Telling Them Apart
She was left by Atherie Sedai in the southern reaches of Ghealdan. Atherie's second Warder had come galloping up as if he'd had a pack of Darkhounds at his heels, and after a few quick words Atherie shouted a final instruction and spurred her horse away.
Which left Yamela alone in the snowfall, near a little town called Wesseron. Certainly, she knew what to do. She had been reviewed on the situation and given detailed instructions on what their role in Wesseron would be, but she'd expected to follow an experienced Aes Sedai around, not to carry out the entire affair on her own.
Well. She soothed her mare – the animal pawed the ground and snorted and wanted to follow Atherie's destrier. Yamela took heart, reminding herself that she wasn't completely alone; she had Anthared. Anthared wasn't new to the ways of the world, or to the actions of Aes Sedai.
"Well." She watched the departing Atherie until the falling snow had made her nothing but a distant, dark shadow. "I suppose there's nothing for it but to get this over with."
"As you say, Yamela Sedai," Anthared agreed with a formal nod.
"I've got saddle sores big enough to house dinner parties," she muttered. "Let's begin by finding a decent inn."
They dismounted when they passed the town gate, and Yamela took the horses' reins while Anthared prowled at her shoulder. Despite his age he still moved like a hunting cat, lithe and fierce. So many strangers in her close proximity made him nervy, and the feeling leaked through the bond to prod at her own equanimity. She tried her best to ignore it and focused outward instead of inward, but outward wasn't much more comforting. The snow had grown heavy, and the darkness deep: a sickle moon shone above but offered little illumination, and the street lamps fluttered weakly yellow and red.
And it didn't take long before her Warder leaned in toward her ear and informed her that they were being followed.
"Atherie told me to expect that," Yamela replied, and steadied the excited thrill that scurried up her spine with a deep breath. "Bring whoever it is to me."
Anthared slipped quietly into a shadow. She felt exposed without him at her shoulder, but she could still sense him through the bond and knew he wouldn't go far. He wouldn't let himself lose sight of her. She kept on walking, hand on the hilt of the sword she carried, horses trailing behind. She was clad in her stoutest winter riding habit, fur-trimmed green wool with embroidery at the cuffs and up her arms, and fine leather gloves over her fingers. Though modest by Aes Sedai standards she felt well-dressed and elegant. It was easy to feign confidence.
Anthared's bond told her when he had completed his task. She dropped the horses' reins – and they stopped right where they were, one of them snorting in surprise. Yamela stepped into a side alley and waited. A moment later Anthared nudged past the horses and came in after her, dragging a teenage girl by the scruff of her neck.
"This was following you," Anthared informed her, shoving the girl in between them.
"Was she, now?" murmured Yamela, wrapped in her best Aes Sedai cool. She snapped her fingers to call forth a globe of white light, better to see the girl's expression. The girl's eyes locked on the globe of light, wary like a hare spotting a fox, but not surprised. So she had known who – or at least what – she had been shadowing, had she?
"I'm not going to hold you for long, girl," Yamela said, and was pleased to see how the girl's eyes snapped from the light and to her face. "You can even run along and make your report about me, just as planned, as long as you don't mention this conversation. But how much are they paying you?" She held up a gold coin between two of her knuckles. "And how much is it worth to keep their secrets?"
At the sight of the gold, the girl's eyes widened, but she was too stunned to speak.
Yamela made a twitching motion of her hand, and let the gold coin disappear into her sleeve. When her hand emerged again, she had instead a silver coin between each pair of knuckles. "I know the possession of a gold coin would be difficult for you to explain," she said kindly, "but silver might do, wouldn't it? If you hide them, use them sparingly, no one will suspect a thing. Or do you prefer coppers?"
The girl had made up her mind. "Silver's fine, milady. And as long as I can still make my report later, I'll tell you whatever you need to know."
Yamela nodded, and held out a handful of silver coins. "Be warned, girl, I'll be very upset if you lie to me. Who sent you?"
"His name's Yemerry," the girl informed her, and quickly snatched the coins and let them disappear into various pockets. Her fingers were as quick and nimble as Yamela's own, but while Yamela's hands these days could pass for the clean, soft-skinned hands of a lady, unless more closely inspected, the girl's hands were visibly dirty and already marked by hard work, her fingertips discolored and her nails bitten short. The contrast gave Yamela pause; it was a visible sign of how far from her gutter runner days she had actually come. She had to gather herself quickly, though, for the girl spoke on: "In the afternoons you'll find him drinking at The Hallowed Hand. He put out word that any well-dressed lady coming to town, and especially anyone with a ring like that one there –" she pointed to Yamela's Great Serpent ring, which she wore on a chain about her neck instead of letting it compete with her gloves for space "– was of interest and he wanted to know where they went, who they spoke to, what they did."
"Who is this Yemerry working for?"
"Whoever pays him," scoffed the girl, as if this should be obvious.
"And who is paying him this time?"
The girl hesitated.
"There's always word of who's pulling crew strings," Yamela said, dropping back into a drawling style of speech which she had hardly used in over a decade. "Nothing runs in a town without the alley business having word. What's word this time?"
The girl considered her very carefully. Finally she twitched her head to the side in a way that conveyed the importance of what she said. "Word is Masseya saw Yemerry take the glitter from captain Parrim. Course, Masseya's been into the green fairy stuff, and she ain't solid. But Yemerry's been at some sweeter wines this month, and I'd say someone on the high's been glittering him. It sure ain't folk from the alley business."
"Good girl," Yamela smiled. "What's your name?"
"I'm Rosly," said the girl.
"So what if it is? It's as good a name as any."
"If I ask for a Rosly, will I find you?"
"Depends on who you ask, don't it? Some might call me Rosly. Some might call me Jenniel. Some might call me Pet."
"And what do you call yourself?"
"Depends on who I'm talking to, don't it? Right now I call myself Rosly."
"Very well, Rosly. You may go."
Rosly disappeared into the snow and shadows almost as easily as Anthared could have.
"Was that wise?" Anthared asked softly.
"Wise, perhaps not, but easy."
"Too easy. How could you trust a gutter runner like that?"
Yamela shrugged. "I don't trust her, but I do understand her. I used to be like her." She made her way out of the alley, picked up the horses' reins, and continued along the road with Anthared again at her shoulder. "Is she still shadowing us?"
"Of course I approve. She isn't about to drop her ties to Yemerry just because I've put her in my pocket. Smart of her. Yemerry is her daily source of work, I'm just a chance occurrence. She needs him. And as for me, I feel better when I know who is following me. If she hadn't stuck to it, they'd just have sent someone else."
"Atherie Sedai mentioned this… captain Parrim. He's the Magistrate's right-hand man."
"Exactly." Yamela felt like purring. She was beginning to enjoy this. Being left without Atherie's supervision was not all bad.
"So… tomorrow, we go to see this Magistrate?" Anthared guessed.
"Oh no, we need to make him nervous first. Tomorrow we stroll around the markets and make certain we are seen. We'll drink tea with some prosperous merchants and talk to anyone important in this city who isn't connected to the Eyes and Ears. We'll make it two days if we aren't seen enough. We'll look for Dakenya Allar and her sister, but if it's as Atherie suspects, we won't find her. The day after that, we inspect – in an official manner – the local prisons and courts. Hopefully we'll find mistress Allar then, but we won't make much of a fuss about it. We'll sit in on a few judgments instead. That will earn us an invitation to see the Magistrate. That's when we'll meet him."
"You actually think he'll invite us?"
"Oh, when I'm done with his courts, he will," Yamela purred, and silently thanked Jahra for the grueling hours memorizing law texts. "If only in desperation for a way to get us out as soon as possible."
"You don't think the Magistrate'll rid himself of Mistress Allar in the quickest possible way as soon as he hears there's an Aes Sedai in town? If Atherie Sedai is correct and he is a Whitecloak sympathizer..."
Yamela grimaced. "That's what I would have done in his place. But Atherie says he's patient, works a long strategy. He likely has some use thought out for her, and he's not about to blow it because I show up. Otherwise, it would have been better to send a couple of Warders in under cover of darkness. Find Mistress Allar, cut the Magistrate's throat, be gone before first light, no one the wiser."
Anthared grunted. This time, it was an approving grunt. He approved of any strategy that kept Aes Sedai out of harm's way.
"But Atherie plays a long strategy, too," Yamela said. "She has bigger plans for this Magistrate. She needs grounds to nudge the king openly against the Whitecloaks, and she needs the Magistrate to give them to her. To best help her, my task here is more than finding Mistress Allar. I need to step on the good Magistrate's toes. If I step hard enough, he'll grow nervous or angry and start making mistakes. Atherie would love that. So I'm going to prance around like I haven't a care in all Creation, and then I'm going to meddle in his business. That should do it."
She could feel, through their bond, how thoughtful her Warder was. "Yamela Sedai," he murmured, "I don't think I've seen this side of you before."
"Oh, you have," Yamela assured him. "It used to get me into trouble with the Mistress of Novices at least once a week. Now I'm just putting it to better use."
"You might well get into trouble here, too," Anthared said darkly. "If Atherie Sedai has misjudged, and this Magistrate drops his long strategy and decides on direct action against your prancing…"
"This is why I have you, my very dear Gaidin."
He sighed. "Yamela Sedai, my heart will be much eased the day you bond another couple of Warders. Nine or ten of them."
"No, it won't," Yamela retorted and hugged his arm fondly, "because whoever I find, you'll never think they're good enough."
As it turned out, there were three inns in Wesseron, not one of them too shabby. Situated as it was on the road between Jehannah and Amador, the town saw enough trade to support such businesses. Yamela trusted her gut instinct and picked Kettles and Broomsticks. There she enjoyed a fine lamprey pie while her saddle and her saddle sores enjoyed their time apart.
After their meal they followed master Telmont, the innkeeper, upstairs. He rattled his keys while he searched for which one to give her, and chatted amiably, likely seeing her and her Warder as a good source of income. Outside the largest room's door, he handed her the key, then turned to Anthared. "I'm sorry, good sir, but I completely forgot, I suppose you want a large and fine room for yourself, and a feather bed to sleep in?"
Anthared's eyes and expression could have been cut from granite. "I'm her Warder, master Telmont. I stay in her room, and I don't sleep."
"But of course we can arrange – I'm certain that – wait, you were saying –?"
"I don't sleep," Anthared snarled, and the man jerked back as if he'd been struck.
"Thank you, master Telmont," Yamela said, and set a curbing hand to her Warder's arm. "Please leave us. We need to have a conversation about manners."
Her voice was soft as goose down, but Anthared grimaced. Master Telmont stammered excuses and niceties, but then hurriedly fled back down the stairs.
"You do need to sleep," Yamela told her Warder sternly as she closed the door to their room behind them.
"I can sleep when we're safe back in Tar Valon," Anthared said. He was already flitting about, checking windows and cupboards, beneath the bed, in the closets, searching for hidden doors or side chambers, holding his lantern up to every suspicious crevice. He even dipped a finger into the water in the jug beside the wash basin and tasted it. "If there are people here with a bad sort of interest in Aes Sedai, I don't intend to serve mine up on a silver platter by snoring when I should be guarding. And if the innkeeper spreads the rumour that I'm awake and alert, all the better."
She gave him a look as hard as the one he'd given the innkeeper. "You may stay awake while I sleep. But once I'm awake, you will sleep, Anthared. I won't have you wearing yourself down."
He reached past her shoulder and locked the door. "As my Aes Sedai commands."
She doubted it would be that easy, but it would have to do. At least she could trust him to stay away from the bottle while they were here. As long as he smelled trouble, he wouldn't drink, and he wouldn't dwell too much on the loss of his last Aes Sedai.
Two days later they were done visiting markets and merchants and had – as suspected – found no trace of mistress Dakenya Allar, who was a key figure in the Green Ajah's local Eyes and Ears network. Anthared had reported a total of four different people following them, but all of the same general 'gutter runner' type as the first girl. They had taken it in shifts, and Yamela hoped they had been well paid for watching her peruse silks and ribbons.
Court proceedings proved dull. Even though she understood them – Light shine on Jahra for her persistence and patience – she didn't enjoy them. Especially not when, as far as she could tell, the Magistrate's judgments were all sound. All she could do was sit there and try to look stern and aloof, while silently wishing that she'd had the Ageless face for it.
The Magistrate knew who she was. He and his captain Parrim looked over at her all too often for it to be a coincidence. She would return their looks with the tiniest possible nod of gracious encouragement – one she had learned from one of her White Ajah tutors – and continue to watch the proceedings. She wore green silk and a net of gold and emeralds intertwined into her black hair. She knew that she looked magnificent.
At her shoulder Anthared remained watchful. Clad in mail and a doublet of dark wool he didn't even come close to magnificent. At best, perhaps, he was a retired officer in a bad mood. The bad mood was because they had taken the sword and dagger away from him at the entrance to the courts.
Her own sword she had left at the inn. However she wanted it to, it just didn't go well with silk, gold, and the grace expected of an Aes Sedai.
At the end of the court sessions, it was all Yamela could do to keep her eyes open. There had been absolutely nothing of interest throughout the entire day. At her shoulder, Anthared hadn't moved, and didn't look like he would ever need to.
"A visit to the dungeons, I think," Yamela said, and stopped a yawn at the last moment.
"As you say, Aes Sedai."
She strode – no no no, glided – towards the same exit through which all the accused had arrived and been led out. The guards at the door hesitated at her approach, and she could see their hands tighten about their weapons as they cast their eyes about, wondering what to do about her.
"Aes Sedai!" came a call from behind her.
As she turned about – gracefully; not the quick spin of a girl who survives on her reflexes – she saw a scowling captain Parrim approach at a quick jog.
"Captain Parrim," she greeted him, while Anthared assumed a waiting stance called Flame About To Lash, which looked just as threatening as his bond felt. She touched his arm, and he shifted into Blossom Awaiting Rain. Much better.
"I believe we have not been introduced, Aes Sedai," Parrim said. He had a hard, angular face, with small eyes that made no effort to hide how they didn't like her.
That was okay. Yamela held out her hand to him. He could either take it or demonstrate a lack of manners in front of the entire assembly. The visitors had been filing out, but that call of "Aes Sedai" had caught everyone's attention, and most were peering over to see what was happening. Yamela was on a stage, and she could lead the performance as she liked.
Parrim glanced around and recognized the trap for what it was. He took her hand and made a semblance of a bow over it.
"I am Yamela el'Ferrin, of the Green Ajah," she told him. "This is my first Warder, Anthared dan Taranthil."
"Your only Warder?"
"My first Warder," Yamela said again. She wanted him in doubt about how many men she had with her. "I am of the Green, captain. The Battle Ajah. We have a fondness for Warders."
He didn't like that. His already black eyes went blacker still. "What is your purpose here? We rarely have business with the Tower, and frankly, we prefer it that way."
She let herself smile at him. It was hard to resist turning it into a wolfish grin. In the back of her head Anthared was a hard knot urging caution, caution. "My visit is quite unavoidable. I am here on behalf of Atherie Sedai, who is advisor to your king. At the moment I intend to inspect your dungeons. If you would tell these boys to let me pass..?"
Both of the 'boys' looked to be older than she was, and the captain looked like he might protest, but she cut him off at once: "Deny me, captain Parrim, and I'll think you have something to hide. I'll return with Atherie Sedai, and perhaps a contingent of your king's guard. Would that be preferable?"
He knew he was trapped, again. He led her into the dungeons.
The dungeons, too, proved a disappointment. There was no sign of Dakenya Allar, who would have known to identify herself to an Aes Sedai. There were only the prisoners she had already seen during the court proceedings, as well as a couple of rag-tag folk explained to her as thieves and drunkards. There was an old woman condemned the day before for the murder of her husband and who wouldn't meet Yamela's eyes; a man suspected of several accounts of rape and whose smile made Anthared practically growl; and a young man with cream-coloured curls who greeted her through the bars with a flourish and introduced himself as if his name would mean something to her, while captain Parrim dismissed him as a gambler who would soon be put to work to pay off his debts. Yamela judged him to be alley business and wondered if he had the skills to escape his upcoming death by hard labor.
All in all it had been a disappointing day. Yamela felt tired when she climbed the stairs back into the courts.
"Dearest lady, how weary you look," a smooth voice greeted her as she neared the top. She looked up just in time to see Anthared sweep past her, positioning himself so that there was no way anyone would be pushing her back down the stairs just as she came up. Perhaps an arm's length further from the top stair stood the Magistrate. He was a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed moustache and jeweled rings on his fingers, and that air shared by some nobles that they would not smudge their dignity by running, not even if the house was on fire. He extended one hand to her – Anthared twitched, about to slap it aside, but before he did Yamela had firmly placed her own hand in the Magistrate's, and allowed him to steady her as she ascended the final step.
"Pray tell, my dear, whatever was your interest in my dungeons?" he wore a small, courteous smile and aimed it fully at her, as if her answer would fascinate him.
"A necessity," Yamela said, and smiled back at him, challenging him as to who could smile the most and mean the least by it. In the back of her head Anthared's bond seethed, about to boil over, and she knew why. Quickly she added; "But I am Aes Sedai, lord Magistrate. Do address me as such."
"Forgive me if I am misinformed, but a little bird told me just now that you are here on behalf of our King's advisor, Atherie Sedai?"
"Your little bird told you true, lord Magistrate."
"What would her interest be in my dungeons, then?" The Magistrate was leading them toward the exit, with Anthared no more than half a step behind them. Captain Parrim followed at more of a distance.
"That is not for me to say."
"I see." He was silent for a couple of steps. He had secured her arm in the crook of his, and though his grasp was gentle she had to steel herself to avoid jerking free. Her gutter rat instincts were banging on gongs and telling her to keep a distance. She'd met his kind before. He'd put on a good face but abuse a girl as soon as he thought he could get away with it. It was an old instinct, an old fear, a memory of old pain, but still strong enough to make the bile rise in her throat. She'd be best off sticking a blade in his belly before –
She reminded herself sternly that she was no longer a mere gutter rat. She had saidar. She had her Warder. She had the White Tower's authority at her back. And her drilled Aes Sedai sense of politics reminded her firmly that the first step to reeling in a fish was to make him bite.
She let her arm remain in his. She'd make him bite. And if he tried anything else, she'd make him regret it.
"Pray tell, my dear," he said softly, and Yamela found she was already tiring of the way he said 'my dear', as if she was a child to be reminded of her place, "Do you –"
"Magistrate!" Anthared cut in like a stroke of thunder, and Yamela felt an instant wave of gratitude towards her Warder, "she is Aes Sedai. You will address her as such."
The Magistrate paused to consider Anthared. His gaze travelled from the silver hair, down his bony frame, to the empty sheaths at his hips and down to his worn boots. "And who would you be?"
"Anthared dan Taranthil," Anthared said, and inclined his head just a fraction. "Her Warder."
"Indeed." The Magistrate promptly turned Anthared his back. Again came that empty smile, aimed at Yamela. "Do you enjoy feasts, dancing, music? There is to be a party tonight – a nephew of mine celebrates his thirtieth birthday, and I am to stand host. I hope you would consider joining us."
"A bit of music would be welcome," Yamela said.
"Music, yes. Myself, I can't survive without it. It relaxes me. I have wind chimes in my office window, and the sound of them eases my work." He patted her arm. "If you attend tonight, I hope we shall find time to talk, you and I. You may tell me why you are here, and I may see how I might assist you."
How he might assist her out of his town as quickly as possible, Yamela thought quietly to herself, and that was if she was lucky. Aloud she said: "I would appreciate it, Magistrate." She would appreciate it. If she was to glean anything at all out of him, it would be easier if he was talking.
"You must forgive me, but my work as ever beckons. I must return to it. Until tonight, then." He released her arm, and bowed, before gliding off with a regality which would have made an Aes Sedai proud. Captain Parrim stalked after him.
"Is this really such a good idea, Yamela?" Anthared wondered quietly as they resumed their walk towards the exit.
"It's an excellent idea," she told him firmly.
"You liked him less than I did, and I liked him about as much as a rat in a grain bag."
"Which is why it's an excellent idea. I need to figure him out. I can't do that by sitting in my room at the inn and contemplating how little I liked him."
She took his arm in her own and hugged it close. Taking his arm was nothing like taking the Magistrate's; his was gentle in the warm way, the comforting way, the way that made her believe that nothing could ever harm her. At once she felt much better, much braver. "On the good side," she added, "there's a fair chance he'll 'my dear' me again, and if he does, I might just let you stab him. Would you like that?"
Anthared shot her a disapproving look.
She smiled smugly. "Don't even try. I know what's in your head. You'd love it."
This'll be a long one. Enjoy! And please tell me what you think.