“The same place? Are you sure?”
“Chucky, stop asking that. Yes, it’s the same place.”
“The same place as my gig?”
“You’re our ticket in,” Ingtar said. “Hurin and Perrin both agree that the trail of trollocs leads into the residence of Barthanes Damodred. They have the Horn. You have an invitation to perform there. Your performance is tonight. You will go in there with your apprentice and a pair of servants – Mat is nimble enough, and you can take a couple of fighters as well. It should be more than enough, with Verin Sedai along with you.”
Chucky looked nervously at the small, plump mass of black lace and white face-paint in the far corner. In his limited experience, Aes Sedai tended to be dignified and ageless, with no time for nonsense. Verin, on the other hand, was completely ridiculous. It made Chucky nervous.
“Ah, right,” he said. “Verin Sedai, okay sure. We’ll just go on in there and get the Horn then, will we?”
“That’s right,” Verin said coldly. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, no,” Chucky gabbled. The expression on her face, at least, was as bright and birdlike as he had always imagined, with an undercurrent of very birdlike violence that he hadn’t. “I’m glad you could come along.”
“Me too,” Verin said. “It is the job of Aes Sedai to help wherever possible, and this is a noble calling. I will assure your success. And as I have already promised,” she went on, rolling her black, bristly eyes at Ingtar, “the Horn of Valere is yours. I most certainly won’t take it back to Tar Valon and put it into the hands of the Betrayer of Hope.”
“What an asset,” Mister C of 9 clapped Chucky on the back. “Well, old chum, are you ready for your big gig?”
“Yes yes, calm down,” Janica said. “Look, sit still. There’s a couple more things we have to do. Vamps, er, Puddin, do you have the little stamp that we made?”
“Here it is,” Vamps hurried forward with the palm-sized piece of metal. “Here, Mistress Sedai, do you want it now?”
“Just heat it up,” Janica said, and turned back to the delighted Logain. “Listen, there’s some more things we need to do, for the Dragon’s prophesies. First of all, your palms have to be branded with herons.”
“Hazzah! I – what? Branded? How do you mean branded?” Logain narrowed his eyes, and Debs grunted with the effort of holding the shield. Janica, from whom the One Power was flowing in a raging torrent, tried to maintain her concentration.
“It’s from the Karaethon Cycle,” she said. “Twice and twice shall he be marked? You know the one, surely. You have to have herons branded into your palms.”
“Not noo, Vamps. Come on, Logain, it won’t hurt.”
“It’s pointless! Just make an illusion!”
“That’s nae a bad idea,” Debs concurred. “He’s got such neece hands, it’s a shame tae burn ’em.”
“Shut up, you! Listen, you women can’t burn my hands with that thing. I play the piano, you know.”
“Ach,” Debs said in a wilting little voice.
Vamps screamed and dropped the red-hot stamp.
“Schmuck,” Janica fumed. “What did you do, heat it with the One Power while you were holding it in your hand?” she glared blindly at the misty, contorted shape of Puddin. “Of course you did. Go and put some ice on that. Quick, Logain, pick it up. I promise it won’t hurt.”
“It hurt him!”
“Won’t you Heal me, Mistress Debs?”
“Ach, feck orff!”
Vamps wandered away, cradling his wounded hand, while Debs and Janica cajoled and threatened and begged the new Dragon into fulfilling his own Prophesies.
Evening rolled around, and a small group assembled at the gates of the Damodred manor. Chucky was at the front wearing his fluttery cloak and a disgruntled expression, and Mister C was beside him with his Mambo shirt and sunglasses. Stormbringer Snaga, the dreadful black sword, hung at his skinny waist. Behind them, Mat and Hurin stood nervously on either side of Verin’s round, shadowy form, and behind them all loomed the equally nervous shape of Loial. Ogier were, as a matter of course, invited to important dinners because there were no security guards big or rude enough to send them away.
“Who is it?” the guard asked.
“Gleeman,” Chucky said somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m here on Lord Barthanes’ command, to perform for his party guests. Here’s my invitation, with the seal you may recognise,” he presented the card with a flourish. “This is the big one for me,” he said conspiratorially. “I don’t mind telling you, from here on in it’s just up, up, up.”
“There’s stairs?” Mister C moaned. “That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“No no, I mean-”
“Go in,” the guard interrupted. “And make it quick. They’re getting bored in the main dining room. There’s already been three duels. If you keep them waiting much longer, there won’t be any audience left,” he waved Chucky through, and scowled at the rest. “Who are all these?” he demanded.
“My apprentice, Mister See,” Chucky introduced the myrddraal. “And an Ogier we met on the way here, and my … um, stablehands and things.”
“What for? You haven’t got a horse.”
“Of course I do. These are very good stablehands.”
“Exactly,” Chucky swept past, and the others hurried along with him.
Angamael looked calmly at the man standing before him.
“And you say they are doing this right here in Tar Valon?” he said.
“That’s right. A new Dragon, to replace the one that died,” the secret informant showed no signs of fear, or even uneasiness. “They’ve Healed Logain, whatever that means, and now they’re making him ready for some sort of big fight. I thought you’d know more about it than me. I’m just a, um, a commoner.”
“I see,” Angamael turned and began to pace back and forth in the expansive office. He stopped beside the huge, glittering mass of lanterns and mirrors that was the light-shedding device. It was still warm from the last time it had been used, three days ago. “Logain, you say. A new Dragon. Well. We all knew that it wouldn’t be as easy as all that, didn’t we?”
The secret informant looked around the empty room. “Um, did we?” he asked. “Who are you talking to, chief?”
“That’s not important,” Angamael spun back, and his eyes and mouth flashed into angry yellow flames. “What you have told me, on the other hand, is important. And you will be rewarded.”
“I don’t want a reward. I just want him gone.”
“Why is that?”
“No reason. None of your business. I just do.”
The Nae’blis smiled slowly. This Darkfriend had balls. “As you like. I will deal with this situation carefully, now that it has been brought to my attention. You may go,” he watched the man turn and stride from the office with a dizzying swirl of invisible cloak. “Oh,” he added idly, “those are nice jeans.”
“Thanks,” the man said, and was gone.
Once inside the manor house, Chucky and Mister C broke away from the rest, and made for the main banquet hall.
“Okay, usual drill,” Chucky said in a businesslike manner. “No matter what the others are meant to be doing, we go along like normal. You can help yourself to the food while I’m up there on the stage, and when I come down for a break you show me where you’ve stashed the trays of nibbles.”
“And if there’s any of those stuffed quails, see if you can get a half-dozen of them and put them in a pot-plant somewhere.”
“And there’s nobody with coke, so don’t ask.”
“And no taking your sunglasses off.”
“And please disagree with at least one thing I say,” Chucky added. “It’s making me nervous.”
Loial, Verin, Mat and Hurin sidled through the corridors and finally found themselves in a wide courtyard. Trees swayed gently in the moonlight. Loial sighed happily.
“It is quite well-protected,” he remarked. “For something that is in the care of such dark characters. I am pleased to see the plants doing so well. Now, which way does the scent lead?” he turned to Hurin, who pointed assertively into the dark garden.
They made their way through the shadows, following Hurin’s nose until finally, they stopped in front of a Waygate.
“Ah,” Verin said triumphantly.
Chucky clambered up onto the stage, and cleared his throat for attention. There was a duel going on in the far corner of the hall, and not many people turned to pay attention to him. They turned straight back to their conversations, challenges, and flirting.
“Tough crowd,” Chucky said. “I guess I’ll have to warm them up a bit.”
He unslung his bagpipes.