Bors stepped into the wide, shadowy room and looked around. There were no windows, but faint light was filtering in from somewhere. There must have been a hundred Darkfriends in the room, and half as many blank-eyed servants of no consequence wandering through their midst, serving where they were required. Bors examined some of the other invitees, but it was difficult to make out much detail behind the heavy cloth masks and dark, all-encompassing robes. He spotted a Sea Folk man, tall and slender, with a tattoo of a six-pointed star on his right hand, and an Andoran Queen’s Guard with gleaming golden lion-head spurs on his boots. There were people from Kandor, Cairhien, Saldaea and Ghealdan, though he couldn’t recognise their rank or station. And then Bors smiled widely. He spotted a Tinker, with bright green trousers and a yellow coat. He walked over to him casually.
“Evening, Contro,” he said. “Why, I haven’t seen you since I found you in the Questioning Chambers. Remember? You and that Child Foreskin. I’ve never seen a man so willing to face the Question – ballsy, Contro. Truly ballsy.”
The Tinker stared at Bors for a moment from behind his mask, then turned his back and walked away.
“Right,” Bors said loudly. “Understood. Wink wink, your secret’s safe with me,” he turned to a masked and robed woman, who seemed to be Aes Sedai – at least, she was wearing a Great Serpent ring, or a very good forgery. “There goes a truly ballsy Tinker.”
The Aes Sedai coolly turned her back on him as well.
“Snobs,” Bors muttered.
A man appeared in the front of the room, where a podium had been set up. He strode to the podium and looked out at the crowd. He was a tall man, with a grinning face and a deep red cloak. His eyes were now-blue, now-flaming, and his escort of halfmen seemed to be in absolute terror of him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a deep, frightening voice. “Many of you may know me as Ba’alzamon, the Heart of Dark. Others may recognise me, more accurately, as Ishamael, the Betrayer of Hope. You might remember me from such historical records as the Trolloc Wars, the Breaking of the World and Artur Hawkwing’s Last Crusade. Many of you seem to be under the impression that I am the Dark One, but I am just a working man like yourselves. Of course, I am a lot more powerful – I am the Nae’blis, and I have the Chosen at my right hand,” he gestured lazily, and a group of imposing, Godlike men and women stepped away from the wall, where they had been standing unseen in plain view. Bors heard many people gasp, and some even averted their eyes. “You are looking at the new rulers of the world,” Ishamael went on happily. “Allow me to present Aginor … Balthamel … Be’lal … Demandred … Lanfear … Mesaana … Moghedien … Semirhage … Graendahl … Rahvin and Asmodean. Sammael, unfortunately, could not be with us. Missed the height requirement. But I have good news to balance that out,” Ishamael raised his hands and his grin widened, flames roaring in the vast emptiness of his mouth. “The Dragon is dead.”
There was uproar.
“We faced him at the Eye of the World, and we slew him like a dog,” Ishamael went on. “And our next move is going to be an even more decisive victory. So now, just to ensure we don’t have any disgruntled employees who might be tempted to betray us at a later date, we’re going to have a party.”
He gestured again to the Chosen, and they in turn gestured to the halfmen. Kegs were rolled out – apple brandy, hugely expensive Tairen moonshine, and great heaped green bowls of Two Rivers wacky tobaccy. Blank-faced servants produced instruments and began to play merry, exotic music. Semirhage, Lanfear and Graendahl were already nuding up, much to the appreciation of Ba’alzamon and Asmodean. Balthamel started to nude up too, to the appreciation of nobody really. Rahvin grabbed a small casket of apple brandy and began to pour horns for everybody.
“Last person to pass out’s a Whitecloak!” he roared.
Bors decided magnanimously not to make an issue of this.
The next few hours ran together in Bors’ head. Images and commands, bizarre dares and mysterious signals burned their way into his head. He vaguely recalled some of them, but others were so deeply buried in his subconscious that he would be having flashbacks for the rest of his life. Especially whenever he saw white peppers. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he might even have received instructions from the Chosen, but that was not for him to know.
He returned to his offices some time later, and changed back into his white robes with the crimson shepherd’s crook.
Then, since he had a window in his schedule, he spent a few hours vomiting white peppers into the Toilet of the Light.
The Wheel of time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the halls of Fal Dara. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
The wind crept up from under the banquet table, where the wine-soaked edge of a gleeman’s cloak was visible in the shadows.
“‘Scuse I,” Chucky said to no-one in particular. He was the only person left in the banquet hall – it was almost three in the morning, and everybody else had gone to Moiraine’s room to watch her do her hands-free juggling trick. Later on, Chucky was sorry to hear he’d missed it, but it turned out he hadn’t missed much. Moiraine’s ability to juggle without using her hands had not been what Mister C of 9 and Forsaken_1 had hoped, and depended on her using the One Power. Evidently she had been too drunk to channel, because the balls had wobbled in the air and finally tumbled down around Moiraine’s ears, and she had dissolved into mournful tears. Lan had offered her a nip from his hip flask, Forsaken_1 had begun to snigger helplessly at the Warder’s choice of words, and Moiraine had severed Lan’s bond again.
Chucky felt about as terrible as a gleeman could feel. He’d joined in the drinking eagerly enough, wishing above all things to forget what had happened at the Eye of the World. Everybody else had set to with a will, and after a while they’d even managed to forget that the Amyrlin Seat was arriving from Tar Valon early the next day. Moiraine in particular was not looking forward to that meeting. Chucky couldn’t blame her. After the fateful meeting, who could say what was going to happen? Egwene wanted to be an Aes Sedai, and Nynaeve, in a white-hot fury about Rand’s death, was insisting on following, so she could bring the whole White Tower down from within, or something. Ingtar and a bunch of his plate-mail buddies were talking about looking for the Horn of Valere, and Chucky seemed to recall he’d promised to join them. He’d been pretty drunk.
After a few hours of solid drinking, the maggoty piece of horsemeat under the table from a previous banquet had made a fine pillow. Chucky recalled vaguely that even Forsaken_1 had been encouraged to have a dash of firewater in his herbal infusion. Actually, to be entirely fair, Ingtar had grabbed “Child Foreskin” by the front of the robes and asked him if he was going to have a drink, or if he spent his spare time “Questioning” little boys. It hadn’t ended well, as far as Chucky could remember. Ingtar had been sick, and Forsaken_1 had laughed at him and then fallen over. After that, he’d gone back to drinking fruit juice, but he’d made a very solemn and meaningful promise to Mister C of 9 later on in the evening that he’d only drink fine brandy from there on in, and only when the Gentlemen’s Club was sitting in the Queen’s Blessing in Caemlyn.
Mister C of 9 had even done his myrddraal impression. Everyone had applauded wildly, and then he’d put his sunglasses back on. It had been a great night all round.
Chucky clambered out from under the table, shook maggots out of his hair absently, and wandered off to find some other people. Fal Dara slept. He shuffled through the corridors mumbling the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama under his breath, and finally ended up on one of the battlements. Even this early in the morning, the first light of dawn was making the sky pale. It was absolutely freezing. Chucky reached over his shoulder, smiled, and lifted his bagpipes. He never went far without them, and early morning was a good time to play.