Title: Lonely at the Top

Author: Kate, k4writer02@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: I do not own Kalasin, Lianne, Buri, Kaddar, Carthak, Tortall or any of the people/places named in this story. I am not making a profit and no infringement is intended.

Rating: PG

Summary: In a time of loneliness and need, Kalasin Iliniat of Conté, empress of Carthak, receives a visit from her sister the princess Lianne of Conté and her friend Buri.

"No doubt your queen needs a lady-in-waiting who's good with lock picks. Or her daughter, who's now Empress of Carthak, might need you even more." Kyprioth p. 409 Trickster's Choice, Tamora Pierce

Author's Notes: I'm assuming that the daughter of Thayet whom Kyprioth refers to is Kalasin, since she is the oldest girl and because someone in Emperor Mage implied that Kalasin was being offered to Kaddar in a marriage- treaty. What if it's true that Kalasin needs help, and not just with lock- picks? What if she's lonely and homesick? What if she really needs a friend?

This story is set shortly after Aly has returned home to Tortall from the Copper Isles. Lianne, one of Jonathan and Thayet's daughters, was mentioned during the Protector of the Small quartet. I'm going to assume Lianne is two years younger than Aly. In my version, she is intended for a Prince of Maren.

We know that Jon and Thayet have at least five children: Roald (23), Kalasin(22), Liam(18), Lianne(15), and Jasson(14). I added a daughter: Eleanora(16), because in TC when Jon visits Alanna she asks if "one of the princesses" had been kidnapped. If we accept that Kalasin is already out of the country and married, and Lianne is the only other daughter, the statement doesn't work. So, Nora is the middle Conté child, since PotS established that Lianne is the youngest princess in Tortall.

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Ch 1

Empress Kalasin of Iliniat and Conté stood beside her husband beneath a tent on the dock in the capital city of Carthak. They were waiting to welcome a party of ambassadors from Tortall, her homeland. She had not seen the land of her birth since she left it to join her betrothed in the empire he ruled four years ago. There was a Tortallan embassy, of course, staffed by young nobles well versed in Carthaki customs, but without her family or friends, it felt strangely foreign. She had left behind two loving parents, numerous brothers and sisters, and a host of adoptive family.

She had been tutored at home, in Tortall, about proper modes of behavior in the court at Carthak, and she had stayed at the embassy for six months of application and practice. During that time, she had become acquainted with her betrothed, Emperor Kaddar Iliniat. She was well prepared to assume the technical duties of Empress, but she had not been prepared for the loneliness.

Even though Queen Thayet had often told stories about her homeland, Sarain, a place few would feel fondly about, Kalasin had expected to adapt. Despite the facts that returning there was impossible, and there were few people left in Sarain for Thayet to miss, (especially because her best friend and bodyguard, Buri, had come with her) she reminisced about it wistfully. But how to explain the highlands and the fierce wildness of the K'mir to children born in a forested city valley? So mostly, Thayet tried to describe the food and the way the air felt as she galloped across the highlands on the back of a K'miri horse.

Kalasin had not brought any of her girlhood friends or ladies-in-waiting from Tortall to Carthak. She had believed it would be unfair to ask anyone to make a new life in this bizarre, war-torn, hot land of slaves and strange gods. Which was not to say that she thought it was unfair that she was in the position of making a new life in Carthak. Her mother and father had honestly discussed the benefits and difficulties of life as a foreign monarch with her, and she understood why and how her marriage would benefit her homeland. She had been raised to know her duty to her people, and so she had lived here, making the best of loneliness and isolation for four years. She had learned to love Kaddar, but there were times she desperately missed her mother and adopted aunts and sisters. She missed having a trustworthy female confidant.

She had been married for three and a half years, now. Her younger brother, Liam, was the only one who had been able to attend the event. The war made it dangerous to leave home, but leaving the royal family totally unrepresented in an event with as much political importance as a marriage of state was unthinkable. Liam had attended with his knight master. He had treated her like a stranger.

It had been four years since she had seen home, four years of tension between Tortall and Scanra (tension that had culminated in war), four years of fear for her adopted uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters friends who were squires and knights and warriors and spies. It often seemed that she didn't possess a single family member or friend who was in a safe occupation.

She had been married to Kaddar for three and a half years now, and she had not born a child. No child meant there was no heir, and empresses who did not produce heirs did not always live long full lives. She wasn't afraid for her life, yet. She was not yet a failure. Her husband had not reproached her or given her reason to doubt his fidelity.

Unfortunately, his compassionate good manners did not extend to the rest of the court, or the rest of his family. His mother had made several less than subtle complaints about Kalasin's failure to give her a grandchild.

When those comments were made, Kalasin felt sharp stabs of longing for her own mother. Thayet had done her duty to the kingdom, in every regard, especially with heirs and spares and princesses for alliances. Despite her own success, Thayet knew better than to put pressure on her daughter-in- law. Roald's bride had not yet produced a child either.

Even more than the idea of a low-pressure mother-in-law, Kalasin missed her mother. She missed Thayet's strong, reassuring presence and loving speech. She missed the way her mother helped her relax and held her tight until whatever hurt had eased.

Kally had miscarried her first pregnancy, and none of the healers in Carthak had been able (or willing) to explain how it happened, with Kally's healing Gift as strong as it was. Kaddar had sent spies to investigate quietly. His suspicions had been true. The mage who cast the curse was caught and dealt with immediately, according to Carthaki custom. Young Princess Kally would have been horrified at the violence, but Empress Kalasin felt only a dull pulse of vindication. Kally the sweet princess from Tortall died with her unborn child. The woman left in her stead was Kalasin; empress, wife, and bereaved mother.

Even after the wedding, Kally had kept some of her innocence, and most of her sweetness. The deliberate murder of her unborn child had ripped the veil of innocence from her eyes. She had seen the dark side of human nature, and it sickened her. Kaddar had been wonderful in those first weeks after she lost the baby. He had comforted her with gentle words and kind touches. Their loss had brought them closer together. Kalasin now loved Kaddar, but there was still bitterness for the loss of her first child.

She had not told her family about losing the baby-there was nothing anyone could do about it after it happened, and it would have worried them terribly. She knew that her mother would give her father a hard time over sending Kalasin to a country where people assassinated an unborn baby. If Kalasin's letters took on a bitter tone for almost a year after the tragedy, she assumed that the Contés had chalked it up to homesickness or worry over the war. They had avoided mentioning the tone of her letters as carefully as she had avoided mentioning the loss of her child. Of course, it was also possible that they had been too busy to think about it. But now she was pregnant again, and this time there were enough protection spells surrounding herself and her womb to repel any of a hundred curses.

At three months, Kalasin had finally told her family of her second pregnancy, and in celebration they were sending an ambassador, the identity of whom would be a surprise, though the letters had hinted that it was a woman she knew well from her childhood. Kalasin and her family wrote letters in code and sealed by magic, just in case prying eyes intercepted their correspondence. While the security helped, it could sometimes be extremely confusing.

In her heart, Kalasin was hoping that it would be her mother. She missed Thayet desperately. The last four years had given her new appreciation of her mother's courage. Thayet had left her homeland with nothing but her best friend and the rags on her back, had fallen in love with a Prince, married him, bore him children, and participated in ruling and reforming a nation for more than twenty years.

Reform was coming slowly to Carthak, but Kalasin was proud of what she and Kaddar had accomplished so far. There was less intrigue in the Court these days. There were malcontents and frictions along the borders, but each year the threat of revolution receded a bit. After assuring the safety of the throne, Kalasin would work on replacing and freeing slaves. She had already refused to allow slaves in the palace. Though many Carthakis considered it an odd whim of a Northern girl, thus far she had been humored. The university faculty and students had supported her efforts. Many nobles had ceded to her with good grace. Kalasin had started schools throughout the Empire, open to all children, even slaves. She was working on finding ways to alert families that their kinsmen or women had become enslaved. She sponsored training in the arts of self-defense for women at the temple of the Goddess. It wasn't the Queen's Riders, but everything starts somewhere.

Realistically, Kalasin knew that her mother would not be aboard the ship. Thayet was needed at home, and life outside of Tortall's borders was dangerous. The same was true for Lianne and Nora. Kalasin's second choice was Buri, but Buri had married recently, and would not leave her husband. Daine would not return to the domain of the Graveyard Hag, or to a place where she herself had caused so much destruction. Besides, she had a new baby and a husband to think of. Alanna was busy on the border of Scanra, or tanning Alianne's hide for disappearing into the Copper Isles for a year. Onua could not leave her horses. Cythera would not leave her husband or three small children. Rispah and Eleni were possibilities, but they were not so much a part of Kalasin's childhood, and they each had lives. It was possible that Eleni would come as a healer, but Kalasin wasn't convinced. And Alianne had just returned home after a year in the Copper Isles. She would not want to leave again so soon. Nor would her mother allow her such a distance.

Kalasin sighed and fanned herself lightly. Even with the tent, the sun and heat were intense. Her Northern blood was used to seasons, not this perpetual and unbearable heat. She was lucky that she had been able to talk the nobles into putting up a tent. Pregnancy had won that concession. She was six months along, and no one wanted to jeopardize anything by giving the empress heat stroke.

At that moment, a servant interrupted her thoughts by bringing her an icy cool glass of water. Glass was an expensive commodity, but Kalasin found it an oddly beautiful art form. "Thank you." She took it from the server's hands, but waited to take a sip. She sent Kaddar a grateful look He had come to understand her needs so well. "Safe?" She mouthed. His wedding present to her had been a set of gems that detected poison in food. They worked as well as his own jewels, but she still preferred to ask him.

"Safe." He promised her. He reached out and touched the hand that was not holding the glass. "Relax."

She tried to smile. "I'm sorry, it's just so hot."

"You should sit down." He told her, looking in concern at her flushed face.

"The throne is made of metal. It would be worse than standing. At least this way I feel a breeze, if there is one." Kalasin tried to reassure her husband.

"You're anxious." Kaddar smiled, but there was anxiety in his own expression. "Do you think they will not approve of our reforms?"

"No, no." She said hastily. "No, I know they will be quite impressed. It's just," She paused, searching for words. She sipped the cool water and sighed in relief. "Oh, it's been four years since I've seen my friends and my family, save Liam. Letters and scrying and seeing through mirrors or fire simply aren't the same."

Kaddar agreed. "So you're worried that they have changed?"

"Yes." She confessed. "And no. I know I have changed. What if they haven't?" She sipped again. "Or, what if we've both changed so much we can no longer recognize who we used to be? The girl who left Tortall could not make the decisions I now make on a daily basis." She shifted from one foot to the other, trying to relieve the pain of the straps of the sandals digging into her tender skin. "Plus, I feel enormous. They'll remember and expect the girl who half-starved herself for fear of the life waiting for her across the Great Inland Sea, not a woman grown and changed by experience."

He caressed her hand. "Your parents are wise enough to send someone who loves you so dearly she will be delighted to see you, despite the changes."

Kalasin smiled.

"In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone being anything other than delighted upon seeing you, unless breathlessness replaces delight." Kaddar soothed. "You have surpassed all rivals as the world's most beautiful woman."

Kalasin finally laughed, to placate him, though she didn't believe a word of his flattery. "You are my husband. You must say so."

"It is true." Kaddar protested, eying her elaborate costume with appreciative eyes. "Haven't you heard the ballads and the brawls in the street?" He teased. "The Copper Island sailors may claim that their new Queen is the most beautiful ever seen, but no Carthaki who has laid eyes on you or your portrait will allow such falsehoods to be repeated."

"You're being very bad." She murmured in an undertone. "The sailors will take it as orders to attack Islanders and the gods know that's the last thing we need."

He sighed. "You're the only woman I know who doesn't preen like a parrot when she receives a compliment."

"It's not that I don't enjoy knowing that my husband appreciates me." She murmured. "But I won't have anyone harmed for recognizing another's beauty."

Kaddar kissed her hand, the only part of her he could safely reach without disturbing her costume. Kalasin drained the rest of the water from the glass, and wished she dared to rest the chilled glass against her flushed skin. But such behavior was undignified. Reluctantly, Kalasin surrendered the delicate glass to a servant.

At that moment, a ship flying a Tortallan banner sailed into the harbor. Eagerly, Kalasin scoured the deck to see if she recognized the family crest on the other banners. She turned her eyes to the deck when she recognized flags of Conté, and Goldenlake. She kept her dignity, but her eyes sparkled. Buri and one of her sisters had come!