It didn’t take Vamps long to get bored, and when he realised that his shield wouldn’t permit enough of the One Power through to provide him with any real alleviation of this boredom, he started to sulk.
Bashere, who was paying one of his annoyingly regular visits from Caemlyn in order to “keep an eye on the kids”, didn’t react very helpfully to the Lord Dragon’s protestations of boredness.
“Perhaps Milord Dragon would like to stamp on some bugs?” he suggested.
Vamps had a nagging suspicion that he was being made fun of, but wasn’t sure how. His normal response in such a situation would be to pretend he was the one doing the mocking, in a way that was obviously too clever for the person who was mocking him (or at least they thought they were mocking him) to comprehend. He would then congratulate himself on his subtlety and leave his opponent confused without actually having to think up any sort of counter-offensive of his own. In Davram Bashere’s case, however, Vamps couldn’t shake the feeling that the wise-mouthed Saldaean had already thought that far ahead, and would be ready with something that would catch Vamps completely flat-footed. The secret then lay in thinking yet another step ahead of that, and maybe making it all look like an elaborate setup that Vamps had very subtly laid out in order to trap his opponent. Once again, Vamps’s brain insisted in a nasty snarky whisper, Bashere was probably already there ahead of him, which would require Vamps to be yet one more step ahead.
Since the only alternative at that point was to trump the dude with balefire, and Vamps couldn’t channel that much saidin even if he wanted to (and he didn’t – the taint made his belly feel all queasy), the Dragon Reborn was left with no option but to mutter something inaudible under his breath.
“Is Milord Dragon aware that he just spoke his entire thought process out loud?” Bashere inquired politely, jiggling a pinky finger in his ear, “and that his definition of ‘inaudible under his breath’ could most likely be heard all the way across town?”
Vamps was spared the indignity of having to reply to this, by the relatively blessed sight of his brother, marching through the doorway as if he owned the place.
“Hi,” Mazrim said.
Davram got to his feet, lazy amusement no longer twinkling in his eyes.
“What do you want, Taim?” he demanded.
“I want to talk to my brother,” Mazrim said, “and I want you to bugger off,” before Bashere could do more than open his mouth, Mazrim waved his hand and the great throne room doors crashed open, burst momentarily into flame, and then went out again. There was nothing wrong with Mazrim’s access to the One Power, no sir. “Don’t let those hit your ass on the way out.”
After Bashere was gone, Mazrim looked up at his brother in amusement.
“Come on,” he finally said, “let’s get out of here.”
“Where are we going?” Vamps asked, as he stepped down off his throne-dais and his brother opened a gateway with another negligent wave of his hand. “When did you learn how to do that?”
“I picked it up,” Mazrim said lazily. “Jasin Natael isn’t as careful with this sort of thing as he should be, and Janica and Debs insist on sharing information. Not only that, but I’m getting quite a lot of information out of my pet Aes Sedai these days. Come on, I want to show you the changes we’ve made out at the Black Tower.”
“The Black Tower?” Vamps frowned to himself as he followed his brother through the gateway and into a vaguely familiar sort of settlement. He was also quite surprised to see it was the middle of the night. He’d had the weirdest idea that it was morning already. “Oh, right, the farm where all the male channelers were,” he wondered whether he should be alarmed about being in such a place while he still had a saidin-muzzle on, and he had foggy recollections about some of the guys in the Black Tower not necessarily liking the Dragon very much. Of course, that extended to Mazrim, who might actually be Demandred in disguise … but it certainly didn’t look like Demandred. He looked like the same old Maizecake Taim who always helped him braid his hair, who always helped him do his chores…
“What are you muttering about now?” Mazrim asked, giving his brother a quick noogie.
“Quit it! Are you Demandred?”
“But of course I would say that, if I was Demandred in disguise,” Mazrim added.
“Yeah, but are you?”
The Dragon and his brother made their way through the little town, and Vamps was amazed at how much had changed since his last visit. Even in the middle of the night, there were a lot of people outside, training in various ways.
“I teach the men about Healing first,” Mazrim was explaining, “not that I know all that much. Then I teach them the trick to avoid feeling the heat. Useful, in this neverending damned summer. Would you like to talk to the men?”
“Oh,” Vamps suddenly remembered what he should be doing. He was meant to be explaining to the asha’man that they would have all these special ranks and badges and things, and that they would be called ‘asha’man‘ from now on. That seemed important for some reason. Unfortunately, he hadn’t really thought about it all that much. He had just assumed that Janica and Debs would take care of it. He’d spent a little time a few weeks earlier, in one of his more creative phases, trying to make a series of badges that looked pretty cool. Unfortunately, the drawings were all in the pocket of one of his other coats. “Oh, um, okay. But aren’t they all in bed? We could come back in the morning…”
“You’re the Dragon Reborn,” Mazrim said, rubbing his knuckles painfully on the top of Puddin’s head again, “people will probably wake up for you.”
Sure enough, the growing collection of male channelers and various hangers-on gathered together on Mazrim’s bellowed order, and even though a lot of them looked tired, they stood satisfactorily to attention and listened closely while the Dragon Reborn made his speech.
“Um, hi,” he started. “I, um, I’m the Dragon Reborn, and king of a lot of places,” his confidence returned a little. “And don’t get me started on women,” he waited a moment, just in case one of the men did want to get him started on women, but none of them seemed to want to. “Because, um,” he went on, “I could never narrow it down to just one. If I had to pick my favourite three … look, just don’t get me started,” he waited again, then decided nobody was really understanding his point. Which was only natural, since it was a fairly subtle one. “From now on,” he continued, “you will be known as asha’man. Does anybody know what ‘asha’man‘ means?”
Three or four of the men, including Mazrim, raised their hands. Vamps had a vague and horrifying memory of sitting in the back of the room during Old Tongue class, facing the wall with a bell-bedecked jester’s cap on. He stamped the memory down savagely, and then realised everybody was staring at him, and then further realised that he had actually physically been stamping.
“You,” he said, pointing to one of the men. “Tell us what it means.”
“It means ‘guardian’,” the man replied, “or ‘defender of a just cause’,” he paused, then added, “it’s the Old Tongue, Lord Dragon.”
“Correct,” Vamps nodded approvingly. “Just testing. So, um, I’ve decided that-”
“Puddin,” Mazrim said quietly, into his ear.
“I’ve already told them. Soldier, Dedicated, the pins, all that. You can just go ahead and confirm the order, and hand out these pins,” he handed Vamps a fistful of little silver swords, and an enamelled dragon. “Maybe it’d be best if you laid the first one on me. So I could get, you know, the respect and all.”
“You already have the pins and stuff?” Vamps gaped.
“Yeah,” Mazrim shrugged. “Janica gave them to me before she left.”
A giggling Contro had only just begun to work up a charge on Cyberwollf’s belly by the time Janica and a scowling Debs rounded the wagon and crouched to avoid any further attention.
“We have to be quick,” Janica hissed, “I can’t be away for long right now. They’ve got all these things for me to sign, and they want to have meetings and tell me how I’m supposed to act and things. I told them I had to go to the toilet, but I don’t think it’ll fool them for long. I’ll feel a lot better about the situation if I can just be sure of myself,” she jerked her head at Debs. “Do her first.”
“What in the neem o’ the Greet Lord o’-” Debs demanded, then swore as Contro delivered a swift bolt of static electricity. “Gah!”
At the same moment, Janica’s entire body went rigid and her hair stood on end.
“Gnhg!” she spluttered, and fell to the ground. “I shoulda thought of that,” she concluded a few seconds later, clambering back to her feet and shaking the sparks out of her hair, dress and stole. “Okay, now just in case, you’d better do me too,” she glanced at Debs. “Are you better, Keeper?”
“Aye,” Debs said, and gave Contro a clap on the back as he bent back over Cyberwollf’s tummy. “Thanks, mate.”
“Aww! You’re welcome!”
“So … you’re not … you don’t seem to be…” Chucky waved his hand vaguely.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Janica said. “It didn’t seem to affect me. But let’s be sure of it before we start talking.”
“But they did turn you?” Chucky asked, “with the thirteen halfmen and all?”
“Oh yeah, they did the whole thing,” Janica nodded, “but I’m beginning to think it’s a bit pointless, since it’s so easy to break the hold.”
“It’s a bit easy to turn channelers to the Dark One in the first place, if you ask me,” Dr. Nick said. He’d been woken up by the announcements, but didn’t look very happy about it. “Sooner or later, the whole idea gets silly and Angus’ll probably just settle for killing everybody who won’t turn voluntarily.”
Janica stood patiently while Contro zapped her.
“So I gather congratulations are in order,” Chucky went on as Janica once again patted her seven-striped stole down. “They actually made you Amyrlin. Or puppet-Amyrlin, or whatever.”
“That they did. But we’ll see about how much of a puppet I am,” Janica frowned. “I’m more worried about what Angamael’s game is now. This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing he’d want to do, considering the way he thinks … but it must have been his idea.”
“Did they actually make you Aes Sedai as well?” Shannon asked.
“They performed all the tests they could,” Janica said, “considering that they don’t have access to the ter’angreal in the White Tower. But that’s more for the benefit of the Lightfriends than anybody else.”
“Lightfriends?” Dr. Nick frowned.
“That’s what they call people who aren’t sworn to the Dark One,” Janica explained. “There are actually quite a few of them around, but things are so mixed up, nobody really knows who is what anymore. From what they told me in the debriefing, Angamael let the Salidar White Tower split thing go ahead for several reasons. Partly – although he didn’t know how important this was at the time – it was to protect the prophecies and the narrative, to stop things from falling apart too much. Secondly, he knew this was where the enemies to the White Tower would end up, so he figured he might as well take charge. He even stilled and dethroned Siuan Sanche and put Elaida in charge over there – well, in nominal charge. The whole White Tower is riddled with Forsaken.”
“Is Siuan Sanche here somewhere?”
“Last I heard, she was,” Janica nodded, “her and Leane, although I think there’s more to it than that. They’re trying to come up with some way of Healing stilling, but Nynaeve seems to have lost her knack for Healing. There’s more there, too, that they haven’t told me. Nynaeve is probably a Darkfriend. Anyway, they found out that Debs and I had solved the problem somehow, even though our attempts have been frankly terrible. And then everybody got confused about who was a Darkfriend and who wasn’t, and – gah!”
“Ha ha ha!!!!!”
“Cybes, would you get away from him?” Janica asked. “We’re all better noo.”
Cybes did as she was bid, with only slight disappointment. She had a feeling that if she could see auras the way Min could, she would see an awful lot of tickle-tums floating above her own head right now.
“So then a lot of the Aes Sedai we freed, both during the Tar Valon exercise and during operation Dream Tickle Dream Whatever, were confused,” Janica went on. “A lot of them were in a situation where they couldn’t get away, and they were recaptured. Of the rest, a lot of them fled, and they’re scattered all over the place, busily trusting nobody as per Robert Jordan’s normal M.O.,” she sighed. “The rest, wherever possible, sort of wandered towards Salidar, and Angamael had already filled this place with his minions. They’ve been filtering out the Lightfriends and converting them ever since, or at least keeping them fooled. And that just added to the confusion.”
“Right,” Chucky nodded. “So basically, we don’t know who to trust. We’ll have to zap any channeler we meet before we talk to them. Sort of like the Dominion shapeshifter screening process at Federation Headquarters.”
“But just like that, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of ways around any security measures we think up,” Janica replied. “Anyway, the point is I’m now a sworn Accepted at least, just like Egwene was, and I think the Amyrlin Seat ritual makes me officially Aes Sedai anyway. I didn’t swear on any Oath Rods, although of course they’d want to avoid all that anyway, being Black Ajah. They could have taken me back and put me through all the ter’angreal, but that would make everybody wonder how the so-called rebels managed to access the Tower.”
“Gateways,” Chucky suggested. “You could gateway in there, steal the Oath Rods and stuff, use the ter’angreal that were too big to steal, and then gateway the fuck outta there again.”
“Maybe once this whole village is subverted, the need for such secrecy will no longer exist,” Someshta, apparently completely sober again, had eased himself into the meeting and simultaneously provided extra cover from the prying eyes of untrustworthy Salidarans. “Then they can return to the White Tower and continue with their plan for world domination and the complete destruction of the Pattern.”
“Right,” Janica said, “and that’s why they have to succeed, and you have to leave.”
“What?” Chucky hissed. “Where are we going? And what are you doing in the meantime?”
“In the meantime, I’m staying here with Debs, and a couple of others, and keeping an eye on Angus,” Janica said. “Our plans for the cleansing of saidin will have to be put on hold, but I suppose that’s no big loss, considering what it might have done to the Pattern. Anyway, sooner or later Angus is going tae get all of these Aes Sedai cornered, and we might as well let him. We can’t keep running around, trying to free the Aes Sedai like this. Angus is always going to be a step ahead, and it’s only a matter of time until he comes up with something permanent. While he thinks he’s got us under control, we should take advantage of it.”
“So you’re going to sit around in Salidar being Amyrlin Seat to a bunch of Darkfriends who are pretending not to be Darkfriends in order to lure in the Lightfriends, and using your position to figure out what Angus is doing?” Chucky threw down his empty burger-plate. “And what are we doing?”
“You,” Janica said firmly, “are going to Ebou Dar to find the Bowl of the Winds.”
“According to this,” Bashere said, “there are a lot of little things like fireflies around you, but they are all being devoured by some sort of spreading shadow. Then,” he turned over the paper dubiously, “when there is another of your ta’veren friends in the room, the fireflies don’t get eaten faster than they can appear, but manage to remain steady,” he lowered the little scroll. “A bigger load, in conclusion, I have rarely seen in written form.”
“Where did you get it from?” Vamps asked. He was currently undergoing an extended Puddin Taim phase, and was consequently quite pleasant and relatively intelligent, although still prone to the occasional fuckwitted delusion.
“Apparently it was delivered by that Min woman, who was asked to give a report on all the things she’s seen floating around your head,” Bashere replied. “Personally, the only things I’ve seen floating around the Lord Dragon’s head are flies. But she has some sort of gift.”
“Min freaks me out,” Puddin confided, “although I have nothing but respect for her. She is a very forceful and dominant young lady, with a great deal of admirable self-confidence.”
“If forcefulness and self-confidence freaks you out, you should’ve gotten a load of Zarine,” Bashere said jovially. “She went off to hunt for the Horn of Valere, and I haven’t heard from her since. It’s certainly been quiet around the place, but I sometimes wonder where she is. Off making some poor man’s life miserable, no doubt.”
“So what does the viewing actually mean, Mister Bashere?” Puddin asked.
“I neither know nor care, my Lord Dragon,” Bashere replied. “There are also some comments here about you needing certain people around you at certain times, otherwise bad things will happen to you. Frankly, I could have told the Lord Dragon this just by looking at him. Wranglers, these people are referred to in the world of inbred nobility.”
Vamps scowled, certain that Bashere was making fun of him. It had been going on for so long, though, and had eased its way into his daily life so insidiously, that he was unsure of where to start in terms of objecting, let alone announcing that a punishment was due. In the end, Puddin Taim decided that Bashere’s intelligence more than made up for his occasional sarcasm.
“There was also a note left by Janica Sedai,” Bashere went on, “or whatever she is meant to be. It is styled for your eyes only, but after what the Lord Dragon did to the last parchment we gave him-”
“What did I do?” Vamps asked in spite of himself.
“Best left forgotten, really,” Bashere unrolled the scroll a little further. “Janica wants to know if you are hearing voices in your head, specifically the voice of Lews Therin Telamon,” he looked up from the scroll expectantly.
“I … can’t remember ever hearing voices in my head,” Puddin Taim said thoughtfully, “only Muffin Vamps, and he’s really more like another part of me.”
“The annoying part?”
Muffin Vamps made an indignant lunge for bodily control, and failed as only Muffin Vamps could, when bodily control was involved. Puddin Taim twitched and looked a little embarrassed.
“Well, I wish this Min woman was here to explain it all,” Bashere said, “and Janica and Debs came back to look after the Lord Dragon for a while. It feels like they’ve been gone for weeks.”
“Why don’t we go and visit them?” Vamps suggested. “I’m sure I could figure it out.”
Olver’s horse was named Wind, and it wasn’t because of his speed.
They were village-hopping towards Ebou Dar, and had been for almost a week. For most of that time, Wind had apparently gotten by on a diet of cabbage, sprouts, and beans. Even the extremely dubious collection of men who had gathered under the leadership of Mat and Melindhra, men who thought music was three people farting at once and opera was three people farting at once while three other people sat watching, thought Wind was a bit bloody much. Olver thought Wind was the best thing to happen since getting away from Contro.
Chucky, actually using his pipe bag as a breathing mask, wondered what the story with Mat and Melindhra was anyway. The Aiel woman had, according to the pair of native Chaggabaggawoggalanders, been a Darkfriend at some point, but was now rehabilitated. Chucky wondered if this was some of Mat’s ta’veren effect or, alternatively, Melindhra playing everybody for giant chumps. Technically, Mat and Melindhra were in charge of the expedition, although that technicality was a very minor and downplayed one since Nynaeve was along with them, and everybody seemed to be shitscared of her.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” Dr. Nick muttered. He had one of his ears folded over his mouth and nose, and his veil up as well. It had earned him some worried looks from the Redarms, but he had promised he wasn’t going to dance the spears, unless it was with the lower colon of Olver’s horse.
“Be strong,” Chucky said, “we’ll be in the city soon, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that cities in this world smell worse than anything you can possibly imagine.”
“My imagination’s been working out a bit lately,” Dr. Nick replied, “but I don’t think I can imagine anything worse than that fucking horse. That horse’s ass is the Bore. That horse’s farts are bubbles of evil. That horse’s intestines are the Dark One, trying to escape into the world and destroy the Pattern.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sandrine interjected. The skeletal woman was jogging alongside their horses, occasionally dropping into a deft army-roll or unshouldering-twirling-shouldering a mercifully-unseen weapon of some sort. After leaving Shannon behind in Salidar, she had improved almost overnight, even though she insisted there were still ta’veren swirls around. Her recovery had coincided with the bizarre accidental death of one of Nalsean’s friends, who had somehow managed to cut himself on a thorn bush in his sleep and die of blood loss without getting any blood on himself or his bedroll in the process. The Redarms had muttered forebodingly about the Dark One walking the land, and Sandrine had muttered about indigestion. Not long after that, though, the only digestion anybody really cared about anymore was the digestion going on somewhere between Olver’s thighs – a digestive process gone terribly, unnaturally wrong. “The air is clearer than it has been for days.”
Chucky, who lacked Dr. Nick’s experience with gholam, gave a slightly nervous laugh.
The majority of the Ebou Dar taskforce – and this was what sent innkeepers into a panic, from The Marriage Dagger to The Southern Hoop – were Ogier. Ogier and Ogier and Ogier. Wyse, Coarshus, Hoarni and Frendli had come along for the ride in their raggedy Illian T-shirts (“Illian – One in a Billian!”) and their novelty hats (“I braved the Golden Bees and all I got was this stupid hat”), along with the huge, rumbling mass of Ogier Heroes of the Horn, who still hadn’t solved their case and departed back to the World of Ogier Dreams. In the midst of this walking combination library, foodhole and giant bumblebee’s nest, the Green Man crunched and rustled along like … well, like the Green Man. Nothing else quite like him, really.
They were never going to get into Ebou Dar and out again with the Bowl of the Winds unnoticed, but on the other hand, nobody was going to get in their way, either.
Nynaeve rode up, looked at the gleeman and the Aielman imperiously for a moment, and gave her braid a halfhearted tug.
“Once we get to Ebou Dar the Ogier, Someshta and I shall present ourselves at the Tarasin Palace,” she said, “and to the Queen, Tylin Quintara of House Mitsobar.”
“Sounds like a brand of tequila,” Dr. Nick remarked.
“You and the rest of the entourage will find rooms at a handy inn, and stay there until summoned,” Nynaeve went on. “Matrim, Melindhra and Sandrine will join us at the palace. We shall enlist royal aid in searching for the Bowl of the Winds. We will find it and return it to the Amyrlin Seat. There will be no fuck-ups.”
“Perish the thought,” Chucky said.
“Why would there be?” Dr. Nick agreed.
“You’d think people and events lately had some tendency to fuck up for some reason.”
“Now that’s just crazy talk,” Dr. Nick asserted.
“Just keep quiet, and do as you’re told, and nobody will get hurt,” Nynaeve replied coolly, “including you.”
“Is she more annoying now than she was in the books?” Chucky murmured as Nynaeve rode away.
“If anything, she’s improved,” Dr. Nick shook his head. “You should have tried talking to her before this whole ‘icy psychopath’ phase she’s going through. Oh God,” he groaned as Olver’s horse lifted his tail again. “Just kill me now. Figure of speech,” he added hastily as Sandrine looked up with a disturbing pointy smile, “for now at least.”
That evening, the Green Man and the Ogier Heroes happily declared that they were entering Barashta.
“I thought we were going to be getting to Ebou Dar tonight already,” Chucky grumbled. “I thought we’d gatewayed a safe distance from the city and only had to ride a few miles, but this-”
“Barashta is Ebou Dar,” Nynaeve explained impatiently, “the Ogier are just using one of the old names.”
“How do you know that?” Chucky asked. Nynaeve ignored him – and rather pointedly avoided sniffing as she did so.
They rode into the sewage-and-corpse-gas stench of the Ebou Dar Central Business District a few hours later. While not noticeably effective in smothering Wind’s emissions, it was enough to overload the scent receptors of Chucky and Dr. Nick’s noses completely, which was even better in a lot of ways. Especially when they got to the Wandering Woman, and were ushered gracelessly into the common room by Setalle Anan, who was suffering from some sort of disease that lived in her crotch but had no compunctions about riding her fingers to various other locations around her body, or indeed the inn at large.
“Dish of the day’s meat,” she announced.
“Meat from what sort of animal?” Dr. Nick asked.
“Were you involved in the preparation at any point?” Chucky added.
“And are you married?” a voice asked from the back of the crowd. There was a long silence, and Chucky turned to stare at an unusually tall, bulky Redarm in the doorway.
“What?” Hoarni shuffled embarrassedly on his knees, to which he had tied a pair of fake boots. “She’s a babe.”