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Under Guard
#11
Nessie groaned under a heavy stack of plates. She'd picked up heavy things before. An unwed woman wouldn't make it very long sharing two rooms with her only remaining family without learning to pick a few things up without help. But she'd never been so careful before! The stack of plates, few though they were, were worth more than she was! Placing them on a nearby bench produced a sigh of relief, both from the strain and from the angst.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, then rubbed it off on her apron and eased her back straight. Second day on the job and she was already exhausted, but catching the willowy kitchen manager looking her way quickly put Nessie back on task. She wrapped up each plate in a silk cloth and carefully set them inside their cabinet below the bench. The work was slow, for fear of chipping the exquisit porcelain, and her knobby fingers were not so nimble as might be expected for a girl her age. She had the knuckles of a hard life, but at least there was still meat on her bones. There were many she knew who were looking far worse.

Despite the necessity of this job, and the quick correction that by cleaning the House manager who hired her meant 'cleaning' in the most mundane of ways. Such as scrubbing the kitchen baseboards on sore knees, or stoking fires attempting to flare up and burn her, or putting away clean dishes after an extravagant ball over in the main house the night before. She had to earn the right to do the actual washing. These plates were so expensive not just any servant were allowed to dip them in the enormous basin of suds. She could however put them away once shown the proper technique.

Despite her diligence, she held one up for closer inspection. The white center was the purest of whites she'd ever seen. Not even the fluffiest of clouds could be so pure as this porcelain. Then the pattern cast around the edges sparkled with silver and gold lines. The thin streams of such expense swirled and looped around the edges it must have looked so delicate and rare laid out across a long table as they must have been. There were stacks and stacks of the plates to put away of all different sizes. What food would you possibly eat off something so valuable? The manager was glaring at her again, so she folded the silk across the design with a sigh and placed it with the others. She was so lucky to have this job. She'd be folding napkins next once they came back from the laundry .. and once she was shown the proper technique. Who knew napkins had to have so much care! Laundered, ironed, folded, and stored so they would not wrinkle. She almost lost this job being so late yesterday, but the Guards vouched for her. And Nessie was a hero, she thought with a twinge of a smile. She'd saved a man's life. If not for her and her shortcuts, the poor man might have wasted away in the puddles all alone. Now he was safe and cared for in a Healing House. The victim of a mugging turned fight, the Guards had told her.

She was standing with a slightly straighter back thinking about how her Sister had reacted to her heroism, All the more reason to stay out of the Crossing Runs! Good strong men die out there! What if that'd been you, Ness! She heard some new voices and looked up in time to see the Kitchen Manager standing and dipping a small curtsy upon entrance of the House's Head Maid. The woman was short, but very intimidating in her stout, pristine dress with upturned collar stiff to her chin, House crest - the Owl and Oak - sewn onto her sleeve, and tightly pulled bun. She looked about the age Nessie's mother might have been, but looked nothing like her. She wondered not for the first time what her father looked like. Nessie's quickly resumed her packing away of plates, but swallowed a growing concern when the kitchen manager pointed her out to the Head Maid. Who was now coming over!

Nessie wasn't sure how to react, so she dipped an awkward curtsy as the Kitchen Manager had done, and looked to the floor. Her own apron was smudged with grease, her knobby hands had black rings under the nails, and her old shoes peeked out from behind a poorly sewn hem.

"Nessie Oaktura, yes?"
A sound of disapproval touched the Head Maid's investigation. Nessie looked up and found the Head Maid studying her like a piece of meat at a butchery. She wrung her hands out on her apron nervously. "Yes, mum?"
And she wished her nails were cleaner. At least her Sister had braided her mousy hair into a snug braid last night. It was about the only thing on Nessie so neat and tucked.

"Their Graces Lord and Lady Taravin require your presence."
Nessie's stomach flip flopped. Not THE Lord and Lady. "What?! Me?! Why??"
Her face must have paled more than usual because the Head Maid tsk'd Nessie to follow immediately. "Never mind that now. Nobility of their station are not accustomed to waiting on sloppy servants." There was no time to change her clothes, she was told, but the Head Maid gave her a clean apron to wear and a little cap for her hair like the night maids in the grand manor wore. From every step between the outer kitchen house to the main manor she was instructed on how to behave: it seemed there was a technique for everything with nobility. From folding their napkins to saying hello.

Forget courtesies, Nessie would call the day a success if she didn't throw up in front of them.


Only darkness shows you the light.


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#12
Jai could feel the charge of saidin on the air and for a heartbeat braced as though it were about to turn toward him. It didn't. The spike of instinct soon calmed itself. It was simple reunion with a son and his home, and he absorbed the current like a sweet spring wind. Nothing could ever be so truly terrible, he reminded himself, if saidin remained a companion.

As though suddenly remembering who he really was, he greeted the stone court as though the green woods of Tar Valon were years behind him.

Everything within sight was flawless stone: designed by masters and constructed by channelers. A powerful combination when it came to crafting a form pleasing on the eye. The walls were dark and the stone stained like slick, black ice. The floor puddled obsidian like fresh-spilled Myddraal blood. The corner of his mouth twinged upward. If only, right?

The private alcove in which his gate arrived expanded into a true courtyard complete with overhead sky and fresh air. A central meeting place for the numerous private hubs like the one Jai left behind. He paused before falling completely into sight to let a pair of Dedicated pass. They hadn't noticed someone watching them. Or had, but chose to ignore a fully uniformed Asha'man. Not likely, unless the Black Tower underwent drastic changes lately. They spoke of war and trampled grasslands, Almoth Plain, maybe? They walked on and Jai took a right turn once the way was clear. Other figures, some in black, some not, strode onward in both directions, but all seemed intent on arriving to whereever they intended to go. Some were talking with their companions, but most were content ignore one another. Finally an Asha'man caught Jai's eye as he went by. He pushed a bundle through the air ahead of him. It bulged with enough weight that it'd take two strong men to heft by hand. The man was slightly older, with veins of gray in his reddish beard. The fellow planted every step as though used to more uncertain terrain than the smooth flagstones underfoot. Jai didn't know him though. They exchanged short nods and each walked on. Thirty

It was quite the change in experience from the first time he strolled these halls. He'd been thirty percent younger and a hundred times more foolhardy back then. His shoulder twinged just then, unprovoked now. Maybe that last bit was an underestimation, he thought. He squeezed it absently, but the nursing accomplished little beyond making his fingers tingle. He made a note to track down someone to give it a look sometime. Probably shouldn't mention the knuckles when he did. It was a dirty thing to punch a guy in the face then run off to get your hand Healed.

Definitely a right idiot. But his name was clean and Nythadri should be reuniting with her brother's keepsake today. A nobleborn’s thief would see the Crown's justice and a ruined family might live out the rest of their lives with a higher standard than the squalor facing them. So at least some good came of the whole ordeal in Caemlyn. He wished there'd been a way to hear about Nythadri's reaction, but he couldn't risk the potential trace back to himself. There was still something going on in Tar Valon, but those were tracks for the next hunt. Still, it made him uneasy. Best think of something else. Jogging back to Tar Valon could wait. He had other business to see.

Definitely a bloody idiot. But better now than back when Mikel propositioned that wager in the first place. The shock when Jai flared the flame dancing between him and the hard-faced Asha'man administering the test was enough to coast the first few insane days here. It took two more weeks to reproduce the Power alone. The next couple years saw orders carried out without too much question, but not without enormous amounts of amusement. Unfortunately, it took a lot longer to figure out the Black Tower was serious about orders than it did to puzzle out how to channel. At that first fight on the Border, the Legion's order to fall back landed on defiant ears. Good mens' lives littered his feet for Jai’s defiant flight forward.

The lesson stuck. It took ten years before anger kicked his caring to the curb, and more bodies littered the ground behind him. In Arad Doman Jai carted their weight invisible on his back. But who didn't these days? He gnawed his wrists down to blisters writing out algorithms with blood tainted ink. He ruined more than one change of clothes not rising hour after hour to avoid a break in concentration. But any built up enmity rotted away under the ecstasy that was his job. Reducing the best of Imperial security into puzzles he'd picked apart since childhood was almost as addicting a powertrip as the massive Source itself. A terrible thrill to love, just as a saidin was a beautiful thing to need. One eleven.

His turn down the right took him away from the courtyards and into a newer area of the Black Tower where he knew to find command and there turn himself over to well-deserved justice. As much as any area of this place could be called old, that is. Well-deserved, definitely earned, should probably pay attention to this sort of justice. Had a Dedicated been so errant with his responsibility, Jai would be the first to make sure he straightened out his priorities. Enough to remind him there were things in the Black Tower to dread. No matter how valuable the successes or how proud the commander, they didn't save a man who dropped duty like a bad ale whenever he wanted. The Black Tower was in the right to remind such a man what his life meant and where he belonged. Jai's report may be a friend, a powerful one in his own right. But ruling a country did not make one man equal to M'Hael, even if Daryen had the pull to reduce the charges. He didn't. Which was fine. Thanks to Fate, Jai's sabbatical didn't last long, but Daryen was obligated to turn in report of a missing subordinate either way. It was a fine line between dereliction of duty and flat out traitor after all. If Fate knew how much she'd saved him by orchestrating him back to Arad Doman, she'd probably sit there sipping her light-forsaken, bloody carve out a piece of your soul, spicy, flaming, flimsy thing of a drink and smirk high and mighty as the sun itself. Maybe he should send a big box of ribbons so she can bow tie up anyone she wants..? She was not the usual Brown. That was for certain.

A surge of Saidin drew his attention sideways a short distance later. One forty two. His steady steps forward paused. He craned his neck back, following the trail of Power upward. This section of the Black Tower was expanding in height, rather than width apparently. It seemed nobody could have calculated the rate of men who might come to fill the grounds in the fullness of time. Well, none that would listen to a cocky Soldier attempting to tell his seniors their forecasted curves for recruitment rates were all wrong. He smirked at that memory, and could still feel the sheet-stuffed folio tucked under his arm he'd carried off after it slammed back into his face. And the invisible backhand that sent it there. That day hadn't been the first taste of blood on his lips, but definitely one of the funniest.

The surge came from a small group of Soldiers putting their practice to good use. Two looked almost young enough to fill Haitham's toddler shoes. Maybe not that young, but close enough. Light, he was feeling older every year. While the others seemed like transplants from whatever part of the world they came from. Likely old enough to be the others' fathers. A scraggly haired fellow who looked more farmer than warrior fumbled with the single weave he was directing at a block of stone, attempting to lift it, Jai thought. Another was heating the block with Fire and Earth, though no lacquer slicked its surface yet. The final two looked soaked through their black uniforms enough to seem as though they were taking a break from their turn at the same task. Or after failing their turn. A wall of similar blocks two floors high were melted into one seamless structure so far. Reinforcement cores criss-crossed the structure, turning what would be a stacked wall of stone into one intimidating slab. Evidence perhaps of how long they'd been working this morning? He could feel another group nearby. Maybe someone finally took the hint to coordinate smarter construction projects.

He nodded in approval. It'd be nice if the place stopped looking so piecemeal and began to feel like an actual structure. The twists and turns were impressive passages but mind-numbingly disorganized. What was more surprising than leadership's newfound interest in architectural efforts was the presence of a fully raised Asha'man directing Soldiers through routine construction channeling. Indeed, there were more men of the pin than ever before, but each and every one was too prized a specimen to devote one to basic teaching any Dedicated was qualified to lead. The guy looked to be about his age; a deceptive assumption among channelers. He was tall for a midlander, but if he stood straight from the cane his weight supported, he'd come up short against any Borderlander. His long hair was secured neatly behind his neck, and even burdened by the cane, he somehow managed to maintain a strict posture. Jai went over to them, not particularly concerned about interrupting.

The two Soldiers taking their turn off saluted him as he approached. The other two were oblivious in their channeling. An understandable necessity at so early a stage. And their Asha'man leader turned at Jai's greeting. Jai cut in before the man finished his curse.
"How you doing, Dex? I see you finally got that cane you always wanted."


Dex lifted a brow, shifted his weight to his good leg and hefted the sturdy cane with some impressive stave-like showmanship. "It comes in handy. And I always thought they were rather dapper looking. I think a hefty mustache would pair well."


Jai leaned away with a grin as the aid turned weapon whirred by his face. "Goes with everything."

"Like Black?"
He replied with mock tension.
"Absolutely!"
Jai spread his arms to demonstrate the fine combination of weapon and uniform then splayed his thumb and forefinger across his upper lip as though smoothing out an invisible, but no less impressive mustache.

The two observing Soldiers exchanged looks. Dexter barked a pity-laugh for the dramatic display then the two ended up in a quick hug. One-armed since one of Dex's was tied up leaning on the cane now firmly back on the ground at his side. And one of Jai's was, well, he didn't put too much effort into raising it at the moment. When they stepped back, both men were rather astonished to actually see the other one still alive.
"So where you been, man? I heard you were dead. If so you're looking great."
Jai gestured for the meticulous upkeep in appearance. Dex nodded in self-assured agreement, "Except maybe for that. What happened there?"
Jai nodded toward the cane.

"Saldaea. Had a bit of an accident in the Mountains."

"And nobody around to Heal you?"

"Oh, sure there was. Back at base camp on the other side of the Border. This is after he was done with me."
Jai raised his brows, looking Dex up and down a bit more. "You should have seen the rest of the guys."


Jai expressed his understanding. Morose. But understanding. By mountains then, he meant the Mountains of Dhoom if he had to cross the Blightborder to get a Healing. Blood and ashes, his leg must have been nearly ripped off his body if he was still walking it off. Which meant he was sent back to recover. And likely report whatever his group was there to do. Which explained the teaching. And the glares for his friend from ducking Soldiers as they passed by. Well, Dex did tend to dance on the impatient side. Who knew what a few rounds in the Blight did for someone of such sunny disposition.

"Looks like you've found something to fill the time?"
Noting the watching students. The other two ceased their channeling by then since their leader was occupied, taking advantage of the moment to catch their breath. All four of them looked like they knew far too much of what was going on. Probably about to beg like pups up at their master for a break by the looks of their mounting courage. Not that he blamed them, their foreheads glistened like a barebacked Domani at noon. Still. Soldiery was a hellstorm they all had to ride out. "Spirits up boys! It only gets worse from here."
Jai's laugh was more roguishness than devilry. They passed worried looks between themselves and Jai turned back triumphant. Now they were looking appropriately appalled.

Dex ignored his antics and grumbled something about being bored. Jai understood all too well. It took him a good six months to get back to working shape after the Myddraal's slice and dice of his intestines. Much to the boys' relief, Dex waved them toward breakfast and the two of them continued their conversation alone. Heading in the direction Jai was originally taking. Which by Dexter's fatigued hobble meant at an old man's pace. At least the guy had a leg to Heal. Jai had yet to hear a tale of someone able to regrow limbs. Plausible tale, anyway. The counting in his head resumed, albeit a few clicks slower than before.

"So they've moved on from scout parties and sending actual raids into the Blight now?"


Dex stumbled a step, seemed he did better standing still than walking, but the determination to move around a bit forced the grimace from his face. "Something in between,"
he explained, "we've been going with hunting parties trying to find passes across the Mountains of Dhoom over to the Blasted Lands."
That explained the gravity of his injuries. But Dex's flash of frustration answered his next question. They hadn't found much yet.

"What about you? Last I remember you were throwing a fit over a southern assignment, Tear was it?"

"Illian, actually"
Jai corrected. One sixty one. Sneaking into the Blasted Lands, bloody Dex and his awesome assignment. "Which, my good man, is infinitely worse. At least the Dragon Banner flies above the Stone of Tear. Aiel walk around like they own the palace. It would have been a few shades better than Illian. Illian, just, sucked.”

“Then the Border for a while."

Jai didn't elaborate. And Dex didn't ask. "Then back to Illian. The last few years in Bandar Eban."


Dex's expression morphed into curiosity. "Bandar Eban?"
He asked thoughtfully, as though puzzling out what Jai could be doing there. One of their own ruled the country, even the most baby faced of Soldiers knew that. Daryen was a legend among Asha'man. The only other channeler who ruled was the Dragon himself. Dex fell quiet. One seventy six.

Jai kept with the pace Dex set with hands clasped behind his back and looking around at the newer construction they passed. Breezeways overlooking grounds. The outer wall was higher than before. Somewhere out there Saidin rumbled like a storm barely out of earshot. "Anything new around here I should know about?"

"Have you heard about Lennox Orander?"

Jai shook his head. The last name would strike a deaf man's bell, but the first was foreign as a demure Domani.
"That'd be Councilman Orander's brother."
Dex elaborated.
Jai considered that statement. He didnt know the guy had a brother. Though he didn't exactly keep tabs on the Councilmen either. "What about him?"

"He waltzed in one day and could channel. Interesting thing is nobody knows who trained him. And M'Hael promoted him to Asha'man on the spot."
That was not awe and wonder in Dex's voice. Respect, maybe. But something else overshadowed it. Galled? Antagonized, maybe. Every man knew here knew what it was like to suffer through Soldiery. And Dedicated wasn't exactly a feastday either. The pins just didn't quite carry the same significance among their kind without surviving that hellstorm. Except to one Orander, apparently.

"Really. Without training? Suppose it helps to have family in high places. He any good?"

Dex's knuckles tightened on the cane, "Blow you or I out of the water, that's for sure. Here's the interesting thing. The Councilman didn't teach him. Because they hate each other. It took the M'Hael forbidding them to see one another for likelihood they'd try to kill one another on sight."


One ninty. One ninty one. Forbidden from seeing your brother? Lucky bastard. Jai lit with amusement remembering the few times he was stuck in Asha'man Kent's troop back in the day. That guy was not exactly a basket of kittens. "Huh. Talk about family drama."
His own brother's face floated by for a second. It'd never occurred to him to see if Zakar or Andreu could channel. Definitely a bad idea, that. "So what's he like?"


"Lennox? Keeps to himself. Pretty quiet. The lads have learned to steer clear of him."
Dex sounded sympathetic. The guy must be pretty rough then, he thought idly, distracted by another group of training Soldiers. One had fallen to his knees in exhaustion staring up at the attempt to hold the flows he'd constructed. Dex didn't seem to notice the group. "The only thing he's teaching them is how to take a pummeling with the sword. He doesn't even accept spars unless it’s with a fully trained man, and he beats them every time. They say he was warder trained before this. Like Kent."


A fully trained swordsman, eh? Hand falling gently to his hilt, Jai mused over the possibilities. Might be fun to give it a go against a Blademaster, if the guy was one. Assuming, of course, Jai still maintained use of his arms and legs after today. Amputees can still channel, after all. Though they are a burden for the offensive line to cart around. Such punishments were rare enough Jai wasn't too concerned about hemming his clothes any time soon. Though ending the day limbless would be an unfortunate turn of events.

Dex read Jai's thoughtful expression well. "I'd steer clear of him if I were you. At least get a look at the guys he leaves behind in the dirt before you get any insane ideas in your head."


Jai broke into a mirthful grin, Two ten. and clapped Dex on the shoulder. "It's far too late for all that, brother. Insanity runs in my family."
Dex hefted his cane and laughed it off.

The two Asha'man took the corridor at the twentieth pillar they passed. "Just let me know ahead of time to round up some guys interested in losing some coin."

"I'm touched. You'd bet on me?"

"Absolutely Jai. I'm sure you could last at least a minute,"
Dex encouraged. Such confidence. "What brings you here, anyway?"


Resigned to his fate, Jai sighed and explained. "Summoned. Or as good as. Dereliction of duty. Figured it would be easier to just show up than wait for a couple guys to pound down the door."
Two thirty nine. Dex out right stopped his hobbling. He looked shocked. Maybe a little sick.

He affirmed Dex's thoughts with a nod and resumed walking. They both had a good idea what that meant. Dereliction of duty was only a step below traitorous conduct. And that never ended well. Except for the birds.

Jai shrugged. He'd been heading toward the M'Hael's wing.


Only darkness shows you the light.


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#13
Their leader liked punishments to be as public as possible. Really, it was a fantastic policy. Reminded everyone of their limits. Which was easy to forget.

Turns out, Black Tower command wasn't sitting around waiting on Jai Kojima to show up. Much to Jai's surprise. So he milled about with nothing serious to do the rest of the day while his information passed through the trenches. Until now, when he summoned front and center in the M'Hael's audience hall.

He stood quiet, surrounded by the ranks. Leadership also liked to set examples for the younger generation when it could. Another wise policy. Very educational. Gets the lads off on the right foot. Jai sighed and studied the empty dias ahead of him. Most of the faces were unfamiliar anyway.

When the gallery off to the side parted and a group made way, they took places of attention on floor level at either side of the dais. He returned the few nods his fellow Asha'man gave him, but nobody was kidding themselves. They were watching him as much as he did in return-- Then he froze. Jolted into dumbfounded recognition. He knew one of them. From Caemlyn's Inner City: that yoked guard at the Bank. The one that'd taken his sword that first day, dressed as a civilian, and studied him closely the second, donned in the same uniform he wore now. He stood at calm, uncaring attention now. And looked off to the side for the M'Hael's approach. Jai, meanwhile, settled into his stance and studied the other faces a bit more closely.

When the M'Hael followed and ascended the dais, Jai dropped immediately to one knee. One hand balanced the hilt of his sword out of the way and the other went fisted against the floor. The man was worth the show of respect whether the platform was technically royal or not. Maybe his discomfort with the wrongness of breaking this man's expectations sent him to his knee. Either way, it was the closest thing to a ruler Jai recognized although he was not quite sure what he'd do if he ever found himself standing in front of the Lord Dragon. Nor what he'd do if the Lord of the Morning looked at him with the same grim disappointment as what currently plastered his second in command's expression. But for now the M'Hael held a tough seat with his thumb on the pulse of what was arguably as difficult a group of men as could be dumped into one spot. Not to mention he was one of the most brilliant channelers alive. He deserved his mens' respect, and held it successfully. Foremost of all, Jai's.

Despite returning to his feet when indicated to rise, Jai did not relax his posture. He stood straight, ignoring the fellow from Caemlyn meanwhile, eyes forward and feet steadied solid beneath him. Much as he had the last time he'd been in this position. He pushed that memory from his head. No point digging up those buried bones.

His fingers itched to move, so he clasped both hands stiffly behind his back. Looking up at their leader's cool composition, thoughts of the defense he'd built for himself all day were erased. He didn't want this man's sympathy. Just to bloody get this over with.

The Dragon's swordarm was a wall of incomparable composure. And with his first words, he shattered Jai's: "Your conduct in Caemlyn was a disaster, Asha'man."

Jai went numb. Caemlyn? Between his chest caving in and the sudden spike in pulse, his mechanical response took some effort to cut the emotion constricting his throat. "Yes, sir."
Clear and cut to be heard by everyone, but he couldn't smother the sounds of questions behind his reaction.

"Yes you fool."
Now draped into his seat, the M'Hael indicated their surroundings a moment then lifted his voice for all to hear. "This might come as a surprise for some, but we are in Andor."
He spread his arms. A few chuckles murmured around the hall, "And some Andorans are not very pleased by the prospect of harboring a pit of vipers a day's march from their seat of power."


'Not that we need a day to march' Someone called out.

If the M'Hael heard, he made no correction. Instead he turned his attentions back to the man of the hour. "Now we have a prominent Lord spreading tales we are planting crimes against the Noble Houses, seizing power for ourselves, and intent on carving out more of the realm from under them. By all the infinite powers at our disposal to undermine their domain."
There was a potential beneath the absurdity pounding the walls, as though the threat stung too close for comfort to the heart of truth.

Jai checked on the fellow from Caemlyn while attempting to work out how this happened. He'd expected command to have men positioned close to sources of power, but why station one at Lynn House? Unless someone there was being tracked. And so far no mention of Arad Doman? Was all this about Caemlyn? Had Daryen covered for him? He quickly ran through everything from the last few days. Whether his name was on the documents or not, he'd made a scene using the executives to file charges against Winthel. One stroke of evidence. He knew leaving that little twit of a nobleman with his tongue was a bad idea. Two strokes. At least Ellis was long gone, assuming Zakar did what he did best. Then there was Tashir's killer left behind. But he suddenly wondered if he'd made a mistake.

Worry crumbled, and another emotion took its place. Jai went to Caemlyn, yes. He'd smeared a known murderer's skull on the ground, sure; though unintentionally, it was better than the guy deserved. In one day his hands undid fifteen years of fraud, but none of his conduct was so abusive of power as what was alleged against him. If this was entirely about Winthel, it was all lies. He knows the financial evidence against him is solid, which explains his motives, but if that bloody nobleman wins enough sympathy from the other Houses, the case against him might be dropped altogether. There were plenty of people who witnessed Asha'man Kojima's visit. His name may not own the paperwork, but Jai tightened his jaw anyway. He'd not gone to all that work just to see a politician loophole and maneuver his way out of justice.

As the M'Hael watched Jai's reaction, he thought he saw a moment of consideration break the rigidity stamped across the man's face. If so, it didn't reflect his subsequent decree, "An example! Of the damage one man can do!"
Jai's frown deepened as the speech engorging the crowd was redirected back to him individually, "Mark me, Asha'man the other Houses will listen to him. And rebuilding the feeble faith we won from the Andorans will be costly."


Jai had a good idea where the man would begin with his example-making. He'd seen enough of it before. But he didn't react beyond a subtle shift in his posture. Men ruthlessly beaten to the brink of death before the final swing lopped off a new ornament for the Grounds: run-aways, usually. Examples of another kind. Pretty bad, but darkfriends fared worse. Their howls chilled a man within earshot to his bones. Darkfriends were worse than something to be hunted: they were something to eradicate. With this, though. Abuse of power, obstruction, murder.. Bloody axe a pink-cheeked damane whisp of a girl and its duty. Bash in a murder's face and its criminal. He'd find out how far it'd go soon enough. He had a better chance aiming up a face in a mile of fog than clawing the answer from that man's mask.

Hopefully they'd hold back a little. He really had been looking forward to rounding up that Lennox fellow for a match. One of them might be at a bit of a disadvantage if Jai was maimed before then. Might even out the odds, though; Dex's pocketbook would appreciate that. Daryen sticking out his neck to protect him was interesting. He was a good guy, not that Jai planned on letting him know, but right now, Jai braced as though the ceiling were about to cave in. He was rather fond of the simple things in life. Like walking.

The M'Hael was not oblivious to the shift in the man before him. It was all over Jai's expression: he'd done none of the things Winthel was alleging, but their leader could not deviate from his previous course despite one man's perception of innocence. Percpetion didn't matter anyway. Not when there was a larger picture than what one man could see.
"To make sure the lesson sinks in. For you and everyone else. You agree to these terms, Kojima?"
He continued the baiting and Jai's hands returned to fierce clasping behind his back. Forcing him to consent to his own punishment: it was a good twist. The crowd fell quiet, but their anticipation crackled the air. The men facing him turned apathetic: his answer had little impact on the outcome and for the first time he felt worlds apart from them all.

He disregarded them. All but the M'Hael. Toward him, Jai directed his thin reply. It distantly resemebled the humility he was earlier motivated to demonstrate: "Yes, sir."
He knew the law, and marched straight against it anyway. Though he'd never imagined clearing his own name would spark such international controversy. At least the Vanditera's were immune from the rising fires: sheltered by the sandstorm of anonymity. Hopefully.

"Not as though you had a choice, but good to know you'll comply,"
the M'Hael radiated with the immense latitude of his authority. More laughs.

Right. Jai felt dark comprehension settle in the back of his mind, but he held himself from reacting. If anyone started digging into Chairman Ellis' donation.. "-And who will be our volunteer to lead?"
..or sudden resignation.. The link to the Vanditera's coming inheritance.. That Aes Sedai at the Archives. He could still feel her bony wrist clamped in his grip.

Maybe find out how much Fate knew. Unless the Brown thought their encounter too mundane to share with a Sitter. He couldn't keep thinking about it. It wasn't everyday they were allowed this kind of practice on one another, and there were more than one pair of eyes burning with a bit too much eagerness. Saidin changed men, and not always for the better. He certainly understood that. And not all the men around him were the heroes of valor they were made out to be. He had no intention to see which voice among the surge of volunteers was selected for the job.

So he turned his attentions to unbuckling the swordbelt from his waist. Dex, whom he hadn't realized was there, pushed his way forward about then, thankfully. To him Jai gave the sword for safekeeping. Knowing his own tendencies, Jai didn't want it within reach the next however-long this was going to last. If he reached for it out of instinct against a mass of channelers, it'd only make things worse. There was no point escalating their attentions beyond what he was prepared to handle.

Dex began to turn, "Hold up,"
Jai called, "take this too."
His fingers flicked apart the orderly row of buttons and he slid from the new coat, clean and pressed for the day. It was too expensive to ruin without good reason, a guarantee if he kept it on, and he couldn't imagine he'd want to be mending it all night after this.

He was half way out of the underlying shirt as well when the M'Hael called forth the name of his choice. Jai's reformed Oneness cracked by the identity of his selection: "Lennox Orander."
He swiveled immediately to look.

The man who stepped forward was undoubtedly the Councilman's brother. Near the same height and coloring, but with a harder, leaner build than Jai recalled Kent bearing. At least compared to the Councilman's frame these last few years. Lennox was darker too, as though he'd seen a good deal of Domani sun in recent days; not unlike Jai, but again outstripping him in tan. His hair was tied smoothly back and he wore a heavy sword. The scabbard was belted so high the hilt nearly reached the guy's shoulder. It didn't seem to weigh him down any though. They met one another's gaze briefly, but his simple approach to the front of the dais next to Jai was as fluid as any master. Bloody. Fantastic.

Lennox was half a hand shorter, but Jai didn't think it'd save him anything. He suspected some link between physical strength and command over saidin for a while now, but where Jai walked around all these years thinking he had a decent run of it, he instinctively hoped that was the case. Maybe it'd save him something. Otherwise it'd take a head to head clash to sort the differences between them despite Dex's earlier estimation. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the cards today.

Blood and ashes. Dex gave him an affirming nod then took the shirt and fell back. Jai pivoted forward, the thumb-wide pucker of colorless skin tracing from where it disappeared under his waistline, up and over to the other ribcage, stood out clear as day against the surrounding shade of flesh. He now stood side by side with the man whose name floated around like a constant whisp of smoke all day.

Odd enough, the M'Hael noted where into the crowd Dex fell back. An unceremonial moment later and it started. "Make sure he doesn't forget it."

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#14
Quote:<dl>
<dt>Asha'man Lennox Orander</dt>
<dd> </dd>
</dl>




Lennox stood, along with the other gathered men of the Black Tower, waiting for what was to come. He’d been told that this was to be a punishment and that left Lennox to assume that it was the individual he had to clean up after a short time ago. In a room full of black uniforms he was drawn into his memory of his first venture here. His meeting with Ty and the M’hael and after a small display he was clad in black as well and Pinned. His arms were crossed over his chest and he lazily, or so it seemed, leaned against a nearby column. His fingers brushed casually over the hilt, checking to make sure that he could draw with a moment’s notice.

Not that anyone would bother him again. Lennox’s hearing was no wolf brother’s but he was no fool. He understood what his presence represented. Here was a man none here had ever heard of and he just strolled into the M’hael’s office only to come back out dressed as them along with the rank of Asha’man. He understood and appreciated the need to for a person to crawl through the ranks to get to the top and he by-passed all of that here. Many assumed that it was his brother, Kentrillo, who used his Councilman’s status and power to get Len to where he was. It wasn’t too commonly known that the M’hael had ordered the Orander brothers to stay away from one another. Their fight could wait until after Tarmon Gai’don.

But some took a greater offence than others to this fact. So much so that a small group of men wanted to see to Lennox’s ‘training’. They trapped him in between buildings. The fight, if Lennox could call it that, didn’t last very long. No man, not even Jearom, could come out of a fight out-numbered without some wounds, so it was Lennox’s good fortune that this men preferred to thrash him bare-knuckled. Lennox walked out from between the buildings with a bruised jaw, ribs, a number of other scraps and a few boot prints on his back. They, as a matter of course, suffered more serious injuries; broken shoulders, elbows, ribs, and a knee along with their pride. Lennox knew that this would happen, it occurred on the Warder Grounds as well, and he knew he’d have to make a statement; something drastic enough to ward off any other foolhardy people who’d try again. He offered a prayer for that to not happen, otherwise he would have to escalate the violence to just short of death.

Still and the throng of men gathered waited on their disgraced brother. They was whispers of gossip amongst those closest to him that Jai had arrived at the Tower and was on his way. He kept his emotions from his face but now his eyes found themselves more frequently on the entryway.

Still he allowed his memories to roam within the confines of his mind. He remembered a few distinct bouts with his full-trained brethren though he only revisited one in particular. One man, a Two-Rivers bloke, who the others said that he was very good with a staff wanted a chance to spar with Lennox. Lennox didn’t care enough to wonder if this was to test him or the other man’s ability but he took up the offer with a shrug. Normally a weapon with reach held an advantage over a sword. Lennox danced about the ring for a few moments, gathering a sense of his opponents attack patterns. Another advantage a staff held against a sword was that it was also like facing a dual weapons and the second weapon’s speed. With a full twist of the body that second half could easily crush bone.

But Lennox knew how to take all three of these advantages away instantly. Once his attacker started a side sweeping attack Lennox, mustering up all of his agility, followed the swing by stepping into the man’s space. Lennox ducked and then rammed the bottom of his hilt into the man’s ribcage with a crunch that told Len that he’d broken at least a rib. Lennox continued to move, stepping out behind him at an angle to avoid any follow up and placed his sword on his neck. “Dead.” Lennox then sheathed his sword before leaving the ring.

Now, Asha’man Jai along with another hobbling fellow had came in and Lennox straightened up, putting his attention to the M’hael and the other man and their leader's rebuke of the kneeling man.

Even though Lennox was both surprised and annoyed that the M’hael had called on him, as well as four others to issue out the punishment. He moved through the crowd quickly, some moved out of his way while he snaked pass others. Lennox stood off to the side and seized a small amount of Saidin. “Use only Air.” And with no more ceremony than he stepping on a roach as he issued his order. “Asha’man, begin.” Lennox wove multiple tight balls of air while he unleashed a couple of his own, testing the man’s mettle. He then unleashed a torrent of them hurdling towards him with proficient accuracy. His fellows followed along, though at a much slower pace than he. Lennox couldn’t determine if it was they weren’t as quick as he was or if it was something else.

He had no intention of doing all of the work so he began to issue his own orders of where they should target after casually slipping his hands into his coat pockets. Lennox wanted to inflict as much pain as quickly as he could. To that end he smothered any attempt of Jai’s to defend himself with as much concern as if a few strands of his hair was fluttering against his ear. He used his own flows of Air in concert with the others, assisting the others in their aiming and timing all to maximize the damage.

Lennox kept the weaves, his and the others, from striking vital points on Jai. His orders did not want the man dead; just beaten utterly. Lennox had a small hope that the man wouldn’t allow this to crush his pride, but in the face of this it would be no surprise if he did lose it.

Lennox caught the hand of the M’hael twitch slightly. It wasn’t something that most would’ve caught but Lennox was looking for some signal to halt. “Asha’man, stop.” He swatted down the last of the weaves that had been sent Jai’s way. He held onto Saidin but he remained prepared to smother any attempts Jai tried, though Lennox knew that the man couldn’t do anything in his present condition.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#15
He intended on keeping his feet as long as possible. It was always a pathetic sight to see a guy drop like a sack of sand on the first blow. Somehow, those watching always ended up cheering against the fool when that happened. Their ear-pounding roars only accelerated the defeat. But when those few men that lasted long enough to make a stand, when they showed some mettle, the crowd ended behind him. Encouraging him to keep to his core. As though holding out was somehow defending he in the right the whole time.

Yeah. It didn't work that way. Jai dropped fast. Well, faster than he thought he would. Lennox landed the Power on him like a tangled up storm. The first blow stumbled him back some steps. The second forced him to throw up his arms; defensive instinct first, then outward to keep his balance. Apparently Lennox was only warming up, because once he settled in, Jai realized his chances were poor.

He pushed against the floor to look up when the group paused. Another fantastic tactic. Draw the whole ordeal out. It gives the guy a breather before going on. A glimmer of hope that it was over before redoubling efforts. He didn't need to look to know the councilman's brother swarmed with the Power, but didn't break gaze all the way to his feet again. The guy was the sort of overbearing force regular channelers didn't sense every day. Dex was not exaggerating! And the guy would be a fool to exert himself for this, which meant no estimation of what he held in reserve. For half a second Lennox reminded him of Daryen. A tight-lipped, soldier's version of Daryen at least. Without the famous charismatic royal glint on his brow. Just a man carrying out orders. A vessel.

He pounded the floor for that. But still, he forced himself to recover every chance he had. Not to prove ego or strength. But because to give in now meant compliance. An acceptance he couldn't swallow. Until time became a blur and he could no longer differentiate between crash after crash of Saidin. And when his assailants paused once in a while, he managed to get a look around when he got up. By the cheers, the crowd was enjoying their show. The line up front carried out this task as complacently as turning the machine on any other enemy. Lennox though, stood apart from them. Leading it all. Deftly coordinating. Any other time, the guy would have been worth the watch.

His vision circled dangerously when he pushed himself to stand the next time. Jai put a shaky hand to his temple to right himself, but ignored the distant cries that he stay down. He tried to recall which side of the coin he on during his earlier days when he had foolishly been caught up in all the crowd: encouraging the fool on the floor to stay there or calling him to his feet to see how much longer he'd last. He couldn't remember. Memory blurred incoherent; he pinched the sweat from his eyes. He'd usually walked out before things turned bloody. He looked at his hands, they'd come away with more than sweat; nobody was ducking out now.

Saidin surged again and his muscles tensed reflexively. This. is. abuse. of. power. The thought rang surprisingly clear, and for a moment, his vision collided with the thread of concentration inside and he reached for it. Saidin. It burned furious in his grasp. Enhancing the moment of clarity, and nearly overwhelmed him with the uprising of pain that followed. But so also did the clarity to find his target quickly, and in the next breath, he coiled with anger and flung it forward toward his attackers in pure defense.

Lennox swat it aside, and Jai reeled with shock. It was usually not so easy to swat his weaves away. But Lennox barely seemed to notice. The others paused their onslaught to see what their leader would do, curious as to how one such as him might go against a rising legend. He banished them from his mind. There was nothing but the weapon and a target. He tried again. And again. Lennox swat all the flows away.

Then the real gates were unleashed. Lennox handled so many flows at once, Jai could hardly keep up with them let alone craft enough counters. He heard his own voice cry out in shock as he smashed against the onyx floor with far harder force than having merely fallen there. Faster than he could process what was happening, except to throw out his arms as a brace. One palm hit off side, then he heard a sick crunch as he landed atop it. And then he laid still.

He couldn't think, but only to try and move. Not to get up; that was far from his blanked out mind. To get off his arm. He could feel it trapped under his chest. And warm against the cold floor. He could feel something weeping across his skin. Then metallic flecks gumming up the inside of his mouth. He opened his eyes, or thought he did, and saw something constructed of horror. The obsidian floor was warped with random ridges. Bulges of men's bodies made little mounds beside the boiled leather of larger ones. The air stank of burnt flesh, like wild dog-corpses on a bonfire mixed with blood and excrement. His own excrement. Not voided in fear. No. Nothing so natural as that. But spilled out, eviscerated from the front. The vision framed a sick view. An executioner standing over him, twisted worm-gray face driling parasitically into his soul. And heard the laughter. Victorious and shockingly heartfelt, but he couldn't look away. Then a war cry, the flash of steel, and the robe of shadow took a step back. Then another. No. He wanted to tell the Lieutenant to turn aside. Not for him! Don't! Then more cries filled his ears, enough to drown out the trumpets calling them to fall back. No! He cringed, tears welling up.

Some time later, when Jai found real eyesight, the battlefield was gone. Floor returned. Boots and the lower edges of black coats filled it up. His head pounded alarmingly, and his arm jabbed into his chest. He managed to roll to his side with a groan, but the arm didn't follow. And when he checked why, he dizzingly looked away from what jutted out.

The approach of footfalls eventually drew him back to his surroundings. Everyone had stopped. Saidin pulsed somewhere distant, held in someone's grip although Jai barely cared whose. The M'Hael glanced at him as he walked by, but that was all it took. One glance, and Jai grit down somewhere deep, rolled with grimaced efforts, but managed to push to one knee despite the fog nearly overwhelming his mmind and stagger upward. His legs ached. His stomach throbbed. An entire upper quadrant of his body vibrated with some strange sort of numbness like the distant thundering of far drums. He stood with terrible, slumped posture because his back refused to take the tension of straightening out. Or maybe it was his stomach; he couldn't quite tell the two apart just then. His face felt pounded in. The salty syrup of blood perfused his mouth and sweat coated crystals on his lips. He clamped his fingers around the split arm with an instinctively protective grip. But no roaring acknowledgement encouraged him to stay upright this time. The M'Hael occupied their attention instead.

When their leader beckoned Dex from among the crowd of black coats, and took Jai's sword into his hands, he then had its owner's complete attention.
"Beautiful."
He said, turning and sliding the blade from its sheathe out as he did. Anger and pain throbbed indiscrimminantly as Jai carefully watched his leader invade his property. Expecting him to turn it into some form of torture any moment. A comment about its original owner, perhaps. Or of a family descended from dishonor. But the M'Hael did no such thing. He tested the blade's balance in his hands and found the sweet spot on the hilt to wrap his fingers. He appreciated the careful polish and studied the extinct steelmaker's mark.
"This is Malkieri,"
he said almost to himself, though those closest heard him. Jai shot the faces swinging between back and forth between them a clear, but unspoken affirmation. Yes. It is. And dared them to question it. The M'Hael looked him dead in the eye and responded, cold as Malkier's national veins, "I almost hate to do this."
All appreciation for the blade vanished, and he took saidin.

Understanding flooded in.
"NO!"
Jai rushed forward foolishly, then stopped. If he was powerless against Lennox, he stood no chance against the M'Hael. Their gazes locked half a heartbeat then Jai shook his head, pleading. "Please don't."
And he was right. He could do nothing.

His legs went numb. He was vaguely aware of sinking to his knees as his very identity melted away drop by silvery drop. His father's voice screamed in his head to do something. His brother cringed with regret that such an heirloom had been entrusted to someone so irresponsible. The shock caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror. Though he was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was almost merciful.

The hilt clattered to the floor in front of him, and Jai simply stared at it. And stayed there.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#16


The hall was large. Lythia thought back to a time when this very chamber held an impressive procession. She had stood at the front that day, peering out at the faces adoring her beloved warder. The bond beamed when he addressed them for the first time marked in his new station. So much pride, but dampened by a weighty sense of duty. That duty weighed on him in his last days, and Lythia's love began to swirl with worry. She should have stayed closer, she thought not for the last time. She should have expected assassins and not trusted so much to the institution of his office to protect him, but one gray man slipped through the cracks, and the greatest M'Hael of their time died before she could get to him.

She glanced as Blakeahle lightly grazed her forearm with his hand. He looked almost as solemn as she felt, but his dignity contained the emotion from showing beyond what she knew the bond to reveal. So well timed, it was almost as if he knew what she'd been thinking. She did not often turn so melancholy when in the Black Tower, but perhaps current atmosphere was clouding her usual energy.

Rather than the front, Lythia chose to remain away from the center of attention despite the invitation to join higher groups. She cast Blakeahle a silent confirmation of her status then returned to watching. The initial surprise of seeing Lennox here had long worn off by now. As had her initial need to embrace Saidar to hear the conversation passing between the Dragon's chosen and so misguided young Asha'man forced to face him. She stifled a grimace when the boy pushed to his feet once more. He got up again? How many times is that?

There was a small bubble around Lythia where men respectfully gave her some space, but an Asha'man's yell standing within reach shook her eardrums with its volume. She could not grimace, for that would show weakness, nor could she glare, for that would show womanly mercy. Lythia was neither of those things in the Black Tower. Here she was as much a warrior as she was a figure. Instead, the Asha'man seemed too distracted by the show up front to pay her much attention.

She could see why. She'd not lied to Nythadri. If anything, she underdescribed the crucible that was this place. It had to be, and perhaps the White Tower could take a few lessons from them, but Lythia did not revel like those around her as to what was happening. Lennox may be innocent of his crimes against the Light, but he clearly remembered a few disturbing things, and Lythia was not particularly enjoying watching them manifest.

Neither did she move to stop it. She reflected over the conversation she'd had not an hour ago with the man lazing about the seat her warder previously harbored. He was a good man, and worthy of selection, but he was unyielding in his decision concerning young Jai. He does look young. She thought, not for the first time, with flicker of softening across her eyes revealing her thoughts. Nobody noticed the moment, except perhaps Blakeahle, but all he did was glance at their surroundings briefly before settling back into watching Jai's beating. Not -young- perhaps, she remembered how he had knelt at first, almost historically, But something. He was growing tired, she could tell even without embracing Saidar to more clearly see. Such persistance. Does he truly not understand? Or is it all ego?

She adjusted the cloak about her shoulders to fall a bit more smoothly across her gown. She didn't intend on staying the night, much to the insistance of the M'Hael earlier, so she had decided to keep the pale charcoal about her rather than give it to a servant that would require fetching later. It was thin, and plain but for the silver clasp on the front and lovely against the green wool beneath. Green and black, with touches of navy. She always chose her attire specifically when coming here: down to the dagger on her belt. Her image needed to be upheld constantly. Showing up in one fluffy ballgown could undermine so much. She wanted to be seen as the General she was, not as a prize to chase.

She played a difficult hand attempting to sway the M'Hael from his course. Andoran politics were her particular field, after all. Assurances that the White Tower would not allow their brother's reputation to be tarnished so easily had not convinced him. Nor had her personal assurance that things would be set right. In fact, to Lythia's surprise, the M'Hael agreed with her. However this punishment was not entirely about Jai. It was to set an example, and the poor man was going to have to deal with it.

She exhaled, and for a moment felt empty without the bond that once held her in its arms, until she came to stand nearer Blake. Then someone gasped. Murmurs began to rise up around them. Lythia looked about her. The men were looking around while the expressions of others had fallen as though facing a threat. She knew that look, and immediately turned her attentions back to Jai. He'd risen to his feet yet again. How is he standing?! He looked terrible. She could already see nasty discoloration and angry swelling marking his otherwise impressive body - scar included. She'd have to be blind to miss that. A battle wound, most assuredly, taken when a Healer was nearby for otherwise no mortal man should have survived a slash so massive. It was thin and extensive. Taken from a sword, most surely, unless it were an odd sliver of Air. From a massive arcing reach. A Fade, perhaps. As those channeling against him, he bore the same, focused, defensive expression she'd come to recognize instantly. "He's channeling."
She spoke softly for Blake's benefit, unheard by the sudden upswing in yells and grotesque comments around them. Blake nodded as though he'd guessed as much and Lythia continued to watch in awe.

She had no idea how the duel went, but a swing to Lennox revealed he did not seem concerned. He'd crossed his arms and looked back and forth as though guiding something she could not sense. Jai's channeling didn't last long, however, and Lythia had to force herself to not turn away when he was thrown across his arm. Although several of the men around her winced and cursed on his behalf. Arms weren't made to land like that, and she didn't have to be a Yellow to understand the reason he laid so still for so long afterward.

In fact, so unmoving and unresponsive was the man that Lythia was starting to grow concerned. She didn't truly believe they'd kill him, but accidents frequently happened when Saidin was involved. Then she, like everyone else, was inevitably drawn to the slow rise of the M'Hael. His descent was unhurried but his stride was purposeful. What are you going to do..? She squinted thoughtfully. Jai seemed to rouse, but she could hear his groan from all the way back here.

Her eyes trailed him. He took a sword into his hands, unsheathed it glinted heroically in the light, and Jai somehow stumbled to his feet again. Lythia was too wrapped up in anticipation to ponder the enormity of that feat. She embraced Saidar to hear, but only to the ire of a few faces around her. They were just as curious as she was, and thankfully all had fallen quiet. She had to channel to hear, but whatever was being said, she was not about to miss it. "Malkieri?"
she whispered as though translating for Blakeahle, but honestly, she was that surprised that the exasperation slipped out. Why does he have a... oh no...Kojima? Are they Malkieri? She'd never wondered to ask as his was a distinctly borderland name, and she vaguely assumed it was Shienaran when the name went across her desk. At least that explained by her Green Sister in Caemlyn was so intrigued by the feverish young man slaving over royal archives.

An acheful sound cried out, then her breath caught. Jai sank to his knees and Lythia blinked in surprise. "What in the light?"
She and Blake exchanged the same look, and remained where they were as people filed away.

She waited there as long she dared. It would be a poor choice to be seen mothering over a punished Asha'man, even if she never went near him. Lythia Sedai was known to be one of the Black Tower. Not the typical, weak, tenderhearted woman attempting to change the things she didnt like. She was strong as the foundations of this building, but she at least could leave knowing the boy would recover - and with something positive to share with Nythadri should it come up again. There were Healers coming for Jai already. Although with the way he sank as though unconcerned with the shiveringly disturbing about of bone puncturing out from his arm and the corpse-like, mournful regard of the puddle of steel before him, she wasn't so sure.

She pulled her hood up over her braid and they headed for the Traveling courts.
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#17
He woke sudden. Startled. And instinctively grabbed at Saidin and flared the room to light to check out what was going on. Which was nothing. Just an empty room. There were no windows in here. No hearth to clear out. Only four slick walls and the dark floor. If an Asha'man couldn't warm his room, he dealt with it. Jai laid back and reluctantly released the knot of death he'd started to twine up. His head throbbed dully like it was going to pound in the distant future. However far off that was.

He groaned, annoyed by the headache-stabbing brightness and rolled to his stomach. Reaching as he did with one hand flopped over the side of the low laying bed, and felt around on the floor. Glass clinked together, and he tried to decide if what he knocked over sounded empty or not.

"Uhh--"
He rubbed his eyes. What was that blasted Dedicated's name? He'd said it. At some point. Todwyn? Giorden? Jordy? He touched a bit of Spirit and Fire together and called. Voice carrying this time, "Uhhh, Dedicated."
He pushed to sit up, head shuddering uncertainly. He was rubbing the rejoined flesh on his arm when the man entered. He didn't think he could ever erase the memory of how it'd looked before Healing. The honor guard, or babysitter, which was about the same thing asked what was needed.
"Get me another one will you?"

The Dedicated looked at the glass strewn about on the floor. And frowned. "Sir, you've signed out your limit today."


Not the answer he wanted to hear. Jai grabbed his boots instead; they were his, he checked. His name was on the inside calf. A security measure; and sometimes the only way to identify a man, by the name on his boots. Must have shoved them off at some point in the night. He had no idea when; he barely remembered making it to his room at all.
"Then use your name!"
The demand sounded empty to his own ears, but staring hard at the fellow, it must have sank in, because the Dedicated's frown smoothed itself out and a few moments later, he nodded and left.

Alone with the pounding in his head, Jai came to realize what lay on the nearby table. Two flat bars of steel crossed and melded at the center onto one another. He didn't remember digging that thing out, either. He hesitated, then curled his fingers around it, brought it close and pressed it painfully into his palm. The cold steel warmed in his clutch, and he finally brought himself to look at the engraving. Sharp, thin lines on the back sliced out his name and assigned Legion. Well, assignment at the time.

The pride that threatened to rise turned to a dangerous bubble of nausea. That day he ignored the orders he was trained to follow, and they honored him for it. The man who regarded him with such disappointment last night shook his hand once. At the time, Jai hadn't known combat before then, so never would have guessed he'd been stupid enough to take command into his own hands. Of course, he'd never guessed he'd do most of what he found himself doing.

That day, and for many following days, he stepped forward, raised his hands and told the world he was willing. To walk the line between life and death unknowing which would be the day to join brothers already gone. And every day until it was his turn, spit square in the face of the Dark One. To be one number in an army of terrors. Fear and rejection cheering them on to fight the battle nobody else could fight. A cavern of hopelessness awaiting ahead. Yet being one solitary shadow in a legend of darkness was a transient redemption. He knew. They all did. They were going to do this time what the Dragon tried once before. Reseal the Dark One. Kill him if they could. But likely destroy the world again, if not with the taint, then with their fury, but hopefully dent only enough to salvage a fragment. They would buy time. To prop the Dragon Reborn on their shoulders so he might face what none of them could in his place, as the world, while fearing and hating, meant to do for them in turn. In such a pyramid of burdens, how could one man complain so much about his own fate?

Jai pressed his palms across his face and doubled over sickly. He complained about it, but he was still going to go. He shivered again, and furiously ran his hands up and down his arms. A century old heirloom. Squandered. For what? For pride. He should never have touched it all those years ago. It wasn't even his to inherit.

He dropped the medal back on the table and stood abruptly. The floor lurched dark waves around his feet as he coaxed his way to the middle of the room. A sword was in here. Not his, obviously. It was a standard short, and might have fit in any soldier's belt. It felt awkward in his hands, though, but picking it up he vaguely remembered demanding his Dedicated-guard-babysitter surrender it to him for a time. The grip was too short to sweep with much momentum or balance the subsequent arc with a second hand. It was a hacking blade, or a stabbing one, supposedly. But better than holding a broom handle. A guy had to use what he could, after all.

He raised it to starting position in the middle of the room. Or thought it was the middle. And tried to empty his mind. The first swing felt awkward, and his feet stumbled too many steps forward. And nearly crashed into a wardrobe; with a precise routine, the tip of the sword barely missed the furniture. He dragged himself back to starting, took a breath and tried again. The memorized routine came mindlessly. He knew what to do, how to move and where to step, but his arms and legs felt clumsy. He lost count how many times he started over, barely to make it any farther than in the previous attempt.

He couldn't catch his breath. Like sucking up air in a dust cloud. His skin crawled ferociously and by the time the Dedicated returned, he'd pitched the naked sword to a corner and just paced.

He stole the delivery from midair and didn't even bother with pouring a glass. A pitcher of unrequested water went on a table. The drink was warming, and not at all as strong as he remembered that first bottle to be. Though he couldn't compare it to the intervening ones. Was it the same stuff? The label was all blurred on this one. Holding it up close to read the brand, he somehow noticed what the Dedicated was studying. The medal sitting out. Jai shrugged off thoughts of brandy conspiracies, took a longer drought and told him what it was, since the guy probably wondered.
"It was for bravery."

The Dedicated looked up, concerned he'd been caught doing something offensive, saluted and quickly returned to his post outside.

A babysitter. Why did they think he needed a babysitter? It made no sense. He could take the kid if it came to a difference in opinion of what should or shouldn't be done. At least, he thought so. Saidin throbbed, a storm on the horizon, he thought he could control it. If push came to shove. Yeah. Sure, he could. Of course. He was an Asha'man, it's what he did. He went to straighten the pins on his throat, but finding only flesh, remembered he wasn't wearing his coat and looked around. His shirt and coat were strewn across a chair. There were four knots of light pulsing the room with continual glow, but he gave up trying to remember when he'd made them. Maybe the Dedicated had.

He left the empty bottle with the others and made it out the door. Coat on too, but fluttering about his knees unbuttoned. The shirt underneath was, though. Kind of. Black, like the coat. Some guys wore white, some nothing at all. It didn't matter much, once the collar was done up all the way. He didn't realize until later that the Dedicated was following. Though the babysitter stayed half a step behind like a parent following a wobbly kid around. Probably the sort of thing Jaslene did with her curly haired tots. Following within reach to catch one as he went down. Light her kid was cute. How had Mikel made something so adorable? Must have been Jaslene's part. The commission on the kiddo’s newly forged sword should be finished soon. Every kid should have one waiting for their coming of age. They were going to need it.
"Should check on that order..,"
he mumbled to himself. The Dedicated nodded like he knew what Jai was talking about.

He thought of the pyramid again. A faceless earth shielded beneath an enormous shadow. One warrior at the pinnacle. The shield their salvation and terror at the same time. What would the ratios be? Population to shield to savior. The counting steps quieted, shoved off into a duller corner of his head, as he made room for the calculation on the forefront of his thoughts. He felt like choking again, and rubbed his sleeves across his arms as the last of the numbers fell into balanced slots. Walking was good. He seemed able to walk again. After they'd pulled him off his knees last night, he thought he'd never stand again.

He looked up from studying his path, and the corridor spun. Wait. No. Haitham's sword would be delivered on order. He had to let these things go. Let everyone go.
"Numbers don't have family."

How did the married ones do it? They had kids and wives. How could they leave them behind every day knowing eventually they'd not come back. How could they choose like that? The counting resumed.

He wasn't sure where he was walking, but as he got there, he realized it was outside. Grounds. Part of the grounds sectioned off for training. Not for channeling kind. He could vaguely feel the vein of Power surging in other directions. Morning then. Or some time after it. His Dedicated guard paused as he did, then followed along as Jai took off again. Now he remembered why he came out here. He hadn't finished his routine, and would be useless without doing so.

Not that he felt of much use right now, he thought, latching onto a rail to make it down the steps without breaking his neck. He stole a random, generic built sword from a rack, which felt oddly heavy, and took off to claim a bit of space. It was so blasted sunny. Could have gone for a hat just about then. Hats were great. Kept the rain off your face. Sun out of your eyes. What had happened to Winther's squealy little cousin's hat? That had been a good one. Should have kept that.

He shoved his way into an empty space, Dedicated guardsman looking about, frowning. That guy frowned a lot. He emptied his head, but hadn't made it into starting position before he realized who was near. Bloody master-flaming-swordsman Lennox Orander.

Jai glanced at his companion, "This should be fun."


Lennox was the grim reaper of perfection once again. Long hair tied back. Clean shaven and proud in his pitch-straight uniform. Jai scratched at some random growth on his neck. It'd been plenty long enough since he'd shaved to look properly scraggly. He thought he'd remember bathing if he had last night, but there were a lot of holes. In fact, he couldn't remember the last bath he'd had at all. Unless the rainstorm in Caemlyn counted. He was thirsty again, too. Probably should have sent Gorden, or whatever his name was, to fetch another bottle.

There was no sweat on Lennox's proud brow, though he surely must have been here a while. Plenty of faces glanced his way when they thought they wouldn't be caught staring. Dex was right, though. The lads left him alone. Jai couldn't imagine why.

A bit of a wind picked up. It kicked up some dust and swept his coat against his knees. But carried his greeting well. "I hear you only take on trained blokes these days. So well here you go."


And he rushed forward.


Only darkness shows you the light.


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#18
Quote:<dl>
<dt>Asha'man Lennox Orander</dt>
<dd> </dd>
</dl>


Lennox was genuinely surprised that Kojima rushed him so soon after his punishment. He could tell that it lacked any real intention but that was realized after Len listened to his slurred introduction. Lennox had been expecting some sort of retaliation for his part of this man's punishment, but it still raised his ire. He had finally came to heel and surrendered himself fully to the command of the Dragon and his M'hael and now this blustering fool really had the gall to come after him. His actions had forced Lennox to slay innocents again, alongside the guilty ones who spoke against the Black Tower. While it had been over a decade since Lennox's time under the influence of a Dreadlord's memories it was only a few months ago for him. It reminded Lennox of its presence while in Caemlyn; how easy it was for him to not question who got in the way of his objectives. He could still remember the dark pleasure of hearing the screams.

It's his fault... he had the audacity to force my hand.

Pushing the thought deep into the Void, Lennox stepped aside, swatting his opponents away lazily. What separated Lennox and the other blade-masters that claimed loyalty to the Towers from other swordsman that sword play ceased to be the use of rote sword forms and their counters and became a dance, an art that was deadly if any mistake were made. Lennox saw several openings in the clumsy exchange of blows from Kojima to end the fight but decided against them and decided for a less deadly answer to Kojima's attempts at striking him. He rushed in again and this time Lennox stepped towards him but to his outside. Seeming to be almost an afterthought, Lennox flicked his sword against Kojima's, brushing it off course and extending his arm.
Between Kojima's forward motion and Lennox's twisting body and strength of arm, he soon found himself falling with a speed and the deep loud thud of the landing didn't seem to match up with Lennox's seemingly slothful movement. Wasting no time, the youngest Orander jab his sword, Sunsetter, into the dirt by his head.

“Dead. Luckily you already stink of a corpse. Be about your way.”


He stepped away after pulling his own sword up and watched the man stand back up. He was curious as to how much this man had drank today given just how shakily he stood. He spat his airway clear and stared hard at Lennox. Eyes red, "Yeah? Well that's the thing. I don't feel dead yet. So bloody stand and fight, Orander!"


It wasn't anything overt that tipped him off that Kojima's intention had become more than a wounded pride's bravado. His eyes, that were at the beginning merely devoid of any thought or feelings, struggled to focus, trying to decide which figure of his blurred vision was the true man. His drunken state was readily apparent to Lennox as he wobbled while he resumed his stance and spoke his slurred words. Len could see despite his current inebriated state that the man was an expert in the forms. Either he practiced almost daily or he held a rather sharp mind, Len couldn’t tell. His coat fluttered lightly as he helped Kojima’s sloppy cut by tapping his own sword on the top of his over-extended sword and stepped in to deliver a quick elbow to his jaw, again using both men’s mass and movement to empower his strikes that much more.

Lennox’s ignored the throbbing in his elbow where it made contact with his jaw. This was a killing technique of his that usually targeted the temple area of his enemy. His anger continued to boil as he watched him stagger up yet again. A part of him admired him for attempting to use another sword that was ill-fitted for his style of fighting but the rest him seethed that he thought that the crude thing he swung about could even contend with Sunsetter. There was no other weapon like it; even as Power-wrought weapons go it was a masterpiece among them. The absurdity of Kojima’s behavior and blatant disrespect to Lennox and his weapon began to break the wall that contained his anger and sorrow

“Dead.“


Lennox stepped back again and kept a wary eye on the drunkard. The alcohol would raise his pain threshold so it wasn’t surprising that Kojima rose as quickly as he did. He charged again.

Lennox parried two more sloppily executed forms before sending him back to the ground again after spinning around him and planting his boot to the back of Kojima’s knee. By now all those closest to them had stopped to watch the beating.

“A duel is a dance of death, not some words on a page. Forms are only the beginning.”


When the drunk was on his hands and knees Lennox kicked him savagely in the gut, causing him to collapse again. His anger with the man tipped over to a barely contained rage.

“Dead.“


Lennox used his sword to wave the Dedicated over and began to walk away. Lennox kept his emotions behind his stony mask and out of his voice while he berated the Dedicated for allowing this man to roam about and of how he was allowing him to sully their brotherhood even further. To his credit the man recovered quicker than Lennox had expected but the blustering of a drunk and the shuffling of his boots warned the younger Orander of the man’s approach, but Lennox decided this was it- he would no longer stand this man’s insulting presence. The bottom of his coat twirled as elegantly as a noble’s dress in a palace ballroom and he spun.

Swiftly as a hawk descending on a rat he swung with all his might so that the edge of his sword would pass the man’s neck. If Kojima wished to become useless as he seemed to want; Jearox would only gleefully oblige.

He swung with all his might to remove the burden of his head from his shoulder in one smooth cut, like the parting of silk. Fate, it would seem, intended on sullying Jearox’s honor further. The bloody fool staggered out of line, with hasty draw to parry and a cry, lost his balance when he over-extended his reach and stumbled out of the sweeping arc of Jearox’s sword.

STOP!

Lennox hastily pushed Jearox and those thoughts back into the Void. Lennox took far less time to recover but still the same stroke of luck would not deny him twice. Lennox pushed with all his will to put the imagery of ending this man, a brother in arms, down like an old hound but he wasted no time in dealing with his opponent. He flipped his blade over so that he hit with the blunted edge across his back. As he fell Lennox moved forward behind him. He needed to end this now. With Jearox’s rage surging from within and dealing with his own raw emotions, his trip to Corele’s statue brought up his own guilt and shame and then this only propelled him into a near rage. A blood lust that Lennox knew was his own but also was not. The Dreadlord’s tainted memories drew on these emotions.

Lennox watched for a moment the defeated man lie on the ground, motionless but for the exception of breathing. He took the time to not only assess the situation, but to replace the emotional stopper on his rage. Thoughts of Corele and her absence is what finally helped him regain control of Jearox's blood thirst.

“It’s time you put your balls back between your legs. Accept your shame. Learn from it and move on. “


Lennox put his sword back in its sheathe as he turned to walk away. His practice was finished and he had other things to be about.

“Do not get back up again to raise your sword against me or channel, Asha'man Kojima, or I will break you. The M’hael will not save you from me.“
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#19
So. The grand swordmaster could be taken by surprise. Good. Jai might have smirked, but the response was lost behind the diffuse clouds of muddled focus: watching his target almost extra-corporeally. When that outrageous sword hefted up to meet his chosen short, Jai had to concentrate every ounce of his effort into holding his own wrist tight enough to not drop it.

Steel rang steel. He managed to keep his grip on the fat hilt through the first strike: poorly wrapped with old, fraying leather as it was rather than the tensile strength of silk cords he regularly used. But in follow up, he hadn't expected a fully extended club of an arm to swing for the stars and hit his throat. Jai felt his heels slide through the dirt, carried forward by his own rushing momentum, while his chest plummeted back. The only coherent thought was to avoid skewering himself on his own bloody sword.

He laid there, wind knocked from his chest and throat gasping for air through what felt like sucking on a collapsed straw. Lennox shoved the sword into dirt beside his ear, mimicking a gruesome pike through his opponent's face, and called the spar finished.

"Dead. Luckily you already stink of a corpse. Be about your way."


Jai glared up between gasps. So much for the guy's immense reputation for honor. That was no spar. That was a cheap shot. Luckily, moments before alarm settled, the collapsed throat released its spastic clench and soothing air rushed in freely. He rolled to his side, coughing so hard he expected a lung to spew from his mouth. Or at least vomit. He vaguely remembered vomiting at some point recently. Then collapsing forward afterward hoping his cheek wasn't laying in it, but too apathetic to actually check if that was the case. Unfortunately, no hands snaked under his shoulders to help him up now as those had to get him someplace cleaner before.

Lennox stepped away about the time Jai found his voice again. Hoarse, but driven to call out his opponent for his inadequacies, he yelled after his retreat. "Yeah?"
Lennox turned, "well that's the thing. I don't feel dead yet. So bloody stand and fight, Orander!"


Jai carefully pushed to one knee, grappled the flimsy sword in his strong hand, and managed to get into a defensive stance. Lennox obliged, and somewhere within Jai was grateful. His arms dragged like they were on fire when his offensive lunge was quickly turned into fighting for his life again. Their clash nearly ripped the sword from his hand, too. The death grip on the hilt transferred the energy to his shoulder, and nearly suctioned it from the socket as a result. He stumbled to keep his feet under the flailing shift of momentum while the shock wrenched sounds of surprise from him, but his body followed the arm where it was flung around. Part of him recognized the parry looked far less energetic than it felt, but he couldn't process what to do about it other than avoid falling on his face two seconds into their reignited spar.

Then a second cheap shot. He was open, and deserved it, but still yelled horribly when the part of his face that hinged his jaw to his skull collapsed. The force transferred clear to the other side of his face. His teeth clamped down instinctively, but the stabilizing iron bulge of muscle could not prevent the bone jamming out of place. Jai was only aware of its complete dislocation when he realized his teeth no longer laid atop one another as they should; and the fracture when the lower molars dangled off line from the remaining rigid row. Almost all the molars.

Bleary eyed anger riddled him to his hands and knees though, needing to avoid laying face down in the dirt more than he cared about the dismemberment of his face. He swallowed an acidic bolus of vomit back down his throat, concerned he wouldn't be able to open his mouth wide enough to expel it if cleared his tongue. Something solid went down with it, though. Nausea lurched as blood from a toothless hole filled his mouth, seeping out from between his lips where he managed to part them. And he watched what slid down his chin drip off and congeal when it hit the dirt below. The simple imagery thankfully held any flashbacks at bay, and he barely avoided what threatened to overwhelm him.

"Dead."
Lennox called the spar for a second time.

Strangely, the pain and nausea subsided quickly. Feeling around for the damage felt like boot-prodding an anonymous body on the field to check if it was still alive. He found a sunken in depression on one side of his face, and the bone swung freely back and forth where the other half was immobile. Strength surged enough to bring him to his feet again. What the hell kind of spar was this?!

Once the horizon stopped rocking, he swiped some of the wetness from his chin. It didn't do much good, and he was swallowing more than what leaked out. And it tasted like drinking liquid sickening steel. Then fumbled with hanging onto the hilt with now blood-soaked palms. He cursed the shoddy leather giving him no traction for a grip, and gazed around, trying to decide exactly which black coat was Lennox's honor-whipped, retreating back, but paused on one guy standing with the the rest of the watching circle. He was gesturing rapidly as though wiping his hands on his coat. Another one squat down to grab a fist of dirt and showed it to him. Jai blankly stared a few moments longer, then realized he didn't have to call Lennox back this time. He was learning on his own, apparently.

His feet and arms moved. Blocking out a sequence from near the end of the routine he performed every morning. He knew the deficiencies as they were executed, but was unable to do much about it. Lennox was unlikely to let him start over. Cause the guy was the bannerman for sportsmanship. The substandard move transitioned into a poorer sequence after. The hilt slid through his fingers, and he clamped his other hand down across the first to hold control, but the reach of that monster blade was too long, and Lennox in the peak of his strength turned Jai's sword from its path with such force the hilt slipped from his fingers altogether. Complicated steps carried Lennox out of sight; a circle Jai failed to mimic. His knee collapsed, and he fell forward a second later. He threw his hands in front of his face as a gurgled yell spewed the dirt with more red spray. The open prongs that once glued the long roots of a molar in place was still leaking down his windpipe.

NO! His tongue couldn't form the word, but he threw his elbows under his face to brace the fall; uncaring of how the same move yesterday split bone through flesh like a dry twig on Sunday. He couldn't land in the dirt. Not again! Inches from landing face forward in the dirt, he hastily flinched away from it. He gained some footing and thankfully cleared the ground. A heart already pounding from the exertion barely eased itself back from the brink of panic.

It did him no good. A solid kick to the gut could arch the hardiest of men. The immediate tension stiffening his abdomen diffused very little of Lennox's reinforced boots, and he ended up in the dirt anyway.

"Dead."
Again.

He almost stayed there. A splayed out, dark body forgotten under the wrinkled sheen of silk and wool. But as he said before. He wasn't dead yet.

He clamped his eyes shut, cringing when the attempt to grit unresponsive teeth sent wobbles of pain across his face. Then rolled to one side. He clawed his way back. Found the sharp edge of the sword he'd dropped, and followed the line of it to the hilt. Slicing up his hand as he did. Then used it like an old man's cane to come up enough to kneel. Where he waited, rocked forward with his forehead against the pommel and disheveled coat all pooled in the dirt around his ankles, until the ability to stand to perfused fresh blood through his legs. Letting the pit in his gumline drain from his lips under the flow of gravity for a bit.

Saidin was there. Pounding at the inside of his skull. Tempting him to reach for it, and keel over within its welcoming incineration. He'd not be able to control it. Not now. He was lucid enough to know that. But despite appreciating the destruction it would bring, he thought about it. Every channeler did; a line of temptation traced back through the generations to the Kinslayer himself: the day his pain forged Dragonmount. But today wasn't Jai's turn. He shoved himself up and stumbled forward unaided by the Source. Just one image formed clearly: one weapon meeting one target.

Lennox swung ferociously. Jai didn't try to parry it. Only to get the bloody well out of its way. And he somehow did. There was no time to appreciate the shock that humbled the Blademasters's face before the man pivoted and jumped up behind him. A beam ripped across the top of his back a moment later.

He lay motionless. Hovering on the cusp of deciding whether or not he felt dead yet. He couldn't move. Dead men don't move. It hurt to breathe. Almost too much to keep doing it. There was nothing to analyze. The counting in his head fell to a roaring silence. That was kind of nice. Wasn't there something he was supposed to be doing? Sparring. Yeah. Weird.. Why was he sparring? Who sparred in the middle of the night? Bloody Daryen must have been roaming about again like he owned the place. When the guy slept it was like the dead. Unfortunately, the guy hardly slept. How in the Light his brother managed to function was amazing. Jai reached a long arm out, feeling halfheartedly around for the answer.

“It’s time you put your balls back between your legs. Accept your shame. Learn from it and move on."


His breath caught. His lids slid open. Surprised to find sky overhead.

"Do not get back up again to raise your sword against me or channel, Asha'man Kojima, or I will break you. The M’hael will not save you from me.“


His arm sank where it was. Yeah. Sparring. The dreaminess faded and senses, confused and muddled as they were, returned to near unbearable levels.

Right. Got it.

Jai watched blankly as the watchers parted to let Lennox go by.
What was that Dedicated's name again? Somebody should probably tell him to bring a straw this time.


Only darkness shows you the light.


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#20
The spectacle had drawn a crowd, as such bloody contests were wont to do. Araya knew better than to interfere, though the down turn of his lips and furrow at his brow hid nothing of his disapproval. A lesson was one thing – and Araya realised he had unusual views as to the merit of violence as a tool to see it carried out – but this was entirely another. For one thing, the playing field was severely skewed by the inebriation of one participant; for another, it was so agonisingly unnecessary. Brutality underscored the precision of each attack. Lennox did not make simple mockery of Jai’s pride by throwing him back down in the dirt; he beat him as soundly as soldiers dreamed of slaughtering Dreadlords. A thrust elbow at jaw sprayed blood and snapped bone. When the man was on his hands and knees, unarmed, savage kicks to the stomach plummeted him back to cold earth.

Lennox had worn the pins at his throat all of five minutes, and this was how he treated a brother? By all accounts, the gifts he now possessed were no natural things. A blademaster. A channeler. And it wasn’t just Lennox Orander from whom the price for those talents had been extracted. Acquitted of all crimes by the White Tower; Araya respected that. All men erred. All men had the right to redemption. Yet Lennox chose to abuse those gifts wrought in blood to brutalise a man who could barely hold himself steady on his feet. He could have walked away. He should have walked away.

He watched the retreating black back; the way the other men reflexively slipped back to let him pass. The M’Hael walked a dangerous line with this one. Give too much power to a man who’d not walked shoulder to shoulder with his brothers as they’d forged a path to the pins, and the resentment would fracture down the ranks. A man of Lennox’s previous sensibilities – and Araya had spent enough time within White Tower grounds to remember that honourable man – might not have created such friction. But the man who stalked away from the bloody mess he had made, without so much as a backward glance? Jai was young. He was rash and foolhardy. But he’d earned those pins.

Not that Araya had any intention of getting involved in Black Tower politics. More than twenty years an Asha’man and he’d barely set foot on this blood-soaked soil, not since the days of Shadow al’Mere; the last competent M’Hael the Dragon had managed to choose to do his bidding. Which begged the question – why was he here now? Even Araya wasn’t sure on that mark. Arad Doman had left a knot in his stomach, and the calls of his home in Tar Valon were distant. It wasn’t often duty proved the most potent distraction. But it was better than worrying about Trista.

“Show’s over.”
A flick of the Power carried his raspy voice amongst the spectators, who had already begun to disperse now that there was little left to see. Compassion was in short supply, especially for a man so fresh from brutal public penance and Lennox Orander’s ire. As Araya moved forward, a harried Dedicated flagged his steps.

“Sir?”
The young man eyed him hesitantly, until he spotted the familiar gleam of pins nestled in the scarlet scarf wound about his neck. A faint frown marred his expression before he ploughed on. “Sir, I was... That is, I am—”
The words choked on the sight at both their feet. Hard to tell if those staring eyes saw anything much at all. Jai’s hanging jaw made a black-red chasm of his mouth, and blood matted the erratic grown stubble down his throat. Soaked his uniform.

Araya pushed back the heavy green fabric of his coat, slid his hands into his pockets. And sighed. Depressing how such macabre butchery no longer turned his stomach, like the pinnacle of every moral he had ever been taught as a child had lost its meaning. “You’ll live to see worse, mark me on it. What’s your name?”
Words little more than a hoarse whisper, followed by a silence consumed in horror. The Dedicated soon toughened himself, though; steeled his jaw and straightened his back. Like the kid saw such bloody spectacle every day. And apparently he had heard the question, too.

“Gestian. Sir. Jindal Gestian.”


“And you were meant to be watching him, Jindal?”


A swallow, a blink, and his gaze focused on Araya rather than Jai. “Yes. Sir.”


A grim laugh rewarded the self-sacrificing humility; it sounded more like the dying gurgles of a drowning man. No offered Buts, no pleaded Becauses. It was commendable really, not that the Dedicated had much in the way of wrath to fear from this particular Asha’man. “Then it’s your lucky day, Jindal Gestian. You’re relieved of duty.”
A good-natured grin took the sting out what he presumed the boy might take as a failure. Only a nod answered, though, and maybe a measure of relief as he saluted and left.

Araya’s gaze fell back on the prone Asha’man. The acrid stench of blood mixed with the fumes of stale alcohol as rested on his haunches and leant closer. Araya knew what it was like to find faith in the bottom of a bottle; such was not uncommon a solace for men plucked from their wives and children to walk an Asha’man’s path, and for Araya the contrast between the life he had left and live he lived now was starker than most. “That didn’t go so well, huh. Are you sitting tight? This is probably going to be cold."
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