This is a completely AU—alternate universe-- oneshot. Daine never went to Carthak, and Princess Kalasin married Ozorne in the spring of her fourteenth year to protect Tortall from war with Carthak.
A loud peal of laughter rang out from the opposite side of the large ballroom, and Kalasin Tasikhe leveled a disdainful glance at the group of her husband's faithful nobles. Deciding to ignore him, she fanned herself with deliberate precision, glad for the brief respite from the heat of Carthaki summers. The corset that she wore could easily be labeled as hazardous to her health, and the layered silk gown only added to her discomfort. She had pleaded a headache as an excuse to get away from the group of men who were now energetically discussing the best ways to disable three different sides of the Yamani army, but now she felt like she would rather listen to their barbaric ideas than simply rotting with boredom.
Kalasin had begun to wonder whether there was a discreet, diplomatic way to kill the nobles and her irritatingly smug-looking husband, throw her dressmaker to the crocodiles, and escape the stifling ballroom, when she saw something—or rather, somebody—who was enough to make her tuck away her fan and sit a little straighter in her chair.
"Kaddar," she greeted cheerfully, extending one hand, which he took and kissed. "I've never been happier to see you."
"My day is now complete," he replied with a grin. "May I sit?"
"No," she said, rising and fluttering her eyelashes. "Well, not unless you want to witness my melting in the heat. However, I would appreciate it if somebody would accompany me to the gardens."
They slipped out of a side door unnoticed. Kalasin sighed as they left the airless heat of the room for the deserted hallways of the Imperial Palace. She admired an oil painting of typical Northern scenery—the tall, snow-covered peaks of mountains that seemed to scrape the clouds. Lush, cool green forests surrounded the mountains, and a clear blue stream meandered through the glades. Her eyes grew misty with longing, and Kaddar laughed. "You are such a Northerner," he teased gently. "It's only June; it hasn't even started to properly warm up yet."
"Properly warm up?" Kalasin swatted at him. "The summers are getting longer and hotter every year, it still hasn't rained, most of the crops are dying, and you think it could get worse?" She winced at herself. "Come to think of it, don't answer that."
"Wise. The answer would distress you, and we can't have that," he said, straight-faced.
She pulled a face at him, and promptly forgot her scathing reply as they stepped outside. True, it was still oppressively warm, but at least here you could catch a slight breeze and the welcoming shade of the trees. The air was perfumed with the overpowering scents of summer jasmine and marigold, causing Kalasin to sneeze as she ventured too close to a marigold bush. "Much better," she breathed, undoing the heavy chain of sapphires from her hair. Finding a removed area of the garden under a weeping willow tree, she sank down at the base of the tree, before patting the grass next to her. "Now you may sit."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, both of them enjoying the night. "Thank you for rescuing me," she said gratefully. "I wouldn't have been responsible for my actions if I had stayed."
"That's what friends are for," he responded. "And I could tell by your expression. What was the war council talking about now, of all times?"
"Latest military strategy," was the gloomy reply. "Lord Polairix wants to send the entire Forty-First Division out to distract the Yamani army, while three other battalions of our army and six navy fleets mount attacks on the west, east, and south coasts."
"The Forty-First Division? They're entirely new recruits! And the commanders want to use them as bait…" he trailed off, disgusted.
"His exact words were, 'what better to distract the Yamanis with than fresh meat?' and I just couldn't believe it!" Kalasin pounded her fist against the grass, frustrated. "They love and serve our country with honor, and this is how their commanders repay them? Of course, our opinions are in the minority," she added bitterly. "Ozorne and eight of the others agree with Polairix."
"I'll have to meet with the Dukes of Saorise and Yamut first thing in the morning, then," he said grimly, then shook his head hard. "Do you have any happy news?"
Kalasin had to giggle at the phrase. "Happy news? Is there such a thing?"
"It's the kind of news that doesn't make you want to strangle, maim, or sob your eyes out on somebody," he retorted. "I know something like that exists."
"Er," she said, pulling an exaggerated thinking face. "I don't think so. Now, think of something to make me smile." Kalasin rested her head on his shoulder, tired, but glad that she wasn't rotting in boredom inside. Her thoughts began to wander, just to keep herself awake, but Kaddar's arm around her waist and the fact that she was leaning on him for support made that hard to do. Logical reason told her that she should move, because falling asleep under a willow and with a man that was not your husband, at that, would be frowned on, and that she was feeling far too comfortable and was pressed far too close to him.
Nonsense, she thought drowsily. I like where I am very much, thank you. After all, they were just friends, and had been since she was fourteen. Kalasin realized with a start that she had been living in Carthak for four years now. It seemed like forever, even with letters from home. Roald's marriage would be next month, she realized with a twinge, and Lianne was betrothed to the King of Galla. She began to recall the time she had spent with her parents, siblings, and adopted aunts and uncles. She had thought that those memories had faded, or, rather, she had kept them buried deep within her; those happy times when she felt like she had been truly wanted for more than a peace alliance.
That's not fair, I suppose. I do have friends here. Varice, Nadi, Nadareh, Kaddar…they made up for it. Nadi and Nadareh had similar interests to hers, and she liked to listen to them talk about their individual careers. Nadi was Kalasin's personal healer, and Nadareh and her husband worked in several scientific and magical fields. Varice was often busy coordinating all of the social events and keeping the palace running, but she was always there when Kally needed her. Sometimes Kalasin thought that she was closest to Kaddar, though, and she smiled to remember their frequent battles in chess and magical theory.
There were some times when she wished that Kaddar wasn't the only person she felt real affection from. Her husband's cool indifference didn't bother her, but she resented not having a say in the running of the country, and often vocally told him so. Well, she thought darkly. I'm going to have to stop my verbal protests if he's going to let me go to Tortall for Roald's wedding. Life is full of compromises.
"Kally?" The tentative voice broke her out of her thoughts, and Kalasin pulled her head from his shoulder hastily, knocking their heads together in the process.
"I just wanted to make sure you were awake. There was no need for that, you know," complained Kaddar, rubbing his forehead.
The empress couldn't help smirking. "I would offer to kiss and make it feel better, if you want?"
"Very funny," he replied sourly, "but I don't suppose you would kiss me?"
"Only if you're very good." Kalasin was somewhat surprised that the conversation was giving her tingles, and found she was blushing hard. "Erm," she said hurriedly, wishing she had her fan to snap out in front of her face. "Should we go back? I don't want anybody to miss us." Stumbling slightly, she took Kaddar's hand and pulled him up, trying not to look him in the eye. If she had bothered to take a closer look, she would have found that he was blushing as hard as she was—but that was another story altogether.
Despite her hastily fabricated cover story, Kalasin felt herself hesitate at the entrance to the palace. She was in no mood to reenter the premature victory ball, especially as she felt that she would be called back to the war council, simply to listen and nod her head at their pathetic, sadistic excuses for battle plans. Her expression must have showed on her face again, because Kaddar caught her by the hand and spun her back to him just as she was about to enter.
"What was that for?" she asked, smiling despite herself.
"Nothing," he said, leaning against a tree. "Although I did make you smile; does that count for anything?"
"Yes, well," she mumbled defensively, before crossing her arms over her chest. "You cheated!"
Kaddar struggled with well-bred dismay at the accusation before they dissolved into giggles, glad to have the few short moments of lightheartedness. Briefly she wondered whether their position broke etiquette into a hundred little splinters—her fingers linked behind his neck, and his right arm wrapped around her waist. Surprisingly, she didn't feel nearly as awkward as she had only a few minutes ago. Before he could say a word, Kalasin did something even she couldn't have anticipated.
Maybe it was their slightly unorthodox conversation, the position they had found themselves in, the—admittedly little-- wine they had drunk at dinner, or perhaps even a culmination of past feelings. In any case, something had possessed her to pull his face down to hers rather painfully; their foreheads and noses bumping for the second time that evening. Both of them were too wrapped up in other things to notice, however. Kaddar's other arm snaked around her, pulling her closer. It was only the fear of forgetting to breathe that caused her to tug away, gasping in a mixture of confusion and lack of air. Kaddar stared down at her with the same confusion etched upon his features, as if he wasn't completely sure of what had just taken place.
It took Kalasin a moment to regain the ability of speech. "I'm so sorry," she said, feeling oddly detached. "I…I shouldn't have." Without giving him a chance to reply, she gathered up her skirts and dashed away, not looking back until the breezes of the gardens were only a memory. The empress looked around in dismay when she finally stopped, realizing that she was certainly not back at the ballroom. As a matter of fact, she wasn't quite sure where she was. The sun had set a long time ago, and glowing magical spheres casting a somewhat eerie blue glow about the hallways were the only light.
Kalasin resisted the urge to flop down right where she was and start banging her head against the wall repeatedly. Instead, she simply leaned against the wall, exhausted in more than one way. What was I thinking? The thought ran over and over in her head, until she came to the conclusion that she hadn't been thinking. One couldn't just run around kissing her husband's nephew, and that was precisely what she had been doing. It defied all propriety, and it was just wrong.
But if it was so wrong, why had it felt so right?
"I don't deserve this," Kalasin muttered, sinking down. She had known, even at a young age, that royalty wasn't free to give their affections to whom they wished. Princes and princesses were pawns in the international game of politics and alliances, and that was the way it always had been. Well, of course, she thought dryly. I married Ozorne to keep Tortall safe, and there was absolutely nothing sentimental about it. Feeling actual love or caring for the person who you're married to must be a luxury. At least that was easy enough to understand. What wasn't was that she had actually come to care about Kaddar.
It was just one kiss, Kalasin told herself firmly. One kiss. Trying to erase the memory of Kaddar's arms around her and the expression in his eyes as he looked at her, she picked herself up and began to walk down the hallway again, fully intending to go back to the ballroom without any other detours. Only, she ended up crashing into another person, and almost fell backward.
Kaddar managed to grab her upper arm just before she could fall. "Relax," he said, as if he was trying to calm a spooked horse. "It's just me."
Kalasin realized that she had tensed in his grip, but her muscles loosened slowly. "I know."
Upon realizing that she wasn't going to say any more, Kaddar let go of her somewhat reluctantly and leaned against the wall. They were both quiet for a few minutes, before he placed his hand on her shoulder gently, managing not to stammer in nervousness. "You didn't have to apologize, Kally."
"I know," she said, blushing again. "I didn't…it's not like I planned it!"
Relieved to discover that his voice had returned to normal, Kaddar reached out and pulled her close. "You're overreacting, you know," he said mildly.
Very determinedly ignoring the fact that her mouth had gone very dry, Kalasin looked up at him. "If you have something to say, say it now, please?"
Kaddar brushed his hand against her cheek lightly, struggling with his words. It was wonderful, how his capabilities of speech could fail…again… when it really mattered. "Kally—Empress-- I...I really...I admire - I mean, no, maybe that isn't the right word choice. What I wanted to say was - no, that's not..."
Kalasin cocked her eyebrow in confusion, but gradually she pieced together what he was trying to say, and she gave him a small smile. Standing on the tips of her toes, she brushed a kiss against his lips, effectively silencing his stammering. "Same to you, but more of it."
Once he had reined his amazement, Kaddar looked down at her, realizing that his hand still cupped her cheek and she had made no move to dislodge it. "Erm," he managed to squeak out. "Have we reached an understanding?"
Stifling the urge to giggle at his choice of words, Kalasin took his arm primly. "Of course. Shall we return, lest anyone suspect what we've been up to?"
The gods could make you walk a difficult path, sometimes with seemingly cruel twists and turns. There were times when the entire world seemed bleak and hopeless. But sometimes…sometimes you could get lucky. Sometimes you could be able to find a person who could be your ray of light, of hope, in an otherwise lonely world.
Only a few days ago, Kalasin had read the same passage in her book and scoffed at it, condemning it as wishful thinking. But now…now it had taken on an entirely different meaning to her. She smiled in the dark, setting her book aside and blowing out the single candle that illuminated her rooms, cloaking the room in darkness. Halfway between the realms of consciousness and sleep, a few words came drifting back to her.
A ray of light, of hope.
Kalasin fell asleep with a smile on her face, and, strangely enough, her room didn't seem so dark or lonely anymore.