The First Age

Full Version: The Wheel Turns
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The night was still, like a held breath; though maybe that was her own, caught like ice in pained lungs. She should not be out after last bell at all, but this time it was both rule and custom she flouted as she trod a familiar route through tower grounds. Her skin still chilled from memory, exhaustion a shadow that hounded her steps. There had been no guards on the door, though she doubted even her silver tongue could undo the trouble she’d find herself snared in if caught. Had a woman ever been denied after passing the final tests? She did not know, and she doubted the Aes Sedai would speak of it if it were so. Courting trouble was not a new endeavour for Nythadri, but even she might feel the sharp sting of regret should it cost her everything she had worked for these past years. Light fingers traced the cold serpent squeezing her finger, but it was the letter folded in her belt pouch that mired her thoughts.

She had barely had time to comprehend the note’s contents before her calling, but she had read it through twice now, until she needed the words no longer. Family was a shackle she shed easily the day she donned the white, though truthfully its hold had loosened long before Karina Sedai brought her to the Tower. Nythadri had long been at peace with that stillness -- the light knew she had always been a poor daughter. But Jai churned up those settled waters when he waded through blood to return Tashir’s pendant, and still the ripples of consequence tied pretty strings about her wrists. 

She paused beneath the boughs of a tree, its long skyward-reaching fingers obscuring the spangle of stars above. She did not search for constellations she recalled from the arms of the Aryth, nor allowed fresher memories to stir. Despite the desire, she’d always quashed the urge to write him in Arad Doman, even in those soft moments when she remembered the mumbled story he’d told before falling asleep in her lap. He promised the world like she was deserving of the gift, but she would never ask for it. Better for him to forget.

Better for her, too, though she never did.

Her eyes half lidded, jaw tense, but she set the thoughts aside. She would not think of the test.

In the letter, her father had been unforgivingly sparse with the truth. Mishael was shrewd enough to tally the rumours by now, though, and she had sent the pendant home to him before knowing the full grim story, and how it would tie her to it. He had accused her of involvement the day he signed the paperwork in Tar Valon, brushed away easily at the time, but since then news of Black Tower recompense spread of necessity to calm the city. He clearly smelled the lie, a blame that did not wound her. Bound by the secrets she must keep now, she could not afford to ignore him, yet what right did he have to ask a favour?

Ahead, two women shared a bench in the shadows. Nythadri paused, irritated that distraction had almost landed her in their laps. One she did not recognise, a woman with a strip of leather keeping raven locks from spilling over her cheeks, dressed like a man, but with the laces of her shirt loose enough to expose an expanse of pale bosom. The other she did though. The other was Aes Sedai. Light burn me for a fool. A Brown, though. Perhaps the Creator smiled, and the woman would not pause to investigate the pulse of familiarity that betrayed another channeler was near. The trees and darkness obscured all but the most direct of incidental glances, so long as she remained still. But Nythadri did not place much faith in luck.

“I am... sorry about Razmira, Eleanore,” the Aes Sedai said. Her accent slurred softly, the words little more than a whisper; not in effort of secrecy, but a habitual nuance of the speaker. Nythadri could not recall ever having spoken with this sister, but she did know Malaika’s reputation amongst the novices, and the rumours that surrounded her past. Few women could contemplate the collar without a shiver.

The other woman’s voice was as rich and deep as honey, but the laugh that followed was bitter. “The Wheel weaves as it wills, I suppose. Speak not of it.” She stood. Embroidery decorated the wide trousers that fell atop her boots. Her hand brushed hilt and heart beneath a short bow that the Aes Sedai acknowledged with a dip of her own head, before her attention drifted to something nestled in her lap. “Thank you for your help. I will not keep you further.”

“A sad task. I hope he found the mother’s embrace, no matter the end he chose.” Long legs took her away; she bore a warrior’s grace, but Nythadri did not think her one of the Warders. The woman’s light eyes caught her purposefully in passing, one brow raised in amusement or accusation, Nythadri could not tell. She did not pause, though, despite that she must have seen the white and rainbow-banded dress. Definitely not of the Tower. Prickled with a little guilt for things she ought not have heard, Nythadri glanced back at the Brown and wondered how easily she might now slip away.

“Each thread is precious, and deserving. To cut oneself free early, I cannot imagine the pain.” For a moment Nythadri thought the Aes Sedai oblivious to the departure of her companion, or perhaps murmuring quietly to herself, but presently she patted the seat of the bench beside her. Her dark eyes did not lift from the burden in her skirts -- and burden it must be, by the words and the soft hint of frown on her porcelain pale face. Malaika was thin as a reed, covered throat to ankle in dark wool. The straight silk of her hair melted into that darkness, so that she seemed almost incorporeal in the night air. A necklace of smokey quartz was her only visible adornment beyond the ring.

Nythadri hesitated, even knowing there was only one path forward. Fear did not root her, only disappointment in her own stupidity. Jai must be rubbing off. Whatever tangled emotion in her chest, leaving her room -- tonight, of all nights -- had been a pointless risk. Her hands tightened, until her nails punctured the soft flesh of her palm, and then she stepped out smoothly and sat as bid. No words escaped, and she smothered the fatalistic sigh threatening to spill. Her white skirts glowed softly in the half-light. The Aes Sedai could not fail to notice she had been joined by an Accepted. Still, she let the silence wash over her.

It was a dagger in the Aes Sedai’s lap, she realised, cradled in her hands. Her thumbs traced a sigil buried in the hilt, though Nythadri could not make it out. She knew better than to ask, of course.

“An ancient name. I did not expect that.” Malaika folded the weapon carefully in cloth, paying no apparent mind to her company. Her movements were slow and delicate, so that even an Ogier might approve of the deliberation. Sorrow tinged her words, yet the conversation Nythadri had overheard made it clear she had not known the man to whom the dagger had belonged. Discomfort for such raw emotion sensed in another warred with an edge of impatience to discover her punishment. The novices branded this one as soft-hearted as she was softly-spoken, but the leniency a sister might extend to them would likely differ from that given to a child they considered should know better, as the bands and ring attested.

“The sun is down,” she said after a moment more. Her head lifted to the pale marble of the buildings ahead, twisting and arching fearlessly into the night. She never met Nythadri’s eye, caught quite thoroughly in whatever currents swept her sad thoughts. She cradled her bundle with a touch of reverence as she stood. “An Accepted would not stray from her bed at such an hour, I think, and certainly not tonight. I’m quite sure I did not see you, child, but to be sure I will expect to see you tomorrow. I would welcome a sister’s company for the heavy task ahead.”

Nythadri’s expression betrayed little as she was left to her own company. A shiver burrowed, goosing the flesh of her arms with something not quite understood.

[[FYI this past life thread skips ahead of the currently posted timeline; it's after Nythadri goes back to the Kojima bank a second time and meets Andru, which hasn't been posted yet. That's about the last part before the old site died though. I'm rereading the books and feel like writing something in Randland.

Some context: Elly and Mal are both old characters of mine. Malaika is self-explanatory: a Seanchan Brown Aes Sedai. Eleanore was a character I inherited from another writer; she is a Blight-veteran who accompanied a Brown from the Blight (Razmira) expecting to be bonded, but was rejected. She has Malkieri blood on her mother's side, but was raised in Kandor. I can't find her bio, but that part is relevant to why she was able to recognise the origins of the dagger.]]
Gaiety swept the sitting room awash with voices and laughter oft as raucous as a tavern’s common room -- such a vast juxtaposition to the solemn oaths sworn this morning that even Nythadri found a rare smirk softening her lips. Stubbornness had set her path long before desire, yet prior to Lythia’s offer she had never countenanced to find herself here. She kept the emotion quite still, but it touched somewhere deep; somewhere she was still surprised to believe roots might grow.

Her new sisters had been free with gifts and advice to welcome a new woman into their fold, and not without a sense of humour. If they expected her to blush upon the presentation of some of them they should be disappointed by the sly smirk they received instead. Or perhaps not, given the shameless gleam of amusement in some of those eyes.

But the Ajah’s welcome quietened by now, despite present appearances. Even Greens could not spare all day for celebration in these difficult times. Nythadri did not mind.

A green so deep as to touch turquoise smoothed her hips. The dress barely cupped her shoulders before sweeping beneath her collarbones, a darker brocade of curled vines and flowers hugging the bodice; one of three garments found hanging in the rooms she had been told now belonged to her. Luxury seemed a long distant companion, but she did not miss the shapeless white. Even so the ring rested on the finger it always had, catching soft in the light as she twitched the heavy drapes for a taste of freedom waiting beyond.
The years had stretched long. She had not lied to Jai about that.

Duty still waited patiently, of course, but even its looming promise could not dampen a lightness in her chest she tried desperately not to dwell on, lest it prove as fragile as she suspected. She thought about the Brown and her dagger, too, for distraction. It seemed stranger in daylight, igniting curiosity that had remained buried last night -- and even now she was not so sure the interest would not somehow burn her. But perhaps that discomfort stemmed only from the new tightness of her skin, like the oaths sucked everything close to the bone. Somewhat foolishly, she had already tried to test those new boundaries, but it had been both painful and futile. 

Soft laughter drew her pale gaze away, joined by a steering arm. Maylis smelled faintly of the meadowsweet she must use in her baths. Dark hair swept away from her face, held by carved combs in the shape of leopards. A thin white scar curved with the slope of her left cheekbone, bright against her deep olive complexion, but she wore it like a jewel. A few strands of silver grew where the old wound met her hairline. “Sit with me for a while, sister.”

The tea had long cooled, the remains of the food all but picked clean from the sturdy porcelain dishes. The Aes Sedai sat with her arm draped along the back of the stuffed couch, legs crossed beneath her skirts, lounging with all the predatory grace of the wild cats pinning back her curls. Her gaze swept the room as Nythadri joined her, not bothering to suppress the weighing measure of it. A low hum of somewhat dry amusement escaped Nythadri’s throat, but she indulged what she expected was coming.

Several Aes Sedai had shrugged off any attempt at subtly to point out to her those unbonded, listing talents and flaws as they saw them, but no one had yet spoken of the tall Kandori woman who moved among them. Nythadri had recognised her amongst those gathered; a selection that had inevitably included those who used the warder’s training fields but were not students. Today her blouse was soft mauve and tailored to exhibit a woman’s form beneath a coat that flared over her hips, though her manner with those around her lacked obvious flirtation. Rather she looked at ease among compatriots. 

She might no longer be Accepted, but Malaika had no need of assurances that Nythadri would attend her as instructed, in gratitude of her silence if nothing else. Yet somehow Nythadri doubted the Brown had thought to send her.

“The Borderland woman. Do you know who she is?”

Maylis’s head tilted. If she were intrigued or surprised by the question, she did not show it. Female warders were still not so common, but they existed amongst the Greens more than anywhere else. “Eleanore Candevin Aramorgran. She escorted a Brown Sister whilst the woman ambled around recording flora in the Blight -- the Light only knows what she was thinking, with no gaidin to see her safely. Worse, Razmira has no thought for the grave insult of letting that one go the moment her feet touched Tower soil. Browns, for you.” Her hands gesticulated lazily as she spoke. It clicked the puzzle of Malaika’s apology, as well as the root of such an unusual association; the question she had truly been curious of, but Maylis continued on. “She set her sights on Milene Auri next.” The Aes Sedai clicked her tongue in irritation. “Foolish to contemplate a Sister who married her Warder, only then to wonder at her burnt fingers. Foolish too not to realise a sister does the choosing and not the other way around. Now she swears a need to return north and for home. A vital waste.”

Nythadri listened quietly, content to let the other do the talking. If Eleanore noticed or minded their study of her, she did not show it, though she must have felt the crawl of eyes. Maylis was not circumspect, even if her gaze was a warm one.

Something still tickled though; something she could not quite put her finger to, but felt like a growing knot in her stomach. Those from the Borderlands numbered high among Tower numbers, and it was unlikely Malaika did not have an Ajah sister she could have taken the dagger to, if she suspected that to be where it had come from.

“She appears to wear a hadori.”

“A claimed bloodline somewhere on her mother’s side, I believe. She does not seem to care that it is a male custom or that Malkier was a grave long before she was born.” Maylis tilted her shoulder in some sort of shrug, a southerner herself, but it was Nythadri she turned to watch now. Amusement danced, not unkindly. “You surprise me. I had wagered you would have set your sights elsewhere. A foolish notion, of course. Asha’man make poor Warders. Even Lia saw the truth of that when she finally bonded Tess. Our brothers are essential, of course, but not for that...”

The rooms were probably grander than those in which she had spent her childhood, or maybe her memories had been washed clean by the simplicity of years calling the Tower home. She noticed little of it, and probably appreciated it less than she should. The privacy, though; that she craved acutely as the ornate doors clicked shut and she stood for a moment’s breath in the anterooms. Her fingers worked through her dark tresses, easing the gnaw of a headache born of last night’s sleepless vigil. Afterwards Nythadri stared a moment at her hands; at the serpent ring and the embroidered cuffs of her sleeves. She had never doubted her dedication, even before it was what she wanted. Had never doubted this day would arrive. But it felt unreal. And came at what cost?

It felt like a betrayal, that was it. She was dismayed to realise her hands were trembling before she balled them. The weight of the reaction was perhaps delayed, but it was crushing. Memories that felt real, even though she assured herself they were confined to the ter’angreal. Maylis spoke gently against the bonding of an Asha’man, but Nythadri did not need the preaching, if not necessarily for the reasons the sister believed. She had seen Jai die. In a test or a false world or a dream, but she had seen it, and it had been as real as the heart pounding pain in her chest. To ever have to feel it too. That would assuredly break her.


It was unlikely to ever come up between them, given the paths they strode. A small blessing. But the knife-edge the damned man walked remained, as it always would. She had accepted that when he had been little more than a pleasant distraction in an ocean away from duty; an easy thing to dismiss, then. But she had accepted it still when she’d gathered him close and thanked the Creator the Black Tower had not yet broken him.

And she would accept it again, when the memory of the screaming faded.

Her palms brushed her cheeks, vaguely surprised to find them come away damp. But control returned now, soothing the lapse. In this world, Jai was not dead. In this world, she would not allow it to happen.

She doubted he kept tabs on the Tower, or on her. Even if he did, it would take time for him to discover she had been raised to the shawl, and maybe he would not come even if the news came directly from her; she knew his feelings on Aes Sedai. The desperate desire to see him safe and whole warred with the need to keep a distance, at least until the wound began to heal and she might look at him without remembering. The Arches faded, in time. This would too.

Her footsteps echoed on polished wooden floors. She would take a moment to collect herself, and then she would seek out the Brown as promised. Somehow it did not surprise her for her first act as Aes Sedai to be serving a penance, the thought prompting a dry smile as she pushed through the door into the sitting room.

And found herself filled with saidar.

A woman perched on one of the chairs. Hair as fiery as an Aiel’s hung sleek and motionless to her shoulders, and a smattering of freckles brushed her nose and cheeks. Talin had never really committed to revealing her country of birth, and Nythadri had never seen reason to pry, though she had her suspicions. The woman dressed in sky-blue silks today, studded at bust and hem with buds and blooms of bright yellow flowers, a girlish embellishment to her severe expression.

“Blood and bloody ashes, Talin!” Nythadri dropped hold on the Power, relief and annoyance battling in equal waves. She did not smooth the irritation from her expression. This suite felt like it belonged to a stranger still, but it did not gratify her to find someone within it, uninvited. 

“Congratulations, sister.” A queer smile lifted her lips. She did not comment on the foul language, though her brow flickered. Talin had had few friends amongst the Accepted, and Nythadri would have named their own relationship a friendship of convenience -- and expected Talin to view it the same. Few had dared practise the hundred weaves with this one, with good reason, but Nythadri had tolerated the more cruelly minded of her inclinations in order to learn quickly. Sometimes they had studied together beyond that, but she had not expected to find the woman here, nor for their association to transcend their once shared goal for the shawl -- let alone the chasm of their Ajahs, now. Talin had chosen Yellow, some months before.

Ignoring the other woman, Nythadri sank into the cushions of another chair. She’d not suffer airs and graces for a woman she’d scrubbed pots with. Fortunately Talin did not enjoy small talk any more than she did, so she did not imagine this anything close to a simple social call, no matter the first congratulatory words from her mouth. She slid the slippers from her feet and tucked them under her, pale gaze patient, knowing the ease of her manner would probably irritate. She felt Talin calculating the situation, but did not mind herself with it. “I’d offer you tea, but I’ve had more than my fill for one day, and I doubt you care for the nicety either.” She rested her head on her fist and felt her muscles ease. A small smirk softened the otherwise sharp words. “Although I must say, it’s pleasant to see a familiar face. Even if it’s yours.”

Talin’s eyes rolled and an absent gesture with her fingers brushed the words away. Her back remained rigid; she sat like a small bird in a tree, with her hands resting soft in her lap and her bright gaze intent. “You took your time, you know. With your strength it should have taken half the years it has. Such a gift to squander. You ought to grow better at breaking the rules and getting away with it, Nythadri.”

She did not stop the genuine laugh as it spilled, glad for the release. Talin would deny the words for banter, and maybe she truly did mean them as an insult, but Nythadri had always appreciated that shocking candor. “Light, Talin, I think I missed you.”

Her head tilted like maybe she accepted a compliment, or simply because she did not always understand Nythadri’s reactions. “Still, I am glad. Truly. Late is better than never.” She smoothed the fabric over her thighs, lips pursed. It reminded Nythadri of something Lythia had said, about earning the shawl before the Last Battle grasped the world by the throat, and it sobered her somewhat as she watched Talin glance briefly at the room around them. Nythadri had had no hand in its decor, of course, but it was ostentatiously Green. Talin’s distaste brushed against the weapons mounted on the walls. She sighed.

“The Dragon breaks the world, if he does so slowly. Our world will change, sooner or later. I mean to survive it, of course. Don’t we all.” Her gaze moved away from the crossed swords above a mantel. Her tone was casual, as though she spoke of no more than surviving a particularly nasty storm. Nythadri let her talk. Talin would come to the point sooner or later, and Nythadri was content to let her do so in the manner she wished. “The Tower clings to old ways, old traditions, old thinking. None of these things will allow it to survive, yet it will not countenance the new.”

“You’re not in trouble?” Nythadri interrupted suddenly, the hint of a small frown creasing her brow. Talin followed laws to the very letter, and had rarely been punished for insubordination the entire time they had trained together, but Nythadri suspected she needed them laid bare in black and white. The woman's internal compass did not fare so well when left to spin its own direction. 

Though, light, what did she intend to do about it if so? She needed less bloody trouble not more.

“Of course not.” Talin sounded surprised, perhaps a little offended. A brow rose. “I just mean that I think it important for youth such as us to stick together. We are not impeded by the same… prejudices. We see some things the same, you and I. I value that.” There was earnestness in her expression, but little of true emotion. She let the words soak, then stood smoothly, like an accord had been met. Nythadri did not rise, but her head tilted in silent contemplation. After a moment she nodded, unsure to what she agreed, but certain she preferred Talin for an ally. The woman smiled, a small flicker of her lips. Little touched her eyes, it never did, but she seemed satisfied. “If an opportunity arose, I think you would see it the same way as I, and would act accordingly. I shall see myself out, sister.”
The Brown was not to be found in her own rooms, which meant a search through the arching halls of the library before Nythadri found the particular study space she had ensconced herself in. Books and scrolls lay jumbled across the wide mahogany table, probably meant to provide ample space for several students. It looked surprisingly chaotic for the small, unassuming woman orchestrating it. Black hair cascaded straight as a knife-point, revealing only a sliver of her pale, bowed face, and that deepened in thought. She did not stir.

“Aes Sedai.” Unnecessarily formal, but she supposed there were no precepts for the particular situation. Public ones anyway. Pale eyes absorbed a little of what captured Malaika's attention, coming to rest naturally on the neat bundle of cloth she had seen the previous night. It was set a little aside from the research. She knew a blade rested within.

“These books are filled with the deeds of great men,” Malaika said without looking up. “The rest of us fall on the gentle slopes of time. Our tragedies and loves and losses; our victories and our sacrifices, they decay with every generation.” She leaned to close the book splayed in front of her reverently. No jewellery adorned her fingers but for the ring, but Nythadri noticed her palm cupped upwards, like perhaps the hand lacked full function. Afterwards Malaika’s thumb traced that palm like she massaged away pain, and for a moment her expression turned further inward.

Nythadri waited patiently, face smooth. No context illuminated the words beyond the acute melancholy of her tone, and perhaps the woman was still half-talking to herself, but she supposed the point of penance was not to be a pleasant distraction. So she folded her hands in front of those deep turquoise skirts, fingers interlaced, and tried not to appear bitter at her own stupidity whilst the Brown made her slow, plodding journey to the point. Ironic that she pointed out the slow decay of time.

You ought to be grateful she didn’t haul you to the Mistress of Novices last night.

Another book opened. It looked like a scrawled roster of names, ink faded. Nythadri watched the sister dutifully ignoring her. It might have felt like a slight from another woman, but the Brown seemed too soft for such calculation. “Of course, a woman of the Tower once cast to the wind is never truly free of us. Even after her death. What must it take for a man to leave the border and his duty there in order to seek peace? And Malkier to fall after that. Love, I suppose.”

Nythadri’s body flushed cold, though she could not immediately say why. Talk of Malkier made sense, given the Kandori’s claim to heritage and their overheard conversation, but that was not the source of her unease. Boredom honed to something sharper as she looked again to the covered dagger. Suicide. They had been talking about suicide. Her fingers tightened imperceptibly, a nail driving hard into her palm. Her tongue remained still, though. The ice of her gaze was on the cusp of demanding answers, but she was not sure she wanted to hear them.

“I will never know why he threw himself into the river. I feared those same paths once, and I wish--” The Brown drew silent, and a muscle flexed in her jaw, like maybe she had said too much. “Now that I have found them, his family should know,” she finished instead. Her eyes and attention turned upwards to where Nythadri stood. She was utterly still -- too still, really, had the other woman known her better. Thoughts raced inwards. Her heart flinched away from a sudden conclusion, the puzzle pieces clicking like the sick snap of bone. Malaika did not pause. “You’ve long years ahead of you, Light willing. And it is easy to forget the ordinary lives around us, as important and precious as any great deeds in a book. That is the lesson I wish to teach, sister.” She stood, her gaze drifting away again, like she truly preferred not to meet the eye. It wasn’t deference, nor hesitancy, but it was strange nonetheless. 

“Kojima,” she said quietly. “Which brother was it?”

Brief surprise flitted across the Aes Sedai’s face. Her fingers touched idly at the smokey quartz hung low against her chest, her brow knit softly. “You know the name.” The slur of her voice almost held a question. Was there a rattle of accusation too? Like Nythadri had somehow knowingly withheld answers? Or was that a fresh bite of guilt? It couldn’t be Jai, not if the Aes Sedai spoke of ordinary lives, but the fear still clawed desperately anyhow. Will the woman just answer!

“His name was Andreu.”

It was a horror to first feel relief; cruel and utterly selfish not to mourn, knowing the wound inflicted by the loss of a brother. Her eyes closed, briefly, lured by the Brown’s apparent inattention to her expression. But her chest still pounded. If she accompanied Malaika to the Kojimas, Zakar would think she had reneged on her promise to ignore his affairs. And carrying dark news such as this, he might even suspect a threat. Sick secrets reared like rousing beasts. The protections Jai bled to heave in place would crumble under only a little pressure, and bury him for the effort. “I have had some unfortunate dealings,” she said, aware of the tight bonds around her from oaths so newly scored on her bones. Though none of it even approached a lie. “But I fear it would not gladden them to see my face if you mean to bring them peace.”

And if Malaika insisted? Her skin prickled, not for the thought of punishment -- she’d haul herself to the Mistress of Novices’ office if it dug out the hook -- but for how quickly this might now unravel. Outright refusal would seem suspicious, and she could no more afford the Tower’s questioning eye than she could Zakar’s. He would not take the fall for embezzlement, and Jai already set up the noose for himself to keep Andreu quiet. Lythia spoke of his punishment last time, but there would be no second beating, no second sword to melt.

Light, Andreu killed himself? 

Sudden guilt sparked low in her gut, remembering the horror in his expression, like a man on the cliff-edge. Had she been the one to rip that final finger clear?

Then a final thought to join such miserable parade: 

Did Jai know?

No, he couldn’t yet, not if Malaika witnessed the act and had not yet relayed the news. Andreu’s disappearance might not even have been noted by his family as unusual, given the things Jai had said about him. Months of silence, and this the thing to push her hand. He had promised her anything and she delivered him a dead brother for his troubles. No forgiveness waited for that. It couldn’t. But it wasn’t like she’d ever shied away from the things that hurt most, and she couldn’t allow Malaika to deliver the news to him.That accent would betray her past if her mannerisms didn’t. The confrontation of one ghost was enough; she could spare him the second, at least.

“There are things you are not saying. I hear them in your voice.” The sister was looking at the dagger now herself, but the observation burrowed something of a shiver anyway. The woman must have lived years too afraid to look another in the eye; Nythadri should have anticipated that such an unusual nuance to her demeanor, one not scoured away with training, would be a strength rather than a weakness. She was Aes Sedai after all. 

Truthfully she had thought her voice as modulated as her composure, and so it cut, that unexpected exposure. For a moment she did not answer. Jai’s family history lay sprawled across the table; the lines of blood and honour he fought to conceal and protect as much as he deemed himself unworthy to the claim. She could not afford for a spark of curiosity to ignite and find the fresher ashes of recently buried secrets, but she could not lie either. Even had she wanted to. She tried not to shift against the tightness in her skin, like even the thought threatened to shrivel it from her bones. “Yes, sister,” she said eventually. The word was soft. It was the first time she had used it. “There are things I am not saying.” 

If she anticipated further questions she was wrong on that count too. Maybe it was the shawl offering a greater pillar of trust, or perhaps Malaika was unusual in her regard. Light send it was not that she detected anything else Nythadri's voice.

The Brown nodded slowly. "Then I must take my leave." She retrieved the knife in its wrappings, her expression somewhat pained, as though the weight of it burdened her. Perhaps it did. "You will not mind putting these away."

If there was any calculation to her Nythadri did not see it, but she'd be foolish to assume this was an end. Fate was a Brown. So was Liridia. As the Aes Sedai left, Nythadri's gaze fell to the desk. She closed her eyes.

A morning spent at a writing desk had never been much envisioned as part of her life as finally being Aes Sedai, though it was not like she could delegate the task to another, or would choose to. She had started letters before, picking over words that always felt lifeless on the page, wondering somewhat cynically if despite everything he might have chosen to forget her once he returned to Arad Doman. Memories of how thoroughly she had believed in Farune's loyalty after she left for the Tower always stung, even though they were different men. Writing this was worse though. Such news should not be entrusted to something so impersonal.

It was sealed and sent now, and might take weeks to arrive. Jai had joked about stray mail but she was not sure the news should come through Daryen either. The chances were she would never know if he received it or how he took it; she doubted he would return to the city, not now.

As such, Talin’s timely distraction had been appreciated when she appeared at Nythadri’s door, but now the gratitude had worn off. Hay and manure and horseflesh choked her nose with disgust. The horse in front of her was small, a black so deep she appeared like velvet. She made a soft whicker as she poked her arched neck over the stable door, curious and sweet and utterly terrifying. Talin ran a hand down her nose with an unusually gentle smile.

“She’s a gift, upon your raising,” the other woman said as the creature snuffed at her fingers and blinked its stupid eyes. Her gown today was lilac woven through with blue roses, cut close about her legs in a way Nythadri was not entirely convinced was decent. Not skirts for riding. Small mercy.

“You know I don’t like horses, Talin.”

There was a sharper smile playing on the edges of the Yellow’s lips, amused no doubt, but she ignored the protest entirely. The flowers woven into her red hair made look far too innocent. “Her name is Dove. Well, Dovienya actually, but it's such an uncomfortable mouthful."

Nisele had looked much the same way on presentation of that red, and Nythadri’s arms folded. She was a passable rider, when need dictated -- which she usually ensured it did not. Their friendship buried few secrets between them, they had never been close, but Talin knew that much of her damn fears courtesy of their practise of the hundred weaves. But it seemed expansive for the sort of cruel joke Nythadri might have expected of her, and little Talin ever did was without reason. And gain.

Suspicion roused, but it was somewhere distant, eclipsed by more pressing concerns. She had not heard from Malaika; did not know how the Kojimas had reacted, or whether the Aes Sedai found cause to press deeper into the odd situation she had stumbled.

It might not have made a difference, but Light in hindsight she wished she had thought to ask the obvious question, when Talin leaned into the mare, still smiling that queer little satisfied smile, and said: "Make good friends, Nythadri. We will need her.”
The days began to blend.

No further word came from the Brown halls, and Nythadri would not chance approaching Malaika directly. It would seem a suspicious interest at best, else might only serve to remind her of an anomaly already forgotten. The matter would have to rest in the uneasy bed she had made it, and light send it stayed there. Still, it itched at her sometimes, the worry that all her secrets might be scoured bare without her knowledge; that slow gears began to turn inexorably towards the court of judgement.

She spared time to visit the city, but the Asha’man Araya was no longer in Tar Valon. Hana welcomed her nonetheless, serving hot tea and cinnamon glazed oat-cakes on the scarred kitchen table. Little changed in her stern manner at hosting an Aes Sedai when last an Accepted knocked on her door, and she did not ask about Jai. By the hearth Korene stretched out on jewel-toned cushions embroidered in a garish clash of colours, head buried in a book. A small brown puppy that had not been here the last time gnawed at one of the braided tassels.

She left feeling troubled, though she could not say why.

A dreary afternoon reflected her mood. Back at the Tower she half-watched a dozen trainees dancing with wooden blades under the supervision of a red-haired gaidin with gold discs for eyes, absently twisting the serpent ring around her finger. A brisk wind tugged the wool cloak about her shoulders, the silver-threaded waves sewn at its hem flapping like the sea against shore. She didn’t bother to pull it close. One of the gaidin hooked a foot on the fence beside her, forearms resting on the top rung, nimble fingers laced loosely together. Kabryn Asoor was barely taller than she, wiry and tough as old leather. Black curls coiled close to his skull, flecked with white, and a hairless scar dissected one cheek of his thick beard.

“Doesn’t do much for the soul to watch an Aes Sedai ragged around like a kitten by a mastiff.”

“That’s what you presume I was thinking?” she asked dryly, pale eyes meeting his. She already knew the mirth she would find there, and was not disappointed by the white slash of his smile. None softened her own features, but it was part of the game they played when he found her here -- shirking duties, as she usually called it, because it needled him to do so.

“Ah, I would not dare presume, Aes Sedai.” He laughed. “But you stare so intently I wondered if you were waiting for an invitation.”

This time she did smirk.

They spoke for a while, of careless things and not. He was one of Maylis’s, and free enough with his tongue in the company of his Aes Sedai’s Ajah sister -- at least to the tune she suspected Maylis wished her to dance. The woman herself had extended a motherly wing in the days since Nythadri’s raising; surprising given her somewhat fearsome exterior, until one realised she was as a lioness to cubs. Some of the younger Greens spared amused glances for the blithe way Nythadri accepted the association. But Maylis was Altaran, one born and raised long before the Seanchan occupation of her city, and her fierce nature never forgave it; she still kept an ear to such currents. Parsed amongst the other pieces of worldly gossip Kabryn had to share was the rumour of skirmishes despite Arad Doman’s recent treaty, little more than shadowy hearsay -- and unclear upon which shore they might pester. Still, that news troubled her.

He bowed before he left, still with that grinning glint in his eye, and mentioned in passing that perhaps she would drop in on Maylis this evening. The ulterior motive to his pleasant conversation she supposed. Nythadri glanced up at the sky, and decided to seek shelter. The thump and slap of wood on flesh faded behind.

She was on the paths of the grounds when someone came up beside her. 

Talin’s grip pinched unexpected on her arm, sparking irritation. Except Nythadri had never seen anything approaching the expression she wore now, colour drained, jaw tight. “Please trust me,” she said, tugging Nythadri into step alongside. “Just walk.” Inky hair brushed Nythadri’s shoulders as she twisted to seek the cause of the alarm, but nothing appeared amiss. Her heels dragged slower, a frown pursing her lips for the claws of urgency. The grounds were quiet, probably because of the bleak weather. Around them the air swelled with the distant promise of rain, robbing the day’s last hours of sunlight early. A few white-robed girls scurried along paths in the distance, clutching pale cloaks about their shoulders. The only person closer was a woman on one of the benches, elbows braced on her wide-set knees as she tamped tobac in pipe with more vicious effort than it really needed.

“For Light’s sake tell me what’s wrong.” Her heels dug fully now, though she could not quite reclaim possession of her arm. Talin’s stare burned. She seemed to take the lack of blind trust as a betrayal. A breath parted her lips.

“Is everything okay, Aes Sedai?” Nythadri glanced over with little more than a glare for the question. Eleanore Aramorgran’s gaze bounced between the two of them with a frown. The affability of her easy smiles in the Green halls seemed a distant dream, perhaps for the reasons Maylis had intimated, though if the woman wanted to brood and smoke in the rain rather than face whatever bothered her, it was nothing to Nythadri. Talin murmured a curse at the intrusion rather than whatever she had been about to say, or maybe at Nythadri’s recalcitrance. 

Somewhere distant, a bell tolled.

Was it already so late? She half turned to stare at the Tower, until Talin’s wild embrace of the source stole her attention. A hole sparked in the air ahead, burning its way larger, but too slowly -- hardly big enough for one let alone two. Surprise barely registered as Talin’s nails drove deep, dragging her a few stumbling steps forward. It was never going to be big enough for the both of them. Light. She reached for saidar, drawing the flows desperately to widen it as Talin yanked to plunge them through. Everything shivered. She felt more than saw Eleanore dive after them, and wrenched the threads frantically to jam it open before it slit the Kandori clean in two. Resistance met the effort. 

Her steps hit softer earth as the Yellow sister’s grip released. The gate shuddered like a stick clamped in the jaws of a beast before the whole thing crushed to nothing, and behind them the Tower winked away, replaced by a sea of endless grass. Grey skies still banked above. The other woman stumbled a few steps before she caught her balance and twisted. Red hair arrowed either side of her face, blue eyes momentarily wide.  

“Light, what are you doing? You nearly--” A hand jerked Nythadri backwards none too gently. Eleanore Aramorgran, clearly in one piece, inserted herself to the fore, one calloused hand pressed to her hilt. Nythadri might have rolled her eyes, but ahead a man stood with three sets of reins tethered in one hand, and half an inch of steel bared in the other. The sides of his head were shaved, a dark braid following the slope of his skull to hang down his back. She blinked. One of the horses was black as a raven’s wing, soft enough to look velvet even in the growing gloom. The mare tossed her head, pawing at the ground, and recognition flushed Nythadri cold.

Dovienya. Luck., in the old tongue.

‘Make good friends, Nythadri. We will need her.’

“Blood and ashes, what have you done, Talin?” The words were not much more than a grimaced whisper. She tried to start forwards, but a well placed shoulder kept her behind. Irritation surged. The man with the horses shifted, almost casual but for the deadly way he did it. Dark eyes glared like shiny riverbed stones. And Talin did nothing to bloody stop it. The Yellow’s expression was tight, her mouth a thin line. Cool eyes appraised the tall woman like the sprout of a weed in a well tended rose garden. She did not even look at the lean warrior behind her.

“I should have counted on your ability for complication, Nythadri. All you had to do was walk.” A little frustration nipped at her demeanour, but it faded quickly. Composure recloaked her now, though behind that tight gaze calculation whirred. A nimbus of light still enshrined her. Calmly she smoothed her skirts, a slash of red and orange, like fire.

“We’ve only supplies for three,” the man interjected. His gravelly voice had the bite of the north, though Nythadri could not discern where. That narrow braid might have been a topknot once, though.

“I can’t send her back now, Kaori,” Talin said. She did not look behind her, but Nythadri saw the man nod. Eleanore stiffened, and understanding prickled Nythadri’s skin with surprise. Talin had tried to close the gate on the Kandori woman, and she probably thought no more of it than the most succinct way to eradicate the first seeds of a problem. But why?

“Put your bloody weapons away, the both of you.” The words came out firm, but something wary circled within as the precariousness of the situation began to settle. Even without all the necessary pieces. Can’t send her back? Light, Talin, what’s going on? Her mind raced, not yet seeking answers, but for leverage to dispel the looming threat -- and perhaps wrestle some sense of control. The man paid less heed to her order than he did the horses whickering restless at his side. If that deadly grace uncoiled, Nythadri could not aid a defence. Not unless he threatened her too, and one of those horses had clearly been brought here for her.

She pinned her glare on Talin, waiting for her support, but she did not instruct them to stand down; she only stared, thinking quietly.

Her attention finally turned to Nythadri like an afterthought. “I will explain what I can when I may. But we must settle this first.” She took a small step forward. For half a second Nythadri thought the man’s sword would prize free of its scabbard, but only his expression darkened. It was to Eleanore she addressed herself, cold, as though she studied an insect under glass before deciding how to pluck out its wings. She stood almost of a height with the tall woman, though was thin as a willow reed in comparison. “Foolish woman. But it’s done now, and I’d prefer not to begin in bloodshed.” Those vivid blue eyes slid to Nythadri then, unashamedly pointed. Accusation? Or the weight of responsibility bestowed. Given what she said next, it was possible the damned woman even thought she was doing a favour. Nythadri watched, blank-faced, as Talin raised out a palm, gesturing to her, though it was still to the Kandori she spoke. “If you will agree to make your oaths to her, and she to take them. You are tied to us now. You were tied to us the moment you stepped through that gate.”

“Oaths?” Nythadri repeated, tone as dry as scorched wind. For a moment it seemed a rather cruel jest, but nothing twitched in Talin’s expression. She was talking about bonding. “You cannot ask her to do that.”

“We cannot take the risk of her without it, Nythadri,” she snapped. “I cannot dot it. You’re Green. Surely it will be as effortless as taking a bloody bath. It is your fault she’s here.”

Fault? We? Risk? It took much to truly earn Nythadri’s ire, but she could feel it storming up in her, jerking her as viscerally as Imaad’s threats in Arad Doman. The woman practically hauled her through the damn gate, to the Light only knew where, and with less warning or explanation than one might give a dog. She did not take the manipulation well, and for a moment it clouded any sensible thoughts in her skull. She bristled like chips of ice dug her skin. Light but the woman had tried to shut the gate right on a living person! And now she blames me for it!

Eleanore shifted imperceptibly. “What have you flaming well gotten me into, baby Aes Sedai?” she muttered, low under her breath. She stood almost a head taller, but did not deign to look down. Her short dark hair fanned around her face, hiding all but a sliver of her expression, and that grim to behold. She stood overbearingly close; close enough that she smelled like rosewater, tartened by sweat from the fields. Nythadri’s eyes narrowed.

Baby--?” she hissed, momentarily distracted, but cut the spite from her tongue abruptly -- if the resultant silence still glowered cold. She yanked the chains around her temper; she could not afford the blindness of emotion. No one asked you to follow.

Her eyes pressed closed for a moment. She did not know where they were. Perhaps she might fashion a gate of her own -- she’d seen some of how it was done in the rush through it. Would Talin try to stop her though? She’d never had cause to mistrust the woman, but she’d never acted so strangely either. Though if there was anything Nythadri could trust, and trust unquestioningly, it was to her ruthlessness in pursuit of her goals; the woman had never baulked from the most sadistic extremes during their practises. The Healing was an afterthought.

Yes, she would try to stop another gate.

“We cannot tarry here long. I cannot send her back, yet she cannot continue with us if I cannot trust her.” The words were measured and even. Certain. Nythadri knew Talin well enough to know the threat was utterly bald. She cannot harm us. With the True Source at least. And only if her oaths held (Light, did you really just think that?). Nythadri glanced towards the man, Talin’s Warder presumably, though such had never been mentioned before, and Nythadri could not recall his face as familiar.

She’d told Jai once that trust either was or it wasn’t; that sometimes it had not more substance to it than a feeling in the gut. Nothing like that lit her path now. She should have paid more attention to that first visit; to the curl and hook of the woman’s words. Talin had spoken of the future. She’d spoken of the Tower’s faults, perhaps a hair’s breadth from treason, knowing the irreverent company with which she shared the thoughts. Nythadri was not exactly a paragon of virtue.

Her ignorance snared her. Light but her pulse was racing. She could not leave until she knew what Talin had done that she would consider murder to protect. She could not leave until she knew the Yellow walked in the Light.

A small smile twitched Talin’s lips. The hint of victory. The bloody woman knows me too well.

“She means no harm to me,” she said eventually, folding her hand against the crook of Eleanore’s arm. She could not have said that if she did not believe it true, but the muscles beneath were corded as iron, uncompromising to the touch. Nythadri felt some discomfort for the cage Talin tied so neatly, and for her own powerlessness at its centre, but it was worse that the solicitation felt disingenuous. Poor foundations for such a binding tie, but better than the death Talin so obliquely promised in its stead. Some friend you are, Talin. 

“She means no harm to you,” Eleanore repeated acidly, finally breaking her hard stare from Talin’s Warder to glance roughly over her shoulder. Her voice was deep and strong, but there was an awful lot of mocking in her tone for one who called the Borderlands home. “So why did she flaming well drag you through that gate?”

Nythadri’s pale gaze stung an accusation on Talin’s smooth face. Nothing betrayed the tension of her now but the rise and fall of her chest. A fair question. But one with no forthcoming answers until she smoothed out this impasse. She was not sure she could get Eleanore away before the Warder reacted, and by the rigid muscle tight beneath her palm she did not think the woman would follow easily. It narrowed what remained of her options.

Her jaw twitched. “Will you consent to it or not? It’s what you came south for, isn’t it?” She snapped it, regretting the sharpness almost as soon as it cut from her tongue. It wasn’t often she found herself wrenched so far from control, nor so uncertain: forced into action not knowing which way the consequences would ripple. After a moment she lifted her hand, half flexed her fingers, then let the arm drop to her side. Talin watched blandly. Nothing had passed between them, but the Warder’s sword was fully covered now, if his hand had not strayed far. Eleanore’s grip finally loosened on her own. Wariness still lingered, though.

The woman looked tired now she really saw her; hollowed out, and somewhat bitter as she arrowed her attention down. Dark hair ghosted around her chin, and faint scars nicked at the strong beauty of her face, though she wore them like badges. A sullen set to her features held her lips sealed. Perhaps she regretted the instinct that forced action before thought. Maylis had said she planned to return to the Blight after her fingers burned on Razmira Sedai’s empty promises -- after being led by the nose all the way to Tar Valon, no less. If she did not want this; if she would not accept it, could Nythadri force it? It would save her life but at a cost that turned her stomach.

With one more glance at the other Aes Sedai, Nythadri drew on the power to ward the air around the two of them from listening ears. Challenge flared her expression -- Talin still held saidar herself -- but the woman only folded her arms and continued to watch. Her pale gaze returned to the Kandori, lips pursed in the enormity of the silence. She thought about honeyed words, but dismissed the manipulation like it were grave dirt on her soul. Her hand was forced, but it would not be forced to deceit. “I’m asking with as much grace as I can muster considering there is all but a blade held to your throat. I’m sure it’s not what you wanted, but for now it will protect us both.”

“For now,” Eleanore said, bitterly. A scathing bark of laughter issued, but it seemed to be only for herself; she swallowed it down, glancing frustration up at the billowing sky. Nythadri frowned. Rejection coated the words like a sour pill. The emotion was clear on her face, unbridled, and it finally reached somewhere that made Nythadri loose a sigh, at least partly in commiseration. Regrettably they did not have the time for respect of feeling. In the stead of more gentle introductions she had only stark honesty worth the offering, and hoped it would be enough. They could smooth the edges later. Light, they would have to.

“Talin has long been a friend, but I swear I know not why she brought me here. It seems neither of us currently has the option to leave. I could use your support, Eleanore, for as long as you will give it.”

The woman did not answer. If there were questions they were buried deep, and she must have them, even if her trust of Aes Sedai was ingrained as tightly as most who hailed from the Blight border. Nythadri supposed she ought to be thankful though, for as the weave dissipated from around them Talin’s patience seemed to be wearing thin. The Yellow was never flippant; if she was wary of wasting time, Nythadri hated to think why. Light, what did you do? Eleanore threw the Aes Sedai a tight glance too before she drew her sword in one smooth motion and thrust it point-down to the earth. No smile softened her features as she knelt. Hand on hilt. Hand on heart.

Above them the first spits of rain began to fall.