A/N: This is sort of a companion piece to Monster. Again, like Monster, this fic is set in the same Reckoning AU as Wizard's Fire and A Brand New Life. At the time of this fic, Kahlan and Darken have been married for nine years.


Trust no future, howe'er pleasant!

Let the dead past bury its dead!

Act, - act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o'erhead.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Psalm of Life.

The Living Present

"And then Lord Rahl told the legate that if Prince Freyn didn't do as he commanded he would have him thrown – "

Kahlan tried to close her ears to Alice's endless chatter, as the maid pulled the brush through the queen's long dark hair, but it was proving to be very difficult.

"Alice - you've already told me this three times today," Kahlan reminded her maid with gentle reproof. She didn't want to seem harsh, but it was very late, and the headache that had been throbbing behind Kahlan's eyes since late afternoon was making her extremely irritable.

The interminable reception honoring the ambassador from Tamarang had been tedious enough, but at least Darken had excused Kahlan from the subsequent dreariness of entertaining the envoy's insufferable wife .

Released at last from her ceremonial duties , Kahlan had wasted no time in divesting herself of the heavy layers of D'haran red brocade, as well as the corset that had been squeezing her ribcage for nine straight hours. She could finally breathe freely again as Alice tended to her comfort, and prepared her bath.

Enjoying the rhythmic strokes of the hairbrush against her scalp, Kahlan unfastened the heavy bracelet from around her wrist and placed it down on the vanity table, noting absently how the mirror multiplied the refracted brilliance of the diamonds.

Darken had given Kahlan so many priceless jewels over the years – bracelets, rings, earrings, brooches. But he had never given her a necklace.

Her throat already bore a leaden choker that could never be removed.

"You should have seen how white the legate's face went when Lord Rahl told him that Prince Freyen's family would pay –"

Dear Creator! Would Alice never cease her yammering?

Kahlan had warned Darken from the beginning that putting Freyn in power was a mistake, and didn't appreciate hearing it recited back to her now as if her husband was just discovering the man's ineptitude.

"I'm sorry, my lady, I didn't mean…It's just that Lord Rahl was so angry and he looked so…" Alice's voice trailed off. As usual, the maid seemed at a loss for words at the magnificence of Lord Darken Rahl

Alice's parents might have been in the resistance, but their daughter had not, and once settled into her new life as Kahlan's servant and companion, the young woman had taken to D'Haran gossip and intrigue with a passion that was sometimes useful, but often merely annoying.

"Do you still have your headache, my lady?" the maid asked, as always eager to please. "Here, let me help you." She put down the brush and reached for the lavender oil that Kahlan often used to calm her nerves.

Kahlan felt the tension drain from her body as Alice massaged the fragrant oil into her temples. It was wonderful to just think about nothing for a few moments, to let the world slide away –

"I heard Lord Rahl talking to General Egremont today about your birthday tomorrow. He was saying that since you didn't want a public celebration, he intended to cancel his own appointments and spend the day with you and the children. That was so thoughtful of him, wasn't it?" Alice's guiless face beamed back at Kahlan in the mirror. "I wonder what he's going to give you this year. He always chooses such wonderful gifts, doesn't he? Maybe this year he'll – "

Kahlan closed her eyes as Alice continued her gushing tribute to Lord Rahl, hoping that wherever they were in the Underworld, the woman's parents had forgiven their daughter for her infatuation with the man who had probably ordered their deaths.

Alice was the only person in the world Kahlan had entrusted with the precious instructions about how to return the Seeker to his own time, and now all the woman could talk about was Darken Rahl. It made Kahlan question her own judgment at times, but she had no choice but to endure it, and continue to humor Alice.

Kahlan knew her maid servant cared for her, and would never knowingly endanger her mistress, but she often worried that Alice might let slip a careless word that would bring Kahlan's already nebulous plan tumbling down around her.

The plan that was so outlandish that nobody would believe it even if Alice did say too much.

The plan that was so unbelievable that nobody could have concocted it.

Kahlan would occasionally jolt awake in the middle of the night from nightmares in which she was struck dumb and unable to move, but could see and hear Alice, all wide-eyed earnestness, explaining to Darken that his wife really did love him, and that even though Richard was still alive and had the Boxes of Orden, Darken shouldn't worry about it because he would be dead by the time the Seeker arrived anyway.

What seemed most strange was that, in her dreams, Darken's reaction was never one of anger at Kahlan's treachery, but either bewilderment, as if he couldn't believe she could do this to him, or weary resignation, as if unsurprisded that Kahlan still despised him.

Once she had even dreamed that Darken had known about Richard all along, and had only been waiting for her to tell him the truth, without judgment or accusation.

Upon waking from these dreams, Kahlan would lay in a cold sweat until dawn while her husband, oblivious to his impending doom, continued to sleep by her side. Sometimes she would pass the hours until sunrise just watching Darken's chest rise and fall with each breath, pondering at how a man so watchful and suspicious could have no clue as to his wife's intentions.

Alice's cheerful voice interrupted Kahlan's brooding. "What do you want for your birthday, my lady? You never talk about it."

I want my freedom.

I want to have Richard back in my arms.

I want my children to be happy and safe.

Kahlan's inner voice mocked her. Ah – but you can't have your children and Richard. You have to choose. Which is it to be?

She wanted this inner battle she was continually waging with herself to be over and done with.

Better yet - Kahlan didn't want to think about her birthday at all.

Thirty-six years old!

It seemed so impossible that ten years ago tomorrow Kahlan had celebrated her name-day with Richard and Zedd in a sun-dappled clearing hundreds of leagues from the People's Palace.

Kahlan remembered the day as if it were yesterday. She and Richard had played tag, running barefoot along the banks of a stream until she had stubbed her toe, and the Seeker, unable to stop his head-long rush, had fallen on top of her, sending them both into fits of laughter.

Even then, giddily happy even while living on the edge of death, Kahlan had known the perfection of that day. She had tucked it away in the back of her mind, knowing that in times to come she would need to warm herself with the memory.

Tears pricked at her eyes but she stubbornly held them in check. Her throat felt so tight, so strangled by the weight of the Rada'Han, that she could barely swallow. She fought against the futile urge to reach up and tug at the hated ornament.

Angry with herself for her moment of weakness, Kahlan wiped an errant tear from her cheek.

"My lady, what's wrong?" Alice knelt down before Kahlan, gazing up at her with eyes full of concern.

"Nothing! Everything!" Kahlan gasped, unable to contain the sorrow any longer.

Alice, forgetting all protocol, pulled Kahlan into a tight embrace, whispering in her ear. "You're strong, my lady. Stronger than any man or woman I've ever known. When the time comes, I know you'll make the right choice."

What choice?

There was no choice.

Kahlan had made her decision years before and there was no turning back.

The queen shoved Alice away and rose to her feet. "Alice – you know what has to be done. You promised me you would see to it - "

"After Darken Rahl killed you, my lady," Alice retorted. "You were so sure about it then. But eight years have passed since your son was born, and here you stand, alive and loved, whether you want to admit it or not."

Kahlan gaped at the woman's presumption. "You're only saying that because you want him for yourself!" she snapped, horrified at her loss of control, appalled at the words coming out of her mouth. Kahlan's only worry about Alice's infatuation with Darken that the servant would reveal her secret.

"He doesn't want me! He doesn't even see me. He only wants you," Alice sobbed, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "If you only knew how he looks at you when he doesn't think anyone can see him, and you don't even care."

"That's not true. I care about my family. I care about – "Kahlan stopped herself. She wasn't quite sure of what she meant to say, but she wasn't about to stand here arguing with this woman about her husband like a jealous fishwife

"Do you know what I think, my lady?" Alice declared, calmer now but looking strangely bereft. "I think that you are so full of guilt about being alive that you won't let yourself be happy with what you have – a husband who loves you, a respected position and two healthy children, Why can't you just let go of the past?"

"Is that all it should take for me to be happy, Alice?" Kahlan snapped, beyond caring that Alice was acting like anything but a servant. "A husband who murdered my sister, a son who will become a monster, and let's not forget this," Kahlan yanked at the rada'han encircling her throat. "Everything I was trained for, everything I believed in, all my power – gone. I'm the Mother Confessor, Alice. Do you have any idea what that means" Her shoulders sagged at the fight went out of her. Sinking back down to the chair, Kahlan tried to regain her self-control, the serene façade that saw her through the days. "You don't understand, Alice. Nobody who is not a Confessor could possibly understand."

Alice didn't respond at first, busying herself with putting away her mistress's discarded attire from the reception held earlier that evening.

"I forgot myself, my lady. Please forgive me," Alice finally murmured , but there was no apology in her eyes, nor was there blame. "I know there is much that I will never understand, but I love you, and it makes me sad when I see you so determined to be unhappy."

Kahlan patted Alice on the arm, giving her a wan smile. "There's no need to discuss it further, Alice. We're both tired." She fussed with the ties of her dressing gown, not wanting to meet her servant's troubled eyes. "I think you should probably leave now. I can see to myself tonight." Kahlan stood up again and walked over to where the maid lingered by the door, stricken by the dismissal. "I'm not angry," Kahlan reassured her," We both need to get some sleep. After all, I have a big day to look forward to." The words tasted bitter on her tongue.

"Lord Rahl does care for you, my lady," Alice said quietly as she turned to leave, "and sometimes I think that you care for him more than you're willing to admit, even to yourself." She had once again crossed the divide between mistress and servant, but the queen chose to ignore it.

Meeting the woman's steady gaze Kahlan's voice caught on a strangled sob . "I do know, Alice. Don't you see – that's what makes everything even more terrible."

oOoOo

Darken was so wound up with anticipation that he almost stumbled into the woman leaving Kahlan's chambers.

Alice.

She'd been with Kahlan since the early days of their marriage, but he always had difficulty remembering her name.

The woman stammered an apology at her clumsiness, refusing to meet his eyes. She looked as if she had been weeping.

Darken's heart thudded in his chest. Tonight, of all nights, he wanted Kahlan to be happy.

"Woman…Alice, what's wrong? Is the Queen unwell?"

"She's fine, Lord Rahl." The servant replied, her voice nearly inaudible.

"Then why are you crying?" he barked, not really caring one way or another as long as it didn't affect him or his family.

Her face flushed, Alice met his gaze. "My lord, Lady Kahlan reprimanded me for an oversight and dismissed me for the night, that's all. I was only crying because I displeased her."

Something about the words didn't quite ring true, but Darken was not about to intrude on a matter that didn't concern him.

Besides, he would have sent Alice away himself.

He wanted his wife all to himself tonight.

oOoOo

Kahlan was lying on her bed, musing on her confrontation with Alice, and the mysterious twists and turns of her marriage, when she heard the door to her sitting room swing open.

"Alice – Is that you?"

There was no answer, but she needed none. Kahlan could feel her husband's presence as soon as he stepped into her chambers.

In spite of herself, she felt the heat rise in her face and her heart began to race. Even after nine years, Kahlan's every response to Darken Rahl was immediate and intense.

In the early days of their marriage her only response had been disgust, a cold sense of loathing that threatened to engulf her at Darken's touch. All Kahlan could think about during that dreadful time was how horrified Richard would be if he knew what she was doing. Only her determination to see her plan carried out had given Kahlan the will to survive. She had considered suicide more than once, but such a sin against the Creator would have resulted in eternal separation from Richard, even in the Underworld.

The birth of Nicholas had brought with it new guilt. Darken had not only refused to kill Nicholas, but he had had the effrontery not to murder his wife as well, flying in the face of Kahlan's dire expectations. Kahlan knew Richard's return depended on her strength and determination, but she was ashamed to admit that a part of her had wanted Darken to take the decision out of her hands.

Her husband had also confounded her after Nicholas's birth by not returning to her bed. Desperate for the daughter who would bring Richard back to her, Kahlan had been reduced to approaching her husband. While expressing surprise and pleasure at her request, Darken had, rather surprisingly, not gloated at her humiliation.

And that was when Kahlan's life began to get even more complicated.

Since Nicholas had been conceived within a month of their marriage, both Kahlan and Darken had expected that she would become with child again with little trouble. But such had not been the case.

Dennee had been born several months after Nicholas turned five, and by that time Darken and Kahlan had settled into an intimacy, no matter how reluctant on Kahlan's part, that could not be easily dismissed. Her life had been transformed in ways she could never have imagined. Inevitably, it had become impossible to avoid talking to the man she slept with every night, and their physical relationship had become no longer a burden to be endured, but a pleasure.

Darken was an attractive man, skilled and endlessly inventive in bed. He relished Kahlan's intelligence and combativeness, and never forbade her to speak her mind in private. Kahlan slowly found herself anticipating their encounters, both physical and verbal, rationalizing that what happened in this life that would never be lived would become meaningless once time was set right.

Kahlan was sacrificing her life to help the Seeker. Was it so terrible if she took some enjoyment in doing so?

It was more than physical pleasure that she and Darken had come to share. Kahlan had never been hesitant to confront Darken with her opinions, but as the months and years passed, he often approached her for advice on how to understand the complexities of the troublesome Midlands, or just to vent his frustration at the stubbornness of her people in accepting his authority.

The bond that forged them into a family was Nicholas, the child that should never have been born. As she watched her son grew from a toddler into a talkative and inquisitive child, she occasionally thought she caught a glimpse of the boy her husband might have been at one time. Just as frequently, when Darken gazed at his son or at her, Kahlan thought she saw the boy that still dwelt inside the man.

Darken's tenderness and patience with Nicholas gradually ate away at Kahlan's most deeply entrenched defenses. Because if her husband could be a just ruler with her at his side, if he could love his child, if he could share with her the hurts he had suffered as a child, if he were just a man instead of a monster, how then could Kahlan justify what she planned to do?

How could she be complicit in his murder at the hands of his own brother?

Just as Richard once understood Kahlan in ways nobody ever had before, so now did Darken. Only with her husband could Kahlan share the first words ever spoken by their son, or laugh at his never-ending questions. Only Darken could share her heartbreak when Nicholas was first confronted with the cruelty of the world.

Kahlan had borne Nicholas and had loved him, would always love him, yet Richard would never know her son, could never understand what he meant to her.

And neither would she – a mystery that confounded Kahlan. She knew there was no way to remember a life never lived, yet how could the daily reality of her child's existence not be real?

Kahlan's daughter, Dennee , had come into the world after three days of agonizing labor. Of those hellish hours, Kahlan vividly recalled screaming for both Richard and Darken. She remembered Darken holding her hand, his face drawn and exhausted, commanding her not to leave, ordering Kahlan to live because Dennee needed her, Nicholas needed her and yes, Darken needed her.

So Kahlan had come back from the brink of death, heeding the call of a man she had once hated, a man she was destined to hate again.

During the long weeks of her recovery, Darken spent every moment he could spare from his duties by her side, admiring his new daughter and fretting over his wife.

The healer had made it clear to them both that Kahlan would not survive another pregnancy, and so for the past three years, Darken had treated her as if she were made of glass, afraid that she would shatter at his touch.

Kahlan mourned the loss of their nightly intimacy more deeply than she could have ever envisioned . Darken still spend most of his time with her and the children, still sought her companionship and advice. He even shared her bed on occasion, but he was always so hesitant, so careful with her, that often Kahlan wanted to scream with frustration. She wanted passion and heat, not this cautious refusal to lose control. Argument had been fruitless. They already had two healthy children, Darken had told her, and he would not risk losing Kahlan again. There were other ways to seek release, of course, and Darken was always eager to please her, but something had been lost, and Kahlan knew that he felt it, too.

Perhaps it was for the best, Kahlan had eventually reasoned with herself. Maybe this distance would better prepare her for the inevitable break between this life and the life she would one day resume with Richard.

"Kahlan. What's wrong?" Darken's tone, edged with worry, brought Kahlan back to the present. "I saw Alice weeping in the hallway, and now you look as if you've stepped into another world."

Kahlan felt the bed shift under her husband's weight as he settled himself down next to where she lay . Darken wore only his red dressing robe, and she could tell by the scent of soap and sandalwood that he had just come from his bath, a portent that he intended to spend the night in her bed. Kahlan felt a knot of desire begin to form in the pit of her stomach. It seemed a betrayal when only moments before she had been remembering Richard.

She rolled over onto her back looked up at Darken, into those blue eyes that could change from warm affection one moment to cold threat the next. There was nothing but anxiety in their expression now. "Nothing's wrong, Darken. I'm just tired from the long evening. The ambassador from Tamarang was more tedious than usual tonight. His constant yammering gave me a headache."

He looked unconvinced. "You're sure nothing else is amiss, Kahlan? You look so pale, and you barely touched your food earlier." He splayed his fingers gingerly across her belly. "You would tell me if-"

"I'm not with child." Kahlan snapped, annoyed at his smothering vigilance.

How could I be, she thought, when you take every precaution to prevent it?

She was tired of being treated like a fragile doll, but it seemed unjust to rail at her husband for being considerate of her health. "I just want to be left alone."

Darken snatched his hand away, standing up so quickly that Kahlan had to grab the headboard to keep herself from rolling off the bed. "I'm sorry if I intruded on your sad memories, my love," he drawled." Of course your thoughts would be taken up with my brother on the eve of your birthday, instead of with your own family." Her husband could still turn a harsh phrase when his pride was injured – even with her

Cursing herself for spoiling the quiet mood between them, Kahlan rose to her feet and followed Darken into her sitting room, where he stood facing the hearth, his broad shoulders set rigidly against her.

oOoOo

Darken seethed inwardly as he stared into the fire. He had come here tonight so excited, so eager to give Kahlan a gift that might finally please her.

But nothing Darken could give his wife would ever bring her joy.

No doubt the Seeker and Kahlan had shared a bucolic day of traipsing through the woods on Kahlan's last name day prior to Richard's death. Darken understood his wife well enough to know that she had never forgotten that day, and she never would.

Darken wanted to understand this stubborn devotion, but it galled him that after nine years of marriage she pushed him away. Kahlan would always live in a world he could never enter.

Still – Darken wanted to salvage the evening if it were possible. He had hoped to make his wife's birthday one of contentment, if not happiness.

He knew now that Kahlan would never feel happiness in his presence. She might experience the momentary ecstasy of sexual release in Darken's arms, but he would never see her eyes light up with gladness when he entered the room.

He was determined not to make things worse between them – not tonight of all nights.

Darken caught a scent of jasmine as Kahlan's stepped into the room. "It's your birthday tomorrow," he announced stiffly, back still turned to her. "I know we are going to celebrate quietly, as a family, but I wanted to give you my present first." He stopped speaking, suddenly self-conscious, afraid that he sounded like an awkward boy, not the formidable Lord Rahl.

"Oh," Kahlan said in a small voice, coming forward to stand beside him. "I didn't mean to spoil the surprise," she added, looking at him with such a serious face that Darken felt the knot of injured pride start to unravel in his chest. "It just that I'm starting to feel so old," she ventured, watching him closely.

Kahlan stood in her bare feet, her hair loose about her bare shoulders, her red dressing gown clinging to her body. The glow from the fire cast her in a radiance that took his breath away. "You're more beautiful now than you were on the day I married you." Darken declared impulsively, realizing his mistake as soon as the words slipped out.

Her lips tightening, Kahlan turned away from him and walked over to her dressing table, where she started fiddling with the toiletries strung across it surface.

How stupid to remind her of a day that had been one of the worst of her life!

"I'm sorry," Darken said grudgingly, not accustomed to apologizing to anyone. "I shouldn't have reminded you of something you'd rather forget." The words sounded peevish. He tried again. "It's just that I'm astonished every time I look at you. I can't believe – "

Couldn't believe what?

That she belonged to him.

That he owned her.

Perhaps once Darken had fooled himself with those thoughts, but no longer.

"I can't believe how time never seems to touch you," Darken finshed, realizing that even those words might give offense – a reminder of the years that had passed since Kahlan had lost Richard.

Kahlan gave a shaky laugh, not completely acknowledging the compliment, but plainly trying as hard as he to salvage the evening. "Don't be deceived by the lighting, Darken. I found three gray hairs this morning."

She seated herself in front of the mirror, studying her reflection. "You said something about a gift." A note of false gaiety had entered her voice.

The gift!

Darken reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled forth a package wrapped with gold tissue. Walking over to Kahlan, he gently took one of her slender hands in his and placed the oblong box in her palm.

"Happy Birthday, Kahlan."

oOoOo

Turning aside on her chair, Kahlan studied Darken's present, feeling the weight of it in her hand. Unsettled at the intensity in his voice she started peeling the tissue away from the box, managing with an effort to keep the disappointment from showing on her face

It was another piece of jewelry.

Another meaningless bauble given in an attempt to buy her affections.

After the wrapping lay strewn on the floor, Kahlan opened the red velvet lid of the box.

Lying inside was a diamond necklace – perfectly matched stones that caught and reflected the firelight.

Kahlan felt the heat rise in her cheeks as she regarded the trinket with a growing bitterness.

Why would Darken mock her with this travesty? He had already chained her with a necklace that could never be removed.

But if it was all a mockery, then why had her husband sunk to his knees before her, the blue eyes gazing into hers so eager, so anxious, so akin to Nicholas's that her heart caught in her throat?

"It's lovely, Darken." Kahlan's heard herself speaking, her voice cold and clipped. "But what am I supposed to do with it? In case you hadn't noticed, I already wear one of your gifts around my neck."

Darken's eyes never left hers. "Look again, Kahlan, "he instructed.

She bridled at her husband's lack of reaction to her distress, but forced herself to peer once again into the satin-lined box. Then she saw it, lodged under one of the glittering stones.

A small key, looped on a chain as fragile as a spider's web.

Kahlan's mouth went dry as she began to comprehend the significance of what she was looking at.

"What – ?" she finally managed. Looking at her husband, her dazed voice was little more than a whisper. "Why?"

Darken leaned forward and kissed the back of her hand. "Happy Birthday, my love."

Kahlan reached into the box, fumbling for the tiny object that promised to return at least part of her life to her. Her fingers felt huge and clumsy as she lifted it out by the slender strand of wire. Her hands were so slippery with sweat, shaking so hard that she was having a difficult time keeping a grip on the key, much less bring it up to the miniscule opening of the Rada'Han.

Try as she might, Kahlan could not find where she was supposed to put the key.

Helplessly, she glanced at Darken – a mute plea for assistance, but he only tipped his head slightly in the direction of the mirror.

With sudden understanding, Kahlan realized that her husband was deliberately holding back, knowing that it was only right that she be the one to unlock the door to her own prison.

Turning back to the mirror and steadying her hand, Kahlan's fingers located the slot of the rada'han, slipped the key in and turned it.

She heard a soft 'click' and the shackle fell to the floor.

The rush of magic was instantaneous, flowing through every vein, every muscle and nerve ending, filling her with a power so intense that her body seemed unable to support it, even though it had been there, latent, all along.

Kahlan gasped, collapsing on her knees beside her husband, laughing and crying at the same time as she felt her eyes swirl black. Reaching out blindly, she grabbed Darken by the neck, not in anger, but out of the sheer giddy joy of feeling whole once again and the need to release her magic. Letting go of her power, she heard Darken groan as she felt the air sucked out of the room and sensed the silent boom of thunder.

When she came to herself, Kahlan was lying on the floor, looking over at the man stretched out beside her. "Command me, Confessor," Darken murmured, his eyes dark with love and desire.

Had she confessed him? How was that possible?

Both triumph and alarm flooded over Kalan as she contemplated a future with a confessed Darken Rahl, the most powerful man in D'Hara, at her beck and call.

A mindless slave obedient to his Confessor wife both in bed and in the council chamber.

No challenge, no conflict, no spark.

The Mord'Sith would know. Egremont would find out. They would all turn on Darken and his entire family.

The thought of Darken confessed was as appalling as any contemplation of a confessed Seeker had ever been.

"Why?" Kahlan asked again to test the waters, praying that she was wrong.

"Because I wanted to please…I wanted to make you…." Darken began hesitantly, then halted. Kahlan's heart sank at the tenderness in his voice.

The silence between them seemed to last forever before Darken spoke again, this time in at tone far more familiar to her. "It was time," he concluded simply, leaning over to plant a kiss on Kahlan's forehead. She closed her eyes, thanking the Creator. "If we are ever to have a life together, Kahlan, I have to be able to trust you with all of your powers, and you have to be able to trust me."

"I just confessed you, Darken. What makes you think you can trust me, "Kahlan asked in bemusement, wondering at her willingness to argue against her own freedom.

He brow furrowed in thought as he studied her. "Kahlan, don't you think I anticipated that confessing me would be the first thing you would do once the rada'han fell off? It's exactly what I would have done had I been in your place."

Kahlan bristled at Darken's matter of fact assumption that they were so much alike. "You didn't answer my question, Darken. Why do you think you can trust me now? I can't confess you, but I could confess Egremont, Garen, any of your most loyal retainers."

Darken sighed and pulled her into his arms. Kahlan tucked her head under his chin, resting her cheek against his chest, finding comfort in the rhythmic beat of his heart.

"Kahlan, if I didn't know better I would believe that you wanted me to put the rada'han around your neck again." Darken stroked her sweat-damp hair, the touch of his fingers tingled against her skin, magic meeting magic. "You're too intelligent to turn my subjects against me and start a rebellion. You can't confess every loyal subject in D'Hara, and you know that if I die D'Hara would fall into chaos. Do you think that our children would survive if that occurred? "

Kahlan knew he spoke the truth, but still felt a twinge of resentment at his calm self-assurance. "What do you expect me to do, then, Darken? Does the prisoner kiss the feet of her jailor for removing her shackles?"

"I expect you to be my wife – in every way."

At those words, Kahlan drew away from her husband, propping herself up on her elbows so she could look him in the eye. "I am already your wife in every way I can be, Darken. What more do you want?"

Darken met her gaze without a hint of irony. "I want your loyalty. We need each other, Kahlan, and D'Hara and the Midlands need us to be in harmony with each other."

Kahlan looked away, uncomfortable with the realization that the rada'han had, by taking away many of her choices, made life simpler.

"You have my loyalty, Darken," Kahlan promised aloud.

But so did Richard.

The Seeker would arrive in forty-nine years and thanks to Darken's act, Kahlan was now in a stronger position to see her plan through to the end. Stirring up a rebellion would bring nothing but disaster. Kahlan wanted a strong and peaceful kingdom to bequeath to her children.

So that they could never exist.

Darken slowly rose to his feet and reached down to take Kahlan's hand, pulling her up to face him. Every touch of his fingers, of his body, sent a jolt of magic through her body.

It was very distracting.

"Perhaps, with time, I will have more than your loyalty, Kahlan," Darken said almost wistfully as he brushed his lips lightly against hers, making every nerve ending in her body quiver in response.

"Your Mord'Sith and your armies won't appreciate the fact that my power is no longer restrained, Darken." Kahlan was keen to turn the subject away from the yearning she had seen in her husband's eyes.

He nodded in agreement. "It's a risk, but First Mistress Garen will accept the situation and she commands the loyalty of her sisters. She's fiercely loyal to our son. Egremont knows that I've been considering this – he's the only person I've confided in." The corner of Darken's mouth twitched up in a rueful grin. "And, of course, I'll depend on my Confessor wife to flush out any and all who might plot against us."

Kahlan flushed at the implication that her magic would be a useful tool to benefit Darken's position. But he spoke the truth. Their interests were inextricably aligned, and his enemies were her enemies - at least for the present.

"What of that?" She pointed at the silver rada'han lying on the floor. It looked like such a innocuous delicate thing to have wreaked such havoc in her life.

"That's entirely up to you, Kalan." Darken replied. "A rada'han can sometimes be useful, and you would always have the key, but I will take it away forever if that's your wish."

"Take it away!" She never wanted to see it again.

"Very well." Darken scooped up the cursed thing and passed his hand over it, rendering it the ugly iron-gray collar it had always been.

Then a strange thing happened. For the longest moment, Darken just stared at the metal rada'han as if trying to solve a mystery of which only he was aware, his expression profoundly sad.

He seemed to have forgotten that Kahlan was in the room.

"What's wrong, Darken?" she asked, using her newly regained power to try to read him, but her husband's gaze remained impenetrable to her magic.

"It's nothing," he answered, pocketing the rada'han and forcing a smile back on his face. She knew he was lying, but something in his demeanor warned her not to question him further.

"Nicholas has been working all day on your birthday present, Kahlan, so please act surprised when he gives you a picture that's almost identical to the one he gave you last year."

Kahlan wondered why Darken had mentioned Nicholas out of the blue, but she was always ready to talk about her children, and insulted that her husband thought he had to caution her. "Of course I'll act surprised! It was wrong for you to even tell me, Darken."

"Of course," he agreed, his attention once again focused on her. "I shouldn't have ruined his surprise." Darken bent down and picked up the neglected diamond necklace from the dressing table. "I removed the rada'han you hated, but would you be willing to wear this for me – just for tonight?"

"Of course!" Kahlan sat down in front of the mirror, holding her heavy mane of hair out of Darken's way as he clasped the rope of jewels around her slender throat. Hearing his sharply indrawn breath, she looked up to meet her own reflection. The brilliance of the diamonds set off her pale skin, dark hair and red dressing gown to perfection.

"You are so lovely," he breathed, transfixed. "Stand up and look at me, "he said in a tone of gentle command. Kahlan obeyed without a qualm. It was the least she could do, and she desired him tonight as much as she knew he wanted her.

Her husband touched his lips lightly against Kahlan's forehead, her eyelids, the tip of her nose, and then her lips, all the while trailing his fingers down her throat to the opening of her dressing gown. His touch was like fire scorching through her veins, leaving her gasping.

"Take it off", he ordered in a hoarse whisper, and Kahlan, caught up in the moment, slid the silky material off her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.

She wanted him to crush her against him, to yank his own robe off and carry her to the bed, or even take her on the floor.

But Darken wasn't looking at her body anymore, only into her eyes – with the most naked yearning she had ever seen. Even Richard had never looked at her with such desperate pleading.

"I love you, Kahlan," Darken said quietly. "I know that you'll never love me as much as you loved my brother. I know you'll never forget him. But can't you feel any love for me at all?"

Kahlan choked back a sob, unable to tear her gaze away from his. His eyes were so akin to her son's when Nicholas presented her with some boyish treasure, that it almost broke her heart.

Darken had never actually said the words before this night, and now, in making himself so vulnerable to her, he had ruined everything.

Why was he doing this? Why was he insisting on making this marriage more than it could ever be?

More than she could bear for it to be?

After nine years, Kahlan had come to feel so many things for Darken Rahl – repulsion, disgust, desire, lust, reluctant affection, rage, frustration – but not love.

Love was Richard, and only Richard.

Kahlan's plan to bring the Seeker back to her, and to this once war-torn land, was all that had kept her alive in the early days of her marriage, and if she weakened now, if she said the words this man wanted to hear, the words a clamoring voice deep inside her own mind was urging her to say, then all hope of being reunited with Richard would turn to ashes.

If Kahlan gave even a corner of her heart to Darken, then she would be lost, rudderless, with no signpost to show her the way.

She refused to be swayed from her purpose.

But it was so hard to deny the truth she saw in those eyes as Darken waited for her response.

"I'm sorry, Darken. Love was never part of our bargain, and I never asked for it, or wanted it. Don't ask the impossible of me." Kahlan felt a stab of shame as the words left her lips.

Darken's eyes went dead, as if the light has just been snuffed out behind them, and his expression, so tender only moments before, hardened into an expressionless mask. Without saying a word, he picked up Kahlan's dressing gown and draped it gently around her shoulders, covering her nakedness. Then he turned on his heel and strode toward the door.

"Wait!" Kalan called after him, spurred by an instinct she didn't take time to question.

Darken stopped and looked back at her, his countenance unreadable, still saying nothing.

"Please, Darken. Please - give me a little time."

His features might have relaxed slightly, she couldn't tell through her tears.

Before he opened the door, Darken finally spoke, his tone without inflection. "I'll bring the children to you in the morning. They will want to wish you a happy birthday."

And then he was gone.

Left alone with her thoughts, Kahlan wrapped the wrinkled dressing gown around her body, suddenly cold. Walking over to the mirror, she stared long and hard at her reflection, seeing a woman who possessed the power, greater now than ever before, to choose her own path, but woefully uncertain of where it would lead.

~End~