Author's Note: The moral of the following is never write when you're bored. I apologise for the complete lack of inspiration or relevance. Plot? We Don't Need No Steeking Plot. You have been warned.
Disclaimer: I own nothing affiliated with Robert Jordan's work. Gutted.
A Time to Dance
Mat stalked down the hallway, scowling as he snagged at the collar of his shirt. The flaming thing was choking him blue and the buttoned waist was nearly as snug. Bloody Rand and his 'try to dress appropriately'. He knew what that meant; Mat, truss yourself up like a Bel Tine goose and try to blend with the bland, sweaty, faceless bloody nobles.
He turned into a corridor walled entirely by mirrors. Mirrors! Polished glass cast a troop of surly Mat Cauthons, as if he actually needed reminding of his appearance. His stiff, white collars were fashionably lofty, the starched material scuffing his chin whenever he moved his head - his bearing was like one of those detestable lordlings; neck rigid, chin forced high, eyes hooded when someone a mere hair shorter addressed him. Bad luck, then, that he was mired in Cairhien, city of the most stunted people he had ever met.
His coat was little better although the colour, an emerald deep enough to mimic black, was passable. The chambermaid had simpered how it brought out the 'dazzle' in his eyes, probably to soften his grimace as she choked the collar around his throat. He had refused to blush at that, despite the prime view of her bosom and the small matter she was old enough to be his maiden aunt.
Stitched on the sleeves was a swirl of silver scrollwork, busy enough to make his eyes ache. Worse still, both cuffs were drooling with lace, making him perform strange flips of his wrist to stop the white froth flopping over his hands. He felt like the biggest of fools, like the court fops he had seen in the Palace at Andor, all simpering smiles and wafting 'kerchiefs. Well, there would be no smiles from Mat Cauthon tonight. He may be dressed like a bloody simpleton but he certainly wasn't about to go around acting like one.
A pleasantly plump young maid rushed past, pausing only to bob a curtsey and squeak an apology. Mat smiled as he watched her scamper down the hallway, the mirrors winking the pretty effects of her hurry on that low-cut dress.
The smile withered as he again met his own reflection. He gave small thanks that the coat was long enough to cover his snug breeches - there was only so much humiliation a man could take. Mat flurried a hand through his hair, ruining the efforts of the chambermaids enthusiastic brushing, and managed an impudent grin. At least his head looked like it belonged to him.
With a forlorn sigh, he turned and walked to the doors.
They swung wide with a dramatic flourish and the ballroom sighed a breath of perfume, incense and spoiled flowers. Mat glared at the pug-faced concierge. 'Don't even think about it.'
The portly man's mouth snapped shut with a click.
There was a scatter of mutters as Mat stomped down the polished steps without so much of a squeak as announcement. He glimpsed Rand amongst the gaggle of gawping nobles and headed towards the man as quickly as the treacherous floor would allow.
Nynaeve was glaring at him as he approached, her eyes narrowed, foot tapping the lacquered floor. She looked good, appealing almost. Not that he would say that aloud, of course; his face wasn't that pretty but it was the only one he had.
He dredged a smile. 'Cheery as ever, Wisdom?'
'Have I any reason to be?' The look she threw Rand was pure venom.
'I should think so, Nynaeve.' Rand smiled, seemingly oblivious to her glower. 'After all, it's always heartening to see old friends.'
Rand held out and arm and Mat hated the hesitation that filled him before he returned the gesture. The brand felt stark against his skin as they shook hands and not even the fashionably long sleeves could hide the shining serpent curved around Rand's wrist.
He forced a smile, certain all would see the effort it caused him, before turning to the blooming creature at Rand's side.
Perhaps blooming wasn't the best way to describe Elayne; burgeoning might have been more accurate but enormous was the first word that sprang to Mat's mind. The Daughter Heir of Andor looked pale and tired but there was an air of calm about her, a tranquility that made her look very young yet strangely ageless in a way that had nothing to do with being Aes Sedai.
Mat bent to kiss her hand, trying to ignore the glint of the Great Serpent ring hovering under his nose.
'Master Cauthon,' she murmured, her blue eyes shining. 'It is good to see that you have left at least some of your less refined qualities at the door.'
'It is a pleasure seeing you again, my lady.' That was not strictly true but she seemed less snooty than their last encounter. The prospect of motherhood must have been agreeing with her.
'And you, Wisdom? Can you stop scowling long enough to give me a decent greeting?'
Nynaeve's glare bored into him at him for a few, long moments before finally softening into something close to warmth.
'You've lost weight,' she declared with a sniff. 'There's hardly anything left of you.'
'You think so, Nynaeve?' Elayne chimed. 'If anything, I'd say he's been indulging a little too much.'
Three sets of eyes lingered on his belt. He caught himself sucking in his stomach before realising the absurdity of it all. He would not be baited. He would not.
Rand's smile was broad. 'Be polite, ladies. Remember what they used to say in the Two Rivers? If you can't think of anything nice to say—'
'Then you've obviously already met this charming pair.' Mat finished.
Strangely, there were no explosions, just a roll of the eyes from Elayne and an almost indulgent smile from Nynaeve. Anyone would think the two enjoyed his pithy remark. Women, he thought for the countless time, were odd.
'Is there anything to drink around here? A man could die of thirst.' He took in the sultry ballroom, the glint of gold at oiled throats, the chime of crystal in gem-studded fingers, the sway and whirl of the dance. Spying a young man lofting a carafe of dark wine, he arrowed through the throng. Before the fellow poised to fill a goblet, Mat grasped the decanter, flashed a placating smile, and headed back to the group.
Rand was shaking his head. 'Do you have to make such a spectacle of yourself?'
'Not really, no.' He poured himself a glass as something occurred to him. 'How come Perrin's missing all the fun?'
Rand's eyes were on him - chill, unblinking.
Light, Rand, no. Not here, not now. I don't want to be around when you finally go crazy....
'Why don't you try and speak with him, Mat?'
Mat swallowed past the ache in his throat, his collar suddenly noose-tight.
'I think you should. He must feel uncomfortable in here. With us.' Rand murmured, gaze now fixed on the shadowed balcony.
He was about to advise the taller man - as gently as possible of course - that Perrin was nowhere to be seen when a flash of burnished gold shone in the darkness.
Mat could almost see something there, etched in moonlight, something large and hunched....
'If you get any of that on my new dress, Mat Cauthon, the Light help me I'll—'
Mat leapt from the stream of wine bubbling over his cup, snatched a napkin, and stamped it over the red pool at Elayne's slippers. Crimson bled into the white silk.
Rand was staring at the ruby-stained cloth, those colourless eyes at once calm and raging. 'Go talk to him.'
Mat ducked a nod before trudging for the veranda, the overflowing cup in his grip.
The cool breeze stirred his hair as he stepped onto the balcony. He could make out the shape of a figure silhouetted against the full moon; bulky shoulders, a mess of curly hair. 'Perrin?'
The figure rested broad hands on the balustrade but didn't turn.
Mat leaned against a carved pillar. 'Fancy a drink?'
A low chuckle made him shiver.
'That's your answer to everything, Mat, not mine.' The dark laugh trailed into growl. 'It is good to see you.'
'I'd say the same, if I could see you in all this bloody dark.' He gulped at the wine. It was good – warm and rich. 'Are you all righ—?'
'She's dead. Nothing can make that all right.'
Mat winced. 'Light, you have no idea how sorry....I can't understand how you must....blood and bloody ashes, I really am sorry.'
'Of course you are. Everybody is.' Large, golden eyes tilted to him. 'With a little of your luck I will join her when all this is over.'
Mat picked at a spray of moss and wished he hadn't come here, that he had stayed with the giggling chambermaid or visited the dockside with his dice cup, perhaps taken Olver to see the strange street performers eddying through the city. Luck or no, my friend, I have the feeling we will all have joined her before this madness is finished....
Another laugh trembled the air. 'Light, sometimes I can hardly believe....I thought Rand was supposed to be the one going mad. That was the deal, wasn't it?'
'That was the deal.' Mat agreed before draining his cup, too numb to savour its taste.
They stood in silence, away from the pretence, from smeared grins and shrill laughter so different from a world where the only worries were wan harvests and sick livestock.
Then, almost in response to his thoughts;
'Do you ever miss it, Mat?'
Mat closed his eyes, hating the dry laugh that hacked from his throat. 'What, mucking out cow dung in the rain? What kind of fool do you take me for?'
He could feel them on him, gold so clear, so bright, he was sure it would pierce the truth huddled within.
'Good. That's good, Mat. I am glad for you.'
Mat felt something cool and metallic press into his palm.
Perrin had long melted into the crowd before Mat looked at what he had been given. The flask glinted in the moonlight, sighed the tang of brandy into the night air.
Mat lifted silver to his lips and drank long and deep.
He shook his head, his golden eyes lighting on anything but her; the mirrors, the tapestries, the doors at the end of the hall.
She pressed her palms to his chest, felt his heartbeat, wild and strong.
'Amyrlin.' His voice was glottal with scorn. 'Let me by.'
Helplessly, she stepped aside and watched Perrin lope from the corridor.
He had refused to talk to her all day, had almost snarled at her each time she approached. It pained her to see gentle, quiet Perrin transformed so. She caught herself twisting the Great Serpent ring and forced herself to stop. It was a habit she had been performing often of late; another troubling thought.
She saw his reflection first, countless refractions of him dominating the corridor. He was smiling.
'Good evening, Rand.' It was an effort to stop her suddenly damp palms from smoothing her skirts. 'I trust you are well.'
'Now is that any way to greet an old friend?'
She turned as he stepped closer, close enough for her to smell his cologne. His white collars were unbuttoned. Sweat glistened at his throat.
'Friend? Is that what I am to you?'
'Tonight you are whatever you wish to be, just like all my dearest companions.' A smile tugged his lips. 'True, Perrin prefers his own company of late and Mat has no doubt found some other amusement; bed, brandy, women.' He smiled airily. 'Perhaps all three. But what about you, Amyrlin? Will you leave after the first dance?'
'I did not come here to dance.'
'Then why did you come?'
'For Mat and Perrin. For old friends.'
'For the sake of old times?'
'Perhaps it's time they were forgotten, for everyones sake.'
Rand shook his head. 'You truly believe that, Egwene.'
'I have to.'
His parting smile was almost sorrowful. She watched him return to his playthings in the garnished hall, his shoulders broad and unbowed for all the weight upon them.
Her own path took her in a different direction.
She drew deeply of the night air as the awning opened to the well-tended grounds - a little too well-tended, in her opinion. Nothing flourished in this place, nothing wild or free. Roses were coerced to scale rigid trellises, hedges and trees clipped into dense puffs of foliage, flowerbeds neat squares of uniform hues and height; it was almost as stifling as what awaited her inside.
Trees tangled stars in stiff branches as caged flowers released their scent, luring lacewings to their dark, secret hearts. She tugged her stole tightly about her as she padded across the clipped lawn, the grass spotting her silk slippers with crystal dew.
She could hear sounds from within, tongues rasping false mirth and platitudes. Sighing, she dropped onto a low bench and stirred the grass with the tip of her slipper.
'You look like someone having fun.'
The voice was light but startled her all the same. 'What are you doing here?' she snapped.
'Nice to bloody see you too.' Mat flopped onto the grass. 'Even if you have got a face to scare a thunderstorm.'
Mat grinned as he twirled something between his fingers. It was the stem of a flower, a small, pale daisy. In spite of everything, she almost smiled; trust Mat to find the one rogue in the garden. She was even less surprised to catch a faint waft of alcohol.
'Haven't you had enough of that?'
Mat swigged at a silver flask then grimaced. 'I have to drink it; it was a gift. I wouldn't want to be rude.'
Egwene sighed. 'Who gave it to you?'
'Oh. Perrin.' Mat's smile faltered before he hitched it higher still and added in a too-bright voice. 'I thought he looked quite well, considering.'
'How are you, Mat?'
She thought that might take him aback; she wasn't disappointed. He wavered, momentarily disarmed. 'I'm all right. Well, as right as I bloody can be.'
Then, as though his admission had somehow been her fault;
'Anyway, don't go playing those Amyrlin tricks on me. I knew you before all this, remember? Always bawling because Rand wouldn't let you come on one of our expeditions.'
'Expeditions? Disasters, more like. And I was crying—' She tossed a lock of hair from her brow. 'I was upset because someone dropped a beetle in my hair.'
'Ladybird.' Mat corrected in a smug voice.
'Let's not drag all that up.'
'Why not? That's why Rand's got us here, isn't it? So we could all dance around our titles, play at being bloody friends.'
''Play'? Is that how you see it, Mat?'
'Light, that's rich! Between you and Rand I hardly know where the Amyrlin ends and the bloody Dragon begins.'
'That's not fair.'
'Maybe, but don't accuse me of playing games. Don't you dare.'
He didn't look nearly so drunk now. His eyes were dark, sleek with scorn.
'I think I'll go inside.'
She paused when Mat placed a gentle hand on her arm.
'I'm sorry.' A placating smile. 'Besides, it's hot in there.'
'I am a little warm.' Fanning herself to prove the point, she settled back onto the bench. Surprisingly, Mat lowered himself beside her.
They sat in silence for a few moments, Mat swigging from the flask and she enjoying the stillness of the evening. Somewhere, a nightlark cried its open-throated sorrow then the silence surged softly back.
'The Serpent.' Mat announced finally.
She frowned before following his gaze. The stars were bright tonight, their glimmers like a spray of frozen sparks.
'My da taught me their names.' His grin was rueful. 'I've probably forgotten most of them now.'
'I see the Vixen. And the Bull.' Egwene paused as her cheeks grew hot. She, too, remembered learning the secrets of the stars;
She had spied them, late one night, followed as they sneaked to Dells Common. The three boys had lain in a row, pointing and tracing patterns in the studded sky, their low words and laughter floating to her secret hollow beneath the silver elm. How she had longed to call to them, anxious to learn and share their discoveries. But fear had stayed her tongue; who would have wanted an intruder in their games? And a female one at that!
'You seem to know a lot about them.' Mat's grin was suddenly sly.
Then he murmured something that smothered her prim retort;
'I knew you were there, you know. Oh, not just the star-gazing either,' he breezed, seemingly relishing her scandalised expression. 'The river, the dens, the brackens....I knew you followed us.'
'Why didn't you say anything?'
'It didn't take a Wisdom to figure out why you were there. Rand was too flaming timid to see it. Perrin wouldn't have recognised it if he had.'
'Then how did you...?'
'Because you were always blundering around like a sunstruck boar.' But his grin looked forced now, a pale glint in the moonlight.
'Did you ever tell them?'
She didn't know why his answer pleased her, why she would have wanted him to keep it to himself.
Her shawl had slipped a little. The cool air prickled her bare shoulders and she absently hitched the striped stole higher.
'The tree,' she murmured, almost to herself. 'That's how you found out. When you fell in the orchard, I was the one who ran and fetched Nynaeve.'
'I remember.' He smiled. 'You thought you were the bloody hero of the harvest.'
'I suppose you saw me dart from the ferns. I was watching to see how many apples you could pick before old Cenn caught you.'
Mat grunted. 'Did you know I got a whipping for that? 'Course, they waited for my leg to heal first.'
'That was nice of them.' She was smiling now, couldn't help it. It had been so long since she thought of anything other than the threat of what lay ahead. Mat wore a smile too, though marred by a strange, bitter tilt she couldn't decipher.
'What is it?'
His look was long and measuring. 'I knew you were there before you went haring for help.'
'Really,' she scorned. 'And I suppose you were trying to reach that top-most branch because of m—'
There was not a trace of humour about Mat now. His eyes were very earnest, very large and very much fixed on hers. Something like sorrow welled in her as he shrugged and mustered a wan grin.
'I never knew.'
He shrugged again. 'Why should you? You were too busy making calf-eyes at Rand.'
She was about to reply when a scatter of applause sounded from the hall. A long, low note drawled from a dulcimer and then the music began. It was an old tune, an ancient country air oft spun out at Bel Tine. Instantly, she knew Rand had chosen it. No one outside the Two Rivers would even remember.
Unable to meet Mat's gaze, Egwene rose and walked to the fountain.
Moonstruck sprays glittered like a fall of diamonds, spackled the dark pool with shining gems. Beneath the surface, golden fish circled and swayed to the fountain's secret song.
She trailed her hand through the cool water. 'I'm sorry.'
'For what?' Mat had perched himself on the stone coping, his eyes studying the languid ripples in the pool.
'I don't know.'
'That you missed out on kissing me?'
'Perhaps that I was your first love,' she teased back.
'Love?' Mat's rich laugh warmed her. 'Hardly that.'
He gazed at her through the veil of silvery water, eyes wide and dark as her own.
'It was a long time ago.'
'Too long,' she murmured. 'A thousand lifetimes ago.'
His sudden chuckle was almost like the Mat of old. 'If someone had told me one day I'd be having this conversation with the Amyrlin Seat—'
'You'd have laughed in their face?'
'Actually, I'd have pitched for the hills.'
He was still grinning as he spread his coat on the grass and rested there, hands pillowing his head.
After a moment, she joined him on soft velvet beneath a satin sky.
'You know, Mother, sometimes it seems the stars were brighter in Emonds Field.'
'I think they were, Mat.' She found and claimed his hand in the darkness. 'I really think they were.'
A/N - Well, I did warn you boredom was bad for creativity.