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The Hunt
#1
Continued from Collecting on a Wager



Jai was quite content to wait for leadership. It soon came. With a step, Nythadri joined them on western land and Daryen turned away moments after.

He had to force himself to do it, but soon enough, he fell in stride alongside Fate's brother and paid little attention to the specific direction he was led. Such was the way of things, he reminisced, and wished again for distance, musing on how easily he fell back into it all.

The pair were silent for some time. Yui's voice behind permeated the discord, but Jai kept a tuned ear for Nythadri's melody should it come. Short of looking over his shoulder, he only hoped that whatever path was waiting ahead, she might be around to break the anticipated monotony. Even with the once in a lifetime opportunity to infiltrate the Domani's cult-like domination of Razors, misery enjoyed like company.

The leader of their group took them indoors, as much as chiseled terraces and shaded walkways might could be described in this part of the world. Here, flowering plants and green ferns stretched their gangly limbs as much inward as they did outward, blurring those usually distinct definitions. Yet Daryen led through the thick of them all. Jai's eyes roamed the tiled walls, rather than his partner, but caught glimpses of nowhere identifiable. On a rare wind, the scent of the coast labored its way above that of gardens, but Jai mistook the real thing as for one of hopeful memory. He was unaware of royal estates so near the Aryth Ocean, and would remain so until the hunt to come carried them within a few leagues of those watery cliffs nearby.

Lost in memory of territory maps, he was startled by the sudden question from aside.
"Well? Was she as beautiful as in your dreams?"
The question was almost as startling as the hint of sympathy Jai imagined he heard. Like that scent of ocean though, he must have been mistaken. So shook his head in answer. "No."
He caught Daryen's confusion as his own heart sank.

"More."


To say it out loud made it uncomfortably real. Jaslene was not a permanent figment of his imagination. She was the flesh and blood woman of frequent description. One with a magnificent smile. A laugh that could stop your heart. And kind enough to soothe the decay from a dying man's soul. And all the more beautiful because she was untouchable. Married now. To his best friend. Former best friend, anyway.

His fingers nervously draped the pommel wrappings of his sword then, and from the look on Daryen's face in response, Jai was thankful the women were a few steps behind and supposedly unable to see his expression. Once uncovered, Jai never mastered the ability to bar real emotions from showing. Until then, the Dark One himself couldn't rob Jai's carefully dug grave storing the remainder of them.

"Married. What a bloody light-forsaken fool, right? To think that..."
In trailing off, he fell in step with the blade at his side and sought the simplicity of the Oneness. In there, every step forward was a step away from everything else. Saidin rumbled in the distance. Ironically, its violence was soothing. Just as was the presence of that blade. It fit his height, the sword did. Though his mother would say the sword fit Jai more than just aesthetically. Most assumed he wore it for the allure. It was not completely untrue. There was something heroic to seeing such symbols of victory forged by mankind borne by the Dragon's black army. Jai appreciated that, catching a brief glimpse of his silhouette in a pool. And everyone appreciated feeling like a hero, at least he imagined he would should the feeling ever come around. But as assumptions go, most were wrong.

"They asked what I do. What we all do."
He cut any confrontation short before it started. "Don't worry. I hate you, but i'm not insubordinate."


Daryen's ice cool eyes glanced his way, but infinite patience responded. Jai bloody hated it too. The patience that was. Did the man not have a streak of fury mixed down with the rest of his passion?

"I told you to leave, if that's what you wanted."


"I did."


"And here you are back."



"Here I am back."

Jai gritted through the answer. Was Daryen smirking? Probably, the bloody bastard. While roaming the other man's face, Jai's disbelief betrayed him. He nearly staggered, but managed to keep his feet. How had he not seen it before? "How'd you pull this off?"
The question delivered on a surprised exhale.

That time, Jai definitely saw the smirk. Panic began to rise. His friend inquired after Jaslene. He knew Jai had been to Tar Valon. But he'd left in the middle of night! He wove the gateway himself! How had he known? Could Daryen have the gate followed? Duplicated? Light, was that possible? Was nothing sacred!

Jai spoke frequently of home, of friends and the Golden Fox inn and tavern. He must have sent his sister to intercept. A king's influence is wide. Even to the depths of the White Tower it seemed. Yes, an Aes Sedai could do such a favor when it was Daryen's charm requesting. The bet. The pepper. Everyone knew Jai could not abide those cursed blobs of molten eating flesh. Even Yui joked about his tenderness.

Likely Fate had not been the only one. The remaining scenes of the last two days were quickly replayed. The case for entrapment built quickly, and Jai's nervous drumming of the sword transformed into the stillness of a storm before striking. He went so far as to cast their surroundings with an Asha'man's cold, calculating study. The best wall to collapse. The nearest route to freedom. The darkest vaccuum to consume their bones with the rush of flame.

They came to a pair of fine doors stained dark enough to nearly hide their intricate carvings had Jai not noticed Daryen's fingers momentarily graze the uneven surface. Something so ordinary as a door was still revered for its beauty by the man. Given the nearby servant's entrance, separation from the main portion of the house, and proximity upwind of the stables, Jai guessed this to be some sort of guest quarter. Only when Yui began to explain the change of clothes waiting for Nythadri within did Jai realize she had not been speaking for some time. In fact, he realized no other voice carried the air except his own these last few minutes. Had the women been listening? Light! Was Nythadri part of their scheme? Surrounded by two channelers, Jai grew nervous.

A moment. That was all he had. Daryen was stronger, but couldn't shield him if he already held Saidin unless the man was hiding angreals. Perhaps he was. Less than a moment then. The suction of fire, inhaling the air before total consumption, that would give him the time to escape. Yui would be a loss, but leagues were leagues. An unavoidable sacrifice. Isn't that how he soothed himself to sleep every night? Yes. Only a moment.

In his study of how to play this out, he discovered Nythadri. Steady as those off shore cliffs were her eyes, and Jai remembered their exceptional moment of ordinary back in the Front Hall. Conversation. An apology. A normal man and woman outside of rank and place in the world. Live, she had suggested. Jai remembered the furious counting. Losing control and drawing near all the Power he could, and the soothing repitition which followed.

This was not normal.

Plenty of people were out to kill him. Jai remembered. Somehow, that memory was restorative. The rest would kill him on sight if they knew his worth. The wiser ones would just evacuate him into enemy holes and put him to their good uses for the rest of his extra-long life. Of all these people, Daryen and Yui were not out to kill him. Though they should.

That small pin prick of doubt ripped the sheet of blackness apart. He visibly relaxed, shoved those demons aside, and was more himself when he managed to catch Yui for a brotherly kiss on the cheek and smile to wash away those last few moments. To her protest be damned! "How can a man bear to be so far from such a beauty as our Yui?"
Besides, she didn't seem to protest too hard. The tension lifted.

A teasing display of affection was not the only thing one of their group escaped. Jai was unaware, but Daryen released a breath when his friend came back from that steep edge. Likewise, Daryen noticed how powerful a part Nyathdri's presence played. It made him wonder just who the Accepted was to have such a power over Jai. He swallowed a hint of jealousy, and smothered it with gratitude.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#2
Nythadri resisted the urge to reread the note Yui had given her, but her fingers still tested its folded edges as she stepped into heat and sunlight. At least she had physical proof of permission to be so far from the Tower, for as the Gate winked closed and foreign landscape stretched behind she realised the enormity of distance separating her from what had essentially become home…

And how dangerous a feeling to witness the snap of those chains and the freedom it beckoned.

A shiver touched her skin despite the strong heat, but she thought Fate would have anticipated that. Not only Aes Sedai, and a Sitter besides, the woman was renowned for taming the wildest of horses. And right now Nythadri wanted to run, despite the iron weight of the serpent ring and all the oaths she had made to the Tower. It would not be the first time she had run from duty, nor probably the last time she would feel the call of escape.

A touch on the arm brought her back, and the wistfulness of her expression receded to something dull and vacant. Ahead, the two men had already begun to walk the path to the house. They knew each other, clearly, a fact cemented further by the gold cast of Jai’s skin; he was familiar with these climes. So I am the stranger here. Faint feelings of ensnarement once more circled the blank of her mask, like waiting predators in the gloom. There was no fear, testament to her trust in the Tower, but if the Asha’man had been knowingly involved in the path that led her here she felt grieved to have misjudged what she had thought had been a spark of kinship.

Pale eyes refocused from the broad black back of the Asha’man, and whatever thoughts he inspired were for now banished. Yui’s manner did not demand compliance, but expected it in a firm and familiar way. With nothing to do but follow and use the time to organise her thoughts, it was easy to step within her Accepted role and simply soak in her surroundings and the explanations offered her. The woman spoke in a manner that appeared to impart little, but in fact told much - if one were listening properly, as one brought up in a den of daes dae’mar inevitably did.

Of course, the more interesting conversation continued ahead, snippets passed down on the faint appeasing breezes. As Yui’s instructions faded, and with little to say in return, she paid more apparent attention to her surroundings, and could not help but hear a little of what was said. Not that she would admit to it. She did not gape like a tourist, though she had never been this far south, but certainly showed more interest than she had shown in the austere beauty of the Tower. Sweat trickled a path between her shoulder blades, the thick raven hair curling down her back already feeling sticky and uncomfortable. Such oppressive heat.

As though tempered by the stifling warmth, Nythadri’s initial hostilities began to melt, if only because she recognised the value of an ally - and one who might have more to say of Jai than he would tell of himself, though those questions would take subtlety that could wait; Accepted were not supposed to pay undue attention to men. In the short walk from the Gate to the dark-wood door her intention to fight this diversion with every fibre of her being faded, and tension eased to curious acceptance.

Though Yui was again speaking, it was difficult not to watch Jai. The intensity of his expression she recognised immediately, so brief a time had passed since she had last seen its likeness. If nothing else, it assured her he was not complicit in whatever intentions Fate had in bringing Nythadri here; he was as cornered as she, and far less adept at hiding it. The way his eyes moved – not with the fear of a trapped animal, but with the intense and instinctive purpose of a soldier – incited both curiosity and concern. There was something wild in him that was beginning to form shape in her mind, like he spent his life teetered on a cliff-edge. When his gaze landed on her she felt an urge to appease his distress with a smile, but she did not. Ice-pale eyes simply watched to see what he would do.

The moment passed. She was not keen to intrude upon this reunion of friends, and her hand rested on the door handle. But not before noting Daryen’s look. Beyond the pleasantries of acknowledgement, since it was clearly his fellow Asha’man he was here to meet, he had paid little attention Nythadri – which was what she expected, given the chasm of their ranks. Now she felt distinctly like she had crossed his radar. But why? Her attention returned to Yui. A wry smile lifted her lips, the first lightening of her expression since setting foot on Domani soil.

“I’m boiling alive in his dress, if I might be excused.”
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#3

When Yui reminded His Highness that additional guests would soon be arriving, Jai planted one foot against the wall and leaned back, but felt like fading into the wall hangings instead. Unfortunately, he would not linger long. Nythadri had disappeared by then and so was unable to hear Jai's inquiry after just who else was crashing this party. He went unanswered. Yui managed to excuse herself under perfect pretenses, and he was dangerously alone with the bloody king of Arad Doman. It was like he had never left. Maybe that would have been for the best, he resigned, and they departed as well.

Servants passed by, bowing for their leigelord, on the journey to a lavish reception room lined with striped wood inlaid with golden ambers. They were blurred faces to Jai, who was focused entirely on listening to the king's explanation. Short, and to the point, three powers of Bandar Eban were arriving for a friendly hunting trip. Suspicion began to smolder, but for entirely different reasons than before. Three, two men and one woman, whose support Daryen needed to entertain the invitation of a certain circle of dignitaries to negotiate a very specific treaty. One Jai recognized. And he could hardly fathom its existence, let alone its execution. This time, it wasn't nerves which clenched his fists.

"Light Burn You!"

Fury exploded to the surface.

Their arrival drew the collective gasp of servants prepping within for overhearing the argument. A heavy tray clattered with the sounds of slight silver. They could burn with the rest of Arad Doman, Jai didn't care.

Coming to blows with a channeler never went far, not without leveling a few buildings, but for a moment, Jai considered trying. Instead, he walked away.

A sleek table, half decorated with sparse silver wafting the scent of peppered dishes, became the prop for which he distributed his palms. He leaned forward, lowered his head, and heavy lids blocked out the room too beautiful for such a setting of the conflict he felt within.

"Tell them to leave."

His appeal was respectful, but he had no care for what those witnesses would repeat once they were gone. Daryen cared, though.

Long silence followed. But then, so did soft shuffling of feet across the carpets. Then the click of a door. Jai turned around. Daryen stood there, arms crossed. In all their days as friends, he'd never seen the man look hurt, but perhaps Jai was expressful enough for the both of them and so missed the signs. Ironic, considering the potential he saw in every little pattern, to miss something so obvious as a plea for understanding.

They were alone for certain this time. So none was there to see Jai cross and wrap an affectionate hand around the guy's blonde head.

"They are your enemy."

He searched for some sign of recognition. Anything. "After all we've done to purge your land of their stench, you would dine with them and toast a new regime of peace?"
Now it was Jai who pleaded, but knew the sounds fell on deaf ears as it had every time before. He lowered his face to his forearm, resting there on Daryen's shoulder. Memory recalled the taste of rising vomit; the sounds of whimpering threats for revenge; the sulfuric smell of burnt hair. So strong, it smothered the scent of sandalwood in Daryen's golden skin.

Obviously, no king could give in to such requests. Not even from a friend. Not even from Jai.

He tore himself away, and found himself before a window. Staring out as people tend to do when they do not want to confront what was right in front of them. As if the rolling green expanse would offer some heretofore undiscovered suggestion. It never did.

The spilling of liquid from a silver chalice was his answer. Two goblets, both Domani crystal, glittering pale with wine were carried over by Daryen, who now studied the view of his domain as well. Together, the two men drank in unison, but Jai's was finished in one swallow without noting the taste of citrus and flower in the blend.

"A simple hunting trip?"

Jai asked. "Would you believe i've never been hunting a day in my life."
Daryen laughed, and Jai felt a clap on the shoulder.

"Yes, Jai. I absolutely believe you."



By the time the servants returned to finish their preparations, they saw no evidence of the earlier strife. Just the two men quietly lounging on the timber furnishings: Daryen rising when the others arrived like a proper host should; Jai toying with the empty crystal and waiting to be sought out, amazed at the other man's ability to both serve and be served at the same time.


Edited by Jay Carpenter, Sep 12 2016, 07:55 PM.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#4
Light above, what a strange turn the day had taken; moments ago she had been serving an ordinary morning in the Tower’s hall, and now she was basking in the gold light of Arad Doman. The second the door closed behind her, Nythadri stripped her thick stockings with relief, the marble floor blissfully cool under her bare feet; she then pushed the hair off her neck as she explored the room, attempting to cool herself. Sunlight streamed through wall high windows on one side, a door leading to a courtyard beyond; presumably shared by other such guest rooms. Her hair fell back down her shoulders like a curtain of warmth and she pressed a finger along the glass.

“All my life running from nonsense like this, and they send me here.
Banish her back to the Farm for a year rather than to the heart of a political cesspit. The point of which was what, exactly? Fate was no Blue to test her in such a manner, for what interest did a Brown have in Domani court, even if her brother held the throne? Unless the plot went deeper than that; even a Sitter of Fate’s standing could not remove an Accepted from the Tower without Brynn’s permission. She recalled the Brown’s parting admonishments; her lack of Ajah. And how the Blues had dogged her since the day they had carted her to the Tower. Even the Amyrlin had made effort to shape and encourage her gift for the Game.

So I'll play it my way, then. The curl of a smile. Live, had been her advice, and she meant to take it herself. For now, though, with no looming authority inciting her to stand her ground, she flowed like water, content to simply grasp the opportunities that arose and in the meantime let the world beyond these walls pass her by. The silence and the beauty soothed her; she wished for her violin and the rise of inspiration made her fingers itch, but with nothing to record the lilting waves of music that way only lay frustration. And it’s too bloody hot anyway. She turned away from the window, shedding her dress to the thin shift beneath.

A basin held cool water for washing, and clothes were laid out on the bed, near-replicas of her own but for the material and adjustments for riding. She supposed it made no difference, though it roused amusement to think that they had gone to so much trouble – that clothes should be so intrinsic to identity. Another note lay waiting too, this one from Yui herself; an itinerary of sorts, just to remind her that no matter how far away the shining walls, the chains that bound her still held solid. She read through it while curling and pinning her hair up off her neck. Not that the heat was any less sticky, but at least she felt more comfortable.

The way Yui had spoken, the dignitaries were still arriving. Somewhere the estate held Liridia Sedai, but the woman was Brown; if Nythadri kept a low enough profile, the Sister might even forget her Sitter had charged her with the care of a wayward Accepted, so unusual was the task. She imagined Yui would be busy coordinating the influx of arrivals for the time being, and her instructions did not include this slice of time before the gathering for the hunt - except to say that Liridia would at some point seek her out, else that Nythadri should make some efforts to find her.

The reception was not something she was eager to attend, and if she could avoid it she would. Stepping out into the corridor, she decided that this would be an easy place to get lost, each sun-drenched hall looking much like the rest. With no-one to witness her wonder, pale eyes rose to the grand ceiling in appreciation for an architecture so far removed from her country-men. Apparently this split-second was all it took for capture.

"Accepted?"


Her gaze lowered to find a copper-skinned woman moving on silent slippered feet toward her. Light blast it. Nythadri plucked at her sleeves, the floating fabric rippling the seven bands at the cuffs. "Yes, I suppose that's me. Have you come to make sure I escape none of the fun ahead?"


If the sarcasm hit its mark, the servant showed absolutely no indication of it. "This way."


*
The room was abuzz when she entered, her company abandoning her almost at the door. With no retinue or importance to her name it was easy to slip in quietly - the only conspicuous thing about her the sheer paleness of her colouring and dress, at least to any who did not recognise the meaning of the seven stripes. Liberating a glass from a tray as she passed, it was surprisingly easy to locate Liridia; the only woman with her nose in a book. She sipped her wine and watched, but did not approach or interrupt; rather she listened to the conversations around her, seeking to put faces with the names Yui had earlier imparted.
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#5

The tapping of a cane preceeded the anonymous voice serving to herald the coming of every pair. But this was not the palace in Bandar Eban where long lists of titles, accolades, and claims perked the ears of those on baited breath to see who whould next sweep into their company. Few turned from their conversations upon the entrance of this or that Lord and Lady. Most were lowborn anyway, there to the serve highborns holding their oaths. At least many from among those names Jai recognized. He made a point to not learn identities where possible when it came to Arad Doman. Anywhere really. Still, all together, there were not so many as to comfortably disappear in the crowd. So Jai remained where he was. The wolves may be circling, but at least he had the vantage to watch every one. For a long time, his socializing extended only with those rare servants dipping trays of pepper-laden tidbits his way. But they walked away disappointed. The top of Jai's mouth was still not quite right. Those deliverying refills, however, found an eager customer for whatever they were serving.

Of the gold faces he recognized, he quickly picked out the three who would be the object of the day's hunt. Not literally, of course, but the hint of a grin wishfully painted a target on more than one back. Unfortunately, one of the wolves mistook his entertained expression and braved the chance to break away. She took her time about it, but was apparently keen on making sure every facet of her figure beneath her misty, opaque slip of a dress could be appreciated by her audience. And sweet as honey, she seethed her taunt while folding herself on the cushion next to him.

"I am suspicious, Asha'man that you have used the One Power to draw me over. I do not think I may resist much longer."


Jai's brows lifted innocently as he leaned closer to share his secret.

"May I share, Lady Rahkal?"

Pleased at how her lips parted in excitement, Jai guided her close enough so to figuratively transport the pair of them from this buzzing room toward someplace far more private. She really was lovely with her eyes glinting with so much anticipation. But those eyes were empty.

"If I wanted you closer, I'd need not but my bare hands and a smile."
He smirked rather than smile at her increasing pace of breathing and leaned away, satisfied with the delivery of his sarcasm. Hands tucked purposefully far from her grasp. The Lady was beautiful, but dimwitted, and likely she'd never understand so backhanded a comment.

Then it seemed his singled out attention attracted another brave wolf. This one's dulcet voice filtered close as she also folded herself into the cushions. This time on his other side. Jai slowly turned toward her.

"Pleasant to see you again, Asha'man. And you as well, Lady Rahkal. I believe your husband wanted a word with you."

One lift of a brow and Nisele's competition was driven away.

Jai wasn't exactly sad to see it go.

Nisele tucked her legs under in a most girlish sort of way. If there was one thing he learned, it was a Domani woman did nothing on accident. But in her close-cropped riding attire, which fit her like a glove, she was most certainly not a girl. From her silk black lashes rimmed in charcoal to her sun-kissed fingers, it was as if Nisele's very warmth was bred for attraction.

"Councilwoman. It is always a pleasure."

While bowing his head, somehow Nisele's hand snaked across his and was pressed to his lips. He smirked at her boldness, but managed to catch a brief glimpse down her line of sight. The parting of shapes revealed the familiar form of their King. Unreadable as ever, Daryen looked back. Well, he couldn't blame her for watching, but did Nisele want him to see? Blasted nobles! They were so bloody stirred up. Jai couldn't imagine a woman at court who hadn't tried every trick to win a permanent place in the king's bed. But driving the man jealous was a creative way to go about it. Well, Jai never said he wouldn't take one for the team. Nisele was one of the three powers to win today.

Suppressing a sigh, he leaned back, snapped them over a pair of drinks to let the show begin and tried not to wonder what happened to Nythadri.

[/color=#b40000]"I had no idea you had a fondness for hunting, my Lady. And what is your game of choice?" [/color]His remark over her attire was met with her glittering laughter. The briefest of touches, the most coy of glances.

"Not hunting. Horses, my dear foreign Asha'man. Surely they have horses in whichever land you hail. Do you not also yearn to ride?"

Jai's smirk broadened in understanding. She had no idea. But it was an easy point to tease: a man with a mysterious past who claims to hail from no country at all, jokes in neutral accent, yet was nearly given away by his extraordinary height. Only a few groups traited such physicality to their sons but so far he was undiscovered. Nisele was brilliant at digging, though. So believeable was her curiosity that he considered whispering his lineage in her ear. But that was one stone he was not yet ready to lose to this board. She wouldn't believe it anyway. Malkier was a myth to most people. Especially in the south.

Their chat continued, and when Nisele thought he looked away, she glanced so predictably across the room to see if Daryen noted their closeness. Jai considered suggesting Daryen just get it over with and bed her. It wasn't as if it would be a chore, considering the partner. Nisele would certainly join their cause then. But anything resembeling committing to one particular woman and Daryen practically panicked.

So Jai was the lucky recipient of her charms for now. Not that he minded. Every curl to her lips and list of her jaw was designed to capture an image - one that magified the Highborn Lady's immense beauty. Such was her skill that she had the power to transform that image into whatever it was she thought the object of her vision desired most. Power? Dominion? Influence? And she would be a wilting flower of submission ready to be conquered. Passion? Darkness? Lust? And she would fulfill every desire a man didn't know he had.

Jai was not immune. Her brush painted a tempting image, after all, but short of direct orders from command, he would do nothing more than lean back and watch her continue to stroke the canvas. Besides, she labored so greatly for a masterpiece.

He scanned the room, half bored and half to give her the chance to pose for Daryen again, and finally found the answer to his earlier thought. This time, Nisele looked down his line of sight and found a girl in the strangest garments she'd ever seen.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#6
She drifted for a while, effortlessly mingling without attaching herself to conversation, and helping herself to plenty of wine. The majority of exchanges were banal. Either no one truly knew what Daryen was planning – unlikely – else it was something heavy enough to need easing in gently; even the speculation was confined to vague hopes of ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ and copious talk of 'future.' A little tension marked the ease of people who otherwise knew each other well, but that it itself was pretty unremarkable. After gaining a vague understanding of the faces to avoid, her interest lapsed further. Yui was unaccounted for, and Jai occupied.

Comfortable with her solitude, but dangerously bored, she eventually she came to pause by one of the windows, contemplating escape behind a sheet of glass. It would be a wonderful place to explore without so many tiresome people around. If she could Travel, she might slip away with no-one to notice. What harmonies might they favour here? Sometimes she wished she’d never rediscovered her violin; it was like a wound that refused to staunch its flow, that itch to play. Should have left that addiction when I left my life. Memories of family washed through her mind, but the concern was abandoned just as quickly. I wonder what the city is like.

“Have you assessed the room enough, my Lady, to finally ascertain we are not all about to bite?”


Her eyes refocused from the view to the faint reflection of a man behind her. Copper skin, black hair, the ghost of a face imposed by verdant gardens and morning sun. She considered ignoring him entirely, but there came a time when anonymity became not only impossible, but insufferably boring.

“Truth told, the party is rather dull.”
She turned to greet her would-be rescuer, perching herself on the windowsill with half-filled glass in hand. Someone had opened one of the far windows, and a faint breeze cooled her sweat-beaded skin. Thank the Light, even if the respite was faint and scarce. He wasn’t old; perhaps not even of an age with her brother, had his thread not been cut short when he was the age she was now. Carefully oiled hair, no hint of beard – rather handsome, actually, but with the unappealing air of one who knew it and perhaps overestimated his charm. Pleasant enough to look at, pleasant enough distraction as the minutes trickled ever slowly towards... what, exactly?

He shrugged, appearing disappointed by the dry nature of her answer. Ladies were supposed to enjoy such gatherings, and a foreigner should be pleased with inclusion at all; Nythadri read it in him, and saw it dismissed. Clearly, his motive for approaching her had not stemmed from the kindness of his heart, nor probably from his own head. “Maybe you expend too much effort trying to appear inconspicuous?”


“Hardly. I spent much of my adolescence avoiding the courts of Caemlyn. I have had plenty of practise.”
Her lips tilted a hidden smile, but he just look confused. Tedious. “It takes a great deal of rehearsal to perfect the right expression of boredom and unapproachability without being downright rude. I thought I was doing all right until now.”
She softened the insult with a wink and smirked at him over the rim of her glass. How many have I had? Wine not watered down was a luxury unknown to Accepted, and she had not eaten since breakfast at dawn that morning.

“Well..."
he began slowly, testing the unusually frigid waters with sensible caution. "That begs the question: why are you here?”


“Light, I wish I knew.”
If she had a goal, at least she could work towards ticking the necessary boxes, but the information she had to work with was so limited. That either called for initiative, or patience. Her gaze flicked momentarily to Liridia, but she considered interrupting the Sister a last resort. Patience it remained, then, for now at least. “I’m a guest of sorts, I suppose. Not completely willingly, I might add...”


“Of the king’s?”


She smirked at the over-reaching attempt for information, though his expression was all apparent innocence. “More of his sister’s, actually.”


“Ah.”
His gaze travelled to her pale hand, and finally settled on the ring. “Then you’re… Aes Sedai?”


“Light, don’t accuse me of that
She laughed, and found that the amusement was genuine. He was trying very hard to fathom her out, and perhaps she had teased him enough. A man who at least tried to navigate the barbed ice of Nyhadri's humour was worth the politeness of a conversation at least, particularly when it suited a cure for current tedium. “Accepted, if knowing my title pleases you. But plain Nythadri will do."


“Tamal Suaya.”
He gestured his glass with a white grin, like this exchange of names assured them the firmest of friends.

She let the young man chatter on, picking out bits and pieces to comment on and returning enough for him to realise there was no political gain to be found here. In kind, his topics of choice distanced from current affairs to trivial and leisurely matters, and Nythadri’s interest waned further. Her gaze traversed those gathered, observing the curious who watched her conversation until she pinpointed a man in riding gear lined at collar and cuff with exquisite fur despite the heat. He tipped his glass and she nodded faintly in turn. Suaya. A name Yui had mentioned. She squeezed her memory, already pleasantly fuzzy and resistant to firm hold. Imaad. Imaad Suaya Important, then, if Yui had included it in her subtle list of who not to offend. So much for inconspicuous.

A few times she watched Jai. But there was a reason for her distance from the only person in the room she actually knew, despite the relief his company would bring. Though Daryen was busy playing the perfect host, it seemed reasonable to assume that it was common knowledge Jai had his ear, and Nythadri had no interest in association with him alerting her unusual presence to the nest of vipers that followed the scent of royalty. Perhaps when the dust of frenzied alliance making had settled, when the banter and charm-offensive had died down, if he did not return to Daryen’s circle by such a time. It wasn’t easy to blend in while stark in Accepted robes, though, and her colouring only set her apart more. He found her eventually, and so did the contemplating gaze of the latest woman sat with him. Oh, thank you very much, Asha’man. Perhaps he didn’t even realise the snub, but the domani creature of beauty and grace that vied for his attention would certainly have noticed.

“You know the Asha’man?”


“More a recent acquaintance.”


“Better it stay that way, if you were to ask my advice.”
Tamal glanced the way of the black-clad man and his company before turning square-shouldered away, almost entirely blocking Nythadri’s own view.

“Oh?”


“Rakish sort. Nice enough, they say, but…”
He trailed off, recalculating his route. Dark eyes flickered to her ring, but eventually he continued. “Perhaps not as.. wholesome as some of his brothers in black. Volatile temper - the servants hear him raving, then the next minute he is gone."
Bitterness edged his tone. "This, the man who protects our king. You can appreciate the concern."


"You think he's touched by the Taint,"
she said flatly. The sharpness of his gaze berated her plain way of saying it, when he had tried to be so careful in his phrasing. His irritation had the drip of poison to it, but perhaps her perceptions were clouded by impressions of kinship. Twice in less than an hour she had seen his face drop to menace, like his world was raging a torrent around him while he clung to anything solid to prevent being swept away with it. And she knew as well as any power-born that appearance was little indication of true age.

"I'm not making accusations."
He held his free hand in an open, pacifying gesture. "Just offering friendly advice."
He smiled, whatever thoughts of Jai that had darkened his expression vanishing as quickly as they had settled, and made his excuses, leaving Nythadri alone with a head swimming full of thoughts. Too much wine. She finished her glass, and vowed it was the last. Friendly advice, is it? Somewhere in the sea of faces Imaad Suaya was watching to see which move she made. This blasted game. Despite every intention to remain impartial, she already found herself tangling uncontrollably. Once, her father had told her it was in her blood. It was the very fact she had no choice that made her fight her nature so. "Blood and Ashes."
She dumped her glass more harshly than intended on a startled servant's tray, and took a moment to steel the ice within. I'll regret this.

She glanced at Liridia as she passed, and wondered of just how much the Light blasted woman was truly aware. Was that a smile touching the edges of those ageless lips? As if there is any doubt. Conversation had resumed by the time she approached the two ensconced in cushions and seated herself without invitation or introduction. Considering the sharp look of the woman, she might as well have just stuck her hand in a nest of adders, but any hope at civility had evaporated the moment Jai had insulted her advances with a bored sweep of the room, so the offence hardly mattered - nothing Nythadri did now would change her opinion. A wry smirk was close to the only greeting. "You look about as fed-up as I feel."


Move made.
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#7


And the wolves danced. They taunted one another as much as their prey As far as Jai noticed. Including Nythadri, it seemed. Now, as he had when listening to wolf song in the past, he made no gesture to indicate wanting to do anything about it. He had a feeling she'd be fine, anyway. It was Tamal he was worried about. Nythadri would eat him alive.

"Friend of yours?"



Nisele's ringing voice reminded him where he was. He grit his teeth and put her curious face back front and center.

"I can't say the Lord and I are on such good terms."

Jai stretched, obviously trying to catch a glimpse of the creature Tamal had found, but his narrow frame blocked the view. Jai gave up and settled on studying the closer woman. "It seems he has good taste."
Nisele accepted the comparison to Nythadri well, but by the slow way she rolled her lashes their direction, Jai knew his reach struck some sort of chord. And he wondered what thought flashed behind her dark eyes that she wouldn't say.

Thankfully a slick-cheeked manservant clipped short any rebuke by offering the seated guests something to pass across their lips. Nisele plucked one colorful stack from the paper wrappings and devoured it rather aggressively. Apparently she imagined Jai was the dark, lustful, passionate type? He nodded appreciatively, but waved the smell of heat away yet again. A good meal would be welcoming, but he preferred waiting until evening before melting his face off.

"Might I suggest this one, sir?"

The young man's tenor voice drew Jai's surprise up to the lad's face. The servant, decked in the royal house colors, smiled suggestively and pointed to one colorful morsel. Jai learned his first day in country that the Domani were fond of heat, but something in the way the lad met his eye convinced him to set aside his usual evasive measures and partake.

His mouth filled with blessed water. But not with spice.

"Excellent suggestion."

He flashed the lad a grateful smile. Light, his stomach could have smiled. Both men nodded and for the remainder of the reception, the same young man brought other trays, always angled just so to separate out the bland incognito pieces from their boiling counterparts. From afar, Daryen noted his messenger was well received.

After, Nisele, who herself curiously watched the lad toe quietly into the crowd, and Jai drifted. Their conversation was slowed by all the activity, but Jai had no desire to spark anything back to life. In fact, as Nisele leaned and toyed with anything she could on him, Jai was beginning to wonder when the call outdoors would come. He imagined the sun on his face. Waited for the wind to rise.

"You look about as fed-up as I feel." Nythadri's voice.

Thank the Light.

"I was just thinking about our ride."

His relief wafted as strong as those dangerous spices. But just to ram the knife in a little farther in Nisele's back, he roamed the folds of Nythadri's white dress on his other side as though it weren't his first exploration there. The hope that it wouldn't be his last made him think perhaps it was he who'd been too free with the wine. Not that he was going to do anything about it either.

He waited for recognition, but Nisele clammed up. Unfortunately, the brunt of her ire seemed directed at Nythadri rather than him. He didn't expect that. That one would probably come back to bite him. Or her, given the tone of her greeting. "Do you need some water, my dear? You look positively faint."
She smiled as the mature woman admiring the overreaching hand of the young and brave. "Domani wine is not for everyone."
She spoke in Jai's ear, but looked directly into Nythadri's foreign eyes.

He laughed. Loudly. Dropped his head back, greeted the painted ceiling like an old friend, and laughed. The buzz did not react, but more than one pair of eyes glanced their way. What a strange place to be. He was up to his neck in people he hated and considered abandoning his promise once again as he had three days ago and disappear through a gate.

He studied the painted shapes of long horned deer prancing about the ceiling. It really was a beautiful depiction of the land around them. Arad Doman wasn't all that bad. Heat included, besides people tended to wear little in such weather. Remaining clothes could be shed and watery pools were easy to find in noble circles. Although he wouldn't want to be here as a poor man. The salty waves of the Aryth Ocean was worth the wait when came the rare time to wade in it. If only Daryen would abandon this treaty, Jai could slip back into the way things were. Not that it was that great before, but facing a future without it, he wasn't sure he knew what to do if he actually found what he was looking for.

The feminine banter, one in each ear, had ceased, he realized. How long had he looked at the ceiling? He supposed he should do something useful. He had nothing better to do anyway. And a Razor was still waiting.

"Ladies."

He smiled, and flashed each woman the same hinting charm that first caught Daryen's attention. Just to seal the deal, he emphasized Nisele's comments about wine by reaching into Saidin, wrenched forth difficult wands of its fury, and used it to steal glasses off a passing tray. The woman who bore it only realized they were gone when the weight on her wrist shifted.

Once the pair of crystals were safely wrapped in feminine fingers, and a third in his own, he concealed a shiver when Saidin rushed free of his grasp by pouring the liquid down his throat in one acidic throw.

"Councilwoman Nisele Kedar. Allow me to introduce you."

The Councilwoman's taut expression did not take lightly to being ranked second in introductions. Surely it would offend her enough to leave. "To Nythadri."


No surname. Because he did not know it. Nor any of her titles if she had them, beyond Accepted, but it seemed wrong to brand her so. Introductions complete, Jai swung his head between the two women, but stopped on Nythadri. His cue that he was about done playing.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#8
Nythadri was an Accepted and as good as untouchable, but she was still a woman, and the lingering intensity of his gaze was like the shiver of soft fingertips. Don’t tempt me. She only arched a brow at such empty promises, the closest to admonishment she could express at such flagrant use of her appearance to vex another woman. As she settled herself, ready for the barbs to come, she considered playing the heavy hand of her serpent ring to sever hostilities before they really began. Few this far south knew the intricacies of Tower hierarchy, and she doubted the domani would take the chance of offending an Aes Sedai. But the acid was minimal, which meant her seeds were sewn else the threat Nythadri presented was negligible. Maybe she did know what the seven stripes meant.

“How refreshing to find concern for my delicate health. I’m so glad you don’t mind if I sit for a while.”
Ice buried under a layer of sweetness, the sarcasm steeped in enough genuine charm to make it difficult to detect unless you simply knew Nythadri. Easy work to use a deliberate misunderstanding of the woman’s attempt to demean her; her mistake had been assuming Nythadri was a rival for Jai’s attentions – in which case such a remark might have been mortifying – but as it was she just settled into the role of inexperienced youth like an old glove, seeming blissfully unaware that she had intruded upon something private. It left her on uneven footing, but being foreign and a stranger did that anyway. And there were some games she really did have no interest in playing.

Like any normal man confronted with the uncomfortable reality of two fractious woman, Jai retreated. Startled by his sudden laughter, she studied the line of his shadowed jaw, vulnerable throat disappearing into the high collar of the black. Did he have any idea that the wolves circled at a distance, pouring poison in willing ears? Or, she assumed it was poison; she was undecided on that. And does it matter to me anyway? Was she really going to choose Red, to make it her business to police such possibilities? She had suspected lack of control back in the entrance Hall, and if she had really cared she would have hailed a Sister there and then. It wasn’t moral rightness that had swayed her.

Ice-pale eyes turned to the beautiful golden cobra as the silence began to stretch and it seemed the Asha’man was quite determined to pretend he was on another continent. There was little about her that was not alluring, from the curve of golden skin to the kohl smoking her eyes – though they narrowed to faint distaste when they alighted on Nythadri. Still, Jai was either a fool or a gentleman not to take advantage of what was laid out for him. Has she any idea what they say of him? Probably. Clearly she had her own intentions for Jai, but was not beyond a disparaging lift of the eyebrow when the man’s laughter faded to silent contemplation of the ceiling.

Nythadri shrugged.

In the crowd, many eyes had turned at the loud laughter; some remained even now, if subtly; she imagined Tamal’s fervent whispers building. But rumours and gossip were just that; she doubted Jai truly cared what others thought, any less than she had ever cared for the hearsay that followed her. She didn’t blame his absence, but it didn’t exactly bode well for his state of mind. Touched by the taint, Tamal had suggested, but was that even possible? She realised she didn’t know enough about the workings of the Black Tower to know. Would the Amyrlin allow such a man to walk free? Particularly given the devastation the White Tower had suffered at the hands of Kentrillo Orander – and he had no such excuses.

Between the recesses of her musing, the same words whispered. Some friendly advice. It revolved in her head, and with it came a sense of disquiet. She searched for Imaad Suaya’s face, but found him turned away. It’s been too long since I played the Game. It was easy to get paranoid – though usually it only happened when you tried to find your own place in the tangled web of daes dae’mar. Seeing the snares around other people was easier, so she wouldn’t dismiss the feelings in her gut out of hand. But it was too early to judge if there had been a warning laced with that advice, she decided, and wished she had considered more thoroughly before acting on instinct.

Still… (and she loathed the way her mind ticked three steps ahead, even as she tried to detach herself) she wondered if this liaison she had interrupted might prove useful down the line –plenty of people had seen the coy touches and flirtatious banter; that Nisele showed no cautionary fear of a man with a violent temper - though Jai would do better to keep his appearances with her public until the hunt was over; she had the distinct feeling that Nisele would turn if it suited her, and the vapid cry of a woman calling assault made a distinct impression, particularly in the ears of other men. If Tamal Suaya’s veiled hints were anything to go by, Jai would do well to keep a low, amenable profile altogether; and a good start would be stop insulting such a malleable ally.

Neither woman had spoken since Jai’s laughter had fallen to nothing. The domani began to smooth the material over her shapely legs, the lazy recline of her posture like a cat finished basking itself in the sun but not yet ready to saunter on. She was bored, but to leave now would be to accept a defeat. It did not stop her thick-lashed eyes roaming, nor the faint trace of smile on her lips as gazes were caught in her snare. Nythadri suddenly realised that she looked an awful lot at Daryen; that her whole body seemed minutely turned to give him the best picture. Clever woman.

And then the uncomfortable moment was over; Jai returned as though he had never left. Nythadri glanced briefly at the ceiling, as though to grasp what fascination had sparked his interest up there, but her attention was distracted as drinks arrived. And maybe that was the point. It felt strange to see the glasses move without being able to sense the power that wound about them – and she did, in that brief moment, try very hard to sense something. It was infatuating, the effects of a force she couldn’t touch or control or sense; there was something thrilling in the unknown and unpredictable. Her fingers smoothed the cool glass, but there was no trace of saidin’s touch.

Nisele Kedar. Another name, and another face she had wished to avoid. Of course, the hope to float on the periphery had all but vanished the moment she had reacted to Tamal’s comments and sat down. Her own introduction was a stark reminder that Jai knew nothing about her, and she little about him. So why get involved, Nythadri? She owed him nothing; had barely known him an hour. He had left something of an impression, she granted him that. And he had the charm, the humour, the looks that drew many women in. Nythadri appreciated beauty, but she did not consider herself led by it. She would not follow a pretty face to the cliff-edge, and jump. So why am I here?

She tapped her fingers along the stem of the glass, rippling the liquid within, but ultimately set the drink aside. “I think I might take Lady Nisele’s advice. Perhaps the spice of domani wine is not for me.”
A smile, a small nod of deference. The infinitesimal pursing of plump lips was the only indication that the lady was only now realising the trap of geniality that she had laid for herself. Placing herself the wiser woman had only made it easier for Nythadri to nestle beneath her wing, and it would be unwomanly to rebuff her now. She could expect plenty of snide comments veiled in niceties, of course, but it made it difficult for her to dismiss Nythadri altogether. It was a truce that would hold, for now.

She hated how she found these games so easy.

Jai might wonder at her change in tact; certainly she did not use such caution when it was her own reputation at stake, and she doubted he would appreciate the gesture - if he even ever realised that she acted for his benefit.

After her initial displeasure, Nisele slipped effortlessly back into perfect repose and demonstrated the reaffirmation of her prowess by taking the reins of the conversation. She played up her relationship with Jai, of course, with plenty of coy touches to arm and hand to remind Nythadri to whom he belonged. The roles of the game were set, and it was easy to drift behind a wall of reverence – a tactic most usually employed when speaking to the more self-righteous of Aes Sedai, who liked to remind Accepted that they were mere children. It was easy but dreary, and the life behind those pale eyes winked almost out of existence, if her animation and involvement in the conversation remained fluid. And no matter how placid the façade of the current nature, she simply couldn’t help her flirtations with sarcasm, so carefully hidden that only brief glances at the Asha’man and knowledge of an uncannily similar sense of humour marked their existence. She began to regret rejecting the wine, the pleasant haze of her earlier glasses already beginning to fade.

Nythadri’s display of deference, genuine or not, made an easy path for Nisele to excuse herself with dignity and superiority intact, once she was ready to leave. After a few taut minutes of polite small-talk, she made a show of having others to greet before the call to the hunt was announced. Nythadri was not often quick to envy, but even rising from floor cushions Nisele was graceful. A warm golden hand brushed Jai’s as she stood, so close he would be able to smell the subtle scent of her perfumed skin. “Until the hunt.”
A twinge of jealousy buried in her stomach, swallowed by the frustration that the woman sauntered away so bloody slowly.

With Nisele’s beautiful back turned, Nythadri let her head tilt back in mimic of Jai’s, though only for second, and in a gesture of pure relief rather than abdication from his company. “Oh. Light.”
When she sat forward she liberated her glass from the floor and took a long sip before nestling it back in the cushions. No point letting Nisele see, and undoing all the hard work of flattery. “That’s the last time I come to save you from insufferable company.”
Raised brows dared him to refuse that he had been bored, or that he had sought her out from across the room. “I got stuck with Tamal Suaya. Whatever Daryen’s planning, I think he can count on their support.”
No point dancing the subject; she wanted to read his reaction.
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#9

Now Jai began to wonder if he finally lost his mind. Just to make sure, he blinked a few times to check for hallucinations. Had Nythadri's eyes actually turned demure? Was a few choice words from the exquisit Nisele all it had taken to subdue her? Then, he checked Nisele for the extent of his mind-warp. Perhaps she'd rolled over and wanted scratched behind the ears?

Unfortunately, no peace was found in Nisele's marble face. He couldn't imagine staring at something so plumply beautiful for so long without finding something satisfying. How people managed to pull the rope and black out their feelings so easily, he had no idea. Yet here he was being drawn in by such a curtain. Except, did Nisele look...? No, it made no sense. Why would she look displeased? Bloody women! Bloody, light-forsaken, blasted creatures.

Then Nythadri turned. Maybe. A sweet smile on her lips one moment and a flash of defiance the next. Nisele feeding the Accepted poisoned honey from a silver spoon. After minutes of their charade, Jai began to question the delusion and eye Nythadri's undisturbed wine. She might, but he had no intention of wasting it. When drank fast enough, the only thing that bit was the acid anyway. Unfortunately, Daryen never stocked anything stronger. Imaad generally kept a flask buried in all those ugly furs. If things went any more down hill, Jai would have to ask to borrow it. Just to liven things up a bit, since Nythadri seemed to be the exact opposite of what he first imagined her to be: flat as the soles cladding Nisele's supple boots.

It was no wonder, given how he'd misjudged Nythadri's earlier fire, like ash-white coal pulsing deep and hot, waiting to be disturbed to the wind, that Nisele's parting words now piqued his interest instead. He was left with the distinct impression of her expertise. If she was so talented at something as simple as walking... he recalled how her fingers grazed the back of his hand, the cool stream of whispering air passing over lips toward his ear, the lingering evidence of her perfume teasing the senses in her absence; his chest raced with the possibilities as he watched her walk away. Don't think Jai didn't think about it. He was only human, after all. Perhaps this hunt might not be so dull as he imagined..?

A wisp of darkness moved in the corner of one eye. When Jai's eyes snapped to it on instinct, he was relieved it was only a dark curl of hair falling on the cushion and not the creeping of some sudden shadow's edge. Short-lasting relief slowly transformed into the frown of caution.

"Save me..?"



The sedate creature of moments ago disappeared but studying Nythadri's pale eyes, daring him to grasp for impossible handholds in their icy ravine, he clearly tried to figure her out.

An encore replayed her surprising comments. Over and over. Mention of Daryen's name forced a search for the man, followed on the heels of Tamal's. An hour ago Nythadri was in Tar Valon. Jai could not imagine how she knew the dealings discussed only behind closed doors. Unless. He drew a dry breath. And forced himself to swallow it. Was this Fate's doing? The king's sister. He itched to glance at Daryen's shape drifting in and out of sight. Powerful, but just as graceful. The king's hair was paler, but the intensity to his eyes and leanness of his frame mimicked his lineage in perfect form enhanced only by the rare appearances in black. An exquisite man, as Fate was an exquisite woman.

As a power of the world and late to their meeting, Fate could have planted someone to watch him fester in the entrance hall alone. Then use that same captivating presence to draw him to a Gate. Back here. Perhaps Daryen was innocent, but Jai knew the White Tower's potential for manipulation.

He flicked an incriminating glance at Nythadri's ring, but it was those eyes that drew him back up. He danced the edge of a sword, trying to decide where she stood. But in the end, it was her hinting eyes which settled his decision to invest.

Across the room, Jai suddenly drew the attention of the sole person there who might be aware of what he did. Daryen was used to Saidin frequently punching him alert when another Asha'man was around. More when that Asha'man was Jai, who seemed to channel too freely in the presence of a superior. A ward though? A momentary lapse in his mask revealed something of curiosity, but following in their king's lead, those in nearby conversation, unaware of the Power's menace, assumed only a displeased demeanor from their ruler.

Saidin boiled. It was harder to contain, three separate strands over one. Worse when one was Air, but diverting focus from the easier to grasp folds of Fire made the task easy. His eyes darted as he crafted, but never far from their place on the cushions. A few seconds later and Jai leaned close enough to be appropriate for two people clearly attracted to one another so to speak low in her ear. His only warning was to hold her hand down with his. To keep her from jumping. To stay in role.

"If we appear to speak at volume but they can no longer hear us, they will suspect. And there are some present who know the convenience of wards."



Small wisps of her hair tickled his face. There was sweat there; beads where her hair met the side of her neck, clear as crystal in the summer sun he saw them. It made him wonder where else her pale skin slicked so. So sudden was the realization of heat it made him remember the concentration to ignore it. So automatic now after all these years, it was like suddenly reminding someone to remember to blink. It was all he could do to douse that flame back. The sweat was not the only reminder of the chasm between him and the woman so close he could see her breathing. No matter how fine the fabric, the black uniform seemed to disgrace the purity of her white robes, or tried to darken their only bands of color.

"He wants a permanent truce with the seanchan."



To aid the illusion, Jai used the excuse of a loosened bit of hair to tenderly stroke it into submission down her neck. Near his stroking, long lines moved under her skin and he could picture the musician flexing in them. Saidin thrashed inside in response, reminding him to not release it while so close to feminine skin. It enhanced the senses thrillingly. A lesson Jai learned early on.

"Suaya and his brother. A few others. Today's hunt the chance to win their support." He shifted rather than leaned closer. It took concentration to keep the storm of Saidin from forcing his words into harshness. Instead, they took on the sound of hunger. Of needing something worth everything he still believed in. Which wasn't much.

"That cannot happen."

Heavy was the proclamation as though the weary found a firm will for one last attempt to triumph.

It was quickly replaced. By hollowed vacancy. "Do you have ghosts, Nythadri?"
The question was serious as the grave. And when he leaned away from her ear, he laid this appeal before her captivating eyes.

It is said only the insane may judge reality. In this moment, Jai was as real as he knew how to be, revealing the view of a thousand condemned faces screaming from his own. While they existed, there could be no truce.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#10
Jai looked immeasurably confused, and then unexpected darkness rushed into his expression. An awareness flicked back over her words, seeking the source of a frown so intense and a gaze so searching. Doesn’t he realise how easy it is to circulate a room full of people and find enough answers to talk like I know what I’m on about? He was aware of the Game – painfully aware by the looks of it – but he couldn’t see it like she did. What was darkness and shadows and subterfuge to most people was strings and light to Nythadri, sometimes as clear as the threads of saidar. She didn’t break the defiance of her gaze, though there was a tinge of fear caressing the edges of her mind. Doubts.

He hadn’t understood the dance with Nisele, that was clear, but she had guessed as much even before she had made the decision to acquiesce the older woman. And that glance to her ring suggested a lack of trust; that perhaps building tenuous foundations with Nisele had collapsed whatever judgements Jai had made to dust and rubble. And what does his opinion matter anyway? Old defiance stirred, but with it flooded an unusual rush of frustration. She was well acquainted to being misconstrued and rarely felt the need to clarify herself in even the direst of misunderstandings. But his quickness to judge burned a deep offence before she caught the net of emotions, the barest flash in her eyes that suggested he would have a battle on his hands if he thought he was going to cast her aside on account of Nisele.

Then his attention began to wane and she was very close to standing and leaving him there alone. She thought she had been ready for a number of eventualities, but the sudden schism of his behaviour only echoed Tamal’s whispers with increasing intensity. I need some air. I need some bloody air. Only he leaned in and clamped a hand on hers before she could shift. Her first thought was alarm. But the warmth of his palm travelled heat up her arm; a hand she had dubbed as belonging to a killer, and even now she found beauty in the terror, the contrast of tan skin and white, the softness of a touch only meant as a move in a game. She understood the gesture, and did not snatch her hand away despite the strong desire to do just that. The look in her eye was dangerous, but it faded to cool when he explained himself.

A ward? Nothing had changed to her senses. It didn’t seem possible, though in retrospect she recognised the signs in his face and movements that she had initially mistaken for mania. But why was it necessary? Because he’s tainted, he’s paranoid, he’s delusional. The seeds burrowed deep, and Jai did little to convince her otherwise, though if he was trying to distract her he was doing a good job. He leaned close enough to momentarily soothe her doubts, even if the words marked this as an elaborate performance. She might have lost herself a little in the illusion, if he had not divulged Daryen’s plans.

The Seanchan? Confusion, disgust, disbelief. What, exactly, were the terms of that going to be? Her instinct was to keep her face neutral, but beneath that was an undeniable desire to let him understand that she hadn’t known. Only he was still talking and - was it necessary to touch her like that? There didn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the space between them, and the dark glaze of his eyes was intoxicating. Over the rising thump of her heart, she had to physically remind herself it was a game – that the way he smoothed her hair, tracing a line down her neck, was for the benefit of idle spectators, not for her. She wondered if he had any idea how cruel it was to toy with her like that, and if he paid any attention to the gaze locking his, he might notice the faint traces of ice promising future retribution. Especially if Liridia had noticed any of that exchange.

If she was warm before she was boiling now, her heart beating an ardent rhythm in her chest. For a moment the Game had silenced, and it took her a moment longer than usual to digest what he had said. A few things became clear in a dismaying way; Jai’s words revealed not only a warning in Tamal’s words, but a threat. The Asha’man had used caution now, but how well known was his disagreement with the king? The servants hear him raging. So he had a target painted on his back, but only if he made a spectacle of himself. She hoped to see control, but all she saw was the hunger of a man resolute to see his cause to the end, whatever the cost.

She wouldn’t follow a pretty face to the cliff edge, and jump. Probably.

It crossed her mind to warn him, but she wasn’t convinced he could handle talk of a conspiracy against him. Plus he didn’t trust her. He might accuse her of playing games; and at worst, she might inadvertently accomplish Imaad Suaya’s goals for him. After all, what evidence did she even have but a series of puzzle pieces that just clicked? Then I’ll have to speak to the man. If he didn’t seek her out first, which she suspected he might. Playing both sides of the coin would be dangerous, but she had to assure herself that she was not wrong – particularly if she chose to do anything about it, if anything even needed to be done. Jai certainly wasn’t a pawn to be moved about a board.

He was, in fact, the most dangerous kind of player; one intelligent enough to see the devilry around him, but without the finesse to see it clearly (or so her opinion was at this time). If she was not careful with her dabbling he would judge her duplicitous, but if she sided with him publicly she would lose all advantage with Imaad - and might even find herself caught in the cross-fire. Blood. And. Ashes. Too late to retreat now; she’d jumped into the river without realising how it raged, and now her only option was to keep swimming.

‘Do you have ghosts, Nythadri?’ The words came with a chill, drawing her attention to hollowed eyes. She didn’t answer, though her brother’s face swam in a sea of blood. Hardly a drop in the ocean confronted with the gravity of Jai’s expression and the images it conjured. How many women have you killed? She watched him for a long time. If he wanted pity he had implored the wrong woman, but she did not think he would expect it from her. Light she hoped it was a calculated decision to reveal such ugly demons, because the Creator preserve him if Suaya’s lot ever found themselves enlightened with such information. It would take less than a heart-beat to ruin him. Suddenly the ward did seem necessary.

“Winds reaching the Tower say the Blight is stirring, and even Andor’s lions are listening to the call. Maybe he should be looking north, rather than making questionable bedfellows.”
Not the strongest of arsenals; this far south, the touch of the Dark One’s creatures was like a children’s tale: too distant to make any real impact. And of course there were two sides to that argument anyway; a single enemy was better than two, and the Seanchan posed the more immediate threat to this part of the world. It was a cause to lend his disagreement credence, anyway, rather than an argument of pure irrational emotion. Perhaps he could find use of it.

Brief advice offered, she considered what she actually thought of the idea. A Grey might consider the merits to the people, and to the Tower. But what would a peace-treaty really mean to a nation with such foreign standards? Truce or no truce, while they still collared channelers, they were an enemy. For someone usually so apathetic, her reaction was resolute. She almost bit back her next words, considering the close relationship between the man in front of her and the king she was about to disparage, but the dry insult slipped out. “He’s either brave or foolish, considering how he won his throne.”
Negotiations with the Seanchan had certainly not gone well for his predecessor.

Again she fell to limp silence, mostly because he looked so grave in his black uniform and with such a weighty expression. She wouldn’t prod his past; she wouldn’t judge his reasoning. He’d offered her the most intimate form of transparency and she didn’t understand why. Maybe he’s a better player than I thought? The Game was tangling in her mind, and self-loathing rose like bile. She had to find a balance, and grasp it tight or it would swallow her. Light but this room was too hot, and the buzz of numerous conversations too loud. Her eyes closed briefly, her face tilting away. "So that's why you left."
And Fate had engineered his path back? And perhaps he even might conceive to think that their meeting in the front hall had not been accidental, either.

"I know you don't trust me. Or you're not sure, at least."
Said without accusation, as bald a fact as her previous statement. "I grew up in the courts of Caemlyn - a proper Lady in title if little else. But daes dae'mar is like fumes, it seeps in even when you try to avoid it... and sometimes the Creator gives you gifts you'd rather give back."
It's in my blood. "I hated that life, still do; I understand the need to run."
She found she was twisting the serpent ring round and round with her thumb. And how many times had she regretted this life? But she had made oaths she would not break, and she thought he would understand that. "But I also understand duty."
- and why he had walked back through that Gate. She shrugged, leaning back. It was rare she offered anything of herself. She had told Tamal precisely because she wanted him to know she could play the Game but that she had no interest, at the time insistent to the idea of staying away from the fracas. She told Jai to offer a foothold in the ice, that he might understand she was not against him. "Light I could use some air,"
the words murmured, her hand slipping out from under his. She would ask him what he planned to do about Daryen, but later. Right now she wanted distance, to pull herself back from the precipice.
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