“It’s not exactly the People’s Palace, is it?”
Kahlan laughed; the disdainful irony in Richard’s voice (not quite bitterness, but close enough to still sting a little) wasn’t lost on her, but the situation was truly laughable.
Scarcely a week earlier, the Seeker and his companions had defeated the Keeper of the Underworld, repairing the tear in the veil between the Underworld and the world of the living, and saving all life in the world from certain destruction... all the while, of course, staring down the face of insurmountable odds and outrageous (not to mention questionable) prophecy. In short, scarcely a week earlier, Richard Cypher, Seeker of Truth, heir to the empire of D’Hara, had finally completed the seemingly impossible quest that had so weighed heavy on his shoulders for the best part of an entire year.
It was unquestionably a time for celebration, a time for enjoyment and entertainment, decadence and dancing... and yet (by some twist of fate that could only have come from the same Creator who had written the damned prophecies in the first place) they were, for the third night in a row, whiling away the hours in a mildewed cave just south of nowhere. Had the situation not been so absurd, it would have been heartbreaking.
“No,” Kahlan said, affirming Richard’s observation with a smile that belied the pitiful situation. “It’s not.”
Despite herself, despite the knowledge that they were far from alone (the wizard Zedd and the Mord-Sith Cara just a few short feet away), she couldn’t quite suppress the sudden need to reach across and take Richard’s hand in hers.
The gesture was small, practically insignificant, but the way Richard’s entire presence seemed to light up at the little contact was far from either of those things. If they both lived to see a thousand more years, Kahlan knew she would never fail to be rendered utterly breathless by how little it took to make him happy. He was the Seeker of Truth, possibly the most important figure to rise up in centuries... and he was beaming like a little boy on his birthday simply because she’d taken his hand in hers. The shining simplicity of it was beautiful.
“You’d think,” he went on with a wry chuckle, “we’d get more of a hero’s welcome than this.” He gestured at the dank walls with the hand that wasn’t nestled in Kahlan’s. “A proper meal, at least.”
“And what’s wrong with what we have?” Zedd piped up from across the meagre fire they’d managed to stoke.
Though he sounded genuinely offended by the implication that his cooking might be anything other than perfect, the wizard’s old eyes were sparkling with good-natured amusement, and Kahlan drank deep of the warmth in them. For all the situational misery that insisted on surrounding their little group from every angle, she could always count on Zedd to be a lightening presence.
“I’ll have you know,” he went on, “I worked long and hard to get the flavours just right. It takes powerful magic, you know, to make these things—”
“All right,” Richard interrupted, laughing. “Thanks for the meal, Zedd. It’s lovely.”
Zedd heaved a dejected sigh. “You could at least pretend to mean it,” he said, forlorn.
“It is,” Kahlan assured him, though she didn’t take her eyes off Richard. “It’s wonderful, Zedd, thank you. Richard just thinks, after everything we’ve been through, we’ve earned a proper meal in a proper tavern. That’s all.”
Zedd waved a hand, gesturing with so much enthusiasm that it was a wonder he didn’t extinguish the sputtering fire.
“I wouldn’t worry, my boy,” he remarked dismissively. “There’ll be time enough for that later. With the veil repaired and the Keeper banished to the Underworld where he belongs, we’ll have plenty of time to celebrate our victory in whatever luxuriant quarters you wish—”
“—just as soon as the rain stops,” Richard finished for him, real amusement colouring the weariness in his voice; it wasn’t the first time the wizard had pointed out that particular fact.
“Exactly!” Zedd affirmed, nodding wisely.
It was, even Kahlan had to admit, more than a little unfortunate. They had been barely two days into their journey from the Pillars of Creation (with the glittering promise of civilisation still some days’ distance away) when the bad weather had caught up with them. The sky itself seemed to have been torn asunder by the Creator herself, sheets upon sheets of rain lashing down on the four travellers and rendering any further progress impossible. For all their longing to reach a welcoming town and a warm bed, the natural world had other plans for the small band of heroes that had saved it so selflessly; relentless, it had driven them to seek out shelter in the convenient-but-unwelcoming cave that had been their home for the last three days and looked like it would be for at least another.
Still, blessedly, nature’s best efforts had done little to dampen the good spirits of the group it so cruelly tormented; Richard was still aglow with the freshness of his victory, Kahlan was weak with relief at having been freed from the grip of the Con Dar (to say nothing of Nicci’s twisted control over her), and they were both giddy with joy at the discovery that Richard was immune to Kahlan’s Confessor’s powers. In spite of the rain, in spite of the cold and miserable cave walls that closed in around them, in spite of how close the Keeper had come to victory... they were content.
Zedd, too, despite his best efforts to appear genuinely wounded at the affront to his cooking skills, was unable to hide the warmth radiating from him as he watched the gentle flurries of tenderness passing between his grandson and the Mother Confessor. The fleeting touches of Kahlan’s hand against Richard’s seem to lift Zedd’s spirits almost as completely as they lifted her own, and it touched her heart to know that the old wizard cared so deeply (for Richard, of course, but specifically for Kahlan as well) that he would be so moved by something so small.
It was only when Zedd’s gaze lowered, eyes clouding almost imperceptibly as if lost in deep contemplation, that Kahlan stopped to wonder if perhaps his happiness wasn’t quite as all-engulfing as that of his more youthful companions.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t voice whatever troubled thoughts were working their way through his mind; they were, of course, all used to that by now, but Kahlan could tell by the way he didn’t immediately look back up that whatever had taken over his mind had taken it over completely.
For a moment, Kahlan seriously considered intruding on his musings; she wanted to ask if he was all right, or else make a point of loudly reiterating her love for Richard (so that Zedd might once again draw warmth and happiness from their shared affection and banish whatever darkness was descending on him), but she refrained from doing either of these things. Instead, she quietly acquiesced to letting him sit there, watching him carefully across the fire even as her own attention was brought once again back to the man who sat beside her.
Richard smiled, apparently oblivious to his grandfather’s rising thoughtfulness; his fingers were rough and inviting as they closed around hers, and his striking Seeker’s eyes were glittering with promise as they locked on her face as though she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“I love you,” he murmured, and the words were meant for her ears alone.
Kahlan smiled, a pleasant blush inching its way up her neck. “I know.”
He leaned in just a little, a prelude to the kiss that she knew would follow, and she could do little more than melt into the way they came together as his free hand tangled in the dark tresses of her hair. Zedd and his troubles long forgotten now, Kahlan let her eyes drift closed, suddenly aware of nothing but Richard. Richard, with his strength and his gentleness, with his heat and his softness and the perfect way his lips laid claim to hers.
Kahlan had no way of knowing how long they stayed that way, aware but uncaring of the presence of others so close to them, conscious but unaffected by the damp cold of the cave walls and the precarious way the fire sputtered and threatened to die if even the ghost of a breeze passed over it. It could have been moments or minutes, days or decades. For all Kahlan knew, it could have been a century; she suspected, though, that it probably wasn’t quite so long... if only because it still wasn’t nearly enough.
Stifling a grimace, and smiling at the way Richard’s laughter rippled like a river against her mouth, Kahlan pulled herself away from him.
From where she sat, almost the entire cave’s length removed from them, Cara was glaring at Zedd as though he’d thrown a dacra right at her head. Her eyes were wild (as they often were when she was displeased), and every inch of her was quivering with pent-up aggression, of the kind that Kahlan knew from experience she was working with all her strength to keep from venting on the nearest available target (or, in this case, Zedd).
“Wizard,” she repeated, quiet but inescapably lethal. “You’re staring at me again.”
Kahlan’s gaze flicked back to Zedd; she expected him to deny it, to point out with his usual depthless patience that he was merely deep in thought, and hadn’t been looking at anything or anyone in particular.
“I’m sorry,” he said instead, and Kahlan blinked.
“Don’t apologise,” snapped Cara, impatient and moody and so typically Mord-Sith that it actually made Kahlan chuckle. “Just stop it.”
“I was concerned,” Zedd offered, raising both hands in a gesture of apologetic surrender. “That’s all. You’re looking a little unwell, and it’s not like you to sit so far away from a nice hot fire...”
“It’s not?” Richard asked, frowning blankly.
Kahlan shrugged, glancing briefly at Cara, whose temper seemed to be rising higher and higher with every passing moment that her companions spent staring at her for no apparent reason.
For once, Kahlan couldn’t help empathising with the easily-offended Cara; it was no secret that she liked her distance and privacy, and, as much as she had changed over the course of their time together, she still hadn’t quite surrendered the walls of self-preservation that had been built up so unfathomably high around her for her entire life. She still wasn’t comfortable, Kahlan knew, with the idea of huddling around an open fire with friends and talking about nothing in particular, and the others usually respected that (even if they all wished it could be otherwise). Cara was just Cara, and Kahlan couldn’t really blame her for being aggravated by such sudden needless attention to the fact, and least of all from a worrywart old wizard.
“Cara likes her privacy,” she pointed out quietly, stepping in on the irate Mord-Sith’s behalf, lest Cara take matters into her own (considerably more violent) hands, and studying Zedd with a puzzled frown. “Are you feeling unwell, Zedd?”
A reticent sigh escaped the wizard’s lips, as though the question had struck him on a level that none of the others could ever fathom.
“Possibly,” he admitted, and there was such a depth of weariness in his voice that Kahlan found herself genuinely worried about him.
“Whatever your condition may be,” Cara growled, characteristically unsympathetic, “if you don’t wish for it to be made worse, you will stop staring.”
Zedd exhaled, tight with perplexity. “Cara,” he said, and his trademark gentleness was suddenly coloured by something that sounded surprisingly like discomfort. “You know me well enough to know that I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Well, you are,” she shot back icily.
“Zedd,” Kahlan tried again, knowing before she even got the words out that they’d fall on deaf ears; when Zedd got a notion into his head, however indecipherable it was to those around him, it was near-impossible to make him give it up for anything. “She’s just being Cara. Leave her alone. You know what she’s like.”
“I thought I did,” Zedd murmured ominously.
Cara shot to her feet at that, as though the ground beneath her had suddenly caught fire. Predictably, her hands were already resting on the twin handles of her agiels, though she refrained from drawing them just yet. The rage was clear on her face, though, and Kahlan was sure she caught just the barest trace of rejection there, too; as unlikely as it was, it seemed like Cara had actually been truly offended by the wizard’s words.
“What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?” she demanded, all bitterness and rough edges.
“Cara...” Richard started.
“No,” she snarled, rounding swiftly on him as he stood and took a long step towards her.
It was a mark of how upset she was, Kahlan couldn’t help noting, that a single word from her Lord Rahl hadn’t been enough to stop her in her tracks.
“No,” she repeated, more emphatically. “I want to know.” Dismissing the Seeker with a wave, one that made it clear he would have to explicitly order her to stand down if he wanted it, she turned back to Zedd. “How many times have I proven my loyalties to you people? How many times have I put my own life in danger for Richard... for any of you? And you’re questioning me now, wizard, because I don’t wish to be disturbed?”
“No!” Zedd sounded positively devastated, though that did little to cool the Mord-Sith’s swollen temper. “No, Cara. It’s nothing like that, I promise you.”
“Then tell me!” she barked, violently shaking off the hand that Richard was trying to lay on her shoulder. “Tell me why you keep staring at me like you’ve never seen me before in your life. Tell me why, after more than a year of me proving myself, you’re looking at me now like you expect me to turn around and slaughter you all in your sleep? You think, because the Keeper isn’t a threat any longer, I don’t still serve the true Lord Rahl? You think I don’t still serve Richard?” She threw up her arms, anger and wounded betrayal warring for dominance in her eyes. “You’re right, wizard. You don’t know me.”
Kahlan, for her part, couldn’t quite figure out where to look. On one side of the cave, Cara was twitching with rage, and it was obvious that the only reason she hadn’t already launched herself at the disrespectful wizard was because she thought Richard might disapprove of her for it; on the opposite side, Zedd was wringing his hands, as if, by staring at them, he might be able to stumble upon a spell that would get him out of the trouble he’d somehow landed himself in.
“Listen to me,” he said, after a pause that stretched Cara’s patience and Kahlan’s nerves almost to breaking point. “I didn’t mean it the way I’m sure it must’ve sounded to you. I wasn’t questioning your loyalties, Cara, or your devotion to Richard, Kahlan, and myself. You have proven yourself... and the Cara I know would know me better than to think I’d ever dare to insinuate something like that.”
“The Cara you know,” she sneered acidly. “And what am I?”
“It’s a long story,” he replied, and the depth of sudden tiredness in his eyes told Kahlan that that was an understatement.
Cara put her hands on her hips. “Well?” she grumbled. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Something in the haunted way Zedd’s shoulders slumped gave Kahlan pause, and she shifted to the wizard’s side. “What happened, Zedd?”
She punctuated the question, brief as it was, by touching his arm in a gesture of support and faith; if she were honest, though, she was almost afraid of what possible answer he could have that would cause him to look so worn out just to think of it.
“I may have...” he began, whipcord tense, “...changed some things.”
“Like what?” Kahlan asked, but Zedd wasn’t listening to her.
“Cara,” he said, and his milky gaze was fixed on the Mord-Sith as though she were the only thing in the world. “Please... you have to understand. I had no other choice.”
Not the most patient person even at the best of times, Cara had taken about all she could stand of his dalliances, and closed the space between them in a single step. Richard tried to catch her arm, but she shook him away as if he was little more than a buzzing fly; Kahlan could tell at a glance that she too would meet the same fate if she tried to step in.
“Tell me,” Cara snarled, eyes dark with rage as they held Zedd captive, and Kahlan watched as her fingers twitched in their gloves with the effort of not striking him.
“You,” Zedd admitted, sounding tortured. “I changed you.”
The admission, though it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise given how tormented the wizard was looking, nonetheless hit Kahlan with all the force of a blow; suddenly, she found herself struggling to keep her knees from buckling beneath the sheer weight of it. She sensed rather than heard the sharp intake of breath that marked Richard’s reaction (a perfect mirror, it seemed, of her own), and she wanted to go to his side, but she was frozen in place.
Cara, where she stood, merely clenched her already-quivering fists ever more tightly and growled like a wild, wounded beast.
“Like I said,” Zedd went on, clearly sensing that now was not the time to pause for dramatic effect. “It’s a very long story. If you would just let me tell it...”
“Do it quickly,” Cara ordered him, the words coming out as a hiss through gritted teeth. “Before I drive your skull through the nearest wall.”
Zedd’s stories were seldom simple, even when they were brief; the wizard wasn’t exactly known for skimping on details (unless it was in his own best interests to keep his friends in the dark, which Kahlan found was more often than it should be), and they were all long accustomed to preparing themselves for tales that were as intricate and complicated as they were long and winding. Kahlan half-suspected that she knew precisely the breed of story they were all about to hear, and so she found herself caught completely off-guard when – instead of easing them in with five hours’ worth of exposition – Zedd instead cut immediately to the quick.
“Rahl broke you again.”
Cara took a long step backwards, and Kahlan couldn’t quite figure out whether the distance she put between herself and the wizard was to keep from punching him or collapsing on top of him. She was looking decidedly queasy all of a sudden, and Kahlan couldn’t blame her one bit; even as she watched, she could feel the colour draining from her own face, and knew that if she looked to Richard, she would see exactly the same in him as well. As well as they all knew Zedd, none of them had expected this.
“What?” Cara managed at last, and all of the brutality had suddenly bled out of a voice that was now thick with horror.
“I’m sorry,” Zedd replied, barely audible. “I’m so very sorry, Cara.”
Not caring about the consequences, Kahlan closed the space between herself and the twitching Mord-Sith and gently placed a supportive hand on her too-tense shoulder. It was a tribute to how deeply Zedd’s words had landed that Cara made no effort to pull away from the comforting touch (though she didn’t lean into it, either), and Kahlan gave her a sympathetic squeeze before turning her attention back towards the sorrow-stricken wizard.
“Why?” she asked softly, and Cara flinched violently beneath her fingers.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she snapped, sounding more miserable than Kahlan had ever heard her.
Then, finally, she did tear herself away from the lingering tenderness of Kahlan’s touch. She didn’t elaborate on her observation (though, so far as Kahlan could tell, the logic was anything but obvious), opting instead to retreat to the most distant corner of the cave, as though she believed the space would somehow protect her from what she was about to hear. Kahlan ached to go to her, but she knew better, and instead stayed where she was, willing Cara to draw strength from the empathy in her.
“Well, wizard?” Cara demanded, spitting his title like a curse. “What are you waiting for?”
And so, with uncharacteristic uneasiness and surprising conciseness, Zedd told them.
It was obvious, even to Kahlan (whose focus was frankly more on the way Cara quivered as the tale progressed than on Zedd’s storytelling skills), that he was omitting details; she had no idea what they were – or, indeed, how important – but it was pretty clear that the overall chain of events remained undamaged by whatever it was he opted to leave out, and so she didn’t question his decision.
From what Kahlan could discern from his convoluted tale, Cara had been lured into an ambush by one of her former sisters and re-broken by Darken Rahl, through the use of what Zedd had only been able to describe as ‘insidious dark magic’. When pressed (by Richard, and then by Cara, though Kahlan held her tongue), the old wizard became ominously evasive and simply said sadly that he didn’t know; his uncomfortable vagueness, far more than any explanation he could have given, sent lightning bolts of fear arcing through Kahlan’s heart.
“Who was it?”
The interruption, courtesy of Cara, carved a swift gorge through Zedd’s tale, and he blinked in uneasy confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“Who was it?” Cara repeated, deathly quiet; to Kahlan’s combined relief and concern, the familiar Mord-Sith fury was back on her face, flashing through her eyes like liquid fire and threatening to consume anything that stepped into its path. “Who did it? Which of my former sisters could have possibly outsmarted me? Who among them could have possibly hated me so much that they would seek me out just to humiliate me a second time? Was once not enough?” Her jaw clenched. “Who was it, wizard?”
“Cara...” Zedd pleaded.
“Who?” Cara roared, and the fire flashing behind her eyes was suddenly a blazing inferno. “I will hunt her down, and I will tear her limb from limb. I will kill her with my bare hands, and then I will revive her with the breath of life and kill her a second time... and that will still be less than she deserves for dishonouring me.” She bared her teeth, and that was more than enough to make Kahlan aware of just how serious she was. “Tell me who it was!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he insisted, and the way his voice trembled made Kahlan wonder which of them he was really trying to convince.
“Perhaps not to you,” Cara muttered, “but it matters to me. You aren’t the one who was betrayed twice over. I have the right to know who was responsible for my humiliation, and, even if the only way to loosen your tongue is to remove it, you will tell me.”
“Cara,” Zedd said again, and his voice was still shaking even as he struggled to explain himself. “None of this happened to you. This isn’t that world, and you can’t hunt down an innocent woman to exact vengeance for a crime she hasn’t committed.”
“She is a Mord-Sith,” Cara reminded him pointedly. “You, wizard, would be the first to tell me that she is no innocent woman.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you!” Zedd cried, a little more aggressively than Kahlan would have expected of him, and all the more so now. “She isn’t a Mord-Sith, Cara. She never was.”
“Zedd, what are you talking about?” Richard asked, blinking with such adorable confusion that Kahlan felt a little of her anxiety melting away at the sight of him.
“Like I said,” Zedd started up again, eyes on Cara alone, as if the Seeker and the Mother Confessor were little more than shadows on the cave walls. “Darken Rahl used magic to re-break you. Insidious, dangerous, powerful dark magic. The only thing I could do to free you from it was...” He trailed off, taking a moment to compose himself, and giving Cara and the others a moment to brace. “I attempted the spell of undoing.”
“A spell?” Cara echoed, raising an eyebrow. She sounded almost disappointed by the mundanity of it.
“Not just any spell,” Zedd said with a sigh. “It was cast with the hope of unbreaking you... and it did. Just not in the way I’d hoped.”
He didn’t need to go on, at least not for Kahlan’s benefit; though she could feel the confusion still radiating from Richard and Cara, she herself understood.
“She never became a Mord-Sith,” she mused aloud.
“Exactly,” Zedd affirmed, looking relieved that he hadn’t needed to be the one to say it. “She was never broken, not even as a child. She never intercepted us when Richard used the power of Orden to defeat Darken Rahl, and the veil was never torn. You two—” He gestured absently at Richard, then inclined his head at Kahlan, still not truly seeing them. “—were to be married.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Kahlan heard herself whisper, eyes on Richard, and realised just a moment too late how the words must have sounded to Cara. The Mord-Sith, blessedly, didn’t offer any reaction beyond a derisive grunt, but Kahlan forced herself to backpedal even so. “I mean, ‘different’. It sounds... very different.”
“It was,” Zedd affirmed, a little too readily. “But it wasn’t the way the world was meant to be... and the Keeper knew it as well.”
“So you undid the undoing spell,” Cara stated flatly. “For the good of the world.”
“We tried to,” the wizard said, “but we were intercepted by the Mord-Sith. They killed Cara before I could finish the spell—”
“This is absurd!” Cara spluttered, finally sounding a little more like herself. “In one world, I’m captured and re-broken. In another, I’m dead?” She rolled her eyes, and Kahlan had never been more grateful to see her so sarcastic. “If you want me to leave, wizard, just say so. It would be my pleasure.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Zedd told her. “You know I want nothing of the sort. And you know me better than to truly think I’d make any of this up for my own amusement.” Cara hissed, but nodded her acceptance of the point, silently granting Zedd permission to go on. “At any rate,” he continued, “with you dead, I had to cast the spell of undoing on Dahlia instead.”
As desperately as she fought to conceal it, Cara’s sudden sharp intake of breath was audible all the way across the cave, and Kahlan had to dig her heels into the loose ground to keep from crossing to her side and taking her into her arms. She couldn’t quite suppress the desire to study her, though, and there was no mistaking the way she’d blanched even more than she already was.
“Dahlia?” she repeated, practically choking on the name. “Did you say ‘Dahlia’?”
“You remember her?” Zedd asked, the disbelieving shock evident on his face.
“We were schoolmates,” Cara explained, voice shaky. “Before I was taken by the Mord-Sith. We were... we were...”
Kahlan felt an unpleasant tightening in her chest as the unuttered sentiment slammed into her. Cara would never say it aloud, she knew, however badly she may have wanted to. She couldn’t. The word, insignificant as it was, was simply beyond her capacity.
Kahlan remembered (too vividly, too painfully) an incident, just a couple of months earlier, when she and Cara had been trapped in a tomb; with their air running out and their chances of survival flickering closer to nonexistence with every breath they took, the look on Cara’s face in the moments before they’d been rescued had torn her heart asunder.
More than anything in the world, she could tell, Cara had wanted to say it, to just open her mouth and say – despite everything that should have been standing between them – that she cared, that Kahlan was more than a sister in the sense of their shared desire to protect Richard, but in every other way as well. That they were, against all odds, friends.
The heat, the urgency, the irrepressible need to be honest (to speak those words however much it would hurt to do so), had poured from Cara like a tidal wave, almost enough to leave Kahlan drowning... but, though the sentiment couldn’t have been clearer, the words themselves had never come. And they probably never would. Cara just didn’t have them in her.
“What are you trying to tell me, wizard?” the Mord-Sith was asking, sounding every inch the little girl she had been before becoming the woman her former sisters had shaped her into. “That, in some other world, Dahlia was taken too? That she and I served together as Mord-Sith?”
“Yes,” Zedd confessed, hanging his head and looking heartbroken. “You... the two of you were close.”
“Close?” Cara echoed, and her voice was suddenly hard as flint, as though that brief flash of childlike innocence had never been there at all. “Close?”
“Intimate,” the wizard admitted quietly, and Kahlan was forced to bite back an inappropriate chuckle as Richard began to choke. “I believe you were intimate.”
For a few very long moments, Cara said nothing. Kahlan watched, unable to tear her gaze away, as a thousand or more different expressions rippled like raindrops across her features. It lasted scarcely a heartbeat before they were gone, far too quickly to make out any given one of them; still, there was something enrapturing about the sight, so much unguarded feeling touching the face of one so resistant to it. It was as if Cara had forgotten she wasn’t alone, and, were she not so worried, Kahlan would almost have felt privileged to be allowed the opportunity to see this in her.
Where, just moments ago, she had been baying for this enigmatic Mord-Sith’s blood, suddenly Cara seemed almost exactly the opposite. Suddenly, with the addition of one seemingly unimportant sliver of information, she seemed almost contrite, as if she empathised (if such a thing was possible) with the monster who had apparently been more than willing to betray her through some misguided loyalty to Darken Rahl. Kahlan couldn’t fathom it; she’d always believed that intimacy was little more than another of the Mord-Sith’s many weapons, and Cara herself had offered much evidence in support of that – and on more occasions than either of them could count. Why did the concept suddenly mean so much to her now?
Whatever the reason, apparently it did, because the look Cara gave Zedd when she finished reeling from the impact was one that could only be described as desperate.
Zedd blinked, clearly wanting to help, but too confused to actually do so. “What do you mean?”
“For how long,” Cara hissed, clenching her jaw so tightly that it went white, “were we intimate?”
“I don’t know.”
Zedd sighed, frustration mingling with sincere regret. “I don’t know, Cara. All I know is that you said you’d known her for many years. You were schoolmates together before you were Mord-Sith, and then you served together for a long time after you—”
The insult cracked across the cave like a whip, cutting off Zedd’s helpless mumblings and lancing through Kahlan as if she was made of sugar. She was no stranger to Cara’s particular brand of verbal venom, but even she was taken aback by the sheer depth of hatred in that one word. It didn’t take much to get Cara truly furious (even at the best of times) and Zedd’s story had driven her there long before now, but this was a step above even what Kahlan would have expected of her. Kahlan had admittedly been slightly afraid, even before now, that Cara might lash out and hurt the wizard if he kept going; now, though, she was terrified – honestly terrified – that the Mord-Sith would simply snap his neck.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she snarled, feral, and it was only thanks to Richard’s quick thinking in choosing to launch himself across the room and catch her by the arm that she was kept from diving on the wizard and killing him with her bare hands. “You arrogant, self-serving—”
“Cara!” Richard barked, holding her tightly, and Kahlan could only watch in numb horror from where she stood. “Cara, calm down.” She struggled, snarling primal obscenities. “That’s an order.”
Despite herself, and in spite of how obviously necessary the command was, Kahlan couldn’t help shuddering a little. It was long established, even accepted, that Cara would listen to nothing but a direct order from the Lord Rahl when she was in this sort of mood; of course, that didn’t make it any less painful for Kahlan to watch the way Richard’s face contorted with discomfort whenever he was forced to adopt that title, even if it was for the purpose of ensuring Cara’s obedience. It was a necessary evil, they all knew that, but the title of ‘Lord Rahl’ was bitter on Richard’s tongue even so, and caused no less pain for Kahlan to see him recoil.
For all that it cost, however, it did have the desired effect. Grudgingly, and with a force of will that clearly took a great deal out of her, Cara took a petulant step back; it wasn’t quite enough to put any real distance between herself and Zedd, but it was enough to make the point that she would refrain from raising a hand against him, however desperately she wanted to. Still, though she was visibly trying to obey Richard’s command, to calm herself before her temper overpowered her completely, her breathing remained harsh and her gaze dangerously wild.
“You have no idea,” she snarled again, a little softer but no less fierce. “None of you.”
“Cara,” Zedd chimed in, apparently ignorant of the obvious fact that the safest possible course of action for him just then would be to keep his mouth shut. “Your consternation is, of course, more than understandable, and I apologise unreservedly for being the cause of it... but the Mord-Sith concept of ‘intimacy’ is hardly in keeping with the word’s true definition. Surely you yourself have had such encounters with your own sisters, even in this world?”
“Not like that,” she replied, without even a moment’s hesitation. “Spirits, wizard, why can’t you understand?” It sounded almost like a plea, though Kahlan knew she would deny it. “If she was taken as well... if we were taken together...”
She trailed off, and her eyes darted briefly to Kahlan, as though she was praying for the Mother Confessor to read the truth within her despite the impossibility of it. When no salvation came (in spite of Kahlan’s genuine efforts to put her out of her apparent misery), she went on, voice dangerously close to cracking—
“...we would have been trained together.”
Zedd flinched at the word, though his outward expression didn’t change. If he understood any of the apparent trauma this fact had inflicted on Cara, he said nothing of the fact, though Kahlan rather suspected he didn’t; the Mord-Sith social hierarchy was confusing at the best of times, and all the more so to an outsider. Even a wizard of the First Order would have great difficulty making any sense of such an oblique observation as Cara’s.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, but she was beyond listening to his hollow apologies.
“‘Intimate’,” she spat, and the word was a vicious slap. “You have no idea, wizard. No idea.”
With that, she turned, yanking herself violently free from the grip Richard still had on her arm, and stormed out of the cave without so much as a backwards glance at any of them.
The silence she left in her wake was tangible, and, for Kahlan, almost physically painful. None of the three of them thought to call after her, and, though that was undeniably the sensible option (Kahlan knew as well as the two men did that they might as well spit in the rain for all the good it would do), it nonetheless tugged a little at her heartstrings to be so dismissive, and to see the same in Richard and Zedd.
Much to her relief, Richard didn’t let the moment hang on the air for more than a few moments. Already, as Kahlan tore her gaze from the mouth of the cave to look back at Zedd, the Seeker was reaching for the Sword of Truth and stepping forward with his usual determined resolve.
“What are you doing?” asked Zedd, and he sounded as though the conversation with Cara had taken every last ounce of strength out of him.
“What does it look like?” Richard shot back, impatience colouring his tone, though he didn’t let the question slow him down at all. “I’m going after her.”
The word had left Kahlan’s lips almost before she was aware of having thought it, and she felt an embarrassed blush staining her cheeks as the men turned their gazes on her. For a split-second, she had no idea what had inspired her to say it, but the look of blind confusion on Richard’s face as he studied her said it all, and she felt her own resolve rising to meet his. This wasn’t a task for him, she knew. It was a task for her.
“Someone has to bring her back before she gets herself hurt,” Richard was pointing out, with truth enough. “I’m—”
“You’re the Lord Rahl,” Kahlan reminded him, speaking very quietly. “Richard, whatever it is that she’s trying to work through right now, the last thing she needs is an order from the man she’s sworn to serve. What she needs...”
...is a friend.
“Kahlan’s right,” Zedd affirmed, nodding miserably. “She is the obvious choice for this.”
Unsurprisingly, Richard did not look at all enamoured by the idea of letting Kahlan out in the rain by herself to hunt down a renegade (and dangerously infuriated) Mord-Sith. Were she not so offended by the notion that she couldn’t take care of herself, Kahlan would have almost been touched by his overprotective concern; he was, after all, just being himself and worrying about her, in much the same way as she always worried about him when he was forced to leave her side. As it was, however, she could think of little more than the hundred thousand potential breeds of trouble that Cara was probably already meeting with, and she had neither the time nor the inclination to humour Richard’s overblown sense of chivalry. He had to see the bigger picture, and he had to see it now.
“You know it makes sense,” she told him simply, willing him to see in her eyes how important it was that he let the matter drop.
Richard sighed, but didn’t argue (though she could tell by the frustration on his face that he desperately wanted to). Taking the small victory for what it was, and not wanting to push any further lest he find his voice and insist on going along with her, Kahlan lingered only for as long as it took to press a tenderly confident kiss on his cheek. Despite herself and her mild aggravation, she couldn’t quite keep from smiling at the way he leaned into the contact, and she took a moment to relish the way he felt against her, before turning and following Cara’s phantom presence out into the pouring wall of rain.