Shannon sighed in contentment and settled back against the cushions. He wasn’t getting much quality sleep lately, what with running around in Tel’aran’rhiod all the time, but he was still pretty happy with the way things were going.
Of course, his impact on the Pattern was a constant source of annoyance, and he was very aware of the danger Salidar presented to him. He knew, once he had escaped from the Aiel women who wanted him to become a Wise One, that it was only a matter of time before the Salidar Aes Sedai decided to make him the Amyrlin Seat, regardless of the fact that he couldn’t channel.
And the fact that I’m a dude, he thought forcefully to himself, as if the power of masculine thinking could make his breasts hairy and – possibly with the aid of a good sneeze – turn his ovaries into testicles. His best hope, in fact, was that Salidar was full of Darkfriends, and Tar Valon was too, and neither faction had any intention of splitting with the other.
He wondered when Halima was going to turn up, and whether he would be able to convince her to sleep with him. They had a lot in common, after all.
This thought led him to wonder if maybe he was Halima, but he disregarded this as horrifying and ridiculous.
He was sharing a tent with Selene and Min, which was something he viewed with a strange mixture of enjoyment and worry. Whether Selene was Moghedien in disguise, or Lanfear as Min seemed to believe, she was still a Forsaken and Shannon knew that sooner or later there would be trouble. Knowing the way stuff happened around him, the tent was likely to fall down one evening and knock the collar off her by accident, and she would probably kill everybody in a fifty-foot radius just for being there. Min, ostensibly there to keep watch on her, could barely bring herself to look at the delicate dark-haired woman.
On the other hand, Selene did seem to have been quite well-tamed by Nynaeve – in fact she seemed downright terrified of Nynaeve, and so did Min. Shannon couldn’t actually say as he blamed them. They’d been in Salidar less than a week, and Nynaeve already had half the Aes Sedai running around doing her bidding, all but dropping curtseys as they went. She was certainly formidable.
In the meantime, Shannon reflected, there was no harm in covering your bases.
“How you feelin’ there?” he asked, handing Selene a cup of water.
“Like I should be standing in the middle of a bloody thunderstorm,” Selene growled, snatching the cup and drinking deeply. “And like I’m sitting on a pile of thistles.”
“Sittin’ on a pile o’ thistles in a thunderstorm, boy howdy, that cain’t hardly be much fun now can it,” Shannon said unsympathetically. Covering your bases was one thing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to feel sorry for the Forsaken. “Guess you shoulda thunk that through before killin’ all-a those folks an’ destroyin’ them thar cities an’ such.”
Moghedien-or-Lanfear just sat and seethed quietly.
“Maybe if you thunk about some more stuff what with to teach Nynaeve an’ the others, they wouldn’t be so tough on you,” Shannon suggested, before deciding he’d done his best and didn’t really give a shit. He stood up. Min, sitting over in a far corner looking miserable, looked up at him briefly and then sank back into silent reflection, obviously guilt-stricken and terrified at having one of the Forsaken collared but not telling anybody about it. Shannon couldn’t blame her – if Salidar was full of Black Ajah in hiding – and Shannon suspected it was – he could only shudder to imagine what they might do with her and their precious braid-tugging super-channeler when they found out they were keeping one of the Chosen like a dog. Not to mention what they’d do with him. “I’m goin’ for a walk.”
It was hot and unpleasant outside, but not quite as unpleasant as sitting in the tent and thinking about the possibly-pain-filled future. Salidar was bustling with activity, Aes Sedai and Warders and soldiers and novices and attendants everywhere. They weren’t quite actively recruiting new girls yet, but Shannon had heard talk. And he himself had been tested no less than four separate times. Twice by Theodrin, who didn’t seem to believe he couldn’t channel after seeing him “fight off” a group of drunk Warders who had tried to sexually assault him on his first night in the camp. All three of them had somehow cut their own penises off with sword, dagger and quarterstaff respectively, although the latter had taken nearly fifteen hilariously agonising slapstick minutes and by the time his battered, splintery member had plopped into the dust quite a crowd had gathered. The Warders had been Healed, although only the guy with the dagger had managed to geld himself cleanly enough to reattach the severed wang.
Theodrin was convinced that Shannon was a spark-bearing channeler, under a heavy block. Her theory – that it was a block only able to lift itself while Shannon was in imminent danger of being mass-violated by drunk Warders – proved a difficult one to test after word got around the barracks about “that Sidesaddle bitch”. Shannon had suggested that Nynaeve was the one with the block, but Theodrin had just laughed nervously. She was somewhere between Accepted and Aes Sedai in rank, but Nynaeve herself seemed to stand above most of the shawl-wearing sisters, probably because of her strength in the One Power. And, of course, because of the amazing things she was learning from Lanfear-or-Moghedien, and passing on to the sisters.
Still, things could have been worse. Tarna, one of the other Aes Sedai, told Shannon that if he did have a block, Galina Casban was the only one to depend on to beat it out of him. He would have told Tarna that Galina was Black Ajah, if he could have been sure Tarna herself wasn’t one.
His disgruntled rumination was interrupted by a muffled scream from a nearby tent, which – what do you know – seemed to have collapsed and was slowly smothering the three or four people inside. Shannon rolled his eyes and kept walking.
Two women who might have been Areina and Nicola ran past, the heads of each wrapped in a bunch of wet novice dresses. They were screaming hysterically and trying to free themselves. A Warder – Shannon thought it might have been the guy with the re-attached wang – staggered past in the other direction, turning blue in the face as his colour-shifting cloak methodically strangled him. Shannon watched clinically as he fell to his knees and writhed in the dust, and debated briefly with himself whether to go straight over and kick him in the kidneys, or try to find the renaissance fair equivalent of popcorn from someplace.
Loial loomed out of nowhere, shielding his face with his hands as his own jacket, or rather the books in the pockets, flapped up and down and thumped him viciously.
“Bubble o’ evil,” Shannon told him, and they headed for safer ground. This, the merchant woman judged, was probably under the trees somewhere, away from the tents and pots and pans and things. Even out along the horse lines, horses were screaming and rearing and squirting their intestines out of either end as their saddles squeezed them. “What’s that you got over your shoulder?”
Loial lowered his arm for a moment, to display an unconscious Lan.
“His hip flask was climbing down his throat,” the Ogier explained, “but I wasn’t sure if it was the work of the Dark One, or just the fact that Lan likes to get the last drop…”
The deafening roar came from somewhere in the middle of Salidar, and the general panic subsided a little. Shannon recognised Nynaeve’s voice, amplified by the One Power. She must have been plenty riled up by that stage, so channeling probably wasn’t going to be an issue for her.
“We won’t be needed back there for a whiles,” Shannon said, clapping Loial on the small of the back. “Let’s jus’-”
They walked past the outskirts of the tents and into the hot, dry woods. Nicola, who seemed to have freed herself from the pile of laundry by the simple expedient of setting it on fire, was kneeling on the ground with her hair all frizzed and her eyebrows scorched off. Her eyes were rolled back in her head.
“The devoted wife, the adoring mother, the daughter of the night,” she was intoning steadily. “The womb of glass on the mountain, and he who is dead and yet lives. The great battle done, but the world not done with battle. The land divided by the return, and the guardians balance the servants. The future teeters on the edge of a blade.”
“Is she having a Foretelling, do you think?” Loial asked, ears twitching with curiosity and his free hand reaching for a notebook like the contents of his pockets weren’t still trying to bludgeon him to death.
“Let’s just keep out o’ the way an’ wait for things to settle on down,” Shannon went on loudly. “This ain’t none o’ our concern, and I’m sure Nynaeve and the others’ll git all o’ this sorted out before too much longer,” in fact, he was beginning to wonder if the bubble of evil might have any special significance, that maybe the Ogier could explain for him. Were Darkfriends usually attacked by the bubbles of evil? Was it completely random? If anybody could be attacked by them, it didn’t mean there weren’t still some Darkfriends around Salidar… “Let’s jus’ git well out o’ the way.”
“Good idea, mistress Sidesaddle,” Loial agreed. “I’ve noticed that the Aes Sedai like to be left alone in peace to smoke some tabac and stare at the ceiling for a while after they’ve been in a circle.”
“Look, we know the Pattern is created by Robert Jordan, right?” Janica explained, refusing to acknowledge the small toy car Chucky had ad-libbed out of a copper lamp fixture. “And we – and most of all Shadow Monkey – have been messing with the way this story is running. We’re doing our best to keep it on the rails, but Shadow … Angus … is a step ahead of us, and you said he had the next book too.”
“Crossroads of Twilight,” Chucky confirmed, and broom-broomed the car across to Vamps, who caught it eagerly and made it take off with a saliva-spraying whoosh. “Sorry,” he added, seeing his wife’s patient expression.
“He’s pulling the narrative – the Pattern – way out of line,” Janica went on, “but it seems to me like forces unrelated to us are dragging them back. It’s mainly affecting actual characters. Elayne had to be here because her character is too strongly connected to Andor and the Lion Throne, but otherwise she would be at Salidar making ter’angreal. We were nowhere near ready to make the Black Tower, and Mazrim Taim suddenly decided to start a male channeling school. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of the most important things in the story just happen, without explanation, if it looks like we won’t be able to do it ourselves.”
“But that’s good news, right?” Chucky frowned. “Although, if you ask me, a slightly lazy cop-out in terms of narrative causality.”
“I don’t think it is good,” Janica said, “because with Angus’s help, the Pattern has already got enough pressure on it from the Dark One. We’re not seeing many bubbles of evil yet, but we will. And probably more of these things that the Dark One does to the Pattern, like the weather. They’re going to get worse, and if the Pattern is hiccuping like this all the time as well, who knows what sort of damage it might cause?”
“Every molecule in the universe simultaneously exploding at the speed of light?” Chucky guessed.
“Possibly,” Janica agreed. “It’s possible the entire Pattern will come unravelled, and that’s what the Dark One wants, after all. To destroy the Pattern and make a new one that He rules.”
“So what’re we s’paes’d t’dae?”
“Maybe we should ask Asmodean,” Chucky said slyly. “He might know about this sort of thing.”
“Where is Asmodean, anyway?” Chucky watched Debs redden. “Last time I saw him, he was limping around looking for some way to make ice,” suddenly aware that Janica was probably receiving ten times as much of whatever Debs was feeling, thanks to the a’dam, he laid off a little.
“We should keep these rearrangements of the Pattern to an absolute minimum,” Janica replied, “and that means redoubling our efforts to keep the storyline on-track. Every time it does happen on its own, we should take the resulting events and do our best to drive them along the diverted storyline they represent. Like Elayne and her ter’angreal. It’s possible that Shadow Monkey will find out about these spontaneous events as well, but I don’t know what he’ll think of them. He might try to avoid them as much as possible, or he might try to make them happen more, or otherwise reverse them, to see if he can derail the entire narrative.”
“If anybody is pushing from outside the simulation, or whatever this is,” Chucky suggested, “that might be the source of these hiccups. Jordan or his cronies might be out there trying to keep the plot from getting too out of hand, because it might make the whole roleplaying scenario impossible to control. You know, like a Gamesmaster with a bunch of players who insist on bringing shotguns into the goblin cave.”
“Not in my scenarios, they don’t,” Janica said firmly.
“True enough, but Angus already has a shotgun.”
Losing interest in the discussion, Vamps got up and wandered out of the room. He wrapped the little bent-up piece of bronze filigree in flows of Air and swooped it back and forth along the corridor. It really did look like a DeLorean.
He wasn’t sure what a DeLorean was, except it was some sort of thing like something he’d had once, except the thing he’d had had been called a Happy Fun Car and it had been much cooler and he’d used it as an opener into conversations about how much sex he had all the time. This line of thought confused him and made him want to knock out a few walls in order to get some fresh air.
Swooping the DeLorean back and forth was about his limit, though. Janica had taken the Choedan Kal off him, and Jasin Natael had almost-completely shielded him, so he could only channel a tiny amount. Which was a shame, because he had a great plan to stop the Pattern from unravelling itself…
His musings were cut short by a roar from downstairs, and a loud crash. He ran as fast as he could to the throne room, where pandemonium looked as though it was being prevented very forcibly indeed from ensuing.
Elayne was sitting in her chair, ter’angreal still scattered over the table in front of her. Her Warders were standing around her, wild-eyed and in stances of battle-readiness – Birgitte had an arrow set to her bowstring, Gaidal Cain had his long knives out, and Stifler was comically brandishing a roast chicken leg. Two more women, one of them sort of skanky-looking with blonde dreadlocks and the other highly attractive in a green dress, stood rigidly in front of the Lion Throne dais, arms tight by their side and faces green with terror. Mazrim Taim stood on the second step leading up to the throne, arms outstretched. If it weren’t for the look on his face, Vamps could have sworn his brother was about to burst into song on the topic of what a swell town Caemlyn was, and maybe incorporate the Lion Throne into a bit of unrehearsed choreography.
But he looked super-pissed.
“What’s the big idea, Puddin?” he snapped, marching away from the throne and giving the two strangers a dirty look. “Some sort of trap? Trying to get some sort of extra concessions out of me? Keep an eye on me? Don’t make me give you a Ghealdanin burn.”
“I don’t know!” Vamps squealed, seeing his brother’s hands assuming the classic burn-formation. “I didn’t … I never … what’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” Maizecake growled, looking over Vamps’s shoulder as Debs, Janica and Chucky came running into the room. “I popped in from the farm for a visit, to maybe talk over some of the training plan – I was thinking we’d get more recruits if I Traveled from village to village, rather than depending on farmers on horseback. Anyway, I come in, and this lot is in here having a bit of a row. I ask them what’s going on, they give me that bloody Aes Sedai stare, and then this one,” he pointed at the good-looking woman in green, “this one bonds me.”
Liandrin and Alanna wriggled minutely in their cast-iron bonds of Air, and Alanna turned to look at Vamps in confusion.
“Who are you?” she asked.