The First Age

Full Version: Loose Ends
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The last time she had set foot in Tar Valon, it had ended with her heart shattered to pieces and a disgraced escort to Yelendrian’s office. The memories curled about her thoughts like mist; how eagerly she had descended the ivory steps from the Tower, cheeks flushed with anticipation. Ignorant. Stupid. There was no such keenness today, only business-like resolution. The sooner this was over with the better. The organisation alone had taken far more time than she would have liked, especially balanced against her new duties as an aspirant. And it annoyed her, the repressive obligation she felt to offer protection to the family she had rejected – moreso when that protection was so limited in its scope. As if an ill-conceived confession could have such repercussions. Would Jai be pleased to know how his actions had avalanched the collapse of five years of silence? Probably not, if he had any clue what a grim cast it lay on her thoughts.

Such a pity these things had to be authorised in the flesh, or the light knew she would not have come at all. The appointment had been made ahead of time, and Nythadri had ensured she would be the last to arrive. It would solve the matter of an awkward family reunion; not that she expected a scene, but the fewer opportunities for awkward small talk the better. She would help her family, but it did not mean she relished interacting with them. And it was certainly not to be misconstrued as invitation to build bridges burned long ago.

Only when she entered the bank’s immaculate foyer and was led to the door of the appropriate office, Mishael waited outside. Her stride did not falter its rhythmic click against the floor tiles, though her expression tightened with displeasure. His own did not flicker; but then, he was already frowning. Nythadri had inherited her looks from her father, that unsettling mix of pale and dark. He was more gaunt than he had been five years ago, and lines that did not stem from easy laughter creased his eyes. More silver lined his temple, and shot through his neatly trimmed beard. For a man who had brought his House to near ruin, he had the bearing of steel. Perhaps another thing she had inherited. She went to move past him. His hand beat hers to the door handle, and locked it in place. “Are you involved in this, Nythadri?”


Her hand retracted before their skin met, jaw tight. The pendant. He had never mentioned it in any of their recent correspondence, and it occurred to her that he had been waiting to confront her in person. Her eyes flicked up to meet his. She could read the uncertainty in his expression; pain coiled like a wire round his heart. Did he ever blame me? For what happened? Or perhaps he resented how the mud of their pasts again clouded what had been calm waters, and once more his wayward daughter appeared to be at the heart of it. “If this was down to me, we would not be here. I would have had all the money safely secured in my own name in the first place, until the scandal died down. And I wouldn’t have waited so long to settle the score. Father.”


Five years, and no sentimentality on either side. She remembered how she had left things the day Karina Sedai had removed her from Caemlyn; remembered every jagged edge to their relationship. How easy it was to slip into old, abrasive roles. Only what purpose did it serve now? A sigh inflated her lungs, but she refrained from releasing it to sound like insolence. “I do not know for certain where the coin came from. I can only guess it once belonged to Winther. Even if it didn’t – and I can’t see an alternative – it hardly looks good with your names as the payees. If he, or anyone else, were to dig and find an account against my name, they will also find the White Tower. It’s the best protection I can offer. You can say no.”
Her words were low; Mishael would never notice the glow of saidar that lit her from the inside out, or the ward against eavesdropping that cast a protective net about them.

Either way he did not answer, only twisted the handle and held the door open for her.

Within the richly decorated office, already seated at the long table, were her sisters. For a moment Em looked as though she might rush to hug Nythadri; she half rose from her seat, face alight with the biggest of smiles, but Oshara stilled the movement with a hand on her wrist and she sank back down, a blush warming her round cheeks. They had been children the last time Nythadri had seen them; eleven and fourteen respectively. Emria retained a soft youthfulness to her features, and gentleness reminiscent of their mother. Not so different. Oshara was now a woman grown, though. And she wouldn’t meet Nythadri’s eyes.

At the head of the table, flanked by neat stacks of paperwork, the notary lifted his head. “Shall we proceed?”


Relieved at the brusque, no nonsense manner, Nythadri took her seat. Opposite her sisters. Opposite her father. An ornately wrought jug of water marked the half-way distance between them, but no-one had touched it nor the glasses clustered around its base. So they're all as uncomfortable as each other. It might have been kinder to defrost the tension; act the sister she had always been and poke gentle fun at the situation. They saw an Accepted. She could show them a person still existed beneath all that white. But she wouldn't. What would be the point? She finally caught Shara's gaze; but eyes of deepest blue froze over on contact. The animosity was startling; though, unperturbed by the challenge, it wasn't Nythadri who looked away first. Oshara's fists had curled in frustration; she removed them from the table, and pointed her gaze resolutely at the waiting paperwork instead.

Nythadri gestured her father to make the affirmative. She had meant what she said: this was his choice.
*
Afterwards, once the final signatures had been inked, Mishael was the first to stand. The pierce of his eyes caught her own, like he tried to unravel her from her Accepted shackles; to find some hint of the familiar beneath the porcelain cast of her empty expression. Nythadri’s white-sleeved arms were folded tidily on the table. The serpent ring glittered prominently on her finger; like she really were nothing more than an extension of the Tower, providing an impartial service to people in need. But she needn’t have feared. There were no saccharine goodbyes.

Mishael helped his two daughters into their cloaks, as the notary packed his things away. Nythadri watched. She felt so removed. “I’ll keep my ear to the currents in Caemlyn.”
Though it would take time to start a network from scratch. Light, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Too late to back away anyway, now that things had been set in motion. "I'll be in touch. You don't need to contact me."
And in the meantime think about how you’re going to explain all that money once things have blown over.

She was glad when they had gone. A sigh left her lungs like fallen armour, and if she had been alone she might have succumbed to the urge to bury her head in her arms to seek a moment’s respite. How long since her last restful night? Now she either dreamed of Winther’s smug face or faces bloodied beyond recognition. Guilt that had buried deep and dormant for years flourished fresh like flowers after winter. The need to make loose ends neat. She hated the mess, like inkblots spilled on crisp paper. Still, she had become good at convincing herself to feel nothing.

As it what she merely stood, nodded a formal thanks to the notary, and left. Outside, she caught Em’s face in the window of the carriage as it slid past, a sad smile tilting the edges of her lips and her fingers fluttering a goodbye. Nythadri did not smile back.
*
Less than an hour later she sat in another office in another building, with more paperwork and another bank clerk. The tension from earlier had knotted in her back. Her neck throbbed dully. A headache built behind her eyes. She’d worked through worse though; she’d endured worse. I’m doing all I can do. So why didn’t it feel like enough? Beyond the narrow path to the goal she had set herself lay a dark rush of confused and unanalysed thought. Purposefully unanalysed. Why worry about the things she could not control? Could not change? That was good judgement, but accepting impotency did not seem to help. Which was probably why, of all the banks in Tar Valon, she had chosen the Kojimas.

Upon completion of the paperwork, the clerk told her that the account would need managerial approval - owing to the sheer quantity of coin to be deposited. Obviously, was her only, scathing answer, accompanied by a dismissive wave that the man should hurry along with whatever procedure was necessary.
"Drawer approval for you, sir."

Zak waved it over and glanced briefly at the details until he paused on the name. "That's quite the sum for someone I don't recognize. Nythadri Vanditera?"

"Yes sir. An Accepted of the White Tower. Our archives list a Noble House of the same name in Andor some years ago, but no information as could explain such a fortune." Zakar murmered his understanding, scrawled his slanted name to the contract and waved the man on, but not before noticing curiosity flashing the face of the woman visiting him. Jaslene Basinthe twisted excitedly in her chair, raising her docile voice into a question.

"What was that name again?"

"Vanditera. Nythadri, madam."
Jaslene thanked him, turned back to Zak and smiled broadly, "Oh I must see this girl."


He asked why. Perhaps they knew one another, although he could not recall any reason why a tavern maid would consort with so highly positioned a woman of the Tower. Accepted were but moments from the Shawl after all, a dominating chasm of power separated two such people.

Jaslene quickly added her explanation,
"Nythadri. That's the-. Oh, yes you weren't there."
Jaslene's memory caught up with her babbling, and Zak leaned back in his chair, fingers twined through one another against his lap and patiently waited for clarification. Jaslene didn't seem to notice his brief glance at the arrangement of paperwork requiring his attention and continued, "The day you tried to, as Jai so dramatically put it, 'kill him' and showed up in Jon's office. Right before he left he mumbled a name in front of us. You know how he talks to himself without realizing it?"
Jaslene paused like she actually expected an answer to her rhetoric. Zak indulged with a light nod. She smiled, and finally made her point. "Someone named Nythadri, and stammered like a schoolboy after he realized it."


Interesting. Then Jaslene leaned forward so her wrists were perched on the edge of the gleaming desk seperating them, lowered her tone, and shared the highlight of her information. Zak made the mental note to summon his assistant to wipe the furniture down after she left, then nodded that she get on with it. The woman could certainly be dramatic. He could see why Jai had been so drawn to her back then.
"And Mikel said he asked about an Accepted that'd been injured."


Zak shook his head, disappointed. "That's only because I told him that little forsaken piece of street scum-courier attacked-"


Jaslene interrupted, and Zak blinked back at her with deep surprised.
"You watch your tongue around me Zakar Kojima."
Her tension melted soon after, replacing the beratement with a gloriously warm smile as she began to gather her things.

Likewise rousing, Zak interrupted this time.
"No. It's time you left anyway."
Jaslene looked hurt as a cracked egg. To which Zak rose, crossed to her and fluidly lifted her hand, drawing her up before him. He tried to keep the harshness from touching his voice around her, but Jaslene had always been sensitive and things did not always come out the way he intended. "What I mean is, Jon will be wondering what's taking so long."
Jaslene nodded, the wounding fading away into acceptable disappointment as she looked into his eyes, nodding,
"Very well. Mikel-"


"-Mikel is on duty, right now. You think i'd send for you when he wasn't?"
He kissed her hand and let her go, waving generally at the things on his desk. "I'll take a look at the changes to the books Jai made when I can. And I will see you later. Take care of those children."


Soon after, Zakar made his way downstairs. There was little fanfare when he arrived to the main trading floor. However, among the sharp dressed men focused on their tasks around them, he managed to stand out. Zakar was tall and narrow across the shoulders. Light brown hair still void of gray was long to swirl around with neat dignity, but not so long for any actual curl to be seen; likewise untouched by nervous fingers as others were wont to scrub. A perfectly groomed sheen of a short board framed his mouth, but the remaining jawline was smooth shaven. He had a narrow, hawk-like face and unblinking eyes which seemed to censure everything they saw. Inspecting his institution as he traversed it. His suit and vest lay a little more smoothly than everyone else's. Their tailoring finer. His cufflinks and buttons more ornate. His stride more intense.

An assistant followed behind him, similarly dressed well but in an obvious pay-grade lower. A middle-aged man, perhaps with a few more grays in his hair than his employer. A man positioned into a high level of trust, as assistants tended to know every secret burdening their charges. He carried portable writing utensils and scratched out notes as Zakar thought to say them. Never a moment of time to be wasted by simple walking between these two. More than one person attempted to approach, but those who came close enough to bypass the assistant's dismissal and actually win Zak's momentary attention were quickly waved away. A figure in a white dress waited so patiently for his arrival ahead. The general manager of such an institution held a lot of power, perhaps more than he should; it was his name in the fresco, after all, or as good as, since Arman Kojima's transition from executive in charge to owner only. He was never sharp-tongued about the dismissals, nor outwardly glaring at the retreating backs, but any manifestion of his ire was kept just below the surface. He was a man long accustomed to constantly being needed.

He stopped short of Nythadri's table. The stern-faced assistant handed a portfolio to the personal banker handling Nythadri's account. The man received it amid hasty thanks. He was unused to being so personally overseen by their chief executive, and searched the paperwork one last time for errors, glancing up only as introductions were made.
"Accepted, if I may be so forward, may I introduce you to Zakar Kojima? Our executive manager."

He greeted her with a stiff bow, curtly tugged on his well-tailored sleeves, cuff-links gleaming until he clasped his wrists behind his back. He did not speak for a moment, taking the time to thoughtfully study the girl before him. Girl she was, indeed, though perhaps he saw a client first and girl second. Other notations about her manner dictated away in his head. Filing nothing inappropriate, only a calculated study of their new patron. Nythadri wore a cold mask, but Zakar did not flinch when her striking eyes met his; a feature any man this side of the grave should appreciate. But unlike other men's enrapturement, he questioned only what manner of thoughts caused her name to sputter from his brother's reckless ramblings.

He finally addressed her, "Accepted Vanditera. It is an honor to serve the White Tower. Your patience in these matters is not unregarded. I assure you, the delay was only for standard procedure. All will unfold smoothly for you now."
There was little warmth in the words, read from the pages of memory spoken so many times before. The name changes, of course, but the placating speech was automatic. Their institution was not hurting for business. Members of the White Tower may choose one of several competitors in the city, but Zakar's reign in the world of finance was secure. He rarely saw the need to personally extend the hand of gratitude, White Tower notwithstanding.

However, Nythadri was not just any client. As no corrections to the paperwork seemed to be needed, her accountant whipped his pen swiftly across the paperwork and outlined the details of their contract. A touch of nerves circled the back of his throat. Unused, perhaps, to working under the scrutiny of someone so senior as Zakar standing by, watching.

Perhaps he grew impatient waiting on the contract. Or perhaps while waiting for some revelation to emerge having now met and spoken with the the identity Jaslene brought to his attention. In the intervening time, he asked a few routine questions she'd already shared at earlier stages in the process at one point or another. The date of the note. It's original drawer. If she required a notary they had one on staff. But regarded her every answer completely, as though perhaps one might fill the gaps in his mind concerning recent events. Jai delivered Ellis, implicating a presence in Caemlyn. Ellis meanwhile implicated, though withheld the full details concerning, a net much more widely cast than the one that'd landed him back in Tar Valon. Where did one Accepted fit in Jai's game? And how much did she know? Or, by extension, how much did the White Tower know? Theirs, perhaps, was the only institution capable of striking a reasonable amount of fear into the back of his mind. Which given the circumstances, skittered like shadows in the back of his thoughts.

He grew bolder.
A subtle tilt of his head toward the assistant sparked an instant response. He gathered the accountant and together the two cleared themselves from hearing range devoting their complete attentions to the paperwork at hand. Leaving Zak as good as alone with Nythadri.
"You are.. Andoran?"
Yes, her accent answered as much, "Caemlyner, perhaps? If I can still tell my dialects apart, I would place you in the Inner City west side?"
It was only polite to demonstrate his knowledge of her background in that he knew but did not inquire about the details of her life. A round-about gesture of providing privacy. They would ask no questions about movements of clients' money. Their job was to invest, advise, and secure it. Not investigate its origins. However, it was not the Accepted's fortune which made him easy. It was the proximity of her to current circumstances. Events he intended to fully grasp. He could not afford the risk in ignoring such coincidences.

"We have a long standing relationship with Lynn House, I anticipate no problem in the note's transfer."
He made the conscious effort to soften his tone for the casual chat. Much as he might address Jaslene, or perhaps his wife. Such sounds of formal familiarity withheld complete judgement of Nythadri's reactions thus far until noting her reaction to the following bait:
"In fact, one of my former apprentices, a Master Ellis, was Chair of Trade Guild on their Board of Directors. He recently moved south, unfortunately. It seems he prefers warmer climes these days. I've never been to Caemlyn myself, but he speaks highly of it's particular gleam this time of year, just before the winter settles in. Although I doubt he's acquired the same noble perfection of dialect as yourself, Accepted. Humbly born men can never outgrow such habits, yes."


This was not his first interaction with women of the White Tower. However, knowing they tended to be particularly difficult to read, they usually parried his speeches with one of their own. Nuggets he could usually turn to good use somehow. In this case, it was not necessarily what she said that he intended to interpret.
As she waited she watched the trading floor, internally revising the various paths of her actions, painting and repainting her understanding of just exactly what Jai had done, which still had vague blurs amidst the clarity. Her posture never softened, despite the moment being as close to a silent respite as she had had all morning. No matter how she tried to bring closure to the matter in her mind – and securing these funds should be an end to it – her thoughts thrummed ceaselessly, sorting through every fragmentary piece of knowledge like it might suddenly shine through an epiphany. It only irritated her further. Coldness permeated her aura; she thought she might be intimidating the man sat opposite, who had been nothing but polite this whole time. She had never heard so many sequentially reverent “Accepted’s” in all her life, and now that the preliminary interview was over with nothing to fill the time waiting, he seemed uncomfortable to be left with her uncompromising silence. And that was just tough.

Nythadri spotted him long before the clerk’s superfluous introduction; it was hardly difficult to identify the lord in his manor, after all. And in watching his approach, punctuated by so many seeking his attention, she had plenty of time to study. His very manner oozed the confidence of a man in his element. And as he drew ever closer, she saw how much he looked like Jai, if Jai were to play the consummate business man. Straight-laced, stiff-backed, serious-faced. The menacing height of the north, the strong breadth of shoulders. He shared the sleeve-tugging habit, as well as that unmistakable intensity. Definitely the intensity; in fact it might be said it was something Jai appeared to share of his brother, rather than the other way around. It was certainly a word that claimed ownership over her initial perception of Zakar; every action serving precise function, every flicker of his gaze set with iron-cast purpose. Nythadri could not imagine a smirk softening the solemn set of his mouth, nor any flashes of boyishness breaking against such a cool exterior. If Jai was a man in constant flux, then Zakar was cast concrete in reason. Not a man to mess with. Not a man to mess with. Except she could already feel the faint urges to test the edges of his austerity.

When he studied her, it was akin to the analysis one gave to insects splayed under glass. Detached, but single-mindedly curious. The question, then: was he the type to scrutinise every new patron so thoroughly? Impossible to answer, easy to hope. Does it mean he knows something? The courtesies he extended were quite obviously rote, all the right sounds and inflections but with all the warmth of ice. Nothing in his persona indicated unusual interest, except the lingering of his presence. A busy man; she had already witnessed that. So was it her Tower affiliation, or something else?

She answered the questions patiently, despite their repetitiveness. It seemed unlikely Zakar would employ men he did not trust to do their job, nor did he seem a man uncomfortable with stark silence. She crossed her legs, idly smoothing the snowy fabric; the first vestiges of implied boredom, coupled carefully with a gaze that did not flicker its attention. Then he dismissed his shadow and her accountant both, with a faint tilt of his head. And her interest renewed, despite the mundane nature of topic pursued. The careful creep of his tread began to itch at her; that still uncertain precipice between watching the moves play out and making her own. “I’m of the White Tower. My heritage is negligible really.”
An answer designed to frustrate; non-committal to the obvious. A smirk quirked the edges of her lips; the first hint of smile… well, probably since she had left the Tower hours ago. Only it was not quite the smile intended to set one at ease.

Ellis? This name was new to her. A gentleman on the director’s board of the same bank from which Jai had secured the funds gifted to her family. The missing link between Lynn and Kojima. Perhaps that was not so strange; Jai would have had to engage some third party in order to distance himself from the trail; why not an old colleague of his family’s business? But what import did any of that have to Zakar? Clearly he knew something of the intrigue in Caemlyn, as well as his brother’s involvement. He wouldn’t still be here otherwise. But… light, what was she missing?

“Accents are not so difficult to change.”
So long as Zakar’s establishment did its job and protected the funds in its care she had no secrets she cared to keep from him, if she did not entirely appreciate his round about tact of interrogation. “But I gather that’s rather beside the point.”
To gamble or not? She’d come to the Kojimas for a reason, if she’d planned to be subtle with it. Except, now that she was here, impatience tempered the desire to be careful. She'd chosen Green after all, not Blue, and rather revelled in the thrill of risk. A short sigh and a heavenward glance; saidar rippled soothing tendrils as she cast an invisible net about them, soundproofing the remains of the conversation. “Do you mind terribly if I make this easy? Not that I doubt sparring words would be interesting for us both. To put it plainly, my only concern is the security of this light-forsaken money. I’ll assume you are aware of the waves in Caemlyn. I’ll also assume your picture of what happened, what Jai did, is as fractured as mine. You have questions? I’ll answer them, to the best of my ability. But if you ask them, Zakar Kojima, then you’ll promise me to do everything within your power to keep that coin safe from those who might come searching for it.”
A pause. He would want to know what she knew, of that she was fairly sure, but he seemed a man more accustom to dealing in subtleties than transparency. Her forthrightness might work against her in that case, she couldn’t be sure. But he was fishing, and she never did well as meek bait, nor as a prescribed game piece on a board. If he expected the glib riposte of a Tower woman, then he got the opposite. Sometimes others found that the more disconcerting. “You can speak freely. No one can hear you. And there are no strings here—”
words cut by a wry smile “—whether or not you choose to believe it.”

Ellis landed on his doorstep; delivered there, shaken and drooling with fear, cowered into silence by his Asha'man baby brother. Reflecting, Zak should have recognized the signs. He pictured Jai's unnatural, childhood obsession with that swordmaster's tuteledge every day. Then before the boy was old enough to shave, he was stealing Zakar's priceless inheritance the moment was his back was turned and threatening to run out into the night like a common, bloodthirsty mercenary. Now an Accepted of the White Tower threw a heretofore undiscovered piece in this piecemeal design, and Zakar had no tangible knowledge to link her in. Other than Jaslene's comments, a surprising fortune and a history of Caemlyn nobility.

Her blunt speech dropped his face to absolute stillness. Not in anger, nor in worry, but in calculation. His eyes darted across her chilled face like he was rescanning the words dictated away into his memory. Wondering their true meaning. Lies were not beyond an Accepted's standards, no matter how close their cusp to a higher rank.

He took a breath then placed himself stiffly in the clerk's seat. Then crossed his fingers in his lap and dealt with Nythadri as he would any negotiation: straight-faced, patient, but focused on her every twinge. Waiting for a break that he might exploit.

He spoke quietly, but firmly. Unaware of any protection from eavesdropping beyond dropping the carry of his voice.
"So long as your account is open and the fee withdrawn, Accepted. No stronghold is safer than mine. No one accesses our records nor our vaults. None but us."


He leaned forward, so wrapped in consideration he nearly perched his wrists against the unfamiliar edge of the desk, but thought twice at the last moment and retracted them to his lap.
"I would be honestly surprised if the White Tower whored out one so young as yourself, so whatever intention you have, if you think sleeping with my brother is going to find you leverage over me, you are mistaken."
He disdained the sentimental fool incapable of separating the physical from his relationships. Jai being the posterboy for melodrama.

Jaslene's sputtered description was all the evidence one needed to identify his brother's telltale obsessions. All the way back to their boyhood, when the object had been Jaslene herself. When he was not yet man enough to do anything about his fawning over her. If Nythadri was his current object, as Jaslene implied, the reason why was obvious.
"Even if Jai weren't too wrapped up in his vile, carnal thirsts, he'd still be too stupid to see what you're doing. But trust me, I am not."
Intent, yes, but there was a touch of fear behind the words. A protective nature hardening his forestry eyes.

His direction was momentarily drawn elsewhere. A third man joined the clerk and his assistant, speaking something in the ear of the higher ranked gentleman and the two glanced his way. The clerk ignored them both, gestured something about the files in his hands and departed the pair. The newcomer was well dressed, but dust on his boots and the folds of a cloak over his arm spoke to recent travel. Zakar flicked his eyes back to Nythadri, "One moment, if you will pardon me."

The civility returned to his throat, but his intent to return was clear. He would uphold his statement, and be away only a moment. Whatever it was he expected to learn, it was important enough to shove one Accepted, important as she may be, to the background for the time being.

The news brokered little reaction beyond a contemplative nod and minor follow up questions. His journeyman returned with all haste from Caemlyn, he explained, doubling the pace of their travel by sleeping in his carriage until they splintered an axle and he finishing up on horseback. Zakar nodded as though such details were trivial, and that he get on with his discoveries.

He explained the current status of House Winther, a name Zakar did not seem surprised to hear, nor of the implications of an Asha'man's involvement in their downfall. What perked his attention was the description of Lynn's filed charges. What garnered the first near-expression of approval was to hear of the quietly shaken faith in the banking house, with the first accounts closed being of minor value. Until the first House of repute withdrew their fortune elsewhere only days ago. Pleased, Zakar clapped the man on the shoulder and bid him retire to take some rest.

He returned to Nythadri. Eyes on her as though he saw through her now. He did not sit. "Accepted, if you would do me the honor of humoring me. Might we continue our discussion in my office?"
He studied her expectantly, and lead the way, assistant following some steps behind. Silence stretched out between them along the walk, broken only for mundane thoughts meaningless to one outside of the business dictated to the assistant. Few broke the courage to interrupt Zakar on the return trip, although his assistant noted more petitions than he dismissed this time.

The journey was not long, and mostly oriented up flights of stairs. It was grand, however. Every ceiling was vaulted and carved plaster fingered delicate designs along their path. Plush carpets scrolled underfoot while ancient marble or gilding was kept to perfect standards. On the executive's floor, they passed a series of richly framed portraits suspended overhead, capturing in near lifesize scale the images of every Kojima owner since the institution was founded with Asad. But for minor nuances, each man was immortalized near the same stage of life when their powers were at their peak as both owner and executive. Their hair lightened as the year under the portrait regressed, as the clues of their history increased in time. Yet in every version, from the dignified Arman most recently to noble hadori adorned Asad at the end, the same sword crossed their knees and a show-worthy hound laid at their feet. The tradition would soon end, however. Although Zakar was yet unaware of the impending loss once it became his turn.

He held the door aloft, politely allowing Nythadri to pass by without burdening her fingers with the glass handle. Desk, chairs, and bookcases were orderly arranged. A vase of flowers sat in one corner, and the neat spread of paperwork was untouched in his absence. The windows beyond were flanked by velvet curtains accenting the view of the city beyond. Once Nythadri settled, he sat much as he had downstairs and offered his assistant to fetch them any drink she requested. But once the pleasantries were beyond them, he came to his point.
"It seems Matias Winther is the center of all this."
He paused should Nythadri flash a moment of recognition, however doubtful. He continued, Zakar being not a man unable to take a certain measure of risk. One did not advance far in his business without doing so. "So why would my politically blind brother care so much about Andoran nobility, Lady Vanditera?"
Her title emphasized; a grip on the abstract beginning to form.

Ellis was the man Jai used to clear the allegations Zakar cornered him into. While Lynn was the bank to be rattled in the downfall, priming them for a savior to pick up the pieces, Winther was the keystone holding the plot together. Rising to become such a man of salvation would earn a hero's welcome in Caemlyn, and give Zakar Kojima the first international banking empire: a business plan he intended to continue to expand. While ahead of schedule, plucking Matias from the structure as Jai inadverently did, everything would fortunately still collapse as intended. A move Zakar could flip into his favor, assuming the White Tower remained no closer than their structure outside the window loomed. With one of their own seated in his office.
Zakar made it abundantly clear this was a transaction unlike any other, which she had half expected if hoped to the contrary. Clearly he was not concerned about being linked to Winther’s downfall, thus however Jai had orchestrated this mess Zakar was aware of it, but not directly involved in it. One question answered. The fees were no problem, of course; Jai had included her own name in those inheritance notes, and she cared to keep none of it. Once the funds could be returned to her father he would receive everything, the remainder of her share included. And she would be glad to forget this whole sorry mess.

But Light’s mercy, it had to be the dark one’s own luck he would be as paranoid as his brother. She offered words plain as plain, and he still chose to see a conspiracy. Whore? She’d been called worse, granted, but she was surprised to hear the accusation so bluntly from this man’s lips in so public a setting. The implication, so close yet so far from reality, initially struck a humour that threatened to spill dry laughter from her throat. There were no rushed explanations or self-defences. She did not think they would find purchase with this man anyway, even if she were the sort to fight in stony defence of her virtue. Did he really think it was wise to insult her, though? Or was he so obtuse he did not even realise he had? It took her a second to comprehend that it was not offence he intended; just the presentation of pure fact, the way he perceived it within the frame of knowing his brother. That curtailed her amusement somewhat. She had prodded for a reaction. She had gotten one. She didn’t like it much.

“Be careful what you accuse me of.”


He stood, distracted by an arrival, and her gaze followed his rise. Civility dropped like a cloak, just like that; on one side, at least. Nythadri was thick-skinned; it wasn’t the slight that hardened her gaze and levelled her back from the cusp of amiability, it was the hostility presented in answer to her honesty. Whatever half-realised opportunity she had hoped to grasp winked out; he accused her of whoring herself out when he knew nothing about her beyond the serpent ring on her finger and the superficiality of her past, and was narrow-mindedly arrogant enough to never question the validity of the allegation. At least he’d shown his colours early. Saidar dimmed, plunging the whole world a little darker and reminding her of the lingering aches in her shoulders and neck. She had no intention of eavesdropping Zakar’s conversation, despite how effortless it would be. He was right that she’d been looking for leverage, but she suspected he was wrong on what that leverage would have been used for.

When he returned, her expression was wearily blank. Humour him? There wasn’t much to humour, but she answered with a smooth rise from her chair. The near silence as they walked didn’t bother her; it was nice to find the moment to breathe. The grandeur swept by almost unnoticed, but her pace lingered as they passed the portraits, and she did not seem to care whether she was caught staring. It wasn’t the faces. She was no connoisseur of weaponry, but she recognised the blade adorning each lap; the one Jai treated with enough reverence it might have had a soul in its own right. And no wonder. Liridia’s Warder had recognised it as Makieri steel; Jai had been defensively tight-lipped. Because it wasn’t his to inherit. Evident by the plaques naming each man as past owner. It went some way to explaining Zakar's uncompromising disapproval of his brother. A wry smirk lifted her lips as she picked up her pace to catch up. And Jai's rash flirtations with insanity probably did the rest.

Zakar’s office was disturbingly immaculate, every surface wiped flawlessly clean of dust, shining, pristine. Her gaze only took cursory stock before she sat, and declined the offer of refreshment with the same impatience that had hurried the clerk to his work. At least it didn’t take long for him to get to the point; she found his graciousness maddening when beneath he was fortified steel. Why the illusion for the sake of propriety? Not much grated more than disingenuous platitudes; she preferred that he would just be painfully direct.

Her gaze diffused past him, to what she could see of the velvet framed view of the city. Now he mentions Winther? Puzzle pieces rearranged to a tentative new structure, testing something she hadn’t before considered. Caemlyn. Her accent. Ellis. Her father would not have come to her if news of Winther’s arrest were not big enough to cast a shadow. It was a huge scandal. Something in Zakar’s wordage suggested the fortune of Matias’ Winther was new information; he even paused before forging ahead, fixing her with that calculating stare. A journeyman arrives, and suddenly the conversation is too sensitive to be had in the bank’s foyer. But if he really hadn’t known about Winther, then why had her name drawn interest in the first place? He knows less than I thought he did. But something I don’t. Only was the knowledge she lacked worth the effort to uncover? As long as her light-blasted family were safe, she didn't care about Caemlyn or the financial repercussions of Winther's downfall.

“It seems so, does it?”
Unveiled sarcasm, spat like venom. Light this was tedious. And again the blame is laid at my feet. Zakar’s apparent understanding of events was clear enough; exchange manipulator for seductress and it was not so removed from Lythia’s guesswork. He even appeared to think he had caught her out; that she was as transparent as a child seized in the most juvenile of transgressions by an elder. And didn’t even bother to ask the right questions, though funny he should ask the one question she would rather like to know the answer to herself.

Oh, she knew what had sparked the initial catalyst, but why? Bloody why? “Wouldn’t it be shrewder to ask that of him, rather than me?”
If Jai had even been back since; if he was even able. Stuffing the thoughts down, she wondered if a sense of justice was a trait the brothers shared. Not that it was something she was about to gamble finding out by confessing the same secrets she had to Jai. If Zakar had any idea how incensed she had been to receive her brother’s pendant; how furious she had been to realise how Jai had interfered, the fragile beginnings of his emergent theory would smoke to dust. Only she was not so interested in exonerating herself, particularly to a man she suspected would not so much as blink before using it against her; if he thought he had to. To think of Zakar dispassionately analysing her brother’s murder like a piece in a game made her sick. Better he think her only motives were selfish; better he think she had coveted Winther’s money entirely for herself, and that she had used Jai in the process, than for him to discover the vulnerable revelation that had cascaded so many unforeseen consequences.

She was used to being misconstrued and pandering to the roles of others’ perception anyway. Jai had been an exception, and one that was over now. Her gaze refocused. What she was looking for wasn’t here; so long as Zakar approved the account, her investment in the outcome of this conversation was done. “You’ve already insulted me once; I hope you’re not trying to suggest I’d use someone so unsuited to the task. That is the conclusion you have made, I take it: that I’ve coerced Jai into this for some personal vendetta against Matias Winther.”
And what did it matter to Zakar if that even were the case? Unless, she realised, he did not think it was a personal vendetta at all, but a strike by the White Tower. Or perhaps not thought but feared.
A poisoned little dart, wasn't she? Perhaps a figment of a distasteful future Aes Sedai, although Zakar could not recall crossing paths with one before. Aes Sedai were poised and elegant creatures. Women to whom it was honor to serve in the capacity in which he was positioned. Perhaps inexperience in dealing with Accepted personally left him ignorant of a common, pre-Sisterhood trait threading through all of her rank, but clouded by knowledge of her association with Jai, he doubted it. Where Zak saw an unpalatable woman, thin, gaunt and cold, Jai likely worshipped her ball-busting remarks playfully like some yipping dog to chase.

"I would. But he has an annoying habit of coming and going on a whim. Going. More than coming."
Reminiscence narrowed his opinion of this behavior around his eyes. From the day he jumped at the chance to leave duty in the dust to the last glimpse of his black-coated back once more. His intentions to segregate his life from that of his family's were always painfully loud. From Guard enlistment like a common man with no other options to dabbling his trust funds into tavern ownership. Jai's malfeasance of familial duty was clear. Zak was a fool to think his brother would be pleased to be so ushered off. Escorted, by force of arms or not, closer to the things he wanted; and farther from the rest he left behind like forgotten, unwanted dogs.

Centered around a plan contingent on identifying a scapegoat, Jai reacted with a typical ungrateful response: flouted by an ability to flee Zakar was unaware existed. Jai exonerated himself quickly enough, however. An irritating loss of perk to blemish his self-proclaimed hero's cape. Dethroning him for the reckless fool he was was an unfortunate slip, but the bigger goal loomed larger than personal wars. Jai's nonsense was now second tier to an immortalizing picture. One far more outlasting than the portraits of their fathers.

Misdirected though it was, Jai displayed talent; immature, in need of cultivation, but Zakar's experience in molding men with raw potential was noteworthy.
"Truth is not insulting. So long as the one ready to hear it is willing."
Autocrine advice stoked thoughts in his own ears as much as it did Nythadri's. But she had a point. Jai was a poor candidate to work the subtleties of manipulation. Perhaps thus explained the rumored nature of Black Tower conspiracy in Caemlyn. Surely such was an unintentional side-effect of the plot. Certainly, it was not Zakar's.

The fewer pinnacles of power hunting his scent the better. Even if the scent they hunted was not yet linked to his trail. As in business, problems, if allowed to fester, were the predestination to future ruin. White Tower involvement, however peripheral, haunted the days to come.

Her final remark dropped his expression to focused consideration once more.
"Why do you have a personal vendetta against Winther?"
His thoughts betrayed him, spurting the question as he had. Rarely was he taken by surprise, but as the mistake was uttered there was no erasing the moment. He had only to reorganize the line of arguments to be next made. And do so quickly.

Winther's was not the account to be withdrawn from Lynn. His fortune was in tact and protected wholesome by the bank thus far. Had such a powerhouse dissolved their allegiance with Lynn, Zakar would have known, and already enlist his contract writers to begin their drafted bids for takeover. Winther would survive the conspiracy; besides, he was not the target meant to fall. Why did Nythadri presume it was?

He wished now for more detailed investigation into House Vanditera's background. A Noble House of the same name listed years ago. He was by far no expert in minor nobility, and presumed ignorance of Nythadri's line to be the consequence of the same fluctuations in prosperity as what shifted on the winds of regular commerce. Perhaps there was more, however. Nobles, with the exclusion of the honorable Houses of the Borderlands, were always entangled with one another. A constitutive chain of predators never to be underestimated. Perhaps he had underestimated one.

Winther was well investigated before selected as his foray into the plot: soon after rising to the position he sat now, secured the trust that came with it, and began testing its boundaries. Winther was a prime candidate for Zakar's long-term goals. Already involved in baser affairs. A fortune at Matias' fingertips. And their helm directed by a man of ambition. Someone Zakar could analyze and predict, much as he could predict and critique himself.

The potential links between Vanditera and Winther was infinite, but he could taste the answer on the air. Hinting like a woman's lingering perfume. A habit he appreciated in his wife. The curves in her neck consistently teased a man closer with an array of subtle fragrances. A disposition he secretly desired Jaslene would acquire, but knew would never come to pass. Some women would never grow into higher classes.

What was missing? Perhaps the White Tower was not as involved as he feared. But dropping the hesitation now would carelessly leave a nest behind. One that, if benign, would crumble to dust forgotten; but if hostile, would fester, and crawl out of the long shadows unrecognized until it was too late. Such was a risk he was unwilling to take at the moment.

His jaw tightened thoughtfully, eyes falling to his lap. He absently twisted his cuff links straight, ready to cast Nythadri aside and deal with her later. Procrastination came unnaturally, but his repose moved beyond neutral statements of truth and a desire to wound clouded his judgement. Though the target was unclear, even to him. Jai? Or Nythadri? Perhaps both.
"Have fun with him while you can. He's a fun kid. Well, was. He's rather depressing these days. Fitting, I suppose. Given what he is."
He chastised his lack of control; inward-directed insights so easily betraying him. 'What do Asha'man actually do, any way?' His question posed, a glimpse of a bridge with the potential to be reconstructed. But when Jai refused to explain his newly adopted life, the hypocrisy stung, and the architecture of the bridge rotted away. Then, like a bad taste of corked wine about to turn, upon his reunion, as now; when the memory of it crossed he forefront of his memory. Zak fell quiet some moments after, ceasing himself from uttering further revelations for the time being.

Cufflinks acceptably oriented, he returned to studying Nythadri. Prepared now to parry whatever repulsive comment she might spit his way. A certain measure of defense blended with innate curiosity for the unknown suitably erected itself, now the moment of vulnerability fell aside.

She was expectant, and Zak fatigued. Thus the plainness he presented the Accepted was the clearest he could be. It was her delinquency should she swat his gesture aside for a second time.
"The secret of your fortune is safe, Accepted. Both with me and your benefactor. All ideas for vengeance have wisely fled his imagination. I am a Light fearing man. And would not hesitate to kneel before the Amyrlin Seat to serve her in such capacities as I have should she require it of me-"
Fingers interlaced once more, he meant to capture and display his intent with such clarity, that there would be no room for doubt in her eyes. "-But I will have you know, I will not take kindly should Aes Sedai suddenly take an interest in my affairs. Do we have an understanding?"


And he meant it.
So Jai definitely hadn’t been back, which might not bode well for whatever punishment he had served for sullying the Black Tower’s name. It had been a scant hope, but a fair chance to chase when she was already here to secure the money. He’d have no reason to come home. Back to Arad Doman, else disgracefully deployed to another assignment altogether. Only she’d wondered if he might be the sort to sneak a goodbye to those he loved first. Perhaps Zakar just wasn’t the best candidate for that. She'd registered the taut nature of his expression; each minute furrow etching disapproval. What if he’s dead? The thought had haunted since she'd discovered just how ruthless a place the Black Tower could be. He hadn’t earned a spot on the Traitor’s Tree, but she knew better than most how beatings could take tragic turns. Especially if he’d retaliated. The past blurred into those uncertainties, fogging an image of worst case scenario. Therein lie a guilt painfully twisted with old ghosts.

Her gaze once again found the view beyond Zakar’s desk. Explaining Jai's situation wasn't an option; at least, not one that made any sense or offered any gain. Despite apparently popular opinion, she had not asked for this. Faint rage sparked against an already wearied irritation. Not only had Jai created such a mess, but he'd left her to pick up the pieces. No explanation. He'd even robbed her the full justification of anger by getting himself punished in the process, but the idea that she should be grateful jarred. Coin meant nothing. Cold dead trinkets meant nothing. Neither should she have to feel guilt for his foolish rashness; for his meddling. Only she couldn't quite let go of the fear she'd unwittingly led another man to his death. Two options remained; forget, or find out.

“Truth is built on facts. Are you sure you have all the facts?”
The words came almost right on the heel of his, but were strangely toneless. She had no interest in arguing the point, but his obstinate clinging to unfounded opinion bordered on irrational. It was galling. Her gaze blinked back to him in the same moment some of his façade began to crumble. A question leapt from his lips with the genuine ring of surprise, and Nythadri acknowledged it with a tight smile. If Jai had made the links between Vanditera and Winther, then Zakar could do the same. A dead brother. A tangled mess of finances. But the histories would not share her own guilt, as she had described it to Jai. She drew strength from the secret; or maybe from the fact Zakar seemed rattled. The thrill she usually felt at crawling beneath the most stoic of skins was absent, but her sense of calm fortified a commitment to civility that had been lacking since he had accused her of whoring herself.

It was probably fortunate.

On the heels of that outburst came another, more toxic tirade. Jealously and loathing punctuated the core of every word, and with his gaze drawn away from her she was free to study the minutiae of his expression; what she could see of it, at least. Perhaps she had been wrong to think there was nothing boyish in Zakar; the attention he gave his cufflinks, jaw tight around every terse word, was nothing if not morosely childish and brooding. Perhaps she had flirted with an inappropriate line of rudeness, but it hardly justified the presentation of such a raw nerve. Did Jai cast such a long shadow even the merest hint of association sparked such deep raging fires? She was glad she’d not asked after Jai directly, then. Would Zakar even care to know the wrath his brother has brought over his own head?

The insight might have been interesting, if she had cared. Ironic. She had come here assuming familial bonds might offer an opportunity to discover what had happened to Jai without relying on Lythia’s discretion. If he didn’t know, she’d hoped he would have wanted to find out. But she’d discovered only the opposite: base sibling jealousy. Natural Zakar should feel insignificant, but poor character that it should embitter him so. The One Power wasn’t a gift a person chose, and it certainly was not without price. By that diatribe alone it was clearly not a price Zakar understood. A defensive retort tingled hot beneath her skin, but it never surfaced beyond a faintly contemplative expression. With Zakar’s fall from frozen calm, Nythadri was the very model of serenity; like a predator seizing power from the slightest indication of weakness without choosing to pounce upon it, only peer down at it. The higher ground was never sweeter than when your competitor fell first.

Silence reigned a while after, and Nythadri was happy to let it. And then: Benefactor. An odd word choice, but it was vengeance that caught her attention. For a moment her head spun around it, and everything she thought she'd understood shuddered. Zakar couldn’t speak for Matias Winther, but he might be able to speak for a former apprentice. Her picture of events rearranged, accommodating this new theory. Ellis; a faceless unknown. Why would a man give up such a fortune? No through freewill, if vengeance were ever a desire. Her father’s letter had whispered fraud. Winther had been arrested, but he had also been released by Elayne. He’d cried of Black Tower conspiracy, but not of theft. The coin was not his.

The network of deceit swelled, and made a glimmering sort of sense. Too fragile to vocalise, and it was wiser to withhold those arrows of accusation anyway. Had he meant to infer so much? Ellis and Kojima. Apprentice and Master. What had Ellis been doing that Jai found it distasteful enough to relieve him of his wealth? She pulled back from thought before the clarity burned. “I have no interest in your affairs.”
A shame she did not have the testimony of Aes Sedai oaths to bring solidity to her statement, but she spoke considered truth. Whatever his ambitions, whether they dipped under the line of the law or were simply the ruthless aspirations of a businessman, so long as Zakar walked in the Light like he attested, she did not care. He must realise she was unable to speak for the Aes Sedai though; the snowy pristine of her dress and its rainbow stripes declared it without the condescension it would inevitably take to point it out. Jai had created a scandal in Caemlyn, and there would be Sisters there obliged to curtail the damage against the Black Tower; presuming Zakar even meant business in Caemlyn at all. She was not going to ask. Bottom line, if he brought attention down on himself it would be his own fault, but she would not be setting any sparks against his trail. Her gaze was clear, earnest. “I believe we have an understanding.”
Her question beat upon a door that need not be opened. He had the facts. Zakar prided himself on the ability to see the forest where others lost themselves in tangled branches. He alone maneuvered a four-century pillar to the edge of ruin without compromising the blanket of public affairs in which it were nestled. Investment acquisitions in a broken economy would serve him little gain. Thus necessitating an accurate prediction of commerce's chill, logical flow to this nearly completed execution. With business as it were with men like Winther, Zakar efficiently accumulated his successes by trusting to the continual of the status quo. For where there was data to trace, there was a way to manage future control.

His eyes fell to a ledger waiting undisturbed on the corner of his desk. Papers were neatly stacked upon it, and held down by a simple, but elegant paperweight. That ledger was written in his own hand rather than clerk penmanship. A composition he was anxious to take to his hand once more. Once business with Nythadri was concluded, that was. Despite the severity of its contents, Zakar's office was rarely locked in his absence. He trusted to the boundaries of privacy, trusted the unity of his team and felt secure in leadership. His plans would come to fruition, of this there was little doubt. No alternative than success existed when coin was a cold, but easy mistress to bed. She was more straightforward a concept to grasp than the tender arms of a truer courtesan.

The facts were secure in his palm. Sharp as a newly minted Mark. Winther was an emissary to recruit Ellis, a man who could be trusted to skim an untraceable trickle from the scam. A scam, without Zakar's anonymous help, would never gained its initial footing. A starving beast bore no burdens, after all; someone had to feed it. Aes Sedai accounts were a gamble to risk; a powerful, but treacherous feedback loop. Should the White Tower discover him, it might lead to his own collapse. But business was nothing if not an intelligent investment in acceptable risk. Jai had been a coincidence, marking him as the conspirator, a step of Zakar's willingness to usher the Asha'man toward his freedom from family burdens, and perhaps extend Ellis' usefulness.

The story turned an unexpected outcome, however. The serene, unwelcomed fallout sitting across from him now. Jai's motives were not in Zakar's constructed expertise to predict. His youngest brother was a blight on the standard curve with which Zakar operated. An error for which he could not account, and so chose to treat as an outlier rather than a deviant. Jai was unreasonable passion and energy, unpredictable and hot-headed. An enigma to a man like Zakar: to be ruled by uncertain passions rather than the laws that governed the world. The means by which his one stroll through Caemlyn uncovered a deeply buried alliance between Ellis and Winther was a foggy mystery for Zakar still to this day. As Ellis was more a blank slate of questions than answers, Zakar's threats fell away unheard, drowned amid the cacophany of an Asha'man's ever-ringing promises. Ellis' lips were sewn shut.

Nythadri's announcement earned a short nod. Confirmation of their mutual agreement fell on more receptive ears than had her last utterance. He stood abruptly, brushing his sleeves free of dust as he did, though made no indication of escorting Nythadri from the room, merely to honor her exit with gentlemanly accord.
"Then I believe we are done."
His voice enunciated a shade more broadly than it had during their conversation thus far. Followed by an automatic summons of his assistant to the doorway, "It was my pleasure to meet you, Accepted."


Toward the tight-lipped, duty-laden assistant Zak turned, gesturing sharply at the woman of the White Tower as he did. Perhaps with a sharper hand than he intended, "See to it Accepted Vanditera's name is taken down as one with immediate access to me whenever she desires to call."


The man nodded without hesitation, but curiously studied the woman in question for a split-second before turning aside to clear her path for exit; signaling the meeting's conclusion. A rare addition to a list she would become: immediate and emergent access to Zakar Kojima himself, and the first among woman to join exclusive company. Extreme circumstances must place her in such high regard, he imagined. Beyond that of Aes Sedai and heads of international powerhouses; even Zakar's wife, who on more than one occasion waited patiently for access to her husband to open up. The chore was as good as done then, as his mind was already accomodating Nythadri's extended interruption in Zakar's schedule. Both men were ready to see it resume. Zakar's next meeting would continue through a meal now: a less than ideal scenario for the parties involved.

Following the colorful trail of Nythadri's eventual departure, Zakar's fingers thoughtfully drummed upon the gleaming wood of his desk until the return of his assistant broke his thoughts. Then he shrugged into a fine gentleman's coat, "I want everything wiped down before I return,"
and departed himself, leather attache in hand.

***

Jaslene stared at the tea leaves stuck to the bottom of her cup, tapping her foot under the table as she did. Thankfully, a tablecloth obscured her impatience from the patrons around her. Partners and trios circled the elegantly decorated tables of this outdoor cafe, laughing and chattering about their midday activities free from the noise of the street beyond. A warm, but distracted smile greeted anyone who caught her eye, but sitting alone as she was, few but the server paid her any attention.

Scanning the street both ways from the bank's immaculate front entrance for the tenth time, her shoulders shrugged in defeat. Zakar spoke true: she had need to return to her own work. So she dropped a few coins on the table, payment for the warmth and the more than adequate service, gathered a cloak about her shoulders and navigated her way out.

Then she caught a glimpse of colored stripes and her soft features split into a wonderous smile. It was the same dark-haired wonder as whom she glimpsed sitting with a clerk on her way out. Though now, Jaslene could fully appreciate the Accepted with a complete view. Nythadri seemed near to her age, although she clearly never bore children with such skinny hips. Her hair shone like black marble and pale skin gleamed like the moon. Jaslene pushed her own curls behind her shoulders and smoothed the front of her simple bodice before weaving her way through the street-farers until she'd caught Nythadri's attention.

"Forgive me,"
she started, breath catching in the haste to corner Nythadri before she escaped. "You must be Nythadri?"
Jaslene held out her hand in greeting, though she studied the Accepted with a twinkling, friendly appreciation. She certainly understood how such a beauty like Nythadri's would capture Jai's attention. That boy was ridiculously easy to predict, but even as a lad he muttered few names under his breath as he had this one's.

"I'm Jaslene."
She said happily, expecting recognition. However, finding little, she cleared her throat apologetically and clarified, "Jaslene Basinthe..?"
She blinked and withdrew her hand, face dropping uncertainly, "Mikel's wife...?"


She cleared her throat, pink apples glowing her cheeks with color. "Forgive me for being so presumptious, oh-"
a meager gasp escaped as a man bearing an arm of packages accidentally brushed by. They stepped from the harshest flow of traffic and settled nearer to the edge of the street for a moment of respite. Jaslene's continued fascination did not wane, however.
"I hope Zak wasn't too harsh, he can sometimes be oblivious to his own affect. You know men,"
she teased of course. Warmth and instant friendship bonding Nythadri into the group as though it were a natural acclimation.

The laughter subsided, but the cheeriness of the moment continued. "I'm so sorry, I'm sure you're extremely busy."
She blinked, realizing she had yet to truly explain herself, and feeling foolish for it. "I'm a friend of Jai's, or well, my husband is,"
her almond eyes narrowed, still half surprised someone so close to Jai as what she imagined Nythadri to be was ignorant of these names.
"I figured he'd be back by now. Ten years and not a word, then suddenly he's jumping about like a scattered poodle, but anyways, you know how he is,"
waving away another teasing shrug, she glanced around them as though his sudden appearance were to be the punchline of a very elaborate joke, "Could you do me a huge favor and pass along a message when you see the boy?"


Unable to fathom rejection, she went on, though a duller emotion crept into her tone, "his poor mother asks everyday when his portrait will be finished.."
Lips previously fluttering with an ever-present smile pressed themselves together just mentioning the poor woman. While the main portrait would be hung in their gallery, Jai's mother waited for a smaller copy to go on her bedside table. Her room was lovely without it, full of sunlight and fresh air; doors frequently thrown back so the scent of a flower-sprinkled terrace perfused the air, but Jaslene could sense the aging woman's ache for a missing child's image. She could see the yearning settling deeper lines everyday across a previously smooth forehead not that long ago. As though the woman feared that much longer and she would forget what her youngest looked like at all.

So Jaslene nodded, feeling as though her conscience could rest a bit calmer now, and gathered herself to leave the Accepted to her busy schedule.
Zakar stood and she did too, neither expecting nor needing escort from the room. While he stiffly brushed down his sleeves, she only clasped her hands in front of her and took brief stock of the conversation. Mostly, she just felt awash with relief that it was over. Whatever satisfaction she’d gained from safely depositing her family’s inheritance was dampened by the fact that – however many other answers had presented themselves this morning – Jai’s fate was not among them. And the tangled mystery of it all just seemed deeper.

A pleasure? That elicited a tight smile - bare hint of the sarcastic creature beneath, if it hid under a genial nod. “Indeed.”
Then Zakar surprised her; perhaps for the first time since she’d first caught glimpse of him across the bank’s foyer. She did not need to take note of the assistant’s split-second curiosity to realise it was an unusual order for him to take; she’d witnessed first-hand how many clamoured for Zakar’s attention to and from his office. A brief look in his direction spoke silent, curious question – she certainly didn’t deem such thing necessary – but his infallible mask was back in place. Yes, she was definitely glad to leave.

*
The fresh air was nice. Light it was nice. A shame she had no time to linger and enjoy the cold winter sun; not because it contravened a rule, but because there were too many more productive ways she might better spend the time. She paused with smooth patience as a woman crossed her path, her voice tinged with breathlessness like she had rushed to intersect Nythadri’s path. Unusual but not unheard of for people to petition Accepted. The woman had not caught her in a particularly tolerant mood, but she slipped into her expected role - that of serene, detatched Tower-trained - effortlessly. And found her attention quickly won. Her head tilted blatant curiosity; pale eyes alight with it where before they had been dull with polite patience. How do you know my name? And not only that, but spoke with such a sweet familiarity she actually did wonder for a moment if some spark of recognition had failed to ignite. Not Accepted, either. Just Nythadri. Though she’d known a thousand faces in Caemlyn, she knew none in Tar Valon that did not also call the Tower home. None. Jaslene Basinthe. Mikel’s husband. It was rare enough for her to ever forget a name so as to dismiss the possibility, but neither inspired anything to explain the informal ease of those beaming smiles and expectant acknowledgement.

Nythadri did not do the woman the disservice of pretending; Jaslene was too charmingly earnest to deceive, and Nythadri had had a gut full of hostile civility today without joining their elite ranks. She wasn’t stand-offish, either – though a cold stare did follow the man who had jostled into Jaslene’s side. Until a name blinked her attention back. Zak. So close on the heels of his presence, the familiarity with which she shortened his name tightened sickly in her stomach. It explained something, at least. She knew I was in the bank. She was waiting for me. But why? Nythadri was getting weary of these little mysteries springing up like budding flowers, and all of them around a man she barely knew. A weary smile alleviated the desire to frown; an opportunity once presented was not one Nythadri would waste by being dismissive. And it wasn't difficult to respond to the endearing affability.

A friend of Jai’s. By proxy of her husband; at least so she said. She had to have been with Zakar when he’d received the detail of her intended account, to have been able to place her name and face together. Which might have struck her odd, except what struck her first was that it meant some time between Arad Doman and Caemlyn Jai had to have been back, for her name to have apparently passed like wildfire through his family and friends. Which perhaps went some way to explain the conviction of Zakar’s assumptions about her, she realised drily. And if Zakar’s impressions were needlessly cynical, then Jaslene’s were overly rosy.

The warm waters of the Aryth seemed too distant to warrant all this. That burst of passion had lived and died half a world away; just two disenchanted fools seeking brief solace from the conspiring tug of the Pattern. It had been an encounter, not a relationship, no matter how dizzyingly intoxicating at the time. A brief, self-contained moment of rapture. Over. Finished. Ended. Until the pendant had arrived. The anonymous pendant. Which said all it needed to, really. There’s no “when”, Jaslene… Harsh, tired, frustrated words were on the tip of her tongue, but she pulled herself back from the edge. It was hardly this woman’s fault. Instead she gave a small, encouraging gesture that Jaslene continue.

And afterwards almost wished she hadn’t. That’s just great. As if her guilt were not potent enough, now she had the added weight of a mother fretting over the disappearance of her son. Unbidden she recalled her own mother’s grief at Tash’s funeral. How they had all worn black ribbons for a year, how her mother had sewn them silently on their dresses through red swollen eyes. The sadness dipped hollow in her stomach; the opportunity to rekindle familial bonds so freshly discarded. Her mother still wore the black ribbons. Or had, last Nythadri had ever seen her; like she had never truly recovered the death of her son. The feeling hardened in her chest, spilling an empathy into her expression not hard pressed to be genuine. Forget, or find out. She knew the choice she thought she should be making.

“Of course, Jaslene.”
Though it was an empty promise, it seemed to satisfy the other woman. Nythadri watched her a moment undecided before instinct took over; she touched Jaslene on the arm as she turned to leave, holding her a moment more. The foundation was already there, and she had no qualms with taking advantage of it. “But if you happen to see him first, would you let me know? You know what he's like."
Her lips quirked something of a rueful smile as her fingers retracted. Any message to the Tower would do. And then at least I'll know he's not dead.