Ale and Sympathy
"Babies, babies, babies! That's all anybody talks about these days. My brother is so caught up in staring at the Mother Confessor's swollen belly that he can't be bothered to preside over his own council. I can only imagine how much worse it's going to be after the creature arrives." Darken was sprawled over the window seat of his sister's elegant drawing room, scowling as he catalogued the innumerable indignities of his life, chief of which was the impending birth of Richard and Kahlan's first child and the lack of gratitude for his many sacrifices.
Jennsen Rahl tsked sympathetically as she poured him a tankard of ale. Proffering the drink with one slender hand, she tapped him sharply on the knee with the other. "Put your feet down, brother. I paid a steep price for that silk cushion and don't want your boot marks all over it." Plopping herself down in the over-stuffed chair, she settled in for a long evening of doling out liquor and understanding.
Her eldest brother, with nobody else in whom to confide, had fallen into the habit of secretly visiting Jennsen's establishment weekly to pour out his troubles. While she rather enjoyed the attention, his presumption was often infuriating, and always exhausting.
Darken tossed back his ale, grimacing as he swallowed, then continued his rant. "I have to do all of the work, while Richard claims all the credit, at least when things go well, which, thanks to me, they do most of the time. But the minute anything goes wrong, all of them," he waved his hand toward the window, through which could be seen the bustling traffic in the marketplace, "blame me. In the meantime, I have to stand aside and -
"Really, brother, I think you are being a little churlish," Jennsen interrupted, sliding the remainder of the alcohol out of Darken's reach. The more he drank, the more he complained. "After all, you are still alive, and Richard has given you a privately influential position, if not a public one. As I recall, Kahlan and grandfather argued doggedly against the first, not to mention the second."
"And I hear that Kahlan has finally agreed to increase your allowance. That must give you some pleasure," she teased. The tale of the previous Lord Rahl's unusual taste in attire had been making the rounds for days
"Richard needs me and he knows it," Darken groused, choosing to ignore her last remark. "Who else could help him control the pack of jackels in my – in the Court? He would have tossed them all out on their ear if it hadn't been for me. Any ruler worth his salt knows that you have to keep your enemies divided against each other, but close to you."
Eyeing Darken over her drink, Jennsen wondered if her brother realized that his continued existence proved Richard had learned that particular lesson very well.
She wondered if he would ever find peace.
Proud and resentful, Darken pitied himself, yet despised it from others. A man used to dominating everyone around him now trying to find his place in a world turned upside-down, forced to either make common cause with his enemies or scheme against them. While Kahlan and Zedd still suspected Darken of the most heinous motives, Jennsen was glad that Richard had given his brother a chance to prove himself.
She was convinced it was the right decision. The former Lord Rahl had no army and inhabited a body with no magic. The few Mord'Sith loyal to him had been decimated and scattered at the Pillars of Creation. Cara had devoted herself to Richard and to ensuring that her sisters did the same.
Darken was very much alone – except for his family.
Because, like it or not, they were family. Jennsen knew that under the veneer of sarcasm and anger, Darken had a desperate need for connection. Considering his intelligence, cunning and instinct for self-preservation, she found it impossible to believe he would throw it all away in a doomed attempt to regain power. If he could just remain patient, she hoped the brothers would become closer, Richard less suspicious and Darken's battered pride somewhat appeased.
Of course it would help if Kahlan would unbend towards her brother-in-law since where she led, Richard generally followed, but that was probably too much to ask.
Jennsen wished that everyone she loved could be as happy as she was.
During Richard's quest for the Stone of Tears she had remained hidden, burning with resentment toward her brothers. But when Richard, upon assuming the title of Lord Rahl, summoned her to join him, Jennsen had been quick to forgive.
Eager to give his sister the life of luxury she had never known, Richard had showered her with clothes, jewelry and servants.
Her first weeks at the People's Palace had swept Jennsen along on a wave of excitement and pleasure.
How glorious it was to feel safe, to have no responsibilities. How wonderful it felt to be somebody important, even though she didn't really do anything.
Her life became a giddy succession of nothings. She spent hours choosing dresses to match her eyes or to bring out the vivid hue of her hair. She slept until noon. Occasionally, when they weren't occupied with something more important, Kahlan or her brothers would visit with her.
Then one morning Jennsen had awakened in a cold sweat, realizing that she was being buried alive by the nothings of her life.
Some impulse had led her to seek out her eldest brother.
Finding him in the library she had struggled to express her frustration. "I don't want to hurt Richard, but I can't live this way. There must be something I can do."
"You're Lady Rahl now. You aren't supposed to do anything," he had stated flatly, not bothering to raise his eyes from the map he was studying.
"I don't care what I'm supposed to do, there has to be something I can do apart from playing dress-up and strutting about the palace every day. " She had finally gained his attention. Pinning Jennsen with an unsettling stare, Darken asked what she wanted to do.
"Well – mother and I had a small farm. We didn't have much, but I always kept track of our money. What was bought and sold. I can cook. I can clean. I like people. I can – "
Darken held up his hand to stem the flow. "There is something I might suggest, but that's all I can do. Richard has to make the decision." Jennsen could see how much effort it took to force those words from his lips.
That night, during one of their awkward family dinners, Darken brought up the fact that the proprietor of the Wayfarer's Inn had recently absconded with the wife of one of the minor nobility as well as all of the cash in the till.
"It's a solid business, brother, with an established reputation for hearty food, fine drink, clean lodging, and most importantly, information. My spymasters frequented the place. Almost everybody stops there at some time or another, and when men drink, they spill their secrets. I suggest that you provide one of your most trusted people with the capital to get the inn up and running again."
"Well, that certainly makes sense to me," Richard agreed with his usual amiable earnestness , pushing himself away from the table. "Do you have anyone in mind, Darken?"
That was Jennsen's cue.
For the rest of the evening she met and tackled each of Richard's objections.
"I'm Lord Rahl, "Richard used his last argument, his brow furrowed in aggravation. "How can I allow my sister to run a common business?" He looked pained and confused.
"Because it benefits us both," she answered firmly. Darken's eyes gleamed with interest – and approval.
When had she become a strategist?
"I will have a life that suits me while serving your interests at the same time. I'm not doing either of us any good by playing at being Lady Rahl." Jennsen reached across the table to clasp his hand in both of hers. "Let me help you, Richard. Let me help myself."
Richard looked to Darken for assistance in dissuading their younger sister, receiving a quizzical shrug in response.
"Perhaps it's not a bad idea, brother. Jennsen is not well-known outside of our immediate circle. It's not as if she makes a memorable first impression."
Jennsen glared at her eldest brother. He was supposed to be helping, not insulting her.
"But that in itself makes her an excellent choice," Darken continued with a lazy smile, his voice smooth and persuasive. "The more harmless she seems, the more likely customers will gossip freely in her presence. The best spies never call attention to themselves."
Between them, Jennsen and Darken had finally worn Richard down.
Thus provided with funds, ambition and a new name, Betty Wilkens had purchased and re-opened the Wayfarer's Inn, going about the business of cleaning, re-stocking and hiring with a vengeance. Many young women left destitute after losing husbands, lovers and brothers in the war had flocked to the inn desperate for employment, grateful to find work with a sympathetic soul who understood all they had endured.
The days flew by and the coffers filled. Jennsen had always had a way with people and she relished mingling with her clientele, welcoming all who passed through her doors. And if the petite redhead looked vaguely familiar to an occasional patron, they soon forgot as the friendly proprietess kept their tankards and bellies full.
Numbers enthralled her, particularly the numbers she penned into her ledger every night after she retired to her office. The gold was rolling in as her business prospered, and it was hers. Jennsen had insisted on repaying Richard. She basked in the pleasure of ownership.
She loved her new life – the independence, the profits, and most importantly, and to her surprise, the power. Jennsen ruled in her small world just as assuredly as Richard ruled D'hara. More than gold was changed hands at the Wayfarer's. Grumblings of unrest and rumors of furtive plots reached Jennsen long before they ever reached the palace.
It was exhilarating to know that Richard depended on her – needed her.
But it was not only the current Lord Rahl she longed to help.
Jennsen loved both of her brothers.
"Have you heard one word I've uttered in the last ten minutes, sister?" Darken silky voice broke into her reverie.
"Of course I have," Jennsen's voice dripped with sweetness. "You are tired of hearing about Kahlan's baby and you don't think that anybody appreciates you. That about sums everything up, doesn't it? You feel sorry for yourself."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Jennsen, you don't have the talent for it, "Darken jibed. He might no longer have armies at his command, but his words could still wound. "I think it's time I returned to the welcoming comfort of my family home." Rising to leave, he scooped up his black cloak and pulled it around his shoulders, arranging the hood to covered most of his face. It was not safe for him to be seen outside of the palace.
"How is Cara?" Jennsen asked, striking back. "I hear that she still avoids you like the plague."
"Ah, dear sister, that's only because she knows she can't trust herself around me," Darken countered, sounding as if he almost believed it.
Instantly contrite, Jennsen reached out, trying to take his hand. Stepping back to avoid her touch, he started for the door.
"Wait!" He couldn't leave. She had been waiting all evening to give him the news.
"What is it?" he sounded tired. "If I don't return soon, Kahlan will be sending out patrols after me. Every time I leave the palace grounds she is sure that I am stirring up rebellion against my brother."
This time when Jennsen took his hand, Darken didn't pull away.
"I wanted to tell you that I might have some information about that - matter – you asked me to look into a few weeks ago." She sensed his body go rigid next to hers.
"One of my people came back this morning. He didn't know why I was interested, of course, but it sounds very promising."
"Where?" He rasped, his hand now clamping hers like a vise .
"A small village in West Granthia," Jensenn answered, her voice soft with compassion. "A boy was taken in by a family there a few months after your…death. They don't know where he came from, the husband found the child wandering on the road. They're destitute themselves and say they can't afford another mouth to feed."
She wished her words could be more reassuring, but the world was a harsh place for children caught up in the war." The boy told the family that he had hidden when the resistance came, but his mother and father disappeared. I imagine they were probably killed."
"How old," Darken whispered.
"Seven. He says he's seven years old. Would that be about right?" Jennsen gazed up at her brother.
"Yes," he was finding it difficult to speak, "that would be about right."
"Can you remember anything about him, a birthmark - something?"
Darken laughed harshly, a strangled noise that made tears spring to her eyes.
"I held my son for less than five minutes after he was born, just long enough to know that he was Ungifted, then I handed him off to General Egremont. I didn't wallow in the joys of parenthood. I barely looked at him."
"I even considered having him killed."
Appalled, Jennsen yanked her hand away from his grasp.
He smiled grimly at the horror in her eyes.
"Does that shock you, sister? I almost went through with it, but – I didn't." He shrugged with affected detachment. "Egremont told me that his sister's family would care for the child. He promised me that the boy would never know who he was, who I was, so – I let him go. Once, when he was about three, I was traveling through the region and considered paying a visit to the general's family, I was mildly curious to know what my son looked like, but I thought better of it. There didn't seem to be any point."
Darken related the history of his fatherhood as emotionlessly as if reading from a book, yet Jennsen couldn't forget the intensity in his eyes when he had requested her help in finding his son.
Did her brother just want to use the boy as a lure to bring Cara back to him?
Was the child Darken's answer to the daughter that Kahlan carried? His ploy to regain some semblance of power.
Or did her brother really want another chance?
Maybe he didn't know himself.
"Does Cara know that you have asked me to do this?" Jennsen had never been able to sort through the tangled history of Darken and Cara's relationship. It was plain to her that he still desired the Mord'Sith and had once held her in some esteem, but it was a weakness he never discussed.
"No!" he barked, blue eyes glittering with threat. "And she's never to know, do you understand me?"
Jennsen held her ground. "She's the boy's mother. If there's a chance he still lives, don't you think she has the right to know?"
Darken refused to meet her gaze, his face wreathed in shadow. "I need to be sure the boy is mine first," he muttered. "As soon as I see him, I'll know."
"Whether or not he's your son, I'm bringing him here. "Jennsen bristled with indignation at her brother's callous disregard for the child's welfare. "You asked this of me, brother, but if you don't want this child, I'll take him in myself."
He glowered down at her, for once at a loss for words. Then his features relaxed into his habitual composure.
"Keep me informed, Jennsen," he demanded with the assurance of a man used to commanding complete obedience. "I want to know as soon as he arrives. And I don't need to tell you that nobody - "
"No, Darken, you don't need to tell me," she interjected with quiet authority. "Most of my life has been spent in the shadows. I'm a master at keeping secrets."
His lips twitched upward slightly as he regarded her with reluctant admiration. "You've grown into quite a formidable woman, sister. I think you've discovered your inner Rahl."
Then, without another word, he slipped through the door and disappeared into the night.