Warnings: torture, character death, disturbing themes
The nursery is so full of light, Kahlan can see dust motes shining like stars in the air.
Her maid stands in a corner with her arms folded, and there's another toddler, child of one of her husband's soldiers, zooming a toy dragon in the air and humming, but Kahlan has eyes only for her daughter.
"You can do it, sweetheart," she encourages, on her knees with her arms stretched out welcomingly. "Come to Mama."
Hope Rahl sways on uncertain little feet, grasping the hard edge of a side table for balance. Her hair is blonde, already darkening at the roots, her eyes are clear blue like Kahlan's, but her air of determination reminds Kahlan irresistibly of her father.
The thought of her husband makes Kahlan smile, as thinking of him always does. "Hope," she calls, beckoning. Her wedding ring catches the light, almost blinding in its intensity.
She's not sure how much longer she cares to remain on her knees—the stray dust, little enough of it as there is, will be sticking to her costly skirts. Yet Queen Kahlan need count no cost. "Remember," she adds, in gentle tones, "the first step is always the hardest."
Hope, frowning in concentration, lets go of the table, and takes that wobbling first step.
In what seems like no time at all, Hope is in her mother's arms. Kahlan, laughing, sweeps gracefully to her feet, red skirts billowing elegantly about her, cradling Hope to her chest. "Good girl," she approves. "Your father will be so proud. What would you like to do now, dearest? Soon it'll be time for your nap."
Hope claps her hands together. "Story!" she insists. "Mama, story!"
Kahlan smiles as she sinks down to the floor, her velvet skirts ample protection from the hard wood. "What story shall I tell? The Last Great Dragon? Cawfry, hero of the Southern Isles?"
Hope tugs at a dark curl that has escaped her mother's coiffure. "Wicked Seeker!" she demands. "Daddy saves Mama!"
Hope always wants to hear the story of how her parents met. Kahlan knows the story better than she remembers the true events.
She shuts her eyes for a moment, choosing not to see it all as it actually happened—there are parts that still make her blood boil—but only the picture she will paint for Hope.
Her future will be shaped by the stories she hears, and Kahlan means to give her daughter the best future she can.
"Once upon a time," she begins, "there was a great king. He was a kind and just ruler, but there were those who sought to bring war to the land, and they plotted to kill him. The worst of these traitors was the Seeker of Lies, a deceiver so cunning that he convinced your mother that he was the hero, not the maligned king."
"Daddy!" Hope supplies, and Kahlan nods.
"Yes. Your father was most distressed, and he tried to make peace with the evil Seeker of Lies, offering him a place of honor at his side. But your mother was blind to the Seeker's wickedness and love of war, and she grew enraged."
Darken Rahl stroked Kahlan's hair. She turned her face away, unable to do more to show her loathing. She would give anything to be free of her bonds. How dare this monster touch her!
"What do you know about love?" she asked disdainfully, sure of her convictions even at the brink of utter defeat. "Other than that you will never feel it…from anyone."
His eyes narrowed, and she knew she'd struck a nerve.
But when he went on to describe his plans for Richard to help him conquer Kahlan's home with the power he meant to steal from her, she saw red.
She hadn't known it was possible to be this angry—to hate this much. She wanted Darken Rahl dead at her feet.
Immune to Confession? She would show him what she thought of his borrowed power. Nothing could protect him from her wrath.
At first, it seemed Kahlan was right—surrounded by his own Confessed soldiers and Mord'Sith, Darken Rahl was trapped. In an instant, Kahlan had turned his victory to a defeat.
But Darken was nothing if not resourceful—with one mighty blow, he sent Mistress Leanna sprawling, her agiel clutched in his fist.
Somehow, he reached where the Confessor still hung in her chains. They could not restrain her like now that she was in the Blood Rage—nothing could—but they made artistic accessories for her magnificence.
Forgetting his immunity, Kahlan scrambled to get a hand around his throat, but Darken was too fast for her.
The instant the agiel touched the back of the Confessor's neck and she slumped, unconscious, against Darken's shoulder, the only sound was that of her chains clanking to the floor.
Darken held the agiel to the insensible Confessor's heart, a mute and telling threat for her newly loyal slaves.
They backed out of his way, even as Richard screamed, "Kahlan! Kahlan!" over and over.
Darken ignored the Seeker's despair, and pulled his hostage to the door, aware he had only seconds before the Confessed were after him again.
Still supporting the Confessor's limp body, he threw them both into the pentagram, and fought to summon blue fire one handed.
Richard could not, would not, let Darken Rahl escape with Kahlan. He leapt forward, freed by the D'Harans Kahlan had Confessed, his Sword once more in his hands—
Richard had aimed for Darken Rahl, but the blue flames were already springing up around them both, and Kahlan was feebly stirring in their arch-enemy's arms—
She lifted her chin, and the Sword of Truth traced a thin line of blood along her cheek before Richard could stop it.
Horrified, he wrenched the blade back, even as Kahlan and Darken Rahl disappeared.
"And then your father saved your mother from the evil Seeker, but he still had to show her the error of her ways. She had served the Seeker, believing his lies, believing he wanted peace…your father showed her the truth."
"I hate you." Kahlan's voice was matter-of-fact, raspy with exhaustion and thirst. Bruises marked her skin, and the cut on her cheek Richard had given her was reopened, blood oozing sluggishly down to her chin. The Rada'Han around her neck glinted dully. Darken did not mean to take further chances with the Blood Rage.
Yet still she was defiant. Darken, circling her with predatory grace, admired that, even as he wished she would break faster.
It would not take the Seeker long to find some way of suborning more of Darken's people, and getting in past Darken's defenses—although the People's Palace was guarded with protective enchantments strong enough that even his brother's Rahl blood would not be enough to let him through on its own. He would need help—but surely he would find it.
Darken caught Kahlan's chin in two fingers, the agiel in his other hand humming impatiently. "I wish I had time to break you more artistically," he lamented. "But we'll get there. You will love me, Kahlan Amnell. And you will help me bring peace to both our lands. When I have the power of Orden, even the Seeker will not stand in my way. You will beg to serve me."
"Never," she swore.
Darken laughed. He let one finger trace her lip, and she shivered. "I am in your blood already."
Kahlan shut her eyes, and tried not to hear his voice—she feared the dark promise therein more than she feared the pain.
She steeled herself to withstand the torture, but the longer Darken Rahl kept her in chains, the more she yearned to give in, to give him what he wanted, whatever that might be.
She told herself Richard would come and rescue her.
But Richard did not come.
"He has already forgotten you," Darken Rahl whispered to her, poison in her ear. "They say he travels with a new Confessor now…to think you mean so little to him—think of all the people he murders, and you brought him to your homeland…"
Kahlan didn't want to think of all the deaths—she would persist in leaving them at Darken Rahl's door. She must. She knew what he had done.
And she would rather think of the dead, Resistance and D'Haran alike, than of Richard, who had abandoned her here.
She used to long for him to rescue her—now she longed only for the Underworld, and the release of death.
The Seeker had not forgotten Kahlan, of course; Darken had already foiled several rescue attempts. It seemed that, without the Confessor, his brother's attempts to kill him and save her were feeble at best.
Darken told himself this explained the fascination he had for Kahlan. The strength of his admiration shocked him, and he knew already that he wanted her for his Queen.
Yet, as much as he wanted to break her, tear her down until there was nothing left…he feared once he had, she would lose her magnificence. Was it possible that she could bore him?
"At last, your mother really listened, and saw your father for who he is for the first time: the true hero of the story."
"What do you want from me?" Kahlan asked, after one of Darken Rahl's Mord'Sith had brought her back from the Underworld.
It had been, as always, unpleasant.
Kahlan didn't know why he didn't leave her to his Mord'Sith's tender mercies more often—but he seemed to feel some sort of odd responsibility toward her, that he should torture her himself.
Sometimes, Kahlan caught a strange look in his eyes—tenderness. She craved his gentle hands in her hair, fingers tracing her lips…
The agiel had left fire permanently scorching across her inner vision, and Darken Rahl was the only thing that made it retreat—made the world beautiful again.
When she looked at him, Kahlan didn't see the pain, or the suffering of those she had killed or Confessed herself. She didn't see Richard, for whom she was not strong enough.
She wanted to look at Darken Rahl until she was blind.
Darken stepped right into Kahlan's personal space, running a proprietary hand down over her bruises and her bare stomach.
Someday, he had vowed, she would carry his child there. A Confessor would be a fitting heir for his Empire.
It would be idle to deny the prospect of such a final victory over the Seeker was almost as good as Darken's dreams of Richard, the bane who had haunted his childhood, kneeling at his feet…when he had the power of Orden, they would be family.
"Your understanding," he said belatedly, answering her question. The truth was, he wanted much more than that—but if he had her understanding, everything else would follow.
Darken recognized a kindred spirit in Kahlan Amnell—he longed to expose the darkness she tried so hard to hide.
"I do understand," Kahlan asserted. "Let me help you, my Lord."
Darken's heartbeat quickened at the way she spoke his title, but he was not so easily fooled.
He stepped back, and left her without a word.
Kahlan waited, alone with her thoughts. Richard had not come for her, and it no longer mattered why. She could not love him the way he wanted her to, and she despised herself for not being good enough for him.
Darken Rahl made her feel precious—she was something he valued more than anything. Every touch, the very care he showed with the agiel, told her so. She only wanted to show him that respect was returned.
"But your mother was not the only one the Seeker had poisoned with his lies—no matter what your father could do, there were still those who opposed peace."
Kahlan recognized Alanna, even as she drew the daggers Darken had returned to her. She willingly gave him the honor of his title, but in her thoughts he was Darken.
She would do anything for him—but she refused to admit she was broken.
She circled Alanna, unconsciously mimicking Darken, searching for weakness. It never occurred to her to disobey.
"Kahlan, don't do this," Alanna begged. "This isn't you. Darken Rahl has poisoned your mind!"
"You are an enemy of peace," Kahlan informed her calmly. "You must be eliminated." And she struck, a sudden whirlwind in the white dress that hung ever so slightly loosely on her now.
It had taken her some days to recover the use of her muscles—Darken had smoothed healing oils into the very bruises and abrasions he had inflicted. Kahlan felt not only soothed but strengthened, as though a new self had replaced who she once had been.
When it was done, Kahlan sheathed her daggers and stood back, waiting.
"You have done well," Darken praised her. His eyes gleamed greedily. "My Kahlan."
The emphasis he placed on the possessive seemed fitting. A part of Kahlan was screaming, "Richard, Richard, Richard—!" but it was drowned by the force of her training. All she saw was Darken. He was all she wanted to see.
Kahlan sank to her knees and kissed his hands, daring to look up into those wryly intelligent eyes.
"Please, my Lord," she begged. "Let me serve you. Let me help you." Let me love you, she thought, and at once clung greedily to the notion.
She loved Darken. Hence he must be right. About Richard—about everything.
"Your father gave the Seeker of Lies one last chance to redeem himself and give up the power of Orden, which the evil Seeker wanted to use to enslave the world."
Richard had tried everything. There was little he didn't now know about the inner workings of D'Haran prison camps and Mord'Sith temples.
He had taken to carrying the third Box of Orden everywhere. Zedd wanted to hide it somewhere, but Richard couldn't let it out of his sight.
He'd let Kahlan out of his sight, and look what had happened there.
"If only we knew where Rahl is," Richard said one evening, for what must have been the forty-seventh time.
Myna, the Confessor who had joined Richard's quest after Kahlan had been kidnapped, inched closer to their flickering fire. "I still say he'll be at the People's Palace," she said petulantly. "Not that we can get in there."
Ordinarily, Richard would've glared at her just for not being Kahlan, but he had a new idea. "I think it's time we sent Darken Rahl a message he can't ignore."
General Egremont had seen some truly horrific scenes of carnage over the years. What he beheld at Arashmyn surpassed all of them.
But it was the message that made it imperative to interrupt Lord Rahl.
Darken, with one arm around Kahlan's shoulder, fingers idly stroking her bare, silky skin, raised his eyebrows. "So he wants to meet to strike a bargain, and he wrote this in letters over a foot tall and drawn in blood?"
Darken and Kahlan were sitting up in bed, Kahlan's head against Darken's shoulder. Her hair fell in dark waves over his chest.
He was still in awe of the change in her—she was broken, yet she was so totally unlike anyone he had ever broken before. She talked about the war as though it were all the Seeker's fault, and, much as Darken would have liked to blame his little brother for everything, he was honest enough to admit that Richard had not even been born when the trouble started. Indeed, the war had been going on so long Darken was sure only Orden could bring peace.
Darken also thought he knew what bargain the Seeker wanted to strike. And he smiled, a dangerous smile.
"My Lord?" Kahlan asked, twisting around to look at him with wide, innocent eyes. "What is it?"
"My dear, I've just realized…" Darken breathed, "I'm going to win."
Elsewhere, Zedd and Myna also thought they knew what bargain Richard wanted to strike with that wicked tyrant, that monster in human flesh, Darken Rahl.
"Richard, stop, wait, think!" Zedd remonstrated, as they made their way to the meeting place. "If you give the third Box of Orden to Rahl, he will enslave the world! And for what? Why would he let Kahlan live?"
"He knows how much she means to me," Richard said grimly. "Kahlan is still alive, I can feel it."
"Have you forgotten your mission?" Myna said acerbically. "No one is more desolated than I over the probable fate of the Mother Confessor, but the Seeker's duty is to kill Darken Rahl, not help him conquer the world in return for one woman's life."
Richard heard their objections in silence, more than ever committed to his plan. It was a risk, but he believed that once he saw Kahlan again, their rapport would be instantly reestablished, and together they could finish the quest once and for all.
Had not Richard and Kahlan defeated an entire battalion once, just the two of them?
"This Box for Kahlan," Richard announced loudly. He didn't care that Rahl was not alone, had not expected it. If he could get Kahlan back, nothing would stand in his way.
Darken could not believe the Seeker's naïveté. Once he possessed the power of Orden, there would be nowhere his brother could hide. And Richard didn't know that Kahlan might not be so eager to rejoin him.
Or would their supposed 'great love' be enough to overcome her training?
The test must come someday—let it be at once.
Darken made a sign to his Mord'Sith, and they stepped away from Kahlan. She stood utterly still, even as the Seeker embraced her, carelessly letting the Box of Orden fall to the ground.
As Darken bent to pick it up, sudden Wizard's Fire nearly scorched his fingers.
Zedd had seen enough—Richard was in Darken Rahl's very presence, miraculously Kahlan yet lived, but there was the Box of Orden lying innocuously in the grass, and this must be the end.
Zedd focused all his power on the fire, and the Box burned ominously green before a Mord'Sith got between the ashes of Orden and held up a hand, turning Zedd's power against him.
Around her, Kahlan could hear the fighting break out. She didn't move, not even when Richard turned away from her and drew his Sword.
Kahlan had not been prepared for the sense of loss she felt when Darken had told her the plan. He was sending her away!
"Please, my Lord, I want to stay with you," she had begged.
Possessing himself of her hands, Darken had looked down at her, his eyes dark with triumph. "I won't let Richard hurt you," he promised. "And soon, I will claim you as my Queen."
Kahlan hugged that warm possessiveness to her now, telling herself it was love.
Yet she had expected seeing Richard again to tear her apart—she remembered loving him, though she told herself it had been a mistake. She expected him to tell her he loved her, tell her he was sorry…she expected to have to fight to retain her new clarity of vision.
And yet—Kahlan was not prepared for the sudden jolt of loathing that shook her when she beheld Richard's familiar features.
He was trying to keep her from her Master, her only love. It was the first time she knew herself to be broken, and instantly she tried to block the thought out—Darken was not her Master, he was her lover and her savior. He would bring peace to her home, and she had been a fool not to see it before.
"Kahlan, thank the Creator you're all right!" Richard had exclaimed, embracing her.
Kahlan stood passive in his arms, waiting only for her chance to return to the man who really loved her.
In the chaos of the battle, several Mord'Sith were killed, and both Richard and the other Confessor, whose name Kahlan would have known if she had bothered to remember something so unimportant, escaped.
Richard tried to pull Kahlan with him, away from Darken Rahl and his evil armies, but she shook her head, almost frantic—"Help me!" she cried, and Richard put a hand over her mouth because she wasn't calling to him—
"Kahlan, I am helping you," he protested.
The sight of her, forlorn, a Rada'Han around her neck to control her powers, had awoken every chivalrous instinct in Richard's heart. He had to rescue her.
Kahlan bit his hand, hard. "Stay away from me," she said. "I belong to Lord Rahl now."
Richard could only gaze at her in horror. "Kahlan, look into my eyes," he begged. "It's me, Richard." Maybe this was like what Denna had done to him—but their love had been enough to withstand that.
Richard refused to consider that Kahlan had been in Rahl's clutches for far longer than he had been in Denna's.
Kahlan ran to the protection of the Mord'Sith, who instantly closed ranks around her. Whatever their private opinions of Lord Rahl's latest obsession, they would never give away an advantage.
Kahlan watched as the other Confessor pulled Richard away. His pain left her unmoved.
"Your father refused to be intimidated by the evil Seeker, and he and your mother proved to the people that all the Seeker said was wicked lies when they were married. It was the happiest day of their lives."
For a moment, Darken and the Seeker had been close enough to duel, but the ebb and flow of battle had separated them.
Darken was not sorry. The prophecy still set his teeth on edge, whenever he looked at his little brother.
And without Orden, what hope was there of peace between them?
Darken was furious at the loss of all that power, and hoped savagely that the Wizard was suffering in the Underworld.
But he still had Kahlan, thank the Creator. She was unharmed, and when she saw him, she threw herself into his arms. "The Seeker wants to kill you!" she wept. "Please don't leave me, ever again!"
For all she accorded him the outward marks of respect, Darken found it telling that she made so many demands.
How could he have thought she would bore him?
"We will not let the Seeker frighten us," he said, the very act of comforting Kahlan soothing his own fear.
Richard would never forgive him for this.
"Marry me," he whispered, and Kahlan jumped gleefully, wrapping her legs around his waist and tossing her head before she kissed him, so only a few strands of hair remained to tickle his nose.
"I will be your Queen," she promised.
Darken's doubts had been laid to rest—she cared for him more than she cared for Richard. There was a tiny bubble of happiness in his chest that he couldn't ever remember experiencing before.
First thing, he thought as he carried her to her horse, he was taking off that Rada'Han. If she would stay with him willingly, there was no need to keep any part of his glorious bride restrained.
The wedding was lavish, although the security was tight. Darken took no chances that Richard would find a way in.
Now that Orden was out of his grasp forever, he needed a better way to make the people love him. But both the Midlands and D'Hara were tired of war—the very public wedding of Lord Rahl and the Mother Confessor would serve as a beginning of unity.
Darken had plans to be merciful wherever possible—let the onus of keeping the hostilities alive fall upon his brother. How much would the people love a Seeker who only got them killed?
The honeymoon was bliss. Kahlan remembered enough of her past, clouded as it was by the transformative pain of the agiel, to treasure touching and being touched without fear of her power overwhelming her husband.
Darken said he liked it. He said he wanted to worship her—and he said it without being Confessed.
Kahlan was happier than she had ever been.
"But the Seeker hated your father, and he wanted him to suffer. He couldn't bear to see the land at peace. So your mother was forced to drastic measures to keep her family safe."
Richard lost Myna during their raid against the D'Haran Free Library—like everywhere in D'Hara, its name was deceptive. Nothing Darken Rahl ever touched was free, or for the people.
But Richard gained the knowledge he'd sought, dark magic he could teach himself. He no longer cared that he didn't believe in that sort of thing, or that it would likely corrupt him as it had Kieran.
All that was left for Richard was revenge. Killing Darken Rahl was not a duty—it was a pleasure.
The magic he'd learned enabled him to steal his way into the People's Palace, and he strode easily through the corridors under a glamour that made him look like Darken Rahl.
At last, at long last, Richard held the Sword of Truth to his enemy's throat.
Darken awoke to the touch of cool steel, and he sneered when he saw the Seeker. "Killing an unarmed man? I thought you had more honor than that," he drawled. Not an ounce of fear seeped into his voice or body.
His mind worked furiously—it seemed the only thing he could do was talk the Seeker out of killing him. If it were still possible.
"You deserve no honor," the Seeker said firmly. Yet still he didn't strike.
"So you would murder your own brother? I'm hurt, Richard."
Now the Seeker looked confused. "I'm not your brother. What are you talking about?"
"Our father always told me, from before I could lift a sword, that one day I would have a younger brother who would kill me. That was you, Richard. Do you suppose our father is laughing in the Underworld?"
"My father was George Cypher. You're trying to trick me."
Could it be true? Richard was horrified anew. Yet he remembered how easily the Palace's magical defenses had yielded to his offering of blood. The thought that he shared anything with the monster before him made him see red.
"You have always been my dearest rival," Darken said, not as sarcastically as he would have expected. "You had everything I didn't—the loving family, the happy childhood, the beautiful and loyal Confessor, our father's blessing…well," he added, as Richard's mouth twisted. "At least I walked away with the one thing you love the most."
Richard raised the Sword to strike—after what Rahl had done to Kahlan, he deserved no mercy, brother or no—
Darken dove to the side, even as he cursed himself for bringing Kahlan into this—he'd been so close—
And then Kahlan emerged from the dressing room, took in the scene with one swift glance, threw her head back, and let the Blood Rage take her.
Her eyes flashed red, and she reached a clawing hand toward Richard's neck—
It didn't matter that she was feet away, her magic flew through the air, an invisible and deadly power—
Richard looked into those eyes, and could not find it in himself to love her. This was not the Kahlan he knew—he hated Darken Rahl for taking her from him, but he hated her just as much.
Richard had been strong enough to bear anything for her sake—but Kahlan hadn't loved him enough to resist Rahl's evil, torturous magic.
Then the power of Confession reached him.
Darken watched Richard's eyes flash black. He fell to his knees, Sword clattering to the cool stone floor—"Command me, Confessor," he begged. "How may I serve you?"
Kahlan, blood still pulsing with the sweet agony of this darker side to her power, looked down at him indifferently. "You have threatened my family for too long," she said flatly. "You may die."
Richard slumped, lifeless, to the floor.
Kahlan turned to Darken, eyes still red, and lunged onto the bed—their lips met, and Darken almost tore her robe from her body—
He would not have chosen to kill Richard, believing that a Confessed Seeker could yet be useful. Their family tie perhaps made him a trifle sentimental. But he made a point never to question the tactical decision of a loyal warrior.
Nor could he deny that the sight of Kahlan in the Blood Rage never failed to make him forget all larger issues in sheer admiration.
"After the death of the Seeker, the land quickly grew peaceful. Your father was very generous to all those who had opposed him, and the healing began. And then you were born, my precious darling, and all the people loved their little princess."
Lady Rahl's maid and the midwife exchanged relieved glances when they saw the baby was a girl. Without a Seeker to save them all, a male Confessor heir would have been fatal.
The little princess took in a breath and started crying at the top of her lungs, something so normal that Alice, Lady Rahl's maid, dared to hope everything was going to be all right.
Miraculously, Alice's family had been spared, for all they were part of the Resistance. She persisted in crediting this amnesty to Lady Rahl, a woman it was impossible not to admire.
The midwife handed the little girl to her father, swaddled in clean linen. He smiled, rocking her a little, and the child stopped crying.
Alice and the midwife exchanged surprised glances. Lord Rahl was not the sort of man one expected to be able to calm a baby.
"Let me see her," Lady Rahl said feebly, holding out her arms.
Lord Rahl handed the baby over carefully, and Lady Rahl laughed a little as her daughter opened eyes as blue as the sky on a clear day and regarded her seriously.
"What shall we call her?" Lord Rahl asked, so tenderly that Alice was shocked. He might almost be a different man when he looked at his wife and child.
Lady Rahl cuddled her daughter close. Tears were standing in her eyes. "Her name," she said firmly, "is Hope, my Lord."
She spoke Lord Rahl's title as tenderly as a caress, and he reached down to stroke the baby's head, his eyes on his wife's.
"Hope," he echoed. "A new beginning to my reign, an era of peace…our shared future. Hope it is."
They didn't speak again for a time, but drew such a private bubble of happiness around them that Alice was embarrassed. She understood that Lady Rahl had sacrificed herself for the future of the Midlands, for the lives of the Resistance…but shouldn't she be more miserable about it?
Still, an era of peace and a daughter instead of a son—these were good omens. Alice hoped all would turn out for the best.
Darken stands in the doorway, watching Kahlan with Hope. He spends his days attending to affairs of state, keeping the D'Haran Empire in a state of dynamic equilibrium too chaotic to truly be called peace, yet whenever he comes to the nursery, time seems to slow down.
He could watch his wife and daughter for hours.
"Daddy!" Hope interrupts her mother's tale, reaching over Kahlan's shoulder with both arms out.
As Kahlan turns and smiles a welcome, Darken responds to his daughter's mute demand and bends down to sweep her into his arms.
Hope wriggles gleefully, tugging at Darken's hair as she has since before she could crawl. A lesser man would wince; Darken merely kisses his daughter's forehead and says firmly, "Naptime for you, young lady."
Kahlan beckons to her maid, who is subbing for Hope's actual nurse today, because Becca is visiting her family in Caderyn.
"Won't!" Hope pouts, screwing up her face preparatory to a major Pay-Attention-To-Me! cry. "More story!"
Kahlan is there at once, with a soothing hand on Hope's back and a promise to tell her another story before bedtime tonight.
Reluctantly, Hope lets herself be persuaded; Darken revels in this early sign of good negotiation skills, crucial to any ruler.
Darken pulls Kahlan to the window, ignoring Hope's playmate, whose name he has forgotten but whose mother he passed on the stairs.
In the bright afternoon light, he thinks, his wife is more beautiful than ever.
"What are you thinking?" Kahlan asks, one hand going to the vee of his vest. She looks up at him through fluttering eyelashes in the way she has that should annoy him, but instead melts his heart every time—maybe because he knows the strength behind her sweetness.
Darken brushes a stray strand of hair back from Kahlan's face. "I don't deserve you."
"You have me," she replies, swaying closer. "You have my love…you have my everything."
Worship shines from her eyes. Darken is torn between appreciation and confusion, because even after several years of marriage, he still doesn't expect her love. It's such a new sensation—was she right about him, after all? He can't remember being loved before her.
"One question," he says, tapping her bottom lip with a finger. She pouts adorably. "The story you were telling Hope…how does it end?"
Kahlan tugs him gently closer still, their silhouettes in the sunshine almost blinding. "The king and queen lived happily ever after," she says, and kisses him.