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Let me kill him," Cara said, her boot strikes sounding like rawhide mallets hammering the polished marble floor.
The supple leather boots Kahlan wore beneath her elegant, white Confessor's dress whispered against the cold stone as she tried to keep pace without letting her legs break into a run.
Cara exhibited no response, keeping her blue eyes ahead to the wide corridor stretching into the distance. A dozen leather- and chain-mail-clad D'Haran soldiers, their unadorned swords sheathed, or crescent-bladed battle-axes hooked on belt hangers, crossed at an intersection just ahead. Though their weapons weren't drawn, every wooden hilt was gripped in a ready fist as vigilant eyes scrutinized the shadows among the doorways and columns to each side. Their hasty bows toward Kahlan only briefly interrupted their attention to their task.
"We can't just kill him," Kahlan explained. "We need answers."
An eyebrow lifted over one icy blue eye. "Oh, I didn't say he wouldn't give us answers before he dies. He will answer any question you have when I'm finished with him." A mirthless smile ghosted across her flawless face. "That is the job of a Mord-Sith: getting people to answer questions"--she paused as the smile returned to widen with professional satisfaction--"before they die."
Kahlan heaved a sigh. "Cara, that's no longer your job--your life. Your job now is to protect Richard."
"That is why you should let me kill him. We should not take a risk by letting this man live."
"No. We first have to find out what's going on, and we're not going to start out doing it the way you want."
Cara's smile, humorless as it was, had vanished again. "As you wish, Mother Confessor."
Kahlan wondered how the woman had managed to change into her skintight red leather outfit so fast. Whenever there was so much as a whiff of trouble, at least one of the three Mord-Sith seemed to materialize out of nowhere in her red leather. Red, as they often pointed out, didn't show blood.
"Are you sure he said that, this man? Those were his words?"
"Yes, Mother Confessor, his exact words. You should let me kill him before he has a chance to try to bring them to pass."
Kahlan ignored the repeated request as they hurried on down the hall. "Where's Richard?"
"You wish me to get Lord Rahl?"
"No! I just want to know where he is, in case there's trouble."
"I would say that this qualifies as trouble."
"You said that there must be two hundred soldiers holding weapons on him. How much trouble can one man cause with all those swords, axes, and arrows pointed at him?"
"My former master, Darken Rahl, knew that steel alone could not always ward danger. That is why he had Mord-Sith nearby and at the ready."
"That evil man would kill people without even bothering to determine if they were really a danger to him. Richard isn't like that, and neither am I. You know that if there is a true threat, I'm not shy about eliminating it; but if this man is more than he seems, then why is he so timidly cowering before all that steel? Besides, as a Confessor I am hardly defenseless against threats that steel won't stop.
"We have to keep our heads. Let's not start leaping to judgments that may be unwarranted."
"If you don't think he could be trouble, then why am I nearly running to just keep up with you?"
Kahlan realized that she was a half a step ahead of the woman. She slowed her pace to a brisk walk. "Because it's Richard we're talking about," she said in a near whisper.
Cara smirked. "You're as worried as I."
"Of course I am. But for all we know, killing this man, if he is more than he seems, could be springing a snare."
"You could be right, but that is the purpose for Mord-Sith."
"So, where is Richard?"
Cara gripped the red leather at her wrist and stretched her armor-backed glove tighter onto her hand as she flexed her fist. Her Agiel, an awesome weapon that appeared to be nothing more than a finger-width foot-long red leather rod, dangled from a fine gold chain at her right wrist, ever at the ready. One just like it, but no weapon in Kahlan's hands, hung on a chain around Kahlan's neck. It had been a gift from Richard, a gift that symbolized the pain and sacrifice they had both endured.
"He is out behind the palace, in one of the private parks." Cara gestured over her shoulder. "The one that way. Raina and Berdine are with him."
Kahlan was relieved to hear that the other two Mord-Sith were watching over him. "Something to do with his surprise for me?"
Kahlan smiled. "Surely he's told you, Cara."
Cara snatched a glimpse out of the corner of her eye. "Of course he has told me."
"Then what is it?"
"He also told me not to tell you."
Kahlan shrugged. "I won't tell him that you told me."
Cara's laugh, like her smile before, bore no humor. "Lord Rahl has a peculiar way of finding out things, especially those things you wish him not to know."
Kahlan knew the truth of that. "So what's he doing out there?"
The muscles in Cara's jaw flexed. "Outdoor things. You know Lord Rahl; he likes to do outdoor things."
Kahlan glanced over to see that Cara's face had turned nearly as red as her leather outfit. "What sort of outdoor things?"
Cara cleared her throat into her armored fist. "He is taming chipmunks."
"He's what? I can't hear you."
Cara waved an impatient hand. "He said that the chipmunks have come out to test the warming weather. He is taming them." Her cheeks rounded as she huffed. "With seeds."
Kahlan smiled at the thought of Richard, the man she loved, the man who had seized command of D'Hara, and had much of the Midlands now eating out of his hand, having a fine afternoon teaching chipmunks to eat seeds out of his hand.
"Well, that sounds innocent enough--feeding seeds to chipmunks."
Cara flexed her armored fist again as they swept between two D'Haran guards. "He is teaching them to eat those seeds," she said through clenched teeth, "out of Raina and Berdine's hands. The two of them were giggling!" She aimed a mortified expression toward the ceiling as she threw her hands up. Her Agiel swung on the gold chain at her wrist. "Mord-Sith--giggling!"
Kahlan pressed her lips tight, trying to keep from breaking into laughter. Cara pulled her long blond braid forward, over her shoulder, stroking it in a way that provoked in Kahlan an unsettling memory of the way Shota, the witch woman, stroked her snakes.
"Well," Kahlan said, trying to cool the other woman's indignation, "maybe it's not by their choice. They are bonded to him. Perhaps Richard ordered it, and they're simply obeying him."
Cara shot her an incredulous look. Kahlan knew that any of the three Mord-Sith would defend Richard to the death--they had shown themselves prepared to sacrifice their lives without hesitation--but though they were bonded to him through magic, they disregarded his orders wantonly if they judged them trivial, unimportant, or unwise. Kahlan imagined that it was because Richard had given them their freedom from the rigid principles of their profession, and they enjoyed exercising that freedom. Darken Rahl, their former master, Richard's father, would have killed them in a heartbeat had he even suspected that they were considering disobeying his orders, no matter how trivial they were.
"The sooner you wed Lord Rahl the better. Then, instead of teaching chipmunks to eat out of Mord-Sith hands, he will be eating out of yours."
Kahlan exhaled in a soft, lilting laugh, thinking about being his wife. It wouldn't be long, now. "Richard will have my hand, but you should know as well as anyone that he will not be eating out of it--and I wouldn't want him to."
"If you regain your senses, come see me, and I will teach you how." Cara turned her attention to the alert D'Haran soldiers. Men at arms were rushing everywhere, checking every hall and looking behind every door, no doubt at Cara's insistence.
"Egan is with Lord Rahl, too. He should be safe while we see to this man."
Kahlan's mirth withered. "How did he get in here, anyway? Did he come in with the petitioners?"
"No." A professional chill settled back into Cara's tone. "But I intend to find out. From what I gather, he just walked up to a patrol of guards not far from the council chambers and asked where he could find Lord Rahl, as if just anyone can walk in and ask to see the Master of D'Hara, as if he was a head butcher that anyone can go to if they want a choice cut of mutton."
"That's when the guards asked him why he wanted to see Richard?"
Cara nodded. "I think we should kill him."
Realization wormed up Kahlan's spine in a cold tingle. Cara wasn't simply an aggressive bodyguard, unconcerned about spilling the blood of others--she was afraid. She was afraid for Richard.
"I want to know how he got in here. He presented himself to a patrol inside the palace; he shouldn't have been able to get inside, wandering around unfettered. What if we have a hitherto-unknown breach in security? Wouldn't it be better to find out before another comes without the courtesy of announcing himself?"
"We can find out if you let me do it my way."
"We don't know enough yet; he could end up dead before we find out anything, then the danger to Richard could become greater."
"All right," Cara said with a sigh, "we will do it your way, as long as you understand that I have orders to follow."
"Lord Rahl told us to protect you as we would protect him." With a toss of her head, Cara flicked her blond braid back over her shoulder. "If you are not careful, Mother Confessor, and needlessly endanger Lord Rahl with your restraint, I will withdraw my permission for Richard to keep you."
Kahlan laughed. Her laughter died out when Cara didn't so much as smile. She was never entirely sure when the Mord-Sith were joking and when they were being deadly serious.
"In here," Kahlan said. "It's shorter this way, and besides, I want to see what petitioners are waiting, in view of our strange visitor. He could even be a diversion to draw our attention away from someone else--the true threat."
Cara's brow twitched as if she had been slighted. "Why do you think I had Petitioners' Hall sealed and ringed with guards?"
"You did it surreptitiously, I hope. There's no need to frighten the wits out of innocent petitioners."
"I told the officers not to frighten the people in there if they didn't have to, but our first responsibility is to protect Lord Rahl."
Kahlan nodded. She couldn't argue with that.
Two heavily muscled guards bowed, along with twenty others nearby, before pulling open the tall, brassbound doors leading to an arcaded passageway. A stone rail supported by fat, vase-shaped balusters ran along the white marble pillars. The barrier, separating the petitioners in the hundred-foot-long room from the officials' passageway, was symbolic rather than real. Skylights thirty feet overhead lit the waiting room, but left the length of the passageway to the muted golden light of lamps hung in the peak of each small vault in its ceiling.
It was a long-standing custom for people--petitioners--to come to the Confessors' Palace to seek any number of things, from settlement of disagreements over the rights of peddlers to coveted street corners, to officials of different lands seeking armed intervention in border disputes. Matters that could be handled by city officials were directed to the proper offices. Matters brought by dignitaries of the lands, if those matters were deemed to be important enough, or could be handled in no other way, were taken before the council. Petitioners' Hall was where officers of protocol determined the disposition of requests.
When Darken Rahl, Richard's father, had attacked the Midlands, many of the officials in Aydindril had been killed, among them Saul Witherrin, the Chief of Protocol, along with most of his office. Richard had defeated Darken Rahl, and being the gifted heir, had ascended to Master of D'Hara. He had ended the bickering and battling among the lands of the Midlands by demanding their surrender in order to forge them all into a force capable of withstanding the common threat from the Old World, from the Imperial Order.
Kahlan found it unsettling to be the Mother Confessor who had reigned over the end of the Midlands as a formal entity, a union of sovereign lands, but she knew that her first responsibility was to the lives of the people, not to tradition; if not stopped, the Imperial Order would cast the world into slavery, and the people of the Midlands would be its chattel. Richard had accomplished what his father could not, but did so for entirely different reasons. She loved Richard and knew his benevolent intent in seizing power.
Soon they would be wedded, and their marriage would unite the Midlands and D'Hara in peace and unity for all time. More than that, though, it would be a personal fulfillment of their love and deepest desire: to be one.
Kahlan missed Saul Witherrin; he had been a capable aide. With the council now dead, too, and the Midlands now a part of D'Hara, matters of protocol were in disarray. A few frustrated D'Haran officers were standing at the railing, attempting to minister to the petitioners' needs.
As she entered, Kahlan's gaze swept the waiting crowd, analyzing the nature of problems brought to the palace this day. By their dress, most appeared to be people from the surrounding city of Aydindril: labors, shopkeepers, and merchants.
She saw a knot of children she knew from the day before when Richard had taken her to watch them playing a game of Ja'La. It was the first time she had seen the fast-paced game, and it had been an entertaining diversion for a couple of hours: to watch children play and laugh. The children probably wanted Richard to come watch another game; he had been an ardent supporter of each team. Even if he had picked one team to cheer over the other, Kahlan doubted it would have made any difference; children were drawn to Richard, seeming to instinctively sense his kind heart.
Kahlan recognized several diplomats from a few of the smaller lands, who she hoped had come to accept Richard's offer of a peaceful surrender and union into D'Haran rule. She knew the leaders of those lands, and was expecting them to heed her urging to join with them in the cause of freedom.
She recognized, too, a group of diplomats from some of the larger lan63ds that had standing armies. They had been expected, and later that day Richard and Kahlan were to meet with them, along with any other newly arrived representatives, to hear their decision.
She wished Richard would find himself something more suitable to wear. His woods clothes had served him well, but he now needed to present a more fitting image of the position he found himself in. He was so much more than a woods guide now.
Having served nearly her whole life as a person of authority, Kahlan knew that it often smoothed matters of leadership if you matched people's expectations. Kahlan doubted people who needed a woods guide would have followed Richard if he hadn't dressed for the woods. In a way, Richard was their guide in this treacherous new world of untested allegiances and new enemies. He often asked her advice; she was going to have to talk to him about his clothes.
When the people assembled saw the Mother Confessor striding into the passageway, conversation stilled and they began going to a knee in deep bows. Despite the fact that she was of an unprecedentedly young age for the post, there was no one of higher authority in the Midlands than the Mother Confessor. The Mother Confessor was the Mother Confessor, no matter the face of the woman who held the office. People bowed not so much to the woman as to that ancient authority.
Matters of Confessors were an enigma to most people of the Midlands; Confessors chose the Mother Confessor. To Confessors, age was of secondary consideration.
Though she was chosen to preserve the freedoms and rights of the people of the Midlands, people rarely saw it in those terms. To most, a ruler was a ruler. Some were good, some were bad. As the ruler of rulers, the Mother Confessor encouraged the good, and suppressed the bad. If a ruler proved bad enough, it was within her power to eliminate them. That was the ultimate purpose of a Mother Confessor. To most people, though, such far removed matters of governance simply seemed the squabbling of rulers.
In the sudden silence that filled Petitioners' Hall, Kahlan paused to acknowledge the gathered visitors.
A young woman standing against the far wall watched as all those around her fell to one knee. She glanced in Kahlan's direction, back to those kneeling, and then followed suit.
Kahlan's brow tightened.
In the Midlands, the length of a woman's hair denoted her power and standing. Matters of power, no matter how trivial they might seem on the surface, were taken seriously in the Midlands. Not even a queen's hair was allowed to be as long as a Confessor's, and no Confessor's hair was as long as that of the Mother Confessor.
This woman had a thick mass of brown hair close to the length of Kahlan's.
Kahlan knew nearly every person of high rank in the Midlands; it was her duty, and she took it seriously. A woman with hair that long was obviously a person of high standing, but Kahlan didn't recognize her. There was likely to be no man or woman in the entire city, other than Kahlan, who would outrank the woman--if she was in fact from the Midlands.
"Rise, my children," Kahlan said in formal response to the tops of the waiting, bowed heads.
Dresses and coats rustled as everyone began coming to their feet, most keeping their eyes to the floor, out of respect, or needless fear. The woman rose to her feet, twisting a simply made kerchief in her fingers, watching those around her. She turned her brown eyes to the floor, as most of the others were.
"Cara," Kahlan whispered, "could that woman there, with the long hair, be from D'Hara?"
Cara had been watching her, too; she had learned some of the customs of the Midlands. Though Cara's long blond hair was about the length of Kahlan's, she was D'Haran. They didn't live by the same customs.
"Her nose is too 'cute' to be D'Haran."
"I'm serious. Do you think she could be D'Haran?"
Cara studied the woman a moment longer. "I doubt it. D'Haran women don't wear flower-print dresses, nor are the dresses they do wear of that cut. But clothes can be changed to fit the occasion, or to fit in with local people."
The dress didn't really fit the local dress of Aydindril, but it might not be so out of place in other, more remote, areas of the Midlands. Kahlan nodded and turned to a waiting captain, motioning him over.
He leaned his head close as she spoke in a low tone. "There is a woman with long brown hair standing against the wall in the back, over my left shoulder. Do you see who I'm talking about?"
"The pretty one, in the blue kirtle?"
"Yes. Do you know why she's here?"
"She said she wished to speak with Lord Rahl."
Kahlan's brow drew tighter. She noticed that Cara's did, too. "What about?"
"She said that she's looking for a man--Cy something--I didn't recognize his name. She said he's been missing since last autumn, and she was told that Lord Rahl would be able to help her."
"Is that right," Kahlan said. "And did she say what business she has with this missing man?"
The captain glanced to the woman and then brushed his sandy hair back from his forehead. "She said that she's to marry him."
Kahlan nodded. "It could be that she's a dignitary, but if she is, I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know her name."
The captain glanced at a tattered list with scribbles all over it. He turned the paper and scanned the other side until he found what he was looking for. "She said her name was Nadine. She gave no title."
"Well, please see to it that Lady Nadine is taken to a private waiting room where she will be comfortable. Tell her that I will come speak with her and see if I can help. Have dinner brought to her, along with anything else she might require. Give her my apology and tell her that I have something of vital importance that I must attend to first, but I will come see her as soon as I am able, and that I wish to do what I can to help her."
Kahlan could understand the woman's distress if she really was separated from her love and was searching for him. Kahlan had been in that situation herself and knew well the anguish.
"I'll see to it at once, Mother Confessor."
"One other thing, captain." Kahlan watched the woman twisting her kerchief. "Tell Lady Nadine that there is trouble about, what with the war with the Old World, and that for her own safety we must insist that she remain in the room until I can come to speak with her. Post a heavy guard outside the room. Place archers at a safe distance down the hall to either side of the door.
"If she comes out, insist that she must return to the room at once and wait. If you must, tell her that it is by my command. If she still tries to leave"--Kahlan looked into the captain's waiting blue eyes--"kill her."
The captain bowed as Kahlan swept on through the passageway, Cara right at her heels.
"Well, well," Cara said, once outside Petitioners' Hall, "at last the Mother Confessor comes to her senses. I knew I had a good reason for allowing Lord Rahl to keep you. You will make him a worthy wife."
Kahlan turned down the corridor toward the room where guards held the man. "I haven't changed my mind about anything, Cara. Considering our strange visitor, I'm giving Lady Nadine every chance to live, every chance I can afford to give, but you're mistaken if you think I'll balk at doing whatever it takes to protect Richard. Besides being the man I love more than life itself, Richard is a man of vital importance to the freedom of the people of both D'Hara and the Midlands. There's no telling what the Imperial Order would try in order to get to him."
Cara smiled, sincerely, this time. "I know he loves you the same. That's why I don't like you going to see this man; Lord Rahl may separate me from my hide if he thinks I allowed you near danger."
"Richard is one born with the gift; I, too, have been born with magic. Darken Rahl sent quads to kill the Confessors because there is little danger to a Confessor from one man."
Kahlan felt the familiar, yet distant anguish of their deaths. Distant, because it seemed so long ago, though it had been hardly a year. For months, in the beginning, she had felt as if she should be dead along with her sister Confessors, and that she had somehow betrayed them by escaping all the traps laid for her. Now, she was the last.
With a flick of her wrist, Cara snapped her Agiel into her fist. "Even a man, like Lord Rahl, born with the gift? Even a wizard?"
"Even a wizard, and even if, unlike Richard, he knows how to use his power. I not only know how to use mine, I am very experienced at it. I long ago lost count of the number…"
As Kahlan's words trailed off, Cara considered her Agiel, rolling it in her fingers. "I guess there is even less than 'little' danger--with me there."
When they reached the richly carpeted and paneled corridor they were seeking, it was thick with soldiers and bristling with steel from swords, axes, and pikes. The man was being held in a small, elegant reading room close to the rather simple one Richard liked to use for meeting with officers and for studying the journal he had found in the Wizard's Keep. The soldiers hadn't wanted to risk an escape attempt and had simply stuffed the man in the room nearest to the spot they found him, pinning him down until it could be decided what was to be done.
Kahlan gently took the elbow of a soldier to urge him back out of the way. The muscles of his bare arm felt as hard as iron. His pike, pointed toward the closed door, could hardly have been more steady had it been embedded in granite. There had to be fifty pikes likewise aimed at the silent door. More men, gripping swords or axes, hunkered beneath the pike points.
The guard turned as Kahlan tugged on his arm. "Let me through, soldier."
The man gave way. Others glanced back and began moving aside. Cara shouldered her way ahead of Kahlan, pushing men out of the way. They did so reluctantly, not out of disrespect, but out of concern for the danger that waited beyond the door. Even as they moved aside, they kept their weapons pointed toward the thick oak door.
Inside, the windowless, dimly lit room smelled of leather and sweat. A lanky man squatted on the edge of an embroidered footstool. He seemed too spare, should he make the wrong move, to permit all the steel aimed at him to find a virgin patch to penetrate. His young eyes dithered among the steel and grim glares until he caught sight of Kahlan's approaching white dress. His tongue darted out to wet his lips as he looked up expectantly.
When the burly soldiers in leather and chain mail behind him saw Kahlan and Cara forcing their way into the room, one of them landed the side of his boot on the small of the young man's back, pitching him forward.
"Kneel, you filthy cur."
The young man, dressed in an outsized soldier's uniform that looked to have been scrounged together from dissimilar sources, peered up at Kahlan, then over his shoulder at the man who had kicked him. He ducked his head of disheveled dark hair and shielded it with a gangly arm, expecting a blow.
"That's enough," Kahlan said in a quietly authoritative tone. "Cara and I wish to speak with him. All of you, wait outside, please."
The soldiers balked, reluctant to life a weapon from the young man cowering on the floor.
"You heard her," Cara said. "Out."
"But--" an officer began.
"You doubt that a Mord-Sith is capable of handling this one scrawny man? Now, go wait outside."
Kahlan was surprised that Cara hadn't raised her voice. Mord-Sith didn't have to raise their voices to get people to follow their orders, but still it surprised her, considering Cara's nervousness over the young man before them. The men began withdrawing, turning sideways to eye the intruder on the floor as they filed out the door. The knuckles of the officer's fist around his sword hilt were white. As he backed out last, he gently closed the door with his other hand.
The young man looked up from under his arm to the two women standing three strides away. "Are you going to have me killed?"
Kahlan didn't answer the question directly. "We have come to talk with you. I am Kahlan Amnell, the Mother Confessor--"
"Mother Confessor!" He straightened on his knees. A boyish grin swept onto his face. "Why, you're beautiful! I never expected you to be so beautiful."
He put a hand to a knee and began to rise. Cara's Agiel was instantly at the ready.
"Stay where you are."
He froze, staring at the red Agiel before his face, and then lowered the knee back onto the fringe of the crimson carpet. Lamps on the fluted mahogany pilasters supporting shallow pediments over bookcases to each side of the room cast flickering light across his bony face. He was hardly more than a boy.
"Can I have my weapons back, please? I need my sword. If I can't have that, then I'd like my knife, at least."
Cara heaved an irritated sigh, but Kahlan spoke first. "You are in a very precarious position, young man. None of us is in the mood to be indulgent if this is some kind of prank."
He nodded earnestly. "I understand. I'm not playing a game. I swear."
"Then tell me what you said to the soldiers."
His grin returned as he lifted a hand, gesturing casually toward the door. "Well, like I was telling those men when I was--"
Fists at her side, Kahlan advanced a stride. "I told you, this is no game! You're only alive by my grace! I want to know what you're doing here, and I want to know right now! Tell me what you said!"
The young man blinked. "I'm an assassin, sent by Emperor Jagang. I'm here to kill Richard Rahl. Can you direct me to him, please?"
Copyright © 1997 by Terry Goodkind