It was Creator's Night Eve, and none of the servants in the People's Palace were stirring—they had been waiting for Lord Rahl, his brother and Grand Vizier Lord Darken, and his sister and unofficial advisor Lady Jennsen, to get out of the banquet hall so it could be cleared properly, but they'd given up on the three siblings leaving before first light.
"—so I'm the naïve young peasant of hitherto unsuspected royal birth, raised by poor but deserving adoptive parents—" Richard was saying, gesturing with his wine goblet at the board spread over his dining table. It was covered in crumbs and other food detritus.
"Oh, not again," sighed Darken, rolling his eyes.
"So that's the Beginner's Luck and Young Hero bonuses for you," Jennsen murmured, scribbling on a spare bit of parchment. "Richard, why are you always the fresh-faced young hero from the countryside?"
"Destiny, I guess," Richard shrugged. "What you should be asking is how Darken fudges the roll every time so it's nearly impossible to steal anything from his im-impreg-nable fortress guarded by fifty fiercesome fiendish forces of fire—ha, say that ten times fast!"
"They go by the name of dragons, brother," Darken commented drily. He'd had quite as much to drink as Richard, but years of competitive diplomacy had hardened his stomach. (Or possibly that was an illusion, since the body he was currently living in hadn't been his from birth—not that he would've been surprised to learn that worthless Walter had frequented ale houses.) "And if we're going to discuss fair play, may I point out that, despite our initial advantages, after half the night, Jennsen remains a persistent victor? I fear she has a natural gift for strategy."
Jennsen grinned, tucking her red hair behind her ears and putting her elbows defiantly on the table. Instantly, her sleeve picked up some unidentifiable sugary substance and stuck fast to the tabletop. "I've had very good teachers," she said, as close as she was going to get to referring to how she'd met her two brothers—at least until she'd had more to drink. She didn't know whether to be grateful or horrified that being Pristinely Ungifted had no effect on her consumption of alcohol.
"This time," Richard insisted, "I'm going to find the instruction scroll before activating the all-powerful magical whatsit—"
"Finally learning to play it safe, 'Lord Rahl'?" Jennsen teased.
"Don't remind me," Richard grimaced. "Creator's Night is tomorrow—the parade alone is going to be torture."
"Let us drown your sorrows," Darken proposed, lifting his goblet ironically.
Richard really dreaded the night part of Creator's Night, of course, because tradition suggested Lord Rahl be locked in his own dungeons with three Mord'Sith and three buckets of whipped cream, and that wasn't something he was prepared to face, because the Mord'Sith would be lucky to survive Kahlan's wrath, and it just wasn't right to involve them, particularly since the hot weather made Kahlan so extra cranky—
Richard found there were all sorts of traditions he'd had to modify, since becoming Lord of D'Hara. (He proposed to allow himself to be locked in his own dungeons with Kahlan, Cara, and a key.)
Darken, of course, would have had no difficulty with any of it, from the day kissing babies and listening to old women yammer on about the good old days to the night locked in his own dungeon with three Mord'Sith—and the whipped cream…(Of course, there was a good possibility he'd skip the parade, Richard guessed.)
In fact, Richard was wrong: Darken was remembering previous parades with a certain nostalgic fondness. True, it had been torment the likes of which few people ever experienced, but he'd been the Lord of the land then—it had been his duty. And when it became completely unbearable, there was always Tryseis Rahl's Dark Weather Magic Compendium—a little lightning, and soon they were all safe back in the dungeons…
Tryseis Rahl had been a strange man—but then, the People's Palace library yielded to the patient seeker of knowledge the obscure careers of many Lords Rahl, who had, collectively, done almost everything that could be imagined—except died a peaceful, natural death.
Jennsen looked forward to the purely Midlands tradition of the May Queen, even though she knew down to the very marrow of her Ungifted bones it would be Kahlan. Not because her sister-in-law was the Mother Confessor, either—Kahlan was just the sort of woman who got crowned May Queen, it was plain fact. Jennsen liked the flowers and the dancing, though—it was so festive. Normally, they already would've crowned the May Queen, of course, but various crises had pushed it back to Creator's Night—and it was really all the same celebration, anyway.
But tonight, the three siblings were here, together, without the threat of an apocalyptic evil over their heads—it made even the banquet hall's oppressive heat seem a minor inconvenience.
So Darken and Richard smirked wryly at one another and clanged their goblets together in a toast to family, and Jennsen rolled the dice…
"How long," Denna drawled, leaning her head back in her chair on the balcony, "do you think they're going to keep that up?"
Nicci glanced at the curtain separating the balcony from the banquet hall, and shuddered delicately. "Darken can play Evil Empires for hours," she said. "Apparently, it's a gift." Her tone made it plain that if it were her gift, she'd return it.
"Play Evil Empires?" Kahlan muttered, lifting her hair off her neck in a vain attempt to cool down. It was just so hot. "I thought that was what he did for a living."
"Oh, but don't you prefer this tame amusement to something actually fun, like a real war?" Denna said snidely. "I thought you were a pacifist." In her mouth, it was practically a curse word.
"When I fought that war," Kahlan sighed, "I didn't expect Richard to change the game on me, and free all the prisoners." Normally, she wouldn't speak so frankly, but the cool drink in her fingers, the only thing currently anchoring her to sanity, had something much more potent than ale or Eldorian wine in it. She was at the stage where guarding her tongue seemed a futile effort.
Besides, what difference did it make? Richard would insist that she was with family. Ha! Family—when she'd married Richard, she'd known about Jennsen, the annoying kid sister, she'd known about Darken, the tyrannical older brother—
But she hadn't been prepared for Jennsen to announce blithely that she and Denna (of all people!) were getting married, and she certainly hadn't been prepared for Nicci, whose power games with Darken were far too byzantine to understand, even when sober. (Kahlan had the nasty suspicion that she would understand if she thought about it long enough, but she was determined not to.)
Then there was the, to Kahlan, inescapable fact that these women were her enemies, and Richard's, too, if only he could be brought to realize it—Denna had tortured him, murdered his mother, killed him, stolen the compass, and then had the nerve to save Jennsen's life, and help Richard and Kahlan and Cara and Zedd defeat Jagang; Nicci had tried to destroy the world, had stolen Richard away from Kahlan using the Maternity Spell, had Confessed Kahlan with her own power, had been taken over by Jagang and killed huge numbers of innocent people, only to be released from his control and kill him—in a very final way, too.
"And don't get me started on Darken," Kahlan muttered indistinctly, reflecting that in-laws were a sad trial, and taking another sip of her drink.
"I think we have a real war," Nicci commented softly. She conjured a large fan and began waving it gently in front of her face. Didn't anyone remember about the Southerners? They thought Richard was weak—what kind of Lord hires his predecessor as his new Grand Vizier? they asked—and, although D'Hara had a long-standing treaty with Eldoria, that was only on account of Darken's mother, and furthermore Eldoria wasn't the omnipotent world power it had once been. Of course, so far it was only what one might call political unrest, but that was what made this place so charming—it was absolutely never restful.
In some ways, all this forced inaction on account of the heat was a relief.
"Not in the summer, we don't," Denna said firmly. She'd first loosened, then removed, her neckguard and corset. Cara never wore them at all anymore, and she might have a point about the optimum trade-off between freedom of movement and protection, not that Denna would ever tell her so. Now she kicked her heeled boots off.
"Why do you still wear the uniform?" Kahlan asked abruptly. "Richard doesn't give you orders."
"Richard doesn't give anyone orders," Nicci said, rolling her eyes at Richard in absentia.
The gesture reminded Kahlan of Cara, and she wondered very much what her dearest friend was doing right now…
"I am Mord'Sith, Confessor," Denna said, bristling. But then she leaned back in her chair with a sigh—it was too hot to be angry. "Cara and I have an understanding—she doesn't give me orders, and I don't give her any."
"How can she stand to be inside on a night like this?" Kahlan wondered. It went without saying that the three Rahl siblings, while the bravest, kindest, handsomest man ever to have lived, a pesky girl with poor taste in marital partners, and a tyrant currently working as a Grand Vizier, when taken separately, underwent some kind of strange magical alchemy and became completely insane when together, which explained what they were doing in the stifling banquet hall. But Cara had more sense in her little finger than those three put together.
Kahlan would feel guilty about having a thought like this, but it was hot and tomorrow was Creator's Night and the children were going to be absolute terrors over the whole thing—getting them to sit still and behave properly for the parade would be impossible. Besides, Kahlan felt guilty enough as it was—she had a son, a male Confessor, and she'd let him live, and now he'd probably kill them all someday, and Richard could never be brought to understand what a terrible disaster waiting to happen little Rick was.
The part of Kahlan's mind that she apportioned for worrying was typically occupied with this, but there was also her fear that Darken would someday, when they least expected it, snatch back the throne from Richard. After all, wasn't that what a Grand Vizier was for? (Thus, Kahlan tried to avert this catastrophe by expecting it.)
"I think it's nice out," Nicci said mildly, earning herself identical glares from Kahlan and Denna. "Warm." It was hotter than the Underworld, of course, and Nicci ought to know, but seeing their stunned and exasperated faces was worth it.
Besides, Sisters of the Dark had a real advantage over Mord'Sith and Confessors when it came to weather like this. Just because Nicci was an ex-Sister of the Dark, and an ex-Sister of Anything, didn't mean she didn't still remember how to keep her sleeves nicely open to the breeze, not to mention her skirts—it was all in how you moved, and where you'd put your sun-protective potion, and of course wearing really diaphanous fabrics. And that was even without using weather magic.
Leather was all very well for winter, and as an armor substitute, but silk was made for the desert. And Nicci had grown up in the Old World, where they had real deserts, not like the ones in D'Hara.
"Nice out," Denna muttered darkly, wishing fervently for the company of her erstwhile Sisters. Mord'Sith could make summers go by very quickly—you just stayed in the bath until any orders arrived, and then you delegated them. Stepping outside the hierarchy had cost Denna something, but she wasn't about to answer to Cara. And she had to stay and protect Jennsen from all the well-meaning harm Lord Rahl and Richard might do her. In Denna's experience, people who tried to help were even worse than the ones that tried to hinder.
But if Denna knew anything of Cara, she wasn't wasting the night before Creator's Night getting drunk with her in-laws—technically, Creator's Night was supposed to be when the first people were conceived, and thus was even luckier for lovers than Kieran's Eve. But then the first people had been born six months later, at Creatormas—Denna had always felt this meant that the world, in a sense, had been born prematurely, and that this explained a lot.
In fact, Denna was right—Cara was not wasting her time getting drunk with either Richard, Darken and Jennsen or Kahlan, Nicci, and Denna. (In fact, she'd heartlessly abandoned Kahlan to a former Mistress of the Mord'Sith and an ex-Sister of the Dark, and left Richard to defend himself from Darken's twisted plots for the night, because, even loving them as she did, some things were important.)
It was very, very hot inside the normally drafty Palace, but Cara and her wife, Dahlia, had worked out a way around that—it involved absolutely no clothes and a bathtub full of ice.
Elsewhere in the Palace, there was an odd coincidence: the nursery was directly above the banquet hall. Not all the children were asleep.
And Sam, Rick, and Gracie Rahl were also playing Evil Empires. Further, in one of those twists of genetics, Sam so closely resembled his father, Darken, that he looked like a teenage, blond copy of the man, down to the sneer. Rick also closely resembled his father, Richard, but he had his mother's serious blue eyes and freckles. He was careful not to touch anyone (there'd been a few near things, and Rick had an excellent survival instinct. Everyone was always watching him, so he was perpetually on his best behavior. Sometimes, he wished he wasn't a prince. He nearly always wished he wasn't a Confessor.) Gracie, only four, had her aunt's red hair and cheerful ingenuousness.
She was clutching a blanket around her shoulders as a makeshift cape—the nursery was actually a little cool, ever since Gracie had begged and pleaded until Auntie Nicci relented and summoned her a heat-sucking demon. The demon hovered in one corner of the room, huddled into a ball and sending a warm light not quite like fire over the proceedings. Gracie had named the demon Sunspot.
"I win, I win!" she was murmuring excitedly.
"You cheat," Rick protested. He wasn't about to be beaten by his little sister!
"Hush," Sam muttered. "You'll wake the baby."
It was hard being the eldest—Sam had to look out for them all, from Rick and Gracie to Cousin Cali to Renn and Edmund, to little baby Jenna.
Still, it was Creator's Night tomorrow—maybe after the parade he could sneak off to the Tyreisan Tavern before his mothers found out. Get in a fight, maybe—he needed practice, before the inevitable war with the Southerners…he was old enough to fight. He would show them all.
All through the Palace, not a servant was stirring…but the family was awake. They were the ones who'd have to go out in public and smile for the holiday—but there you had it: royalty never had any sense.
Not far from the Palace, Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, the First Wizard, snored peacefully. He might babysit occasionally, burn the odd enemy with Wizard's Fire, but he'd had enough of court life for a lifetime.