AN: This should not have taken this long, but life has a way of taking over sometimes. The flow still isn't right, but with several reviews in a short span reminding me of it, I'm just going to post what I have. Also, finally made use of the Wheel of Time Wiki, and it is awesome (because paging through 700 pages looking for one name is not).
Disclaimer: Had I written WOT, no way would the series have lasted 14 books. The dialogue at the beginning is lifted from KOD p 735-737, US hardcover edition.
He Shall Set You Free
For such a life-changing event, getting married was such a simple, direct action.
Of course, her husband being who he was, everything had to be twice as complicated as necessary. Tuon was certain that the day she managed to predict his movements in full would be the day after she buried him.
She had several minutes to savor the surprise on every face, Karede no less than Matrim, before the tableau broke. With a dramatic flourish, Matrim removed his hat and stalked over to her. He grabbed at Akein's bridle, and Tuon had to restrain a cool reprimand. This was not the moment.
"Why? I mean, I knew you were going to sooner or later." Tuon hid her surprise at that. Was he so arrogant, or had he had some nudge, as she had? She refocused on Matrim's words with a stern mental rebuke. "…maybe more than like you, and I enjoy kissing you, but you haven't behaved like a woman in love. You're ice half the time and spend most of the rest digging under my skin."
"Love?" Tuon repeated, startled anew. It took her a moment to remember that Matrim was not born to the Blood. As a commoner, he could fancy that love and marriage were paired. Tuon knew better. She had not married Matrim because she loved him, no matter what she thought of his kisses. "Perhaps we will come to love one another, Matrim," if she didn't order him killed across a battlefield first, "but I have always known I would marry to serve the Empire. What do you mean, you knew that I was going to speak the words?"
"Call me Mat."
Her fingers tightened minutely on the reins when he avoided the question. "Your name is Matrim. What did you mean?" Steel entered her voice. She had to know. Why had she never thought to ask why he was pursuing her before this moment? It wasn't awe of the Blood, and it wasn't her appearance: she had known that since the moment he asked how old she was. What had caused him to begin the ceremony, and why hadn't she asked this earlier? Had she taken leave of her senses?
Matrim had the temerity to sigh, as if he were being put upon. "I went through a ter'angreal to somewhere else, another world maybe. The people there aren't really people—they look like snakes—but they'll answer three questions for you, and their answers are always true. One of mine was that I'd marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. But you haven't answered my question. Why now?"
Of all Matrim's stories, this was perhaps the most outlandish. Smiling in spite of herself, Tuon leaned down to knock him on the head. "Your superstitions are bad enough, Matrim, but I won't tolerate lies. An amusing lie, true, but still a lie."
He pretended to be injured, replacing his hat and looking wounded. "It's the Light's own truth! You could learn for yourself if you could make yourself talk to an Aes Sedai. They could tell you about the Aelfinn and Eelfinn."
On cue, one of the marath'damane said, "It could be the truth. The Aelfinn can be reached through a ter'angreal in the Stone of Tear, so I understand, and supposedly they give true answers."
Tuon was more interested in however Matrim had gotten the woman to go along with his story, than with what the woman actually said. She wished to hear his real answer.
"I answered your question, Tuon, so you answer mine," he pressed.
Very well, she would give the stubborn man his wish, and may he choke on it. "You know that damane can tell fortunes?" She paused and waited for his nod before continuing. "I asked Lidya to tell mine just before I landed at Ebou Dar. This is what she said. 'Beware the fox that makes the ravens fly, for he will marry you and carry you away. Beware the man who remembers Hawkwing's face, for he will marry you and set you free. Beware the man of the red hand, for him you will marry and none other.' It was your ring that caught my eye first." She saw him thumb the ring. She had noticed that he seemed to forget it was there on occasion, but she never did the same. "A fox apparently startling two ravens into flight and nine crescent moons. Suggestive, wouldn't you say? And just now you fulfilled the second part, so I knew for certain it was you." Though she still wondered how Matrim could remember Hawkwing's face. And there was the red hand that was apparently the symbol of Matrim's army. She could worry about the third part later.
Selucia made a sound of protest, which Tuon quelled swiftly. PEACE. IT WILL BE WELL. She could reassure her shadow later.
Matrim laughed, and Tuon wondered if he disbelieved her. But his eyes did not dance as they did when he found something humorous. She waited impatiently for an explanation.
"Seems to me being ta'veren works on me as much as it does anybody else." Before Tuon could chide him for his superstitions, he gave his most charming smile. "One more kiss before you leave?"
Tuon could hardly bend to manipulation that blatant in front of the Deathwatch. "I'm not in the mood at the moment. Perhaps later. You could return to Ebou Dar with me. You have an honored place in the Empire now."
She felt gratified that he seemed disappointed when she denied him a kiss, but the pleasure faded when he shook his head. "The next time I see Seanchan, I expect it will be on the field somewhere, Tuon. You're not my enemy, but your Empire is."
There was no reason for the hollow feeling behind her ribcage, she told herself sternly. This was expected. She forced herself to reply, "Nor are you my enemy, husband, but I live to serve the Empire."
"Well, I suppose you'd better get your things…" He paused as Vanin came galloping up, halting his horse next to her. The man spared only a glance for the Deathwatch before reporting, "There's ten thousand or so soldiers at a little town about five miles west of here. Only one man Seanchan, near as I could learn. Rest are Altarans, Taraboners, Amadicians. All mounted. Thing is, they're asking after fellows wearing armor like that." He indicated Karede with the same unconcern he might have reported about turnips. "And rumor says the one of them that kills a girl that sounds a lot like the High Lady gets himself a hundred thousand crowns gold. Their mouths are dripping for it."
Well. That was not welcome news. A little chill went down Tuon's spine, but she suppressed it quickly. This was not the first time someone had tried to kill her, and it would not be the last.
"I can slip past them," Karede avowed.
"And if you can't?" Matrim asked, his voice like a rakan's wing: fragility belying power. "It can't be chance they're this close. They've caught some sniff of you. One more smell might be all it takes to kill Tuon." An interesting analogy, but it cut to the heart of the matter.
"Do you intend to go back on your word?" Even a child could hear the threat in Karede's voice, and Tuon wondered how Matrim would calm him.
Her husband looked anything but calm. He looked at her as a drowning man might look, as if she were oxygen. It was not a comfortable feeling, but she said nothing. This was his choice, and her life was already in his hands.
She saw him make the decision, saw the fire in his eyes, though she couldn't read it. "No. She goes with you. But you leave me a dozen of your Deathwatch Guards and some of the Gardeners. If I'm going to take these people off your back, I need them to think I'm you."
Tuon abruptly felt that she never wanted to face Matrim as an enemy.
It had not taken long at all to pack, since Tuon left most of her things behind. In much less than an hour, she was mounting Akein. She glanced back only once at her husband. He looked more like a lion than ever, stalking about with a fierce determination on his face. The camp had become a buzz of activity, as Matrim's soldiers shifted their efforts from rest and travel to preparing for battle. After the last few weeks, she knew just how competent the Band was. She would not worry.
She turned back around before the camp disappeared behind the trees, distracting herself by conversing with Karede. Her Banner-General's assessment matched with her own—on a superficial level, since no one could truly know Matrim from less than a lifetime of study—though she did not know about his claims of love. Emotion was not a luxury she usually permitted herself.
Even so, she had a notion she was going to miss her husband.
It was nearing evening on the second full day of travel when the Deathwatch they had left behind caught up with them. Their captain brought his mount alongside Karede and bowed from the saddle. In one hand was a bag that was stained on the bottom. "Highness."
"Musenge, what have you to report?" Karede asked. His eyes remained on the road, the trees, and the sky overhead.
"The Prince laid a trap across the road, near a swamp, and sent four deathwatch to the town to draw out the hunters. When they came, the cavalry came up behind them in a classic hammer and anvil. Between the horse, the crossbows, the marath'damane, and the explosive devices, all died. We brought you the traitor's head." Musenge directed his mount with his knees as he drew from the bag the head of Elbar, High Lady Suroth's man. Tuon's thoughts raced as she made conclusions and plans. As fast as the web untangled before her, another was already weaving.
"You have done well, Captain," Tuon pronounced. "Keep it safe, that we may confront the High Lady Suroth with her treachery before witnesses."
"As you say, Highness." He replaced the head in the bag, and tied it shut.
"Captain, what of the Prince?" she asked, her voice dispassionate.
"A most able man, Highness, and a wise one. He refrained from the battle himself, and took only scratches." He paused, then added, "He did not realize his elevation in rank until I told him."
"How did he react?"
Musenge frowned slightly. "He laughed."
Tuon couldn't help a wry smile. That sounded like Matrim. He had been so adamant that he was not a lord. To find that he was now a prince would not have been welcome. She would enjoy instructing him in his responsibilities, when she got the chance.
Riding past the third torn stretch of road in as many days, Karede murmured, "Your husband is a very dangerous man, Highness."
Tuon ran her eyes absently over the holes caused by Matrim's 'dragon eggs' and the dark patches staining the road. "That he is." To whom he posed the most danger was a puzzle Tuon couldn't yet answer, but the fact that he was dangerous was not in question.
"When I spoke to Banner-General Loune, we surmised the mastermind might be one Thom Merrilin."
That made Tuon smile. "Master Merrilin is many dangerous things, but a military genius is not one of them." The old man was certainly a spy, a fine stones-player, and a cunning director of crowds; but hardly a general. He had been as bewildered by some of Matrim's master strokes as the marath'damane, or Olver.
"That makes the Prince all the more frightening," Karede remarked. "To direct a campaign of this magnitude, with only eight thousand men, unaided and at his age…when he has gained some experience, he will surely out-plan the greatest generals on this side of the Aryth Ocean."
IF HE LIVES SO LONG, Selucia signed with a sniff.
"I am certain you are correct," Tuon agreed mildly, not clarifying to whom she was speaking. They were both right.
"In that case, I hope he's at your side when it happens," Karede stated solemnly. "I do not relish the thought of trying to defeat him."
"He would make a much better ally than an enemy," was all Tuon would say on the matter.
When not held to the pace of plodding wagons or early stops at every hamlet and town, the distance to Ebou Dar seemed much shorter. The time passed much more quickly, at least, as Tuon directed her attention to Akein's reins and Banner-General Karede's report on what she had missed.
The dying wildlife was hardly a distraction at all. And if every time she stroked Akein's neck she thought of Matrim, wondering where he was now…it was only a few wasted moments out of all the hours in a day.
If her hand strayed to stroke the rosebuds pinned to her dress a dozen times a day, no one mentioned it.
Ebou Dar looked as it had from the day Tuon had landed to take over the Corenne, but there was a feeling to the air of some great portent. Tuon straightened in her saddle and barely resisted the urge to run a hand over her scalp.
Then she saw the buzzard sitting quietly on the roof of the gatehouse, and her heart went to ice.
She did not have to say a word to discover the news on every tongue: the Empress had been assassinated.
Her mother, her sovereign, was dead.
Like pebbles dropping heavily into a still pool came the rest of the news. The deaths of all her family back in Seandar. The reaction of High Lady Suroth and Captain-General Galgan. The disappearance of soe'feia Anath.
She heard and listened, as was her duty, but everything paled beside the knowledge that the rock of her world had crumbled.
But no, that was incorrect. She had two stones remaining to serve as support. One was the Empire, and her service to it. As the only remaining Paendrag, it was her duty to stand strong. It was under the mantle of duty that she commanded her escort to halt and find ashes with which to adorn their cheeks. Duty drove her to push on to the palace and straight to deal with the former High Lady. Her steps, her voice, her eyes were all aimed toward her duty to the Empire.
She would not allow her thoughts to stumble over the other.
AN: Completely did not expect this to end the way it did. I was going to take it through the end of KOD, but Tuon insisted this was the stopping point. As my muses have all disappeared, I am forced to bow to the wishes of my character.
Edit, 8/25/12. Changed the last line with some help from Zorpisuttle to be less confusing.
Also, if anyone reading this is arty, I would love a pic for this story :)