The Hall of the Tower, or whatever they were calling it these days, was dark and shadowy … but only for a little while.
“I hope you don’t expect me to strip down tae my skin for this,” Janica warned. “I know you Aes Sedai like your silly rituals and your spankings, but there’s not going to be any of argh.”
There was suddenly a bloom of light, amplified by the One Power and several lanterns and mirrors around the room. Janica was temporarily blinded, but most of the discomfort came through the a’dam from Debs, who was dazzled as well – and Janica, of course, received a nice tenfold enhancement of the sensation. Aes Sedai, and other figures, stood around the room in dark silhouettes, concealed by the increasingly-bright lights all around.
“Welcome, Janica, you who would be Amyrlin,” one of the Aes Sedai said – Janica suspected it was Romanda, or maybe Lelaine, but it was difficult to tell any of them apart because of the goth facepaint. “We will begin the ceremony as soon as possible, but before we can use this legal loophole, there are certain … other rituals we must observe.”
“They will not involve you being naked,” another voice said.
“You are not, as yet, Aes Sedai,” maybe-Romanda went on, “you are a wilder and this will not do. This ritual-”
Janica got tired of the discussion, and reached for the Source. She heard Debs give a surprised grunt, and realised she was shielded. In the same instant, Debs apparently attempted to surge forward and deliver a swift ‘Edinburgh Tattoo’ to the head of their nearest assailant, but they were immediately clamped in bands of Air.
“-will essentially see to it that your wilder status does not cause any particular problems,” possibly-Lelaine concluded smugly. “And as you may have noticed, there are enough of us Linked right now to keep you nicely under control. This whole thing will be done swiftly, and while everybody is enjoying themselves outside, our incursion will be complete. And lest you think you can catch us unawares while we are … enjoying the Link, think again! We are all selected specifically for our Linking experience, and will not be so easily caught unawares in the midst of our explosive-”
“Remember Rule Three,” one of the shrouded figures rasped.
“Yes, of course,” Romanda muttered. “‘Perform the dastardly, complicated deed first, and then explain it to the victim’. The Nae’blis is wise beyond measure,” she turned to one side. “Go and tell … Nynaeve … that we are proceeding. I would use the communicator, but you know how these things behave when you’re standing this close to a halfman. It’s nothing but static.”
Another dark-clad woman bobbed a curtsey, and scurried out of the spotlit chamber.
Janica looked around as much as her bonds would allow, trying to see if there was anything around that she could use. There was nothing. The lights blazed brighter and the shadows in between and around the assorted figures grew deeper, seeming to move of their own accord. The process seemed different to the last time she’d witnessed it, but she supposed the bad guys had refined the process a lot since then. There probably wouldn’t be a Logain-style mix-up this time, much less any sort of ‘Sheriam Incident’, of which she had heard whispers on several occasions. This was actually a relief – she had no intention of becoming bonded to a halfman, whether that halfman turned out to be Mister C of 9 or not. In fact, especially if it turned out to be Mister C of 9. And after what had happened to Mister C of 9, she doubted he would be around to help with his unique brand of ungracious, accidental assistance.
Equally, she had no intention of allowing herself to be turned to the Dark One, although it would probably signify a change in wardrobe more towards what she was used to wearing. If nothing else, it would give her a reason to change her shoes. The grey slippers were comfortable, but ever since they’d had the toes sliced off them, they were regrettably cold. She had no intention of allowing the procedure to take place, but sadly there didn’t seem to be much she could do about it.
At least, she reassured herself, her husband wasn’t likely to show up and attempt to save the day. Not that it wouldn’t have been a sort of sweet, romantic thing for him to do, but – and another glance around the room convinced her of this – the best he could expect for his efforts was a messy death.
“Let’s separate them,” a stern-faced Aes Sedai who had the look of a Supervising Engineer said. “We’ve ironed out most of the kinks in this, but a linked pair with a ter’angreal might mess things up, since we haven’t tried it before. Get the collar off.”
A couple of Aes Sedai, then a third Aes Sedai, then a creepily-smirking myrddraal, gathered around Janica and poked and prodded at the a’dam. When the halfman touched the metal, its fingers hissed and it stepped back with a muttered curse. Whether it hurt as much as certain ter’angreal hurt gholam, Janica wasn’t sure – but there was some sort of reaction.
In the end, they failed to open the collar just like everybody else had failed, and they settled for getting Debs out of the bracelet instead.
“Do the little one first,” the engineer-Aes Sedai instructed. “She’s more powerful. The fat one with the awful Seanchan accent barely even has the spark.”
The Aes Sedai channeled, the halfmen swayed and gyrated, and the shadows thickened even as the light intensified. The silvery collar around Janica’s neck suddenly went very cold. At the same time her glasses, possibly reacting the way normal metal would in contrast to the ter’angreal, heated up painfully. “Ow,” she muttered, and would have reached up to pull them off her face if she hadn’t still been bound by straps of Air. She watched the shadows thicken and twine together into a thick black cable, and watched with detachment as it pierced her. Nothing seemed to change in her mental outlook.
Gradually, the hocus-pocus faded away, and the Aes Sedai looked at her expectantly. None of them seemed to have burned out, and none of the halfmen seemed to have collapsed either. Janica supposed they had worked out all the kinks … except that she didn’t seem to be enslaved. Of course, she had never been forcibly turned to the Dark One by a convocation of thirteen Black Ajah Aes Sedai and thirteen myrddraal before, so she admitted that she wouldn’t know what it felt like. It might feel no different, until you were spreading whitewash over your face and balefiring small children.
“Are ye alreet, lass?” Debs whispered.
“All praise be to the Great Lord of the Dark,” Janica intoned, hoping it was a sufficiently bad-guy-esque thing to say.
The Aes Sedai seemed to relax.
“Alright, let her go,” Romanda-or-Lelaine ordered, and Janica felt the shield and the bands of Air dissolve. She almost embraced saidar and blasted them all to shreds where they stood, but decided against it for the time being. She was at least moderately assured that this hesitation was nothing to do with love of the Dark One, and more to do with the fact that she might be passing up on an opportunity to do some real inside work on Shadow Monkey’s organisation. “Put the fat one in the middle.”
Janica tried to get out of the way, but a swoop of nausea demonstrated that the a’dam, at least, was unharmed by whatever had just taken place. “I’ll need somebody to take the bracelet,” she said, “and move it to an out-of-the-wee location.”
One of the bystanders hurried up and took the bracelet. Janica had a couple of seconds to endure the particularly weird feeling of somebody completely unfamiliar on the far side of the a’dam link, then the Aes Sedai was tugging the bracelet off and resting it on a table behind one of the big curved mirrors. If the mascara-laden woman noticed Janica’s lack of Darkfriendliness, she gave no sign.
“If you will just wait there a moment, we shall deal with your friend,” Lelaine (she might have been Romanda) declared. “Then we shall continue with the next part of the ceremony.”
It was approaching midnight, and most members and guests of the Gentlemen’s Club were approaching catatonia. Someshta, having downed an entire barrel of apple brandy as part of his initiation ritual, was now sitting against the back wall, his hazelnut eyes unfocussed and a Warder’s sword in his hand, drunkenly wittling himself. Shavings and splinters lay all around him. Every now and then Frendli, who was the only Ogier still capable of speech, would sing a little jingle and the Green Man’s pruned appendages would grow back, sometimes in amusing shapes depending on the jingle. Contro had finally been allowed to join as an associate member, and he was sitting with Olver. Olver was attempting, and evidently not for the first time, to teach Contro how to play the Snakes and Foxes game. Olver was more than a little drunk, and he’d already punched Contro in the face three times. Contro, who hadn’t touched a drop, was still arguably the least coherent living thing in the room, with the possible exception of Lan, who was standing at the bar, having a slurred, angry conversation with nobody visible.
Shannon, even though he hadn’t been allowed to join because of the long-standing rule about girls, had finally been permitted to attend as ‘help’. At the moment, that meant cooking up a new round of steaks for those midnight snackers who got the urge. He was surprisingly good at tending to the barbecue, and as long as he didn’t try to come inside or listen in on any of the “secret men’s business”, nobody had any real objections to his presence. Min was also hanging around, willing to read the auras of anybody who would give her a penny. She seemed unwilling to go back to her tent, but considering there was an a’dam-bound Forsaken sitting in her tent, that was probably fair enough. Plus, she might lack Shannon’s lifetime experience, but she was pretty handy with the barbecue as well.
Chucky had little hesitation in declaring the new Salidar wing a rousing success.
“Ha ha ha!!!!” the happy laugh cut through Chucky’s head, but did nothing to erase his good cheer. “Honestly! We lost again!! We never seem to get any better, do we??!? Or maybe you’re not a very good teacher!! Aww, but you did great, really!!”
Olver, with positively inhuman patience, set up the pieces again and recited the special Snakes and Foxes rhyme.
“Ha ha ha!!! Music to dazzle!! What does that mean??! Maybe we’d win if that little poem of yours made sense!! It’s a bit much, don’t you think????” Contro laughed again, picked up one of the pieces, and put it in his mouth for no reason. “Ha ha ha!! I thought it was a piece of toffee! Funny that!!! Why don’t we add a new line to the rhyme?? Beans on toast to win!!”
Chucky took pity on Olver, leaned out of his seat and smacked Contro on the back of the head with the long wooden tray he’d been using as a steak sandwich assembly line. The little round stone popped out of Contro’s mouth and hit Olver in the face. With the quick reflexes of a street urchin, Olver lunged forward and punched Contro in the face again.
Olver put the stone back on the board and glared at Contro. “Just play.”
Contro laughed again.
Chucky was beginning to formulate a theory about that laugh. A theory that disturbed him a great deal. He’d started out thinking that perhaps the laugh wasn’t really a laugh at all, but a sort of pre-mortem corpse-gas, the sort of buildup that was spontaneously released like a death-rattle. The death-rattle of a man dying of terminal chirpy shitheadness. It was a good start to the theory, but even that wouldn’t hold up after a while, especially not if you looked at Bela and Cow. There was obviously more to it. Chucky was beginning to believe that Contro was a nexus for a fourth kind of power, one as far from the Light and the Dark as Shadar Logoth’s evil was … but on the other side. It was a bright, colourful, soulless power, full of happiness and free of care, and ultimately, it was poison. And the laugh was a way of venting that uncontainable poison into the outside atmosphere, where it would inevitably infect the rest of the world.
He wondered if maybe he had been around Contro too long.
This disturbed him even more, because he hadn’t been around Contro very much. Dr. Nick, Mat and Someshta had been around him for a long time, and they seemed okay. Except of course that they were all pretty lousy drunks. It was possible that they had been infected, and were acting as carriers, and they might need to be burned out in order to protect others.
He realised he was wondering about this quite seriously, shook his head, and had another drink.
In the momentary pause as the Tinker and the orphan resumed their game, the only sounds in the Clubhouse were Dr. Nick’s snores, Logain’s low voice – he was so drunk he seemed to be attempting to chat up Hoarni, a concept that made Chucky wince and momentarily forget his frightening Contro Theory – and the continual mutter of Lan’s monologue.
“…thing is, the thing is, cockshucker, it all comes down to who’s wearing the hadori, if you know what I mean, it’s all about the hadori and I don’t care what you say, cockshucker, get out of my face, I’ll tell you what the matter is, it’s all falling down and you’re just shtanding there with that stupid look on your face, I don’t care, I don’t care, it’s a metaphor, isn’t it, and you can stand there in your white cloak and smile like a barshtard all you like…”
“Fa la la,” Frendli got himself carefully into tune, and there was a soft rustle of regenerating vegetation as the song worked its magic. His actual words were drowned out, however, by a pealing of bells, amplified by the One Power.
Shannon popped his head in through the door.
“No chicks,” Asmodean said, raising his head from its puddle of beer-vomit and glaring at Shannon balefully. The two of them seemed to have some sordid, unspoken-of history that Chucky couldn’t manage to get to the bottom of. Asmodean had muttered darkly about Nancy Sidesaddle’s ta’veren effect, but hadn’t gone into any more detail even after his ninth pint.
“Fuck off,” Shannon snapped. “Them thar bells mean there’s some sort of gatherin’ a-happenin’. And in the middle of the night, it must be important. They’se probably gettin’ ready to trot out their new Amyrlin Seat. Come on, Chucky, I bet she’ll name y’all First Lady.”
Chucky lurched to his feet, found his balance, and weaved in as dignified a manner as possible out of the front door. He paused beside Shannon, and gave him a haughty look.
“You can be a real smartass when you put your mind to it,” he said, “Sidesaddle,” he held out his tray. “How about a steak for the road, and try not to make it fall off the side of the plate and land directly in a cowpat with your ta’verenness this time.”
“It weren’t no ta’verenness last time,” Shannon growled. “It fell offa your plate because you was standin’ with it tilted at a fiddy-five degree angle, an’ it didn’t land in no cowpat because there’s only three cows in the entire town, it landed in a horsepat, and it did so because there’s horse shit done gone been sprayed all over this place. In fact, if your lousy drunken ass had dropped it and it hadn’t landed in a durn horsepat, that woulda been ta’verenness at work.”
Chucky sighed and did his best to look hungry, and Shannon grudgingly relented and gave him a steak. Chucky assembled himself a quick burger while he walked, and by the time he was done, they had reached the little stage near the Hall of the Tower from which Shannon and Min insisted the Aes Sedai made all their proclamations.
Sure enough, a collection of dark-clad Aes Sedai were arranged on the podium, together with Debs and Janica.
“The rightful and venerable Amyrlin Seat, Flame of Tar Valon, Guardian of the Seals and all that,” one of the Aes Sedai said with surprising casualness, “Janica Hindle,” she paused, “and her Keeper of the Chronicles, Debs. Debs Hindle.”
There was a murmur that fell more than a little short of awed.
“Let’s keep it in the family, why don’t we,” one particularly cynical servant muttered to Chucky’s left.
Janica stepped forward, and spoke with saidar-enhanced volume.
“In keeping with tradition, I hereby absolve all novices and Accepted of their penances,” she said. “I also take advantage of my first day in office to raise the following Accepted to the shawl,” she turned and consulted very briefly with Debs, and a couple of the other Aes Sedai. “Theodrin Dabei, Faolain Orande, Nynaeve al’Meara and Elayne Trakand.”
There were more murmurs, this time a little bit more enthusiastic.
“I also declare that today – that is to say, the day starting later this morning – is a feast day of celebration, and any servants not involved in the preparations for this feast day can have the day off.”
Chucky cheered along with everybody else, although it seemed quite obvious that most of the servants would not be getting a day off, and there were continued mutters from all sides. Then Janica raised her hands in benediction, and stared out across the gathered crowd to look directly at the alt.fanatics on the outskirts.
“Eet-may ee-may ehind-bay ontro’s-Cay agon-way,” she intoned, “in ive-fay inutes-may. And ave-hay an ickle-tum-tay eady-ray.”
The Salidarans seemed suitably impressed by these baffling words of wisdom, and the Aes Sedai standing around Janica nodded sagely as if what they’d just heard had been some sort of ancient prophetic announcement. Of course, looking at their serene, masklike faces, there really wasn’t any way of telling what they were thinking.
Chucky gave Shannon a nod, took another bite of his burger, and moseyed away into the crowd.