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The Hunt
#21


Jai felt trampled. The blow from shielding rippled tension down his back. There was no doubt, it saved the boy Suaya's life, and hit Jai like a mountain in mid-channeling. The Light blasted man would burn for that. Both of them. Throbbing flared hot across his thigh when awareness spread downward. Duller now; not the sharp surge of initial pain; he'd been out for a few minutes at least. Any man with a history in battle was intimately familiar with pain: adrenaline could dampen it, time dulled it, vengence remembered it.

Breathing ached for reasons he didn’t know. Not ribs. Those were spared when he fell from War Cry on an exhale. This was dishonorably lower. He took a deep breath in defiant understanding just to embrace the sensation. Kick a man when he's down? He'd do the bastard's legs the favor of removing his feet for that.

He stretched for Saidin, needing to finish this off. But violent awareness shoved the remaining thickness from his head. It was still blocked. There, but as a storm of taunts worse than anything the conspirators might have concocted; there, but unreachable. He slammed at the thing. Harder this time, and cringed when it kicked back. He slammed again. Again.

The reality of so impossible a task gripped deep: infuriating defiance looked to the nearby hilt of his sword, alone in the grass. Also unreachable. It didn't matter. No Saidin. No sword. His fists would still enjoy pummeling Tamal's victory into exile once and for all.

Move. The command echoed in his head. Move. Finish this. Something. He struggled. Why couldn’t..? Then he felt it. The constant flow of chill flushing his skin.

“AES SEDAI!”
The roar of Saidin he could not reach demanded her attention, “AES SEDAI!!”
The repeat command was a shout unbuffered by the dirt under his face. He dared her to come forward; to face atonement. Nythadri was never once the suspect. Light help her if his trust for the Accepted was born from deceit.

Air rushed by when a hand stole the nearby saber. Considering the hand, it likely would not have hesitated if the blade was drenched in human blood rather than unfortunately seasoned by mere drops. The move separated it completely from its bloodthirsty owner, but also from everyone else. Uncaring of the motive, possession and nausea followed daringly up the attached arm as the warder’s hand flexed around the hilt. A risky move on his part, but wiser than to allow a lesser hand to do the same thing. Had a Suaya been the confiscator, a warrior waltzing in to claim the spoils of his conquer... The idea knotted his insides. There were still other dark derivatives of madness he could show them.

It was not Liridia's aloof voice which answered, though. Daryen's did. Mirthful as a laughing Fade. The haunt of such a sound sent a tremble down Jai's spine, and he did not move again. So laid out in the dirt, much the same as during that first campaign, he remained. It prompted the sudden taste of phantom metal, salt and grime. Unwanted memories from another day. Unable to move, hooded in darkness, the world shrank to this last circle. And the haunting sound circled overhead. And he hoped the black blade would sever his neck cleanly. Not lodge in bone.

What choice did he have but wait and listen? Easier to shut out the sun's burning glory than hide from it, but attempting to do both and Jai would accomplish neither. There was nothing to count but memories. No distraction in ritual. Just one last attempt at pride: to grit his teeth, cease resisting, and endure Daryen's lesson. And save the loathing for the one who really deserved it.

Whatever that lesson was, Jai knew it was for him. Daryen's glee was cold. His sting so sharp a man would not know he was struck until it was too late. A politician's attack, poisoned by an Asha'man's cruelty. He struck at his enemies one at a time. A snake lazing in the sun one moment and striking the next. And his victims fell, as sure as if they joined Jai in the dirt. They went to their knees then and there, and kneeled in fealty all over again.

The lesson was his. So much so Daryen might as well have circled around and whispered it from the dark unknown of what lay behind. He cringed to think of such a whisper from the darkness, but would not have broken stance until released from the order of attention.

Then the man crossed into sight. The leader he knew. A man who recited the most personal of stories impersonal like a tired gleeman on his last call. As though it happened to someone else. Jai would wager a shiver down those noble backs of his subjects if he were able to see the dead of blue stone eyes boring into them. The lesson contined. View and strength denied, Jai was forced to reckon with the aftermath erupting on all sides. Shocked whispers at the news of a lost child, horrified swallows in the manner of his death, inhaling a fear of their gallant Lord they had forgotten. Jai felt their allegiance swing violently back and forth until the pendulum froze on Daryen's side. The man was brilliant at what he did.

Then he violently crashed through the shield as though pressing too long against warped glass and fell hard through to the other side. His pulse raced fresh. The Power surged immediately once more, and there was barely time to throw determined eyes toward the man marked for death before being wrenched to his feet.

Air suddenly flushed a pebbling beneath his shirt, blessedly normal air on sweaty skin but sore with soon to blossom bruises. He stretched his face toward the sky like a falsely accused prisoner released to fresh air for the first time. It was not the ice of saidar, just normal air. It was the clutch of strong fingers digging into fresh and tender muscle which tore the moment away. He didn't wince, but Daryen's hand was no more playful than his words. He turned slowly toward them both.

Black irises sized down to pins in the brightness were flared by wide rims of blue, calm and deep as the Aryth's depths. There was little trust from Jai's to greet them. No matter what they defended. Saidin surged at so close a threat, but they did their job. Jai controlled the fist of the One Power from crushing Tamal. Thus was the boy thrice saved.

"It took you that long to get the Dragon?"

He poked, sport balanced on the edge of a sword as though they were the only two in sight. Hinting at the swiftness at which Jai obtained his: obsessions transcended swordwork for the young Soldier Kojima. But behind the question lay another. Like the crowd, Jai didn't miss the story's point. Cities burnt, families lost, wounds taken. When Jai scanned the others' faces, he might as well have plucked those blue stones from the skull and threw them at the audience. Lending authenticity to an otherwise metaphorical example of their profession's consequences.

When Daryen's shoulder left his, Jai found the time for every eye. Where newfound respect lowered some, fear touched the others. Good.

Then the man he spared, the warder, strided forward to replace Daryen's leaving to return the sword in his hands back to its owner. Unafraid steps planted the man before him. Tension elevated for a moment among the onlookers despite the lack of anger from a face streaming with blood. Jai specifically let the man live, but with the warder's first words, waves of regret touched his stare in warning.

“This is Malkieri steel.”



Jai took back his blade with a flash of warning. Begging the man to stop talking. He advanced it to Liridia who stepped into to her warder's shadow. He dared the historian to say more as acknowledgement skirted the edges of her serenity. He dared her to so much as think about being sympathetic now that she recognized his height and name. She said nothing, but neither did she stop the man at her side from continuing. Aes Sedai manipulations to the very end. “There are a few in the Tower armory...”
The grizzled voice added with something of respect edging back his riled defenses. The man had no idea what that did. Jai felt vulnerability spreading out the the last private piece of himself for everyone to dissect. Home, trade, friends, flaws; now, blood and name. Let them pick his fibers apart. He wouldn’t run from them again; and controlled fury flexed his own hand around the hilt as he sheathed it.

Theirs was not the first group to concoct such extraordinary theories. Those educated in the far north were the usual instigators. The flavor of his name was certainly northeasterly. Though with his height most assumed Shienaran lineage. A few foul remarks usually swiped that theory from so creative a mind. But it was only the rare times, warders or those in the Legion’s noble command, when someone recognized the steelmaker’s mark branding his from the oldest of Malkier’s forges. For them, some excuse about finding Ogier too boring to trade a hundred years of taint-free life for a stedding stopped further comments. It felt like a copout now; and he let their imaginations run when he peered into nearby wide-eyes. Landing finally on Nythadri's, defiance strengthened his resolve.

The Aes Sedai offered Healing. Jai walked away.

He passed Nythadri. He did not expect the typical woman's judgement from her. Stubborn was the child of defiance, after all. He straightened the uniform as he walked, though could do nothing for its cleanliness at the moment. Bothers for a more peaceful day. The sword fell into its old sheathe, dormant under Jai's hand balanced by new cords. His direction straight as the earlier arrow to tower over Imaad. To the man's credit, he did not back down, only stare daringly back. Nor did he jump when Jai ripped the clasp holding his ugly fur coat across his shoulders. It fell to the ground in a heap. But most importantly, the sling of his flask was now uncovered at the arm, held there as other men strapped knives. Jai ripped the silvery thing from its holder, and noted the liquid sloshing inside. Imaad truly had been sipping on it.

Jai smirked, waiting for Imaad to comment but the merchant let the newly crowned brother of the king take it, as though the borrowing could rebuild the case of instability which Daryen tore asunder.

A long draught from the bottle lightened its weight considerably as Jai returned to War Cry. He mounted from the other side, purposefully stirruping with the wounded leg to pivot into the saddle. Easy as it was, the flexing of muscle reopened the flow and dark ooze swelled in one last frustrating attempt at freedom. Jai checked briefly for pale faces, ending on Nythadri's once again. Nobility rarely see blood, let alone one who revels in it; but he had a feeling she was of a different breed. He thought Nisele would back off now. But at least her estimations were on point: he did prefer the dark, lustful, passionate type.

The scan of faces witnessed most turn anxiously elsewhere, some nod with thin façades of respect, but ended on Imaad Suaya. The merchant's mask of humility vanished the moment he said something quietly to Nisele at his side. She'd drawn ever closer to him with every passing moment.

Despite the Power's enhancing his senses, whatever was said, Jai could not hear it. But his heart raced anew when her dark eyes flared with shock. She glanced sharply at the handsome Lord in their lead. Daryen's mirth unknowing of what rumor Imaad just unleashed. When she twisted toward Jai once more, she smirked in fresh understanding and Jai did not need the Power to guess what she said to Imaad in return. Jai knew they knew. Scorned for the last time, Nisele joined Imaad's cause. A powerful ally. With her aid, the ground would fall out under their king with what was revealed. Imaad remounted and watched his new ally filter from ear to nearby ear: Daryen's favoritism of Jai as good as proof in their eyes.

Wishing the thing were fuller, Jai finished off the rest of the flask in one swallow, threw the thing to the dirt, and spurred War Cry back with Nythadri's Red as though he'd never left.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#22
Nythadri ignored Nisele’s comment entirely, as she did most of the snide remarks that left the woman’s lips; she did not need the gentle grip of Liridia’s fingers to measure the control for that, even if the accusation only cast more shadow on a reputation she would do well to take better care of. Presumably the Brown knew how she had earned six months toil on the Farm, even if her blank face suggested she didn’t know Nythadri from any other Accepted. Better to consider your secrets bare, even if you never speak the truth of them yourself. Shame was a diseased inflicted by others, and Nythadri built herself solid walls of apathy.

Truthfully, she did not need the warning of the Aes Sedai’s touch even for Imaad, despite the apparent recklessness of smacking the smugness from his face. This isn’t my fight. But the man crawled under her skin and loosened the fire within, until it burned malice in her throat and forced either confrontation or control. She could have held back, and done so easily; she could have watched events unfold rather than step into the fire, and never felt guilt for her failure to keep Jai grounded. But she had chosen to speak, to spit acid in his eye. And the cruel tilt to her lips did not suggest she regretted it.

Jai was bellowing in the dirt, but Liridia’s touch did not falter nor tense, only slipped away when Nythadri retreated as bid. If the woman looked back at her accuser Nythadri could not say; her own gaze bore a straight path to Daryen, magnificent on a beast white as snow, light playing his pale hair like a gold crown. Mirth danced in his eyes, as though he were an amused father come to scold errant children. In return she looked insolent, demanding, and the intense darkness of her expression only deepened when he laughed. Her opinion of him was still forming in the brief moments of their contact, and his golden aura meant little when he had waited so long to step in, and with such an entertained and casual air besides.

The venom beneath his charm did not entirely placate her, though she realised quickly that Imaad had tangled his strings and the dance had begun to a new tune. The weight of Daryen’s charm crushed the stirrings of Imaad’s rebellion like a man crushed a bug under his thumb. Knees bent or they were broken. Imaad moved too soon. To those gathered, the merchant’s many whispers must feel like limp, weightless things beneath the encumbrance of their Lord’s tragedy; acquiescence rippled quickly, but beneath it all lay a seed of fear. Caught between two Asha’man and reminded of what the pins truly meant, there was little else for the common man to feel but small.

As well they should. No channeler walked unscathed from the power gifted upon them, man or woman, and Asha’man were raised for blood and battle, for scars and pain and loss. Though there were murmurs of shock and sympathy, she did not share them. The tale did not surprise her, nor the brutality, but somewhere during the king’s words she forgot to check for the reactions around her. A child. It knotted a response somewhere deep, like an ache never fully realised. Cold fingers clutched her heart, but the only betrayal was perhaps the sheer stillness of her expression, and that all too easy to misconstrue as the mark of one on the path to Aes Sedai.

It was impossible not to see the scar as Jai was hauled up, the brief flutter of his shirt as though engineered to crystallise Daryen’s meaning, and to seal them brothers more tightly than blood or airy words. Unity, loyalty, brotherhood. He painted a scene of valour and honour and tragedy worthy of looks chiselled in song and legend, plucking Jai from the ground as though he were a comrade felled by a common enemy. Nythadri had never been to the Borderlands, had never seen war or the grim, hungry face of death, but the Tower shirked little in the thorough education of its daughters. His words painted a fiction underpinned by the hardness in his eyes, and the suddenly severe cast of his handsome face dared opposition, those blue eyes encompassing every single person who dared meet them.

Imaad capitulated.

She did not trust the merchant’s apparent humility, or his supposedly gracious understanding. There was no meekness, no snivelling, no desperate clutching at the ruin of his plans. It was the demeanour of a man who had not played his final hand, else one whose intentions ran so tangled and deep that she could not see to the heart of them. Unease prickled her skin, despite the resolution that washed out the bad atmosphere and went some way to reigniting a fresh sense of camaraderie. Like a great lion, when Daryen shook the tension from his mane, the lambs breathed a sigh of relief. His return to beaming smiles caught a cold gleam, sharp like the edge of diamond; but it was an edge of which others were either ignorant, or eager to ignore. The friction evaporated or was forcibly driven away, and Daryen winked as he passed her, with the charm of a smile that made sunshine from rain.

She recaptured her red; the horse, to his credit, had not strayed far from where she had abandoned him. An impatient toss of his head perhaps signified impatience with this delay, but he did not make it difficult for her to wrap her fingers in the reins and navigate her way back up, without the aid of a stable-hand this time. Her legs protested already, and they could not have been riding more than an hour. “Soft as butter, huh?”
She watched as Keren returned Jai’s sword, and heard what was said. But he would never hear her pass comment on it unless he asked it of her. She cared little and less where Jai cast back his ancestry, or why it appeared to grieve him so to be questioned about the blade he carried. The exchange was secondary to her interests anyway; she watched him, searching for a hint of the darkness that lurked within, for any trace of such innocuously ignited killer instinct. But she only ended up admiring the lines of his form, the severity of the black, the dishevelment of his close-cropped hair. He would have killed you if you’d interfered. Or tried to. Accusation had blazed like madness the last time she had met his gaze. When he caught her eye now, she was surprised not to relive that flash of fear.

Liridia offered Healing, but he shunned it for more familiar remedies; her gaze followed him in his stalk, faintly amused despite a twinge of uncertainty. Imaad did not balk from Jai, nor flinch despite how close this harbinger of death had come to snuffing the life of his brother mere moments ago. It took an obstinate courage to meet the unsettled Asha’man eye to eye, and an iron pride to accept the emasculating theft, she imagined. But Imaad did it without blinking, and without comment. Behind, she could feel the flows of saidar, and turned her head to see them too as they ghosted about Keren’s head. When she turned back, the Asha’man was mounting on his injured leg. She watched the swell of blood with sickened fascination, but if he was so stubborn as to refuse aid on account of making a statement she could understand the defiance that weathered the pain. And she wasn’t about to attempt convincing him otherwise.

The red took his pace without prompting, resigned to the hopelessness of his current mistress else taking umbrage with the razor’s presence. She ran her fingers through the silk of his mane, amused by his bold character and enduring petulance.

"I look forward to meeting your ghost, Nythadri."


Jai’s comment was rewarded with a hum of dark laughter. Her ghost lay in a cold grave, detached from the feeling that made it potent. He would have to dig deep to find it, for it was doubtful to pass her own lips, and he would have to search even deeper to uncover the truth of her reaction behind her presented mask of indifference. She would sooner share her bed than the depths of her soul, and with the circling bands of colour at her hem she supposed he was unlikely to discover either.

“I doubt the introduction will be quite so… dramatic.”
Despite the red’s reluctance, she nudged him close enough to bridge a tolerable distance, and reached to brush at some of the dirt marring the pristine black of Jai’s uniform. “I never did like the outdoors. Dirt, grass. Splatters of dead bird. And we’re not even at these supposed hunting grounds yet.”
She arched a cynical brow, the wryness of her humour utterly black. He should have guessed from the way she had mockingly dubbed his hands the property of a soldier that she would not skirt the issue, just twist it to the shape of her own warped humour.

Her smirk devolved to laughter as the red jerked himself away, snorting frustrated air through his nostrils. Bloody horse. “You know, if I ever even make it to the hunting grounds."


She might’ve mentioned her ire at how easily he had been dragged into Imaad’s games; she might have warned him of her conviction that this was only a beginning, not an end. Men like Imaad did not recoil from failure; they only came back more ruthlessly the next time. She doubted he needed the portentousness of such foreboding wisdom. Better that Jai enjoy the respite while it lasted; Nythadri certainly would.
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#23


She picked the right time to share her morbid mindset. A smile finally cracked. It was monstrous and wrong, but Nythadri’s unexpected sarcasm was rather entertaining.

“They didn’t exactly fall.”
If there had been a breeze, he would wager bits of flesh would still be riding it.

Reflections of those soft blossoms floated distinctly across his memory like individual drops in a fine rain. The pink always caught his eye. It always looked the same no matter the source, no matter how many. A few orbs falling on the wind or a wall of it mounded high. The insides of a beast large enough to swallow a man whole or the man strapped to its saddle. Both indistinguishable in the mound after an Asha’man was done with them. He glanced a question at Nythadri, contained chaos at disturbing odds with the strangely peaceful thoughts. This wasn't normal, was it? Whatever the answer, he shrugged it away and found the view stretching beyond Nythadri. Set in its foreground, the light shone on her slick hair and framed her with its radiant glare. The sun itself would blush to disturb such a portrait with something so ordinary as setting. Yet it was on the descent. Dusk would approach soon. The deer begin to run. He trailed further. Only to return when her hand brushed his sleeve.

He watched the gesture fascinated like it wasn't his own arm. It wasn’t gentle as he expected of a musician’s stroke, but effective. The ballooning cloud of dirt grew with every brush. It trailed peacefully behind as War Cry bore him onward. It was nice. Normal. He imagined turning so she could do the same for his shoulders. Down his back. Then the red ripped her away and War Cry shook in amusement. Jai might have slaughtered him until better judgement buried the idea. That was Nisele’s slap on the wrist. She chose Nythadri’s horse. The reins twisted at the friendly wave from Nisele when he sought her out instead. Whatever news there was from Imaad, she was far too pleased with it than she ought. Women like her do not take lightly to blatantly displaying that they were unwanted in lieu of another.

Brandishing Nisele’s deceit from sight, he sought out Nythadri again. For a moment, the darkness made way for reason and purpose. “You’ll make it.”
She joked. He didn’t. She was the only stable thing in sight. He remembered the look in her eye after the shield. Beckoning him back from the edge. Calling him to abandon what stirred within. It was a call Jai would not soon forget. He wouldn’t allow anything to happen to that precious island of honesty in their Game.

“..Or none of us will.”

The accompanying laugh was half-hearted. Who knew when the next spark would ignite and consume their tentative group.

He went quiet for a long while after, seeming to watch the leaders, but listening also to the pounding of hooves. The multiples of their beat lost to a more dormant layer inside. He chose his side. Daryen chose his. How far would their war carry before one of them regretted it? He remembered the touch of apprehension holding back Nythadri's beckoning; but Daryen's was purer, fearless. Of course, there was little to fear from a brother he could render helpless as soon as think it. Not that Jai’s would be an easy breach of defenses. At some point, strength and experience would always win out.

Another noble joined Antony and Daryen by then. Another name Jai avoided learning. They swapped stories by the dramatic flair sweeping Daryen’s arms when he spoke. An orator even in the most ordinary of times. The man reaped the rewards of drama. The noble played to putty in his palms. Beyond them, the huntmaster’s gallop began to form shape.

Still, at their most vulnerable, Jai witnessed no shadows loom behind his friend’s compelling blues. There was something sadistic, though. Something of saidin itself. Flickers of a far off storm, hinting at the need to wrench its hidden power and make the world bend knee before it. Temptation though it was, they enjoyed the fight. It was only in aftermath, choking on the ash from that destroyed city or walking fields softened by the red of war that regret ever played its hand. Daryen heard it’s guilty whisper as did all their brothers. Only then did the sadism swirl behind those princely blues like dancing candlelight. Reveling, in love with the morbid. Uncaring of the consequences.

Jai checked Nythadri. She had gone quiet for some time as well. She might understand something of being morbid; darkness drawing darkness. He wondered what memories consumed her mind these past few minutes; if anything. Could her steadfast chill or Daryen’s constant control ever do anything to make him cross that line? The one separating him from Tamal at this very moment. The one he considered crossing still. How did the woman handle her ghost? Or did it lurch in and out of her control as defiantly as the red.

“What is saidar like?”

He hoped her answer would provide some insight to another soul wrestling with the Power as fiercely as with their own demons. Comparisons to Daryen proved unsettling in the past. He’d only now thought to ask a woman.

The clear sound of laughter ahead, pure as Domani crystal, awakened every muscle. The huntsman’s vague shape coalesced as though he emerged from the diffusion of foggy thoughts. Jai stood in the stirrups to see above the three riders at the head of the column. And pure amusement drenched his face in sadistic expression as though summoned by previous thoughts. The hunter, middle aged, clean-cut, but as lithe a rider on horseback as his prey in their valleys, was drenched in pink. His sleek quarterhorse was painted a new stripe across the top. Its mane thick and tangled with a sludge that apparently flicked droplets into the rider’s face with every stride or so.

Daryen roared with good-natured laughter. Then kicked his glorious white forward, handed the man some sort of kerchief for his face and called back over his shoulder.

“Jai, brother! What aim! I could not have done better myself."

An equally as pleased grin from Jai smirked back.

The pounding of hooves sped past him and Nythadri. Others riding forward to investigate. Uneasy laughter joined Daryen, but one woman looked physically sick. Jai spurred War Cry once they were all passed. As he had exiting the stables, the crowd made way. He noted a few uneasy swallows when they realized the glittering amusement from the man responsible for drenching their hunter in tiny corpuscles of previously living flesh.

“Were you in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

He greeted the hunter with an unapologetic nod, whom by his scowl had deduced Jai as the one responsible for the unexpected, albeit unique-smelling shower from above. A few wipes cleaned off most of his face. The man’s sleeves had been useless on the way back apparently.

“Yeah?”

His eyes narrowed examining the muddled Asha’man. Shirt straighter but untucked, pant leg ripped and matted with dry blood, and of course the haze of dirt clinging to nearly every visible facet. Hair and temples included. “I think you need this more than me.”
He chucked the rag heavy with sweat and gore at Jai’s chest, who only passed it on playfully to Nythadri, then looked to the king for some answers. “What the hell happened?!”


Jai watched him try to salvage what he could and wondered how long any of the channelers would wait before offering to clean him off. As the man shook out his jacket, scrubbed his hair, and stomped out boots, more amusement circled in Jai when most of the nobles veered their horses away from the considerable spray. He did not. War Cry seemed oblivious to the new decorations anyway. But reconciliation only came when the warder stepped forward with an offer of fresh bow string and an extra hand to change it out.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#24
She noticed Jai seemed bemused by the contact, like he was unaccustomed to the touch of mindless affection for its own sake. His expression contained an almost boyish charm utterly dichotomous with a man so easily consumed by the blind rage of murderous intent; though something of his volatility flashed in the tightening of reins after the red pulled her away. It should have concerned her, how quickly he snapped from one to the other. But unless the uncontrollable madness was ever aimed directly at her she struggled to muster the urge to worry. If she ever found herself in that situation, she supposed she would be too dead to care. Comforting apathy flooded her now that Imaad's face and voice persisted in shady schemes beyond sight and mind. Adrenaline ran low, and she felt a fragile peace. At last.

The horse’s antics only amused her; most distinctly because they had been intended to frustrate. Even as the red set his own direction and pace, treating her like a rag doll on his back, she made no attempts at control; the thrust of a river would sweep you down either way, and there were better battles to fight than the ones you couldn’t win. Or where the spoils were of negligible desire and consequence. Mostly he tried only to nose ahead, too proud to pull away from the razor and admit submissive defeat, and too intent on the game of competition to race ahead and leave the razor in dust. It suited her well enough, even as Jai drifted to silence, to simply exist in the oppressive heat and think about all the things she would rather be doing.

Talk of ghosts did not incite her to look back; the discipline that propelled her from dwelling never paused to allow grief or regret, despite how the Arches had made her relive every cruel moment again - and worse, had made her choose. Memories old and new occasionally haunted her dreams, but they rarely found purchase in waking moments. Perhaps knowledge of her own capacity for cruelness softened the blow; with a sort of morbid certainty, she doubted it would be the worst mistake she would ever make.

It was melody that separated her from the abyss that might have left a very different woman in its wake, and occupied her now. It wove among the beat of hooves, the hum of conversation, filling the vast spaces of emptiness. But imagination was a vague sort of distraction. The discomfort of riding only exacerbated every other bodily ache, and it was fair to say that that was what she thought most about. The fading green and purple bruising down her side from Talin‘s distractions. The dull ache pinching her shoulders from the previous night’s efforts hunched over a desk, when sleep had evaded a too busy mind. Again. As a quaint sort of peace descended despite the ceaseless beat of the red’s movements, fatigue caught up. Such swift descent surprised her, until she considered how few lulls like this her day-to-day life ever contained.

She could feel a faint burn against her face, and imagined her fragile midlander skin sizzling under the incessant sun. She wondered if the city would be as hot, and yearned for shadows, music, laughter. Then thought unbidden of home. Would Brynn allow her into Tar Valon once all this was over? She’d never sought permission after her return, and had never felt so palpable a desire until now. Desire was dangerous; it only gave more ammunition to an institution that wished to shape her in its image. At least denying herself was self-control not punishment. But the fall was one she had begun the evening she had uncased her violin, and freezing the creeping release of passion back in ice threatened a dark path she was increasingly unwilling to face. She only hoped she had learned enough lessons to soften her landing.

“What is saidar like?”


Eyes that had drifted closed opened, their paleness focusing on an earnest face presenting an earnest question. The Tower taught something of saidin, but she had never thought to wonder if Asha’man were taught of saidar. She murmured laughter at how closely the question mirrored her thought, unrelated as it had been, and her answer came promptly. “It’s like falling when you know there’s no-one there to catch you.”
Or so it had always felt to her, the wrench of that submissive release. Most women would just describe joy, and there was a vast and undeniable sweetness – but it was something oh so easy to become lost in. The potent urge to gather that delight until the euphoria pulled apart sense, and the light burned empty, was a danger imprinted upon a novice every day she wore the white. “Only the longer you fall, the less you care. Purest bliss. Joy, strength, invigoration. Letting go is the hard part. Relinquishing the sense of completion. Everything is a little darker. A little less real than it was before.”


She tilted her head, distracted by the laughter ahead. Though a number of curious riders thundered past, she was content to wait until the source of amusement presented itself without her having to strain to see. Jai spurred the razor forward and the red pulled to follow, but this time she reigned him back. He fought with an imperious stamp of his hoof, but desisted after so brief a tantrum to a tense and unhappy march forward; at her pace, this time. The sound of Liridia’s tutting behind marked her at the back of the group, and as the gathered crowd parted to allow Jai through, she saw the cause of the Aes Sedai’s disapproval.

Her stomach rebelled when she realised why the huntsman was so drenched in colour, worse when the scent joined the image. Liridia was muttering under her breath, among the quiet string of words a rather vehement repetition of ‘juvenile’. Her petite mare made a sedate pace towards the carnage, and Nythadri followed at her side.

“I think I understand why exploding birds is not on the curriculum, Aes Sedai.”


A frown and a sharp look met her comment. “Frivolity is the thing not on the curriculum, Accepted. And once again it will fall to the hands of the women to clean the mess. Come, child.”


Endless patience and serenity saw Liridia defer to the king and his court’s amusement before she interfered. In the meantime, quick reflexes allowed Nythadri to catch the bloodied rag before it landed on her lap. “Thank you. So much.”
Tempting as it was to throw it at Nisele just to hear her squeal, she let it drop to the ground with a heavy moist thump. A sickening pink juice wet her fingers, seeping into the grooves of her nails and the swirls of her fingertips. A few thicker bits of sticky tissue plopped to the ground, but she couldn’t very well wipe the rest down the pristine white of her skirts. Holding her hand out like she dearly wished it were not connected to her wrist, she ended up claiming swift retribution by flicking it back at Jai. If she offended polite company by doing so, it did not seem to inhibit her errant grin.

“How fortunate we are not hunting birds. It doesn’t appear there are any left in the skies.”


Swift on her warder’s offer, Liridia cleared her throat. Stately ageless features condemned the mirth of such a tasteless distraction, but she did not speak her revulsion, only gestured a hand to the huntsman as though beckoning him forward. “The folly of men with big sticks and little brains.”
Whether that was a snipe at Imaad or Jai or both was lost to the impassive nature of her expression, softened by the vagaries of an ajah that allowed such vicious comments to pass as the wisdoms of a grandmother. “Now, since those with the capability lack the manners, may I?”
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#25

He imagined Nythadri found the damage and dirt to his uniform was missing something extra since her fingers flicked him a mess to add on. "How dainty,"
he teased the musician's stretching forth her slender palm. He took his time swiping it away, seeming to find her gesture more cute than bothersome. Finally removing the excess from his own hand across one thigh. "Sticky,"
he smirked. Just as he imagined it would be. Whatever else passed between them besides the banter, it did not seem to sit well with the Aes Sedai by her follow-up glare. And no innocent smirk from Jai seemed to appease her either.

By then she'd turned her attentions back to the hunter who was obviously hesitant. "May you, what? Aes Sedai?"
But was far from disrespectful. Her wave and stern frown silenced any further comment. He shot a lateral glance toward the warder who looked up from destringing the bow, cast a wave of one hand across his clothes, and signaled acquiescence with a nod.

Jai found himself watching the bow work rather than the Aes Sedai until a sudden wrenching sent shivers across his skin. Given his last round with saidar left him in a rather unpleasant sprawl, saidin surged immediately into his grasp and he threw his face between Lirida and Nythadri. It went down hill from there.

It was like a circle of hatred. One enemy draws a knife and the others flinch to do the same. Then all goes to stillness, all waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Jai felt Daryen swell with power far greater than his own reach. Saidin pulsed to fight with itself, and War Cry's uncomfortable dance sensed the sudden animosity in his rider. Perhaps the animal's reaction was the only sign anything was wrong besides the two Asha'man staring at one another. Daryen's mirth now far from the surface, and Jai's burgeoning mood collapsed once more. Neither man moved, though Jai felt he must surely be quivering with holding onto so much saidin. Liridia seemed oblivious to the gauntlets being thrown behind her.

Daryen broke first. A superficial explanation to appease the hunter, though it was to Jai he really spoke and maintained his gaze. "My good man, she is going to clean you off."
It appeased the hunter only.

Jai risked peeling his eyes from Daryen, waiting breath by breath for the feel of a flow to take form, in order to to check the truth for himself. Liridia did appear to be concentrating on her efforts. Tense seconds later and the flush of color emerged from the hunter's clothes like the cheeks of an embarrassed babe as though hooked and yanked from every fiber. A sizeable pile mounded soon at their feet. The wettest of it disappeared into the warm earth below.

All the while flaming Daryen waited patiently until Jai relaxed to release the Power. Not that he needed a superior watching over his shoulder every time he tried to channel. But jumping at the Aes Sedai wasn't helping his case.

He let it go.

The huntmaster was explaining the terrain ahead. "..a glen. Flocks of trees at the mouth. Middle sized herd grazing on the downslope. Plenty of other animal tracks, but if its deer we are after. We need to move."


He considered the freshly clean jacket suspiciously before shrugging into his sleeves once more, but his scan of the large group was met with disapproval. There were too many, he explained. The noise of the horses alone might scatter them.

"Then we ride to the ridge and walk it from there."
Daryen stretched one arm rather kingly forward and soon after the mound was left alone in the grass like some lonely pink mole hill.

A few minutes of negotiation led to arrangements for those uninterested in the sport to hang back and wait safely near the ridge's crest. There they might find some shade and respite from the saddle while those interested in the hunt could fan on out ahead. He imagined Nythadri would join that former group but the curiosity in his eyes considered anything from her at this point.

He grinned playfully at her. "Lets see what I won, War Cry."
He dug in the Razor's flanks and they took off.

He leaned low into the stallion's neck, tense at first with the distance being swallowed far too swiftly for comfort. After a few minutes of practice, Jai dug his boots in harder. War Cry seemed happy to oblige and they flew at full speed. As the air whipped around him, flinging coat and hair backward, the concentration of hanging on devolved into the sheer thrill of speed. His heart raced in time and the world dissolved. For the few minutes it lasted, theirs might as well have been the only souls in sight. In fact, they were. None of the others could match the Stallion for pace. He laughed at the sheer humanity of it, the crescendo of his shouts lost to the wind.

Jai was breathing heavy by the time they slowed to a trot. The muscular horse quickly recovered from the jaunt, but for his rider an excited grin emerged. The race was theirs. He twisted, balancing one hand on the cantle behind to find almost everyone were left a full minute behind.

"I thought for sure you were going to fall off."
Almost everyone. Daryen was a close second place and was grinning just as broadly.

Out of earshot of the others, unless the women channeled hidden flows, Jai's gaze narrowed suspiciously. "You wouldn't have let me fall and break my neck now would you?"
Daryen's bright blue gaze roamed his form a moment as though considering the answer, but spoke not his thoughts, instead retreating to the topic of horses once more.

"I've never shared Fate's fascination, but I do understand it."
Jai nodded much the same. Unlike Nythadri's red, Daryen's horse fell into War Cry's side smoothly as both men capped the ridge simultaneously.

The valley below was as the hunt master described. Gentle slopes fanned out before them with their untamed grasses drooped lazily in the stagnant air. Pockets of flowers rose on stiff stalks like a kingsguard for the nature around them. He spared a glance at Daryen whose piercing gaze was also taking in the serene view. In court, even in his own palace, he never appeared more kingly than he did in that moment. Jai's hands tightened on he reins. If they were alone, he would have been fine forgetting about the hunt completely. But they weren't. He returned to studying the animals.

Grazing on the far upslope was the remainder of a herd otherwise nearly passed on from sight. Some of the males were large as a horse by their extensive antlers branching like limbs from heavy heads. One grazing female lifted her long neck to look unafraid at the two dots of far off men come to hunt her. Two long antlers spiraled from her head like a sleek curl of smoke. "Beautiful."
Jai's impression betrayed him. Eyes straight ahead. "So? How do we kill them?"
Amusement danced as boldly as War Cry.

Daryen grinned. Moments later he slid from his saddle and a bow appeared in his hands. "With this."
He brandished it majestically as a bard might with his harp.

A smile touched Jai's mouth. "Yeah. I didn't bring one of those."


War Cry was too well trained to need tied down, so the magnificent Razor nosed through the grasses for scents of tastier clumps of clover while the gentler sound of hooves pounded up from behind. The first wave of their group finally arrived though Jai did not turn to confirm their members. He stood at easy attention, peering down the slope, hands clasped calmly behind him and imagined ways an Asha'man could hunt without ruining the sport. The antelope beyond so far did not seem to care.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#26
The presence of the Aes Sedai should have tempered her coquettish banter; it would only come back to bite her, she imagined, but her fatalistic attitude left no room to worry over something so arbitrary. Name the rule I’ve broken, Liridia, and I’ll birch myself. She laughed quietly at Jai’s attempt at a placating smile, turning her attention to patting the side of the red’s neck and brushing at the faint spatters of pink caught in his gleaming scarlet coat. Liridia did not appear in the mood for rakishly innocent smirks, just as she did not appear in the mood for the inane questions of men drenched in bird gore. Keren translated his Aes Sedai’s impatience, though she had already embraced in lieu of the man’s permission. The weaves were simple enough and hardly worth watching, though the man’s expression was something of a picture as he experienced the unseen, unfelt but certainly anticipated supernatural forces curled about his form.

The razor’s unhappy shifting brought her gaze up; such an unusual movement from such a stoic beast, and it was soon apparent why. Her attention flickered between the two severe Asha’man, stiffly locked gaze in gaze, and it did not take awareness of saidin to realise the nature of silent war that waged between them. The trigger this time? Exasperation forced a frown, especially when logic answered her own question for her. Saidar. It was a strangely protective edge that deepened her frown, possessiveness over the nature of her own gift railing against the paranoid panic of an Asha’man that came dangerously close to insult. Succumb to mistrust and break impasse with Daryen, and he really would have cause to suspect saidar; she would not fall meekly to an attack against her kin.

Perhaps the only other soul aware was the warder, who did not stop his precise and practical work, but did stiffen as though simply ready. Forcing the tension out of herself, reluctant to draw battle with a channeler, she turned physically away and listened to what the huntsman had to say, trusting blind to Daryen’s control and Jai’s ability to claw himself back together. The news came with something of a lightening relief, and she was glad to retreat.

The group split. Among those to the hunt: Nisele, Imaad, Tamal; questionable company to surround Jai, given the threads of the game in motion. But he had Daryen, and he had Sadiq. Favourable enough odds when one of those allies was a channeler and a king. And there was little that could incite enough enthusiasm in her to follow anyway. She had not lied; dirt, grass, splatters of bird; it was more than enough to convince her she’d never been wrong to shirk this particular noble pastime. Her only disappointment was that Yui and the Aes Sedai seemed also to lack the taste for blood. It meant she had questionable company of her own.

*
Her legs ached, Light how they ached, as she slipped from the back of the red. The soft touch of ground beneath toe then heel did little to appease her given the knowledge that she would be back in the saddle soon enough, but she reminded herself dutifully that she should be grateful for these usual freedoms while they lasted. She patted the red mindlessly, secured him with the other horses, and left him to find his own brief comforts from the rather tumultuous events of the day. This seemed to include a stout amount of intimidation towards the other mounts in order to procure the choicest grazing.

Those who had declined the hunt drifted to familiar social groups, the hum of laughter, gossip and sunshine frivolity as potent and uninteresting as it had been in Daryen’s manor. Under the shade of a tree, smoothing the edges of various knives, Keren looked like he might have done better to leave with the hunting party. But he would not leave Liridia, who, denied the opportunity to observe the slaughter, seemed just as satisfied with her book, the thin volume flattened out on her skirts, its ochre pages blotched by dappled light.

Nythadri was content to enjoy her own company. She sank to the dry grass in a pool of floating white fabric, the blades like hot little stings against her legs. Her feet were blistering, but it seemed too much effort to unlace her riding boots, so she settled for lying back to soak in the last vestiges of day, head cushion by coiling black hair. Idly, she wiped her hand off in the grass, but by now any remnants of blood and innards had dried fast to her skin, like red rust around her nails and caked in the grooves of her fingers. She could still smell traces of the blood, marring the exquisite late summer afternoon with thoughts of death. Do you have ghosts, Nythadri?

She stared at the sky, the harsh glare of slowly fading sunlight blurring her eyes, that spearing pain the only thing separating the blooming haze of memories from slipping to daydreams she couldn’t afford. It was the kind of afternoon she would have once spent with Farune, although Andoran summers were an entirely different sort of heat. She missed the indolent lack of responsibility, the solitude of like-minded souls, and the caress of sun-baked skin. Youthful carelessness had its consequences, though not the ones she’d always been cautious of. And yet she still yearned for shadows of that untroubled existence, the pieces of herself that no longer seemed to fit to make a whole.

Her eyes were watering, but she fought blinking, like she deserved the pain.

“An Accepted should emulate the Aes Sedai she wishes to become.”


“And how do you know all Aes Sedai don’t lie in grass when they get the chance?”


“Indecisive and petulant. We’re not doing very well here, are we.”


“I would suppose that it depends entirely on what ‘we’re’ trying to do well at.”
She frowned at the sky but relinquished her relaxed posture to sit up. “Indecisive is a matter of perspective. Petulant is utterly unfair. Acerbic, maybe. I like witty, but that’s probably self-indulgent.”


Yui was a statuesque woman, long-limbed and willowy. Time had been kind to all but the stark grey of her hair, and that tied in a severe bun at the back of her head. It belied the soft lines about her eyes, speaking of a woman more inclined to smiles than harshness. Lit from behind, she looked little short of majestic, arms folded, expression an eloquent mix of serene and commanding, a single sculpted brow arched. Not a hair floated out of place, nor a mote of dirt besmirched her copper skin or clothes. Let alone bird entrails.

“You could probably add rude to that list, child.”


Feeling rather dishevelled, raven waves of hair fallen from the pins keeping it from her face and neck, blood under her fingernails and pale skin sheened with sweat, she ceded before she tangled herself in thorns. Yui might not be Aes Sedai, but she had the weight of Fate Sedai behind her. Chose wisely the battles you fight. “I’m sure we could add a lot of words to that list.”
Yui’s expression suggested she could think of the entire list, but the velvet dark of her eyes secreted a brief twinkle of shrewd amusement. The lack of admonishment melted Nythadri’s hostilities to a conspirator’s smirk. “So I’m enjoying the slack leash, as it were. I don’t mean to offend.”
She almost added ‘is this the part where you tell me why I’m here?’ but mindfully curbed her errant tongue; she had made enough enemies for one day without alienating the woman who held reason and purpose like a diamond in her hand. A moment of silence, and she wondered if she had already done too much damage, but presently Yui’s arms unfolded. She crooked a finger.

“Walk with me, child.”
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#27

Staring out, Jai tried to guess how long it would take them to walk to the upslope beyond. Under an hour, he would wager but distances could be deceiving.

"What is deceiving?"



He hadn't realized he'd spoken. Nor that someone had come up beside him. Nisele stood there, kohled eyes forward as his had been, sparkling with secrets. She did not so much as turn when Jai studied her. She simply smiled and slipped her arm through his elbow like he might escort her to the flowers below.

He smirked, but otherwise did move much at all. "I'm surprised you're coming, My Lady. Were you not interested in horses only?"
Her eyes glittered with amusement and suddenly her lips brushed soft air across his cheek. A foreboding whisper.

"I suppose I am not the only one with two interests at the same time."


He must have looked confused because she waved it off to chatter on about other superficial topics.

By the time the men were seen again the sun was dipping low toward the horizon like a heavy eye fighting off sleep. It gave way for a comfortable dusk, warm and pleasant. And the first vestiges of an overnight mist to come shone faintly in the lowest of places like some ghost on the edges of sight. The guards paced quietly around the throng of those drinking and snacking. Horses were strewn downwind, pitched with enough lead to graze at their will. All in all, it was peaceful. More like a picnic for the upper class rather than an escort of people waiting around for the procession of hunters to return.

Jai's legs were already burning by the time they began to climb back toward the rest of their group. In this, he was not alone. Imaad's jaw had taken a grim set a league back. Antony's jokes were shorter, the glances tired. The huntmaster dragged every step like his feet sank into mud. In the lead Daryen's pace never slowed, but from the way he kept hiking up the weight on his shoulder, Jai knew the exertion was burning in him as well.

Then the reason for their oddly shaped outlines showed itself. Each man bore a dismembered quarter of elk on his shoulder. Each went about their own way to carry it too. Some gripped the long leg sticking awkwardly in front of him like the handle of a club. Another hung onto the round flank like a massive sack of grain. Jai hooked his elbow around the meat where it began to narrow from the thigh. He gave up using his hands, slick with blood, a mile back.

Focus. Jai grit his teeth through the cramp rippling down his arm when he hiked his own weight; the thing weighed more than most men. He tried to remember what insane motivation made him swear to play this game without the Power.

He couldn't remember. But if bloody Imaad could do it, Jai could too.

He slid the hindquarter to the ground and perched his hands on his knees like he'd sparred for hours. The sudden relief of weight was short lived: it felt like talons dug across the tops of his shoulders like a death grip. Aches resurfaced from earlier he'd forgotten in the chore. Stomach, shoulder, head. There were no shortage of curses thrown around. His own included.

His elation faded when Liridia's face loomed first thing, far before finding Nythadri's. He was rather curious to see what she thought of their spoils.

"Men and blood."

She guffawed, then walked away muttering something about juvenile obsessions. Her warder stalked after, but only after tossing over a fresh water skein, and an approving nod. He grinned like greeting an old friend and nearly emptied it on one drink.

That was when he looked down, turned his hands over, and started laughing.

After Imaad, or so he would brag, felled the elk, massive by the numerous points slung to the huntmaster's back, the backbreaking work began to skin and gut the beast. It trailed buckets of sweat down the inside of previously soaked shirts from the stalk of killing, followed by the hour of wandering before the beast finally died from the arrow in its throat. Everyone dug elbow deep into its carcass then, cutting out tender organs. Jai could still feel their bloodwarmth in his palms: heart, liver, spleen, intestines, lungs. These lesser choices were not shunned by noble company, but taken as prized offal. With nothing left to wipe the sweat away from salty eyes, smears of what was on every man's arms now rubbed trails across their faces.

Jai dived into the beast as much as everyone else. Except Nisele. She conveniently held a skein open and waited for the men to dump organs inside. Jai's offer to unburden her of its weight was met with scorn; in their last hour she finally accepted. The color of innards literally stained his skin pink, as though from dipping himself into clothmaker's dye, up to the elbow where he'd rolled his coat sleeves. The first hitch of the leg up to his shoulder left another wide smear across his chest where he'd loosened his shirt half way down. The overlaid coat fully unbuttoned hours ago. A glance at Antony gave him an idea of what his own face must be like. He looked as if he'd taken a head wound.

Jai stretched, rapped a few knuckles into his back, and searched the faces for Nythadri.

Orders were went out to move and Saidin fluxed. Jai glanced when the flow of a gateway widened. Apparently the self-imposed shackle from channeling was lifted once they were back at the starting line did not apply to hauling meat because Daryen held onto his quarter all the way through to the other side. Looking rather heroic when he turned in the frame of unnatural light to wave everyone through. Hair flowing in the wind on the other side, a courtyard of stone under his feet, and torchlight flickering his frame in menace as if saidin itself blazed down, Jai shook his head, hiked up his (and Nisele's) share of the burden, and followed.

On the other side, the strong scent of saltwater hit him like a wall.

"The Aryth Ocean."




Edited by Jay Carpenter, Sep 27 2016, 05:24 PM.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#28
Time stretched thin, the summer sun fading like sand through fingers until the temperature dropped to something pleasant. Nythadri had re-established her solitude some time ago, and sat tucked away in comforting shade, elbow resting on a knee, chin cupped in her palm. She watched the march, her view obscured now and then by those who went to welcome the returned hunters or set about packing away the vestiges of a leisurely afternoon in the sun.

Like blood-bathed warriors. It was akin to some morbid funeral march, the animal’s body parts passing in some semblance of its one-time unity. Like a fallen brother carried home. The sight of the dead flesh did not bother her, not the pungent scent of blood and meat. She was not squeamish, if she did not like the idea of so much mess. It was gory work, and for what? She doubted Daryen’s table lacked for meat. But clearly it had some appeal that was beyond her. Each to his own. As was typical, the pale of her gaze lacked judgement as it followed the gruesome parade, so hollow she might as well have been looking through them.

At the back Tamal was limping, empty handed, a deeply vexed expression on his face; not Jai’s work, surely? She couldn’t imagine Daryen would have allowed it. Nisele was also unburdened, though that was unsurprising. None of it looked light, or particularly easy to manage, and what were a woman’s wiles for but to make use of a man’s brawn? Or other gifts, though it seemed neither channeler would suffer the disgrace of not being able to rely on his own muscles. And of those, she could attest they both had plenty. Subduing a smile, she stretched her legs out – testing their pliability, and finding them reluctant. Assuming that the ride back would soon be coordinated, she did not rise, only soaked in these last moments of idleness gratefully, glad for the moment to be left alone.

Her attention on the bloodied hunters waned; her first indication of a Gateway was people moving through it. Relief boosted the faint melancholy of her mood, still lingering on Yui’s words and the heavy burden of purpose. It had troubled her often lately, stealing sleep and casting yawning shadows over her perceived notion of ‘future.’ Fate’s intervention only cast those shadows deeper, making them harder to ignore. Probably that was the point. An Aes Sedai’s aid was a subtle thing. Or maybe it was neither aid nor subtle; perhaps it was akin to casting a child off a cliff to see if it could fly. Browns had stranger obsessions, and ideas about teaching lessons.

Still, no inclination to resist marred her entrance through this Gate. A step from wilted grass landed on cool stone. The breeze was long-awaited, plucking playfully at her dress and hair, refreshing too-hot skin like blissfully cool kisses. Salt tanged the air so strong she could taste it, drawing her gaze to the view beyond. A massive expanse of water dominated everything, cast pink and red in the throes of day’s death. It stretched out to the horizon, sparkling like a thousand stars had descended from the skies to bask on its surface. She’d never seen something so vast, so infinite. Jai’s awed whisper confirmed her suspicions. The ocean.

The manor danced on a cliff-edge, and sprawled down to a coved beach below. Careless of those still filtering in behind, she approached the stone balustrade and leaned out dangerously, fingers curled at the edges, her whole torso straining out and over. The wind pulled at what was left of the pins holding her hair up as she peered at the faint burn of dancing torches lighting the way down. She could hear the waves licking the shore, but barely see the gentle foam meeting golden sand.

Liridia’s touch at her elbow drew her back; talk of washing and refreshing even more so.

Warmth still lingered in the halls, but it was the heat of stone that had basked in the sun all day, not the oppressive and stifling heat of the previous estate. A servant showed her to a room where she might freshen up. She didn’t strictly need the bath; the one power could have cleaned her sufficiently, and it rejuvenated her discarded dress well enough, the fabric as clean as when it had been gifted to her this morning. But it was a rare indulgence, and one she was keen on accepting when the offer presented itself. The heat flooded tender joints, balming them in comfort. Light send that I will grow strong enough to Travel.

She sank back, thinking about Yui and Fate and Gates to Arad Doman. The Wheel Weaves… only she had never been one to believe such mindless platitudes, nor to accept that she had no hand in her own destiny. Perhaps it was why she so often choose to fight the paths laid out for her; nobility, inheritance, ajah. She’d asked a gaidin, once, if he ever thought about what his life might have been without the Tower. It turned out he’d been chosen from the cradle to train to be a warder, but there had been no resentment. In fact his only dissatisfaction had been in not yet fulfilling his potential.

Frustration sent her under the water. When she resurfaced, she pushed back water and hair from her face. The solace of the warm water was fleeting; she did not linger long.

A mirror informed her that the sun had caught her cheeks like a permanent blush, hot to the touch but otherwise not painful. Saidar squeezed the water from her hair, and set it in little bubbling balls gently back to the old bathwater. She’d never before realised how much she liked to be clean, as she donned her refreshed dress and pulled soft black hair out of the collar. That was something the Tower had instilled. She wondered how much more of her it had changed, and if anything of the old Nythadri even remained.

Servants were busy about the courtyard when she returned, laying our feast tables and setting aflame to more lights. Already numerous fat tallow candles burned in gold inlays, glittering light to every shadow of the enclosure, and larger torches lit walkways to other open areas, some dipping down to lower levels. Dusk claimed everything beyond the manor, and it was dark over the sea. She thought to look for a familiar face, until the cherished lilt of strings lured her attention. She found the musicians soon enough. They were still tuning at the moment, laughing, chatting and waiting for the guests to freshen and return.

She had been bored and disinterested talking to nobles, glazed in ice like an island unto her own. Though many players held a comparable arrogance, particularly those renowned enough to entertain kings, she could easily dismiss such flaws for shared passion. Old, forgotten flame lit a zeal rarely seen with the Tower’s halls, and a silver-tongue won easy friends. Pedar Tiam’s skin gleamed gold in candlelight, and he did not seem to either see or recognise the serpent ring, even as she sweet talked the violin from his grasp. His companions seemed amused at that. Her smile was wry as he insisted on showing her how to grip the bow, the warmth of his fingers on hers as he explained placing with lingering touches and bright grins.
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#29


The sun was orange as copper and closing in on the horizon. Jai found it painfully fitting for Arad Doman and turned away from it. The talons by then dug down to the bone, but it was not from the wash of dull aches that left spots across his sights. Something so beautiful as a Domani sunset burned the corneas to watch too long.

He deposited the quarter and organ skein on a small cart shortly before it was wheeled away to a butchery with the rest of the elk.

"Bloody better be worth it."

He snagged a passing flute of something sparkling, frowned at the questionable liquid, and downed it with a bittersweet grimace. "Flaming spice in everything."
The courtyard by then was busy with more than just the hunting party. People began to filter indoors seeking wash basins and fresh clothes. Servants offering trays of the same liquid mingled as easily as the breeze around sweaty bodies. The presence of guards posted on the edges reminded everyone this was the King’s property. Then the crowd parted, and he saw her.

She leaned over the balustrade, enraptured with the view and oblivious to the apparent danger of such a long stretch toward it. Dark hair curled in the breeze and swept from her shoulders with such perfection a painter would weep to capture it. She was outlined in the fires from the west, and it caught the skin of her neck with shadowy heat. The wind lifted her thin robes gentle as a lover.

"Breathe, friend."



Jai felt a clap on the shoulder. He winced at the shock it sent down to the elbow, but thankfully drew some much needed air. The Captain of the Guard was a stern man, but even his honorable eyes could appreciate the thing of beauty across the way. Antony’s Lady-wife filtered somewhere, but he was too dedicated a man to House and Family to watch the creature stolen away by Liridia Sedai for long. But not so numb a man as to skip nodding a firm approval on Jai's account.

"You two have seen better days."
Daryen's laughter joined them, circling around to himself stand in the portrait previously occupied by Nythadri across the courtyard. His skin glittered with gold and pink stains, hair flowing on the breeze as usual, and ravenous with hunger. Antony grunted a laugh, fully aware of his own appearance. His noble wife should have him stripped and tubbed by now, so he took his leave. Jai had a few ideas himself along those same lines. A few parting words left suggestions that the cook leave some meat unspoiled with spice and orders that someone track him down a drink that doesn't try to burn a new hole in his throat and he took off.

Unlike the previous estate where the Razor roamed Fate's pastures, Jai knew these grounds. It did not take long before he was descending. He took the rough steps hewn from the cliff two at a time. It was the shortest path to the beach below, faster to go straight down on foot than to take the cart road just out of sight. Daryen’s House often entertained feasts on the sands itself, torches for light and tents for cover, cushions for comfort, curtains for privacy. Jai fell toward it, ignoring the complaints from legs tired from the saddle and fighting.

The sand was undisturbed by cart wheels and foot steps this night. The same wind which blew the coat backward from his shoulders etched strong stings of sand into his skin. Without slowing, he discarded it. Then everything else. And found the water.

Alone. Finally. Some light forsaken peace and quiet. He soaked it up.

“Bloody earned it.”


And floated.

On the fringes, torchlight eventually began to grow. He'd strained on this beach before, but never could make any sounds of what happened high above; the howl of shoreline was too strong. There was no point trying now. With some reluctance to return to the stake, he grabbed the strewn about piles of black, tucked boots under one arm, and was still in the process of lacing up pants when he mindlessly crossed a gate of his own.

As little as he cared about leaving saltwater trailing behind, the gate closed an inch off the floor to not scorch the Domani's precious timber floor. Carved columns hewn of the same stained wood framed an undisturbed bed. It was draped with white linen for protection from bitemes, but that was about the most useful thing in sight. Everything from gilded vases lush with flowers to the crystal sconces lining the wood paneling were sprawled throughout these rooms. Even the bloody stool legs were carved with enough detail to curse their craftsmen blind.

The half-clad Jai deposited his boots to the side of one such stool and dumped the pile of black on the other.

“Yui.”

He called through the suite of rooms. “Yui? Are there bandages?”
The snug knot miserably failed to keep pants heavy with water from falling as he roamed into the rooms beyond. So his fist did the job.

The House Mistress, or Secretary, or whatever her title was after ‘Yui’ was not the one to find Jai in the washroom rinsing the salt-crusted gouge digging tiny daggers into his leg. The servant wordlessly left a stack of bandages, lye and lemon juice to purge the wound clean. After which it was back to the gaudy stool where he worked a buff of the Power to bring his boots back to the morning’s shine. Then expunge the filth from the black. A needle and thread, procured by protesting servants that they do the work, efficiently repaired at the frayed edges of the damaged pant leg. The shirt and coat were pressed back to shape worthy of their high silk and wool blend. It was the pins which won the brunt of his focus for some time. He ran a finger across the silver sword complete with cross guard and pommel. Slightly curved like his own full sized weapon, and nearly as sharp as the day he first pricked a surprising drop of blood doing the exact same thing. The gold dragon gleamed as strong as pride when he finally returned it to his neck, the red coursing inside the sinuous creature like blood in veins. The routine was almost as calming as counting: polishing and repairing the uniform. And took nearly as long.

Short of bathing, he rinsed the salt from his hair to keep the crystals from falling like snow to the black circling his neck and shoulders. But he could feel them scraping inside his sleeves and down his back when he twisted to buckle on the freshly cleaned sword and scabbard. Only after studying the result of the chores in a long, gilded mirror, tug his sleeves down and straighten the pins did he find satisfaction enough to channel the glass of wine to his hand.

He left it empty by the door on the way out.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#30
“Like this?”
Ever the consummate actress when it suited her, Nythadri said it with all seriousness - though her delicate handling of the instrument was anything but clumsy, if any cared to notice. As she rested it under her chin, her eyes never left Pedar’s face. A slight smile tugged the edges of her lips, but she relinquished the jest when the bow met strings. There was no showmanship as the notes joined to improvised melody, the faint roar of the sea like a rhythmic anchor to the soaring and wistful tone. Her eyes drifted shut for a while, but she was too aware of her small audience to succumb entirely; the last thing she wanted was a spectacle. She stopped when Daryen’s guests began to return in number, and the silence that swallowed the last lingering notes was like emptiness. Still, she was laughing when she handed the violin back.

Pedar blinked, sharing glances with his companions as he accepted his instrument, and then he laughed too. “Deception!”


She shrugged. “Assumption?”


“Well, you missed your calling, that’s for certain.”


“Or, more aptly, was pulled in another direction.”
Which happened to be something of a running theme of her life. Or maybe it was that she was never truly satisfied with the things she could have, and failed to truly appreciated the things she did. Her conversation with Yui drifted in the back of her mind, plucking discord through the brief moment of peace. Am I going to spend my whole life dissatisfied? So strange that she could choose to be unhappy when she led a life of such privilege, or that she could so vehemently fight the quickest paths to freedom. She remembered the meaning behind a white orchid, but left the thought unfinished for another time.

She’d spent a long time with the musicians; longer than she'd intended. Darkness had fallen, thick and warm as velvet. All the torches and candles were lit to brilliance, so that it was as if Daryen’s courtyards were the only things existing in the darkness. It seemed the King himself was yet to arrive else the feast would have started, so it left some time to wander. She excused herself, and promised to find the musicians later, if she was able.

The music had settled something in her heart, brokering an equilibrium that would hold for now. It felt close to normality; the dusk, the candlelight, the unobtrusive company. Shadows were easy to navigate. She watched the Domani nobility as they passed, dressed for the evening in all their finery. It could not have been more distant from the refined modesty of Andor’s courts; the svelte silhouettes of women draped in dangerously sheer, figure-hugging fabrics; the coy glances of kohl smoked eyes; spicy perfumes, exotic blends of musk. In places flame hid behind coloured glass, splashing a kaleidoscope pinks and purples and oranges and blues; eventually she discovered different colours, scents, music – all for different moods. It was extravagant, and felt vast – as though Daryen’s outside courtyards dominated the whole of the cliff-face, though probably she was just overwhelmed in an unfamiliar place. Still, it was far removed from the docile if heat-soaked start to the day. Only the undercurrent of gossip remained, but that was something as universal as maggots on corpses.

She was looking for Jai, but she found Tamal. He sat in one of the colour-splashed corners, his injured foot propped up on cushions and his expression cast sullen. She paused. He did not look up to acknowledge her, even though her shadow cast dimness over the rising gold bubbles he contemplated in his glass. He was conspicuously alone, and Nythadri wondered if it had anything to do with the nature of Daryen’s chastisement. Surely there were worse things for a man than the scandal of illegitimate children, though perhaps her moral standing on such things was a little skewed.

“Take it from me, my Lord. Gossip only lasts until the next tide. A week from now and no-one will care how many bastards you’ve sired.”
It wasn’t quite from kindness she spoke, though he did look up like she had cast down a hand to stop him from drowning - for a moment, at least, before he recognised her face or her dress or both, and then the underlying callous of the words bit at him.

“I shouldn’t even think anyone will remember after tonight. Do you lend an ear to hear ‘say, Accepted? Might be it would benefit you, if you did.”
His venom was immeasurably diluted compared to Imaad’s, impeded further by the paleness of his face when he looked up, large dark eyes haunted by the moments that had nearly marked his death. His attempts to goad her left no impression, and she frowned.

“Your brother nearly saw you killed today. And for what? Jai hardly poses a threat to Daryen’s intent to negotiate. However close they are, it makes no difference. So why the attack?”
There were no bridges to be built here; she could sense it in his expression, an underline of fear or hate that drew him away from her appeal. She might have tried, otherwise, to coax truths out of him, just for the charm of leading him to betray his blood. His lips flickered a smile that looked more like he fought a wave of sickness than the satisfaction of secrets. He was disconnected, just as he had been at the morning reception. Then she had assumed it was because he had been sent to speak to her unwilling, but now it felt more like… fear. But not even as simple as that. Revulsion.

He looked up, holding her gaze for long moments, and for an instant she thought he might throw her a cryptic answer. In the end he only shrugged. “You’ll have to ask my brother.”


She watched him a moment longer as his head dipped back to observing his glass, and wondered what thoughts harrowed him more. The memory of an enraged Asha'man intent on murder. Or his brother. Maybe I will ask Imaad. But first, she would find Jai. It shouldn't have been difficult given the austerity of his uniform, but there was no trace of him beyond the occasional mentions of his name. Eventually she circled back, out of the warmth and colour of the socialising court, and back to the long feast tables still bustling with busy servants; then, beyond that, where lights were just lights instead of atmosphere, lighting cool stone bereft of heat now the sun had gone. The sound of the sea was louder, though it was invisible to the night, and the hum of laughter and conversation was blissfully distant. In flimsy domani day-garb, it was almost cold out here. Sea-air whisked the hair from her face as she leaned on the railing, chin resting in her palm, staring out into darkness, and reflecting on the things Yui had said.


Edited by Natalie Grey, Sep 28 2016, 04:11 PM.
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