April 9, 2013

"The Wheel of Time" ebooks



The Wheel of Time series is now complete, as today the final book was released in ebook format. There is no 'complete series' download bundle which includes all 14 books, but books 1-14 are ready for download. So if you read, or plan to read this series not as a printed book, you're in luck. Myself? I'm waiting for A Memory of Light in mass market paperback, as I have the previous thirteen books in that format. I'm going to guess that it should be out as early as October of this year, as late as next Jan, as the publisher is pretty good for releasing paperbacks in a timely manner. I'll also keep you posted on the 'trade paperback' re-issues, as well. 

Sometime ago I posted the series prologue. Here is something a little more....



New Spring
Prequel to The Wheel of Time (August 25, 1998)
Robert Jordan


The world of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time lies both in our future and our past,
a world of kings and queens and Aes Sedai, women who can tap the True Source
and wield the One Power, which turns the Wheel and drives the universe: a world
where the war between the Light and the Shadow is fought every day.

At the moment of Creation, the Creator bound the Dark One away from the world of
humankind, but more than three thousand years ago Aes Sedai, then both men and
women, unknowingly bored into that prison outside of time. The Dark One was only
able to touch the world lightly, and the hole was eventually sealed over, but the Dark One’s taint settled on saidin, the male half of the Power. Eventually every male Aes Sedai went mad, and in the Breaking of the World they destroyed civilization and changed the very face of Earth, sinking mountains beneath the sea and bringing new seas where land had been.

Now only women bear the title Aes Sedai. Commanded by their Amyrlin Seat and divided into seven Ajahs named by colour, they rule the great island city of Tar Valon, where their White Tower is located, and are bound by the Three Oaths, fixed into their bones with saidar, the female half of the Power: to speak no word that is not true, to make no weapon for one man to kill another, and never to use the One Power except as a weapon against Shadowspawn or in the last extreme of defending her own life, or that of her Warder or another sister.

Men still are born who can learn to channel the Power, or worse, who will channel
one day whether they try to or not. Doomed to madness, destruction, and death by
the taint on saidin, they are hunted down by Aes Sedai and gentled, cut off forever
from the Power for the safety of the world. No man goes to this willingly. Even if they
survive the hunt, they seldom survive long after gentling.

For more than three thousand years, while nations and empires rose and fell,
nothing has been so feared as a man who can channel. But for all those three thousand years there have been the Prophecies of the Dragon, that the seals on the Dark One’s prison will weaken and he will touch the world once more, and that the Dragon, who sealed up that hole, will be Reborn to face the Dark One again. A child, born in sight of Tar Valon on the slopes of Dragonmount, will grow up to be the Dragon Reborn, the only hope of humanity in the Last Battle—a man who can channel. Few people know more than scraps of the Prophecies, and few want to know more.

A world of kings and queens, nations and wars, where the White Tower rules only
Tar Valon but even kings and queens are wary of Aes Sedai machinations. A world
where the Shadow and the Prophecies loom together.


New Spring

Robert Jordan


The air of Kandor held the sharpness of new spring when Lan returned to the lands
where he had always known he would die. Trees bore the first red of new growth,
and a few scattered wildflowers dotted winter-brown grass where shadows did not
cling to patches of snow, yet the pale sun offered little warmth after the south, a
gusting breeze cut through his coat, and grey clouds hinted at more than rain. He
was almost home. Almost.

A hundred generations had beaten the wide road nearly as hard as the stone of the
surrounding hills, and little dust rose, though a steady stream of ox-carts was
leaving the morning farmers’ markets in Canluum and merchant trains of tall
wagons, surrounded by mounted guards in steel caps and bits of armour, flowed
towards the city’s high grey walls. Here and there the chains of the Kandori
merchants’ guild spanned a chest or an Arafellin wore bells, a ruby decorated this
man’s ear, a pearl brooch that woman’s breast, but for the most part the traders’
clothes were as subdued as their manner. A merchant who flaunted too much profit
discovered it hard to find bargains. By contrast, farmers showed off their success
when they came to town. Bright embroidery decorated the striding countrymen’s
baggy breeches, the women’s wide trousers, their cloaks fluttering in the wind. Some
wore coloured ribbons in their hair, or a narrow fur collar. They might have been
dressed for the coming Bel Tine dances and feasting. Yet country folk eyed strangers
as warily as any guard, eyed them and hefted spears or axes and hurried along. The
times carried an edge in Kandor, maybe all along the Borderlands. Bandits had
sprung up like weeds this past year, and more troubles than usual out of the Blight.
Rumour even spoke of a man who channelled the One Power, but then, rumour
often did.

Leading his horse toward Canluum, Lan paid as little attention to the stares he and
his companion attracted as he did to Bukama’s scowls and carping. Bukama had
raised him from the cradle, Bukama and other men now dead, and he could not
recall seeing anything but a glower on that weathered face, even when Bukama
spoke praise. This time his mutters were for a stone-bruised hoof that had him
afoot, but he could always find something.

They did attract attention, two very tall men walking their mounts and a packhorse
with a pair of tattered wicker hampers, their plain clothes worn and travel-stained.
Their harness and weapons were well-tended, though. A young man and an old, hair
hanging to their shoulders and held back by a braided leather cord around the
temples. The hadori drew eyes. Especially here in the Borderlands, where people had
some idea what it meant.

“Fools,” Bukama grumbled. “Do they think we’re bandits? Do they think we mean to
rob the lot of them, at midday on the high road?” He glared and shifted the sword at
his hip in a way that brought considering stares from a number of merchants’
guards. A stout farmer prodded his ox wide of them.

Lan kept silent. A certain reputation clung to Malkieri who still wore the hadori,
though not for banditry, but reminding Bukama would only send him into a black
humour for days. His mutters shifted to the chances of a decent bed that night, of a
decent meal before. Bukama seldom complained when there actually was no bed or
no food, only about prospects and the inconsequential. He expected little, and
trusted to less.

Neither food nor lodging entered Lan’s thoughts, despite the distance they had
travelled. His head kept swinging north. He remained aware of everyone around him,
especially those who glanced his way more than once, aware of the jingle of harness
and the creak of saddles, the clop of hooves, the snap of wagon-canvas loose on its
hoops. Any sound out of place would shout at him. That had been the first lesson
Bukama and his friends had imparted in his childhood; be aware of everything, even
when asleep. Only the dead could afford oblivion. Lan remained aware, but the
Blight lay north. Still miles away across the hills, yet he could feel it, feel the twisted
corruption.

Just his imagination, but no less real for that. It had pulled at him in the south, in
Cairhien and Andor, even in Tear, almost five hundred leagues distant. Two years
away from the Borderlands, his personal war abandoned for another, and every day
the tug grew stronger. The Blight meant death to most men. Death and the Shadow,
a rotting land tainted by the Dark One’s breath, where anything at all could kill. Two
tosses of a coin had decided where to begin anew. Four nations bordered the Blight,
but his war covered the length of it, from the Aryth Ocean to the Spine of the World.
One place to meet death was as good as another. He was almost home. Almost back
to the Blight.

A dry moat surrounded Canluum’s wall, fifty paces wide and ten deep, spanned by
five broad stone bridges with towers at either end as tall as those that lined the wall
itself. Raids out of the Blight by Trollocs and Myrddraal often struck much deeper
into Kandor than Canluum, but none had ever made it inside the city’s wall. The
Red Stag waved above every tower. A proud man, was Lord Varan, the High Seat of
House Marcasiev; Queen Ethenielle did not fly so many of her own banners even in
Chachin itself.

The guards at the outer towers, in helmets with Varan’s antlered crest and the Red
Stag on their chests, peered into the backs of wagons before allowing them to
trundle on to the bridge, or occasionally motioned someone to push a hood further
back. No more than a gesture was necessary; the law in every Borderland forbade
hiding your face inside village or town, and no one wanted to be mistaken for one of
the Eyeless trying to sneak into the city. Hard gazes followed Lan and Bukama on to
the bridge. Their faces were clearly visible. And their hadori. No recognition lit any of
those watching eyes, though. Two years was a long time in the Borderlands. A great
many men could die in two years.

Lan noticed that Bukama had gone silent, always a bad sign, and cautioned him. “I
never start trouble,” the older man snapped, but he did stop fingering his swordhilt.
The guards on the wall above the open iron-plated gates and those on the bridge
wore only back and breastplates for armour, yet they were no less watchful,
especially of a pair of Malkieri with their hair tied back. Bukama’s mouth grew
tighter at every step.

“Al’Lan Mandragoran! The Light preserve us, we heard you were dead fighting the
Aiel at the Shining Walls!” The exclamation came from a young guard, taller than
the rest, almost as tall as Lan. Young, perhaps a year or two less than he, yet the
gap seemed ten years. A lifetime. The guard bowed deeply, left hand on his
knee.“Tai’shar Malkier!” True blood of Malkier. “I stand ready, Majesty.”
“I am not a king,” Lan said quietly. Malkier was dead. Only the war still lived. In
him, at least.

Bukama was not quiet. “You stand ready for what, boy?” The heel of his bare hand
struck the guard’s breastplate right over the Red Stag, driving the man upright and
back a step. “You cut your hair short and leave it unbound!” Bukama spat the
words. “You’re sworn to a Kandori lord! By what right do you claim to be Malkieri?”
The young man’s face reddened as he floundered for answers. Other guards started
towards the pair, then halted when Lan let his reins fall. Only that, but they knew
his name, now. They eyed his bay stallion, standing still and alert behind him,
almost as cautiously as they did him. A warhorse was a formidable weapon, and
they could not know Cat Dancer was only half-trained yet.

Space opened up as people already through the gates hurried a little distance before
turning to watch, while those still on the bridge pressed back. Shouts rose in both
directions from people wanting to know what was holding traffic. Bukama ignored it
all, intent on the red-faced guard. He had not dropped the reins of the packhorse or
his yellow roan gelding.

An officer appeared from the stone guardhouse inside the gates, crested helmet
under his arm, but one hand in a steel-backed gauntlet resting on his swordhilt. A
bluff, greying man with white scars on his face, Alin Seroku had soldiered forty
years along the Blight, yet his eyes widened slightly at the sight of Lan. Plainly he
had heard the tales of Lan’s death, too.

“The Light shine upon you, Lord Mandragoran. The son of el’Leanna and al’Akir,
blessed be their memories, is always welcome.” Seroku’s eyes flickered towards
Bukama, not in welcome. He planted his feet in the middle of the gateway. Five
horsemen could have passed easily on either side, but he meant himself for a bar,
and he was. None of the guards shifted a boot, yet every one had hand on swordhilt.
All but the young man meeting Bukama’s glares with his own. “Lord Marcasiev has
commanded us to keep the peace strictly,” Seroku went on, half in apology. But no
more than half. “The city is on edge. All these tales of a man channelling are bad
enough, but there have been murders in the street this last month and more, in
broad daylight, and strange accidents. People whisper about Shadowspawn loose
inside the walls.”

Lan gave a slight nod. With the Blight so close, people always muttered of
Shadowspawn when they had no other explanation, whether for a sudden death or
unexpected crop failure. He did not take up Cat Dancer’s reins, though. “We intend
to rest here a few days before riding north.”

For a moment he thought Seroku was surprised. Did the man expect pledges to keep
the peace, or apologies for Bukama’s behaviour? Either would shame Bukama, now.
A pity if the war ended here. Lan did not want to die killing Kandori.
His old friend turned from the young guard, who stood quivering, fists clenched at
his sides. “All fault here is mine,” Bukama announced to the air in a flat voice. “I
had no call for what I did. By my mother’s name, I will keep Lord Marcasiev’s peace.
By my mother’s name, I will not draw sword inside Canluum’s walls.” Seroku’s jaw
dropped, and Lan hid his own shock with difficulty.

Hesitating only a moment, the scar-faced officer stepped aside, bowing and touching
swordhilt then heart. “There is always welcome for Lan Mandragoran Dai Shan,” he
said formally. “And for Bukama Marenellin, the hero of Salmarna. May you both
know peace, one day.”

“There is peace in the mother’s last embrace,” Lan responded with equal formality,
touching hilt and heart.

“May she welcome us home, one day,” Seroku finished. No one really wished for the
grave, but that was the only place to find peace in the Borderlands.
Face like iron, Bukama strode ahead pulling Sun Lance and the packhorse after
him, not waiting for Lan. This was not well.

Canluum was a city of stone and brick, its paved streets twisting around tall hills.
The Aiel invasion had never reached the Borderlands, but the ripples of war always
diminished trade a long way from any battles, and now that fighting and winter were
both finished, the city had filled with people from every land. Despite the Blight
practically on the city’s doorstep, gemstones mined in the surrounding hills made
Canluum wealthy. And, strangely enough, some of the finest clockmakers anywhere.
The cries of hawkers and shopkeepers shouting their wares rose above the hum of
the crowd even away from the terraced market squares. Colourfully-dressed
musicians, or jugglers, or tumblers performed at every intersection. A handful of
lacquered carriages swayed through the mass of people and wagons and carts and
barrows, and horses with gold- or silver-mounted saddles and bridles picked their
way through the throng, their riders’ garb embroidered as ornately as the animals’
tack and trimmed with fox or marten or ermine. Hardly a foot of street was left bare
anywhere. Lan even saw several Aes Sedai, women with serene, ageless faces.
Enough people recognized them on sight that they created eddies in the crowd,
swirls to clear a way. Respect or caution, awe or fear, there were sufficient reasons
for a king to step aside for a sister. Once you might have gone a year without seeing
an Aes Sedai even in the Borderlands, but the sisters seemed to be everywhere since
their old Amyrlin Seat died a few months earlier. Maybe it was those tales of a man
channelling; they would not let him run free long, if he existed. Lan kept his eyes
away from them. The hadori could be enough to attract the interest of a sister
seeking a Warder.

Shockingly, lace veils covered many women’s faces. Thin lace, sheer enough to
reveal that they had eyes, and no one had ever heard of a female Myrddraal, but Lan
had never expected law to yield to mere fashion. Next they would take down the oillamps
lining the streets and let the nights grow black. Even more shocking than the
veils, Bukama looked right at some of those women and did not open his mouth.
Then a jut-nosed man named Nazar Kurenin rode in front of Bukama’s eyes, and he
did not blink. The young guard surely had been born after the Blight swallowed
Malkier, but Kurenin, his hair cut short and wearing a forked beard, was twice Lan’s
age. The years had not erased the marks of his hadori completely. There were many
like Kurenin, and the sight of him should have set Bukama spluttering. Lan eyed his
friend worriedly.

They had been moving steadily towards the centre of the city, climbing towards the
highest hill, Stag’s Stand. Lord Marcasiev’s fortress-like palace covered the peak,
with those of lesser lords and ladies on the terraces below. Any threshold up there
offered warm welcome for al’Lan Mandragoran. Perhaps warmer than he wanted
now. Balls and hunts, with nobles invited from as much as fifty miles away,
including from across the border with Arafel. People avid to hear of his “adventures”.
Young men wanting to join his forays into the Blight, and old men to compare their
experiences there with his. Women eager to share the bed of a man whom, so fool
stories claimed, the Blight could not kill. Kandor and Arafel were as bad as any
southland at times; some of those women would be married. And there would be
men like Kurenin, working to submerge memories of lost Malkier, and women who
no longer adorned their foreheads with the ki’sain in pledge that they would swear
their sons to oppose the Shadow while they breathed. Lan could ignore the false
smiles while they named him al’Lan Dai Shan, diademed battle lord and uncrowned
king of a nation betrayed while he was in his cradle. In his present mood, Bukama
might do murder. Or worse, given his oaths at the gate. He would keep those to the
death.

“Varan Marcasiev will hold us a week or more with ceremony,” Lan said, turning
down a narrower street that led away from the Stand. “With what we’ve heard of
bandits and the like, he will be just as happy if I don’t appear to make my bows.”
True enough. He had met the High Seat of House Marcasiev only once, years past,
but he remembered a man given entirely to his duties.

Bukama followed without complaint about missing a palace bed or the feasts the
cooks would prepare. It was worrying.

No palaces rose in the hollows towards the north wall, only shops and taverns, inns
and stables and wagonyards. Bustle surrounded the factors’ long warehouses, but
no carriages came to the Deeps, and most streets were barely wide enough for carts.
They were just as jammed with people as the wide ways, though, and every bit as
noisy. Here, the street performers’ finery was tarnished, yet they made up for it by
being louder, and buyers and sellers alike bellowed as if trying to be heard in the
next street. Likely some of the crowd were cutpurses, slipfingers, and other thieves,
finished with a morning’s business higher up or headed there for the afternoon. It
would have been a wonder otherwise, with so many merchants in town. The second
time unseen fingers brushed his coat in the crowd, Lan tucked his purse under his
shirt. Any banker would advance him more against the Shienaran estate he had
been granted on reaching manhood, but loss of the gold on hand meant accepting
the hospitality of Stag’s Stand.

At the first three inns they tried, slate-roofed cubes of grey stone with bright signs
out front, the innkeepers had not a cubbyhole to offer. Lesser traders and
merchants’ guards filled them to the attics. Bukama began to mutter about making
a bed in a hayloft, yet he never mentioned the feather mattresses and linens waiting
on the Stand. Leaving their horses with ostlers at a fourth inn, The Blue Rose, Lan
entered determined to find some place for them if it took the rest of the day.
Inside, a greying woman, tall and handsome, presided over a crowded common room
where talk and laughter almost drowned out the slender girl singing to the music of
her zither. Pipesmoke wreathed the ceiling beams, and the smell of roasting lamb
floated from the kitchens. As soon as the innkeeper saw Lan and Bukama, she gave
her blue-striped apron a twitch and strode towards them, dark eyes sharp.
Before Lan could open his mouth, she seized Bukama’s ears, pulled his head down,
and kissed him. Kandori women were seldom retiring, but even so it was a
remarkably thorough kiss in front of so many eyes. Pointing fingers and snickering
grins flashed among the tables.

“It’s good to see you again, too, Racelle,” Bukama murmured with a small smile
when she finally released him. “I didn’t know you had an inn here. Do you think—?”
He lowered his gaze rather than meeting her eyes rudely, and that proved a mistake.
Racelle’s fist caught his jaw so hard that his hair flailed as he staggered.
“Six years without a word,” she snapped. “Six years?” Grabbing his ears again, she
gave him another kiss, longer this time. Took it rather than gave. A sharp twist of
his ears met every attempt to do anything besides standing bent over and letting her
do as she wished. At least she would not put a knife in his heart if she was kissing
him. Perhaps not.

“I think Mistress Arovni might find Bukama a room somewhere,” a man’s familiar
voice said drily behind Lan. “And you, too, I suppose.”

Turning, Lan clasped forearms with the only man in the room beside Bukama of a
height with him, Ryne Venamar, his oldest friend except for Bukama. The innkeeper
still had Bukama occupied as Ryne led Lan to a small table in the corner. Five years
older, Ryne was Malkieri too, but his hair fell in two long bell-laced braids, and more
silver bells lined the turned-down tops of his boots and ran up the sleeves of his
yellow coat. Bukama did not exactly dislike Ryne—not exactly—yet in his present
mood, only Nazar Kurenin could have had a worse effect.

While the pair of them were settling themselves on benches, a serving maid in a
striped apron brought hot spiced wine. Apparently Ryne had ordered as soon as he
saw Lan. Dark-eyed and full-lipped, she stared Lan up and down openly as she set
his mug in front of him, then whispered her name, Lira, in his ear, and an
invitation, if he was staying the night. All he wanted that night was sleep, so he
lowered his gaze, murmuring that she honoured him too much. Lira did not let him
finish. With a raucous laugh, she bent to bite his ear, hard, then announced that by
tomorrow’s sun she would have honoured him till his knees would not hold him up.
More laughter flared at the tables around them.

Ryne forestalled any possibility of righting matters, tossing her a fat coin and giving
her a slap on the bottom to send her off. Lira offered him a dimpled smile as she
slipped the silver into the neck of her dress, but she left sending smoky glances over
her shoulder at Lan that made him sigh. If he tried to say no now, she might well
pull a knife over the insult.

“So your luck still holds with women, too.” Ryne’s laugh had an edge. Perhaps he
fancied her himself. “The Light knows, they can’t find you handsome; you get uglier
every year. Maybe I ought to try some of that coy modesty, let women lead me by the
nose.”

Lan opened his mouth, then took a drink instead of speaking. He should not have to
explain, but Ryne’s father had taken him to Arafel the year Lan turned ten. The man
wore a single blade on his hip instead of two on his back, yet he was Arafellin to his
toenails. He actually started conversations with women who had not spoken to him
first. Lan, raised by Bukama and his friends in Shienar, had been surrounded by a
small community who held to Malkieri ways.

A number of people around the room were watching their table, sidelong glances
over mugs and goblets. A plump copper-skinned woman wearing a much thicker
dress than Domani women usually did made no effort to hide her stares as she
spoke excitedly to a fellow with curled moustaches and a large pearl in his ear.
Probably wondering whether there would be trouble over Lira. Wondering whether a
man wearing the hadori really would kill at the drop of a pin.

“I didn’t expect to find you in Canluum,” Lan said, setting the wine-mug down.
“Guarding a merchant train?” Bukama and the innkeeper were nowhere to be seen.
Ryne shrugged. “Out of Shol Arbela. The luckiest trader in Arafel, they say. Said.
Much good it did him. We arrived yesterday, and last night footpads slit his throat
two streets over. No return money for me this trip.” He flashed a rueful grin and took
a deep pull at his wine, perhaps to the memory of the merchant or perhaps to the
lost half of his wages. “Burn me if I thought to see you here, either.”

“You shouldn’t listen to rumours, Ryne. I’ve not taken a wound worth mentioning
since I rode south.” Lan decided to twit Bukama if they did get a room, about
whether it was already paid for and how. Indignation might take him out of his
darkness.

“The Aiel,” Ryne snorted. “I never thought they could put paid to you.” He had never
faced Aiel, of course. “I expected you to be wherever Edeyn Arrel is. Chachin, now, I
hear.”

That name snapped Lan’s head back to the man across the table. “Why should I be
near the Lady Arrel?” he demanded softly. Softly, but emphasizing her proper title.
“Easy, man,” Ryne said. “I didn’t mean . . . ” Wisely, he abandoned that line. “Burn
me, do you mean to say you haven’t heard? She’s raised the Golden Crane. In your
name, of course. Since the year turned, she’s been from Fal Moran to Maradon, and
coming back now.” Ryne shook his head, the bells in his braids chiming faintly.
“There must be two or three hundred men right here in Canluum ready to follow
her. You, I mean. Some you’d not believe. Old Kurenin wept when he heard her
speak. All ready to carve Malkier out of the Blight again.”

“What dies in the Blight is gone,” Lan said wearily: He felt more than cold inside.
Suddenly Seroku’s surprise that he intended to ride north took on new meaning,
and the young guard’s assertion that he stood ready. Even the looks here in the
common room seemed different. And Edeyn was part of it. Always she liked standing
in the heart of the storm. “I must see to my horse,” he told Ryne, scraping his bench
back.

Ryne said something about making a round of the taverns that night, but Lan
hardly heard. He hurried through the kitchens, hot from iron stoves and stone ovens
and open hearths, into the cool of the stableyard, the mingled smells of horse and
hay and woodsmoke. A greylark warbled on the edge of the stable roof. Greylarks
came even before robins in the spring. Greylarks had been singing in Fal Moran
when Edeyn first whispered in his ear.

The horses had already been stabled, bridles and saddles and packsaddle atop
saddle blankets on the stall doors, but the wicker hampers were gone. Plainly
Mistress Arovni had sent word to the ostlers that he and Bukama were being given
accommodation.

There was only a single groom in the dim stable, a lean, hardfaced woman mucking
out. Silently she watched him check Cat Dancer and the other horses as she
worked, watched him begin to pace the length of the straw-covered floor. He tried to
think, but Edeyn’s name kept spinning though his head. Edeyn’s face, surrounded
by silky black hair that hung below her waist, a beautiful face with large dark eyes
that could drink a man’s soul even when filled with command.

After a bit the groom mumbled something in his direction, touching her lips and
forehead, and hurriedly shoved her half-filled barrow out of the stable, glancing over
her shoulder at him. She paused to shut the doors, and did that hurriedly, too,
sealing him in shadow broken only by a little light from open hay doors in the loft.
Dust motes danced in the pale golden shafts.

Lan grimaced. Was she that afraid of a man wearing the hadori? Did she think his
pacing a threat? Abruptly he became aware of his hands running over the long hilt
of his sword, aware of the tightness in his own face. Pacing? No, he had been in the
walking stance called Leopard in High Grass, used when there were enemies on all
sides. He needed calm.

Seating himself crosslegged on a bale of straw, he formed the image of a flame in his
mind and fed emotion into it, hate, fear, everything, every scrap, until it seemed that
he floated in emptiness. After years of practice, achieving ko’di, the oneness, needed
less than a heartbeat. Thought and even his own body seemed distant, but in this
state he was more aware than usual, becoming one with the bale beneath him, the
stable, the scabbarded sword folded behind him. He could “feel” the horses,
cropping at their mangers, and flies buzzing in the corners. They were all part of
him. Especially the sword. This time, though, it was only the emotionless void that
he sought.

From his belt pouch he took a heavy gold signet ring worked with a flying crane and
turned it over and over in his fingers. The ring of Malkieri kings, worn by men who
had held back the Shadow nine hundred years and more. Countless times it had
been remade as time wore it down, always the old ring melted to become part of the
new. Some particle might still exist in it of the ring worn by the rulers of
Rhamdashar, that had lived before Malkier, and Aramaelle that had been before
Rhamdashar. That piece of metal represented over three thousand years fighting the
Blight. It had been his almost as long as he had lived, but he had never worn it.
Even looking at the ring was a labour, usually. One he disciplined himself to every
day. Without the emptiness, he did not think he could have done so today. In ko’di,
thought floated free, and emotion lay beyond the horizon.

In his cradle he had been given four gifts. The ring in his hands and the locket that
hung around his neck, the sword on his hip and an oath sworn in his name. The
locket was the most precious, the oath the heaviest. “To stand against the Shadow
so long as iron is hard and stone abides. To defend the Malkieri while one drop of
blood remains. To avenge what cannot be defended.” And then he had been anointed
with oil and named Dai Shan, consecrated as the next King of Malkier, and sent
away from a land that knew it would die. Twenty men began that journey; five
survived to reach Shienar.

Nothing remained to be defended now, only a nation to avenge, and he had been
trained to that from his first step. With his mother’s gift at his throat and his
father’s sword in his hand, with the ring branded on his heart, he had fought to
avenge Malkier from his sixteenth nameday. But never had he led men into the
Blight. Bukama had ridden with him, and others, but he would not lead men there.
That war was his alone. The dead could not be returned to life, a land any more
than a man. Only, now, Edeyn Arrel wanted to try.

Her name echoed in the emptiness within him. A hundred emotions loomed like
stark mountains, but he fed them into the flame until all was still. Until his heart
beat time with the slow stamping of the stalled horses, and the flies’ wings beat
rapid counterpoint to his breath. She was his carneira, his first lover. A thousand
years of tradition shouted that, despite the stillness that enveloped him.
He had been fifteen, Edeyn more than twice that, when she gathered the hair that
had still hung to his waist in her hands and whispered her intentions. Women had
still called him beautiful then, enjoying his blushes, and for half a year she had
enjoyed parading him on her arm and tucking him into her bed. Until Bukama and
the other men gave him the hadori. The gift of his sword on his tenth nameday had
made him a man by custom along the Border, though years early for it, yet among
Malkieri, that band of braided leather had been more important. Once that was tied
around his head, he alone decided where he went, and when, and why. And the
dark song of the Blight had become a howl that drowned every other sound. The
oath that had murmured so long in his heart became a dance his feet had to follow.
Almost ten years past now that Edeyn had watched him ride away from Fal Moran,
and been gone when he returned, yet he still could recall her face more clearly than
that of any woman who had shared his bed since. He was no longer a boy, to think
that she loved him just because she had chosen to become his first lover, yet there
was an old saying among Malkieri men. Your carneira wears part of your soul as a
ribbon in her hair for ever. Custom strong as law made it so.

One of the stable doors creaked open to admit Bukama, coatless, shirt tucked
raggedly into his breeches. He looked naked without his sword. As if hesitant, he
carefully opened both doors wide before coming all the way in. “What are you going
to do?” he said finally. “Racelle told me about . . . about the Golden Crane.”
Lan tucked the ring away, letting emptiness drain from him. Edeyn’s face suddenly
seemed everywhere, just beyond the edge of sight. “Ryne says even Nazar Kurenin is
ready to follow,” he said lightly. “Wouldn’t that be a sight to see?” An army could die
trying to defeat the Blight. Armies had died trying. But the memories of Malkier
already were dying. A nation was memory as much as land. “That boy at the gates
might let his hair grow and ask his father for the hadori.” People were forgetting,
trying to forget. When the last man who bound his hair was gone, the last woman
who painted her forehead, would Malkier truly be gone, too? “Why, Ryne might even
get rid of those braids.” Any trace of mirth dropped from his voice as he added, “But
is it worth the cost? Some seem to think so.” Bukama snorted, yet there had been a
pause. He might be one of those who did.

Striding to the stall that held Sun Lance, the older man began to fiddle with his
roan’s saddle as though suddenly forgetting why he had moved. “There’s always a
cost for anything,” he said, not looking up. “But there are costs, and costs. The Lady
Edeyn . . . ” He glanced at Lan, then turned to face him. “She was always one to
demand every right and require the smallest obligation be met. Custom ties strings
to you, and whatever you choose, she will use them like a set of reins unless you
find a way to avoid it.”

Carefully Lan tucked his thumbs behind his swordbelt. Bukama had carried him
out of Malkier tied to his back. The last of the five. Bukama had the right of a free
tongue even when it touched Lan’s carneira. “How do you suggest I avoid my
obligations without shame?” he asked more harshly than he had intended. Taking a
deep breath, he went on in a milder tone. “Come; the common room smells much
better than this. Ryne suggested a round of the taverns tonight. Unless Mistress
Arovni has claims on you. Oh, yes. How much will our rooms cost? Good rooms? Not
too dear, I hope.”

Bukama joined him on the way to the doors, his face going red. “Not too dear,” he
said hastily. “You have a pallet in the attic, and I . . . ah . . . I’m in Racelle’s rooms.
I’d like to make a round, but I think Racelle . . . I don’t think she means to let
me . . . I . . . Young whelp!” he growled. “There’s a lass named Lira in there who’s
letting it be known you won’t be using that pallet tonight, or getting much sleep, so
don’t think you can—!” He cut off as they walked into the sunlight, bright after the
dimness inside. The greylark still sang of spring.

Six men were striding across the otherwise empty yard. Six ordinary men with
swords at their belts, like any men on any street in the city. Yet Lan knew before
their hands moved, before their eyes focused on him and their steps quickened. He
had faced too many men who wanted to kill him not to know. And at his side stood
Bukama, bound by oaths that would not let him raise a hand even had he been
wearing his blade. If they both tried to get back inside the stable, the men would be
on them before they could haul the doors shut. Time slowed, flowed like cool honey.
“Inside and bar the doors!” Lan snapped as his hand went to his hilt. “Obey me,
armsman!”

Never in his life had he given Bukama a command in that fashion, and the man
hesitated a heartbeat, then bowed formally. “My life is yours, Dai Shan,” he said in a
thick voice. “I obey.”

As Lan moved forward to meet his attackers, he heard the bar drop inside with a
muffled thud. Relief was distant. He floated in ko’di, one with the sword that came
smoothly out of its scabbard. One with the men rushing at him, boots thudding on
the hard-packed ground as they bared steel.

A lean heron of a fellow darted ahead of the others, and Lan danced the forms. Time
like cool honey. The greylark sang, and the lean man shrieked as Cutting the Clouds
removed his right hand at the wrist, and Lan flowed to one side so the rest could not
all come at him together, flowed from form to form. Soft Rain at Sunset laid open a
fat man’s face, took his left eye, and a ginger-haired young splinter drew a gash
across Lan’s ribs with Black Pebbles on Snow. Only in stories did one man face six
without injury. The Rose Unfolds sliced down a bald man’s left arm, and ginger-hair
nicked the corner of Lan’s eye. Only in stories did one man face six and survive. He
had known that from the start. Duty was a mountain, death a feather, and his duty
was to Bukama, who had carried an infant on his back. For this moment he lived,
though, so he fought, kicking ginger-hair in the head, dancing his way towards
death, danced and took wounds, bled and danced the razor’s edge of life. Time like
cool honey, flowing from form to form, and there could only be one ending. Thought
was distant. Death was a feather. Dandelion in the Wind slashed open the now oneeyed
fat man’s throat—he had barely paused when his face was ruined—a forkbearded
fellow with shoulders like a blacksmith gasped in surprise as Kissing the
Adder put Lan’s steel through his heart.

And suddenly Lan realized that he alone stood, with six men sprawled across the
width of the stableyard. The ginger-haired youth thrashed his heels on the ground
one last time, and then only Lan of the seven still breathed. He shook blood from his
blade, bent to wipe the last drops off on the blacksmith’s too-fine coat, sheathed his
sword as formally as if he were in the training yard under Bukama’s eye.
Abruptly people flooded out of the inn, cooks and stablemen, maids and patrons
shouting to know what all the noise was about, staring at the dead men in
astonishment. Ryne was the very first, sword already in hand, his face blank as he
came to stand by Lan. “Six,” he muttered, studying the bodies. “You really do have
the Dark One’s own flaming luck.”

Dark-eyed Lira reached Lan only moments before Bukama, the pair of them gently
parting slashes in his clothes to examine his injuries. She shivered delicately as
each was revealed, but she discussed whether an Aes Sedai should be sent for to
give Healing and how much stitching was needed in as calm a tone as Bukama, and
disparagingly dismissed his hand on the needle in favour of her own. Mistress
Arovni stalked about, holding her skirts up out of patches of bloody mud, glaring at
the corpses littering her stableyard, complaining in a loud voice that gangs of
footpads would never be wandering in daylight if the Watch was doing its job. The
Domani woman who had stared at Lan inside agreed just as loudly, and for her
pains received a sharp command from the innkeeper to fetch them, along with a
shove to start her on her way. It was a measure of Mistress Arovni’s shock that she
treated one of her patrons so, a measure of everyone’s shock that the Domani
woman went running without complaint. The innkeeper began organizing men to
drag the bodies out of sight, still going on about footpads.

Ryne looked from Bukama to the stable as though he did not understand—perhaps
he did not, at that—but what he said was, “Not footpads, I think.” He pointed to the
fellow who looked like a blacksmith. “That one listened to Edeyn Arrel when she was
here, and he liked what he heard. One of the others did, too, I think.” Bells chimed
as he shook his head. “It’s peculiar. The first she said of raising the Golden Crane
was after we heard you were dead outside the Shining Walls. Your name brings men,
but with you dead, she could be el’Edeyn.” He spread his hands at the looks Lan
and Bukama shot him. “I make no accusations,” he said hastily. “I’d never accuse
the Lady Edeyn of any such thing. I’m sure she is full of all a woman’s tender
mercy.” Mistress Arovni gave a grunt like a fist, and Lira murmured half under her
breath that the pretty Arafellin did not know much about women.

Lan shook his head. Edeyn might decide to have him killed if it suited her purposes,
she might have left orders here and there in case the rumours about him proved
false, but if she had, that was still no reason to speak her name in connection with
this, especially in front of strangers.

Bukama’s hands stilled, holding open a slash down Lan’s sleeve. “Where do we go
from here?” he asked quietly.

“Chachin,” Lan said after a moment. There was always a choice, but sometimes
every choice was grim. “You’ll have to leave Sun Lance. I mean to depart at first light
tomorrow.” His gold would stretch to a new mount for the man.
“Six!” Ryne growled, sheathing his sword with considerable force. “I think I’ll ride
with you. I’d as soon not go back to Shol Arbela until I’m sure Ceiline Noreman
doesn’t lay her husband’s death at my boots. And it will be good to see the Golden
Crane flying again.”

Lan nodded. To put his hand on the banner and abandon what he had promised
himself all those years ago, or to stop her, if he could. Either way, he had to face
Edeyn. The Blight would have been much easier.

Chasing after prophecy, Moiraine had decided by the end of the first month, involved
very little adventure and a great deal of saddlesoreness and frustration. The Three
Oaths still made her skin feel too tight. The wind rattled the shutters, and she
shifted on the hard wooden chair, hiding impatience behind a sip of honeyless tea.
In Kandor, comforts were kept to a minimum in a house of mourning. She would not
have been overly surprised to see frost on the leaf-carved furniture or the metal
clock above the cold hearth.

“It was all so strange, my Lady,” Mistress Najima sighed, and for the tenth time
hugged her daughters. Perhaps thirteen or fourteen, standing close to their mother’s
chair, Colar and Eselle had her long black hair and large blue eyes still full of loss.
Their mother’s eyes seemed big, too, in a face shrunken by tragedy, and her plain
grey dress appeared made for a larger woman. “Josef was always careful with
lanterns in the stable,” she went on, “and he never allowed any kind of open flame.
The boys must have carried little Jerid out to see their father at his work, and . . . ”
Another hollow sigh. “They were all trapped. How could the whole stable be ablaze
so fast? It makes no sense.”

“Little is ever senseless,” Moiraine said soothingly, setting her cup on the small table
at her elbow. She felt sympathy, but the woman had begun repeating herself. “We
cannot always see the reason, yet we can take some comfort in knowing there is one.
The Wheel of Time weaves us into the Pattern as it wills, but the Pattern is the work
of the Light.”

Hearing herself, she suppressed a wince. Those words required dignity and weight
her youth failed to supply. If only time could pass faster. At least for the next five
years or so. Five years should give her her full strength and provide all the dignity
and weight she would ever need. But then, the agelessness that came after working
long enough with the One Power would only have made her present task more
difficult. The last thing she could afford was anyone connecting an Aes Sedai to her
visits.

“As you say, my Lady,” the other woman murmured politely, though an unguarded
shift of pale eyes spoke her thoughts. This outlander was a foolish child. The small
blue stone of a kesiera dangling from a fine golden chain on to Moiraine’s forehead
and a dark green dress with six slashes of colour across the breast, far fewer than
she was entitled to, made Mistress Najima think her merely a Cairhienin
noblewoman, one of many wandering since the Aiel ruined Cairhien. A noblewoman
of a minor House, named Alys not Moiraine, making sympathy calls in mourning for
her own king, killed by the Aiel. The fiction was easy to maintain, though she did not
mourn her uncle in the least.

Perhaps sensing that her thoughts had been too clear, Mistress Najima started up
again, speaking quickly. “It’s just that Josef was always so lucky, my Lady. Everyone
spoke of it. They said if Josef Najima fell down a hole, there’d be opals at the bottom.
When he answered the Lady Kareil’s call to go fight the Aiel, I worried, but he never
took a scratch. When camp fever struck, it never touched us or the children. Josef
gained the Lady’s favour without trying. Then it seemed the Light truly did shine on
us. Jerid was born safe and whole, and the war ended, all in a matter of days, and
when we came home to Canluum, the Lady gave us the livery stable for Josef’s
service, and . . . and . . . ” She swallowed tears she would not shed. Colar began to
weep, and her mother pulled her closer, whispering comfort.

Moiraine rose. More repetition. There was nothing here for her. Jurine stood, too,
not a tall woman, yet almost a hand taller than she. Either of the girls could look
her in the eyes. She had grown accustomed to that since leaving Cairhien. Forcing
herself to take time, she murmured more condolences and tried to press a
washleather purse on the woman as the girls brought her fur-lined cloak and gloves.
A small purse. Obtaining coin meant visits to the bankers and a clear trail. Not that
the Aiel had left her estates in a condition to provide much money for some years
yet. And not that anyone was likely to be looking for her. Still, discovery might be
decidedly unpleasant.

The woman’s stiff-necked refusal to take the purse irritated Moiraine. No, that was
not the real reason. She understood pride, and besides, Lady Kareil had provided.
The real irritant was her own desire to be gone. Jurine Najima had lost her husband
and three sons in one fiery morning, but her Jerid had been born in the wrong place
by almost twenty miles. The search continued. Moiraine did not like feeling relief in
connection with the death of an infant. Yet she did.

Outside under a grey sky, she gathered her cloak tightly. Ignoring the cold was a
simple trick, but anyone who went about the streets of Canluum with open cloak
would draw stares. Any outlander, at least, unless clearly Aes Sedai. Besides, not
allowing the cold to touch you did not make you unaware of it. How these people
could call this “new spring” without a hint of mockery was beyond her.

Despite the near freezing wind that gusted over the rooftops, the winding streets
were packed, requiring her to pick her way through a milling mass of people and
carts and wagons. The world had certainly come to Canluum. A Taraboner with
heavy moustaches pushed past her muttering a hasty apology, and an olive-skinned
Altaran woman who scowled at Moiraine, then an Illianer with a beard that left his
upper lip bare, a very pretty fellow and not too tall.

Another day she might have enjoyed the sight of him, in another city. Now, he barely
registered. It was women she watched, especially those well-dressed, in silks or fine
woollens. If only so many were not veiled. Twice she saw Aes Sedai strolling through
the crowds, neither a woman she had ever met. Neither glanced in her direction, but
she kept her head down and stayed to the other side of the street. Perhaps she
should put on a veil. A stout woman brushed by, features blurred behind lace.
Sierin Vayu herself could have passed unrecognized at ten feet in one of those.
Moiraine shivered at the thought, ridiculous as it was. If the new Amyrlin learned
what she was up to . . . Inserting herself into secret plans, unbidden and
unannounced, would not go unpunished. No matter that the Amyrlin who had made
them was dead in her sleep and another woman sat on the Amyrlin Seat. Being
sequestered on a farm until the search was done was the least she could expect.
It was not just. She and her friend Siuan had helped gather the names, in the guise
of offering assistance to any woman who had given birth during the days when the
Aiel threatened Tar Valon itself. Of all the women involved in that gathering, just
they two knew the real reason. They had winnowed those names for Tamra. Only
children born outside the city’s walls had really been important, though the
promised aid went to every woman found, of course. Only boys born on the west
bank of the River Erinin, boys who might have been born on the slopes of
Dragonmount.

Behind her a woman shouted shrilly, angrily, and Moiraine jumped a foot before she
realized it was a wagon-driver, brandishing her whip at a hawker to hustle his
pushcart of steaming meat pies out of her way. Light! A farm was the least she could
expect! A few men around Moiraine laughed raucously at her leap, and one, a darkfaced
Tairen in a striped cloak, made a rude joke about the cold wind curling under
her skirts. The laughter grew.

Moiraine stalked ahead stiffly, cheeks crimson, hand tight on the silver hilt of her
belt knife. Unthinking, she embraced the True Source, and the One Power flooded
her with joyous life. A single glance over her shoulder was all she needed; with
saidar in her, smells became sharper, colours truer. She could have counted the
threads in the cloak the Tairen was letting flap while he laughed. She channelled
fine flows of the Power, of Air, and the fellow’s baggy breeches dropped to his
turned-down boots, the laces undone. Bellowing, he snatched his cloak around him
amid gales of renewed mirth. Let him see how he liked cold breezes and rowdy jokes!
Satisfaction lasted as long as it took to release the Source. Impetuous impulse and a
quick temper had always been her downfall. Any woman able to channel would have
seen her weaving if close enough, seen the glow of saidar surround her. Even those
thin flows could have been felt at thirty paces by the weakest sister in the Tower. A
fine way to hide.

Quickening her step, she put distance between herself and the incident. Too little
too late, but all she could do now. She stroked the small book in her belt pouch,
tried to focus on her task. With only one hand, keeping her cloak closed proved
impossible. It whipped about in the wind, and after a moment, she let herself feel
the knifing chill. Sisters who took on penances at every turn were foolish, yet a
penance could serve many purposes, and maybe she needed a reminder. If she
could not remember to be careful, she might as well return to the White Tower now
and ask where to start hoeing turnips.

Mentally she drew a line through the name of Jurine Najima. Other names in the
book already had real lines inked through them. The mothers of five boys born in
the wrong place. The mothers of three girls. An army of almost two hundred
thousand men had gathered to face the Aiel outside the Shining Walls, and it still
astonished her how many women followed along, how many were with child. An
older sister had had to explain. The war had not been short, and men who knew
they might die tomorrow wanted to leave part of themselves behind. Women who
knew their men might die tomorrow wanted that part of them to keep.
Hundreds had given birth during the key ten days, and in that sort of gathering,
with soldiers from nearly every land, too often there was only rumour as to exactly
where or when a child had been born. Or to where the parents had gone, with the
war ended and the Coalition army melting away along with the Coalition. There were
too many entries like “Saera Deosin. Husband Eadwin. From Murandy. A son?” A
whole country to search, only a pair of names to go by, and no certainty the woman
had borne a boy. Too many like “Kari al’Thor. From Andor? Husband Tamlin,
Second Captain of the Illianer Companions, took discharge.” That pair might have
gone anywhere in the world, and there was doubt she had had a child at all.
Sometimes only the mother was listed, with six or eight variations on the name of a
home village that might lie in one of two or three countries. The list of those easy to
find was growing shorter rapidly.

But the child had to be found. An infant who would grow to manhood and wield the
tainted male half of the One Power. Moiraine shuddered at the thought despite
herself. That was why this search was so secret, why Moiraine and Siuan, still only
Accepted when they learned of the child’s birth by accident, had been shunted aside
and kept in as much ignorance as Tamra could manage. This was a matter for
experienced sisters. But who could she trust with the news that the birth of the
Dragon Reborn had been Foretold, and more, that somewhere he already suckled at
his mother’s breast? Had she had the sort of nightmares that had wakened Moiraine
and Siuan so many nights? Yet this boychild would grow to manhood and save the
world, so the Prophecies of the Dragon said. If he was not found by a Red sister; the
Red Ajah’s main purpose was hunting down men who could channel, and Moiraine
was sure Tamra had not trusted any of them, even with a child. Could a Red be
trusted to remember that he would be humankind’s salvation while remembering
what else he would be? The day suddenly seemed colder to Moiraine, for
remembering.

The inn where she had a small room was called The Gates of Heaven, four sprawling
storeys of green-roofed stone, Canluum’s best and largest. Nearby shops catered to
the lords and ladies on the Stand, looming behind the inn. She would not have
stopped in it had there been another room to be found in the city. Taking a deep
breath, she hurried inside. Neither the sudden warmth from fires on four large
hearths nor the good smells of cooking from the kitchens eased her tight shoulders.
The common room was large, and every table beneath the bright red ceiling beams
was taken. By plainly-dressed merchants for the most part, and a sprinkling of wellto-
do craftsfolk with rich embroidery covering colourful shirts or dresses. She hardly
noticed them. No fewer than five sisters were staying at The Gates of Heaven, and all
sat in the common room when she walked in. Master Helvin, the innkeeper, would
always make room for an Aes Sedai even when he had to force other patrons to
double up. The sisters kept to themselves, barely acknowledging one another, and
people who might not have recognized an Aes Sedai on sight knew them now, knew
enough not to intrude. Every other table was jammed, yet where any man sat with
an Aes Sedai, it was her Warder, a hard-eyed man with a dangerous look about him
however ordinary he might seem otherwise. One of the sisters sitting alone was a
Red; Reds took no Warder.

Tucking her gloves behind her belt and folding her cloak over her arm, Moiraine
started towards the stone stairs at the back of the room. Not too quickly, but not
dawdling, either. Looking straight ahead. She did not need to see an ageless face or
glimpse the golden serpent biting its own tail encircling a finger to know when she
passed close to another sister. Each time, she felt the other woman’s ability to
channel, felt her strength. No one here matched her. She could sense their ability,
and they could sense hers. Their eyes following her seemed the touch of fingers. Not
quite grasping. None spoke to her.
Then, just as she reached the staircase, a woman did speak behind her. “Well, now.
This is a surprise.”

Turning quickly, Moiraine kept her face smooth with an effort as she made a brief
curtsy suitable for a minor noblewoman to an Aes Sedai. To two Aes Sedai. She did
not think she could have encountered two worse than this pair in sober silks.
The white wings in Larelle Tarsi’s long hair emphasized her serene, copper-skinned
elegance. She had taught Moiraine in several classes, as both novice and Accepted,
and she had a way of asking the last question you wanted to hear. Worse was
Merean Redhill, plump and so motherly that hair more grey than not, and gathered
at the nape of her neck, almost submerged the agelessness of her features. She had
been Mistress of Novices under Tamra, and she made Larelle seem blind when it
came to discovering just what you most wanted to hide. Both wore their vineembroidered
shawls, Merean’s fringed blue. Blue was Moiraine’s Ajah, too. That
might count for something. Or not. It was a surprise to see them together; she had
not thought they particularly liked one another.
Both were stronger in the Power than she, unfortunately, though she would stand
above them eventually, but the gap was only wide enough that she had to defer, not
obey. In any case, they had no right to interfere in anything she might be doing.
Custom held very strongly on that. Unless they were part of Tamra’s search and had
been told about her. An Amyrlin’s commands superseded the strongest custom, or
at least altered it. But if either said the wrong thing here, word that Moiraine
Damodred was wandering about in disguise would spread with the sisters in the
room, and it would reach the wrong ears as surely as peaches were poison. That was
the way of the world. A summons back to Tar Valon would find her soon after. She
opened her mouth hoping to forestall the chance, but someone else spoke first.
“No need trying that one,” a sister alone at a table nearby said, twisting around on
her bench. Felaana Bevaine, a slim yellow-haired Brown with a raspy voice, had
been the first to corner Moiraine when she arrived. “Says she has no interest in
going to the Tower. Stubborn as stone about it. Secretive, too. You would think we’d
have heard about a wilder popping up in even a lesser Cairhienin House, but this
child likes to keep to herself.”

Larelle and Merean looked at Moiraine, Larelle arching a thin eyebrow, Merean
apparently trying to suppress a smile. Most sisters disliked wilders, women who
managed to survive teaching themselves to channel without going to the White
Tower.

“It is quite true, Aes Sedai,” Moiraine said carefully, relieved that someone else had
laid a foundation. “I have no desire to enroll as a novice, and I will not.”
Felaana fixed her with considering eyes, but she still spoke to the others. “Says she’s
twenty-two, but that rule has been bent a time or two. A woman says she’s eighteen,
and that’s how she’s enrolled. Unless it’s too obvious a lie, anyway, and this girl—”
“Our rules were not made to be broken,” Larelle said sharply, and Merean added in
a wry voice, “I don’t believe this young woman will lie about her age. She doesn’t
want to be a novice, Felaana. Let her go her way.” Moiraine almost let out a relieved
sigh.

Enough weaker than they to accept being cut off, Felaana still began to rise, plainly
meaning to continue the argument. Halfway to her feet she glanced up the stairs
behind Moiraine, her eyes widened, and abruptly she sat down again, focusing on
her plate of black peas and onions as if nothing else in the world existed. Merean
and Larelle gathered their shawls, grey fringe and blue swaying. They looked eager
to be elsewhere. They looked as though their feet had been nailed to the floor.
“So this girl does not want to be a novice,” said a woman’s voice from the stairs. A
voice Moiraine had heard only once, two years ago, and would never forget. A
number of women were stronger than she, but only one could be as much stronger
as this one. Unwillingly, she looked over her shoulder.

Nearly black eyes studied her from beneath a bun of iron-grey hair decorated with
golden ornaments, stars and birds, crescent moons and fish. Cadsuane, too, wore
her shawl, fringed in green. “In my opinion, girl,” she said drily, “you could profit
from ten years in white.”

Everyone had believed Cadsuane Melaidhrin dead somewhere in retirement until she
reappeared at the start of the Aiel War, and a good many sisters probably wished
her truly in her grave. Cadsuane was a legend, a most uncomfortable thing to have
alive and staring at you. Half the tales about her came close to impossibility, while
the rest were beyond it, even among those that had proof. A long-ago King of
Tarabon winkled out of his palace when it was learned he could channel, carried to
Tar Valon to be gentled while an army that did not believe chased after to attempt
rescue. A King of Arad Doman and a Queen of Saldaea both kidnapped, spirited
away in secrecy, and when Cadsuane finally released them, a war that had seemed
certain simply faded away. It was said she bent Tower law where it suited her,
flouted custom, went her own way and often dragged others with her.
“I thank the Aes Sedai for her concern,” Moiraine began, then trailed off under that
stare. Not a hard stare. Simply implacable. Supposedly even Amyrlins had stepped
warily around Cadsuane over the years. It was whispered that she had actually
assaulted an Amyrlin, once. Impossible, of course; she would have been executed!
Moiraine swallowed and tried to start over, only to find she wanted to swallow again.
Descending the stair, Cadsuane told Merean and Larelle, “Bring the girl.” Without a
second glance, she glided across the common room. Merchants and craftsfolk looked
at her, some openly, some from the corner of an eye, and Warders too, but every
sister kept her gaze on her table.

Merean’s face tightened, and Larelle sighed extravagantly, yet they prodded Moiraine
after the bobbing golden ornaments. She had no choice but to go. At least Cadsuane
could not be one of the women Tamra had called in; she had not returned to Tar
Valon since that visit at the beginning of the war.

Cadsuane led them to one of the inn’s private sitting rooms, where a fire blazed on
the black stone hearth and silver lamps hung along the red wall panels. A tall
pitcher stood near the fire to keep warm, and a lacquered tray on a small carved
table held silver cups. Merean and Larelle took two of the brightly-cushioned chairs,
but when Moiraine put her cloak on a chair and started to sit, Cadsuane pointed to
a spot in front of the other sisters. “Stand there, child,” she said.
Making an effort not to clutch her skirt in her fists, Moiraine stood as directed.
Obedience had always been difficult for her. Until she went to the Tower at sixteen,
there had been few people she had to obey. Most obeyed her.

Cadsuane circled the three of them slowly, once, twice. Merean and Larelle
exchanged wondering frowns, and Larelle opened her mouth, but after one look at
Cadsuane, closed it again. They assumed smooth-faced serenity; any watcher would
have thought they knew exactly what was going on. Sometimes Cadsuane glanced at
them, but the greater part of her attention stayed on Moiraine.
“Most new sisters,” the legendary Green said abruptly, “hardly remove their shawls
to sleep or bathe, but here you are without shawl or ring, in one of the most
dangerous spots you could choose short of the Blight itself. Why?”
Moiraine blinked. A direct question. The woman really did ignore custom when it
suited her. She made her voice light. “New sisters also seek a Warder.” Why was the
woman singling her out in this manner? “I have not bonded mine, yet. I am told
Bordermen make fine Warders.” The Green sent her a stabbing look that made her
wish she had been just a little less light.

Stopping behind Larelle, Cadsuane laid a hand on her shoulder. “What do you know
of this child?”

Every girl in Larelle’s classes had thought her the perfect sister and been
intimidated by that cool consideration. They all had been afraid of her, and wanted
to be her. “Moiraine was studious and a quick learner,” she said thoughtfully. “She
and Siuan Sanche were two of the quickest the Tower has ever seen. But you must
know that. Let me see. She was rather too free with her opinions, and her temper,
until we settled her down. As much as we did settle her. She and the Sanche girl
had a continuing fondness for pranks. But they both passed for Accepted on the
first try, and for the shawl. She needs seasoning, of course, yet she may make
something of herself.”

Cadsuane moved behind Merean, asking the same question, adding, “A fondness
for . . . pranks, Larelle said. A troublesome child?”

Merean shook her head with a smile. None of the girls had wanted to be Merean, but
everyone knew where to go for a shoulder to cry on or advice when you could not
ask your closest friend. Many more girls visited her on their own than had been sent
for chastisement. “Not troublesome, really,” she said. “High-spirited. None of the
tricks Moiraine played were mean, but they were plentiful. Novice and Accepted, she
was sent to my study more often than any three other girls. Except for her pillowfriend
Siuan. Of course, pillow-friends frequently get into tangles together, but with
those two, one was never sent to me without the other. The last time the very night
after passing for the shawl.” Her smile faded into a frown very much like the one she
had worn that night. Not angry, but rather disbelieving of the mischief young women
could get up to. And a touch amused by it. “Instead of spending the night in
contemplation, they tried to sneak mice into a sister’s bed—Elaida a’Roihan—and
were caught. I doubt any other women have been raised Aes Sedai while still too
tender to sit from their last visit to the Mistress of Novices. Once the Three Oaths
tightened on them, they needed cushions a week.”

Moiraine kept her face smooth, kept her hands from knotting into fists, but she
could do nothing about burning cheeks. That ruefully amused frown, as if she were
still Accepted. She needed seasoning, did she? Well, perhaps she did, some, but still.
And spreading out all these intimacies!

“I think you know all of me that you need to know,” she told Cadsuane stiffly. How
close she and Siuan had been was no one’s business but theirs. And their
punishments, details of their punishments. Elaida had been hateful, always
pressing, demanding perfection whenever she visited the Tower. “If you are quite
satisfied, I must pack my things. I am departing for Chachin.”

She swallowed a groan before it could form. She still let her tongue go too free when
her temper was up. If Merean or Larelle was part of the search, they must have at
least part of the list in her little book. Including Jurine Najima here, the Lady Ines
Demain in Chachin, and Avene Sahera, who lived in “a village on the high road
between Chachin and Canluum”. To strengthen suspicion, all she need do now was
say she intended to spend time in Arafel and Shienar next.

Cadsuane smiled, not at all pleasantly. “You’ll leave when I say, child. Be silent till
you’re spoken to. That pitcher should hold spiced wine. Pour for us.”

Moiraine quivered. Child! She was no longer a novice. The woman could not order
her coming and going. Or her tongue. But she did not protest. She walked to the
hearth—stalked, really—and picked up the long-necked silver pitcher.

“You seem very interested in this young woman, Cadsuane,” Merean said, turning
slightly to watch Moiraine pour. “Is there something about her we should know?”
Larelle’s smile held a touch of mockery. Only a touch, with Cadsuane. “Has someone
Foretold she’ll be Amyrlin one day? I can’t say that I see it in her, but then, I don’t
have the Foretelling.”

“I might live another thirty years,” Cadsuane said, putting out a hand for the cup
Moiraine offered, “or only three. Who can say?”

Moiraine’s eyes went wide, and she slopped hot wine over her own wrist. Merean
gasped, and Larelle looked as though she had been struck in the forehead with a
stone. Any Aes Sedai would spit on the table before referring to another sister’s age
or her own. Except that Cadsuane was not any Aes Sedai.

“A little more care with the other cups,” she said, unperturbed by all the gaping.
“Child?” Moiraine returned to the hearth still staring, and Cadsuane went on,
“Meilyn is considerably older. When she and I are gone, that leaves Kerene the
strongest.” Larelle flinched. “Am I disturbing you?” Cadsuane’s solicitous tone could
not have been more false, and she did not wait for an answer. “Holding our silence
about age doesn’t keep people from knowing we live longer than they. Phaaw! From
Kerene, it’s a sharp drop to the next five. Five once this child and the Sanche girl
reach their potential. And one of those is as old as I am and in retirement to boot.”
“Is there some point to this?” Merean asked, sounding a little sick. Larelle pressed
her hands against her middle, her face grey. They barely glanced at the wine
Moiraine offered before gesturing it away, and she kept the cup, though she did not
think she could swallow a mouthful.

Cadsuane scowled, a fearsome sight. “No one has come to the Tower in a thousand
years who could match me. No one to match Meilyn or Kerene in almost six
hundred. A thousand years ago, there would have been fifty sisters or more who
stood higher than this child. In another hundred years, though, she’ll stand in the
first rank. Oh, someone stronger may be found in that time, but there won’t be fifty,
and there may be none. We dwindle.”

“I don’t understand,” Larelle said sharply. She seemed to have gathered herself, and
to be angry for her previous weakness. “We are all aware of the problem, but what
does Moiraine have to do with it? Do you think she can somehow make more girls
come to the Tower, girls with stronger potential?” Her snort said what she thought of
that.

“I would regret her being wasted before she knows up from down. The Tower can’t
afford to lose her out of her own ignorance. Look at her. A pretty little doll of a
Cairhienin noble.” Cadsuane put a finger under Moiraine’s chin, tilting it up. “Before
you find a Warder like that, child, a brigand who wants to see what’s in your purse
will put an arrow through your heart. A footpad who’d faint at the sight of a sister in
her sleep will crack your head, and you’ll wake at the back of an alley minus your
gold and maybe more. I suspect you’ll want to take as much care choosing your first
man as you do your first Warder.”

Moiraine jerked back, spluttered with indignation. First her and Siuan, now this.
There were things one talked about, and things one did not!

Cadsuane ignored her outrage. Calmly sipping her wine, she turned back to the
others. “Until she does find a Warder to guard her back, it might be best to protect
her from her own enthusiasm. You two are going to Chachin, I believe. She’ll travel
with you, then. I expect you not to let her out of your sight.”

Moiraine found her tongue, but her protests did as much good as her indignation
had. Merean and Larelle objected, too, just as vociferously. Aes Sedai did not need
“looking after”, no matter how new. They had interests of their own to look after.
They did not make clear what those were—few sisters would have—but they plainly
wanted no company. Cadsuane paid no attention to anything she did not want to
hear, assumed they would do as she wished, pressed wherever they offered an
opening. Soon the pair were twisting on their chairs and reduced to saying that they
had only encountered each other the day before and were not sure they would be
travelling on together. In any event, both meant to spend two or three days in
Canluum, while Moiraine wanted to leave today.

“The child will stay until you leave,” Cadsuane said briskly. “Good; that’s done, then.
I’m sure you two want to see to whatever brought you to Canluum. I won’t keep
you.”

Larelle shifted her shawl irritably at the abrupt dismissal, then stalked out
muttering that Moiraine would regret it if she got underfoot or slowed her reaching
Chachin. Merean took it better, even saying she would look after Moiraine like a
daughter, though her smile hardly looked pleased.

When they were gone, Moiraine stared at Cadsuane incredulously. She had never
seen anything like it. Except an avalanche, once. The thing to do now was keep
silent until she had a chance to leave without Cadsuane or the others seeing. Much
the wisest thing. “I agreed to nothing,” she said coolly. Very coolly. “What if I have
affairs in Chachin that will not wait? What if I do not choose to wait here two or
three days?” Perhaps she did need to learn to school her tongue a little more.
Cadsuane had been looking thoughtfully at the door that had closed behind Merean
and Larelle, but she turned a piercing gaze on Moiraine. “You’ve worn the shawl five
months, and you have affairs that cannot wait? Pshaaw! You still haven’t learned
the first real lesson, that the shawl means you are ready to truly begin learning. The
second lesson is caution. I know very well how hard that is to find when you’re
young and have saidar at your fingertips and the world at your feet. As you think.”
Moiraine tried to fit a word in, but she might as well have stood in front of that
avalanche. “You will take great risks in your life, if you live long enough. You already
take more than you know. Heed carefully what I say. And do as I say. I will check
your bed tonight, and if you are not in it, I will find you and make you weep as you
did for those mice. You can dry your tears afterwards on that shawl you believe
makes you invincible. It does not.”

Staring as the door closed behind Cadsuane, Moiraine suddenly realized she still
held the cup of wine and gulped it dry. The woman was . . . formidable. Custom
forbade physical violence against another sister, but Cadsuane had not sidestepped
a hair in her threat. She had said it right out, so by the Three Oaths she meant it
exactly. Incredible. Was it happenstance that she had mentioned Meilyn Arganya
and Kerene Nagashi? They were two of Tamra’s searchers. Could Cadsuane be
another? Either way, she had very neatly cut Moiraine out of the hunt for the next
week or more. If she actually went with Merean and Larelle, at least. But why only a
week? If the woman was part of the search . . . If Cadsuane knew about her and
Siuan . . . If . . . Standing there fiddling with an empty wine-cup was getting her
nowhere. She snatched up her cloak.

A number of people looked around at her when she came out into the common
room, some with sympathy in their eyes. Doubtless they were imagining what it
must be like to be the focus of attention for three Aes Sedai, and they could not
imagine any good in it. There was no commiseration on any sister’s face. Felaana
wore a pleased smile; she probably thought the Lady Alys’s name as good as written
in the novice book. Cadsuane was nowhere in sight, nor the other two.

Picking her way through the tables, Moiraine felt shaken. There were too many
questions, and not an answer to be found. She wished Siuan was there; Siuan was
very good at puzzles, and nothing shook her.

A young woman looked in at the door from the street, then jerked out of sight, and
Moiraine missed a step. Wish for something hard enough, and you could think you
saw it. The woman peeked in again, the hood of her cloak fallen atop the bundle on
her back, and it really was Siuan, sturdy and handsome, in a plain blue dress that
showed signs of hard travel. This time she saw Moiraine, but instead of rushing to
greet her, Siuan nodded up the street and vanished again.

Heart climbing into her throat, Moiraine swept her cloak around her and went out.
Down the street, Siuan was slipping through the traffic, glancing back at every third
step. Moiraine followed quickly, worry growing.

Siuan was supposed to be six hundred miles away in Tar Valon, working for Cetalia
Delarme, who ran the Blue Ajah’s network of eyes-and-ears. She had let that secret
slip while bemoaning her fate. The whole time they were novice and Accepted
together Siuan had talked of getting out into the world, seeing the world, but Cetalia
had taken her aside the day they received the shawl, and by that evening Siuan was
sorting reports from men and women scattered through the nations. She had a mind
that saw patterns others missed. Cetalia equalled Merean in the Power, and it would
be another three or four years before Siuan gained enough strength to tell Cetalia
she was leaving the job. There would be snow at Sunday before Cetalia let her go
short of that. And the only other possibility for her being in Canluum . . . Moiraine
groaned, and when a big-eared fellow selling pins from a tray gave her a concerned
look, she glared so hard that he started back.

It would be just like Sierin to send Siuan to bring her back, so their worry could feed
on each other during the long ride. Sierin was a hard woman, without an ounce of
mercy. An Amyrlin was supposed to grant indulgences and relief from penances on
the day she was raised; Sierin had ordered two sisters birched and exiled three from
the Tower for a year. She might well have told Siuan the penance she intended to
impose. Moiraine shivered. Likely, Sierin would manage to combine Labour,
Deprivation, Mortification of the Flesh, and Mortification of the Spirit.

A hundred paces from the inn, Siuan looked back once more, paused till she was
sure that Moiraine saw her, then darted into an alley. Moiraine quickened her stride
and followed.

Her friend was pacing beneath the still-unlit oil-lamps that lined even this narrow,
dusty passage. Nothing frightened Siuan Sanche, a fisherman’s daughter from the
toughest quarter in Tear, but fear glittered in those sharp blue eyes now. Moiraine
opened her mouth to confirm her own fears about Sierin, but the taller woman
spoke first.

“Tell me you’ve found him, Moiraine. Tell me the Najima boy’s the one, and we can
hand him to the Tower with a hundred sisters watching, and it’s done.”
A hundred sisters? “No, Siuan.” This did not sound like Sierin. “What is the matter?”
Siuan began to weep. Siuan, who had a lion’s heart and had never let a tear fall
until after they left Merean’s study. Throwing her arms around Moiraine, she
squeezed hard. She was trembling. “They’re all dead,” she mumbled. “Aisha and
Kerene, Valera and Ludice and Meilyn. They say Aisha and her Warder were killed
by bandits in Murandy. Kerene supposedly fell off a ship in the Alguenya during a
storm and drowned. And Meilyn . . . Meilyn . . . ”

Moiraine hugged her, making soothing sounds. And staring past Siuan’s shoulder in
consternation. They had learned five of the women Tamra had selected, and all five
were dead. “Meilyn was . . . hardly young,” she said slowly. She was not sure she
could have said it at all if Cadsuane had not spoken so openly. Siuan gave a startled
jerk, and she made herself go on. “Neither were any of the others, even Kerene.”
Close to two hundred was not young even for Aes Sedai. “And accidents do happen.
Bandits. Storms.” She was having a hard time making herself believe. All of them?
Siuan pushed herself away. “You don’t understand. Meilyn!” Grimacing, she
scrubbed at her eyes. “Fish guts! I’m not making this clear. Get hold of yourself, you
bloody fool!” That last was growled to herself. Merean and others had gone to a great
deal of trouble to clean up Siuan’s language, but she had reverted the moment the
shawl was on her shoulders. Guiding Moiraine to an upended cask with no bung,
she sat her down. “You won’t want to be standing when you hear what I have to say.
For that matter, I bloody well don’t want to be standing myself.”

Dragging a crate with broken slats from further up the alley, she settled on it,
fussing with her skirts, peering towards the street, muttering about people looking
in as they passed. Her reluctance did little to soothe Moiraine’s stomach. It seemed
to do little for Siuan’s, either. When she started up again, she kept pausing to
swallow, like a woman who wanted to sick up.

“Meilyn returned to the Tower almost a month ago. I don’t know why. She didn’t say
where she had been, or where she was going, but she only meant to stay a few
nights. I . . . I’d heard about Kerene the morning Meilyn came, and the others before
that. So I decided to speak to her. Don’t look at me that way! I know how to be
cautious!” Cautious was a word Moiraine had never thought to apply to Siuan.
“Anyway, I sneaked into her rooms and hid under the bed. So the servants wouldn’t
see me when they turned down her sheets.” Siuan grunted sourly. “I fell asleep
under there. Sunrise woke me, and her bed hadn’t been slept in. So I sneaked out
and went down to the second sitting of breakfast. And while I was spooning my
porridge, Chesmal Emry came in to . . . She . . . She announced that Meilyn had
been found in her bed, that she’d died during the night.” She finished in a rush and
sagged, staring at Moiraine.

Moiraine was very glad to be sitting. Her knees would not have supported a feather.
She had grown up amid Daes Dae’mar, the scheming and plotting that dominated
Cairhienin life, the shades of meaning in every word, every action. There was too
much here for shadings. Murder had been done. “The Red Ajah?” she suggested
finally. A Red might kill a sister she thought intended to protect a man who could
channel.

Siuan snorted. “Meilyn didn’t have a mark on her, and Chesmal would have detected
poison, or smothering, or . . . That means the Power, Moiraine. Could even a Red do
that?” Her voice was fierce, but she pulled the bundle around from her back,
clutching it on her lap. She seemed to be hiding behind it. Still, there was less fear
on her face than anger, now. “Think, Moiraine. Tamra supposedly died in her sleep,
too. Only we know Meilyn didn’t, no matter where she was found. First Tamra, then
the others started dying. The only thing that makes sense is that someone noticed
her calling sisters in and wanted to know why badly enough that they bloody risked
putting the Amyrlin Seat herself to the question. They had to have something to hide
to do that, something they’d risk anything to keep hidden. They killed her to hide it,
to hide what they’d done, and then they set out to kill the rest. Which means they
don’t want the boy found, not alive. They don’t want the Dragon Reborn at the Last
Battle. Any other way to look at it is tossing the slop bucket into the wind and
hoping for the best.”

Unconsciously, Moiraine peered towards the mouth of the alley. A few people
walking by glanced in, but none more than once. No one paused at seeing them
seated there. Some things were easier to speak of when you were not too specific.
“The Amyrlin” had been put to the question; “she” had been killed. Not Tamra, not a
name that brought up the familiar, determined face. “Someone” had murdered her.
“They” did not want the Dragon Reborn found. Murder with the Power certainly
violated the Three Oaths, even for . . . for those Moiraine did not want to name any
more than Siuan did.

Forcing her face to smoothness, forcing her voice to calm, she forced the words out.
“The Black Ajah.” Siuan flinched, then nodded, glowering.

Any sister grew angry at the suggestion there was a secret Ajah hidden inside the
others, dedicated to the Dark One. Most sisters refused to listen. The White Tower
had stood for the Light for over three thousand years. But some sisters did not deny
the Black straight out. Some believed. Very few would admit it even to another
sister, though. Moiraine did not want to admit it to herself.

Siuan plucked at the ties on her bundle, but she went on in a brisk voice. “I don’t
think they have our names—Tamra never really thought us part of it—else I’d have
had an ‘accident’, too. Just before I left, I slipped a note with my suspicions under
Sierin’s door. Only, I didn’t know how much to trust her. The Amyrlin Seat! I wrote
with my left hand, but I was shaking so hard, no one could recognize my writing if
I’d used my right. Burn my liver! Even if we knew who to trust, we have bilge water
for proof.”

“Enough for me. If they know everything, all the women Tamra chose, there may be
none left except us. We will have to move fast if we have a hope of finding the boy
first.” Moiraine tried for a vigorous tone, too. It was gratifying that Siuan only
nodded. She would not give up for all her talk of shaking, and she never considered
that Moiraine might. Most gratifying. “Perhaps they know us, and perhaps not.
Perhaps they think they can leave two new sisters for last. In any case, we cannot
trust anyone but ourselves.” Blood drained from her face. “Oh, Light! I just had an
encounter at the inn, Siuan.”

She tried to recall every word, every nuance, from the moment Merean first spoke.
Siuan listened with a distant look, filing and sorting. “Cadsuane could be one of
Tamra’s chosen,” she agreed when Moiraine finished. “Or she could be Black Ajah.”
She barely hesitated over the words. “Maybe she’s just trying to get you out of the
way until she can dispose of you without rousing suspicion. The trouble is, any of
them could be either.” Leaning across her bundle, she touched Moiraine’s knee.
“Can you bring your horse from the stable without being seen? I have a good mount,
but I don’t know if she can carry both of us. We should be hours from here before
they know we’re gone.”

Moiraine smiled in spite of herself. She very much doubted the good mount. Her
friend’s eye for horseflesh was no better than her seat in the saddle, and sometimes
Siuan fell off nearly before the animal moved. The ride north must have been agony.
And full of fear. “No one knows you are here at all, Siuan,” she said. “Best if it stays
so. You have your book? Good. If I remain until morning, I will have a day’s start on
them instead of hours. You go on to Chachin now. Take some of my coin.” By the
state of Siuan’s dress, she had spent the last part of that trip sleeping under
bushes. A fisherman’s daughter had no estates to provide gold. “Start looking for the
Lady Ines, and I will catch you up there.”

It was not that easy, of course. Siuan had a stubborn streak as wide as the Erinin.
Quite aside from that, as novice and Accepted it had been the fisherman’s daughter
who led, not the king’s niece, something that had startled Moiraine at first, until she
realized that it felt natural somehow. Siuan had been born to lead.

“I have enough for my needs,” she grumbled, but Moiraine insisted on handing her
half the coins in her purse, and when Moiraine reminded her of their pledge during
their first months in the Tower, that what one owned belonged to the other as well,
she muttered, “We swore we’d find beautiful young princes to bond, too, and marry
them besides. Girls say all sort of silly things. You watch after yourself, now. You
leave me alone in this, and I’ll wring your neck.”

Embracing to say good bye, Moiraine found it hard to let go. An hour ago, her
worries had been whether she might be stuck away on a farm, or at worse birched.
Now . . . The Black Ajah. She wanted to empty her stomach. If only she had Siuan’s
courage. Watching Siuan slip down the alley adjusting that bundle on her back
again, Moiraine wished she was Green. Only Greens bonded more than one Warder,
and she would have liked at least three or four to guard her back right then.
Walking back up the street, she could not help looking at everyone she passed, man
or woman. If the Black Ajah—her stomach twisted every time she thought that name
—if they were involved, then ordinary Darkfriends were, too. No one denied that
some misguided people believed the Dark One would give them immortality, people
who would kill and do every sort of evil to gain that hoped-for reward. And if any
sister could be Black Ajah, anyone she met could be a Darkfriend. She hoped Siuan
remembered that.

As she approached The Gates of Heaven, a sister appeared in the inn’s doorway.
Part of a sister, at least; all she could see was an arm with a fringed shawl over it. A
tall man who had just come out, his hair in two belled braids, turned back to speak
for a moment, but the shawl-draped arm gestured peremptorily, and he strode past
Moiraine wearing a scowl. She would not have thought twice of it if not for thinking
about the Black Ajah and Darkfriends. The Light knew, Aes Sedai did speak to men,
and some did more than speak. She had been thinking of Darkfriends, though. And
Black sisters. If only she could have made out the colour of that fringe. She hurried
the last thirty-odd paces frowning.

Merean and Larelle were seated together by themselves near the door, both still
wearing their shawls. Few sisters did that except for ceremony, or for show. Both
women were watching Cadsuane go into that private sitting room, followed by a pair
of grey-haired men who looked as hard as last year’s oak. She still wore her shawl,
too, with the white Flame of Tar Valon bright on her back. It could have been any of
them. Cadsuane might be looking for another Warder; Greens always seemed to be
looking. Moiraine did not know whether Merean and Larelle had Warders. The
fellow’s scowl might have been for hearing he did not measure up. There were a
hundred possible explanations, and she put the man out of her head. The sure
dangers were real enough without inventing more.

Before she was three steps into the common room, Master Helvin bustled up in a
green-striped apron, a bald man nearly as wide as he was tall, and handed her a
new irritation. With three more Aes Sedai stopping at his inn, he needed to shuffle
the beds, as he put it. The Lady Alys would not mind sharing hers, certainly, under
the circumstances. Mistress Palan was a most pleasant woman.

Haesel Palan was a rug-merchant from Murandy with the lilt of Lugard in her voice.
Moiraine heard more of it than she wanted from the moment she stepped into the
small room that had been hers alone. Her clothes had been moved from the
wardrobe to pegs on the wall, her comb and brush displaced from the washstand for
Mistress Palan’s. The plump woman might have been diffident with ‘Lady Alys’, but
not with a wilder who everybody said was off in the morning to become a novice in
the White Tower. She lectured Moiraine on the duties of a novice, all of it wrong. She
followed Moiraine down to dinner and gathered other traders of her acquaintance at
the table, every woman of them eager to share what she knew of the White Tower.
Which was nothing at all. They shared it in great detail, though. Moiraine thought to
escape by retiring early, but Mistress Palan appeared almost as soon as she had her
dress off and talked until she dropped off to sleep.

It was not an easy night. The bed was narrow, the woman’s elbows sharp and her
feet icy despite thick blankets that trapped the warmth of the small stove under the
bed. The rainstorm that had threatened all day broke, wind and thunder rattling the
shutters for hours. Moiraine doubted she could have slept in any event. Darkfriends
and the Black Ajah danced in her head. She saw Tamra being dragged from her
sleep, dragged away to somewhere secret and tortured by women wielding the
Power. Sometimes the women wore Merean’s face, and Larelle’s, and Cadsuane’s,
and every sister’s she had ever seen. Sometimes Tamra’s face became her own.
When the door creaked slowly open in the dark hours of morning, Moiraine
embraced the Source in a flash. Saidar filled her to the point where the sweetness
and joy came close to pain. Not as much of the Power as she would be able to handle
in another year, much less five, yet a hair more would burn the ability out of her
now, or kill her. One was as bad as the other, but she wanted to draw more, and not
just because the Power always made you want more.

Cadsuane put her head in. Moiraine had forgotten her promise, her threat.
Cadsuane saw the glow, of course, could feel how much she held. “Fool girl,” was all
the woman said before leaving.

Moiraine counted to one hundred slowly, then swung her feet out from under the
covers. Now was as good a time as any. Mistress Palan heaved on to her side and
began to snore. Channelling Fire, Moiraine lit one of the lamps and dressed
hurriedly. A riding dress, this time. Reluctantly she decided to abandon her
saddlebags along with everything else she had to leave behind. Anyone who saw her
moving about might not think too much of it even at this time of the morning, but
not if she had saddlebags over her shoulder. All she took was what she could fit into
the pockets sewn inside her cloak, little more than some spare stockings and a clean
shift. Mistress Palan was still snoring as she closed the door behind her.

The skinny groom on night duty was startled to see her with the sky just beginning
to turn grey, but a silver penny had him knuckling his forehead and saddling her
bay mare. She regretted leaving her packhorse behind, but not even a fool noble—
she heard the fellow mutter—would take a pack animal for a morning jaunt.
Climbing into Arrow’s high-cantled saddle, she gave the man a cool smile instead of
the second penny he would have received without the comment, and rode slowly out
into damp, empty streets. Just out for a ride, however early. It looked to be a good
day. The sky looked rained out, for one thing, and there was little wind.

The lamps were still lit all along the streets and alleys, leaving no more than the
palest shadow anywhere, yet the only people to be seen were the Night Watch’s
patrols and the Lamplighters, heavily armed as they made their rounds to make
sure no lamp went out. A wonder that people could live so close to the Blight that a
Myrddraal could step out of any dark shadow. No one went out in the night, though.
Not in the Borderlands.

Which was why she was surprised to see she was not the first to reach the western
gates. Slowing Arrow, she stayed well back from the three very large men waiting
with a packhorse behind their mounts. Their attention was all on the barred gates,
with now and again a word shared with the gate guards. They barely glanced at her.
The lamps here showed their faces clearly. A grizzled old man and a hard-faced
young one wearing braided leather cords tied around their heads. Malkieri? She
thought that was what that meant. The third was an Arafellin with belled braids.
The same fellow she had seen leaving The Gates of Heaven.

By the time the bright sliver of sunrise allowed the gates to be swung open, several
merchants’ trains had lined up to depart. The three men were first through, but
Moiraine let a train of a dozen wagons behind eight-horse teams rumble ahead of
her before she followed across the bridge and on to the road through the hills. She
kept the three in sight, though. They were heading in the same direction so far, after
all.

They moved quickly, good riders who barely shifted a rein, but a trot suited her. The
more distance she put between herself and Cadsuane, the better. The merchants’
wagons fell back out of sight long before they reached the first village near midday, a
small cluster of tile-roofed stone houses around a tiny inn on a forested hill slope.
Moiraine paused long enough to ask whether anyone knew a woman named Avene
Sahera. The answer was no, and she galloped on, not slowing until the three men
appeared on the hard-packed road ahead, their horses still in that ground-eating
pace. Maybe they knew nothing more than the name of the sister the Arafellin had
spoken to, but anything at all she learned about Cadsuane or the other two would
be to the good.

She formulated several plans for approaching them, and discarded each. Three men
on a deserted forest road could well decide a young woman alone was a good
opportunity, especially if they were what she feared. Handling them presented no
problem, if it came to it, but she wanted to avoid that. Woods gave way to scattered
farms, and farms faded to more woods. A red-crested eagle soared overhead and
became a shape against the descending sun.

As her shadow stretched out behind her, she decided to forget the men and find a
place to sleep. With luck she might see more farms soon, and if a little silver did not
bring a bed, a hayloft would have to do.

Ahead, the three men stopped, conferring for a moment, then one took the
packhorse and turned aside into the forest. The others dug in their heels and
galloped on.

Moiraine stared after them. The Arafellin was one of the pair rushing off, but if they
were travelling together, maybe he had mentioned meeting an Aes Sedai to his
companion. And one man would certainly be less trouble than three, if she was
careful. Riding to where rider and packhorse had vanished, she dismounted.
Tracking was a thing most ladies left to their huntsmen, but she had taken an
interest in the years when climbing trees and getting dirty had seemed equal fun.
Broken twigs and kicked winter-fall leaves left a trail a child could have followed. A
hundred paces or so into the forest, she spotted a pond in a hollow through the
trees. The fellow had already unsaddled and hobbled his bay—a fine-looking animal
—and was setting the packsaddle on the ground. It was the younger of the Malkieri.
He looked even larger, this close. Unbuckling his swordbelt, he sat down facing the
pond, laid sword and belt beside him, and put his hands on his knees. He seemed to
be staring off across the water, still glittering through the late afternoon shadows.
He did not move a muscle.

Moiraine considered. Plainly he had been left to make camp. The others would come
back. A question or two would not take long, though. And if he was unnerved a little
—say at finding a woman suddenly standing right behind him—he might answer
before he thought. Tying Arrow’s reins to a low branch, she gathered her cloak and
skirts and moved forward as silently as possible. A low hummock stood humped up
behind him, and she stepped up on to that. Added height could help. He was a very
tall man. And it might help if he found her with her belt knife in one hand and his
sword in the other. Channelling, she whisked the scabbarded blade from his side.
Every little bit of shock she could manage for him. He moved faster than thought.
Her grasp closed on the scabbard, and he uncoiled, whirling, one hand clutching the
scabbard between hers, the other seizing the front of her dress. Before she could
think to channel, she was flying through the air. She had just time to see the pond
coming up at her, just time to shout something, she did not know what, and then
she struck the surface flat, driving all the wind out of her, struck with a great splash
and sank. The water was freezing! Saidar fled in her shock.

Floundering to her feet, she stood up to her waist in the icy water, coughing, wet
hair clinging to her face, sodden cloak dragging at her shoulders. Furiously she
twisted around to confront her attacker, furiously embraced the Source once more.
The test for the shawl required channelling with absolute calm under great stress,
and far worse than this had been done to her then. She turned, prepared to knock
him down and drub him till he squealed!

He stood shaking his head and frowning at the spot where she had stood, a long
stride from where he had sat. When he deigned to notice her, he came to the edge of
the pond and bent to stretch out a hand. “Unwise to try separating a man from his
sword,” he said, and after a glance at the coloured slashes on her dress, added, “My
Lady.” Hardly an apology. His startlingly blue eyes did not quite meet hers. If he was
hiding mirth . . . !

Muttering under her breath, she splashed awkwardly to where she could take his
outstretched hand in both of hers . . . and heaved with all of her might. Ignoring icy
water tickling down your ribs was not easy, and if she was wet, so would he be, and
without any need to use the—

He straightened, raised his arm, and she came out of the water dangling from his
hand. In consternation she stared at him until her feet touched the ground and he
backed away.

“I’ll start a fire and hang up blankets so you can dry yourself,” he murmured, still
not meeting her gaze.

He was as good as his word, and by the time the other men appeared, she was
standing beside a small fire surrounded by blankets dug from his packsaddles and
hung from branches. She had no need of the fire for drying, of course, or the
privacy. The proper weave of Water had taken every drop from her hair and clothes
while she stayed in them. As well he did not see that, though. And she did
appreciate the flames’ warmth. Anyway, she had to stay inside the blankets long
enough for the man to think she had used the fire as he intended. She very
definitely held on to saidar.

The other men arrived, full of questions about whether “she” had followed into the
woods. They had known? Men watched for bandits in these times, but they had
noticed a lone woman and decided she was following them? It seemed suspicious.
“A Cairhienin, Lan? I suppose you’ve seen a Cairhienin in her skin, but I never
have.” That certainly caught her ear, and with the Power filling her, so did another
sound. Steel whispering on leather. A sword leaving its sheath. Preparing several
weaves that would stop the lot of them in their tracks, she made a crack in the
blankets to peek out.

To her surprise, the man who had dunked her—Lan?—stood with his back to her
blankets. He was the one with sword in hand. The Arafellin, facing him, looked
surprised. “You remember the sight of the Thousand Lakes, Ryne,” Lan said coldly.
“Does a woman need protection from your eyes?”

For a moment, she thought Ryne was going to draw despite the blade already in
Lan’s hand, but the older man, a much battered, greying fellow though as tall as the
others, calmed matters, took the other two a little distance away with talk of some
game called “sevens”. A strange game it seemed to be. Lan and Ryne sat crosslegged
facing one another, their swords sheathed, then without warning drew, each blade
flashing towards the other man’s throat, stopping just short of flesh. The older man
pointed to Ryne, they sheathed swords, and then did it again. For as long as she
watched, that was how it went. Perhaps Ryne had not been as over-confident as he
seemed.

Waiting inside the blankets, she tried to recall what she had been taught of Malkier.
Not a great deal, except as history. Ryne remembered the Thousand Lakes, so he
must be Malkieri, too. There had been something about distressed women. Now that
she was with them, she might as well stay until she learned what she could.

When she came out from behind the blankets, she was ready. “I claim the right of a
woman alone,” she told them formally. “I travel to Chachin, and I ask the shelter of
your swords.” She also pressed a fat silver coin into each man’s hand. She was not
really sure about this ridiculous “woman alone” business, but silver caught most
men’s attention. “And two more each, paid in Chachin.”

The reactions were not what she expected. Ryne glared at the coin as he turned it
over in his fingers. Lan looked at his without expression and tucked it into his coat
pocket with a grunt. She had given them some of her last Tar Valon marks, she
realized, but Tar Valon coins could be found anywhere, along with those of every
other land.

Bukama, the grizzled man, bowed with his left hand on his knee. “Honour to serve,
my Lady,” he said. “To Chachin, my life above yours.” His eyes were also blue, and
they, too, would not quite meet hers. She hoped he did not turn out to be a
Darkfriend.

Learning anything proved to be difficult. Impossible. First the men were busy setting
up camp, tending the horses, making a larger fire. They did not seem eager to face a
new spring night without that. Bukama and Lan barely said a word over a dinner of
flatbread and dried meat that she tried not to wolf down. Her stomach remembered
all too well that she had not eaten that day. Ryne talked and was quite charming,
really, with a dimple in his cheek when he smiled, and a sparkle in his blue eyes,
but he gave no opening for her to mention The Gates of Heaven or Aes Sedai. When
she finally enquired why he was going to Chachin, his face turned sad.

“Every man has to die somewhere,” he said softly, and went off to make up his
blankets.

Lan took the first watch, sitting crosslegged not far from Ryne, and when Bukama
doused the fire and rolled himself up in his blankets near Lan, she wove a ward of
Spirit around each man. Flows of Spirit she could hold on to sleeping, and if any of
them moved in the night, the ward would wake her without alerting them. It meant
waking every time they changed guard, but there was nothing for it. Her own
blankets lay well away from the men, and as she was lying down, Bukama
murmured something she could not catch. She heard Lan’s reply plainly enough.
“I’d sooner trust an Aes Sedai, Bukama. Go to sleep.”

All the anger she had tamped down flared up. The man threw her into an icy pond,
he did not apologize, he . . . ! She channelled, Air and Water weaving with a touch of
Earth. A thick cylinder of water rose from the surface of the pond, stretching up and
up in the moonlight, arching over. Crashing down on the fool who was so free with
his tongue!

Bukama and Ryne bounded to their feet with oaths, but she continued the torrent
for a count of ten before letting it end. Freed water splashed down across the
campsite. She expected to see a sodden, half-frozen man ready to learn proper
respect. He was dripping wet, a few small fish flopping around his feet. He was
standing on his feet. With his sword out.

“Shadowspawn?” Ryne said in a disbelieving tone, and atop him, Lan said, “Maybe!
Guard the woman, Ryne! Bukama, take west; I’ll take east!”

“Not Shadowspawn!” Moiraine snapped, stopping them in their tracks. They stared
at her. She wished she could see their expressions better in the moonshadows, but
those cloud-shifting shadows aided her, too, cloaking her in mystery. With an effort
she gave her voice every bit of cool Aes Sedai serenity she could muster. “It is unwise
to show anything except respect to an Aes Sedai, Master Lan.”

“Aes Sedai?” Ryne whispered. Despite the dim light, the awe on his face was clear.
Or maybe it was fear.

No one else made a sound, except for Bukama’s grumbles as he shifted his bed away
from the mud. Ryne spent a long time moving his blankets in silence, giving her
small bows whenever she glanced his way. Lan made no attempt to dry off. He
started to choose a new spot for his watch, then stopped and sat back where he had
been, in the mud and water. She might have thought it a gesture of humility, only
he glanced at her, very nearly meeting her eyes this time. If that was humility, kings
were the most humble men on earth.

She wove her wards around them again, of course. If anything, revealing herself only
made it more necessary. She did not go to sleep for quite a while, though. She had a
great deal to think about. For one thing, none of the men had asked why she was
following them. The man had been on his feet! When she drifted off, she was
thinking of Ryne, strangely. A pity if he was afraid of her, now. He was charming,
and she did not mind a man wanting to see her unclothed, only his telling others
about it.

Lan knew the ride to Chachin would be one he would rather forget, and it met his
expectations. It stormed twice, freezing rain mixed with ice, and that was the least.
Bukama was angry that he refused to make proper pledge to the diminutive woman
who claimed to be Aes Sedai, but Bukama knew the reasons and did not press. He
only grumbled whenever he thought Lan could hear; Aes Sedai or not, a decent man
followed certain forms. As if he did not share Lan’s reasons. Ryne twitched and
peered wide-eyed at her, fetched and trotted and offered up compliments on “skin of
snowy silk” and the “deep, dark pools of her eyes” like a courtier on a leash. He
seemed unable to decide between besotted and terrified, and he let her see both.
That would have been bad enough, but Ryne was right; Lan had seen a Cairhienin
in her skin, more than one, and they had all tried to mesh him in a scheme, or two,
or three. Over one particularly memorable ten days in the south of Cairhien, he had
almost been killed six times and nearly married twice. A Cairhienin and an Aes
Sedai? There could be no worse combination.

This Alys—she told them to call her Alys, which he doubted as much as the Great
Serpent ring she produced, especially after she tucked it back into her belt pouch
and said no one must know she was Aes Sedai—this “Alys” had a temper. Normally,
he did not mind that, cold or hot, in man or woman. Hers was ice. That first night
he had sat in the wet to let her know he would accept what she had done. If they
were to travel together, better to end it with honours even, as she must see it.
Except that she did not.

They rode hard, never stopping long in a village and sleeping under the stars most
nights, since no one had the coin for inns, not for four people with horses. He slept
when he could. The second night she remained awake till dawn and made sure he
did as well, with sharp flicks of an invisible switch whenever he nodded off. The
third night, sand somehow got inside his clothes and boots, a thick coating of it. He
had shaken out what he could and ridden covered in grit the next day. The fourth
night . . . He could not understand how she managed to make ants crawl into his
smallclothes, or make them all bite at once. It had been her doing for sure. She was
standing over him when his eyes shot open, and she seemed surprised that he did
not cry out. Clearly, she wanted some response, some reaction, but he could not see
what. Surely not the pledge of protection. Bukama’s sufficed, and besides, she had
given them money. The woman did not know insult when she offered it.

When they had first seen her behind them, outpacing the merchant trains and the
shield of their guards, Bukama had offered a reason for a woman alone to follow
three men. If six swordsmen could not kill a man in daylight, perhaps one woman
could in darkness. Bukama had not mentioned Edeyn, of course. In truth, it plainly
could not be that, or he would be dead instead of uncomfortable, yet Alys herself
never made any explanation, however much Bukama waited for one. Edeyn might
set a woman to watch him, thinking he would be less on his guard. So Lan watched
her. But the only suspicious thing he saw, if it could be called that, was that she
asked questions whenever they came to a village, always away from him and the
others, and she went silent if they came too near. Two days from Canluum, she
stopped asking, though. Perhaps she had found an answer in the market village
called Ravinda, but if so, she did not seem happy about it. That night she discovered
a patch of blisterleaf near their campsite, and to his shame, he almost lost his
temper.

If Canluum was a city of hills, Chachin was a city of mountains. The three highest
rose almost a mile even with their peaks sheared off short, and all glittered in the
sun with colourful glazed tile roofs and tile-covered palaces. Atop the tallest of those
the Aesdaishar Palace shone brighter than any other in red and green, the prancing
Red Horse flying above its largest dome. Three towered ringwalls surrounded the
city, as did a deep dry moat a hundred paces wide spanned by two dozen bridges,
each with a fortress hulking at its mouth. The traffic was too great here, and the
Blight too far away, for the guards with the Red Horse on their chests to be so
diligent as in Canluum, but crossing the Bridge of Sunrise amid tides of wagons and
people flowing both ways still took some little while. Once inside, Lan wasted no
time drawing rein.

“We are within the walls of Chachin,” he told the woman. “The pledge has been kept.
Keep your coin,” he added coldly when she reached for her purse.

Ryne immediately started going on about giving offence to Aes Sedai and offering her
smiling apologies, while Bukama rumbled about men with the manners of pigs. The
woman herself gazed at Lan with so little expression, she might even have been what
she claimed. A dangerous claim if untrue. And if true . . .

Whirling Cat Dancer, he galloped up the street scattering people afoot and some
mounted. Bukama and Ryne caught him up before he was halfway up the mountain
to the Aesdaishar. If Edeyn was in Chachin, she would be there. Wisely, Bukama
and Ryne held their silence.

The palace filled the flattened mountaintop completely, an immense, shining
structure of domes and high balconies covering fifty hides, a small city to itself. The
great bronze gates, worked with the Red Horse, stood open beneath a red-tiled arch,
and once Lan identified himself—as Lan Mandragoran, not al’Lan—the guards’
stiffness turned to smiling bows. Servants in red-and-green came running to take
the horses and show each man to rooms befitting his station. Bukama and Ryne
each received a small room above one of the barracks. Lan was given three rooms
draped in silk tapestries, with a bedchamber that overlooked one of the palace
gardens, two square-faced serving women to tend him, and a lanky young fellow to
run errands.

A little careful questioning of the servants brought answers. Queen Ethenielle was
making a progress through the heartland, but Brys, the Prince Consort, was in
residence. As was the Lady Edeyn Arrel. The women smiled when they said that;
they had known what he wanted from the first.

He washed himself, but let the women dress him. just because they were servants
was no reason to insult them. He had one white silk shirt that did not show too
much wear, and a good black silk coat embroidered along the sleeves with golden
bloodroses among their hooked thorns. Bloodroses for loss and remembrance. Then
he set the women outside to guard his door and sat to wait. His meetings with
Edeyn must be public, with as many people around as possible.

A summons came from her, to her chambers, which he ignored. Courtesy demanded
he be given time to rest from his journey, yet it seemed a very long time before the
invitation to join Brys came, brought by the shatayan. A stately, greying woman
with a presence to match any queen, she had charge of all the palace servants, and
it was an honour to be conducted by her personally. Outsiders needed a guide to
find their way anywhere in the palace. His sword remained on the lacquered rack by
the door. It would do him no good here, and would insult Brys besides, indicating he
thought he needed to protect himself.

He expected a private meeting first, but the shatayan took him to a columned hall
full of people. Soft-footed servants moved through the crowd offering spiced wine to
Kandori lords and ladies in silks embroidered with House sigils, and folk in fine
woollens worked with the sigils of the more important guilds. And to others, too. Lan
saw men wearing the hadori he knew had not worn it these ten years or more.
Women with hair still cut at the shoulders and higher wore the small dot of the
ki’sain painted on their foreheads. They bowed at his appearance, and made deep
curtsies, those men and women who had decided to remember Malkier.

Prince Brys was a stocky, rough-hewn man in his middle years who looked more
suited to armour than his green silks, though in truth he was accustomed to either.
Brys was Ethenielle’s Swordbearer, the general of her armies, as well as her consort.
He caught Lan’s shoulders, refusing to allow him to bow.

“None of that from the man who twice saved my life in the Blight, Lan.” Brys
laughed. “Besides, your coming seems to have rubbed some of your luck off on
Diryk. He fell from a balcony this morning, a good fifty feet, without breaking a
bone.” He motioned his second son, a handsome dark-eyed boy of eight in a coat like
his, to come forward. A large bruise marred the side of the boy’s head, and he moved
with the stiffness of other bruises, but he made a formal bow spoiled only somewhat
by a wide grin. “He should be at his lessons,” Brys confided, “but he was so eager to
meet you, he’d have forgotten his letters and cut himself on a sword.” Frowning, the
boy protested that he would never cut himself.

Lan returned the lad’s bow with equal formality, then had to put up with a deluge of
questions. Yes, he had fought Aiel, in the south and on the Shienaran marches, but
they were just men, if dangerous, not ten feet tall; they did veil their faces before
killing, but they did not eat their dead. No, the White Tower was not as high as a
mountain, though it was taller than anything made by men that Lan had ever seen,
even the Stone of Tear. Given a chance, the boy would have drained him dry about
the Aiel, and the wonders of the great cities in the south like Tar Valon and Far
Madding. Likely, he would not have believed Chachin was as big as either of those.
“Lord Mandragoran will fill your head to your heart’s content later,” Brys told the
boy. “There is someone else he must meet now. Off with you to Mistress Tuval and
your books.”

Edeyn was exactly as Lan remembered. Oh, ten years older, with touches of white
streaking her temples and a few fine lines at the corners of her eyes, but those large
dark eyes gripped him. Her ki’sain was still the white of a widow, and her hair still
hung in black waves below her waist. She wore a red silk gown in the Domani style,
clinging and little short of sheer. She was beautiful, but even she could do nothing
here.

For a moment she merely looked at him, cool and considering, when he made his
bow. “It would have been . . . easier had you come to me,” she murmured, seeming
not to care whether Brys heard. And then, shockingly, she knelt gracefully and took
his hands in hers. “Beneath the Light,” she announced in a strong, clear voice, “I,
Edeyn ti Gemallen Arrel, pledge fealty to al’Lan Mandragoran, Lord of the Seven
Towers, Lord of the Lakes, the true Blade of Malkier. May he sever the Shadow!”
Even Brys looked startled. A moment of silence held while she kissed Lan’s fingers,
then cheers erupted on every side. Cries of “The Golden Crane!” and even “Kandor
rides with Malkier!”

The sound freed him to pull his hands loose, to lift her to her feet. “My Lady,” he
began in a tight voice.

“What must be, will be,” she said, putting a hand over his lips. And then she faded
back into the crowd of those who wanted to cluster around him, congratulate him,
pledge fealty on the spot had he let them.

Brys rescued him, drawing him off to a long, stone-railed walk above a two-hundredfoot
drop to the roofs below. It was known as a place Brys went to be private, and no
one followed. Only one door let on to it, no window overlooked, and no sound from
the palace intruded. “What will you do?” the older man asked simply as they walked.
“I do not know,” Lan replied. She had won only a skirmish, but he felt stunned at
the ease of it. A formidable opponent, the woman who wore part of his soul in her
hair.

For the rest they spoke quietly of hunting and bandits and whether this past year’s
flare-up in the Blight might die down soon. Brys regretted withdrawing his army
from the war against the Aiel, but there had been no alternative. They talked of the
rumours about a man who could channel—every tale had him in a different place;
Brys thought it another Jak o’the Mists and Lan agreed—and of the Aes Sedai who
seemed to be everywhere, for what reason no one knew. Ethenielle had written him
that two sisters had caught a woman pretending to be Aes Sedai in a village along
her progress. The woman could channel, but that did her no good. The two real Aes
Sedai flogged her squealing through the village, making her confess her crime to
every last man and woman who lived there. Then one of the sisters carried her off to
Tar Valon for her true punishment, whatever that might be. Lan found himself
hoping that Alys had not lied about being Aes Sedai.

He hoped to avoid Edeyn the rest of the day, too, but when he was guided back to
his rooms, she was there, waiting languorously in one of the gilded chairs. The
servants were nowhere to be seen.

“You are no longer beautiful, I fear, sweetling,” she said when he came in. “I think
you may even be ugly when you are older. But I always enjoyed your eyes more than
your face. And your hands.”

He stopped still gripping the doorhandle. “My Lady, not two hours gone you swore—”
She cut him off.

“And I will obey my king. But a king is not a king, alone with his carneira. I brought
your daori. Bring it to me.”

Unwillingly, his eyes followed her gesture to a flat lacquered box on a small table
beside the door. Lifting the hinged lid took as much effort as lifting a boulder. Coiled
inside lay a long cord woven of hair. He could recall every moment of the morning
after their first night, when she took him to the women’s quarters of the Royal
Palace in Fal Moran and let ladies and servants watch as she cut his hair at his
shoulders. She even told them what it signified. The women had all been amused,
making jokes as he sat at Edeyn’s feet to weave the daori for her. Edeyn kept
custom, but in her own way. The hair felt soft and supple; she must have had it
rubbed with lotions every day.

Crossing the floor slowly, he knelt before her and held out his daori stretched
between his hands. “In token of what I owe to you, Edeyn, always and forever.” If his
voice did not hold the fervour of that first morning, surely she understood.
She did not take the cord. Instead, she studied him. “I knew you had not been gone
so long as to forget our ways,” she said finally. “Come.”

Rising, she grasped his wrist and drew him to the windows overlooking the garden
ten paces below. Two servants were spreading water from buckets, and a young
woman was strolling along a slate path in a blue dress as bright as any of the early
flowers that grew beneath the trees.

“My daughter, Iselle.” For a moment, pride and affection warmed Edeyn’s voice. “Do
you remember her? She is seventeen, now. She hasn’t chosen her carneira, yet,”
young men were chosen by their carneira; young women chose theirs, “but I think it
time she married anyway.”

He vaguely recalled a child who always had servants running, the blossom of her
mother’s heart, but his head had been full of Edeyn, then. “She is as beautiful as
her mother, I am sure,” he said politely. He twisted the daori in his hands. She had
too much advantage as long as he held it, all advantage, but she had to take it from
him. “Edeyn, we must talk.” She ignored that.

“Time you were married, too, sweetling. Since none of your female relatives is alive,
it is up to me to arrange.”

He gasped at what she seemed to be suggesting. At first he could not believe.
“Iselle?” he said hoarsely. “Your daughter?” She might keep custom in her own way,
but this was scandalous. “I’ll not be reined into something so shameful, Edeyn. Not
by you, or by this.” He shook the daori at her, but she only looked at it and smiled.
“Of course you won’t be reined, sweetling. You are a man, not a boy. Yet you do keep
custom,” she mused, running a finger along the cord of hair quivering between his
hands. “Perhaps we do need to talk.”

But it was to the bed that she led him.

Moiraine spent most of the day asking discreet questions at inns in the rougher
parts of Chachin, where her silk dress and divided skirts drew stares from patrons
and innkeepers alike. One leathery fellow wearing a permanent leer told her that his
establishment was not for her and tried to escort her to a better, while a roundfaced,
squinting woman cackled that the evening trade would have a tender pretty
like her for dinner if she did not scurry away quick, and a fatherly old man with
pink cheeks and a joyous smile was all too eager for her to drink the spiced wine he
prepared out of her sight. There was nothing for it but to grit her teeth and move on.
That was the sort of place Siuan had liked to visit when they were allowed a rare trip
into Tar Valon as Accepted, cheap and unlikely to be frequented by sisters, but none
had a blue-eyed Tairen staying under any name. Cold daylight began to settle
towards yet another icy night.

She was walking Arrow through lengthening shadows, eyeing darknesses that
moved suspiciously in an alley and thinking that she would have to give up for
today, when Siuan came bustling up from behind.

“I thought you might look down here when you came,” Siuan said, taking her elbow
to hurry her along. “Let’s get inside before we freeze.” She eyed those shadows in the
alley, too, and absently fingered her belt knife as if using the Power could not deal
with any ten of them. Well, not without revealing themselves. Perhaps it was best to
move quickly. “Not the quarter for you, Moiraine. There are fellows around here
would bloody well have you for dinner before you knew you were in the pot. Are you
laughing or choking?”

Siuan, it turned out, was at a most respectable inn called The Evening Star, which
catered to merchants of middling rank, especially women unwilling to be bothered
by noise or rough sorts in the common room. A pair of bull-shouldered fellows made
sure there was none of that. Siuan’s room was tidy and warm, if not large, and the
innkeeper, a lean woman with an air of brooking little nonsense, made no objections
to Moiraine joining Siuan. So long as the extra for two was paid.

While Moiraine was hanging her cloak on a peg, Siuan settled crosslegged on the
not-very-wide bed. She seemed invigorated since Canluum. A goal always made
Siuan bubble with enthusiasm. “I’ve had a time, Moiraine, I tell you. That fool horse
nearly beat me to death getting here. The Creator made people to walk or go by boat,
not be bounced around. I suppose the Sahera woman wasn’t the one, or you’d be
jumping like a spawning redtail. I found Ines Demain almost right off, but not where
I can reach her. She’s a new widow, but she did have a son, for sure. Named him
Rahien because she saw the dawn come up over Dragonmount. Talk of the streets.
Everybody thinks it a fool reason to name a child.”

“Avene Sahera’s son was born a week too early and thirty miles from Dragonmount,”
Moiraine said when Siuan paused for breath. She pushed down a momentary thrill.
Seeing dawn over the mountain did not mean the child had been born on it. There
was no chair or stool, nor room for one, so she sat on the end of the bed. “If you
have found Ines and her son, Siuan, why is she out of reach?” The Lady Ines, it
turned it out, was in the Aesdaishar Palace, where Siuan could have gained entry
easily as Aes Sedai and otherwise only if the Palace was hiring servants.

The Aesdaishar Palace. “We will take care of that in the morning,” Moiraine sighed.
It meant risk, yet the Lady Ines had to be questioned. No woman Moiraine had
found yet had been able to see Dragonmount when her child was born. “Have you
seen any sign of . . . of the Black Ajah?” She had to get used to saying that name.
Instead of answering immediately, Siuan frowned at her lap and fingered her skirt.
“This is a strange city, Moiraine,” she said finally. “Lamps in the streets, and women
who fight duels, even if they do deny it, and more gossip than ten men full of ale
could spew. Some of it interesting.” She leaned forward to put a hand on Moiraine’s
knee. “Everybody’s talking about a young blacksmith who died of a broken back a
couple of nights ago. Nobody expected much of him, but this last month or so he
turned into quite a speaker. Convinced his guild to take up money for the poor
who’ve come into the city, afraid of the bandits, folks not connected to a guild or
House.”

“Siuan, what under the Light—?”

“Just listen, Moiraine. He collected a lot of silver himself, and it seems he was on his
way to the guild house to turn in six or eight bags of it when he was killed. Fool was
carrying it all by himself. The point is, there wasn’t a bloody coin of it taken,
Moiraine. And he didn’t have a mark on him, aside from his broken back.”
They shared a long look, then Moiraine shook her head. “I cannot see how to tie that
to Meilyn or Tamra. A blacksmith? Siuan, we can go mad thinking we see Black
sisters everywhere.”

“We can die from thinking they aren’t there,” Siuan replied. “Well. Maybe we can be
silverpike in the nets instead of grunters. Just remember silverpike go to the
fishmarket, too. What do you have in mind about this Lady Ines?”

Moiraine told her. Siuan did not like it, and this time it took most of the night to
make her see sense. In truth, Moiraine almost wished Siuan would talk her into
trying something else. But Lady Ines had seen dawn over Dragonmount. At least
Ethenielle’s Aes Sedai advisor was with her in the south.

Morning was a whirlwind of activity, little of it satisfying. Moiraine got what she
wanted, but not without having to bite her tongue. And Siuan started up again.
Arguments Moiraine had dealt with the night before cropped up anew. Siuan did not
like being argued out of what she thought was right. She did not like Moiraine
taking all the risks. A bear with a sore tooth would have been better company. Even
that fellow Lan!

A near-dawn visit to a banker’s counting house produced gold. After the stern-eyed
woman used an enlarging glass to study the Cairhienin banker’s seal at the bottom
of the letter-of-rights Moiraine presented. An enlarging glass! At least the letter itself
was only a little blurred from its immersion in that pond. Mistress Noallin did not
bother to hide her surprise when the pair of them began distributing purses of gold
beneath their cloaks.

“Is Chachin so lawless two women are not safe by daylight?” Moiraine asked her
civilly. “I think our business is done. You may have your man show us out.” She and
Siuan clinked when they moved.

Outside, Siuan muttered that even that blacksmith must have staggered, loaded
down like a mule. And who could have broken his back that way? Whatever the
reason, it must be the Black Ajah. An imposing woman with ivory combs in her hair
heard enough of that to give a start, then hike her skirts to her knees and run,
leaving her two gaping servants to scramble after her through the crowd. Siuan
flushed but remained defiantly unrepentant.

A slim seamstress with a haughty air informed Moiraine that what she wanted was
easily done. At end of the month, perhaps. A great many ladies had ordered new
gowns. A king was visiting in the Aesdaishar Palace. The King of Malkier!

“The last King of Malkier died twenty-five years ago, Mistress Dorelmin,” Moiraine
said, spilling thirty gold crowns on the receiving table. Silene Dorelmin eyed the fat
coins greedily, and her eyes positively shone when she was told there would be as
much again when the dresses were done. “But I will keep six coins from the second
thirty for each day it takes.” Suddenly it seemed that the dresses could be finished
sooner than a month after all. Much sooner.

“Did you see what that skinny trull was wearing?” Siuan said as they left. “You
should have your dresses made like that, ready to fall off. You might as well enjoy
men looking at you if you’re going to lay your fool head on the chopping block.”
Moiraine performed a novice exercise, imaging herself a rosebud in stillness, opening
to the sun. As always, it brought calm. She would crack a tooth if she kept grinding
them. “There is no other way, Siuan. Do you think the innkeeper will hire out one of
her strongarms?” The King of Malkier? Light! The woman must have thought her a
complete fool!

At mid-morning two days after Moiraine arrived in Chachin, a yellow-lacquered
carriage driven by a fellow with shoulders like a bull arrived at the Aesdaishar
Palace, with two mares tied behind, a fine-necked bay and a lanky grey. The Lady
Moiraine Damodred, coloured slashes marching from the high neck of her dark blue
gown to below her knees, was received with all due honour. The name of House
Damodred was known, if not hers, and with King Laman dead, any Damodred might
ascend to the Sun Throne. If another House did not seize it. She was given suitable
apartments, three rooms looking north across the city towards higher, snow-capped
peaks, and assigned servants who rushed about unpacking the lady’s brass-bound
chests and pouring hot scented water for the lady to wash. No one but the servants
so much as glanced at Suki, the Lady Moiraine’s maid.

“All right,” Siuan muttered when the servants finally left them alone in the sitting
room, “I admit I’m invisible in this.” Her dark grey dress was fine wool, but entirely
plain except for collar and cuffs banded in Damodred colours. “You, though, stand
out like a High Lord pulling oar. Light, I nearly swallowed my tongue when you
asked if there were any sisters in the palace. I’m so nervous I’m starting to get lightheaded.
It feels hard to breathe.”

“It is the altitude,” Moiraine told her. “You will get used to it. Any visitor would ask
about Aes Sedai; you could see, the servants never blinked.” She had held her
breath, however, until she heard the answer. One sister would have changed
everything. “I do not know why I must keep telling you. A royal palace is not an inn;
‘You may call me Lady Alys’ would satisfy no one, here. That is fact, not opinion. I
must be myself.” The Three Oaths allowed you to say whatever you believed was true
even if you could not prove it, as well as to dodge around truth; only words you
knew to be a lie would not come off your tongue. “Suppose you make use of that
invisibility and see what you can learn about the Lady Ines. I would be pleased if we
leave as soon as possible.”

Tomorrow, that would be, without causing insult and talk. Siuan was right. Every
eye in the palace would be on the outland noblewoman from the House that had
started the Aiel War. Any Aes Sedai who came to the Aesdaishar would hear of her
immediately, and any Aes Sedai who passed through Chachin might well come.
Siuan was right; she was standing on a pedestal like a target, and without a clue as
to who might be an archer. Tomorrow, early.

Siuan slipped out, but returned quickly with bad news. The Lady Ines was in
seclusion, mourning her husband. “He fell over dead in his breakfast porridge ten
days ago,” Siuan reported, dropping on to a sitting room chair and hanging an arm
over the back. Lessons in deportment were something else forgotten once the shawl
was hers. “A much older man, but it seems she loved him. She’s been given ten
rooms and a garden on the south side of the palace; her husband was a close friend
to Prince Brys.” Ines would remain to herself a full month, seeing no one but close
family. Her servants only came out when absolutely necessary.

“She will see an Aes Sedai,” Moiraine sighed. Not even a woman in mourning would
refuse to see a sister.

Siuan bolted to her feet. “Are you mad? The Lady Moiraine Damodred attracts
enough attention. Moiraine Damodred Aes Sedai might as well send out riders! I
thought the idea was to be gone before anyone outside the palace knows we were
here!”

One of the serving women came in just then, to announce that the shatayan had
arrived to escort Moiraine to Prince Brys, and was startled to find Suki standing over
her mistress and stabbing a finger at her.

“Tell the shatayan I will come to her,” Moiraine said calmly, and as soon as the
wide-eyed woman curtsied and backed out, she rose to put herself on a more equal
footing, hard enough with Siuan even when one had all the advantage. “What else do
you suggest? Remaining almost two weeks till she comes out will be as bad, and you
cannot befriend her servants if they are secluded with her.”

“They may only come out for errands, Moiraine, but I think I can get myself invited
inside.”

Moiraine started to say that might take as long as the other, but Siuan took her
firmly by the shoulders and turned her around, eyeing her up and down critically.
“A lady’s maid is supposed to make sure her mistress is properly dressed,” she said,
and gave Moiraine a push towards the door. “Go. The shatayan is waiting for you.
And with any luck, a young footman named Cal is waiting for Suki.”

The shatayan indeed was waiting, a tall handsome woman, wrapped in dignity and
frosty at being made to wait. Her hazel eyes could have chilled wine. Any queen who
got on the wrong side of a shatayan was a fool, so Moiraine made herself pleasant as
the woman escorted her through the halls. She thought she made some progress in
melting that frost, but it was difficult to concentrate. A young footman? She did not
know whether Siuan had ever been with a man, but surely she would not just to
reach Ines’ servants! Not a footman!

Statues and tapestries lined the hallways, most surprising for what she knew of the
Borderlands. Marble carvings of women with flowers or children playing, silk
weavings of fields of flowers and nobles in gardens and only a few hunting scenes,
without a single battle shown anywhere. At intervals along the halls arched windows
looked down into many more gardens than she expected, too, and flagged
courtyards, sometimes with a splashing marble fountain. In one of those, she saw
something that pushed questions about Siuan and a footman to the back of her
mind.

It was a simple courtyard, without fountain or columned walk, and men stood in
rows along the walls watching two others, stripped to the waist and fighting with
wooden practice swords. Ryne and Bukama. It was fighting, if in practice; blows
landed on flesh hard enough for her to hear the thuds. All landed by Ryne. She
would have to avoid them, and Lan, if he was there too. He had not bothered to hide
his doubts, and he might raise questions she did not dare have asked. Was she
Moiraine or Alys? Worse, was she Aes Sedai or a wilder pretending? Questions that
would be discussed in the streets by the next night, for any sister to hear, and that
last was one any sister would investigate. Fortunately, three wandering soldiers
would hardly be present anywhere she was.

Prince Brys, a solid, green-eyed man, greeted her intimately in a large room panelled
red and gold. Two of the Prince’s married sisters were present with their husbands,
and one of Ethenielle’s with hers, the men in muted silks, the women in bright
colours belted high beneath their breasts. Liveried servants offered sweetmeats and
nuts. Moiraine thought she might get a sore neck from looking up; the shortest of
the women was taller than Siuan, and they all stood very straight. Their necks
would have bent a little for a sister, men’s and women’s alike, but they knew
themselves the equals of the Lady Moiraine.

The talk ranged from music and the best musicians among the nobles at court to
the rigours of travel, from whether rumours of a man who could channel might be
true to why so many Aes Sedai seemed to be about, and Moiraine found it difficult to
maintain the expected light wittiness. She cared little for music and less for whoever
played the instruments; in Cairhien, musicians were hired and forgotten. Everyone
knew that travel was arduous, with no assurance of beds or decent food at the end
of the day’s twenty or thirty miles, and that was when the weather was good.

Obviously some of the sisters were about because of rumours about the man, and
others to tighten ties that might have loosened during the Aiel War, to make sure
thrones and Houses understood they were still expected to meet their obligations to
the Tower, both public and private. If an Aes Sedai had not come to the Aesdaishar
yet, one soon would, reason enough for her to make heavy going of idle chat. That
and thinking about other reasons for sisters to be wandering. The men put a good
face on it, but she thought the women found her particularly dull.

When Brys’s children were brought in, Moiraine felt a great relief. Having his
children introduced to her was a sign of acceptance to his household, but more, it
signalled the end of the audience. The eldest son, Antol, was in the south with
Ethenielle as heir, leaving a lovely green-eyed girl of twelve named Jarene to lead in
her sister and four brothers, formally aligned by age, though in truth the two
youngest boys were still in skirts and carried by nursemaids. Stifling her impatience
to find out what Siuan had learned, Moiraine complimented the children on their
behaviour, encouraged them at their lessons. They must think her as dull as their
elders did. Something a little less flat.

“And how did you earn your bruises, my Lord Diryk?” she asked, hardly listening to
the boy’s soberly delivered story of a fall. Until . . .

“My father says it was Lan’s luck I wasn’t killed, my Lady,” Diryk said, brightening
out of his formality. “Lan is the King of Malkier, and the luckiest man in the world,
and the best swordsman. Except for my father, of course.”

“The King of Malkier?” Moiraine said, blinking. Diryk nodded vigorously and began
explaining in a rush of words about Lan’s exploits in the Blight and the Malkieri who
had come to the Aesdaishar to follow him, until his father motioned him to silence.
“Lan is a king if he wishes it, my Lady,” Brys said. A very odd thing to say, and his
doubtful tone made it odder. “He keeps much to his rooms,” Brys sounded troubled
about that, too, “but you will meet him before you—my Lady, are you well?”

“Not very,” she told him. She had hoped for another meeting with Lan Mandragoran,
planned for it, but not here! Her stomach was trying to twist into knots. “I myself
may keep to my rooms for a few days, if you will forgive me.”

He would, of course, and everyone was full of regret at missing her company and
sympathy for the strain travelling must have put on her. Though she did hear one of
the women murmur that southlanders must be very delicate.

A pale-haired young woman in green-and-red was waiting to show Moiraine back to
her rooms. Elis bobbed a curtsy every time she spoke, which meant she bobbed
quite often in the beginning. She had been told of Moiraine’s “faintness”, and she
asked every twenty paces whether Moiraine wished to sit and catch her breath, or
have cool damp cloths brought to her rooms, or hot bricks for her feet, or smelling
salts, or a dozen more sure cures for “a light head”, until Moiraine curtly told her to
be quiet. The fool girl led on in silence, face blank.

Moiraine cared not a whit whether the woman was offended. All she wanted right
then was to find Siuan with good news. With the boy in her arms, born on
Dragonmount, and his mother packed to travel would be best of all. Most of all,
though, she wanted herself out of the halls before she ran into Lan Mandragoran.
Worrying about him, she rounded a corner behind the serving girl and came face to
face with Merean, blue-fringed shawl looped over her arms. The shatayan herself
was guiding Merean, and behind the motherly-looking sister came a train of
servants, one woman carrying her red riding gloves, another her fur-trimmed cloak,
a third her dark velvet hat. Pairs of men bore wicker pack-hampers that could have
been carried by one, and others had arms full of flowers. An Aes Sedai received more
honour than a mere lady, however high her House.

Merean’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Moiraine. “A surprise to see you here,” she
said slowly. “By your dress, I take it you’ve given over your disguise? But no. Still no
ring, I see.”

Moiraine was so startled at the woman’s sudden appearance that she hardly heard
what Merean said. “Are you alone?” she blurted.

For a moment Merean’s eyes became slits. “Larelle decided to go her own way.
South, I believe. More, I don’t know.”

“It was Cadsuane I was thinking of,” Moiraine said, blinking in surprise. The more
she had thought about Cadsuane, the more she had become convinced the woman
must be Black Ajah. What surprised her was Larelle. Larelle had seemed bent on
reaching Chachin, and without delay. Of course, plans could change, but suddenly
Moiraine realized something that should have been obvious. Black sisters could lie.
It was impossible—the Oaths could not be broken!—yet it had to be.

Merean moved close to Moiraine, and when Moiraine took a step back, she followed.
Moiraine held herself erect, but she still came no higher than the other woman’s
chin. “Are you so eager to see Cadsuane?” Merean said, looking down at her. Her
voice was pleasant, her smooth face comforting, but her eyes were cold iron.

Abruptly glancing at the servants, she seemed to realize they were not alone. The
iron faded, but it did not disappear. “Cadsuane was right, you know. A young
woman who thinks she knows more than she does can land herself in very deep
trouble. I suggest you be very still and very quiet until we can talk.” Her gesture for
the shatayan to lead on was peremptory, and the dignified woman leaped to obey. A
king or queen might find themselves in a shatayan’s bad graces, but never an Aes
Sedai.

Moiraine stared after Merean until she vanished around a corner far down the
corridor. Everything Merean had just said could have come from one of Tamra’s
chosen. Black sisters could lie. Had Larelle changed her mind about Chachin? Or
was she dead somewhere, like Tamra and the others? Suddenly Moiraine realized
she was smoothing her skirts. Stilling her hands was easy, but she could not stop
herself trembling faintly.

Elis was staring at her with her mouth open. “You’re Aes Sedai, too!” the woman
squeaked, then gave a jump, taking Moiraine’s wince for a grimace. “I won’t say a
word to anyone, Aes Sedai,” she said breathlessly. “I swear, by the Light and my
father’s grave!” As if every person behind Merean had not heard everything she had.
They would not hold their tongues.

“Take me to Lan Mandragoran’s apartments,” Moiraine told her. What was true at
sunrise could change by noon, and so could what was necessary. She took the Great
Serpent ring from her pouch and put it on her right hand. Sometimes, you had to
gamble.

After a long walk, mercifully in silence, Elis rapped at a red door and announced to
the grey-haired woman who opened it that the Lady Moiraine Damodred Aes Sedai
wished to speak with King al’Lan Mandragoran. The woman had added her own
touches to what Moiraine told her. King, indeed! Shockingly, the reply came back
that Lord Mandragoran had no wish to speak with any Aes Sedai. The grey-haired
woman looked scandalized, but closed the door firmly.

Elis stared at Moiraine wide-eyed. “I can show my Lady Aes Sedai to her own rooms
now,” she said uncertainly, “if—” She squeaked when Moiraine pushed open the
door and went in.

The grey-haired serving woman and another a little younger leaped up from where
they had been sitting, apparently darning shirts. A bony young man scrambled
awkwardly to his feet beside the fireplace, looking to the women for instruction. They
simply stared at Moiraine until she raised a questioning eyebrow. Then the greyhaired
woman pointed to one of the two doors leading deeper into the apartments.

The door she pointed to led to a sitting room much like Moiraine’s own, but all of the
gilded chairs had been moved back against the walls and the flowered carpets rolled
up. Shirtless, Lan was practising the sword in the cleared area. A small golden
locket swung at his neck as he moved, his blade a blur. Sweat covered him, and
more scars than she expected on a man so young. Not to mention a number of halfhealed
wounds crossed by dark stitches. He spun gracefully out of the forms to face
her, the point of his sword grounding on the floor-tiles. He still did not quite meet
her gaze, in that strange way he and Bukama had. His hair hung damply, clinging to
his face despite the leather cord, but he was not breathing hard.

“You,” he growled. “So you are Aes Sedai and a Damodred today. I’ve no time for
your games, Cairhienin. I am waiting for someone.” Cold blue eyes flickered to the
door behind her. Oddly, what appeared to be a cord woven of hair was tied around
the inner handle in an elaborate knot. “She will not be pleased to find another
woman here.”

“Your lady love need have no fear of me,” Moiraine told him drily. “For one thing, you
are much too tall, and for another, I prefer men with at least a modicum of charm.
And manners. I came for your help. There was a pledge made, and held since the
War of the Hundred Years, that Malkier would ride when the White Tower called. I
am Aes Sedai, and I call you!”

“You know the hills are high, but not how they lie,” he muttered as if quoting some
Malkieri saying. Stalking across the room away from her, he snatched up his
scabbard and sheathed the sword forcefully. “I’ll give you your help, if you can
answer a question. I’ve asked Aes Sedai over the years, but they wriggled away from
answering like vipers. If you are Aes Sedai, answer it.”

“If I know the answer, I will.” She would not tell him again that she was what she
was, but she embraced saidar, and moved one of the gilded chairs out into the
middle of the floor. She could not have lifted the thing with her hands, yet it floated
easily on flows of Air, and would have had it been twice as heavy. Sitting, she rested
her hands on crossed knees where the golden serpent on her finger was plain. The
taller person had an advantage when both stood, but someone standing must feel
they were being judged by someone sitting, especially an Aes Sedai.

He did not seem to feel anything of the kind. For the first time since she had met
him, he met her eyes directly, and his stare was blue ice. “When Malkier died,” he
said in tones of quiet steel, “Shienar and Arafel sent men. They could not stop the
flood of Trollocs and Myrddraal, yet they came. Men rode from Kandor, and even
Saldaea. They came too late, but they came.” Blue ice became blue fire. His voice did
not change, but his knuckles grew white gripping his sword. “For nine hundred
years we rode when the White Tower called, but where was the Tower when Malkier
died? If you are Aes Sedai, answer me that!”

Moiraine hesitated. The answer he wanted was Sealed to the Tower, taught to
Accepted in history lessons yet forbidden to any except initiates of the Tower. But
what was a penance alongside what she faced? “Over a hundred sisters were ordered
to Malkier,” she said more calmly than she felt. By everything she had been taught,
she should ask a penance for what she had told him already. “Even Aes Sedai
cannot fly, however. They were too late.” By the time the first had arrived, the armies
of Malkier were already broken by endless hordes of Shadowspawn, the people
fleeing or dead. The death of Malkier had been hard and blood-soaked, and fast.
“That was before I was born, but I regret it deeply. And I regret that the Tower
decided to keep their effort secret.” Better that the Tower be thought to have done
nothing than to have it known Aes Sedai had tried and failed. Failure was a blow to
stature, and mystery an armour the Tower needed. Aes Sedai had reasons of their
own for what they did, and for what they did not do, and those reasons were known
only to Aes Sedai. “That is as much answer as I can give. More than I should have,
more than any other sister ever will, I think. Will it suffice?”

For a time he simply looked at her, fire slowly fading to ice once more. His eyes fell
away. “Almost, I can believe,” he muttered finally, without saying what he almost
believed. He gave a bitter laugh. “What help can I give you?”

Moiraine frowned. She very much wanted time alone with this man, to bring him to
heel, but that had to wait. “There is another sister in the palace. Merean Redhill. I
need to know where she goes, what she does, who she meets.” He blinked, but did
not ask the obvious questions. Perhaps he knew he would get no answers, but his
silence was still pleasing.

“I have been keeping to my rooms the past few days,” he said, looking at the door
again. “I do not know how much watching I can do.”

In spite of herself, she sniffed. The man promised help, then looked anxiously for his
lady. Perhaps he was not what she had thought. But he was who she had. “Not
you,” she told him. Her visit here would be known throughout the Aesdaishar soon,
if it was not already, and if he was noticed spying on Merean . . . That could be
disaster even if the woman was as innocent as a babe. “I thought you might ask one
of the Malkieri I understand have gathered here to follow you. Someone with a sharp
eye and a close tongue. This must be done in utter secrecy.”

“No one follows me,” he said sharply. Glancing at the door once more, he suddenly
seemed weary. He did not slump, but he moved to the fireplace and propped his
sword beside it with the care of a tired man. Standing with his back to her, he said,
“I will ask Bukama and Ryne to watch her, but I cannot promise for them. That is all
I can do for you.”

She stifled a vexed sound. Whether it was all he could do or all he would, she had
no leverage to force him. “Bukama,” she said. “Only him.” Going by how he had
behaved around her, Ryne would be too busy staring at Merean to see or hear
anything. That was if he did not confess what he was doing the moment Merean
looked at him. “And do not tell him why.”

His head whipped around, but after a moment he nodded. And again he did not ask
the questions most people would have. Telling him how to get word to her, by notes
passed to her maid Suki, she hoped she was not making a grave mistake.

Back in her own rooms, she discovered just how quickly news had spread. In the
sitting room, Siuan was offering a tray of sweetmeats to a tall, full-mouthed young
woman in pale green silk, little older than a girl, with black hair that fell well below
her hips and a small blue dot painted on her forehead about where the stone of
Moiraine’s kesiera hung. Siuan’s face was smooth, but her voice was tight as she
made introductions. The Lady Iselle quickly showed why.

“Everyone in the palace is saying you are Aes Sedai,” she said, eyeing Moiraine
doubtfully. She did not rise, much less curtsy, or even incline her head. “If that is
so, I need your assistance. I wish to go to the White Tower. My mother wants me to
marry. I would not mind Lan as my carneira if mother were not already his, but
when I marry, I think it will be one of my Warders. I will be Green Ajah.” She
frowned faintly at Siuan. “Don’t hover, girl. Stand over there until you are needed.”
Siuan took up a stance by the fireplace, back stiff and arms folded beneath her
breasts. No real servant would have stood so—or frowned so—but Iselle no longer
noticed her. “Do sit down, Moiraine,” she went on with a smile, “and I will tell you
what I need of you. If you are Aes Sedai, of course.”

Moiraine stared. Invited to take a chair in her own sitting room. This silly child was
certainly a suitable match for Lan when it came to arrogance. Her carneira? That
meant “first” in the Old Tongue, and plainly something else here. Not what it seemed
to, of course; even these Malkieri could not be that peculiar! Sitting, she said drily,
“Choosing your Ajah should at least wait until I test you to see whether there is any
point in sending you to the Tower. A few minutes will determine whether you can
learn to channel, and your potential strength if you—”

The girl blithely broke in. “Oh, I was tested years ago. The Aes Sedai said I would be
very strong. I told her I was fifteen, but she learned the truth. I don’t see why I could
not go to the Tower at twelve if I wanted. Mother was furious. She has always said I
was to be Queen of Malkier one day, but that means marrying Lan, which I would
not want even if mother weren’t his carneira. When you tell her you are taking me to
the Tower, she will have to listen. Everyone knows that Aes Sedai take any woman
they want for training, and no one can stop them.” That full mouth pursed. “You are
Aes Sedai, aren’t you?”

Moiraine performed the rosebud exercise. “If you want to go to Tar Valon, then go. I
certainly do not have time to escort you. You will find sisters there about whom you
can have no doubts. Suki, will you show the Lady Iselle out? No doubt she does not
wish to delay in setting off before her mother catches her.”

The chit was all indignation, of course, but Moiraine wanted only to see the back of
her, and Siuan very nearly pushed her out into the corridor.

“That one,” Siuan said as she came back dusting her hands, “won’t last a month if
she can equal Cadsuane.” The Tower clung like iron bands to any woman who had
the smallest chance of earning the shawl, but those who could not or would not
learn did find themselves put out, and channelling was only part of what had to be
learned.

“Sierin herself can toss her from the top of the Tower for all I care,” Moiraine
snapped. “Did you learn anything?”

It seemed that Siuan had learned that the young footman knew how to kiss, a
revelation that did not even pinken her cheeks, and aside from that, nothing
whatsoever. Surprisingly, learning that Moiraine had approached Lan upset her
more than Merean’s appearance.

“Skin me and salt me if you don’t take idiot risks, Moiraine. A man who claims the
throne of a dead country is nine kinds of fool. He could be flapping his tongue about
you right this minute to anybody who’ll bloody listen! If Merean learns you’re having
her watched . . . Burn me!”

“He is many kinds of fool, Siuan, but I do not think he ever ‘flaps his tongue’.
Besides, ‘you cannot win if you will not risk a copper’, as you always tell me your
father used to say. We have no choice but to take risks. With Merean here, time may
be running out. You must reach the Lady Ines as quickly as you can.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Siuan muttered, and stalked out squaring her shoulders as if for
a struggle. But she was smoothing her skirt over her hips, too.

Night had long since fallen and Moiraine was trying to read by lamplight when Siuan
returned. Moiraine set her book aside; she had been staring at the same page for the
past hour. This time, Siuan did have news, delivered while digging through the
dresses and shifts Mistress Dorelmin had made.

For one thing, she had been approached on her way back to Moiraine’s rooms by “a
gristly old stork” who asked if she was Suki, then told her Merean had spent almost
the entire day with Prince Brys before retiring to her apartments for the night. No
clue there to anything. More importantly, Siuan had been able to bring up Rahien in
casual conversation with Cal. The footman had not been with the Lady Ines when
the boy was born, but he did know the day, one day after the Aiel began their retreat
from Tar Valon. Moiraine and Siuan shared a long look over that. One day after
Gitara Moroso had made her Foretelling of the Dragon’s Rebirth and dropped dead
from the shock of it. Dawn over the mountain, and born during the ten days before a
sudden thaw melted the snow. Gitara had specifically mentioned the snow.

“Anyway,” Siuan went on, beginning to make a bundle of clothes and stockings, “I
led Cal to believe I’d been dismissed from your service for spilling wine on your
dress, and he’s offered me a bed with the Lady Ines’s servants. He thinks he might
be able to get me a place with his Lady.” She snorted with amusement, then caught
Moiraine’s eyes and snorted again, more roughly. “It isn’t his bloody bed, Moiraine.
And if it was, well, he has a gentle manner and the prettiest brown eyes you’ve ever
seen. One of these days, you’re going to find yourself ready to do more than dream
about some man, and I hope I’m there to see it!”

“Do not talk nonsense,” Moiraine told her. The task in front of them was too
important to spare thoughts for men. In the way Siuan meant, at least. Merean had
spent all day with Brys? Without going near Lady Ines? One of Tamra’s chosen or
Black Ajah, that made no sense, and it went beyond credibility to believe Merean
was not one or the other. She was missing something, and that worried her. What
she did not know could kill her. Worse, it could kill the Dragon Reborn in his cradle.
Lan slipped through the corridors of the Aesdaishar alone, using every bit of the skill
he had learned in the Blight, avoiding the eyes of passersby. His own serving women
took Edeyn’s commands ahead of his, now, as though they believed that some part
of Malkieri ways. She might have told them it was. He expected that anyone in the
Aesdaishar wearing livery would tell Edeyn where to find him. He thought he knew
where he was, now. Despite previous visits, he had got lost twice, without a guide.
He felt a fool for wearing his sword. Steel was no use in this battle.

A flicker of movement made him flatten himself against the wall behind a statue of a
woman clad in clouds, her arms full of flowers. Just in time. Two women came out
of the crossing corridor ahead, pausing in close conversation. Iselle and the Aes
Sedai, Merean. He was as still as the stone he hid behind.

He did not like skulking, but while Edeyn was untying the knot in his daori that had
kept him penned for two days she had made it clear that she intended to announce
his marriage to Iselle soon. Bukama had been right. Edeyn used his daori like reins,
and he did not believe she would stop just because he married her daughter. The
only thing to do when faced by an opponent you could not defeat was run, and he
wanted to.

At a sharp motion from Merean, Iselle nodded eagerly and went back the way they
had come. For a moment Merean watched her go, face unreadable in Aes Sedai
serenity. Then, surprisingly, she followed, gliding in a way that made Iselle look
awkward.

Lan did not waste time wondering what Merean was up to, any more than he had in
wondering why Moiraine wanted her watched. A man could go mad trying to puzzle
out Aes Sedai. Which Moiraine really must be, or Merean would have her howling up
and down the corridors. Waiting long enough for the pair to be out of sight again, he
moved quietly to the corner and peeked. They were both gone, so he hurried on. Aes
Sedai were no concern of his today. He had to talk to Bukama.

Running would end Edeyn’s schemes of marriage. If he avoided her long enough,
she would find another husband for Iselle. Running would end Edeyn’s dream of
reclaiming Malkier; her support would fade like mist under a noon sun once people
learned he was gone. Running would end many dreams. The man who had carried
an infant tied to his back had a right to dreams, though. Duty was a mountain, but
it had to be carried.

Ahead lay a long flight of broad, stone-railed stairs. He turned to start down, and
suddenly he was falling. He just had time to go limp, and then he was bounding
from step to step, tumbling head over heels, landing on the tiled floor at the bottom
with a crash that drove the last remaining air from his lungs. Spots shimmered in
front of his eyes. He struggled to breathe, to push himself up.

Servants appeared from nowhere, helping him dizzily to his feet, all exclaiming over
his luck in not killing himself in such a fall, asking whether he wanted to see one of
the Aes Sedai for Healing. Frowning up the stairway, he murmured replies, anything
in hope of making them go away. He thought he might be as bruised as he had ever
been in his life, but bruises went away, and the last thing he wanted at that moment
was a sister. Most men would have fought that fall and been lucky to end with half
their bones broken. Something had jerked his ankles up there. Something had hit
him between the shoulders. There was only one thing it could have been, however
little sense it made. An Aes Sedai had tried to kill him.

“Lord Mandragoran!” A stocky man in the striped coat of a palace guard skidded to a
halt and nearly fell over trying to bow while still moving. “We’ve been looking for you
everywhere, my Lord!” he panted. “It’s your man, Bukama! Come quickly, my Lord!
He may still be alive!”

Cursing, Lan ran behind the guard, shouting for the man to go faster, but he was
too late. Too late for the man who had carried an infant. Too late for dreams.
Guards crowding a narrow passage just off one of the practice yards squeezed back
to let Lan through. Bukama lay face down, blood pooled around his mouth, the
plain wooden hilt of a dagger rising from the dark stain on the back of his coat. His
staring eyes looked surprised. Kneeling, Lan closed those eyes and murmured a
prayer for the last embrace of the mother to welcome Bukama home.

“Who found him?” he asked, but he barely heard the jumbled replies about who and
where and what. He hoped Bukama was reborn in a world where the Golden Crane
flew on the wind, and the Seven Towers stood unbroken, and the Thousand Lakes
shone like a necklace beneath the sun. How could he have let anyone get close
enough to do this? Bukama could feel steel being unsheathed near him. Only one
thing was sure. Bukama was dead because Lan had tangled him in an Aes Sedai’s
schemes.

Rising, Lan began to run. Not away from, though. Towards. And he did not care who
saw him.

The muffled crash of the door in the anteroom and outraged shouts from the serving
women lifted Moiraine from the chair where she had been waiting. For anything but
this. Embracing saidar, she started from the sitting room, but before she reached
the door, it swung open. Lan shook off the liveried women clinging to his arms, shut
the door in their faces, and put his back to it, meeting Moiraine’s startled gaze.
Purpling bruises marred his face, and he moved as if he had been beaten. From
outside came silence. Whatever he intended, they would be sure she could handle it.
Absurdly, she found herself fingering her belt knife. With the Power she could wrap
him up like a child, however large he was, and yet . . . He did not glare. There
certainly was no fire in those eyes. She wanted to step back. No fire, but death
seared cold. That black coat suited him with its cruel thorns and stark gold
blossoms.

“Bukama is dead with a knife in his heart,” he said calmly, “and not an hour gone,
someone tried to kill me with the One Power. At first I thought it must be Merean,
but the last I saw of her, she was trailing after Iselle, and unless she saw me and
wanted to lull me, she had no time. Few see me when I do not want to be seen, and I
don’t think she did. That leaves you.”

Moiraine winced, and only in part for the certainty in his tone. She should have
known the fool girl would go straight to Merean. “You would be surprised how little
escapes a sister,” she told him. Especially if the sister was filled with saidar.

“Perhaps I should not have asked Bukama to watch Merean. She is very dangerous.”
She was Black Ajah; Moiraine was certain of that, now. Sisters might make painful
examples of people caught snooping, but they did not kill them. But what to do
about her? Certainty was not proof, surely not that would stand up before the
Amyrlin Seat. And if Sierin herself was Black . . . Not a worry she could do anything
about now. What was the woman doing wasting any time at all with Iselle? “If you
care for the girl, I suggest you find her as quickly as possible and keep her away
from Merean.”

Lan grunted. “All Aes Sedai are dangerous. Iselle is safe enough for the moment; I
saw her on my way here, hurrying somewhere with Brys and Diryk. Why did
Bukama die, Aes Sedai? What did I snare him in for you?”

Moiraine flung up a hand for silence, and a tiny part of her was surprised when he
obeyed. The rest of her thought furiously. Merean with Iselle. Iselle with Brys and
Diryk. Merean had tried to kill Lan. Suddenly she saw a pattern, perfect in every
line; it made no sense, but she did not doubt it was real. “Diryk told me you are the
luckiest man in the world,” she said, leaning towards Lan intently, “and for his sake,
I hope he was right. Where would Brys go for absolute privacy? Somewhere he would
not be seen or heard.” It would have to be a place he felt comfortable, yet isolated.
“There is a walk on the west side of the palace,” Lan said slowly, then his voice
quickened. “If there is danger to Brys, I must rouse the guards.” He was already
turning, hand on the doorhandle.

“No!” she said. She still held the Power, and she prepared a weave of Air to seize him
if necessary. “Prince Brys will not appreciate having his guards burst in if Merean is
simply talking to him.”

“And if she is not talking?” he demanded.

“We have no proof of anything against her, Lan. Suspicions against the word of an
Aes Sedai.” His head jerked angrily, and he growled something about Aes Sedai that
she deliberately did not hear. “Take me to this walk, Lan. Let Aes Sedai deal with
Aes Sedai. And let us hurry.” If Merean did any talking, Moiraine did not expect her
to talk for long.

Hurry Lan surely did, long legs flashing as he ran. All Moiraine could do was gather
her skirts high and run after him, ignoring the stares and murmurs of servants and
others in the corridors, thanking the Light that the man did not outpace her. She let
the Power fill her as she ran, till sweetness and joy bordered pain, and tried to plan
what she would do, what she could do, against a woman considerably stronger than
she, a woman who had been Aes Sedai more than a hundred years before her own
great-grandmother was born. She wished she was not so afraid. She wished Siuan
was with her.

The mad dash led through glittering state chambers, along statuary-lined hallways,
and suddenly they were into the open, the sounds of the palace left behind, on a
long stone-railed walk twenty paces wide with a vista across the city roofs far below.
A cold wind blew like a storm. Merean was there, surrounded by the glow of saidar,
and Brys and Diryk, standing by the rail, twisting futilely against bonds and gags of
Air. Iselle was frowning at the Prince and his son, and surprisingly, further down the
walk stood a glowering Ryne.

“ . . . and I could hardly bring Lord Diryk to you without his father,” Iselle was
saying petulantly. “I did make sure no one knows, but why—?”

Weaving a shield of Spirit, Moiraine hurled it at Merean with every shred of the
Power in her, hoping against hope to cut the woman off from the Source. The shield
struck and splintered. Merean was too strong, drawing too near her capacity.
The Blue sister—the Black sister—did not even blink. “You did well enough killing
the spy, Ryne,” she said calmly as she wove a gag of Air to stop up Iselle’s mouth
and bonds that held the girl stiff and wide-eyed. “See if you can make certain of the
younger one this time. You did say you are a better swordsman.”

Everything seemed to happen at once. Ryne rushed forward, scowling, the bells in
braids chiming. Lan barely got his own sword out in time to meet him. And before
the first clash of steel on steel, Merean struck at Moiraine with the same weave she
herself had used, but stronger. In horror Moiraine realized that Merean might have
sufficient strength remaining to shield her even while she was embracing as much of
saidar as she could. Frantically she struck out with Air and Fire, and Merean
grunted as severed flows snapped back into her. In the brief interval, Moiraine tried
to slice the flows holding Diryk and the others, but before her weave touched
Merean’s, Merean sliced hers instead, and this time Merean’s attempted shield
actually touched her before she could cut it. Moiraine’s stomach tried to tie itself in
a knot.

“You appear too often, Moiraine,” Merean said as though they were simply chatting.
She looked as if there were no more to it, serene and motherly, not in the slightest
perturbed. “I fear I must ask you how, and why.” Moiraine just managed to sever a
weave of Fire that would have burned off her clothes and perhaps most of her skin,
and Merean smiled, a mother amused at the mischief young women get up to. “Don’t
worry, child. I’ll Heal you to answer my questions.”

If Moiraine had had any lingering doubts that Merean was Black Ajah, that weave of
Fire would have ended them. In the next moments she had more proof, weavings
that made sparks dance on her dress and her hair rise, weavings that left her
gasping for air that was no longer there, weavings she could not recognize yet was
sure would leave her broken and bleeding if they settled around her, if she failed to
cut them . . .

When she could, she tried again and again to cut the bonds holding Diryk and the
others, to shield Merean, even to knock her unconscious. She knew she fought for
her life—she would die if the other woman won, now or after Merean’s questioning—
but she never considered that loophole in the Oaths that held her. She had
questions of her own for the woman, and the fate of the world might rest on the
answers. Unfortunately, most of what she could do was defend herself, and that
always on the brink. Her stomach was in a knot, and trying to make another.
Holding three people bound, Merean was still a match for her, and maybe more. If
only Lan could distract the woman.

A hasty glance showed how unlikely that was. Lan and Ryne danced the forms, their
blades like whirlwinds, but if there was a hair between their abilities, it rested with
Ryne. Blood fanned down the side of Lan’s face.

Grimly, Moiraine bore down, not even sparing the bit of concentration necessary to
ignore the cold. Shivering, she struck at Merean, defended herself and struck again,
defended and struck. If she could manage to wear the woman down, or . . .
“This is taking too long, don’t you think, child?” Merean said. Diryk floated into the
air, struggling against the bonds he could not see as he drifted over the railing.
Brys’s head twisted, following his son, and his mouth worked around his unseen
gag.

“No!” Moiraine screamed. Desperately, she flung out flows of Air to drag the boy back
to safety. Merean slashed them even as she released her own hold on him. Wailing,
Diryk fell, and white light exploded in Moiraine’s head.

Groggily she opened her eyes, the boy’s fading shriek still echoing in her mind. She
was on her back on the stone walk, her head spinning. Until that cleared, she had
as much chance of embracing saidar as a cat did of singing. Not that it made any
difference, now. She could see the shield Merean was holding on her, and even a
weaker woman could maintain a shield once in place. She tried to rise, fell back,
managed to push up on an elbow.

Only moments had passed. Lan and Ryne still danced their deadly dance to the
clash of steel. Brys was rigid for more than his bonds, staring at Merean with such
implacable hate it seemed he might break free on the strength of his rage. Iselle was
trembling visibly, snuffling and weeping and staring wide-eyed at where the boy had
fallen. Where Diryk had fallen. Moiraine made herself think the boy’s name, flinched
to recall his grinning enthusiasm. Only moments.

“You will hold a moment for me, I think,” Merean said, turning from Moiraine. Brys
rose from the walk. The stocky man’s face never changed, never stopped staring
hatred at Merean.

Moiraine struggled to her knees. She could not channel. She had no courage left, no
strength. Only determination. Brys floated over the railing. Moiraine tottered to her
feet. Determination. That look of pure hate etched on his face, Brys fell, never
making a sound. This had to end. Iselle lifted into the air, writhing frantically, throat
working in a effort to scream past her gag. It had to end now! Stumbling, Moiraine
drove her belt knife into Merean’s back, blood spurting over her hands.

They fell to the paving stones together, the glow around Merean vanishing as she
died, the shield on Moiraine vanishing. Iselle screamed, swaying where Merean’s
bonds had let her drop, atop the stone railing. Pushing herself to move, Moiraine
scrambled across Merean’s corpse, seized one of Iselle’s flailing hands in hers just as
the girl’s slippers slid off into open air.

The jolt pulled Moiraine belly-down across the railing, staring down at the girl held
by her blood-slick grip above a drop that seemed to go on for ever. It was all
Moiraine could do to hold them where they were, teetering. If she tried to pull the
girl up, they would both go over. Iselle’s face was contorted, her mouth a rictus. Her
hand slipped in Moiraine’s grasp. Forcing herself to calm, Moiraine reach for the
Source and failed. Staring down at those distant rooftops did not help her whirling
head. Again she tried, but it was like trying to scoop up water with spread fingers.
She would save one of the three, though, if the most useless of them. Fighting
dizziness, she strove for saidar. And Iselle’s hand slid out of her bloody fingers. All
Moiraine could do was watch her fall, hand still stretched up as if she believed
someone might still save her.

An arm pulled Moiraine away from the railing.

“Never watch a death you don’t have to,” Lan said, setting her on her feet. His right
arm hung at his side, a long slash laying open the blood-soaked sleeve and the flesh
beneath, and he had other injuries besides the gash on his scalp that still trickled
red down his face. Ryne lay on his back ten paces away, staring at the sky in
sightless surprise. “A black day,” Lan muttered. “As black as ever I’ve seen.”
“A moment,” she told him, her voice unsteady. “I am too dizzy to walk far, yet.” Her
knees wavered as she walked to Merean’s body. There would be no answers. The
Black Ajah would remain hidden. Bending, she withdrew her belt knife and cleaned
it on the traitor’s skirts.

“You are a cool one, Aes Sedai,” Lan said flatly.

“As cool as I must be,” she told him. Diryk’s scream rang in her ears. Iselle’s face
dwindled below her. “It seems Ryne was wrong as well as a Darkfriend. You were
better than he.”

Lan shook his head slightly. “He was better. But he thought I was finished, with only
one arm. He never understood. You surrender after you’re dead.”

Moiraine nodded. Surrender after you are dead. Yes.

It took a little while for her head to clear enough that she could embrace the Source
again, and she had to put up with Lan’s anxiety to let the shatayan know that Brys
and Diryk were dead before word came that their bodies had been found on the
rooftops. Understandably, he seemed less eager to inform the Lady Edeyn of her
daughter’s death. Moiraine was anxious about time, too, if not for the same reasons.
She Healed him as soon as she was able. He gasped in shock as the complex weaves
of Spirit, Air, and Water knit up his wounds, flesh writhing together into unscarred
wholeness. Like anyone who had been Healed, he was weak afterwards, weak
enough to catch his breath leaning on the stone rail. He would run nowhere for a
while.

Carefully Moiraine floated Merean’s body over that rail and down a little, close to the
stone of the mountain. Flows of Fire, and flame enveloped the Black sister, flame so
hot there was no smoke, only a shimmering in the air, and the occasional crack of a
splitting rock.

“What are you—?” Lan began, then changed it to, “Why?”

Moiraine let herself feel the rising heat, currents of air fit for a furnace. “There is no
proof she was Black Ajah, only that she was Aes Sedai.” The White Tower needed its
armour of secrecy again, more than it had when Malkier died, but she could not tell
him that. Not yet. “I cannot lie about what happened here, but I can be silent. Will
you be silent, or will you do the Shadow’s work?”

“You are a very hard woman,” he said finally. That was the only answer he gave, but
it was enough.

“I am as hard as I must be,” she told him. Diryk’s scream. Iselle’s face. There was
still Ryne’s body to dispose of, and the blood. As hard as she must be.

Next dawn found the Aesdaishar in mourning, white banners flying from every
prominence, the servants with long white cloths tied to their arms. Rumours in the
city already talked of portents foretelling the deaths, comets in the night, fires in the
sky. People had a way of folding what they saw into what they knew and what they
wanted to believe. The disappearance of a simple soldier, and even of an Aes Sedai,
escaped notice alongside grief.

Returning from destroying Merean’s belongings—after searching in vain for any clue
to other Black sisters—Moiraine stepped aside for Edeyn Arrel, who glided down the
corridor in a white gown, her hair cut raggedly short. Whispers said she intended to
retire from the world. Moiraine thought she already had. The woman’s staring eyes
looked haggard and old. In a way, they looked much as her daughter’s did, in
Moiraine’s mind.

When Moiraine entered her apartments, Siuan leaped up from a chair. It seemed
weeks since Moiraine had seen her. “You look like you reached into the bait well and
found a fangfish,” she growled. “Well, it’s no surprise. I always hated mourning
when I knew the people. Anyway, we can go whenever you’re ready. Rahien was born
in a farmhouse almost two miles from Dragonmount. Merean hasn’t been near him,
as of this morning. I don’t suppose she’ll harm him on suspicion even if she is
Black.”

Not the one. Somehow, Moiraine had almost expected that. “Merean will not harm
anyone, Siuan. Put that mind of yours to a puzzle for me.” Settling in a chair, she
began with the end, and hurried through despite Siuan’s gasps and demands for
more detail. It was almost like living it again. Getting to what had led her to that
confrontation was a relief. “She wanted Diryk dead most of all, Siuan; she killed him
first. And she tried to kill Lan. The only thing those two had in common was luck.
Diryk survived a fall that should have killed him, and everyone says Lan is the
luckiest man alive or the Blight would have killed him years ago. It makes a pattern,
but the pattern looks crazy to me. Maybe your blacksmith is even part of it. And
Josef Najima, back in Canluum, for all I know. He was lucky, too. Puzzle it out for
me if you can. I think it is important, but I cannot see how.”

Siuan strode back and forth across the room, kicking her skirt and rubbing her
chin, muttering about “men with luck” and “the blacksmith rose suddenly” and
other things Moiraine could not make out. Suddenly she stopped dead and said,
“She never went near Rahien, Moiraine. The Black Ajah knows the Dragon was
Reborn, but they don’t bloody know when! Maybe Tamra managed to keep it back,
or maybe they were too rough and she died before they could pry it out of her. That
has to be it!” Her eagerness turned to horror. “Light! They’re killing any man or boy
who might be able to channel! Oh, burn me, thousands could die, Moiraine. Tens of
thousands.”

It did make a terrible sense. Men who could channel seldom knew what they were
doing, at least in the beginning. At first, they often just seemed to be lucky. Events
favoured them, and frequently, like the blacksmith, they rose to prominence with
unexpected suddenness. Siuan was right. The Black Ajah had begun a slaughter.
“But they do not know to look for a boychild,” Moiraine said. As hard as she had to
be. “An infant will show no signs.” Not until he was sixteen at the earliest. No man
on record had begun channelling before that, and some not for ten years or more
later. “We have more time than we thought. Not enough to be careless, though. Any
sister can be Black. I think Cadsuane is. They know others are looking. If one of
Tamra’s searchers locates the boy and they find her with him, or if they decide to
question one of them instead of killing her as soon as it is convenient . . . ” Siuan
was staring at her. “We still have the task,” Moiraine told her.

“I know,” Siuan said slowly. “I just never thought. Well, when there’s work to do, you
haul nets or gut fish.” That lacked her usual force, though. “We can be on our way
to Arafel before noon.”

“You go back to the Tower,” Moiraine said. Together, they could search no faster
than one could alone, and if they had to be apart, what better place for Siuan than
working for Cetalia Delarme, seeing the reports of all the Blue Ajah eyes-and-ears?
The Blue was a small Ajah, but every sister said it had a larger network than any
other. While Moiraine hunted for the boy, Siuan could learn what was happening in
every land, and, knowing what she was looking for, she could spot any sign of the
Black Ajah or the Dragon Reborn. Siuan truly could see sense when it was pointed
out to her, though it took some effort this time, and when she agreed, she did it with
a poor grace.

“Cetalia will use me to caulk draughts for running off without leave,” she grumbled.
“Burn me! Hung out on a drying rack in the Tower! Moiraine, the politics are enough
to make you sweat buckets in midwinter! I hate it!” But she was already pawing
through the trunks to see what she could take with her for the ride back to Tar
Valon. “I suppose you warned that fellow Lan. Seems to me, he deserves it, much
good it’ll do him. I heard he rode out an hour ago, heading for the Blight, and if that
doesn’t kill him—where are you going?”

“I have unfinished business with the man,” Moiraine said over her shoulder. She
had made a decision about him the first day she knew him, and she intended to
keep it.

In the stable where Arrow was kept, silver marks tossed like pennies got the mare
saddled and bridled almost while the coins were still in the air, and she scrambled
on to the animal’s back without a care that her skirts pushed up to bare her legs
above the knee. Digging her heels in, she galloped out of the Aesdaishar and north
through the city, making people leap aside and once setting Arrow to leap cleanly
over an empty wagon with a driver too slow to move out of her way. She left a tumult
of shouts and shaken fists behind.

On the road north from the city, she slowed enough to ask wagondrivers heading the
other way whether they had seen a Malkieri on a bay stallion, and was more than a
little relieved the first time she got a yes. The man could have gone in fifty directions
after crossing the moat bridge. And with an hour’s lead . . . She would catch him if
she had to follow him into the Blight!

“A Malkieri?” The skinny merchant in a dark blue cloak looked startled. “Well, my
guards told me there’s one up there.” Twisting on his wagon-seat, he pointed to a
grassy hill a hundred paces off the road. Two horses stood in plain sight at the crest,
one a packhorse, and the thin smoke of a fire curled into the breeze.

Lan barely looked up when she dismounted. Kneeling beside the remains of a small
fire, he was stirring the ashes with a long twig. Strangely, the smell of burned hair
hung in the air. “I had hoped you were done with me,” he said.

“Not quite yet,” she told him. “Burning your future? It will sorrow a great many, I
think, when you die in the Blight.”

“Burning my past,” he said, rising. “Burning memories. A nation. The Golden Crane
will fly no more.” He started to kick dirt over the ashes, then hesitated and bent to
scoop up damp soil and pour it out of his hands almost formally. “No one will sorrow
for me when I die, because those who would are dead already. Besides, all men die.”
“Only fools choose to die before they must. I want you to be my Warder, Lan
Mandragoran.”

He stared at her unblinking, then shook his head. “I should have known it would be
that. I have a war to fight, Aes Sedai, and no desire to help you weave White Tower
webs. Find another.”

“I fight the same war as you against the Shadow. Merean was Black Ajah.” She told
him all of it, from Gitara’s Foretelling in the presence of the Amyrlin Seat and two
Accepted to what she and Siuan had reasoned out. For another man, she would
have left most unsaid, but there were few secrets between Warder and Aes Sedai.
For another man, she might have softened it, but she did not believe hidden enemies
frightened him, not even when they were Aes Sedai. “You said you burned your past.
Let the past have its ashes. This is the same war, Lan. The most important battle yet
in that war. And this one, you can win.”

For a long time he stood staring north, towards the Blight. She did not know what
she would do if he refused. She had told him more than she would have anyone but
her Warder.

Suddenly he turned, sword flashing out, and for an instant she thought he meant to
attack her. Instead he sank to his knees, the sword lying bare across his hands. “By
my mother’s name, I will draw as you say ‘draw’ and sheathe as you say ‘sheathe’.
By my mother’s name, I will come as you say ‘come’ and go as you say ‘go’.” He
kissed the blade and looked up at her expectantly. On his knees, he made any king
on a throne look meek. She would have to teach him some humility for his own
sake. And for a pond’s sake.

“There is a little more,” she said, laying hands on his head.

The weave of Spirit was one of the most intricate known to Aes Sedai. It wove around
him, settled into him, vanished. Suddenly she was aware of him, in the way that Aes
Sedai were of their Warders. His emotions were a small knot in the back of her head,
all steely hard determination, sharp as his blade’s edge. She knew the muted pain of
old injuries, tamped down and ignored. She would be able to draw on his strength at
need, to find him however far away he was. They were bonded.

He rose smoothly, sheathing his sword, studying her. “Men who weren’t there call it
the Battle of the Shining Walls,” he said abruptly. “Men who were, call it the Blood
Snow. No more. They know it was a battle. On the morning of the first day, I led
nearly five hundred men. Kandori, Saldaeans, Domani. By evening on the third day,
half were dead or wounded. Had I made different choices, some of those dead would
be alive. And others would be dead in their places. In war, you say a prayer for your
dead and ride on, because there is always another fight over the next horizon. Say a
prayer for the dead, Moiraine Sedai, and ride on.”

Startled, she came close to gaping. She had forgotten that the bond’s flow worked
both ways. He knew her emotions, too, and apparently could reason out hers far
better than she could his. After a moment, she nodded, though she did not know
how many prayers it would take to clear her mind.

Handing her Arrow’s reins, he said, “Where do we ride first?”

“Back to Chachin,” she admitted. “And then Arafel, and . . . ” So few names
remained that were easy to find. “The world, if need be. We win this battle, or the
world dies.”

Side by side they rode down the hill and turned south. Behind them the sky
rumbled and turned black, another late storm rolling down from the Blight.

No comments: