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After the Storm



Sandra Hill - The Tarnished Lady
The RPM Philosophy
Forward Progress
Setting Things to Rights
A Dog's Tale by Mark Twain
A Disappointment
Fanning the Sparks

After the Storm

Sitting on a small boulder jutting from the foot of the slope, Mat winced as he pulled his broad-brimmed hat lower against the midmorning sun. Partly to shield his eyes from the sun. There was another thing he did not want to see, though cuts and bruises reminded him, especially the arrow slash along his temple that the hat pressed against. An ointment from Daerid's saddlebags had stopped the bleeding, there and elsewhere, yet everything still hurt, and most of it stung. That part would grow worse. The heat of the day was just beginning to take hold, but sweat was beading up on his face and already dampening his smallclothes and shirt. Idly he wondered whether autumn would ever come to Cairhien. At least discomfort kept him from thinking how tired he was; even after a night with no sleep he would have lain awake in a feather bed, much less blankets on the ground. Not that he wanted to be anywhere near his tent in any case.

A fine bloody to-do. Nearly killed, I'm sweating like a pig, I can 't find a comfortable place to stretch out, and I don't dare get drunk. Blood and bloody ashes! He stopped fingering a slice acr 13513g615n oss the chest of his coat - an inch difference, and that spear would have gone through his heart; Light, but the man had been good! - and put that part of it out of his mind. Not that it was easy, with what was going on all around him.

For once the Tairens and Cairhienin did not seem to mind seeing Aiel tents in every direction. There were even Aiel right in the camp, and almost as miraculously, Tairens mingling with Cairhienin among the smoky cookfires. Not that anyone was eating; the kettles had not been set on the fires, although he could smell meat burning somewhere. Instead, most were as drunk as they could manage on wine, brandy, or Aiel oosquai, laughing and celebrating. Not far from where he sat, a dozen Defenders of the Stone, stripped to sweaty shirtsleeves, were dancing to the claps of ten times as many watchers. In a line, with arms around each others' shoulders, they stepped so quickly that it was a wonder none of them tripped or kicked the man next to them. For another circle of onlookers, near a ten-foot pole stuck in the ground - Mat hastily averted his eyes - as many Aielmen were doing some kicking of their own. Mat assumed it was a dance; another Aiel was playing the pipes for them. They leaped as high as they could, flung one foot even higher, then landed on that foot and immediately leaped upward again, faster and faster, sometimes spinning like horizontal tops at the height of their leaps, or turning somersaults or backflips. Seven or eight Tairens and Cairhienin sat nursing broken bones from trying it, all the while cheering and laughing like madmen, passing a stone crock of something back and forth. In other places other men were dancing, and maybe singing. It was hard to say, in the din. Without stirring, he could count ten flutes, not to mention twice as many tin whistles, and a skinny Cairhienin in a ragged coat was blowing something that looked part flute and part horn with some odd bits tossed in. And there were countless drums, most of them pots being banged with spoons.

In short, the camp was bedlam and a ball rolled into one. He recognized it, mainly from those memories he could still assign to other men if he concentrated hard enough. A celebration of still being alive. One more time they had walked under the Dark One's nose and survived to tell the tale. One more dance along the razor's edge finished. Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today. He did not feel like celebrating. What good was being alive if it meant living in a cage?

He shook his head as Daerid, Estean and a heavyset red-haired Aielman he did not know staggered by, holding each other up. Barely audible through the clamor, Daerid and Estean were trying to teach the taller man between them the words to "Dance with Jak o' the Shadows."

"We'll sing all night, and drink all day,

and on the girls we'll spend our pay,

and when it's gone, then we'll away,

to dance with Jak o' the Shadows.

The sun dark fellow showed no interest in learning, of course - he would not unless they convinced him it was a proper battle hymn - but he listened, and he was not the only one. By the time the three passed out of sight in the milling crowd, they had acquired a tail of twenty more, waving dented pewter cups and tarred leather mugs, all bellowing the tune at the top of their lungs.

"There're some delight in ale and wine,

and some in girls with ankles fine,

but my delight, yes, always mine,

is to dance with Jak o' the Shadows."

Mat wished he had never taught any of them the song. The teaching had just kept his mind occupied while Daerid stopped him from bleeding to death; that ointment stung as bad as the gashes themselves had, and Daerid would never make a seamstress jealous with his delicate handling of needle and thread. Only, the song had spread from that first dozen like fire in dry grass. Tairens and Cairhienin, horse and foot, had all been singing it when they returned at dawn.

Returned. Right back to the hill valley where they had started, below the ruin of the log tower, and no chance for him to get away. He had offered to ride ahead, and Talmanes and Nalesean nearly came to blows over who was to provide his escort. Not everyone had become the best of friends. All he needed now was for Moiraine to come asking questions about where he had been and why, flattering at him about ta'veren and duty, about the Pattern and Tarmon Gai'don, until his head spun. Doubtless she was with Rand now, but she would get around to him eventually.

He glanced up at the hilltop and the tangle of shattered logs among broken trees. That Cairhienin fellow who had made the looking glasses for Rand was up there with his apprentices, poking about. The Aiel had been full of what happened there. It was definitely past time for him to be gone. The foxhead medallion protected him from women channeling, but he had heard enough from Rand to know a man's channeling was different. He had no interest in finding out whether the thing would shield him from Sammael and his ilk.

Grimacing at darts of pain, he used the black-hafted spear to lever himself to his feet. Around him the celebration went on. If he drifted down to the picket lines now... He was not looking forward to saddling Pips.

"The hero should not sit without drinking."

Startled, he jerked around, grunting at the stab of his wounds, to stare at Melindhra. She had a large clay pitcher in one hand, not spears, and her face was not veiled, but her eyes seemed to be weighing him. "Now listen, Melindhra, I can explain everything."

"What must be explained?" she asked, flinging her free arm around his shoulders. Even with the sudden jolt, he tried to stand straighter; be still was not used to having to look up at a woman. "I knew you would seek your own honor. The Car'a'carn casts a great shadow, but no man wishes to spend his life in the shade."

Closing his mouth hurriedly, he managed a faint, "Of course." She was not going to try to kill him. "That's it exactly." In his relief, he took the pitcher from her, but his gulp turned into a splutter. It was the rawest double-distilled brandy he had ever tasted.

She retrieved the pitcher long enough to take a draw, then sighed gratefully and pushed it back at him. "He was a man of much honor, Mat Cauthon. Better that you had captured him, but even by killing him, you have gained much ji. It was well that you sought him out."

Despite himself, Mat looked at what he had been avoiding, and shivered. A leather cord tied in short flame-red hair held Couladin's head atop the ten-foot pole near where the Aielmen were dancing. The thing seemed to be grinning. At him.

Sought Couladin out? He had done his best to keep the pikes between him and any of the Shaido. But that arrow had clipped the side of his head, and he was on the ground before he knew it, struggling to get to his feet with the fight raging all around him, laying about him with the raven-marked spear, trying to make it back to Pips. Couladin had appeared as if springing out of air, veiled for killing, but there had been no mistaking those bare arms, entwined with Dragons glittering gold-and-red. The man had been cutting a swath into the pikemen with his spears, shouting for Rand to show himself, shouting that he was the true Car'a'carn. Maybe he really believed it by then. Mat still did not know whether Couladin had recognized him, but it had made no difference, not when the fellow decided to carve a hole through him to find Rand. He did not know who had cut off Couladin's head afterward, either.

I was too busy trying to stay alive to watch, he thought sourly. And hoping he would not bleed to death. Back in the Two Rivers he had been as fine a hand with a quarterstaff as anyone, and a quarterstaff was not so different from a spear, but Couladin must have been born with the things in his hands. Of course, that skill had not availed the man much in the end. Maybe I still have a little bit of luck. Please, Light, let it show itself now!

He was thinking of how to get rid Of Melindhra so he could saddle Pips when Talmanes presented himself with a formal bow, hand to heart in the Cairhienin fashion. "Grace favor you, Mat."

"And you," Mat said absently. She was not going to go because he asked. Asking would certainly put a fox in the henyard. Maybe if he told her he wanted to take a ride. They said Aiel could run down horses.

"A delegation came from the city during the night. There will be a triumphal procession for the Lord Dragon, in gratitude from Cairhien."

"Will there?" She had to have duties of some sort. The Maidens were always flocking around Rand; maybe she would be called off for that. Glancing at her though, he did not think he had better count on it. Her wide smile was... proprietary.

"The delegation was from the High Lord Meilan," Nalesean said, joining them. His bow was just as correct, both hands sweeping wide, but hasty. "It is he who offers the procession to the Lord Dragon."

"Lord Dobraine, Lord Maringil and Lady Colavaere, among others, also came to the Lord Dragon."

Mat pulled his mind back to the moment. Each of the pair was trying to pretend the other of them did not exist - both looking right at him, with never the flicker of an eye toward each other - but their faces were as tight as their voices from the strain, their hands white knuckled on sword hilts. It would be a cap to everything if they came to blows, and him likely still trying to hobble out of reach when one of them ran him through by accident. "What does it matter who sent a delegation, as long as Rand gets his procession?"

"It matters that you should ask him for our rightful place at the head," Talmanes said quickly. "You slew Couladin, and earned us that place." Nalesean closed his mouth and scowled; plainly he had been about to say the same thing.

"You two ask him," Mat said. "It's none of my affair." Melindhra's hand tightened on the back of his neck, but he did not care. Moiraine would surely not be far from Rand. He was not about to put his neck in a second noose while still trying to think his way out of the first.

Talmanes and Nalesean gaped at him as if he were demented. "You are our battle leader," Nalesean protested. "Our general."

"My body-servant will polish your boots," Talmanes put in with a small smile that he carefully did not direct at the square-faced Tairen, "and brush and mend your clothes. So you will appear at your best."

Nalesean gave his oiled beard a jerk; his eyes darted halfway to the other man before he could stop them. "If I may offer, I have a good coat I think will fit you well. Gold satin and crimson." It was the Cairhienin's turn to glower.

"General!" Mat exclaimed, holding himself up with the spear haft. "I'm no flaming -! I mean, I wouldn't want to usurp your place." Let them figure out which one of them he meant.

"Burn my soul," Nalesean said, "it was your battle skill that won for us, and kept us alive. Not to mention your luck. I've heard how you always turn the right card, but it is more than that. I'd follow you if you had never met the Lord Dragon."

"You are our leader," Talmanes said right on top of him, in a voice more sober if no less certain. "Until yesterday I have followed men of other lands because I must. You I will follow because I want to. Perhaps you are not a lord in Andor, but here, I say that you are, and I pledge myself your man."

Cairhienin and Tairen stared at one another as though startled at voicing the same sentiment, then slowly, reluctantly, exchanged brief nods. If they did not like each other - and only a fool would bet against that - they could meet on this point. After a fashion.

"I will send my groom to prepare your horse for the procession," Talmanes said, and barely frowned when Nalesean added, "Mine can share the work. Your mount must do us proud. And burn my soul, we need a banner. Your banner." At that the Cairhienin nodded emphatically.

Mat was not sure whether to laugh hysterically or sit down and cry. Those bloody memories. If not for them, he would have ridden on. If not for Rand, he would not have the things. He could trace the steps that led to them, each necessary as it seemed at the time and seeming an end in itself, yet each leading inevitably to the next. At the beginning of it all lay Rand. And bloody ta'veren. He could not understand why doing something that seemed absolutely necessary and as close to harmless as he could make it always seemed to lead him deeper into the mire. Melindhra had begun stroking the back of his neck instead of squeezing it. All he needed now...

He glanced up the hill, and there she was. Moiraine, on her delicate-stepping white mare, with Lan on his black stallion towering at her side. The Warder bent toward her as if to listen, and there seemed to be a brief argument, a violent protest on his part, but after a moment the Aes Sedai reined Aldieb around and rode out of sight toward, the opposite slope. Lan remained where he was on Mandarb, watching the camp below. Watching Mat.

He shivered. Couladin's head really did appear to be grinning at him. He could almost hear the man speak. You may have killed me, but you've put your foot squarely in the trap. I'm dead, but you'll never be free.

"Just bloody wonderful," he muttered, and took a long, choking swallow of the rough brandy. Talmanes and Nalesean seemed to think be meant it as said, and Melindhra laughed agreement.

Some fifty or so Tairens and Cairhienin had gathered to watch the two lords speak to him, and they took his drinking as a signal to serenade him, beginning with a verse of their own.

"Well toss the dice however they fall,

and snuggle the girls be they short or tall,

then follow young Mat whenever he calls,

to dance with Jak o' the Shadows."

With a wheezing laugh he could not stop, Mat sank back down onto the boulder and set about emptying the pitcher. There had to be some way out of this. There just had to be.

Rand's eyes opened slowly, staring up at the roof of his tent. He was naked beneath a single blanket. The absence of pain seemed almost startling, yet he felt even weaker than he remembered. And he did remember. He had said things, thought things... His skin went cold. I cannot let him take control. I am me! Me! Fumbling beneath the blanket, he found the smooth round scar on his side, tender yet whole.

"Moiraine Sedai Healed you," Aviendha said, and he gave a start.

He had not seen her, sitting cross-legged on the layered rugs near the firepit, sipping from a silver cup worked with leopards. Asmodean lay sprawled across tasseled cushions, chin on his arms. Neither appeared to have slept; dark circles underlined their eyes.

"She should not have had to," Aviendha went on in a cool voice. Tired or not, she had every hair in place, and her neat clothes were a sharp contrast to Asmodean's rumpled dark velvets. Now and then she twisted the ivory bracelet of roses-and-thorns that he had given her as if not realizing what she was doing. She wore the silver snowflake necklace, too. She still had not told him who had given it to her, though she had seemed amused when she realized he really wanted to know. She certainly did not look amused now. "Moiraine Sedai herself was near collapse from Healing wounded. Aan'allein had to carry her to her tent. Because of you, Rand al'Thor. Because Healing you took the last of her strength."

"The Aes Sedai is on her feet already," Asmodean put in, stifling a yawn. He ignored Aviendha's pointed stare. "She has been here twice since sunrise, though she said you would recover. I think she was not so certain last night. Nor was I." Pulling his gilded harp around in front of him, he fussed with it, speaking in an idle tone. "I did what I could for you, of course - my life and fortune are tied to yours - but my talents lie elsewhere than Healing, you understand." He strummed a few notes to demonstrate. "I understand that a man can kill or gentle himself doing what you did. Strength in the Power is useless if the body is exhausted. Saidin can easily kill, if the body is exhausted. Or so I have heard."

"Are you finished sharing your wisdom, Jasin Natael?" Aviendha's tone was chillier, if anything, and she did not wait for a reply before turning a gaze like blue-green ice back to Rand. The interruption, it seemed, was his fault. "A man may behave like a fool sometimes, and little is the worse for it, but a chief must be more than a man, and the chief of chiefs more still. You had no right to push yourself near to death. Egwene and I tried to make you come with us when we grew too tired to continue, but you would not listen. You may be as much stronger than we as Egwene claims, yet you are still flesh. You are the Car'a'carn, not a new Seia Doon seeking honor. You have toh, obligation, to the Aiel, Rand al'Thor, and you cannot fulfill it dead. You cannot do everything yourself."

For a moment he could only gape at her. He had barely managed to do anything at all, had left the battle to others for all practical purposes while he stumbled about trying to be useful. He had not even been able to stop Sammael from striking where and as he chose. And she upbraided him for doing too much.

"I will try to remember," he said finally. Even so, she looked ready to lecture more. "What news of the Miagoma and the other three clans?" he asked, as much to divert her as because he wanted to know. Women seldom seemed willing to stop until they had hammered you into the ground, unless you managed to distract them.

It worked. She was full of what she knew, of course, and as eager to instruct as to scold. Asmodean's soft strumming - for once, something pleasant, even pastoral - made an odd background for her words.

The Miagoma, the Shiande, the Daryne and the Codarra were camped within sight of one another, a few miles to the east. A steady stream of men and Maidens moved between the camps, including Rand's, but only among societies, and Indirian and the other chiefs were not stirring. There was no doubt now that they would come to Rand eventually, but not until the Wise Ones finished their talks.

"They are still talking?" Rand said. "What under the Light do they have to discuss that takes so long? The chiefs are coming to follow me, not them."

She gave him a flat look that would have done credit to Moiraine. "The Wise Ones' words are for Wise Ones, Rand al'Thor." Hesitating, she added, as if making a concession, "Egwene may tell you something of it. When it is done." Her tone implied that Egwene might not, too.

She resisted his attempts to learn more, and finally he let it lie. Perhaps he would find out before it bit him, and perhaps not, but either way, he was not going to pry one word out of her that she did not want to speak. Aes Sedai had nothing on Aiel Wise Ones when it came to guarding their secrets and surrounding themselves with mystery. Aviendha was absorbing that particular lesson very well.

Egwene's presence at the meeting of Wise Ones came as a surprise, and so did Moiraine's absence - he would have expected her to be in the middle, twitching strings to her plans - but it turned out that one grew from the other. The new-come Wise Ones had wanted to meet with one of the Aes Sedai who followed the Car'a'carn, and although she was back on her feet after Healing him, Moiraine claimed to have no time. Egwene had been routed from her blankets as a replacement.

That made Aviendha laugh. She had been outside when Sorilea and Bair practically dragged Egwene from her tent, trying to pull on her clothes while they hustled her along. "I called to her that she would have to dig holes in the ground with her teeth this time if she had been caught in a misdeed, and she was so sleepy she believed me. She began protesting that she would not, so hard that Sorilea began demanding what she had done to think she deserved to. You should have seen Egwene's face." She laughed so hard that she nearly toppled over.

Asmodean actually looked at her askance - though why he should, being what and who he was, was beyond Rand - but Rand only waited patiently until she caught her breath. For Aiel humor, this was mild. More the sort of thing he would have expected from Mat than from any woman, but mild even so.

When she straightened, wiping her eyes, he said, "What of the Shaido, then? Or are their Wise Ones also at this conclave?"

She answered still giggling into her wine; she considered the Shaido finished, hardly worth considering now. Thousands of prisoners had been taken, with a trickle still being brought in, and the fighting had died down except for a few small skirmishes here and there. Yet the more he got out of her, the less he could see them as done for. With the four clans keeping Han occupied, the bulk of Couladin's people had crossed the Gaelin in good order, even carrying away most of the Cairhienin prisoners they had captured. Worse, they had destroyed the stone bridges behind them.

That did not concern her, but it did him. Tens of thousands of Shaido north of the river, no way to get at them until the bridges were replaced, and even wooden spans would take time. It was time that he did not have.

At the very end, when it seemed there was no more to say on the Shaido, she told him what made him forget worrying about the Shaido and what trouble they would cause. She just tossed it in, as if she had almost forgotten.

"Mat killed Couladin?" he said incredulously when she was done. "Mat?"

"Did I not say so?" The words were sharp, but halfhearted. Peering at him over her winecup, she seemed more interested in how he would take the news than in whether he doubted her word.

Asmodean plucked a few chords of something martial; the harp seemed to echo to drums and trumpets. "In some ways, a young man of as many surprises as you. I truly look forward to meeting the third of you, this Perrin, one day."

Rand shook his head. So Mat had not escaped the pull of ta'veren to ta'veren after all. Or maybe it was the Pattern that had caught him, and being ta'veren himself. Either way, he suspected Mat was not too happy right that moment. Mat had not learned the lesson that he had. Try to run away, and the Pattern pulled you back, often roughly; run in the direction the Wheel wove you, and sometimes you could manage a little control over your life. Sometimes. With luck, maybe more than any expected, at least in the long haul. But he had more urgent concerns than Mat, or the Shaido.

A glance at the entrance told him the sun was well up, though all he saw otherwise was two Maidens squatting just outside, spears across their knees. A night and most of a morning with him unconscious, and Sammael had either not tried to find him or had failed.

He was careful to use that name, even to himself, though another floated in the back of his mind now. Tel Janin Aellinsar. No history recorded the name, no fragment in the library at Tar Valon; Moiraine had told him everything the Aes Sedai knew of the Forsaken, and it was little more than was told in village tales. Even Asmodean had always called him Sammael, if for a different reason. Long before the War of the Shadow ended, the Forsaken had embraced the names men had given them, as if symbols of rebirth in the Shadow. Asmodean's own true name - Joar Addam Nesossin - made the man flinch, and he claimed to have forgotten the others in the course of three thousand years.

Perhaps there was no real reason to hide what was going on inside his head - maybe it was only an attempt to deny reality to himself - but Sammael the man would remain. And as Sammael, he would pay in full for every Maiden he had killed. The Maidens Rand had not been able to keep safe.

Even as he made the resolution, he grimaced. He had made a beginning by sending Weiramon back to Tear - the Light willing, only he and Weiramon knew how much of one, so far - but he could not go chasing off after Sammael, whatever he wanted or vowed. Not yet. There were matters to be seen to here in Cairhien, first. Aviendha might think he did not understand ji'e'toh, and perhaps he did not, but he understood duty, and he had one to Cairhien. Besides, there were ways to tail it in with Weiramon.

Sitting up - and trying not to show the effort of it - he covered himself as decently as he could in the blanket and wondered where his clothes were; he did not see anything but his boots, standing over behind Aviendha. She probably knew. It might have been gai'shain who undressed him, but it could just as easily have been she. "I need to go into the city. Natael, have Jeade'en saddled and brought up."

"Tomorrow, perhaps," Aviendha told him firmly, catching Asmodean's coatsleeve as he, started to rise. "Moiraine Sedai said you would need to rest for -"

"Today, Aviendha. Now. I don't know why Meilan isn't here, if he's alive, but I mean to find out. Natael, my horse?"

She put on a stubborn face, but Asmodean jerked his arm free, smoothing the wrinkled velvet, and said, "Meilan was here, and others."

"He was not to be told -" Aviendha began angrily, then tightened her mouth before finishing, "He needs to rest."

So the Wise Ones thought they could keep things from him. Well, he was not as weak as they believed. He tried to stand, holding the blanket close, and turned the motion into shifting his position when his legs refused to cooperate. Maybe he was as weak as they thought. But he did not intend to let that stop him.

"I can rest when I'm dead," he said, and wished he had not when she flinched as if he had hit her: No, she would not have flinched at a blow. His staying alive was important to her for the Aiel's sake, and a threat there could hurt her more than a fist. "Tell me about Meilan, Natael."

Aviendha kept a sullen silence, though if looks had had anything to do with it, Asmodean would have been struck dumb as well.

A rider had come from Meilan in the night, bearing flowery praises and assurances of undying loyalty. At dawn Meilan himself appeared, with the six other High Lords of Tear who were in the city and a small host of Tairen soldiers who fingered sword hilts and gripped lances as though more than half expecting to fight the Aiel who had stood silently watching them ride in.

"It came close," Asmodean said. "This Meilan is not used to being thwarted, I think, and the others scarcely more so. Especially the lumpy-faced one - Torean? - and Simaan. That one has eyes as sharp as his nose. You know I am used to dangerous company, but these men are as dangerous in their way as any I have known."

Aviendha sniffed loudly. "Whatever they are used to, they had no choice with Sorilea and Amys and Bair and Melaine on one side, and Sulin with a thousand Far Dareis Mai on the other. And there were some Stone Dogs," she conceded, "and a few Water Seekers and some Red Shields. If you truly serve the Car'a'carn as you claim, Jasin Natael, you should guard his rest as they do."

"It is the Dragon Reborn I follow, young woman. The Car'a'carn, I leave to you."

"Go on, Natael," Rand said impatiently, earning a sniff for himself.

She was right concerning the Tairens' choices, though perhaps the Maidens and others fingering their veils had concerned them more than the Wise Ones. In any case, even Aracome, a graying, slender man with a long-smoldering temper, had been near bursting aflame by the time they reined their horses around, and Gueyam, bald as a stone and wide as a blacksmith, was white-faced in rage. Asmodean was not sure whether it had been the certainty of being overwhelmed that stopped them drawing swords, or the realization that if they somehow managed to cut a path to Rand, he was unlikely to welcome them with his allies' blood on their blades.

"Meilan's eyes were bulging out of his head," the man finished. "But before leaving, he shouted out his allegiance and fealty to you. Perhaps he thought you might hear. The others echoed him quickly, yet Meilan added something that made them stare. 'I make a gift of Cairhien to the Lord Dragon,' he said. Then he announced that he would prepare a grand triumph for you when you're ready to enter the city."

"There's an old saying in the Two Rivers," Rand said dryly. "The louder a man tells you he's honest, the harder you must hold on to your purse." Another said, "The fox often offers to give the duck its pond." Cairhien was his without gifts from Meilan.

He had no doubts about the man's loyalty. It would last just as long as Meilan believed he would be destroyed if caught betraying Rand. If caught; that was the hook. Those seven High Lords in Cairhien had been the most assiduous in trying to see him dead in Tear. That was why he had sent them here. Had he executed every Tairen noble who plotted against him, there might have been none left. At the time, handing them anarchy, famine and civil war to deal with a thousand miles from Tear had seemed a good way to put a crimp in their schemes while doing some good where it needed doing. Of course, he had not even known Couladin existed then, much less that the man would lead him to Cairhien.

It would be easier if this was a story, he thought. In stories, there were only so many surprises before the hero knew everything he needed; he himself never seemed to know a quarter of everything.

Asmodean hesitated - that old saying about shouting men might be applied to him, too, as he was no doubt aware - but when Rand said no more, he added, "I think he wants to be King of Cairhien. Subject to you, of course."

"And preferably with me far away." Meilan probably expected Rand to return to Tear, and to Callandor. Meilan certainly would never be afraid of too much power.

"Of course." Asmodean sounded even drier than Rand had. "There was another visit between those two." A dozen Cairhienin lords and ladies, without retainers, came cloaked and with faces hidden in their hoods despite the heat. Plainly they knew that the Aiel despised Cairhienin, and just as plainly returned the sentiment, yet they were as nervous that Meilan might discover they had come as that the Aiel might decide to kill them. "When they saw me," Asmodean said wryly, "half seemed ready to kill me for fear I was Tairen. You have Far Dareis Mai to thank that you still have a bard."

Few as they were, the Cairhienin had still been harder to turn back than Meilan, growing sweatier and more white-faced by the minute, but stubbornly demanding to see the Lord Dragon. It was a measure of their desire that when demands failed, they finally descended to open begging. Asmodean might have thought Aiel humor odd or harsh, but he chuckled over nobles in silk coats and riding dresses trying to pretend he was not there as they knelt to catch at the Wise Ones' woolen skirts.

"Sorilea threatened to have them stripped and flogged back to the city." His muted laughter turned disbelieving. "They actually discussed it among themselves. Had the requirement allowed them to reach you, I do believe some would have accepted."

"Sorilea should have done it," Aviendha put in, surprisingly agreeable. "The oathbreakers have no honor. At last Melaine had the Maidens throw them across their horses like bundles and run the animals from camp, with the oathbreakers hanging on as they might."

Asmodean nodded. "But before that, two of them did speak to me, once they were certain I was not a Tairen spy. Lord Dobraine, and Lady Colavaere. They clouded everything in so many hints and innuendoes that I cannot be certain, but I would not be surprised if they mean to offer you the Sun Throne. They could bandy words with... some people I used to be acquainted with."

Rand barked a laugh. "Maybe they will. If they can manage the same terms as Meilan." He had not needed Moiraine to tell him that Cairhienin played the Game of Houses in their sleep, nor Asmodean to tell him they would try it with the Forsaken. The High Lords to the left and the Cairhienin to the right. One battle done, and another, of a different sort if no less dangerous, beginning. "In any case, I mean the Sun Throne for someone who has a right to it." He ignored the speculation on Asmodean's face; perhaps the man had tried to help him the night before and perhaps he had not, but he did not trust the fellow enough to let him know half of his plans. However much Asmodean's future might be tied to his, his loyalty was all necessity, and he was still the same man who had chosen to give his soul to the Shadow. "Meilan wants to give me a grand entry when I am ready, does he? So much the better that I see what's what before he expects me." It came to him why Aviendha had become so agreeable, even helping the talk along. As long as he sat here talking, he was doing exactly what she wanted. "Are you going to get my horse, Natael, or must I?"

Asmodean's bow was deep, formal, and on the surface, at least, sincere. "I serve the Lord Dragon."

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