The First Age

Full Version: Dealing with Bankers
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It had snowed in the night. Even this early the main paths were clear, of course, but it clung to the architecture like the whole city had been dipped in ice. Early morning traffic threaded the same routes as she, and passers-by were polite to an Accepted of the Tower. Nythadri saw it all, but she paid little attention. She’d run through her schedule during a fleeting breakfast, calculated how much time she could feasibly spend in the city before she had to return to the Tower, and was dismayed. Not enough, was the answer, but it would have to do – because there was so much to see to.

She’d slept well, but only for the short time she had slept; not that any trace of fatigue dusted her countenance. Her skin was at its porcelain element in the soft blanket of winter, her eyes sharp and focused. Her hair was braided back neatly away from her face, the rest pooling glossy black waves in her hood, and her dress and cloak fell in simple clean lines, as unbroken and smooth as the snows. She was immaculate; purposefully so. It armoured her for what was to come.

The morning passed in a flurry of paperwork, inked signatures and formality. She impatiently refused refreshment, and sat stiff and regal on the edge of her chair. Her eyes bore holes as she watched the clerk scratch out the details on headed paper, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Her chest was tight, conflicted. Each thump was loud in her chest, surging hot blood through her veins. A call to arms; she felt it keenly. Because she knew she could let the bank sort the transfer of coin; they had her signature and would not wish her to be bothered by details and tasks they could perform on her behalf. If Jai wanted her removed from the situation, it was the most compliant action she could take to see his wishes met. To disappear without even crossing the Kojima’s door.

But for the defiant thrum of her pulse, she would have agreed to it without a second thought. The money was inconsequential; she did not care where it was housed, and regretted that it had caused so much bloody complication. The problem was one of impotence. The problem was one of pride. The problem was one of loyalty. He crossed the Tower, Jai. She wondered if it had dawned on him yet; the consequences of what he had told her and the predicament it held for her.

Soon it was done; another account opened, in a smaller establishment this time, though a holding account only. She was careful to explain that her father would be travelling to Tar Valon soon, whereupon he would arrange for the coin’s return to Andor. She neglected to mention that the letter explaining this to her father was still sitting in an envelope in the satchel perched neatly at her feet. For the inconvenience she offered generous recompense. They did not ask questions, and they offered to take care of the transfer for her.

After a beat, she refused.

When she reached the Kojima’s bank her chest was still burning with the vicious instinct that urged her to confront Zakar directly. Only she was not so sure, that in doing so, if she would be listening to the impulse that made her so adept at the Great Game, or something more primal, more reckless. What if Zakar refused her request? Could he refuse her? The sensible thing would be to proceed as quietly as possible; she did not need Zakar’s approval to withdraw the account, thus could do so without him knowing until too late. Light, she did not even need to be here in person; notaries had seen to the paperwork, had assured her the transfer would be seamless. She could still go back, let them deal with it. Her account would withdraw like a ghost, buried amongst the stacks of the bank’s other daily business. Only Zakar might note her name on the reports that passed his desk, but she would just be another of his brother’s whores; one who had apparently gotten what she wanted, or not, and had moved on. With any luck he would remove her name from his list in the same breath, and it would be over. Exactly as it should be.

But it didn’t sit easily.

Nythadri struggled with the powerlessness, with the injustice. She thought of a mother’s worry and an unfinished portrait, with no one to know the sacrifice Jai had made but her. A sacrifice he might not have had to make but for the fact she had taken the money to the Kojimas in the first place. She thought of a man who loved his family enough to be that sacrifice, to be it willingly for no other gain but peace – and even that a peace to be lived through others. She thought of the demons that chased his heels, the storms that darkened his face, the humanity he feared lost. And those thoughts pulled her across the threshold.

She knew exactly why she had come here; knew too that the flames she played with now might do more than simply scald her.

But Zakar would not walk away unscathed.

Her expression was free of the emotions that compelled her as she was greeted at the door; it was plainly neutral, without customary ice or unusual warmth – nor much of anything one would not expect upon the face of any Accepted of the White Tower. A different mask from the usual. Unremarkable. Pale eyes scanned the foyer but didn’t linger beyond a casually interested glance. The fire in her dimmed, temporarily satiated; if she was making a mistake, at least it was an intentional one. A necessary one. This was to be the simple part, anyway, getting the account withdrawn and transferred. Her gaze clapped back on the man who had greeted her; he asked what she required, if she had an appointment - she did not - and directed her to a seat where she might wait. Nythadri did as bid.
A private coach stopped before the steps of the building outside.  It was adorned in a simple color scheme with a coat of arms representing the Bank's sigil was painted on the doors and boot. Although the pair of horses pulling such a lavish expense were rented, the driver and footman were full time employees.  The latter sprung quickly from his seat and pulled out the steps by which the occupant inside might avoid the gutter of slush shoved along the curb.  The man in question did just that, though he leaped from the steps and nimbly avoided splashing muck upon his trousers.  He clapped the footman on the shoulder and explained his anticipation for a short working day, thusly expecting the reverse ride home in a few hours.  Hopefully in time for a warm afternoon brandy, a change of clothes, and arrive uptown for an Arts Endowment gala, at which the generous Kojima family was meant to contribute a healthy gift.  Which really was a healthy adventure. The arts were a heritage which ought to remain pristine in such dark days as these.

Andreu Kojima was the first stare of fashion and poise.  He flashed pearly smiles at those lucky enough to gain his attention.  He waved across the lobby floor to clerks and tellers whom sat a little straighter at their desks afterward, as though they'd been rewarded a handsome prize.  The air was a little sweeter with this man's presence, the chandelier sparkled a bit brighter, and the room exhaled a tense breath it hadn't known it'd been holding.  He was met by his own assistant on the far side of the lobby, another of similar demeanor and skill as the man which aided Zakar.  Though these two greeted one another as men long-parted.  There was clapping of shoulders, shaking of hands, and the inquiry of one another's loved ones.  These two were friends as sure as they were employees.  Though the jesting was kept at a minimum, the assistant complimented what was obviously a fresh haircut, debonair waves, and the close shave of a professional hand, but the evidence of recent fisticuffs was not overlooked.  Though it was taken lightly.  Andreu laughed and sent the man to fetch the messages and other work backlogged in the last month's absence.

If there was anything that drew his concern, it was not apparent.  At least, not until he had that brief moment of solitude when he was left to the company of his own turbid thoughts.  Like Zakar before him, he surveyed the room, idly twisting an emerald ring about one finger, until he used the excuse of doffing his outer coat to more closely memorize the stones about this lifesized gameboard he played.  

Most of the patrons in sight were representatives of various accounts.  The wealthiest of classes do not deign to visit such institutions but only in the rarest of circumstances.  There were business owners, accountants, investors and brokers.  The clerks swept from client to client efficiently.  Scribes drew up contracts.  A straight-laced notary moved from call to call.  Then there was the enchanting figure in white.  An angel in the storm.

He considered her.  Sitting there, elegant and poised as a dove.  As he bowed his head in reverent greeting, a demonic grin nearly touched his lips and the reborn Andreu fell behind the curtains of his private office moments later.  She'd won his attention, unsurprisingly, and perhaps, fatally.  Who can really be trusted?  Was his assistant the face of evil itself?  Biding his time until the quiet whisper in the dark foretold bloody end?  A city of stalkers and cut-throats clamboring for power, the glint of steel all within striking distance.  The corpses of their victims strung up for artistic display, much as did also the garland of a charming winter decor.  

In his absence from sight, messages and communications were carried.  Spiced wine was warmed and two chalices brought to his desk.  The very same clerk which bid the Accepted to wait returned to her, bearing news that their Operations Officer hoped to persuade her decision to leave.  Which required, of course, a conversation.  Invited to be shared over a glass of their best wine, shipped from the vineyards of Tear and aged to aromatic perfection.  Such was the scents of hospitality that greeted Nythadri upon arriving in Andreu's opulent office.  The decor was clad in dark paneling, and plush curtains let in a showbank of sparkling light.  His desk was as orderly as possible, but the long-term absence was apparent in the ledgers awaiting his attention, stacked in reverse chronological order on a sideboard.  

He stood when Nythadri entered, dry and unruffled by the morning's weather.  The whites of his eyes glistened with mirth, but they were all the whiter by the crimson of color bruising one.  Harsher and fiercer than the equivalent adorning his brother's eyesocket.  Jai suspected otherwise, but Dru had held back when he countered the Asha'man, fist for fist in the falling snow.  The danger driving, calculating every possible reason why a forged blade of the Dragon held himself back if he truly thought himself in danger.  Jai had to have known, on some level, just as Dru was likewise aware, of the sheer volume of insanity of which they faced.  Though where Jai foolishly repelled the demons, Andreu nestled happily in their midst.  He was as tall as his siblings, but Andreu was the middle born.  No dignified gray touched his hair, thank the Light, and he was graced with the good looks shared among the three, but the social rules which imprisoned Zakar, and Jai to some extent, were no bars for Andreu.  

He rounded the desk and greeted the Accepted hand to hand and offered her the aforementioned drink.
"Forgive the clutter of my office, good Lady," he began upon returning to his chair. "Nearly two-months of work has piled up with strange speed.  For which," he smiled fondly, gesturing around him, "I thank you most wholeheartedly for the excuse to procrastinate.  If you would do me the favor of a long and meaningful conversation, I might salvage the entire day and leave for tonight's Gala without having tarnished a single finger with ink."  He displayed his hands playfully, emerald ring glinting in the sunlight.  As described, no ink stained his nails.  A feat even Zakar could not claim, and Jai could care less about.  The scrapes and cuts on his hands were apparent though.  If the image of a trustworthy banker was at stake, Andreu was oblivious to its effect.

He swiped the second chalice, immediately placing the goblet to his lips amid a self-amused smile.  
"Now," he began after dabbing the moisture from his lips with a crimson pocket square.  "Which neck among my esteemed competitors should I have slit?  I assure you, whatever oath he swore for stealing your worthy business is empty as his soul." Andreu held Nythadri's gaze, tied down as inescapable as the men he left in the snow the night before.  But it broke soon, a hearty laugh replaced the tension of what was surely only jest.  Surely.  A charisma like Andreu could not have the menace to harm a single innocent creature.  Innocent being the integral denotation.

Chalice aside, he laced his fingers together and lounged into the tufted leather chair behind the sprawling desk.  Ready to talk brass-tacks, so to say.  
"Ten percent reduction in our fees, Accepted.  With your account--" he flipped her ledger open and turned to the first page.  Incidentally, it was the only page to have any records.  Her account had been open mere weeks, after all.  The date at the top, signatures, and initials which followed were obvious.  Zakar's approval scrawled the top right corner.  "--ten percent amounts to quite the sum."  He tapped the bottom line, indicating the current balance, one brow risen with expectation.
Andreu Kojima. If his unusual borderland height didn’t mark him out, the angry bruises did; though, truth told, she was surprised to see evidence of them still darkening his face. In the city of Aes Sedai, an individual with enough wealth or standing need not suffer the ill effects of an injury if they did not wish it. So was it pride, or something else? Because if the brand of a ruffian was detrimental to his reputation he gave no sign, even though it made him stick out like a wolf among sheep. Considering which, Nythadri supposed she should be doing her best to remain unnoticed, or at least be surreptitious in her observation of him. But she watched anyway; quite openly, if casually, as a he whorled into the bank with the effect of rain on wilting crops. When she had been here weeks past, men had pounced on Zakar, eager for the attentions of a busy man while they lasted. For Andreu, they shone.

He saw her, inevitably, and grinned with all the devilishness of a predator spotting prey before he retreated, giving her a brief moment to think; to consolidate what she saw with what she already knew. The Wheel Weaves, though sometimes it is given a nudge. Her earlier sweep of the foyer had not been for Zakar, after all; for though he might bear the brunt of her ire, she didn’t need to fabricate pretence in order to confront him. Zakar’s machinations caused a personal complication for her, but it was not fear of them that had driven Jai to her door last night. Andreu had done that.

She had promised to move the account. She hadn’t promised how.

Her father had always cursed her promises as false things, so easily subverted without her breaking a single word of whatever oath she had made. It was never a purposeful undermining; or at least, not purposefully disrespectful, but it had methodically eroded the trust in their relationship until little but silence remained. Jai had been relieved and grateful when she had submitted to his wish like all he'd ever had to do was ask nicely; had he known her better he might have been more cautious. She knew Jai intended her to stay away from Andreu; that moving the account was his method, not his purpose. He wanted to keep his family whole, but he also meant to keep her safe. She was appreciative of the care, but it was not his responsibility. If she understood his motive, she did not approve his methods. You don’t fool the hound by cutting off the scent. You fool the hound by giving it something else to chase.

Upon entering the office, Nythadri's gaze washed blandly over the décor; she was not much interested in how Andreu chose to adorn his walls, bar to note that it was ostentatious. A stack of ledgers marked a prolonged absence, which he took pains to point out to her; you want me to believe you ignorant? She smirked but shrugged the apology away; the apathy was genuine, and summed up her usual disregard for small talk and the sort of pleasantries that made an unnecessary event of courtesy. "If I do you the favour of a long and meaningful conversation, I might have a favour to ask in return." The White Tower was not known for its charity, though there was a playful edge to her tone. Difficult to tell whether she was only acknowledging the ring on her finger, or if she was serious. With the smirk still softening her lips, and a sharp glint in an otherwise lazy gaze, it might have been either. Or both.

Nythadri accepted the glass; she sat, and set it down in front of her. The satchel - which contained the transfer papers, among other things - she left by her feet, her legs crossed at the ankle, her hands clasped in her lap. However wayward her reputation in Caemlyn, and however much time she had spent debasing herself with low-born company in low-born establishments (as her father would have put it), nobility was in her blood. The regal nature of her posture was as effortless as breathing; honed by Tower training, perhaps, but more obviously innate than taught. Across the desk, Andreu flashed ink-free fingers and in the same gesture displayed bruised ones. She couldn’t be sure if he intended a subtext – perhaps he just meant to show off the emerald-set ring – but in that instant she saw one anyway; and it intrigued her. A few thoughts sparked in the back of her mind, but she left them there to burn slow and thoughtful. She had no need to be circumspect; his injuries gave her the perfect camouflage for scrutiny disguised as plain curiosity, and her gaze was unabashedly intense as a result.

He noticed of course, and he offered an explanation. She didn’t call the lie, though for a moment she was tempted; it was entirely the improper thing to do, and she was curious to see how a man steeped in conspiracy to his eyeballs would react. She didn't think she would much like the outcome, though. "Trampled children, huh? If only it had been kittens, perhaps I could have mustered the requisite admiration, sir hero. A shame." She spoke perfectly seriously; her favourite brand of sarcastic humour, and the one most people managed to misinterpret or miss entirely. She was not yet sure if the rakishness of him was as carefully constructed as the cordiality, but he displayed the duality quite masterfully either way. Bankers made an art of trust; the business was founded on its stones, and yet he teased a lie quite easily. Wore bruises like gold rings. Spoke of "work" like shackles to be shed in favour of frivolity. So though it shouldn’t have, the abrupt change in his manner caught her off guard.

She had no problem holding his gaze, though she imagined it was a look that had succeeded in crumbling many in the past. It was reminiscent of Jai, the quick plummet to sobriety edged with something utterly unacceptable in a social setting. In company of a stranger, no less. But it was hardly her custom to balk at a little lack of convention, which perhaps explained why behind the composure of her expression she looked subtly entertained. Though it was the irony that amused her more than the unsettling sincerity he waved off with a laugh; because it was not a competitor that had persuaded her to withdraw her account, but Jai. And whether Andreu would be so arbitrarily willing to slit his brother’s throat (literally or figuratively) was half the reason she was even here.

"Your oaths would be better?" Implicitly, the word of any bank was worth more than the word of its competitors when it came to winning business, and the Kojimas were among the most esteemed of their peers. The opulence of Andreu's office and the vintage of the wine spoke volumes of wealth through success, and only sturdy, trustworthy banks ever succeeded to such gratuitous comforts. A talent for money, for investment, for business; that was all necessary too. But reputation was paramount; lords would not pour their coin into the strongholds of men they did not trust. The Kojimas reputation spoke for itself, and her question was moot, yet it still touched quite keenly on a sense of doubt she should have no reason to express. She wanted to see if that would rankle, as it had Zakar.

He leaned back like the ebb and flow of tension was at his command. Nythadri watched him a moment longer before her gaze fell to the open ledger. "Hmm. I suppose." The words were casual and careless, but nothing about Nythadri presented as incidental. Not that her disinterest was feigned – the money was a bloody curse, every last coin of it – but it was a methodical choice to share such a sentiment. If Andreu were as astute as Jai had suggested, he would note it, and Nythadri was interested to see what he read from it. For the daughter of a wealthy lord, ignorant or simply unmoved by the value of money, it was not an unusual reaction. For the daughter of an impoverished House living on the charity of relatives, however, it was either a brave bluff or an anomaly. Though of course, she was neither; she was Accepted.

"Those are generous terms, but no. Thank you." She disregarded the fortune at her fingertips without blinking, declined his offer without even pausing to consider it, but she was still the picture of statuesque patience. Clearly she did not think the conversation over, but she said nothing else. Men with suspicious minds trusted more to information they thought they had uncovered than words offered freely. If Andreu thought there was a mystery here to pursue, he would dig for it. At least, she hoped he was direct enough to do so; she was not sure how well the directness she had used with Zakar would serve with his brother.
"Of course my oaths would be better," he spoke matter-of-factly, with that charming sort of confidence, leaning back comfortably and twining fingers together in his lap.  Open-expectation persisted, hovering on Andreu's expression while the gears turned in Nythadri's pretty little mind.  Not that Andreu was the kind of man to notice things like that.  Nythadri was far too young, and there was that nagging little problem of being insanely in love with his wife.  Which made it really hard to hire that guy to follow her.  But someone had to make the tough calls.

He was having trouble reading her though.  Rather odd, that.  Then, almost on cue, his eyes fell to the ring on her hand, darted to her sleeve, and lashed the world apart.  The rejection wasn't so terrible a thing.  It certainly happened in this business, but nobody dismissed this amount of coin.  Nythadri was no normal client.  She was of the White Tower.  She was civilized, educated; a Lady.    

He took a breath and restrained from jumping from the chair.  This was a nice coat after all.  

Andreu flipped the cover on the ledger and shoved it aside, contemplating a hundred explanations regarding how to reel in this fish.  He asked for the transfer papers.  Though really they were irrelevant, other than to note the various signatures on the parchment.  The quality of the ink used.  The slant to the writing.  Glance for water marks or other scratches of authenticity.  

Andreu stared for some moments, then carelessly tossed the papers aside, face drawn in thought.  "What happened?"  He asked, the taste of betrayal on his tongue.  "Two weeks?"  He smirked. "I've had longer relationships with dog-walkers."  The smirk transformed into something baser.  "And I don't have dogs."  
[[So... there was an ending to this, but it was lost when the original site died. It was all very witty and erudite, I assure you *wink* but the gist is that in order to get him off the scent Nythadri confirms Jai's story about the money laundering but suggests things aren't quite what they seem. At the end she tells Andreu that Jai loves him, but that he is a man of the Black Tower now and he should let him go. The accounts are moved no problem, but it's pretty clear from Andreu's internal monologue that he is left very unstable by the encounter. With Jai out of his life he feels he has no one left to trust. A month or so later, Andreu commits suicide, which is witnessed by Malaika. He hands her his dagger (the one Elly identifies) and then throws himself in the river. After Nythadri left the bank in this thread she went to find Araya at his house in Tar Valon. They talk for a while, much to Araya's puzzlement, and she asks him to look out for Jai. That more or less brings us up to the current threads, The Wheel Turns and Living the Dream.]]
[[Huh. So apparently I DID have more of this thread floating around on my laptop. Enough to cobble together the ending, and most of Nythadri's conversation with Araya. I'm just going to post it all in one. Andreu's part was written by @Jay Carpenter]]

Nythadri watched Andreu sort through the exchange, and wondered what conclusions he drew. She was quiet through his assessment of the paperwork, too. It was a thoughtful silence. Of course my oaths would be better. There was too much careless charm in his tone for her to believe him as much as she wanted to, and for once there was enough at stake to make her think twice before gambling. That, and his expression quickly drew in tight. Andreu embraced the darkness much more readily than Jai, and made no apology for it. It was a potential problem, but not one she had been unaware of before she came here. From what she had seen, none of these brothers seemed to have the greatest of restraint. Jai was hardly a bastion of control, though he worked hard to keep the mask in place, and even Zakar’s venom had seethed out viciously under a little provocation. So far Andreu held himself in check, but he wasn’t exactly subtle about it.

The veneer of businessman went somewhat out the window, and the tension left behind was palpable, although Nythadri was initially caught on a different realisation -- two weeks? That was all it had been? In other circumstances, in other company, she might have smirked at the insanity. Instead her gaze moved to the portrait behind Andreu; the proud hound. Operations Manager was such an empty title. By his own admission he’d had been absent for months, which suggested that - not only was he outside Zakar Kojima's inner circle - but that he wasn’t an integral wheel to Zakar’s well-oiled machine at all. He had his calling elsewhere, beyond Zakar’s machinations. He can sense a conspiracy in a snowstorm. For a drawn out moment it looked as though Nythadri planned to play innocent; her head was tilted curiously, her gaze benign. "Dog walkers are like servants. They’re a font of information to those who care to ask the right questions. Or who lay the foundations for the right relationship."

Someone who professed to work in the business of coin had little need for that kind of intel; not personally, anyway. The mysteries within his own family business rankled, but she doubted it was an isolated obsession. No, she knew it wasn't, because Jai had told her. Her tone wasn’t an accusation, but it grazed on the edges of recognition. He hadn't meant that by his comment, she knew that, but she twisted it to suit her purposes, and she did not think he would like the subtle inference that she had guessed things about him - or perhaps knew. A smirk caught the corner of her lips, like she really was trying to barb him into exploding. Not that she gave him time to do so, because she shrugged if off a second later, as if whatever Andreu really was behind the charismatic charm was none of her business. She shifted in her chair and rested her arms on the desk; a prim posture, still, her fingers neatly folded, her gaze attentive. Like she was being interrogated, perhaps, or was about to make her own proposition. A contrast to the vaguely disinterested countenance of before, either way.

Andreu was direct, and she appreciated that; even if the question had been rather menacingly laced. She was an Accepted, though; Light, she was Nythadri. It took more than a few curt words to put the fear in her. "A promise happened," she said. The words were heavy, like they meant something – which, of course, they did. If there was one thing she wanted to emphasise, it was that. She didn’t care how much or little he pieced together, really, and she wasn't here to set him straight about Zakar - not that he was off the hook. It disgusted her that Jai was so willing to take the blame; flamed a heat in her chest that made it excruciatingly tempting to tell the entire truth without omissions and misdirection. Once that match was struck, though, the whole family would burn; the whole family. And she wouldn't be responsible for that.

Her stare was intense; unblinking. It wasn't difficult to instil authenticity to it, to allow her barriers to thaw just enough to spill the burden of worry she had been carrying. That and the steel of determination which had led her here. It wasn't just her sincerity she wanted him to have time to comprehend, though, but the answer to the obvious question: a promise to whom? He'd work that out quickly enough, she'd wager, given the bruises still so fresh on his face and the coiled way he'd reacted to her dismissal of the money. She wished him to believe Jai was cleaning up the remains of his mess; that he'd made her promise to withdraw her account, but did not necessarily intend for her to do it in person. And she hoped, light she hoped, that Andreu did not react as poorly to the thought of Jai as Zakar had done. There were holes in this impulsive plan, after all; if Andreu chased the origins of her fortune regardless, eventually it would lead back to Ellis. And to Zakar. But she hoped that laying enough guilty admission on the table would absolve him of the desire; an Accepted, come to plead on the behalf of a man who had crossed the White Tower.

"But that isn't why I came. Now that you know what he did, what are you going to do?"

Dog walkers are like servants? 

Andreu was amused by that admission. An Accepted from a downfallen Caemlyn House, slowly clawing her way out of the depths of conspiracy by hanging onto White Tower skirts, clutching for a shawl, and wedging her foot into every crevice she could reach. Nythadri was clever enough to earn Andreu's respect; a worthy right. However, Dru was clever enough to know those whom he respected were most likely his greatest adversaries. 

She was hinting that he was not asking the right questions. A sliver of annoyance snaked its way across his immaculate brow. What else might there be? What bulbous form connected the seemingly detached tentacles slithering up his chair? If he did not find the head of this monster, one was sure to squeeze the life out of him. His chest had tightened uncomfortably by the time Nythadri splintered the last of his ignorance.

He was finally able to pluck the splinter from his eye and the world opened to his vision. The clouds broke on this airless mountain peak and he saw the enormous valley spread before his feet. Surrounded by nothing but parting clouds and cold sunlight, he was sure to choke to death. 

Instinctively, Dru loosened his collar. 

"Nythadri-" The name escaped his lips like a tightly held whisper. Dru's mind raced, connecting the dots, severing tentacles, and escaping chains. 

He drummed his fingers on the table, staring, unblinking accusation at the woman to whom Jai was now beholden. For that must be it. In brotherly love, Dru was reluctant to take Jai at his word. Yet the bruises seemed to sting all the hotter now that the punch of truth landed its blow. 

"He would really do that?" Dru asked of her in disbelief. He might be willing to love and cherish the woman to whom wore the wedding band which matched his own, but love did not equal trust. Jai -- even Zakar -- to a great extent, were two men on his side! To learn his closest confidant was not -- the blow was shattering! 

He put his face to his hands, then. Blocking the view of this great valley of truths he had not wanted to see; blocking the cold blue of Nythadri's piercing gaze. He shook his head, muttering incoherencies to himself, and by the time he lowered his hands, Dru was hurt as a betrayed dog; a venomous one. 

"Well the boy can make the rounds, can't he?" Dru spit defensively. 

"Consider yourself bothered no more by the likes of Kojima men, Miss Vanditera. I will hope the White Tower finds no more offense with us than you do."

He signed the paper and shoved it angrily across the desk.

"If you'll excuse me." With Andreu broken of that last tentative trust in the world and with Jai severed of his family ties, that left one Kojima heir to guide this ship. For surely, Andreu would not be sane enough to wield the helm. Zakar would get everything uncontested: business, fortune, fame and pride. Everything but the one thing he truly wanted: Asad's bloody sword and their father's great blessing to carry it. Then again, unbeknownst to Dru, none of them was going to inherit that heirloom.

It was painful to watch, the slow descent of realisation. Nythadri’s jaw set like steel, her expression impregnable in its stillness. But beneath it was she uncomfortable. The way he buried his head in his hands, he could have been Jai. She’d been prepared for instability, but not for how deep the wound cut; Andreu looked pained, far more than she would have anticipated. Light, as if the past few weeks had not been trying enough. She’d be damned before showing softness now, but she felt it none-the-less. She understood the sting of betrayal after all; knew the irreconcilable snap of trust between souls, and how it hurt. She wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and how easy it would be to instead tip his attention toward the real culprit. She had no ready proof, but given his reaction she imagined he would be eager to test Zakar’s guilt. It was not too late.

She said nothing.

Andreu wasn’t entirely forthcoming with his conclusions about her presence and words, but she didn’t care; so long as he believed what Jai wanted him to believe, and so long as she was satisfied this was an end to it. Ideally she wanted more than indirect confirmation; she wanted a promise. But she was also balanced on thin ice. From what she had seen, she did not think Andreu would be driven by bitterness to betray his brother, and demanding his oath now might only exacerbate the tenderness of treachery; she would not be so stupid as to make herself an easy vent for his wrath. There was little more she could do, though she felt less satisfied than she’d hoped. Still, if Andreu shared his knowledge with Zakar, she imagined the man would play along. And feel smug in his good fortune. Jai’s trail was probably safe.

“The White Tower finds no offense with the Kojimas at all. I intend it to stay that way.” Firm words, tight with promise. She accepted the paperwork and returned it to her bag, unmoved by his anger. It was an end, if a bitter one. When all the choices were poor ones she expected little else, yet she did not stand. Jai would hate this every bit as much as she’d been furious with him for Tash’s pendant; she knew that, yet in the moment she could not leave the wound so raw and festering.

“No. I won’t. Not yet.” She might wear the bands of an Accepted, but her tone carried the weight of one who expected him to listen. Nothing softened her; she did not let it. “Asha’man are not Aes Sedai, and the Black Tower is not the White. Necessity has made a weapon of him, as it must." Perhaps Andreu would not listen; perhaps he could not. Her jaw tightened as she finally found her feet. She wanted to say more, yet shouldn't even have said this much. The last words were quiet, not meant to wound further, though no doubt they would. "It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation. He loves you, Andreu. But let him go.”

Later...

The Asha'man Araya had been surprisingly easy to find. The first Tower servant she’d tested his name on, a child with large muddy eyes and raggedy brown hair peeking beneath her cap, had lit up like a beacon. Servants were a veritable network of information, if you asked the right questions of the right people, but she hadn’t expected so effusive or enthusiastic an answer. Nor so quickly. It transpired that he’d lived at the Tower for a time, and had apparently been popular amongst the servants for his kind words and stories. Now he lived in the city, which of course made a logical sort of sense. Jai would not have returned to Tar Valon of his own volition. What she did not understand was why an Asha’man would choose to live in the shadow of the White Tower in the first place.

A woman answered the door, stern faced and grey-eyed. She wore black beneath a lightly dusted apron, and nodded a succinct and genial greeting despite meeting eyes with a pale-eyed stranger. No surprise ruffled her expression, though an Accepted must surely count as an unusual visitor. There was something other-worldly ancient about her; not in years, for there was still blonde amongst the silver in her hair and smoothness yet in her cheeks, but like she had weathered countless storms and stood unyielding. Just as she stood now. Waiting.

Nythadri did not preface herself with idle greetings or meandering intent. She returned the nod, more out of politeness than anything else, then spoke. “I’m looking for an Asha’man. His name is Araya.”

The woman did not miss a beat, though she did now straighten a fraction. “He is not here, Accepted.” Her eyes had a calm, studious quality. Though it was a quiet, subtle thing, Nythadri saw a curiosity there too. “However, he left by conventional means and it usually means he will return by them. Do you wish to wait?”

He’s not here. That was an inconvenience, and one Nythadri did not have the time to pursue; the morning was pressing into afternoon and she needed to return to the Tower. It wasn’t even important, not really; just a whim. A personal whim. But she hesitated

She said she would wait.
***

The kitchen was a hub of heat and warmth, and the stark normality of it – the unpretentiousness of it – soothed her after the morning she’d had. A child shared the table with her, a small dark-haired thing with her head bowed over a book she’d as yet to even peer up from. Hana – as the woman introduced herself – checked the pots balanced on the stove; stirring one, returning another to the flame. She indicated the girl with half a nod. “Araya’s ward, Korene. Forgive the child her silence. She does not speak. Korene, this is Accepted Nythadri.” 

The dark-haired head buried a little deeper. It might have been a nod. Nythadri did not deign to care.

She watched Hana return to work with a swift, economical efficiency. Her fingers were never still, her feet never settled in one spot. It was common work. Plain and homely. Yet there was something melodic to it that drew her eye, like watching flames. The ordinary lulled her, then tugged sharp. Years back, in Caemlyn, Nythadri had never been the kind to seek escape hearthside. But Tash had, and wisps of fragrant childhood memory rose from ashes. His cheeks pinked from sitting too close to the fire. His hands behind his back and that serious, pale stare. The betraying scent of fresh baked cinnamon. His pockets littered with stale crumbs.

As a child she’d always known where to find him. Even as a young man, when life hung heavy on his shoulders. But – whatever she had gotten up to in the city at night, and whomever her company – Nythadri had always kept herself separated from the servants at home; like those parts of her life were neatly and completely partitioned. She’d never joined him. Never accepted the offer of smuggled pastries. Why did it suddenly sweep her so full of regret? He’d been gone more than five years.

Melancholy cast a new light on Hana; one Nythadri could not be sure was reflection or sudden recognition. There was a smooth beauty to the woman’s movements, a very precise kind of grace, but also a necessity; like to stop would be to unravel the woman Hana was. Like to stop would cease her very existence. She turned and offered refreshment with a pragmatism it felt suddenly unkind to refuse, besides which Nythadri’s throat was rasped dry. When she offered to heat the water for tea it surprised her that Hana accepted with barely a blink, though in hindsight she was clearly used to the small miracles of the One Power. She lived with an Asha’man. 

Embracing soothed what remained of her worn emotions, and she was glad to find the balance. Water bubbled quietly in the pot, almost effortless, and Nythadri let the light of saidar flood a numbing calm through her veins. When she looked up it was to find the child staring at her with disturbingly hollow eyes. They were not the eyes of a child; they were too dark for that, too deep. Too scarred. A ward. What had happened to her parents, that she had ended up in an Asha’man’s care? Nythadri stared back, unperturbed by the captive horror she saw there; the slick of filth marring what should have been only innocence, like oil on water. She’d looked into deeper pits.

“What are you reading?” Her fingers stretched out over the table in curious gesture, though there was no pandering in her tone.

A heartbeat passed. Korene slipped quietly from her too-tall chair, feet first reaching out tentatively for the ground, then paused to pull the book down with her. She padded around the table and slipped the book up on Nythadri’s lap. Her gaze moved from Nythadri’s face to the open book and back, a silent, cautious appraisal. The corners of her lips were downturned as her small fingers traced the embroidered bands at Nythadri’s sleeve cuff. The brush of her hand was clammy and warm, like she’d been clenching her hands under the table; she pressed a sticky hot finger against the serpent ring like a greeting.

Then her posture shifted; she turned, her head pressed against Nythadri’s arm, empty gaze fixed on the words spread across Nythadri’s lap. Waiting.

Hana turned, brows quirked. But she said nothing. So Nythadri began to read.

Jai hadn’t come back. He'd disappeared, leaving the taste of ill feeling as a parting gift. Concern had pressed Araya from his doorstep early that morning, but not really fear; Jai was not some young pup who’d slipped loose from his collar and gotten lost in the city, and Araya was neither jailor nor babysitter. But he wasn’t heartless, either. Dawn tinged the snow pink as he wandered, crunching velvet underfoot. He offered a cheerful smile and good-morning to those he passed, and paused now and then to help neighbours clear the snow. Fear struck the gaze of a few when they extended a shovel and instead the snow just fizzed and melted away, but most thanked him. None had seen a uniformed Asha’man, and Araya was content to hear no bad news, nor to find a slumped, black-clad figure with bottle in hand sitting on steps or tucked in an alley. Asha’man drew attention even in Tar Valon; if Jai had in any way made a spectacle of himself, Araya was confidant the news would have spread. He’d been in a bad way when he’d stalked off, but he’d been seeking solace. Distraction. Araya hoped he’d found it.

He strolled nonchalantly, hands slunk into his pockets. Hana had been up when he’d returned last night, dressed in robe and nightcap but unrepentant when he told her she should be sleeping. Care had creased the edges of her gaze, and he knew then that she’d heard Jai’s tirade. Enough of it, at least. He felt guilty for her night vigil, then and now; not that she wanted the concern. Her lips pressed a thin line when he’d placed a comforting hand on the side of her neck and gently pulled her in to kiss her forehead, but for half a beat she’d stayed still and silent. The tension in her had trembled, a tide of old, old grief that almost strangled in her throat before it ebbed back down. Then she’d pulled away, muttering something about him being a soft-hearted fool. She’d made them tea and pressed stew and bread into his grasp and made him eat. They talked for most of the night.

Unwatched footsteps led, as they nearly always did, to the Grove. The snow here was untouched, casting the huge trees ethereal white. Peace emanated from the stillness, natural and ancient. It should have cheered him; when in Tar Valon he came here often just to sit under a heavy blanket of tranquillity, to grin and marvel at the existence of such a place at the heart of the same city that housed the White Tower. Not today, though; today it was just a touchstone to sober thoughts. The cold beckoning of duty, and Light it had been a long time since it’d felt so onerous.

The Seanchan disturbed him. Daryen’s welcome of them disturbed him. For a long while they had been things he resolved to watch from the sidelines, content to simply do his job in Arad Doman and let those who would play with power do it. Araya steered clear of politics, always had, but rumours of a violet-eyed gaidar had nudged him close to breaking that private vow. Seeing her in Daryen’s cliff-side palace had tipped a balance, and it was for her he had Travelled back to the Black Tower with quiet concerns to place in listening ears. To listen to counsel. Not that he’d ended up with much of that, particularly when it had coincided so neatly with Jai’s punishment, but the intention had been there. Now concern was impaled in his head like a spike. And something else, but he didn’t want to think about that. Still, it left him in a quandary; poised between action and inaction. She should be bonded to an Aes Sedai by now, not ghosting at Daryen’s side.

Eventually his boots turned him toward home, but his thoughts were still cast deep; away from Arad Doman and Seanchan now, closer to home. He thought about the imminence of goodbye, a Gate that would see him hundreds of miles away, and the things that Jai had said - those stuck like little persistent splinters in the back of his mind. They weren’t new thoughts, of course, but that didn’t make them any less unpleasant.

The door opened, bringing a rush of winter air, and Nythadri’s head popped up. Her voice trailed off. She was surprised to recognise him, though the man she’d seen in Arad Doman had worn ghostly pale imitations of the colours he wore now. There was a moment his expression was grave, almost wounded, before curious recognition welcomed a smile to his face. He looked a little tired, perhaps, but not discomfited to find a child of the White Tower sitting in his kitchen. “Accepted,” he greeted, voice a strained whisper. “Ny?” A pause. “Nythadri, was it?”

The girl at her side stiffened, and she pried the book from Nythadri’s grasp. Korene's retreat was not hasty, but it was sullen, as though a clear sky had suddenly been ruined by rain clouds. She tucked the book to her chest and stared at the Asha’man under a fringe of dark hair as she made her escape into the shadows of the house beyond. A door opened and closed. Hana sighed, almost inaudible; when Nythadri glanced up, her eyes were on the Asha’man, who in turn looked wearily grey-faced.

“Excuse me.” That was for Nythadri’s benefit. The woman moved one of the pots off the heat of the stove, wiped her hands on a cloth, and followed the direction the girl had gone. Nythadri half nodded, though her interest in domestic affairs was zero. The privacy was convenient, though incidental; if she truly wished it she would have woven a ward against prying ears. She did not.

Her pale eyes swept back to the Asha’man, just as his were prizing themselves from the retreat of Hana’s shadow. He smiled, faintly apologetic, and moved to claim Korene’s vacant seat.

The woman remembered him even before he spoke her name; he could see it in the pinch of her gaze, though that first reaction smoothed itself out quickly to something more neutral. Her lips flickered upwards in brief imitation of a smile, but there was a chill in her eyes. No, maybe not a chill exactly, but a distance. Justified, he supposed, if she assumed he had anything to do with Daryen’s machinations in Arad Doman. He had no idea what an Accepted had been doing so far from the Tower in the first place, marshalled by a Sister or not, but it could not have been a pleasant ambush to find Seanchan as the honoured guests at Daryen’s table. Not that Araya could do much to assuage her fears; he had no idea what the man was up to.

She studied him for a moment, like she were riffling through the thoughts in his head and comparing those notes to her own. There was a singular burning intensity to her that made him feel inclined to hold up his palms in peaceful surrender; Light, she only had to ask her questions and he’d answer, as he would for anyone, but she seemed determined to do this the White Tower way.

He endured the measuring; just looked back at her, waiting for her to speak.

She seemed to come to a decision.

“You took him from the Black Tower. After Lennox left him for dead.”

Not a question, just a statement of fact. Which hadn’t been at all what he was expecting. For a moment Araya was confused; he had been thinking about Arad Doman, where he had seen her. Not Jai – though that was clearly who she meant. He’d assumed she’d come here filled with doubts about what she had seen – of the Seanchan, of Daryen’s plans in Arad Doman. The Aes Sedai never gave straight answers, and Liridia had seemed unsettled by the feast’s announcement, if how close her Warder had stuck to her side afterwards was anything to judge by. An unsettled Aes Sedai was even less likely to give answers, and he couldn’t blame an Accepted’s curiosity. Even concern.

But, Jai?

He thought back, frowning openly. They’d arrived at the party together, in a whorl of courtly bows and flourishes that set a ripple of whispers behind hands. But she’d hardly seemed impressed. After that Araya barely recalled seeing her at all, but for when he had interrupted her conversation with Imaad Suaya. Soon after she’d been tucked tight under the Aes Sedai’s wing. 

Wait. How did she even know what had happened at the Black Tower?

“Did Daryen send you to help?”

“No. I was just—I. No-one sent me.” He didn’t intend for the bitterness to ring so blatantly in his tone, but he heard it when the words whispered out. Was the world so bereft of camaraderie that a man needed to be sufficiently motivated before he would help another? The Accepted hadn’t meant it as an accusation, he knew that, but the twisted webs of his existence were an old wound. And she’d startled him with unexpected questions.

She took a moment to internalise his response, though whether or not she found the answer agreeable Araya couldn’t tell. Her façade seemed to soften a little, inasmuch as her gaze moved away and her fingers reached out to cradle her half-empty cup.

“What happened to him?”

Araya sighed, considering how best to frame an answer. The Towers were fundamentally different, and if both might be described as unrelenting in their cultivation of channelers, it was in vastly distinct ways. The Black Tower had a grim past; it had been forged in a world where saidin meant certain madness and an early death. Cruelty was necessary, because without it they would be too soft to hold the front lines. Did he agree with it? No. But he accepted it, as he accepted so much that ultimately turned his stomach.

“Asha’man are valuable, Accepted. But we must be forged in steel, and it is a brutal education. Jai--”

“No, Araya. Not Jai. Lennox.”

It took a moment to understand what she meant. There was no sense of disgust to accompany her words, no intonation or expression to explain her interest. Her gaze was intent, though. He might not be able to see beyond the glacial barrier of it, but he was suddenly aware, at least, that there was a barrier there. Why hide so much, little Accepted? Did the Tower really strip so much humanity from their children, or was this a conscious effort? He had the absurd inclination to pat her hand, though he refrained. She would not appreciate the intimacy, he suspected, but he was weighed down by a sad and heavy sympathy none-the-less. If she was looking for justice she would not find it. Lennox’s actions were deplorable, but they broke no law.

Araya had no secrets to hide, and certainly not in this line of conversation. He answered plainly. “Jai attacked Lennox. He had the right to defend himself.” 

She blinked her gaze away, though only for a moment. Her face was smooth, her pale gaze cut like diamond and just as unyielding. Nothing touched her expression, at all, and for once the absence spoke louder than the blankness. Araya floundered in the raging tides of the Great Game, but he knew something of empathy. He couldn’t say what she felt, but he was aware she felt something. Why had she come here? They hadn’t even exchanged names in Arad Doman, which meant it had taken conscious effort on her part to seek him out. If she needed aid he would help, if it was within his power. All she had to do was ask. But he was still trying to piece things together, to think of words that would chip the ice and thaw her caution, when she spoke again.

“It doesn’t matter. I wanted to say thank you, that’s all. For what you did.”

Thank you? His natural inclination was to shrug, but she seemed so sincere that he nodded instead.

He had an open face, like every thought that crossed his mind left an imprint on his expression. A rare thing in a full grown adult, let alone one who’d carved a slice of Tar Valon to call home; it was as beautiful as it was fragile, but it didn’t mean she trusted it. She wondered why he had helped Jai; why he had been in Arad Doman in the first place. Did tendrils of Great Game loop around events and she just couldn’t see them, or were things really as uncomplicated as his honest expression suggested?

“No. I was just—I. No-one sent me.”

The immediate defensiveness in his words settled it. He was so earnest that it made her chest tighten at the tragedy of him. No man who held the pins did so without the scars it took to earn them. She knew what the colours he wore meant; of course she knew what the colours meant, and she wanted to express sorrow somehow, but she doubted he would understand that it would not be pity. It took a certain kind of man to cling to ideals contradicted by the very thing he was, but it seemed Araya was unusual. There was an ironic measure of comfort in his sincerity; it was a relief to search for games within games and instead find plain honesty. Tension drifted from her shoulders. She had the answer she had sought, and did not feel compelled to drag it from the Asha’man’s lips. It was a token of trust to his nature that he probably had no idea she bestowed.

She wrapped her hand around her tea, idling in the warmth as it prickled through her palm. The favour she had come here in mind of eliciting was unnecessary now, and there was little else to say; just gratitude for what he had done, and a grudging respect that it had been unbidden. 

It was only the comfort of her surroundings that coaxed her to stay a little longer. A small piece of calm within which her thoughts were able to breathe a little clearer.

“What happened to him?”

Araya misunderstood her, and for a moment she considered letting him. She knew the answer he tried to offer; an approximation tinged by horror, maybe, but she knew enough. Someone would have dragged Jai to the infirmary, where his fate would have balanced on whether a skilled Healer had been manning the station at the time. Supposing the worst of his injuries were fixed, he might have spent weeks bed-ridden while his body recovered. And his mind? She imagined the forced inactivity would have gnawed the edges of his sanity. Jai wasn’t built to sit still; it was probably why he’d confronted Lennox in the first place. Caged by a broken body, alone with memories of the legacy he thought he’d failed, he’d either have grown numb or drowned himself in oblivion. Perhaps cold, equal measures of both. He would have survived, she was certain of that. But she didn’t like to think what he might have become.

“No, Araya,” she interrupted his answer quietly. She was hovering on the precipice of a question she was not sure she really wanted to hear the answer to, but the words spilled with so little effort. “Not Jai. Lennox.”

He grew quiet.

There was a sad tilt to his gaze. It almost looked like pity. For a moment Nythadri blazed indignantly, but it faded quickly. A weary ocean washed the fire away, and left her feeling hollow. Araya was an odd man, too guileless for his own good. If her masks slipped and every ounce of emotion flooded out, she did not think he would blink. Nor judge her, even for the feelings that were less than pure. Containing herself was strenuous in the face of such perceived acceptance; there was a patient pitch to his expression, open and forgiving. I’ll listen, that face said. But in the end it was for the benefit of them both that she said nothing. A wry smile twisted her lips, though after a moment it softened to something rarer and kinder.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, though it did. It mattered very much. “I wanted to say thank you, that’s all. For what you did.”

She stood, aware of the Asha'man's openly bewildered expression. He did not follow her.

“Accepted.” Nythadri’s hand was on the door to the threshold when Hana’s voice sounded out behind her, and she realised the woman had followed her down the hall – halfway, at least. Their gazes touched, and something there caused Nythadri to pause and listen. Hana’s grey eyes were tight at the edges, but they were firm, ardent – like they offered out a kinship Nythadri did not fully understand. “Look after that boy, Accepted.”

Her chest tightened. She nodded, and was gone.

[[Nythadri continues at The Wheel Turns and Jai continues at Living the Dream]]