By the time they got back to the Sun Palace in Cairhien, Vamps was feeling woozy and demanded that Loial carry him. After assiduously draping some cloths over his arms to protect his sleeves from the increasingly-conspicuous weeping sores and the unexpected outbursts of bodily fluids from assorted other openings, the Ogier was happy to help.
“That was a nice trip,” Bashere said, “but I’m not sure what we achieved.”
Salidar had been mobilising, the Aes Sedai and their little army gathering up its things and preparing to march, presumably on the White Tower. Which of the Aes Sedai were Darkfriends and which weren’t, frankly, was beyond Vamps’s ability to deduce anymore. To make matters worse, some of them weren’t Darkfriends but had been, and their Oaths had reset, and their faces had changed, and they were lying and making weapons for all they were worth before anybody decided to re-swear them. He’d long since given up trying to figure it out.
Janica and Debs had apparently been too busy to see the visitors, but had relayed some rather blunt orders to the Dragon Reborn and his attendants. Bashere had found the whole thing momentarily amusing, but hadn’t been pleased at the brush-off. Loial and a few Aes Sedai had been assigned to help the Dragon Reborn get back to Cairhien safely, and Min had leapt out of nowhere and begged to come along at the last moment. Nobody could think of a reason not to let her, and things were very busy in the rebel village. So, looking fearfully back over her shoulder all the while, Min accompanied Vamps back to Cairhien.
“I achieved a headache,” Mazrim Taim said, “and I’m going back to the Black Tower to get it looked at.”
Vamps’s brother had almost caused an incident on his arrival. He’d insisted on coming along, since nobody else could really make proper gateways, but nobody in Salidar seemed to know what to think of the pissed-off-looking male channeler. Somebody had suggested sending him to “the team studying Logain”, but he’d advised them to fuck off. Mazrim had been in a shitty mood ever since Alanna had bonded him. Even though she was safely locked up in Caemlyn and had been – as far as anybody could be sure, these days – turned back from worship of the Dark One, he was suffering the effects of the bond, and general annoyance and frustration.
Once the scowling asha’man was gone, there was an uncomfortable silence in the throne room. Loial shuffled his feet, Bashere watched the Aes Sedai suspiciously, Min sat on the floor looking miserable, and the Aes Sedai stood in a loose group, looking ageless and expressionless and generally bloodless in their white face-paint.
“If he’s not too tired to be carried around a little while longer,” Bashere said with vastly exaggerated solicitude, “the Lord Dragon had an appointment to visit the school this afternoon.”
“Oh no,” Vamps moaned weakly, “it’s a mile away, I couldn’t do it.”
“It’s not that far,” Bashere reminded the Dragon calmly. “The Lord Dragon might remember, when he went out there to officially open the place last time, he was puling and whining like a little girl, so the Lord Dragon’s brother Mazrim tied off a gateway. It’s just like walking into the next room.”
“Oh no,” Vamps wailed.
With the Dragon Reborn whimpering every time he was jostled, Loial carried him carefully through into a nearby chamber where Mazrim had helpfully left several gateways tied off, with a Dedicated standing guard at each one. The man on guard at the entrance to the former palace of Lord Barthanes shook his head as he looked at Vamps, but stood aside to let them through.
The academy was a bustle of activity and weird anachronistic inventions. While it had been slow to start and was still missing several key personnel like Idrien Tarsin, it seemed narrative drive was making up for the bizarre series of disasters that had befallen – and almost depopulated – Cairhien. Even the slightly-crazy inventors and philosophers stopped what they were doing and looked around as the enormous Ogier wandered into the main hall with the Dragon Reborn curled up in his arms and a bunch of chalk-faced Aes Sedai clustered behind him.
“What in Ghul’s name is that thing?” Bashere demanded, pointing at a giant metal contraption standing in one corner, clanking and leaking steam from badly-welded joints. Under the spiralling set of pipes and valves was what looked like a torture rack. A cucumber was strapped to the centre of it, poking upwards, with a funnel on top.
“Special order of the Dragon Reborn,” said a wild-eyed, wild-haired old man, sticking his head out from behind the machinery and waving a spanner. “Pass me that number three pair of pliers.”
Bashere found the tool in a nearby box, and handed it over.
“I wasn’t aware that the Lord Dragon had ordered anything,” he said, a little worriedly. “I’m not sure if the Lord Dragon should be ordering things. What is it?”
“Just a minute, just a minute,” the inventor said, “and pass me that wench.”
Bashere looked at the toolbox for a moment. “You mean wrench?”
“No no, the wench,” the man pointed at Min. “It won’t take a second.”
Min, who had been more or less catatonic since leaving Salidar, shambled over and stood next to the cucumber with the funnel stuck on the end. She looked at the old man bovinely.
“You have a lot of old-fashioned Aes Sedai symbols floating above your head,” she said, “seven of them. And some sort of pile of … what is that stuff? It looks like a stack of pork bones and kidneys.”
The inventor glanced up, evidently seeing nothing but his fabulous cucumber machine. “Whatever you say, miss,” he said, “now would you just hold that funnel steady? I’ve found a woman’s touch is…” he spun a large wheel, and the clanking and hissing increased by several orders of magnitude. The whole collection of pipes began to rattle. “Here we go.”
He threw a lever. There was a loud whistle, and a burst of steam, and a sad little squelchy noise. Min jumped backwards with a startled look on her face. Bashere flicked a piece of cucumber pulp off his shoulder.
“Fascinating,” he said, “if we’re ever attacked by an army of pickles, I’ll know where to come.”
“Yes, that always seems to happen,” the inventor said. “This isn’t my trade of choice, you know, I used to be a philosopher, but all of my research was burned by the trollocs. I took this job because nobody else wanted to do it, and they were offering a bowl of stew a day to people who work at the school.”
“What’s it meant to do?” Loial asked.
“Well, in theory, the pressure and suction should cause the cucumber to harden and increase noticeably in size,” Herid Fel replied sheepishly, “but I’m still some way off.”
As far as Chucky could recall from the books, the original plan had been something along the lines of disguising everybody with Illusion so they looked like Ebou Dari, and then masking the channeling abilities of anybody who could channel. Now, however, Nynaeve was about the only person in the team who could channel, and she seemed to have no intention of hiding the fact. Masks of Illusion, moreover, tended to dissolve and reveal the person underneath as soon as Sandrine walked past, and Nynaeve couldn’t seem to make any of the weaves stick to Dr. Nick, either.
“Have you got some sort of ter’angreal?” Chucky asked when they had a quiet moment. The team was assembling outside the Wandering Woman, Ogier and horses and unshaven soldiers milling around and all trying to stay away from the wrong end of Olver’s dreadful creature.
“Yeah,” Dr. Nick whispered, “we found a few in the box where we got Coop. It was one of the ones that burned his fingers, so I guessed it was an anti-channeling thing. I figured it’d be useful to have, if channelers or gholam started to get in my face.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got another one?”
“Sorry,” Nick shrugged. “I think Gaul ended up with most of them, but I sort of lost track. Anyway, it’s getting to be more trouble than it’s worth, it’s pissing Nynaeve off and it’s only a matter of time before she begins experimenting.”
“Good morning,” the Green Man loomed out of an alley and smiled down at the little humans. “I hope you slept well.”
“Blood-loss from flea bites made me nicely light-headed,” Chucky replied, “I slept like a baby.”
“Would you believe, they actually had a bed for a Nym up at the palace?” Someshta exclaimed, not really listening to the gleeman. “It must have been thirty feet long! And they had a lot of Ogier beds in the attic. It didn’t take long for them to set up a full suite of rooms for them.”
“Let’s get started,” Nynaeve pulled up astride an ornately-decorated white horse, with a dark-eyed guardsman on either side. “We’re going to break into teams and search the Rahad by quarters. Stick to buildings that are between four and six storeys high. If anybody tries to stop you, show them the royal warrant that I will be handing out to each team. And remember, if you meet any women wearing a red belt, give them an invitation to Queen Tylin’s ‘Forsaken and Fades’ masquerade ball that is taking place in the Tarasin palace next week.”
“Something really fucky is going on,” Chucky muttered.
The Aes Sedai sat around, looking warily at Galina.
“Whose idea was this?” Coiren demanded.
“It was agreed between the Amyrlin Seat and the Nae’blis,” Galina replied. Neither she nor Katerine, who had been Black Ajah long before the ‘newbies’ began arriving with the new forced-turning process, particularly liked Coiren Saeldain. Even though she insisted that she was loyal and had been all her life, there was just no way to be sure. Experiments with wilders, myrddraal, and varying doses of electric current were ongoing – but that was par for the course as far as Aginor was concerned. “It is vital to the continuation of our plans, and the victory of the Great Lord of the Dark.”
“Putting the Dragon Reborn in a box, carrying him to Dumai’s Wells, and letting those unnatural asha’man attack us?” Katerine Alruddin frowned impeccably. “I’m not sure what this is supposed to achieve, although of course I shall do as the Nae’blis and the Chosen command.”
“The Dragon Reborn already does as he is told,” Erian added, “and will come to Dumai’s Wells if we tell him to. And he can barely channel a spark through the shield. Better to put him under Compulsion, or simply kill him if he is a problem.”
“Not only that,” Katerine added, “but I heard that this abduction was already attempted once, and the sisters responsible were captured.”
“It was not the right time,” Galina replied. “The Nae’blis knows these things. This is larger than the Dragon, larger than us, larger even than our new Keeper of the Chronicles. We do this to preserve the fabric of the Pattern until such time as the Great Lord of the Dark can emerge, and tear it down and rebuild it in His own image. And remember Rule Three. We shouldn’t be discussing this dastardly plan, we should be carrying it out.”
“And carrying him out,” Sarene Nemdahl said, smirking at her own extraordinarily lame joke.
“Indeed,” Galina herself was chafing under more than just Rule Three. As sensible as they were, the Nae’blis‘ new commandments were very difficult to stick to. Not directing cutting remarks and offensive comments towards her fellow Black Ajah members felt wrong, somehow – especially women like Sarene, who wrote ghastly poetry about their bloody Warders. Getting along, talking and sharing, focussing on the common goal? It just wasn’t natural. “Let’s go. Sooner begun, sooner finished.”
Puddin Taim was sitting on the Sun Throne when the Aes Sedai came in, looking distractedly at a scrap of paper in his hand. Davram Bashere, for a wonder, was off somewhere else. Unfortunately, orders had been left to keep an eye on the Dragon Reborn, and in Bashere’s absence Puddin’s brother Mazrim was standing at the foot of the throne, picking his fingernails with a dagger because it seemed the thing to do.
“Ladies,” the Dragon Reborn said, “did I ever tell you about the bisexual witch who had this friend that I gumph.”
Vamps being smothered with a gag of Air and strapped to his seat with bonds of Air were such common occurrences these days that Mazrim Taim didn’t even look up. He did shiver slightly from the channeling, though.
“What now?” he asked lazily. When Coiren and Erian set down the chest and tipped its contents over the floor, he allowed his eyebrows to raise. “You’re going to clean that up.”
Galina walked across to the Dragon, who was chewing indignantly on the gag – and cracking his teeth up pretty good in the process – and plucked the piece of paper out of his hand. “Belief and order give strength,” she read, “have to clear rubble before you can build. Ready to start with human testing, send male prisoners with small…” she looked up at the Dragon Reborn. “How charming.”
“Okay, ladies,” Mazrim straightened up and sheathed his dagger, “I’m not sure what this is all about, but unless you have an appointment blumph.”
Mazrim Taim being smothered with a gag of Air was unusual, and his eyes widened in shock and anger. Before he could grasp saidin, however, the rest of the Aes Sedai had Linked, shielded him, and knocked him unconscious.
“Does anybody have a cigarette?” Coiren asked languidly as, one by one, they released saidar.
“What are we going to do with him?” Sarene demanded.
“Leave him,” Galina replied. “Come on, let’s get this freak into the box and get out of here.”