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To Keep the Bargain
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose above the great mountainous island of Tremalking. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
East the wind blew across Tremalking, where the fair-skinned Amayar farmed their fields, and made fine glass and porcelain, and followed the peace of the Water Way. The Amayar ignored the world beyond their scattered islands, for the Water Way taught that this world was only illusion, a mirrored reflection of belief, yet some watched the wind carry dust and deep summer heat where cold winter rains should be falling, and they remembered tales heard from the Atha'an Miere. Tales of the world beyond, and what prophecy said was to come. Some looked to a hill where a massive stone hand rose from the earth, holding a clear crystal sphere larger than many houses. The Amayar had their own prophecies, and some of those spoke of the hand and the sphere. And the end of illusions.
Onward the wind blew into the Sea of Storms, eastward beneath a searing sun in a sky abandoned by clouds, whipping the tops of green sea swells, battling winds from the south and westward winds, shearing and swirling as the waters below heaved. Not yet the storms of winter's heart, though winter should have been half gone, much less the greater storms of a dying summer, but winds and currents that could be used by ocean-faring folk to coast around the continent from World's End to Mayene and beyond, then back again. Eastward the wind howled, over rolling ocean where the great whales rose and sounded, and flying fish soared on outstretched fins two paces and more across, eastward, now whirling north, east and north, over small fleets of fishing ships dragging their nets in the shallower seas. Some of those fishermen stood gaping, hands idle on the lines, staring at a huge array of tall vessels and smaller that purposefully rode the wind's hard breath, shattering swells with bluff bows, slicing swells with narrow, their banner a golden hawk with talons clutching lightning, a multitude of streaming banners like portents of storm. East and north and on, and the wind reached the broad, ship-filled harbor of Ebou Dar, where hundreds of Sea Folk vessels rode as they did in many ports, awaiting word of the Coramoor, the Chosen One.
Across the harbor the wind roared, tossing small ships and large, across the city itself, gleaming white beneath the unfettered sun, spires and walls and color-ringed domes, streets and canals bustling with the storied southern industry. Around the shining domes and slender towers of the Tarasin Palace the wind swirled, carrying the tang of salt, lifting the flag of Altara, two golden leopards on a field of red and blue, and the banners of ruling House Mitsobar, the Sword and Anchor, green on white. Not yet the storm, but a harbinger of storms.
Skin prickled between Aviendha's shoulder blades as she strode ahead of her companions through palace hallways tiled in dozens of pleasing bright hues. A sense of being watched that she had last felt while still wed to the spear. Imagination, she told herself. Imagination and knowing there are enemies about I cannot face! Not so long ago that crawling sensation had meant someone might be intending to kill her. Death was nothing to fear--everyone died, today or on another--but she did not want to die like a rabbit kicking in a snare. She had toh to meet.
Servants scurried by close along the walls, bobbing bows and curtsies, dropping their eyes almost as if they understood the shame of the lives they lived, yet surely it could not be them that made her want to twist her shoulders. She had tried schooling herself to see servants, but even now, with the skin creeping on her back, her gaze slid around them. It had to be imagination, and nerves. This was a day for imagination and nerves.
Unlike the servants, rich silk tapestries snagged at her eye, and the gilded stand-lamps and ceiling lamps lining the corridors. Paper-thin porcelain in reds and yellows and greens and blues stood in wall niches and tall openwork cabinets alongside ornaments of gold and silver, ivory and crystal, scores upon scores of bowls and vases and caskets and statuettes. Only the most beautiful truly caught her gaze; whatever wetlanders thought, beauty held more worth than gold. There was much beauty here. She would not have minded taking her share of the fifth from this place.
Vexed with herself, she frowned. That was not an honorable thought beneath a roof that had offered her shade and water freely. Without ceremony, true, but also without debt or blood, steel or need. Yet better that than thinking about a small boy alone somewhere out in this corrupt city. Any city was corrupt--of that much she was certain, now, having seen some part of four--but Ebou Dar was the last where she would have let a child run loose. What she could not understand was why thoughts of Olver came unless she worked to avoid them. He was no part of the toh she had to Elayne, and to Rand al'Thor. A Shaido spear had taken his father, starvation and hardship his mother, yet had it been her own spear that took both, the boy was still a treekiller, Cairhienin. Why should she fret over a child from that blood? Why? She attempted to concentrate on the weave she was to make, but although she had practiced under Elayne's eye until she could have formed it sleeping, Olver's wide-mouthed face intruded. Birgitte worried about him even more than she, but Birgitte's breast held a strangely soft heart for small boys, especially ugly ones.
Sighing, Aviendha gave up trying to ignore her companions' conversation behind her, though irritation crackled through it like heat lightning. Even that was better than upsetting herself over a son of treekillers. Oathbreakers. A despised blood the world would be better off without. No concern or worry of hers. None. Mat Cauthon would find the boy in any case. He could find anything, it seemed. And listening settled her, somehow. The prickling faded away.
"I don't like it one bit!" Nynaeve was muttering, continuing an argument begun back in their rooms. "Not a bit, Lan, do you hear me?" She had announced her dislike at least twenty times already, but Nynaeve never surrendered just because she had lost. Short and dark-eyed, she strode fiercely, kicking her divided blue skirts, one hand rising to hover near her thick, waist-long braid, then thrust down firmly before rising again. Nynaeve kept a tight hold on anger and irritation when Lan was around. Or tried to. An inordinate pride filled her about marrying him. The close-fitting embroidered blue coat over her yellow-slashed silk riding dress hung open, showing far too much bosom in the wetlander way, just so she could display his heavy gold finger ring on a fine chain around her neck. "You have no right to promise to take care of me like that, Lan Mandragoran," she went on firmly. "I am not a porcelain figurine!"
He paced at her side, a man of proper size, towering head and shoulders and more above her, the eye-wrenching cloak of a Warder hanging down his back. His face seemed hacked from stone, and his gaze weighed the threat in every servant who passed, examined every crossing corridor and wall niche for hidden attackers. Readiness radiated from him, a lion on the brink of his charge. Aviendha had grown up around dangerous men, but never one to match Aan'allein. Had death been a man, she would have been him.
"You are Aes Sedai, and I am a Warder," he said in a deep, level voice. "Taking care of you is my duty." His tone softened, conflicting sharply with his angular face and bleak, never-changing eyes. "Besides, caring for you is my heart's desire, Nynaeve. You can ask or demand anything of me, but never to let you die without trying to save you. The day you die, I die."
That last he had not said before, not in Aviendha's hearing, and it hit Nynaeve like a blow to the stomach; her eyes started half out of her head, and her mouth worked soundlessly. She appeared to recover quickly, though, as always. Pretending to resettle her blue-plumed hat, a ridiculous thing like a strange bird roosting atop her head, she shot a glance at him from beneath the wide brim.
Aviendha had begun to suspect that the other woman often used silence and supposedly significant looks to cover ignorance. She suspected Nynaeve knew little more about men, about dealing with one man, than she did herself. Facing them with knives and spears was much easier than loving one. Much easier. How did women manage being married to them? Aviendha had a desperate need to learn, and no idea how. Married to Aan'allein only a day, Nynaeve had changed much more than simply in trying to control her temper. She seemed to flit from startlement to shock, however much she attempted to hide it. She fell into dreaminess at odd moments, blushed at innocuous questions, and--she denied this fiercely, even when Aviendha had seen her--she giggled over nothing at all. There was no point in trying to learn anything from Nynaeve.
"I suppose you're going to tell me about Warders and Aes Sedai again, as well," Elayne said coolly to Birgitte. "Well, you and I aren't married. I expect you to guard my back, but I will not have you making promises about me behind it." Elayne wore garments as inappropriate as Nynaeve's, a gold-embroidered Ebou Dari riding dress of green silk, suitably high-necked but with an oval opening that bared the inner slopes of her breasts. Wetlanders spluttered at the mention of a sweat tent or being unclothed in front of gai'shain, then walked about half-exposed where any stranger could see. Aviendha did not really mind for Nynaeve, but Elayne was her near-sister. And would be more, she hoped.
The raised heels of Birgitte's boots made her almost a hand taller than Nynaeve, if still shorter than Elayne or Aviendha. In dark blue coat and wide green trousers, she carried herself with much of the same warily confident readiness as Lan, though it seemed more casual in her. A leopard lying on a rock, and not nearly so lazy as she appeared. There was no arrow nocked in the bow Birgitte carried, but for all her stroll and smiles, she could have a shaft out of the quiver at her waist before anyone could blink, and be loosing her third before anybody else could have fitted a second to bowstring.
She gave Elayne a wry grin and a shake of her head that swung a golden braid as long and thick as Nynaeve's dark one. "I promised to your face, not behind your back," she said dryly. "When you've learned a little more, I won't have to tell you about Warders and Aes Sedai." Elayne sniffed and lifted her chin haughtily, busying herself with the ribbons of her hat, which was covered with long green plumes and worse than Nynaeve's. "Perhaps a great deal more," Birgitte added. "You're tying another knot in that bow."
Had Elayne not been her near-sister, Aviendha would have laughed at the crimson that flooded her cheeks. Tripping someone who tried to walk too high was always fun, or watching it done, and even a short fall was worth a laugh. As it was, she leveled a firm stare at Birgitte, a promise that more might bring retribution. She liked the woman despite all her secrets, but the difference between a friend and a near-sister was a thing these wetlanders seemed unable to comprehend. Birgitte only smiled, glancing from her to Elayne, and murmured under her breath. Aviendha caught the word "kittens." Worse, it sounded fond. Everyone must have heard. Everyone!
"What's gotten into you, Aviendha?" Nynaeve demanded, prodding her shoulder with a stiff finger. "Do you intend to stand there blushing all day? We are in a hurry."
Only then did Aviendha realize by the heat in her face that she must be as red as Elayne. And standing still as stone besides, when they had need for haste. Cut by a word, like a girl newly wedded to the spear and unused to the banter among Maidens. She had almost twenty years, and she was behaving like a child playing with her first bow. That added flames to her cheeks. Which was why she all but leaped around the next turning and very nearly ran headlong into Teslyn Baradon.
Skidding awkwardly on red-and-green floor tiles, Aviendha half-fell backward, catching herself against Elayne and Nynaeve. This time she managed not to blush herself to fire, but she wanted to. She was shaming her near-sister as much as herself. Elayne always held her composure, no matter what. Luckily, Teslyn Baradon took the encounter little better.
The sharp-faced woman recoiled in surprise, gaping before she could stop herself, then shifting her narrow shoulders irritably. Gaunt cheeks and a narrow nose hid the ageless quality of the Red sister's features, and her red dress, brocaded in a blue that was nearly black, only made her appear bonier, yet she quickly gathered a clan roofmistress's self-possession, dark brown eyes as cool as deep shadows. They slid past Aviendha dismissively, ignoring Lan like a tool she had no use for, burned a brief moment at Birgitte. Most Aes Sedai disapproved of Birgitte being a Warder, though none could give a reason beyond sour mutters about tradition. Elayne and Nynaeve, however, the woman fixed by turns. Aviendha could have tracked yesterday's wind before reading anything on Teslyn Baradon's face now.
"I did already tell Merilille," she said in a thick Illianer accent, "but I may as well put your minds at rest, also. Whatever…mischief…you do be about, Joline and I will no interfere. I did see to that. Elaida may never learn of it, if you do have some care. Stop gaping at me like carp, children," she added with a grimace of distaste. "I be neither blind nor deaf. I do know of Sea Folk Windfinders in the palace, and secret meetings with Queen Tylin. And other things." That thin mouth tightened, and though her tone remained serene, her dark gaze flared with anger. "You will pay dearly yet for those other things, you and those who do allow you to play at being Aes Sedai, but I will look aside for now. Atonement can wait."
Nynaeve took a tight grip on her braid, back straight, head high, and her own eyes blazed. Under different circumstances Aviendha might have found some sympathy for the target of the tongue-lashing plainly about to erupt. Nynaeve's tongue carried more spines than a hair-needle segade, and sharper ones. Coldly, Aviendha considered this woman who thought she could look right through her. A Wise One did not stoop to thrashing someone with her fists, but she was still only an apprentice; perhaps it would not cost her ji if she just bruised this Teslyn Baradon a little. She opened her mouth to give the Red sister a chance to defend herself at the same instant Nynaeve opened hers, yet Elayne spoke first.
"What we are about, Teslyn," she said in a chill voice, "is none of your business." She, too, stood straight, her eyes blue ice; a chance ray of light from a high window caught her golden-red curls, seeming to set them afire. Right then, Elayne could have made a roofmistress seem a goatherd with too much oosquai in her belly. It was a skill she honed well. She delivered each word with cold crystal dignity. "You have no right to interfere in anything we do, in anything that any sister does. No right whatsoever. So pull your nose out of our coats, you summer ham, and be glad we do not choose to take issue with you supporting a usurper on the Amyrlin Seat."
Perplexed, Aviendha glanced sideways at her near-sister. Pull her nose out of their coats? She and Elayne, at least, were not wearing coats. A summer ham? What did that mean? Wetlanders often said peculiar things, but the other women all looked as puzzled as she. Only Lan, staring at Elayne askance, appeared to understand, and he seemed…startled. And perhaps amused. It was difficult to tell; Aan'allein controlled his features well.
Teslyn Baradon sniffed, pinching her face even tighter. Aviendha was trying hard to call these people by only part of their names the way they themselves did--when she used a whole name, they thought she was upset!--but she could not begin to imagine being so intimate with Teslyn Baradon. "I will leave you foolish children to your business," the woman growled. "Be sure you do no get your noses caught in a worse crack than they already do be."
As she turned to go, gathering her skirts grandly, Nynaeve caught her arm. Wetlanders usually let emotion gild their faces, and Nynaeve's was the image of conflict, anger struggling to break through fixed determination. "Wait, Teslyn," she said reluctantly. "You and Joline may be in danger. I told Tylin, but I think she may be afraid to tell anyone else. Unwilling, anyway. It's nothing anybody really wants to talk about." She drew a long, deep breath, and if she was thinking of her own fears in the matter, she had cause. There was no shame in feeling fear, only in giving way to it, or letting it show. Aviendha felt a flutter in her own belly as Nynaeve went on. "Moghedien has been here in Ebou Dar. She might still be. And maybe another of the Forsaken, too. With a gholam, a kind of Shadowspawn the Power won't touch. It looks like a man, but it was made, and made to kill Aes Sedai. Steel doesn't seem to hurt it either, and it can squeeze through a mousehole. The Black Ajah is here, as well. And there's a storm coming, a bad storm. Only it isn't a storm, not weather. I can feel it; that's a skill I have, a Talent, maybe. There's danger headed for Ebou Dar, and trouble worse than any wind or rain or lightning."
"The Forsaken, a storm that is no a storm, and some Shadow-spawn I did never hear of before," Teslyn Baradon said wryly. "Not to mention the Black Ajah. Light! The Black Ajah! And the Dark One himself, perhaps?" Her twisted smile was razor thin. She plucked Nynaeve's hand from her sleeve contemptuously. "When you do be back in the White Tower where you belong, in white as you all truly belong, you will learn no to waste your hours with wild fancies. Or to carry your tales to sisters." Running her eyes over them, and once more skipping past Aviendha, she gave a loud sniff and marched off down the hallway so quickly that servants had to leap from her path.
"That woman has the nerve to…!" Nynaeve spluttered, glaring after the retreating woman and strangling her braid with both hands. "After I made myself…!" She almost choked on her spleen. "Well, I tried." And now regretted the attempt, by the sound.
"You did," Elayne agreed with a sharp nod, "and more than she deserves. Denying that we're Aes Sedai! I won't put up with that anymore! I won't!" Her voice had only seemed cold before; now it was cold, and grim.
"Can one like that be trusted?" Aviendha muttered. "Maybe we should be sure she cannot interfere." She examined her fist; Teslyn Baradon would see that. The woman deserved to be caught by the Shadowsouled, by Moghedien or another. Fools deserved whatever their foolishness brought.
Nynaeve appeared to consider the suggestion, but what she said was "If I didn't know better, I'd think she was ready to turn on Elaida." She clicked her tongue in exasperation.
"You can dizzy yourself trying to read the currents in Aes Sedai politics." Elayne did not say Nynaeve should know that by now, but her tone did. "Even a Red might be turning against Elaida, for some reason we can't begin to imagine. Or she could be trying to make us lower our guard, so she can somehow trick us into putting ourselves into Elaida's hands. Or--"
Lan coughed. "If any of the Forsaken are coming," he said in a voice like polished stone, "they could be here any moment. Or that gholam could. In either case, it would be best to be elsewhere."
"With Aes Sedai, always a little patience," Birgitte murmured as though quoting. "But the Windfinders don't seem to have any," she continued, "so you might do well to forget Teslyn and remember Renaile."
Elayne and Nynaeve turned stares on the Warders cold enough to give ten Stone Dogs pause. Neither liked running from the Shadowsouled and this gholam, for all they were the ones who had decided there was no choice. Certainly neither liked being reminded that they needed to run to meet the Windfinders almost as much as to escape the Forsaken. Aviendha would have studied those looks--Wise Ones did with a glance or a few words what she had always needed the threat of spear or fist for, only they usually did it faster and with more success--she would have studied Elayne and Nynaeve, except that their glares had no visible effect on the pair at all. Birgitte grinned and cut her eyes toward Lan, who shrugged back at her with obvious forbearance.
Elayne and Nynaeve gave over. Unhurriedly, and unnecessarily, straightening their skirts, they each took one of Aviendha's arms before setting off again without so much as a glance to see that the Warders followed. Not that Elayne needed to, with the Warder bond. Or Nynaeve, if not for the same reason; Aan'allein's bond might belong to another, but his heart hung alongside his ring on that chain around her neck. They made a great show of strolling casually, unwilling to let Birgitte and Lan think they had been brought to hurry, yet the truth was, they did walk faster than before.
As if to make up for that, they chatted with deliberate idleness, choosing the most frivolous subjects. Elayne regretted not having a chance to truly see the Festival of Birds, two days before, and never gave a blush for the scant garments many people had worn. Nynaeve did not blush either, but she quickly began talking about the Feast of Embers, to be held that night. Some of the servants claimed there would be fireworks, supposedly made by a refugee
Illuminator. Several traveling shows had come to the city with their strange animals and acrobats, which interested both Elayne and Nynaeve, since they had spent some time with such a show. They talked of seamstresses, and the varieties of lace available in Ebou Dar, and the different qualities of silk and linen that could be bought, and Aviendha found herself responding with pleasure to comments on how well her gray silk riding dress looked on her, and the other garments given to her by Tylin Quintara, fine woolens and silks, and the stockings and shifts to go with them, and jewelry. Elayne and Nynaeve also had received extravagant gifts. All together their presents filled a number of chests and bundles that had been carried down to the stables by servants, along with their saddlebags.
"Why are you scowling, Aviendha?" Elayne asked, giving her a pat on the arm and a smile. "Don't worry. You know the weave; you will do just fine."
Nynaeve leaned her head close and whispered, "I'll fix you a tea when I have a chance. I know several that will soothe your stomach. Or any woman's troubles." She patted Aviendha's arm, too.
They did not understand. No comforting words or teas would cure what ailed her. She was enjoying talk of lace and embroidery! She did not know whether to growl in disgust or wail in despair. She was growing soft. Never before in her life had she looked at a woman's dress except to think where it might be hiding a weapon, never to notice the color and cut, or think how it would look on her. It was past time to be away from this city, away from wetlander palaces. Soon she would start simpering. She had not seen Elayne or Nynaeve do that, but everyone knew wetlander women simpered, and it was obvious she had become as weak as any milk-water wetlander. Strolling arm-in-arm, chatting about lace! How was she to reach her belt knife if someone attacked them? A knife might be useless against the likeliest assailants, but she had had faith in steel long before she knew she could channel. Should anyone try to harm Elayne or Nynaeve--especially Elayne, but she had promised Mat Cauthon to protect them both as surely as Birgitte and Aan'allein had--should anyone try, she would plant steel in their hearts. Lace! As they walked, she wept inside at how soft she had become.
Huge, paired stable doors fronted three sides of the palace's largest stableyard, the doorways crowded by servants in green-and-white livery. Behind them in the white stone stables waited horses, saddled or loaded with wicker panniers. Seabirds wheeled and cried overhead, an unpleasant reminder of how much water lay nearby. Heat shimmered up from pale paving stones, but it was tension that thickened the air. Aviendha had seen blood spilled where there was less strain.
Renaile din Calon, in red and yellow silks, arms crossed arrogantly beneath her breasts, stood before nineteen more barefoot women with tattooed hands and brightly colored blouses, most in trousers and long sashes just as brilliant. Sweat glistening on dark faces did not lessen their grave dignity. Some sniffed at lacy gold boxes, filled with heavy scent, that hung about their necks. Five fat gold rings pierced each of Renaile din Calon's ears, a chain from one dripping medallions as it ran across her left cheek to a ring in her nose. The three women close behind her each wore eight earrings and slightly fewer bits of dangling gold. That was how the Sea Folk marked rank among themselves, with the women at least. All deferred to Renaile din Calon, Windfinder to the Mistress of the Ships to the Atha'an Miere, but even the two apprentices at the rear, in dark trousers and linen blouses instead of silk, added their own golden shimmers to the air. When Aviendha and the others appeared, Renaile din Calon ostentatiously looked to the sun, past its noon peak. Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she might as well have shouted.
Elayne and Nynaeve stopped short, dragging Aviendha to an abrupt halt. They exchanged worried glances past her, and deep sighs. She did not see how they were to escape. Obligation bound her near-sister and Nynaeve hand and foot, and they themselves had tied the knots tight.
"I'll see to the Knitting Circle," Nynaeve muttered under her breath, and Elayne said, a little more stoutly, "I'll make sure the sisters are ready."
Releasing her arms, they went in opposite directions, holding their skirts up to step quickly and followed by Birgitte and Lan. That left her facing Renaile din Calon's gaze alone, the eagle stare of a woman who knew she held the high ground and could not be dislodged. Fortunately, the Windfinder to the Mistress of the Ships quickly turned to her companions, so quickly that the ends of her long yellow sash swung wide. The other Windfinders gathered around her, intent on her quiet words. Hitting her even once would surely ruin everything. Aviendha tried not to glare at them, but as much she attempted to look elsewhere, her eyes returned. No one had the right to catch her near-sister in a cleft stick. Nose rings! A good grip on that chain, and Renaile din Calon Blue Star would wear a very different expression.
Clustered together at one end of the stableyard, tiny Merilille Ceandevin and four more Aes Sedai also regarded the Windfinders, most with annoyance ill-concealed behind cool serenity. Even slender white-haired Vandene Namelle and her mirror-image first-sister Adeleas, who usually looked the most imperturbable of them all. Now and then one or another adjusted a thin linen dust-cloak or brushed at divided silk skirts. Sudden gusts did raise a little dust and stir the color-shifting cloaks of the five Warders just at their backs, yet clearly annoyance moved their hands. Only Sareitha, standing guard over a large white disc-shaped bundle, did not twitch, but she frowned. Merilille's…maid…Pol, scowled from behind them. The Aes Sedai heatedly disapproved of the bargain that had brought the Atha'an Miere from their ships and given them a right to stare at Aes Sedai with demanding impatience, but that bargain tied the sisters' tongues and choked them on their own irritation. Which they tried to hide; they might have succeeded with the wetlanders. The third group of women, in a tight knot at the opposite end of the yard, earned almost as much of their study.
Reanne Corly and the other ten survivors of the Kin's Knitting Circle stirred uneasily under that disapproving scrutiny, dabbing their sweaty faces with embroidered handkerchiefs, adjusting their broad, colorful straw hats, smoothing sober woolen skirts sewn up on one side to expose layers of petticoats as bright as the Sea Folk's garb. In part it was the stares of the Aes Sedai that had them shifting from foot to foot; fear of the Forsaken and the gholam added to it, and so did other things. The narrow, plunging necklines of those dresses should have been enough. Most of these women showed at least a few lines on their cheeks, yet they looked like girls caught with their hands full of stolen nutbread. All but stout Sumeko, fists planted on broad hips, who met the Aes Sedai stare for stare. A bright glow of saidar surrounded one of their number, Kirstian, who kept glancing over her shoulder. With a pale face perhaps ten years older than Nynaeve's, she appeared out of place among the others. That face grew whiter every time her black eyes met those of an Aes Sedai.
Nynaeve hurried to the women who led the Kin, her face beaming encouragement, and Reanne and the others smiled with visible relief. Marred a little, true, by the sidelong glances they directed at Lan; him they regarded as the wolf he resembled. Nynaeve, however, was the reason Sumeko did not wilt like the rest whenever an Aes Sedai glanced in her direction. She had vowed to teach those women that they possessed backbones, though Aviendha did not completely understand why. Nynaeve was Aes Sedai herself; no Wise One would ever tell anyone to stand up to Wise Ones.
However well that might be working with respect to the other Aes Sedai, even Sumeko wore a slightly fawning air for Nynaeve. The Knitting Circle found it strange, to say the least, that women as young as Elayne and Nynaeve gave orders to the other Aes Sedai and were obeyed. Aviendha herself found it peculiar; how could strength in the Power, something you were born with as surely as your eyes, weigh more heavily than the honor that years could bring? Yet the older Aes Sedai did obey, and for the Kinswomen, that was enough. Ieine, nearly as tall as Aviendha herself and almost as dark as the Sea Folk, returned Nynaeve's every glance with an obsequious smile, while Dimana, white streaking her bright red hair, ducked her head constantly under Nynaeve's eyes, and yellow-haired Sibella hid nervous giggles behind a hand. Despite their Ebou Dari garments, only Tamarla, lean and olive-skinned, was Altaran, and not even from the city.
They parted as soon as Nynaeve came close, revealing a woman on her knees, wrists bound behind her, a leather sack covering her head, and her fine clothes torn and dusty. She was as much the reason for their uneasiness as Merilille's frowns or the Forsaken. Perhaps more.
Tamarla dragged the hood off, leaving the woman's thin, bead-studded braids tangled; Ispan Shefar tried to rise, and managed to reach an awkward crouch before she staggered and sank back down, blinking and giggling foolishly. Sweat ran down her cheeks, and a few bruises from her capture marred her ageless features. She had been treated too gently for her crimes, to Aviendha's mind.
The herbs Nynaeve had forced down the woman's throat still fogged her wits as well as weakening her knees, but Kirstian held a shield on her with every shred of the Power she could summon. There was no chance the Shadowrunner might escape--even had she not been dosed, Kirstian was as strong in the Power as Reanne, stronger than most Aes Sedai Aviendha had met--yet even Sumeko plucked her skirts nervously and avoided looking at the kneeling woman.
"Surely the sisters should have her, now." Reanne's high-pitched voice carried, unsteady enough to belong to the Black sister Kirstian shielded. "Nynaeve Sedai, we…we should not be guar--uh--in charge of…an Aes Sedai."
"That's right," Sumeko put in quickly. And anxiously. "The Aes Sedai should have her, now." Sibella echoed her, and nods and murmurs of agreement rippled through the Kinswomen. They believed in their bones that they stood far below Aes Sedai; very likely they would have chosen guarding Trollocs over holding an Aes Sedai.
The disapproving stares from Merilille and the other sisters changed once Ispan Shefar's face was revealed. Sareitha Tomares, who had worn her brown-fringed shawl only a few years and still did not have the ageless appearance, glared with a disgust that should have flayed the Shadowrunner at fifty paces. Adeleas and Vandene, hands tightening on their skirts, appeared to struggle with hatred for the woman who had been their sister and betrayed them. Yet the stares they gave the Knitting Circle were not that much better. They, too, knew in their hearts that the Kin stood a very long way below them. There was much more to it than that, but the betrayer had been one of their own, and no one but they had the right to her. Aviendha agreed. A Maiden who betrayed her spear-sisters did not die quickly or unshamed.
Nynaeve pulled the sack back down over Ispan Shefar's head with some force. "You've done well so far, and you'll continue to do well," she told the Kinswomen firmly. "If she shows signs of coming round, pour some more of that mixture down her. It'll keep her giddy as a goat full of ale. Hold her nose, if she tries not to swallow. Even an Aes Sedai will swallow if you hold her nose and threaten to box her ears."
Reanne's jaw dropped and her eyes sprang wide, like most of her companions'. Sumeko nodded, but slowly, and goggled nearly as much as the others. When Kinswomen said Aes Sedai, they might have been naming the Creator. The thought of holding an Aes Sedai's nose, even a Shadowrunner's, painted their faces with horror.
By the popping eyes among the Aes Sedai, they liked the notion even less. Merilille opened her mouth, staring at Nynaeve, but just then Elayne reached her, and the Gray sister rounded on her instead, sparing barely a single disapproving frown for Birgitte. It was a measure of her agitation that her voice rose rather than dropping; normally Merilille was very discreet. "Elayne, you must speak to Nynaeve. Those women are confused and frightened out of their wits already. It won't help if she upsets them even more. If the Amyrlin Seat really does intend to allow them to go to the Tower," she shook her head slowly, trying to deny that, and perhaps a great deal else, "if she does mean to, they must have a clear picture of their places, and--"
"The Amyrlin does," Elayne cut her off. From Nynaeve, a firm tone was a fist shaken under your nose; from Elayne, it was calm certainty. "They will have their chance to try again, and if they fail, they still will not be sent away. No woman who can channel will be cut off from the Tower again. They will all be a part of the White Tower."
Fingering her belt knife idly, Aviendha wondered about that. Egwene, Elayne's Amyrlin Seat, said much the same. She was a friend, too, but she had wrapped her heart around being Aes Sedai. Aviendha herself did not want to be part of the White Tower. She very much doubted that Sorilea or any other Wise One did, either.
Merilille sighed and folded her hands, yet for all her outward acceptance, she still forgot to lower her voice. "As you say, Elayne. But about Ispan. We simply cannot allow--"
Elayne raised a hand sharply. Command replaced mere certainty. "Cease, Merilille. You have the Bowl of the Winds to watch. That is enough for anyone. It will be enough for you."
Merilille opened her mouth, then closed it again and bowed her head slightly in acquiescence. Under Elayne's steady gaze, the other Aes Sedai bent theirs, too. If some displayed reluctance, however small, not all did. Sareitha hurriedly picked up the disc-shaped bundle, wrapped in layers of white silk, that had been lying by her feet. Her arms barely went all the way around as she held the Bowl of the Winds to her bosom, smiling anxiously at Elayne as if to show that she really was keeping a close eye on it.
The Sea Folk women stared hungrily at the bundle, almost leaning forward. Aviendha would not have been surprised to see them leap across the stones to seize the Bowl. The Aes Sedai saw the same, plainly. Sareitha clutched the white parcel more tightly, and Merilille actually stepped between her and the Atha'an Miere. Smooth Aes Sedai faces tightened with the effort of remaining expressionless. They believed the Bowl should belong to them; all things that used or manipulated the One Power belonged to the White Tower in their eyes, no matter who happened to possess them at the moment. But there was the bargain.
"The sun moves, Aes Sedai," Renaile din Calon announced loudly, "and danger threatens. So you maintain. If you think to worm free in some fashion by delaying, think twice and again. Try to break the bargain, and by my father's heart, I will return to the ships at once. And claim the Bowl for redress. It was ours from the Breaking."
"You watch your tongue with Aes Sedai," Reanne barked, scandalized indignation from her blue straw hat to the stout shoes peeking from beneath her green-and-white petticoats.
Renaile din Calon's mouth curled into a sneer. "The jellyfish have tongues, it seems. A surprise they can use them, though, when no Aes Sedai gave permission."
In an instant the stableyard was full of shouted insults flying between Kin and Atha'an Miere, "wilder" and "spineless" and growing worse, strident cries that buried Merilille's attempts to hush Reanne and her companions on one hand and soothe the Sea Folk on the other. Several Windfinders stopped fingering the daggers thrust behind their sashes and gripped hilts instead. The glow of saidar sprang up around first one then another of the brightly clad women. The Kinswomen looked startled, though it did not slow their tirade, but Sumeko embraced the Source, then Tamarla, then willowy, doe-eyed Chilares, and soon every one of them and every one of the Windfinders shone while words flew and tempers boiled.
Aviendha wanted to groan. Any moment blood would begin to flow. She would follow Elayne's lead, but her near-sister was glaring cold fury at Windfinders and Knitting Circle alike. Elayne had small patience with stupidity, in herself or others, and shouting insults when an enemy might be coming was the worst sort. Aviendha took a firm grip on her belt knife, then after a moment embraced saidar; life and joy filled her to near weeping. Wise Ones only used the Power when words had failed, but neither words nor steel would do here. She wished she had some idea of who to kill first.
"Enough!" Nynaeve's piercing shriek sliced the words short on every tongue. Astonished faces swiveled toward her. Her head swung dangerously, and she stabbed a finger at the Knitting Circle. "Stop behaving like children!" Although she had moderated her tone, it was by hairs. "Or do you mean to squabble until the Forsaken come to scoop up the Bowl and us? And you," that finger thrust at the Windfinders, "stop trying to wriggle out of your agreement! You won't get the Bowl until you've met every last word! Don't think you will!" Nynaeve swung round on the Aes Sedai. "And you…!" Met by cool surprise, her flow of words tapered off into a sour grunt. The Aes Sedai had not joined in the shouting except to try quieting it. None shone with the light of saidar.
That was not enough to calm Nynaeve completely, of course. She tugged fiercely at her hat, plainly still full of anger she wanted to loose. But the Kinswomen were staring at the paving stones in red-faced chagrin, and even the Windfinders appeared a little abashed--a little--muttering to themselves yet refusing quite to meet Nynaeve's glare. The glow winked out around one woman after another, until only Aviendha still held to the Source.
She gave a start as Elayne touched her arm. She was getting soft. Letting people sneak up on her, jumping at a touch.
"This crisis seems to be weathered," Elayne murmured. "Perhaps it's time to go before the next breaks out." A touch of color in her cheeks was the only sign that she had ever been angry. And a bit in Birgitte's; the two reflected one another in some ways since the bonding.
"Past time," Aviendha agreed. Much longer, and she would be a milk-hearted wetlander.
Every eye followed as she walked out into the open space in the center of the stableyard, to the spot she had studied and felt until she knew it with her eyelids closed. There was a joy in holding the Power, a joy in working saidar, that she could not have put into words. To contain saidar, to be contained by it, was to seem alive beyond any other time. A delusion, the Wise Ones said, as false and dangerous as a mirage of water in the Termool, yet it seemed more real than the paving stones beneath her feet. She fought the urge to draw more; already she held nearly as much as she could. Everyone crowded close as she began to weave the flows.
That there were things many Aes Sedai could not do still startled Aviendha, after all she had seen. Several of the Knitting Circle were strong enough, but only Sumeko and, surprisingly, Reanne openly studied what she was doing. Sumeko went so far as to shrug off the encouraging pats Nynaeve tried to give her--which earned a look of startled indignation from Nynaeve that Sumeko, her gaze fixed on Aviendha, never saw. All of the Wind-finders had sufficient strength. They watched as hungrily as they had stared at the Bowl. The bargain gave them every right.
Aviendha focused, and the flows wove together, creating identity between this place and the place she and Elayne and Nynaeve had chosen on a map. She gestured as though opening tentflaps. That was no part of the weave Elayne had taught her, but it was almost all she could recall of what she herself had done, long before Egwene made her first gateway. The flows coalesced into a silvery, vertical slash that rotated and became an opening in the air, taller than a man and just as wide. Beyond lay a large clearing surrounded by trees twenty or thirty feet high, miles north of the city, on the far side of the river. Knee-high brown grass came right up to the gateway, swaying through in a small breeze; it had not truly turned, only seemed to. Some of those blades were sliced cleanly, though, some lengthwise. The edges of an opening gateway made a razor seem dull.
The gateway filled her with dissatisfaction. Elayne could make this weave with only a part of her strength, yet for some reason it required all but a fraction of Aviendha's. She was sure she could have woven a larger, as large as Elayne could, using the weaves she had made without thought while trying to escape Rand al'-Thor what seemed a very long time ago, but no matter how often she tried, only scraps came back to her. She felt no envy--rather, she took pride in her near-sister's accomplishments--but her own failure made shame surge in her heart. Sorilea or Amys would be hard on her, if they knew that. About the shame. Too much pride, they would call it. Amys should understand; she had been a Maiden. There was shame in failing at what you should be able to do. If she had not had to hold the weave, she would have run away so no one could see her.
The departure had been carefully planned, and the whole stableyard sprang into motion as soon as the gateway opened fully. Two of the Knitting Circle pulled the hooded Shadowrunner to her feet, and the Windfinders hurriedly formed a line behind Renaile din Calon. The servants began bringing horses out of the stables. Lan, Birgitte, and one of Careane's Warders, a lanky man called Cieryl Arjuna, immediately darted through the gateway, one behind the other. Like Far Dareis Mai, Warders always claimed the right to scout ahead. Aviendha's feet itched to run after them, but there was no point. Unlike Elayne, she could not move more than five or six steps without this weave beginning to weaken, and the same if she tried to tie it off. It was very frustrating.
This time there was no real expectation of danger, so the Aes Sedai followed immediately, Elayne and Nynaeve as well. Farms dotted that treed area thickly, and a wandering shepherd or a young couple seeking privacy might need guidance away from seeing too much, but no Shadowsouled or Shadowrunner could know that clearing; only she, Elayne, and Nynaeve did, and they had not spoken in the choosing, for fear of eavesdroppers. Standing in the opening, Elayne gave Aviendha a questioning look, but Aviendha motioned her to go on. Plans were meant to be followed unless there was reason to change them.
The Windfinders began filing slowly through to the clearing, each suddenly irresolute as she approached this thing she had never dreamed of, taking a breath before she entered. And abruptly, the prickling returned.
Aviendha's eyes rose to the windows overlooking the stableyard. Anyone might be hidden behind the white screens of intricate wrought iron and piercework carving. Tylin had ordered the servants to stay away from those windows, but who would stop Teslyn, or Joline, or.…Something made her look higher, to the domes and towers. Narrow walks ringed some of those slim spires, and on one, very high, was a black shape haloed by a sharp nimbus from the sun behind. A man.
Her breath caught. Nothing in his stance, hands on the stone railing, spoke of danger, yet she knew he was the one who put that crawling between her shoulder blades. One of the Shadow-souled would not stand there simply watching, but that creature, that ghoman.…Ice formed in her belly. He could be just a palace servant. He could be, but she did not believe it. No shame in knowing fear.
Anxiously she glanced at the women still edging though the gateway with agonizing slowness. Half the Sea Folk were gone, and the Knitting Circle waited behind the rest with the Shadow-runner firmly in hand, their own unease at the passage warring with resentment that the Sea Folk women were allowed to go first. If she voiced her suspicions, the Kinswomen surely would run--mere mention of the Shadowsouled dried their mouths and turned their bowels to water--while the Windfinders might well try to claim the Bowl straightaway. With them, the Bowl stood above anything else. But only a blind fool stood scratching herself while a lion crept up on the herd she had been set to guard. She caught one of the Atha'an Miere by a red silk sleeve.
"Tell Elayne--" A face like smooth black stone turned to her; the woman somehow made full lips seem thin; her eyes were black pebbles, flat and hard. What message could she send that would not bring down all the troubles she feared from them? "Tell Elayne and Nynaeve to be wary. Tell them enemies always come when you least want them. You must say this to her, without fail." The Windfinder nodded with barely concealed impatience, but surprisingly, she waited for Aviendha to release her before making her hesitant way through the gateway.
The walk up on the tower stood empty. Aviendha felt no relief. He could be anywhere. Making his way down to the stableyard. Whoever he was, whatever he was, he was dangerous; this was not a dust-funnel dancing in her imagination. The last four Warders had formed a square around the gateway, a guard who would be last to leave, and much as she despised their swords, she was grateful that someone there besides herself knew the use of sharp metal. Not that they would have any more chance against a gholam, or worse, one of the Shadowsouled, than the servants waiting with the horses. Or than she herself.
Grimly she drew the Power, until the sweetness of saidar grew near to pain. A hair beyond, and pain would almost become blinding agony for the moments needed to die or lose the ability completely. Would those shuffling women quicken their feet! No shame in feeling fear, but she was very much afraid that hers was painted on her face.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Jordan