Disclaimer: I own nothing, NOTHING!
A/N: You know the drill, just enjoy. Real characters for once, imagine that. I'll claim this as an AU just to be safe and in the grand tradition of fanfiction, Mat never lost an eye. At least so my creative license says… see right there on the bottom.
The Thin Line, Chapter One.
He turned the rare gold mark over in his hands once more, pretending he did not care which side of the coin faced him. It was newly minted, something that they had only begun doing in the last year. They had begun replacing the individual currencies of Tarabon, Arad Doman, Amadicia and Altara with one standard set of coinage. It was especially rare, this deep in Cairhien, to come across one. A Seanchan gold mark.
He brought the wine to his lips, savoring the taste of fruit dancing on his tongue once more, as he bent forward to catch to the light. The gold glittering in his palm revealed a hawk in flight with a crescent moon in the distance. The creature looked proud, defiant. And well it should, considering that a golden hawk in flight is the Seanchan Imperial sigil. He grunted sourly at that. 'Bloody people, two and a half years after the Last Battle and now their making flaming coins? Don't they have enough on their plate with war along almost every boarder they possessed?' Still, knowing the Seanchan as he did, he shouldn't have been surprised. They were nothing if not organized.
The fact they were doing it spoke volumes though. Two and a half years since the truce with al'Thor ended, two and a half years of the White Tower trying to throw them back into the ocean and the flaming sons of goats had not budged. They weren't going anywhere. If anything they became more entrenched with each passing month, each passing year. The truth was he had no idea how to feel about that, no idea exactly how he did feel. Part of him wanted nothing less than every last Seanchan dead, every last army destroyed, every abomination that they called customs obliterated. He wanted the last most of all.
He turned the coin over in his now shaking hands, from anger he tried to tell himself, and faced the reason that he was confused. A pale likeness of his wife's face stared up at him with her new named etched across the bottom, the word empress across the top. He cared little for that though, to him she would always be Tuon. In truth it looked almost nothing like her, but some details were just so that every time he even glimpsed it the face of the woman he had not seen in three years bloomed to life in his mind. That heart shaped face with the large liquid brown eyes and that dazzling smile. He would see her delight when he gave her the razor, and her anger at been thought of as a thieving servant. Each equally beautiful, at least to him.
'The face of his wife, the face of the woman he had been avoiding like the plague', he thought, then immediately winced before taking a long swallow of wine. He had been trying to convince himself that the reason he lived in Cairhien was that it was as far away from the fighting as he could possibly get – you could get holes poked in you when there was fighting about – and that it was just a … coincidence that the same distance existed between himself and Tuon. Some day's it was a happy coincidence, others it tore him apart. He could still smile at pretty women, dance with them even, but they never felt right in his arms. None of them managed to spin his head just so. Burn the bloody woman.
However odd their …engagement, and subsequent marriage, had been he had no delusions. He was most defiantly a married man, or at the very least spoken for. No matter how much he might wish it to be different, there was no getting away from this one. But there was one thing that stood in the way of him been an even remotely happily married man, a small matter of her Light forsaken Empire. 'And, let's not forget, her duties as the Empress' he added sourly. He remembered his parting words to her, what seemed so long ago, some of his last words to her, "You're not my enemy, but your empire is." He always marveled at how true that had actually become. He had thought that he would be fighting the Seanchan in Rand's name; events three months later at Tar Valon had change that, it became personal. The irony of the situation never ceased to amaze him; the same events stayed his hand.
Quickly deciding that he did not want this coin anymore he sat back in his chair and surveyed the common room of The Nine Rings from his table that was neatly tucked away in the corner. His eyes drifted over the musicians that played near the center of the room, there soft music filling the room. Over the dice game in the opposite corner that held little interest for him, what use did he have for coppers? And caught the eye of one of the serving maids, which was quite difficult considering that night was falling outside and the place was really beginning to fill up. After a moment's hesitation the girl, he had forgotten her name, he didn't see the point in remembering it these days anyway, started making her way through the crowd with a new bottle of wine in her hand.
When he carelessly tossed the gold mark on her serving trey, her far too wide smile and suggestive wink was replaced with a squawk before her stuttering voice came to him, "W..will th-at be all m'lord?" He suppressed the urge wince at that title before he offered a weak smile in return and a nod of assent. It had taken him a long time to learn that the more he denied been a Lord, the more the pattern seemed to want to make him into one. He simply tried to ignore it now; she had only used that title because he was a man with gold after all. At least he hoped that was all there was too it. The moment he caught himself acting like a bloody lord is the moment he fully intended to throw himself out the nearest window. 'Preferably one from a great height' he added dryly.
He filled his cup and took a long swallow as he admitted the truth to himself. No matter what way you look at it flaming Matrim Cauthon was a lord. 'Lord General Matrim Cauthon, if you please'. Both inside and outside of the Seanchan Empire, Light how he hated that. When it had become clear he had no intention of moving the Band of the Red Hand out of Southern Cairhien, where they had been recovering since the last battle, to face the Seanchan invaders, the bloody fools at the Sun Palace had begun offering him estates in the hopes that he would stay. Twenty thousand soldiers did a lot for national security after all. He had flatly refused.
The only result was to have them come back with an offer of even more estates; apparently a lot of Cairhien nobles had died. He had been about to refuse again when Talmanes had calmly informed him that unless he planned on leaving Cairhien, and with the Band, they would not stop. The chance to tie a great general to their nation was something they could not ignore, especially in these times. Talmanes words, not his. Having absolutely no intention of going to war he had grudgingly accepted. Those estates had turned out to be rich indeed, though he let Talmanes do most of the Lording. He was a Cairhien lord by birth after all. He divided his time equally between his troops and common rooms. With his scar removed by an Asha'man named Flinn, he could simply leave his hat, scarf and ashandarei behind, and enter a common room and be left alone, nobodies lord. It was something he needed a lot of these days. His hand reached up and touched his medallion through his shirt, he never left that behind.
Outside of the Band few could understand his reluctance to fight the Seanchan and didn't hold back in letting him know it. They could burn for all he cared. The Band thought they knew, word had spread that he had married a High Lady, if not exactly how high. Somehow they had worked miracles in keeping that information from anyone that did not wear the Red Hand; even new recruits felt the need to keep that secret. Three oaths from three grateful Aes Sedai managed to limit the knowledge in the White Tower. The truth however, was far more complicated. Talmanes and Daerid knew it all, and understood. From her silence, even after the Band had grown in number to over fifty thousand and the war continued unabated, he suspected that Egwene knew.
It had started, as most things had seemed to since he left Edmonds field, with a simple choice. He was marching with the Band towards the Tower of Ghenjei when word had come that the Seanchan had struck directly at Tar Valon. The result had been unexpected. The Seanchan, under the command of his wife, had attacked those outside the walls first and managed to capture or kill about a third of the women present in that camp. The rest had fled to the one place they felt must not fall, the White Tower. It was probably the one thing that could force them to do so. He was not sure what had happened next, few outside of Aes Sedai themselves were, but the end result was a deposed Elaida and Egwene raised as Amyrlin of a united Tower. There were rumors of fighting in the Tower itself, between Aes Sedai, between Ajah even, but no sister he had spoken to since had been very forthcoming. Soon after Rand had forge a truce that would not outlive him, though it was never intended to, and the Seanchan had returned to Altara. They had taken their prizes with them however.
The choice had been between two women, one Aes Sedai and one that would be in the future. One that he had already promised he would save and one that he couldn't not. It was the first time in his life that he seriously considered breaking his word. To continue with Thom and save Moiraine Damodred from the bloody snakes and foxes or to head north as quickly as possible and pray that his wife listened to reason so that he could save-.
The sound of gasps rippled around the room, the music that had been flowing constantly trailed off in a few sharp, disjointed notes. More than one chair could be heard scrapping against the floor boards as men stood. As silence descended Mat looked to the door and almost choked on his wine. Every eye watched as Talmanes and Daerid made there way into the inn, everyone knew who they were. Only two people in the Band of the Red Hand wore those uniforms, the Red Hand on there breasts and the three tassels on each shoulder. The uniform that only the commanders of his Grand-Legions could wear. The six tassels indicated that they commanded two grand legions each. In this part of Cairhien they were unmistakable and were held in extremely high regard. Some of the standing fools even saluted. The Band of the Red Hand had earned quite a reputation, something about never losing a battle.
He might have put up with some of that, had they not started walking straight towards him the moment they caught sight of him. 'Can I not even get away for one Bloody night? Do they always have to drag me back?' he thought incredulously, though anger began to creep in towards the end. Both came to a stop before him and he noticed that they wore small smiles. Immediately he became suspicious, Talmanes almost never smiled. Before he could motion them to a seat they offered small bows, and as realization sunk in the gasps could be heard again, louder this time. He ground his teeth and seriously considered throwing the bottle of wine at them. Since when did they bow? To him? "I suppose you have a good explanation for this?" he asked darkly.
The room remained silent, every ear straining to hear what passed between General Cauthon and his commanding officers. It was Talmanes that answered; surprisingly his smile had not left his face at Mats tone. "Of course, my lord," he was one to keep up appearances, "we know you gave orders not to be disturbed but we thought you would make an exception for this. Two hours ago an Aes Sedai came riding into camp demanding to see you, claiming she had a message from the Amyrlin Seat. After much … persuasion we managed to convince her we could deliver any message that she had, if we deemed it important enough." He reached behind him, produced a letter from somewhere and preceded to hand it straight to him, "She gave me this, but not before telling us basically what it contained."
He did not say he thought it was important, he had no need. To reach here from where he had left them was at least a two hour ride, more even. They would have had to bring extra horses. Apprehensively he took the letter and for a time simply stared at the unbroken wax seal. The Flame of Tar Valon stared back at him. Nervously he looked up at them, "Why don't you take a seat?"
They shared a brief glance before Daerid answered simply, quietly, "We won't be staying long." Talmanes nodded agreement. He didn't know how to respond to that.
There were only a few things that Egwene would write to him about and both hope and dread surged within him. Dread because, however unreasonable, it might be about Tuon and Egwene might be writing to inform him of some triumph. Something began to shrivel inside of him at that thought. And hope…, hope for the very same reason. With shaking hands he broke the seal and began to read.
As I sit here writing this I start with joy and yet, after only writing your name, I am troubled. I can't help but wonder whether you will feel slighted that I did not begin the letter 'Lord General Matrim Cauthon'. It is your due, of course, but I could not bring myself to do it. The man I remember would have scoffed the moment he saw it, yet now I cannot be sure that you do not scoff at the absence of a title. It saddens me deeply. After growing up with you, I feel I now do not know you at all. The distance you have put between yourself and those that were - are - your friend's has seen to that. Though Rand seemed to understand before the end, he never shared what he knew.
I do not know your reasons for shutting out Elayne and Nynaeve, both of whom I know for a fact are as saddened as I am, even thought Nynaeve won't openly admit it, but I think I know why I haven't seen you in over two years. I failed to protect her, I failed in my duty.
When the Seanchan attacked the Tower I was the Amyrlin, at least at the time I was her Amyrlin. She followed me. And …and when the Seanchan came I let them collar her, or at least I didn't do enough to prevent it. It was my actions, my decisions the lead to her been in the place she was. Like all the other novices they took that day I lead them like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter. It was my course that lead to that result, that lead to Bodewhin begin leashed. At least that is how you must see it.
It was wise of you not to try to free her yourself when I sent you word. Although you had success once, which the Tower thanks you for, twice would have been far less likely. Besides, rescuing Moiraine was vital to the result at Shayol Ghul, vital to Rand. As hard as it is for me to even think, let alone write, you made the right choice in not going after your sister personally.
It is this that I believe has driven a wedge between us, more so than my title. The knowledge that Aes Sedai led your sister out of Edmonds Field and it resulted in her been made a damane. And I think we both know what that entitles. Knowing I could do little to sooth your anger I left you alone and forbid any Aes Sedai from interfering with the Band of The Red Hand. Thought I always held out hopes that we could reconcile, I let you be. Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning of the letter, my joy and with it my hopes of our relationship been mended. At least starting to be mended.
Three nights ago an advanced scouting party, out on an expedition deep into the disputed boarders of Amadicia, made contact with a Seanchan patrol. My reports claim that they stumbled onto each other accidentally and the result was a nasty skirmish. Two of my Aes Sedai died, along with thirty of the soldiers that where accompanying them. The Seanchan patrol was destroyed but more importantly, three damane were captured.
I have the great pleasure of informing you that Bodewhin has been returned to us. Though she only responds to Rita, and acts like any other woman that has been collared for too long, it is her. She was brought to the Tower yesterday, where we could begin her rehabilitation. I looked in on her personally; she is uninjured, healthy and strong. With time, and much care, I am confident she will return to who she once was. I hope this news brings you as much joy as it brought me. You are welcome to come see her at any time and I do hope you will visit soon, though for a time she will not be as you remember her.
By the end he had to have been smiling like a bloody idiot, but he didn't care. Bode was free. And with her freedom, all his reservations about attacking the Seanchan were ground to dust. After all, how could he order an attack, any attack, if it contained even the smallest chance that he was ordering the death of his sister? The letter contained other interesting tidbits but for the moment he didn't care, he could focus on nothing other than the fact that Bode was free. Egwene had been wrong on one point; he had tried to free Bode, though after the Last Battle. The truth was that it was impossible to find a particular damane in the empire. The only person with that kind of power was Tuon and there was no way she would have ever helped him. He had been forced to abandon his search and had consequently abandoned his wife. His two commanders were the only ones aware of his attempt.
Carefully tucking the priceless letter into his coat pocket, he finished the last of his wine, stood and met his commanders questioning gaze. They of all people would know exactly what this meant. With a solemn nod, to which both men look relived, he moved past them and began making his way through the far-to-silent common room to the door. Every gaze, from the musicians, to the patrons, to the serving maids followed him. The only sound other than his footsteps been that of the crackling in the hearth as the fire roared. He had absolutely no interest in explaining however, he simply caught the startled innkeepers gaze and said impatiently, "I'll need my bloody horse."
Behind him he heard Talmanes murmur, most probably to Daerid, "And so the Band of the Red Hand begins the march to war once more." He had no idea how true that was. While thoughts of Bode had stopped him fighting the Seanchan, it had not stopped him planning what he would do if he could. All he needed to do now was be careful, he had read histories and lived them, over a thousands years of them. All too often they were wrong and the last thing he wanted was for this to be recorded as a lovers spat. That had to be avoided at all costs.
First he needed to find Aludra, he had a promise to fulfill to that woman that he had not had time for in the past. A cold smile graced his face, when Tuon learned what he was about she would curse the day she ever laid eyes on Matrim Cauthon. Chuckling at the thought of his wife pulling out nonexistent hair, he let the cool air rush over his face as he stepped out into the night. It was not until two days later that he found that bloody coin in his saddle bags along with a note stating that they could not accept his money. All he could do was laugh.
A/N: Anyway I hope it was a fun read.