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The Wheel Turns
#1
[Image: nythadri-eyes.png]
Accepted Nythadri Vanditera


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

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

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

Better for her, too, though she never did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[[FYI this past life thread follows from the events in Dealing with Bankers roughly 3 months or so later. I'm rereading the books and feel like writing something in Randland.

Some context: Elly and Mal are both old characters of mine. Malaika is self-explanatory: a Seanchan Brown Aes Sedai. Eleanore was a character I inherited from another writer; she is a Blight-veteran who accompanied a Brown from the Blight (Razmira) expecting to be bonded, but was rejected. She has Malkieri blood on her mother's side, but was raised in Kandor. I can't find her bio, but that part is relevant to why she was able to recognise the origins of the dagger. 

Nythadri's wiki page now has a section for brief descriptions of the characters she has/will encounter in this thread, just scroll down to the end.]]
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#2
Gaiety swept the sitting room awash with voices and laughter oft as raucous as a tavern’s common room -- such a vast juxtaposition to the solemn oaths sworn this morning that even Nythadri found a rare smirk softening her lips. Stubbornness had set her path long before desire, yet prior to Lythia’s offer she had never countenanced to find herself here. She kept the emotion quite still, but it touched somewhere deep; somewhere she was still surprised to believe roots might grow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She appears to wear a hadori.”

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

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

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

Light.

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

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

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

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

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

And found herself filled with saidar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not.” Talin sounded surprised, perhaps a little offended. A brow rose. “I just mean that I think it important for youth such as us to stick together. We are not impeded by the same… prejudices. We see some things the same, you and I. I value that.” There was earnestness in her expression, but little of true emotion. She let the words soak, then stood smoothly, like an accord had been met. Nythadri did not rise, but her head tilted in silent contemplation. After a moment she nodded, unsure to what she agreed, but certain she preferred Talin for an ally. The woman smiled, a small flicker of her lips. Little touched her eyes, it never did, but she seemed satisfied. “If an opportunity arose, I think you would see it the same way as I, and would act accordingly. I shall see myself out, sister.”
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#3
[Image: malk-Edited.jpg] [Image: nythadri-v-Edited.png]
Malaika & Nythadri

The Brown was not to be found in her own rooms, which meant a search through the arching halls of the library before Nythadri found the particular study space she had ensconced herself in. Books and scrolls lay jumbled across the wide mahogany table, probably meant to provide ample space for several students. It looked surprisingly chaotic for the small, unassuming woman orchestrating it. Black hair cascaded straight as a knife-point, revealing only a sliver of her pale, bowed face, and that deepened in thought. She did not stir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His name was Andreu.”

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

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

Light, Andreu killed himself? 

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

Then a final thought to join such miserable parade: 

Did Jai know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might not have made a difference, but Light in hindsight she wished she had thought to ask the obvious question, when Talin leaned into the mare, still smiling that queer little satisfied smile, and said: "Make good friends, Nythadri. We will need her.”
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#4
The days began to blend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time she did smirk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere distant, a bell tolled.

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

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

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

Dovienya. Luck., in the old tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, she would try to stop another gate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above them the first spits of rain began to fall.
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#5
She pulled the cowl loosely over her head, glad for the drape of shadows. The knot of feeling in the corner of her mind was strangely exposing, and a little uncomfortable considering she barely knew the woman, but for now she resolved to ignore it. With a gesture from Talin, Kaori began leading the horses; a large gold bay and a deep-chested piebald alongside the arch-necked black mare. His eyes appeared dark caverns in the gloom, and she could not see much of his features, but the light caught the edges of his smile as he passed the reins. Eleanore hovered by her shoulder, shifting a little closer, and received a nod from him. With Talin’s blessing he did not appear to hold a grudge, and like any seasoned soldier Eleanore accepted that the man -- the same one who not moments before had been perfectly prepared to try and kill her -- was for the time being an ally. 

Nythadri glanced briefly up at her, not quite sure yet how much that proximity was going to grate. Eleanore had said the oaths to the letter, apparently in earnest -- and the Light knew they would hold her either way -- but she was careful not to pick through her emotions as she ran her hand along the horse’s neck. It seemed fair, given the circumstances. Ahead Talin had already mounted the bay, controlling his frisking with her knees, and the spotted rear of Kaori’s horse began to disappear into the shadows. “Hurry, please,” Talin urged, and for a blessing it actually sounded like a request rather than an order. Apparently relief to be away made her palatable. For the moment at least.

“You’re afraid,” the woman behind her observed in that melodious voice, to which Nythadri scowled. She could feel the waft of amusement as she belligerently lifted herself into the saddle unaided. The mare sidestepped a little, until Eleanore, laughing low, steadied her head. The traitorous creature nuzzled into her, chuffing pleasantly.

“It’s a monster, that’s why,” Nythadri said, offering her hand. Not yet quite sure how she was going to bear the weight without sliding right off; or, worse, spooking the damn horse. Light. But it seemed Eleanore didn’t need the help, and Dove bore them both without complaint. She stepped nimbly after the other horses, keen not to be left behind.

“Regular blight-spawn,” Eleanore agreed mildly.

Their pace was slow through the whispering grasses. Nythadri guessed they were south of the city now that she had time to squint at the scenery without the threat of bloodshed, but she had little indication of which direction they travelled. Thunder rumbled overhead. The rain still only spat haltingly but thick cloud suffocated the sun, or maybe it had already set unseen. It seemed dark enough now.

She used the time to catalogue the day’s events, relieved the horse seemed to know its own way without any prompting from her. Talin’s gate had been hasty, barely given time to grow wide enough to admit them before she’d thrust them through; not the sort of smooth exit she imagined the Yellow would have planned for. The neat arrangement of horses and the Warder awaiting their arrival belied that. Eleanore’s presence could not have been the catalyst for that rush, either. But the bell had tolled, one Nythadri had presumed to be for the novices. And then Talin had panicked.

“You owe me a new pipe. I think I left it on the bench,” Eleanore said from behind.

“Very well,” Nythadri murmured, only half listening, and perturbed for the disturbance to her thoughts. It felt like wading through mud as it was.

“And I would prefer you call me Elly. Only my mother ever called me Eleanore, and she’s long since in her grave.”

A vicious remark about being called a baby Aes Sedai sharpened itself on her tongue, but she resolved to hold it. The Warder shifted behind her, chest rumbling a brief grunt, so perhaps she caught some essence of the sentiment anyway. Light, that would take some getting used to. A sigh deflated her lungs, not for the chafe of the bond, but for the realisation that she owed this. Duty did not always sit easily on the mantle of Nythadri’s shoulders; she would shirk what tradition did not suit her, and easily, but the woman was tied to her now. And not entirely to her will, whatever she might claim in an effort to soften the dig of the snare.

“We can’t go back,” she said softly. “You understand that, Elly. Whatever Talin did, and whatever she has pulled us into, we are implicated now. Until we know what it is, it’s safer to assume we might be considered enemies of the Tower.”

“You trust her?”

“I did.”

A low laugh. It seemed this one had an odd humour, but it was not unpleasant. Nythadri felt her own lips twist a wry smirk. Cruel circumstance or otherwise, she realised then it might very easily have been worse. Something steadfast radiated from that knot of feeling. A ruse of bravado, most like; else something more familiarly reckless. It was a comfort, anyhow.

No one would have noticed an absence yet; there was still time to smooth this problem away. Maylis had said Elly planned to return home, so perhaps none would remark upon her sudden leavetaking, or blame Razmira’s snub for the cause. How long Nythadri’s disappearance could remain undetected was another matter. Kabryn had invited her to visit his Aes Sedai that evening, but Maylis might think nothing of it if she did not show. Unusual maybe, but not suspicious in itself. By morning that might change. An enemy of the Tower? Ice bled in her stomach for that worst case fear. Elly’s palm rested briefly on her shoulder, and belatedly she realised the emotion must be swarming their bond. She let her breath loose, watching the dark shapes of Talin and Kaori ahead. We will fix this.
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#6
[Image: nythadri-1.jpg] [Image: Talin.jpg]
Nythadri & Talin

The camp was small.

Nythadri had been content to let Elly see to the horse, a task the woman took upon herself with neither prompting or complaint. She worked companionably alongside Kaori as he brushed down his own mount, the piebald creature named Badger. While Nythadri did not try to pick words from the murmur of their voices, she did pick up enough; Kaori seemed rougher around the edges than Nythadri would have assumed for Talin’s taste. Truthfully she was surprised the woman had chosen to bond at all. A necessity, perhaps.

Now the two sat by the fireside trading war stories. Elly had a blanket looped over her shoulders, probably rifled from Dove’s saddlebags, and though her palms reached out to absorb the heat of the flames Nythadri detected no real discomfort in her at the cool temperature. Enough supplies for three, Kaori had said. Nythadri stopped listening when the woman laughed slyly and suggested she might need share Kaori’s blankets for warmth that night. Apparently Elly had not an ounce of shame. It made Nythadri smirk all the same.

Shadows kissed the surrounding clearing. Talin tended her own horse some small distance away, running her hands along its coat and murmuring fondly to it -- certainly with more softness to her tone than she ever used with people, even patients. Thick muscle rippled beneath the gold of the creature’s coat, but with that shaggy mane and feathered fetlocks he seemed more suited to dragging carts than bearing the delicate form of the Aes Sedai. Nythadri had heard the beast called Mephisto. A suitably monstrous name.

The woman half turned as she approached. Dusk deepened the plum of her cloak to almost midnight, the stitched flowers and leaves still glinting amongst the folds like the last caress of autumn. Her red hair hung pin-straight either side of her cheeks, sterile and neat in design, and yet she seemed surprisingly at home in the wilderness. Nythadri’s lips thinned. Summer’s starlit trysts with Farune aside (and those were another matter entirely) she had never had cause or inclination to sleep outdoors. She did not like it already.

“You have questions,” Talin said lightly. “But before I speak, I will warn you that your ignorance is an asset we may need. The oaths bind us too tightly, sister.” She frowned, pressing a hand to the nose of her horse, and the animal puffed air through its great nostrils, content. Agelessness had not yet touched Talin, but she seemed somehow born to it in the severe cast of her features this night. Beneath the warmth of her own cloak, Nythadri’s arms folded. The ice of her attention did not waver, but neither did she speak. The demand did not need words.

“You suspect me. You are not sure whether I am deserved of your trust given the manner of our departure. But our friendship means something to you nonetheless. You would probably choose to give me the benefit of the doubt if not for that business with the gaidar. But you will stay because you are not certain.”

Some discomfort stemmed from how thoroughly Talin believed she understood Nythadri’s character; and at how easily such truth had allowed her to be manipulated. Her expression remained blank, but the Yellow did not seem reticent to speak now the gate was long behind them. She shifted closer, and for the first time Nythadri witnessed a flush to her pale cheeks. The woman’s hand almost reached out, as though to accord such confession with contact. Either way they were bound. Light. “Nythadri, the chains of loyalty you bind yourself in would drag you to the slopes of Shayol Ghul before you would rip the hooks from your heart. But if I am a monster, you will be the one to see it.

Perhaps you are my conscience.” 

Finally, a pause. Nythadri breathed into the silence, for once uncertain. They had never been close -- or she had never thought of their friendship in those terms for the years they had trained alongside. Talin had no friends. Neither had she really, not in the way most women forged such bonds at the Tower. Talin’s company had been a mutual convenience because her devotion to their training bordered on the sadistic, and the others shunned those leanings. Nythadri did not linger over her questionable moral fibre. Until now at least. But she had never considered what Talin’s perspective might be on the one soul who chose to share the darkness with her.

A conscience. Light.

“You're asking too much.” A frown touched Nythadri’s brow. Her jaw flexed. The tone was scathing, but perhaps not for the reasons Talin assumed. She was right, even if it twisted the knife to admit it; for, whatever strange friendship they shared, Nythadri was unlikely to betray it without good reason. The kernel of her largest concern, for good or ill, lay leagues away. And would remain oblivious, Creator willing. Malaika had to have delivered news of Andreu’s death to the Kojimas by now, but her own letter might not have reached Bandar Eban yet. She did not think it would draw Jai back to the city he loathed, nor to the family he cut loose to protect. And he did not know she had been raised, for she had not told him. But if the Pattern conspired against her, and he came home? What rumours might circulate around her departure if she could not resolve this quickly? Traitor was an ugly word. She did not know what Jai would do. Or she feared it, at least. He couldn’t become tangled up in this.

Talin’s lips quirked into a mirthless smile. “Why do you think I did not ask? I say again: you might choose to consider ignorance an ally. I forced you through the gate -- you cannot lie, and the Tower will know it. Eleanore will verify it for you, if they will take the word of your Warder. A bond forced in order to keep my secrets no less. The picture does not look so pretty for me. Does it seem the sort of risk I would take for naught?” She laced her hands, intent. “The Tower does not sanction my actions. I think you realise that already. But why would I take the risk? Think on it, before you ask your questions.”
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#7
“Whatever it is you have done, the Tower will send someone,” Nythadri said eventually. Her thoughts were surprisingly quiet as these truths were bared, perhaps because Talin had gambled correctly. She would not leave. Light blind her for a fool, she would not. A sigh held her lungs, unreleased to the night air. Her awareness of Elly shifted like the woman was troubled by the emotions she sensed, and Nythadri could feel the burn of her gaze across the clearing. Annoyance flickered, quashed quickly. She did not think she would enjoy that continued insight.

A grim smile touched the edges of Talin’s lips. Her eyes remained cold. “I believe they will,” she said.

“And how long do you suppose we have before that? It did not go to plan. Your gate was botched. Something went wrong.”

The smile faded. Talin had never enjoyed criticism in all the years they’d trained alongside, but Nythadri was not circumspect in her accusation; she could not afford to be. Neither did she care to dance around the woman’s pride.

“We will have less time than I would like. Less time for you to truly think this through if that’s what you’re asking, though I’m sure you’ll cope. I’m given to understand it’s not the first time you’ve been placed in an untenable situation.”

“If you will listen to rumour, Talin.”

The Yellow gave a short shrug. Swathed by now in shadow, the horse moved suddenly to butt against its mistress’s shoulder. Talin turned to pat its nose. It was on the tip of Nythadri’s tongue, to ask for more detail -- to dissect everything offered, and perhaps to talk Talin down from whatever foolishness had brought them to this moment. Only she knew Talin was no fool. Had the concern been for herself alone she would have pressed, come what may. Eleanore did not deserve this, though. Time. She needed time. 

Her eyes shut briefly. She ought to haul the woman back; they were similarly matched, and yet she knew she would not do that either. Even supposing she could.

Nor could she flee; not knowing there was a chance Talin really had done something heinous. Light, if that were the case, she could not let the woman go unchecked.

“The Tower will not do what is necessary to win this war, Nythadri,” Talin said softly. “We are steeped in too much tradition and too much bureaucracy. We fear change--”

“--You forced me into a bond,” Nythadri cut in. Talin’s rational tone jarred; her quiet urgency, her insistence that Nythadi accept such cruel means based on little more than the most fragile of sisterly ties. Anger held her in brittle vise, making a mask of her face. She would not be insulted with silver words meant to sooth what crimes already lay between them. Despite the bloody horse she closed the distance, her voice low. “You tried to shut the damn gate before Eleanore was through. Swear to me you walk in the Light, sister.”

Talin scoffed, glancing skyward. “If I did not, the oaths would not hold. I would swear it anyway.”

“You will, Talin. It's a condition.”

Talin straightened, imperious, and paused tight-mouthed to consider it -- or perhaps for her hackles to shiver in indignation at the demand. Either way the silence flooded ice into Nythadri’s gut; enough for saidar to hover like a promise. But after a moment she only snapped, “Then fine. I swear I walk in the Light.”

Was she lying? Could she lie? Nythadri did not know. The woman’s expression was perfectly guileless, her eyes unblinking, and yet there had always been a vast disparity between such an innocent shell and the cold heart it shielded. She was annoyed, that much Nythadri could tell -- and reciprocate. Beyond that, if she had hoped for some epiphany to shore up her doubts she was disappointed to feel nothing that spoke of certainty. At least the other did not reach for the one power. “The cost of trust is that it will be a mutual convenience. You will trust me too,” she said, watching the Yellow’s lips begin to tighten in protest. “There are loose ends I will not leave to unravel in Tar Valon.”

The Aes Sedai’s mouth opened before Nythadri cut her short, almost wearily. “That is the second condition, Talin.”

And those lips blessedly clamped. Talin’s expression schooled to patience, though her cheeks were flushed with irritation. She did not speak, just made some flippant gesture of assent with her hand. Some relief at a trust bestowed calmed Nythadri’s ire, but the victory still tasted bitter. The Yellow already returned to her horse, and Nythadri stepped away. “Tomorrow I will send what word I must, and so tonight I will ask no questions. Afterwards, you will tell me everything.”

“I ought to make you swear it,” Talin added dryly. “Instead I will make another oath, Nythadri. That I will see this through by any means. And at any cost.”

Eleanore sat alone when she returned, the blanket still looped about her shoulders. Her face lifted from contemplation of the flames, brows raised in question as Nythadri joined her. Perhaps it was uncharitable, but the expectation grated. A bond did not grant automatic confidences, particularly not the newly minted nature of their own. They were strangers. Yet when she saw a muscle twitch in the other woman’s jaw it almost sparked a twinge of guilt. Quickly banished, though. Mostly because she did not want the warder to sense it.

Light, what a mess.

Even down to her bloody surroundings

The chill did not touch her of course, and she had not been Aes Sedai for so long as to have grown accustomed to the Tower’s luxury, but discomfort hung like a stone around her neck for the night’s accommodation. Even in the balmy warmth of Arad Doman she had not particularly enjoyed the brief sojourn waiting for the hunt to conclude, and these cooler climes reminded her more of the Farm than golden sands anyway. Not a great memory. 

By this hour of the evening she ought to be in the Ajah halls entertaining Maylis’s droll conversation, coaxing for news in the west -- an interest she did not doubt the Green had gleaned and fed accordingly. Instead it was likely the first moment of the day her absence would be noticed.

Nythadri massaged the silver serpent curled around her finger and tried not to let the trespass of thought stray too far to the future. It had taken years to reconcile the fact her thread bound her to the Tower, and the starkest truth was it had taken Jai for her to finally pick a path. After years of fighting it, she’d finally grown roots -- only to suddenly find herself wrenched free. Acknowledging that now dizzied her with a sense of unravelling. It took her a moment to understand it was the realisation of having something to lose, and she reared away from it.

Instead she turned her attention to another responsibility.

A ward would draw more attention than a whisper, and she would sense if Talin tried to eavesdrop. Perhaps she had struck an accord with the other Aes Sedai but it felt tenuous at best until she had all the facts. It niggled, that ignorance, but she did not regret the sacrifice of a few hours. Not when it won Elly a chance at escape. “Tomorrow we will acquire the extra supplies your presence necessitates. Another horse. I believe I could make a gate if you wished.”

Light but the Kandori had a startlingly poor grasp of schooling her emotions, even with the deep play of shadows hiding half her face. The nakedness of her reaction irritated, or perhaps that she clearly misinterpreted the gesture for an insult despite the cord of their connection. 

“To be rid of me?” she asked flatly.

“It’s not rejection, Eleanore, it’s freedom. A choice.”

“I made a choice.”

“Under duress.”

Elly scowled. 

Nythadri hardly needed the additional flood of scorn, but she weathered it nonetheless as it swarmed the bond. The ingratitude seared given the risk of discovery, but she deigned not to care what Elly thought. Nor to explain herself. The binding of oaths were all well and good, but they were tainted by the bars of Talin’s cage. She was offering a courtesy not a sentence, but the fool chose not to hear it. Light knew she never would have chosen a woman willingly; not for any doubt of capability, but because women were bloody difficult. An epiphany Nythadri imagined Eleanore was realising that very moment. 

“Burn you. And burn me for a fool. Bloody Aes Sedai.” She stood abruptly, firelight catching in the scars of her face, and stalked away.
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#8
[Image: nyth.jpg] [Image: elly.jpg]
Nythadri & Elly

Kaori roused them before first light. He spared a brief smile for the inconvenience, but it was short-lived, and if any humour dwelt beneath his silence he did not share it. Talin was tense and impatient with the diversion, necessary though it was, and the Warder appeared to know how to battle those currents, and survive them. Which was to say he was quiet and efficient in their hurry to be on the road. It left little in the way of nicety, which suited Nythadri just fine, for small-talk had never been a burden she shouldered gladly. Elly fared less well by the feel of her, though she stubbornly held her tongue. That silence was a shield and weapon both.

Nythadri did not know the name of the village, and did not ask. They were somewhere south of the city, she imagined, but it was a book-schooled knowledge rather than experience. For now it did not matter, though she did not enjoy the lack of control. Freedom was a gift so recently earned it made her feel somewhat petulant to lose it so quickly, and to a peer no less. 

They did not enter together, a token of trust bestowed with something of a hard look on Talin’s part, and which Nythadri ignored. It was early. People moved efficiently about their business, sparing a nod for the stranger in their midst. Nythadri lacked the tell of agelessness but it was clear these people were accustomed to the presence of Aes Sedai. Not so far away from the Tower then. A pace ahead, Elly made a path to the nearest inn, where they might barter for a horse or discover where one might be purchased. Nythadri would have been content to leave her to that dreary business -- she had errands of her own. But she intended to take up the reins of yesterday’s argument first, and resolve it.

Pale eyes watched the ordinary as it flooded around them, expressionless. She followed the Warder.

“Will you still insist on being rid of me, like a dog shaking a flea?” The woman did not look at her. A coin had assured them privacy for a few moments before the impasse had finally broken between them. Nythadri’s arms folded as she watched Elly running her hands over the horse, a tall chestnut with a blaze of white upon its brow. She secured straps and pat its velvet flanks while the beast scraped its hooves in the hay.

“You make it sound unreasonable,” she said tightly. An ill night’s sleep bred a short temper, and in Nythadri it burned as cold as winter. Perhaps the childish silence had not bothered her, but the quiet seethe of it weathered all night through their bond certainly had. Ought such a connection not erase the need for words? Ought it not be a bridge to clearer understanding, not less? A stupid wish and yet she felt herself riled by it all the same. Honestly, that annoyed her too. “I will not be responsible--”

“You’ve never been north, have you,” Elly said sharply. “A city girl, am I right? And a southern city girl at that. I don’t fear what it is you do, Aes Sedai. We all die, and life is rarely fair. I gave you my consent when I gave you my sword. That it is enough for me, and it should be enough for you.”

The woman’s pride burned hot, and it might have been admirable if it were not the present obstacle. Such obtuseness was astounding; it felt like a declaration that the sky was pink when all Nythadri required was simple acknowledgement that perhaps she was wrong. She studied the woman’s scarred face and tried to temper the ire taken up residence in her chest. The Warder only stared back. It was not helpful.

“It isn’t rejection, Eleanore,” she said eventually. There were no nuances to work with here. Nythadri considered herself blunt, uninclined to parry words, but perhaps this required something both harsh and simple. “Be clear on that. The choice may not be important to you, but it is to me.”

Elly just shook her head. Her lips parted to speak, but she appeared to think better of whatever she had been about to say, and then her attention returned to readying the horse. No uncertainty marred her, just a sense of exasperation -- and a knot of something Nythadri was loath to pick at. This was not like the stories novices liked to whisper in their beds at night; this was a binding to a stranger who refused to see the chains and anchor about her ankles. But it touched Nythadri with a little wryness all the same.

Words were the sharpest tool in her arsenal, despite the green shawl that should have wrapped her shoulders. She thought of Asad Kojima. Of the heirloom Jai had carried for so long, and all that it had meant -- and all that its loss had wrought. She had not understood that fully either, though his pain had stung her all the same. Enough to make a rather unfortunate enemy of Lennox Orander. Northern sensibilities were a strange treasure.

“I can’t promise to keep you safe, Elly. If you choose to walk at my side, know that the path may be darker than you would like. I don’t even know if there will be a path back.”

Something of the knot unravelled in the other woman then, just a little. Eleanore did not much acknowledge the concession, but Nythadri felt the accord all the same. She would not have released the woman unless she wished it, but she’d meant what she said about choice. A soul was not a shield, even one that offered blind oaths with absolute sincerity. Even a Warder meant for the task. Given the precariousness of the situation, Nythadri needed Elly; light but she knew that. But the trials of her Raising were not so far removed that she did not understand what it meant.

The last strap tightened and the last bag secured, and Elly still did not meet her gaze. Apparently the woman clung to a grudge with tenacity, but the storm had passed now, and as for the rest, Nythadri could acclimatise. She was going to have to. After a moment Elly shrugged, and met her eye firmly. “Then it sounds like you could use the company, Aes Sedai.”
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#9
The missives were penned with more haste than she would have liked, but she’d had all night to organise exactly what she wished to say -- and to whom. The barbs of loyalty hooking her skin all pulled in different directions, and she fought for the best balance she could without bloodying herself raw in the process. The inevitable weight of trust betrayed did not sit easy, but she thought Talin would anticipate it. The note home was short and vague, asking for trust and time. The second she did not even know would reach its intended, but he was the only one she could think to reach out to. Araya was removed from the thick of Tower politics, and they had some brief acquaintance. Hana did not profess to know where in the world he was when she last visited his Tar Valoni home, but Nythadri knew enough of the woman, and her past, to trust she would help how she could.

Neither task gladdened her, and she blamed Talin for both. But she did not dwell on it either.

The Yellow gave her a long look when they reunited back on the road, but said nothing. By her own design Nythadri had little to tell that might betray Talin’s confidences, a conceit she’d known she’d need to give in exchange for the freedom to write anything at all, or to grasp the opportunity to offer Elly the escape she deserved. Talin knew that too, yet here they were; a mask of trust between them, balanced on the sword edge of secrets the other woman promised would make it all worthwhile. Light, what a foolish game.

“We’re going to be late, Talin.” Kaori balanced his horse loosely between his knees while the black and white frisked. In the morning's revealing light he was younger than she had supposed.

Late for what?

A twist of Talin’s lips offered no ready explanation, and Nythadri was too proud to press upon the wound of her continued ignorance, lest the woman twist the knife a little. She knew Talin well enough to guess she would enjoy the cruelty even as she needed Nythadri’s help. Her back stiffened preemptively atop her perch on Dove’s back, the folds of her cloak draped wide over the horse’s rear. Dark hair was braided around her crown, an inky frame for those winter-pale eyes, which spared no warmth for a supposed friend. Perhaps answers would warm the foundations of their friendship when they came, but Talin made little effort towards reassurances in the meantime. Elly hovered alongside, effortless in the saddle, and with a flicker of her eyes the Yellow’s attention broke to acknowledge Kaori’s words.

They rode hard that day; like the Dark One himself nipped their heels with zealous promise. What imaginary sands counted down the moments of such haste rattled around her skull at their sharp pace, and it left little opportunity for thought. She was not an accomplished rider, which Talin would no doubt have accounted for. Another tear in the neat net of the Aes Sedai’s plans. Nythadri trusted her sister’s efficiency, if little else right now, but it did not bode well to witness the loose threads flap free so quickly. She could not well afford the distraction of pain. It wore her down quickly, the relentless riding.

By the time they finally slowed the sun was a bloody gash in the sky, their horizon darkened by a shadowy crowd of distant trees. Serenity was a chore. She desperately wanted to grit her teeth against the pain, or perhaps grimace at the waves of soft amusement from the woman beside her. The last time she had spent so much time in the saddle had been Bandar Eban some months before, but at a less frantic pace and with immeasurably preferable company. A poor time to remember the heat of the ocean’s embrace to sore muscles, but light she ached right now, and likely not even a hot drawn bath awaited.

It was then she noticed a man in crisp black crested the hill ahead. For a moment everything in her tensed to attention, enough for Elly to draw her mount closer in brief confusion. Nythadri felt it spiral a brief distraction, like a self-repeating echo, that sense of getting used to one another. When next she looked she could not fathom between relief and disappointment for what she saw. The uniform was familiar, glinting silver at the throat, and he was tall and dark haired. But there the resemblance ended. It was not Jai.

“Do you know him?” Elly queried softly. Nythadri did not turn her head. By now her gaze narrowed on the question of why.

“No.”

Talin did not haunt Black Tower grounds. Nythadri would know. But she approached expectantly, Kaori a near shadow, and the stranger turned towards their slow trot. He was alone, without even a sign of a horse nearby. Broad arms folded against his chest, and dark eyes ran into the distance, accounting for Nythadri and her companion, but he did not seem surprised even by their additional number. “I did no think you were coming, Aes Sedai,” she heard him call.

Leather creaked as Elly took the opportunity to shift in her saddle. Dark hair fell sharply around her jaw, and the dying light picked out the lattice of scars like pale crescents on her sundarkened skin. Her eyes pinned in the Warder’s direction, not the Asha’man to whom the Yellow spoke.

“He’s from Shienar, and I don’t expect he should be so far from home. There’s an ugly word for that in the north.”

Nythadri had been trying to read the conversation ahead, and irritation flared for the interruption. It was the second time Elly had jammed the gears of her thoughts with distraction, and though the woman was her apparent protector now, she was no weapon against the nuances Talin wove around them. Knowledge gleaned now might be the difference between survival and not later, when it became necessary to parse truth from misdirection. Yet something of the tone plucked Nythadri’s attention away even so, or perhaps the quiet fervency that accompanied it. It had the tang of warning. She let the words sink in.

“He told you that?”

Elly just gave her a blunt look, brows half raised in consternation at the question, like Nythadri was missing context. And fine, she accepted her elevated experience in the matter. Eleanore was from the Borderlands, and a seasoned warrior besides. Maylis had said as much even if Nythadri had been blind to the way the woman carried herself, which she wasn’t. Still, it wasn’t an accusation that ought to be shared so openly in present company, no matter how softly spoken. There were too many cracks already in their fragile trust to risk the fissure of another. Yet it remained another question to ask Talin later. How she had come upon the man. Who he even was.

“It do be an unusual request,” she heard the Asha’man continue.

Talin still sat astride Mephisto, as blankly composed as ever. “As favours usually are,” she said. “And rarely convenient, either. I do not recall asking you any questions back then.”

The man’s lips pursed, but he only nodded stiffly. Nythadri felt nothing of it, but she witnessed the silver split run jagged through the air, widening into a gateway wide and tall enough to pass them through one at a time. Talin had power enough on her own for that, which presumably meant she lacked knowledge of the destination. Nythadri felt the first pangs of regret for her stubbornness. For walking into this blind when the previous night Talin had offered blunted warnings but the prospect of truth. Blood and Ashes, but that gate might lead them anywhere. 

Talin’s gaze met hers expectantly just as Elly leaned close again.
 
“You’re sure?” she murmured. “Because if you’re not…” It was only the slightest shift, but Nythadri understood the meaning. It would be suicide, she was sure, to attempt reneging now, even if she could be certain about the construction of her own gate. Hardly the best moment to test the theory, and yet something of the earnestness plucked a resonant chord. It wouldn’t even be the first time foolishness sincerely meant had softened her into fondness. Because despite the recklessness (something that really shouldn’t garner her approval) she could feel that Eleanore really meant it.

She was wary of leaning too far from the support of her saddle, but she reached to press a brief hand to the crook of Elly’s arm. It wasn’t quite meant as reassurance, but she was surprised to feel the slight give of tension released. Little changed in the predatory lounge of her demeanour, yet Nythadri understood that she would not act. Nor ask again.

By now Kaori had already disappeared beyond, and Talin’s glass-eyed stare carried the weight of a mountain. Decision made, Nythadri urged her horse on until they were alongside. She looked expressionlessly into what waited, then watched the Yellow proceed. Dove tossed her head and trotted resolutely on. Nythadri threw a brief glance over her shoulder as she passed through, to where the Asha’man still stood, arms folded. Elly was on her heels, grim faced.

The gate winked shut behind them.
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#10
[Image: araya1.jpg]
Asha'man Araya
*
TAR VALON

Spring’s embrace finally beckoned warm blue skies, though it was still cool beneath the arms of the grove’s trees. That, or perhaps he was simply growing used to Arad Doman’s sticky heat. Cradled between one such sentinel’s enormous roots, Araya fiddled with the strings of his newest acquisition. Gold filigree chased the instrument’s underside in a sinuous Domani design, its wood stained the colour of fresh plums. The neck was longer than he was used to, its sound thick as plush velvet as he cobbled together a tune, pausing every now and then to adjust one of the tuning pegs.

Hana half watched him from across the patchworked blanket as she set out the picnic dishes. The scent of warm fresh bread mingled with the perfume of blossom, and Araya smiled for such simple comforts of home. It was a treasure to hold on to when dark days burdened the horizon, though he could wish for another added to their number. Not that he knew what Trista might even make of such domesticity. Better not to think on where she might be right now.

The wind stirred the silver in Hana’s dark golden hair, free of its usual braid, and every now and then her clear grey-eyed gaze rose to Korene as she flittered between the trees, the brown pup lolloping at her heels. Even at play the girl was strangely quiet, though the dog’s rolling yips and playful growls made up for it. He even caught the shy edge of a smile as the animal nipped the hem of her skirts, then raced a tongue-lolling frenzy through the grass. Korene did not give chase, but even that much from her swelled him with hope.

“The dog is a pest,” Hana said. “Always underfoot, else making a mess.”

Araya laughed. “I’m sure he’ll grow into his feet. Eventually. The ones I grew up with always did. Besides, he’s the first gift she’s ever shown interest in.”

Hana didn’t disagree, and her mouth softened into a smile as she watched the girl despite her criticism. Then her hands smoothed the dark folds of her skirts where she sat, as inky as an Asha’man’s own uniform, and her focus adjusted. “So what will you do about this note?”

Araya leaned his head back against the tree to look at her. Consideration for the question writ plain on his face, as did his puzzlement for the rather direct way Hana’s attention now pinned him. He knew the missive she meant. He’d only met Nythadri once, and she had been icy as winter’s snap beneath that still mask; inscrutable to him as undisturbed snow, and as coldly beautiful. Whether it had been Jai’s fate or Lennox’s she had ultimately cared about he’d never really fathomed, for apparently she had gleaned from him whatever it was she had required with little effort. The exchange had been painless, and Araya had not seen her since, though he understood she had visited on occasion in the intervening months. According to Hana her last visit had been less than tennight before, and she had no longer worn the rainbow white.

“If Jai shows his face in Tar Valon again then I’ll do as she asks, if I even need to, but Daryen keeps him busy enough. He couldn’t wait to escape the Shining City before, so I doubt she has anything to worry about.” He’d searched for the man the morning after, but found no traces in the snowy streets. Whatever flesh and blood comforts Jai had clawed at to soothe himself after the fight with his brother, they had eventually propelled him back to duty’s path. Araya spent much of his time now in Bandar Eban, but not in the same palatial circles. He knew where Jai was though. Whatever business the Aes Sedai was concerned he might intrude upon was not likely to even snare his notice unless it actually concerned the Seanchan.

“I scrubbed that man of his own vomit and urine like he was one of my sons,” Hana said dryly. “He was quiet and contrite as a lamb the next day, but like most silly boys so deep in their cups he liked the sound of his own voice at the time.”

“Yes. Well. You can’t reasonably hold a man to the things he says when he’s drunk.” A grin toyed the edge of his lips, though fortunately Hana had never had to tend him in the same way. The dear, stoic woman had not balked despite that it had been the depths of night when Araya Gated them in, but then she never did despite her patient chastisements for his soft heart. He loved her all the more for it.

Her head tilted at him. “And do you at least recall that the girl visited for the first time the morning after. Knowing the things she knew, already.”

“Light Hana, just tell me what it is you think I should do!” He laughed a little. Hana regarded him in that inscrutable way women had, like perhaps she was perturbed at the density of his head, but Araya was open as a book. They were family, and she held his confidences in most things -- probably more than he ought, but he trusted her that much. She’d lived half her life with Daeyl at the Black Tower, and negotiated its waters better than he on occasion; her judgements were as sound at the roots as the great trees in this grove. She knew full well that he would listen to her, and clearly she was driving at something. He’d far rather she just be plain with it, though he did patiently pause to consider what she might mean. The Accepted had known about Jai’s brutality at Lennox’s hands; had known too that Araya had been the one to drag him away, and to where. But an Aes Sedai had visited that night as well. It wasn’t impossible for the news to have travelled those channels, even that quickly.

Hana’s brows rose.

He sighed, letting the lute fall silent in his lap. “I’ll not get involved unless I have to, Hana. I try to stay out of our own politics let alone meddle in anything White Tower.”

“For certainly you are not one to meddle, Araya.”

“Ah.” He scrubbed a hand over his chin, catching her meaning for at least that. His heart betrayed him, the small kindnesses he was prone to suturing each wound delivered by the hand the Creator dealt him. Apparently Hana intuited deeper meaning in the message. It had only said that should Jai discover Nythadri gone from the Tower and feel any inclination to follow her, it would be in his best interests to become dissuaded -- and that Araya ought to assure it by whatever means he deemed necessary. It seemed a fairly bald warning to steer wide of Tower affairs. Given the M’Hael’s hash hand of punishment it didn’t seem a mistake Jai was likely to make a second time anyway. “You think she’s in some trouble then?”

“I think that if you were to discover Trista Alquin suddenly vanished from where she ought to be, even you might be inclined to do something rash about it.”

Araya blinked. For his apparent transparency as much as for what he suddenly understood she meant.

How do you do it, Jai had asked. Araya was not inclined to poke too fiercely at another man’s demons, least of all those belonging to a Brother, though he hadn’t understood how it cut so deep at the time. He’d chalked it up to the ghosts of home, roused when Jai had found himself so unexpectedly back in the city of his birth. Saidin changed a man. Araya understood that as well as anyone who earned the pins, and such reflections did not sit kindly in the mirror of an old life. Yet Jai had barely been able to look at Hana, one of the few souls in this world from whom an Asha’man would not expect judgement for his sins. He’d told Jai he should speak to her, thinking it might ease the burden of his worries. That family could be anyone; that there was still a place for that, even. But it’d only pushed him out into the cold instead.

“You’re telling me he went to the Tower that night? I really don’t think...” he’d be that stupid, yet the words gutted themselves before the sentence finished. He’d seen them in Bandar Eban; had assumed spectacle, given the gulf of their stations. It had been so needlessly brazen he’d never really considered until now how they’d arrived half way through the bloody evening

Light.

He shut his mouth, gaze pulled out to the girl and her dog in the shadows of the trees; proof enough of the things a man might do for those he loved, and Araya’s heart was fuller than most. Korene looked so much like him. His chest tightened, and the grief must have pulled at his expression because he felt Hana’s touch on his knee. Blood and ashes, even the knot of feeling in his mind spoke to another foolishness of the heart. Trista always felt so damn quiet

He squeezed Hana’s hand back.

“I’m telling you that the next morning a woman turned up at our door to thank you for pulling his feet from the flames, and now the same woman is asking you to insure he stays away from the fire,” she said softly.

“He won’t find out,” Araya said. That was still likely true, and something he would be able to watch for at least. He was less confident about the second part: “And if he does, Jai knows where his duty is.”

Hana nodded, though something of her expression suggested he was still missing the point. This time he read her more easily though, perhaps because on reflection his own earnestness finally led him down the same path. He didn’t know Nythadri, and she was Aes Sedai now, not a normal woman at all. But he’d lived amongst them, once; saw more than rings and shawls, just as he saw more than the sword and dragon pins at the throats of his brothers. Power changed those it touched, but it did not make them any more than flesh and blood. 

Did she need help?

The woman knew he had aided Jai before, for no more reason than it had been the right thing to do. Just as he had interceded on Imaad Suaya’s overtures at Daryen’s celebration because he saw the way he pinched her arm. But Nythadri had Sisters now. Daryen’s own sibling was Aes Sedai, even. And Araya was about as far removed from the politics of either Tower as he could possibly be. If she was as enmeshed in the Great Game as her cool mask suggested her to be then she’d know that too. So why him? Or maybe that was exactly why him.

When he looked at Hana, a soft frown carved her expression pensive. 

Araya had never thought to pry into the foundations of her friendship with the Accepted, but given the new context perhaps he could understand it better. It shivered him a little, but he did not dwell on what he supposed Hana must see in the young woman, or her future. He realised then, though, that she wasn’t just worried about Jai, she was worried about a girl who showed up at their door and had returned ever since -- irrespective of the shawl now on her shoulders. Light, he was a fool. What will you do about this note? she had asked.

“Hana,” he urged.

“No one will speak to me at the Tower,” she said. “Not even the Yellow who came to our aid. But the servants like you. If there is something amiss I’m sure they would tell you.”

A breeze moved the strands about her face, its lines soft with a loss he knew only too well. Light, why had she not just said it all plain? He nodded, and her hand finally slipped free as Korene padded over to slide into her lap, the pup at her heels.
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