The Path of Daggers

Chapter 25

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(Novels9) Chapter 25
(Female Silhouettes)
An Unwelcome Return
Seated behind her gilded writing table, Elaida fingered an agedark ivory carving of a strange bird with a beak as long as its body and listened with some amusement to the six women standing on the other side on the table. Each a Sitter for her Ajah, they frowned sideways at one another, shifted velvet slippers on the brightly patterned carpet that covered most of the russet floor tiles, twitched at vineworked shawls so the colored fringes danced, and generally looked and sounded like a gaggle of peevish serving girls wishing they had the nerve to go for each others' throats in front of their mistress. Frost coated the glassed casements fitted into the windows so that it was hardly possible to see the snow swirling outside, though sometimes the winds howled with an icy rage. Elaida felt quite warm, and not just for the thick logs blazing in the white marble fireplace. Whether these women knew it or not - well, Duhara knew, certainly, and perhaps the others did - she was their mistress. The elaborate goldcovered case clock that Cemaile had commissioned ticked away. Cemaile's vanished dream would come true; The Tower returned to its glory. And firmly in the capable hands of Elaida do Avriny a'Roihan.
"No ter'angreal has ever been found that can 'control' a woman's channeling," Velina was saying in a voice cool and precise but almost girlishly highpitched, a voice at strong odds with her eagle's beak of a nose and her sharp, tilted eyes. She sat for the White, and was the very model of a White sister, in all but her fierce appearance. Her plain, snowy dress seemed stark and cold. "Very few have ever been found that perform the same function. Therefore, logically, if such a ter'angreal were found, or more than one, improbable as that must be, there could not be sufficient of them to control more than two or three women at most. It follows that the reports of these socalled Seanchan are exaggerated wildly. If women on 'leashes' exist, they cannot channel. Plainly not. I do not deny these people hold Ebou Dar, and Amador, and perhaps more, but clearly they are but a creation of Rand al'Thor, perhaps to frighten people into flocking to him. Like this Prophet of his. It is simple logic."
"I am very glad you don't deny Amador and Ebou Dar at least, Velina," Shevan said drily. And she could be very dry indeed. As tall as most men, and bonily thin with it, the Brown Sitter had an angular face and a long chin, not improved by a cap of curls. With spidery fingers she rearranged her shawl and smoothed skirts of dark golden silk, and her voice took on pointed amusement. "I'm uncomfortable saying what can and can't be. For example, not long gone, everyone 'knew' only a shield woven by a sister could stop a woman channeling. Then comes a simple herb, forkroot, and anyone at all can feed you a tea that leaves you unable as a stone to channel for hours. Useful with unruly wilders or the like, I suppose, but a nasty little surprise for those who think they knew everything, eh? Maybe next, someone will learn to make ter'angreal again."
Elaida's mouth tightened. She did not concern herself with impossibilities, and if no sister had managed to rediscover the making of ter'angreal in three thousand years, one never would and that was that. It was knowledge slipping through her fingers when she wanted it held close that curled Elaida's tongue. In spite of all her efforts, every last initiate in the Tower had learned of forkroot, now. No one liked knowing in the least. No one liked suddenly being vulnerable to anyone with a knowledge of herbs and a little hot water. That knowledge was worse than poison, as the Sitters here made clear.
At mention of the herb, Duhara's big, dark eyes grew uneasy in her coppery face, and she held herself more stiffly than usual, hands clutching skirts so red they seemed nearly black. Sedore actually swallowed, and her fingers tightened on the worked leather folder Elaida had handed her, though the roundfaced Yellow usually carried herself with a frosty elegance. Andaya shivered! She actually wrapped her grayfringed shawl around her convulsively.
Elaida wondered what they would do if they learned the Asha'man had rediscovered Traveling. As it was, they were barely able to make themselves speak of them. At least she had managed to hold that knowledge to a handful.
"I think we might better concern ourselves with what we know to be true, yes?" Andaya said firmly, back in control of herself. Her light brown hair, brushed till it gleamed, hung flowing down her back, and her silverslashed blue dress was cut in the style of Andor, but Tarabon still rested strongly on her tongue. Though neither particularly small nor particularly slim, she somehow always reminded Elaida of a sparrow about to hop on a branch. A most unlikelyappearing negotiator, though her reputation had been earned. She smiled at the others, not very pleasantly, and that seemed sparrowlike, too. Perhaps it was how she held her head. "Idle speculation, it wastes precious time. The world hangs by a thread, and myself, I do not wish to fritter away valuable hours prattling about supposed logic or chattering over what every fool and novice knows. Does anyone have anything useful to say?" For a sparrow, she could put acid on her words. Velina's face went red, and Shevan's darkened.
Rubinde twisted her lips at the Gray. Perhaps they were meant to make a smile, but they merely seemed to writhe. With ravenblack hair and eyes like sapphires, the Mayener usually looked as if she intended to walk through a stone wall, and planting her fists on her hips now, she seemed ready to walk through two. "We've dealt with what we can for the time being, Andaya. Most of it, anyway. The rebels are caught by the snows in Murandy, and we'll make winter hot enough for them that in the spring they'll come crawling back to apologize and beg penance. Tear will be taken care of as soon as we find where the High Lord Darlin has vanished to, and Cairhien once we root Caraline Damodred and Toram Riatin out of their hiding places. Al'Thor has the crown of Illian for the moment, but that's in work. So, unless you have a scheme for snaffling the man into the Tower or making these socalled 'Asha'man' vanish, I have the business of my Ajah to be about."
Andaya drew herself up, her feathers well and truly ruffled. For that matter, Duhara's eyes narrowed; mention of men who could channel always lit fires in her head. Shevan clicked her tongue as if at children squabbling - though she looked pleased to see it - and Velina frowned, for some reason sure Shevan had aimed at her. This was amusing, but getting out of hand.
"The business of the Ajahs is important, daughters." Elaida did not raise her voice, but every head swiveled toward her. She replaced the ivory carving with the rest of her collection in the large box covered with roses and golden scrolls, carefully adjusted the positions of her writing case and correspondence box so the three lacquered boxes lined up just so on the table, and once their silence was perfect she went on. "The business of the Tower is more important, though. I trust you will effect my decrees promptly. I see too much sloth in the Tower. I fear Silviana may find herself very busy if matters do not come right soon." She did not voice any further

"As you command, Mother," murmured six voices not so steady as their owners might have wished. Even Duhara's face was pasty pale as they made their curtsies. Two Sitters had been stripped of their chairs, and half a dozen had served days of Labor for penance - which was humiliating enough in their position to be Mortification of the Spirit besides; Shevan and Sedore certainly wore tight mouths as they remembered all too well scrubbing floors and working in the laundries - but none had been sent to Silviana for Mortification of the Flesh. No one wanted to be. The Mistress of Novices had two or three visits each week from sisters who been given penance by their Ajahs or set one for themselves - a dose of the strap, however painful, was done with much more quickly than raking garden paths for a month - but Silviana possessed considerably less mercy with sisters than with the novices and Accepted in her charge. More than one sister must have spent the next few days wondering whether a month pulling a rake might not have been preferable after all.
They scurried toward the doors, eager to be away. Sitters or no, not one would have set foot this high in the Tower without Elaida's direct summons. Fingering her striped stole, Elaida let her smile become one of pleasure. Yes, she was the mistress in the White Tower. As was only proper for the Amyrlin Seat.
Before that faststepping knot of Sitters reach the doorway, the lefthand door opened, and Alviarin stepped in, the narrow white stole of the Keeper almost vanishing against a silk dress that made Velina's seem dingy.
Elaida felt her smile go crooked and begin sliding from her face. Alviarin had a single sheet of parchment in one slim hand. Odd, what one noticed at a time like this. The woman had been gone almost two weeks, vanished from the Tower without word or note, without anyone so much as seeing her go, and Elaida had begun to think fond thoughts of Alviarin lying in a snowbank, or swept away in a river, sliding beneath the ice.
The six Sitters skidded to a halt uncertainly when Alviarin did not move out of their way. Even a Keeper with Alviarin's influence did not impede Sitters. Though Velina, normally the most selfpossessed woman in the Tower, flinched for some reason. Alviarin glanced once at Elaida, coolly, studied the Sitters for a moment, and understood everything.
"I think you should leave that with me," she said to Sedore in tones only a fraction warmer than the snow outside. "The Mother likes to consider her decrees carefully, as you know. This would not be the first time she changed her mind after signing." She held out a slim hand.
Sedore, whose arrogance was notable even among Yellows, barely hesitated before giving her the leather folder.
Elaida ground her teeth in fury. Sedore had hated her five days up to her elbows in hot water and scrub boards. Elaida would find something less comfortable for her next time. Maybe Silviana after all. Maybe cleaning the cesspits!
Alviarin stepped aside without a word, and the Sitters went, adjusting shawls, muttering to themselves, reassuming the dignity of the Hall. Briskly, Alviarin closed the door behind them and walked toward Elaida thumbing through the papers in the folder. The decrees she had signed hoping Alviarin was dead. Of course, she had not rested on hope. She had not spoken to Seaine, in case someone might see and tell Alviarin when she returned, but Seaine was certainly working away as instructed, following the path of treason that surely would lead to Alviarin Freidhen. But Elaida had hoped. Oh, how she had hoped.
Alviarin murmured to herself as she rifled the folder. "This can go through, I suppose. But not this. Or this. And certainly not this!" She crumpled a decree, signed and sealed by the Amyrlin Seat, and tossed it to the floor contemptuously. Stopping beside Elaida's gilded chair, with the Flame of Tar Valon in moonstones atop its high back, she slapped the folder and her own parchment down on the table. And then slapped Elaida's face so hard she saw black flecks.
"I thought we had settled this, Elaida." The monstrous woman's voice made the snowstorm outside seem warm. "I know how to save the Tower from your blunders, and I won't have you making new ones behind my back. If you persist, be assured that I will see you deposed, stilled, and howling under the birch before every initiate and even the servants!"
With an effort, Elaida kept her hand away from her cheek. She did not need a mirror to tell her it was red. She had to be careful. Seaine had found nothing yet, or she would have come. Alviarin could open her mouth before the Hall and reveal the whole disastrous kidnapping of the al'Thor boy. She might see her deposed, and stilled and birched with that alone, but Alviarin had another string to her bow. Toveine Gazal was leading fifty sisters and two hundred of the Tower Guard against a Black Tower Elaida had been sure, when she gave the orders, held perhaps two or three men who could channel. Yet even with the hundreds - hundreds! with Alviarin staring coldly down at her, that thought still curdled Elaida's stomach! - even with hundreds of these Asha'man, she had hope for Toveine. The Black Tower would be rent in fire and blood, she had Foretold, and sisters would walk its grounds. Surely that meant that somehow, Toveine would triumph. More, the rest of the Foretelling had told her that the Tower would regain all its old glories under her, that al'Thor himself would quail at her anger. Alviarin had heard the words coming out of Elaida's mouth when the Foretelling took her. And she had not remembered later, when she began her blackmail, had not understood her own doom. Elaida waited in patience. She would repay the woman threefold! But she could be patient. For now.
Making no attempt to hide her sneer, Alviarin pushed the folder aside and moved the single parchment in front of Elaida. She flipped open the greenandgold writing case, dipped Elaida's pen in the inkwell and thrust it at her. "Sign."
Elaida took the pen wondering what madness she would be putting her name to this time. Yet another increase in the Tower Guard, when the rebels would be done before there was any use for soldiers? Another attempt to make the Ajahs reveal publicly which sisters headed them? That had certainly fallen on its nose! Reading quickly, she felt a knot of ice grow in her belly and keep growing. Giving each Ajah final authority over any sister in its quarter no matter her own Ajah had been the worst insanity so far - how could picking apart the very fabric of the Tower save it? - but this -!
The world now knows that Rand al'Thor is the Dragon Reborn. The world knows that he is a man who can touch the One Power. Such men have lain within the authority of the White Tower since time immemorial. The Dragon Reborn is granted the protection of the Tower, but whosoever attempts to approach him save through the White Tower lies attainted of treason against the Light, and anathema is pronounced against them now and forever. The world may rest easily knowing that the White Tower will safely guide the Dragon Reborn to the Last Battle a

Automatically, numbly, she added "of the Light" after "triumph," but then her hand froze. Publicly acknowledging al'Thor as the Dragon Reborn could be borne, since he was, and this might lead many to accept the rumors that he had knelt to her already, which would prove useful, but for the rest, she could not believe so much damage could be contained in so few words.
"The Light have mercy," she breathed fervently. "If this is proclaimed, it will be impossible to convince al'Thor that his abduction was unsanctioned." It would be hard enough without, but she had seen people convinced before that what had happened, had not, and them in the middle of it happening. "And he will be ten times on his guard against another attempt. Alviarin, at best, this will frighten away a few of his followers. At best!" Many likely had waded so deep with him they did not dare try to wade back. Certainly not if they thought anathema already hung over their heads! "I might as well set fire to the Tower with my own hand as sign this!"
Alviarin sighed impatiently. "You haven't forgotten your catechism, have you? Say it for me, as I taught you."
Elaida's lips compressed of their own accord. One pleasure in the woman's absence - not the greatest, but a very real pleasure - had been not being forced to repeat that vile litany every day. "I will do as I am told," she said at last, in a flat voice. She was the Amyrlin Seat! "I will speak the words you tell me to speak, and no more." Her Foretelling ordained her triumph, but, oh, Light, let it come soon! "I will sign what you tell me to sign, and nothing else. I am... " She choked over the last. "I am obedient to your will."
"You sound as if you need to be reminded of the truth of that," Alviarin said with another sigh. "I suppose I've left you alone too long." She tapped the parchment with a peremptory finger. "Sign."
Elaida signed, dragging the pen across the parchment. There was nothing else she could do.
Alviarin barely waited for the pen's nib to lift before snatching up the decree. "I will seal this myself," she said, heading for the door. "I shouldn't have left the Amyrlin's seal where you could find it. I want to talk to you later. I have left you to yourself too long. Be here when I return."
"Later?" Elaida said. "When? Alviarin? Alviarin?"
The door closed behind the woman, leaving Elaida to fume. Be there when Alviarin returned! Confined to her quarters like a novice in the punishment cells!
For a time she fingered her correspondence box, with its golden hawks fighting among white clouds in a blue sky, yet she could not make herself open it. With Alviarin gone, that box had begun once more to hold letters and reports of importance, not just the table scraps Alviarin let fall to her, yet with the woman's return, it might as well have been empty. Rising, she began rearranging the roses in their white vases, each atop a white marble plinth in a corner of the room. Blue roses; the most rare.
Abruptly she realized that she was staring at a broken rose stem in her hands, snapped in two. Half a dozen more littered the floor tiles. She made a vexed sound in her throat. She had been thinking of her hands around Alviarin's throat. It was not the first time she had considered killing the woman. But Alviarin would have taken precautions. Sealed documents, to be opened should anything untoward happen, had no doubt been left with the last sisters Elaida would suspect. That had been her one real worry during Alviarin's absence, that someone else might think the woman dead, and come forward with the evidence that would drag the stole from her shoulders. Sooner or later, though, one way or another, Alviarin was finished, as surely as those roses were -
"You didn't answer my knock, Mother, so I came on in," a woman said gruffly behind her.
Elaida turned, ready to flay with her tongue, but at the sight of the stocky, squarefaced woman in a redfringed shawl standing just inside the room, the blood drained from her own cheeks.
"The Keeper said you wanted to speak me," Silviana said irritably. "About a private penance." Even to the Amyrlin Seat, she made no effort to hide her disgust. Silviana believed private penance a ridiculous affectation. Penance was public; only punishment took place in private. "She also asked me to remind you of something, but she rushed off before saying what." She finished with a snort. Silviana saw anything that took time away from her novices and Accepted as needless interruption.
"I think I remember," Elaida told her dully.
When Silviana finally left - after only half an hour by the chimes of Cemaile's clock, yet an endless eternity - all that kept Elaida from calling the Hall to sit immediately so she could demand Alviarin be stripped of the Keeper's stole were the certainty of her Foretelling and the certainty that Seaine would trace that trail of treason back to Alviarin. That, and the sure fact that whether or not Alviarin fell in the confrontation, she herself definitely would. So, Elaida do Avriny a'Roihan, Watcher of the Seals, the Flame of Tar Valon, the Amyrlin Seat, surely the most powerful ruler in the world, lay facedown on her bed and blubbered into her pillows, too tender to don the shift that lay discarded on the floor, certain that when Alviarin returned, the woman would insist on her sitting through the entire interview. She blubbered, and through her tears she prayed for Alviarin's downfall to come soon.
"I did not tell you to have Elaida... beaten," that voice of crystal chimes said. "Do you rise above yourself?"
Alviarin flung herself from her knees onto her belly before the woman who seemed made of dark shadows and silvery light. Seizing the hem of Mesaana's dress, she rained kisses on it. The weave of Illusion - it must be that, though she could not see a single thread of saidar any more than she could sense the ability to channel in the woman who stood over her - did not hold completely, with her frantically shifting the skirt's edge. Flickers of bronze silk with a thin border of intricately embroidered black scrollwork showed through.
"I live to serve and obey you, Great Mistress," Alviarin panted between kisses. "I know that I am among the lowest of the low, a worm in your presence, and I pray only for your smile." She had been punished once for "rising above herself" - not for disobedience, thanks be to the Great Lord of the Dark! - and she knew that whatever howls Elaida might be raising right then, they could not be half so

Mesaana let the kissing go on for some time, and finally signaled an end by tipping Alviarin's face up with the toe of a slipper beneath the chin. "The decree has gone out." It was not a question, but Alviarin answered hastily.
"Yes, Great Mistress. Copies went to Northharbor and Southharbor even before I had Elaida sign. The first couriers have gone, and no merchant will leave the city without copies to distribute." Mesaana knew all that, of course. She knew everything. A cramp tightened the back of Alviarin's awkwardly craned neck, but she did not move. Mesaana would tell her when to move. "Great Mistress, Elaida is an empty husk. With all humility, would it not be better without the need to use her?" She held her breath. Questions could be dangerous, with the Chosen.
A shadownailed silvery finger tapped silver lips pursed in an amused smile. "Better if you wore the Amyrlin's stole, child?" Mesaana said at last. "An ambition small enough to fit you, but all in its time. For now, I have a tiny task for you. In spite of all the walls that have gone up between the Ajahs, the heads of the Ajahs seem to encounter one another with surprising frequency. By chance, they make it seem. All but the Red, at least; a pity Galina got herself killed, or she could tell you what they are about. Very probably it is trivial, but you will learn why they bare teeth at one another in public, then whisper together in private."
"I hear and obey, Great Mistress," Alviarin replied promptly, grateful that Mesaana considered it unimportant. The great "secret" of who headed the Ajahs was none to her - every Black sister was required to relay to the Supreme Council every whisper inside her supposed Ajah - but only Galina among them had been Black. That meant querying the Black sisters among the Sitters, which meant going through all the layers between them and her. That would take time, and without any certainty of success. Except for Ferane Neheran and Suana Dragand, who were the heads of the their Ajahs, Sitters rarely seemed to know what their Ajah's head was thinking until they were told. "I will tell you as soon as I learn, Great Mistress."
But she did file away a tidbit for herself. Trivial matter or not, Mesaana did not know everything that happened in the White Tower. And Alviarin would keep her eyes open for a sister in bronze skirts bordered on the hem in black scrollwork. Mesaana was hiding herself in the Tower, and knowledge was power.

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