A/N: This is a stand alone that is set in the same "Reckoning" AU as "Pain Beyond Imagining".
"Mama – look what I found!"
Nicholas Rahl came barreling into his mother's bedchamber, his treasure cradled against his chest.
"Nicholas – hush! You'll wake your little sister." Kahlan's tone was edged with irritation as she regarded her oldest child. "You're filthy. Have you and Ethan been rolling around in the dirt again?"
"I'm sorry, Mother," Nicholas whispered, coming to a halt by his sister's crib. He had to remember to stop saying 'mama' like a little boy. He was a big brother now.
There were so many things to remember.
Don't upset Mother, listen to Father, be gentle with the baby, stay quiet, stop fidgeting, study hard and don't ask so many questions.
Nicholas tried to remember everything, but it was too hard. There was so much to do and so much to see and so much he wanted to know. He couldn't stop the questions when they popped into his head, and his feet always carried him outside when Elyse or his tutors were looking the other way.
Father kept saying that Nicholas was his hair. When he had asked why he needed more hair Father had just sighed and told him that Nicholas would be King one day so he'd better start paying attention to his lessons.
Why couldn't Dennee be the hair? She might like all those books and not mind sitting still. He didn't see why it should make any difference that she was a girl. Nicholas would be glad to let her be the hair so he could go off and have adventures when he was big – maybe when he was twelve.
But Father said only boys could be kings so he was stuck with being the hair whether he liked it or not.
If only he had a little brother! But he felt bad about wishing that when Mother was so happy about with his sister.
Nicholas wanted his mother to be happy.
"Elyse, why can't you keep him from running wild?" Kahlan was annoyed, but felt a twinge of guilt at pointing blame at her son's nurse. The poor woman did the best she could. Nicholas ran everyone in the palace ragged.
From the minute he opened his eyes in the morning to the second he fell into sleep at night, Nicholas was a blur of motion and chatter, curious about everything and everybody; fearless in his determination to explore every nook and cranny of his world.
Kahlan's initial horror at giving birth to a male Confessor had abated over the five years since his birth. Her boy was so engaging, so open and trusting, such a happy child. She didn't want to believe he would become a monster.
But now she had a daughter to protect, and Kahlan worried that she had grown too complacent toward both her husband and Nicholas. She needed to regain the sense of purpose that had eroded over the years.
She had already changed so much from the single-minded woman who had married Darken Rahl while clinging to the secret of Richard's existence. That woman had been grimly determined to sacrifice her own happiness in order to save her people, and for the hope of the Seeker's return.
But since then life had laid unexpected traps in her way.
Her husband, the fiend who had invaded the Midlands and destroyed everything good, had treated her with gentleness, even tenderness. From the moment she had agreed to the marriage, he had actively sought to make her care for him, a fact which at first surprised her, then later filled her with a cold revenge. At least she had some power in this travesty of a marriage – the ability to withhold what he wanted most.
It was at the birth of their son when Kahlan first felt the cracks begin to form in her armor. Darken's joy had been impossible for him to conceal as he gazed in wonder at his wife and child.
The years since Nicholas's birth had not made Kahlan's situation any easier, but not for the reasons she had once anticipated.
She was shamed at the physical pleasure she found in her husband's bed. After Nicholas, conceiving a daughter had been paramount in her mind, but she would not lie to herself – it was not the only reason. Even worse, Kahlan no longer imagined that it was Richard who held her in his arms, who stroked her hair, who murmured words of passion in her ear. Every night, her body betrayed her – and Richard. She sometimes feared for her mind and heart as well.
Darken had even begun expressing, somewhat wistfully, a desire to release her from the stifling rada'han- if only he could trust her. Oddly, that thought rather unsettled her. As much as she longed for freedom from the shackle that suppressed her magic, Kahlan was no longer sure of what she would do with it.
Using her powers against her husband was what her duty as the Mother Confessor demanded, but that was no longer the sole duty that ruled her life.
Most of all – there was Nicholas, the unwanted son, the child who should have been killed.
His life was the worst betrayal of all, not only to Richard, but to everything she had always been taught at truth.
At first Kahlan had fought against loving him, to steel herself for what she might have to do in the future. When that proved impossible, she tried to pretend that Nicholas was Richard's child, but that was equally futile. Under his mop of dark hair, her son gazed at her out of his father's eyes, and Darken's roguish quirk on Nicholas's lips was innocent and mischievous.
Finally Kahlan had given up fighting and surrendered her heart, knowing it was a mistake, but reasoning that there was no sense in depriving herself of love in the present, even though Nicholas would cease to exist once the world was made right. She would never remember him, so what harm could it do?
Kahlan's musings were interrupted by her son's insistent tugging on her sleeve. She noted with exasperated affection that he had already managed to track mud over the priceless carpet as well as smear dirt on her skirts.
"Mama…Mother," Nicholas corrected himself hastily, "look what I found. She's still alive. Can I keep her?"
Heedless of the white sheets, the boy carefully placed a soaking canvas bag on the bed, pulling back to edges to reveal a scrawny half-drowned kitten. The tiny creature's body was shaking with shock and cold.
Without asking, Nicholas grabbed a blanket from alongside Dennee's crib and wrapped it gently around the small bundle of matted fur.
"There were four other kittens, mama, but they were already dead." He was too distraught now to worry about using little-boy words. "Somebody tied them up in a sack and tied a big rock to it. They just threw them into the pond to drown."
"Why would anyone do that?" Nicholas asked, his voice hoarse with tears. He was trying to wipe the kitten dry without hurting it. "They weren't bothering anything, and they're so little."
Kahlan was stabbed with remorse at the first suspicion that had sprung to her mind. Her son had never exhibited cruelty, but she had to be vigilant for the first sign of evil.
"I don't know, sweetheart. I don't understand either." She brushed her boy's dark hair back from his forehead, trying to soothe him. How did one explain to a child that the small and weak were often victims of the strong? "Maybe the mother died and couldn't take care of them."
"I'll take care of her," Nicholas declared. "She'll get better when she's warm and dry. I'll give her milk and hold her, and I'll call her Emma. She'll get big and strong and sleep with me and purr when I pet her." His face had brightened with hope. "I'll love her and she'll love me back because I saved her life. She'll know that not everybody is mean."
Kahlan's heart ached for her son. "Nicholas, I know that you would do anything to help her, but she's just too little. She can't survive without her mother."
"That's not true!" he cried, forgetting that he wasn't supposed to upset his mother or make loud noises around his sister. "There has to be something we can do. Get the healer, mama. Get Father. He has magic –he can make her better."
Kahlan wished she could call for Darken, but he had ridden out for the day with some of his men, and wouldn't return for hours. In the meantime, she could only offer as much help and comfort as she had at her disposal.
Knowing it was fruitless, she helped Nicholas make a bed for Emma close to the hearth. Soaking a cloth with warm cream, she gave it to him, watching as he patiently pushed the corner into the kitten's mouth, urging her to suckle.
All through the afternoon her normally restless distractible son never left Emma's side as he whispered into the tiny ears, telling her about the wonderful life the two of them were going to have together.
Finally, by nightfall, Nicholas had fallen into an exhausted sleep, his dirty face streaked with dried tears, his small form curved protectively around Emma's. Kahlan sat down next to them, leaning against a footstool as she watched over them both.
She must have nodded off herself, because the next thing she knew Darken was standing by the crib, awkwardly trying to calm a wailing Dennee, and eyeing his wife and son with bemusement.
Alarmed that she hadn't heard her daughter's cries, Kahlan stood and took the baby from her husband's arms, explaining what had happened.
His brow furrowed in concern, Darken briefly caressed the scrap of fur next to the fire before scooping Nicholas up and laying him down on the bed. The boy stirred, his eye's fluttering open. "Where's Emma?" he croaked as he struggled to sit up. His voice was heavy with sleep. "Is it time to feed her again? I didn't mean to forget." His imploring gaze was fixed on his father's.
"She died, Nicholas. Your mother told me about how you took such good care of her, but there was nothing more you could have done."
The boy's face crumpled. "Look again, Father. Maybe she's still alive, you have to put your ears against her chest to make sure she's breathing. Did you do that?"
"I'm sure, son. I'm sorry." Darken looked over helplessly at his wife, at a loss as to what to do or say. Kahlan's eyes met his over Dennee's bald little head, and for a few moments they were completely united in their shared love for their child.
Nicholas didn't sob, but fresh tears tracked down his cheeks. "I loved her, father. I wanted her to get better. What good is magic if you can't make somebody get well?"
Darken didn't respond directly but uttered the most consoling words that came to mind. "Nicholas – don't you know that cats have nine lives? I'm sure this was Emma's first life. She has eight more to live. So, in a way, she's not really dead at all, or at least only for a little while."
"Is that right, ma -Mother?" He would usually never question his father, but he needed her reassurance.
"You're father's right, darling." Kahlan smiled wanly. "Emma will have another life."
His grief somewhat eased, Nicholas went over to the hearth, and, once more, folded the soft blanket around Emma. "I want to have a funeral for her, anyway, even if she's coming back. Is that all right?"
Darken and Kahlan promised that Emma's funeral would be a memorable one.
The following evening Kahlan was only half-awake when Nicholas padded into the room and crawled into bed next to her.
"What is it, sweetheart? Can't you sleep?" she murmured, running her fingers through his dark mop of hair. "Do you want me to tell you a story?"
"No, Mother," he whispered. "But I've been worrying about something. Can I ask you a question?"
Kahlan smiled to herself. When did Nicholas ever stop asking questions? "You can ask me anything – you know that. What's bothering you?"
He took a deep breath, burrowing against her and tucking his head under her chin. "Mother, I've been thinking about Emma, about what Father said about her getting a new life."
"I'm glad that she's going to have another chance, but I was just thinking. Will Emma remember me in her next life? I'm afraid that it will be just as if I never found her and loved her. She'll never know I even lived."
"But maybe that's better for her. I'm sad that she won't remember me, but she won't remember any of the bad things that happened to her either, will she?"
Kahlan didn't answer as the seconds stretched into minutes. Concerned that his mother had gone to sleep, Nicholas propped himself up on his elbows, staring at her face.
"Why are you crying, mother? I don't think we should be sad for Emma anymore. She's going to have a whole new life and be happy."
"Yes, darling," Kahlan forced the words past the sorrow gripping her throat, the horror at herself, the guilt. "Someday she's going to have a whole new life, and you're right, maybe it will be better if she doesn't remember."