Vamps stopped picking on his crusty parts and looked up to see a nervous-looking Saldaean soldier standing to attention nearby. He wondered how long he had been daydreaming. On the heels of that, he wondered how long he had been in Caemlyn. The days seemed longer than the nights, and the nights seemed longer than the days at the same time, and one moment he felt like he’d just arrived, and the next moment he felt like he’d been wandering around the Royal Palace in the Inner City for a thousand years. He wondered if the orbit of the planet were decaying, and if there were anything he could do, perhaps with bands of Air, to correct it. He also wondered if it were possible to use flows of Air when you were in space, outside the atmosphere.
Vamps stopped picking on his crusty parts and looked up to see a nervous-looking Saldaean soldier standing to attention nearby. He wondered how long he had been daydreaming.
“What is it, master Ahzkan?” Janica asked pleasantly. “Ignore the Lord Dragon, he is preoccupied with many important things,” the little damane was sitting on a comfy chair nearby, with the bracelet end of her a’dam resting on a nearby table where Debs had left it. She was knitting happily. Chucky was sitting in an equally comfy chair, eating leftover roast oxen and trying not to get grease on the book he was reading, or at least not let Janica see that he was getting grease on the book he was reading. He was reading The Adventures of Jain Farstrider, and was discovering, ironically, that it was far more interesting and better-written than the Wheel of Time itself.
Aviendha was standing meekly in a corner in her gai’shain white, head down. With Debs enjoying her newfound freedom but Janica still unable to touch the a’dam in order to walk anywhere unattended, she had taken Aviendha into her service as a sort of porter. The Aiel woman could channel, so she was able to use the a’dam, and her prickly honour would not allow her to do anything silly with the leashed woman.
“Um,” Tumad Ahzkan was obviously ill-at-ease. “It’s, um, well, the thing is…”
“Spit it out, man,” Davram Bashere snapped from a far-less-comfortable-looking chair against the far wall, where he had been sitting and watching Vamps picking on his crusty bits for the past two-and-a-half hours.
“The false Dragon, Mazrim Taim, is here.”
There was a stir, and a general putting down of knitting and books and scabs. Aviendha stepped to the table and slipped the bracelet around her wrist, and Janica picked up the Choedan Kal ter’angreal casually. Vamps straightened in his chair and looked nervous.
“I haven’t seen Maizecake in such a long time,” he said in a low voice. “And also, at the same time, I’ve never met him before in my life. That’s a bit awkward.”
“Well, he likes to be called Mazrim now,” Janica said, “so make sure you remember.”
Four more Saldaean guards strode in, swords drawn, flanking a tall, imposing man who was an older and better-looking version of Vamps himself. In short, you wouldn’t have guessed they were brothers at all. The former Far Maddingite had cut off his long, tidy braid, but his hair still fell to his shoulders. He stared at Vamps with a mixture of fondness, scorn and incredulity.
“Puddin?” he murmured, and stepped forward through the sword-waving guards as if they weren’t even there. “Light, man, they told me what you were doing, but I never quite believed it,” he drew up in front of the chair, and looked his little brother up and down. “You look like half-eaten shit.”
“I have numerous owwies,” Vamps reported.
Mazrim Taim turned to look at Janica. “You don’t look like Aes Sedai.”
“I’m not one.”
“So why are you setting my brother up as a false Dragon?”
“He’s not a false Dragon,” Janica explained, “he started out as one, but one thing led to another and he’s fulfilled all the prophecies and much as I hate to have to say it, you go to Tarmon Gaidon with the Dragon you have, not the Dragon you want.”
Chucky guffawed appreciatively. “Nice one.”
Mazrim nodded slowly, and reached into his coat. He smirked as the guards raised their swords, but what he produced wasn’t any sort of weapon, but a black-and-white cuendillar disc. “I brought this, sort of a reunion present,” he tossed the seal at Vamps’s head. “Think quick, Puddin!”
Vamps blinked slowly as the disc hit him in the forehead with a loud whunk.
“The Lord Dragon is preoccupied with many important things,” Bashere drawled, and grinned when Janica directed a Look in his direction. Vamps leaned down and picked up the seal, looked at it for a moment, and then tossed it to the little damane. She scratched at it with a fingernail, but it didn’t seem to be weakening.
“How are you feeling, Puddin?” Mazrim was asking, leaning forward and looking at his brother intently.
“Apart from the owwies?”
“Apart from them,” Mazrim said patiently. “Are you … seeing anything strange? Having strange thoughts?” he looked around. “No, don’t answer that. It’s none of their concern. I hear you’ve announced an amnesty on male channelers.”
“That’s right,” Vamps said, finding a bit of self-confidence. “I’ll call them to me, and they will swear fealty to me, and they’ll be protected from persecution,” he frowned. “I heard that the White Tower has made the same announcement, and is offering perks.”
Mazrim snorted. “Perks. I don’t trust the White Tower, or their glitzy offers. And a lot of other men don’t either. I’ve been gathering a few together, actually, those who are willing to be taught. We’ve formed a sort of community, in a safe place, where we can organise ourselves.”
Janica blinked, and exchanged a glance with Chucky.
“You mean the farm?” she asked. The farm was supposed to be Rand’s initiative, but they hadn’t found the time or channelers to make it happen yet. Nobody wanted to take up the art of channeling when the most public example of a male channeler was Muffin Vamps, who even on a good day seemed to be falling apart in every sense of the word.
Mazrim Taim was looking at Janica carefully. “It’s on an old farm somewhere, yes,” he allowed, “although I’d like to know how you found out about it.”
“I told her,” Chucky said nobly. “I … saw it … in a vision. Yeah, in a dream or a vision.”
“Hmm,” Taim shrugged. “Well, I suppose I can trust you, if you’re going to give the farm your official sanction. Anyway, it was just an idea that suddenly came to me, one day while I was avoiding a group of soldiers along a wagon route. It was really quite strange, actually – almost as if I was being led to the decision against considerable pressure. The last thing I wanted to do at the time was draw attention to myself by calling together a group of men who could channel, and yet all of a sudden that was what I had to do.”
“I wonder if Nancy Sidesaddle was passing by,” Chucky remarked.
“Well, anyway,” Mazrim grinned, “it’s well under way. Together, the brothers Taim will build up an army to win Tarmon Gai’don, and the Aes Sedai will-”
“Together?” Janica frowned. “You’re here to bend knee to the Dragon Reborn, master Taim. And obey his commands.”
“Obey Puddin?” Mazrim chuckled. “With my help, this whole thing might work out. But I was thinking more along the lines of a junior partnership-”
Janica stood up, gripped the Choedan Kal firmly, and pointed at the tiled floor in front of Puddin Taim, who looked dreadfully embarrassed. Muffin Vamps, on the other hand, looked righteously pleased with himself, and the result was a sort of constipated grimace.
“Kneel,” she said, “or you will be knelt.”
“Best sixty out of a hundred?”
“Face it, Nick,” Mat said impatiently, “I’m not lucky.”
Dr. Nick sighed and put the dice cup down. His still-keen nerdsense had put together the statistics and concluded that the evening’s experiment had come out as a perfectly normal spread of numbers. Some good, some bad, most average. That in itself could be proof of Mat having amazing ta’veren luck – if he wanted to prove his luck was normal, and therefore avoid trouble, he would want to roll normal dice all evening – but that was a stretch.
“I don’t get it,” the Aielman shook his head. “You’re meant to have this incredible good fortune, and-”
“I know, I know, and memories from a whole lot of dead generals in my head,” Mat rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Contro told me.”
Dr. Nick winced. Contro had been left outside with the wagon and Cyberwollf. Neither Tinkers nor wolves were welcome in Maerone, but they were tolerated as long as they didn’t try to enter any public buildings. The Golden Stag was a pleasant enough place, and the presence of Contro would not have improved it. They didn’t exactly like Aiel either, but since Mat had brought his girlfriend and a bunch of spear-happy Maidens along with him, the cadin’sor-clad intruders were tolerated. Dr. Nick was confused and disoriented by the turn of events that had brought him into this storyline, and would have blamed Shannon if he could, but Shannon was off being whipped and stripped and made into a Wise One or something. He had decided the best way to get over his confusion was to drown it. “Well, I’m sorry you had to go through that ordeal,” he said, taking a drink. “It’s just that we had this information, and it seems like somewhere along the way, things diverged from the way they were supposed to go and now you’re in charge of a growing group of soldiers without knowing anything about fighting.”
“We have Melindhra and some of her friends,” Mat said helpfully. “They know a lot about fighting.”
“I could ask the Heroes,” Hoarni suggested. The four Ogier were sitting on the floor, and still loomed over the humans at the gaming table. “They know a lot about fighting too, and tactics and things. Maybe Mat could use their memories instead of the ones in his head.”
“For the last fucking time, nobody is blowing…” Dr. Nick trailed off. “Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. The Band of the Red Hand has to become known for never losing a fight, either because of good tactics or good luck or whatever … if the Heroes of the Horn came along and joined in, that might just achieve the same thing. Not now,” he snapped, smacking the back of Hoarni’s hand with the dice cup. The Ogier’s ears drooped and he put the Horn back into his pocket. Stifler had been very unwilling to hand the instrument over, but Elayne and Someshta and, decisively, Debs and Janica had been insistent. The Horn went with the Horn Sounder. And besides, as Dr. Nick assured the grumpy Warders, it wasn’t as if it would summon them anymore when it was sounded. They were already torn out into the real world.
The Warders had really appreciated being reminded of that. Dr. Nick reflected that he didn’t miss any of them very much. Not even Stifler.
Mat’s eyes were gleaming as he stared at the Horn. “Can I have a go?”
“It won’t work for you,” Dr. Nick explained. “It’s bound to the Horn Sounder now, and that’s this big galoot.”
“Until he dies,” Mat agreed, then shook himself as if snapping out of a daydream. “So we’ll have to make sure nothing happens to you, right, my large friend?”
Hoarni and his brothers bumblebeed with nervous agreement.
“You’re very kind, master Cauthon,” Coarshus gushed.
“Are we playing craps here or not?” Wyse rumbled, bringing a fist down on the table hard enough to drive its legs a quarter-inch into the packed dirt of the floor. He’d had a couple of shots of apple brandy to chase down his ale and the group was beginning to realise that, in spite of his size, Wyse was a cheap and surly drunk. Or, as Hoarni grinningly explained it, Ogier were reluctant to put long handles on their axes, but some Ogier had longer handles than others. “Come on, dovie’andi se tovya fuckin’ sagain.”
“Alright,” Dr. Nick said, rattling the cup, “best sixty out of-” he was interrupted by raised voices outside, a young boy’s frightened cries, and Contro’s merry laugh. “Damn it. Come on, let’s see what the problem is.”
Dr. Nick, Mat, and a couple of random Red Hand officers – one of them was named Edorion, but that was about all Dr. Nick knew – led the Ogier into the street. Wyse went immediately to the nearest gutter and threw up in it. Since he was twelve feet tall, the nearest gutter happened to be running along the edge of The Golden Stag’s roof, and a moment later a thick broth of brandy, ale and pork rinds came sludging out of a nearby downpipe.
“I’ll just get the Heroes to help you clean yourself up,” Hoarni offered, rummaging in his pockets.
“No Heroes,” Dr. Nick snapped, glaring at Hoarni and rearranging his spears in what he hoped was a threatening way. The Ogier were so easy to threaten, of course, he could have tucked the spears behind his ears like pens and they would have been cowed by it. Or whatever the Ogier equivalent of “cowed” was.
The disturbance seemed to be that a young kid had tried to steal Bela and Cow. Contro was standing in the wagon-bed, hauling on the reins and laughing, while Cyberwollf and two men were desperately trying to pull the screaming kid out of Cow’s mouth by the ankles. Bela was taking the opportunity offered by the distraction to gnaw feverishly on her harness in an attempt to break free and wreak havoc on downtown Maerone.
“Ha ha ha! Now he only has one ear, just like me!! Funny that!”
Dr. Nick jumped in to help, grabbing the back of the boy’s pants and tugging. Bela looked up from her chewing, her ears went back against her head and she tried to take a finger or two on the spur of the moment. Fortunately, Dr. Nick’s Aiel reflexes saved him.
Wyse straightened, wiped his mouth, and staggered over to the unfolding street theatre. “Five silver pieces on the horse,” he Ogier-stage-whispered.
“Where’s Someshta?” Dr. Nick grunted, pulling again. Cow sniggered through clenched teeth and gave his head a brisk shake, making the boy in his mouth swing from side to side and scream even more loudly. The Aielman reached for a spear.
“I don’t know!” Contro laughed. “Ha ha ha!!! Which one is Someshta???!”
“The fucking enormous one made out of wood!”
“He’s behind you!!! Honestly!”
Dr. Nick didn’t even look. “That’s the tavern!”
“Ha ha ha!!! Is it going to change the Pattern so we all bump into each other?? It’s funny when that happens!”
“Tavern,” Mat said calmly, “not ta’veren,” he stepped forward. “Cow, Bela – shh.”
Abruptly, the two horses stopped struggling and biting, straightened in their harnesses, and shuffled their hooves as if deeply embarrassed. The little boy came free in an arc of blood and scalp-bits.
“That was a Ghul of a trick,” Edorion complimented the gap-toothed farmboy.
“I’m good with horses,” Mat hunkered down beside Dr. Nick, who had blood all over his cammo gear. “Who’s our new partner?”
Dr. Nick gingerly tilted the wailing kid away from his body, and examined him as best he could. Several deep and extremely unhygienic horse-bites around the nose, ears and hairline had done nothing to improve what was already a record-breaking face in the field of back-woods inbred ugly.
“Olver,” he replied.