Title: The Empress's "Borrowed" Letters Ch 1/1
Part 2 of the prequel trilogy
Disclaimer: All standard disclaimers apply. They're not mine and I'm not making a red cent.
Summary: Kaddar "borrows" Kalasin's most prized possession without asking. The emperor and empress's first fight that isn't flirtatious. Kalasin/Kaddar, or Kallydar
Acknowledgment: The author thanks Rosie for beta reading this story and helping to improve it!
In mid-afternoon on a sunny day in Carthak, Kalasin sat at her vanity in her windowless boudoir deep inside the palace. Candles and glass globes lit the room. They flickered and were less reliable than the sun, but she liked the feeling that no prying eyes could scrape across her in here. No one was permitted to enter this room without her invitation, not maids, not courtiers, not even Kaddar. Kalasin sometimes missed privacy nearly as much as she missed Roald and her parents. As a princess in Tortall, she thought she knew what it meant to live life in the public eye—but the pressures of being a princess paled next to the scrutiny she was subjected to as the Empress of Carthak.
Kally reached for the drawer where she kept all her letters from home. Some people never kept letters—they burned them immediately after reading. Kally kept every scrap of paper under lock and key, here in the one room in Carthak that was uniquely and completely hers. She read one every night—on days when she was very lonely and needed to feel a connection to home, she read more. She had begun to ration herself—1 per day—when one of Roald's letters literally fell to pieces in her hands.
Kalasin unlocked the drawer with a spell and opened it. She felt around for the delicately carved cedar box where she stored the cards and the letters. The box, spelled with protective properties, had been a gift from the Pirate Swoop family. On the front, a lioness stood beneath a crown, mouth open in a roar. When the box opened, a tiny song about the Lioness's love for her pride—her family—wafted out. Kalasin had always privately thought that the roaring Lioness looked more like a singing animal, and that thought always made her smile a little.
She reached—but the drawer was empty. In disbelief, with slightly more urgency, Kalasin began patting around the inside of the drawer. When her search yielded nothing, she pulled the drawer out further and searched further to the back. When there was still nothing, she yanked the drawer out of the vanity and spilled the contents on the floor. A jumble of odds and ends tumbled out, but not a scrap of paper or a charmed box.
Fighting panic, Kalasin pulled out the other drawers, but she was too frantic to search thoroughly. Could one of the servants or a courtier have stolen her letters? For what purpose? They were all coded anyway, and they generally spoke of personal matters, or estate finances, not matters of state. But the thief—thieves? wouldn't have know that. Perhaps they were searching for a way to incriminate her. Could someone be trying to blackmail her?
There were many reasons people could have stolen her letters, but who had access to her sanctuary? Kalasin sat on the floor surrounded by the contents of her vanity. Perfume bottles, paints and creams lay on the floor where they had rolled or scattered. A few boxes spilled jewels out, but Kalasin was blind to the luxuries. She tried desperately to think, but Tortall and safety had been stolen from her and she didn't know who would want to hurt her.
Against her will, the Empress began to cry. She was hot and tired and word had just arrived that pirates had burned down an orphanage and school that Kalasin had paid to build and run. 'They would have to strike at the empire through its children,' she thought bitterly. And even though she had scraped the funds together for the rebuild, construction took time, and where would the children go? She just wanted to read Roald's story about jousting practice and the haystack because it always made her laugh and even though she knew it by heart, it wasn't the same as seeing his handwriting and feeling the texture of the paper.
Her door opened, because she had told the hairdresser to come to ready her for the banquet. Kalasin looked up. Her hairdresser stopped, turned tail and ran.
Startled out of her self-pity, Kalasin sniffled quickly, and pulled a handkerchief out of the wreckage. "Oh Goddess." She mumbled. "I must look like a mess." She wiped her eyes and her nose "Blubbering like a baby over a few letters." She chastised herself. "Falling apart over nothing. Honestly… There are people in worse shape than you." She lectured herself.
She began to pick up her things and place them in the drawers again. By the time a knock sounded against the door, the only evidence of her tantrum was her reddened eyes and nose. Varice Kingsford peaked in. "My lady? The maid said--,"
"I am fine now," Kalasin said in carefully controlled tone. "I just—something was missing so I pulled the room apart looking for it. It's okay."
"Did you find it?" Varice asked, walking in carefully, as though the nineteen-year-old were a pot of blazebalm too near a sparking fire.
"No," Kalasin shook her head. "But it was of no value to anyone but me," She lied, hopefully. "Just a few old letters from my family."
"Oh, is that all?" Varice asked. "Ask the Emperor, but I think he had the maid fetch them and bring them to a scribe for copying, so when these wear out, you'll still be able to read them. Or maybe it was a mage to put spells against tearing. I can't remember."
Kalasin froze. "What?"
Varice sensed the tension and looked at the Empress. "I thought you knew."
"Where is the Emperor?" Kalasin asked, in a voice colder than winter in Scanra.
Varice evaluated the girl in front of her. "Remember he was trying to do something kind." She counseled.
Kalasin stalked out of the room, through the halls. Servants and nobles alike made room for her—it wasn't often that Kalasin cloaked herself in an Imperial humor, but that made it even more frightening when she did. The Empress swept into her husband's favorite small office and conference room. Three nobles sat, conversing with him about crops in the West and the possibility of rotating and letting land lie fallow.
When the door opened, the four men rose. One had a hand on his dagger, while the others were simply reacting to the loud noise. Something in her face must have alerted the nobles that she was angry with only one of them—they bowed out of the room with naught but a few words, abandoning the Emperor to his wife's tender mercies.
Kaddar was annoyed—the meeting had been only moderately important, but Kalasin should know by now that it was inappropriate to arrive unannounced. But when he looked at her face, his irritation melted into concern. "Kally?" He slipped from their formal and called her by her nickname. "What happened?"
Her breath hitched. "Is it true? Did you… My letters are gone."
Kaddar stared at her as though she were mentally unhinged. "I sent them to be copied. They were starting to fall apart."
"You had no right." Kalasin trembled. "They are my property."
Kaddar's annoyance returned. She arrived unannounced and tear-streaked over a few letters? "Then you should have spelled them against damage and tearing before it was too late, or asked someone to do it if you couldn't. I was just trying to preserve them."
"You could have told me! I thought someone had stolen them."
"Why?" Kaddar looked up. "There wasn't anything all that secret in them, was there?"
"Privacy still matters. Maybe I don't want my maid and a scribe to know that I'm receiving revenue from my estate in Tortall? And you're the one who's always warning me that courtiers here are vipers! How was I to know that they hadn't taken something valueless just to hurt me?" She exclaimed.
"You're overreacting," He accused, weariness making him sharp.
"Am I? What would you have done if I had sent a servant into your locked desk to fetch your father's last letter?"
"There's a difference." He said sharply. "My father is dead."
"And my father might as well be. I'll never see him again." Her cheeks flamed and her eyes were sparkling.
At another time, Kaddar would have studied the effects of anger on his normally pleasant Empress. But he was also angry. "Stop that." He said sharply. "You think I don't know that you still think of Tortall as home? Crying over the letters almost every night clued me in."
"Now who's overreacting? I put everything I have into—," she looked around, "Into this. Our marriage, the alliance, the reforms. I chose Carthak, and you, and I'm doing my best, so don't play the victim here." Kalasin lashed out.
"You're just like her." Kaddar tossed the words like a dart.
"Daine. So self-righteous. Coming here to the Empire to reform us ignorant, greedy slaveholders. I'm doing my best too, in case you didn't notice."
"I never said you weren't!" She exclaimed. "I know you work hard for your people. I just want to remind you that you're not the only one who cares about ruling well!"
"Is that all you care about? The people?"
"I don't know what you mean." She drew back, regretting her words.
"I'm talking about us, Kalasin." Kaddar was too angry to be cautious with his words. "You cry every night for Tortall. I believe you when you say that there's no man back there, but it makes me feel as though I took you away from everything you love and gave you nothing for the loss. It's a lot to compete with."
"You're not competing." She said slowly. "But I'm not going to apologize for reading my letters. I miss my home."
"That's the problem." He met her eyes. "You've been here almost year and a half—our anniversary is next month—but you still act like this isn't your home."
Kalasin bit her lower lip. "Then why did you want to preserve my letters at all? Why not just take them away and make me be a good Carthaki wife, who never goes swimming without permission and never questions her husband in public?" She flushed a dull scarlet, remembering a blunder from earlier days.
Kaddar usually found her blushes attractive, because he know that her entire body tended to turn pink, and seeing her face darken reminded him of the way the rest of her body changed. "That's not fair." He accused. "I never tried to force you to do anything you weren't prepared to do."
"You read them, didn't you?" She accused. "You didn't really believe me when I said there was no man. Even though you knew I came here a virgin. You had to check for yourself. And you're having them copied as a cover up, in case I noticed."
"Don't be ridiculous." He insisted. "You're MY wife. Why would I check your letters?"
Kalasin turned on her heel and headed to the door. "I don't know. After all, I'm here for the rest of my life." She paused, resting her hand on the doorknob. She held her tongue from accusing him of checking on the amounts of her revenues from her lands in Tortall or from the estate that Kaddar had given her as part of their marriage treaty.
Thayet had insisted that Kalasin should have an independent source of coin, and Kalasin was grateful for her mother's foresight. It provided her with a measure of independence that virtually no other woman in Carthak enjoyed. The nobles viewed it as one of her Northern peculiarities and treated it with some hostility, despite the fact that most of the coin went into schools and civic projects, like the orphanage that had so recently been destroyed. Kaddar had agreed to it, though her independence caused some friction between them still. But bringing up that issue again would be like throwing a stone at a hornet's nest. "I'll see you at the banquet?"
"I think it better that I make your excuses for tonight." He gave her a look that chilled her to her soul. "If you are unable to control yourself—"
She interrupted, "Are you forbidding me to attend a Court banquet?"
"I'm not putting you on house arrest, if that's what you're asking. I'm not my uncle." The defensiveness of his tone would've taken her breath away if she weren't already staggering at the idea of house arrest.
Since confinement hadn't occurred to Kalasin (even after a year and a half, Carthak was an alien place; the shine and splendor were wearing off and she was violently homesick), she stared at him in shock for a moment. "We'll talk about this tonight, then."
"I won't be sleeping in the suite tonight." He announced.
Kalasin flinched. How had a little row blown up so completely? It had gone against Carthaki custom to have a suite together; she had fought for it, thinking it would make intimacy easier. She'd thought it would create opportunities for informal talk with her husband. But, at least in Kaddar's mind, it was still an experiment. The thought of losing him scared her. "Kaddar?"
"What?" He had sat down again, but his tone betrayed his annoyance.
"Please come back tonight. We really need to talk."
He looked at her, trying to let the annoyance and irritation dissipate so he could look at her clearly. "If it isn't too late." He said, in a tone that implied he would ensure that it was too late.
She nodded once. "I'm sorry you think I don't act like this is home. I'll try harder." She opened the door, but his voice arrested her movement.
Kaddar sighed. "I just—when I see you unhappy, I feel like some slave dealer."
"Don't. I chose you." She promised. "Everyone says the first year is the hardest, right?"
"Perhaps." He agreed. There was an awkward pause between them, but he finally said, "Please don't leave like this."
She slowly came back, and sat in one of the chairs opposite him. "I just—I keep getting it wrong. And the letters help me remember a time when I—when I got things right. At home—" She flinched at her slip. She continued mentally, but wasn't brave enough to say: 'In Tortall, I really was the Princess. I could do no wrong, and I was never lonely. It's been a year but I still feel like I barely know you.' She actually said: "you work so hard that when I want to ask you a question about something personal, it seems trivial and I don't know how to bring it up."
"You're the one who works so much it's hard to talk about anything personal." Kaddar replied. "You're either working or reading those letters or riding Chavi or writing. I don't know how to interrupt."
Kalasin tried to smile. "I'm not all that busy. I've gone looking for you, only to hear from your guards that you're in your garden and not to be disturbed."
Kaddar refused to consider that charge. He checked his timekeeper instead, "The banquet begins in twenty minutes."
"I should go get ready."
"You don't have to come tonight." Kaddar said. "In fact, don't come."
Kalasin flinched. "I said I'm sorry." She reminded him. "I am trying."
"You're tired. You need a break." He told her.
"I know that you're trying to be kind, but please don't treat me like an overwrought child." She said, becoming irritated.
"Your letters should be back in your suite by now. I told them to leave it in the bedroom."
"It won't be the same," She pointed out, "Not the same handwriting—it's just the words, not the spirit behind it. It's not paper that they touched. It's not the same at all." She paused. "Think how you would feel if I had sent servants in to weed your garden, because the bougainvillea was attacked by insects and wilted. One plant was sick, and you didn't have time to attend to it yourself. Only the servants pulled every plant out by the roots and didn't even leave the dead stems for evidence—just acted like you wouldn't notice. Then, when you came to me, angry and confused, I blinked at you and told you that you were overreacting."
"Are you jealous of my garden now?" The Emperor disliked the turn the conversation had taken.
"No. But I'm trying to show that I respect that you have a private place, and an activity away from me. And I'm trying to explain to you…what's the use?"
He gritted his teeth. "Am I supposed to grovel? Fall on my knees and beg your forgiveness? I saw that you were handling the paper into ragged little strips, so I tried to preserve them for you. And maybe I did want to know what's in those letters that keeps you reading and rereading them. It was well meant."
"And badly done." Kalasin declared honestly. "If you had asked me, I probably would have been charmed by your thoughtfulness. But you did not ask. You just—you sent someone into the one place in this Empire that was completely mine. You broke the lock on my drawer—it was spelled to me. You violated my privacy and my trust. And meant kindly or not…" She stood. "I've already said more than I meant to, and I don't want to say anything else that I'll regret." She sighed. "I don't shirk my duties, Kaddar. I am going to this banquet. If you don't want to deal with me while we're in public, I'll rearrange the seating. But don't tell me that my responsibilities are negligible." She left the office in a swirl of skirts and a cloud of wounded outrage.
Kaddar ignored his guilt rather magnificently, while Kalasin charmed Zaimid and the ambassadors and everyone except her husband. He continued to ignore his conscience for the entire wretched night he spent on the small couch in his favorite office, wondering if Kalasin was as miserable as he was.