The First Age

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Jai: Continued from "The Hunt"

The solarium grew warm with the midmorning light. The top floor of the apartment was domed in glass above and lined by lead paned windows on all sides. Light bless his tailor; the new uniform breathed much more pleasantly than the original wool blend. The latticework of bronze surrounding the individual panels were patinated green and orange long before he was born framed the room with an urban beauty. Gleaming wood floors stretched unhindered across the empty space; excepting present company of course. Stretched couches strategically positioned provided respite from socializing on foot. Man-height planters brought some nature to the heart of the city view. The Kojimas hosted many a glamorous event within these windows. There was no need to count them all again. Jai knew the exact number of panes currently encapsulating him their prisoner. There was no need to study the freedom beyond either. This was home; as much as it could be labeled. He knew it as well.

The house in which he was raised was not a house at all. There were no houses to speak of in Tar Valon. The island-city was filled with large scale construction not individual structures. Some were miniature spires piercing the skyline as private residences or public offices. Here and there a ribbon of bridges could be seen spanning the masses from the streets below. Others were wide buildings molded into sprawling apartments to rival the mansions of more traditionally laid out cities. The remainder, such as this tower, sold off blocks of floors, with each new owner molding the insides to their tastes. The top five floors of this building was purchased by his greatparents, and molded into the masterpiece it was long before he was born. The surrounding streets below were dotted with cafes and shops. Guard houses were positioned at regular intervals as well, but so expertly camouflaged by the beauty of the pavilions around them, their relatively simple structures were easy to overlook. If Jai were allowed to cross to the window, the glitter of sun drenched fountains would seem small from this height.

He stretched his neck back to ease the tension built up just under his skull with a few fresh squeezes. Light. He could go for a walk right about now. At least a cold drink. If he wasn't under constant watch, that was. His guard was not to be trifled with.

The cough of one clearing their throat jerked him back to reality. For about the tenth time. "Sir?"
Polite, barely. Jomini Henri, although he was built more like a clean-cut ferrier than a painter, looked about ready to throw his tablet on the ground. Once Jai rolled his eyes forward once more, he lifted his brows. Both amused and apologetic at the same time.

"I did it again, didn't I?"
A touch of a grin to add some evidence of sincerity and Jai repositioned himself. The cushion was padded enough, but the narrow back of this stool felt like it belonged in a dungeon.
An exasperated, "Yes!"
hit him in the face. To which Jai raised his palms and soothe the painter's emotions before he stormed off. Or threatened to.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Jomini. Please, I will stay focused. I swear. How much longer will the session go this morning?"
Jai did his best to hold his expression steady and face forward, but catching Jaslene's eye over Jomini's shoulder and he couldn't help but sneak a wink. "How many hours have we been at this?"
Already the painter was reabsorbed in his work, diligently looking up now and then to copy the figure of the Asha'man seated before him. So Jaslene answered, holding up three fingers. One for each hour ticked by in the bright room. He felt himself sag with a sigh, but pulled his shoulders back before Jomini noticed.

Jaslene's company was a helpful distraction to pass the boring hours. There were about a dozen things he would rather be doing right now, but a promise was a promise. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't think of an excuse good enough to break his mother's heart. Family tradition and all that. His was the only Kojima face missing from the gallery downstairs.
"You're different today,"
Jaslene glinted with curiosity as she stretched out her arm to pet the brown and white spaniel curled by her feet. Jomini did not seem to notice their conversation.

"Yeah? Well call it jealousy that he likes you more than me. Hawk is my bloody dog."
He called the dozing hound over, but all he did was go belly up by Jaslene. Jai rolled his eyes. No bloody loyalty any more. Maybe he should hide bacon in his pockets..?

She laughed and scratched his belly until his tail whipped happily on the floor. "Probably because you named a puppy, Hawk."
She curled her fingers around his big, floppy ears. Twelve years ago Hawk had been a puppy small enough to fit in Jai's palm. Now, the lanky spaniel could make a guy break a sweat picking him up. Hawk was a great name for a dog. It was work not to frown. If he were going to live forever as a portrait, he intended to make it look good. Not goaded into a frown forever by Jaslene, Basinthe. It was still hard to think of his childhood friend (and the first love of his life) as his best-friend’s wife.

"Pins still straight?"
He tilted his chin a sliver. She smiled, playfully studied his outline, and nodded. He touched them anyway. Just to make sure.

Jaslene rolled her eyes. And continued as before, unfazed by his change in subject. "I'm serious. You're different. That must have been some Razor."
Of course she knew all about the Razor. She’d been in the tavern the day he and Fate Sedai cast their wager that led him back to Arad Doman, back to all the politics, back to the court of the King, and back to hell. Jaslene knew all about the Razor, but she knew nothing about the hunt he attended. Or the party afterward. If she did… best not to think about it.

He smirked. Jomini looked up just then. As studious as ever but as he touched the handle of his brush to his lips, he squinted calculations of something behind those eyes of his. Thoughtful seconds passed before dipping a cloth into water and swiping Light only knew what from the canvas and furiously rework it. Blood and ashes! His mother's suggestion that Jaslene keep him company for the sitting sounded fine at the time. Bloody women! All in on it together, he'd bet his sword hand. Just to keep him smirking long enough to get the expression on canvas. There went the suave, charming city sophisticate he was going for. Likely, he'd end up living forever looking like some bumbling idiot. Bloody women. Suppose it was better than eternal frowning.

Smirk effectively smoothed a few seconds later. Maybe the Oneness? No. That was not how future Kojimas should remember him. Assuming there were future Kojimas after the Last Battle. "The Razor.. Yeah. It was."
He drifted toward the view again. A quiet amusement touched his expression again. Nythadri would be back in the Tower by now. A good mile away, he could see the white structure of it standing guard over the entire islandscape. So close. Bloody women.

Thankfully, before Jomini could jump down his throat again, news of a delivery reached his ears. Finally! An excuse to get up. And if it was the note he expected, it meant a change of civilian clothes for the first time in more than a decade. Not that he would be modeling the getup any time soon.

Apologies ensued. Jomini scoffed something about not being paid enough. Jaslene's brows feigned chastisement. But Jai was already half way to the stairs by then. He managed to scrub Hawk's obliging head on the way and paused briefly upon catching a glimpse of the portrait. It didn't look half bad. Bloody smirk and all. And he flew downstairs.

Edited by Jay Carpenter, Oct 24 2017, 09:12 PM.
He checked himself out in the mirror. Alone for once. Thank the Light. He never appreciated having rooms all to himself until after the unfortunate turn of events that landed him in the Black Tower. Going from a private suite to bunking with a hundred other guys was quite the eye opening experience.

He turned to the side. It wasn't bad, actually. But it was odd. To see a figure of himself in something besides black. Jai meant those oaths when he swore to be a man of the Black Tower until the end of his days. The coat hung a little loose in the shoulders and was cut by a simple fall to his waist. The shirt under it was scratchy. A poor man's wool. One that certainly did not breathe. And poorly dyed white. Instead it simply looked like the owner was clueless when it came to a simple wash. The pants weren't terrible. They were long enough and made to fall outside his boots rather than be tucked inside them. There wasn't time to find a replacement pair of those, however. Which was a bloody shame. Tar Valon bootmakers were worth their weight in gold, or more. His own leathers were expensive, but they would have to work. He could simply hope nobody would notice. Thankfully they were just a plain black, at least, he found embroidered leather nauseating. It'd be hard to fall into the crowd with embroidery on the cuff.

A scrub through his hair could tossle it some. Once the beard was grown out, he doubted even he would recognize his own reflection. He scratched at the stubble so far. His father had a magnificent trim. A trait not passed on to all the Kojima brothers apparently. It'd take a couple weeks to get that kind of growth on Jai. He could wait though. Caemlyn had been without Jai Kojima's presence thus far without incident. What was a few more weeks? Even if he was itching to get there.

He was still checking out the poor man's version of himself with the sound of knocking filled his room.
"Uhh. Hang on!"
He called and jumped out of the clothes faster than he thought possible.

"Blood and ashes, just a sec..."
That'd been his brother's voice. His oldest brother, Light help them all. He shoved the discarded clothes into a travel bag and jumped into his usual uniform pants. "Yeah come on in."
He looked up, lacing up the front, just as someone entered.

The oldest Kojima son was a trophy firstborn. His hair was slicked loosely back like usual, and a stately, but groomed, point of a beard touched his chin. He closed the door behind him with a quiet click, and lifted a curious brow at his half dressed asha'man baby brother. He meanwhile, smirked and tugged at the tight seams at his wrist. A habit frustratingly similar to Jai's.

"Ah! Zakar. To what do I owe the honor?"
Jai shrugged into his shirt and looked up between fixing buttons. His older brother looked around the room, eyes moving swiftly from the horrid scar not yet hidden under Jai's shirt and instead landed on their great-father's sword lost among the blankets of a single man's bed across the way.

Jai followed his older brother's eyes. A frown touched them when he realized what'd taken the other Kojima's interest. He finished the buttons on his black shirt and shrugged into the coat next without bothering to close it up yet. So long as the pins were straight.

"You look well. May I speak with you?"

"Uh. Not bad, I suppose. Come in?"
Jai smirked. "I see you still haven't figured out what a razor is?"
He laughed, eventually crossing to clap his older brother on the shoulder on the way to fetching Asad's sword. Best not let it lay around unattended for too long in present company.

"I see you haven't figured out what an iron is?"
Zak nodded at the wrinkles criss-crossing Jai's reflection. The coat had been a little abused since trying on the new identity's change of clothes. It wasn't like he'd be returning for more portrait sitting tonight, so he didnt think much of it. Of course, though, trust Zak to point it out. Golden boy Zakar Kojima.

They both laughed at each other's expense. Jai as he started buckling on the sword and his brother taking up position by the door. He paused. The figure of Zakar might as well be their father. He looked about as comfortable as a guy being Delved, though. "You look stressed. Bank work been taking its toll? Is that a bloody gray hair, I see?!"
Jai smirked dramatically as Zak ran a hand through his perfectly falling hair.

His brother flicked something invisible from his perfect, boring lapel. It did look so banker, Jai could have laughed. "Speaking of Razors, Jaslene said something about you being in Arad Doman, yesterday. Is that true?"

"Yeah. Why does this feel like an interrogation?"
He sat on his own bed and worked at tucking in his pantlegs into his boots. The sword was still unbuckled, but nearby, within reach. His brother didn't move from the door. He simply smiled and looked at the floor. Which was odd. Zak was never unsure of himself. ""What? Wait, don't tell me. Bank's been hard to manage lately?"

"Actually. As you would know if you were ever around.."
Zak looked up, arms crossed and stern like Jai would buckle under his father's stare. It wasn't going to happen. He went on, "I had to terminate someone today."
Jai guffawed and went back to the mirror to finish the buttons while his overly-dramatic brother went on, "He was selling information about clients. White Tower clients."

That got Jai's attention. He turned around. Frowning. And wondering exactly what was going on. This was his family's name and reputation at stake here. Zak continued. "My guys tracked the last man he sold such valuble information to. He'd attacked an Accepted of the Tower only yesterday. Wager a guess who he met with just before that?"

Jai's frown deepened. An Accepted of the Tower?! Whatever it was his brother was talking about, he was getting an uneasy feeling his stomach. "Where are you going with this, Zak?"

"I think you know."
He flicked open the door. Outside his bedroom were a handful of white-cloaked Tower Guards, weapons drawn like they were ready to apprehend a criminal. Zakar wordlessly ordered them in. More faces filed behind them. Unmarked men willing to step in in case they were needed. Kojima men. Jai felt his shoulders drop. His brother took both a step forward and out of their path at the same time, "the last man in contact with the traitor was you, baby brother."
He shook his head in disappointment and things went downhill fast after that.

Jai's mouth fell open in shock. He witnessed a handful of guys file into his own bedroom like they were flies circling a sweet family picnic. ""What in the..?"
He almost laughed. What??! ""It's been a while since a good prank, Zak, but this is takine it a bit far,"
he looked around. If this was a prank, it was elaborate. Only, this didn't look like a prank. Had his brother lost his mind? Light. An Accepted?! Was it Nythadri?? Questioned swirled.

Zakar's expression was dark, but it was the touch of victory crimping the corners of his eyes that made Jai realize the gravity of the situation. Zakar really believed he'd finally caught Jai betraying their family. Well, if he wanted proof of betrayal, he was going to need to do more than show up with a dozen guardsmen.

He shook his head and clapped a hand on the hilt of Asad's sword, pulling it to him. ""You really think I'm selling out the books? Of our family?"
He locked eyes with his oldest brother. Brown, like his own, but cold and unseeing. ""You think I need the money, or something?"
Zakar wasn't the only intensity in the room. A second later and saidin turned into a storm in Jai's grap. ""Do you not understand what I am?!"
Tension clutched the air tight.

The fist of men fell forward without a chance. Their feet were swept out from under them on throws of Air, but just in case that didn't send enough of a message, Jai threw his arms forward with a yell and a wall of heat punched every single man in the face. This was his home, he would hate to set it on actual fire, so he struggled with the weaves to keep them from swarming into actual flame. Usually, flames were kind of the idea.

In the seconds while they recovered, he grabbed his bag and Asad's sword and ran into the adjoining bathing quarters. Locking the door behind him. Weaves pulled a chair to block the door and more slapped a barricade over that.

"Get it open!"
He heard his brother yell from the other side. Followed soon after by the sounds of beating weapons on wood. Their mother was going to be furious over the ruined door. He tied off the flows for the barricade, set to dissolve in less than a minute. He wanted to see the look on Zakar's face when he saw what was about to happen.

Clutching his stuff, still in shock of what his own family was accusing, he had no choice but fall into the Oneness. Zakar, and Andreu their other brother, both knew the trick for channeling focus as well as he. Andreu was creator-blessed with arrow work apparently. Zakar with jumping to conclusions. It was Jai, though, that could actually channel. Thankfully.

Through the sounds of splintering wood came the sounds of struggle from the other side. He needed those precious moments to finish the weave. Which he wove swiftly, carefully.

A line of light clawed its way through the air moments later. It ripped the fabric of the Pattern into two separate halves at his behest. And drew a black scour mark on the marble floor. Their poor mother was going to faint. His heart raced in his chest completely unlike the way it did in battle, but he was half a step to somewhere else when steel broke through the door.

He paused from the other side and watched what happened. Bodies filed through, gaping at the gateway of light, and last Jai saw was the fearsome, twisted face of his oldest brother demanding his capture before the gateway collapsed. Poor bastard never had a chance.

The gate closed and Jai frantically pat himself down. Made it safe to the Fox's work office without a few extra feathers punctuating his uniform. Bloody relief was short lived though. A heartbeat later a voice from behind spun him about ready to incinerate whoever was waiting.

"The Dragon teach you that little jingle noise before all-"
Jai felt his jaw unhinge. Mikel Basinthe sat behind Jon's desk. His Tower Guard's cloak was draped behind him and his shirt half unlaced. With one hand he gestured toward the air the gateway occupied as he found the word he was seeking, "-that?"
The chimes he alluded to were meant to warn those on the other side of an opening gate to get out of the way. But Jai's choked up throat failed to get the explanation out. All he could do was stare at fluffy curls cascading down the creamy shoulders in Mikel's company. He wasn't alone in the room. He bloody wasn't even alone in the chair!

The image of many a dark night's comfort glanced casually over her shoulder back at him. She took her time shrugging her sleeves back up into decency. "Jaslene?!"
He called, gawking like a baby faced idiot up at an angel. "Weren't you just at my house?"

She pulled her hair free of the replaced collar and hummed an amused laugh. "That was hours ago. You disappeared and I had to get back to work."

"Yeah. Work. Looks hard."
He blinked pained eyes, and coughed on the words that came out of his mouth, Jon did not look amused, and Jas's look flattened faster than an inflation curve in war. He turned around fast. He'd rather drink accelerant and swallow fire than watch the couple disentangle themselves from each other. He never studied a blank wall so long in his life.

Amid declining sounds of shuffling came the impending question. From Mikel: "Jai, what are you doing here?"
He braced to see the worst, but thankfully discovered only a guy sitting in a desk chair, clothes a little askew, expression a mixture of gloating for being caught with his wife and ready to get rid of the guy that interrupted their alone time. Jaslene meanwhile transformed in that magical way of women into a vision of perfection. Like she'd been doing nothing at all out of the ordinary. It was always the quiet ones. Light.

Given it was safe to turn around again, Jai dropped the bag and sword and fell into a chair. "My bloody idiot brother just tried to flaming kill me. Or worse. Get me arrested!"

Mikel barked a disbelieving laugh, "Right. What'd you do now?"
Jaslene meanwhile lifted her brows.

Face buried in his fingers, he could still feel their eyes looking at him. The same questionable concern branded their faces that choked everyone up at that first reunion dinner. What do Asha'man bloody do anyway? Have you met the Dragon Reborn? Why haven't you visited? All sorts of completely comfortable talk about all sorts of things he loved to discuss. His shoulders dropped in defeat. Suppose there was no point holding back this time. There were few others in world he trusted more than these two. Course idiot brothers should top that list. Light. Zakar was an idiot. Which left Andreu. And whichever side of the line the second Kojima son stood.

"Someone's dealing under the table at the bank. Zak think it’s me. I don’t know how he thinks I’ve been doing all that. I’ve been a little busy. "
The two of them exchanged worried looks. "It's not me!"
Bloody shouldn't have to say that. Light! If it was him, teams of analysts couldn't crack the paper trail if Jai were the author.

After shutting down the inevitable team effort to uncover the culprit together like some village street gang with time to kill, Jaslene started off back to the work she claimed to be doing. Jai stood up. "Jas, wait. Could you grab me something from the kitchen that travels well? And a few galleons from the drawer? Any Marks other than the Flame preferably."
She nodded, but Jai grabbed her hand on the way out anyway, awkwardly trying not to picture what that hand had been doing a minute ago. "And ah, I kind of like the portrait. Don't let mom get rid of it. I want to finish it."
Jas smiled, affirming as much, then glanced at her husband as Jai let her go. Bloody women.

Back to Mikel. Who by then had one eye focused on clasping his cloak back into place and the other on the man holding his wife's hand. If he saw something pass between them, he didn't bring it up. Jai cleared his throat like he'd been caught doing something deplorable and distracted himself by going through what luck favored he managed to pack before the abrupt departure. "Zakar said something about the guy responsible for blotting out my good name attacked an Accepted."

Mikel leaned thoughtfully on the side of the desk. Tower Guard uniform straight as an arrow now. Flame of Tar Valon positioned like a snowy teardrop on his chest. Sigil of the High Captain's unit knotted under the commission patched on his shoulder.
"Yeah. Heard something about that. Petty criminals are usually bound for the Chair of Remorse and escorted off the island. So I reckon he's keeping company in a cell awaiting trial right about now."

Awaiting trial? That meant violence. Jai sucked in a nervous breath.
"He kill her?"
If he did, the Dark One's revenge would be a relief from the fury to rain down on the wretched soul.

"I'd not be off duty right now if we had an Accepted’s corpse on hand. She was barely touched and taken straight to Sisters for testimony."
Mikel held his eyes a moment until Jai broke away to finish taking inventory.

He popped the cap from a leather tube. It was empty now. Space within for bank notes he didn't have time to grab. Next a palm sized, leather-bound pad with a vial of ink for scribbling out quadratics too complex for visualizing. No pen though. Have to borrow one of Jon's. A healer's kit with a few stoppers of stuff he had no idea of their purpose but had no problem dabbing on in the event of an emergency. He sniffed one. Smelled mossy. Should still be good. The precious sewing kit completed the inventory. He held the needle up to the light; had that handy little piece of steel since the days serving with Lt. Tomdry up on the Border. Should probably sharpen it sometime.

Mental list made of what he was missing, he glanced up.
"Can you get me to him?"

Mikel could, but he recognized intention when he saw it. Jai smirked. Mikel was too bloody responsible for his own good.
"If he's arrested he's in a cell. Second basement under the Tower. Entrance isn't hard to find but there will likely be half a unit of Guards around the clock. They come and go on regular duty so the Sisters won't have anything of the Power up to stop them."


Jaslene returned with some trail rations and a flask of water. Not that he anticipated wandering far from food in the next few days but safe over sorry. A couple compact wedges of high energy jerky, dry fruit and nuts went wrapped up in the pack with the rest. The coin, wrapped up to not jingle like a walking target went in as well. A more manageable purse with a mismatch of national mints would stay within easier reach. Safer, too.

He shoved the hastily donned Asha’man’s coat in the pack and flicked apart the buttons of his shirt next. Easy, he'd not exactly dressed to regulation when Zak stormed in. It could have been Nythadri. Had to be Nythadri, just bloody made sense. Who else would it be? Everyone and their brother in Tar Valon recognized Accepted. Malicious intent or not, not even Whitecloaks would dare take on a woman with the ring inside the city. No matter how much they wanted to. That left the lingering presence of Domani, or Seanchan, agents working in the city. They didn't wait long. Pinning fraud on Jai came fast. He'd not shaken their dust from his boots yet. That took some planning. He threw the black shirt into the pack. Mikel said the girl was alright; comforting, slightly. Of course Nythadri left Caemlyn in a mess. Could be an attempt on her. Ghosts of her brother's misfortune maybe. Events too coincidental to be unrelated. And there was no such thing as coincidences.

"Who's Nythadri?"
Mikel interrupted.

Jai jumped. Mikel and Jaslene were staring: he in that accusing way he knew Jai was up to something and she gesturing censureship at the waist Jai was about to drop. "Ah? Jai? Going somewhere?"

"Ah blood and flaming ashes. Nobody."
He looked down suddenly very aware of roaming eyes across the world's longest scar. Probably shouldn't change just anywhere. "No."
He shrugged on the new, wrinkled up mess of a generic-cut shirt. "I mean, yes."
Among promises to clear up his name, he waited until they were gone to finish donning the common attire. Asha'man was his entire identity. He'd cut off his sword hand before forsaking that duty. Strange how a man found anonymity in a line of brothers, but taken alone was desperately vulnerable. These plain clothes felt like the robes of betrayal, but he grit his teeth, cast a promise to the walls as his witness and put it on. The double breasted dust coat hung to the knees. Its scratchy wool and cheap brass buttons poored it down a bit. The curved sword at his side was a bit of a give away, but plenty walked around armed these days. Jai was no fancy blademaster, just another guy who liked a bit of insurance; at least make the common thief think twice. Shouldn't stand out. He hoped as he pulled the coat around the front of the swordbelt.

Waterbag slanted across, pack slung over one shoulder and sword belt secure he felt like a right good campaigner. He bid his farewells to his childhood friends, leaving them to wonder if they would ever see him again or not. Even he didn’t know the answer to that. Best if it was a no. A few hours and a gateway later and he walked into Caemlyn just another face in the crowd. Keeping a tighter check on what he muttered and a closer eye on who was in earshot as he went.

Jai had to give it to the Andorans, the Inner City was rather grand. It was Ogier built, but he didn't need history lessons to know that. The enormous white wall protecting the upper class safely above the rabble of the New City was like a shining city on a hill. More importantly, it reminded him rather thoroughly of the White Walls of Tar Valon; another Ogier structure. While nothing compared directly to the city of his birth, he was actually rather impressed by the enormous archway piercing the wall, the one that heralded his entrance into this more auspicious division. He passed plenty of fountains and crossed plenty of clean streets so far. The underground cisterns were aquifer fed, so the city would never be cut off from fresh water when besieged. Again, much like Tar Valon. He had to admit, he was rather curious to see those underground tunnels some time. If only to study the pylons that held them up. "Some other trip, maybe."

A Guard on duty at the Origan Gate looked sharply his way. He wore a clean, red undercoat, gleaming mail and plate armor and a brilliant red cloak. Long white collars hung over the armor and white cuffs gleamed on his wrists. Two more men flanking the arch on either side held lances with thin red streamers fluttering from their tips. Watchman, Jai guessed, given the pair of them flanking the arch into the city of nobles he was about to enter stood still at their posts. Their faces were obscured by rows of face bars from conical helmets, but when eyes flicked to Jai, they obviously saw nothing more in the common dressed, dust worn refugee, or worse, a tourist. Jai's grin broadened like a country bumpkin impressed by the might of Andor's soldiery as he passed by. Which was mostly true. The Queen's Guards had it put together, at least superficially. Where they lacked in explosive force they made up in numbers. A notable fact to not be overlooked. But the uniforms were too gaudy for his taste.

It would be a different party if he were in uniform himself. Asha'man were supposedly welcome in the capital. Not that the kingdom had much of a choice in the matter. The Black Tower was within a day's journey of this city, after all. He'd never come himself, though. Soldiers were not allowed beyond the onyx rim of their training prison. Dedicated were either too busy with their own training or otherwise already engaged with the Legion elsewhere. Asha'man were given the pin and shipped out for duty within the hour. Those that survived the first few weeks, or had friends in high places, might be directed by the M'Hael to remind these seats of power they were sworn to the Dragon Reborn and so be stationed in a city like this. Not that the Lord Dragon's wife, the Queen of Andor, needed much reminding. Nor any of his wives for that matter.

Jai felt out of place though. Which was not a bad thing. Just odd. He was more out of place in common clothes drowning in a river of luxury than as that morbid figure in black he usually was. Any discomfort in donning something other than the beloved uniform had been chased away by the need to be here, but he pleasantly accepted being ignored by the high caliber of people he passed. The anonymity was nice, for once. Carriages of the lavish sort, like the ones his family took around Tar Valon occupied the main thoroughfares. Even their footmen were decked out in the House colors or Merchant's crest for whom they worked. House Guards or hired merchant's arms were more visible than the Queen's forces, although he did not intend on wandering by the palace to find out the truth of that today. His destination was the banking district this afternoon. To change coin from the plethora of mints Jaslene procured out of the tavern's strong box. It didn't matter which nation's currency ended up in his pocket so long as it wasn’t the Flame of Tar Valon. Although he'd be keeping an eye on the money changers just in case: Andor had a clean reputation, but Jai wasn't blind to certain kinds of corruption. As he explored the buildings, he studied the plaques out front along the way, seeking a very certain plaque decorating exterior walls. The kinds listing each bank's corporate powers.

Of the banks located the Inner City he recognized most names. They all appointed their own liaison to the various Mercantile Trade Guilds for every other city. It was part of system that kept international business running as smoothly as possible. Of course the bank charged a fee for meeting these needs. Insured services the merchant and noble world could not live without: services that inserted power into the bank's corporate top. Everyone assumed it was military might that won a nation power over their neighbors. Absurdly not true. Arms kept a nation from toppling into the history books. Economies were built into regimes in the first place by the fluidity of their money, a philosophy a bank perfected. Deposits, validation of coinage, currency exchange, loans. All of it centered around Banking Houses. All of it kept in check by the Board Officers that oversaw the business. A circle of powerful men that in turn answered to investors; and investors, to the owners. Politicians of real power did not command a sword, they commanded the cash.

Finally, Jai found the name he sought. Aharon Ellis was a name inscribed in bronze as the liaison to Tar Valon Merchant Guilds. He was also a Board member and Senior Committee Chairman according to his official titles. A quick conversation with the teller as a few Arafelli silvers changed over to Andoran marks discovered where the corporate upper echelon frequented their silver platter lunch service - aka, the most likely place to find Aharon at that moment. It would have been a whole different party if an Asha'man were inquiring after Chairman Ellis of course. Light, it would have been a whole different party if Jai gave his family name, even dressed as he was. In this tight-niche world of economics, Kojima was a household identity. Displaced from it for the last ten years and Jai still would have walked a velvet carpet straight to the Chief Officer, and at this very moment be sipping on good brandy rather than walk out alone. Nor stand under the wary inspection of the Bank Armsmen at the door that'd checked his sword when he entered.

He found Aharon with a few other corporate officers lounging in post-luncheon conversation in the opulent garden at a cafe across the square. The terrace was situated a floor above ground level to buffer any potential city scent while listeria vines and potted roses framed a glorious view of the palace some blocks over. A bubble of respect protected Aharon's sipping a light luncheon wine and dining on flakey fish in peace while others filled the mid day air with conversation around him. Jai grinned at his family's former apprentice seated so alone. The last time they saw each other, Aharon was a teenager and Jai was a bloody ignorant fool. Course, that latter was probably still true. Everyone always liked Aharon. It was said Aharon could sweet talk a Ship Captain out of his berth. He likely relished the few minutes of peace he found for himself each day. Though Jai couldn't recall seeing his adopted brother wearing silk overcoats before. Or dabbing so daintily his lips with kerchiefs. Seemed the guy was thick as thieves with the noble class these days. Of whom no shortage of faces glared at the poor commoner, Jai, strolling unhindered through their midst. Wait staff included. Eh, he was used to stares. Although they were usually for entirely different reasons.

Jai slung the pack on the ground and clapped Aharon on the shoulder as he circled around. It won him some alarm, but the guy's face shifted soon enough into recognition.

"Jai Kojima, while I live and breathe! What a surprise."
He stood and the two clapped one another a brotherly hug, parting just enough to check out the other. "How the blazes are you? And the family?"

"I’m alive and still glued together. Can't ask for much more than that,"
Jai replied, not mentioning his family’s well-being. That was rather debatable at the moment, what with one brother a paranoid dick and the other brother loose a screw. Their mother - well. Nevermind. Aharon had no idea the truth of that statement. Last Aharon knew Jai was hell bent on ditching the accounting world altogether. "The years have gone in your favor, Aharon."
Gesturing at the luxury around them as he sat. The faces that turned his way already resumed their conversations. Servers were distributing their orders. Nobody seemed to be paying them any mind.

Aharon gestured, noting the travel bag and sword, "I insist you join me. What business brings you to Caemlyn? Where are you staying? Anything short of the palace and I will insist you stay with us."
He waved a server over, "My man, you have the pleasure of serving my good friend here and the greatest living mind for numbers of our time. Bring Master Kojima anything he wants."

The server bowed as Jai laughed.
"Anything I want, you say?"
He waved away the server's building worry with no requests asides a bit of tea and directed attention back to the conversation at hand. "You can save the Master bit for my father and I've got a place. Thanks though."
Thoughts of a lumpy mattress and thin wine from the night before tempted him to take up Aharon's offer. Aharon shrugged it off. Rather easily, come to think of it. "Congratulations on your appointment, Chairman."
Jai added, semi-sincerely impressed. It only earned some self-assuring laughter and follow up questions.

"You are here on business then?"
Aharon braced for the answer he anticipated. The guy was jumpier than he used to be. A little thinner too. Was he always this pale? Maybe Jai was just too used to Domani coastline tans. Must be the silk. That much lace and floral print could wimp up a Shienaran battle lord.

"Not exactly. Call it more of a personal matter."
Unsettled, Jai glanced around in reaction Aharon's obvious relief. Competition, then? Worry over the family he'd apprenticed with had come to Caemlyn to shove him out? Maybe. "What have you heard about the affairs of the Vanditera's?"

Aharon looked shocked, but didn't hesitate to answer. Didn't even lower his voice. Apparently the Vanditeras were not a name to fear these days.
"Sordid family. House fell apart some time back. Absolute wreck of their finances. Clients of ours lost a fair purse in the whole affair. Against our better judgement, too. But that's the game, high risk high reward. Our forecast analysts warned-"

Jai interrupted. And stifled the desire to defend Nythadri's family,
"Yeah. That's kind of why I'm here."

The dawn of understanding crossed Aharon's face. He picked up his light wine and tipped it toward Jai.
"Well then. How may I be of service?"

Jai relaxed. Fifteen years since he'd shared a toast with this man, but that expression was undeniable. He was in. "These high risk clients. Probably the sort to underwrite a loan on questionable collateral?"
Aharon knew where Jai was going with this. "Probably broker the deals as legitimate fronts?"
Another nod. "Probably have a few hands around to collect when the interest isn't paid?"

Aharon shrugged, agreeing to as much without actually admitting to such knowledge.
"Of course. Who doesn't?"

Jai smirked, all too agreeing. Banks protected their own as fiercely as royals with their crown jewels.
"And if I wanted to break into that line of work, who would my competition be?"

Aharon's tongue loosened once hearing Jai's assurances he was not interested in the Guilds. They finished their conversation over fish. Swapping news from up river not that Jai had much to tell given his decade long absence: Aharon departed Tar Valon before the infamous wager that saw Jai move south. And they finished up with an invitation to an upcoming Investor's Gala. Probably not the wisest given his quest for anonymity on this trip, but the event struck the same chord that sent him counting cards in common rooms. And a chance to ferret out his family's mole from the perspective of their Andoran partners. And he was really looking forward to dressing up for the occasion.
Jai spent most of the morning walking. Not that he complained. Nor grumbled about turning down Aharon's offer to stay with him. The bedding would have been decidedly cleaner, the bed long enough for a good stretching out, and the walls thick enough to sleep in quiet. But he was stuck with anonymity for now, which meant the long walk from the commoner areas of Caemlyn to the Inner City.

The entrance to the Palace won a bit of inspection. There were plenty of people in the Queen's Plaza, the oval shaped plaza heralding the entrance. It was flanked by tall, gilded gates. Impressively golden despite the dull, overcast sky. The palace itself lounged atop the highest hill in the city. White Ogier stonework gleamed as remarkably clean here as it did in Tar Valon. Dozens of tall white spires capped by golden domes pierced the low hanging clouds like miniature versions of those in his birth city. Stonework balconies harboring immaculately dressed nobles looked as intricate as lacework. From every pinnacle fluttered the banner of the white lion of Andor on a field of crimson red. Posted guards in red cloaks and brilliant armor studied the crowd. He felt their eyes pass over him as cautiously as they did everyone else. Jai meanwhile attempted to not stand out, but he was clearly foreign. He stood a hand above the locals. His coat brushed his knees rather than the ankles of those around him. He was not the only armed visitor in sight, but the belted on blade drew enough eyes to recognize its distinct curve.

He submitted to mandatory pat down once under palace roof. With declaration of visiting the royal library, the guards took down his fake name and permitted him entrance. Their list of stern rules ringing in his ears. And directions.

It was a tense walk. Passing nobles and servants. Not that Andoran nobility would recognize him, but royal palaces tended to be filled with an annoying number of dignitaries, ambassadors, and advisors. He kept a keen eye for his brothers in black. Took a few detours to avoid ageless faced women flanked by graceful warders. Anyone dressed in Domani garb were fiercely put out of sight. Asha'man Kojima was suppose to be in Arad Doman after all. He'd pay for dereliction of duty soon enough. No need to chase down punishment yet.

There was no avoiding the ageless face among the librarians guarding the entrance to the library itself. She was seated at a desk alone lost in translating a copy of whatever text lay open before her. Ink darkened her fingertips and smudged prints across a collar she must have adjusted at one point in the morning. Brown Ajah, certainly. A week ago and he'd feel free and clear, but Browns were not the slumbering beast he always thought. Thanks to Fate's education. Jai hoped his quiet inquiry for directions to the Archives Depository would go unnoticed, but his lack of Andoran accent inevitably drew her eye upward. He nodded politely, but was ready to follow his guide out of sight. He didn't recognize her, but that was not to say the opposite would hold true. A few minutes without being followed and he started to relax.

The Archivist was a dull, stooped old man in an ankle-long robe and velvet cap. Frustration quickly built up as Jai constantly repeated every request for those old ears, but guilt inevitably set in as his judgements proved too hasty. The old man immediately steered him through the homogenous shelves of record boxes. To Jai's eye they seemed indistinguishable from every other aisle, but soon enough he was pulling boxes containing records of Crown Acquisitions, bankruptcies, and related House mergers from the last few years.

The old man left him among excessive oaths for death to any man who damaged these precious documents. In complete seriousness, Jai proclaimed full understanding that Archives were unique, uncopied documents that he would protect with his life. The oath seemed to satisfy the suspicion hovering across the Archivist's glare. He sat down to work at a large table. It was not exactly the most exciting venture. Nor the most social one. Nobody but the aging archivist ventured into this dusty wing of boring antiquity.

The Crown acquired a surprising quantity of estates in the last few years. Land disputes that carried on too long were absolved by finding favor in neither party, for instance. Jai glazed across most of the names he found. Half way through the stack of records he finally noticed the name Mishael Vanditera in tiny print. With that bit of encouragement under his belt, he poured a bit more carefully. The sword belt went propped up on the chair next to him. The coat came off next. Pushed up the sleeves of his shirt last. Might as well get comfortable.

The documents outlined a boring list of surrendered assets. Including location and quality of acreage under their domain. Valuable heirlooms still in their name at the time of bankruptcy. The amount of coinage under various accounts or tied up with economical goods. The Crown's redistribution back to the House that absorbed Vanditera after the mess was sorted out. It was all there, except the details of their bankrupcy. For that, Jai shifted through yet another box of records. Attempted collections of debt were outlined. Numerous lenders jumped out in Jai's recognition. Institutions similar to his family's in Tar Valon, which unfortunately, sometimes had to deal with collecting collateral rather than repayment. It was always a messy business. The official declaration to the throne by the Vanditera's last and largest debtor was in the box. The Queen's signature adorned the bottom, but it was the lender's and borrower's identity alongside that drew a lengthy study.

Mishael's signature was severely slanted. The points of ink blotted at the start and end like it'd been scrawled out in angst. A pair of wings around a full moon was crested into the parchment. Matching signet pressed into wax was the final authenticity. The Head of Vanditera's House; Nythadri's father. The following signature belonged to His Grace, Lord Matias Winthel, Head of House Winthel. It was in grand, angular script and set by his crest. A triangular pine tree perching a nesting eagle was his crest. His was one of the names Aharon brought up. House Winthel monopolized the trade of textiles for olives with the south, but the bulk of his fortunate came from "investing" in high risk pursuits others would not touch. High risk, high reward. Sounds of shuffling settled on his periphery but waved it away. The Archivist likely back to check on his precious documents. Jai grit his teeth without looking up, carefully searching the remaining box for legal evidence of bankruptcy.

The Crown's mediators would require proof of House Vanditera's inability to repay their debts. Likely overseen by an Aes Sedai. Jai made a mental note to keep an eye out for them. Just to avoid any entanglements in the future. Not that he intended to be running into Aes Sedai any time soon, but intentions were not exactly reality.

He stooped over pages and pages of accounts submitted into evidence to make sense of it all. It was obvious the House steadily lost equity the last ten years or so, but something about the data left a bitter taste in his mouth. The margins of variability were too tight to reflect the realism of authentic markets. Which meant putting ink to paper and reworking the balance sheets from scratch himself. Luckily, he had a travel quill and ink ready to go.

The stiff, straight posture of earlier deteriorated as he slumped over the reworked pages of data. His mind swirled with numbers, equations and algorithms. His forecast equations never reflected the reality of what happened to their declining accounts. Even accounting for market fluctuations. It left a suspicious aftertaste in his throat. The Archivist came by again at one point, but Jai never so much as broke concentration to wave him away. His hand hurt. Fingers were likely curled down from gripping the quill pen too furiously. After the second full jar of ink, he only realized he'd channeled a third over after it was done. And checked for witnesses with a self imposed curse on his lips when he realized what he did. Eventually the Archives were lost amid a sea of his own scribbled out notes. A librarian showed up about that time, directing his attention to the approach of the Royal Library's closing hour. The pile directly under his burnt-out eyes investigated skewness of data, but he could not stop now. Just a few more minutes.

Every point of data for every quarter's accounts for the last ten years had their own forecast, their own contingency for fluctuation, and their own evidence of declining assets. They trended sharply into the negative, but on a negative skew. His writing wrist kept moving though as he went back to the original summary documents to de-calculate the skewness recorded therein. It was a perfect curve. Symmetrical on every point he had time to work. It was the symmetry that gave it away. Real world trends were never perfect. The only perfect curve was a fake one. Fraud. It was fraud on a scale as he'd never seen. And the bloody light forsaken bastard that fixed the numbers used Jai's own bloody equation to falsify it! “Skewness of median,” Jai called it when he wrote it at 14 years old. Down to the constant Jai calculated one day when he was playing with forecast statistics. When he was of the age where playing was the primary goal of every day. Except, that day, he'd been under house arrest for what was a minor infarction with an escaped chicken. He ended up with the constant he was staring at in shock right now. Nobody outside their family knew of it. That constant was proprietary. It was how the Kojima’s forecasts were always so correct. Nobody knew it except them. Nobody except perhaps one out-maneuvered apprentice.


As soon as he said it, he saw a flicker of white skin reach for the sword propped against the adjacent chair. Furiously struck to attention, he clamped down hand on the wrist, shoved out of chair, and twisted the attached arm into obedience. As soon as he realized it was a woman's velvet sleeve, he realized those fingertips were darkened with ink as thick as on his own. Recognition of an ageless face came on the next breath. On the exact moment his skin pebbled with fierce chills.

He gasped, let go of her and stumbled backward, tangling himself up in the chair while shoving his sleeves down his arms. A figure moved toward him, but the freed Aes Sedai halted her warder's progress. Jai swung his head from the warder back to her.
"Light I'm so sorry Sister!"
He glanced at the wreck spread across the table. One of the Andoran librarians was behind her, agape with shock over his abrupt reaction. The Archivist at her side seemed perturbed by everyone's youth, and the pile of documents awaiting reorganization thanks to Jai. It'd take as dedicated as mind as his own to make sense of what he'd been doing all day, but empty ink jars and nubs of worn down quills bore evidence of an enormous task. Let them follow the rabbit trail. Did the Sister notice his sleeves? Light! Would she just release the Power! The hairs on the back of his neck hurt under the strain. "A thousand apologies. I was startled that's all."

Her cool study turned from the messy table to the sword she'd attempted to move in order to sit next to him. Light! How long had she been standing there? Had she said something? He searched his memories as he did her face for signs of Brown Ajah strings. He hastily started collecting everything back together.

"The library is closed young man."

"Of course, allow me to dispose of these things and return-"

"Not necessary. We will put it back in good order."

Jai stopped to look up at her. She was pale skinned, not in the manner of seeing little sunlight, but as though born that way. Dignity sealed her ageless face and wide eyes down to a thin lipped patience. She wore modest velvets and simple jewelry. Excluding of course the serpent ring. At long last the chill faded from his skin, leaving Jai with the reminder of White Tower presence everywhere he went. She would go over what had taken his interest. Likely report it back to the Tower as well. Fate would know soon enough. And who knew what interest she would take. Or pass on to someone else. Blood and bloody ashes.

He collected the loose bundle of scribbles, shoved the lot of it carefully in a coat pocket, grabbed the sword and saw himself to the exit.

Dark night skies met him in the Queen's Plaza. As well as fat raindrops. He turned up his collar and hurried on. Guards let him pass without incident. Soon enough the splash of wading through street water was his only company. He passed a few carriages in the Inner City, but most courtly men and women were nestled indoors for the night. The Origan Gate passed by in a blur. The water sopping down his neck finally reminded him of not eating or drinking all day. A small price. Antony Sadiq certainly found him in worse shape before.

There were more people out and about in the New City. Most were huddled in hoods as protection from the rain. Jai glanced longingly at a man with a wide brimmed hat and upturned collar. Shops were closed up. Common rooms sounded full. Filth washed out from alleys between buildings. It was a long trek back to his inn, but he was ready for a hot meal and a flagon of wine once he made it. His inn was near the outermost wall. The fires of refugee and mercenary camps stationed beyond soon came into view. Bloody Aharon Ellis. Used Jai's own discovery to cover tracks of falsfiying the Vanditera's books. They were in decline, of that there was no doubt. But it was Lord Winther who profited from the bankruptcy.

Lost in thought, Jai realized he'd taken the wrong street. He cursed at the delay, turned to double back and saw a figure jump hastily from sight. Blood and bloody ashes! He broke into a run, the sound of splashing not obscured by the heavy rain. The alley his spook turned down was empty. He took it anyway. "Come on! I know you're down there!"
He called through the rain. Took easy steps forward. And loosened the safety on the sword sheathe as he went.

Something clattered then someone ahead took off running. Jai broke into a sprint. Someone followed him all the way from the palace and no way was he going to let the bastard get away. "Blood and bloody-"
loathed to use the Power, but next time he caught sight of the fellow, he lashed out with a whip of Air to trip him up. The guy flew spectacularly face forward to the ground and moments later Jai was on him like a warhead. While he attempted to pin his arms, mud splashed around them and his grip slipped just enough. The spook twisted around and sent a knee into Jai's stomach and two fists into his chest. When Jai reeled back in shock, the guy took his ankles out from under him. He landed hard on his back and lost a few seconds to catch some wind in his lungs again, mostly surprised by the scrappy fighting. The guy scrambled to his feet and took off. Leaving Jai to crawl up on a throaty curse and forced to use the Power once more. This time, Jai kept the guy down with an arm threatening to crush his throat and an iron blanket of Saidin weighing down his legs from more kicks.

No moon. No lamps. No light at all except what filtered from the cross streets. It was not enough to make out more than cursory features. He definitely wasn’t stupid enough to use the Power to light a beacon on their fight. What he could tell was the spook was a common dressed man, much as himself. Hair and beard soaked with rain. A scowl twisted his lips in defiance. Wrinkles set his hard eyes as older than Jai but fit enough to hold his own in the fight. "Aharon send you to trail me?!"
The guy hacked through the weight on his throat. "Answer!"
Jai let his weight sink in a little more then rummaged through the guy's coat pockets. "Let's see if your pockets will talk."
He sent a belt knife soaring out of reach. Leather tubes likely bearing commissions went into Jai's possession as did a purse. There wasn't enough light to read them, but there was was enough to catch a metallic glitter. A charm dangled from a heavy gold chain. Very out of place. "I really doubt this is yours."
Jai broke the clasp and pulled it off to get a better look. It was a solid figure of a hawk clasping a round, blue-gem moon in its talons. "Vanditera..?"
Jai blinked at it. Then looked back down to the man who had it in his possession. Nythadri told him about her brother’s murder, staged to look like a robbery. The killers even took the boy’s signet ring. "Tashir Vanditera?"
He dropped it on the ground, picked up the guy's collar, and whipped his head into the ground. "Answer me!"
The list of seized assets flew through his mind. Every member of the House turned over similar sigils. Some set with jewels, others on rings. Everyone’s was accounted for except Tashir Vanditera's golden hawk. A group of men sent by Matias Winther sent a strong message they would be collecting on the debt. Their message carried too heavy a hand, though. And Tashir ended up dead in the street. Nythadri helpless to defend him. The City Watch apprehended most of them. "You were one of them weren't you?! Still working for Winther?! Answer me you disgusting shell of a man!"
He could see Nythadri's eyes piercing with their loss and pain as sure as if she'd been struck by conventional means. Ghosts she did not deserve to harbor.

Jai stopped. His fist was on fire. Coming to sick realization why the guy wasn't answering. "Blood and ashes!"
He crawled off the body and dissolved the weave that'd helped hold him down. He shook his hand off, stood up, and stared into space. Moments later a line of unnatural light illuminated the alley. It split in two and the blackest of black holes made a threshold next to the body. One nudge and one of Tashir's killers would fall forever. Jai put a boot on the guy's hip. Nobody would ever find the body. He'd never be caught. The low life would not be missed.

He didn't get the chance to decide. He was hit from the side by a new assailant. The gate shut itself off in the assault. Saidin busted from his grasp. The hilt of his sword jammed into his side and this time Jai was the one pinned down. Rage fueled him fresh when he recognized the man in the wide brimmed hat from earlier. The same bloody hat he wished he had. He diverted a coming blow with one arm and sent a knee into the man's side. The guy reeled back as Jai had before, but instead of running, Jai threw a rock from the mountain of Saidin hurling in his ears. The guy grunted as he went down, but this time Jai didn't follow.

He panted. He was acutely aware of every blow he'd taken. Of which there were plenty. He had two guys on his hands he had no idea what to do with. The one still conscious knew he could channel. Grunting to kneel down, he grabbed Tashir's necklace. Made sure nobody else was going to crash this party. Rearranged himself, then hauled the newcomer to his feet.
"Let's go see Lord Winther."

”And why would I be that stupid?"
The guy coughed as a noose of Air encircled the guy's throat. Snug as skin.
"Because you don't want your throat crushed in. Now walk."

It was like walking a dog on a training leash.
And walk they did. Passed two Watch Patrols on the way to be exact. Though as Jai and his companion were mere innocent blokes going about their business; they had no reason to stop them. He could have done without the hike back up to the New City, or at least preferred to stop off for a bite to eat. But it'd have wait. At least the downpour washed away whatever filth he'd rolled around in. And at some point one of Winther's henchmen landed a good shot on his shoulder. It bloody throbbed again. An ache a few squeezes didn't seem to ease. At least he remembered to grab that hat before they took off.

Winther's manor was located easily enough. Lamps illuminated an outer gate. Stone pillars gave a loyal house guardsman dominion over the crest scrolling across the bars. And everyone who came and went. His companion rang in while Jai hung a few steps back, rim of the hat covering his face and hands in his pockets to keep an eye on the fellow. The Power still coursed a nice lasso around the fellow's neck, but he'd tamed him down enough on the walk to ensure he'd raise no alarm. It only took a few good yanks for the lesson to sink in.

An unhappy, drenched night guard approached. Muttering about being disturbed in Light-forsaken weather like this. "Ah. It's you." He grimaced when he recognized Jai's guide, but out-right frowned at Jai. "Well hang on then." He produced a gate key and a few minutes later they were letting themselves onto Lord Winther's grounds. Easy as that; Jai wondered who exactly his companion was to be so trusted to come and go whenever he pleased. Maybe he was head-henchmen. What a compliment that Winther sent his best to follow little old Jai all night long.

Jai tossed the soaking wet hat on a credenza, scrubbed the water from his hair and stomped his boots free of mud. The layout of the interior was to be expected. Decor, too. All marble floors and gilded candelabras. Bloody gaudy nobles. The Lord's Great Hall was some steps before them, trafficked only by a couple of House dressed servants completing nightly chores. They barely looked up long eough from their work to notice the apparent intruders. But nobody seemed ot care. The corridors were otherwise free and clear for the guy to show Jai through to the Lord's office.

He closed the door behind them, opened the wick on an oil lamp and turned to his quiet friend. "Thanks."
The Power saved his fist the trouble of bludgeoning the guy unconscious; he dropped like a sack of sand. Jai smirked. Then efficiently set about rummaging through everything. First, record books. He wanted a look at Lord Winther's accounts. Then through drawers. It was pretty typical stuff anyone might have. He sat in the Lord's padded leather seat and ran fingertips along the edges and creases of the desk. Feeling for indentions. Or false bottoms. Anything of value. Empty handed, Jai leaned tiredly back in the chair and drummed fingers across his waist. The room was typically masculine. All gleaming rich woods and velvet curtains. Gilded candelabras and plush fabrics. Soft rug underfoot. An open faced cupboard housed a crystal brandy set.

"Might as well."
He sighed and poured himself a glass. If nothing else, it'd give him a good jolt. He swirled it around in the glass, stepped over the body and roamed around the room, peeking out once in awhile to make sure body was going to interrupt. Leaning in once in awhile to look at the wall hangings. He checked behind everything he passed on the way. By the time he circled back around to the cupboard, he poured himself another brandy and noticed mud prints decorating the rug. Those poor servants were going to have their work cut out for them come tomorrow.

He caught his breath. Thrust the glass on the desk and lifted the corner of the rug. Then the opposite corner. The strong box he was looking for? Under the third corner. Grin splitting his face, there was no point to bother looking for the key. He took hold of Saidin and reached out to the metal hinges with a cauldron of power. They glowed a faint yellow and he kicked them out of the wood with his heel.

This was no thief's treasure chest. Nothing glittered gold. No jewels gleamed tempting fortunes. Just the lure of paperwork waited within. Jai grabbed them up victoriously. He found account information for various guises. Written out deals for illegal tradings outside taxation by the Crown. As he shuffled the papers, one page in particular deepened the lines of thought in his face to outright frowns. A very interesting list of names and dollar amounts peered back up at him. The page even listed their security authentications. Every bit of knowledge necessary to scam accounts from members of the White Tower pay-roll, including a couple of Aes Sedai. And the incriminating page was written on Kojima embossed letterhead.

Blood and bloody ashes. It was almost comical. Someone was selling information about White Tower clients. Zakar thought it was Jai. And Zak went on and on about the great blessing it was to have the brilliant Aharon Ellis around to pick up the slack when Jai was shipped south. And Aharon turned around and sold it all to Winther. No wonder the lad was nervous when Jai crashed his lunch. That handy little scrap of incriminating paper went into a spare script tube and ended up nestled safe and sound in Jai’s pocket.

As the henchman that led him here began to stir, Jai swiped the glass of brandy and stepped through a gateway. He sipped it on the skimming disc back to his room, admiring the crystal as he traveled. Once there, he was bloody ready for a snack. And a nap. What a hell of a night.
He woke foggy and cold. Like an unfortunate cat finally let in after a night wandering lost in the rain. He sat up and realized why. A wet mountain of clothes were abandoned on the floor and he'd crashed on the narrow, too short trundle of a bed without drying off. Rubbing out his eyes and the shoulder didn't do much good. The shoulder was left-overs from an aggravating present from falling off Fate's prized Razor. Suppose it was better than being blind. Barely. His head rang like a bell being hammer. Kidneys chanted their unified rebellion with his legs to stand up and be of much use. A few splashes of water helped clear the fog of too little sleep, but he'd ran in worse shape before.

To get dressed was a chore though. Battling saidin's strength without being swept away with it was a bit of an effort; but undoing the ward on the room's sole wardrobe was thankfully all he had to do with it. The soft sheen of black waited clean and pressed within; a task he'd taken care to finish the first day in town. It slid wonderfully easy over his back. Tar Valon tailoring fit like a glove. It was warm and breathed and smelled infinitely better than the regular clothes he was donating to the floor. And felt right, again.

Pack over one shoulder and Asad's sword belted on. He could have done with a mirror, but made due with feeling around his face. As nothing seemed too tender, at least not so much as the rest of him, he was willing to wager he didn't look like he'd gone through the meatgrinder. Which was a good thing. Being rather attached to his face and all. He flattened his hair out with the palms of his hands and called himself good enough.

The common room was absurdly packed with tenants working through breakfast. He paused in the doorway, weakened by the aroma of hot meals on everyone's table. The smell of sausage was enough to freeze a charging trolloc off target. First one person noticed him. A short statured man with a ring of thin hair around an otherwise bare scalp. He set his fork down altogether and stared. Then the guy next to him, whom Jai diced with two nights ago, lifted his brows in confusion. As though he was trying to remember if the fellow whose coppers he'd acquired had been in black the entire time. Jai nodded their direction, and looked elsewhere with a generic "good morning" for anyone else that noticed. Which, in case anyone was too lost in thought to notice the equivalent of a stark raving mad executioner in their midst, walking to a table in the middle of the room caught their attention.

As soon as his pack hit the floor and himself in a seat, the inn owner herself slid a plate of food in front of him. She eyed the Asha'man's packed bag warily. "You'll be leaving us today, then?" She was a smooth cheeked woman with big brown eyes and rich brown hair that she wore tied back. Her stout wool dress was covered by a working-woman's apron. Her arms were folded expectantly across her chest. She wasn’t pleased she’d been misled.

He smiled gentle as cupping a kitten up at her, heartfelt apologies setting the curve to his brow. If he hadn't put on the uniform, she'd never known she harbored a weapon of the Dragon under her roof these last two days. Nor laughed at the jokes of a killer that first night when dicing was the order of business. He lost hours worth of coppers in that fun. Statistically, dice were harder to predict than cards, but even randomness had patterns to it. He could count it if he’d wanted. But Jai'd sat at the tables for the entertainment, not for profit.
"Yeah. I'll be out of your hair soon enough."
She started to turn away, but Jai caught her arm. His grip a hundredfold more gentle than it had been on that Brown yesterday. "Do you mind sending one of your lads to fetch a carriage. I could use a ride to the Inner City?"
She slid a tense hand from his and nodded. Perhaps a touch more understanding softening the lines around her eyes. He thanked her sincerely, produced the money to pay for the hassle and inhaled the food. He really didn’t want to walk back to the Inner City again.

Six stubby sausage links, as many biscuits smeared with headcheese, and two bowls of creamed corn later he left the tension behind. And felt renewed as the rain-washed streets outside. The clouds were still around, but no longer threatened rain. Scent of morning flour from a bakery hung on the air. People hustled along huddling packages. Farmers directed mule-led wagons bound for market. It was still early, then. But not as early as he'd prefer. Still, walking into combat on little sleep was not a good recommendation. No matter who you were fighting. This was definitely going to be a battle, not a hard one, but a he needed his wits about him.

The carriage was unadorned but sturdy as he disappeared inside it. Now that he thought about it, and had a belly full of warm food, he really could have walked the miles back into the Inner City. In fact it'd feel good to stretch the legs a bit; carriages were never built for the height. But surprise was the element in his favor, and as he brought no cloak, it left a guy with few options.

He emerged from cover in a whole new part of the city. He paid the driver with a Tar Valon mark as a tip much to the lad's appreciation and ascended the same steps with much more fanfare than yesterday. Lynn Bank House was truly a house in design, being originally built as League Headquarters for Andoran Trading Merchants. It was surrounded now by impenetrable, spike-capped iron fences. Not to mention lined by a number of heavily armed guards. Only the highest caliber of thief had a chance making away with valuables today. Jai would wager for every non-uniformed guard in sight there were at least two others under cover of civilian clothes he could not see. At least, that's how he would design the security.

The grand frontage was a centered by a statue of Jacobar Lynn: the House's original founder, investor, and in whose name the bank still operated. The interior grand hall was turned into a spectacular showing of fortune. A medley of magnificent windows, chocolate brown and moss green walls, pink velvet and polished wood. If not for the moneychangers, any royal subject would at home.

His dramatically back-lit silhouette came into clearer focus as the doors shut behind him. "Sir, we require checking of all weap-" Jai turned casually toward the posted guards, thumbs hooked on the belt. One of them was on duty yesterday. A beast of a man, stout enough to knock over a charging boar in a single blow. It was obvious why he was the one with the enormous task of disarming clients as they thought to enter. The guard tacked on the end of his orders, voice heavy with confusion. He clearly recognized the tall foreigner with a curved sword from the day before. "-checking of all weapons before entrance." A smart dressed staffer immediately approached before Jai could answer, waving with authority that the guards stand down. It wasn’t like relinquishing his sword was going to do anything to disarm an Asha’man anyway. Jai smirked. Inside the doors less than a minute and already it was a different party. The guard didn't go away empty handed, though. Jai left his bag under house care and strided off in the company of escort.

Up a couple flights to the executive offices, he was shown into one with an enormous desk set before a window. Pale drapes, a small sofa and a terrific view across the square completed Chairman Ellis' writing office. ”Jai Asad Kojima for you, sir. His arrival announced, Aharon looked up from his work and Jai stepped around his escort, "Asha'man Kojima, actually,"
adding on the title. He clapped the guy on the shoulder and urged him out on orders to send up a contract drafter. Aharon rose to his feet, speechless, and looking him up and down. Stunned enough looking to think he witnessed the Lord of the Grave himself standing there. In a way, he kind of was. Depending on how this was going to go.

Seeing his old friend so honestly shocked was almost enough to second guess the plan. Maybe he’d misread Winther’s papers. Maybe Aharon wasn’t involved in all this conspiracy at all. Until Aharon made the foolish move for something out of sight. Whatever he thought he was going to get that was going to defend himself was laughable. Jai raised his good arm forward, fingers all curled like he were about to pluck an apple off a tree and lashed Aharon to his chair with ropes of the Power. "No need to get up."
He watched him struggle with vague guilt for having to resort to this. Jai clasped his hands behind his back and strolled around much as he had in Winther's place the night before. Ignoring the Chair's cursing as he did, "Nice set up you have here. You know Zakar was going on and on about how they just couldn't live without you when I left."

He pivoted from studying himself in a mirror. Didn't look too bad, all things considering. He tilted his face toward the light, there hadn't been time to shave; it left a sheen of random growth across his neck. Oh well. He had no kit with him anyway, and shaving with the One Power was rather time-consuming. Still watching himself in the mirror, he observed his own expression downgrade to still waters upon finding focus in the Oneness. In there, saidin was sharper, easier to conquer. The colors and scents cleared their path. He turned about to see how Aharon was faring. He was sweating a dark ring around his powder blue silk collar. Then Jai understood the shock, "Ahh. They didn't tell you where I went, did they? Well let me answer your questions before you even ask them. Yes, I’ve met the Dragon. No, I don’t particularly like the guy. Yes, I’ve killed people. Yes, I could decorate the walls with your brains if I wanted. No, I had no idea I could channel until I was tested."
There. What a proud black-sheep he was.

That was a good feeling. His family didn’t even tell people that he went to the Black Tower. What did they tell everyone? That he interned at a partner bank in Illian or something? Oh well. Thankfully the Oneness saw those warm and fuzzy feelings curl up dead as a winter leaf on a camp fire. "Nothing to say?"
Aharon glared back. The gracious host of yesterday's reunion fled from his face entirely. Left behind a snarl of bitter disgust, though Jai might guess that vehemence was self-directed. Probably wise he kept his mouth shut.

He slapped down the parchment from Winther's strongbox under Aharon's eyes. Jai braced for the shockwaves, but the guy didn't seem surprised at all. Likely first thing this morning the unconscious henchman left behind in Winther's office raised quite the alarm. If the Lord were sharp he likely knew exactly what was taken as soon as he saw the melted hinges on his strong box. If left to a bit of a loss as to the identity of the thief. At least, until the hat-wearing fellow could be roused. "Get into the office late today? Did he summon you or you just show up on your own?"
He shrugged. The details didn't matter. Then laid out the case against Aharon's involvement with Winther. The guy didn't even try to defend himself. The proof was in the math. And smeared all over Aharon’s face. ”You’ll not breathe a word of this when the drafter gets here. You do and I’ll take you to the Crown.”

Jai turned on the sound of someone coming in. The gentleman was thin as a reed with gaunt face. His notary instruments were in a cracked leather case clutched in gout-knobbed hands. He went about his work and didn't seem bothered in the least by the Asha'man's direction. Nor Aharon's near sick reaction to what he would be signing. That, or given how close he stooped over the high grade contract parchment under his nose, his eyes lost too much far sight to notice.

Jai's name never adorned the contract. Not even so much as a witness. All he did was dictate what it would read. With it, Aharon was going to make a sizeable contribution. Charitable. And anonymous, of course. Twenty thousand gold crowns, or fifty percent of his complete assets, whichever was the greater amount. Then take a nice vacation back to Tar Valon for a little reunion with the Kojimas. But first, he was to call the Board of Directors together for what was to be a disturbing and eye-opening confession concerning their honorable client, the Lord Matias Winther. And the resignation of one particular Chairman, of course. Unless the Board voted to terminate the position first.

Ah. Board rooms. Filled with curmudgeonly old men who worked their entire lives to gain the authority to win such powerful seats. Then once they get there, are too beset by experience to ever be rattled by the small things any more. Like finding out their institution was the filter for a client to funnel money back and forth across cities. Or that one of their own was embezzling. These guys didn't care that the man bringing it to their attention could turn them simultaneously into piles of pink, soft as the velvet curtains spanning their magnificent windows, for the sake of his own amusement. They didn’t care about Jai’s title. They only cared about his last name; that he was a member of their competition. And the reputation of their own secure facilities remained in tact. A business position Jai actually respected. He wouldn't press charges, and signed on behalf of the executive position he still held to such an end. A title if only in name. Zakar wouldn’t be pleased, but he could exact his own justice nonetheless. So long as they pursued legal action against Lord Winther and the matter taken all the way to the Crown. From there, it'd be left to royal negotiators to sort out the mess between their two institutions. And therefore not bringing this to the public's attention. One word to the right person and all security in their favor would be lost. And banks thrived or toppled on public interest.

Alright. Copies of the contracts went into the ledger holding the rest of his paperwork and Jai stuffed it all securely under one arm. He trusted the Bank would file legal action with the Crown by the end of the afternoon. Aharon, who just sat there without so much as raising a voice in his own defense, accompanied Jai back to Tar Valon after they shared a hearty lunch. One he generously paid for.

That just left one piece of business. If the White Tower was anything like the Black, Nythadri's mail would likely be searched, but he intended on finding a higher class courier than the last one he'd hired. Unlike his choice for Fate Sedai, there was no message behind this guy. In fact, the fellow had no idea who hired him at all. Only to deliver a well-padded, palm-sized box to one Accepted Nythadri Vanditera in person. Her brother's keepsake was sealed anonymously within.

All in a day's work. Though, to be fair: two day's work.

****** Tar Valon ******

Suffice to say, security working night shift at the Banking House with a certain surname chiseled above the entrance fresco was rather puzzled, more or less, as to how exactly what appeared to be a surprisingly calm, well-dressed and completely unarmed man came to be sitting inside the main foyer as though he appeared from inside. Although to be honest, he was sitting, but only because he was tied to a column, and he wasn't without any property. A satchel of some personal things was dropped on his lap. Perched atop like some impromptu lap desk lay a slick leather folio brimming with documents. Most curious of all was the parchment stuffed inside a script case clenched between the gentleman's teeth bound with a gag like a man biting down to endure some gruesome operation in the field. Upon discovery, security wisely read the note's contents before releasing the unusual guest from bondage. Delivery for Zakar Kojima, it read. As it took a significant amount of time to not only deliver such news to the Bank's general manager, the gentleman was looking rather irate by the time he arrived. More so that security who stood in guard over him did not pull the gag so he might mount a defense as they had released the note from his teeth.

Zakar arrived by carriage some time before dawn. His stride amid the gilding and marble magnificence was as sure as the sunrise over the ocean. He was as tall as any of his brothers, but being the eldest, he had a stature to him as though constantly waiting for something to go wrong that would require his attention to correct. Like many eldest sons, he was born into responsibility of his rank in the lineage, but he adopted that responsibility with absolute seriousness. If he recognized the handwriting summoning him at this unworldly hour, familiar only to soldiers with unfortunate watch duty or professions most active under cover of darkness, then he hid the recognition behind a thin lip and a frown.

It was not the sort of reunion with their former apprentice he intended given Aharon's original parting on good terms, but Zakar did not need to pour over the contents of the folio for long before sending the apparent thief to a secure location until it was decided what should be done with him.

It was one of those times of night when it was futile to return home only to about-face and march back to the office an hour later, so the immaculate Zakar ascended to his carved out penthouse, folio tucked under one arm, to watch the sun rise. He scrawled out a message first thing for his wife and children, apologizing for the abrupt departure. Likewise for the impending absence from his eldest daughter's debut concert singing at the Commerce Chamber's city breakfast this morning as it seemed an emergent situation would detain his arrival. The strict block lettering barely depicted his sincerity as his heart was struck with disappointment. He’d looked forward to this breakfast for some time. Ever since she first serenaded her parents and they realized her talent. She'd worn a yellow dressing gown and clutched a porcelain doll at the time. How she’d grown since then.

He poured over Jai's handiwork until mid-morning. Long after the patter of loafers shuffled up and down the hall outside his door. His early breakfast was well worn into pangs for lunch by then as well. His baby brother was nowhere actually credited with the chaos strewn across the crumpled sheafs, but Jai was more mathematician than accountant, although that was not what he would call himself, and accountants prefered bound, orderly, consecutive ledgers. Not random piles of papers that seemed to make no sense except to the mind that scrawled out the equations. Zakar recognized the patterns, and handwriting, immediately, of course. He'd been the one who sat over Jai's arithmetic when the boy was young enough to still be wobbly with his walking.

That night, he sent carpenters to his parent's estate to repair the damage inflicted in the recent confrontation with his Asha'man brother. The only message back was that nobody seemed to have any idea what became of the brother in question, although his wardrobe was emptied over the previous night despite the lack of disturbance at the front door. The only news of note was an honest plea from Jaslene Basinthe to protect the half finished portrait now hanging in the Kojima's gallery from destruction.
"You earned that, you know"

Jai turned toward the man strolling beside him.
His companion's words were clear, but Jai didn't know what he was referencing. He asked about it with a hint of apprehension about learning the answer. The man was of Jai's height, though thinner with advanced years, but not so much as to be stooped by weakness. More gray than Jai remembered swept through his brushed-back hair and the well-groomed whiskers on his chin. An impressively thick beard Jai gave up attempting to duplicate connected what filled the man's chin up to a narrow mustache. Jai scratched randomly at his own neck. A few more days without shaving and he'd look properly tousled. He smoothed his black sleeves anyway.

The gentleman clarified. He was dressed well in fine gray pants, a sandy colored shirt covered with a short vest and pale blue coat cut to mid-thigh. He strolled with a thin cane that seemed out of place along his confident stride, but it tapped lightly against the grass beside his every step. He gestured at the sword attached to Jai.
"When you were younger, the day the Tower Guard sounded the alarm that the city was under attack, they called any man of fighting age or background to volunteer for an assignment. I remember that day so clearly."
His voice trailed off in memory. "For days, the whole city held its breath. I ignored the rumors like they were nothing but superstitious nonsense and kept to my regular schedule. But when the real alarm came, I asked the men in our employee to represent us well, if any were so inclined to volunteer. But I myself pulled my hood low and snuck home through the shadows toward home unaccompanied. My father's voice pounded in my head the whole time. 'The only sorrow deeper than that of losing yourself is to lose it to the Shadow'. He used to say."

Jai blinked in utter shock. His father never spoke of his father. Let alone admitted to wisdoms the man may have imparted. It was as if his grandfather was a legend, proof only that he lived by the portrait of a man with tied back hair and penetrating blue eyes or the haunted look that sometimes danced behind his son when he was lost to memory. The reverence in his voice made it seem as if he was practicing it out loud for the first time right now.

His father went on. If he was hesitant to share so much now, after a lifetime of reservation, he did not appear it. "He told stories of the Borderlands when I was young. Stories told to him by his father, and so on. But that he inherited no shame when Asad left our homeland, and he would pass none on to me, because Asad's purpose all those years ago was purer than devotion to one cause or country. 'Love serves the Light too, perhaps more so than battle' He said. And his love was in Tar Valon."

His father paused, demonstrating such a face of shame contradicting what he just said. Jai pushed out images of a Malkieri nobleman packing his things to journey south. He almost believed he'd heard incorrectly. Any remorse he felt he deserved for his service to the Black Tower seemed dwarfed by the burden that gnawed at his father's soul now. Jai didn't want to hear what humbled so unshakable a man. Did he suddenly disagree with their guiltlessness?

"I rushed home to protect what I loved most in this world, knowing full well I would rather see the Blight smother all this,"
he gestured as though sweeping the whole island of Tar Valon under his arm, but also for the green and plush and perfect surroundings that nestled them presently. Birds called over head, something scampered through the strategic brush, a cool wind off the river rustled the leaves, "than to see my family come to harm."

Jai stopped himself from putting a hand on his father's shaking shoulder but looked away instead. So his father did what their greatfather Asad had done. Abandoned call to a greater duty for family. Jai found himself scratching the back of his neck, more puzzled than ever. Love serves the Light too? No. Love was tunnel vision. It blinded good intentions. It rendered dedication and duty into worthless trinkets. A man could walk very dark paths for that kind of obsession.

Jai was suddenly aware of the body he'd left behind in Caemlyn. He should have kicked it into the skimming space.

His father's voice interrupted the trance. "When I arrived home, I found your brother Zakar asking leave to go to his betrothed, not to the walls to fight."
Jai looked up. The selfless and noble Zakar was to be newly married back then. He supposed that was a normal reaction. His then-future sister-in-law was of a family like most in Tar Valon, one who lived without personal armsmen in their employ. They might have been in danger, Jai reflected.

Most of what he personally remembered of that day was catching whispers between his tutors. Or theorizing with his friends what put everyone on edge. He could still feel his sword master striking with renewed teachings and a darkened brow. Of noticing Tower Guard. How he'd watched them so closely at that age, dreaming of the day to climb the outer White Walls and stand on the edge above the river, armor gleaming with the sliver of dawn on his shoulders. The Guards were poised that day, but for what he only imagined. The reality of it, he couldn't actually imagine. He'd been only a kid himself, one raised far from the brotherhood of the Borderlands. Whatever their family's blood remembered, no living Kojima man at the time laid eyes on shadowspawn. None had for some generations. The same could not be said now, he exhaled thoughtfully. A surge of pride tempting him to end the day in the Borderlands rather than Arad Doman as was his destination. Both were admirable causes, but he wouldn't forsake duty twice in a row; he had to go back to Daryen At that tender age, though, none of his family witnessed the break of soldiers like waves on a seawall, let alone a sea of them so large to trample the green horizon with muddled shapes: human or otherwise.

When the streets went dark that night, monsters came out of the shadows. More than any other memory of that time, he remembered hearing guttural howls clogging the night like nightmarish wolves. He'd never heard a wolf, either at that age, but what sounds his friends created to jest up troublesome howls as kids. He remembered looking from a window onto the far street below and seeing things move about. Sometimes the orderly blocks of trained men, other times individual masses crawling forward like insects. But beneath the torch poles flaming with yellow light, none of them gleamed with the Tower's heroic armor.

He was suddenly so aware of where they were. The Ogier Grove was mostly protected from harm that night. Jai, like most of the city, assumed it was the Aes Sedai themselves who cast some spell across these precious timbers. If only such things were so easy, he reminisced sadly, casting eyes across the serene woodland all around. He understood why Zakar went to his find his bride.

His father went on, "He took my leave to go to her. Your other brother Andreu was consoling your mother. Being near frantic as she was unknowing where you were. But I knew."

His father stopped him, eyes falling to Asad's sword. It fit so well on Jai. He was long used to walking with it, but the comfort was not in physical grace, Jai was far too analytical a wielder to be called graceful. He was intense, purposeful even. But not artistic. Its presence was soothing in another way. The sword was the longest and best relationship he'd ever had with something, or someone, else. He stopped in mid stride, though, as his father captured the back of his neck with one hand and clapped the other onto his shoulder, and pulled eagerly, as though about to say something striking. Jai had a feeling he knew what was coming, and interrupted, "Dad, don't say it. I really don't deserve-"

He cut him off with a murmur. Jai fell quiet. "You were the only one of us, Jai Asad, my youngest, ready to suspend his life for a greater cause. When I found you with this sword ready to run into the night with the inheritance intended for Zakar, I knew you were the only one to earn it. You can do what Asad didn't. What I didn't. What Zakar and Andreu didn’t."
His father's eyes glistened with emotion. Jai felt his own do the same.

"I'm sorry I didn't ask to take it."
He spit out the apology, voice cracking as he searched his father's face; he might have said the same about saidin. Once caught with it, he returned the priceless blade to his father's hands, pulsing with defiance to be forbidden from answering the Guard's call. Certainly not apologetic. He could have passed of age, he remembered screaming with frustration into this man's face. He was tall back then, lean as most such youth, but muscular beyond his years from a lifetime attempting to train away the obsessions in his head. Or at least muffle what tried to drown him all the time. He would not get himself killed. He'd scoffed with so much rage, not understanding why the pinnacle of their family was running from the chance to do some real fighting for once in their family's recent history. He was a good swordsman! His father, the man before him who stared so honestly he might have been a stranger, never knew what his mornings with the Sword Trainer accomplished. Only that it kept his son from crossing the line into insanity, an unimaginable blight on such a perfect family. He'd tried to show him more than once, but there was no showing him. Jai remembered hating this man for making them hide.

His father shook his head in response as though he was trying to shut out the apology now as he had the defiance back then. What nearly shocked Jai out of his sanity was what came next. He was pulled into a hug. And it was fierce. Like he hadn't hugged his dad in twenty years. Which was about right, probably. It was strange, pressed against so much foreign warmth, but Jai didn't pull away. When he showed up on the doorstep last week, he'd met only a long and cautious look up and down his body clothed all in black, broken only at the end by a handshake that might have been between uneasy colleagues, not father and son.

They parted from the embrace, and Jai didn't quite know what to do with himself. So he scrubbed a hand through his hair and looked up at what scampered in the branches overhead. The question of whether he should voice what haunted him since the epiphany confronting Aharon loomed like foreboding flames. After all this. Talk of service and taking up Asad's sword when it was never intended for him like it was some reward for a job well done. Realizing his father saw the chance in his sacrifice to redeem what his greatfather left behind in Malkier. Assuming the weight of wisdoms echoed from the previous generation onto his shoulders all while wondering if he was suppose to reject them for the sins they were being made out to appear. After seeking his father to offer some gesture of goodbye amid promises to be less of a blight on their spotless family for good this time only to end up following him through the streets and end up strolling through the Ogier Grove. Considering any number of destinations the figure had in mind. Swallowing a knot of confusion as to why his father was unsurprised that Jai found him. Despite all this shocking atmosphere of genetic trust suddenly sprung up between them. After all that, he couldn't quite ask it.

Why were they so ashamed of what he was? They'd buried his memory when they learned he could channel like some passed away pet, mournful, but moving on soon after. In a city glorifying channelers, the Aes Sedai's power and honor loomed on the city scape like a glorious shout to the world, why the angst that Jai walked not to the white wand of that honor but into the embrace of darkness instead. He might as well have set off to discover what waited behind the mists smothering Dragonmount's peak. Or where lay the path to Shayol Ghul. In that mountain, he could see it looming between the clearance of trees, was the answer. The Dragon and the male Aes Sedai broke the world once, now he was collecting his army to do it again. And so save it. Or so goes the assumption.

Or was their silence born of shame at all? Or something far more simple? Nythadri had been very silent about what what haunted her. Was she ashamed of her brother? Or herself? You'll be waiting a long time, you know.. Despite the proclamation not to only a few hours later huddled inside his coat well protected from beach winds she finally shared the face of her ghost.

He breathed a resigned sigh and tugged at the cuffs of his sleeves lightly. "Look, I won't let you down."
The difficult emotions of the last few minutes vanished behind a weak smirk. It's intentions sincere. Though what those intentions were remained elusive. He pat the hilt of his sword. It wasn't an enormous blade as some Borderlanders were used to wielding, but no less able to dice up shadowspawn. At a passing glance, it seemed too elegant to hamstring trollocs or sever Myddraal necks. To be honest, Jai hadn't tried it very often against such foes. Except that first tour, of course. When he'd been too wounded and dazed to channel, but too provoked to retreat either. He didn't last more than a few blows against Thakan'dar poisoned steel, but that was not a fault of the sword. But of its wielder. I won't get myself killed. He remembered begging his father for some sign of confidence in his son. The crumbs of metallic dirt blanketed his tongue. He ended up with a body-long scar and six months recovery for that moment of defiance.

While he tightened the grip on his hilt with one hand, as though about to kneel like some pledging battle lord, his other fluttered across his stomach. A breeze cooled his face and eyes and heart, bringing resolution of the Builders' former glory and some peace to finally accept what awaited. Maybe. If at all possible, he'd like to avoid an end that left his insides smashed against the ground of war. Strangely soft, like laying in wet, sinking sand. Perhaps all the time in Arad Doman might be useful someday. He'd lain with his cheek in the sand and water lapping beneath his skin often enough to summon the imagery at need. It was more soothing than sinking into earth soiled by the oozes of war.

He set his jaw, voice calmer than he expected it to be. "Everybody dies, right?"
Nythadri's words. He steeled his jaw. "A long time ago I swore by all the world, I will make my death count."

His dad nodded solemnly. They arrived at the river edge of the Grove by then. He looked over the figure of his son studying the flow of the water toward the base of the mountain beyond. A curl of foreboding smoke rose from the cloud-covered peak. Arman turned from it and his eyes settled on the sharp, gold serpent at his son's collar. The sigil for the Dragon Reborn.

Then he witnessed what was possibly the only hint he would ever see of what his son was capable of doing. Or enjoying. Arman knew the gruesome tales nipping at an Asha'man's heels like everyone else, but he hesitated to believe his son had a place in them. Though he knew the sentiment was naive. Jai's face hardened a moment before the air itself shredded under a finger of light, a gouge whiter and brighter than lightning and lasted about as long. Then it widened into the shape of a portal. Beyond lay the outline of a generic room, although Arman was unaware of how the gateway almost opened upon the desolate Blightborder nor how close Jai had come to showing his father the evil the Lord Dragon meant to overthrow.

Jai moved away, and Arman realized how it was that Aharon came to be delivered without a break-in and how Jai's things disappeared over night. Though he remained quiet while Jai filled the air with the same conviction in his voice as had his previous resolution, "When that time comes, I would regret it if this is lost."
He curled his hand around the corded hilt, "I'll try to make sure someone knows to send it back. It doesn't deserve to rot with the rest of us."

He seemed about to say something else, but swallowed it behind a smile that barely touched his eyes. As though attempting to be soothing but Arman was unconvinced. The smile was for his sake rather than the usual display of his son's old cheerfulness. They nodded their goodbyes and the door of light disappeared a few moments later, and Arman Kojima was left alone with the view of Dragonmount hovering overhead. Accompanied only by the sound of birds and a calm river's breeze. He wondered how soon that day of blood and death would come. And shivered in spite of himself.
As Jai passed through the gateway, the grief darkening his father’s expression followed him. Was he haunting the very people he wanted most to embrace him? Or was he a living ghost shrouding the memory of a son already mourned. They might as well inscribe his name in the crypts with the rest of the generations. He could see it in his father's eyes. He could see it in Nythadri's eyes. His family no more wanted to relive the loss of their son than she would want to relive the loss of her brother.

His heart quickened with realization. Her brother's emblem. She had moved on; mourned, accepted, and moved on. He raced through the memories of every nuance to her voice, every shiver of her body when she spoke about Tashir. She had moved on from mourning a murder that plagued her mind with guilt, and like he was a living ghost weaving about Jai's family, plucking at the deep strings of saddness in his mother's eyes and the plunging cords of guilt in his father's spirit, sending Nythadri proof that her brother's prized possession was no longer spoiled by the hands of his killers would force her through pain, heartache, guilt and shame all over again. Jai hadn’t saved her. He hadn’t brought her closure. All he did was reopen a long-healed wound.

*******Meanwhile, in Caemlyn******

A voice rang inside Nessie's head. ’Stop taking short cuts through the Crossing Runs before sunup!’ Well, Nessie's sister had a point. The crossing runs were dark corridors traversing the Low City's back alleys. Staring down one such corridor of darkness, she almost decided to go the long way around. The narrow path was mostly dirty and gross, and if that had been the only detractant, Nessie might have listened to her sister. But they were also dangerous. The buildings towering on either side had no doors that led out here. Only windows where people dumped their trash or waste from overhead. And who knew how many other people, savory and unsavory alike, had the same idea as she to save a bit of travel time.

So she pulled up the hood of her cloak, pausing only to snap a little thread that was dangling down in front her eyes, gathered her wits and hustled forward. The Run was dark and her shoes splashed through questionable puddles on the ground. It had been raining all night, so she hoped the water washed away anything that might stick to her shoes. She wasn't too picky about her old worn out pair, but the Taravins were. It did no good to traipse mud and grime through a manor she was suppose to be cleaning her first day on the job. Lady Taravin, not i]The Lady Taravin[/i], but one of the ladies that ran the house had taken a risk hiring someone without experience, but Nessie would prove herself.

So she hurried on, determined to do just that. The sun wasn't quite up yet, but in the far distance of the sky she thought she could imagine the blackness turning a dark shade of morning purple. Then she heard something scamper through the puddles and snapped her face around to see what it was. A rat probably... she shivered. Nessie hated rats. That was why she and her sister had five cats. All of them good mousers, and ratters, alike.

She shook off her fear and picked up the pace. Only a few steps later her foot got caught on something and Nessie went flinging forward! She thrust out her arms but her stuff went flying out of her satchel and the subsequent splash drenched her face with sudden water. No no no! Not today!!

Bits of stone and stuff dug into her palms, but she wiped the water from her face and twisted around to sit. The front of her dress was muddied all the way down to her knees, her hair ruined, and her face most likely smeared with mud. "What in the Light?!"
She was always sure footed... She pulled her legs up to stand, but whatever she tripped on was in the way. She felt around for it, but her curiosity soon turned to horror. She padded down a lump of a dead man!

Then she scooted backwards and started screaming.

Nobody came. She was breathing hard when she finally quieted down and prayed to the Creator that death not turn toward her next. Eventually, she crawled back forward and gave the man a tentative prod on the shoulder. He was laying face up, but nothing happened. Light help me. She crinkled up her face and placed a shaking hand on his skin. He was cold and clammy as a drowned rat - the only good kind of rat in Nessie's opinion - and she thought she felt the flakes of dried blood, just rain water, just rain water, just rain water, she told herself, feeling around for a life pulse. Then she inhaled sharply! He was alive!

"Oh my goodness!"
She exclaimed, courage renewed, and went running for help. She was going to be so late! Hopefully the Queen's Guards could give her some proof to take to the Manor's head maid. She'd rather leave the man to die than lose this work! It was the best chance her and her sister had all year.
<dt>Asha'man Lennox Orander</dt>
<dd> </dd>

*****Twenty-four hours later...*****

Lennox was more than displeased while he walked away from the healing house after asking the employees of the house to take care of his friend. The task took a small amount of time and effort to achieve. A sliver of Air delivered to the brain via a nostril. To someone with only the barest grasp of Healing, he knew how a simple but delicate use of Power could be more efficient than a knife in this situation. It also had the added benefit of being easy to dismiss the man's passing as an natural course of events, given the man's injuries. The Asha'man hadn't really made sure if this man was apart of the clean-up but it was best not to leave things to chance. It's the little cracks in the foundation that will collapse a wall.

He was mildly surprised though at just how easy it was for him to end a man's life on the off-chance he knew something. Taking life was something he had done time and again both as a servant of the White Tower and as a Dreadlord but never had he taken a life through an assassination. For someone who thrived in combat and often professed to much prefer honest combat, this held it's own thrill and sense of satisfaction. Having access to Saidin made such things easier, he admitted as he melded into the flow of the crowd moving towards the Inner City walls towards his next target, but still the thrill was undeniably there. While he was not a professional at this, but he knew that he would no longer balk at this type of work, and he had a feeling that if he performed well enough other missions like this would become more common for him.

The next person he was sent to silence made it more than easy to locate him. His stories were echoed in the throng of people; some confirming that the Black Tower were in fact making a power play and were beginning to show their true colors while some other defended the men in black. However, such a move was meant to be a shield. After all and overt methods of killing the fool would only verify his own story. But recent turns of events and unnatural shifts in the Pattern was happening everywhere nowadays. Stories of babies falling out of windows to live with no marks or folk dying by simply tripping over a stone in the road for example.

So Lennox waited patiently in an alley across the market area, patiently waiting for the man of Winther’s employ to come out. The sun had climbed almost to noontime before the pompous fool came out of the inn, Lennox had managed to stay out of sight and largely ignored by most during his waiting. It fascinated him how people never bothered to look around them, but this aspect of civilian life is what gave him the opportunity to seize Saidin long enough to snake a thread of Air across the square and loosen some of the roof shingles to begin a cascade of them to plunge to the ground with fatal consequences.

Lennox didn't chance being seen going over to investigate so he turned and walked out the other side of small alley and joined the flow of traffic headed to the Inner City. He had two things to accomplish there and both just happened to be at the House of Taravin. He had been able to process his own emotions long before he decided to make the journey to his deceased bondmate's grave marker. He needed some type of closure and just visiting Corele's honor marking in the White Tower had been a bit to public for him to do what he felt he had needed to be done. Unconsciously he slipped a hand into his coat pocket and idly fingered the matching ring that he wore on his own left hand before it grazed the parchment in the same pocket that caused him to realize what he was doing and remove his hand.

He stopped at an inn just inside the Inner City during lunch. Given his memories of his bondmate he assumed that her House would share her distaste at being interrupted during her meals. While such things were frequently happening to her during her life as the Keeper he did manage to catch the twinge of annoyance of when it did happen. His orders had been completed and he would soon confirm the second man's death before he left the city, but all that was left to do was to make sure that the girl, a servant as he understood it, didn't also need to be removed. The intel they had gathered suggested that she hadn't learned anything but best to make sure. Then there was the business of finally laying to rest his memories of Corele.

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