Even after all this time, Janica looked around in vain for somebody who might be named Luke before realising two things. Firstly, that it was her sul’dam who had spoken, and secondly, she still didn’t have any glasses. All she could really see was a crowded blur.
“Wha’?” she said, trying not to let the crowds of Illianers thrust her too far away from Debs. The a’dam wouldn’t allow it, and her neck was already bruised. The four Ogier helped them make their way through the Square of Tammaz, since even the gawking tourists and shouting peddlers made way for the four gentle cowardly giants. One man leapt disconcertingly into focus for a second, his face craning down into Janica’s personal space and trying to sell her a model of the Great Hall of the Council made of toothpicks. She pushed past him impatiently.
“Et’s that tavern! Easin’ the Badger! Luke!”
“There’s no taverns in this part of town,” Frendli said. “Ogier built much of Illian, and still work here from time to time, when they’re here…” he trailed off in worried speculation, but did not pursue the thought after the last ultimatum Debs had delivered. “All the inns are over in the Perfumed Quarter, down by the docks at the seaside.”
“Well, there’s a sign for it, anyway,” Logain said in his most diplomatic voice. “See, the man with the shovel? I know it well, it’s almost a franchise, with spin-offs and cash-ins in every town from here to the Spine of the World. It’s a huge capitalist venture.”
“Ye’ve been talkin’ wi’ Mester See tae much,” Debs grumbled good-naturedly. “Can we go there?”
“Um,” Logain hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure, I don’t see why not. It’s a decent place, and the rooms are cheap. And they’re discreet,” strangely, he started to sing a little ditty under his breath as they walked through the thronging square. “Young man, there’s a place you can go, I said young man…” he cleared his throat and looked embarrassed. “Well, anyway, it’s a good place. I’ve been there a time or two.”
The Ogier cheered up greatly when they heard the news – especially Hoarni, which made Janica a little suspicious but not, in retrospect, suspicious enough. Coarshus actually stopped fiddling with the intricate hidden catches on the golden chest for a little while. They’d been even more nervous than usual for some reason, ever since entering the city. The news that there was a new Lord in the Council, and that he was using the nine golden bees of Illian as his own personal standard had gotten them all fretful for no clear reason. The Golden Bees were, Wyse said, the sigil of Illian itself, and none of the Council of Nine ought to be using it as his own. Janica tried to explain that it had probably been a misunderstanding, that the captain of the Snow Goose hadn’t known what he was talking about, but the long voyage in the company of Vamps and Mister C of 9 had turned the Ogier into blubbering messes. Things had not improved when somebody – Debs didn’t want to admit it but Janica was sure it had been Logain – had pointed out that there didn’t seem to be any Ogier in the city at all. From that moment onwards, their trek through the streets had been an endless series of Horn-wrestling, Ogier-comforting, Vamps-reassuring and attention-attracting. Debs had finally declared that nobody was to talk about how afraid they were, or she might do something horrible. When asked what she might do, she said she didn’t know, because she lacked the imagination to describe anything that bad.
Since she had already described haggis to everybody, the entire party was diligently avoiding conversation topics that might make the Ogier nervous. They fastened onto the topic of Easing the Badger as if they were drowning and it was an inner tube. Logain began to regale them with tasteful, interesting anecdotes of his time as a wild youth, when he would wagon-hop from city to city, sleeping at the ‘Easy’ whenever he came to a place that had one. Vamps interjected with his own, less-welcome stories, but would occasionally wince, apologise to everybody for his tastelessness, say he was only joking, and allow Nynaeve to box his ears.
“What does it mean, though?” Coarshus was asking. “Easing the Badger. I’ve never figured it out.”
“Well,” Logain said, “it’s a very old expression, but, ah, hmm, I don’t know what it means, look at what that street vendor is selling, I’ll take two.”
“I’ll take three,” Vamps said promptly. “Nynaeve, can I borrow some coppers please?”
The Ogier, Puddin, Logain and Nynaeve gathered around the wide-eyed hawker for a short time, exclaiming excitedly over the trinkets for sale. Debs, Janica and Mister C hung back and tried to avoid as much attention as possible.
“I guess you didn’t train the consumerism out of these guys quite yet, Eugene,” Janica said with amusement, turning to the gaunt black shape of their Australian companion. “Maybe you should keep trying.”
“Excuse me, little mistress?”
“Don’t call me ‘little mistress’, you.”
“Ach,” Debs blinked and looked around. The dark-clad fellow standing beside them just seemed to be a merchant, albeit one who was dressed up rather unconvincingly as a halfman. Mister C was nowhere to be seen. “Feck it all, we’ve lost him.”
“Would you like to buy a bag of Shadar Candy, ladies? Two crowns for a bag of ten. I’ll throw in a pair of Caramel Kinslayer’s Daggers for no extra cost…”
“Nae, thank ye,” Debs replied curtly. “We’re jes’ passin’ through.”
They finally got clear of the marketplace, and hurried on towards the Perfumed Quarter. The Ogier were actually quite happy now that they had souvenirs (“Illian – One in a Billian!” shirts that would not button up in front, “I braved the Golden Bees and all I got was this stupid hat” hats that perched on top of their giant heads precariously, and each of them also had a small but very sharp hatchet in a box with glass panels in front, like a display cabinet. “In case of Tairen, break glass”, the hilarious inscription read, and even Debs looked enviously at those little axes), and they cheered up even further when they heard that the eerie Mister See of Mayene had vanished.
Then the streets sloped down into the sea-harbour, the Perfumed Quarter began in all its poorly-named glory, and the welcome sight of Easing the Badger appeared in the street ahead of them.
“I am Aviendha of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel. I am Far Dareis Mai, a Maiden of the Spear,” the Aielwoman said. Her blue-green eyes were fixed on Moiraine. “You have not the look in your face, but we saw the ring. In your lands, you have women much like our Wise Ones, the women called Aes Sedai. Are you a woman of the White Tower, or not?”
“What the fuck is it to you?” Moiraine asked truculently. For somebody with the ability to knock a dead flea off Contro’s horse with the One Power and not much more, Forsaken_1 reflected, she was carrying herself with a great deal of confidence. Especially after the Healing attempts that had left her drained and him still bruised and aching. “Popping out of nowhere like the inside bits of an old woman’s cunt. What are you trying to do, get your narrow fanny balefired?”
Aviendha smiled. “You talk as the Wise Ones do. To the point, and small suffering of fools,” her smile faded, but her voice remained calm. “One of us lies gravely hurt, perhaps dying. The Wise Ones often heal those who would surely die without them, and I have heard Aes Sedai can do more. Will you aid her?”
Moiraine glanced at Forsaken_1, and he felt a flash of fear and concern in the knot of emotions that was the Warder bond. She nodded to him imperceptibly – some sort of signal. What was he supposed to do? She was nodding at him again, cutting her eyes quickly to the Aielwoman and back. She casually raised her hand and scratched at her chin, running her index finger surreptitiously across her throat as she did.
It could have meant anything.
In the meantime, the Aielwoman was nodding. “You agree. I will take you to her.”
Forsaken_1 stared at Moiraine. Was she nuts? She couldn’t Heal a paper cut at this stage! What had ever possessed her to agree to Heal somebody who was close to death? He looked around, and saw several other sweet-ass warrior chicks stand up in the grass where they had been hiding. Well … he had to admit that only one of them was sweet-ass. The rest, he attributed to his heightened sense of sexuality that came from being in a life-threatening situation. Actually, the women were pretty rugged and sandblasted and unpleasant, with leathery faces, gnarled hands, and cracked teeth. They’d lived their entire lives in the burning desert, going from one fight to the next with long enough in between to eat a handful of thorny grass or masturbate with the handle of their spears, and they had been fair-skinned redheads at the outset – not a complexion suited to life in the sun. He shrugged, and shook his head at Moiraine. What exactly they were going to do when they found out she couldn’t Heal their friend, he didn’t know. And now they’d missed their chance to catch them by surprise and get away clean.
And for some reason, she was glaring at him like it was his fault.
“Hullo! Where are we going?”
The Maidens had their spears up and their faces veiled in an instant, but dropped them back around their shoulders when Contro appeared. He’d stayed behind with Someshta to unload Cow and the wagon from the boat. They hadn’t taken very long, but nobody in the advance party had really wanted to wait, so the merry Tinker and his companions had trailed along behind, only now just catching up.
“Lost One,” Aviendha sneered, and turned her back on Contro.
“Ha ha ha!! I’m not lost! Well, actually I might be, because I don’t know where I am! But then again, I’m here with these friends of mine, and they’re not lost! I hope!”
“The Lost One is a friend of yours?” another of the Aielwomen asked Moiraine in surprise.
“A friend is just a stranger you haven’t found a way to make fuck off yet,” Moiraine said philosophically. “Let’s go and see this comrade of yours. I’ll see what I can do for her. Foreskin, come here.”
Forsaken_1, finding it very difficult to look away from Aviendha, joined his Aes Sedai as they started off again. He felt a little better when he saw that he wasn’t alone. Shannon, Cooper Two, Lan and Min were all watching the Aiel woman, different kinds of consideration on their faces. As he went into conference with Moiraine, he heard his companions beginning their own plays, evidently hoping to cut their handsome opposition out of the contest before he could get in some really great pick-up lines.
“So … got any oosquai?” Lan asked.
“You’re the woman from my viewing,” Min remarked, her voice wretchedly confused. Forsaken_1 noted that one down – he’d have to try it sometime.
“I know I look like a woman…” Shannon attempted.
“You know, I really like Aiel,” Cooper Two said cheerfully.
Moiraine slapped Forsaken_1.
“Ow! What was that for?” he rubbed his face and tried his best, most Latino-style brooding scowl. Antonio Banderas meets Anakin Skywalker, sort of thing.
“A lot of things. Not paying attention when I’m talking to you, for one thing. Secondly, because you’re a fucktard,” Moiraine hissed. “I gave you the ‘kill’ gesture, and you bunged it! And what’s wrong with your face? Did you get bitten by a clenchmuscle?”
“Shut up! Look, you’ve gotten me into a big damn mess here, and only blind putzing luck is going to get us out of it. I want you to mosey quietly back to the wagon, and tell Someshta about the situation we have.”
“Do you want me to give him the ‘kill’ gesture?”
“Don’t try to be smart.”
“Only I don’t think he’ll do anything to these girls. He’s got this whole Aiel thing going on, I don’t understand it, but he wants to reunite them or something. He might try his whole telling-the-Aiel-story thing again – maybe that would make them throw away their spears and leave us alone.”
“Not a bad idea, but what I mainly wanted him to do was help me Heal this wounded woman,” Moiraine whispered. “Remember, he managed to fix you up without using the One Power, and I’ll wager you took a lot more putting back together than this little slag.”
“Right. I’m on it.”
Whistling innocently, Forsaken_1 dropped back through the little parade of people and even ducked back and forth between some trees, hiding behind his cloak for dramatic effect, all the while playing nonchalant. He realised he was moving too slowly, and rushed the final few steps to the side of the wagon, which was trundling along at the steady, fuck-you-all pace dictated by the ever-charming Cow. He looked around to make sure he was unobserved.
Apart from all the people looking at him, which was only natural given his simmering sensuality, he had pulled off the stunt without calling undue attention. He lifted the flap at the side of the wagon.
“Hello there, Foreskin,” the Green Man said. “What’s going on out there? I don’t have much of a view from over here. All I can really see is Cow’s backside, and if he realises I can see it, he’ll use it to gross me out in some way. I just know it.”
“Moiraine sent me back to talk to you,” Forsaken_1 whispered, “but I can’t remember why anymore. It was something about an injured person, and she wants you to fix her. And they’re Aiel. She wanted me to kill them, but she didn’t tell me anything until it was too late. I think that was about it actually. Yay me, I remembered everything.”
“Somebody is injured?” Someshta rustled. “I hope it isn’t serious. If there has been blood spilled, it may set Cooper Two off. I don’t know much about his kind, but perhaps it would be best if I held onto him. I could use the excuse that he never got that maintenance I promised him,” the wagon rolled to a halt. “If you bring him over here, I’ll get to work on him with a quick wax and lube song, and keep him distracted while Moiraine sees to the injured as best she can.”
“Wax and lube song? That’s gross.”
“Not as gross as what might happen if Cooper Two sees a lot of blood in one place.”
“Right, I’ll tell him to come over,” Forsaken_1 nodded, spun, and ran face-first into something extremely soft and firm and pleasant.
“If you’re done talking to the firewood,” Aviendha said dryly, “the Aes Sedai would like to know if you are ready to assist with the Healing.”
“Boobies, ah, I mean, troobies, um, truly. Truly, I am,” Forsaken_1 stammered. “I just need to talk to my buddy Cooper…”
“No need, Warder. The strange thin man with the sharp teeth has already hurried to assist the Aes Sedai in any way she requires,” Aviendha told him, and was just starting to say something else when the screaming started.
Logain grinned in delight as they stepped through the door into the ‘Easy’, and the cool shade and cheerful music washed over them. It seemed like any other inn to Janica, but there was something else … something was raising her hackles, although not necessarily in a bad way, and she didn’t know what it was. She couldn’t see, and Debs was no help.
“Coo,” the sul’dam said. “There’s a lot o’ gude lukin’ fellers in here.”
Nynaeve sniffed. “As long as they have baths somewhere, I don’t care how many well-turned calves there are in the place.”
“There’s hot baths just down the hall, darling,” a huge, shirtless man with bells in his braids told her as he walked past. The drink in his hand was a giant, colourful affair with pieces of hay and grass in it, an egg floating on the top, and an apple on a stick. His pants were glossy. “And by the way, I just love your hair, it’s so strict! Just gorgeous!”
“This is a gay bar,” Vamps said.
“I don’t know,” Wyse disagreed slowly. “A lot of the people out on the streets seemed angry and unhappy, as if they were troubled by poor sleep. And the folk in here seem no different.”
“No, I mean gay, a gay bar, full of gay guys,” Vamps explained.
Nynaeve sniffed again. “Well, that man with the bells was certainly polite, and maybe he was cheerful – I wouldn’t say gay myself, but definitely cheerful. Now, can we see the innkeeper about rooms, and then get to those baths?”
Hoarni tapped Debs diligently on the shoulder.
“I was just wondering,” Hoarni asked, pointing across to a pair of people dancing in front of the minstrels, staring happily into one another’s eyes, “which one of those was the woman? I’d like to be sure I’m looking at the right one.”
“Look, I promise, I didn’t know it was that sort of place!” Logain protested as they marched in a ragged line down the street. “I swear! It always seemed so … it never occurred to me.”
Frankly, Janica would have preferred to stay at the Badger, which had at least appeared reasonably clean. There hadn’t been any point in attempting to talk the others out of leaving, though, with both Debs and Nynaeve insistent on keeping Logain and Vamps away from ‘bad influences’ and the Ogier too frightened to stop to think about the relative peace of Hoarni in a tavern without any remotely interested women … of course, the whole thing just raised more potential concerns and opportunities for disaster, but it wasn’t as if any other place would be better.
“Let’s jes’ stop here, then,” she said, pointing at the inn on the corner. It seemed pleasant enough, in that any of the inns in this world were actually pleasant. “Unless I’m looking at a brothel, or a tattoos-and-sex-change parlour, or a literary salon, or some other apparently horrifying and unacceptable thing. It sounds like an inn.”
“Oh, that’s an inn alright,” said a voice from behind them, “one of our best. But you fine people don’t have to stay in a place like that.”
They spun to find a well-dressed man standing in the street behind them. He was a solid, powerfully-built fellow of average height, and standing close to Debs and Vamps and the Ogier made him seem rather on the short side, but his compact build made up for the deficiency. He had golden hair and blue eyes, and would have been quite good-looking if it weren’t for the livid, jagged scar across his face from chin to hairline. He was smiling a small, friendly smile. Coarshus began fumbling with the golden chest straight away. The smile fell away from the man’s face, and Janica suddenly realised that something very wrong was happening.
“Saidin!” Vamps cried, and Debs reacted instantly. Janica felt the One Power rush through her, up the a’dam…
And then it stopped as if it had been cut by a knife and walled off by solid diamond. She could feel saidar glowing just out of reach, but could not touch it. She looked at Logain and Vamps, but the two channelers seemed welded to the road. Her eyes went to Nynaeve, who might have been able to channel – she was certainly angry enough after missing her opportunity to bathe – but she too was frozen.
“Shield this, Jimmy!” Debs roared, and swung her ham-sized fist in a vicious Scottish roundhouse. It connected with the centre of Sammael’s face in a wet crumpling of cartilage and bone, and for a moment Janica was free. Saidar roared through her, and she began to weave something fatal at the well-dressed blur that had attacked them. Suddenly, however, the Power was gone again. She saw a little puff of something that might have been a fireball out of the corner of her eye, and Logain swore in frustration as he, too, was robbed of saidin.
“I’ll be damned,” a wizened voice said from the doorway of the inn. “Angamael was right. Teamwork.”
Sammael staggered to his feet, holding his nose, which was streaming blood.
“I could have had them,” he said. “This one just took me by surprise for a moment.”
“Bah, you’d have been lost without me. But alright,” Aginor said in a more conciliatory voice. When he continued, Janica could have sworn that he was reciting something from a cue-card. “Teamwork Isn’t Just Working Together, It Also Means Not Arguing And Mocking One Another, And Allowing One’s Victims To Escape Due To Internal Bickering. So I agree with you, and we both congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Yes?”
“Yes,” Sammael said grudgingly, wiggling his nose back and forth with an audible crackle. “But Not Until The Job Is Done.”
Janica was suddenly blasted out of consciousness by what she would later identify as a club of Air, multiplied tenfold by the celestially unfair workings of the a’dam.
“Don’t hurt me,” Coarshus said as the sul’dam and damane dropped to the cobblestones. “Hurt Hoarni, he’s the one with the Horn of Valere.”
“Is he?” Sammael said in surprise. “I did not know that. Well, fear not. We’re not going to hurt any of you. We’re just going to take you all somewhere safe, and see to it that you are no longer a risk to our larger schemes. Shall we, Aginor, old buddy?” he paused. “Old, as in a friend of long standing, not as in an insult.”
The two Forsaken bundled up their prey in iron-hard bonds of Air, opened a Gateway in the middle of the road, and hustled them through.
As the hole vanished in a bright blue stripe of light, Mister C of 9 stepped out from a nearby alleyway. He had no idea what had just happened, but he could see something extremely strange. There were stripes of energy in the air, tangles and knots of saidin that he could see even though he had no eyes. Perhaps because he had no eyes. Some of the Power was fading already, a residue that he could feel but would soon be lost … but one solid stripe led away towards the King’s Palace, and the identical, though slightly smaller Great Hall of the Council. Mister C turned to follow it.
“Idiots,” he muttered. “Get into all sorts of trouble without me.”