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Coming to a Resolution
[Image: mi.png]  [Image: n.png]
Mishael & Nythadri
Caemlyn, Vanditera Estate

She hadn’t thought this was what freedom would feel like.

Certainly, returning here would never have been a choice made freely. The small garden looked much as she remembered it. Memory slid from the frozen shield of her expression. She did not want to slip into reminiscence.

But it was impossible not to wonder, even for a scant moment, how much might have happened differently if Tashir had not died.

“Aes Sedai.”

She turned at the familiar voice. By the look on her father’s face, recovered quickly into stillness, he had not been warned who waited. Petty to feel some satisfaction. He’d petitioned an Accepted, and would have been expecting the return of a letter. Or perhaps silence, as was her more usual proclivity when it came to familial correspondence. He’d intimated a favour was owed, one she’d been prepared to let languish a while before she decided how to deal with it. Circumstance conspired, though. Perhaps it was ultimately better to make the cut clean and simple.

“Foolish to attempt leverage on a ward of the Tower, even when that woman is your daughter,” she said.

“Foolish not to lean on every asset,” he replied eventually. His pale eyes did not waver from hers, even as she felt like flinching from the insult. He had been likewise curt in Tar Valon, but not quite so unfeeling. Their relationship had never recovered from the ways she had abused it in her youth, yet he had never truly understood the wild daughter he raised. Now it seemed he saw no daughter at all. The ring felt heavy on her finger, a reminder that it was exactly as it should be, but it did not disguise the sting. His hands clasped behind his back. “I presume you are still not going to tell me exactly what happened.”

“I think you know enough,” she said simply. “I would prefer you knew less.” She had sent Tash’s pendant to Caemlyn before knowing from where – and whom – it had come in the first place, desperate to be relieved of the sharp memories before they had the chance to puncture her heart anew. Unbeknownst to her, at the same time the Vanditeras had also been in receipt of a sizable donation to their coffers – twenty thousand gold crowns worth, to be precise. Taken in stride with Winther’s arrest, accusations landed against the Black Tower, and Nythadri’s unqualified decision to remove the coin from the Kojima’s keeping, and Mishael had plenty of fodder for burning his fingers on too much of the truth.

He made a noise of resigned irritation, but did not pause. “Very well. Then I shall press right to the point. You will release the funds to me now, Nythadri. It is needed for your sister’s future. You would not deny her that, surely.”

“You know I would not. Just as you know why the coin is held in my name. What has changed?” Light, he made her sound like a gatekeeper. In belligerence she warmed to the part, a little venom in her tone before she thought better of it. Until the scandal died down had always been the only parameter to her rule; a protection, not a denial to what Mishael clearly felt he was owed. If he’d asked plain in his letter she would have capitulated. She offered refuge, not control. Why must he cast her as an enemy? She tamped down the injured flare of her temper, wondering if this had actually been an even poorer idea than allowing herself to be manhandled through Talin’s gate. But she needed the alibi.

“A dowry, of course,” he answered. “A betrothal has been agreed between Oshara and Pathor Winther.”

If he expected a reaction – a visible one, at least – he would be disappointed. She watched him without expression, quiet in her scrutiny. It was not the first time he had attempted such sutures to the wound of their House’s fortunes. The politics now did not interest her, beyond ensuring Jai’s interference did not cascade unwanted consequences. She was not surprised Mishael worked so quickly in order to position himself strongly.

But Winther? Light.

She could see the neatness of it of course. Matias Winther would share in the spoils of Ellis’s fortune, and make an ally of a loose and potentially dangerous thread in the process. No one would question the Vanditera’s return to grandeur if it were tied to a marriage. Undoubtedly Mishael leveraged advantage for himself in the arrangement. She understood that he would have inferred he knew more than he did of the mystery surrounding Winther’s arrest and subsequent pardon by the Crown. A little weight pressured in the right place, a gentle reminder that his own blood trained amongst the Tower’s women. Light what a dangerous farce – and her father did not even know how dangerous. It was like peering into the hazy reflection of a mirror; she knew well the game he played, and how he played it. Yet from the outside in it made her feel cold to the stomach. Did he know how Zakar Kojima moved the strings? Did he truly realise how much he could lose? It was not like she could ask bluntly. If this delicate house of cards tumbled down, she would tumble down with it.

She blinked away. The calculation took but a moment, and she already knew it was not a battle she could spare the time to fight. Mishael Vanditera would not understand her recalcitrance without her needing to explain too much, and light knew Oshara was as stubborn as her blood. Nythadri recalled her cool glare over the notary’s desk in Tar Valon, an insult she did not understand inflicting at the time. If she was actually willing to the match, something so untenable as a sister’s forbidding of it would only inspire her to incendiary stupidity. Nythadri knew, because she would have done the same thing. Had done the same thing, for all that it had burned her.

In the moment she turned away she realised that maybe it was not truly that which bothered her though. She had given up her family the moment she donned white. Before that, truthfully, when her father had forced her to attend Elayne’s gala before it was too late. That had been the final cut to absolve any remnant of familial duty. Training severed what was little was left of the tie, supposedly at least, and the ring and shawl replaced it. Nythadri had turned her back on them once, and despite Jai’s interference frothing up all this banished pain, she could do it again. She was not here seeking closure, and yet confronted now she realised that it might really be her last chance. Coldness, apathy and distance she wielded with ease, but actually letting go? Light she’d never been good at it. Ignorance was an easy armour, but it did little good for wounds already left to fester.

She urged herself not to look back on the past, but it fell on deaf senses.

The ruin of their finances back then had been serious; serious enough that Mishael had tried to arrange a match with the youngest son of his largest debtor: that being the House Winther, and the very same son Mishael spoke of now. Nythadri’s refusal – albeit for reasons she had considered justified at the time – sped the path to unforeseen tragedy, and after Tashir’s death the relation between the Houses inevitably soured. In the end Mishael was forced to call off the murder inquiry, and it was ruled an accidental killing. So it remained until a chance confession on a Domani beach years later, and after a matter of hours the whole bloody thing unravelled.

She ought to let it rest, finally.

She ought to.

“They took a son from you, will you so readily give them a daughter?”

Mishael’s lips thinned, mistaking her hurt for refusal once more. She saw it in the tight flex of his jaw, and regretted speaking almost immediately. Light this was foolish, even by her standards. Viciousness would soothe nothing in her soul. There was no remedy to be found here. Her arms folded, and she would no longer meet his eye.

“Oshara is amenable to the match. As you should have been, back then.”

It cut as deeply as she imagined it was meant to. As she had known it would, the moment she crossed the threshold from Aes Sedai to daughter.

It had always been her fault.

She’d picked the selfish folly of a heart over duty to House and lineage, and her brother had paid the forfeit when the toll came unexpectedly due. Had she accepted the suit the first time it had been offered, like the good and pliable eldest daughter she should have been, the debt would have been paid, the ledgers balanced (until the next time at least), and none of the rest would have transpired: Tashir would have been alive.

Her eyes burned, and the voracity of it surprised her. Such an old ghost: one lived twice in fact, when she’d proven her loyalty to the Tower by leaving him to die again in another world. Though since earning the Ring her reasons had burned to ash in her hands, and maybe that touched guilt upon her now. The Farm had tempered how she might have otherwise dealt with her broken heart, but it did not absolve her from the understanding of how everything had in the end been so meaningless.

“You’ve mellowed. I don’t remember amenability being important back then.”

“Time was a delicate issue, as I recall.”

Surprised pain flared; for the low blow of the words, or for the cold way he spoke them, she was unsure. Maybe both. She glanced at him, expression stripped bare. He’d never spoken it so plainly, not even in private, and she had not anticipated he’d ever ruminate so openly on her disgrace – least of all when she faced him not as a woman at all. In a moment the cut of her eyes turned glacial, and the unexpected wound was retrieved safely from sight. After Karina Sedai had solved that delicate issue with the Tower’s claim, absolving him of the thorny problem entirely, her father had never enquired as far as she knew. The letters burned in her hearth had been few, and they had stopped long before he could have known how things turned out.

In the Arches that child had been born.

Nythadri shut down.

The coin, the engagement; it would all sanction her time here. But she was ready to leave.

“You were a savage daughter, Nythadri,” he said. If her father reacted to the brief glimpse of her pain at all, it was only to strip bare the veil from his own. It was an angry demon that snarled back. “Can you fathom what it is like, to head an ailing house, to work so hard and yet to be thwarted at every turn. It would have been a small sacrifice. You took the son from me.”

“If this alliance fails; if it is ever exposed for what it truly is, I will not be able to protect you,” she said, tone inflectionless. The words no longer stung; she did not let them. The truth flayed, but there was precious little left to share of the torment. The blood between them burned; there was nothing left to salvage. She imagined he would accept the words in threat, though it was not the way she meant them. But if all he saw when he looked at her was loss, she supposed it did not matter.

Of the ways she was inevitably tangled there was little point elucidating, for if Zakar’s fraud came to light, it would undoubtedly drag her down too. As far as she knew her name was still on his list; the trail of money was in her name; her family benefited exponentially. On paper the complicity was damning. But in Zakar’s eyes the betrayal would require an exacting recompense – even if she somehow managed to silver-tongued her way out of the worst of it, he would not allow himself to fall alone. The most she might be able to do would be to shove Jai from the line of fire. His own brother already readily believed her the cruel seductress. Light even Lythia believed her to have instigated. It was a part she could play, if she had to.

Assuming any of this even mattered. Given her actual reasons for being in Caemlyn, the contemplation of future sins rather paled in comparison.

“My silence is the last favour I can give you.” She sounded inhuman, even to her own ears, as she walked past him. Best he knew he could not rely on her for protection. Not any longer. As to her reasons, she imagined he would choose what suited him. Nythadri resolved not to care, but it was a poor lie.

His own expression tidied neatly away, like the vitriol had never been spewed. Calculation returned to his pale eyes. He nodded, half inclined his head.

“I presume you will not be expecting an invitation to the wedding, Aes Sedai.”


It was with relief Nythadri returned to the bustle of the inner city. The dwell of emotion was frozen somewhere deep; somewhere even Eleanore could not be aware of. She did not have time for the ways she made herself bleed. The ring twisted on her finger.

She checked the height of the sun. Most of the morning had already passed.

Three days, she had promised. And she was not yet finished in the city.
[Image: nythadriav.jpg] [Image: ellomai-e1672947228404.jpg]
Nythadri & Ellomai, Green Ajah

Nythadri didn’t miss the city, a revelation she found both strange and melancholy given all the years she had longed after its memory. Despite her commitment to time, she walked the distance from the seat of her family’s House to the gilded gates of the palace, glad for the moment to feel the stir of fresh air – and for the opportunity to be alone. Her thoughts revolved slowly, roused by the conversation with her father to brutally pensive ends. She rarely looked back, not even on the worst parts of her life. Even the Arches only prompted a resigned dedication to ignorance, despite how the things she had been forced to do in the test tightened in her stomach. Light, it could have been so different.

She would not trade her life now for what was gone. The things she had wanted then were not the things she even wanted now. But that did not loosen the claw of loss from her soul. And light she had lost.

The steps to her destination were all the time she would allow herself to dwell, but for that time, she let herself consider the locked doors of her pain. At least until the ghosts within quietened, and she might leave them to settle once more into nothing but ruthlessly distant memory. Both of them.

Nythadri’s face was young, not even close to ageless, but it was unusual to see a noblewoman traversing the city walkways completely alone. She was aware of the ripple of respectful distance that opened around her. The denizens of Caemlyn were not unfamiliar with Aes Sedai, especially not this close to the apex of Elayne’s power, and they reacted accordingly. As she drew closer the red lion fluttered from white spired turrets high above. Soldiers roamed on regular duties, crimson cloaks fluttering in their wake. Formalities marked her entrance beyond the Queen’s Plaza, but she encountered no difficulties.

The royal library held the robust and distinctive scent of parchment and ink to it. After the bright daylight outside, its hallowed shadows touched her skin cool, even beneath her ocean-stitched cloak. Nythadri’s pale eyes adjusted slowly. The woman working studiously at the desk was clearly Aes Sedai, and though her busy fingers were stained dark with ink, Nythadri knew she was no Brown. Her hair was pinned neatly to her head in grey waves, unadorned with trinkets or jewellery, and she was dressed in stately green velvet worked through with old-fashioned gold detail. Among the stitched motifs flew the proud crane in a repeating pattern.

This woman had shaped much of Nythadri’s recent life, and yet they had never met. Among her other Ajah duties, Ellomai had been tasked with watching over the Vanditera’s movements in the city. Like as not she was already aware of Nythadri’s visit, as was the intention in being here at all of course, but it was information she came for now. The appointment had been Lythia’s, and if her Captain-General trusted this woman, then Nythadri was reassured of the same. Plus, she would far rather pass the Tower’s threshold armed with some knowledge of what she might find. Talin’s doubts permeated. They made Arikan’s demands a little easier to stomach, but blood and ashes she hoped they were not true.

The sister’s wide, smooth cheeks were a pleasant and unusual mix of regal and jolly. She did not look up from her papers, though she must have been aware by now of the waiting presence. Something spoke to Nythadri of amusement more than a play of power or annoyance. She threaded her hands patiently in front of her, and finished her open appraisal of her Ajah sister before she spoke. “Sister. I believe I am in some debt to you. It is nice to place a face to the name.”

“Sister. I do believe you should not be here.” Those merry dark eyes still did not glance up, though a smile tipped her lips. Definitely aware, then.

“I like to see things through.”

“Hmm. I think you simply enjoy playing the rebel, my dear. But I expect that is part of the charm, no? Some of us are not so old we cannot remember what it was like to be young.”

Nythadri smirked. You’ll like her, Lythia had said, and it seemed she had not been wrong in the assessment. Ellomai paused long enough from her scribblings to wave her hand for the attendant archivist, whereupon she pointed at the text and regaled some instruction as she stood. She proceeded to excuse herself from her duties in favour of a light refreshment – though really, Nythadri doubted the man would dare offer a single judgement on the schedule of Aes Sedai, especially in the royal palace. He quietly took her seat and began frowning down at the various parchments, a pair of tiny round spectacles perched perilously close to the edge of his small nose.

“Come then, sister. Your timing is fortuitous, I really am quite famished.” Ellomai beckoned, and Nythadri fell into step. The heavy fall of the woman’s skirts swished around her wide hips as they walked her kingdom. Vast cases towered in ornate displays to either side, each containing rows upon rows of books with pristine spines bound in expensive leather and gilt. As the stacks passed them by, some contained tightly furled scrolls instead. Others were fronted with protective glass with gold chased handles. The ceilings were vaulted high above them. Nythadri did not look to see how far up the rows of volumes rose. “I do so miss the welcoming of new sisters. It has been many years now since I have been in attendance. Did Maylis present you with her usual gift? She does so find it funny. I hope you disappointed them all and did not blush.” The Aes Sedai chuckled to herself, her eyes twinkling a sidelong glance in Nythadri’s direction. Somehow, I think you did not blush.”

A hum of surprised laughter left Nythadri’s throat, pressing upon her the first flush of ease she had felt in days. She tipped her shoulder with a sly smirk, leaned a little closer, and confirmed the suspicion conspiratorially correct – on both counts. Ellomai gave a delighted burst of laughter in return, visibly startling a liveried girl rearranging shelves in an alcove.

The Green led them to a small reading room with tall arched windows that looked out onto a small and full-flowering courtyard garden. A large winterwood table took most of the interior space, lined along its centre with covered lamps, each of them currently dark without use. The attendant chairs were plush with rolled arms of studded leather and velvet. She thought it was Ellomai’s warder who presently delivered the tea, a stout and greying borderlander with long moustaches, but he did not stay. Ellomai patted his hand distractedly before he left them, turning inwards to softly close the gilt-worked doors behind him and so ensure their privacy.

Little bowls of honey and cream accompanied the strongly-brewed smell of fresh tea. A silver tray contained a plate of small knotted pastries and delicate cakes, and another of savouries and wedges of cheese. Nythadri had barely eaten this morning, just some of the scant leftovers from their Illianer dinner the night before: some shrivelled olives and dry bread, a gulp of spiced wine – and only that because Elly had insisted. Her stomach had been in knots after Talin’s surprise revelation anyway, but it churned more under the pressure of discovering whether or not she could actually create a Gate to where they needed to go. Not something she could admit to Elly so soon after leaning on the values of trust. Fortunately, the endeavour had gone smoothly. Probably because of the stubborn pressure that refused her to wait for the Yellow’s release from Arikan’s questioning. To have to ask.

She realised she was hungry, but as much as it infuriated her, all she could think of then was what Arikan had said about tea and poison. Ellomai seemed to have no such compunctions, for she had already bitten into one of the pastries and begun to bemoan furiously that the kitchen had sent the crumbly ones again. Saidar bloomed to divest the offending crumbs back onto the porcelain plate before they could escape to wreak untold havoc. Then it looped around them again, in the shape of a ward. Nythadri did not comment on the need for that much privacy, but she did glance briefly at the woman’s serene face. In the meantime she poured for them both. Nythadri was stronger in the power, but she was here in deference – and the fringes of her newly acquired shawl had barely stopped swinging. The solicitation would be obvious, but she didn't think it would harm.

Afterwards she sat back and took a belligerent sip of her own, brewed strong and left dark. She didn’t even bloody well like tea. Ellomai favoured honey and a sparse dollop of the cream. Her delicate spoon rang tunefully against the rim of the cup before she placed it in the saucer. In the moment of quaint and ordinary domesticity, the sting of the last few days began to catch up. Nythadri balanced the weight without thinking, but it was heavy enough to crush when she became aware of it. She wanted to sag, to lay the burden down somewhere, but realised Ellomai was watching her with enough shrewdness to remind her she could not.

“So, Nythadri. Is this visit about your Asha’man?” They all called him that, and Nythadri was never sure how it made her feel. She did not answer, but the Green did not pause as though she expected one: it made no difference, clearly Jai was exactly who they were going to talk about first. But that was fine – useful even. It made things easier in the long run if Ellomai made assumptions, and Nythadri only waited patiently for the sermon that was bound to come next. “Those were great lengths he went to in order to right a perceived wrong. A woman might be flattered by it. But it was an ill-conceived design.”

One Ellomai had been recruited to help remedy, and in doing so had tied Nythadri’s allegiances to the Ajah. Lythia had said much the same thing. Nythadri accepted the debt, but also understood there was a question being asked. “You’re wondering what he might do next time.”

“A little.”

But Jai was leagues away. He was as safe as he could be for a man who wore the pins. Assuming her message had successfully made it through to Araya, then the light send it would stay that way too – even if he’d first returned to the city following news of Andreu’s death. She was not sure that he would, but she did know duty would drive him back again. It always did, and he had no fondness for the city of his birth either. She’d rather have been there to know for sure, but there was little point dwelling on what had ultimately been beyond her control. Or worrying about how he might have interpreted her absence, should he have gone to the Tower. He wouldn’t have done that, would he? He didn’t know she had been Raised.

Arad Doman was as stable as circumstance would allow, and she took comfort in that. Maylis curled her lip often with tales of coastal skirmishing, but that was a natural test of an uneasy peace. No one wanted it, but there was little choice in the long run, and if anyone actually could enforce and sustain it, it was Daryen. There was also the concerning implication Talin claimed; that in endorsing the treaty, Kaydrienne’s support had suffered in the Hall, but Liridia had been at the hunt, and Daryen’s own sister was Aes Sedai – and a Sitter too. This truce with the Seanchan might not be comfortable, but it was necessary. Light, beyond that it was the Dragon’s flaming will. They couldn’t afford war to pincer on two fronts. Elayne seemed to understand it; she’d sent men north to answer Shienar’s desperate plea against the Blight’s crawl forward. Perhaps Ellomai herself had had a hand in that. It seemed very few eyes were pointed in the right direction.

In any case, Jai was safe because he bloody well had to be. Seanchan must wait. The peace must hold.

The certitude quieted her. She reasoned Lythia would have told her if anything had changed in the Domani capital, and there had been nothing of undue concern in the days before she had left the Tower. For now Nythadri’s anxieties were all aimed in an entirely different direction. She laced her fingers, resting her chin on her hands. Her pale gaze was thoughtful. But when she posed her next question, it was not about Jai as Ellomai would naturally assume. “And do you have advice, sister? The Ajah must have some wisdom. Light knows I would hear it gladly.”

It was one of the reasons she had come here, the hope that Ellomai might be able to shed more light on useful Ajah secrets. Nythadri would need all the aid she could get in facing the challenges to come. Arikan might not be mad as she had initially feared, but he would prove difficult to manoeuvre in the right ways, and not all of Elly’s lecture had fallen on deaf ears. The question of Elsae’s involvement circled her thoughts too, not just the why of it, but the morality of it. Could she really deliver the girl not knowing what Arikan intended? And with no way to protect them both either, should it all fall awry.

For an incongruous, fanciful moment, Nythadri considered sharing more with the woman opposite. Talin was already committed to the exchange, and Elly was a soldier; her thoughts were blunt and righteous. Neither could offer impartiality. What would Ellomai make of it? She tried to picture it. Thirteen sisters seemed an impossible mountain to climb in so short a space of time as she had, but Ellomai could be trusted as one of the circle, surely. There could be no Black Ajah allegiance lurking beneath that merry smile.

“Oh my dear, I have tricks I might share with you.” The woman laughed salaciously, pausing for a sip of her sweet tea to stem the amusement. Above the edge of her cup, her gaze glittered. Nythadri’s lips flickered in return, and another time she might have jested in kind, but she was too intent on the answer to truly respond to the ribald humour. “The Ajah never thinks to send new sisters to me,” Ellomai continued, nestling her tea between her hands and leaning in. “Most of them would be disappointed at the thought, I believe – for what can a librarian know of battlefields and war? Though ours is not just an Ajah of glory, of course. It is an Ajah of living.” She laughed again, arched a brow, and added, “And what indeed may a librarian know of that, either?

“But I have a great wealth and breadth of knowledge at my fingertips, and an excellent memory if I do say so myself. Yes, Nythadri, there are certainly a few things I can share with you before you leave.” She smiled warmly, and reached to pat Nythadri’s arm in fond motherly fashion. That was something at least. The relief did not unfurl very far, but it felt like the steadying embrace of belonging, and for now it was enough to feel she did not stand entirely alone. The Ajah must have knowledge she could use somehow. Besides the obvious of course, a resolution she was neither willing nor prepared to enact beyond last resort. The idea made her skin crawl.

She nodded, relieved.

How do we deal with them when they’re unstable? When they’re dangerous? Those were the questions she would ask, though it felt disingenuous to lean on Jai for the manipulation. She had never been afraid of him, even as she respected that the volatile eruptions of his paranoia had the capacity to harm her. He’d warned her himself of the danger he presented when they’d first walked that beach, but by then she had already seen the evidence with her own eyes. Her instincts lay with protection nonetheless, as they had when she’d confronted Imaad Suaya for his provocations on the hunt. She would not savour the inference of seeing only what everyone else saw in Jai, even when it was a necessary concealment. With an Ajah Sister in particular it felt like the uncomfortable edges of a betrayal.

She ate a little in the quiet before Ellomai spoke again. Assurances of aid could only be surpassed by assurances she was doing the right thing, but she was unlikely to get those. This promise was enough. It had to be.

Ellomai’s tone took on a kindly and confidential air. “He is touched by the madness, is he not? That is certainly what the rumours say. The boy nearly snapped my arm clean off when I disturbed his study, though he was quite contrite after. The old blood is strong in him, no? Malkier lives on.” Her plump cheeks took on both warmth and pride, but an inconsolable sadness too. Light he almost attacked an Aes Sedai? It didn’t surprise her, but she hadn’t known either. Nythadri tried not to think of the sword; of the legacy melted in a single cruel act. Honour was a reflex in Jai that never ceased to take her by surprise given how he buried it so often, yet when it surfaced it was so indomitably him she was never quite sure why it felt that way. She missed him so strongly then it was like an actual pain in her chest.

But she ought not be thinking of Jai. He couldn’t become tangled in any of this, and certainly not before she had a handle on it herself. Ellomai was right to question what he’d do. She didn’t know for certain either. Follow her to the ends of the earth, probably. Or beat her there to shove her out the way and take the plummet himself. That was what she feared anyway.

Arikan couldn’t be trusted. But she must play the game he insisted upon until she was sure if he could be used for the light’s purpose.

“-- we have a duty to our Brothers,” Ellomai was saying.

“Such it becomes our place to coax our brothers back when they drift toward insanity. Because we can handle it." Those were Lythia’s words, scalded in the back of her mind the moment she had heard them. She murmured them aloud in faint surprise, but only because something occurred to her then. Did a dreadlord count? Light of course it didn’t, but she couldn’t get the image of his fear out of her head. Or the desperate way he had shaken at Talin.

Whatever justification she settled on, Nythadri knew well what she must do, but blood and ashes she wished someone could simply tell her how to do it. Preferably without a loss of limb or life. It wasn’t a pledge of redemption; she’d been honest with Elly about that. It was a balance she vowed to her own soul. If Arikan strayed too close to the line – not to insanity, but to relapse – then she had to be the one to drag him back, willing or not, because there was no one else to bloody do it. Else she had to be the one to end the rampage. But she knew she'd first take the risk.

“Oh yes, indeed,” Ellomai continued. By the surprised pride in her tone, she recognised the quote and from whom it had come. She helped herself to another cake. “It seems I am not the only scholar here; how delightful! I have no great experience of the Black Tower, and it is a different thing, a partnership with a man who can channel. Lythia could certainly tell you more about what you wish to know,” she added gently.

“But my advice would be that you must either cut the cord entirely, in a clean and gentle fashion of course, else you must claim him. It is not fair to allow him to languish, Nythadri, and certainly not when he has already acted on your behalf. It is quite clear he will move mountains to protect you, perhaps whether you wish it or not. Better the direction comes from you, than from others who might wish to use the connection already between you to their advantage. Though I am not displeased to see you, sister, I will admit I am surprised you came here first.”

She blinked at that. Felt the drift of the conversation she had thought bent to her advantage suddenly settle about her shoulders like a vise. It held the tone of an admonishment, and after a moment Nythadri realised that was exactly what it was. Lythia had spoken to her of responsibility before, and she’d considered the lesson learnt the hard way given all Jai had suffered as a result. When he softened the walls of her heart with promises of anything, she’d known immediately she would ask nothing at all that might pull him into the riptides of another scandal.

As such, of the options available to her in Illian she resolved easily that heading to Bandar Eban was a frivolity of the heart, and dismissed it as an indulgence she could not afford to give herself. But Ellomai made it sound like she’d left a flank open – not just for her, but for him too.

“Light, he hasn’t done something else has he?”

For the first time, the Green’s cheeks flattened into seriousness, and Nythadri felt her heart begin to both sink and pound with alarming ferocity. The knot of Elly’s emotions stirred in response, but she pushed the distraction away. Clearly, this was why Ellomai felt the ward against listening ears necessary.

“He has not yet – not that I know. But King Daimon is something we must speak of. Arad Doman’s negotiations have finally reached fruition, and terms of the treaty have been agreed. However, Mother has forbade any Sisters to attend the proceedings. We are to turn our eyes away.”

A public withdrawal of support? Now? “Why would she do that?”

“You or I may see that this endeavour is a necessary evil, but it is deeply unpopular, Nythadri. The treaty will still stand. It has to. But the Tower must be circumspect in the ways it is involved. I trust you understand now how this will affect you and your interests there.”

Circumspect? Discretion would be damning. Daryen was not just a king, he was an Asha’man.

She internalised it quickly.

The Tower wanted peace; blood and bloody ashes, it needed peace. If it turned its support away now, then it was because of something Daryen had planned. Her blood cooled. Whatever it was, like as not Jai would not be informed; Daryen twisted the chains of trust and knew Jai would twist with them. He’d not even seen fit to warn him of the Blood’s invitation to the feast and dancing after the hunt; Nythadri had read it plain in Jai’s reaction. Even Liridia had been disturbed. Maybe it was because Daryen understood the truths he could and could not share, but Nythadri only saw a dereliction of trust in those he ought to hold closer. The game he played hurt those around him.

Memories of the night replayed with alarming clarity. Daryen and Trista had arrived together in a glitter of pomp and flourish that she’d seemed decidedly unimpressed by, though she had still been dressed like a consort, the accents of gold on red very clearly complimenting his kingly attire. He’d even called her his gaidar, yet by what Nythadri had seen from afar, Jai had seemed perplexed at who she even was. He wasn’t the only one. While Daryen had paraded her before his court the rumours had flown swiftly behind hand-shrouded lips. A lover? A protector? He even introduced her in the very same breath he’d used to reveal the High Lord Sivrikaya and his Voice. Araya had been there that night too, she recalled, the concern awash on his unguarded expression while he looked up at the dias like it had all meant something to him.

Only one other thing of note had transpired after. Later that evening Trista and the Voice had fought a contest of skill at the High Lord’s request. A quick and bloody affair, to the gaidar’s immaculate victory.


Nythadri paled, but couldn’t voice her suspicions. They were too dangerous. And surely too impossible. Daryen’s own sister was Aes Sedai. The Tower would never have allowed an Accepted into such danger as she now began to contemplate.

One thing was plain, though. Whatever Daryen had planned, and whatever the Tower’s true place in it, she knew for certain he’d keep Jai in the dark. And when Jai was in the dark he invariably stumbled towards the cliffedge.

“This ceremony, when is it supposed to take place?”

Did she even have time to get there? She half scraped the heavy chair back, hands braced on the table to rise. The tea still in her dainty cup sloshed the sides, but she paid the inelegance no mind. Her face narrowed into stillness, a well practised emptiness. Dark hair fell over her shoulder. Her jaw drew tight; she was already making calculations. Ellomai watched her rise. Nythadri thought there was sympathy in the woman’s kind eyes then, but it only burned like acid in her stomach to witness.

“Unless you plan to defy the Amyrlin’s will – and I would not suggest it, Nythadri – then you are too late now. You must wait.”

She stood the rest of the way, too restless to allow herself the stillness of a defeat implied. A quick pace took her to the windows, where beyond the carved, high-cresting arches bright sunlight coaxed colourful plants in the small garden beyond, oblivious to the way her world was slowly burning. She closed her eyes against it. The Amyrlin’s will be damned. She ought to go anyway.

After a moment she glanced back at Ellomai, but did not voice the temerity. She folded her arms and turned her attention resolutely away. There was one more thing she must know. “How does the Tower truly fare, Ellomai? I’m almost afraid to ask. I’ve heard ill tidings.”

She heard the Green sigh quietly behind her.

Then it was why Kaydrienne had faltered. It had to be. Talin was right.

The Tower really was crumbling.
She spent the rest of the afternoon in Ellomai’s company. In that time they spoke of much. The ease of the companionship proved somewhat stilted by the tension threatening to drag Nythadri’s thoughts miles away, but she had ever been capable of dividing herself, and she did so now. She allowed herself to fall into the necessary role, knowing she must learn as much as she could while she could. If Ellomai noticed the way the mask slipped upon Nythadri’s expression sometimes she did not show it. Nythadri’s attentiveness was genuine, even if her motivations were concealed. She pressed Ellomai for answers, leaned upon Jai’s madness when she must, and soaked up the wisdom bestowed. In between she listened to a plethora of the Green’s varied tales (of those she had many), and found herself moved to genuine amusement on several occasions, despite the severity of her mood and the insistent miasma of the Tower’s potentially grim fortunes. Ellomai had a knack for bringing the lightness to dark clouds. The Ajah of living, indeed.

Later, upon their parting, the Green reached to pin a brooch into the folds of Nythadri’s cloak. The small ornament was round and made of gold, sculpted into the shape of a crane between two leaves with a pale stone inlaid by its feet. Nythadri’s eyes rose in surprise, for a moment unguarded in reaction.

“My welcome to you, my dear. I hope it helps,” Ellomai said. She smiled, and pat the gift where it nestled. “I trust you will visit again.”


The day had sped on by the time she returned to the inn she had left Eleanore. The sun was still high, but it felt like time was slipping endlessly through her fingers. The warder glanced up upon her return to their room, the distinct shape of a frown pressing low on her brow. She had been sorting through the purchases Nythadri had directed her to buy in the city; supplies for Elsae, among other things. Sweet smoke pillowed from the pipe fixed between her teeth. She’d braided her hair back from her face, and Nythadri noticed a scar following the strong line of her jaw, usually hidden beneath the curve of her dark tresses.

“You’ve been tense all day,” the woman grumbled, and Nythadri offered half a smile in response. She shed the cloak from her shoulders, careful to unpin Ellomai’s gift. It was barely bigger than a Tar Valon mark, and she ran her fingers over the inset stone thoughtfully. Opal or moonstone, she thought, for the way it shimmered. Though it was not that which arrested her attention. After a moment she slid it into her pocket, and folded the cloak upon one of the beds.

Only this morning three days had seemed a workable challenge, but she realised now she could not afford them all. Her mind was already spinning with the racing of her thoughts and her recalculations of their next move. If Kay’s support was faltering, Nythadri might be able to sow the seeds of some gentle aid while she was at the Tower. The names of the Sitters ran through her head, but the only sister she had even passing acquaintance with was Broekk of the White Ajah, and that was something long in the past, when she had first donned the novice white. How did the Hall’s favour fall? Nythadri did not know; she had never cared. The ignorance injured her now, and she did not have the time for reconnaissance. Light but the Tower needed to be strong, now more than ever. And there was precious little she could do about it.

Her mind drifted to Arikan. To the unknowing spit of his insult, and to a promise of vengeance she did not want to have to rely upon. But her thoughts did not linger there.

She wound the ring around her finger, gold scales cool beneath the pad of her finger. The serpent ever chasing its tail. She felt a little like that now.

“I’ve done what I needed to here. It’s time for us to leave.”

Elly’s stare was flat. She dropped the shift she had been folding, plucked the pipe from her lips, and folded her arms instead. Her blouse, open at the neck, was the colour of wine. “You said we were staying in Caemlyn for the night. To have a fresh mind for the Tower on the morrow,” she reminded. Nythadri had said that, and meant it, but their circumstances had changed. Her pale stare took a measure of the woman, wishing she did not have to explain herself to another, then feeling guilt for the shape of her own resentment. By Eleanore’s fierce and candid expression, she had clearly been hoping for Nythadri to sleep on the decision. The gaidar had said no more about arming themselves against the dreadlord, but it festered in her nonetheless.

She fought a sigh. Warded up her frustration. Eleanore’s doubts niggled though, eating at worries of her own. It was not like she planned to abduct Elsae. The light knew if she did not wish to go then Nythadri would not make her. What then, she did not know, for honestly she imagined Elsae’s curiosity would blind her to the danger and it wouldn’t be an obstacle. But she would not make her go. Not when she could not promise what waited. Her hand smoothed the dark lay of her skirts, feeling the shape of the brooch tucked within. It was not much in the way of protection, honestly. But Nythadri grasped for every advantage.

How many hours were left in the day now? She glanced at the light still filtering through the small window. Beyond lay the flat faced buildings of the new city, the street below noisy with the bustling sounds of ordinary living. Saidar hovered about her senses, and she tested the strength left to her. A war waged within; an argument of duties. Only it wasn’t a decision at all really.

“Do we have parchment? Ink?” She finally pushed away from the door. Rules caged. Instruction frustrated. There was nothing like outright denial to stoke Nythadri’s blood to rebellion.

Foolish? Probably. But not so foolish as letting it lie. Not so foolish as regret.

Elly only sighed as Nythadri sank into a chair and began composing the letter. She felt her watching eyes for a moment, and then the woman sat on one of the beds opposite, elbows braced on her knees. Smoke wreathed around her. There was probably a scowl; there felt like there was a scowl.

“Tell me what I need to know.”

Nythadri did not glance up. The words flowed smoothly across the page; she favoured brevity. “I spoke with a sister at the palace. Talin might have been right about what we will find at the Tower, Elly. I need you to see what you can find out for me. If anything. Light send it’s nothing, but we may need to move quickly.” Ellomai had been cautious and reluctant in her commitment to a true picture, but the fact she admitted doubt at all was damning enough. The Ajah understood the necessity of the treaty – of upholding the Dragon’s Peace, even with the Seanchan – but there were still insistent voices of dissent even amongst Greens. Maylis, for one. Now that Kaydrienne had stepped back from Daryen’s negotiations in such a public way, those voices would only grow louder and bolder. Of graver possibilities she did not dare consider too deeply. The Amyrlin had always been stalwartly stubborn. This capitulation was a concern. “Arad Doman sanctifies a treaty with the Seanchan today – a peace that was openly supported by the Tower, until the very last minute.”

“I can do that,” Elly said straightforwardly of the instruction. “But does a treaty really concern us right now?”

It was a fair question. Tower politics ran in deep currents, and through it the Aes Sedai shaped the world. As such there was always something to worry about, and Eleanore had good reason to be nonplussed by such a small seeming drop in the ocean. They’d been at the Tower only days ago, and nothing had felt out of the ordinary. How much could have really changed? Nythadri paused from her writing. Time and circumstance had not allowed for her to know Eleanore very well, nor she to be known in return. There was so much she ought to share, and intended to, but in all honesty she was reluctant to explain now all the ways this was so very personal. “I was present for some of the negotiations,” she said after a quiet moment. “I chose the Green Ajah because of it. It is of concern to me.”

It felt an inadequate response, but Elly only nodded and stuck the pipe back between her teeth. She heaved herself up, and turned back to packing their things with a soldier’s efficiency. Resolution filtered through their bond with all the strength of cuendillar. The simplicity of Eleanore’s commitment was startling – as it had been when she’d knelt in the rain and made binding oaths to a woman she did not know. But Nythadri was grateful for it. If it matters to you it matters to me, that feeling said. She watched a while longer, thoughtful.

“If the Amyrlin has completely rescinded her support, it will have reaching consequences. She will not have done so for a poor reason. The King of Arad Doman is an Asha’man, and that complicates things further. At worst, it might mean a road to war. One we cannot afford. Blood and ashes, you know that better than even I do. The Blight marches and we are all looking in the wrong direction.”

Elly paused to wrap the leather guard around her waist and affix her blade. “It’s important. I get it,” she mumbled around the pipe. “Don’t worry, soldiers talk.” Two fingers over the bowl snuffed the light. She pulled it out and laid it down with the neatly tied bags. Began to affix vambraces to her forearms. Dark eyes met Nythadri’s with a grin. “Even warders. Easier than Aes Sedai do at any rate.”

Nythadri smirked in response. The jest eased something between them that made Elly laugh aloud and shake her head. This bond was piqued with hills and valleys; in some moments it felt like the most natural connection, and in others a crippling chafe. Maybe Nythadri offered too little of herself to ease the process, but the adjustment was vexing. She had spent most of her life fiercely protecting both her freedoms and her privacy, and in one stroke Elly stifled both. Equally, her support soothed the ways she found it abrasive. A constant contradiction.

“I don’t get you, Nythadri. Maybe in a decade. Or two.”

Nythadri laughed wryly, but it faded after a moment into sobriety. “Elly,” she said, “if the Tower is slipping into instability there might be little left of it to raise against a dreadlord.” The warning was gentle but insistent. She wanted the woman to understand. Light send it would not go that far, but Ellomai’s discomfort had rattled her nonetheless. When the Hall lost faith in an Amyrlin it was rarely bloodless. But nothing would happen quickly; if none witnessed the ceremony, none could bring evidence of its secrets, and Kaydrienne was former Blue: she was a political supreme. The timing of such discontent could not be worse placed though. “But if it’s worse than I suspect, Arikan really might be our best chance in the face of Tarmon Gai’don. I know you do not like it. Honestly, neither do I. But I will do what must be done.” Nythadri was not careful of the words, but she was mindful of the impact of them. She folded the letter, sealed it, and stood. The knot that was Elly hardened in her mind, but she said nothing in return. Just flexed her jaw and breathed heavily through her nose to mark her unease. Her fingers brushed heart then hilt, and Nythadri could not tell if it was a faithful promise or a dogged mantra to be steadfast.

She held out the letter. “Find out what you can. But be subtle about it. Pray we find the Tower strong. But first you must deliver this to a home in Tar Valon. The woman there is called Hana, and you can trust her.”

Elly took it without hesitation; didn’t even ask what was in it. “And at what point are you going to tell me where you’re going instead?” she asked with a forthright hike of her brow. For a moment Nythadri found the intuition surprising, not because she had been hiding it, but because she had not expected the warder to parse through her words so quickly and reach a conclusion. Amusement might have fluttered her expression if not for the way Elly felt then. She stood at least a hand above her, even with the small square heels of Nythadri’s boots. The intensity of the glare she arrowed down communicated her displeasure without need of the bond’s echo of it.

Perhaps Eleanore was coming to understand her after all.
[Image: Yui.jpg] [Image: ny.jpg]
Yui & Nythadri
Royal Palace, Bandar Eban

She stepped out into thick heat.

The wide pillars of the Travelling Grounds surrounded her like sentinels, their carved sides slanted with shadow and light from the open roof. Red and purple streaked the glowing sky above. No more than a few hours, she had promised Eleanore. Reassurances that tonight Bandar Eban would probably be the most secure city on the continent had placated somewhat, but if Elly had been unhappy with the decision, ultimately she had stiffly bowed her obedience when Nythadri explained it. The woman reached for the shield of formality when she was displeased, Nythadri was coming to notice. Just as well she had not shared the Amyrlin’s decree then. Though technically the Mother had only forbade them from the ceremony itself. A justification she was quite sure would save very little of her skin if she was caught here.

The Gate closed to a silver line behind her, and saidar fled her grasp. She couldn’t imagine Daryen didn’t have wards to notify his household of arrivals, so for now she only waited for inevitable discovery. Heat prickled the back of her neck already. Light, it had no business being this hot when the sun was fast falling. Though Nythadri wasn’t dressed for it either. She was still in the gown Talin had provided her back in Illian, dark and iridescent as a magpie’s wing. The collar curved up her neck before descending in a narrow plunge, embroidered either side with curling vines and leaves. White blossoms intermingled the green details, pale as winter moonflower, and the same patterns banded the cuffs circling her wrists. In the temperate midlands it had been comfortable.

Here it felt as cloying and close as a death shroud.

She should have thought to ask Ellomai about the trick to ignore it, but in the pleasant palace gardens of Caemlyn it had seemed irrelevant at the time.

The guard who soon appeared from his post to meet her was copper skinned, with a thick beard so neatly groomed it shone like spilled ink in the light. His eyes flared with surprise that was quickly wrestled into submission. Accents of green and blue looped the high polish of ceremonial armour, but the short cloak over his shoulder was in Daimon colours. A coterie of two more men stood a little behind, between the nearest pillars, both attentive and stern-faced. She stepped forward to meet the man at their lead.

“My name is Nythadri Sedai,” she said. The honorific felt strange on her tongue for the first time, but her expression was cool, her stare ice-pale; perhaps a little haughty. Not that she anticipated difficulty, exactly, but she was achingly aware of time and how little of it she had to use for this. The pomp of protocol easily threatened delay. Better to speak and act like she could not be denied. “And I am here to speak with Asha’man Kojima.”

“Aes Sedai,” he said, bowing neatly at the waist. His lips pursed. “Forgive us. We were not expecting you.”

He met her gaze but did not hold it. Then he bid she follow.

From the Travelling Grounds they took distinctly deserted paths, and not very far. The ceiling domed high above, and one wall was carved of arches leading to an outside space beyond; though from what she could see at a glance it all faced inland, or perhaps a closed courtyard. The palace itself seemed to slip in and out of open air. But the wide corridor here was quiet, bereft of even servants, who were likely all commandeered for the treaty’s celebratory banquet. Nonetheless she had the distinct feeling of being sequestered.

A latticed worked door in a pattern of overlapping circles led to a lightly furnished room. The floor clicked underfoot, marble maybe, and it felt marginally cooler inside. The far wall was open air, banked by an arrangement of chairs and cushions that might have made a pleasant perch had there been an actual breeze. At least it did not feel like a cage.

Only one of the soldiers stayed, and he offered repeated apologies with the kind of furrow at his brow that suggested genuine discomfort with the deviance from usual etiquette. She might have found it amusing but for the frustration it lodged in her chest. If he begged for pardon, it was because her arrival had created a schism he was unsure how to fix. Curious. Or maybe concerning. It seemed unlikely the other guards had peeled away to actually find Jai, which meant the chain of command really was perplexed with what to do with her.

“Are you going to check me for weapons next?” She glanced back at him after her brief assessment of her new surroundings. Given the way he refused to meet her eye it was probably a little wicked. She was clearly teasing him. But by his carefully bland expression he did not realise, else he chose to ignore it. They said Domani men were quite inured to flirtation, which was perhaps the entire appeal of her sly smile.

“Thank you, Captain.”

Nythadri’s attention turned to the familiar voice as someone entered the room behind her.

Yui was dressed from throat to ankle in a shimmering russet that skimmed the svelte lines of her willowy form. The gauntlet and sword shone proudly at her breast, glinting from chains across her opposite shoulder; formal sign of her office in the King’s household. Small earrings glinted in her lobes, her only concession to the festivities. She still wore her hair in her habitual steel grey bun at the back of her head though, highlighting the sweep of strong cheekbones. Shrewd eyes met Nythadri’s.

“No longer indecisive, I see,” she said after the guard had bowed and left. Her eyes were not unkind, but her expression was as serene as any woman who might have called the Tower home. “But perhaps still petulant.”

Nythadri laughed a little. “Still utterly unfair, Yui.”

“Is it? You have picked a very poor time for a visit, Nythadri Sedai,” the woman said.

“Fortunately I’m still not fond of parties,” she assured, and blood and bloody ashes but she had very little incentive to infiltrate this one in particular. It wasn’t why she’d come. But it did give her pause. Yui’s composure gave little away; she was statuesque, commanding, and for now quite silent in thoughtfulness. But the visit could only be poor if it was both unexpected and unwelcome. Which must mean Daryen was aware he’d receive no White Tower envoys for his ceremony, and had continued with his plans anyhow – or had not wanted any Aes Sedai as witnesses. She considered that carefully.

“I came to see Jai,” she added after a moment. Yui was too astute to have misunderstood the inference, but sometimes it paid to simply be blunt. She’d been missing for half the entire festivities after the hunt, and for the very same reason. Still, it made Nythadri feel foolish to say aloud. Else it was just down to the way her heart stirred inside her chest. Sentimentality was not something she usually wore on her sleeve; it made her feel vulnerable. She thought of Ellomai’s warning then. Even the gravest duty loosened its hold when she realised Jai might be in trouble. Of course, she hadn’t anticipated Yui would know how she broke rules for him. Again.

“I know,” was all she said in response. The woman's tone was so masterfully composed that for a moment Nythadri wondered at what it might hide. Was it possible it wasn't her presence here that was the problem, but who she had asked for? Something braced inside at the possibility.

“Yui, he didn’t do anything stupid today, did he?” It seemed a question Nythadri was doomed to repeat endlessly, so much so that for a moment she considered she might morbidly jest it for his epitaph at Moridrosin. If he had, she did not think even an inch of the palace would be as quiet as it was here now. Small solace. But she did not imagine he had found it easy either. Memories threatened to pinch her expression, and she tucked them away neatly. She ought to have been here, whatever Kaydrienne's directive. There were always ways around orders like that. At the very least she ought to have known. The mask of her expression was moonlight pale. She held herself carefully still.

She was afraid that when she saw him she would not want to leave.

“Everything has adhered to plan. Apart from the discrepancy before me.” A brow arched, though Yui did not seem accusatory so much as thoughtful. Her hands were laced at her front, the picture of majestic demurity. But whatever thoughts dwelt within, she appeared to reach a decision. “Don’t wander, Aes Sedai. It would not be wise tonight. Wait here, if you please.”

After she left Nythadri closed her eyes. 

Light. She ran a finger under the edge of her collar, wishing it did not rise quite so high. Not a bit of her skin seemed able to breathe in this heat. She pulled her dark curls over one shoulder, not that it offered much in the way of relief, and stood by one of the open arches leading to a veranda. Gauzy fabric in myriad colours draped each portal to the outside, but not a single essence of it stirred in the air. The sky darkened now, still blushed with fire, but the first stars were glistening in the deep.

No more than a few hours, she had promised Elly. She wasn’t sure how long they would make her wait. How long she could afford to wait. Light send the bloody man arrived quickly.
[Image: Yui.jpg] [Image: IMG_5851.jpg]
Yui & Daryen

Daryen sparked the rowdy laughter that concluded the end of yet another tale of friendship and glory. Shoulders were slapped and elbows nudged. The moment offered opportunity for meat to be slipped from passing trays, and he licked his fingers with the most approving of sounds for the tasty morsel. Nearby, the High Lord’s fingers sped signals to his Voice, who added to the conversation on his behalf. Daryen found he easily conversed with the High Lord through meeting the man’s gaze no matter from whose mouth the response poured. The skill was bred was being raised in the Noblest of Domani houses. He was molded into a culture that ignored servants, and in his youth, to his shame, he walked the paths of the arrogant nobleman he was destined to become. It was why he negotiated so well with the Seanchan ruling class. There were times when he could make them forget his powers and see only one of their own.

Such when a woman deemed a servant found his ear, he easily transitioned back into the man of the every people. 
“Yui!” he declared and rose from his chair. A few eyes followed his movements, but those nearest were accustomed to his embrace of all. He found the woman as lovely as ever, and decided he had gone too many hours without beholding her brightness. “You must try this,” he plucked a piece of meat between two soursa and with all the mindfulness of dripping sauce and flawless complexion, the sliver passed her lips in one smooth motion.The king of Arad Doman sharing his plate was a servant was nothing his court would even remark upon, such was his welcome of all.

It was in that moment of intimacy between smiles of shared appreciation for the skill of the kitchens that he noted the blinks that there was news to share. He made his excuses a few moments later. Kings never needed to relieve themselves. He promised to return swiftly.

He had two guesses which Aes Sedai may show themselves this night. Kaydrienne herself was not among them given they had spoken not two days before to come to mutual understanding. Which meant that he was in for a bit of surprise. He told Yui he didn’t want to know, much to her disapproval that he shouldn’t walk into such situations without warning. “But where is the fun is in that?” he laughed, a sparkle gleaming his bright blue eyes.

At the door, he slipped his hands upon Yui’s shoulders and kissed her once on each cheek. “Please make sure the High Lord does not leave us before I return?” his smile put her at ease, and when she walked away, it was with a head shake that defied her willfulness.

Daryen was a grand dresser. The same opaque silk that often clothed his female Domani kin kissed a rich red cloth over his torso. Hovering like sunset above golden skin, the red was aligned closely to the same attire that Trista presented in, but none could quite decide if the color represented the passion of love or the blood of conquering.

No crown circled the halo of golden hair. He rarely wore such things, but gold birds of flight set in dark cloth swayed the line of his legs as he walked.

He was genuinely surprised by who awaited. The gasp of delight spread like the rising sun across his face, and in that moment, the king of Arad Doman bowed respectfully. “Nythadri Sedai! My Sister! I congratulate you on your raising! A most deserved elevation indeed,” he might have kissed her hand if he knew she would fall to his charms, but he suspected she was of a more touchless nature. Instead, he approached her warmly, coming to stand before her with princely humility and yet kept a respectful distance. A master of reading people.

Of course, he could not help but think of Jai in that moment. The bundle of anxiety in the back of his head was easy to compartmentalize as he was so practiced at walling away. He knew from his sister that Nythadri had been raised for some time, yet this was her first visit to Bandar Eban so much as the king’s eyes and ears knew. Like others, he assumed that there would be no such delay. Then of all days, this evening she visited when her Mother had declared strong boundaries to the contrary.

“How may Arad Doman serve this night?” he asked, a smile ever dancing on his lips.
Seven ✧ Freyr ✧ Daryen
She was not made to wait long. But anticipation plummeted to disappointment almost as soon as she turned towards the sound of the door and approaching footsteps. Daryen’s greeting was effusive and warm, and contained far more respect than she suspected she was due given her untimely presence on this eve in particular. Despite this being his home, he was the last person she had expected to see; not when it must pull him from the midst of the celebratory glory due Arad Doman’s successful ventures. The treaties might be signed and exchanged – among other things, she’d wager – but contracts were only a milestone; the work was not so easily done. Politics were as much a battlefield as the quick and bloody warfare he’d won the crown with in the first place. More, perhaps; especially if he intended to keep it. Either way he would be quickly missed from his own victory.

Daryen’s charm was as resplendent and blinding as she remembered, for looking upon the Asha’man king was like staring directly into the sun. But for a moment it was the shadows beyond that she searched, until she was sure Jai really was not there. Her gaze was slow to return to the orbit of his, and she was not particularly hesitant to conceal the touch of her dismay.

“I’m sure a king must grow accustomed to receiving an enthusiastic reception, and I hate to disappoint a king and a brother both, but you are not who I wanted to see.” After the moment stretched, dry as kindling, a sly smirk and narrowed eyes softened the words. She did not intend to be insulting, though nor did she think he would be inclined to take it as such. She’d been an Accepted the only time they’d met, and they had exchanged few actual words. She did not know what opinion he may have formed of the recalcitrant ward Fate had deposited into the midst of his negotiations. Light, she still didn’t know why the Brown had even done it. But it was done all the same, and the Pattern woven. Jai’s duties and home were both here. As such she did not spare Daryen from the cut of her personable irreverence. She meant the 'brother' with the same candid acknowledgement she presumed he'd meant in turn.

It did not escape her that he was in the same scarlet silk he’d worn at Trista’s presentation before the court of course, though she did not try to parse his reasons. Beyond what she assumed to be obvious anyway. She reminded herself she was not here to dip her fingers in political currents far beyond the sphere of her control. Though admittedly neither had she intended to come face to face with one of its architects, and an opportunity presented should not be discarded out of hand, if to what end now Nythadri was not certain. The weight on her shoulders was immense. But it would crush all the swifter should Daryen buckle. Light she wished she knew what Elly found at the Tower.

He stood companionably close. Nythadri watched the shadows of the veranda outside as she considered his words. While Jai had bellowed in the dirt and Imaad incited to tip the hand of his madness, Daryen had taken control of the fracas like a hero of old at the guard of a fallen brother. In the process he'd revealed a startling loss; one that had arrested Nythadri in cold empathy at the time, though it was unlikely anyone noticed. All ears and eyes had tuned, utterly bewitched to the tale. And that was exactly what Daryen did. That warmth of command, promising everyone a place in its light. But in hindsight she had wondered if even the most tragic and personal parts of his life were loaded like careful ammunition for future use. She remembered clearly the ways Jai had toiled over his trust in Daryen. Not because it was a frail thing, but the very opposite; it was not, and the sheer strength appeared to hurt him to cling onto, even as it was unbreakable. Daryen could have saved Jai the torment rather than used it for instruction. It made her wary of his capabilities.

“As I understand it, Arad Doman already does a great service this night. I trust her king knows what he is doing.” She did not doubt his ability at the Game, but neither did she know to what ends he played. She glanced back up at him and the open affability of his smile. Such humility could not have been a gift of birth, but it was as flawlessly practised as her own ability for a startling blankness when she chose. Part of her wanted reassurance she was quite sure Daryen would willingly give should she press for it, but a larger part desired the much more unavailable truth. Even should it complicate the picture further, the cold weight of facts she could at least deal with. He must realise the loyalties that brought her here, this night of all nights? Nythadri might not wield the power of Amyrlins, but what she did have she would offer in a heartbeat should he ask it of her. “I’m aware I’m not supposed to be here. In case you were wondering.”

She laughed a little, low and flippant; it was the least of the risks she embarked on at present. She’d wager he had not wondered though. When she spoke next it was bluntly.

“I do not profess to know all the pieces on the board, but light this seems a dangerous game, Daryen. Tell me you have a contingency, should your allies prove absent when you need them. Then tell me where I can find Jai.”
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If Yui had been present, he might have teased her for being so secretive with the identity of his guest. Alas, she was busying herself with other more important matters, and Daryen did enjoy playing the game of the unknown. The Aes Sedai was as witty as he remembered her, and he was genuinely disappointed to have not spent more time in her company during her last visit. He had been busy, and was an admirer from afar, he recalled. When Fate deposited the Accepted into the charge of a visiting Sister, Daryen did not object. He would never think to interfere in the affairs of Aes Sedai, and he knew better than to contradict his sister her charge. Perhaps he could come to know her better in the future. He would like that.

Which was why he made no reference to the supposed ban of Aes Sedai visitors in the palace tonight. The two Sisters in the palace yesterday departed that very morning without so much as a goodbye, he recalled, but he wasn’t offended. He did not wonder if Nythadri Sedai was aware of her Mother’s decree because he honestly did not care other than to note the action as interesting as it was and watch the board shift as a result.

She was worried, and Daryen bowed his head to assuage her concern. “Her king does what he believes is best… for Arad Doman,” he added a qualifier at the end like dangling a string in front of a kitten, knowing she would be compelled to dissect the phrase for meaning. What motive he had was intended as comfort but also a careful laying down of a line. Most assumed the darling King of Arad Doman was a placeholder for the Dragon Reborn simply because he was a channeler. It wasn’t true at all. In fact, Daryen’s position as a peacekeeper played into many powerful hands. Decades before, Arad Doman was a sleepy little country that traded in wool and glass, but today it was one of the most prosperous in the land. Peace was coming, and with peace came power. Daryen did what was best for his people, and he meant to give them the well-earned respite they deserved. “Wars always come to an end,” he repeated what he once told Jai, whose struggle letting go of the battle behind was his greatest demon.

His smile was playful when he repeated the words she so longed to hear. “I have a contingency, should my allies prove absent when I need them,” and he laughed. Not at her expense, but at his own self-awareness that he was teasing. Dangerous to tease Aes Sedai, but he thought he might be forgiven. The warmth of his smile was as sure as much. He waved aside the moment and nodded his understanding of the reason she was here. In fact, he was glad for the pending reunion, aware of a longing that tugged at his friend.

“Jai left before dinner, and I haven’t seen him in some hours. You have my leave to speak to the gate guards to see which way he left, but he does create the most sharp and precise gateways. When he thinks to depart, he’s almost impossible to find again,” he laughed at that, remembering the enormous task it took to locate his brother’s whereabouts in the past. It spawned a memory of Jai being lost along the beach cliffs, and he was a terrible swimmer.

“In fact, this one time—“ he started to say, only his voice trailed part way through the story. His gaze was distant. Expression thoughtful. The light did not fade from his eyes, but something of his stance shifted like a slightly different phase of the moon shone a new light. The story shifted as well. The fact that he did not finish it was enough of a signal that what replaced it was worthy of serious consideration.

“May I make a recommendation, Nythadri Sedai?” When his attention focused singularly on one person, it gave the impression of pouring water upon desert soil. “I recommend checking on your Sisters in the White Tower.  They may need your help,” he said with no great sense of omen, but instead, with the imparting of trust.

“I should return to my party. If you’re hungry, I could send a plate. The finest meat you’d ever taste. It melts on the tongue like butter on a hot day.” He relayed his regret with no sense of warning nor speed of urgency to his steps. Yet he bowed gracefully and slipped from the room in a blur that may as well been a cloud passed on to grace someone else with their shade.
Seven ✧ Freyr ✧ Daryen
She considered his response. The qualification was not a surprise, perhaps because it aligned with judgements she was already beginning to form. Tucked as Arad Doman was behind mountains, the threat of the Last Battle must feel dim. Certainly the Seanchan were a bigger and more tangible threat when they harried the coastline, and not one that could or should be ignored. But Nythadri was not criticising the peace. She did not ask about the terms of the treaty despite her uncomfortable suspicions at what he had done to secure it, for Daryen was not foolish, and she could not even begin to shake loose his secrets in the time she had. But she wondered if he might need to be more careful of the ambition – and the declaration of his loyalty. There was a reason Aes Sedai were expected to cast off the shackles of their old lives.

“We don’t all survive them, though,” she replied of war. Her gaze touched on a moment of poignancy, light in its entreaty. In those soft silks and with that golden halo of hair it was easy to forget he was a soldier. Likely he knew better than she the casualties engendered by war. But if he was really listening, he would recognise the line she laid down in response. As Daryen sought to protect the entire nation of his people, the guard around Nythadri's heart was a smaller thing. It did not set them at odds now. But she was not convinced it would always be that way.

Still, his teasing did not find an ill reception; on the contrary, in Nythadri he was likely to find rare sport. For now she smirked openly but did not laugh alongside him. It reminded her of the kind of response Tashir would have given. She had not expected a better answer, and nor would she have offered one in roles reversed. The shape of her concern was imparted, though, which had rather been the point. Nythadri cared what happened here, and she wanted him to understand that. If things went poorly at the Tower and after – and so much felt like it hung in precarious balance – then she might not be able to easily return. But absence did not equal apathy. She would try and keep an eye here as best she could.

For now her focus moved on. It transpired the light-blasted man wasn’t even here. Nythadri felt the itch to move almost as soon as the words left Daryen’s lips, despite the opportunity presented before her in such a private audience. She did not have time to search the city – especially one she did not even know. Daryen implied a need for space she was certain she understood. But blood and ashes he could be anywhere. She was only half listening as he plunged into the detour of some light-hearted tale, not because she was disinterested, but because she had already begun to think ahead. She did not dare linger on the sentimentality. Her heart already felt bruised with absence.

But her attention tugged up when he simply stopped. It did not feel like artifice, though she initially presumed he paused for drama. As the moment stretched, with Daryen only looking inwardly pensive, something cold touched the base of Nythadri’s spine. She could not say why, only that the day had been too strange, too tense, too impossible. When the light of his attention shifted once more, she was watching him closely.

Advice usually riled her the wrong way; she detested that sense of being pushed across the board, whether it was a broad and inelegant shove, or the soft prod of a more manipulative touch. Even Ellomai’s warnings helped pluck free the frayed edges of responsibility that led her here. But there was a softness to the way he spoke that drew her in more than it pushed her away. It felt more like a shared intuition. The shiver beneath her skin in response was not pleasant. Particularly in the embrace of such oppressive heat; which is to say, it felt unnatural.

His step wasn’t urgent, but it was intentional, and he was already walking away. He should return to his party, and yet somehow she doubted it was where he was going.

“For once I think I’ll take the advice,” she told him. Her sly expression suggested he ought to be pleased with the exceptionally rare offer of that gift. If there was pensive concern too she betrayed it no more than he did. She tsked the offer. “You wouldn’t think to make me eat alone? I’ll return when you may offer better hospitality.” Her shoulder tipped in a shrug, but the tease was plain.

"And Daryen?" she added. "If you find him before I do, tell him I came. That I didn't ask for anything, but he'd better have found those bloody socks."
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Return to the party Daryen intended, but return to the party Daryen did not.

He paused at the exit, beholding the lovely Aes Sedai one last time. He assumed he would see more of her, especially if she was seeking the brother that lived in his house, but he savored every moment as if they may be his last. As a king, and as an Asha’man, he knew well the value of every breath. Her message was acknowledged with a smile. “Socks are very important to a soldier! I can not wait to hear the tale,” he said and slipped away.

Ten years he’d walked every waking moment with another’s mind bundled safe within his own. At first so strange. The surges and pulses of emotion and tension infused him with life and purpose. He found the variability energetic and fascinating. How often had he stared into the back of his brother’s head while he worked bowed over paper and ink for endless hours. He’d yearned to know what it was like within that brilliance, and one fateful day, he did in fact come to know. Ever since then, that presence he wore like a ring on his finger never taken off. Tightness or dismay, sometimes even terror and shame, the emotions swung like heavy doors, but Daryen rode the waves like a skilled boatmaster.

Then, as he intended to share the tale of Jai’s entrapment in the cliffs when the tide swept in, a riptide violently swept away the bundle of emotions he knew as well as his own. An unnatural stillness replaced it as if the ocean suddenly stopped breathing. Moments later, Jai must have jumped across the continent. A jarring leap of distance that Daryen recognized immediately. These were events he disliked to say the least and desired to understand immediately.

Jai was in the city when Nythadri asked for him. He might have provided precise directions, but would be unable to do so without compromising the integrity of their connection. He vowed to protect that part of Jai and practically wrote the promise in blood. If it was known, ultimately, it was protecting himself. The night that Antony Sadiq was arrested, he explained that his enemies would use those closest to him to their ends. Who could be closer than a brother of battle and bond? The veil of secrecy shielded them both.

The king did not depart without delegating orders. It had to be elaborate story, he recognized, to explain a more than lingering absence, and Daryen was a masterful storyteller. While he could travel back to the palace in an instant, he could not skim to a place he did not know he desired to find. It would take some time to walk, test and explore. A cloak covered him when he left. A wave of the hand and brush of saidin opened the gate. Darkness would do the rest. He shared his destination with none, other than what was needed to fill the details of his absence.

The windows were dark along the street. The shops were closed for the night. There was no evidence that anyone was there at all. He wondered if he had the right location. Daryen did not desire to disturb the wares of his people’s businesses, but he gently tested the latch on the door of his best guess. It was open. The aroma of wax and dye filled the interior.

The One Power chased in front of him, testing the seen and unseen for residues or wards. The Asha’man followed cautious as a cat.

Tea cups were abandoned on a table in the back, but it was in a broom closet that he found the body. A gray-haired man in a leather apron looked as if he might have been sleeping. Daryen didn’t need to kneel to confirm death. She was an old mistress beholden a thousand times before. No evidence of the manner of death though, which meant the One Power was the instrument of the poor man’s demise.

Never for a moment did Daryen suspect Jai. Murder in cold blood was not in his faculties. Murder, yes. Tashir was proof of that, but not in cold blood. Asha’man were carved into killers, but never once did Daryen judge his brother the attempt on the merchant's life.

This was someone else, he concluded. A gateway skimmed him back to the palace where promptly he sent guards to properly investigate.

The party was still going when he returned to it.
Seven ✧ Freyr ✧ Daryen

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