Title: Lonely at the Top Ch 11/11

Author: Kate, 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

Chapter 11

Kalasin lay in bed, her back pressed to Kaddar's. He was asleep on his side, facing the wall, while she occupied the right side, to more easily get up when one of the infants cried. She usually had no trouble sleeping. Even with more help than she needed, mothering twins was exhausting, and she looked forward to sleeping. But tonight, she was too unsettled from the events of the day to rest. She was fighting tears, because the idea of lying in bed crying, while her husband and children slept soundly in the same room, struck her as utterly pathetic.

After all, she was the luckiest woman in the world—or she knew she ought to feel that way. She had a husband who loved her, and whom she loved. She had two healthy, happy children. She was young, and she herself was of sound mind and body. She had as many riches as she could imagine wanting or needing. She had meaningful work, which she was well trained and suited to do. There was nothing missing from her life.

And yet, tonight, she felt a yawning emptiness. The darkness of the cabin felt oppressive and threatening, as though something waited in the darkness, waited to swallow her and her little life. She had a family of her own now—why did the departure of her mother and sister and friends cause this pain? On one level, Kalasin envied the peasant girls she read about, the ones who were born, lived, and died within a few miles.

The reasonable part of Kalasin tried to point out how much she enjoyed traveling and learning, and that she might not like her mother quite as much if they were living in one another's pockets. But the emotional part resented the rational intrusion. One day together was so, so little, after so long. And though she chastised herself guiltily for being so ungrateful, Kalasin ached. How was it possible, that in a heart full of love (as her own was, for Kaddar, Kirabo and Gzifa), that there was a void reminding her of brothers and sisters, mother and father?

Kalasin rolled onto her stomach, away from direct contact with Kaddar. Numair had once told Kally that the least bearable part of his imprisonment had been the long, empty hours, between sessions with the Inquisitor, when all there was to do was remember past aches and anticipate future punishments. Numair rarely—maybe never—talked directly about his suffering during the time he spent in Ozorne's jail. But he did teach the Princess who became Empress the method he had invented of reliving good memories—to slow down each detail of sight, sound, scent, texture and taste.

He had stayed sane, he revealed to the wide-eyed Princess (he had sailed over and arranged her quarters, in the months before the marriage), by this memory game. Numair had patted her hand and said, "I know you're not going to jail. You'll be happy with Kaddar. He was a good boy—I'm sure he's a fine man. And I would not leave you anywhere I expected would make you unhappy. But when you're lonely and longing for home, or--" He patted her hand, "Or you can't sleep, well, we're always with you, little one."

Kalasin had wanted to fling herself into his arms, weeping noisily. She had wanted to beg him to bring her home, to stop this charade of trunks and treaties and pretending that she, Kalasin, was grown up enough to be married. She almost desperately wished that she could go home and be everybody's favorite again. She wanted to be Roald's more lively shadow, wanted to be Daddy's girl, who could always make him laugh. Even then, after little more than a month of traveling, she missed the sound of Mama's voice and her steady advice. Mama always seemed to understand her. Kalasin wanted to go home and tend Kitten with Daine, to read with Jasson, and to heal with Duke Baird. She wanted to make a life in Tortall, with the people she knew and loved already.

But Kalasin did not crumble, because she had made a choice, or so she told herself. Sometimes, late at night, when Kaddar was asleep and she was not, she wondered if she really ever had a choice? When she was nine, she thought she did, when Papa explained that Tortall needed her to marry a foreign prince more than it needed a second Lady Knight. He asked her to make a sacrifice, and she chose to serve Tortall. She promised to marry Someone, Someday, if Papa let her choose who the "Someone" was. And she made another choice, years later, when Papa and Mama and Uncle Gary sat with her—their faces were so serious—and explained about Carthak and the proposal. She chose Kaddar for the Somebody, and the year 459 H.E. to be the Someday, and she was compliant while the King and Queen and Prime Minister sorted out details.

She made a choice when she arrived in Carthak, and met Kaddar face to face for the first time. He had found her eyes, through the veil, and they had nodded to one another. She had started to love him, even then. They had signed the betrothal compact—they would wed in six months' time, after she knew Carthak and its Court a bit better. She had chosen, and she would stick to it, but Mithros, Minos and Shakith, what was she doing! A certain part of her brain was shrieking, and the rest of her function was trying to squash that panic.

So though she wanted to beg Numair to bring her home, she steadfastly bid him goodbye, as a Carthaki noblewoman would have. Inwardly, she vowed to improve the prisons, so that men didn't have to invent memory games to keep their sanity. It was one of her many goals for Carthak. In their farewell, they did not touch. She had hugged him in the safety of the Tortallan ambassador quarters, but now they were on the dock, and maidens had been killed—"honor killings"—for less than embracing a man in public.

He'd been teaching her the rudiments of the technique for weeks, without explaining precisely what it was for. It wasn't quite the Liar's Dream or Palace or whatever construct they taught to spies. It was a combination memory enhancer and meditation technique that would improve her time here enormously. She wondered if he shared this with Riders and Squires, or if she was the first to learn this "game." Since they were in public, she could not even remove her veil. They bowed to one another, very formally.

Kalasin had cried that night. Though Numair had promised that Liam and his knight master would attend her wedding, she felt terribly alone in the foreign land. Remembering that first night, Kally turned over, to spoon against Kaddar. She was not lonely like that anymore, at least. And she would not cry herself to sleep, not when she had everything she really wanted.

Kalasin calmed herself by playing the memory game, reliving that afternoon. She began in the tent. The women around her had lounged and napped, while she held a book and day-dreamed lightly. The signal that communicated the Tortallan delegation's arrival sounded through the camp. The women woke, dressed again in their finery, checked coifs and cosmetics, and then walked out to form a receiving line. The men were filing out of their own tents. Kalasin sat on a gold plaited throne beside Kaddar—he always was ready before she was. She kept Kirabo cradled in her arms. Behind her, Fazia held Gzifa. A mage held canopies above the babies and children, to protect them from the strong sun.

Kalasin squinted, trying to identify individuals in the party. The copper-haired squire could only be Alan, and the giant behind him had to be Raoul. The slender woman dressed in red and gold must be Mama. Roald was not among the company, but neither was Liam nor Jasson.

It did not occur to her to look for Jonathan. He had only left Tortall once, during the Tusaine conflict when he had crossed the Drell River to rescue Alanna. To see her father, she would have to visit the land of her birth. After all, he was still the Voice of the Tribe. He had never missed a nightly communion with the Bazhir, and venturing from Tortall would strain the web that knit that fragile bond together.

Raoul and Buri greeted one another affectionately, the tall knight nearly bending in half to embrace his short wife. Raoul kissed Lianne's hand gallantly, bowed to Kaddar's kinswomen and then knelt to the Emperor and Empress of Carthak.

In that moment, with one of her oldest and dearest guardians kneeling before her, Kalasin realized in full what it meant to be the Empress of Carthak. It frightened her, and moved her to resolve to use this power wisely. As one, Kalasin and Kaddar gestured for Raoul to rise. Kalasin replayed the moment of unison again. Raoul rose, and then bowed to the men of Kaddar's family and household.

In the first moments, Alan had eyes only for Lianne, and their first glance spoke volumes. They clasped hands, palm to palm, and he kissed her once on each cheek, in the style of Gallan courtiers. Alina (and it must be confessed Nadereh and Fazia) had been titillated—Lianne was without her veil for this ceremony, and to the Carthaki women, it seemed indecent for a man and woman to touch so openly in public. No one commented, though the women noticed the way both flushed. Alina went so far as to sigh, a sound that was squelched by her mother. Lianne beamed at her prospective sweetheart. They dropped hands.

Alan bowed to Buri, since she would have laughed at him if he kissed her hand. He turned to Fazia and Nadereh and the other women, and the squire bowed politely. He kissed the back of little Alina's hand, and charmed her by producing a handkerchief from her ear. Nadereh had not quite approved—but it was a special day, and she did not offend her foreign-born sister-in-law by objecting. Alan bowed to Farouk and various uncles and cousins, then finally turned to the center. He also knelt in front of Kalasin and Kaddar. "Rise." She instructed, in a voice that did not feel completely her own. Even in her memory, it was alien.

Thayet proceeded through the gauntlet next. The Queen and her oldest friend touched hands and curtseyed together. Lianne and Thayet curtseyed and then hugged, briefly. Nadereh, Alina and Fazia curtseyed to the Queen of Tortall, while the men bowed. Kalasin stood. With her son in her arms, she curtseyed, and held the position. Thayet did likewise, each to the proper degree. It was like an ancient etiquette riddle. "How does an Empress greet a Queen, when the Queen is her mother?" "Very carefully."

Kalasin rose first, handed the baby to Kaddar and stepped off the dais to embrace her mother. Kalasin's eyes were shut against the tears that were leaking out. Thayet squeezed her daughter so tightly that Kalasin thought her stays might snap. They stayed that way for a long moment, then stepped back slightly. They maintained contact, each holding onto the other's forearms.

"You look well." Thayet said, and that single statement contained a million superlatives.

"Thank you." The words were inadequate, but Kalasin's tone contained everything she couldn't articulate.

Lying in bed, beside her husband, Kalasin tortured herself with the vagueness of those words. She understood what Thayet meant, but did Thayet understand her? When Kally had been a child, Thayet had always known what was in her daughter's heart. But now?

Hours before, they had studied each other. Gray strands had crept into Thayet's hair since they had parted. Lines creased her skin where her face had been smooth before. A moderate amount of extra flesh had settled around the Queen's middle. She was still the most beautiful woman Kalasin had ever seen.

Kalasin was dressed and pressed and pampered, more like a doll than a woman. There were shadows in her eyes that Thayet could see through her veil. Kalasin was thinner; her cheeks were not round with baby fat any longer. Her fingers were not calloused—she had not drawn a bow for at least the duration of her pregnancy and recovery. The daughter's skin was darker from the sun. She was the most beautiful woman Thayet had ever seen.

The women released. Kaddar bowed to his mother-in-law. The Empress motioned for Raoul and Alan to draw closer. Kalasin took Kirabo from Kaddar's arms and asked Fazia to come forward. She made sure Alan and Raoul could see the babies, but she primarily spoke to Thayet. "This cherub is your granddaughter, Gzifa Nadia Iliniat," Kalasin rattled off a string of titles, barely pausing for breath, "And this angel is your grandson, Kirabo Kendi Iliniat." She spewed forth his titles also.

Thayet gently took her grandson from her daughter, beaming. She supported the baby's neck and looked into his face, and at his ears and arms and legs. She was trying to memorize his little body. Had Numair also taught Thayet how to remember?

Kaddar watched for a moment, then began his heart-felt, though formal, speech to his in-laws and friends, "Thank you for making the journey. The heart of Carthak is gladdened that her sister Tortall joins her to celebrate the children born to our two nations."

Thayet acknowledged the opening volley, "The heart of Tortall is gratified that Carthak's ruler is strong and wise enough to cherish its treasures." Thayet handed her grandson to his mother.

"Of which family is the most precious." Fazia inserted. "We should continue our fellowship with food and drink."

"Mango lassis are prepared. We will serve in the shade of the largest tent." Varice shepherded them. The collection of nobles moved to the tents and began to speak.

Even that night, Kalasin had trouble remembering a single specific word that she spoke that day. Her memory was flawless in some aspects, but words eluded her, like wraiths in the mist. Though in later years, the twins begged for stories about their Name-Day every night for bed, Kalasin remembered emotions and images more than anything else, though she made up a few stories that she told so many times she forgot whether they were real or imagined. Sometimes, the way she told the story was more real than her memory.

The twins would begin begging for stories after they accompanied Kalasin to Tortall for Midwinter in Corus—the year Alan and Jasson passed the Ordeal of Knighthood and Alianne came home from the Copper Isles to see her twin knighted and Nora wed the Maren ambassador and Shinko gave birth to her third child, a son.

But that was years in the future. Kalasin could not, at the moment of our story, imagine that she would survive the pain of the parting. During the day, the sensations of love and joy and impending sorrow were so strong that at times, she did not know if she were laughing or crying. And now that it was all over, she was still confused. Disjointed images would come to her hours and years later—Varice holding a sherbet glass, Raoul and Kaddar sitting side by side, Thayet and Buri each holding a baby, Lianne and Alan making calf-eyes at one another, Alina and Farouk playing together while Nadereh smiled at them, Zaimid toasting his godschild… Though she didn't remember specifics, she held onto the joy and the hope of that day.

The ceremonies and rituals were performed, at the appointed hour, in the old way. The children were named and offered to Mithros, the Goddess, and the Graveyard Hag in turn. Alina helped the priestess perform the rites for the Goddess, and glowed in the ritual. As the child of a nonconformist, Alina needed the tradition and structure of her grandmother's house and the Goddess's temple.

The Black God was thanked for sparing the children and their mother. Kirabo fussed when the priest anointed him with oil, but he settled in moments to a rare solemnity, sensing that he should be on his best behavior. He kneaded his mother's sleeve with a small fist, fascinated with the heavy braid over the velvet. His sister behaved until she was touched by salt and then by water. She squawked indignantly, then nestled against her Tortallan aunt and settled again to sleep.

They feasted after. Varice had outdone herself—such food would have been remarkable and worth remembering from the fully stocked kitchens on the Imperial Palace. On a primitive island, the meal was a work of magic.

Nadereh offered to research great feasts and cooks of the past and their importance in song if Varice would come work in her villa. Varice blushed and smiled and thanked them all graciously for their compliments, but declared her intention to stay in Kaddar's palace. "After all," She laughed, "I designed the kitchens myself. The architect let me help with that part. I challenge you to find a kitchen laid out better anywhere in the world."

Then gifts were exchanged. Alina announced that the chair from Jasson was the most wonderful chair that she had ever seen. Kalasin managed to call it unique and thoughtful. She told them to express her thanks, though she was honestly a bit bewildered about how to get the thing onto the Carthaki ships.

Buri had given Kalasin a simple, perfect rocking chair at her baby shower. This ornate show piece wasn't padded, and the sides were at the wrong height to support her elbows. Nevertheless, it was the thought that mattered, and Jasson was thinking. And of course, it was the Jasson chair that the twins adored throughout their childhood. When her babies were older, in the year they demanded the story of the only time their grandma from Tortall visited, they always shrieked with laughter when she talked about the sailor who rowed the boat out to the ship, and the wave that knocked it into the ocean, and how brave cousin Farouk dove into the waves and pulled it back to the surface. But that was later too.

Kalasin remembered feeling her heart pound against her ribs when her nephew dove over the side. Nadereh had already been on board the main ship—she hadn't seen—and so Kalasin was the one to fuss over her nephew. She had wrapped him in blankets and kissed him and thanked him and forced him to swear he would never do anything so rash again. This also she relived—Farouk's blush at her praise, and Alina's chattering reprimand. She had already lost one brother, and she would not risk the other.

Raoul and Buri gave Kalasin clippings of all her favorite plants from Tortall. They had learned from Daine that Kaddar had a Gift for growing plants, and thought that she might create an arboretum of sorts, where she could go to teach her children about her homeland. Daine sent a kitten to Gzifa and a puppy for Kirabo. The animals and children would grow up together with their plants. Kaddar was pleased by this gift, since he liked to garden, but was often advised not to dirty his hands. Kaddar liked his hands caked in dirt, liked the cycles of growing things. It felt honest to him, in a way that ink stains and calluses did not. But his duty lay with the ink, not the dirt, so he set it aside for moments when he had the time.

Numair sent magical wards and protections for the children to wear. The Lioness and her husband sent more of the same, spelled more specifically against particular dangers. The catalogue of gifts went on, until Kalasin felt bloated by possessions and gratitude.

In thanks for the visit, Kalasin gave her parents a portrait of herself and the two babies. The work had been executed lovingly by Lianne and their Court Master. The drawing was mostly Lianne's, with some correction of line done by the master. The painting was entirely the princess's, except the skin of Baby Gzifa's hand. The Master had done that to demonstrate the ways to mix and glaze, to suggest veins underneath the skin.

Lianne had made a duplicate for Kalasin. Kalasin gave her sister a sketchbook and a valuable study of a painting of the Goddess in her Maiden aspect.

Buri and Raoul gave Kally a knife that could be worn as a hair ornament and a matching shukusen fan, all in the style that Shinko and her ladies had brought to Tortall. The style was so foreign—not at all the Tortall she remembered—that Kalasin mourned, internally, over the fact that even if she went home, she might not recognize Tortall. Time soldiered on, no matter how much you wanted it to be otherwise.

In honor of the births, Jonathan, through Thayet, offered an amended treaty on fishing rights. The document had been in the works since the marriage—its completion was indeed a rare gift, thought Kalasin never included it in the stories for the twins. It was too prosaic, too grown up. It spoke too much about the world they would inherit, and too little about the place she wished she could give to them.

Thayet brought a trunk of blankets and books and teething aids, packed by Cythera and Eleni. The books were learning tales and the kind of primer that taught children how to read. Each had been hand picked for illustrations or interest of the tale.

Kally felt swelled by the material displays of affection. She was an extremely wealthy woman, who wore expensive fabrics and gems with the unconscious grace of a woman born to those luxuries. But she was touched by these gifts because they showed genuine thought and good wishes. Even though the day was for her children, many of the gifts from Tortall had been tailored to her and to the way her friends expected her to raise a family.

There were gifts from the Carthaki family as well. Nadereh gave books—of course. Histories of the Empire and Emperors for Kirabo. Conduct books and myths for Gzifa. Zaimid gave each a small opal—good for the gift, if they happened to possess it. Kalasin already saw traces of a strong, natural Gift in Gzifa. The little girl would grow up to be a healer, perhaps. The possibilities were pleasant to imagine.

Fazia had supplied outfits—ridiculous garments that related to practical clothing the way a meringue (spun sugar mixed with egg) related to a loaf of peasant's bread. Kalasin didn't even think they were that cute—but she made a big deal of thanking her mother-in-law. She was more torn about what to do with the ruby earrings Fazia had given Gzifa and the ruby nose button Kaddar's mother had sent to Kirabo.

It was against Kalasin's custom to pierce a child. Those holes are permanent, and she didn't want to impose them arbitrarily. But the rubies were protective, and it was her husband's peoples' tradition to pierce a child's ears at an early age. Kalasin wasn't sure whether she should allow the children's ears to be pierced or stand firm against it—she wanted to ask somebody—another foreigner in Carthak—how to assimilate into Carthaki culture without losing her identity.

She watched Kaddar, the way he accepted the gifts graciously and spoke to the Tortallans. She studied the way her two families (Carthaki and Tortallan) met and mingled with one another. And she was grateful that her life had turned out this way. Carthak and the top of its social hierarchy were less lonely than she had believed just a few months ago, standing on a dock waiting to guess who was coming to visit.

At the end of the day, when it was time for Thayet (and everybody else) to leave, Kalasin felt the tears clogging her throat, choking her. As promised, Lianne tried to protest sailing at nightfall, but the island was at the very least rumored to be enchanted, and no one dared to linger after dark.

Kalasin's eyes were swollen with the effort of shutting them to prevent weeping. Thayet's face was similarly contorted, so the women embraced with closed eyes, forgoing a last chance to "see" one another. It didn't matter much—there was a lifetime of memories between them. Kalasin carried in her heart the picture of Thayet seated beside Jonathan, or dancing with him. And after today, she always carried her study of her mother's face, crow's feet and all. And, as time passed, Thayet could conjure images of Kalasin in her Carthaki costume, juggling babies and courtiers and servants. But in her heart, when she thought of her oldest daughter, Thayet saw Kalasin as the bright, curious little girl with a natural Gift to heal. No matter how old Kally grew, she was Thayet's baby girl.

Can I tell you what passed between mother and daughter in those moments together? I cannot, because the words said nothing of their emotions. They knew that each lived her own life, that each could be happy though many miles separated them. They were proud of one another's strengths. Kalasin and Thayet each had the joy of knowing that the other was happy in the place she was creating for herself, with the man she chose. But they ached at the parting. Knowing that your loved one is happy far from you is better than keeping them close and making them miserable, but having them close and happy is best of all. And it was so unfair that after more than 1500 days, they had only a few hours together. There had been so little time to just be mother and daughter, around the ceremonies and the other people.

After enough time had passed for them to have a sense of privacy, Lianne joined them. Kalasin released the tears finally, mouth shut tightly so that her sobs would not become audible. Kalasin embraced Lianne, and then the Princess led the Queen away from the Empress. The Carthakis averted their eyes from Kalasin's grief.

Alan had approached her and slipped a package into her hands. The thing was light and compact, but it felt dense. The exterior was covered in brown paper, and the wrappings were sealed with wax. She had tucked it inside her sleeve, and smiled, because she knew that only Roald would have sent a present via Alan. From her pocket, she pulled an envelope. "Will you give this to my brother?" She asked. She hadn't been able to give it to her mother or Lianne—there was just enough of the little sister lurking around her that Kalasin had waited for a moment like this. "It's honest letters and poems, about my life here. I always used to make him laugh with silly things like this."

Alan kissed the back of her hand—contact considered risqué by the Carthakis who were studiously ignoring this improper farewell. "He loves you, you know."

"I know. I love him." She took a deep breath. "I swore to myself I wouldn't cry buckets until the ship was out of sight. So, um," A quick breath and blinking interrupted her words, "Please tell your family I send my love." She lowered her voice conspiratorially "And tell your mother that, as the daughter-in-law of a formidable woman, I think she should go easy on whoever you and Thom bring home. And remind her how good Lady Eleni was to her, even though she broke your father's heart. And Alan?"

"Yes?" He looked expectantly at her veiled features.

"Promise me that you will take care of my sister and my brother."

He didn't have to ask who she meant. "Roald and Lia can take care of themselves. Plus there's always Nora to talk them away and Liam or Jasson to wrestle them to the ground." Like his mother, Alan was a poor wrestler.

"Yes." Kalasin agreed. "But I want you to do it. I trust you."

"It is my honor." He answered at last. "You didn't really have to ask. I've been looking after Liam and Lia since before—" He thought "Well, anyway, for a very long time."

"Thank you." Kalasin said, breathing deeply again, to control herself. "Um, don't forget to take care of yourself, and Lord Raoul, please."

"As if I need this runt for that." Her godsfather approached. Buri had followed Lianne and Thayet; Kalasin and her surrogate mother had said their goodbyes before the Tortallan delegation arrived. "So would I be turned into a target for your guards' arrows if I touched you?"

"My husband's people are still touchy about that." Kalasin said sadly. "And anyway, it's not you who'd be in trouble."

Raoul nodded grimly. "Are you…is it okay…"

'So this is why Numair dropped me off. Raoul would've listened if I asked him to bring me home, treaty be damned.' The former princess mused. "It's okay. I'm happy here." Kalasin guessed his hesitation. "You can't scoop me up and bring me back to Tortall now. You're not abandoning me. I'll be okay. I swear."

Raoul took her hands in his and squeezed, not enough to hurt, but enough to know he was there. "Come to us at Midwinter, in a few year's time." He invited. "When Alan and Jasson take the Ordeal."

"I would like that." Kalasin said, smiling at her old friends, through the pain. "Raoul, take care of Buri and Papa and Mama for me, please?"

"It is my duty and my honor." Raoul pledged. He kissed her hand, and then released it. "I'm proud of you, Empress of Carthak. You've become a formidable person, Kalasin."

At that point, Kalasin could no longer hold her tears inside. Shoulders shuddering, she babbled something incoherent about passing on her love to Onua and Sarge and a hundred or so Queen's Riders and King's Own.

In concern, Alina offered a handkerchief to her pretty aunt, which the child had hemmed herself. Kalasin scooped up Alina, kissed her cheek through the veil, and sent her to her mother. But she got herself under control, more or less.

At that point, the memories splintered. Kalasin thought she had embraced Buri, but she knew that had been earlier, in the tent… She had waved to the ship for as long as she could see it, while the camp around her disassembled. When the ship crossed the horizon, she got on the last passenger boat to the Carthaki vessel, with Farouk and Varice. Kaddar had gone back before—he'd looked so hurt when she cried. She had tried to stop, because she didn't want him to think that she wanted to leave, but it was too hard at that moment. She remembered the chair falling out of another boat, and she remembered kissing Farouk when he rescued the monstrosity.

She'd gone to the main cabin, where the babies were napping. Fazia was next door, unwinding however she did. In the safety of the cabin she and Kaddar shared, Kalasin had stripped to her shift, pulled on a sleeping gown, and collapsed on the bed. She was too numb to cry anymore. It had been only hours ago that she and Lianne dressed together here. How was it possible that the people she loved were so far away?

She'd dozed fitfully, waking when the babies did, and once, when Kaddar came to bed. They had kissed in greeting, and then they both pretended to sleep—neither was in the mood to talk. She didn't have the energy yet, and his feelings were stung that she'd been so open around people she hadn't seen in four years. Hours later, because of her nap, Kalasin was awake, though Kaddar was slumbering genuinely. She was not numb anymore—she felt like an exposed nerve. Kalasin tried to cuddle even closer to Kaddar, who adjusted, in his sleep, by moving his left arm to wrap around her back and rest against her.

She closed her eyes with determination. Shortly later, sleep took her. She dreamed of a future where she had never left Tortall to meet Kaddar. She spent days and years wearing breeches and loving her family and practicing healing craft. But there was no handsome, dark face smiling at her across the breakfast table, no twin babies to gurgle and caress. She woke at three am, breathing heavily, uncertain whether it was a nightmare or reality.

"You alright?" He stirred and yawned.

"Yes." She sat up and leaned down to kiss his cheek. Kalasin tried to reassure Kaddar, "Yes, everything's alright. Go back to sleep."

"Mmm." He mumbled sleepily. "Love you."

"I love you too." She answered, and settled herself beside him in the bed once again. "I love you, Kaddar." She repeated. Kalasin lay next to Kaddar, pulling the sheet up to her chin. She felt warm, full, safe and loved. She could not think of anything else she wanted.

"Good," Her husband mumbled. "Go to sleep."

Kalasin sat up, and kissed his cheek again. "Thank you for being so wonderful today. I think everyone enjoyed it a lot."

"Are you…?" His voice trailed off.

"They had to go home." Kalasin said, and she meant it. "It's not a bad thing that I'm sad about it. It's only bad if it hurts you."

He groaned. "Should I wake up?"

"We'll talk tomorrow." She promised, hands moving gently and lightly over him. She was just checking, she told herself, just making sure what was the dream and what was real.

"I'm not going to sleep if you keep doing that." He rumbled, but he was smiling. "It tickles."

"And your mother is in the next cabin." She teased, shaking her head from side to side, sighing at how good it felt to have her hair free and the night against her skin and the man she loved in the bed beside her.

Kaddar looked at the cribs warily. "And the babies are in here with us."

"I suppose I better stop." She kissed him, lightly—first the crown of his head, then his brow, then his nose, then his lips.

When she drew back, he murmured, "What was that about stopping?"

She almost laughed, and then laid down next to him. "I'm glad I married you."

"Me too." He faced her, caught her hand, and brought it to his lips. "I can't imagine life without you, Kally."

"Me neither." She whispered, into the warm, sweet dark. How had it ever seemed threatening, when it was in fact so full?

Authors Note: Thanks for reading! I appreciate it. When I started this story way back in February 2003, I had just finished Trickster's Choice and I was curious about that one-line reference to the Empress of Carthak. So I started to write. Originally, it was supposed to be a vignette, with Alianne coming to Carthak to help Kalasin. But somewhere in the writing of that vignette, I decided I wanted to see Kalasin and her sister, and then the first three chapters wrote themselves. I didn't know how it would all turn out—and to be honest, I really really didn't want the story to end.

It's been two years, and my life has changed, but this story has been a constant—a collection of characters who clamor "write me!" when I sat at the computer to write an application essay for graduate school, or academic papers on post-structuralism, discourse analysis, and other intriguing, but demanding topics. It's finally the end—I finally couldn't hold the ideas back any more. I hope it satisfies. Thank you all for reading—the ones who reviewed and the ones who didn't. I appreciate your interest.

Lily ponds – Thank you. I hope you didn't need too many tissues. When it came down to writing Kalasin and Thayet's parting, I just didn't have the words, though I hope you enjoyed the reunion. Thanks for reading.

LadyDraconis – I agree, Kalasin and Kaddar's first late night conversation was the high point of the story, though I personally enjoyed it all. Thank you for reading

Hanakazari – Thank you for the lovely feedback. I had a great time in Italy—thanks :). Thanks also for the compliment on the details. The chair breaking felt like something angry kids would do to keep their sister at home—even if it didn't work out that way. Thank you for saying I understand the feelings of the characters; I think that's important in writing realistic fiction. Thanks for reading!

Diana – WOW, Thank you! Glowing reviews like yours always make me so happy. Thanks for the compliment—like Tamora and well fitting :blush: I'm glad you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading and reviewing!

Me – Thanks for reading and reviewing. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

Elfsquire90 – It's over now, but thanks for telling me you enjoy the story!

Drunken Little Monkey – Yep, that's all she wrote. Not really—look for the Gary/Cythera one shot that should be forthcoming. Thanks for reading and reviewing.

Buttons – Thanks so much for your feedback. I'm delighted that you enjoy the characterization and anecdotes. I find that even in fantasy and epics, the stories that touch me have characters with routines and little stories and a sort of life. Thanks for saying I didn't deviate from the quartet characters—I wonder about that sometimes. I'm blushing that you think the characters I developed are plausible and balanced. Thanks so much for reading and reviewing!

Lady Silvamord – I look forward to your reviews most of all. You are always creative and lovely in appreciating my story—which makes me want to write! (You'll notice by the time lag, of course, that wanting to write and having time to do so are not the same thing. :(. If they were, I would have written a quartet in the time it took to write this story.) Thank you for saying the story got progressively better—I am so flattered you think so. I'm glad you enjoy Kaddar and Kalasin—as you know, you've developed quite a gift as a writer of that pairing yourself. Your sudden productivity really gave me a kick in the tail to finish this and move on to new stories. I'm sorry that Kally was sad and didn't want to talk to anyone, even beloved Kaddar, much in this last chappie. I'm not making promises, but I have a feeling at some point they'll tempt me to do a vignette (at least) all about them. But until the plot bunny hops by, I can't make any promises. I had a great time in Italy—thanks.

queenofdiamonds1 – Thanks for saying you liked the story!

Greatmothergoddess – Thank you for that compliment. I don't know if Lonely At The Top is the best KK out there, but I thank you for saying so.

razzle-dazzle-me – Thank you for your very sweet review! I'm flattered you think the story deserves awards. And as far as favorite Tamora Pierce story—just wow. It means so much that you said that. Thank you for falling in love with the lesser known characters, and thank you so much for reading and reviewing!

Anaroriel Wow! Thank you for this lovely review. I think it's going in a scrap book with all my favorites (basically all the ones from this story ;).) I am so flattered you think it's the best Tortall story you've seen. There are a lot of stories on this site, and I'm pleased to be in such good company. I'm so glad you like the details and my style and plot. I think you expressed your thoughts very nicely.

As for the Conte kids in this story: Roald (23), Kalasin(22), Liam(18), Lianne(15), and Jasson(14). I added a daughter: Eleanora(16). I made her up because, silly me, when Alanna asked about "princesses" in TC, I completely forgot that Shinko was, by the, married to Roald. I envisioned Nora as a bit childish, a bit spoiled. She wasn't supposed to act her age nearly as well as her dutiful siblings. Thanks for reading and reviewing.

Gaileanna – Thanks for reading and reviewing. I'm glad another author recommended the story to you (and I thank them also). How would you suggest making the summary more appealing to readers like yourself? Thanks for saying it was a nice fic. I know it was a bit dark—there are tones of that in this last chapter too. I'd like a fairy tale story for Kaddar and Kalasin also, but even in fairy tales, the protagonists have to go through a lot to earn their "happily ever after."