The First Age

Full Version: War Games
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Having word spread among the Accepted ahead of time, Lythia found herself taking corridors she'd not seen in years. Many years. The farther she diverted from the main hallways traversing the first floor of the Tower the farther back in time Lythia felt she went. She didn't glide, not like the floating visions of noble beauties poufed and coiled for court. Yet compared to the gangly, awkward pale version of herself Lythia was at sixteen, she was the Aes Sedai of her dreams. Good-fitting soft wools, gleaming waves of hair streaming down her back, sturdy boots. Lythia would change nothing to her appearance riding to battle as she would attending a summons to the Amyrlin Seat. Although, she would trade the small knife at her belt for her shawl for Mother; and perhaps secure her hair for war.

There was a time early in her years in the Shawl, when the color of rainbow hems still swirled her daily thoughts, that Lythia scoffed at the idea of a Sister too busy to pass her valuable knowledge onto the Accepted. The kiss of death. Long years later, the start of her path in the Shawl was a point far out of sight.

By the time she crossed into the common court within the Accepted tower she was greeted by almost as many gawks as she was curtsies. She'd not taught novices since before she'd bonded Blake, a man who'd shared her duty to the Light for over ten years. She'd taught aspirants to the Green here and there, however. But those impactful lessons were short and swift. Addressing as many eager faces as which turned to her now...? Well, she nodded her acknowledgement of a few greetings before simply taking her place in the center of them all when the white dresses parted.

A quiet descended as Lythia Sedai began to provide some answers. "I will not soften the blow. We all know the Last Battle comes."
Her hands clasped lightly before her, she raised her voice without the use of the Power, even as she scanned unfamiliar faces peering down from the levels of galleries extended upward. However she was curious to know the reception of her forceful proclamation of the obvious. One of the few aspirants declaring allegiance to the Green Ajah that she actually recognized nodded in agreement, but for every nod, she saw frowns and in one case, a girl actually shook her head sadly and looked at her feet.

"As Accepted you have some freedom to direct your own studies. But what can you do to prepare for the Last Battle? Really do? This is the White Tower, and you women striving to be Aes Sedai, not the Borderlands and you plate and mail infantry. Every Ajah will have its role,"
she spoke as a true believer of that statement, moreso than the confidence of the Three Oaths gave her speech, but a passion glinted, like a shot in the dark, across her eyes and Lythia raised her voice proudly, "but I am a Green. If you wish to prepare in the way I will lead you to prepare, submit your name."

Without taking questions and without providing further details, she scanned the responses - the gaped mouths, the confused expressions, the rise of whispers winging about - then, pleased, Lythia departed. She was a busy woman, after all, and as such arranged for another Ajah-Sister, Delanna, delegated to take her place.

It was the stout, but surprisingly soft spoken Cairhienin Delanna that explained to the many questions that this was not an aspirancy but an opportunity for some extreme-sort of lessons. She would not entertain the idea of giving details except that once begun, and short of life-threatening injury, loss of limb, or burning out, the Accepted must see her commitment through to the end.

The "Games" as Delanna called them with a haunted sort of smirk, would begin immediately.

Aspirant or not, the excited gossip heralding Lythia Sedai’s imminent visit to the heart of the Accepted Tower was not enough to entice Nythadri from her room. There was nothing like expectation to dig her heels in the opposite direction, and it was not as though she lacked legitimate occupation for her time. Pledging herself to an Ajah had widened the scope of her education in ways she had not truly contemplated; Aes Sedai who had been reluctant to work with her before re-evaluated an Accepted finally displaying commitment, and so studies that had stunted after she’d caught up on all she had missed while at the Farm again flourished.

She could hear the animated chattering outside as girls passed in a flurry down the winding ramp to the common room. Someone knocked at her door, but she ignored it and it went away. The collective flamboyancy of the Greens was not something she meshed with naturally, nor wished to associate herself with. The mindless enthusiasm of her peers spiked a defensive step back rather than a desire to centre the excitement. Nythadri had cultivated a reputation that expounded her favour for solitude, and she did not wish to tarnish it just because her name was now becoming associated with the most social of ajahs. A Green Nythadri might purport to be, but no typical Green she would make.

So she missed Lythia’s rousing speech, missed the ardency of the challenge cast, the enlivened aftermath of whispering girls (though she could certainly hear the buzz of it through her walls). Some hour or so later, when Nythadri had retreated her studies from the desk to the bed, frozen feet buried in a pile of her blankets and a book balanced against her knees, there was another knock.

“It’s open.”

The door opened on the heels of her beckoning. Nythadri was not particularly surprised to see Mai standing beyond, one hand on a jutted hip, expression artfully still but for the faint traces of a pleased smile lilting the edges of her lips. She was tall and handsome, her robust, proud features set by striking amber eyes and coppery exotic skin. Black hair wound a long braided tail over one shoulder, and she was the kind of woman to exude a sensuous sort of confidence. Though beneath it she was whipcord sharp.

Nythadri had discovered quickly that accepting aspirancy to the Greens had been more than mere words – more, even, than the abstract notion of having a path to follow. The word family sprung to mind, and Nythadri had never been particularly enamoured with that choiceless company; certainly not enough to have it forced on her within the bounds of the White Tower. Mai did not approve of her disinclination to get involved; the arm’s length at which she kept the other Accepted aspiring Green - who, despite whatever opinions they had held of Nythadri prior to her aspirancy, had all made effort to embrace her within their clique. Nythadri had never had an abundance of female friends, nor did she particularly enjoy the fluttering whimsy of female company; at least, not beyond an individual by individual basis.

“You didn’t come down to the common room.”

Nythadri didn’t answer, only stared through those shockingly pale eyes and allowed Mai this moment of maternal superiority. It was Mai’s role to cluck over her fellow Green Accepteds like a mother hen, sweeping them all protectively tight together, only it was not a wing Nythadri was particularly interested in being swept up under. After a moment she tapped at her book, like it was an answer to the unasked question; a gesture designed to frustrate, the insinuation that anything else could be more important than supporting one of the most infamous sisters of the ajah. Mai didn't bite. “Lythia was inspiring,”
she added. The faint traces of smile became an actual smile now, complete with twinkling eyes, as she continued to explain. Mai was of an age or older than Nythadri, and lacked the girlish excitability of the very young; she was calm and matter-of-fact despite the way her expression was lit beneath that serenity. A controlled, fierce passion; the very heart of a Green. It made Nythadri feel rather inadequate. “I put your name down, Nythadri.”

Nythadri bottled a sigh. Of course you did. The predictable outcome, and she didn’t suppose she was truly angry about it. Though she might have to remind herself of the fact, she had chosen Green… if she had a fair idea she wasn’t going to enjoy a lesson marked from the outset as extreme. Perhaps she could do with the distraction, something that didn’t involve hours drafting letters to craft a network in a city she had left behind years ago. She let her legs fall straight, the book landing flat against her lap, blankets rumpling to the end of the bed. Tiredness washed a wave against her mind, eyes blurry from reading. "Right... Right. Okay. But when you say extreme, Mai..."
((I am so sorry I forgot about this. I received a rather angry PM from a certain someone that I was dragging everyone down! [kidding. it wasn't angry. It was stern. [Image: 2.png] ] Feel free to PM me when I forget stuff like this again!))

With Blake at her side, Lythia and her warder emerged from under the heavy branches of a treeline at the crest of a hill. The crest was only a few paces wide and it dipped down sharply on the other side, but the hike was not unmanageable for an Aes Sedai in a good wool dress let alone the more tactical attire of a warder accustomed to such terrain. It was peaceful out here, Lythia noted with a wide scan of the horizon just before she and Blake began the more gentle descent back to the main clearing space. There were three tents set up down there, perhaps a two or three minute walk and they'd be back in time to meet the first arrivals.

Rising beyond the tents the view was breathtaking though. Perhaps a mile to the south wound Jangai Pass, and these the foothills of the Spine of the World were the setting of a terrain that reminded Lythia so much of those foothills to the Mountains of Mist that she amusingly kept checking the ground underfoot for hints of sand between the blades of grass. The Sand Hills was a memory far far back in her childhood, but so unusual was the remnants of a great ocean landlocked in the center of everything that she would never forget what it was like to squish bare toes through the yellow, scratchy "dirt" when she first saw it.

It was a good twenty leagues still to those snow capped peaks jutting suddenly up toward the sky. They looked so cold and isolated, draped with a blanket of green she knew to be pine trees. Those dangerous slopes was the intimidating older sister of where they were now. Wild animals would roam here and they did there, but likely those nearest had yet the aggression associated with a hungry winter. The air was not quite so biting here as the frozen wind to surely be winding through those hardy branches upslope. The forest was woodsy but not impenetrable. In fact, the square mile to be the location of her War Games to be patrolled by Greens and their warders was selected because of the specific balance of wild landscape and level of difficulty in crossing it. There were certainly bluffs and rocky crevices, areas of thick underbrush, half-fallen trees from old storms, but also paths clear enough to walk three or four abreast to walk and a few wider clearings as well. That wasn't all that was in those borders as well, Lythia thought with a smile for Blake just before she slid back beneath the serenity of her station. And she didn't just think about the spattering of old ruins from the Age of Legends stuck out there either.

As they arrived back at "base camp" the Green was shown around for a final survey of the preparations. The three tents were finished. The largest had a good pole holding up the peak of it and a quick glance behind the flap showed her a reconstructed table and travel chairs spread across the type of rug suited to take dirty boots at the end of a day. Six decent cots were set up along the sides and across the back, complete with a small pillow and down blankets, although the Aes Sedai to be sleeping on them would have no need to warm their own tent come nightfall. A topographical map of their immediate surroundings, including the war zone, was held down by paperweights on the table. Figurines were set around it, designating people, places, points of interest, traps, pitfalls...everything Lythia planned for this first Mission the Accepted would be attempting to complete. There were logbooks as well, but nothing was yet written on those pages except the list of names pre-assigned to their teams. She had no need to check the names of the first six Accepted to be arriving any minute. She'd been the one to select them first, afterall.

Lythia nodded, and with a small twist of Fire lit the small lamps in each corner and the larger one over the table simultaneously. The second tent was set up similar as the first, though the table within was smaller. The lamps in here were dark as well, something she took the time to remedy. Despite being midday, the sun was likely to fall behind those western slopes soon and a handful of hours and it'd be dusk. Of course, a handful of hours from now they should all be out patrolling the perimeter (or about to return from it). The cots in here were set up to match the Aes Sedai's tent, but Lythia knew not every Green to come was traveling in the company of only one warder. For those Sisters blessed with several gaidin, they'd have to work out sleeping arrangements on their own. Or take turns with the overnight watch. Then there were a few unbonded gaidin volunteered to assist, and of course, the two Accepted of the Sword.

The third tent was the smallest yet. A table large enough for two was in the center and flanked by four narrow benches that were currently pressed underneath the table proper to provide space for walking. Six cots likewise were in here, yet they were narrow and the pillows flat. The floor of the tent was a pallet rather than a rug but Lythia would advise the Accepted to sleep in their shoes when the time came, simply to be practical. She left their two lamps dark, as they could light their own if necessary.

The latrines were set up just downwind of camp, opposite to the cookpit already warming tonight's meal. A horse hitch was staked up on the outside of their camp as well, for while not every Sister and warder would be in the saddle, several would be. Especially those patrolling the farer sides of the war zone perimeter.

Satisfied with the progress, Lythia deemed everything set, especially since the final wards, traps, and springs were laid down by her own hand - some inverted, some not - within the game area. She gave the call and a Gateway opened.

She waited with hands lightly clasped in front of her, wrists just grazing the leather belt wrapping her hips. From one side lay a tapering dagger, far longer and thicker than the belt knife she frequently wore while journeying. This would slice the carotids through the thick neck of a frenzied black bear if she needed it to do so. Her pine green dress was of stout wool, with narrow sleeves and a wide collar that tapered toward her shoulders. A gray cloak was clasped at her neck, but the skin of her chest and narrow lines of her collarbones was bare to the winter chill. Yet despite the wind hitting her face, her flesh did not pebble nor her cheeks pink with discomfort. Her copper-gold hair was pulled at the sides of her temples but the remaining flowed down her back except where it pooled in the pushed off hood of her cloak. Her ring was the only glitter of jewelry to her, just as the silver chain of medallion was the only hint of accessory to the collected, patient warder standing at her side. Where Lythia would be able to walk about the woodland with ease, Blake could stalk silently through the thickest of it and never be seen. Browns and grays were the color of his wardrobe, leather more often than not. A belted sword a reminder of noble bearing as well as his skill with its art sat quiet at his hip. He wore the dizzying fancloth of his warder's cloak rather than the traditional coat of an unbonded gaidin, and of course the brilliant blues shining with promise of his life-sworn oaths to defend the Aes Sedai beside him never ceased their surveying.

it was these two, but Lythia more predominantly, which greeted the Accepted that came through the Gate, then finally the Aes Sedai that created it. A respectful nod for her Sister beckoned her fellow Green to come and stand beside her, and a lifted finger acknowledged the six curtsies. She studied each face closely, lingering on the two that were aspirants to the Green Ajah as though recognizing a young, promising cousin.
[[A certain someone is predictably impatient *facepalm* I had only noticed this one wasn't done because Homeward Bound finished and Ny is in the next thread]]

Twenty-four hours. Not such a long time to endure; certainly not long enough for Nythadri to agonise over the vaguely ominous instruction of bring what you think you will need. Not that she took the charge lightly; she wore the ring, had earned it, and knew better than to take any facet of her training lightly. But neither did she fuss or worry. The unknown was a shadow she stepped into willingly blind, confident to the point of arrogance she could twist whatever she faced into advantage. You must see it through to the end. Excepting loss of limb, life, or burning out; you must see it through to the end. Mai had repeated that carefully; the patient mother schooling the ignorant child, but the sense of risk had only tingled Nythadri's skin. She saw only an opportunity to push herself, to reach out to the brink. Taste life.

A thick cloak draped about her shoulders, mismatched gloves tucked into her belt. Raven hair, usually left to fall in sumptuous waves where it may, was braided about her head, the ends pinned in a close bun. Other than the regular things one might find in a belt purse, she carried little else. No weapons, supposing she’d even have been able to acquire one; what was the point, when she knew not how to use one? She trusted implicitly in saidar, though it occurred to her that part of the lesson might involve survival without that shining light to fall back on. A risk she was prepared to take. Or, if she was going to think about it cynically, a lesson she was prepared to learn the hard way.

In front of them, Aileen captured every warrioress story ever told about a Green; blades worn with all the elegance of jewellery and all the finesse of true capability. Strong-limbed femininity hugged tight in those practical garments, and her face was yet young, stern expressioned like she were possessed of an old soul, but beautiful; Nythadri wondered how many young hearts among the trainees flamed after that young sister, and how oblivious she was to the cadence of her own allure. Soft-spoken Brynn she paid less attention to, other than the necessary honorifics due a Sister of her standing. She was the third Blue to hold the mantle of Mistress of Novices since Nythadri had signed the book, and thus far the one she had had least contact with. A necessary sanction given the times, she supposed, and more reassuring than an Aes Sedai's signature flourished in the hand of a stranger. Not that that had stopped her stepping through the Gate to Arad Doman.

On the short journey to the Travelling Grounds, she gave the other five Accepted cursory attention; interested more in their reactions than their identities. Mai was stoic, Aes Sedai-like; fearlessly confidant, and closest in stride to the Aes Sedai who led them. A nameless, short, dark haired girl; Cairhienin probably, given her stature; prim and precise in demeanour, though her brow shot up when Aileen opened the gate. Galena, Blue aspirant; she Nythadri knew. Smug and eager. Alida and Elsae, whom since Kekura's penance naturally twinned in Nythadri's mind despite the polar-end personalities. The former determined and overladen (or so Nythadri thought now; maybe she would come to regret that assessment), the latter wonderstruck, curious, happy. Always happy.

Beyond the Gate, Lythia and Blake. It was the first time she had seen the Green since her impromptu pledge; since those offered and accepted promises, though at the time Nythadri had known so much less than Lythia had assumed. Her hair flamed in the winter sun, gaze lingering on both her and Mai a little longer than the others. Expectant, proud. Nythadri didn't like the weight of that; it felt so unearned. Tangled with the memory of that first meeting lay the Traitor's Tree, a bloodied and unrecognisable face, and a burden of guilt. But the thoughts were fleeting, compartmentalised. Instead, Nythadri's gaze took in the grass, trees and tents dispassionately; a sigh swelled her chest and puffed out cold air in front of her face. A creature of comforts; of buildings and cities and civilisation, the idea of sleeping under thick canvas instead of a solid roof did not fill her with romantic wonder. Fortunately, neither was she the sort to moan about it. Twenty-four hours. A goal in sight, and Nythadri funnelled all that dissatisfaction to dogged determination.
While Aileen joined her and Blake, Lythia studied each girl's interpretation of preparedness. From Alida's burdens to Elsae's odd choices, but whatever her brief study determined, it stayed safely unreflected on the Aes Sedai's expression. With being intrigued being the predominant feeling to cross the bond at the moment. "Welcome Accepted. While good intentions alone do not win battles, I still commend your choice to be here today." She glanced at Aileen, and the two Greens shared a nod as though they both knew exactly what she was talking about. Likely even a few history lessons might pop into Ellamai's mind about then as well. But Lythia was more curious about whether the Accepted would still feel the wisdom of their choice come this time tomorrow.

She briefly went over the basic layout of the camp: the food line, tents, latrines. Blake signaled to the two Accepted of the Sword, and they swiftly joined them, bowing respectfully for the Accepted when the attention turned their way. Lythia watched the girls' faces for that instant. As she well remembered what it was like to find herself in close quarters with rugged, alluring men at that age. At least Finnaer, with his sweeping brunette hair and chiseled cheekbones, was certainly an eye-catcher. Being the ageless creature she was, A Green was bound to notice. His partner, Corbin, was less dramatic but no less talented. His narrow eyes peered around them with a healthy caution, and despite piecy, brown hair he kept an otherwise tidy appearance.

"You will be participating in essentially a series of war games. We have a containment zone set up."
She turned and briefly gestured at the thicker band of woods up the hill. "It is about a square mile in size and you will sense the wards identifying the boundaries once you get there."

She turned back, placing her hands on her hips in a very matter of fact manner. Some of the former Green's playfulness receded, leaving behind a cool sense of assurance as to who was the leader here. Lythia rarely turned on the more serious shades of herself simply to intimidate Accepted or Novices, but despite the severity of this situation, a hint of amusement danced under her skin, apparent to the Accepted like the twang of a shot arrow unseen in the darkness. Blake, however, tilted his beautiful face her way, jaw tight with enough formality to serve both of them. It was about then the two Accepted of the Sword stiffened their spines, probably emulating the noble master of arms.

"You'll be in two teams. Team one is Alida, Elsae, Nythadri, and Finnaer - then Larea, Galena, Mai and Corbin."
She fixed each person in her gaze a moment when reciting their names. This would be the first they heard of their groupings. "This first mission is simple. One flag per nation waits somewhere in the war zone. The two teams are to collect as many flags as possible. Your team will gain a point for every flag obtained. However, as your two teams are competing for the same objects, you are therefore enemies.

You may use any resource as available to you to accomplish this mission. Your rules are to stay within the warded zone and you must abide by the Three Oaths."

Her voice did not raise, nor her expression harden. Lythia had no need for a physical presence to communicate what she wanted. "Any fault in your adherence to the Oaths will be met with swift retribution to make a runaway novice's strapping on the triangle seem appealing."
She did, however, take time to stick each Accepted with a small smile, the sort flashed just before a Sister found herself betrayed by a trusted friend.

"Now. The Game ends when the time reaches its limit: one hour after sunset. I will send up red flares as your signal. If you can see the sky at that time, you'll see them. And you are to cease everything at that moment and exit the zone. The Game may also end if one team is completely eliminated. To render another Accepted eliminated, you must shield her. Once an Accepted is shielded, she is to cease all activity and immediately exit the zone. Five points are deducted from your team if you lose an Accepted and added to the other team for eliminating her.

Your Accepted of the Sword is a valuable player. You may use him to whatever extent you wish or not at all. Although I'd advise against that."

She glanced at the two boys. They were Blake's selection, after all. A great honor to be deemed worthy of this in the first place, but they also left a fine balance of skill they still needed to perfect. Not to mention the contacts they would forge with these Accepted that made it to the Shawl. Lythia did not much like the idea of pushing promise into Sisterhood just in time for the Last Battle then leaving the Sisters without the vaguest idea of who to bond to protect them. And not for the first time did she entertain ideas to bring the two groups together, faster.

"Accepted of the Sword are more difficult to eliminate. You will have to physically capture and tag him. At which point, he will win - or cost your team - two points, and he will immediately leave the war zone."

"So as you can see. You must be cognizant of many factors. Not just one another. There are obstacles and wards in your way. If you trip one, a point is deducted. If you are eliminated, five points is deducted. If your Accepted of the Sword is eliminated, a point is deducted."

"For any mission in the world remember you are work not only against those who oppose you, but also enemies of the Tower."
She lifted her brows, giving the teams a veiled hint at an abstract enemy within.

There were also snipers in the woods, of course the teams were not aware of this yet. They were armed with training arrows, shafts fixed with padded rubber rather than arrowheads. This would be a difficult task for the trained woodsmen on each team, as the snipers were fanclothed, cloaked warders lurking in wait. Excluding Jael, for it was against custom for unbonded to don that prized cloth, despite the ideas to arm every soldier of the Light with that elusive armor before the Last Battle began. They had allegiance to no team, only to act against whatever wishes that were the Tower's.

It was at this time she dismissed them. Giving the groups thirty minutes to prepare themselves and perhaps devise strategy should they wish it. At the end of the time, it would be Aileen Sedai who escorted Nythadri's group to their entrance site, and Glenna Sedai escorting the other team to the entrance on the side directly opposite.

Just before everyone dispersed, Lythia waved the first of the Accepted to her side. It seemed she was going to have a few private words (or instructions) for everyone. It would be, of course, up to the individual girl if she wanted to share her knowledge with the other members of the team.

First, the bubbling, effervescent Elsae. Not simply because she feared she might not capture the child again once she was released, but because Lythia was intrigued by the girl. She led, strolling along the camp out of everyone's earshot, excluding Blake's who fell into graceful stride a step behind them. "Elsae, you must be diligent for traitors may be found in any team. At a point of their choosing, if its desired, they will switch sides and join the efforts of your opposition. Watch your back as you watch everything else."
She dismissed the Accepted with a simple wave, and watched her go for a few moments. She was young for Accepted, but no more than Lythia was at that same stage in her career. She also had the potential strength enough to earn the shawl. She was also just so...unbelievably whimsical and likable. It was hard to imagine in someone so seemingly sweet, but Lythia learned her lesson. She'd been duped before.

In the brief moments when Elsae left and Alida came, everything Corele had told her about the Dreadlord's inquiry into a girl of the same name flashed through her mind. Lythia of course checked on this in the fleeting moments she had in the Tower between darts to the Black Tower, Caemlyn, Lugard, and Shienar. She knew about the incident in the city, she knew about Darkfriend involvement. Light she'd been part of the team that interrogated the courier, Graham. So there was a connection, although she had yet to discover it. She'd also been of interest to learn the child was from Jarra, and Lythia well knew the night she, Blake, and Byron went there that region was far from sacred, sheltered backwaters. Then again, she'd been slightly distracted lately, but either way, sweet girls joined the Dark One just as often as the horrid ones.

Alida arrived next. Lythia was informed this child was of remarkable potential. She already showed Talents extraordinary with the female threads: air, water, and spirit. It was said she would work the weather like a Sea Folk once experience was hers. She was also talented with forging objects of the Power, which would be a blessing if she forged anything useful to usher victory at the Last Battle. She was also from Caemlyn, specifically from the palace, and was known to Lythia. "Elayne told me a member of her staff was sent to the Tower. She will be pleased to know your progress. I'll make sure to tell her when next I see her."
Then, on to business, "You must be diligent, Alida, for traitors may be found in any team. At a point of her choosing, if its desired, they will switch sides and join the efforts of your opposition. Watch your back as you watch everything else.."

She dismissed the girl, wondering if either her or Elsae would share the information with each other. Or likewise the Accepted of the Sword. It was a question in strategy if ever there was. And a lesson in accomplishing a task when you may be in company of someone working against you. She did not want to foster mistrust among Sisters, as that was not the point, but rather, to keep their eyes open. Only at the end of the game would they realize there was never a traitor assigned as Lythia led them to believe.

The rest of the girls on both teams were given the same sort of private moment. An insightful word of encouragement followed by the warning of a traitor. Then, the last of the group summoned for quiet words at Lythia's side was Nythadri.

A gust of wind caused her to straighten her cloak, until she tucked her hands in its interior pockets for the time being, though she made no indication of being cold. There was no point studying Nythadri as she had the others. The child was the only of the six to come from nobility, beyond that, she was far too experienced at hiding her reactions to warrant intimidation. At this stage, Lythia doubted Nythadri would think this exercise to be more than vaguely beneficial to her training, but Lythia believed strategy, leadership, and foresight were not learned from books but only in the dangerous forests of experience. So whereas she took a different tactic with the others, warning them of a potential traitor that may or may not be there. "I've been warning your team mates the likelihood of a traitor among you. Who likely upon the most advantageous moment will betray your team and switch sides."
Let the Great Gamer stew over that one.

But she wasn't done. Nothing particular changed in Lythia's tone. She didn't alter her strolling gait. Nor did she particularly glance at Nythadri. Lythia found herself watching the distant mountain peaks, contemplating their distance in her mind, and how long it would take riders to cross the terrain or to distinguish wisps of storm clouds from flocks of spying ravens.

"Things seemed to have stagnated in Caemlyn for the moment. Ellomai is keeping an eye on our interests there. You likely don't know her, she hasn't been in the Tower for many years. However, she is subtler than most, and reserved. You will like her I think."
Ell was not the typical Green having the studious heart of a Brown, but she was not a pushover, not with the tenacity of a borderlander in her veins. If anything developed, and suddenly the Vanditeras name circled in fresh rumors, Ell was ready for it.

Then, flatness smoothed her cheeks. Flat as the angle of those slopes rising above the treeline on those mountains. "They flogged him. Five Asha'man. In the throne room."
Sobriety touched the news, but while Lythia disapproved of the violence that was Jai's punishment, she understood it. A runaway novice after all was strapped naked to a triangle on the grounds and flogged with whips, and she wasn't Healed afterward. However, she was not taken to the verge of death either.

She considered telling Nythadri the identity of that line's leading channeler. Together they were powerful enough a group to carve new ridges through the Spine of the World, let alone what damage they could inflict upon one man. "The M'Hael called upon Lennox to direct. You know who that is?"
In the end, she told her. It was tempting to see how Lennox would wriggle if Nythadri's wrath, as Lythia imagined would bubble up, turned his way. But she told Nythadri because the child was going to have to gain an appreciation of Black Tower politics soon enough, and as Lythia said before, such things were only acquired by experience. Lennox was selected for political reasons as much as practical ones. Nythadri may, or may not, understand that.

"Last I saw of him he was alive."
A true enough statement, though the heartbroken wail that still cringed Lythia's heart certainly pegged the Asha'man in her memory clearly these weeks later. As demanding as Lythia was on the fighters for the Light, she was still a woman, one who did not enjoy witnessing such things.

She sighed and shook her head, "then I'm told he got himself flogged again on the grounds the next day. Without the M'Hael's supervising hand this time."
That implied a lot. Mistakes excluded, where punishments were dolled out carefully upon their prized weapons, an Asha'man being an important investment after all, it was still in a controlled environment. On the grounds, on the other hand... "It's unclear what happened after that. He was taken away and hasn't been seen since, but i'm told it was bloody and his fate largely depends on how swiftly a Healer was found."

Ironically it was Aileen who supplied most of the first-hand account of those events, but other matters drew the Green's attention elsewhere. According to Aileen, he should have lived, but that was why Lythia described the outcome of his fate rather than his life. For a man can exist, work, and function but still never quite be alive again.

That was the truth of it. Lythia glanced finally at Nythadri, fixing her with honesty as she had the same that day in her rooms. She held nothing back, except the implication of drink playing the factor in clouding the boy's judgement.

The thirty minutes of strategizing was nearly passed, but just before she dismissed Nythadri, she had one last comment to add. "Do you know the significance of the sword he carried?"
She imagined a number of wondering questions passed through Nythadri's mind, so she elaborated. "Many men, especially in the Black Tower, who arrive with their own rather than carry a commissioned blade, bear such heirlooms. It would be unfortunate to lose one. A connection to home and family as they might represent...But,"
her lips pursed thoughtfully, green eyes waiting for insight if Nythadri had it. She'd not had the time to investigate beyond her own curiosity. "The dragon-etched sword in my quarters was Shadow's. He loved that blade, and earned it. Never was there such a sight...."

If Nythadri had been a Sister, Lythia would have shown her a measure of sadness upon saying that. But the shawl was not yet on her shoulders, and as such, an Aes Sedai's place was one of strength, so she held back the familiarity, but there was no denying the difficulty of losing a warder. Though it was not common knowledge they were reciprocally bonded, it was all the harder the loss to endure. "If I were forced to see it melted down before my eyes, I would..."
Lythia didn't finish that sentence. She shook the feeling off, then paused if Nythadri had something to say.

Then some time later she was dismissed as her predecessors had been. Then it was Aileen and Glenna's responsibility to see the teams to their entrance.
It seemed an inconsequential distraction. A game, though one she understood they were expected to take seriously. A good opportunity to practise channeling under unusual circumstances, which was not a chance to be snubbed at. Not to her taste exactly, she thought as she once again took in the terrain, but hardly unendurable. A good distraction; a distraction she needed. So she listened, idling on the bite of the winter wind on her skin. It would get colder after the sun set. And Elsae has no gloves. She glanced at the girl as she thought it, noticing how her hands were bunched in the warmth of her cloak. If she happened to look (though she should really be paying attention to the Aes Sedai) she would see Nythadri offer something of a smile; she could only imagine Elsae was finding this whole thing terribly exciting. Then the groups were laid out; Elsae and Alida. The two she knew best out of the five others gathered, which was both good and bad. And Finnaer. She didn't recognise him; no big surprise.

Nythadri was the last to be called to speak to the Green, and greeted Lythia with a wry twist of her lips – presuming the woman must know it wasn’t her own hand that had signed her up to the task. Yet here she was anyway, suitably dressed and apparently ready for whatever lay beyond. She matched the Green’s stride, and listened as each girl had before her. ‘I've been warning your team mates the likelihood of a traitor among you. Who likely upon the most advantageous moment will betray your team and switch sides.’ The words flowed like water into effortless meaning. She didn’t even mull over it, just extrapolated in the same moments the sounds met her ears, as natural players of the Game were wont to do. But no warning for me?

There was no real reaction; not least because Nythadri was not engaged enough in those sorts of mind games to have one. So there’s no designated traitor. That seemed straight-forward enough – though perhaps she was only so sure because there were no true consequences; if one of the others had been told to turncoat at the most opportune moment – supposing they even had the guts to do so – it meant little other than a ‘lesson’ of trust learnt, and a game lost. Both outcomes she could live with. Though... if there was no turncoat but an expected turncoat, why not be a turncoat. In the double sense. The potential advantage glittered like gold, the ever-present ghost of daes dae mar sinking its claws, but she was not so sure she was invested enough to bother with the subterfuge, and the consideration faded.

Nythadri’s step did not falter, but the air drew a little colder at mention of Caemlyn. She hadn’t expected Lythia to be so forthcoming; had in fact steeled herself to have to work for the information. The genuine openness caught her attention, tugged her gaze to the Green’s face, which was turned majestically toward the mountains. The last time they had spoken of Caemlyn, Nythadri had been blind to the context; had not known of Winther or her family’s new wealth. She’d figured it out, of course, piece by miserable piece. But it had taken time. And in that time it had never occurred to her that when Lythia spoke of interests back then, she had meant Nythadri’s family. Zakar’s unsmiling face loomed, and his warning echoed. Did Lythia or Ellomai know of Ellis? Or have any hint of the tangle that lay beneath the mess Jai had exposed? She could only hope not, for there was very little she could do about it.

An appropriately grateful nod met the information. No news from Caemlyn was good; knowing she had an unexpected ally there was also good, if risky when it wasn’t an ally she had any control over. So long as my father keeps his head down and my sisters keep their mouths shut, it’ll be fine. Her care for them, and it was there, she supposed, somewhere deep – else she would not have gone to the lengths she had to try and protect them – froze over, and returned to absent depths. She expected a dismissal then, but didn’t get it. Lythia kept talking. Her face was smooth, her tone even; she may as well have been talking about the weather but for the solemnity that underpinned her next words.

Flogged. By five men. Two more than Tashir. All of them Asha’man. The images punched violently through her mind, though she had been prepared to find out that he had been beaten. It mitigated her reaction, somewhat, to have replayed that scene in her head so many times already. Fists or saidin; she’d seen it both ways. The snap of bone, the tear of flesh. She could taste the blood. Knew the slack-eyed look of drifting consciousness. Of desperation. Even when she reminded herself she was only reliving her brother’s murder the sharp sting in her stomach did not lessen; she had never meant for Tash to die, but she had caused it. However unintentionally, she had caused this too. The weight of sleepless nights settled on her shoulders. She felt hollowed out.

Nythadri understood the need for consequences; she was not squeamish or overly soft-hearted. But the motivation for Jai’s punishment had been pure politics. He was a scapegoat for the failings of his superiors, and that she could not abide. Nor was it a thing she was easily able to push to the side, not least its companioning face of guilt. She realised then that Lythia must have been there. Seen it. Did you try to stop it? The words edged her tongue like a serrated blade, but the blame was so painfully misplaced she swallowed back the poison, tore her eyes away from the Sister and fixed them on the landscape. The impotency of her position gnawed at her, the sheer powerlessness; neither of which was Lythia’s fault. She forced it down, blocked it off; calm, efficient. I was prepared for this.

Her brows narrowed over her eyes, braced against the cold glaring sun like she wanted to shut the world out, but it was the only outward reaction she allowed beyond the glacial detachment of a still expression. ‘Last I saw of him he was alive.’ It should have ended there; those should have been the last words, the drawing of a line beneath it all: he was alive. But Lythia didn’t stop there; the preceding sigh alone flooded pre-emptive coldness in Nythadri’s veins. Flogged again. The anger was like little pinpricks under her skin, and she couldn’t even be sure who or what she was even angry at. But it burned, light it burned. Saidar nudged the hand of comfort, but she knew better than to draw on that addiction. Calm down. Even through the choke of her reaction, her mind was whirring and pulling apart the brief sentences. Lythia had witnessed the first beating, but not the second. So who was the informant, and who exacted the second beating?

She was reigning in control of her reaction, such as it was; honing in on the facts whilst trying to decide if it was wise to take an interest. Or to confirm it, at least; Lythia would not have told her about Jai at all if she did not think it meant something to Nythadri. The desire to hold back unravelled when she met Lythia’s fiercely honest gaze. Aes Sedai took away the things that mattered and called it a lesson; that belief was too ingrained to abandon for a few tossed bones, but she was finally starting to accept the Green’s brand of sincerity. It was exactly the kind of truth Nythadri required; the kind she sought in every new acquaintance, and failed to find each time. Until Jai.

“Who beat him the second time?”
The Aes Sedai had not been there, but she must know. Nythadri didn’t ask why it had happened; Lythia’s implications were enough – she’d seen how fast he’d swarmed on Tamal, how the dark curtain just dropped and only shreds of humanity remained. She was under no grand illusions that he had not been the one to provoke a fight in the first place, though Lythia’s phasing made it seem agonisingly one-sided. That didn’t surprise her either, though it pained her with the echoes of his confessions on the beach. ‘I should not have gotten up, Nythadri.’ And he seemed determined to make sure that one day he didn’t.

She was not sure if the Sister would answer; there was the unmistakable twang of a nocked arrow in Nythadri’s tone. Hard-edged. Even if she didn’t answer, she must know Nythadri could find out. Would find out, supposing she had not already followed the road of common sense to its most obvious conclusion. Lennox. She was confidant she knew what Jai would have done; who he would have retaliated against. But she wanted to hear it, and she wanted Lythia to say it; to trust her with the knowledge of it, so that she could begin to convince herself she could trust an Aes Sedai. Her pale eyes were searching, contemplative; testing delicate waters, this strange new experience of being an aspirant. Of having a place to belong.

She was still shoring up the edges of emotion when Lythia posed her final question; such a disastrously innocent question. The curiosity didn’t surprise her at first; Liridia’s Warder, Keren, had let the blade’s identity slip. Malkieri. So it did not seem odd that a Green would find it of interest – such rarities were almost extinct, just as were men with that branch of blood diluted in their veins. But she also respected the way Jai coveted his privacy. She’d never asked about the sword, and he had never volunteered the information; everything she knew was a compilation of observation and happenstance. She knew enough to build a picture; enough to know it was something important. Not enough to know exactly why.

She remembered the long line of immortalised Kojimas with that blade laid out on their laps. It never should have been Jai’s, yet for whatever reason it was. An heirloom, definitely that. She suspected more, but had nothing to base that on but conjecture; when she’d gathered her things on the beach, intuition had stayed her hand from touching the sword before Jai had channelled his belongings through the Gateway anyway. She remembered every time he had touched its hilt – caressed it, squeezed it, brushed it. Like a touchstone, an anchor. So her expression fell eerie still when Lythia so casually spoke of loss. Spoke of Shadow. Then her heart plummeted. Nythadri was the type to honour honesty with honesty, and Lythia had offered nothing but. More than once. It braced against her rational judgement while in the company of an Aes Sedai, but she allowed the humanity of expression through; the burden of concern, the hollow guilt. Her eyes were tight, her lips downturned. “-know something of what it must have felt like for him.”
She finished Lythia’s sentence for her, laying the words heavy as a shroud.

“It’s a leader’s duty to know those he leads. Well enough to know the difference between the teaching of a true lesson, and crushing someone completely.”
She didn’t say it, but the pierce of her look was all the accusation necessary; that line was crossed. In her opinion, at least. Light, but Jai was already unbalanced, teetering on the edge of an abyss. His soul was in that sword – cold, inanimate piece of bloody metal that it was, had been she corrected dismally. It blazed a trail back to a rich heritage, the heritage of the kind of man who placed a hand on hilt then heart to beg forgiveness. The kind of man that deserved to live.

All she had wanted to know was that he was alive; and now she did, and it wasn’t enough.

Blood and Ashes. A field in the middle of nowhere was the last place she wanted to be. Did Lythia think she would play games with children while Jai was cut adrift from the mess she had helped create? Her fingers had trailed the scar down his torso, the kind of wound that kicked a man to the jaws of death and left him there without miraculous intervention; she’d seen the frozen look on his face when he’d relayed, unasked, the story behind it (the whole bloody reason she’d ever told him about her brother). He’d had good intentions, she knew that. Stupid, but good. And it had cost him. It had cost him dearly. She believed Lythia when she said she did not know where Jai was, but she also believed in her own abililty to track someone down if it was what she wanted. Anonymous pendant or not; whether he wished to see her or not. Jai didn't get the choice; not when she set her mind like that. The resolution set her expression grim; realisation such plans had to wait made it cold. You must see it through to the end. Excepting loss of limb, life, or burning out; you must see it through to the end. The words formed a trap – she hadn’t even signed up for this. But she’d stepped through the Aileen’s Gateway willing enough and – whatever face she presented to the world – Nythadri did in fact accept the consequences and responsibilities that came with her actions. Twenty-four hours. Her eyes blinked, seeing the mountains, the trailing tents, the other Accepted. Lythia had unhinged her, and had probably done it on purpose. And it had worked. Her jaw tensed, but she didn’t fall apart. The brief flash of openness ended. He’ll lie to himself. If he was still alive, if he was still somewhere safe. She pulled her cloak tighter about her neck, meeting Lythia’s gaze a final time. “Thank you.”
There was once a time when Lythia imagined she would never rise so far as to shrug aside that sacred obligation to the next generation that was the duty to teach; perhaps the draw of legacy when one senses the coming of her end led her to organize these experiences for those initiates who would accept it. She saw the burden of Arikan's life leering down at her then, both his silent accusation once he realized what she was after and herself realizing what she was willing to pay to get it. Sensing that, she knew her days were limited now. In that depressing epiphany there was also a cohesive bond. She knew something of Rand's burdens then. She could stretch forth towards the future and understand an Asha'man's looming horizon. The fear of death was natural as the desire to live, and if Lythia had her way, she intended to live as long as possible, but on the other side waited arms she ached to again feel them bundling her close and hear his voice whisper words of love in her ear. It had been so long, she feared she was soon to forget what his voice actually sounded like? Why did I never think to memorize it before? Why had she never memorized everything about him? The way his eyelashes brushed when he blinked. The way he tilted his cheek into the pillow when he slept. The way his hands felt so rough, a working man's hands, hard and cracked around his knuckles but the pads of his fingers soft when they grazed her skin.

Lythia knew love and loss. She knew the sacrifice and the guilt that it was to continue waking up everyday, as though part of her thought it was a dishonor to his memory to put on her shoes and brush her hair, let alone embrace the masculine arms of another. Her heart though was sealed away for that day, hopefully the same day the Dark One died, and she could remember the sound of Shadow's voice again. Until then, though, shawl set her direction and the Tower set her pace. Her shawl was Green, and in her family there was comfort, but only for those of like mind. Nythadri had to be forged into a Green just like the rest of them. And like the way a girl of the ring knew a novice couldn't truly comprehend what the serpent cost them, an Aes Sedai knew something similar of the Accepted. 

Nythadri had to learn patience. In the face of the hardest of temptations. Of course Lythia knew she'd not scribed her own name to the list. If Mai hadn't seen to that then Lythia would have, either way, Nythadri didn't have a choice. Just as she didn't have a choice that she was going to have to accept Lythia's leadership in these matters; and trust that it was for her own good in the way they were unfurled at the child's feet. Where a Green shawl waited at the end, a Green Sister would shove an aspirant forward step by exhuasting step, but it wasn't until this very moment - the moment Lythia rolled out the long list of updates - that she knew how the Accepted would handle it.

She looked devastated. Not for the news, or lack thereof, concerning her family. Ellomai did not bat more than an acknowledging eyelash. For that, Nythadri was a statue, lifeless as marble, her pupils as reflective. A child of nobility indeed. 

No, what minimal color there was melted from her face, snowflakes upon glass. It struck, then iced angrily, then absorbed and slid away, transparent and forgotten. She seemed to take the news well, and if Lythia guessed correctly, likely implied a bit of self-preparation to hear such news. The violence and hardship of the Black Tower was not unknown to those of the White inclined to learn of it. Not simply because of moments like this, where an Aes Sedai was intending to impart some insight into the delicate cantilever of Black Tower politics, but because of the sheer commonality of knowledge regarding their life. A man who was found to channel was not given a choice, he would turn away, take the black uniform, and become something else. Tinkers became the very weapon they despised. Aiel realized the enormity of toh they could never meet. And the lighthearted, green-eyed boy from Falme would wake up one day and find himself scarred, within and without, unrecognizable from what he once was and unseeking to rediscover him. Kent, you will find your peace as I will find mine. Someday soon my brother. 

Yes, Black Tower politics Nythadri was going to have to learn. Aes Sedai of the Green or any other Ajah, she was intwined with them now. The moment she'd captured the attention of one of them, the gears were set into motion. Where they were headed, Lythia could only surmise, her own experience likely biasing that end point, but if that were the case, and she knew the end of that tale, would she want it changed? In the interests of foolishly believing she knew what was best for a Sister? Or the opposite, a foolish nod to the alter Lythia herself could no longer serve? Love and devotion. For a someone, not a cause. Standing there, weighing Nythadri's every nuance, trying to decide how the child was accepting the news of an Asha'man's bloody struggles, well, she wasn't sure even she knew the answer to that question. She caught the dogged look of a dare though, of a silent threat looming behind the seeking eyes of a child just out of the loop enough to be aware of what she was missing. Lythia met that stare back, daring her to voice the demand stabbing at her. You may question me child but you will not like the answer. The Aes Sedai was met with only silence, however, and Lythia turned away, inwardly praising Nythadri's control. Though, for half a heartbeat, Lythia worried it was about to spiral out of hand.

"Lennox." She'd earned the answer. Spoken plainly because the child struggled and overcame. What simmered briefly to the surface calmed down again, and Lythia rewarded her effort. An inch of trust shown on her part, and another inch of the path forward was revealed. She knew the answer though, unneeding of Lythia's affirmation of a logical conclusion. If Jai were the sort to pick a fight, Lythia was unaware of it. All she knew was Aileen's accounts. All protocols were otherwise followed the night before. Black bodies trickled from the 'Throne Room' and a broken man was dumped before the boots of a rare Healer. He was confined to solitary and a watch posted. Somehow though, alcohol trickled into a quiet room, and the next day chaos left it. 

Lythia supplied the answer quickly, without thinking over whether to do so or not. Nythadri earned the support, but things were not so simple. It had been Lythia Sedai who stood in the Chair of Remorse at Lennox's trial. The Greens voted against the Blues at the last three meetings of the Hall. Lythia was entangled with Lennox now, and where one brother pulled the threads of time around him, the other brother pushed the Pattern into his will. Kent was a member of the same family as Nythadri now, who the child would not know the complexity of everything involved, she someday would. Lennox earned himself a treacherous enemy now, and if implicating Lennox's brutality against Jai did not do it, what came next seemed to.

Nythadri finished the sentence that Lythia was about to roll from her tongue describing the threat of action she would take, of seeking justice for such a grave wrong, and Lythia shot the child the first disappointment in their brief interactions. Sacrifices that separated an Aes Sedai from an Accepted was a cold dose of the same reality which separated an Accepted from a novice. Nythadri jumped too quickly to the conclusion Lythia did not sympathize with such an insult, And when you lose your first warder child, you will know something of it as well. 

Then contemplative serenity smoothed things over. Lythia chastized herself for the harsh snap, subtle as it had been. She was pushing Nythadri harder than she'd pushed any Accepted before, and then surprised when the child resisted the premature growth. The bond aided her then, Blake protecting her as a true warder protected his Aes Sedai from a fearsome enemy: herself, and she was able to absorb what Nythadri revealed. 

She was right, of course. About leaders knowing who they led. Spoken ironically, did she realize how Lythia was doing the same thing with her? At this stage, and tentative balance Nythadri seemed to hold, that snowflake fighting a bloody battle against the windowpane, holding on to every shard until the last agonizing moment. She had to learn..experience was only captured one way. "What abstract lesson does a leader feel obligated to teach an Asha'man, Nythadri when obliterating him of identity brings more reliable results? They are not servants to guide the world with a steady hand as we are, widsom and temperance are not mantles they need carry. They're forged into men of instant obedience not free thinkers: the Last Battle depends on their unflinching obedience and subconscious training. Picture also of the man who must give those orders, then picture the Dragon Reborn. It does not make it right, you and I may see a flesh and blood man where others see only a vessel of fate, but that is the way it is. Such it becomes our place to coax our brothers back when they drift toward insanity.. because we can handle it." Responsibility was a heavy burden, but an Aes Sedai wore it like a shawl. 

All of it.
Lythia said it; quickly, smoothly, without pause. Lennox. Whatever Nythadri’s reaction to it, it was blanketed quickly beneath calm features, her vacant eyes fixed on the distant mountains. The name rang heavy, and then the echo faded to something bearable. Something to think on later. Moments later, the Aes Sedai’s disappointment cut a familiar tread; it was what she was used to, and the criticism was strangely soothing when it should have fired her ire more. It was conceited and foolhardy to put words in the mouth of an Aes Sedai, but she felt stoically unrepentant for having done so. There was self-validation in the error; that knee-jerk reaction to repel authority.

She didn’t wilt under the sting of chastisement, achingly brief as it was; she was the type to find strength in the adversity.

A frown threatened to tug her lips down. Frustration smothered a thick, cloying embrace even as she understood the stark truth for what it was. Not that she fully accepted it, even then. So why allow men to keep their own weapons at all? Why not strip them of all identity the day they stared into the flame and the flame stared back? Cut them out of the heart of life entirely? In the days before Tarmon Gaidon it was a kinder justice than the slow death of identity the Asha’man were apparently subjected to. Did they do it just for the pleasure of breaking a man down to build him up stronger? The thoughts strummed a vehement discord. Then they’re not brothers at all, just another of the White Tower’s pawns.

Easy to turn her back on all the words that did not fit her ideals, and she might have done so but for one admission: It does not make it right. The Aes Sedai said it herself, and though the most arrogantly naïve part of Nythadri wanted to demand why nothing was done to change it, she held her tongue. Behind the rashness she knew a thousand answers to that unasked question, and none of them needed to be condescended to her. So she said nothing. Something of her returned silence suggested she was really listening, though the keen edge remained. Questions, so many questions, arguments, passions hummed to the forefront of her mind. She wanted to contend the point, to glean wisdom from the heat of debate – almost to push the Aes Sedai’s patience to its limit, until she could truly say she understood. But now was hardly the time for such discussion, and she couldn’t even say when she might see Lythia again. It left the whole thing sorely unfinished, like an open wound, but Nythadri would not broach the subject with anyone else.

She didn’t nod, but there was a reluctant recognition of something she needed more time to fully absorb. Acquiescence was a rare offering from Nythadri, but she owed Lythia that much; fair consideration of the guidance presented, even when youthful passions heartened it to fall on deaf ears. The Green could have chosen to tell her nothing. She’d do well to remember that. Nythadri might not like the powerlessness, but she was grateful for what it was. By now, she’d had enough time to collect herself; to fold all the emotion back neatly behind those pale eyes. And she was ready to be dismissed.

When she returned to the others, strategizing was the last thing on her mind. But she’d tolerate it; she’d tolerate this whole sorry twenty-four hours