Mat’s stubborn refusal to become a brilliant, historically-gifted tactical genius notwithstanding, Forsaken_1 thought that the attack on Cairhien was going very well indeed.
He hadn’t even needed to karate-chop anybody yet.
“I don’t suppose we have you to thank for this?” he asked cheerfully, turning and giving Shannon – he reminded himself that she liked to be called Nancy – the full benefit of the _1 smile.
Nancy Sidesaddle scowled mightily. “Thank me for what?”
“All this,” Forsaken_1 gestured around him. Veiled Aiel were cheerfully stabbing trollocs and chasing semi-dismembered myrddraal up and down the streets. None of the Shadowspawn were even coming close to the two Wheel of Time Experiencers. “It’s all going very well.”
“There sure are less bad guys around than I ‘spected, after that lightnin’ show and a-judgin’ by what the place looked like from a ways off,” Shannon replied, “but I wouldn’t hardly say it’s goin’ well. There’s still quite a few nasty critters, an’ a whole bushel o’ people’s still gettin’ splatted. An’ that lightnin’ turned a couple hundred folks into gumbo. So no, it ain’t nothin’ to do with me. Completely normal state o’ cause-an’-effect.”
“Gosh,” Forsaken_1 turned on the charm. “That’s very interesting, sweetheart. Sorry,” he went on when Shannon’s scowl deepened towards a hearty fuck-you. “I can’t help condescending towards you. It’s the boobies. I automatically go into wife-anecdote mode,” he looked around instinctively for his wife, and breathed a small sigh of relief when he realised he was still on another plane of reality. “I blame your ta’veren effect on the Pattern.”
“I blame y’all bein’ a total fuckcheese,” Shannon replied, showing that he had been spending just a little bit too much time listening to Moiraine. “An’ that ain’t got nothin’ t’ do with bein’ ta’veren.”
As they rounded a corner and started towards what was left of the richer areas of Cairhien, two Aielmen trotted across their path, then dropped synchronously to a standstill and lowered their veils to reveal thunderstruck expressions.
“Of course,” one of them murmured, “it’s so simple!”
“Faster-than-light travel through the vastness of space…” the second breathed. Then they turned, glared at each other, veiled, and were both dead with the other’s spear in their necks two seconds later.
“Awright, that ‘un was prolly my fault,” Shannon admitted.
Someshta lumbered over to them, and nobody could lumber like the Green Man. He had Contro perched on his shoulder like extremely colourful, annoying dandruff.
“There you are,” he said, and Forsaken_1 couldn’t help but notice that his lower canopy was splashed liberally with blood and offal. “You almost missed it.”
“‘It’?” Shannon demanded. “What’s ‘it’?”
“Well, everything,” Someshta said, waving his hand. It was holding what might have once been a draghkar, and he seemed to notice it for the first time. He dropped it with a clattery splashy floppy sort of noise. “The battle is over. Cairhien has been cleansed of the Shadow, and the nobles are free and swearing to the Dragon.”
“Oh,” Forsaken_1 shrugged and spurred Shadar Bob forward. “Good job, everybody,” he looked back at Shannon. “Especially you, sweetheart. Female empowerment, all that.”
Giving his pipes a pensive little wheeze, Chucky stood in the large gathering square outside the White Tower. He looked up at the entirely-coincidentally-glans-shaped Amyrlin’s study at the distant pinnacle of the tower, and sighed again.
There was nobody else around, because the already strict rules of Tar Valon public decency had been reinforced in recent weeks by a “Mistress of Novices” who could make you peel your own skin off and jump willingly into a vat of lemon juice. And Chucky was about to play the bagpipes, for no reason that had thus far managed to pass successfully through his bullshit filters.
Chucky looked down, and glumly revised his “there was nobody else around” judgement. Mister C of 9 was sitting cross-legged on the flagstones, his severed ankle-stumps peeking out accusingly from under his knees, his nasty pale new proto-arm scratching at the bandages around his bitten-off left hand.
“So while everybody’s busy, those others sneak into the Tower and rescue a bunch of people and basically save the day, right?” the battered halfman asked.
“And everybody’s busy – I just want to clarify this – hacking you to pieces for playing the bagpipes, right?”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Did that stuff I just said about hacking you to pieces remind you that you’re about to get hacked to pieces?”
“It did a bit.”
“Sorry about that,” Mister C thrust his spidery little new-grown hand out of his tattered sleeve and peeled aside the bandages on his wrist. The wound seemed to have healed over, but there was no sign of a new hand growing yet. He scratched anyway. “And did you have some sort of plan for, you know, doing what they want you to do and not getting hacked to pieces?”
“I was sort of just going to depend on you to convince them that I was on their side and we could maybe Darkfriend our way out of this.”
“Does it bother you that your very survival depends on me, after all the shabby things you’ve caused to happen to me lately?”
“It’s starting to.”
“Hm,” Mister C looked quite pleased about that, as far as it was possible to tell. “Are you going to-”
The rest of the sentence was drowned out by the proud, militant opening bars of the tune called, rather conveniently, Up In The Morning Early, although Chucky was willing to acknowledge that in Ghealdhan it might be called Kicking the Cat and in Baerlon it might go by the name of That Fucking Piper Isn’t Dead Yet.
The reaction was immediate. The sound of raised voices and weapons came from the lobby of the giant tower, and several wide-eyed bystanders appeared all too briefly on the outskirts of the square. They vanished as quickly as they had arrived, however, back into their alleyways, as the great doors boomed open and three dozen Warders came charging out. One of them, a giant muscular bloke who looked like an Aielman, drew a sword from his hip with one hand and a spear from his shoulder-holster with the other, levelled them both at Chucky and roared an inaudible invective that might have been, “play the one that goes ‘heena-harna-diddle-daddle-hey’,” but was more likely, “stop that fucking racket before I sword you in the cods.”
Chucky stopped playing, and gave his patch-covered cloak a hopeful flutter.
“He’s not with me,” Mister C of 9 said into the echoing silence.
Dr. Nick looked around and gave a low, impressed whistle. There was no doubt about it. They were inside the White Tower. The seven-striped motif and the general whiteness of the architecture was a dead giveaway, although perhaps the phrase ‘dead giveaway’ was in poor taste, considering.
“There are a lot more black wall-hangings and dribbly candles and weird spiky gargoyles than I expected,” he said, keeping his voice to a respectful hush as befitted their location, “but it’s very nice. You know, timeless.”
“It’s changed a lot since I was here last,” Birgitte said. She and Gaidal Cain had livened up a little, but were still unable to walk very well on their own for most of the time. Wyse was helping Cain along, Coarshus was helping Birgitte, and Frendli was restraining Hoarni, who was having difficulty coming to terms with the fact that Birgitte didn’t want a crotch to assist in her movement. Several people had pointed out to Hoarni that it was a crutch, and not a crotch, that helped people to walk. This invariably earned wide smiles and attempted removing of trousers.
The four Ogier were still each dressed up as half an elephant, but their gaudy Illian T-shirts, amusing hats and assorted other merchandise had become increasingly visible as they’d abandoned their disguise in order to sneak into the Warder catacombs.
“And when were you ever down here?” Cain demanded in weary amusement.
“Actually, I can remember several times,” Birgitte replied, “but some of them are very misty. The last time, I wasn’t actually a Warder, I was just here to entertain the boys.”
“You were what?”
“Guys,” Stifler said, “I know the Gaidal and Birgitte story is well-known as being one where the two lovers spend half their lives arguing, but you’ve been torn out of Tel’aran’rhiod. Maybe that means we can inject a little variety,” he looked around at the creepy decorations, which were only a slight improvement on the creepy decomposing soldiers. “How about this time, we don’t relive the story where you guys start shouting while we’re in the catacombs and bring down a tower full of Dreadlords on our asses?”
“He raises a pertinent point,” Dr. Nick said, “shut up Hoarni.”
Hoarni’s face fell. “I was just going to inject a little variety,” he said. “‘Variety’ being my nickname for-”
“If you must know,” Birgitte went on, in a furious whisper, “it was during one of those stupid Warder initiation rituals. You should know all about them, Gaidal. You’ve been a Warder more than your share of times.”
“I only got hog-tied and forced to drink stuff,” Cain objected. “we never got busty strippers.”
“Well, this time they did. Only I knocked out the actual stripper, and took her place. They brought me in through these tunnels, into the main Warder dormitory. I was blindfolded, but anybody with a decent sense of direction can remember where they were taken while blindfolded,” she paused, and added judiciously, “unless of course they spin you around three times first.”
The large and quite conspicuous covert infiltration group reached a stair, and headed upwards.
“This is where we hope that all the Warders got called out to deal with the bagpipes,” Birgitte gave Dr. Nick a narrow look. “I just hope they were as potent as you seemed to think they were.”
“Don’t take my word for it,” Dr. Nick protested. “Ask Cybes.”
Cyberwollf, cursed with the excellent hearing of all her kind, had heard rather more of Up In The Morning Early than she would have liked to. She whimpered and nodded. Min reached the top of the stairs, opened the stout wooden door that stood there, and looked back at the group.
“It’s a wine cellar,” she reported.
“Now we’re on familiar ground,” Cain said with a nod.
Vamps decided that the Cairhienin nobility were a bunch of pansies. They were all perfectly willing to swear allegiance to him as Dragon Reborn, but they seemed uninterested in talking to him about girls. And the things he had done with girls. They were clearly repressed. The small group of Tairens who had somehow managed to narrative-flow their way into Cairhien were also annoyingly prim and proper, and that made Vamps just want to blow them all up with complicated weaves of something, if only he could access the One Power, which was still frustratingly out of reach.
Janica, meanwhile, was looking vaguely nervous.
“Hmm?” she said, when it became obvious that Muffin Vamps had said something non-sex-related to her.
“This guy,” Vamps pointed to one of the kneeling interchangeable nobles – who were all cowering gratifyingly in front of the Sun Throne – a man whose name was completely irrelevant, “says that Morgase has been killed.”
“Huh? Oh, yes,” Janica waved her hand. “It was Lord Gaebril, who I think was Rahvin in disguise,” some of the Cairhienin gave ragged gasps, and one of them even had the wherewithal to swoon. “But she wasn’t killed, she just ran away, or at least she did in the original course of events.”
“Mistreatment of women is very rude and disrespectful,” Puddin Taim said piously. “I should go and teach this Lord Gaebril fellow a lesson.”
“Are you alright?” Vamps asked. “You haven’t called me names since we got into town.”
“Oh, well, we have to be a bit respectful,” Janica said, her eyes still as-focussed-as-possible on some point in the middle distance. “You being the Dragon and all, and having all these kingdoms.”
“That never stopped you from picking on me before,” Vamps pointed out, “I mean me picking on you, and you not realising it because my picking was so clever.”
“I expect you’re right,” Janica said, fingering her Choedan Kal. This time, even Debs looked at her in surprise.
“Seriously, what’s the matter?” Asmodean demanded. “You’re starting to make me nervous.”
“If you must know, we’re approaching the moment when Lanfear … oh, would somebody get them out of here?” she snapped, as several more Cairhienin took the lead from their enterprising peer and fainted. Loial hurried forward and ushered the group of stunned, lace-ruffled, slash-coated jackasses away with gentle bumblebee noises. “Anyway, we’re getting towards the point where Lanfear was meant to talk to Kadere, I mean Fain, and find out that Rand, I mean Vamps, had slept with Aviendha.”
“Didn’t see you there,” Janica said to the white blob that she guessed was Aviendha. “Don’t worry, in this version of events you didn’t sleep with anybody, and Vamps isn’t Lews Therin, so Lanfear probably won’t fly into a rage and attack us and necessitate Moiraine throwing herself into the twisted redstone doorway ter’angreal with Lanfear and an ivory bracelet as the only way of saving Rand, who is already dead, because in any case Moiraine couldn’t channel enough to make the ivory bracelet angreal do any good at all, and none of this will probably happen in this version of events because it was the Darkfriends, and not the Shaido, who we defeated here and it was all too easy anyway, which suggests to me that whoever is in charge over there knew what was going to happen so had planned a withdrawal and in that case they will also know what happens to Lanfear and so they won’t let that happen either.”
“Wow,” Asmodean breathed.
“Do you understand, now, why I was looking a bit distracted?”
“I thought you were just thinking about orgasms,” Vamps opined.
“Can we go back a couple of steps?” Moiraine said. “Back to the part where I jump through a ter’angreal with Lanfear?”
“It’s probably not going to happen now.”
“It probably wasn’t going to fucking well happen at all, let me just make that perfectly bloody clear to the lot of you,” Moiraine snapped. “And why does he have the most powerful sa’angreal in the world in his hands?”
Asmodean contrived to look as harmless as possible. “Me?”
“He’s perfectly safe,” Janica embraced saidar long enough to make reasonably sure she was casting a threatening glare in the right direction. “He’s just a harmless gleeman, aren’t you?”
Janica pointed. She didn’t need to see properly for this one. “And would you rather he had it?”
Moiraine eyed Vamps up and down. Vamps smiled slowly and put his hand against the front of his pants.
“Maybe not,” she said grudgingly, “but if the alternative is jumping into a ter’angreal with one of the Forsaken…” she eyed him up and down again. He smiled again and sniffed his fingers. “Well, it’s a close call,” she concluded. “Where have you been?”
Everybody, including Forsaken_1 who had just stepped into the throne room, blinked at this sudden change of subject. He hurried over and let Moiraine confirm that he was uninjured, although the bond must have told her that already.
“Checking out our rooms,” he reported. “Did you know we have an actual musical bathtub?”
“Don’t make yourself too comfortable,” Vamps said suddenly, “we’re going to Caemlyn to kill Rahvin.”
“Good idea,” Moiraine said.
“Aye,” agreed Debs, “et’s th’ only wae tae gae.”
“He’s a terrible threat to peace and safety,” Loial said, stepping back into the throne room, “and it will make an amazing end to my seventeenth notebook. You should rid the world of Rahvin once and for all, master Puddin.”
“Yeah,” Forsaken_1 said supportively, “let’s all kill Reuben.”
“Shannon,” Janica said through her teeth, “will you please fuck off?”
“You’re making a big mistake.”
Chucky accepted the fact that when anybody yelled ‘silence!’ that way, continuing to talk was going to achieve nothing but a ringing blow to the head. So he sighed quietly and allowed the Warders to toad-march him inside. On his left, the towering Aiel Warder was carrying his bagpipes the way Steve Irwin might one day learn to carry a bag of snakes, ie. very carefully and respectfully indeed. On his right, two more Warders were carrying Mister C of 9 the way Steve Irwin did, in fact, carry a bag of snakes, ie. as if the wriggling items therein were quite incapable of killing grown water buffalo with nothing more than the things in their mouths.
A toad-march, just to clarify, is a slightly portlier-than-average version of a frog-march.
“You’ll pay the high price to the Mistress of Novices for this day’s work, Wetlander,” the Aielman growled. Chucky opened his mouth, realised he was being lured thick earwards, and closed his mouth again sourly. The Aielman looked thuggishly disappointed, then the clear light of inspiration dawned on his high-altitude face. Chucky just had time to brace himself before the Warder gave his bagpipes a vicious squeeze, yelled ‘silence!’ and gave him a thick ear.
They marched onwards through the spiralling corridors of the White Tower, ever upwards. Chucky recalled, vaguely, Forsaken_1 complaining to him about just how tall and elevatorless the White Tower was, and now it looked like he was going to get a first-hand look at it. He wondered what would happen if he had a coronary failure and fell comatose on the floor, then decided he didn’t really want to know, and picked up the pace a bit. Looking around, he found the building suspiciously quiet. He could have sworn that there was meant to be some sort of uprising here, something about a bunch of de-hypnotised Aes Sedai making a break for freedom. If that was happening, there was no sign of anything like it around these levels.
“He kidnapped me,” Mister C was chirping, “and used me to pretend he was a Darkfriend. He was fooling Liandrin, Verin, Slayer, even Lanfear, this whole time, just by making up lies.”
Chucky never would have suspected Mister C of 9 was capable of remembering so many names, if it weren’t for the fact that they were now getting Chucky in a lot of trouble and there was no fat ugly inbred chick for Mister C to marry. It was amazing how much trouble Mister C would go to, when it would get Chucky in a lot of trouble and there was no fat ugly inbred chick for Mister C to marry. Chucky had seen it all too many times.
They arrived at a point that Chucky had to realistically estimate was only about two thirds of the way up the tower. A pair of lavishly-carved doors stood closed, with a newly-etched bronze plaque announcing that the MISTRESS OF NOVICES had VACANCIES just for him. Two more Warders who were, on second examination, myrddraal, stood at attention outside the doors, with colour-shifting cloaks that hung perfectly still in the mild convection-cooling breeze.
“Hi, guys,” Mister C waved his stump. “Check out what this fat gleeman did to me. Your own brother.”
The myrddraal did not respond to this demianthropic invitation, but stepped aside when the doors swung open. A very wrinkly, crispy, hunched-up guy with a clipboard and a combover stepped out.
“You must be the Mistress of Novices,” Chucky said, attempting to lighten the mood with humour.
Aginor held up a hand, and the Aielman’s blow stopped just short of contact.
“Now now, Taul Paul,” the Forsaken said mildly, “there’s no need for that much enthusiasm. Shaido,” he added, conspiratorially, to Chucky. “Channeler. We got him and turned him and siphoned off the Taint before he could go very insane. But he sure does love yelling ‘Silence!’ and hitting people. So,” he went on, straightening and looking stern, “what have we here?”
“Sil– Code Seven, Great Chosen,” Taul Paul said, saluting as best he could with an armful of bagpipe. “According to standing order-”
“Yes yes, the Mistress of Novices will be very interested. I believe she is trying a new burning treatment lately, in an attempt to get the distressing smell of her predecessor out of her office. A bit before your time, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Aginor looked at Chucky, then at the bagpipes. “Interesting design,” he said, “the ravens on those pipes.”
“They repair themselves, Great Chosen,” Taul Paul reported, then looked strained for a moment, and gasped, “silence,” under his breath.
“You can take them to Angamael,” Aginor said, then looked sharply at Chucky. “Is something funny, gleeman?”
“No, I got something in my throat.”
“I see. Take him inside,” he waved a wizened hand carelessly in Chucky’s direction, then turned a glance on Mister C. “Now,” he said, “what have we here? Goodness, an old Eight-sixty.”
“A Thakan’dar classic,” Mister C infuriatingly accurately cited.
“What a wreck you are.”
“Tell me about it,” Mister C grunted. “It’s all because of that fucking gleeman and his attempts to pass himself off as a high-ranking member of the Chosen’s inner circle, under the Nae’blis, who may or may not be Angamael. I’m a bit out of the loop on that,” he added, ignoring Chucky’s outraged stare as only a man with no eyes can manage.
“Who even said Nae’blis to you?” Chucky strangled.
“As you can see,” Aginor pointed proudly at the two halfWarders, “we have an excellent new line in Ten-Thirties these days. They occur less regularly, but they are far more powerful and we’re producing more trollocs anyway, so we get more of them than we ever did with your model.”
“I hear you, Great Chosen.”
A clearly relieved Taul Paul gave Chucky another thick ear, and two more Warders dragged him through into the Mistress of Novices’ chambers. The last thing Chucky saw before the doors closed was Aginor making a little mark on his clipboard.
The last thing he heard before the doors closed was Aginor saying, “take this faithful old derelict down to the rendering plant. He’s no good for spare parts, but we can get some skin and muscle fibre from him and put the rest in the fodder pots.”
The doors slammed shut.
Padan Fain was a little bored, and to be honest the unaccustomed feeling was really quite welcome. He was one of the few people in the universe who was actually cheered up by being bored. If you’d ever explored the alternatives as thoroughly as Padan Fain, you’d be a fan of boredom too.
Sometimes, though, it was nice to get visitors.
“How fascinating,” he said, settling back and waving a hand languidly, letting a little Ordieth come creeping cheekily into his diction. He was among friends, after all, and everybody was too busy running around to worry about anything that might be going on in the battered old peddler’s wagon, “do go on.”
“I do solemnly and eternally commend my soul to the Great Lord of the Dark, to go where He has need of me, to give my life when He requires it of me, to serve loyally and faithfully with heart and mind and body,” the kneeling man recited dutifully.
“Good for you!”
“For all the turnings of the Wheel, I bind myself to Him, that I may never die, that I may find immortality in His sheltering hand.”
“As a token of my devotion, I offer up my blood,” the kneeling man said, and gasped as Melindhra slashed across his ribs with one of her spears. “Blood and … I thought a slice across the palm of the hand was traditional!”
“Do you have any idea how many nerves and tendons there are in your hand?” Melindhra said, speaking fondly in spite of her impatience. “It would never heal right and then you’d be useless in battle. No warrior would ever cut his or her hand just to get a bit of blood flowing. That’s Wetlander stupidity. This little scratch, on the other hand, won’t inconvenience you or hamper your ability to grip a weapon.”
“She’s right,” Fain nodded, while their new recruit wiped the blood off his side and pulled his shirt back on. “So, you’ve sworn, and proven yourself, and you’ve given us this interesting list of names and plans,” none of the things their new informant had told them were news to Fain and his posse, but the important thing was that they hadn’t been lies. “So. What brought on this little change of heart?”
Mat glanced at Melindhra a little embarrassedly. “I’d rather not say.”
“She sucked his balls,” Alexander said.
Melindhra, on the other hand, was a Maiden of the Spear, and Fain had long since realised the ferocious women were quite without shame.
She grinned widely, wiped her spear, and said, “I was originally ordered to get close to Mat, and then kill him while he was in a vulnerable condition. But I was visited by Angamael in a dream, and he told me that there were … other ways to deal with him, and some of them might turn his head to face the true path.”
“Like I said,” Alexander added. “Slurpy slurpy.”
“Angamael warned me that if I tried to kill him, Mat’s luck would save him,” Melindhra went on. “And I’ve seen it in the past, even though I may be able to best him at the dance.”
“You’re not even listening to me, are you?”
“Angamael said that if I tried to kill Mat, I would die. Far better, then, to turn him. Now, his luck will benefit us.”
“I still don’t know what all this luck is that you’re going on about,” Mat grumbled, “you sound like Contro with his dead tacticians. But I won’t deny it, right now I feel pretty bloody lucky.”
“I just bet you do.”
“I just bet you do,” Fain said magnanimously, trying to ignore the corner of his brain that was telling him two nondescript men were sitting somewhere in the wagon and muttering under their breaths. He was used to hearing voices, or at least thinking he heard voices, and he wasn’t about to let it bother him now. “This could be a big step in the right direction for us. The Nae’blis will be pleased.”
“I didn’t think you liked the Nae’blis.”
This voice, at least, was acceptable. It came from under the table, where Sattersnoam was chewing on an old slipper he’d found somewhere. Fain wasn’t sure whose side Sattersnoam was on, but it seemed more than likely that he was in fact not on any side at all – or, to be more exact, he was against every side, all at once. This philosophy explained why Sattersnoam always looked like he’d had two-thirds of the shit kicked out of him, but it was a philosophy that Fain rather liked, nevertheless. Of course, he certainly wasn’t going to go saying so in front of these Darkfriends.
“It’s not my place to like or dislike the Nae’blis,” he said cheerfully, “but I certainly respect him. His goals are my goals.”
“You said you were going to – hey! You’re kicking me!”
“It must be my old war wound acting up,” Fain smiled apologetically at Mat and Melindhra. They were such a pretty couple. Well, except for Mat. “I’m glad we had time for this little talk. What’s next?”
“The Car’a’carn Dragon Reborn Puddin Taim is leading an attack on Caemlyn in the morning,” Melindhra said. “I will join my spear sisters and go along, and Mat will join us.”
“It sounds like fun,” Padan smiled. If the Lord Dragon and his awful advisers were going to Caemlyn, maybe he would be able to steal away into the night, and take up the search for his stolen dagger. It had been somewhere in the north, but now … now he couldn’t say where it was at all. It was as if it had disappeared. “Yes. Yes, it sounds like fun.”
“And after that,” Mat said diffidently, “Foreskin was telling me once about this thing called a blumkin…”
“We’ll see,” Melindhra promised. “After Caemlyn.”
“Enjoy yourselves,” Fain patted his pockets and produced his pipe. “You two have a ball for me, okay?”
“Hur hur hur,” said Quincey.