again in her mind’s eye, trying to keep the details straight. She couldn’t sleep. A sick sort of churning had started in the depths of her stomach. They were so close. She was so close. Everything was laid out in front of them, like a wooden plank laid across two roofs. And the first step across that plank, the first step of the People’s Revolt, according to every person who had sat at that table, belonged to Richard.

And if that was truly the case...if their revolution depended on Richard taking charge and acting with authority, well, then...

A whole lot of people were about to be sorely disappointed.

Chapter Text

Some time before dawn Cara decided she’d had enough of chasing sleep. She’d tossed and turned most of the night, her brain churning. Finally, fed up with worrying about what Richard might say and do to ruin the plans that had been so carefully laid out for him, Cara threw off her covers and went downstairs.

Dahlia was already up. She was seated around the small table in Shota’s kitchen eating breakfast. She stabbed a piece of fruit with her fork as Cara entered and flashed Cara a smile.

“Good morning.”

Cara pulled out a chair and dropped onto it. She did not return the greeting, and instead said, “What are you doing up already?”

“You and I are going on a day trip,” Dahlia said.

Cara reached for a sweet roll. “I’m not interested.”

“You’ll like it, I promise.” Dahlia pushed herself back from the table, balancing her chair on two legs as she reached toward the counter behind her. There was a piece of black cloth folded near the edge. Dahlia grabbed it and leaned forward again. Her chair thudded back onto four legs. “I even have sneaky clothes for you to wear.” She tossed the bundle at Cara’s face.

Cara caught it awkwardly. Her sweet roll crumbled and scattered across her chest. She fixed Dahlia with a glare, pouring as much murderous intent into the look as she could before letting the bundle fall open in her lap.

It was a heavy, woolen shirt. Cara held it up. It was least two sizes too big.

“It’s not like there’s an abundance of tailors in town,” Dahlia said, preemptively halting Cara’s complaint.

“It’s warm outside,” Cara said. She dropped the shirt across her knees and took a new sweet roll. “You couldn’t have found something lighter?”

“No. You needed something heavy.”

“For what? And that’s not a yes.”

“It’s a surprise, Cara,” Dahlia said. “Don’t ruin all of my fun.”

Cara snorted. “Every one of your surprises so far has been shit. You know that, right?”

“They can only get better, then, right?”

Cara didn’t answer. She reached for a new sweet roll. “Where’s Shota?”

“I don’t know.” Dahlia shrugged, indifferent. “Gone.”

Cara paused. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

“No.”

“It should.”

“Why?”

“If you can’t figure that out—”

Dahlia rolled her eyes. “Stop,” she said with an irritated swipe of her hand. “I’ve heard the whole, ‘she can’t be trusted’ spiel already. Yeah, she’s a liar, and yeah, she’s probably manipulating all of us—”

“Probably?”

“But honestly, Cara, what exactly do you think she’s going to turn around and try to do to all of us?”

Cara didn’t answer.

“Right.” Dahlia leaned back in her chair. “That’s what I thought.” She lifted her chin at Cara’s as yet untouched sweet roll. “Hurry up with that, will you? Places to go, people to see.”

Cara reached for a dull knife to split the roll open with “I haven’t said I’m going.”

“Oh, what else are you going to do today?” Dahlia asked. Her left eye squinted with sarcasm. “Lie in bed and fantasize about an amorous reunion with the Confessor?”

Cara flipped the knife in her hand.

Dahlia pointed. “Don’t you dare throw that at me.”

Cara gave her a hard look before spinning the knife and slicing into her roll.

“Yes, you’re very scary. Now, chop chop,” Dahlia said, punctuating the words with two knocks against the table. She stood and stretched. “I want to be back before the teenagers they have playing at being soldiers make their rounds and make me stab them.” She left the kitchen.

“I didn’t say I was going,” Cara called after her.

“Bed’ll be there when you get back, Cara!”

Cara followed Dahlia into Lower D’Hara. Grudgingly, and with great disdain, but she did follow. Curiosity had gotten the better of her, but when they began angling west, Cara began hoping she was wrong about where they were headed. And then the smell hit and all hope was lost.

The Shit Ditch. A deep trench of stone that cut into the western edge of Lower D’Hara where the poorest D’Harans dumped their waste buckets and where High D’Harans paid to have their waste carted to. Irregular rainfall flushed the trough, but there was never enough water to wash away the lingering stench. The ditch ran north to south; to the north it narrowed until the seam healed itself into solid ground above a deep, jagged drop. To the south it widened and angled down into the brown, algae covered, man-made pond of excrement just outside the walls of D’Hara. In that way it was considered an open channel in and out of D’Hara, at least as far as appearances were concerned. More than one criminal had slipped in the excrement and shattered their heads against the jagged rocks running the length of the ditch. The number of men and women who had failed to either enter or escape using the Shit Ditch was far higher than those who had succeeded, and the Shit Ditch’s reputation for risk—and stink—were natural deterrents to anyone who might try to dodge the guards at the main entrance. Given the Shit Ditch’s distance from the People’s Palace, Cara was not surprised to find that Rahl had ceded this weak spot to the rebellion. She wondered how many low ranking soldiers had been tossed into the ditch before Rahl made that decision. Cara peered over the side. At least one.

Dahlia began lowering a ladder over the lip of the ditch.

“No.” Cara held the back of one hand to her face and fought back a gag.

“Oh, get over yourself,” Dahlia said. She wigged the ladder back and forth, making sure it was stable and then stepped onto the first rung. “You’ve been in worse.”

“Not by choice.”

Dahlia blew a raspberry as she began her descent. After a few quick breaths of relatively fresh air Cara gritted her teeth followed Dahlia down the ladder.

“Those aren’t your good boots, are they?” Dahlia asked when Cara reached the bottom. Cara slapped her shoulder and then bent double, tucking her nose into the bend of her elbow.

“Oh, spirits.”

“It gets better,” Dahlia promised. “This way. Mind the green bits growing on the rocks.”

“Who in their right mind—” Cara started, and then her heel slipped. She flailed wildly.

Dahlia grabbed Cara’s arm and steadied her. “Careful,” she said. “That shit’s slippery.”

Cara pushed Dahlia away, careful not to upset her newfound balance in the process. “Hilarious.”

Dahlia led the way north, toward the massive face of the trough. Toward nothing, Cara thought, until Dahlia stopped in the shadow of the wall and pointed down.

It was a hole, chiseled down on an angle and hidden from above by an outcropping of jagged stone.

“After you,” Dahlia said.

“You can’t be serious,” Cara said.

“You’ll fit.”

“I’m not worried about fitting. I’m worried about what’s on the other side.”

“Nothing,” Dahlia reassured her. “A little bit of water.” She knelt down and slipped her bag off of her back and threw it into the hole. Then she sat down and slipped her feet through the hole until she reached her hips and the hole began to tighten. “Your feet won’t touch the bottom at first, but it’s fine. Just keep scooting down until you hit the ground.” She wiggled side to side, working her hips though, then lifted her arms to narrow her chest and shoulders and turned her head and slid out of sight.

Cara let loose a string of profanities. She sat and started her legs through the gap.

“Mind your face,” Dahlia called out of the darkness. “You’ll catch your chin on the top if you’re not careful.”

Cara laid back and mimicked Dahlia’s wiggle. She felt the rock beneath her feet begin to slope. She dug her heels into the rock, starting herself downwards. The rock scraped her back. She held her breath and as she moved into darkness. A moment later her feet hit the ground. Cara stumbled forward. Dahlia caught her by the shoulders to keep her from falling to her knees.

“Thanks.” Cara straightened. The dark was oppressive, cut only with the thin light from the small hole above them.

“Hang on, I’ve got a torch,” Dahlia said. Cara heard the sound of flint being struck, and then a moment later the torch caught and flared to life, sputtering weakly.

“Let’s go,” Dahlia said.

Cara followed Dahlia and her torch through the tunnel. It was cold. Cara exhaled and watched her breath mist in the orange light.  

“It used to be an underground river,” Dahlia said as they walked. She held the torch high and Cara could see lines of condensation lining the rock above their heads. “It dried up before Panis Rahl built D’Hara. Something about a big piece of ice melting in the mountains and then, after a while, no more ice.” Dahlia shrugged. “I don’t know what the special name for it is. I tune Shota out when she starts getting teachy. Guess where it runs?”

Cara swallowed and tried to tamp down the rush of excitement that had sent her pulse skyrocketing. “Under the People’s Palace.”

“Oh…” Dahlia turned and began walking backwards. She fixed Cara with a grin. “You got all excited just then, didn’t you?”

Cara didn’t answer.

“Well, you’re right.” Dahlia turned around again. She reached up and ran her fingers across the top of tunnel, leaving four wet streaks behind. “There’s about twenty feet of stone between the river and the foundation of the palace. Or at least…there was, anyway. We chipped enough away to start a nice hole in the undercroft. Push a few bricks up and we’re in.”

Cara’s heart was thundering in her chest now. “How far?”

“About a mile. It’s a bit windy, but it’s clear to run through if we need to. Not that we’re going to be running through it today mind,” Dahlia said. There was a hint of a warning in her tone, as if she could see the fantasies of rescue Cara was currently entertaining.

“Who all knows about this?”

“Me and Shota,” Dahlia said, ticking the names off on her fingers as she went, “Rikka. You. Everyone else at the meeting last night.”

“And Rahl has no idea?”

Dahlia grinned. “Nope.”

“And there aren’t any wards? Nothing that we might set off to get Rahl’s attention?”

“Shota says no.” Dahlia held up a hand. “And before you start going off about how Shota wouldn’t tell us anyway, if he hasn’t noticed us yet, he’s not going to. I’m not kidding when I say we just have to push a few bricks up, Cara. You can put you fingers in the mortar.”

Cara quickened her pace. A potent mixture of adrenaline and hope was thrumming through her veins, making her feel fuzzy and light. “Show me.”


 Dahlia stood back and held the light high when they reached the end of the tunnel. There were a few stones placed strategically to create a rocky staircase that led up, into a narrow but high hole, higher than any part of the old river they’d passed through yet. Cara pulled herself onto the first “step”. She could see the white marks of tools that had chipped and scraped along the rock. She tilted her head back, craning to see the promised brick of the People’s Palace’s undercroft. Cara climbed higher. She reached up and touched the smooth face of the foundation. Kahlan was there. So close…

“Worth the trip?” Dahlia asked.

Cara clenched her teeth, trying to school her face into an emotionless mask before she turned back to Dahlia. She took a deep breath and then dropped down a step.

“Can I ask, since nobody said anything about this at the meeting…where does this fit in with everything else you have planned?”

“Gates lock from the inside, don’t they?” Dahlia said.

“Point.” Cara reached up and rubbed the curl of her ear. The cold was seeping through her skin. Now she understood why Dahlia has insisted on the heavy top. “Next question. Why didn’t anybody mention this last night?”

“Well, we kind of did. In a roundabout, coded sort of way. You really think we were that worried about how much bread we had stored away?”

“I was…” Worried about how you’d all react once you found out Richard was going to renounce your coup. “Distracted.”

Dahlia made a noncommittal noise at that. “Plus, Shota didn’t want you to know.”

“Why not?”

“Something about running off on your own, half cocked, on an ill advised rescue mission, destroying everything we’ve worked for and getting everybody killed. I think that’s what the gist of it was.” Dahlia waggled a hand back and forth. “Give or take a few synonyms for stupid.”

The thought was certainly tempting.

“Then why…?”

“Well, one…” Dahlia held a finger up. “I think I know you better than that. And two, if we’re going to be popping out of the ground like gophers into enemy territory…” She let the implication hang.

“Two Mord-Sith are better than one,” Cara finished.

“Exactly.”

“Basically, if you get your head bashed in right off the bat, they need someone else who knows the palace well to step in and lead them through it.”

Dahlia squinted. “Should have quit while you were ahead.”

“Is that how you got Shota to agree to let me see this?”

“Not as such, no.” Dahlia dropped the torch slightly and Cara, after one final look at the undercroft above her, clambered down the rocky stairs. “I don’t have permission, actually. I’ve decided to enjoy myself and be naughty.”

Cara stopped on the final step and sat, her legs dangling over the edge, toes just shy of the ground. “Why? If she thought I might put the whole thing in jeopardy…?

Dahlia leaned against the wall of the tunnel and crossed her free arm over her stomach. “Listen, Cara. I know I come off as brazen and dashing and devil-may-care—”

Cara rolled her eyes. “I get it.”

Dahlia sobered. “You told me why you were coming to D’Hara, and it wasn’t for any of this.” She looked up at the ceiling. “It’s for her. I told you I would help, and I’m going to. I don’t like feeling like…like I’m being manipulated into manipulating you."

"What happened to the whole, 'what could she possibly to do to us,' from earlier?"

"The walls have ears, or so the cupboards have been telling me. Shota’s probably got her own plans, and I get that, and as long as they fit with mine, then I’m all for working with her. But that’s not why you’re here. And I get that, too.” Dahlia took a deep breath. “So. When the charge starts, when they people storm the gates, you stick with me. We go in through the floor. You get the girl. And then we’re square.” She paused. “Unless I decide I deserve some sort of favor out of it, which I’ll be sure to let you know about much, much later.” Dahlia stuck out her hand. “Deal?”

Cara pushed herself off of the rock. She slapped her hand into Dahlia’s. “Deal.” 


It was hot when they crawled out of the tunnel and into the Shit Ditch. Hot enough to have kicked the flies into a frenzy at the increased stench, but Cara was far past noticing. She felt like she was floating as she followed Dahlia up, out of the ditch and back toward Shota’s inn. What a day ago had seemed impossible now felt easily within her grasp. She could imagine the undercroft being pushed away, could see herself climbing out of the hole and racing up the stairs, kicking down every door on her way down the hall, and behind one of them would be Kahlan, waiting…

Dahlia stopped. They were at the start of Shota’s long walkway, and Cara felt a prickle of unease at the look on Dahlia’s face.

“What?” Cara said.

“I think they’re here,” Dahlia said. She pointed. There was a pile of bags next to Shota’s front door.

The door opened.

“Zedd!” Cara whooped. She broke into a loping run.

Zedd lifted a hand, shading his eyes. Cara saw his mouth turn up into a wide grin. Her own cheeks felt close to splitting. Zedd bounded down the front steps. “Cara! Dahlia!”

As soon as she was within reach, Zedd wrapped his arms around Cara and lifted her off her feet with a spine-cracking hug. “Spirits, Cara, I missed you.”

Cara laughed. “Bet you never thought you’d say that.”

Zedd put her back on her feet and sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”

“Don’t worry,” Dahlia said. “It’ll go away in a few hours.” She nodded at Zedd. “Glad to see you made it, Wizard.”

Zedd draped an arm over Dahlia’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug of her own. Dahlia stiffened at the contact, but she indulged Zedd all the same.

“Where are the others?” Cara asked.

“Inside,” Zedd said. He turned and shouted, rapid-fire, as if he were calling one person instead of three: “RICHARD-RIKKA-RAINA!” He caught Cara’s eye and said, “Can’t call the wrong name if you call them all at once. A man can recite hundreds of spells from memory, but call one person by someone else’s name and they never let you forget it…VALE! BERDINE!”

“So Berdine and Raina did come,” Dahlia said.

“It was a close thing,” Zedd admitted. “Berdine’s still not happy about it, so tread lightly. And Rikka and Vale have been arguing…” Zedd winced. “Maybe I shouldn’t have called them yet, you’d probably be better served to know what you’re walking into beforehand…”

Zedd turned, obviously expecting to see the door burst open at any moment, and when it didn’t Zedd’s smile dropped. “What in the name of the Creator…?” He started up the steps. Cara and Dahlia followed. “You’d think they’d learn: when a wizard shouts, it’s generally for a very good reason…” They stepped into the foyer. “Richard! Rikka!”

“Not quite,” a voice called from the dining room.

Cara’s stomach dropped. “Zedd,” she said quickly, “speaking of knowing what you’re walking into—”

But Zedd was already moving, striding purposefully toward the dining room and shaking his hands free from the sleeves of his robes.

“Uh-oh,” Cara said.

“Are we going to have a problem?” Dahlia asked.

“Maybe not,” Cara started, but before the words were completely out of her mouth there was a rumble of thunder followed by Zedd’s familiar, guttural shout.

“Well,” Dahlia said. She rocked back on her heels and hooked her thumbs into her belt loops. “This is going to be fun.”

Another rumble of thunder. Cara flinched. “Maybe we shouldn’t be inside. Where ceilings and roofs can fall on our heads.”

“Good point.”

An unnatural flash of green light illuminated the hallway for a brief moment. Cara felt the floor vibrate under her feet; she could hear glass of the chandelier clinking. Cara glanced at Dahlia and then, as if coming to a silent agreement, they bolted for the door.

Chapter Text

“It’s like waiting for the hiccups to stop,” Dahlia said. She was lying on her stomach on the lawn, picking blades of grass and then putting them in crisscrossing patterns. “Just when you think they’re gone…” She thumped her fist on the ground. “Bam.”

As if to prove her point, the inn shuddered again with a pulse of magic. A slate tile broke free and slid down the roof, clattering wildly, before falling and shattering on the porch.

“Maybe we should have stayed,” Cara said.

“And done what?” Dahlia stuck a blade of grass between her teeth and tipped it up and down. “I’m tired of being Shota’s moderator and I’m tired of my hair standing on end every time she pops off some magic.” Dahlia rolled onto her back, arms spread eagle. “Let them work it out on their own.”

Cara bit her lip and jogged her leg, trying to work off her anxious energy. In an ideal world she would have had time to speak with Richard and Zedd on her own, to explain what they’d been pulled into, why Shota was involved, what the people expected of Richard. Now, though, Shota was in control of the narrative, and Cara was quite literally on the outside of that conversation.

“We should have stayed,” she said, more to herself this time than Dahlia. She’d gotten caught up in the events of the morning, in feeling like she was finally making headway in rescuing Kahlan, and as a result she’d dropped her guard. She’d relaxed for a moment, neglected the constant vigilance she’d sworn herself to where Shota was concerned, and of course—of course—that would be the moment that everything came to a head.

“Sod it,” Cara growled. She took the front steps two at a time and opened the door.

Tried to, at any rate. She was already taking a step forward before she realized the handle had not turned, the door had not budged, and she was walking face first into a closed door.

Cara took a step back, her hand still on the door handle. She tried twisting again. The handle did not move.

“Dahlia.” Cara took a step back and rattled the handle. “Dah-lee-uh.

“Mmm?”

“The door’s locked.” Cara stepped back and delivered a heel kick to the door, just below the handle. The door rattled in its frame but the latch held firm. Cara glanced over her shoulder. Dahlia had not moved. “Dahlia.” Cara kicked the door again. “Help me—” Kick. “Break this—” Kick. “Down.”

“You get all worked up over nothing, you know that? You look like a maniac.”

“How do you know—”

Movement. Out of the corner of her eye. Something black and twisting. Cara turned—

Shota was there, her hair whipping around her face, her robes casting about her legs as if she was standing in her own wind storm—

She was an inch from Cara’s face, her eyes swirling with smoke.

“You.”

Shota wrapped a hand around the back of Cara’s neck.

“Come with me,” she said.

There was an unsettling sensation in the pit of Cara’s stomach, as if she’d just been thrown off of her feet. She thought she could feel herself moving forward, toward Shota. The world along the edges of her vision stretched, becoming long lines of color without definition, and then suddenly snapped back into focus.

They were no longer on the front porch. Through a wave of nausea Cara recognized Shota’s formal dining room. Richard was there, and Zedd. And Rikka, Vale, Berdine, Raina, Shota—two Shotas, the one holding her neck and the other sitting at the head of the table. No one was moving.

Cara pressed a hand to her stomach, trying to suppress the revolt her stomach was threatening to mount. “Where are we?”

“Fifteen minutes ago. I wouldn’t try thinking about it too much. You’re more likely to give yourself an aneurysm than you are understand it.”

Right. Cara took a deep breath and let it out slowly through her mouth. Her stomach was still threatening to exorcise her breakfast.

Shota released her and stood with her hands on her hips, studying the scene before her. “I can’t get it to turn out.”

“Turn out how, exactly?”

“Hmm? Oh.” Shota glanced over her shoulder. She twirled a hand, the picture of casual. “Just in the general sense. I know I don’t need to tell you this, but Richard makes things difficult.”

“No, you don’t,” Cara agreed. “Not like you’re especially agreeable yourself.”

Shota ignored the jab. “He trusts you.”

Cara made a face. “Well,” she started, ready to disagree with the present tense use of trust—maybe Richard had trusted her once, but no more—but Shota turned to her with a thoughtful look and Cara fell silent. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She had the distinct impression that Shota was both looking at her and through her, at something that wasn’t in the room with them.

“He does,” Shota said. She nodded with finality. “If you told him to lead the insurgence, he would.”

Cara shrugged. “Maybe. But I’m not going to. You want to manipulate Richard, you do it yourself.”

“I just don’t feel like going through the trouble of making a clay man.”

“What?”

Shota made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Never mind. My point is this: I can do any number of things to get Richard to do as I want. The problem is that they’re all fairly time consuming, not to mention come with a high risk of brain necrosis.” She paused. “Brain necrosis for him. Not me. In case that wasn’t clear.”

“No, I got it.”

Shota shrugged. “Why go through all of that unnecessary trouble if one word from Cara Mason could solve all of my problems?”

“You give me too much credit.”

“I don’t think so.” Shota’s gaze slipped to the still life version of Richard seated at the table. “I admit, he’s reluctant—”

“Reluctant is a mild way of putting it.”

Shota’s expression hardened. “I thought you understood what was at stake here.”

“I do.”

“The flip attitude suggests otherwise.” Shota swept a hand angrily, indicating the room at large. “Let me be blunt: If you think you can sit back and let him be passive in all of this, you will be the one left to bear the consequences. You can’t respect Richard’s desire to renounce his Rahl heritage and save Kahlan. The two things are mutually exclusive.”

“I won’t manipulate him for you,” Cara repeated with force.

“Odd hierarchy you’ve established for your loyalties. I was under the assumption that Kahlan ranked higher than Richard.”

Anger came to a slow roil in Cara’s stomach. “Stop holding her over my head.”

Shota gave her a long look. “I’m telling you the truth.”

“That may be. It doesn’t mean I’m not tired of your ultimatums.”

“And I’m tired of having to give them.” Shota rounded on Cara. “One man’s pride can stand to take a hit if it saves thousands of lives. This is for Kahlan, and your child, and for the people of D’Hara. The people of the world, Cara.” Shota paused. When she spoke again her voice was soft. “One thing you’ve never lacked is perspective. Don’t tell me you’ve lost it now.”

Cara did not answer.

Shota stepped closer. “You know that I’m right. I can see it.”

“The problem I have…” Cara twisted her head away from Shota’s and approached the table. She turned, leaning against it, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Is that your ideal outcome might not be in my best interests.”

Shota lifted an eyebrow. “A diplomatic way of saying that you think I’m a liar.”

Cara shrugged. “And that you’re waiting for the right moment to shove us all off a cliff.”

Shota tilted her head, considering Cara’s comment with feigned interest. “It’s a tempting visual.” She straightened, her expression serious again. “Let me explain something to you: I am both very far sighted and very old, and I plan on being around for a few centuries longer. Small, infinitesimal things that matter not a whit to you now will matter very much to me in a century. And you will be long gone, and I will reap what I sowed so long in the past.” She waved a hand. “This is one of those small things.”

“I wouldn’t call this small.” Successful coups rarely were small affairs, even in the annals of history.

You wouldn’t. I would.” Shota paused. “Well?”

Cara took a deep breath. “I do it on my own terms. I say what I want, and you don’t interfere.”

“Fine.”

“And if he says no—”

“Then I resort to less savory methods.”

“No.”

“Cara.” Shota’s smile was slow and dangerous. She seemed to be moving away from Cara, now that she’d gotten the answer she wanted, slipping backwards like a snake disappearing into tall grass. Time stretched between them. Cara saw Shota’s mouth moving, but her words didn’t reach Cara’s ears for several seconds. “You can’t stop me.” She raised a hand and snapped her fingers.

The room jumped into motion.

Zedd was gathering a spell, the air around his hands crackling with energy. The Mord-Sith were beginning to push back their chairs. Shota remained seated. Her eyes were on Cara.

Cara blinked and teetered backwards. She felt off balance, as if suddenly having a room full of people moving had set the floor rocking under her feet. Her back hit the serving cabinet. The porcelain plates and cups within rattled at the impact. Cara curled her fingers around the edge of the cabinet, holding herself upright.

“Cara!” Richard cried. He bolted out of his chair. As one the Mord-Sith followed his gaze to Cara.

The nauseous feeling was back. Cara lifted a shaking hand in greeting.

Zedd turned toward her, confusion plain on his face. The spell sparked between his fingers as it died. “Cara…? How—”

Cara waved him off. “Give me a minute,” she said. A hot flash had just kick started a wave of bile in her mouth.

Zedd ignored her. “Where did you come from?”

Cara’s eyes flicked to Shota. She had folded her hands and then steepled her index fingers and pressed them to her lips. She looked thoughtful. She raised an eyebrow when she noticed Cara’s gaze and then she dropped her hands and smiled the same slippery smile her doppelganger had just given Cara. Cara was on the verge of flashing her a rude hand gesture, but in the next moment Zedd and Richard were crowding her, tugging her away from the sturdy stability of the serving cabinet and ushering her toward a chair.

“Where did you come from?” Zedd repeated.

“Are you all right?” Richard asked. He sniffed. “What’s that smell?”

“I’m fine,” Cara said. She tried to brush their hands away and could not. “No, don’t, I don’t want to sit—”

Zedd pushed her into the chair and then rounded on Shota. “What did you do?”

Shota touched her chest, the picture of innocence. “Me?”

Cara could feel the prickle of magic starting in the air again. Heat shimmered around Zedd’s hands. “You.”

Shota stood, nostrils flaring at Zedd’s unspoken threat. Lightening crawled across her eyes.

Cara grabbed Richard’s sleeve at the elbow. “I need to talk to you.”

Richard glanced down. “Cara, did she—”

Someone began pounding at the front door.

That’s me, Cara thought wildly. She wondered what happened when someone was in two places at the same time. She licked her lips and curled the hand holding Richard’s sleeve into a fist. “Now. I need to talk to you now.”

Richard looked away, distracted.

Idiots, Cara thought, they’re all idiots. She pushed herself to her feet and started toward the door, pulling Richard behind her. He didn’t seem to notice, his eyes glued to Zedd and Shota.

Berdine noticed them moving toward the door from her position pressed up against the wall. “What’s going on? Where are you going?”

“Upstairs,” Cara said. Richard turned to face her. He seemed surprised to find himself standing just inside the doorway. Cara pivoted so that she was at his back and began to push.

Berdine and Rikka shared a glance and then made to follow.

Cara pointed at them. “Stay.”

They stopped, suspicion in their eyes. This time Cara fought the urge to flash them all a rude hand gesture. Were they suddenly protective of Richard because he was a replacement Lord Rahl to serve? Or had they known about the rebellion from the very beginning and were worried Cara would ruin their plans if they were not there to chaperone?

Richard’s knees locked. “What about Zedd?”

Cara spared a quick glance over her shoulder. Shota met her gaze and gave a quick shake of her head. No Zedd. “Later. He needs to keep an eye on the witch.”

“Go on. I can handle the old harpy,” Zedd growled.

Shota looked absolutely delighted at the opportunity to see if he was right.

They took the stairs two at a time. Cara slipped past him on the landing and pointed to her bedroom door.

“In here.”

Once inside she closed the door and pressed her back against it.

“What’s going on?” Richard said. There was a hint of irritation creeping into his voice, and for that Cara gave him credit. If it had been her, she would have lost her temper a long, long time ago.

“I need to sit down.” Cara dropped into the short chair next to the empty dresser. She didn’t know why she was reacting so negatively to Shota’s time manipulation, but she did know that the floor was still moving under her feet as if it was trying to find a way to balance her.

“You’re sweating,” Richard noted.

Cara wiped a palm across her forehead. He was right.

“Are you going to explain yourself?”

Cara wiped the sweat from her palm onto her pants distractedly. “What did Shota say to you downstairs?”

At that, Richard’s face went stony. “Not a lot,” he said, the words clipped and harsh.

Cara shook her head, frustrated with herself. There was a better way to do this, and instead she was doing her own impression of mysterious and all knowing—the same sort of thing Dahlia had been driving her mad with for the past week.

“Did she mention any sort of plan to overthrow Darken Rahl?”

“Not a plan, no. But there were some not-so-subtle hints being dropped.”

“She’s been working with Dahlia and some of the D’Harans to build…” A resistance was too noble a word. “An army, I guess. A small one. They want to stage a coup to get rid of Darken Rahl.”

“Good.” Richard nodded his approval.

“They want you to lead the charge.”

The nodding stopped. “Excuse me?”

“Shota’s promised them you’d lead them into battle.”

Richard’s mouth dropped open.

“And that you’d take the throne.”

What?!?

“I told her you wouldn’t,” Cara said quickly. “She says she doesn’t care if you take the throne or not, just as long as you lead the coup.”

“And—and—and who takes the throne?” Richard spluttered, waving his arms wildly, “Shota?”

Cara lifted one shoulder. “If I had to guess, yes. Or one of her puppets.”

Richard let loose a short breath and stared at Cara. His eyes were wide, his jaw clenched. His hands were up, fingers curled, as if waiting for a suitable neck to wrap around. “Nothing can ever be just…easy,” he said.

Cara did not answer.

Richard sighed. His arms fell to his sides. “Thank you for warning me.”

“That wasn’t…” Cara winced and averted her gaze. “A warning. Really. I…I’ve agreed to try to talk you into it.”

Richard blinked. He studied Cara’s face, as if searching for the refusal to do so that he expected her to voice next, and then, finding none, he turned slowly to the bed and sat. His shoulders slumped. He looked ten years older and infinitely tired.

Cara waited.

Richard ran a hand down his face and through his beard. “I need a shave,” he mumbled. He followed the edge of his beard along his jaw and to his hair. “And a haircut.”

And waited.

With a sigh Richard leaned forward. He balanced his elbows on his knees. “Where’s Kahlan?” he asked. He directed the question toward the floor.

“In the People’s Palace. Shota says she has people inside keeping an eye on her, but there’s not…” Cara swallowed past a sudden dry lump in her throat. “We don’t have any way in. Rahl’s barricaded himself inside. No one gets in unless he wants them in. He’s watching the Mord-Sith tunnels, he’s barricaded the city…no one’s bringing any food in. He’s trying to starve the people out and the people know it. They’re killing every soldier and guard they can get their hands on, trying to get the rest to abandon their posts. Weaken the defenses enough that they can get in and overpower Rahl. They’re angry. They don’t want him back. It’s like…” Cara hesitated. “It’s like a dry forest that’s ready to go up in flames.”

Richard touched his chest. “And I’m supposed to be the spark.”

Again, Cara let her silence answer for her.

Richard looked incredulous. And angry. “People will die. They understand that, right? And they could fail. And then they’ll have died for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. They’d die for something they thought was worth fighting for. Most people aren’t that lucky.”

Richard laughed bitterly. “That sounded a little wooden, Cara. I think you need more practice.”

Cara’s anger spiked. For the past year and a half she’d listened to Richard moralizing about what made life worth living. Apparently he only believed it if it was his cause he needed fighting for. “If you’d just taken the throne in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess, Richard.”

“And I’m not any closer to being ready to lead than I was then,” Richard fired back. He threw his arms up. “So now what?”

“You don’t have to have all the answers right now,” Cara said, trying a different approach. “They just want someone to rally behind. That’s all.”

Richard rubbed a hand over his face furiously. The scratching sound of his stubble rubbing against his palm filled the room. “And if we win? Then what? Figure it out later?”

“You ‘ve made it pretty clear you don’t want to hear what I have to say about that.”

Richard shot her a dirty look and then turned his anger toward the door.

Cara let him stew in silence for a moment. As much as the people of D’Hara were counting on him, Cara knew she had just as much at stake should he refuse to help. There was no backup plan—not one that was anywhere close to being feasible at any rate.

Maybe she was going about this the wrong way. Richard had always been the type to focus on the small picture within the larger scheme of things. Do enough little good deeds and the universe would sort itself out, that seemed to be his motto. Cara softened her voice and said, “Richard. Please. It’s Kahlan.

Richard blew a short breath through his nostrils. His head bobbed as if he had just understood a joke he’d heard a day ago.

“What?” Cara said.

“All those times you told me I was stupid for leading with my emotions. ‘It’s just a village,’ you’d say. ‘It’s one person. You’ve got to think about the big picture.’ And now look at you.” Richard slid his eyes to Cara. “Ready to kill dozens of people to save one person.”

Was that what she was doing?

Cara mentally shook herself. No. Of course not. There was the vision of the future Shota had shown her. If they couldn’t get Kahlan away from Rahl then all of D’Hara, and after that, all the world, would fall to Darken Rahl and his Confessors. Sacrifice dozens to save one and by extension hundreds of innocent people. That was what she was doing.

Wasn’t it?

Or…or was it just a convenient moral position to put herself in? If there was no danger of Rahl taking over, would she still sacrifice these people for Kahlan?

No, Cara told herself, but as soon as the word formed in her mind she knew it was a lie. The knowledge dropped in her stomach like a rock. She took a deep breath. Her hands had started to shake.

“I’ve never asked you for anything,” she said.

“No, you haven’t.” Richard turned to face her again. His expression had hardened, and Cara could see the hurt still lingering. “You just take.”

They had no future together. Cara could see that now. Not the way they used to be. The hurt ran too deep. She’d thought Shota was wrong to think she could influence Richard, but now she saw that she’d underestimated just how little credit she had left with him. The right words didn’t exist to make things better between them, no matter how long they talked. And so Cara said nothing. She met Richard’s gaze evenly for a long moment before she stood and moved to the door.

“Cara.”

Cara stopped, her hand on the doorknob. Silence stretched between them.

“I’ll think about it.”

Chapter Text

Being tied to a bed and threatened with a knife brings certain things into perspective. For Kahlan, it was that she could not afford to be passive when it came to escaping the People’s Palace.

She had fallen into hoping for the best-case scenario—that Richard and Zedd would rescue her, (never mind how, she never concerned herself with how, the reality was too depressing)—because it was easier to prepare for. Being rescued. Doing nothing was infinitely easier than doing something. But fear had awoken a sort of pragmatic immediacy in her, and late one night, when she was staring at the ceiling, Kahlan felt the baby get the hiccups.

Little jolts rippled through her middle, one after another. Kahlan found herself mindlessly rubbing her stomach, as if she could soothe the hiccups away, and as she did a plan began to form.

She would need weapons, first of all, in whatever form she could find them. A butter knife, a fork, a broken plate…anything and everything that could be used to inflict pain, she would collect. Any more attempts to force her into premature labor would be met with as much violence as possible.

So she broke the wooden brush in the bathroom at the handle. It did not snap cleanly, and that made it perfect. It was a short shank, but it would do damage. Next she took three long pieces of yarn from Merrin’s knitting and braided them together to make a garrote. It was inelegant and light, hard to swing, and would certainly bite into Kahlan’s skin if she ever used it, but it would do the job. Kahlan wrapped it around her left wrist and spent the morning slipping it on and off, on and off, catching it with her right hand and winding it between her fingers in one smooth motion, imagining the guard that would lunge at her, imagining how she would slip the rope around his shoulder, around his neck…

In a perfect world Kahlan would hatch a complete escape plan, but she lacked a working knowledge of the People’s Palace. There was a hall and then a set of enormous stairs, but after that…Kahlan didn’t know.

Merrin knew, but Merrin was proving to be a hard sell.

“Couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, miss,” Merrin said. Her knitting needles tick-tick-ticked, filling the spaces between her words. “None of the staff are allowed out, on account of they all stopped coming back,” Merrin continued.

Kahlan was lying on the divan next to the window, twirling the tassels from the curtains around her fingers, wondering how much pressure she’d have to apply to break skin with a knitting needle. They were thin but they were blunt. If worse came to worse, she could always aim for an eye.

“You wouldn’t exactly go to the front gate and ask permission, Merrin.”

“And if we didn’t make it, I’d be the one getting the rope.” Merrin shook her head. “I’d just as soon keep to myself and stay alive, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Well, then, draw me a map. I can get out on my own.”

Merrin snorted but did not dignify this with an answer. Kahlan could tell that Merrin was not taking any of this seriously. She seemed to think that Kahlan was exercising a healthy imagination, not floating legitimate escape plans, and as such it was all harmless talk. A fun fantasy that kept Kahlan from moping. This suited Kahlan just fine, at least for the time being. If it was all make believe to Merrin then she had no reason to alert the guards.

Kahlan dropped her head back against the armrest. “You could at least bring me a knife.”

“They did warn me about you and knives, you know.”

“Did they?” Kahlan rolled onto her side and pillowed her head on her hands. “What did they say?”

Merrin made a face. “Nothing good.”

“No, really.” There was little to break up the monotony of the days, and Kahlan was not above the ego stroke of hearing what her reputation in D’Hara was. “What did they say?”

“They said…” Merrin sighed and looked up from her knitting. “They said you were the best woman with a knife in D’Hara. Maybe the world. That you could slide a blade between two ribs and a man wouldn’t feel it until it punctured his heart.”

“Mm. I don’t know how I feel about the woman qualifier,” Kahlan said. She rolled onto her back again. She draped an arm across her forehead and traced the curve of her ear with her middle finger. “But the second part…bring me a knife and we’ll see if it’s true.”

Merrin did not reply. Kahlan wondered if she’d scared her, but then Merrin asked—tentatively, as if she felt the urge to change the subject but she wasn’t sure the question would be allowed—“Are you excited to be a mother?”

Kahlan felt the bottom of her stomach drop out, the way it always did when she did not have time to brace herself and the memory of Cara caught her off guard. The ghost of what could have been was still lurking and Kahlan could not face it for long. She turned her head to the wall. “Not as much as I was.”


 

Cara was willing to give Richard, at most, two days to “think about it.”

Less than a day was apparently too long for Shota to wait.

The next afternoon Shota packed the inn with her group of civilian leaders. It was a transparent attempt to pressure Richard into accepting the role she’d already assigned him.

It was not going the way Shota had hoped.

At some point between their last meeting and Richard’s arrival the civilians had started to have second thoughts. This was only natural, in Cara’s opinion. Shota had assembled a group of men and women with an excess of anger and no fighting experience, and now that things were coming to a head they were scared. People would die, and they were only now realizing that it could be anyone. Maybe even everyone. Gregory was bleating on about “Diplomacy”—had been saying it for the past hour—and the people were listening. Richard, being Richard, was letting Gregory have his say. And all the while, Shota slowly simmered to a boil at the head of the table—a position that, until she’d ushered Richard into her inn, had actually carried some weight.

How ironic, Cara thought, if Shota sabotages her own plans because she has no patience.

“If we allow some of the merchants to come through the city, as a sign of good faith,” Gregory was saying, and Richard was looking thoughtful, and Cara excused herself. She could feel the scales in the small room beginning to tip, and she had had enough. Enough of the pleading, enough with the backtracking, enough with the empty promises.

A calm certainty came over her as she left the room. It was as if a heavy lid had fallen shut somewhere deep inside her chest. No matter what the outcome of the discussion in Shota’s war room, she was not beholden to follow suit. If Richard’s course of action aligned with her own, then so be it. If they managed to prevent the dark future Shota had predicted, so much the better. But if not…

Then Cara was going to get Kahlan back by whatever means necessary. Because she could not live like this, feeling like she was sawn in half, and the way they were talking, it was beginning to sound like that was the sacrifice she would be asked to make, and Cara would not do it. She was done letting go of the things she wanted in the name of duty.

She went out into the yard. There was a target at the end of Shota’s lawn. Someone had left a handful of throwing knives stuck into the ground. Raina, most likely. Cara pulled them up. She rolled one between her fingers, watching it flash in the sun as it moved smoothly from little finger to index. She pinched the tip between her thumb and forefinger and threw it hard enough that she felt the pull across her shoulder blades. But it felt good, and the sound the knife made when it stuck solidly in the target felt even better.

One after another the knives were buried in the target, until the last skipped off of a stuck blade and into the grass. Cara went to collect them. When she turned around Dahlia was walking across the grass toward her.

“Are they done?” Cara asked.

Dahlia shook her head. She threw herself down behind the line Raina had made in the ground with her heel. “You looked like you were right on the edge of doing something stupid,” Dahlia said. She spread her arms. “I’ve come to see if you’d like a push. And, also, I’m in what could be referred to as ‘a time-out’.”

“What did you do?”

Dahlia picked a blade of grass and stuck it between her teeth. “I might have told Gregory he looks like a goat. And that if Richard listened to him we were all dead, because you don’t need an omen machine to know that Rahl isn’t going to let this level of insubordination stand.” Dahlia leaned forward. She wrapped her arms around her knees. “And then Gregory said I was going to get everyone killed because I’m so hung up on revenge, and I ask you, have I even said the word revenge?” Dahlia waved a hand. “Maybe it’s been implied, but Gregory isn’t that smart, that he can sort through implications like that.”

“You said that to him?”

“Of course. And I said he had it all wrong, I didn’t want revenge, I wanted to give Rahl a big thank you for teaching me so many wonderful ways to hurt someone and that he should shut his goat mouth or I’d be more than happy to show him what those were.” Dahlia tipped her face back into the sun and closed her eyes. “Honestly, Cara, it was very cleansing. I can’t recommend it enough.”

Cara sat down next to Dahlia. Dahlia took a throwing knife from her and began cleaning underneath her fingernails. They sat in silence for a time, and then Dahlia said, “So. About that push…”

“I’ve half a mind to just...leave it all. Get Kahlan—”

“Well, obviously,” Dahlia said with false enthusiasm.

Cara ignored her. “Let them all figure this mess out on their own, because I don’t care. I don’t. It can all burn as far as I’m concerned. Light a match on our way out of town and drop it at the gate. What would they all fight over then, if there was nothing left to fight over?”

“They’d find something,” Dahlia said. “They always do. But it’s the best plan I’ve heard so far. Maybe not the burning part…”

“Touched with sentimentality, are you?”

Dahlia hummed. She stuck the throwing knife into the soft ground, over and over, as if trying to pin down what she wanted to say next with the tip of the knife. “Much as I don’t like the man, and much as I don’t like to admit it, Gregory was right, Cara. I want…I want to end Rahl. I want to wipe him off of the face of the earth. For good, this time.”

Cara didn’t reply.

“It’s different for you,” Dahlia said. She kept her head down. There was a hint of bitterness to her voice. “You have…I don’t know. I don’t know what you have. But it’s different from the rest of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like you…moved past it all. I feel like I have these…black fingers. In my chest. Squeezing. But they don’t touch you anymore. Or, if they do, you can’t feel them.”

Cara considered this in silence. She could not say that Dahlia was wrong. “You think killing Rahl will fix it?” Fix you? she thought, but did not say.

“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?” Dahlia shook her head. “But even it doesn’t fix it, you won’t find another man who deserves to die as much as he does.”

“They won’t thank you for it,” Cara said, thinking of the Mord-Sith who were still at Rahl’s side, thinking of Triana, who’d had her freedom and then spurned it.

“I know that,” Dahlia said. “It’s not about them.” She threw the knife into the ground between her feet. “It’s about…who they—we. It’s about who we used to be.” Dahlia lifted her head. She would not look at Cara. “So to answer your question: yes. I think I am touched with sentimentality. Maybe not the kind you meant. But I’m not going to be happy with just swiping the Confessor out from under Rahl’s nose.” Dahlia shrugged. She dropped her head and began playing with the knife again. “Thought you should know. In case you feel like stupid is the way to go.”

“Just the two of us?” Cara said. She looked at Dahlia and was reminded of a gambler looking over his cards, just barely prying them away from his chest before he made the decision to commit to the play.

“I could scrape some people together,” Dahlia said slowly, “maybe seven or eight.”

“Oh, well, in that case,” Cara said. She did not try to hide her sarcasm. She flipped a knife in her hand, blade to handle, handle to blade, and scowled down at the grass between her feet.

Dahlia was quiet for a moment, letting Cara mull it over, before prompting her with a nudge. “Yes?”

“Yes.”


 

The simple act of making a decision lifted an enormous weight off of Cara’s shoulders. She felt lighter, like she was floating through the day. Richard came to her to tell her that he still didn’t know, that he wanted to hear more of the D’Harans out, and that he was sorry, because Kahlan was his friend, too. He winced as he said it, as if he expected Cara to be angry with him. When she did not react he seemed relieved, and Cara was amazed that he could be so obtuse. He did not want to lead and yet he expected her to follow his example, took it for granted that she would fall in line behind him, and Cara would not. Not ever again. She’d never felt so free. Not even when she’d abandoned Darken Rahl for Richard all those months ago.

They could have been friends. Richard was willing to forgive most anything and Creator knew Cara needed forgiving, but he could not forgive her Kahlan. And that was fine. It did not twist her stomach up in knots. Not the way it had months ago, when she’d seen Richard as a legitimate stand-in for Rahl’s order in her life. The time had come to walk away. A clean break. Maybe someday they could see their way to some sort of friendship, but she could not worry about someday.

Zedd, though…Zedd was still a friend, and Cara wanted desperately to talk to him as the days ticked by and her anxiousness grew. But she knew he would see what she planned to do written across her face—he would not be fooled by any insistence that her questions about Rahl’s magical defenses were only hypothetical. He would know, and he would try to talk her out of it, and so Cara avoided him. She wondered if Zedd missed her. Or if he thought this was just another example of Cara being difficult. Maybe he’d decided that enough was enough, too. That he was tired of extending olive branches, and that possibility bothered Cara more than she ever anticipated it would.

She did not talk to Dahlia about the plan again, but she knew—in the same way that she knew Richard would do nothing—that Dahlia would not disappoint.

Two days after their meeting in the yard, when Cara closed her bedroom door for the night, she had her proof. A large canvas grain bag was on her bed. Pinned to the top was a note that read, “See you tonight.”

Inside the bag was a set of leather armor, all of it black. Cara pulled each piece out one by one and laid them on top of the blanket.

There was a cuirass, glossy and smooth with care. The overlapping studded “V” pattern along the abdomen and the pauldrons covering the shoulders marked it as a Kelton creation. Cara could not fathom how Dahlia might have gotten her hands on it.

The gauntlets were D’Haran. The gloved portion ended just below Cara’s second knuckles, leaving her fingers free. The first knuckles were fortified with circles of iron. Two straps, one just below her elbow and the other above her wrist, allowed her hand full flexibility. The gauntlets were obviously well-made, but the greaves…the greaves looked as if they’d been made by someone only just learning the basics of armory. There were no embellishments, just two pieces of thick leather crudely cut into the shape of shins and attached to a pair of buckles. Cara turned them over in her hands, looking for any weaknesses and found none.

There were clothes in the bag as well. More black—black linen pants and a black, quilted gambeson that reached to mid-thigh. The sleeves were only long enough to protect her upper arms from the pauldron’s rubbing. It was done up the front by four laces and fastened at the waist with a thin leather belt that Cara looped into a knot at her hip.

Cara dressed quickly. When she was done she stepped back and looked at her reflection in the dark window. She felt an odd feeling in her chest when she ran her hands across the armor. It was so different from what she’s worn as a Mord-Sith. It was all so thick, so solid… a little heavy, but she liked it. She liked the weight of the pauldrons sitting on her shoulders and the looseness of the linen on her legs. The way the gambeson brushed against her thighs. Liked that her fingers were free and not covered in gloves, and that she could move her head freely without the stiff Mord-Sith armor tight around her neck. It felt right, to shed everything Rahl had ever forced upon her. She did not carry his agiels anymore or wear his armor or spout his propaganda.

Cara looked at herself a moment longer, letting the feeling of rightness sweep through the rest of her body, and then she stuffed her knives into her belt and climbed out of her window.


 

“Nervous?” Dahlia asked as they made their way through the streets of D’Hara. She was grinning crookedly, filled with the infectious energy of impending action. Cara could feel an answering tingle starting in the tips of her fingers.

“No,” Cara lied.

“Rikka? Nervous?”

Rikka, calm and unflappable, said, “Stuff yourself, Dahlia.”

Dahlia laughed. She looked as relieved as Cara felt to be finally moving toward her goal.

They were not the first people to reach the ladder descending into the Shit Ditch. Three civilians were already waiting, wrapped in dark cloaks, and Cara saw a glint of metal flash and then disappear once Dahlia whistled a greeting.

“You know Milo,” Dahlia said as they approached. “This is Becca, Corvus…”

They each nodded in turn as Dahlia introduced them, the planes of their faces sliced with darkness and shadows.

There were seven civilians in all. They whistled their approach as one by one they materialized out of the dark. A young man named Denny had gone so far as to darken his face with streaks of coal. He smiled when he shook Cara’s hand. The effect made him look mad—but then, they were all mad, to agree to this, to think that ten people would be enough to take on a palace half full of soldiers and Mord-Sith.

“Where’s Jacoby?” Becca asked. “He said he was coming.”

“He’s doing me a favor,” Dahlia said. She slung a leg over the top of the ladder and stopped. “If you would shoot a flaming arrow to the north before you climb down, Becca, that would be great.”

“What for?” Cara asked. Becca was already sweeping her cloak away from the quiver strapped to her back.

“Just a little push,” Dahlia said casually. Her face flared orange when Becca’s arrow lit with a hiss and a crackle. “Just to see…”

Dahlia trailed off as Becca drew the arrow back and aimed high into the night sky. When she released the strings Cara heard the feathers rip through the air with a quiet thwip. The arrow streaked across the night sky, a small prick of light against the black, and then it was gone. No one moved. Cara wondered what they were waiting for, and then the long, low peal of a bell broke the heavy silence of night.

“There,” Dahlia said. She grinned when Cara looked at her and then she began to descend the ladder. “Now let’s see what comes out of the cracks.”