Chapter Summary: Travelling with the Tenth Alkarian Regiment to the Border where the Lady Rahl waits for their arrival, Cara and Kahlan find time together to recover from Cara's experiences in the unum.
A/N: All my love to Sionainn69, who continues her stellar beta work and who makes this fic so much better than I ever can alone. The support she gives me is priceless. All remaining mistakes are mine.
The sand was constant as a small storm continued its fury, filling every space with coarse grains as it eroded the landscape and Cara's patience. Her leathers were cloying as she shifted on her horse, visibility so low that she could barely see the swishing tail of Kahlan's horse ahead of her. For an undisciplined, weak moment, she longed for the loose shirts she had worn while recovering at the People's Palace. She missed the cool stone that regulated the harsh temperatures in the Azrith and the easy company of Alkarians who treated her with a brand of cool nonchalance one reserved for unimportant guests.
The Tenth Regiment had been travelling mostly under the shelter of night time, though the flames on their torches were now struggling to stay lit in the storm. To help, wizards from the Keep hovered balls of light above the column, imitating the glow of full moons. One could hear the echoing shouts of commanders as they steered the group, the sound of hooves dampened by the storm's emphatic howling while riders galloped up and down the column to issue orders and messages, the pennants on their poles whipping in all directions.
"Constance," Cara rasped out, pulling the scarf from over her mouth as she urged her horse forward.
Rahl's captain slowed her canter, allowing Cara to catch up to her.
Constance began without preamble, "I know it does not seem wise to travel like this but to stop now will prolong our journey another day. We're a few minutes from Cabrallia. You should see the lights of the town shortly." As though by her bidding, pins of light flickered into view, dotting the darkness above the horizon.
A thunderous voice at the front of the line shouted, "Ho Cabrallia!" an exclamation that descended down the column.
Constance seemed to smile behind her mask. "We've arranged lodging for you and the Mother Confessor. This may be one of a few times you won't be sleeping in a tent. Enjoy it, Mason."
Cara grunted, pulling away to ride aside Kahlan. The Mother Confessor seemed intent on the light ahead.
"I take it that's our stop," she said. A headscarf muffled her voice, heavy material adorned with intricate lines common in the clothing of Tamarang nobles.
Cara tried not to think about its giver -a twin who smiled more easily despite the scar.
"Is it really wise to camp at a town known for its breweries?" Cara could hear her mirth. One could count on Kahlan's cheery morale despite long hours on horseback as they crawled through a sandstorm; Confessors were known to flourish in impossible situations.
"I'd question Raina and Constance's wisdom in this," Cara snorted. "We're at the threshold of a war and that makes everyone thirsty." Her lightened tone faltered, "The garrison here is well equipped and its central location is desirable for any sort of travel to the South."
One could hear Kahlan's smile through the howling silence. "You're relieved we're stopping."
Cara's jaw tightened. Even now, covered from head to toe in protective clothing, Kahlan could hear every inflection, her eyes interpreting the tension in Cara's shoulders as anxiety for the times ahead.
The events in the unum stripped Cara of her defences. She was left to question every truth that had been beaten into muscle and bone by her Mord'Sith mistresses. Even days after waking up, her Mord'Sith training came to her in fragments, unable to build a barrier. Kahlan could still read her like the supplicants who came to her for justice and advice.
Lately, the jaws of death beckoned from the long dark of the desert. Foreboding crooned in the wind and pulled from the sand beneath their feet. Perhaps these were making her honest, receptive.
Cara sighed as she acquiesced, "This is no ordinary war we're walking into. We may all be dead before this month is over."
Kahlan's hand reached for Cara's arm, both to take comfort and offer it. Cara allowed the touch and forgot to berate herself as she calmed.
Kahlan said, "No war is ever ordinary, Cara. But as long as we're both alive, there is hope."
Cara wanted to scoff but was stopped by the honesty in Kahlan's eyes -visible even at night -and also by the insidious hope it brought. Mord'Sith did not deal in wishful thinking as Confessors did; they worked in gloom and terror, relished in their own suffering and others'. Death became a calling rather than punishment, leveraged to further their master's cause. But without a master to serve -or one she never would have imagined for herself -and the unum putting so many things into question, her frayed emotions clung to Kahlan's words.
The only reply she could give was soft and yielding, "As you wish."
Their arrival in Cabrallia caused a stir. Harsh, blaring horns directed the army around the Cabrallian cliffs and to the quickly changing scenery behind the rocks that bordered the desert. Cara could feel the material beneath her boots shift from slippery sand to the solidity of earth and undergrowth. Thin shrubbery and large, leafless trees marked the end of the desert, the wind cut off by stone and flora. The tall rock face of other, adjacent cliffs reflected yellow torchlight, illuminating the slow march of the regiment as they set up camp.
Constance wasted little time in bringing Cara and Kahlan to the barracks at the outskirts of town, familiar to them from their first visit.
"The captain's quarters," Constance said as she opened large, beaten doors to an open vestibule exposed to the wind of the Cabrallian cliffs. It led to a larger expanse with a hearth and a bed draped in clean, white sheets. The room, furnished more for a noble than a garrison captain, stretched into a balcony that offered a view of the town blanketed in darkness but for a few torches, the populace still restless after the army's arrival.
Constance continued, "A bath has been prepared down the hall. I have more preparations to make before we leave at first light." She tilted her head. "By your leave."
"Thank you, Constance," Kahlan said.
Without waiting for a dismissal from Cara, Constance exited and closed the doors behind her.
Kahlan sighed as she removed the scarf around her head, draping it over the bench situated at the foot of the bed. Her light armour followed and she took a seat, pulling her boots off.
Cara began to shed her leathers; sand fled from their clothing and filled small depressions in the stone floor. She hung her leathers on a chair, eyeing the bed with suspicion. "Funny how they never seem to give us separate rooms anymore."
Kahlan chuckled as she stripped to only her under things, shrugging into one of two robes hanging by a dresser. "Funny how Alkarians sometimes can't remember if you're their lord or not. 'The captain's quarters'," she mimicked then sighed, "We can't kick every commanding officer out of their room when we visit."
Cara frowned, grabbing her own robe. "By the end of this, I'd have grown a heart and cried at every sad thing."
"Oh come on," Kahlan tutted, "Cara Rahl isn't the simpering fool you'd paint her to be. In fact, I think you quite like her."
Cara gave Kahlan a pointed look. "No, Kahlan, I think you like her."
The resulting blush was unexpected and Cara blinked. She was not one for jealousy and was surprised by the ugly burn which flared in the pit of her stomach, etching a sharp picture of what she wanted -to be the centre of Kahlan's attention, to be the one who made her smile, and who tinted her cheeks with this colour.
She experienced a quick whirlwind of confusing thoughts and did not notice Kahlan taking her hand. Or the gentle squeeze of reassurance.
"I do," Kahlan admitted before she could make sense of her thoughts. "She's easy to like as you are, even when you're both being difficult." Her tone was suddenly pensive, "But even 'like' is too tame a word for how I feel these days." The quirk of her lips would have been a smile if not for the tension around her eyes.
Kahlan inhaled deeply as though taking in their exhaustion, the bone-deep tiredness they felt as they dealt with emotions that gouged raw, uncharted paths within themselves.
Cara wanted to question her further, half-paralysed by apprehension but Kahlan kept the moment short, pulling her to the baths then letting go as she entered the water.
They sat on opposite sides of the small bathing pool, which was fed by deep springs from the Cabrallian hills and heated by the garrison's forges; the same water which gave Cabrallian brews their distinctive quality. Steam clouded Cara's vision, rising from the surface of the water and blurring her vision; it mirrored the state of her own feelings -shapeless, elusive yet ever-present. The heavy air replaced the grit in her lungs and she sank deeper into the water, submerging her head to savour the silence.
Capping a night in a sand storm with a hot bath was a luxury and she felt no regret knowing that the garrison's captain had to sleep in a cot for a night.
After scrubbing the dirt from her body, she continued to sit with Kahlan for several minutes, her thoughts gratifyingly blank. Eventually, the water cooled and it was time to dress.
Cara was the first to step out, offering Kahlan a hand that the Confessor took, her gaze averted to allow some privacy.
The touch burned. Cara nearly dropped Kahlan's hand except Kahlan's grip tightened as she pulled to get herself out of the water. Distracted, Cara forgot all propriety and her eyes progressed from staring at the empty space of the nearest wall to taking in the Confessor's naked beauty.
Water danced over Kahlan's skin and in the steam, her skin nearly glowed, only slightly scarred in places where a sword had nicked her there, or a spear had managed to pierce through her defences here. A delicate neck bobbed over her collarbone, where water sluiced over and between the swell of her breasts. Droplets meandered along a flat stomach which heaved with every breath, the smooth plank of muscles belying hours with her daggers and supported by hips that dipped to the patch of dark hair covering her sex.
Cara's breath stuck in her throat and she felt her neck turn molten, spreading the warmth to her face and further down. They had seen each other naked many times before but in the wake of a deepening relationship, this lack of barriers held far more meaning.
Kahlan seemed to enjoy her attention as she gave Cara a coy smile. She stepped closer while Cara endeavoured not to stare.
An inner voice berated, Spirits! Have you never been with a woman?
As Rahl in the unum, Cara experienced similar scenes many times before, the bath effused with tenderness, wonder, and the growing prickles of desire. The unum held memories of languorous sighs that thickened with the evening, coaxed by lips and hands and tongue. Skin burned to the touch, soothed only by sweat that traced the longing in their bodies.
She swallowed roughly, pulled from remembering by Kahlan's gaze. Kahlan seemed curious as though she knew that Cara was once again lost in her memories. Cara's stomach fluttered in a familiar way when Kahlan's thumb rubbed the back of her hand in a calming manner that nearly silenced her thoughts.
"Hey," Kahlan soothed.
With another brush from Kahlan's finger, Cara shoved the unum's influence away, attending instead to what was present and resolute, so tangible that she stood before her. Cara could not prefer anything else even as the shadows of a new war hounded their remaining days together.
"I need to tell you something," Cara blurted, the air suddenly thick with expectation.
Kahlan sobered. "What is it?"
Because her throat had tightened -more often now, words seemed to escape her in Kahlan's presence -she could only repeat Kahlan's words, "'Like' is also a tame word for how I feel. I don't know what this is but it scares me; I see this in Cara Rahl every day, in how she looked at you."
In how I know I look at you.
Rahl would have laughed at her face. Cara was brave in most things but not in this, not after a slew of experiences that taught her that this type of attachment only brought unimaginable suffering to those she loved.
She struggled with a compulsion to stay quiet instead of exposing herself, her hands tightening into fists.
Kahlan seemed to be picking up on her omission and put a hand on her cheek. Cara leaned into the touch and it revealed enough of what had been left unsaid.
"We'll figure it out," Kahlan said as she gazed at Cara intently. Her forehead formed small wrinkles of concern. "Do this with me. Wait for me." Kahlan pursed her lips, perhaps wondering if she had asked for too much or far too little.
Cara's eyes snapped up to meet Kahlan's and suddenly, Cara wished that she knew enough about both their troubles to reassure her. "I can't do anything else. I set this path even before the unum," again she bowed her head, "perhaps even before we stepped through the Gate."
Kahlan's expression softened. "Would that change once we leave for our world?"
"Good." She leaned in to place a kiss on Cara's forehead. It conveyed what her words could not: warmth, comfort, and trust. Cara's skin cooled as Kahlan withdrew and Cara sighed at the loss. "I do this with you and we step through the Gate together. The Creator knows if we will be more or less than who we were when we stepped in."
"If the Gate of Meleth lets us."
"Well, we still have to think about the business of keeping the Rahls safe." Kahlan nudged her playfully. "Really, did you have to commit all our resources to something so taxing?"
They smiled at each other. Cara felt free knowing that an understanding existed between them, that if nothing else then they were definitely more. More trusting. More at ease with each other. Willing to share and to protect more, and also to be protected.
They were keen to do all this together rather than fumble on their own paths through the un-navigable tangles of memory and emotion that the Gate of Meleth had brought to their lives.
The Alkarian captains treated them as they would their Lord and Lady, but Constance had advised on discretion even in the ranks. An entire regiment could hardly keep its business within its camps despite the Alkarian brand of loyalty. Senators were suspicious enough of her regiments' movements; rumours of twins would invite more discord and divide a watchful Senate.
When the desert tapered to thick shrubbery and finally, to the thin forests bordering the South, the column of soldiers slowed their march, watered by a widening Kern River. They occupied the breadth of the main road which carried commerce from the capital, alarming officials and citizens alike.
Their presence was a burst of horns and hooves, a noisy arrival. Light infantry clamoured through in their leather armour. They were flanked by elite cavalry festooned in the blood red of Rahl's House and seated on war horses large enough to trample men underfoot.
The army set up camp a league from Sassen.
Cara and Kahlan's tent was the first to be pitched, the regiment's banners pushed into the ground around it, light furniture carried from carts that accompanied their supply train. Kahlan found it odd yet strangely fitting -given the events in the unum -that Cara seemed unperturbed when Constance and Raina also appointed it as a centre of operations. The large area which had ballooned in the middle was quickly decked in maps, lamplight, and large, comfortable chairs draped with furs.
Cara seemed content to leave Kahlan with Rahl's commanders, excusing herself to prowl the camp's outskirts as though memory had weighed suddenly and inexplicably on her actions yet again. Raina stared worriedly at her back before she exited the tent to follow Cara outside while shouting orders, coordinating the camp's efforts.
Kahlan could hear soldiers pitching their tents, the sounds moving outward as tents emerged from the centre like rocks from the ocean as a tide withdrew.
Kahlan and Constance remained seated on opposite sides of the war table, silent as they studied the troop movements represented by wooden pieces. By agreement, they were to stay at Sassen until the Midland's cavalry arrived nearer to the Old World-D'Haran border, intercepting their army while Berdine portioned their men to increase the defences for garrisons in Sassen, Gradin, and Acrimar.
Cara and Kahlan would then join the route south to the border with any remaining Alkarians and all of the Kelton war horses, meeting Kahlan Rahl's envoy at the hills of High Kalith.
Constance held a dagger to keep her hands busy, turning it on its tip on the wooden table as she examined the maps. The other woman rarely spoke to Kahlan if at all but when she did, her words lodged barbs into her certainties, relentless and questing. Constance was Cara's shadow and had been Kahlan's when both Cara's had been asleep, ever-present and uncomfortable like a suspicion that would not go away.
Kahlan jumped when Constance spoke and filled the silence, "She's an odd one, your Cara. Less open and weighed down by some horrible past. She only smiles when she's with you."
"She's not mine."
Constance laughed, "Out of everything I said, that's what stood out for you?"
Kahlan frowned, blushing fiercely.
Constance continued, her grin wide and teasing, "A woman is yours when she decides that the world is worth moving for you. I can tell that she would prefer to do nothing else."
"Constance." There was a warning in Kahlan's tone and the other woman put the knife down, holding up her hand in surrender.
"As you wish, my lady, so do I obey."
"Don't use your loyalty as an excuse to force my hand."
"What is there to force," Constance said dryly, "You already look at him like you've lost him. Or maybe that he's lost you."
Kahlan's head whipped up and she glared. "What in the Creator's name are you talking about?"
"You were in my stead the entire time in the Palace," Constance pointed out. "Your meetings with Richard Cypher were no secret."
Her triumphant smirk told Kahlan that she used to have conversations like this with Kahlan Rahl before, a battle of wills and truths that tipped in her favour when she leveraged secrets gathered from private spaces.
What would she know of her Cara though? Of Kahlan? And why in the Creator's name were Alkarians such meddlers?
"I think you're mistaken."
"Deny it all you want. Your Cara may not sit on the High Seat but she is just as vulnerable and Richard has always been a man of honour. In any world, he would never allow you to forfeit your heart for his sake." Constance stood, sheathing her dagger. Her fingers picked up the figurine that represented the Imperial Order, an obsidian block that cast shadows in both directions. "A war is coming, Mother Confessor. It would not do for either of you to be distracted."
When Kahlan showed no sign of breaking the silence, Constance smiled gently, exiting the tent.
Sassen was a different reception altogether, met with the age-old simmer of Southern dissent by its inhabitants. News of their Senator had reached the Southern city and rumours were in circulation. Cara could hear suspicion in their voices as they haggled in the markets, gossiped and complained about the army at their doorstep.
The last time the Red Lion's army had been camped outside its walls, Sassen had fallen in three days and its leaders' heads displayed on pikes.
Constance had been careful to keep the army's camp under lockdown. Sentries were told to keep anyone from entering or exiting the camp without the express permission of her commanders.
Alkarians had free reign in Cabrallia; the cities of the South were markedly different.
A carriage with the pennant of the senate had stopped at the side of the road and a senator watched from within, his brows furrowed.
"These are four regiments, Captain," the Senator said.
"The Lord Rahl's orders, my lord," Constance replied, pulling the scarf from her face as she stopped her horse. She leaned her elbows against the carriage's window.
"We are not at war."
"I won't dissuade you of the notion, my lord. These are merely military exercises done at the Lord's behest."
The Senator eyed her darkly. "We'll see about that. Old Mica had assured us that there would be no troop movements until we had come to a vote."
Constance only smiled and bowed slightly. "Safe travels, Senator."
The Senator peered past her at the mounted figure in her party, his eyes narrowing as though wondering if he knew the woman behind the mask. Her blue eyes were familiar.
"Even safer travels to you and our men," the Senator replied, his sincerity lost in his frown.
When the Senator was out of earshot, Cara said, "That one's trouble."
Constance clucked. "Southerners have always been trouble. One would question why he's even here."
Despite Constance's many protests, Cara accompanied her for the commander's required visit to the city's ruling district, a courtesy to the city's officials. A group of mounted soldiers with the insignia of Sassen's guard waited by the archway to the House of Ingmar, led by a man on a large, black horse with the pommel of a battle axe jutting from between his shoulders.
The man took off his helmet as his horse approached Constance's. With outstretched hands, Constance and the Captain of the Sassen Guard clasped each other's forearms in greeting.
"Ho, Alkarian!" he exclaimed, smiling.
"Chase," Constance acknowledged. "I trust Berdine chose this time to stay away from this fiasco."
"She trusts your silver tongue with the council more than her own. They've grown rather numb to her rhetoric after years of hearing her speak," Chase chuckled, "and of having her in such close proximity."
"I'm surprised your nest of vipers hasn't poisoned all of her good intentions." Constance sounded like she was only half-jesting.
Chase shrugged, suggesting that he had heard this accusation many times before. "There's a reason why she stays away. Come, they're waiting for you."
Constance glanced at Cara's covered head and said, "Don't wander far, or outside this district, or reveal yourself. There are moles and rats in this city and for all of Berdine's efforts, the South has always been fiercely independent."
"Your friend shouldn't worry," Chase said, squinting at the stranger with the hidden face.
"I always worry in Sassen." Constance eyes fell on the House of Ingmar atop the hill, its towers still under repair from the time the Red Lion's war machines laid siege to the structure, bringing its council to heel.
The white walls which separated the ruling district from the merchant's district loomed fifty feet above them. Members of the Sassen guard looked outwards from the ramparts to the banks of the River Kern.
Led by Chase, Constance disappeared through the gates of Inner Sassen to exchange niceties with its Council.
Cara tied her horse to a post and began to survey the markets. Large, colourful canvases provided shade from several feet above. The spaces between allowed long sheafs of sunlight to settle on wares of several jewellers. She examined expensive gold work from Lineari and was surprised at the availability of different oils and furs from the Midlands. Apparently, trade agreements forged by the Rahls' union brought barges of foreign goods from the Callisidrin to the Kern, supplementing an economy that should have declined years after Michael Cypher's rebellion.
Food stalls provided grilled pieces of meat spiced with flavours from the People's Palace, yellow and fragrant from marinades of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander seeds. She found delicacies from Tamarang and Aydindril, confections that coated her fingers with sugar, and she delicately pocketed a few for Kahlan.
She spent a good hour walking around, comfortable in her disguise as there were many visitors from across the Azrith who preferred to wear the protective scarves of the desert.
The sun rose to its zenith and she sampled fruit sold by farmers from outlying farms by the River. She approached an elderly merchant, studying the array of produce and lifting a watermelon to test its weight. Not a few hours ago, she heard Kahlan mention that she preferred the fruit when the weather was warm. A traveling army's rations rarely included such luxuries. Cara reached into her pouch for coin, offering silver.
The older woman's smile was too knowing as she declined and said, "A gift, my good lady."
Cara frowned. She was inclined to accept such offers, demand them even, but when citizenry did it of their own accord and without the Agiel's persuasion, she was bound to be suspicious.
"Take the silver," she said, conscious of what Kahlan would say if she found out Cara had simply accepted a merchant's wares without payment.
The woman shook her head. "I insist."
They stared at each other. When the woman remained unmoved by Cara's glare, Cara huffed, shoving the silver back into her pouch. "Have it your way then."
"The Red Lion has always paved D'Hara's way." Another smile, before the woman spotted someone behind Cara and bowed. "Mistress Constance."
Constance's voice floated to them, cool and scolding. "You may wish to remain anonymous but the Red Lion of Halin is infamous in these parts."
The Alkarian nodded to the vendor and opened her palm. A gold coin shone in the sun. "I trust this will buy you and your cohorts' silence?"
The woman's eyes moved from Cara to Constance. "Child," she admonished, "The Merchants' Guild owes the Red Lion more than silence, especially now that she needs it most." She pushed Constance's hand away. "Don't insult me by thinking that our gratitude can be bought by mere trinkets. We flourish under the Lord's hand."
Constance seemed satisfied by this explanation, returning the coin to her satchel as the woman turned from them to sell her wares to other buyers, effectively dismissing them from her presence.
Constance turned to Cara, her lips a thin line. "You'll experience much of the same in these parts. I suggest you stay away from the shops or insist on accompanying me on such banal errands. Your companion was wise to stay in camp."
Before Cara could formulate a protest, Constance took the fruit from her, including it in a bag that she had brought for Kahlan's errands.
Constance walked with her to collect her horse. They rode to camp, silent for many minutes. When they arrived and rode past the sentries, two officers took the reins of their horses as they dismounted. Constance's slow, shuffling footsteps alerted Cara to the other's woman's intention to speak.
Cara waited until they passed the more populous entrances to camp before saying, "Ask what you need to ask, Constance. Your silences are annoying."
Constance cleared her throat. "I've always assumed that the unum showed you everything."
Cara stopped to look the woman in the eye. "What is it to you?" she demanded.
"I was there when Cara Rahl lost everything. I was also there when the people chose her and eventually, when Kahlan did, too. That experience would weigh heavily on you. Living it as you had in the unum can hardly be carried."
"You're wondering why I haven't lost my mind."
"I am Mord'Sith," Cara said plainly. "My training...helps."
Constance hummed as she contemplated, her attention on Cara's Agiels. Though Berdine was by far the more observant of the two, Constance was also commander for her talent at drawing conclusions. She was discreet and less cruel, circumspect of the setting, time, and players involved when she shared her observations.
Cara's experience in the unum had shown her Alkarian loyalty which held Rahl up in times of desperate need; Constance was the silent, constant rock on which Rahl leaned on, speaking when Berdine was absent, offering quiet judgment when Berdine would not.
Constance shifted her gaze to a congregation of tents, tall canvasses casting long shadows from a central area where people huddled around a cook-fire. Soldiers gave a figure in a white dress a wide berth. Her gaze held as she said, "They aren't so different, the Lady and your Kahlan."
"Decisions have shaped them differently," Cara said, her tone carefully neutral.
Constance carried on as though she had not heard. "Her love for you hasn't." Second in the field, and second only to Berdine in throwing her off-guard.
Constance faced her, raising a brow in question. "It's obvious she feels for you."
"It's a bit more complicated than that," Cara gritted, willing Constance to avoid the subject.
"What is it? Does she have a lover at the other side of the Gate?" Constance snorted dismissively at Cara's sharp intake of breath. "Surely she would choose you."
"She must not," Cara snapped, "her lover is the Lord Rahl and that Rahl is not me."
"Yes, 'oh'," Cara mocked, her hands reaching for her Agiels and tightening around their hilts. The hum of pain shot from her palm and into her arms, radiating into her chest as it suppressed a lethal bouquet of emotions. "My loyalties are already in question. It would be worse if I took her to my bed."
"Ah," Constance repeated, this time more quietly. "'Complicated' does not quite describe it then."
After a beat, they continued to walk, their gazes on the Mother Confessor as Kahlan approached a group of Alkarian soldiers. She was offered a bowl of stew and then smiled at something one of the soldiers had said.
Constance continued, "If she'd chosen him once then he must be a good man. He would understand."
Cara's face crumpled in annoyance. She put a hand on Constance's chest to stop her from walking. "It would be a betrayal of his trust. How can you even suggest this? If the Lady had chosen you instead of Cara Rahl, what then?"
"I would not allow the betrayal but to our Lord, and perhaps to your Lord Rahl, love and maintaining the peace are stronger sentiments than jealousy."
"A Mord'Sith would rather die than take what is Rahl's."
Constance rolled her eyes and Cara knew it was her way of begging patience from the Creator. "There is no one to take, Cara. People are not possessions to be claimed. If there is anything I have learned about the Mother Confessor, she is of her own mind and will do what she pleases."
She then very promptly closed her mouth and cleared her throat as she bowed. Kahlan had noticed them and was now within ear-shot, a steaming bowl in her hand.
"By your leave, my lady," Constance muttered before pulling away and depositing the fruit with one of her lieutenants.
"Constance," Kahlan acknowledged, amused as she watched Constance move even farther away, already barking orders that the fruit be sliced and presented to their guests. Kahlan turned to Cara, offering her the bowl. "What were you talking about?"
Cara grunted noncommittally, "Your independent nature."
Kahlan laughed, her eyes sparkling. "That's ironic. She shadowed me the entire time I was at the Palace."
Knowing that Kahlan had been in Constance's care was a comfort despite the Alkarian habit of sticking their noses into things they should not. Cara spent too many days trapped in the unum, wondering about Kahlan; if anything, she was grateful for Constance's vigilance.
Cara was matter-of-fact. "She was doing it for your protection."
"I'm sure," Kahlan said, not at all convinced.
"She's less forthcoming with her concern. Berdine would explain such torture and every outcome in painful detail."
They walked into their tent, pulling at the tent flaps which Cara secured to prevent any intrusions. Inside, the wide table had been cleared, maps rolled and stacked neatly on one side. There were additional chairs with which to entertain the camp's commanders and a small fire surrounded by wooden seats. The main meeting area, previously crowded with Constance and Raina during the morning's briefing, was separated from their sleeping cots by a partition made of intricate, Lineari woodwork.
Cara removed the veil around the lower part of her face, sighing as the air cooled her skin. They settled by the small fire to eat.
"I had the opposite impression about Constance," Kahlan said. "She always seemed suspicious of me."
Cara shrugged. "You can't take that fear away from a D'Haran. She's seen Kahlan Rahl at her worst."
"Her 'worst'," Kahlan echoed, pensive as she stared at the fire. "I've always wondered about the path Kahlan Rahl had to take, if I somehow could have become her."
"We could have been anyone," Cara chuckled derisively. "This world, the unum -they remind me that the possibilities are endless, that given certain circumstances, I may have chosen differently. The choices are there. If only we have the clarity, the past to see them." She breathed deeply, noticing that honesty did not seem like the elusive gem she desperately wanted to exhume. Instead, it surfaced easily.
Kahlan's lips thinned. "Carrying Rahl's memories with you doesn't get easier."
"No it doesn't."
Cara frowned. "None of this is your fault."
Kahlan raised a brow. "Surely, you remember the time we stepped through the Gate? Together?"
"Amihan made that choice easy." Cara sighed, "She still does." Cara picked at the last of her food, setting the bowl aside. She remained bent over her knees, staring at the fire to avoid looking at Kahlan. "Are we going to talk about your choice to stay? What if the Gate allows us to travel?"
Kahlan reached out to squeeze Cara's arm. "I won't watch you suffer regret if we decide to go home without fulfilling the promises you've so obviously made to yourself, to Amihan, to her parents."
Cara tried to hide her smile. "You know, I would have easily made those promises to you too."
Kahlan seemed to know what she was trying to say and Cara watched as a blush crawled from Kahlan's neck to her cheeks. Perhaps it was too soon, Cara thought as she wet her lips, her eyes darting from the speckled green of Kahlan's eyes to her mouth.
This urge had been pulling at her since they had left the People's Palace. It made her wary; she was afraid that any overtures would scare Kahlan or cause her to avoid Cara entirely. Their friendship could burn or it could flourish, all in the name of a careless proposition.
So she stayed rigid, waiting.
"I don't suppose Constance made you uncomfortable with any of her suggestions?"
Cara blinked. Not for the first time that day, she wondered where their conversation would go. "More times than I can count. I'd stick an Agiel in her if I could."
"She isn't afraid to suggest that the Lord Rahl would prefer I was happy than pine hopelessly behind his back." Kahlan cleared her throat. "She meant Richard Rahl, of course. Our Richard, the woodsman."
Cara gripped her chair tightly, her knuckles white. "She'd do well not to speak against the Lord Rahl like that."
Kahlan studied her intently before sighing in disappointment. "She also suggested that your loyalties are not what they seem."
Cara narrowed her eyes at her. "Are you trying to get a rise out of me?"
"No, only the truth."
They both knew that admitting the tension between them would only make it excruciatingly real, solid enough for them to face and then maybe -eventually, Cara thought bitterly -it would be something she destroyed. Just as she had any vestige of her human life when she became Mord'Sith and Rahl's tool.
A little, rebellious voice admonished her. There was more to her than her training and her subservience to a tyrant. After all, she had abandoned the temples and a Rahl, and then swore fealty to the wielder of the Sword of Truth, a folly she could not bring herself to regret.
Cara blustered, "Are you ready for the truth?"
Her traitorous heart beat wildly in her chest, filling with warmth, bursting at the seams with a confession that she had no idea how to vocalize. Her mind was terrified beyond words and her tongue suddenly felt very thick, filling her mouth with cotton.
"I'm afraid, Cara."
Cara could hardly believe the Mother Confessor of the Midlands needed reassurance from her, a Mord'Sith who had once been Rahl's favourite weapon and who cared little to none of others' feelings.
But alas, the words came easily, "We can do this together."
Kahlan reached for her. Their joined hands warmed Cara even more. She swallowed her impulse to move, allowing Kahlan to set the pace for whatever it was that she seemed intent on doing. Mord'Sith never conceded so easily but looking at Kahlan now, wracked by her thoughts, Cara realized that Kahlan was the source of her life's exceptions.
She would allow her a number of things, even this when she felt so vulnerable.
She looked at Kahlan expectantly.
"I feel slightly off-balance," Kahlan began. "You have all these memories, experiences that you share with Rahl and with my counterpart. I-I know nothing." Her stumble made Cara's chest tighten. "You have this breadth of feeling, of knowledge and I feel like I'm moving in this world without that benefit."
Cara swallowed. "I can tell you all of it." Her fear reared its head, the fear that after Kahlan knew everything she would shy away from this, overwhelmed.
As always, Kahlan focused on the crux of the matter. "But do you trust me?"
Cara squeezed Kahlan's hands both to reassure herself and to let Kahlan know that she was trying.
"There are many things I can't control, least of which is how any of this will pan out, but I want to give you what you need to decide and move forward. You may not react well," Cara winced at the possibility, "but I'd rather you knew this world as I do -the history that affects me now, that drives Rahl's actions -I'd like you to know all that and like me less rather than have you favour me, knowing so little of how and why."
Kahlan beamed at her and Cara decided that all the discomfort leading up to this was slightly worth it.
Kahlan said, "Thank you. That was very sweet."
"Sweet," Cara scoffed.
"Sweet," Kahlan affirmed and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. "I already 'favour' you enough that I'm confident anything you say won't change our friendship."
Cara's skin was warm where Kahlan had kissed her. "You can decide that after you've heard everything I know from the unum."
Kahlan raised a brow. "Ever the pessimist."
"Ever the realist."
Kahlan laughed, an encouraging sound that caused Cara to smile back. "We may not have all the time," Kahlan said, "but I'm sure we'll have enough on horseback."
As it turned out, Cara rarely spoke on horseback. She picked quiet moments after the day's opening war council, her expression strained with the sudden crush of memories. Other times, she rasped a story during the rising hubbub of a camp as it woke, watching Kahlan work with the kindling to encourage their fire and warm the tent. At midnight, her soft intonations filled the spaces within the canvas, a lullaby that carried Kahlan into the dream world as they were both set adrift.
Cara drew the outlines of the world she had experienced in hesitant spurts, unpractised in the art of divulging. She stumbled over sentences, frowned and blushed furiously when forced to express situations that otherwise would have been outside of a Mord'Sith's experience.
"...and Rahl would," Cara wrung her hands, pleading with her eyes.
Kahlan tilted her head, hiding her smirk. "Go on."
"I don't know!" Cara huffed. "They were happy, it was disgusting! The end!"
Kahlan laughed but when Cara finally calmed, and she had closed her eyes to gather patience that she had so little of for herself, her words punched through any pretence, "Cara Rahl would summon the guard and tell Jory, 'Protect her, always. She has kept me whole.'" Cara's voice lowered to a whisper. "I knew that of all of Rahl's weaknesses, if she had any at all, the one thing that could break her again, and this time permanently, was losing her family."
Cara tried very hard to impart everything. Kahlan would watch her, fascinated, when she pursed her lips as she searched for the right words, rolled her eyes at particular instances of Rahl's vulnerability, or concentrated twice as hard when narrating moments about Kahlan Rahl.
Kahlan knew then that despite the stories, Cara was still the Cara of her world -Mord'Sith yet so much more, the textures of her personality surfacing in stark contrast to her twin.
Kahlan was certain that nothing could stop the rolling tide of feelings that toppled one on top of the other in her, not the stories of the Lord and Lady who seemed to shape so much of Cara's waking world. Instead she was drawn to the light which the narrative caused in Cara's eyes, the outpouring of a soul that seemed full to the brim of a love she had yet to experience for herself, of a deep and inexplicable affection for Amihan and Kahlan that she was only beginning to discover, of hope for something better.
Kahlan cherished the warmth of their conversations, the tenderness that churned into thoughts of speculating what Cara's lips tasted like, what her hands could do in an embrace.
"You're staring again," Cara said, exasperated.
"Why shouldn't I?"
"I know that expression."
"Oh, you do?" Kahlan said. "Do you want me to stop?"
Cara narrowed her eyes at her. "You ask too many questions, Mother Confessor." They stared at each for a long moment but it did not take long for Kahlan to break into a grin and for Cara to sigh in resignation, "And no. Don't stop. I know all too well what that look means."
"Tell me more," Kahlan said, her cheeks burning.
As with everything, Cara obeyed. The light came back into her eyes and Kahlan listened, feeling more and more for the woman before her and not because of her stories, but of how she told them.
Kahlan stared at Raina's back, ten paces ahead of them, and whispered conspiratorially, "Her hair is down today," she paused as Raina turned halfway to laugh at something Constance had said, "and she's put on some kohl."
Cara said, somewhat amused, "Wait and see."
Cara's eyes tracked to the large house overlooking the vineyard. A figure dressed in leather armour, draped with the red tunic of her station met them at the steps. Her long, blonde hair had been braided meticulously, pushed to one side.
Instead of greeting either Cara or Kahlan she approached Raina with a huge grin, an excited blush colouring her pale cheeks.
Kahlan raised an eyebrow as Berdine, the owner of the house and one of Rahl's foremost commanders, helped Raina off her horse, kissing the other soldier softly despite their audience. There was muffled giggling -entirely out of character for both of them -before they shared another kiss, longer this time and deepening by the second.
After a peek of pink tongue and some pleased groaning, Cara and Kahlan averted their eyes.
"Oh," Kahlan muttered.
"You can tell when the exact time was that Berdine mellowed in this world," Cara told her.
"She's already mellowed at this rate?"
They shared a laugh. Their small party straggled to the eastern side of the house in order to give Raina and Berdine privacy. Cara could see Constance roll her eyes and dismount with the rest, giving the reins to subordinates who would bring the horses to the stables.
She stalked to their side. "They'll be at it for a while," Constance said, cringing as Berdine ran her fingers through Raina's dark hair while they talked, their bodies flush against each other. "I suggest we get you both inside before we're privy to more intimate activities." Constance ran a palm over her face. "Creator. Berdine is as bad as any of you when she's mooning over a girl."
Constance turned from them, walking up the steps to the wide portico above, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge their embarrassment.
"Come along," she called. "I'm sure you're both hungry; Berdine will want to discuss the defence of the garrisons sometime this afternoon when they're done making all of us uncomfortable."
Berdine's house overlooked acres of vineyards, fed by the River Kern, and flanked by a view of Sassen. Their first visit had been hurried, tainted by worry. Though the looming war kept them sombre, Kahlan had known far too much of death to allow its inevitability to hinder her enjoyment of Berdine's estate.
Constance had deposited Cara and Kahlan in one of the house's wide porticoes to soak in the hilly outskirts of Sassen and breathe in the mild winds winding through the vineyards from the River. Sassen's circular districts glinted in the sun as the River Kern snaked its way around it.
Constance brought them warm mead, bread, and cheese, then excused herself to attend to battle plans. The meal was eventually left half-eaten, forgotten on the table where Kahlan sat with her nose deep in a book from Berdine's library and her legs propped up on a foot rest.
Cara sat on the stone balcony within her line of sight, the Mord'Sith's hair long enough now to be tied behind her head, her chin resting on one knee while her other leg dangled.
Kahlan supposed she looked younger, tranquil and almost-tame as her hair snuck from her hair tie to fall over her face. Cara wet her lips with her tongue as she reached for the goblet beside her, taking a sip. She caught Kahlan's eye with the movement, smiling reassuringly.
A stab of attraction caused Kahlan to avert her eyes and swallow the sudden dryness in her throat.
These were common now. She had shied away at first but Cara's sureness -the kind which encouraged with coy yet mirthful approval -was enough to help her accept.
She had to accept that Cara had taken on the unum's memories like a warrior saddling a wild horse. Disgruntled at every turn, yes, but nevertheless gathering the people and places she had experienced with thick reins, pulling and manipulating them to spur a result.
It was never more apparent than in the ways Raina and Constance had warmed to her and followed her cues, in how Cara wandered into the wilderness and into crowded cities without a guide despite the differences between this world and theirs. Merchants spoke to her as though drawn to a flame, matter-of-fact and discreet, even if Cara's words were caustic and rude. From Constance's knowing looks, Kahlan suspected it was a conspiracy.
Cara came back from her trips brimming with news, the subtleties of politics and diplomacy apparent to her as she explained recent events in a rising tone that brimmed with anger. She was not as patient as Kahlan imagined Rahl to be and certainly not as forgiving. Cara eased her temper by seeking the hilts of her Agiels, her brutality by sparring with anyone who dared, stopping short of humiliation else she run out of sparring partners.
Kahlan had to accept that this was captivating to watch, infuriating to experience in such close quarters as she struggled to make sense of the mess of feelings this caused.
She was sure that one day she would simply crumble under its weight. She had an idea what that would look like, a prelude brewing every time Cara narrated events from the unum. Her stories gave Kahlan so much clarity and context that she often found herself reaching out for her -staring intently at her eyes, considering her lips with alarming hunger, her fingers hovering near Cara's thighs, almost touching.
Someday, she would not be able to stop herself. Perhaps today was that day.
Breathing deeply, Kahlan looked up to meet Cara's gaze and smiled back.
They both jumped and turned.
An old man stood in grey robes at the archway leading to the terrace, his beard grown to his chest, grinning widely. Zeddicus Z'ul Zorander picked past Kahlan and sat by the table opposite to her, eating the leftover food as he pulled them one by one into his mouth. He chewed once, twice, then swallowed.
"Ah!" he guffawed, rubbing his belly. "What a pleasure to finally have a roof over my head and the promise of a bed instead of hard ground for tonight!"
Sensing that news was forthcoming only after a meal was set, Cara came down from her perch to sit at the table beside Kahlan, watching as Zedd asked a passing servant to bring him more food.
"How were your travels, Wizard?" she asked.
"Short and hard, Mason," Zedd's bushy eyebrows met in a 'V' as he frowned, "and not very fruitful I'm afraid. The Gates remain closed. The price has not been paid." He twirled a portion of his beard, tugging. "What that price is has yet to be revealed and it'll be a steep one for movers and shakers like yourselves. The Creator's Eye only opens for those she deems worthy."
"Jeric was not worthy," Cara mocked.
"The Gate did not open for Jeric," Zedd gave her a pointed look as a master would a student who refused to learn a lesson. "A child needed saving, the Gate opened, and now that child is back; safe for the moment but protected at the People's Palace. But you," he gestured to both of them, "How much more or less do you think you need to be to entice the Creator to open her eye?"
Cara gripped the edge of the table until her knuckles were white. "Riddles will teach me nothing. Tell us how to get back."
Zedd studied her for a moment. He was quickly distracted when servants entered to lay out fresh bread, cheese, and pieces of cold meats. He made a grateful sound as he waved them away, and then explained through mouthfuls, "There is a price. It will be paid. What it is, I do not know. The Creator's eye opens when she wills it. The Gate will take what it takes and if it is enough then you can go back."
"That doesn't sound like good news," Kahlan said. "That could be today, tomorrow, or years from now. Or never."
"True. This world may end in shambles but make the best of it I suppose, as we all will." He lifted a cold cut from a platter. "As I shall," he muttered as he put it in his mouth, washing it down with wine.
Cara sagged against her seat and Kahlan put a hand on her knee, squeezing. Kahlan said, "Everything still stands. We fight this war and keep Amihan safe. What comes after can be planned if we're still alive by the end of this."
With a bit of morbid delight, Cara said, "I'm beginning to wonder if the Seeker of Truth and the Wizard will wait forever at that inn." Her grunt was an aborted attempt to laugh.
Kahlan rubbed her knee in sympathy. "Me too."
Already engrossed in his meal, Zedd added, "There is small comfort in all of this."
"Tell us," Cara demanded.
"I've set a hex to tell us if the Gate of Meleth opens. It is tied to this ring which should glow when it opens." Zedd shuffled to reach his pouch and produced a metal band, giving it to Cara.
"This is your silver lining?"
"It's better than nothing. Wear it. You will know when the Gate opens."
Cara narrowed her eyes at Zedd but put it on her forefinger, her thumb moving against it and testing its heft. She said wonderingly, "There's no point in making the journey ourselves then."
"No, not yet."
"So we continue to the border."
Zedd hummed, paused from his eating. "The Lady Rahl will be waiting. I've sent messengers ahead. But first, eat and rest. Enjoy the countryside. The Creator knows if any of this will exist after the Imperial Order begins its assault."
"Enjoy the countryside," Cara muttered, pulling grass where she sat while unwrapping the scarf from around her face. She squinted up at the large oak tree she was under, light decanting down and causing her to blink.
One of several small brooks that irrigated the vineyards wound through the forest behind them and into the clearing where the first of Berdine's vines started, bordered by large oaks that swelled towards the sky. Leaves fluttered in the wind, whispering a forgotten song owned by the people of the wood.
Kahlan had a studious expression, a slice of watermelon in her hand, which was one of many gifts nearby inhabitants had given to her when they spied her wandering the fringes of Berdine's property.
Cara could still remember her wide-eyed expression as a woman accosted them on their way back.
"My Lady," the stranger greeted, handing her a basket of fruits as Cara looked on with something other than her usual wariness. Only Cara's eyes were visible around the scarf, deep blue with pleasure. "I had noticed you riding into the captain's estate. My family picked these themselves. No less than the season's finest for the Red Lion's wife."
"No, I can't possibly."
"Please. Do us this honour. If her guard allows." The woman caught Cara's gaze.
"The Lady does as she wishes," Cara announced.
"That she does," Kahlan said.
"Of course she does. One would expect nothing less from the Butcher of Halin."
Cara stepped closer now, her hands on her Agiels. "That is a sore subject," Cara gritted.
The woman breathed sharply as though realizing her blunder but her eyes twinkled with something indecipherable; Cara's hackles rose. "The Lord has forgiven, and so must we," she said slowly. "Forgive me, my Lady. I did not mean to offend. Such things are hard to forget."
Kahlan settled for suspicion as well, eyeing the gift. "I've allowed the title many times before. One cannot forget the mistakes of the past if we mean to build a better future."
The woman bowed low. "Still, I did not mean to open old wounds."
"Of course you did," Kahlan said tightly, accepting the basket. "Only the South knows that war is brewing. It is only right to test its generals for loyalty, vision, and if nothing else, motivation. How else can you expect to follow into certain death?"
The woman laughed. "The Guild is impressed, Lady Rahl."
Kahlan sighed, looking tired at this forced pretence even if for all intents and purposes, she was still the Mother Confessor of the Midlands. "I've sat through roomfuls of your kind since I was child. Thank you for paying me a visit."
"Take the fruit as a gift. I know for a fact that the Butcher likes her watermelons." She tilted her head at Cara before leaving.
"The Merchant's Guild," Cara provided when the woman was out of earshot.
"I see. What allies have you been gathering, Cara Mason?"
"None that can wield weapons, unfortunately."
"Oh trust me, they wield something infinitely more dangerous." Kahlan laughed, not unkindly, taking Cara's arm as Cara pondered on what Kahlan had said.
Not for the first time in their adventures, Cara was reminded that Kahlan was not a master of just the sword and knife but of the courts and the stages of public office she was trained to perform in. She possessed grace and unforgiving potency unrivalled by many other rulers Cara had met.
Their worlds -Confessor and Mord'Sith -were full of half-lies and too many truths to easily navigate. Life had been simpler with the Seeker of Truth. The Seeker dispensed justice in a way that was linear and transparent, dictated by perceptions which were amplified by an artifact of the Wizards' War, the Sword of Truth. Judgment by the edge of the Sword was absolute. Either the Seeker was certain or in doubt; there was no in between.
It was easy to miss their old life. Easy to miss Richard. Easy to miss the simplicity of choice and feeling during those times.
When they had found the clearing after their brief encounter, they decided to rest under the oak tree before joining the preparations for departure to the border. They were both silent; Cara was lost in her own, riotous thoughts and Kahlan -well, with Kahlan she could not judge.
Cara felt her chest tighten as she stole a glance at her friend.
"I know you want to go back," Cara ventured. To Richard, the broad future he represents, the calm and sensibility of who he is.
"Only because I know I have more power there to keep you safe than I do here."
"I'm perfectly capable of protecting myself," Cara scoffed. "Really it's Richard and that gluttonous wizard who concern me the most."
Kahlan chuckled and set aside her food, staring at her with the kind of pitying expression one would give to someone who could not yet understand. "You can stop mentioning him when we're talking about us."
"I can't. He was, is, my Lord Rahl. And what he means to you isn't something I can ignore."
"But what about what you mean to me?"
Cara gave a start. This was it then, the source of her worries, the one thing she could not stop Kahlan from expressing despite the many ropes duty restrained Cara with. It was contention she could not reconcile because Richard was her Lord while Kahlan began coups in parts of her that previously had no master but Cara herself.
Cara's gaze intensified. "I shouldn't mean much to you," she insisted, recalling her training, the tireless propaganda required to hate one's prey.
Quickly, as though chasing away an emerging shadow, Kahlan moved forward to sit on her haunches in front of her, taking Cara's face in both her hands, lifting.
"Hush," Kahlan said. "You mean everything to me. I wouldn't know what to do without you, not in this world or the one we've left behind." Kahlan swallowed as though an ocean threatened to spill over, her eyes watery. Her thumbs caressed Cara's cheeks and even more softly, she continued, "It's taken me a long time to get to this place, but so do most things that change one's life."
Cara felt the world fall away then, fractured by Kahlan's words, muffled to a point that all she could hear was her own breathing and the fast beating of her heart. Just like it had been when she chose to take Amihan through the Gate, the path to a future wound terrifyingly out of sight.
In contrast, the decision she needed to make was dauntingly clear.
She moved until she was inches from Kahlan's face, searching, waiting. Kahlan's breath tickled her lips. For a moment she felt that she was at the edge of a precipice with nothing beneath and the hope of a future just out of reach, taunting.
Kahlan seized the courage to close the space between them and relief flooded her limbs.
She felt light-headed as Kahlan's lips moved against hers. Cara's ears roared as though a wave was breaking over her head, an ocean set free and the tide roiling. She reached to cradle Kahlan's head to steady herself, tangling her fingers into Kahlan's hair, savouring the low sound she caused in the other woman and committing everything to memory.
Being with Kahlan like this was all-consuming. The unum's certainties were poor echoes to what she was feeling now. There was such tremendous warmth from its newness that she knew realisations had woken within her, terrifying and full of purpose.
They kissed for long seconds; it felt more like minutes, hours, days. Her breadth of feeling seemed boundless, immeasurable, and at once contained in this single moment, tamped by the feel of lips, and teeth, and tongue.
It had been a long, long time since she had felt this warmth; it was a hearth in a home far, far away. It was stolen from her, twisted into something she could not recognize. Being made fully Mord'Sith left a broken father, a dead mother, and a murdering child in its wake. At the hand of the whips, she was shackled in loyalty and service to the Lord Rahl. Her mistresses were poor replacements for the gaping chasm left by her family's loss, a loss that set the stage for the rest of her training. All other nourishments were provided by her Mord'Sith sisters, the pain of the Agiels and manipulative camaraderie hollowing her out without her knowing.
How could it be that this love was here again, whole and untarnished? Full to overflowing, free, and in her arms?
Cara felt overwhelmed, unable to move even as her body shed the proverbial shackles of a past. She felt tears -hot and fresh -long before she finally realized she was shedding them, long before she could admonish herself that Mord'Sith did not weep.
Kahlan knew that the world had shifted when she felt Cara's lips on her own. They moved against her with tentative passion, soft and trembling as though something mountainous and consequential had roused within her and she was trying to hide it.
Her fingertips brushed against Cara's jaw, etching its line into the suddenly exposed bones of her memory.
She sighed into Cara's mouth, her lips pressing harder against her, her tongue grazing Cara's lips as she grew more bold. The other woman moaned as she opened her mouth to allow Kahlan's exploration, a sound that quivered into Kahlan's lungs and reverberated through her limbs.
Kahlan felt parched and was only now beginning to feel the delight of being quenched. She reached for the oasis Cara represented. She was hours of comfort and steadfastness when this world threatened their sanity. She was carefully concealed affection that became more and more obvious as Kahlan deciphered Cara's many masks. She was watchful protectiveness at threats real and unseen, a solid mass against steel and even words when others sought to weaken her, laying down her life for Kahlan's sake even if in the end, she brushed this off as mere duty to her Lord Rahl.
She was restraint; graceless but willing, never pushing beyond what Kahlan wanted despite the burning desire in her eyes. Kahlan knew its toll and the hidden place it came from. A Mord'Sith always took what she wanted, by force if needed. It was their way.
Cara the Mord'Sith did not.
Kahlan ached with desire.
She reached for Cara's hips to hold her even closer, using her weight to push Cara into the grass as strong arms wound around her, clinging as one would to floating timber in a tumultuous sea.
They lay there in the shade, Kahlan pressed bodily against her. She dared a nip at Cara's lower lip, her tongue darting to sooth it, only to be punished by Cara pulling away, kissing her jaw before suckling behind her ear.
Kahlan felt her limbs turn to putty as she felt Cara's arms tighten around her, pressing her even closer. Cara's breath left a hot trail from her pulse point to her ear. She felt the soft kiss Cara left there before Cara's teeth grazed the band of muscle where her neck met her shoulder. Kahlan trembled, overcome with urgency, filled with the enormity of what this was and the circumstances that threatened to take it away.
Cara's fingers bunched at the cloth around Kahlan's hips as Kahlan pushed against an offered thigh, the clothing between them providing ample friction.
"Kahlan," Cara breathed, already feeling the moist heat between Kahlan's legs, the heave of creamy thighs straddling her leathers.
Her name. The way Cara said it, filled with wonder and shattering need.
Their foreheads together and breathing deeply, Kahlan took Cara's hand and guided it underneath her dress.
"Are you sure?"
Kahlan soothed the skin against Cara's throat, leaving a wet trail along the artery that ran by the side of her neck.
Creator, Kahlan thought as her senses exploded with Cara's taste. With urgency, her fingers fumbled over the ties of Cara's leathers.
"Yes, I'm sure."
They did not notice her approach but Constance cleared her throat loudly, already facing away from them.
There was a knowing lilt in her tone when she said. "My Ladies. If it pleases you, Berdine would like to discuss the garrisons' defence."
They broke apart quickly. Cara pulled her hands from where they were hidden under Kahlan's dress while Kahlan helped her to a sitting position, still pressed against her side and hesitant to let go.
"Farya the Scout has arrived from her forays in the east," Constance continued as they dealt with their clothing, "and the River Kern on the border to the Old World should only be a few days' ride. The Lady Rahl will meet us there."
Constance risked a glance and seeing that Cara was still tying her leathers, she said, "I shall...inform Berdine that you will be there shortly. You can take your time." She left but one could infer the grin she wore as she walked towards the vineyards.
"I'm...sorry," Kahlan heard Cara say.
Cara made a wide gesture. "I didn't mean for us to, uh…"
"Get carried away?" Kahlan could not resist the sudden flush on Cara's cheeks and her smile became teasing.
"We won't hear the end of this," Cara said, watching Constance's retreating back with an irritated expression.
"I wouldn't want to, not yet."
Cara's brows lifted.
Instead of laughing like Kahlan wanted to -because what else but joy could she possibly feel now? -Kahlan let out a sigh. "I want this Cara; don't look so surprised."
"I am surprised," Cara admitted. "I'm waiting for you to come to your senses."
"I'm being sensible. I care about you so I've kissed you, and I want us to do so much more." Kahlan touched Cara's chin, wandering to the pouting line of her lips. "I want this," she repeated as she tried to read Cara's expression.
The deep, icy blue of Cara's eyes seemed to shudder over an upwell of hot, new emotion that threatened to break through.
"But I need you to want it too," Kahlan breathed, running her fingers along Cara's cheek, waiting to discover the emotions that caused the muscles of her jaw to bunch and move.
Cara's breath trembled out of her, the signs of a long thaw that felt similar to Rahl's but had everything to do with this woman before her -the ways Kahlan subverted her training and refined Cara's notions of who she was.
Cara allowed herself a small smile but it was a larger concession than either of them could see and Kahlan seemed to acknowledge this as her green eyes widened, hesitant to force any answers. As she looked at Kahlan, Cara felt her universe expand again without her permission; she took a breath of its new air, finally admitting that yes, it was good.
Yes. She may just deserve it.
The warmth of this thought pervaded her chest, crept into her belly, made her rib-cage ache as though the spaces in her were widening but this time they were filled. She leaned forward to reply with a kiss and she knew she was right as soon as Kahlan smiled back, pulling her closer as though she did not want to ever let go.
A/N: I'd like to thank the real heroes of this fic (never least of whom is my amazing beta Sionainn69). You drive me to be better and to continue writing. I've PM'ed those of you who signed in. Special thanks to: LadyoftheDarkness1, newshipper (I'm glad the fic had that effect but please don't go nuts. The update has come!), msdaia, AshTheMash, mert1984, chrisdenvl, Gunner4Life, mmmiller13, tofindmypassion, beelotus, icancervive, STforRK, FireCracker1230, CdB55, Rainea91, wit4hire, ErosDraven01, GISA103, wkgreen, .tsoni, Eric (And I love YOU, dear reader. K&C forever!), katvrah, haruka007, AlsethGosia, and thetamarine.