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Encounters in Samara



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Encounters in Samara

The Whitecloaks at the gates gave Uno and Nynaeve no more mind than they gave anyone else in the steady throng, which was to say a cold suspicious stare, searching yet quick. Too many people made anything else impossible, and maybe the scale-armored guards did, too. Not that there was any reason for more except in her mind. Her Great Serpent ring and Lan's heavy gold ring both nestled in her pouch - the dress's low neckline meant she could not wear them on the thong - but somehow she almost expected Children of the Light to pick out a Tower-trained woman by instinct. Her relief was palpable when those icy, unfeeling eyes swept past her.

The soldiers paid the two of them as little attention - once she rearranged her shawl yet again. Uno's scowl might have helped send their eyes back to the Whitecloaks, but the man had no right to scowl in the first place. It was her business.

Rewrapping the folded length of gray wool one more time, she tied the ends around her waist. The shawl defined her bosom more than she wished, and still exposed a bit of cleavage, yet it was a considerable improvement on the dress alone. At least she would not have to worry about the shawl slipping again. If only the thing were not so hot. The weather really should be turning soon. They were not that far south of the Two Rivers.

Uno patiently waited on her for a change. She was of two minds as to whether this was simple courtesy - his scarred face looked a deal too patient - but finally they walked together into Samara. Into chaos.

A babble of noise hung over everything, no one sound distinguishable. People jammed the rough stone-paved streets all but shoulder to shoulder from slate-roofed taverns to thatch-roofed stables, from raucous inns with simple painted signs like The Blue Bull or The Dancing Goose to shops where the signs had no words, only a knife-and-scissors here, a bolt of cloth there, a goldsmith's scales or a barber's razor, a pot or a lamp or a boot. Nynaeve saw faces as pale as that of any Andorman and as dark as that of any of the Sea Folk, some clean, some dirty, and coats with high collars, low collars, no collars, drably colored and bright, plain and embroidered, shabby and near new-made, in styles strange as often as familiar. One fellow with a dark forked beard wore silver chains across the chest of his plain blue coat, and two with their hair in braids - men, with a black braid over each ear below their shoulders! - had tiny brass bells sewn to their red coatsleeves and the turned-down tops of thigh-high boots. Whatever land they hailed from, those two were not fools; their dark eyes were hard and searching as Uno's, and they carried curved swords on their backs. A bare-chested man in a bright yellow sash, skin a deeper brown than aged wood and hands intricately tattooed, had to be one of the Sea Folk, though he wore neither earrings nor nose ring.

The women were equally as diverse, hair ranging from raven black to yellow so pale it was nearly white, braided or gathered or hanging loose, cut short, to the shoulders, to the waist, dresses in worn wool or neat linen or shimmering silk, collars brushing chins with lace or embroidery and necklines every bit as low as the one she hid. She even saw a copper-complexioned Domani woman in a barely opaque red gown that covered her to the neck and hid next to nothing! She wondered how safe that woman would be after dark. Or in this broad daylight, for that matter.

The occasional Whitecloaks and soldiers in that milling mass seemed overwhelmed, struggling to make ground as hard as anyone else. Oxcarts and horse-drawn wagons inched along the haphazardly crisscrossing streets, bearers jostled sedan-chairs through the crowds, and now and then a lacquered coach with a plumed team of four or six made its laborious way, liveried footman and steel-capped guards vainly trying to clear a path. Musicians with flute or zither or bittern played at every corner where there was not a juggler or an acrobat - their skill certainly nothing to make Thom or the Chavanas worry - always with another man or woman holding out a cap for coins. Ragged beggars wove through it all, plucking at sleeves and proffering grimy hands, and hawkers bustled with trays of everything from pins to ribbons to pears, their cries lost in the din.

Her head spun by the time Uno drew her into a narrower street where the throng seemed thinner, if only by comparison. She paused to straighten her clothes, disarrayed from plunging through the crowd, before following him. It was a trifle quieter here, too. No street entertainers, and fewer hawkers and beggars. Beggars kept clear of Uno, even after he tossed a few coppers to a wary pack of urchins, for which she did not blame them. The man just did not look... charitable.

The town's buildings loomed over these narrow ways 20120i824u , despite being only two or three stories, putting the streets themselves in shadow. But there was good light in the sky, hours yet till dusk. Still plenty of time to get back to the show. If she had to. With luck, they could all be boarding a riverboat by sunset.

She gave a start when another Shienaran suddenly joined them, sword on his back and head shaven but for that topknot, a dark-haired man only a few years older than she. Uno gave curt introductions and explanation without slowing.

"Peace favor you, Nynaeve," Ragan said, the skin of his dark cheek dimpling around a triangular white scar. Even smiling, his face was hard; she had never met a soft Shienaran. Soft men did not survive along the Blight, nor soft women either. "I remember you. Your hair was different, was it not? No matter. Never fear. We will see you safely to Masema and to wherever you would go after. Just be sure not to mention Tar Valon to him." No one was sparing them a second glance, but he lowered his voice anyway. "Masema thinks the Tower will try to control the Lord Dragon."

Nynaeve shook her head. Another fool man who was going to take care of her. At least he did not try to engage her in conversation; the mood she was in, she would have given him the rough side of her tongue if he so much as commented on the heat. Her own face felt a trifle damp, and no wonder, having to wear a shawl in this weather. Abruptly she remembered what the one-eyed man had said concerning Ragan's opinion of her tongue. She did not think she more than glanced at him, but Ragan moved to the other side of Uno as if for shelter and eyed her warily. Men!

The streets grew still narrower, and though the stone buildings lining them did not grow smaller, it was more often than not the backs of the buildings they saw, and rough gray walls that could hide only small yards. Eventually they turned down an alley barely wide enough for all three of them abreast. At the far end, a lacquered and gilded coach stood surrounded by scale-armored men. More immediately, halfway between her and the coach, fellows lounged thickly along both sides of the alley. In a motley of coats, most clutched clubs or spears or swords as different as their garb. They could have been a pack of street toughs, but neither of the Shienarans slowed, so she did not either.

"The street out front will be full of bloody fools hoping to catch a glimpse of Masema at a bloody window." Uno's voice was pitched for her ears alone. "The only way to get in is by the back." He fell silent as they came close enough for the waiting men to hear.

Two of those were soldiers with rimmed steel helmets and scaled tunics, swords at hip and spears in hand, but it was the others who studied the three newcomers and fingered their weapons. They had disturbing eyes, too intent, almost feverish. For once, she would have been pleased to see an honest leer. These men did not care whether she was a woman or a horse.

Without a word Uno and Ragan unfastened the scabbarded blades from their backs and handed them and their daggers to a plump-faced man who might have been a shopkeeper once, from the look of his blue woolen coat and breeches. The clothing had been good; it was clean, but heavily worn, and wrinkled as if it had been slept in for a month. Plainly he recognized the Shienarans, and though he frowned at her for a moment, especially at her belt knife, he silently nodded to a narrow wooden gate in the stone wall. That was perhaps the most off-putting fact of all; none of them made a sound.

On the other side of wall was a small yard where weeds stuck up between cobblestones. The tall stone house - three broad, pale-gray stories, with wide windows and scroll-worked eaves and gables, roofed in dark red tiles - must have been one of the finest in Samara. Once the gate was closed behind them, Ragan spoke softly. "There have been attempts to kill the Prophet."

It took Nynaeve a moment to realize that he was explaining why their weapons had been taken. "But you are his friends," she protested. "You all followed Rand to Falme together." She was not about to start calling him the Lord Dragon.

"That's why we're bloody let in at all," Uno said dryly. "I told you we don't see everything the way... the Prophet does." The slight pause, and the quick half-glance back at the gate to see if anyone was listening, spoke volumes. It had been Masema, before. And Uno was clearly a man who did not temper his tongue easily.

"Just watch what you say for once," Ragan told her, "and likely you will get the help you want." She nodded, as agreeably as anyone could wish - she knew sense when she heard it, even if he had no right to offer it - and he and Uno exchanged doubtful glances. She was going to stuff these two into a sack with Thom and Juilin and switch anything that stuck up.

Fine house as it might be, the kitchen was dusty, and empty except for one bony, gray-haired woman, her drab gray dress and white apron the only clean things in sight as they walked through. Sucking her teeth, the old woman hardly glanced up from stirring a small kettle of soup over a tiny blaze in one of the wide stone fireplaces. Two battered pots hung on hooks where twenty could have, and, a cracked pottery bowl on a blue-lacquered tray stood on the broad table.

Beyond the kitchen, moderately fine hangings decorated the walls. Nynaeve had developed something of an eye in the last year, and these scenes of feasts and hunts for deer and bear and boar were only good, not excellent. Chairs and tables and chests lined the halls, dark lacquer streaked with red, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Hangings and furniture alike were also dusty, and the red-and-white tiled floor had had only a halfhearted lick with a broom. Cobwebs decorated the corners and cornices of the high plaster ceiling.

There were no other servants - or anyone else - in sight until they came to a weedy fellow sitting on the floor beside an open door, his grimy red silk coat much too large for him and at odds with a filthy shirt and worn woolen breeches. One of his cracked boots had a large hole in the sole; a toe poked through another in the other one. He held up a hand, whispering, "The Light shine on you, and praise the name of the Lord Dragon?" He made it sound a question, querulously twisting a narrow face as unwashed as his shirt, but then he did the same with everything. "The Prophet can't be disturbed now? He's busy? You'll have to wait a bit?" Uno nodded patiently, and Ragan leaned against the wall; they had been through this before.

Nynaeve did not know what she had expected of the Prophet, not even now that she was aware who he was, but certainly not filth. That soup had smelled like cabbage and potatoes, hardly the fare for a man who had an entire city dancing for him. And only two servants, both of whom could well have come from the rudest huts outside the city.

The skinny guard, if such he was - he had no weapon; perhaps he was not trusted either - seemed to have no objection when she moved to where she could see through the doorway. The man and woman inside could not have been more different. Masema had shaved even his topknot, and his coat was plain brown wool, heavily wrinkled but clean, although his knee-high boots were scuffed. Deep-set eyes turned his permanently sour look to a scowl, and a scar made a pale triangle on his dark cheek, a near mirror image of Ragan's, only more faded with age and a hair nearer the eye. The woman, in elegantly gold-embroidered blue silk, was short of her middle years and quite lovely despite a nose perhaps too long for beauty. A simple blue net cap gathered dark hair spilling almost to her waist, but she wore a broad necklace of gold and firedrops with a matching bracelet, and gemmed rings decorated nearly every finger. Where Masema seemed poised to rush at something, teeth bared, she bore herself with stately reserve and grace.

" many follow wherever you go," she was saying, "that order flies over the wall when you arrive. People are not safe in themselves or their property -"

"The Lord Dragon has broken all bonds of law, all bonds made by mortal men and women." Masema's voice was heated, but intense, not angry. "The Prophecies say that the Lord Dragon will break all chains that bind, and it is so. The Lord Dragon's radiance will protect us against the Shadow."

"It is not the Shadow that threatens here, but cutpurses and slipfingers and headcrackers. Some who follow you - many - believe that they can take what they wish from whoever has it without payment or leave."

"There is justice in the hereafter, when we are born again. Concern with things of this world is useless. But very well. If you wish earthly justice" - his lip curled contemptuously -"let it be this. Henceforth, a man who steals will have his right hand cut off. A man who interferes with a woman, or insults her honor, or commits murder will be hung. A woman who steals or commits murder will be flogged. If any accuses and finds twelve who will agree, it will be done. Let it be so."

"As you say, of course," the woman murmured. Aloof elegance remained on her face, but she sounded shaken. Nynaeve did not know how Ghealdanin law ran, but she did not think it could be so casual as that. The woman took a deep breath. "There is still the matter of food. It becomes difficult to feed so many."

"Every man, woman and child who has come to the Lord Dragon must have a full belly. It must be so! Where gold can be found, food can be found, and there is too much gold in the world. Too much concern with gold." Masema's head swung angrily. Not angry with her, but in general. He looked to be searching for those who concerned themselves with gold so he could unleash fury on their heads. "The Lord Dragon has been Reborn. The Shadow hangs over the world, and only the Lord Dragon can save us. Only belief in the Lord Dragon, submission and obedience to the word of the Lord Dragon. All else is useless, even where it is not blasphemy."

"Blessed be the name of the Lord Dragon in the Light." It had the sound of a rote reply. "It is no longer simply a matter of gold, my Lord Prophet. Finding and transporting food in sufficient -"

"I am not a lord," he broke in again, and now he was angry. He leaned toward the woman, spittle on his lips, and though her face did not change, her hands twitched as if they wanted to clutch her dress. "There is no lord but the Lord Dragon, in whom the Light dwells, and I am but one humble voice of the Lord Dragon. Remember that! High or low, blasphemers earn the scourge!"

"Forgive me," the begemmed woman murmured, spreading her skirts in a curtsy fit for a queen's court. "It is as you say, of course. There is no lord save the Lord Dragon, and I am but a humble follower of the Lord Dragon - blessed be the name of the Lord Dragon - who comes to hear the wisdom and guidance of the Prophet."

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Masema was suddenly cold. "You wear too much gold. Do not let earthly possession seduce you. Gold is dross. The Lord Dragon is all."

Immediately she began plucking rings from her fingers, and before the second was off, the weedy fellow scurried to her side, pulling a pouch from his coat pocket and holding it for her to drop them in. The bracelet and necklace followed as well.

Nynaeve looked at Uno and raised an eyebrow.

"Every penny goes to the poor," he told her in a low voice that barely reached her ear, "or somebody who needs it. If some merchant hadn't bloody given him her house, he'd be in a bloody stable, or one of those huts outside the city."

"Even his food comes as a gift," Ragan said just as quietly. "They used to bring him dishes fit for a king, until they learned he just gave away everything but a little bread, and soup or stew. He hardly drinks wine, now."

Nynaeve shook her head. She supposed it was one way to find money for the poor. Simply rob anyone who was not poor. Of course, that would just make everyone poor in the end, but it might work for a time. She wondered if Uno and Ragan knew the whole of it. People who claimed they were collecting money to help others often had a way of letting a good bit stick in their own pockets, or else they liked the power that spreading it about gave them, liked it far too much. She had better feeling for the man who freely gave one copper from his own purse than for the fellow who wrested a gold crown from someone else's. And less for fools who abandoned their farms and shops to follow this... this Prophet, with no idea where their next meal would come from.

Inside the room, the woman curtsied to Masema even more deeply than before, spreading her skirts wide and bowing her head. "Until I once again have the honor of the Prophet's words and counsel. The name of the Lord Dragon be blessed in the Light."

Masema waved her away absently, already half forgotten. He had seen them in the hall, and was looking at them with as close to pleasure as his dour face could come. It was not very close. The woman swept out, not even appearing to see Nynaeve or the two men. Nynaeve sniffed as the weedy fellow in the red coat waved anxiously for them to come in. For someone who had just given up her jewelry on demand, that woman managed a fine queenly air.

The skinny man scampered back to his place by the door as the other three men shook hands in the Borderlands fashion, gripping forearms.

"Peace favor your sword," Uno said, echoed by Ragan.

"Peace favor the Lord Dragon" was the reply, "and his Light illumine us all." Nynaeve's breath caught. There was no doubt to his meaning; the Lord Dragon was the source of the Light. And he had the nerve to speak of blasphemy from others! "Have you come to the Light at last?"

"We walk in the Light," Ragan said carefully. "As always." Uno kept silent, his face blank.

Weary patience made an odd play on Masema's sour features. "There is no way to the Light save through the Lord Dragon. You will see the way and the truth in the end, for you have seen the Lord Dragon, and only those whose souls are swallowed in the Shadow can see and not believe. You are not such. You will believe."

In spite of the heat and the wool shawl, goose bumps crawled along Nynaeve's arms. Total conviction filled the man's voice, and this close she could see a glint in his nearly black eyes that bordered on madness. He swept those eyes over her, and she stiffened her knees. He made the most rabid Whitecloak she had ever seen appear mild. Those fellows in the alley were only a pale imitation of their master.

"You, woman. Are you ready to come to the Light of the Lord Dragon, abandoning sin and flesh?"

"I walk in the Light as best I can." She was irritated to find herself speaking as carefully as Ragan. Sin? Who did he think he was?

"You are too concerned with the flesh." Masema's gaze was withering as it swept over her red dress and the shawl wrapped tightly around her.

"And what do you mean by that?" Uno's eye widened in startlement, and Ragan made small shushing motions, yet she could as soon have flown as stopped. "Do you think you have a right to tell me how to dress?" Before she quite realized what she was doing, she had untied the shawl and looped it over her elbows; it really was much too hot, anyway. "No man has that right, for me or any other woman! If I chose to go naked, it would be none of your concern!"

Masema contemplated her bosom for a moment - not so much as a hint of admiration lit his deep eyes, only acid contempt - then raised that stare to her face. Uno's real eye and painted made a perfect match, scowling at nothing, and Ragan winced, surely muttering to himself inside his head.

Nynaeve swallowed hard. So much for guarding her tongue. For perhaps the first time in her life, she truly regretted speaking her mind without thinking first. If this man could order men's hands cut off, order men hung, with only a jack-fool excuse of a trial, what was he not capable of? She thought she was angry enough to channel.

But if she did... If Moghedien or any Black sisters were in Samara... But if I don't...! She wanted very much to wrap the shawl back around her, up to her chin. But not with him staring at her. Something in the back of her mind shouted at her not to be a complete wool-head - only men let pride overcome sense - but she met Masema's gaze defiantly, even if she did have to stop herself from swallowing again.

His lip curled. "Such garments are worn to entice men, and for no other reason." She could not understand how his voice could be so fervent and so icy at the, same time. "Thoughts of the flesh distract the mind from the Lord Dragon and the Light. I have considered banning dresses that distract men's eyes, and minds. Let women who would waste time in attracting men, and men who would attract women, be scourged until they know that only in perfect contemplation of the Lord Dragon and the Light can joy be found." He was not really looking at her any longer. That dark burning stare looked through her, to something distant. "Let taverns, and places that sell strong drink, and all places that would take the minds of people from that perfect contemplation, be closed and burned to the ground. I frequented such places in my days of sin, but now I heartily regret, as all should regret their transgressions. There is only the Lord Dragon and the Light! All else is illusion, a snare set by the Shadow!"

"This is Nynaeve al'Meara," Uno said quickly into the first pause for breath. "From Emond's Field, in the Two Rivers, whence the Lord Dragon comes." Masema's head turned slowly to the one-eyed man, and she hastily took the opportunity to re-do the shawl as she had had it. "She was at Fal Dara with the Lord Dragon, and at Falme. The Lord Dragon rescued her at Falme. The Lord Dragon cares for her as for a mother."

Another time, she would have given him a few choice words, and maybe a well-boxed ear. Rand had not rescued her - or not exactly, anyway - and she was only a handful of years older than he. A mother, indeed!

Masema turned back to her. The zealous light that had burned in his eyes before was nothing to what was there now... They almost glowed.

"Nynaeve. Yes." His voice quickened. "Yes! I remember your name, and your face. Blessed are you among women, Nynaeve al'Meara, none more so save the blessed mother of the Lord Dragon herself, for you watched the Lord Dragon grow. You attended the Lord Dragon as a child." He seized her arms, hard fingers biting in painfully, but he seemed unaware of it. "You will speak to the crowds of the Lord Dragon's boyhood, of his first words of wisdom, of the miracles that accompanied him. The Light has sent you here to serve the Lord Dragon."

She was not exactly sure what to say. There had never been any miracles around Rand that she had seen. She had heard of things, in Tear, but you could hardly call what a ta'veren caused miracles. Not really. Even what had occurred at Falme had a rational explanation. Sort of. And as for words of wisdom, the first she had heard out of him had been a fervent promise never to throw a rock at anyone again, offered after she had paddled his young backside for it. She did not believe she had heard another word since that she could call wise. In any case, if Rand had given sage advice from his cradle, if there had been comets by night and apparitions in the sky by day, she still would not have stayed with this madman.

"I must travel downriver," she said guardedly. "To join him. The Lord Dragon." That name curdled on her tongue, so soon after her promise to herself, but Rand was apparently never anything as simple as "he" around the Prophet. I am just being sensible. That's all it is. "A man is an oak, a woman a willow," the saying ran. The oak fought the wind and was broken, while the willow bent when it must and survived. That did not mean she had to like bending. "He... the Lord Dragon... is in Tear. The Lord Dragon has summoned me there."

"Tear." Masema took his hands away, and she surreptitiously rubbed her arms. She did not have to try hiding it, though; he was staring at something beyond sight again. "Yes, I have heard." Speaking to something beyond sight, too, or to himself. "When Amadicia has come to the Lord Dragon as Ghealdan has, I will lead the people to Tear, to bask in the radiance of the Lord Dragon. I will send disciples to spread the word of the Lord Dragon throughout Tarabon and Arad Doman, to Saldaea and Kandor and the Borderlands, to Andor, and I will lead the people to kneel at the Lord Dragon's feet."

"A wise plan... uh... O Prophet of the Lord Dragon." A fool plan if she had ever heard one. That was not to say it would not work. Fool plans often did, for some reason, when men made them. Rand might even enjoy having all those people kneel to him, if he was half as arrogant as Egwene claimed. "But we... I cannot wait. I have been summoned, and when the Lord Dragon summons, mere mortals must obey." Some day she was going to get a chance to box Rand's head for her need to do this! "I have to find a boat going downriver."

Masema stared at her for so long that she began to grow nervous. Sweat trickled down her back, and between her breasts, and it was only partly the heat. That stare would have made Moghedien sweat.

Finally he nodded, fiery zealotry fading to leave only his usual dour scowl. "Yes," he sighed. "If you have been summoned, you must go. Go with the Light, and in the Light. Dress more appropriately - those who have been close to the Lord Dragon must be virtuous above all others - and meditate on the Lord Dragon and his Light."

"A riverboat?" Nynaeve insisted. "You must know whenever a boat reaches Samara, or any village along the river. If you could just tell me where I might find one, it would make my journey much... swifter." She had been going to say "easier," but she did not think ease mattered much to Masema.

"I do not concern myself with such things," he said testily. "But you are right. When the Lord Dragon commands, you must come on the hour. I will ask. If a vessel can be found, someone will tell me of it eventually." His eyes shifted to the other two men. "You must see that she is safe until then. If she persists in clothing herself in this manner, she will attract men with vile thoughts. She must be protected, like a wayward child, until she is reunited with the Lord Dragon."

Nynaeve bit her tongue. A willow, not an oak, when a willow was needed. She managed to mask her irritation behind a smile that had to carry all the gratitude the idiot man could wish. A dangerous idiot, however. She had to remember that.

Uno and Ragan made their goodbyes quickly, with more forearm clasping, and hustled her out, one on either arm, as if they thought it necessary to hurry her away from Masema for some reason. Masema appeared to have forgotten them before they reached the door; he was already frowning at the weedy man, waiting next to a bluff fellow in a farmer's coat who was crumpling his cap in thick hands, awe painted across his broad face.

She did not say a word as they retraced their steps through the kitchen, where the gray-haired woman was sucking her teeth and stirring the soup as if she had not moved in the interval. Nynaeve held her tongue while they retrieved their weapons, held it until they were out of the alleyway, into something approaching the width of a street. Then she rounded on them, shaking her finger under each nose alternately. "How dare you drag me out like that!" People passing by grinned - men ruefully, women appreciatively - though none could have had an idea what she was berating them over. "Another five minutes, and I would have had him finding a boat today! If you ever lay hands on me again - " Uno snorted so loudly that she cut off with a start.

"Another five bloody minutes, and Masema would have bloody well laid hands on you. Or rather, he'd have said that someone should, and then someone flaming well would have! When he says something should be done, there are always fifty flaming hands, or a hundred, or a flaming thousand if need be, to do it!" He stalked off down the street, Ragan at his side, and she had to go with them or be left. Uno paced on as if he knew she would trail after. She almost went the other way just to prove him wrong. Following had nothing to do with fear of getting lost in that rabbit warren of streets. She could have found her way out. Eventually. "He had a flaming Lord of the Crown High Council flogged - flogged! - for half the heat in his voice that you had," the one-eyed man growled. "Contempt for the word of the Lord Dragon, he called it. Peace! Demanding what bloody right he had to comment on your flaming clothes! For a few minutes you did well enough, but I saw your face there at the end. You were ready to flaming lace into him again. The only thing worse you could have done would be to bloody name the Lord Dragon. He calls that blasphemy. As well name the flaming Dark One."

Ragan's topknot bobbed as he nodded. "Remember the Lady Baelome, Uno? Right after the first rumors came from Tear naming the Lord Dragon, Nynaeve, she said something about 'this Rand al'Thor' in Masema's hearing, and he called for an axe and a chopping block without pause for breath."

"He had someone beheaded for that?" she said incredulously.

"No," Uno muttered in disgust. "But only because she bloody well groveled when she realized he flaming meant it. She was dragged out and hung up by her flaming wrists from the back of her own coach, then strapped the bloody length of whatever village it was we were in then. Her own flaming retainers stood like a bunch of sheep-gutted farmers and watched it."

"When it was done," Ragan added, "she thanked Masema for his mercy, the same as Lord Aleshin did." His tone had too much pointedness to suit her; he was delivering a moral, and intended her to take it in. "They had reason, Nynaeve. Theirs would not have been the first heads he has put on a stake. Yours could have been the latest. And ours with it, if we tried to give aid. Masema plays no favorites."

She drew breath. How could Masema have all this power? And not only among his own followers, apparently. But then, there was no reason lords or ladies could be not as great fools as any farmer; a good many were greater, in her estimation. That idiot woman with her rings had surely been a lady; no merchant ever wore firedrops. Yet surely Ghealdan had laws and courts and judges. Where was the queen, or the king? She could not remember which Ghealdan had. No one in the Two Rivers had ever had much truck with kings or queens, yet that was what they were for, them and lords and ladies, seeing justice fairly done. But whatever Masema did here was no concern of hers. She had more important problems than worrying over a flock of imbeciles who let a madman trample them.

Still, curiosity made her say, "Does he mean that about trying to stop men and women looking at one another? What does he think will happen if there are no marriages, no children? Will he stop people farming next, or weaving or making shoes, so they can think about Rand al'Thor?" She enunciated the name deliberately. These two went around calling him "the Lord Dragon" at the drop of a pin almost as much as Masema did. "I will tell you this. If he tries telling women how to dress, he will start a riot. Against him." Samara must have something like a Women's Circle - most places did, even if they called it something else, even when it was not a formal arrangement at all; there were some things men just did not have the sense to see to - and they surely could and did call women down for wearing inappropriate clothes, but that was not the same as a man putting his finger into it. Women did not meddle in men's affairs - well, no more than was necessary - and men should not meddle in women's. "And I expect the men will react no better if he tries closing taverns and the like. I never knew a man yet who wouldn't cry himself to sleep if he could not put his nose in a mug now and then."

"Maybe he will," Ragan said, "and maybe he won't. Sometimes he orders things, and sometimes he forgets, or puts it off anyway, because something more important comes along. You would be surprised," he added dryly, "at what his followers will accept from him without a whimper." He and Uno were flanking her, she realized, and watching the other folk in the street warily. Even to her, the pair of them appeared ready to draw swords in a heartbeat. If they actually thought to carry out Masema's instructions, they had another think coming.

"He isn't against bloody marriage," Uno growled, staring so hard at a peddler with meat pies on a tray that the man turned and ran without taking the coins from two women holding pies in their hands. "You're lucky he did not remember you have no husband, or he might have sent you to the Lord Dragon with one. Sometimes he picks out three or four hundred unmarried men and as many women, and flaming well marries them. Most have never seen each other before that day. If the pigeon-gutted dirt-grubbers don't bloody complain about that, do you think they'll open their flaming mouths about ale?"

Ragan muttered something under his breath, but she caught enough to narrow her eyes. "Some man doesn't know how bloody lucky he is." That was what he had said. He did not even notice her glare. He was too busy scanning the street, watching against someone who might try to abscond with her like a pig in a sack. She was half tempted to take off the shawl and throw it away. He did not seem to hear her sniff, either. Men could be insufferably blind and deaf when they wished to.

"At least he didn't try to steal my jewelry," she said. "Who was that fool woman who gave him hers?" She could not have much sense if she had become one of Masema's followers.

"That," Uno said, "was Alliandre, Blessed of the Light, Queen of bloody Ghealdan. And a dozen more titles, the way you southlanders like to pile them up."

Nynaeve stubbed her toe on a cobblestone and almost fell. "So that is how he does it," she exclaimed, shaking off their helping hands. "If the queen is fool enough to listen to him, no wonder he can do whatever he wants."

"Not a fool," Uno said sharply, flashing a frown at her before returning to watching the street. "A wise woman. When you bloody find yourself straddling a wild horse, you bloody well ride it the way it's bloody going, if you're smart enough to pour water out of a bloody boot. You think she's a fool because Masema took her rings? She's flaming smart enough to know he might demand more if she stopped wearing jewelry when she comes to him. The first time, he went to her - been the other way round, since - and he did take the rings right off her flaming fingers. She had strands of pearls in her hair, and he broke the strings pulling them out. All of her ladies-in-waiting were down on their knees gathering the bloody things off the floor. Alliandre even picked up a few herself."

"That doesn't sound so wise to me," she said stoutly. "It sounds like cowardice." Whose knees were shaking because he looked at her? a voice in her head asked. Who was sweating herself silly? At least she had managed to face up to him.I did. Bending like a willow isn't the same as cowering like a mouse. "Is she the queen, or isn't she?"

The two men exchanged those irritating looks, and Ragan said quietly, "You don't understand, Nynaeve. Alliandre is the fourth to sit on the Light Blessed Throne since we came to Ghealdan, and that's barely half a year. Johanin wore the crown when Masema began attracting a few crowds, but he thought Masema a harmless madman and did nothing even when the crowds grew and his nobles told him he had to put an end to it. Johanin died in a hunting accident -"

"Hunting accident!" Uno interjected, sneering. A hawker who happened to be looking at him dropped his tray of pins and needles. "Not unless he didn't know one bloody end of a flaming boar spear from the other. Flaming southlanders and their flaming Game of Houses!"

"And Ellizelle succeeded," Ragan took up. "She had the army dispersing the crowds, until finally there was a pitched battle and it was the army that was chased off."

"Bloody poor excuse for soldiers," Uno muttered. She was going to have to speak to him about his language again.

Ragan nodded agreement, but went on with what he had been saying. "They say Ellizelle took poison after that, but however she died, she was replaced by Teresia, who lasted a full ten days after her coronation, just until she had a chance to send two thousand soldiers against ten thousand folk who had gathered to hear Masema outside Jehannah. After her soldiers were routed, she abdicated to marry a rich merchant." Nynaeve stared at him incredulously, and Uno snorted. "That is what they say," the younger man maintained. "Of course, in this land, marrying a commoner means giving up any claim to the throne forever, and whatever Beron Goraed feels about having a pretty young wife with royal blood, I hear he was dragged from his bed by a score of Alliandre's retainers and hauled to Jheda Palace for a wedding in the small hours of the morning. Teresia went off to live on her husband's new country estate while Alliandre was being crowned, all before sunrise, and the new queen summoned Masema to the palace to tell him he would not be troubled again. Inside two weeks she was calling on him. I do not know whether she really believes what he preaches, but I know she took the throne of a land on the edge of civil war, with Whitecloaks ready to move in, and she stopped it the only way she could. That is a wise queen, and a man could be proud to serve her, even if she is a southlander."

Nynaeve opened her mouth, and forgot what she was going to say when Uno said, in a casual tone, "There's a flaming Whitecloak following us. Don't look around, woman. You have more bloody sense than that."

Her neck stiffened with the effort of keeping her eyes forward; prickles crawled up her back. "Take the next turn, Uno."

"That carries us away from the main streets, and the flaming gates. We can flaming lose him in the crowds."

"Take it!" She inhaled slowly, made her voice less shrill. "I need a sight of him."

Uno glowered so fiercely that people stepped out of their way for ten paces ahead, but they turned down the next narrow street. She shifted her head a trifle as they made the turn, just enough to peek from the edge of her eye before the corner of a small stone tavern cut off her view. The snowy cloak with the flaring sun stood out among the thin crowd. There was no mistaking that beautiful face, the face she had been sure she would see. No other Whitecloak than Galad could have a reason to follow her, and none to follow Uno or Ragan.

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